Stilt Town was a dump. I mean swamp, called the Sump by most. A smelly, mosquito-ridden town of wobbly wooden shacks. All of it standing on stilts. It was largely inhabited by Bullywags, small frog-like humanoids who happened to prefer the name Muk Muks.
We were here on a quest. What else did a party of adventurers do when they accidentally shut down the circus they belonged to for, simply put, evil deeds?
We huddled in a straw hut. I leaned back in a rickety chair, distracted by the throbbing throat sac of the elder Muk Muk, Wart Nose, as he quibbled with Maziel, our Drow of no discernable gender. Though the way Maziel chastised me never failed to remind me of my aunt. "Tara, stop wrestling the apes. Tara, you're drinking too much. Tara, go don't go over there--ARGH!"
I grinned when Maziel and the wood-elf at her/his side eyed our group with evident skepticism. It was the look of, “I'm going to help THEM find our missing warrior?”
My head tilted back in time to catch our curious red-headed kender, Cosmo, disappear into the rafters mischievously. Klotonk, gnome and fellow appreciator of pyrotechnics, buried his head in a book about Bullywugs. There was no snapping him out of that. It was like a spell, and he did it to himself.
Then there was Feeps. The smiling warforged in a tricone cap wore a matching navy cape draped over his shoulders. What is a warforged you ask? The fancy term for a sentient construct. He strummed his lute quietly beside me, tapping his boot. What my friends didn’t know was his blue cloak actually cast an intricate illusion concealing the rest of his body, which happened to resemble a harpsichord. He was actually a walking piece of furniture, like an odd centaur that was undeniably hard to hide on the run. He, the talking instrument my father built, became sentient when I was born. Of course, only I knew his name was Feeps. Everyone else called him Creature. A druid and a warforged. No wonder this wood-elf eyed the party distrustfully.
“We’re all set,” Maziel announced in a gravely voice, pointing a thumb at the elf in camouflage robes. “Meet our guide, Zan.”
“I’m not sharing loot!” A tiny voice called from above.
“Too bad!” Maziel snarled.
“Greetings. Zan.” Feeps spoke up cheerfully, albeit robotically. “Welcome. To our party.”
The wood-elf wasted no time, and proceeded outside to where two reed boats bobbed beside the docks below. We stored our belongings, leaving plenty of room for the treasures that awaited. And probably death, but nobody ever spoke about that part. First rule of adventuring and all that.
Zan took the oars and stood, calm and balanced at the helm. The rest of us filed in while our elven compatriot detailed the path into the sump where Hissblood, our target, was last seen hunting his foes.
“You don’t really strike me as the ranger type,” Klotonk chimed up. He truly didn’t believe he was being rude, just inquisitive. Always curious about how everything fit together.
Three of us immediately turned to our ranger, Maziel, who shot us a glare. Then he pulled her hood over her head, white locks of hair falling over his eyes. Her? A year together and I still remained uncertain.
“Well, I did grow up around these parts,” Zan answered, “but I’ve been away for a while. Monk school and such.”
“Ahhhh,” Cosmo feigned, head buried in Zan’s bag while he steered, back to the group. Feeps quietly pulled the kender away with a shaking head.
“Why would you ever come back?” I scrunched my nose, studying the near-dead trees and clearly plagued surroundings. Maybe this warrior didn’t go missing.
“Home,” he shrugged. “It needs help as you can tell. Besides, monk school didn’t exactly work out.”
I snorted quietly at the notion, dipping my fingers in the murky water with a frown. Help was an understatement. I couldn't help but wonder what else we had gotten ourselves into, but kept my thoughts to myself. Maziel said we needed a job, and here we were. At least this wasn’t boring, and paid far better than our last gig.
“How did you folks meet?” Zan questioned, changing the subject as the oars sunk into the muddy waters and back out again.
“We were in a circus!” Klotonk and Cosmo answered in unison, matching a high pitched level of giddy.
Zan raised another distrustful brow and I beamed broadly at the memories. Feeps turned to me, and I shrugged. No point in hiding now. I was still proud we managed to keep that job and friends for over a year. Until ever-serious Maziel one day broke the news she was actually there to to kill our management for some sort of fey heresy.
“That is right,” Feeps bristled proudly. “The Main Attraction. At your service.”
“Oh, you were serious,” Zan gaped.
