Thursday, April 12, 2012
Tresha started to sob as she exited the couples hovel located under the roots of an ancient oak in the forest just south of Myth Drannor. Aelar had finished recounting his tale of the incredible events that had led him to this shrine to Silvanus, and into her life. She had known his life before had been difficult and full of hardships and burdens that most would find too great to bear. She often begged Aelar to open up to her and let her help him with what he obviously struggled with every day since they had been together.
Tresha never imagined the depth of the struggle that he and his companions had gone through. Once more, she could scarcely believe some of the events that Aelar had told her of. A war that stretched into the future for a thousand years, the Fomorian Empire laying waste to the surface world and it would all begin right here, right now. In fact, it had probably already begun. Tresha sobbed uncontrollably at that thought. She knew Aelar wasn’t lying to her, but she was not prepared to hear the ugly truth. But, how could she leave him now when he needed her the most? She knew Silvanus had brought him to her for a reason and now that reason had become clear. She would stand by him, and lead him back to his friends so that they could face this terrible future together. And she would be there right beside him.
Tresha Van Cortlandt ran from lots of things in her young life, but she would not run from this. She wiped the tears that streaked down her cheeks and turned back toward the entrance to the hovel where her lover waited. She would not abandon Aelar. This time, she would find the strength to lead him back to the path that she knew they would now walk together, wherever it might lead.
A curious shadow caught her eye as the morning sun was just peaking over the foothills in the east. She stared at it for a moment before she realized that it was Kuriel Misthaven, one of the other druids that lived near the shrine. She held up her hand in greeting but something was wrong. Kuriel was staggering a bit and then fell over, face first into the small stream that ran through the clearing where the shrine was located. She started toward him but got no farther than one stride before she felt the awful sting of the two daggers that now protruded from her chest. Before she fell Tresha saw the dark, hooded figure that had just hurled the missiles step from the bushes ahead of her.
The light seem to fade and her vision became blurred. Tresha could not breathe or cry out for her love. She could do nothing but gasp much needed air that stubbornly refused to fill her lungs. With every attempt to draw breath, blood poured into her lungs and she began to drown. The pain was excruciating. It was dark now, and all she could hear was the gurgling of her own blood as it traveled back up her wind pipe and into her throat. She was lost.
Inside the hovel, Aelar sat there not knowing if he should go after Tresha or let her be alone to work through her thoughts. It was a lot to take in all at once and he couldn’t blame her for being upset. He silently asked Silvanus to be with her as she tried to understand everything that he had told her.
The silent prayer to his deity made him shudder with dread. Aelar stood up and immediately ran to the shoddy wooden door. He walked outside into the mist that covered the ground of the forest in the early morning. As he looked around he saw Kuriel Misthaven’s body lying in the stream and immediately thought of Tresha.
“Tresha! Tresha, where are you!?” Aelar cried out.
Just as soon as the words came out he saw her lying motionless on the ground near a brambleberry bush. He ran to her and grabbed her lifeless body up in his arms and was about to let out a mournful wail but was interrupted by the loud crack of snapping wood from behind him. The druid laid his lover down gently and turned toward the cracking sound knowing full well what he would see.
The cyclops stood nearly twenty feet tall and wielded a club that dwarfed many of the nearby trees. That horrible, single eye locked onto Aelar instantly and waves of negative energy flowed forth to engulf the elf druid. Aelar’s felt his will wavering for just an instant, but the memory of holding his dead lover shook him quickly out of the giant’s evil influence. The druid lashed out with powerful lightning bolts that danced wildly up and down the cyclop’s body dazing it for a few moments, long enough for Aelar to put some distance between himself and that wickedly, large club.
This mortal dance continued for a few long moments, Aelar blasting away with lightning bolts and making sure to stay out of reach of the evil giant’s club. The bolts were hitting home but were not causing enough damage to the ugly beast to ever hope to drop it. Aelar would become exhausted long before that happened he knew. And, of course, it would only take one swing of that tree-trunk-sized club to crush him to dust. He had to come up with some kind of plan to stop the mighty giant and avenge his lost love.
