The words are ancient, long lost from a society erased from time.
As soon as they are spoken, a foreboding aura overtakes the dank stone chamber they continue to echo within. Although dark the large chamber may be, the torch of the speaker gives just enough light to see the bricks of a nearby wall seemingly come to life, pushing outward from their mortar and beating as if each were the hearts of the ruins they comprise. The beating bricks begin to form the large frame of an oblong portal while their lifeless brethren within their border defy logic and begin to fall backwards into nothingness like a giant puzzle falling to pieces.
And then a FLASH!
A portal to another world is formed. It is their escape.
It is an oubliette.
Mimicking their origin like a sinister mirror, the portal is an escape route to the speaker and her allies who are soon to be met by the horde of evil that has tracked their every movement. And while others rush ahead to anchor their new haven, she and her companion, a roguish bard, are left to close the door that offered them refuge.
He is a brawny man, not the tallest of warriors, not the greatest of rogues, but a supreme bard if there ever was. He is Vhalen, the Crimson One. He waves his gauntlet through the air like a maestro, creating a harmonic pitch. Answering his action, a dim light begins to bath the lower chambers that they find themselves in. It is warehouse of codex and curios. The room stretches on and is lost into the darkness. Attached to the ancient cracked bricks of one of the walls is the false mirror, the oubliette that offered them passage here. Beyond its ethereal frame of swirling pitch black mass is where they came from, a facsimile of the same chamber they now stand within.
"Rapha and the others have stepped on ahead. That leaves you and me to find some way to tear down this portal or slay the horde of evil that is soon to follow us into our peculiar refuge."
Their savior was a portal that offered a reflection of reality. It is a massive mirror, but not. Where one is made from glass and iron, this oddity is forged from ancient arcana called forth in forgotten tongues. The speaker that called forth this magical doorway recites the lines of an ancient scroll she was given and awaits its closure. Nothing! She is puzzled for an instant... and then she feels it.
"Much as I love your starry gazes, my dear, you had best capture your wits at once or the hordes follow us through."
She senses its truth. "This portal... it is not a construct."
Her name is Shareen. She is the last of her people, a people once trapped on a fragmented world and eventually consumed by darkness. It was the minions of the darkness that chased them into these labyrinthine catacombs held deep in the abyss of a misplaced Athenaeum.
"The Lore Keeper mentioned this spell came to her from worlds unknown, and her knowledge knows few bounds."
Her instincts are finely tuned and she senses more than Vhalen or those of her powerful allies that passed before them could have ever been capable of. To her, there is a revelation. This is no escape.
"If Rapha's powers canít close what it opened, allow me to provide a concert that will surely bring the house down."
The bard quickly reaches for an archaic lute that is magically bound to his back. He begins to furiously tune the eccentric instrument that causes the strings to glow with magic.
"Your musical skills are quite powerful, my soul can attest to that, but they will have no effect upon this portal."
Slowing, but never ceasing preparation for his melodic offensive, the crimson clad bard replies with some frustration.
"Now is not the time to doubt each others abilities, my dear Shareen. We've kept each other alive with less probability, but always with hope and haste."
"Vhalen. This portal is alive. It is a creature, not a spell. We did not create it...we called it to feast."
Just then from the dark stretches of the corridors of their former chamber the clatter and thumping of an armored horde is heard.
"THEY CANNOT ESCAPE! IT IS A DEAD END. FIND THEM! KILL THEM!"
The bard is quick to react to the sound of the horde as well as reply to the woman he has long trusted with his life and heart. He tosses his lute back through the portal where its great power is revealed as it levitates and begins to play a song with ghostly strumming. With equal swiftness he unsheathes his singing dual swords.
"Being that you're my favorite beast caller, as well as the only one left alive, I shall take your words to heart, my dear."
He then jumps through the portal with a single phrase and a smile. "Till Yonder!"
Shareen fears for her "companion's" abrupt and shocking move, but she knows she must work fast on her own task and trust the actions of the bard as she has so often done. She must close the portal.
A mass of muscle and horn enter the large darkened chamber. They are minotaurs of a sort, snorting with rage and intent on capturing and killing their quarry. To the far side of them rests the only light, an illuminated portal whose maw is filled with a gesturing female. Their prey rests there. Between them only darkness and shadows, but these beast-men know no fear.
"KILL THEM! THE DARK ONES COMMAND THEIR DEATH!"
The vanguard of the bovine beasts charges into the field of darkness and they are instantly overtaken by the sounds of beautiful music. They give pause, as do the others behind them who now enter the chamber from the corridor.
Horned helms begin to clatter upon the ground, heavy with the decapitated head of their stunned owners. The air is filled with the viscous spray and globules of blood that refuses to fall and instead floats in the air, moving in surreal slowness. They see the blur of the magical blades, but cannot react in time. Their massive two-handed swords, juggernauts of certain death, move like a fish through mud, as does every movement they furiously attempt to make. The vanguard is dispatched.
"DO NOT STOP! ONWARD! WE ARE MANY AND THEY ARE FEW. ONWARD!"
They continue to push into the room, minotaurs driven by a fear of those who command them that is far greater than the death that awaits them in the bloody darkness. Many more are overtaken by the haunting music and mutilated by the singing swords, but soon their numbers will overpower the death and breach the portal to claim victory and the deaths of those who tried to flee.
She speaks in silence. The voice of a beast caller, an art thought lost with the genocide of her people. Her talent is her supernatural affinity with all creatures of nature and the empathic aura they radiate. Communicating in similar metaphysical fashion, she speaks and they listen. But the portal beast does not.
Before Shareen is a magical portal, the one that she and her party of heroes used to cross from one room to an identical room if not entire universe. It is unknown how vast the mirror world could be and the thought of the scope has no place in her mind at this moment. Now she must fight a mental battle to close the living portal and bar the angry horde of minotaurs that has chased them to the depths of the ruined Athenaeum, a dead-end in more than one ways.
"You are not magic. You are a spawn of the arcane nature of this refuge world. And although I do not know the arcane palette of this place, I know that I can affect creatures and you'll be no different than a hawk or gryphon."
