Shemeska's Planescape Storyhour - (Updated 20June2021)

The Watcher

Explorer
Wow. I started reading this story hour in high school- just finished catching up on years worth of material. I can't tell you how glad I am you're still updating it Shemeska. Your stories have stayed with me for a long time- can't wait to see where it goes.
 

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I was reminded about this storyhour recently, and look at that! You’re still around!

Glad to see this still updating Shemmy- your plot weaving style had a significant impact on how I run my games (along with a few others on the WotC and planewalker boards way back when).
 


Tsuga C

Explorer
Hi Semi,

its been sometime since last update... ;)
Shemeska is currently walking their canoloth and will be absent for a bit longer. Unless exercised vigorously on a regular basis--big walk plus demolition of a halfling village, for example--they are absolute ruin on the household furniture.
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
[Content Warning: This scene and scenes in the next update made my players cry. Please read with forewarning of implied death of children.]

Hours passed as they walked along the tree as the vial directed with its insistent, magnetic pull towards some distant goal, sometimes walking along or between branches, other times flying up the trunk. Several times they would encounter other travelers along the branches, some of them benign and others hostile, most of them using the tree as a method of transit between planes. They would pass some of the portals that dotted Yggdrasil’s limbs like fruit, great spinning pools of light to other planes where the great tree touched with stem or root. But eventually they stumbled upon a pair of those who they sought: ratatosks.

Barring their path along one of the branches was a pair of bipedal red squirrels. The ratatosks carried spears and shields carved from the giant sterile acorns of the Great Tree, and the chattered quickly and incomprehensibly to one another as the six approached them.

“Hello, we…” Clueless began, only to be cut off as both ratatosks chattered angrily and pointed their spear at him.

“You no go this place. Go back way came.” The squirrel that was half Clueless’s height said in stunted, broken planar common, angrily gesticulating towards the downwards trunk.

“Well no, this is the way we’re supposed to go, at least it’s the way that this thing is saying.” The half-fey held up the crystalline vial, “Supposedly we’re supposed to find some of your kind and then you’d know what to do. We were told that your kind would be expecting us.”

The two ratatosks stared back, their spears now at their sides and their agitated demeanor gone, replaced with a deathly silence at the sight of the vial.

“I take it that you do know what this is about, yes?” Clueless asked again.

The pair of guards lowered their spears and looked at one another like they had seen a ghost; one of them was trembling slightly.

“Are you…” Clueless began.

“Follow, we take you…” The one, steadier squirrel warrior said as it quickly motioned them down the branch.

The group collectively followed, albeit spooked by the sudden reaction they’d received at the sight of the baernaloth’s vial.


“Well, something’s got them spooked. But they did recognize us.” Nisha said as they followed the one scampering ratatosk. “For better or for worse I don’t know.”

The ratatosk scurried onwards, along and up the tree at breakneck speed, stopping every so often to allow them to catch up, chattering its high-pitched language at them impatiently to hurry. Eventually they reached a village perched upon a platform built across a series of branches, sheltered from sight by an overhanging limb and partially tucked into a knot and hollow within the trunk of the tree itself. Nearly invisible from outside, the village easily held hundreds of the squirrel-folk.

As they walked into the town, the curious ratatosk villagers peeked out from their homes and from behind the great tree’s leaves. Their expressions changed from curious to frightened though when they saw the glowing vial clutched in Clueless’s hand.

Several minutes later and they’d reached the middle of the village, led there by the warrior, and met not with discussion or fanfare, but with complete and abject silence. Fifty odd faces stared out from windows and doorways, no malice in their expressions, but fear and uncertainty.

“At last you have come.” An elderly ratatosk walked out to meet the warrior that had escorted them, nodded and approached, “As others did before you many centuries ago as told by my father and their fathers before them many times over. The time has come again.”

“Thank you for welcoming us.” Tristol gave a smile, his ears perked and hearing nothing but the eerie whistle of the wind on the great tree’s branches, “Though we’re uncertain as to what to do next.”

The elder’s response did not allay their worries, rather it increased them.

“I am ready to go with you. Pick the others and we will follow.” He said in high pitched but weary planar common, his eyes suddenly haunted.

“Excuse me?” Toras said, “What do you mean follow us? Pick?”

The elder sighed, “You weren’t told… All the better to motivate you to do what you must. You’re good people, even with a celestial amongst you; you likely would have refused the task if you’d been told anything beyond how to heal the Great Mother Yggdrasil.”

The six looked at each other with dread.

“Told what?” Fyrehowl asked as she noticed the entire village coming out from their houses and assembling around them.

“The truth of our bargain and our curse to keep our Great Mother alive. Our price and self sacrifice to Yggdrasil that we must give when the time arises once every dozen generations and you, the ones with that vial, come to bring back to the blind darkness that which he requires.” The elder inhaled deeply and sighed heavily.

“What is it you have to give us?” Toras asked with sudden intensified worry.

About them, the villagers had assembled, each family standing with their children. No single adults, no couples without children or old and their children grown to adulthood. Only families with children stood there, waiting.

“When the time arrives, the eldest of us must leave and travel with you. I have dreaded this moment, but I am resigned to whatever may happen. I am ready and I go for the sake of She who gave us life and harbors us as her children.” The Elder said before gesturing to the rest of the village where each mated pair had stepped forward with their children.

Collectively their hearts sunk and recoiled with dawning realization of just what the Clockmaker’s price had been to save Yggdrasil.

“Oh gods no…” Fyrehowl stumbled and choked back emotion as she looked into the worried faces of the innocent, the children of the village being offered to them, there to be selected and then handed over to the elder horror that was the Clockmaker.

“You must each choose one of our young ones to go with you. They and we know what we must do, and despite…” He turned from the parents and sought to compose himself, desperately trying not to weep, “And despite the agony of this, we do it willingly for the Great Mother. We must. The Great Mother would have died…”

“I…No… I have to speak with my god…” Toras stared blankly at the faces of the ratatosk children in disbelief and horror. For the first time ever, his companions watched him with genuine fear in his eyes. The fighter clutched his holy symbol and turned towards an opening gate to the domain of his divine patron, Andros, protector of the weak, the infirm, and of children. “I may not be back…”

Nisha looked at the assembled families and their children, all of whom only vaguely seemed aware of what was truly going on as they looked at their mothers and fathers and then at the strangers who had come to the village. The tiefling walked to her husband and clutched his shoulder tightly as she turned away from the Ratatosks.

“I feel sick Tristol… I can’t look at them…” She said softly, trying not to gag.

Clueless and Fyrehowl looked at each other and then walked towards the others.

“We need to talk, all of us.” The half-fey said, motioning them together.

“Clueless, I can’t do this. I may not be on the greatest terms with what I see as the inaction of the upper planes in the face of a tide of evil, and I’m sure that they wouldn’t approve of some of the actions that I’ve taken, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I willingly handed over a child to one of the baern. I can’t imagine what that thing would do to them…” The lupinal’s face contorted into a savage mask of anger and grief.

“We don’t have a choice though.” Clueless said, his own mind struggling to rationalize an act of hideous, loathsome pragmatism.

“But what kind of choice is that?!” Nisha hissed, the bell on her tail rattling in fury at the proto-fiend’s deceipt, “Damn it all, I won’t sacrifice one of them, not any of them! If I have to give over a child if I go back to the Clockmaker, then I won’t be going back there at all.” The Xaositect buried her face in Tristol’s shoulder.

“They’re choosing to do this though,” Clueless said with a sigh as he glanced back at the villagers, “Evil as it might be to involve us in this at all, for their part it’s a sacrifice to save Yggdrasil. Even if the means are blasphemous, in the end, the lives this will save are greater and more precious. They’ve chosen their way of life willingly.”

Tristol nodded softly, “The information we would buy with this, it can prevent a greater evil from happening. Even if we don’t do this, it will still happen eventually, with others sent in our place with considerably less concern for these people. It might even harm the Tree and them as well in the short term if we refuse.”

Nisha looked up at Tristol and he stroked her forehead and tightly clutched her hand, “But Tristol, that doesn’t make we want to do this, or like it, or think it any less evil. I refuse to do this. Their choice is not a choice, it was forced upon them eons ago in a moment of desperation. I would never forgive myself for doing this, but I won’t deny you your choice and your reasons if you take part it in.”

“I understand.” Tristol kissed his forehead and held her as she cried.

Eventually she stopped, composed herself and stepped back, giving Tristol a kiss, “I’ll see you back in Sigil. Please be safe.”

Tristol nodded and handed her a scroll. She unfurled it, whispered awkwardly over the incantations and vanished in the glowing halo of planeshifting magic back to the Outlands, and from there on to Sigil.

Clueless nodded and looked at Fyrehowl again, “You don’t want to stay here for this, and that’s fine. The Clockmaker just said to accept what they give us and return to him, but I’ve had enough dealings with yugoloths to play the same games as they do, and if some of us aren’t returning to him then the ratatosks have nothing to give to us and we don’t have to bring a child. You can leave and we’ll meet you back in Sigil when it’s over.”

“Well,” The lupinal nodded, “See you then, I’m sorry you have to do this…”

Fyrehowl ran her fingers over an amulet around her neck that swirled with colored light, like a miniature color pool set in silver, and like Toras and Nisha before her, she too vanished in a ripple of magic as well. The three of them remaining looked at one another as she left and sighed.

“You haven’t said anything yet, but I know you’re thinking the same thing.” Clueless gestured to Florian, “Take your time in consulting your god, Tristol and I have some things to talk about as well.”

“Alright, I’ll be over here concentrating for a while.” The cleric said as she walked over to a spot to pray.

Tristol looked at Clueless as they removed themselves from Florian’s presence and from the immediate local earshot of the Ratatosks. Almost simultaneously they said, “Toras…”

Tristol continued, “Yeah, my thoughts as well. This is absolute blasphemy to his god and his beliefs. What is he going to do if we see this through?”

