D. Out of the Dark
i. Fertile Ground
“A number of cosmology models have graced scholar’s tables and students’ textbooks alike, ranging from the incomplete to the absurd. Each is a renewed attempt to better understand the world around us, thanks either to new information, or the meddling of the gods themselves. (After all, it is difficult to closely study a topic when that topic continues to change.)
“In each model proposed however, there has remained a consistent underlying flaw: the complete lack of attention to the sentient soul. Where do they spring from? Why do souls emerge in only some planes but not others? And why do they ‘naturally’ flow from one location to another?
“Thanks to my years of personal research, I have proposed a new world cosmology model that seeks to answer these new questions while still remaining consistent with truths already established. I call this model ‘Orazio’s Expansive Model of World Cosmology Organized About the Birth, Life, and Death of Souls.’ You may simply call it the ‘Cascade of Souls‘ for short. If it aids your study, conceive of it as an amalgamation of the World Tree and World Axis models.
“We shall begin in the expansive heavens themselves, the interstitial emptiness that makes up the space between all spaces. This description might already sound familiar; indeed, this would be the Astral Sea. But this ’empty’ vacuum is not truly empty. Here the gods themselves wring out demiplanes of existence…but the thought of every living sentient being too has its hold.
“Mercurial vistas, like towering clouds, travel along invisible currents at entirely their own whim. Inside these minor planes, thought can be given physical form. Much as one might discern the shape of a horse in a floating column of cumulonimbus mists, so too might one’s thoughts literally spring forth into action. We call such a place Dream.
“And now we turn to the first forms of emergent life in our universe. The sun’s light dances through the firmament with spritely life all their own. On these rays come the first inklings of passion – love, hate, fear, joy, sorrow, envy – in all its purest forms. If you have ever visited such a realm, then you would know at once of the land of which I speak. It is the Feywild, where we find not creatures of logical thought, but creatures of concentrated and eternal emotion.
“And yet, for their sheer unadulterated love of life, the fey do not possess souls. Scholars have frowned and debated: why might this be? I offer a simple and perhaps litigious proposal: the fey possess only one half of a whole.
“For where the Feywild and the Dream border, a new offspring is born. Where sun meets cloud, rainbows spring to life. And where thought meets intent, and passion meets action, there we might find a complete soul.
“In all our travels upon all the planes, no researcher has ever reported finding such a place. But I am convinced one must exist, and it must be one of the few places where the Ethereal borders the Feywild. I would call it the ‘Wellspring‘…and I think I understand why Lord Ao might hold it as the most protected of secrets. For here would be the most holy and sacred land in all the universe, the ultimate source of all life and power…perhaps even of Ao’s himself.
“And where does this soul travel, once it has formed? Why, it falls. It falls as naturally as the rain from the firmament, spawned in its bosom but yet still a stranger. It strikes, as anyone might anticipate, on the canopy of our tree: its first stop on the Prime Material Plane.
“Now let us consider this great Tree I have described. Directly opposing the sky is the ground, or the inner planes of the Elemental Chaos as most now call it. It is here that we find stone, water, fire, metal…all of the fundamental building blocks needed for reality. If Dream is the realm of all possible conception, the Elemental Chaos is the realm of all possible creation.
“It is deep within these rocks that the roots of our great Tree form, the physical arrangement of all permanent, non-transitive planes. Such an arboreal concept is hardly new; it was called ‘Yggdrasil’ to students of the Great Wheel, and the ‘World Tree’ to those who came after. Its form connects the non-transitive planes…and is, in fact, what bodily constitutes such planes.
“Once they have reached the Prime Material, souls combine with bodies through a conjoiner known as an ‘animating spirit.’ (Those with backgrounds in necromancy will understand this process; it is the animating spirit that moves the body, but it is the soul that gives it purpose.) The full, complete sentient creature counts down its allotted number of days like an automaton slowly winds down its spring, until its body, spirit, or soul are depleted. Then the creature breaks apart again into its constituents, and the soul continues its natural ‘downward’ journey.
“The soul continues its trickling down the bark that makes up the outer skin of the tree (that is, the Ethereal that borders most planes, and the natural pathway of the disembodied soul). Eventually the tiny droplet makes its way into the dark, fetid loam. This place of Shadow is the natural destination of all things that have been depleted or used up, and you will find no plane more hollow. All colors are muted, all emotions dampened. And yet, it is as vital a plane as that of the sun-touched Feywild, for it retains within it the memories of all living things that have passed through. And it directs the souls towards their final destinations.
“The great trunk of our Tree branches outwards again at the splitting of the Fugue Plane, where souls are assigned their final destinations by Kelemvor himself. There are any number of ‘Outer Planes’ that may await our tiny soul drop; some scholars quote seventeen, others list as many as fifty-three. These destinations are positioned in what you may envision as a ring of roots, mirroring the canopy of the Material Plane above in its breath and complexity, but in a far more orderly and regimented manner. Their structure and arrangement around the tree trunk axis of Sigil are decreed by the gods themselves – one of the few aspects of creation over which they maintain complete control.
