Archive for December, 2006

Uphill Both Ways In The Snow

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

After a night spent in Phlan to make sure that the posters were in full production and regain spells, I teleported us to the same spot in Rashaman where we’d scried Alex a couple of weeks ago. Adric cast a Wind Walk to let us fly up and get our bearings and we could see three major features in the distance: a high mountain, a small village and what looked like a more makeshift, impermanent settlement of soldiers, each a few miles from one another on the otherwise fairly featureless near-tundra of this barbaric nation.

Our discussions in Thentia with one of the city’s wizard – something called a Geomancer, and quite an odd fellow he was – had told us already that the high mountain was very likely a feature called Featherbane Peak, said in legends to be a mountain where nothing could fly. We decided against flying over to it to check that out and instead Badl and I decided to infiltrate the village and the military camp to see what we could learn about whether Alex or anyone else had been through here recently on their way to Featherbane.

There was a bit of urgency to all of this, of course, for two reasons: this mountain was, so far as we could tell, the site of an ancient elven arms factory from the time of Muad Ter’thalas and the Fae’rath. Who knew what weird-ass 50,000-year-old elven weaponry might be down there for Alex to use to his advantage? In more modern concerns, the legend about nothing there being able to fly was just as disturbing; what better place, after all, to trap some tremendous dragon like that which had been starved to death in the Cormanthor Tomb?

Badl took the form of a pony and posed as my pack animal and I walked beside him into the military camp. Current buzz in the realm is that the Iron Lord of Rashaman is old and the young are competing to replace him. In preparation for this I’d brought several of the masterwork swords we’d gathered here and there as gifts from Phlan to cover our arrival. I was all set to put on an elaborate display of diplomacy when we got just inside the bounds of the camp and all of a sudden Badl turned from a pony back into his native, gnomish form. Swords clattered all over the frozen ground and several people stopped what they were doing – brushing horses, sparring or otherwise hanging about – to stare at the horse that had turned into a tiny man.

A soldier approached us and asked who we were and I bowed with as much dignity as I could. “I am Whitten Silvervoice of the Tinker Trading Company, come on behalf of the city of Phlan to give gifts to your esteemed Iron Lord.” All eyes then fell on Badl who replied, “I’m his pony. Also I can dance.”

Some muddled and befuddling conversations ensued, but eventually we were able to meet with the current Iron Lord, who has obviously grown bored of his job. I made some nice talk and gave him the swords and then Badl did a… well, a dance, to be frank, and the Iron Lord found this a most amusing and engaging spectacle. So engaging did he find Badl’s performance, in fact, that he lamented that the gifts I had brought were mere swords, of which he has plenty, and not a dancing gnome. He retired from his court, such as it is in this place, and that pretty much left Badl and me free to look around at will.

Given this, we immediately set out in search of one of the witches of Rashaman. Our intelligence told us before coming here that the witches are most likely the true rulers of the land; everyone pays great deference to them and, in fact, when we asked if there were any witches about with whom we could discuss some matters of import we were warned that there are lots of witches about, what with the selection process under way for the new Iron Lord, and that if we encountered any we were to, at all costs, avoid looking at or addressing them directly. With this advice we sought out the communal witch of the small village we’d seen nearby.

Her name remains something of a mystery, as no one spoke it, including the witch herself. I could tell by the tenor of her voice, even as I kept my eyes on the floor of the lodge where she made her home, that she is young and probably new to her task. When we asked her for her wisdom regarding Featherbane Peak and any protocols regarding permission to explore that mountain she was quick to encourage us to do two things: talk to some other witch and talk to a local blacksmith named Lars McManus.

We started by going back to the military encampment, as we had been told we’d find the oldest witches there, and looking around until we found one. We positioned ourselves as best we could and I knelt on one knee as she approached. I stared at the ground; Badl at her knees. Rather than have to call out to her or otherwise seek her attentions, she walked right up to us and asked our names. After introductions were made – including a brief explanation of why Badl had gone from pony to gnome, as it turns out the military is encamped on top of a naturally-occuring anti-magic zone – I gave the witch our cover story about being here to give gifts on behalf of Phlan and the TTC. She didn’t buy it for a second and so we quickly went on to explain that we sought to explore Featherbane Peak and why. By the time we were under the direct scrutiny of one of the ruling witches of Rashaman, informal though the setting might have been, there was no real use in lying or otherwise trying to withhold any measure of the truth. Badl and I summed things up as concisely as we could and then asked her whether we would be prevented from approaching Featherbane Peak and whether Alex or any of his other guises had been seen in the area.

