Archive for May, 2006

Lizards In The Mist

Friday, May 12th, 2006

The next morning, we reviewed the options available to us and then split into three teams. Badl and Katarina stayed behind at the Tomb, Bliss carried Rock off to Arabel to update Lady Lall, and Adric and I went to deliver the Hillsfarian scout into the care of the Phlanian legal system, then warn the wizards of Thentia.

It was a complicated day.

Badl had pondered contacting some of his fellow druids, but where we are now, he’s basically the most powerful druid around. Instead, he and Adric spoke with Katarina about her desire to warn some of her friends in Zhentil Keep – friends in Zhentil Keep, what a bizarre combination of words – of the impending attack. We asked her whether she would be able to get in and, if so, would she be allowed to leave again? “Get me within an hour or two of the city and I’ll make my way back to you, here to the Tomb if nowhere else. I don’t think they’ll want to let me leave, but I don’t think they’ll be able to stop me, either.”

“With all the leaping from shadows to other shadows, and escaping of bonds, she’ll probably be fine,” Badl said. And with that, we… reluctantly? No, we warily saw Katarina off on her mission.

Bliss, in the meantime, teleported Rock to Arabel with only a minor mishap – on the first try she landed them a few miles outside of town, but it gave Rock a chance to use his new Fly Statue Thing for the first time, turning the little figurine into a saddled housefly the size of a hippogryph and riding it aloft to judge their distance from their goal.

Upon his arrival in town, he carried a letter he had written to the guards at the gates of Lady Lall’s palace. I had sealed it with the TTC mark, then perfumed it lightly, to make sure she knew it was really from us. When Rock presented it to the guard, however, he got a surprising response:

“Lady Lall is not in the city, but I can make sure she gets this at the front.” The guard paused, then stammered, “I mean, the camp.” No sooner had he said this than Rock had to get out of the way as the gates of the palace opened to allow a regiment of Cormyrian soldiers to march past.

“Do that,” Rock said, then he and Bliss were off to spend a little time together before our long journey south.

And while all that was happening, Adric and I left with our little Hillsfarian friend, appearing outside the mayor’s office in Phlan. I knocked, then entered, and looked around to see more of the office boxed up than not, and my successor hurriedly organizing what looked like a long trip away.

“Are you running away?” I was rather cross with him. Mayors do not abandon their cities in times of war; at least, they shouldn’t when the fighting hasn’t even started. For gods’ sakes, there’s a thing called dignity, isn’t there? Poopenmeyer had the sense to at least feign some tiny amount of shame, and so I asked about the mood of the city, only to be told that there were “no real panics, maybe some orderly, preliminary evacuation, but not panic per se.”

With that, I hmphed at him a bit gruffly and told him our most recent update from Haktor, King of the Orcs of Thar, by way of Berol: Haktor and the orc horde could not come to the defense of Phlan, for they have problems of their own. However, a human city from Haktor’s region would come to our aid in their place, at his bidding. I simply must get up there and visit Haktor sometime, as I am burning with curiosity as to what his life is like these days that he has the human armies of other city-states able to answer on his behalf when he’s called upon for aid. I promised again to be there when said army arrived, to make sure that their intentions were peaceful, and then Adric and I hauled our prisoner off to the city’s jail.

I’m afraid that, in all honesty, the streets of Phlan were deserted and the city jail was, in fact, guarded only by Old Jenkins, who’s guarded the walls of Phlan through at least three invasions. He and his polearm were leaned against the wall, and when I told him that we had a Hillsfarian prisoner and that he should guard him and have a Tyrian come around to heal him, question him, etc., he nodded his head and said he’d take care of things. Jenkins is a taciturn but faithful sort, and I asked him, after our arrangements had been made, a potentially sensitive question: suppose an army of orcs showed up to defend Phlan; would he serve with them?

Jenkins looked me up and down and shrugged. “Is that who’s a’comin’?” I replied in the negative, explaining that I merely wanted to get a sense of opinion on the street. Looking from one side to another, Jenkins wryly observed that as the only person on the street, other than us, he certainly did appear to be The Phlanian Street, and then went on to say that the orcs are fierce fighters with a long history against Phlan, but that yes, he’d serve. “Had three orc arrows pulled out of me by the Tyrian priests the last time them orcs was here,” he said. “But I reckon that’s all past us now.”

I wish I could believe that Jenkins’ opinion really was representative.