It was at this moment that Aelar felt the whoosh of a dagger that flew past his right ear. The druid spun around to see the dark assassin that had flung the dagger readying a second dagger. He held up his hand to release another bolt of lightning but halted when he saw the second dark, hooded assassin step out from the bushes to the right and release his missile. Aelar ducked and rolled away from the two dagger throwing assassins only to find himself too close to the cyclops that had been stomping his way through the trees toward him. He had been too blinded by the rage of his lover’s murder and had fallen into the trap they had laid for him.
“Of course!” Aelar thought.
The wounds in her chest were dagger wounds not from a giant’s club. He silently berated himself for being so thick as to not realize that the cyclops was not the only threat he faced this terrible morning. Aelar found himself within the swinging arc of the evil, one-eyed giant’s club. There was only one escape for him this time.
As the gigantic weapon hurled toward him, Aelar fell within himself and called upon his innate abilities to transform himself into a swarm of locusts. The instant before the club struck its mark, the druid’s elven form burst into a hundred insects. Some of the insects were smashed and others were swatted away but most of them flew up into the air and away from the immediate danger. The blow had severely stung but it had not crushed him at least.
The insects coalesced back into the form of an elf and Aelar stood there looking back at the cyclops and the dark assassins that now started to run through the woods after him. He looked passed his enemies to the body of Tresha that lay just beyond them on the ground, unmoving. He knew then he could not hope to defeat these vile creatures. He had no choice but to flee. Just then, he thought of his friends Murook and Boucher. If the cyclops found him out here in the woods, they could surely find the half orc and the dwarf. He had to get to them as quickly as he could. Alone they were nothing, together they were feared.
Aelar threw up a wall of thorns between himself and the charging enemies heading toward him. The thorns ripped at their flesh and slowed them to a crawl. Even the mighty giant was wincing in pain at every prick of the needle sharp spines giving the druid time to make his escape. He pulled out a curious onyx figurine in the shape of a fly that he had taken from Fredregar’s lair not so long ago. Aelar spoke the command word and in a flash he was astride an enormous fly rising into the air and turning toward the city of Phlan where Murook was last known to be.
Another arrow clanked off the stone just after the green skinned blur that was Murook Amphibane flashed by. He was big, even for a half orc, and although two arrows protruded from his back he still moved with speed and power showing no signs of fatigue. He counted four archers so far, but he had the feeling there were others lurking around and Murook knew to trust his feelings. He quickly ducked inside one of the unfinished buildings within the newly constructed walls of the temple complex being built to honor Thaelioth, the new goddess of time and travel.
The building offered some protection from the archers. His attackers refused to come in after him not wanting to get close enough feel the vicious bite of Murook’s axe. The bandits were content to wait outside until the half orc made his break then they would take him out from a safe distance. He had only caught a glimpse of the archers briefly as he dodged the arrows that whistled passed him in his frantic dash for cover. Murook had received a message from Fredregar, who was the highpriest of Thaelioth and overseer of the temple construction here in Phlan, saying that he needed to see Murook as soon as possible at the temple site. He did not know what role Fredregar had played in this ambush but doubted that the enigmatic mage would suddenly turn on him. After all, the decision to tell the Fomorians the location of the boxes was not his idea and, in fact, was the very reason the group had fractured and went their separate ways.
Murook was shook from his thoughts as another arrow struck the stone wall beside his head. He looked toward the direction from which the arrow had come to see one of his antagonists had worked around the unfinished building and found an opening. He quickly picked up two of the other bandit archers as they made their way to firing positions atop the temple’s parameter wall. Soon they would be able to fire at him from three locations and the unfinished buildings walls would offer little protection from all three, not to mention the other archers that were undoubtedly moving to flank him as well. He had to think of something, and quickly before he had no place left to take cover.
He could charge one or two of them and drop them quickly, but the others would be able to put at least four arrows in him before he could take cover again, and as strong as he was, he doubted he would survive that. Murook looked around frantically as the fear that always accompanied him into battle, started to take hold. He had learned to manage it, and even use it to his advantage over the course of the last year since the Academy had been destroyed, but it was always there.
“Every warrior has fear, Murook. Those that learn to use it become great, those that do not, die.” The words of Headmistress Tyranna echoed in his mind as they usually did in times of crisis. He wondered then how many times her teachings had saved him without him realizing it. And so they would again.
