Ties That Bind

When I first met Nigel, he was this red-haired kid with simple robes and an old dagger and a knack for magic. It was Shadowdale, and we were in a bar on the same night. We’d met there, bumped into each other vying for refills, and before long we were exploring caves under the town and stirring up trouble. It was, I guess, my first “adventure.” His, too, from what I could tell. He was smart and clever – two different things, I’ve learned – and carefree. We were so young, then.

Gods, but we were young.

Fast forward a few years. We’d been through the whole business in Daerlun, with the Talonan priestess who’d been Llannen’s roommate back in her school days. We’d dealt with the threats to Arabel, we’d gotten away from that awful Lich in that shadowed tower off the wagon roads in the Dales. We’d lost Holly after she took off into the sewers with a bad case of lycanthropy and we’d… well, you get the picture. The talking sword, the dopplegangers, everything. By then we were known as The Flatliners because that’s what we kept doing everywhere we went. It wasn’t a good day if we didn’t brush against Death in a dark alley or a dim cave. We’d made the mistake of stepping through a magic mirror somewhere in the wilds and stepped out far, far under the land: The Underdark.

It was there that we lost Nigel, in some backwater cave, on the run from some damn thing or another. He’d cast a simple fireball that had turned back on him, the magic gone all wrong, and in a flash of pain and light he simply wasn’t there anymore. There were a pair of smoking boots where he’d stood. We thought he was dead.

Fast-forward again, this time another five years. Rock and I get summoned to Sess’uadra to meet with Berol and there’s Nigel in his company. Hugs were exchanged, we tried to catch up. Nigel was more tight-lipped than before, more stern, more concerned with payouts and the here-and-now. He still had that shock of red hair, but he was… different. All his magic turned to fire, now, even the spells that should have come out ice or lightning or whatever. He wouldn’t tell us where he’d been, either, except to say that he was held as a slave by the Drow for several years. He’d just escaped a few weeks before, made it to the surface, found his way to civilization and the care of a stranger – Berol, it turned out.

We didn’t pressure him because… well, because you don’t press too hard when you touch the long-dead. You don’t try to force anything because you lost them so easily the last time and you don’t want to lose them again.

All this is important. Just remember it for now.

Right before we left to finish exploring the Embassy, Nigel cast a spell to hide the Font from sight – magical or normal. We can see it, but no one else can, and no one else can scry to find it or otherwise learn its location. It’s a new spell Nigel just learned. His magic is just a little stronger than mine – he can reach heights I can’t – and this was one of the new things he was able to do.

That part is also important.

On to other matters at hand, though. We wrapped up our exploration of the ossuary in the Embassy by discovering a staircase down into utter darkness. A quick conference led us to decide that we should finish exploring the surface level before we moved on into the basement. With that, we started exploring slowly and carefully. At first we didn’t find anything much worth noting – a room where they stored jars of the sickly-sweet nectar the jackal-headed men would sit and drink, a few dusty store rooms. We found an office, with a safe that held a bag of holding in it and, on exploring that, we found a few gold bars, a few gems and a ceremonial head-dress that looked just sufficiently ornate to denote a middle-manager in the Mulhorandi heirarchy. The desk, the ink well and the cash in the safe led us to decide this was probably the Embassy’s accountant. We stashed the stuff amongst our things and kept going, finding the barracks where the embassy’s residents once lived – when they were living. The rooms were barren and decayed, anything not made of stone having been rendered to dust thousands of years ago. One room was locked and trapped, however, and on getting past its door we found an elaborately preserved apartment of almost royal appointments. We started to poke around inside, but then the ceiling turned into a terrible monster – all mouths and squidgy bits – that had to be killed with a quick fight. This, we figured, was where they put those who had to die, or a false prize left for would-be looters.

A little more exploration, and we had worked our way almost to the very back of the complex. We had started to believe we would find nothing else of value in this place, but soon we came across a large set of intact doors with an evil set of runes inscribed across them in vivid, purple ink: runes of pain, death, madness. Whatever was inside they wanted kept inside, it was apparent, and so we of course decided we had to see it for ourselves. Rather than try to deal with the door, however, we walked around to a side wall and with a spell I simply melted part of the wall away.

A shuffling and a groan greeted us from the other side, and a voice choked with dust and years rumbled out in ancient Mulhorandi: “Who disturbs this servant of Osiris with foul light? Shutter your lamps, I beg you, as there is something in that light that unbinds my soul at its touch!”

We all looked at Rock, whose sword had been enchanted by Adric – the priest of light whose spells pack a special punch against the undead.

“Are you friendly?” I called out, casting Tongues on myself so that I could be understood.

