The Last of the Order
Jakardros grimaced as another arrow clattered off the wall of the cavern, and pressed closer to the jutting outcrop of stone that was providing him some degree of cover. His sense of trepidation grew; the ogres had not been known for their use of bows and arrows, nor for their silence during battle. Thanks to the dim light, Jakardros had yet to catch a good sight of the foe that was loosing shots at them from deeper with the cavern; whatever it was, though, he very much doubted it was an ogre. Between the hags and the hill giant they had already encountered, and the lamia wretch that had escaped them at Fort Rannick, it was clear that the Hook Mountain clan had amassed significant allies in recent weeks. That in itself was unusual, given the ogres’ tendency to fight even amongst themselves.
Jakardros pushed his strategic assessment from his mind, and focused on the situation at hand. Thia and Shalelu had already loosed a few shots at the foe, but their elven heritage granted them better vision than his own, even without accounting for his lost right eye. Glancing deeper into the cavern again, he could still make out little but shadowy forms moving within the inky darkness. He could risk no shots from here - he was as likely to hit friend as foe.
He weighed his options. Staying put presented little opportunity for attack, and the limited cover left him open to the risk of taking an arrow himself. He could fall back, but that would entail leaving Shalelu and the others to fend for themselves. He could not abandon her - not again, not ever. He had amassed enough regrets, and had room for no more.
Reaching a decision, Jakardros pushed himself away from the stone wall, swiftly drawing and nooking an arrow as he advanced towards the sounds of combat. He held fire for now, trying to discern which of the shadows were his companions and which were threats. A few steps in, two of the shadows began to resolve into the shape of large cats; undoubtedly the druid, Rui, and his companion. The shadow between them, however, was unfamiliar, man-sized, and Jakardros thought he glimpsed a bow in its hand.
Jakardros lifted his bow, beginning his aim as he took another couple of steps forward, wanting to be sure of his target. As he did so, the shape turned, and two cold, piercing eyes glared directly at him with malevolent hatred. The creature’s face was ashen grey, features twisted through cold rage and the onset of decay, but Jakardros felt his stomach lurch as a sense of familiarity barreled into him.
“No... no...”, he uttered, lowering his bow in shock. The last of his hopes had failed him. The figure in front of him, cold and inhuman as it now was, was nevertheless clearly recognizable as Lamatar Bayden - his commander, the leader of the Black Arrows.
The cold eyes of the wight flared, as if in mutual recognition, and the figure raised its bow once more, taking aim directly at Jakardros. He knew he should move, take cover, but his legs were leaden with despair. He heard the creak of the bowstring being pulled back...
No longer the subject of the creature’s attention, the cats saw their opening, pouncing in unison. Raking the creature with their claws, they dragged Lamatar to the floor. As it fell, its hold of the bowstring gave out, and the last arrow spat forth; but its aim had been ruined by the attack, and the shot smashed harmlessly into the cavern wall, shattering into splinters.
As the twisted form of Lamatar struck the floor, devoid of any life - both natural and unnatural - Jakardros felt his knees give way, and he too began to fall. His descent was interrupted as he felt someone grab him, supporting him as he fell, and he dimly realised that Shalelu was already by his side.
“You recognise him?”, she asked, her voice radiating concern and sympathy.
“That was once Lamatar Beyden”, uttered Jakardros blankly. “Commander of the Black Arrows.”
“The worst of fates had befallen him, then,” stated Ntombi quietly. “But his torment is now over.”
“Is there...” began Jakardros, but his voice choked and failed him. He swallowed, and tried again. “Can you bring him back? Is there any way to restore him?”
Ntombi stepped forward and knelt by the lifeless corpse, her clouded eyes staring intently as she examined him.
“Such things may have been within my reach had he died before us as one of the living. This second death, though, this unlife… no. Such things are outside of mortal ability, for his soul has already passed on to Pharasma for judgment. There is no restoring him, for what lies in front of us is nothing but a shell, supported by necromantic forces. I am sorry, Jakardros, but the commander you knew was gone long before we set foot in these caverns.”
Jakardros felt Shalelu kneel beside him, embracing him, supporting his weight. “I am so sorry,” she began quietly. “I had held slim hope that we may find him alive, but he was already beyond our help.”
Jakardros closed his eyes. “Then it is over,” he stated simply. “With his death, so dies the order. The Black Arrows have fallen.”
A few seconds passed, before Thia broke the silence. “I count one Black Arrow that still draws breath,” she observed. “And he still has allies by his side. Fort Rannick has been battered, but still stands. Magnimar is sending reinforcements, who by now may only be days away. The Black Arrows can be rebuilt, long though that process may take - and in the meantime, there is vengeance to be had, both for Rannick and for Turtleback. We have at least one more foe to face.”
The group stirred at that. Jakardros looked up, curiosity overcoming his grief. “How do you figure?” he asked.
Thia lifted her bow, pointing at directly at the lifeless remnants of the wight.
“That doesn’t just happen”, she pointed out. “Any one of the ogres we’ve faced could have been the one that killed the commander - but not one of them have shown any signs of possessing necromantic power. Not at Rannick, and not here either. Whatever raised him into a wight, they’re still out there - maybe even here. We’ve not yet fully explored these caverns, and until we’ve done so, we must assume that the biggest threat may still lie ahead.”
“That does stand to reason,” agreed Gwyn. “Whoever raised this wight, they likely had purpose in doing so - and that purpose may well have been to protect either its master, or something of importance to them. Perhaps even this shrine, here”, he finished, gesturing at the shrine to Lamashtu that dominated the cavern chamber.
“Either way, it seems likely we’re not done here,” stated Thia again. “We press on.”
“Should burn body,” said Rui, awkwardly. Jakardros grimaced. “May rise again,” explained Rui, aware that the suggestion may not have been a welcome one.
“Is that possible, Ntombi?” asked Gwyn. “Could this wight rise again, if we leave the remains intact?”
Ntombi studied the wight, thoughtful. “I do not believe so - the necromantic energies seem to have been dissipated. I cannot be certain, though; much may rest on the power of the necromancer responsible for the wight’s creation.”
“We need to move,” pointed out Thia. “We don’t have time to build a pyre, not until we’re certain no more foes remain here. We should press on, and deal with the body later”. She thought for a moment, though - the risk of the wight rising again and attacking them from behind did not bear thinking about. “Strip him of his armor and his bow, though. We have no need of them ourselves, and the commander certainly doesn’t, but they may still have use. Rebuilding the Black Arrows will not be a matter solely of people, but of equipment too - Fort Rannick may yet have need of weapons and armor.”
Rui nodded, and Thia joined her in cautiously unbuckling the wight’s armor, removing it and stowing it away along with the commander’s bow. Jakardros stood, supported by Shalelu, a new determination bringing strength back to his muscles.
Fort Rannick can yet be avenged, he vowed quietly to himself. This much, I can still do.
“Let’s go,” he said, grimly.