Sagiro's Story Hour: The FINAL Adventures of Abernathy's Company (FINISHED 7/3/14)

energy_One

Visitor
Everett said:
None of you are. At the same time, the exchange reminded me how inflexible alignment often feels. If I'm CN, but the character's in a situation where he might act like a chaotic good guy (or might act a little flippantly "evil"), I can't just necessarily do it without wondering about the fictional "axis" I'm supposed to be on.

I guess that's why the only D&D I have is reading this Story Hour...
I find alignment extremely useful, especially when I let my players know that alignment isn't strict, it's just strictly defined. After a certain point, if they aren't acting according to their alignment, I tell them what their alignment actually is. Until then, mechanics that act according to alignment act according to what their alignment supposedly is. I've known people to arbitrate this through point systems. That seems to work fairly well, but I can be a fairly arbitrary DM at times.

Didn't Dranko's alignment shift at some point, long ago?
 

Piratecat

Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
Yup. He started off pure neutral with some chaotic tendencies, slid to neutral with good tendencies, then ended up solidly at neutral good. It was deliberate and made a lot of sense at the time. Morningstar is still true neutral, though, and she can be quite the pragmatist; she's not quite as concerned about "doing the good thing" as the rest of us are. She rolls her eyes a lot.

By the way, want some proof that Sagiro is evil? Something he did to Dranko in run 39, something like twelve years ago in real time, has just come back to ream bite him on the ass. Sagiro's a bad, bad man.
 
Last edited:

The_Warlock

Visitor
Piratecat said:
...something like twelve years ago in real time, has just come back to bite him...
Sign of quality DMing there...I only waited 7 years in my campaign to catch the priestess with the Euryale Card save penalty from a Deck of Many Things draw she'd made and not researched...
 

Graywolf-ELM

Explorer
I've wondered how the Crosser's Maze issue would be resolved for some time. It doesn't seem to have been abused much from reading the story hour, where it seems that it could have been. I still love reading about these characters, and this adventure, though probably not as much as the players enjoy participating.

Thanks again for enjoyable entertainment.

GW
 

Piratecat

Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
I'll tell you what it has come to. It's come to an egregious spoiler, that's what. Anyone remember back in Het Brannoi, when we were fleeing the tentacular and horrific cleaners from the Far Realm? Dranko threw an empty bottle with a note in it ("Dranko was here") into the void as we fled. I thought it was funny and kind of clever and utterly inconsequential in a throwaway sort of moment. Like throwing a note in a bottle off a ship into the ocean.

Well, last week, just as Dranko said "Ha! Suckers. My life is boring. No one exciting is trying to kill me," Sagiro said, "Funny you should say that."

And tentacles ripped through my chest, my abdomen, my back, and my eye as something inhuman started talking to me in my head. It began something like "As per the ancient pacts that bind our kind, I have accepted your offer and demand payment..."

And the tentacle emerging from my eye was holding a little glass bottle with a note in it.

They found me.

Dranko is so screwed.
 

EroGaki

Visitor
Holy Crap!! Now we must have an update!! You can't say that Dranko is dealing with Far Realm horrors and not provide an update! It's just.... wrong!
 
And tentacles ripped through my chest, my abdomen, my back, and my eye as something inhuman started talking to me in my head. It began something like "As per the ancient pacts that bind our kind, I have accepted your offer and demand payment..."

And the tentacle emerging from my eye was holding a little glass bottle with a note in it.

They found me.

Dranko is so screwed.
Is it wrong of me to want to collapse on the floor laughing at this? That is so, so RBDM on Sagiro - sir, my congratulations!
 

Piratecat

Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
Holy Crap!! Now we must have an update!! You can't say that Dranko is dealing with Far Realm horrors and not provide an update! It's just.... wrong!
Well, Sagiro probably won't get to this for some time. But I know he's working on an update!
 

Sagiro

Rodent of Uncertain Parentage
Sagiro’s Story Hour, Part 283
Hostile Territory

It’s an ugly battle, fought in the rain and the mud, and the Company feels stifled from the start by the limit to their vision. Two large insectoid creatures leap down from the balconies, cousins of the beasts that the party encountered previously outside of Djaw. These are larger, with sharper claws, more teeth and unyielding chitin. A green liquid glistens on their plated hides. These beasts squirt jets of some foul substance at Ernie and Morningstar, and when it contacts Morningstar’s skin, it saps her of strength.

Back in the darkness lurk several gaunt red-skinned humanoids, with writhing snakes protruding from their guts. They attack with rays of negative energy, and one of these strips Aravis of both of his prepared maze spells. Ouch!