Having delivered our prisoner, it was time for the last big push we could afford the time to make in this effort to stymie Alec’s plans in the Moonsea: we had to warn the wizards of Thentia of the plot to assassinate them, and so Adric and I crossed our fingers and hoped I’d be able to nail a soft landing in an inn I visited some six or seven years ago. Happily, we arrived precisely where I’d predicted – Adric suggested we were perhaps a couple of millimeters off-target – and then we quickly made our way to the tower of Bartholemew, aka The Beastmaster.

Many years ago, when he was merely a kitten, I’d had Greebo enchanted by him. The enchantments were broken when Greebo matured and grew his wings, and I have never taken him back because, frankly, I like him the way he is. I did, however, remember the work Bartholemew did for me, and he was quite forthright at the time about being on the council of wizards that rule the city.

It is worth noting what a difference there is between Phlan and Thentia. In Phlan, one is likely to encounter people such as Mayor Poopenmeyer, a stuffy and weasely little bureaucrat, or Old Jenkins, a traditional salt-of-the-Earth commoner. In Phlan, a wizard in silk and velvet, a flying cat, a priest decked out like a sunrise and a foreigner in heavy chains are an event that might inspire talk for weeks. In Thentia, we were barely the third-least interesting thing on any given block.

So it was that when we arrived in Thentia we appeared at the doors of Bartholemew’s tower and, upon knocking, were greeted by a servant who showed us into a waiting room and served coffee while The Beastmaster finished some work that occupied his time. Within a couple of hours, Bartholemew emerged from his workshop in a long, thick apron slick with blood. His client, a halfling – not that halfling – followed him out, leading his new and improved pet: a dog with a second head sewn onto its shoulders, this new addition being larger and fiercer than the original and with tufts of smoke trailing from its mouth. “Bring it back when it’s healed, and you’ve got the right kind of snake, and we’ll take care of the back end,” he said, and the halfling left with a wide grin, calling his dog “Cerberus.”

Adric and I gawked a bit, and I held Greebo close. Bartholemew turned to us and clapped his hands together. “And what can I do for you gentlemen, today? I see you have a Tressym with you, have you come to have him lowered? Raised? Perhaps new shocks applied?”

Greebo crept around onto my back, peeking warily over my shoulder, and I shook my head quickly. “No, no, we’ve come to discuss something with you other than your more immediate business, sir. My name is Whitten Silvervoice, I was a client of yours some years ago. You may remember me from that, or as the former Mayor of Phlan, or perhaps as a member of the Tinker Trading Company? My associate, Adric, and I have come to warn you that you and your fellow councillors are in terrible danger.”

“You mean the army of Mulmaster marching this way?” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets and shrugging his shoulders. “Oh, yes, well, don’t you worry, young man, we’ve got a plan for their army, don’t you doubt it.”

“Yes,” I said, “But they have a plan for you. When you and your fellow councillors meet for dinner at the end of the week, assassins will be waiting for you. They’ve been shown a secret way into your meeting place and they’re going to decapitate Thentia in secret before their armies arrive.”

Bartholemew chuckled and said, “Dinner? I’ve no idea what you mean,” but Adric was quick to prove our case:

“The dinner you have in the tunnels under the city, where they intersect?”

Bartholemew looked this way and that, then quickly cast two spells: Dimensional Anchor and Force Cage, then disappeared.

“Well, shit,” I said. “I don’t know why I thought they would just thank us for the info and see us on our merry way, but I honestly did think that’s what they’d do.”

A few moments later, Bartholemew reappeared in the company of two other wizards: one wreathed in flames, the other with electrical sparks dripping from his fingertips. They read our minds as we repeated our story, then Bartholemew said, “I can settle this,” and stared deep into Greebo’s eyes. My familiar went stock-still on my shoulder for a few seconds, then Bartholemew and he both came out of short trances and Bartholemew announced, “They’re telling the truth, or at least they think they are.” Greebo communicated that he did not like that at all, but we minded our manners as the wizards discussed the situation. The one with sparks on his fingertips, it turned out, was a priest of Azuth, the god of wizards. We asked them if they had seen Alec or heard of him, or Muad Ter’Thalas, and they said that no, they had not. They permitted me to Alter Self into an elfy-elf, such as Muad is, to show them what to look for. “I’ve never seen an elf quite so…” Bartholemew searched for the phrase, and then I said, “Elfy?”

“Yes,” he said. “Precisely.”

