From the peaks of Dralk the sunset was spectacular— and with the death of the sun came the onset of the stars.
Their performance repertoire was divided into thirds; each teammate was given opportunity to shine and show off their talents to the Dralk citizens. Loka, with a stylish sweep of her tail, called upon the celestial gods to bring forth a formidable “opponent”. There was a hush among the crowd as a swirl of mist coalesced onstage, taking the form and solidifying into a gargantuan black bear with starlight in its fur. It yawned, bored, until the Great and Powerful Uguu of the Zen clambered up to meet it. The half-giant clapped its hands together and bowed once in respect, then proceeded to leap atop its head—thus began the wrestling match. The crowd cheered and booed as the two tussled, Uguu and the bear, back and forth until Uguu gracefully left the ring of its own accord. Having parted on mutually beneficial terms, the bear mimicked the monk’s bow and waited for the next act.
Koshka, with a subtle flick of his mane, leapt within Mita’s spotlight and drew his holy sword with a flourish. The celestial bear blinked in surprise, then with a guttural growl charged forth to meet the warrior. The two began the dance of swords, the Saris maneuvering with grace and nimble paw steps around the bigger, bulkier ursidae. The bear eventually conceded the mock battle, retreating to the side of the stage and permitting its summoner mage to pet it behind the ears.
“Psst,” the silver dragon hissed in the dwarf’s ear, “it’s our turn, dear, let’s not make them wait…” Argente finished polishing her new instrument and secured it atop her harness, slinking out to meet the spotlight. The dwarf followed suit, casting a lingering look at the newly-acquired bells but pushing the bad omens to the back of her mind. She sat at the piano Loka and Koshka pushed up and center, cracking her knuckles and setting fingertips poised at the keys. Argente nodded, and her voice soon mixed harmoniously with the dwarf’s playing. The two crossed melodies in interplay of key changes and harmonic dissonance, the sound reverberating in the valley and even making the stars sparkle in the night sky. The crowd began to sway in time, and even the party members whose performances were over for the night moved along to the beat.
Something wailed, mournful and malevolent, and darkness swarmed.
Saya nimbly picked her way down the cliff face, bracing her talons against the stone for a decent grip. She and Enilis had recently taken a portal back from the spirit realm and, following gut instinct and the unmistakable sound of someone enjoying the spotlight too much, rounded the bend in the volcanic valley and came upon the stage.
It was, in essence, in total chaos.
Shadows arced from wall to wall, howling souls mingling with the cries of civilians caught unawares and guardsdragons trying desperately to keep order. Koshka immediately rushed out to do battle with shadows that morphed into humanoid warrior-types, while Loka set about firing spells into the fray. Argente’s body glowed with supernatural light from a spell, and she beat her wings and took to the air to help dispel the growing darkness. Without a second thought, Uguu leapt over Loka’s head, leaving the perturbed fiend mid-casting as it mounted the great celestial bear’s back.
“ONWARD, IOSHIMA,” the monk cried. The bear roared in response and barreled through the nearest swarm of shadows, batting them this way and that in correspondence with Uguu’s rapid-fire punching. They cut a line straight through the swarming mass (miraculously avoiding civilians), made a U-turn, and began mowing through a second time.
The dwarf cast her gaze over the disruption and began humming a diminished scale. Her eyes passed over the retreating form of their young fiend charge, observing with mild confusion as Mita slunk away and crouched deep in concentration. She heard a shout from above and stopped her scale, watching as a mass of sharp shadows clawed straight through their glowing dragon bard, forcing her to remember how her wings worked to keep from plummeting. Argente winced, returning fire with a brief hymn on the peasant-like nature of the shadows. One does not simply insult a dragon bard without receiving reprimand on their clearly uncivilized nature, you see.
“There she is!” Saya shouted from the cliff, lowering her bow and unnecessarily pointing at her friend.
“Oh hoo-rah,” her snake mumbled, “now the gang’s all here. What fun. Forgive me if I don’t jump for joy.” Enilis blinked cynically, observing with casual disinterest as the shadows offed two more civilians and Uguu continued punching through them like sandbags. The party was managing to hold on decently to the situation, though their Saris was looking a little rough around the edges.
Unfortunately, the shadow souls began to coordinate.