“Once the drop has proceeded to its awaiting ‘root,’ it is absorbed back directly into the Tree that guided it since inception. Whether it is accepted as a petitioner by the choirs of Arcadia, transformed into a lemure in the Nine Hells, or even ultimately discorporated in Limbo, its addition is vital for the continued health of the Tree and all its parts.
“And here we have our final metaphor: the entire shape of the universe, from the largest realm in the Material Plane, to the tiniest forgotten corner inhabited by forgotten gods, lives and breathes only through the passage of souls. Without them, our entire cosmos would shrivel. Indeed, while it is theorized and documented that multiple worlds exist, all return to this very simple fact: without the birth and termination of sentient creatures, the universe as we know it would die.
“You have have noticed I neglected to mention one very important region. Other great minds have have said that given an infinite universe, all possibilities will eventually occur. If our universe can be described as the summation of everything that has been, is now, or ever could be, then the dimension of all impossibility would be the Far Realm.
“Any description of the Far Realm that lies outside our universe would be a falsehood, for it is impossible to hold within a sentient mind. Our world operates on reliable, consistent laws of space, time, and distance. Not so for the Far Realm; all paradoxes are equally true and false. There you can have a flower that is a bluish-yellow. There you can have a bowl that fits neatly within itself. And there you can find an almighty god who makes a stone too heavy to lift.
“And that is why any breach between our universe and that which lies without it is so dangerous. It leaks impossibility into a universe that follows the rules of empirical measurement and causality. Infected flesh no longer follows the laws of biology. Logic no longer follows formal arguments.
“But take heart, you who take up the Shining Blade of Torm. Just as the Far Realm brings a little of its universe to ours, we bring a little of ours to it. As soon as any breach enters our universe, it becomes subject to our rules. Impossible thoughts are suddenly constrained within three dimensions. If it can be seen; it can be felt; and if it can bleed, it can die.”
Finric / Fang
ii. The Changeling
Professor Orazio’s words, conveyed to them during a college class of yesteryear, returned to the agents’ minds. No matter how large, how intimidating, or how loathsome an aberration might appear to their minds, there existed always a means by which to kill it.
The surface Alexi and Charli had stepped on attached itself to their heels. Before either could react, the living boulder that made up the “blotter” mimic engulfed both within its ravenous gullet. Stomach juices began excreting from around them to digest them whole.
The rest of the party (only a short ways behind) ran quickly to help, yet aid would be difficult. While inside the maw of the beast, their two friends could not be targeted by spells and effects.
With only a word, the hideous mimic was reduced to the form of a tiny baby turtle. If it retained the ability to shapechange back into its more dangerous form, it had conveniently forgotten how to do so. Berkin picked it up and held it in his hand, a sort of trophy. As long as he maintained his concentration on his polymorph spell, the beast would remain in this shape for the next hour. Plenty of time to finish up their business here.
Alexis and Charli, ejected from the mimic when it had polymorphed, “swam” through the air to a nearby floating boulder. The gravity on this plane was “subjective directional”; that is, it was normal as long as they were touching a solid object of sufficient size. Otherwise, they were weightless.
Rather than war with the human races that constantly encroached on their territories in the Yuirwood, these star elves instead banded together to split an entire demiplane from the Feywild itself. Naming it Sildëyuir, they withdrew to their new country nearly two thousand years prior. There they would live peaceably in glass cities, under a bright eternal twilight.
(Star elves were often classified to as a “third generation” elves, as they were no longer fully fey, nor did they possess strong fey-like abilities. However, this vast simplification was only used by non-elven scholars, as elves commonly intermarried across cultures and did not trace their ancestry in single straight-line lineages.)
But this would not be the last time the star elves “pinched off” a portion of a plane. Rock had uncovered rumors of another demiplane further created from Sildëyuir – a high-security prison named Stardeep. It had been designed as a secret, impregnable vault to house only the most formidable of dangers to Faerûn…though Rock had never learned what had warranted such extreme measures.
Perhaps now she would gain an answer. The party’s journey along the disconnected floating islands led them to a circular platform with pillars space along the outside. The platform itself was cracked in two; and though it still held together in a fashion, it was clear the ravages of time had not been kind.
Upon the ring circling the interior were words carved in every language the agents knew, and in many they did not. The messages all said the same:
This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is present in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the world, and it can erase all life, overwriting all with abomination.
The danger may be unleashed if this place is disturbed. Shun this place. Turn around.
Separating each translation from another was a repeated stamp: a depiction of a drooping tree inside a circle. Charli recognized this seal. It was the symbol of the Keepers of the Cerulean Sign, an old (and possible extinct) order that had devoted themselves to fighting aberrations – and other incursions from the Far Realms – in all their forms. Instead of operating under an established organization (as the agents did), each member had trained and acted on their own initiative.
This meant that there was no “heart” of the order of the Cerulean Seal for enemies to strike at. This also meant it was nearly impossible to verify if any Keepers still lived.