She begins a strenuous psionic offensive in hopes of breaking the will of the portal beast. A loud thunder is heard and eardrums are stung in great pain. The beast caller falls to the ground, feeling defeated. The groaning of evil is heard and the fracturing of glass soon follows. Shareen looks up to the see the floating mass of darkness that creates the border of the portal begin to harden and shatter. Obsidian shards begin to fall to the ground and the portal begins to dissipate.
"Vhalen! Vhalen!" The beast caller cries out to the bard. Just then, darkness erupts and all goes black. The portal is no more.
Shareen is grief stricken. Her heart feels as cold and black as the chamber floor she lies upon.
"Why do you have to be the hero? Why? I'd have joined my people in the Great Valley if it would just have kept you alive."
She begins to cry and fall to the shadows. But light begins to spark in a corner of the chamber. A torch is lit.
"Honestly...you'll have to begin your musical studies because I cannot be penning my own heroic ballads."
She rises to her feet and runs into his arms. "What the devil are you doing here? I saw you jump through. I heard the fray continue to the edge of the portal's shattering." She embraces him hard, letting the tears of joy mix with those of previous sorrow.
"My lute is not the only instrument that can act of freewill. Together with the darkness, they gave me just enough time to dive through the portal while in its death throes."
She pushes him back in a sarcastic motion and turns away. "And after you dove back through the portal you decided to spy upon my mourning? I am no love-struck maiden. Not like the others you have strummed for." She gathers herself and reaches for a handful of the obsidian shards that have spilled upon the floor, ignoring the bard entirely.
Vhalen responds with a playful arrogant smile. "Why else would I have abandoned a hero's end and jumped back through the portal? Never for a love-struck maiden, but perhaps for a love-struck beast caller."
With a coy smile, he holds his arms out wide expecting a loving embrace. Shareen instead walks right by him in an elegant stride and with her head held high. Looking back and flinging a long strand of hair across her flawless face in a flirtatious retort, Shareen replies. "Love can be a beast my dear and I am a master of such things."
She places the portal shards into a pouch and looks up to a stairwell. "Now gather your gear. The Lore Keeper and the others should be waiting for us above. She might have an answer as to what oubliette we now find ourselves within beyond the maw of that living portal."
Taking a few steps and a sigh she looks back at Vhalen. "At least we've all made it!"
With that, Shareen runs up the stone stairway to meet the others above.
Vhalen stands up and places his hands upon his empty sheaths and reaches to a back absent of a lute.
"No Shareen. Not all have made it. Some we had to leave behind" He looks back to where the portal once was and now only a blackened outline exists on a barren wall.
"Farewell my friends. I thank you for your service."
Gentle hands tenderly caress the worn pages as piercing eyes take in each word scribed into the ancient tome. Just how ancient is one of the many mysteries surrounding this artifact that she now found in her possession. The price paid to obtain it? Too high. Each word she transcribed was written with care. The stories told within were the key she was looking for...the key she needed to save...
"May I take it now, Keeper Rapha?"
The voice of the young Keeper brings Rapha back to her place at her beloved Athenaeum. She had been gone too long. Seen too much. She hoped it all would be worth what her eyes had witnessed and her mind wouldn't let go of when she tried to sleep.
"Yes, please, Poema. See if you can work your magic and restore the damaged cover. The name of this tome may be lost to us unless you are successful. I pray you are because I believe it is part of the key to its secrets. Secrets I must unlock. He is counting on me."
The tears begin to well-up in her eyes as her chest tightens and the ache in her heart returns. Wanting to be alone with her thoughts, Rapha closes the tome and carefully hands it over to Keeper Poema.
"I trust you will do your best."
One look into Rapha's eyes tells Poema the seriousness of her role. With a curt nod, the young Keeper takes the tome and heads to her study to begin the delicate work of restoration she must now do.
As a tear escapes, Rapha turns to look at the other artifacts she has brought back from the twisted world of Oubliette. "Knowledge is key, and I must find the right key to unlock..." With a deep sigh, Rapha begins her quest... a quest for understanding that starts with the Sisters Three.
The murky silence is broken by the sound of footsteps. They draw closer.
The tapping of exceptional sandals upon a dust-covered floor is heard in steady cadence alongside the clattering thumps of sturdier boots.
The blackness is shattered by a torrent of bat-like creatures that swarm the chamber and eventually form a thick spiral of leathery wings that funnels out of a gap in the broken marble ceiling. These are ruins. Dark and musky, covered in the dusty stratum of a thousand years. It has been long since this place has seen visitors.
The silhouette of two figures finally breaches the blackness as clouds of angered silt scatter before them: one a thin and elegant regal figure, the other a stocky mass of armor and muscles.
The female raises her arm and begins a graceful ballet with her fingers.
The darkness is removed as a magical aura of light engulfs what appears to be a vast warehouse of knowledge. These are the ruins of a great library the likes of which have never stood upon any mortal world. Rising nearly a kilometer high are megalithic bookshelves, appearing as if they were stone giants holding fast the millions of tomes, scrolls and other unconventional vaults of knowledge. This is a library fit for the gods!
"Like a little a reading I see." Barks the stocky gladiator in a sarcastic tone.
"Yes. A bit." Replies the scholar with a sly but friendly smirk.
The scholar is dressed in expensive robes, but layered with leather belts and packs that are filled to capacity with the tools of exploration and survival. That and the bit of grime upon her attire and skin tell the tale of an epic journey that must have resulted in the entry into this ruined archive.
The gladiator stomps into the room, causing a rustle in the mounds of abandoned clutter that leads to a major exodus of giant rats. Ignoring the stampede of rodents, he reaches to a stack of nearby books only to see them quake unusually as he draws near.
"Huh? What's the deal here?" He raises a massive sword whose blade is etched with glowing dwarven runes. With an ease that displays his great strength and superior martial ability, the gladiator swipes at the books. In a brilliant puff of dust and powder, they disintegrate.
"STOP!" Yells the scholar. "The Athenaeum is not ready for us."
Coughing amidst the cloud of dust that was once a stack of books, the gladiator angrily replies. "This blasted place hasn't been ready for anyone in a thousand years!"
