The Mystery of the Eye by Isolde Garibaldi
Karnivor last edited by Karnivor
A new, limited edition of Isolde Garibaldi's novel is published by the Bardic College printing press, for the benefit of new arrivals struggling to lay their hands on the sold out originals. The book's cover depicts what appears the author herself in the bottom left corner, outlined in full figured profile. She stands atop a city wall with her arm upstretched, dainty finger pointing skywards. Her blue silks and red hair contrast vividly against an otherwise murky scene, with indistinct masked figures skulking in the foothills of Peltarch and the jagged outlines of the Giantspires vaguely recognizable in the far distance.
An eerie glow outlines the details of the landscape, set off not by the setting sun but by a large hovering orange eye at the top right, leering menacingly down at the bardess. Black clouds drift across the burning sky, churning with faintly discernible tendrils against which the title of the book is spelled out in green, swirling letters:
The Mystery of the Eye
The book's spine is the same deep jade green with the title and author's name embossed in orange, framed on either side by a black half mask with a delicate swirling cloud pattern. The jade hue continues on to the back, where the dark clouds have thickened and coalesced into some great and sinister roiling haze. A myriad of faint green eyes seem to flicker amidst the thick gloom, alive with snaking black tendrils.
Depicted from the back, a group of adventurers are discernible in the foreground, heading deeper into the heart of darkness like beads upon a bright green string held by the small, hazy figure at the front. At the rear stand two more recognizable figures: the bardess, this time in soft dune-coloured leathers and a small skirt, alongside a shorter, slimmer companion, recognizable to those who know her as Roslyn Underhill. The halfling woman looks back at the viewer, a brightly shining golden trumpet set to her lips, banners flying with the silent sound of the charge.
One by one, like pearls on a string, we came tumbling out through the shimmering green veil of the portal, finding Horgrim's black-cowled figure chanting, our steadfast anchor to the prime, back to home and hearth and loved ones waiting. The ogre was visibly weary, relieved at our return though his glowing green eyes kept scanning for a smaller figure in our midst.
Aesso - the sparkling girl who chose to make an ogre her friend, who treated him like a person and cheerily strong-armed the rest of the adventuring band into accepting the starkly rational-minded mage who fit in nowhere else. Horgrim had done all this for Aesso.
But the girl who stepped out of the portal, last of all and with an awkward shuffle and confused expression - she was not Aesso.
Sarah Snow mumbled timidly, bewildered as she looked around to each and everyone of us without any sign of recognition: 'Where am I?'
The last that she remembers is crawling up in bed, in her simple inn room after that disasterous performance. She fell asleep and she dreamed - she had the strangest dreams… Sarah frowned now, rubbed at her eyes as though she had only just woken up, noticing Horgrim with startled apprehension.
I introduced them quickly and then let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding: at least she hadn't screamed - I think it might've broken Horgrim's heart if she had. The ogre mage gave Sarah a long stare, mumbled disappointedly and then turned abruptly away. With the briefest of farewells, he made his departure, teleporting off to brood on his loss.
And it 'is' a loss that the amazing, wonderful, willful and bubbly Aesso will never again walk in our midst, stir trouble and create marvellous, wildly creative and chaotically whimsical things. Aesso truly was Amazing - but she is never truly gone. Not while we still remember.
A miraculous gain however, a wonderous marvel that we hoped, but could never have counted on achieving, was rescuing Sarah Snow. 'Do you know Sarah Snow?', asked Aesso with a quivering sob in her throat, Silvia the Fey shaking her leafy head. She didn't know Sarah, no one did - but now, we've all been granted that opportunity.
Aesso wanted so badly to know who Sarah was, ached to remember, just as I ~know~ Sarah Snow yearned with all her heart to find out what she could really do, what she might show the world if she became all that she could be, through Beeble's deal. But the two can never meet, they're forever separate like two sides of the same coin.
I like that simile quite well, I think. I like to imagine that Aesso isn't lost - we've just flipped the coin because it's Sarah's turn to shine now, to make friends and stir up her own version of amazing, whatever that turns out to be. Heads and tails are both just as good, just as wonderful in their own right - only different. And at the center of the coin, within the metal that glues the two sides together, beats the same sweet, kind heart.
