The young monk stepped back into the shadows as he heard the approach of two people. Masters, by the sound of their drakescale sandals. Nathaniel’s heart still raced every time he approached the forbidden section of the library, but this interruption by the unexpected late-night strollers had come as a heart-pounding shock. He clutched his satchel of ink and parchment like a protective parent. He hoped he could be as stealthy as Erik the Ranger and blend into the shadows. He pressed back into the recesses between two columns. As their lantern light flickered, Master Windebagg and Master Ofit passed within two dwarfs of young Yewprick. The rotund monk and his stout companion stopped not a staff length away. Nathaniel dared not even breathe. Luckily, the pair did not turn their heads as they began to speak.
“What do you make of the disturbances reported in the Forbidden Section?” Ofit asked his fleshy companion. Windebagg cleared his throat, as though beginning an oratory to a child, “My dear Stoufful, that little weasel of a librarian would think that mouse droppings were a sign of a rodent conspiracy to invade his beloved drakeskin racks. He reported some nonsense. Now, we are on ‘patrol’ for phantoms. Our little stroll is a waste of time. I will humor the Zenith only because I wish to avoid a trip to the Chamber of Understanding.” Ofit lowered the lantern as he nodded appreciatively. Not all who went in for Understanding returned with their limbs intact. “Well, let us finish our little jaunt for tonight, report to his Greatness’s secretary, and let van Laangweend and the others have their turns. Thank the Axe, the new guards will be here in a week’s time, and then we can cease these useless meanderings.”
The two walked off, and Nathaniel exhaled as quietly as possible. Dagger’s Edge! Guards in a week! Patrols by the Masters! How could he have been so careless as to leave traces of his work where the rat-nosed custodian of the scrolls could detect him? He was so far in skills from his heroes, and now he would have to figure out how to unobtrusively access subsequent volumes of Eastlander’s True Writings after tonight.
Based on their footfalls, Nathaniel reasoned that the half-hearted patrol would not return this way. He chuckled. It may be the furthest that Master Windebagg had walked in a year. Based on their pace, which was slow, even if they did come back, he had at least two hours.
The monk’s fingers trembled as he pulled out the small case of tools that the half-elven Master Renithar had given him. At first, he couldn’t believe that this Master was somehow helping him, but the aid had been true. Master Renithar had given him several lessons in how to use the tools to pick the locks that secured the copies of Eastlander’s True Writings. Good thing that the Church didn’t use magic like Tira! The half-elf had been kind in his teaching, a trait the other Masters never showed. Distracted by that mystery, he almost dropped the tools. Idiot! Tira would have had this lock opened ages ago. He steadied himself, took a breath like the Master had instructed, and the lock opened easily. He quickly extracted the drakeskin parchment, shut the cabinet, and moved to the most isolated table. His small candle barely illuminated the writing. His tears of joy did not help.
In front of Nathaniel was Torben Eastlander’s original journal continuing the interview with the cleric Z’alden Silverflame about the Tomb of Horrors. Nathaniel had reached the description of a strange room with three vats and twisted, constructed bodies. Each vat could easily hold two dwarfs, maybe three. Those ostensibly magical vats, Nathaniel had been taught, represented the three horrors of life without the Church: individuality, introspection, and independence. As all knew from Z’alden’s sermon, the third vat was indeed the most evil. Independence oozed forth to destroy the heroes as Tira poked her arm into it! The woman’s pursuit of independence was the most damaging to society, as this story told and the Church reinforced often, but all were subject to the rule of the Zenith in the Church of Eastlander.
Nathaniel saw, even in the first few lines of the journal, that the meaning of this peculiar part of the tale might be different from the common teachings. He hastily began to copy as he read Eastlander’s notes.
My time yesterday with the Ranger left me with bigger metaphors than a man who has just seen a wood nymph step out of the lake. I needed to see just how much the normally taciturn Ranger had been trying to assuage his feelings about running from his friends to protect them from a ‘dangerous’ crown. I note with some irony that, by his own admission, this is the same circlet that later the cleric would wear and would, according to the half-elf Z’alden, increase the ability to wound the enemies of Bahamut. Ha! I think I have seen the Ranger’s true colors here and they are a shade of the daisy. Try as I might with Z’alden later that evening, I could not drag out of him that Erik had the courage of a hatchling. No, all the cleric of Bahamut wanted to discuss was his feeling of helplessness as ooze burst forth from vats. Scratch that – only one vat held the oozes, the others had strange properties, including acid that did not burn the skin of the sorceress as she stuck her arm in to retrieve half a golden key. Acid that did not burn her.
