Before descending even deeper into the vault, the party wisely decided to rest and recover ourselves. We had received many injuries throughout the level, and some of us were still bleeding profusely, but the man Zavrith expended the last of his healing spells to ease our pain. I have to wonder what personal gain he secretly expects by being inordinately nice to us, for I suspect it is not simply through the kindness of his heart. But I was in no position to refuse, none of us were. We were beyond exhausted.
Either way, we rested, were healed, and after I spent some important time re-learning my spells and committing them once again to memory, the party decided to venture onward, feeling much more eager and prepared than before. Even I felt a little spring in my step, my new focus and determination helping to keep my demons largely at bay, renewed purpose and hope creating a temporary clarity in my mind. But of course, in such a cursed hell, even a moment of frivolity can provide an opportunity for punishment.
As we descended the stairs, two spectral hands reached through the cold stone floor and grabbed Berty’s ankles, pulling him down into unfathomable depths. Zavrith leapt toward Berty to grab him, but toppled through his incorporeal form, as though he had already been murdered and become a ghost. Chance attempted to grab one of the spectral hands with the magical hand of his own, and for a moment I had hoped that would save him, but the hands continued to drag the shrieking Berty inexorably into the deep. As a last desperate effort I too threw myself toward the sinking Berty, but of course, I felt nothing but the cold stone floor beneath me when I landed. And then he was gone so quickly it was like he was never there.
Shocked silence. The eyes bore into my skull once more, their hatred and their misery searing my heart, my defenses shattered by sudden grief. They stared in accusation at letting this young soul disappear into unimaginable places. He was the most innocent, the most eager, the most genuine of us. Like nature itself, he did not discriminate, he did not perform. He merely was. Lies and deceit are the creation of man.
Chance suddenly became uncomfortable with the pregnant pause and cracked a wildly inappropriate, though admittedly amusing joke. The others were getting antsy, and Tatalka had suggested we move on. I had not failed to notice that he had not attempted to save Berty as the hands dragged him under, though surely there wasn’t much he could have done. Still, it is not something I will soon forget.
I was not yet prepared to leave, the enormity of what had happened weighed heavily on me, so I told the others they could move on ahead without me. Zavrith did not seem pleased to leave me in the rear for some reason, though at that moment, I could not have cared less. As they went out of earshot, I sat once more on the hard stone floor with my back against the wall, wishing it was the trunk of a tree, and floundered through the tidal wave of sadness trying to engulf and drown me. I wanted her beside me more than ever. I remembered her beautiful doe’s eyes as they gazed at me across the forest pond, and struggled to feel to the utter peace and serenity that had cleansed me at that moment, clinging to that memory with a madman’s desperation. I prayed for her to come to me again, to wash away the murky, black waves of my desperation with the crystalline ripples of her gaze. But she didn’t come. And I was trapped there, alone.
After a while, the voices of my comrades stirred me, and I rose wearily to my feet again. I wasn’t going to leave that place by sitting alone moping, so I once again struggled to clear my thoughts and pressed onward. I thought perhaps if I allowed myself to be distracted with the dangers of the vault and the affairs of the other party members, I would be afforded some peace. It half-worked. Naiwi would have to find me later.
We then re-grouped, and shortly thereafter, Tatalka discovered a curious man named Jurn. In brief, we learned by discussing with Jurn, and later his leader Lucian, that this floor of the vault housed a community of men and women of various races and positions in society that do not age. We have noticed ourselves that we have had no need to eat or drink while in the vault, but this prospect suggested that very time itself stood still within the walls of this accursed place, a prospect I find not only unnatural, but downright terrifying as well. I do not wish to be trapped within this place as long as these people have. I vowed to end it myself first should that ever become an eventuality, though I would mourn never getting to see the sun again before I go.
Lucian and the other ageless ones also spoke of our role as the first true born people they have supposedly seen in a long time. To be a true born simply means to have been born naturally, to have been conceived and have been given life through birth by a mother. Their questions reminded me of my past, and I felt a pang of loss for my family, enslaved, killed, or both by the slave traders in Jaleox. But those days were long ago, so I forced myself to focus on the present and the conversation at hand.
