Campaign of the Month: March 2009

Denizens of the Nentir Vale

Through the Looking Glass

The young man nervously walked into the darkened room. “Come, sit, sit,” a kindly voice beckoned. Pushing his way through the curtain of hanging beads, his eyes adjusting to the dim light, the lad saw the lady, dressed in the garb typical of the wandering gypsies, sitting at the other side of a small plain wooden table. A single stool was on his side of the table, and it was here that he sat. The lady smiled; it was hard to tell her age in the soft light, she could be as old as the ladies that quilt the blankets back near home, or as young as the farm girls that delivered the milk. For what felt like a long time, neither of them spoke. The gypsy first broke the silence, “You wish to know your future, yes?”
“Um, yes, that’s right,” stammered the lad, far from being a full man. He dropped a handful of coppers on the table, “How much can I know for this?”
The gypsy frowned, “That is not a lot, I can give you one series of connected events, but nothing before or after. Is that OK?”
The boy nodded, “Can I get a series that involves me dying, well almost dying, so I might know what to do when it happens?”
This time it was the lady who nodded. “Be warned, I have no control over what the cards tell me, I only read them. If you do not like what the cards say, it is not my fault. Do you understand?”
“Yes’m”
“Fine, let’s begin.” The lady pulled a worn deck of Tarot cards from a small drawer beside the table. She shuffled the cards exactly three times, then had the lad shuffle the cards another three, telling him to think of his death whilst doing so. Then she had the boy cut the deck once. “All is in place, let’s see what your future holds.”
She began by flipping over three cards, placing them in an even row, the first, the 10 of Cups, the second, the 10 of Swords, and the third, Death. The fortuneteller looked confused as she stared at the cards. “Strange, it would appear you lay dying at the beginning of this, but the really odd part is that the cards are saying that the wind and the water are also wounded. I am not sure how wind could be hurt, but the cards do not lie. I wish I could be there to see how these events come to pass.”
“How did I get there? What tried to kill me?” the boy gasped.
“That the cards do not say yet. You might have to discover that on your own, I am afraid.”
The lad sighed, “Ok, go on. Do I survive, and how?”
The seeress dealt two more cards, one at each end of the original row of three; the Sun and the Star. “Still strange,” she muttered, and then speaking louder, “A friend of your either gives you something of vitality, or,” she pauses and stares at the cards, “Or this person sings you to health.” Both people look at each other, then at the cards, then back at each other, confused. Two more cards at dealt, the Ace of Cups and the 4 of Pentacles. “This is becoming stranger with every card. Now they say that Air and Water are hurting your friends, Air turns invisible, as if it were already not, then is forced back into visibility.” Shaking her head, she warily turns over two more cards, the six of Wands, “Ok, now this means attacking with fire,” then the five of Cups, “And the fire kills, no that is not quite right, evaporates the damaged Water. At least that kind of makes sense.”
The boy leans far forward, over the table, “What about me? Am I still lying almost dead?”
“Careful young Zenithar, do not disrupt the energy of the table and the cards.” She waits for him to sit back in his chair, aware that he did not notice her recognition of him. She adds another card to the tableau below Death, the Hermit. “Not only do you recover, but you go on to make an example for your friends, damaging the very wind around you. And this signifies knowing a name, an important name.” The gypsy then places a stack of three cards down, face up; the only one the boy can see is the top card, the seven of Swords. “Someone, not you, is crawling, although I cannot tell if they are hurt or doing it on purpose. Regardless, from prone this person destroys the Air, whilst you somehow heal your friend in much the same way you were just healed.”
“I have to sing?”
“No, one of the gods helps you, no singing required.”
“Good!” then sheepishly he adds, “My singing voice has not yet come in.”
The next card, placed above the Death card, is the Tower. “Not good, not good at all,” the gypsy shakes her head. “You are dying again, some evil being is doing terrible damage to you.”
The card that is dealt to the left of the Tower is the Moon. “You are healed by the crawling one, but in the process, that person vanishes.”
“How do I know these other people? Are they my friends?”
“Yes, very much so, you will have shared much with these companions at this time. If you fall a third time, I fear you will die for good, but will at least die amongst those you count most dear.”
“Do I know any of them know, is Jordy there?” he asks eargerly.
“I do not think so, but that is vague.” She stops for a long drink of a clear liquid from a blue bottle. “Let’s continue,” she says placing the Knight of Pentacles. “There is a rift, but the relation of this card to the others says the rift is alive, and is moving into a dark pool of magic.”
“You can tell all of that from one card?”
“Not from just the one card, but from where it lies and its position relative to all the cards previously laid.” Another stack of three cards is set down, this time with the King of Wands showing on top. “Oh my. You are fully healed now, but one of your friends, with a significance to the colour red, is now laying dying. There is a lot of dying happening here, it is no wonder this series of events came forth when you queried on death. Your god also heals your red comrade.”
The next card down is the Fool, “Uh oh,” the young man squirms, “Is that me?”
The gypsy laughs, “Not this time, but there will be other times for you. No this time the evil being you are all fighting makes a mistake, thinking that dragging your party to a different location will help him.” The Judgment card is next placed above the Fool. “The evil being ends up in the very spot he is trying to put all of you, not only getting hurt but healing all of you instead.”
“Is he dead? This, this thing?” the boy sputters.
The Nine of Wands is revealed, “No, not only is he alive, but he knocks one of your friends into, I am not sure, into a well?” Another card is turned up, the Ace of Pentacles, “A human friend is empowered, by walking on or activating something.”
A two-card stack this time, with the five of Pentacles on top, “The human saves another, a smaller, or at least shorter, companion, lifting it by part of the short one’s hair.” She chuckles and shakes her head, “This has to be the oddest reading I have ever done.”
“Not many cards left, I wonder if anyone will survive?” The three of Pentacles is placed next to the five. “The one that vanished, maybe into the rift, suddenly returns. Maybe you and your friends will survive after all.”
Above the five, the next card turned up is the World.
“That looks promising,” they boy more asks than states.
“Indeed,” the gypsy replies. “Working together, you and your companions finally defeat the evil being. Its place above the five states that the human was the one to give the killing blow.”
“Wooh, I live!”
“Yes,” she smiles, “this time. But be careful, this does not mean you can do anything you want before these events come to pass and assume you will always cheat death. Stupidity can easily override the will of the cards.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me? Does anything happen after we kill that thing?”
“There are four cards left in this reading, so something must happen.”
The Ace of Swords, “Weapons of great power, but I cannot tell if you, or one of your friends get to wield these.”
The Page of Pentacles, “Now see the three discs in the picture on the card? Those signify three magic rings.”
“Ooh, magic, I like magic!”
“Magic is nice, but remember, all magic comes with a price. Only two cards left.” The penultimate card is the Magician. “Aptly enough, in this case this really does mean a magician. Someone appears and either conveys you to safety or makes your surroundings safe again. Either way, this story is over.”
“But there is one more card, you said there were four more!”
“Ah yes,” The fortuneteller lifts one more card off the top of the deck. She looks at it, pauses yet again, and then reveals, the Hanged Man.
“Oh no! More death? Am I dead this time?” the lad wails.
“Fear not, this is an abstract card. All it means is that everyone in your party is experiencing something different, something important to each of them. You will find out what your experience is when you reach this adventure. That is all for now.”
The young man nods, exhales, then stands up and leaves lost in thought.
The gypsy turns over one more card, “Very very strange. It appears there are two ages given for your final death, 20 some years apart. Very strange indeed.”

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Dirty Deeds

Dirty Deeds

Tira hid her thoughts well behind long lashes and lushous red lips. All were subject to her charms, even her compatriots. They knew nothing of her inner thoughts that had been plaguing her mind for over one year now. It had been her chaotic nature that had made her draw the card. The Deck of Manny Things had tempted her and she had succumbed, not only then, but now as well. Twisted she was, wrapped up in obsessive thoughts of doing dirty deeds…

Many found their fortunes in the City of Brass. Many too had lost them, most likely, or so Tira thought to justify her schemes. The city’s magistrate was a good man, admired by most for having brought prosperity through freer trade and more equitable policies. He performed his duties with all the seriousness required of a true servant of the people. The magistrate was strong and capable, respected and even revered.

So began Tira’s campaign to bring the magistrate to ruin. And why not? A perfect target. Tira knew that she must first convince her companions to join her, but they would need to be swayed to a new logic. Power corrupts, does it not? How could a man of wealth and importance not be corrupt? Z’alden was convinced most easily. “Crony capitalist!”, decried Z’alden, “Surely his gains are ill-gotten! Justice must prevail!” Rift was next to fall to Tira’s persuasion, after all, the guy lived in a mansion, inhabited by no one else but himself. Something must be wrong with him. Magical constructs guard his estate. What possible need could he have for that level of security… unless he was hiding something! Barrick and Erik were last to be convinced. Did they agree to join in on the plans out of loyalty? Or the need for adventure? Perhaps it was Tira’s feminine wiles…

All this scheming had a secondary purpose, which also aided Tira in convincing the others to partake in her nefarious plans. They had an opportunity to recover the “astral” painting, stolen back in Nerrakus from its premiere bank. Word on the street was that it was here, in the City of Brass. In a seedy bar, the adventurers found a djinn that offered information on where to recover the painting, but for a price. That price was the magistrate’s astrillium ring – a family heirloom and symbol of his power. Without that ring, the magistrate would crumble.

Back in their rented lodging, Rift set to weaving the powers of a mighty ritual where she would be able to consult the mystic sages, gaining insight on where the ring slept and how it could be taken:

Rift: “Oh mystic sages, where is the magistrate’s astrillium ring?”
Sages: “In the crystal case, in the center of the floor, in the gem room.”
Rift: “How do I get past the magical constructs that guard the magistrate’s mansion?”
Sages: “He without power is powerless. Disable the central conduit of power.”

This was enough for the adventurers to form a plan. They would disguise themselves as city workers sent to repair the power conduit leading up to the magistrate’s estate. They would then sever the line, slip into the house and steal the ring. Simple.

Late that afternoon, the adventurers headed to the magistrate’s mansion, to reconnoiter and get a sense of just what they’d be up against. To their surprise, a knock on the door brought the magistrate before them. He was of a serious demeanor, stern and direct. As with most efreets, there was a pall of arrogance that surrounded him, and this only emboldened Z’alden in this quest.

“Begone. City business is to be done during business hours”, bellowed the magistrate. Z’alden and Barrick reeled at the perceived lack of hospitality. Still, the adventurers entreated him to grant them time now, for they had travelled far and were weary. “No. I do not have time now. Perhaps you would like to schedule time tomorrow? I have a free slot at the lunch hour. Decide quickly.”

The adventurers agreed to lunch and left, but not empty handed. They had seen the defensive constructs and the adamantium door and shutters. Yes, the powerful would need to be rendered powerless.

The next day the adventurers returned to the estate which sat outside the walls of the city. A long road lead up to the mansion, and under it lay a conduit that supplied magical energy to the estate, just as it did with other buildings within the city. Its success was one of the magistrate’s hallmark achievements. Dressed as a repair crew, the five began to dig. Barrick’s skill with a pick made the work look legitimate, but Rift’s disintegrate spell make it go quickly. Soon they were down to the exposed conduit. The energy running through the system was frighteningly powerful. High voltage!

To their horror, the magistrate walked past the construction zone on his way to work. Barrick began to hum a little tune: “If you’re having trouble with your city magistrate, he’s givin’ you the blues…”

“What now?”, snorted the magistrate, clearly frustrated, “This was working fine for over a year now. What changed? This is where the city’s money is going!”. Not to be late for the first of his endless meetings, the magistrate quickly continued on his way. The adventurers breathed a collective sigh of relief as he passed beyond the walls and into the city.

Now Rift could work the magic of her arcane gate. With one portal placed in the conduit and one directly in front of the mansion’s adamantium door, the power not only bypassed the remaining section of conduit but began blasting away at the door. This gave Barrick and Erik and opportunity to safely break the conduit, which they quickly did with mighty blows. Soon too was the door blown clean open. Within the walls, the constructs were lifeless. Tira hid a wicked grin – her schemes were going according to plan.

