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.