Return of the Cáladain
March 14-16, 2008.

Reviews
Synopsis


"What kind of rescue is this?!?" — Nimlinor

Reviews

"Another superlative weekend of gaming with some of my favorite gamers on Earth! I thought SOT5 flowed really well with interesting scenes, good pacing, and, as usual, great music and sounds. The fantastic saga advanced and the great characters had a lot of opportunity to interact. Special welcome to Justin Georgi debuting wonderfully as Dandaru, and thanks to everyone who made the weekend happen after two long years. Lets make sure that SOT6 happens in early 2009! ...[During the finale] I was thinking of Yngvildir lying cold in Jagildir's boat on the Lake of Ice. 'What kind of Man are you?' he asks. Though I have not yet pursued his specific quest, I can now respond. 'I am a man who acts with passion, conviction, and strong will.' Where does Yngvarr go from here? That's the question of the year."
— Keith
"I feel really good about SOT 5 because we accomplished so much. After four games we finally rid ourselves of the Bottled City of Yoros; and we freed the Emperor of Azalan from his mind prison. Wow, we never accomplished so much in one story. It feels good... I absolutely loved the plot twists in this story that left me guessing as to what was going to happen next. I was not expecting to confront Tharthammon, was not expecting Thariom to explode, was not expecting to spin-off into another plane, was not expecting the Abnoctim to leave us hanging, and was not expecting to avoid a confrontation with Thameera in the final scene. Oh yeah, I was not expecting the scene with Moxirth and the Grandal Device. I loved every unexpected moment... [Given Nim's situation] maybe the people the Fellowship has helped will consider Nimlinor a friend and provide him some succor against the wrath of the Abnoctim. If they won’t help, there’s always Moxirth."
— J.P.
"It is a joy to play with you all. I continue to be inspired and in awe of each of your performances. I have said it before, if I played in only one game (and I do), this would be the one... Within minutes after starting the game we were all together debating a course of action regarding Aru. That was so just 'us' that it made me smile throughout the evening... How could I forget the Grandal Device?! Holy fuck... that was hot: the music, the dialogue, the serialistic nature of it. Bravo!"
— Larry
"The thought that is first and foremost in my mind is how amazing it was to be on the players' side of the table with a group of such masterful role-players. Thank you, one and all, for permitting me to sit down with you and partake of this magnificent story. When the first 2 hours of the game had gone by on Friday night and we had done nothing but character conversations and the wonderful debate about Aru's place in the fellowship, I knew this truly was something special."
— Justin G.
"First off, I was not there in body, but I assure you my thoughts were with you throughout your weekend. Even from Long Island I couldn't wait to next talk to JG and find out where you were and what had happened... just having my PC [Ilay] on the table meant a great deal. Thank you for rescuing her from her tormentor and delivering her to her beloved. She may be creepy and 'suitably dirty' but she holds a dear place in my heart... It is just as well that JS has already requested my continuing contribution for SOT6, he couldn't have driven me away with a team of wild nightmares. I too am hooked."
— Missy
"I would like to send my thanks and admiration to Alan for the incredible miniatures. For me personally they help set a certain tone and level of excitement at the table that is really hard to explain... Alan, please stand and take a bow for the work you have done. Bravo... I do have to echo others in saying that was some top notch teamwork/role-playing... Some things you have no way of scripting; you can only set the stage and let the actors transport each other to that magic spot. I got that a lot this weekend. Thank you all for the inspiration."
— Jeffery
"Yhis whole experience was, in actuality, my first with SOT, some of the players at the table, and this entire cast of characters... this was the end of my SOT virginity... Because I can look at the story as whole, it comes together like a novel to me. Or a movie. However you want to say that... it is much more of a narrative experience for me than anything else. Thank you all so much for having me at your table, in any capacity. It was a joy and a pleasure. I feel like it was truly my responsibility to make sure that as many details were captured as possible for this [episode]. I hope I did that. I hope I did you all proud. I think that Novia, Garmenter of Words, would feel like I did justice in my own way. Here's to the Fellowship! Here's to the Cáladain! Here's to a story well told and bonds ever unbroken!"
— Thomas
"I'm utterly grateful to be playing Shards of Thariom again, and indebted to you all for making the experience as authentic, as enthralling, and as truly satisfying as it could be. I am honored to play at your table. I have always felt this way, but I continue to be shocked and amazed by the depth of role-playing talent and total immersion you bring to these games. Any DM would kill to have this group of players. (Fortunately, I don't have to kill anybody.) Thank you, everyone, for making SOT a living, breathing entity. Edion is like an old friend, but one I'm still getting to know. May she continue to provide us years of joy."
— Justin S.

Synopsis

Part One Part Two Part Three
1. Reunion 5. Forest of Vipers 9. The Treader and the Serpent
2. No-Room 6. The Groundless Deep 10. Amoebic Sea
3. Darkbringer's Realm 7. Hill of Taniboz 11. Flight of the Heart of Fil-Garil
4. River of Worms 8. City of the Gith 12. The Labyrinthe Arachne
13. Moxirth's Device

Part One

1. Reunion

Caught in a slow spiral, the Heart of Ash floats strangely on a vortex of water, spinning precariously back and forth like a pin top. The liquid substrate drifts far beyond the precipice of the Material Plane, to float against the stars. In shades of shrieking red, hurtling black, and binary yellow, the cosmic forces of the multiverse array themselves overhead. And below, the spiraling water-isles drain into a bottomless gulf of darkest space. Bolts of static energy snarl from the abyss. Faintly, the groaning of a wounded time serpent, The Devourer, Great of Death, can be heard from the depths, mounting and flowing, round and round.

Here, at the edge of the Plane of Time, distance and form become inconsequential, as the boundaries of matter and time fold together. The crew of the Heart of Ash are born helplessly in this void, like eidola in fog, as if caught in a dream or a coma. Each of the mariners is inert and motionless as a statue, trapped in some final deliberation. A thick dust has accumulated on their clothing and gear, forming a crust over their eyes and lips.

