Their fingers, spindly and sickly thin, gray and wasted with sallow, diseases claws, reached down into the swirling ethereal proto-matter of the vast ether gap at the chamber’s center. Like a fisherman drawing in a net filled with struggling, gasping fish, the fingers lifted forth a series of glistening, shimmering manifest timelines, sifting among them, searching for a specific possible outcome.
“Alone, following none, and still a fisher of men.”
The subsequent chuckle was filled with malicious mockery even as the hands drew the gleaming timelines not to the speaker’s sightless eyes but to its face. Gathering them up it deeply inhaled, sniffing intently at each as it rubbed its fingers along the length of each, divining just what specific outcome each held with each fractional increment of time.
“Precision and perfection.” One hand released the timelines and reached up to adjust one of the myriad of knobs and levers that sprouted from the side of the great device that hung over the yawning ether gap. “Every scream measured, every moment of despair calculated, every quantum of hope dissolved like chaff to the fire as the Oblivion Compass tick-tocks its way to the desired end. Soon.”
The ratatosk elder stood and looked down at the clouds that swirled below him gathered about the vast trunk of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Great Mother of his people. One of the so-called squirrel-folk who populated the limbs and branches of their plane spanning home, he had lived nearly a century, his fur now streaked with lines of gray, and now, like never before, he felt the weight of his age, or the burden of his duty. It was growing time again as it always did. Their duty to the Great Mother was paramount above all things, even their own lives, which they willingly gave in Her defense. But the pain of that sacrifice at times was great enough to make him wonder if what they did was worth, if it was too hasty, or if there might be another way.
He sat down on the branch and waited for the arrival of those who he knew would be coming shortly. Knowing or unknowing, they always came when time was due and what was necessary would be done. Good, evil, chaos, law it didn’t matter to him and his people, only their Great Mother who created and sheltered them mattered. She was them and they were Her in so many ways, like the very leaves and fruit upon Her branches that fed and sheltered them, and they in turn watched over her. But sometimes…
He shuddered and wept, a single tear dropping from his eye and falling down the untold miles below to strike ground on one of the planes that the World Tree touched with its branches and roots. As the single drop of gleaming saline spread down the miles and froze in the passing air, the elder remembered the tale told to him by his grandfather five times over before that one’s passing, a tale passed down the generations from time unknowable to when the Great Mother was first injured.
The branches had shaken, the Mother had trembled and her pain was felt keenly by Her children when the Serpent had coiled about Her base with its unending hunger and rage, seeking to destroy the World Tree in the hopes of destroying the universe that had created it. The Great Mother’s blood had flowed in rivers in those days as Nidhogg clawed and ravaged the roots of the Tree where they had sunk into the soil of the Waste.
His people had been helpless, for nothing they did could harm the Wyrm, and it ignored them while spawning its own children with the fiends of the lower planes and evil dragons who flocked to its call. It and its brood seemed like they might succeed in killing the Great Mother, and they, the ratatosks, they wept in their impotence.
Salvation came to them unasked for, but needed, and cloaked in nightmare. His people had never spoken its name since that time, neither in thanks nor in fear, but its existence still haunted them through the millennia. They had never written it down, but somehow they all knew its name. They had never drawn it, nor carved it, nor passed down tales that described the Horror that offered its corrosive salvation to their Great Mother and them, but still they knew its face in their nightmares. When the time came for their bargain to be paid again, they would all dream of it, each and every one of them, hearing its whispers in the darkness of their slumbering minds.
The elder looked down and sighed, knowing how close that time was, and the dreams that had come the night before like a black winged angel, one wing dipped in blood and the other glowing with their love for the World Tree. He understood that he, the one chosen of his generation, the first in many years, would go willingly with whatever and whomever would come in the following days. He and the others they did so with a glad heart, knowing that it was necessary.
