Archive for January, 2006

Of Stones & Sky & Sand & Blood

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

Five years ago, my friends and I fought and killed a dragon.

The dragon was green. I don’t remember its name. I’m not sure we even knew, then, that dragons have names.

There was a kid with us. He was this guy from a local constabulary, basically, who’d come with us to see what its deal was. He died before the fight even started. The poor kid stepped into the woods to take a leak and the dragon killed him without a thought.

Five minutes later, when we were fighting the dragon, nearly dying – when it was just my friends and me, shouting and crying out in pain and anger and putting everything we had into ending this specific menace – I knew that kid had to be dead in those woods, knew that dragon must have gotten him. I wondered whether the kid had seen his own shocked expression reflected in the scales of that terrible beast or whether he had his back turned and didn’t even know what hit him.

Back then, if asked, I would have said that there were probably ten dragons in the whole world. I mean, c’mon, it’s frigging dragons. They’re huge. How many of them can really be tucked away, unknown?

Back then, I didn’t know how big the world is.

I didn’t know a lot of things.

Rock and Badl brought back one of the winged kobolds that they’d managed to capture. They chained him up in one of the unused cells – bedrooms, not jail cells – in Candlekeep. Rock had more scouting to do, so off he went into the woods while Adric and Katarina and I helped the priests continue to clean and organize the vandalized parts of the library. We did a bit more making of plans – Badl wanted to speak to the stones in the Keeper of Tomes’ offices to see what he could learn about the False Prophet from five hundred years ago, and Badl and Nigel wanted to interrogate the winged kobold.

Adric and I were there for the beginning, but Nigel and Badl were more willing than we were to amp up the more, um, physical aspects of interrogation, so Adric and I went back to helping clean.

Nigel and Badl were able to find out a great deal. Long story short, the winged kobold agreed to play a sort of game with them: every time he answered a question, he got to ask one. And, in time, Nigel and Badl were able to learn a few things about the Mother, and about the winged kobolds – Ascendeds – and about whence they come.

It turns out that their powerbase is a place called The Cauldron of Birth, in a mountain range called The Spine of the World. This is a range of high mountains far to the north. It is cold there, and snowy, and from what I have read of the world it is a place where the sun does not set and rise on exactly the same schedule as here, with weeks-long days in summer and periods of equal night in winter. He also told them that there were more dragons than the few, abused youths we have seen in their service – the one gold we captured and the one copper Rock saw with them before they left for another plane. There are two free adult dragons – one black, one red – in their employ, or in league with them, or otherwise of a cooperative nature. One is named Charwing, the other is named Mal’Thalus.

Charwing, the Ascended said, “walks with the Original.” Mal’Thalus, on the other hand, “plays the Mother’s heartbeat.”

We could find out nothing more than that from the Ascended in question. Badl turned him into a small, harmless lizard, and that was the end of that.

The time had come, I decided, to see what we could learn from the normal kobold we had captive in another cell. That afternoon, I disguised myself as an Ascended, via magic, and teleported into the kobold’s little room. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, I shook him back and forth and demanded to know why he dared subvert the Mother’s divine plan! Who are you to question the Mother’s wisdom? I roared. Truly, it was one of my better performances. The Mother has allowed you to be held in this place that you might tell these pathetic mammals of the glory of her ways, that they might know their doom before it comes to them! Now speak, when they ask you questions, speak to the glory of the Mother and perhaps you will be rewarded in due time with some small measure of a life after this!

When I reappeared back in the hallway outside, Nigel was bent double with laughter. After a few minutes collecting ourselves and letting the kobold stew in his own juices, we strode in and told the kobold he had one more chance to tell us what he knew.

“I’m ready to talk! I’ll tell you everything!” he cried. We feigned indifference and rolled our eyes and with great patience allowed him to tell us his tale: namely, that he was part of a normal brood of kobolds that worshipped the verminish but largely benign kobold god until the day came with the Ascendeds showed up, killed the priests that wouldn’t cooperate, converted the ones who would and explained to the kobolds of his brood that they had been misled by a deceitful thief of a god and had greater lives awaiting them in the service of the Mother. The Mother was the mother of all dragons, from a time before names, and that the kobolds were as much the children of the Mother as dragons themselves. After that, this poor little kobold had been pressed into armed service and had spent a few scant weeks in the service of the Ascendeds. A part of the Mother’s propaganda, of course, was that kobolds who were very good would get to grow wings and become tall and turn into Ascendeds, themselves.

