Campaign of the Month: March 2009

Denizens of the Nentir Vale

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

Eight Virtues
Into the moat and under the castle

Nathaniel held his breath, and jumped. The water in the aqueduct was cold, “Tarrasque’s Tail!” the young monk muttered as the cold bit in. Nathaniel kicked with his legs to keep his head above water, his arms over his head, holding the oilskin package as high and dry as he could. As he bobbed into the dark tunnel several thoughts crowded his mind, all at once. “Am I going too far? Have I become careless? Has my curiosity with Eastlander, and the truth, become an obsession? If I die tonight will all my efforts be lost? Could Barrick really drink as much as the stories claim?”

He had heard the guard’s dogs barking just as the last bit of light faded away. He floated along with the current, always holding his hands over his head. He risked a lot making the copies he held aloft. He thought he had been as careful as he could. He had waited patiently as that overweight Master Windebagg and his beanpole lackey went through their rounds. He had shuttered his lantern, yielding only the slight bit of light necessary to copy from the holy manuscripts. He wrote so quickly that he barely knew what he was copying. For now it was simply word after word; he would read the sentences later. He had made no more sound than the quiet scratching of quill on parchment. Yet somehow they had known that someone was there.

He had first heard the dogs’ collars jingling, followed by a gruff “He must be in here!” Even knowing his body was in grave peril, he carefully replaced the Eastlander tome and took the time to seal his copies in the oilskin wrappings. But then he ran with a ferocity his legs had not felt since pilfering old man Mena’s bottle of port on a dare so many years ago.

Knowing he could not escape through the main entrance to the library, he headed toward the back. There, just as he remembered was the small vented opening to the water supply for the buildings down the hillside. If they knew his identity the running would be for naught, but it was the only chance he had. Better the cold dark water than a trip to the Chamber of Understanding. Nathaniel held his breath, and jumped.

It was not long before he saw dim moonlight ahead. Less than a minute later Nathaniel was hauling himself onto the shore of the far bank and moving quickly into the forest beyond. By the time he had circled back to the rear entrance of the abbey his tunic had stopped dripping and he was able to make his way back to his meager room without being seen. He quickly changed and spent the rest of the night lying awake, wondering if or when he would be rousted and taken away. But the night passed without commotion and no one so much as looked at him during the morning’s repast.

During the meal he vowed to himself to stay away from the Eastlander writings, at least for a little while, until he was sure no one would be searching for the intruder. Maybe this was a sign, a sign from Heaven that this was the time to pursue his own writing, a true recantment of Eastlander and the iconic characters. The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself. It was time to emulate the strength of the heroes, not just copy them.

The excitement made his heart beat almost as fast as the fear had the night before. The day’s chores seemed to take much more time than usual, but finally he was back in his room, with no expectations, and could finally start writing. He knew he would begin with a clear description of the eight virtues. The church touted the virtues, and Master Ofit frequently chastised young Yewprick for failing to adhere to them all, but despite Master van Laangweend’s supposed expertise, the reasons behind them were always somewhat vague. Everyone knew they were based on the three primary principles: Truth, Love and Courage. What child did not remember the rhyme often said during the weekly scripture lessons: “When your heart does stray, while on bended knee, remember your church, and its TLC.”

Nathaniel decided to use the Eastlander writings, and the heroes within, to give clear examples of the eight virtues. But as the church never provided details, and he had encountered none so far in his readings, he knew he would have to use their actions directly. He decided to use his most recent copying, Eastlander’s “Wizard’s Island”, for the examples; surely the characters embodied all the virtues in every undertaking. No longer believing the tales to be pure allegory, the monk decided to share his interpretation of the renowned scrivener. He pulled out the most recently hidden treasure and some blank parchment and began taking notes:

The eight virtues of the church: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honour, Sacrifice, Humility and Spirituality. He started through Eastlander’s lengthy missive, ascribing virtues to the actions in no particular order, but as they made sense:

Honesty: composed of Truth: Through his discoveries whilst reading, Nathaniel had discovered that the church was hardly honest in their description of the Eastlander characters. But then again, Eastlander himself hardly seemed to believe the tales the characters told. So what was the real truth? Eastlander had written, “When Felsmon told me about following a flying ship toward the island I snorted, but let him continue. But when he said they were able to keep up with the airborne pirate ship in a little square sailed dingy, I could only assume he had been sneaking some of Barrick’s ale.” What really happened there? Was there really a flying pirate ship? Nathaniel had always considered the church’s use of the flying evil city of Black Wind to be an allegory to the fact that Hell can exist anywhere, at any time, and that one’s heart must always be prepared for an attack.

Reading on: “Then my good dragonborn friend tells me that suddenly a huge shadow passed under the tiny boat, followed by an explosion of tentacles. A kraken! I have never heard of anyone surviving a kraken attack before, so I sat up straight, slid my mug to the side and really paid attention. But when Felsmon went on with how he alone flew out to meet the beast over open water, I again reclined in my chair. I was taking a long draught when he said something about Rift creating a giant mirrored ball around the beast that reflected all damage. Ha! A ball that large could not float in water, let alone air, and even if magic held it aloft, how would the party be able to see through it to know what to attack?”

Nathaniel caught his breath. Here is the origin of the church’s core of Honesty: the Monster in the Mirror. All his life the young man had been taught that the Monster in the Mirror was a way of seeing your inner self, the portion of one’s soul that was lesser than the almighty. Never did the monk stop to consider that Eastlander was actually referring to a real monster in a real mirror. Shaken, Nathaniel had to pause for a few minutes before his curiosity of the monster’s defeat overwhelmed his disgust at the church’s blatant twisting of Eastlander’s tale.

“At this point Rift sat down and interrupted saying how she threw a fish in the kraken beak. What rubbish, everyone knows fish do not have beaks. And then the lady wizard brags about how she blasted the beast with fire. Felsmon laughed; I thought he was going to contradict her, but instead he added that not only did Rift blast the kraken but Felsmon as well, almost burning his wings through. I stopped their jovial banter and asked just how they got the kraken to release the little boat. I did not ask why the thing just didn’t drag everyone under, as I did not want to point out the obvious hole in this particular story. To give them credit they both said ‘Tira’ at the same time. I guess Tira had a particularly strong blast of fire that scared the kraken off the boat.”

Nathaniel smiled when he read this. Of all the companions Tira seemed to get the least direct praise, or rarely was reported to make the final blow. He had a soft spot for what he thought of as the kitten in the pack of lions.

Continuing his reading of the Eastlander scrolls, or his copy of, Nathaniel realized that the theme of the story had shifted from the virtue of Honesty to that of Spirituality.

Spirituality: composed of all three principles, Truth, Love and Courage: Of the exalted heroes, good Z’alden was obviously the most spiritual, honouring not one, but two of the gods that were claimed to exist at that time. Eastlander was interviewing the mighty cleric now: “Z’alden told me that the kraken was not defeated, but enraged and came back directly under the boat, grabbing it on both sides as well as dragging both Z’alden and Felsmon under water. Ah now this is starting to sound like something I can sell. But instead of regaling me with swords and wand blasts, Z’alden reported that one of the crew stabbed at the creature’s beak (again with the beak), right through the bottom of the boat. What was this, comic relief? Do these characters think I will write a comedy with their ramblings? Anyway, Z’alden goes on to report that he escaped, and then called on his god. He created a zone as bright as the sun, and then with another prayer his god simply made the sea beast disappear and the party rowed away. My head was starting to hurt, why didn’t his god just save them before? My days as a scribe are doomed, no one will ever believe this dribble and my time spent writing this will only be used as paper to clean up drunken drool.”

Nathaniel nodded to himself. Whilst Torbin might not have understood, the young monk himself knew the power that a god can provide to one that believes. This would be an excellent way to show spirituality via Z’alden’s actions. He moved on to the next virtue…

Compassion: composed of Love: This one could be tough; how many of the group showed compassion? Tira seemed to care little about anything but fun and her appearance. Barrick once killed a restrained prisoner. And Z’alden even killed an unarmed merchant in the middle of a crowded pub.

Searching through Eastlander’s writings, Nathaniel found a passage he could use: “As Z’alden was telling me about their little boat crashing onto the rocks and being thrown onto the sand, I could visibly see him tensing, his hands starting to ball into fists. I first assumed he had been hurt in the wreck, but then Z’alden grunted, ‘Orcs. There were three of them. Orcs. Easy targets, all three. Orcs.’ I waited for the cleric to continue, this could be good, knowing that Z’alden never left an orc alive. He continued, ‘I had my chance, but my friend’s words affected me. Three orcs. I watched them walk away. Let them live.’ He exhaled and looked back up at me.” Knowing that orcs had gravely wounded Z’alden’s soul, and that he chose to let these go free, was a better example of compassion than Nathaniel could have hoped for.

Humility: now this one is strange Nathaniel mused. The absence of all three principles was pride. But the church always taught the opposite of pride, humility. Nathaniel was not sure how the church made the switch, but he knew he had to maintain the virtues known to all. He was not sure if any one of the adventurers ever displayed humility, but he had not thought of them as full of compassion either. Not that the party needed to be, gods, and even heroes, were to be feared and revered. The monk read on, looking for any sign of humility in any action.

They found a castle, against a cliff, muddy moat but no water. Hmm, so far nothing helpful. A black knight stood stolid on the drawbridge. Interesting, but hardly humble. Wait, what was this? Felsmon spread his wings and flew upward to explore the castle from above. Suddenly 4 gargoyles launched from the parapets and flew to block the dragonborn’s way. Instead of the usual brash behaviour of challenging any creature in a fight to the death, Felsmon quietly lowered his head and flew submissively back to the ground? Nathaniel had to reread the last few lines to ensure his sleepy eyes were not playing tricks on him. No, sure enough, in Eastlander’s own words was the first real example of humility the group had demonstrated in anything the monk had read so far.

These last two touches of human spirit in the revered adventures almost brought a tear to young Yewprick’s eye. Surely this was almost as good as proof that they were real characters, not fictional devices made up to tell stories to the peoples. But as Eastlander seemed to frequently doubt his own writings, could one monk really believe otherwise?

Nathaniel had too much to think about to stop now. Besides he had to find out how the party vanquished the black knight, the symbol of evil used in countless stories. Fighting such a creature could only be the embodiment of one virtue: Valor: being composed solely of Courage. Returning to his former foolhardiness, Felsmon challenged the knight to one on one combat. Nathaniel’s heartbeat increased as he read about Felsmon charging the knight in mid air, feet first even, and throwing his shield, trying to knock the fiend into the mud below. Time after time Felsmon flew, and time after time, he missed. Some of the other party tried to help with spells, but also, to no avail. Could this knight be unbeatable? Was this something that the party could not surpass? But if Eastlander was recording this, then the party must have survived. “It was then that Barrick staggered up and pushed Felsmon off his seat, ‘I knew it was time for me to act! I charged as only a dwarf could do, low quick and solid as an owl bear. I hit him so hard he exploded!’ And with that Barrick slumped over on the table. Felsmon easily pushed the drunken dwarf off the chair and onto the floor and sat back down, unperturbed by the actions of his friend. I looked at Felsmon quizzically waiting for either confirmation or denial. ‘He did not so much as explode, as just left, vanished, disappeared. No idea where he went, but he did not return.’ A black knight that does not fight back? Whatever kind of story will this be?” Nathaniel shook his head; Torbin was constantly missing the real value of what the heroes did. Could he not see that Barrick’s rushing toward the black knight took valor beyond courage, especially after seeing how his companions were unable to inflict damage?

