Unacceptable Losses v2.0
Storming the StrongholdTM
Volrath's stronghold hangs suspended by two massive spans of stone within a great hollow mountain. The Weatherlight emerges from a tunnel, silently drifting past a series of disjointed buildings that link the stronghold to the mountain's inner wall. As the ship glides to a stop, a fortress guard spots it from a sheltered balcony. Mirri leaps from the ship over the balcony railing and claws his throat before he can sound an alarm. Gerrard, close behind, takes up the guard's sword to arm Sisay when they find her.
Crovax and Starke join Gerrard and Mirri in the search for their captured comrades and the stolen pieces of the Legacy. Starke recommends they check the dungeons and Volrath's inner sanctum, the Dream Halls. En route, they encounter one of Volrath's twisted "experiments," which flees by shapeshifting into a winged angel.
Crovax snarls with fury, remembering how Volrath arranged the killing of his entire family and enslaved their angelic guardian, Selenia. He bolts after the shapeshifter and corners it in a large war room. When the search party reaches them, Crovax has savagely torn the wings from the shapeshifter's malformed body and killed it. Gerrard orders him back to the ship, but Crovax replies, "The Legacy may be your destiny, Gerrard, but Selenia is mine. Do not deny me this." Crovax's intensity convinces Gerrard, but both men are disturbed by this violent outburst.
Gerrard quickly becomes absorbed with the vast war room. At its center is a detailed three-dimensional map, which Gerrard recognizes as an aerial view of the Domains of Dominaria. A black shifting wave crosses the Domains, changing their texture. This may not be just a map, Gerrard thinks, but an invasion plan.
Suddenly a projected image of Volrath appears, his voice booming, "All forces report to invasion stations at once. Greven il-Vec, return to the Predator." The apparition fades, but Gerrard is troubled: Volrath's voice is one from his own past.
Ascending into the fortress, the party finds a narrow bridge that crosses into the prison tower and, suspiciously, doesn't appear to be guarded. When Gerrard tests it, the bridge explodes into life, forming ropes and ties to capture any who cross over it. Frustration building, he stalks back into the towers behind them and returns bearing the dismembered body of the shapeshifter Crovax killed. Gerrard throws the corpse onto the bridge, which promptly attacks and engulfs it. The group runs across while the bridge is "distracted," dodging its snares before safely reaching the other side.
Inside the prison tower, they find Karn nearly catatonic with emotional agony. His cell is filled with moggs-the brutish goblins of Rath-and its floor continuously undulates, causing him to stumble into the creatures and crush them. When Gerrard finally gets the cell door open, the surviving moggs flee into the darkness.
Gerrard now knows beyond doubt who Volrath is. Only one person would know to torment Karn by forcing him to break his vow never to injure or kill other beings.
They find Tahngarth in another cell, one designed to slowly mutate its prisoner. The minotaur has been horribly disfigured, and he moans in anguished fury for his ruined appearance. Gerrard hands Tahngarth the sword taken from the guard Mirri killed. "This is who you are," he tells Tahngarth. "Not your horns, not your bones; your sword." Tahngarth gratefully accepts the weapon.
The band hurriedly search the rest of the cells for Sisay and Starke's daughter, Takara, but they find only the twisted results of Volrath's experiments. In a barren laboratory they finally find Sisay imprisoned in a sealed glass cylinder. Gerrard wants to repay the debt of loyalty to his friend, but fears that simply breaking the glass to open the cylinder could cause her harm. After an unsuccessful search for a release method, though, he reluctantly falls back on brute force to free her.
Sisay tumbles out, disoriented. But before Gerrard can take her outstretched hand, Mirri hisses and slashes it open. "Sisay" shrieks and shapeshifts into a mass of biting tentacles, which quickly escapes. Shaken, but grateful for Mirri's keen sense of smell, the search party presses on to the Dream Halls.
As they climb higher and step onto a new bridge, a blur from above hurtles towards Crovax-Selenia. Mirri instinctively leaps forward; the dark angel slashes open Mirri's abdomen and prepares to deliver the death blow. Crovax wildly flails his sword at Selenia, weeping for all he has lost. She also sobs as she defends herself, then suddenly freezes, deliberately allowing one of Crovax's wild swings to strike home. She explodes in a burst of black-and-white mana that swirls around Crovax and forces its way into his body. Selenia's destiny is fulfilled: Crovax's curse is set in motion, and he is ultimately condemned for killing all that he loves. He collapses onto Selenia's sword and grows pale as death-but his breathing continues, as fangs push their way through his gums.
Gerrard decides that Karn and Tahngarth must take Mirri and Crovax to the ship and remain there, while he and Starke continue to search for Sisay and Takara. Starke's directions and the minotaur's innate abilities should get them safely back.
Karn and Tahngarth work their way to the Weatherlight. Karn pauses-he senses the Legacy, which can only mean that the pieces are assembled and close by. This is far too important to leave behind, and so the two separate: Tahngarth carries Mirri and Crovax to the ship, and Karn follows the pull of the Legacy.
Karn finds the artifacts guarded by the sliver queen, a gargantuan beast that constantly generates myriad "baby" slivers. She rears up to attack, but he points to the Legacy and tells her that they are part of him. He demonstrates how the pieces fit inside him; she understands, and responds by summoning her slivers back to her body. She allows Karn to reclaim the Legacy.