In other words, as with so many of the Company’s violent encounters, this one looks particularly dire at the start – dangerous foes, limited vision, and that doesn’t even count Strug, who’s a formidable adversary in his own right. Meanwhile, from the buildings around the courtyard, hundreds of cackling and hooting voices are cheering on their enemies, as if the Company is competing in a freakish nightmare sporting event in front of a hostile crowd.

And for all that, the party manages to turn things around pretty quickly. For starters, Aravis uses polymorph any object to turn Strug into a squirrel – and one that thinks he’s a squirrel. The Drallan servant-turned-rodent goes scampering off into the shadows, in absolute terror of the monsters all around him.

And beyond that, the Company’s regular tactics and powers prove adequate to the task of vanquishing evil – even when the ranks of enemies are swelled by a pack of ogres and swarm of stirges that land on Grey Wolf. Oh, it’s an exciting battle, full of blade barriers, cones of cold, walls of force, snapping whips, swinging blades and summoned earth elementals. The combined might of the enemies proves troublesome, and Kibi and Flicker are both hampered by the fact that, having been bitten by the gut-snakes of the reddish enemies, they lose the ability to see other living creatures, friends and foes alike. But soon enough the last enemy is slain, and the Company stands – bloody, drained, and partially blinded, but victorious – in the drenching downpour.

The hoots and hollers from the peanut gallery don’t grow any less after the victory. Dranko blinks the water out of his eyes, and nods at Grey Wolf.

“I’m with you. We should burn down this entire place.”

No one disagrees. And through all the talk, and all the battle, there has still be no sign of Shreen the Fair.


* *


There’s no immediate consensus as to whether they should press on immediately after Shreen, or fall back and recuperate after the battle. To buy time they activate the Lucent Tower right there in the shadowy courtyard, and pile inside. They can hear the rain hammering on the roof.

While the familiars keep watch out of arrow slits, the party clerics try to figure out what odd affliction is preventing Flicker and Kibi from being able to see living beings. They conclude that it’s neither a disease nor a curse, but it turns out that restoration removes the effect. Since restoration is on the menu anyway given all the ability score drain and negative levels suffered in the battle, it’s a moot point. Soon enough the party is back to normal.

“Now what?” asks Flicker, once his full sight is restored.

“Now we go and kick Shreen’s ass!” says Dranko.

But while the Company is taking a quick inventory of their remaining spells and resources for the day, the familiars report a large green insectoid creature walking out of the darkness toward the Lucent Tower.

“Could be coming with a message,” says Ernie.

The creature taps one knife-sharp appendage against the Tower’s solid crystal exterior, then backs off a few feet.

“Guess it wanted to see if the tower was an illusion,” says Dranko.

Ernie heads to the top of the tower and hits the thing with a searing darkness cast from a wand through an arrow slit. The monster leaps back, angry, and then skitters off into the shadows. (The party’s vision is still limited in the unnatural gloom of the shrine.)

Then there’s a burst of motion from the darkness all around them, and swarms of small creatures assault the Tower. Bats, birds, stirges, insects, rodents and other vermin hurl themselves at the crystalline walls to no avail. A few dozen flying insects manage to get in through the arrow slits before the party shutters them, and Aravis mops these up with a flaming sphere before they can cause any harm. Five minutes later the swarms retreat.

Dranko peers through an arrow slit, hoping to spot the next wave of the assault. What he sees is that the previous wave hasn’t actually subsided. By looking as close to straight down as is possible, he sees that the exterior wall of the tower on that side has a patch of stirges, clinging with sticky feet to the crystal.

“Gods, this sucks,” opines Flicker. “Shouldn’t we be kicking Shreen’s ass by now?”

Aravis raises an eyebrow. “That reminds me. How’s the worship going, Flicker?”

Flicker looks over at Aravis. “You haven’t granted me any spells yet. Frankly, I’m disappointed.”

“Ok, fine,” says Aravis. “What spell do you want?”

“How about true strike?”

“Why don’t we start you out with a cantrip?” suggests Aravis.

“A cantrip? What kind of God are you, anyway?”

“Hey, I only just found out I was a God. Give me a break!”

“Excuse me,” says Dranko. He points outside. “Stirges.”

They discuss their options for a moment or two before Dranko comes up with a plan himself.

