I find myself stuck in Lord Marbrand's library again. I have to research our likely adversary, Nar-Narg-Naroth, while the rest are out hunting for the cultists. Weighing the benefits of being surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge against the drawbacks of slogging through the mud in the forest or sloshing through the brackish water of a partially submerged ruin is slowly becoming impossible. In essence, the difference is searching for second-hand information in books, or searching for first hand information out there. If Lord Marbrand had occasionally left the library and had gone out there to find information instead of have books brought to him, his notes wouldn't have been so dull and he'd have much more to show for it. It took us a little over fifteen days to find out the name of the creature buried in those catacombs, something that he was never able to uncover.
Regarding Nar-Narg-Naroth, I've unconvered much information. To my dismay, I also found that we're dealing with a rather overwhelmingly large outsider called a Bebilith. This means that my earlier assessment that we were dealing with a Baatezu (devil) was entirely incorrect, but that it's in fact a Tanar'ri (deamon). The distinction is important, you see. Baatezu are structured in their infliction of evil upon reality, with a strict hierarchy within their ranks, making them arguably much more dangerous to our existence than the Tanar'ri, who are more chaotic and unpredictable. A Baatezu is much more likely to inflict precise, systematic destruction, while a Tanar'ri will more likely engage in wanton destruction and despoilment. They are also less organised and fewer in number, but that which they lack in number they make up for in raw power. These two factions have been waging a war against one another older than living memory. Baatezu against Tanar'ri, the denizens of Hell against the denizens of the Abyss. And according to all accounts, they have fought to a stalemate, an equal match between discipline and numbers against raw and brute strength.
A Bebilith is a huge, spider-like deamon, who hunts and devours other deamons. Known as "the creepers of the Abyss" and "barbed horrors" and considered to be the cruel harbingers of death and torture to anyone crossing their path. They are eight-legged arachnids, with a bulbous, chitinous body and two pronounced forelegs which end in brutal barbs. Their fangs secrete a poison and they are preternaturally tough and capable of shooting sticky strands of webbing capable of trapping and suffocating men. Their senses are razorsharp and while they understand the gutteral language of the Abyss, they communicate through a powerful sense of telepathy.
It seems Nar-Narg-Naroth is one such Bebilish, but it has been reported missing from the Abyss for hundreds of years, likely because of its imprisonment in the catacombs underneath the Thar.
I'm bored of reading up on this deamon. I think I'm going to try and put my time to good use and enhance my repetoire of spells. Also, I'm going to continue exploring the possibilities of the dragonskin vestments we found. I think that will be of greater value to us in the coming fight than knowing the multitude of ways in which this Bebilith can kill us. If it had any weaknesses that I could've learned about in this library, I'm confident I would have found out by now. Now that would be an amusing epitaph to put on my headstone, provided I don't get devoured by Nar-Narg-Naroth.
The Melting, 1372 DR
It's been several days since I was in a position to take the time to write. A lot has happened but no progress has been made, so I'm using the tip of my quill to force my mind to focus, to catalogue, to reference and hopefully to reveal. I find myself going over the same information, dismissing, sorting and prioritising the same things and drawing the same conclusions. I need to force myself to write as much down as I can recall and reevaluate everything.
While I spent most of the days following Lord Marbrand's funeral investigating the blood ties between Quentyn and the late wizard, I asked Jago if he could go back to the Thar and see if he could pick up any tracks the three white-robed figures might have left behind. David and Quentyn initially decided they would help me excavate the riches of Lord Marbrand's library in search for clues regarding the Draconic phrase that was written on the piece of paper recovered from the mouth of Lord Marbrand's corpse.
"That which is not dead can eternally lie, and with strange aeons even death may die."
Unfortunately, while both men are in peak physical condition, they have little endurance when it comes to prolonged research and studious attention. It doesn't surprise me this to be the case for Quentyn but David is unlike most clerics I've known. The servants of Chauntea, under whom I was tutored for a short period, were mildly studious, but it seems David has the bearing of a man more fit for combat than pious contemplation. The two men eventually joined Jago in search for signs of the three white-robed figures and left me with Lord Marbrand's research and correspondence.
