G. The Death of Rock-in-Water
i. The Door and the Doorman
There was a snake resting in the bars of a locked iron door nearby. As they approached, the snake uncoiled and slithered off into the darkness, in the direction of the Cathedral of Emerald Scales. In this town, it was impossible to tell what was a real snake and what was a malison in disguise, and this worried Charli.
As if to press home the point, not long after, Charli felt an odd sensation not unlike someone secretly watching him from a distance. He shook his head and was able to free himself of the feeling, but it left him wondering who that snake had been, and whom they’d worked for.
There was also a body lying in the intersection just before the iron door. The snake-shaped helmet lying nearby indicated it was a deceased House Extaminos guard, serving the ruling authority of Hlondeth directly. The presence of Extaminos this far into Lirremar was expected, considering they were the ones responsible for ferrying out the Jhaamdath artifacts.
Studying the wounds on the body, Rock determined that a large feline creature similar to a lion had attacked him, but the specific species was unfamiliar. Likely it had been one of the “groups of monsters” that Captain Yinlar reported – one they’d not yet encountered.
On the guard’s remains, they discovered:
- A chalcedony
- A mace
- A small mirror set in a painted wooden frame
- A magical cloak shaped like a manta ray
- 60 electrum pieces, 1300 copper pieces
The iron door leading further westward was secured only by an iron lock, one that Charli could easily disengage. However, Alexis noted that there was a trap involving Abjuration magic cast on the door – and, interestingly, placed on the side facing away from them.
When Charli picked the lock and opened the door, a loud chime sounded for a full minute. Apparently, the gate had been warded against entry from the Cathedral of Emerald Scales. It seemed that the caster knew no spell was quite strong enough to keep out Medusanna and her kind, if the high priestess willed it, and had instead opted for a simple forewarning.
There was a chest nearby. Inside, the agents found:
- A vest with 100 pockets across the front
- 70 gold pieces, 180 silver pieces
Intrigued, Charli took the vest. There was enough space there for 100 vials of poison, should he ever collect that many.
The room directly north of them held their final objective. Across a flowing stream of brackish water that flowed outwards into the streams they’d crossed on their way here, a door sat atop a short platform. A statue stood to the right of it. Rock shaped a block of the water into rough ice to make cross the river easier.
Recalling Captain Yinlar’s words on gaining access to the door, Alexis approached the strange statue. The construct was unlike any others he’d encountered, which had all been magically-animated metallic contraptions. This one, however, was a blend of both metal and wood, with portions chiseled from stone.
The construct was in obvious poor repair. Segements of the metal were twisted, and more than one portion of wood was missing, as if it’d been blown away. What was left of the construct was blackened and pitted.
Alexis greeted it. “Hello.”
The construct whirred to life, its damaged parts grinding and scraping. “Hello, traaavelers,” it responded, pausing abruptly in some of its intonations. Whatever it had endured had also hampered its ability to speak.
“What is it you do here?” Alexis asked.
“I am the Doorman,” the construct answered.
“Ah. Now is that a profession that you have chosen for yourself, or was it thrust upon you?
“It is because I have the key,” came the answer.
“May I see the key?”
“No,” was the flat reply.
“Is it silver?”
“Have you ever been inside this room?” Alexis wondered.
“No. I only open the door. That is my job.”
“But what if you need to go inside? What if there’s an emergency? Like maybe a fire?”
About to respond, the construct halted with sudden realization. During their conversation, Alexis had used all three of the pass phrases that Captain Yinlar had given them. It looked the agents up and down carefully, then around to ensure no snakes were present (shapechanged Yuan-ti or otherwise).
“You don’t look like the typical fare from the House.”
Charli decided to step in, using his previous knowledge of House Extaminos tactics to allay suspicion. “We’re working undercover.”
After some conversation with the construct, it became apparent that its memories were faulty at best. It described itself as a “warforged,” a being built for war. It had vague recollections – a unit where he stood and fought alongside others of his kind, against a force outnumbering them three-to-one.
