I had hardly stepped foot in Illium's castle when I was bombarded by staff. I did my best to hide my annoyance, after all I had spent the last few days at the Goblin Market doing as I pleased. Here, I had responsibilities.
I stopped outside of Killian's study, because apparently he was the one searching for me the hardest. I quietly prayed it had nothing to do with our obligations to Illium.
“You rang, my liege,” I said sarcastically as I walked through the door.
“Taelim!” Killian leapt to his feet, genuine relief washing over his face. “Where have you--nevermind, it doesn't matter. We have a small problem.”
I sighed, then dropped into the chair across from him. “What now?”
He hesitated for a moment, none of his usual cocksure attitude present. “We had some visitors arrive,” he started tentatively, “Thri-kreen ambassadors from...somewhere.”
“Alright,” I replied with a shrug. “I'm sure you greeted them just fine. I can't be present for everything, Killian. You have to handle some of the responsibility too.”
“It's not that!” He answered, clearly panicked. “They're causing problems for the castle staff...they have a particular diet.”
Thri-kreen were insect-like humanoids. There were bound to be differences. Illium’s staff generally handled unusual guests well enough. I raised my eyebrows and looked at him, awaiting more.
“Cats,” Killian eventually blurted. “They eat live cats. They're taking our pets, and...you know.”
I grimaced. “That's not good…”
“Taelim,” Killian continued quietly. “They took Fluffy.”
I was on my feet at once. “Gods dammit, Killian! Can't you handle anything?” Before he could respond, I was already out the door, marching toward the ambassadors’ quarters.
I was hardly down the hall when I turned a corner and slammed into Feeps. Dazed, I blinked up at my warforged companion. He wasn't alone, Lysandra was with him.
“Greetings, Taelim!” He said jovially. “Your friend here requested to see you.”
I shot Lysandra a warning glance, her showing up here was in no way a good idea. If Killian caught on to my feelings...I forced a smile. “Well, I'm a bit busy at the moment. Apparently, no one can deal with the Thri-kreen.”
“Can I come?” She asked, almost playfully.
I wilted at once, knowing my answer before I spoke the words. “Sure.” I glanced at the warforged. “You might as well tag along, Feeps.”
The ambassadors were placed in one of most reclusive towers in the castle, and for good reason. When I knocked on their door, a pair of unnerving compound eyes greeted me.
“Princess Taelim. Welcome,” the chitinous creature said, its oddly shaped jaw making speaking a chore. A mandible like claw opened the door wide and admitted us in.
For the second time within a short span, I was unable to move as I took in the spacious room they occupied. Alongside bizarre looking gear piled high in various parts of the room, cages were plenty. Another Tri-kreen was prowling alongside the hissing cats, and I all but ran to the animals to free them.
“We were hoping to speak with you, Princess,” the first Tri-kreen continued, and I tore my eyes away from the cats.
“Go on,” was all I offered in response.
“We have heard you recently acquired access to a considerable library of knowledge. We journeyed here in hopes you might share something with us.”
I was getting better at hiding my emotions, which I tended to wear on my sleeve, but that didn’t mean I mastered the art. So, I wore my annoyance openly. Hopefully, they were unused to human reactions, but Feeps nudged me softly all the same. I couldn’t help it, especially since I knew they were talking about Viceak’s library in the Black Tower. Maybe my father had information he flaunted, but didn't share. They might have supposed I inherited it with a change of mind.
“Supposing I did have this library, what exactly are you looking for, ambassador?”
“It’s simple, really. We seek a book which contains various delicacies of our ancestors and how to prepare them.”
“You want a recipe book?” I blurted.
“Indeed,” it replied, almost excitedly. I couldn’t tell, only that it clapped its mandibles together.
I rubbed my forehead, resisting a sigh. “How about this?” I began, just desperate to resolve this whole thing. “If I come across this book, I’ll happily send it your way. That said, I need something in exchange.”
