Campaign of the Month: March 2009

Denizens of the Nentir Vale

Phase to phase with exploding stars
The adventurers go through a phase after splitting the party

“How could this have happened?” the despondent scrivener thought to himself. After an hour of brutal beating, Torben Eastlander finally knew where he was. Shackled in the dungeon of Verrin the Scum Lord. The one who held those debts he never had quite enough money to repay. “I never should have started betting on tournaments. Never. But, who would have thought that Harrod the Mighty could possibly lose so badly in hand-to-hand combat to Prescott Quickblade? That little elf had only a dagger!”

“And who knew that Verrin would come collecting now? I thought that the Barron was hunting him for some slave trafficking. Most unfortunate the scum wasn’t caught. Even more unfortunate is that I needed only one more story out of those adventurers, and I would have had the funds in full. The Bards Guild has been paying very generously for my imaginative tales of those worthless adventurers. This is all their fault. If I hadn’t become so convinced of the great luck I had run into with their tales, I never would have made those bets in the first place.”

He muttered to himself, “Such are the ways of fortune. Now my fortune needs to improve quickly. These shackles are starting to hurt again, and I am getting hungry. What would those heroes do?” The quick-witted scrivener smirked, “Guards! Guards! Tell Verrin I can repay him.”
The cleric’s leg began to ache as he followed behind the Ranger along the muddy trail. It was his right leg, the one that the Kengi healers had regenerated. Felt kind of scaley tonight. He always did wonder where that initial bone had come from. And he itched between the point of his ears and his helm. Water had accumulated there as the rain continued to pour. Oh did it itch. Z’alden was not one to complain, but between the ache and the itch, he was beginning to grow weary. Would this rain never cease? It was like a flood! The sort of thing that happens maybe once in a hundred years. Maybe once in a thousand. It was certainly distracting him from the business at hand. Keeping up with the Ranger and the rest of the party.
And it was cold. The rainwater was freezing. Almost like the frigid water in the lair of that flying wyrm, the Ringgael. A Cold Storm Z’alden had just been getting ready to tell the scrivener what had happened next. With this freezing rain he could recall viscerally how his hands had been unable to grip the ice to pull out of the water. Swimming in scalemail is no easy feat. That and the electrified tempest surrounding the Wyrm made it difficult to think straight. It was like being hit upon the head with a mace. Difficult to think of more than one thing at a time. The others who stayed close to the Ringgael were having this problem, too. Tyra wisely got to the far side of the chamber some 100 staff lengths away it seemed, but not before being scorched like so many of his friends by a massive burst of lightning from the beast. Z’alden smiled as remembered his friend’s response to Wyrm.

Rift cast her mighty Hammerfall step, magic rams bashed the Ringgael, moving it closer to Z’alden while the magic opened a tear in space and time and teleported the fighting dwarf on top of the creature! Barrick’s response. He could see the mighty axe shimmer as Barrick dug his boots into the scales of the wyrm and rode it. He slapped his own with the axe and shook of the effects of the dazing field, even as his presence distracted the Ringael. Then, the dwarven axe showed its measure wielded by an expert fighter lathered in the heat of battle. The deadly attacks so knocked the creature with a blow like thunder that it fell from the sky into the icy water with the cleric.

With the wyrm close, the cleric studied its elemental nature, found a weakness, and called upon the sapphire claws of the Great Dragon to form, tear, and then push the Ringael further underwater. The Ringael was rendered stunned by Bahamut’s power and majesty. Ice began to form and encase the beast. The well-timed work of the party had bought them some time to lick their wounds and gather together.

Finally getting out of the water, Z’alden made his way back to the entrance as the did the others, except Tira, who looked for some other way out of the chamber. Z’alden recalled being mystified at how Tira could sense massive amounts of magical energy through what appeared to be massive stone walls.

He did not have long to think. Even encased in ice, the Ringael could still form the tempests of lightning. His metal helmet must have been an easy mark. The wyrm never missed the cleric. Once again, Z’alden was in the frigid water. He had enough presence of mind to call upon Bahamut to heal Erik after the lightning had badly burned the ranger, but close to the wyrm, he could do nothing for himself even as wounds continued to open from the Ringael’s charged tempest field. Erik flung his magical hook and pulled the cleric from the water, but the wyrm had other ideas, sending the tempest to where most of the party had gathered at the entrance. Z’alden was dimly aware that Rift muttered something about the walls of the sides of the entrance being an illusion. Tira formed a dragon spirit on which she flew 20 staff lengths across the chamber. But, then the wyrm’s tempest surround the cleric, and he slipped towards the blackness of death. The healer could not heal himself.

As he trudged along in the mud, Z’alden reflected on that moment. He could only surmise that the liquid coming down his throat as his eyes fluttered back to life and saw the Ranger kneeling close with a vial was a potion. Looking, it was a potion that the cleric had made for the Ranger which Erik had used to save the life of the cleric. One never knows when one’s actions will come back to you. It is best to use those actions wisely. The life you save may be your own.

Z’alden thought about the scrivener and the assailants that they were tracking. Who are these wicked villians that had viciously attacked Torben and made off with him before the adventurers could even mount a response? What powers of evil did they possess? The Ranger’s brief halt brought him back to the moment. A fork in the muddy, slick road and the puddles were proving a challenge even for the calm and careful tracker. A lightning strike evoked a shade of blue on Rift’s cloak as Z’alden waited for the Ranger to decide their direction. The cleric smirked as he wondered if the magical women would follow the Ranger or choose their own path, like they had after finding the illusory wall at the entrance to the Ringael’s chamber. What a mess that decision had caused.

It was all hazy now. The water was addling his brain. He had followed the Ranger down one corridor while Rift, Tira, and Barrick had gone down the opposite corridor. The Ranger moved fast compared to Z’alden and soon he couldn’t be seen. Z’alden quickly realized he couldn’t hear Erik either. Nor could he hear the others. He was alone in the tunnel. The only light radiated from the enchanted glow of ribbons of sapphires and rubies that streaked the walls. Alone, the cleric studied them. The blue energy appeared to have some healing. Still affected by the Feltouched gas from the demons and by the Abyssal, Z’alden said a prayer and, over the course of several minutes, directed the energy to resolve these afflictions. Slowly, the Feltouch cleared from his mind, and some of the most powerful spells that Bahamut grants him came back to his recollection. And, the plague was removed. His wounds healed from the burns of the Ringael and frost of the ice.

It was so quiet. No jokes or shouts of encouragement from the dwarf. No shouts from Rift. Not a sound from Tira. The Ranger had disappeared. All he could do was press on in hopes of finding them. The corridor seemed as though it encircled the Ringael’s layer. At the far end was chamber with a large pedestal in the center and a gold and platinum spherical cage. The cleric was alone in the chamber, though later, he would learn that all of the party were there, but out of phase with one another. Their actions affected the chamber but they could detect the presence of the others. Tira and Rift were phased together until they too became separated. The enchanted ladies had described how their version of the chamber and, more specifically, the cage had a wonderous gem of sapphire and ruby intertwined. Rift would later explain how touching the gem she had acquired pure fiery blue eyes and then further tapped the power of the ruby, turning her eyes a fiery purple. Tira told how she had attuned to the ruby part of the gem and acquired the flaming red that filled her eyes.

Tira subverted the cage, fully attuned to the power in the gem, and took it out. She realized it formed a cube of sapphire and ruby intertwined. Z’alden remembered with some trepidation how the cube he could see in the cage simply vanished before him. There was no one else in the room, yet it was gone.

Then, in some strange moment, the cube appeared on the floor. Z’alden could sense its energy and attuned to it. He could feel Tira’s presence and communicate with her! Some strange writing had appeared. “What is seen cannot be seen”.

Then, putting the cube down, it vanished, moved, vanished, and reappeared rotated to a new side. Z’alden realized that some was trying to communicate with the cube in some form. He grabbed and moved it, releasing and grabbing, tracing out a Z. Then, writing appeared on the Cube. Rift had used magical chalk to mark the cube. Everyone was in the room and could see the Cube. If they could all attune together, they might return to the same phase. Indeed, this worked after some trials but not before the fun had started.

Another flash of lightning brought the cleric back to the road. The ranger had found more tracks, and the party was off again on Eastlander’s trail. The thunder crashed. The cleric could not help but recall the explosions that had followed when Rift had activated the Far Realm star trap on the massive doorw while trying to pick its lock.

Z’alden recalled a crystal sphere flying off the door, racing across the room, and simply vanishing. The cleric could see Barrick and Erik now, and hoped that nothing bad had happened to one of his arcane comrades in another phase. Rift and Tira would later relate what happened in their phase. Rift’s mage hand could catch the spheres. She would toss them to Tira, who held open the bag of holding and tried to catch them, trapping the deadly balls in another dimension. Rift’s tosses were excellent, and Tira was an admirable catcher. Before the cleric’s eyes, the dozen spheres were simply disappearing. He had gotten a satisfying whack of the mace on one, and the fighter and Ranger had taken a few out, also, but it was the Mage Hand Bag Toss that really did the trick. One may recall that the Far Realm star trap will surround a person in the spheres until they explode with deadly results. In some traps, just four are enough for the explosion. Once again, the quick thinking of the wizard and sorceress had saved the day. Just three had ever surrounded the dwarf. Three surrounded Z’alden. Maybe just one more and even the hardy dwarf or the cleric may have been stardust.
With the spheres either demolished or trapped in the bag, Z’alden remembered with some satisfaction that the group had used the cube to return to all the same phase. Then, working together, they had overcome the massive door with Knock spells and thievery and magical manipulation. Oh yes, more star realm spheres had come off, but the Mage Hand Bag Toss, along with Barrick’s axe, and Erik’s arrows had made short work of them (except when Z’alden had been nearly encased in them).

Stepping into a room filled with the grey mist of dreams, they descended a stair inlaid with gold and platinum. At the bottom, in a misty room, the group was ready to leave this low layers and get a move on. With such a thought from the wizard, an archway appears. Other thoughts came to the group. Erik imagined defeating the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage. A magnificent painting of death appeared. Tira imagined a necklace that matched her glowing eyes. One of great value appeared. Barrick recalled the handy haversack that Rift had previously lost. One appeared.

Even in the flooding water, Z’alden recalled how the archway had beckoned. The party stepped through, expecting to find themselves outside the castle, or maybe on the top level ready to face Illiadin himself. They could not have been more wrong.

As the archway vanished and their vision cleared, they found themselves on a floating island in a world of color. They were in the Astral Sea! A golden box in front of them became an Astral Skiff.

“Oh shards”, thought the cleric. This was a fine pickle. At least it was better than a flood, the damp cleric reflected.

Poetry in Motion and a Touch of Frost

The scribe lay twisted in his tiny cell. The especially large moon cast shadows of the bars upon his face. He chuckled to himself with an admittedly unclear mind. How poetic was this beautiful moon, yet he had no quill with which to put his emotions to parchment. Fear had come and gone, but only in intensity. Yes, he was still alive, but why and for how long?

Torben Eastlander, the scribe of the heroic feats of the the six, could not think of what they would do in his situation. Instead his mind wandered. Memories of old words, written so long ago by others and himself, weaved their way through his mind – a cacophony of ideas that left him confused as one might have just before waking up in a sweat.

A dream this was not. Torben made efforts to recall his prior days and understand his situation better so that he would be ready, ready for something, when it would come. Perchance to escape? To tell a good lie? To persevere through whatever torture may come? He had already told them what he knew of the six and they had read his most recent manuscript, before it was ready. That made him all the more mad.