The old tales of that first meeting spoke of how the elders of a thousand villages, the leaders and wise ones of their race had gathered to discuss their last, frantic attempts to stop the Wyrm that feasted upon the Great Mother. They had been desperate, willing to do anything to save all that they knew, everything they cared for and loved whatever the cost. Desperation was all they knew in that moment. Somehow their anguish, frustration, fear, and misery was heard, and something came to save them, but not out of mercy…
The elder shuddered at what had been implied in the latter half of that tale. That it might not have heard them and come to save them, but had waited until their fear had collapsed into desperation and they no longer cared what they would have to give of themselves to save all that they loved. The darkness that had blindly clambered up the trunk of the World Tree and offered them a way to save the Great Mother might have been the one to engineer the horror that it offered to save them from in the first place.
“We agreed… we willingly agreed…” The elder cried out into the void beyond the branches as he wept once more, a man who had long ago resigned himself to the cross that he would willingly bear if the darkness came to give its bloody and poisoned salvation once again. “It always does, and we agreed, we willingly agreed…”
Clueless stared in silence at where his own doppelganger from a possible-future had manifested and then vanished back into non-existence. The haunting notion that he might potentially be in reverse positions at some point in the future lingered in his mind, along with what it might imply.
“You alright there?” Toras glanced over at the bladesinger who continued to stare, deeply breathing to remain calm despite having just watching himself being dragged into nothingness.
“Yeah, as much as I can be after witnessing that.” Clueless shook his head in disbelief. “Not that I really know what it was.”
“Hopefully nothing that comes to pass.” Tristol noted, watching as each of their manifest timelines seemed to froth at close inspection, rippling with things and currents barely constrained, futures that might possibly come to pass. “But the longer we’re here in the demiplane of time we’re more and more prone to seeing that level of strangeness.”
It wasn’t just strangeness.
Fyrehowl said nothing, knowing that it wouldn’t help anyone. The feeling of things not being right that she’d gathered from the Cadence of the Planes wasn’t simply a background from the Demiplane of Time itself. In fact it wasn’t connected to the demiplane at all, but rather with the baernaloth’s pocket plane they were seeking out, and as they drew closer, the gnawing feeling of wrongness only increased. Whatever they sought, in some possible future what they’d found had caused the Clueless of that stillborn potential-reality to actively seek to warn his past self to prevent it from ever occurring.
“How about we get out of this mess of timelines?” Clueless asked, hand on Razor’s pommel. “Is it possible to teleport to, or better yet, into the pocket plane we’re looking for?”
“Yeah, I’d rather not try and physically search for it.” Florian said, glancing about warily.
Tristol nodded and immediately started casting, silverfire at the tips of his fingers and the terminus of his tail before the flicker-flash of the teleportation spell washed over them all with a sudden, shockingly cold sensation and a violent physical tug.
Nisha blinked as they reappeared, then looked over at Tristol. “Umm… that didn’t feel like it normally does…”
“I just blindly teleported us into a place I knew nothing about except by its name, trusting a baernaloth named the Lie Weaver that this place even existed.” Tristol gave an emphatic shrug and was rewarded by a pat on the head from Nisha as the others looked about at where they had reappeared.
They had indeed managed to arrive at, or perhaps rather, inside of, the Clockwork Gap. Gazing about, they stood on the edge of a huge disk of flat rock centered within a gossamer, transparent bubble separating it from the wider expanse of the Demiplane of Time. Beyond the exterior boundary of which stood directly behind them, and high overhead, the temporal storms of the surrounding demiplane appeared like strange discordant clouds and distant, alien constellations.
Stretching out before them atop the rock was a massive, labyrinthine hedge maze that surrounded a large, several story keep at the very center of the disk. The keep itself seemed to hover slightly above a hole cut into the rock, situated above a swirling whirlpool of ethereal mist that glowed with an almost blinding intensity: an ether gap.
“Well, I’d intended to get us to the middle of this place, rather than the very edge, but we were redirected.” Tristol said as he stared at the ether gap barely visible in distance. Whatever it was, the gap was truly massive, easily larger than any other such gap that he’d ever seen or even heard of, and it seemed perched on the knife’s edge of either expansion or utter collapse.
