The Lance of Marduk
The Princess Diaries
I have been tasked with a mission of detection and threat-management, and these are to be my companions: a blasphemous wizard without any semblance of self-control, a mischievous halfling with only half a mind for plans, a self-loathing drunkard with a half the wit of the halfling and the other half of the wizard’s blasphemy, and a respectable, badass paladin. Curiosity does breed some sticky situations.
Away, that’s where I’m finally going. Released, and now away. Home, with the order, serving, practicing, training, simply via the most mundane of means imaginable – that’s behind me, time for the real world now. Quite a questionable company I’ve got now though, it would appear. Had that been me bursting into a temple any number of years ago… that would have likely been my final year. Such complete disregard for the sanctity of the temple, damn him. I know it’s not my place, but damn him!
Patience, yes, composure. He seems an interesting fellow, fiery enough to prompt intrigue. But fire burns people, and that’s why it must be snuffed – but damn that as well! Their rules, their discipline, it means nothing to the rest of the world. I am not a pawn, if anything a rook, a knight, away from a castle. Free to explore, to dwell, to toy with fire. I know well enough where truth lies, where to return if anything catches, where to seek guidance; so much can be fixed though. “Acceptable losses,” and it’s my job to prevent them, barring that, to mitigate. My duty, not my task. Not assigned – inherent, intrinsic.
Whether I was meant to be or not, whether my value exceeds that of my utility, a token, a mere bargaining chip, here, I conduct the bargains. Power-play… But not so far. I’ll stay in my place, do not worry, I live to serve, but here, there’s significance. What I am means so much more. No more seclusion, goodbye old, walled-in world. This is more, this is my choice, this is real.
Dear gods. I’ve seen death before, but not like that. Not on my hands. Not of wounds that I was meant to heal. A closer friend, yes, but not my charge, not under my direction. The rogue wasn’t, it wasn’t my direction, he followed his own plans, joined of his own volition… didn’t we all? But there were none above. Trestin and I knew what we were getting into, or really we didn’t know, but we chose it. He died following their plan, the same plan I followed, so the blame was off my hands. Was it? They were the ones who orchestrated it, the ones to admit fault, not me. Here… no one else may answer to it. The rogue fell on my quest. My prayers are filled with repentance, and I shall not forget that small sir.
That was real combat, nothing like a hypothetical training environment, nothing like the choreographed advances of an army. Motions are not predetermined responses. Actions are fluid. The opponent is unpredictable. The allies are unpredictable. Most of all, the stakes are real and tangible. Too tangible…
We notified Bjorn; Mykhail shall be the last of his bloodline. Bjorn shall join us to avenge the halfling’s death. Burial rites were succinct and less than formal.
To business: Winterhaven is an underwhelming town. Within the city, there was very little of note or help. Overworked guards simply stood watch over daily happenings, otherwise oblivious. The one notable citizen I did meet seemed reluctant to communicate, though somewhat relieved to hear that the cult was indeed under investigation. She identified a nearby waterfall as an area of interest, but seemed eager to end the conversation shortly after. Pity Bjorn couldn’t have been a beautiful creature the likes of her.
Trestin, do you sleep soundly? I hope you lie that none may disturb you.
Our journey lead us to the depths of a keep today, old and abandoned. Maybe abandoned is the wrong word – the place was over-run by goblins and the undead. So many bones, so many dead, so many viciously locked in that limbo of undeath. Mindless, heartless, hopeless, ad infinitum… The mind was yours, your heart was mine, and the hope died when its heart ceased to beat. Please tell me some aspect lives beyond that.
I killed something.
I saved someone. The paladin fell, but I brought him back up. Maybe my attacks are as blind as ever, but now I can see a companion in need. Now I can rush in aid, mend damage, reinvigorate the falling. I can stave off death. But I can’t fix the damage done. Were my hand to falter, it’s as though I struck down a friend. If only then were now.
I killed someone.
Today is better to recount those events.
Interesting fellows those goblins: they apparently crafted themselves an alarm system of sorts using old animal bones, not that it was of much utility with our noisy gallivanting about. Rather, it gave us the liberty to enjoy our descent knowing that there was indeed something lying in wait, prepared for intruders. Evidently not well enough prepared, as the final blighter decided to flee rather than face us. I think I’m starting to get the hang of combat, and mercy have it, that dwarf can hit.
Thank Avandra we’ve got Phalanx with us, or we’d still be fighting – or more likely fallen victim to – an interminable swarm of zombie minions. Thank Bahamut we did not. I feel almost a twinge of guilt for taking his relics to sell.
Bjorn has more need for guilt than I though! We encountered an ancient Sir in his own sealed chamber of high acclaim, speaking with reticent wisdom, clearly wielding the power to destroy us all, should we choose not to cooperate, and lo and behold, Twinkletoes leaps straight into combat! He damnably near ruined all attempts at diplomacy, until dear blessed Phalanx knocked the half-a-man clean unconscious in one blow! Esteemed Sir Keegan told us much of an ancient encounter with the cult we face today, and I pray to any gods that may listen that this resurrection remains sufficiently weakened. He collapsed to ash, leaving Phenex his sword.
Phenex’s recent actions have been of interesting note. Where Phalanx, Bjorn, and myself all failed, she proved her knowledge of religion. She helped me stay alive, that’s for sure. She kept Bjorn at bay while he was being a pigeon-headed, witless runt. She gave me a guardian stone. It’s beautiful. It’s going to die.
Today, we seek out cultists.
Trestin, I miss you. Why wouldn’t you smile? Why didn’t you take my hand?
I’m still shaking. I’m alive.
So many kobolds. They didn’t look like much, not after that fight we had outside. The minions flanked so poorly and fell so easily. Then more came.
No-one else seemed to grasp just how tough they were. I knew exactly when we’d strike them and when we’d flail aimlessly, but the others still gawked when blood didn’t pour. That’s not to say I drew blood – at least not until I couldn’t distinguish theirs from my own…
Phalanx brought me back to my feet. Bless him, he took so much for us. Bjorn went off on his own and fell, but as soon as we reached him (was it Phalanx or Phenex? I once more stood back, incapable), he struck them down, thrashing like a madman. It was so much blood.
