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Kyrian felt himself fighting to avoid dizziness as he gazed upon the heavens. The sky above him in this tiny realm standing apart from the lands of Abeir-Toril stretched off endlessly in all directions, filled with more stars than he believed could actually exist, shining in every color of the rainbow. They were so close and so bright that he felt that he could stretch out his hand and pluck them like fruit. Bright as the stars were, though, they were nothing beside the great billows, pools, and swirls of vibrant color that drifted among them like silent thunderstorms.
The land beneath his feet seemed almost ordinary compared to that awesome panorama, but he could tell that it held its share of wonders as well. A few small human-seeming buildings clustered near the edge. Beyond them a vast jungle sprang up, shrouded in a thick mist that seemed to coalesce out of the very air. Enormous spires of rock, too tall and narrow to be mountains, rose out of that jungle and strange bright structures were visible at their peaks. One of them glowed harshly, impossible to look directly at for any length of time. The light it shed was warm, too warm, really, in the sticky humid air, and Kyrian suspected that this was the “sun” of Nymbus’ realm. It was daytime.
He squinted at the spires, the gem on his forehead contracting as it aided his powers of vision. “Look . . . there are rope bridges connecting the spires. They’re awfully high up . . . they’d be among the clouds, if there were any.”
La’ss’a leaned back, trying to see, and almost toppled over. “So, all we need to do is fly up there.”
“Easy enough for some of us,” Olena said.
“I’m more interested in these buildings,” Sam said. Fa’ss’th trotted towards the nearest door and knocked, eliciting no response. He turned and looked at the second building, which was emitting loud, regular clangs.
Baugetha looked up from her forge when they appeared in her doorway and wiped her hands on her apron. “So you’ve arrived. Make yourselves at home, although there’s not much in the way of amenities here, just my house, Athur’s, and Salmede’s.”
“Whose is empty?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“Athur’s not here at the moment, of course, and Salmede’s off in the jungle somewhere. He usually is. Salmede’s house is probably the most comfortable. Athur doesn’t have much use for that sort of thing.”
“Why’s that?” Kyrian asked. Baugetha grimaced as though he was dense.
“Because he walks right through them?” the elderly dwarf said.
“Oh.” Kyrian replied, feeling foolish.
“We weren’t there when the others met him,” Olena said.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Barak said. “We probably shouldn’t stay here that long.”
“Suit yourselves,” Baugetha replied. “Nymbus left a lot of things here, but most of them are virtually inaccessible. The place sat unattended for a long time, and even Salmede doesn’t know most of what’s here.”
“What kind of things?” Sam asked.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you. He was always constructing some apparatus or another, but they’re so advanced compared to my own work that I can only rarely determine what they’re meant to do.”
“You mean like the observatory back home?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“Did Athur ever figure out what it was?” Fa’ss’th pressed. The dwarf woman snorted.
“Athur doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground where it comes to machinery.” Olena giggled a bit nervously at the vulgarism. “He never was one for hands-on work, for obvious reasons.”
“So did you do any research on it?” Fa’ss’th asked.
Baugetha shook her wide, heavy head. “I’ve been trying to finish this suit of armor for Tobrin, so I’ve been a little preoccupied over the past couple of weeks.”
“What about the big clumps of crystal that latch onto magical sources and suck them dry?” La’ss’a asked.
“Say what now?” Baugetha demande, her eyes widening.
“That’s what happened to our Valley,” Kyrian explained. “These crystals appeared, and magic was transformed into psionic power.”
Baugetha shrugged again. “A lot of Nymbus’ methodology revolved around the resonant properties of various different crystals, but I’ve never heard of anything even vaguely similar to that until now.”
“Nymbus died because of these crystal formations,” La’ss’a said. “And now more of the same thing is threatening our swamp. It seems tied to the astral and material planes at the same time.”
“I’m a dwarf, I’ve spent most of my life living around every type of stone, earth, and mineral, and Nymbus could still find things that would surprise and dumbfound me. I’d give anyth—almost anything to know where he got them from, but he never said. Always close-mouthed he was, but in a way that you didn’t notice until long after the fact.”
“I wish we could have met him,” Olena said quietly.
“Maybe we’ll find something here that will shed some light on the problem,” Kyrian said.
Fa’ss’th pointed to the snake stuck on his arm. “Any idea what this thing is?” Baugetha pulled a pair of spectacles out of her pocket and examined the snake closely.
“It looks familiar. I think I saw Nymbus wearing it a time or two,” she said. “It’s not hurting you, is it?”
