[5E] The Age of Worms - Solid Snake's Campaign

Rey's Journal

Icosial's Tomb

I find myself frustrated by the group. Perhaps it is the environment we are in. Although I am adept in the caverns of the world, I much prefer be on the surface. With trees and sunlight and heck, on top of a snowy mountain. At some point, the caves feel like they are collapsing in. I snapped at Jordan today. He was telling us the story of his undoing. He and his love were infected with the green worms. At some point after her death but before his, a devil came to make a deal. Jordan agreed and as a result, destroyed all he held dear. He has not gotten over it and he wishes to use the Rod of Seven Parts to defeat the devil he made the bargain with. Instead of empathy, I snapped at him. He didn’t deserve it and I should apologize. It has been a trying day. Another one. Maybe I should meditate on what has happened so far.
_______________

We entered the black mirror and found Treig resting. Passing through a wind tunnel, we were attacked by mist creatures, at the very least they reminded me of the wind guardians at the top of the Cairn those many days ago. But before I could respond, I saw both Treig and Etona step out of the tunnel and the hostiles blew away. So, not being suicidal at the moment, I did too. They weren’t an illusion because I felt the hit, but perhaps they are a security measure. Treig seemed familiar with this place, immediately looking for traps. Or perhaps the wall of spikes was a giveaway. Still, I am glad that he (thus far) is on our side.

It was then that the devil creature entered. I do not have words to describe him. Fiery chains that erupted from his body swung around him in a mad frenzy. Yet Treig greeted him as a friend. Jordan is his name. He withdrew his chains...into his body. It sounded terrible. My first impression of him was terrifying. I would not call him an ally or a friend. Ever.

There was a meeting with a shadow spider who called itself Fly Catcher. Not particularly creative but there you go. It has Egan, and for some odd reason, chose to show Treig the shadow prison he is currently in. Poor Treig. As a courier, all he wanted to do is deliver the case and move on. Yet a man of honor, because he could have given it to one of us once he saw Egan and he didn’t. Instead he bargained for Egan’s life. I admit I wasn’t paying close attention to the conversation. I thought I might see or not see webs and shadows. I’m pretty sure Etona saw something, but we didn’t have time to talk. I heard the Fly Catcher utter “Icosial” twice. The name feels familiar to me, but I cannot remember why. It then repeated the name a third time and said the name would deactivate the tomb’s defenses.

There was a room we needed to go through made of lightning. I felt drawn to it and knew with certainty that I could handle it. I may have misjudged how much lightning likes me or I like lightning. It still hurt. But we managed to get everyone through the room with no harm to the others. I wonder what’s changed in me. I still feel slightly off balance and am moving at variable speeds. I am much faster getting from here to there than I think I should be. I have this urge, this need for open space to run. To recenter myself and see what I can do. I am changed, I know this, yet I do not know HOW I am changed or what has changed. I am eager to find out. But first, this cave and the whims of delusional spider.

Etona was struggling. I know she does not enjoy being in closed spaces such as this. I thought for a moment that she would faint when we suggested she climb on Obi to traverse a red river. But she is stronger than she thinks and did as asked. Past the raging river, we entered a room with more doors and stone statues. As Treig walked by, a statue grabbed him. He attempted to free his arm but was unsuccessful. For a second I considered attacking it, but the name popped into my head. So as I made a move towards them, I uttered “Icosial.” To my surprise and Treig’s, the statue released him and stepped back. We found a black mirror behind the door it was guarding, similar to the one that brought us here. It is a portal, but to what we do not yet know. Jordan and Treig wanted to check out the rest of the room before we moved on. The rest of the hall outside the door was frigid. I normally would not have done this, but it was so cold I stayed close to Jordan. He may be a kind of devil but he exudes heat and fire, very useful in an ice room. In their efforts to investigate every room, they blew up a door. The explosion pushed us back and the ice floor collapsed under us. Once again, I had that moment when I moved further and faster than I thought I would. We retreated. For a moment, I thought Etona would close the gate and leave Jordan to battle the animated stone soldiers and blobs. I asked her to wait. I am not a fan of him but we do not leave allies behind. Hopefully I made the right decision. Shortly after we encountered the ghoul Fly Catcher warned us about and Treig once again, took charge. He does it naturally and is good at it. He has led men before, it is very obvious. After some bargaining and a good bit of luck, Treig took possession of the Seal. I was surprised Jordan did not volunteer himself for it. It was then that Treig pulled us together and shared a plan to trick Fly Catcher.

Treig and I entered the room, given levitation by the ghoul Moretto. He was surprisingly different from the ghouls I’ve met before. From the White City and very well spoken, he wished to go to the surface world. To explore? Cause chaos? I do not know. He knew of the green worms and spoke of a prophecy. Moretto helped us to help himself. He had not been able to get past Fly Catcher and the cave’s defenses. The levitation allowed us to float above the shadow webs that would grab at us. Fly Catcher demanded Treig place the Seal on the dias, which he refused to do until Egan was back with us. Egan emerged from the floor covered in shadow web, and was released. In the midst of this, Treig stopped and handed Egan the case. His mission, it seemed, was complete. Treig toss the Seal onto the dias and Fly Catcher knew immediately that it was fake. Treig threw his half-smoked cigar at the spider. It exploded and I had my first view of Fly Catcher. If I thought Jordan was odd, Fly Catcher was worse. I have only heard of these creatures, Dark Elf torso and head on a spider’s body. Treig jumped on it and was bitten, and was paralyzed ON the creature’s back. Etona lit up the room and destroyed the webs, allowing us to step on the ground. My attempts to attack it failed but was able to touch Treig and he finished the job. The creature disappeared into dust. I think Etona was sad we had to kill it. She wanted to talk with it. Sometimes, I do not understand my friend.

Then the discussion with what to do with the Seal and the potential Rod of Seven Parts began and here we are. Jordan believes that the Arch-Devil planned this, and infected him in order to set the stage for his dominance. He wishes to use the Rod to destroy the Asmodeus. How much of this is true and how much is Jordan’s fantasy? He has been alive for a thousand years and has had a long time to dwell on the loss of his betrothed. How much of our lives are dictated by forces greater than us? What part do we play in our own destiny? All questions for a different day.

Etona doesn’t trust Jordan with the Rod, and honestly, neither do I. The man has vengeance on his mind and the Rod of Seven Parts is more than that. Egan wants it, but for different reasons. Etona doesn’t seem pleased that Egan is once again beholden but the Wind Dukes are much better than the Asmodi. I’ve been meditating and doing my best to tune out the arguments, especially once I snapped at Jordan. Then I heard Treig say my name. He nominated ME to hold the Rod, claiming I was a neutral party. I disagreed. I too have ulterior motives. I have been charged to find the monster that infected Ithane and bring its end. Etona, of course agreed to it because she did not want Egan or Jordan to have it. I nominated Treig. After all, he is the carrier of the Seal and rescued Egan for us. Yet, they agreed that I am to take possession of it. I feel like a pack mule.

Treig knew exactly where to go. We went even further down the waterfall and Etona grasped my hand so hard I thought she would break my bones. We entered a hall with rainbow lanterns and a sarcophagus in the center. It reminded me very clearly of the Cairn, except the sarcophagus was floating and the walls were well lit with beautiful carvings of the general being lifted into the After, if you believe in that sort of thing. Treig placed the Seal on the sarcophagus and the top slid open. In it was very old clothing, the bones having turned to dust, a set of swords, a ring and what appeared to be a fragment of the Rod of Seven Parts. As Treig reached in, another unworldly creature emerged from the wind clouds and demanded what we had to offer. All hundreds of its eyeballs were trained on Treig. After a moment’s hesitation and an obvious heaviness of heart, Treig placed a red scarf in the sarcophagus and grabbed the Rod. Then the thing looked at me and asked what I had to offer. I froze. I couldn’t think of anything of value, then I did and I knew I couldn’t. The only thing I could think of was Obi and the orb I carried him in. Grief rose within me, threatening to drown me. I haven’t felt like this since..that day. When did I allow myself to get attached to others again? Etona, Egan, Mel, Obi, and of course, Seraph. Seraph was the first and I didn’t even know it. I looked at the ring, but I could not do it. When I looked at Treig, he was looking at me and shook his head. Heeding his silent advice, I backed away. Jordan, on the other hand, looked so hopeful for a second. He asked us to leave the room, which Etona refused. She wanted to see his flaming sword. In the end, the demon did not accept his sword, or the devil attached to it.

As Treig approached me with the Seal, he suddenly asked what else from the Cairn I had in my possession. I showed him the circlet and the stick with the ring on it, which Jordan identified as a Talisman. Treig took the circlet from me and placed it on his head. Unusual, but it had been an unusual day. Then he froze. When he came to, he did not speak to us and we did not disturb his silent thoughts. I know the red scarf was important to him and want to thank him for his sacrifice. I do not know when and how to say it.

Our return to the real world was uneventful until we reached the Cairn. There the birdmen guarding Seraph saw Treig and started whispering. Shortly after, the General arrived. Treig was chosen by the Wind Dukes for his sacrifice. He just doesn’t know it yet.
 
Journal of Jordan Cranden II - Entry III

"What do we do when we fall off of our horse, young prince?"

In a dejected tone: "We get back on again." I was a child again reliving my early lessons with the battle master of the Knight Protectors. It was tradition for the battle master to personally train each of the Aerdy line. His name was Zarell and he still had the most gravelly of voices I've heard to this day.

"But Hope doesn't want me to ride him." I heard myself complain as the memory played out.

Zarell was traditionally both stern and taciturn, but he asked: "Why do you say that?" Such patience that man had.

"Because he thinks I'm too weak."

Quicker than a striking snake, Zarell, had closed the distance, tripped me - putting me back on the ground of which he had just had me stand up from - and had his iron like grip around my throat. I recall the panic and confusion. I was suffocating. I realize now he could have made me go unconscious in seconds if he'd wanted to by preventing bloodflow, but he merely compressed my windpipe.

With such fierce determination it made me momentarily forget the position I was in, Zarell said: "Then prove him wrong!"

I remember the confusion. Was this betrayal? No. It was a test. But he was Zarell. I was a child. I could not hope to overpower this man - our battlemaster! I grabbed his vice like hand feebly. I tried to swat at his wrist to no avail. The man was simply iron. I was starting to gasp.

With righteous anger Zarell screamed at me: "You will be head of the Knight Protectors, Jordan! You must shed all weakness. People do not follow weakness. Hope will not acquiesce to weakness. Weakness invites pain. Weakness invites usurpation. Is that what you are? Weak?"

His words sparked something inside me - a white hot righteousness. I heard my child voice choke out with similar determination to Zarell's "I am a Cranden!" and somehow I managed to twist in his grip while wrapping my legs around his arm and kick off of his torso using my shoulder for leverage on the ground. This resulted in a rather messy roll with Zarell now on the ground having no way to prevent his fall at an angle since like any good battle master the maneuver did not result in his grip weakened in the slightest- but it did relieve my windpipe from its crushing force- and so he had no pillar of support on that direction and it resulted in me on top of him.

Zarell's grating laughter - as unpleasant as it was rare - filled the training grounds. "And so you are, my young prince. And so you are."
___________________

Ember had stopped walking rousing me from my memories. After the most recent domination by Beherit, I had left the battle ground and its accusations behind. I knew this episode would stay with me like the early ones. The weight on my conscience was jarring in the early years but over time one develops callouses. Lief's death was like those first, though - raw, provoking a crisis of self. I accepted the deeper emotions this provoked far faster than early on, however. I was at peace - or whatever broken emptiness robs one of their emotional reserve that I had convinced myself was peace.

The storm was now causing short bursts of gale-force winds to buffet Ember and me, but that was not why he stopped. A man stepped out of a nearby group of trees and hailed me. It was not Treig.

I walked Ember to within 20 feet and then dismounted. Ember looked on with the pupil-less eyes of his namesake while I approached. I stopped perhaps nearby but said nothing. I was no longer in my armor and Beherit was soul-sheathed for now.

"Beherdan, I have a proposition for you."

Before I continue, you must understand something first: one does not just casually mention Beherit. The former devil prince was a subordinate to Asmodeus, and challenged him for rule over the Nine Hells. Beherit lost. Few if any have ever seen my sword and lived to tell the tale, never mind knew it was sentient. Of the remote few that have survived or witnessed encounters with the sword and would make the connection, fewer still would know exactly what the sword housed. Either, this man had spent a great deal of time researching or he had insider knowledge from the Asmodi. In either case, my hackles rose. I could feel the chains writhing inside me like a coiled snake ready to not just spring but impale this man. I could feel Beherit's hunger.

I said nothing. I searched my memory for a prior encounter with him but found nothing. Like me, he had the pale skin and light coloring suggesting an old Aerdy heritage.

The man was practically cavalier in his tone. I'd say he was unafraid but that wouldn't accurately describe the situation. This man wasn't even deferential. Perhaps he did not know who I was, not entirely. But then he called me...he called us Beherdan. Regardless, for all of his research or knowledge, he exercised no caution. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or strike. "I would like you to bring the Gray Fox to me," he said.

No clarification was necessary. "Who are you?" I replied.

The man did not miss a beat: "My name is Darius Argosson. Please understand, I mean the Gray Fox no harm."

I recognized the family name - a minor Duchy of Urnst. But I did not know the connection he might have with Treig. I had only heard of the Gray Fox in passing - a soldier of fortune having developed a certain renown. I had now witnessed his prowess first hand on more than one occasion and to say he was proficient would grossly under represent this man's skill. As I identified in those first moments back in Greyhawk, Trieg, the Gray Fox - whatever one wanted to call him - was an assassin. He was ruthless, efficient, and did not trifle with mental and moral handicaps most self-impose.

My hackles did not lower. As with Lief delivering new orders to Treig in Diamond Lake, there was something off. How could anyone have known where to find us let alone this quickly? I didn't know I'd be here until a few hours ago!

As if reading my thoughts, Darius continued in a deflective way: "He has entered the Whispering Cairn, a place I cannot go. I can reward you for this service."

I was silent. The gathering supernatural storm began to intermittently release large rain droplets each making a loud 'thwack' sound as they hit the ground - or hissing sound as they hit Ember. I regarded this Darius Argosson. "If you are familiar with the Gray Fox, then you must also know that there is no 'forcing' him to do anything. I will pass along your message, but that is all. I need no reward."

Again, without missing a beat, Darius responded: "I accept. Perhaps I can assist you, then...on your trek inside. It's the least I could do, after all."

We established what precisely he was offering - a selection of spell effects that might aid me in entering the Cairn undetected, and I accepted. I would know if the spells he was casting were not what he proposed and if that happened...well, if that happened, I would let Beherit drink him. But true to his word, he made me invisible and cast a spell that would obfuscate my tracks.

The droplets were coming down more quickly now. I tied Ember to one of the trees using his fireproof reins and crested the next hill watching Darius melt back into the shadows from whence he came. I was not surprised to find a small kobold army amassing preparing an onslought. Shortly before Beherit had taken over earlier, I had heard Treig mention that reinforcements were on their way. While I wasn't concerned with a few handful of kobolds, a few hundred was another story. On top of the small army, there appeared to be several half dragon or dragon kin lieutenants corralling them. I looked beyond to see what was holding them up and spotted several bird men flying in the sky. They must have been the ones to summon the storm. Several lightning bolts lanced through the kobold ranks and my suspicions were confirmed.

As much as I savored exploiting these boons of magical stealth, leaving these bird men to fend off the army meant two things: I'd be leaving the outcome of the battle to fate - a vengeful and hateful mistress to me over the centuries - and I'd be trusting that whatever business Egan had in the Cairn was in good faith with the birdmen rather than provocative of their ire. Most importantly, the apparent single exit to the Cairn would be blocked - either by hostile green worm worshipers or these avian elemental defenders. I had to ensure the destruction of the army as well as allegiance with the guardians.

I used the magical protections to skirt the kobold force and approach the Cairn along its cliff face. I moved behind the birdmen and then, invisibly, simply walked into their ranks unannounced. I positioned myself in the direct center of their front line. They didn't hear me approach until I was within a few feet because of the noise from the storm. But hearing my armor and noting my invisibility, they thought me some sort of air elemental champion and a cheer went up among their ranks. I did nothing to dissuade them of this delusion. There is simply no way this would have worked without Darius's spells. Perhaps Lady Fate had given me a moment's respite.

The magi among the birdmen summoned a large Windwall that made the army's missiles useless. In addition, the wall closed off our primary front. At the urging of their lieutenant, a few kobolds tried to push through the wall and were unceremoniously launched into the sky amidst pulverizing debris. The impact of their return trip to the ground killed any that survived the flaying. The kobold army was reduced to approaching in near single file ranks from either end of the wall. Never the less, their dragonkin leaders adapted quickly and within moments had directed a few squadrons around the wall. They now numbered only in the dozens, but more waves were on their way.

My engagement with the first wave ended the invisibility. While this may have provoked surprise and wariness amidst the birdmen, it provoked terror amidst the kobolds. They didn't expect a devil to tread among them. Moreover, the guardians could not mistake my intent. I slaughtered kobolds by the handful. What few kobolds remained could not get past to me to the guardians' spellcasters. I was the second wall. Whether they liked their deceptive ally or not, my service to their cause was unmistakable.

This strategy was potential sustainable, but highly inefficient. I needed to take out their lieutenants. Kobolds are about as far from courageous as is possible. If I could remove the drivers, the army would disintegrate. What I needed was a duel. Make an example of one of the dragon men would frighten the other lieutenants into fleeing. As it turned out, the largest among them standing eye to me in my armor, with wings half again as wide as the creature was tall had the opposite idea. I was the only thing standing in the way of his army. If he could remove me, the kobolds would overwhelm the guardians and as soon as that wind wall went down...the battle was won.

Pity, the fool.

The black half dragon brought spells, acidic breath, and flight to bare against me. The creature was powerful, no doubt. After its initial ranged onslaught, rather than attempt recovery, I issued an Infernal challenge binding it to me...preventing its escape. It must of thought it had the upper hand as rather than attempt to break the spell, the creature continued the battle. Another wave of spells, and it closed the distance to drive its over-sized lance through my heart. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I unleashed Mephistopholes' chains and Beherit's eyes opened in unison. Each strike against me provoked a hellish rebuke. In horror the creature realized its error. But it was too late. Its only escape was to step into the Windwall and let its wings carry the creature to safety. But it had already sustained heavy damage from my attacks. Its hide was thicker than the kobolds but it was not enough. The debris knocked it unconscious. Rather than a controlled retreat, the unconscious half dragon was rocketed into the sky, its wings flayed to ribbons only to come crashing back to the ground. I had needed to make an example of this creature. To end the fight to quickly would not emphasize that even after the full weight of everything their most powerful could muster, there was no victory for them. The shattering of bone. The explosion of internal organs. My complete and utter victory was precisely the example that was needed. I retrieved the creatures lance - the symbol of his power. With measured tone, I held aloft and shouted my victory peaking with it being driven through the half dragon's ruined skull.

The kobold army fell into chaos. In moments, the second wave of kobolds had tossed their weapons away and fled, a few well placed lightning bolts from the avian magi exploding into the kobold ranks drove home their overwhelming defeat. Like dominoes, the further ranks fell apart, abandoning their lieutenants. The kobold army crumbled.

My exit was now secure and no matter what I looked like, there could be no mistaking my service to the guardians. I waited for one of their captains, who spoke common, and explained I needed to enter the Cairn to rejoin my allies. Allies was an exaggeration, of course, but the avian did not need to know this. He explained that two separate groups had gone in - the first was comprised of but a single individual. A man. That would be Egan. The second included three: a human, a half-elf, and an elf. That would be Treig and whomever he had met up with - perhaps allies of Egan? We mutually thanked one another and I was bid entrance. The captain pledged to continue guarding the entrance to the Whispering Cairn. With no organized force to stand against him and his magi, my second goal was now completed: my exit was now not only secure but guarded.

Now to find out more about these worms.
 
Gray Fox Journal: Heroes

It appeared that the circlet conferred to me more than insight into my own past. It also made me fluent in the language of the Wind Dukes. Something which would be arguably very important for anyone undertaking their quest. That person was not me. I am not a hero. That opportunity had escaped me long ago. Therefore the Circlet did not belong to me. I did what everyone would have done, I gave it to Rey. She would know what to do with it.

Removing the object was almost a relief. I no longer understood the bird-men and I was able to retreat back behind a veil of ignorance. The pain subsided a bit, but not much. Once you know the truth, you cannot hide from it. Rey donned it and took the Seal down to Seraph, leaving Jordan and I alone once again. I could tell that the man was suspicious of Rey carrying both the Rod and the Seal. Jordan was a pragmatic person and I understood his need to dilute risk. It would also stand to reason, then, that he knew why no one would trust him with the Rod.

“Treig, do you know a man named Darius,” he asked me nonchalantly. It seemed almost an afterthought to him.

I tried to control myself before I responded. The memories were playing havoc with my emotional equilibrium. “Yes I do. Why do you ask?”

“I met him outside the Cairn. He wanted me to bring you to him for a meeting.”

“So are you going to...bring me to him Jordan,” I asked cautiously. I felt my hand unconsciously reach towards my blade.

Jordan chuckled. “I doubt I could even if I wanted to. No, I merely said I would pass along the message. He emphasized that he meant you no harm, which means he intends to harm you.”

I felt the tension subsiding. Jordan was more perceptive than I gave him credit for.

“Who is he,” Jordan continued.

“An old associate of mine. We worked in the same mercenary company for some time. Came up through the ranks together, but he was eventually asked to leave. He became more of a liability than an asset.”

“I am curious about this lineage. Who were his parents,” Jordan pressed.

“Darius doesn’t have parents. He was spawned in the Abyss.”

Jordan nodded and politely let the topic drop. The timing seemed perfect as the adventuring group consisting of half-elven dragon royalty, a priestess of a mysterious tribe of wood elves, and a human sorcerer who would trade anything for power returned from their task. The two elven women wanted to leave the confines of the tomb, so Jordan and I convinced them to let one of the avian guardians hold the Rod within the boundaries of the Cairn until they returned. It took some convincing, but eventually they all agreed. I too wanted to feel the sun on my face so my plan was to take a short hike as well. That is until all pandemonium broke loose.

We were at the entrance to the Whispering Cairn when it happened. I felt something was wrong before I saw the reality around me begin to shift. Etona’s and Egan’s eyes seemed to glaze over, staring at something beyond my perception. The wood elf began to howl like an animal and tear at her clothes as Egan wondered further into the Cairn babbling about the beauty of ancient architecture. I was going to intervene, but Rey was already on them. She leapt atop Etona, pinning her to the ground as she grabbed Egan’s arm and kept him from wandering deeper into the tomb. That left only Jordan and I to face the real threat: Darius Argosson. His appearance hadn’t changed, but I knew he had sunk deeper into madness. He had also clearly grown in strength. Previously, he had dabbled in dark magic, but bending space and time was not something he had mastered when I traveled with him. As I studied Darius, it dawned on me why Jordan was asking me about his family. The two men had the same complexion and facial structure. I am not sure why I didn’t notice it before. Perhaps it was because I really wanted to forget Darius and all the memories that came with him.

He smiled wickedly as he surveilled his work. It was obvious that he did not feel threatened by us even in the slightest. “The Gray Fox! It is so good to see you again. It seems as though you have made some new friends.” He looked over the group casually. “I have already met Jordan, but these other three I am not familiar with.”

Whether sensing Rey’s unease or predicting it from his calculated actions, Darius focused his attention on her. “Did you know that Gray Fox and I worked together? We worked in the same Company. We were brothers in arms.”