"What is a temple full of dust going to do for us now? Tell me that scribe!"
A subtle grin overtakes her face, enough to show her delight in the challenge, but slight enough to retain humility. With swift and acute action that is counter to her demeanor, the scholar removes a staff from her backpack. She then begins to mutter in ancient tongues and a brief shimmer of magic glides over the eccentric shaft of wood and abruptly dissipates in a flurry of light.
"Te Eht Wo'ledge Uret toe tie glo!"
She slams the gnarled wooden stave into the ground. In a deep thump a wave begins to radiate in the thick layer of dust that cakes the marble floor. A miniature tidal wave of silt and soot begins to make its way to the outer walls of the great library. The ripples rise and soon begin to break and shatter upon the walls and shelves of the hall.
The massive library hall begins to emit sparkles of bright magic, increasing in intensity until the two can no longer see.
"Argh! My blasted eyes! It's too bright witch! Too bright! Turn it off!"
The eyes of the two begin to see again, recovering from the blast of arcana. What they see before them is no longer a ruin, but a pristine library filled with the knowledge from a million ages of a million worlds. The grandeur of the Athenaeum is returned.
"Whoa! Why didn't you unload that magic staff when I had to fend off those giants two suns back?"
"My magic only works here... within my Athenaeum."
"Ok. So I guess bard was right about you. You have more power than one can see."
"Yes. Vhalen knows me far greater than most would. I am sure he and that... that beast caller have managed to close the portal we used to make it here. No doubt they are making their way here from my archives unless she has taken their time alone as an opportunity to beguile him further.
"We couldn't have made it here without her." States the gladiator as he sheaths the Ogre sword that is nearly twice his size.
"I agree, but I still question her motives. I am protective of those that have proven themselves true friends. Perhaps you too will earn that title some day."
"Hey! Who rescued you from the jaws of that dragon god-king? And who led your escape from that archway dungeon after you got locked up for stealing the astral tome of all seeing and what have you? And-"
"I jest, my dear friend" The scholar replies with a sincere smile. "No need to list your valorous and heroic deeds upon the world of worlds. Now let's get back to things at hand. We may have escaped, but now there are many mysteries I must record before we begin again."
She tosses her magical stave, but instead of landing in a clatter, it floats off down a corridor. She then reaches into a belt pouch and pulls out a bundle of leather wraps. Unwrapping the leather the glow of a golden quill is revealed. Taking the quill into her hands she points to a single tome that sits alone on the highest shelf before the two.
"Could you be dear and fetch me that book."
"Ha! A limit to your magic, I see." The gladiator barks.
"No. Just trying to make you feel needed." She smiles back at the stout warrior.
He smiles back and bows in playful gesture. "Thank you mighty, Rapha."
Reaching to his side, the gladiator pulls out a silver talon linked to a metal spool of thin glittering chain. He begins to spin the talon, eventually releasing it towards the tome resting high to the ceiling of the great Athenaeum. Soaring through the air like a bird of prey on the hunt the magic talon reaches out and clutches the book and the chain begins to retract. In a final whip as the talon returns, the thick tome flies into the air and lands in the hands of the scribe, Rapha.
"Thank you, Zazoo."
"Not a problem, my lady."
Placing the tome down upon a podium she leans into it. Opening the pages a gasp of air could be heard as if the thing was sentient and holding its breath waiting for her to return. The pages are blank. Rapha raises the golden quill and drops it upon the first page, creating a dim glow from the action.
"We will begin by recording what we know of the Oubliette. Then we might find a meaning to this odyssey we now find ourselves in." She begins to write.
"Dogs of the Abyss"
Origin World: Terminus
Current Homeland: Global
Pantheon: The Abyss
"Twisted and contorted, these howling beasts shall now rip and render the flesh of the Trinariad." - Lussair speaking of the first gnolls he created.
The gnolls are a malicious and savage race of canine beast-men. They are powerful humanoids built with strong bones and powerful muscles. Although they can wield swords and shields, their weapons of choice are their razor sharp fangs and claws as well as a thick row of needle-like hairs that run the length of their spine to ends their tails. These needles have various affects upon the targets depending on the types of poisonous glands of specific gnoll packs. One of the main curses of the gnolls is their ravenous appetite, one that cannot be satiated. This along with the rabid madness bestowed by the goddess of madness, Belfagora, has created a horde of predators that has been known to devour entire villages overnight.
Most gnolls are of average human intelligence, but are consumed by rage and madness. However, there are some among the pack that are not as mad and retain greater intelligence as well as powers passed down from a long lost human origin. These superior gnolls are the casters, healers and leaders of the pack.
The Gnolls are a blight of canine beast-men across the continent of Celestius. These hairy carnivorous creatures were a creation of the arch-nemesis of the Trinariad pantheon, the devil called Lussair. Lussair is the prime antagonist of the Briggaen pantheon and corrupter of humans. When they merged with the Maratan and the Platocian pantheons to create the Trinariad, Lussair was quick to form an alliance with the Maratan Goddess of Madness, Belfagora. Together they plotted to shatter the new alliance of human pantheons. Among their sinister ideas was to create a rabid race of wolf-men to act as a scourge upon the human lands and their allies. To achieve this, Lussair fooled a village of humans of ancient Kingsreach into making a blood pact with him in exchange for all the wealth of the land. But that wealth would not be one of gold and harvest, but one of flesh and bone. In a torturous transformation, the greedy folk were turned into the first pack of violent and ravenous gnolls. Set loose upon the realms of their former kin, these gnolls soon became a great threat that could not be contained to Kingsreach.
Having spread throughout the continent of Celestius, new breeds of gnolls have appeared to create unique packs, each evolved to survive within the realm they now dwell within.
Symbol: Black flame with a white paw in the middle
Variant: Rotted Fur and Mange. Branded with an evil "pentagram"
The first pack to be created, the Netherclaws are powerful minions of evil. They have a close affinity to dark magic and have willfully accepted the scars that come along with such vile acts. Their fur is coarse,dark and appears in spotted condition due to extreme mange. Having been branded with runes of death, the Netherclaws have hints of rot and decay upon their bodies. Scars and missing flesh are the results of a multitude of battles and horrific dark rituals that they perform in service to the evil gods Lussair and Belfagora. Being the alpha pack, they are considered the strongest of all gnolls who are revered and feared by all others.
