The Lay of Ashera
Into the heart of stone they strode, with a song on their lips and hope in their heart. Five fearless souls come to face the souls of fear. First was unflinching Firene, she of holy might and stout heart. Beside her strode mighty Ulftor, whose bravery and courage knew no bounds and whose holy powers would ward them well. Behind came Folias, a nurturing heart who understood the tongues and shapes of beasts and all that flew. With him was silver-tongued Matvei, whose songs could bring courage to the weak of heart, and despair unto his enemies. Surely not the least of the party was joyous Ashera, whose slight fingers had lightened many a purse and whose glib tongue had lightened many a heart. With a song on their lips and hope in their hearts, into the face of death and horror they tread.
This stout band had heard tale of a place of fearsome creatures. Within this lonely and winding tomb, a fearsome beast was bound. It was many and many a year ago that a noble knight, once with shining virtue, now turned dark and tarnished, fell upon the battlefield. But rested he not there. Encased in his steel shell, this creature of evil returned to those he loved afore, to bring ruin where once was prosperity, darkness where once was light, silent death where once was life. Sages and mages, wizards and clerics, fought him hard and finally trapped him within this cold stone cemetery. Never, though, had they managed to destroy him, but left him there for centuries, believing him forever bound. Now, though, his power rose again, and his dark minions terrorized the land. Now, these five must venture within the maw of rock to beard him in his lair and cast him down forevermore. With a song on their lips and hope in their hearts, they ventured forth to slay him.
Many an adventure and battle they fought within those once-silent walls. A fearsome shaggy beast, with arms as long as the trees are tall and eyes of darkness did menace them, yet nimble Ashera, with a smile on her lips, felled it with a single well-placed blow. Concealed within the shadowy walls were sickly vines, thinking evil thoughts, and they did snare the hapless Matvei in their coils. Yet bold Firene did slash them down, with many a merry flame of her fiery sword, and onward the party advanced. Against winged fiends with eyes of fire and wings of pitch, Ulftor swung his mighty mace and knocked them to the ground. Against these and many another terrifying foe, the party fought successfully, with hope in their hearts and song upon their lips, ever guarded and protected by the healing hand of Ulftor, Fharlanghn’s faithful servant.
After these and other battles too terrible to speak of, the intrepid adventures came upon a crevice within the ground. Black as the soul of that which they had come to kill it was, descending to unknown depths. Even within this group of brave hearts, there was a chill, a foreboding of evil deeds and evil times ahead. In all hearts yet one. With courage unrivaled, Ashera stepped forward. “Lower me into the pits” she cried! “I fear no darkness, for my elven eyes see all. I fear naught that is hidden, for I know that a place is waiting for me should I fall!” So it was that, a song upon her lips, Ashera was lowered by her fellows into the darkness.
Little knew the band the truth of their fright, for within that darkness, lying in wait for those of honor and right, lay a hideous beast. The Behir stands as tall as three men, with jaws that hold the strength of seven lions, and each of its ten feet is tipped with razor claws. And in its heart, oh such terrible malice and hate. The Behir saw the figure of Ashera, and it saw the blaze of her goodness. The Behir heard her song of joy, and it heard her unfailing courage. The Behir beheld Ashera, and it hungered for her sweet flesh.
Faster than her companions could move or the swinging Elf defend herself, faster than eye could track or mind behold, the head of the Behir flashed out of the darkness and crushed Ashera between its jaws. In horror from above, her friends sought in vain to free her. Ulftor called upon his god to ope a hole in the world and traveled with his companions to the feet of the monster. Matvei played sweetly upon his magical pipes to speed his companions’ blades and lift their hearts. Firene summoned her faithful steed Laylani to her side and together they attacked the beast with such blows as should smite it to pieces. With blow after blow of his mace, Ulftor strove to force the wily beast to release Ashera into his healing arms. Gentle-hearted Folias, in rage, called down the fires of heaven upon the creature’s back. All in vain. For when the beast lay dead, it was a dying Ashera that they did pull from its jaws. It silenced the song upon their lips and stilled the hope in their hearts.
Folias cast himself, weeping bitter tears, at her side. “Unhappy Ashera, let me aid you. I know the ways of the animals and the land. I know the secrets of life and of death. I can give you new life in a new form, and you can go forward with your beloved companions to fight again!” But with a sad, slow smile, Ashera shook her head.