An apex began to form, drawing the howling souls stuck in limbo into a spiral, faster and faster, sucking in all the terror until with a final shuddering call the darkness materialized into a gargantuan pygmy wielding a long club leaking spectral energy. It opened its gaping, needle-filled mouth and issued forth a cry that shocked the dwarf, Mita, and Saya to their respective cores. The three gritted their teeth and shrunk back to varying degrees: Mita barely missed a beat and resumed concentration; the dwarf stumbled over her words yet continued; but Saya shrieked and clutched her head, sliding back against the rock face and crouching on the ledge.
The pygmy beast took a reverberating step towards the stage. It swept its gangly arm and club to the side, drawing humanoid shadow minions from the ground and setting them upon the party and civilians. Within half a minute, three mages and a Lunos guard fell dead, faces contorted in pain and gasping for air. The team was too distracted to properly defend the innocent, all save the smartest fiend.
Loka glanced nervously around the valley-turned-battlefield. She knew her party wouldn’t be able to keep the shadows off forever…at least, not without a little extra help. Sending a last magic missile against the specters flanking Koshka, the mage clasped her hands together in prayer and raised them to the invisible stars:
“O Istara! O Brobbet, O Alyssa, O Galderos, O Other Gods I Neglected to Mention! We are in dire peril, and we cannot hold back the darkness! I beseech you, nay, I implore you: send us your most formidable, your most majestic servants to lend us aid! From the farthest reaches of the lands, from beyond the reaches of time and space, lend us your strength!”
A cool, sexy voice reverberated in Loka’s skull.
The fiend couldn’t contain the grin that spread across her blue-skinned face, waving her hands like a fanatic and doing a little hop of glee. Help was on the way.
Saya, meanwhile, rolled precariously out of the way of a shadow attempting to spear her, dislodging pebbles and sending them plummeting to the valley below. Breathing shakily, she began to regain her composure after the extreme sense of wrongness the spiritual balance had been thrown into. She picked herself up, clinging to the wall (to Enilis’s chagrin), when Argente swooped up, giving her charge a blue-eyed smile.
“Nice to see you back in one piece, darling,” the dragon winked, “Be a dear and hop on, I wouldn’t want to see you fall to your death.” She lowered a wing and nudged the Nessian on with her snout, mentioning a brief comment about holding on tight before diving with incredible speed, banking sharply to the left. Saya forgot how well her companion knew her nuances and rapidly fired two arrows in their patent-pending Swing-And-Shoot-Things-In-Rapid-Succession maneuver (it needed a cooler name, hence the “pending” part). Imbued with healing magic, her first arrow nicked Koshka on the shoulder and dissolved into glittering lights, healing the Saris’ wounds and bolstering his strength as he valiantly continued slashing at the demons with his holy sword. The second flew towards the shadow beast, yet before it met its mark a skeletal dragon appeared from the sky and caught it in its rune-inscribed collarbone.
“Not you again,” Loka snarled, casting lightning at the reoccurring foe and beating it back towards the cliffside. She glanced down and saw Mita crouched by the edge of the stage, stock-still, and was about to hail her when the smaller fiend suddenly leapt up in shock and surprise as something burst from her shadow.
A guttural roar descended upon the calamity as the shade of a Lunos dragon materialized beside her, a forgotten fallen friend, eyes bright in the darkness, the spirit of defense and rage.
“Go, Mel!” Mita grinned, receding to the edge of the battle and praying no one saw her. The pygmy threw up its arm in defense, staggering back before retaliating with a slash of its own. The two creatures sparred back and forth across the battlefield, the skeletal dragon flitting between the two without alignment. The other fiend prepared another spell, but paused. Loka smiled, her teeth broadening when she felt the telltale pull of the gods beyond. She looked up.
Thirteen beings swathed in golden light descended from the sky like comets, landing in swirls of celestial energy in an arc around Loka. They briefly bowed to her, features vague but respectful, then turned as one and posed spectacularly. The combined majesty of their stocky frames and spectral energy blew back the shadows, their cries pained at the glory of the light-covered dwarves. The thirteen simply stood, taking in the scene with an air of importance. Loka stood behind them all, desperately keeping her composure steady.
On stage, the dwarf bard stopped her humming, entranced by the celestial extra-planar beings. A fourteenth, smaller being of light stood beside her, casually leaning against the piano.
“Hello,” she greeted, “I see you are not from this world. What, dare I say, brings you here?”
The light mentioned something about finding food and walked away.