Symbol: Single bolt of lightning going from right to left, middle is a wolf paw.
Location: Plains of Triundia
Variant: Gnoll Spotted
Living in the extremely stormy zone of the Plains of Triundia, the Bristlefur' shaggy fur protects them from their violent environment while giving them an edge of camouflage. They are reputable foes due to their massive numbers, stealth abilities, and keen sense of smell to track down prey or the unfortunate traveler. They go to great lengths in protecting their territories, often fighting in a blood-frenzy. Though they seem mindless, they do adhere to a strict pack leadership.
The current leader of the Bristlefurs is the menacing Split-tooth, who came to power after ripping his brother's throat out during a struggle for power. He is known for his aggressive nature and cutthroat rule that has lead the Bristlefurs into becoming a foe who no one wants to cross.
Symbol: Black wolf paw making ragged claw marks on a field of white.
Location: Icehammer Steppes
Variant: Gnoll Arctic
The Ravagepaws have adapted well to their harsh, frigid environment of the Icehammer Steppes by growing thick fur that is often pure white or an off shade and having large, wide paws to help in walking on deep snow. They are highly skilled, nomadic trackers that often travel great distances following the wild herds across the snowy wastes. Because of this, the Ravagepaws rarely settle down more than a few days before continuing their great hunt. They are led by the stout and rugged Saberclaw, a stern gnoll who does not anger easily but one that should not be messed with.
Symbol: Swirly paw print as though drawn in sand.
Location: Desert of A'Moka
Variant: Gnoll Bald
The Wildclaws of the Desert of A'Moka are often mistaken for being hairless as their fur is very fine and light which allows them to keep cool in the unforgiving heat. With unmatched tactical skills and patience, the Wildclaws are ambush predators and arguably one of the more intelligent of gnollkind. They have a highly sophisticated system of scouts, ambushers, and warriors. Most wandering travelers are unaware of their presence until it's too late. They are also skilled in illusion magic to confuse their enemies. Gnawhide, an aged gnoll with impressive magical abilities, leads the Wildclaws. Though he might be advanced in age, he is still incredibly dangerous to both novice and veteran adventurers alike.
Symbol: A golden coin with a single white tooth in the middle.
Location: The Bloodflow
Variant: Gnoll Pirate
Living on the tropical isles in the Bloodflow Sea, the Sharpfangs are the most cunning and wily of all gnolls, untrustworthy even among their pack. Seen more as a nuisance than an enemy that needs to be eliminated, the Sharpfangs enjoy the clink of gold instead of the taste of flesh and blood that drives the rest of gnollkind. They're also somewhat less aggressive in nature, often resorting to negotiations when dealing with prisoners or exchanges. Though they do prefer a diplomatic approach, they should not be considered feeble or any less dangerous. They are masters of the sword and spear, learning their martial art from their numerous battles with their hated enemies, the goblins. Travelers should take heed in not becoming ensnared in one of the many traps set up in the lush tropical rainforest by the Sharpfangs. The Sharpfangs are led by an ambitious and charismatic young female gnoll named Bloodpaw, the daughter of the previous leader Specklecoat.
Symbol: Black wolf head on a field of green.
Location: The Blackwoods
Variant: Gnoll Black
Deep within the enchanted forest of Blackwood lives the elusive, tree dwelling gnoll pack called the Blacktails. Having withstood the desolation of the emerald forest by the dragon armies of Skyfen, the Blacktails' numbers dwindled to a fraction of what they once were. What remains is considered the most formidable pack that ever lived. Calling the charred husks of the titanic trees home, the Blacktails are never more of a threat than in the trees as they use their superior agility and swiftness to leap from branch to branch, swing from vines, and slide against the moss covered trees like a massive traveling network. They are notable assassins and deadly marksmen with the ability to put an arrow through an owlbear's eye a hundred of yards away. They use an assortment of poisons to tip their arrows-- paralyzing, necrotic, to deadly, which has made them hated enemies of the fairy folk as well as the newcomers, the halflings. They care not for the invaders in their home, believing any sentient creature a threat to their homes and livelihood after the attack from the dragons. The current pack leader of the Blacktails is the one-eyed sharpshooter, Goremaw. Though having been blinded in his left eye by one of the fairy folk, Goremaw is still the best and deadliest of the Blacktail marksman with the ability to hit targets well over a hundred yards. He is also the most accomplished when it comes to crafting poisons, creating some that not even the Etryan know how to cure.
A Man and His Pack or The Demon and The Wolf
There was a farmer who tended sheep. He wasn't very good at it because he was lazy. He didn't care if they got lost or, worse yet, carried off by one of the wolves he would hear at night. (Those wolves liked to eat their sheep!) He was perfectly content to sleep in the grass all day and night for it kept him from his farmhouse. Oh the house itself wasn't so bad. His wife and children were pretty okay too. It was those lazy relatives that lived with him who drove him crazy! (How he could not see his own laziness is beyond me!)
Well day and night this farmer, Lucius, would be on the hills of Kingsreach with nothing to do but sleep and think (mostly sleep though). Sometimes he ate when his youngest daughter, Katherine, brought him food. She was the only one of his lot who did any kind of real labor. Eat. Sleep. Think. That was his life. For most men, thinking is a good and profitable thing. For a lazy man it can be a bad and dangerous thing. He began to think about the city he could see in the distance. The city of Archway. During the day the sounds of bustling activity would reach his ears. At night the lights would dance along as they reached his eyes. As I said before, thinking can be dangerous for a lazy man, and his became some of the most dangerous of them all.
He began to resent the city and the riches he perceived them to have. (being a poor and lazy farmer from a poor and lazy family, he had never actually ventured into the city). "Why must I work so hard and put up with such a lazy family while they eat, drink, and be merry!?" he thought. "There must be a way for me to have riches as well! I will find away!" And that is what he did.