“No,” Fa’ss’th replied.
“Then I’d leave it alone for now. So, you two fey aren’t Nymbus’ students, then? Athur didn’t mention the pair of you, but I assumed you must just have slipped his mind. You radiate psionic power strongly.”
“No,” Olena said, “my brother and I got caught up in all of this when our Valley was changed. Behind her, La’ss’a pulled the jaguar mask out and showed it to Fa’ss’th. Fa’ss’th held up his arm to let the snake have a look at it.
“What valley?” Baugetha demanded.
“The Valley,” Kyrian said less than helpfully. “It’s not far from his school. It’s a fey enclave.” The snake on Fa’ss’th’s arm suddenly came to life and poked its blunt nose at the mask, its dark purple tongue flicking out.
Baugetha stared at Kyrian, then Olena, blinked rapidly several times, and burst out laughing. The twins favored her with puzzled expressions.
“You’re not entirely fey, are you? You’re half-fey?” the dwarf woman asked.
“That’s right,” Olena said. “Our mother is a Naiad.”
“We never knew our father, but we assume he was human,” Kyrian added. That sobered Baugetha abruptly.
“And likely, you never will, now,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Kyrian asked warily.
Baugetha hesitated, making a face. “Well, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. May I see your hand for a moment?”
The twins exchanged a glance, then Kyrian pulled off a glove and offered the dwarf his hand. Sam and Barak likewise looked at each other, then Barak smacked his forehead and Sam hid his mouth behind his hand, laughing silently. Baugetha took Kyrian’s hand in her rough, calloused palm and concentrated. Her eyes glowed with silvery light as she stared into some other world invisible to the people around her. Olena looked at Kyrian, then at the two humans.
“I thought so,” Baugetha said, half of her mouth quirking upwards. “I wondered why he was so fussed when Salmede visited those fey.”
“What?!” Olena demanded.
“There are generally two ways to become psionically active. One is to be a bit of an odd soul already, or in odd circumstances,” Baugetha said. “When you like crosswise to the world, you develop correspondingly odd talents. That’s me and Athur, and most of you, I expect. The other way is to inherit it for your parents. I know who your father was. It was Nymbus.”
Olena exhaled sharply and sat down with a thump onto an upturned bucket. Kyrian simply stared, his eyes wide and blank. Baugetha appeared unimpressed by the display. She bustled into the kitchen and returned with two cups of strong-smelling brown liquid.
“Here, drink that, it’ll help. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re so shocked. He was around for a long time, and everyone has their urges. He may have children scattered all over the Realms, for all I know.”
After arguing quietly for some time with Fa’ss’th, La’ss’a put the jaguar mask on. The snake stretched out towards her and tried to climb on her arm, then settled down apparently immovably. Fa’ss’th scratched his head.
Olena slurped down some of the tea without thinking and gasped, horrified. It tasted lie tree bark boiled in turpentine. Kyrian politely hid his cup behind some furniture.
“So, what about this ‘true world’ Sulveig’s minions talk about? Where the heck is it?” Fa’ss’th asked after the silence had gone on for a bit too long.
“Treefather!” Olena squeaked. “That means Demaris is our sister! Well, half-sister, anyway.”
Baugetha rolled her eyes and looked over at the lizard. “You mean Maztica? That’s what the locals always call the place, anyway. I’ve met one or two . . . dark people with reddish skin and black hair. They worship different gods from the rest of the Realms, and they’re big on sacrifices. I don’t know much more about them, really, I’ve never been there myself. Do you think Sulveig went to Maztica and got allies?”
“So it seems,” Kyrian said, rallying.
“The dragon was from there, so it does seem Sulveig went there and found a number of strange allies.”
Baugetha shrugged again. “From what I hear, they’re pretty simple people. It’s probably easier to teach them psionics than your typical Faerunite who is already steeped in the standard magic and religious fare.”
“I get the impression they either already have psionics, or some other form of magic. Eztli talked about their heroes being turned into monstrous creatures to gain special favors.”
Baugetha tossed her white-frosted braid over her shoulder. “If you want information, Athur is the one you should ask. I’m a craftsman, but he’s a Seer. If he doesn’t see all and know all, he sees more than most, at least.” She made a shooing motion towards the door. “Now, you kids go amuse yourselves, I have work to do.”
“Where is Athur?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“Athur is still at the school, of course. You could go find Salmede and talk to him, though, he’s practically as secretive as Nymbus was. Maybe he knows something useful.”