“I wish to harm no one,” the voice said, “But please, contain that light!”

We signaled to Rock to sheath his sword, and he slapped an alchemical sunrod against the ground to create light that wouldn’t harm the undead. As he did, I cast a spell on each of the others so that they, too, could converse with the being inside the room.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Chul’Tok,” he rasped, “And I am the Ambassador.”

We all looked at one another in the silence, and studied the room beyond for a moment: obviously a chapel, and in its ancient, stone pews lay the bones of many people who had died there as though sitting in a service.

“Are you undead?”

“I am a mummy,” the voice replied, and as we edged into the room we saw him standing in the far corner, having tried to escape the light of Rock’s sword. “I am the representative of Osiris in this place.”

“Okay,” I said, as bluntly as possible, “But we just fought the Ambassador yesterday.”

“You mean the ambassador of Set,” Chul’Tok said, voice solemn. “He is a wicked being, and his people seek only death and destruction and chaos.”

We conferenced again, very quickly, and then resumed our interview. In the time that we spoke, his features became more apparent as he moved with greater trust into the light of Rock’s alchemical torch: a mummy, true to his word, wrapped in ceremonial bandages and wearing an elaborate set of armor, arms, rings, jewelry and head-gear. He looked… well, he looked like something in a Mulhorandi museum.

He looked like living history.

“How long have you been here?” I asked him.

“I do not know,” he answered. “I have been here since the government changed, and we were sealed in by the worshipers of Set.” Chul’Tok’s eyes narrowed, and then he asked, “Are you Netherese?” His eyes fell on Rock and myself and then Badl – still in the form of a Dire Bear – and said, “And… are you related to the elves? What manner of creatures are you?”

“The Netherese Empire fell – literally – several thousand years ago,” I sighed. “The nation you were sent to is long gone. There’s nothing but desert for a thousand miles in any direction. We are here as… ”

“Archaeologists,” Nigel said.

“Yes. And we encountered the Ambassador – the other Ambassador – and killed him yesterday. A different band of soldiers, against whom we are also working, destroyed his minions at the same time.” Rock filled in the rest of this, and we looked to Chul’Tok for a reaction.

“Does Mulhorand still live?”

“Yes,” I said. “We,” and I gestured at Rock, “Were there just a few years ago. Mulhorand is alive and well and the Setites do not, that I know of, rule it. Horus seems to be their chief god now.”

“As would make sense,” the Ambassador intoned. I was very confused, and he was quick to figure that out. “Our system of government is… different,” he explained. “Osiris and his followers rule for a time. Then Set comes to power and overthrows us. Then, in time, Horus avenges Osiris. In time, the cycle begins anew.”

“Well…” I shrugged, finally. “I’m sorry that the Ambassador to Set is dead, but he was very, very dangerous.”

“And you were wise to destroy him.” Chul’Tok wasn’t exactly shaking our hands and buying a round from the bar, but he was opening up to us a little.

“So were you always a mummy?”

“No, I was a man,” Chul’Tok said. “Until the Setites came – the Ambassador was also a man – and murdered many of us and usurped our power. I and many of the Osirians were locked in this room, and so we performed the rite which made me what I am now so that I could be preserved in my mission. I knew that, in time, the wheel would turn.”

“So what do you do now?”

“I will return to Mulhorand to deliver my report. If they decide that this place must still be protected, I will return and resume my duties. If not, I will fulfill whatever tasks might be given me there. I will need to know in what direction to walk.”

“Wait… walk?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I must return and give my report. It is my duty.”

“But…” I tried to be as tactful as possible. “You can’t walk to Mulhorand. You’ll be killed.”

“Undead,” Rock said slowly, “Are not popular in the world.”

“95% of the mummies in the world are evil – Undead in general, for that matter.” Badl spoke to him in his rumbly bear voice. “The armies of many nations would march to stop you in your journey. They would not understand.”

“Undead are evil now? Even mummies?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “Very evil. That’s part of why we were so ready to destroy the Ambassador of Set.”

Then Chul’Tok said something which has lodged in my mind ever since: “It is a tragedy that the magic of immortality is used for evil in these days, and not used to preserve wisdom instead.

We were, I think, a little stunned by the conversation so far. Finally I blurted out something I realized we might not have long to ask, given he was already asking directions to Mulhorand: “Your Grace, are you familiar with something called The Font?”

Chul’Tok narrowed his eyes at us again and nodded his head. “I am.”

“What… does it do?”

“I do not know,” he sighed, heavily. “We found it when we were building this place. The Netherese were so deep in their magic that we decided to hide it from them. We built it into this embassy to hide it from them. It is one of the things I must report on my return to Mulhorand.”