The one with the electricity at his fingertips asked if I were a sorcerer and I confirmed this for him. “I cannot discuss this with you, or the knowledge my god has, as he would not want one such as you to benefit from his wisdom. But we will pursue this matter in our own way.”

With that, we were released, and Adric and I refused Bartholemew’s gracious if unsettling offer of hippogryph omelettes in favor of a nice Thentian restaurant, then off we went back to the cave.

Upon gathering everyone together again, we all reported our findings and then, short another member, Badl, Rock, Adric and I began the long series of teleports that would get us within two Wind Walks of the heart of the jungles of Chult, for our next goal was to find and speak with Melphis Gran, the last priest of Jurgal and the only being we know of who walked the world when Muad Ter’Thalas, the Fae’Rath and the Dragon War were present in it, as well.

A few jumps – including one where I pointed out to Rock that I could take him to the Lake of Steam sometime, where we can fight the giant night-slugs together in its streets if he wishes – and we were in a safe little clearing in the forests of the South, a spot which I use anytime I come this way. There, Adric pulled out the magical device that lets him double the durations of his spells, and off we went into the sky to make our way more slowly to Chult.

Let me say this: nothing beats flying. Teleporting is faster, of course, but it’s nowhere near as grand. Once you’re up in the sky, watching the jungle roll past you, there’s basically nothing in the world that can seem wrong or dangerous. Viewed from so far above, it seems tranquil and beautiful and like nothing could possibly go wrong…

I wonder if there are gods who only ever saw it that way, before the Time of Troubles?

We landed and camped once, in part so that I could study the terrain for use as a teleport point and in part so that we could rest – especially Rock, who had been up for two nights in a row. As soon as we were rested and fed, however, off we were again, sailing through the sky and watching the forest thicken beneath us until finally we flew over a flat, uniform carpet of green punctuated only rarely by rustlings or birds or the heads of immensely tall beasts to indicate that beneath us were treetops and not rolling landscape.

Aside from Melphis Gran, sadly, we had come here also to release Bonzo, Badl’s faithful friend and our frequent savior, into the wild so that he could return to the life he had known before. “Our adventures are too risky for one such as he,” Badl had said, and so we touched down on the outer edge of the thickest parts of the jungle, where the treeline meets hills and opens up a bit into the sort of landscape Bonzo knew best. There, we let Badl say goodbye to his friend, leaving him with a small pouch and a couple of healing potions, while Rock demonstrated a couple of his spells to us, ones that make passing through thick jungle much easier. The jungle itself was thick and hot and the air was filled with a continual mist. Badl offered to cast an Endure Elements on anyone who was uncomfortable, but we declined for the time being.

In the air again, and down one of our animal friends, we journeyed on to the very center of the jungle. There we found what was meant by “the darkest heart of Chult”: a tall, crater wall in which grow trees and languorous shadows unlike those seen outside. It is twenty miles wide, Badl and Rock estimated, and we touched down just outside it after seeing what appeared to be a small village on one edge, where part of the hilly wall had crumbled away. Somewhat to my surprise, we found the jungle here, closer to the center of the forest, to be even more muggy and humid, and the mist was a veritable fog. “I’ll take that Endure Elements now,” I said sheepishly to Badl, and he kindly provided as he’d promised.

Creeping forward through the underbrush, however, we were spotted by a small lizard that, rather than attack or merely run, scampered away upright, carrying a small spear and crying out, “Father, father! Monsters have come!”

I have seen lizardmen in my time – base, savage creatures barely capable of existing in civilized society – but these were unlike any lizardmen I had previously seen: tall and sleek and with an intelligence obviously greater than what I had ever seen before. I quickly cast Tongues on each of us, so we could speak freely, and as we approached the village we saw the man the child had called out to, a tall and powerful lizardman carrying weapons and walking towards us. “These are not monsters,” he said to the child, “They are… men. They come from out in the world.”

We stopped and stood a respectful distance away, waiting to be approached, and the leader came towards us. “What are you doing here?”

“We come seeking the ancient wisdom of Melphis Gran,” I said.

“Hmph,” the leader replied, and then he looked us over. “I see one man, but two of you are something I have never seen, and one of you is a… child?” Here he looked back and forth between Rock and me – the half-elves – and then finally indicated Badl, who was in his native gnomish form.

“I am not a child,” Badl replied with a smile. “I am something other than a man. If you wish, I can be many things – a bear, a leopard.”

“You should be what you truly are,” the lizard said.