“It’s us or someone else. It’s going to happen eventually, and it’s not something we can stop. Not yet at least. And besides, we need the information that we’ll get from the Clockmaker.” Clueless said.

Tristol nodded sullenly, “I know, but it doesn’t make it any easier at all. I hate myself for doing this as much as I hate the Clockmaker.”

“It’s the ratatosks’ choice.” Clueless replied, “They made whatever deal they made, and they’ve been doing this for eons it would seem. They know what they’re doing. It’s part of their life, culture, and religion at this juncture.”

“Is it really a choice on their part? Nisha certainly didn’t think so. And if it is, do they even have a moral right to make that choice?” Tristol said. “Should they rightly have the choice to sacrifice their own children to save Yggdrasil and all others of their kind? And this is assuming the fiend is even doing what is good for them in exchange for their sacrifice and there aren’t hideous things waiting in the future contingent upon our actions here today.”

“Or our inaction if we refuse.” Clueless shrugged, “We can’t get bogged down in over thinking our actions here based on what the baern may or may not have planned based on what they think we’ll do. But as to the moral ability to the present-day ratatosk to make this sacrifice, I think we have to assume that they can. And even if it’s wrong, we can’t stop it now. Maybe in the future, but we can’t afford to stop it now.”

Tristol nodded sullenly, his tail flitting behind him, angry and bottle-brushed. “I know, I know. You’re right. But it still leaves us with how to deal with Toras if he decides to come back and end this now in some way.”

“He’s strong, very strong, and the best fighter amongst us except for perhaps Fyrehowl.” Clueless said as the unseelie portion of his heritage started to speculate.

“And she’s not here, so it’s you, me, and maybe Florian.” Tristol said, looking over towards the cleric. “I won’t hurt him, let’s be clear about that, or at the very least I’d prefer not to.” Tristol said as he mentally cataloged his current spells in memory over the hypothetical conflict.

“Best then to keep him away or entrap him so she can’t get to us, or anyone else.” Clueless replied.

“Force bubble would do the trick, and he doesn’t have any real way to get out of one of them. A forced planeshift as well would certainly work.” Tristol said. “Hells… an imprisonment if it comes to it. I can let him out once this is finished. naughty word… I really don’t want to think about going after one another.”

“I know, and I guarantee that discord is something the baern is counting on as well.” Clueless looked back towards Florian before continuing, “But as far as Toras goes, I can pull out a few walls of force myself if we just need to box him in. But something tells me that we won’t be seeing him again until all of this is over.”

As the aasimar and bladesinger talked, Florian basked in the mental attentions of her divine patron and asked her questions. The moral quandary they’d been hurled into was not something typical for servitors of the Foehammer. Battle was often more straightforward, and the political wrangling prior to battle something better left to the priests of the Red Knight. Now however, there was an apparent need to balance the immediate but horrid evil of sacrificing willing innocents, versus the need to find information about a greater evil that they might be able to prevent. Her hand rubbing her holy symbol like a secular worry stone, her divine patron’s spiritual attentions were like the distant comforting call of signal horns across a battlefield, the fight ended and the battle won, now being a time of somber reflection and comfort in the aftermath. Florian listened intently to the words that followed in her mind, and more so every nuanced feeling that she felt from the god of battle.

In the end though, the answer she received most clearly was less firm than she had hoped for. “It is their choice,” Tempus called to her, “And you likewise have your own choice in a quandary with few of them. A general standing with their troops on a battlefield knows that whatever choices they make in the coming fight, there will be loss, there will be sacrifice, and they hope for victory by the strength of their arms, their convictions, and their choices. Make your own fate my child with your choice here and I will support you.”

No firm ‘do this’, or ‘do that’, the decision was still left to her. She sighed, stood up, and walked over towards the mage and the bladesinger. They turned at her approach and the mental question of the moment went unsaid.

“I’m in this till the end.” Florian said with a sigh.

“Alright, and we’re glad to have you with us.” Clueless nodded, a clear burden lifted from his mind apparent in his face and his eyes.

“Thank you,” Tristol lay a hand on the cleric’s shoulder.

They turned and walked towards the assembled ratatosks. The village elder returned to their side as they gazed at the villagers who went rigid and tense at the uncertainty. Would their children be among those taken away?

“We can’t take children from families who only have one.” Tristol said, the stares of parents clutching their young ones burning into his mind.

Clueless and Florian nodded.

“Agreed,” The half-fey added. “We can at least try to minimize the cruelty of this.”

“Before we choose,” Tristol held up a hand and addressed the villagers, “Any family who has an only child, go back to your homes, we won’t take them. We can’t bring ourselves to take them from you.”

There was the immediate sound of several parents weeping in gratitude. Without a moment’s hesitation they clutched their child in their arms or took them by the hand and hurried away village square and back to their own homes. Watching them leave, clutching their son or daughter with profound, loving intensity did not make what happened next any easier.

One child, a young ratatosk girl of perhaps ten years of age still stood alone with no parents or family standing near to her. She seemed to be an orphan.

Clueless looked to Tristol. “If it comes to it, we go with any orphans first since there’s no family involved.” The half-fey whispered.

Again Tristol raised his hand and addressed the village, “As difficult as this is for you and ourselves, we don’t want to force a child from its family. So… if any of you wish to willingly volunteer to go with us…” Tristol said, fighting back tears. He’d never had a perfect relationship with his own parents, but the mental image of leaving them behind and their hand being perhaps forced to give him away to his death came rushing into his mind.

A silence echoed across the assembled before one child stepped forward, a young boy of perhaps nine. His parents chattered imploringly at him, his young sister began to cry, and he turned back. He didn’t stay long, only giving his parents a last hug and his sibling a kiss before he walked quietly and without a word to stand at Florian’s side. Tristol squinted his eyes tightly and his ears swiveled back and away at the sobbing of the child’s parents.

A second child, a boy of perhaps seven, stepped forward and chattered to his parents and younger brother proudly. Florian whispered a spell to allow them all to understand, and they listened. In hindsight not knowing what he said might have been a better idea, because the words would haunt them profoundly.

“I’m going to be a hero and go with them.” The child said to his younger brother. “I’m going to go so someone else doesn’t have to go. Whatever happens I’ll be brave.”

The boy’s parents said nothing, what could they, as they wept and and embraced their child for what would be the last time.

“You’ll see.” He said, biting his lower lip and fighting back his fear and second-guessing his choice. “When you grow up you can tell people how brave your big brother was, and that you had a hero in your family.”

“Florian, I wish I didn’t know what he was saying… gods I’m going to be haunted by that…” Tristol said as the boy hugged his family, lastly clutching his younger sibling tightly and spinning him around before telling him to be brave when he was gone. His farewells said, the child proudly walked towards the three and stood at Tristol’s feet, coming up to his thigh at most.

“Are you sure little one?” Tristol said down to the child as he rubbed its head comfortingly with a hand. “You can go back now if you wish. It’s not too late.”

“No. I’m going to be a hero. I’m going to be a hero so my little brother doesn’t have to go.” He said as he clutched the mage’s tail. Regardless of his words, the boy trembled with fear but was doing his damnedest to hide it from his younger sibling and the others. Tristol clenched his fist in anger at the Clockmaker that such had to happen.

There was a pause and a silence as the three looked over the remaining families, hoping for another volunteer so they wouldn’t have to forcibly choose. The remaining parents clutched their children, and the two families who now had children at the companion’s sides clutched their remaining little ones and wept.

The orphan girl stepped forwards. She had no relatives, no family or siblings to say her goodbyes to. The girl looked at the others and their families and gave a grim, forlorn smile as she walked up to Clueless.

“I don’t have a family or anyone else here.” She said, “My parents died when I was little. Please let me go with you, I don’t belong here anyways. No one would have me.”

Clueless’s wings dimmed abruptly and lost their glow of faerie fire. He was at a loss for words, his own childhood still remained a mystery to him, having lost much of his memory when the Marauder had used him as a puppet. Given his nature as half-fey though, he suspected that he hadn’t fit in, regardless of which branch of his family he’d grown up with, mortal or fey. He saw so much in the child that reminded him of himself, and here she was going willingly into the mouth of oblivion with him. Would he have had the same fortitude in her position at that age? He wasn’t sure, but he looked down at her questioningly, offering her a second chance.

“Are you sure?” Clueless’s wings glowed a soft bluish-purple. “You can turn back now if you want. You know what may happen, yes? You understand what’s going on?”

The girl nodded and took his offered hand tightly.

“I’m proud of you. They all should be.” Clueless whispered down to her before looking out to the assembled families.

“We’ve chosen the three that we must, and for that we are truly sorry for what we must do.” Tristol called out, “The rest of you, take your children and go home with them. Cherish them and be proud of these three who have gone so that others did not.”

Clueless felt the orphan at his side tightly squeeze his hand.

“The two families who have lost a child to us, you may take however long you with to say any last words, but then we will be leaving. These three are heroes, truly; never forget them. And one day please, forgive us for having to do this… I beg of you…”

The families fled back to their homes, clutching their children, and two families rushed forward to embrace their children once more, chittering in their own tongue words of lament, pride, and adoration. Anything that could be said was said, though the choice had already been made.

Clueless sat with his orphan and talked to her softly as the other two children said their final farewells to parents and siblings. Tristol cried as he watched his proudly boast to his young brother and play the hero, though he knew the boy was terrified beyond belief. They gave the two of them what time they and their families needed, forestalling if but for a moment what would come for them. Through it all the ratatosk elder sat with his hands pressed to the tree, feeling and perhaps hearing the words of Yggdrasil herself, but even if not, he had known what was coming and he had long ago made peace with it.

“Hold our hands little ones.” Tristol said, “It won’t be long now.”

It might have only been a chance reflection of the light, but as Tristol spoke, Harishek’s vial glimmered.



