Inside the cave, it was quiet enough. There were the occasional sound of birds who flew around inside, but for the most part there was silence. They were able to settle in deep, a good ways from the entrance. The cool, dry air in the cave was a nice contrast to the sweltering weather beyond it. As far as a place to hide, it was functional at the very least.
Paultin laid on a bedroll inside his hut. The hut allowed them to blend into their surroundings much easier. It also kept the sound of the nightmare-induced sobs inside. He looked over at Evelyn, who he had drawn close as she began to cry in her sleep. This had become as much a habit as trying to hide. He smoothed her hair as she jolted awake.
Evelyn bolted up. She looked around in terror for a moment before her face fell again.
“Every time I wake up… but it’s not just a nightmare,” she whispered, her voice cracking with pain.
“Hey, I’ve got you. That’s all I can worry about right now.”
Paultin pulled her as close as possible, tucking her tight into his side as he whispered. “We are going to get through this.”
“I have to fix you. We have to get to a temple.”
“Quiet now. Tomorrow.”
Evelyn ran the back of her hand along the side of Paultin’s face as she closed her eyes again.
“I can’t lose you, too.”
Evelyn dozed back off to sleep after a couple minutes of drying her eyes and praying silently. Paultin may not have ever been a religious man, but her prayers seemed to warm him as well. He figured it might be all they had.
This anguish had started long before that night in the cave. It had started with the death curse, the soulmonger, and a desperate idea. As the curse began to take hold of their adventuring party, save for Evelyn in her then construct form, a decision was made to work with the Sewn Sisters, a group of hags with non-conventional means which could save the group from the soulmonger. The party allowed the sisters to put an additional soul inside of each of them in the form of a larva. As uneasy as the experience made them, the whole thing was pushed to the back of their minds after the soulmonger was destroyed. Once she was resurrected, in her human form no less, the Wafflecrew began to settle into life in Waterdeep.
None of the carriers truly forgot the extra soul inside of them, far from it. However, there was no urgent need to get them removed.
Until the souls began to revolt.
Paultin had been the one to find Strix. When he headed to the bar that evening to pour himself a bit of wine, he could hear commotion from the darkened bakery. Paultin cautiously walked close to investigate. There he saw Strix, muttering to herself and swaying front to back. Paultin called out to her.
The sorcerer turned around as Paultin brought some light Into the kitchen. One hand rested on a counter, which she used for balance, while the other held a small kitchen knife. She was raking it across her torso. Blood had trickled to the floor, which left her standing in a crimson puddle. He screamed for Evelyn and Diath.
“Time to pay, now we say,” Strix chanted as the others piled in behind Paultin. “Gifts to take and now betray.”
Diath tried to approach Strix to steady her. As he laid a hand on her shoulder, Evelyn’s divine sense was able to determine what the source of Strix’s madness was.
“Diath, be careful…”
As soon as Diath touched her, Strix’s entire countenance changed.
She kept at him like a woman possessed. Not knowing what to do, Paultin and Evelyn stood dumbfounded. As Strix ripped into Diath’s flesh with her teeth, Paultin sent her sailing across the room with a thunderwave. Diath tried to bargain with Strix as Evelyn tried to heal him. Strix finally rose to her feet to attack again. She released a final scream before her skin began to bubble away. From her chest burst a blood red cloud of smoke as the sorcerer disintegrated into a pool of muck.
They quickly realized that the Sewn Sisters were controlling them from afar, agitating then reclaiming the souls they had provided. There was little recourse, but the paladin had ideas. Evelyn begged the men to take action.
“The Spires, we can get a priest or cleric to remove these. Maybe Omin could help. Please, just do something,” Evelyn cried.
Paultin agreed, but Diath just say in his bed, mourning his friend.
“If I die, at least I’ll be with her.”
Evelyn was so upset, she wouldn’t talk to Diath for a couple days. When she finally calmed down enough to confront him, he had begun to turn. Evelyn screamed for Paultin.
“Time to pay, so we say,” he sang in a low monotone. “Take what’s ours, you’ll die today.”
Paultin ran to the top of the stairs in time to see a figure come through Diath’s window. The dark hooded creature stabbed Diath in the chest, reached in, and pulled out the pillar of red smoke. The body of Diath Woodrow quickly bubbled and dissolved into his bed. The wordless creature motioned to Paultin next.
Even as she screamed in anguish, Evelyn still was still a force to be reckoned with. She pulled her axe to smite the fiend, but felt an arm around her waist and a voice that bellowed, “No!”. Paultin dimension-doored them to the front porch, and then beyond. Once in the outskirts of Waterdeep, he made them invisible so they could hide as they tried to outrun the sisters’ revenge.
As he hid in a cave, holding his friend close, Paultin felt a flutter in his chest. He knew his time was short. Making it to a cleric in time was not possible.
The next morning, Paultin woke up first. He looked through his bag for something to eat, to drink, or just to forget about life in general. If he was at risk of dying today, he didn't have to face it sober. As he watched Evelyn sleep longer than she usually did, Paultin began to feel a queasiness in his spirit. He had thought most of the night about how to ask her. He was placing a burden on her.
The paladin instantly woke up with a start. “Huh? What? Is everything okay?”
“Yes, um, yeah. I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Of course,” she said, moving over to sit near Paultin. “What do you need?”
“I trust you, you know that.”
“Well, yeah, of course… wait, no.” Evelyn’s face fell and her eyes grew wet. She didn’t want him to ask this if her. “Paultin, please don’t…”
“You can do this. The sooner we get this out of me, the sooner we can avenge Diath and Strix.”
“No, please. I might hurt you, or worse. We can find a cleric…” She grabbed up his hand in her own. “We can go now.”