And what the Keepers had meant to contain was easily evident at the platform’s core. Within a ring of sigil-enforced metal, chained to the platform by heavy chains, floated an abhorrent mass of flesh. Vicious fluids dripped from pores, shaggy hair grew from protrusions, and fatty lumps pulsed or throbbed of their own accord.
Beholding this abomination in all its detestable glory, Alston shuddered. The phrase “Living Gate” rose unbidden to his lips. There were places in the universe where the veil between the Material Plane and the Far Realm wore a little too thin. At these places, vistas of impossibility would intrude upon the orderly world of Faerûn, spawning monsters and abominations.
The Living Gate was one such place, a breach in reality that had taken on a fell life of its own. The gate to nightmares was held shut only by a single oozing sphincter. But the accounts Alston had read referenced its presence in the Feydark, the underground of the Feywild. Its new location here surprised him.
“Hello?” called a tiny, falsetto voice from somewhere in the darkness. “Is someone there?”
Peering around the pillars of the platform, Alexis stumbled across a small glass ink bottle and quill, but one that affixed him with two tiny eyes and spoke directly.
“Oh, hello,” greeted Alexis. “There’s a lonely book mimic that’s been looking for you.”
The ink bottle let out a very long, exasperated whinny of a sigh. “Oh gods, not him. I came all the way out here to get away from him. He thinks that just because he’s the only book mimic and I’m the only ink bottle mimic on this entire plane, that means we’re destined to be together.”
The agents shifted awkwardly. This certainly put a new spin on the book mimic’s entreaties.
Rock pointed to the feather pen jammed into the mimic’s head. “Is that…quill also a mimic? Is it a part of you?”
“Why, this, no! That’s just my hat.” The ink bottle shimmied itself to shift the feather quill in a different direction. “Do you adventurers just assume everything’s a mimic?”
“Ha ha, no, of course not; that would be silly!” The agents laughed nervously and exchanged meaningful glances.
“Would you like to come with us, away from this place?” Rock offered. “We can take you away from the book mimic.”
“Oh, yes please, would you?” the ink bottle mimic answered. As soon as it/she was assured safe passage far, far away from the book mimic, it hacked a gooey lump onto the stone tiles. As the ink retreated from the form, Alexis recognized it as a small silver key, of just the right size for the snow globe they’d recovered.
“One of the ladies who used to visit here said someone might be needing this,” the ink bottle explained. “She said that someone might need to make sure this place was ‘secure.’ I don’t know what she meant, but I was to give that person this.”
Alexis nodded. He turned back to see Rock literally poking the Living Gate with a stick. He yelled out a quick “No!” but it was in vain. Rock’s quarterstaff, initially meeting resistance, was abruptly sucked into the orifice with a wet squelching noise.
A moment later, it was ejected again, landing on the stone floor with an audible “Ouch!” Two eyes that had not been there just moments before now blinked in confusion, and a tongue lolled from a new toothy maw.
Witnessing these events jogged a memory in Finric’s mind. The prevailing theory among scholars stated that mimics had been originally created by seclusive and paranoid wizards as an added security measure for their riches. There was also some speculation that the Far Realm had played some part in their creation.
These concurrent events seemed to confirm both theories. He imagined the sages back at the Order would be very interested in the party’s findings.
Alexis warned his friends against throwing anything more into the monstrous portal, and that any further interaction could prove very disastrous. After all, it had undoubtedly been sealed away for a reason via arcane magic, behind warnings in every language, on a demiplane few could access.
He was, for the most part, successful. After depositing the ink bottle mimic in his backpack (carefully avoiding its instinctive lunges at his fingers), Alexis shooed his friends back towards the observatory. Rock made certain to bring her newest staff-shaped friend along.
The party did not discern that Berken lagged behind, out of sight, for a few moments by himself. They also did not immediately notice when the kobold rejoined the group, a self-satisfied grin on his face.
And yet, every so often, if one were to listen very carefully, might might hear a soft “Daddy?” from the monster skull drum that Berkin always carried with him.
Alexis and Alston discussed what they had learned of the golden Key that still sat at the bottom of Alexis’s rucksack. The three-part process used to create it apparently involved throwing a mundane key into the Living Gate; from there, it would re-emerge as a mimic version of itself.
“Well, that would certainly explain how it’d been described in those Zhentarim papers you collected,” Alston mused. “‘It will open up to you any lock not sealed by the arcane, and many of which that are,’” he quoted.
“That’s because it’s a mimic,” Alexis said, finishing the thought. “And a mimic key can adjust itself to any keyhole it finds.”
Which implied they could likely use it on the snow globe itself, if events necessitated it. For now, however, they would follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the three different destinations.
The party passed the book-and-table mimic duo on their way out to the ruined tower, where a ladder led back into the plane-shifting observatory. The book mimic hailed them as they passed.
“You’re back! Did you make it past the blotter? Did you find the ink bottle?”
