Hestavar sparkled with its eternal sunlight. An astral city of superb wealth and architectural triumph, it made Illium look like the sticks. Nothing less was to be expected when gods like Erathis and Pelor shared the burden of dividing their divine affection here.
I, however, was miserable despite the glamour all around, like a pouting child being dragged through the streets. Mouth shut and eyes ahead, I followed behind my friends, as they determinedly made their way to the floating city’s docks. There we chartered our astral-seafaring ship toward a destination the captain made very clear we might not return from. Which suited my current mood, but everyone else shrugged and paid the fare.
For three days I spent most of my time on deck, leaning over the railing and watching the sea of stars pass beneath and above us. Only faint shimmers between soaring islands ever marked progress on our path. We just trusted the captain to get us there, which he did in short time.
It was as if the celestial island materialized in front of us. One moment we were gliding across the stars, and the next we were pulling into the port of some white sand beach. Far into the distance, the most imposing mountains I had ever seen dominated the horizon. Yet, it was the five robed torchbearers that drew our attention as we stepped onto the docks. They waited patiently on the flagstone path, which split in two different directions. Off to the right was a small hub of some sort, and the left led up a winding passage into mountains.
“You seek the Trial,” one of the robed figures came forward to greet us.
Maziel looked at Klotonk who shrugged in response. It was the half-giant, Kolae, who moved to the front of the group and spoke on everyone’s behalf.
“Yes,” her voice rumbled. “We require the blessing of the gods, for the sake of our plane.”
The robed figure only nodded, extending his torch. “The gods know this, but which will answer your call remains to be seen. Choose your companions, for only five may endeavor this challenge. It is their will.”
Kolae raised an eyebrow, hiding her surprise well enough. She glanced over her shoulder, and I counted numbers with her. Including her, we were a party of seven, and as uncanny as they came. Maziel and Klotonk stepped up, determined not to be left out. Where Maziel went, Cosmo generally followed, and he was already at the drow’s side. That left me, Dagon and the goliath brother, Odison, exchanging glances.
“Go, Kolae. Represent us,” Odison said simply, taking a decisive step back.
Kolae didn’t seem the least bit pleased at the prospect. Which left me and the dwarf, and I was already moving away from my friends.
“All you, Dagon. You’ve got the bigger bone to pick, and now Asimba to look after too.”
The dwarf scratched the chin beneath his beard. “You sure, Taelim?”
Maziel opened her mouth to argue, but I hurried my reply.
“Positive!” I said, stepping toward the rightmost path. “Show the gods what’s what.” I tipped my imaginary hat. “And...don’t get killed.”
“Stay out of trouble, Taelim,” Maziel warned.
I grinned and waved, watching as they each took up a torch and set off toward the mountains. A shadow loomed over me, and I lifted my gaze to meet the pale blue irises of the goliath. Odison regarded me a bit uncertainly, shifting on his feet. I hadn’t really spoken much to the quiet cleric of Pelor, he mostly kept to himself or the company of his sister. He certainly wasn’t a ball of energy, and lacked the charisma Kolae exuded.
“What do you say we find a tavern, big guy? We’re going to have time to kill.”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “To drink?”
Odison questioned it so innocently I felt bad laughing. Oh, here we go. “Yes. If you don’t, I certainly will.”
He rubbed his bald scalp distractedly. “Kolae doesn’t drink.”
“Kolae isn’t here,” I smiled wryly. “I’m asking you.” I reached up, but found I was pointing at his stomach, not his chest. He didn’t even notice.
“I suppose one won’t hurt,” he responded timidly enough.
“Fantastic!” I said, tugging on his arm. “Let’s go!”
It was an undeserved resort trip. While my friends were likely risking life and limb, Odison and I discovered a beachfront bar more than happy to supply us with drinks. We made for awkward companions at first. I wasn’t in much of a talking mood to start, and he wasn’t a conversationalist at all. Still, he was the one to get me chatting. Perhaps it was my rapid succession of drinks which concerned him. Either way.
“That’s the thing,” I whined, motioning for another round. I shoved a tankard in front of the goliath, and he obeyed sheepishly. “Everyone wants something different from me, and no matter how hard I try to please people, it’s never enough.”
Odison considered this, nursing his drink. Apprehensively, he offered his opinion. “Why don’t you do what makes you happy then?”
I shrugged halfheartedly. “It’s not that easy,” I answered between sips. “I can’t just turn my back on Illium…”
“You seem miserable though,” he said quietly before turning away.