The young monk was starting to wonder about this particular adventure. So far they had encountered one kraken, three orcs, four gargoyles and one black knight, and yet not a single one of the enemies had been killed. Perchance the adventurers were getting soft, maybe getting old. Wise and old certainly has its place in the church, but to sell the word to the masses the stories had to keep the attention of the people. He wondered.

As he wondered he read more. “Tira then came over to talk with me, nice girl, but not the sharpest sword in the rack. I asked her what happened next and she told me they heard laughing. I almost laughed myself at this. This was surely turning into a comedy, I imagined myself as Torbin the Jester, but bade her speak. ‘As soon as the black knight disappeared, this large troll climbed out of a cave in the moat and moved to attack us chanting ’Fe Fi Fo Fanning, tis your death, I am planning.’ Before I could so much as flick my dagger the beast slugged me, and hard. We fought back and soon had the beastie bleeding heavily. Norfand dealt a particularly nasty blow.”

At this Nathaniel halted. Norfand? Had Norfand been mentioned before? Maybe this monk was the one not so young anymore. He could worry about that later, if he remembered to. He turned back to Eastlander’s page and what Tira was saying. “‘I thought this would be an easy victory, but suddenly another troll appeared, this one larger and definitely female, probably Fanning’s (that’s what we decided to call it, not that we were thinking of adopting it or anything, but we had to give it a name). Oh sorry, where was I? Oh yes, I think the new troll was Fanning’s mother. Anyway, it, or she, appeared, jumped up and smashed into Rift. I decided to try a new spell I had just mastered, or thought I had mastered. I got hurt in the process.’”

Aha! Nathaniel made a mental note. Tira hurt herself during an attack. This is precisely what was needed to show the virtue of Sacrifice: which was composed of Love and Courage: He wrote down the essential points of the strike. Tira made two attacks, one on each troll. Both attacks collapsed inward on the sorceress, but Tira did not falter. She stood through the pain and directed the attacks through her body and back out. One blast was strong enough to kill the troll she called Fanning whilst the other dazed the mother. But because of it all, Tira herself was left mentally spent, with barely enough energy to make one small movement. Truly a noble act of sacrifice, and the first kill of this chapter as well!

From here, a seventh virtue, Justice, became evident as the heroes banded together to deal their brand of justice against the unprovoked troll attacks. Tira set the mother on fire and pushed it back with lightning. Barrick slammed her off the edge, knocking her into the pit. Z’alden blinded her. One after another they all worked together to force the large troll back into a corner. Nathaniel could tell by Eastlander’s tone that the scribe was excited by this latest set of actions. “Oh ho, the damage these folks dealt! Oh what I would have done to witness it. And the ending sounds magnificent. Tira claims, and now I must say I believe her, at least in this, that she quickly did a double teleport whilst igniting the mud beneath the troll at the same time. Two teleports back-to-back, amazing. And a few seconds later Tira again fires off more lightning, killing the flaming bleeding troll hag! Wow, I think I need a drink.”

Nathaniel could not help but to smile. Rarely the focal point, here Tira was flitting and blasting like he had never read before, and getting in both killing blows as well!

Only one virtue remained with no notes written beside it: Honour: composed of Truth and Courage. Finally the entire party was acting and fighting with honour, but for the new scriptures he knew he had to select one character for each parable. As he read more, he wondered if Tira could continue her current streak.

“I returned to the table to find Rift sitting there, her companions nowhere to be seen. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was my last drink, but I could swear that Rift looked more charismatic than I remembered, maybe even magically enhanced. But I was hired to write, so I wrote as Rift described what happened next.”

“‘We found the troll cave and entered. The tunnels were filled with wet spider webs. Not wanting to try to burn them (I wonder where Erik is now) Tira brought forth her magical stone spider to do the cleaning. As we passed into a larger cavern I cast a small light to help us. This must have startled the creatures that lived there as four large hairy spiders dropped from the ceiling. I quickly released a fire bomb singing their hair, or is it fur? Felsmon let loose a nice blast and Z’alden stunned one of the larger ones. Tira tried a blast, and whilst it did kill the three smallest spiders it also blasted poor Barrick, Norfand and little Stewie. As Z’alden healed Norfand I put a mirror sphere on the last spider. But even with my wonderful charm, the spider still managed to get off a poison blast. One last blast from, who was it, Tira I think, defeated the final spider and we had the caves to ourselves.’”

Nathaniel was stunned; Tira had killed both trolls and all four spiders. After the crushing realization that Prescott was not the saviour, Nathaniel was not sure if a single saviour was needed at all. Maybe he had someone else he could use. But more than one chapter from Eastlander was needed.

Nathaniel now had something next to all eight of the virtues. It was a good start, but every additional example would help. He realized he only had a little more to read of the writings he had copied this time. A few more minutes would not hurt.

The party continued deeper into the tunnels, but finding nothing exceptional. Suddenly they stopped, something was there, albeit very hard to discern. A slurping sound made it obvious, they had almost walked into a tunnel-filling clear gelatinous monster! At least the cubes were slow, the party turned around but no! Another gelatinous blob blocked both escape routes; they were trapped! Nathaniel could barely keep his hands from shaking as he turned the parchment over, needing to know the next move. He almost screamed out loud as his eyes only encountered blank parchment. This must be as much as he had copied before he heard the dogs. Nathaniel knew now that there was nothing that could keep him from going back into the library to find out what happened to the characters he was beginning to think of as friends.

A bird chirped outside Nathaniel’s window. Startled by the unexpected sound of nature, Yewprick rubbed his eyes. Could dawn be nearing? Nathaniel stretched and put away his writing, time enough later to expand the words, add the eloquence needed to convince the masses that the writings were divine. Today’s chores would be hard enough as is, with the little amount of sleep he would get. Wondering if he should share his new works with the only Master he considered a friend, the half-elf Master Renithar, Nathaniel sidled under his woolen blanket, hoping to get but a few minutes of rest before the bell tolled for the rising of the new day. He quickly dropped into a deep sleep, dreaming of a sword that spilled not blood, but ink, when it made a cut.

The Book of Nate
Nathaniel wept.

Nathaniel wept.

He had been patient, he had been clever, he had been persistent. As the sun came and went many, many times, Nathaniel had stealthily but faithfully copied Eastlander’s original writings, and had finally learned to keep quiet about what he found there, to save his poor back from the lash.

What he had found were stories that seemed not to be imaginative allegories, but rather honest if overblown recountings of actual occurrences. They were more believable than the later, altered versions, because the characters and their relationships stayed relatively constant throughout Eastlander’s original opus. In the church’s versions, these characters – Z’alden, Felsmon, Barrick, Erik, Tira, and others – while iconic in their appearance and many of their abilities, often changed their beliefs, their philosophies, even their style of language, from story to story.

Nathaniel had come to realize the extent of the license taken by the church’s scholars. Sometimes he barely recognized a tale in its original form. Sometimes he did not recognize it at all, because it had been left out of the Zenith’s books altogether. Sometimes he could find no source in Eastlander for a tale from the Zenith books; in those, he had noticed, the characters as written by church hacks were particularly untrue to themselves.

Finally, this night, Nathaniel had reached the point in the original stories that he had looked forward to since he had begun this long work. The story that formed the basis of his faith, and the faith of all his colleagues, the story that formed the very basis of society as he knew it – the return of the Savior, the one true Savior of all peoples.

Having read and copied up to the very location in Eastlander where the Savior reappears, Nathaniel had resolved that he would read through the ensuing pages, just this once without copying as he read, so that the original description of the Savior’s heroism would bathe him in truth and comfort as the sun’s rays bathe a newborn in the fields. His faith had suffered mightily as he discovered how the church had stretched the stories’ content to further their own religious initiatives. Still, deep in his heart of hearts, Nathaniel knew that the greatest truth, as told to him on his father’s knee, of the existence of their Savior, would shine through Eastlander’s prose and rejuvenate his faith.

And so Nathaniel turned the page and began to read. Eastlander was interviewing the dragonborn paladin Felsmon, who was demonstrating how he had put his shoulder, next to Barrick’s, against a partially-open door while Tira and Erik looked through. The huge Felsmon was able to peer over the top of the door.

“‘Demon. Very ugly. Very dead now. Old friend Prescott with sword. Nearly dead, too.’”

So it was all true! He had always known it, of course he had always known it! Prescott The Magnificent had returned to save the band of Valers, as he would save all believers in the later life! Nathaniel’s heart pounded, fairly bursting with pride, hope, and joy. Overcome with relief, Nathaniel wept.

When he could continue, Nathaniel read on. The cleric Z’alden had healed Prescott’s wounds, said Felsmon. That was news – why would the church version leave that out? Prescott had been wounded in his previous appearance in the stories, and no reader would expect him to be invincible. Nevermind, Nathaniel thought, now the group would meet the enchanted weapons, Prescott would part them through his force of will, then would tame a pair of swords for Erik, and a shield for Barrick.

“’Z’alden enters room. Swords fly from wall, attack Z’alden. Tira too fast for swords. Tira reaches Prescott in next room. Barrick too slow, new swords hit Barrick. I, Felsmon, enter. Puny swords dare to attack, I crush swords. I crush Z’alden’s swords. Barrick in trouble, I crush Barrrick’s swords, too. I crush all pitiful swords, but night falls on me.’ The massive dragonborn became quiet. I waited, sipping my wine. Eventually I realized that, since he had just been blinded in the story, he had no more to tell. He might have clued me in, but “Felsmon” has always been a synonym for “reticence”.

I was in luck that day, because Erik stopped by looking for Barrick (who was not to be found), and I was able to drag him into the interview. You never knew with Erik what you would get, but today was “unbelievable” day. ‘So I send a couple arrows at some swords, they clang off – unbelievable! – and when I jump into the room, these two swords came flying at me, but they slow down and just, sort of, gently turn around and, well, present themselves to me – I can’t believe it! – so I just, I don’t know why, but I drop my swords and grab the new ones, and they feel good, and then my old swords attack me – incredible! – and I fight them off with my new ones. Barrick gets a new shield the same way! Hard to believe, but there it is!’"

Nathaniel noticed there was no word yet about Prescott’s having tamed the swords and shield. This did not bother him too much. The Valers were accustomed, in these stories, to magical happenings which they could not at first explain. Doubtless they would figure out soon enough who had tamed the swords.