“Here it is,” he says. “You guys put some spells on me to protect me from fire. Then I run out there into the courtyard. All of the stirges will come to land on me, at which point I’ll use my crown to cast paroxysms of fire. One of you mages will back that up with a fireball. We know it takes a few seconds before they start sucking blood, and they’ll all be toast before they can kill me. What do you think?”

Everyone thinks he’s nuts, is what. But when they start to discuss it, they come around. It should work! All it will take is Dranko’s nerve and some fire magic. And after the stirges are gone, the party will come out of the tower, fold it up, and make a break for the door leading to the interior of the shrine.

Before he can talk himself out of it, Dranko walks casually out the door of the Lucent Tower and looks out.

“Oh, crap.”

It turns out there’s not just a small patch of stirges on one side of the tower. Nearly the entire thing is covered, and Dranko barely has time to flinch before thirty or forty stirges descend upon him. They blanket him hair to toes, and he feels over twenty proboscises plunge into his flesh. He cannot see past the shroud of bodies and wings; all he hears is flapping and buzzing. The plan had been for him to use his Crown of Fire first, but he panics. Over the mind link the others can hear him:

“FIREBALL! I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING! FIREBALL!”

Aravis sticks a wand out of an arrow slit and blasts Dranko. A few stirges survive, but Dranko regains his composure and uses the crown. One of the remaining creatures starts belching flames spasmodically in every direction, and soon all of them are dead, lying in a sickening charred heap around Dranko’s feet.

He twitches. “We will never do that again,” he thinks to the others. “But now that I did... let’s go!”

The Company hurries out of the Tower and Dranko commands it closed. They dash across the courtyard to a small wooden door that leads into the surrounding buildings. It’s locked. Ernie gives it a good kick but it doesn’t budge. Around them they hear the sounds of flapping, buzzing and chirping as the swarms of small creatures again head toward them, so Morningstar casts a protective wind wall. Even as Aravis casts knock and they all rush through the door, hundreds of small creatures are swept up and away by the wind.

The door opens directly onto a small downward staircase. Morningstar casts locate object, looking for Shreen’s holy symbol, and gets a reading: down and to the left. They head down the stairs into the darkness, single file. The sound of the pelting rain fades as they descend. Kibi pulls out his lantern of revealing to light their path; its illumination extends out thirty feet and then stops, choked off by the unholy darkness of Dralla.

Down, down into the black. Morningstar feels an ever-increasing pressure on her psyche, a burning hostility settling on her. She casts true seeing, and it takes unusual concentration and effort. They pass small alcoves, empty rooms and hallways, following Morningstar’s location spell. The place seems quiet and abandoned, except for the... is that squeaking?

Rats! From behind them comes a crescendo of skittering feet, and a veritable wave of large and deformed rats comes crashing around a corner behind them. Kibi quickly casts repulsion with a ten-foot radius, and the swarming rats smash into the invisible barrier, piling up against it, the ones in back crushing the ones in front. Morningstar casts darkbeam (with great difficulty, as her connection with Ell is weakening) and soon enough the rats are destroyed.

Finally the Company finds itself in a small empty room. There are light patches on the stone walls that indicate recently-removed artwork or tapestries; it looks like this whole place was recently packed up and moved out. Is it possible that Shreen has fled ahead of them? But no... there is sound coming from a dark space adjacent to this room. They can’t see what it is; their light doesn’t extend out far enough through the doorway. But the sound is disconcerting; a mixture of grinding stone and squelching flesh. Morningstar’s spell tells her that Shreen is in that direction, perhaps even making the hideous sound.

“Are we ready to spring the trap?” asks Dranko.

Ernie casts a greater dispel magic out into the darkness, just in case. The sound continues.

“Shreen!” shouts Ernie. “Come talk to us yourself! We’ve brought the Maze, but we cannot give it to you!.

No reply.

“Chicken,” Ernie grumbles.

Morningstar follows this by firing a darkbeam toward the source of the strange noise. She feels a painful jolt in her hand, and the stifling oppression grows worse. But nothing fires back.

With nothing else for it, they move cautiously into the room. They see that, like the previous room, this one has been stripped of furnishings and objects. Only one notable feature remains: a hideous morphing statue set atop a simple stone altar. It looks like a deformed bear with lobster claws, but as they watch, it changes, the living stone oozing and reshaping into a six-legged jackal. And then some kind of multi-eyed squid. The statue reforms into one abomination after another.

On the opposite wall there is another door, and a faint light is coming from the space beyond. From that space comes a voice, the rising-and-falling, broken-glass-and-velvet voice of Shreen the Fair.