“Oh yes,” she said finally, “We know the one you speak of. We have seen his faces. All of them.”

“I don’t suppose you could describe any we haven’t mentioned, could you?” asked Badl.

“We have seen all the ones you describe, plus one more: his face as a man. Dark of skin and hair, with a full mustache, as of the Mul people. He passed this way several days ago. Shortly behind him was a band of men dressed as soldiers of Rashaman, but they were not our soldiers. They are encamped at the base of Featherbane Peak.”

Both Badl and I were surprised by the company of faux Rashamani and asked her to repeat that part. She did: Alex had come here either pursued by or ahead of allied soldiers disguised as Rashamani soldiers, a company so brazen they had ridden within sight of the encampment of the Iron Lord himself. We thanked her for the information and then I offered some in return: “Your people are at war with Thay. We have learned in the last few days that the princess of Thay has wed the ruler of Mulmaster and their forces have been combined. Thay now commands the armies, living and dead, of that city. We have disrupted their efforts on the Moon Sea but they are merely frustrated, not defeated.”

The witch was quiet for a few moments, then thanked us politely for this information and just as abruptly as she’d approached us she turned and walked away.

“Nice people,” we agreed, and then off we went to meet Lars McManus. By now our cover was blown and so Adric and Rock joined us and the four of us went straight to Starfall Village, the permanent habitation near the military encampment, and to the lodge of the McManus clan. Lars had been recommended to us by the young witch of Starfall Village because, as a boy, he had dared to scale Featherbane Peak and brought back a rock with “special powers.” Upon asking to speak with him he graciously allowed us into his workshop where we cut straight to the chase and asked about the rock.

“Aye,” he said, “I brought it back down after climbing the mountain in a day. It makes my hammer fall harder against the metal on my forge.”

I asked if I could examine it magically and he agreed, though somewhat warily. With bulging biceps he slid the iron forge off of its usual spot and underneath we saw an oddly-colored dark gray stone with streaks of white in it, almost marbled but distinctly and inexplicably different. One Greater Arcane Sight later I knew why it was special: the rock was part of an overall, very large and entirely unique variation on Undeniable Gravity. Anything over or in the area of the rock – once it lost direct contact with the earth itself – weighed more than it would otherwise and fell faster. So that, we figured, was what kept the birds at bay: they flew into the area of effect of said enchantment and gravity took over from there.

Lars described the base of the mountain to us: a regular circle circumscribes the irregularly-angled, five-pointed peak. The border of that circle is marked by the bones and feathers of generations of birds that have fallen immediately to their deaths on passing that magical barrier.

We thanked Lars for his information and then asked him if we could make a gift to him in return for his help: one of the sets of adamantine smithing tools we found in the Tomb of the Fae’rath. Upon showing them to him, he asked what metal they were made of. Though I am not as skilled a craftsman as he, I was able to draw on my own limited abilities in weapon- and armor-smithing to explain adamantium’s advantages as a metal. He moved the enormous forge back into its place, pulled an iron rod from the furnace and struck it once with the adamantine hammer only to gape at its ability. “Where do these come from?” he asked.

“From 50,000 years ago, when they were used by dwarves enslaved by an elven empire,” Adric replied.

“Can you tell their tale?” he asked.

All eyes turned to me and I said, “Well, there’s no better time to try out new material than on the road, so what the hell?” Lars called together the rest of the village and I put on a quick, impromptu performance for the McManus clan and some of the other villagers, in which I sang the tales of Alex, Muad, the Fae’rath and BOB. By the end I’d guaranteed that Alex would never pass unmolested through this part of the world again, I hope. When it was over, afternoon was wearing on and we decided to move ahead with getting to Featherbane Peak and seeing what we could see.

Wind Walk was still active, of course, so we took to the air and came down a hundred yards or so outside the very obvious circle of feathers that marked the beginning of the mountain’s anti-flight enchantment. On the other side of one of the spurs that marked a point on the irregular star the mountain describes we could see an encampment of a hundred or more human warriors and, somewhat to our surprise, some of the winged kobolds – Ascendeds – in service to the Mother. It was safe to assume, from the way they had marked a rough path part of the way up the mountain, that there were blinds and lookouts from there to the very top, but that’s where we wanted to go: Lars had described a crevasse that opened deep into the interior of the mountain and we figured if we were going to get to the machineworks of the ancient elves that was probably the best way.