Now Lucius became so full of hate (and had thought way too much for a lazy man!). He remembered stories his lazy father had told him about a distant relative who had struck it rich by striking a deal with the devil. Not caring whom he had to make a deal with, this lazy man worked for the first time in his life and found the answer he was looking for.(No! This is a story for children. I will not tell you how he did it!)
The ritual was less than pleasant. Lucius didn't care, for he was being driven by hate.(Nasty business hate is!). What happened next made him think maybe he had used the wrong type of toad or the wrong end of a Bogwash eel. (Again, nasty business that is!). Before him stood a deceivingly beautiful woman. Her slight build was clothed in a simple emerald green dress with threads of gold and silver throughout. Her eyes were of the same color enhanced by her pale skin. Waves of black hair fell across her back. Her melodic voice brought Lucius back to himself. "My name is Belfagora. What is it you have summoned me for, Dear One?"
Thinking (dangerous thing for a lazy man!) he had summoned an angel instead of a demon,Lucius kept his response short. "I have seen the way other men live, O Great One, and wish to have riches beyond any they have ever seen!"
Seeing the laziness and greed in his heart, Belfagora was inclined to grant his request. "Very well then, but your task will not be easy. Are you prepared to do as I say?" With greed in his eyes this lazy farmer agreed. He went about finding his fattest, most burly sheep. (one that wasn't taken by wolves). Next he went about gathering all his lazy family (which included uncles, cousins, nephews, and even some lazy friends who had stopped by the week before and never left). Only his daughter, Katherine, was missing. She was working hard in the field gathering wheat.
The lazy people all gathered around the beautiful demon to await further instruction. Lucius walked forward with the sheep in his arms. In her most melodic voice, Belfagora gave her instructions. "Kill and eat. Do this and you will have riches beyond your wildest dreams. Each and every one of you." After only a moment's hesitation the lazy family did as she said. Now what happens next, children, should be a lesson to you all. Those greedy, lazy people listened to that devil. They ate that sheep raw! (Nasty business indeed!). They ate until there was nothing left.
Well, if you remember there was one member of the family who worked hard. Harder than she should have with all those family members around. Katherine was her name (in case you forgot). She had just come in from the fields with a wagon full of wheat. What she saw next was something I hope you never have to see. What she saw were wolves with faces and paws all bloody like after a fresh kill, and them surrounding a laughing, hairy hag with a green devil's tail. These wolves were almost man-like. They were standing on two legs and almost had a human look in their eyes. The strangest part of all was the clothes they were wearing!
Now Katherine, being the hard worker she was, thought in a good and profitable way. She took just one moment to think that being with a pack of these wolf-men was not a place she wanted to be. She turned the wagon right around as fast as she could and never came back! She eventually found herself a hard-working husband and started a family of hard-working children. She would often wonder about the strange pack of wolf-men (or gnolls as they would eventually be known as) and what had become of her lazy family. Some said they finally found their riches somewhere in the vast wilderness. Others said their lazy selves were eaten by that pack of gnolls. Katherine always believed and would tell this tale to her children of her family ( and some friends, too) who made a pact with a demon for riches they did not understand. For they became the bloodthirsty gnolls who own and rule the vast wilds of this land.
So, Dear Ones, may this story be a lesson to you. Be careful what you ask for from a demon. Also, be a hard worker, but if you can't....then please DON'T THINK! You never know when they will need more gnolls.
-Old Briggean Farm Fable
This is the final story in a series of stories about a Thief, A Trove Lord, An Ethosian, and the Chaos Anvil that ties them together...
Finding the temple of A'Naza easily was never in Rivon's plans. Rumored only to exist in the minds of the Ethosians, the temple of the Goddess of Death has never been viewed by outsiders before. At least not that Rivon knows of - and one way or another, eventually the Imago hears everything.
As he finds himself standing in the shadows of the looming towers while night descends on the desert, he asks himself a question he's never had to before.
"Isn't this too easy?" Once whispered into the air, the wind snatches the words away as if he never said them at all. Though his head and heart know, a chill slowly creeps up his back and confirms that someone indeed has led him to his destination.
Challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and this is just another hurdle. A gem of the planes is the perfect incentive. Rivon twists his head from side to side, light popping noises suddenly very loud in the silence of the dunes. He grins as the towers nestled before him attempt to shift out of his sight. With his destination now in sight, it can't disappear anymore.
"Two can play at this game." He murmurs to whomever might be listening, but most of all just to himself. Attuned to the planar and dimensional energies, he can see the strings tying the place of death worship to both planes, and on another level, to A'Moka, the god who commands the sands.
Being expected and led to this point, doesn't mean he has to oblige his hosts. But no one said he couldn't take advantage of their stupidity in getting him this far. Slowly, with far more caution than normal, Rivon weaves through to the temple. Instead of the straight path he might take when not expected, this is an intricate spider's web of planar shifts - staying in the dimensional pocket for just long enough that anyone tracking him will lose his place.
Finally, he arrives inside the temple and though a little more out of breath than usual, adrenaline courses through his veins and makes any approaching exhaustion retreat.
It only takes a moment for his planar vision to compensate for what his normal Do'Etryan mind can't comprehend. Threads of existence cut short, intertwined, exiled and executed - flow through the air. Some meet and meld, others clash and consume. Overall - the dominant always wins, the goddess is always triumphant, and the worship she is afforded increases.
For just a moment, Rivon wonders if maybe this time he's overstepped. Such thoughts aren't becoming though, and the planes tug at him once more to use them, to give into the sweet sensation that traveling them provides and the thought of the gem wins him over once more.
The temple, from everything he can divine through his resources, isn't occupied. It's guarded by the sands, with some minor apprentices and lower level adepts scattered throughout to guard things and corpses beneath his notice - but the vaults - aren't occupied.
A blur dashes across his sight. Startled, Rivon drops the planar connection for a moment, shaking his head. It's not his sight playing tricks. Someone is definitely there. They're waiting for him to make his move, what they're sure will be the wrong one. If he's not mistaken, everything before him is staged - just for his benefit.
