Torben Eastlander could not breathe. The seven little monsters called his grandchildren covered his torso and legs. Their fingers wriggled ceaselessly, as their giggling grew louder and louder. He had long stopped laughing, and now was just trying to catch a breath. A younger man could have held out longer. He was no longer a young man. He roared out, “You are a greater trap than Arraxis’s web!”
Immediately, 14 hands pulled away from him. “Grandpappy, tell us a story! Who is Arraxis?” Torben could see little Miro’s eyes widen as he awaited the answer. The other six were silent, their eyes just as wide, holding their breath for the answer.
Torben could finally draw a deep one himself. The flush on his face subsided. He rose up on an elbow. In a secretive tone, “Who is Arraxis? Now there is a question to frighten little snapping drakes like yourselves!” They all sucked in their breath in one bright-eyed, “Oooh”.
The old story-teller made his way slowly to the great comfortable chair next to the crackling fire. He took out the poker. “Sheila, put on another log. This story could take a while.” His eldest granddaughter, now 12 turns old and full of her self importance, fetched a log that soon blaze brightly.
“Ah, yes, much better. Who is Arraxis? Well, that will take some telling.” Torben eyes misted for a moment. These chapters of his stories had not sold as well to the bards, and his books had not done as well with the lordly class. Something about the whole time-travelling premise; well he hadn’t really bought it himself when those wild-tongued adventurers had told these yarns to him. Didn’t translate into compelling stories at the time. It was almost like he hadn’t written them.
But, here was a group of ears that didn’t have such jaded views of the world as an old scrivener who had made, and then lost, a fortune off of the tales of these Denizens of the Nentir Vale. He could see the five of them now around the table at the Half-Moon Inn as though it had been yesterday. Well, most were around the table. The dwarf Barrick was under the table snoring, quite drunk by the time the cleric Z’alden had finished his first glass of Nentir ’97. The fiery sorceress, Tira, had popped in and out while the half-elven cleric of Bahamut had told the stories surrounding Arraxis almost like sermon. That guy really did need to lighten up. Torben hoped the son of Denithar was happy serving the Great Dragon wherever he was at this moment. And, he thought of the wizard Rift. He remembered how she had listened intently to Z’alden’s telling, at least when he got the part about the Arraxis. It was as though she actually had lived out the infuriating web that had encased her. Oh, and in the corner, that the quiet ranger, Erik, whose intense gaze carried with it such clear understanding; Torben remembered how on the night of the story of Arraxis, Erik had listened intently. It was as if, for this one impossible tale, Erik hadn’t been there. As though any of them had really been there. But, Erik’s intense attention hadn’t made sense, either. How could Erik not have been in the story? They always included him. Well, not always, I suppose. Torben was getting muddled in his old age, he was.
And, he remembered how the story of Arraxis, to the extent it made sense at all, really didn’t make sense without the story of Tassedar sending the Valers out of the Castle and directing them to return to their true time. Yes, it was all coming back to him. Including why the whole set of books never sold well on this one. It was just too complicated.
“Grandpappy! You said you would tell us the story about Arraxis,” young Liam intoned with a higher version of the voice of his own daughter. Torben was torn out of his reverie. “Yes, Liam, I did. But, stories must have their place, and to understand how the mighty wizard Rift ended up trapped in the enchantment of a drow priestess named Arraxis, well, I can’t just jump to that. All things in their place. And the place to start is at Wizard Castle.”
A high-pitched Gella shouted out with delight, “That’s the home of the adventurers! Where they fought the wicked Beholder!” All the children clapped at that. They loved the story of the wicked Beholder and the deceptive Green Dragon. He had told them that one many times. But, this was not the story Torben was telling today.
“Yes, true. But this adventure at Wizard’s Castle was many years earlier. The Valers had found a way to stop the evil of the demon Illidan Stormrage by taking him back in time to when he was a boy and preventing him from ever becoming a demon, and…” Torben could see their eyes starting to glaze over. No, it was not a time for the metaphysics that he didn’t understand, even if it was fanciful, and even if Rift had tried to explain it to him five times. After the fifth glass of Nentir ’97, he still didn’t understand it, he would never understand it, and Rift had fallen asleep.
No, what mattered to these youngsters was the exciting bits. Skip to that.
He cleared his throat, took a deep sip of his now much-too-cool tea to really enjoy but he didn’t tell them that. He caught the eye of each child as they settled in on the cue, and began to speak.
