Campaign of the Month: September 2007

Brave New World

Journal Stones Part 2

Journal Stones Part 2

Something about these stones seems to radiate great age, as though the words were spoken a long time ago.

Stone #1:

I stand upon the shore of a new land. She is dim in my sight, a veil of mist drawn over my eyes. She is a False world, crude and unrefined, desperately in need of clarity. She is hideous to me, as our mother once was before Kukul tamed her to his hand. Is it not said that within the hideous lies the seeds of perfection? Shall I become the father of a new breed of gods, stronger and purer than the last?

There are people here, twisted shadows pretending to sentience. I will live among them for a time, but not too long lest they corrupt me.

Stone #2:

The maddened dragon followed me across the sea, driven by Kiltzi to seek me out. I feared she had sent it to kill me, but the creature retains some vestige of loyalty despite Kiltzi’s seduction. It presented me with the poisoned fruit the woman had grown from my seed, taken from me against my will. Even here, dimmed by the veils of this False World, it radiates corrupt power. I have determined to be rid of it, to break the vile whore’s schemes forever.

Yet all my efforts have been in vain. Such is the strength of the life this creature bears that no mortal agency seems capable of ending it. If I cannot end it, I must bend it somehow to my own purposes. It is recalcitrant, but the fires of determination fill me and I will be the victor in this contest.

Stone #3:

I have met a wizard today, a practitioner of the false power that dominates this land The power comes only reluctantly to his hand, bound by material writings and other, cruder methods. It seems to me, though, that there is wisdom to be found in this difficulty . . . power that comes only with study and great strain forces its seekers to hone their minds to a crystalline clarity not found elsewhere in this land. I have learned much from him, and given into his keeping one of the sacred relics in exchange. I have no use for it, now, and better they were scattered across the land, difficult for even Kiltzi to find.

The wizard has instructed me on the nature of the false worlds, and the shadow realms that surround it in the ether, reflections of reflections stretching off into infinity. I have visited some of these realms, now that I know they are there, and met the even stranger creatures that inhabit them. So harsh is their existence that their power boggles even my mind. I will approach them seeking an alliance.

Stone #4:

The maddened dragon slipped from its shackles and wrecked havoc across the countryside before I could restrain it again. Its power is too great and unruly for the False world, and my wizard friend has requested that I find some better means to restrain it. I believe he intended to use his power, but I know how little effect that would truly have on the great dragon.

So, I ventured into one of the shadow realms, there to construct a prison for the dragon that even it could not escape. Its rage was terrible indeed to behold, and the expenditure of power drew sentience out of the void, a trick I will have to remember if I need it. Luckily, the event calmed the rage of the dragon, and it has settled down to play with its children. I am wearied from my exertions, but it occurs to me that I may be able to make other use of this prison-realm. If I am to do so, first I must endeavor to make it habitable.

Stone #5:

Kiltzi’s foul child has taken to unleashing its power randomly at the worst conceivable times. So stubborn is the creature that all my attempts to tutor it have failed. It even disrupts the dragon’s prison and interferes with the sacred relics. Something must be done. Akhlaur recommended that I treat it as an ordinary human child, but I am not sure how this is done. He seemed confident that these manifestations were ordinary tantrums.

At his insistence I have given it a name, Demaris, although this has had little effect on its demeanor thus far. In fact, it seems to have made things worse, for the creature has learned a new means of locomotion and cannot be kept out of ANYTHING. If I look away from it for more than a few seconds, it is gone. In addition, if it gets a hold of anything, it eats it. It does not seem to need food any more than I do, but the eating continues. Fortunately it seems that anything it swallows reappears eventually.

Stone #6:

I have not seen Ahklaur for some time. Presumably he is busy with his work. I have met several more magic-users in the interim, however, and they all seem eager to assist me with my experiments. Apparently there are even gods here in this False World, but they seem to lack the power to remain manifest in the world. I attempted to visit one of these gods, but I was confronted by a most impolite winged individual who refused to permit me an audience. Apparently their lack of power renders these local gods touchy of their prerogatives.

Stone #7:

Demaris has started walking and looks a bit less like a misshapen lump of clay. She even seems to be uttering the occasional word, although of course they don’t make much sense. She seems to have grown tired of eating things and now just runs around everywhere, falling into thorn bushes and streams and generally getting covered in cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Since she invariably starts howling every time this happens, I have applied some padding to her to prevent the worst of the damage. It seems to be working thus far. The volume and frequency of howling has decreased notably.

Stone #8:

It seems that the inhabitants of the False World spend a significant amount of time exploring the sea. While their ships are crude thus far, it has become obvious to me that these short-lived creatures will only continue to build. Some day, they may reach the True World, and then terrible havoc could result. Zaltec and Kiltzi will learn of my location and stop at nothing until they have found me and destroyed me.

I must begin planning for the inevitable.

View
Gwynharwyf Chooses a Champion

Wayland busied himself applying a salve to the massive bruise on Calix’ shoulder. “You ought to be more careful,” the cleric said. “Lathander is good-natured, but He isn’t one to suffer fools.”

Calix grimaced. “I was being careful. It’s that Nan, she’s vicious!”

“Can you really blame her?” Wayland asked.

“Well, no,” Calix said, “but the other women seem to have . . . moved on. Found new lives. But Nan is like a machine . . . all she does is practice.”

“Her progress has been pretty impressive,” Justus remarked, leaning casually against the fence. “She certainly gets the better of you easily enough nowadays.”

Calix shook his head ruefully. “If you ask me, it’s too impressive. It’s like something is driving her, something more than just mortal anger. It may be dangerous if it gets out of hand.”

“I haven’t sensed any corruption in her,” Wayland said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“It doesn’t have to be evil in order to be dangerous,” Justus said. “You should know that by now.” Nan walked past the men, still in armor and carrying a walking stick in her hand.

“Where are you going?” Calix asked, scrambling to his feet. Nan just shrugged, her usual method of communication. The other women had gone to some effort to learn alternate means of communicating, but Nan had simply become more withdrawn. She seemed to take a perverse sort of joy in remaining incomprehensible. Calix was loathe to deprive her of it, but it could be infuriating at times. “Well, be careful,” he said.

Nan simply nodded and continued walking, heading away from the relatively safe environs of the school. Sometimes, she would leave for hours at a time, and no one knew where she went. It wasn’t safe, but no one had the heart to try and stop her. Today, she climbed up to her favorite place, a rocky outcrop where a gnarled old tree perched, leaning precariously over the drop. It was a peaceful place, and often she fell asleep watching leaves rustle in the wind.

She leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and it seemed she had hardly closed her eyes when a voice spoke.

“Your heart is heavy within you, child, and I fear this burden is more than your mortal life can bear.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and in the dream she was not surprised to find that she could talk. “I am strong, like this old tree. I will endure.”

“Some poisons cannot be endured, they must be purged lest they destroy. I know who you are, Jenan ath Soharryd. I know why you hide, and I know how it feels to have the old skills come back to your hands as though you never put them down. It feels good, yes? But with them comes a terrible old grief that makes your new grief intolerable.”

“I gave up that name a long time ago.”

“But the past never gives you up, Jenan.”

“What do you want with me?”

“It is not so much what I want, as what I can offer. I bring you a gift of peace, Jenan.”

“Peace? There is no peace for me.”

“It is not the kind of peace that you seek. There are two kinds of peace in this world, Jenan. One is the peace of solitude, of a world untouched by rapacity or evil. It is an accidental sort of peace, one that is gifted only to a few and then only by the mighty works of others they do not know and do not wish to know. You will never have that type of peace, Jenan, though you spend all your life seeking it in vain. I offer the other kind of peace.”

“And what is that?”

“The peace of seeing your enemies fall beneath your feet in righteous battle! SEE me!” Bright multicolored light flared and took the shape of a woman with golden skin and a furious mane of white hair. Rainbows danced in her clothing, her eyes, and on the blades of the curved swords she held high. “I AM GWYNHARWYF, WILL YOU SERVE ME, JENAN? WILL YOU EMBRACE THE PEACE OF FEROCITY AND BATTLE?”

Nan shivered, awed. “I will. Tell me what I must do.”

“That is not my way,” Gwynharwyf said, her voice subsiding slightly. “You will know what to do. Your fate comes on you soon. I will give you a weapon so that you may face it.” The mighty eladrin held out her hand and a spear took shape. “Sleep now, and dream truly, child. The storm is coming.”

View
The Lizard Village
Our heroes destroy the large crystal and meet up with Fa'ss'th's tribe.

Fa’ss’th paced the cylindrical chamber beneath the crystal, occasionally looking up to see whether he could spot any obvious flaws or imperfections. He scuffed the thick layer of scunge on the floor and was surprised to see a dim reddish glow. Bending over, he began scratching the detritus of years away from the floor of the chamber, revealing a circle of faintly glowing runes. Barak joined him and examined the runes as well.

“It looks like a protective circle,” Fa’ss’th said after a moment, examining the runes carefully. “It might be the portal, it’s just not working because the crystal is sucking it dry.”

“Does it protect what’s inside, or protect from what’s inside?” Kyrian asked.

“It’s protecting whatever’s inside the circle,” Fa’ss’th said after a moment.

“Does it make a cylinder, or dome, or what?” Barak asked.

“Dome,” Fa’ss’th said.

“So what now?” Kyrian asked. Barak gestured upwards at the crystal.

“The problem I see is that we have no idea what is going to happen when it shatters,” Fa’ss’th said. “Otherwise one of us can probably get close enough to blast it.”

“With what?” Kyrian asked.

“Lightning worked on the other one,” Barak said.

“I have a shatter spell, too,” Fa’ss’th said, “but it’s arcane so who knows whether it will work.”

