Shemeska's Planescape Storyhour - (Updated 11Dec2019)

Shemeska

Adventurer
Helekanalith paused to adjust his glasses, then with a single fluid motion he returned to taking notes.



The Keeper of the Tower sat in his office, staring across his desk at the trio of senior apprentices who stood there, their eyes glazed over, staring into space. One of them, a copper-furred individual with a notch missing from one ear, the scar tissue at the edge gilded with poured and magically molded gold, stood with his mouth open with prominent sialorrhea, slowly dribbling a pool onto the floor. All three of them stood there awkwardly, barely in control of their most basic capacities, but despite that, their hands adeptly moved and plucked at the pages of ephemeral, immaterial, nonexistent books and scrolls. Through their minds the Keeper riffled, browsing through their surface thoughts to collect the contents of their mental delving.



Every arcanaloth, be they in Gehenna or not, had mental access to a shared pool of knowledge built into the structure of the Tower Arcane by its architect and creator, Larsdana ap Neut, the First Majestrix of the Fourfold Furnace. Using the pool was something virtually every arcanaloth did, and frequently so, if judiciously, as availing themselves of it was also a liability in that it recorded what one was searching for and accessing, and every other arcanaloth was privy to that information.



Larsdana herself never used the Tower’s pool. Not directly. Like Helekanalaith at present, the Witch-Queen of Gehenna had somehow managed to overwrite the basic nature of every arcanaloth that passed through the furnaces of Gehenna or held tenure within the Tower. The Keeper’s predecessor had inserted a loophole in their nature by which she could utilize the Pool by proxy through their minds without their knowledge, their desire, or the Pool retaining a trace of that attempt for any others to discover, including Helekanalaith as her successor as Keeper.



The present Keeper had discovered that tool relatively late, over twelve centuries after he’d usurped and imprisoned her, and its very existence terrified him, as it clearly meant that she’d utilized it on him during his tenure as her direct apprentice. It also left open the question of just what else remained written into the very bones of the Tower and himself and his kindred caste that she’d engineered on her own or in concert with the baernaloth that had once dwelled within her: Alashra the Dream-Eater. His own spiritual parasite was abjectly silently, and had been for many long years.



Unbeknownst to the Keeper, his ever-present, ever-watching tapeworm of the soul, the baernaloth Sarkithel fek Parthis, had not spoken a word since Vorkannis the Ebon had emerged onto the Waste. When the Oinoloth had slowly, inexorably hunting down and massacred most all of the altraloths and killed his predecessor Mydianchlarus, he’d eliminated the greatest rivals he faced for his present throne. That was only a side effect of his actions however. His intention through it all had not just been a quest for purity, his stated desire, but to slay the hosts of the Demented. Helekanalaith, Charon, Xenghara, and Taba were the only known ones yet extant, the Keeper for obvious reasons, Charon because he had betrayed Mydianchlarus in favor of the Ebon and since then obeyed with conspicuous deference, while Xenghara had been delivered into the arms of the Hag Countess and his fate in Hell was a thing of horror, and Taba because the shapeshifter had so far defied their attempts to drag her back to Khin-Oin for execution.



The Keeper’s notes as always formed images and artwork from the words and symbols he wrote to transcribe his apprentices’ thoughts and through them his research pulled from the Tower’s communal knowledge pool. He rarely had a particular image in mind, allowing his subconscious to guide his stylus as it painted, and this time it dwelled on one image in particular: Larsdana’s wicked smile gazed back at him from the page.



Even in her imprisoned impotence she haunted him.



Turning and once more adjusting his golden spectacles, Helekanalaith gazed at the gemstone hovering above his desk, acting as a lamp: the gemstone that housed Larsdana’s bottled essence.



“We are finished here.” The Keeper muttered, placing his notebook and stylus down upon the desk, and with a flourish of his fingers and mentally incanted phrase, all three apprentices vanished, reappearing in their own chambers without a second having passed from their perspective.



Standing up, Helekanalaith set about a blur of activity, double and then triple checking the layers of wards upon his office that blocked entry both physically or magically, and diverted divinations to believably but wholly fabricated scenarios. Upon satisfying himself as to the sanctity of his demesne, the Keeper gathered Larsdana’s gemstone within his hands, cradling it against his chest.



Shedding his robes, Helekanalaith hovered in mid-air, crossing his legs and lowering his head to stare at the gemstone’s light pouring through the gaps between his fingers. Focusing on the sounds of the gem’s occupant’s screams, the Keeper’s consciousness faded and entered the demiplane-like mental construct through which he could directly communicate with his eternally suffering partner/mentor/beloved/prisoner/victim/victimizer.



Helekanalaith blinked, his eyes adjusting to the surrounding darkness. His mental projection stepped forward, now dressed in stunning, regal robes, fingers and neck adorned in precious jewels, and more than anything else that adorned him, a predatory smile adorned his muzzle as he gazed down at her.



At the construct’s center she sat, sitting in open space, suspended in mid-air, her pale blue and black robes dangling below her, fluttering in an immaterial breeze.



“Greetings Helekanalaith, to what do I owe this pleasure of meeting once more?”



The Majestrix of Gehenna’s tone was cunningly, deceptively pleasant, but the features upon her face were blank and emotionless, the same agonized juxtaposition that she’d adopted since her betrayal so many long millennia earlier.



Helekanalaith waited a moment before answering her question, taking in everything that she was once and still in some manner continued to be to him. The jackal-headed arcanaloth who looked up at him was regal and pristine, her fur a pale shade of light browns and tan, mottled with patches of gray, with her muzzle fading to darker brown and then nearly black. Her hair atop her head offset the prosaic appearance of her fur, a striking shade of crimson that fell to shoulder length, pin straight, with the trailing edges fading to jet black, though it did not remain so constantly: blink and the former Keeper’s hair would reverse to black with trailing edges of brilliant crimson as if she’d dipped its length in a sacrifice’s blood.