****​



The black vault of Othrys extended out infinitely above, starless, but with the individual spheres spiraling away into the bottomless depths like a string of haunted, moonlit pearls. There on the first layer of Carceri, the incomplete body of the Tower of Incarnate Pain rose up from the ruddy, rocky soil like a cancerous tumor rising up miles high, undying, from the flesh of a agonized and forever dying man betrayed by his own cells.

The tower itself softly gasped with the erratic synchrony of the untold millions of mortals souls grafted into place like so many living, perpetually suffering bricks. Somehow above that sound, from the black vault high above, the ethereal Bells of Othrys could be heard faintly, mockingly ringing from the unplumbed depths of the void.

It was below that sky, in the long shadow of the Tower of Incarnate Pain that a great mustering took place, with thousands of mezzoloths waiting in ordered rows, each with a dergholoth overseer, and grouping of them under the command of a yagnoloth. Hovering above the ranks, dozens of nycaloths stood watch unconnected to the command structure below, answering to the clutch of robed arcanaloths who gathered about the organic steps leading up to the tower’s gates.

The mezzoloths collectively chittered in confusion as they beheld the process underway before them. Of the thousands of them assembled there at the tower’s base, one by one the arcanaloths grouped about them, with one singular figure in their midst clearly in a dominant position of control. One by one they moved down the ordered ranks of mezzoloths, with the occasional detour to one of the higher ranking dergholoths or yagnoloths, and each time it was the same: high above the watching nycaloths flinched at what they witnessed occur.

Still, whatever occurred sequentially, the mezzoloths remained in ordered rank and file, understanding that if they disobeyed they would be slaughtered immediately. Some of them had stood there as mezzoloths before, and portions of their essence, recycled through the great breeding engine-pools of Khin-Oin, the furnaces of the Tower Arcane, or the Reflecting Chasm at the heart of the Tower before them now, they remembered the agony and failure of prior deaths for just such an act. This time it would be different. This time they would learn. This time they would earn promotion to dergholoth, and then they would turn their anger, misery, and hatred upon the caste they had transcended; it would be glorious.

The group of arcanaloths, some twenty or thirty of them, the color of their robes and the extent of their bejeweled decoration and accoutrements denoting their position and power. Half of them acted as scribes, taking notes and observations on the actions of the others who, lesser ‘loth by lesser ‘loth performed a brief magical ritual in support of the singular arcanaloth who stood amidst them and indeed clearly apart from them. Following her lead with obedience fueled by equal mixtures admiration and abject fear, the arcanaloths moved their focus to the first mezzoloth in the next rank of three hundred of its kind.

The mezzoloth stood there, cowed and amazed at the attention, instinctively kneeling, its multiplicity of insectile arms clutching its trident in submissive position horizontal before itself on the ground.

She stood before the mezzoloth, gazing down at it not as a fellow yugoloth, but a malevolent higher being gazing down at something betwixt tool and subcreature. While the jackal, fox, and various other canid-headed arcanaloths wore robes befitting their place as scribes, scholars, and wizards, their leader wore no robes. A mixture of transparent blue sashes on her arms and at her waist, and a single strip of dark blue leather that wound about her body with the barest amount of coverage and support.

The arcanaloth lord gazed down, her eyes, unlike every other one of her kind, rapidly shifting between a variety of colors, casting a scintillating radiance across the mezzoloth’s glossy carapace at her feet. She nodded to the others and they began to chant.

Failing to understand the magic, and not yet feeling its effects, the mezzoloth glanced to one side, looking at those who had preceded it. They lay upon the ground, some of them contorting in agony, some of them standing in place, stunned and staggered, and others slowly regaining themselves and clambering back onto their feet, weapons in hand and at the ready once more.

They were mezzoloths, but they were not the same. Every one of them had been transfigured, their bodies fused with some manner of shimmering crystal, their carapace dotted with outcroppings of minerals.

The mezzoloth was unable to fathom just what had happened to its fellows, what was imminently to happen to itself, and why any of it was occurring and for what ultimate purpose. It only knew that it would be painful, exquisitely so, as the Overlord of Carceri gestured and began to speak.

The words she spoke were not in yugoloth, but rather something far older and far more primal that resonated in the mezzoloth’s exoskeleton and sent shockwaves through the core of its being as it began to shriek in agony.

Her ears swiveling to take in the beautiful sound of her work, Shylara the Manged smiled. Laying her hands upon the mezzoloth’s brow, she spoke the final phrase in baern that would trigger the spell and initiate the transformation, “And you I sacrifice upon the altar of our purity.”



****
 
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Quartz

Hero
You foreshadowed this earlier. I was half-expecting the PCs to refuse en bloc. The ramifications of that action might have shaken the heavens.
 

carborundum

Explorer
I'm not sure how my players would react, this is deeper and darker than the first errands. Your players reactions in character are perfect, and spared a few lives too. Something like this could end many a game, did you discuss it first/after?

I hope they somehow get back at the baern one day!
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
This was literally my first solo campaign that I ran, and so no, we didn't discuss anything beforehand, so the emotional suckerpunch and surprise was in real time with no out of game discussion. I would take a much more careful hand nowadays. But at the time it was a case of my players trusting me and having had a pretty good idea at that point what sort of game it was, the tone, and yes that they were probably going to regret a deal with a baernaloth. Today I'd have had a discussion with my players out of game prior to the session where this all went down, and I'd have asked any specific content 'please don't use this' limitations from them at the start of the campaign prior to character creation. But we were like two years into the game at that point and there was a pretty good unspoken understanding. But yes, with different players it could have gone terribly, terribly wrong, and I got lucky to be perfectly honest.
 

carborundum

Explorer
In my Savage Tide game I added a table with a hole in the centre, with clamps, and a small golden spoon nearby. Ten years later it's still the height of implied horror here, and the point where a few players mailed to say, "make it a but more high fantasy please". I'm glad you got the right players for this!
 

Tsuga C

Explorer
This was literally my first solo campaign that I ran, and so no, we didn't discuss anything beforehand, so the emotional suckerpunch and surprise was in real time with no out of game discussion. I would take a much more careful hand nowadays. But at the time it was a case of my players trusting me and having had a pretty good idea at that point what sort of game it was, the tone, and yes that they were probably going to regret a deal with a baernaloth. Today I'd have had a discussion with my players out of game prior to the session where this all went down, and I'd have asked any specific content 'please don't use this' limitations from them at the start of the campaign prior to character creation. But we were like two years into the game at that point and there was a pretty good unspoken understanding. But yes, with different players it could have gone terribly, terribly wrong, and I got lucky to be perfectly honest.
Your players were fortunate to have a DM with talent and the will to avoid "candy coating" Evil. The Baern--indeed all fiends--are supposed to be various flavors of vileness. You didn't harp on it nor did you glorify it. Simply showing the unvarnished reality of what the party was up against was the best thing you could've done and you didn't shy away from it. Maybe I'm insensitive compared to subsequent generations (Gen X here), but I think you maintained the integrity of the game and setting by including this sub-plot. Well done.
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
CONTENT WARNING: This is rough. This scene and the previous one made some of my players cry. This content is rough. So please, please be aware that it will be straight up horror material with torture and dismemberment, and implied of the same towards minors.


They departed with the three willing children and the village elder in the swirling glow of Tristol’s gate spell, opened directly into the heart of the baernaloth’s demiplane. Unlike what they had experienced in their first attempt at breaching the Clockwork Gap, this time they experienced no redirection, and instead the gate opened up at the front of the keep, rather than outside, at the fringes of the hedge maze. Expecting them, the baern allowed them to enter directly. Still, the ur-fiend intended for them to walk through the entirety of the fortress to subject their ratatosk charges to the uncertainty and fear of what was waiting for them.

Tristol, Clueless, and Florian took their charges by the hand, holding on tightly to comfort them as they walked into the fortress and tried to ignore the mocking, half-heard whispers that issued from the swirling depths of the ether gap that the castle perched atop.

“It’ll be alright.” Tristol gently said, blatantly lying as the young ratatosk quivered and clutched his tail.

All three of the children grew more and more frightened as they wandered through the keep’s empty halls, and the vacant passages seemed to stretch onwards just until the young ones’ resolve was at its breaking point. At that moment, timed for the worst, they passed by the chambers that held the Clockmaker’s twisted experiments and gruesome displays, the doors swinging wide open at their approach. The moans, shrieks and other noises from the still living abominations reached out into the hallway and the children went pale at what they saw before screaming and averting their eyes. Clueless, Tristol and Florian quickly clasped their hands over the children’s eyes and ears to shelter them from the assault as they hurriedly moved them down the passageway. Minutes later, as they still cursed the baernaloth’s sick pleasure, still trying to comfort the little ones, the central chamber and the end of their task loomed before them.

The ratatosk elder whispered a prayer to Yggdrasil as they stepped into the massive, cathedral-like vault with its bizarre, arachniform clockwork device perched atop the swirling core of the ether gap. The baernaloth was not to be seen as they stepped hesitantly towards the center of the room. All they heard were the echoes of their footsteps, the maddening whispers from the swirling whirlpool of ether, and the cold, uncaring clockwork grinding.

Having fully entered the room, they stood next to the massive device, all turning to look back at the entrance, half expecting the door to be gone, or the baernaloth standing there. There was nothing there however when they turned and looked, but then one of the children screamed in horror.

The Clockmaker stood only scant feet from them, its hands clutching the device above the gap to steady itself, its blind eyes wide with anticipation. Its jagged, yellowed teeth shown in a wide grin as it twitched its nose, sniffing at the air.

“Great Mother!” The ratatosk elder stumbled backwards and fell to the ground in shock at the size of the fiend, its composition ripped from his nightmares and the long-held stories of his race. The blind darkness from myth leered down at him and the three terrified children.

“We’ve brought what the ratatosks gave to us. They came willingly. We wouldn’t have forced them.” Tristol said angrily.

“As I knew you would…” Harishek chuckled, reaching back to adjust the myriad of knobs and dials on the monster clockwork device, hinting at the same level of precognizance as it had before, when they first came to it and made their hideous bargain.