“’Poor Felsmon here, he makes a fine regent with a crown stuck hard on his head and a scepter, but blinded! Imagine that! I grab the scepter from him and touch the gold end of it to his crown, and it loosens, and he can see again. Unfathomable! He takes the crown off, puts it on again, it gets stuck again! Who would believe it! So I touch the silver end of the scepter to the crown – big mistake! It sends a strike like lightning to his head, I think it’ll kill him, but he survives. Inconceivable!’

The dragonborn began to speak again, now that he was no longer blind in the story. ‘Not so easy to kill. I fight more swords. Boring, never ending, leave swords behind.’"

Nathaniel read warily, weighing each utterance for some sign that Prescott the Magnificent had become Prescott the Savior. Eastlander was quoting Erik again.

“‘Of course, better minds figure out what to do with that amazing scepter. Z’alden touches it to the throne, and the throne sinks, opening a passageway down to a huge door – all made of mithral! Incredible! Tira tries a couple keys, gets a couple small shots of lightning for her trouble. Imagine that! Somebody notices the scepter would fit there – might have been Prescott, he’s a good one to have around – and the doors fly open! Who would have believed it!’”

Nathaniel was pleased to see the Savior’s role becoming more significant in the story, though he noticed how offhanded were Erik’s comments, as if the Magnificent One were still no more than just another adventurer.

“I ordered more wine, trying to decide between interviewing Mr. Reticent or Mr. Incredible. But while I was inking my quill, another of the band arrived. Tira swept into the room like a queen, and we all sat a little straighter on our stools. Soon she had picked up where the others had left off. ‘Of course I remember that room: burnished silver ceiling, a stone sarcophagus reminiscent of the ones at Abn-El-Adrid but with a heavier lid, a tall stone urn in front, which we would come to know well, wooden chests on either side, with both drawers and doors, cast bronze handles in the shape of …’. I stopped her there – Tira could describe a scene nearly as long as Barrick could drink ale – and asked her what happened next. ‘Well, the crown and scepter had disappeared, which we took to be a good sign – we were getting somewhere, it seemed. But Barrick tripped over his own feet and fell against one of the statues in the corner, which somehow signaled the urn to produce two huge elementals. Prescott was quicker than any of us, as so often.’”

Ah, thought Nathaniel, now the true Prescott would come to the fore.

“‘But Prescott’s blow had little effect. That cursed urn was prone to spitting out more elementals, so some of us fought them off, while others tried to smash the urn itself, with only partial success. Z’alden did the most damage to these monstrosities. I tried some arcana-related attacks, accomplishing little. This battle lasted for some minutes, it seemed, until finally Prescott noticed a switch at the bottom of the urn, and threw it. The fire went out in the urn, and all 5 remaining elementals disappeared. Our old friend had done us a solid that day.’”

Threw a switch? Any person could throw a switch. Nathaniel had always believed that Prescott the Magnificent had held a dozen elementals in his gaze, overcome their wills with his own, and cast them back to the fire from whence they had come. Well, perhaps that was just an exaggeration on the part of the church. Prescott had, after all, been the one to find the switch, despite the presence of Z’alden, Tira, and Erik, all of whom were excellent in such matters. Nathaniel could forgive the license taken by the church hacks, he supposed – but inside, he was feeling more and more defensive.

“‘Before touching anything else, we dragged the four statues out of the room, lest they come to life and attack us. Good thing we did, because the sarcophagus was empty, but under one of the statues I found a handle, cast bronze, with an oval cross-section like the one on Erik’s old swords, the ones with the scalloped guards and the pommel like a …’ What happened next, Tira, I asked. ‘Oh, OK – The handle opened another passageway down. Prescott and Erik led the way, and somehow discovered a secret door down there. I tried the bronze key, and not for the first or last time that day was punished for using the wrong key. But the golden key worked; the wall descended, revealing a chamber, about 4 staff lengths by 4 by 6 high. The floor held an intricately carved and painted depiction of a gate, with a motif derived from oak tree branches in the bottom row of bars and a similar motif derived however from …’ This time I did not need to cut her off, because a great crash came from the kitchen, followed by the smashing open of the kitchen doors, as Barrick stumbled out, a leg of boar in one hand and a tankard of ale in the other. ‘Ah, there you are, lads, what lies are we telling today?’ Clearly already drunk at noon – or maybe still drunk – the wide dwarf took a seat near Felsmon, burped long and loud, and knawed at the fleshy appendage in his hand.”

Nathaniel knew that the rest of the story was all Prescott, all the time. Or rather, he hoped so.

“Erik picked up the tale. ‘So Z’alden uses a gem we have for seeing, and finds a keyhole under the floor, which is only made of brittle plaster, and which I smash as if I were Felsmon. Imagine that! Tira tries the golden key again, which worked last time, but not this time – she gets zapped again! That’s four times within minutes, how is she still standing, none of us can believe it!’ Tira nodded and shrugged. But then the dwarf dropped the ragged bone from his mouth and spat, ‘I know this part! She puts the other key in, and the floor starts to rise! I jump off quick as a dwarfwife from a wedding bed, and everyone else gets smashed to the ceiling! Lucky for them, I can climb like a tree elf, that’s all I’ll say.’ Barrick chomped down on the shank again.”

Barrick the only one to sense the danger of hell’s floor, the floor that demanded a choice between heaven and hell, squeezing out the middle? Barrick the one to save the others? Barrick the Savior? Nathaniel’s stomach suddenly turned sour.

“Smiling, Erik pointed out that he had freed himself from the trap even before Barrick had climbed up, but agreed that ‘Yes, you did unbelievably well, old friend – here, have some more ale! Well, we pull out Z’alden, then Prescott. Tira slides out incredibly easy. Barrick is tired by now – believe it or don’t! – so Prescott and I pull out Felsmon, who is so stuck that we don’t imagine he will ever come out, but he does.’”

Page after page of Prescott the Savior being described as just another member of a band of adventurers, no better or worse than the others. Was this story really the basis of his faith? Was this really the basis of his society? Was the act of putting down Acererak the only truly magnificent thing Prescott accomplished? Was he even the one to … Nathaniel felt a swirling in his head, his hearing fading out, his sight blurry, but he continued to read.

“Tira chimed in next. ‘If Z’alden were here, he would tell you I only survived because I fell on top of him when the others “saved” me. Six staff lengths they dropped me, barely conscious! Anyway, when we had all recovered, and healed, thanks as always to Z’alden, we saw yet another door under the raised floor. This one was made of 12 carved panels ’ – she looked at me – ‘… er, well, Barrick opened it, and we entered a small chamber with a small jade sarcophagus, the letter “A” in red, surrounded by symbols which, um, I guess I will not describe. Anyway, we had found Acererak, and we were going to have a go at him, come what may. Prescott had found some special gloves on the floor, made of – never mind – and he put them on before we had a chance to check them out, but they seemed to work, and he opened the sarcophagus, and a skull rose out. The skull was glowing red, and its eyes would bore right into you if you looked at it, right into your brain.’"

So Prescott would at least finish off the evil one with his new “Hands of God”. Nathaniel tok what comfort he could from this.

“Before Tira could say any more, Felsmon rose to his feet, and stretched to his full height. ‘Evil skull, devil skull, puny skull. Erik shoots skull, Prescott hits skull, Z’alden curses skull, Barrick misses skull, Tira lightnings skull, all fail, but I, Felsmon, ’ – his voice rises to a roar – ‘I, Felsmon, smash skull like eggshell! Evil one gone! May evil soul writhe in torment, evil line die out, all evil he made crumble to sand, evil name forgotten at last!!!’ A roar from the others followed this speech, and was still echoing when the outside door burst open, showing a ragged, panting Z’alden framed by the noon light: ’She’s here!’ he shouted, racing out again. The others followed in seconds, Barrick leaving his tankard half-full, a sure sign that I would hear no more that day.”

Nathaniel wept.

Some weeks after his moment of clarity, his own personal enlightenment, Nathaniel wondered why he shouldn’t write his own book. He could write the truth, as revealed to him in Eastlander’s tales. How we were all in this life together, with no help on the way, no Savior around the next corner. We had a shared mission, we all had our own abilities and weaknesses, we all had a part to play, and we all had our turn to be heroic or to have fun, hopefully many turns. Whatever power controlled this world, if any, played no favorites, but somehow managed to keep things interesting.

But if he, Nathaniel, would do the telling, would anyone do the listening?

Bubble, Bubble, Ooze and Trouble
The party finds a vat of Toil

The young monk stepped back into the shadows as he heard the approach of two people. Masters, by the sound of their drakescale sandals. Nathaniel’s heart still raced every time he approached the forbidden section of the library, but this interruption by the unexpected late-night strollers had come as a heart-pounding shock. He clutched his satchel of ink and parchment like a protective parent. He hoped he could be as stealthy as Erik the Ranger and blend into the shadows. He pressed back into the recesses between two columns. As their lantern light flickered, Master Windebagg and Master Ofit passed within two dwarfs of young Yewprick. The rotund monk and his stout companion stopped not a staff length away. Nathaniel dared not even breathe. Luckily, the pair did not turn their heads as they began to speak.

“What do you make of the disturbances reported in the Forbidden Section?” Ofit asked his fleshy companion. Windebagg cleared his throat, as though beginning an oratory to a child, “My dear Stoufful, that little weasel of a librarian would think that mouse droppings were a sign of a rodent conspiracy to invade his beloved drakeskin racks. He reported some nonsense. Now, we are on ‘patrol’ for phantoms. Our little stroll is a waste of time. I will humor the Zenith only because I wish to avoid a trip to the Chamber of Understanding.” Ofit lowered the lantern as he nodded appreciatively. Not all who went in for Understanding returned with their limbs intact. “Well, let us finish our little jaunt for tonight, report to his Greatness’s secretary, and let van Laangweend and the others have their turns. Thank the Axe, the new guards will be here in a week’s time, and then we can cease these useless meanderings.”

The two walked off, and Nathaniel exhaled as quietly as possible. Dagger’s Edge! Guards in a week! Patrols by the Masters! How could he have been so careless as to leave traces of his work where the rat-nosed custodian of the scrolls could detect him? He was so far in skills from his heroes, and now he would have to figure out how to unobtrusively access subsequent volumes of Eastlander’s True Writings after tonight.

Based on their footfalls, Nathaniel reasoned that the half-hearted patrol would not return this way. He chuckled. It may be the furthest that Master Windebagg had walked in a year. Based on their pace, which was slow, even if they did come back, he had at least two hours.

The monk’s fingers trembled as he pulled out the small case of tools that the half-elven Master Renithar had given him. At first, he couldn’t believe that this Master was somehow helping him, but the aid had been true. Master Renithar had given him several lessons in how to use the tools to pick the locks that secured the copies of Eastlander’s True Writings. Good thing that the Church didn’t use magic like Tira! The half-elf had been kind in his teaching, a trait the other Masters never showed. Distracted by that mystery, he almost dropped the tools. Idiot! Tira would have had this lock opened ages ago. He steadied himself, took a breath like the Master had instructed, and the lock opened easily. He quickly extracted the drakeskin parchment, shut the cabinet, and moved to the most isolated table. His small candle barely illuminated the writing. His tears of joy did not help.