Lord Marbrand seemed to be poly-maniacal about his research, never focussing on one subject at a time for very long. He was also deeply chaotic and scatter-brained, his works and notes lacking any of the modern structures taught in any college worth their merit. He, like many wizards of his generation, were under the impression that as long as they were able to understand their notes, their work was good enough. It never crosses their minds that they might be doing their research harm by not applying a proper, formal structure, and that they could have increased their productivity and insight with the right psycho-spiritual conditioning.
I managed to find the following, relatively recent, fields of interest to Lord Marbrand;
- History of Glister. There is quite a bit of correspondence with scholars and sages, mostly from Candlekeep, Waterdeep and Thentia.
- Lineage, both of his own family as well as others.
- A rather deep and involved debate with a Brother Martinus of Candlekeep about the nature of the many stone structures and ruins on the Thar. It seemed to have ended in a disagreement which lead to petty bickering and name calling.
- Two schools of magic seemed to have caught special attention from Lord Marbrand as of late; the schools of Divination and Conjuration, and especially the relationship between the prime material plane and other planes.
When the others returned from the Thar, they told me they had followed the tracks of the three white-robed strangers north, off the Thar and into the woods, ending at a small, abandoned camp. Besides the remains of a small campfire, they found, buried in a small hole, the body of a decomposing rabbit, buried with a flat stone with the crude symbol of two white hands on it, with interlocked thumbs and fanned out fingers. I have since found the symbol to belong to Yurtrus, the orc god of death, disease and annihilation.
The Melting, 1372 DR
The day after the folkmoot at the long house atop the Glister hill, I had arranged to meet with Creighton at the castle. I was certain I had overlooked something in the search for Lord Marbrand's library. His study was too mundane to support a wizard of his stature. Either the wizard was not a wizard and he had fooled the people of Glister, or worse; he had been able to fool me. This day, I decided, I would get to the bottom of the deception.
When I emerged from my cabin at the Timebered Inn to depart for the castle, both Quentyn and a companion of his, David wanted to come along. Quentyn seemed eager to start looking for evidence of his blood relation to Lord Marbrand, which seemed likely to be in his library. It seemed our goals were united. David had been Quentyn's companion in the search for Wulfric's daughter and it seemed the two had a common goal that remained unclear to me at the time. Jago emerged from his cabin moments later and rushed out to meet us on the road to north.
I've had little time to observe David while in Glister. The first evening he had been staying at the Timbered Inn. A tall man, wiry strong with a fair face. He is easy to smile and though it's warm and compassionate, I'm not entirely sure it's not a sycophant's smile. A large, barbed chain hangs at his belt and his pace is sure and steady. There's an economy in his movement that suggests some martial experience, and if I am to believe the tales that came back with the party sent out to rescue Wulfric's daughter, he is more than capable.
I was happy to see Jago join us, though I have no idea why he would. No doubt a scoundrel, ever since joining meeting him in Melvaunt it's clear that he has ambition and isn't without a cultivatable talent for observation. I've observed him observing throughout our travels across The Thar, but the folkmoot solidified my suspicion about him. It will be good to have him help in the search for Lord Marbrand's library.
The trek from Melvaunt to Glister was an arduous twelve day task. The locals call the moor- and heathlands between the two cities The Thar. An infertile land, its acidic and rocky soil only capable of supporting hardy grass, thistles and some cotton. Despite the constant fog, the ground was dry and fresh water became scarce.
Fergal lead our caravan. A Melvaunteen and tradesman responsible for the delivery of many of the things which are scarce in Glister, like salt. Besides a tradesman, he is also a slaver. Jochi was a nomad before being captured and sold into slavery. He seems jovial enough as long as he can roam. Miggel was a Zhentarim foot soldier before becoming a prisoner of war. He seems rather resigned to his fate as a slave, saying that it could have been worse if he had been sold to a salt mine.
Every three or four days or so, we reached a cache of stored water. By the end of the trek, my own supplies were running low and due to my poor physical disposition towards cabbages and barley, I was forced to purchase some digestible foodstuffs from others in the caravan. As a result, when we finally reached Glister, was down to a handful of gold and silver.