The once-Keeper’s eyes were a piercing shade of lavender, and in contrast to her once-apprentice with his own fit and chiseled physique, her own body was an afterthought to the power and knowledge locked within. Larsdana’s body was thin to the point of frailty, somewhere between wiry and anemic, and where the neckline of her robes plunged down, below the brilliant star sapphire amulet that hung there, her flesh was taught against her clavicles.



Helekanalaith reached out to stroke at her face and she did not withdraw.



“I visit you with a question Larsdana,” Helekanalaith said, running a claw along the edge of her jaw, “My Oinoloth once said something to me, ‘You are so very much like Larsdana. A pity that she never met me in person.’”



Larsdana’s face remained impassive, hiding her thoughts even as she turned her head and brush against his fingers, and even as with that touch a soft echo of her agonized screaming manifested softly through the environs of the construct.



“What do you know of Him? His history is nonexistent within the records of the Tower.” Helekanalaith asked, even there his voice inflected with a measure of fear and respect for his master. “What do you know of Vorkannis the Ebon, Oinoloth of the Waste? Who is he?”



Larsdana could resist answering him, and she would suffer ever more for doing so. She could resist answering, but of course Helekanalaith would know, and thus she did not hesitate.



“I knew everything about him.”



Helekanalaith blinked at an answer he did not expect.



“Tell me everything.” The current Keeper demanded.



“Alas my love,” Larsdana’s tone was gentile and almost regretful in her own way even as she eyes gleamed, puissant and purple, “But I can tell you nothing.”



“We have forever my beloved.” Helekanalaith ran a claw across her lips with deceptive care, gentle and loving in his own way, as much as their kind could ever be, “There is no objective passage of time within this place. This will be painful. It always is.”



“No my beloved…” Larsdana looked up at him, her words carefully chosen, “Student you misunderstand. I knew everything about him. EVERYTHING.”



“… knew?” Helekanalaith’s mind stumbled over the specific tense in her answer and its implications.



“Alas…” Larsdana’s voice trailed off, but her eyes remained locked upon her lover, “I know only that I once possessed that knowledge and those memories, but I no longer have them, amongst many, many others. All by intent.”



For the first time in their meetings since he’d usurped her position, Larsdana smiled. Wickedly. Tauntingly. Even in her imprisonment she remained in some measure of power over her apprentice.



Helekanalaith swallowed, fighting back his apoplectic rage as his hand left her face and dropped to his side. He wouldn’t give her that satisfaction.



“You cannot discover what I cannot hide because I no longer possess it my love.” The Witch Queen of Gehenna continued to flash her ivory fangs, her eyes gleaming with presence and power even in the absence of either. “It was good seeing you again my love. I would dearly love to make these meetings more frequent, but you look as if you should go and attend to other matters and other thoughts…”



Larsdana began to laugh, and as Helekanalaith vanished from the mental construct, her laughter remained with him.





****​





Their departure from Dubai’s Obscure Woe was swift, their spirits lifting by the passage of every footstep away from the Lie-Weaver’s lair. As soon as the ground transitioned from the lair’s flagstones to the crimson, stinking more of Torch’s surrounding swamps, Tristol didn’t even ask the others to gather close and prepare themselves before he waved his hands and swiftly incanted a planeshift.



“…Thank you for that!”



“So very much!”



The thanks flowed freely as the magic faded in a series of twinkling stars fading like real ones at the first light of dawn. The surroundings stood in stark contrast to those in proximity to Gehenna’s gatetown, the unnatural, blood-red swamp and the volcano-dominated skyline replaced with the pines and other conifers of deep, terrestrial forest.



The fresh, deeply resinous smell of conifers filled the air, and long shadows trailed along the ground, cast through the surrounding wood by the light of a late afternoon sun.



“This is the second time in a short while that we’ve been to Toril.” Nisha quipped, “What’s up with your home world?”



Florian and Tristol smiled and shrugged.



“That being said, what can either of you tell the rest of us about where we are?” Clueless glanced at the two of them, “And also how far off target we are on that planeshift?”



“Well, I aimed for a location called the Great Dale that sits between two huge forests, the Rawlinswood and the Forest of Lethyr. We’re in an area that was once part of the ancient empire of Narfell, ruled by evil clerics who bound all manner of fiends into their service even as they pledged themselves to servitude post-death to various demonlords.”



“Nice folks, clearly.” Florian laughed.



“Ultimately Narfell came into conflict with a neighboring empire known as Raumathar, known for their love of monstrous constructs. The two empires warred for centuries and largely obliterated one another.” Tristol looked around, “And the Rawlinswood ended up swallowing most of old Narfell. The place is still littered with ruins, ancient spell-traps, and tons of still extant demons, not bound to anyone, but still stuck on the Material plane and not happy about that.”



“Lovely.” Toras rolled his eyes, “So what was this Dun-Tharos?”



“That,” Tristol nodded, “Was the capital of Narfell. Completely obliterated by Raumathar, and since controlled by demons until in recent history a bunch of druids ran them out, at least until they were driven out by a priest of Talona called the Rotting Man who promptly summoned –back- a ton of demons, and that’s where things stand now.”



“So how close to Dun-Tharos are we?” Fyrehowl asked, pausing and keening her muzzle to the wind and sniffing. The wind carried only the scent of trees and rotting loam, no demons or other creatures for the moment.



Tristol took several minutes to scry about the vicinity and compare what he saw to both his own knowledge and a conjured map. He smiled halfway into his search: they weren’t far off.