“Er, yes,” Rock mumbled, as Alexis held his bag close, where the ink bottle mimic hid. “She, uh, she’s on a vacation. On a trip. She won’t be back for a while.”
Her deceptions were unsuccessful.
“YOU LIE!” the book mimic screamed at her. “I DON’T KNOW HOW, BUT YOU’RE LYING TO ME! WHERE IS SHE?! YOU’RE KEEPING HER FROM ME! YOU’VE POISONED HER MIND AGAINST ME!”
Any attempt to placate the mimic was useless, and the party hurried away from the spectacle. The book mimic’s demeanor had become very unsettling, and they had nothing to gain by winning it over.
Berkin, again the last one to depart the scene, left the book mimic a parting gift. “Don’t worry. See? We brought a new friend to keep you company.”
Depositing the “baby turtle” on the table next to the book, he ran to catch up with his friends. Whatever happened in the few minutes, it would likely prove very interesting.
iii. Child of Glass
Safely back in the observatory itself and on the other side of a closed trapdoor, the agents got to work decoding the sequence for a second destination. Charli studied the words written on the cherry wood satyr and picked out five more key phrases:
The serpent’s bitter hate grows against Rivalyn,
As his blank face moves to sound the hunting horn.
Thus, the way to the wild is opened.
Cross-referencing their documents, they assembled the following sequence:
Maerilzoun – Delban – Labraen – Zhudun – The Horn
The constellation that made up Labraen (or, “The Archer”) was a little easier to decipher, and soon the skylight outside the observatory was shifting again. This time, it settled on dimly-lit heavens, where an afterglow of fading sunlight at the horizons faded towards deep blue at the highest points.
This time, the ladder angling down from the observatory did not end in a ruined tower. Instead, the space gradually narrowed, until Charli and Alexis (at the fore) found themselves standing together in a dark space barely five feet wide. Dim lighting entered the cavity through cracks in the surrounding walls.
As the agents jostled, they noticed clothes hanging on racks beside them. Alexis donned his spectacles to take a close look in the darkness. These were overgarments, and well-crafted. Had he to hazard a guess, he would guess elves had a hand in their creation.
“Hush!” Berkin suddenly whispered from above them, in the dark. “Do you hear that?”
When the agents stood perfectly still, they could detect a small sobbing noise from somewhere just nearby. It resembled a child’s voice, mumbling quietly but earnestly. There were tears.
“It sounds Elven,” remarked Alston, who had been trained in the family of languages. “But it’s an odd dialect. I don’t recognize this one. They seem to be…praying?”
Alexis placed his hand on the wall nearest the sound; it shifted a fraction, as if on a hinge. Suddenly realizing where he (and the rest of his group) stood, he strode boldly from the wardrobe he had crouched inside.
He was now in the elven bedroom of an expansive house tree. The trappings and furniture were as ornate and finely-decorated as one would expect from the best elven crafters. Nearby, his head buried in spreadsheets, knelt an elven boy of perhaps ten.
As soon as Alexis had stepped into the open, the boy’s head snapped up in surprise. His eyes widened in amazement. “Corellon does answer prayers!”
“Now slow down there,” Alexis persuaded in Elven, which he also understood. “Why don’t you tell us why you were crying? Is there any way we can help?”
“‘Us’? ‘We’?” the boy repeated in astonishment, as more of Alexis’s companions stumbled from the wooden frame. “How many more of you are in there? How did you all fit? Why were you hiding in my closet?”
“That’s, uh, a very long story,” Alexis deferred. “You seem to be upset. Would you tell us what the problem is?”
The boy returned instantly to the source of his worry. “Hurry! You have to come with me! The creatures are attacking again, and I’m afraid they’ll kill my dads!”
The agents decided action preceded explanation, and they hurried after the boy. His route led them from the upper levels of the house tree towards the forest floor. The ring of twilight tracing the entire horizon confirmed to Rock that they had voyaged to the demiplane of Sildëyuir; but these were not the cities of glass she had learned about. Instead, the city seemed more like a hastily-erected outpost. Or, perhaps even, a refuge.
Not far away, other star elf families ran, but in the opposite direction. Wherever the elf boy was leading them, it was directly into danger.
The boy’s footsteps ended at a stone courtyard at one edge of the tree village, where it seemed a stone monument was erected. Unfortunately, the agents had no opportunity to admire the hallowed ground, as they had happened upon a scene of violence.
Nearest them, an elf man in glistening green armor lay prone upon the ground, blood pooling from his open mouth. On the far side, flanking the monument on either side floated four corpulent monstrosities. Resembling oversized grub larvae, they were hoisted into the air on impossibly small insect wings. Three eyes moved on extended stalks, and three whip-like tentacles sprouted greedily-grasping fingers.
Asura had not read the same documents on Sildëyuir as Rock, but he had learned about intermittent incursions into Aglarond by floating, three-armed and three-eyed monstrosities. These were the nilshai, adept spellcasters hailing from some unknown distant plane. They seemed to navigate via the Ethereal, normally the domain of spirits, and they harbored only contempt for Faerûn natives and broached no interference in their designs.
