He had been patient, he had been clever, he had been persistent. As the sun came and went many, many times, Nathaniel had stealthily but faithfully copied Eastlander’s original writings, and had finally learned to keep quiet about what he found there, to save his poor back from the lash.
What he had found were stories that seemed not to be imaginative allegories, but rather honest if overblown recountings of actual occurrences. They were more believable than the later, altered versions, because the characters and their relationships stayed relatively constant throughout Eastlander’s original opus. In the church’s versions, these characters – Z’alden, Felsmon, Barrick, Erik, Tira, and others – while iconic in their appearance and many of their abilities, often changed their beliefs, their philosophies, even their style of language, from story to story.
Nathaniel had come to realize the extent of the license taken by the church’s scholars. Sometimes he barely recognized a tale in its original form. Sometimes he did not recognize it at all, because it had been left out of the Zenith’s books altogether. Sometimes he could find no source in Eastlander for a tale from the Zenith books; in those, he had noticed, the characters as written by church hacks were particularly untrue to themselves.
Finally, this night, Nathaniel had reached the point in the original stories that he had looked forward to since he had begun this long work. The story that formed the basis of his faith, and the faith of all his colleagues, the story that formed the very basis of society as he knew it – the return of the Savior, the one true Savior of all peoples.
Having read and copied up to the very location in Eastlander where the Savior reappears, Nathaniel had resolved that he would read through the ensuing pages, just this once without copying as he read, so that the original description of the Savior’s heroism would bathe him in truth and comfort as the sun’s rays bathe a newborn in the fields. His faith had suffered mightily as he discovered how the church had stretched the stories’ content to further their own religious initiatives. Still, deep in his heart of hearts, Nathaniel knew that the greatest truth, as told to him on his father’s knee, of the existence of their Savior, would shine through Eastlander’s prose and rejuvenate his faith.
And so Nathaniel turned the page and began to read. Eastlander was interviewing the dragonborn paladin Felsmon, who was demonstrating how he had put his shoulder, next to Barrick’s, against a partially-open door while Tira and Erik looked through. The huge Felsmon was able to peer over the top of the door.
“‘Demon. Very ugly. Very dead now. Old friend Prescott with sword. Nearly dead, too.’”
So it was all true! He had always known it, of course he had always known it! Prescott The Magnificent had returned to save the band of Valers, as he would save all believers in the later life! Nathaniel’s heart pounded, fairly bursting with pride, hope, and joy. Overcome with relief, Nathaniel wept.
When he could continue, Nathaniel read on. The cleric Z’alden had healed Prescott’s wounds, said Felsmon. That was news – why would the church version leave that out? Prescott had been wounded in his previous appearance in the stories, and no reader would expect him to be invincible. Nevermind, Nathaniel thought, now the group would meet the enchanted weapons, Prescott would part them through his force of will, then would tame a pair of swords for Erik, and a shield for Barrick.
“’Z’alden enters room. Swords fly from wall, attack Z’alden. Tira too fast for swords. Tira reaches Prescott in next room. Barrick too slow, new swords hit Barrick. I, Felsmon, enter. Puny swords dare to attack, I crush swords. I crush Z’alden’s swords. Barrick in trouble, I crush Barrrick’s swords, too. I crush all pitiful swords, but night falls on me.’ The massive dragonborn became quiet. I waited, sipping my wine. Eventually I realized that, since he had just been blinded in the story, he had no more to tell. He might have clued me in, but “Felsmon” has always been a synonym for “reticence”.
I was in luck that day, because Erik stopped by looking for Barrick (who was not to be found), and I was able to drag him into the interview. You never knew with Erik what you would get, but today was “unbelievable” day. ‘So I send a couple arrows at some swords, they clang off – unbelievable! – and when I jump into the room, these two swords came flying at me, but they slow down and just, sort of, gently turn around and, well, present themselves to me – I can’t believe it! – so I just, I don’t know why, but I drop my swords and grab the new ones, and they feel good, and then my old swords attack me – incredible! – and I fight them off with my new ones. Barrick gets a new shield the same way! Hard to believe, but there it is!’"
Nathaniel noticed there was no word yet about Prescott’s having tamed the swords and shield. This did not bother him too much. The Valers were accustomed, in these stories, to magical happenings which they could not at first explain. Doubtless they would figure out soon enough who had tamed the swords.