“Not very far.” The aasimar said, “I aimed for the Great Dale and yeah, we were off target, but off target in a positive direction. If the tower we’re looking for is near Dun-Tharos, we’re maybe an hour’s walk from the city’s ruins.”



“…where the Rotting Man rules…” Florian stuck out her tongue.



“We just met a baernaloth.” Toras shook his head, “I’m not worried about demons or demon worshipers. Bring it.”



Clueless and Fyrehowl chuckled at the fighter’s bravado.



“Beyond being close to Dun-Tharos, how are we going to find this specific tower?” Florian asked, glancing to Clueless.



The bladesinger hefted the box, warily looking at it. It was cold in his hands. “I haven’t noticed anything yet. I suppose we’ll find out when we get closer…”





***​





That hour’s walk estimate ended up being a generous estimate by far. As they travelled through the Rawlinswood the party was ambushed no fewer than three times by mutated, diseased wildlife, demons in thrall to the Rotting Man, and a party of warriors led by a deacon of the so-called Chosen of Talona himself. The end result of all three conflicts was much the same: Toras’s bravado growing more and more, ultimately ending with him picking up the lead Talonite priest by the neck and slamming his head into a tree to predictable effect.



“You know?” Clueless said, cleaning blood from Razor’s blade. “A year ago I would have been genuinely worried about walking through the Rawlinswood like this. Now? Now this sort of thing is normal and every fight has just been a delay.”



Even as Clueless smiled, Toras’s laughter and mocking insults to Talona and demons echoed in the background at full volume as the fighter reveled in their latest victory.



“He’s going to draw more enemies you know…” Fyrehowl mentioned with a shrug, sitting down upon a moss-covered chunk of masonry covered in carved symbols from ancient Narfell.



“Ehh…” Clueless smirked, “Let him enjoy this. I think we’ll be fine unless the Rotting Man himself decides to show up. And so long as it’s obvious that we’re not actively walking towards his seat of power I don’t think he’s going to bother after we’ve been stomping everything that we’ve come up against. We’ll be fine.”



Clueless’s words would normally have been accurate without any real boast, and that of course was when the baernaloth’s ‘gift’ made its presence known as within the satchel that the half-fey had placed it, it tugged against its container and tugged towards the northeast with enough force to make him stumble.



“The f*ck…” Clueless stammered as he staggered forward with the force of the box’s abrupt motion, only recovering once he’d restrained it, clutching it in his arms.



The others collectively stared at him as he cradled the baernaloth’s box, firmly resisting its irregular jerks in one specific direction. Softly they could all hear a sudden whirring and grinding of clockwork gears and tumblers, the sound carried with a bizarre resonance making it sound as if the box’s interior was some vast and fathomless chasm.



“What’s it doing?” Nisha edged away with a gingerly lift of first one hoof and then another, while beside her, Tristol stared at the utter and complete absence of magic surrounding the ur-fiend’s object.



“It’s tugging towards the tower we’re heading for presumably.” Clueless said, still resisting the box as it insistently tugged to the northeast like an iron bar towards a natural loadstone.



“Well, the sooner it gets us there the sooner we’re bereft of it, whatever it is.” Fyrehowl eyed the box warily. “I just get the strangest feeling from that thing. And it’s not like the fiend gave us any idea of what it was or what it was going to do.”



“Then I suppose we get going…” Clueless glanced down, watching the box’s impish face staring back up at him. “Sooner we’re done with this, sooner we’re free of this.”





****​





Continuing forward, they fought a group of lesser demons and narrowly avoided another patrol of the Rotting Man’s followers and then they reached something of a respite from all such worries. A stone rose up at the edge of a clearing where the forest had been cut back decades earlier, with newer growth only starting to rise up over a wide field of grasses and wildflowers. The stone itself was newly carved and newly placed, though of the same native stone as the fallen rubble of ancient Dun-Tharos, emblazoned with symbols in that nation’s ancient language, as well as more modern Torillian tongues and Abyssal. All of the carvings read the same: “Beyond rises the lands of Master Muroth Chalmar, necromancer. Beware lest you serve forever in death.”



“That’s a pleasant greeting.” Florian smirked. “Just please no undead.”



Tristol glanced at the stone, his eyes flickering with a pale blue glow as he examined the magic on the stone itself and that which blanketed the landscape.



“He can back up that claim.” The wizard said, “But if it came to it, we’ll be good. But I don’t think it’ll come to it. I think he just wanted to be out here away from anyone that would bother him and his research, however unseemly as we can presume it would be.”



Tristol turned back towards the stone, stepped forward and placed his hand atop the necromancer’s symbol. “Master Chalmar, greetings. My compatriots and myself wish to enter your lands and deliver a package to you, entrusted into our care by another. We do not know its nature or identity, only that it was to be given over to your care. We seek only to deliver it and be on our way.”



At first there was no response, only the rustle of the tall grass with a sudden breeze.



“Maybe he’s not home?” Nisha chuckled.



“Well that’s that! I guess we have to kick the door in and have fun!” Toras said, a hand moving towards his sword. He didn’t get the chance.



The box tugged once again, forcing Clueless to restrain it, “Hold your evil horses, we’ll get there…”



That was when they received their response as with a sudden rattle of bone on bone a trio of skeletal warriors rose up, assembled from bones scattered and hidden on the ground, out of view. Blue and black necromantic energies flickered at the joints and juncture between bones, binding them together and empowering the undead creatures who turned as one to regard the visitors to Chalmar’s domain.



Those three where only the beginning. More and more figures rose with preternatural silence from grassland of the necromancer’s domain, ending with over a hundred more spots in the tall grass rustling with fury, a sickly blue glow emanating from them as more and more skeletal figures rose up. Secured by necromantic ligaments and tendons to articulate the bleached white bones, each skeletal warrior was clad in the rotted, rusted armor of a dozen or more civilizations and cultures, some separated by more than a thousand years, each figure clutching a broken spear, rusted axe, or shattered greatsword that each told the same story: untold men and women had died there in battle after forgotten battle, but each now answered to the call of a new master.