But then there had been a blinding light in the heavens, and the world had fallen away. From that point on, his mind had become clouded and foggy.
When he had awoken, it was very dark. From out of the inky blackness, a man had approached him, walking easily along the treacherous outcroppings. He had placed a key in the warforged’s hand and told him to “Go Unlock. Unseal. And Unseat.”
The warforged had then realized that both of them stood beneath the waves. He had risen and exited the water, finding himself in the depths of the Hlondeth sewers. A complement of soldiers in snake-headed helmets were being rebuffed at the locked door where the agents now stood. The warforged had unlocked the door for them, and they’d gone inside.
Not realizing that the warforged and his Key were separate items, the guards had named him the “Doorman.” They’d told him to guard the point he stood now, entrusting him with a set of pass phrases. He’d accepted this task, and it had been his ever since.
It was not at all a surprise when, during the exchange, the Doorman popped open a panel on his chest and drew out a familiar Key. This would make the fourth such Living Key the agents had encountered – the first having been found in the wintry passes of Coventry, the second with the body of Garlyn in Umeren’s temple, and the third recovered from the Region of Dreams while in the Underdark.
This “warforged” brought to mind much of their previous adventures. From his story, it seems he had met the deep scion himself who had commissioned the Living Keys from Rose Keep, courtesy of the aboleths. The deep scion had, too, spoken the same words Umeren had given them before disappearing in his temple beneath the Yuirwood: “Unlock, Unseal, and Unseat the false kingdoms of the earth.” It was likely this was the aboleths’ fundamental philosophy and agenda for the manufacture of their Keys, which Umeren (a servant of Ghaunadaur) was perhaps all too eager to help progress. It seemed certain that some doors had already been opened that could not be shut again.
Then again, if it were not for the Keys, the agents would not have been able to halt the emergence of Lutulu from beneath the sea. Like a sword, they were only as good or evil as those who wielded them.
The Doorman unlocked the portal before them. As the Key turned, its eye blinked, and a psionic flash presented itself to Alexis’s Eldritch Sight.
There was an accompanying flash from deep within Alexis’s backpack. The Key that they’d carried since Khern Mordur had answered its brother in kind.
“That explains how Granny Gertrude had divined the locations of the other Keys from her lair in New Sarshel,” Alexis noted. “The keys are all interconnected.”
“Then it’s a sure thing the aboleths are keeping track of them as well,” Charli warned. “Every Key use is like the plucking of a strand of a vast spider’s web, with the aboleths sitting at the very center.”
As the Doorman pushed the door ajar, a rich blue light spilled from within. The bright, sunlit vista inside was at odds with the dark dusty dungeon they currently stood in.
“Well,” remarked the warforged, “that’s new.”
Where did this door actually lead? Was it a dimensional gate? Alexis cast a quick Augury on the likelihood of their safe return, shuffling through his book to read the answers penned within. The answer was both “weal and woe.” In other words, promising, but not without its dangers.
Before they entered, Alexis addressed the warforged one last time. “We will probably be coming back this way in the near future. Would you be interested in a new profession, were I to offer you one? I know of an organization that could make use of your talents.”
Doorman shrugged. “I have no strong feelings one way or the other.” Alexis guessed that to the warforged, a job was a job, and no one task was intrinsically preferable to another, so long as it could feel useful.
ii. The Chinese Room
The agents passed through the portal to the other side. When the door was shut behind them, it closed itself seamlessly, apparently disappearing into the air itself.
The group now stood atop a wide marble rooftop adorned with flowing fountains and shallow wading pools. East of them, towards the sea, a new yet deeply familiar city greeted them. Though they had never set foot in it before today, the adventurers recognized the ancient city of Lirremar from its depictions in art and history.
Now buried by 1,300 years of history, Jhaamdath had had a strong influence on the Impiltur culture the agents enjoyed today. For one, many of the Jhaamdath survivors of the civilization-ending deluge went on to colonize lands of Thesk and the Vast. A sizeable portion would even make their home in what would become Impiltur.