In front of Nathaniel was Torben Eastlander’s original journal continuing the interview with the cleric Z’alden Silverflame about the Tomb of Horrors. Nathaniel had reached the description of a strange room with three vats and twisted, constructed bodies. Each vat could easily hold two dwarfs, maybe three. Those ostensibly magical vats, Nathaniel had been taught, represented the three horrors of life without the Church: individuality, introspection, and independence. As all knew from Z’alden’s sermon, the third vat was indeed the most evil. Independence oozed forth to destroy the heroes as Tira poked her arm into it! The woman’s pursuit of independence was the most damaging to society, as this story told and the Church reinforced often, but all were subject to the rule of the Zenith in the Church of Eastlander.

Nathaniel saw, even in the first few lines of the journal, that the meaning of this peculiar part of the tale might be different from the common teachings. He hastily began to copy as he read Eastlander’s notes.

My time yesterday with the Ranger left me with bigger metaphors than a man who has just seen a wood nymph step out of the lake. I needed to see just how much the normally taciturn Ranger had been trying to assuage his feelings about running from his friends to protect them from a ‘dangerous’ crown. I note with some irony that, by his own admission, this is the same circlet that later the cleric would wear and would, according to the half-elf Z’alden, increase the ability to wound the enemies of Bahamut. Ha! I think I have seen the Ranger’s true colors here and they are a shade of the daisy. Try as I might with Z’alden later that evening, I could not drag out of him that Erik had the courage of a hatchling. No, all the cleric of Bahamut wanted to discuss was his feeling of helplessness as ooze burst forth from vats. Scratch that – only one vat held the oozes, the others had strange properties, including acid that did not burn the skin of the sorceress as she stuck her arm in to retrieve half a golden key. Acid that did not burn her.

“Really?” I grilled the cleric about this, but he was firm. “Tira could resist the acid.”
I checked my notes. “Yesterday, the Ranger said she could resist poison.” Nodding earnestly, Z’alden said, “Oh yes, thank the Dragon that her resistances change each day. It was great providence that she could withstand that acid, else we might never have found that important half of the key.” Convenient, I muttered to myself, but the cleric failed to notice. This one doesn’t seem to understand sarcasm.

The lack of a believable quality in the details leads me to be even more certain that these five are trying to get themselves sung about by bards with incredulous tales, but I will not be duped. Still, the last volume sold well, and I am but a poor scrivener, and the cleric had offered to pay for the meal as an act of charity. I neglected to mention my profits to date from the previous volume. I continued the interview.

“I must remind you that most of my comrades were battered and bruised after the battle with the skeletal demon of Acererak. I was confident that Bahamut would answer my prayers for healing, and that we could still face any foe. Oh, but I would pay for my hubris!” The cleric started a small sermon here, the numbing details I have omitted. He failed to notice when I put down my quill and took a swill of the liquid that passes for wine in this inn. It is not Nentir ’97 I can assure you. I resumed my notes when he ended his homily and resumed his story.

Nathaniel’s quill dropped. The famous homily of Z’alden before the battle with the evil of Independence was well-known to even the most junior monks. Eastlander hadn’t even recorded the Sermon on the Ooze? Someone from the Church had just made-it-up? What else of the stories had they simply invented? The monk pressed on, confident that Master Windebagg would never make it back this way again. He picked up his quill.

The cleric himself took a deep draught of the swill (he clearly does not notice the difference), and began to describe the events. “Having found a peculiarly shaped key in the second vat, Tira went to the bubbling green liquid of the third. Instead of placing her arm in it, she used an earthenware jug to start scooping out the contents. Just as she was extracting the jug, a bubble turned into an oozy, green tentacle that reached out and tightly grabbed the sorceress. The burning acid from the tentacle’s surface left a horrible smell in the room but did her little harm thanks to her magical resistances that day. The whack itself, though, was enough to knock her a bit silly. It took even the hearty sorceress a few heartbeats before shaking that off. Then, another tentacle came out of the vat and attacked Erik. His swords flashed snik, snak and sliced some of the mucus arm into pieces. Unfortunately, this had little effect. A whole blob of oozing creature, tentacles of a putrid green acid flailing dangerously, poured out of the vat and another began to bubble up.”

The cleric took another sip. He really has no taste buds. “Tira would have none of this. Her dagger whirled and cascading bolts of iridescent lights enveloped the mound of monstrous muck. The creature shuddered and some bits fell to the ground. Still it persisted onwards. Barrick thought to test his axe on the living pile. A mighty heave and the ooze seemed less directed. Black streaks lined its surface, as though the acid covering it was weaker. It seemed as if in those places we could wound it more easily. And, its tentacles were split making it harder for the mucus to attack us. It was a mighty blow!”

“By the Great Dragon, but these wicked things had done enough to our liberty, I presumed. Oh what folly I had. Still, my prayer was answered and a great glow of burning white light sizzled the two oozes, further darkening those blackened areas that Barrick had made. I took a deep breath and called again on the Dragon. His Great Face formed in front of me, and sacred flames of his icy breath made one ooze shudder. Then, directing the righteous light, I made the first one continue to burn with an ongoing golden radiance. Sensing that victory was at hand, the mighty dragonborn Paladin swung his swarthy greataxe into the ooze – tearing it in half! He let out a might roar, only to have it answered with an explosion of acid from the muck flying in all directions. It coated all five of us. We could not avoid it. The acid immediately got under the skin. It affected the mind. I could think of nothing. I had no sense of time. I could not move. Woe it was, because I could still see. For several heartbeats, as a third ooze lurched out of the vat like the goop from a child’s nose, the vile scum flailed their acidic tentacles on the helpless five of us. With wide eyes, I watched as Barrick shook off the effects and split another ooze in half. More acid burst forth! The Ranger, who moments ago was a shining light of swift action and superhuman ability fell to the floor. My friend was dying, and all I could do was watch, helpless under the effect of the mind-numbing acid. It was an evil trip. Even so, we could not fail to note a golden glint from the bottom of the vat. But, the look was only an instant, as the rest of my companions also were burned by the acid or bludgeoned by the tentacles.”

The cleric leaned onto the table to steady himself. Even I, the doubtful scrivener, could not help but see the terror in the half-elf’s eyes as he re-lived the scene. Here was a healer who had been unable to get to a comrade just staff lengths away. Regardless of my feelings about the veracity of the tale, something had happened in the room that had left Z’alden humbled. He was convinced that he had the power to help the Ranger but could not use it. I was moved. Then, the half-elf steeled his grey eyes as he related what happened next.

Nathaniel could not believe this. The evil of the third vat, Independence, that the Church so vilified as robbing one of true freedom had actually been mounds of living muck that froze a person helpless in place with their acid burst? Yes, the ooze from the vat took away liberty, just as the cleric had said. But, the true theft was by the Church in its deception. What was more evil? These creatures set by some wicked power to keep watch over a key, or the twisted tales that the Church of Eastlander had pulled from Eastlander’s stories of real heroes? Yewprick dipped his quill and continued to copy, even as his mind raced with the repercussions.

The cleric leaned in close to me like one making a confession, “The mighty sorceress was not as helpless as I. She shook off the acid’s effects, launched another of her never-ending store of powerful chaos bolts at the ooze, and then had the presence of mind to take out a healing potion and maneuver to the Ranger’s aid, pouring the magical draught down the throat of the dying man. He coughed once and opened his eyes, weak but alive. While I took some delight that I had made the draught days earlier, I longed to aid him further but was still in the clutches of the acid. I could do nothing but make a trip to the altar of hope and prayer. The great Paladin had overcome the effects, and thank the Dragon, called on Bahamut to come to the aid of Barrick. I could almost see the form of the Dragon envelop my dwarven friend as the son of stone shook off the acid’s numbing effects.“

“Having come to but still very weak (my potion was not very strong healing), the Ranger decided a strategic reposition was in order and moved with great speed back into the corridor. Unfortunately, the original mound of mucus gave chase. It was like the swift flow of a child’s vomit in the back of a carriage. I have never seen something so disgusting move so fast to its destination. Our brave General Barrick would not have this vomitous mass again take down our friend. He took a depth breath, gave a battle cry to get past the bruises and batterings, and charged the thing but to no avail. Its quivering volume was too swift for the dwarven axe that time. Still, in his bravery, the great dwarf had given the sentient muck more to think about it, and that would be the key to victory.”

“Dragon’s tail, but I had finally shaken off the acid’s effect. Calling upon Bahamut’s grace, silver and purple flames of healing restored me and then flew from my hands to mend Tira’s wounds. Felsmon also restored himself by the Dragon’s power, and then opening his draconic mouth, let lightning fly at the mounds of muck. The crackling energy sizzled and burned into the ooze closest to him. The muck melted into the floor. If you have ever seen the ooze below a scab, then you have seen in small what we saw at large, as the creature died away. But, in one final, evil twist, it exploded in acid, covering the Paladin and numbing his mind. Thank the Scales, Tira, I, and the rest were out of range of this burst.”

“From the corridor, the Ranger longed for the fight. Knowing himself to be most vulnerable in a weakened state, he took his prized swords and flung them as though they were light as daggers – one, two – at the ooze that blocked the corridor’s entrance to the room. One bounced off the door jamb, but the other, oh its sharp blade was well placed. The muck was rent in half, and it exploded in acid! Barrick was covered, burning until his mind again went numb.”

“Though only one ooze remained, the outcome was unclear. The mound was fresh. It had few black marks and looked as green as the moment it came out of the vat like the thick stuff of a sick child’s nose, while we five were weary and bleeding. But, did we give in?” The cleric looked around the room. The Inn patrons had pulled their chairs in close while he had recited the tale to me. “Did we give in?” He lifted his voice, and slammed his mug on the table. “No!”

The crowd roared with approval! Note to self: learn oratory some time. It can have a powerful effect. With his audience enraptured, this was no longer an interview but a telling. The cleric knew what he was doing when he simply told the tale without moralizing. I was as drawn in as the patrons. Was he slipping in some lesson that we were taking even as we followed his story? The cleric broke my revery as his voice rose, “Did we despair? NO! From our stores of power, we sent that evil pile of putresence back to its maker. Tira teleported, leaving a poison cloud behind. You might not think that poison could hurt a creature of acid, but by the Claw, it does. Spells and axes flew at the thing, even as it lashed its tentacles out at me.”

“The dwarf had had enough. Telling the monstrosity where it could put its slimy self, Barrick wielded his Axe and wrenched the mound into two. Acid again sprayed in all directions, but Barrick was ready and ducked behind his shield. Tira was not so fortunate but in a few heartbeats, she had shaken off the worst of it. I called my comrades close. Bowing my head, calling on Dragon’s wings, and my body glowed like the sun as it comes just above the horizon on a cold day. The golden warming rays covered my comrades and mended their wounds and my own. In a few brief moments, we were fully restored.”