“Stop wasting time and GET IN HERE! We’ve waited long enough for you to finish this nonsense.”

“Well,” says Kibi. “Your guy outside said to wait twelve hours before coming in, so you can’t have been in too much of a hurry.”

“He was very offensive,” adds Ernie.

“And then he attacked us without provocation,” says Dranko.

“I’m not going to treat with you while you’re standing out there,” says Shreen. Come in. COME IN! And don’t try anything. You’ll regret it, I promise. But we want to talk with you NOW!”

They go in.

...to be continued...
 
Last edited:

Fimmtiu

Visitor
That is the second-best system for stirge removal that I've seen. (First is iron body and a tennis racket, of course.) Thanks for the update!
 

StevenAC

Visitor
Strug is one squirrelly, backstabbing little bastard. He better get what's coming to him!
Aravis uses polymorph any object to turn Strug into a squirrel – and one that thinks he’s a squirrel. The Drallan servant-turned-rodent goes scampering off into the shadows, in absolute terror of the monsters all around him.
You're a bad man, Mr. Piratecat -- hiding a spoiler in plain sight like that... :lol:
 

thegreyman

Visitor
So I was rereading some of the Companies older adventures, and saw a correlation that may not have been brought up.

Way back when, Aravis visited an old Keeper known as Vhadish in order to learn how to seal up the planar gate. Vhadish told Aravis that he had to use the gate to seal up a hole that some Black Circles had dug into the Hells. That was about 650 ish years ago.

Fast forward to Het Branoi, where they find out that some Black Circles were using an Eye to dig a hole to the Abyss to try and locate their BBE God.

Was it ever postulated that these two events may have been closely linked? How old are the Hets? I know Vhadish was dismissive of the "Demon Plague" (that scholars thought was misnamed and should have been "Devil Plague"), but could they have been mixed up, and it WAS demons?

If they were linked, was the effect of Vhadish sealing the gate to throw the entire insides of Het Branoi out to the Far Realm? Kinda like like the Black Circle pressing up against the planar fabric causing stress (stretching a rubber band), and Vhadish sealing it, releasing stress (snapping the rubber band).

Does this mean that Aravis's sealing of the planar gate between Abernia and Volpos catapulted Volpos out into the Cosmos someplace? Specifically, I don't want to think of how horrible it would be for the Emperor to get an alliance with the Cleaners and start sending out tentacled, evil-gooped minions to wreck havok...
 

Sagiro

Rodent of Uncertain Parentage
Sagiro’s Story Hour, Part 284
Belshikun

It’s not exactly what they expect.

For one thing, rather than one more hastily-evacuated chamber, this one feels like a living room. A damp, decrepit living room to be sure, with rotting furs on the ground and mold growing on the walls, but there’s a fireplace with a lit fire and two misshapen stuffed chairs. It resembles a dilapidated underground hunting lodge.

For another thing, Shreen the fair is not the most commanding presence in the room. Oh, he’s there, slouched in one of the chairs, ugly and hunchbacked and smoldering with sullen rage. Behind him are two of the demonic humanoids with snakes protruding from their bellies. But in the other chair... a humanoid of indeterminate kind, cloaked in unnatural shadows. Two bright blue eyes burn beneath a black hood like fragments of a star. Wings of coherent smoke rise behind him. Two of his four arms grip a deep black battleaxe, held blade down but menacing nonetheless.

“Please. Be at ease. I wish only to talk to you.”

Where Shreen’s voice is silk and smashed cinder blocks, this creature’s voice is guttural but distinct, grating yet potent. Grey Wolf looks from one chair to the other, and over the mind link he thinks: “Ah. Something that can kick Shreen’s ass.”

Morningstar can’t take her eyes off the shadowy figure, and soon realizes what about it troubles her. While undoubtedly evil, it reminds her, in terms of its bearing and guarded might, of the Avatar of Ell that has trained her in Ava Dormo. Her throat goes dry.

“We’ve come to deal honorably with you,” says Ernie.

“Good,” says the black creature. Then turning to Shreen, it says: “We tried it your way.”

Shreen looks distinctly uncomfortable, but works up the courage to speak.

“They were going to betray us!” he barks. “Dralla told me. They were never going to give it to us willingly. We had no choice but to try to take it by force!”

“There is a difference between not giving it to you, and betraying you,” explains Ernie. “We cannot give it to you, because we don’t know how.”

“Perhaps,” says the blue-eyed shadow. “But I know how. I only wish to negotiate in good faith. I do not want to harm you, or make you an enemy. I am... dissatisfied by Shreen’s clumsy attempts. I know about the Maze.”