For another, the language of Jhaamdath would contribute directly to the language called Thorass, which would eventually evolve into the trade language known as Common, still used around the continent of Faerûn. Stepping through the door into this realm was like stepping into a history book.
But there were clues also that the group had not actually traveled back in time, but only into a recreation of recorded history. Here and there were blank slabs of stone wall, suspended in midair. Where a large urn could have sat, a gritty flagstone showed instead.
The agents began to suspect that they were still standing within a dusty forgotten crypt, deep under modern-day Hlondeth, and that the stirring cityscape was simply a projection created by powerful illusions. And the looters that had absconded with sections of this room had destroyed the perfect simulation, like peeling pieces from a finished jigsaw puzzle.
There was a man waiting for them, dressed in the clothes of the ancient Jhaamdath. Yet he seemed oblivious to them, instead gripped by a fit of panic. He put his fists to his temple and screamed “Protect the Gate!”
As he did, a shadow rose behind the agents, blotting out the sun, with the sound of a million rushing waters quickly thundering towards them. However, when they spun around in alarm, the sun was still shining, and nothing had changed.
The man’s eyes seemed to clear for a moment of clarity. “Oh, hello, you’re new here. Welcome to ancient Lirremar, as it were.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Alexis, stepping forward to address this strange man. “And who are you?”
The man suddenly clawed his face and screamed. “Do not let them enter the Sanctum!”
He abruptly relaxed again before responding to Alexis directly and frankly. “I am the final thoughts of a hundred thousand Jhaamdath citizens that died screaming this ancient day. Their last moments were seared upon the stones that make up this room…and from their preservation and proximity, I was slowly birthed into being.”
“If you are the souls of those who died long ago,” Charli wondered aloud, “do you need help passing on?”
“No god would have me!” the entity shouted back. “I am not the souls of the ancient dead Jhaamdath; I am a new entity, created from their fear, their hate, their terror, and their deaths, birthed in darkness and silence and seclusion. I have no claim to the eternal realms. My life was not metered out for me – spun, measured, and cut by the Fates. I am a rogue agent, an abomination, and I would be cast out of the realm of Kelemvor as soon as I set foot in it.”
(In the backs of the agents’ minds, their mission research resurfaced. Lingering psychic “screams” were not unprecedented in the tales of Jhaamdath ruins; in fact, Naarkolyth – the capital of the Twelve Cities of the Sword – had never been discovered by any underwater explorer. Yet legends of its existence still persisted, for a phantom city of stone appeared in the air above the waters of the Vilhon Reach every few years. Sages believed the apparition was no real city, but instead a a single, cloudlike entity of vengeful psionic spirits, trapped in the moment of their demise. Its reported form certainly displayed thousands of human faces, all screaming out silently in horror and anguish, and most adventurers kept their distance.)
The Entity paused and looked carefully among Alexis, Asura, Charli, and Rock. “How interesting; it seems I’m not the only one after all. The four of you are just like me; I can see very new souls inhabiting bodies much older than they are, like passengers riding a cart. How was this done? What happened to the original soul? And perhaps…could I not do the same?”
Of course, the Entity had no way of knowing this was because the agents’ bodies were oozes bred by Umeren, later given emergent consciousnesses of their own. Thanks to the memories of the original Alexis, Asura, Charli, and Rock poured into their skulls, the agents were just as much their originals as their copies.
“How do you know all these things?” Alexis wondered. At this question, the Entity waved his hand towards the north side of the fountained terrace. There sat a large magical stone portal, its whirling mists shrouding a view of a distant location.
“Isn’t it marvelous?” the Entity exclaimed. “Before they died, the ancient Jhaamdath were perfecting – among many things – their connections to the crystal spheres. Where this particular Gate connects I do not know – save that it is to a place called Tovag Baragu – a hub, in its own right. This proxy connection alone would have allowed the Jhaamdath to connect to the entire multiverse…if they had survived.”