Each of the dead turned like the first three to regard the party, blue-black lightning flickering in their hollow eye sockets, energy through which their master observed and watched from afar. They watched but they did not step forward.



A moment passed and another figure rose up at the head of the undead legion, a spectral figure dressed in the formal dress of a diplomatic emissary from Old Narfell. This figure gave a gentle half-bow and approached up to the edge of the necromancer’s domain.



“May we proceed?” Tristol asked as the others tensed for a fight.



Without a sound the specter nodded and a fraction of a second later the skeletal legion nodded as one. The nearest of them extended a hand and gestured them forward, turning as they approached and swinging its arm in the same direction as the tugging of the box still clutched in Clueless’s arms, pointing the way to their master’s abode.



Warily the group complied, walking past the boundary marker and proceeding into Chalmar’s self-claimed domain. They did not do so unaccompanied, and as they traveled, every twenty feet additional scores of undead rose up from the ground, both skeletons or the translucent shades of ancient warriors from a myriad of cultures’ dead upon that unhallowed ground, all turning to watch them, and then falling down into pieces or discorporating as the party passed them by, only to be replaced by others every step of the way.



At any given time over two hundred undead accompanied the group, hinting that tens of thousands lay dead below the level of the grass, all of them capable of being called upon by Chalmar should the need arise in his defense.



As silent as the dead that watched them, the party trekked across Chalmar’s domain, following a path effectively outlined by the undead guardians and further demarcated by the insistent, ever-present tugging of the baernaloth’s box.



Twenty minutes of walking later and they arrived at the end of the grasslands, the edge of the resurgent forest, and beheld Chalmar’s tower. Rising up in the shadow of ancient, towering trees, it rose up a dozen stories, reconstructed perfectly from the ancient rubble of an ancient structure from Old Narfell. The original fortress lay in ruins still, stretching back into the old growth forest.



High up the tower’s height, a single figure looked down from a window, watching them approach, their features obscured by the distance. They were there for but a moment and then they were gone.



“I’d say that we’re here.” Tristol said, glancing at the skeletal hill giants that flanked the main entrance, the stairs rising up to their shoulder height and ending at a reinforced door covered in an intricate display of runes hand-carved into the wood.



“You know, I really, really hope that this goes well.” Florian said, glancing behind them where there now stood a veritable army of hundreds of skeletal soldiers, silent and motionless, with even more rising up behind them in an ever-expanding wave of the undead rising up and barring any escape.



“Ah f*ck…” Clueless glanced behind at the skeletal army and exchanged a wary glance with Florian.



“Maybe we can convince Chalmar that this was a COD?” Nisha giggled, trying to lighten the mood and pointedly ignoring the army behind them.



The spectral emissary walked before the party, floating up and partially through the steps, and then vanishing the through the door. Several minutes passed and the door opened, though only partially, revealing a thin figure standing in the entryway gazing out at them warily.



“What do you bring me,” A distinctly mortal voice called out, “And why does one of Mystra’s Chosen serve to make such a delivery?”





****​
 

Xkrampus

Villager
@Shemeska been following the story hour for what feels like forever and I just wanted to say Bravo. You spin a web of plot like no other, I tip my cap to you.

I actually just wanted to drop a comment as more of a personal inquiry - do you ever satiate requests for details on the meta plot of this campaign? I'm sure you have STACKS of notes and GBs of files of notes on just fragments of this campaign, and a decade in we only see a fragment of the wonder you've woven here - does anyone ever request details outside what is offered herein? I myself have a billion questions lol...I was going to PM you but to be totally honest I couldn't figure out how....

Regardless, you've done an amazing job and I look forward for more to come. Thanks!
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
@Shemeska been following the story hour for what feels like forever and I just wanted to say Bravo. You spin a web of plot like no other, I tip my cap to you.

I actually just wanted to drop a comment as more of a personal inquiry - do you ever satiate requests for details on the meta plot of this campaign? I'm sure you have STACKS of notes and GBs of files of notes on just fragments of this campaign, and a decade in we only see a fragment of the wonder you've woven here - does anyone ever request details outside what is offered herein? I myself have a billion questions lol...I was going to PM you but to be totally honest I couldn't figure out how....

Regardless, you've done an amazing job and I look forward for more to come. Thanks!
Thank you so much! blush

I get such questions occasionally, but I try to avoid answering them because of the risk of someone then spoiling the story for everyone else. Given that I've been slowly working at this for over a decade, I want the eventual end to come on my own terms and my own pace.

That said, I will clarify details on the plot or confirm/deny/hedge speculation in small part on a case by case basis. But you can assume that very little in the storyhour is ever just randomly put out there unless I intend to return to it at some point. To quote Anubis/The Guardian of Dead Gods from Storyhour 2: "Nothing dies a quiet death."

I seriously have enjoyed the storyhour here as much or more than my published work for Pathfinder and D&D. And hey, I've got a Pathfinder Adventure Path entry on the way next year, so folks will -finally- be able to play through an adventure I've written up with the benefits of professional development, as opposed to the handful of folks who I've run for at conventions. :)
 

Xkrampus

Villager
Thank you so much! blush

I get such questions occasionally, but I try to avoid answering them because of the risk of someone then spoiling the story for everyone else. Given that I've been slowly working at this for over a decade, I want the eventual end to come on my own terms and my own pace.