I felt the blood drain from my hand as my fist clenched tightly. This must not register on an emotional level. It is what he wants. Captain Darius Argosson. Head of Counterintelligence. He called it Enhanced Interrogation. I call it torture.

“The Gray Fox,” he said pointing at me, “used to have an army. Undefeated on the field of battle. He has never failed at a mission. But in his heart, he is a loner. That is probably why he couldn’t protect his men. Now look at him. He does simple tasks for small men. He hasn’t seen the big picture yet!”

I could taste the blood pooling in my mouth. Never strike in anger Unit 43.

“I am an agent of chaos. A true instrument of our multiverse’s will! Do you know the history of the Seul? Let me tell it to you. They were a powerful civilization that lived thousands of years ago and one day vanished overnight. This event was termed the Rain of Colorless Fire. It changed the world forever.”

Keep him talking. “Is that why you allied yourself with Dragotha?”

“Of course! It was the shortest path to my objective. You taught me that Gray Fox,” he said with a sneer.

I am not sure whether that nickname was deserved. Many men died in the completion of our objectives. If I was truly the Gray Fox, I would have conceived of a way to succeed without human casualty. Darius’ was well deserved, however. No one would dare openly say it to his face, but we all knew it. Mindbender.

“Although I am an outsider to the dragonborn, this alliance puts me in close proximity to their master: Kyuss. Did you notice how his name sounds similar to chaos? Change is coming to this world. Real change and I will place my mark upon it. It is inevitable Gray Fox. You can be on the crest of the wave or in its path. The choice is yours, but either way we will meet again.” A portal opened behind him as he spoke.

“I leave you with this final gift to do with as you choose. The ring that Jordan took from the body of Ithane is a magical device that allows communication with Dragotha. A boon and a curse. While you may speak to the dragon, it will know where you are. What a dilemma for you all,” he cackled as he vanished.

I gave Jordan a steely look.

The madness seemed to follow Darius. Both Etona and Egan regained their sanity as he left. The group discussed what to do thereafter. Egan insisted that the information I had brought him be taken to Magepoint, home of the Archmage Tenser. Yes, that one. There he might also have some insight into what to do with the Rod fragment. Most thought it was a logical next step and asked the Aarakocra for their aid. Seraphs guardians agreed to use their powers to transport us to our destination in the morning. Unable to relax, we all dealt with the stress our circumstances in different ways. Rey went hunting with Obi, Etona put herself into a trance, Egan studied his Codex, Jordan groomed his hellish mount, and I took up guard duty. Being alone afforded me the chance to think about all that had transpired. I used the Stone Councilman Chozik had given me to make contact.

I have completed my objective. The package has been successfully delivered as instructed.

Good, came the response. What of our secondary objectives. Did you secure any artifacts from the Cairn?

Yes. I will send it along. As agreed upon, transfer the Deed to my name and deliver a copy to Keth at the Fox and Hound. This is the end of our contract. If I discover that you have not met your obligations, I will look for you. And I will find you.

I didn’t give the Councilman a chance to reply before activating the Stone’s true power. It crumbled into dust before my eyes leaving a small tear in space. I dropped the gem I took from the kobold shaman into the portal. Good enough for the likes of him.
_________________________________

I was enjoying a fine cigar while watching Rey skin and spit a deer when I caught the scent of brimstone. Normally this wouldn’t have been alarming but it was coming downwind and Jordan was behind me. Devils wrapped in spiked chains appeared in front of the Cairn’s entrance, while their Osyluth companions cut off our escape. One of the Kytons stepped forward and spoke in its native tongue.

“Give us the Rod,” it commanded.

I tried to buy some time so we could mobilize for a counteroffensive. “You are outmatched Devil. Our forces vastly outnumber yours.”

It did not react, probably more worried about what the Arch-Devil who sent it here would do to it if it failed in its task. That’s when Jordan stepped forward in his summoned fiendish armor.

“Fools! Who sent you here on this mission,” Jordan demanded in flawless Infernal.

The Kytons did not respond immediately but paused in their advance.

“The item has already been secured. I am in the midst of disposing of the pawns I used to get it and returning to the Lord of Nine Hells. Do you dare interfere with Asmodeus plans?!”

The devils seemed shaken. Even I started to believe him.

Without a word, the entire ambush party vanished in a burst of flame. The smell of sulfur lingered in the air.

“We need to leave soon,” Jordan said. “The bureaucracy of the Nine Hells is slow, but it does work. We have maybe a day before they return in force.” I could see the fear in his eyes.

It was a reflex. I broke down the camp as I did hundreds of times before, giving orders and directing logistics. By the time I realized what I had done, everyone was assembled and ready to be transported to Magepoint. I was about to apologize to everyone, when Rey interrupted me. She had wordlessly extended her hand. In it she held the Circlet.

“If you are going to be a part of this group, you really need to stop blending in.”

I smiled despite myself and placed the Circlet on my head. I had only a moment to feel the change come over me again before we vanished in a flash of light.
_______________________________________________

I had heard of Magepoint only through the rumors of drunken merchants. No soldier would dare approach the sleepy village, as it was under the direct protection of Tenser, a member of the Circle of Eight. His associates included Melf, Bigby, and even Mordenkainen. This was a man not to be trifled with. I despised going into negotiations without leverage, but we didn’t have time on our side.

We appeared at the edge of the village, the treeline behind us and the placid lake ahead. A narrow bridge spanned from the shore and led to a small island atop which stood the Castle of Unknown Depths. Magepoint lived up to its name. Our teleportation spell was directed to specific location, where a wizened old gnome awaited us in a booth with the word “Information” written in magical glyphs above him. I read it in Common, but I was fairly certain that the letters would change to whatever language the visitor was most comfortable speaking.

“May I help you,” he asked us. He barely looked up from the parchment he was scribbling on.

I stepped forward and tried to inject some urgency into his day. “It is imperative that we meet with Archmage Tenser at his earliest convenience. We have with us powerful artifacts that he will wish to inspect immediately.”

“Name,” the gnomed persisted. He seemed completely unphased by my declaration. I was unsure how much weight my name carried, so instead I opted to use Rey. “This is Rey, the Dragonspeaker.”

The gnome looked up quizzically. I could see that he had no idea who she was. “And whom does she serve?”

“Seraph,” I replied.

Still nothing.

The gnome took his spectacles off and placed them on the desk. “Lord Tenser entertains a number of powerful guests. At the moment he is indisposed. Please make yourself at home in the All-Seeing Eye, our local inn. There you will be contacted by a woman named Celeste.”

“What does she look like?”

The gnome opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to change his mind. Instead he held his arm aloft and conjured a perfect image of the woman he wanted us to meet.

This was getting interesting.
________________________

It turned out that Celeste was not the only person waiting for us. She was accompanied by Elgios, which seemed like an impossibility, since Jordan assured me that he was murdered. Apparently Celeste recovered his body in Greyhawk and brought it to Magepoint, whereupon the sage was resurrected by Tenser’s personal High Priest: a man by the name of Agath. Not a bubbly priest of Pelor, mind you. This guy reminded me of a Priestess of Wee Jas I once knew. All business. Another of Tenser’s consorts, a woman by the name of Cymria, was also there. She invited us to stay in the castle and await the Archmage’s return. Etona and Rey had little interest in staying indoors for the day, but when it was discovered that the inner courtyard was populated by a forest of Redwoods, that changed. Jordan and Egan quickly disappeared into the local library to gather knowledge that had eluded their grasp thus far. I enjoyed the solitude, even for a brief moment.

Time passed quickly and it wasn’t long before we were summoned by Tenser to his inner sanctum. The room was exactly as I had imagined it. Egan was beside himself as we waited for the Archmage to join us.

“Look at this,” Egan squealed as he pointed to a Dragonchess board. “I saw this exact configuration in Allustan’s office. He never moved the pieces and I always wondered why he kept it around. It must be an ongoing game between him and Tenser!”

The board was arrayed in mid-game. Clearly one side was being dominated. But not defeated. I moved a piece almost without thought. It seemed like the most logical step to take back ground. It was quite a gambit, but with so much lost there was no going back. Always forward.

I was not sure how long Tenser had been standing there, but if he was irate with my impertinence, he gave no sign. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but I heard you were looking for me. What can I do for you?”

Since no one immediately spoke up, I gave a detailed report on the events that had transpired in Greyhawk and Diamond Lake. Rey, not one for much conversation, pulled the Rod fragment out of her backpack and slammed it down upon the Archmage’s desk. I thought in that moment, all of our lives had ended. Even the mighty Tenser looked to be in awe of the artifact in front of him. Whatever insult we had delivered was lost on his amazement.

“Then the Age of Worms is upon us,” he whispered. “Balakard was not mad after all.”

“It is a dangerous artifact Lord Tenser,” I said.

“Indeed Treig. Do you know what this is?” He did not wait for my response before continuing. “This is the keystone piece of the Rod of Seven Parts. It is the largest of all the fragments. This means that all other parts of the Rod are attracted to this one. Making it the most powerful.”

“We have brought it to you for safekeeping.”

“That is not the only reason you are here, is it Treig? You are here because there are no coincidences.”

“Sir,” I asked with genuine confusion.

“Over the last few years, prophecies foretold over a thousand years past have come to be. Kyuss’ legacy endures. He was an inhabitant of the Amedio jungle far to the south. There he built a following of worshippers that were sacrificed for his ascension to Godhood. The grim edifice of his unholy transformation, known as the Spire of Long Shadows, remains to this day. A colleague of mine, Balakard, went to explore these ruins some time ago. He returned with some of his research, but alas has gone missing.”

“How does any of this help us destroy Dragotha,” Rey interjected.

“I am not entirely sure,” Tenser replied. “However, if this Dragotha is an agent of Kyuss the answers may lie far to the south.”

“With all due respect Lord Tenser, our group is not comprised of heroes. I would even go so far as to say a few of us are very far from it. This expedition sounds extremely dangerous with a possibility of yielding very little actionable information. Every instinct I have tells me that this is not an intelligent decision. To be frank, I am not even sure why I am here now.”

The archmage smiled. “And yet here you are. You are here because you are lost and are in search of something greater than yourself. You have been wondering, trying to hide from it. But there is no escaping what you are. These people that you have arrived with are not strangers to you Treig. They are your comrades. Men and women woven together by destiny. What you seek cannot be bought. It is something beyond the grasp of most, but directly before you now. What you seek is purpose. It is knocking at your door. Will you answer? Many lives will depend on your choices.”

I sighed and lit another cigar. “I don’t speak for everyone. We will have to discuss this before we can give you an answer. But I can say this, we don’t work for free.”

“I never said you were stupid,” Tenser replied with a grin. “What will you need?”

“Magic. Lots of magic.”
 
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Gray Fox Journal: Heart of Darkness

It took some doing, but the group finally managed to reach consensus on what our immediate path forward should be. Everyone decided that exploration of the ancient city far to the south where Kyuss was believed to have amassed his power was the logical decision. It was obvious, even to Jordan. But the ancient knight couldn’t help but inject complication into the plan by insisting that assembling the Rod of Seven Parts should be our priority. His conspiracy theory was quite extensive and took nearly an hour to explain, threatening to draw us away from the task at hand. I waited until he was done before informing him that leaving the Rod with the Archmage Tenser was a part of the plan to draw enemies off of our trail while we gathered more information on Kyuss. It would be foolish to fight the Wormgod’s minions while tangling with the Nine Hells over the artifact.

“Do you play Dragonchess Jordan,” I asked him.

“I must admit it has been some time since I enjoyed the game. Why do you ask Treig,” Jordan responded.

“Often novices to the Game will protect their most powerful piece at the expense of victory, believing that it will grant them dominance in the later stages of the conflict. We are merely in the Opening now. Temporarily leaving the Rod with Tenser is part of the larger plan to achieve exactly what you are hoping for.”

Jordan raised an eyebrow. “Very well.”

Negotiations with Tenser were much less stressful. He agreed to nearly every request we had. It was obvious that the Age of Worms prophecy was a priority for him. That had me a bit concerned. GIven the enemy we would face and the environment we would be subjected to, we needed specific weaponry, countermeasures, and knowledge. Also, we would have to start working as a team and not separate entities that did not trust one another. Tenser provided his castle to be our base of operations, allowing us to research the Amedio jungle, repurpose our equipment, add suitable items to our inventory, and train with each other. We were even able to gain more companions on our expedition: Verdre and Kio. Verdre was Etona’s cousin and a battle-hardened druid. Kio, a student of Tenser’s, was no longer human.

“I assumed that given the type of adversaries you would be facing, it might be wise to bring individuals who would not be subject to necrotic transformation. Kio,” the archmage said as he introduced the mechanised man, “has had his spirit transferred into a construct. Consciousness in the Inanimate is not new. My time on Mechanus has greatly advanced my research.” Tenser then looked over to Rey. “I understand that you have an owlbear that travels with you. If you wish it, I could perform the same ritual I used on Kio. I doubt she would fare well where you are planning to go.”

“Once you...transfer Obi’s spirit into this object, what will happen to her body,” Rey asked hesitantly.

“We would keep her body in stasis until your return,” Tenser responded.

“What if her new body was...destroyed,” Rey continued.

“There is a phylactery embedded into the constructs that houses the spirit. It can be removed and if returned to me intact, I will be able to perform the ritual to regraft it back to its original host.”

A ghost in the machine.

The archmage had Cymeria give a seminar on the composition and maintenance of constructs. I made everyone attend. In addition we ran military drills every morning. The rest of the the time went by quickly. I spent a large portion of it learning all I could about our destination by attending scrying sessions, speaking with sages, and doing my own research in the library. I also worked with Etona and Verdre to develop a silent signaling system based off of their homeland’s native language. This would allow us to communicate without alerting our enemy.

When the day finally came for us to travel to Kuluth-Mar, we were ready. Well, almost. I had one last piece of business before we were transported. I tried to see Tenser after his meeting with some ambassadors from Mechanus. Apparently they had a piece of the Rod on their plane and were enthusiastic, as much as automatons can be, to verify that the largest piece had been found by one of their allies. Tenser confirmed that it was true and even gave our group the credit for discovering the artifact.

After bidding the Inevitables a good journey, the archmage turned to me.

“What can I do for you Treig.”

“I know that you have given much already, but I have one last personal request. If I survive this expedition, I would like you to use your contacts in Greyhawk to secure me the position of Master of Games. It has recently become available.”

The wizard smiled. “I can think of no one better suited for the task than you.”

“I am glad to hear you say that.”
__________________________

The sickening sensation of falling into an endless void was quickly replaced by the oppressive humidity of the jungle. We had arrived as the sun began to set, per our elven companions. Etona and Verdre insisted that we journey at dusk to obscure our approach. Everyone was on edge, including Jordan. He had summoned his infernal armor almost immediately, sensing the gravity of our situation. Cymeria had transported us to the exact point we had tasked for her. Hard to do, even for a mage of her talents. Kio scanned the surrounding area before we embarked.

“Sixty life forms detected. All entities native to the environment.”

“What about those that are not native,” I asked.

“No such entities detected in range.”

He wasn’t very comforting.

As we had practiced in simulation, some of our group scouted ahead to ensure the path forward was clear of enemies while the rest took defensive positions around our most vulnerable members. It didn’t take long to find the ruins of the ancient city. The ziggurat was the only structure still standing, surrounded by an obsidian wall over thirty feet tall. For a moment, the landscape melted away and reformed. We were standing in the ancient necropolis watching thousands of Kyuss’ zealots chant his name as he sat in a throne atop his spire. And then just as quickly as the vision came, it was gone.

We approached cautiously, dodging parties of roving trolls and Yuan-ti, the savage snake people often spoke of in lore. Upon the dark barrier encircling the spire was a phrase in draconic which was repeated over and over: “Kyuss forever bound.” Apparently a group of very powerful magi, the Wardens of the First Watch, sealed Kyuss and his followers within the structure long ago. The secrets to his past are within for any brave enough to face them.

Scaling the wall was a simple matter. We did so with mundane means as I was worried our group was becoming too reliant on magical enhancements. Always leave yourself a way out. While atop the wall, Etona, Rey, and Verdre circled the perimeter while I kept an eye on the remaining party. The mechanized Obi also stayed, given that she was no longer very silent. Frankly, I felt more comfortable with a steel owlbear guarding my back.

I saw it before I heard it. The chittering screams of giant worm-infested beetles scurrying back towards the ziggurat. Something had gone wrong. Instinctively I moved towards the elves, but stopped and held my position when I saw what they had called to their aid: an undead knight. It summoned the beetles and leapt atop one of them as one would a steed. The knight hadn’t moved his forces before a silver streak cut through the dark and severed the worm-ridden leg from his pelvis. Etona.

The divine power seemed to play havoc with both the knight and the beetle, but they recovered quickly. Despite the lack of an appendage and a grievously wounded mount, the knight pulled himself back on and rode towards the elves. Egan was saying something.

“Should I make a distraction to get their attention?”

“What did you have in mind,” I replied distracted.

Just then a thunderstorm formed inside the compound. Ozone filled the air and thunder echoed through the forest. I turned on the warlock in horror. What have you done?!

“What about that,” Egan exclaimed in triumph.

“Probability of survival has dramatically diminished,” Kio intoned.

I agreed with him. Our chances had been altered. The only good news was that our sniper was doing serious damage to our foes. So much so that they took refuge behind the remnants of a collapsed building. The stone prevented Etona from getting a clean shot, which meant that we would have to get this done on the ground. I looked over to Jordan, who had murder in his eyes. I think he was very close to letting the devil take control of him and collect Egan’s soul. Though I am not sure he would get it. Apparently Egan has promised it to a number of entities already. Either way, we had to get off this wall or whatever was in the jungle was going to finish what the spawns of Kyuss did not. I tried to diffuse the situation and move forward with a sound strategy, so I pushed Egan off the wall. I am not ashamed to say that it felt good.

Like the rest of us, he floated to the ground unscathed. The amulets given to us by the aarakocra let us ride the wind unharmed. We hit the ground softly with surprise. The earth shifted under our feet, green worms breaking the surface and burrowing back down again. Maybe Etona had the right idea after all. I tried to ignore the disgust roiling in my stomach and kept moving us forward. That’s when Jordan activated his ring. We were immediately surrounded by a field of ancient spirits, I imagine his ancestors. The ghosts burned away the worms, clearing a path of protection for us as we moved to intercept the guardians hiding within the courtyard.

We fell upon the wounded beetles violently. At this point, Rey had joined us on the ground and quickly moved within Jordan’s protective circle. She had a front row seat to Jordan’s savagery. Once both insects came into contact with his protective field, it melted right through their carapaces. Jordan leapt upon them, tearing them open with his burning gauntleted fists. It sounded like an egg cracking and the sight of all those wriggling worms spewing out of the broken body was enough to almost make me sick. I’ve been in dozens of battles, seen men do unspeakable things to one another. I would carry this scene in my nightmares for all time.

Despite my nausea, we were doing quite well. Our only foe was hiding within the ruins of an old building, his allies completely annihilated. So why did I still feel so uneasy? Almost as if in response to my question, the universe showed me. From the entrance of the ziggurat, two more creatures appeared. Over seven feet tall, with pale skin, and draped within rotten feathered wings. They held aloft blades made of dark stone. Where their eyes once rested now protruded green worms. Once the most noble of all creatures of the multiverse, now reduced to thralls of Kyuss. Suddenly the phrase “Goddamn it” really had meaning.
 
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In the past: Verdre unconscious at the Great Tree of Rishkar's tribe

Verdre is unconscious in the nursery of Rishkar’s tribe, having called forth her Mistress’ radiant wrath from deep inside herself. She collapses with a curse to Sehanine on her lips.

She is panting in a shallow pool of hot water.

“Do you think I do not know your heart, girl?”

The voice is caustic but familiar. It is her own but layered with the unmistakable five tones of Sehanine-in-dream.

Her eyes snap open. She is in a smoky place, humid, surrounded by eggs and crawling green worms. Immediately she sits up and sets to blasting them with Moonbeams, shattering some of the eggs. Each cracks open with a tiny dying elf inside. She stares: a wiry Etona with short, black hair. Another is pale, willowy Etona with long, silver hair. Others are child Etonas and baby Etonas, all dying.

“The humans have an ironic saying,” the voice continues. “You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Now an Etona in front of her is me’ara inra, her sister-in-law, Etona’s mother Fiora. Verdre’s closest friend until she died giving birth to her holy daughter.

A twin of herself is perched atop a huge black egg in her peripheral vision. It had been filling the back part of the room, only it is not an egg when she looks at it directly: it is a throne gleaming silver and platinum though the base is black, black with pinpoints and flares and trails of everything in the heavens. The throne from fae tales forgotten by her own tribe long ago. Seeing it now makes her think she is in a ghastly and nonsensical play, and expected to say her lines correctly.

This other Verdre, atop the throne, looks down at her body. She runs her hands across herself. “Mmm, I like this one. So much stronger than little Etona’s. And so full of wrath and the self-righteousness of loss. You do not know loss, girl.” She hops down. “Listen.”

It had been there the entire time, a faint thrumming. Now it grows louder. It is rhythmic, the sound of a hundred staves hitting a stone floor in a vast cavern, the mighty sound echoing. After every few thrummms bellows a crowd, “i’YOOSS!” or something like that word. It wasn’t one she knew. The terrible sound is all around. Sehanine-as-Verdre, who was strolling in a circle around the chamber idly dragging her finger along the wall, completes the full circuit. Below her trace, the room abruptly falls away tumbling into a milky pool beneath Verdre’s feet. It shrinks to nothingness only to reappear as a growing shape: a round hub at the center of eight endless lines of people, thousands of them, every species she’s ever heard of and more, each holding a staff, pounding it in time and shouting that word, which she hears more clearly now: “KYUSS!”

Every one of them is afflicted with dark green wriggling worms poking out from all over their bodies.

At the center of all this is a seven-foot man adorned in gold and also holding a staff, but his is not mere wood: it is black, oily, its surface undulating. As she stares, each of its folds gives off dark purple sparks where they touch, and in each spark she sees entire worlds.

The figure looks up at the two of them, or rather, at Sehanine whose eyes, Verdre is alarmed to see, are wide with fear.

“Mistress!” she calls.

There is abruptly silence below. Verdre looks back, and the figure is just a bow’s length away. Sehanine is transfixed.

Verdre runs to … now Sehanine-as-Etona … and steps in front of her.

“Mistress, Etona! You must snap out of it. Mistress!”

But Sehanine-as-Etona looks on with a dead expression.

Verdre whirls to the eyes, catches their gaze and glares back.

“You face me now, Abyss spawn,” she says. “But I have already won. I lend my will to yss’awara, the Way of Things. I am part of the Way; I can fight forever. I will fight you forever.”

The figure stares fully at Verdre now. It is rot and despair, the relentlessness of every living thing decaying, its body corrupting to spawn writhing insects. It says nothing.

“I do not fear death,” Verdre replies to the void in its eyes. “When I die, from my body springs the world. You mimic the Way of Things. You have already lost.”

The black figure dissolves leaving behind delighted laughter bouncing around the room. Female laughter from behind her.

Verdre turns back around to see Sehanine-as-Tamyl, leader of the Children of the Mirror, standing tall over her.

“Good,” the goddess continues, nodding. “Soon, you will likely die for your cousin. If you last long enough, you will die for me. It is this sacrifice will hasten the defeat what we face, Verdre. This enemy of all life does not know the Way of Things. We will teach Him.”

“Who is he?”