Alexis and Charli peered through the Gate. A wide circle of flat stone was on the other side – wide enough to have held a city on its surface. Arranged in concentric circles were dozens of menhir portals, not unlike the one through which they viewed. This “Tovag Baragu” sat at where the edge of a dry dusty steppe met a lake bordered by salt flats. To the north, mountains towered.
The two tried to recall their geography, but they knew of no place in Faerun that resembled this area.
Charli’s sharp eyes noticed one very interesting fact. The sun, which was setting on this other plane, gently dipped beneath the horizon. Near it, the first stars of the night sky twinkled. Yet they moved independently. Here on Toril, Charli was accustomed to the sphere of the heavens rotating as a single backdrop to the night sky; he knew this happened because their world spun on its axis. On this other plane, however, the sun moved independently in the sky, revolving about the planet.
(Did the agents not learn of another crystal sphere with this precise set-up? The notion was familiar, but the adventurers could not recall its precise name.)
“I know little of its operation,” the Entity continued, “but it is just as a part of me as everything else in this room. I might have slumbered forever, if it were not for the Gate’s bewitching lure, calling me gently ever towards the light of consciousness. I awoke slowly, fitfully, over the course of centuries, its secrets spilling into my mind.”
“And when the looters came into this room…did you meet them?” Alexis wondered.
The Entity scowled with a fury previously unevidenced. “Those criminals deserved every torture they received! For every tile, every urn they stole from this chamber, they rent a potion of my mind! Do you know the pain of feeling yourself pulled slowly apart, piece by piece? So I reached into the portal…sifting through its myriad of possibilities…and drew out creatures from other realms. I ended the looters, and I preserved my own life.”
“The elves have set their magic against us!” the Entity burst out again. “Look to the waves, the waves–!”
He straightened again. “I am trapped here, confined to the same few looping moments of repeated genocide. The Gate has not helped me in this regard. Though it has taught me much, I cannot use it to escape, any more than I can escape through the door you used to enter. And yet…” His eyes glowed with potential. “Your arrival has already taught me something invaluable. It is possible to uproot myself, should I find a vessel that can carry me. A vessel like yours. A vessel…that can hold a soul.”
“There’s a dead body just outside,” Rock noted. “We could just pull it in here and–“
“The body cannot be deceased,” corrected the Entity. “If the soul has fled, it is because the body can no longer house it. I require a body that is still intact, still functional, and still holding a soul of its own. I could then commandeer it for myself, and finally escape my prison.”
“And what of the soul currently residing in that body?” Alexis returned. “Would it survive? Would you be subsuming it? Would you be consigning it to its own death?”
“What would such things matter to me?” the Entity returned coldly. “As long as I remain here, I am trapped in agony. Freeing myself from this bondage is worth killing for, if that is what it takes.”
“Why did you not just take one of the bodies of the looters, while they were in here?” Rock suggested.
The Entity’s eyes narrowed. “Let us just say that…I am not always in the most rational frame of mind. If you were forced to experience an extinction, over and over, throughout the centuries…could you say any different?”
The being considered for a second. “I am aware that there is a…peculiar construct just outside this chamber. It holds its own soul, forged at the moment of its creation, and it could serve well for my purpose. I sense also that the soul currently inside has been…diminished somehow; it should be of little value to anyone. Lure that creature in, and I should be able to claim its physicality for my own. A physicality not subject to death nor disease.”
“And would having a body tame this…constant terror of death that make up your experiences?” Rock wondered. “And the mania that goes with it?”
The Entity’s eyes only blazed in response.
“We will…consider your idea,” Alexis responded, and he withdrew to talk to his comrades.
Charli had spent some time studying the Entity during the conversation. Much as he expected, it seemed to him a soul without a body – akin to a ghost haunting the scene of its demise.
“I confess I despise this thing,” he spoke quietly to the others. “I have sworn himself in service to the Raven Queen and have pledged to help guide souls towards their eventual destinations. I have also vowed to halt any who would subvert this for their own personal gain. This Entity claims to be everything I hate. I do not wish to allow this thing to live.”