That said, I will clarify details on the plot or confirm/deny/hedge speculation in small part on a case by case basis. But you can assume that very little in the storyhour is ever just randomly put out there unless I intend to return to it at some point. To quote Anubis/The Guardian of Dead Gods from Storyhour 2: "Nothing dies a quiet death."

I seriously have enjoyed the storyhour here as much or more than my published work for Pathfinder and D&D. And hey, I've got a Pathfinder Adventure Path entry on the way next year, so folks will -finally- be able to play through an adventure I've written up with the benefits of professional development, as opposed to the handful of folks who I've run for at conventions. :)
Well perhaps (or perhaps not) a more mundane question that is just itching the back of my brain - what in the hells (gehenna, hades, abyss, or otherwise also applicable herein) was the creature that Jeremo had tending the trees under his palace? I believe it had tentacled limbs and scared the party right well!

If you cant answer I totally understand.
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
Well perhaps (or perhaps not) a more mundane question that is just itching the back of my brain - what in the hells (gehenna, hades, abyss, or otherwise also applicable herein) was the creature that Jeremo had tending the trees under his palace? I believe it had tentacled limbs and scared the party right well!

If you cant answer I totally understand.
Not Jeremo, but the original "Jester" of which the Palace of the Jester is named. As for what the creature there was, you'll find out later on in the storyhour. To say what it is within the context of the campaign would be a reveal to a few things, both mentioned already and not.

That being said, the out of game answer is that the Jester and his servitor are shamelessly based on the titular character of "Count Magnus" from the M.R. James story of the same name.
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
Six sets of eyes blinked in unison, not at the appearance of the necromancer, Muroth Chalmar, but at his statement, and the implication that Tristol was one of Mystra’s Chosen.



The aasimar turned around with a brief, embarrassed smile and waved off the blizzard of questions.



“He’ll explain later!” Nisha whispered, the bell at the end of her tail rattling excitedly. “The silverfire is SO cool!”



Still standing in the doorway, robed in black and silver, the necromancer awaited an explanation, while behind the party, his army of the unquiet dead stood awaiting his command, cold fire licking within hollow eye-sockets. “What brings you here?”



The half-elf’s voice was cautious, tinged with the fear of a man whose unquestionable talent had never fully swallowed up his own fear of rivals, or of his possible failure. While his appearance was yet youthful, his expression, mannerisms, and the weight of long years in his eyes carried his actual age and the gravity of a life lived in persecution, occasional flight, and perpetual fear.



“I’m not here on the Lady of Mysteries’ behalf.” Tristol explained, painfully aware of the necromancer staring daggers into his eyes, and wholly unaware that within his own pupils swirled the blue and silver stars of his patron goddess’s symbol. “But on another’s behalf entirely. As we said, we’re here to deliver something to you.”



“Few are aware that I or my tower even sit here on the edge of the old capital.” Chalmar’s vivid golden eyes narrowed, and his fingers, stained by ink and necromantic reagents alike twitched in preparation for a storm of casting, should it be necessary. “I’ve been here for more than two hundred years in quiet solitude, alone, working on my art. You would not be the first adventuring company to come here with ultimately fatal delusions of taking some rumored treasure trove within these walls.”



“We are, technically, an adventuring company but that’s not why we’re here.” Toras shrugged.



“Nor would you be the first followers of one or another god, driven to zealotry and self-righteousness with a desire to cleanse the wood of a vile necromancer…” Chalmar fixed his eyes upon Florian.



The cleric of Tempus glanced down at her prominent holy symbol and then back up to meet the necromancer’s burning gaze, shaking her head and waving away the half-elf’s concern. “I’m not here on the Foe-Hammer’s behalf.”



Chalmar refocused his concern to Tristol, a twinge of jealousy dancing his eyes, “Perhaps Mystra’s newest chosen comes to me to explore avenues of magic denied to him in far-off Halrua?”



Tristol ignored the necromancer’s smug expression. “Necromancy isn’t a particular affinity of mine, but neither is it a forbidden school. Mystra has given me much, but neither did she send me here to you.”



“Then who sent you here?” Chalmar asked, genuine curiosity drowning out his prior concerns. “Name them, and produce their so-called gift.”



Tristol turned and motioned to Clueless to produce the box. “It was given to us by the Lie Wea…”



The wizard’s voice abruptly trailed off, the baernaloth’s title and name left unfinished on his tongue as Clueless lifted up the box and Chalmar caught sight of it. The response was immediate.



“Oh…” The necromancer went still, his face paled, and his hands carried an obvious tremor.



“Uhh…” Fyrehowl muttered as her ears twitched and swiveled a moment before she glanced back to see the undead army collapse into thousands of piles of inanimate bone and slowly dispersing clouds of ethereal protoplasm, their spirits unshackled and the magic animating them suddenly released by a master no longer requiring their protection.



Clueless stepped forward and held up the box, which the necromancer accepted with a soft, almost inaudible sigh, a twitch present in his left eye. On the verge of mental and physical collapse, an archmage reduced to a terrified child inwardly screaming in abject horror, Chalmar reached out and took the box from Clueless with only a brief glance down at the wickedly smiling face carved into its lid.



“You will know it when you see it…” Chalmar’s voice was a whisper as he took his eyes away from the box in his hands and looked back up at the party, his face blank and drained, his hands trembling.



“Excuse me?” Clueless asked.



“You will know it when you see it.” The necromancer explained, “The next step for you in your quest of three parts of which this is your first, and for me my last. Somewhere on the Ethereal Plane, on the fringe of the Border and the Deep, three days from Toril’s edge lies another Wall of Color to another sphere and other dreamers there. The dreams of that place bubble up flickering gold and other colors.”



In his hands, Daru’s box had begun to rattle with the internal motion of gears, dull, hollow, and distant, the sound of heavy mechanisms falling into place at a profound distance but drawing ever closer by the moment.