“Why. Indeed! Klotonk served as our pyrotechnician. His spells were masterful. Cosmo was our ace acrobat. Tara, our animal master.” I nodded, and Feeps bowed his metallic head with a flourish. “And I, Creature, your music and announcer extraordinaire.”
Zan cocked his head at the drow, “And Maziel?”
The drow growled at the recollection and we burst into laughter.
I crossed my arms behind my head and closed my eyes, drifting along. Warforged, drow, elf, kender, gnome and me, the half-elf. What could possibly go wrong? I thought I felt Maziel’s spirit slap me in the back of the head for that “carefree” attitude I needed to keep in check. Maybe fate would do it for me.
Two days of roughing it in the sump. Steering clear of yellow fog pockets, fending off overgrown reptiles, and stopping only when we managed to find dry land to camp on. When we dragged the boats ashore, stowing them away in the brush, Zan and Maziel wasted no time scouting ahead, picking up on subtle hints nature hid from passing eyes.
“Hey Tara,” Cosmo called out, swinging from a weeping willow’s swaying vines. “Why don’t you help them?”
“Help how?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied, tangling his legs and leaning backwards effortlessly, his mop of fiery hair dangling. “Be a dog, track and stuff.”
I eyed the ranger and the native, and then the odd black point in the distance. “Or we could head to that tower,” I pointed. “The one Zan thinks Hissblood went for.”
The two returned and confirmed the guess. While I had a certain affinity for changing shape spontaneously, it was exhausting, and something promised I would get my chance at our looming objective. We marched on.
The trail ended at the Black Tower. Naturally. The building sat atop a lonely hill in the middle of the swamp. Ebony stone that spiraled upward with no trace of a window or door in sight. A body in black robes lay facedown, begging otherwise.
Cosmo dove toward the pockets, stuffing his own with coins and odd trinkets. It was the odd flute in his the priest's hand that caught everyone’s attention, particularly our bard, Feeps.
The warforged bent over to take the instrument just as Maziel snatched an amulet out of Cosmo’s hand. She...he...turned it over for all to see. A raven was engraved on it. The drow bent over the body, scrutinizing it for details.
“Drained--” Zan finished.
My stomach turned.
Feeps held the flute out, then eyed the stone wall beside the body. He placed the flute to his mouth and played a song. It was a light, airy tune, familiar to me of days long past. He didn’t sing the words, my mind sung them as he went along to the clapping hands of Klotonk and Cosmo. Then the wall listened.
Needless to say, we collectively leapt away from the spiraling hole that resembled the pinna and outward flaps of an ear. An odd, stone, ear that twitched to the tune. Feeps gaped at the stonework, lowering the instrument, and when the music stopped, the wall slowly closed back in and the ear was gone.
Weapons were drawn all about, and Klo seemed to mutter some incantation under his breath as he stepped backwards carefully. Feeps continued his song and the ear reappeared, widening as he went along playing. As the ear enlarged, the warforged wavered, wilting as he went, but the ear didn’t seem to stop growing as long as notes filled its cavity.
Panic seized me, because he didn’t seem to realize he swayed while he played the song, fading with the song. I nearly knocked the flute from his hands, but before I could the ear popped and a mural took its place. Feeps fell to one knee, clutching the instrument to his chest.
“Are you okay?” I asked, panicked.
He nodded. “Oh yes. Do not worry. I am just fatigued.”
“Well, done, Creature!” Maziel acknowledged curtly, her attention drawn to the painting on the wall.
I growled under my breath, and felt Klo pat my arm reassuringly as he walked by. The gnome eagerly joined Maziel in evaluating the mural. Lush green grass surrounded a clear pool of sparkling water. It seemed an entire world away from this place.
“That’s a pretty paint--” Cosmo reached out to touch it and disappeared without a trace.
“Kender!” Maziel howled, wringing her hands.
Needless to say, we all jumped in after him. We were teleported to landscape identical to the painting. A cool breeze graced my senses and I wanted to roll around in the grass and relish the feeling of a warm sun and blue sky.
Cosmo was sitting by the water, face sopping wet, frowning.
“You drank it, didn’t you?” Zan accused the tiny kender. Though he didn’t exactly know what happened.
Cosmo nodded once, dazed. We glanced at the pool, then the temporarily stilled kender, and left both alone as we took in the rest of our surroundings.
Klotonk hurried over excitedly. “And?”
“Happy thoughts,” Cosmo grinned lazily.