“You just… found it?” Rock was incredulous, but respectful. “Did anyone in particular try to influence your decision to build here, or to dig there? Was this where you originally planned to put your Embassy?”

Chul’Tok’s mind clicked back through untold aeons and then he made a sound of deep thought. “There was a dwarf. He was our builder. We wished to be closer to the Netherese capital’s central district, but he insisted that this was the perfect place. He was also the one who found the Font, and recommended we not tell the Netherese. We found it whole, exactly as it is – encased in a room of mithril alloy as though it were simply waiting to be discovered.”

“Did you ever see the dwarf again?” asked Badl.

“No, we did not.”

But we all knew, right then, didn’t we? We all knew that dwarf must have been Alec, whose great age even then would have seemed to one as ancient as the Ambassador to be as huge a chasm of experience and alien thought as the Ambassador of Osiris’ own years seemed to us.

After a few moments’ thought, the Ambassador asked, “Have you encountered the Guards of Osiris? Are they destroyed as well?”

We shook our heads and looked blank. “I must wake them,” Chul’Tok said. “They must guard the embassy while I journey to Mulhorand. And I must think of how to get there without attracting the attention of these nations of the world.” He paused and looked at us. “Are there many nations between here and Mulhorand?”

“Pretty much all the dry land,” we replied. “The Dales, Cormyr, Sembia…”

“Ah,” Chul’Tok said. “In my time, there were naught but barbaric tribes.”

“Were there elves?”

“Of course, the High Court is a force of great power. But the human lands are – were – uncivilized, disorganized. Nomadic.” With that, he disappeared down those stairs in the ossuary where we had yet to tread. We followed him in, and by our torch we could see him approach each of six sarcophagi, each one covered with the same evil, purple runes as the doors into the chapel. Chul’Tok simply grasped the lid of each tomb, however, and rent it from its moorings, tossing it aside. In each he found a mummy like himself, these clearly armored as soldiers of Mulhorand. They did not speak, but they obeyed his every order. In a matter of minutes he had distributed them around the complex such that every entrance and exit could be watched.

“We are,” I said, “Still on our archaeological mission. Would it be possible for them to know that we should be permitted to pass?”

Chul’Tok agreed, and gave those orders to his men. From that moment on, they did not even look at us.

As he woke and arranged them, however, we conducted a quick conference. The bottom line, I felt, was that we could get him to Mulhorand – and keep the secret of the Font safe for as long as necessary – and keep from creating another batch of trouble in the process. If we told him everything and made him understand the importance of it all, then teleported him to Selgaunt so that he could skip the civilized nations between us and the Sea of Falling Stars, he could then cross under the ocean to Mulhorand under his own power. It would take him months – possibly years – to make that crossing on foot. “Look at him shuffling around,” I said. “He’ll be down there until this time next year. And by then, it’s probably not going to matter whether Alec finds out we have the Font.” Nigel was worried that we couldn’t trust him, that it might be an elaborate ruse by an evil foe of the Ambassador of Set’s, worried that if we had bested the one who had bested him that he ought to play nice until we were out of sight. A quick casting of Legend Lore quickly provided our assurances that Chul’Tok could be trusted, however, as this came into Nigel’s mind:

Chul’Tok, Servant of Osiris

Loyal beyond sanity

Faithful beyond measure

He lives only for Duty

And so, I sat down with Chul’Tok and I told him all of it, that we were seeking the tools of an ancient and wicked elf who had once betrayed many nations, including his own, and escaped his punishment to wreak havoc on the world. The Font, whatever it is, was “the foundation of cities,” and given its bizarre effect on plants we wondered at the awful possibility of placing it near that giant, skeletal dragon in The Tomb. Did Alec want it to bring back his faithful mount, Stormcloud? Or did it have some even worse purpose? I explained to him that I could teleport him to a modern city, but that he would have to cross the ocean – something he assured us would be no trouble – in order to buy us some time. “You will be able to make your report,” I said, “And we will be glad to help you live up to that duty, but we must ensure that it take time, something you have in plentiful supply.”

“I agree,” Chul’Tok said. “We leave tomorrow.”

He also told us that the Ambassador of Set probably kept his personal belongings in the old Ambassador’s quarters, behind the throne room. As the Guards stood in mute sentry here and there, we ventured back to the very end of the complex and found a trapped door behind an over-sized throne. Once through it, we were greeted by an ancient dwelling, all furniture gone save one stone bench and one stone chest – and two stone golems. A very brief scuffle ensued, and before long we were holding some of the Ambassador of Set’s most prized possessions in our hands – including an ancient artifact even by Mulhorandi standards, something none of us had seen before. It was a piece of worked, green glass with writing on it in ancient Elven, and when we moved our fingers up and down the side the text would move so that one such piece of glass could hold many times its own capacity in words. A small stylus was attached to it, and with it we could enscribe other words on the glass as well.