The distant twang of bowstring let him know that he must move now if he wished to survive. At the back of the building were steps that led up to the top of the parameter wall. Archers were up there, but the crenellations would offer him cover from the rest of the attackers and he could use the corners of the walls to draw them in close. It was a plan, the only one he had at the moment.
Murook burst from the building and up the stairs in a flash of glinting steel and green tinted skin. He caught one very surprised archer near the top of the stairs as he headed down to get a better shot. Murook’s jagged axe slammed into his enemy with such force all that was left was a cloud of red mist and ash floating in the air as he charged on to the top of the wall. He found another of his assailants when he reached the top and wasted no time bringing his deadly axe around to slice into the unfortunate soul putting an end to another threat.
The sting of another arrow piercing his lower left leg quickly brought him back from the edge of bloodlust, to the painful here and now. Murook spun around and locked his gaze onto the archer that stood just down the wall a few quick strides readying another arrow. He was near a corner where the wall turned and could duck behind it for cover, but what lay around that corner? Would it be another archer and another stinging arrow? Murook raised his axe and charged.
The arrow struck him in the right shoulder with great force just before the blood soaked, jagged axe slammed into the hapless archer cleaving him neatly in two. The air once again filled with the familiar blood, red mist and gray ash cloud.
Murook noticed the ash this time but had little time to worry about it. He was hurt, badly. The half orc scrambled to the corner where the wall turned and peaked around it hoping he would have time to choke down a healing potion before they were on him again. Three were down, but there were at least three more, probably more. He had to figure a way out of the temple complex where he could hide among the familiar streets of Phlan. Slowly he peered around the corner just in time to see two of his attackers climbing down the outside of the wall and fleeing back toward the city. Typical spineless sellswords, he thought.
“They run just when their pray is weakest.” Murook coughed and winced from the sharp pain in his back and in his right shoulder and in his lower left leg.
Suddenly he remembered the odd, gray ash cloud that billowed forth from the archers he had killed. After he pulled the arrow from his leg, and from his shoulder, he drank one of his strongest potions of healing to help the wounds knit together. The two arrows still protruding from his back would have to wait for Old Merle’s help back at his apothecary shop. For now, the curious ash that Murook now noticed covering the stones around him attracted the weary half orc’s interest.
The wounded warrior got to his feet and limped over to one of the bodies of the bandits to have a closer look. The skin of the dead assassin was dark gray, almost black and cracked as if it had been severely burned. When Murook pulled on the arm he noticed ash floating away from the skin when it was disturbed. He had never heard of these creatures before, but what he found next left no doubt where they were from. Under the archer’s tunic was a small medallion with the crest of the Nine Princes of the Empire of Netheril.
“We have a new enemy.” Murook sighed.
The dwarf priest held fast as he watched the giant, animated skeleton slowly rise from its seat on a throne made from the skulls of every conceivable creature that had ever skulked beneath the surface of the world. The bone construct was at least ten feet tall and the priest could now see that it was actually made from the bones of many skeletons. The hideous thing had a two horned helmet sitting atop what looked like the skull of a human and an orc fused together to become one. It locked its gaze on the dwarf and moved in to strike.
The speed at which the rickety construct moved surprised the priest and he was caught off guard by the first wave of vicious attacks. He quickly got his feet back under him, reset his defense and waited for an opening. The bone construct flew into a series of furious attacks and the dwarf was taking more than a few hits, but a higher power had set him upon this task and he would not be denied.
Boucher De Cheval had followed the sun lord, Amaunator, ever since he could remember. His clan was not like other dwarves. Clan Cheval did not live underground in mines or crave the feeling of tons of rock over their heads like most dwarves. They did not like being dusty or dirty; nor did they like to feel the hot humid air flowing off massive forges where metal flowed like water and the unending clang of hammer against steel rang through stone tunnels. The clan has lived on the surface for more than three hundred years. They served several surface lords in that time and have become known as master butchers and chefs. It is considered quite prestigious to have a member of the Cheval clan in the kitchen in most of the northern regions of Faerun.
At a young age, Boucher felt the call of the sun lord and left the kitchens of the north to join the temple of Amaunator in the city of Waterdeep. Although he was the only dwarf at the temple, it felt like home. It felt right to him.