“His avatar is Kyuss, but it is only His latest servant. You know the master as the Green Man. Yes, real, and more dangerous than demon lords and arch devils against whom they are angry ants on a volcano. The Green Man cannot be defeated by mortals or even a posse of gods tied merely to a handful of worlds.

“But that is not our task today. Today, His avatar is the one we must overcome. He is the obstacle placed by the universe and I must pass him on, a disease to kill my own children. I will watch you die. It will shrivel a part of me, but this is what love calls us to do. It is why others a thousand years hence and perhaps worlds away will continue the fight against the master, because we gave everything, here, this day, to fell a servant.

“You and Etona and noble Fiona and Skaen: all of you, my brave children, are here.” She brings the two fingers from each hand up to her temple and bends forward, pressing her forehead against Verdre’s.

A splash of images: her tribe, the shining lake of the Mirror and the beautiful forest around it; laughter from friends and family seen through one another’s eyes. She recognizes every scene, every face.

But in a single wind they become blackened ruin. Shambling, ever-hungry and dead, everyone she ever knew rove about mindlessly, creaking and writhing; Kyuss a tower above them, a temple shaped like a cactus behind him. In the sky, Her Radiant Regard, the full moon, blotches with black pools until it is blotted out completely becoming an oily sphere of corruption. She cannot breathe, her bones become brittle and crack, she withers and, with a final gasp of utter loss, she dies.

The goddess withdraws. “Do you see?” Sehanine-as-Fiora says.

Verdre falls to her feet, head on the floor in front of her. “I am a cawing crow,” She feels rare tears flow. “Please forgive me.”

A hand on her shoulder. It slides under her chin and gently pulls up her gaze to Her own. It is Sehanine Herself. The Moon Goddess. Creator of her own people.

“My Verdre. I know your heart. I desired your understanding, for with it comes your love. Rise now. I have restored my blessing to you. Return to your cousin but tarry on the way. You will know where.”

“Mistress?”

“A last question?”

“Yes. Can you not slay this enemy? Not Kyuss, but his master?”

“I and my infinite sisters and brothers must come together. That is far ahead. The quarry this night,” she calls out, “is the one in front of you now. Fell foul Kyuss and all who derive strength from him, and I will have voice for the Great Hunt to come.”

Around Verdre her entire tribe, Etona in front, stand with her. They have, she suddenly understands, been there all along.

“Go,” says Sehanine, towering now and glowing brighter and brighter, becoming the moon. “Lead. Fall if you must, but take our quarry to ground.”

***

She wakes up in the ancient tree housing Rishkar’s people. Etona smiles over her.

“Were you–?” Verdre begins.

“Yes.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“We must not fail,” Verdre asserts.

Etona curls up onto her, burying her head in the crook of her aunt’s neck. Verdre realizes she has been there already some time.

“We won’t,” she whispers in reply.

We might, my darling Etona, she thinks. But you will not. You have never known how.
 
Journal of Etona - 22

There was a portal just inside a room laden with statues that were statues only if one spoke a magic word to them, otherwise they were swift engines of destruction. I sometimes have a little trouble with names, so I will not try to reproduce the word here in case I am trebly: wrong, unaware of being wrong, and in dire need of speaking it. Fortunately the other three seem to know it, so I can concentrate on other things.

Before we went through the portal, Rey and the two humans had a fruitless adventure in the adjoining chamber, opening doors to unpleasant surprises, one of them a passage to the Elemental Plane of Ice or Snow or Cold. Then there was ice and lava and a monster and peril and everyone needed to get back to the sealed-off room I was in, and controlling the door to, before they died. Jodan, the cursed human who is chained to Hell in some way, was last to exit by several strides. As they were rushing back to me I saw that I could, and very nearly did, close the door on him, un-openable from his side. He probably would have died there and the world would be minus one devil’s pawn.

But I did not do that.

I look back on it and wonder why I let him through, aside from a sharp “Etona!” from Rey. But there was a second where he and I made eye contact. He saw it, the struggle in my eyes, saw me release the handle but catch it before it dropped the bars more than hand span.

Why let him live?

My Mistress has done this to me before: ordered me to save a monster, in that case one who had killed and eaten a human child. I had to step between an angry mob – some of them in my own party – and that feral man to demand that he live. Live he did. I lost track of him soon after and was unable – in my subsequent banishment from the Mirror – to ask my people to keep an eye on him.

Everything about that was unfair. She is unfair, but it is because life is that way, and you must make your own rules. I have always believed that Her love for us, for merely for being alive, is unfair to Her, but She must do it anyway. So from time to time She visits wrath upon us, upon me. It is no more or less than the will of the universe.

For Jodan, I hear no such voice whispering in my ears to save the devil-man. But my vision was unequivocal: light the way for this creature from another game board; be the guiding moonlight for the battled-scarred courier; try to save Eager the Unwise; and of course, shine for my sister-dragon, Rey.

***

The portal opened to a cavern that was open and spacious but hundreds of fathoms deeper into the earth. A shadowy figure who could see all of us sat on a rock. He was unmoving until he spoke the name of each of our races. Morato, the ghoul.

He doesn’t wear the classic ghoul look: he seems like any ordinary, if quite still and pale, man. Undead to be sure: the scent of undeath is always obvious, at least to my kind. He hails, he says, from the White City, an undead metropolis that is well-enough known for there to be stories even we Mirror elves have told our children for generations. His own tale was one of banishment from there, a trajectory that has him sweeping the world for knowledge.

“What knowledge?” I asked.

“All, eventually. I am a seeker of knowledge.”

“Admirable, from a living being. From one such as you, I must know your motive.”

“I am no danger to the people you protect, priestess. I have always been a collector of lore, mathematics, magicks. The Raven Queen would end me and my pursuits for no other reason than she can – how could I help being born a short-lived human? – but she is not the only god and hers is the not the only law, and so I continue but in undeath.”

“Morato, sir,” says Trifle, changing the subject. “Do you have the book?”

“It is here.” Morato points to it on a rock next to him. “It is sealed with runes making it untouchable and thus un-carryable, but you may take it, if you can,” says Morato. “… if you also aid me in destroying Flycatcher and securing my passage past all the traps in this place.”

“And if we don’t have that on our agenda?” our courier returns.

“Then I will have to deal with all this myself which will take a very long time. Tedious. And you will not have the tome you seek.”

I glance at Rey and Treacle with a pass of my fingers across Angivre. They correctly read my question: Why do we not simply rid the world of this creature?

Rey narrows her eyes, considering. It is not her first choice. Trireme’s reaction is much stronger, shaking his head and mouthing "No." He is staring into my eyes, faced away from the ghoul. Jodan has merely raised an eyebrow: I don’t think incidental violence matters to him.

Why have Treig’s opinions begun to matter to me? He has some charisma, I grant that. His fellow cuille temoer undoubtedly follow him whenever he leads: he is calm, commanding, casually menacing, and above all, competent. I expect he comes from some human military organization.

Since there is depth to him, I tuck away my bow in a symbolic gesture that also refuses, this time, my Mistress’s standing commandment to aid the Raven Queen and smite all the undead I meet. My Shining Lady’s alliance with the Grey Lady is well-known to most, but the Queen’s tasks are not specifically ours here in the Fade, and my Mistress would have us above all follow Her own missives. Among them is orei orest, “let shadows be shadows”, and of course, be curious.

Very well.

“We will not kill Flycatcher unless he attacks us,” I say. “Otherwise, yes, we must have this tome and so we will aid you.”

He agrees, and the tension that evidently I was causing leaves the room.

Morato turns conversational: he asks us questions about the surface, the Age of Worms and the undead it seems to be producing. Jodan and … Treig respond. Yes, I will remember his name now. Anyway, the ghoul reassures us that the hunger most undead carry around does not burden him.

We show him the portal back up, invisible to any who don’t know exactly where to look. At the top, he offers magick to float around. Everyone accepts but me. I prefer to use – what did Rey say in trying to get a smile out of me? – Obi Express.

At the top, before we enter Flycatcher’s chamber, Jodan and Treig create a fake tome for the exchange. The deception cannot be helped: we must retain the real tome for the time being, and we cannot explain this to the spider-being. After some planning, it is decided that Treig will make the trade. Jodan will be out of range, Morato out of the scene entirely, Rey with Treig, and me creeping in carefully to monitor and react to whatever happens next.

Treig takes my Twilight, a stone onto which I have placed the light of quenae sehan, light of Her full face. This will be important in a moment.

“You have returned!” we hear the voice of Flycatcher when we enter his hall again.

“Yes, we have the satchel,” returns Treig.

“Excellent! There is a niche in the wall.”

“No deal. No exchange until we have confirmation that Egan is unharmed.”

Eager appears, wrapped in something black. He is bound, only his eyes are visible.

“That could be anyone. Release him first.”

The coil of darkness releases.

“’Oo is that?” Eager points at Treig. “And where’s that spider thing? I’m loathe ta tangle wit’ it again.”

“We are here, and you are safe for now,” says Rey, calming him. He looks at me and I nod my confirmation.

“I formally deliver this to you, Egan,” says Treig passing him a small parcel. “My task is complete.” Still floating, he takes the satchel with the false tome in it over to a door to the south, one we have not been through. Beyond is a small room with Vati runes, small statues and a niche with a little altar. Treig tosses the bag into the niche.

“As I suspected,” Flycatcher says almost immediately, “You do not return to me the tome!”

I suppose we will need to do this the hard way.

I open my mouth to speak – I would like to talk this out – but Treig flicks his cigar at where he thinks Flycatcher is. This elicits a curse from the invisible creature. Rey floats over and manages to stab the invisible creature outright, revealing it.

A drider. Half Drow, half spider. I had heard of such things – we all of us of the Mirror had, of course – but only a handful had ever seen one.

What a twisted mess. Would I do this to myself in utter obeisance to my own Mistress of Shadows, if demanded? Then again, what is a body but a tool? We are all soil, in the end. This, our druids impress on us daily.

And yet, look at it: black and twisted, a mashup of two utterly unlike creatures. And too many legs!

And yet, and yet, is that not how I thought of Obi, merely a monster?

The shadowy webs writhe and wave around us, and then I feel one become a part of this world. They are also crawling up Eager. With a word, I summon a flash of Her purifying light. The tendrils fall to ash, the webs that were still shadows simply cease to be.

We fight Flycatcher. Treig is all over the creature: he seems bound up with it somehow. It tries to fade out over and over again but the stone imbued with the light of Her full face seems to be preventing this. Blinded from another small explosion from Treig, and deafened as well, he should have been an easy mark but I could not raise Angivre’s arquae. My intuition all along was not to kill Flycatcher, and My Mistress appears to agree.

It retreats into the altar room, all advantage lost, Treig attached to it stabbing with multiple adept dagger strikes and grapples. Before I could summon the wits to stop the melee, he and Rey have killed it. Truly I do not know what I would have said to it had we not slain it, but I feel something would have come to me. It always has.

Eager waxes chatty to Rey after the creature dissolves into darkness upon its death. We release Moreto who leaves us, heading for Greyhawk. They will be one another’s problem now.

“So what is your interest in Egan?” Rey asks Jodan, all protective of the magician.

“Kyuss, the worms, the undead. He,” pointing to Eager, “is the wizard I have been led to from wizard before and the wizard before that. He is the last one in the chain who might have information. Additionally, his dealings with the Asmodi – the nature of the pact, what he gave up, what he learned – are also valuable in my quest.”

“Which is?” I ask.

“Ah. Yes,” the human replies. “A long time ago, my wife-to-be died from the green worms. At the peak of my madness as I watched this play out in front of me, I was offered a choice – keep living and be cured, or join her in death. I chose to live. Beyond simply wanting to be alive, I had responsibilities. But I would come to know that this choice led to suffering something worse than worms. I am cursed instead, and by the Lord of Hell himself.”

“How long have you been in this state?”

“Centuries.”

“What drives you to continue? Or are you unable to die now?”

“Oh, this physical form could be destroyed, of that I have ample proof assembled through the countless years. But I would remain in torment. So I intend to slay my tormentor with the Rod of Seven Parts, the very weapon I need, with which I can destroy Asmodeus and lift a scourge from this world.”

That prompts quite an exchange about power and vengeance and the unintended consequences of killing the Lord of Hell. I have no choice, I explain, but to stand in his way as priestess of Sehanine. A vengeful, possibly crazed man bent on killing the Emperor of the Nine Circles will only bring ruin. I believe I swayed both Rey and Treig.

“I told you all this,” Jodan continues, “because I wanted you to consider that Asmodeus is behind everything that has transpired thus far. I have the benefit of seeing the long game – I believe I am older even than you two elves, if I am not mistaken – and this is precisely the sort of misdirection and grand scheme he plays.”

Treig replies: “Maybe, but should we not fight the enemy in front of us?”

“You don’t know who I am,” replies Jodan. “… a man forced into this binding bargain but able to see the machinations of the one who did this to him.”

“Yes, but it is important to know what’s going to happen after the war has begun,” adds Treig, and I find myself nodding in agreement.

“Well then, what will we do if we find the part of the rod?”

“Give it to the arch-mage, Tenser, if he’ll have it,” says Treig.

“That would be unwise. Have you heard about the first Death Knight? No? Mm. Keep power, like the Rod, away from political figures. They cannot be trusted.”

Eager, in the meantime, has opened the suitcase. There is a note inside that reads: Take this to my mentor, Manzorian the Arch-Mage. It goes on:

Caius is in an ancient temple in a jungle with an end of the world cult, the Ebon Triad. Did they create the worms? They may be connected to Jubilex or the Far Realm.

“If Jubilex is involved, that might bring the attention of Hell,” says Jodan, reading the note over Eager’s shoulder.

“I should very much like to go through those doors,” I say quietly to Rey in Elven, motioning with a nod the locked big door that Flycatcher had been guarding.

“Do you not think we should resolve this first?” she replies.

“I think better when I am either in meditation or in motion. Standing here under uncountable leagues of rock is making me twitchy.”

The final part of the tomb.

Our seal should protect the individual carrying it, but perhaps not the whole party. We simply do not know.

In an effort to bypass the rich-with-traps way beyond, Eager casts fly on all of us. It is marvelous. Oh my, I see why Verdre aspires to be a bird. What freedom! Can I fire from up here? What would it look like in a real place, a forest canopy spread out in front of, green pool for me to dive into and see its wonders, then swoop back up. I love it!

We descend another four hundred feet, however, into more cold, more stone. This is not what I had in mind. It leaves me shivering and I take Rey’s cool hand again.

We are in an immense chamber, the floor of which is covered with statues. Two tremendous black doors part as Treig speaks the three words of the seal. Beyond, supported by seven stone columns, is similar space. It leads to a platform in front of a second set of enormous doors. Treig once again leads us through. It is so dark here: my Mistress’ light seems a wan and pale thing like her bearer. So much weight! Here we will die, unknown and anonymous, skeletons turning to dust in the crushing black.

I must have murmured that, because Rey pulls close, grins and whispers into my ear in a cheerful voice I recognize is an imitation of my own, “No we won’t!” The sly mockery works, and as we float to a white marble sarcophagus beyond the doors, I feel the colossal mantle lighten.

Splashed across the walls here is the sequel to the story from the central wind area early on where we tangled with the air elemental blade blender and found our original pair of artifacts at the top of the column. Monsters here are trampled beneath the heels of a spirit rising out of the stone box in front of us.

“Present yourself,” says a voice. It spoke in Infernal but Treig translated. “Speak the words of Icosial and enter within. Then prove your worth.”

A ridiculously horrible, writhing fiend appears: a monster that looks like it was made of the eyes of all the other monsters in the world. Jodan names it an oculous demon. And warns we cannot fight it. It responds Treig’s request to parlay.

“What will you give up?” says the demon, motioning to the sarcophagus that contains twin swords, a ring, and a large piece of a rod.

Treig thinks. He … the human expression is … hems and haws. He unties a scarf and stares at it as if was soul of his daughter. This goes on for an unexpectedly long time until, with a shaking hand, he places it into the stone box. He is radiating pain. He takes the rod part out in exchange and all but tosses it at Rey, then walks away to a corner of the room and just sits down into the floor.

Jodan in the meantime examines the rod part still in Rey’s hands. He nods. “Yes, this could be it. This is it. The Rod of Seven Parts. We have a big piece here, perhaps the largest!” He looks into the box and something occurs to him. “Huh. I wonder,” he murmurs. Turning to us, he adds, “I need everyone out of this room. I want to try something. It may not work, though even attempting it could visit terrible consequences on you, or me, even on this demon here.”

Rey, Egan and Treig edge out of the room. I remain behind.

“I am warning you,” Jodan continues. “This could easily be the moment of your eternal damnation.”

“My people do not fear your master’s impotent wrath,” is my reply. Devils are bothersome but they have never caused us anything more than irritation.

He says something unkind in Abyssal, a language perfectly architected for that, kneels and then, with a stream of nasty-sounding sounds, offers the sword. I see now it is the same one in my vision: a red crack in reality. He drops it into the box.

“Is this accepted?” he asks. The demon … snorts. Just like Verdre when she is a puma and sees something that makes her laugh! Coming from this twisted Abyssal wreck.

The blade returns itself to its sheath. Jodan grunts. “I really wished that had worked.”

Meanwhile, outside the room, Treig and Rey have noticed that the artifacts in her pack – our circlet and void catcher – are glowing silver.

“Hmm. Well. I may as well get something for my…” says Treig but then he halts. “For that.” He retrieves the glowing circlet and places it on his head, takes several deep breaths, and nods.

Jodan and I rejoin them.

“Do you see what is happening here?” shouts the former now, unnecessarily, I thought. “We are pawns of destiny! We haven’t simply stumbled onto an ancient artifact of war; we have been led to it.”

“You feel my Mistress has lead me here?” I ask him.

“Fate, the stars, your goddess: this isn’t an accident. We cannot give the rod up as if we had other lives to return to. We are here to act.”

“You may be right,” I say. “But if we are shriv i’Hanin’e, Chosen, we must be certain of what we are doing. I for one am having trouble believing my Mistress has dropped the fate of the Fade into my hands with such different companions and divergent interests to help me. If I was meant to save the world, I am sure I would come with my own people, or I would have met companions who actually cared about any of this,” I nod to Treig; “did not serve a dragon,” Rey; “did not serve whomever would promise him his next bag of magical tricks,” Egan; “and who did not want to run off with legendary artifacts on a fool’s errand to hand them over to the Lord of Hell, which is what you will be doing if you seek to best that entity. He is not a person, Jodan: you do not kill, trap or even inconvenience that deity without divine intervention. I should think that would be obvious to you. No, we must have guidance.”

“Tenser, then,” says Treig. “The archmage who belongs to the Circle of Eight.”

“Circle of eight humans,” I return. “I agree they are knowledgeable, but your species is ambitious above all else: it is what drives you.”

“Perhaps, but beings of such power and wisdom will view these artifacts in a different light than we would,” Treig continues.

“I do not want to give everything we have found to a band of powerful humans who answer to no one,” I reply.

“We could give only the Rod to him,” Rey says. “And keep or hide the other pieces.”

“I think that is a good idea,” I say. Something suddenly occurs to me. I don’t know how wise it is, but the words are already out of my mouth before I could stop them. “The tome should not leave the Cairn. What if we give it to Seraph while we pursue wherever the Rod will take us?”

The circlet and black bracers of defense go to Treig. I trust the man who does not care about – or even particularly want – them. Also, he alone gave something up for us at that box in there, something that took much from him. I do not know what that scarf’s significance was, but I recognize loss when I see it.

Rey will hold the Rod part and the Talisman of the Sphere.

We stop by Seraph and tuck the tome under her. I don’t think she noticed, though she mumbled something in her sleep just as we were leaving.

When we surface, the araqu’a are suddenly very interested in Treig, enough to fetch their captain. They start squawking about him, evidently surprised about something. I wish I knew what. I think Treig also wishes he knew what. Perhaps they can sense the artifacts we now bear. Perhaps Treig is their secret king. I would be only mildly surprised because, as I have been saying for what feels like months now, it is still

the same

crazy

unending

day.

I wonder if we are trapped in it?

And I still have not had dinner.
 
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Journal of Etona - 23

Jodan says there is a man, someone from Treig’s past evidently, waiting for him not far from the mouth of the Cairn. We go to see him, Treig fingering a dagger and looking grim.

All I remember is an all-too-human smile of triumph and malice, for he was an illusionist who somehow got into my head as soon as we arrived, and....

... and I am my aunt, and Mistress Moon is lying on the ground like some grand cake, and kobolds are chewing on Her, how dare they?? I am Verdre as black and green puma now and attack them savagely. I revel at the blood I spill, sharp claws slashing, coiled strength in my legs to pounce, and one after another they burst into dead meat, these helpless mice, so much more satisfying than using a bow or mere trap. How sad my people are who cannot know the scent, the taste, the touch, the primal joy of ripping the life out!

I am not Verdre, I realize, though it doesn’t matter in my wild state. I am someone else. A mad relative I used to know.

I am restrained. Crazed. I roar, I bellow, it is Etona screaming tight in Rey’s grip who was not shouting “Skaen, Take her! Take her for yourself!!” at all but rather, “Etona, shh, calm down, shh,” in her normal, calm voice.

It is some time before I can stop shivering in her arms.

I have rent my armor, removed as much as a frenzied madwoman could. My fingers bled with the effort. And I am exhausted, barely aware that there was an outside force, a man who did this to me. Two men. No, just one. The other is from memory.

I fall off whatever unstable, bony thing I seem to be on. Oh, it is Eager. Rey and I are sitting on him. He is covering his head, shielding himself from ... from me.

As I rise, I finally see that she is bleeding from numerous scratches on her hands and face. I point to myself, shake my head, not me, right? But she nods ruefully.

“Oh Rey. Oh Rey, I am so sorry.” I don’t know what else to say.

She smooths back my hair and says, “Your tribe must be a force of nature if their littlest member – that is what you keep telling me – could do that to me. I almost couldn’t manage you at all.”

I regard myself. Bruises, nothing more. I hold her tight. “Thank you for not breaking me.”

“I don’t think I could.”

Deep breath.

“Where is he?” I ask.

“Gone,” Treig answers without looking over.

“What is his name?”

Darius Argosson. Yes, I understand that look in your eyes: I want to find him again as well.”

“I think,” Eager states uneasily against the silence, “I think we need to take our story and these artifacts to Magepoint.”

“The home of the Archmage Tenser?” says Jodan.

“Aye, that’s the woon.”

“He may have some insight into what to do with the Rod fragment,” adds Treig.

“I mean no offense, gentlemen,” I state, “but I am uneasy about giving an item of such power to a human.”

“I am not human,” says Treig with a smile.

That will be an interesting conversation for later.

“You have our next moves, I see. But what is the last one?” Jodan asks.

“I have the last move as well,” Treig replies.

“What is it?”

“That stays in my head.”

Intriguing. In-Treig-ing. Oh! I suddenly understand the name, I think. Not a human, he says. And also not from this world, he has intimated. Perhaps Treig is a title and not a name?
Moves. Chess moves. I try to piece together scattered Dragon Chess games I played with Shag, connect them with my vision from inside the Cairn. Nothing comes.

“So,” I continue, “we should walk into the home of one of the most powerful human mages with a part of a legendary artifact and ask him what we should do with it?” I ask. “I just want to be clear.”

“Yes,” Eager agrees with a smile as if I was finally getting the lesson he has been trying in vain to teach me. “Aye, that’s exactly what we should do!”

“You already agreed to this, Etona,” chides Treig.