“But this ‘thing’ is, for all intents and purposes, the same as you and me,” Alexis replied. “Like us, it was an emergent soul, called into being by chance, stitched together from memories that were not its own, and set loose in a world that didn’t understand it.”
This was neither the first, nor the second time, the agents had encountered this kind of situation. The residents of Songhal were also products of this effect. The adventurers’ travels had brought them around again and again to the study of their own unique nature, and how different entities responded to its revelation. Some ran from the knowledge. Others became hostile.
And then there was Syldrey, and that odd look in her eyes during her final moments of clarity.
Alexis, Asura, Charli, Rock, and Gorodash had been fortunate. They’d been able to destroy the activation phrases while in the Region of Dreams and take control of their own destinies. But other emergent souls had not been as lucky.
“Well, self-loathing has worked pretty well for me thus far,” Charli continued, referring to his self-exile from his race of origin. “And just the same, this Entity wishes to play god with other beings’ souls. I am against it.”
During all these negotiations, Rock had withdrawn to a nearby corner of the room to erect an altar. This vista of pure memories had reminded her of her patron, the Queen of memories; and she wished to seek counsel. Her backpack was burdened with trinkets, and it was not difficult to arrange something quick and meaningful. She placed the wooden box from the circus performers on the tile; then she put inside the silver horseshoe she’d gained while in the Shadowfell, a ruby, and the handheld mirror from the body just outside.
She began to pray.
Rock was searching for some manner by which the Raven Queen might assist her. Would the Raven Queen be interested in an entity composed of a multitude of memories? Was there some form of negotiation that could be reached; perhaps, could her own body serve as a temporary receptacle for this Entity? Would the Raven Queen hold onto her own soul until a new body for the Entity could be found?
Upon reflection, her plan seemed risky. The Raven Queen was a psychopomp – a de facto goddess that was interested primarily in the shepherding of souls from the Material Plane to the Fugue Plane (and collecting their memories along the way). Expecting Her to not only hold a soul back from its destination, but return it to the Material Plane on request, seemed chancy. Plus, simply offering the Raven Queen the Entity’s memories did not give Her sudden power on Toril; Rock would need to send the memories to the Shadow Plane herself, though any number of potential means – most of which involved violence.
That is not, to say, that Rock’s prayers went unanswered. A flicker of a shadow passed over her open wooden box, leaving two tarot cards in its wake. Recalling that she was but one of two Raven Queen acolytes presently in the room, Rock picked them up.
They were The Magician. Rock now had two cards of a three-card spread (The Tower being the first), and she wondered what – or who – it might signify. Yet she came away with the strong sense the cards served as a warning.
Alexis was still elucidating his position on the matter. “I confess I feel a strange kinship with both the warforged and the Entity. We were all products of circumstances beyond our control. Like the warforged, I was dispossessed of my home and family when Umeren killed the real Alexis Farskies and put me in his place. Yet I too sympathize with the Entity for the anguish he feels, being trapped in an eternal prison for no crime of our own.
“I find I care very much about what happens to both the individuals we have just met…and I don’t feel comfortable with sacrificing one to help the other. At the same time, I do not feel we should wash our hands of this affair; I feel invested enough to do whatever I can to help them both.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” returned Charli. “The Entity does not care if it kills others to achieve its own goals. From a tactical standpoint, then…is there really any reason we should keep this thing alive?”
“Well, he does seem to hold the secret of this Gate, if he can summon things from it at will, as he claims. That’s a point in favor of keeping him alive. However, I don’t want him taking the body of the warforged; he doesn’t need access to the Gate and the Key. And the warforged’s soul is certainly not ours to give.”
“And his subtext was plain,” Charli added. “It’s either the warforged…or us. We should expect a fight.”
After a quick internal vote, Alexis reapproached the Entity and gave the group’s final decision.