“Really?” I grilled the cleric about this, but he was firm. “Tira could resist the acid.”
I checked my notes. “Yesterday, the Ranger said she could resist poison.” Nodding earnestly, Z’alden said, “Oh yes, thank the Dragon that her resistances change each day. It was great providence that she could withstand that acid, else we might never have found that important half of the key.” Convenient, I muttered to myself, but the cleric failed to notice. This one doesn’t seem to understand sarcasm.
The lack of a believable quality in the details leads me to be even more certain that these five are trying to get themselves sung about by bards with incredulous tales, but I will not be duped. Still, the last volume sold well, and I am but a poor scrivener, and the cleric had offered to pay for the meal as an act of charity. I neglected to mention my profits to date from the previous volume. I continued the interview.
“I must remind you that most of my comrades were battered and bruised after the battle with the skeletal demon of Acererak. I was confident that Bahamut would answer my prayers for healing, and that we could still face any foe. Oh, but I would pay for my hubris!” The cleric started a small sermon here, the numbing details I have omitted. He failed to notice when I put down my quill and took a swill of the liquid that passes for wine in this inn. It is not Nentir ’97 I can assure you. I resumed my notes when he ended his homily and resumed his story.
Nathaniel’s quill dropped. The famous homily of Z’alden before the battle with the evil of Independence was well-known to even the most junior monks. Eastlander hadn’t even recorded the Sermon on the Ooze? Someone from the Church had just made-it-up? What else of the stories had they simply invented? The monk pressed on, confident that Master Windebagg would never make it back this way again. He picked up his quill.
The cleric himself took a deep draught of the swill (he clearly does not notice the difference), and began to describe the events. “Having found a peculiarly shaped key in the second vat, Tira went to the bubbling green liquid of the third. Instead of placing her arm in it, she used an earthenware jug to start scooping out the contents. Just as she was extracting the jug, a bubble turned into an oozy, green tentacle that reached out and tightly grabbed the sorceress. The burning acid from the tentacle’s surface left a horrible smell in the room but did her little harm thanks to her magical resistances that day. The whack itself, though, was enough to knock her a bit silly. It took even the hearty sorceress a few heartbeats before shaking that off. Then, another tentacle came out of the vat and attacked Erik. His swords flashed snik, snak and sliced some of the mucus arm into pieces. Unfortunately, this had little effect. A whole blob of oozing creature, tentacles of a putrid green acid flailing dangerously, poured out of the vat and another began to bubble up.”
The cleric took another sip. He really has no taste buds. “Tira would have none of this. Her dagger whirled and cascading bolts of iridescent lights enveloped the mound of monstrous muck. The creature shuddered and some bits fell to the ground. Still it persisted onwards. Barrick thought to test his axe on the living pile. A mighty heave and the ooze seemed less directed. Black streaks lined its surface, as though the acid covering it was weaker. It seemed as if in those places we could wound it more easily. And, its tentacles were split making it harder for the mucus to attack us. It was a mighty blow!”
“By the Great Dragon, but these wicked things had done enough to our liberty, I presumed. Oh what folly I had. Still, my prayer was answered and a great glow of burning white light sizzled the two oozes, further darkening those blackened areas that Barrick had made. I took a deep breath and called again on the Dragon. His Great Face formed in front of me, and sacred flames of his icy breath made one ooze shudder. Then, directing the righteous light, I made the first one continue to burn with an ongoing golden radiance. Sensing that victory was at hand, the mighty dragonborn Paladin swung his swarthy greataxe into the ooze – tearing it in half! He let out a might roar, only to have it answered with an explosion of acid from the muck flying in all directions. It coated all five of us. We could not avoid it. The acid immediately got under the skin. It affected the mind. I could think of nothing. I had no sense of time. I could not move. Woe it was, because I could still see. For several heartbeats, as a third ooze lurched out of the vat like the goop from a child’s nose, the vile scum flailed their acidic tentacles on the helpless five of us. With wide eyes, I watched as Barrick shook off the effects and split another ooze in half. More acid burst forth! The Ranger, who moments ago was a shining light of swift action and superhuman ability fell to the floor. My friend was dying, and all I could do was watch, helpless under the effect of the mind-numbing acid. It was an evil trip. Even so, we could not fail to note a golden glint from the bottom of the vat. But, the look was only an instant, as the rest of my companions also were burned by the acid or bludgeoned by the tentacles.”
