“Uncle Torbie, tell us the one about catching the demons from the boat,” little Mira shouted. The other six children jumped up and down, “Yes, yes, that is a great story!”
“It wasn’t a boat, you dolt,” the much too big for his britches Karrick shouted at his sister. “It was a flying ship, the Astral Falcon.” Mira stuck out a tongue purpled from the rare licorice treat that their beloved Uncle had brought.
“But, I wanted to hear about the magic bubbles!” little Arifta shrilled. “There was only one magic bubble, the other was a magic circle that was impenetrable,” the smug face of Karrick nodded wisely looking to his uncle, both for confirmation and for affirmation for having used such a big word.
From the wrinkled face of the old scrivener came forth a long sigh. Torben Eastlander remembered the events just before he had heard this part of the tale of the adventurers from the Nentir Vale. He had made a deal with Verrin the Scum Lord. He could still smell the vomit on the floor, even after all of these years, as he had gone back to the Moonbeam Inn and shaken the dwarven fighter to consciousness and roused the others. He needed more material. The tale of the capture of a demon and the presentation of its head to the ancient living bones of a mighty Archmage still made him smile. It was the most ridiculous of the stories that they had told him up to this point. It had made him rich.
“But, Uncle Torben, you said you would tell the one about the 10,000 dragons that the wizard summoned through time and space to fight the demon horde!” the deep voice of Merik the man child boomed. Torben gentle chided, “Well, they were dragonborn, not dragons, at least according to the Valers, and it wasn’t really 10,000. And, remember, those dragonborn are meant to represent some very tough fighting people, but they don’t have any real relationship to dragons.”
Verrin had taken some of Torben’s best material and stretched and twisted it in so many ways, now folks were thinking that the story was about a wizard summoning dragons! Incredible. Even more incredible was the level of adulation, nigh worship, that his stories were getting from the common folk, or at least the stories the way that Verrin’s cronies had re-written them. Oh well, the pay was good. And, he had to remember that Verrin wanted to be called the Apogee now. Or was it Perigee? No matter. It wouldn’t last.
But, at this moment, he had an audience that was much more demanding, and much more pleasant to appease. They might actually listen to the story, instead of trying to find some life-changing meaning in these flights of fancy that were like the dreams of a chance roll of the dice. How the children loved these stories. They kept coming back and begging for more every time he visited.
“Well, everyone gather round,” the old scrivener intoned. “The story you want begins a little earlier, before the magic bubble was made, before the demon’s head was cut, back on the Isle of their Castle.”
“Remember, the Astral Falcon was badly damaged after the great battle with Illidan Stormrage, the plague of the demon horde, and the destruction the Tower of the Arcane. Two weeks of repairs would be needed before she would be ready for flight again. While the group undertook the repairs back at their castle, in that time, they knew that the horde of demons summoned by Stormrage would begin to ravage the Vale. They knew that, alone, they five could not stop the Horde. They needed an army to hold off the Horde while they went to find Stormrage.”
“The mighty dragons of the Kengi!” Merik shouted. “Led by Prince Felsmon the Flighty,” Mira chimed in, looking for approval from her older brother. “That’s Prince Felsmon the Mighty, you dolt,” Merik retorted, “he could fly, he wasn’t flighty.” The teenager rolled his eyes at his younger sister’s mistake with the impassioned feelings of the wisdom of 16.
Torben did not have the heart to then correct Merik that the flying Felsmon was nothing more than the flights of fancy of some overzealous fishtale-telling adventurers. Though that shield on his back was awfully large the last time the scrivener had seen the Paladin.
“Yes, yes, Merik, Rift made contact with Felsmon and arranged a plan to have him bring the army of the Kengi to just outside Winterhaven through a magic portal that she and Tira would make with the help of the powerful artifact, the Cube. The adventurers had continued to find that the Cube’s powers were almost limitless. With it, Rift had found Felsmon, communicated with him, and arranged a plan to make a powerful magical gate through which the Kengi could march from their homeland into Winterhaven in a matter of seconds, instead of the weeks it would normally take. Rift and Tira would bend space and time itself!”