“What do we know about this Tenser? Aside from having his name on a handy utility spell?” I ask.

This prompts almost an hour of Egan and Treig relating different parts of the man’s storied life. It is all entertaining but I am not convinced. However, my Mistress bids me to be the arrow that lights the way and not some general calling troops to battle. With Rey genuinely not seeming to care one way or the other, and Jodan strangely silent after his initial misgivings, I accede.

We ask Seraph’s guardians for their aid in transporting us to Mageland, or whatever it was called, in the morning. I was expecting some method of flight or at least a map. Instead we were to be teleported. It is something like using a portal but you create the portal yourself and it lasts but a moment. In explaining the process, both Treig and Jodan try to tell me that my body will pass through another plane of existence to re-emerge at Tenser’s place. It is nigh-instantaneous. And safe ... ish.

The look on Rey’s face must have matched my own, but new experiences should not be batted away lightly, and these men have lived this long, so let us try it, I say. It may be a tea of a delightful flavor.

***

It is not a tea of any flavor unless drinking tea is like blindly falling through an icy tunnel lined with icicle shards. But by the time I recover my senses enough to be alarmed, we are already there, at Tenser’s place, in a sparking golden circle that is just fading.

A permanently unsuprised gnome is watching us from a booth nearby waiting for us to put ourselves together. He wears an expression of watching two bugs crawl along a wall in opposite directions and silently betting which one would disappear from view first. Above his head is a sign, in Elven, that reads, Thy questions received here.

Treig steps forward and tries to inject some urgency into the gnome’s day. “It is imperative that we meet with Archmage Tenser at his earliest convenience. We have with us powerful artifacts that he will wish to inspect immediately.”

“Name,” the gnome replies.

“This is Rey,” Treig says for some reason. “The Dragonspeaker.”

It is plain the gnome has no idea who she, or indeed any of us, are. “Whom does she serve?”

“Seraph.”

“Is this a dragon?” Treig nods, a little dejected I think. Jodan looks about ready to try his hand, perhaps introducing himself, but the gnome goes on:

“Lord Tenser entertains a number of powerful guests. At the moment he is indisposed. Please make yourself at home in the All-Seeing Eye, our local inn. There you will be contacted by a woman named Celeste.”

“What does she look like?”

The gnome conjures an image of the woman and we are shooed out just as the circle is coming to life again, presumably bringing in another group.

We find Celeste readily enough at the inn waiting with that other human wizard we dealt with in Greyhawk, Elgios. Another working for Tenser, Cymria, invites us to stay in the castle and await the archmage’s return. When when we demur, she offers to Rey and myself a forest growing in the courtyard. A stand of ancient redwoods: they have much to tell, if you have the time. I will meditate there.

Some hours later, we are sent word to meet Tenser at his inner sanctum. It is a large, ornate, heavily-decorated chamber that would be worth exploring for a day in its own right.

“Look at this!” Eager cries, pointing to a Dragonchess board. As he happily talks about a game he or Allustan was playing here somehow but also remotely somewhere else, I examine the board.

It is arrayed about fifteen moves in, I think. One side is clearly winning, but I don’t have enough knowledge of the game to guess any more. Treig steps up, glances at the board and moves a piece. It seems like a good move, not one I noticed. He walks away without comment.

Tenser arrives.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” he says, “but I heard you were looking for me. What can I do for you?”

Humble words from a powerful personage: just like the Fey Court. I am on my guard listening for Court words of power inaudible to any who are not prepared. Rey and Egan are waiting for me to speak, but an archmage who might know of the Bindings renders me unwilling to step forward.

Fortunately, Treig does so instead providing a detailed report of everything he had witnessed in Greyhawk and Diamond Lake. At his story’s conclusion, Rey pulls out the Rod fragment and thunks it onto a nearby desk.

The wizard’s mouth drops open.

“Then the Age of Worms is upon us,” he whispers. “Balakard was not mad after all.”

“It is a dangerous artifact, Lord Tenser,” Treig says.

“Indeed, Treig. Do you know precisely what this is? It is the keystone piece of the Rod of Seven Parts.

All other parts of the Rod are attracted to this one. This fact alone makes it the most powerful.”

“We have brought it to you for safekeeping.”

“For the moment,” Jodan adds quietly and I nod in agreement. Tenser regards us, taking in my bow marking me a priest of Sehanine; Rey at whom he squints and then raises an eyebrow; Eager, looking at him eagerly; and finally Jodan on whom his gaze lingers thoughtfully.

He returns to Treig.

“This is not the only reason you are here, though, is it?” the wizard continues. “You are here because there are no coincidences.”

“Sir?” Treig prompts.

“Over the last few years, prophecies foretold over millennia past have come to be. Kyuss’ legacy endures.” He walks to an oval table of granite that seems to have been made useless by the presence of an obsidian lip all the way around it, two handspans high and curving in towards the center. He gestures.

A map of the world appears. It focuses on where we are now and then the scene speeds to a jungle far to the south.

“Kyuss was an inhabitant of the Amedio Jungle. There he built a following of worshipers who were sacrificed for his ascension to godhood. The grim edifice of his unholy transformation,” he gestures and the scene zooms in to show a temple with a large, unusual shape on its roof, “is known as the Spire of Long Shadows. It remains there to this day. A colleague of mine, Balakard, went to explore them some time ago. He returned with his research but has since gone missing since he journeyed north.”

“How does any of this help us destroy Dragotha?” Rey interjected.

“I am not entirely sure,” Tenser replied. “However, if this Dragotha is an agent of Kyuss, then answers may be there that Balakard did not uncover, being on his own and unable to field the resources a party of seasoned adventurers like you can.”

“With all due respect, Lord Tenser,” says Treig, “our group is not comprised of heroes. Some of us are very far from it. This expedition sounds extremely dangerous with a possibility of yielding very little actionable information. Every instinct I have tells me that our going there is not an intelligent decision. To be frank, I am not even sure why I am here now.”

“And yet here you are,” Tenser says with a smile, “lost and in search of something greater than yourself. You have been wandering, trying to hide from it, but there is no escaping it. You seek that prime motivator: purpose. It is knocking at your door right now. Will you answer? Many lives will depend on your choices.”

Treig lights another of his peculiar cigars. “I don’t speak for everyone.”

“No,” I say aloud but soften the word with a smile. “You do not.”

He continues. “We will have to discuss this before we can give you an answer. But I can say this: I do not work for free.”

“Well, I never said you were stupid,” Tenser replies with a grin. “What will you need?”

“Information,” I say.

“And magic,” adds Treig. “Lots of magic.”

***

One of the things we have been carrying is a transfer stone, and it is unusually powerful, says Tenser as we discuss the artifacts. All of the souls the doppleganger imprisoned there – three of them – are still inside.

One of them is Phreet.

I take the stone to a private chamber and talk to her, meditate with her, share my thoughts with her though Tenser said she would probably not be able to hear me or even understand that I was nearby. Nevertheless, I readied her as best I could for her release to wherever lost little human souls go when they lose their fragile tether to this world.

Tenser kept the stone in exchange for freeing these souls, for freeing me’fr-laya anu, my little sister of my heart.

“Thank you Egan. Thank you Rey.” For they had allowed this apparently powerful and valuable stone to be traded for its contents’ freedom. I knew Rey would support this but was unsure of Egan. He was sad but had no objections.

During this, much discussion had been happening between the rest of the party and Tenser. I relied upon Rey to speak for me, though I did ask for one item.

“We will go and explore these ruins for you,” Treig is saying to Tenser once I had rejoined everyone.

“But with stipulations. I assume you want your own men with us?”

“Yes, I will send a war-forged with you.”

“A what?” Rey asks.

“It is like a golem,” Egan says, “but with intelligence.”

My own experience with a war-forged years ago left me welcoming the idea. He had been a true friend, a leader even though he wore no flesh.

“I very much want to speak to him,” I say.

***

We take full advantage of Tenser’s open vaults: the archmage seems to genuinely want us to succeed and offers much to that end.

An enchantment allows Rey’s spear to miniaturize and attach to her bracers in addition to bringing out lightning’s explosive characteristic.

Obi will be transported into a war machine. Rey and I talk about this, and she of course spends time making Obi understand, as best as either of them can, what this means to Obi.

“It is reversible?”

“Yes. We have done this many times.”

There seemed to be little objection from Obi who apparently relished the idea of an iron hide and steel claws.

Treig stocks up on radiant grenades, explosive potions in hard but easily-broken shells and bolts with Lesser Restoration cast into them. Of these latter, Rey and once she arrives, Verdre, both ask for in arrow form.

I would value a new pair of waterproof, sturdy boots. These turn out to be lizard skin, extendable to the thigh, very useful in swaps and jungles. Supple, and not stitched, I daresay, by manual means.

Tenser suggests potions allowing us to become Ethereal. We would walk through the place we normally teleported through? It renders us invisible and without solid form.

“We become ghosts?” I ask.

“To others here on Prime, eh, the Prime Material Plane, yes,” Tenser’s quartermaster explains.

Jodan works with one of the priests here to fashion a ring out of which his ancestors’ spirits can issue. Once perfected, they surround him as radiant guardians. As I watch a demonstration of the finished relic, several spirits float by. At least a few resemble Jodan himself.

“That is marvelous,” I say to Verdre. “His own people rising to defend him in his hour of need.”

“Yes,” she replies, “if they do not mind being pulled back from rest to this plane of pain.”

These preparations take time, an entire cycle, but thankfully the men in our party exercise patience.

Tenser finds Verdre and pulled her to me as part of the bargain! Whatever happens, my stride has lengthened with hope and confidence now.

Before she arrived, though, I spend my dorse’feu not bathed with pleasure but rather recalling the fierc’e that Darius had summoned in me, the ‘burning blood’ that some among my people are awash in during dors’e han, the full moon. I have known it before: when I was wandering in the wilderness bereft of friend or people, I relied on it to keep me alive. A low-level but constant hum, it fuels my training regimen, pushing myself until I ache, endlessly exercising and performing katae with a weapon I have not touched in years: a heavy lump of metal to knock the wind out of any who would challenge me: a human-made mace. It is not like the one I will use again soon – soon now! – but this clumsy one’s added weight and crude design builds my strength.

My companions, even Rey, are taken aback by the ferocity they meet in sparring with me during the days around the full moon. I annoy and amuse Treig in equal measure and almost rouse the Hell within Jodan. I do unleash the dragon within Rey. This latter I will describe because it fills me with regret. We were running and engaging and retreating one evening, Her full face overhead. At one point I was able to hide from Rey and, when she took an incautious turn, I slammed into her from concealment knocking her flat on her stomach. She roared up and saw I was already a score of steps away, silvered-eyed – not myself at all, for I do not remember any of this – and I was drawing Angivre!

So she, having also left part of herself behind, struck back.

She leaped from sitting prone all the way to where I was crouching, a blue dragon in flight, and blasted me off of my feet when she landed. I heard familiar laughter among thunder, shock of lightning, and the slash of her spear across my stomach ... all in a single instant before I blacked out.

When I regained consciousness, only a moment later thank the Goddess, I was myself again, and so was Rey. She was beside herself with worry, but when she saw I was all right upon awakening she witched to anger. Explaining and soothing and more explaining about my past and my role in the tribe would not let fade the terrible light in her eyes ... at first. But gradually I brought her friendship back to me.

To this very moment I do not know which upset her more: my silver eyes or her own fury. She said that on drawing Angivre, the Silver had never shone quite like that before, and there had been a terrible shriek of ice cracking as I pulled back. But it had only barely registered in her own ferocious rage.

My Lady engineered this. She wanted to push Rey to her limits to reveal her true power to herself, I hope. I hope that is what this was. So yes, Rey’s fear and anger are well justified: she saw betrayal in me for a moment, or a goddess. Could she view me the same after either?

Later, as she was going to bed, I sat down and gazed at her.

“What?” she demanded.

“I would not have fired.” It is the one thing I hadn’t been able to say before, but I was sure of it now.

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes. I do.”

After a few minutes, she said, “All right. I am going to sleep now.”

“I will watch over you.”

“That’s ... not necessary, Etona.”

I just looked back at her, obviously unsettling her, but I was resolute and stayed there most of the night though I took my leave before she awoke the next morning. I believe her human half was, what is that human term, like disturbed but has other little meanings? Oh yes. I believe I creeped her out.

I see I have not yet written why I was training with mace and clumsy human chain mail. In a turn of events I could never ever dreamed of, mine were coming back to me!

When I was Her priest, before I disgraced myself, I wore Her armor, wielded Her weapon of war and channeled Her very spirit through me. I am not what I once was, but I am crawling back, and this dorse’feu urged me to remember, makes my muscles remember to be Her silver warrior again one day.

I have Tenser to thank. He has emerged generous where our offer to retain and study the Rod are concerned. His couriers and magicks have allowed me to speak to my father directly, and this alone is worth my allegiance. It is difficult to be away from him for so long. Through him I was able to ask for the reforging of my armor and mace using the materials I sent from Greyhawk. Tamyl, our leader, agreed and directed all I needed to me before we left for ... wherever it is we are going. She, too, had shared the vision Verdre had. Our people have, after these four years I have been away, once again begun to battle the worms. They are only a few days from the Mirror. She reports that the Bright continues to be poisoned as well. She hopes I will help to end all this.

And, as we said our goodbyes: “Myaeree’Emersanine, Etona Aerq’e windyu.”

Welcome home, Etona Silver-Eyes. In one phrase she acknowledged that I was once again part of our tribe and once more our priestess and speaker for Sehanine.

“Thank you, Tamyl.” It was all I could do to prevent my voice from breaking.

***

After examining the images of the jungle and its mysterious temple, we turned to talk about its inhabitants.

Surrounding the structure is a wall built long ago by a group called the Wardens of the First Watch. Its purpose was to seal in Kyuss and whatever happened to him. This was so long ago that even Tenser does not know very much about them, though the name rings a bell for me. It will come in a vision, I hope, because it is a far-off, very vague feeling.

Something has made its way out of the seal, and whatever it is brings the Age of Worms and its infections to the world.

Around the outside of the wall are tribes of yuan-ti and trolls, neither of whom would be helpful to us – Verdre and I were assured after much back and forth debate – in any way.

We are to be teleported again, not terribly close to the ziggarat. Apparently this is somewhat of an unknown since the temple is so heavily protected by wards that teleportation nearby is difficult.

The structure is some forty feet tall, jutting from the rest of the flat jungle like a misshapen finger pointing accusingly at the sky. It sits, timeless, in that very wild place of no civilizations, though the area may have entrances to the Fae. If so, the Bright’s problems with corruption may be coming from that source.

It was designed to transform Kyuss into a god. Protected by spells neither allowing teleportation into it nor scrying beyond a look at its outer face, and surrounded by those evil tribes, it could hardly be more shrouded in unnatural darkness and dread.

As I look at the Spire of Long Shadows, I recall when I was but a girl. Skaen told me of his friend, Tuaru, a druid living in something called by the humans a desert. Tuaru was himself a human, dark of skin and, according to Skaen, tough as an armored boar. He told of plants there called kactuses or kactusi or something like that: thorny, thick, man-high reservoirs of water that bloomed six days per anoom, or year. He had some drawings of these everlasting plants. I remember them now. What sort of reservoir is this building? From what precious blood does it derive its immortality?

But this malignant thing is in the world, and outside on the surface. It will find itself illuminated by My Lady’s Silver soon enough.

On the last day of the month we meet with Tenser again, ready for our journey. We are all wearing new or improved magical armor and weapons including Verdre’s new Druidscale and my reforged armor and mace. We are ready. I am ready.
 
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Journal of Etona 24

Our full party departing for points unknown consists of:
Verdre and myself
Rey Dragon-Child, with “Robi”, her new Obi-in-war machine
Jodan, Burning King of the Past
Treig, our scowling schemer
Young Egan doing the bidding of his latest masters
And finally, Kaio the Monotone. I had hoped to have interesting conversations with him, but he is more golem than man, nothing like Loring at all.

We teleport to the Spire of Long Shadows landing – if that is the right word – much closer than we had expected. As Verdre and I had insisted, it was now dusk: My Mistress will need to witness these proceedings, and under the moon Verdre and I are more effective hunters. Rey and Treig also thought this was a good idea since among us only Egan cannot see in the dark, and My Mistress’s Twilight should be enough for the boy.

Tenser’s map roughly outlined four quadrants surrounding the wall and Spire within: a section filled with trolls; one with yuan-ti; another with swamp; and the fourth fairly bare. This last is where we appear under Her t’quean, or half-lidded eye. The treeline is gratifyingly heavy. I had already braced myself for heat and humidity again, so I was prepared for this as well.

Rey, Verdre and I scout the area and satisfy ourselves that we have not been seen nor are there eyes about attached to whispering mouths. We examine the mighty wall which seems to pulse, though I cannot decide whether this is a visual or aural effect.

There are symbols carved into it repeating all around its circumference.

“They say, Kyuss entombed forever,” translates Rey. “And the way it’s written,” she begins again to my slight beckoning, “makes me think it’s a chant spoken by several people, each one starting a couple words and then the next person starting before the first one’s ended. It’s these these markings here, they point to this kind of … what?”

It is a lot of words from my Rey, and I am smiling at her with happiness as she relates the details until she stops, looking a little embarrassed. But she is also smiling back, just a little.

Verdre, bless her, sees what is happening and helps. “So you are telling us,” she asks Rey, “that these scratches here are directions for how to speak these words? To say them in this manner you understand?”

Rey nods and we continue on, but for me I’ve just witnessed two bears emerging from their hibernation to a gentle sunny day, or a fresh moonlit evening. For one, the inclination to help someone not a member of the clan; for the other, pushing back against her reticence to speak. It is marvelous to watch. There is hope for them yet.

While we were about that, Treig climbed the wall and threw down a couple ropes. Presently, everyone is on top of the wall.

No protection up here, and Her Bright Profile makes fine silhouettes of us. Everyone must stay low.

A moment later there is a lurch and reality shimmers in front of us: we watch as through a lens hundreds or a thousand years ago come to life in a vision. A jade throne on a dais perches atop one of the ziggurat’s two grand staircases. Behind it are all the trappings of royalty: banners, a decorated facade, bonfires.

On that throne, his silver and black armor bearing skull and scythe imagery, is a man from the Flaan. With a plan. He serves Neral, god of death, and it shows. Around this temple a thriving city reaches far into a cleared jungle beyond the wall. It is disorienting. Thousands are knelt down facing the center, facing their evil king-priest. They are crying out in unison: “Kyuss!”

The image fades.

Alerting the others through Mirror cant, we three soft-paws scout carefully all the way around the wall, scoping both the courtyard and the jungle beyond. The wilderness is quiet, but there are two giant beetles in the interior, patrolling fairly close to the base of the Spire.

We come back to the group with a report. They are, according to Rey who had also been watching them and listening very carefully, insane or possibly under control. They are called eviscerator beetles, and they are wriggling with green worms.

Verdre and I depart again so we can see the interior from different angles, Rey staying back with Robi. Our hope is to time the beetles’ movements such that all of us could, using the ruins between the temple and the wall, scurry into the pyramid without attracting their notice.

“I should like to slay those creatures,” Verdre says a little more loudly than she meant to, for the beetles turn and immediately come our way to investigate. Verdre always does what she likes and so this was maybe more calculation than accident, but these monsters she’s now summoned to us are more terrible than we realize. As they approach, they bring a strange and ghastly sound. It makes me nauseous, drops Rey, who has run over, to both knees and sent Verdre to hissing. The creatures turn tail and return to the temple in what Rey tells us is sounding the alarm.

They bring back some kind of armored, wormy death knight who emerged from the base of the building. I doubt it is coming to parlay so I send the Silver to blow off his leg. It gets back up and hops onto the undead war-beetle, but they do not seem to be fully aware of where my attacks hale from.

That is, until Egan, for some reason, summons a resh-ke storm cloud alerting the entire jungle that we’re here! I shake my head, “Just like Melinde,” I whisper to Rey. “Are there any young humans who are quiet?”

The trio of monsters retreats behind a ruined building though one of the beetles is sticking out enough to continue filling it with Silvered moonlight.

Treig, Kaius, Rey, Jodan and Robi all descend to slowly approach the ruins. The ground, it turns out, is as full of worms slithering around through it as the creatures treading upon it. It is then that Jodan uses his new ring summoning up his ancestors to protect all of them. They manifest as a radiant whirlwind that burns the worms.

To provide me with cover, Verdre coaxes a fog bank out of the air positioning it between us and the yuan-ti somewhere out in the jungle beyond.

Eventually, Angivre’s bolts and Jodan’s deceased relatives put these creatures down. We may now pass into the Spire.

But first, another vision: a red dragon – Dragotha, probably – wings its way to the north with an obelisk from the top of the spire. Something strange and terrible writhes inside it. It is very likely Kyuss. He is gone, left to visit his sickness on the two worlds of the Fade and Bright, and he leaves behind a very literal death trap. There little point our continuing: our quarry has bolted.

The wind is picking up, and there is a heavy scent of moisture in the air.

“Rain in an arc, perhaps a bit sooner,” Verdre confirms.

We regroup courtesy of Jodan’s ancestors purifying the ground with their fury.

“We should investigate the interior,” says Treig.

“Definitely,” agrees Verdre.

“Why?” I say at the same time. “What is to be gained opening this box of ancient corruption?”

“I am here to slay undead, cousin,” says Verdre to me in Elven. She only calls me 'cousin' when she has made up her mind and it isn’t in my favor. “This is why I am along.”

“I thought it was to protect me.”

“Yes, but since you have returned to me, my Etona, I have watched you. You do not need to be under my wing. You have the fierc’e.”

“I still think this is a foolish venture into pain. We do not disturb a bee hive: this is a hornet’s nest, and there will be no honey for us inside.”

No one will listen to me, not even Rey – though she is sympathetic – so we go inside through the west doors.

A mural of a handsome but cruel man, armored, adorns the antechamber. He leads a swelled army forth to battle somewhere. Humans: they do seem to love death in all its myriad forms, ever seeking fresh ones out. Beyond, stone doors would normally seal the inner temple from us but these are open. And why not? Who in their right mind would venture here?

They lead to a huge chamber the width of the main bulk of the pyramid. Pillars everywhere. There are similar stone doors in each of the cardinal compass directions.

In the center….

Oh, the center!

To the eyes, a wide, black-ringed hole. To the nose: the source of the pestilent stench blasting us since we arrived, perhaps every foul odor throughout my entire life. Truly horrible. And something broke through from that realm. It’s probably around here somewhere.

Verdre mhaek’roor, skin-walks, some call it shape-shifts, though neither is quite right. It is a Druid word, not Elven, and it means she has just asked for, gave thanks to, and borrowed snake’s form to scout the room.

There are two sets of stairs. The southern ones lead down where the foul odor emanates. Northern stairs lead up to roof.

On the other side of the northern doorway, she will tell us she faintly hears some sort of chanting but she cannot make out the words.

Verdre straightens suddenly like a hare hearing the snuffle of a wolf. She returns snake’s form in favor of her own and strides to us. Where the rest of us see alarm, I see anger. She is standing inches from Egan now, hand clutching her scimitar in its back sheathe, her yellow slitted eyes staring into his. She has not quite returned all of snake.

“Do not … do that … again.”

Oooh, I forgot to tell him, I think when I realize what he did – the voice in the head. That was a mistake.

Egan’s fractional, speechless nod makes it so. I thank the Goddess this was not Skaen or Zrien or Tesseeki or, well, probably two thirds of my tribe. Verdre is one of the restrained ones. It is why she, too, is one our ambassadors to the other races.