I flew up, outside the boundary, and spotted a place I felt it would be safe to teleport, and we first blipped up there to begin our explorations. That took us about 4/5 of the way up a mountain it might have taken a day to climb from the very base. Rock took to the shadows on the northern side of the ridge line and climbed the rest of the way, ahead of us, to come to a flat peak about a hundred feet across. There he spotted a constructed but well-concealed from below blind in which at least a couple of soldiers were keeping watch. I went up a few minutes later, with Snowdown carrying a Silence from Adric so that I could remain undetected, and up there I invisibly studied the terrain so that I could teleport the rest of us in from our vantage point down below.

Minutes later, Adric, Rock, Badl and I appeared in a blip of light behind the soldiers in the blind. They turned in surprise and we were upon them. Badl and I each froze one of them in place to make for easy kills and Rock charged the third – who turned out to be one of the Ascendeds. I cursed our thoughtlessness, as we’ve long known that the Ascendeds have worldwide telepathy at all times. As soon as one of them had seen us here, they’d all seen us here. We killed the Ascended quickly and began to talk about how much time we might have before the ones at the encampment at the base of the peak might get to us – the better part of a day, we hoped – when Rock called out that there was activity in the camp. Together we watched as a dark figure emerged from a tent and… started flying towards us.

“How the hell is he flying on this mountain?” we all asked, in some form or another, but as he came closer to us it became apparent: he was wearing a stone around his neck, this one white with streaks of gray through it, and smoke was pouring from it as it counteracted the magic of this place to allow him to fly.

The figure himself is worth some commentary: a twisted, deformed figure, he was half-elf and half-demon, carried aloft on leathery wings. He got about 300 feet from us, moving fast, and even as I touched Rock on the arm and turned him into a Stone Giant the figure in the sky read a scroll and turned himself into an enormous demon. Quickly I made Badl, Adric and myself vanish from sight and then the three of us took whatever steps we could to prepare us for the half-demon’s arrival.

“You bested the half-dragon!” The half-demon’s voice was booming from above. “I’ve been looking forward to facing you!”

With that he flew in, throwing ahead of him an ever-smoking bottle so that smoke quickly blinded us all. I polymorphed into a gold dragon and Badl summoned an air elemental and between us we were able to clear the smoke just enough for Rock to find the bottle and throw it over the edge of the mountain. That cleared our vision in time to see the half-demon reading from another scroll and summon some sort of gross-looking giant spider that stank of brimstone. “Kill the casters!” the half-demon ordered and the spider began to sniff the air around it to try to find us, invisible as we were. Badl’s summoned air elemental went after it instead and Badl transformed into a bear to fight it as it turned to face him and his summoned ally. Meanwhile, Adric summoned a rain of sacred embers, deadly to evil beings, and I began to fire orbs of electricity at the half-demon. As Rock struck him with his swords, wounds began to appear. Snowdown and Adric were kept busy healing Rock and Badl was dealing handily with the spider. As I fired what I hoped would be the last orb of electricity needed, the half-demon held up one hand and screamed, “No!”

Imagine my surprise when this caused the orb to turn back, mid-course and return to strike me instead. Hobbled, I prepared to fire another but the half-demon was faster than all of us: abruptly he took the form of a shadow, much like Katarina’s pet, and sank into the earth with a taunt: “Dare you follow me, brave heroes?” He laughed as he disappeared into the earth. As we peeked over the edge of the crevasse, and then through a hole in the earth bored by another of Badl’s summoned friends, we could catch fleeting glimpses of the half-demon, still in the form of a Shadow, as he took to the shadows of the dark chasm below us.

“Well, that’s just great.”

“We should let him run away and fight him again tomorrow,” Rock said.

“He’s just going to get back the same spells we will,” I said. We discussed our options and finally decided to go in after him, despite this obviously being a trap. I cast Detect Thoughts, then we all took our mist forms again, as Wind Walk lasts for many, many hours, and rolled over the edge and sank down into the deep darkness of the inside of Featherbane Peak.

As we touched down inside and began drifting slowly around, our vision adjusted: the inside of this hollow peak was vast, hundreds of yards across in any direction. The floor had at first seemed to be ice but now, on closer examination, we could see it for what it was: a lake, flash-frozen in such an instant that the crests of ripples and small waves were still perfectly formed.

And caught in the ice, dozens upon dozens upon hundreds of them, were the corpses of dragons of every size and type, frozen to death in that same moment, trapped here as they sought escape, clawing over and at one another in their attempts to get away, in what must have been a battle between the elves and the dragons all those tens of millenia ago.

Literally hundreds of corpses of dragons preserved in their agonizing final moment were around us and beneath us and visible on every side.

As we approached one wall I sensed a new mind and pushed against it even as I felt it do the same to me. I managed to resist, but he did not, and I could hear his thoughts: Isn’t it beautiful? All this death?