Still, finding some morsel of satisfaction, he gloated in the fact that the poetry delivered upon his captors was of such poor quality that at least he had inflicted some pain upon them. As he began to feel more faint from the lack of sustenance, his lips began to mumble the words of the most recent addition to his manuscript…

Long ago the mages of the Temple of the Arcane constructed a vast library, something I would have loved to spend a considerable time in. Within its walls lay a treasure of knowledge, not just of arcane magics, but more practical things, such as how to grow food underground. There was poetry too. What a pity none of the five are intellectuals – such a wasted opportunity. None-the-less, Tira and Rift, being of keen memory, were able to absorb some of the letters before the tragic destruction of many great works, and some not so great.

One of the more interesting works relayed to me was by Xathros, the very beholder that the five had slain just over one year ago. It was titled, “The Wisdom of the Beholder”. Even with just a short summary, second-hand at that, I can now guess at this particular beholder’s mindset. For example, this poem was relayed to me:

Maiden in meadow
Beauty soon be immortal
Within me deathless

From my discussion with Rift, who quickly read several portions of the text, it seems that Xathros actually thought he was helping creatures gain immortality by “joining” with him. More poems corroborate this more directly:

Rose tiny flower
Compare thee to a maiden
Petals grace my lips

and this more whimsical one:

Petrify, petrify, death and disintegrate
All the whole day long
Makes me tired

Other chapters were reportedly much more serious, with discussion of the motions of the heavenly orbs (complete with not-so humble comparisons to himself) and what Rift thought were mathematics in a chapter titled “A New Magics”. In some unknown tongue of perplexing scribbles, it detailed something called “wavelets” . Clearly this Xathros was quite mad, but Rift said she still pulled some of those pages from the book to study at a later time.

Tira reported more mundane tomes, such as “How to Grow Corn Underground” and “The Secret Life of Selachii”. Z’alden had a lucky find with “Revealing your Inner Bahamut and Tiamat”, but couldn’t remember much of it because he kept getting drawn to Rift’s excitement with Xathros’ chapter on “A New Magics”. Perhaps he thinks this knowledge will help him divine the intentions of the weather gods. Who knows? Meanwhile, Barrick and Erik kept complaining about the lack of picture books.

As the five studied the literature, they finally came to focus on a very large and very round table in the center of the room. Upon the center lay a fine example of hide armor and some scrolls. They knew it was a trap, but went for it anyway, of course. As Z’alden crept up upon the table and touched the armor, the precious books began to fly off the shelves and swarm into a maelstrom of sharp paper and sturdy bindings. (I must admit, the thought of the adventurers possibly dying by a thousand paper cuts was quite amusing.)

What wizardly power had been imbued upon this incarnation was a surprise to even these experienced warriors. The chaotic swarm hammered them, both physically and mentally, dealing psychic damage. Perhaps it was a just reward for not being more quiet and respectful in the library. Picture books indeed.

The adventures battled the hailstorm of for quite a while. Lightning and fire, steel and sweat beat back the swarm like so many angry birds. As I heard the tale my heart grew torn between the quill and sword. Me, a man of the ink, and them, whom by their presence I knew the victor. With terrible blows by the ranger and the sorceress, pages lay lost and scattered upon the floor. The fighter closed the chapter (sorry) on this battle by a clever trick – trapping the books in his “Shield of the Armadillo”, which encased the final swarm, severing its connection to the power source.

Erik the ranger was happy to have the enhanced armor and Z’alden delighted over a scroll that could cure disease, with a little effort. Yet it was not like the adventurers to rest long, and this time was no exception. Soon they were further on, deeper into the Temple of the Arcane. Coming to a crossroads of sorts, they analyzed the four possible directions. Turning back was not to their liking, nor was digging through rubble and taking time to break arcanely sealed doors. So they decided to move directly forward by breaking down welded shut door.

Before them lay a vast room of deathly cold water. Ice ran the edges of the room – a tempting passage to what lay beyond – a sleeping ringael. What beast would lie in such a frosty nest? Using their collective wisdom and the ranger’s “foe stone”, the adventurers gathered that this beast, though weak in will, had no vulnerabilities and could very likely resist lightening and cold. (I could have told them the last bit.) They also surmised that the beast ws of neutral alignment, capable of serving a master. Using her keen intellect, Rift surmised that the room was built to sustain the beast. Someone had built the room and trapped the ringael in with not only a sealed door but also an invisible barrier.

After a while, a plan formed. Erik would first drink a potion to improve his thievery skill. Next he would be made invisible by Rift, who would then cast an arcane gate through which he could simply step through to arrive next to the beast. Why? Did I tell you about the adventurer’s pathological need for loot? Around the beast’s neck was a necklace, or rather a belt to anyone of human dimensions. The adventurers simple had to have it.

With the utmost stealth, Erik slipped through the dimensional gate to arrive immediately next to the sleeping ringael. Pausing with a soft breath, he studied the belt and it’s buckle. Then his hands un-wove the belt through the buckle, as if it was a serpent silently moving unnoticed through the grass toward its prey. The belt was free. The beast still lay sleeping. Erik calmly moved back through the dimensional gate to his companions.

With the belt in their possession, the five adventurers pondered what to do next. That was too easy. They must attack! Surely an opportunity to coup de grace a sleeping beast was too good to pass up. Tria was the first to attack and her magic struck the ringael hard. Rift’s attack missed. Z’alden then delivered a heavy metal bolt from his crossbow. To no one’s surprise, the ringael awoke.

Revealing its powers, the ringael took flight and the tempest beneath its wings blew Erik and Z’alden into the icy cold water. So too did even the stout dwarf get slid into the waters. Lightning sparked from the ringael, shocking all those who lay too close. While the men of the group floundered in the water, the women took defensive action. Tira used her wicked sorcery to reverse the ringael’s resistances, making it vulnerable to both lightning and cold. Rift cast a resist lightning spell upon herself and sent a mirror sphere before the creature so that its attacks would be visited upon itself as well.

The scribe’s recollection of his text was interrupted as his small, single-person prison started to move. The wood creaked and the bars squirmed against their braces. A large creature was heaving the box off the ground and onto a cart. Dark figures gathered around. Their cloaks sagged on their boney forms. Their sunken faces and hollow eyes lay in the shadows of the hoods. Torben felt fear like he had never imagined possible. It was an unnatural fear as if the figures knew enough about him to magnify his emotions. Then one spoke what he realized was his true name. All went dark.

In Too Deep
When learning to swim, start in the shallow end

“Torben! Come join us!” Barrick shouted in his huge dwarf voice. Barrick held aloft a great tankard of ale, foam splashing over the sides and running down his mailed arm.

The others looked up. Tira, Erik, Rift, and Z’alden spied Torben by the bar. The dour scribe appeared to be talking to the barkeep. Erik the Ranger noticed that the man looked nervous and agitated. Erik saw a flash of gold as Torben pushed a coin over to the bartender, who casually lifted it off the sticky bar, bit into it, and then slipped it into his jerkin.

Torben weaved his way through the crowd, fending off a pair of female half-elf rangers who tried to latch onto his arms. A burly half-orc, obviously blasted out of his wits, tried to block Torben’s path and engage him in a drunken jig. Torben stopped and stared blankly at the large half-wit. Dismayed, the half-orc gave up and staggered off after the two rangers.

As Torben approached the table, Erik noticed that he carried neither drink nor food. What did the coin buy? mused Erik.

“Torben,” Barrick roared. “What brings you to the Greasy Goose at this late hour?”

Torben looked around nervously, then sat down in the closest chair with a thump. “My friends,” he began, “It is good to see you. Unlike me, you all seem quite healthy and contented. That is good.”

Barrick stared at the quill-pusher. The dwarf was not too far gone, and even he noticed that Torben did not look well. His clothes were unkempt, his hair was wild, and perhaps had a touch of gray that was not there before. The dwarf shrugged and thought to himself, What is it with these humans? So much drama, and they age so quickly. Bah, no matter!

Loudly, the dwarf bellowed, “Well, enough of your own troubles Torben. Thanks for sharing. But look, have we got a story for you!” At this, Barrick leaned over and gave Rift a slap on the back, causing her glass of Nentir ‘97 to slosh over the sides of her silver chalice. Torben saw Rift turn bright pink in embarrassment. Despite Torben’s own preoccupations and troubles, the scribe grew interested. An Eladrin, embarrassed? Torben grew excited. Perhaps just this once he could get the full tale, without interruptions. If so, he could finally finish the next volume! Perhaps that would keep the jackals at bay!

Tira grinned as she saw Torben quickly pull his chair up to the table. Whipping out quill and paper, Torben brushed his greasy hair out of his face, then turned to the dwarf. “Well, what happened? What did Rift do?”

Startled, the dwarf turned to the scribe, who was staring at him in eager anticipation. “What? You want your story right now? But I’m only on my second glass of ale…”

Tira saw the look of dismay pass over Torben’s face. The half-elf lay her delicate hand on Torben’s arm. “Torben, I will give you your story, assuming that our dear friend Rift doesn’t mind.” Rift waved a hand dismissively. “No, no,” the wizard declared, “go ahead. I have suffered through the indignity already. Yet another retelling won’t harm me.” Rift smiled weakly at Tira.

As Tira began speaking, Torben’s hand began to fly over the paper. “So, there we were. Stuck in the Order of the Arcane temple with a mad archmage. Illidan Stormrage, you recall, was his name. We had just been talking to a dead skeleton…”

Z’alden spoke, “Wait, I must interrupt you.” Tira stopped, an annoyed look crossing her face. Torben looked up, pen poised above the paper. The cleric’s face split into a wide grin. The rest of the party stared at Z’alden, waiting for the inevitable. “Aren’t all skeletons dead?” After a brief moment of silence, everyone except Torben burst out into gales of laughter. Torben stared at the group. Great peals of laughter were coming out of Barrick, flecks of foamy ale spewing across the table. Torben shook his head. They’re all nuts. Why did I ever hitch my wagon to this bunch? Still, it has brought me fame and fortune. And much trouble.

After the gales had subsided, Tira continued. “We had to somehow find the head of a demon, and bring it back to the skeleton. Then he (the skeleton, not the demon head) would give us a key. The Key to the Depths Below he said. Why we wanted a key to even more horrors, I don’t know. But that was our quest. Also, how were we to get a demon head? Ask politely?”

“Anyhoo, we kept wandering through the twisty ruins beneath the temple. Erik kept hearing running water…” Here, the sorceress gave the ranger a playful jab in the ribs. “Water on the brain, more likely.”

“But indeed, we did eventually come to a fountain, which, thinking it was a Fountain of Youth and Beauty, I immediately drank. But no… instead it just gave us some extra luck.”

“Wait, back up a minute.” Here, Torben lifted his quill, a pained look crossing his face, as a drop of ink pooled on his paper. Tira continued, “Completely forgot about the scrying orb. That was in another room, platinum pieces all over the floor. Our illustrious wizard, using her amazing arcane skills….” Rift’s cheeks turned even pinker. “Our wizard used the scrying orb to spy on Illidan. He was talking to some demon guy who had just come out of a big cloud of energy. Oh yeah, and Illidan was holding the sword and staff of Miraak.”

Torben stared blankly. “Oh for Tiamat’s sake, you don’t know Miraak?!” Tira spluttered. Rift muttered, “Miraak, the sorcerer king, ancient archmage of the Order of the Arcane. He used the staff to summon demons to do his bidding.”

