Chapter 22: The Apex

Heath stood idly patting his mare in the cool morning air as he waited outside the guildhall. The gates were open, and scattered in the courtyard and in the street the members of Guild #237 set about preparing themselves for their journey. Even as the morning sun broke the horizon and began to warm the city, a shadow hung over those gathered. Kriv muttered to himself as he darted back and forth looking equally focused and scattered. Svrcina stood quietly next to her horse, Victra nearby with the only smile to be seen. Mars helped tighten saddle girths on horses while Iden adjusted straps for his packs and weapons.

Heath glanced over his shoulder once again, spotting the darkened figure of Adrie lingering in the shadow of a nearby alley where she could watch the hall. Flanking the gates, Daen and Cassian stood stoically with hands resting on their sword hilts. The others had already left the hall.

Heath watched as one by one his companions fastened bundles and packs to their horses, gave their equipment a final check, and pulled themselves into the saddle. Heath had silently watched to make sure everyone had fully prepared for the expedition and task before them. Heath’s own pack was purposely lighter than the others’, adjusting for the additional pack he carried filled with gear for traversing the mountains. 

Heath watched as Iden gave a nod and salute to Cassian and then Daen. Mars stifled a yawn while Kriv kept his head down and his hood up. Cassian and Svrcina shared a silent look. Heath saw Victra sneak a look at the alley where Adrie watched, her eyes sharp and alert. Wordlessly, Heath met the eyes of each man and woman mounted before him, and with a nod, pulled himself onto the mare. With a somber silence through the quiet streets, he led them to the North Gate and out of Aleria.

They rode all day. Heath led them north, past old roads and game trails, until they found the old trade road, no longer well-traveled and overgrown with long grass. Skirting the forest to the east, they reached the base of the mountains by late afternoon. They traveled in the shadow of the mountains until Heath called a halt as the sun dipped towards the horizon, leading them to a sheltered breach in the mountains to make camp.

The day had been spent riding in near silence, each of them traveling with their own thoughts as to what lay before them. There was not much to be said. Few words were exchanged as they set up camp, settling in with cold food and no fire to avoid drawing any unwanted attention. The discomfort of a day spent riding was given little relief by camping on the hard ground without a fire for comfort or warmth. Other than quiet groans as they dismounted and began moving around, no one offered a word of complaint. Heath had led them without a word, riding with a quiet disposition and remaining detached even as they stopped for the night. As they set out bedrolls and packs, Heath felt Victra’s eyes on him. He gave her no acknowledgment and eventually he saw her turn her attention to the others, quietly speaking with them one by one. 

The long day of travel had hit each of them differently, and Heath felt a pang of regret as he watched Victra go between and check on each of them. He shook his head as he turned and began pulling things from his pack. She was better suited to it than him, there wasn’t anything he could do to make their journey any better. He was there because he was the best choice to lead them into the mountains. If they wanted someone to make them feel better about the situation they had brought upon themselves, they should have brought someone else. 

As darkness fell, Heath walked away from the camp over to the horses while the others settled in for sleep. Victra joined him wordlessly, even her sarcastic nature dulled. Heath patted his mare, pulling a handful of oats from a pouch in his saddlebags and she nuzzled his hand gratefully. 

“She still the same one? The one from the wyvern hunt?” Victra asked.

“Aye, she is” Heath said, rubbing the mare on the neck. 

“She’s lasted longer than the others.”

“Aye, she has.”

Victra laughed hoarsely. “Well let’s hope that holds.” She looked back towards the others. The silence stretched as though she expected him to say something. Eventually she sighed. “I’ll take the first watches. You all get some rest.”

Heath nodded, “Tell whoever you wake to get me for the dawn watch. I’ll be up already, likely as not.”

After ruffling his horse’s ears one last time, Heath walked back to the camp. Wrapping himself in a tightly woven wool blanket and pulling his hood up, Heath settled his back against a smooth patch of rock, looking out across his companions in the direction of the road. One by one they fell still until the sound of slow, steady breathing filled the air. As Victra silently appeared back in the camp, little more than a shadow set against the starlit sky, Heath allowed his eyes to close as he drifted off to sleep.

A nudge on his boot pulled Heath awake, his eyes opening as his hand closed around the haft of his long knife. Svrcina looked down at him, the pale starlight illuminating her face.

“Victra said to wake you for the last watch.” Her voice was soft, barely louder than a whisper.

Heath nodded, rolling his shoulders to work some of the stiffness from his joints. “We should still have a few hours. Try to get some sleep.” Svrcina looked out, her facing turning up to the sky. Heath could see the same emotions that had clung to her the days before written plainly across her features. “You’ll need whatever rest you can. We’ll be riding as soon as there’s light.”

The slender tiefling paused a moment before nodding and curling up against the stone with her cloak wrapped around her. Heath relaxed back against the stone as he allowed his eyes to relax and take in the small amounts of light that filtered down around him.