The Bottled City. The Fellowship has come far to be rid of it. But the mariners cannot take it to the appointed place. For the Hill of Taniboz is no more, and Thariom, along with it, is ground to dust and scattered across the Plane of Time.

Borne on the winds of Hibernus, the Imperial skyship Nomad comes up over the Eastern waves and hangs for moment over the precipice of the Time Plane. Here the Trackless Sea empties into the Gulf of Centuries, spilling interminably into the abyss. Under the strength of Phraotes, the fiery elemental monolith roaring in her belly, the Nomad glides into view like a powerful bird of prey, seizing for a moment on its quarry before descending. Torrents of time energy wrack the vessel, cracking the polished wood and rusting the baroque ironwork. The flimsy fabric of the sails beings to tear, and the strange alchemical mixtures that feed the elemental decay into unseemly constituents. Phraotes bellows in rage, and the whole ship shudders.

The crewmen are frozen for a moment in awe. Cowed by the cosmic terror that unfolds before their eyes, they stay their duties and gaze quietly at the empyrean vista. The vast is pierced by meteors and comets, swirling and falling from the unveiled sky. Unseen things manifest in the tumult and drift eerily away: abraded castles, torn from their roots, shorelines lapping at the brink of other worlds, hungrily wearing down the earth. What remains of Thariom is seen here, in momentary visions that precipitate and dissolve like reflections in a turbulent pond.

Time does not flow here as time flows in the mortal world, but intersects with it in curious and unfathomable ways, so that time to the Edionkind now seems a slight and trivial thing. Something held all along is revealed plainly: The "reality" of the World Stone is a fragile thing. At the nadir of this fragility is the Plane of Time, where all worlds come to die.

Narntay stands upon the deck of the Nomad. He still wears the same tattered cloak and shirt. The cloak appears to have a life of its own, fluttering against or with the wind, but hugging Narntay's frame at all times. The three feathers of the Dragon-birds have been sewn into the collar, and these tokens never float, but dangle motionless in the shifting space. "I never thought it could be so beautiful," he says to himself. "This is what the Treader breathes upon. Perhaps I should call on Uncle and see how he is doing. No... No... I have a task to do."

The Nomad looms black, about 200 feet above the cataract that falls into the Time Plane. The wizard Ereaxos stands over the bow, searching for his boys. With a spyglass extended to his one good eye, he searches the black horizon. A pitiful-looking gargoyle stands on a nearby boom, looking pleadingly at Ereaxos. "What do you see, Master Wizard? Are they dead? The ship is disintegrating, and we will surely die here too. I can already feel my sinews parting from my..."

“Be quiet, Bolbateon.”

“There!” shouts Ereaxos, sighting the Heart of Ash. It is almost gone. The root structure of the ship has decayed and opened many holes. Many of the crew have already been lost to the damage.

Narntay snaps from his trance and looks over the precipice. He see the ship below, and thereon spies Nimlinor, motionless, arms raised above the head and mouth frozen in some unheard cry. "Defy," says Narntay.

Ereaxos positions the ship to lower the pulley-lift. "Dandaru, will you go down and retrieve my sons?" he asks of the Mulcibim warrior-mystic. Dandaru joined the Nomad's crew in Essares-Luminar and was bound for Shevarash before Ereaxos commandeered the vessel for the journey to Thariom. "Don't forget the Bottled City," reminds Ereaxos.

Angling downward, the ship's low fighting castle leans forward on a decking braced by cross beams, and warded by twin pontoons curved into battering rams, fore and aft. The pilot struggles to keep the ship stable in the Time Storm. The riot of sails and oddly-placed rigs billow and groan, caught in the tempest. Numerous spars come free and whip about mercilessly. A crewman is slain on the spot by the lashing cables.

Six stone giants work the mechanical windlasses, adjusting the masts and booms into various configurations, while the crew struggles to make repairs on a ship that is deteriorating faster than it can be fixed.

Dandaru is lowered down to the Heart of Ash. The giant man brushes the dust off of Nim and Neren, but they do not stir.

Dandaru is powerful enough to stabilize the ship momentarily by lashing pulley ropes to the deck. Yngvarr and Mabul descend the ropes and land upon the Heart of Ash. They assist Dandaru in placing the time-frozen brothers into the basket. Ereaxos orders the pulley lifted. Dandaru personally carries Valandil and the Bottled City, climbing back to the Nomad using the lashed ropes. For a time, Yngvarr and Mabul are stuck on the now capsizing Heart of Ash. The planking falls away beneath their feet, revealing a swirling vortex, and fading glimpses of a coiled serpent. "Yes we may die," repeats Yngvarr, "but we know it and we can die well!"

"Well spoken, Battle Brother," says Mabul, "but I have no plans of dying today."

The pulley-basket returns with Dandaru. Mabul looks around, trying to save some of the elven crew from oblivion. Many have fallen away into the vortex.

"It is the Age of Men. The Elves are lost. Let us go, Battle Brother."—Yngvarr to Mabul

The heroes manage to save three elves, including the mystic Eledrethûr, placing their frozen bodies into the basket. The Heart of Ash falls away beneath the ascending company, a welter of debris in the vortex, and then nothing, never to have existed. Before the pulley has even returned to the skyship, Ereaxos orders the ship returned to the precipice. The stone giants rock the windlasses and get the ship on its new heading, bearing East. Phraotes wails in confined rage. The brass smokestack designed to contain the monolith is stressed and pitted, and threatens to crack. Thick plumes of noxious smoke belch skyward. Some of the rigging catches fire momentarily.

The fellows return safely to the deck, their hearts nearly slowed to the point of inaction. As the ship crosses the precipice back over the Trackless Sea, flaming streamers fly away behind it and dissolve slowly in the maelstrom.

