the final chapter

The cavern deep with in the earth was silent and dark, other than the occasional murmur of molten stone and the faint red glow the magma emitted. Who would want to come back to this place? It held only memories of endless torment, imprisonment, and death.

In one corner mirror lay cracked on the obsidian floor, its surface covered with a fine layer of volcanic dust.

Into this darkness, a single ray of light shone from its shattered glass—an unnatural light, as if comprised of all the colours of the spectrum yet none, the light of arcane magics refracted through a warped and broken lens.

Then a second, and a third. And finally a series of sounds—a sort of vwoooop! vwoooop!—almost comically out of place in the oppressive silence.

Where the cavern had been empty, there now stood two figures, weapons at the ready: one a huge, muscled half-orc, the other a battle-scarred human. Both were clearly warriors of some sort, clad in identical armour as black and forlorn as an endless nightmare. Around its neck the half-orc carried the mummified paw of a great cat attached to a golden necklace. The human wore a circlet of gems and ancient decaying teeth, torn from the skull of a past but not forgotten foe.

Moments later, there was more light, and more noises. vwoooop! vwoooop! vwoooop! vwoooop!  Four more figures, dressed in black as the first two had been, stood in this place of evil.

“Well, Professor, is this the place?” said the shortest but most commanding of the group, glancing at the mage standing nervously behind him. “And is this the time?”

The mage pulled out a device and consulted it intently as a dark and malformed rat scampered among the folds of his black cloak. “I believe so, Sir. I am almost certain.”

An sultry elf winked as she played with the whip in her hand, its tip a knot of sharpened blades. “Almost? You had best be right, professor. As you know, he doesn’t take failure well.”

The mage swallowed hard under the steely stare of the Mistress of Pain. His last mistake had taught him that lesson well. “I am certain.”

The halfling nodded in acknowledgement. “If that is so, how long will it take to make the journey?”

A drow ranger stepped forward, again in black, consulting a map. “Once we find the passage to the Underdark, two to three months. The horacalcum deposit, if the journal is to be believed, lies near Silverymoon. But I know the way.”

“Well, we all have time, don’t we?” The halfling laughed, as the others smiled at the irony of it all. “Above they’re at war. The efreet has been released. They’ve forgotten what they once knew. We shall journey to this place, and once we are there…”

The mage interrupted, clearly excited about the prospect. “Another month or two, Sir, to fashion the mirror, and test its properties. Then.. then, the time-portal will be ready.”

vwoooop! Beside the party a creature now appeared, lurking and cavorting in the shadows. It was goat of sorts, ebony in colour, fanged and horned, its eyes glowing with unnatural flames.

Their leader smiled. “Let us proceed, then. We have a worlds to conquer and bend to our will. And as for you, Carpini…”

With this Arnold glanced at the horned abomination in the shadows.

“…there will be souls enough for you along the way.”

 

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out the looking glass

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This isn’t really my journal, nor my memories. The Arnold that wrote and thought them lies dead at by feet, and by my own blade. So much he writes of seems at once strange—yet, so very, very familiar.

Garrulous little beggar too. I’m more succinct.

It wasn’t the first time I had stepped out of The Mirror. It might have been the hundredth, for all I knew—your mind often plays tricks here. It was rare, however, to see another Arnold. That had happened but a handful of times.

I might have stopped to chat, to even share some Brandythwaite Leaf. You could do that a short while with one of you, before the Madness set in. This time, however, I could something in the corridor beyond.

1367166-bigthumbnail-1It was Her. I was quite certain.

Countless lives ago, I had been separated by that cursed gem-encrusted portal from the one I—a member of the Jīn jièzhǐ—had been sworn, above all, to protect. I had encountered her echoes through time and space. But this, for the first time in all that time seemed to be her: Her Imperial Highness Lady Shinzu, rightful Mistress of the Dragon Throne.

_jenestyles___Tribal_TattooAnd so it was decided. This Arnold must die.

It took but a moment, and a handful of blades, and it was over. He was too slow. Perhaps he did not recognize this moment for what it was. Perhaps he would have offered me some mushroom stew.

