TMA Down Time

TMA Down Time
Art by @spoiledchestnut

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Session 40

I was restricted to camel duty given my recent outburst, meaning Feeps babysat me in the pen just outside the Humorless Guard. The consensus was to wait for Vulcan. While this place was presented as an inn, it most certainly started as a mausoleum. All the rooms were crypts below ground, which I could return to after the others finished talking up the locals. At least there was a window looking inside the bustling space for the mounts to peer in. Who knew camels were like family here.
Since everyone thought Treetonk was a Shi'ar Sorcerer, given his illustrious form and “bodyguards,” he was getting all manner of attention. I sat on the windowsill, dejectedly sipping from my tankard and ignoring Feeps’ hushed beratement about earlier. My sulking provided ample time to spot the halfling making his way over from the darkened alcove where an onyx-skinned man with a mane of fire sat.
An Azer? I wondered, hearing Feeps finally grow silent to follow my stare.
The halfling hurried over to Treetonk, bowed, and placed a bottle of fine wine and a bowl of exotic fruit on the table. I strained to hear what the halfling said and only caught: “The Minx sends his regards, Shi'ar.” Five minutes later my friends were sitting with the so-called Minx, chatting quietly.
I sighed loudly, and that’s when the man waving his lute and smiling broadly sauntered over.
“What ails your heart, fair la–”
“I’m going to stop you right there.” I interrupted drly.
The man frowned, lute dropping to his side.
“Taelim, no need to be rude.” Feeps, still a camel, said aloud, producing a gasp from the man.
“It speaks?!” The man drew closer.
“Sure does. It’s a magic camel,” I said, feigning my enthusiasm.
The man grinned and bowed deeply. “Ian the Elite, at your service.”
Feeps was far more obliging than I. “What news of the world, Ian? You look well-traveled.”
Ian brightened, and by now I had given up on the conversation happening with the Minx since Ian’s droll voice demanded all the attention.
“What do you wish to know? I am indeed knowledgeable...for a price I can tell you all sorts of–”
I flung a platinum coin at his chest. “Talk.” Feeps coughed in my direction, and I rolled my eyes. “Please.”
Ian strummed his lute, “Of men or monsters, of dragons or mages?”
“I don’t care,” I replied, waving my hand airily. “Pick something interesting.”
That produced a quizzical look from Ian, but he obliged, plucking strings lightly. “I’ve heard tales of a group called Ornamental Chaos, they’ve defeated an Arch Magi by the name of Obsilon, stealing his Red Dragon Mask. Rumor has it, the Cloud Giant hides in Magaat, licking his wounds.”
Feeps’ head swung in my direction and he spoke in Sylvan. “Obsilon...was he in Master Viceak’s book?”
I nodded once, already considering the repercussions. “The Mage of Elements…”
Well, at least Naora is following through on her promise to destroy the masks. Screw you, Tiamat.
“Taelim?” A striking woman was standing before me, patiently waiting for me to return to the present.
Uncertain, I blinked at her for a few second before remembering it was actually Treetonk.
He leaned closer and lowered his voice, “The Minx...I think he can help us. He calls himself a finder of things. I bet he’ll know where Lysandra is.”
I stared past Treetonk, making direct eye-contact with the Minx; he was watching me with a smile. I shrugged and drained my drink. “Why the hells not,” I responded, slipping off the windowsill and into the inn, leaving Feeps peering after me.
I pulled up a chair, folded my arms and waited for the Minx to speak.
“You and your friends are not what you seem,” the Minx grinned.
“So you see through our illusions, but that’s not why I’m here. Is it? You find things I’m told. What's your cost?”
The Minx laughed heartily, then leaned forward on the table. I could feel the warmth of his body. His voice grew serious. “I can find anything,” he emphasized the last word. “The question is, what do you have in exchange?”
At this point, the truth was there was almost nothing I wouldn’t give to find the last shred of what made me happy. Illium was no longer mine, the Arch Magi had gone missing, and I was completely and utterly without direction. I licked my lips, but I already knew what I had to offer while within the sultan’s domain.
“You seem like the type that values information over material items,” I began, the glint in his eye confirming that suspicion. “You know those silver collars the sultan’s enslaved all his elementals with?”
The Minx drew even closer, hungering for what I had to say. “The unbreakable ones, crafted by an Arch Magi...yes, what of them?”
“Want the word that shatters them?”
“Taelim!” Maziel and Treetonk seemed to say at once, but it was too late. The offer was made.