The cleric Zenithar al Denithar, Z’alden to his friends, had walked down from the Castle to the island’s stony beach. The Chosen of Bahamut reflected on their recent battle to save the dwarfs from an orcish horde, he thought of his mission to serve the Great Dragon, serve Justice, bring Hope, and destroy the demons that plagued the worlds. The half-elf was startled by the sudden appearance of the ancient archmage Tassedar. Z’alden could not help but recall how the Valers had brought the archmage back to life from a mere skeleton by throwing him into the waters where magic began. And now, as then, it was unclear if Tassedar stood before Z’alden as friend or foe. There was no time to reflect. In haste, the archmage told Z’alden how reality itself was unraveling. The Valers must hurry off of this world, leave their Castle as they had it at that moment, and venture to the Astral Plane! A realm of mystery, a realm of flying ships. The realm of the gods, but also of great dangers, like the dreaded Githyanki pirates.
“Oh, pirates!” little Miro squealed. “Shush,” said his sister Sheila. Miro settled down under her withering stare. Just because she’s the oldest, she thinks she rules everything, Miro thought for a moment, before returning his attention to Grandpappy.
“Yes, Miro,” Torben said gently. “Pirates. And, they will enter the story soon enough. But not before the five have made some poor bets that almost cost them all their life!”
The children were silent at that.
Tassedar told Z’alden that the Valers must venture to the mountains of Celestia and find the Crystal Cavern there. The Cavern exists in many planes and places, it touches them all. It is the place where magic was born. In the Wizard’s Castle, you will find a gate to other planes. Find it, and go quickly, before your very presence here rips apart reality. You must save the future of the future!
Little Mijfox sniggered, “Yeah, right. When does the fighting start?” Sheila cuffed him on the ear. Miro stared at his twin brother in triumph. At least she isn’t lording it over me.
Torben remembered not exactly following this story well, either, when Z’alden had tried to tell it to him so many years ago. It didn’t matter now. It was the good parts he needed for this audience. Not the mysticism and earth-rattling that the Chosen of Bahamut had emphasized at such length. Not the celestial implications, or the righteousness of their work. Moving to the practical part of the story, Torben remembered how Rift had patiently explained, after another bottle had been opened at Torben’s expense, how the gate of which Tassedar spoke was nothing more than the Iris that had mystified the group when they had defeated the Beholder on the same floor of the Castle so many years before (or was it later. Very confusing). Z’alden had only shaken his head, and Barrick had snored more loudly, as Rift related that Erik had found a lever that they had never noticed before. The quiet ranger had smiled at that. What a good group of storytellers they were. Better than he was doing now. Most of the time they could keep a straight face when telling their fanciful tales to him.
The lever had obscure markings that only Erik could feel and describe. Rift had deciphered them. Pulling the lever to the correct setting would open the Iris and make it a portal to another plane. Incredible! But, the ancient mechanism behind the lever had jammed as Rift tried to move it. It took all of the dwarf’s strength and the ranger’s together to get it to move.
Torben gaze turned to little Miro, “and the Iris opened into a well 5 staff lengths across. The well had no bottom, at least as far as they could see. Nothing made a sound when they let a coin drop. Fall into that pit, and you fall forever.” Torben let that sink in. Miro’s little hand covered his mouth in surprise, “What did they do? How did they make the gate work?” The poor little one was getting worried.
Erik and Barrick found buttons hidden near the lever. Erik pushed one closest to the markings of what seemed to be the Astral Plane, where the lever had already been moved to. Another Iris, 10 staff lengths down in the pit appeared and closed below them.
Ladders were on the side of the pit. Bravely, all descended. When all were below the level of the open Iris, it closed. They were trapped!
Torben let that sink for a minute and took another sip. His story telling was warming his grandchildren but not his tea.
A ring of blue arcane energy formed on the walls, but nothing happened. Rift realized that the gate was broken. They were no longer in the Castle, but they had not moved to the Astral plane. They were nowhere, caught in an arcane portal that was neither here nor there.
Rift’s swift mind reached out for a solution. From her staff’s black jewel,
“Darkstar!” Liam cried out before Sheila cuffed his ears, “Shush you, too. Quit interrupting.”
“Yes, from Darkstar,” the old man smiled, “the wizard drew upon its power, and made a connection to the spirit of the ancient wizard who built the castle.”
The ancient one guided Rift’s mind to the breach in the gate, a void. With Darkstar focused, Rift could control the void. The others could feel themselves beginning to spin. A million million stars surrounded them. They were hurtling through space, hurtling through time itself. They were being ripped apart as the stuff of existence was beginning to come undone. Despite Tassedar’s warning, they had tarried too long. Tira felt herself thinning as the chaos that she binds together, that makes up her being, her very essence, started to come undone. Each clung to what was most important. Z’alden’s mind held tight to the image of his master and god, the great Platinum Dragon Bahamut. Barrick concentrated on a large mug of beer.
