Nathaniel Yewprick groaned as his door burst inward. He opened an eye and stared at his mentor, Master Renithar. Renithar glowered down at him, his beady eyes barely visible over his hooked beak.
“Nathaniel. Nathaniel! Pay attention!”
Nathaniel mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “Barrick…sleep…” and then rolled over.
The blast of freezing ice water finally brought him to his senses. Renithar stood over the bed, still holding the dripping jug.
“Nathaniel, you fool! What have you been doing? Your sneaking into the library has been discovered.”
Nathaniel sat bolt upright. “W-h-h-h-a-a-a-t?” he stammered. “Do they know it’s me?”
“No, thank the Torben!” Renithar exclaimed. “And it’s a good thing too. Otherwise, both you and I would be in the Chamber of Understanding before we could say ’Tira’s undergarments’!” As he said this last statement, Renithar winked.
Nathaniel breathed a sigh of relief. Things could not be so bad if Renithar could still make jokes. And Nathaniel knew that Renithar understood. No true believer would utter such blasphemies about Tira, shining light of chaotic beauty, defeater of the Cosmic Spiders and the dreaded Trolls of Idleness and Sloth.
Renithar nodded. “Yes, Nathaniel. I too have read the ancient texts. They are interesting, are they not?” He did not wait for an answer from Nathaniel, who sat dripping and shivering in his frigid monk’s cell.
Renithar continued. “I used the thieves’ tools, just like you. Did you know that they belonged to Rift? Don’t look so shocked. We have many of the so-called relics in the undercroft, below the Chamber of Understanding. Felsmon’s axe, Z’alden’s dragon claw of prayer, even Barrick’s horned helm.”
Horned helm? Nathaniel knew of the other relics, but he had never heard of this helm. Perhaps it came later in the story. Clearly, there was much that he needed to learn.
“Come, come, Nathaniel. You must be more careful. It would not do to get caught. The Chamber of Understanding is not…pleasant.” Nathaniel saw Renithar rub both of his wrists in that odd way of his.
Renithar hauled Nathaniel to his feet. “Come, we have much work to do for tonight’s high feast. The Zenith is preparing for the arrival of the Nadir and her consort of Torben’s Nuns. Masters Windebagg and Stoufful are expecting you to help weed the garden, peel the tubers, and pickle the ankheg.”
By Z’alden’s flame, Nathaniel had forgotten all about the Nadir. And the Nuns. He shifted nervously, and flushed, thinking of them in their leather habits, symbolic of the virtues of Rift and Tira – compassion, humility, and spirituality. With his new knowledge, Nathaniel was no longer so sure of the virtues.
Renithar layed a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder. “Nathaniel, do not forget. After the feast, the Zenith and the Nadir will be in council with the Masters and the High Nuns. The guards will all be around the council chamber.” As he said the word “all”, Renithar gave a slight squeeze with his hand, and a small nod of his head.
Nathaniel’s heart leapt. With everyone busy, the library would be left unattended. The Writings would be unguarded. He, alone, knew their secrets. And tonight, undisturbed, he would finally discover the Truth.
Nathaniel and Renithar swept out of the dismal room, leaving behind a cluttered mess of books, scrolls, dust, and rat droppings.
Nathaniel crept silently down the aisle of the library, an unlit candle in one hand, his parchment and pens in the other. He was getting closer. One more turn, past the Forbidden Catalog of Cards, beyond the Desk of Reference Despair.
But what was this? Up ahead, where there should be only the blackness of the stacks, a light shone dimly. Dismayed, Nathaniel moved forward. As he approached, he could see a small candle on the table. Near the candle were parchment, an ink pot with red ink, and a book. His book! Well, technically, not his. But the Book of Torben Eastlander. The chair, however, was empty.
Where was the monk that dared to infiltrate his library? He alone had the right to read the original writings. Not some upstart son-of-a-carrion crawler. Nathaniel crept closer, using all of his stealth, acquired from the writings and honed in his many library visits.
He thought to himself, “Ahhh, I am getting better at this. Not a mouse could hear me. I move like the wind. As quiet as Erik, stealthy as Prescott, and as courageous as Felsmon.” Nathaniel mused to himself, and then added with a quiet chuckle. “But, like Barrick, I could use a drink of the old Nentir.”
“You’re not as stealthy as Erik, you know.”
Nathaniel jumped as the voice came out of the darkness, almost by his elbow. He turned quickly, and saw a pair of green eyes glowing eerily out of the darkness.
“Wh-o-o-o’s there?” he stammered. He gathered his courage, the third Principle, and drew himself up to his full height (a shade over a staff length). “Who dares to disturb the holy sanctuary of the Library of the Zenith?”
“Who, indeed?” said a bemused voice, as its owner stepped into the light.