Eventually the horizon began to glow and the sky shifted into the gathered colors of dawn. Slowly Heath set about quietly preparing the camp for quick departure. He gathered water from a nearby creek nestled in the rocky terrain and made sure each of the horses got a handful of grain and oats. One by one the others awoke, until Heath gave Mars a gentle kick in the boot to rouse the big man. 

They ate quickly and without much conversation, and by the time the sun was breaking through the rocky peaks, they were riding. There were shared grimaces and groans as they pulled themselves onto their horses, the soreness of the day before still lingering. Heath shook his head humorlessly, knowing the second day of sustained riding would be much worse than the first. 

As the sun rose overhead, the group rode on. Hours ticked by as Heath led them through the wide mountain pass, sheer stone rising on either side of them up to rocky peaks. They continued northward, following the pass. As the sun approached its zenith, Victra rode up next to Heath.

“We’ve been riding northward all morning,” she asked, her voice carrying enough that Heath was sure the others could hear. “If our destination is somewhere deeper in these mountains, shouldn’t we have turned by now? Begun actually traveling into the mountains?”

“And why would you think that?” Heath asked evenly, raising an eyebrow.

“The missive we discovered described a location in the mountains,” Victra said coldly, her eyes narrowing. “A spot you said you know.”

“I do know it,” Heath said, keeping his voice steady.

“Then why are we riding northward when the route described was approached from the south?”

“Because even though they might be traveling from the southern foothills, we’re faster riding to the northern boundaries. The route they described winds through the mountains, a journey taking time that we don’t have.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the others were attentive. “We’ll find a path through the northern slopes and approach from there. It’s a more treacherous path, but only for those who are unfamiliar with these mountains. That’s why I’m here. We’ll find the path, reach their route close to where it finds the heart of the mountains, and we’ll be approaching from a direction they likely won’t be watching.”

A knowing smile pulled across Victra’s face as she nodded, slowing her horse to fall back behind Heath. Shaking his head to himself, Heath turned his attention forward as the bead of anticipation in his stomach slowly continued to grow.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that Heath called a halt. They had emerged from the mountain pass hours before, and had been riding eastward along the base of the mountains. Dismounting, Heath led them up a rocky slope to a small hilltop to the shelter of a small grove of trees. Looking up to the sky, heavy clouds had begun rolling in with the scent of a summer storm dancing on the wind. 

“We should move quickly,” Heath said, shouldering a pack. “When that storm hits, these mountains will be even more deadly.”

Victra stepped forward, slinging her bow over her shoulder. “Eat now and stow your gear here.” She looked over at Heath, who nodded to her. “We’ll be traveling as light as possible from here.”

Mars unshouldered his pack, rummaging within. “It’s a shame these horses have a worse chance at making it out of this than us. I’ve heard stories about the creatures that stalk these mountains.”

Heath chuckled quietly, running his hand through his mare’s mane. “You’ll be fine here,” he whispered. “Be sure to keep the others safe while we’re gone.” With a snort and shake of her head, the mare gently butted against Heath’s shoulder. 

Wrapping their packs in waxed canva covers and wedging them in the boughs of the trees, Heath distributed the additional equipment he had brought. He gave Victra and Mars each a length of silken rope, light and strong, winding them around their waists to be easily undone and accessible. He also handed out climbing spikes for those with softer boots that would not be well-suited for the narrow rocky ledges. He showed them how to fasten them to their belts to be out of the way, but still easy to reach. Everything else they stowed in belt pouches to travel quickly. The peaks above beckoning them, Heath led them into the mountains. 

They hiked for several hours, working the soreness from their aching muscles. Overhead, the clouds grew darker as a deep rumbling came from the distance. The path eventually shifted from heavy scree to narrow ledges and winding paths through the crags. 

Before long, the narrow ridgelines they had been following as their path disappeared almost entirely. Finding space, Heath deftly moved among the others and roped them together using the lines from Victra and Mars. He arranged them with Mars directly behind him, Svrcina next, then Kriv, Iden, and Victra at the rear. 

Heath met their eyes as he fastened the ropes between them. “This might be hard to swallow, but out here you have to be ruthless. Always keep a blade within reach. If someone falls, we will do everything to catch them. But if there’s the chance that one person is going to drag the rest of you down, you cut the rope.”

Kriv hissed, narrowing his eyes. “We’re all going to make it.”

Heath glared at him. “The mountains don’t care about your feelings on this matter, and they will kill all of you without even a thought. The reality is that if Iden or Mars fall, there might be a heartbeat before you’re all plummeting after them. If we really care about seeing this through, you have to decide whether sacrificing everyone in the name of camaraderie is worth giving that up.”