“We’re listening,” the Tri-kreen replied eagerly, leaning closer and making me uncomfortable.
I pointed at the cages ungraciously. “You can’t eat our cats! I’m sorry if you find them...delicious?” I thought for a moment, and remembered that group called Ornamental Chaos, we spotted them briefly in the Goblin Market. They had a master chef with them, even if he was part assassin, he experimented with “exotic” foods. I’m sure I could work something out since they were staying in Illium. “I’ll have someone else cater to your...needs while you’re here.”
Even Feeps supported my argument, mentioning a beast that was apparently a pet of the Tri-kreen, and comparing them to cats. They slightly took offense, but grasped the notion far more quickly. We stared at each other for a long moment.
Then, the Tri-kreen chittered at one another in their language. The one in the back reluctantly turned to the cages and began opening them. The cats bolted out of the room, and a particularly fleecy ginger cat pounced into my arms.
I drew Fluffy closer to my chest, whispering calming words to my childhood pet.
“We have a deal, Princess Taelim. Thank you, and apologies for any misunderstandings.”
“No problem. I’m sure we’ll see each other shortly.” With that, I hurried out of the room, Feeps and Lysandra in tow.
“I am very proud of you, Taelim.” Feeps said, smiling like a proud parent.
I shrugged, and peeked at Lysandra who was watching me wordlessly. Something like admiration was there too, so I blushed and looked ahead.
We stopped just outside of Killian’s study, where I told the others to wait. I threw open the door, and Killian jumped up. I dropped Fluffy onto his desk. “I dealt with the Tri-kreen. Really, Killian, if this is going to work, you can’t just play war king! There are other responsibilities to being a leader, and all of them involve actually rising to the occasion!”
I turned and stormed out the door, and this time, he chased after me. Feeps and Lysandra stepped to the side, as Killian grabbed my wrist pleadingly.
“I’m sorry, Taelim,” he said in a low voice. “I truly am. I’m sure you know this gets overwhelming sometimes, and you’re far better at dealing with others...thank you.”
I sighed, feeling guilty for my anger. I understood exactly how he felt. I was born into this life, even if it wasn’t mine anymore. It was his now, and I had to help him adjust. I suppose that’s why we were thrust together.
I patted him softly on the cheek and smiled. “You’re far more charming than you believe. If I have faith in you, then you should too.”
That seemed to return some of his confidence, and he leaned in, kissing me. Again, I froze, not because I didn’t want the affection, but because there was an audience.
“Will I see you later?” He asked, grinning.
I pulled away, clearing my throat, and he finally spotted the other two standing nearby.
“Maybe,” was all I said. I waved goodbye, and quickly took my leave with Feeps and Lysandra behind me.
Feeps was humming softly, but it was Lysandra’s silent gaze that forced my attention forward with utter determination.
I saw Lysandra regularly after that day, casually so, but still, I’m sure our bond drew unwanted concern. More and more often I found myself hanging out at Klotonk’s house, even if all of my friends lived or gathered there. It was on one of these occasions that the small gnome came running back from one of his errands, beaming.
“You’ll never believe what I just got!” Klo said, panting as if he sprinted the entire way back.
The gnome waved a bizarre black bone. I didn’t recognize it, but Lysandra’s face went white.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning forward in my seat.
“Supposedly a bone of Orcus, but it serves as a teleportation key to one of his towers.”
I pursed my lips, partially wishing Maziel was here. I normally made the poor decisions, and it was strange to see the gnome trying his hand at it.
“And you have it why?” I inquired gently. I knew the feeling of being chastised, so I didn’t want to sound condescending.
“There’s a Primordial sealed there!” He said excitedly. “A wish, Taelim! Maybe boons that can help us with Primus.”
Oh yeah, Primus. The god we can’t kill. I didn’t say it outloud, my problems were ever growing and I was losing track. I sighed, “I suppose a threat to the material realm counts as a threat to Illium.”