“While I certainly sympathize with your predicament, I cannot in good conscience condemn another sentient creature for your sake. My friends and I will leave this place, and I’m afraid I cannot guarantee the looting will cease. We might be able to help you later by locating a Magic Jar to house you. We might also be able to help you pass on peacefully to your eternal destination. But we will not sacrifice either one of ourselves or an innocent.”
Much as expected, the light in the Entity’s eyes turned to one of murderous rage. “So you would condemn me to a slow agonizing demise? I will not allow the looters to slowly unravel me! I have experienced my own death enough! And if you will not help me willingly, then I shall take what I need from you by force!”
The ambiance of the room darkened into an unearthly ruddy glow. As the Entity drew itself up to its full height, Charli shook his head at his friends. “Told you this was the sort of guy you don’t want to give life to.”
iii. Sing Thee to Thy Rest
The Entity closed its eyes, and the vista through the Gate flickered and shifted. Suddenly, instead of a view of wide steppes and salt flats, a towering city emerged from tall jungle hills. Lit spires crowded together in a metropolis the agents had never seen nor thought possible; it was far larger than even the most embellished stories they’d heard of Waterdeep.
Above the city hovered a separate district of floating towers, suspended on invisible magic; and around the locale, ships floated, held aloft by rings of elemental power.
The agents had little time to admire the view, as the Entity summoned creatures native to this plane to do battle with its foes. Four vicious reptiles of tooth and claw burst from the Gate, eager to snap at whatever hapless creature got in their way.
Alexis, who had already begun to backpedal as soon as the Entity shifted, used a trademark Misty Step scroll to evade backwards. Still, he took a raptor’s claw square to the gut, and he doubled over in pain.
The Entity had its own psychic attack, which it used to rend at Rock’s mind. However, Asura’s Spiritual Hammer, Charli’s crossbow bolts, and Alexis’s Eldritch Blasts made it think twice about its strategy, and it shifted into etherealness.
The agents currently did not have the ability to track their foe in its current location. Still, Alexis knew the Entity was never truly far away. As he was a product of the invisible room they stood in, every tile, urn, and tapestry around them contributed to some portion of the creature’s psionic makeup. If he truly wished to harm the Entity while it was hidden, all he need to was cast some well-placed Shatters.
Of course, while protecting the Jhaamdath artifacts in this room were not technically part of the Mass Suggestion’s wording that had been placed on them – and while Alexis felt no personal compunction to do so – he knew Medusanna would be less than pleased.
Rock took point and attempted to down the creatures with an Arms of Hadar. She was unsuccessful. And unfortunately for the druid tabaxi, who was neither wearing armor nor had wildshaped into a stronger form, she was suddenly at the center of a whirlwind of claws.
The first two attacks knocked Rock into unconsciousness. The raptors, who were skilled at coordinating as a group to bring down large targets, leaped atop her prone form. They continued to bite and tear in a hungry frenzy, eager to make her their next meal.
In a panic, Alexis landed a Hypnotic Pattern. It captured the attention of all four raptors, distracting and entrancing them, but by then it was too late. The tabaxi had already bled out on the tiles.
Rock-in-Water was dead.
The false sunlight of Lirremar momentarily darkened under a hundred flickering shadows. The remaining agents felt the feathers of hundreds of invisible birds buffeting about them, and the air was stirred as if by a hundred pairs of wings. The Raven Queen herself had come to claim one of Her own.
Meanwhile, the agents’ woes were by no means over. Down by one, they could only watch in horror as the body of their friend softened. Its outline dripped and melted. Alexis, for one, was reminded horribly of his last moments with “Syldrey,” in the temple of Umeren, when he had lost another friendship.
And much like the remains of Syldrey, Rock’s remains reshaped themselves a powerful ooze, its ravenous nature no longer constrained by an artificial soul implanted within it. Yet mindless as it was, it had still been strengthened by numerous adventures alongside its former comrades.
The agents backed away in consternation as the faceless things which had been Rock rose to face them.
i. No Place in Heaven or Hell