The children gasped at the thought of such power. Torben remembered how loudly he had laughed when the cleric Z’alden had told him this part of the story. He could still remember staring at the half-elf, waiting for the man to crack a smile as he tried to tell the fantasy with a straight face. But, the cleric had only continued on.
He could still picture the scene in the Moonbeam Inn. Barrick was asleep on the floor after finishing the last barrel of ale. He would have made a good foot rest, if only he didn’t have a habit of swinging his axe when he rolled over. Rift and Tira had wandered off, almost embarrassed as Z’alden had relayed these, some of the most unbelievable parts of the fanciful tale. He remembered how he had leaned in as the cleric made grand gestures and drew him into the story. He could still hear that smooth, earnest voice.
“With the Falcon repaired, we flew like the Great Dragon himself to just outside Winterhaven and began the construction of the great Dimension Door to connect Kengistan directly to the western Vale, just outside of the town of Winterhaven. At that point, we knew much about our foe thanks to Tira’s and Erik’s probings with the Cube. Stormrage was more than a warped and twisted wizard, he was a minor demon prince who was haunted by a quest for power and recognition. Let that be a lesson to us all. Seeking the approval of others, feeling superior to those whose skills are less, believing that it is acceptable to trample upon them, that it is acceptable to reach for the darkest great powers, these thoughts lie on the path of darkness and make one a servant of Chaos. They consume you.” Torben remembered how he had interrupted the little sermon, “ah, good cleric, could you get back to the story part? I’m on a deadline here.”
“Claws! But, of course.” The cleric had settled in at that point, and as he did, the Moonbeam Inn had grown quiet. The patrons had tuned out the sermon, but they too listened intently as the cleric related the electrifying tale of grit and determination in the face of great need.
“Through sheer will, each of my comrades had used the Cube to enhance their already impressive abilities. Barrick had taken it, and channeled it until his arms and legs swelled, and he had the strength of a hundred giants. He lifted huge trees from their roots and started to build the arch that was needed for the Door.” The patrons eyes had widened at the thought of the prone dwarf moving a tree. Torben had suppressed a chuckle. Probably, these were branches in the arms of the dwarf. Small ones. “Erik had also gained this power. Together, they constructed a massive arch of wood, forty staff lengths across.” Sensing his audience, Z’alden paused. “Wide enough to move an army through.”
The cleric continued, “I had helped my friends more readily attune themselves to the Cube. Barrick and Erik gathered even more trees, and in leaps and bounds, notched the wood like it was sticks, and constructed a massive dome around us.”
“Then, the great magic of the ritual started. Rift drew on the artifact, and arcane runes representing space and time danced like fire from her fingertips onto the massive dome. It began to fuse together. Purple tendrils of arcane energy alighted on the dome, then red and blue tendrils intertwined from Tira’s hands and eyes spinning around the dome, fusing the trees. Intricate carvings appeared on the smooth wooden surface, scenes of great battles from the past, runes of power, runes of magic. Rift cried out as visions appeared to her of times when the Cube had been used to alter history: the Cube exploding, destroying an impenetrable Citadel; the Cube, alone on a field with but a figure next to it with hands outstretched, and then, a great Castle raised from nothing in an instant. We learned that the Cube was like a Teacher to us, and we had to struggle to learn its lessons to use it.”
“Use it we did. In a moment of control of the visions, Rift reached out her mind and searched for our foe Stormrage, trying to find the Staff and Sword that were his items of power. She saw only two green lights, then the vision sharpened, as if darkness can be clearer, into a figure made of darkness underground in the old part of the Temple. This figure was in a room with the power to create and destroy. It was in this same room that we had found the door which took us to the Astral Sea, but that is another tale. In this room of power, the figure was blasting with arcane might at one wall. The wall fell, and Rift could no longer see the dark shape. She searched her mind for anything that she might know about such powers, and she recalled an old legend of the Inner Temple. Whether this knowledge was hers, or a gift from the Cube, we never knew.”
“The most powerful Archmages would go to this room, this Inner Sanctum, where magical forces for creation and destruction from every place and plane could be gathered and channeled. The First Archmage, Tassadar, had used the room to create a demi-plane, a place between the planes, to take refuge from the Gods that he greatly hated.”