“Oh…” The dwarf’s face fell. She had wanted a chance for conversation, and the little thing had looked so interesting, but alas, it was simply not her day. “Goodbye,” she called after its retreating form, resuming her off-center tune.
Up in the air, Saya’s quick-thinking mind conjured another plan of attack. She turned to her snake, clinging to one of Argente’s back spines as the bard dodged the skeletal beast.
“Cast an ice spell on me,” the Nessian instructed, “and I can dive-bomb the skeleton to slow it down.” Enilis rolled his eyes but obliged, curling tighter around her shoulder-blade as the crow-girl took off and swooped for the circling prey. Once Saya had taken wing, Argente curved and spiraled above the giant pygmy.
“I really hate to do this,” she muttered, “Such a waste of a good instrument.” Her eyes briefly flashed, and with a whisper of a sound the dragon summoned the piano from its place on the stage and conjured it directly above the shadow beast. Letting it fall, she breathed a line of fire, catching the instrument and rupturing it in flame. Unfortunately, the glorious instrument passed right through the creature, yet the flames singed what Argente assumed was its head, blinding it enough for the shade of Mel to strike again.
Below, Koshka dodged the flaming debris with litheness, disintegrating one of the humanoid shadows and severely wounding the other. What he had hoped was a more decisive blow had only felled one of infinite, as another shadow quickly took its fallen brethren’s place. The shadows struck out, catching the Saris under his breastplate as if nothing were there. Koshka roared in pain and defiance, swiping at the apparitions and plucking an iridescent feather from his belt.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use this,” he growled, “but you leave me no choice! Have at thee!” He brandished the feather, praying that it actually did something instead of just look pretty.
His prayers were answered.
The feather glowed in brilliant light as he swung, elongating into a sword that drove back the oncoming shadows. Wasting no time he followed up with his holy sword in the other paw, turning on his foot in a whirlwind and slicing through darkness like water. The shadow forms, if they had visible eyes to speak of, would have exchanged nervous glances after reevaluating their opinion of the tougher-than-anticipated Saris. Instead, they rushed at Koshka, driving him back as the Epitome of Zen barreled by.
Uguu and the bear were imitating one of the greatest, most destructive lawnmowers in existence, yet even a machine has its ending points. The shadow pygmy glared at the bulldozer, bringing its club down with a mighty thwack atop the monk and its celestial friend.
The celestial bear had never felt so alive as it did that evening, tearing through tainted evil like butter, ridden by the most majestic and transcendent being it had ever encountered. The bear had reached enlightenment. The bear had reached Zen.
The bear gave up its life to preserve the integrity of Uguu.
The monk stood up abruptly as its ride disappeared, swirling into starry smoke.
“Remember me,” it whispered as it drifted away to whence it came.
Uguu wiped a solitary tear from its eye. “Uguu will always remember you,” it replied, extending a palm in final farewell. The monk closed its eyes in solemn silence, ignoring the clamor around it as it pondered the best way to take revenge for this act. Within it, it knew the answer all along.
It strode to the top of the stage, took a deep breath, and placed its hands on its hips.
“Uguu shall show you the righteousness of Zen…BEHOLD!” Uguu stripped off its undergarment.
“LOOK AWAY,” came the chorus of Loka, Koshka, and the dwarf. Argente raised a wing to protect Saya as the Nessian landed atop her back, turning her elegant neck away from the chaos.
Uguu spread its legs and adopted the infamous stance of Zen, planting its feet on the ground with its hands on its hips. The dwarves bowed in respect and returned to the sky, letting the power of Zen wash over the battlefield in their wake. The shadows recoiled once more, their assault lessened as they lost substance. Even the great shadow pygmy faded to only half of its opaqueness, unable to fend off more of Mel’s blows. Uguu let the Zen flow, and once it was satisfied, it donned its undergarments once more.
The unfortunate civilians that neither escaped yet nor had time to look away were, frankly, confused and more than a little disturbed. One of the Lunos guards twitched an eyelid before a shadow nearby resumed fighting and stabbed him in the stomach. Not to be outdone, the rest of the shadows set about the combatants, and the battle resumed with fervor.
Enilis was bored. He’d encouraged the kid to go back to her ever-moving living family, sure, but this battle was just plain dull. There was no excitement! Where were the rampaging undead corpses, the smell of burned flesh? The snake frowned.