One last figure took the field. A second star elf in full armor stood, back to the agents, interposing himself between the four buzzing aberrations and his fallen comrade behind him. He gripped an finely-crafted elven shortsword with each hand, and he roared his defiance. “I swear upon my oath as a Knight and my vow as a husband, you’ll not have him!”
Sensing newcomers from behind him, he called out over his shoulder. “I know not if ye be friend or foe, but if you have any sense of justice, you will help me avenge my love!”
The agents moved to assist. As they would agree later, this was perhaps the least morally-ambiguous combat they’d yet taken part in.
That is not to say, however, that the battle would be easy. Far from it. As soon as Berkin began running towards the downed elf to heal him, one of the aberrations twitched its fingers in a pattern of arcane design. The kobold suddenly found himself forcibly banished from the plane of Sildëyuir itself. He reappeared in the observatory, which was neither truly here nor there.
Fortunately, this was a spell that required concentration, and a combination of Finric’s Hunter’s Mark and a few crossbow bolts sufficiently distracted the monster. Berkin popped directly back in his previous location, mildly disorientated.
The nilshai continued with their clever and confounding tricks. As Charli began to let loose with his poison-tipped arrows, a dome of translucent force dropped down around him. Though he was impervious to all spells and damage while inside, he was also unable to attack anything on the outside.
As Charli’s comrades moved to disrupt the spellcaster, another floating monstrosity waved its tentacles, summoning a bright glowing red bead between its fingertips. This flew outwards from the nilshai, striking the ground and blooming into a brief but blinding ball of fire. Asura, Rock, Berkin, and Alston were all caught in the blast of the Fireball.
It proved difficult to turn the tide of battle. As a third nilshai drifted towards the singed agents, it began forming another spell to punish – and possibly kill – multiple combatants. Alexis made several quick motions with his fingers as a reply, sending a counterspell to end the magic before it could be cast.
But the nilshai was not out of tricks. While two of its hands maintained their hold on the burgeoning magic, its third mimicked Alexis’s own motions, in turn counterspelling his counterspell, to allow its Cone of Cold to cast successfully.
Fortunately, there was one more player on the field. Alston also threw his own counterspell into the mix. Outnumbered, the nilshai was unable to craft its dangerous weave, and the combatants were left unfazed.
The star elf wielding dual shortswords leaped at the nilshai whose spell had imprisoned Charli. He struck once, twice, three times! Three solid blows rocked the pulpy mass, a burst of sunlight flashing with every hit. Still, the aberration’s mind was strong, and it held its focus on the containment spell.
That is, until Rock-in-Water’s sky cloud had finished forming. Stretching out her finger, she directed the path of lightning bolts across the battlefield. The first passed through the chest of the nilshai the elf battled, stopping its malformed heart within its chest. With its demise, the globe of force that had encased Charli too vanished.
Asura moved to the battlefield. A ranged Healing Word brought the second felled elf back to consciousness. Then, the cleric’s floating Spiritual Weapon mirroring his own movements, he met the nilshai face-to-face. Having already been injured by a combination of attacks from the other agents, the second nilshai succumbed to Asura’s blunt object.
As Asura, Rock, and Alexis weathered a second Fireball, the wounded elf limped towards the rear of the combatants. He still trailed blood from multiple wounds.
Alexis addressed him as he slung Eldritch Blasts at the remaining two monstrosities. “Your son was brave enough to lead us here to save you. Go find him and keep him safe.” Another shimmering field deflected the warlock’s attacks. These last two nilshai might prove difficult to take down.
In response, the wounded elf stood a little straighter and unslung the bow at his back. “Not while I still draw breath, and enemies yet threaten my family,” he vowed. His trembling hands sent an arrow towards the foes.
Alexis noticed that, while the arrow itself flew wide, it still passed through the bubble protecting the nilshai and its adjacent ally. This was not a Wall of Force, as before. Instead, it was something more precise…
E. A Quiet Place in the Country
i. The Others
Rock-in-Water too noticed that no spells were punctuating the shield bubble, but that physical objects were unaffected. Grabbing three Blasting Powders strung together, she tossed the series of explosives through the protective circle and next to the central nilshai.
The blast, though causing little damage to the obese monsters, was still disorientating. The spellcasting nilshai flinched as the blasts exploded next to its three eyestalks. Its Globe of Invulnerabilty dropped.
Alston quickly followed up on the opening with another field of Magnified Gravity.
Realizing the newcomers had completely flipped the odds of battle, the aberrations decided to withdraw. One placed a tentacle on its companion as it wove a spell with its remaining two limbs. Alexis realized it was attempting to Teleport away from danger.
Alexis began a Counterspell in response, but then recalled that both enemies could reply with one of their own. Instead of weaving a spell with words and motions, he attempted casting his spell using only his mind, and sheer force of will. A spell with no material, verbal, or somatic components was a spell that could not be itself countered.