I eventually learned of the presence of an archdruid Talbot within the community, though Lucian was nervous and unwilling to speak of him. I instinctively felt this man might be an unlikely ally of sorts, the same sensation I felt upon first meeting Berty, so I vowed to myself that I would find him and meet him. The others seemed mostly in agreement with this plan, though as mentioned before, it is difficult to tell what both Zavrith and Tatalka think and feel at any point in time.
Along the way, we met the one and only captain Mircrest of the ship we had taken into the Vault in the first place. She was badly wounded, and once again, Zavrith healed her without question. I must admit, I was starting to be impressed with his decisions and his generosity, though I was still not completely convinced that his motives behind them were entirely wholesome. After all, a man with the pale blue skin of the dead does not exactly strike me as being a selfless and saintly figure.
When she was feeling well enough to walk with us, and after telling us about a strange incident where she blacked out and experienced obscure visions, we continued onward until where we were told the archdruid usually dwelled. And then, like a drop of cool water poured onto a parched and cracked tongue, I caught a rustle in the air of the most beautiful sound I have heard in my life… the rustle of breeze through long grass. I walked into a cell where the cold, unyielding stone floor ended before me, and the vast horizon of the plains stretched on into the distance. I inhaled deeply, smelled the grass in the air, felt the sunlight tickle and caress my skin, and I fell backwards into the grass, feeling the warm earth yield beneath me. And then I lost myself.
Naiwi had been near me, though not right at my side, which was both a tremendous comfort, but also a worrisome reminder of the imperfection of this situation. She was as warm and blissful as ever, though she was a distant and tantalizing presence, like a mouthful of sustenance for a hungry man when the rest of the meal is out of reach. A shrill cry that could belong to none other than the irritating Chance shattered my reverie, and I wanted to ignore him, but I could feel Naiwi’s presence retreating as I sensed my anger rising. The eyes stared at me, round orbs clouding over with a haze of red, a throbbing anger I had felt before. The eyes goaded me, reminding me of the murder I was capable of, and I blamed him for my dissatisfaction. I could have struck Chance, but the whispering grass at my feet gave me pause, a gentle reminder of who I was, and I satisfied myself with immaturely turning on my heel and stalking back out into the stone corridor.
It’s a good thing Chance is a fairly superficial and flighty creature, because he either forgot about the incident in moments, or did not realize the danger he was in. The others wisely said nothing as well, though Zavrith gave me a sideways glance once or twice.
We soon met Talbot, who is a wonderful and clearly intelligent gentleman, which was a nice change from the seedy Lucian of before. He told us more lore about the ageless ones, confirming my suspicions that they were an unchanging race, incapable of learning or growth. I really did feel awful at the idea of poor Talbot being trapped here for millennia without access to the sun or stars. The certainty that I would not allow this dismal life of entrapment to happen to me once again blazed within my mind, and it brought me a strange sense of peace to know that it was possible to restore my body to the natural order of life in one way or another. Though of course, I did want to see the sun again, and that was something I was willing to fight for.
There were more tasks and more discussions among the ageless people, and I found myself growing weary of social interactions with most of their kind. I simply wanted to carry on with the tasks they asked of us so that I could continue searching for the way out. Our next task was to find the fallen friend of a small mousey woman named Durina who had died to the Morgorth creature in the baths area of this floor of the vault. We were also asked to recover a lost amulet that the friend Tia wore and bring it back to Durina. Our actions were perhaps a bit hasty, because the amulet turned into a melted lump of gold by the end of the battle, and the unfortunate body had been burned and disfigured from boiling water to a terrible result.
Durina was too kind a person to deserve such a sight, and I fear our indecision of how best to dispose of the body made matters worse for her. I hope that we will be able to redeem ourselves to her.
In all, it was a trying day, and I will be thankful for my rest this evening.