Klo produced a vial, then carefully filled and corked it. “I’ll have to study the effects,” he muttered, swirling the liquid around.
The field stretched for miles with rolling green pasture. To the four quadrants stood stone pillars displaying more murals. The eastern portrait vividly depicted a dark room filled with rows of cages and hanging shackles. The North showed a large banquet table, laden with mouthwatering foods. The southern swamp mural was gone. When I turned to the West, my stomach dropped. A throne room, hauntingly familiar.
The party was split on where to go.
“Hey,” I said hurriedly, “Do we have anything from Hissblood with us, something with his scent?”
Cosmo’s eyes widened excitedly, and I quickly took the odd badge from Zan and changed into a hound, taking in the smell with my keen senses. If it had pointed toward the throne room, would I have followed it? Likely. I wouldn’t have a choice. Instead, as all spellbound obstacles usually shape out, it lead to the prison portrait, and the optimism quickly vanished from our group.
I wagged my tail excitedly and bounded into the room. I half expected a scolding Feeps for leaping without thinking, but since it happened often enough, and since the room instilled certain fear to those who followed, we all regrouped in frozen silence. Being half-elf often provided some beneficial aspects, mostly on my elven side: I live long enough to enjoy a bit everything before I die, and I could see in the semi-dark. The latter was less welcome when I took in the endless arrange of cages scattered about the room. Sconces with faint torchlight and bloody shackles promised a more miserable experience than the array of prisons and skeletal remains around us.
Whether it was sheer luck or simple logistics, Hissblood lay unconscious in one of the cages ahead, a sleek silver collar around his neck.
“Cosmo,” Maziel hissed, glancing about. “The lock.”
Our roguish acrobat, slash sticky-fingered kender gleefully accepted the duty. While we enjoyed many of Cosmo’s quirks, his talent lay in getting at places most couldn’t. The padlock dropped to the ground with a clang, and the kender pulled open the rusted door.
Klotonk peered inside, intrigued by the collar. He waved a hand in front of him with pursed lips. “The collar’s magic. Strong magic.”
Zan lifted the bullywag over one shoulder. “Well, mission accomplished. Shall we?”
Hesitation ensued. A tower in the middle of a swamp, promising horder of untold wonders...or dangers. Or we could leave it behind and call it day. Did I mention we were a party of adventurers?
Naturally, bickering followed, then the collective promise to return and collect what we could after our quarry was safe. A simple solution. We headed back from where came, to find Hissblood didn’t make the journey into the pond room with us. We jumped back through the portal to find he remained stuck in the prison room with that mysterious collar around his neck.
“There has to be a way to get it off…” Zan said.
“Cosmo,” Maziel called. “Can you pick it?”
The kender frowned. “There’s nothing to pick at. It’s smooth all around.”
“Then I bet the answer is behind another painting.” Klotonk pointed to the fresco on the other end of the prison wall. It portrayed a dessert, and at its center, the remains of a colossal skeleton, easily two or three times the size of any storm giant.
The group groaned.
“We should leave Hissblood here,” Feeps suggested. “Put him back in the cages. It seems safe enough.”
Zan obliged, and we reluctantly trudged toward the sands.
The heart of the desert sun bore down on us like a weight. Maziel let out a string of curses, pulling her hood tightly over her pale irises.
My paws sunk into the sand, and I lifted my nose with a subdued whine. It smelled like death and incense. We gaped at the monumental skeleton that rested inside a half buried tomb, but Maziel was already trekking west toward a stone wall depicting a black archway covered by silvery webs.
“Aren’t we going to study the ritual circle?” Kolotonk asked, hurrying to keep up.
“Yeah!” Cosmo backed the idea. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
“You sound like Tara,” Maziel said, quickening her pace toward the promise of darkness up ahead.
I growled, panting as I trailed them.
The drow raised a black-gloved hand, like most of her attire, and disappeared.
The rest followed, then I raised a paw and instantly regretted it. I slid down a dusty stone shaft, tumbling to a halt in a sticky web beside my comrades. I dropped my dog form with a groan, only to realize I was still quite stuck.
As we struggled, the web jostled and chaos quickly ensued.
“Stop moving!” I yelled, “That’s only making it worse!” In reality, I was more terrified about what the rattling webs would attract--likely the giant spiders who weaved them.
“I can’t see!”
“That makes two of us.”
“I’ll light a torch!” A pause. “But I’m stuck…”
“Just hold still for a single minute and--” I stopped mid sentence.