“Well, I could fly you up there if I leave some of my stuff down here,” Kyrian said.

“Works for me,” Fa’ss’th said, nodding. “We can try shatter first and see what happens.”

“Barak, would you hold this for me?” Kyrian asked.

The’ss’it waved a claw manically. “Oo, oo, I’ll take it!”

“I will want it BACK,” Kyrian admonished as he handed his swords and backpack to the lizard. The’ss’it balanced the backpack on his head.

“Oh well, that’s good too,” he said.

Kyrian picked Fa’ss’th up and flew upwards toward the crystal, holding the little lizard while he chanted and gestured. A faint sparkling light flew out from Fa’ss’th’s claw, struck the crystal, and vanished. There was a faint noise that sounded something like ‘fwoob’, but nothing else happened.

“That’s it?” Kyrian asked.

Fa’ss’th grumbled under his breath and pointed a single finger at the crystal, firing a crackling beam of electrical energy. The electricity was absorbed into the crystal, which began to hum faintly. The hum grew louder and louder as bright lights began to flash in the depths of the crystal.

“Uh, run?” Fa’ss’th said, alarmed. “Er, fly. FLY!”

Kyrian zoomed towards the side passage, now a considerable distance above the floor of the chamber. Below, Barak concentrated for a moment, then vanished and reappeared in the tunnel as well. The flashing crystal began to spit arcs of bluish lightning. Then it exploded. House-sized chunks of crystal went rocketing in all directions. The’ss’it glanced around as the red runes suddenly flared to life. Then a wave of sound and light hit him.

Barak, Kyrian, and Fa’ss’th cringed as the tunnel shook violently and dust showered down on them. The cataclysm faded away, leaving only a ringing in their ears and, faintly from below, The’ss’it shouting: “AWESOME! LET’S DO THAT AGAIN!!”

“Is he crazy?” Barak asked.

Fa’ss’th nodded. “Yes.”

“Uh-oh.” The’ss’it announced. Barak scrambled to the edge of the tunnel and looked down. He saw The’ss’it begin squeaking and running around in a panic as a wall of water surged over the sides of the vault and began to pour down into the room. The red runes flared and the water divided in midair, flowing through the floor and vanishing into nothingness. Realizing he was still unhurt, The’ss’it looked up at Barak and shrugged.

“But where’s it all going?”

Barak blinked as an extremely disgruntled-looking water elemental flew past him. Seconds later, it was followed by a strange blue-skinned demon that shot by with a loud: “SKREEEE!” After a few more minutes the flow of water stopped and The’ss’it climbed up to the tunnel.

“I think you broke it,” he told Fa’ss’th.

“Broke what?” Fa’ss’th demanded.

“Everything.”

“At least now we know what the circle is for,” Barak said. They climbed back down into the room and began looking around. The floor was littered with pieces of crystal, most of them as fine as grains of sand, but a few fist-sized chunks remained, glowing faintly. Fa’ss’th bagged them up on general principles.

“Okay,” Kyrian said. “We blew up the crystal that was draining the magic from the portal, so where is the portal itself?”

“We’ll have to look around and see,” Fa’ss’th said. “It’s possible the belt was used to create it in the first place . . . if we take the belt away, the water may not come back.”

Kyrian looked around the room. “I think this portal has been out of commission for some time.”

“Yes,” said Barak, “and everything just flew back into it. So how do we turn it around and get water flowing back into the swamp? Maybe we need to use the original process to get it started again.”

“I just want to know where all that water went,” Fa’ss’th said, poking the floor. “This floor is kind of odd. The’ss’it, swing your pick right here.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, right here.”

The’ss’it spat on his palms, rubbed them together, and took a two-handed grip on the pick. Swinging it mightily overhead, he brought it smashing down on the floor. It stuck firmly into the surface. Grunting and swearing, he managed to wriggle it free again, only to dance backwards in surprise as a jet of fire shot out of the hole he had made.

“Um, I don’t think that’s going to stop,” Fa’ss’th said, pointing to the edges of the hole, which were beginning to glow redly. “Anyone else have any ideas, except to get out of here before something explodes?” They shook their heads. “Let’s get out of here, then.”

They climbed back out the tunnel to the base of the ruined tower. Outside, the water had completely drained away, revealing a lot of mud, tree roots, and submerged blocks of ancient stone. Confused fish flopped in the mud.

“Well, that’s not exactly the result we were looking for,” Barak said.

“Great, I succeeded in making it worse,” Fa’ss’th grumped.

“Sorry, The’ss’it,” Kyrian said.

“It’s okay, I guess,” The’ss’it said, sighing. “We can always move or something. It’s not such a bad outcome if you think about it. You got rid of the water elementals and the demons, and this isn’t bad land. Plus, now we know what was going on.”

“You don’t mind that your swamp isn’t a swamp any more?” Barak asked.

“Well, it’s not the end of the world,” The’ss’it said. “Leastwise I don’t think so. Of course, now those damn farmers are going to try to move back in, but you can’t have everything.”

“I hope the rest of your people will feel the same way,” Kyrian said.

“You realize that all the creatures that live in the swamp will start attacking for food and so forth,” Fa’ss’th cautioned gloomily.

“Then we should go find the tribe and make sure they’re okay,” The’ss’it said.

“So, which way do we go?” Kyrian asked.

“Beats me,” The’ss’it said. “I could ask God if you like.”

“Well, if it helps . . .” Kyrian said after a while. The’ss’it built a small fire, tossed a bunch of herbs into it from one of his pouches, and began dancing around in a circle waving his arms and shouting “huh!” periodically. Then he abruptly stopped.

“God says that way,” The’ss’it announced with finality. They walked through the swamp for several hours, following The’ss’it’s less-than-precise directions.

“Did God tell you how far?” Kyrian asked eventually.

“No, but he said to use a different type of incense next time, this one makes him want to hurl. Phew!” After another hour or so of trudging through the increasingly dry mud, they found two lizardfolk sitting in a tree and peering dubiously at the ground below.

“Hallo,” the first lizard said without preamble.

“Why are you sitting in a tree?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“It seemed prudent. What are you doing here, Fa’ss’th?”

“Well, sadly, I tried to fix the water issue, only to make it worse. So now we are going to warn people because I don’t think it will ever be fixed.”

“Oh,” said the second lizard. “So we can come down, then? We were thinking it might all come flying back at any moment.”

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Kyrian said. The two small lizards jumped to the ground. They were dressed very much like The’ss’it: only a few leather straps to hold necessities. One was armed with a pair of small swords, and the other carried a bow.

“I’m Ve’ss’intorr,” the sword-carrying lizard said, “and this is Marthi’ss. We don’t see other races around here very much.”

“Probably all the swamp, or, well, ex-swamp,” Barak said.

“Quite possible,” Marthi’ss said. Shall I assume you’d like to go meet with the Elder?”

“That’s probably best,” Fa’ss’th said. “People need to know what happened.”

“Come on, we’ll show you the way,” Ve’ss’intorr said. “Really, you’re lucky you found us. You might have run right into the Blackscales if you hadn’t.”

“Blackscales?” Barak asked.

“Yes,” Marthi’ss explained. “They’re another tribe of lizardfolk around here. They’re MUCH bigger than we are, but also stupider so we don’t have much trouble with them. You can ask the Elder about them if you’re curious.”

“Lead on, then,” Fa’ss’th said. They arrived at the lizardfolk village a short time afterwards. The houses, if such they could be called, were all set in platforms in the trees, and the village was surrounded by a veritable forest of sharp stakes buried deep in the mud. A lizard wearing a robe jumped down from the main platform and regarded them all seriously. Fa’ss’th bowed, and Barak and Kyrian did so as well after a second or too.

“Ah, Fa’ss’th, you return, and I see you found The’ss’it, too, how nice.”

The’ss’it grimaced, offended. “Shouldn’t that be the other way around?”

“I know what I said,” the Elder replied mildly. “Now don’t interrupt. I am Xivi’zz, the Elder of the Poison Dusk Tribe.” Xivi’ss extended a claw towards Kyrian. “And what may I call you, young fey?”

“I’m Kyrian, your, um, Elderness.” Xivi’ss patted his hand.

“Very good, very good. And you, human?”

“I am called Barak.”

“You are welcome in the huts of this tribe.”

“I’m grateful,” Kyrian said, “we’ve come a long way to be here.”

“I notice that your arrival was preceded by a rather unusual phenomenon. Were you involved in that at all?”

“Sadly, yes,” Fa’ss’th said. We came to try and help with the water problem, only to make it worse. We found the old wizard’s tower, which had a chunk of crystal growing off the arcane energies. We’ve seen what the same crystal does in other parts of the world, so we removed it. Unfortunately, that didn’t cause the water to return, only drained it faster.”

Xivi’ss waved a claw. “No matter, we had already made up our minds to pack our belongings and quit this place. I am mostly glad that you are still alive and, apparently, in good health. How is your sister? She did not come with you?”

“La’ss’a is on her way to another continent, Maztica. We’re trying to stop a bastard from waging war,” Fa’ss’th said.

“A worthy cause, no doubt,” Xivi’ss said, nodding. “Now, what hospitality may we offer you? I am afraid that we are all a bit busy, but if we can help you have only to ask.”

“Have you ever heard of this belt?” Fa’ss’th said, handing it back to Barak.

“A belt?” Xivi’ss asked. “May I see it?” Barak offered it to the lizard Elder, who examined it in detail. “Turquoise, that’s a foreign stone. You won’t find it around here, it’s imported. These disks appear to be made of silver—” he tasted the metal speculatively—“very poor quality, though, crudely manufactured.”

“Foreign?” Kyrian asked. “Maztican, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” Xivi’ss said. “I’m not familiar with the place, myself.”