“I hate you for this.” Tristol sneered, “I hate you for making us do this for our answers from you.”

The baernaloth didn’t seem to care one way or the other as it paused and sent its mind flowing across the chamber to brush against the fearful thoughts of the seven that stood there before it. Harishek tilted his head in either curiosity or irritated disappointment as it noted that Toras, Nisha, and Fyrehowl had not returned with the others. Their thoughts were absent, the brightness of their souls absent from a place of uttermost darkness.

“Only three of you… the godslave, the godpuppet, and the half-breed. Where are the idealist fool, the Elysian filth, and the chaos touched bitch?” The baern swiveled its head and focused its clouded, blind eyes in Tristol’s direction as it sneered the last of the three titles before turning back once again to fumble with and adjust the gears of the massive device.

“You said we could leave the deal at any point without retribution or breaking the agreement. They couldn’t justify this.” The archmage’s voice trembled with emotion as below him, the ratatosk child clutched at his leg, crying and cowering in fear. “I can’t fully justify what I’m doing, what you’ve made me do. I will regret this and seek atonement and forgiveness for the rest of my life. The only thing that makes it ache less is that I might save more people by doing this, and that the ratatosks give of themselves willingly to preserve their Great Mother as an act of worship. I cannot fathom the sacrifice they put upon themselves out of love for Yggdrasil, nor can I fathom the evil that would make you enjoy your deal with them…”

The Gloom Father smiled and laughed, “So I did say that, promised you an answer… as for the bargain they and I made, some things happen because they must. Accept that mortal and live your life under all those moral pretenses you hold onto. Nothing comes without sacrifice. For anything to happen, anything –great– to happen, there must be two things: blood and terror.” The Clockmaker paused and turned its sightless eyes towards the elder Ratatosk. “We are well acquainted with both…”

The Baern suddenly moved closer to the elder ratatosk, the space between then contracting in an instant and depositing the ur-fiend there, rather than it taking a single step, as the children whimpered in abject horror, clutching onto Clueless, Tristol and Florian. “Uncover their eyes. Make them watch this.”

“WHAT?!” Tristol’s eyes went wide with fury.

Looks of revulsion crossed the faces of the three and they paused, pondering their options, and ultimately did nothing. What could they?

The baern slowly snarled, “Do as I command or I shall pry open their eyes myself mortals!”

Slowly and with an ache in their souls they complied, turning the ratatosk children towards their elder, uncovering their eyes and holding them up to watch what would follow.

“Now now now…” The baern looked down towards the elder ratatosk, its blind eyes unfocused and wandering, before snatching the elder up with one hand around its neck, its other hand held out to one side, hand open and palm up, fingers curling open and closed. “Give me the vial now and watch closely for what your great sacrifice begets you.”

Florian took the vial from Clueless and made to hand it to the baern but didn’t finish the task as the ur-fiend flicked one elongated finger and caused the crystalline vial to hover in the air near the ratatosk dangling in its grip. The elder struggled for air, gasping for breath before the hand around its neck was released and he hung suspended in space, still searching for breath as his previous brave resignation broke, replaced with whimpering terror.

“And there we see the fruits of your faith.” The baern cooed, seeming to revel in the change in his spirits as it broke into a wide, almost ecstatic smile as the elder began to writhe and scream in agony. “Yggdrasil is not here. Yggdrasil is not coming to help you.”

“Bastard!” Tristol hissed.

The children and the three could only watch, compelled to witness the torture of the ratatosk elder suspended before them.

“GREAT MOTHER!” The elder wailed before giving a spasmodic shriek as his limbs jerked and danced as if on invisible puppet strings.

“Yggdrasil cannot even hear your prayers.” The Clockmaker hissed, its voice rising above the elder’s screams, delivered telepathically to its audience’s minds. “Not here.”

The elder continued to scream while his body was struck by such pain that his back arched and seemed at the verge of snapping from the tension. And then, with a sickening, audible snap, it did, as first one vertebra and then another and another in turn broke and cracked from the torment. Bones along the length of the elder’s body shifted internally and seemed to shatter and contort beyond their natural limits as the baern broke him in every sense of the word.

The baern placed a hand over top of the elder’s forehead, its lips moving silently as it spoke into its victim’s mind, the torture mental and spiritual as well as physical.

“STOP!” Tristol screamed, only to be ignored by the baernaloth completely.

The elder should have died from the damage, he should have felt less pain as his spine broke in half, but he screamed till his vocal chords bled and tore and silenced his agony into bloody gurgles, staining his lips with ruddy foam.

“And there you see! There you have it!” The baernaloth pronounced, as with each dying scream a tiny sparkle of light sprang from the elder’s mouth, eyes, and nostrils to flicker on the air and fly into the vial hanging suspended in space.

“Oh f*ck…” Clueless cursed as he and then the other two fully realized the ratatosks’ sacrifice and what it would accomplish. Yggdrasil survived only on the agony of her children.

When the elder’s screams finally stopped, his eyes glazed over in death, the baernaloth released him and his body crumpled to the floor with a sickening crunch.

Gleaming in the air as it hovered like a grim trophy, the vial was ¼ full, and the three ratatosk children remained. Ten minutes the hellish execution had taken and the children forced to watch it all, a harbinger of their own fate…

“Please no… please no…” Florian whispered, clutching her holy symbol in the vain hope that they would not be forced to witness the same, one by one, with the ratatosk children.

“Tempus cannot hear you here either godslave.” The baern chuckled, seeming pleased with itself as it crouched down next to the body, pawing with outstretched hands before finding it and dragging it close. The Clockmaker sniffed at the ragged corpse and turned it face up before glancing back up towards the children and the three companions who had brought them to their doom. “Send the children over into one of the corners of the room. I will deal with them later.”

With supreme trepidation and loathing in their hearts, the three gathered the children and walked them over into one of the corners of the room, holding them tightly and whispering words of encouragement that they knew would, in the end, be absolutely meaningless. Pale and shaking, the children cried out with raw voices, tiny streaks of tears working down their cheeks. They should not have ever been there. No creature should have ever been there.

“I’m so sorry…” Clueless whispered as he put down the orphan. “You three are strong and so very brave. Whatever happens, we’ll remember you and make sure that your people do as well. You can do this.” The bladesinger shut his eyes, not wanting to see their faces as he forced himself to walk away, leaving them to her fate.

Tristol alone managed to glance back, his heart screaming to do something other than abandon them, but powerless to do anything, he, Clueless, and Florian alike walked back and past the Clockmaker as it hunched over the elder’s broken body. Averting their eyes once again, the Clockmaker picked up the corpse in its hands, and with a wet, tearing sound followed by a sickening crunch began devouring it.

“You promised me answers to my questions.” Tristol called out to the ur-fiend, hate and defiance in his voice. There was no point in disguising his loathing. “How do I read the Oblivion Compass?”

“Did I promise you now?” There was another crunch as the fiend’s naked incisors snapped through the elder’s ribcage to rip out muscle and viscera and chew upon it noisily. “You demand much godpuppet.”

Another bloody crunch and below it, the sound of whimpering, crying ratatosks.

“The clock, the Oblivion Compass, will strike 11 in two weeks, three days, five hours, four minutes and 3 seconds from now.” The fiend snapped two bloody fingers at the final word of its declaration and focused its blind, milky eyes at Tristol’s again, chewing upon a hunk of muscle and lung from the corpse.

“What happens then?” Clueless asked, “What does that even mean?”

“You have been there, have you not?” The baern snuffled and gestured at the bladesinger, “You reek of it, all of you, your timelines frayed and eroded like the embankments of a river touched by a seasonal flash flood. But you witnessed what our creation shows. You felt it in your bones, it screams in your memories even now!”

The Clockmaker stopped, panting with zealotry, caught up in the moment, half-chewed ratatosk dribbling from its blood-smeared maw to spatter upon the ground. Its eyes moved in their sockets, wide and ecstatic.

“You saw them! You saw them all yourselves! A multitude of possible futures waiting, flowing, spiraling, converging to one singular moment.”

Behind the baernaloth, below his great nightmare device, like a smaller version of the Compass itself, the ether gap swirled with ever greater potency as if it reflected the Clockmaker’s madness itself.

The ur-fiend ceased speaking and once again the room was shrouded in silence, punctuated only by the sound of crying ratatosks and the roiling churn of the ether gap.

Tristol scowled.

“You still wish to know how to read the clock yourself?” The baernaloth asked, tilting its nightmare-caprine head to one side.

“Yes…” The wizard replied angrily.

The baern reached down and lifted the desecrated elder’s corpse up to its mouth and bit down, cleaving pelvis and hip, leaving one leg to dangle in the air by torn tendon and muscle alone. It noisily chewed its bite of bloody flesh and bone, open-mouthed, mixing its mouthful with its own syrupy black mucous before reaching up and pulling forth a gobbet of the mass forth and held it up in the palm of its hand towards Tristol. “Eat…”

“The f*ck?!” Florian cursed.

“EAT!” The baern repeated, “Or leave.”

Tristol grimaced and stepped forward, Florian and Clueless looking away, feeling sick as the aasimar took the bloody handful without a word. Mentally whispering a prayer to Mystra, begging for forgiveness, he shuddered as he put it into his own mouth, chewed it twice and swallowed it.

Tristol gagged and fought to keep it down as the baern stared in his direction, a sneer upon its face: waiting.

“What does…” Tristol began only to stop as the baern’s sightless eyes locked onto him and its mind forced itself into his like a burning hot iron spike. A flood of images rushed into his head: living modrons being welded into place on the compass, the horrified secundus screaming in agony as it was fused, conscious and aware, into the nightmare engine, the moignos being bound into the device’s core, a blizzard of chaotic, nonsensical mathematical equations to be processed again and again, sifting and filtering, and through it all the horrid spinning of the mutltiplicitous gears and hands.

Tristol screamed in pain, doubled over on the floor, gagging and choking. Then, through the sensory overload and physical effects, a pattern emerged. Suddenly he understood the meaning of the dials and hands, if not the purpose of just what they were counting down towards.