The Minx’s eyes widened. “Y-you’
“That Arch Magi was my father.” Not biological, but who cares. “Her name is Lysandra, she’s held in a prison somewhere in Magaat. Provide me with the information to help find her, and if it’s reliable, the shattering word is yours.”
The Minx practically threw his hand at me. I took it, and we shook.  “Tomorrow night,” he said, hurriedly getting to his feet. “I’ll meet you back here.”
I rose as well, reaching for the still full bottle of wine. “Fine by me. I’ve got no better leads.”
The Minx swiftly walked out the Humorless Guard, taking his small entourage with him.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Taelim,” Maziel said at my side.
“Not anymore.” I moved toward the stairs, suddenly sleep seemed like an acceptable notion. “Feeps,” I practically shouted across the room. “Come inside, I’ll pay to have pets in the room.”
The camel obeyed, trotting through the door after me. The others followed me down into the spacious crypt that was our room. No one chided me as I drained the wine by myself then drifted off to the sound of Feeps humming a song from my past.

It felt like morning came the moment I closed my eyes, but I dragged myself out of bed to wash and dress like everyone else. We didn’t have many other options that weren’t asking for trouble, so breakfast upstairs became the only objective. We took on new forms that wouldn’t draw attention, except for Feeps, who became a centaur. Apparently, a camel felt demeaning.
As we ate in silence, a limited amount of patrons sharing the space with us, the door to the inn was thrown open. We glanced up to see Vulcan, bowing to cheers as the others welcomed him in. The earth genasi slumped into an empty booth, smiling wearily.
“Vulcan!” Treetonk waved excitedly, producing a quizzical look from the genasi.
“We’re disguised,” Maizel whispered to our gnome.
Still, the the genasi strolled over, taking a seat. “Greeting, strangers. Have we met?”
“It’s us,” I said. “The impatient travelers from last night.” I gestured at the group. “Seeming spell.”
“Ah! You fooled me!” He chuckled. “How have you fared? Find your friend?”
“Not yet…”
“Mr. Vulcan,” Feeps began mildly. “Would you happen to be acquainted with a Minx?”
Vulcan sat up straight, grinning. “That’s the one I was going to introduce you to!”
“Oh, joy,” I replied. “Welp, we met him. He’s...helping.”
“If anyone can find your friend, it’s that one. Have some faith.” Vulcan gratefully started on the food we slid his way.  With a mouth full of eggs he asked, “Still need some guides? I’ve got a good group of boys looking for work.”
“Considering Taelim’s record, perhaps we should,” the goliath, Odison mumbled, producing a glare from me.
Vulcan shoveled more food into his mouth, swallowed, downed a glass of milk then jumped to his feet. “Will you be here?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but Maizel cut me off. “Yes. We aren’t going anywhere.”
“Great! Give me one hour,” Vulcan said, and like that, he was out the door.
I looked to the others. “Think they have mimosas here?
True to his word, Vulcan returned an hour later, trailed by two interesting looking fellows. One was tall and thin and bore more knives than articles of clothing, that was Egba the Digger. The other was shorter, bandoliers crisscrossing his body with ample amounts of explosives, Pila the Sapper.
“Taelim,” Treetonk began under his breath. “Please don’t light fires near that man.”
I eyed Pila’s backpack, swallowing as he left a thin trail of gunpowder. “Noted.”
Vulcan slapped both the men on the back. “Here’s my lot! I can vouch for both of them. You supply the coin, they supply the services.”
“Coin we have,” I replied warily. “Can they get us around without being seen? Or take us to, I don’t know...those underground jails…?”
“Yes,” the newcomers said in tandem. “Which one?”
Maizel glanced at me, eyebrows raised.
“Right, you’re hired.”
For the remainder of the day we lounged, drank, and ate with our new guides. Vulcan had bid us farewell, heading for the Suk to hawk his wares. As time transpired, the Humorless Guard slowly filled with patrons. Late in the evening the Minx entered, trailed by a bodyguard and a strange figure in wrappings with a veil across their face. The Minx gestured for us to follow, and we were led into a secluded room downstairs.
Once inside the space, the new figure removed their veil, revealing a familiar white mask. From behind it, the Glaistig’s voice rang out. “Hello...”
I sighed, “Gods damit.”
Maziel stepped closer. “Are you here to barter information?”
The Glaistig chuckled. “You could say that.” She turned toward me. “I know you don’t trust me–”
“You killed my father.” I snapped.
She paused, then, “He took my mother…”
I threw up my hands, then stopped, looking away. My hands fell limply to my side. I didn’t have time for grudges. “You know why we’re here. Help me find her.”