“Have you ever seen anything like it before?” Fa’ss’th asked. “We think there are several more we need to find.”

“I’m afraid not,” Xivi’ss said. “Your question would be better posed to the great sages in Halarahh.”

“Where can we find them?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“Go to the city and throw a brick, I should think,” Xivi’ss replied, amused.

“I meant . . . oh, never mind. I guess some rations would be good and a map if you have one.”

“How far is it to Halarahh?” Barak asked.

“Eight or nine days to the northwest on foot, mostly through farmlands, though, so it’s not an arduous trip.”

“That sounds good,” Fa’ss’th said. “We should probably head out soon. I’m not sure how much of a head start the other group has.”

“We were planning to depart tomorrow in any case,” Xivi’ss said.

“Do you have a new home in mind?” Kyrian asked.

“Not at present, but we are resourceful. I have no concerns that we will find something eventually.”

“Oh,” Kyrian said. “Good fortune go with you, then.”

The lizards turned one of the huts over to them and provided them with a selection of food: roots, fruit, and a bowl of choice grubs. Kyrian avoided the grubs and, bored, began wandering around the village and listening in on the various conversations.

“Can I have a word, Fa’ss’th?” he asked, returning to the hut some time later.

“Sure,” the lizard said, chewing on a handful of grubs.

“It looks like your people are moving out, but it seems like a disproportionate amount of their preparation is being spent on making weapons. Arrows, and vials of blue stuff. Do you know what that is? Or what’s going on?”

“Well, we are the Poison Dusk. We specialize in poisons. The blue stuff is probably blue whinnis, it saps the body and if you’re unlucky, down you go.”

“It just seems like a lot of poison arrows for the occasion,” Kyrian continued.

“Well, as I said before, a lot of the creatures that live in this swamp might be hungry and angry about it. Moving out isn’t exactly a safe proposition.”

“They said they were going looking for a new home, and odds are that someone lives just about everywhere,” Barak said.

“I’ll go and see what’s up,” Fa’ss’th said. He wandered off and began hissing at other lizards. After a while he came back.

“Well, apparently the Blackscale tribe has been raiding a lot recently. Leaving the village means no fortifications. The Blackscales are more brutal than we are.”

“Oh,” Kyrian said.

“We could stick around and help the tribe move if you want,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Well, I’d like to help,” Kyrian said. “What about you, Barak?”

“Sure, it shouldn’t take long,” Barak said.

“I’m surprised those ol’ Blackies would be raiding, they must be pretty desperate or something,” The’ss’it said speculatively. “They’re pretty darn stupid, so they don’t farm or anything like that. Mostly they just hunt and fish.”

“I’m going to go find the Elder and offer our help,” Fa’ss’th said. Xivi’ss was surprised by the offer.

“That is extremely generous of you, but you are our guests.”

“Yes, but we sort of got you into this mess,” Fa’ss’th said. “If I didn’t blow up that crystal, you might have had more time to organize.

Xivi’ss nodded. “It is truth. I am concerned that we don’t have enough scouts. If we use the young or the bulk of our goods to a raid, we may be hard pressed to start over somewhere else. It would be best to avoid a battle if possible, really.”

“Wait a minute,” Fa’ss’th said. “HEY BARAK!!!” Xivi’ss covered his earholes protectively. “YOU STILL CAN ASTRAL CARAVAN, RIGHT?!”

“Yup,” Barak said.

“Feel like relocating a bunch of people to take over Nymbus’ realm?”

Barak pondered for a moment, then an almost evil grin spread over his face. “I think I can do that,” he said.

“The power just requires us all to hold hands,” Fa’ss’th explained. “How many people are there, total?”

“Thirty adults and twelve young,” Xivi’ss said promptly.

Fa’ss’th frowned. “Looks like I need to find a mate and help out a bit,” he said. Kyrian stifled a laugh. “So, Elder, how about a hot, steamy jungle with a big lake?”

“It sounds acceptable,” Xivi’ss said.

“Well, if Barak doesn’t mind, we can transport the tribe to this place we know about where they should be safe.”

“Don’t forget Baugetha and Salmede, though,” Barak said.

“I’ll bet we can work something out with them,” Kyrian insisted.

“Right,” Fa’ss’th said. “So, get everyone organized, Xivi’ss, and remind them that they can only bring what they can carry.”

The Elder had all the lizardfolk assembled within an hour, all of them carrying weapons, armor, and assorted goods. Xivi’ss explained the plan and the lizards all seemed to accept it. The idea of traveling to another plane either didn’t concern them, or they didn’t understand it. The’ss’it performed a short ceremony that involved a lot of dancing and shouting to bless the undertaking. Then Barak walked through the group, touching each lizard on the head. He held up his hands and a shimmering curtain of ectoplasm formed around the group, occasioning a few comments of, “ooh, pretty” from the assembled lizards. The curtain descended, and they vanished into the Astral Plane. .

View
Gnomes, Gnomes, Gnomes
In which our heroes really wish they had a handy wall to beat their heads against.

Sam walked out of the nave and past the group, heading once more towards the doors. His expression was grim and he stared at the floor, lost in thought. Elice blinked, startled.

“Wait, Sam!” she called, jogging a few steps after him then turning to regard the group in confusion. “Where is he going?”

“I don’t know,” Olena said, equally perplexed.

The little gnome priestess, Peytan, folded her arms. “Probably to the main temple of Gond, but he doesn’t have to go this instant.”

Sam hesitated at the doors, glanced at Elice, then turned and rejoined the party. “Well, on the up side,” he said, “she’s not making me pay to replace the scroll. On the down side, I have to go FIND a replacement.”

“Right now?” Olena asked, astonished.

“Since she put a geas on me to make sure I perform the task, I think so,” Sam explained.

“You have a bit of leeway if you have other things you need to get done,” Peytan said.

“It can’t be any harder than getting that mask from Sythillis,” Elice said. “I’ll bet the gnomes around here don’t even lock their doors at night. Too bad Deen didn’t come with us.”

Oren gaped at her. “I do not think we’re intended to steal one. There has to be a legitimate method for getting a scroll.”

Elice braced her fists on her hips and regarded the paladin. “Oh yeah? How much money have you got on you?” Oren flushed. “I thought so.” Sam squeezed Elice’s arm gently.

“Peytan tells me to check with the main temple of Gond, near the center of the island.” Sam held up a piece of parchment with a rough map scratched on it.

“Isn’t the usual method some sort of bizarre task?” Demaris asked.

“That’s what I’m assuming, yeah,” Sam said.

“Don’t you want us to come with you, Sam?” Olena asked.

He shrugged. “Well, I just figured, you know, you already did so much to get me here, it was probably up to me to take care of it . . .”

Elice punched him in the shoulder. “You silly. We’re all in this together, you know.”

“She’s right, Sam, don’t be silly,” Olena said. “Besides, we would all end up sitting here waiting for you to come back before we go see the witch anyway.”

“Witch?” Sam asked.

“Oh, right, you missed all that!” Olena said.

“I’m guessing I was just a little dead at the time,” Sam said dryly.

Olena launched into an explanation of their landing with the gnomish villagers and the subsequent near-lynching. Sam sighed heavily and shook his head. Halfway through the presentation, La’ss’a poked her head in the temple and jumped, startled to see Sam up and walking around again. She listened to Olena babble for a few minutes, then cut in with: “Will this help us get a new boat and get off this stupid island?”

“If some evil is at work here, I would think it the task of all right-thinking people to look into it,” Oren said with some asperity.

“Yeah, someone other than us, then,” Elice cut in.

“Well, it’s not a forest, but it’s still nature being affected and that . . . bothers me,” Olena said.

“Yes, but what about the BOAT?” La’ss’a demanded.

Olena shrugged. “I don’t know, but the fisherfolk would owe us a favor . . .” La’ss’a growled irritably.

“We owe her a few thumps if she’s responsible for those sharks, anyway,” Demaris offered.

“All right, look,” Sam said. “Let me go check with the temple first, then we can go have a look at the witch, at least. It beats sitting around here.”

“The temple doesn’t look that far away on the map, maybe a day or two on foot,” Elice said, turning the map over and squinting at the crude scribbles. Oren cleared his throat loudly and everyone turned to look at him.

“I have an idea,” the paladin said. There was a long pause.

“And?” Sam asked, gesturing for Oren to continue. Instead of answering, Oren stepped outside the temple and held up his hands, calling up a brilliant white glow that coalesced into the shape of a massive warhorse. After a moment the glow solidified and the horse turned around, shaking itself and snorting. It tried to eat Oren’s hair and he pushed it away.

“We HAVE to get some rest and healing before, well, before we do anything,” Oren explained, patting the bay horse’s shoulder and beginning to check its tack. “Why don’t you take my warhorse to the temple. It’ll be faster, and we’ll be ready to move out when you get back. I’m sure Folkeir won’t mind,” Oren said to the horse in a coaxing tone of voice. Sam looked up at the saddle uncertainly.

“I guess that would be faster . . .” he said weakly while Folkier eyeballed him. “But I don’t really know how to ride . . .”

Oren smiled encouragingly. “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine. Here, let me give you a boost . . .” Folkier sidled away and regarded the two men suspiciously for a few moments. Then, heaving a deep sigh, the massive horse bent his legs and lay down on the ground. Oren scratched his head. “Well, I guess that works, too.”

Sam approached the horse carefully and climbed into the saddle, fixing his feet in the stirrups and throwing his arms around Folkier’s neck while the animal stood up slowly, one set of legs at a time. Oren grabbed the reins and held them out toward Sam, but Folkeir switched his head in annoyance and swept them out of reach. Giving Oren the hairy eyeball one last time, the warhorse turned his nose toward the road and set off at a jarring trot, Sam hanging on as best he could.