“Honestly, I’m not sure what’s more frightening.” Clueless mused, “This place itself, or the fact that there’s not a single glimmer of magic from anything here…”
“No, there’s magic here.” Tristol interjected, a faint flicker of silverfire at the edges of his pupils, “A tremendous amount, but it’s not any sort that I’m familiar with, even comparing it to what we saw in the Lie Weaver’s cavern. I can’t even tell you what school of magic it belongs to, if that would even apply to it really. It feels… wrong… but that’s all I can gather really. It doesn’t want to be seen, and for whatever reason, I’m not seeing it when I should, and not in the right amount of detail when I do.”
Taking the mage’s words into account they collectively looked up at the black marble archway that stood above the entry into the hedge maze. A single, carved refrain stretched across the stone, written in obscene letters only vaguely reminiscent of the written tongues of the fiends: ancient baernaloth.
“Anyone care to translate?” Toras asked.
The moment he posed the question though, the letters rippled in place, like the pitch black stone was made of liquid, only to be replaced with the same refrain, written in a mixture of infernal and abyssal.
“What you can see can kill you. What is illusion is reality. What
you behold is reality, or is it?”
“I don’t suppose anyone has a dispel reality spell handy, hmm?” Toras deadpanned as they slowly passed under the archway and proceeded forward and into the maze.
“Hey, think about it this way. We can pretend that Toras sucker punched a dabus and we all got mazed!” Nisha laughed and rattled the bell at the tip of her tail as they moved deeper into the hedge work.
“No thank you, already tried that and it wasn’t what I’d call fun.” Toras said before quickly adding, “Being in a maze I mean. Not sucker punching a dabus. I don’t want to ever do that, thank you very much.”
“Wise idea!” Fyrehowl quipped, “Ironically as we’re dumb enough to be here in this misbegotten place.”
With that refrain of optimism from the lupinal they continued, taking several hours to pass through the twisting verdant maze that grew up from the rock itself, flourishing and alive despite the lack of topsoil, water, or light besides the dim flicker of light from the far-off temporal storms and the ghostly, moonlight glow of the swirling ether gap at the demiplane’s center. Through it all they felt watched constantly as they walked, and the interior of the maze seemed to twist the concept of space itself as they found that any attempt to fly above the maze, or to pass through its walls by any but the obvious physical routes provided to them ultimately proved fruitless, either returning them to the maze’s entrance or simply failing to function.
Regardless, they eventually passed through a series of twisted puzzles, some based upon their own experiences, and others that seemed designed to test their concepts of morality and their own intelligence. At every step they were forced to question what was real and what was not, with illusions that seemed partially real and substantive prowling the mazes and stalking them.
It was not a pleasant few hours as they crept steadily closer to the castle waiting for them at the Clockwork Gap’s malignant heart. Finally they emerged shaken and disturbed at the gates of the black marble fortress and the whirlpool of light that it perched atop, but now the doors were open, swung wide and waiting for them.
“Those weren’t open before were they?” Nisha asked as she warily stepped behind Tristol.
“No, they weren’t.” Fyrehowl tentatively climbed the steps and approached the gates, “And you’d think that I’d have at least heard them swinging open. I didn’t.”
Tristol stared at the mirror-smooth black marble of the keep’s walls. Again that brief flicker of silverfire and his eyes grew wide in amazement. “This isn’t even stone. It’s solid ethereal proto-matter, and it’s stable.”
“How is that surprising?” Fyrehowl turned to the wizard, “It’s more or less right next to the ethereal. The stuff’s easy to find.” Fyrehowl punctuated the statement by tapping the keep walls with her sword.
“Common yes,” Tristol explained, “But ethereal proto-matter isn’t stable. It’s liable to dissolve into nothing or erupt into a living thing at any given second. It’s worse than chaos matter.”
“Mmmm… karach.” Nisha interjected with an impish smile, “Fun stuff.”
“Proto-matter is stabilized by force of will alone.” Tristol explained, “When the githzerai solidify their cities they make from chaos matter, they have thousands of chaos shapers working together. Proto-matter is more difficult, and I haven’t seen any evidence of a living thing here at all yet.”
