I don’t know how long I was chained to a wall in hell.
All I know is that at some point I swam back to conciousness, my mind drowning under a lake of indistinct memories and urges, with one last gasp of air frantically making for the surface and then I breached it and I was fully awake.
Where had I been? The red waste? We – my companions, my company – we were travelling west to Axis. There was a promise, an obligation, a duty … the image of a dwarf came to me. And a name. Mal. Mal Shieldglider. I remembered – I had promised to take him to his father’s funeral, debts of shed blood and friendship. Other things twined around that purpose like vines strengthening the tie: the war, the rift between Dwarves and Men, the Empire – how could I forget the Empire? My family, grandfather Lancet. The names and faces of my company came to me: Tarry, Nacelle, Baisek. Odd that I should remember the halfling first. Newer faces too, but still indisinct to my recall. The God of Song … no, he was dead, or gone. There was another in his place now. A necromancer? A sorceress who had gone her own way.
I numbered my obligations, their weight settling onto me like a comfortable and familiar cloak – my cloak! Gone. My wand, my books, all gone, all but one – The Book of the Stars, which the demons would not touch. I was chained to a wall in hell in prisoner’s rags, even my secret pouch was gone. All I had was the necromancer’s stone in my empty eyesocket, its power giving me sight in this lightless place.
The necromancer, Aeg, Edmund the Marked, the council of four. I wonder who the other two might be? I recalled Edmund’s betrayal, and the preposterous excuse he gave for it. The nodes had been taken down, the Empire stood defended by nothing but steel. Which would not be enough. My own foolish hubris was to blame.
For a time I indulged, my psyche reassembling the layers of itself. Of myself. Then I shook out of reverie. Time to act. First, the manacles. I touched my mana. The forms of the spells I had last prepared mercifully were still there. The manacles did not yield to a Knock, but I wondered: perhaps starlight? The power of the overworld? I cast Nova and gathered its power for a minute or more: no sense hurrying. Then I used a simple cantrip as a conduit. The manacles cracked along the weld. I pulled myself off the red, fleshy wall – losing a little skin in the process. The wall I had been chained to seemed to be absorbing me, consuming me, but very slowly. It mattered not. I was free.
For the moment, at least. From one direction, I heard a chanting, an infernal chorus of dozens or hundreds. My common sense had not deserted me – I went the other way.
The passage seemed deserted. The path I travelled was perhaps not entirely real, some amalgam of reality and nightmare, a place on the border, a membrane separating the two. Perhaps this was justice. Perhaps I travelled now the route that I had carelessly sent those imps and pixies to carry my little messages. Perhaps now I too trod the Low Way.
Before long I came to a set of alcoves set into the walls. Two of my companions! I attempted to free them, but as I reached to them they slipped away, further back into … somewhere. I could do nothing. I prayed that they be only illusions, or figments of my own memories.
Further along, I was overjoyed to meet Tarry! Lost also in this place. He could guide me out to the surface, he said, but he would need my book. I gave him the book, and he changed – grew fangs and claws, and ate the book, shredding it. He left, I think. I was alone.
After … some time … I spied another being in the distance. He – he was a knight! Of the golden order, no less. And he seemed real, realer than the other things I had encountered down here. He questioned me, I answered. My rank meant nothing to him, of course, but he was rescuing people trapped in this place. We headed towards the surface.
But this place had its dangers. We fled from a … some sort of abominable hybrid of Chuul and Demon. I used Dispel Magic in an attempt to sever or disrupt the bond between the two halves of its nature. It was surprisingly sucessful, and seemed to stagger the thing. We fled though a door, or perhaps sphincter, and I used Hold Portal to secure it – burning through what magic I had. But there’s no point not using your magic if you are about to be killed. My psyche was still not whole, but it seems I am a pragmatic sort.
The hellhole lay ahead, but it was the scene of a battle between the Knights of the Golden order and demons. The dead knights lay in windrows – I began to understand that the legend of the Great Gold Wyrm, how the Wyrm himself keeps the demons at bay, may be something of a metaphor for the reality. I gave what help I could, with my little Colour Spray, but really there was little I could do to turn the tide. Three of the knights took it as their mission to complete my rescue. In the end, it came down to a simple rope climb.
Two of them made it out, and then it was my turn. The climb was too much for me, so I made recourse to a Levitate spell.
As the demons below overwhelmed the knights, the knight on the rope faltered. I assumed command voice and ordered him up. It seemed to do the trick.
We were up out of the hell hole. I and three knights. Somewhere in the red waste. We had escaped.
In the distance lay a city of brass. But the knights would not go there. I supposed that the city was a mirage, or inhabited by demons, but that was not the reason. I later found out why. Instead, we spied a caravan in the distance and made for it.
The caravanner proved to be hospitable. I traded news of the war to the north for passage, and the knights guard duty. The caravanners gave me desert sheets and a turban for my prison rags, instructing me on how to secure them. They gave us food and water. We journeyed northwest to Santa Cora under the bright, bright desert stars and made camp as dawn broke. It seemed, for a moment, that even after I closed my eyes the stars were still there – the constellations plain to me. But within seconds I was sleeping the dreamless sleep of the truly exhausted.