“As Rift related this to us, Tira took hold of the Cube, swept her hands across it and stretched out the dome. The wood changed to have an amethyst hue, and the entire dome became purple crystalline as the Cube itself glowed so brightly that to look upon it was painful, yet wonderful. I could feel that this dome was no longer in one place. Rift then took up the Cube, and pulled the power from the Dome’s center back into the Cube. She was changing the face of reality itself, warping space and time, as she linked where we stood to be next to where the Kengi army waited! She made a tesseract, like folding two sides of a scroll to be next to each other.”
“Erik knew that having the army of the Kengi here to fight the Horde would do little good if they knew naught of the surrounding lands. Taking up the Cube, he stretched his mind’s eye over the lands surrounding Winterhaven. In an instant, the natural Scout knew every river, every creek, every hillock, every gully. Felsmon’s army would know all that could be known about the terrain, its strategic values and pitfalls, its high ground and its killing fields. The Horde could be routed to slaughter.”
“Then, the amethyst glow flickered. It weakened. Tira had tried to add her powers to open the door between the dimensions and admit the Kengi. Instead, she had locked the door that Rift had started. I held my breath. Barrick’s eyes grew wide. Tira set her jaw in grim determination, as though she had been locked out of a treasure that was rightly hers. Indeed, the treasure was knowledge, and the sorceress would not be denied. We could visibly see the key that formed as she opened this door, and Rift jumped through.”
“In a moment of fancy, Barrick stuck his head through this incredible portal. I think he drinks so much now to forget that infinite nothingness that he would describe with a pale tone. I can only imagine.”
“Having seen the lay of the land, as we waited for Rift to appear with the Kengi, Erik reached out to the Cube. Who is this Stormrage? Why does he thirst for power so? A sequence of visions appeared to the Ranger. He saw a toddler, levitating under his own power. Then, a child, an arcane prodigy, with even greater power, but a ravenous hunger for more. And, the ranger could sense the ache for approval from his masters, how the child wants to show them that the limits they have set are not limits for him. They are wrong. Illidan has no limits.”
“Erik sees through Stormrage’s soul as he watches him seeking his Sword and Staff, drawing on dark forces that darken the young mage as well. He seeks control and power. Nothing can stop him, he believes. He longs to be greater than the first Archmage. To control a demon Prince. He will prove to everyone that he is the greatest. But, he is not yet evil. The Ranger has visions of the weakness of Illidan. The young mage begins to know fear. Fear of his own power and its connections.”
“Even as she begins her walk across time and space, Rift is distracted by Erik’s visions. The Cube connects us all. She cannot resist the quest that the Ranger has started. What is Illidan connected to? A scene forms in the mind’s eye of the wizard. It may be a costly one, as she is adrift in nothingness, somewhere between here and there, between now and then. It is a then she sees. A vision of Illidan at middle age. Power courses through the mage. His powers are only just shy of the Archmage. He has broken long held rules and gone deep into the Old Temple. He is in an empty room. Rift recalls it from our own adventures. Illidan summons the Sword and Staff from beyond. Lightning crackles. Rift beholds Illidan at twice the age, but he has not a new wrinkle across his brow. He stands in the same ancient forbidden room of the Old Temple. Ritual circles within circles surround him. The magical energy crackles and shrieks. Rift can hear a voice a shouting with a sound like coal shoveled into a fire. ‘I am Jarraxus, Demon Prince of Erador, Lord of the Burning Legions’. The Demon looks willing to help the mage. Time shifts again. Rift sees Illidan communing with this Demon Lord. Dark Power radiates from Illidan. He has surpassed the Archmage. But, still he longs for those things that he has ached for since childhood. To be acknowledged, to be hailed, to be recognized that he can do more than tradition ever dreamed possible. That he can dream and create anything he desires.”
“Distracted, Rift’s attention on the Dimension Door had weakened. Barrick takes up the challenge. Channeling the great halls of his ancestors into the Cube, he buttresses the door, turning it to unbreakable stone pillars. My heart stops. The now stone arch is missing the lintel. The dwarf does not falter. Out of nothing, he makes a massive lintel and throws it to the top of the huge pillars. The true door is complete. Erik can see through the door to a portal forming on the fields of Kengistan, but it wavers. Tira attempts to strengthen it, but it falters still. I call upon Bahamut to guide our quest here, my prayers are answered. The amethyst lights grow brighter. The stones resound with a final lock into place. Erik becomes the Great Guide and forms the purple light into a short tunnel between the two lands. Rift can see into all places and all times. She calls to Felsmon. Seven thousand Kengi warriors travel through the door in a matter of seconds. We have done it. The Kengi have arrived. The Vale will be saved!”