The adventurers quickly fled into the house as Rift prepared bring down the portal. That much untamed energy would deliver a mighty blast, and so it did. Shockwaves from the collapsed conduit blasted the house and its concussive force rattled the adventurers. Still, they were in. Tira and Rift quickly found the crystal box, which was said to contain the ring. They had their prize and so they raced out the back of the house, which now had a clean hole poked all the way through it from the initial blast of energy.

As the adventurers made their way back into the City of Brass, they could hear the city folk tell their version of what had happened. People were distraught and pointed to the black smoke that came from the direction of the magistrate’s house. Some said that the magistrate’s house had been destroyed by an accident with the power system. Others thought it had been attacked and that the magistrate was dead. There were cries of “villainy!”. There was sadness. There was fear of further attacks. The magistrate had done such a good job at making the city safer, and so what an ironic pity for this to befall him.

Back in their lodgings, Rift worked past the crystal box’s wardings to be able to open it. Sure enough, as promised, it held the magistrate’s ring. Success!

Barrick and Erik turned a suspicious eye to Tira. No better than common thieves they were. Dirty deeds, indeed.

Sympathy for the Devil

Wasting no time, Tira returned to the shady bar where she had met the unscrupulous efreet just a day before. She had been promised information about the painting in exchange for the ring. Now she wanted more. It was time to change the particulars of the deal. Location was not enough! After some hard bargaining, the djinn relented and offered not just the location of the painting, but help getting into the building. Tira was pleased. Her masterful plan to bring the magistrate to ruin was a success, and as a bonus she managed to secure the location of the painting. Not a bad couple of days. Or was it?

The next day the adventurers met the shady djinn and he them through the city, past shops, row houses, banks and foundries. Soon they stood before a warehouse and the djinn motioned for them to enter. The air was still and most strikingly, the street was bare.

“Enter! The painting is on the second floor, in the back”, said the djinn with smile that was difficult to read. How did he know just exactly where the painting was? The adventurers did not trust him, but what choice did they have? So they entered.

The warehouse stood nearly empty, being sparsely populated with only a smattering of old crates and open boxes. The floor was dusty. What kind of warehouse was this? Yet true to the efreet’s words, there was a steep staircase in the back. Erik lead the way ever so carefully. Did the wooden step creak as one would expect? Was the air as stale as expected? What of the quality of the light? Was all the world an illusion? The others followed, slowly, up the stairs to the second floor.

Reaching the top of the stairs, the adventurers found themselves in a small room of red oak – a deeper and bloodier red than normal, but perhaps it was just the lighting. No, before them stood a devil! Z’alden’s mind raced. He recoiled. He had to keep himself from lurching forward. Restraint.

“Pleased to meet you. Nicely done deed!”, said the devil, his wings perking up almost imperceptibly, “but this is not why you are here, now is it?”

The adventurer’s looked at each other, knowing that a dangerous game was now underfoot. “Please allow me to introduce myself”, continued the devil with a grin and penetrating eyes. “I am man of wealth and taste; you need not worry now. Our interests may, shall we say, coincide?”

The devil paused to examine the adventurer’s perplexed expressions. He kindly smiled. “You see, the demons will soon be on on the march.”

“Demons, you know I despise demons with a holy passion”, boldly stated Z’alden, “but why would ever even consider doing the devil’s work? Perhaps you should be the one to go to battle with the demons!”

The devil just smiled and bowed his head with eyes still on the adventurers, “I am but your humble servant. Here. Have some sympathy, and do me the courtesy of taking on this quest, won’t you? For devils cannot go forth into the Abyss. I surely would not bargain if I could do this myself.” He paused to study their response. “I can tell that you are puzzled by the nature of my game, but there is nothing to fear, nothing. To fear, at all. Let me help you. You and I, we are not so dissimilar. Just ask the magistrate.” The devil’s eyes lit up with that last barb, which he clearly could not resist, for it was his nature. The adventurer’s turned shades of red – for embarrassment or anger – but the effect was to make their color match the devil’s color more closely.

“What can you do for us?”, asked Rift, “Weapons? Majicks? What is in it for us?”

“I can expedite. Expedite your travels to the Abyss”, calmly replied the devil. “For I… have you guessed my name? Destabilize the demons. Kill Mal…” The devil softened his face and smiled. “Mal’Ganis. Mal’Ganis must be stopped. Yes. Stopped from his plans. And then there is the issue of the glaives. Yes, I know about your interest in them with respect to the one known as Illidan. You see, we really are on the same side. I can help you. What I offer is more for you than for me. Do we have a deal?”

With that, the devil waved his left hand in a circular motion and a portal appeared before the adventurers. With his other hand, he motioned for them to enter. He put on his best yet least convincing smile.

Z’alden was the first to enter, followed by Barrick. As the last of the five entered, they could feel the Cheshire grin of the devil behind, with echoes of the question, “Tell me, what’s my name?”

In My Time of Dying

Ripped from the Elemental Plane of Fire, the five adventurers found themselves even further from the Nentir Vale. Memories of home were hard to conjure in this barren, darkened and hostile landscape. No quarter for lost souls. The devil had delivered upon his half of the bargain by conveniently placing the adventurers at the footstep of Mal’Ganis’ fortress. Upon its flanks paced an assortment of demons, who seemed to bicker amongst each other, surely fueled by feudal status and an unyielding impulse to torment.

“To beat them, we must join them”, Z’alden concluded. “Put me in chains!” The others looked at each other and soon caught on. The potions of mimicry did the trick, making Rift, Tira, Barrick and Erik look like nyca-demons. Erik noticed that Tira was strangely fetching, for a demon. The chains on Z’alden looked quite convincing as the “demons” brought him forth, before the head demon who guarded the gates to Mal’Ganis’ palace.

“What you want?”, shouted the ultro-demon schemer to the four.

“We have a prisoner. Servant of Bahamut. For the slaughter!”, replied nyca-demon Tira.

“So slaughter him already!”, replied the ultro-demon, with his blood-seep demons soldiers slavishly snickering behind.

“But this one is special. One for Mal’Ganis’ direct pleasure.”

“No, kill him now. If you won’t, I will. Step aside!”, demanded the ultro-demon.

Z’alden winked at Rift and that’s all it took to convey the plan. “Mal’Ganis will be very displeased, you fool” shouted Rift, turning her attention to all the soldiers and pointing at each one of them. “Mal’Ganis will vanish all those who defy his wishes. Do not doubt this word!”

The ultro-demon gutturally chuckled and so too followed the blood-seep demons in an insane cackle, mocking Rift.

“You were warned!”, scowled Rift. And with all eyes on her, Z’alden was able to surreptitiously cast his magic, sending the ultro-demon into another plane. The other demons were stunned in disbelief.

“You have doubted the menacing power of our great leader”, taunted Rift, “perhaps you to would like to defy his wishes too?”

“No, of course we do not question”, mumbled the remaining demons as they cowered, “Proceed. Pass forth. Be glorious the slaughter most pleasantly for our master’s pleasure, that is, by his will, always. Go!”

With that the adventurers, still in their magical disguises, opened the great doors to the fortress of Mal’Ganis. So many times before on countless adventures lay chamber after chamber to protect the leader, but to the adventurer’s surprise, Mal’Ganis now sat before them on the far side of a great hall. So soon to see Mal’Ganis. A good thing?

Mal’Ganis’ throne was backed by a wall, with the glaives mounted below a large stained glass window that depicted an army of demons. The light making its way through seemed to be of a dark power. The great demon then stood, revealing fine scale mail armor and a war spear in hand. “Leave the prisoner and begone”, commanded Mal’Ganis.

“Uh, no. Let’s do things our way”, shouted Rift as she created a portal, enabling Barrick to rush through to the far side of the great hall and stand beneath the towering figure of Mal’Ganis. The dwarf was pushed aside, with Mal’Ganis mighty reach. Z’alden cast off his chains and was next through the portal, to cast a powerful spell, but the demons of the stained glass glowed and Mal’Ganis laughed as he shrugged off the attack. Erik’s turn was next and as he raised his bow, he took aim for his quarry’s exposed flesh. Three arrows let loose and three met their target, but the ranger could tell that the demon resisted much of the damage. Finally, from Tira’s hand sprung a prismatic beam, but to no avail.

Now it was Mal’Ganis’ turn and he brought forth a fire and earth elemental to combat the other adventurers as he personally went after the dwarf. Even after being able to dodge the attack, Barrick felt the force of fear and stood stunned in the shadow of Mal’Ganis.

As battle continued, the demon and his elementals focused on the servant of Bahamut, the cleric, Zenithar al Denithar. Attack after attack was laid down upon the cleric. It was a wise strategy, but so too did the adventurers have a similar strategy of their own, concentrating their attacks on the elementals, and soon the earth elemental was dispatched. With that, Mal’Ganis chanted, “Feel the maelstrom: wind and water.” And so an air and water elemental were conjured to join the battle. The demon’s massive spear swung a wide arc, hitting many of the adventurers in a single sweep. Erik’s arrows continued to fly and from Rift’s fingers sprung prismatic beams, poisoning, burning and dazing the elementals. The fire elemental would quickly fall, but all the while Z’alden took blow after blow. Such was the price for being a servant of Bahamut in the realm of demons.

A final blow set Z’alden’s thoughts afar. The room spun. The clangs of weapons upon armor rang out as distant bells. Swirls of bright colors and a cacophony of sound filled his head as confusion overtook his rational mind. The stone floor moved upward in slow motion to greet his weakening body – comfortable as a down pillow for flesh that has no feeling. Thoughts of a song drifted through… “If my wings should fail me, Bahamut, please meet me with another pair. Well, well, well, so I can die easy.”

Cough.

To be continued…

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The Perfect Heist
or, The Perfect Jest

“Late one night a passing human saw a dwarf stooped over in front of a tavern. Seeing no trace of vomit, the human asked the dwarf if he had lost something. ‘Aye’, the dwarf replied, ‘the keys to me room at the inn’. So the human looked around a bit as well. The area was well lit by torches on either side of the tavern’s doors, but he saw nothing looking like keys. ‘Maybe you left them inside’, he said. ‘Nae’, said the dwarf, ‘I was drinking over there tonight’ – and he pointed at the closed, shuttered, darkened tavern across the street. Perplexed, the human asked, ‘Why aren’t you looking for your keys over there?’ Shaking his head as if speaking to an imbecile, the dwarf replied “Ain’t it obvious? It’s too dark over there, never find nuthin over there’.

Barrick, who had lately taken to retelling bar jokes as purported pearls of wisdom, shook with laughter, but Rift remained skeptical. “All three are just rumors – under the King’s Throne Room, says a scummy thief. Under a bank vault, says a strange dwarf. Under three feet of rubble at the Royal Armory, says a Bishop. None is likelier than the others. The obvious thing to do is none of the above.” But Barrick won the day. There was no easy way to scope out the King’s Throne room or the Royal Armory today, but the bank would be open for business. Search where the light is. Sometimes quests are like that.

An art theft having just taken place at the bank, the group pulled out the old reliable WeAreImportantPeopleWhoAreSupposedToBeHere act, which got them past the guards and clerks. The bank functionaries, in fine silk of green and gold, needed more convincing. Playing the conductor now, Barrick joined his thumb to his middle finger on each hand, with the two circles interlocked. This was an oft-used sign in the group, based on the ease with which drunkards and fools can be impressed, then confused. (One holds one’s hands like that without interlocking the fingers, turns one’s shoulders away, then shows one’s hands again, interlocked., repeating to unlock them. A drunkard, fool, or young child will inevitably try to mimic this by putting their hands behind their back from opposite directions, so they they will be unable to produce the effect.) Erik the Perceptive pointed out marks on the floor indicating something heavy had been moved, as well as a pile of clerks’ robes hidden from view. Suitably impressed, the functionaries gave the group free rein upstairs, and the bank director agreed to take them below – 8 levels below, where dozens of vaults lay along a corridor.

The theft was a fascinating problem. Three keys are needed for entry to a vault, two banker keys and one patron key. The robbed vault belongs to the King’s Nephew, an heir to the throne who is without debts, and who was given the painting by his uncle the King. Nothing else was taken from the vault. Vault doors do not close well, and one must wait some minutes after closing a vault door before being confident that it will not spontaneously reopen. This door was found ajar by passing clerks, which implies that it was not an inside job.

Curiouser and curiouser the case became. The bankers’ keys are kept in a keystore that can only be opened by the Director. They all look the same, but have different magical signatures. Importantly, they cannot be verified without first closing the door, and if they do not work, the door can never be reopened. This fact led to the adventurers’ next big break.