“Then I will stay as I am now.” Badl seemed entertained by the lizard’s curiosity, and we all just more or less tried to make it plain that we were not interested in hassling them at all.

“If you seek Melphis Gran,” the lizardman finally said, “He lives somewhere in the crater. We do not know how to find him. He comes to us, when one of us dies. He says strange words and places discs of gold on their eyes, and then he leaves again. We do not seek him out.”

“Discs of gold?”

“Coins,” Adric said to us.

Rock started to ask if perhaps the lizard man wanted us to take some of those useless gold discs off his hands, but Adric kicked him gently and said, “Do you object to us entering the crater to seek him out?”

“No,” the lizardman replied, “But be warned: the spirit of the jungle will take you. It takes us all, eventually.”

Why is it the locals are always saying something like that when we show up somewhere?

Adric and Badl went on to note that they were healers, if the village had anyone who was sick or injured. The leader of the lizardmen summoned the wounded and feverish, and they did what they could for them. Adric could not heal those who were ill, as he didn’t have the needed spells prepared for the day, but he told the lizardman that we would return to help them, too. He thanked us, and gave us a large and very sweet melon – yellow with thick, tangy meat inside – and then we marched onward, past the village, and into the crater.

Soon, all eyes were searching the ground as Rock located what looked to him like tracks that could be considered insectoid – hollow, round little depressions suggesting many legs or several bipeds walking very close together. The tracks themselves seemed to go in a spiral, outwards from the very center of the crater. We wondered at where Melphis Gran might make his home – caves on the edge seem unlikely to Badl, given it’s a crater – but soon we came across a more immediate quandry: the tracks walked up to the edge of a pit of boiling water, filled with soot and cloudy ash, then reappeared on the other side.

“I bet there’s a predator inside, or something,” Rock said, and so to check I cast a Detect Thoughts and then probed the pool. Sure enough, there were minds down there – eleven of them, in fact. As soon as I pushed into them far enough to discover that they were about as intelligent as dogs, however, they likewise took notice of us and one long, reptilian head emerged from the water to strike at Rock.

Then the other ten heads popped up, and we were fighting a hydra.

I dropped a sonic fireball on it, and Rock charged forward to keep it away from the rest of us. Adric hit it with magic of his own, and Badl took to the air to cast spells on it from above. The fight was very brief, as I turned Rock into a stone giant and he sliced the beast to ribbons, but before it was entirely dead it managed to breathe flame from all eleven of its mouths, scorching all of us terribly.

Once it was defeated, we moved on past the trap it had lain and continued following the tracks. Badl explained that the creature was a pyrohydra, immune to fire and vulnerable to freezing magics. No sooner had we finished discussing the creature than everyone – except me – looked up at once. They told me later what they saw: a six-foot tall preying mantis with the tattered remains of a cloak around its shoulders and a symbol around its neck, watching us from the trees above the trail. It studied us for a moment, its head cocked to one side, and then quick as a flash it had taken off into the air and out of sight.

And so we know, at least, that Melphis Gran is aware that we are here.

As we hunted further for him, Badl wondered if perhaps he had led us to that pool, to see how we would react. “Now he knows we can defend ourselves, and are armed and unafraid of a fight. Perhaps next he will show us something we must treat with peacefully.” Such conjecture didn’t seem to pan out, however, as eventually we began to suspect we were walking in circles and settled in to rest for a while. I read one of Nigel’s scrolls of Leomund’s Tiny Hut, producing a magical cabin where we could rest a while. Badl took flight again as an eagle, surveying the crater for a new pet: one of the dinosaurs that roam this part of the world. Adric went inside to rest, and Rock and I took to the roof of the hut to survey the jungle around us and wait for Badl’s return.

“I just got a message from Bliss,” he said at one point. “A friend of hers just told her that a few minutes ago, in Thentia, all the manhole covers in all the streets blew into the air and fire gushed out of the sewers.”

“I guess the wizards took the threat of assassins pretty seriously after all,” I said. After a moment, I added, “I wonder if I could pay for them to do that in Phlan…”

We had returned to our quiet meditations, watching Badl soar in the far distance, when his flight became slightly more agitated and we heard the cry of great lizards in the distance. Our ears perked up a bit, and then Rock pointed at the ground around the cabin: a large circle had started to form around it, as though some great worm were crawling around it.

And so I’m wrapping it up here and closing my book for now because, undoubtedly, the spirit of the jungle has come to eat us.