“Tristol are you ok?” Clueless asked, a hand on the wizard’s shoulder.

Tristol waved a hand and nodded, remaining on the floor as he fought a wave of nausea.

“And there you have it. Your answers and the prize for your success in my task.” The baernaloth laughed harshly at the aasimar while it drew forth a length of slippery innards from the partially devoured corpse like a glistening string of popcorn. “It would appear then that we are finished here. No?”

“Let’s get out of here.” Florian said, pointedly not looking at the ratatosks.

“DON’T LEAVE US!” One of the children screamed out.

Still on the floor, Tristol’s eyes went wide and his vision blurred with tears.

“I however am not finished with my work.” The ur-fiend chuckled, “No. Not finished at all.”

“F*ck you!” Tristol shouted.

“Oh?” The Clockmaker paused, drool and bloody viscera dropping from its open maw. “You know, you could always spare the children the pain that will come to them .”

Tristol stood up and narrowed his eyes, still staggered from his experience of absorbing a memory from the Clockmaker. “What do you mean? How?”

The baern resumed chewing on the bloody loop of intestines and then turned its gaze towards the whimpering children. “Kill one of them now. Kill one of them with your bare hands. Snap their neck with one clean motion and give them a quick end, a merciful passing into oblivion. You may kill one of them now and spare them the experience at my delicate hands.” It extended up a single bloody finger, “Each of you one or none at all.”

“We have to.” Florian swiftly answered, not looking at the ratatosks.

“Wait.” Clueless narrowed his eyes.

The fiend further punctuated his offer by dropping the elder’s corpse with a wet thud and unfolding its hands as if offering up a sacrifice, the slim, clawed digits drenched in gore. “And your answer?”

“If we do this,” Clueless demanded, “Will the vial’s contents be filled as it would have been otherwise? Or will this sacrifice be in vain, and more forced to this end?”

The baernaloth chuckled and licked its withered lips, “It will not fulfill my bargain with the ratatosks.”

Tristol’s eyes flared with horror and rage, “No.”

“One way or another…” The Clockmaker muttered to itself as it turned back to its meal.

“I have a question now.” Clueless spoke up as Florian was already walking towards the exit and Tristol at her side.

“Ask away fool.”

“Just what is this place? What even is the ether gap you seem so concerned with, and what is it whispering?” He stared at the baern who glanced up briefly at the question before it scoffed.

“Not all answers are for you to know. That particular question would cost you far more than you have to give. This,” The baernaloth gestured towards the ratatosks, “This is paltry by comparison.”

“Clueless,” Florian called out. “Let’s go.”

“Listen to the godslave.” Harishek wiped the blood from its face, “I have other business to attend to. Be gone now, and realize as you go that since you have entered this room I have butchered you seven times each in variant realities and withered, broken timelines, hewed and thrown to nothingness like chaff to the flames. Such futures were not to be. Probability collapses to a single destined future, one out of many. And while those other futures are not to be, this one is. I promised you no harm and an answer to a question. I provide both because it suits my wishes in what is to come. Unlike the baatezu, or their forerunners… I hold to laws only so long as I see fit to do so. Remember that keenly puppets.”

“We’re done? Just like that?” Tristol asked, deliberately trying not to look towards the children.

The baern looked in the aasimar’s general direction, its face painted crimson on gray, stray bits of fur and flesh dotting its wasted flesh. “Unless you wish to watch what comes for your little ones, then yes. You are free to go. I’ve had my fun with most of you.”

Tristol said nothing more and joined Clueless and Florian on the other side of the room. However as he began to incant the words to open a gate and bring them to the Outlands he felt the baernaloth’s blind eyes upon him and its poisoned mind brush against his own as it muttered softly, “Oh what your timelines say…and what they do not…”

The gate swirled open in a burning radiance of colors against the ashen grey of the baernaloth’s lair, the sounds of Tradegate suddenly drowning out the screams of the abandoned, doomed ratatosks.

The three of them stepped through the gate and it snapped shut behind them, ending the cries for help, and any chance of it being granted.

Florian burst into a string of expletives and curses while Clueless stared at the ground, his right hand on Razor’s pommel. Tristol was deathly silent.

“Are you two alright?” Clueless asked as he looked up and out at the Infinite Spire that graced the horizon.

“I will be eventually.” Florian scowled, “But damn it! In a universe that holds good as a virtue, that … thing… has no right to exist. We fed it, we delivered innocents to it. We didn’t just watch it happen and do nothing, we actively had a part in it.”

“Let’s not tell Toras or the others what happened after they left. We can spare them what we have to live with at least. Yes?” The bladesinger suggested.

“Agreed.” Tristol finally spoke, his voice numb. “Toras would go crazy with anger, Fyrehowl has already seen enough loss and doubt, and I won’t put Nisha through that.”

The aasimar finally smiled, if only slightly, as he spoke Nisha’s name.

“Still,” Clueless said, “It’s over for us at least.”

It was not over.

Tristol exhaled in relief for that blessing, and then it happened.

“Now my little ones, you belong to me.” The Clockmaker’s voice rang out clearly inside of Tristol’s mind as if he were still there in the demiplane.

“…” Tristol clenched his teeth as the voice continued, crackles of silverfire at the corners of his eyes as the Clockmaker pumped into his mind what he would have heard had he never left the baernaloth’s corrupt presence.

“NO!” Tristol shouted out, stumbling. “NO NO NO NO!!!!”

Florian and Clueless turned to him in alarm, not understanding that the baernaloth intended to give the wizard a moment by moment description of each and every horrific act it would perform to fulfill the ratatosks’ corrosive salvation for Yggdrasil.

“What’s happening?!” Clueless grabbed hold of Tristol as the aasimar dropped to the ground clutching at his head, covering his ears as if that could stop the horror.

“You are mine now, and you will all eventually die, one by one.” Harishek’s mocking voice flooded into Tristol mind, the sounds of the Clockwork Gap now rushing into his mind more strongly than before, now joined by the smells: the baernaloth’s rotten, sour breath, the reek of the gutted elder’s bowels, and the fresh smell of fear-voided urine. “There is nothing for you but pain and then oblivion, if even that.”

The whimpering cries turned to unintelligent screaming and the baernaloth blindly stumbled towards them, a rictus smile on its blood-stained face.

Tristol’s inchoate screaming joined the trio in his mind.

“No one will come to rescue you. Those that brought you here have abandoned you willingly. They knew what would happen to you and they left you to me. They chose not to help you and here you are.”

Florian and Clueless shouted at Tristol, picking him up and trying to understand as they panicked and their companion wept.

Tristol screamed, hoping in vain to silence the dialogue within his mind, but it only grew in intensity and volume to compensate. The Clockmaker had every intention of forcing him to listen, to make him hear all that happened, every detail, every scream, and there was nothing that he could do.

“I CAN HEAR THEM!!!!” Tristol screamed, and as he did, understanding and horror washed through Florian and Clueless.

“Oh Tempus preserve!” Florian shouted.

“Which of you will be first?” The Clockmaker asked, one bloody hand reaching out, one finger extended to hover over one head, then another, and then another. “Which of you will I rip apart first, piece by screaming piece?”

“Do something!” Clueless screamed at Florian, “It’s making Tristol f*cking watch!”

Florian clutched her holy symbol and in an instant blanketed the area with a zone of null magic, snuffing out, at least temporarily, any curse or malignant magic that could have possibly reached them.

“I know which I will choose!” The baernaloth seemed delighted as it lifted one of the ratatosks into the air by its head, its limbs scrambling to no avail, eyes wide in terror. “You. You the one who would be a hero.”

“I CAN STILL HEAR IT!!!!!” Tristol screamed as the spell even doused the flickers of silverfire in his eyes. It shouldn’t have been possible.

“SH*T!” Clueless screamed, his panic reflected in Florian eye’s. "HOW!?"

“One by fragile one you will suffer and you will die.” The baernaloth chuckled, a claw beneath the ratatosk’s chin, forcing it to make eye contact.

The baernaloth had slaughtered the ratatosk elder swiftly, but everything afterwards would be measured and sickeningly slow. It would whisper blasphemies and stories of unrewarded suffering, breaking its victims’ sanity and faith before it broke them physically, and it intended for Tristol to witness it all.

“Where’s the gate?!” Clueless shouted, glancing about to orient himself to where Tristol had deposited them in Tradegate.

“What?” Florian asked, confused.

“The portal to Sigil!” Clueless explained, “Do you really think The Lady would let this thing’s influence into Her city?!”

The shrieks of pain began in Tristol’s mind.

“Know, all three of you that your sacrifice is meaningless.” The baernaloth whispered, its face pressed against a small ear, “You prolong your people’s suffering and they will never know.”

The screaming in Tristol’s mind dipped in volume as a hand squeezed a windpipe and snuffed the flow of air to a trickle.

Tristol screamed as Clueless and Florian grabbed him and dragged him through the streets of Tradegate, rushing headlong towards the permanent portal to Sigil, hoping to stop their companion’s agony.

“A little tale before you die, and for your audience as it screams in the Outlands. I’ve saved this story just for you, fragile ones.” The grip tightened and now added to sound and smell was sensation as Tristol gripped at his throat, immaterial talons on his flesh as the baernaloth suffocated the first ratatosk. “Your Great Mother Yggdrasil was never sterile before I came to your people and offered you my salvation.”

Feet and arms scrambled, fighting in vain and Tristol did the same, feeling the same sensations as the first of the ratatosks. The portal was in sight as the aasimar felt a second grip applied, not on his throat, but on his left leg, testing, finding its place before it would rip the limb free like a dismembered child’s doll in the mouth of a dog.

Nearly there, the two rushed towards the portal, carrying Tristol, unable to see bruises forming on his leg to join those upon his neck as Tristol’s screaming dropped to a gurgle and invisible hands clenched upon his throat, mirroring the actions in the nadir of the Clockwork Gap.