Over the mind-link the party considers casting dispel evil on this being, as a prelude to attack, but decide to hear him out.

“May I ask who you are?” says Aravis.

“I am Belshikun,” replies the creature. “I am a... servant of Drosh”

The Company has heard the name before – Drosh is a Kivian deity, though the don’t recall his portfolio.

Shreen squirms a little more in his chair.

“I wish to take the Maze from you,” Belshikun explains. Shreen will agree...” And here he looks pointedly at Shreen “...that that will satisfy the condition of your bargain. You will no longer be afflicted by Dralla’s curse. I know how it can be done. One of my Lord’s followers long ago was a Walker of the Maze, and wrote extensively of it. We now require its use, and you promised to return it, so our interests are in alliance. You should not be harmed by my taking it, and it will be easier for us if you are alive. But, I should add, not strictly necessary.”

“What do you want with the Maze?” asks Ernie.

“It is a way to... leave ahead of the storm,” says Belshikun.

“What storm?” presses Ernie.

“You will have to learn that for yourself. We mean to explore its use as a means of travel. There are places we wish not to be.”

“Is this storm something that’s coming here?” asks Dranko.

“Everywhere,” says Belshikun. “Good luck with it. The rest of our agenda is not for discussion. It is enough for you to know that we desire it. And Shreen will hold your promise fulfilled if you give it to me.”

Kibi turns to Shreen. “Will you hold your promise fulfilled under any other conditions?”

“If you give it to me personally!” spits Shreen.

“But that’s not going to happen... is it?” says Belshikun, turning his baleful eyes on the hunchback.

“No my lord... you may take it... I only beg to come with you.”

Belshikun chuckles. The members of the Company hear his voice briefly in their heads as he speaks telepathically.

“When I have what I have come for, I will leave, and you may do whatever you want afterward. But you may find it... tedious... to deal with Shreen on his own holy ground.”

Belshikun looks at Shreen and smiles. Shreen smiles nervously back.

“Now,” says Belshikun. “Do we have a bargain?”

“Not necessarily,” says Dranko. “See, the fact is, we made our deal with Shreen, and just because he’s willing to give it up to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s okay with us. No offense. Two: there’s the possibility that it won’t matter if Shreen accepts that we’ve fulfilled our promise. We could find magic that could break it. Three: According to the word of the promise, just by being here with Shreen, we’ve fulfilled it already.”

“That’s for Dralla to decide,” says Belshikun, turning its head to Dranko. The half-orc can see no features inside its hood, save the eyes. “It is Her interpretation that matters, and I think you will find that you have not yet met Her conditions. To address your first point, I will be a much more responsible caretaker of the Maze than Shreen ever would be.”

Shreen looks insulted but says nothing.

“Who’s the ‘we’?” asks Aravis.

“The followers of Drosh,” says Belshikun.

“Are your Gods and the other Kivian gods related to the Travelers of Charagan?” asks Aravis.

“They are... irritating guests,” answers Belshikun. “Our Gods were here long before they arrived.”

“Does this have anything to do with the Enemy?” asks Ernie, referring to the great Adversary from whom the Travelers fled.

“You’ll have to decide that for yourself,” says Belshikun.

“I’ll take it as a yes,” says Dranko.

The Company has a hurried meeting of the minds over the telepathic bond. Should they give up the Maze? Dranko thinks it’s a bad idea to give the Maze to this being. Aravis doesn’t care so much about that, but wants to be sure that doing so will fulfill the promise to Dralla.

Belshikun interrupts. “I find your telepathic conversations rude and boring,” it declares.

“I wish to consult with my Goddess about the wisdom of this decision,” says Morningstar.

“Impossible,’ says Belshikun. “since I will not let you leave without making your decision, and you cannot commune with your Goddess here. If you need assurances, I will promise you in Drosh’s name of my good faith. I would not dare lie.”

Thinking rather than speaking, Dranko retorts: “Like the assurances you made to Shreen?”

“I have made no promises to Shreen,” Belshikun replies via telepathy. “I have been very careful about that.”

To all of them, still telepathically, Belshikun continues: “I can promise you safe passage from this place once that transfer has been made. And that I will leave, and not use the Maze in any way to harm any of you. I am offering you a way out, that you can fulfill the promise you have made and not suffer for it. The alternative is, I will take it my force. I strongly doubt you can stop me. And if you do stop me and escape, you will suffer Dralla’s wrath. The choice is yours.”