Energy begins to course through him, the Chaos Anvil's location is everything including a trap. Opponents have tried to ensnare him before and none have succeeded - perhaps this is where the Imago will end. Rivon laughs, not even deigning to contain the sound. "It's never a good day to die," he whispers, not caring that the trap can hear him.
The anvil glistens in all its ugly glory. Seriously - powerful though they may be, gnomes have a gaudy sense of decoration and fashion. Imago glances around, fully settled into the persona he needs to do his best work.
Scanning the surrounds brings up nothing. No webs. No lines. Nothing to cut because there is no one there. And yet, his gut tells him otherwise. Where his sight has never failed him before, Imago knows that this time someone is messing with him, the planes, and the energy. It's almost like a personal affront.
Trap or no trap, the Chaos Anvil won't retrieve itself. Imago shakes his head, clearing out unnecessary thoughts, manifests both his daggers and steps out of the shadows. For a few seconds it's like his gut was wrong. He crosses in another flash of shadows to the Chaos Anvil and just as he's about to lift it, he senses what he knew all along.
"Imago." It's a statement in a feminine voice so smooth it briefly stops him in his tracks.
"You've met me then." He quips, mind racing to figure out his next step. Fighting a priestess really wasn't in his battle plan.
Her perfect mouth lifts briefly at one side - a sort of smile-smirk. "I am Hatesu, and I'm afraid I can't let you have that anvil."
Imago sighs deeply, fingers running along the back of his blades as they shift themselves with his movement, sensing his inner conflict. He almost gives it away, almost smiles with pity at her, but instead keeps his discovery to himself and answers glibly instead. "I'm afraid you don't really have a choice in the matter."
Hatesu blinks at him, drawing her staff up before her - gaze suddenly wary. As if she didn't expect him to continue his theft once he saw her. "You can't take that!" Though her voice raises in volume, her countenance remains composed.
He almost feels sorry for her, but that's not in Imago's nature. Seeing her ties to her power is though. Whatever hid her from his sight before, can no longer do so now she's visible to him. With barely a thought he manifests a throwing dagger, pegging it directly on the line of power she uses to communicate with her goddess. Ignoring the sudden agony in her expression, Imago severs each tie with all of her natural abilities.
Luring him in. Preparing the room as if it was a trap that could catch him. Hiding from him behind the power of a goddess. Imago doesn't get angry, just irritated. And he doesn't have time to mess with those who attempt to outsmart him.
Grabbing the anvil, surprised at its weight only for a moment, he glances at the incapacitated High Priestess. "You'll be able to move once I'm gone."
And he steps into his planes, soaking up their energy to aid him in flight.
The anvil suits the Trove Lord as it sits at his feet, that grimace on the frozen face almost laughs at them all. Imago resists the urge to mop sweat from his forehead as his energy fails fast while the Trove Lord rummages through his horde of things to find the prize he promised the Imago.
"Ahah!" The Arch Vizier proclaims. "Found it!"
Are you sure?
Well a deal is a deal, right?
"Of course we're sure!"
The gnome stands on his toes, lightening crackling through his eyes, leaping through his eyebrows to the rest of his hair and beard until it fizzles out just as the small man begins to speak. "Once your skin touches it, you will be attuned. This is yours, and only ever yours."
Rivon nods. "Anything else?"
"No. No. Get out."
You heard what he said.
Get Out! Get Out!
"Damned gnomes." Imago murmurs as he lets the folds of the planes take him back home.
Rivon stumbles through his usual opening, haphazardly controlling his own movements. The planes call louder to him, and louder still. Like it's leaking into his blood and burning him from the inside out.
Then, it clicks.
How could he have not realized it before?
In the arrogance personified he becomes when he dons the Imago, he did't realize. Though the priestess wasn't prepared for him - the Anvil had been.
As if his realization is a trigger, the Ethosian curse accelerates. The planes seep through his skin, seeking parts of him as yet unclaimed, wanting his mind, wanting him to come to them and never leave.
Fumbling, he retrieves the gem from the velvet pouch that the gnome gave to him. It glistens red, like blood. Rivon cradles the cool surface against his forehead, his cheeks and finally just cups it in his hands, cradling the glow. Sensations sweep through him as the entwining fibers are ripped away. He watches, panting, as the gem absorbs the encroaching madness and keeps it at bay.
He finally collapses against the cushions on his bed, and lays gasping up at the ceiling, clutching his gem of the planes close to him.
Lucky. This time, he was very lucky.
There can't ever be a next time.
This is the third story in a series of stories about a Thief, A Trove Lord, An Ethosian, and the Chaos Anvil that ties them together...
Ethosians are difficult to find, mostly because they keep to themselves. By the same extension, anything they choose to acquire - is also hidden by the sands. In the city of Mirage, not everything is as it seems, but everything is as the Ethosians devise it to be.
The staff's head glistens in the sunlight. Its jewels paint a kaleidoscope of color onto the hot, white sand. Hatesu's grip is gentle but firm as she closes her eyes to hear the word of A'Naza - the Ethosian Goddess of the Gates. They flow into her mind, a caressing whisper of power meant only for the Goddess' High Priestess.
They seek the Anvil
"They won't find the Anvil, Mistress." Hatesu bows her head in the direction of the temple as the sun beats down, sinking into her darkly bronzed skin.
Will you guarantee this, Hatesu?
The warning tone in her Goddess' voice barely gives the Priestess a moment's pause. "I will guard the Anvil with my life."
Don't throw your life away, my child. It is enough that you will fight to keep what was never truly ours to begin with. Do your best, as you always do.
Hatesu chuckles at the wry amusement in A'Naza's voice. Her headdress, while modest for a High Priestess, jingles as the gold set gems clash lightly against each other. "As you wish, Mistress." She murmurs this last aloud, loving the feel of the words on her tongue. Becoming a High Priestess was all she'd ever dreamed of, and she'd be damned if some thief-scum was going to get the better of her.
Hatesu, do not take this lightly. We do not face the gnomes. You will face the Imago.
"Imago?" the warm breeze blowing through the Ethosian city suddenly sends a chill through her body. "No one has seen him in action. I assumed he was myth."
Assumptions are not made by the wise, my dear. Be wary of such a conceit.
