Nathaniel Yewprick stared at the manuscript. The young monk had been working with Torben Eastlander’s writings for well over a year now, but the more he read, the more confused he became. His master, Stoufful Ofit, was the acknowledged world expert on Eastlander’s work, but the young Yewprick was finding that Ofit’s interpretation of the opus didn’t match his experience with the text. The other masters’ teachings were just as incongruent.
This particular collection of writings, “Horror in a Tomb”, continued Eastlander’s allegorical interpretation of man’s inner turmoil, according to Ofit. His master had intoned with all seriousness,”The writing is clearly an allegory. Notice how, at the start of this tale, the characters sleep on top of a tomb-like mound, among smaller mounds that together are shaped like a skull. They wait for evidence of the evil in the Tomb and find nothing. Here, Eastlander is warning us against the futility of too much self-examination. We may not find the evil within us if we only look inside our skull. We must look at our actions.” Then, the old man became very excited. “Notice how the only way that the adventurers realize that the smaller mounds form a skull is when the dragonborn Paladin flies above the tomb mound. Here, Eastlander is telling us to soar on our thoughts so that we can perceive the truth of what is around us and within us.”
The young monk had bitten his tongue at that one. As crazy as it seemed to him, Nathaniel was coming to a different interpretation. He was starting to believe that the characters of Eastlander might have been real people who had related their adventures to the scrivener. But, the young monk knew he was on shaky ground with this heretical thinking. The entire Church of the Eastlander was founded on the moral guidance that Master Ofit and the others believed was in the tales. The young convert was starting to have doubts. Doubts that ended up with lashes whenever he voiced them too loudly to Master Ofit or any of the other masters.
Still, Nathaniel could not resist the pull of the raw tales. He preferred them to the sermonized versions that the masters gave. Even though it was forbidden, he would work late in the library and wait until all others had left. Then, alone in the musty rooms, he would go to the locked original texts, pick the lock (“just like the sorceress Tira”!), and take down a volume. Tonight, he cracked open the first book of the “Horror in a Tomb”. Of all of Eastlander’s writings, this story was the most perplexing to the young monk. Eastlander had given no clear reason why the Valers had gone into the Tomb in the first place. Certainly, Eastlander mentioned the cleric’s overwhelming desire to destroy undead. But, was that in the original story or had the writing been changed to reflect the Church’s understanding that “undead” was Eastlander’s metaphor for peasant uprisings that must be suppressed. Nathaniel knew that even these manuscripts were not really the originals but copies generated by the church. Had they been true copies? Or, had they been edited like the heavily-altered stories dispersed to the masses? Perhaps. In this tale, Nathaniel believed that the sorceress would not have been convinced to risk life and limb with such scant motivation as suppressing peasants. Or, even of destroying undead, presuming they were real. Nathaniel winced at the memory of the biting lashes had received when he voiced that opinion.
Of course, Tira was a bit of an issue anyway, having been a Warlock in earlier stories. Maybe Eastlander was less certain of Tira? The Church’s interpretation was that Tira represented the unbridled passion that must be directed by those in command. The teaching was a bit sketchy about who was in command of the sorceress. Was some male power directing her? For her motivation to enter, the Church claimed that the half-elven sorceress sought the deeper understanding of one’s self that comes from looking inward. “I don’t believe that for a minute,” thought the young monk. Tira was after adventure not introspection. Maybe she did buy the cleric’s argument that they should seek some famous sarcophagus inside to deliver to the King Kaius who was making war on the Nentir Vale and the Kengi. The cleric had argued such a delivery might be the ruse needed to approach this evil King. Maybe she went in for the sheer thrill of it. Oh, the lashing he would get for that thought! Still, it was preferable to Master Ofit’s interpretation of her motivations.
The interpretations of the other Valers were equally confusing, but Nathaniel put those thoughts away as he continued to go through the writing. Though quite illegal, he was copying this original text. He was becoming convinced that when he was done, he might need to leave the monastery. Quickly. And, he was not going without the stories.
As he copied the introductory part with the party was standing in front of a huge mound, the monk could almost hear the bats returning for the night into the leftmost of three vine-covered entrances before them. He imagined himself as the taciturn Ranger carefully pulling back the blackened vines on the rightmost to reveal a rubble-strewn and impassable entrance. He could feel his eyes consider the vines themselves, destroyed by the aura of death that surrounded the Tomb. The Ranger had told Eastlander of his anger at the destruction of nature. Nathaniel sniggered. Master Ofit loved those vines. He would extol for hours about how the failure to consider one’s place and follow the Church led to death like the vines trying to cover the tomb had withered away. The agile and daring Ranger was always Master Ofit’s favorite. Nathaniel was convinced Ofit knew nothing of the true Ranger Erik.