Tira continued. “Thanks Rift! So Illidan says to the demon…” Tira lowered her voice and began to intone in her best evil-sorcerer-who-wants-to-rule-the-world voice, ‘Batarath, lead the armies to the eastern front. The Fire Lord is pleased with our progress, blah blah blah." Tira smiled brightly. "I can’t remember if he said anything else. I got bored and wandered off."

“Then, there were some statues that came alive and we had to defeat. You know, the usual stuff.” Here, Tira lifted her glass and gave a brief whistle. The buxom barmaid came over, winked at Tira, and refilled her glass. “Well, not to embarrass anyone, but I just could not understand why Erik insisted on attacking the statues with his bow. And not with an arrow, mind you. A bit ineffective, if you ask me. But after being stunned, dazed, knocked down, and then body slammed, our dear ranger came to his senses and began to actually shoot his arrows.”

“Well, let me tell you, we showed those statues what we were made of. Um, and it isn’t stone, let me tell you!” At this, Tira looked around expectantly. But either no one was paying attention, or perhaps they hadn’t heard her hilarious jest. She shrugged. “Well, with a few well-placed wizardly mirrors, some expert dwarven axe play, whizzing arrows, our cleric’s divine guidance, and…”, putting her hand over her chest, “…my own modest contributions, we managed to pulverize the statues back to the dust they were made from.”

Z’alden piped up, “I blinded one of the statues! Neat trick, eh? Torben, have I ever mentioned how through the divine guidance of the most powerful god, Bahamut, I am able to bring justice and retribution to our enemies?”

Tira smiled sweetly at Z’alden. “I thought Tiamat was sometimes useful to you, no?” At this, Z’alden shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, and buried his head in his near-empty glass of Nentir. Dark mutterings were heard coming from within the confines of the glass.

Torben looked up from his furious scribblings, a dark smudge of ink on his brow. “Well, then what?”

“As I was saying,” Tira continued, “we continued through the dangerous, scary dungeon, menaced on either side by fearsome foes, our feet tired but our hearts glad with promise of treasure.”

Torben stopped writing and looked up, annoyed. “Please leave the creative writing and character motivations to the scribe, thank you very much!”

Tira stopped, chagrined. Rift muttered, “I didn’t know the stone would actually come out…”

Torben stared at the wizard. “What’s that you’re muttering Rift?”

Rift continued, the wine strengthening her resolve to see the story all the way through. “We came to an odd triangular shaped room, with a slightly-tilted floor. There were stones set into the wall, with runes carved on them. Translating the inscriptions, I found that they were runes of Warding and Observation.” As Rift traced out the runes on the scarred table with her dagger, Barrick shivered. The dwarf spoke, “Yep, those are the runes alright. I’d recognize them in my sleep! Boy, that was a close shave, let me tell you. And I’ve never shaved in my life!”

Rift droned on. “I just thought, well, you know, who would put these runes into the wall, without someone wanting to take one, as a souvenir?” The others in the party just stared at the wizard. “Yes, I’ll admit it, I just wanted to take something home with me, to remember the adventure.” She stared back defiantly.

Z’alden spoke first, spluttering, “But they weighed like, well, like, as much as a block of stone!”

The cleric warmed to his subject. “She took the stone right out of the wall. The rest of us weren’t even paying attention. By Tiamat, some of us weren’t even all the way into the room. And then, you know how, the instant you do something, you realize it was perhaps a mistake? Well, in this case, guess what the giveaway was?”

Torben Eastlander peered at the cleric, stating “I cannot begin to fathom what you are talking about.”

Z’alden continued, “I’ll tell you. It was when the walls slammed together, trapping us in a triangle of doom. And then the water started pouring out of all of the blocks in the wall, after they all fell out. Did I mention that the water was pouring? No, not pouring, gushing!”

Z’alden grew more agitated, as Tira suppressed a snigger. “We were trapped, like rats. By the gods, I hate getting wet, almost as much as the dwarf! The room was filling rapidly. We tried everything we could think of. Smashing the stones back into the holes seemed to help a bit, like bailing out a lake with a bucket!”

“Luckily, we did have a sorcerer and a wizard, and a strong warrior, and a perceptive ranger, and of course a cleric to keep everyone alive.” Nodding at Erik, Z’alden continued, “the ranger noticed the secret panel first. It contained the mechanism, at least I think it did. Made my head hurt just looking at all that machinery. Never could understand that stuff.”

“By this point, the room was nearly full. It must have softened the wizard’s brain a bit, because her arcane skills seemed to fail her at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, we managed to help each other and defeat the malicious trap. Our doom had been averted.” Here, Z’alden glared at the wizard, but Rift took no notice, her face buried in her cup. She, too, began to mutter dark oaths into her chalice.

Tira then spoke. “So, that was a close call. But it all ended well, although my hair hasn’t been the same since.” Here, Tira flicked her reddish locks back and smiled prettily at the scribe, who stared at her, a blank look on his face.

Tira shrugged. “Well, you won’t believe what happened next.” Torben very much thought that was quite likely.

“We came to another room, with candles all around the inside. This time, it wasn’t Rift who triggered the trap that caused poison gas to start filling the room.” Tira paused, looking around the table at her companions. “I cannot remember. Who was it that tried to remove a candle?”

At that moment, a loud pounding sounded on the heavy door to the inn. All of the patrons stopped drinking and stared at the oaken door. All except Barrick, who was loudly humming a dwarven love song to himself, his beer swishing back and forth in his mug in time to the tune.

Erik saw the barkeep stride over to the door, nervously fingering the pocket where he had put Torben’s coin. Just as the bartender put his eye up to the peephole, the door burst open. Standing in the shattered door were at least five creatures. Four were huge warriors with hideous hyena faces, their teeth bared, laughing wickedly. Each held a long dirk, the points gleaming in the lamplight. The fifth creature appeared to be human, although a black hood made it difficult to catch but a glimpse of the face inside. Erik the Ranger stared. He swore to the nameless gods that he recognized the figure, but he could not remember how or why.

At that instant, the figure raised a hand and all light was extinguished. A blast of heat followed as screams filled the inn. The air was suddenly filled with blinding motes of dancing lights, which confounded the senses. A loud voice commanded, “Ignore the others. Take him only.” Erik felt the table being flung away from him, even as he leapt up, his swords sliding smoothly from their scabbards. He thought to himself, they will not take me without a fight.

Suddenly, Erik felt a foul creature’s hot fetid breath on the back of his neck. A high-pitched laugh filled his ear. Fighting back the wave of nausea, Erik lashed out, felt his sword grate against bone, as an agonizing roar of pain rang out. Erik swung again madly, but his swords whistled harmlessly through the air. He stopped, fearful of striking friend instead of foe.

The loud voice near the door rang out again. “Do not forget the papers.”

Erik felt a scuffle nearby, but he could neither see nor hear clearly enough to act. A struggle, then a strangled cry and a loud thump as something heavy hit the floor. The rustle of papers, and a dragging sound, as if a heavy bag were being pulled away.

Gradually, the motes of light faded away. Someone lit a lamp, the sudden brightness making everyone blink in confusion. The inn was a shambles. Broken glass and shattered mugs lay on the floor, pools of ale flowing freely. The barkeep lay facedown near the door, unmoving, his arms and legs bent at an unnatural angle.

Erik stared at his sword. Thick dark blood ran down its length. Not human blood. A pool of blood lay at his feet, with a thin trail leading off in the direction of the door.

Next to the overturned table lay one of the hideous creatures, facedown. Erik put a boot to the body and heaved the corpse over. A long dirk protruded from the chest. The ranger’s analytic side took over. A lucky strike, clumsy, done in haste and by an unskilled hand.

Barrick stared blankly. “What happened?” The dwarf looked around. “Where’s that blasted scribe? I was just getting to the good part!”

The others looked around. Torben Eastlander, along with his sheaf of papers, and his bag, was gone. His quill lay on the floor, the ink flowing from the tip, mingling with the streams of ale and blood.

That's What It Said

The gigantic monster expands and, if possible, becomes even more terrifying, creating a 60’ thick ring of lightning.
“Inconceivable!” shouts Erik.
Tira moves far away, “Dear God, what is that thing?”
Only Barrick seems unphased, “Evil, pure and simple from the Eighth Dimension!”
The creature, now a Void Lord, blasts out at his foes, dazing everyone but Tira, the only one at a safe distance. Seeing her friends injured, Tira panics for a second, “That’s it, man. Game over, man! Game over!”
Z’alden briefly considers trying to banish the Lord from our plane, stepping forward and saying, “I order you to cease any, and all, supernatural activity and return forthwith to your place of origin, or to the nearest convenient parallel dimension.” But knowing the magic would fail, he simply swings his trusty mace, making contact, but doing little damage.
Rift, knowing that Tira needs to get in closer to use any of her powers, yells, “Just teleport.”
Tira considers, shouting back, “Well, as it turns out, teleporting isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.” But knowing she is needed, she calms her mind, teleports inside the lightning torus, and blasts the Void Lord.
The dreaded Void Lord retaliates, firing off two black balls of magic. One slams into Z’alden, doing massive damage, the other heads toward Rift, but she easily steps to the side. Recovering, Z’alden looks at Rift, wondering how she managed to avoid the blast so easily. Rift shrugs, “Basic strategy: if your enemies know where you are, then don’t be there.”
Barrick lowers his head and charges the enemy, “Ramming speed!”
Then he yells to his friend to create the ‘happy carpet of death’, “Go do that voodoo that you do so well!” Z’alden complies, not because he was asked, but because Z’alden knew he was hurt and hurt badly.
Rift suddenly comes up with a great idea, she uses her Mage Hand spell to carry a mine over and drop it off on the dark evil Lord, “You’re entering a world of pain.” she says as she releases the mine. It explodes, doing massive damage.
Erik switches to his bow and taunts the Lord as he hits with a couple shots, “I’ve known sheep that could outwit you!”
The taunting seems to only infuriate the Void Lord, but he does not strike back at Erik, instead he blasts Z’alden. Z’alden falls to the ground, dead. But thanks to the happy carpet, Z’alden’s eyes flutter and no sooner than dying, Z’alden returned to the land of the living. He takes a big breath and mutters, “The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.”
Seeing Z’alden die and return forces Tira to rethink their current strategy, she steps through the barrier and attempts to fire a shot back at the dark beast. The chaos bolt hits the barrier and fizzles away into nothing, “What a pisser.”
Erik looks at Z’alden lying on the ground, “You look like Hell.”
“Yeah, I just got back.” Z’alden replies wryly.
Erik motions to Barrick, using quick hand signals to ask if Barrick will charge as Erik shoots more arrows. As he braces himself for impact Barrick replies, “We can do that. We don’t even have to have a reason.”
Tira suddenly comes up with a great idea, “At my signal, unleash hell.” She rubs the circlet on her head and a red dragon suddenly appears underneath her. Laughing at the Lord, she flies above the dreaded circle of lightning. “Never give up! Never surrender!”
Rift looks over at Z’alden, “Don’t you go dying on me!”
“I’ve been dead once, already. It’s very liberating.” Z’alden replied.
Rift again uses her Mage Hand to drop another mine on the Void Lord, this time parts of its armour break off in the blast. Rift laughs at it, “Ouchtown, population you, bro!”
Tira senses the tide of the battle has shifted, what just moments before seemed like utter doom, now seemed quite winnable, “How many times in battle have we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat?” Tira waves her wand and magically switches places with the Lord, sending it up 40 feet into the air.
With the damaging lightning also up in the air, Barrick uses the brief calm to inspire the rest of the party, “Failure is not an option.”
Feeling energized, Rift asks Tira a question, “What’s the shortest distance between two points?”
“A straight line.” Tira answers with a question in her voice.
“Wrong. The shortest distance between two points is zero.” Rift creates an Arcane Gate between her current location and a spot near the steps of the temple. Stepping through she quickly reaches the massive door. But before she can open it, the previously immobile Plague Demons come to life. One attacks Rift whilst the other uses the gate Rift just created.
Z’alden heals again and stands up, ready for more action. Erik nudges Barrick and whispers, “He’s all bright, and shiny, and new again, just in time for the Dark Lord.” Just as the words leave his mouth the Void Lord falls and teleports near the group, blasting everyone but Rift.
“We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” Z’alden shakes his head as he is injured again. He attacks once, hitting the evil being, then also steps through the gate. Tira quickly follows, with Erik and Barrick right behind her.
Rift thinks briefly about trying to magically unlock the door, but then just reaches forward and tries it. It opens without resistance. Rift is surprised, but only a little, “Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.” she says with a smirk. Even though a wall of fog prevents her from seeing inside, she steps through.
Tira shrugs and steps through after, “Here’s to the fear of being trapped.” She says to no one in particular.
Erik motions to Z’alden, “Very dangerous. You go first.”
Inside the party is stunned to find a chess set in the middle of an empty room, the pieces all being larger than Barrick. Five squares on the adventurers side of the board are empty. Erik gasps, “We have to play our way across the room.”
After resting for a few minutes, the party take up the five spots on the board and wait. The knight on the other side magically moves forward, the game is on. The group plays well and wins the game, but at the cost of losing Erik and Z’alden.
As the game ends, a teleportation circle appears in the center of the room. Tira laughs, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”” She nods at her friends. With no idea where it leads nor where their friends are, the remaining members decide to jump on the circle together. They end up in a room in the East tower, completely ransacked. With nowhere to go, they all settle down and rest for many hours, trying to regain as much power as they can. Rift, awaking first, begins to explore the room, finding a trap door in the floor. Below is a dank musty passage. “Who wants to go down the creepy tunnel inside the tomb first?”
Dropping down into the dusty caves, they ponder whether to explore downward or upward. Barrick kicks the hard rock floor, “Can you dig it?” he asks rhetorically, shaking his head. Upward the party goes
Soon they come across an Eladrin skeleton, wearing a hood, sitting in an old chair, and holding a parchment. Rift casts Speak with Dead. The skeleton begins to speak in a raspy voice, “I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.” It speaks as if it does not know how long it has been dead. It goes on to mention one Kaelthas Sunstrider and a key to the depths below. He then asks for the head of a demon, then stops speaking. Rift is happy with the information she gained, “I’m rapidly becoming a big underground success.”
The rest of the party groans at her attempt at humour, but then also fall silent as they ponder their next move, streaks of crimson and crystal slowing moving through Z’alden’s and Erik’s bodies.