I kneeled at My Lady’s feet, head bowed, in silent apology of having failed her once before.

“It is good to see you, Arnold. Your service has been missed,” she said to me in that always-calm voice of hers. “Now collect this one’s belongings, and see what papers he has scattered here.”

The other Arnold had taken copious notes. It told of his party’s descent into the Tomb. Of the increasing paranoia of his companions. Of the death of a warrior. Of portals. Mist. Traps. Paintings. A defiled altar. Rotgrubs. It spoke of this room, with its mirror and statues that—as I already know—could spring to life at any touch of the mithril doors. It mentioned abandonment by his companions, an exile to the Plane of Air. Death. Rebirth. And of failed efforts to destroy this Mirror.

This Arnold had been a clever one too, for written in chalk upon a secret door outside the Mirror room were the words:

Here Lies the Way to Memnon’s Tomb. I Think.

imagesNo sooner had I discerned all this then there was a noise, and someone appeared in the room. A tall human wizard, with a look of haughty superiority. Surely not? Tipwill the False Emperor? The Butcher of Silverymoon? Here? This man with so much blood and pain stained upon his hands and soul?

Only my Empress’ command stayed by hand from striking him down, as he had done my dearest friend and companion General Gurglak.

“This one is not the False Emperor, my faithful Arnold. Not yet. We can not visit upon him the sins of that which he has not yet become.” There was some wisdom in her words.

And so he lived. He told us that he had arrived here with a party much like ours, and like us sought to vanquish the Shadowvar Empire. He seemed nervous and confused, weak—certainly not the False Emperor. But I still did not trust him. I trusted him even less when, upon questioning, it transpired he had let his Arnold and his Shinzu die while he sought to indulge his lust for magic and power. No so different, it seemed, from what he might one day become.

In any case, this matter had been decided by Empress Shinzu. We would ally with this mage, and press of in search of the Dragon Door. If he betrayed us, he would die.

We decided to investigate the secret door which the non-dead Arnold had found. A strange banging came from within it, as if someone were on the other side.

I opened it—and there, before us was Mialashton the sell-sword, the very mercenary who had led us to this place. Except he wasn’t. He was some other Mialashton with some other name. Some other echo of time and space,.

He was standing in a small corridor or chamber. At the far end, there was a simple mirror—perhaps the very mirror we sought. And before us, on the ground, a jewelled skull.

Arnold, investigate that mirror….

demi_lich_final_1280My Empress so commanded, and so I stepped forward to carry out my appointed task. No sooner did I touch the mirror, however, than the skull rose from the ground, and began to wail. Its arcane scream plucked at my very soul.

We are lost! We are doomed! It is a demi-lich!” So cried the mage Tipwill, who had somehow failed to warn us of this before I had begun my investigation. Treachery, perhaps, of the sort so natural to his kind? Perhaps. they knew nothing of honour. Mialashton swung at it with his mighty kukris, but could barely chip the creature. Clearly it was bound together with great magics indeed—so powerful that Tipwill’s weak enchantments had no effect whatsoever.

The thing turned towards Mialashton, and seemed to cackled. In an instant, the fighter was gone—his soul seemingly imprisoned in one of the gems that adorned the floating school.

This was too much, too dangerous for the Empress. I rushed past it and grabbed her hand to pull her away. She hesitated a moment, but put her trust in me and ran. Behind is the feeble Tipwill-copy called us back to fight the demilich, although he seemed to offer no counsel as to how that might be done.

We ran on, along the corridor, and through several doors. I finally turned and spiked the last of these shut. We were safe—for now.

A few minutes later we heard a banging, and a mewling cry for help. The Tipwill-copy  was still alive.

“Let me in,” he begged.

“How is is he still alive, Empress?” I warned. “Perhaps he is in league with the guardian of the mirror?”

“Please please let me in.”

“We do not know this, faithful Arnold. We shall let him join us,” commanded our Empress.

At this point, the erratic mage began to threaten us. “If you don’t open the door, I will.. stand back!”

“Please may I kill him…” I beseeched my Empress.

“No.”

And so he was permitted to join us. I kept my eye on him and a shurikin ready for the slightest sign that he planned us ill…