In a flash, Rift could see the stars separate, wane, and peaks of mountains appear. Then, she was on a floor. Erik could smell blood, sweat and the stink of stale steins. He could see a large tavern room made of iron and wood. The other four were close by. Behind him, Erik could hear Barrick’s nose sniffing at the smells the dwarf found pleasing.
Hundreds of different kinds of creatures and beings were in the largest tavern hall any of the adventurers had ever seen. Treasure hunters, explorers, lore seekers, all manner of folks. Githyanki
“Ow! I wasn’t even going to say Pirates,” Miro complained as he rubbed where Sheila had whacked his left ear. She just glared at him until her grandfather’s eyes met hers with a less than pleased look. She sat back. All the others stuck out their tongues at her.
Torben smirked, took a sip of the cold tea, and continued,”Githyanki, with their noses missing and just air holes in their shriveled, desperate green-grey faces. Sharp swords at their sides; Duegar, the dwarves of fire; humans, too; elves and Eladrin. Behind the massive bar, was a red-chested Efreet, an elemental being, almost kin to a demon.”
The old scrivener could still remember the fire in Z’alden’s eyes as the righteous demon hunter had described the Efreet. The wine glass had shattered in the cleric’s clenched hand. That guy really, really did need to lighten up. The Efreet was much too close a cousin to a demon for the priest, it was clear. The adventurers sometimes seem as if they really believed their own stories and were not telling him a second rate tale for a meal and a few drinks. Z’alden relayed this part of the story with such fervor, Torben almost believed this part of the yarn as though the cleric had really been to this enchanted tavern in the Astral Sea and kept his loathing of demons in check at great expense and self-control.
“Welcome to the Abdul Azeem Inn,” the Efreet barkeep had bellowed out to the five as they picked themselves off of the floor. Their sudden arrival was clearly no surprise in this place out of legend. With Tira’s charm, in a short time she had quickly learned all there was to know in the gossip of the place. The activity of the Nine Hells was a constant theme at the tables, stories of mercenaries moving into the home of demons: the Elemental Chaos, had perked up the cleric’s ears and distracted him from the pseudo-demon of a barkeep; stories of war between the Gith had interested the dwarven fighter only slightly, as the quality of the beer was excellent and these gossips were a distraction from the hoppy aroma and the flavorful experience. Rift and Tira were only mildly surprised to hear of a coup in the City of Brass. Somehow the good mayor had fallen. Tira had almost spit out her wine on a dandy explorer as he told her the tale. Little could the dandy have guessed it was the handiwork of the sorceress and the others that had caused the good man to fall so far.
While the five searched for some way out of the Inn and for a ship and pilot to get them from wherever they were to the mountains of Celestia, the sound of gaming caught the sharp ears of the ranger. One telling motion from Erik, and the dwarf and his ale were soon followed by the others. Games galore. It was a welcome distraction from the world-shattering implications of their actions. A stacking game entertained them for a time, but it was a three ball roulette and dice game that really sucked in the wizard.
Rift realized that she could control the balls as they rolled around. She could cheat. Z’alden had been against any cheating, until he became appalled, and his righteous anger was roused by the unfairness of the game. The bets required to play were completely unbalanced by the paltry payouts. The more Tira explained, the more Z’alden was sure – Rift, make us win the impossible: three 20’s on three dodecahedron dice at the same time would pay out a million gold on a hundred bet. The dice rolled. Rift gently tapped her staff and three 20s were in front of the house. The tableman eyed the adventurers, but said nothing. He only nodded politely and said that they could collect their incredible winnings through a curtained door, to which he pointed.
Advancing through the curtain, the five were confronted by two huge Cyclops flanking a well-dressed Efreet. Torzak, as the pseudo-demon called himself, accused them of magically tampering with a game. The sweet talking Tira tried to schmooze the Efreet, but Torzak would have none of it. And, when Z’alden could contain himself no more, and railed against the gambling and the righteousness of their actions against an unlawful game, lightening and thunder leapt from Torzak’s swords and rained down on the Valers. Not a small amount of damage either, and some were seriously burned, especially the magic wielders.