Nathaniel realized that he had been holding his breath as he had copied the last few lines. It did not seem as though he was recording some ancient history. It was though this had all taken place just a few weeks ago. He pictured the half-elf surveying the bar crowd as he finished up the story line. And then, Nathaniel began to strengthen his resolve. The True Writings would see the light of day and no longer be confined to the holdings of a few scholars while the Church mangled the stories and conscripted more soldiers of the Zenith to maintain its control over the people. Nathaniel would bring the light of truth to the people just as Z’alden’s light burst forth healing his friends. He waved his quill. Some ink dripped. Before that, the monk realized, he had to finish his copy. He dipped his quill, turned the page, and continued.

Oh, yes, he knew what was supposed to happen next. After the struggle with the ooze, then comes the terrible rest that left the heroes without their full strength. After that, the crossing of the yawning chasm that signified the depth of despair of a society without the Church. The great Paladin, with his dragon wings flies across it like the society in the wide arms of the Zenith himself. Only the independent woman Tira fails to cross, teaching us that all should submit to the Church and not use the unreliable rope of self-determination lest it break, and we fall into the pit of massive spikes of chaos itself.

Nathaniel was puzzled. Nothing about this was on the next parchment. Had the Masters just invented this, too? Or was some part of the book missing? What about the part of the story where Barrick and Felsmon charge a door that is icy cold, shattering it, and the adventurers enter a ruined room with rotting tapestries. The puny chest in the room is filled with nothing but copper. The ruined tapestries on the wall are covered with scenes of evil, toothed fish. Master van Laangweend loved this story for its implications on the futility of life without the Church. Only the crack of truth in the wall leads onwards, but the Paladin loses faith and fumbles through its narrow way, bringing down the rotting tapestry of desolation and causing the fish of despair to overcome him. The inquisitiveness of Tira, tapping the tapestry, teaches us what individual investigations lead to, a blast of the cold of separation from the Church that brings nothing but ruin.

Instead of these parts of the story, all Nathaniel could find was a short section of the interview describing the well-known trap of the monstrous elephant statue that rolled this way and that trampling the heroes. Elephant day was a favorite with the children. Everyone understood this to be a simplistic story of the capricious destructiveness of a society without the guiding force of the Church. Even as the Ranger had landed on the back of the gigantic statue to steer, so did the Church direct society to keep it from trampling all into oblivion. Every year, children received pink candy rolls to celebrate the triumph of the Church over its enemies.

After having seen nothing of the spiked chasm or the rotting tapestry room, just as Nathaniel suspected, there was no real mention of the elephant statue and its horrendous rolling pins of doom in Eastlander’s journal. There were pages upon pages of the importance of this elephant and the rolls in the Book of Eastlander. Nathaniel would find one reference to the pink candy. In the journal, there was this small side note:

The cleric gave me an incredible description of a massive elephantine statue on rollers after several sets of beautiful doors were opened. These were the “false” from the cryptic poem. The cleric still suffers from some delusions after a trip to the southern reaches of the continent or something like that. Statues do not roll forward, then backwards, then forwards, then backwards, then backwards, crushing the bones of those who happen to be too slow or dim-witted to move out of the way. Paladins do not fly over demonic elephant statues. I will note that, at one point, from underneath the table the dwarf Barrick awakened from his stupor and shouted to me, “Scrivener, it was the pink cart from hell!” I snorted knowing the reliability of the dwarf’s descriptions. Sensing my complete lack of interest, Z’alden skipped past this part of the tale, and the crowd ordered drinks.

The monk laughed. The Masters had turned a molehill of a few lines into a mountain of a credo. Quickly past this small section, Nathaniel continued to transcribe. The “true” door had been found as a hidden one only revealed after many inspections. He scribbled through the incredible description of a massive magic iron door with three slots. At Felsmon’s suggestion, only upon risking their prized magic blades by placing them in the slots did Erik and Tira open the huge door that barred their way. So many lessons had been taught on that act, and the dragonborn’s guidance to pursue it! But, his lessons did little to prepare him for the cleric’s description of the many-columned hall into which the five entered.

“We entered a cavernous room filled columns and pillars. The ceiling alone was 30 feet above us. On the western wall that spanned perhaps 30 staff lengths or more, three doors were spaced along it. Above the nearest and furthest doors, well up on the wall, demonic green faces with black mouths like the one we had seen in the beginning of the tomb. On the eastern wall, an ebony dais featured a solid silver throne covered in silvered skulls. Sitting on the throne was a golden crown and a golden sceptre inlaid with silver. The throne had an inlaid of gold that matched the crown and sceptre. What strange imagery was this mean to represent? I cannot say. All I know is that the dragonborn was a like a child who had been listening to a schoolmaster drone for hours upon the subjects of Muqabalah and jabr and now had found a room full of the most wonderful toys. He nearly flew from one spot to another while the rest of watched like deer frozen in place. I don’t know if it was fatigue from the encounter with the deadly elephant statue or something else. If only one of us had had the good sense to stop the romp before it ended badly.” He looked wistful for moment, and the continued.

“First, Felsmon investigated the throne. He picked up the crown and placed it on his head. He said that he could see the room more clearly now, but it was never clear what this really meant. Around a crater in the northeastern corner were several dead, burned skeletal figures ringed around an orange gem. Felsmon picked up the gem. I studied it but could really tell nothing. Tira and Erik discerned it was a wishing gem with one wish. Tira could tell that the scepter was magical and that it was tied to the crown and the throne.” The cleric smirked, “Even with my meager training, I figured out that much.”

Sidenote to self: maybe Z’alden does understand sarcasm. I have to keep on my toes with this one.

“There was something about those demonic wide mouths that the Paladin could not resist despite his previous experience. He was like a tongue touching a painful tooth. Felsmon flew up to the furthest mouth and stuck the scepter into it. Instantly, he realized his mistake, but it was too late. The scepter was being sucked in and so was he. In a heartbeat, our impetuous Paladin had disappeared.”

Nathaniel turned the page, and then he froze. He had been wrong. Masters Ofit and Windebagg were coming back. Nathaniel could not believe the geezer was still breathing after such exertion. He had a few moments to hide, or he would surely be discovered. He hastily put his night’s work in the satchel, returned the Eastlander scroll to its place, and hid under the table, just like Tira had in the fight in Goodright’s house at the start of the Horror book. Even as he loved emulating the heroes, how the young monk longed to get to back to the writing. Just yesterday, Master Windebagg had extolled upon this very part: the fate that befell the young Paladin Felsmon after he had been dragged inexorably into the obsidian mouth of an emerald demonic face in the mysterious columned hall. Nathaniel no longer believed the words that the entire class had chanted as the rule of the allegory: the demon face and its black mouth represent the darkness of the soul of man that we must all avoid without a thorough examination lest we be sucked into its maw. The Paladin’s flight up to the black mouth represented the high-flying thinking that only led to destruction. Indeed, the dragonborn had vanished into the darkness leaving the party alone in the large chamber.

Nathaniel shuddered as he remembered what happened next, at least according to the Church’s version. He shuddered even more at the thought of a trip to the Chamber of Understanding if the Masters caught him here. He waited with held breath. The two Masters passed by, grumbling about the stupidity of their little constitutional. Nathaniel exhaled as quietly as possible. He followed behind them at a distance and returned to his cell, putting his completed pages in their safe hiding spot behind the third stone. Now, just how was he going to back to the True Writings with these patrols?

To h throne

You're a mean one, Mr. Acererak

It was a dark and stormy night, but that mattered to our gaggle of confused adventurers about as much as violence upsets a drow warrior. Not a bit. See, the five were in real deep. We ain’t just talk’n deep in the tomb, but in trouble. Big trouble. This time trouble’s name was Acererak and he meant business, the kind of business that ends up with someone pushing up daisies or snorkeling face down in a bog without a snorkel.

Though his glad rags were now in tatters, the Acererak cat could still lay down some flash. Lightening man, lightening just like from the sky, would shoot from that cat’s boney fingers. Rosco’d Z’alden right in the noodle and connected with the big lug Felsmon on the map, knocking him on his keister. It was the scene that made the five feel like a bunch of bronze piece losers, and that ain’t much to brag about. Heck, their reputation was on the line and they were screwing it up and screwing it up meant never getting a chance to brag. Yeah, you don’t need to read between the lines to understand.

So, this doll, Tira, decided she had enough of this boney goon. She’s a smart one with a rack nice enough to write home about. Plain as an owlbear’s beak, the cat wore this lid like a crown, that seemed to glow and benefit him, kinda like milk benefits a kitten, only the kitten was one mean cat. Real mean. So instead of stick’n a shiv into her mark, she thought better of the situation and ran up to the tower of bones and tried to knock the lid off to the deck. Does an elf need a hammer? Sometimes, but normally no, and this was just like that. Acererak’s top lid just went askew, like a ship leans away from a strong wind but stays on tack. Mad cat laid down some bolts out of the blue, except it was from the darkened room. Tira and Z’alden felt the sizzle.

Now, the other busters weren’t being lazy dopes. They’d been trying to do their worst to the mean cat but mostly missing their mark. The local croaker, Z’alden, patched up the ranger boy, Erik, good enough for him to feel like a new man. But this Erik, see, he got pretty good powers of perception and had eyeballed the pretty dame trying to knock off the mean cat’s lid. So he thought he’d give it a crack instead of throwing wood. Quick as a rat through a kitchen, Erik ran up toward the mean cat Acererak with the lid and continued running part way up the wall, just like one of those circus performers that Channy Jack brings through villages every year. The room was all upsides down to Erik as he snatched the crown and landed back upright on his two dogs. That merchandise was hot, so he thought he’d better ditch it before it got too heavy. Down the hallway, away from the room, Erik unloaded it in a pit. That felt good, like unloading a bunch of broads who’d got your number and was nag’n ya all the way to the coffin.

Now Acererak wasn’t reduced to a patsy and so even without his crown he could dish out a powerful punch that’d send you back to yesterday. Still, the short man, Barrick, had an ace up his gauntlet and he would play that card. Let it rain, they say. Rain steel. All over you. The trick would wear down those numb in the head enough to get close and the boney fat cat must have been feeling pretty numb. Erik’s blades made the bloodless, boney body bleed, despite it not having any blood. No matter. Acererak could still cast out zones of obscuring darkness and the crown in the pit emanated a crazy psychic energy wave, like broads sometimes do when they aren’t paid heed and your trousers are around your ankles as you’re hopping out the doorway.

The red-headed dame’s chaotic bolts combined with the wearing and tearing from the short man and ranger boy had taken their toll. And the bell did toll for Acererak and he was fix’n to die, which ain’t no small feat for someone who’s already dead. So he died and turned to dust. You know, Acererak to ashes. Then, doing what all dungeon sleuths do, the five grabbed what scratch was around. Bunch of potions and scrolls ain’t a bad haul for what just went down. Potions to heal, a scroll to remove an afflictions and a scroll to raise the dead would surely come in handy with this bunch that got the same chances to live as a halfling jester invited to entertain Orcus on the Day of the Dead. And then they got greedy. See, the couch the bones had been resting on was made of pure gold and the dungeon punks wanted it like a umber hulk doesn’t want a bath. Yes, as the golden couch was moved the roof came crashing down. The five escaped by the skin of their teeth, with the clever Tira snatching old Acererak’s crown on the one way out. She could tell that it made one stronger in will and attack just as the wheat juice could.