Outside the Temple

Eastlander was on the run. Somewhere behind were dark beasts lead by cruel masters. Somewhere overhead there were sharp eyes that scanned the land below. Whispers were everywhere in the towns and forests. As he staggered forward through the darkness, he stumbled through a stream and slipped on the smooth, mossy river rocks. Like dry leaves, pages from his latest manuscript were cast upon the water and quickly floated downstream over root and rock. Precious words began to mingle together, never to be deciphered. It was a sad thought indeed for Torben Eastlander, for words were his favorite part of himself and to have lost them was a travesty. Yet in this moment the flesh was more important and in greater peril. He collapsed under a fallen tree and quickly began to dream of the words that were lost…

Barrick always had a story to tell that was as tall as he was short. In this one the adventurers had spent a year resting on their laurels, having defeated the mighty eye tyrant, Xathros. Barrick told of a castle that provided a safe haven for the adventurers. Naturally, or quite conveniently, he refused to reveal the location of the castle, but I could gather that it was somewhere near Lake Nen since much of their time in that year had been spent helping the townsfolk of Nenlast and making frequent journeys through the surrounding areas. The giants of the area had been either killed or pushed back further into the wild lands. The men of the North grew in stature, with Hammerfand leading them to many victories over the giants. From this came new heroes.

Stonefand, eldest son of Hammerfand was no longer just “slayer of Grak the Invincible”, for now his palmaries included “Captain of the Giant Brigade”. His tactical sense was not matched by any other in the clans of the men of the North. At his side was the mighty Maelfend, who was the sharp edge of the blade that Stonefand’s hand would guide. His uncharacteristic use of a shield revealed an independent mind and so too did his clashes with his captain. Their competitiveness made them strong, as well did the diminutive Primorean, once directly under the employ of Hammerfand, now a member of the giant brigade. Normally the clerics and wizards are just hired hands, perhaps living to see another day and a pocketful of riches, or to never be written of on any page. Yet this Primorean is different, gaining in skill and influence right along with his masters, and worthy of note on my pages.

Still, these men of the North are pale to the deeds done and skills possessed by the heroes I write of. So let me begin in earnest.

The four seasons came and went upon the six adventurers. The bountiful glory of the spring gave way to the listless days of summer. Then the fall came, bringing a melancholy of reflection. Inaction brought upon a lifeless winter as the heroes basked in the warm subterranean waters that lay beneath their castle.

The adventurers took it upon themselves to share adventurers with Monica, Lars and Rajel. Skirmishes with the Giants were exciting to these three, but grew tedious for the adventurers. Their winter deepened.

As luck would have it a letter arrived one day. Though it told a dire tale for both the Sorcerer Valthrun, protector of Winterhaven, and the Land of the Kengi, it stirred old emotions. And desires. With purpose came action. The adventurers decided to come to the aid of Tira’s old master, Valthrun. When hearing news of his people’s plea, Feslmon changed course and parted company, leaving immediately for Kengistan.

With horses from Nenlast, the five adventurers made good time to Hammerfast where they collected components for magics then set course for Winterhaven along the Trade Road. The journey was uneventful, with Thunderspire no longer casting such a frightful shadow. The townsfolk of Fallcrest greeted the adventurers warmly and seemed to even know them by name. This was a bit disconcerting to the ranger, Erik, who preferred to remain anonymous. Barrick had much less concern and enjoyed round after round from the locals.

The story in Winterhaven was quite different. The meekness of the guards up in the towers was the first clue that something was wrong. They looked pale and weak. The fear that they exuded was palpable. Just as the guards were, so too where the townsfolk, with shuttered windows and unmaintained streets. Even the horses had been severely neglected.

The adventurers quickly made their way to Valthrun’s tower, which lay dark and still. They knocked upon the door and after some moments, and several unbarrings, the door opened. Valthrun implored them to enter quickly and before he spoke more, he closed the door and set the multitude of locks.

“Goblins”, hushed Valthrun. “They stormed through the town one moon ago.”

The adventurers relaxed and smiled. “Goblins?”, they replied, “what of goblins? They are no match for this town. Certainly when it is under your protection. There must have been hundreds.”

“No”, softly replied clearly tired Valthrun. “Let me tell you the full tale.”

With that, Valthrun sat the adventurers down at his large table and told of the goblin’s march through Winterhaven. There were only a score, yet they were not natural. Their demeanor, their presence was somehow different. Their behavior was odd, for they did not ransack the town, only taking what they needed for sustenance. Their purpose must have been higher. Valthrun continued:

“They marched north out of Winterhaven, toward the Temple of the Arcane. That is what worries me most for it is a place where powerful arcane magics are studied. The warlock Illidan Stormrage has left the fold of the good, his obsession with the dark arts having overcome him. Word has it that he has grown more powerful than the masters of the temple. It is also rumored that the temple guardians were corrupted and set upon their masters, killing them all. This was nigh two moons ago. With Illidan in control, surely hordes of demons will have been summoned.”

“I do not understand the presence of goblins, though”, Valthrun puzzled as he shook his head. “Illidan Stormrage despises goblins – goblinoids and giants. This secret you must uncover. You must go to the Temple of the Arcane and put an end to this growing evil, either by capturing or killing Illidan Stormrage. I know that there once was good in his heart. Just as he now does evil, he can be turned back to that good. You must try.”

After a long, heavy pause, Valthrun explained more, “There is a powerful jewel that opened the passage to the demons. It must be destroyed or somehow used to close the passageway to the demon realm.”

With this, the adventurers asked more detailed questions. They clearly had accepted the mission and wanted to plan their assault upon the temple. A central tower stood above all else. One tower lay at each corner of the temple, which was laid out in a square and terraced up to the central tower. Covered bridges connected the four towers to the central tower. All towers and bridges were lofty, spelling certain death for those unable to take flight like a bird or fall like a feather. Information that the temple was surrounded by forests gladdened the adventurers and made them eager to depart. A final plan could be devised on site.

Let me pause to give context to this tale. With Z’alden having filled me in on the technical intricacies of the temple, he shuffled off to his bed chamber. Barrick was passed out. Tira and Rift were still out on the town getting into who knows what kind of mischief. Now my trust would be put upon Erik, which is perhaps appropriate for the next segment of this adventure would see the five adventurers travel overland, north toward the temple, at night. This was a bit preposterous, but I went along with it as best I could.

“I could feel eyes upon me”, stated Erik. I replied, “But wasn’t it dark? Surely you must have had some other senses that gave you that feeling, whether you realized it or not.”

“I could feel eyes upon me”, restated Erik. He continued to tell the tale of how they turned the tables on the spies. Pretending to set camp, they pulled the horses up and talked loudly about how tired they were, masking the unsheathing of their weapons. Rift made the ranger invisible and he set out to circle their perimeter.

Soon enough, the watchers were revealed under the full light of the moon. Hobgoblins, only not normal hobgoblins. Erik told of how he could see their purple eyes glowing in the darkness. The leader of these “fel-touched” creatures let out a monotonic drone of a warning:

Stormrage requires energy. Requires powerful servants.

I began to suppress a snicker. This was all just too pulpy, but Erik looked very serious as if it was all very true, just as he told it. I focused on taking notes.

The battle that ensued began with Erik wreaking massive damage to the hobgoblin leader. The others followed swiftly with devastating attacks of their own. Tira’s magical hurricane quickly dispatched the enemy leader, referred to as the “war caster”. Soon all the hobgoblins would be dead, except for one.

With a solemn look upon his face, Erik described the interrogation as a fateful lesson for the adventurers. At first the hobgoblin spit out propaganda about how Illidan now controls demons and the usual “you will all die!” rhetoric. However, it soon became clear that this was indeed no ordinary goblinoid – it was was a demon inhabiting a hobgoblin body. Erik then described how the hobgoblin disintegrated into a purple mist that somehow infested the adventurers, making their rests less effective. Not all the powers that the adventurers has so freely spent in this battle would be soon recovered.

The adventurers continued on through the night, eventually to arrive at the hills that surrounded the temple. Looking down upon the temple’s base and across at the temple’s top tower, the five could see proof of Valthrun’s words. A green-black sphere, one score of staff lengths wide, hovered over the central tower. Beneath the sphere, at the top of the tower stood a figure with arms stretch out to what was now clearly the passageway to the demon’s realm. Guards stood at stairways that lead to the temple’s massive doors. More troubling still, a large humanoid construct patrolled the temple’s perimeter, shimmering as shifted around the temple’s grounds.