The Redwynes of Fulcestershire
The Redwyne family has ruled over Fulcestershire (pronounced full-stər-shər) for twelve generations. The first generations struggled to maintain their sovereignty during the age of strife, when lords and princes tried to consolidate as much land as possible. The Red Keep was completed in three generations and proved instrumental in repelling invasions.
Eventually, during the age of peace, swords were turned into ploughshares and Fulcestershire turned to agriculture. The rich soil and ingenuity of the farmers quickly turned Fulcestershire into one of the most important lordships in the kingdom. The Red Keep was renamed Redgarden Keep in honour of the new dedication. Its fruits, vegetables and grains fed much of the kingdom. Its spirits, beers and especially the wines were without equal.
Fulcester, before a small farming village in the shadow of Redgarden Keep, turned into a trading city of nearly twenty thousand within several generations. The Redwynes prospered, both financially and politically. Traders came to barter their wares, lords came to seek the lord's council to maximise the yield of their own crops and the royal family drank the Fulcester wines exclusively.
Despite its new dedication Redgarden Keep never forgot the age of strife and prided itself on its martial acumen. The footmen and archers were well-trained and oft-drilled, and its knights were valorous, honourable and competitive in tourneys. On several occasions Redgarden Keep lent its troops in protection of friendly lordships and when the crown called its banners.
Only one blemish was ever recorded on our family's history. Five generations ago, my great-great-great-grandfather's younger brother was Lord Ulster Redwyne, whose manhunt across the kingdom brought great shame to the Redwyne name as he was unwilling to submit to the Circle of Magi and chose to practice his magic as a renegade. He was eventually found and killed by agents of the Circle.
The Disappointment of Lord Halberstam Redwyne
I told you that story in order to tell you this story.
My father is Lord Halberstam Redwyne, Twelfth Lord of Fulcestershire. His banner is a golden cornucopia upon a burgundy field. He became lord at the age of twenty-eight after his father, Lord Marcus, the Eleventh Lord of Fulcestershire, died. He had learned much in the ways of farming, trading and politics, was a decent swordsman and had married well. His brother and sister had been wed into important families and relations were warm.
It was truly my lord father's first big defeat when no children were born for several years. Stillborns and miscarriages plagued my lady mother and it put a severe strain on the marriage. When I was finally born a collective sigh of relief could be heard from Fulcester to Highgarden.
It could be argued that my lady mother was overprotective in her care for me. When I was struck by the bloody flux at the age of four, many a priest thought I'd perish before my fifth name day. Bedridden for months I came close to dying several times, but eventually due to the diligence of my lady mother and the persistence of my lord father, I survived.
Unfortunately, the disease shattered my digestive system and left me weaker than most boys my age. Often bedridden and surrounded by priests, I quickly turned to the books in my lord father's library to entertain myself. I was a quick study and that which I lacked physically, I made up intellectually.
My lord father was never good at hiding his frustration, and doubly so when it concerned his son and heir. If I were to inherit his lands, titles and properties, I had to be capable of wielding a sword as well as read books. To him I would only be half a man unless I was able to wield a weapon. With the same persistence he had shown when I fell ill, he decided to school me in all manner of warcraft.
The courtyard of Redgarden Keep became the scene of many frustrating afternoons where I disappointed my lord father with my inability to hold a sword. Hard practices led to longer recoveries as my body would fail me. His steward once warned him that if he pushed me any harder it would break me for good and that perhaps sharpening my mind rather than strengthening my swordarm would yield more success.
A miracle struck Fulcestershire once more when my lady mother found herself with child again. My lord father prayed for another son. When Danan was born my lord father announced I would join the holy order of Chauntea. If I wouldn't be a warrior, I'd honour my family in the service of the Earth Mother. It was not a coincidence that my service to the Earth Mother would also mean a rejection of my hereditary claims. It felt like exile.