I saw something shift above us, shapes in the darkness within a maze of webs. So did Zan and Maziel.
“Tassstiesss.” A voice gleefully screeched above.
Another followed. “Mealsss for usss!”
And another and another.
Our party erupted into panic.
“Tara! Klo! Cast spells!”
Something heavy dropped onto the bouncing web that held us. “But wait…” an older voice started. “They can give the sssoulsss sssecretsss.”
“Ohhh!” The chorus above gasped. “Yesss! We wantsss!”
Klotonk screamed. “Something’s touching me!”
Panic seized me, worse than the fear of being paralyzed and eaten alive.
“What sssecrectsss can you ssshare, deariesss?” The elder spider asked, nearing me. “The sssoulsss, they love the ssstories ssshared.”
I was torn between laughter and violence when my party silenced.
“No? No sssharing?”
“I steal things! All the time!” Cosmo offered. “Especially from Maziel.”
“You son of a bitch!” Maziel snapped.
The elder spider laughter, and now I could see it, the large gray form stepped over the kender, eight red eyes dancing in my vision. It turned to the drow. “Nooo. We knowsss thisss. We wantsss the truthsss.”
It sauntered toward Maziel, and I saw utter poise in her posture while she was plastered to the webs, a free hand inching toward the blade on her back. The truth was in her face. The drow held a secret. A good one. But Maziel’s composure spelled “death first.”
The mottled spider then turned its attention to me, and I felt my heart slam against my breasts.
“Oh no,” Feeps said in his robotic voice, portraying panic as best he could. “Something has got me.”
“What about thisss one?” The spider leaned over me, and I considered calling forth every fiery spell in my memory as soon as I tore a hand free.
A collective gasp. “That one hasssn’t told them. That one isss hisss daughter.” Excitement filled their voices, and the web rattled further as more spiders hurried near. Cosmo screamed.
“Tell them! Tell usss!” A furred mandible caressed my face, “I wantsss to hear.”
“I-I don’t have a secret,” I stuttered, lying miserably. I felt something hot, painful drip onto my shoulder and sizzle. Acid.
“Guys!” Zan yelled. “One’s wrapping me up!”
“Secrectsss,” the spider said. “Or we feassst.”
“I-I-” I stammered. I saw a stinger extended down from his rear. It grazed my torso and hovered over my heart. “Gods-dammit! I’m a bastard!”
The creatures stilled and silenced reigned as I hurried to explain, voice trembling from frustration and despair. “My name’s Taelim D’Arroway, I’m that runaway princess from Illium.” Tears welled in my eyes. “His daughter. Viceak, the king of Illium? No. Not anymore. My real father’s the druid priest, Elroar, Viceak’s trusted advisor.” I was crying now. So much for suppressing my emotions.
“At fifteen I ran away from home when father--Viceak planned to marry me off, but by then I knew the truth--I wasn’t his to give away. Even he didn’t know. No one knows except my mother. That was four years ago...” I tried to take in deep breaths, but failed at every attempt. “I dragged poor Feeps with me, and never looked back...”
The cavern stilled.
“It will do!”
The web jostled then went taut, and I could see forms scurrying up the walls, pulling my party free at they went. The elder spider regarded me for a moment before tearing me out of the webs, then it quietly scuttled off, ripping down a web near the back wall and revealing a tunnel. At the end, the same portrait of a banquet hall rested.
No one wasted any time in rushing toward the picture.
Once we teleported inside the warm and well lit room, I could feel the eyes of my friends as if they didn’t recognize me. Feeps draped a metallic arm over my shoulder reassuringly, pulling me in close.
“So...Princess,” Cosmo began.
“Screw. You.” I retorted horsley.
“Why don’t we discuss this at a later time?” Maziel interrupted, her/his eyes fixed on what rested ahead.
A table laden with food that could put even my noble background to shame, and at the end, a fat, grinning demon regarded us with a lick of his chops. We looked behind us, but the portrait was gone.
“Join me,” the demon said, gesturing to the seats around him.
We didn’t move.
“And if we refuse...?” Zan countered as politely as possible, his hands balling into fists at his side.
The demon’s eyes narrowed, and saliva dripped from his parted lips hungrily. His features contorted, and in a heartbeat he swelled to twice his size. “Then I’ll eat you anyway!” Smaller lookalike demons erupted all around the room, and our party split. We had done this dance before.