Chalmar recited a series of coordinates based on a number of well-known Ethereal landmarks and repeated his first statement, “You will know it when you see it. You’ll find your way clearer after a day or two.”



“What’s wrong?” Tristol asked, reaching out a hand in worry and concern for the necromancer’s sudden change in attitude.



“Are you alright?” Clueless asked, his eyes drawn to the box whose eerie face now yawned wide, almost hungry looking.



Chalmar’s eyes flickered with a moment of rage at their concern before he turned away and stared back at the box in his hands.



“What deal did you make with the Lie Weaver?” Tristol asked, “We might be able to help.”



“No. You can’t.” Chalmar whispered to himself, tears welling in his eyes. “Please leave. All of you. Time is short…”



Warily, Clueless and Tristol withdrew to the tower’s entryway, only to have the necromancer wave a hand and close the door with a dull, hollow thud. The last thing they saw was Chalmar staring down at the box and abjectly sobbing.



“What.The.Hell.Was.That?” Toras bluntly asked.



“What did we just do?” Florian’s eyes were alight with angered regret. “He knew exactly what we brought him, and he was –terrified– of even mentioning its maker’s name!”



As the party argued amongst themselves on Chalmar’s doorstep, Fyrehowl’s ears remained perked and her eyes continued to stare at the door, where beyond it, Chalmer remained with the box, sobbing uncontrollably. Abruptly the weeping paused and to the lupinal’s enhanced senses the necromancer grew silent and the box was opened.



“Guys? Guys!” Fyrehowl barked, “We need to leave.”



“What?” Clueless asked before becoming aware of the changes a moment later.



The air had grown cold, bitterly so, and extending out from beneath the necromancer’s door, a snowflake pattern of frost crystallized upon the stones. Inside the tower, Chalmar’s voice caught and choked.



“We need to leave now. NOW!” Fyrehowl warned as within the tower, audible through the closed gate, Chalmar began to scream.



“What the f*ck?!” Toras shouted as the necromancer’s screaming grew louder, beyond the scope of what his vocal chords should have been able to support and from within the tower, the sudden sound of wood and stone tearing and splintering erupted into a deafening roar.



“RUN!” Fyrehowl shouted as the party collectively scrambled to descend the stairs, so shocked at the sudden turn of events that they hadn’t thought to teleport to immediate safety or even to fly either by wings or by magic.



Behind them the screaming continued, pausing only for the necromancer to inhale. Around him the tower began to shake and tremble and as the layer of frost had before it, a creeping carpet of rot and decay erupted from below the door, spreading out in an all-devouring radius from where Chalmar had opened his gift.



“Oh sh*t it’s eating the tower!” Nisha screamed, inexplicably running several inches above the actual ground.



“F*ck f*ck f*ck!” Toras screamed, running at breakneck speed as the tower’s foundations abruptly sunk several feet into the now black, diseased, and festering ground.



Whatever the necromancer’s gift had unleashed, it continued spreading outwards, speeding up as the tower imploded, collapsing and disintegrating in the maw of whatever devouring horror finally silenced the necromancer’s screaming.



“KEEP RUNNING!” Florian screamed.



“F*ck running!” Clueless yelled, sprouting wings and taking to the air as the corrosive radius reached the forest edge, leaching thousand year old evergreens of their color in seconds and tearing them down into dust.



“Tristol do someth…!” Nisha shouted before the aasimar’s magic plucked them all to safety, leaving the necromancer’s tower and every creature living or undead to their fate, never seeing the circle of obliteration finally cease its spherical hunger more than a mile from its start.





****​





“What the blazing hells was that?!” Florian’s eyes were wide with terror, demanding answers just as much as her spoken question.



“I have absolutely no idea.” Tristol replied, his ears perked and his tail bottlebrushed. “There wasn’t any obvious magic. None. It just happened.”



“F*cking fiends…” Toras muttered. “Let that be a lesson to anyone making deals with them!”



“Uh…” Nisha’s tail curled into a question mark, “Wouldn’t that kinda sorta be us right now?”



With that uncomfortable moment of introspective realization, the party grew silent, catching their breath from their escape from the baernaloth’s “gift”. Whatever the box had been or had contained, it seemed clear that Chalmar had been painfully aware of just what it was, and whatever his deal with the fiend had been, the arrival of the box had been expected, and the creature behind its arrival predicated a certain agonizing level of resignation and acceptance.



With those thoughts in mind, the party drifted in space, surrounded by a manifest sea of milky, swirling gray ethereal mist. Bereft of gravity, any landmarks, and even a visible (or existent) horizon, they slowly looked about and sought to ground their location and figure out their next steps.



“Welcome to the Ethereal Plane.” Fyrehowl waved about at the lack of recognizable detail, though she knew where she was and an idea of where to go due to the influence of the Cadence.



“Lovely total absence of landmarks, and me without my planar compass. So where now?” Florian asked, sarcasm masking lingering terror at recent events.



“Assuming that Chalmar was telling the truth, once we figure out how far off target we were on my planeshift,” Tristol said, pulling out an actual planar compass, “We have a solid roadmap to where we need to go… wherever that actually is. Apparently we’ll know it when we see it.”



“That’s not ominous at all…” Toras sighed.



As the wizard went about figuring out their location, another ominous realization was made.



“How did Chalmar know where to tell us where to go next?” Fyrehowl asked, “Either he was being directly instructed on what to do by that damn box or something through it, or else he was told what to tell us, whenever we arrived, whoever we were, a very long time ago. That implies a certain level of disturbing foresight. I don’t like the implication of apparent destiny when it’s being puppeteered by a baernaloth.”



