Into the Darkness

portal.jpg“Look before you leap,” my mum used to say. She wasn’t the only one, of course–that particular turn of phrase can be found in a thousand tongues in a thousand lands. “Aim before release,” the Wood Elves say. “Watch fer rocks afore ye watch fer gold,” say the Dwarves. “Better an eye for the Nightwatch than a year in gaol,” whisper the guildfellows of Waterdeep. Or, as my good friend Kordite von Boom often says, “Never mix without ducking.”

Well, despite my best instincts I did leap before looking—following Hedge and my fellow adventurers through the portal in the abberrants’ lair, knowing not what was on the other side. And, as a result, brave Shen now lies dead.

We had finally found Shen an hour or so earlier, wandering disoriented in the cavern of the mournful golem that Hedge and I had tried so hard to avoid. With the monks’ martial skills added to our own, and with the help of evil-dragon-Mayzine-turned-slightly-less-evil (more on that later) we had triumphed this time against the foul construct, although not without injuries. Pleased to be once more back together as a party, we had then retired to the Grell laboratory, conversed a moment, and then moved through the portal

The portal… well, you see, there was nothing on the other side of that portal. More precisely, there was a starry night sky, and a fall of a hundred feet or so through the darkness into a crater below. I had feared what might await us at our destination, and and even mentioned my concerns to my companions. However, with everyone else so brave and bold I felt self-conscious with my warnings and usual halfling caution, and so leapt into the arcane blackness. In an instant, I found myself in another place, plummeting towards the hard ground. Mayzine, whose leathery dragonwings had soon caught her fall, might have caught me too, but declined to do so. It would seem she has not entirely abandoned the path of evil, in my book at least.

Shen had proceeded me and was lying in a bloody, bruised mess on the ground when he heard my cries of alarm. Without hesitation or thought for himself, he positioned himself to break my fall—and, in so doing took some of the harm meant for me. It was, as I have come to expect of this monk, a supremely selfless act.

Although we all survived the fall, it left us battered and ill prepared for the next dangers that we might face. We were deep in a huge bowl-shaped depression, formed in some mighty explosion that had destroyed the old Dwarven mines we had been exploring only days (weeks? months?) earlier. The ground seemed polished smooth, perhaps scooped away to another plane or melted like glass in the heat of a great cataclysm. A strange dark mist swirled about our feet.

It was out of this mist that our attackers came: a gigantic dark spider, and its smaller eight-legged companions. It was then that I realised our magicks did not function here, and that Uncle Reggie’s skiprock and other weapons secured within my Belt of Thingyness were beyond reach. As Hedge reached for his swords, I grabbed his crossbow and bolts, hoping thereby to contribute to the battle to come. Ash gripped his mace, its divine powers temporarily quietened. And Shen–once more, selfless and brave–catapulted himself forward to confront our many-legged foe.

He was wounded, though. Wounded, you see, from his fight with the golem, from his fall, and from catching me. In a stronger state, he would no doubt have vanquished this beast, as he had so many dark creatures before. This time, however, he was struck down. Struck down dead.

It is odd that it should have moved me so, for I have seen death before. It is odd too that I should feel such an affinity for this honest and ascetic monk when so much of my own life has been spent in bars and taverns, among thieves and confidence tricksters, and in relocating objects of value to better places. Yet his simple moral code, his very basic sense of right of wrong, has something very hin to it. He is–or was–as straight as a gooseneck down a plughole, as the expression goes. Only his sometimes stern demeanor, excessive height, rapid pace, peculiar parentage, intolerance for creature comforts, whirling-hands-of-death, ability to glow, preference for non-alcoholic beverages, general inability to play the harmonica or to convince people he’s a visiting noble or tax collector or traveling gem-appraiser, lack of curiousity about what lies in other folks’ pockets, ignorance of the classics of literature (notable Harry Heliofont and the Magnificent Golden Badger), bald feet, and negligible experience with barmaids, grappling hooks, handcuffs, or a criminal record marked him as any different from a hundred halflings that I have known.

In any event, this was not the time for mourning. We scarcely had time to react to the sight of the monk’s broken lifeless body laying prone in the dark moonlit mist when the huge spider grabbed Tip, and started to flee with our mage. We wounded the monstrosity grievously, but evidently not enough. It vanished into the shadows. Two of our rapidly-dwindling party were now gone.