But there was a mystery here. Just who was this Acererak cat? Who’d he work for? What was his business in all this mess and just what was so important that it was worth re-dying for? There were questions that needed answers and answers that needed questions.

Outside of the boney cat’s pad, the gang of five searched for clues. Things hadn’t been so simple, like the good old days of hack and slash, back when a man could give a creature The Broderick just for looking like a bad guy. The ranger boy Erik found a secret door, see, but it was locked real good, like a priestess of Bahamut on the Day of the Dragon. Stymied, the gang wandered the tomb’s halls and paid a visit back to the room of the vanishing revelers. For their troubles, all they got was more trouble: a tilting floor that pitched them toward lava, molten rock, stuff that’d melt the smile right off of a happy, half-drunk, giddy halfling. Yeah, real bad, but the flying dragonborn Felsmon and the short man saved the day, pulling the ranger boy to safety.

Now things got really strange. Does an old troll tiptoe through a patch of tulips hand-in-hand with a halfling? Back in the sanctuary room, they had this terrible feeling that something horrible was happening. So they tried to leave, but presto, everyone traded sexes. Suddenly the dame Tira wasn’t no dame any more. The cleric, Z’adlen had these enormous bazooms that could put a strain on a man’s back. Ranger boy had gams that went on forever, but the dragon born and short man were sights not to behold. So they all went berserk and started hitting on each other, but not the kind of hitting that involves compliments to the opposite sex. Finally they all snapped out of their murderous rages. Thinking they were smart, they tried exiting the chamber again through the same doorway that had provided such interesting effects.

Tira, looking like a Nancy, went first and disappeared into the inky blackness. The others called out but she was gone, just like her knockers. The men, or women, in the group tried not to think about what else was gone, so they followed Tira right into that inky blackness. They found themselves together, outside in the shrubs by the tomb’s entrance. Yet more was missing – not just body parts, but also all clothing and weapons! Dames were gents and gents were dames and all was there to see. Things were looking pretty bad, real bad, except for the ranger boy, priest and sorceress. The rest were just wrong, like a troll with lipstick. Pointed sticks would be shivs as they reentered the tomb.

A heinous crime had been committed here and the gang staggered their way through the tomb, feeling as though they had tasted the foul waters of cheap, knock-off Death’s Head moonshine produced by the backwater stills of the criminally insane cast outs from the lowest drow caste. It was bad, real bad. Back to the ugly stone face. Back to the gargoyle. Yes, no trace of their weapons nor former selves. They they wised up, see, and went to a new chamber. With naked flesh scraping against stone cold stone, they dropped down ten feet into a room that was off a long, narrow corridor. Even the tension in the air was naked. Chests of gold, silver and oak rested on the floor of the empty chamber. Erik played peeper and started the box job on the oak chest to spy for traps and it was Jake, so Felsmon opened it. Wrong choice. A twelve foot, scimitar wielding skeleton rose from the chest. It was of little solace that it was naked too, for it had no shame and their humor in the situation was impossible to make out across their bony jaw.

Erik’s pointy sticks and the other’s innate magic did their work to beat back the skeleton’s advances. Tira’s tempest surge and the dragonborn’s lightening breath set the skeleton staggering like a booze hound. The giant slayer short man played chin music on the tall skeleton and finally Z’alden’s sapphire claws of Bahamut finished it off. Yet the snag of this rumble cost the five adventurers a pretty penny and two unopened chests remained. Feeling lucky, the five tried the silver box. There were no skeletons in this box, only darts that flew out in all directions, sticking into bare keisters and worse, much worse. There was one clear thing to do to not be filled with daylight, and that was to bangtails out of Dodge, but not before snatching a little crystal box from within the silver chest.

Escaping with their lives, but not their dignity, the adventurers regrouped out in the hallway. The little crystal box had five red gems in it. What clue were they being given in this mystery? With heads as dense as chopping blocks, the five tried to find their armor, weapons and former selves. Reentering the sanctuary chamber they tried once more to transform themselves back by walking back into the inky black doorway, only to find them selves outside the tomb once again, but without even the pointy sticks. This made about as much sense as a dwarf with ballerina shoes. However, they had been thankfully switched back to their original gender. Tira’s long, flowing red hair flowed and Erik’s long, silky legs were once again strong, muscular and hairy. All this was plain to see since they were all still as naked as a beggar’s bowl. Does two plus two equal five? Sometimes, so the five reentered the tomb once again against all sensible hope.

The gang quickly returned to that cat Acererak’s pad, that was now a little worse for wear after being ransacked and having a collapsed roof. Yet there was new booty, or was it old booty? All their armor, weapons, magical items and other possessions lay in a neat pile. A little too neat? The five re-equipped and found a golden chest that had been buried under the pile. Opening it, Felsmon found the crystal chest from the skeleton room. He also found vipers that encouraged a quick exit from Acererak’s pad. The little crystal box had five red gems in it. What clue were they being given in this mystery?

Remembering the stone gargoyle with the crushing palms, the gang ankled their way back to him and placed the gems into his greedy, grasping palms. As before, the gargoyles sat with three outstretched arms ready receive gems, with a fourth arm on the floor. After placing three gems in the hands of the of the attached arms, the gargoyle spoke, “Sacrifice was not in vain. Look to the fourth to find your gain.” That’s what snoopers call a clue and the five had their noodles working right, so they put a fourth gem into the hand of the arm that lay on the floor. The hand closed. The hand opened. In the palm lay some a fine piece of ice. Its color, cut and clarity made it a treasure to behold. It’s oval shape intrigued the dragonborn who, normally just a palooka, saw its oval shape as resembling an eye.

The gang returned to the secret door, the one as tight as a fat, giant earworm in the skull of a hapless halfling. Looking through the ice, the adventurers could see the truth of the runes that told of the door being locked by a powerful magic. If magic was the disease then more disease was the cure. The sorceress and priest knew what to do – the scroll of “remove affliction” could possibly be used to make that door more chippy. So that’s just what Z’alden did to return the unlock the door. Pausing to reflect, the gang left the door closed.

Things had been going well for this wild bunch. Maybe too well. They had been hitting on all eight, turning lemons into lemonade, generally been bad-ass trouble boys and girls. But just who was the big boss? The head honcho. The top dog. The top pillow. The big kahuna. Just who was the big cheese and was he behind this door?

Puzzles, Riddles, and Spikes...Oh my!

Nathaniel Yewprick stared at the manuscript. The young monk had been working with Torben Eastlander’s writings for well over a year now, but the more he read, the more confused he became. His master, Stoufful Ofit, was the acknowledged world expert on Eastlander’s work, but the young Yewprick was finding that Ofit’s interpretation of the opus didn’t match his experience with the text. The other masters’ teachings were just as incongruent.

This particular collection of writings, “Horror in a Tomb”, continued Eastlander’s allegorical interpretation of man’s inner turmoil, according to Ofit. His master had intoned with all seriousness,”The writing is clearly an allegory. Notice how, at the start of this tale, the characters sleep on top of a tomb-like mound, among smaller mounds that together are shaped like a skull. They wait for evidence of the evil in the Tomb and find nothing. Here, Eastlander is warning us against the futility of too much self-examination. We may not find the evil within us if we only look inside our skull. We must look at our actions.” Then, the old man became very excited. “Notice how the only way that the adventurers realize that the smaller mounds form a skull is when the dragonborn Paladin flies above the tomb mound. Here, Eastlander is telling us to soar on our thoughts so that we can perceive the truth of what is around us and within us.”

The young monk had bitten his tongue at that one. As crazy as it seemed to him, Nathaniel was coming to a different interpretation. He was starting to believe that the characters of Eastlander might have been real people who had related their adventures to the scrivener. But, the young monk knew he was on shaky ground with this heretical thinking. The entire Church of the Eastlander was founded on the moral guidance that Master Ofit and the others believed was in the tales. The young convert was starting to have doubts. Doubts that ended up with lashes whenever he voiced them too loudly to Master Ofit or any of the other masters.

Still, Nathaniel could not resist the pull of the raw tales. He preferred them to the sermonized versions that the masters gave. Even though it was forbidden, he would work late in the library and wait until all others had left. Then, alone in the musty rooms, he would go to the locked original texts, pick the lock (“just like the sorceress Tira”!), and take down a volume. Tonight, he cracked open the first book of the “Horror in a Tomb”. Of all of Eastlander’s writings, this story was the most perplexing to the young monk. Eastlander had given no clear reason why the Valers had gone into the Tomb in the first place. Certainly, Eastlander mentioned the cleric’s overwhelming desire to destroy undead. But, was that in the original story or had the writing been changed to reflect the Church’s understanding that “undead” was Eastlander’s metaphor for peasant uprisings that must be suppressed. Nathaniel knew that even these manuscripts were not really the originals but copies generated by the church. Had they been true copies? Or, had they been edited like the heavily-altered stories dispersed to the masses? Perhaps. In this tale, Nathaniel believed that the sorceress would not have been convinced to risk life and limb with such scant motivation as suppressing peasants. Or, even of destroying undead, presuming they were real. Nathaniel winced at the memory of the biting lashes had received when he voiced that opinion.

Of course, Tira was a bit of an issue anyway, having been a Warlock in earlier stories. Maybe Eastlander was less certain of Tira? The Church’s interpretation was that Tira represented the unbridled passion that must be directed by those in command. The teaching was a bit sketchy about who was in command of the sorceress. Was some male power directing her? For her motivation to enter, the Church claimed that the half-elven sorceress sought the deeper understanding of one’s self that comes from looking inward. “I don’t believe that for a minute,” thought the young monk. Tira was after adventure not introspection. Maybe she did buy the cleric’s argument that they should seek some famous sarcophagus inside to deliver to the King Kaius who was making war on the Nentir Vale and the Kengi. The cleric had argued such a delivery might be the ruse needed to approach this evil King. Maybe she went in for the sheer thrill of it. Oh, the lashing he would get for that thought! Still, it was preferable to Master Ofit’s interpretation of her motivations.

The interpretations of the other Valers were equally confusing, but Nathaniel put those thoughts away as he continued to go through the writing. Though quite illegal, he was copying this original text. He was becoming convinced that when he was done, he might need to leave the monastery. Quickly. And, he was not going without the stories.

As he copied the introductory part with the party was standing in front of a huge mound, the monk could almost hear the bats returning for the night into the leftmost of three vine-covered entrances before them. He imagined himself as the taciturn Ranger carefully pulling back the blackened vines on the rightmost to reveal a rubble-strewn and impassable entrance. He could feel his eyes consider the vines themselves, destroyed by the aura of death that surrounded the Tomb. The Ranger had told Eastlander of his anger at the destruction of nature. Nathaniel sniggered. Master Ofit loved those vines. He would extol for hours about how the failure to consider one’s place and follow the Church led to death like the vines trying to cover the tomb had withered away. The agile and daring Ranger was always Master Ofit’s favorite. Nathaniel was convinced Ofit knew nothing of the true Ranger Erik.