“’Poor Felsmon here, he makes a fine regent with a crown stuck hard on his head and a scepter, but blinded! Imagine that! I grab the scepter from him and touch the gold end of it to his crown, and it loosens, and he can see again. Unfathomable! He takes the crown off, puts it on again, it gets stuck again! Who would believe it! So I touch the silver end of the scepter to the crown – big mistake! It sends a strike like lightning to his head, I think it’ll kill him, but he survives. Inconceivable!’
The dragonborn began to speak again, now that he was no longer blind in the story. ‘Not so easy to kill. I fight more swords. Boring, never ending, leave swords behind.’"
Nathaniel read warily, weighing each utterance for some sign that Prescott the Magnificent had become Prescott the Savior. Eastlander was quoting Erik again.
“‘Of course, better minds figure out what to do with that amazing scepter. Z’alden touches it to the throne, and the throne sinks, opening a passageway down to a huge door – all made of mithral! Incredible! Tira tries a couple keys, gets a couple small shots of lightning for her trouble. Imagine that! Somebody notices the scepter would fit there – might have been Prescott, he’s a good one to have around – and the doors fly open! Who would have believed it!’”
Nathaniel was pleased to see the Savior’s role becoming more significant in the story, though he noticed how offhanded were Erik’s comments, as if the Magnificent One were still no more than just another adventurer.
“I ordered more wine, trying to decide between interviewing Mr. Reticent or Mr. Incredible. But while I was inking my quill, another of the band arrived. Tira swept into the room like a queen, and we all sat a little straighter on our stools. Soon she had picked up where the others had left off. ‘Of course I remember that room: burnished silver ceiling, a stone sarcophagus reminiscent of the ones at Abn-El-Adrid but with a heavier lid, a tall stone urn in front, which we would come to know well, wooden chests on either side, with both drawers and doors, cast bronze handles in the shape of …’. I stopped her there – Tira could describe a scene nearly as long as Barrick could drink ale – and asked her what happened next. ‘Well, the crown and scepter had disappeared, which we took to be a good sign – we were getting somewhere, it seemed. But Barrick tripped over his own feet and fell against one of the statues in the corner, which somehow signaled the urn to produce two huge elementals. Prescott was quicker than any of us, as so often.’”
Ah, thought Nathaniel, now the true Prescott would come to the fore.
“‘But Prescott’s blow had little effect. That cursed urn was prone to spitting out more elementals, so some of us fought them off, while others tried to smash the urn itself, with only partial success. Z’alden did the most damage to these monstrosities. I tried some arcana-related attacks, accomplishing little. This battle lasted for some minutes, it seemed, until finally Prescott noticed a switch at the bottom of the urn, and threw it. The fire went out in the urn, and all 5 remaining elementals disappeared. Our old friend had done us a solid that day.’”
Threw a switch? Any person could throw a switch. Nathaniel had always believed that Prescott the Magnificent had held a dozen elementals in his gaze, overcome their wills with his own, and cast them back to the fire from whence they had come. Well, perhaps that was just an exaggeration on the part of the church. Prescott had, after all, been the one to find the switch, despite the presence of Z’alden, Tira, and Erik, all of whom were excellent in such matters. Nathaniel could forgive the license taken by the church hacks, he supposed – but inside, he was feeling more and more defensive.
“‘Before touching anything else, we dragged the four statues out of the room, lest they come to life and attack us. Good thing we did, because the sarcophagus was empty, but under one of the statues I found a handle, cast bronze, with an oval cross-section like the one on Erik’s old swords, the ones with the scalloped guards and the pommel like a …’ What happened next, Tira, I asked. ‘Oh, OK – The handle opened another passageway down. Prescott and Erik led the way, and somehow discovered a secret door down there. I tried the bronze key, and not for the first or last time that day was punished for using the wrong key. But the golden key worked; the wall descended, revealing a chamber, about 4 staff lengths by 4 by 6 high. The floor held an intricately carved and painted depiction of a gate, with a motif derived from oak tree branches in the bottom row of bars and a similar motif derived however from …’ This time I did not need to cut her off, because a great crash came from the kitchen, followed by the smashing open of the kitchen doors, as Barrick stumbled out, a leg of boar in one hand and a tankard of ale in the other. ‘Ah, there you are, lads, what lies are we telling today?’ Clearly already drunk at noon – or maybe still drunk – the wide dwarf took a seat near Felsmon, burped long and loud, and knawed at the fleshy appendage in his hand.”