The ship slows to a placid, drifting speed. Ereaxos orchestrates repairs as the rescued mariners are laid down upon the deck, their bodies still frozen in time. Mending spells and magical fabrications are deployed from scrolls by the wizard and numerous underlings. Others seal gaps in the deck with pitch from a caulking pot. Carpenters sew patches onto the great canvas sheets spread above, themselves hoisted on precarious rigs. The Nomad holds together, but threatens to fall apart despite the interventions.

“Ma-Neren...," says Dram. “Wake up!"

“In fact I will…!” cries Neren, mid-sentence. Neren notices his fellows around him. “All of us then.”

As Nimlinor is revived, he sees Narntay. "Narntay?" he thinks to himself. "But if Narntay is here... that means that the murderer and the hypocrite must be here too!" Then, seeing his father, he says out loud, "What kind of rescue is this?!"

"What kind of rescue is this?!"—Nimlinor

Valandil is the last to revive. He dreams of his child and the child's mother, and of the elven future. The fellows still conspire against each other, he thinks. "Do they really understand Time, and Edion... these Cáladain. Or is it all just selfish survival?"

Ereaxos approaches. "The urgency of the situation forbids courtesy. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get straight to the briefing. Members of the Fellowship Reunited, please follow me to the No-Room. Valandil, of course you will join us... but, meaning no insult to your kin, I must ask that our elven guests remain on the deck." The wizard invites Dandaru to join the company, and the whole troupe retires to the wardroom of the commissioned officers, located beneath the sterncastle.

“This way,” motions the gargoyle. “This way.”

"What is Dad up to?" asks Neren of his brother.

"I'd say it has something to do with Threr."

2. No-Room

Seated upon a narrow shelf beneath the aft windows, Bolbateon stares intently at the people who enter the wardroom. Ereaxos has emplaced numerous guards and wards against eavesdroppers, but even so, there is at atmosphere of imperfect conspiracy. The fellows enter and seat themselves around a well-apportioned table. Bowls of fresh roasted almonds scent the air, and chilled Adelland wine is poured by unseen servants into everyone's cup.

Ereaxos pulls out a seat for Nimlinor then seats himself opposite. The doors close and lock audibly with the wave of Ereaxos’s finger.

"What happened?" queries Neren. "How did we come to this?"

"The Heart of Ash is gone, Neren," informs Mabul. "Just two of the elves from that voyage were saved."

"Be assured," says Valandil, "The Nomad did not come back for the elves, nor the heroes of Atân, but for the City."

"This is true, of course," says Ereaxos. "The Bottled City of Yoros is right now the most important object in all of this world to both the Cáladain and the Adversary." The wizard slips a viand of honeyed venison into his mouth and chases it with a drink of wine, putting the chalice down forcefully and deliberately. "I have asked the Mulcibim Dandaru lum Mammubidan yanud Namanar entu Ulunabi tanju Tuhlar entu Fahamad entu Kanmesh to join us, for it is my wish... no, it is his wish... that he join your company. Perhaps Dandaru should explain.”

The towering Mulcibim man introduces himself in a broken effort at Common, "You will apologize my words. They are not full Cáladain, but Ereaxos speaks true words. Virtus guided me here to be with you. I recognize Narntay-friend, who saved my life at Yardoom when I was broken and close-dead. And I know my heart Cáladain... my strength Cáladain... my sword Cáladain."

"Welcome, Dandaru!" says Neren. "It is nice that you are friends with Narntay. We can see you are Cáladain by your... markings." The Mulcibim's sunworn flesh is heavily inscribed with ritual tattoo work, covering nearly every inch of his body and neck in Celestial characters. The arms bear lines of Anavaran scripture, whilst the legs bear record to extensive family lineages (the newest markings are for his sons Reshar, firstborn, and Ubiartu, secondborn) and oaths to kin. The markings on his torso, however, do not display text but small pictorgraphical scenes from his life. The sunworn flesh and bleached red hair blend in well with the reddish brown environs of the Kubi-Algi from which he hails. All are reminded of Farcluun and their trials in waste.

"Dandaru was recently promoted to a position of leadership among the Mulcibim forces at Shevarash," expalins Ereaxos, "in recognition of his valor at the Battle of Four Tribes. As an emissary of the Mulcibim, Dandaru was convening with the Elves at Essares-Luminar, to advise concerning Padrielindë's deployment in Aenor, when I commandeered the Nomad. He has waited patiently to return to Shevarash, where the battle thickens, but I now see that he has particular skills needed in your theater of battle. Call it... happenchance."

"What is 'our theater,' tell us," says Valandil.

"Of course."

“Right now, the Nomad is returning to the skies above Edion. The moment that happens—in approximately nine hours—your company will assemble and plane shift to Pernoctare."

"Wait...," says Neren, confused. "How..."

“Our team was assembled and ready to begin work in the Pernoctaran Theater when I received intelligence that conditions in Thariom were untenable," interupts the wizard. "As the Bottled City was now in jeopardy, my own mission was amended. Clearly, the intelligence used to inform that amendment was accurate. For now, the Bottled City remains safe. Narntay was key to enabling this rescue. His Grace subordinated the Hibernal Wind to carry us aloft at great speed across the Trackless Sea. I must confess, I have never witnessed such authority over divine forces. I am still baffled by the display.”

"I simply follow the Path," says Narntay. "No force in this world or any other can keep the Cáladain from the Path Revealed."

"What now, then?" asks Nimlinor.

"According to the Eternal Dragons, the Bottled City can only be opened atop the ancient Hill of Taniboz, which is lost," continues Ereaxos, "along with the rest of Thariom. Using information obtained from the Dragon Praxis, Threr has been able to reconstruct a shell-universe, or demiplane, beneath the substratum of Pernoctare, replicating the conditions once found at Taniboz. The means of entering this demiplane are peculiar, and entail a dangerous trek across Pernoctare, a willing simulacrum, and the cooperation of a demigod.