Torben still remembers the cheers that erupted in the Moonbeam Inn as the cleric finished his tale. But, this was not the end of the story. Far from it. The adventurers had climbed into the Astral Falcon, teaching their old mentor Valthrun how to pilot it, Z’alden had later related to him. This would be of use when they left the ship. They still had a Demon Mage Illidan Stormrage to find and defeat. A Demon Mage who seemed to have gotten access to some of the greatest magic of the greatest Archmage, Tassadar, while they had been constructing the Dimension Door. Attend to one fire, and another advances. There are only so many resources.
“Uncle Torbie, uncle Torbie, you haven’t gotten to the good part where Barrick goes Trawling for demons!” little Mira huffed impatiently. Merrick cuffed her ears. “That was the good part you dolt. The creation of a door between Winterhaven and Kengistan to move 10,000 dragons through. What is catching a demon while suspended from a flying ship compared to that?”
Karrick huffed at his sister,”and, it wasn’t just your beloved hero Barrick. The cleric Z’alden was there, too. He used his magical dragon claws of light to stun the demons and then Barrick could easily grab one.” “The dwarf stunned them, too!” little Arifta shouted shrilly, “Uncle Torbie, tell them!”
The old scrivener motioned for them to calm down. Reluctantly, they obeyed, more under the spell of his stories than out of any sense of duty to listen. “Maybe the best thing to do is to wait until the morrow to talk of this anymore.” “NO!” they all shouted, agreeing for the first time all evening. “Well, then, a moment’s peace.”
“Indeed, you are both right. Barrick and Z’alden hung on the end of a long rope, as Erik sailed the Astral Falcon back to the ruins of the Temple of the Arcane. While thousands of demons roamed the vicinity, only a few were on a patrol near the Temple. It was this patrol that the adventurers targeted. As the ranger deftly piloted the Falcon close to the demons, sapphire dragon claws of light exploded from the cleric, ripping into the demons and rendering them senseless. He sent Radiant light erupting from his mace, searing the demons, and pushing away all but their one prey. The powerful arms of the dwarf encircled this one demon, grabbing him and lifting him up. For good measure, Barrick whacked the demon upside the head, ringing his bell further to subdue him."
“From the Falcon, spells flew at the demons. Tira dropped enchanted balls of green acid, sizzling onto the demons below, while the cleric’s god took form in silver flames of power that singed the monsters. With Erik’s steady flying, the mighty dwarf could wield his axe against his captive, all while holding onto the rope with his feet! A feat of derring-do, indeed! Then, a bold plan emerged. With their prey stunned, Erik shouted to Barrick to drop him. Barrick was incredulous. No, really, the ranger cried out. Then, like a leaf dropping from the sky, Erik deftly steered the ship to land on top of the demon, pinning it between the keel and the ground. Tira jumped off of the ship, twirled her dagger, and unleashed the powers of chaos on this spawn of chaos. It had not long upon this plane. Searing white radiant light rained down upon the helpless demon, as Z’alden called upon the powers of Bahamut again. Then, Barrick aimed his axe with great precision, and in one chop, the demon’s body remained beneath the ship, while the head flew in the air, to land in Z’alden’s waiting bag. And that is how the sport of axcrosse was started.” Even the taciturn Merik smiled at that.
Before Arifta could protest, the scrivener held up his end. “But, let us not forget what happened next.” He motioned to her. “Unleash the Abyssal!” she shouted in her deepest voice, something between a squeak and a croak. The children’s eyes got wide. Could some of them really have forgotten what happens next?
The scrivener continued.
“A monstrously large demon swirling with a body of fire descended from the sky. Rift smirked and pulled out the Cube to as she ordered it to return forthwith to its place of origin, or to the next convenient parallel dimension. But, the wizard heard a sound like an ancient gear grinding to a halt, and nothing happened.”