We set Sarah free from her most painful memory, cheered her on when the crowd was full of jeers and boos. And that's exactly what we need to keep doing now. Just like with Tristyn, pulling someone out of dire straits is not enough - to truly rescue a person in need, you have to keep being there for them.
It's not always about surviving the epic fights, but the stumbling blocks in our daily lives. To be offered a hand when life drags you down, a shoulder to cry on - that is as much of a rescue, of just as great importance as braving the proverbial dragon.
Perhaps the most important lesson I take with me from the story is this - the importance of kindness and care, of laughter and joy, friendship and love and all things bright and beautiful that not only enhance our lives, but actually build us up and makes us stronger. That, not strength in arms or might in magic, is what allowed us to do the impossible.
The Heart of Darkness
Past more apparitions, dread wraiths and visages rising, our tattered and exhausted party approached the core, each one amongst us seeming as reluctant and cautious. Blackened tendrils writhed and coiled around the trapped figure at the heart of the Dream Vestige, covering it completely now, swallowing it into darkness. The sky was dark aswell, the light all around us dimming. A sense of dread built inside me, crept in on cold feet, whispering and conspiring with weariness and doubt.
Why hadn't I seen the phantom menaces dredged from each of my party members minds? Was the worst yet to come, would my own fear be what ended us all? As these thoughts snaked across my mind's eye, I saw a figure ahead, outlined dimly against the violently churning tendrils eating away at the figure at the heart of darkness,
Stepping closer, I could tell she was female, roughly the same in height and build as me. No.. wait. A cold stab in my gut in realizing it - not just roughly, ~exactly~. Exactly like me, but twisted, darkened. The woman turned around, her eyes black pits of despair. Isolde, lost in the Living Nightmare and consumed, transformed by it. Scaly patches to her skin, strange protrusions deforming her face - I heard gasps and comments from behind, realizing they all saw this vestige of a woman clearly. Was she different to the other apparitions then?
She began to speak and with each word, my heart grew heavier. The Lost Isolde, resigned, stating she was no illusion, mirage or doomsday prediction of the future - rather, ~I~ was a memory, the painful memory of how it all came to pass - defeat, loss, disaster as the Dream Vestige tore free of its prison to wreak havoc on the world outside. Our world, lost to darkness. My sweet Nate…
My heart wrenched painfully and I saw, I saw that same pain reflected in the Lost Isolde's black eyes. 'He tried to find me', she said, 'but couldn't. He's lost too, walking this same nightmare, and never shall we meet again.'
I protested, but my words felt feeble, unconvincing though I tried to dig deep, to find that rebellious refusal within. 'We haven't lost yet - you wouldn't BE here if we weren't close!' I felt so cold though, so weary. This had been my fear all along, but I knew full well, I ~knew~ it wasn't unfounded. Was I but the memory, the foolish hope still burning before the darkness snuffed it out?
A warm hand in mine, squeezing my stiff fingers. Roslyn's stubborn face looking up, her voice full of certainty. 'Hey, Isolde - don't listen to that bitch. We're gonna feckin' WIN.'
I couldn't help but smile. Of all people here, Roslyn alone had never faltered, never hesitated to take the plunge. Not because she wasn't scared, not because she was blind to the danger - but because she knew precisely what she wanted. She was going to save Aesso, come hell or high water, and nothing would stand in her way. Not even my own doubts.
Lost Isolde gave a wan and bitter smile as though in echo. 'It's about to begin', she said with a cold, simple finality, moving off into the surrounding darkness as if she'd seen it a thousand times over.
Our party, ragged and worn, gathered near as though to draw strength from one another. The storm was about to break, we could all feel it and whatever was to come would decide not just our own fates, but that of untold souls on the prime.
The dark tendrils ate away at the central figure, consuming it entirely and around us, the darkness grew thicker, alive with leering, hateful eyes and sinister whispers. 'Failure..' I heard, gripping my bow tightly. 'Forever lost..'