Sam sighed. “Well, I guess we go wandering through the jungle, then.”
Kyrian nodded. “Yes. Thanks for the tea,” he said awkwardly.
Baugetha smiled. “You’re welcome. It’s good for you. Puts hair on your chest.”
Leaving the building, Kyrian glanced at Olena. “How much did you drink?” She shook her head, amused. “So does that mask do anything?” Kyrian asked La’ss’a.
“It makes the snake happy, at least.”
The stone spire nearest Baugetha’s house stretched towards the sky. It appeared that a wooden staircase once circled the spire, but it lay now as a pile of wreckage on the jungle floor below. The damage was so extensive and the wood so rotten that there was really no way to tell if it was destroyed deliberately or was a simple casualty of age and neglect. Kyrian flew up a few feet, then looked down at the humans and lizards. “Should I lower a roper?” he asked.
Sam grinned and tapped his chest, a thin film of what looked like black oil crept over his body, sheathing him in a seamless surface. He jumped up, slightly, and began trotting easily up the vertical stone, his feet sticking to the surface. “Nah, I’m good.”
Barak concentrated and became translucent, then wafted upwards, borne by currents of air. La’ss’a and Fa’ss’th exchanged glances.
“How much do you weight?” Olena asked. La’ss’a rolled her eyes.
“C’mon, La’ss’a, you don’t want to stay down here and wait for us,” Fa’ss’th implored.
“I don’t like the idea of being carried. What if she drops us?”
“Two words,” Fa’ss’th said.
La’ss’a rolled her eyes again. “You and your stupid wizard tricks. All right, all right, let’s go.”
The top of the spire was only a dozen feet across, and unremarkable save for the bridge anchored to the stone by heavy metal brackets. The bridges led from ledge to ledge for some time, criss crossing the dizzying heights, before finally reaching the top of what might more accurately be called a plateau. A wide lake covered the top of the plateau, draining off one edge to form a spectacular waterfall. In the center of the lake, a tiny island sported a large, majestic tree.
Kyrian peered at the lake while Barak muttered under his breath about magical springs. “Nothing could bring water up here fast enough to supply a waterfall. This isn’t natural.”
“Is anything here natural?” Kyrian asked. He thought he could make out sinuous, long-bodied forms swimming through the clear water, and wondered whether the inhabitants of this place were friendly.
“Define natural,” Barak said. “This is a created demi-plane, and therefore . . . therefore they don’t even have water normally! What the heck is making all this water?”
“Let’s cross the puddle and go see what’s at the big tree,” Fa’ss’th said.
“Um, yes,” Kyrian said, still watching the snake-like creatures swimming.
“Maybe I should go first,” Sam said, catching the direction of Kyrian’s gaze. He began walking carefully over the surface of the water. La’ss’a tested the water with a toe. It was pleasantly warm, suiting the tropical surroundings.
Out on the water, the sinuous shapes abruptly changed direction and began swimming purposefully in Sam’s direction. Sam started to hurry, but the creatures closed and reared out of the water. They looked like snakes with human heads.
Sam dug his feet into the water, sending up a wide fan of spray, and came to a halt.
“Thisss our lake.”
“Okay, your lake,” Sam said placatingly. “Is that your island, too?”
Olena flew out to join Sam. “May we please have a look at the island?”
The snakes conferred. “If you are peassceful, you may look. If you are not, we will bite you.”
“I, of course, am totally peaceful,” Sam said. “Look, I carry no weapons.”
“Hyou do not sssmell like the bird-folk. You may passss.”
“Bird folk?” Kyrian asked, joining them.
“Yesss. Red and blue. Fire and issce. They kill usss for food. Ssso we sssteal their eggss and ssmassh them before they can hatch. But hyou are not them, ssso we will not attack you. The mother would not like it, the God would not like it.”
“Who is the mother?” Olena asked. The snakes exchanged perplexed looks.
“The mother isss the mother. Sshe dwelss at the Housse of the Sserpent.”
“Who is the god, then?” Sam asked.
“Our fatherss fatherss knew the god and sspoke with him, but he comess here no longer. For a time we were bereft, but now we ssimply wait.”
“They mean Nymbus, don’t they?” Olena asked.
“Shh,” Sam told her. He waved at the snakes, who swam out of the way and returned to whatever it was they were doing before they were interrupted. He finished crossing to the tree and examined it closely. It was immense, many hundreds of years old, its heavy roots covering the small island entirely.