She went to rise, but the bard pulled her back down. Evelyn landed on his lap, where she tried not to crumble under the weight of his request.
“Evelyn, there is no time.” He clutched his chest.
“If it kills me, at least we’ll have tried.”
Evelyn raised her hand to Paultin’s chest. She could sense the evil, the malice within. She wiped her eyes and nodded. “Lathander help us.”
The preparations took only a few moments. Paultin removed his shirt and laid down on the cave floor, while Evelyn cleaned one of Paultin’s daggers. She then crawled over and knelt next to him. She would pray for Lathander to guide her. It was all they had.
Evelyn put her hand on Paultin’s chest, looking for the best entrance point.
“Hey,” He grabbed her hand and gave it a quick kiss. “This is not the time to be timid.”
She nodded. She held the dagger to a point in the center of his chest, and began to pray.
“Lathander, your servant Evelyn comes to you humbly with a request…”
Paultin closed his eyes before he thought he heard something screeching outside the cave. “Dammit, I think they’re here.”
Evelyn ignored his outburst. She asked for guidance, protection, and for the Morning Lord to destroy the evil within Paultin. As she prayed loudly, light came over them both. It illuminated the hut, radiating through the opaque walls. The screeching intensified as the feeling in Paultin’s chest began to push and pound.
The dagger plunged into his chest. Paultin opened his mouth to scream, but no noise came. His body began to convulse as Evelyn instinctively held him down. The bard was overwhelmed by the conditions the surrounded him: the pain of the dagger, the increasingly forceful prayers of Evelyn, and the quickly approaching danger. He felt her hands pull his incision apart and plunge into his chest. Paultin felt as though he might be going into shock. There was no way to convey this to the paladin, and there was little she would be able to do anyway. He tried to take what he feared might be his last breath, but the air wouldn’t come.
Then, there was nothing. Total silence blocked out all that he had heard. No more screeching, no more prayers, no more heart beats pounding out of his chest. Paultin found himself looking up into the light, now blinding and all-consuming, that rapidly filled the cavern. He felt a calm wash over him, despite the fact that his body was betraying him. The last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was Evelyn’s silhouette with her hands held aloft reaching out to something that looked like a bird.
The bard could hear a faint voice in the darkness that his lack of sight created. He felt no control over his body, as if he were a visitor here.
There were two voices, seemingly speaking in unison. Both were female. One was definitely Evelyn’s, a voice he’d know anywhere. But the other…
“Paultin, please don’t leave me.”
“Paultin, she is afraid.”
The second voice was unrecognizable, but not disturbing. It was lower than Evelyn’s. The speaker was likely older as well.
“Paultin, she cries for you.”
That time only the stranger’s voice spoke. Evelyn’s sobs impaired her words.
“What will you do? Endure the pain, or stay with me?”
A flash of birds flew through his mind. He recognized who brought the vision.
“I can’t speak, I can’t breathe,” he thought.
“No, and you are running out of time,” the Raven Queen offered. “What will it be?”
“Send me back,” he pleaded.
“Swear allegiance to me. Serve me the remainder of your days.”
Paultin heard the tears of his friend. She cried to Lathander that she had killed her last friend, her only love.
“She saved me, my soul!”
“Time is short. Serve me. I will give you the vengeance you want.”
“I don’t know what you want from me!”
“You are out of time. Swear allegiance now or else!”
“Fine, just send me back!”
Evelyn went from spell to spell trying to revive the bard. Her tears puddled on the scar of the wound she had created, that she had been responsible for. The evil soul had been removed and smote, but it seemed it had been too late. His body couldn’t handle it.
She was completely alone. Her friends were all dead. She had killed the man she loved as she tried to save him.
Collapsed on Paultin’s chest, she sobbed her apologies and declarations of love. It was too little, too late.
Then Paultin gasped. His lungs filled suddenly, and his heart started beating with a fierce rhythm.
The pain was horrific. “Potions… my bag.”
Evelyn grabbed the bottles he had. She lifted his head to help him drink them. Then he called for a stiff drink, of which he had a few.
“Did you see her?”
“The Raven Queen.”
Evelyn looked disturbed. “No. What happened, Paultin?”
He held out his hands for her to help him to a seated position. He recast the hut, and leaned against one of the supports inside.
“You first. The soul?”
“Disintegrated into the light of Lathander. The fiend that pursued us tried to depart, but it was destroyed as well. But your body seemed to …”
“She wouldn’t send me back unless I promised to serve her.”
“Oh, Paultin. Oh, no.” Evelyn covered her mouth.
“We can't worry about that now. Once I am rested, we need to move on.”
“Where to? The Sewn Sisters? Shemeshka?”
“We might need to return to Waterdeep to figure that out.”
They spent the afternoon in near silence, holding each other for support. The next morning, they departed the cave. At the entrance was a short sword stuck into the ground, black feathers tied to the handle. The blade was black and reflective. A scabbard lay next to it on the ground.
“I guess that’s for you.”
Paultin nodded. He pulled it from the ground and held it in front of him for inspection. As he did, a large raven cawed from a nearby branch.
“Got it, thanks,” Paultin replied to the bird. He placed the sword in the scabbard and tied it to his side.
“Ready?” Paultin turned his attention to Evelyn.
“As ready as we can be, I suppose,” she said, motioning towards the sword. “So, are you a paladin now, too?”
Paultin shook his head. “No idea. All I know is I would have made deals with anyone to not leave you alone here. Thank you for saving my soul. Without you, there was no life to come back to.”
Evelyn started to say something, then bit her lip. She nodded. “Together, then?”
Paultin smiled weakly as he offered his arm. They slowly made their way back to the coast. The last two remaining members of a quartet of adventurers, and friends, headed home.