We didn’t leave on the best of terms, my father and I. Over the years, I gradually wore him down with my ceaseless pining and endless longing to see the world around me. He continued to grow fatigued with his inability to understand me. I think he envied my bond with mother, the elven woman who hid the truth from the world to protect me. Unlike my mother, I didn’t love my father, I respected him.
On my fifteenth birthday Viceak summoned me to court, and before all the lords and ladies of Illium, announced my engagement to Prince Jayce. I had spent the last two summers suffering his presence around the castle, and part of me knew this was bound to happen. He was, after all, a distant heir to Illium’s throne, and a safety net of sorts to my father. Most of all, Jayce sought to control me, striving with smug sureness to coerce me into the woman he wanted. And I hated him for it. I was no one’s pet, and certainly not his.
Naturally, I refused. In front of everyone. Oh, if my father could smite me down by calling lightning then and there. Still, Viceak made it clear his word was law, and I wasn’t just his daughter. I was his subject.
That very night I knew my intentions, and I knew my mother did as well. She came into my room with Feeps, bearing my father’s magic cloak, the very same that masked the warforged from recognition. She told me the truth about my true father, Elroar, whom she loved and had loved before she was forced to wed Viceak. I think she told me because she didn’t want me to make the same mistake she did, either way, my choice was clear. If I was ever found out, I’d be cast off regardless.
My mother kissed me goodbye, and Feeps donned the cloak carrying me, a cat, in his arms. Luck got us out of Illium that night, luck that I managed to grasp the inklings of druidic magic I needed to start a different life. Luck that I went undiscovered and free from Illium’s burden these past four years.
I stared at my father's body, disbelieving. My feet tried to shuffled forward, but I found myself on my knees, barely containing the contents of my stomach.
“Brash, irresponsible, girl--” Maziel followed through the portal, with every intention to continue. Until they took in the scene.
The rest of the group followed, and silence reigned.
I never wanted this. I'm so sorry...
“Taelim.” It was Feeps. He shook my shoulder gently, likely as shocked and hurt, but I couldn't respond. I didn't know how.
Then blind rage seeped in. “It was her,” I growled, loud enough for my party to hear. “The witch's daughter. She killed him!”
“I'll kill her!” I swore, defiant.
Maziel lifted me up to my feet, both hands on my shoulder, subduing me long enough to let reason take hold. “And you'll get yourself killed before you lift a finger.”
I took deep, ragged breaths, trying to heed the drow.
“We don't know what happened here,” Maziel continued, evaluating the area.
“Illium…” I managed, “Do they even know....?” My green eyes fell to the gleaming scepter at Viceak’s feet. “Who will protect them?”
That very object had been in the family for generations, it was the key to defending the city. Four colossal warforged guarded Illium at the North, South, East, and West locations, directed by the ruler and the scepter that brought them to life. With my father dead, Jayce and my aunt were the only ones left who could control them.
“I doubt it's known,” Maziel stepped toward the body. “This was recent, a few days at most.”
That knowledge stung. My brain kept trying to reason nothing we could have done would have changed Viceak’s fate, and now, the fate of the city I still called home. Gods, if Illium found out I was still alive.... There’s nothing I can do.
Feeps walked over to the body and took an awkward knee on his wooden legs, bowing his head low and mumbling something.
I looked over my shoulder and found the rest of the party had shifted to the back of the room, affording us privacy. I grit my teeth and drew close to Viceak.
Feeps took one of Viceak’s hand, watching me expectantly. I raised my own shaking hand and placed it atop of Viceak’s, trying not to draw away from the cold skin. My thumb touched the signet ring on his finger, bearing the mark of Erathis, Illium’s god of choice.
“What do you wish to do, princess?” My guardian asked.
“Stop it, Feeps.”
“He was still your father, Taelim. And you his daughter. Illium is your home, our home.”
“And do what?” I snapped, “Sit and pretend I own the throne? Waive this scepter around and call shots--” I lifted the scepter from my father’s lap and froze. Searing pain shot through my veins, and I dropped it, clutching my arm and uttering a string of curses.
“Taelim!” Feeps hoevered close.
“There you have it,” I growled in a low, hurt voice. “I don’t belong to Illium.”
I cradled my hand to my chest, staring intently at the ground.
Feeps placed something in my hand. It was my father’s signet ring, and the magical dagger he always kept at his waist. I closed my eyes and held them close.
“What do you want to do?” Feeps asked, signaling the group to return.
I sighed, uncertain in my convictions. “Bury him. Return him to the earth and all that I suppose. Send an anonymous note to my mother and aunt...” I threw up my hands, at a loss.
Feeps lifted the scepter and tucked it away; as a product of my father, I expected as much.
“Maybe send you,” I offered, half-heartedly. “They’ll need that back.” I pointed to the magic scepter.
“Before we do that,” Maziel interrupted, their voice carefully straddling the lines of caution and opportunity. “We might be able to get the answers you’re looking for from you father.”
I raised an eyebrow, chin propped on my palm. “Last I checked, none of us are clerics.”