“So who’s making this stable?” Florian asked.
“Exactly…” The archmage said with a sharp and ominous breath as he walked up the stairs.
Ascending the steps, before they’d even passed over the threshold of the open doors, true to the pocket plane’s name, they heard from out of its interior the faint, steady sound of clockwork. The routine tick and clatter of gears and pendulums echoed from out of the halls to grace their ears with its eerie refrain, cold and distant.
Fyrehowl paused and shook off a feeling of dread as she was the first of them to boldly step into the fortress, throwing aside intuition in the name of necessity for a time. The first step was agonizingly difficult, though again she didn’t voice her concerns, even as the Cadence screamed at her to pause, turn around, and take no further steps forward.
The others followed and the group steadily and warily progressed through the otherwise vacant and sterile halls of the keep interior, all alone but for the mechanical ticking and methodic grinding noises of gear against gear that echoed all around them, growing louder the deeper they traversed. More than an hour passed and they’d yet to discover anything besides blind corridor ends, empty chambers devoid of decorations, and the ever uninterrupted clatter of clockwork processes within the walls themselves.
“We’ve been walking for over an hour and we haven’t actually found anything.” Florian complained, looking up at the walls.
“Same as the hedges outside, it’s changing as we’re walking, or the space in here that it’s built in isn’t normal.” Fyrehowl replied.
“One or the other, it really doesn’t feel right, and it’s been getting worse.” Florian added.
With the cleric’s statement, seemingly as if on cue, the hallway they had been walking down shifted, the section some thirty feet distant branching out with a series of side passages. With measured curiosity and trepidation, the group approached, finding that each ended in a door.
Ever the spontaneous one, Nisha approached the first of the four doors and swung it open without warning.
“And behind door number one!... Ok wait, what?” The tiefling blinked and stepped back. Beyond the first and now open door was a solid expanse of clockwork from wall to wall that blocked entry into the chamber except to watch and observe the gears, counterweights and pendulums all clicking along in sterility.
“Strange…” Clueless said as he swung open the second door and looked into a round chamber that resembled a laboratory. The walls were covered in glowing script in the same bizarre language they had seen upon the archway leading into the maze, but this time the language did not translate itself for them to read. The center of the room was dominated by a metallic pedestal that held a dozen or so leathery eggs in a field of purple light. Inside the eggs, heavily backlit by the glow to the point of translucency, moved black, shadowy forms, very obviously alive.
“Unnerving is more like it.” Tristol said, “And the fact that I can’t read a single word of the text on the walls doesn’t make me feel any better. Because of course a normal spell to translate doesn’t touch that stuff.”
“Of course it wouldn’t.” Fyrehowl rolled her eyes at the situation as she and the others glanced warily at the eggs and the rambling, indecipherable notations scrawled upon the walls.
It seemed as if at any moment they might hatch and unleash something hideous to attack them. True to that worry, when they finally stepped into the chamber, the things in the eggs seemed to take notice and oriented in their amniotic prison to face them; it was unsettling to say the least.
Toras paused and concentrated on the eggs before wincing and backing away.
“What?” Nisha asked. “You look like you just drank sour milk.”
“I had to stop.” The fighter answered.
“Huh?” The tiefling asked again. “Why was that?”
“Because I don’t like knowingly making myself sick and nauseated.” Toras replied, rubbing his forehead with discomfort, “Trying to detect evil here, it’s like trying to see a candle flame held in front of the sun. This whole place is abhorrently evil and I couldn’t feel anything above the background.”
“And those would be dragon eggs if anyone’s curious. Gold or Red, one of those two.” Tristol added as they all moved out of the chamber and on to the next.
The next door was ominously open when they stood in front of it and beheld the wretched scene contained therein. The chamber was lined with individual cages wrought of black metal, carved with runes and symbols in baernaloth, with each holding a single warped and twisted individual that by all rights should not have existed or even been alive.
