Archive for November, 2005

Another Day, Another Burning Castle

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Several years ago, I ran a spy network.

That sounds so flashy, doesn’t it?

I did, though. It was arguably rag-tag, but it got me information from far corners I couldn’t visit on a regular basis and some places where I wasn’t terribly welcome. It was one of those things that just happened, you know? I made friends with some people who always had their ears to the ground and then I started exchanging information with them and then we needed a way to identify ourselves to one another so I handed out tokens by which these friends of mine would know one another.

We were the Obsidian Arrows.

Those days are long gone, now. Someone in the group was selling our information outside the group – information about me, about my friends – and it had to stop. So, we disbanded. I keep up with most of them still, but I haven’t had to reach out into the world and make connections like that in a long time. A life without adventuring is a life that requires very little news of the world. For all the fast-paced changes adventuring brings to one’s world, the world outside the sphere of the hunt, of going out and finding trouble and fixing it, doesn’t change much. To the average fishmonger in the street, every day is pretty much like the day before it, and when you spend a few years off your feet and on your ass, you get used to that sort of thing.

It’s funny how quickly the old habits come back, though, when they’re needed. Adric and I ported down to Arabel to start rounding up Lothanderians to come guard The Tomb and while we were there I dropped off a note to Lady Lall at the palace. It was just a simple hello – we haven’t seen each other in years – but before the day was over Adric and I were eating dinner with Lady Lall and her husband, swapping old stories and catching up and discussing adventure, and news of the world, and Alec. When I asked her whether she’d heard anything about him, or more likely heard that anyone was moving through the city looking for him, she hadn’t. But, she said, she’d let me know if she did. She said she’d have a priest of Lothander cast a Sending to get word to me wherever we are. Just like that, the old strands assert themselves and the web is spun anew. I need eyes in the world, lots of them, and have no idea where they should look except Everywhere.

Adric was able to rustle up some help at the local temple in Arabel, and then we were off to Selgaunt, through the air, to report to Adric’s home temple and corral more support. We were welcomed there, as well, and Adric was able to track down a big lead on Alec: six months ago, an apparent halfling calling himself William had been through the halfling community in Selgaunt asking after his "brother," Alec. He was reserved and quiet and, we got the impression, kind of cranky. He was tight-lipped, but he’d say that much: he had a brother named Alec for whom he searched.

I should note that Adric and I disposed of the evil axe wielded by one of the orcs who had also tracked Alec to The Tomb. The temple of Lothander in Selgaunt said they knew a guy who hates magic and apparently gets his jollies destroying magically enhanced devices.

Through a series of teleports here there and yonder, I was able to deliver Adric and some of his compatriots to The Tomb and pick up Rock and Bliss in Sess’uadra. Bliss studied the cave to turn it into one of her teleport points, Badl took Nigel and me to his grove so that we could study it as an ultimate, secret fallback point, and then Rock, Bliss and I returned to Sessuadra. There, Rock and I talked to Berol about what had happened so far and I questioned the halflings Alec had hired as "muscle" on the trip from Lurien to The Tomb. They reported a number of odd things – Alec would say he "felt" they were close, but he used no maps, and every now and then Rodeo, who was merely a monkey in their company, would run off into the woods for a few hours. Alec had otherwise been personable and somewhat tight-lipped, but nothing had stood out as unusual. They did note, however, that the Lurien Far-Riders Guild (I take it they are amateur historians and archeologists) had waved and shouted at Alec as they rode out of town and Alec had played it off as his colleagues saying goodbye. Sounds to me, frankly, like Alec stole something from them – or destroyed whatever they had that held some clue to The Tomb to prevent anyone from following his footsteps.

With another day spent doing "clean-up" work, Rock, Bliss and I teleported the halflings down to the Lake of Steam, then from there to Dambryth, from which the halflings could make it home. Before they left, though, I told them that Alec may have done some very terrible things and that more people may come asking questions of them – or, in fact, Alec himself may show up to try to prevent them from giving anyone any information on him. I told them to keep an eye out for anyone coming through looking for Alec and, if anything happened, to write to my address in Dambryth.

Then, I gave each of them a small arrowhead I’d had made from Blood Iron in Dambryth. "These will be the sign of anyone who speaks for me," I said, and I sent them on their way.

Life’s a funny old thing. History repeats itself, both large and small.

While we were gone, though, Badl and Nigel were hard at work gleaning further information and crafting useful scrolls and magical foods to help us on our journey. Before beginning that, however, the two of them retreated into the woods near The Tomb to scry Alec and try to determine what he’d been up to. Badl found a small pool of water, sanctified it in the name of Sylvanus and then cast a spell to show him where Alec might be.