He runs a finger along the haft of his night-black axe before adding: “I would not find combat with you entirely dissatisfying.”

Kibi thinks back: “Can you make assurances that you won’t use it to harm...”

“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING TO EACH OTHER?” Shreen screams. “I know you’re communicating. Just make up your mind, please. MAKE UP YOUR MIND!”

Morningstar shoots a dismissive glance at Shreen and turns back to Belshikun. “What assurances do we have that anything you’re saying is the truth?”

Belshikun laughs – a nasty gravelly sound. “You, of all people, should understand the power of making promises in Dralla’s name on Her holy ground. I do not underestimate your abilities, or the strength of your deities. I do not wish to make enemies of them. I wish to leave them.”

“I still don’t understand,” says Aravis, “how you – a servant of Drosh – can release us from a promise we made to Dralla.”

“It would be Shreen who technically releases you from the promise,” says Belshikun. “But consider this also: Drosh created Dralla.”

“I wonder what the Black Circle would think of all this,” muses Morningstar.

“The Black Circle,” spits Belshikun. “I assume you loathe them as much as I. They are the enemy.”

“They are bringing the storm, aren’t they?” asks Ernie.

“They are its leading edge,” says Belshikun.

“We’ve killed a lot of them,” says Dranko.

“Good!” Belshikun sits straighter in his chair. “I will make you a promise, as part of your agreement to give me the Maze. I will do what I can to find information, or materials, that you might find useful regarding the Black Circle.”

“Make a decision!” Yells Shreen, reaching his tolerance for discourse. “MAKE A DECISION!”

“Won’t you shut up?” says Ernie.

Belshikun leans over toward the cringing Shreen. “You should listen to your betters,” he says quietly. “Shut. Up.”

Shreen quivers and fumes. One could almost feel sorry for him.

“One thing I’ll need to do before we discuss this any further,” says Aravis, “is speak to someone I know in the Maze.”

“You should not attempt treachery,” warns Belshikun. “You may go into the Maze, but your familiar will remain with me as a hostage.”

“Pewter?” thinks Aravis.

“You own me big time for this, boss,” replies Pewter, as the cat leaps into Belshikun’s lap. “Oh, he’s gross! Ew!”

Aravis drops into the Maze, and navigates its strange inner world until he finds King Vhadish XXIII. They meet on the lawn outside Vhadish’s mansion, the golem guardians standing at attention.

“I am very sorry to disturb you,” says Aravis.

“Yes, I am also,” response Vhadish.

Aravis explains their current situation, and the possibility that he’ll be giving up the Maze to a powerful evil being. When he finishes, Vhadish stares for a moment as if waiting for Aravis to get to the interesting part.

“And what is it then you want of me?” he asks at last.

“I want your advice, as to whether you think this is a wise course of action. Also, to point out that I have made a promise to you, and if I give up the Maze, I won’t be able to keep that promise.”

Vhadish steeples his fingers. “This creature – the Maze is stronger than it, and will outlast it. The Maze itself is in no danger, if that’s your concern. Creatures greater than this Belshikun have possessed it, and creatures more vile. The Maze persists.”

“I’m not worried about the Maze,” says Aravis, “but about those in the Maze, such as yourself.”

“I’m not concerned about him, honestly,” says Vhadish, looking bored. “As for your promise, well, I have thought about that. Frankly, you’re unlikely to live long enough to become facile with the Maze, to the point where anything you could do wouldn’t be easier done on my own. Perhaps I’ll find a way to get my promise out of you regardless... the universe is a funny place. But, if you want to give the Maze up, I’ll... suspend your promise until I find a way that I can possibly extract it... wait... here’s a thing.”

Vhadish perks up, then continues. “Tell Belshikun, this servant of some Dark God of somewhere that I can’t bring myself to care about, tell him that the condition is that he has to inherit your promise. That I can ask him a favor, and he will have to do what I ask. I’ll gauge his abilities, and the speed at which he learns to use it, and... oh, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have him go and fetch me a steak or something. Fair enough? Now, if there’s nothing else, I’m quite busy, and you’re not all that interesting to talk to.”

He smiles at Aravis.

“I appreciate everything that you’ve done, and I won’t waste any more of your time,” says Aravis, letting Vhadish’s condescension slide off of him.

“That’s true,” agrees Vhadish. “Good luck!”

Aravis does one other thing while in the Maze. He uses its powers of enhancing observation to take a good look at Belshikun. He tries to gauge the creature’s martial and magical prowess, and while his analysis isn’t exact, he gains the impression that in a battle between Belshikun and the entire Company, Belshikun would, by a small margin, have the upper hand.