The Glaistig nodded, “Lysandra is important to me as well. It’s why I’m here to help. As far I know, she’s being held at Dusk Mount. Aleph or Doresain’s presence was said to be present there...”
The room fell silent at the mention of the Orcus worshiper. I could feel my temper rising; his interference had nearly destroyed Illium, and now Lysandra…
“Taelim,” the Glaistig’s voice interrupted my plotting. “Do not engage him. Disrupt his work, free his prisoners, but do not fight him.”
I stared at her, unwavering. “I’ll make no promises.”
She sighed. “I hope you succeed. I’d consider it a favor if you do.” She turned to exit the room. “Good luck.” Then she was gone, leaving our party and the Minx alone.
I made for the door, but stopped by the Azer before going. “I hope she wasn’t lying, especially if you want that word.”
Then I left, the others right behind me.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Session 39

After only a few short seconds in the blistering sun outside of Magaat, sweat trickled down the bridge of my nose. In the distance, the two-level city of the desert metropolis dared us forward. Four titans, rumored to be alive, held the second tier up—the sultan’s city. Even I had to admit they made Illium’s titans look small.
“It’s twilight...and I’m sweating,” our goliath cleric grumbled, tugging at his armor.
I glanced around at the group that had volunteered to help me find Lysandra. There was Kolae’s brother, Odison. Maziel’s clone and Klotonk’s crystal golem alternate self, legs specially crafted from trees I had Awakened. Then there was the Creature Feep, my lifeline. I think Feeps knew what this meant to me, and how I’d do anything to get her back. He was here to keep me from doing that.
“Lys has to be in one of those Impenetrable Jails…” I began tentatively.
“Like the one we broke your father out of?” Maziel replied.
“Yeah...Illium just finished paying back those damages. My guess is they’ve upped their game. We just need to know where to look...”
“I can help with that!” a voice offered from behind.
We spun around to find an earth genasi grinning at us, holding the reigns of an overpacked camel. He held out his free hand, “Vulcan. This here’s Savina,” he inclined his head at the camel.
“How do you propose to help us, good sir?” Feeps questioned politely as I approached the camel.
“Careful, miss!” Vulcan started, but stopped when the camel accepted my touch. “Huh...she’s usually a biter.”
I shrugged. “Animals like me more than people.”
“Anyway,” Vulcan resumed. “I can get you through the gates, I know lots of people. I’m a merchant whose made...friends.”
“I bet you have.” Maziel added. “What’s the cost?”
Vulcan’s grin widened. “Need some potions? I’m always looking for new customers.”
I pulled out a pouch of gold and handed it over, receiving a few vials in exchange. Savina’s nose began rummaging through my pack for more food.
“I can take you through the gates first thing in the morning," Vulcan said. "They'll be closed by the time we get there anyway. Tomorrow I can introduce you to some folks at the Humorless Guard. They know the city in and out, they’ll be useful guides.”
I groaned. “Morning’s a long way off.”
“Taelim,” Feeps turned to me. “Rushing blindly into a foreign city is not wise.”
I looked at him sullenly and switched to Sylvan. “She’s rotting in a jail cell, Feeps.”
The warforged’s posture fell, and he turned to the genasi. In Common: “It seems we shall find our own way in, thank you for your assistance.”
Vulcan nodded. “Okay, hopefully we cross paths again. Safe travels in the sun!”
With that, we trudged through the remainder of the sweltering heat toward the city. By the time we arrived, night had fallen. As expected, the gates into the city were closed, a queue of travelers forming along the towering walls.
“We look so out of place…” Maziel said aloud, stopping us before we got any closer.
A drow, half-elf, crystal golem, goliath and centaur warforged who's partially furniture. Yeap, pretty conspicuous.
“I have an idea,” Treetonk offered, flipping through his spellbook. With a few hand gestures we transformed entirely. Treetonk took the shape of a voluptuous noble woman, and Maziel and Odison appeared to be "her" bodyguards. I had very little changes since my complexion was close enough, but Feeps, the camel sighed at my side.
“And now?” Odison’s bass voice wondered aloud.
“We find another way because I’m not waiting until morning,” I said, already walking along the wall despite the party’s collective musings.
By the time we found the crack in Magaat’s barrier, the warmth had faded, replaced by a biting chill. I blinked up at the seemingly inviting lack of protection, then turned to find the others watching me.
“I mean, you know I’m going in.”
Feeps stepped forward, palm upward. “First, allow me, Taelim.”
I missed my first line of reason.