Cosmo scampered up a tapestry, drawing his crossbow and firing a round into one of the newly spawned demons. Maziel alighted atop a pedestal in the back and drew a bow. Zan slammed his fist together, and they shivered with energy as he leapt onto the table, straight toward the fat demon.
I positioned myself between the converging demons and the rest of my group, and Feeps drew his rapier and began chanting a taunting tune to draw them close. Two more demons arose from the ground, and Klotonk sent a barrage of magic missiles into their bodies, evaporating them entirely.
Something primal in me wanted to change shape and shred my opponents into ribbons, but as a horde quickly surrounded me, I sent out a thunderous wave of energy, clearing the space around us with a ringing boom.
Maziel’s arrow whizzed overhead and I heard the demon howl in agony as it took him in the eye with a spray of blood. Zan’s fists followed, and took the creature square in the face with enough force for its skull to crack. With a flurry of blows, the fat demon toppled over and we cleared the remaining force with efficient violence.
Like waking from a dream, the table’s assorted food and silverware vanished. The tapestry, once a vibrant red, turned dull and ragged. On the back of the wall, a tattered painting of a green pasture with goats showed our next path, while to the left we saw the same clear pond room.
Instead of hurrying, we slumped in the old chairs, exhausted.
“Is anyone injured?” Feeps asked the party. We shook our heads. Good. Then he turned to me. “Taelim. Perhaps we owe our friends an explanation?”
I opened one eye. “Do we?” I turned to Maziel. “I bet I wasn’t the only with a secret, but I was the only one to reveal mine!”
Klotonk drummed his fingers on the table. “The spider did seemed interested in what you had to say...Taelim.”
I sighed. “This doesn’t change anything,” I replied in a low voice. Then added. “I hope.”
Klo smiled reassuringly. “You’re still our druid buddy!”
I couldn’t resist a smile.
“Albeit, one we should address properly,” Zan concluded.
“No, please. Don’t,” I begged. “That’s the best part of being a bastard. There are no titles.”
“Illium, hmm,” Maziel mused, and I could swear I saw gears turning in the drow’s distant stare.
Illium. One of the last free cities of the west. The City of Civilization. Along the coast, it had access to many resources. Powerful, rich, and unchallenged for centuries under my father’s--Viceak’s rule. Viceak was a powerful wizard whose very bloodline controlled the colossi warforged that guarded his people. A bloodline I didn’t share thanks to my ever faithful mother, Irielya. The elven princess of the Green Court never loved Viceak, but the marriage bonded the Green Court fey to the kingdom of Illium as long as their shared bloodline existed. Oops.
I waved my friends away. “Doesn’t matter, they haven’t found me and never will. Hopefully they just assume I’m dead. My father--err, Viceak will continue ruling for another hundred years, maybe have a true heir with mother dear, and everything will work out.”
Though I knew the odds of that happening were next to none. My father wasn’t a mean man, stoic was a better word. My mother did not love him in the slightest, despite the masked affection I knew he had for her. A beautiful elf with a carefree nature, she was hard not to love I suppose.
“Does this mean I may remove my cloak?” Feeps asked excitedly.
I shrugged, it didn’t matter here. In public it was an unspoken understanding though. Masking names and appearance had kept us hidden for so long. Plus, it helped no one home would think I was a druid. They only remembered a princess who failed at being a wizard like the king.
The warforged unclasped the mantle revealing his true shape. A shiny half-warforged half-walking-harpsichord-thing. A pink harpsichord, like it belonged in a little girl’s nursery. Mine. He was built by my father, Viceak, to sing me rhymes and keep me out of my father’s busy path. Across his shiny metallic torso and the wood of his rear were scribbles and terrible doodles. I smiled as I remembered him sitting there passively as I dubbed him my own with friendship drawings.
At this point, the party didn’t seem surprised, though I did have to pull Klotonk away when it came time to move on. He seemed bent on discovering how Feeps functioned.
I rose to my feet, desperate to head out. We considered the pond room, but knew by now the only way was forward. Zan reached for the tattered portrait portraying goats, but nothing happened.
“I think the portal might be broken,” Klo offered, stepping up close and examining it.
“I can be of assistance,” Feeps said, stomping forward on wooden legs. He waved his fingers in front of the pieces, whistling a tune. Slowly the canvas mended itself together and functioned once more. We braced ourselves to move forward. What could happen, right?