That settled, for all time, Treig, Rey and Verdre return to the north door and listen. Verdre would tell me later that the words were a repeating chant, a plea to some sort of evil god. Treig cracked the door open carefully. He would report back that each of the four walls inside seemed to be glass. Worms writhe behind each one. Old, broken torture equipment is scattered about, room smells like old blood and rust. The being there has pale green skin and armor. They do not disturb him, but Treig left some of the radiant potions (the grenaedez I think; sounds Dwarven) on our side of the door for the being to trip over and break.

He briefly investigates the stairs going down but the entire level below is a sea of writhing worms, a pit of corruption so vast as to have tides. This sounds to me like the work of a god. What will it take to purify it?

The southern door is trapped with a kind of sleep chemical. We pass by this. Finally, the eastern door is the other way into the temple.

“Can we leave now?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Rey, and the others generally agree. We have seen enough.

We all go to the roof, and Rey and I continue climbing until we are atop the Spire. There we are granted another vision: Culuth Mar, this city, at its height. Thousands of citizens gather. They look triumphant. That is, until a ashen wave like the stroke of a scythe sweeps from the arms of the Spire. It flows through them and rips their souls out. I can see it happen: a faint impression of each shrieking and distorted trying to hold on to the body. The very air is a boiling soup, green bubbles forming and bursting slowly, heavily, sickeningly. A single man watches, pleased, but this turns to surprise and then dismay as an obelisk at the top of the Spire – spinning the entire time – floats down to him and swallows him. His stupid expression says it all: in a burst of selfishness he has slain his own people – unforgivable enough – but worse, betrayed them all for a mere lie.

A rumbling in the ground from the west part of the courtyard seemingly banishes the vision. And what we were waiting for comes, the worm of worms, a monster like none we have seen so far. It explodes out of the ground.

“Egan,” Treig orders, “You and Kaius and Robi fly to safety over that wall there, back to where we landed. The rest of you, Ethereal potions. Meet at where we started, where they are flying to.”

He did not need to tell us twice: all of us, even Verdre who was dubious about the liquid, drink it down. Jodan tarries a little: he had a thoughtful look on his face when we faded.

The world is colorless now, or the colors are like gray but so much more if I concentrate. It is fascinating. We speak to other merely by thinking, but it is not intrusive like Egan’s mind-whisper. The world we left is still all around us but as a sketch from one of Verdre’s paper books. I can see all of us clearly enough though Egan and the two constructs are like drawings. And Jordan, still Jordan is there. He has stayed behind. I peer at his outline.

Oh, Goddess! He is staying to fight!

“We should not leave him,” says Verdre. But she transparently wants to fight – already fingering Glitter – and obviously dislikes being in this plane. She is using words calculated to affect me.

“Verdre, he is making his own choice,” I reply. Something does occur to me, though. “Treig, he definitely has an Ethereal potion with him, right? And he knows this?”

He nods to both.

It is a count of at least ten now and Jodan is still alive somehow. His armor seems impervious to the blows and teeth of the worm-of-worms. He is fighting this evil thing alone while I flee. Is this truly his choice? Or is Hell compelling him? I do not like mysteries of this sort. If it is Hell calling, then I must give him a chance to refuse, if it is within my power, and that will not be possible if he is in that thing’s belly.

I move back to the base of the cactus sculpture. Verdre’s eyes are on me. She smiles: alone among the others she sees what I am going to do and begins positioning herself to drop onto the horror’s back.

Jodan is using those Infernal chains to swing around the worm. He is surprisingly agile in all that armor.

Mistress! He has mistimed! In one gulp, the worm has swallowed him whole!

I see him in the thing’s throat. I can…yes, I can. I know what to do.

I drop back to our Material plane and call Her Rays of the Moon, focusing, focusing, into a tight beam, and I slice open a long, narrow tear. Jodan spills out, a drenched mess, slime hissing on his burning armor. Verdre drops to us then and lands on top of the worm, quickly calling her Spider Climb, Glitter in her hands.

She and I and Jodan finish killing it, the Hell-knight and his dead relatives having already done tremendous damage while I was dithering. In truth, it was Jodan and his very extended family who dispatched it.

There is no time to consider the consequences of our actions: a pair of worm-infested snake-beings – I would be told later they are called naaga – slither out of the hole in the courtyard the worm erupted from and begin ascending the pyramid. They are hate-filled, fanged, humanoid heads on serpent bodies, simply appalling. At the same time, a six-armed thing appears at the top of the cactus, hissing. This pestilent place is sending its entire hideous cast onto stage.

A voice, all sharp angles and hate, is in my head. It is the six-armed thing. I swivel and draw back the Silver, trying to get a bead on it from my position. It unleashes a swarm of spells from all those arms, and I feel my mace grow heavy and armor visibly lose its shine, though Angivre is unaffected, of course: she was not made by mortal hand. Jodan seems to be similarly fumbling with his gear as well, and Verdre sidesteps a black bolt aimed at her head.

Three spells at once, and it is summoning more! We must down this thing immediately.

And we do.

Well, no we don't. Rey pops out of Ethereal to plunge her spear through the thing’s throat, killing it instantly. The naaga stop and stand immobile: their will must have been bound to the six-armed figure, now a gurgling casualty of Rey’s perfect strike.

Verdre takes the opportunity to set her Moonbeam on the naaga, lighting them up for Egan who has been silently flying back over to us. The snake-things each get off a single lightning bolt but aim them, alas for their aspirations of being worthwhile to their side, at Jodan’s shield and Rey, two targets immune to it. With Her purifying light beating them down, Angivre’s Silver kills one and Egan’s bolts finish the other.

There is yet another foe on the field, however: Rey and Jodan find themselves in the midst of a fireball blossoming from nowhere. It only singes them: Jodan probably cannot be killed by flame and Rey managed to roll out of the blast. And now, finally, Treig pops in from Ethereal and flicks a cigar at a slight imperfection in the air. It is another undead wizard.

Since she appeared back in our Material plane, Rey has been verbally harrying Jodan with a torrent of angry words about not following plans and endangering everyone and what was he going to do after the worm was dead and what was he thinking putting Etona in such peril and so forth – nothing we aren’t all thinking, though I smile at her specifically calling out my name – when she strides to the new interloper, drives her spear through its throat, too, felling it again in a single blow, and marches back to Jodan, all without interrupting her tirade.

He looks at me, a bit wide-eyed.

“Hell hath no fury,” I say.

“You didn’t need to come back,” he replies.

“You have spent too much time among devils, Jodan. You have forgotten loyalty,” I snap back, “We are all bound together now. You are one of us. Remember this the next time you decide to throw your life away.”

Our conversation has given two more heavily-armored worm knights time to slowly approach the stairs. One of them calls forth a purplish black necrotic ball that envelopes Ray and Treig.

“Rey!” I call out but she waves me away. She may well be unstoppable now that she has been revealed to be Dragon Child. I hope I never anger her again.

I will admit that Jodan is unpredictable: he now steps forth and commands one of them to attack the other. I feel my mouth fall open, because that is exactly what it does. We join it in killing its opponent. Now we have use of a worm knight, apparently for the entire day.

With no way to return to the Ethereal plane, we will have to simply walk back to our starting position. I assume we will leave – shall we call it ‘Winston’? – behind to molder at its temple, unless we can talk to it?

That might be interesting.
 
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Gray Fox Journal: The Messenger

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the knight was lost.
For want of a knight, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This proverb always was amusing to me, until today.

Kuluth-Mar’s sentinels were formidable, but ultimately dispatched by our group’s preparation. We moved through the complex systematically, discovering the lost remnants of an ancient cult dedicated to Kyuss’ godly ambitions. The magical field that kept the corruption within the temple contained also seemed to alter time. We continued to perceive visions of an age long past, where Kyuss had sacrificed his people to gain immortality. Thankfully whatever ritual he had performed also trapped his essence in an obsidian monolith. He would have remained in this place for all time had a red dragon not stolen it. That must have been Dragotha, the wyrm Rey was after.

Underneath the ziggurat, there was a lake of writing green worms. It must have been the source of this world’s infestation, if not a gateway to another realm of horrors. None of us were interested in exploring much more of the temple, except for Jordan. This place had triggered something darker than usual within him. He was obsessed with “cleansing it.” As if he could. It is no wonder devils fund such easy purchase in the souls of men. Our arrogance is limitless.

We were having a spirited debate on the roof of the complex, when we heard a rumble shake the earth. That was more than enough for me to initiate our exit strategy.

“Drink your potions. We are leaving,” I commanded.

I watched as everyone quaffed their magical draughts and disappeared into the Ethereal plane. Egan weaved his newfound powers on Obi, levitating the mechanical beast across the wall with Kio. We had drilled this plan many times and had all agreed to rendezvous back at the extraction site. At least that is what I thought. Jordan didn’t drink his potion. He was just standing there as a giant translucent worm burst through the ground, screaming at it in defiance.

“What is he doing,” Etona asked.

“He intends to engage it alone,” Verdre answered.

Both elves didn’t wait long to phase back into the Prime Material plane. Though Jordan was holding his own and using his divine powers to burn the creature with his radiant powers, he was losing ground. I could see where this was going and so could they. Rey looked at me with alarm as she watched Egan fly back into the fray to assist as well.

“We have to help them,” she shouted.

Don’t do it. You can’t save him. Remember.

“Wait Rey. Wait for our moment,” I responded.

As I suspected, once the giant worm was defeated more of its allies joined the fray. Two of these adversaries were formidable magic-wielders. One was a six-armed lich who was disabling all of our enchantments simultaneously from his perch on the tower and another was an invisible invoker who was hurling balls of flame from the sky. I indicated that Rey go after the lich, while I tried to triangulate the invisible wizard’s position. Rey nodded and phase back from the Ethereal plane adjacent to her target. Her magical spear tore through its magical defenses, driving the blade into its dumbfounded face. Lightning arced through the metal, causing its body to seize violently before falling to the ground. Its body made a sickening sound as it hit the stone.

In the meantime, I had located the sorcerer’s location and was moving towards him when I noticed Rey had floated down from the tower to admonish Jordan about this behavior. I was just beginning to phase back to the Material plane when a fireball exploded around the pair. That was my moment. I sent a golden cigar hurtling towards the invisible invoker and watched it explode in a shower of golden flecks. The humanoid was well outlined for Rey now. She looked over at her aggressor and took a running start before hurling her spear. It crackled as it flew through the air, impaling the creature and sending him falling to the ground below.

I am glad she is on our side.

With our enemies defeated, the arguments continued. We were all upset with Jordan’s reckless behavior; Rey most of all. While I agreed with her, I would have prefered to have the disagreement as far away from this place as possible. Though she was right. Jordan knew that his actions would provoke us into coming to his aid, despite his insistence of wanting us to leave. I wonder if he will ever discover for himself that he used his own friends to achieve a short-sighted plan for revenge. Interesting rationalization from a man who has been constantly asking us if we were “a team.” His devilish tormentors had done their work on him. He doesn’t know who he is or what he stands for anymore. Maybe Asmodeus had won after all.

I didn’t think that things could get any stranger. That’s when a giant mechanized chicken stepped over the wall. Inside were two women: Baba Yaga, the infamous witch, and Natasha, Jordan’s betrothed. How this could be was beyond my comprehension. Jordan was equally overwhelmed by the sight of Natasha and the two of them had a long, private conversation. Etona was fascinated by Baba Yaga. None of us were surprised by this. I waited patiently for the group to decide that it was best to return to Tenser’s fortress. Jordan decided that he wanted to stay and purify the temple. No one stopped him; we were all too tired.

I was doing my best to herd the group over the wall when Fate threw further complications in my plans. A dozen shimmering portals appeared along the top of the wall in a perfect semi-circle. Another opened at the base, near Jordan. From within emerged the form of Darius, a smirk plastered across his face.

“Leaving so soon, Fox? But I have a gift for you!”

His maniacal laughter triggered something within me that stripped my mind of rational thoughts. I was intent on jumping down from the wall and ending his life when I saw twelve of my old companions fall from the portals along the wall onto the corrupted earth below. They were all bound and gagged, wholly unprepared for the horrors that awaited them below.

Not again!

I acted without thought, leaping from the safety of the wall and speeding towards their helpless forms. Those that were conscious, I freed from their bondage and those that were not, I lifted up from the earth and rested them against the wall. It stood to reason that the magic that kept the corruption within this place might also repel the worms from anyone contacting the barrier. It was a race against time to get to my men before the worms crawled into their flesh and turned them into mindless servants of Kyuss. So focused I was on my task, that I did not even realize that my companions had begun to engage Darius. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jordan flailing against an impenetrable barrier surrounding Mindbender. Egan was equally helpless in his magical assault, as the barrier seemed to protect him from both physical and magical attacks. That wasn’t the worst part. Darius was beginning to crack the wall. Whatever magic that had been cast so long ago was screaming out in terror. Begging us to all to stop him before he succeeded in his task. It was futile. Verdre summoned her Moonbeam, but its power harmlessly splashed around the field that Darius had erected. Etona was in deep concentration, Angivre in her hands. I could see was locked in a magical struggle with Darius, but I knew that his will was stronger. Someone had to get to him and disrupt his enchantments or many people were going to die.

Where is Rey?

The Dragonspeaker appeared beside Darius wreathed in lightning, electricity lanced through the man as if he was in the midst of a thunderstorm. He didn’t even have time to cry out before she drove her spear into his abdomen and twisted violently. I could tell he was hurt. I’d seen that look before.

He must have momentarily lost his concentration, because Verdre’s beam of light crashed down atop of him, bubbling his skin with the power of Sehanine.

“Magical barrier disabled. Begin countermeasures,” Kio intoned.

The mechanical man extended his hand and motioned to his eyes. Rey closed hers just in time to avoid a burst of white light exploding within the wall of force. Darius screamed out in agony before summoning a silver blade from his palm.

“I know you are in here Rey,” he said sadistically as he slashed outward. The blade cut through her armor like a hot knife through butter. Rey dropped to one knee.

Jordan saw what I saw and began desperately hurling his spiked chains against the magical wall of force. Nothing, save for magic, could get through. We would have to watch as Darius killed our friend and would be unable to do anything.

She didn’t sign up for this. It’s not her fault. Do something old man!

“Dane,” I said as I passed him a dagger. “Free and extract the other men from the complex. Leave no one behind.”

“Yes sir. What are you going to do,” he asked.

“I’m going to give you a distraction.”

I was running. Faster than I thought possible. Obstacles melted away before me as I trained my eye on Darius. I could see the shimmering barrier and so I touched my bandana and thought of Jade.

If you are out there Boss, I need your help. I can’t do this without you.

I struck the wall of force with my outstretched hand but I did not stop, merely slowed down. I pressed onward, forcing myself through and found myself on the other side amidst Rey.

“Fox is that you,” Darius asked mockingly.

“It’s over,” I said as I beckoned Rey towards me.

He sneered. “I suppose you are right. Until next time old friend.”

Reaching for his necklace, Darius touched one of his many talismans. A portal appeared at his feet and he vanished. And like that, he was gone once again.

I knew that Rey was in critical condition from how she leaned on me for support. Jordan rushed to her aid and exhausted his own strength healing her with the remainder of his power. I gathered the rest of my men and moved everyone outside the walls as efficiently as I could. Kio and Egan worked together to summon a teleportation circle. I made sure that everyone was through before I entered. Jordan waited until we were alone to address me.

“What now Treig?”

“We get some rest Jordan,” I responded.

“That’s not what I mean.”

“It’s been a long day. Why don’t we talk about it after we have had some sleep,” I said.

“After you Treig,” he motioned with his hand.

I smiled. “No Jordan, this time I insist.”
________________________________

The sickening sensation of falling was shorter lived this time and we found ourselves outside Magepoint again, near our familiar gnomish escort. For the first time he seemed startled and even flustered.

“I-I-I will alert Lord Tenser right away!”

Now he recognizes us.

We were led back to the fortress unmolested. I was informed, en route, that my inquiry to Greyhawk had been received and that they wished me to formally apply for the position of Master of Games. In addition, an opening on the City Council had recently become available and some of the council members believed that I might be able to fill that station. Both opportunities were intriguing to me, but my plans would have to wait until after I had formally debriefed with Tenser and got some rest.

At the drawbridge we were intercepted by a blind white draconian named Seeli. She insisted on speaking to Rey, having been sent by Tiamat. Rey was entirely too tired to spend any time with this stranger and so she set up a future date to meet by the docks. I thought that was the end of it but as Jordan passed the priestess, she spoke to him in Infernal.

“The dragon will lead you to the heart of your enemy. Follow the Dragon.”
 
Journal of Etona 25

It was decidedly not interesting talking to ‘Winston’. ‘He’ has very much become an ‘it’, with little left of what was a person. We will end its torment and destroy the husk that ties that little bit of spirit left to it before we leave.

“We should leave,” says Rey.

“Do we now possess enough information for Tenser to return to him?” I ask.

“Yes,” say Rey and Treig simultaneously.

“But we can do more,” says Jodan.

To wide-eyed astonishment, Jodan describes a plan, laden with unlikely assumptions, that involves strolling into a sea of worms that formed the foundation of this temple. True, we have an undead servant under our control who could pose as our porter and guide, but other details – what is still here waiting for us? what is the wisdom of staking our lives to a recently-acquired ring whose boundaries are unknown and that works when Jodan is conscious and also wishing it? why not return later with ten times the force including sun priests to blast this place? – seem reckless.

So we are leaving. But Jodan is staying. His stubbornness is impressive. Perhaps Hell will not allow him to die. Perhaps we should kill him now to save him from fighting us later as a worm-infested version of himself, or perhaps he will succeed and redeem himself. Humans. They are always in such a hurry! It would be a trivial matter to return here, later, with exactly the group that is called for. But Jodan must do this now.

I wish him well.

As we turn to depart there is movement atop a section of the wall. Something large has hopped over it and landed in the courtyard.

It is a chicken.

“Verdre–.”

“I see it, too, Etona.”

“Thank the Goddess. But do they usually–?”

“No.”

“And the bits–?”

“No.”

I had noticed these small domesticated raptors on human farms. They resemble birds but are grown for consumption and cannot fly, laying edible eggs and are delicious themselves as well. It is hard to say what it tastes like. Chicken, I suppose. But I do not remember any of this size nor wearing what seem to be pieces of houses and spouting black smoke from a stovepipe atop the head.

It trots over to us and opens a wing…door. Out comes a pretty, apparently unarmed, human woman wearing lovely and thoroughly impractical clothes battling malice in the jungle.

Her effect on Jodan is immediate.

“Natasha!”

He pulls off his helm, banishes his armor, but that is only the beginning. His true transformation is deeper inside: the tension that seems to make up his support beams melts away, and his very skin seems to soften.

She, too, seems affected by seeing him. Joyful for an instant, saddened a moment more as she gazes on what he has become, but then rallying with happiness and affection.

“Jodan, who is this woman?” Rey asks.

“She, Natasha, is my betrothed.”

“The one from centuries ago?”

But he doesn’t answer. He is focused only on her, talking to her in an old Common tongue I do not understand very well.

“Isn’t she dead?” Rey asks Treig.

“Yup. She died from something a little like our worm friends here, I think.”

Elsewhere, I can hear Egan say to someone else, excitedly: “And it is the finest mobile chicken habitation I ever did see, m’lady. May I know yer name?”

“Why, Baba Yaga, m’dear. Who else?” comes the reply.

Eager is looking up at the little fold-out porch under the wing at a dark-skinned woman who looked like a Rehnee matriarch.

All humans know of Baba Yaga as have most elves, maybe even dwarves and gnomes, perhaps the Drow themselves: her name is legend. Was this being really she?

I needed to talk to Jodan the Infernal, the Devil’s Rook, and not Jodan the lovesick cub. I motion him to follow me. He is reluctant but I insist.

“Jodan, this is not Baba Yaga bringing your lost love. This is the ruse of the grisly lake below us sending horror after horror.” I do not have his undivided attention, but I press on. “Do you remember? You were trying to convince us to finish off this temple somehow when lo and behold she is delivered, brought by perhaps the only person who could accomplish this and who might bother: a powerful storybook character from hundreds of years ago.”

“It is amazing and wondrous, is it not?” His smile is drenched in happiness. He leaves me to return to the facsimile of his old love.

My Mistress has a reputation for tricks of this sort. But she allows us, her children, to see through illusion and live in the world as it is. I thus send Her arrow of revealing light to Baba Yaga. It splashes around her to her distracted amusement. Verdre is of my same mind. She sheathes Glitter, begins a quiet chant while wrapping her arms around her head, turning in on herself, bending over and then blossoming up and outward, eyes fixed on Our Mistress, half moon pendent raised aloft.

“Your Unerring Light, Mistress,” she calls, and he voice echoes off stairs and building, off the tower, off the black walls.

Over the course of a moment, Her face brightens. As the divination passes over us, it shifts each person into light and then to shadow again. The witch, we plainly see, is as substantial as the rest of us as is Natasha who even glows a little more brightly as we return to darkness.

“These two,” Verdre says once she has regained her senses, “appearing in such an unlikely place at this unlikely time, are as real as we, Etona,” she says to me.

It is not enough. I do not question the revelatory powers of My Mistress, of course: but what if we are trapped in an illusion that mocks Her light? I must believe. I must know.

“Then you are my friend, lovely Natasha. May I?” She nods, her smile uncertain. So I embrace her.

She is warm to the touch, murmuring that she is happy someone has come to bring joy and light to our sullen Hell-knight. Does she smell right? Yes, enticing in fact. Her skin? Yes, the soft delicate skin of young humans, cared-for hair likewise silky. It is all expected. No worms penetrate me as I hold her.

“How did you come to be here?” I ask, pulling her back to see her face.

“I was, I remember … it was a red corilax. It infected me, and I did not survive.”

“And yet, here you are.”

“Yes. Baba Yaga brought me back. I owe something to her for being here.”

I have more questions – scores, each spawning more, a growing sea of beheaded hydras – but Jodan takes her away again before I can even really get started.

I look to Verdre. “One last test.” I aim directly above me and let fly Her arrow, concentrating, concentrating, higher and higher it leaps, straight up to Her home. It eventually fades, exactly as it should, absolutely everything as expected.

“We may be trapped. Or just I – I may be trapped inside a dream or a trick or a bubble of reality, and I would never know.”

“That is always true,” says Verdre. “What of it? We live in the moment.”

“Don’t be a dream,” I say to her.

“Then don’t get lost in there,” Verdre replies, motioning to my head. “Focus, child.”

As before, we assemble to depart sans Jodan, but this time at least we are leaving him a house…chicken, its ancient witch owner, and an exact replica of his beloved. He could do worse, I suppose.

But no, this wretched place is not done with us.

When I watched the human performances in the animal circus at Greyhawk, spying on them for several days as I prepared to free its animals in my misguided notion of what was a good thing to do, I became aware of a loud and deceptive man. The ringmaster. He was outwardly friendly and self-deprecating but his eyes calculated what they saw and his smile was sarcastic.

It is the very expression of the man appearing in front of us now.

I do not see him at first: I see his portals, twelve wrinkles in the air atop the wall. As I digested this new obstacle – nothing here is ever on our side – I become aware of a maleficent, white-haired man with trimmed beard and oddly pale eyes atop black armor positively woven with buckles and belts. He is somehow in the middle of the court, right in front of us, proclaiming challenges to Treig.