The cleric leaned onto the table to steady himself. Even I, the doubtful scrivener, could not help but see the terror in the half-elf’s eyes as he re-lived the scene. Here was a healer who had been unable to get to a comrade just staff lengths away. Regardless of my feelings about the veracity of the tale, something had happened in the room that had left Z’alden humbled. He was convinced that he had the power to help the Ranger but could not use it. I was moved. Then, the half-elf steeled his grey eyes as he related what happened next.
Nathaniel could not believe this. The evil of the third vat, Independence, that the Church so vilified as robbing one of true freedom had actually been mounds of living muck that froze a person helpless in place with their acid burst? Yes, the ooze from the vat took away liberty, just as the cleric had said. But, the true theft was by the Church in its deception. What was more evil? These creatures set by some wicked power to keep watch over a key, or the twisted tales that the Church of Eastlander had pulled from Eastlander’s stories of real heroes? Yewprick dipped his quill and continued to copy, even as his mind raced with the repercussions.
The cleric leaned in close to me like one making a confession, “The mighty sorceress was not as helpless as I. She shook off the acid’s effects, launched another of her never-ending store of powerful chaos bolts at the ooze, and then had the presence of mind to take out a healing potion and maneuver to the Ranger’s aid, pouring the magical draught down the throat of the dying man. He coughed once and opened his eyes, weak but alive. While I took some delight that I had made the draught days earlier, I longed to aid him further but was still in the clutches of the acid. I could do nothing but make a trip to the altar of hope and prayer. The great Paladin had overcome the effects, and thank the Dragon, called on Bahamut to come to the aid of Barrick. I could almost see the form of the Dragon envelop my dwarven friend as the son of stone shook off the acid’s numbing effects.“
“Having come to but still very weak (my potion was not very strong healing), the Ranger decided a strategic reposition was in order and moved with great speed back into the corridor. Unfortunately, the original mound of mucus gave chase. It was like the swift flow of a child’s vomit in the back of a carriage. I have never seen something so disgusting move so fast to its destination. Our brave General Barrick would not have this vomitous mass again take down our friend. He took a depth breath, gave a battle cry to get past the bruises and batterings, and charged the thing but to no avail. Its quivering volume was too swift for the dwarven axe that time. Still, in his bravery, the great dwarf had given the sentient muck more to think about it, and that would be the key to victory.”
“Dragon’s tail, but I had finally shaken off the acid’s effect. Calling upon Bahamut’s grace, silver and purple flames of healing restored me and then flew from my hands to mend Tira’s wounds. Felsmon also restored himself by the Dragon’s power, and then opening his draconic mouth, let lightning fly at the mounds of muck. The crackling energy sizzled and burned into the ooze closest to him. The muck melted into the floor. If you have ever seen the ooze below a scab, then you have seen in small what we saw at large, as the creature died away. But, in one final, evil twist, it exploded in acid, covering the Paladin and numbing his mind. Thank the Scales, Tira, I, and the rest were out of range of this burst.”
“From the corridor, the Ranger longed for the fight. Knowing himself to be most vulnerable in a weakened state, he took his prized swords and flung them as though they were light as daggers – one, two – at the ooze that blocked the corridor’s entrance to the room. One bounced off the door jamb, but the other, oh its sharp blade was well placed. The muck was rent in half, and it exploded in acid! Barrick was covered, burning until his mind again went numb.”
“Though only one ooze remained, the outcome was unclear. The mound was fresh. It had few black marks and looked as green as the moment it came out of the vat like the thick stuff of a sick child’s nose, while we five were weary and bleeding. But, did we give in?” The cleric looked around the room. The Inn patrons had pulled their chairs in close while he had recited the tale to me. “Did we give in?” He lifted his voice, and slammed his mug on the table. “No!”