He was only partially successful. His psionic talents had come into their own, and he was able to invisibly cast the spell through intense concentration, but it was still not strong enough to stop the Teleport. The two nilshai vanished to other lands.
Or they would have, that is, if they had not been discombobulated by the sudden reversal of battle. Instead of reappearing a safe distance away, the nilshai popped back into existence at the edge of the memorial field.
The monsters were not able to withdraw unscathed, but withdraw they did nonetheless. As Charli pelted them with poisoned arrows, each nilshai in turn shimmered and faded away into the Ethereal – much as the ghosts of the mansion had when the agents had bested them.
The village was secure, and no more attacks were forthcoming. Rock examined the bodies of the two fallen nilshai, but their foreign anatomies were about as useful to her as those of a deep sea slug.
Thindhul and Glyndryn moved first to embrace each other after combat. Thindhul quietly whispered with relief that he would not be carving his love’s name on the monument today. Then the two Empyrean Knights turned to welcome and thank the strangers who’d helped secure the day.
These battle grounds, the agents learned, were a monument to the fallen of the Empyrean Knights, an revered institution of organized star elf soldiers. For the most part, their role was to guard Sildëyuir (and the gates leading there) from invasion; though (as the agents would soon learn), they were sometimes tasked with other specific missions. Such as the safeguarding of Stardeep, when that prison had still been active.
The party of Shining Blade agents split at this point to accomplish various tasks. After giving Glynryn one of their recovered Healing Potions, Alexis escourted the wounded knight back to his home, where he would regroup with his son.
Charli, Rock, and Alston, on the other hand, volunteered to accompany Thindhul in a quick sweep of their elven village, searching for the wounded and any remaining threats. Those elves who’d fled also needed instructions to return.
As they went, Thindhul spoke of the threats that he and his family faced. For nearly two centuries of Faerûn time (and long before the Spellplague), the star elves of Sildëyuir had been under assault by these same malignant monstrosities from the Ethereal Plane.
The raids were intermittent at first – a small village here, an outpost there. Often attacks would go unnoticed until well after the fact. By the 15th century DR, however, the situation in Sildëyuir had become dire, as entire swathes of the star elves’ homelands had been lost to the invaders.
And lands the nilshai seized were slowly corrupted, fading into dark banks of misty fog – terrain likely similar to what the nilshai were accustomed to. No one was certain what their ultimate goal was. Perhaps they wished to take the elves’ home as a beachhead to launch further assaults on the Material Plane. Perhaps the reasons were more complicated or subtle. But whatever the cause, the star elves suffered for it. Where once they had lived in tall towers of glass, the star elves now clung to tree outposts, such as the one they now patrolled.
“The invaders strike when and where they please,” Thindul explained, “and even where we hold our ground, we are unable to press the advantage, for the nilshai withdraw and regroup as they see fit. We can only jaunt to and from other planes through our menhir gates; the enemy can do it at will.
“On top of this, time runs differently in Sildëyuir than in the realm where where these monsters reside. The nilshai have twice as much time to prepare for any attacks as we do, and twice as long to recover.”
“How different does time run in Sildëyuir than the Material Plane?” asked Charli. He had heard stories of visitors to the Feywild who spent only one night in that mystical realm, who returned home to learn that an entire century had passed for their loved ones.
“Nothing so drastic as for the courts of the Seelie,” laughed Thindhul, sensing Charli’s apprehension. “But yes, time does run more slowly here. One hour spent here translates to two hours in your realm. Though the effect does help extend our already-lengthy lifespans, it works against us in this situation.”
Back at his family’s home, Glynryn filled the other agents in on other important events of the past century (Faerûn time).
“My husband Thindhul doesn’t like to talk about it much,” Glynryn said quietly, “but he used to be the captain of a contingent of other Empyrean Knights, assigned to help the Keepers of the Cerulean Sign, at a prison called Stardeep. Unfortunately, some very bad things happened while he was stationed there that he doesn’t like to talk about much, even with me. Later, when the Spellplague made his assignment at Stardeep redundant, he returned here to help the battle against the nilshai. It’s not always been easy, and it’s not always gone well, and I know he’s very hard on himself because of it.”
Glynryn carefully undid his armor and eased himself onto the master bed, nursing his wounds. “Our son Beidan tells me you came out of our closet. This may sound strange, but today was actually not the first time such a thing has occurred.”
Multiple menhir circles and secret doorways connected the star elves’ domain to that of the Yuirwood in Aglarond. Their mechanisms known to only the star elves, Sildëyuir had few (if any) visitors. Still, in 1421 Dale Reckoning, a lady wizard in flowing red robes suddenly appeared in the nearby forest, having apparently learned the secrets of one of the doorways.
Though Thindhul had been suspicious at first, this “Dhenna Shavres” had formed a working arrangement: should she come across any personal effects or news of fallen Empyrean Knights, she would trade them to Thindhul for use in the fallen memorial. In return, she would receive appropriate payment in fey gold.
“Fey gold?” Alexis repeated.
