Sheen glared at the empty doorway in frustration. “Well, if you want to get Joris, then get him!”
“He is on his way,” Mal intoned. Within twenty minutes, Joris came jogging up the street. He looked tired and worn and had evidently given up shaving, but his face brightened at the sight of them.
“Well met,” he said.
“Are you having some sort of problem you haven’t told us about?”
“Numeledes passed overnight,” he explained. “I’ve been keeping a vigil, then I took him to the Mortuary . . .”
“Maybe he will bring us souvenirs when he returns,” Mal remarked gracelessly. Kal shot him a quelling glance.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Sheen said, but it was clear her heart wasn’t in it.
“It was his time. That doesn’t make it much easier, but that’s the way things are,” Joris explained.
“It sounds like you have enough on your plate without going to Thazia with us,” Sheen said.
“Oh, no. Firil said she would watch the Circle, and Kalisa’s slipped away again, so I’m actually free for now. I think she was going to hide that tiefling Noxana somewhere. Say, where’s Haden?”
“He decided to scout ahead,” Sheen explained. “If you want to come along, lets go, but I think you shouldn’t. You have no business risking your life right now.”
Kal shook his head and concentrated, reopening the portal. Joris shrugged and stepped through, followed quickly by Mal, Sheen, and Kalenthor. A feeling of great unease settled over them as they emerged in a graveyard under an ashen sky.
“Hmm,” Kal said. “Ambient.”
The graves were violated and empty, the stone doors of mausoleums lying broken. Beyond the wreckage of the wrought-iron gate they could see the charred remains of a village, and beyond that a vast, smoking plain stretching in all directions. Sheen shouldered her pack and began walking toward the village.
“Haden?” Kal called out nervously, looking around the desolate village. The buildings were empty and abandoned, only one remaining relatively intact. “Anyone?”
Sheen pulled a piece of paper off the door of the building. “It’s Haden’s writing. It looks like he went toward the forest . . . what forest?” She turned the message around in her hands a few times, then pointed. “That way, I think. He sort of drew a map, but he’s not exactly an artist.”
Kal shook his head. “He moved pretty quickly, then.”
Mal glanced up from his silent contemplations. “Time moves faster here than in Sigil. Hours or even days may have passed while we waited.”
“Then we’d better go,” Sheen said just as a shriveled corpse stumbled out of the building, its empty eyesockets oozing vile black ichor. Sheen stumbled backward into Joris as the creature wailed, a hideous sound that seemed to rattle the bones in her skull. Kal recoiled and turned as he heard another creature approaching. He chanted quickly and leveled a finger, shooting a greenish ray. It vanished in a puff of foul dust.
Mal hurled eldritch energy at the wailing corpse, splattering black ichor on Sheen and Joris. A bright flash illuminated the top of the building and magical missiles streaked toward the warlock, striking sparks where they impacted his armor. Sheen shouldered past her attacker and vaulted up the side of the building even as Joris raised his holy symbol. The undead attackers shrank away, burning, but the creature on the rooftop seemed unmoved. It raised its arms to begin another spell and Sheen saw that it was missing a hand. She buried her claws in its legs and pulled, catapulting it off the roof. It landed with a gristly crack and Mal dispatched it with a flare of eldritch energy.
“Let’s get out of here now before more of them show up,” Sheen said, jumping down to the ground. Talan was already hurrying away through the rotting village, having picked up some trail or other. Mal and Kalenthor hurried to follow. “Come on, Joris!” Sheen insisted.
“One minute!” he replied over his shoulder, bending to examine the corpses. “I think that thing was an aspect—a minor manifestation of a deity. Like the one we fought in Plague-Mort.”
“Really?” Sheen asked, pulling on his arm until he rejoined the group. “What deity?”