“Mystra forbid…” Tristol muttered in shock as he looked into the first cage and the occupant therein that seemed to have been the result of either a forced attempt at breeding a vrock and a hamatula together, or the sorcerous fusion of the two.
The lupinal stared for a moment in shock at the caged abomination before turning away, feeling sick.
The horror did not end there. Various other baatezu and tanar’ri hybrids, fusions, or piecemeal grafting attempts were locked within the other cages and tanks situated elsewhere within the room. Volumes of notes were, like the previous chamber, written upon the walls above and out of reach of the twisted, sickly occupants who seemed to exist in a state of constant agony, each of them kept alive only by magical interference. Curiously the text, as they were able to look at it closer, seemed written by an unsteady hand, deeply cut into the stone in such a way as to be read less by sight, and more by the touch of hands physically brushing across them, claws scouring the furrows slashed deep into the marble.
Nisha turned a slight shade of green more than her already olive toned skin and walked out into the hall, soon to be joined by the others.
“Ugh,” The lupinal looked at the others, “After that I’m not sure I care to know what’s in the other room…”
“Yeah, but I’m curious. Morbidly curious, but still.” Clueless said as he opened the door opposite the last.
As opposed to the active and clearly ongoing experimentation in the last chamber, the next room was more a display of completed work than an active lab. Several crystalline tanks held what could only have been described as half a dozen trial runs and false starts along the way of creating a mezzoloth. Dozens of massive books and tomes lay stacked on shelves between two dissecting tables, both of which held magically constrained and still living subjects. One table held a gutted, mewling and struggling proto-mezzoloth, each of its organs separated out, tagged and levitating slightly above its torso. The fiend was somehow still alive despite the dissection.
The second table held a series of still living sagittal and coronal slices of a completed and finalized mezzoloth, somehow kept animate and alive by magic. Next to it stood a nearly solid illusion of a whole example of the subspecies in smaller scale.
Nisha gagged and dashed from the chamber when the sectioned eye of the dissected yugoloth turned to look at them. The others followed soon after, though Tristol stayed just a second more to note the sheer size of the books and bound notebooks littering the room. Each of them was easily four times the size of his own spellbooks, and that worried him simply on the matter of how physically large the author would have to have been.
“I don’t want to meet the owner of this place.” Toras said flatly.
“I mean did you expect the so-called brother of the Lie Weaver to be a pleasant fellow?” Florian asked sarcastically.
“I expected evil but this…” Toras gestured back towards the last chamber. Pointedly he did not actually look towards it.
They shook away the images still lingering in their heads of what they had seen on display, and walked deeper into the keep. As they strode onwards, they began to notice that the ubiquitous ticking of the clockwork devices echoing throughout the halls was not as constant as it first had seemed. In fact the initially continuous background pattern and rhythm of ticking would pause, reverse, increase or decrease in volume, and spontaneously change frequency and volume, subtly but it did. Perhaps most disturbingly, the changes they noticed were not always the same for each of them.
Fyrehowl’s ears perked at each of the changes, but the motion of her ears was not directly corresponding to that of Tristol’s ears, and he noticed it as well. “You’re not hearing the same patterns that I am, are you?” He asked.
“Doesn’t seem that way.” She replied.
“Nisha? You have any opinion on it?” Tristol said to the tiefling.
“It might seem like an exercise in xaos, but trust me here, it’s not. Is it whatever, not it that’s. … Whoops, sorry, bad habit.” She said, lapsing into scramblespeak as they drew near to a large, vaulted chamber.
They stopped and stared as they reached the doorway, horror shifting to amazement as they gazed up at a series of silvery astrolabes that stood at the compass points in the chamber, each of them with several great crystal lenses focused on some distant scene. While half of the lenses seemed inactive at the time, others opened up onto various scenes within the Ethereal Plane. One by one they saw moving images of Lycester’s Gap, the White Ship, the Pyramidal Gap, and the ethereal protomatter comet that hurtled through the depths, studded with shapes reminiscent of buried cities, known only as the Body Luminous.