The dragonborn’s eyes smoldered. “I can see why you work alone so often…”

Heath quickly looked across everyone’s lines one last time and then focused on Mars. “Watch where I step and where I put my hands. Follow exactly where I go.” Mars’ eyes flickered to the sharp drop to the side of them and nodded.

Heath stepped forward, carefully picking his handholds and steps as he traced a route ahead of the group. One by one they followed, each carefully following his path. At some points, they had rock on either side to brace themselves, and Heath felt the others exhale as they moved more confidently. Occasionally, one of them would stumble, and a sharp inhale of breath would cause Heath to pause. Each time, the others were there to help catch them and they quickly resumed their traverse. Then the rock fell away, and a sharp, sheer drop opened up beside them. 

One hand grasping a rocky lip, Heath leaned out over the cliff and looked down. The striated rock plummeted down more than a hundred feet before jagged ridges broke the surface of the mountainside. Pulling his gaze upward, his eyes darted across the cliff in front of them until he spotted what he was looking for.

Across the gently curved side of the mountain, he spied a narrow footpath, not even a pace wide, with signs of travel he could see even from forty yards away. He looked back to the cliff, the single thing separating them from the path. A narrow ledge wrapped around the mountain face, all that would stand between them and the far drop below.

Heath looked back at the others. “Alright, this is it. Unwind the ropes so we have as much length between you as possible. Mars, give me as much on the front as you can. If you have boot spikes, fasten those now.” He pointed back to the rock face and the narrow ledge. “We need to cross that. There’s a path on the other side, and that should lead us to where we’re going.”

As the others carefully began adjusting the ropes and fastening spikes to their boots, Svrcina leaned forward. “This seems unnecessarily dangerous. We have magic, I could fly and help ferry us over one by one.” A rumbling in the distance, closer than before, seemed to echo her sentiment. 

Heath shook his head. “If we’re fighting Vasile, we’ll need everything we have at our disposal.” He raised a hand to stifle her rebuttal. “I know you can get your magic back faster or whatever, but we don’t have time to continue resting. The long we linger in these mountains the greater the chance we’re discovered. We’ll be fine with the rope, we need to reserve all the resources we can.” He looked up at the sky as another deep rumble of thunder resounded. “So long as we cross before this storm hits…”

With everyone roped together and ready, Heath looped the rope around his waist and inched his way out onto the ledge. As the ground dropped off beneath him, he felt the wind buffet him as he moved away from the cover of the mountain. He felt the thrill of adrenaline rise in his chest as he slowly felt his way forward, his hands exploring the rock for handholds and his feet shuffling across the narrow lip. As he reached the halfway point, Heath felt the rope at his waist grow taut. He looked back and gave Mars a nod. The big man took a breath and carefully began his own slow, steady traverse. After a few heart pounding minutes, Heath stepped off the ledge and onto the rocky split that met the footpath. With a rare grin, Heath looked back at Mars making his way across the ledge as Svrcina inched out onto the rock face to follow. 

Heath quickly unlooped the rope from his waist, tied an intricate knot around a climbing spike and wedged it into a seam in the stone, anchoring it securely. One by one the others made their way across. Iden proved the most suspenseful, his bulk and heavy armor making the journey even more cumbersome. Heath watched Svrcina wait in anticipation, her hands raised to begin an incantation at a moment’s notice. Eventually, they all stood on the footpath, many of them breathing heavy, but safe. Heath knelt down, surveying the dust and gravel ahead of the group. Clear footprints lined the path, the most recent ones heading upward. He smiled. Their quarry was close. 

They quickly unwound the ropes, removed their climbing spikes, and were hiking upwards within minutes. They continued climbing until the path widened and turned sharply before a cave mouth opened before them. Behind him, Heath heard Svrcina inhale sharply.

“This is it,” she said. She turned around, surveying the stretch of rocky mountain peaks around them. “This is what I saw when I scryed on Vasile.”

Heath smirked wryly and nodded. “Then we made it.” He looked over to Kriv and jerked his head in the direction of the cave. “It seems you’re up.”

The black-scaled dragon shouldered his way forward, his hands straying to his belt. Pulling out a narrow tool and a thin-bladed stiletto, he hunched forward and hissed quietly. “Give me twenty feet.  Anyone who can see in the dark and can stay quiet, keep me in sight. The rest of you stay back with your little light and try not to kick anything.”

Victra and Svrcina fell into step a handful of paces behind Kriv, the first drawing her longsword and the latter forming her staff from shadowy mist in her hand. Iden stepped next to Heath and Mars with a shrug.

“I know I am not the quietest, we’ll just have to be quick in the event of trouble, eh?”

Mars chuckled and clapped the tall knight on the shoulder pauldron. “They won’t be able to keep us away.” He pulled his heavy maul from where it hung across his shoulders, giving it a swing. 

Iden nodded and twisted his hand in a gesture through the air, his right gauntlet suddenly glowing with white light. “Don’t wander too far from the light.”