With this passage, Erik pulled out a small stone attached to a chain. He explained how it was a “Foe Stone”, capable of revealing a creature’s weaknesses. I smiled and wondered if he was using it upon me right then and there. He told of this construct, that it was actually an elemental demon, weakest on reflex. I pointed out that large creatures are likely to be slower to move because of their great bulk and that perhaps his “foe stone” just told him what he already knew. Erik gave the stone a second look and put it way.

The tale continued. There were ten guards upon the temple’s steps, each with strange, crystalline swords. They were clearly elves possessed by demons. Clearly. Erik then told of crazy plans to storm the temple, from scaling smooth walls to flying with ropes, constructing catapults and ridiculous pulley systems, all of which would obviously lead to certain death, I thought to myself. This went on and on. My sense that the adventurers were very inventive was confirmed. I grinned as I took notes.

Finally Erik came to the point where the adventurers decided upon a plan, which was to cast a spell of silence upon two of the guards and then do their best to coup de grace them. Not very sporting, but a plan. As in all good story telling, the best laid plans to do not go as planned, for as soon as Rift cast the mighty spell, it fizzled. In frustration she willfully fired forth a magic missile – the bolts of which impacted a yet undetected magical shield that surrounded the temple.

With this latest failed move by the adventurers, the construct took notice and teleported to the seen of the infraction. The construct, now realized to be a “void reaver”, immediately dealt massive damage to Erik and Z’alden. Rifts little dagger did nothing but the brave Barrick leapt upon the giant construct, distracting it and giving his compatriots better reason to hit the monstrosity. The ranger’s arrows pierced the void reaver and the cleric laid down a zone of “healing sun” that buoyed his allies and confounded his foe. Still, the menace of the temple became more apparent as the adventurers realized that all energy, even divine, was suppressed.

The one void reaver continued to do severe damage to the heroes, yet the dwarf continued to ride it and hinder its attacks. Erik’s powerful attack knocked it prone and Tira’s fire attack realized massive damage upon the creature. Confounding the void reaver, Rift’s “mirror sphere” reflected the enemy’s attacks back upon itself. This was matched by the void reaver spinning around, sweeping fists into three of the adventurers and causing a lot of hurt. Still, Rift’s magic had done its work and the void reaver’s armor was nearly done, parts breaking into pieces to reveal a demon that crackled with lightning energy. Tira’s next attack finished off the void reaver’s armor, shattering what remained to fully reveal the demon, which Erik referred to as a “void lord”. With that, Barrick was thrown off and the power lightning zone that surround the void lord became apparent. Fight close in or from afar, for the middle ground was death.

Note: Erik had me writing furiously, just trying to keep up with pace of battle, and then he stopped. “I need to take my leave now, Eastlander”, he said. “What?”, I implored. There was no changing his mind. He had urgency and trouble upon his face. I shrugged and thought about how a cliffhanger would be good for my followers. My manuscripts are gaining in popularity and I even have scribes who copy my works for a share of the sale. I just might become famous and my works may live on beyond me. My dream.

Note: So this is where I sit now. A day has passed and I don’t know where the adventurers have gone. I sit in my room and turn my notes into prose. As I write these very words, there is a scuffle outside and it almost amuses me when I compare it to the true battles that our heroes have faced, even if lesser than was told. I think I even hear one of the dark, broodish aggressors asking for me by name. He has a vicious dog-like beast with him. Interesting. I’ve been writing too much and am in dire need of a relaxing break.

A Warning Letter

It has been close to a year since the Beholder was slain. Much has happened in that time. Giants have been slain and suppressed, the town has been rebuilt and more traders and merchants are arriving every day, and the Nentir Vale seems to be at peace, but fate has not yet finished with the heroes. A letter arrives, from an old acquaintance, Valthrun. The letter reads:

“Friends, I beg for your assistance in these dark times. My order, one that Tira already knows of, has fallen. I am the last living member of The Order of The Arcane. One of our best students, Illidan Stormrage has been corrupted, by what I do not know. He has destroyed our temple, taken our darkest secrets, and is now raising an army. Please help me, I cannot defeat him. I will be in Winterhaven”
-Valthrun, Master of Magic

Not a day later a second message arrives, although this one is not in the form of a letter, it takes shape in a Kobold messenger from the Kengi. This Kobold rushes to find Felsmon, and when he does, says in quick breaths, “My lord, Giants, many Giants. Your father needs you. Bring your companions. Kendistar mustn’t fall. Fire, more fire, and a rift in the sky. The Firelord has returned.”

Heroes, you must choose a path.

Memento Mori

The dwarf awoke, as so often, staring up at a wooden ceiling. He wondered where he was as he listened to the sounds of movement nearby. The back room of a tavern? His nose scanned for the scent of brewing, but found none. Maybe the cellar of a market – somebody was shouting, and he heard what sounded like sacks of grain being tossed around roughly. Or a stable – lots of grunting, wheezing, and clanking going on around him.

The dwarf, who could not remember his own name just yet, licked his lips to see whether he had been drinking the night before. At once his eyes narrowed, adrenaline coursed through his frame, and on instinct he rolled to his right, just avoiding a blast that singed the floor where he had lain. Rolling onto his stomach he sprang to his feet to find himself facing a gruesome floating ball of flesh covered with eyestalks. A Beholder, he knew it to be. It was injured, and it seemed to be surrounded by all manner of other armed creatures.

As the dwarf tried to decide whether to attack or defend the monstrosity, the Beholder was beset by arrows, fire, lightning blasts, and a powerful swing from a massive Dragonborn who seemed familiar. A halfling-sized creature even stabbed at the Beholder’s fierce central eye with a dagger. But the dangerous spheroid, fighting for its life now, sent rays in all directions from its eyestalks. One of its antagonists fell unconscious while another, a woman, ran away screaming in fear.

The dwarf picked a side, more from instinct than analysis. Without serious injury and heavily armored, he tried to distract the Beholder away from the fallen warrior, as did the Dragonborn, but to no avail – another blast from an eyestalk killed the poor wretch. The dwarf, enraged, swung at the round monster but missed. As he shifted around looking for an opening, he spotted a female in the distance, who calmly sent a missilelike spell at the Beholder, ending its life and the battle.

A slap on the back from the Dragonborn surprised him. “All good, Barrick?” Barrick – he knew that name, he was sure of it. “All good, all good.” The female who had killed the Beholder walked up and looked him in the eyes, and called out “Z’alden, can you come, looks like another concussion. Sit down, my friend, sit down.”

The dwarf came to, finding himself standing, fully armored, in an embrace with a huge humanoid. Probably another happy drunk. He himself tended towards glumness and archness, but some others grew hug-happy, he well knew. Had it been ale or mead this time? He noticed two women in the background, both pointing at him and his buddy. He became aware of a unique bitterness, and reacted by swinging his helmeted head at what he now knew to be his assailant’s face. He missed, being too short and without any real strength in his legs, but the two women, apparently spellcasters both, each hit the creature with magic blasts, and the brute fell dead at the dwarf’s feet.

He wasn’t sure he recognized the women, but he now knew what side he was on – theirs. The crowd was large and active, but the dwarf had an intuitive grasp of the situation from body language and defensive tactics. The main threats were another humanoid like the one just killed, and a huge Beholder doling out deadly magic from its eyestalks. He watched as a halfling-sized creature attacked the humanoid with a dagger. He thought that would be the death of the pint-sized braveheart, but just then a projectile of some sort threaded the Beholder’s eyestalks and struck the neck of the humanoid, who fell gurgling to his painful death.

Meanwhile an enormous Dragonborn was standing over a fallen human, fending off bites from the Beholder while laying hands on the human in a healing ritual. This was someone worth fighting next to! The dwarf sprang into action, twirling his axe like a baton at the horrid ball of flesh until one of the eyestalks blasted him onto his back, senseless. The dwarf sensed no more.

The dwarf came to consciousness facing a very large humanoid whom he did not recognize. He wondered whether they were friends. He – the dwarf – was holding a shield in one hand, and axe in the other, and in his axe hand also an eye at the end of a thin rope. He knew this must be a drinking game, but could not think of the name of the game, or exactly how it went. It appeared that the stranger was holding him by each of its powerful hands, and before he could react he found himself flipped upside-down and smashed onto the wooden floor. The dwarf sensed no more.

The dwarf, coming to his senses slowly, could tell he was held by a powerful creature who wished him no good. He saw magic blasts careening overhead as the woman who sent them turned invisible. He saw a great blob of flesh with one big angry eye and several smaller eyes at the ends of appendages, bobbing around chaotically and shooting rays at the many warriors within a few steps. One of these rays struck the dwarf full in the face, and he realized he wanted to defend the great ball of lovely flesh, to find the invisible woman and kill her, or maybe to kill a different woman, who had just been knocked unconscious by another ray, or maybe to kill the giant Dragonborn fighting nearby.

Held fast by an unseen creature and unable to move to do any of this killing, the dwarf had a chance to notice the taste of blood in his mouth. Immediately realizing the danger he was in, his focus returned, and he perceived the blob of flesh for what it was, a horrific and dangerous enemy. Though immobile, he managed to surprise the great round beast, and even cut off one of its many eyestalks, which in falling wrapped itself around his axe handle. Suddenly the gruesome thing disappeared completely. He turned his attention to the strong humanoid holding him, getting in a shot at his knees. But the brute did not buckle, instead lifting the dwarf like a sack of grain and bringing him down hard on his head. The dwarf sensed no more.

The dwarf struggled to clear his head. He sensed commotion around him, but what was going on? He watched as a flaming sphere appeared from out of nowhere in the midst of several huge humanoid creatures. What was that all about? It looked like some magic blasts were being shot around the high-ceilinged room. One of the humanoids picked up a smaller being and pile-drove in into the floor. A bar fight getting out of hand? The dwarf tasted not ale, but rather his own blood, and that had the usual effect. Adrenaline flowed, and the dwarf struck out at one of the humanoids, stopped the creature in its tracks, then leapt to his feet. Enraged now, dwarven blood pumping to every muscle and fiber, he spun his axe viciously at the two figures nearest him.

The dwarf noticed a bulbous Beholder nearby, shooting rays from its eyestalks at a motley crew fighting against it. One of this crew, a female, killed a cleric hiding behind the Beholder with a fire blast, but at the same time one of the humanoids killed a smaller creature. A halfling-sized creature shot off one of the Beholder’s eyestalks with a crossbow, but one of the humanoids kicked another woman in the head, knocking her unconscious. And so on.

Suddenly a huge Dragonborn approached the dwarf and yelled “Barrick – amulet?” Crouching defensively, Barrick – if that was indeed his name – readied his shield for the blow that he expected. “Barrick – amulet!” came another shout from the impatient giant. The dwarf realized that no foe would know his name, and tossed over the necklace he was wearing. This seemed to satisfy his apparent ally, who strode confidently towards the Beholder. Whatever the amulet was supposed to do, it apparently did not; the Dragonborn soon flew away, howling in fear, victim of one of the eyestalks’ rays.

While he watched this display, the dwarf was grabbed from behind by one of the humanoids and dragged into a melee. Fully energized by now, he managed to strike his assailant and two others, break free of the grab. He pushed two of them into a nearby fire, and killed the third outright with an axe blow to the neck! Seeing the Beholder attack a prone human, he got in a lick or two, then watched as the Dragonborn, free from his psychic torture, threw everything he had at the many-eyed monstrosity. Watching too much and moving too little, he was hit in the head by one of the humanoids. The dwarf sensed no more.