I was near collapsing in that small well where we entered. When I saw Bjorn and the paladin go down, I knew that was it for me. I could still heal myself, but they were our only chance of finishing the job. It was all a red haze. I knew I was going to die. They didn’t have to. I did all I could to keep them alive as long as possible, I truly did, and they outlasted me. A few more blows, I believe I struck something, and then the world swirled into a whirling miasma, depositing me into a sea of clouds and fog. It’s true, water puts out the fire.
You were there. Why didn’t you welcome me? So long I awaited that embrace, and you turned me away. You wouldn’t speak to me. You left me to choke on my tears, all that water, red water, was that blood? It was mine, my blood, my pool, my drowning, and you didn’t help, didn’t raise me up, you didn’t take me with you, why did you just stare? Why did you reject me? I didn’t know, I couldn’t save you, I did my job, and you won’t let me live with it, won’t make me die with it, what am I to do!? I know you were the one who should have lived. I should never be the one. I didn’t mean to kill you.
Bjorn. I heard his gruff, muffled voice when you remained silent. He saved my life, I owe him everything. I’m sorry for everything, everything I’ve said to him, done to him. Without him, I’d be dead. Not even death wants me. There’s nothing there waiting. I’m so sorry. To you; to the order, the living, the dead; to the gods; to whomever /’ve betrayed, neglected, or let down; to anyone polluted by my intrinsic, immutable taint: I’m sorry I’m not good enough for anything. Bjorn fell to keep me alive. Just an ounce less luck, and they’d all have died for that. I should have just died instead.
Why won’t you accept me anymore?
Phenex finished it. I have new armour. We have new gold. The kobolds are dead. Winterhaven is safe, safe from the minor threat. A few more days and they’ll be worse than dying again. We have to stop the cult. I’m nothing if we don’t. I need to mean something more than a mistake.
“Death wish.” She approached me with that and the wand. Somehow I told her. I told Phenex about Trestin.
I miss him. He lived within walls, behind guards, among shelves, between pages, where he was most comfortable. If he ever left, it’d be to watch the chaos below from his privileged vantage point and devise shrewd plans to avoid further such dissonance – never a single experience to his own name. His world was so detached, never in need of a reality. Wherever it was his mind dwelled, he did everyone well enough there. He was never meant to be a fighter. His sword-dancing never carried half the power nor the grace of the lithe dips of his wand coupled with a single silver utterance. He could make the world hold its breath. He could make me stop breathing. He won’t. Now every painstaking breath reminds me he lives only within the pages, ink staining my memories, stealing the air straight from my lungs every moment that my mind wanders back. That’s far too often now.
But now the taste of ink festers in my mouth. I spoke of the stain. She knows what I’ve done, and… she doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t think it was my fault. Of course it was my fault.
It was the first battle under my direction. They told me afterwards that he had joined the front line to be there for me. What kind of irony is that, that he stepped in for me and I shoved him right onto their swords? I didn’t know he would die. I thought he was safely slinging spells from the sideline. He was a brilliant mage, but never suited for combat. Had I known that was his troop, I’d never have had them cover. If it was meant to inspire me, why didn’t they tell their commander? It was a suicide mission to get us out, and I could never condemn him. But if we died instead, it’d all be over, all lost – they’d be lost without our saving and our scheming. Why did they trust me commanding!? I wasn’t trained for that. I was trained for logistics and for mitigating damage on all fronts, not for sentencing the ones that mean everything to death.
I watched him die. The silver shriek that made me glance back, the tiny spark flying from the wand held against his sword that caught my eye, the blaze as it caught their banner too, the sharpened steel now gleaming through his chest, the glass glazing his already grey eyes, the color draining from his already pale skin, the red streaming from the steel and shattering the silver, etching toxic tracks, putrid lines burning into my memory, sickening scores to play over and over – I saw what I did. I shackled him down to the pyre, and he set it ablaze when reality caught him. We kept running. The next day, when all was clear and our defeat turned a flaming victory, I came back and scavenged his wand.
I let him down. I of all people was meant to protect him, and I killed him. His charred body lies in a mass grave. I’ll carry that forever, along with this last piece of him.
I couldn’t stay there. I’ve seen what I can cost people. That’s what I did, and that’s what reality got him. He had to face it, so it’s my turn. Life’s too ugly when it’s real. I never wanted them to see how disgustingly ugly a life I lead.
Phenex is a beautiful creature. She saw her family die; she knows that pain. She doesn’t know what it means to cause it. Bless her heart though, for all the forgiveness, all the acceptance, the warmth and the resilience; may all the gods she doesn’t honor bless what she’s’ become, praised what she’s reached out of nothing to attain, and if one blessing remains for me, keep her in my company. So much more happened, and I’ll write to that later, but I couldn’t chance letting the feeling fade. Thank you Phenex.
Not yet “friendship,” but companionship I’ve got with the dwarf. No, he has a name: with Bjorn. Phenex was determined to figure out who the rat in the city might have been, so we split into pairs to gather information, and Bjorn agreed to go with me. After apologies, thanks, and bargaining, and we reached that baseline. “Companionship.”
But I’m leaving gaps. The wizard is dead. Bjorn finally kill him – executed him, moreover. The entirety of Winterhaven saw the spectacle, after the tragedy Mykhail caused them. The blasted wretch blasted through his cell and killed a poor guard. Mykhail’s death comes much less regrettably than Vairis’s, I must say, though I almost set the wrong wand upon his head. Ironically enough, both our dead companions – that same word Bjorn used, and I understand: I’m not sure I could call either a friend – lay resting quite near each other. But once more, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bjorn and I sought out Ninaran for more tips. She readily complied when I approached her and lead us to two individuals she felt might offer perspective on the situation. While Phenex and Bjorn went off in search of a flower maiden near the keep, Phalanx and I followed her word to delightful sir completely ignorant of the situation but well-versed in history, eager to offer what knowledge he had. A gnawing feeling inside me kept echoing the possibility I didn’t want to admit until reality forced it upon us. Ninaran knew too much about the scenario while everyone else was in the dark; why wouldn’t she have told someone, or at least enquired? Her innate curiosity wouldn’t have let her keep it that quiet.