Over the past year he felt the light leaving him, or at least changing in some way. Boucher had made some hard choices and fought many battles, both with his mace and with his heart, in that time. Some of these choices were questionable for someone who followed the light. He realized this too late to keep the light from leaving him. When the choice was made to tell the Fomorians the location of the Boxes of Fredregar, the light left him. Ever since then he had been trying to regain that connection with the sun lord, and had thus far, failed.
For the past six months he had been meditating at the temple of the sun trying desperately to reach out to his beloved sun lord to ask his forgiveness and once again set his feet firmly back on the path to the sun. During this time he felt himself slipping farther away from Amaunator instead of closer and somehow it did not bother him as much as he thought it might.
Last night, while deep in meditation, Boucher felt the familiar touch of the divine, but it was not the warmth of the sun he felt. The vision this deific presence imparted to him had brought him down to this wretched cavern deep below Waterdeep to face this undead abomination.
The skeletal monster drew back the large bone it wielded like a crude club to strike the diminutive priest, but just as the bone club started its descent a brilliant light erupted from Boucher’s shield and blasted the horrid thing backward. A few of the bones that made up the construct cracked and it fell to the wet stone kicking and flailing trying to escape the light. Boucher was on the thing in an instant striking with his mace making sure to keep his shield up and not let the horrid thing back to its feet.
It was not the golden, amber glow of the sun lord’s light that radiated brightly from his shield this time as it had so many times in the past. This light was pale blue in color, yet it felt just as comfortable as before, and just as inviting to him. Boucher embraced this light and continued to wail on the skeletal monster as it thrashed wildly trying desperately to get away from the stinging, burning light.
Shards of bone flew in every direction as the dwarf’s mace, now glowing with the same pale blue light of his shield, connected again and again with the evil construct. The thing struck back a few times but Boucher felt nothing. He was now firmly within the embrace of the light and whatever wounds the evil thing managed to inflict upon him could not stop his ferocious assault. In that instant, when his mace struck home and shattered the abomination’s skull, Boucher felt the sun give way to this new light. It was a natural progression, as natural as life and death or day and night. He was at peace. It was as if he had left his father’s embrace and fallen into the arms of his waiting mother.
The evil that had once permeated the underground chamber deep below the city of Waterdeep was gone, but the path that Boucher De Cheval had been searching for had led him to the embrace of another. Questions continued to circle around his mind about how he had been turned from the sun’s light, but the more he thought about it the more it seemed like the pale, blue light that now embraced him had always been there waiting for him to move toward it. Boucher felt as if Amaunator had released him from the constricting light of order and duty and freed his spirit so that he could truly serve the greater good.
As these thoughts raced through his mind, Boucher caught the faint sparkle of metal half buried within the pile of bone shards. He bent low and pulled out a curious, metallic medallion, the kind spell casters used to empower their constructs or so he believed. His eyes went wide as he turned the medallion over and looked at the symbol that was carved into its surface. There on the medallion was a carving of the skeletal hand symbol of the lich lord, Szass Tam.
At that moment, Boucher felt the heat as the smoke from the burning leather of his gloves filled his nostrils and instantly he dropped the vile symbol. A vision assaulted his mind the very next moment of his friends Aelar and Murook. He looked upon Aelar holding a dead female half elf and felt the druid’s mournful wails as a cyclops crashed through the trees toward his friend. The next instant he saw Murook slumped against a stone wall with arrows sticking out of him from all angles. The vision faded quickly and Boucher wasted no time bolting from the dark cavern up toward the surface and then to Phlan.
Boucher threw his shield over his back as he ran along the narrow corridors leading back up to the city. He failed to notice the rising sun motif of Amaunator had been replaced by the large round image of the full moon. The symbol of the Moonmaiden, Selune was now emblazoned upon the shield, but Boucher did not need to see it, he already knew.
Sunday, April 8, 2012
“He was there? He was alive?” Tresha gasped when Aelar had finished his explanation of how he, Murook and Boucher had all met Fredregar inside the labyrinth under the Dragonspire Mountains.
“Well, alive is not exactly correct. As I said, he was one of the undead. A lich, I believe that’s the term.” Aelar said as he searched for a better way to relate this very strange set of circumstances.