The dwarf felt soothed by the healing touch of a woman, a strange woman. As he looked around, he spotted an enormous Dragonborn breathing fire on a handful of tough-looking humanoid figures. One of these, angered by the attack, jumped at the dwarf and kicked him in the head. The dwarf sensed no more.

The campaign had not started well for the dwarf Barrick. After a long planning session, he and Felsmon had had a go at the guards on the castle’s parapets, but Barrick missed his mark, and needed help from his comrades. Happens sometimes, he knew.

His companions were at their best, though. After Rift had magicked the castle’s big doors in half, Felsmon cowed an entire roomful of orcs and goblins (lackeys and minions all) by spreading his wings and bellowing like, well, a dragon. Clever Tira figured out which room would contain the antidote that would give them back their lives, and Z’alden found it there, and doled it out. They together organized the defenses: dead orcs as fake sentries, mines, and so on, with Rift casting locks at the most important points. The group tried to rest before the battle they knew was coming.

Despite their best attempts, they missed a secret door, and through it burst 4 powerful-looking humanoid figures. Barrick just had time to grab his weapons, and to bite down hard on his tongue.

The dwarf had long ago undergone training in BattleRage, and had recently once again taken up the practice of self-mutivation, as it was called. The simple technique of biting his tongue hard enough to draw blood worked for any dwarf, although other creatures had their own techniques. In a dwarf, a tongue wound would heal within an hour, but the taste of blood in the mouth would meanwhile elevate adrenaline, dull pain, focus the mind, heighten the senses, and produce a rage that could be directed at enemies with shocking results. Of course, he had tasted lots of blood besides his own. Many an axe blow had splashed orc blood onto his face, and he had bitten some 50 or 75 foes through the years. But dwarf blood tasted different from any other, bitter, not so salty, unique.

For Barrick, who had been fighting for what seemed like a hundred years, the technique had another advantage. He knew the taste of his own blood better than he knew his own name, and he knew what it meant. In the fog of drunkenness, or during the temporary amnesia after getting his bell rung, or sometimes even in the weakness of having his mind controlled by an enemy, the taste of his own blood produced the sudden realization that his own death was waiting for him, perhaps only seconds away. More times than he could count, this taste had spurred him to quick action, and kept his mortality at bay.

He bit down hard now, as the second Humanoid through the door grabbed him, upended him, and pile-drived him to the ground. The dwarf sensed no more.

Betrayal on the Beach
Duped by a dragon, the valers struggle to survive with their backs to the sea

A towering humanoid over 5 staff lengths high – a burning man – wreaked destruction across the land. Forests were on fire. Villagers screamed in terror. In front of the creature, Nathaniel stood small next to Milandra. He was armed with a mace in each hand like the cleric Z’alden, but his maces would be as ineffectual against it as the Church’s teachings on their meaning. Milandra wielded a staff like the great wizard Rift, but her meager spells would have little effect. The monster moved on until it was over top of them. The ground changed to lava underneath them, and they sank into the scorching molten rock. No one heard their screams.

Nathaniel awoke in a cold sweat. His memory was crystal clear of the nightmare. It was eerily similar to the story of the Heroes in the land of the Kengi, but the village was one that he knew to the south. He really did need to get some real sleep and not spend so much time copying the True Writings. But, he was learning so much! Soon, he would know enough to spread the teachings that he was formulating. And, with Milandra’s help, he was certain that he could go even faster; if nothing else, he would be more careful. He hoped that she would keep helping. He liked her being around. Just thinking about being under the bookcase with her, that close, the young monk flushed. Such thoughts were not acceptable for an Acolyte. He washed quickly and went out to the cluster.

Milandra was walking with the Perigee. The half-elven girl motioned to Nathaniel to join them. “Nathaniel, do you realize that tomorrow is the celebration of the fall of Independence? The Day of Verdenscales! I will bet you, good Perigee, that the monks know a different version of the story of that leads up to Verdenscales. That of the Hill giants and Trolls. I am certain theirs differs from the one that we are taught.”

The Perigee chuckled, “Little Nadirine, the Church’s teachings are one and the same for those under the Zenith and those above the Nadir. What could be different?”

Milandra drew up in front of Nathaniel, almost accusingly. “Zenithyte, tell me, when the Paragons reached the narrow canyon of Fear and Despair, as they took the fast and easy road that would lead to the deception of freedom, as the poison of independent thought coursed through their veins, whose powers were the most important in the great teaching?”

Nathaniel almost could not believe the question. Even with all that he had learned from the True Writings, the parroting response was automatic, “Why the great Paladin Felsmon, of course. He flew up to release those trapped by the net of indecision. His radiance and power reflect the clear cut choice that service brings to all. Followed closely by the mighty dwarf Barrick, whose axe of truth slashed in a rain of steel the Hill Giants and their rocks of impure thought. And, the dwarf’s ring of feather fall upheld the lives of his comrades as the net tumbled open, even as the Church supports us from the pull of evil.”

The Perigee looked horrified. “No, my little Zenithyte. Have you forgotten the Ettin whose heads are the wrong two ways to live? Or the Stone Giant of the false lures of the world? Or the Troll of Cowardice? At the very least, it is clear in this story that the great wall of blades of Truth and Light from the friend Monica formed the barrier to all that tries to strike down the Church. Just as the tales of the Paragons bring new life to us all, so Monica’s actions in their presence are a key point of the story. But, the most important, as it is known, is shared greatness between Rift with the mighty Hammerfall that she caused to fall about those three, lifting up with the power of conviction only to let the evil drop and be ripped to shreds by the power of the blades of Truth and Light, and Tira with the incredible power that the control of Chaos brings to the Church as she took the Jewel of the Virtues focused into a Dazzling Ray and showed us Valor, Justice, and Honor defeating the Hill Giant completely and severely wounding the Stone Giant and the Ettin in three swift rays. The meaning could not be more clear, and the importance more obvious."

The Perigee paused reflectively, “Yes, it is true that the cleric Z’alden uses three of the other virtues: Sacrifice, Compassion, and Spirituality to raise back to the Church the light that is the friend Monica, and,” she emphasized, "his role in defeating the enemy is duly noted in the Teachings, as are the Honour of the baiting strikes of the warrior Barrick that vanquished the Hill Giants of Doubt that remained. Also, there is much to be learned from the Justice of Felsmon’s Shield of Bonderstong absorbing the worst of the great blow from the Stone Giant of the false world. The meaning there is also clear. But, the most important, as it is in so many of the tales – it is the women. Rift’s missile of the raging pink of Honesty slew two of the monsters. Even Rajel, about whom so little is written, it was her arrow, like a Hawk’s Talon, that killed the Ettin of the two most wrong ways to live. It is known.”

Nathaniel could only cough loudly to cover his involuntary response, “Or*sh*t”. But, then he realized that he had not seen the True Writings on this tale or on that great deception by the icon of freedom: the Green Dragon. Did he really know what had happened or what the meaning from this story or any other really was? What was the meaning of Z’alden’s final spell in this tale, crystal blue dragonclaws of light that exploded like a solar flare into the monsters. Did he really bring the Light to the false world, slaying the stone giant?

Maybe the adventurers were simply in the wrong canyon at the wrong time while en route to their real goal of finding the antidote to the poison? Maybe they were in the right canyon, if the story was to be believed. How else, after the other monsters were defeated and the Troll of Cowardice ran away, could they have found a cache of great treasure and weapons unlike anything the Paragons had ever seen before.

Somehow, he was sure, the teachings he had learned, and those of the Nadir that had made Milandra so snarky, had missed the depth of the real experience for the adventurers. Even the True Writings of Torben Eastlander surely missed the emotions that they felt at the time. Why describe fear to a scrivener after the monster is slain? At least, it would be minimized. In his mind’s eye, he could see the party walking with unease into the narrow canyon. He could smell the fear on the Fands and on the cleric, too, as some of their party were swept up in a huge net. The surprise surely even the unflappable Tira felt as the Hill Giants leapt out behind them throwing boulders. The frustration as they were bottled up on both sides when the Stone Giant, Ettin, and Troll appeared at the other end of the canyon. But, Nathaniel was sure that the Teachings had some roots in the Truth. The little band did not despair. They worked together, tightened their grips, marshaled their best resources, and defeated a bit more of the evil that is in the world.

His little reverie was broken when the Perigee said, “Come Milandra, I would talk to the Apogee about this. These Zenithytes need better instruction. And, this one will need to be watched” Milandra shrugged her shoulders as they passed by Nathaniel.

Nathaniel’s duties kept him from returning to the Stacks that night. He was simply too tired. Luckily, his dreams were untroubled. When he awoke, his first thought was to find Milandra, and see if they could make a plan to return to the True Writings soon. He rushed out to the cluster.

As he had hoped, Milandra and some of the other Nadirines were out, too. They were doing the morning exercises. To his surprise, they were starting the celebration of Verdenscales, the fall of Independence. But, that was in two days. No wait, he had lost track of time. Today was the celebration. “Wings of the dragon, extend,” the Perigee called out as the girls spread their arms wide. “Axes of the dwarf defeat the evils of independence,” she boomed, and the Nadirines swung imaginary weapons at the dragon in front of them. “Ride the dragon like the great dwarf, making Independence pay the price for its deception.”

The girls took a deep stance and sliced into the air.

Somehow Nathaniel was fairly certain that was not what the dwarf had looked like on the back of the green dragon. Barrick must have been huge for one thing. “Dwarf” was the Church’s metaphor for judging the greatness of a man by his deeds and not his veneer of flesh. The brave and valiant warrior was all that Eastlanders should emulate in service to the Church. But, there were no real dwarves. The living Barrick was probably a staff and a half high! Actually, Nathaniel had never seen anyone that tall, but Barrick’s prowess made it seem to be so. To ride a dragon, the less than a staff high that the Teachings described just couldn’t be right.

Even as Milandra and her fellow Nadirites went through the exercises of the deception that marked the start of the day, Nathaniel wondered at the version of the story he might find in the True Writings. He thought back to its start and tried to strip away the layers of interpretation. How would he tell the Teaching as a story? In the Church’s version, Verdenscales symbols the Folly of Independence. When the adventurers accept his alliance and offer of flight to quickly reach the castle where the antidote is kept, the Dragon’s duplicity is revealed as he tries to dislodge them once in flight and let them die falling to the ground. The soft sand of the Church itself and the wings of Justice that support the Paladin save most of the Paragons, while the mighty dwarf rides the Folly and extracts a heavy price from its deceit, even as the Church extracts the price from all who purse the falsehood of independence.

How would he relate the point in the story where Z’alden uses the Crossbow of Heavy Truth to knock the dragon out of the sky and place it onto the sand of the Church, where the true ways of the Paragons can injure it enough until Independence itself flees, and the five and their friends are truly free together.

While many parts of the Church’s version did not make sense, Z’alden’s crossbow in this story was the least convincing. The cleric’s Crossbow of Heavy Truth is almost never mentioned in any of the Teachings, and rarely does it impact the outcome of a story. Nathaniel remembered falling asleep during Master Windebagg’s interpretation of the importance of the gigantic bolt launched from the cleric’s crossbow: Truthiness bringing down Freedom. More likely, Barrick had taken a swipe at the tail of the wyrm and that had caused the dragon to fall from the sky. Then, the adventurers had engaged it with great valor until the Beast had fled.

Nathaniel had to know what Torben Eastlander had really written about this tale. Late that night, he snuck back into the Library. He found two guards asleep! That was a real help. After lighting a small candle, he used the special key Master Renithar had given him, pulled out the volume, and placed it on the table.

