Cradle to Grave to Cradle

We paused for a moment, inspecting the destruction. True to our mercantile ways we stripped these Ascendeds of their masterwork weapons, as well; respect for the dead is sometimes outweighed by a quick estimate that their goods were worth 100,000 gold coins. At the time I wasn’t even willing to think of them as people, to be honest. They were animals who wanted us dead and taking a few baubles from their fallen just seemed like a good way to rub salt in the psychic wound. Now, looking back, I have to wonder whether that was the elf half of my heritage, so eager to look down its nose at the fallen.

This stupid belt is going to make things so complicated; but I digress.

“Hey, Dyson…” I paused and looked back at the portal. “Didn’t you have friends who’d died who couldn’t be found in the land of the dead? And isn’t that fortress back there hidden from Kelimvor’s view?”

We turned around and went back through the portal, back into the fortress, and searched the two low buildings in it. One was a combination brig and bunkhouse and all it held were the corpses of Ascendeds. The other, round and open, contained within it a simple shrine: a figurine of an Ascended standing on the far edge of a wide, shallow dish with its arms outstretched as though to protect whatever was placed there – and what had been placed there were a few dozen small, clay jars with runes scribed on their caps, huddled together. Adric and Badl examined them and pronounced them soul canisters.

Disgusted, I picked up a newish one and threw it down on the stone floor to shatter it and release whatever was held inside. The image of a contemporary elf appeared in a sort of fog and looked around blankly then started to wander away. Dyson and Trover both exclaimed, as it was the image of a friend of theirs, one of the ones unable to be found in the land of the dead. The Ascendeds had captured their souls and hidden them away, rendering them unable to be resurrected, to return in any way, to keep hidden the secrets any enemies had managed to uncover. Uncertain how to proceed, unsure what to do to tell someone in Kelimvor’s service that these spirits were here, I raised my hands and started to cast a Sending.

“We’re on the wrong plane,” Adric said, “You can’t reach Berol from here.”

“I’m on the right plane,” I said, then I moved my hands through the right motions and pronounced, “SENDING: KELIMVOR.”

Some days it really pays to have met a god or two.

Ticking off words on my hands I said, “Hi, it’s Whitten, how are you? At a fortress hidden on your plane, lots of souls in jars. Can you help? Thanks!”

Adric boggled at me, the spell completed. I shrugged. “We met. It’s a long story.”

A moment later, a voice boomed in reply. I REMEMBER YOU, it said. THAT’S ODD. MY AGENTS ARE EN ROUTE. The front gates of the fortress crashed open a moment later and a few dozen, well, I’d guess one would call them angels, were standing there. At the head of the squadron flew the ghostly, pallid form of an ancient insect-man wearing the holy symbol of Jergal. He was the first of the insect men to die, the first priest of the first god of death. In silence they moved into the little shrine and picked up canisters, one after the other, smashing them on the ground so that the souls within could be released back into the natural cycle.

“Well, thanks,” I said to the insectoid. “We’ll, uh, we’ll be going then.”

With that, we went back through the portal and back into the world of the living and I don’t mind telling you that I was glad to be shot of the place.

The drums were still beating and as we moved in their direction we came to a large lake with a single small boat at its shore. Never one to take chances, Rock picked up a stone and tossed it into the water and, of course, the surface of the lake shifted and rose to form an enormous – lake-sized, as one might imagine – creature. It shimmered with fluid movements and challenged us. “Who dares to enter the place where gods are born? Why do you come here?” We hemmed and hawed a bit and then Trover took matters in his hands and produced a magical shout to try to get the creature to back down. Unfortunately, he just pissed it off and away we went with the fighting. A few minutes later the thing was dead and we’d made it to the other side of the lake. There, as though erupting from the very rock walls of the natural cavern, we could see the columned and stepped entrances to what were obviously temples: Waukeen and Kelimvor and Charess and many of what Adric and Badl said were the newer powers. We peeked inside to find small but fully-formed houses of worship.

The world is such a strange place.

We proceeded towards an exit from the cavern and found it to be a broad, high tunnel. As we walked down it we listened to Adric and Badl tick off the names of gods and goddesses, older shrines and temples laying farther and farther ahead as we moved. Finally we came to one for Lothander and Adric excused himself to pray. Dyson did the same when he saw the one for Tymora and Trover ducked into a shrine to Oghma. Rock and Badl and I moved on ahead in search of our own various gods’ homes and I went into the tasteful but ornate shrine bearing the kiss of Sune. Rock found the one for Meilikke, ringed in saplings. I saw Badl still moving forward but couldn’t see anything for Silvanus.