The monk concentrated harder to move along with his copying. He quickly found his mind drifting to picture the archway of the middle entrance that confronted the group with a ruby-red A at its apex. Despite Master Ofit’s insistence, Nathaniel was positive that A signified nothing more than the name of the Tomb dweller Acererak. The brightly colored tiles in the hall beyond might have some meaning, but the red path that meandered through them was probably not the “road of one’s life with pitfalls and difficulties” that Master van Laangweend thought it represented. The beautiful artwork on the walls depicting orcs and goblins living together with human and elves was probably not the message of doom that Master Ofit related if one did not adhere to the Church tenets.
Turning aside from his ruminations, and returning to Easterlander’s text, the young monk marveled at the Ranger’s perception to see a riddle faintly inscribed in dwarven runes in the red path:
Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this whatever you wish. For you will be mine in the end no matter what!
Go back to the tormentor or through the arch and the second great hall you’ll discover. Shun green if you can, but night’s good color is for those of great valor. If shades of red stand for blood the wise will not need sacrifice aught but a loop of magical metal – you’re well along your march.
Two pits along the way will be found to lead to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall. These keys and those are most important of all, and beware of trembling hands and what will maul. If you find the false, you find the true and into the columned hall you’ll come, and there the throne that’s key and keyed.
The iron men of visage grim do more than meets the viewer’s eye. You’ve left and left and found my Tomb and now your soul will die.
Nathaniel was not sure what to make of the riddle. Perhaps five score theologians had poured over it. Their attempts at meaning put him to sleep. The young monk was more interested in the portal at the end of the wide corridor than he was in the many pits full of poisoned spikes that the adventurers uncovered. He believed that the roping together of the group to avoid further falls probably was as obvious as what the church said. The solidity of the dwarf Barrick, continually saving the scouting Ranger and the others, probably did, too. And, the huge green demonic face at the end of the corridor, with a black mouth that absorbed all light, could be the darkness of the soul of man that we must all avoid without a thorough examination lest we be sucked into its maw. But, the dragonborn Paladin Felsmon sticking his head into a misty archway and being teleported into a small room whose floor dropped away the moment he arrived made for compelling reading by a master storyteller, and not a parable about following the dictums of the Church. Felsmon had flown when the floor disappeared and then had fascinating explorations that had led him back to the party while they had gone through the archway and been teleported to another location. Not much allegory there, despite the masters’ best efforts.
Nathaniel tried to copy diligently. He couldn’t help but see the storyline itself in his mind’s eye. Separated from the Paladin, the cleric Z’alden, the dwarven fighter Barrick, the Ranger Erik, and the sorceress Tira had found themselves in front of a large gargoyle with four arms. One of the arms had broken off. Placing items in the hands only saw the items crushed.
Unable to discern the meaning of this gargoyle and with the amazing return of Felsmon, who had maneuvered down a series of small tunnels to rejoin them, the group found a crawl space and maneuvered through it, passing through a golden field of light into a huge hallway stretching off into the distance. The walls of this room were covered with humanoids holding variously-colored spheres. Touching yellow and blue spheres had no effect, while touching the orange sphere had caused a spear to come shooting out of the wall at the sorceress. Felsmon had touched a silver sphere and found an opening that he pushed against and fell into a secret room. There he found a secret door, and with the rest of the party following, they followed a route that Eastlander described as “tunnels and doors.”
Master van Laangweend had written extensive treatises on how the adventurers each took turns finding the secret door needed to advance as we must all share the burden of discovery, how each secret door slid a different direction showing the variations that life’s discoveries might take but no door could be held open (Nathaniel guessed that the force bolt that had seared the dwarf might have been a stretch of Eastlander’s imagination but then Eastlander always portrayed the adventurers having the enhanced imagination) showing how the way is not meant to be one of regret , how the twists in the corridor mirrored life’s uncertain journey, how…enough! Nathaniel shook his head in disgust. Yes, the more he thought about it, the more the masters were ruining a good story and nothing more. It was this, the real tales of Eastlander, or as close as he could get to them, that he would copy and sneak out of the monastery for the public to read. They must know the truth.
He turned to the next part of the story:
I was never really sure what to make of the cleric as he related to me what happened next.
“Felsmon had broken through a door, and we were confronted by a room strewn with rubble. Niches in the walls held evil-looking statues. Broken statue arms littered the floor. On a tall pedestal in a far corner was a huge gargoyle with large, bat-like wings. Felsmon flew up to look the gargoyle in the eye. We heard a piercing shriek and living armed claws launched from the gargoyle at our beloved paladin. A battle was on! And, I looking at the creature, realized that it was demon-made, of the same elemental construction as those horrid beasts. By the Dragon, but I did rejoice, as since my time battling ice demons in Kengistan, the Great One has given me powers that can be wielded against such as these the same as if they were the vile undead. But, my prayers would have to wait, as my comrades are much faster to arms than I. Tira launched a fire attack at the monster, but its only effect was to blast her and slam her against a door. Such is the life of a chaos sorceress. General Barrick had more luck, throwing his axe into the air at the flying monster and wounding it with great success. The ranger’s steady eye was true, hitting the gargoyle where it most vulnerable and exacting a terrific price for each magical arrow that flew from his enchanted bow. “ Z’alden took a breath and a sip of Nentir ’97.