Kyrian flew around the island. “Hey, look over there. There’s a ripple or something, like a jet of water coming out from between the roots.”
“Well, Barak was wondering where all the water came from,” Sam said.
“It looks like there’s something down there, wedged between the roots,” Kyrian said. He took a deep breath and plunged his head into the water, only to be nearly knocked off the island by the force of the surging water. He flung himself back, sputtering and coughing.
Sam shook his head, amused, and ducked down for a closer look. “It looks like there’s a glass bottle down there.”
“Magic,” Olena said. “Got it. Maybe we should leave it there, at least for now.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “I think the snakes like their water the way it is.”
They left the island and continued around the edge of the lake, to where another bridge led to another plateau. This one had many large rectangular buildings on it, each one apparently constructed out of glass. The buildings appeared to be full of dead and desiccated plants. In the center of the buildings, a dried-up basin fed into several equally dry channels, each one leading toward one of the buildings.
“A green house, unattended,” La’ss’a said. “Why even have a green house in the middle of a forest you created?” She blinked in sudden darkness as the light streaming from the top of one of the spires was abruptly cut off. Another building, on a nearby spire, flickered fitfully several times before beginning to shed a soft, silvery light.
Fa’ss’th grinned. “Nighttime, maybe?” He headed down to the bridge that led to the nearby glowing island. A round building of glass and stone stood there. The light was bright, but not blinding, and as Fa’ss’th neared the structure it seemed to diminish in strength until he could see through the glass to a dozen metallic mirrors rotating slowly around a large chunk of glowing crystal.
La’ss’a circled the building, trying to see what made the apparatus flicker, and came upon a small door. It opened easily. The inside of the building was bitter cold. Beams of freezing energy arced between the mirrors and formed an impenetrable web.
“Um, I say, could you assist me? I seem to have gotten myself into a bit of a . . . situation . . . here.” A man peered at La’ss’a from inside the web.
“And you are?” La’ss’a asked. The man’s voice had a slight echo to it, as though more than one person was speaking, not quite together.
“Ah, forgive my manners. I am Salmede. You must be the students Athur told us about, yes?”
“Maybe,” La’ss’a said cautiously. “Why is your voice all weird?” The others followed her into the building and gathered around the apparatus.
“I beg your pardon?” Salmede asked, sounding offended.
“You echo, almost.”
“Yes, but I hardly think that makes one weird. If you must know, I am a synad, meaning that I have three minds instead of the one most humans are stuck with.”
“Ah,” Kyrian said. “How can we assist you?”
“Well, if it’s not an imposition, could you move these mirrors so that I can get out?”
Barak examined the mirrors. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? They seem very . . . energetic.”
“How did you get trapped in the first place?” Fa’ss’th asked.
Salmede shrugged. “I am not at all certain whether it is wise, but I would prefer not to stay here all night waiting for one to shift position and freeze me where I stand. I was investigating the apparatus when it turned itself on. I lost track of time, it was my own fault.”
“Let’s help him out,” Olena said.
Fa’ss’th circled the room, examining the mirrors and muttering to himself. “I think if I move this one, and that other one over there, it should make a big enough gap for this guy to fit through.” The little lizard put his claws on the heavy metal disk and pushed. The cold shocked him, but it came loose with a crackle of ice and moved smoothly to a new position. “Right,” he said, and tried to move the other mirror. It was stuck fast, so he pushed harder and harder at it, struggling to get it to move. With a great crunching noise, it broke free and went shooting across the room. A beam of freezing energy waved around wildly.
Sam, Olena, Kyrian and La’ss’a hit the floor, sustaining only minor frostbite, but the beam struck Barak full in the chest. Ice instantly covered him. Fa’ss’th eeped in alarm, pulled a crystal out of his pack and raced across the room to look at the frozen human.
“Oh, dear,” Salmede said.
Color was slowly returning to Barak’s face, and the ice melted and fell to the ground. “I’m sorry!” Fa’ss’th said. “It looked simple enough. Can you get out now, Salmede?”
“I think so,” the synad said. He lowered himself to the floor with conscious dignity and scooted across the stone until he could stand up again.
“Are you all right, Barak?” Olena asked.
“I’m fine, just a little chilled,” Barak said.
Salmede clapped him on the shoulder heavily. “Good chap! Stiff upper lip and all that!”
“Sure,” Kyrian said. “Stiff with frost.”
“I should put the mirrors back now. Do you guys want to wait outside this time?” Everyone hastened towards the door as Fa’ss’th began putting things back in place.