Gloatius. No, that’s not right. Morious? Spurious? At any rate, bodies start falling out of the portals to accompany his sneering words. They are all bound with rope, some awake, some not, and all consigned to be consumed by worms soon if we did not aid them. A single look at Treig is enough: he knows these people, they are important to him, and he is going to do whatever to save them.

Since Jodan, Treig and Rey all darted forward to save the men, I open fire on the man. But each bolt splashes away like water off a shield. Nor can anyone get physically close: when Jodan has saved all he can, he goes for Snarlius as well but is held at bay from a wall we can only faintly see each time it is struck.

A moment later, once Verdre has secured the one bound dwarf she had bolted to, she reclimbs the wall and joins my attack, summoning and focusing Our Lady’s energy. Face taught with concentration, the beam grows ever brighter, the most intense I have ever seen. It is like a god’s finger pressing down on an unyielding egg.

But our prey is unphased and, in fact, turns his attention to the surrounding wall. From his outstretched hand shoots a ruddy, barely-visible bridge of energy that looks like a girl’s braided hair but makes the air feel heavy and constricting. I feel rather than hear a terrible crack some seconds after it is trained on the wall. My ancestors cry out!

Such confidence: not only does he appear in the middle of his enemies but he flaunts his domination by attacking this ancient relic protecting the entire world. His will is strong. But he is overconfident. He has not taken two factors into consideration: Rey, and the Goddess of the Moon, neither of whom are of a mind to let him succeed.

Rey charges Maddius on the back of Robi. She vanishes just as the metal monster version of our beloved owlbear slams into the clear shield. I saw the potion in her hand; I know just where she went. It is a matter of time now before he finds a steel-tipped lightning bolt exploring his throat. I, in the meantime, will make certain she has the time.

“Use me, Mistress, as Your conduit!” I shout and flatten my palms against the wall’s black stone surface. Her awesome power, hot and biting cold and sharp and aching and delicious and terrifying floods through me as I enter into a contest of will over survival. If I may only live, Baddius has no chance to succeed, none at all. I merely have to not wither under Her potent regard.

***

I do not know what happened after. I awoke under two faces: Verdre’s worried one and Her calm, shushing, half-face above. With a start I sit up and see that the wall is whole. I hear or perhaps merely feel the thanks of my ancient kin before I gently fall into a restorative mesmer.

When I emerge, Egan narrates events.

While I was channeling, Rey had succeeded in reappearing inside the dome that Blarious had set around himself. She became the dragon for an instant: her landing a thunderstorm, her spear lightning. She wounded him enough to lose one of the force shields, and Kaio was able to direct projectiles that flashed and blinded into the battlefield. Even blind, though, Blovious cut her deep, dropping her to her knees in a puddle of blood. But Treig moved as if a team of frenzied horses was dragging him and smashed through the other force field somehow. They together broke his concentration, and the radiant spire that Verdre had never let up on drove him to his knees.

“But he did not die! He opened a portal and dove through it and closes it again from his side. More than a man, Etona,” says Verde.

“You sound like you almost admire him.”

“I admire his will. Would that my own mind was of such steel.”

I roll my eyes at this: my aunt’s mind is as weak as Obi’s jaws.

“You, however, continue to impress,” she goes on. “I saw your concentration holding the wall together. I saw tears stream out your eyes: they were mother-of-pearl, and glowing, did you know? You were channeling Her for a moment, directing Her. He was not able to crack the wall’s protective barriers, and we force his retreat.”

“And the bound men?”

“All of them safe. Treig is with them now.”

“Can we finally leave?”

“Oh yes,” put in Treig. “Yes, we are leaving now. All of us.”

Kaio spun up the teleportation circle. In a moment we were gone. I never thought I would be more pleased to a see a human castle.

On our way in, a dragonkin named Silli'huus accosted Rey in the tongue of Rey’s mistress. Later, Rey told me the kin had desired an audience with her the next evening, and that we could all attend, or rather, she was not asked to come alone specifically. Silli'huus also uttered something to Jodan but in a brutal-sounding language, Infernal possibly. I did not understand that either, and he didn’t explain.

I want to talk to Jodan some more about Natasha but I am distracted, unable to concentrate. We all part ways for the evening. I return to the wooded court and climb all its trees, spend some time with Glennis, the new mace. It still feels unfamiliar in my hands, so I work with him until I manage to hurt myself enough to force me to cease. Still distracted, almost a buzzing faint and far off, and my skin is cold. Am I ill now? But no, it feels external somehow.

As I spend a moment gazing at t’quean, Her half-moon visage, my favorite face, I suddenly know what is causing the distraction. I bring out the moonstone and set it to orbiting. As it silently moves round and round, and I feel any trace of hunger or want dissipate, I notice a vapor trail misting off of it. Then it stops, right in front of my eyes.

Normally I have to snatch it from the air: the stone has never simply halted before. It is regarding me, a crude little face like one drawn onto a snowball. It also looks like the moon, exactly like the moon, actually. Thus it goes, back and forth, ice and moon.

It moves suddenly and I am on the ground, shivering, steam issuing from my mouth, and a ringing headache where it struck me! I am sitting on ice and there is rime everywhere. I look up and it is still up in the air, above me, hovering where it had been.

I make to stand but it strikes me again.

“Verdre?” I call, but she has discovered the Hall of Maps. There is no one here to help me. And–.

And I do not need help. I know what this is, as a dreamer in a dream knows a hawk is a hacksaw. My Mistress is teaching me, that I am in reality, that I may trust Her, that I have been given another gift – or tool or burden – a new, terrible magik.

So, shivering, I pray. The cold intensifies but it is nothing to me now: I am her vessel. If She wills my freezing into a statue and then shattering into a million shards, then I will give her one million and ten.

The spell, as I take possession of it in my mind, is lovely: a graceful rolling of the fingers, a murmur in an Elven dialect from millennia ago, and a tiny, smoking moon appears. Is it so very cold up there?

I hurl it at a particularly stout tree that looked as if it could withstand a Fifth Season, a years-long winter. Its thinnest branches freeze solid, but the after-effect, I see, is short-lived and it does not harm the larger ones.

How very useful.

***

The next day, Rey pulls me aside as we are on the way to see Lord Tenser.

“I had a dream I need to tell you about,” she says.

I motion her down to the ground and sit cross-legged in front of her. “Of course.”

“It was night. Silli’huus was watching me. She was looking straight at me as your goddess –.”

“Sehanine is goddess of the moon and the night and the elves, so she is our goddess, all of us,” I remind her.

“Yes, yes. As the goddess would peer down at you, us, whenever the moon rises. That is what this dragonkin was doing, staring down at me. She was the entirety of the dream. No other image.”

I think a moment. I am no expert on dream interpretation, though many have come to me asking my advice. Apparently priests of other gods get trained in this art? That is a thing?

One thought does occur to me, though.

“In the dream, was Silli’huus lit by the moon?”

“Yes.”

“From the front or the back?”

“Back.”

A front light is a reveal, a ‘pay attention to me’. It also means ‘free will’. A back light is shadow and concealed motives. But is also means ‘sent’.

“Do you remember your state of mind when you woke up? Were you happy? Sad? Nervous? Angry? Scared?”

“I don’t remember.”

“I will keep watch over you tomorrow night and be there when you wake the next morning, in case it happens again. Neh?”

She nods, and I spring to my feet, lending her a hand to pull her up. I hold her hand whenever I can because a squeeze or a drawing her forearm to mine or a firm clasp can in a heartbeat convey so much more than any amount of words. This time: Do not be alarmed – we will puzzle this out together.

On to our meeting with Lord Tenser.

***

Rather than narrate all of the back and forth here, allow me to simply summarize what our pooled knowledge revealed.

Each of us recounted the events at the temple. This took some time. As always, I was very interested in hearing how each perceived events. One such that I did not even know was happening was Jodan returning with a large force of beings called Avengers to utterly raze the temple: kill the worms, drain the pool which had been fed by a now-annihilated fountain. After that happened, the walls simply crumbled.

I asked: “Might purifying the place summon Dragotha or Kyuss or any being attached to it?”

“Unlikely,” Tenser returned and Treig nodded. “It is completely neutralized now, and though any connected with it will know of its destruction, they would also know that returning would be futile – there is nothing left – and potentially a trap.”

“Did you set wards?”

“We did leave a few presents behind that will eventually melt into the jungle if they are not set off.”

“Was that really Baba Yaga?” I also asked. It was generally agreed that it very likely was she, especially as she has a part of the Rod and knows, somehow, in some way involving her legend, that we also have one, the largest one, the diviner of the rest. Natasha is undoubtedly part of a coming offer.

The conversation turned to Darius, yes, that’s the right name, and Jodan, and some nonsense about how Darius might be a shard of Jodan’s personality, one representing chaos, as if you can break up a spirit into pieces. I have heard such before but always it was metaphor or coming from the mouths of children attributing their impulses to a piece of themselves they claim they cannot control. We are each of us all of our deeds and thoughts. If this is a distinctly human feature, it is one that neither Verdre nor I – nor any among my people – has ever heard of.

Anyway, Darius seems to exist to destroy the world or at least bring as much chaos to it as possible. Completely mad which may explain his tremendous confidence. He incidentally has a tattoo matching one engraved into the assassin who killed Elgios.

A discussion of Baklava was next, Tenser’s loyal scout and researcher. He journeyed next to Al-Halster to investigate something called the Ebon Triad, a cult worshiping the unlikely joining of three mad, evil gods. The prince of the city is called Zeech; his adviser and a city founder called Lashonna. She is Elven. Maybe another stop for us, but hopefully we can do better than to trail this man across the world.

If we do go we will be in disguise, for the most part, obtaining difficult-to-get, Fey-linked invitations for the prince’s celebration of his coming into the world. Rey will pose as Greyhawk’s arena champion, complete with belt. I will be Treig’s … prize? No, that isn’t right. His treat? Arm treat? Candy. Wait, I have it: I will be Treig’s arm candy, there to talk to Lashonna and find out what happened to my friend Bal-Halster. No. Balthazar.

I had better get that name right. Perhaps someone could right it down for me?

Verdre would be a snake or a cat or something appropriate to the scene. She would listen in on conversations as I pass, hear what was not meant for my ears. Jodan will be infernal bodyguard: apparently that’s a thing. Treig plays … himself?

Hopefully it will not come to this.

***

Silli’huus is next. As a representative of the Queen of Dragons, she may offer something better than an evil prince’s birthday party.

We travel to the petitioners’ tents outside the castle walls. Silli’huus' tent is no longer there so we travel on to the meeting place. She is there, just setting colored piles of sand inside an arcane circle for her ritual as we arrive. She is pleased to see Rey and unperturbed by the rest of us.

“Come! Come!” she says to Rey. “Do you want to speak to the queen?”

Rey kneels down in front of the blue sand pile. At Silli’huus' gestures and words, it forms a dragon head which begins to speak. Rey told me later what it said.

“Dragotha has betrayed us. She intimidates and enslaves my children. You have a connection with other individuals who also seek her demise. Find her power and extinguish it. You may kill her as well if you like. For this I will reward you.”

“Dragotha is unliving or I would have snuffed her out myself,” the head adds.

“Where?” says Rey.

“Dragotha is in a place called the Worm Crawl Fissure, a great rift. Seek her doom there. Reconcile the differences between you and others among your friends.”

With that, it falls back into a mound of blue sand.

***
 
Journal of Etona 26

We are returning to the wizard’s city-castle as we chat.


“The Worm Crawl Fissure? That sounds bloody miserable,” says Egan.


“May we take avengers and a dozen sun priests with us?” I offer. “It could be a piece of pie.”


“Cake,” says Rey. “Piece of cake, is the expression.”


“That’ll be some time to assemble,” says Treig. “I don’t have those resources. Probably none of you do either? Yeah. Need to take this back to Tenser, see what wants to do. In the meantime, sounds like we’re going to a spoiled prince’s fancy party.”


The invitations to this event are magical in nature: at least part of the celebration will be held in the Fey. These scrolls aid in physically transporting us there. I will rely on Verdre – and My Mistress – to lead us through any trouble navigating through – and out of – wherever this place might be. The Fey is not tiny.


Our new identities will be as follows:

  • Trieg – Himself: The Gray Fox, leader of a crack team of mercenaries, there to pay tribute and also offer services to the prince
  • Me – Selina, Treig’s toy-of-the-week as he is mine; also Rey’s barker; also the one responsible for drawing out Lashonna
  • Rey – Herself: Champion of the Greyhawk Arena, Slayer of the Worm, demigod. Her most difficult assignment will be speaking well of her own deeds.
  • Verdre: Rey’s irascible alley cat and our primary spy
  • Jodan – Posing as Darius who, it turns out, looks just like him? I guess? I had not noticed, though most human males look approximately alike to me


Our mission is to find out what happened to Balacard. He came here investigating the Ebon Triad but switched the focus of that inquiry to Dragotha once he got here. I believe Treig and Jodan have their own motives as well, but I leave them to their own schemes.


Tenser is able to not only produce the invitations but transport us, via teleportation circle, to the Al Haster, complete with a phantasmal re-creation of Rey slaying the worm in the Arena!


Al-Halster seems a typical human town of this size: walled from the world, cleansed of natural environment so that it is all human in every direction but up, offering many of the same scenes and scents as Greyhawk. What is less typical are the winged devil guards on all the battlements. We were warned the presence from Hell was…ostentatious.


As we march down the central avenue leading to the castle currently occupied by Prince Zeech, we notice a tall, dark, unfinished building rising from the cobblestone in the corner of the city not far from the castle. It resembles in some ways the temple we had just smashed in the jungle thousands of leagues away.


“I am compelled to build it!” Zeech will tell Treig later on in describing his affinity for a being called Hextor.


There are two parties, apparently. One is the celebration for the prince. The other, the one in the Fey, is a trap for the prince’s enemies. Jodan’s face and adopted mannerism – Darious’ – get us to the correct one complete with both my bow and aunt. Our entrance is announced and splashy.


Of all the members of our troop, Zeech is impressed most by Treig and spends time talking to him. I flit about chatting with others among the dozen or so assembled here, drawing attention to myself or occasionally to a scowling Rey who seems content to mainly assume poses of might. Our ‘cat’ trails my conversations listening for gossip. We are awaiting the arrival of Lashonna who was sent to take care of the group of guests: take care to thoroughly lose them in the Fey or possibly even massacre them, it is not clear.


Shag is here! My big orange dragon chess teacher and gentle friend from Diamond Lake’s Emporeum. He has made it out alive and is, of all places, at this event! I cannot allow him to, to, er, ‘blow my cover’, yes, so I direct many hand signals to him pleading that he not notice me. Fortunately Rey, who may be known to all, engages him, asking him to act the part along in our little play.


The festivities begin. First, dinner. Zeech’s kitchens offer us all manner of eel, insects, and slime: dishes that would seem to be more at home in the corner of a dungeon just within reach of an ancient prisoner than gracing the table of the lord. Perhaps this is a royal custom among this tribe of humans? Lower oneself to eating barely-edible foods as a connection to the wretched? Or is it an amusing joke? I find some of it overly seasoned and other plates plain enough to warrant my adding my own spices. The slime dish is the worst and causes me to leave the table and expel it from my body. And I am not the only one. Jodan loves it, though: perhaps it is served as pudding in Gehenna.


Games are next, contests of various sorts where Zeech attempts to beat his guests. The first is target practice with crossbows. I dislike these machines, these bastardizations of a true bow, so I demur. Treig wins handily using a technique to refill his machine that keeps his hands almost a blur of reloading bolts.


Next is an odd game where two players – Zeech and Rey – magically take over a pair of chickens. These are let loose among a gang of cats in a pit and….


How did Verdre get down there?


Goddess! They are cockatrice!


Cockatrice are wizard-created monsters that peck their targets to stone. Given how these dinner-sized, otherwise harmless raptors view the world, they are clearly the product of a human wizard’s sense of humor. How they multiplied to be found in more than one place in the world is beyond telling.


There are two here now. Does Verdre know? Why is she down there? Surely Rey knows that the green-tailed, largest cat is her own?


Surely Zeech knows….


I watch in fascinated horror as one by one the cats are turned to stone. Rey, I see, certainly sees what is happening and is trying some strategy to let Verdre know? My aunt sees it differently down there and attacks Rey’s cockatrice. Cat statue after cat statue are created until there are few left, Verdre leaping again and again at Rey – she must think it is Zeech – until finally….


Thank the Fates.


Afterward, with the prince sulking from his latest loss, Rey yells at “her cat”. Verdre snarls back. I interpose picking up my aunt – she tolerates this sulkily – and placing her in another corner of the room.


I would tell Rey later: “She does not care about other cats as you do. She assumed you were the other one, picking and pecking her targets and ignoring you in order to win and end the game while she takes care of Zeech. Druids in my tribe are not soft-hearted about other animals: they are prey, and the druids are ever the hunters.”


“I though druids were guardians of the forest.”


“They are. We are, all of us. Elves of Emersanine honor our prey for both the chase and the meat knowing it could be us in their jaws, and rightfully so if they are able to hunt us down. It is The Way of Things. So you see why she would have thought that you were Prince Zeech’s animal.”


She relents. She is stubborn, my Rey, but not unreasonable.


I chat with a devil guard, complimenting her and asking her about her wardrobe: do you get undressed for bed and wear a nightie or some sort of pajama or do you sleep in leather and chains? Do you sleep? Do you wear anything underneath your armor? What do you use for the dye? It’s magical, I assume, so do each of you make your own armor? When do you learn that? If so, is every devil able to create magic armor or does it come from a few who do? Do you use money or is it from those who have to those who need? Do you have money? Are the coins hot all the time? Are you hot all the time? So are you born or created or forged from other life?


She leaves in a huff which puzzles me: I thought I was taking an interest.


I finally get to talk to Shag. I pull him aside, hug, and we catch up. He left Diamond Lake after he was unable to do anything about its destruction or save the life of Madame Z.


“How did you end up here?”


He smiles. “I am interesting to people, I guess.” I am sure the money he was able to save also helped. He wouldn’t elaborate, however, and I did not pry.


***​
Lashonna finally arrives.


Hers is an older soul than I or Verdre: an elf of some five centuries or more. I approach her once she is done greeting all of the guests: “making the rounds” is the excellent human expression. I strike up a conversation – this is my assignment – with an air of flighty curiosity.


“You came from an errand in the Fey, did you not?” I open with. “I had thought the party was going to be there. I was surprised when it wasn’t. I haven’t visited the Fey in some time and had hoped to return.”


“I was on an errand for our governor, Zeech, which put me in the Fey for part of the celebration.”


“Where are all the other guests?”


I have to say, Lashonna is very frank.


“Most of them escaped in an unexpected cave-in, but a couple of them were crushed by falling rock and snow. I left the scene. I believe Zeech had intended them to be devoured by angry dire apes, however that did not happen as planned due to the unstable caves that he chose to transport them to.”


Wide-eyed, all feigned innocence, I pursue: “Were any of these people your acquaintances?”


“No, they were political opponents of Zeech. I did not know them.”


I look to her tone, her eyes, her body language, but there seems to be no regret there. She is cool and pleasant, even-tempered, from the southern forests. These and her slightly distracted air remind me of Tamyl, my people’s shaev’e, (this loosely translating to “leader” though more a first among equals, an elder, but Tamyl also leads us when we must fight as a single people). Lashonna’s discussion of the trapping of other humans is matter-of-fact, though she ends each statement with a small smile, one that doesn’t rise to her eyes.


I let her go a while and catch up to her again as she makes her way to the balcony. No one speaks with her long, I see.


“What do you think of the new building the prince is having erected near here?”


“He has grand aspirations of ascending to demigod status by pleasing Hextor with a grand temple and gaining power and influence over the bandit kings. I have no doubt that his attempt will be recognized by his faith, but likely will fall short of his aspirations.”


I lean in conspiratorially: “What do we think of Hextor?” I ask.


She produces a wry smile: “Like many deities, they require humans to fill their cups only to dump them out again. I have no allegiance to Hextor, nor do I support the goals of conquest or dominion that it purports. Consider me a steward to the city. If his temple threatens the livelihood of the people, then I would intervene.”


“Champion Rey told me about her trials in a jungle somewhere where she and some other heroes fought slimy things? Of some kind? In a temple that she says looked like this new one. As I mentioned before, I would like to spend some of Treig's money and potentially acquire a site here – visit it on occasion – and do not want some evil god perched over my new land.”


“Mm, then I would consider a different town, unless Gray Fox has financial interest in the place. Leaders here are shallow in most instances and choose faiths that serve their selfish needs. Someone has to help preserve the lifeblood of the town, and it isn’t the aristocracy.”


“So why you, if you do not mind me asking? What is your bond with this human town?”


“My ties are, historically, as matron. I raised this village from the swamp, and I intend to live long in its history or not, but while I am here I am a benevolent clock maker.”


“Oh, these humans and their busy, busy plans. They carve their initials into the world and then die not even knowing whether their ideas are any good, what the ramifications are, thinking only in mere years.”


She agrees, and I turn my questions to Balacard. She freely tells me that pages of his journal along with a map of Nyr Div are all he left behind. Definitely a sign post for us, a beckoning to keep following. These documents are carefully tucked away in her human-built home among the other manors of the Al-Halster respected. Asked if we could go to her home and retrieve these, she assented with a shrug.


The party winds down. I leave believing I’ve made at least a couple new friends. Everyone was most guarded there, so it is difficult to say for certain. Prince Zeech struck me me not as the vain, arrogant imbecile I had assumed I would find, but more a vain, arrogant, lost little boy. He will not leave a mark so much as a small stain on the world – indeed, he is being manipulated by Hextor even now – but perhaps Lashonna can influence him after all.


We all meet, after the festivities are over, at Lashonna’s house. She takes us right to Balacard’s map and journal and seems tolerant of my little white lie enabling me to look through her other rooms, which we do. We discover nothing of interest, though I think Jodan found an aura he didn’t like somewhere near a basement.


The map directs us to Tillagos where still stands a library on an island on a lake under a tremendous ever-raging storm. It was set there by the First Watch, my same distant cousins who erected the wall around the ziggurat. It is possible the island itself, from their magiks, even moves around.


In the library is apparently information about Dragotha’s phylactery, her secret-of-secrets life force kept in an unknown receptacle.


We must thus not only outfit ourselves appropriately but also find a ship and crew willing to brave the journey. Treig attends to it. Useful, that human.


A man named Matthias is owner of such a craft, called Eye of the Storm. He and his trio of daughters, all of them strong and friendly, do business on this huge lake – more like an inland sea but for the fresh water – and they are ready and able to take us in.


I strike up quick friendships with each of them – Myra, Cleo and Lachle – though particularly with Myra, the pilot. She gives me lessons.


I know how to pilot a boat already thanks to my upbringing on the Mirror, but those are elven craft. This heavy human one requires different skills, though I feel like I pick them up readily enough.


***​

It is a beautiful, cloudless day when we set out. I will reflect, later on, that there are so many reasons I am glad my aunt is here, but among them, certainly, is her druidcraft.


The storm, when we come to it, is vast and impenetrable. She assesses our situation and enacts two plans, one for heading in and one for getting out again.


For the first, she summons the largest shark I have ever seen to pull us. It simply tows the boat as I steer us across shifting currents through rocks that seem designed to rip ships, and everyone else but greening Jodan – not a lot of water in Hell, I guess – row their hearts out. In this fashion we work through the maelstrom to the island, navigating thirty-foot waves, a hungry-lookingwhirlpool and boat-chewing shoals.