Meanwhile, Starke explains to Gerrard that the quickest way to reach the Dream Halls is through a nearby garden. As soon as they reach the garden, a great shadow appears overhead and Gerrard drags Starke under a large plant. They stare up at the Predator as it sails past, helmed by Greven il-Vec. Then comes a sudden thunderous barrage of cannonfire close by.
As they prepare to move on, the spikes-vicious, sluglike creatures-fall from above to attack the pair. Gerrard beats the spikes back into the grass, but loses track of Starke. After a quick search, he finds Starke gagged and immobilized by a tangle of bloodsucking vines as they feed. Gerrard cuts the weakened Starke free and they escape from the predatory garden.
Deeper in the stronghold, they find that the tower containing the Dream Halls is covered with a series of intertwining balconies, but has no main entrance. The only way in seems to be through the balconies. Starke watches nervously as Gerrard struggles to climb the tower's roiling flowstone exterior.
Gerrard reaches the top and pulls himself inside. There, he is bombarded by spectacular visions that are amazing-and horrifying.
He sees himself and Vuel, his blood brother, as boys at Vuel's rite of passage. Young Gerrard intervenes to save Vuel's life, costing Vuel his ascension to sidar of the warclan.
He sees Vuel's father, Sidar Kondo, only to witness the sidar's horrible death as Vuel and his forces destroy the warclan.
In another dream, awful shapes combine to make one dark presence that transforms and corrupts Vuel, bestowing great powers upon him. Here, among Volrath's dreams, Gerrard at last understands that Vuel wanted his destiny with the warclan . . . and was forced to trade it for this one.
Volrath's disembodied voice echoes through the chamber. The ghosts of the past are joined by ../../images of Volrath's dreams for the future: he and his dark armies conquering the lands and inhabitants of Dominaria, Gerrard tortured at his feet.
Gerrard calls Volrath's true name: Vuel, son of the sidar who raised them both; the thief who stole Gerrard's Legacy.
Volrath's voice bitterly replies that Gerrard was unworthy of the clan. His own parents left him the Legacy, and he dishonors their gift by abandoning it, refusing even to wear the hourglass pendant they valued so highly.
Gerrard coolly tells Volrath that he deliberately left the pendant behind, knowing that it was undoubtedly a secondary target in Volrath's scheme.
Volrath taunts him: it would have been much harder to capture Gerrard if he'd brought it. Volrath casually vows to recover the pendant and exploit its power . . . and promises that Gerrard will divulge its location in exchange for a quick death.
Volrath goes on to mock Gerrard's predictability: he knew Gerrard would come for Sisay, not out of loyalty, but because his pride would not allow anything to be taken from him. Everything Gerrard has done from the moment he set foot in Rath has been anticipated and countered.
At last Volrath himself appears, wearing a glowing helmet. Just then, Starke emerges from the dream visions, his dagger raised high, and plunges it into Volrath's back. Volrath whirls, flinging his former friend and mentor from him. He casually pulls the weapon free and throws it down. There is a trickle of blood, then the wound closes over.
Volrath faces Gerrard again and reminds him of everything that Gerrard has cost him . . . and of everything that Gerrard will yet lose. As Volrath retreats into the recesses of the Dream Halls, Gerrard is set upon by two sword-wielding figures: a red-haired woman and Sisay. Their eyes glow with the same pale energy as Volrath's helmet. Gerrard moves to strike down the red-haired warrior-but Starke cries out that she is his daughter, Takara. She slashes out with her sword, crossing her father's eyes with its tip and blinding him. Starke crumbles.
Gerrard realizes he'll have to disarm Takara while simultaneously dealing with Sisay, who is formidable. He is quickly able to maneuver Takara backwards, tripping her over Starke. As Takara goes down, Sisay rushes Gerrard to deliver a killing stroke. He parries, overbalances her, and lands a solid blow on her forehead with the pommel of his sword. Stunned, Sisay drops to the floor. Gerrard charges out of the room after Volrath.
He finally confronts Volrath at the far end of the chamber, where stairs descend to the bridges below. As they begin to battle, Tahngarth roars up the stairs, sword in hand. Together, Gerrard and Tahngarth press their advantage against the evincar. Gerrard cleaves Volrath's helmet with an overhand blow that sends the villain stumbling. Tahngarth bellows in triumph as Volrath falls, but even as Gerrard strikes the fatal blow, he sees fresh scratch marks on Volrath's hand-and realizes the truth. The body quickly changes into the shapeshifter that Mirri clawed in the laboratory.
Gerrard is furious. He demands to know how Tahngarth got there. Tahngarth explains that he tracked Gerrard and Starke to this tower. A doorway opened briefly-possibly an escape route for Volrath-and he jumped through. Gerrard picks up Volrath's shattered helmet and insists that they hunt for the evincar, but Tahngarth emphatically says no-they came to rescue Sisay. Gerrard reluctantly leads him back to the others, his rage at Volrath barely contained.
They enter the Dream Halls to find that Takara has bandaged her father's eyes. The group collects itself, and Sisay regains consciousness. Recognizing Starke as the traitor who caused her capture, she angrily advances on him. Takara steps between Sisay and her wounded father to defend him, but Gerrard quickly quells the conflict: they must work together, as a team, or they will never get out of the stronghold alive.
Somewhere below, the sounds of warfare howl. From deep within the stronghold, Volrath's voice booms, echoing through its halls. "All forces, engage in invasion response tactics. Destroy our enemies! Destroy our enemies!"
To be continued . . . .