When the director tried to close the vault door to see whether the keys worked, several of the party stopped him vigorously. Barrick shouted out “Spit on the bar”, and everyone knew what he meant. A guy in a tavern asks the tough bartender whether he would like to bet 10 gold pieces that he can spit his beer the length of the bar into a spittoon at the far end. Seeing that the guy is drunk and weak-looking, the bartender agrees. The guy fails utterly, but raises the bet to 20 gold pieces, asking for three chances. Never coming close, he raises to 30, with 5 chances. The bartender agrees each time. The guy proceeds to spit vast quantities of ale down the bar, missing badly and at one point even hitting the bartender full in the face, producing howls of laughter from the bartender as he wipes down the bar. After paying up, the guy is thanked profusely with a warm handshake – but smiles broadly at the winner, who asked him,. “Why are you smiling, you’re out 60 gold pieces, and you never came close.” “True, but I bet those guys on the other side of the room 200 gold pieces that I could spit ale all over your bar for 20 minutes, as well as in your face, and you would clean it up and thank me afterwards.”

The point of this joke is to keep the opponent thinking that the quarry is different from what the quarry actually is. The adventurers explained patiently to the director that, to avoid the King’s Nephew’s wrath, and maybe the wrath of the King, they should first move the Nephew’s remaining things to another vault, in case the keys do not work. The door to the robbed vault, now empty, was closed, the keys tried, and – they did not work! The vault would likely be an empty tomb forever. But the group had saved the Director from a treasonable offense, and now had free run of the vaults – to go after their actual quarry.

As for the robbery, the solution was simple. Barrick told the joke: A banker, a customer, and a bank director are caught riding on the back of a dragon that had just destroyed and looted their bank. Hanging from a scale behind the dragon’s head are two Rings of Featherfall. The three discuss who should use the rings. The customer says that he should use one, because the customer is always right. The banker says he should use one, because he is the future of the bank when it is rebuilt. The bank director says he not only should use one because he is the most intelligent of the three, he is going to use one because he is in charge. He grabs a ring and jumps. The banker looks at the customer, who smiles and says, “The most intelligent of us just jumped off with my wedding band in his hand!”

Realizing that the people at the top of a hierarchy are probably the most useless, the group questions the director more directly. There had been only one guest all day whom the Director had not recognized, and his memory was fuzzy about that guy too, a possible sign of magic, which was soon dispelled by Z’alden and Rift. The bearded man had in fact been the King’s Nephew, and the clerks who escorted him had been dismissed some months before; they no doubt had stolen the keys to this vault. Why the King’s Nephew had done this in such a mysterious fashion was unknown, but also not really what interested the adventurers.

With the blessing of the grateful Director, the five examined the corridor, “checking things out”, and identified which vault should be closest to the cave. They managed access to it by asking to open their own vault, and stealing the bankers’ keys to their target – really, how can such a useless bank stay in business?

Without the patron key though, magic was required. Warding runes guarded the door, spelling out “Light. Theft. Origin.” Rift remembered the solution to an old childhood riddle:

“Follows You in the Light
Hides thieves in the Night
Starts where you start
Never comes apart”

While Tira distracted the hapless Director, the others worked to produce shadows on the door, matching markings found there, and the doors opened!

Inside were found about two gold millions’ worth of diamonds, walls made of platinum, and a tunnel going down. After grabbing all the loot, the party descended the tunnel, then a pit about 150 feet deep, which ultimately led to a huge cave with a lake. Briefly questioning the wisdom of reanimating such a powerful being as Tassadar, the group nevertheless threw his bones into the lake. “How many dead adventurers does it take to mop a floor?” Asked Barrick. “Five. One to hold the mop, four to walk him up and down the floor.” The group waited as the powerful being emerged whole from the lake; was it to be death or promotion?

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Disturbing the Peace

The bed was made of rough-hewn logs. It had clearly been crafted by someone who was not an expert woodworker, yet there was still an elegance to it. Each log had been carefully chosen to be the exact right size, and the bark and branches had been hacked off with a sharp blade that removed only what was necessary but not a single ounce more. The rest of the room reflected the bed’s construction. The floor was lightly sanded oak, rough but even. The walls were pale birch, directing the sunlight cleverly around the room so that the entire space seemed to glow with a pale yellow. In the corner of the room a huge tree trunk came through the floor and went out through the ceiling.

A small table stood near the bed. On the table were two items – a decanter filled with a pale red fluid, and a large grimoire, blackened around the edges with age and perhaps traces of a fire.

There were only two decorations in the room. Hanging above the bed was a tiny bow made of ash and a beech quiver, containing a few small arrows. The bow was even more crudely made than the bed, yet on closer examination, the same spartan economy had been used in crafting the bow – it was clearly a child’s toy, yet had been constructed to be fully functional. It seemed easily capable of delivering one of its arrows with deadly force and precision.

On the other side of the room, directly visible from the bed, was the other decoration. It was a large scroll, held in place by four daggers driven deep into the wall. The scroll was covered with writing, written in a sharp hand in black ink. The language was unfamiliar, gutteral, with sharp lines. In the center of the scroll was a name, set apart from the rest of the text: "Illidan eth Stormrage”. The only other recognizable word was near the bottom, written this time in red ink, “Excommunicado”. At the bottom were the signatures of numerous people, perhaps twenty in all. All were written in black ink except one in red: “Malfurian”.

Illidan’s eyes flicked open. His transition from asleep to awake was instantaneous. He scanned the room, quickly assessing what had disturbed his peace. A bird perched on the windowsill, it’s eyes adjusting to the light. Just as the bird opened its beak to let out a warble, Illidan fixed it with his gaze. His left hand made the tiniest pinching gesture. The bird seemed to shimmer for an instant and then faded from sight, leaving only a trace of dust motes floating in the disturbed air.

Illidan sighed. Either his defenses were growing weaker, or the forest was again closing in on his haven. He would have to patrol the grounds carefully today, checking all of his traps and wards.

He sighed again, taking a sip from the red liquid in the decanter. He had had another disturbing dream. This time it seemed to take place in the future. His future? He could not tell. There had been a Archmage, who seemed to perhaps be himself. Sometimes he had been in the Archmage’s body, and other times, he had floated above. The Archmage was older and dressed in flowing robes covered with silver and red sigils.

The Archmage was in a huge room, divided into five areas, separated from each other by voids on unknown depth. The main area had strange markings on the floor and a large dais, raised a few steps above the remainder. The other areas had similar strange markings. The name “The Room of Creation” floated unbidden into Illidan’s dreaming mind.

The Archmage was clearly fighting a desperate battle against seemingly impossible odds. Five heroes were arrayed against him: A half-elf Cleric, an eladrin Wizard, a half-elf Sorcerer, a human Ranger, and a stout dwarf Fighter.

Illidan sensed another presence in the room, perhaps aiding the Archmage, or perhaps there to further its own ends. Again, a name floated into Illidan’s mind: “Jaraxxus”. Illidan shuddered in his sleep.

Illidan saw the Archmage raise his robed arms. Tendrils of force and acid shot forth, striking against the Cleric and the Wizard. “Good!” though the dreaming Illidan, target the spellcasters first, especially the Wizard. Illidan could sense that the Archmage recognized the threat of another magic user, a rival, a pretender to the true power! The Wizard must be eliminated first, obliterated. Then the others could be dealt with piecemeal. The Sorcerer was a threat, true enough, but her own chaotic nature would give the Archmage time to deal with her later. The Ranger was a pesky annoyance. His arrows could sting surely enough, and given enough time could cause serious damage, but he was weak to a full frontal assault of magic. The Fighter was easy enough. He could wield mighty blows, but in the end, what could might do against magic? Ha! The Cleric complicated things. He would have to be carefully watched. He could delay the battle indefinitely, with his meddling gods.

In the dream, Illidan peered more closely at the Cleric. Which god did this one pretend to follow? Bahamut? Ha! No wait, there was another. Tiamat? Ah, now that was more interesting. Perhaps this one could be made to change allegiance. Illidan urged the Archmage to notice, willing him to follow his dream advice, but the Archmage ignored him.

The Ranger loosed an arrow which struck a glancing blow off the Archmage. The Cleric quickly followed with a curse that made the Archmage reel. His defenses were down. Illidan cursed against his own impotence, wanting to join the battle and help his brother Archmage. Strange how much kinship he felt towards the nameless necromancer. Suddenly the Archmage lifted his arms and dropped them. The entire room shifted, and a new realm was entered. All magical effects ended. Illidan was stunned. This was what he had been looking for. He must find out who this Archmage was, and where he had gained such power.

The Archmage blasted the Wizard again and again. The Wizard raised her arms feebly, trying spell after spell, only to see them fizzle and fail. Her arms fell limply to her sides, she sighed, then collapsed in a heap of robes, her staff clattering to the ground. The other heroes stood, shocked. Apparently, Illidan thought wryly, they were not used to defeat. Illidan saw satisfaction gleaming in the eyes of the Archmage, echoing his own satisfaction. That had been a well-fought battle, with little wasted power and only minor inconvenience to the spell caster.

But of course, as heroes must, they continued to fight on, oblivious to their impending, obvious, defeat. The Sorcerer spun a whirlwind of dust and debris, a thunderclap pushing the Archmage away from the fallen Wizard. The Ranger ran to the eladrin’s aid, administering a potion of life. The Cleric added his own ministrations, and the Wizard’s eyes flickered open. Too bad. At least, thought Illidan, if she somehow survives the battle, she will have some scars to show for it and to teach her some humility.

The dwarf fighter now added his strength, with a blinding flash of steel blades that struck the Archmage. Illidan saw the Archmage grow angry. His arms were raised in a mighty incantation that would sweep all away. Illidan saw his lips muttering the spell, and even though it was a dream, Illidan realized that he recognized the words. Shocked, he stared at the Archmage. Was this indeed the same spell, the spell that he himself had created, years ago, and had been perfecting? If only he could see more clearly in his dream. Yes, he could almost make it out. Just a few more moments and he would be sure.

Suddenly, there was a flash of red, as a wing shot in front of Illidan’s face. Illidan caught a glimpse of the Sorcerer, her red hair flying in the breeze, whooping with chaotic joy as she swept by on a red dragon. Annoyed, both Illidan and the Archmage glared at the Sorcerer as she flew over to one of the glowing sigils etched on the floor. Illidan’s gaze swept back to the Archmage. “Finish the spell!” he shouted frantically in his dream. The Archmage lifted his hands, poised to shout the final Word of Power that would confirm Illidan’s suspicions.

The dream ended.

It was morning. The bird had been dismissed whence it came. Illidan sighed again. Was he never to discover the answer? Illidan put on his finest pale blue robes and strode outside, blinking in the warm sunlight as he climbed down from his tree abode. Something wasn’t right. Another wild animal to disturb his peace and order? He stared across the stream that divided his small clearing in the forest. There were several humanoid creatures standing on the other side, waving their arms in confusion and gesticulating wildly to each other. Well, this at least was more interesting, he though to himself. They might still need to be destroyed, but at least he could perhaps learn something useful from other “intelligent” beings, even if they could never hope to reach his level.

“Greetings!” called Illidan across the water. “Well met!” called back one of the people, a tall half-elf wearing clerical robes. Strange, thought Illidan, why do these people seem familiar to me? A half-elf Cleric, an eladrin Wizard, a half-elf Sorcerer, a human Ranger, and a stout dwarf Fighter. Yes, somehow that seemed correct. Had he had dealings with this party in the past? They did not seem threatening, but seemed somehow wary of him, as if they somehow knew something about him that even he didn’t know. Disturbing, indeed. He would need to be very careful, only revealing what was truly necessary.

Somehow Illidan sensed that in this meeting, his life was going to change. He strongly believed in the currents of time. You followed a current down one tributary or another, and events shaped themselves accordingly. This was a new current that he had never sensed before.

Two months later…

Good friends? No, but neither were they enemies. Illidan had indeed learned much from the travellers. Z’alden, Rift, Tira, Erik, and Barrick were strong warriors. They had travelled together for many years and had formed bonds that Illidan envied. Yet that was also their weakness. Now, at last, they had brought Illidan to the Temple of the Arcane. Here, they promised, the Archmage Calizar would instruct Illidan in the deeper mysteries of the arcane. He yearned for the knowledge. With it, he could finally put an end to his life of excommunication and punish those who had thought so little of him. Yes, the time was fast approaching when all would know the name of Illidan Stormrage, and, love him? Illidan smiled for the first time in many years.