Verdre has assumed the boat would not make it all the way, either anchoring or foundering, so she meditated half a day to beseech Our Mistress of Gifts With Strings Attached for an alternate way out. An enormous silver feather floated down from the heavens to land her arms.


“We may run on the wind itself,” is all she says, smiling. That sounds exhilarating – I almost hope we will have to use it.


***​
We pass vast numbers of shipwrecks and skeletons to get to the eye of the hurricane under which sits the island. An entire city’s ruins stretch to the horizon.


We have neighbors sharing the shoreline with us: orcs, by the look of them, washed up on shore and wringing their clawed hands about the condition of their broken vessel. Verdre hops to her feet to remind Rey that orcish annihilation is not our mission today. Anyway, it seems clear they not interested in us and in fact might not even know we’re here.


We leave the ship and daughters with Verdre to protect them from any incursion by the local fauna. The rest of us head inland to seek this fabled library….
 
Journal of Etona 27

Jodan looks conflicted as we all hop out of the boat. He steps out and stops, some internal struggle taking turns controlling his face. Rey takes off scouting the shoreline, so I dash after her, the two of us scramble across uncountable rocks that seem to be left over from a whole other island torn up, sharpened and cast here as weapons against visitors of any sort.

Our attention is called back: a commotion back at the boat. Jodan still isn’t moving, but heat is roiling around him making the air shimmer. The rail from boat behind him browns, its paint bubbling. His chains are writhing.

“What is that?” screams Cleo, one of the sisters.

Jodan is bellowing in Infernal now, I think, and, yes, there is his sword, the devil-in-steel, Beherit.

One last change in his features, his aura, his body language. The Hell Knight has wholly arrived, utterly present like I haven’t seen before. This is not Jodan: this is the devil prince, Beherit.

But the island is not having it: stone shoots out of the ground and envelopes his feet. I start running back to him.

“We can’t take him anywhere,” I call over my shoulder to Rey.

Beherit is slashing at the stone which crumbles and breaks. New stone emerges but it is too slow.

“Beherit!” says Treig, calmly. “This will not get you what you want. We will. We are doing what needs to be done, and so we cannot block your own interests here even if we wanted to. Return Jodan to us. You know this is the smart move.”

The words work a transformation and Jodan, in short order, is returned to us. It takes somewhat longer for me calm down the sisters, but Verdre will stay with them and that seems to help.

We move into the island.

***​

I lay my eyes for the first time on a creature – a whole knot of them, in fact – called a roper. I’ve heard stories of them, these underground menaces that contribute to making life so very difficult for Drow and dwarf. I am amazed to see several of them now, right here, live: dense, incredibly hostile foliage armed with spiked tentacles and frighteningly huge mouths. Fortunately, they are essentially immobile.

They were the first creatures we met in navigating what can only be described as an actual maze of manipulated stones that make up the region of the island we are on now. They are clustered on slabs of stalactites. On their tough hides are carved runes that I recognize. I cannot read them – they are druidic – but I know someone who can. She is just a short stroll back to the water.

Verdre is surprised to see me as I stumble out of the maze towards her. Each rock seemed to be identical to every other; it took me ages to find the ocean again. In fact, had it not been the pounding surf I was seeking I may not have found it. I have only been lost a handful of times before, and at least two of them had been magical fields designed to beguile. Here, I kept returning to the ropers from different directions, though I also crept by a nasty-looking tree that seemed to be the patriarch of all ill-tempered flora in the world.

I tell my aunt of the runes and she comes with me to take a quick peek. Together we find the grotto with the ropers readily enough.

She stares at the creatures, writing down what she sees into her Infinite Book. Eventually she has enough to translate. It is a sort of druidic treatise on nature, not words of power at all, more like, “We were here” from the First Watch. Interesting though not useful. She returns to the boat, looking thoughtfully at her surroundings. She will start a new map, I know, as soon as she has time.

The rest of us proceed to the base of a cliff a ways off. There, in front of a shallow cave is a courtyard in the maze that was probably a lovely spot once, a place for a … pik’nik, I think the humans call it. Now it is broken stone benches and white statuary and strewn crystals. Something recently – perhaps a couple days ago – blew them all to rubble. There is some blood, and we manage to piece together the scene: these were stone golems, and they were in a fight with at least two people, probably more. A quick scouting of the area reveals nothing nearby, but there is another party of adventurers on the island.

Blue crystals are scattered about, evidently from inside the statues. Treig scoops a few of them up and we continue into the shallow cave a couple hundred yards past.

An obsidian disk is in here. Seven eyes are carved into the stone circle, three of them are filled, and four more serve as depressions for fist-sized crystals.

…such as those we just got from the golems.
…such as those stuck to the base of the ropers.

“Return my eyes to me and I shall gaze through the storm,” it reads in Orrin, translated by Treig… courtesy of the circlet? I guess? I honestly have no idea how it performs these miracles of communication, particularly written language. Has he now an air elemental residing in that noggin? Or does the circlet actually whisper the translation? Or does it just look like Common to him? He won’t say, just shrugs.

He places a blue crystal in a depression. It fits perfectly, sparkles a little.

And so we have our assignment: we need the three other colors.

Treig believes he can excavate the ropers’ green jewels from their “feet”, a mass of arboreal foot-roots, if Rey will confer a traceless passage spell to him. I think Verdre or myself are the better choices, but he does have that magic cloak. Since he is reluctant to give it to one of us temporarily, this becomes his task to carry out.

He is successful, though: he returns with crystals plucked, the ropers none the wiser.

He repeats his thievery in the opaque tide pool of the monstrous tree I passed to retrieve red crystals.

That leaves the violet ones. It doesn’t take us long to find them.

We spot a place in the maze that has collapsed in an odd way: the walls’ rocks are piled twenty feet high in a ramp up against two other walls forming a corner. As we approach, a river of lightning pours out of the loose shale, striking Rey who shrugs it off. She wields her spear and charges. A moment later I can see her target: something called a behir, a large, multi-legged, snake-like creature that hates dragons, according to Treig. He isn’t going to like Rey.

It dies a violent death. It attacked Rey ferociously, never taking its eyes off her, and she is gravely hurt in battling it. But she is made of discarded deities, my Rey, and shrugs off horrific wounds that would kill many and cripple the rest. While I am tending to her, Treig harvests the violet crystals.

We return to the black disc and insert our collected chromatic bounty. The tempest seems to hush. There is a … drawing back, something anticipatory.

Treig and I step on the disc.

Immediately, the scent of grass in summer. Warmth, and peace.
A forest is to our south where there was none before. Snowy mountains to the north.

We are not in the Fade anymore. This is the Fey.

Rey and Jodan appear a few seconds later.

The Hell-Knight begins to age quickly and in short order looks almost skeletal! He starts chanting something and, with a fiercely determined look directly at me, he disappears. Gone, as if he had taken the Ethereal Plane drought.

While we’re putting together the words to express our surprise, he reappears, youthful again. But his arm is now encased in raw, uncut red crystals. Also, something about his aura has changed. Normally he exudes tyranny and power, and considerable heat. When he comes back, these are gone, replaced – for a handful of heartbeats – with Jodan-as-human. He wears, for that moment, the same expression as when he was with Natasha. And then Hell takes over again. But not completely. There is something else now in his eyes.

“Where did you go?” I ask.

He grunts. He doesn’t seem to want to look directly at me.

“Jodan?” I repeat and step towards him. “Where did you go?”

He is saved from answering me by the arrival of four hoary beings from some Fae duke’s court. Draped in mossy Fae armaments, banners of the elements flapping, butterflies and other insects hovering around them, and shouldering the weariness of millennia, they have stepped out of the ground, the wind, and the trees.

“I am Tilthranos,” announces one of them. “We are the Last Resort.”

The Common words are heavily inflected. ‘Last resort’ is obviously an inaccurate translation.

“We protect the secrets of this island,” he continues.

Treig steps forward.

“We seek something called the phylactery of Dragotha,” he says.

“Mm, you seek the Fountain of Dreams, but know that should you drink of it all secrets of what you seek shall be revealed to the world; the order of the Rite of the First Watch will be undone; and great creatures of legend will be set loose upon your world.”

“What creatures, exactly?” I ask.

“They roam this place. They will roam yours.”

“And which secrets?”

“Your books which were emptied of the words for what you seek will fill again. Stories lost will be known once more; journals and drawings rediscovered: all will go back into the Fade from which they were taken.”

“How do we start this off?” Treig asks.

“Should we start this off?” I ask. I pull us aside. “What if what we will unleash is worse than Dragotha?”

“I can’t really imagine that,” says Treig. “Dragotha is a plague spreading unlife everywhere, a head that bites two heads who bite four heads, and so on. It just keep growing like a disease loose in a city, except the city is our whole world.”

“We are not guaranteed to succeed in slaying Dragotha. But moving forward here will definitely add more destruction to the world. We could end up making things worse.”

Treig spreads his hands. “What do you recommend?”

“We should try,” says Rey. “We should always try, Etona. That is what you have said to me many times, and you were always right.”

I give her a mock-withering look that communicates what I think of her quoting me back to me, but I step back from the Watchers.

“So again,” says Treig to them, “how do we begin?”

“The Fountain will know you from your deeds. You must accomplish four tasks. The first trial: claim the golden belt of Krathenos, in his keep far to the south.”

Another watcher finally speaks.

“I am Baescoaen. Silence the Doom Shroud’s mournful song.”

A third one says, “I am Thoddamar. Seek the nightmare in the Thorn Vale to the furthest west.”

And the fourth: “I am Saeran Lai. Harvest the living feather of the Roc King in the mountains to the north.”

“These sound like feats of strength,” I interject, “and not trials of wisdom or virtue. Is the library for any who wield power?”

“The trials bespeak their own natures,” Tilthranos replies, “and will each, in turn, challenge your heroic aspect.”

“Have other attempted these tests?” says Rey.

“Yes, but none have succeeded.”

“What happened to them?”

“Some perished. Some merely left. A few are still here.”

“What are the creatures that will be freed to run amok in our world?” I ask Tilthranos.

“You see them here. Creatures of legend, beings from stories.”

“Are any of them world-shaking in their influence? Are any, for example, the actual island we are on, or the island is just barely big enough to contain a titan or something like that? Are there any who can affect thousands or the minds of thousands?”

“They are powerful; they are beings of legend. But no, none could shatter a nation.”

I look to Treig.

"Then we accept,” he says. “Should we do then in a particular order? Does that matter?”

“The trials may be completed as pleases you. It is for you to decide.”

“OK. Can you tell us anything about any of them?”

“We have said all we must.” And with that, they each withdraw, one into the trees, one into the ground, and the last two simply fading away leaving behind a puff of steam and a curl of smoke, each quickly lost to the wind.

“If we are to set out on these quests,” I say to the group, “then we must go back to the boat for Verdre.”

“Why do we need her again, necessarily?” To head off my incredulous reply, he quickly adds, “Just sayin’, it takes time and crystals, and we don’t have much of the latter. In fact,” he pulls out the collection, “we can go back and forth only one more time.”

“Then we have enough. Anyway, we must warn the sisters. What with the time difference between here and the Fade, we could be days or weeks before we return. Much could happen.”

He sighs. “OK. We go back to the boats.”

“Treig?” He turns back to me. “This wasn’t really a request.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m just, trying to keep everything together.”

“And you are doing a magnificent job.”

Poor man: it is so important that there be plans and control, as if the world could be mastered.

***​

Getting back is uneventful as Rey and I are beginning to understand the lay of the land. Verdre reports nothing amiss back at the boat. I look over her charts: she has captured the hazards of our journey in sketches within little side-boxes that point back to where they are on the map. How she memorized the details and the course we took and so truly reproduced it all whilst gripped in the storm’s jaws is beyond me.

We explain to the sisters what we are about to do and what the consequences may be in terms of not seeing them for some time. We beg them to leave, for their own good, assuring them we had another way off of the island, and they finally assent.

I press a gold into each of their palms. “To spend.” I press a silver into each of their other palms. “To remember us by.” They all know Verdre and I are sent by Her Night-Shaded Majesty, and the coin resembles a full moon. “Spend that one after we come back. I want to see all of you again.” I hug each one in turn making unhappy noises at the journey that circumstance has forced them to make, but Myra assures me it will be an easier thing to return than to come.

“This place hates visitors like a hermit watching an approaching troupe of joke-telling jugglers. It will be all too glad to watch us leave,” she says. She then presses a medallion inscribed with a single eye into my hand. “For good luck, to you, Etona, and to all of you.”

“I will see you again,” I promise.
***​

One more long look at the orcs. They are dressed and armed like pirates, that is, sailors as opposed to a war party waiting to get to a destination. I shouldn’t think a band of orcs would have any interest in plundering a dangerous island for some books.

Verdre remembers she saw a cloaked figure step out of the rocks near their ship, spy on the orcs for a moment, and then vanish back into the maze.

None of us can say what is going on here.

“I am surprised you do not want to saunter over and ask them to tea,” Verdre teases.

“I might, but keeping Rey from jumping at them is taking all my energy. With Eye of the Storm safely off, and they have given us no trouble at all, I am for simply returning to the disk and making the crossing back to the Fey side.”

“Sensible,” she returns with arched eyebrow.

“I can be sensible, too.”

“Of course.”

***​

Our first task after we complete the journey back, we decide, is to go and retrieve the golden belt. It is presumably on the mythical creature that lives in a fortress at the southernmost tip of the forest. Our choices to get there are around the woods or through.

It is the first forest I think I have ever seen Verdre blanch on the notion of entering. I do not blame her. Called the Doom Shroud, that name might be too lively for it. Black trees drip with ichor, smell of disease, as inviting as an exploration of Greyhawk’s sewers. Apparently there are also monsters within. How fun! We leave it to the last: perhaps we’ll be dead by then.

So, walking around grasslands where different packs of carnivorous animals are busy hunting. We see their signs: ripped up or flattened reeds; broken bones with impressive teeth marks; pieces of hide; all on a larger-than-us scale. Battles between big combatants. Rey and Verdre confer: there are packs of at least three different animals out here of any size besides the hyenas and – what did Verdre call them? – gazelles: fast, hopping, plains deer with unmatched grace that can turn almost in mid-air at great speed. Verdre spent some time following a herd of them, studying.

We sighted a bulette, a “land shark”, in the distance. It surfaced with a spray of dirt. Its prey, a couple of dogs separated from their pack, vanished.

Not long after that we moved into an area where for miles we saw no sign at all of the bulette. Verdre was commenting on how odd it was that they seemed to have a surprisingly small roam when several things happened at once.

A hissing sound but not from an animal, more like a river of insects.
Movement all around us, suddenly there as if we had stepped out of a quiet lake into a forest fire.
A sound like that of what humans call a cougar.
Purple flags flapping, no, black and purple, no, tentacles not flags, on hides, on big cats with tentacles and fuzzy outlines that hurt the backs of my eyes.

Yukuma,” Verdre says. Displacer beasts!”

They are on us from nowhere. Where did they come from?

I immediately tree-step away. Out comes Angivre. Verdre unsheathes Glitter with a frosty whisper that freezes the grass in front of her; Treig reaches for a handful of whatever surprising little weapon-devices he has stashed away. Rey’s beast, after locking eyes with her, simply kneels down, paws forward.

But it is Jodan who takes command of the situation. He barks at them in Infernal, his face contorted, his armor chains wave in mockery and contempt of their own tentacles, burning steel versus mere hide. He seems, as he often does when he puts on this show, like a thing summoned from Gehenna.

It does the trick: the cats are so cowed by him that Verdre and Treig’s mere snarls are enough to drive them off. Neither side so much as scratched the other.

“Will they return?” Rey asks. Verdre shakes her head, no. “How do you know?”

“They are intelligent but malign. They hunt for pleasure. There is no pleasure to be gained with us, they could see that plainly. And one among us,” she nods at Jodan, “may even seem like a master to them. You spoke Infernal?” Jodan nods. “They speak that as well. They understood you. What did you say?”

“Just some sweet nothings.”

Verdre, it turns out, knows a lot more about the yukuma. They are from the Unseelie Court, the dark fae. There is much to say about them but it would, and has at the hands of better chroniclers than I, filled scores of books. Suffice to say, they are bred for war and are now loose upon the world. This little island world, anyway.

***​

We again come upon a trail that had been running straight through the zigzag (what a delicious human word) of our own. Another herd of huge beasts, though these must be slow and ponderous, judging by their wake. I come upon their droppings and tentatively identify them as herbivore. Verdre confirms, and Rey agrees. I had not learned tracking as well as the rest of my people when I was young, but the years in the woods alone before Diamond Lake sharpened my senses, and now my guesses almost always accord with theirs.

We catch up to them. They are olifants.

Massive creatures with enormous tusks, long gray trunks, ears like sails and legs, gray columns: I can see why few would want to attack them.

Rey cautions us to wait. She approaches them carefully. They watch warily but allow her to put down her spear, open her arms, move near. When she is within some yards, a big male begins to look agitated. The herd behind moves off. She drops to her knees in supplication. It will be easy for the bull to trample her.

“Think she’s OK out there?” says Treig.

Verdre frowns. “They doubtless sense the dragon in her. It will make her task more difficult. But your friend is talented,” she says. “Give her time.”

Rey, perhaps sensing that a change in tactic was needed, rises to her feet and roars to the male. It rears, and she bows down her head but remains standing. It probes with its trunk and she swats it away at first then accepts with a nod. She comes to its face, stares into its eye, whispers something. And they accept her.

She is in their midst now, hidden and reappearing as the others come circle them. After some minutes, she emerges.

“Etona, I think you will want see this,” she says. “All of you, come. But Jodan, maybe you in a moment. They are still skittish.”

She has charmed the lot of them, and they do the same to me. Patient eyes and close bonds with one another – and their sheer size – has me breathless in their midst.

“We may ride them,” Rey says to my astonishment. This is a gift! It is practically worth everything simply to arrive at this moment.

They travel back and forth through the plains largely unmolested by the predators here, Rey is saying, so long as they are vigilant. We had been scurrying from stone outcropping to mole hill to tree to rock pile in an attempt to foil the senses of the bulettes, and it was working but taking its toll on some of us. I could do this for many moons, and Rey and Verdre for more, as could Treig, probably, but Jodan was becoming increasingly cranky and more willing to fight the bulettes head-on with each passing hour. He is not a plains-runner.

Now we can move with the olifants, though, who are not bothered by the land sharks so long as they travel in their herd, and in this way we are their companions, and extraordinarily their riders, all the way to the keep.

***​

It is as well we met them: I am constantly distracted by the floral bounty of the island. After perhaps the fourth time I dash off – never far, to gather the treasures I have been spotting ever since we arrived – Verdre approaches me on my return.

“You have found them: goldflower, lucia, maellen,” she says. “It is why you keep running off?”

“Only for a few minutes at a time,” I reply. “Anyway, yes! Aloa-dori, trapantas, waevran root. Verdre, there are herbs here I have only read about in stories.”

“Herbs that I have only associated with fables,” Verdre agrees. “But you must let me know when you go off and forage. This is a dangerous place.”

“I am not a child, Verdre.”

“And I do not want to dampen your adult enthusiasm, but you must speak up or I will worry. And Rey will worry.”

I realized that stamping my foot on the ground would not communicate the grave overtones of maturity that I sought to convey, so I simply nod.

“You are right, of course,” I say. In the background I see Rey – trying not to be noticed – listening carefully. She breathes a sigh of relief.

***​

The keep is worked stone, built from a mountain of stone, guarded by flying stone creatures retrieving flying stones. The olifants size this up and halt. We will need to proceed on foot.

“They will be here when we return,” Rey promises.

The flying statues are animated gargoyles flapping around the fortress. A few tend to a task of fetching boulders arcing from time to time out of the open mouth of the keep, some of them rolling to within a few hundred yards of us. Each one of these projectiles is preceded with a booming noise from inside the keep, a word something like woethraan.

“We walk in, we talk to the owner of this place, probably Krathenos,” says Treig.

I look dubiously at a two hundred pound rock in its own crater not far from us. “Maybe we should creep in carefully, unseen, and assess the situation first,” I reply.

He nods up to the swarms of gargoyles and wide-open gate. “I don’t think unseen is really an option. Besides, if we march in, nothing to hide, then we start from a position of honesty. “

“We don’t know Krathenos or what this belt even is, really.”

“Yeah. Well, that’s why I wanna introduce us, all open and proper.”

“It’s only polite,” pipes up Jodan, but I think he’s making a joke.

“The spider welcomes the polite fly,” says Verdre but tossing her hair in a gesture of unconcern.

We march in through the front gate, through huge, well-lit corridors, to the throne room. A twelve foot man of stone is pacing. He stops when he sees us, sizes us up, smiles broadly.

“Adventurers,” he says with a laugh. Amusement and disdain, but a little curiosity, all contained in the single word. “Have you come to test your mettle against me?”

Treig steps up.

“You are Krathenos?”

He kneels down to look at Treig.

“Yes.” He caresses the word.

“My name is Treig. This is Jodan, Speaker Rey, Etona, and Verdre, uh, over there with the drawing pad. We are here for a golden belt in your possession. We seek to barter for it.”

“Interesting. And what do you offer?”

“What do you need?”

He laughs at this and stands up again. “My freedom. Do you have that in your pack?”

“I may. When we get the belt, and three other items, the beings on this island will be released back into the world. You will be freed.”

We explain the quest, and the quest-givers, and the four items we will be traveling all over the island to retrieve. And we tell him why we are here pursuing all this. He is a remarkably reasonable stone giant. Or perhaps they are all like this and their reputation is marred: I have never met one before Krathenos.

He agrees, but on one condition:

“Finish the other three quests first and you shall have my belt.”

“Agreed.”

***​

It is a long trek back to our next destination, the aerie of the roc king. North back where we came from, past the pestilent forest, to the hills and mountains, to a particular peak.

Once again Treig has decreed we proceed in the open.

“But these are rocs, not flying statues,” I say. “We are food to them, and if they have a king then we are a threat as well.”

Indeed, they swoop past us as we come into their territory long before we have even started the vertical climb. But there is something….

“Do you see?” says Verdre.

“Yes. Necrotic,” I reply.

The great birds are wounded, singed by death magic.

“Rey, can you be our intermediary?” Treig asks.

“It will be difficult,” she says. “They do not come close, and none are here for more than second.”

But I have already started praying.

One roc swoops through a field of healing I have summoned. Then another. A third. They pause in their surprise, and Rey makes contact. She assures them we mean no harm and would only like to speak to their king. This goes on for some time until she eventually announces they will fly us up to the royal aerie.

There are few experiences in the world akin to flying. Some of the druids of our tribe aspire to flight above all else. Verdre is one of them. I look over to her after we are airborn: she is curiosity and inquiry and noting everything, but she is also joy personified. She will fly one day, and we will reel from her happiness.

We are gently dropped off into the cold, ruined nest where lies the dead shell of the king. The rocs bow their heads as we examine him, scorch-frozen to death by necrotic energy. No feathers are present: taken by the invaders, we assume.

We try to piece together what happened, try to assess this other group likely now our foe. The attackers killed this king right here, so either they flew through an army of these things or they materialized here. Then they got away, but there are no bodies to indicate casualties. It is possible, I suppose, that the rocs hurled one or more of their assailants into the valleys below but I don’t think so: anyone willing to take on a flock of giant predatory birds with the intention of killing their leader in his own home is well-prepared.

Since we cannot continue, Rey summons one of the four Watchers. He is aghast with what he sees.

“If you avenge the roc king,” he says, “I will give you my banner.” That is, it will serve as one of the four quests.