The crowd roared with approval! Note to self: learn oratory some time. It can have a powerful effect. With his audience enraptured, this was no longer an interview but a telling. The cleric knew what he was doing when he simply told the tale without moralizing. I was as drawn in as the patrons. Was he slipping in some lesson that we were taking even as we followed his story? The cleric broke my revery as his voice rose, “Did we despair? NO! From our stores of power, we sent that evil pile of putresence back to its maker. Tira teleported, leaving a poison cloud behind. You might not think that poison could hurt a creature of acid, but by the Claw, it does. Spells and axes flew at the thing, even as it lashed its tentacles out at me.”
“The dwarf had had enough. Telling the monstrosity where it could put its slimy self, Barrick wielded his Axe and wrenched the mound into two. Acid again sprayed in all directions, but Barrick was ready and ducked behind his shield. Tira was not so fortunate but in a few heartbeats, she had shaken off the worst of it. I called my comrades close. Bowing my head, calling on Dragon’s wings, and my body glowed like the sun as it comes just above the horizon on a cold day. The golden warming rays covered my comrades and mended their wounds and my own. In a few brief moments, we were fully restored.”
Nathaniel realized that he had been holding his breath as he had copied the last few lines. It did not seem as though he was recording some ancient history. It was though this had all taken place just a few weeks ago. He pictured the half-elf surveying the bar crowd as he finished up the story line. And then, Nathaniel began to strengthen his resolve. The True Writings would see the light of day and no longer be confined to the holdings of a few scholars while the Church mangled the stories and conscripted more soldiers of the Zenith to maintain its control over the people. Nathaniel would bring the light of truth to the people just as Z’alden’s light burst forth healing his friends. He waved his quill. Some ink dripped. Before that, the monk realized, he had to finish his copy. He dipped his quill, turned the page, and continued.
Oh, yes, he knew what was supposed to happen next. After the struggle with the ooze, then comes the terrible rest that left the heroes without their full strength. After that, the crossing of the yawning chasm that signified the depth of despair of a society without the Church. The great Paladin, with his dragon wings flies across it like the society in the wide arms of the Zenith himself. Only the independent woman Tira fails to cross, teaching us that all should submit to the Church and not use the unreliable rope of self-determination lest it break, and we fall into the pit of massive spikes of chaos itself.
Nathaniel was puzzled. Nothing about this was on the next parchment. Had the Masters just invented this, too? Or was some part of the book missing? What about the part of the story where Barrick and Felsmon charge a door that is icy cold, shattering it, and the adventurers enter a ruined room with rotting tapestries. The puny chest in the room is filled with nothing but copper. The ruined tapestries on the wall are covered with scenes of evil, toothed fish. Master van Laangweend loved this story for its implications on the futility of life without the Church. Only the crack of truth in the wall leads onwards, but the Paladin loses faith and fumbles through its narrow way, bringing down the rotting tapestry of desolation and causing the fish of despair to overcome him. The inquisitiveness of Tira, tapping the tapestry, teaches us what individual investigations lead to, a blast of the cold of separation from the Church that brings nothing but ruin.
Instead of these parts of the story, all Nathaniel could find was a short section of the interview describing the well-known trap of the monstrous elephant statue that rolled this way and that trampling the heroes. Elephant day was a favorite with the children. Everyone understood this to be a simplistic story of the capricious destructiveness of a society without the guiding force of the Church. Even as the Ranger had landed on the back of the gigantic statue to steer, so did the Church direct society to keep it from trampling all into oblivion. Every year, children received pink candy rolls to celebrate the triumph of the Church over its enemies.
After having seen nothing of the spiked chasm or the rotting tapestry room, just as Nathaniel suspected, there was no real mention of the elephant statue and its horrendous rolling pins of doom in Eastlander’s journal. There were pages upon pages of the importance of this elephant and the rolls in the Book of Eastlander. Nathaniel would find one reference to the pink candy. In the journal, there was this small side note:
The cleric gave me an incredible description of a massive elephantine statue on rollers after several sets of beautiful doors were opened. These were the “false” from the cryptic poem. The cleric still suffers from some delusions after a trip to the southern reaches of the continent or something like that. Statues do not roll forward, then backwards, then forwards, then backwards, then backwards, crushing the bones of those who happen to be too slow or dim-witted to move out of the way. Paladins do not fly over demonic elephant statues. I will note that, at one point, from underneath the table the dwarf Barrick awakened from his stupor and shouted to me, “Scrivener, it was the pink cart from hell!” I snorted knowing the reliability of the dwarf’s descriptions. Sensing my complete lack of interest, Z’alden skipped past this part of the tale, and the crowd ordered drinks.