The camel, or at least the illusion of one, stepped up and began climbing the wall, which was a sight in and of itself. Feeps disappeared into the break. After a moment, he cried out. Then, “Ouch. There are several instruments of...determent.”
We followed, careful of the jagged glass positioned to pierce intruders like ourselves. Creeping out, we looked down onto an enormous, well-manicured courtyard. It belonged to the extravagant manor up ahead. I leapt down, Maziel cursing my name.
The moment my boots hit the ground a voice rang out. “Who has stepped into the garden of my master?” What I thought was a pile of rocks collected itself into a vaguely humanoid form.
I could hear the others scurrying after me.
Admittedly, I was growing impatient and brash. More so than usual. Who knew that time-sensitive situations to save the one you loved did that to a person. “Who’s your master?” I demanded right back.
The stone golem loomed over me, followed by three more.
“Who has the right to ask?” Its grating voice countered.
Feeps was probably far calmer and better situated to respond, but I was on a roll for misfortune. “The Princess of Illium, now what are you going to do about it?”
Treetonk and Maziel collectively moaned, and Feeps' placed one hand on my arm as if ready to shake sense into me.
The golem was unmoving, and in the distance, lights in the manor bloomed into existence. It was a long ten minutes of me pacing before the lord of the house made his way over in night clothes. He looked....unhappy.
“The Princess of Illium in my backyard at this hour.” He sounded unimpressed.
“Yeap that’s me, entitled as ever. Can we go now?”
Horror swept over my friends’ faces, and Feeps leaned into my ear. “Taelim. Please, stop talking.”
I pushed the warforged away, and faced the lord who didn’t bother with his name.
“As brazen as they say you are,” the noble sneered. I folded my arms, but he cut me off. “I think Regis would pay nicely for your head.”
The name rang a bell. Regis was the head cleric of Erathis' Church in Illium, and I knew he didn’t like me, or the fact I was a druid. He probably blamed me for all of Illium’s problems. Still, we had gotten on a bit better after I had renounced the throne and Killian and I separated. As the noble raised his hand and conjured a spell, I got the impression those facts hadn’t traveled far.
I looked at Feeps, “You never told me that Regis wanted me dead. That bastard.” I changed into a rhino and charged the titan.
The fight was brutal, but it ended as quickly as it had began. By the time we destroyed the titans, the noble created a fiery sigil that sent almost all of us reeling in pain. Except for Feeps, who had a rapier pointed at the man’s throat.
The Creature Feep, as collected as ever, addressed the noble. “I apologize for our lack of decorum, good sir. Please excuse the princess and our intrusion. With your permission, we shall take our leave.”
The noble nodded carefully, the blade pricking a drop of blood. The sigil vanished, and the pain with it. The warforged bard deftly sheathed his weapon. Like a mother hen, he helped me and the rest of the group to our feet, leading us to the courtyard’s exit.
“You should come visit Illium,” I yelled over my shoulder. “I’ll repay the—”
Maziel slapped a hand over my mouth. “Seriously, Taelim, shut up.”
Feeps turned back and bowed with a flourish, “Let none of us speak of this night again.”

Monday, August 6, 2018

Session 38

The king of the fomorians, Naudu Finn Fail, forgave us in the end. I think he was more relieved we hadn’t outright betrayed him. Still, he promptly recalled his request for our help finding the former king, Bres. That was fine by us since Finn Fail planned on escorting us out of the Feydark by opening the gate to Szith Morcane, our final destination.
Me? I wasn't thinking about anything but Lysandra as I was steered forward by my friends. I felt as if I had willfully ignored her suffering, like I could fix it later with an apology.
The king and his entourage led us, unsurprisingly, to the drow temple. Finn Fail proudly stepped forward, his large hand rippling the back mirror walls. A portal shimmered into existence, and from the tear, blood washed over our feet. The obsidian city beyond was promptly forgotten. Screams echoed from within the temple, and the portal was immediately closed. At once, the doors were thrown open and the High Priestess staggered out, clutching her chest, a grimace set on her face.
Her body tore in two down the middle, and from the split emerged a massive snake-like female with six arms. Deadly blades materialized in her hands. From the back of the temple, the dead male drow rose up from the ground, reborn as bodaks.
Naudu Finn Fail was promptly whisked away, ringed by his guards, while our group stepped forward. Balor and his wife, Cethlenn the Thundering Sky, flanked our sides, as if eager to spill blood.
“Long live the Dark Prince,” the marilith hissed, then she was a flurry of blades upon us.