Nathaniel stepped back, shocked. Before him stood a Nun, dressed in a green leather habit, which perfectly matched her green eyes. Nathaniel could not help but notice how well the nun’s habit fit. Clearly, whoever had patterned the habit after Rift and Tira’s outfits had done their job a little too well. Nathaniel pushed these distracting thoughts out of his head.
Then Nathaniel noticed her hair. Flaming red, with a small circlet of silver, symbolic of Rift’s circle of protection. Small, pointy ears peaked out of the mass of hair. A half-elf! Nathaniel stared, open mouthed, as the nun waited, amusement twinkling in her captivating eyes.
By the Zenith, what was wrong with him? Was he not a monk of the Zenith, with eternal vows to protect the Flame of Z’alden and the Quill of Torben, at the sacrifice of his individuality, introspection, and independence?
“What are you doing here?” he hissed. “And what are you doing with the forbidden text of Torben Eastlander?” He stopped short, remembering that he was not even supposed to know of its existence.
“Ah, so it is you,” she exclaimed. “I thought so. Give me your thumb.” Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed his hand. She flipped several pages back in the Book, to the page where he had left off, just as the great cubes of the formless void were about to swallow the eight virtuous paragons.
Nathaniel noticed with horror that there was a black thumbprint on the page, clearly visible. Twisting his hand around, the half-elf compared the thumb print on the page with his own thumb, still covered in faded black ink.
“Well, Acolyte, caught black-thumbed, I would say. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Nathaniel shrank, visibly deflating. He whispered, “I was copying Torben Eastlander’s writings. The teachings, they’re…”
“All wrong?” she said, finishing his sentence. “Yes, I know. I came to the same conclusion, a few months ago.”
A few months ago? How had she gotten access to the sacred writings? Nathaniel thought back to his childhood. Years of starvation as an orphan. Then, he found the Church of Torben, and his life had been transformed. He had tried to believe all of the teachings, fervently praying to the mystical Eastlander, practicing the three principles and the eight virtues. Renouncing individuality, introspection, and independence. But doubt had crept in, fueled by the horrors he had seen as a child, rumors of the sins of his father, tales of adventure and exotic lands told to him by his grandfather, long gone now. Then, with Master Renithar’s help, he had discovered the true writings of Torben Eastlander. He thought that he had been alone in his doubt. But, perhaps there were others. Perhaps, with their help, he could set things right, undo the misdeeds of his forefathers.
As if sensing his thoughts, the half-elf stuck out her hand. “The name is Milandra Fillwell. And you are?” She gazed at him with those green eyes.
Nathaniel made up his mind. “Yewprick, Nathaniel Yewprick. Assistant Acolyte under Master Renithar.”
Milandra raised one eyebrow at the name. “Well, Nathaniel Yewprick, very pleased to meet you. However, I think if we intend to finish copying this tome, we had better get cracking.” She gestured to the table. “Pull up a chair. It looks as if I’m a little ahead of you, although our library was missing Volume I, so perhaps you can fill in the missing parchment for me.” She tipped her head and smiled shyly, and Nathaniel was lost.
“Y-e-e-s-s-s-s,” he stammered, and then growing confident. “Yes! Let’s do it.” He eagerly pulled a chair over to the table, fumbling a bit as he lit his candle from hers, and then pulled out his earlier scribblings. “The last event to occur, the Paragons had…”
Milandra put a hand on his arm, and Nathaniel felt a jolt of electricity shoot up his body. “Nathaniel, let’s not fool ourselves any longer. They are not Paragons. They are adventurers. Pure and simple.”
Nathaniel grinned, both at his own foolishness and at the half-elf nun with the red hair. “Right! Well, the adventurers had just encountered two huge cubes of gelatinous muck, with strange shifting cordate material.”
Nathaniel looked down at Torben’s tome, reading the forgotten words:
(Here do I, your poor humble scribe, Torben Eastlander, continue the tale. As related to me by Z’alden, blast his addled brains): Tira charged forward, trying to outrun the cubes.
Nathanial’s thoughts drifted. Hmmm, didn’t Tira have flaming red hair, just like Milandra? Tira was beautiful for sure, but dangerous. Milandra, was she dangerous? Nathaniel looked up from his musings to find Milandra staring at him.
“Sorry,” he exclaimed weakly.
(Bah, what posh is this about running cubes. More like s-lo-w clerics…) Just as Tira ran past a large rock, suddenly large tentacles lashed out, catching her off guard, and grabbing her slim waist. Tira twisted, folding space with her chaotic mind. (Why do I have to put up with this rubbish? I will have to ask Barrick to confirm this tale of twisting space, if I can get his head out of the mug.)