“It’s not my fault!” the wizard cried out, “something ancient is interfering with even the Cube’s power. I can’t use it for much of anything. And, that thing is coming towards us. This is a distraction to keep us from Stormrage. This is not a fight we need. I need a way to keep it at bay. Wait!”
“The wizard opened her spellbook. The ritual of the Magic Circle. I can stop that thing from getting next to us with a Magic Circle. Then, the Ranger said, if we ram the wall, we can make a breach and the encircled ship will plug the hole. We get into the castle, while it is stuck outside. Erik flew the Falcon up above the Temple ruins, well out of reach of the Fiery Demon’s powers while Rift prepared the ritual. Tense moments ensued. Would the wizard’s Circle really have the strength to stop a monstrosity seven staff lengths high, with arms of fire larger than oxen and legs of flame bigger than ancient trees? The Ranger flew the ship low and behind the Temple, then quickly rammed into a fallen tower. Rift raised the Circle. All of the group lent their knowledge and power to Rift as she completed the ritual. A shimmering protective sphere enveloped the ship. Bam! the castle wall was breached, and the ship was knocked as the Fiery Demon pounded on the power of the Circle. But, he could not penetrate it. The adventurers hopped off and into the tunnel they had pierced. The floor could not support them, and they fell, deep into the Lower temple.”
The scrivener paused briefly, reveling in the moment. No brother was pinching a sister. No child was crying. They were spellbound. Maybe this is what magic really is.
“Yes, their daring plans had worked out. And, they had the head of a demon that the skeleton encountered so long ago had demanded before he would give them the Key to the Depths Below. The key that they believed that they needed to reach Stormrage. As luck would have it, after some searching, they found the tunnel that led to that very same skeleton."
‘The prodigal heroes return’ was his boney greeting to the group.
“The cleric was torn. Conversing with undead? Then, he stammered out an epiphany. ‘Tassadar? Are you the Archmage?’ As if awakening from a long sleep, the thing replied, ‘that is a name I have not heard in many an age.’ The cleric presented the skeleton with the demon head. I can tell you I can still see Z’alden’s look, somewhere between puzzlement and anger, as the skeleton that was Tassadar simply tossed it aside. Merely a test of power, you see. He didn’t care about the head. The issue was whether they could get one. Were these heroes worth the bother? Sometimes the objective is not the objective. Good to keep in mind.”
Torben was almost sounding like the cleric himself. This sermonizing was contagious when he reflected on that darn cleric. A child pinched another. He was losing them. Or, they were getting hungry. He didn’t want them to miss what happened next.
“They had come for the key, remember. Tassadar pulled out an obsidian sphere. ‘This is not the key to the depths below. The depths have been unlocked.’ Rift stared at the sphere, then said, ‘but, could it be used to unlock a realm beyond this one?’ Somewhere in that bony face, Z’alden was sure he saw a grin as the skeleton replied, ‘Yes.’ Rift pressed further, ‘a demi-plane?’ ‘Yes, in the depths, you will find my inner sanctum. If it is still there, you will use this key to access it. Be warned, below is a great sorcerer and great evil.’ The ranger pressed him now, ‘Can Illidan be redeemed?’ ‘Redemption is a state of mind,’ was the only answer he received. ‘What about the Sword and the Staff, can they be used for good?’ ‘Weapons can be used for either,’ the bones replied. The cleric had a question, too, one that might haunt him for some time, ‘what can we do to help you?’. Tassadar raised his skeletal eyes to pierce those of the cleric, ’Bring me to the gods, to my inner sanctum.’ Z’alden lifted up the skeleton, and placed it on his back. ‘We must help this one find peace.’”
“Then, the adventurers began to move down the tunnel. Suddenly,..”
“Children, Torben, the roast Umber Hulk is ready!” their mother yelled. “Gross!” Arifta barely muffled. “Ahhh, we wanted to hear more of the story,” the others whined in unison.
“Come on in, or it will get cold!” their mother reprimanded.
Torben suppressed a snicker. Eating cold roast umber hulk would be the least of his concerns tonight if he didn’t get his latest draft to the Committee of Five.