He further offers us some details. There are five of in this other party. They vanished from here using magic. They are a Hand of Vecna, probably heading to the shrouded Thorn Veil about two days ahead of us.

“Summon me when they are dead,” he says and then becomes fog in the wind and disappears.

***​

The great birds take us to the Thorn Veil, swooping over it until Verdre spies their passage: a twenty-foot-wide withered path through the iron-hard, blade-like thorns.

Evidently, it took them some time to make it here and get through as far as they have into the Veil, because we catch up to them.

They are not aware of us as we creep up from behind.

Will we make new enemies today?

Will we be alive this time tomorrow?



I wish I knew….
 
We attack.

No, that’s not right. Treig attacks. Just Treig. It is a profoundly Jodan thing to do – I don’t know what he was thinking. I was told later that he dashed into the middle of the entire group, throwing cigars and firing his efficient little repeating crossbow, until everyone was dead.

Well, not everyone. Just one, really: a kenku on a ledge was also firing his crossbow but missed where Treig did not.

Let me back up a bit.

Rey and Verdre had scouted ahead and came upon the scene of a whirling, dark cloud moving towards the group in front of us who, with magic, managed to blow the cloud away and reveal a flying bird-horse-rhy’nos’ferous (?) underneath which Rey immediately took a liking to. There was a djinn flying something on fire, a shield put up by the mage, two underling tieflings positioning a sort of trap underneath it which began pulling the bird-horse-rhy’nos’ferous in. Rey, seeing the lone creature beset and not winning, jumped onto its back to help it. Of course. I wonder if perhaps she feels a sort of kinship with hybrid monsters because … but she is no monster, save to those who oppose her. Verdre also leaped, but onto the flying beast of the djinn, and sought to squeeze some sense into him in the form of a boa constrictor. He and she both tumbled off as Rey and her new best beast friend performed an aerial charge that dissipated his steed. And Treig was being turned to stone.

All of the above is what I pieced together through talking to Rey and Verdre later. I first saw Verdre in connection to the fight gliding back to earth as a flying squirrel.

You see, I had not been paying attention to any of this. I was, the entire time, some distance away down the burned passage through the thorns trying to see if I could pick my way through the living mass to follow a sprite who had appeared and darted away. I could not, and anyway Verdre landed and let me know there was a battle, something Jodan had already picked up on and had trotted in to lash our opponents.

I sized up the situation, fired some rounds into the fray from a good vantage point, and decided we had had enough. We could probably down the mage’s followers but not the silver-masked one himself who could not seem to be hurt permanently: even the gaping wounds caused by Angivre’s fury were almost instantly healed. More of us were going to be transmuted into stone like Treig (a striking figure in granite but like all statues, not useful) or captured or killed. Though, not killed, not here. More accurately: before our material forms ended to become other, fae forms, a fate that had happened to one of their party, the unhappy, darting sprite who was then slain again by a restored Treig as he observed it listening in on us while we were talking about the non-aggression pact. Its body was absorbed by the plants and then a raccoon-man stepped out of a huge, swelling bulb a moment later.

***​

“Why are we fighting one another?” I call out. “If you are here to seek the library, then our goals might not be in conflict. We will step back if you will.”

The silver-masked one offered one of the roc king’s feathers. We accepted. We had an accord.

Their mouth was the fire djinn, a surprisingly cheerful being named Malhazar the Exiled Flame, who knew many details about each one of us.

“You have a reputation,” he exclaims. “And it tells us that you are far more suited to facing what is here than we. In fact, if you handle the, ah, situation correctly, I don’t doubt you will complete two of the quests at the same time! Ha ha!”

“With the feather,” I venture, “that you took through unnecessary violence, that leaves only the belt. There is also no need to attack him: we have a pact with him already.”

“Ah, the stone giant. Yes,” he says, laughing. “It is how we found out about the dying here. Kufastios was a mighty minotaur, but that stone giant was too much for him even as we backed his, ah, bull-rush attack. Very impressive, but so was the strength of our opponent! And now our dauntless armored warrior is but a tiny, toothless sprite. This change has not been good for him, I will tell you. No, no. But if you have a pact with the giant already, yes, then you should be the ones to claim his belt. Yes, we work together!”

“No, we work and you try not to gratuitously set upon anything. Honestly, is killing all you know? And if so,” I remember a phrase Treig likes to use, “how is that working out for you?” The tieflings and silver-masked Vecna mage were probably lost causes, but the djinn I felt could be reasoned with, a task for later.

I leave them and our party huddles in a circle some ways away. No one is happy with the direction I am leading us.

“They killed the roc lord,” says Rey, “and using necrotic energy.”

“What of it?” says Verdre.

“What she means, I think, is that rocs are not good creatures, Rey. They aren’t gentle beings of light. And yes, I understand those people are not our friends, but we weren’t getting anywhere battling them.”

“I am not happy, Etona.”

Maybe she sees herself in the great birds, or perhaps she developed a bond with them in communicating with them. I don’t understand, and neither does Verdre: they are carnivorous foes only allied with us because there is mutual advantage.

“I thought these agents of Vecna were –,” adds Treig. He also wants to continue the fight, I sense, because he fires off his crossbow mid-sentence and plants a bolt through the minotaur-turned-sprite’s head. “…long-time foes of yours?”

We watch as the dead sprite is pulled into the thorns and spat out again from an enormous bulb as the raccoon man. He scurries away with a glare at Treig.

“Yes, they are. But … all right. We should remember what we are here for. If we are all turned into cute Fey creatures or stone, how will that further our own goals? They seem content to let us both use the library, and I doubt their purpose is more nefarious than the drowning of all the world’s life in undead worms which is what we came here to solve.”

This earns grudging acceptance.

“I will still kill them,” says Rey with an approving nod from Treig.

“Fine,” I say.

We return to the group.

“We know your name, Malhazar, and the name of this being here. Who is your master?” I nod, indicating the silver masked-mage.

“Ah,” says the djinn. “He is The Faceless One. Yes, that name again. As his has been surrounding your travels, so yours have been orbiting ours.”

“He was in the mines in Diamond Lake?”

“I believe his name was.”

What an odd answer. “Where is the next part of this task?” I ask.

“There is a cave not far from here through these odious plants.” He points to the green-grey wall in front of us, the direction they would have kept going had we not intervened.

“What is there?”

“Madness. But it is a madness you will probably handle,” he says and laughs. “Better than we, at any rate. So we are allies now?”

I take him aside and lower my voice.

“We are in cease fire. When this is all done, I must meditate on the crimes wrought here in your needlessly destructive path, and I must know what your Faceless One master means to My Mistress. But you, fire djinn, I should like to talk to again, if you are amenable, one day. Away from these others, I sense you are not entirely without light.”

He grins and bows, and their group gathers up their dead, their equipment and their capture-box, and forms their own circle some distance away.

Verdre, from her perch above, calls down to us. “I believe I can pick out a trail through this, but only Rey is likely to be able to follow. No, Etona: your chain mail will get hopelessly caught on thorns, and even if you strip and follow, Treig will not manage it, nor will Jodan.”

“I will call one of my friends,” says Rey, emphasizing the last word for my benefit.

We exchange looks. “Very well. Let me heighten your voice so that it carries.”

We move to the entrance of the Thorn Vale. I place my palm against her throat. She shrieks a terrible cry that causes me to step back. “Goodness! Er, sorry, Rey. I was unprepared.” I once more place my hand to her and she repeats the roc’s call again and again. Eventually, one flutters down to us and we clamber onto its back, Jodan submitting again to being carried in the great beast’s claws.

***

It drops us not far from where we fought, a limestone entrance steaming like a fumarole, a word Rey taught me when we visited her own mistress, Seraph.

Verde sniffs and recoils, then moves closer and peers inside.

“Two gasses make the poison,” says Rey from behind her.

"One from each vent,” Verdre says to Rey’s nod. “A wind tunnel then. Easily arranged,” says Verdre.

"Yes. But may I do it?” Rey replies.

Verdre crooks a faint smile and takes a step back, teacher studying her pupil. Rey’s long, strong arms sweep; her eyes are slits in a face contorted with concentration. She forms a corridor of wind, neatly outlined by the white malefic vapors, across both crevasses. We may now pass.

Jumping across them through Rey’s breezeway – Jodan moving past on his Hell-steel tentacles – leads us to a cavern.

And what a cavern! Its every surface is overgrown with beautiful, iridescent plants.

But my eyes are riveted down at the bottom of barely-visible steps to an altar. Behind it is a life-sized carving – black stone that does not match the rest of the rock here – of a Nightmare, an actual Hell-steed. I saw my first one almost a season ago in the arena: it carried off the death-knight form of the arena’s master of ceremonies.

On the altar lies a sleeping or dead Drow woman.

***

A Drow. My cruel but misunderstood cousins. The lost ones. Elves forced to live under the earth will go mad, and collectively they have, following their queen, Llolth – once-beautiful, once mischievous Llolth, cousin to Sehanine – also insane with the grief of separation and being buried alive. I never thought them irredeemable – as most of my kin do – but this notion was cemented when I met Lilliam.

She was a terribly shy, easily-frightened, young, lonely castaway from her own people: a Drow forced to live on the surface. She was adept at being invisible and a master of disguise besides: I had thought her a small, gray-skinned elf, the like of which I had never seen before until I realized, through patience and all-but-forcing my friendship on her, that she was Drow.

Verdre traveled with her for a time when they each separately accompanied a group of adventurers to an old, haunted, human-built keep some five days’ swift travel south of The Mirror. It had turned out that it was somehow built on an opening to the Shadowlands, and the men who had manned it had gone insane. The creatures from there moved in to join the ghosts.

Once Verdre’s group understood the nature of the problem, and allied themselves with the powerful spectre of the former paladin who roamed there, they were able to bring in a trio of cleansers: myself, a Dwarven priest of Pelor and a being from the Bright summoned by my tribe’s leader, Tamyl, a creature simply called “Te”. We permanently sealed the opening. This, however, destroyed the keep and nearly killed all of us.

I digress. My point is that my aunt and I do not share most people’s hatred of Drow. I suspect Treig doesn’t either: he is too pragmatic. Jodan? I don’t know. And Rey probably has no opinion, isolated as she has been all her life from cultural prejudice.

***

“I must go down there,” I say and turn to Rey and Verdre. “Please sweep the area for traps for me: I don’t want to get my hair mussed by something launching my head from my body.”

Rey has worn an air of conspicuous distraction since we entered. She keeps sniffing the air. After a moment she begins to examine the floor. Very carefully.

Verdre has, meanwhile, transformed into a small snake and is slowly slithering across the path I must take, back and forth, back and forth. Treig, too, is examining the walls and the floor, rapping things with a carved stick. He notices my look.

“It’s technical,” he says.

“Poison!” exclaims Rey from her hands and knees a third of the way down the stairs. “A hallucinaremic. No, a halluci– … we will start seeing things and dream awake, if I’m right about the plants here and their oils dripping into these cracks.”

All eyes goes to Verdre whose naked serpent skin is caressing those same cracks. She shimmers back to elf form and runs back to us.

“What will happen?” she asks Rey.

“Colors will grow, become like the Bright? And you might see movement where there isn’t any. And wrong shapes.” Verdre nods, unsettled. “You might not recognize anyone,” Rey goes on. “Your vision might narrow like a,” she seemed to remember something, “as like looking through a glass fish-eye lens. It’s in the ground but in the air, too. It’s only a matter of breaths.”

“This I will not permit,” says Verdre. One arm begins the waving that Rey’s had though more confidently and with smaller, easier motions. She calls a wind tunnel and extends it to the end of the cave where the air was fresh. Her other arm sets to summoning another, down the ramp to the Drow.

“Do you see? Smaller motions,” she murmurs to Rey who is watching carefully.

I smile. “Thank you, Verdre.” To the rest: “I will approach her, alone.”

“Of course,” replies Rey. “Except that I will be with you.”

Since grimacing and eye-rolling are not sufficient to dissuade her – they never are – I agree. “All right, but stay a few steps back.”

“Why would you go alone, anyway?” says Trieg. “What can you do that no one else can?”

“Apologize.”

***

“Verdre? What do these runes say?” I call up to her.

Maintaining her concentration, she comes down and looks at them. “Here lies the livery of She Who Crossed the Moon.” Her eyes widen at mine which must be moon-pies.

“Citania,” we exclaim together.

“This cannot be her,” Rey says, frowning. “She was not Drow.”

“Not originally,” says Verdre.

“Cross our Mistress of Imaginative Revenge and you may end up as anything,” I add.

Jodan had trailed after Verdre, come to stare at the Nightmare on the wall. “Who is Citania?” he asks.

I am just staring at the woman, so Verdre tells the tale.

“A fair elf, once, and priestess of Sehanine. A leader of her tribe. She carried two thousand from the failed lands to the West after the fall of the human empire of Suul. She was selected by the Goddess to bear a priestess – unusual back then, unheard of now – but so strong her feelings for life and position and her dryad lover, Meleeta, that she refused to die, somehow, when her daughter came.

“Sehanine allowed the daughter a full and normal life. But for the mother, who chose life over the Goddess’s will, she was banished from the Bright and from the surface world of the Fade. She became Drow.

“These were the days when all the gods were more wild, and My Mistress more a harsh winter than brisk autumn. For it did not end there. When the child grew older and came into her powers, she sought out her mother, very dogged according to the stories. But she could never find her. It was because her daughter was invisible to her whenever the sun or moon were out. There was only one time they could meet one another: dobrun, new moon. Even then, when Citania was near her child, she was reduced to the shape – and mind, say some of the tellings – of a small animal. Nether could ever recognize the other.

I heard the last part only distantly. My eyes closed, my hands on Citania’s, I sought My Merciful Goddess.

“I must go back up to the top to keep this tunnel open,” Verdre says to Rey somewhere. “Watch her.”

It is dark. Black. But there is a pinprick of white light from Her face beaming down to me. She will be with me, my Goddess of the Hunt who willed this centuries-long curse into existence.

Shadows now.

A girl’s face, a woman’s face but not elf

Sehanine! I am here.
Use me.
Let me right this wrong!


Crying, sadness

sounds, screams in the dark

cruel laughter

cries that are

yips
small

fur


fox


TRAPPED.

RUN.




RUN!!!
 
Etona is on all fours before me, growling and whining, fear from the back of her throat. I don’t know what has happened to her. Another trial from She Who Eternally Tests, I suppose. She has given herself over again, and I can only shake my head in wonder.

She is of the tribe, the Children of the Mirror, no doubt. She is one of us as completely as I or her father or Tamyl are. But she is so unlike us as well, almost human in her steadfast belief that she may change the world for the better. I do not know what to make of it, and neither did anyone else when she was growing up. She had few friends, but those she made would die for her as any would do once they fall under her spell. As I would. As I will without even considering. It is the Goddess in her.

But unlike other priestesses we have known, Sehanine makes use of Etona to show a merciful side, Her empathy and love. Why these qualities now, during a time when the world must fight, must struggle?

My niece will not allow me to approach: I don’t think she recognizes me. But her friend, Rey – the one who can speak to the beasts so effortlessly, better even than I – she has calmed her down. Etona is fortunate to have found someone such as Rey. I see in them two souls who would risk much for one another and I am glad. She is strong, my niece, our priestess, but at her core is that curious vulnerability that both draws people to her yet imperils her at every turn.

We must leave this cavern. I do not know what Etona has done, but the Nightmare is stirring from its place on the wall. Citania, if this is truly she, remains unconscious. And mastering such a tunnel of wind for so long has taken much out of me: it will fail soon.

Treig slings the Drow over his shoulder and makes for the crevasses. Good.

“Jodan!” I call to the cursed human king whose interest in the Hell steed runs too deep. “We must go. Rey, can you take Etona? Will she allow it?”

A nod from her and she gathers up my niece still making sounds of the fox. We are all moving to the cave entrance now. We approach the cracks in the ground and make it safely across them … all but one. I allowed my attention to wander to the Hell steed who is fully here with us now, galloping through the Fade towards us. Hastily I flatten the wind tunnel and tuck it below me to form a wall. This slows me enough to scrabble up the other side of the crevasse. The steed comes. I reach for Glitter….

No. I have another thought: the same wind wall can serve another purpose. I spread it in front of the Nightmare pouring all I have left into it, and the infernal creature cannot pass.

Outside, Rey’s roc is remarkably still there. What is this power? I have seen it in some at the Mirror, such as from Mae’i’lani, but it is not common to sway an animal without threatening it. Perhaps I may take lessons from her, if she will teach me, as she does from me.

Though it may be her nature, an unteachable thing. She is unlike anyone I – or Etona – have ever met.

We mount the great bird once more and it flies us away. I can see the black horse gallop out of the cave below us now that the wind is released. It ascends towards us slowly but comes on. It will follow us relentlessly to the place we must go, the dripping forest of ichor where we will end this sad tale one way or the other; the place, I hope, that will return Etona to us.

***​

The roc isn’t gong to be able to land: the diseased trees’ canopy is too thick. So we start jumping off, each with a way down in more or less safety. Rey and Treig each have a necklace of the floating feather, and Rey carries Etona down with her. I hear, crashing down through like dropped Displacer Cat, the cursed human king, cursing.

With effort, I assume my last form before I must rest: the flying squirrel I tried for the first time earlier today. My body lightens, I release all thoughts save for what I concentrate on. Not all of us keep our selves sheltered during the hrekshasa, the taking-of-form. My own brother frequently lost himself. He became dangerous to our tribe, even hunted down once. Fortunately, I was on that hunt when we caught him. Things were calm for some seasons after, and then he went away. He is still missing. I suspect Etona knows something, and Tamyl, certainly, as well as Dredaella, another of us reluctant to remain in elven form.

***​

As soon as I touch down, I am amazed: She is here, Sehanine. Not in body, but there Her full face shines from overhead. My muscles tingle, my veins run ice-cold with Her power.

Also, the glade has broken the spell, and my niece returns to her body. I take a moment to thank My Mistress sincerely for this.

I want to hug my niece – she is the only one who affects me in this way – but her attention is elsewhere, her mind still not completely her own. She is the cup that Sehanine’s presence is filling. I see it in her eyes – which have turned silver – that she knows what to do. My job, now, as always, is to provide her space for her spirit to roam. To fix this little part of the world in the name of mercy.
 
Journal of Etona 29

I wake, drifting down, in Rey’s arms. I smile at her.

“Hello,” I say.

“Thank the, your, goddess!” she replies. “You’re back.”

“Where did I go?”

“That is good question. I was going to fence a yard and carve a bowl for what of you remained behind.”

We touch down and she falls silent.

We are under the canopy of the nightmare forest. Black, slimy, quivering things: these are no one’s definition of tree. They crowd us in, covered in sticky, ebon sap, if that is what it is. It feels as if they are bending over to examine us, inching towards us step-by-step somehow, not exactly with menace but a sort of desperate hunger. They are frozen banshees wailing in silence.

I don’t have any recollection of getting here, but it cannot be important now: I see what these monstrous creatures of bark are doing to my companions. One by one they are succumbing to centuries of despair heaped on them in seconds.

Incongruously, Her full face shines on the scene. She stands at mirren, quenae sehan, full moon at midnight, and I sense She is here in some manner.

She wants this suffering to end.

My Lady of The Root You Trip Over Because She Shadowed It Just So is wrathful, petulant, and scheming. But She is also ever a goddess of love, and She never intends punishment to be forever. In the end She craves, as I do, a good story with a happy ending. Even in the face of – or perhaps because of – rebellion against Her edicts. Yes, She is cold white radiance, but She is our guiding light as well.

I know what to do.

***

There is a single tree here that stands out from all the other sad ones. It is larger than the others by far, and it creaks with misery. This is the dryad, Meleeta. Her hopelessness is infecting everyone except the naen’amo Emersanine, Verdre and me, the Children of the Mirror. I see it in their motions, hear it in their voices.

Meleeta stands in brackish water that, Jodan discovers when he splashes into it for some reason, is infested with schools of tiny, sharp-toothed fish. He runs out out of the deadly water but then turns around again, enchantment plain in his eyes. Verdre catches this despondence and summons something barely visible, an air being of some kind, perhaps an elemental? Can she do this now? It is astonishing to me to watch my aunt grow into an arch-druid.

The elemental keeps Jodan down so that he does not wade through the carnivorous brine to a sentient tree of pain.

I look for Treig and Rey. My dragon protector has walked right up to the dryad’s trunk and splayed herself on it! The tree has opened a maw and is just … swallowing her up. This must be what Jodan reacted to. I race to her but I cannot pull her free. Verdre doesn’t see this: she is on the far side with Treig and Citiana who is waking up and looking around.

We must end all this.

I press my own hands to the bark.

“I am here to free you, Meleena. I am here to end this curse.”

Immediately branches groan and limbs shift. A woody face emerges among the boughs.

“Are you a daughter of the moon?” it says.

“I am. And I have brought Citiana.”

“Bring her to me.”

“Treig, over here. Treig? Treig!”

He had fought off the spell of this place longer than the others but was rapidly succumbing now. My cries spur him to action: he guides the priestess across the water to stand next to me. Then he just stops. The calm, faintly amused soul that is our Gray Fox leaves his eyes which become as dull glass.

How am I to do this? I feel charged with potential but have not skill nor wit to start much less complete this unknown ritual. Everyone is waiting. And She is watching.

She has led me here to end their suffering. I can only say the words I hope are true.

“Meleena and Citiana,” I call out. “In Sehanine’s name I free you both from your punishment.”

It catches me in the small of the back, a feeling like lightning and ice. It is fast, numbing my body in an instant save for my fingertips which feel like fire. I see everything truly now, and I know my eyes have gone silver again. I see the dryad and the elf as they were, young and longing for one another; I see the glade as a beautiful, peaceful place, night birds chirping under clear skies and Her full face. I see what should be.

The tree twists and the lovely dryad emerges standing in front of her lover who now stands tall before her. They are grasping one another’s hands. Citiana looks at me, and I think I know what she is asking.

“Yes,” I answer. “She lived a long life, your daughter, untouched by your past deed.”

She returns her gaze to Meleena, and they begin to age, centuries in seconds. But they are not alarmed; they are at peace, resigned. They eventually fall together, content, and lean until they are but dust in the cool night breeze.

A movement against the moon: the Nightmare is coming, but then it is not. It dissolves and rains, too, as dust on the scene.

Her Lunar Majesty’s face flares: I feel more than see it in the sky. And now another is here, a silver woman, translucent, walking among us. I am not on my knees, weeping or blind or any other of the states I would be were I standing before the Goddess, so it is not She. Verdre mouths, “The daughter,” and yes, I see the resemblance.

The woman moves to where her mother dissolved. We are the ghosts in this scene, ancient statues in a park, none of us moving, none of us even daring to breathe.

She scoops up a handful of her ash and smears it across her eyes and cheeks, then she blows the remainder across the glade. It lands on all of us, and where it touches the others I see the glowing traces of where she smoothed the soot across her own face. I imagine I bear the same mark.

As the ash scatters, her very body unravels to join it, and she is gone.

The ooze draws back into what remains of the tree trunk and hardens there.

Dawn.

I do not know what else awaits me in the world, but if I have lived for this moment – to bring Sehanine’s forgiveness to these two storied lovers – then it is enough.

Rey and Jodan and Treig have all risen to their feet, their old selves back. I begin a song, an old human ballad that I was taught by some Roma I used to know.

Time from me passes on, and I'm growing old,
A lifetime nearly gone. I cannot unfold
Nights dark and cold.
But warm is your hand in mine,
Feeble with ageless time,
The light of love still shine,
After All These Years…
 

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