When we returned to Winterhaven, well, we didn’t. Several farmers had gone missing and sinister activity had been observed by the graveyard, so we went down there to address the threat. When we arrived, we ran into none other than Ninaran, surrounded by a small army of the reanimated corpses, illustrating the fate that befell the missing farmers. Among their ranks stood Vairis and Mykhail, or what was left of them. Bjorn’s eyes flared and his beard practically stood on end. He immediately reclaimed Vairis from the realm of undeath for the Raven Queen and charged at Ninaran, nearly killing her in a single stride.
Phenex, Phalanx and I dealt with the rest of them, until Phenex realized they had a ritual circle going which she made an effort to deactivate. The dogs kept knocking me down, so I simply swung from the floor and hit more reliably than ever before.
Everything that was dead died again, and… Phenex approached.
Phenex convinced me to try a little ale with her last night after what we shared. It burned in my mouth, but she insisted. I can’t stand feeling that muddled, sloppy, debased, don’t think that’ll happen again. Bless Phalanx, he cured a hangover that’ll surely keep me away from that poison indefinitely. He apparently also recruited another half-elf to the party during one of the blank spots in my memory. She made us bear enchiladas for lunch with an interesting blasting trick.
She’s of more interest than that, though. Just as we ventured back down into the unexplored depths of the keep, a fox burst out of nowhere and of course I leapt back, nearly onto a trap. She’s a druid, a shape-shifter, and she deemed that moment, then and there, in the dark, fully vulnerable, the appropriate time to show us – not tell us of – her beast form. I must admit, it is rather impressive, though…
Bjorn’s a clever fellow. The dungeon was lined with traps, and none of us are particularly talented at jumping (save the Sydienne, our new fox-lady). Bjorn simply didn’t try: he had Phenex punch him and then teleported straight past the first trap! Phalanx apparently got the bright idea to throw me over rather than letting me try for myself… But we all made it across. Or at least, we made it across one.
Next came my blunder. We all had to cross eventually, and everyone kept gabbing about how to best cross, not seeming to realize that the next idea they suggested left just as much up to chance as simply jumping, so while they prattled on, that’s what I did. Stumbling is also what I did. A blood-curdling wail arose from the trap as my foot scraped across and I found myself propelled dead across the way, into an opening, surrounded by zombies, left winded and disoriented by the blast. They only battered me lightly.
Thankfully, everyone came to my aid rapidly enough – everyone except Phenex, that is. She got hit the hardest of anyone (save for myself, that is…) and subsequently triggered another blast herself in trying to catch up. But I actually held my own. More than that, I demolished them. By the time Phenex arrived, they were all already dead. Our attention shifted to a strange sealed door behind us…
Bjorn smashed it down. As it fell to splinters around us, we noticed a latch on the wall. Evidently, that was how it was meant to open. Oh well. It opened into a small antechamber with nothing of note, except that its back wall was purely illusory. While the others stood about baffled, I charged straight through the wavering projection into a room of more zombies. Once more, they struck, but I was ready. I blasted them and my companions burst in right behind; I felt unstoppable.
Phenex didn’t think so. She caught me in her first onslaught of acid, and when the last of the rotting limbs fell – she scared me. As I let my mace drift downwards, she knocked it clashing to the floor. In a whirl, she lunged straight at my neck, thrust the full force of her weight against my chest and pinned me to the wall, fire in her eyes, terror in mine. I half expected her to kill me on the spot. Instead, she berate me that I had best dare never do anything like that again. The one time I did well, I led the charge, I felt proud, she tells me to fall back in line, to stop being selfish, to act with sense or go away; she wrenches me away from all sense of accomplishment; she demonstrates how pathetic and vulnerable I am; she shows me I’m no good: she rejects me.
How could anyone ever pretend I was an asset? How could I ever have led an army?
Dear blessing, do you want rid of me too?
An enchanted banner posed a riddle, and Ioun rekindled what little faith I had in myself, spurring me to propose our answer (the equivalent of which, mind you, Sydienne had posited long ago, until I stupidly shot her down). I bear the banner now, which ought to make me of some use, however minimal it may be. The banner no longer burns.
Tomorrow, we go deeper within, see if we can muster the slightest inkling of how we might even confront, let alone disable, the forces that threaten Winterhaven and the entire realm.
I trusted her. She smashed me into the wall. My head’s still ringing. My heart’s still crushed.
Phalanx stopped the pounding in my head.
We came across a squad of hobgoblins down below. Hobgoblins operate under a militaristic society, highly capable of strategy and unfalteringly resolved to their one duty. My companions fail to understand this, twofold. When they couldn’t hit the horde as reliably as usual, Bjorn proposed that we opt to surrender as a means to progress. I swear, at this my eyes just flared. Whatever cures were in place, my head utterly burned. Bloody fucking hell, damn my soul if I ever surrender, even consider resigning when my moral ground stands so resolutely opposed to my opponent, when I know their purpose must be stopped, when my heart is in it, if I back away.
I’ll swear by anything, home is not where the heart is.
When we finally whittled them down, Phenex insisted upon “rescuing” one of their kind she kicked down a well mid-fight. No. Throbbing once more. I held a dagger to her throat, making clear that her rescue was not an option, but she twisted my wrist around and threw me off. She took him prisoner. I may not agree with their cause, but I will never take someone a prisoner in their own home. We were the intruders. He need not be the leak for all his people. It’s a cruel choice to suggest that he either die right then and there or sacrifice all he’s ever stood loyal to. Not only that: it’s a wrong decision to offer. How could anyone so integrally a part of the group willingly betray their home, ostracize themselves from their people and forever join the enemy, unwelcome in hostile territory, wanted dead among former friends?
Only if they never truly belonged.
He wouldn’t. Militaristic, united, determined: a hobgoblin minion won’t betray the hive. I knew he was leading us into a trap, I just couldn’t see which. He led us to the tomb of the Keegans.