There wasn’t time to question the name, in seconds we were surrounded by the horde. A few minutes more and the former drow-turned-demons lay dead at our feet.
“The Dark Prince…” Yaup repeated as we all slouched against the wall to catch our breaths.
Maziel circled the chamber within earshot. “They couldn’t possibly mean…”
“Graz’zt.” Yaup affimed.
Balor eyed our group, but Maziel was already giving orders as if the giant didn’t head the fomorian army. “I think it best you investigate any leads on Graz’zt followers in Mag Turea. She paused, then added. For Finn Fail’s sake of course.”
Balor gave us an unmoving stare for a few more moments before he turned and lumbered off.
A low boom made me jump. Klotonk wailed as green flames licked up the door in the back of the temple. “Noooo! All the books!”
“Sorry...I should have realized it would be trapped…” Maziel grumbled, hesitating over the forlorn gnome.
I pulled my attention away, trying to focus on anything but what I wanted to be doing.
I shouldn't be here.
I should be searching for her.
Maziel was in my face, in fact, the whole group was looking at me. Unsteadily, I rose to my feet and followed them outside.
Finn Fail was waiting beside the temple wall, ready to get us out of his realm, even if it meant round two of mariliths.
I stared blankly at the wall where the portal was earlier, the king starting up the ritual again. In that moment, I balked.
“I can’t do this.” I said aloud. Everyone stopped to stare at me. I quickly found Maziel’s eyes, shaking my head.
I expected a reprimand, even blatant disapproval. Maziel took me aside, her back shielding me from the others’ curious stares.
The drow opened and closed her mouth several times. Eventually she found her words. “Don’t go alone. Ask the other me. about you, Taelim.”
“Treetonk will definitely help too!” Klotonk piped up, having slipped between us undetected.
“I’ll...ask both of them. Thank you.” I threw my arms around the two. “Don’t die.”
Maziel smiled grimly. “I should be telling you that.”
“Can you wait a few moments?” I offered tentatively, “Maybe I can ask Kolae to join you?”
The drow nodded slowly, and I hurried up to the giant druid, Thundering Sky. “Hey, I need a favor.”

Polly gasped as we stepped out of a tree and into Illium’s royal courtyard. I hadn’t forgotten my promise to return the former slave back to her homeland, even if I paid one-hundred gold to pay off her indentured servitude. As I watched tears stream down her face, for a moment I forgot my own problems.
Brax, the baby trike, leaped from my arms and began to frolic around the lush yard, grabbing the attention of the guards nearby. I looked over my shoulder at the fomorian druid who helped make this trip possible.
“Princess!” The guards proclaimed as they ran over, gaping between me and the fomorian.
“Princess?” The fomorian and former slave seemed to say at once, sharing their shock.
“Technically, no.” I admitted in a low voice, but that didn’t stop me from barking out orders. I gestured for guards to come closer. “Find Kolae, bring her here.” The first guard ran off with a hesitant salute, still eyeing the fomorian as he left. I then turned to the remaining guard. “Bring Polly here to the seneschal, she’s looking for work. Treat her with kindness. Please.”
I turned to Polly, who was wide-eyed and uncertain, but still blissfully happy. Freedom was freedom. “I don’t have much time to explain,” I started, “but no doubt they’ll fill you in. Can you look after Brax for me while I’m gone? I’ll let the castle know he’s my pet.”
Killian is going to love this...
Polly blinked at me, as if trying to grasp everything that was happening. Suddenly, she threw her arms around me. “Thank you! Thank you so much for this.”
I grinned and slowly pulled away. “You’re welcome.”
She and the guard moved out of sight, not without looking back more than once.
Well, at least I make some things right.
After a few more moments, Kolae, the goliath paladin of Melora, came into view, trailed by her twin brother, Odison.
“Hey..!” I chimed up, as she folded her muscular arms over her chest. “Right then.” I deflated, then pointed a thumb at Thunder Sky. “Want to go to Szith Morcane?”

Other Maziel, check. Treetonk, check. Odison, sure why not. That was nice of him to volunteer. I was running party members through my head, scrambling to get us ready for wherever we ended up. We still needed to identify the location of where Lysandra was being held, but there were plenty of casters around the court to call on.
I turned a corner and slammed into something metallic. Feeps’ hands righted me as I stumbled back.
“Princess Taelim, why have you returned without your bodyguards?” he asked, worry visible across his warforge features. His eyes scanned the corridor. “Your wizard, your ranger, your fanatical idiot--have you once more split the party? Princess, must I remind you that to do so is--” he cocked his head, “--ill-advised.”