Mayhaps I’ll summon a beholder in the midst of all this, he mused, eyeing the myriad of instruments strapped to their ride’s back, and not a soul will notice, I guarantee it. As he pondered causing more chaos, he stopped short, amber eyes catching the telltale sign of an unfired gun of mischief. Unbeknownst to Saya, he slithered close to Argente’s ear.
“Hey, dragon,” he hissed, ever softly, jawline set in a devilish grin, “those are some nice bells you’ve got there…why not try using them? That silly little piano didn’t do too much, but those bells…you got them from the necromancer, yes? I saw him, he struck his wards with their ringing and they did his bidding…you can make them follow you too, yes?”
Argente’s eyes flickered. “Now dear, that’s a grand idea!” She backed up, unhooking the seven bells from her back and looping their connective string securely around the tip of her tail.
“What are you doing?” Saya asked, but her timid question was pushed aside by her spirit companion’s quicker thinking. He cast a chilling spell on the Nessian, nudging her off the dragon’s back and forcing her to repeat their acrobatic tactic against the skeletal monstrosity. Saya swept back and forth, striking out with her talons and gouging scratches along its ribcage. The beast slowed.
The shade of Mel roared and lashed out with its claws, sending the warped pygmy back a couple steps and within range of the second benevolent dragon. Argente beat her gray wings and swooped up, pausing above the great shadow beast’s head and giving it her most elegant glare. Bringing her tail up, she swung down with all her might.
The bells resonated from solid flesh in horrible dissonance.
All around the battlefield, the shadows took on corporeal substance, and, with renewed strength, continued their assault, dragging civilians to the ground in agonizing cries and rending the souls of those they touched. The silver dragon had but a moment to register her mistake, adopt a shocked look, and search for her Nessian companion before the sheer momentum of her whack sent her long tail arcing up again, and with a second and final ring the bells struck the dragon’s back.
Saya brought her circling to an abrupt halt. She barely managed to keep beating her wings in rhythmic patterns to stay aloft.
No, no, no! she panicked. Dragons don’t just vanish like that, she has to have gone somewhere, she’s got to be somewhere, maybe she’s just invisible—
Saya’s face hardened in rage as she reached up, grabbed the snake with a clawed foot, and held him precariously from hundreds of feet above the ground.
“Where is she,” the Nessian growled.
“Hurk! I have no idea,” Enilis responded as innocently as he could.
Saya’s grip tightened. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you earlier. You tell me everything you know about those bells right now or I’ll drop you here, I swear!”
“I told you, I have no idea where that diva went!” The talons around him loosened until he was held by their very tips. “Okay okay okay! Keep your feathers on, alright? All I know is those are necromancer bells, they do stuff to undead things, never heard of what happens to people who try them on living things! For all I know, she could have turned into a dragonfly.” He smiled unpleasantly. “At any rate, dear, if you drop this body, you’re still not getting rid of me, just this cozy little snake that never asked to get caught up in these sorts of terrifying adventures. You’ll have accomplished nothing while your newfound party gets the rest of their sorry selves beat. Your choice.”
Saya held him there for another few seconds, giving Enilis her narrowest glare before reluctantly slinging him back over her shoulders.
“There’s a good girl, now just rinse and repeat,” he whispered by her ear, casting unholy magic on her instead of the previous ice magic. Saya shuddered but continued doggedly, scoring the skeleton with her claws and perching back on the cliff to regain her strength. The skeleton dragon spiraled downward, crashing into the claws of Mel before disintegrating a third time.
“Good riddance,” Loka muttered, bolstering Mel’s strength. She would have pondered where the littler fiend seemed to have disappeared to (wasn’t she by the stage?) or where their dwarf bard had gone (wasn’t she on the stage?) if her magic did not require her full concentration. With a final roar, the shade dragon pounced atop the pygmy, striking through it with its claws and sending both it and the corporeal darkness dissipating. The humanoid shadows on the ground lost their substance and shattered into mist (a process expedited by Koshka and Uguu’s swords and fists). The moon shone forth amidst groans of pain and frightened cries of the less fortunate.
The team reconvened at center stage, the stars of a performance gone horribly wrong. Saya fluttered wearily down and nearly collapsed from fatigue, leaning against Uguu for support. Koshka sheathed his sword and began cleaning his fur as Loka scanned the area for any sign of their missing members.
The party stood in the middle of gains and loss and, frankly, had no idea what to do.