“I’m not very familiar with this one. I looked it up after Tulio mentioned the ‘chained god’ in Waterdeep, but there’s hardly anything about it even in Sigil’s libraries. His name is Vecna—he was a wizard-tyrant who became a lich. Now he’s a quasi-deity or a demigod or something. He’s a god of secrets, so it’s no surprise that there’s not much to find. Apparently he lost something—a relic, his hand or his eye—his cult was searching for it in Thazia. Whether they found it or not, the cultists are long gone. Er, I hope.”
“We’ll keep an eye out,” Kal quipped. “Maybe we can give them a hand.” Joris groaned.
“Well, in any case Haden seems to have avoided the undead,” Sheen said hopefully.
The scorched plain was very flat, almost unnaturally so. As they walked, they could see the occasional mob of undead in the distance, but they wandered mindlessly and were easy enough to avoid. Hours passed, marked only by increasing exhaustion, and they were forced to stop and rest.
“The gloom has lightened a little,” Talan said. “I think the sun may be up.”
“Feeble as it is, it ought to keep the worst of the undead in hiding for now,” Joris offered, sinking to the ground. There was no shelter, but there wasn’t really any need for shelter, either.
“We don’t know yet whether the undead are the worst of it, though,” Sheen said, but she found a place to sit as well. Mal and Kal joined her in meditation while Joris and Talan napped, Joris snoring loudly. They awoke around midafternoon, when the ashy sunlight was brightest.
“I can attempt to contact Haden for you, Sheen,” Mal said with unusual clarity.
“No, let’s wait,” Sheen said. “If he’s doing anything important you may distract him.”
“Then we should be off,” the warlock said. Talan searched around to find the tracks again, not much fainter than the previous day, and they began walking. Kal looked around at the desolate landscape sadly.
“This world must have had heroes, don’t you think?” Talan asked.
“They don’t seem to have done a very good job,” Sheen grumped.
Kal frowned. “The time for Thazia’s heroes is long past. The world has been dying for a long time—the fiends only needed to give it a push. It may not be too late for alien heroes, though.”
“Speak for yourself,” Sheen said. “I’m not here to save Thazia; I have other problems.”
The ruined forest grew slowly on the horizon. Most of the trees were dead, and those that weren’t clearly would be soon. Haden’s tracks led them to a spot where several trees had fallen, knocked down by something large. Many corpses lay scattered among the splintered stumps.
“Wow, he took them on himself?” Kal wondered. “I’m impressed.”
Sheen pointed at a damp section of ground. “I’ve never known Haden to produce large puddles of acid, though.”
“No, but a black dragon might,” Talan said.
“Are you sure?” Mal asked. “How big of a dragon?”
Talan wandered around the impromptu clearing for a few moments, gauging the damage. “An adult at least, I’d say. The dragon went off, to the north, and it looks like Haden followed it at a distance. Its progress was really erratic, though. Something was wrong with it.”
“What might vex a dragon?” Mal asked.
“Confusion?” Kal suggested. “Maybe Haden?”
“It’s really not his style,” Sheen said. “And, well, he’s really not that powerful.”
Kal sucked air through his teeth. “Betzalel could have done it.”
Joris blinked, startled. “You saw him?”
“Briefly,” Kal explained. “He threw confusion on us and then teleported. It was unpleasant. We should make haste.”
The dragon’s wake was easy enough to follow, but it veered sharply westward as it reached the boundary of a grove of living trees. The leaves of the trees were silvery, polished like mirrors. “Haden’s tracks lead in there,” Talan said.
Mal examined the trees. “There is a magical aura here, but it should be safe to pass. I believe it is intended to keep the undead out.”
“A grove of the Lady?” Joris asked.
“This place bears here spirit. There is a clearing further east that she used for gatherings.”
They stepped over the boundary cautiously and moved deeper into the grove. The edge of the clearing appeared ahead, a grayish opening filled with dim twilight. Several people stood in the center—Lady Margone and Betzalel talking to Haden. A short distance from them, a massive red-furred creature with a lion’s head stood with a coterie of barbed devils. Mal gasped suddenly and stared down at his feet. Hidden among the tree roots was the broken body of the Lady of Mirrors.
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