In this keep overrun by the undead made puppets of this dark cult, Bjorn consecrated the remains of Lady Keegan in an effort to preserve her virtue. Phalanx and I attempted to do likewise for their two children, but before we could proceed, the caskets flung open and zombies sprung out. Remembering our exchanges with Sir Keegan, my heart ached to see this fate befall his own children. Faithful servants of Bahamut, thrown into the grasp of Orcus, souls torn away from their family, perhaps never to rest soundly. Ours is a cruel world.
Gruck writhed on the floor, cackling maniacally, howling that he’d go down with us, then knocking me to the floor. A giant jelly materialized out of nowhere and engulfed Phenex and Sydienne. That ooze, that prison, everything about it shrieked to stay away. Sydienne, for the longest time remained trapped inside, while Phenex kept escaping, only to fall back into its grasp. One of our sirs killed Gruck shortly after the monstrosity descended upon us. I wanted to rescue dear Blessing, but first came Ceinwein. Then, I was prepared to reach in, give her my last, and die for her. I don’t know how I could still love her. She leapt out. It never came at me. It died then.
I’m sorry, Gruck.
May this quest not desecrate all my values.
I was expecting Phenex to rouse me for my shift any minute. I take the midnight guard shift; neither side of the night offers a sound rest. That would be no different if my sleep were to span these hours uninterrupted. Instead of her gentle caress, I awoke to the snarl of a hobgoblin and blades clashing before me as one of the dungeon’s patrol troops descending upon us. More than a little frazzled, I stood, readied my weapon, and prepared for a beating.
They had us choked inside the chamber where we had sought to conceal ourselves for the night. A few leapt in to begin skirmishing while others held back to fire at us. Then their mage locked eyes with me. I’ve no idea with what might he assaulted me, but I felt utterly violated. But the next instant when it broke, my stomach lurched violently: Phalanx had jumped in to take the onslaught.
I’d sooner be torn apart by a thousand aggressors than throw another of my dear companions in the way to save myself again. Please, noble protector, let my body be torn to shreds before stabbing through my heart once more. Sword, arrow, and spell unleashed upon our Phalanx while he resolutely accepted each and every one to shield us.
I don’t remember what happened, but it didn’t go well. At some point in there, the mage blasted us all. I fell. Of course I saw Trestin again.
Trestin, do you still know me, still remember yourself? Your words haunt me. Your silver eyes lacked the luster that always reminded of your shining brilliance. Your glassy eyes reflected back at me my desperate face frozen in time. Your grey eyes offered no hint of warmth. Your blank eyes simply gazed onwards, into the looming void, past me. But this time you spoke. “Stand. I have something to tell you, but you’re not yet ready.” And then only silence, reverberating with that disapproving, empty stare. Why, why not, why can’t I know? You and I both stood for that, adamantly, that the truth might not be hidden from any who seek it. Am I that despicable that I’ve lost the right to our fundamental values?
It felt as though steel wool raked forcefully across my flesh.
Bjorn once more, however clumsily, managed to save my life. I deserve nothing more than this crude, battering care. Shortly after, I came to and the fight was almost over. That is, both our enemies and ourselves were near death. Phenex, Bjorn, and Phalanx all fell. Sydienne and I were left to keep our companions alive and keep ourselves from dying. I raised Phalanx, as Bjorn and Phenex got nearer to death. I ordered Syd to revive Phenex, while I returned the favor to Bjorn. I still stand in his debt, him having saved me twice now. At last, the patrol fell, and I collapsed immediately, missing my watch shift. My debt only seems to grow more extensive.
The next morning, we explored the passages Gruck had lead us past. We happened upon a chamber with a number of statues: a golem in the center whose extensive reach we simply had to evade and two dragon statues with blasting traps in the main chamber, and four cherubs with buckets crowding the exit. I was commanded not to investigate as I pleased. My companions refused to look within this exit chamber, believing there to be a proximity trap which would be activated by stepping in the wrong spot. I had to leap past Bjorn to attempt any form of investigation while he and Phalanx stood smashing the statues on the end. When no traps triggered, Phenex and Sydienne hesitantly followed me into the chamber.
The door wouldn’t open, even when I gave it my all. There had to be some trigger going along with the statues. Water runes were carved inside the cherubs’ buckets, but no one seemed to appreciate my idea that we pour water into them. I decided to reach into one of them and see if I’d find any indication of how to open the door. It turned out the proximity trigger was just where my hand landed.
A force field of sorts locked Bjorn and Phalanx outside, trapping Sydienne, Phenex, and myself in with the statues as the chamber filled with water. Thankfully, none of them seemed to notice that it had in fact been me to activate the trap after all – or at least, they didn’t lather me with blame. Smashing the statues seemed to be the only thing left we could do, though it still appalls me that the door was meant to be opened by such barbaric means. As I destroyed the last one, the water drained and the door opened.
We walked through to find a horde of undead. A ghoul and a homunculus made it a noteworthy army, but all were destroyed soon enough. It did last long enough for me to regret my actions. Phenex was viciously assaulted by the ghoul and near collapsing, and I chose to let loose my wrath rather than performing my duties. She remained in pain and fell almost immediately after. I revived her, but she suffered needlessly.
Phenex was right: I keep putting my companions in needless danger. Maybe they’re better without me. I’m sorry.
I stand here claiming once more to be repentant for the sins I commit again and again.
I hope my party haven’t noticed a change in my prayers. I no longer feel the presence of Pelor. I appeal only to Ioun as of late, and I dread the day when she no longer responds.
I don’t want my entire world to thrust me out…
Here’s to finally moving on.
We returned to Winterhaven as conquering heroes, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t scared plain shitless.
First and foremost, the day saw far too much blood. I couldn’t say in the slightest how much of it was our own.