I stopped abruptly and began to materialize, and the others took the cue to do the same. “He’s here,” I whispered. “He went out of range, I don’t know where, but he’s here and I can read his thoughts.”

“They all come here!” his voice boomed from above. We couldn’t see him, but he could see us: the corpse of a Tyrian paladin crashed down from above, at our feet. “Their gods send them to this place in search of Alex and what they find instead is me! And then, amongst all this death, amid these mighty dragons I could raise to build an unstoppable army in service to the Mother, they find their own deaths. Isn’t it a beautiful trap?”

With that, a huge black dragon detached from the rock wall and flew at us. Badl made himself enormous – fifteen feet to a side, at least – and he and Rock took off across the icy floor in pursuit. Adric and I cast spells to try to damage him, but he could move so fast that he was out of range in a flash. Rock and Badl were much faster than we, and they covered half the ground between us and the half-dragon, now in the form of a dragon, in the same time it took us to cover a few yards. A few yards were all we really needed, however, as Rock and Badl closed the distance to illuminate the area where the half-dragon had gone.

Once they got there, though, they saw he had shifted forms again, this time to that of a hydra. The wounds on his body were closing even as we ran to try to get to him. Rather than try to get closer for some of my more finely-aimed spells, I just let loose with fireballs as Rock and Badl charged. I was already starting to tap into the higher end of what I can do in a day and so I put the extra oomph I can behind my spells so that they went off with far more than their normal intensity. Badl and Rock were nimble enough to get out of the way but there wasn’t much the hydra/half-elf could do to avoid them. Even as most of them would wash off, some would catch him and burns are the one kind of wound a hydra cannot heal.

Rock and Badl tore into him with claws and swords and even though he put up a might fight of his own, we were wearing him down slowly but surely.  He changed shape again, back to a black dragon, then opened his wings and began to lurch into the air.  Adric, thinking fast, called out to Lathander and summoned an enormous comet into the air directly over the dragon even as he took flight.  In a moment it had crashed down into the middle of the half-demon’s back, throwing him back to the ground and then landing on him.  Blood sprang from every wound the creature had endured and he breathed no more.

We were very, very tired, but we knew several things:  we had to get the necklace off of him so that we, too, could fly up here; we had to make sure he was dead; we had to work fast before more Ascendeds showed up.

Even as we spoke we heard some commotion from far above us, outside the crevasse that led into this frozen lake.  Badl reached out and rusted the chain around the half-demon’s neck so that the enchanted stone would fall free, and Adric used a rope conjured by Rock to tie it around his own neck, then kicked his heels together to activate his flying boots.  As Badl, Rock and I stayed behind to make sure the half-demon wasn’t pulling a fast one on us, Adric took to the air – smoke pouring from the anti-enchantment stone as he lifted off – and levitated up and out of sight.

The commotion, it turned out, was the arrival of a half-dozen or so Ascendeds.  They had been surprised by, or had surprised, however, three others who had reached the summit of Featherbane Peak:  two Rashamani, both vying to be the new Iron Lord, and a stranger to this land who had arrived only a few days before.  One of the Rashamani is Rend, a Bardarian – a bard who can lose himself to rage, apparently – and he had decided to come up to the peak and take one of the stones, as Lars did a generation ago, to increase his standing and try to get an advantage over the competition to be Iron Lord.  The other Rashamani with him was along to do the same and the stranger – who had also apparently thrown his hat into the ring – was along because Starfall Village had, frankly, become dull in short order.

Adric healed their wounds when their fight was finished and, in time, the body of the half-demon reverted from the shape of a black dragon to his natural form and we knew he was well and truly dead.  Rock held one hand and I clenched some of Badl’s bear-shape fur in the other and the three of us, along with Greebo, teleported from the surface of the frozen lake to the top of Featherbane Peak, joining our two groups together.  Quick consultations led us to conclude that the Ascendeds would probably be up here in significant numbers by the next afternoonn and so we would sleep here, in the blind Alex’s organization had constructed to espy anyone coming up the peak, and head down into the Siegeworks of Aelfwynn as early as possible.

Introductions were made, and we learned that the stranger – a thin and slightly shady-looking young man named Dyson – was actually from Waterdeep but had spent a good bit of time sailing and was most recently resident in Skuld, that city we left in such a hurry five years ago.  He told us a tragedy had brought him here, but I was exhausted and so was everyone else and so we settled in to sleep before telling each other very much.  In the morning we would have much to do:  the Ascendeds would doubtless come after us and there was another of the ancient world’s hidden wonders to be explored.