“I, um, I…” I stammered, averting his eyes and failing to collect myself. “There's...something I have to do...someone I've failed…” I briefly glanced up. There's a lot I haven't told you, and I don't know if I'll get the chance...but first, I have to do this...I can't fail he--I have to go, Feeps. Where this path goes, I shrugged, but I know you're busy being a better servant to this city than I could ever be, so I guess I'll leave you to it.
I hesitated, then turned to leave.
Feeps' voice rang out. “Princess, Ilium is stable now, and I am confident the Elder Council can deal with any surprises for a while. I am currently more concerned about your well-being. You cannot hide your distress from me. If you will permit me, I would accompany you on this quest.”
I stopped in my tracks. Then I fell apart, moving to embrace him tightly. Despite being a construct, he was always the most comforting thing in my life. I nodded into his chest. “I've missed you.” I pulled back, turning away to wipe at my eyes. I motioned for him to follow. We should probably get going.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Session 37

We spent the better part of ten minutes arguing about what the symbols meant. Trying to revive the dead follower of the All-Father proved pointless, Lugh didn't want to come back, presumably because he found peace on the other side. We, however, were fairly screwed.
“A tree?” Maziel confirmed with me for the fifth time, studying the symbol in the fomorian’s blood.
“Yes,” I replied, trying not to sound exasperated. I plopped onto the floor. “In druidic. Which I can read.”
The group went back at it.
“It has to be for Taelim.”
“But a tree? We're in the Feydark!”
“Maybe Lugh had a garden?”
“What about the other symbols?”
I let them bicker on, closing my eyes and endeavoring to get in touch with nature. If there was a tree in this gods-forsaken city, this druid was going to find it.
A few moments later I blinked back up at my friends, suddenly aware they were watching me quietly.
And?” Maziel broke the silence, arms crossed.
I grinned. “I found a tree.”

We ended up at the temple of Annam; somewhere inside I sensed a tree. Looking up at this monumental building swarming with city watch, I was having doubts. They had probably found Lugh’s body by now. I glanced over my shoulder at the others, they were contemplating too. Silently we crept to the side of the temple, doing our best to avoid attention.
“Taelim…” Maziel tried, but I cut her off.
“I swear there’s a tree.”
“Inside the temple?” Yaup finished, skepticism implied.
“Yeah...” I bit my lip then shrugged. “Maybe I should go inside first.”
“Alone?” Klotonk questioned, concern in his big-eyed stare.
I winked at him then changed into a bird, perching on the roof and looking about.
“Five gold pieces she--” but I flew off, searching for an opening. By sheer luck I found a strange ventilation shaft, squeezing inside and hopping around, I followed my senses. I stopped at a particular grate and changed back into my half-elf form. This was Lugh’s office. I managed to push open the grate without a sound, dropping down into the room. I gazed around the austere space, now beginning to doubt my own worth as a druid.
Then my eyes fell on the staff hanging on the wall and dominating the attention there. It was gorgeous, carved like gnarled wood and ending in a bunch of small, tangled branches with tiny leaves. “Whoa…” I whispered, taking the staff into my hands. The little plaque below it read: Staff of the Woodlands. Carefully I slung it on my back and eyed the shelving unit I needed to climb back to the vent.
This time my luck ran out, and in that moment I genuinely missed Cosmo. The kender would have made short work of this retrieval mission. The shelf was old, and in no way secured to the wall, so together we toppled backwards with a crash. A fomorian guard burst into the room as I was staggering to my feet.
“Halt!” The giantess called, spear pointed in my direction.
“Um, no.” I changed into a huge spider and scampered up the wall then into the vent, hurrying back to the others.
“Taelim!” Everyone seemed to shout all at once as I returned to my normal form, panting.
“Good news: I found the ‘tree.’ Bad news: well…” I looked around. Guards were already on the move.
We were surrounded in seconds as fomorian guards closed in, weapons drawn. Then they parted, and Balor the Mountain lumbered toward us, scowling. “Murderers,” his low voice boomed. Slowly, he drew his greatsword. It could easily slice any one of us down the middle.
Think. You did this. Then it hit me, a way to survive this, albeit a hastily thought-out one. “Hold hands!” I yelled, desperate.
The group hesitated, their weapons already out, but they didn’t question it. The moment our hands linked I closed my eyes and pictured the Black Tower that belonged to my father.
“Stop the druid!” Balor roared, but it was too late.
In a rush of vertigo we were plane shifted to the expansive grassy fields that was one of the tower’s pocket dimensions.