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And The Silence Fell

And so he paced. Running his hands over the ancient stones, he whispered, “Test them, bring them down, break them. Only if they are broken can they rise.” The room rumbled, but calling it a room would be a heinous crime. This was a place of creation itself. A place where the forces of life and death swirled in unison, unbridled, unbroken, and in their infinite power. The most powerful man to ever live had built this ancient place, he had harnessed the strength of universe, contained it, and controlled it with his indomitable will. The man in the room now had the strength to control this power, for he had been touched by demons and gods.

The room boomed with the sound of a thousand thunderclaps and the scene before the man shifted. Six heroes stood, each in a realm of trial and test. The Dragonborn was shoulder to shoulder with his armies, preparing to fight giants of fire. The Dwarven hero open his eyes to a dimly lit place, with a cowering humanoid surrounded by dark creatures; wraiths. The Human Ranger stepped back from the cliff’s edge. Turning, he saw a Drow a short distance away, but the Ranger was weaponless; for his swords lay on a pillar a short distance away from him. The Sorcerer stood on rugged terrain. She was surrounded by a whirlwind, and at the edge of the storms eye three Drow surrounded a prisoner menacingly. The half-elf Cleric arose in a field of grass, in pleasant springtime. He stood on one side of a deep chasm, and on the other side stood a beautiful Elf maid, clutching an infant Orc. Each hero acted and moved forward. Holding fast to their beliefs, Dragonborn clashed with fire giants, the dwarf pulled the humanoid from the darkness, Drow were fought with, and an orc was spared. The room warped, bringing the adventurers together.

The man laughed and boomed, “Let them contest with themselves! They will know every weakness and every strength, every advantage and disadvantage. This will be a true challenege.” The six appeared on a burning pyre. Shadowy figures could be seen darting about the hallways, using arcane spells, martial prowess, and divine strength. Slowly, the adventurers began to realize the true danger that they faced, for this was a battle that the scale found even and equal. Ranger clashed with Ranger, Wizard fought Wizard, and adventurers fought themselves. It was only after truly great combat that a victor emerged. Those who were not shades of themselves proved that life is not something easily copied and replicated.

The heroes had completed the trial. Returned to the temple, they reequipped, rested, and prepared for a great battle. As they prepared, they grew silent, each contemplating their destiny, what their future was to bring. They had embarked on quests, saved kingdoms, and fought legendary foes. They sat. They began to recall their many victories, but fell into deeper contemplation as they thought of what was to come.

A silence of three parts filled the temple. Not an ordinary, hushed silence. This was a silence that filled the temple, permeated every nook, every cranny, even the very souls of those who would notice its existence. This first silence could be perceived by those who could hear the quickly beating hearts of the adventurers exploring. It was the quiet rasp of quickened breath, of a whetstone on the axe, and the anticipation of coming battle.

The second silence was a deeper, older silence. It filled every stone. The hieroglyphs on the walls screamed the silence to those who could hear them. The bones of the ancient mage were permeated by it. It was the silence of a place past its days of greatness, falling into the abyss of time. For only few remembered this place’s existence, and many of those few knew of it only in legend and myth.

The third silence was a new silence, not of the temple, but of one who knew it. This silence was one that you could hear if you listened for hours, it was the cracks of the stone floor, the settling dust. The silence of the hands of a great arcanist working to create a new place, to escape a destiny. As he paced you might realize that this temple was his, just as the third silence was. It filled every marking across his back, the sword and staff at his side, and the deep ebony crystal held in his hand. This was the silence of a man who is waiting to die.

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Trawling For Demons

“Uncle Torbie, tell us the one about catching the demons from the boat,” little Mira shouted. The other six children jumped up and down, “Yes, yes, that is a great story!”

“It wasn’t a boat, you dolt,” the much too big for his britches Karrick shouted at his sister. “It was a flying ship, the Astral Falcon.” Mira stuck out a tongue purpled from the rare licorice treat that their beloved Uncle had brought.

“But, I wanted to hear about the magic bubbles!” little Arifta shrilled. “There was only one magic bubble, the other was a magic circle that was impenetrable,” the smug face of Karrick nodded wisely looking to his uncle, both for confirmation and for affirmation for having used such a big word.

From the wrinkled face of the old scrivener came forth a long sigh. Torben Eastlander remembered the events just before he had heard this part of the tale of the adventurers from the Nentir Vale. He had made a deal with Verrin the Scum Lord. He could still smell the vomit on the floor, even after all of these years, as he had gone back to the Moonbeam Inn and shaken the dwarven fighter to consciousness and roused the others. He needed more material. The tale of the capture of a demon and the presentation of its head to the ancient living bones of a mighty Archmage still made him smile. It was the most ridiculous of the stories that they had told him up to this point. It had made him rich.

“But, Uncle Torben, you said you would tell the one about the 10,000 dragons that the wizard summoned through time and space to fight the demon horde!” the deep voice of Merik the man child boomed. Torben gentle chided, “Well, they were dragonborn, not dragons, at least according to the Valers, and it wasn’t really 10,000. And, remember, those dragonborn are meant to represent some very tough fighting people, but they don’t have any real relationship to dragons.”

Verrin had taken some of Torben’s best material and stretched and twisted it in so many ways, now folks were thinking that the story was about a wizard summoning dragons! Incredible. Even more incredible was the level of adulation, nigh worship, that his stories were getting from the common folk, or at least the stories the way that Verrin’s cronies had re-written them. Oh well, the pay was good. And, he had to remember that Verrin wanted to be called the Apogee now. Or was it Perigee? No matter. It wouldn’t last.

But, at this moment, he had an audience that was much more demanding, and much more pleasant to appease. They might actually listen to the story, instead of trying to find some life-changing meaning in these flights of fancy that were like the dreams of a chance roll of the dice. How the children loved these stories. They kept coming back and begging for more every time he visited.

“Well, everyone gather round,” the old scrivener intoned. “The story you want begins a little earlier, before the magic bubble was made, before the demon’s head was cut, back on the Isle of their Castle.”

“Remember, the Astral Falcon was badly damaged after the great battle with Illidan Stormrage, the plague of the demon horde, and the destruction the Tower of the Arcane. Two weeks of repairs would be needed before she would be ready for flight again. While the group undertook the repairs back at their castle, in that time, they knew that the horde of demons summoned by Stormrage would begin to ravage the Vale. They knew that, alone, they five could not stop the Horde. They needed an army to hold off the Horde while they went to find Stormrage.”

“The mighty dragons of the Kengi!” Merik shouted. “Led by Prince Felsmon the Flighty,” Mira chimed in, looking for approval from her older brother. “That’s Prince Felsmon the Mighty, you dolt,” Merik retorted, “he could fly, he wasn’t flighty.” The teenager rolled his eyes at his younger sister’s mistake with the impassioned feelings of the wisdom of 16.

Torben did not have the heart to then correct Merik that the flying Felsmon was nothing more than the flights of fancy of some overzealous fishtale-telling adventurers. Though that shield on his back was awfully large the last time the scrivener had seen the Paladin.

“Yes, yes, Merik, Rift made contact with Felsmon and arranged a plan to have him bring the army of the Kengi to just outside Winterhaven through a magic portal that she and Tira would make with the help of the powerful artifact, the Cube. The adventurers had continued to find that the Cube’s powers were almost limitless. With it, Rift had found Felsmon, communicated with him, and arranged a plan to make a powerful magical gate through which the Kengi could march from their homeland into Winterhaven in a matter of seconds, instead of the weeks it would normally take. Rift and Tira would bend space and time itself!”

The children gasped at the thought of such power. Torben remembered how loudly he had laughed when the cleric Z’alden had told him this part of the story. He could still remember staring at the half-elf, waiting for the man to crack a smile as he tried to tell the fantasy with a straight face. But, the cleric had only continued on.

He could still picture the scene in the Moonbeam Inn. Barrick was asleep on the floor after finishing the last barrel of ale. He would have made a good foot rest, if only he didn’t have a habit of swinging his axe when he rolled over. Rift and Tira had wandered off, almost embarrassed as Z’alden had relayed these, some of the most unbelievable parts of the fanciful tale. He remembered how he had leaned in as the cleric made grand gestures and drew him into the story. He could still hear that smooth, earnest voice.

“With the Falcon repaired, we flew like the Great Dragon himself to just outside Winterhaven and began the construction of the great Dimension Door to connect Kengistan directly to the western Vale, just outside of the town of Winterhaven. At that point, we knew much about our foe thanks to Tira’s and Erik’s probings with the Cube. Stormrage was more than a warped and twisted wizard, he was a minor demon prince who was haunted by a quest for power and recognition. Let that be a lesson to us all. Seeking the approval of others, feeling superior to those whose skills are less, believing that it is acceptable to trample upon them, that it is acceptable to reach for the darkest great powers, these thoughts lie on the path of darkness and make one a servant of Chaos. They consume you.” Torben remembered how he had interrupted the little sermon, “ah, good cleric, could you get back to the story part? I’m on a deadline here.”

“Claws! But, of course.” The cleric had settled in at that point, and as he did, the Moonbeam Inn had grown quiet. The patrons had tuned out the sermon, but they too listened intently as the cleric related the electrifying tale of grit and determination in the face of great need.

“Through sheer will, each of my comrades had used the Cube to enhance their already impressive abilities. Barrick had taken it, and channeled it until his arms and legs swelled, and he had the strength of a hundred giants. He lifted huge trees from their roots and started to build the arch that was needed for the Door.” The patrons eyes had widened at the thought of the prone dwarf moving a tree. Torben had suppressed a chuckle. Probably, these were branches in the arms of the dwarf. Small ones. “Erik had also gained this power. Together, they constructed a massive arch of wood, forty staff lengths across.” Sensing his audience, Z’alden paused. “Wide enough to move an army through.”

The cleric continued, “I had helped my friends more readily attune themselves to the Cube. Barrick and Erik gathered even more trees, and in leaps and bounds, notched the wood like it was sticks, and constructed a massive dome around us.”

“Then, the great magic of the ritual started. Rift drew on the artifact, and arcane runes representing space and time danced like fire from her fingertips onto the massive dome. It began to fuse together. Purple tendrils of arcane energy alighted on the dome, then red and blue tendrils intertwined from Tira’s hands and eyes spinning around the dome, fusing the trees. Intricate carvings appeared on the smooth wooden surface, scenes of great battles from the past, runes of power, runes of magic. Rift cried out as visions appeared to her of times when the Cube had been used to alter history: the Cube exploding, destroying an impenetrable Citadel; the Cube, alone on a field with but a figure next to it with hands outstretched, and then, a great Castle raised from nothing in an instant. We learned that the Cube was like a Teacher to us, and we had to struggle to learn its lessons to use it.”

“Use it we did. In a moment of control of the visions, Rift reached out her mind and searched for our foe Stormrage, trying to find the Staff and Sword that were his items of power. She saw only two green lights, then the vision sharpened, as if darkness can be clearer, into a figure made of darkness underground in the old part of the Temple. This figure was in a room with the power to create and destroy. It was in this same room that we had found the door which took us to the Astral Sea, but that is another tale. In this room of power, the figure was blasting with arcane might at one wall. The wall fell, and Rift could no longer see the dark shape. She searched her mind for anything that she might know about such powers, and she recalled an old legend of the Inner Temple. Whether this knowledge was hers, or a gift from the Cube, we never knew.”

“The most powerful Archmages would go to this room, this Inner Sanctum, where magical forces for creation and destruction from every place and plane could be gathered and channeled. The First Archmage, Tassadar, had used the room to create a demi-plane, a place between the planes, to take refuge from the Gods that he greatly hated.”

“As Rift related this to us, Tira took hold of the Cube, swept her hands across it and stretched out the dome. The wood changed to have an amethyst hue, and the entire dome became purple crystalline as the Cube itself glowed so brightly that to look upon it was painful, yet wonderful. I could feel that this dome was no longer in one place. Rift then took up the Cube, and pulled the power from the Dome’s center back into the Cube. She was changing the face of reality itself, warping space and time, as she linked where we stood to be next to where the Kengi army waited! She made a tesseract, like folding two sides of a scroll to be next to each other.”