While Aravis is journeying, the others endure an awkward silence. Morningstar tries to make small talk with Shreen.

“We did bring Lapis your regards before taking her head, you know.”

“Well, that’s something,” says Shreen. “I had considered you... in a more friendly way than Lapis. At least you did not come to see me the first time with elementals laying waste. It’s a shame that you decided that you wouldn’t GIVE ME THE MAZE LIKE YOU PROMISED!”

“We were coming down to talk to you, when your guy turned on us,” protests Dranko.

“I know what your plan was!” says Shreen angrily. “Do you think my eyes are blind? Do you think I cannot also talk with my Goddess, and learn what you were going to do, or not do, with the Maze? You came here with betrayal in your hearts. I considered that a first blow. But it’s all immaterial now.”

“I’ll say,” agrees Dranko. “You called in your buddy here to take charge.”

Shreen splutters with rage, To Belshikun he asks: “When you’re done, can I kill them? Master?”

Belshikun turns to Shreen and answers, “I doubt it.”

“You can try,” says Ernie.

Shreen lets out a short but abrasive cackle. “You can’t kill me in this place, but eventually, I can kill you. It may TAKE A LOT OF BLUDGEONING! But I’ll batter through that eggshell you wear, and see your brains dashed upon the floor!”

“How come we can’t kill you?” asks Dranko.

“I am unkillable, Dranko Blackhope,” says Shreen quietly.

“Really?” presses Dranko. “How did you arrange that?”

“You’ll find out, if you’re stupid enough!” says Shreen.

Ernie asks Belshikun, “is he blowing smoke?”

Belshikun shakes his head no.

“It’s still pretty simple,” says Dranko. “If he’s unkillable, we just bury him alive.”

“That’s kind of cruel,” says Ernie.

“Remind me which part of this isn’t Shreen the Fair.”

“Fair combat is fine, but I’m not on board with torture and live burial,” Ernie insists.

“I’m on board!” Flicker pipes up.

Aravis returns, his head snapping up, eyes open.

“Have you made your decision?” asks Belshikun.

His cold blue eyes meet Aravis’s star-fields, and the wizard smiles.

“If your decision is to fight me, let’s get on with it,” says Belshikun. His voice almost sounds eager.

Over the mind-link Aravis shares his assessment of Belshikun’s might. The Company has more hurried internal debate about what to do. To buy time, Dranko asks, “After you guys leave, who fills the hole?”

“Someone new must become the lord of Death and Undeath,” says Belshikun. “I suspect Myr Madar will take over in our absence. He’ll probably make a mess of things, but he’ll do it. Someone will have to.”

“What more can you tell us about Drosh?” asks Morningstar.

“He is the God of Death and Undeath,” says Belshikun. “What is there to explain?”

Morningstar feels in her gut that this is a bad idea. Instinctively she glances down at the red mark on her hand, a reminder of the deal she made with the Winged Ogre, when she was named the Slayer.

“Who will be using the Maze?” asks Kibi. “One of your minions?”

“If I give up the Maze, it will be to a superior,” says Belshikun.

“Then how can we be sure whoever that is won’t use the Maze to harm us?” asks Kibi.

“You’ll just have to take my word for it. I do have a certain authority. If you’re asking if I can promise that Drosh himself will not take it from me and put it to His own use, I cannot. But if He does take the Maze, I can assure you He would not use it to do anything to you personally. He is a God, and you are beneath His notice.”

“We are not beneath Dralla’s notice,” Aravis points out.

“Here, you are not,” says Belshikun. “Here, nothing is beneath Her notice.”

“But the curse affected us outside of this place,” says Aravis. “I’m not convinced that we’re beneath Drosh’s notice, given that we’re not beneath Dralla’s.”

“Anything is possible,” admits Belshikun. “But you are enemies of the Black Circle. If Drosh ever does notice you, it will be in a favorable light.”

The dark being turns to Morningstar, eyes glittering. “I’ll tell you this, Morningstar of Ell. Dralla is Drosh’s daughter, and He loves Her dearly. Your goddess is Her enemy. It occurs to me that you might plan, in the future, to bring hostility to Dralla’s mortal children. It will not go well for you if you do. Perhaps you should stay on your side of the ocean.”

Morningstar meets his veiled gaze. “We’re already here.”

“That may not last very long if you attempt to push things, but that’s for you to decide,” says Belshikun.