The air felt heavy and dank, hard to breathe. Happy thoughts, Isolde... happy thoughts, but the darkness was oppressive, overwhelming and started reaching out to tear at us, assail us with blackened tendrils, tearing at life and limb, at sanity and hope.
My bow did nothing, axes aimed with the strongest of force seemed to glance off the beastial heart of darkness. Panic spread, we ran and we screamed, trying only to stay alive. I lost my cool repeatedly, flailed wildly around me, stumbled and fell and felt desperation rising like bile in my throat. No healing to offer anyone in their need, no songs left to rise from my torn throat... useless, useless!
Nngh! No! Happy... farking.. thoughts Isolde!
There was no time to think, but my own advice trickled slowly back to my conscious mind, nagged at the panic's edges. I discarded my bow, instead clutching Aesso's baton and tried, oh how I tried to cling to the joyous spirit it was made in. I rushed close to the core, swung the baton in a half-circle and tried, tried to make a gleaming rainbow. It flickered faintly, but the attempt bolstered a different type of fighting spirit.
Around me, hoarse cries of defiance, of whimsy and happy places forcibly summoned to this, the darkest of places: 'Woo, come on puppies and rainbows!' 'Hit it again, Isolde!' 'Want me to hit it with the D-club, Ros!?' 'No, a whole bag fulla dicks!'
I couldn't help but laugh now, a wholly inappropriate burst of giggles and swung the baton at the core anew, summoning not the D-bag but the hailstorm of colourful teddybears I'd assailed Beeble with before. It felt oddly fitting, and put me back into that gleeful, triumphant mood.
Roslyn switched to the trumpet, let the notes ring out in defiant cheer: 'DOOT! DOOT'
The dark mass of malice and snaking tendrils hissed, begun to shrink before our eyes. We'd known it, we all knew the way to weaken the Dream Vestige was though positive emotion, but to summon cheer in the heart of darkness, that had proven our greatest challenge.
Suddenly, our fighters struck true, the Vestige starting to take harm but everyone was so worn, so ragged. Would Gnarl manage his hardest swings, could Vander wring another desperate assault out of his hat? Did either have a single potion left between them?
I heard Ginger's voice call out in cheer, Leena too and Roslyn's horn blaring and bleeting like a strangled goat. We'd given it our all, given the others a fighting chance to... wait.
With a sudden rush of magic, a ripple and a roar, a shadowy dragon figure swooped down upon the Dream Vestige's inner core, tearing and clawing it apart. In a matter of seconds, the fight was won and we all stared in disbelief.
'A feckin' DRAGON! How crazy is that!?', cried Roslyn and started to laugh. I noticed a thin strand of green from the dragon's spiky back - Artemis! Wow, talk about playing his cards close to his chest, from nose-bleeding wobbly-kneed mage to THAT! I laughed too, hugged Roslyn and couldn't contain a little victory dance, while around us the nightmare was dying.
But with the strain, with the collapse, our tether was flickering alarmingly. We had to get out, and fast! Scrambling onto the dragon's back, Rasuil noticed something else, a shimmering figure rising from within the ruins of the central core. Honey hair and a colourful pink tunic, lifting his hand for a cheerful wave - it was Beeble Ravelzilch, unravelled at long last from the choke-hold of the Dream Vestige!
'Come with us!', we shouted, but the bard had no body left to return to. 'I can only come back through ~her~', he said, with fondness but no insistance. 'You changed my memories', Beeble continued with a thankful smile. 'I remember it differently now, I remember Duran taking my side'. Whatever came next seemed not to matter now, he seemed at peace, content with his tale's conclusion, should this be the end. But he could come with us, would if we insisted.
'I found her when she was very unhappy', said Beeble. 'We had FUN together, at least I think so.' And it's true, in one sense at least. Together, he and Sarah really were 'amazing'. I can't deny that, but that glimmer and shine came at a cost. Whoever Sarah Snow once was, whatever she could be, all on her own, that would be lost if Beeble returned.
She wouldn't be unhappy. She would be the Aesso we knew and loved, bubbly and effervescent and ~amazing~. But in my mind's eye I saw her, sobbing forlornly into Silvia's arms at the stream, wondering in that small and wavering voice - 'do you know Sarah Snow?'