“Erik knew that having the army of the Kengi here to fight the Horde would do little good if they knew naught of the surrounding lands. Taking up the Cube, he stretched his mind’s eye over the lands surrounding Winterhaven. In an instant, the natural Scout knew every river, every creek, every hillock, every gully. Felsmon’s army would know all that could be known about the terrain, its strategic values and pitfalls, its high ground and its killing fields. The Horde could be routed to slaughter.”

“Then, the amethyst glow flickered. It weakened. Tira had tried to add her powers to open the door between the dimensions and admit the Kengi. Instead, she had locked the door that Rift had started. I held my breath. Barrick’s eyes grew wide. Tira set her jaw in grim determination, as though she had been locked out of a treasure that was rightly hers. Indeed, the treasure was knowledge, and the sorceress would not be denied. We could visibly see the key that formed as she opened this door, and Rift jumped through.”

“In a moment of fancy, Barrick stuck his head through this incredible portal. I think he drinks so much now to forget that infinite nothingness that he would describe with a pale tone. I can only imagine.”

“Having seen the lay of the land, as we waited for Rift to appear with the Kengi, Erik reached out to the Cube. Who is this Stormrage? Why does he thirst for power so? A sequence of visions appeared to the Ranger. He saw a toddler, levitating under his own power. Then, a child, an arcane prodigy, with even greater power, but a ravenous hunger for more. And, the ranger could sense the ache for approval from his masters, how the child wants to show them that the limits they have set are not limits for him. They are wrong. Illidan has no limits.”

“Erik sees through Stormrage’s soul as he watches him seeking his Sword and Staff, drawing on dark forces that darken the young mage as well. He seeks control and power. Nothing can stop him, he believes. He longs to be greater than the first Archmage. To control a demon Prince. He will prove to everyone that he is the greatest. But, he is not yet evil. The Ranger has visions of the weakness of Illidan. The young mage begins to know fear. Fear of his own power and its connections.”

“Even as she begins her walk across time and space, Rift is distracted by Erik’s visions. The Cube connects us all. She cannot resist the quest that the Ranger has started. What is Illidan connected to? A scene forms in the mind’s eye of the wizard. It may be a costly one, as she is adrift in nothingness, somewhere between here and there, between now and then. It is a then she sees. A vision of Illidan at middle age. Power courses through the mage. His powers are only just shy of the Archmage. He has broken long held rules and gone deep into the Old Temple. He is in an empty room. Rift recalls it from our own adventures. Illidan summons the Sword and Staff from beyond. Lightning crackles. Rift beholds Illidan at twice the age, but he has not a new wrinkle across his brow. He stands in the same ancient forbidden room of the Old Temple. Ritual circles within circles surround him. The magical energy crackles and shrieks. Rift can hear a voice a shouting with a sound like coal shoveled into a fire. ‘I am Jarraxus, Demon Prince of Erador, Lord of the Burning Legions’. The Demon looks willing to help the mage. Time shifts again. Rift sees Illidan communing with this Demon Lord. Dark Power radiates from Illidan. He has surpassed the Archmage. But, still he longs for those things that he has ached for since childhood. To be acknowledged, to be hailed, to be recognized that he can do more than tradition ever dreamed possible. That he can dream and create anything he desires.”

“Distracted, Rift’s attention on the Dimension Door had weakened. Barrick takes up the challenge. Channeling the great halls of his ancestors into the Cube, he buttresses the door, turning it to unbreakable stone pillars. My heart stops. The now stone arch is missing the lintel. The dwarf does not falter. Out of nothing, he makes a massive lintel and throws it to the top of the huge pillars. The true door is complete. Erik can see through the door to a portal forming on the fields of Kengistan, but it wavers. Tira attempts to strengthen it, but it falters still. I call upon Bahamut to guide our quest here, my prayers are answered. The amethyst lights grow brighter. The stones resound with a final lock into place. Erik becomes the Great Guide and forms the purple light into a short tunnel between the two lands. Rift can see into all places and all times. She calls to Felsmon. Seven thousand Kengi warriors travel through the door in a matter of seconds. We have done it. The Kengi have arrived. The Vale will be saved!”

Torben still remembers the cheers that erupted in the Moonbeam Inn as the cleric finished his tale. But, this was not the end of the story. Far from it. The adventurers had climbed into the Astral Falcon, teaching their old mentor Valthrun how to pilot it, Z’alden had later related to him. This would be of use when they left the ship. They still had a Demon Mage Illidan Stormrage to find and defeat. A Demon Mage who seemed to have gotten access to some of the greatest magic of the greatest Archmage, Tassadar, while they had been constructing the Dimension Door. Attend to one fire, and another advances. There are only so many resources.

“Uncle Torbie, uncle Torbie, you haven’t gotten to the good part where Barrick goes Trawling for demons!” little Mira huffed impatiently. Merrick cuffed her ears. “That was the good part you dolt. The creation of a door between Winterhaven and Kengistan to move 10,000 dragons through. What is catching a demon while suspended from a flying ship compared to that?”
Karrick huffed at his sister,”and, it wasn’t just your beloved hero Barrick. The cleric Z’alden was there, too. He used his magical dragon claws of light to stun the demons and then Barrick could easily grab one.” “The dwarf stunned them, too!” little Arifta shouted shrilly, “Uncle Torbie, tell them!”

The old scrivener motioned for them to calm down. Reluctantly, they obeyed, more under the spell of his stories than out of any sense of duty to listen. “Maybe the best thing to do is to wait until the morrow to talk of this anymore.” “NO!” they all shouted, agreeing for the first time all evening. “Well, then, a moment’s peace.”

“Indeed, you are both right. Barrick and Z’alden hung on the end of a long rope, as Erik sailed the Astral Falcon back to the ruins of the Temple of the Arcane. While thousands of demons roamed the vicinity, only a few were on a patrol near the Temple. It was this patrol that the adventurers targeted. As the ranger deftly piloted the Falcon close to the demons, sapphire dragon claws of light exploded from the cleric, ripping into the demons and rendering them senseless. He sent Radiant light erupting from his mace, searing the demons, and pushing away all but their one prey. The powerful arms of the dwarf encircled this one demon, grabbing him and lifting him up. For good measure, Barrick whacked the demon upside the head, ringing his bell further to subdue him."

“From the Falcon, spells flew at the demons. Tira dropped enchanted balls of green acid, sizzling onto the demons below, while the cleric’s god took form in silver flames of power that singed the monsters. With Erik’s steady flying, the mighty dwarf could wield his axe against his captive, all while holding onto the rope with his feet! A feat of derring-do, indeed! Then, a bold plan emerged. With their prey stunned, Erik shouted to Barrick to drop him. Barrick was incredulous. No, really, the ranger cried out. Then, like a leaf dropping from the sky, Erik deftly steered the ship to land on top of the demon, pinning it between the keel and the ground. Tira jumped off of the ship, twirled her dagger, and unleashed the powers of chaos on this spawn of chaos. It had not long upon this plane. Searing white radiant light rained down upon the helpless demon, as Z’alden called upon the powers of Bahamut again. Then, Barrick aimed his axe with great precision, and in one chop, the demon’s body remained beneath the ship, while the head flew in the air, to land in Z’alden’s waiting bag. And that is how the sport of axcrosse was started.” Even the taciturn Merik smiled at that.

Before Arifta could protest, the scrivener held up his end. “But, let us not forget what happened next.” He motioned to her. “Unleash the Abyssal!” she shouted in her deepest voice, something between a squeak and a croak. The children’s eyes got wide. Could some of them really have forgotten what happens next?

The scrivener continued.
“A monstrously large demon swirling with a body of fire descended from the sky. Rift smirked and pulled out the Cube to as she ordered it to return forthwith to its place of origin, or to the next convenient parallel dimension. But, the wizard heard a sound like an ancient gear grinding to a halt, and nothing happened.”

“It’s not my fault!” the wizard cried out, “something ancient is interfering with even the Cube’s power. I can’t use it for much of anything. And, that thing is coming towards us. This is a distraction to keep us from Stormrage. This is not a fight we need. I need a way to keep it at bay. Wait!”

“The wizard opened her spellbook. The ritual of the Magic Circle. I can stop that thing from getting next to us with a Magic Circle. Then, the Ranger said, if we ram the wall, we can make a breach and the encircled ship will plug the hole. We get into the castle, while it is stuck outside. Erik flew the Falcon up above the Temple ruins, well out of reach of the Fiery Demon’s powers while Rift prepared the ritual. Tense moments ensued. Would the wizard’s Circle really have the strength to stop a monstrosity seven staff lengths high, with arms of fire larger than oxen and legs of flame bigger than ancient trees? The Ranger flew the ship low and behind the Temple, then quickly rammed into a fallen tower. Rift raised the Circle. All of the group lent their knowledge and power to Rift as she completed the ritual. A shimmering protective sphere enveloped the ship. Bam! the castle wall was breached, and the ship was knocked as the Fiery Demon pounded on the power of the Circle. But, he could not penetrate it. The adventurers hopped off and into the tunnel they had pierced. The floor could not support them, and they fell, deep into the Lower temple.”

The scrivener paused briefly, reveling in the moment. No brother was pinching a sister. No child was crying. They were spellbound. Maybe this is what magic really is.

“Yes, their daring plans had worked out. And, they had the head of a demon that the skeleton encountered so long ago had demanded before he would give them the Key to the Depths Below. The key that they believed that they needed to reach Stormrage. As luck would have it, after some searching, they found the tunnel that led to that very same skeleton."
‘The prodigal heroes return’ was his boney greeting to the group.
“The cleric was torn. Conversing with undead? Then, he stammered out an epiphany. ‘Tassadar? Are you the Archmage?’ As if awakening from a long sleep, the thing replied, ‘that is a name I have not heard in many an age.’ The cleric presented the skeleton with the demon head. I can tell you I can still see Z’alden’s look, somewhere between puzzlement and anger, as the skeleton that was Tassadar simply tossed it aside. Merely a test of power, you see. He didn’t care about the head. The issue was whether they could get one. Were these heroes worth the bother? Sometimes the objective is not the objective. Good to keep in mind.”
Torben was almost sounding like the cleric himself. This sermonizing was contagious when he reflected on that darn cleric. A child pinched another. He was losing them. Or, they were getting hungry. He didn’t want them to miss what happened next.

“They had come for the key, remember. Tassadar pulled out an obsidian sphere. ‘This is not the key to the depths below. The depths have been unlocked.’ Rift stared at the sphere, then said, ‘but, could it be used to unlock a realm beyond this one?’ Somewhere in that bony face, Z’alden was sure he saw a grin as the skeleton replied, ‘Yes.’ Rift pressed further, ‘a demi-plane?’ ‘Yes, in the depths, you will find my inner sanctum. If it is still there, you will use this key to access it. Be warned, below is a great sorcerer and great evil.’ The ranger pressed him now, ‘Can Illidan be redeemed?’ ‘Redemption is a state of mind,’ was the only answer he received. ‘What about the Sword and the Staff, can they be used for good?’ ‘Weapons can be used for either,’ the bones replied. The cleric had a question, too, one that might haunt him for some time, ‘what can we do to help you?’. Tassadar raised his skeletal eyes to pierce those of the cleric, ’Bring me to the gods, to my inner sanctum.’ Z’alden lifted up the skeleton, and placed it on his back. ‘We must help this one find peace.’”

“Then, the adventurers began to move down the tunnel. Suddenly,..”

“Children, Torben, the roast Umber Hulk is ready!” their mother yelled. “Gross!” Arifta barely muffled. “Ahhh, we wanted to hear more of the story,” the others whined in unison.
“Come on in, or it will get cold!” their mother reprimanded.

Torben suppressed a snicker. Eating cold roast umber hulk would be the least of his concerns tonight if he didn’t get his latest draft to the Committee of Five.

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30% Chance of Demons

“The Thunderspire Ordinators did their job again; it will probably be a while before that gang of dwarfs known as the Crypts bothers anyone on the King’s road again.”
“And now to Armando with the weather.”

“Thank you. Yesterday the sun shouted out a burst of light, quietly contemplated it for 12 hours, and then retracted its statement. The forecast for today: Bright and sunny with an 80% chance that I am wrong. Back to you!”