Heath unslung his bow from his back and nocked an arrow on the bowstring before shrugging his hood back and falling into step next to the two massive men. 

Kriv led them into the cave, the pale light quickly vanishing behind them. The rocky opening had a smooth floor, rounded from wind and rain. The walls were porous with narrow holes and vents, and arched overhead to a gently curved roof. The distant sound of dripping water echoed through the tunnel, intermingled with the occasional sound of boots scuffing the ground and the shift of Iden’s heavy armor. 

Within moments, Kriv vanished into the dark and the darkened forms of Victra and Svrcina were little more than shadows at the edges of the light cast from Iden’s gauntlet. Heath continued to glance behind them, wary of anyone approaching from the cave mouth. He craned his senses, listening for any movement behind them, trusting that more than his limited sight in the dark. A shift ahead of them pulled Heath’s attention as the shadow of Victra raised a hand.

Coming quietly from the darkness, Kriv’s voice rasped, “This here. Step around it.”

A shift of movement and then were picking their way forward. Victra paused a moment, motioning to the group at the back where to walk before vanishing back into the darkness. Heath took a glance at where Kriv had warned them, but saw only smooth stone and fine dust. 

That’s why he’s here, Heath thought ruefully.

They continued forward slowly, Kriv occasionally whispering where to step or where to avoid placing their hands. The cave stretched into a tunnel, branches occasionally splitting from the main shaft. The walls were still the same porous rock, though Heath had never known these mountains to be volcanic. After ten minutes of moving deeper into the caverns, a low mist began to gather around their feet. 

A hiss of frustration came from ahead of them, and their progress slowed as Kriv methodically checked their path, delayed by the mist. Several more minutes of slow progress passed before Kriv’s voice cut through the silence. 

“We have a wall.”

With a spark and flash of light, a dance of flame appeared ahead of them. Heath blinked at the sudden light and slowly his eyes adjusted. They stood at a widened portion of the tunnel, more than twenty paces wide. At the end of the cavern, Kriv stood in front of a wall of smooth, worked stone. A wide arc of steps led up to the wall and what looked like a stone fountain set into the wall. As the ground walked forward, Heath saw that the fountain was little more than a wide bowl set beneath a carved stone face. On either side of the fountain two braziers sat dark and cold. 

Kriv extended a lit torch into one of the braziers, flames dancing up and light filling the space. As he lit the other, the others stepped forward up to the fountain. The face set above the fountain was a man, his mouth open to expel water. Heath’s eyes narrowed when he spotted the elongated canines. Carved runes lined each side of the wall behind the bowl of the fountain. 

“Anyone able to read that?” Mars asked, taking the torch from Kriv as the dragonborn shuffled closer to the fountain. 

“Yes,” Svrcina said reluctantly. “It’s Infernal, and very old. Loosely translated, it says ‘Any who seek passage, a price and a toll must be given. The strength of will and heart to pass the gate.’”

Kriv leaned forward, and sniffed the fountain as Heath started, noticing the dark stain lining the bowl. The dragonborn’s lip curled back. “Stiff smell of iron. Give you one guess what the creepy vampire fountain wants.”

“I don’t like it,” Iden rumbled, glancing back towards the tunnel, the mist still low on the ground.

“Neither do I…” Svrcina agreed.

Victra stepped forward, her eyes tracing across the worked stone behind the fountain. “There has to be another way through.”

Kriv sucked in a breath, a growl parting the air. “Maybe but I don’t think we’ll be that lucky.”

“The least you could do is help look,” Victra snapped at him.

“We don’t have time!” The dragonborn said, nevertheless feeling gently across the surface of the rock. “The longer we wait-”

“We can’t give blood when there’s a vampire afoot,” Scrvina interrupted forcefully, pacing back and forth in front of the fountain. “Blood magic is very old and dangerous, and there’s too much we don’t know about it. There’s no telling what Vasile could do with our blood, especially given willingly.”

“But like Heath said earlier, we cannot delay,” Mars said, crossing his arms. “I don’t like it either, but we might not have a choice.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Iden growled. “There will be another way through, and we will find it.”

As the others argued about how to proceed, Heath felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He looked back towards the cavern and the faintest shift of movement caught his eye. A twist of the mist, barely distinguishable from the gently moving moisture covering the ground. As it slowly moved towards them, Heath slung his bow over shoulder and reached for the blade at the small of his back.

“We’re not alone,” he said, moving up to the platform in front of the fountain. 

As the others all turned, Mars and Iden taking an instinctive step forward with their weapons raised, Heath slipped past them until he was next to the fountain. Suppressing a shiver while the others were looking into the chamber, Heath pulled back his sleeve and drew his knife across the back of his forearm above his bracer as yelps of protest came from the others.