But, Torzak could also see that a prolonged combat with these five might not be the lopsided odds he was used to when enforcing the rules of Abdul Azeem. He told them of a captain, Hallasol, in another part of the Inn. If they left the gaming area quietly, and went straight to Hallasol and left the Inn, he would forget the matter. Z’alden had thought long and hard of all of the good a million gold could do. His right leg, cut off by demons and restored from dragon bones by the Kengi, itched like crazy. He thought about how good the Efreet’s head would look as a wall-hanging in a Bahamut temple, but Barrick’s strong arm on one side, and Erik’s on the other were more persuasive than the demon hunter’s hatred of the elemental kind.
Hallasol was a rough character who told them of his astral ship, the Centurion, and its first mate, Yeti. The ship wouldn’t attract unwanted attention and could avoid the Gith war zones. It would take four days to reach the mountains. And, it would cost them. A little persuasive gold from the Valers, three times the original amount, and the time shrank down to two days. The Centurion was fast when Hallasol put his mind to it, apparently.
What Hallasol didn’t explain after the first day of astral sailing across the open air between the worlds in the Astral Sea, was that a Githyanki astral skiff was even faster. And, that to make the two days that the party had wanted, he was crossing the war zone of the Gith.
And, the war came to the Valers. A pair of swift Astral Skiffs appeared almost out of nowhere in the wide open space of the Astral Sea. Githyanki Raiders! Pirates!
Torben kept his smile in check as the eyes of Liam, Miro, Gella, and even Sheila got wide and all seven children leaned in. He let the moment sink in.
The wizard knows many things, many languages including the Deep Speech of the Githyanki. The leader, a fine charismatic fellow cutting a dashing swath, Val Kath, replied to her inquiries, “The matter is very simple. We have a war effort that needs additional funding. Which you are keeping from us.”
Tira could not keep her mouth shut in this little exchange, and the Githyanki attacked! In a blink, magical force shot out from the Githyanki raiders, hitting the sorceress. Z’alden was horrified to see the effect. Tira was cut off from her own internal energy. He could not heal her with his Word. Only his touch could restore her, as he would draw directly on the Dragon’s power alone, and on none of Tira’s. Then, the energy enveloped Rift in the same manner. The cleric cringed. No one does that to my friends, and to attack us unprovoked, unjustified was such behavior. It was time to teach these pirates a lesson that would live in stories for years to come.
Before the cleric could formulate his plan, though, several raiders and Val Kath vanished from their skiff and appeared on the Centurion next to Rift. From Val Kath’s mind, bands appeared and surrounded the wizard. She was rooted in place. The ranger quickly drew both of his impressive War Glaives, sharpened them with a whetstone, and Val Kath felt the twin strike of both blades. Z’alden was troubled to see that psychic energy radiated from the pirate leader even as Erik struck. Erik was now dazed. His dwarven comrade sharpened his axe and tore into some of the other raiders. Barrick spit on his blade, focused his blow, and ripped wide, deep wounds in two raiders that would bleed Githyanki green for some time. For his work, seemingly bouncing out of their silver swords, a greyish psychic glow encased his legs and weighed them down. Barrick’s deft moves were limited. It was as though he were moving through a swamp, he was so slow. Another raider’s silver sword got past the dwarf’s shield. In addition to the pain of the blow, he too was cut-off from his internal energy. Raiders continued their offensive, spurred on by their leader. Tira and Z’alden both took blow after blow.
Z’alden realized that more than their normal attacks were needed. He called for a blessing from the Great Dragon. Holy sigils covered the Centurion as the cleric consecrated the ground to Bahamut. In the battle, he and his comrades could call upon the Great Dragon’s blessing to focus their own powers. It was a powerful aid.
Finding herself surrounded by enemies, the wizard was clearly ticked. She would put Z’alden’s blessing to good use. Darkstar took all light from the area and then the nearby raiders were encased in flames. The jewel glowed. One of the raiders screamed in pain as Rift’s magic tore into him with all of its impressive power of flame. But, the wizard was troubled. Her spell was at full of power and nearly its most accuracy. It was well-formulated, nearly perfect combustion. Val Kath had simply sloughed it off, dodging the arcane fire with a speed that was unbelievable. The adventurers had never seen an enemy avoid Rift’s spells with such aplomb. This leader was not to be taken lightly.
A battle raged as the dwarven axe, the ranger’s glaives, the spells of wizard, sorceress, and cleric parried and wounded the raiders. The ranger’s glaives were like thorns in the raiders, ripping and tearing them apart. The dexterous human whirled and struck. His adept fighting had none of problems of Rift’s spell. The ranger could make Val Kath bleed. Another raider was nearly defeated in a single blow from human.
To his right, the dwarf taunted the raiders mercilessly. Enraged, 5 raiders rushed at him, including Val Kath. The skilled figher’s axe twirled in front, behind, around. Green blood covered the Githyanki leader. The tide was turning, and not towards the beach of the pirates.