“And so, my little mortal hero,” The Clockmaker laughed, “Do you think that your soul will ever see paradise?”

Tristol felt his femur begin to dislocate, tendons tight and near to the breaking point, the force higher up now crushing his spine as well as his windpipe.

And then it was gone. The voice of the ur-fiend. The screams. The crying. The agony. The hellish sensory blizzard ceased, snuffed out in an instant.

Silence descended upon them as they entered the portal and reappeared in the City of Doors.

Tristol blacked out.

Only later when he came to, would he be even vaguely aware of laying atop his bed, his head on Nisha’s shoulder, her arms wrapped about him. She held him for hours, holding him tight as he cried, unable to verbalize what he had witnessed, but she held him nonetheless.

“I love you.” The tiefling whispered. “You’re safe now. You’re safe with me.”



*****​
 

Tristol

Explorer
Your players were fortunate to have a DM with talent and the will to avoid "candy coating" Evil. The Baern--indeed all fiends--are supposed to be various flavors of vileness. You didn't harp on it nor did you glorify it. Simply showing the unvarnished reality of what the party was up against was the best thing you could've done and you didn't shy away from it. Maybe I'm insensitive compared to subsequent generations (Gen X here), but I think you maintained the integrity of the game and setting by including this sub-plot. Well done.
I tend to agree on the fortune front. Shems had DM'ed for us before in other fashions, which were also fun, but more traditional D&D flavors of things. Good party, bad guys, save people from dragons, etc. And I think at that time we were all new players generally to most D&D, so getting involved meant finding our feet. And that's what those early games were for all of us. This game being most of the players' first game where we all knew what we wanted and how we wanted to play certainly helped put all of it together.

As for the evil part, I agree there as well. There were a few moments in the game that were 'rough' like this (although not quite like this one), but I think it helped bring into light that classic D&D concept that 'some people are just evil and you can't reason with them'. We certainly did try to reason ways around it, but at the end of the day, we had a time constraint, and as players and characters there was no way we'd be able to work that kind of magic. And you're talking about an evil force of nature. If you don't take it out of the equation it'll just be disappointed and find another way to make them (and probably us) miserable (likely even more so). And none of us were up to the task of taking on a baern, especially in its own little pocket of the multiverse.

And FWIW, Tristol was a TN character, but with NG leanings. I was trying to play up the angle of magic, power, knowledge, and such above all else. He didn't want to do it, and he certainly wanted to make the baern pay for every moment there, but as in the discussion above, there wasn't much way around it. Shems pulled off that part in the above brilliantly. I would be lying though, if I didn't also say that for Tristol, being able to read that clock also tweaked that knowledge bug as well. No one else is going to claim that ability, and if he can unravel a mystery of the multiverse and share it with deserving people, he's doing Mystra's bidding. There are a few other times in the campaign that decisions like that had their cost.

I as a player have always been a firm believer in a well balanced character. For every amazing thing, they need a flaw or some such that can be tugged on. Shem's tugged pretty hard on a lot of those flaws, which make the internal conflict and resulting in character reckoning extremely fun to both write about (see Tristol's Diary), and to experience.
 

Shemeska

Adventurer
The following day, Tristol opened his eyes to find Nisha still there at his side, looking down at him with a smile.

“How are you?” Nisha asked, reaching out to stroke the wizard’s forehead.

“We did something terrible.” He looked away, unable to meet her stare. “And I feel even guiltier about it, because I keep trying to justify it for the knowledge that I gained. The Lie Weaver knew what it was doing when it sent us in the Clockmaker’s direction. It knew that I wouldn’t be able to refuse the opportunity for ancient knowledge that like; something that I’d never be able to gain by any other means, from any other source. For just a moment I felt like one of the ancient Netherese arcanists, delving into things forgotten or no longer even possible now.”

Tristol sighed. “And then, like Karsus, I found out the price of it all.”

Nisha nodded, “I know, and I trust that you think that what you gained was justified. We all knew that the bargain with the baern would be twisted and terrible.”

She paused and before Tristol could respond, she put a finger to his lips, “I’m sorry that I had to leave.”

“I don’t blame you at all.” He replied, now reaching up to brush his hand against her cheek. “You saved a life by doing so, and I wouldn’t have wanted you to witness what we did when we returned.”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “You can tell me about it. If you need to. When you’re ready.”

“Not now.” Tristol shook his head, “It’s too fresh, and honestly I’m not certain if I ever want to burden you with it. But if I do talk to anyone, it’ll be you first.”

Nisha wrapped her arms about him and kissed his forehead. Nothing more was said, but together they sat in intimate silence with one another for another two hours before finally venturing downstairs to meet back up with the others.



****​



Since Clueless’s return to Sigil he’d tended bar in the Portal Jammer, trying to distract himself from the events of the past few days, though he’d been remarkably reserved when it came to talking to bar patrons. Anyone buying a drink from him would have sworn that the bladesinger looked haunted, and indeed he was.

Fyrehowl had already been there when Clueless, Tristol, and Florian had returned, and from the look of it, she’d been drinking for much of the time she’d been there. A bottle of Clueless’s private stock of fey wine sat next to her with a dozen empty shot glasses where she sat in the Jammer’s back room. She too said nothing, and in fact averted her eyes from direct contact. Despite her alienation from her own celestial race, verging on or flowing over into properly falling from good to neutrality, there was a look of shame in her countenance and her tail lay tucked tightly against her legs.

Quietly, one by one, they gathered together downstairs, with Clueless eventually leaving the bar and joining them. Toras was the last one to rejoin the party, and as he stepped into the room, he cast a withering gaze over the others but said nothing at first as he walked in, poured himself a drink, and took a seat.

And uncomfortable silence fell over the room and worried glances passed from person to person, all of them waiting for the fighter to say something.

“We should talk about this…” Fyrehowl began.

“No.” Toras was blunt and immediate. “We don’t.”

Nisha took a deep breath, her tail flitting anxiously behind her.

“This was traumatic for everyone and…” Clueless began, only to be cut off as Toras raised a hand.

“If you want to talk about it one on one with each other, go right ahead.” Toras explained, “But I neither want to nor need to know the specifics.”

Silence again as the others struggled to figure out how to approach the issue. The fighter’s divine patron was devoted to the protection of innocents, and particularly children: the entire episode had been an abject anathema to Toras, his faith, and his god. Somehow the rest of the party, especially the ones who had stayed to complete the Clockmaker’s task would need to come to terms with him over what they had done.

They would eventually, but it would not be today.

Toras had many, many things to say to each and every one of his companions. Despite his celestial heritage, a radiant hatred burned in his heart, and in communion with his deity, on his god’s home plane, he’d pledged his life to one day take righteous revenge on the Blind Clockmaker. It didn’t matter how long it took, and it didn’t matter if he ended up losing his own life in the process. However he managed it, one day he would make the baernaloth, that baernaloth in specific, pay for what it had done in the past, and for what it had made them do, no matter their own complicity in those horrors.

“Was it worth it?” Toras asked, looking directly at Tristol.

The aasimar blinked, took a deep breath, and swallowed hard as the fighter put him on the spot. The entire quest had been his idea in the first place. Everything from walking into the Lie Weaver’s lair to performing his poisoned tasks, and later to visit his so-called sibling and carry out the Clockmaker’s horrors from start to finish… it had been initiated at Tristol’s urging, following the clue’s laid out by Laughing Jane.

Tristol mulled over his words, his tail flitting uncomfortably behind him and drawing a soft bat from one of Nisha’s hands. Yes, ostensibly it all stemmed from Laughing Jane’s seeming hatred of the Oinoloth, and by virtue of that, a desire from all of them to pursue that lead if it could counter the Oinoloth’s designs in any way. But yet, beyond that, at the heart of it all, Tristol knew that he’d been greedy for knowledge. In the same way that the Ebon had tempted and manipulated Karsus down the path to oblivion for himself, all of Netheril, and a prior incarnation of Toril’s goddess of magic, Tristol realized that he’d fallen down the same path, walked in Karsus’s footsteps, and followed along with the lies of not one but two baernaloths.

Still, the price had been paid and knowledge gained. If he did nothing with that knowledge he’d gained, despite the terrible actions that it required, all of it would be for naught. He owed it to the ratatosks to see this through and make use of what they had paid for.

“Only if I put the knowledge gained to actual use.” Tristol said, meeting and keeping Toras’s stare. “Otherwise the hideous price we paid… we’ll have paid in vain.”

Toras looked into Tristol’s eyes long and hard, measuring what he’d said, and presumably balancing the wizard’s answer with the guidance that he’d himself gained in communion with his divine patron, “What do you intend to do?”

“I know how to read the Oblivion Compass now.” Tristol explained, “I can see it in my mind, and I can figure out what it’s ticking down to. I won’t necessarily know the meaning of those time points, but I’ll know when they’re supposed to happen, and we can hopefully act upon that.”

Toras looked down, paused in thought, and then he whispered a soft prayer. When he looked back up, he inclined his head towards Tristol in a motion of tacit approval. It was really the best that he could have hoped for.

“What do you need to do to scry that thing?” Clueless spoke, the first of the others to finally break the stillness.

Tristol smiled, “It shouldn’t be anything difficult at all. But I wanted us to have a chance to talk before I did anything. If I do this, I’d like to have everyone here to watch with me.”

Once again, as they had before, the group exchanged glances, but this time there was less apprehension than there was some fractional amount of hope. If something came from their experience, indeed it might soothe their spirits.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while already.” Tristol said, smoothing his robes while, standing behind him, Nisha rubbed his ears in encouragement. “I’m ready whenever everyone else is.”

A short bit of group discussion and it was decided: whatever they had done, Tristol would use the knowledge that he’d gained. The table was cleared and they gathered together as Tristol gathered the necessary foci and reagents, and ten minutes later they were ready.

The wizard took a deep breath and incanted the words to a scrying spell. Abruptly the spell failed.

“What the…?” He muttered.