"Let me explain."

“First: the plane shift spell is inexact. You will emerge in Pernoctare some 5 to 500 Edion miles away from the intended destination: a place we’re calling the Forest of Vipers. Once you are inserted to Pernoctare, the gargoyle Bolbateon will guide you to the target location, with input from Threr. This could easily be the most difficult part of the journey. The randomness of the plane shift spell, combined with the generally unpleasant conditions in Pernoctare, make it difficult to overly plan this phase of the operation. Predatory rakshasae abound, and prey is scarce. You must be swift and cautious. Remember to use blessed piercing weapons to harm the rakshasae.

“The Forest of Vipers is a large formation of viper trees. Trapped within the forest is a simulacrum created some three hundred years ago by the rakshasa ಭ༒ཀྵ (Imul-Ðudin) The simulacrum is a lifelike replica of a former associate of Threr called Ilay Sade, a former priestess of Shaledaggum, the Welldigger, Ministering Spirit of Caves and Wells. Ilay would not be valuable to us except for the Relic of Shaledaggum in her possession, the so-called Portable Well. This device permits access to the Groundless Deep, Shaledaggum’s realm within Pernoctare, but it can only be accessed by a full priestess and bride of Shaledaggum. You must therefore secure Ilay’s cooperation in this matter. Unfortunately, Ilay is... dysfunctional. According to Threr, she knows she is a simulacrum, but she is deluded by feelings of being Cáladain. What’s more, she is tormented by a number of vengeful rakshasae who perturb her already confused mental state.

“With Ilay’s help, you will access the Groundless Deep and seek out Shaledaggum Himself. As the tunneling god, Shaledaggum alone has the ability to access the shell-universe of Thariom with the use of his deific pickaxe. This might be easy if the demigod was expecting you, but he’s not. Threr has been unsuccessful at communicating with Shaledaggum, so the task is yours.

“Once you have elicited the Minister's help, you will tunnel into Thariom and ascend the Hill of Taniboz. If the Bottled City is opened atop the summit, we believe the City of Yoros will spring anew. Obtain the Shards of Thariom and return to Pernoctare. During this time, you are exposed. The Adversary will most likely sense the shards from the Astral Plane, and every Githyanki death squad in Edion will be deployed to find you.

“When you are returned to Pernoctare with the shards in your possession, Bolbateon will guide you to a safe location. Contact me with a sending spell, and await instructions for an expeditious extraction. Pernoctare is actually the safest place during your tour, because we can use Threr to communicate your position.

Ereaxos gives Narntay a divine sending scroll, and Nimlinor receives an arcane version. “If you desire my council, at any time, you may contact me with this spell, even across planar boundaries.”

“Whatever you do, don’t be foolish enough to think you can use the Shards of Thariom. It’s doubtful any of us could even access their powers, and since the ultimate mission is to destroy the shards I would be hesitant to tamper with them prematurely.

“And, this goes without saying... but do not under any circumstance enter the Astral Plane with the Shards of Thariom. That is the domain of the Adversary, and all will be for naught.”

Yngvarr reminds his fellows of the virginal sacrifice that was to take place in Osk, to appease Shaledaggum. Narntay acknowledges that the plan, while complex, and involving the cooperation of difficult personalities, appears sound to him. "The Path may lead into Darkness Incarnate, but the Fellowship will find it and follow it, with surety."

"Are the Abnoctim waiting to take the Shards, once we get them?" asks Neren.

"Yes. We are working on a scheme to destroy the shards atop the Anvil of Creation, the only device capable of damaging the objects. This requires the cooperation of the dwarves, who receive the council of the Godking Seviamos."

"There are others besides the Travesty and the Archetype who seek the shards," warns Neren. "Is it smart to remove them prematurely from the Bottled City? I mean, can't our enemies get to them more easily?"

"You speak of the Bonepicker," says Ereaxos with contempt. "Moxirth is a genuine threat who plots in secrecy, even from the Mysterium. Your fears are well founded, Son."

"Well, we've defeated Moxirth once… no, twice. Wait, once. Yeah, definitely once," counters Neren. "Either way, if the Fellowship is going to recover the Shards, I would feel a lot more comfortable if the Fellowship delivered it to Karak-Anar, rather than the Mysterium."

Ereaxos thinks for a moment, his eyes rolling back into his skull, then returns, "That is an acceptable proposition."

"Whoa, I was just suggesting..."

"We've defeated Moxirth once… no, twice. Wait, once. Yeah, definitely once."—Neren

"What of Thameera and the Emperor?" demands Yngvarr.

Continues Ereaxos,

“Recovering the shards is not your only assignment in Pernoctare. Our team was already dispatched on an errand of similar importance: to free the Emperor of Azalan from the domination of the Travesty Thameera. As you were made aware, the Emperor’s souls are trapped in a pocket dimension of Thameera’s design, a place we’re calling the Labyrinthe of Arachne. Once the Shards of Thariom have been safely recovered, you will move to phase two of the operation: infiltrate the Labyrinthe and free the Emperor. This is done to solicit the Empire’s cooperation in the war against Tharthammon.

There is much consternation and discussion. Alternatives are put forth to recover the shards and hide them in Vela-Andúin, before returning to the business of freeing the Emperor. "The Shards are a beacon to the Treader," argues Nimlinor, "They should be protected in the safest place we know until the full cooperation of the dwarves can be guaranteed." Others agree. "We were not attacked by Githyanki or anyone else during our voyage to Istalion."

Neren suggests that they mobilize Azalan first, then attempt a recovery of the shards. Many alternatives are posited and rejected. The principle argument against each is that Threr can only maintain the shell-universe beneath Pernoctare for a short period of time, and that the conditions for its existence may soon pass. Threr himself has explained this to the Abnoctim and urged immediate action to recover the shards.