The journey was uneventful. I learned a thing or two about desert travel and campcraft that would have come in handy on our ill-fated trek west. We made Santa Cora in good time, and the caravanners became a little less hospitable, a little less communicative. These free folk did not highly regard the empire, it seemed, and I kept my opinions to myself. I made my farewells and we four headed into the city.
I decided that the thing to do would be to call on the Count and Countess Lorraine, who had received me kindly last we met and who at least knew me. But their townhouse was deserted. I forced entry with a Knock. Inside was a little dust, the stench of death, and a curious handbill. The bill proved to be a call to arms by none other than Nacelle! The Great Gold Wyrm, it seems, was recruiting. I recalled the battle at the base of the hellhole. And just outside the window, a parade of marching paladins of the order. The knights with me drew away from the window, explaining to me that they were now deserters. This made little sense to me, but I had other things to do. I found the source of the stench of death – a slaughtered and uncooked pig in the kitchen. When I returned to the reception room, the knights were gone.
So what now? Well, I should report. I began to make my way to the barracks, but on the way met a stranger who spoke to me in elliptical non-answers and suggested I follow him to a library. After a minute or two of frustrating evasions, I realised that I was talking to Aeg Ilsa, the necromancer – the frustrating evasions and non-answers being a bit of a giveaway. I was not at all happy to be so soon again enmeshed in the toils of these wizard’s intrigues. I thanked him for my replacement eye, and told him that I was duty-bound to report to the nearest commander, and the library could wait.
Aeg ground his teeth in frustration, which I confess cheered my mood by a considerable margin, and we proceeded to the barracks. The commander was the same as I remembered from our defence of the city, but he was distracted. The town was overrun by Golden Order recruiters, who do not answer to the Emperor except at their convenience. He gave me no orders, and I sensed that there was no place for me here.
Aeg took me to his own tower, leading me forward with the promise of a library. We proceeded through a catacombs (of course), to a low arch. He then attempted to get me to promise to hunt down and slay Edmund, but I’ll be dammned if I do anything these people say. Happily, an officer of the Empire has prior loyalties to appeal to. I told him that I intended to capture Edmund if possible and bring him to court to answer for his crimes, from whence he would duly and legally be hanged.
Aeg again ground his teeth, clenched his fists, and I must confess I felt a little fear – there is no question about his power. At last he agreed, “Fine!”, and bid me place my hands against the span of the arch, which I did.
Magic built and swirled, and I saw a vision of my home – the Chateu du Mallard. But it was a ruin! Burned and broken by siege. Before I could order my thoughts to ask, it was a vision no more. I was here. I was home.
The Chateu is a ruin. Inside are a few unidentifiable bodies, I pray that my family are not among them, but I fear they may be. I ceased my search – there would be nothing to find, although I did find a mostly whole fragment of a letter sent by Nacelle, it seemed, informing my family of my probable death.
Instead, I made for the tower. The tower is old, and defensible, but here too the marks of siege and spell are unmistakable. I descended down the stairs, marking the damage to the old, familar mosaics. And then realised. A tower. Mosaics. Blackwatch. The astronomer’s tower in Santa Cora. This place is a node – it was always a node. Has been for centuries.
Now it was easy to see, obvious to my senses. A node, very old, almost natural – resonating with magics of wood and water. A faint tickle of memory – didn’t SIr Geoffrey have dealings with the Elf Queen?
Regardless, I left the node alone. No more careless hubris from me. There’s no telling how deeply Edmund might have worked his way into the magics.
Instead, I noted something on the floor, now uncovered by the damage. A handle. I shrugged and turned it. A secret room. And inside … scrolls. Hundreds. Maybe just tax records. Maybe secret and ancient magics of my ancestor, the witch Elise. There’s no telling.
And here I stand. I feel the weight and folds of the invisible cloak of my duties and obligations, which seems to grow heavier every day.
In no particular order:
- I must find food and lodging.
- I must see if their are survivors of the villages of the county. I am possibly the last Mallard.
- If there are enemies of the empire and my people still on these lands, I must deal with them. However, running alone into battle is probably not the best approach.
- I must make contact with someone able to find my family, if they live. My pouch would have been ideal, but it is lost.
- I must inform grandfather Lancet about the pouch.
- I must investigate and secure this library. Even if they are just tax records, they are still precious.
- I must secure this node away from Edmund’s tampering. The sensible thing to do might be to simply bury it.
- I must do what I can to redress the damage I have done to the Empire’s defences, if possible. It is probably beyond my power or skill. This node is oe of the few not destroyed, and may be pivotal, so I probably oughtn’t bury it then.
- I must drag Edmund before a magistrate. Not that it will be anything like that simple. I dislike it, but Aeg is probably right.
- I must fulfil my promise to Mal. There are complexities there, as he is a sworn bodyguard of the dwarf King. Perhaps the right between the emperor and the king might be mended.
- I need to find what remains of Griffinsheart’s merry heroes. I simply don’t trust anyone else.
And I must see to the bodies of the dead.
There is nothing much here. The next step is to lock up and make for the village and see what remains, if anything. I’ll skim though this library first. Perhaps there will be something useful.