“Aha!” Milandra jumped out at him. How had he not noticed her? “I knew you would be here to find out what we are really celebrating on Verdenscales Day. Why do we eat sandy bread for one thing? I want to know, too.”

Trying to keep calm, Nathaniel, half out of skin, glared at the half-elf. “I could have tipped over the ink I jumped so much! Or, the guards could have heard. What were you thinking?”

“Find your armor and be calm. The guards are asleep. Convenient isn’t it?” Milandra smirked at him. Nathaniel didn’t have time to ponder that enigmatic smirk. He opened the tome and moved quickly to the start of the interview on Verdenscales. He dipped his quill to copy.

At the beach, the party had found the Green Dragon Verdenscales waiting from them. Felsmon, no fear in that Paladin, especially since the Dragon is probably half the size they say, parleyed with the Beast.

In a surprising twist, Tira related to me how she got Verdenscales to agree to draw a card from the Deck of Many Things. I have played cards many times and know never to draw from a woman’s deck. It is always stacked. Verdenscales knew the same. He let Tira draw, saw her crummy card of “Balance” (more on what the sorceress says the card “made” her do to ruin a good man – ha!), and waited until the Deck simply vanished. Verdenscales agreed to an alliance against Xathros the Beholder (Trust a dragon after he has already tricked you in a card draw. Yes, these adventurers are that stupid) in which he would fly them back to the castle to search for the antidote to the poison.

Barrick, Z’alden, Rift, and Tira mounted up while Felsmon flew beside. (The wings on the dragonborn are true. I have seen them).

A few hundred feet in the air, according to Barrick, who has an issue with distances I note, Verdenscales inverted over and over trying to shake them off. According to Tira, she used her magical rod to hang safely in the air. More likely, the fall wasn’t that far. Barrick simply held on (again note that the size of the dragon must be much smaller than Felsmon’s impression if the dwarf could actually ride a dragon). Z’alden fell and sprained an ankle (this is the part that makes the most sense). Rift’s spell of feather fall let her float safely to the ground (the evidence of a small distance from ground to dragon becomes clearer all the time. The cleric has told me before that he has a bad leg, everyone else fell safely. Makes more sense. Why do they always have to dress up the story with these imaginary actions?).

Then, an epic battle began. Most of this I am want to believe, especially after my fifth pint, but what does it matter? I am the scrivener telling their drivel. I will not comment, but simply relay what the adventurers told me.

As they read more, Nathaniel gaped at Milandra – this is where the Church had taken so many liberties, imparting meaning and symbols to a real life and death struggle. The only part that Nathaniel refused to believe was the use of the cleric’s crossbow. It was simply too pat. Maybe the monk who had last transcribed the True Writings was favoriting Z’alden, trying to give him an action that made a real difference? And, oh how the Church had run with that addition.

The cleric looked at me and had silver fire in his eyes. He took a deep draught of Nentir ’97 and spoke, “This was second time we had agreed to work with evil to further our ends. Spitting out the sand from the fall, I realized that how far I had fallen. It would not happen again. Even as the dragon strafed fire and poison on our friends, even as he used his magicks to try to strike fear in our hearts, we taught him the price of his Folly and showed him the stuff of which Truth is made. Rift’s cold blast coated Verdenscales wings, making him able to move little more than two staff lengths in six heartbeats. With Barrick still on his back, the Dragon was distracted so much that he could not even bite.”

“Oh, Verdenscales would rue the day he tried to deceive us. My mighty friend Felsmon placed radiant shackles of light to bring Justice to the Dragon. Each time the dragon harmed us, the shackles tightening, exacting a toll on the villainous wyrm.

Milandra looked up at Nathaniel. “Does that really say that Felsmon used Justice on the symbol of Independence? Could the Teachings be right?” Nathaniel shook his head. Maybe not everything was wrong in the Teachings, but something was certainly wrong when they were relayed to the student in the Chamber of Understanding. They copied on.

Tira had a magical rod that allowed her to be suspended in the air and attack Verdenscales. With two massive bolts of fire, I could smell roast Dragon from the ground. I cheered loudly! And, then, I took aim with a Searing Light, teaching the creature that failure to follow the light means that you cannot see. Indeed, now the Dragon was blind. Still, he clawed into Barrick with such ferocity that he shook off my good friend dwarf. Worry not, he floated safely to the ground with his ring of feather fall. (I cannot resist here – yet another safe landing. The distance was simply not what their small minds recall, and they must invent magical ways to describe a fall into the soft, supporting sand that saved them).

I must tell you the joy I felt as the Paladin swooped onto the Dragon with the Blood of Welling up in his valiant veins, he smote the creature mightily. Rift used a magical jewel to cast three separate magical missiles of pink force at the Wyrm. Inspired, I pulled out my crossbow of Heavy Metal. Truth be told, I am not very good with this weapon, despite my father’s teachings. He would have been proud that day. I took aim at the flying beast, said a prayer to the Great Dragon of whom this Green Wyrm is vile replica, and a massive bolt took flight, penetrating its wing, and bringing it down hard upon the earth! A grounded dragon makes for an easy picking, and my friends did not disappoint.

What I did not expect was that the massive tail of the Wyrm would be such a formidable weapon itself. Lashing out, the little Halfling, Monica, Rajel, Rift, Colefen, Tira, Felmson, and I were all hit by it. My exultation was dampened by this set-back. But, I should not have despaired even a moment. Even as the dragon bit into me deeply and injected an evil poision, Barrick and his new Dragonslayer axe roared into action. Each storke took a heavy toll on the Foolish Wyrm.

Not finished yet, Verdenscales returned to the air and made us remember he was not some little drake. His strafing attacks of breath took a toll on us, but were nothing compared to the flying radiant charge of Felsmon. A black ichor flowed freely from the beneath green scales. Enraged, his breath took a price from Felsmon and Stewie, but the Dragon had no match for power that surround him them. Magical mirrors from Rift’s mighty spell confounded the Wyrm. The craven fled in terror, yelling back at us, “You have made an enemy for life.”
We took the boats, and Rift conjured up a gale to get us back to the Wizard’s Isle as quickly as possible. Even as we tried to rest

Nathaniel looked up at Milandra, “What was that?”

The pale, thin Apogee stood before them. His widow’s peak was raised from his eyes in a look of triumph. “Renithar is not the only one who knows a few tricks. Seize them!” Two of the Apogee’s personal retinue leveled spears at the youngsters. “The Chamber of Understanding will be just the place for both of you to return to the Teachings and forget about your folly into things that do not concern you.”

Disconcerted in the Key of B

Renithar stared at the half-burnt tome in his hands. Among the scorched pages of several books, he had found the section in Z’alden’s journal that paralleled the very part of the True Writings that Nathaniel had been copying just yesterday. It was only in the last few weeks that he had gotten the courage to open these books – possession of them would be punishable with more than a trip to the Chamber of Understanding. He shuddered at the thought.

The aging monk could only wonder at the other treasures that had been lost when the Church had burned down his ancestral home. As a young child, he had marveled as his grandmother would show him scrolls and items collected by her ancestor the cleric Zenithar al Denithar. She showed him maces with runes that she said could destroy the living dead. Symbols of the Dragon god that could call down fire from the sky. Such power seemed at odds with her description of a kind hearted cleric of Bahamut that she had always called her “uncle” Z’alden. In these troubled times, Bahamut was no longer a god to be worshipped, but an image to be Understood and Z’alden a figure to be interpreted by the Church of the Eastlander.

But, the people had known the power of the place that the real cleric had raised up and used as a home to tend to the poor, find justice for the downtrodded, to serve those that needed hope, and seek vengeance for those that man’s justice had forgotten. When some started to venerate the small keep where Z’alden Silverflame had last been seen ages ago, the Zenith had let it go. That was, until a few starting having visions of the Silverflame while near the keep. The Marshalls of Introspection had solved most of the problems, but they could not quash the tales that said that a young man had brought forth an image of silvery dragon’s head with a shimmering silver and purple light around it. A sick man had been healed at the sight.

The bright red and orange flames that destroyed the structure were in stark contrast to that tale. Those flames took with them many of the wondrous items that his grandmother had hidden from the Church brethren as their power had grown. Renithar sadly shook his head and turned his attention back to the tome:

As I rock on this boat, driven by the wizard’s winds, I must surrender my innate desire for introspection. The poison courses through our veins, and I must search my recollections for any clue as to a means to combat it. Another day I will wrestle with the decisions we have made to help the Beholder, Xathros, and the actions we took that allowed him to gain the key to the Underdark.

Here it was in ashen text – a key tenet of the Church: we must only listen to the Church and not reflect inwardly. Thought is the poison of independence. Maybe the Zenith’s teachings had it right? He read on

Days ago it was now that we awoke to feelings of bruising and battering. We had been to a party, and the Wack a Thuns were us. An unruly mob of orcs stood in front of us. We were strung up on a wall, chained with magical links that suppressed our powers. Our possessions were gone. We were somewhere in the castle tower. An iris like pattern on the floor caught my attention but I had not the freedom to investigate it.

The surrending of freedom – there was another tenet of the Church! Did the True Writings also contain these crucial teachings? He must look at Nathaniel’s copy. Renithar continued through the page:

Compounding the helplessness of the situation, the very folk we had come to rescue were not 20 staff lengths away along with others of the barbarian tribe.

The list of names was obscured by scorching.

Also, Monica and Lars, our friends from the small village were trapped here, too. And, our comrade Prescott was also a prisoner. He was surrounded by masked bounty hunters as they kicked him and pummeled him. Just as he seemed ready to go the gods, an evil cleric would step in and heal him. I did not realize until then how even healing could be made to serve evil.

Our slight banter with the guards resulted in little information and more beatings. The only thing my wife could learn with her charms was that a being named “Xathros” would decide our fate.

His wife! What is this. The cleric was not married in the Church’s version. Then, Renithar thought back to his teachings on the Old Common that Z’alden was using here. What he read as “my wife” was an endearing term for a close female friend and not necessarily telling of a marital status. Still, the idea was intriguing. He continued

In who knows how many hours, a blob of putrid living eyes descended from the tower above. Xathros was a Beholder. The Beholder ordered the vile cleric to heal Prescott and Norfand and ordered the two to fight. I could not resist my feelings of pride when both flung down their weapons refusing this charade of a battle. For their courage, Prescott was dragged off to be “fed to the sea.” Felsmon is chosen as the next to fight Norfand. The dragonborn means no disrespect to Norfand when he declares the barbarian an unworthy opponent. For his insolence, a ray of pain strikes at Felsmon from one of Xathros’ eye stalks. Felsmon takes the hint, grapples with Norfand and renders him unconscious in a matter of seconds, drawing a cry of delight from the bloodthirsty orcs circled round. We still chained could barely see but could not resist the spectacle.

During the fight, like solving a puzzle, I had managed to work a hand free. I consecrated the ground around me to restore us, but for my trouble an eyebeam from Xathros rendered me unconscious. I could not sustain the consecration.

Later, my wife would tell me of Felsmon’s valiant aerial combat, dragonbreath searing the orcs and Xathros, but even for the great Paladin, outnumbered and out powered by the Beholder, the result was predictable. Soon, he was shackled again. As I was awakened by healing from the vile cleric, I heard the Beholder laugh a booming laugh that rattled the bones. “You will serve me well”, the ball of eyes intoned. Never have I felt so helpless. It was as though the gods were punishing us for our hubris of having so successfully defeated each of the foes we found below the castle. Could the powers have found us too powerful and given us over to the hands of our enemies? No, this was a test that we must pass but at a price whose debt I may never cover.