The monk concentrated harder to move along with his copying. He quickly found his mind drifting to picture the archway of the middle entrance that confronted the group with a ruby-red A at its apex. Despite Master Ofit’s insistence, Nathaniel was positive that A signified nothing more than the name of the Tomb dweller Acererak. The brightly colored tiles in the hall beyond might have some meaning, but the red path that meandered through them was probably not the “road of one’s life with pitfalls and difficulties” that Master van Laangweend thought it represented. The beautiful artwork on the walls depicting orcs and goblins living together with human and elves was probably not the message of doom that Master Ofit related if one did not adhere to the Church tenets.

Turning aside from his ruminations, and returning to Easterlander’s text, the young monk marveled at the Ranger’s perception to see a riddle faintly inscribed in dwarven runes in the red path:
Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this whatever you wish. For you will be mine in the end no matter what!
Go back to the tormentor or through the arch and the second great hall you’ll discover. Shun green if you can, but night’s good color is for those of great valor. If shades of red stand for blood the wise will not need sacrifice aught but a loop of magical metal – you’re well along your march.
Two pits along the way will be found to lead to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall. These keys and those are most important of all, and beware of trembling hands and what will maul. If you find the false, you find the true and into the columned hall you’ll come, and there the throne that’s key and keyed.
The iron men of visage grim do more than meets the viewer’s eye. You’ve left and left and found my Tomb and now your soul will die.

Nathaniel was not sure what to make of the riddle. Perhaps five score theologians had poured over it. Their attempts at meaning put him to sleep. The young monk was more interested in the portal at the end of the wide corridor than he was in the many pits full of poisoned spikes that the adventurers uncovered. He believed that the roping together of the group to avoid further falls probably was as obvious as what the church said. The solidity of the dwarf Barrick, continually saving the scouting Ranger and the others, probably did, too. And, the huge green demonic face at the end of the corridor, with a black mouth that absorbed all light, could be the darkness of the soul of man that we must all avoid without a thorough examination lest we be sucked into its maw. But, the dragonborn Paladin Felsmon sticking his head into a misty archway and being teleported into a small room whose floor dropped away the moment he arrived made for compelling reading by a master storyteller, and not a parable about following the dictums of the Church. Felsmon had flown when the floor disappeared and then had fascinating explorations that had led him back to the party while they had gone through the archway and been teleported to another location. Not much allegory there, despite the masters’ best efforts.

Nathaniel tried to copy diligently. He couldn’t help but see the storyline itself in his mind’s eye. Separated from the Paladin, the cleric Z’alden, the dwarven fighter Barrick, the Ranger Erik, and the sorceress Tira had found themselves in front of a large gargoyle with four arms. One of the arms had broken off. Placing items in the hands only saw the items crushed.

Unable to discern the meaning of this gargoyle and with the amazing return of Felsmon, who had maneuvered down a series of small tunnels to rejoin them, the group found a crawl space and maneuvered through it, passing through a golden field of light into a huge hallway stretching off into the distance. The walls of this room were covered with humanoids holding variously-colored spheres. Touching yellow and blue spheres had no effect, while touching the orange sphere had caused a spear to come shooting out of the wall at the sorceress. Felsmon had touched a silver sphere and found an opening that he pushed against and fell into a secret room. There he found a secret door, and with the rest of the party following, they followed a route that Eastlander described as “tunnels and doors.”

Master van Laangweend had written extensive treatises on how the adventurers each took turns finding the secret door needed to advance as we must all share the burden of discovery, how each secret door slid a different direction showing the variations that life’s discoveries might take but no door could be held open (Nathaniel guessed that the force bolt that had seared the dwarf might have been a stretch of Eastlander’s imagination but then Eastlander always portrayed the adventurers having the enhanced imagination) showing how the way is not meant to be one of regret , how the twists in the corridor mirrored life’s uncertain journey, how…enough! Nathaniel shook his head in disgust. Yes, the more he thought about it, the more the masters were ruining a good story and nothing more. It was this, the real tales of Eastlander, or as close as he could get to them, that he would copy and sneak out of the monastery for the public to read. They must know the truth.

He turned to the next part of the story:

I was never really sure what to make of the cleric as he related to me what happened next.
“Felsmon had broken through a door, and we were confronted by a room strewn with rubble. Niches in the walls held evil-looking statues. Broken statue arms littered the floor. On a tall pedestal in a far corner was a huge gargoyle with large, bat-like wings. Felsmon flew up to look the gargoyle in the eye. We heard a piercing shriek and living armed claws launched from the gargoyle at our beloved paladin. A battle was on! And, I looking at the creature, realized that it was demon-made, of the same elemental construction as those horrid beasts. By the Dragon, but I did rejoice, as since my time battling ice demons in Kengistan, the Great One has given me powers that can be wielded against such as these the same as if they were the vile undead. But, my prayers would have to wait, as my comrades are much faster to arms than I. Tira launched a fire attack at the monster, but its only effect was to blast her and slam her against a door. Such is the life of a chaos sorceress. General Barrick had more luck, throwing his axe into the air at the flying monster and wounding it with great success. The ranger’s steady eye was true, hitting the gargoyle where it most vulnerable and exacting a terrific price for each magical arrow that flew from his enchanted bow. “ Z’alden took a breath and a sip of Nentir ’97.

“Still, it was not enough. The monstrosity, still airborne you understand, had to deal with our flying paladin. Little did the former statue realize that Felsmon is a flying fortress. There is little on this plane that can penetrate the armor and hide of this warrior. The gargoyle learned this the hard way when, unfazed and unhurt, the Paladin returned his attack with a massive swipe of his waraxe. You might not know that a statue come to life can reason, but it was clear that he realized the futility of continuing to battle one nearly invulnerable, so the gargoyle swooped down to claw our valiant ranger and found meat beneath the leather. Our taciturn ranger made not the slightest sound at this affront to his skin. Felsmon gave chase and himself swooped to further engage the gargoyle. Oh, what a beautiful sound his axe made as chunks of the gargoyle began to fall off. The tide was turning our way.”

“A small intake of breath from Tira and one word of ‘Claws’ and ‘Floor’ was all the warning we had as the fallen statue arms came to life and ripped and tore at us on the ground, slowing those that they could grab. Tira and Barrick both were mired in this muck of marble. The mighty dwarf refused to succumb to this and lunged into the air, you would have said that the fighter could fly, as swinging his axe while in the air he soundly struck this statue-come-flying monster. Unbelievably, the monster flew back to his pedestal and the cracks began to join together. The monstrosity was healing! Such a vile use of a blessed power could not be permitted. Calling upon the mightiest powers of Bahamut, dragonclaws of sapphire light exploded from me and assailed the statue. As I had prayed, the gargoyle was stunned, and my companions and I took our play from this momentary advantage.”

“Felsmon, noticing that the creature wore a necklace, flew up to the pedestal and took the jewelry. Tira found another corridor and a door that opened into a wall of light plaster. Punching through, she found the initial corridor we had entered. Eastlander, you remember, the first hallway with the blood red path and the poison spike traps that Erik and Tira had so cleverly negotiated while roped to Barrick? This door was the other side of the painted door we had passed. What a twisted and warped place this tomb was.”

The cleric took another sip of his wine. I took some of mine and made a few notes to remind myself not to be drawn in. Remember, Torben, tombs of this complexity come from the imagination of adventurers who have spent too many days away from civilization.

The half-elf cleared his throat and continued. “The gargoyle’s stunned condition only lasts for a few heartbeats. Another shriek and we were again under attack. Barrick had gone down a separate corridor and had to rejoin the fight while four claws on the end of powerful arms accompanied by that awful shriek were raining down on the Paladin. To no avail, of course. In return, the dragonborn’s axe raked the gargoyle with a nearly perfect series of blows that extracted a heavy price. Then, the mighty lightning came from his mouth. By the Claw, but this attack had no effect on the statue. Tira would have no more of this. Her powerful bolt of multi-colored chaos magic assaulted the mind of this monster, and in a split second, the gargoyle’s head and then entire body exploded! Victory was ours. For the dwarf’s good work of returning to the battle, he received little more than an attack from the animated arms on the floor.”

“The ranger had found another hallway, one free of these horrible arms. We made our way down it, and then paused to look at the necklace. It was made of 10 beautiful rubies, like those in the bag I found. Sensing one of the gems might have some magic, we looked at it further. A small piece of parchment was enchanted inside. Extracting it, we found another riddle-poem:”

Look low and high for gold
To hear a tale untold.
The archway at the end,
and on your way you’ll wend.

“What meaning these verses might have we could not discern.”

Nathaniel lifted his pen. In all the teachings of the masters, nothing had ever been made of these verses. Maybe in their haste to interpret Eastlander, some of the writings had been overlooked. Maybe he was truly reading and copying the original writings. The young monk dipped his quill and continued to copy, even as his pulse quickened at thought of being so close to the true story.

I, Torben Eastlander, could only marvel at the half-elf’s tale, but I wondered where it was leading. Throughout the evening, he described to me more mysterious rooms, including one with colored circles. The black circle had an interesting story in which the dragonborn had found that the circle was actually a portal to a passage. Exploring, the group found a room six staff lengths square with three strange symbols on the floor. It must have been the cleric himself who investigated this room, as he could not remember the symbols in any detail. After hearing these incredible stories, it is clear to me that the priest has the memory of a sand pile.

A red circle got the group further thanks to the sharp-eyed ranger. A winding, descending corridor led to a dead end according to Z’alden and Felsmon, but Erik could spy not only a secret door, but also a catch to release it. A second catch, caught be the eagle-eyed sorceress was needed to complete the opening. One does wonder at the elaborate nature of the tales this group devises. Still, they are amusing. What was even more enchanting is the room that they entered.

A vast, pitch-black room, which, once illuminated, showed frescoes of beautiful humanoids covered with holy symbols of Bahamut, Pelor, and other good deities. From his reverent description, it was clear upon his entry that here, in this tomb of horrors, Z’alden had found a shrine of hope, a bastion of sanctity. The half-elf’s eyes turned fiery as he relayed what happened next. To his horror, the group realized that the humanoids were distorted, their flesh rotting. They became images of skeletons. This was no good shrine, but one that was evil, sick and twisted. The warped nature became clearer as the rows of pews in front of the group were investigated. Tira lifted one of the benches freeing a noxious cloud of rotting gas that filled the room. Luckily, these benches did conceal some good – several thousand in gold, according to the cleric. As if such stories could be believed. But, these fanciful musings were nothing compared to what he said followed.

The altar area, glowing blue, drew him onward. Stepping onto the dais along with the ranger, the blue glow changed to a yellow aura of “pure evil” as he called it, always seeing things in such distinct terms is this zealous cleric. Upon reaching the altar, lightning exploded in all directions, burning the party. At Z’alden’s touch, purple flames exploded all in all directions, further searing the party members. The cleric smirked as he related how Tira told him not to touch the altar. The altar itself dissolved. But, Z’alden was far more perturbed by the color of those undivine flames that had injured his friends. They so mocked the very warmth of purple-flamed healing that the Great Dragon grants through him. Whatever his original reason for going into this Tomb, the cleric was now incensed. This perversion could not stand. The forces and powers that assembled this Tomb must be destroyed.