Maziel grabbed me by the shoulders. “Was that worth it?!” She snarled, pointing to the staff.
“What other lead did we have, Maz?” I snapped back. “All the signs Lugh wrote pointed there!”
“Stop yelling!” Beck interfered, hesitating at our side.
It was Klotonk’s voice that forced our attention. “Maziel…” The little gnome wizard was staring at a startling white mask set in the field.
Maziel uttered a curse, and I felt forgotten angry well up inside me again. That mask belonged to the Glaistig, and I knew the two communicated. Part of me still wanted revenge on the Arch Fey who killed my father, and part of me knew I stood no chance.
The drow donned the mask, and the voice of the Glaistig echoed through Maziel’s lips, low and sultry. The confidence of one, for now, untouchable.
“Why have you abandoned your quest in Mag Turea?”
“Seriously? Does every Fey know what we’re doing?” I growled.
“You bear Erevan’s scrying boon.” She explained as if it were obvious.
We exchanged looks briefly before remembering what that drow wizard said in the temple of Lolth--something about being marked.
“Can we get rid of it?” Klo asked hopefully.
“Of course,” the Glaistig replied. “Will it away, though I can’t say for certain what refusing his gift might mean.”
Off then! I swore at the invisible mark on my arm. My skin tingled, and an unseen weight was lifted from me, one I hadn't noticed earlier.
“I see you recovered my staff, young druid.”
I snapped back to attention. I pictured her smiling with the comment. I scowled back, there was no way I was returning it.
“Why did Lugh have it?” Klotonk questioned.
“A gift from me, but it seems he sought fit to pass it on.”
Damn right. All mine.
“You need to return to Mag Turea, time is of the essence.” The Glaistig added, this time a hint of concern in her voice.
“We’re kind of being hunted,” Yaup replied smartly.
“They’re tracking you even now. It’s only a matter of time before--” a boom echoed throughout the space, reminding us this was only a small dimension within a very real tower of stone. The boom echoed again and again.
“Someone’s trying to get in...” I added, already heading toward the fresco portal.
“Return...” was all the Glaistig said before the masked disappeared and Maziel’s senses came back to her.
“Come on…” I urged the group. “We have a threat to deal with.”
We took the back entrance out of the tower, carefully circling around until we spotted the massive giant that was Balor the Mountain. In the daylight I could see clearly this was no fomorian, not with the other comparatively small fomorian beating on the wall of the tower beside him. No, Balor was something else, he was a frost giant.
“All right,” Maziel whispered, gesturing with her hands. “I propose we--”
But I had already polymorphed into a triceratops and charged the two giants, roaring. The fomorian stopped wailing on the tower and turned to greet me. I heard the party cry out, then follow hurriedly, a fireball preceding my sharp horns into the fomorian’s chest. The time for talk hadn’t even begun.
The fight was brutal. Balor nearly beat us into submission, despite us handily dropping his friend. Klotonk was screaming for us not to kill the king’s favored warrior, and eventually Beck polymorphed the frost giant into a penguin. Ragged, we trudged over to the furious little creature.
Yaup picked it up before it could waddle away. “Can you understand it, Taelim?”
I eyed the cleric before drawing the Staff of the Woodlands and casting Awaken on the penguin. At once the penguin’s angry squawks turned into high pitched threats.
“Kill me, murderers. They know I’m here.” Balor warned.
“Why are you calling us murderers?” Klo asked, genuinely confused. We had only knocked his guard unconscious.
“We know you killed Lugh!” Balor snapped, struggling in Yaup’s arms uselessly.
“Um, no,” I retorted. “He summoned us, but we found his body instead.”
“You ran from our city, the make of criminals.”
“Are you serious? You charged us, weapons drawn.”
“Hold on a second,” Yaup said, shifting the penguin under one arm. He gestured with his free hand, as if writing something in the air. A strange presence seemed to settle in the back of our minds. “There now, none of us can speak lies in this fun zone of facts. Let’s start over. Did any of us here kill Lugh?”
“No.” The answer spilled from all our mouths immediately. Even Balor.
The penguin stopped squirming. “Then why did you flee?”
“I panicked,” I replied honestly. “Lugh told us to find a tree, but I found a tree-staff, next thing I know you’re running at us.”
“You were guests of our king!” Bres said, as if that meant they wouldn’t kill us.
“It felt like we were prisoners,” Maziel replied. “We needed to investigate, and the Red Caps had been hunting us. We thought they might have killed Lugh, but we found giant footsteps near his body. We didn’t have time to investigate properly before this--” she motioned to our present state.