Curiously, the spider actually vanished too–clearly shadow magicks, or the things that exist between The Weave, function in such dead zones where other mystical powers do not. I shall have to ask Tip about it–when and if we find him. I am hopeful we will. Presuming that the creature does not immediately snap off his head, drink his bodily fluids, and discard his lifeless drained husk of a body in its lair, I doubt that a spider can long keep possession of a mage of Tipwill’s intelligence, especially should it wander somewhere where his arcane abilities once more function. I can only hope too that the time (and cheese) that I have spent in secret training sessions with Professor Sniddle on gem-filching and rope gnawing will prove useful. In any case, we have no way of tracking where he is, or where he has been taken (although I’ll ask that cursed Mayzine to scout for him and the spider come daybreak).

For now, therefore, the priority is Shen, We must take him forthwith to somewhere where he might be be brought back from the netherlands of death–perhaps at the nearby Dwarven hospice (if it still functions following the cataclysm), or Sundabar, or if not there surely in Silverymoon. Sadly, with our mage captured and our spells useless for now in any case, we can hardly magick ourselves there. Instead we’ve fashioned a simple litter, and we will carry the body of our fallen companion as far as is necessary.

And I, for one, shall find someway of repaying him. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether the damage he took from my fall made the difference, or whether he would have been vanquished anyway. Indeed, that’s quite the point: he didn’t plot or plan or balance the risks and dangers, but simply and with his typical courage did what he thought was right. The Harpers have a saying, or so Uncle Reggie used to say: “Do good.” I had always thought it rather trite, and far too simple. But that’s the thing, you see–for the truly good, it is simple indeed.

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fond thoughts of Sixteen String Jack

22 Eleasias 1373

It just took an instant for the darkness to fall over me, and in that instant of fear and impending doom my mind naturally turned to what it meant if my companions and I failed on this quest:

Invasion from the Shadow Plane.

The destruction of the Weave.

The Triumph of Evil.

No more Gilmour’s Gilded Green-Apple Ale at Sixteen String Jack’s.

jack1.jpgOddly, of the four, the last seemed by far the most important at that particular moment. Of course, anyone who has ever drunk that wondrous ambrosia at Waterdeep’s most famous (and, indeed, only) hin public house may have an inkling of why that is so, particularly if they’ve ever had it with a warm, fresh slice of halfling barleybread and some of cousin Ned’s Brandythwaite cheese. For anyone who knows the barmaids at the Sixteen String Jack (and particularly the charming young Missy Rubytoes), my thoughts will be particularly understandable.

At the moment all went black, of course, I had no idea exactly what had transpired. I did know that it was unlikely to be good. After slaying the vrock, our exploration of this abandoned dwarven mine had yielded precious little in the way of treasure, beyond one odd and faintly magical necklace of bird bones. Instead, my companions and I had been treated to a pile of rotting corpses, a huge black amorphous blob that seemed intend on eating Ash and Hedge, ghouls, zombies-on-a-chain (much less enjoyable than the children’s game of the same name), and even a six-legged lizard that I was warned not to gaze upon too long. The one chest that we found contained—despite its ornate and complex lock—not fabulous gems or piles of gold, but rather a fearsome and incorporeal wraith with the unfortunate habit of attacking from floors, walls, and ceilings. This was clearly most unfair, especially for a hin like myself with expenses to cover. Alchemists’ fire doesn’t come cheap, Shen’s constant lectures on the “corruption of wealth” and the “dangers of opening strange boxes” notwithstanding.

Finally our party had moved against what appeared to be the enemy’s lair. Ashton was unable to pierce the conjured darkness, but Tip’s artful magicks finally succeeded in dispelling the black. We had advanced carefully into what appeared to be a large room filled with lead or iron boxes of unfamiliar design. The clawing noises coming from within these suggested some sort of angry beast, a supposition that none of us was eager to confirm after the fight with the dread wraith. Indeed, by this time Ashton and Tip were largely drained of spells both clerical and arcane, and we had much debated whether we should rest before pressing on this far. However, the risk of letting our enemies recover, regroup and prepare for us seemed too great–so here we were.