His blood ran red, a stream dripping from his arm down into the dark stained surface of the bowl. As the blood spread, Heath looked up to see the script carved into the stone slowly begin to glow. As he moved to exclaim, an impact behind him came followed by a grunt from Mars. 

Heath spun to look, and saw Mars swing wildly with his maul, meeting nothing but air. He then stumbled forward, heavy impacts driving him to one knee. Flashes of pale light cut through the darkness as Svrcina extended her hand, magic crackling through the air only to scatter harmlessly on the stone walls. 

“What is it?” Victra yelled, looking back and forth wildly. 

“It’s not the only problem we have,” Iden rumbled as he pointed with an axe towards the center of the chamber. The low mists were swirling violently, rising up and taking on a reddish hue, almost the shade of blood.

A swirl of mist from the side and Mars was pummeled again from an unseen attacker. The big man growled and swung with his maul again, the weapon whooshing through the air. Iden moved down the steps, axes raised to meet the swirling crimson mist as it drew closer. Another crack cut through the air as Svrcina sent another arc of magic into the darkness, and Heath saw Victra and Kriv readying their weapons as they looked around furiously. 

Grimacing, Heath looked back at the fountain and saw the glow of the runes begin to flicker and fade. Muttering a curse under his breath, he drew his blade across his arm again, and another stream of blood splashed into the bowl. As the blood began to fill the bowl, the runes began to glow a dull red and with the grinding of stone, the wall behind the fountain began to shift and pull inwards. 

A flash erupted from behind him as Heath shouted back, “Quickly, the way is open!” 

The group rushed through the door, Mars stumbling through as blood trickled from above his eye and Iden pushing him forward. Heath saw the deep red mist rising up in the cavern behind them as Iden and Mars put their shoulders to the stone wall and with a heavy shout, pushed the wall back into place. As the grinding of stone subsided and the wall settled, the group looked around them, still breathing heavily. 

“What was that?” Victra heaved, pulling herself upright. “Were those ghosts?”

“No,” Iden replied, still looking back at the wall. “Whatever those mists were, something of their essence reminded me of Vasile. Something cursed and fell. But not ghosts or spirits. And whatever assaulted Mars, that was no specter either.”

“Let’s hope they can’t follow us in here,” Svrcina said as she glanced around.

The group was on the cusp of a large stone chamber, rough walls rising almost twenty feet above their heads. Low light flickered from torches set in sconces on the walls, and a ruddy light came from the far side of the chamber. The cavern was divided by a split in the ground no more than ten feet across with a rope bridge across it. To their right, a desk and bookshelf were arranged against the wall. Across the divide, what looked like a living space with a wide bed, thick rug, and two low divans was arranged around a gently crackling brazier. A spiral staircase was set near the far wall, climbing up to a secondary platform with the dark shape of a wrought iron cage partially obscured by shadows. 

As Heath took in the room, Kriv stepped up next to him.

“That was reckless, what you did back there,” the dragonborn grumbled, none too quietly.

“And stupid,” Iden agreed as he waved a hand, golden light stitching up the wound on Mars’ forehead. 

Heath snorted. “I didn’t see anyone else coming up with a solution.” He felt the glares of the others boring into him as he shrugged. “Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time my blood’s been used for some questionable purpose.”

Before any of the others could speak, another voice filled the room, coming from the far side of the chamber. 

“Hello?” Everyone froze, hands straying quickly to their weapons. “Who’s there? Have you come to help?”

Sharing a look with Kriv, Svrcina called out. “Who are you?”

“Just a poor soul trapped by cruel creatures,” the voice replied. A shift of movement from the upper platform caught Heath’s eye, and he pointed towards the cage. “Please, I pray you are here to deliver me from the vampire and his wretched ilk.”

The group all exchanged looks before wordlessly spreading out. Heath stepped forward to the rope bridge, glancing down the sharp ravine. It fell forty feet or so down, the bottom barely discernible in shadow. But it was the pile of twisted corpses at the bottom that made Heath’s lip curl into a snarl.

Mars and Kriv crossed the rope bridge carefully, followed by Svrcina. Victra moved towards the desk and bookshelves, and after making sure none of the corpses below were moving, Heath moved to join her. Iden lingered by the stone door, his eyes flashing briefly with light as he extended his divine sense, searching for evil. Heath shivered even though he had seen the massive knight do it before, it still unnerved him. 

Reaching Victra, Heath tore a length of cloth from his sleeve, wrapping it around the still bleeding wound on his arm. The pale-skinned elf looked over at him, and raised her hand in a familiar motion. Pale tendrils of magic snaked from her fingertips, this dispersed over the wound.

Victra frowned, and gripped Heath’s arm, pulling back the binding. The wound was untouched. 

“It resisted somehow,” Victra muttered. “It shouldn’t be able to do that.” She looked at him with his brow furrowed in concern. 

Heath shrugged, and rewound the bandage around the wound. “We got in, that’s the important thing. This scratch won’t be the thing that kills me, don’t you worry.”