Salmede brushed off his robes and surveyed the group. “So, Baugetha talked you into coming here, eh? I’m not really sure what she and Athur want with you folks, but I learned not to argue with them some time ago.”
Sam blinked, surprised. “What they want with us?”
Salmede flushed a bit, as though he realized that his phrasing was more than a little suspicious. “Well, yes. They seem to have decided that they’re going to . . . er . . . let you handle the current problems that seem to have cropped up.”
“Really?” Sam said. “They’ll just LET us handle them? How generous of them.”
“I’m not sure there is anyone else who can handle them,” Kyrian said.
Salmede shrugged. “Well, it’s best if we don’t try to interfere.”
Barak scowled. “Yes, rather than interfere, they’ll do what, exactly? Float around and act mysterious? Work a forge in a nice cozy demiplane where they don’t have to be disturbed?” Olena snickered and covered it quickly with one of her hands.
“And they assume we are looking into what, exactly?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“To tell you the truth,” Salmede said, “I don’t really know. I know something happened to Nymbus, and Athur tells me it’s important in some way, but he doesn’t want us to become involved in Faerun if we can possibly avoid it.”
Sam bared his teeth. “Nymbus DIED. He died while Athur was busy not interfering in Faerun.”
“Oh, that’s sad,” Salmede said, sounding very much as though the sympathy in his tone was forced, “But he was an old man, after all. These things happen. Humans are so fragile.”
“It had nothing to do with age,” Fa’ss’th snapped.
Salmede smiled faintly, condescendingly. “I’m sure you’ve had a difficult time of it, scrabbling to survive in the Realms by yourselves! I’ve heard they can be quite hostile.”
“Parts of the Realms are peaceful. For the time being,” Olena said.
“Baugetha was irate when she found out Athur threw you out of the school, but I don’t see what else he could have done. We didn’t know who you were at the time. No doubt you understand now why we go to such lengths to keep psionics quiet and out of the public eye!”
La’ss’a frowned. “Athur didn’t throw us out. We went to find Demaris, although I’m not sure what good that did.”
Barak shook his head. “No, he told us that we had to leave and ‘suggested’ that we find Demaris. Big difference. So, Salmede, do you plan to help out in Faerun, or will you stay here with Athur and not interfere?”
Kyrian looked at Salmede. “I’m not sure I understand, perhaps because I don’t know what it is that you are doing.”
“Athur’s advice has always been sound,” Salmede said with some asperity. “I’ll not move without his counsel.”
Olena coughed slightly and said with brittle cheerfulness, “So, what can you tell us about this demiplane?” Salmede turned his back pointedly on Barak, clearly signaling that he was done with that line of inquiry.
“It is divided into two sections, as you may have already noticed. The jungle below, which is largely inhabited by the tribes of the birdfolk, and the nagas . . .”
“Tribes that seem to be at odds,” Olena said.
“Yes,” Salmede replied. “I fear they had some sort of falling-out during the time they were unmonitored, wretched creatures.” La’ss’a and Fa’ss’th had a muffled conversation, then turned and walked away towards the next bridge. Salmede continued to pontificate, unaware that his audience was diminishing. “The spires house various apparati that Nymbus built. You’ve just seen one. The tribes have a somewhat . . . religious view of their functions, but I believe they have some greater purpose.”
Sam and Barak stared at Salmede in disbelief, then glanced at each other. Sam made a cutting motion with his hand and Barak shook his head slightly, then flexed his hands, manifesting a small amount of power. Sam smiled thinly.
Salmede finally came to a halt, perturbed by the silence of his audience. He grimaced. “I am sure that when you have some more experience with the greater universe, you will come around to our view of things. It does not do to focus only on the narrow, day-to-day problems of a particular place. You lose all perspective.”
“Sulveig is doing his best to bring psionics into the public eye,” Olena said quietly. Barak flung up his hand in front of Salmede’s face, and there was a bright flash as a power discharged. The synad blinked, startled, but appeared otherwise unaffected.
“I say! I hardly think that was called for! Explain yourself!” he huffed.
“No, you explain yourself!” Barak snarled. “Do you have any idea at all what is happening out there? Do you know what’s going on? How many people are dying or worse because your vast experience says you shouldn’t dirty your hands? What are you doing that is worth even the small portion of that horror I have seen with my own eyes?”
“Oh, come now. I understand that you are upset, but it is of paramount importance to consider the bigger picture in these matters.”