Each visual would pan in, focus on minor details of each, and then draw out from each scene before repeating once more. Each time it opened up a view onto each distant, bizarre vista, with the open question being if it was looking at them in real-time, or looking at some manner of view separated not only in space but also in time.
“Tristol?” Clueless asked, “What’s so special about those specific demiplanes and locations? What’s common about them that might gather a baernaloth’s interest?”
Tristol put a finger to his lips and looked down at the floor, staring at his own faint reflection in the polished stone as he pondered the question. He didn’t however have a chance to respond to the bladesinger’s query as abruptly the surrounding, omnipresent clockwork ticking within the walls stopped, the scenes dimmed and paused, and the inactive lenses rotated and glowed with a sudden flare of activity.
“This can’t be good…” Nisha said with a wince.
“It’s not…” Fyrehowl said as she glanced around nervously.
The newly active crystal lenses then showed their contents, each a series of grim and morbid potential futures: Toras watched in one lens as he was torn to pieces by a pack of invisible beasts. Fyrehowl watched as she lay upon a stone table, held in place by bands of force as a gathering of arcanaloths in bejeweled finery slowly and deliberately cut away pieces of her flesh to dip in fondue pots as they held a meeting. Nisha watched as in another scene she was pulled up into the air, only to be ground to meat inside the gears of one of the astrolabes. Scene by scene the lenses played out a dozen or more grim fates, and eventually the six of them stopped watching and continued walking after they watched a scene where they all killed one another in fratricidal glee.
“Someone’s having fun at our expense.” Toras said with a smirk.
“Yes, but what I worry about is that each of those was an actual possible future, however bizarre and remote.” Clueless said.
The next twenty minutes were filled only with their own lurking dread at what they might find at the center of the fortress, and the constant nightmare ticking of the clockwork that filled the spaces between the walls, like it were the clockwork muscles of a living thing, slowly pumping fiendish hemolymph. Despite their dread and discomfort, they finally reached their destination.
“Oh what the hell…” Clueless breathed as they entered the grand chamber at the heart of the keep and stopped in their tracks at what turned to face their approach.
The air was still and cold, but skirting the edge of their hearing, just audible above the sound of the omnipresent clockwork, was the combined chorus of innumerable whispers that rushed forth from the swirling ether gap at the very center of the room that opened up below a circular portal nearly thirty feet across. Set in place above the swirling ethereal abyss, crouching like a giant iron spider was a great clockwork device of gears, pendulums, and crystalline lenses that hovered and shuddered with its own infernal motions above the pit. Extending out up and across the room, connecting to the overhead vault of gearwork, it was all eerily silent as its machinery moved in precise patterns except for the subsonic vibrations that ran through their bodies with the infrasound whir and clatter of a hundred thousand maddeningly spinning and grinding gears.
But the insensate, unspeakably complex device was not what drew their attention immediately. Rather, it was the creature that peered out at them from behind it, standing at the edge of the pit.
Harishek ap Thulkesh, the Blind Clockmaker smiled.
Nearly twenty feet tall with wasted, elongated limbs, the baernaloth turned at their approach and flashed a grin of yellowed but razor sharp fangs. It sniffed at the air as it noticed them and flicked it blackened tongue at the air like a serpent, and then they all noticed its eyes.
The monstrous fiend’s eyes were clouded and opaque, horizontal caprine pupils dotted with intraocular bleeding and plaque-like blemishes of cataracts. Blind and unseeing as they randomly twitched in their sockets, wandering and not focused on the fiend’s guests as it blindly felt its way along the pit’s edge by taking hold of the nightmare device’s metallic protuberences like a guide rail as it awkwardly loped towards them.
“It certainly took you long enough to find your way here, though time is entirely subjective in this place.” The proto-fiend’s words washed over them with a feeling of a hundred razor-sharp surgical implements poised above their skulls, just like the great machine perched above the ether gap, slowly sketching in lines of blood across their scalps the pattern of subsequent surgery. “So my dear brother Daru has sent you, no? Do not make me wait anymore than I must. Ask your questions and I will give you my price. And stay where you are…”