“I realize that,” she held up her hands. “All I’m trying to say is, I know people. Besides,” she stopped, reevaluating the room. “I was wrong about time of death. This room is magic, I think it’s preserving the body, which could buy you time.”
A bit of hope flared up within me. “We could help?”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Taelim,” Klotonk added quietly. “Even if we could get a spell of that caliber, he’s going to have to want to return to this plane of existence…”
“It’s worth a shot,” I said getting to my feet. “Right?”
Feeps wrapped an arm around me. “It certainly is.”
I started toward the fresco, desperate to leave this room for another day.
“You missed something!” Cosmo called out waving a scroll container. My eyes narrowed, and he hurried to hand it over. “I swear, that’s all I found,” he added in a quieter voice.
I took the scroll from his hand, but had no luck in opening it. It had my mother’s name written on it in Sylvan. “Irielya,” I read aloud unconsciously. Something clicked open at our feet, the broken silver collar.
Klotonk grabbed the dangling piece in his hands. “The magic’s gone…” He turned toward me, mouth open. “They were password locked.”
I rattled the spell container in my hand. “Well this thing is still sealed,” I turned it over to the gnome.
“Seems like you’re not the intended. Your mother perhaps?” He handed it back to me, and I shoved the container in a pouch, determined to learn the contents regardless.
“Let’s get out of here. Shall we?” I ushered them toward the painting.
“Hold on,” Maziel said. “We should bring our new wizard friend. I have a contact dying to meet him.”
We agreed and returned to the library room to find Bargle missing, vines broken and scattered across the floor. The little broom was hurrying to remedy the situation.
“How badly do we really need him?” Zan questioned.
“Depends,” the drow countered. “Does Taelim want a spy sneaking around her father’s tower?”
“Why put this on me?” I whined. They waited for my response. “Fine. Let’s find him. We have the way out apparently.”
That seemed to bring a spring to Maziel’s step, even backtracking through frescos where horrors once awaited us.
Eventually we found ourselves staring back at the spider’s portal. Hesitating.
“Do you think we’ll owe another secret?” Cosmo asked aloud.
“I’m all out of those,” I replied dryly, eying the drow.
“Doubtful,” was all Maziel managed before they rushed through.
The walls of the dark tunnels were charred black and smelled of smoke and sulfur. From deep within we heard groaning and the hissing of creatures scuttling up above, scared to draw near the flames that licked their webs. A figure in black robes crawled toward a painting of woods in twilight.
Maziel was already grabbing the man, and pushed toward the newly discovered portal. The two disappeared without a trace, leaving us to stumble blindly after them.
“The heir returnsss!” Voices called from above, causing me to spin on my heels.
Feeps grabbed my wrist, and I was suddenly in a dim forest clearing, stunned by the eternal sunset shedding low rays of light on the deep green ground.
“Please…” the man on the ground moaned. This was not Bargle, though they shared the same raven robes and medallion. This fellow was far younger, and burn marks marred his face and hands.
“Where’s Bargle?” Maziel demanded.
“Relax, Maz,” Klo shoved the drow aside, calling me me over. “He’s seen better days. Think you can help?”
I nodded, and muttered some of the druidic words that bore healing properties in their speech. The man in black sighed in relief as some of his burns healed to barely visible scars.
“You have my thanks,” he said weakly. “My name’s Mattias.”
“Hi! I’m Klotonk! These are my friends.”
Mattias nodded to us respectively.
“Bargle,” Maziel repeated, looming over the prone man.
Mattias wasn’t inclined to resist. “What’s there to say? Our Master left us to die so he could exploit the tower’s secrets.”
“Us?” Zan followed up.
Mattias nodded. “Master Bargle, myself, and two others. I thought I was the only survivor, until you asked about him.” Mattias rose to his feet and dusted off his robes. “I’m indebted to you.” He bowed low.
“Oh, you’re welcome.” Klotonk responded. “Are you trying to get out of the tower too?”
“If you wish it. I came as a guard, I would like to leave as one. In your service should you permit.”
“A life debt,” Zan whistled.
Mattias inclined his head.
“Okay!” Klo piped up.
“What?” Maziel blurted. “Why are we so trusting?”
The rest of us shrugged collectively.
Maziel sighed, palming their face. “Fine. First order of business is finding said master and returning him to us.”
“Second order of business,” I butted in. “Where are we?”
Only now did we take in our surroundings and the surreal forest dipped in a golden glow. The ranger in Maziel took over, and the drow went out ahead to scout. They disappeared behind a mossy trunk and returned with a puzzled look.
“There’s a woman up ahead...stewing a cauldron.”
“Proceed!?” Klotonk clapped his hands excitedly.
“Or she could be the witch,” I countered.
“So, yes?” The gnome stared up at me.
“Yeap,” I replied, easily swayed.
We proceeded with caution. There, indeed, hunched an old woman on a stool, stirring a massive cauldron with a gnarled staff. A silver collar adorned her neck, evidently not by choice. She noted us without the least bit of curiosity, returning back to her brew. Behind her, a small hut was tucked away into the tall grass.
Before any of us realized, Cosmo was flung back from the door, lock pick tools splayed on the ground with him.