I don’t know what the others said to their gods. I asked Sune for help, certainly, for a bit of bravery and some good luck. I didn’t bargain with Her but I did say that if this all turned out alright it would be really nice to hear from some of the friends with whom I’ve lost touch over the years. I could cast a Sending to Telisaren anytime, I know, but I don’t. He’ll show back up when or if he wants. Still, it’d be nice to know. It would be nice not to have to peek into his room every now and then to see if that coin’s fallen over yet or if it’s stall standing on one edge, where it landed that last morning in Elventree when he woke up and flipped it and it landed on its edge and he left without a word. Rowan, Donth, Haktor, Llannen, even the priest of Tempus who’d fought beside us years ago, all disappeared into the mists with hardly a word. Would it be asking so much to know that they were OK?

That in mind, I prayed and left the shrine to find the others emerging from theirs. We moved on ahead and found Badl at Silvanus’ shrine, an enormous and ancient oak tree with moonlight playing among the leaves, even here in the middle of a cave that felt like it was a million miles below the earth. He sat underneath, praying.

Next to it was a simple ring of stone columns and in the middle a half-column with a stone bust of a dragon sitting on it. A yellow stain rain down the face. Rock tracked a bit and pronounced that there were disturbances in the dust that he was certain were the footprints of Azrael, the human archer face of BOB. That made this the Mother’s original shrine and BOB had paused a few moments to defile it on his way by. It and the tree of Silvanus were at the edge of a cliff, the very end of the road.

Below us in the dark we could make out – and scouted to confirm – thousands of frenzied kobolds being tended, egged on and abused by a legion of Ascendeds. We’d heard in Underhome that all the kobolds were gone – everywhere – like they’d up and gone someplace and here they were. They danced and fought and thrashed and threw themselves around and sometimes into enormous, raging bonfires, working up a mass wall of emotion and faith.

The drumbeat was much louder here, insistent, urging, building in tiny steps so that one barely even noticed the pace quicken or the volume grow or the persuasion of that beat building in one’s bones.

Another quick scouting mission told us that Malthalus – the one who plays the Mother’s heart – was ensconced on a raised slab of glowing white rock atop a pool of inky black nothing in a chamber on the far side of the kobolds. There, surrounded by more kobolds and Ascendeds, she played an enormous, ancient drum with her hands. Rock had gone there with Trover’s help and stayed behind to keep us informed of what went on while Trover came back to work on a plan with the rest of us.

“We have a dose of the sleepy-dragon dust,” Badl said with a smile. “I think we could put that to use.”

A quick conference and brain-storming session produced a plan and Badl, Trover and I were the ones elected to carry it out. I turned us all invisible, we each did various things to be able to fly and the three of us flew down, over the cavern, over the stench and fury of a few thousand kobolds worked into a frenzy by their Ascended handlers. We landed at the near end of a tunnel through the rock wall into the auditorium space where Malthalus played. Greater Arcane Sight told me the tunnels had alarms and an Invisibility Purge active on them so Trover cast a Dimension Door to get us to the far end and stay invisible. Upon arriving in the auditorium we stopped for a moment to look around. None of the Ascendeds seemed to have See Invisibility or True Seeing active. Malthalus didn’t see or notice us. The slab of square, white stone on which she sat seemed lit from within, casting her face in wild patterns of light and dark, enormous shadows of her hands and the drum playing along the high ceiling.

I looked farther around and saw three glowing blobs of intense magic – invisibility along with any number of buff spells – pressed against one wall. The middle one was small and shifting and shimmering so that I realized it was BOB and he’d just changed forms. I cast See Invisibility and he – in the form of Muad Ter’thalas – resolved, flanked by two Concordant Killers. He had a True Seeing active and he waved at us and smiled.

I smiled back, blew him a kiss and then turned back to the others. “Let’s do it,” I whispered. Badl and I each took hold of one of Trover’s belt loops. With the precision of our plan firm in our minds we each took, in order, the actions assigned to us:

Trover cast a Dimension Door to put us in the air a few feet in front of Malthalus.

Badl opened his tiny hand and blew a cloud of sleepy-dragon dust right into Malthalus’ face.

I whispered, “Teleport!” and the three of us disappeared with a rush of air and reappeared between the shrines of the Mother and Silvanus, next to our companions.

“Rock says…” Adric said, pausing, his Telepathic Bond with Rock letting him hear what happened on the far end, “Rock says she just collapsed, asleep. The kobolds and the Ascendeds are going crazy.”

We could hear that the drum had stopped.

It was time to attack.

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