“He’s really very good natured!” Oren shouted after them. Elice covered her mouth with her hand to conceal a smile. Olena hugged Oren delightedly.

“Pity the horse got all the good sense, really,” Demaris remarked under her breath. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’d like some food, a bath, and about three days of sleep. Maybe we can ask the villagers for some provisions.”

The villagers proved more than amenable to the idea, and very soon they’d set out a feast of fruits, vegetables, bread and fish on brightly-colored picnic blankets. Bottles of brandywine were opened, and several gnomes produced accordions and tambourines and started a lively dance.

“I hope Garmon’s crew made it to shore all right,” Olena said, nibbling on a piece of toast.

“I didn’t see much but debris under the water,” La’ss’a said. “I stayed down for a bit while I healed. Stupid psionic disruption. I know the psychic storm has to be given orders . . . it was obviously sent to destroy the ship, not particular people.”

“Then someone sent it?” Olena asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“You said something to Sam on the ship about ‘another one’. You’ve seen this before?”

“Yeah, that’s what happened to your father, that and a big crystal exploding. We were behind an ectoplasmic wall at the time, so we didn’t get a good look at what happened.”

“So who sent it, then?” Demaris asked.

“If I knew for sure, I would have gone after them instead of getting involved in this mess,” La’ss’a said. “I’m assuming it was Sulveig, but we can’t prove it.”

“Well, you know what they say, once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is conspiracy,” Demaris saidt. “If it shows up again, we’ll know it was Sulveig.”

“I hope we have a better idea of how to fight it by then. Ouch,” Olena murmured.

“Why not Sulveig’s boss?” La’ss’a asked. Olena and Demaris looked at each other.

“Sythillis?” Olena ventured. “Isn’t he dead?”

“He wasn’t a psion, either, at least not that I know of,” Demaris added.

“I don’t know,” La’ss’a grumped. “Sulveig isn’t making much sense to me at the moment. Why would he run toward Maztica when he already had one of the keys? Why not go back to Murann?”

“Well, when we catch him, you can ask him,” Olena said.

Sam rode somewhat uncomfortably through the night, eventually arriving outside a large, albeit squat, building with a sign outside helpfully indicating “Temple”. Folkier snorted at the sign and stuck his nose in the air.

“Yeah, well, they’re gnomes, what do you expect?” The warhorse turned to give Sam a look that said, clear as day, “get off before I find something to scrape you off on”. “All right, all right, sheesh,” Sam said and climbed down to the ground.

The main doors of the Temple were wide open, and the interior looked more like a workshop than a proper temple. When Sam looked inside, there was a loud bang and the air was suddenly full of acrid-smelling smoke. He had a vivid flashback to the “improved stealth grapple” a gnome once sold him, failing to mention the tremendous noise it made when fired. He shook his head yet again.

“Phew!” announced a gnome wearing a greasy leather apron as he emerged from the smoke, waving a hand in front of his face. “Well, hello there! What can I help you with?”

“I was sent here to get a scroll,” Sam said.

The gnome’s brow furrowed. “Oh, so you’re not here about the exploding duck?”

“Um, I doubt it, but if it gets me the scroll I need . . .”

“Oh well, I could have sworn someone was supposed to come today and pick up the exploding duck. Maybe that was last week. Anyway, I’m Hertrian Volentrude, I’m the high priest around here. What type of scroll are you looking for? I’ve got lots, although I warn you that magic really isn’t as reliable as some people seem to think. I prefer a good bit of machinery, myself.”

“A resurrection of some sort . . . I kind of used the one from the other temple . . .”

“You did? Why?”

Sam stared at Hertrian for a moment. “Because I was dead?”

“Oh, see, now THAT makes sense. More than what I was thinking, anyway. Wait, wait, was this PEYTAN’S scroll?”

“Um, yes . . .why?”

“Oo,” Hertrian said, scratching the small white beard that adhered to his chin and causing a small cloud of dust. “That’s an ‘spensive spell. Honestly I don’t know what Gond does with all those diamonds, but there’s not much use arguing with Himself when he’s in a mood. I can make you one if you want, but I kind of need . . . compensation. Sorry, kid.”

“So what do I have to do?” Sam asked.

“Weeeeell, I could send you off to do a job, I guess. That’s the usual thing, isn’t it?”

“Traditional, anyway,” Sam said.

“The trouble is, it’s hard to know what to send you to do. This is a peaceful island, not really any monster troubles or invading warlords or typical adventure stuff. Unless you’re a mechanic?”

“No.”

“Too bad, Begloby mashed his flying machine again.”

“I could make sure he never mashes another one . . .” Sam started, then grinned. “Never mind. Any other ideas?”

Hertrian waded through piles of junk to a desk covered in papers. After several moments of digging he returned and handed a piece of paper to Sam. “Here we go. Seems I’ve got a complaint here from the mayor of Fasheezy about a witch terrorizing the countryside. I don’t know what the going rate is for witches, but it seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you say?”

“No sweat. Which way is Fasheezy?”

“It’s just up the road towards the coast. You can’t miss it.”

“Towards the . . . oh. Witch. Right. Why am I not surprised?” Sam rubbed his forehead.

“What?”

“I was just there.”

Olena came buzzing up like an overexcited dragonfly when Sam rode back into the village. “Sam! Did you find another scroll?”

“Well, I got a task, anyway. Apparently there’s a mayor with a witch problem around here.”

“Oh,” Olena said. “Well that’s . . . convenient?”

“Do we know where she lives?” La’ss’a asked, trotting up on her short legs.

“The gnomes said upstream,” Demaris remembered.

“Well, no time like the present, then. We need a ship off this place. Soon.” They hiked upstream, which proved to be quite easy because a well-maintained path ran along beside it. The water trickled along merrily, and it was a pleasant day with only a slight wind and bright, warm sunshine. Within an hour, they could see smoke rising from a small half-timbered cottage set into a shady glen. The roof was thatch, in good repair, and overall the scene was pleasant and homey. The cottage even had a water wheel turning briskly in the stream. As they approached, however, they could smell a harsh chemical stink and see several large vats on the other side of a split rail fence.

“Smells like the place,” Sam said. La’ss’a ducked through the fence to examine the vats and came up short when she encountered a large humanoid figure marching around the yard. She froze, but it ignored her completely. On second glance it wasn’t that human. It looked more . . . gelatinous, and where its large blobby ‘feet’ touched the ground the earth scorched and smoked.

Sam walked toward the door, passing a sign nailed to the fence that read:

KEEP OUT This means YOU!

A second sign, smaller and more dignified, was half-concealed under the first:

Authorized Personnel Only

And a piece of yellowed paper tacked up beside them read:

Posted: Lantan Workman’s Compensation Notice

By the time he reached the door, Sam could hear a repetitive whirring and clacking noise coming from inside the cottage. He reached down and knocked heavily on the door.

“GO AWAY!” shouted an angry feminine voice from inside the building.

“NO!” Sam yelled. There were some banging noises and a moment later the small door flew open, revealing a rather young gnomish woman in brightly colored robes.

“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any!”

“Fair enough,” Sam snapped. “What will you give me to not burn down your house?”

The gnomess’ jaw dropped, but she rallied after a moment, drawing herself up to her full height and waving a finger in the general direction of Sam’s face. “How dare you threaten me!” She began to rattle off a stream of arcane gibberish. Olena gasped and charged forward with Spellreaver. The sword seemed to move of its own accord and struck the gnomish woman, who screamed and fled into the house.

“Stop it!” Sam yelled after her retreating back. “We just want to talk!” There was a loud clang from inside the cottage, then silence. “Why does everyone always resort to violence?”

“Because you threaten to burn their houses down?” Olena ventured.

“I had to say something to get her attention.”

“So what do we do now?” Elice asked, bewildered. Demaris crouched down and peered into the house. The front room was simply a space to leave boots and cloaks. Sam shrugged and followed, edging into the next room, which proved to be a cozy sitting room with a dining room behind it. Small stairs coiled up to a second story. A door in the dining room was still swinging slightly.

“We probably would have heard her running up the stairs,” Olena said, looking around. The four humans, half-fey, and lizard ducked their heads and crossed to the swinging door, which opened into a tidy kitchen. The gnomess peeked nervously out of the pantry.

“Go away and leave me alone!” she squeaked.

“We can’t do that,” Sam said as patiently as he could manage. “We need to talk.”

“It’s those villagers, isn’t it! Why can’t they just leave me alone!”

“I’m not sensing any evil here,” Oren said quietly.

“Maybe because you keep shouting at them?” Sam snapped, beginning to lose his temper.

“I’m trying to run a business here! I never hurt anyone!”

“Still shouting. Stop it.”

“They say you’re poisoning their fish,” Olena said, holding out a healing potion towards the pantry. The gnomess regarded it with deep distrust.

“What? Poisoning? Ooo, those no good rotten smelly stupid crazy . . .”

“Easy, now, that’s what they said,” Olena explained. The gnomess emerged from the pantry and glared at everyone equally.

“I didn’t poison their stupid fish! They hired me to figure out a way to make them grow bigger! This after they boycott my factory and almost put me out of business. I ought to curse them but good. Anyway, who are you people? You’re huge. You haven’t been eating the fish food, have you?”

“Oren, could you . . . I don’t know, heal her a bit?” Olena asked.

“Is he a cleric?” the gnomess demanded.

“Paladin, actually,” Oren said.

“Well . . . all right, but no trying to cop a feel.” There was a brief pause, then Oren and Olena both turned red. Sam shook his head and leaned up against the wall, tapping his fingers against his belt impatiently. Oren put a hand to the gnomess’ forehead and the large ugly gash left by Spellreaver gradually closed. “Anyway, I’m Madam Twell. You aren’t maybe in the market for some textiles, are you?”