There is little agreement among the fellows. Tempers flare, but Yngvarr and Nimlinor agree that the shards should be destroyed once they are obtained. Once rid of them, both can return to their lives before the Fellowship. Valandil agrees strongly on this point as well. "What it means to be Cáladain," says the elf, "is bickering, and argument, and endless anger with one another." "The concept is only six months old," says Nimlinor, "and before that we had millennia of war. Give it time."

The arguments are stalemated. The Fellowship agrees that the plan put forth by the Abnoctim, while intricate, cannot be bested. They are comforted in knowing that they are in control of the their situation, that they have the tools necessary to succeed at their mission, and that they are free-thinking Men.

“I hereby relinquish control of Bolbateon to Nimlinor, who will supervise this operation in my stead. I have been summoned by the Mysterium to carry out a special assignment elsewhere, one that I am uniquely qualified for.” The gargoyle drops down from the sill and pulls at the hem of Nimlinor's robes.

"What you must achieve now in Pernoctare, I needn't say, is graver than all the wars and all the frustrations in the history of Edion." Ereaxos pauses and surveys the group before finishing, "What must be done, can be done, and will be done. Of this, I have no doubt. Quarters have been drawn for your dispensation. Rest, recuperate, prepare your spells and weapons. You will not see the sun set in Edion before your descent into darkness, so prepare your minds as well. Whatever exaggerated feelings of guilt, or regret, or self-reproach, you keep inside you, now is the time to shed them. Pernoctare is a living, adapting nightmare. And the rakshasae who dwell there are the masters of illuding shows, of feints, and beguilements. There is one among you who discerns the Truth… His Grace Narntay will be a beacon of hope in a realm of despair, but you had best don your own armor, and fasten it tightly. Make your peace with each other."

As the company departs the No-Room, Ereaxos beckons Nimlinor to stay awhile longer. "Let us speak in private, as Abnoctim, after the others have left." "I have no allegience to the Abnoctim," retorts Nim. "Am I not allowed a word with my son?" asks Ereaxos. "Yes, you are," he concedes.

The rest of the company exits the stateroom and emerges onto the wind-lashed weatherdeck. Neren suggests that they break bread as a Fellowship, something they have not done in a long time. The company agrees and the whole group retires to the ship's forward galley to share a meal. What transpires between Nimlinor and Ereaxos is not spoken of.

Meanwhile, the companions eat together. Aru asks Yngvarr using the Celestial Tongue to explain the final decision made between the Fellowship and Ereaxos. The northman fills in the (extensive) gaps in Aru's Common using the perfectly metered dialect of angels, in which both are fluent.

"All of the Fellowship is here together," starts Mabul, "except Nim. Despite our differences, this fellowship usually acts as a whole body... all except Nimlinor. It is so typical."

Neren realizes that Mabul has probably never known a good father-son relationship, like the brothers enjoy with their father, and wouldn't understand them wanting to share private words. "He is just talking to our father," he simply says.

"As usual," goads Mabul, "the wizards conspire and plot in privacy."

The rest of the companions discuss Dandaru's place in the party. Some mistake Aru for an Abnoctim infiltrator, others accept Ereaxos's explanation for the Mulcibim's presence at face value. Aru doesn't understand most of what the fellows debate in Common. It is established, however, that Aru has an oath to Narntay, and Narntay generally supports the inclusion of a new member in the company, especially someone he as already deemed to be good and virtuous. More, it is established that Aru has taken the Oath of the Cáladain and wears the mark. The Mulcibim man therefore considers himself loyal to the Cáladain leadership, including Talqavist.

Nimlinor eventually returns and joins the repast. The mood is anything but welcoming at his arrival. The fellows now debate openly about whether to accept Aru in their company, or not. Yngvarr, Mabul, and Valandil all feel that Aru would be a welcome addition to their battlefront, but Nimlinor immediately objects. "We are going into the Heart of Lies. I object to the inclusion of any unknown entity in our midst."

"Nimlinor appear to be projecting his treachery onto others," says Yngvarr. Mabul joins against Nimlinor. "What of the secrecy you share with Ereaxos? More lies and unknown entities."

"Mabul," attempts Neren. "You're accusing Nim of treachery, but what you don't understand is that he probably just wanted to talk to his dad, like father and son."

"That was not the case," disconfirms Nimlinor. The wizard maintains an open distrust of Aru, but eventually bends to the idea of incorporating him into the fellowship, on two conditions. Aru must take the Oath of Atân. "Valandil has sacrificed more for this oath than anyone else. None of us can be discharged from it until the Shards of Thariom are destroyed. And what's more, Dandaru must swear a separate oath to the Fellowship itself, putting the ideal of our brotherhood above all other considerations, no matter what his personal virtues might be."

"Are they asking me to break my Oath to the Cáladain to do something against the Cáladain?" asks Aru to Yngvarr in Celestial.

"No. Nimlinor is merely insisting that you take an Oath to the Fellowship, and that you hold it to be greater than all others."

"No," interrupts Nim in Celestial (the first time he has uttered the tongue in Aru's presence). "That is not what I am saying. Despite the influence of Abnoctim leaders and other external agencies, whom we entertain from quest to quest, this company will decide what is best for itself. Can you abide by the decisions of the Fellowship and support them, even if we go against what you believe to be the will of Talqavist or other so-called leaders of the Cáladain?"

"Are you saying that the Fellowship knows what is best for Edion," seeks Aru, amazed, "when our leaders do not?"

"Yes," replies Nimlinor, cooly. "Make that Oath, and you may join."

"I have already taken an Oath to the Cáladain," insists Aru, misunderstanding (or feigning ignorance) why an Oath to the Fellowship and an Oath to the Cáladain would, or should, be any different. But he does agree to swear an Oath to destroying the Shards of Thariom. "This path laid before the Cáladain. I will do this or die to try."

