Act 1: Scene 1
Kingdom of Cosdol; Homeday of the month of Snowfall, 1044 Y.K.
The hour was late, the task at hand difficile and wearisome as the old wizard leaned over his desk, struggling to focus as he shivered. Castles were no place to keep warm, especially in the dark of night in the middle of winter. Only a thick fur blanked draped over his lap and a hot coal brazier at his side kept his blood running warm.
The ruler of Cosdol, known by his people as 'The Wizard-King', or 'Archmage of the North', blinked irritably with droopy eyelids. Fading script on crumbling scrolls did not get easier to read with age, and Welren Endremin was old indeed for a human, unnaturally old given how his rule was ongoing for over a century.
"Master, would you like your lenses?" A familiar voice asked.
"Of course I would! How much longer did you want me to sit here squinting like a blind fool before you suggested it!?"
Finch the halfling, Welrens latest apprentice, hastily presented a pair of eye-sized lenses held together with delicate silver frames designed to perch on the bridge of the nose. The lenses were a gift from the elves. One token among many littering his study, famous among Cosolens magic schools and powerful guilds as the finest collection of arcane instruments, obscure tomes, rare artifacts and half-burnt candles in all of Cosdol.
Welren snatched away the glasses, blinking again to familiarize himself with their keen magnification, unconsciously sitting up straighter to regain his focus.
Finch of course did not expect any thanks from the irascible old wizard. Instead he changed the subject. "Strange wind tonight master. Some of the other wizards say something is amiss with the weather."
"Does it look like I give two damns about the weather?! Am I standing by the open window pensively staring into the night sky? Rather I would think it was obvious, given where I sit, that I am attempting to study! That is what this chamber is for is it not?"
"Yes master..." Finch answered placidly. He was well used to these outbursts.
Time is running out! Welren reminded himself, pressing to read faster as his stiff, cold fingers fumbled at the crumbling edges of the parchment. He felt his aging heart weakening the harder he stressed himself, but there was no choice! The Secret Network of the Blue Salamander was here in Cosdol, infiltrating his home!
Only stubborn pride kept him from instituting drastic security measures, arresting much of his own court. Welren wanted to avoid such a thing at all costs. Not only was it likely to split the kingdom into civil war, it would ruin the peace and promise of his heirs reign.
Prince Sevlen spent eleven years thus far studying magic, barely a blink compared to the experience of Welren himself, yet sadly his studies had to be cut short after Welren discovered one of his principal councilors was plotting against him. It took all his considerable arcane skill and great effort to glean any information out of that mans mind, so strong was the hold of his masters domination upon his psyche.
That was almost a year ago. Since that time, Welren spent more and more time locked away in seclusion, searching the histories for something the councilor spoke of in a whisper while he was questioned in the dungeons. Something called 'The Annulus', an artifact of great power that the wicked Illithids behind the network greatly feared. Welren believed the councilor spoke of it out of hatred of those vile creatures, however briefly, while his mind was freed of their domination moments before death.
Once Welren began studying the lore of the Annulus, he learned he was not the first to do so. There were others who also sought out its location somewhere on Tellene for centuries. Accounts of strange foreigners, explorers, sages, seeking it out speaking rumors of a lost civilization. Some of these individuals undertaking the search in recent decades, he discovered, were known to him. Wizards like himself, archmages with powerful influence over other lands and kingdoms on Tellene. By reputation alone he knew at least a few of them were trustworthy, and likely sought out the Annulus for the same reason he did.
The Network of the Blue Salamander was now the largest evil organization on Tellene, obsessed with world domination through power and influence gained by means of magic, information and wealth. Welren had no doubt their manipulations of guilds and governments would lead to terrible wars, strife and turmoil on an epic scale. He resolved himself to form a secret alliance with those other like-minded archmages and did so successfully.
Before long, the water-clock chimed the hour of midnight.
"Master! It is time!" Finich said, referring to the secret gathering of the archmages. A meeting that took place once a month, as far from prying eyes as possible.
Welren sat back in his chair. "Already?! Damn... I was hoping to learn something from these scrolls first. Fetch me the crystal ball."
"Master? You said the ball must never leave the summoning chamber..."
"Damn you Finch. I am old and tired! I fear a chill in these ancient bones. The summoning chamber is an ice box! Do you protest this simple request because you'd prefer I finally die from a cold?!"