“Is that what you’re factory’s for?” Olena asked.

Madam Twell grinned proudly. “Yep. Fine woven cloth and leather goods, lowest prices you’ll ever find! That’s because of my Secret Manufacturing Process.”

“Something you use a big gloopy construct for?” La’ss’a asked snidely. Madam Twell deflated a bit.

“Oh, did I leave it out in the yard again? Drat.” The gnome tromped across the floor to Sam and extended a hand. “Sorry about trying to curse you, earlier, but I was only going to turn you into a newt. You’d have gotten better eventually.”

Sam looked at her dubiously, then sighed and shook hands. The gnome’s tiny fist vanished in his palm.

“So what is this about growing fish larger, and why do the villagers think that they’re poisoned?” La’ss’a asked.

“It’s a long story,” Twell said. “Why don’t we have some tea and I’ll tell you all about it. Potboiler! Tea!” she shouted, making everyone jump. The small iron stove in the corner of the kitchen suddenly sprouted six arms and began running around, grabbing the teakettle with water, arranging cups on a tray, slicing bread . . . all with amazing speed and dexterity. Madam Twell grinned again. “Cookery golem, my own invention. I thought, who wants a great big iron golem stomping around the place and smashing the furniture, but this one can cook a seven-course meal for ten people in fifteen minutes!”

“That’s . . . um . . . impressive?” Olena offered. The tea tray was deposited on the table with a plate of sandwiches and a basket of hot rolls with butter and jab. Madam Twell poured the tea and made herself comfortable at the table.

“Well, it’s like this,” the gnome said after sipping her tea and sighing. “The fishermen down in the village all used to work in this factory. Back when my father still ran the place, that is. About three years ago he took ill and had to stop running the business for health reasons, so I came back from Faerun to help out.

“You would not believe how inefficient the place was when I got here. He could barely afford to keep food on the table, payrolls were in arrears, we were in debt to practically everyone on the island. So, I set out to introduce some cost-saving measures, a few process improvements. But these villagers . . . they are so stupid and superstitious here about magic. They REFUSED, just refused, to work in the factory with my golems. I don’t get it, myself. There’s machinery all over the place here, who cares if it’s powered by magic or clockwork! I use both! Hmph. The fools almost bankrupted me before I managed to turn the entire operation over to golems. They decided they were going to take up fishing, of all things.”

“Were they hungry?” Olena asked innocently.

“I don’t know, but they weren’t very good at it and their catch was very poor. One of them came to me surreptitiously and asked if there was any way I could help. So I tried to figure out how to make the fish bigger. Maybe it had some odd side effects or something.”

“There are some really big sharks out there, anyway,” Olena said.

“Really? So it worked?”

“What worked?” La’ss’a asked.

“My growth formula, of course. I wasn’t sure it would. It’s not like I could go down to the village and check.”

“You just poured a potion into the ocean to grow fish?” La’ss’a pressed.

“It was a science experiment,” Madam Twell affirmed.

Demaris frowned. “Big predators eat smaller fish and get a larger dose of the potion . . . your giant sharks may have denuded the ocean of the fish the villagers were eating.”

La’ss’a frowned. “So the potion may not affect the smaller fish at all.”

“Silly question,” Sam broke in, “but was it the Mayor that asked you to invent the growth formula?”

“You mean Gibsi the Foreman? Yeah, it was him.”

Sam groaned. “No wonder he’s so anxious to get rid of you. Was he expecting to take over the factory from your father, by any chance?”

“I don’t think so. I think he likes his new job being boss of the village better, anyway.”

“He didn’t mention that part,” Olena said. “Not even when Elice was . . . helping.”

“He never came back here to explain?” La’ss’a asked.

“Well, a few villagers did storm up here and try to burn down my house last month, but the golems scared them off.”

“I bet he said ‘Something strange! Must be the witch’s fault!’” Olena guessed.

“Maybe,” Madam Twell conceded. “Personally, I wouldn’t credit him with thinking ahead that far. Or at all, really.”

“Is it possible to shrink the fish?”

“Permanently, you mean? If you only want a few minutes, I think I have a scroll around here somewhere. Oh, wait, that only works on humanoids. Never mind.”

“Maybe you should just come down to the village with us and explain to the villagers directly,” Sam suggested.

“And get lynched? No THANK you.”

“We could protect you.”

“Oh yeah?” Madam Twell asked, regarding Sam skeptically. “What’s in it for you?”

“We get our own scroll,” La’ss’a said shortly.

“Oh. So you’re not just doing this from the goodness of your various hearts, I take it?”

“Maybe some of us,” Sam said, “The rest of us are a bit more practical.”

“Good, nice to see some self-interest around the place. If it will get the villagers off my case, let’s go talk to them.”

Olena’s face fell. “That’s awfully . . . mercantile. Still, if there’s enough gratitude to get us a ship out of here . . .”

“Ship?” Madam Twell demanded.

“We were shipwrecked here.”

“Yeah, and some of us got eaten by giant sharks,” Sam muttered.

“REEEEly,” Madam Twell said, rubbing her chin. “Where were you bound.”

“Maztica.”

“REEEEly. I hear there are big opportunities there for entrepreneurial types.”

“Does that interest you?” Olena asked.

“Well, yeah, I’m getting sick of the idiots on this rock. And humans buy a lot more cloth. Plus I could expand, export to the mainland . . . exotic goods, you know. You see, it just so happens that I HAVE a ship. Well, a prototype, anyway. It’s a mechanical ship. I’d like to see how it handles on an ocean voyage, but they say there are some big monsters out there, so I didn’t want to try going all by myself. They’re bound to start dismantling my boat in the middle of the ocean or something.”

“I’m getting a baaaad feeling about this,” Sam said quietly.

“Oh pish tosh,” Madam Twell said. “It’s perfectly safe, not like that underwater boat that maniac Ahgreef designed. THAT was a disaster. Let’s make a deal.”

“We can at least give it a try,” Olena said.

“Right!” Madam Twell announced, shooting to her feet. “Have you got any rope?”

“Rope? What for?” La’ss’a asked.

“Well, I’m figuring we should give the villagers a good show. You tie me up, parade me around, give them some spiel about how you caught the evil witch and you’re going to take me off to be punished, then I pack up the factory and we split. You protect my boat from the monsters, and I’ll get you to Maztica. Well, barring unforeseen circumstances.”

“Um . . .” Olena said.

“I know this sounds like a lot of FUN,” Sam said sarcastically, “but why don’t we just . . . leave?”

“Well, I suppose we COULD do that,” Madam Twell said, looking disappointed. “If you wanted to be boring.”

Sam’s expression blackened. “You know what? Fine. Have your show. I have to go back to the Temple anyway,” he said and ducked out the door. Elice hurried after and caught up with him on the path. She walked beside him, watching him glare at the dirt. At first she was hard pressed just to keep up, but after an hour or so he seemed to work off his irritation and slowed.

“You know,” Elice ventured, “It will probably take them a good long while to get organized. We don’t have to hurry.”

“You’re assuming everything will go according to plan,” Sam snapped. “At this rate, we’ll come across a new chasm, a group of merry bandits, and a demon that speaks in rhyme. And the crew will get arrested and have to be rescued, all in a hurry.”

Elice sighed and looked away.

“What?” Sam asked after a moment. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, nothing really, I guess. You’ve just seemed upset. And frustrated. I want to help, but I’m not sure how.”

Sam sighed. “How long have we known each other? Five years? Six? A long time, anyway. My life used to be simple. Hectic, but simple. Steal, run, spend. Simple.”

Elice nodded encouragingly.

“Then I met Nymbus and life was simple. Wake up, study, practice, repeat. I LIKED Nymbus, I looked up to him.”

“And now?”

“Now I find out that he’s some crazed ex-deity who creates whole worlds populated with sentient inhabitants, then abandons them to have a kid with is his own sister. I started out on this whole revenge thing, which coincides neatly with a defend my homeland from foreign invaders thing, except that I don’t really like my homeland that much and the revenge thing is looking kind of hollow, since it looks like Nymbus was pretty much a scumbag who was planning to take over the world and systematically tortured his own daughter. AND I can’t even take a freaking boat ride without something going wrong! And then, when I try to work things out, everyone screams at me and won’t LISTEN!” Sam shut his eyes, breathing hard, then resumed walking again. Elice reached out and tugged on his arm gently. “So, I’m a little frustrated. Thanks for listening,” he said harshly.

“I’m sorry,” Elice said. Sam reached out and draped his arm over her shoulders, squeezing her against his side.

“It’s okay. You’ve been great. I can’t even say how much worse this would have been without you.”

Elice smiled. “I may even know how you feel . . . a little bit, at least. I’ve spent the past six months working for the Shadow Thieves, under protest, and fighting in pits so Tom could make money gambling. I feel lucky to be alive, but man, I hated every minute of it.”

“Under protest?” Sam asked sharply.

“Well, Tom bribed the guards to get me out of prison, I didn’t exactly volunteer. Becoming a pit fighter wasn’t really one of my personal development goals. But he made it clear it was that or go to the block with everyone else.”

Sam was silent for a long moment. “It’s probably best I didn’t know that at the time, or things would have been even more complicated.”

“Aw, and they say chivalry is dead,” Elice joked.

“Maybe I’m just a really bad man,” Sam said, grinning crookedly, “but I like to have an excuse handy?”

Elice laughed and felt Sam relax a bit more. “What I was trying to say, though, is that I’ve learned that it’s rare for people to be all one thing. If you expect them to be, you just make it harder for yourself. Nymbus was good to you, right? Maybe it’s best if you just remember that and don’t worry too much about what else he may have been.”