It's rare for A'Naza to chastise her. The reprimand stings Hatesu as surely as a slap. "I will prepare, Mistress."
See that you do. Ready the temple's defenses and keep the Chaos Anvil if you can.
Nodding, Hatesu turns to the right and cocks her head slightly. A squint of her eyes allows her to glimpse the peak of the temple's towers through the shifting sands. Those who aren't aware of the dangerous properties of the desert fall prey to its treachourous nature. The Priestess grins to herself. They fall prey to A'Naza's brother, A'Moka. For he is the one who commands the sands and protects the people of Ethosia.
The path to the temple of A'Naza is an easy one, if you happen to be her High Priestess. It never seems to take Hatesu longer than she wishes to spend on the journey. Another perk of serving her Mistress.
For any normal person...or gnome, finding the Chaos Anvil should prove near impossible. And yet, if Imago is truly sent by the gnomes, Hatesu is fully aware that the thief is far from normal. Tapping into the Chaos Anvil lessens the Ethosian need for ritual to focus the power needed to help send the Ethosian dead through to U'Siri's eternal garden paradise. The rituals still exist, and the power is there to be used, but having it permanently on tap is such a convenience.
Hatesu traces an impeccable fingernail down the surface of the faintly glowing runed anvil head. It's really quite ugly, and the face etched onto the front is a daily reminder that it's not of Ethosian origin. The reminder chafes.
It won't do to be found with the anvil and lead the thief directly to it. With one last look at the stolen treasure, Hatesu heads back to the great hall of the temple. Majestic columns lead up to her seat. She refuses to call it a throne, because a Priestess is not a Queen, and a High Priestess is simply so much more.
The high backed chair with the subtle gold filigree isn't comfortable, but it's not meant to be lounged in. It's meant for appearances and ceremony. And for this moment - this time of waiting for a thief to come.
"Yes, Mistress?" Her breath catches faintly with surprise and she waits for direction.
If he is as wily as the legends have it - be wary. Do not put yourself in harm's way.
Hatesu nods. "Definitely, Mistress." She can't help but shake the slight relief, despite her big words earlier.
Oh and Hatesu. If he does succeed - make sure he never forgets the moment.
The High Priestess raises her gaze to rest upon the Gnoll-like face of her goddess' statue and grins. A cold rush of air suffuses the room for a split second as a sliver of laughter escapes her usual composure. "As you wish, Mistress. As you wish."
This is the second story in a series of stories about a Thief, A Trove Lord, An Ethosian, and the Chaos Anvil that ties them together...
The Imago didn't choose his name. He didn't even choose his line of work. Being a rogue was part of the family heritage, but becoming a planestalker blindsided him. As far back as he can remember, the planes called to him, coaxing him into their shadows and suffusing him with planar energy. So much, in fact, that he has become the echo people purport him to be. Imago suits him. When his name is spoken it shifts through and filters back to him.
Gnomes guard their territories, indeed most things they do, very jealously. It makes infiltrating their domain all that more fun. Imago perches relatively high, out of the eyesight of most gnomes. The Arch Vizier has been scrying, stretching his abilities and begging the planes to locate Imago, but silence greets the wizened gnome and the thief takes specific pleasure in that fact.
The Trove Lord thinks his people are secret, hidden from the world, but Imago sees everything. Through the fabric of the planes and the energy that lets him weave in and out, he knows the true nature of the magic entwined in the very being of the gnomes. Just a tug on those connections can send a gnome's (or anyone's for that matter), entire being off balance.
Imago squints in just the right way as the diminutive Lord stomps his feet once more at his failure to locate the thief. The thief watches the quasi gnomish god for a few moments, narrowing his eyes to seek the planar shifts throughout the room. A shimmer lets Imago know just what to do to disable Meshka's defensive capabilities - at least for a few seconds - because that's all he'll need.
The thief breathes deep, and closes his eyes to shift momentarily through the planar dimension. As always he fights the momentary compulsion to simply give in and drift away, drunk on the power. With sheer will, he forces himself to focus on his task, on his target.
In the blink of an eye the Trove Lord stumbles, finding it difficult to catch his breath. To a mind untrained by a planestalker master, the Imago appears as if out of thin air. The Trove Lord gasps, reaching, in vain for the time being, for his defensive shields, to attack - to follow his instinct and protect his magical secrets.
"You've been seeking me." Imago's voice holds a lilt, somewhat foreign. His frame is sleek and lithe, even though with the Trove Lord temporarily cut off from his magical sight the thief appears to blend in and out of the walls. If he'd been less arrogant he would see the telltale white as Imago pushes a stray hair under his hood, behind a curved and pointed ear only momentarily visible.
The advantage is gone now but leaves the gnome wary as he rights himself, nose pointed to the air with feigned affront and pride. "How do I know you're who I've been searching for?" His arrogant tone spills through the conversations in his head. Voices so loud even Imago can glean them.
But you know he's untrustworthy
He is a thief
We need a thief
He's stolen from us!
That's the point, if he can steal from us, he can steal from them
Be wary, once a thief, always a... oh the point
Yes, the point. Hire a thief to steal back what is ours
Imago waits with a patience brought on by amusement while the Arch Vizier finishes his own conversation, before speaking. "Really?" Is all he says, and waits for another spell until the gnome reluctantly glares at him.
Finally the Trove Lord quiets, the murmuring put to rest as he uses magical sight to check, to make sure that Imago is truly who he claims to be. "Then you know why I've summoned you?"
Imago ignores the arrogant assertion that anyone summoned him, and resists the urge to chastise the gnome. "I heard your call." Is all the answer he gives for now, concentrating on the planar energy boosting his presence, fingering the weapons slowly manifesting and dissipating in his hands. They're always ready to protect at his command.
"Then you know what we want?" The gnome blinks his sparking eyes, and Imago wonders, for a moment, if maybe the bushy eyebrows will catch on fire. He waits patiently while the Trove Lord converses with himself, yet again. After all - can't be rude to a client.
We want the Anvil
We need the Anvil
He's the only one who can retrieve it
You say that with such certainty
For I am certain!