“This just in. Something spectacular has happened near, or shall I say, over Winterhaven. Let’s have a live chat through the Arcane Gate with our on-site correspondent, Enna. Enna, are you there?”

“Yes Sosario, I am here. I hope you can see this through the gate.” Enna points upward. “Not more than 2 minutes ago, that ship, a pirate ship it appears to be, what with the blood red skull on the flag. That ship just magically appeared in the air. The ship is now turning and starting to move, it is moving quickly, toward the East. Hmm, you probably cannot see this, but over on the horizon there is a strange dark cloud, unlike any I have seen before. Sosario, can you send Armando over to check it out?”

“Certainly Enna, thank you for that update. More on the mysterious ship as information arrives.”
“We are currently transporting Armando over to the dark cloud, Enna you should be receiving a report any second now. Armando?”

Armando appears, but behind and all around him is very very dark, with streaks of dark red. Enna asks, “Armando, what is the weather like there?”
Armando frowns, “I don’t know, I’ll tell you when it clears. Let me try to move outside of this strange ominous feeling cloud.” The image of Armando wavers, and then settles back in. Armando is standing in a field, the dark cloud visible behind him. Armando points to the sky, “Look, that pirate ship that appeared over Winterhaven is approaching. It appears to be flying right at the storm. Yes, yes, it is entering the storm. Ooh, it is getting tossed around some; clearly whatever is controlling it is having difficulty with the storm. And now it has moved too far into the storm, I cannot see it anymore at all.”

Enna interrupts, “Can you use your scope to see closer? Can you see if anyone is on board the ship?”

“Of course!” exclaims Armando, “My scope!” He bends down out of view, and then stands back up with what appears to be a solid silver rod. But he puts one eye to one end and holds it like a person would a sighting glass. “There are five people on board, including two females and a dwarf. Whoa, a bubble just surrounded the ship, like a shield. Are they expecting conflict?”

Enna chimes in again, “Have a look around through the storm. See if you can see what is causing it, or what it is made of.”

“Of course!” exclaims Armando. “I see meteors, lots of them. No, wait, those are not normal meteors. Holy mother of …” Armando stops himself as he remembers he is being broadcast live. “Those meteors are demons, maybe the Dread Infernal demons if I am remembering correctly. Oh gods, demons are attacking! Ok, ok, not to panic yet, they do not seem to be leaving the storm area.” He pans the magical spyrod around. “Ah, I see it! In the middle of the storm there is a tall stone tower, and at the top of the tower is a man, a wizard of some sort, waving a crystal staff. He seems to be creating, or at least controlling the storm. Ahhh!” Armando drops the spyrod and jumps back.

“What, what is it?” Enna calls. “Armando, are you all right?”

Armando looks embarrassed as he picks the spyrod up off the ground. “Yes, I am fine. The wizard shot a couple lightning bolts from his staff and with my scope it appeared to be coming straight at me. I guess I panicked a little.” He puts the scope back to his eye. “It appears the ship was the target and that it was hit. Ooh, one of the females did something to boost the shield back to its original strength, very interesting. I understand why the shield was created. It appears our friends on the ship knew what they were getting in to.” He gasps again, ‘Oh my, a meteor just hit the ship. I don’t know how they are going to survive the storm and the wizard. Hmm, the dwarf made some repairs of some sort, but even so, I think they are doomed; what can one small ship do against such massive power?”

“Armando,” Enna asks, “Do you think the areas outside the storm, away from the tower are in any danger?”

“I do not think the wizard can do anything outside of the storm, but if all these demons that are falling join together in an army, then yes, we could all be in very grave danger.”

A worried look crosses Enna’s face, and then she composes herself. “Please continue to tell us what is going on.”

Armando resumes using the spyrod. “The ship has a ballista on it and they are firing it at the tower.”

“You mean at the wizard?” Enna questions.

“No, at the tower itself, near the bottom. I think they might be trying to topple the entire thing. Yes, there go another couple ballista shots, also toward the tower. Ooh, the wizard just shot a large green fireball, blasting the ship and really weakening that shield thing. There goes another fireball, wow that was close, but it missed. A redhead girl is firing the ballista. What the?” Armando stifles a laugh. “The missile just fell off the ship, what was she thinking?” He quickly turns serious again, “Oh no, the shield was just destroyed. Get out of there! What, they are not fleeing, they are moving in closer?! Oh, they have the shield back up. No, it is down! Whew!, it is up again. And back down. And up yet again. My this is exhausting, even from here, I cannot imagine what our friends up there are going through.”

“Can they survive?” Enna asks anxiously.

“I have no idea.” He replies. Armando’s eyes widen and his mouth drops agape. “I don’t believe it, they are ramming the tower. Oh my gods, they survived and actually backed out of the hole. But the tower did not fall!” The tone of Armando’s voice goes up and he starts to pant somewhat. “Now they are casting spells, firing the ballista, and it looks like they are going to ram again! I can’t watch!”

“Armando!” Enna yells, “Please, we have to know what is happening. The fate of the Vale could depend on this!”

“Ok, ok. The tower! It is tilting! It is falling! Curse that evil wizard, I hope he is crushed. No! It cannot be! The wizard just flew away. I cannot see where he went, but the tower is down and the ship is still flying, albeit slowly.”

“Are we safe?”

“Hold on. Gods no! As I feared, a demon army is marching this way. I do not know how much time we have until they get here. I cannot see anything else at the moment. I am returning to Winterhaven to prepare. This is Armando, signing off and wishing you all good luck!”

Enna let out a breath she was not aware she was holding in. “There you have it folks. Breaking news, only from your favourite Nentir News source, K-SPLUG. We will update you on the demon scourge as soon as we know more.”

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The Good that Lurks in the Hearts of Monsters

Journal entry…

The Blood Lord summoned me and I did my usual groveling. It was only my peculiar talent that kept me from being a victim of his murderous tantrums. They were quite spectacular. Heads would be torn from healthy bodies and if the heart did not still beat sufficiently to squirt blood from the victim’s neck into his mouth, then the body would be squeezed so as to create a fountain, of sorts. One would think he would grow tired of this trick.

Yes, summoned for my skill of sight. Funny how I now look backwards, toward a time when things were different. For me. Wretched joy. That warm sunlight now burns my memories. I have a secret that no one must know. Those memories live and I cannot banish them, though I have tried all these years and years. Years. I have lost track of time. What is time? I received my immortality. My punishment. My greatest feat. My madness.

Yes, yes. The Lord of Undeath had sent for me but I could only stand so close, with exarches forming a barrier between. Blades stood at the ready should my supplications not be convincing enough. He directed me, the blades drew ever closer, and I began to train my thoughts. Into my trance I descended, quite real, but eyes rolled back for effect.

“Pluton… Illidan Stormrage… Five Heros…”

I suppressed my deepest, secret feelings, for my lord had suspicions. Of all. Of everything. Seers watching the seer. Assassins killing the assassin. Surely amongst his minions there was another like me. Less talented. Fools. I continued my chant:

“The Five… Soul Stone… Curses!”

I relayed to my lord the actions of the five. How they had descended to the core of Pluton, overcoming despair, overcoming the presence of evil, and even initially chasing away the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls. Now they stood near the very heart of Pluton, atop four small pillars that surrounded the central pillar upon which the Soul Stone rested, embraced in mighty obsidian arms. High above them pointed crystalline spikes, which decorated the ceiling. Below them, nothing but a bottomless abyss.

“Cube of Twin Virtues!”

My pupils were pointed toward the underside of my brow, but I did not need to see the Blood Lord’s reaction, for his mind let out a horrific roar. Pure rage. The emanations of his anger filled the chamber and energized the exarches. Their blades inching a bit closer to me. Murderous anger. Kill the messenger. Kill anything.

I paused my chant so as to let matters cool, in this very, very heated place. Then I began to paint the picture. The sorceress had split herself into four avatars of chaos. One stood beneath the Soul Stone and within her hands she held the Cube of Twin Virtues. It was of two colors. Red for elemental chaos. Blue for the elemental astral sea. I took absolutely wonderful delight in knowing that use of the cube could lead one to go insane. Poor, poor sorceress. Delightful. Wonderful. Marvelous. Madness, my friend. Join with. Still, the cube, held in her hands, was suppressing the Soul Stone’s abyssal chaotic energy. I could feel my lord’s escalating malevolence.

“I will deal a special torment upon this one! Fiery red hair indeed!”, boomed the Blood Lord. He was never wrong about these kinds of things.

My chant continued. The cube and stone fought each other, shooting twisty tendrils of red and blue intertwining in a fiery death grip. The sorceress did what she could to manipulate and guide the cube, while the Soul Stone fought with ruthless will.

Meanwhile the rest of the five did battle with the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls. The dwarf jumped upon its back and with a mighty blow rendered the Aspect’s hands weak. The mighty scythe did fall from its clutches and the perch, tumbling endlessly into the void below. As I relayed this, my lord let out a terrible shriek that blew past the exarches, their blades and me. Reverberations of his anger echoed throughout.

“There will be a most magnificently heinous demise for that little one!”, boomed the Blood Lord. He was never wrong about these kinds of things.

These pronouncements seemed make my lord somewhat calmer, so I softly supported with, “My lord, yes, yes, most magnificently heinous my lord.”

Exorcised of his steel, the Reaper drew two more scythes from under his cloak. Yet the cleric had already laid down his hallowed ground, protecting his friends. With this news, a hint of anxiety from my master, perchance? The two scythes then came down upon the dwaf, rendering him slowed and grievously wounded, if he were but a normal dwarf. Still he fought on, with the wizard casting a most impressive spell, one in which I had mastered so long ago, when I was still able to turn up a corner of my lips in a suppressed grin. The mirror sphere confused the reaper, causing it to do harm to itself. Then the young wizard’s mind put forth a mighty, icy grasp upon the Aspect. The Blood Lord’s hoof pounded upon the floor. Nothing was subtle.

“That one, that one shall feel my touch of death as I grasp her puny body and pluck out her ribs one by one!”, growled my prince. He was never wrong when it came to execution on the details.

My vision continued and I relayed a blow by blow account of the action. The cleric had been wounded badly, but healed himself. The dwarf grew weaker and weaker, eventually falling unconscious, which was fortunate for me as it allowed the exarches to relax and withdraw their blades from my head just a little bit. Jesters. Fools. Glory to the cursed. The cleric was then dominated. Marvelous. Wonderful. Welcome to a bit of madness, my dear cleric. The anger of my halo of blades decreased. The prince loved the news, stomping his hoof with delight, if that was possible.

I then described how the dominated cleric was made to dutifully walk off the edge – not a hint of concern upon his face for his fate. Falling. Falling. Now unconscious. Sweet dreams not hinting of impending end. Wretched wizard did cast a spell to slow the fall. Wretched wizard is most impressive, casting a magical gate through which the cleric could fall and reappear upon the platform with the measly human ranger waiting with healing elixirs. Curses. Wonderful. Marvelous.

With the cleric now awake and rejoining the fray, the heroes grew stronger in their spirits. And stronger still as the dwarf finger regained his senses, surely like so many times before. The cube and the stone continued their never ending struggle for supremacy. The balance only temporarily lost to one side or the other. Chaos, my prince’s love, was not always to his liking, for this kind of disorder was not the right kind.

Balance too did move from side to side with the heroes and the reaper, for the soul stone’s tendrils did touch the creature and turned its armor to glowing red. The ranger stood flat on his feet. Dominated. Marvelous. My prince must be a little less angry now, but only little, for there is no blood, no pain, no torture just yet. Hope springs eternal. Still, the ranger’s twin arrows did fly straight – straight into his surprised cleric. Fabulous. Marvelous is domination, for you, not me, that is. Share the madness. Mine and yours. Don’t be selfish.

Changing the course of the battle once again, the dwarf’s axe came down upon the reaper so hard that I contend that I could more than see it. I left this part out for my lord. But with word that the wizard was now using the cube to inhibit the soul sone, my prince’s rage was once again nearing deafening roar. One never got used to it. The sorceresses chaos storm removed the red from the reaper’s armor and the ranger became free of the domination. Poor madness. Loyal companion. Gone from the ranger.