In the pool, he saw an image form of a bullfrog surrounded by shadowy figures. One of them leaned forward, looking out through the image. Its face was strange, hard to describe, but Badl said that though it looked a bit like a doppleganger, it was not a doppleganger; it was all grey skin and dark-black eyes. It gazed solemnly in their direction for a few moments, then reached forward and with a wave of a spindly hand dismissed the scrying.

Strange, that.

Badl tried again, a while later, and this time he saw Alec again, not the bullfrog, though he stood slackjawed, shoulders sagged, a blank stare in his eyes. And this time the grey creature stood nearby with another observer: Muad Ter’thalas, the elfy-elf who rose from the debris where Alec had been and declared that no half-breeds would best him that day. This was something new and very strange, that Alec and Muad would be two different people. Up to this point, we had debated the precise nature of the relationship but we had largely agreed that Muad and Alec were probably the same body in different shapes (we’d had competing theories for how that worked – was Alec/Muad a shapeshifter, or was Alec possessed by the spirit of Muad when he was chained to the chair?) but now we saw them as physically distinct entities. Not for long, though, as that same, spindly hand reached out and waved off the scrying.

Strange and stranger still, though, was Badl’s third attempt to scry Alec. The next day, Badl summoned up another image of Alec and this time we saw him on a mule, on a road, riding towards a monumental snow-capped mountain in the distance. Alec stopped the donkey, faced the scrying and said – all blank stares and slack jaw now gone from his face – "I don’t know who you are, but I’ll tell you what I’ve told everybody else who’s done that to me today: I bought something from the Red Wizards to stop this from happening again." With that, he held up a necklace, put it around his neck, and the scrying abruptly ended.

So that settled it. Alec was back in the world, and back in possession of his mind. We wondered how – I suspect that the polymorph spell Badl cast on Alec worked but only affected that form, and that Muad, whatever he is, is capable of acting independently but uses Alec as a convenient cover, and that his time in the grey, cloudy plane where we spied them together was wherever Muad’s allies reside, capable of restoring Alec to his original state despite the power of Badl’s curse. Regardless, I figure the mountain in the distance can safely be assumed to be one of the other Places of Power – the one far to the north, beyond the barbarian wastes – and that he is making his way to each of them in some order and with obvious haste. We had to act, and quickly – but we didn’t have enough information to do so with confidence.

Badl had suggested Candlekeep and Adric had suggested the temple to Oghma in Elmwood. Since I could get to Elmwood right away, and they owe the Tinker Trading Company a favor or two, Rock and Nigel and I jumped to Elmwood with an open purse and some specific research requirements. Nigel picked up and learned a spell that reveals the legends attached to people, places and things, while Rock went for a jog and I got a tour of the new wing they built last year with TTC money.

I have to say, I loved just appearing in their lobby and giving the man behind the desk a bit of a start.

After asking the Oghmanites to begin searching their archives for whatever they might have on Stormcloud, Muad Ter’thalas, the Three-Faced Man, Fae’Rath or the schism between the dwarves and elves, we jumped to Selgaunt to arrange a trip to Candlekeep, courtesy of the Wayfarer’s Guild. Then we jumped back to The Tomb, where Nigel went to sit by skeleton of Stormcloud and cast Legend Lore in search of information.

As he meditated, Rock and I watched him and watched the skeleton for any signs of something bad happening. After a few minutes, Nigel opened his eyes and told us the few lines that had appeared in his mind: Stormcloud had lain there, even after his master’s escape, and now awaits the return of the Three-Faced Man to take his reins again.

With this, and with more Lothandrians arriving courtesy of a Wind Walk, the main party jumped to Selgaunt and then, from there, back across the continent to Candlekeep. The Wayfarers were kind enough to allow Nigel, Bliss and me to study their underground waystations as teleport points for future use (the extra fee was entirely reasonable). Upon arriving, we stood at the base of a high hill that rose to a cliff overlooking the Sword Sea. We could make out the keep itself, a small tower and a larger cathedral surrounded by a low wall. We all breathed a bit of a sigh of relief

What surprised us was the way the cathedral, where the priests of the god of runes and writing keep their library, was on fire.

"Is it always like that?" Someone in the party – I’ve forgotten who in all the excitement – asked the Wayfarer this when we saw it, and he shook his head.

His reply: "I’m afraid it isn’t, and we don’t handle cases like that," and then he was gone.

Well, we had little to do but try to save the cathedral, naturally, so Badl jumped on Bonzo (who took off running up the road to the keep), Rock blazed past everyone else on foot, and Katarina stayed behind to protect Bliss while Adric, Nigel and I leapt into the air and started flying towards the keep. Upon arriving, we found the most disturbing of sights: an army of kobolds – plain, normal kobolds – assaulting the castle under the command of what appeared to be man-sized kobolds with wings.

Kobolds who were six feet tall and had big, leathery wings.