Nimlinor and Aru debate the nature of leadership within the Cáladain, until Nimlinor reveals that Talqavist recently met a final end. "How?" asks Mabul. "It was by my direction," admits Nimlinor, but in Common. Aru is surprised to learn that something has happened to the great Talqavist the Reborn, but does not understand the circumstances. Yngvarr consents to Nimlinor's action against the Abnoctim leader with little hesitation, while Narntay is appalled and moves to terminate the conversation. More heated debate ensues in Common. "This," concludes Yngvarr to Aru, "is why we question your oaths."

Neren imbibes a great deal, attempting to dissipate the tension with liquor. "If you wish to join our company," he says to Aru, "you have to want it more than anything else." Aru confirms that he wants nothing more than the idea of the Cáladain to prevail. The group counters, once more, that Aru must have a greater loyalty to the group than even to the Cáladain. "Would you defy the Artifex to save Edion?" asks Yngvarr directly. Aru responds with a yes. "Would you defy Virtus and all his ministers to save Edion?" asks Mabul, to which Aru responds, "without Edion, there is no Virtus."

"Without Edion, there is no Virtus."—Dandaru

"The Ministers are irrelevant," dismisses Nimlinor. "They have taken no part in this battle, nor will they in any useful context." Narntay passionately disagrees, arguing that the Ministers of Edion wish nothing more than to throw in their lot with mortals against the Adversary. "If they don't," says the priest, "we will surely perish." "Complete nonsense," returns the wizard.

"Why would the Artifex not save Edion?" asks Aru. Neren tells him that, maybe, it is because the Artifex loves his firstborn more, whether the Archetypes of Phandiom, the Gith of Thariom, or the Ancients of Edion. "We are weeds in the Garden of Edion," says Nimlinor to Aru, regarding the Artifex's view of Men. "Grandal told us as much."

"We are weeds in the Garden of Edion"—Nimlinor, concerning the Artifex's view of Men

Ultimately, the Fellowship votes on Aru's membership and unanimously approves. "Welcome to the Fellowship of Atân," says Neren. "You're going to see some terrible things."

"Your blood is the blood of all Men," intones Narntay, finalizing the pact.

The company breaks for a long overdue rest. Narntay visits each of the fellows in their quarters and sits with them in silence, asking them to comtemplate what it means to truly be of "one blood." When he leaves, the feeling of Narntay's benign presence lingers and comforts. Mabul asks of Narntay, "How will you be a beacon of light to us?" to which Narntay responds, "Have no fear, Brother. The Road of Geyon extends far beyond His word. Beset by lies and fear and mistrust... none of that will matter, because we are dedicated to each other."

The weight of the coming quest burdens their spirits. Most are overwhelmed by the thought of going to another plane, and those that just returned from Thariom are nigh crushed by the thought.

Yngvarr and Neren work out a means of making a specialized spearlike weapon for Yngvarr to use against the rakshasae. Yngvarr provides Neren with instructions for its manufacture (based on esoteric Atân traditions), and Neren produces the weapon using his magical paints. "“If we ever see Syra," he says, "you can thank her."

3. Darkbringer's Realm

Many hours later, the Fellows are roused and the company assembles on the deck of the Nomad. Ereaxos stands quietly in the center of the ship. The first pinpoints of Elven starlight materialize in the night sky. They have returned to Edion.

"I hate all Cáladain!" says Narntay over a handful of seeds. "I would kill all of my fellows if I could!" The cleric then hands the seeds to the party. "Swallow these... they are the bitterest feelings you will ever swallow." Each is revulsed. All of their individual guilts, subconscious or conscious, well up and are vomited forth. "That wasn't so bad," says Nimliinor afterward.

Shimmerling lanterns are given to everyone while Ereaxos reads from a scroll, incanting the first syllables of the plane shift spell. The runes of the scroll burn to life and melt away, the parchment disintegrating in his hands and blowing away on the night wind.

As they fellows shift, shadows are woven athwart their eyes, but through the shadows they can behold dimly the faces of their fellows. Ereaxos's face is bright, and says in parting to Nimlinor, "You are no fool, Son. But maybe you are an enemy.”

"You are no fool, Son. But maybe you are an enemy."—Ereaxos to Nimlinor

The impressions fade to black. They can see nothing; and are aware of nothing but solid, unchartable darkness. At once, they feel all joy, humor, comfort, real affection, and hope drained from their souls. They are overtaken by a sensation of falling, ever downward, sere and purposeless, into a place mute of all light. Vaguely, one can discern the presence of the Nomad, sailing away into the night like a gigantic bird, back to the Material Plane.

Senses reel and minds darken.

You have come to Pernoctare—the maroon world of the human psyche. The air is singularly heavy, as if the lees of an ancient atmosphere had settled down and remained in the stagnant darkness. It is harder to breathe than the upper air: it is filled with unknown effluvia. There is ground beneath your feet, but you cannot discern it clearly. Each footstep is a chore, burdened by the weight of twice normal gravity.

A coldness blows upon you, but without the whisper or rustle of wind, and there is a silence, such as might dwell in some abandoned city. It is though you have entered a sanctuary from which all sound is excluded by a mystic barrier. You feel that you are not alone, and it seems that hidden eyes are peering upon you from all around.

The light from the shimmerlings blazes bravely in a futile effort to cut through the starless midnight, but seems able to penetrate no more than a few feet. At the edges of this pitch-black oblivion are alternate banks of greyness and darkness, where the light fails: a vast, profound, abyssmal darkness, where malign and potent entities reside… just beyond view.