Victra laughed dryly before turning back to the desk where piles of parchment and leather bound books were scattered.

The sound of voices and the creak of metal from the far side of the chamber pulled Heath’s attention as he turned and saw Kriv and Mars wrenching open the iron cage, the figure of a man stepping out. Beneath them, Svrcina was searching through the living space and Iden was moving across the rope bridge towards them when he suddenly froze. His eyes blazing with light, he looked up to where the man from the cage was extending a hand in thanks to Mars.

“Get away from him!” Iden roared as he pulled an axe from the loop in his belt, just as the figure lunged towards Mars.

Heath watched as hands extended into claws as Mars reached furiously for his weapon, and suddenly both were tumbling over the railing towards the ground below. They hit with a thud and both figures scrambled to their feet as Kriv vaulted from the platform above, landing with his blades drawn. Svrcina was already in motion at the sound of commotion, her scythe forming instinctively in her grasp as Iden sprinted towards them.

The man from the cage was on his feet with supernatural speed, and his fingers had elongated into claws and pointed teeth split from his mouth as it opened unnaturally wide. However Mars and Kriv were faster. The dragonborn darted in, his dark blades flashing with green flames as Mars’ maul connected with the chest of the man. The impact jostled the figure, but neither the flame-wreathed blades nor the maul seemed to wound the creature. Its mouth split wider into a feral grin as it lashed out, one claw twisting against Kriv’s chest before launching itself at Mars.

Kriv doubled over, falling to one knee as he convulsed violently. As the creature leapt at Mars, the big man dropped his maul, attempting to wrap his arms around his attacker. Like a feral beast, it clawed at Mars’ chest, ignoring his attempts to restrain it, and snapped its head forward, sinking its teeth into his shoulder. 

Mars roared, his hands scrambling to grip the twisting form that clawed into him. The skin on the creature’s shoulder sloughed away in his grip, revealing knotted and wrinkled flesh beneath. Svrcina raised a hand and shouted an incantation, but the creature only snarled in her direction, seemingly unaffected.

All happening in an instant, Heath and Victra pulled their bows and nocked arrows just as Iden slammed into the creature, his axes burning with divine magic. A flash of light and the figure released its hold on Mars, stepping back as more of its form sloughed away.

Shapeshifter, Heath thought with revulsion. 

Moving across the bridge towards the melee, a scraping sound from beneath him barely caught Heath’s senses. He looked down and to his horror saw gaunt, feral creatures clawing their way up the walls of the ravine. The corpses, he realized in an instant. The corpses hadn’t stayed dead. 

Spinning with a curse, Heath drew back an arrow and focused on the undead. His first arrow took the closest through the eye, and it fell back into the darkness with a gurgle. A second later, another arrow took the next ghoul through the neck as Heath saw Victra raising her bow. Stood on the swinging rope bridge, she was a blur of motion as she sent arrows whizzing over their allies’ heads at the shapeshifter and down into the ravine. 

Trusting the others, Heath methodically fired arrow after arrow into the ravine, staking ghouls against the stone wall as they struggled upward. As the last undead clawed its way to the edge of the lips, reaching out with a snarl, Heath drew the blade from his back and drove it into the base of its neck. The snarl cut off with a gurgle, and the corpse fell limp and dropped back into the chasm. 

Heath looked up, reaching for another arrow as he saw Iden standing tall as he gripped the struggling shapechange in an armored fist. In a flash of golden light, the body disintegrated into dust and clumps of rotting flesh.

“What…” Kriv breathed, clutching at his chest. “What was that?”

“A fiend of some kind,” Svrcina said, placing a hand on Iden’s shoulder. “I’ve heard of demons that are known as skinwalkers, that wear the skin of their victims in order to impersonate them.”

“Well, it died like any other demon,” Iden said, flexing his hand. “But it was not Vasile, he’s not here!” He slammed his fist down, splintering the wooden railing of the staircase. 

“There has to be something,” Victra said, looking back to the desk. “Some clue, anyth-”

Well done,” an unfamiliar voice in a strange accent cut into Heath’s mind, sending an icy shiver down his spine. It was smooth and strong, but utterly cold and devoid of warmth. “I wasn’t sure if you’d ever find your way here, let alone make it this far.” Looking at the others, seeing them all stock still, Heath could tell he wasn’t the only one hearing the voice.

It seems you might be worthy after all,” the voice continued. “I must say, I will relish your final moments. For all you have taken from me. So come and face me. Come, climb, and reach the Apex. You’ll find what you seek, and the doom you foolish mortals have brought upon yourselves.”

And like being drawn from an icy lake, the presence in his mind vanished. Heath grimaced and shook his head. The others all shared a knowing look, a darkness settling over them.

“You all heard that too?” Victra asked, looking around the chamber at the gathered shadows.