“A very pure and high-quality form of gold,” Glynryn explained. “Such metal is only possible on the Material Plane with exceedingly precise purifying methods, so I’m told. We were hardly surprised; humans asking for gold is a bit of a stereotype at this point, I’m afraid. Still, learning the final fate of those missing in action was well worth the cost. Our monument outside wouldn’t have been half as complete without Dhenna’s help.”
Alexis kept his council. He knew this “fey gold” had not been added to Dhenna’s personal treasury; instead, it had been smelted for direct use in the creation of the Keys.
The Red Wizard had called on Thindhul and Glynryn off and on over the span of a quarter century, after which the visits had abruptly ceased. The star elves did not have another visitor from the Material Plane until 1475 DR. Unlike her mother, however, this new “Tharna Shavres” had appeared in the same very closet the agents had stepped from today.
“She wasn’t interested in gold like her mother, nor in any form of business arrangement. She said she had found her way here, based on notes her mother left behind after her death, and with the help of a man versed in the stars. Tharna wouldn’t tell us much, but she seemed very concerned about ‘security,’ as she put it. After all, a door can open both ways, and I think she was just as worried about something from our world entering hers as we are about enemies entering ours.
“In the end, I chose not to assuage her fears. I mean, could I have, in all good conscience? You’ve seen the nilshai and what they can do. Tharna left us a key and told us someone may come by later to make sure the ways were ‘secure,’ as she put it.”
“Did the key happen to look anything like…this?” Alexis questioned, holding up the silver key they’d won in Stardeep.
“Ah, so you’ve met?” Glynryn theorized. “That would explain why you arrived via the same path. How is she doing?”
“I’m afraid she’s dead,” Charli declared reluctantly, entering the room; there was no good way to sugarcoat the truth. He, Thindhul, and the others had just returned from their clean sweep of the perimeter.
“That’s a shame,” Glynryn replied, “though I suppose hardly surprising. Time does move twice as quickly in your world, and humans are not known for their long life spans. How did she die?”
Charli and Alexis shared an uncomfortable glance. “I’m afraid that’s something we’re still investigating,” Charli answered. “We are seekers of truth, and we are following Tharna’s trail to the end. The key she gave you could very much help us in this matter. Would you give it to us?”
Thindhul looked Charli and the others up and down with a careful, assessing gaze. Then he retreated to an adjacent room, where he dug through a disorganized jumble of odds-and-ends.
“I don’t know any of you, but you stood beside me in defending my village and family, and that counts for something. Plus, you already seem to know something of the lady who gave me the key, and its purpose.”
He recovered the second silver key from the rear of a drawer and returned to present it. “I never really knew Tharna, other than the few times we met, but she seemed nice enough. Perhaps if there was some malintent involved in her passing, you might help put her soul to rest.”
Alexis accepted the key and placed it with the other. “We will certainly do our best. Is there anything further we could do to help you against the nilshai?”
Thindhul sighed. “Not unless you’re willing to emigrate to Sildëyuir and lay your life down along with us. We seem to be waging a losing war against a superior foe. That said, should you happen across intelligence on the nilshai – perhaps where they stage, their motives, any possible weaknesses – that could go far in aiding our cause.”
The agents nodded. Charli in particular, who had studied something of asymmetric warfare (such as guerilla tactics and hit-and-run missions) reflected on how difficult the war would be for the star elves. They were fighting an enemy with superior preparation that could outmaneuver them at will; the elves would need to take the fight to the enemy or be broken ultimately by attrition. Yet, judging from their previous history involving human encroachers, it seemed aggression was not in these elves’ natures.
After a short rest, plus a few forced and awkward farewells, the agents returned to the wardrobe to the ladder back to their observatory. The elf family watched them go, the boy in particular with rapt fascination.
ii. Ghost Parade
When they were again on their own, Alexis proposed continuing on to the third location, despite having the ability to simply skip it. (After all, they could replace the third silver key with the arcane golden Key they’d earned in the Underdark). For one, he suspected activating the snow globe would set in motion new events they’d have no control over. He felt it best to save that for last, when they’d exhausted all other options.
For another, they still did not fully understand the three-part process of Key creation. They knew it began with forging fey gold into keys via the smithing tools of the empty house. They also knew it ended with placing the finished key in the Living Gate, and withdrawing the awakened product. But the origin of the ruby “eyes,” how they were cut, and how they contributed to making something other than just a ravenous mimic, were questions still unanswered.
Alexis wished to know these things. And his friends agreed with him.
Rock-in-Water suggested studying the snow globe more closely. Using her magnifying glass (withdrawn from a grab bag where Rock often stored interesting baubles), Charli carefully inspected each detail residing within the sphere.
The replica of the house, though accurate, was not of particularly noteworthy craftsmanship. However, inside the model itself, barely visible within the windows, three humanoid figures reposed. Two seemed to resemble known residents of the house – the dwarf and the male human, specifically – though they seemed older than in their portraits. The third, which he anticipated to be Tharna, resembled a different woman entirely.