I was sent to live at the temple in Fulcester in order to start my studies and participate in my first communion. A few months later I was sent to the capitol to study at the Hightemple. It didn't take long before it became apparent that my interest in the temple's library was stronger than my interest in the temple's goddess. I managed to hide it a while, masking my reading as pious contemplation and study, but eventually I was sent to return home.
The Discovery of Magic
I tried to stay out of my lord father's way by locking myself in his library, only occassionally coming out and going on field trips to verify certain things I had learned in his books. Within a year, I had read most of the legible books. There was a small collection of books written in a curious script that nobody seemed to know how to read. On the inside of their thick leather covers was written the name "Ulster Redwyne."
Fielding the studies necessary to decypher the text kept me busy for more than a year. My first experiments came a year after. To my surprise and excitement, I found success at magecraft.
At this point, both my parents had focussed their attention on Danan. He was already better with a practice sword than I had ever been. My lord father's constant disapproval of me never far from my younger brother's ear, he stopped looking up to me and started looking down. My lady mother had closed her eyes to the matter and pretended everything was fine. I felt like a stranger among my own family.
When I approached my lord father and informed him of my gift, hoping to finally please him, he shouted at me. Magecraft had brought disgrace upon our family all those generations ago and another Redwyne taking it up would surely spell doom. My lord father's steward suggested I apply to the Circle of Magi, that I could be a valuable asset to the family. The influence of the Circle was great and if I would do well, I'd lend that influence to our family in court. My lord father dismissed the potential benefit as not worth the cost in shame and disgrace.
I was surprised when my lady mother became involved, lending her support to the steward's suggestion. My lord father's fury was complete. The following day, my lady mother announced I should apply to the Circle. There was a glimmer in her eye that I found encouraging. My lord father's only stipulation was that I forego the use of the Redwyne name and denounce my hereditary claims to the title of Lord of Fulcestershire. I did it gladly.
The Ascension at the Tower
My acceptance as an apprentice at the Tower of High Sorcery was not without some debate. I had already engaged in magecraft while the laws of the king forbade such things. The high wizards had long since divined my real name and questioned my deception, especially in light of my descendance from Ulster the Black, as he was called by the Circle. Explanations were offered and my lady mother made a healthy donation to the Circle using gold from her dowry. This bought my education and the Circle's discretion about my identity. I started my study known just as Ethan of Fulcester and that suited me fine.
My progression was quick and I became the subject of much debate among the high wizards. While all applauded my aptitude some feared that the trajectory of my ascent was too steep. They argued that the knowledge I was quickly attaining, and the power that would accompany it, needed to be tempered by wisdom that could only come with age. Access to certain libraries was revoked, even though I had proven myself capable.
Progress had slowed to a tedium and I felt other apprentices catch up. I started rereading certain curricula, making sure I had not missed anything, and I began experimenting with formulae, expanding upon working theories, without the aid of the libraries that had been denied to me. My benefactors applauded me, the detractors claimed I was hungry for power.
A rumour started spreading among fellow apprentices that I was the reincarnation of Ulster the Black, set to destroy the Tower once I was done usurping all knowledge in their libraries. I denied all relations, maintained my adopted identity and tried to reassure the detractors among the high wizards, the only logical source of the rumours. I gave up around the same time I managed to form a special bond with a raven I called Blackwing.
To escape the accussations, I'd often go to the highest balcony of the Tower to read. It held the rookery of ravens used to send messages to the mundane agencies in the employ of the Circle. The wizard that cared for it, a grizzled, veteran conjurer, took a liking to me and helped me summon my first familiar.
Blackwing was magnificent and large, with feathers as black as midnight. Wherever I went the raven was not far behind. I taught him a few words at first, later whole sentences. I admit, Blackwing may not have done my reputation at the Tower any favours, but I didn't care because I had a plan.
Well over a year ahead of schedule, I managed to get the endorsements from the high wizards that I needed in order for me to take the final test. Aware that some of the high wizards that endorsed me didn't think I'd make it out alive, it left me unperturbed. The final test had claimed the lives of many aspirants, which is why most took the test late rather than early, but I knew I had prepared well.