“Maybe,” Sam said, sighing. “Maybe he really did change and wasn’t that guy any more.”

“It’s possible. Most people would look at us and just say: smugglers, they’re no good. But we’re not just the one thing.”

“Oh yeah? What else are we?”

Elice inserted her ankle between Sam’s feet and pushed him over into the stream, then jumped after him. “Wet!” It took them some time to dry off.

The others, with Madam Twell now in tow, returned to the village some time later. They discovered Captain Garmon with most of his crew being harangued by Mayor Gibsi.

“Captain!” Olena called. “Good to see you again!”

“Um, yes,” Garmon said. Gibsi was staring open-mouthed at Madam Twell. The gnome sorceress cleared her throat dramatically.

“Oh WOE is ME, for I have been CAPTURED and face a DIRE FATE . . .”

Olena stared blankly.

“I said I faced a DIRE FATE!!” Twell bellowed.

“Um, Silence, you Miscreant!” Olena said, jolting to attention. “As you can see, we’ve defeated your witch! She comes with us now to face JUSTICE!!” La’ss’a groaned and covered her face with her claws. Oren just looked embarrassed, and Demaris tried to conceal a coughing fit. After a long pause, there was a smattering of applause from the gathered villagers.

“We’ve, um, we’ve also made sure that your fish problem is over,” Olena added.

“You, you can’t do that!” Gibsi squeaked.

“We jolly well can! Suck it!” Madam Twell declared. Olena froze again.

“Anyway, we thank you for your hospitality,” La’ss’a said hurriedly.

“But, but . . .” the Mayor sputtered.

“We’ll . . . we’ll just be off now,” La’ss’a continued, dragging Olena and Madam Twell back toward the path. Garmon and his crew followed quickly. A last “But . . .” trailed after them.

“Did you see that!?” Olena squealed ecstatically. “I liked! Did you see it! I LIED!”

Oren winced. “Um, yes.”

“Oh, I’m not going to make a habit of it,” she said, backtracking hurriedly. “It’s just, you know, nice to be sure that I could! Sorry about the ‘miscreant’,” she continued, “But I forgot my line.”

“No, no, that was fine,” Madam Twell said magnanimously. She led them to a side path that ended on the shore of a small lake where a small shed stood. After scrabbling around in the weeds for some time, she pulled a lever. The roof of the shed ratcheted back, revealing a sleek black shape floating in the water. “Let’s load up.”

Garmon stared at the ship. “Oh HELL no.”

“I was afraid of that,” La’ss’a said grimly.

“It’s all right,” Madam Twell said. “It doesn’t take much of a crew. Now help me with these boxes.”

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Into the Swamp
Our heroes teleport to the Swamp of Ahklaur and make some interesting discoveries.

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The Hall of the Cowled Wizards was a shambles. Scorch marks covered the walls and the air was filled with the stench of ozone. Fa’ss’th looked around, worried.

“I think I have a spell they need,” he said. “Prestidigitation.”

“Anyone here?” Kyrian called. A set of double doors on the left side of the hall opened and someone peeked out. The doors led into a mostly-intact office where a bearded man in wizard’s robes was supervising some students in dismantling delicate magical equipment.

“Yes, can I help you?” the man asked.

“We need a group teleport to Halruaa,” Fa’ss’th explained. “And it appears you need some cash for rebuilding . . . lucky coincidence.”

The man smiled, amused. “Fortunate indeed. Where in Halruaa, exactly?” He gestured to one of the students. “Go and fetch Zuula for me, will you? I am Forlan Kyerki, the leader of this establishment.”

“A village known as I’ss’th’ss’nn’k should do,” Fa’ss’th said. Forlan sat behind his desk, and after a few moments a drow woman appeared.

“You sent for me?” she asked.

“Yes, these adventurers need to go to Halruaa. Have you ever been there?”

Zuula shook her head. “No.”

Forlan grimaced. “We can teleport you there, but I have to warn you that your arrival may be somewhat . . . approximate.”

“That means you might want to hold your breath,” Fa’ss’th said. “It is a swamp, after all.” Zuula took out a box of colored chalks and went into the main hall, where she began drawing a complex diagram on the floor.

“It beats walking,” Kyrian said wearily.

“If you have waders, now’s the time to put them on,” Fa’ss’th said, grinning.

“I’ve never teleported before,” Kyrian said nervously. “Anything I should know?”

Fa’ss’th rolled his eyes. “You just teleported when we traveled through the Astral Plane. Same difference.”

After an hour, Zuula completed the arcane diagram. Forlan picked up a small glass sphere containing some sparkling dust and walked around the diagram, chanting. He hurled the sphere at the ground and the dust exploded into a glittering cloud. Zuula backed away, coughing.

“There you are,” Forlan said, and held a hand out. Fa’ss’th handed him a bag of coins and regarded the diagram for a moment. The lizard took a deep breath and jumped into the diagram. He disappeared with a soft pop. Barak followed him stolidly, then Kyrian and The’ss’it.

They appeared on a small, marshy island in what did, in fact, appear to be a swamp. Dark trees drooped, their roots vanishing into black water that appeared bottomless. It was very warm, and the humidity pressed down with almost physical force. The only sounds were the occasional drip of water and the perpetual whine of insects.

“Does this look like it?” Kyrian asked.

“Um, yep, this is a swamp,” Fa’ss’th said. “By the way, if you see lizards bigger than me, like ten times bigger, be nice. Dinosaurs can be herbivores. The dragons should leave us alone for the most part.” Barak closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Well, there’s no help for it, let’s have a look!” The’ss’it said and jumped off the island into the water. After a moment he popped back up, chewing. “Ooh, leeches, yum!” Kyrian stepped off the island tentatively, wondering how deep the water was. He promptly sank to his chest in disgusting black ooze. Something moved in the water, but by the time he’d turned around it was gone.

“There’s something in here!” he squeaked.

Barak reached out with his spear and began prodding the muck around the island. He produced some horrible squelching noises and released a lot of foul-smelling bubbles, but after a while he located what seemed to be a large stone block under only a few inches of mire. Kyrian grabbed some tree roots and managed to free himself from the sucking mud as Barak stepped cautiously onto the stone block.

“Perhaps we should follow this road,” Barak said, poking around a bit more with his spear.

Fa’ss’th clawed his way up a tree and peeked his head out of the leaves. He looked around, then lowered himself carefully back to the ground. “What road?”

“This road. It looks like someone laid stones here. Let me guess, there are no roads, even old submerged ones, in your swamp?”

“Submerged roads? Maybe, there are a lot of old ruins in the swamp, mostly infested with demons or pissed off elementals. There is something roughly southwest of here, though.”

“Let’s go check it out,” Kyrian said.

The’ss’it clambered up on the road and set off, feeling his way as he went. They walked in a roughly southern direction for a long time, how long, exactly, they weren’t sure. Progress was slow and it was difficult to tell time in any case. In the lead, The’ss’it abruptly stopped and hauled out his pick.

“Did you hear that?”

“Stand still,” Fa’ss’th whispered, pointing out a V cutting through the water. The’ss’it began praying quietly, calling on Ubtao for protection and strength. After a moment, the creature, whatever it was, dove under the water and vanished.

“What was that?” Kyrian whispered. Fa’ss’th dug up some mud and tossed it over the side of the road. It hit the water with a “bloop” noise. There was a faint rumble, barely audible, and an enormous slimy form erupted from the water, baring yellow teeth beneath a long, pointed green nose. It reached clawed arms towards Kyrian and tried to pull him into the water, but he fended it off with his swords. Fa’ss’th fired a crystal shard at the troll while The’ss’it yowled and whacked at it with his pick, tearing a hole in the rubbery green flesh. The hole immediately began to close of its own accord.

Barak cursed under his breath and shot a fiery bolt as several more trolls climbed out of the water and attacked, one catching the human across the arm with a claw and sending him reeling.

Fa’ss’th threw fiery bursts, pushing the trolls back, while Barak held his arms and directed more flaming bolts at whichever monster seemed most injured. The trolls closed in around The’ss’it, who scrambled backwards, trying to heal the great rents left by their claws. Kyrian tried to help The’ss’it, distracting the trolls momentarily. Barak and Fa’ss’th dispatched two of the trolls and Barak ran through the mud, slipping and sliding, to heal The’ss’it as best he could. One of the trolls knocked Fa’ss’th to the ground, and Barak struggled over to heal him as well. The human winced in pain as he absorbed the lizard’s injuries and slumped to the ground. Fa’ss’th squawked in horror and sent more fire at the trolls, finally dispatching the monsters.

“That was a good fight!” The’ss’it announced. He began praying loudly to Ubtao and cast healing magic over Barak, who groaned and rolled over. Several spells later, The’ss’it announced, “Tha’ts all I got. Might be a good idea to find a safe place to camp for a while.”

“I’m all up for that,” Fa’ss’th said. “I’ve seen enough mud for one day.”

“Maybe the trolls have a lair nearby,” Kyrian mused.

“Yeah,” The’ss’it said, “Underwater, most likely. We could climb a tree, I suppose . . .”

“Actually . . .” Fa’ss’th said and pulled a rope out of his pack. He said arcane words and the rope shot into the air, held up by nothing. Fa’ss’th pulled a crystalline snake out of his pocket and set it in the water, then began climbing the rope. At the top, he disappeared. Barak, The’ss’it, and Kyrian followed to find themselves in a small pocket of magical space. They cleaned themselves up as best they could and rested through the night.

In the morning, they climbed back down to the road. Fa’ss’th pointed across the water. “The pit of bones is over there, if we want to search it.”