It’s impossible to describe how quickly we swung into action. I dropped a cloud of sonic disruption on the ones trying to bash down the door to the tower – from the top of which came occasional rocks and pieces of stone being dropped in an attempt at self-defense – while Nigel started blowing up bands of kobolds carrying casks of greek fire towards the cathedral. Badl and Bonzo jumped the wall and ran into the cathedral itself to put out the fire, and Adric and Rock tried to assess the overall situation.

In literally no time at all we had the kobolds on the run. They just weren’t prepared for what we were able to dish out, and even as I sent Greebo to check on the defenders at the top of the tower and bellowed for the kobolds to throw down their weapons and surrender, Badl quenched the fire in the cathedral’s sanctuary and looked around to see a gold dragon, covered in scars and its wings cut off, curled up on the temple’s altar.

The two of them gazed at one another, but the dragon made no move to attack and Badl, of course, had no desire to start a fight with a gold dragon. Bonzo scared off the handful of kobolds at the back of the sanctuary and Badl and the dragon simply watched one another for a few moments, each sizing the other up.

Around this time, however, two more winged kobolds rose into the air over the cathedral and started casting spells at us. Adric, Rock and Nigel were able to make quick work of them, and as they piled into the cathedral, Rock called out that there was a gold dragon there. Everyone wondered what to do to help it when the last of the winged kobolds appeared and commanded the dragon to attack:

"All of the two-legged betrayers must be made to pay. Now destroy them in The Mother’s name!" He was killed immediately, of course, but as soon as he spoke the gold dragon – a gold dragon, the very embodiment of good and rational thought – turned on my companions in a rage. Nigel responded by turning into a smaller gold dragon and trying to reason with it, but it would hear nothing of it – instead, it reprimanded him for not aiding an elder – and it set to attacking us. Rock took it on from the front while Badl turned into a bear easily the size of the dragon itself, perhaps larger, and started tearing it open. Adric moved to heal the party while I dropped a sonic fireball on it from the side. Soon, it had been rendered unconscious, and Nigel had sent for Katarina and her friend, Shadow, so that Shadow could drain its strength. Nigel, somewhat to my surprise, felt terrible guilt for having fought the dragon – he struck the last, crippling blow – and insists that tomorrow we raise it and try to reason with it when it’s weakened and disabled.

In the meantime, I flew up to the tower to find that the defenders there had worried that Greebo was a familiar of one of the kobolds. Rather than kill him, though, they’d captured him in a butterfly net.

My cat was extremely pissed off about this.

I landed with a flourish and announced, "Whitten Silvervoice, Tinker Trading Company. We’d like to use your library. Is everyone okay?" I was then told of the dragon – the defenders were shocked we had defeated it – and the attack by the kobolds and their unusual leaders. Greebo was released – they were wise enough to take my advice and point the opening of the net away from themselves when letting him out – and I assured the defenders that they were now safe. They insisted, however, that we kill the dragon rather than try to figure out why it attacked us at the kobolds’ behest. "It’s sick in the mind," one told me. "Our best priests tried everything, and nothing worked. It cannot be brought back to reason." I took their advice into consideration and returned to the party – noting that the kobolds had not surrendered but had taken off en masse in defeat, which was good enough – to report what I’d learned.

Rock, meanwhile, set off through the cathedral to see if there were more fires to extinguish. He found, instead, dozens of dead priests and other defenders, all murdered by the kobolds, with many of the shelves overturned and books in heaps around the library itself. Ancient tomes lay in piles, covered in oil, clearly ready to be burned. Our arrival had disrupted the kobolds’ plan. The books were safe, if in disarray, and the kobolds and their masters had retreated through a large hole in the ground behind the cathedral that led gods-know-where under the earth.

So, we’d saved the day. The library’s hardly in a state to be quickly searched, but the books are safe and whatever knowledge it holds is there to be found. In the meantime, we have a mostly-dead dragon tied up and drained of its strength in the courtyard of the keep and a bunch of priests grateful to us for our assistance. Tomorrow, we hope, we’ll be able to get the assistance of these priests and try to figure out where the hell six-foot kobolds with leathery wings came from and what that one was talking about when it commanded a gold dragon to attack us in the name of The Mother, whatever that is.

Yet another dimension has been added to all this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Yet another name goes into the mix, another secret exposed. I cannot escape the worry that this is even larger than we had originally thought, given how many ancient and unknown things have been seen recently. Last time I worried that this had caught the attention of so many gods. Now? With even more secrets unearthed?

What I know for sure is that secrecy is a kind of power. To lie unknown in the darkest shadows of memory, not even whispered amongst the greatest sages, is a kind of power I’ve never wanted but I can understand. That so many forces would cast that off to act, would expose themselves to discovery, must surely mean that whatever they seek is all the greater than even the power conveyed by being forgotten by all the modern world.

If they’ll do this, what won’t they do to attain their goal?

And what is that goal, anyway?

(more…)