The Ascended Nigel and Badl had questioned, however, hinted that perhaps this was more fairy tale than truth – a useful lie, but a lie all the same.

Afterwards, Nigel clear the halls and courtyard of any priests, guards, scholars or others – after initially refusing, and then very gallantly acquiescing to my requests – and I reappeared to the little kobold in the guise of an Ascended. Together, we raced through the halls and across the courtyard and I set the kobold free in the surface world, stripped of all arms and armor save a small knife to be used to feed himself. I told him that the Mother’s will had been done and that now he should count himself lucky to escape with his life. I hope – fervently – that he will not harm some unsuspecting folk out in the world. Regardless, I had to give him a chance. I couldn’t just kill him and be done with it.

After all, that’s what the dragon did, all those years ago, to that kid who travelled with us.

That afternoon, the Keeper of Tomes summoned us to his office to thank us for our work. We asked him about the False Prophet and he said a very strange thing: that no one knew how or why the False Prophet changed or was changed, but that he had been a fine and wise leader prior to his sudden turn to evil. Then, one day, he was simply different. Most bothersome of all, Demion – the god these priests serve – did not notice the change in his servant.

Badl obtained permission to return, to speak with the stones, and with that we set off towards the mountains surrounding the Anauroch Desert in hopes of finding Mytheria, the gold dragon we were told lives in that remote place.

Adric flew us most of the way, then we touched down to release the lizardified Ascended, then he flew us the rest of the way. Once there, Nigel and I proceeded to study it as a teleport point and then I jumped back and brought Badl, Bonzo and Katarina from Candlekeep to the Anauroch Mountains. Rock and Badl had scouted out a cave with a small stream originating in it where we could set up a camp from which to begin our search for Mytheria and while Nigel and Katarina began setting up our base, Rock and Badl went into the woods to scout and hunt while Adric and I went to a logging and mining town a couple hours away (by foot – we were there in minutes) to start feeling out the region for how inhabited it might or might not be.

What a surprise Nigel and Katarina received! While setting up the camp they heard a woman’s voice crying for help. They went warily out of the cave and started calling out in response, trying to determine what the emergency was, and where the woman might be. No sooner had they started to respond, however, than an enormous gold dragon appeared out of the air above them and pinned Nigel to the ground. After Nigel and Katarina abandoned their various means of concealing their minds, the dragon inspected them thoroughly and found them… well, not exactly lacking, but not exactly exemplars of the mammalian races, either.

Luckily, Badl and Bonzo and Rock appeared at the sounds of Nigel’s screams and eventually everyone was able to explain why, exactly, the group was in that cave with a bound and wounded gold dragon youth. After hearing their story – with special emphasis that it was Nigel who insisted we get the young gold to an elder who could reeducate it – Mytheria agreed not to kill everyone on sight and then took off to find Adric and me.

Speaking of Adric and me, we were sitting in a bar in the logging town talking to some friendly locals and offering to come by to do what we could about tending to the sick and injured – logging is a dangerous business, as anyone who has lived on a frontier knows too well – and entertaining both sick and whole. In walked a beautiful, elven male who introduces himself as Mytheria.

“Mytheria?” Adric and I manage to squeak this out from around our beers and when Mytheria said he’d already talked to our companions and wished to meet us back at the cave, Adric and I were quick to agree.

Back we went to the cave in a flash, and together the six of us sat down and talked with Mytheria and told him what we’d heard so far – of Charwing and Mal’Thalus and the Mother and all the rest. Mytheria had heard of CharWing – an impulsive and trouble-making young black dragon when they’d last met, several hundred years ago – but was unfamiliar with talk of The Mother and all the rest. Mytheria took the young gold we’d brought for him to care for and told us that we had his permission to operate in his territory. In the desert itself, where we aimed to go, we would need the help of guides and goods from the human nomads with trading camps on the outer edge of the desert. Inside, he said, we would find blues and bestial reds, wicked and destructive and hostile to one another as well as outsiders. We thanked him for his kindness and cooperation, and bedded down for the night.

The next day, of course, was no less strange than any other.