“I guess…” I conceded, sloshing the contents of my cup idly. “Can’t be helped now…”
“No one deserves a lifetime of unhappiness,” Odison said, barely above a whisper. He shifted in his stool, and it groaned under his weight.
“Doesn’t matter,” I finished resolutely. I downed my drink and took up another.
“What would you want to do with your life then?” Odison asked earnestly, his pale blue eyes genuinely curious.
I peered at him over my glass, slowly lowering it to the counter. I didn’t respond at first, so he filled the unease with his own excitement.
“After Kolae and I kill the nidhogg, I’d like to return to our village...reunite our tribesmen,” he smiled at the prospect. Then he looked at me, waiting patiently for me to reply.
I chewed my lip for another few seconds. It had been so long since I even entertained the notion. I spent half my time doing what I was told, then rebelliously escaping Illium for a moment or two of sanity. “Funny, my life was always laid out before me. When my mother told me who I was, it was the only time I ever considered other possibilities.” I snorted at the turn of events. “As a runaway, I spent so long fearing my father’s opinion, I never considered he might want me to take up his mantle. Not ruling, but fighting!” I smiled at Odison, who only beamed back. “I’d become the Magi of the Hunt, just like him. Adventuring around the realm, not bound to Illium--believe me, they’re fine without me…” I cocked my head, warmed by the thought.
“That sounds like a grand plan,” Odison encouraged softly.
“Yeah,” I replied, distracted at the prospect. “I’d probably try to get Lys back too...I have no idea what we are, but...why are women so--” I looked up at the goliath hopefully.
Odison shook his head quickly, suddenly panicked. “I’m terrible with them, please don’t ask me.”
I laughed. “Right, well, it’s all wishful thinking anyway.”
I raised my glass to the goliath, and he tipped his tankard into mine.
“It’s the best kind,” he said airily.
No argument there, as I emptied another cup.
The rest of the party walked into the beach bar close to dawn. By that time, I was determined to see Odison even the slightest bit intoxicated, but that took a lot of alcohol. Trying to keep up proved an even worse idea. When Maziel stumbled into the tavern, battered and dirty, she didn’t seem the least bit surprised the two of us were still up and about. The life of the local party.
I watched Kolae’s well-muscled arm grab her brother by the collar and hoist his nine-foot frame easily to his feet. With a few concise reprimands, she sent him skulking toward the door.
I grinned up at the paladin, her form a hazy blur. “Easy on him...he’s a good guy,” I hiccuped. “Besides, I made him drink…”
“One’s will is one’s own, young druid,” Kolae said simply, grabbing me with one arm and draping me over her shoulder.
It was for the best, I passed out seconds later.
I awoke, sprawled on the most luxurious bed I had ever known. I half expected my world to spin out of control with a hangover, but I blinked up at the bright room with perfect clarity.
“Good, you’re up,” Maziel said calmly. She was seated at the table in the corner, oiling one of her leather bracers.
I retreated back under the silk covers. “How’d it go?”
Still intent on her task, she spoke. “Not well. The only god to answer our summons was Kord. After surviving a Cabiri of his making, he left us with little more than his best wishes.” Satisfied, she cleaned and slipped on her bracer, then shifted her stare to me. “I suppose we could have ascended to the Hall of Heroes, but I’ve still got much to do on the Material Plane.”
“Well, at least Primus isn’t going anywhere,” I offered, but Maziel didn’t respond. After another moment of silence, I crawled out of bed and started to get dressed.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Maziel said, her voice low in an endeavor to be well-intentioned.
I paused, halfway through putting on my boots. “No,” I replied at last. “Not right now.”
“Very well.” Deftly, the drow got to her feet. “Meet us outside when you’re ready, Taelim. Klotonk’s going to teleport us back to Illium.”
I grunted my acknowledgement, waiting for her to leave the room. I took my time finishing.
I kicked at the sand idly, careful not to disrupt Klotonk’s work. I was going to miss this brief respite. It was back to the grind. I sighed loudly, and begrudgingly entered the glowing circle. The familiar sense of vertigo seized us, only this time, it had difficulty letting go. Our vision was blacked out, with blips of familiar places torn asunder. We were thrown from the portal, falling to the floor and landing hard on our backs.
With a curse, I sat up and glanced around. A thick, cold fog obscured my vision. In the silence, I could hear my own heart slam against my chest. Something was very, very wrong.