“Still, it was not enough. The monstrosity, still airborne you understand, had to deal with our flying paladin. Little did the former statue realize that Felsmon is a flying fortress. There is little on this plane that can penetrate the armor and hide of this warrior. The gargoyle learned this the hard way when, unfazed and unhurt, the Paladin returned his attack with a massive swipe of his waraxe. You might not know that a statue come to life can reason, but it was clear that he realized the futility of continuing to battle one nearly invulnerable, so the gargoyle swooped down to claw our valiant ranger and found meat beneath the leather. Our taciturn ranger made not the slightest sound at this affront to his skin. Felsmon gave chase and himself swooped to further engage the gargoyle. Oh, what a beautiful sound his axe made as chunks of the gargoyle began to fall off. The tide was turning our way.”
“A small intake of breath from Tira and one word of ‘Claws’ and ‘Floor’ was all the warning we had as the fallen statue arms came to life and ripped and tore at us on the ground, slowing those that they could grab. Tira and Barrick both were mired in this muck of marble. The mighty dwarf refused to succumb to this and lunged into the air, you would have said that the fighter could fly, as swinging his axe while in the air he soundly struck this statue-come-flying monster. Unbelievably, the monster flew back to his pedestal and the cracks began to join together. The monstrosity was healing! Such a vile use of a blessed power could not be permitted. Calling upon the mightiest powers of Bahamut, dragonclaws of sapphire light exploded from me and assailed the statue. As I had prayed, the gargoyle was stunned, and my companions and I took our play from this momentary advantage.”
“Felsmon, noticing that the creature wore a necklace, flew up to the pedestal and took the jewelry. Tira found another corridor and a door that opened into a wall of light plaster. Punching through, she found the initial corridor we had entered. Eastlander, you remember, the first hallway with the blood red path and the poison spike traps that Erik and Tira had so cleverly negotiated while roped to Barrick? This door was the other side of the painted door we had passed. What a twisted and warped place this tomb was.”
The cleric took another sip of his wine. I took some of mine and made a few notes to remind myself not to be drawn in. Remember, Torben, tombs of this complexity come from the imagination of adventurers who have spent too many days away from civilization.
The half-elf cleared his throat and continued. “The gargoyle’s stunned condition only lasts for a few heartbeats. Another shriek and we were again under attack. Barrick had gone down a separate corridor and had to rejoin the fight while four claws on the end of powerful arms accompanied by that awful shriek were raining down on the Paladin. To no avail, of course. In return, the dragonborn’s axe raked the gargoyle with a nearly perfect series of blows that extracted a heavy price. Then, the mighty lightning came from his mouth. By the Claw, but this attack had no effect on the statue. Tira would have no more of this. Her powerful bolt of multi-colored chaos magic assaulted the mind of this monster, and in a split second, the gargoyle’s head and then entire body exploded! Victory was ours. For the dwarf’s good work of returning to the battle, he received little more than an attack from the animated arms on the floor.”
“The ranger had found another hallway, one free of these horrible arms. We made our way down it, and then paused to look at the necklace. It was made of 10 beautiful rubies, like those in the bag I found. Sensing one of the gems might have some magic, we looked at it further. A small piece of parchment was enchanted inside. Extracting it, we found another riddle-poem:”
Look low and high for gold
To hear a tale untold.
The archway at the end,
and on your way you’ll wend.
“What meaning these verses might have we could not discern.”
Nathaniel lifted his pen. In all the teachings of the masters, nothing had ever been made of these verses. Maybe in their haste to interpret Eastlander, some of the writings had been overlooked. Maybe he was truly reading and copying the original writings. The young monk dipped his quill and continued to copy, even as his pulse quickened at thought of being so close to the true story.
I, Torben Eastlander, could only marvel at the half-elf’s tale, but I wondered where it was leading. Throughout the evening, he described to me more mysterious rooms, including one with colored circles. The black circle had an interesting story in which the dragonborn had found that the circle was actually a portal to a passage. Exploring, the group found a room six staff lengths square with three strange symbols on the floor. It must have been the cleric himself who investigated this room, as he could not remember the symbols in any detail. After hearing these incredible stories, it is clear to me that the priest has the memory of a sand pile.
