Come the morning, we returned to the dungeon to find my silver bell lifted off the jamb and set off to the side; clear evidence that at least one other group of adventurers was now ahead of us. Romana made a big deal out of studying the tracks, as she often does, and declared proudly that something had come through here. Great to know!
We raced onward, all pretense at stealth thrown out the window. In the next cavern we encountered some sort of hobgoblin drill sergeant inciting a bunch of ghosts into a frenzy. We made short work of him, and the ghosts seemed to calm down.
After a bit of climbing, we were upon a plateau overlooking a chamber containing a shallow pool of glowing water. Face down in the pool were a handful of hobgoblins, no doubt the remains of one of the parties who had passed us up. Surrounding the pool, I smirked to see the unconscious form of that foppish parrot Turlough Berwick… but the smirk faded quickly when my eyes slid past him to meet the gaze of none other than Demise! The Skullborn elf had just finished the ritual to reforge the Ashen Crown, and after taunting us, placed the crown upon her brow. Zarinthra Faireen, who was chained to the wall next to Demise, cried out in hope at the sight of Steeple but was immediately struck down before our very eyes by Demise’s foul magics.
Knowing we had to act quickly, the group surged forward and met the vile (yet admittedly quite beautiful— if only she hadn’t been Skullborn, sigh) Demise in battle, who was in the process of using the Ashen Crown to reanimate the forms of the dead hobgoblins. Tor led the attack, nimble on his feet as always, but was ambushed by Corwin Gunders, who had been hiding in a side passageway.
The sound of Corwin’s distinctive lilting accent sent me into a fury at the embarrassing memory of how he had repeatedly polymorphed me into a rat during our last foray. Corwin had apparently betrayed his group of Dark Lanterns to join forces with Demise, and as much as I hate to say it, I actually felt a little sympathy for Turlough. A little, mind you. Our group seemed to agree that he would be trouble if left alone, so Steeple, his magic sword and I surrounded Corwin and set about punishing his betrayal. Corwin must have been a little cocky or else just careless, for when he attempted to cast a lengthy spell, Steeple and I took the opportunity to strike. Corwin did not last long before our combined blades. I am grateful I did not have to again endure the shame of rathood.
Once Corwin fell, I leapt after Demise, who was shooting necrotic beams at Tor whilst her undead henchmen chased after Maaka. Romana’s arrows seemed to be successfully distracting the Skullborn, and she had also somehow made a bunch of thorny roots form beneath Demise’s feet. Steeple had catapulted one of his creepy dolls into the middle of the room, which seemed to be invisibly lashing out at Demise with every blow we landed. Against my better judgment, Maaka cast a healing spell upon Turlough Berwick, who surprised me by taking up his rapier and assisting us against Demise.
Immediately, Turlough began badgering us about our intentions with the Ashen Crown. I reminded him that he was lucky to be alive, and told him to take a message to Kalaes and the King that we would visit the Worldbearer tribe and decide for ourselves whether they were worthy of the crown or not. He took his leave, tail between his legs. As much an idiot as I think he is, I have to admit that I admire his tenacity. I only wish an old hag had been on hand to offer him a cup of tea, to fully repay him for what he did to us.
Standing over the fallen form of Zarinthra, in a majestic moment Steeple lifted the Ashen Crown off of Demise’s corpse and placed it upon his own brow. With a newfound gleam in his eyes, he began chanting and carving arcane runes in the rock surrounding Zarinthra. The rest of us just rested and watched in awe. A short time later, Zarinthra gasped and opened her eyes to find Steeple cradling her. By bringing her back to life, I think he definitely won some points in her book. In any case, it was a miraculous sight to behold. The legends of the Ashen Crown’s power are not exaggerated.
And so our quest has come to an end for now. We are back on our horse-drawn cart, meandering our way back towards Graywall. Zarinthra is alive, and hangs on Steeple’s every word. Steeple spent the journey repaying my assistance in saving her by instilling some more arcane power in my longsword, Aecris. Tor seems quiet, but I have noticed him stealing covetous glances at the Ashen Crown when he thinks no one is looking. Romana has been quiet as well, meditating for long periods in the back of the wagon, and wandering off into the forest whenever we come to a stop. Maaka keeps busy driving the wagon, and fills the silence by talking to the horses in a nonstop flood of draconic chatter.
As for myself, well, I have been keeping quiet as well. This adventure brought out some of the worst aspects of myself, and I have a lot of soul-searching to do. I just wish Douven were here to set me back on the correct path. All I can do is continue to live by the principles he taught me, and try to deal with the growing storm I feel in my mind on a day-to-day basis.