The miniature figures had been reproduced in stunningly-fine detail, quite at odds with the other contents of the globe. It must have taken a supernaturally fine tool (and an even steadier hand) to give these shapes such a semblance of life.
And yet, a semblance was all they had. For they were just as inanimate and lifeless as the contraption that contained them.
The agents reviewed the third cryptic phrase, etched on the granite raven:
Tears and whispers are offered up by the jester,
But red and green are the eyes of the watching woman.
Thus, the way to shadow is opened.
For the third time, the agents compared the keywords with the book notes. Normally not one for puzzles, Rock-in-Water was elated to decipher that the “eyes of the watching woman” referred specifically to the Double Daggers constellation.
Belnimbra’s Belt – Caiphon – The Jester – Nihal – The Double Daggers
The sky outside the observatory shifted for a third and final time, but there was no welcoming sunlight or chorus of stars to greet them. Instead, grey and dismal clouds obscured the heavens.
The dim, anemic lighting followed them as they climbed down the ladder. Much like in Stardeep, they emerged in the ruins of a stone tower, but the landscape was painted in only muted colors of black and grey.
The effect was much like being deep in the woods on a moonless night, when the world could only be described in varying shades of colorless shadow. Except here, the effect remained no matter the level of illumination.
The agents held their ash-white hands in front of their faces. Their torches sputtered dimly with sickly pale hues. The overall ambience was unsettling.
The interlopers cast their gaze further afield. They stood in the ruins of a shadow mansion, a portion of it bridging across an ancient cobblestone road. Far to the west and far to the east the stone path stretched, its terminus invisible beyond the distant hills.
Along this path, their way faintly illuminated by their own ethereal forms, blank-faced ghosts slowly ambled towards their final destinations. Any wounds they received in death were still very much visible. They trudged drearily and listlessly; their unblinking gazes varying neither to the left nor the right.
The agents noticed that every so often, a spirit would sometimes pause. It would stare blankly at a personal trinket or possession – a bracelet on their wrist, a crumpled letter in a pocket, a locket about their neck. This confusion only lasted a moment before the spirit would cast the item to the side of the path, like a discarded piece of refuse, before continuing on.
It was then the agents beheld the great flock of ravens swirling high above their heads, nearly invisible against the dark sky. Whenever a drifting spirit unburdened itself of an earthly effect, one of these birds would swoop in quickly to gather the item in its beak. Then it would wing off towards the north, eventually disappearing behind the outlines of rocky crags and cliff faces.
“The Raven Queen,” Charli muttered out loud. He’d heard stories about the god-like entity of the Shadowfell, and her undying purpose of gathering memories from the dead and dying. She was sometimes active on the Material Plane as well, where her agents collected mementos of loss and tragedy. These memoirs were then transported to the Raven Queen’s “Fortress of Memories” – or one of them, perhaps. Much of what was known about the Raven Queen was incomplete. Accounts of the entity were always contradictory, from her origins, to her motives, to even her true form.
“Some say her ravens are not simply collecting bits and baubles mindlessly,” said Alexis, adding to Charli’s thoughts. “Some say the process is a very necessary element in the process of a soul’s journey – that ‘Cascade of Souls’ we learned about in the college.
“I’ve heard stories of Petitioners in the Outer Planes – that is, souls who’ve gone to their final rests – retaining no memories of their past lives on earth. Perhaps it is necessary for a soul to be rid of all earthly baggage before it can enter its god’s domain. And, perhaps, it is the the ravens who help accomplish this.”
Rock-in-Water too chimed in. She admitted she had looked into supernatural help in combatting the forces of the Abyss, after they had had their identities stolen from them in the temple of Umeren. The Raven Queen was one such entity she felt might be able to aid them against Umeren, Juiblex, and even Ghaunadaur; and she was excited to confirm or deny her suspicions.
She did not reveal which other entities she’d also considered.
The party regarded the quiet progression of souls. They recognized all forms of humanoids – humans, dwarves, orcs, halflings, elves, tieflings, gnomes, and more, of all shapes and color. Some were children. Some were babes, carried by others obviously not their parents.
Many still carried the trappings of their earlier professions…the shield of a crusader, or the bow of a ranger, for example. But these too gradually fell by the wayside.
Luckily, there was no one the group personally recognized. They watched in silence for a time.
“I wonder how long it’s been since my own soul passed this way,” Charli murmured. The others reluctantly nodded. Four of those present had physically died in a nearby dungeon, only a few months prior.
Since the spirits did not respond to their presence, and because there seemed nothing more to gain here, the party finally turned their attention towards the structure to the south.
The Shadowfell often mirrored terrain found in the Material Plane; forested mountains became foreboding knife-edge crags, pleasant lakes became deep inky depths. Even cities might find their shadow here, as dilapidated ruins or haunted villas; such occurrences were termed “shadow-analogues.”
Rose Keep had its own version here as well, though heavily decayed. Only a memory of the first floor survived, with no remaining wall taller than six feet. The agents began their investigations here.