'My starlight is only borrowed', said Aesso, soaring through the black void with her hand in mine. But who's to say Sarah Snow can't shine, given the right conditions - that she can't find meaning and happiness and a good life, yet? I saw Aesso crying, wondering what could have been, and decided it's Sarah's turn now.
But where was she? 'Oh, you'll see', said Beeble with a coy smile.
We waved goodbye to the still smiling bard, speeding back along the flickering green line on the back of the dragon until we came tumbling out of the Dream Vestige, back at the cage in the Dreamscape.
A secret panel gaped open in the now ruined prison lock, revealing hidden treasures of the Night Parade - and the secret journal of its last true member in Narfell. We gathered it all up and continued on foot, through the winding, ever-changing landscape, our tether thin as silk now, fraying at the edges. It took all of Artemis' strength to maintain it, Leena all but carrying the mage along.
But at last, there before us, glowing a vivid green - the portal! I ran the last stretch, reaching with my arms outstretched, diving for it like a swimmer to the surface on their last breath of air.
The Garden - Beeble Ravelzilch
A ragged and spell-spent party stepped slowly down the last available path, past more haunting apparitions. One such had taken the guise of an old friend of Vanderkaus, leaving the dwarven cleric's usually rock-solid composure shaken. Meanwhile, Artemis' hold on our tether became increasingly arduous to maintain, the sorceror's eyes straining and a thin trickle of blood coming from his nose. The added stress of confronting his own painful phantoms saw our life line flicker alarmingly, but Artemis gritted his teeth, clung on to the dreamjade tether and it held, somehow it still held.
Such a frail and vulerable thing, that thin green sliver of light, yet all our hopes rested so heavily upon it.
I pushed the treacherous quiver of fear away, focused all my will on the path ahead, certain we were getting near the core of it now, certain the soul we would find here could be none other than Beeble's own.
The garden was beautiful, at first - swaying grass and fragrant blossoms, a meandering pathway leading further in. But as we walked, the grass withered and died, the flowers wilted and shrivelled. The garden was dead, a twisted and dried-up husk of its former glory.
At the very back, we found him. The bard, with honey hair and once fancy clothing, now tattered and darkened by the nightmare's grip. His eyes were panicked and wild like an animal trapped, cornered and dangerous. A laugh bubbled forth, hysterical and shrill as he grasped twin blades, backing away from us as though thinking us foes, angry spirits sent to haunt him. A sudden flash-back to Tristyn, to his shattered hope and disbelief in his own rescue.
My heart wrenched painfully and I wanted so very much to soothe him, save him from the constant torture of the nightmare - but no sweet words would sway Beeble now, no lullaby calm his frantic fear. With an agonizing dirge rising from his lips, he attacked, wildly and savagely. I mustered my last song to counter the pain of his, tried to get close to repeat Roslyn's bold body tackle hug of earlier, but took sharp blades to my gut in close succession, reeling back.
We fought, we fought for our souls and his, and painful though it was, some small part of me takes a strange satisfaction in our party being so martially challenged by a single bard. When at last Beeble fell, the tendrils around his form became a nest, a grasping hive of darkness snaking all around us, pulling us down to his deepest fear, his saddest memory.
So dark, the scene that now unfolds before our eyes, so grim and relentless. I want to look away, but there's no escaping it, we're held in the memory with a grasp as firm as those of the two Night Parade's members, gripping the struggling, panicking Beeble Ravelzilch.
'NO!', he screams, thrashing wildly. 'I've changed my mind, I don't want to do this! Let me go, let me GO! Duran, HELP!'
A cage looms near, the dark and wailing nightmare visages of the Dream Vestige filling it entirely. The faces stare and leer, hungry, hateful.
I follow Beeble's pleading eyes to Duran, his best friend in all the world, standing a few steps back. His face is hard, set with determination, but his eyes betray concern. A masked Night Parade woman explains, with clinical detachment, the necessity of the experiment and Duran takes a deep breath, holding it for a second seeming frozen in time.