The truth of that implication and the reason why would become apparent soon enough, but it faded away from their minds as they determined their location and the path towards their next objective. The mists of the Border Ethereal melted away into the depths and then, sometime later, perhaps hours, perhaps days in the oddness of the Deep, the mists peeled back to reveal a landscape swirling with innumerable and radiant spheres, gossamer soap bubbles foaming, forming and popping, upon the surface of a single great sphere hovering in the depths: a mortal world viewed from the Ethereal and there upon its surface a Wall of Color.



One of the bubbles however was different from the others. It pulsed with a subtle heartbeat that caused the surrounding mists to tremble, and the color it radiated was not among those of the conventional rainbow. Impossible to describe, it yet existed distinct and unique from the others bubbling around its periphery.



“What is this?” Florian asked, gazing out at the incredible vista stretching out for thousands of miles in all directions.



“They’re dreamscapes on the Ethereal surface of a mortal world.” Tristol explained, pointing to the unique one that seemed to hover before them, calling and beguiling, “And that one there is a very specific one.”



“We’ll know it when we see it.” Clueless remarked, “That’s for sure.”



“So it seems.” Tristol nodded, “Though I don’t know why we’re here or whose dream we’ll be entering.”



Toras looked at the dreamscape warily, “How dangerous might this be?”



“It shouldn’t be dangerous at all.” The wizard shrugged, “And that’s honestly worrying.”



“At least we’re not delivering a box this time around...” Clueless tried to smile.



Glittering in the deep, the dreamscape taunted them like a golden bauble found in the depths of desolate, danger-filled dungeon: valuable but very likely hideously cursed. Of course, like a cursed artifact, the only way to determine the value or the danger was to find out directly. The group realized this of course, and one by one they dove into it, swiftly they realized that anything touched by the corrosive attention of a baernaloth could only end in misery.





****​





Flung from the depths of the Ethereal Sea and grounded upon the rocky shores of that singular dreamscape, the dissonance between the two was immediate and confusing. Built from the subconscious desires and self-image of a single mortal whose slumbering mind shaped that bubble reality like the blind, stumbling will of some idiot god, such places often carried elements of the dreamer’s hopes, aspirations, worries, and fears. The dreamscape of Afa Sozhelos, Lord High Reagent of the Purple Flames was many things, but above all else it was a manifest landscape of the dreamer’s delusional self-confidence.



They found themselves in a vast plaza lined with massive, looming statues, lake-like bronze cauldrons filled with burning oil, and distantly the sounds of a vast, unseen crowd cheering and stomping their feet.



“Someone has a high opinion of himself…” Toras rolled his eyes, gazing up at the unblinking, smiling faces of the statues.



The statues were carved of deep black granite, their purple robes painted and adorned with similarly painted decorations, illusory symbols and a halo of stars drifting above each carved head. Each carved face was stern and possessed of a youthful energy, but beyond the carved smile there was something deeply unsettling, if yet unseen.



“You came. You finally came to me.”



The voice was smooth, mellifluous, and reflective in tone of the landscape that surrounded them.



The group collectively turned about to face the man the statues had been modeled after, and it while it was possible that the man’s dreamscape persona was aggrandized from life, such was uncommon, and the statues that towered overhead it seemed had not unduly lionized their subject.



Afa Sozhelos, Lord High Reagent of the Purple Flames was tall, clad in purple robes pulled, pinned, and belted in place to exposure a lean, muscular physique devoid of scar or blemish atop his dark brown, almost black skin. He smiled to expose perfect teeth, ivory white, and the hair atop his head was black and tightly coiled, while the beard at his chin was dyed a deep red. He raised his chin and motioned out of habit as if he expected his guests to bow and abase themselves, even as his smile was one of warmth, like a father to his children.



“Were you expecting us?” Fyrehowl asked, “I apologize, but we did not know who to expect when we arrived here.”



“We came here on another’s words, but knew not what or who to expect. My name is…” Tristol began, only to be cut off by the High Reagent as the human walked past the group, talking to himself as if they barely existed, a slight tilt to his head.



“No no, your ignorance was to be expected.” Afa muttered to himself, “The drop of water knows nothing of the path of the surrounding river that turns a great water wheel, or what that drives to completion. No no.” He looked back up, a terrible ferocity in his stare and the gleam of a sociopath’s madness, “You have no knowledge of this place, or I, or your role here… but I do.”



Madness gleamed in the man’s eyes.



“No introductions are needed, you visitors here to my dreams.” Afa waved away any questions as he continued to walk a circuit around the party, the golden bangles on his sandals softly chiming with each step.



The party exchanged wary, uncertain glances, while Tristol stared at the dreaming afterimage of magical auras present upon the man in real life. Despite the religious nature of the decorations on his regal garb, the auras were exclusively arcane in nature, and they were powerful: a sorcerer whose innate power had seemingly convinced him of his own faux-divine calling and fueled the rise of his own religion, no divine patron seemingly required. Such had drawn the baern’s malevolent curiosity.



“In another dream, many years ago now,” Afa gestured to each member of the party that they might be illuminated by his wisdom, “The gods whose blood flows in my very veins came to me, and one of them gave to me a prophecy.”



“Pray tell us, what was that prophecy?” Clueless asked warily.



Distantly the sounds of cheering voices grew louder like distantly rumbling on the horizon foretelling the arrival of a terrible storm.



“I was told that you would come to me to bare revelations about my future, about my divine task set before me.” Afa’s arms were raised up into the air, and within the clouds high above there appeared images of his past as a young boy, discovering his magic, and putting it to use. The images were terrible to behold, of a child, then a young man, convinced of his own divinity in a world low in magic swiftly accruing a personal cult, then seizing political power, and then demanding worship by his nation’s subjects, all without moral guidance, and all without pity or empathy.