Well, why didn't you say so
When silence descends, he waits for a few moments before meeting those mad little eyes and addressing the gnome directly. "Arch Vizier, Trove Lord, Meshka Shovlins - tell me - If I reclaim what the Ethosians stole from you so long ago, what, pray tell, is in it for me?"
Because really, a thief, is a thief, is a thief - and thieves have to profit. Regardless of how challenging something might be, profit is tantamount.
The gnome grins, his thin lips almost disappearing as a few sparks fly from his eyes. "My Trove guards things you can use, legends of our making." He shakes his head, somehow inwardly glaring. "If you retrieve the Chaos Anvil, you will be rewarded with a gem of the planes."
Barely even a flicker of Imago's eyelashes betrays his interest in the prize, but his mind moves quickly. A gem of the planes is a legend, sought after by all master planeswalkers. Such a gem protects the bearer from succumbing to the lure of giving themselves over to the planar energy. As strong as Imago likes to think he is, such a gem is a worthy price. The bargain must be struck.
But if the gnome was waiting for a gasp of surprise, he's disappointed. Though no one can see it, Imago smiles beneath the mask that conceals all but his eyes. Quicker than the mind can process, he manifests a planar dagger and draws a point of blood from the gnome who yelps in pain. "With your blood I claim this deal."
Just as quick as he arrived, Imago steps into the lulling planes and leaves the Trove Lord spluttering behind him.
Why the gnomes have to live so far from the Falmyrys, Imago will never understand. By the time he arrives back in his quarters surrounded by the ancient tree's roots in Urrumithya, he knows he's running very short on time. Stripping off the layers of clothing that keep the chill of shifting dimensions at bay, he stores the blood shard of the planes where he keeps all his deals. Blood is powerful, blood is dark - and always binding.
He can feel the tingle of the planes always in the back of his head. They whisper to him, warn him... just like now. Just as he tosses the mask behind his bed, there's a knock at the door.
"Rivon? Are you in there?"
"Coming." He calls, careful not to sound harried, but the door opens before he reaches it and his father's pale blue face stares at him taking in his attire.
"Must you laze around all morning?" The older Do'Etryan asks. "Your mother is far too indulgent. Finish getting dressed. We're expected at the audiences today."
"Sorry, Father." Rivon bows his head briefly in a sign of deference and respect. The song of the planes still plays in his head, tugging at his consciousness and begging him to come and play. His father is a royal bodyguard, in a long line of them, in whose footsteps Rivon is meant to follow - he's not sure how to tell him what he really is.
This is the first story in a series of stories about a Thief, A Trove Lord, An Ethosian, and the Chaos Anvil that ties them together...
The Trove Lord
The problem with gnomes isn't their deceptively diminutive stature, nor their whacky chain of command or fearsome grasp of power - it's the voices. Those that plague the overly intelligent race with a constant barrage of juxtaposing
views just to make sure they've considered everything. To be fair, they are their own voices that they hear.
There are side-effects,of course. One of which is the muttering. When close to a group of gnomes, there's a constant murmur surrounding them everywhere they go.
Arch Vizier, Trove Lord, Meshka Shovlins isn't prone to paying attention to anyone or anything but his current obsession. Other's voices don't bother him, he's only concerned with those conversations in his head. And that dratted Anvil
that should be complementing his Trove. After all, what use was being a Trove Lord if you didn't collect the best and brightest magical creations of the gnome race? Those scummy Ethosians stole the Chaos Anvil from the gnomes during their greatest mutual war more than a hundred years ago.
His eyes blink furiously, as if he's trying to save them from drowning in the thickness of the eyebrows above them. The glint through his eyes shoots blue fire,like magic is leaking through because his body can't quite contain it. He
checks himself, winding his long beard around his right forearm and curses that he left his hat back in his office. The bald spot on his head is already smarting at the fresh air of the open cavern.
"Oh,I know where it is." He mumbles dismissively to himself, his scowl makes thin lips disappear into the bushy mustache that completes his facial hair. "And how do you suggest we get past Ethosian gods to raid their temple?" Sarcasm scatters from him in the tiny bits of spittle that fly through the air as his disdain at the dissenting voice makes itself known.
"An Outsider..."His voice begins to crescendo on the last syllable, and gnomes passing through the cavern cross to the other side. They've seen some of the Arch Vizier's outbursts. Can't be too careful now.
Just as suddenly though, the Trove Lord smiles. "Really?" he asks the air, which apparently answers him because the smile spreads to become a jovial chuckle. The mad twinkle in his eye sparks again, and the tension in the cavern lessens.
"Hmmm that outsider." He mutters, once again deep in discussion with himself, but this time his stride is purposeful, intent on reaching his office. "He's stolen from us. He's stolen from them. Nothing is sacred to him. What is his price to steal for us this time?"
Meshka slams the door to his elaborate chambers behind him and wades through what might appear to be refuse to a more mundane a person. His fragmented mind knows exactly where to look. The tome he retrieves after rifling through several piles of carefully balanced, leather-bound books is thick and dusty. Its pages are yellowing despite spells trying to coax them to do otherwise.
"This is it." There's a tone of reverence in his voice this time. No gnome alive would recognize it, but deep in his mind Meshka actually reveres the magic with which he works - at least in a weird and twisted way. The power, you see, is extremely lucky he exists to wield it.
The room is filled with the rustling of pages for a few moments as he leafs through the tome. All of a sudden his eyes crackle with that mad tinge once more, and the tufts of hair around the sides of his head stand out on end. "You
think you're so clever, Imago. You might evade the rest of Terminus' weak and powerless courts, but you'll never be able to hide from me! You will retrieve the Chaos Anvil, and we will settle our score."
Boom...Boom...Boom. Sounds of war drums mixed with the thump...thump...thump of the terrified hearts of Archway. The savage war cries pierced the resolve of those souls still in the city. The thunder of hooves surrounded them. It was as if the sky above and lands below opened to spew forth the brutal beasts. The Taurokians. They were coming. The bravest defenders wanted to flee at their arrival. They stood their ground. They prayed to their gods. They waited as the war cries echoed and the drums sounded. Boom...Boom...Boom.