“Aye, the devil himself,” Iden said. “It seems we have played right into his hands after all.”

Svrcina shook her head as her brow furrowed. “Not necessarily. He’s a vain, prideful creature, and just wants us to think he’s still in control. If this place was a trap, I would have expected more than a caged demon.”

Mars hefted his maul onto his shoulder, tossing aside an potion vial he had just emptied. “Now what?”

“Now we do what he says,” Kriv rasped, downing a potion of his own. “He knows we’re here, the element of surprise is gone. So we face him and we finished this.”

“At the Apex, he said, like it was a place,” Victra said contemplatively. She looked over at Heath. “Does that name mean anything to you?”

Heath shook his head. “These mountains are old, perhaps it’s another one of their secrets that Vasile uncovered.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Svrcina said forcefully. “This is our chance to finish what we started. We take a moment here to gather ourselves and then we head to this Apex. It must be near the mountaintops, we’ll just find the path.”

The others muttered words of agreement, and quickly began bandaging wounds and checking their kit. Heath checked his quiver, frowning that he hadn’t brought a spare, then cleaned the gore from his blade. Iden and Victra carefully doled out some magical healing before Kriv roused them to their feet. 

With his careful urging and guidance, they stole their way back into the rocky tunnel after Mars and Iden levered the stone door open. They rushed through the caves, senses strained for any sign of the crimson mist or their unseen attacker, but they made it to the mouth of the cave unmolested.

Stepping out onto the side of the mountain, the storm that had been approaching had gathered above the mountains, dark clouds swirling around the jagged peaks. The smell of static lingered on the breeze as rain started to patter against the dry ground around them. Heath immediately motioned the others back and he scoured the ground, searching for any sign of tracks leading from the cavern.

Within moments, the rain had erased any sign of footprints and Heath swore under his breath. He turned back to the mountain, eyes scanning the rocky incline. An agonizing minute passed before he spotted a narrow line through the stone, tracing its winding path upwards. He motioned the others forward, pointing upward.

“I think that’s our path,” he said as he pulled his hood up. “Watch your footing.”

The trail wound up, the peak of the mountain looming above them. Suddenly the trail grew wider as it drove up towards the mountaintop and split, a narrow track cutting sharply to the right and diverging around the peak. Heath paused, a sudden burst of instinct driving him to the narrow track. 

He looked back as the others jogged up behind him. “You all continue up,” Heath looked back towards the split in the trail. “I’m going to run this down, I’ve got a sense.”

“You’re running?” Kriv hissed. “Now?”

“Why?” Victra shouldered past the hunched dragonborn. “What are you thinking?”

Heath frowned. “This path leads upward, towards this Apex. I don’t know where this leads, but if this is a trap, it’ll be good to have at least one of us able to skirmish.”

“Maybe one of us should join you,” Mars said, wiping rain from his face.

“No,” Heath assured. “We need all of you there to fight Vasile, I’ve done my job in getting us here. And even if I’m there, there’s only so much I can do with a bow. Let me make sure your backs are covered, and maybe I’ll actually be an asset instead of a liability.” He tried to keep the uneasiness from his voice, the echoing warning of the vampire’s power of dominance over others’ minds ringing in his memory. 

The others nodded and fell into stride up the trail. Victra lingered, watching Heath before moving to catch up with the others. 

Heath took a breath and letting his intuition take charge, fell into a run. Racing up the narrow track, Heath drove uphill with his instinct carrying him through the rain and around the treacherous rock. Around ragged promontories and sheer drops, Heath tracked around the peak, steadily climbing until he turned a corner around a ridgeline spire and saw below him the Apex illuminated by a flash of lightning. He had never heard of this place named only by Vasile, but even through the rain, there was no doubt in his mind as to what he was looking down upon. 

Set amongst the rocky peaks, a wide arena contained by a low wall dominated the top of the mountain. A circular stone tablet, it was made of smooth stone darkened by the rain, with broken remnants of pillars set in a ring near the center. At least twenty paces across and perfectly circular, it looked ancient and entirely out of place nestled deep in the mountains. 

Movement to his left caught Heath’s eye through the rain, and he saw a group of figures step towards a broken archway at the edge of the ring, marked by a low stone pedestal. A dull glow came from the low wall encircling the arena and he saw the faces of his companions as they drew closer to the ring. They looked around carefully, weapons grasped in their hands. 

Another flash of lightning blinded Heath, and when his eyes readjusted, a figure across the stone arena, clad in dark armor with a cloak billowing in the wind. Heath felt his blood run cold as he saw Vasile Casimir for the first time. Even from a distance, Heath could feel the malice and rage leaking from the vampire. He was tall, easily as tall as Cassian or Iden, his dark hair stark against his pale skin. He stood tall, not proudly, but menacing, as though his very presence could crush his enemies with its fury. 