“We were given no message to tell you…” Fyrehowl began, only to be cut off by the madman.



“That matters not.” Afa laughed as the cheering grew ever louder. “Nothing you could bring to me is more than I have already realized myself. It was only the knowledge of the proper time, and your arrival itself is that knowledge.”



Toras and Florian exchanged worried glanced. Those believing themselves touched by divine providence without the presence of an actual deity, rarely did they come to beneficent conclusions.



“It is time.” Afa laughed once more, his fingers unconsciously twitching in the motions of a spellcaster, motions that Tristol immediately recognized. They were the motions of various profoundly powerful spells of enchantment. None would object, none would question, none would speak contrary to your delusions –if at the feet of a master enchanter they lacked the agency to object–. “Finally time to act. Time to fulfill the great work. Time to make this world pure in the eyes of the gods.”



Worried glanced turned to dread, and the distant sounds of cheering began to change, now mixed with sounds of charging horses, chariot wheels, and the clash of swords and shields.



“When the gods spoke to me so long ago, I was told to tell you something as well,” Afa explained with a smile even as the sounds of the dead and dying began to dominate the chorus on the horizon. “They told me that it would be meaningless to me, but of great providence to the divine messengers they would send to me who would bring to me the news of my destiny.”



“And what is that message meant for us?” Clueless asked with sincere worry.



“From here as you came: three days, three days, and three days more. Be quick for the path is arduous and long. Delve through the misty deep in a straight path before the deep parts, but does not part. A solid wall shall stand before you with but a single window shining a pure perfect light of truth. Enter and give to the one who greets you there your burden.”



“Our burden?” Toras questioned.



“You will give to the dragon your burden and your burden will be lifted.” Afa proclaimed, “This I proclaim to your from the lips of the gods. Now go with my blessing and know that when I awaken, I do the will of the gods.”



The enchanter who would be a priest-king turned away from the party and stared off into the distance, the sounds now of charnel fires and the sounds of trumpets and of death and suffering. He smiled and he laughed, waving a hand as if an afterthought as the dreamscape began to collapse as his mind and body stirred from their slumber.



“They will all die as I have prophesized.” The mad enchanter whispered like a prayer before laughing with corrupt delight, “I will light the hearths of my nation with the funeral pyres of their dead. All of them will die. Corrupt. Different. Like leeches upon our glorious people, we the chosen, we the favored of the gods. All of them, herded, rounded up, penned, slaughtered. Filthy dwarves, filthy halflings, filthy elves, filthy people of the narshai community… they’re barely human anyways so best to kill them along with the rest… It will be beautiful. So beautiful.”



And with that genocidal revelation the dreamscape collapsed, sending them all into the ethereal, their horrified faces illuminated by the radiance of a doomed world’s Wall of Color, the dreamscapes of the innocent, soon-to-die, bubbling and frothing in their ignorance.



“What the f*ck did we just do?” Toras blurted out, rage crossing his features as he tumbled about in the ether.



None of them answered.



“This was the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Nisha lamented, turning away to stare into the drifting mists of the deep. “Well, except for that thing with the potion of glibness, that box of enchanted cakes, and the wererat lich.”



“The what?” Tristol looked questioningly at his fiancé.



“Huh? Oh nothing.” Nisha glanced away, her tail bell rattling tellingly, “Nothing at all. Forget I mentioned it.”



Turning away from the Xaositect and moving on from whatever chaotic mess she was referring to, Tristol stared at the others, all of them utterly aghast at what they’d likely just set into motion.



“We didn’t know what we did.” Florian tried her best to rationalize the situation, “We couldn’t have known.”



“Oh come on!” Clueless scowled, “We made a bargain with a baernaloth! Of course it was going to be poisoned, and I think that I know the deal with making deals with ‘loths more than anyone. F*ck them all…”



“We have to stop him.” Toras looked back at the wall of color and its myriad dreamscapes, wondering how many of them would soon cease to be in the coming days and years as the madman set about his own twisted, hideous ideas of racial purification. “We have to stop him now.”



“We don’t have the time.” Fyrehowl sighed, “And it’s only one world. If we do this, even if it’s something we can fix, the ‘loths will just keep doing whatever they’re trying to do. That’s the biggest threat right now.”



Of course they knew that the lupinal was right. One madman on one mortal sphere might commit horrors, but it would take him time. The Oinoloth had far greater resources and far greater ambitions, even if the precise elements of his goals and methods remained unknown.



“Where do we go next?” Toras sighed. “And gods help us whatever we find there…”



“Something about giving up our burden? Whatever that means?” Nisha shrugged. “And giving it to some dragon?”



“Our track record with dragons is not the best.” Clueless shook his head, recalling their experience in the lowest depths of Pandemonium with an insane great wyrm howling dragon.



“We’ll find out. Two steps down, one more to go, Mystra help us.” Tristol sighed. “But whatever happens, this was my idea, wanting to learn how to read the Oblivion Compass, so however this all goes, you can blame me.”



Nisha gave the wizard a hug, gently brushing a hand over his ears as they slumped down against his head.



“None of us are blaming you for any of this.” Clueless shook his head, “This is all the baern’s fault. Every element of it. We’ll finish this, we’ll find the information that you needed and…” The bladesinger’s voice abruptly trailed off with a subtle tremor of fear.



“And what?” Fyrehowl asked, “Why’d you stop?”



Clueless didn’t respond. Instead, he only looked down at the object in his hands, an object that he knew well, and which hadn’t been there only a fraction of a second earlier. Feeling its weight in his hands and the cold metal of its surface he gazed down at the sneering face cast into its surface, a face whose gaping maw was now smeared with the still wet and sticky blood of a half-elf necromancer.



Daru ib Shamiq’s box: their burden. It had returned.





****​
 
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