“Screw your bigger picture,” Barak said. “Come on, Sam.” The two humans turned their backs on Salmede and stalked away.
“Oh, I say!” The synad harrumphed angrily. “If you will excuse me, I don’t believe I have to submit to this treatment! Good day!”
Olena opened her mouth to apologize, then swallowed and hurried after Kyrian, who was running to catch up with the humans. Kyrian poked Barak in the shoulder to get his attention.
“Wow, Demaris would be so proud of you right now. Too bad she missed that.”
They passed the building that had only recently been radiating bright, sunny light. Glass lenses surrounded a crystal inside that glowed only dimly, now, like the embers of a dying fire. The air was still very warm. The next plateau held a ziggurat made of great plates of dark glass. A small archway led inside the building. The glass on the inside was covered with stars . . . not the astral stars outside, but similar to the ones that could be seen on Faerun. The floor was covered with rows of raised stone plates that looked as though they could be moved. La’ss’a was circling the room slowly, pressing the plates one at a time. As she did so, faint lines would appear linking the stars, outlining various unfamiliar constellations.
“Ooo,” Olena murmured.
“Great, all the tools you need to fake a real world. Can we go yet? This place makes me feel dirty.”
Fa’ss’th shrugged. “I am hoping we find some sort of library so we can figure out what the crystal in the cave was. Or if we can fix the crystal that is destroying our homeland.”
La’ss’a pressed a stone with the carved shape of a serpent on it, and a voice spoke. Everyone jumped. “Did anyone understand that?” she asked.
“No,” Barak said. He concentrated for a moment. “Try it again.” There was a clunk as she pressed the stone a second time, and Barak translated.
“The couatl will come to let them know the way,
my feathered snake of wisdom and might’
my chosen daughter shall greet me on the shore,
know her, she wears the Cloak of One Plume,
and the Ice of Summer, frozen under heat and fire
will prepare the path to my door.”
“O-okay. Like that makes any sense,” La’ss’a said. She scrambled across the floor, searching for a jaguar constellation. “Here we go!” When she pressed that stone, the voice spoke again.
“My enemy, lord of war, greedy for hearts. Zaltec will be humbled when I return.”
“That voice sounds like Nymbus,” Sam said.
“Well, he did create this place, so the recordings would be in his voice,” Fa’ss’th offered. “The question is if ‘I’ means Nymbus or is just the exact wording of a prophecy he found.”
“We seem to be collecting prophecies,” Olena said. La’ss’a continued her circuit of the floor. Several of the other stones spoke, as well.
“Azul, giver of rain and taker of bread, chac-father. He will be my ally.”
“Plutoq, master of earth and stone.”
“Tezca, ruler of sun and fire.”
“Eha, wind sprite.”
“Watil, guardian of plants.”
“Nula, guardian of animals.”
“Kukul, ancient father of the Gods.”
“Maztica, mother of life, the world.”
“Kiltzi, my sister, giver of health, growth, nourishment, and love, mother of Demaris.”
Sam raised his hand. “All right, all in favor of going to this ‘True World’ and making them regret they ever heard of us?”
“Is it possible Nymbus was one of these gods?” Kyrian asked. La’ss’a waved a claw dismissively.
“We don’t even know they are gods. They could be figureheads of some sort, like lords or priests.”
“Still . . .” Kyrian said quietly.
La’ss’a turned and marched towards the door. “Come on, two more buildings left.”
After climbing nearly two hundred feet on bridges that nearly resembled ladders, they came to the next structure, which was another pyramid, this one constructed out of great blocks of obsidian, each edge of the volcanic glass razor-sharp. Olena gasped as they entered and looked up into the vast and delicate machinery of an immense orrery. The erratic stars that scholars called other worlds moved ponderously around a large, spherical crystal that glowed with orange light. Selune orbited Abeir-Toril on a metal track of her own. The surface of the world was mapped out in exquisite detail, so much so that the adventurers could almost believe that if they squinted, they could see people going about their daily business on city streets.
Kyrian flew upwards to look at the True World, which was mapped in similar detail. La’ss’a pointed to a dark smudge over Athkatla, and another, brighter smudge where Murann would be. Fa’ss’th climbed under the machinery to get a look at his home. A tiny, bluish-white triangle occupied the center of the swamp where the portal had once stood. He scratched at it with a claw and the skin of the world split, revealing it to be a film as thin as a soap bubble, that fell lightly to the floor in a heap.