To my astonishment the cleric then performed a trick worthy of praise. With a casual motion of his hand, the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls, was simply dismissed. Gone. Sent. Somewhere. Another plane. Another reality. Anywhere but here. The Blood Lord was displeased…

“This one. This one of the dragon. I shall deliver a special message to their god through them. This one shall yearn for the mercy of death, but it shall never come. They shall know torment everlasting!” He was never one to be wrong on such matters.

While the reaper was gone, the heroes quickly formed around the anticipated return location. The ranger stowed his bow and readied his two swords. The dwarven fighter raised his axe. The cleric braced. The wizard and sorceress plied their magics upon the Cube of Twin Virtues.

Yet still, the soul stone had an answer. A wave of black energy blasted outward from it, destroying the sorceress’ illusory minions and attacking the hero’s minds, weakening them emotionally, inching them closer to madness, to hopelessness and utter despair. Splendid. Delightful. Cloudy thoughts of gloom. Madness, my savior from the truth.

Upon the reaper’s return, the hero’s blows struck with devastation. It’s fate was now all too obvious. It’s existence was now on the verge of finality. Anger. Sadness. Did it ponder, even for an instant, the road not taken? No more shall its scythes reap. No more glory for the new Pluton. No more pride in souls reaped. Never again to reap. True sadness in ending. Marvelous is the end. Lucky is he, not me.

With a final, tremendous burst of energy, the Reaper of Souls, Aspect of Malthal, slashed out with its twin scythes. Energized by the edge of death, upon which their wielder now stood, the blades cut deeply into the dwarf. The dwarf tottered and began to slump. “Join me in death”, the reaper whispered.

The cleric would have none of this. No death on his watch lest it be his foes. With that his own anger leapt forward in a divine reprisal, healing the fighter and basking him in the warm protection of Bahamut. The reaper was at its end. The sorceress’ tempest surge leapt from her ring finger with the mightiest possible blow, enveloping it within the center of the chaotic energies. The cleric’s blow soon followed, rendering the reaper stunned. How could this be happening? It fell backwards off the pillar, scythes slicing only through the air in their last attempt to reap. Falling. Falling…

The ranger then leapt off of the pillar after the reaper. Crazy madness. Glorious. Fabulous. Blades leading, he dived head first and accelerated though force of will in this strange place, the astral plane. Blades plunging into the reaper, the ranger now tangled with the reaper.

“I shall pierce this one’s eyes with my claws and wiggle my fingers around until his brain oozes out. Then I will have him healed and do it again. Over and over again. He shall know my wrath!”, shouted the Blood Lord. He is never wrong on such things and has an uncanny knack for recalling and reviving his original anger.

The fighter recovered, thanks to his cursed cleric, and joined the ranger in the melee. Aided by the controllable gravity of the astral plane, he soon caught up to the falling reaper and ranger. They tumbled downward. Spinning. Whirling. Fighting. Frenzy. The ranger and fighter continued their assault, dealing continued damage upon the doomed reaper. Like a meteor’s unalterable course, they fell toward destiny. The ranger hit. The fighter hit. The wounds bled. The reaper was no more.

On top of the pillars, the wizard and sorceress continued their efforts to control the cube and defeat the soul stone. Micro-cracks began to form on the stone. The two magicians wielding the power of the gods were too much for the soul stone. The cracks grew larger as the wizard’s force of will via the Cube of Twin Virtues was too great for the soul stone to repel. What power! I once yearned for such power. I passed through the void, to the other side. No longer the master. Still the master. I have a secret. Hope.

Clasping the Cube of Twin Virtues, the young sorceress did try to attune. Yet the surrounding maelstrom was too much, perhaps, for she repeatedly failed to gain sufficient mastery. Had she only been under my tutelage. Yes. That would have been marvelous. Wonderful. But it would have ended badly, no doubt. Perhaps the young wizard? No, never. Neither. Never. It would have been splendid. Yes. Ah, what happened then? The sorceress was able to somehow aid the cube as a beam of energy leapt from the cube, through the black soul stone, crushing its black light and striking the ceiling of that innermost chamber of Pluton. The dark red energy of Pluton’s walls did start to recede. Another ending was coming.

With the godly cube raised above her head, the wizard summoned her greatest triumph yet. In a moment, indescribable energy poured forth from the cube and its light disintegrated the soul stone. The cube’s energy filled the chamber, casting its powers upon that inner sanctum of Pluton. The plague upon Pluton was dissipating. In that realm, there was an ending of the sadness, the gloom and despair, the death and madness. I yearn for such an end.

With words of such tidings, the Blood Lord grew still. The chamber was deathly quiet. I continued in a softer voice, for I now saw an old man appear before the heroes. He was dressed plainly, with no adornments except for golden canaries that gently fluttered about him. My prince listened intently and I thought that these may be my last words. Oh how I wish they had been.

The old man had the heroes gather before him and hallowed ground spread all around him. He spoke:

“Heroes, you have defeated the prime evil, the demon lords are now lesser. Ancient power was within the soul stone and its power is now forever weakened. Perhaps this was destiny. In the land from which you came, your foe is commanded by the demon lords. Take heed, but now, for this act of judgement and justice, you shall be rewarded.”

Golden light then enveloped the heroes. Their amulets shined brighter. After a pause, the old man continued:

“Now you already possess the ability to return to your realm.”

The cleric then bowed and motioned to be given an audience. The old man nodded. The cleric asked, “My lord, how may we better serve? How may we use the cube for greater good?” The old man replied, “Ah, you wish to have greater mastery of the cube. True mastery is only possible with the presence of all the gods. Perhaps one day you shall know more.” The cleric bravely continued, “My lord, I have an amulet with two faces – Bahamut and Tiamat. I am of two minds.” The old man stopped him there with a knowing smile, “Young cleric, Tiamat and Bahamut are but one. Perhaps one day you shall know more.” He then motioned for the heroes to gather around and they each touched him on the shoulders.

For a moment I lost the vision, but quickly regained focus on the incredibly powerful event. The old man, the cleric, wizard, sorceress, fighter and ranger were now upon their astral ship. With echoing words, the old man spoke, “Now my heroes, I must depart. Fight for justice. Fight for justice…” The old man visage briefly shimmered to that of a gold dragon and he was gone.

The Blood Lord was still here. He sat in silence. Then came the explosion.

“Names! I want names! They shall all suffer for their deeds against me.”

With that, his rage hit its zenith. Wave upon increasing wave of anger emanated from his essence and like shock waves blasted all within eyesight and perhaps beyond. The entire plane trembled. The exarches were thrown to the ground, and so was I. I crawled to make my escape. I could sense bodies being smashed behind me, indiscriminately targeted in the Blood Lord’s supreme rage. Glorious. Marvelous. Terrible. I exist.

And so too did my secret, for I harbor feelings that I have tried to banish. There is goodness in me. I secretly cheered for the heroes. I cannot explain it nor suppress it. I cannot deny it. I hate it. I fear that one day it will get the better of me. I thought I had murdered these feelings so long ago. I am weak, despite all my powers. I attained greatness and everlasting living death, but this simple thing I cannot conquer. I must go out and kill something now to make myself feel better. Yes, there is one particular exarch that I despise more than the others. He will die. Tonight.

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D&D - The Holiday Musical

Overture

Oh come, all ye Valers
Irate and despondent
Oh come, ye, oh come ye
To Plu – u – uton
Come and behold him
Aspect of the Reaper
Oh come, let us attack him
Oh come, let us attack him
Oh come, let us attack him
Reaper of Souls

(The five adventurers are in a strange realm, following a passage and experimenting with a magical cube they have carried for some time.)

We Five Beings

We five beings, adventurers are
Bearing arms, we traverse afar
Spheres of evil
Caves of the devil
Following signs of war
Uh-oh
Cube of wonder, cube of sight
Cube of power and of might
Downward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect fight

(They come to a cavern with four divergent paths marked by symbols.)

The Four Paths of Pluton

On the first path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
A lion on a field of red

On the second path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

On the third path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Three colors on a dragon
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

On the fourth path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Four crossed swords
Three colors on a dragon
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

(The travelers take the path under the crossed swords, a symbol of the Eladrin. Rift uses the cube to see through the door at the end of the passage.)

Do You See What I See

Said the Eladrin to the Half-elf
Do you see what I see
Through that door, little half-elf
Do you see what I see
A chest, a chest
And a bowl therein
Surrounded by coffins
Surrounded by coffins

(The adventurers enter the room, open the chest, and pick up the bowl. Suddenly the coffins open, spewing fire and skeletons.)

Skeletons Flaming With an Open Fire

Skeletons flaming with an open fire
Sharp claws nipping at your skin
Potent fire blasts being shot by their Lord
And blows directed at your chin
Everybody knows a firefight and some sorcery
Help to make a dangerous fight
Tiny skulls with their eyes all aglow
Will make it hard to survive tonight

(The fight begins immediately.)

Swinging Swords

Slashing through the fight
Through bones and flesh and hair
Anything in sight
He doesn’t really care
Both hands swinging free
Grinning all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik in a melee

Swinging swords, swinging swords,
Swinging all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik swing away
Swinging swords, swinging swords,
Swinging all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik in a melee

(The five flaming skeletons and two floating skulls are nearly too much for the party.)

Good Cleric Z’alden

Good cleric Z’alden looked out
On the field of battle
Where the hurt lay round about
Like some butchered cattle
Brightly shone his mace that night
Healing Rift and Erik
Even healing him himself
And striking hard like Barrick

(The adventurers gain the upper hand.)

Deck the Halls

Deck the halls with bones of fire
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Tis a reason to aim higher
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Take we now our platinum and gold
Fa la la, la la la, la la la
Let’s go on, ere we grow old
Fa la la la la, la la la la

(Victorious, the group continues, but sees a vision.)

Look! A Vision in my Head!

Look! A vision in my head
Golden hall, but dark and dead
Crystal, red and black, in sight
And two beings, in a fight
Arathis and Narul by name
But Narul gets all the blame
“Death is my domain” says he
As he slams his scythe with glee
The soul of Arathis he cleaves
But Narul relents and leaves
Arathis is left alone
Unable to take the soulstone

(The group knows nothing of the soulstone, but is drawn down the corridor to a square room, with four pillars and four walkways leading to the middle, where the soulstone itself rests,)

Tira the Sorceress

Tira the Sorceress
Was anything but dull
With the feat of flight
And a spider’s might
Her bag of tricks was full

Tira the Sorceress
Was a cunning, clever witch
She could open a door
Or call minions four
With a simple nasal twitch

Tira the Sorceress
Knew the stone was guarded some
But she turned aghast
When a deadly blast
Blew her spider to kingdom come

Tira the Sorceress
Was as brave as she could be
When the Reaper appeared
For her life she feared
Just the same as you and me

(The party now faces the Aspect of the Reaper of Souls, whom they had defeated once, but not definitively.)

I’m Dreaming of a Great Victory

I’m dreaming of a great victory
Just like the one we had last time
With some blows from Barrick
And some arrows from Erik
It will surely be sublime

I’m dreaming of a great victory
With every potion I drink
This guy is strong
And the fight lasts long
But we will win, I think

I’m dreaming of a great victory
Though I think we need a plan
I’ve lost my might
I can hardly fight
I hope the others can

I’m dreaming of a great victory
With every ragged, shallow breath
I need to be healed
And then concealed
Cause I think I’m close to death

View
Pirates of the Astral Sea
The Jolly Githyanki is Raised

Verrin the Scum Lord turned away from the stained windowpane. The sun, setting behind him, cast his shadow over the room, dwarfing the figure huddled before him. Torben Eastlander was not one to grovel, but in this case, he thought it best to err on the side of meekness.

“My Lord…” he began.

Verrin scowled at him. “It is ‘Lord Scum’, fool!” Verrin raised his fist as if to strike the wretched scribe.

Torben flinched under the upraised fist. Wringing his hands together, he pleaded, “Oh mighty Lord Scum, lord of all that is villainous and scummy.”

Verrin lowered his fist, looking pleased. “Yes, what is it? Go on!”

The scribe stammered for a moment, then continued. “Lord Verrin, you will recall that I just published my latest volume of stories, The Nameless Horror: Denizens of the Nentir Vale, Volume 4. Did you get my autographed copy?”

Verrin stared around the room, seemingly bored by the conversation. “Yes, yes, I vaguely recall seeing a copy of that tome lying around. Full of lies and rubbish was it not? Don’t know whether I ever got around to opening it.”