In the morning, Badl and Adric and I teleported to Candlekeep so that Badl could speak with the stones in the Keeper of Tomes’ office. On doing so, the stones told him that they remembered the time of the False Prophet. One day, they said, metal shoes had walked across the floor and surprised the Keeper of Tomes. There had been a scuffle, and then the metal-clad feet and the person attached to them were simply not there anymore – and in that instant, the Keeper of Tomes became the False Prophet.

Muad Ter’Thalas, we all agreed. Muad had come and taken over the Keeper of Tomes, probably in the same way he had acquired the identity of the halfling called Alec.

After that time, the stones said, there were frequent visits to the Keeper of Tomes by Ascendeds. They would arrive in broad daylight, confer for a time and then leave. So, by this, we surmise that Muad Ter’Thalas used Candlekeep as his base of operations five hundred years ago. Was the Mother on the move even then? Was that some earlier, aborted attempt at a grab for power? Or was it merely the normal operations of a secret and subversive sect as it slowly but surely built its power?

After Badl’s interview of the stones, we traveled to Waterdeep to get some shopping done. We bought some scrolls and various supplies, did some asking around – I paid a moderate sum to the Guild of Historians to try to found out some things about fifty thousand years ago only to have them initially laugh at me. “Fifty thousand years? The world didn’t even exist then!” And so forth, naturally. I told them to look anyway, and that I’d pay their finder’s fee if they came up with anything worth knowing. Stupid historians – did the world even exist then? This is why I think I need to be around fifty thousand years from now, in some form or another. This is how the world ends up in trouble: the world forgets.

On our return to the cave, we cleaned up our camp and made our way through the air over the mountains and down to the edge of the desert. We found one of the trading camps and learned that a tribe of nomads from near the center of the desert was due into the trading camp any day now and though they were largely hostile to outsiders it was possible they would guide us to the center of the desert. We waited for a little while – did teleport studies, and the like – then decided we could at least try to reconnoiter the desert ourselves from the air. Nigel and Katarina stayed behind in case those nomads arrived while Badl, Bonzo, Rock, Adric, Greebo and I took to the sky to see what we could in the center of the desert. A few hours’ flight to the north, what we saw were two nomads walking together under the blazing sun.

We landed in front of them, at a respectful distance, and called out to see if they were okay. One had a grievous wound on his back and the other staggered a bit. They approached, then stopped, declined our offers of assistance and insisted they had to get to the nomad camp. We asked again if they would like healing or other assistance and they declined. I asked if they would like to be teleported directly to the camp so they could seek assistance from their own people, and again they declined.

By this point, everything about them was suspicious. So, of course, I tried to read their minds.

They didn’t like that very much.

The sad thing is, the guys themselves were basically already dead. One of them actually was already dead, and stank of rot. Adric attempted to turn them, and we learned that while one was technically alive the other was simply a zombie. His body melted… but in his place were thousands of bright red wasps. At this, the other one’s body, well, exploded as thousands of wasps poured out of his skin.

Then they attacked us.

It is not easy to fight thousands of tiny enemies.

Eventually we were able to get them contained magically, wear them down over time, and get rid of the threat they posed. With that, however, we knew we had to keep going to see if anyone else of their tribe were possessed or in need of assistance. On we flew, and in short order we arrived at a sight I hadn’t expected: an archaeological dig, smack in the middle of the desert. Around it were tents, and inside and outside of those were a few dozen corpses, all violently slain, people from a nomadic tribe and a few of their foreign clients who had come here to dig up what appeared to be a temple. The entrance – or an entrance, anyway – had been exposed, and from within came several interesting sets of footprints: two pairs of Ascended footprints, which emerged from the temple or tomb, climbed to the surface, then pushed into the sand and jumped into the air. The other prints were sort of half man, half wolf or dog.

Lycanthropes.

And those prints came out, ran all around the camp, and then went back inside.

And so, we have probably found another of the places of power – my term for whatever these places are that were so important the ancients used a crude map of them as their coat of arms fifty millenia ago.

And there are probably shape-shifters inside.

And the last people who got here were all horribly murdered.

So now I’m going to jump us back to the camp, where we can pick up Nigel and Katarina. And then, we’ll have to tell the nomads of the camp that the tribe they told us about probably won’t show up anytime soon.

And then we have to come back here, and go inside, and face whatever’s in there.

Today, I’m not so sure I love my job.