“Manners, Cosmo.” Feeps chided.
“Sorry,” the kender lied, not the least bit apologetic.
Klotonk approached, cautious, yet eager to peek into the cauldron. “Hi,” he waved at the old woman who made no motion to recognize him. He stepped slowly closer while she watched him, but said nothing at all. “Do you live in this tower?” He tried politely.
“So...watchya makin’?” The gnome stood beside the stool.
The old woman glanced down, then gingerly stepped off, leaning heavily on her staff. The gnome practically leapt on top and leaned forward. His eyes widened, much to the woman’s subtle delight.
“That’s neat!” Klotonk gawked. “Guys, c’mere!”
We didn’t move.
The woman gently pushed the gnome aside and resumed her place.
“What’s it for?” Klo asked, and the woman only looked up at the stars.
He paused thoughtfully. “Can you not talk because of the collar?”
Her eyes seemed to gleam, her stare lingered for a moment longer. She went back to stirring.
“We can remove it!” Klo offered before Maziel slapped a hand over his mouth.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed, for once genuinely interested in what we had to say.
“At a cost,” Maziel corrected, not bothering to deny it.
The drow and woman squared off in silence. Then the old woman stepped down off her stool and held out her gnarled staff. Klo seemed to grasp something in that instant, his eyes alight with desire.
Klotonk repeated my mother’s name beside her, and the collar sprung open.
“Ah,” the woman sighed, gratefully rubbing her neck. “My thanks.” The gnarled staff suddenly appeared in the gnome’s hands. The hut in the grass disappeared instantly, and a bizarre whistle appeared around Klotonk’s neck.
The gnome formed an “O” with his mouth. “What does it do?”
She only smiled, and that was just enough for Klotonk to tuck the whistle beneath his robes. The old woman held out her silver collar and dropped into the cauldron, it sizzled and popped, melting away.
With that, she inclined her head, raised a palm up and blew a hole out of the tower. A massive, gaping hole in the black stone that peered over the ugly swamp, reminding us we were hunting in a maze, surrounded by an equally dangerous environment. Her image distorted, and like a fading image, she was gone from sight.
“That could have been your face, Maziel!” Cosmo gawked at the still crumbling wall, hiding a grin.
“Oh shut up,” the drow turned with a swish of his black mantle toward where we came. Maziel quickly discovered a different fresco, and we could see the prison room where this all began.
Chains and torture rooms had never been so appealing.
We found Hissblood where we left him, unconscious in his open cell, a silver collar around his neck. I found myself removing the collar with my mother’s name, and wondering at the strange device as I placed it in my pack.
The bullywug came to conscious immediately, blinking his large eyes at us in confusion. He recognized Zan, who informed him of our woodby rescue attempt. With haste, we headed back to the library door, longing for the fresh, if putrid, swamp air.
Cosmo slid the key in the ornate door, and it opened to the sound of groaning hinges. We filed out, but not before the kender shouted. “Hey! No pushing!” He rubbed his shoulder, eyes darting between the door and vacant space between our group.
Maziel whipped around and screamed. “BARGLE!” The drow drew her short swords and pointed forward.
We quickly spotted the muddy footprints sprinting toward the swamp woods as fast as his invisible feet could take him. Like a practiced routine, Klotonk shouted a spell that revealed the man and I raised a hand, mimicking a whip-like motion. A thorny vine erupted from my reach and tangled around Bargle’s heels like a boleo, dragging him toward us.
“Hey, Taelim,” Maziel started. “Want to lend me that collar?”
I placed it in the drow’s outstretched hands.
Bargle began to snicker, “So you’ve swayed one of my own and taken what we’ve come looking for?” He spat in Mattias’s direction
Mattias said nothing to defend himself.
Instead, the drow paused, squatting beside the disheveled Bargle. Maziel held the collar at eye level, intrigued this object might hold value.
“Just slap it on him, and let’s get back to town. What other use could they possibly have?” I said, really just eager to meet Maziel’s contact and help my father before it was too late.
“More than you know, girl!” Bargle growled. “The Magi of the Hunt created these,” he started to chuckled. “But he overestimated his ability to wield them. It rightly cost him his life.”
I felt the temperature in my body rise, my muscles tensing in response. I tried to step forward, but Feeps took my hand and held me at bay.
“I can help you,” Bargle continued. “I can reveal its secrets, his secrets. I’ll succeed where that arrogant fool failed--”
I broke free of Feeps’s hold, grabbed the collar and slammed it around Bargle’s neck. It clicked, sealed and forced the man’s eyes shut, mouth lolling open.
“We ready to go?” I asked the group, for the first time on the verge of a breakdown despite my best efforts.
They nodded, taken aback.
I pulled back from the party, tugging Feeps close as we walked. “Father...he was an Arch Magi?”
“I did not know, Taelim. Perhaps Bargle was lying?”
“I doubt it,” I said, glancing back at the tower. The black spire of my father’s secrecy exposed itself in full force. “I wonder if mother knew…”
He didn’t have a response.
Somewhere in the woods, Cosmo fell from a tree screaming about bees.