Seeing Verrin glance over at the corner of the room, Torben stared. There, sitting on a small table, he could see a dog-eared copy of The Nameless Horror. It was lying open, with a mug of black ale beside it. Torben quickly looked down at his shackled feet. Who was the fool now, he thought to himself? He had the old scumbag wrapped around his finger, even if his hands were tied.

“We could make a deal…” began Torben.

“A deal? Are you in a position to bargain, then?” The Scum Lord scoffed. “How do you think I build this magnificent palace?” Verrin waved his arms around, gesturing at the decaying furniture, the mold-riddled tapestries, the chipped and cracked walls. “By making bargains with common criminals who cannot pay back their overdue loans? I think not!”

Torben suppressed a snicker. “My Lord. You do possess a fine, er, palace, here in the catacombs. But even one as rich as you must admit that getting paid later is better than no pay at all, yes?”

The Lord of Scum stared at the scribe, rubbing his pockmarked face thoughtfully. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?”

“A book deal,” answered Torben. He could see the excitement flare up in Verrin’s eyes, then quickly die down. Torben quickly continued. “You would be the first to read the next volume in the series. A share in the profits. In return, you would erase my debts and remove the bounty from my head.” Torben saw Verrin begin to hesitate. “Just think, you would know before anyone else, what happens to Tira, Z’alden,…”

Before Torben could finish, Verrin jumped in, “…Barrick, Rift, Erik, yes!” Verrin smoothed his stained and tattered cloak, brushing off the remains of a past meal. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. I suppose it might be worth sparing a few moments.”

Verrin snapped his fingers. “Guards, leave us! I have important business to discuss with this wretch.” The four humanoids who had escorted Torben up from the dungeon gave a series of high-pitched hyena laughs and stomped out of the room. Torben shuddered as the foul stench of wet dog slowly subsided. The wooden door creaked shut behind them.

Verrin leaned forward, his eyes boring into his captive, all pretense of boredom gone. “Now Torben, tell me, what have the adventurers been up to?”

“Well, my lord, you will recall from the pages of my unfinished manuscript, we had last left the five friends in the middle of the Astral Sea.”


Tira the Sorceress, Z’alden the Cleric, Barrick the dwarven fighter, Rift the wizard, and Erik the worthy ranger. All five found themselves in an astral skiff, floating in the air, surrounded by distant floating mountains and strands of shifting colors. The Astral Sea was a strange place where gravity was in the eye of the beholder, and you could move in any direction just by sheer force of will.

Torben smiled politely at Verrin. “My lord, you would do quite well in the Astral Sea. Why, a half-orc of your intelligence! I’m sure you could make quite a name for yourself.”

Verrin looked pleased, and then, perhaps sensing a false note, scowled “Enough flattery! Continue with the tale!”

The adventurers knew that they needed to get back to the material plane, to save the Nentir Vale from destruction by the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage. But, since they were here, they decided to do a bit of exploration while trying to find their way home.

Z’alden recalled the vision, where he had spoken in someone else’s voice: “Seek the City of Doors. This is where you will find a path to your own realm. You will equip yourselves here. You will bring justice to the mortal realm. Follow the Veils of Color.”

None of them knew where the City of Doors was located, but they could all see the Veils of Color. In the distance, Erik’s eagle eyes could see a small floating mountain keep. Raising the sails on their astral skiff, they slowly moved forward. Once they had grown closer to the mountain, they could see that the keep was in ruins. Below the keep, they could see that the underside of the mountain was riddled with caves, as if the keep and the mountain had been torn out of the earth, and sent across space to float here in the Astral Sea.

The five brave adventurers beached their skiff near the castle, and leaped to the ground. Tira quickly folded the astral skiff up into a small cube, and after stashing it in a bag of holding, entered the keep along with her companions. Erik suddenly put up a hand in warning, and pointed silently at the ground. The dust lay thick on the floor, apparently undisturbed for ages. But Erik, looking closely, had seen what the others had not – a whole host of creatures had recently been here. Most of the tracks led down to the catacombs below, but at least one pair led up a stone staircase. Quickly, the adventurers raced to the top, swords drawn, daggers ready, axe and staff held high. But the top of the tower was deserted. In fact, there seemed to be no tracks that led back down the stairs.

“Could the fool have jumped off?” exclaimed Tira.

“Perhaps,” said Z’alden, “they simply willed themselves to float away. Just like us in the astral skiff.”

Barrick shrugged. “No matter. No one is here now. Let’s get down below to the dungeons. We are too exposed here, and I feel a draft in my armor.”

The rest of the party agreed, and they quickly made their way back down the stairs and into the catacombs. Coming to a crossroads, Tira could see that one direction led to a hole in the side of the floating mountain. The other direction led to a room. Stopping just before the entrance, Rift knelt down. She could see swirling whirlpools of dust forming intricate patterns. The smoky tendrils of vapor moved as if guided by a conscious entity. Across the room, a doorway beckoned.

Tira stared at the dust. It seemed familiar from her studies of chaos. The words “entropic collapse” rose unbidden in her mind. She knew that to bring any magic into contact with the dust would cause an implosion of the space-time continuum, with perhaps disastrous consequences. “Interesting,” she mused to herself, as she stepped forward into the room. A tremendous blast shook the room, sending a shock wave down the hallway. The adventurers were knocked over like pins in a game of dwarf bowling. Tira stood, transfixed. The castle changed. It was beautiful. The halls were filled with laughing eladrin and smiling elves. The walls were covered with sparkling tapestries and brightly-painted murals. Tira blinked, and the scene faded from her glowing red eyes.

Gripped with a madness in her chaotic soul, Tira lifted her foot to step forward. Rift, Barrick, Z’alden, and Erik shouted “Stop!” as they knocked into each other trying to flee back down the hallway, away from the deranged half-elf sorceress.

Boom! Again, the floor and walls shook. Dust settled down. Tira coughed and shrugged her pretty shoulders. Perhaps she should rethink her strategy of crossing the room.

Barrick and Z’alden shouted at the sorceress. “Tira, stop your shenanigans. Let a warrior show you how to cross a room safely.” Then, as if racing each other, the fighter and the cleric stripped off their armor, lay down their deadly weapons, and strolled across the room. The dust swirled aimlessly about their feet, as they stepped across the doorway on the other side. The dwarf shouted a friendly “helloooo!” and waved back at Tira, Rift, and Erik.

Tira and Erik shrugged, and then quickly stripping off any magic, they joined their comrades. Rift gathered up all of her friends possessions. For a brief mad moment she considered deserting her friends, fleeing with all of their armor and weapons, selling it all, and living a life of luxury. But no, she thought to herself, who was she without her brave companions? She had been nothing before she had joined them – yet another eladrin wizard, wandering the world in search of adventure. Now her life had purpose. Rift smiled, and then, shifting sideways through another dimension, she reappeared instantly beside her good friend Tira. “Boo!” she shouted. Tira jumped as high as a kobold on hot coals. She glared at Rift with her red eyes. Rift smiled back sweetly with her own purple eyes. “Sorry…”

Torben coughed, and spluttered. “My lord, my throat. I cannot continue… Some ale perhaps?”

Verrin stared at the scribe in disbelief, and then, realizing he had no choice, he sighed and fetched his mug of black ale. “Hurry, drink up. I grow impatient to hear the rest of the tale.”

Torben took a long pull from the mug, sighing in satisfaction. Even if Verrin was a foul scum, he certainly knew how to brew a good ale in his grog shops down by the docks. “Now, where was I? Oh yes…”

Coming to a three-way split in the path, the adventurers stopped, perplexed. “Rift! Use the Hand of Fate!” exclaimed Z’alden, cleric of Bahamut.

“Hand of what?” retorted Rift. And then she remembered a long-forgotten ritual. The Hand of Fate would tell you which path was more advantageous, depending upon how you asked the question. Rift quickly prepared the proper reagents, mixing and stirring in the eye of newt and blood of a medusa. “Oh mighty Hand of Fate, we are in search of adventure, and great treasure, and magic, and um….” Here Z’alden nudged the poor wizard. “Oh, and we seek a way home so that we may stop the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage from destroying all that is good, but we still want to have a lot of adventure on the way.” The cleric glared at Rift as a giant translucent hand filled the hall, clearly pointing down the middle corridor.

“Well,” stated Barrick. “The way forward is clear enough. Let’s go!”

But the way forward was not clear. It was blocked by a wall, covered in a huge tiled mosaic. Each tile had an intricate pattern carved in it. There were dozens of tiles missing from the mosaic, and Erik could see that the floor was covered with hundreds of tiles, all with different patterns. The ranger groaned. He had always hated “puzzle day” back in ranger school. But this puzzle was not as bad as some. Z’alden and Rift quickly started scribbling out ideas, while Tira and Erik offered helpful suggestions and shouted out wild guesses. Barrick, who had injured his shoulder playing “catch the two-handed axe”, went over in a corner to sleep. Soon, his fearsome snores filled the caverns.

Finally, as the last tile was put into place, the wall slide down to reveal a tremendous cavern, filling the entire bottom of the floating mountain. Inside was a large floating ship, much larger than the astral skiff. Erik’s eyes light up as he realizes that the party can claim the ship as their own. Quickly, the five friends rush aboard the “Astral Falcon”. After raising the Githyanki pirate flag, they hoist the astral sail and fly off into the void.

Leaving the floating ruins behind, the adventurers consult the charts and decide to sail towards Pluton, rumored to contain the ruins of a dead god’s realm. To reach Pluton, they sail the Astral Falcon through a swirling vortex of blue color, a gateway from one region of the Astral Sea to a different region. Emerging on the other side, Erik cries out in alarm. A massive structure confronts them, a blue-black crystalline fortress. Landing near the center of the structure, the five are struck by a sense of brooding evil. Rift and Z’alden are almost overcome with a depressing feeling of doom, but continue forward under the goading of their three companions.

Inside the fortress they find massive obsidian statues depicting the angels of death. As they descend further into what must be a palace, the statues lining the corridor seem to grow more real. Rift hears whispers in supernal. Suddenly, a ghostly form drops from the ceiling, whispering “Narul is dead, as is this realm…”, as it drops through the floor and disappears.

Then, the spectral figure reappears, carrying a giant scythe. “You can not go further,” intones the figure. When Tira scoffs and attempts to go around the ghost, it suddenly swings its mighty blade in a giant arc. The scythe, which seemed so insubstantial, cuts like a real blade. Staggering back and clutching his wounded side, Barrick gives a mightly roar and wades into battle, jumping onto the ghostly form and madly swinging his axe. Erik whips out two swords and wielding them ferociously, charges forward. Z’alden calls on his god Bahamut for aid, and manages to weaken his foe. Rift looks over at Tira, who is busy flinging lightning bolts.

But nothing seems to hit the creature. For it is an Aspect of the Reaper of Souls, and mortal weapons do little damage. Finally, after Rift manages to lull the evil creature to sleep, the party begins to gain the upper hand. When the creature awakens, it turns its attention to the ranger, somehow sensing that Erik is the most vulnerable. Blow after blow hits the poor ranger, as he valiantly tries to defend himself. Just as Erik is about to collapse, the cleric, perhaps sensing that it would be unwise to die at the hands of the Reaper of Souls, summons all of his powers of Bahamut and brings the ranger back from the brink of death.

In revenge, the party redoubles their attacks, finally striking the ghost with chaotic blasts, icy hands of doom, and blades of steel. The ghost suddenly stops, intones, “Welcome to the Land of the Dead,” and flies up through the ceiling.


Torben stopped. He noticed Verrin looking at him intently, mouth open, waiting for the next scene.

After downing the last of the black ale, Torben shrugged. “My lord, that is as far as I had gotten, when your, um, hyena colleagues snatched me from that fine establishment, the Greasy Goose.”

Verrin sighed, looking at the scribe. “A good tale, I admit it. I’m sure it is all lies and fabrication, but nevertheless, I will agree to your bargain.” Verrin raised a finger and smiled menacingly. “On one condition.”

“And what is that, your villanous-ness?”

“I would like the book to be dedicated to me, as your worthy patron and esteemed benefactor.”

Torben sighed. It was but a small price to pay, to win back his freedom and shake off the last of his debts. “Very well, my Lord. Scum Lord!” he quickly added.

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