Upon leaving the cozy little chamber where we found our bag of holding and descending one last staircase, we happened upon a chamber laden with… not just the undead, but I believe actual cultists. In the center of the chamber was a huge almost well of sorts with blood draining into it and four massive chains dangling down, while directly opposite us stood a cultist chanting some apparent ritual. Bjorn instantly charged in to fight, while I hoped to investigate. No such luck of course – I was immediately ambushed by a pair of barbarians. Bjorn and Phalanx took one side of the well, Sydienne and I the other, and Phenex skirted around the edges. She finally came back around, just in time for me to see her fall and cry out a prayer to bring her back to her feet. Everything was just so powerful, and while my attention was on ensuring that Bjorn would stay standing and swinging, one of the barbarians felled me. Phenex rushed in to protect and raise me – or more aptly, she roused me, and I fought from the floor. I couldn’t get up without being knocked clean unconscious by that same axe that first struck me. But when my dear savior fell, I refused to let them keep her ground-bound – she must always rise like a phoenix. The whole time though, we were simply near death. . .
At last, they died and left our way to Kalarel unobstructed. Our next move was to descend the blood-soaked chains down into a room filled with an ominous chanting. For once, I was utterly petrified, knowing that real danger lay in wait. Everyone but me hastily leapt down and slipped, collapsing in a mound of flailed limbs and contributing to an already thick pool of blood. After they landed and nothing appeared to happen, knowing that I would have to follow, I tossed down our banner and descended gracefully behind. Now that I think of it, rather ironic that I was the one to stay behind…
We entered the room in that pool of blood, draining out into four vents. Due north was an incredible glowing rune circle etched before us – I wanted to investigate, but the others insisted I not, and, knowing where we were, I thought it best to comply for once. Dead in front of those runes though was the single most interesting aspect of the room: a giant looming portal into the Shadowfell from which Orcus would be summoned with menacing tentacles of darkness reaching outward. We all managed to glean that entering meant certain death.
Kalarel stood before an altar, bearing a glowing amulet and conducting the ritual to fully open the portal and summon Orcus. He kept minions, of course, but they were nothing compared to what we faced above. When I caught near every one of them in a single blast, his wight proved itself able to resurrect all of the skeletons indefinitely, much to my dismay. Once Phalanx and Bjorn brought it down though, they were no trouble.
They did cause trouble before though. We saw Kalarel as our immediate target and had a brilliant plan for Phenex to strike him and enable us all to crush him effortlessly, but the skeletons kept her away from him. She eventually resigned herself to investigating Kalarel’s altar, but upon hearing him scorn us and our gods one too many times, she charged dead across the room to smash in his skull, screaming “I have no gods!” Dear gods, her ferocious determination sent shivers down my spine while the vigor and passion of her stand brought a tear to my eye. Shortly after, the bastard Karalel fell.
That’s when it all went down. I personally had hardly noticed the portal’s advances, but with it our only remaining adversary, its innate bloodlust clearly surfaced. We all hurried across the room to reach the altar and reverse the ritual, but Bjorn and I slipped in pools of blood. Phenex wouldn’t reach the other side either: the portal pulled her in and struck her down. I couldn’t heal her, none of us could anymore, there was nothing I could do. As I got to my feet, I screamed for Sydienne to drag her body out of its reach. No way in hell would it drag her body into that… that… I don’t want to think about it. I stabilized her as I ran past. We had to abandon her body shortly after – our only hope of any of us surviving lay in deactivating the portal before it had a chance to strike down any more of us and take her in. Soon enough though, it targeted Phalanx and Bjorn in their turns until they too fell. Sydienne and I stood before the altar by that point, my abilities standing as our only chance to reverse the ritual. We tied down Phalanx and Bjorn so that the portal couldn’t drag away those who still might spring back up, but when I failed for the last time, we abandoned even that hope.
All that seemed to offer even the slightest glimmer of hope was the amulet, glimmering far too brightly. By this point, all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. Phenex lay far too close to the threshold of that monstrosity. Phalanx’s unconscious body lay tied to the altar as a deadweight. Bjorn lay bleeding out in front of our eyes. I myself was near collapsing, remembering far too late that I could give one last ditch effort to heal myself. I would have, would have stayed conscious and help face our end, but Bjorn’s desperation struck my heart. I owed him my life, and I couldn’t leave him that vulnerable to fate’s tumultuous twists. I stabilized him, shouting for Sydienne to run across the room, steering as far from the portal as she could, and try to reach the amulet on her own, with absolutely no assistance in determining how it might end this madness. Just then, the portal turned to me, pulled me in just a little closer, and knocked me unconscious just beside Phenex’s body.
Everything lay in Sydienne’s hands.
Once more I found myself approaching death’s door. His ghost stands there, waiting. He can’t enter, but he can’t come back. Poor Trestin never belonged on either side. He finally told me, told me everything, and I need time to let my world settle around these words. First and foremost though, he told me it’d all be okay.
Somehow, she did it. Sydienne destroyed the amulet and closed the portal, made sure we were all still breathing, and saved us all. We officially became heroes. The blood that lined the chamber turned to butterflies, and we all rose to thank our lucky stars and praise the one that shone over Syd. The group found her a brilliant cloak as a reward, Bjorn found himself a helmet, and I found a magical dagger and some gold. I kept the exact amount a secret though – before anyone knew, I divvied it out to offer Bjorn two shares. We’ve been through a lot together, and I want peace with the dwarf. He seemed caught off guard by the gesture, insisting that we divide the spoils evenly, but ready at last to strike through the word “companions” and replace it with “friends.”
As we approached Winterhaven, the guards ushered us in with expressions of awe and reverence. As we returned to Lord Padraig’s, Phalanx stopped by the smithy to commission a bastard sword. Though he promised us whatever our hearts might desire of this humble town, our only requests came from Phenex in the form of two seemingly random items: a can of white paint and a lute.
We returned to the inn to tidy up and enjoy the evening. Everyone of significance we’d met in the town turned out to have gathered there and started a cheer for us. It left me both proud and humbled, as well as somewhat embarrassed. I thought I had walked away from that kind of attention, but… we earned it. And it was as much for my friends and the peoples’ benefit as my own. I resolved to accept everyone else’s celebration for the evening. Bjorn approached me with two large flagons and stated that if I was to be his friend, I’d certainly be his drinking friend. I’m not a fan of drinking, but I couldn’t chance declining, so I joined him and maintained as merry a façade as possible. When my mind’s clarity had faded far enough away, that front became the reality, and Bjorn and I cemented our newfound friendship.
Yesterday set the future of our world in motion.
Indeed he told me everything to send me back.