As you stare out into the velvet blackness and draw breath, your nostrils fill with the scent of the flowers of Pernoctare. All the teeming emotions of guilt, betrayal, and regret experienced by the Cáladain grow here in the soil, plants that drink darkness instead of sunlight. The stalks shake off a perfume so foul, so intoxicating, it conjures the worst feelings of personal pain and agony… feelings both dark and accusatory, of memories that had shaped someone’s growing, memories of the times someone had lied and cheated and deceived, in which someone’s selfishness and disregard had caused hurt and pain. The tribulations of the Cáladain are revealed in steady procession, laid bare for you to witness, not all fitting tightly in sequence, but rather a patchwork of frayed ends and loose threads… They are not terrible things taken separately, but their number increases their weight, and after a time you hear your companions crying openly and wishing them to end.

What creatures must feed on these sickening plants, you dread to think.

Neren touches the ground. It is colder than ice, but solid like cavern rock. One thing that can be seen clearly in the gloom is Narntay. The priest glows softly as if he were some angelic being. "Truly, a beacon," says Mabul, moving closer to Narntay and gathering his fellows. "Around the priest, come."

Narntay experiences a profound sense that he is surely walking the Path of Geyon. His confidence in his faith and ability to protect his fellows is unshakeable. Yngvarr wonders what Vastare must be like, and thinks about his father. His feelings about the Idreshim and his own place among them draw him closer to Narntay's light. It is the only comfort here.

The gargoyle approaches. In a sheepish voice like grinding rock, it reports, “I have spoken to Threr. We have landed a mere sixty-three miles from our destination. But there is an obstacle in our path that must be crossed… the River of Worms. I’m taking you to a narrow portion, a ford that we may traverse. This way.” The creature takes a handful of Narntay’s pant leg in his clawed hand and pulls gently. “Come. Come.” "It is good to have friends here," says Narntay to Neren, indicating Dram. "All of my best friends are here," replies Neren. "Everyone I know is here," adds Nim.

There is a strange sensation in the air, in the night. Each has felt the same thing at other times, in face of a great crowd, when thousands of people are moving, rustling, struggling, breathing around, thronging all the vacant space, filling up every spot. This is the sensation that overwhelms a man here—the crowd, yet there is nothing to be seen. In the darkness, when all is still, any anxiety which may afflict the soul is apt to gain complete possession and mastery. Such is the domain of Majubastis, who owns this hour.

4. River of Worms

Bolbateon leads them down a ravine cut into the ground, with walls so sheer they drop straight down into a chasm of black shadows. Winds blow off the rearing cliffs in sharp, unpredictable gusts, carving ravines into the frowning stone. Clusters of rocks tumble from heights to form odd monuments and outcroppings in the shadow below, suggesting the handiwork of some mad god.

"Are these Ozian's Winds?" shouts Nerenethos. Narntay assures him they are indeed not. "It is the wailing of our friends, our siblings. That is what you feel."

"And what is it that I hear?" asks Mabul. "It sickens the mind!"

The air is filled with a great liquid sound that brings to mind the sound of dogs retching. Peering down the malign grey slopes, they see a ravine cut through the earth, but it is not filled with water. Instead, it channels a flood of slick, writhing worms.

These larvae are sickly yellow and covered with a viscous, foul smelling fluid. They have faces that resemble the visage they had in life, albeit twisted into hateful, sadistic expressions. Down they come, the vast liquid herd, covering the banks in a sticky, foul-smelling fluid. Their bodies are livid, bruised and discolored, all naked with looks of pain.

Each one of these wretches was once a living man, a Cáladain. But their evil hearts led them to Carceri in death, where the devils judged them inferior and cast them off to Pernoctare. Onward they tumble, like wreckage borne on a chasm-falling stream, taking with them the last vestiges of their humanity.

Bolbateon leads them along a treacherous path, winding down to the river edge. Thick gray drifts of dust and slag blanket the slopes, driven by the harsh winds that sweep remorselessly over the backs of the larvae. The path is mostly obliterated by erosion and mass wasting.

Nearer now, the worms are funneled between three outcroppings, making a shallow ford. Larvae crawl over these spaces and fall off the precipice, but the space is shallow enough to cross on foot. Footing over the slick riverbed is hazardous at best, and fouler things besides larvae infest the bruise-purple waters.

Neren instructs Dram to obtain a sample of the river fluid and gives him a vial. The homunculus flits down to the river bank and collects some of the viscous puss. More of it ends up outside the container than inside, and when he tries to return the sample to Neren a stream of filth drips down between them. "You're not going to eat that, are you?" asks Nim, looking on in amaze.

Narntay asks the fellowship to pause at the riverbank. "Geyon will provide the Path." The cleric reaches down to the firmament of the plane and begins to convulse. He seems to enter a trance, but where he touches the ground, the earth reforms and takes new shape. The whole plane trembles as Geyon exerts his power in a foreign realm. The riverbank is miraculously extended over the backs of the larvae, reaching like a low bridge as far as the first outcropping. The company takes its first hesitant steps out onto the bridge, helping Narntay across who is weakened from the exertion. Below them the larvae squirm, shrouded in noxious, putrid air. Flies and maggots swarm over their bruised bodies, and come up and sting the necks and faces of the explorers. Most of the grubs are the size of small ponies, but with frightful human faces.

Reaching the first outcrop, the company discovers a peculiar sculpture. It towers over the company some twenty feet, shrouded in thick, sable darkness, and having over its shoulders the head and horns of a goat, limned in a shawl of grisly shadow. It is inordinately dark, a bluish-black color, the color of Midnight and Pernoctare itself, with ill-matched eyes that give it a sinister and cunning air. Upon its brow are impressed the symbols ಭ༒ཀྵ, proclaiming its identity.

"This is the rakshasa Imul-Ðudin, who created Ilay," confirms Nimlinor. "I say only a perversion of its name, to avoid summoning it."

Bolbateon moves across the outcrop and spies a second isle, more distant across the River, and atop it another statue. Narntay is drained and needs time to recover his power. As they stand upon the blackened isle, with the larvae a-swarm all around them, a new terror breaches from the flow.