Florian raised an eyebrow, “Did you just whiff a spell?”

“No.” Tristol shook his head, “The spell failed. Someone doesn’t want that location scried.”

A look of determination on his face, Tristol began the spell again, but this time significantly empowered, and with a crackle of silverfire manifesting along his fingertips as he wove them through the air. A bead of sweat broke upon his forehead but finally the resistance broke and his spell succeeded, producing a wavering image above the table for the rest of his companions to view alongside of him.

There within the shallow, desolate valley that held the nightmare construct of the Oblivion Compass they could all see once more what they had experienced firsthand. As during their visit, the landscape perpetually shifted, with shadowy, ephemeral silhouettes of the landscape and things and creatures from alternate timelines and possible futures appearing for a moment before being snuffed back into the nothingness from which they emerged. Unlike during their brief visit to the Compass, this time at least, the device was far from unattended.

Looming over the primary cogwheel and dial, in fact seeming to bodily emerge from out of it, arms stretched wide and eyes luminous was a baernaloth, its body shimmering with a fluid skein of ever-shifting runes and sets of magical symbols. This one they had seen before in the Fortress of Pitiless when it had butchered the inventor of the Divinity Leech, Ghyris Vast: The Architect. It was not the only one of its ilk.

Atop one of the smaller spindles adorned with irrational clockwork gears that jutted from the ground sat a slender aasimar girl, her legs kicking idle in the air and her hands neatly folded atop the folds of her robes in her lap along with a crooked shepherd’s staff. Below her, moving about independent of her physical form, a monstrous shadow moved about in reflection of the Architect, aiding in whatever ritual it was in the midst of enacting.

The third baernaloth superficially resembled the basic forms of the Lie Weaver or the Blind Clockmaker, but its exposed throat was a savage mess of bleached white scar tissue. Like the Architect and Dire Shepherd, it too moved its limbs in the motions of a ritual casting, but unlike them its lips did not move with the intonations of verbalized speech.

The final member of the Demented present and obviously visible was yet more grotesque than the others, a flash of color against the desolate grey of the Waste. Its body smeared in and dripping a steady flow of blood, its teeth a predatory hunter’s fangs, and its fingers sprouting jagged claws, it silently watched the work of its siblings, pausing periodically to lash at its own flesh, seemingly savoring the self-inflicted pain.

All of that noticed in a fraction of a second as Tristol viewed the image provided by his spell, the following happened an instant later: The Architect looked up and through the scrying spell, taking immediate notice despite all of Tristol’s attempts to make their viewing of the Compass as stealthily and incognito as possible.

“Oh sh*t!” Tristol blurted out, his worry only partially relieved a moment later as the Architect looked back down to its work, seemingly uncaring at the mortals’ observation of it and its kindred’s work.

Able to see the patterns of active magic, even through his scrying, Tristol squinted and focused on minute, barely visible flashes of color in the air surrounding the Compass. Rather than side effects of the baernaloths’ work or the bizarre, time-bending afterimages that shed from the gears like shed and decaying skins of possible-serpents, the flickers of color were the telltale signs of manifested scry foci from others doing precisely the same as Tristol.

“We aren’t the only one’s watching this.” The wizard tilted his head, his ears twitching in curiosity.

Summoning a pen to his hand and paper to the table with a snap of his fingers, Tristol hurriedly began to draw the symbols present on the other scry foci that he’d seen. Almost invariably a mage’s scry foci were personalized, imbued with some essence of their creator’s nature, and intentional of not, they betrayed the identity of the caster to those who could recognize the symbols or nature of the focus.

The first symbol was obvious: the triquetrous symbol of the Oinoloth, Vorkannis the Ebon, combining the symbols of the three neutral evil Planes of Conflict.

“Well, no surprise there.” Toras rolled his eyes.

“Have to wonder what the relationship there is.” Clueless mused, taking a sip of ale and shrugging. “Seemingly no love lost.”

The next wasn’t recognized by Tristol, but by Fyrehowl, immediately so.

“That’s the symbol of Prince Talisid.”

Nisha’s tail quirked into a question mark shape, “Remind me who that is? Should I know?”

“One of the unique Guardinal Lords of Elysium,” The lupinal explained, “The Leonal Prince, greatest of our kind.”

“That…” Toras blinked, a smile spreading across his face, “That makes me genuinely happy to see. That’s the first f*cking time that we’ve seen absolutely any evidence that the upper planes are even aware of this sh*t the ‘loths are doing, much less actively planning to counter it.”

“It isn’t just Talisid.” Tristol added as he finished a third sketch, “This is the symbol of Queen Morwel of the Eladrin Court of Stars.”

Toras whistled, “These are some seriously big players here.”

A fourth foci then manifested in close proximity to that of the Oinoloth, itself a variation of his, though it contained only a version of the symbol of Carceri rather than the Oinoloth’s fusion of three: the symbol of the Overlord of Carceri, Shylara the Manged.

The fifth symbol came as a surprise. Rather than one of the other planar lords that might have been expected, the symbol was one that they’d seen up close, and seen the caster himself in person: Green Marvent of the Illuminated.

“What the…” Florian blinked. Neither she nor the others could have expected that particular individual to take an interest, let alone be aware of the Compass or the machinations of the baern.

They didn’t have much time to consider the ramifications of the myriad interested parties however.

While the Architect had noticed the scrying instantly, but had ignored the attempts to focus on the work that it and its kindred were in the act of performing, the Dire Shepherd eventually grew restless with the divinatory intrusions. Both her slender, mockingly aasimar in appearance physical form’s eyes and the eye-like holes in her independently moving shadow glanced at and followed the myriad of scry foci watching the ritual. She scowled and snapped her physical fingers, snuffing the scry foci of Talasid, then Morwel.

“Tristol hurry and read the values on the Compass!” Nisha tapped his shoulder nervously.

Moving from watching the other curious parties, the aasimar turned to the bizarre values present on the various faces and dials of the clockwork, his mind spinning with the knowledge he’d gained from the device’s co-creator, the Blind Clockmaker. Not saying a word, he took his pen and began jotting down a litany of numbers and figures as he read the nightmare device.

Scowling, the Dire Shepherd moved on, snuffing the scry foci of the Manged, and then of the Oinoloth himself, the latter seeming to require a greater effort on her part. Almost instantly the Oinoloth’s scry foci reappeared, conjured back into place, and this time drawing the attentions not only of the Shepherdess, but also the third baernaloth, whose name was yet unknown to them. This time when the Oinoloth’s foci was dismissed, it did not reappear, though it was up for debate if it was due to the actions of the Demented, or if the Ebon had simply given up with a shrug at the futility of a continued back and forth.

“Almost there!” Tristol announced as the Shepherdess looked not at his foci, largely uninterested in that of a mortal by comparison to the others.

A look, somewhere between curiosity and confusion passed over her face as she stared at Green Marvent’s scry foci, and rather than snuffing it, she actually paused to analyze it. Unlike the others dismissed by the baern, the self-titled Factol of the Illuminated dismissed his own scrying spell.

“Hurry hurry!” Nisha shouted as the Shepherdess turned to stare at Tristol’s foci, a snug look of contempt passing over her physical form’s face. As if she could stare back through the spell itself she locked eyes with the wizard and with only a modicum of effort, she collapsed the wizard’s spell, ending his scrying attempt.

All eyes moved to Tristol, hoping that he’d gotten the information that he needed. He stared down at his notes, a mixed and confusing expression crossing over his face. He put down his pen and looked up.

“The Oblivion Compass strikes 11 as the Clockmaker said, now 2 weeks, 1 day, 12 hours, 9 minutes and 5 seconds from now.” He paused, “And there are four additional demarcations of tolls of the clock after that, prior to it reaching its end. What that means however, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, ‘The End’?” Florian asked, the concern in her voice echoed by the others’ expressions.

“I… don’t know.” Tristol shivered as he looked at the final number he’d written down, “But whatever is going to happen, the Compass is counting down to a final moment and it strikes a final hour, midnight, in 431 days, 19 hours, 2 minutes, and 37 seconds…”



*****​



Gone was the elegant, poised and fastidious fiend that had claimed the title of Oinoloth in sudden and startling fashion. No longer wrapped in velvet and silk, no longer well groomed with silky fur and gleaming white teeth, he strode through the ashen dust of the Waste naked and savage. Any pretense of civility or culture had been discarded when he summarily left Khin-Oin without warning and strode off into the hinterlands of the Waste, looking for something, or rather, someone.

Vorkannis wasn’t walking to his destination so much as bending the structure of Oinos itself, leagues flowing by in a dozen steps or so. There were quicker, immediate ways to venture there, but he wanted the time to allow his anger to fester and stew. He wanted to walk, his fingers feeling the plane flow and slide about him, supping on the collective misery absorbed by the soil over the eons like so much agonized rain devoured by a desolate and lifeless desert. He was preparing himself for what he would say and what he might need to do. He would have denied it, but a minuscule portion of his consciousness was in fact almost, almost apprehensive about what would occur when he got there.

Dozens of his fawning vassals, supplicants and would-be advisors had clamored to go with him, despite not having a clue where he intended to go. He’d had to kill one of them in a particularly spectacular fashion just to make it clear that they were not welcome. Still, it didn’t stop some from trying. The overlord of Carceri, Shylara the Manged, had gated into Khin-Oin and literally fallen to her knees and begged to accompany him. She, unlike the others, did in-fact know why he was going, though not where. Even she was only privy to so much.

Shylara… the ass kissing bitch. Not traditional words of endearment, but still, and most importantly, whatever words he applied to her, she was his. She had her charms, and as far as tools went, she was rather useful, and very much obedient. True, they were lovers in every way imaginable, but the very idea of love was a foreign, alien, and sickening concept for the Oinoloth. He simply had no grasp of it within his sphere of experience and understanding. The same went for the Manged as well, though she was not like him and might have actually had the capacity for a warped version of the emotion. He was incapable of it. She ‘loved’ him, as much as a yugoloth was capable of that emotion, though it was solidly grounded in greed, selfish desire, animal lust, and awe bordering on idolatrous worship. And for all of that, he was proud of her. A useful servant he’d created in her, and as close to a companion as he might conceivably find or create from amongst their kind, all of them still being simply his tools to use or discard notwithstanding.