'Tell them to let me GO!', cries Beeble with his eyes fixed on Duran and I see it now, I see his heart breaking even through the fear and it's too much to bear, it's too much. The memory's more distant than Aesso's, firmer set, but none of us can just watch it unfold, doing nothing.
'~Please~!', I try, all my heart behind the desperate plea to Duran, 'please don't do this' while around me the others shout orders, words of discouragement, dire warnings of what's to come.
'There IS no coming back - you'll regret this to no end!'
You can't interact with another mortal's memories, Silvia's voice insists inside me - except that in dreams, anything is possible if you will it. This memory is old and set, the pain etched so deeply that it seems ingrained into the fabric of Beeble's altered being - but we try nonetheless.
Leena's voice rings out with passion and conviction, steely with will and Duran moves at last, tilts his head towards us. The determination on his face wavers, and while the scene fades to black around us too fast for a conclusion, I know it, I feel it in my heart - we've 'changed' something.
Returning to the garden, that conviction stayed, though the jubilant flame inside me found itself flickering, faltering at the sight of the ever darkening sky, the churning blackness of the core ahead. We'd changed something, but was it enough to make a difference for the better?
Was ~anything~ we did here ever going to be enough?
The Library - Duran Hemway
A large and spacious room, filled with countless bookshelves, row upon row of leather-bound tomes - it sounds a wizard's dream, doesn't it? But the library we stepped into was a broken dream, shelves knocked over, overturned in rage, books thrown to the ground, stomped upon and torn apart in frustration and despair.
All that carefully collected knowledge, discarded and destroyed.
At the far end of the ruins of the once-great library, we found a lonesome man, grim-faced and gaunt, his dark hair speckled with grey. The likeness to Garric Hemway immediately striking, and more so still, the bitterness etched on his sharp features.
Duran Hemway spoke of ambition, of the ceaseless, merciless craving for more knowledge, more power, a higher station in life. Where does it end? It's never enough, you keep reaching, grabbing at more no matter the cost. His tone was filled with self-loathing, with resentment boiling over into rage as he turned on us, unleashing his magic. A glowing mage's hand crushing, choking Rasuil who struggled in vain, Duran showing not the slightest shred of remorse, not the smallest sign of listening to our pleas and protests.
The dark tendrils wrapped around his form just as they had the performer's, but were thicker, more solidly rooted. He'd been here much longer, and I knew not the way to move his heart anymore than I'd ever managed with Garric. 'I know you loved him!', I shouted as I ran, as I slapped a wilting ranger with much needed healing from the crushing pressure of the hand, but to no avail. We had to fight, had to force ourselves through to the revelation of the painful memories beyond.
As the mage fell, defeated, the dark tendrils writhed and snared us, pulled us elsewhere. Duran, standing infront of Beeble Ravelzilch's cage, the three green gems shining in the control panel. 'I am sorry about this', he says, to the twitching, agitated eye within, 'but it's for your own good. We need to weaken the symbiotic link, and to do that I need to weaken 'it'.' Beeble rages, protesting: 'We killed them ALL! You're the damned Night Parade now, bud, so take the reigns and FIX IT!!'
The scene fades, changing around us.
A city skyline through the window, a Peltarch of olden days and Duran Hemway in his study, alone. Day and night flicker past, weeks, months and years stretch out before our eyes and the man in the study ages, his face harder for each passing year, his hair greyer. The books grow more numerous, the scrolls and tomes and scraps of parchment pile high, but hope dies in Duran's eyes.
Then suddenly he's gone, leaving behind a stillness laden with defeat.
Back amongst the smashed and broken bookshelves, I was left with that same sinking feeling in my gut, doubled at returning to the core of our living nightmare, darker still, an inky thunderstorm roiling and churning, starting to blot out the orange sky. What we were doing had effect - but was it the right effect? Had we in any way made a difference to Duran's soul, lost and eaten away at?
Perhaps, I told myself, he was simply too far gone, but in destroying the Dream Vestige, he too would find his torment ending. That much, we could do - 'had' to do, or our souls would be lost too.