The Company engages in one last mental debate, and they make their decision. They will give up the Maze. But Aravis wants to extract some promises first.

“We are prepared to give you the Maze,” he says. “But first: will you promise, that to the best of your abilities, you will prevent the Maze from being used to harm us or our causes?”

“I don’t know all of your causes,” answers Belshikun, “but if I think the Maze will be put to a use that you would disapprove of, I will counsel against it.”

“And will you promise on the names of both my God and yours, that taking the Maze from me will do me no harm?” asks Aravis.

“I promise, on Drosh’s name and those of your Travelers, that if I perform the ritual correctly, it will do you no permanent harm.”

“Ummmm,” says Aravis. “Please explain that last statement.”

“I will be performing rituals that I have only read about, but have obviously not performed,” says Belshikun. “And it is possible, even if I do everything correctly, that your mind will suffer some damage in the very short term. It will be nothing that your allies cannot heal.”

“And, finally,” says Aravis, “will you promise to take upon yourself all obligations that I have incurred, in connection with the Maze?”

Belshikun draws a short breath. “Explain these obligations.”

“I have made promises to a creature within the Maze, a former keeper named Vhadish. I am at his beck and call, should he desire a service.”

“Are you saying that I would be at this Vhadish’s beck and call?” hisses Belshkun.

“I cannot in good conscience give up the Maze to someone not willing to take on those obligations,” says Aravis, barely repressing a smirk.

“In your opinion, what sorts of duties would I be required to perform,” asks Belshikun.

“I have no idea.”

The servant of Drosh stays silent for half a minute before answering. “I will agree, as long as his requests will not put me at great personal risk.”

Aravis nods.

“Now then,” Belshikun growls. “Is there anything else? If you continue to heap conditions upon our transaction, I will be inclined to turn to violence instead.”

Aravis shakes his head. “I am satisfied. You may take the Maze.”

Belshikun turns to Shreen, nearly forgotten during the past few minutes. “Shreen, do you understand, that after I take possession of the Maze, you are to let these people go unharmed? I don’t want to have to return here, to inflict discipline or punishment.”

“Of course I understand,” snarls Shreen, clearly not happy with the arrangement. “I’ll give them safe passage out.”

Telepathically, Belshikun reminds the party: “He will rightfully fight back, if you become hostile during your exit, and I will not interfere in that case.”

Out loud, he says only: “Aravis, step forward.”

He reaches out a shadowy claw to Aravis head, and begins to chant in a strange tongue. After about a minute of this, he hisses: “Enter the Maze, Aravis. Now!”

Aravis tries and fails. Something is clinging to his mind, and it breaks his concentration.

“Try again!” says Belshikun. “Concentrate!”

With a mighty effort of will, Aravis drops into the Maze, appearing at the window that looks out upon the doubled multiverse. Belshikun is there with him, beside him, writhing in pain. Aravis indulges in a moment of schadenfreude. Soon Belshikun’s agony subsides, and he stands up straight. For a moment he gazes in wonder upon the majesty of the cosmos in miniature.

“Fascinating,” he breathes. “Now, Aravis. You will hear my words in your head as a continue the ritual. I will speak a Word of Power... you will know it. When that happens, you can make the transfer. Simply imagine the Maze in my possession instead of yours, and it will be so.”

Belshikun continues his chanting, and after almost five subjective minutes utters what Aravis thinks is some esoteric variant of power word. Aravis begins to imagine the Maze moving from himself to Belshikun, but stops. With a thrill of anticipation and danger, he has a wonderful, terrifying idea. He breaks off a small piece of his own consciousness and life force, and sends it into the Maze on its own, and only when he is sure it has gone undetected, does he imagine the Maze in Belshikun’s mind instead of his own.

Belshikun groans and writhes before yanking his hand away from Aravis’s head. As the Company watches, the star-fields fade from Aravis’s eyes, and the metal tracery does likewise from his skin. At the same time, Belshikun’s blue glittering eyes fade to black, with a field of white pinprick lights. Aravis comes back to his body, head pounding and dizzy.

“I see I will need great concentration and study,” says Belshikun. “Drosh will guide me. Thank you, Aravis. You have done me and my master a great service. We will not betray our promises to you. We too wish to see the Black Circle smashed.”

The creature takes deep breaths, clearly awed. “The universe is in my mind. I must go and begin to explore.”

“Give Solomea our regards,” says Dranko.

“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” says Belshikun. He vanishes.

A piece of Aravis goes with him.

...to be continued...
 

Advertisement

Top