“That’s the spirit!” Klotonk piped up. “Also, we’ll need you to plane shift us back. It only gets us there…”
I leaned back into the couch, trying my hand at disappearing and failing. “Sure why not,” I replied, throwing up my hands. “Rally the gang and let’s go.”
Klotonk cocked his head. “Shouldn’t you tell Feeps or Tylda?”
“Noooope. They’ll tell me no, and I’ll do it anyway.”
I stood up and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?” Lysandra and Klo asked simultaneously.
I thought for a moment, then remembered that Dagon’s dwarven friend, Gertrude, or Gerty as he called her fondly, recently opened a tavern. From what I heard, their brew was some of the strongest in the city. “To Gertrude’s. I can still cast spells when drunk.”
It could have been worse, I didn’t drink as much as I should have. Maziel found me and dragged me out. The team had assembled.
Annoyed, but at least buzzed, I made my way over to a small park in the city, finding the largest tree there. The group trailed with curious, but concerned features.
“I have to stop in the Sump,” I said, pointing at the tree. “I need a book from my dad’s tower.”
Maziel folded her arms across her chest. “Well, Taelim, that’s a tree.” She stopped to evaluate me sternly. “You couldn’t have been drinking that long.”
“No thanks to you, Mom-ziel,” I retorted dryly. “As it so happens, I’ve actually been training and doing druid things...so, there.” I stomped up beside the tree, but stopped when I spotted Lysandra jogging up to us.
She took in our motley crew consisting of me, Klotonk, Maziel, Cosmo and Dagon. Her look appeared concerned at best. “You’re really going to Orcus’s tower?” She said to me quietly.
I smiled at her. Awww, she cares. “Yeap! Then back for dinner, right?”
She didn’t seem pleased at the prospect.
“We'll be fine,” I offered, realizing that was the alcohol talking. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Lysandra shook her head, but didn’t say a word. She eyed Maziel for a moment, and the two shared something unspoken that I was far too gone to comprehend. Lysandra touched my arm and walked away. “Be careful,” was all she said before slipping away.
A wave of disappointment washed over me as I watched her go. It was Maziel who broke me out of my trance, snapping her fingers near my ear.
I turned back to the tree, palm on the trunk. It split open at once, revealing a portal to a familiar place: the Sump. “Get in,” I told my party. We all leapt inside.
I hadn’t returned to my father’s tower since we buried him. Sure it was mine, as was the pressure to become a Magus, which was probably why I hadn’t come back. I already had enough responsibilities to deal with. We clambered up the hill where the black tower watched all from the top. There we paused, eyeing the peculiar being that barred our way.
“What IS IT?” Dagon said, in no way lowering his voice. He blatantly pointed at the huge winged serpent.
“It looks like some sort of couatl…” Klotonk replied, pondering.
“Well, I need to go in there,” I said, boldly making my way toward it.
Maziel cursed my name behind me while Cosmo cheered.
“Halt, half elf.” The couatl demanded. “No one may enter but the master of this tower.”
“Fantastic,” I retorted, the alcohol making me far too fearless for my own good. “I guess that’s me, now let me pass.”
The creature’s eyes narrowed. Its body melted away, and a gleaming sword took its place. It slashed through the air, sending a shimmering wave of energy in my direction. The magic shattered over my head, and I got the strange feeling I was lucky to be alive.
The sword turned back into a couatl, approaching me slowly. “I am bound to serve you then. " It took the shape of a scimitar, floating midair. “I am the Radiant Blade of Truth that Slays 100 Dragons.”
I hesitated, then took the hilt of the blade. “Can I just call you Radiant?”
“Radiant it is.” I said.
It grumbled, then, "Discard the blade at your side. I am superior.”
This I obeyed, drawing my old scimatar and handing it to our kender.
Cosmo immediately scuttled over, grabbing the weapon and squeezing it into his bag of holding. It vanished into the void.
“What do I call you?” Radiant asked.
“We will kill my 100th dragon together, Taelim. This will please me.”