Fa’ss’th touched the map again, and it spread itself out over the floor, becoming a flat projection.
“Maybe we should hang on to that,” Kyrian said after a moment.
“Can you lay it out flat, then stretch a section to make it larger?” Barak asked, kneeling down to examine the map. It stretched easily, and it was easier to see things on the stretched portion, but he backed into the machinery and hit the back of his head. “Ouch. Let’s take it with us.”
“Last building and then we return?” Fa’ss’th asked.
The climb to the top of the tallest spire was difficult, and the structure there was very different from the others in the realm. Those were geometric in form, composed of a few very basic shapes. This structure was the carven coils of an immense serpent. Instead of scales, however, it was covered with finely-detailed feathers, and great feathery wings stretched from its back.
“Could be a job for Qotal,” Olena said. La’ss’a held up the small golden snake on her arm. There was a rumbling noise like a house moving on its foundations, and then the building lazily opened one eye, revealing a great yellow orb clouded over by a dense, milky film.
So you have returned. I thought you had forgotten me. There was no sound, only the faint whisper of psionic communication. What is your will?
Sam and Barak stared at La’ss’a, waiting for her to make some response. The little lizard’s eyes bugged out, and she remained silent. Finally, Olena asked, “Who are you?”
The eye blinked, slowly. Have you forgotten your servant, o Lord? Is this all I am, a tool to be used and cast aside, to linger here in the shadows of the world until Time itself comes to an end?
“No, no, of course not!” Kyrian said hurriedly.
“Time has not been kind to us, either,” La’ss’a ventured.
Would I that I might pass from this life, though I know nothing awaits the immortal in the halls of the dead. If you have no more use for me, o Lord, would you set me free?
“Would that bring an end to this place?” Olena asked tentatively.
No more than t’would bring an end to the ’versal world. I am not so mighty as that.
“What tasks have you performed for me before?” Kyrian asked.
Do you forget, o Lord? Is that why you have stayed away so long? Has your dreaming of mortality brought you to this?
“Er, something like that,” Kyrian said.
I bore your daughter to you from the True world, the child you sired on your sister out of a desire to learn the pleasures of morality. You were angry with me then, your fury like to crack the heavens did you retain your ancient strength. Is it your anger that has bound me here? Are you still displeased with me, o Lord? When you made this place, did I not do your bidding? Did I not come to dwell here, and bring forth my children to be your servants? Have we not toiled long and well for you?
“The nagas,” Olena whispered.
The psionic voice took on an edge of pleading. Have we not always done as we were bid, o Lord? I beg only that you look upon us with favor once more . . .
“What must we—I do to free you?” Kyrian asked.
“I wish I could,” La’ss’a added, “But I am not sure we are who you think we are. We can try to help you pass on if you will tell us how.”
What does an immortal know of death?
“We are not your lord,” La’ss’a said. “Do you seek Nymbus?”
The eye blinked slowly once more. Nymbus. That mortal name. So you are not the Lord, then. What do you wish of me, mortals? Have you come to torment me?
“No!” Olena cried.
“We are only here seeking knowledge about the crystal formations that are destroying our home,” Fa’ss’th said.
“Yes,” Olena said. “Maybe we can help each other.”
Crystals? The feathered dragon stirred slightly and its other eye opened. Perhaps we can, at that. I know the crystals of which you speak. If you promise to end me, I will tell you what I know. It is little enough, though.
Olena looked at Fa’ss’th. “I feel like we should. What do you think?”
La’ss’a nodded. “I’m not sure that’s a fair exchange for knowledge, but sometimes sacrifices are required. So, yes.” The small snake on her arm perked up as though interested in the proceedings.
The GodMind comes. The power of the Gods takes the shape of these crystals in the mortal world. Long ages ago, when the Father and Mother of the Gods first came into existence, they sired many children. These children created mortals, as well as creatures like myself, guardians and servants to the gods. Mortals were greedy and unruly creatures, though, and lusted after the power of the Gods. To protect their power from misuse by mortals, the Gods consolidated most of their knowledge and strength into one great crystal. They locked it away. Each God had his own key to access the power. But strife grew among the Gods. Qotal and Zaltec battled. Zaltec was defeated, and locked away as well. Long years passed in peace.
But Qotal shamed himself and was cast from the realm of the gods. He left the True World, crossed the waters in a vessel of reeds. He took the keys that belonged to the other Gods with him. So much power, contained for so long . . . there is no telling what may happen. That is all I know.