A portal in the room that seemed to interest the dragonborn was not investigated. I still cannot believe that anything in this place was not investigated by the paladin sticking his noggin into it, but that is how the cleric told the story to me, and what am I but a poor scrivener. Instead, a small opening, the size of a coin, or a ring, in the far wall drew the party’s attention. Finding that a coin in the slot did nothing, and recalling the strange riddle of the dwarven runes about loops of metal, Z’alden put his Cherished Ring into the slot. The wall dropped away to reveal a passageway with descending stairs.

Could I imagine a staircase that this group would not descend? No, probably not. Over the paladin’s objection that the portal needed his head through it, the party went down. Three poison-spiked pits recalled the “two pits” somehow – the cleric is not good with mathematics, and checking the wall on the last, Erik found a secret door. Is there a door that is a secret to this perceptive human? Obviously, these doors are not so hard to find, I think. The others are probably just blind to anything that isn’t a hulking brute with a warclub. Regardless, after a quick investigation of some singing and happy laughter on the previous level (truly I am not making this up, merely relating the cleric’s tale) that ceased when the paladin smashed through an iron door barring the way to the party, all the adventurers descended into the pit and went through the secret door.

A fog obscured the way, and perhaps for the first time, a sense of fear filled the dragonborn. He turned to run before the solid dwarf grasped him and helped him to shake off the evil magic that pervaded his senses. As the cleric said, “It was Barrick that understood the fear infecting us all came from breathing the fog. He bravely rushed across the room without taking a breath, opened the far door causing the fog to dissipate along with our unnatural fear. By the Dragon, but that is what bravery is! Confronted by the fog of fear, you put one foot in front of the other and not behind.”

Even as his quill dripped, Nathaniel was fairly certain that last quote of the cleric must have been an insertion of the Church. Well, maybe. Or, maybe the cleric really did make small sermons at every opportunity. Nathaniel heard rustling from down the corridor and saw a cloud of dust. He could almost feel the fog of fear coming for him! But, he had not completed this section. What was the point of taking such risks if he was not to finish? No one was supposed to be here at this time of night, anyway. They would get in as much trouble as he would. He pressed on.

The cleric continued, his eyes beaming as he told the next few parts of the tale to me. He drained his glass. “We pressed on towards a faint glow up ahead. Lying on the ground was a mace. I have not beheld its equal. Adorned with holy symbols to all that persevere in the fight against the vile undead, this was a weapon of radiant power about which I could only have dreamed. Thank the Dragon, but here was a weapon to focus my prayers to call upon his Claws, his Teeth, his great Power! And, would we need it.”

Nathaniel turned the page. He dipped his quill to continue. The masters had never mentioned this part of the story. He hurriedly began to read. A sudden noise made his head turn, spilling his ink. There before him was one of the masters! The one he knew the least, the half-elf who kept to himself mostly. Nathaniel started to stammer. The master held one figure to his lips, and said, “Be at peace. I, too, know how captivating the True Writings can be. But, you have other places you should be. It is time to go.” And then, he winked.

Sky Pirates
From 1000' under ground to 1000' above

Felsmon awakes; it is quiet and dark. But pausing, he wonders, is that noise above, like creaking wood? And why does his head feel like Barrick looks most mornings? Moving to rub his head Felsmon’s arm stops mid-reach, halted by a sturdy length of chain. Sitting up as his eyes adjust to the gloom, he sees that the party is all there, sleeping more closely than ever before. Tugging the chain quickly shows that everyone is chained together, and to the walls. Felsmon’s brief exploration wakes the rest of the group, one by one, each adventurer waking with the same puzzled pained expression.

It does not take the group long to realize they are on a ship, the wooden cell and the rocking motion easily giving it away. Seeing no guards within sight on the other side of the lone-gated wall, they waste no time healing themselves. Tira begins picking the locks of their chains, her own dropping off like she was restrained with silk ties. But before she can undo the rest of the locks a guard appears, striding toward the cell. The guard buys the group’s attempt at feigning unconsciousness and enters the cell. Erik quickly grabs the guard with his legs in a scissor hold and flips the guard down on his back. Before the guard can even get out a shout, Z’alden moves in and easily kills the restrained lackey.

Free from bondage the party begins to search their surroundings. Obviously in the cargo hold of a ship, they find Erik’s pouch of holding, then the rest of their supplies, minus the coin. Erik finds a small secret door in the hull. Wary of being suddenly flooded, a vote of hands decides to open the door. Instead of water, light pours in through the hatch. Peering out they discover they are above land instead of water, and more surprising that they are 200 staff lengths above.

Heading up the ladder, Erik listens, then Barrick peeks above. Other than boots, nothing can be easily discerned on the top deck. Barging upward they find that their prison is not the only air ship around, there is a second ship, on fire, tied to theirs. It does not take long to figure out the situation. The party is trapped on a flying pirate ship, currently in the process of attacking a flying merchant ship. Most of the pirates, living and nonliving, were on the other ship, moving to transfer stolen items back.

Taking quick action, Felsmon runs along the rail line, cutting the grappling ropes as the rest of the party begins the attack of the pirate captors. Felsmon cuts the last grappling rope and the ships begin to lurch independently. Seeing the pirate captain left on the flaming merchant ship the party smiles, their odds of winning the battle improved. But the joy is short lived at best; the captain pulls out a grappling hook with a short piece of rope and throws it over. Magically the rope lengthens and the pirate is able to swing easily back to his ship, the ship on which the adventurers are fighting.

Seeing pirate skeletons trying to return and join the fray, Tira creates a swirl of space, forcing a couple skeletons out over open space, where they fell to their doom, skull jaws silently moving in protest. Erik uses the diversion to teleport aft, grabbing the steering bar. Straining, Erik is able to crash the pirate ship into the merchant ship, killing two pirates in the process. Erik smiles at his ingenuity, but the joy is short lived as the fire from the dying merchant ship jumps and sets the pirate ship aflame.

Despite the slowing magical aura surrounding the pirates, Z’alden wades in closer and attacks, killing two more villainous pirates. Turning to check out his comrades, Z’alden is disheartened to see Barrick attacking Felsmon. Recognizing the domination Z’alden moves to help his friend.

Tira kills the only pirate directly attacking her and tries to head aft to help Erik. But from seemingly out of nowhere, an elemental tentacle lashes out and knocks Tira over. Before Z’alden can render aid, Barrick turns and attacks the hand that would heal him. Expecting it, Z’alden nimbly sidesteps Barrick’s swing; taps Barrick on the shoulder and the glaze dissipates from Barrick’s eyes.

The battle rages back and forth as the fire rages along the port decking. Felsmon grabs the captain only to be bitten in return. The pirate controller is knocked overboard, but invokes a spell and flies easily back on deck. Suddenly the elemental that was ensorcelled into the ship breaks free and attacks the controller. The tide of the battle is turned! Erik gives up trying to control the burning sinking ship and, from behind, delivers a fatal blow to the pirate Captain. The original helmsman is all that is left of the pirates, but he went overboard and flew away before the party could give him a proper fate.

Falling rapidly, the party has a quick choice to make. Felsmon attempts to control the ship, but could only slow its descent a little. Z’alden decides to remain aboard, trying to bring the ship into a controlled tumble, hoping some parts of the magical ship might survive for salvage. The rest of the party dives over the edge of the ship, trusting that Barrick’s new, but untested featherfall enchantment will prove true.

Everyone survives, including Z’alden, but the elemental escapes the bonds that bound it to the ship. Not taking sides, the elemental goes after the party. Barrick somehow manages to jump on and ride a creature made of air, and it was enough. A few well-placed attacks and the elemental perished.

Wondering if they could finally rest, the group surveys the area and the burning wreckage, all sure that if anyone was close, the sight of a flaming falling ship could not be missed. Sure enough, almost immediately, across a nearby lake, boats could be see being launched and heading in their direction. Dusting ash and debris off, yet another decision must be made, hide or confront whomever it is that approaches.

Letter of Marque from King Kaius ir’Wynarn III

To: Captain Ree ir’Wynarn
Commander of the Airship Black Wind


Whereas His Sacred Majesty Kaius III, of Karrnoch, Defender of the Faith, Etc. Hath an Open and Declared War against the Nentir Vale and the Kengi, their Vassals and Subjects. And Forasmuch as you have made Application unto Me for Licence to Arm, Furnish and Equip the said Airship in Warlike manner, against His Majesties said Enemies, I do accordingly Impower and Commisionate you the said Ree ir’Wynarn, to be Captain or Commander of the said Airship Black Wind, Burthen Eighty Tuns or thereabouts: Hereby Authorizing you in and with the said Airship and Company to her belonging, to War, Fight, Take, Kill, Suppress and Destroy, any Pirates, Privateers, or other Subjects and Vassals of the Nentir Vale, or the Kengi, the Declared Enemies of the Crown of Karrnoch; Their Ships, Vessels and Goods, to take and make Prize of.

With this letter I do hereby Request all Lords and Commanders in Chief, of any of His Majesties Territories, to permit him the said Captain or Commander with his said Vessel, Men, and the Prizes that he may have taken, freely and quietly to pass and repass, without giving or suffering him to receive any Trouble or Hindrance, but on the contrary all Succour and Assistance needful. This Commission is to continue in Force for the Space of Six Moons next ensuing (if the War so long last) and not afterwards. Given under my Hand and Seal at Arms at Karrn the Thirteenth Day of the Dragon: The Seventh Year of His said Majesties Reign, 998 YK.

By His Excellencies Command,

Kaius III

Letter from King Kaius ir’Wynarn III to Captain Ree ir’Wynarn

Captain Ree ir’Wynarn
Airship Black Wind

Greetings Cousin,

I trust this missive finds you in excellent health and spirits. I have received your reports on the war against the Nentir and the Kengi. All seems well on those fronts.

Continue your raids as you see fit. Spare only the port of Fallcrest. You know the reasons. I write today with several requests. First, my collection of ancient sarcophagi seems sadly lacking. I have heard tell of a most exquisite specimen in the Tomb near the village of Nenlast. You will know of the one I speak. It is rumored to be made of obsidian, with a jade cover. Any other sarcophagi you find would be appreciated. The usual reward, with no questions asked.

Next, my nephew has been stirring up trouble again. Apparently the chains that bind one’s relatives are never strong enough. I hear that Dreadhold is lovely this time of year. Perhaps you could pay my dear nephew a visit, and reaffirm our concern for his well being.

Finally, do try to acquire another group of heroes. You know how I like to experiment, and that last batch did not age well at all. Most disappointing. You might try Fallcrest, as we have not heard from our contact there in quite a while.

I will expect you or your agents back at the Court no latter than two moons from now. Be punctual, as you know how I hate waiting for presents.

Given under my Hand etc. etc. the Seventh Day of the Rogue, 998 YK.