"No master, I was simply reminding you about your warnings..."
"I know very well what the warnings are! Fetch it at once!"
The apprentice returned hefting something heavy draped in a thick velvet cloth. Welren pushed away the scrolls to one side of his desk, waiting until his apprentice had carefully placed the orb at its center before he grunted. "Can't you see my cup is empty? Fetch more mulled wine!"
"Yes master!" The apprentice stated, stepping away from the desk quickly.
Alone now, Welren removed the cloth revealing a clear crystal orb fourteen inches in diameter. It was set into an elaborately carved base of cold iron etched with arcane silver runes. The orb was very old, an heirloom of his great-grandfather Veseln-the-conjurer, founder of Cosdol, who himself acquired it from another archmage before that.
Welren lifted his wrinkled hands in a practiced motion to activate the orb which seemed to come alive with a hazy glowing light. Mutterings of a spell uttered from deep within his throat intensified the light as his hands hovered and moved around the orb.
Welren shut his eyes then, concentrating, focusing on the light through his eyelids as his tongue resumed its strange spells. The light grew stronger, as bright as the sun, and stronger still. Soon the rays were blinding, even from behind his eyelids, but then the spell was done.
Welren found himself once more in the Astral Plane, a silvery, timeless, weightless void. Before him, as expected, loomed a massive ziggurat of ancient stone, floating in stasis as if it were lifted by the grasp of a mighty deity from some long-forgotten world.
Everytime Welren came to this place, he took a moment to examine the ziggurat as he floated towards the top. The stones and techniques used to build it seemed quite complex, bespoke of mysterious builders with skills beyond that of mere men. He could not say where it came from, or why it was built in the first place. Besides the open-temple at the top, every other entrance was sealed by massive stone slabs.
Welren always got a bad feeling when he neared the ziggurat. He believed whatever race constructed it was a violent one. Sometimes he would glimpse dark splotches of blood splattered against the stone, or some half-smashed skull laying on a step as if it caught there on its way rolling down from the top.
As he neared the temple, a bizarre floating ship came into view out of the mists moving around the side of the ziggurat in a broad arc. Welren heard of such vessels before. His great grandfathers journals described them in detail, disclosing how many races used them to travel the voids between the planes, or indeed, the space between worlds.
Though curious, Welren was warned never to board one of these ships or allow himself to be captured, lest he find himself in the clutches of the Githyanki. A race of astral-plane-dwellers, survivors of enslavement by mind flayers who became ruthless pillagers and raiders of many worlds in the Material Plane.
It did not matter that he was merely 'projecting' his astral form into the astral plane. The Githyanki possessed weapons capable of severing the tether of consciousness connecting his astral form to his physical body, visible as a slender silver cord that stretched back from the base of his skull about five feet before merging with the material plane. Welren knew if his astral self was slain, he would return to his physical body (possibly in a coma) but if his cord was severed, he would be killed outright.
Welren sped his ascent to the temple and entered through one of the four open doorways. Inside the temple, Welren felt gravity taking hold of his ghostly astral form again as he stopped floating and stepped forward. Somehow, someway, the interior of this temple maintained itself as the material plane, complete with gravity and real air.
Stranger still was how it was remodeled much like a tavern, with tables arranged around each of the eight ancient stone pillars with a large bar set up before the sacrificial alter. Along the back wall were private booths. Four stout iron stoves were placed between each of the four entrances kept the place nicely warm. Welren noted the fires burning within these stoves never produced any smoke, nor required any stoking. A sign above the bar read 'Tavern of Lost Souls'.
Welren learned of this place through his great-grandfathers journals. It was the most remote location he could imagine to conduct secret meetings. Only powerful archmages like himself and his allies could manage to travel here from Tellene. There should be no chance of anyone from his home world eavesdropping or interfering. A risky rendezvous it was yes, but there was knowledge and resources to be found here that were well worth it.
Welren looked around at the other patrons, a surprising mix of races, some too bizarre to believe. More surprising still was how most of them were not in astral form. Welren knew the various ships he glimpsed sailing through the astral plane would regularly tie up against the ziggurat, offloading new customers. Welren couldn't help but pity those lost souls traveling between the stars. It was a strange way to live.
...To be continued