“Pit of bones?” Barak asked.

“The troll lair.”

“I’ll do it,” The’ss’it said and dove into the water. After several long minutes he returned carrying a waterproof scroll case, a potion bottle, and a large metal shield. “There’s a bunch of weapons and armor down there, too, but I don’t think it’s worth bringing up. I doubt I can swim carrying the heavy plate, and it’s pretty yukky anyway.”

“I suppose,” Kyrian said. “Let’s see what else is down there.” The only other useful items turned out to be a small box full of gems and coins and two flasks of what appeared to be water. Fa’ss’th unrolled the scrolls, examined them, and handed one to The’ss’it.

“Divine,” he said. “I can’t use it. This shield and potion are magic, too. Can anyone use the shield?”

“I can use it for a canoe,” The’ss’it said.

“We may as well drag it along until we can sell it or something,” Fa’ss’th commented. The path continued winding through the swamp, and several times they were forced to climb on or around trees that had sprouted between the stones. The road appeared to predate the swamp itself. Finally, they reached the remains of a massive stone tower. Vegetation, age, and neglect had sundered the stones, but a square hole led down into the stone foundation. The’ss’it prayed to Ubtao and his pick began to glow, revealing that the hole led to an underground passage, mysteriously free of water.

“Shall we go in?” The’ss’it didn’t wait for an answer, he just jumped down into the passage. “It’s like a spiral staircase, I guess,” he said. Kyrian followed him below.

Barak looked at Fa’ss’th. “I assume you know nothing about a stone tower in your home swamp?”

“Not really,” Fa’ss’th said. “Stone buildings in a swamp usually doesn’t work out too well. The only story I know would be the freaky wizard Akhlaur. He made the swamp, somehow, by messing around with conjuration magic hereabouts. His towers are supposed to still be around here somewhere.”

“Well, maybe he left something behind here that we can use,” Barak said.

Below, The’ss’it came to an abrupt halt. He winked at Kyrian and held a claw to his lips. Then he screamed, loudly and horribly.

Barak blinked. “Maybe we should hurry.” Fa’ss’th jumped down into the hole and the two of them trotted down the stairs, to find Kyrian and The’ss’it waiting in the hallway. The’ss’it promptly flung himself on the ground and began rolling back and forth, kicking his little feet.

“I don’t know what happened!” Kyrian gasped. “He just stopped and held a claw to his lips, then he screamed, and now this!”

“A HA HA HA HA HA!” The’ss’it bellowed. Fa’ss’th glared and showed him the pointy end of his spear.

“Are you quite finished?” the wizard demanded. The’ss’it waggled a claw at him.

“Don’t be like that, sister’s husband’s cousin. You just don’t want to admit that I GOT you.” The’ss’it heaved himself to his feet and began walking again, still chuckling. Kyrian grimaced.

“Family,” he said, knowing who The’ss’it really got.

The stone corridor passed many rooms full of nothing but slime and decay. Finally, the passage came to an end at another set of stairs leading downwards. They looked odd: smooth, transparent, slightly squishy. Like gelatin. In fact, the entire hallway leading down looked to have been carved from gelatin. Fa’ss’th stared.

“Some spell is holding the water there, in a semi-immobile state.”

“The stairs are just force holding out the water?” Barak asked. Kyrian tested the first step. It gave slightly, like walking on a mattress, but held his weight.

“Maybe,” Fa’ss’th said. “I don’t recognize the spell itself.” The’ss’it clambered awkwardly down the stairs, his claws making little ripples in the water.

Barak sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”

The watery corridor led to a large, circular room carved out of the water. In the center of the room a globe of water floated in midair, enclosing a human skeleton in rotten wizard’s robes. Silver glinted at the skeleton’s waist.

“Any idea what happens if we pierce that bubble?” Barak asked. Kyrian concentrated, manifesting a power.

“I’m looking into the past,” he said. “I see a much larger chamber, a stone vault open to the sky. There’s a wizard here. He puts on a silver and turquoise belt. He’s casting a spell . . . it’s very complicated. Water rushes in from all directions . . .he stands on it, it lifts him up. He’s laughing . . .

“I see strange creatures surrounding him now. Blue skin, pointy skulls. They also stand on the water. One of them gestures, and the water erupts. The wizard begins to drown. It gestures again, and the water settles into a room-shaped bubble. Then the creatures leave along the corridor.” Kyrian sagged. “So, what does that mean? Don’t wear the belt? Or don’t cast the spell?”

“Those creatures sounded like Chacs, they’re Maztican water spirits,” Fa’ss’th said. “I would say the spell is what caused the issue, based on the way you described it. The belt was probably a power booster or a protective item.”

“Then we should take it,” Kyrian said.

“No. I’m still hurt, there could be a trap here of some kind. It’s not like water elementals are easy to fight.”

The’ss’it snorted. “I can heal you, if that’s all that’s worrying you.”

Barak waved a hand abruptly. “Tie some rope around me, I’ll go in and grab the wizard and you can pull me out if there’s problems.” Fa’ss’th dug out his rope again and Barak tied it around his waist. The’ss’it prayed to Ubtao and grabbed the rope, bracing as well as he could. Kyrian and Fa’ss’th followed suit. Barak pushed his hands against the globe of water. It resisted for a moment, then parted, allowing him to step into the water. He took a deep breath and pushed forward. His hand touched the skeleton and the bubble burst, the water falling to the floor and draining away. Barak found himself standing in the center of the room holding slimy bones, which promptly fell apart.

“Ick,” he announced, taking the belt and shaking the bones off. “Any magic?” Fa’ss’th shook his head.

“Screw it,” Barak announced, and put the belt on.

“Looks good on you,” Kyrian remarked. The watery surface of the room began to ripple like a lake in a high wind. The top of the room opened up and they could see a ceiling far above, a mass of bluish crystal glowing in sunlight. The sides of the room peeled away until they were left standing on a tall column of water. It gradually descended, leaving them on the floor of a high stone vault littered with magical paraphenalia.

“Huh,” The’ss’it said. Fa’ss’th picked up a scroll case and leafed through it. His eyes bugged out.

“Powerful wizard. VERY powerful wizard.”

“That looks like the problem right there,” Barak said, pointing to the underside of the massive crystal above.

“Yeah,” Fa’ss’th said. “But what do we do with it?”

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Smoke on the Water
In which our heroes suffer through a shipwreck and find they've washed up on an island of fools.

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“Land ho!” the lookout shouted. Sam, Elice, and La’ss’a looked up from the deck of the ship. The shoreline of, presumably, Lantan was visible as a pale smear on the horizon, with several dark blotches that appeared to be costal villages. Garmon began shouting orders and the sailors hustled to swing the sails around. The Starless Sky creaked in as she began to come about, a maneuver that the man at the wheel fought furiously.

“We have to be careful,” Garmon explained to Olena. “There’s a killer current that circles the island. It’s very easy to be swept onto rocks or miss landfall entirely.” Further along the deck, Demaris leaned precariously over the rail and scowled at the water.

“Wow, look at the size of those sharks!” Elice said, pointing. Dark streamlined shapes, each at least thirty feet long, circled beneath the ship, feeding on the fish attracted to the bilges.

“Is that what you meant by killer current?” Sam asked, raising his voice.”

“Not exactly,” the Captain said. “I’ve never seen sharks that big before, I wonder what they find to eat around here that makes them grow so much.”

Demaris sniffed, still scowling. “Can anyone else smell that?”

Olena wrinkled her nose. Beneath the normal sea smells of brine and seaweed, there was a noticeable alchemical tang to the water. “What is that?” she asked.

“Are the sharks a danger to us?” Sam asked. Demaris shrugged.

“As long as we don’t try swimming with them, probably not. Sharks aren’t usually capable of attacking ships. Their teeth aren’t right.”

“Captain!” the lookout bellowed. “There’s a . . . a storm approaching?” Everyone turned to look. Dark clouds had formed, seemingly from nothing, a mile or so off the port side of the ship. They swirled together and the sea bubbled upwards, feeding water into the roiling mass. Greenish light flickered within the cloud, like ominous lightning inside a thunderhead. All at once it burst forward, directly towards the ship, it’s passage so rapid that it left a deep furrow in the water behind it.

“Are storms like that . . . common in these waters?” Olena asked a bit timidly.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life,” Garmon said grimly. “Furl the sails! It’s going to be a bad blow!”

“Can you feel that?” La’ss’a asked Sam. Psionic energy sheeted into the air around the cloud, making the hair on the back of Sam’s neck stand up. “It’s a psionic storm! Like the one that attacked the crystal and got us into this mess! Too bad we never got any proper information on what it is or how to fight it . . .”

A bolt of obsidian power formed in Sam’s hand and he hurled it at one of the sharks below. “If we wind up having to swim for it, I’m not dealing with those things,” he announced, sending more black bolts after it. A cloud of black blood billowed like smoke in the water and the sharks dove into the darkness below. Olena, Oren, and La’ss’a prepared themselves to fight. Moments later the storm was upon them. Oren fired his bow at the cloud. The arrow slowed in midair as though striking thick jelly, then whirled away on the wind.

A bolt of green lightning erupted from the depths of the crowd and blew a smoking hole in the deck of the ship. Demaris ducked out of the way as Sam sent a black bolt towards the center of the seething mass. Olena’s wings buzzed as she struggled into the wind, thrusting with Cyrvisnea’s massive sword. She felt as though she hit something at the core. Dark fists sprouted and pummeled her, sending her flying through the air, out of control.

“I’m not sure we can fight this thing effectively!” Demaris shouted as Oren sent another hopeful arrow towards the storm. “We may be better off taking our chances with the sharks!”