The Inn - Sarah Snow
We walked into the inn, deserted but for the tortured halfling girl still lingering on the stage as though standing in the ruins of her fondest dreams. I tried to talk, to reach through to her, but in her pain and anger the performer lashed out at us. In the midst of the fighting though (and to a large extent not fighting so much as shouting words of endearment), Roslyn tackled the girl bodily to the floor, locked her in a close embrace.
I noticed then, the same dark tendrils as those latched onto the central figure in this realm were also wrapped around the performer - but they flickered now, writhed and burst out to latch on to all of us, dragging us through to a different scene, to the memory played and replayed to fuel the girl's anguish.
The inn, smoky and smelling of ale and urine, an angry and discontent din in the crowd. On the stage, flustered and faltering, so achingly alone, stands Sarah Snow, her hands shaking as she works the puppets of her show. A dragon and a knight, just wood and string barely clinging together.
'Booo! Get off the stage', shouts an audience member, while others jeer drunkenly. Sarah's composure is already hanging by a thread, and now her puppet breaks, driving her to the border of tears. Laughter, fingers pointed, more heckling - but we're ~there~, we're not silent witnesses in this scene!
'Wow, is that ~her~? THE Sarah Snow? She's going to be a star one day, mark my words', I remark loudly. 'Sarah, we love you!', shouts Ginger, while Leena bullies one of the loudest hecklers into submission. And it's working - the change is slow, not immediately perceptible but it 'is' working.
When the inn manager comes to usher the broken-hearted Sarah off the stage, we all protest. 'We've come a very long way, just to see her play', I insist with complete truthfulness. Roslyn starts the chant: 'Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!'
With a tenuous smile, Sarah Snow steps back onto the stage and the drunken audience fade out, flicker away until it's just us, seated before the stage to watch the puppets dance. Her smile grows wider and her tears dry - then there's a burst of white light, jubilant and pure, sweeping us along.
We were back at the deserted inn, but the performer was gone. There was no Sarah beside us, no Aesso either - but the white light blossomed inside me, telling me we saved her nonetheless, sent her off like a shooting star through the void towards salvation.
But when we returned to the central core, past another set of apparitions and wraiths, the tendrils were thicker, darker, churning and pulsing around the figure whose agony seemed doubled. The eye in the sky screamed soundlessly down, as we made our way towards our next destination - the library.
The Living Nightmare
A dizzying sense of falling, of drowning in darkness and despair before my senses returned to me, the world around taking something like solid form. A thick haze in the air, an oppressing gloom that kept visibility to no more than a few feet ahead into what appeared to be a barren landscape.
I was clinging on to something, a small, bony shoulder clad in soft leather. Sheepish, I looked down to find Roslyn smiling a wry, knowing smile, and somehow, even in that utterly alien and inhospitable place, things suddenly felt borderline normal.
Our group huddled close together like sheep far away from their shepard, with wolves all around. It seemed an act of collective will to get moving at all, but move we did, into the foggy gloom.
Ahead, a hazy flickering figure appeared, indistinct and unfamiliar except to Ginger, whose eyes grew wide. She stepped nearer, face paling as the figure spoke, hurtful and reproaching words. 'You're too late… always too late.'
Someone she had tried to help, someone she'd ~wanted~ so very much to help and couldn't? I wasn't sure, but knew that guilt, pain and sorrow would only feed our host. We tried to cheer her, rebuff the hurtful accusations, but the figure twitched and contorted as though dying, before flickering out. And in its stead rose angry spirits, wraiths which grasped and tore at our life force.
Another few steps, another apparition, vague and indistinguishable but to Sheserai's eyes, this one telling her she wasn't good enough for promotion, would 'never' be good enough, that her collegues laughed at her behind her back. Again the rest of us tried to drown out the negative words, but again sinister spirits rose to assail us afterwards.
'Don't listen to them, they're just illusions. It isn't real!', said someone in an attempt at reassurance. I held my tongue, thinking with a chilly edge cutting at my hope that it was just the opposite: 'everything' in here is real.