A red circle got the group further thanks to the sharp-eyed ranger. A winding, descending corridor led to a dead end according to Z’alden and Felsmon, but Erik could spy not only a secret door, but also a catch to release it. A second catch, caught be the eagle-eyed sorceress was needed to complete the opening. One does wonder at the elaborate nature of the tales this group devises. Still, they are amusing. What was even more enchanting is the room that they entered.
A vast, pitch-black room, which, once illuminated, showed frescoes of beautiful humanoids covered with holy symbols of Bahamut, Pelor, and other good deities. From his reverent description, it was clear upon his entry that here, in this tomb of horrors, Z’alden had found a shrine of hope, a bastion of sanctity. The half-elf’s eyes turned fiery as he relayed what happened next. To his horror, the group realized that the humanoids were distorted, their flesh rotting. They became images of skeletons. This was no good shrine, but one that was evil, sick and twisted. The warped nature became clearer as the rows of pews in front of the group were investigated. Tira lifted one of the benches freeing a noxious cloud of rotting gas that filled the room. Luckily, these benches did conceal some good – several thousand in gold, according to the cleric. As if such stories could be believed. But, these fanciful musings were nothing compared to what he said followed.
The altar area, glowing blue, drew him onward. Stepping onto the dais along with the ranger, the blue glow changed to a yellow aura of “pure evil” as he called it, always seeing things in such distinct terms is this zealous cleric. Upon reaching the altar, lightning exploded in all directions, burning the party. At Z’alden’s touch, purple flames exploded all in all directions, further searing the party members. The cleric smirked as he related how Tira told him not to touch the altar. The altar itself dissolved. But, Z’alden was far more perturbed by the color of those undivine flames that had injured his friends. They so mocked the very warmth of purple-flamed healing that the Great Dragon grants through him. Whatever his original reason for going into this Tomb, the cleric was now incensed. This perversion could not stand. The forces and powers that assembled this Tomb must be destroyed.
A portal in the room that seemed to interest the dragonborn was not investigated. I still cannot believe that anything in this place was not investigated by the paladin sticking his noggin into it, but that is how the cleric told the story to me, and what am I but a poor scrivener. Instead, a small opening, the size of a coin, or a ring, in the far wall drew the party’s attention. Finding that a coin in the slot did nothing, and recalling the strange riddle of the dwarven runes about loops of metal, Z’alden put his Cherished Ring into the slot. The wall dropped away to reveal a passageway with descending stairs.
Could I imagine a staircase that this group would not descend? No, probably not. Over the paladin’s objection that the portal needed his head through it, the party went down. Three poison-spiked pits recalled the “two pits” somehow – the cleric is not good with mathematics, and checking the wall on the last, Erik found a secret door. Is there a door that is a secret to this perceptive human? Obviously, these doors are not so hard to find, I think. The others are probably just blind to anything that isn’t a hulking brute with a warclub. Regardless, after a quick investigation of some singing and happy laughter on the previous level (truly I am not making this up, merely relating the cleric’s tale) that ceased when the paladin smashed through an iron door barring the way to the party, all the adventurers descended into the pit and went through the secret door.
A fog obscured the way, and perhaps for the first time, a sense of fear filled the dragonborn. He turned to run before the solid dwarf grasped him and helped him to shake off the evil magic that pervaded his senses. As the cleric said, “It was Barrick that understood the fear infecting us all came from breathing the fog. He bravely rushed across the room without taking a breath, opened the far door causing the fog to dissipate along with our unnatural fear. By the Dragon, but that is what bravery is! Confronted by the fog of fear, you put one foot in front of the other and not behind.”
Even as his quill dripped, Nathaniel was fairly certain that last quote of the cleric must have been an insertion of the Church. Well, maybe. Or, maybe the cleric really did make small sermons at every opportunity. Nathaniel heard rustling from down the corridor and saw a cloud of dust. He could almost feel the fog of fear coming for him! But, he had not completed this section. What was the point of taking such risks if he was not to finish? No one was supposed to be here at this time of night, anyway. They would get in as much trouble as he would. He pressed on.
The cleric continued, his eyes beaming as he told the next few parts of the tale to me. He drained his glass. “We pressed on towards a faint glow up ahead. Lying on the ground was a mace. I have not beheld its equal. Adorned with holy symbols to all that persevere in the fight against the vile undead, this was a weapon of radiant power about which I could only have dreamed. Thank the Dragon, but here was a weapon to focus my prayers to call upon his Claws, his Teeth, his great Power! And, would we need it.”
Nathaniel turned the page. He dipped his quill to continue. The masters had never mentioned this part of the story. He hurriedly began to read. A sudden noise made his head turn, spilling his ink. There before him was one of the masters! The one he knew the least, the half-elf who kept to himself mostly. Nathaniel started to stammer. The master held one figure to his lips, and said, “Be at peace. I, too, know how captivating the True Writings can be. But, you have other places you should be. It is time to go.” And then, he winked.