There’s a reason I left. I couldn’t bear to continue there knowing my eternal companion was gone. We were isolated, anyway. Cadrin is afraid of the world outside. Even Milo scares it. Their world is fragile; it was shattered once, and they couldn’t endure another. Everyone inside is gentle. He and I came from the outside. The outside world was too much of a threat. Moreover, we found too much that we shouldn’t have known.
The war wore down their sense of security. They couldn’t keep the pair of us so closely linked and so near to their core. So, they approached him.
They told him he and I were too close to something we should never know, and he was given a choice. Either he and I would face a charge of treason and live in exile, or he could join that fated troop on the front lines. For Trestin, leaving the city meant succumbing to his affliction, which meant death. He chose that I might have the chance to stay and live my life forever blissfully blind. There he stood, helpless to fate: condemned for the sake of their cowardice, and I was to be the agent of his demise. They were to tell me he had stopped breathing in the middle of the night, except that I personally witnessed him slaughtered.
There was no chance we’d both return alive, so no chance that even in victory, Cadrin would fall to the rule of “outsiders.”
I was right to leave, I had no home there. He couldn’t survive elsewhere. He couldn’t survive there. He couldn’t survive.
Now though, I have to return. I have to discover Cadrin’s secret and bring an end to this insular xenophobia. If only I had some idea where to begin…
What he wasn’t
I awoke this morning to a pebble on my window, and a crack in the guardian stone. Phenex…
Phenex stood below our window, lute in hand, singing – to me. I don’t know how to describe what I felt. Shock, flattery, fear, elation, confusion, affection – love? As her song came to an end, she gazed up at me, a look of desire in her eyes. I stared back down, doing my best to channel all the tenderness I felt into my features. Ordinarily, I have such control of my projection, but this… this feeling left me a little… flustered. As our group made to leave the town, I clasped Phenex’s hand in mine with a small squeeze. I hope she can read in my responses the feelings I can’t put to words.
If the last rays of dusk
Pierced through this silk-thin web of lies
That I so carefully spun
While you looked away,
Will then you see the pain I feel?
If the memories I left in hopes of forgiveness
Surfaced, by some fault of mine,
And shone in the tear dripping down my cheek
Which you so carefully wipe away,
Will then you see why I must leave?
Your eyes glow strangely this night.
Know that I love you.
Know that I’m not gone yet.
If only it were as simple as writing that one line over and over to fill a page and put it behind me.
Trestin is alive.
The rebellion lost.
Father is king.
Trestin is alive.
Writing the words doesn’t make it feel any more real.
Bjorn is watching me. They won’t leave me alone now. They don’t trust me. Dear gods, what’s happening? Did I walk into a dream? Maybe I’m going insane. Maybe this isn’t real. Maybe the truth is irrelevant.
I came home to a different world. They let us in. Father wanted me by his side. He’s king. It feels so unreal.
I don’t want to speak about before. I don’t want the world before now to have been a thing. Now is… it’s wrong, it’s fucking wrong, it’s terrifying, it’s broken, it broke me… I came back to a different world. I awoke beside Phenex. Bjorn got Mariel. I told Marla we succeeded. Then now. Now is beautiful.
I’m in a state between dying and dreaming. Words are short and my tongue is shorter. Its former wealth pours into my Silver.
My Silver is alive.
We encountered some horsemen, scouts, and they recognized me. Everyone’s recognized me, of course. They see me as important. I’m a princess. Dear gods, I’m a princess… They bade me go within the walls, that my father would rejoice to see me, and they offered no contempt towards my… my friends, that’s the word.
I can see my friends again. Farren must be a senator by now. Emile once more could dance in the streets and freely teach little Edil. I always know where to find Atreus. Doric and Cyra would have inherited their seats, they may be trying for a child now… And Trestin is alive.
We settled down in a guest house and shortly after made our way to the palace. It was different. I said that. Not then, there. Up, yes, the words are there. Father sat on a throne. My feet turned to lead. The others walked in, nonchalantly, smiling to be in my home. I came home to a different home. He called me forward, hugged me, welcomed us, and invited us to dinner. Those silly smiles still plastered on their faces, they graciously accepted. As the others filed along, he told me what happened. When he finished, a hooded figure who had kept to the shadows at last called out to me, indicating my wand, “Playing with things that aren’t ours again, are we?” The cowl came down and my blood turned to ice, my face to sheet, my tongue to stone. Phenex walked me away. He’s alive.
Then that evening was all that mattered. He told me when: midnight. I slipped out the window, Mariel’s. Gear off, through the streets of my childhood, into the night, the silvery moonlight. Phalanx tried to follow me, until I shook him in the alleyways. Then straight to the glade, at full speed.
He was waiting, sitting on the same stump he always took. He propped himself up with a branch and explained it all. Everything. It seemed manageable out there, away from everything and with only him, just like when we were young. I could have spent the whole night staring into his vibrant silver eyes in that perfect moonlight.
But we heard them approaching. I don’t care who it was, no-one can find him. Trestin is mine, and he’s fragile, he’s my Silver. I threw him his wand, and he immediately teleported out. I collapsed to my knees as he left; it felt as though he pulled a part of me away with him. How could they ruin our escape!? The bitch arrived right then – the dog, that is. Phenex, Bjorn, Phalanx, and they acted as though nothing were wrong. I ran away with none of them, how could they not tell I needed to be alone!? Phenex came up to me and kissed my forehead, but at her touch, the dream shattered. I pushed her away, slashed the dagger across my arm, screamed with all the frustration in me to my own flesh, let it out in anger’s red. Sydienne stole it from my hand and Phenex made the red stop – she was the only red that remained.
Phalanx carried me back. It’s a different world. Bjorn is watching me. He’s alive. Have I died?
There is no trust.
It all tumbles backwards.
Bjorn was granted audience with the Raven Queen, and she bestowed upon Boop a blessing. He entered a trance-like state as he spoke to her, speaking aloud in our world while whisked away to her realm and oblivious to the happenings around him. It seems his Queen drove him to a realization on the nature of justice within her domain – the pudgy bloke is capable of deep thought after all – but more to my concern, he mentioned Trestin.