The monk laughed. The Masters had turned a molehill of a few lines into a mountain of a credo. Quickly past this small section, Nathaniel continued to transcribe. The “true” door had been found as a hidden one only revealed after many inspections. He scribbled through the incredible description of a massive magic iron door with three slots. At Felsmon’s suggestion, only upon risking their prized magic blades by placing them in the slots did Erik and Tira open the huge door that barred their way. So many lessons had been taught on that act, and the dragonborn’s guidance to pursue it! But, his lessons did little to prepare him for the cleric’s description of the many-columned hall into which the five entered.
“We entered a cavernous room filled columns and pillars. The ceiling alone was 30 feet above us. On the western wall that spanned perhaps 30 staff lengths or more, three doors were spaced along it. Above the nearest and furthest doors, well up on the wall, demonic green faces with black mouths like the one we had seen in the beginning of the tomb. On the eastern wall, an ebony dais featured a solid silver throne covered in silvered skulls. Sitting on the throne was a golden crown and a golden sceptre inlaid with silver. The throne had an inlaid of gold that matched the crown and sceptre. What strange imagery was this mean to represent? I cannot say. All I know is that the dragonborn was a like a child who had been listening to a schoolmaster drone for hours upon the subjects of Muqabalah and jabr and now had found a room full of the most wonderful toys. He nearly flew from one spot to another while the rest of watched like deer frozen in place. I don’t know if it was fatigue from the encounter with the deadly elephant statue or something else. If only one of us had had the good sense to stop the romp before it ended badly.” He looked wistful for moment, and the continued.
“First, Felsmon investigated the throne. He picked up the crown and placed it on his head. He said that he could see the room more clearly now, but it was never clear what this really meant. Around a crater in the northeastern corner were several dead, burned skeletal figures ringed around an orange gem. Felsmon picked up the gem. I studied it but could really tell nothing. Tira and Erik discerned it was a wishing gem with one wish. Tira could tell that the scepter was magical and that it was tied to the crown and the throne.” The cleric smirked, “Even with my meager training, I figured out that much.”
Sidenote to self: maybe Z’alden does understand sarcasm. I have to keep on my toes with this one.
“There was something about those demonic wide mouths that the Paladin could not resist despite his previous experience. He was like a tongue touching a painful tooth. Felsmon flew up to the furthest mouth and stuck the scepter into it. Instantly, he realized his mistake, but it was too late. The scepter was being sucked in and so was he. In a heartbeat, our impetuous Paladin had disappeared.”
Nathaniel turned the page, and then he froze. He had been wrong. Masters Ofit and Windebagg were coming back. Nathaniel could not believe the geezer was still breathing after such exertion. He had a few moments to hide, or he would surely be discovered. He hastily put his night’s work in the satchel, returned the Eastlander scroll to its place, and hid under the table, just like Tira had in the fight in Goodright’s house at the start of the Horror book. Even as he loved emulating the heroes, how the young monk longed to get to back to the writing. Just yesterday, Master Windebagg had extolled upon this very part: the fate that befell the young Paladin Felsmon after he had been dragged inexorably into the obsidian mouth of an emerald demonic face in the mysterious columned hall. Nathaniel no longer believed the words that the entire class had chanted as the rule of the allegory: the demon face and its black mouth represent the darkness of the soul of man that we must all avoid without a thorough examination lest we be sucked into its maw. The Paladin’s flight up to the black mouth represented the high-flying thinking that only led to destruction. Indeed, the dragonborn had vanished into the darkness leaving the party alone in the large chamber.
Nathaniel shuddered as he remembered what happened next, at least according to the Church’s version. He shuddered even more at the thought of a trip to the Chamber of Understanding if the Masters caught him here. He waited with held breath. The two Masters passed by, grumbling about the stupidity of their little constitutional. Nathaniel exhaled as quietly as possible. He followed behind them at a distance and returned to his cell, putting his completed pages in their safe hiding spot behind the third stone. Now, just how was he going to back to the True Writings with these patrols?