“LICH! Those are horrid, evil creatures, yes?” The young half elf maiden blurted out.
“Well, yes. Normally, you’d be right, but Fredregar… well, Fredregar is… different.” Aelar shrugged, having no other idea of how to say it.
Tresha stared back at him, her expression one of fascination and horror all at once. She could not believe what she was hearing and began to understand why Aelar was reluctant to open up to her until now. She could scarcely believe all he had been through in such a short time. It was no wonder that the Oak Father had led him to her. If anyone needed her special gifts it was Aelar, a lost elf in the great wood.
“Yes, yes I know. It’s a lot to take in.” Aelar continued. “Sometimes I don’t believe it all myself, and I was there.” Aelar shrugged not knowing what else he could say. He decided to continue and explain it as best he could.
Aelar told Tresha of the magic orb called Traveler and how the sentient artifact had appeared to them as Thaelioth and set them on a quest to find the Boxes of Fredregar. He recounted how they learned the Cult of the Dragon had been behind the attack at the Academy to steal Traveler or so they had thought. It was later revealed to them that the cult’s real objective was to steal one of the boxes that were sealed within the keep. Traveler used the distraction, and Aelar and his friends, to be free of the prison which Thaelioth had created to hide the artifact.
“Traveler is, perhaps, the most powerful artifact of magic ever created, and many powerful beings would lay waste to entire kingdoms just to possess it.” Aelar paused to collect his thoughts for a moment.
“So, it was Traveler that was there the day of the attack at the Academy and not Thaelioth?” Tresha trying desperately to follow the winding tale asked as she got out of bed and threw on her earthen colored clothes that hung near the fireplace.
“No. They were both there. Thaelioth had been the one that fought the ancient blue dragon, but she apparently was gone by the time we made our way back to the keep to see if anyone survived.” Aelar scratched his chin as he spoke and Tresha could see that he was working out what exactly had happened that day for himself.
“It was this day when Mandlebrot and Archelios left us to do research about the boxes and the orb to try and make some sense of what we should do next.” Aelar said.
“And that’s when you went to Fredregar’s lair, yes?” Tresha asked as she finished putting on her warm clothes and sat down near the fire and stared up at him curiously.
“Yes, but it’s a lab, not a lair.” Aelar corrected her.
“Oh. Right.” Tresha said raising her eyebrow and grinning slightly.
Tresha sat there for a long while listening to Aelar tell the tale of how they escaped Fredregar’s lab with the first box. When they exited the lab they set out for the city of Phlan, located close by on the north shores of the Moonsea. On their way there they met a curious harpy named Tierna Whisperwind. Tierna’s story would prove to be very difficult to explain indeed, so Aelar took a gulp of water from the drinking barrel and tried to gather his thoughts.
He explained how the harpy had come from the future to locate Boucher and warn him about the Fomorians that would be coming for the orb soon. Boucher apparently was the forbearer of some great general fighting the cyclopsian armies of the Fomorian Empire. The war had been raging for nearly a thousand years without end and had all but destroyed the surface of Faerun, driving most races to the Underdark.
“Dear Oak Father!” Tresha gasped in a whispered tone. “How did you carry this burden alone my love?” She moved closer to him and wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head in his lap.
“In truth, I didn’t believe most of it, until Traveler took Murook, Boucher and I there and we saw it with our own eyes.” Aelar stroked Tresha’s hair as he spoke but was interrupted when she snapped her head up to look at him when he finished.
“The future?” Tresha was staring at him in disbelief.
Aelar stared back at her and said, “Traveler can take you any place at any time you wish. As I told you, it’s perhaps the most powerful art…”
“…artifact ever created.” Tresha finished his thought perfectly. “You’ve been to the future? And there’s nothing but war.” Her voice trailed off as that realization sunk in deeply.
“Only one possibility, or at least that’s how the people there tried to explain it. They were attempting to end the war before it began, which is why they sent Tierna back to warn us.” Aelar averted his gaze back down to the dirt floor of their hovel as he spoke not really knowing what else he could say at that moment.
“Oak Father protect us.” Tresha whispered as she got up from the floor and staggered back to the bed and sat down facing Aelar not knowing anything else to do but listen to rest of his story. In truth, she was no longer sure she wanted to hear the rest, but she trusted him enough to listen.