“We really are just trying to find Bres,” Klo added innocently enough. “His mother asked us to...”
Balor’s tiny penguin form seemed to soften. “You do not aim to interfere in our politics?”
“No offense, I honestly couldn’t give a shit who’s king,” I said bluntly. “We’re just trying to get to the gate of Szith Morcane, whichever king opens it.”
“Then I have acted rashly,” Balor replied, almost an apology. “Will you return with me to Mag Turea?”
“That depends,” Maziel crossed her arms. “Are you going to kill us?”
“No,” Balor answered. “I shall explain matters to my king, he may even grant forgiveness for your rudeness.”
I snorted but said nothing. We all looked to Beck. The bard sighed, waiting as Yaup put the penguin on the ground and took a few steps back. At once the frost giant loomed over us, no trace of hostility left.
“I guess I should provide some medical assistance to this other guy,” Yaup said, walking toward the unconscious fomorian.
Balor nodded, but continued to stare at us. “We should head to that little town nearby. I had instructed Cethlenn to hold it hostage should I not return.”
We all collectively gaped. “This is why the locals don’t like us.” I said, already walking that way.
Cethlenn, aka the Thundering Sky, was Balor’s druid wife. A legend in her own right, she had planeshifted them and a small contingent of fomorians to Stilt Town. When we showed up, the bullywugs and orcs didn’t even look surprised. The relatively new dwarves were probably just beginning to understand we often spelled trouble.
We made plans to return to Mag Turea in the morning, neither party was in any condition to cast spells after recent events. So, after some backwater drinks at the local pub, our small group returned to my father’s tower, the giants making camp outside.
My friends drifted off to sleep, scattered around the library’s hearth. When I was certain I was the only one up, I took my drink and the scrying orb and headed for the fresco leading to the tower’s throne room. Once inside the bleak space, I tried not to think of the first time I stumbled in here, finding my father’s headless body. Inadvertently I shivered, sitting on the high seat and pulling the orb into my lap.
I tapped the armrest uneasily, sipping my drink and wondering if I should even bother. I knew Lysandra and I hadn’t ended on great terms, that was my doing entirely. That didn’t stop me from thinking about her. Often. With the understanding I was supposed to relinquish Illium’s responsibilities in due time, I had somehow entertained the hope she and I could try again.
I groaned, doubting myself. Screw it. I leaned over the orb, closed my eyes and concentrated on the woman I knew well.
The place was dank and unfamiliar, the faint sound of water dripping in the distance. The vision funneled me down a dark hallway of cells, then moved through the bars of one space before it settled on the naked, shivering frame of Lysandra chained to the wall. She was half-starved and beaten, far from the image I remembered. I watched for a moment longer before my own rage pulled me out of the scry.
My breathing came in ragged gasps as I sat there, unable to grasp what I saw. Then it settled on me, along with the suffocating guilt that I might have caused this for pushing her away. I threw my cup across the room and screamed before I huddled down and cried.
The hand came on my shoulder almost immediately, strong and endeavoring to be comforting. “Taelim,” Maziel tried softly. “What did you see?”
“It’s my fault,” I choked out. “I told her to go…”
Slowly, Maziel wrapped an arm around me. “Who?”
Through my sobs I explained what I saw. For a time, Maziel simply waited there until I regained some sense of calm, my tears turning into uneasy breaths. Helplessness faded, then a new feeling took root, fury.
“I’m going to find whoever did this, and I’m going to kill them.”
We, Taelim, we will kill them. We’ll find her, I promise. But...”
I knew what she was going to say, and I hated it. “Mag Turea. Torog. Saving the world or some shit.”
Maziel nodded grimly. “We don’t even know where she is. She’s strong…”
“Whatever,” I replied glumly.
“I’ll ask Klotonk to prepare his Dream spell. He might learn something.”
I perked up at the notion. Klo could reach Lys through dreams, he might be able to find out where she is.
Maziel quietly got to her feet. She stared down at me, and I already knew what she was thinking. Would I abandoned them in the middle of the night?
“I’ll still plane shift us to Mag Turea,” I promised, loathing myself with every passing second. Suddenly, I didn’t give a damn what happened to the rest of the Material Plane, but I know I didn’t have a plan otherwise.
I could see the drow exhale in relief, however slight. “Try to get some sleep, Taelim. I swear we’ll make things right.”
I only nodded and watched as she soundlessly approached the library fresco and teleport to the other room. I leaned back against the throne, slumping to the base of the seat. Despite my best efforts, sleep didn’t come.