“I hate to point this out,” Sam said, dark power surging as he snatched soul arrows from the very air, “but if we go in the water, it’s still going to be here with us.”

“If it’s after us, getting off the ship will just mean that it follows us,” La’ss’a said.

“If it’s not after us, we may have a chance to escape.”

“I am NOT leaving my ship!” Garmon bellowed, struggling with the wheel. Elice made her way to the rail, where she began helping the crew lower one of the boats. Sam hurled another bolt at the cloud, blasting a streamer of mist away from it.

“Where’s your lightning now!” Sam shouted gleefully. “What, you can only zap an old man?” The cloud charged him, knocking him back across the deck. Now that it was in range, La’ss’a leaped onto it, clawing and biting as best she could. Demaris swung her staff uselessly and green light flickered once more within the cloud, bursting forth in a ferocious wave. The rigging burst into flame and the main mast splintered, crashing to the deck. Sam, La’ss’a, Demaris and Oren continued to engage the cloud, grimly.

“The boats are in the water, come on!” Elice yelled from the rail, waving a hand. There was a splintering crash. Massive, jagged rocks loomed up beside the ship, and there was a terrible grating sound as the hull scraped along the bottom. The storm slammed its enormous fists into the deck, shaking the ship violently.

Elice squeaked in alarm as she lost her balance and fell overboard. Sam turned his back to the storm, charged the opposite rail, and dove after her, grabbing a trailing rope on the way down. It yanked painfully at his arm but held. He watched as one of the boats tossing alongside the ship was crushed to splinters against another rock. Treading water, Elice grabbed Sam and the rope.

“You can leave the ship on a boat or over my shoulder,” Olena told Garmon, “but you’re not going down with it!” The Captain looked shocked and allowed himself to be dragged away towards the rail. Oren helped the Captain climb down the rope ladder while Demaris and La’ss’a continued to attack the cloud as best they could. La’ss’a gathered energy around herself and sheered away another trailer of mist. Lighting erupted for a third time and Demaris staggered away, smoke pouring from her clothing, her exposed skin blistering from the heat. She bumped up against the rail and half jumped, half fell into the water below. Cursing the salt water in her burns, she grabbed the side of a longboat and hung on.

Sam braced his legs against the side of the ship and began hauling himself and Elice upwards, ignoring the pain in his arm. Elice gasped as an enormous mouth full of triangular teeth burst out of the water and clamped down on Sam’s torso. She freed her two-bladed sword from her back and poked the shark in the gills.

“No! Leave me! Get in the boat, Elice!” Sam yelled, carving the shark in the face.

“Shut up, you idiot!”

Left alone on the deck, La’ss’a decided it was time for the better part of valor and jumped overboard. She swam downwards quickly, avoiding the rocks, and concentrated on healing her own wounds. She could see the dark shape of the shark nearby. Sighing bubbles, she began to swim in that direction.

Olena hovered over the water, whacking the shark repeatedly with her sword. “Let him go!” she shouted. It writhed in pain at the great gashes in its hide and worked its jaws, swallowing Sam whole. Then it dove and began swimming away. Elice shrieked in horror. Oren reached over the side of the landing boat and hauled her out of the water. She pounded him on the chest, bruising her hand on his armor.

“Your bow, where is it?!” Elice demanded. Demaris grabbed Oren’s bow, bracing her feet against the heaving deck. Fighting the too-heavy draw, she aimed at the rapidly disappearing bulk of the shark and let fly with an arrow. It must have struck something vital, because the shark thrashed one final time and went still, floating belly-up on the surface of the water. Olena dove down and hacked its guts open, pulling Sam free. She forced his mouth open and poured a potion down his throat, but the liquid simply leaked from his mouth. Bringing the boat alongside, Oren reached out a hand towards her.

“Is he dead?” Olena asked.

“Worry about it later,” Demaris barked. “We have to move quick, otherwise we’ll miss the shore! Look!” The current continued to push at them, swirling around and away from the island with terrible strength. “Have we got everyone? Where’s La’ss’a?”

“I didn’t see her,” Olena said, seizing an oar. “But she can swim better than any of us.”

Slowly and painfully, they rowed for shore, making landfall not far from what appeared to be a small fishing village. Small in every sense of the term; the tiny dwellings were not suited for anyone human-sized. Gnomes came running from all directions and gathered in a crowd around them. One of the gnomes, a white-haired fellow in colorful clothes wearing a large gold pendant, pushed to the front.

“Hail, travelers!” he announced in fine speechmaking fashion. “Welcome to Fasheezy! I am Mayor Gibsi! How may I assist you!” The gnome seemed utterly oblivious to their bedraggled condition.

“Do you have a cleric in residence with the power to bring back the dead?” Olena asked.

“Dead?!” Gibsi squeaked, startled. “Who’s dead?” The entire crowd took several steps backwards.

“One of our friends ran afoul of one of the monstrous sharks out there . . .”

“Damn that witch!” the Mayor bellowed, shaking his fist at the sky dramatically.

“Witch?” Olena asked, puzzled, looking at Oren, who shrugged.

The Mayor ignored her and addressed the crowd. “All right, you lot, get the torches, sickles, and pitchforks . . .”

“What witch?” Olena asked. “Hold on a moment . . .”

One of the gnomes in the back of the crowd raised a hand tentatively. “Um, this is a fishing village, sir, we don’t have sickles and pitchforks.” The Mayor thrust his hands skyward again, waving them in frustration.

“Then get fishing rods and nets! Do I have to do all the thinking around here?!”

“HEY!!” Olena bellowed. The Mayor turned around and glared at her.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to wait.”

“Wait for what? What in the Treefather’s name is going on here?!”

The Mayor turned back to the crowd. “Does anyone know any good mob chants? Anyone? No? Well, just shout, er, watermelon or something, it’ll be the same from a distance anyway.”

“Are they organizing a lynch mob?” Demaris croaked.

“I don’t know,” Olena said helplessly. “Are all gnomes like this?”

Slowly and carefully, Elice climbed out of the boat, picked the Mayor up bodily, and held him in front of her face. In a shockingly calm voice, she pronounced, “If you don’t tell me what the HELL is going on here RIGHT NOW, I am going to FEED YOU your OWN EYEBALLS.” Gibsi squeaked in alarm and Elice shook him. “NOW!”

“You’d better do what she says,” Olena said helpfully.

“Um, um, um, there’s an evil witch that lives up the creek from here! She’s been poisoning the fish, um, um! This is the last straw!”

“Why would she do that?” Olena asked. The Mayor rolled his eyes.

“Because she’s EVIL. Duh.” One of the gnomes in the crowd held up a hand.

“She uses magic to build all kinds of infernal contraptions,” he said.

“All right,” Olena said. “Why don’t you let us handle this, then?”

Gibsi scowled and Elice shook him again, eliciting another squeak. “No, no, no, you need a mob for a job like this. We’ve been practicing! We’re almost professionals!”

“I’m fairly certain an evil witch calls for a band of experienced adventurers, not a bunch of fishermen,” Olena said severely.

“But . . . but . . . oh very well.”

“Give us first crack at her, at least,” Olena urged.

“Do you mind if we tag along?” Gibsi asked hopefully.

“Just don’t start anything until we tell you,” Olena said.

“We don’t need to be fighting any witches, evil or otherwise, in our condition,” Demaris said. “We need rest.”

“You’re right, of course,” Olena said. “Do you have a place where we can rest up?”

“Well, there’s a temple of Gond up the road if you want, but between you and me they’re a bit crazy there,” the Mayor said.

“We’ll take it,” Demaris said, and began trudging up the path from the shore.

“Would, um, would you mind putting me down?” Gibsi asked Elice timidly. “Only, you’re tearing my waistcoat . . .” the young woman heaved the Mayor into the crowd, turned, and picked up Sam with a grunt of effort. Oren reached out his arms to help but she snarled at him and began walking. It was only a few minutes’ trip to the temple, a small, unprepossessing wooden building with a large sign outside saying, helpfully, “Temple”.

Inside the building was a large hall lined with rows of small wooden benches. A female gnome looked up from dusting a display of cogwheels. “May I help you?”

“We are seeking refuge,” Olena explained.

“Oh, well, come on in, make yourselves at home. Um, you’re awfully big, aren’t you? You’re not from Lantan, I take it?”

“No, from the mainland. Do you have anyone here who can raise the dead?” Olena asked.

“Oh dear! Wait here just a moment!” the gnomess said and bustled back behind the altar. There were some loud rustling noises, a few bangs, and then a loud metallic clang. Then she returned carrying a large metal cube. She deposited it on the floor, grinned, and rubbed her hands together briskly. “I’ve always wanted to try this out. Now, I’ll have to charge you for this, and it’s not cheap. . .”

“We’ll cover it,” Olena said. “Somehow.”

“Right!” the gnomess announced and flipped open the cover of the box to reveal a tightly wound scroll. “Stand back! Alakazam! Abracadabra!” She continued on in that vein for some time, then there was a brilliant white flash and Sam sat up, coughing.

“Wonderful!” The priestess bellowed, making everyone jump. “That’ll be fifty thousand gold, please.” Olena’s eyes widened in dismay.

Elice sat on the floor and kissed Sam. “See, I told you you should get in the boat,” he muttered. Elice laughed and buried her face in his shoulder. “I owe you for my life,” Sam said to the gnomish priestess, who looked pleased with herself. “The debt is mine, can we discuss payment in private?”

“Sure, we can talk in the nave if you like.”

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Chapel
Olena Gets an Answer

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Nymbus' Realm
Our heroes visit the demiplane created by their mentor and learn more about him and his other students.

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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.

“Yes.”

“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.

“What?”

“Feather fall.”

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.

“Hyou sssstop!”

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?”

“Yess.”

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.”

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