A raider with his silver sword shining engaged the sorceress. His poorly placed strokes became entangled in the chaotic magic that surrounds her. In a flash, the Githyanki was stunned. He could do nothing and move nowhere. She then reached into the chaos and slid him over the deck and off of the Centurion. He was falling in the Astral Sea. Into the air in which they were flying. No ground in sight. Tira then reached into the air and formed balls of magical energy. Nearly all the raiders were hit by this potent spell. Few still stood, but not all had fallen.
Val Kath, reflecting on the better part of valor, seeing that this was not his day, left his comrades, and teleported back to a skiff. In an instant, its sails were full and he was rapidly distancing himself from the battle. Erik was having none of this. He raced to the wheel of the Centurion and filled its sails as well. The chase was on.
Rift’s fingers twirled in the air. Lightening flew from them to the silver sword of Val Kath. Even at their distance of 11 staff lengths, all could hear his cry. The githyanki leader was in great pain.
For the others, the battle with the remaining raiders still raged. The sharpened vorpal dagger of the cleric severed a raider’s limb, while Tira, seeing Rift’s lightening, called her own down on a raider to equal effect. A raider’s sword pierced Rift deeply and a red badge covered her torso. The wizard could not be bothered. “It is only a flesh wound!” she yelled the cleric to leave her alone and concentrate on the remaining pirates.
In seconds, the Centurion had caught up to the skiff. Erik called out, “Surrender!” to the Githyanki leader. And, what had never happened before in the history of the adventurers happened. Val Kath surrendered!
The children leaped to their feet. They hugged and clapped. Maybe Torben should try again with this story. By leaving out the complicated parts, it wasn’t so bad. And, it had definitely spared him further torture from his grandchildren.
“But, what happened next?” Liam earnestly asked. They all settled down.
Val Kath bowed his head. He knew he was beaten. His surviving raiders gave their swords to the cleric, as the others adventurers put the skiffs in tow. Stowing the swords, Z’alden hands sparkled with silver and purple flames as he healed Rift. The dwarf pointed his axe at Val Kath, “now what was that all about?”
“I am the Githyanki prince Val Kath, one hundred and fifty seventh of that name,” the githyanki captain intoned quietly but with pride in his eyes. His defeated pirates nodded their heads. They knew the noble identity of their captain hidden beneath ordinary armor and weapons. Barrick was not appeased, “Why would you lead pirates?” Val Kath’s eyes twinkled, “For the sheer adventure of it. Now, what will become of me and my men?”
The adventurers conferred just as Captain Hallasol, hearing the melee die down, came up. Hallasol was clearly a craven and pleased that none of his blood was glistening on the deck on the Centurion.
Z’alden and Rift both agreed, and convinced the others. The cleric’s hands again glowed with the silver and purple flames. He healed Val Kath and the surviving pirates even as he spoke, “We will return you to your home unharmed. Though in the wrong, you and your men fought bravely. You swallowed your pride and surrendered. To where should Captain Hallasol set sail?”
“At least we should get some pirate booty,” muttered Barrick more to himself than anything else. He had been just about to lop off the head of one of the pirates when the melee had been halted. He missed that satisfying thoosh of a well-placed blow to the neck that sends a head skyward to arch down many staff lengths away. He was sure that he could have made it drop into the portal hole about 10 staff lengths away. Would have been nice. Not as good as an ale, but satisfying none the less. When all of this adventuring was done, maybe he could make a game that was almost as good. Maybe with a morningstar instead of an axe. Something to think about it. In between beers.
“And then, Hallasol set sail to the Githyanki capital,” Torben said.
Torben looked around at his seven grandchildren. He was pleased with himself. Not only had he gotten a respite from their merciless tickling, which he loved more than life itself, if only this old body could last longer, but they were spellbound for a few moments from his own magic. He doubted any of the merry tales of the Denizens had even a shred of truth, but they were fun, and he loved to share that joy with others, especially this most precious audience.
Sheila hugged her siblings and then warmly embraced Torben. “Grandpappy, that was a really good story. But, I have a question. Who was Arraxis?”
“Ah, yes, that does still need telling. First, some hot tea, and some cookies, and then the story of Arraxis and how the adventurers tried to steal a glance,” the scrivener’s eyes twinkled brightly with mischief as he spoke. He wasn’t supposed to have cookies, but these were excellent accomplices in disobeying his daughter who worried about his growing girth. Six children rushed out to grab the cookies from their hiding place, while Sheila smiled brightly and prepared the tea.