Aelar continued telling Tresha about rescuing Headmistress Tyranna from the Cult of the Dragon in the Orsraun Mountains, south of Sembia. Boucher and Murook had learned from Fredregar that the cult wanted the boxes to use them in their dark rituals involving the dragons, and they kept the two boxes that they had acquired in the same compound where they held mistress Tyranna. They hatched a cunning rescue mission that involved potions of mimicry and much running and lots of fighting to grab the boxes and rescue the Headmistress all at once. With a little help from Fredregar, the plan was a success, eventually. They had all escaped using Traveler to instantly teleport them to safety.
Afterwards, the three of them traveled, by way of the sentient orb, to the kingdom of Yinnamarr to retrieve the fourth and final box. Aelar recounted the tale of how the three of them breached the castle of Lord Devronn Crumley and found it full of shades in service to the lord of the undead, Szass Tam. As they entered the keep to locate the box, they discovered that it was being stolen by a female thief clad in black leather armor. A thief they later discovered belonged to an organization called, The Tashas. They took the box from the thief and left her to the shades and then made their way back to Fredregar’s lab with the last of the four boxes.
“Fredregar later told us that Szass Tam was the Red Wizard that had polymorphed him. The lord of the undead is Fredregar’s former master.” Aelar stated and then looked up from the floor toward Tresha who was sitting on the bed blankly staring at the fire.
“Now you understand why I was reluctant to open up to you.” Aelar sighed.
After long moments of silence, Tresha cleared her throat and spoke. “What you’ve been through, how you’ve survived I couldn’t begin to understand.” She said softly. “The Cult of the Dragon, the Undead Lord and an organization of thieves, not to mention the Fomorian Empire and Silvanus knows who else is after these boxes and this orb that calls itself Traveler.” She said shaking her head more vigorously with every word.
“There’s more.” Aelar dared to add
Without a word the half elf woman sat on the bed and nodded to him to continue his tale. Aelar knew she was having a difficult time reconciling the enormous forces arrayed against him and his friends. He could not blame her. As he heard himself telling the tale, he grew more and more unsure about what he should do.
Aelar explained how they made Fredregar’s lab their base and gathered a sizable contingent of troops to help defend it against the Fomorians. Many harpies came to serve Tierna and they had liberated the lost dwarven city of Dimmenstein from the clutches of a mind flayer. The dwarves joined them and brought many others with them, including halflings, deep gnomes, some elves and even a few drow. Their coalition was taking shape, and they managed to fight off a cyclops attack with the help of The Tashas, who pledged their support shortly after. They had built a small army dedicated to protecting the Boxes of Fredregar and stopping the Fomorian threat.
Fredregar used the boxes in a ritual to transform himself back to his natural form and promptly took the boxes to the newly ordained goddess of time and travel, Thaelioth. It was decided the boxes would be safer inside her realm, the Desert of Time. Traveler disappeared after Thaelioth decided the orb must be destroyed in order to ensure the balance of power.
Boucher, Murook and Aelar were reunited with Mandlebrot and discovered that the enigmatic gnome had been in contact with Traveler for a long time. He had been leading a team that was creating a mechanical body that the orb could merge with. The three of them also realized that the gnome had changed somehow and was now on his own crusade and seemed to be allied with the sentient artifact.
Aelar paused and stared at Tresha for a long while until she turned to look back at him. Her expression was solemn and tears filled each of her dark brown eyes. At that moment he knew that he had made a mistake in telling her. What right did he have to lay this upon her shoulders. Gone was the cocked eyebrow and flirtatious smirk she always wore when she looked at him. The beautiful half elfs face was now sorrowful, much like his own he imagined.
“The war will still begin, yes?” Tresha asked nearly choking on the words.
“It has already begun.” Aelar could not bear to look into her eyes any longer and dropped his head toward the floor as he prepared to tell her the final part of his tale.
“We told the Fomorians where the boxes were to save ourselves.” Aelar finished still sitting motionless by the fire.
He heard Tresha get up from the bed and start to sob as she walked out of the hovel. He moved toward her but she threw up her hand to stop him and continued outside. Aelar sat back down and put his head in his hands.