Nathaniel knew that the rest of the story was all Prescott, all the time. Or rather, he hoped so.
“Erik picked up the tale. ‘So Z’alden uses a gem we have for seeing, and finds a keyhole under the floor, which is only made of brittle plaster, and which I smash as if I were Felsmon. Imagine that! Tira tries the golden key again, which worked last time, but not this time – she gets zapped again! That’s four times within minutes, how is she still standing, none of us can believe it!’ Tira nodded and shrugged. But then the dwarf dropped the ragged bone from his mouth and spat, ‘I know this part! She puts the other key in, and the floor starts to rise! I jump off quick as a dwarfwife from a wedding bed, and everyone else gets smashed to the ceiling! Lucky for them, I can climb like a tree elf, that’s all I’ll say.’ Barrick chomped down on the shank again.”
Barrick the only one to sense the danger of hell’s floor, the floor that demanded a choice between heaven and hell, squeezing out the middle? Barrick the one to save the others? Barrick the Savior? Nathaniel’s stomach suddenly turned sour.
“Smiling, Erik pointed out that he had freed himself from the trap even before Barrick had climbed up, but agreed that ‘Yes, you did unbelievably well, old friend – here, have some more ale! Well, we pull out Z’alden, then Prescott. Tira slides out incredibly easy. Barrick is tired by now – believe it or don’t! – so Prescott and I pull out Felsmon, who is so stuck that we don’t imagine he will ever come out, but he does.’”
Page after page of Prescott the Savior being described as just another member of a band of adventurers, no better or worse than the others. Was this story really the basis of his faith? Was this really the basis of his society? Was the act of putting down Acererak the only truly magnificent thing Prescott accomplished? Was he even the one to … Nathaniel felt a swirling in his head, his hearing fading out, his sight blurry, but he continued to read.
“Tira chimed in next. ‘If Z’alden were here, he would tell you I only survived because I fell on top of him when the others “saved” me. Six staff lengths they dropped me, barely conscious! Anyway, when we had all recovered, and healed, thanks as always to Z’alden, we saw yet another door under the raised floor. This one was made of 12 carved panels ’ – she looked at me – ‘… er, well, Barrick opened it, and we entered a small chamber with a small jade sarcophagus, the letter “A” in red, surrounded by symbols which, um, I guess I will not describe. Anyway, we had found Acererak, and we were going to have a go at him, come what may. Prescott had found some special gloves on the floor, made of – never mind – and he put them on before we had a chance to check them out, but they seemed to work, and he opened the sarcophagus, and a skull rose out. The skull was glowing red, and its eyes would bore right into you if you looked at it, right into your brain.’"
So Prescott would at least finish off the evil one with his new “Hands of God”. Nathaniel tok what comfort he could from this.
“Before Tira could say any more, Felsmon rose to his feet, and stretched to his full height. ‘Evil skull, devil skull, puny skull. Erik shoots skull, Prescott hits skull, Z’alden curses skull, Barrick misses skull, Tira lightnings skull, all fail, but I, Felsmon, ’ – his voice rises to a roar – ‘I, Felsmon, smash skull like eggshell! Evil one gone! May evil soul writhe in torment, evil line die out, all evil he made crumble to sand, evil name forgotten at last!!!’ A roar from the others followed this speech, and was still echoing when the outside door burst open, showing a ragged, panting Z’alden framed by the noon light: ’She’s here!’ he shouted, racing out again. The others followed in seconds, Barrick leaving his tankard half-full, a sure sign that I would hear no more that day.”
Some weeks after his moment of clarity, his own personal enlightenment, Nathaniel wondered why he shouldn’t write his own book. He could write the truth, as revealed to him in Eastlander’s tales. How we were all in this life together, with no help on the way, no Savior around the next corner. We had a shared mission, we all had our own abilities and weaknesses, we all had a part to play, and we all had our turn to be heroic or to have fun, hopefully many turns. Whatever power controlled this world, if any, played no favorites, but somehow managed to keep things interesting.
But if he, Nathaniel, would do the telling, would anyone do the listening?