“Nay. Weep not for me, for I go forward into a world that I have yet to discover. I am strong in the thought that only joy and wonder await me in the golden Beyond. For how could they not? Have I not lived my life in the service of good and the fearlessness that the gods bestowed upon me? Have I not toiled effortlessly in the service of all that is righteous? I know that only good awaits me. And yet, as the Gates of Death approach, your future becomes clearer to me. The curtain of time parts for me and I can see what must be done. Go, now, for there is one nearby yet who needs you. Seek out she through whose fingers magic flows, for her deeds in the future will serve you well. And beware, for the creature that brought me down was but a half of the evil which guards the undead master of this realm. Slay it and slay him, and in doing so, shall you avenge me. Farewell, my beloveds. Remember me fondly and with joy.”
And with these words, Ashera the Joyful did close her eyes forevermore.
Sorrow filled the hearts of the warriors and yet heed they must the words of Ashera’s final Sight. Out of that ill-fated crevice they emerged and searched the seeming empty hallways and catacombs. Soon, they came upon a maid fighting for her life, just as Ashera had fortold. Many a day had the beautiful Danica tested her magery against the forces of darkness within that place and many a day had she emerged triumphant. Never sleeping, rarely eating, now she weakened, and the minions of evil were closing in upon her.
Like a prayer to heaven answered, the grieving four did appear to slay the hell-beasts that beset her. “Thanks unto you, my kind benefactors, for truly, I could not have stood much longer. How shall I repay your service?” Impressed by the mage’s magical prowess and heeding well the words of Ashera, Firene spoke and said “Join our fight against the evil that resides within and aid us in avenging our fallen comrade.” “Gladly” quoth the magical maid. “But guard my rest for one night, and I shall lead you to its lair.”
So, for one night, the warriors did mourn for Ashera and guard the rest of their newest companion, while strange sounds and murmurings did fill the spaces of that evil boneyard. Upon her rising, Danica did lead them, through many a twisting path and secret door, into the belly of the beast, to the true heart of this evil.
Wights it did command and winged furies. None of these guardians did sway the hearts of the warriors, for there they saw, between themselves and the walking dead, the twin to the beast which had torn Ashera from their side. In fury did they set themselves upon it. Mighting cleaving blows did Firene rain down upon it, and her glorious blade Sunrazor did cause it to shriek its agony to the uncaring heavens. Many columns of flame did Folias hurl at the hideous creature, as Danica, sharing the sorrow of her new companions, did call down the fire and lightings from above. For a moment, they found again a song on their lips and hope in their hearts. But then, alas, a moment of darkness and fear passed o’er the party, for the Behir, seeking to break again the battered hearts of the warriors besetting it, did snatch up Ulftor within its steely jaws.
From across the cavern, Matvei raised his head to perceive the danger. At the sight of the plight of his dwarvish companion, so close to that with which evil had wrested away gentle Ashera, Matvei’s heart was filled with fire. His body burned and crackling filled his ears. “Never again!” he cried in a voice that shook the walls of the cavern. Ignoring the fell wight which menaced him, he laid aside his trusty pipes and raised his sturdy crossbow. Straight and true across the cavern the bolt flew, carrying Matvei’s rage. It embedded Matvei’s hatred deep within the heart of the monster. Within its ribcage, the poet’s fury erupted. Lightnings flashed across the creature’s flesh as deep rolling thunder shook its bones apart from within.
It dropped to the floor, drained of life, and the Cleric of Fharlanghn rolled free, as the healing power of his god filled him again. Ashera’s death was avenged! And the party found that Matvei’s blow had held the sorrow and rage of all, for with the death of the vile Behir, they discovered anew a song for their lips and hope for their hearts.
In her joy at the vengeance wrought upon the beast for beloved Ashera, Firene turned to the specter in the corner, and sang, “Here lies an end to your evil! As the sages should have done, so now do I!” And raced she across the stony ground and clove the creature in twain with a mighty blow of her sword.
When the victorious warriors did search the carcass, all that remained of a once fine warrior was rotten bones concealed in metal armor. That evil that had plagued the land was led not by muscle, but by mind, and now the land was free of its evil power.
The warriors strode out of the boneyard, unbowed and victorious, asking nothing for their righteous deeds. Five they entered and five they left, but they would carry with them always the memory of Ashera’s bubbling laughter as they stepped forth to battle evil once again, a song on their lips, hope in their hearts.