Nathaniel and Milandra sat back, shocked. Why did Torben have such irreverence towards the adventurers. They had been taught that every word was truth, to be taken as the Zenith and the Nadir’s word. “Let’s continue,” said Nathaniel.
Z’alden continues (an entire bottle of Nentir ‘97 wouldn’t shut this cleric up). So then, Rift, summoning her magical reserves, conjures up a wall of flaming aether, torching both the dreaded Roper and one of the Cubic life forms. (At this point, Barrick reared his ugly head from below the table, and began to bellow). There I was, the only dwarf in the party. Who else was going to climb the mighty giant? I runs alongside the fire (blast that Rift), and leaps on the beast’s back. Using my boundless endurance (as the lady dwarves will attest), I hacked and hewed into the beast, choping off ropy limbs left and…
At this point, a large pool of ink lay dried and smeared across the tome. Clearly Torben had been tipping back the Nentir with his companions. Milandra and Nathaniel eagerly flipped to the next page, grinning to each other.
…the wizard had befuddled the party, that much was sure. Felsmon, seeing the flames, and recalling his own torment at Rift’s hands, beat a hasty retreat back into the tunnel, and right into the gelatinous pseudopods of the other cube. But his courage held, backed by his bosum companions Norfand and little Stewart, Felsmon’s new best friend. In one room, Tira, Rift, Barrick, and Z’alden fought against the malevolent roper. In the passage, Felsmon, Norfand, and Stewie battled the cube.
Z’alden used his munificence to call down the wrath of Bahamut upon his foe. The roper writhed in agony as both the divine and arcane flames flared around him. Barrick too felt the heat of Rift’s flames, but shrugged it off, the smell of burnt dwarf beard brought back so many memories of battles past. Meanwhile, as Felsmon grunts, “Cube. Swallowed me. It had an acid spray, but that was nothing compared to my axe. Whacked it good, I did.” The cube however, did more than spray acid, In its cold alien logic, it knew it had to devour its foes, take their essence. First, it swallowed Felsmon. Then Norfand and Stewart, the halfling’s eyes growing wide in fear. They continued to fight on, from within. Stewie pointed – what was that, thought Felsmon? “The evil brain, in the middle!” Felsmon began to aim more carefully, leaping back and forth like a caged dragon, his axe whirling.
Rift, meanwhile, continued to confuse her foes and her friends, immobilizing both the roper and the poor dwarf, still on top. Tira, laughing, shot out bolts of lightning from her fingertips. When this wasn’t enough fun, chains of fire then erupted from her outstretched arms, her fiery red hair reflecting the fire of her spell. She laughed more as she saw Rift, from across the room, being engulfed by a cube. The wizard struggled, then went limp, apparently defeated. (Here, Rift burst into the tavern, shouting.) “Limp, no way! I had the situation fully under control. First I caused a terrible burst of fire within the cube, directing it at the brain. Then I, like, teleported that nasty cube directly into the flames of justice!” (I swear, Rift is looking more attractive these days – I’ve got to lay off the Green Dragon beer.)
Nathaniel and Milandra both heard the clunk of the lock at the same time. Their eyes met, as fear spread across both of their faces. The lock turned, and then the door to the library slowly creaked open. Nathaniel extinguished both candles with his fingertips, suppressing the pain. At the same time, Milandra flipped the book shut, and with a smooth fluid motion, replaced it within the cage on the shelf. A confusing babble of voices echoed down the library corridor. With a shock, Nathaniel recognized one of the voices as the Zenith. In the growing lantern light, he saw from Milandra’s fearful expression that the female voice must belong to the Nadir. Quickly gathering up their parchments and quills, Milandra and Nathaniel melted into the shadows at the back of the aisle of forbidden books. Nathaniel noticed with dismay that the aisle was a dead end.
Nathaniel could tell that several of the Masters were leading the party along. He recognized the voices of both Windebagg and Ofit Stoufful. Windebagg was puffing along, bellowing “…and our security is top notch, I say, top notch. Never had a breach, eh Ofit?” A single gruff grunt was the only response. The pool of light had reached the aisle where the two trespassers stood. Nathaniel knew there was no hope of evading capture. But in a flash, he knew he had a duty to protect the fragile young half-elf standing beside him. Not a single doubt crossed his mind, it was indeed up to him. As the Acolyte of the pair, he knew the most about the layout of the library. He alone could save them. He tensed his muscles for a sudden charge. He would grab Milandra and burst free of their would-be captors. He would move so quickly, they would not even recognize him…
As this last thought crossed his mind, he suddenly found himself pulled down and backwards. Milandra grabbed him, and quick as lightning, pulled him down, squeezing both of them onto the lowest shelf, which was free of books. They lay, side-by-side, on the shelves of this aisle and the next-one over. In the flickering lamplight, Nathaniel saw Milandra put a long delicate finger to her lips, motioning him to silence. Nathaniel lay there, too shocked to protest. His plan…she had thwarted it. Confound it, was he a man or a chapel mouse?