I will admit this to you but to no other; at the time, I felt like I had little to lose. I had no family, no friends and the guardianship I had expected from the Circle had left wanting. My desire was to leave. Not to be sent away like I was sent from my home and the hightemple, but to leave a mage.
I wanted to be free to pursue my research without being suffocated by the Circle. My time at the Tower had been wonderous, it had given me direction. A few at the Circle I still hold in high esteem, but the rest were arrogant bureaucrats with delusions of importance who had taken a lifetime to do what I achieved in a decade. I found that politics ruled the Circle just like it had ruled my family.
I admit that my final test nearly ended me. While designed to test an aspirant's entire spectrum of knowledge and capabilities, curiously, my test had mostly prayed on my obvious physical shortcomings. It took months for me to recover. Whispers of Ulster the Black followed me until the day I departed. None of the usual celebrations were offered, just the congratulations of those who had supported me.
The Rest of My Life
And now I am a traveling scholar in search of knowledge, going where the ancient tomes and legends tell me to go. I am beholden to no man and live by the written rules of the laws and of magic, not the unwritten rules of courtesies and etiquette. I seek truth, not favour. I regard people on their merits, not their standing.
I occasionally write my family, and sometimes I even receive a response. My lady mother tells me she is well and that my lord father is too. My brother has written and I'm happy to hear he's taken to the best of both our parents. I never expected us to get along but we do. I promised that one day soon I would visit.
I seek others mages and exchange knowledge. The oldest magic is the strongest magic, so I listen to rumours of abandoned settlements and inspect their ruins, sifting through the detritus, decyphering old texts and interpreting rotting tapestries. I look for clues of hidden caches of knowledge, forgotten books and buried information.
I'm convinced that the well-trodden path leads to mediocrity. Modern mages focus on the same spells because they lack ambition and imagination. Because they use their gift for coin rather than knowledge. The mages that made a lasting contribution to the collective knowledge we possess were not counting coins or covetting a place at court.
When my coin runs low, I take work as a scribe. When I need to travel, I find a merchant to guard. When I find an inn for the night, I barter a bed and a meal for some simple entertainment. The more north I travel, the more rare my gift becomes and the more people will pay for my employ.
Getting further away from the nest of vipers that is my homeland I find myself happier. Life is simpler, people are simpler, their tongues are simpler, their worries and wants are simpler. With that simplicity comes a clarity of purpose that I never want to relinquish again.
Tonight, we finished another D&D campaign under the leadership of DTH, who really ramped up the challenge this time. I don't get to play very often, and of the few times I've been able to be a player over the last decade, I've rarely gotten as emotionally invested in a character as I've been with Leman, my warrior-priest. I built my character slowly and logically and I've enjoyed every step of the way.
The one thing that I've noticed with the third edition rules that we use, is that you level up more often than you do under the second edition rules that I've spent most of my D&D career using. Once every three or so session we seemed to level, which I thought was a bit much. It wasn't because of XP rewards that were too high, but rather that the amounts you needed to gather before climbing another level was much more evenly spaced. In second edition the XP targets per level were almost exponential, so it took longer and longer each level.
The sky above the battlefield was the colour of a violently churning ocean. Lightning licking along the belly of angry clouds overhead, thunder hungrily rumbling inside of them. The frozen ground was littered with the corpses of hundreds of men, now no more than fleshy bags of broken bones and entrails.
The haunting moans of a handful of survivors could be heard around him as Heron sifted through the detritus of the fight. Even though most of them were hardly recognisable now, he knew he must have known several and had probably fought along side some of them over the last couple of months. His company had parted ways with theirs only an hour before, heading south to Talagbar while they headed north to Palishuk. When a raven arrived bearing news of the ambush, Heron's commander had not hesitated to turn the company around and march north. They had arrived just in time to witness the last of the Damaran mercenaries being overrun, neither close enough to assist in their defense, nor eager enough to charge forth into the large warband of orks and ogres and the creature of leviathan proportions that had lead them into battle.
"I had heard stories of dragons, but this..." one of the fresh-faced recruits said to Heron, dragonfear stirring in his voice.