He licked his muzzle as his mind wandered back for an idle moment to her kneeling naked and prostrate before him, pleading to travel with him into the hinterlands of Oinos. He smiled, and it was an open question whether his subsequent arousal was due to her nakedness in his mind or her supplication and worship.

Hours passed and the Oinoloth felt a magnetic sensation, a gentle tugging force of a river’s current flowing towards a hollow bowl or depression in the Waste where its despair and blind agony grew even more intense, a veritable gravity well of misery. The Ebon knew what it was, and he knew exactly where it was contained on the Waste. There were three of them in all, one upon each layer of the Waste, each of them unique and specific, each of them created by the thing that he sought.

As he walked, he witnessed tanar’ri and baatezu armies on the periphery of his vision. Imperfect beings fighting imperfect beings but feeding the Waste nonetheless in their pointless slaughter. Children all of them. He’d witnessed their birth. He’d even witnessed the emergence of those before them which they in turn had replaced. But there was a time to bear witness and a time to act, and the latter was what was needed.

The sprawling infinity of Oinos passed by him as he mumbled to himself, composing and recomposing what he might say, though the words were all iterations of things he had considered for eons, things which would inevitably need to be said. An infinite stretch of desolation held many things, but it was purely happenstance that the Oinoloth’s trek placed him in the proximity of another traveler upon the Waste.

His movement slowed and he looked with distaste at the lone figure in his path, a singular night hag, her pockets full of gold from the sale of her flock of captured souls and she on her way back to her coven to replenish those numbers and repeat ad nauseum, fueling the slaughter of the Blood War that went on and on about the first layer of the Waste.

The hag narrowed glowing yellow eyes as the Oinoloth approached her, the dust stirring at his feet, churned physically by the roiling shadows that licked like tongues of dark flame from his body, the omnipresent cloud of mock plague spores that marked his ascension to Oinoloth. Gingerly her fingers clutched her heartstone and her other hand flexed should the need arise. She knew more than most beings to never trust a yugoloth, especially the jackal-headed sorcerers of their kind.

“Do I know you…?” The night hag blinked, “Have I seen yer before…?” She glanced in the direction of the oncoming fiend as he strode towards the invisible presence of the Oinian Loadstone several miles beyond her.

She walked closer, squinting her eyes at the dirty, snarling jackal as he looked in her direction. Her moon-like luminous eyes met his, burning pinpricks of scarlet on an ebon field. She suddenly felt unimaginably cold at his attention. He was familiar, but she could not yet place his identity.

“Your presence is undesired…” He said in a language she had no way of understanding.

“Whotcher say there?” She scowled, “Speak up yer naked ‘loth.”

The visage of pinkish red eyes on darkness sneered, drawing back his lips over white fangs. He spoke in a language she could comprehend, “Larvae spawned sh*t.”

She would have responded to his statement, snarled at him for the insult, perhaps cursed at him in return, except that she couldn’t. Where the hag had stood there was now only a smear of carbon where she had been incinerated with barely a fleeting thought on the Oinoloth’s part.

“Return to that which births us…” He said with an almost religious tone as he flicked a bit of white ash off his hand.

He paused his walk and sunk his toes into the ground, the individual clawed digits blurring and indistinct against the ash and dirt, feeling the results of his action as the Waste fed on the hag’s obliteration. Piece by suffering piece the Waste ripped apart and digested her soulstuff, paring away consciousness and individuality, reducing it to base granules and absorbing it. The feeling was intimate to him and he cast his senses further afield, back in the direction from which he came, feeling in an instant as a mezzoloth emerged from the spawning pools beneath Khin-Oin in direct relation to the hag’s death, her spiritual essence feeding the plane and serving him to create another cog in the engine of his will.

He continued, and then he was there.

The Loadstone of Misery was massive, perhaps a story or two high, seemingly grown up out of the very soil of the Waste rather than having been built upon it; a cancerous boil upon the flesh of Evil. The Ebon strode up to the obelisk of ash gray stone and the hillock that it was built atop, reading the burning blue runes scrawled across every inch of the monolith’s surface area. He recognized them, he understood their meaning, and he knew perhaps more about it and its purpose than any other of his race.

“LAZARIUS!” The Ebon screamed, “Make yourself known!”

He snarled and addressed the monolith as if it was a living thing, almost seeming to speak –through– the stone, rather than to it. His words were filled with a burning hatred and they would have caused spontaneous bleeding and pain in the ears of any non-yugoloth that might have overheard it. That she had been snuffed from existence in a single, fleeting moment had probably spared the hag a longer period of painful, spasmodic agony.

He did not whisper, he screamed out the words with fury enough to send ripples through the dust and ash of the landscape around him.

“Arrogant son of a b*tch! You had your chance long ago and you abandoned it. What I do now is of no concern to you and yours.” The Ebon clenched his right fist tightly enough to draw blood by his own claws, causing the ground to bubble and sizzle from the errant drips running down his hand and wrist. “I will take what is mine and mine alone and do not even begin to presume that you have either the right, or the will to stop me!”

Silence met the Oinoloth’s outburst, a silence that only goaded the archfiend into a further tirade as his eyes flared with a livid, sickly pink radiance. Erupting from where he stood and extending outwards, inch by inch, second by second, the soil of the Waste stirred and frothed at the agitation of an unseen force, the ash and dust taking on the appearance of a carpet of magical runes and symbols spiraling out in ever more and more complex patterns: magic coaxed into being unconsciously by the Ebon’s fury.

“What? Do you think that I’ve not been aware of the attempts of the 13 to influence the actions of my servitors? You are not the only one waiting for the Compass to strike midnight. You are not the only ones aware of the signs and of the intent?” Vorkannis snarled savagely, “This is mine. You know this.”

Once again silence was the obelisk’s only reply, a response that only increased the Ebon’s fury. To one such as he, there was no greater insult than to be ignored.

“Ancient miserable wretches all bottled up in your own delusions and self-cannibalizing madness!” Vorkannis screamed, and now the ever-expanding field of boiling runes about him ignited, outlining the lines of magic is flickering pale blue flames to match the color of the trio of ioun stones that swirled about his head. “You rage against it silently and I hear you. You have sat back and done nothing for far too long, content to let the multiverse rot when it could have been yours already. You squander the power given to you, and now it seems that you resent those of us who dare to aspire to higher.”

The burning magic now changed color, blue igniting brighter than before and shedding a fiercely pink, albino radiance across the bleak and bleached landscape as if it were a window into the eyes of something far greater than the mere physical form of the Oinoloth standing there upon the Waste at the foot of the Loadstone.

“You and yours have become irrelevant Lazarius.” The Oinoloth said as the burning runes reached out and touched the base of the obelisk.

Finally then, the Ebon’s audience made its presence obvious as something stirred and seemed to focus its distant, powerful consciousness upon the Oinoloth. It was primordial, unfathomable, and terrible to behold, and for a brief moment, for perhaps the first time in his long, long existence, Vorkannis felt fractionally uncertain as that massive presence seemed to momentarily dwarf him, a foreign body casting an eclipse over his own dark and burning sun.

The detached presence of The Architect then focused on the Oinoloth and spoke, the words reverberating through the Loadstone and the surrounding landscape, curdling the air between them, “Have we Oinoloth?”

A spiraling field of symbols and warped, twisting formulae swirled across the face of the Loadstone, similar to that radiating out from the Oinoloth, reaching out inch by inch until it reached the flames and then it paused, not so much of its own accord, but at the faintest, incremental retreat of the Oinoloth own surrounding field of magic.

Vorkannis’s defiant glare directed at and through the Loadstone did not waver however.

“A conflict here and now between the two of us would be distinctly unwise.” Be it bravado or knowledge of something deeper, the Ebon’s lips curled into a sneer as he stood firm, “You and I both know this.”

The baernaloth did not answer him in so many words, but there was almost the hint of a beguiling, smug smile in the mental sensation of Lazarius’s presence. It didn’t need to respond in deep back and forth dialogue as the Ebon was there to threaten rather than act, despite his mockery of the Demented. For all he was, the Architect mentally chuckled at how little he knew, or perhaps how much he thought he knew of the great plan of the Demented forged in the earliest days of reality. Still, Lazarius would not answer him bluntly because there were still unknowns upon the board of their little ancient game and nothing, absolutely nothing was completely certain.

The planned future might be known, but it was not made until it was made, and at the present time, the future, a future, was something that very much desired something from Vorkannis himself. The one principle question lingering in the Architect’s vast mind was just how aware of the particular and precise intricacies of those steps and his place in those steps that the Oinoloth was. If he was, even partially so, then their hand was not so much a definite wager as it might have been. There was still too much to chance in their game, so much blind uncaring luck, and so many variables still open in their great experiment still unfolding.

“As you wish Oinoloth…” Lazarius’s voice spoke through the Loadstone, “Do as you will. It matters not.”

Silence blanketed the landscape and the fields of roiling magic from both the Loadstone and the Oinoloth retreated, flickered, and vanished back into quiescence, drawn back to their sources.

“Oh, I will.” Vorkannis whispered with a smirk, and for the briefest of moments something stared back at the Loadstone through the Ebon’s eyes, there and gone, a whisper and an echo of something utterly familiar.

In a last moment of defiance, the Oinoloth spat on the ground before turning his back on Lazarius and walking back into the desolation of the Waste, back to his throne atop the Wasting Tower. As he did so, as the presence behind his eyes withdrew, the ashes below his feet were frozen.



****​
 

Coroc

Hero
Wow if that isn't the most creative way of putting the party under time pressure i ever read.

Incredible good episode, resolving some of the plot and opening new uncertainties.
 







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