His mind drifted from the difficult Old Common back to the days after the destruction of Z’alden’s keep. That had seemed as helpless as this story his ancestor was relating. With the keep gone and the other hallowed places also destroyed, the people had nowhere to turn but to the Church’s wisdom that sprang from the tales of the great adventurers from the Vale. But, no sick were ever healed at a Surrender of Independence. Still, hope remained for the monk. Luckily, the small black ring has grandmother had pressed into his hand was of little note to the Understanding Marshals that the Zenith had sent to make sure that nothing was left of the keep. His grandmother had hurt him she pressed it into his hand so hard even as she pressed him into service as a monk of the Church. She had wanted his attention. “Watch, learn, and listen. Find what is true quietly, and wait for the time when powers and courage like that of our ancestor and his friends are needed once again.”

It had taken fiften years after his time in the Halls of Understanding to remember those words. Even now, the scars from his days in the Chamber still hurt. He wondered if the adventurers had similar scars from the beatings they endured. Maybe it was this very scene that inspired the Chamber, as it was here that the Church’s story said the Paragons learned obedience. Renithar read on:

The one item of note I hold to is the surprising realization that Craete, Elena’s uncle, was somehow among the lowly guards. Was he a friend or another foe? Perhaps he will find a way to aid us. Suspended as we were, the evil cleric taunted us even as he explained the horrible situation we faced. “Xathros has no arms. We will go to the man who makes arms. You will help us or die a painful death.”

The evil cleric related with glee how we had been poisoned and that only by helping Xathros obtain a key from this armorer would we be given the antidote. I was in a horrible position torn between goodness and loyalty. I could not serve an evil being, but I could not let evil win and see my friends die when there is so much for us to do in this world filled with pain and injustice. I would use the means of helping Xathros to the end of seeing my friends freed. This was justified. We had 4 days to live.

So, there it was, in Z’alden’s own hand. Many of the rationalizations of the Church had a similar structure. Few involved real life and death.

The next few pages were scorched almost beyond recognition. Something was readable about longboats and chains, “returned our weapons”, “The Beholder stayed behind”, “slow march of two days chained to a pole”, “ big foot prints”, “giant’s camp”, “reached a volcano”, “ just the Fands and their wizard, Monica, Lars, Rajel, and us”.

Then a part that the flames had not consumed:

The evil cleric spoke with us as evening fell, “Tomorrow you will go into battle for Xathros. You must bring him the key. No key, no antidote. We will restore your armor and weapons.” We should have turned on the cleric and his companions then, but driven by the helplessness of the situation, we rested or tried to. The Slaad embryos inside of us, part of the Chaos Phage, tried to get out. Tira, Barrick, and I fought them off and vomited up the remains. Felsmon was not so lucky, but his constitution is so strong that he suffered no ill effects. The next morning, before leaving, the evil cleric repeated the instructions and added in one small new bit, “If you find the key, Xathros will give you good weapons. Xathros will not harm you.”

We crossed the volcano’s plain and made our way to the hut of the armorer. Walking off of a cleared path resulted in explosions. Some people are very paranoid about visitors. Felsmon flew up and over to the cottage while Werkofend walked safely and knocked on the door. A Flesh golem was their greeter. With danger at the door, we attacked. Bahamut be praised, and the searing light blinded the golem. Tira’s bright bolts of chaos made the construct of flesh begin to fall apart. Felsmon’s waraxe glowed with the light of the Dragon and smote the creature. Our attention distracted, the stone giant that crouched behind the hut was able to engage and prepare to hurt our wizard. An arcane gate from Rift moved her out of harm’s way and onto a nearby bridge overhanging the lava pool behind the hut. The Fands could not seem to take a good step or swing. Explosions rocked us as they continued to leave the path and find every mine. Mechanical iron men they also awakened. These constructs entered the fray causing massive damage to our friends and Fand comrades. These were not all of our foes. An Eladrin man with a longsword came out of the hut. Clad in little but leather armor, he engaged the Paladin. It is not often a blade touches our valiant dragonborn. But, this one did with such effect that Felsmon’s arms went cold. For the remainder of the battle, his strength was at half its usual potency.

In the course of spells and powers, swords and axes, Tira had the most amazing use of a spell. I have seen her use the Chaos Storm many times, but on this occasion, the Storm battered the stone giant and carried him over the lava pool, where he sunk into oblivion. Unfortunately, her Hurricane that could have tried the same trick on the mechanical was ineffectual against the immovable constructs. The tide was clearly ours after many heartbeats, though Monica and a few Fands had fallen. I consecrated the ground around our friend cleric, and she was soon restored by the dragon. The power of Barrick shifted the battlefield in our favor. One point I must recall, the armorer had a magic amulet shaped as Beholder. It was flung into the lava, but Felsmon flew to recover it. Even now, it may have an important part to play in what becomes of this tale. But, a bright blur that moved in and out of the hut would have more effect in the short term.

With the battle going against him, the Eladrin Elbad surrendered but mocked us for serving Xathros. The truth of his words stung. He went to get the key Xathros sought, only to find it gone from its chest. Somehow, the blur was a being that had stolen the key even as we distracted the Armorer. Xathros had triumphed and tricked us in the process. Elbad implored us to make sure that Xathros was never able to use the key. “You must defeat Xathros”. He explained that the Key opens the iris in the Tower floor. It would send the Tower to the Underdark, allowing great evil to be released. He gave us well-meant gifts. To me, a pair of gloves that would strengthen my faith and allow my healing powers to be more effective. The others he gave gifts also.

Renithar paused. He reflected on the gift his grandmother had given him, the small black ring. It had taken him another twenty years after the keep’s destruction and his time in the Hall of Understanding to wonder whether the obsidian ring might be more than an heirloom. He marveled at the foolishness of the Church whose mantle he wore. The adventurers had had real powers. This was not simply a story to give instruction on the life of the Riftness. The ring was proof. His recent dreams of a great walking flame rising from the South meant that such powers might be needed soon. They continued to haunt even his waking.

The monk was nearly certain that the time was coming that his grandmother had foretold. He could now remember almost everything that she had taught him. Reading the journal of his ancestor helped to clear away the teachings of the Church. And, the arrival of the inquisitive Nathaniel and Milandra he took as a sign from the old gods that he would need to drop his farce and begin to train them and others to stand against the forces of real evil that would soon threaten this land.

He looked around his small cell. The Apogee had not even blanched when he had asked to be moved from the Masters Hall to the Librarian’s quarters near the True Writings. His grandmother had taught him how to get people to cooperate, how to make friends and influence people. A good smile she called it. He could only hope that the Apogee did not realize his true motives – to be close to Nathaniel and Milandra as they began to learn the real Truth for themselves, and to find the powers that he hoped the gods had given to them.

His ruminations were interrupted by the sound of angry voices that culminated in the Zenith booming out a “Who’s there” not 10 staff lengths from his cell door. Taking off the obsidian ring and tossing it into the air, an inky disk of nothingness his full height appeared next to the monk. He placed the tome in the disk, waved his hand, and the ring returned to his finger. He would have to study further his ancestor’s beloved journal another time.

He opened his door, grabbed his staff, and quietly went down the small corridor that separated the Quarters from the Stacks. Renithar could easily see the Zenith and his entourage close to the very table where Nathaniel was conducting his illicit copying of the True texts of the Eastlander.

Masters Windebagg and Stoufful looked ashen. And, Nathaniel and Milandra? Nowhere to be seen, when they had been working here not long ago. This was not good.

“Your Zenith,” the monk called out, “and Mother Nadir. Good man Apogee. My fellow Masters. May the Wisdom be with you all,” he intoned the greeting that reminded all of the wisdom of the writings that the Church espoused. “I see you have found my little mess, my apologies. Since coming to the work at the Library as the Apogee directed me, I find I am at a loss without an Acolyte to serve. Of course, in this sacred area, one cannot have young monks, but these old hands have a harder and harder time with the locks and the quills. You will pardon my lack of cleanliness as my work continues?” The slightest twinkle glowed in his eyes.

From their hiding spot, Nathaniel Yewprick could actually see the side of the face of the Zenith. Even as Renithar spoke, the Zenith immediately relaxed, as though a friend had come to greet him with a few kind words. It was an amazing change, almost a magical change he started to think, but that was silly, magic does not really exist. Magic is the symbol for the forces of the Church. He really had been reading too many of these stories of the Paragons.

The Zenith asked with little more than idle curiosity, “These bits of parchment and locks left undone – that is you?” Renithar nodded saying, “These are not the clues you are looking for, “ and the Zenith continued, “These are not the clues we are looking for.” His eyes looked a little glassy from Nathaniel’s vantage point.

Renithar looked at the others assembled. Nathaniel was sure that he saw the faintest twinkling around Renithar’s mouth, “My wisdoms all, the hour is late, and the people will need your teaching in the morning. Let us retire to the Masters Hall, toast the greatness of the Zenith and the Nadir, open the great Book, and hear Master Windebagg recount the tale of the poison gases and the great chains that bound the heroes as they were held captive by the monster of eyes, Xathros.”

Windebagg perked up immediately at this suggestion, coloring returning to his face. He was an expert on the meaning of Xathros. “Yes, yes, well, glasses from my personal wine cellar of Nentir ’97 would be just the thing as we find the depth in that tale. Felsmon’s role is particularly important, but Barrick’s is not to be slighted, either. And the cards held by the sorceress, why did she not draw while they were in the chains? Oh, such items to consider as we find our guidance. And, the meaning of the Beholder is not just in the eye of the beholder! But the pile of ash that was the Norfand, Yes, yes, let us raise a glass and recount the tale, indeed. We must make the introspection that saves the people from the poison of introspection.”

Renithar intoned, “Your Zenith, shouldn’t we be off to hear the Master’s teaching?” The Zenith nodded dumbly, “we should be off to hear the Master’s teaching.”

The Apogee could only just keep from gaping with mouth open. The Zenith had been furious just seconds before. And, they had come knowing full well that these two Masters were failing in their duties. He was sure that he would have not one but two Masters in the Chamber for days! And, now, nothing but a glass of Nentir ’97. It was not the same. But, he said nothing. He was a bit chagrined. He could not remember exactly why he had assigned Renithar to his cell in the Library or what the old monk was supposed to be doing. He was sure the reason would come back to him. Yes, it would. The Apogee is the High Point of Reason.

As the little party moved off, Nathaniel gently let out a breath of air and looked up to see Renithar looking back at him. The old monk winked and then turned, putting his arm around the Nadir. Nathaniel heard him say quietly, “You should come with me deeper into the stacks of the True Writings some time. We could find Wisdom there." The Nadir tittered as they walked away.

After the silence had lasted long enough to consitute real safety, Nathaniel stared at Milandra, “How did Master Renithar make that all work out? Quills be broken, but I thought we were goners!” The red-headed half-elf only smiled slyly, “Well, it couldn’t have been magic. Everyone knows that is only a symbol of the stories, right?” “Right,” replied the young monk. The beguiling half-elf continued, “At the moment, we’d better return to our cells before we are missed. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to make sure you don’t screw up so badly again. There is a lot to be done, and we don’t have time for any more of your mistakes.”

The steps back to his Acolyte’s cell passed without Nathaniel even realizing he had completed them.

Musica Universalis
Of cubes, walls, ropes, and frogs

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.

Old books on shelves 001