Despite being a veteran of countless campaigns, Heron had felt it, too. The sight of the dragon circling above the battlefield as they crested the hill felt like a kick to the stomach, complete with nausea and an overwhelming desire to sink to your knees and double over. Seconds later that nausea made way for a visceral need to put as much distance between yourself and the dragon. The fear, irrational and raw, afflicted all men without exception. The only difference between the men who gave into it and the men who didn't, was their ability to endure the fear rather than suffer it. It helped that the company was lead by a captain who commanded respect and knew how to inspire his men.
It was as white as early winter snow, its body lithe and as large as Damaran longship, with large leathery wings and a whiplike tail. Its vicious claws had left terrible gashes, tearing through armour and skin like paper. Its breath was icy and could freeze and shatter anyone caught in its path, and it had a cunning command of magical forces that could blast apart any opposition. For reasons that remained unclear, the dragon lead the warband further north and hadn't engaged Heron's company.
Heron disregarded the lad and continued searching for survivors. He noticed a concentration of dead orks surrounding a trio of dead humans who seemed to have fiercely defended themselves. The scene was a confusing one; several of the ork bodies were broken and crushed under a great weight and neither of the three defenders seemed capable of inflicting that type of damage. Upon closer inspection, it looked as if two of the men had been defending the third, who by the looks of the armour he wore was likely the company commander. One of the commander's guards was carrying a long sword and shield, while the other had been fighting with two short swords. The man with the shield had stood over their wounded commander...
Heron was slowly piecing together what must have happened.
"This must have been the last stand, where the last two soldiers had rallied around their commander," Heron said more to himself than to anyone else.
"I count fourteen orks and one ogre," he said while sifting through the bodies of the slain attackers. "But how come some of them are so pulverised? What happened here during the last few seconds?" he mused.
Heron ignored the young lad who had mistaken his musings as for an invitation to a dialog and made his way to the slain defender with the two swords. His body had numerous small injuries but was remarkably unscathed. Turning the corpse over, Heron was shocked to find it was almost frozen solid, with frost burns on its exposed skin.
"This one must have been caught by the dragon's frost breath," he said as he noticed the bodies of the fallen attackers close by had strong frost burn patterns, too. He walked back to the crushed bodies and finally realised what must have happened. "They had already been wounded or killed as the defenders made their last stand." He paused before continuing, "and the dragon must have landed right here, its large hind legs crushing these bodies here," he gestured. "It turned its head and belched fiery ice onto this defender and the attackers that surrounded him, leaving only two."
Heron walked over to where the last two defenders were laying. "The man with the sword and shield defending his commander," he said, now completely lost in the romantic imagery of this last stand. The lad walked with him and tried to keep as quiet as possible, not quite knowing what was happening or why this was important, but instinctively knowing it would be best not to disturb whatever it was that was happening.
Heron removed the dented kite shield that the defender had been carrying and revealed the gruesome wounds on his body. The defender's chain mail had been ripped to shreds by the dragon's vicious talons, his breeches were torn open and his leg lay mangled and bent underneath him at an awkward angle. Numerous smaller wounds dotted the young man's corpse and he had lost a lot of blood, even before he was killed.
The young lad started separating the body of the defender from the body of the commander underneath, mumbling something about returning the commander's body to camp but Heron didn't listen to him. The only thing he could hear was the roaring of the storm overhead and the potency of what was happening. With great care he unfolded the body of the last defender, removed the sword from his rigid grasp and placed the body on the large kite shield. Others had come to help the lad with the transport of the dead commander, but Heron was feverishly working to turn the shield into a rudimentary stretcher on which he could transport the man.
The lightning storm overhead had picked up in intensity and Heron started to make out patterns and signs in the lightning strikes and rumbling. When he was finally done tying the man down to the shield and latching the shield onto his belt so he could pull it behind him like a sled-dog the storm had started moving west and so Heron started walking. The soldiers he passed on his way off the battlefield asked him inconsequential questions that needed no answers. He had also finally heard His voice over the din of the thunder and he now knew the name of the man he was carrying off to be reborn into His service.