Trestin is alive. Then the theories, the blasted theories, lies, lies, bloody lies! He approached Her Grace declaring that “we think” such a wild range of possibilities may have swallowed my Silver; they had to have all known for some time to dream up that nonsense, and they kept it all from me. Why wouldn’t they tell me!? They don’t trust me. I can’t afford to trust them. Wariness aside, I must keep one: Bjorn is the one to trust. Whether they all knew or not, he answered me directly – my faith lies in him alone.
We caught the last kenku from yesterday. We invaded their lair beneath the tavern and promptly slaughtered their flock. Their krenshar left us rattled, but when it died, the tide turned overwhelmingly in our favor. We looked about the room, gathered up the kenkus’ scattered contracts, and then She visited.
Finding our way down was not the most straightforward of matters. Obviously we were to infiltrate their hideout, but arriving in the tavern was our last clue to its location. My memory turns grey on the matter of last evening… I awoke this morning hung over after that horrible helplessness, and Bjorn offered me a cure that left no trace of that vile poison in my body (or food, for that matter). There was a man connected to the birds, and somehow from him, our lot determined the roost was inside the tavern, but the in-between… goes fuzzy. I do know the man tried to help me. Not everyone caught in these plots is a terrible, twisted monster. If those theories were right, if Trestin did get roped in… no, no! Of course that’s not true! But… sometimes good people find themselves in bad situations…
We broke in behind the bar. We found a basement. We went down. Fear and feathers, ferocity and fiends. Phalanx and Phenex burned the bodies. I heard Bjorn. Sydienne always watched. She sees the most. He’s back in the keep, Bjorn said. Sydienne and Phenex went there, and she must have seen. They told him, left me in silence.
This is a bad situation. I’m not sure I’m one of the good people.
No going back
It must have been nearly a week now. It feels like a different world since we came back up. Did I make the right decision?
Well, we were in a different world. Or a different plane, subspace of this world? We left Cadrin, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I’d call any of that the city proper, to be honest. The ancient crypt, yes, I mentioned that, and the Orcus cult excavating. Just after the cultists, I left off at… oh, the dragon! A reanimated dragon guarded the chamber not far beyond, but now it’s been reduced to dust. That felt amazing, knowing that our little rag-tag group has now slain a dragon.
Blah blah blah, farther down deeper, and here’s where my mind stopped keeping up. Within a chest, Bjorn and I discovered pages scrawled in an ancient language with transmutation circles carved in. Up above, there was a library, filled with long-lost books in ancient tongues no living being could read, none of which I more than batted an eye towards. But here there was an urgency: these were single pages stashed away in a chest, locked away such that merely opening the chest caused an explosion. I spent the next few hours only partially conscious of what was going on around us, deciphering the text.
The text which revealed a plot to destroy my entire home. The walls, the walls which won the war, the walls the elves targeted, the orders from the black guards, the “orders beyond the throne,” everything since then had been a plot to turn the city into a giant transmutation circle and transform its populace into an army of zombies or something, maybe I’m wrong, it’s all a blur, just an adrenaline rush to stop it!
Except more important things came up. I can’t believe I just said that, more important than saving everyone I knew for near all my life… but dear gods. We met a deva down there who mentioned guarding a weapon – a weapon of the gods, one which reaps souls through mere contact. A weapon with which you bleed out your very essence of existence at the slightest grazing… resting within the temple. The temple which these dark cultists had been excavating. She sent us to investigate a portal into the far realms. And this is where all perspectives became irrelevant. As we drew nearer to the room containing the portal, I felt a presence tugging at my mind, edging its way in – a gnawing curiosity, the insatiable urge to see what lay within that room, a need to find the portal. Lady Ioun saw fit to use me as a vessel through which to discover the age-old secrets sealed within the temple. I was able to serve her directly, to feel her presence as never before, and dear gods it felt…
Incredible. Painful. Cathartic. It tore at my mind, but the mere concept of what was going on – the experience was exhilarating! I had a god in my head! I had to succeed, to find what lay beyond that wall, to display the worth of my faith, to express my will to serve my goddess. Phenex did whatever she could to hold me back, but Phalanx managed to open the wall, and once we got in, so did the gods, period. I simply stood there in awe of the newfound impact we had had on a global force in our world. But them the moment passed, and we moved along. We returned to the deva to report on the situation regarding the portal, after resealing it off with a rune that My Lady provided us to keep it hidden.
Shortly thereafter, Nevah, having found no viable alternative to placing all her faith in our simple party (and having seen neither any harm in the matter nor a reason to distrust our lot), bestowed upon us the scythe she had been guarding alongside the portal for centuries, Lifecutter. That weapon simply should not exist. The presence of such a powerful artifact was exceedingly humbling, and seeing it happened into our possession left me simply dumbfounded.
Following this revelation, Nevah lead us to another portal, and here’s where we truly left. But dear gods it’s so overwhelming, I can’t even skip to there! The portal was… weird. It’s not like we could just walk into the shadowfell (surprise), but as price for passage, we had to reveal our darkest secrets. It honestly doesn’t make sense… I suppose their secrets didn’t register to me at the time, but I can easily write that one up to shock. I only caught two of theirs, neither of which I suppose change much… hell, now I have to think about it. Phalanx killed his wife – but there were extenuating circumstances! In all honesty, his secret only made me feel bad for the fellow, being forced through a terrible situation where… let’s just say I can relate. Phenex fucked her cousin. Nope, I don’t have to think about it, and I’ll avoid letting that one register. Didn’t hear from Bjorn, or Sydienne.
I had to mention my mother. I thought I’d gotten that image out of my head forever. She was turning blue, damn it, but still twitching! And I just ran… When Trestin showed me the note, when he and I burned it, we hid from the world every degree of our involvement exceeding that of any other. Only Bjorn knows – Bjorn and Sydienne, but she’s gone now – and hopefully that’s that, just word of it and now it’s gone forever.