It was a miracle of magic and craftsmanship, but even that failed to interest us when we read the words themselves:

Herein Are Contained The Reflections of One Aphtul, Elf, Follower of Muad Ter’Thalas

Aphtul was a scientist and farmer. The Font had been entrusted to his use and care. He did not detail in it what exactly the Font might do, but instead noted its effect on the odd plants of “this new world.” We could tell from his descriptions that he described common enough life: oak trees and ferns and such. The Font, he had realized, made them grow at a greatly accelerated rate. He wished, he said, that he had access to the cities and libraries of their former world so that he could learn if this was true of all Fonts.

All Fonts – so there were once many? And this one had been brought by Muad, likely stolen, for some great purpose in his escape or his banishment from – or his rebellion against – some other home.

Aphtul’s diary was not terribly interesting, but here and there it would speak of The Dragon War, and of how Muad Ter’Thalas, who had led the elves to this world, was growing increasingly unpopular. Eventually, the diary told us, he betrayed the elves to work towards the dragons’ ends, not the elves’. Aphtul remained loyal to Muad, even after his betrayal, but not so all the elves, and a civil war had started. His last entry was brief, but poignant:

Today, the Faerath comes for Muad and for all of us.

And so here we were, yet again close enough to the truth to reach out and touch some angle of it, one face of its many facets, the truth at the center of history – some ancient gem so dense and so perfectly hidden by the years of grime and ignorance and confusion that we could scarce make out what we beheld. The Font was important, yes, obviously, but its effect on plants is not its supposed purpose? We cursed this ancient elf for not having even mentioned what exactly the Font is supposed to do, but at least we knew now that this was an effect it has always had.

With that, we went back to the cave and slept the sleep of the truly tired.

The next morning Nigel and I teleported the Ambassador of Osiris to the docks ward of Selgaunt. There were screams, yes, and people were very frightened to see two guys and a mummy chatting on the docks. We pointed the Ambassador in the right direction and then he stepped from the pier and into the water and began his months-long journey. Moments later, we were back in the cave, and our secret was still safe, and we could talk about what to do.

First, however, we wanted to check on the Font. Badl softened the stone we’d shaped so that we could hide inside it the lead-lined storage crate which, in turn, held the Font. When we opened it, however, we did not see the crate. We saw only the lead lining that had been inside the crate, wrapped in a sphere around the otherwise slightly oval shape of the Font itself.

Nigel scraped away some of the lead. The Font was still inside, but it had obliterated the crate, and sucked the lead down around itself and formed it into a sphere.

The stone around it had started to warp as well.

The Font is forming a new sphere in which to house itself.

The Font, whatever its purpose, is after fifty thousand years – a hundred? a million? – trying once again to form its customary home.

We sealed it back up, and Nigel reflected that at least we would have another week and a half before anyone could possibly scry it to find it.

And here, I will note that Nigel had spent the whole morning asking us if it was warm in the cave? Were we uncomfortably hot? Was it just him? He had sweat, and drunk water, and waved his arms to flap the sleeves of his robe and cool himself, and with a heavy sigh he leaned a hand against the wall only to watch the stone glow red around his fingers and wash away like water.

A gate of flame opened in the side of the cave, and a being of fire spoke to him: “Nigel, you have done well. We have observed your skill, and know that your magic is now strong enough for the final stage. Come, the time is now.  This was, after all, the arrangement.”

We stared in shock, and then Nigel turned to us and set his backpack on the floor and took out the rod of quickening he carries. “Take this,” he said. “I won’t need it where I’m going.”

“Will you be back?”

Nigel looked at the being of fire, and then back at us. “I think so.” Then he stepped through, and he was gone, and so was the portal.

I don’t know where Nigel was for those years we thought him dead. But I’m not so sure I believe it was the Drow, and I think we know now a part of why all his magic turns to fire.
And next time I see the dead walk, I will press, and squeeze a little harder, and I will not be so scared that I will push them away again.

One Response to “Ties That Bind”

  1. Robust McManlyPants on Average Display » More PAGP says:

    […] Another update to Pigs Are Good People, FYI.  In this one, we even lose a cast member!  By lose, however, I mean temporarily (I hope).  The player of Nigel, known in other parts as fiend, has moved on to a new opportunity in other parts and I wish him the absolute best possible results. […]

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