Nathaniel thought back to the last page they had been copying…
Apparently, as any schoolchild could have told them, once the adventurers realized they should target the brains of the six-sided creatures, the battle was quickly won. Barrick, Z’alden, and Tira finished off the roper, the stench of burning tentacles still in their nostrils as they raced to help their friends. Z’alden quickly blinded a cube, the searing light finding its way to the creature’s dark heart. The other cube was brought to justice (note to self – before publication I must remove the gratuitous use of the word “justice”, otherwise some well-meaning soul will think there is some divine will at work, and make my tome into some sort of religion). Barrick, taking his sword, charged the cube, running right through it and crashing straight into Felsmon and Norfand, both still inside.
(At this point, Tira finally joined our group, saying goodbye to the good-looking guardsman at the bar). “We found a dead elf!” she exclaimed. “With jewels of arcane focus!” (Out of the corner of my eye I saw Felsmon roll his own eyes.) “Big deal. Just some lumpy stones. Tell T.E. about the stinky frogs.” Tira glared at Felsmon. (I gather that there were indeed terrible frog-like creatures. “Slaads,” they called them. Whatever.) Tira continued, “There we were, striding boldly through the caverns, ready for anything, except frogs. I don’t hate frogs, not as much as snakes, but I don’t like them either.” Apparently the slaads had leapt out of the water, just after we descended a waterfall at least 100 staff lengths high (I don’t believe this part, and neither should the gentle reader). The slaads were creatures of chaos, and sensing a worthy opponent, they concentrated their malevolence on Tira the sorceress. There were three huge green slaads, and one smaller red one, apparently the runt of the litter. They inflicted terrible damage on Tira, Felsmon, Z’alden, and Barrick, implanting chaos phages within them. Somehow Rift escaped this fate. Tira suggested that Rift smelled too bad at this point, and no one would get near her who valued their senses.
The party tried over and over to strike the foul amphibians, but none of them could connect. Finally, Barrick was able to draw them to him with his battle prowess, and the paragons’ hits began to tell. Z’alden’s god smiled down on him with tooth, claw, and radiant flames. But the slaad could teleport, and they quickly evaded Z’s attacks. Apparently, Rift was able to kill one of them with a ray of frost (cloud of stench perhaps?). Tira gave the runt a taste of its own medicine, striking it down with a bolt of chaos. Finally, Felsmon and Barrick gave the combined dragonborn-dwarf yell, and the remaining two slaad fled to the safety of their dark lake.
As the dust and cobwebs tickled his nose, Nathanial thought about that last mysterious sentence of Torben’s.
The adventurers came into a small room. No one was there, but it had evidence of recent habitation, including a secret peephole into the slaad chamber. Suddenly, a green gas hissed into the room. Z’alden stared, shocked, as one by one, the party dropped into unconsciousness. His last thoughts before he drifted off, were, “by the golden dragon, we should not have searched the room so thoroughly…”
Nathaniel’s nose itched even more. Milandra, facing him, saw his distress. She reached over to him, and rather than brushing away the cobwebs as he expected, she instead grabbed onto his nose, holding tight. After a moment, the spasm subsided, and she released his aching proboscis.
The voices at the end of the aisle grew clearer as the light filled the aisle. A deep voice rang out. The Zenith himself!
“Masters Windebagg and Stoufful, you have indeed been most diligent in your guarding of the library. So diligent in fact, that you deserve a reward. Perhaps a month in the Chamber of Understanding might be in order?”
Nathaniel heard a sharp intake of breath, and a wheezing gasp.
“But, my lord, I do not understand. We have been most…”
The deep voice rang out. “You have been most lax. Several times the guards have been called out for disturbances in the library. We have found bits of parchment and drops of ink in the forbidden areas.”
At this, Nathaniel saw Milandra glare at him. Nathaniel tried to look contrite, but the nearness of the half-elf in her green leather was most distracting, and his expression instead took on a look of extreme constipation.
The voice continued. “And look, the cage containing the true words of Torben Eastlander, left unguarded and not even locked. Tsk, tsk tsk. How will we maintain peaceful order in our society, if young monks begin to suspect the truth? What say you, Nadir, do you have such problems in the Convent?” A fierce debate started to rage, with the Masters talking loudly and the Nuns responding shrilly, each one protesting their innocence more strongly than the other.
Without warning, a sneeze exploded out of Nathaniel, raising a small cloud of dust and debris. The voices, which had been arguing vehemently, grew chillingly silent.
“Who’s there?” boomed the commanding voice of the Zenith.