Over the backs of the convulsing larvae comes a huge millipedelike monster, rushing headlong on countless insectile legs with sharp pincers. Below its faceted eyes, a wide mouth brims with jagged teeth. The back of the head is crowned with a pair of winglike fins, bristling in unseemly rhythm with its movements. Weeping dimples crusted with filth cover its body, emitting clouds of icy vapors. The monster clasps helpless larvae in its pincers, then deposits them in its mouth, slurping each one down with a disgusting jolt of the head.

"A remorhaz!" identifies Nimlinor, moving toward the statue. "It preys on the larvae... a destroyer of destroyed souls." Valandil instictively and selflessly moves between Nimlinor and the approaching monster.

The remorhaz seemingly glides atop an array of extremities and feelers, climbing onto the outcrop and rearing its mass into a towering C-shape, poised to strike. Neren draws his enchanted pistol Breathbreaker and fires. The monster is struck upon the face and paralyzed! Dandaru moves around the statue of Imul-Ðudin and slays the helpless foe, shattering its carapace with a devasting swipe of his falchion.

There is no time for Narntay to prepare another land-bridge. The larvae are swarming up onto the isle and threatening to overtake the heroes. "To the next outcrop!" cries Narntay. "Across the ford!"

The heroes enter the shallows of the river and repel a torrent of worm-souls. Yngvarr is bit repeatedly by the larvae, a mixture of pus and drool spilling from the fang-opened wounds. Mabul destroys wave after wave, clearing as much space as possible for the group to progress. Before they have reached the second way-point, another remorhaz breaches from the slime. "Aw, crap," says Neren, reloading his pistol.

Tactically disadvantaged, the company engages the monster in the ford. Nimlinor smites the worm with a ray from his staff, weakening the creature's scales, which go instantly spongy. Dandaru reacts, changing his approach with a thought, and shifting his weight to exploit the new weakness. The giant's blade runs through the monster, spilling gore and ichor into the ford, but it returns and grabs hold of Aru in its vicelike mandibles. Yngvarr and Valandil converge on the remorhaz whilst Mabul slaughters worm after worm. The company seems overtaken for a moment, as Aru is lofted into the air. But before Aru can be swallowed alive, he harnesses the power of Virtus and disappears in a flash, like a flame borne on a zephyr, only to reappear in battle-ready posture atop the first outcrop. In a whir of bladedancing, Valandil hacks off a sequence of crawling extremities, bringing the monster to the ground, whereupon he destroys it utterly.

Seizing the opportunity afforded by a clearance in Mabul's path, the fellows cross the ford and rally upon the second outcrop. Here they encounter a second statue, this one in the likeness of a coiled serpent with a leering, human face. Nimlinor needn't look at the inscription ഐಗಳ to know this is a representation of Charnadis. All Abnoctim know this rakshasa, who once promised them the Ark of Eldest Night, only to be outmaneuvered by Threr Rolvir (who claimed it for himself). The might of the Darkbringer is manifestable in devious modes, in diverse manners, recalls Nimlinor of a lecture once given by Galadaster, a wizard principally caught up in Charnadis's net along with conspirators Leufroy and Minthalar, long dead.

They move past to the third outcrop, after another brief tread in the ford, barely stopping to notice the statue of a tiger-headed rakshasa, this one of no importance to anyone.

Upon reaching the other bank, Neren asks of Narntay, "Why could you not make a second bridge?" "There is a price," he replies, ".. there is always a price. I serve Edion, and Edion serves the Cáladain, but I am merely a vessel for this interaction, and the multiverse is a strange and powerful thing to fathom. I will master my wits in a moment."

As they stand on the bank, covered in wounds and ichor, the fellows witness the plane itself gathering form and descending upon the river like a monstrous bat. The smell of the grave billows from the warped foulness of the wings. Black-mantled, huge and threatening, it descends like a vulture upon the larvae, carrying away a mouthful. All are reminded of Vela-Shiven, the Death Node. In the night, thinks Nimlinor, recalling Galadaster's lecture, there are evils no less subtle than irresistible… there are hidden heresies, and necromancies other than those which wizards practice.

"Bolbateon, take us quickly to the Forest of Vipers, at once," commands Nimlinor.

"This way... This way. The Forest is not far. Master Wizard, this way...”

5. Forest of Vipers

...Coming soon.

13. Moxirth's Device

Meanwhile, in some far place, deep below the roots of the earth...

“I did not grow thee from acorn, as was devised, but is it not well that I should vary my sorceries? Am I not Moxirth, the all-resourceful?”

“So the Throne of Sabirine will suffice today, for the boughs of Grandal are woven into it, and they must eternalize something of his power.

“I have installed the shards into the stump, and inscribed it round with the runes ordained by the Son of Ereaxos. And using his formulae, I have nurtured the limbs, and grown the pods. The boughs of Grandal lie desolate no more.

“Now is the specified hour and configuration of the stars. The equivalents of the sundry materials that the tablet instructed for my use are laid upon the dais. Blood is spilt by the prescribed dagger. Colored powders are cast into the flame.

“I say, 'Selgar Faroth,' in lingering devotion to the Wizard Son, and now I utter the final syllables of the germination ritual: ‘Selgarr Nyarl! Endrowidae Complis!’”

The chamber is riven by earthquakes. Rootlets burst from the ground, and dangle with heavy droops... The first-fruit of the dendromancer’s vengeance.

“Rise my children! You fight for the Cáladain! You fight for Moxirth! You fight for Nimlinor!”

The pods open. The gore-slick bodies fall.

The first of the newborn rise from their exanimate poses, each in his wonted place with his tall shadow beside him. With the great, eld-lengthened beard of Moxirth looming above them, they form ranks and declare their intentions.

“We are the drow! We come to kill!”

The End.


Return to SOT4.
Go to SOT6.