“How does one use a key?” La’ss’a asked.
I do not know. The Gods were wont to lend their keys to their mortal servants, imbuing them with great honor and power. In the great city of the Gods, now lost, there is no doubt a portal that can be opened.
“And this is, no doubt, why Sulveig wanted the keys,” La’ss’a finished grimly. “Is there any way to stop the formation of the crystals?”
The crystals are like plants . . . cut off their source of nourishment, and they wither. They can be destroyed, but the backlash is dangerous. End me, now. I am so weary.
“So, how do we do that?” Olena asked nervously. The snake on La’ss’a’s arm suddenly flung itself into the air, landing on the ground, where it slithered industriously towards the head of the great couatl. The little snake hissed viciously and bit the couatl. With a sigh, the great feathered dragon lowered its head, its eyes drooping closed. There was the faintest of whispers, and a yellow sheen suddenly covered the dragon’s corpse. Kyrian touched the surface in disbelief: it was cold, hard, and metallic. The dragon had been transformed into solid gold.
The little snake slithered back to La’ss’a’s feet and curled up, apparently pleased with itself. “Well, now we know what it does, at least,” La’ss’a said after a long moment. So it appears we have two choices. collect the keys before Sulveig does, or make a run for the lost temple and secure the big crystal.
“Do we even know what these keys are?” Sam asked.
“Hell, no,” Fa’ss’th replied. “Except that they should be somewhere in Faerun, since this is ‘across the seas’. So far, attempts to detect any magical or psionic power on the keys we do have has had no result. So what do we do? Trail Sulveig and bonk him over the head each time he finds a key, until we’re done?”
“We kind of lost his trail in Athkatla, though,” Olena said.
“Yes, but people are easier to trail than artifacts,” Fa’ss’th said.
“Heading home to save it sounds good to me,” La’ss’a said.
“Demaris will probably want to keep following Sulveig,” Olena said. “She’s my sister, now, I guess, I should stay with her.”
“The situation in the swamp seems more urgent,” Kyrian said. “We should split up again.”
“You’ll need fighters like La’ss’a to deal with Sulveig, and I may be some help with destroying the crystal,” Fa’ss’th said.
“Likewise,” Barak added. “I’ll go with Fa’ss’th and Kyrian . . . Sam will have to go after Sulveig.” He held up his hands and began concentrating. “Let’s get out of here.”
The Astral Plane passed away on either side of them, and they landed in the Palace Plaza once more, surprising Demaris, Elice, and The’ss’it, who were waiting.
“Did we miss anything?” Kyrian aked.
“Not really,” Elice said. Gariad got crowned and Elminster left.”
“We were helping with the recovery, but we were told politely but firmly to butt out,” Demaris added. Elice grinned.
“There have already been three attempts on Gariad’s life. I’ve taken to wandering the palace corridors at night and seeing if I could catch an assassin. It’s good fun.”
“We’ve decided that half of us will go with The’ss’it to Halruaa, and half will pursue Sulveig . . . if we can figure out where he went.”
“The tough part will be traveling back to our home,” Fa’ss’th said. “The’ss’it, how did you get here so fast?”
“Those wizards teleported me. Why?”
“Maybe we can find some more wizards and do that again.”
Olena looked at Demaris. “There’s a more, a lot more.”
Demaris shrugged. “Tell me about it later. According to the harbor master, Sulveig was last seen heading West on a ship. That’s the only useful thing I know.”
“Then I’ll bet he already has another key,” La’ss’a said.
“A what?” Demaris asked. “Is this the ‘more’?”
“We found out that Nymbus was my father, too,” Olena said. “And Kyrian’s, of course.”
“It figures he’d do something like that,” Demaris said, shrugging again.
“It means we’re your half-siblings,” Olena said.
“Well, yes, having the same father tends to do that,” Demaris replied.
Elice grinned. “Well, I go wherever Sam goes, so it’s the sea for me, too. We’ll have fun.”
Olena asked, trying to sound casual, “Have either of you seen Oren around?”
“Yeah, he’s been praying a lot,” Demaris said. “You can probably find him in the palace chapel.”
“Maybe we can find Sulveig on the map?” Barak mused. They stretched it out until it covered a large portion of the courtyard, earning peculiar looks from the passers-by. La’ss’a climbed over the surface and squinted at the ocean. “There’s a ship here, I think. About halfway to Lantan.”
Fa’ss’th nodded. “All right, then, everyone, that’s enough talk. Let’s go see what arrangements we can make.”