But through the portal, we materialized in the shadowfell, standing before none other than the Lady of Death, the Raven Queen. She knew of the scythe – the weapon that had hidden from her reach for centuries, the weapon which could end her war on Orcus, the weapon which corrupted her predecessor, the weapon which no being should ever wield, the weapon which lay in our possession – and she wanted it. At this point, My Lady appeared before us as well. It felt as though we had been plucked from our lives and thrown into a new realm where every action was of immense significance and simply fell above our heads. After a long conversation describing the conflicting interests everyone had in the scythe, Bjorn simply handed it over to the Raven Queen and we were whisked back into our world. I freaked out. He had potentially catalyzed the descent of Death into a state of soulless oblivion, of course I would freak out! But hardly missing a beat, he pulled out Lifecutter from within his robe, revealing that the weapon he handed over was simply Sydienne’s replica. My breathing and my heartrate caught up with their natural rhythm.
And then it pounded right back out of step. The room we were deposited into contained cultists, nearly finished carving transmutation circles and performing rituals before us, but more importantly, at its opposite end, Trestin. Trestin’s frail and unconscious body lay helplessly chained to a pillar across the room, behind the cultists, who, at this point, had unquestionably become targets. And so we fought. And so they fell. After their defeat, I immediately made my way over to Trestin to free him and ensure that he was in a stable condition. The chains fell easily and his breathing was regular, but his mind appeared to be not entirely there. Then, in just those few moments’ pause, the caster made it all too apparent that we had not finished our task. He finished his ritual and summoned demons, one of which Phalanx took on individually while the rest of the room raged on in chaos. I tried to stay close to Trestin while keeping him out of the fray, and eventually, even the demons succumbed. But then, out of the shadows stepped Vairis.
Yes, Vairis, the probable lich and mastermind behind this whole fiasco of attempting to destroy my home. He offered us a reunion speech, seeming to wish to step into the realm of civil discussion at this point. We conversed, caught up, discovered just how much he had used us. The exchange cut deep with the foul fangs of deception. However stoic an outward appearance he attempted to project, Bjorn in particular was clearly devastated by such a deep and fundamental betrayal.
But all this talking had to come to an end at some point, and when there was no more to be said, we launched ourselves at Vairis and his lackeys. The fight amounted to a great deal of artful dodging – I would expect no less of such a crafty rogue – and ultimately, while all his underlings fell, we found ourselves unable to pin down Vairis. The tide of battle turned when Trestin rose and fought back through the mental link Vairis held on him. As soon as he struck this grave blow, Vairis took flight back through a portal routed to the citadel, giving rise to a chase that would span the city and the surrounding countryside. Bjorn, Phenex, Phalanx, and Sydienne instantly set to pursuit, while I found myself otherwise occupied.
My Silver lay before me in shambles. While he managed to shake Vairis’s mind, he nearly shattered his own. I tried to carry him out and follow behind the others, but quickly realized that this extra burden which I refused to discard would keep me from ever catching up to the nimble traitor. He and I walked off to the infirmary, and I learned the story of Vairis’s arrival in the city and rise to power. And that Trestin truly did die. I was indeed responsible for his death. Only, when Vairis tried to raise him as a zombie, someone intervened and released his soul to come back to life on this plane. And that struck a chord in my heart. Someone out there sees what happened as vile enough, sees him as significant enough, that they gave him a second chance. He means enough in this world that someone out there was watching over his soul and freely sent it back to live the life he was meant to have. He certainly means the world to me…
It killed me to realize that I was with Phenex. That sounds so terrible… I had written her a poem apologizing, hoping to make everything right so that we could continue on and be happy together, but when this is the reality that I was leaving… He broke free of Vairis’s hold because of me. My return reignited a spark within him that flared against this unnatural control. Trestin, I’m so sorry.
Sydienne came back with word that Vairis had passed through the city gates and the four of them stood no hopes of catching up. Her arrival jolted us back to reality and to the gravity of the situation at hand. Satisfied that Trestin would recover with time, I dashed off to commandeer an airship and give us a practical shot at winning this chase. Syd and I boarded a military vessel and flew after the rogue on horseback. Bjorn trailed after Vairis by a surprisingly short distance, but all the same, he would never – could never – have caught up. At my command, the catapults launched and Vairis’s horse was crippled, launching him a short distance such that Bjorn was able to bind the Halfling and take him back as prisoner. The dwarf was fuming, and I dare not think of what might have happened had the shots killed Vairis instead…
So we all returned aboard the vessel, all six of us, including that filthy traitor, and set back to Cadrin. But it’s never that simple. The Raven Queen found out she had been duped. A crackle of thunder seemed to shake the ship as a cold wind crept in, and her imposing form materialized before us within the ship. Once more, I couldn’t help but feel that we were in over our heads, but Bjorn faced her boldly with unwavering conviction. He held firmly by his decision to not hand over Lifecutter, with the entire Lance behind him. Staring Death in the face, we stood our ground, prepared to surrender our souls as we lay our wrists below the blade of the scythe. Mere mortals, we told a goddess she was in the wrong and should entrust the matter to us. Had she fancied, she could have taken it and been done with us, but she deferred to us to decide upon the fate of the weapon. Now, we have a god’s scythe in our possession: at least until we can destroy it.
Bjorn went off to conclude things with Vairis. Phenex and I openly told my father what there is between us. I made it clear that I will be leaving. And the two of us officially started dating. Goodbye, Trestin…
Who would have thought that you’d be my savior?
A devil with horns, such an unruly sight.
But with the heart of a saint you endured my behavior
And held me so close as I shook in the night.
Beyond mercy’s sense, your essence so kind,
And you were the one whom I left behind.
I guarded my secrets when you never asked,
Till they surfaced by chance in the night sky starry.
To you I cried first, confessed to you last,
With fragments of dead dreams; for that I am sorry.
Your soothing voice warms the back of my mind,
And you were the one whom I left behind.
That thorn in my mind’s incessant stings
Drove me past conscious control of my life.
My firebird, songbird, spreading your wings,
You take off to flee from my senseless strife.
A gift from the gods, you’re my blessed find,
And you were the one whom I left behind.
What if I promise to turn around,
Fit the fragments back together,
Pick my life up off the ground,
Rebuild my world, for you, forever?
Every cloud is Silver-lined.
His was the past we can leave behind.