Words were exchanged across the stone expanse as Kriv and Svrcina stepped to the edge of the archway, the wind and rain drowning out what was being said. Heath saw the tension in Iden’s body as he visibly strained to remain still as Mars idly swung his maul in wide sweeping arcs. Only Victra reamined stock still, though Heath knew better than to think she was unmoved.

Vasile lifted a hand, drawing a blade across the heel of his palm and placing it against a stone pedestal that mirrored the one in front of the group. Confused, Heath watched each of the party members one by one place their hand on the pedestal on their side, a dull light emanating from the rock, and then they each stepped into the arena. Too far to actually see, Heath imagined a smile on Vasile’s face as he stepped into the arena and a cluster of dark forms stepped out of the darkness behind him. As he moved through the broken archway, a ring of dull blue light illuminated the edge of the ring, brighter than before, and a shimmering domed barrier stretched upward as it encircled the Apex.

Heath instinctively pulled an arrow from his quiver and clenched his jaw as a dozen black furred wolves slunk out of the shadows into a loose semicircle around Vasile. He felt his stomach twist with anticipation as he watched Iden’s battleaxes flicker with flames and Svrcina step out with his hand extended, her staff lengthening and the blade of the scythe materializing from shadows. Kriv drew his twin dark blades and hunched forward as if to break into a sprint, but it was a burst of speed from Mars and Victra that split the tense standoff.

Victra drew ahead of Mars by a single pace, reaching the lead wolves first. With a flash of steel and blood, one fell as another drew back with bared teeth. Mars swung his maul, crushing the remaining wolf in his path with a savage blow before barreling into Vasile as the vampire drew a dark sword from his side. Magic erupted from Svrcina as Victra danced around the wolves, trying to reach Mars before he was surrounded. Moving to the flanks, Iden and Kriv sprinted forward through the rain with weapons ready as they fell upon the melee.

Heath took a long breath to steady himself, his keen eyes quickly ranging the distance from his peak to the stone platform. More than a hundred paces, that’s closer to one hundred and fifty. A worm of frustration gripped him as he watched the rain twisting through the air, the winds blowing back and forth across the dark expanse. That was no easy shot in good conditions, and Heath was braced against a rocky cliff in a growing storm. He pushed back his hood, and shook the rain from his eyes.

Letting out his breath, he brushed his hesitation aside and with a sharp inhale, drew back the bow. The words of Jake drifted into his mind as the wind and rain buffeted his face. Don’t think, the same words that were repeated to him when he was first handed a bow. Lead with your eye, you know where it’s going to go. Look for the window. And then breathe.

Heath breathed out slowly as he raised the bow, trusting his instincts even in the gathering storm. A lull in the wind, ever so gentle, and Heath saw a single window open through the walls of rain, and with a snap, the bowstring threw the arrow forward into the storm. The dark shaft vanished into the night, but a dull pulse in the domed barrier marked where the arrow flew, and a dark wolf slumped forward mid-stride in front of Iden as Heath allowed himself a small grin. The massive paladin lifted a single axe in salute and charged forward, the path to Vasile suddenly cleared before him. 

Breathing slowly, Heath pulled another arrow from his quiver, the rain slick on his fingers. The battle met below with a crescendo that carried through the storm. Vasile was a blur of black and red as he danced between the group, his wolves snarling and snapping around them. Not letting his attention drift, Heath pulled his focus back and drew back his bow. His eyes drifted down for a single glance, immediately fixating on where the remaining wolves were running, and finding his window through the storm again, sent another arrow towards its victim. 

Heath fell into a rhythm, with the storm raging around him, the rain and wind buffeting him while lightning flashed above. He drew an arrow, holding at full draw until he found that narrow window through the darkness. One by one the wolves fell as his friends threw themselves at Vasile, the pale light of the domed barrier illuminating their forms as they clashed. Seeing the last wolf fall, Heath reached back and his hand found only air.

He watched unmoving as Victra and Kriv drew back from Vasile, hunched and exhausted. Mars roared as he slammed his maul into the vampire’s back, sending him stumbling forward. Iden swung his axes in parallel arcs, light flashing in an eruption at the moment of impact with Vasile’s chest. 

The vampire collapsed to the ground, his head bowed. Svrcina slowly pulled herself forward, striding through the falling rain towards the kneeling Vasile. She raised her scythe as time began to slow and Heath felt his skin prickle. With a flash of black against the dark of night, the scythe swung and Vasile’s form crumpled to the ground. 

Heath stood there quietly, his breath caught in his chest as a dark shadow drew upwards from Vasile’s body. It drifted upwards, thrashed in the air violently as the barrier surrounding the Apex flashed. In an instant, the shadow dispersed and the barrier dissolved into faint lights that vanished into the rain. 

As the others all drew themselves to their feet, Heath let out his pent up breath and turned to slowly make his way back down the rain-slicked mountain path. 

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