As we moved cautiously into the center of the room, Hedge carefully checked our path for traps. Tip then used his wand to reveal any concealed doors–and soon found one on the southern wall of the chamber. I walked towards it, rather incautiously as it turned out—for as I approached, I set off a trap. Our party was assaulted by a shriek, a wail, and a powerful blast of sound that penetrated to the very bone. Whatever element of surprise we might have had was now lost due to my foolishness.

No sooner had we regained our composure when a most ominous sound of stone against stone. I dove behind one of the metal boxes, and had only just voiced the command to render myself invisible when the door burst open and two huge living statues of Shar stomped into the room, their stoney visages hardly concealing their murderous intent.

We fought them as best we could, but only Hedge really had a weapon that could much pierce these fearsome golems of rock. Shen, showing extents of courage that I’ll never know, fought one of the constructs hand-to-hand. Yet his fists and feet were barely able to chip its smooth stone surface.

As the battle went badly against us, she appeared—Mayzine. It was in search of this agent of evil that we had entered this deep, dark place, hoping thereby to disrupt the shadow-plot and learn of any antidote that might save Hedge’s brother Pern.

Seeing a possible vulnerability, the indefatigable monk tripped one of the golems, sending it crashing to the floor. He then vaulted over its prone form, and struck Mayzine with all his considerable might.

FWAP!

Nothing happened.

Well, as Uncle Reggie was wont to say, that’s not strictly true. Mayzine did react.. turning her head slightly, and smiling at the surprised monk. She then did something even more disconcerting: as whisps of shadow surrounded her, she transformed. Not into a small puppy, of course, or kitten or anything else welcome and unthreatening. No, she transformed into a dragon: a huge, sleek, evil dragon, dark as the Shadow itself.

Faster than a badger in a bad place, I ran.

So too did everyone else, hoping that the low corridors the area would slow or halt the pursuit of Mayzine and her stone guardians behind us. We ran, as fast as our feet would bear us, towards the bottom of the mine shaft, praying that we might, somehow—however improbably—escape this place. First Shen, then Ashton and Tip, passed me by at their much faster paces. My heart sank, realizing that my ring shielded me from their gaze, and that my companions had no idea they were leaving me behind to become a dragon-snack…

CRACK! A fierce blue light erupted ahead at the bottom of the mine shaft, as Mayzine magicked herself there to block our very exit. Suddenly my invisibility and slow pace seemed much less of a liability than it had scant seconds before.

I remember old Grandpa Erk once saying “always be ye were the trolls isn’t, and the golds is.” He had never applied the saying to dragons of any sort (let alone agents of evil from the Plane of Shadow), and I had yet to see any treasure of any sort on this accursed adventure. Still, it seemed prudent advice. I stopped in my tracks, and slowly, quietly, and invisibly headed back the way I had just come.

Behind me I could hear sounds—undoubtedly screams of pain as my friends were devoured (or so I thought). There was little I could do. Either they were dead, or captured. Either way, the thoughts of me joining them as meal or captive scarcely appealed, certainly much less so than rescuing them at a more opportune moment or simply staying alive. As we hin say, “fortune favours the not-dead.”

As silently as I could, I crept back to the chamber from whence Mayzine and the golems had come. There I found an altar, a bloodied body upon it, and a huge, pitch-black symbol of Shar (a portal, perhaps?) behind. Despite the golem-statues now motionlessly flanking the altar, I crept still closer.. hoping for a clue, a way to destroy the portal, an escape route, or perhaps even a cask of ale with which to relieve the pain of my possibly approaching death. Even that suspicious Snakebite stuff would have been welcome at this moment.

A quick search revealed a hidden compartment in the altar… but just then my concentration was broken by the unmistakable creak of a door being opened nearby. The golems heard it too, and lumbered off to investigate, their heavy stone feet making the very ground rumble with each step. Clearly it was no one they were expecting.

Hedge! Could it be Hedge? I hadn’t seen him running with the others–no doubt he too had activated his ring and sought advantage by stealth. With his brother’s life in the balance, he had even more reason to come back this way, in the hopes of finding a cure to the Shadow Death. Perhaps he would save us all, as he had in the desert temple! Hedge, the hero! Hedge, the…

Then darkness. Nothingness. And thoughts of ale, barmaids, and Sixteen String Jack.