“Okaaay,” I said, sheathing the blade. “That’s not exactly something I have a problem with, but it’s a little low on my priority list.”
“We shall see.”
“Taelim,” Klotonk approached. “Who are you talking to?”
I glanced down at the scimitar on my side, then at the gnome. “So, you can’t hear it?”
“Not since it turned into...a sword.”
Today’s off to a wonderful start. I thought, before heading into my father’s tower.
We marched inside, a single room in mind. Like a bad memory, we moved through the watercolor frescos on the wall, until at last we were in Viceak’s private library. The last time we were here, the library had seen better days. Books and rubble were everywhere, like a storm passed through, especially after our combat with Bargle. Now, things were very different.
The library was pristine and well kept, spotless like my father normally kept things. The moment we teleported inside, a massive owlbear lumbered over to us, forcing us all against the wall, fumbling for weapons. To my surprise, and delight, it leaned in and nuzzled me.
I paused for a moment, then threw my arms around it, smothering it with affection.
“Taelim, are you sure that’s wise?” Maziel growled, hand still on the hilt of her short sword.
Both the owlbear and I looked up at the drow. “She was in pieces last time!” I said, rubbing my hands through its fur. "But she's whole again!"
“It’s not coming with us, Taelim.” Maziel stated firmly.
I stared at Maziel pleadingly, but knew I would lose this battle. “Fine,” I grumbled. “I think she lives here anyway.” I scratched just behind the owlbear's sharp beak. “I shall call you Ursa! Yes, I will. You’re adorable.”
“You realize it’s now Bear Bear.” Maziel added.
I shrugged. “Do you like it? Yes, you do!” I cooed Ursa, who continued to follow me around the room.
"She named her cat Fluffy," Cosmo chortled.
"Shove off, all of you."
I didn’t have to wait long before the little magic broom approached me, as if knowing I needed it. “Um, hey little one,” I said to it, wondering just how much magic was woven into this place. A lot. It was dad’s after all. “I need a book,” I said to the broom. “It contains Tri-kreen recipes, really bizarre stuff--”
I didn’t need to mention anything else. The broom took off, and I followed it toward the loft that had been sealed by my father’s magic. Klotonk ran up alongside me.
“You think you can unlock it like in that alternate Illium?” He asked.
I bit my lip, then nodded. “Yeah, I do…” I glanced down at his wide, eager stare. I grinned, A gnome and his knowledge. I reached up, and the seal dispelled at once.
Klotonk squeaked in delight, placing one foot on the stairs, then stopping. “I’m sorry...this is your father’s, well, yours now.”
I chuckled, and pushed him lightly up the staircase. “Help yourself, Klo. As far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to the knowledge here.”
He bolted up the stairs, faster than I had ever thought him capable.
When I reached the second floor, the broom tapped on a particular book and I pulled it free. It was full of pictures and directions with the strangest ingredients. I could feel my stomach twist, so I closed the book and threw it in my pack. Then I noticed the near empty shelf with a glass case. Two books were there, alongside some odd trinkets. I picked up the worn leather journal, the pages contained my father’s careful handwriting. I skimmed over it briefly, grasping the gist. It was a log of his time as an Arch Magi. I put that in my pack as well.
The other book was far larger than the first, a thick tome with intricate writing I didn’t recognize. I, however, knew what it was. My father’s grimoire.
“Hey, Klo,” I called over the gnome, who forcibly dragged himself away from whatever he was studying. I pointed at the tome. “Want a spellbook?”
Klotonk gaped up at me. “Really? Are you sure?”
I put the book in his hands. “My father spent years grumbling about why I couldn’t handle wizardry like him. I prefer the druidic ways, eh? Anyway, I have what I came for. I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready.”
I spent the next few minutes idly taking in the room, the rest of my friends chatting nearby. Perhaps this tower isn’t so bad, maybe I’ll come by more.
Klotonk followed shortly after, waving the black bone. “Who’s ready to explore a dungeon?”
Here. We. Go.