The shape our fears, our grievances and darkest memories take, that's dredged from our own subconcious, made palpable through the nature of the living nightmare. It's real because it lives in our minds - because in a place like this, our fear births all too real monsters.
Rasuil next, and for all his hardened cynicism at surface level, the elven words spoken by his apparition seemed to cut deep, his face twitching. Next Leena, a towering wolf figure appearing before her - a father's words of disappointment, denied but still stinging. A third and fourth fight in close succession leaving us ragged and worn, but ahead the scenery changed.
A clearing opened up amidst gnarled and twisted trees, long since devoid of life, three paths leading off in different directions from a central pillar with the most macabre sight: a humanoid figure hung there, entwined in shadowy tendrils obscuring its face, skin a sickly green. It twitched and writhed as though in pain, and everything around us, every root and clinging vine, it all seemed to lead back to that center, as though this entire world was anchored around the agonized figure.
Above our heads, the sky glowed a sinister orange, the enormous angry eye staring down at the ten pesky little ants determined to give it such an itch...
Glimpsing down each path gave us but a sketchy image of where it lead - a dingy inn, a library and a flowery garden. A heart-wrenching flashback to my previous dream; the brown-clad halfling girl with her faltering puppet show, the drunken jeering crowd - the inn, we'll definitely start with the inn!
Into the Dreamscape
One by one, we stepped through the shimmering portal and into a bewildering and ever changeable landscape beyond. As we began to move, following Leena's guidance, I looked back every so often to see the portal grow smaller and smaller, the tether from Artemis' belt pouch snaking back towards it like a thin umbilical cord of sheer green light. How fragile it looked, our only life line, how tenuous and thin, even just the shortest distance into our perilous journey.
We sang as we walked however, determined to keep spirits high, Roslyn tooting her golden horn in cheerful defiance.
The terrain grew murky, dark and foggy ahead, as we neared the treacherous borderland where dreams go to die, bleed into nightmares. Leena halted, suddenly hesitant, concerned we'd taken a wrong turn while around us, the air seemed to grow thick with menace. Blinking, leering eyes from the darkness, tendrils reaching out to wrap sinuously around unsuspecting ankles as we crossed a bridge.
Nightmare creatures, all around, reaching, clawing, grasping at life and limb - we fought, hacked and slashed and ran, frantically beating one wave back - but where was our true path? Were we lost, doomed to fail before we'd even gotten started? That lurking sense of menace growing again: something wicked this way comes, something hungry in the living shadows all around us…
'DOOT!', ran Roslyn's horn, a loud and off-key note of glaring gladness. I sensed the darkness twitch, recoiling slightly, and put my pointless bow aside to pick up my yarting instead. I struck up a plucky, fast-paced marching melody, Atel's dulcet voice humming cheerfully along and the nightmares retreated, hissing in protest. The air seemed suddenly easier to breathe, the light not quite so dim, and Leena found our path anew, reassured it was the right one.
There, up ahead! Suddenly a familiar rise, a sloping cave mouth leading up to the belly of the beast. Beeble Ravelzilch, twitching red, alarmed and upset at our sudden entrance to his prison's domain, gibbered behind the bars. 'What do you think you're DOING here!?'
'We've come to entertain you!', I said, continuing relentlessly against Beeble's sputtered disbelief: 'I have a gift, a song that's ~just~ for you.'
The angry eye quivered, rattling the bars in its rage as I struck up the beat, dancing, bouncing and shaking my bardic booty with as much taunting glee as I could summon. 'Violently Happy! Overemotional...'
One by one, the others chimed in, a mixture of defiance and joyous, gleeful rump-shaking moxy as the rythm spread: 'Violently Happy! I'm telling people to... jump off roofs with me..."
Beeble shook and thrashed, growing bigger, redder, angrier and more desperate, shrieking: 'Stop that, STOP IT!' I was sweating but in that sweet spot where the rythm's got you going, a bubbly burst of energy rushing through my veins as I danced, twirled and wriggled - and then it happened. In a rush, an angry roar, the eye stretched beyond cohesion, burst and dissolved into a giantic wispy cloud of darkness, a swarm of countless writhing, moaning faces within, staring and leering hatefully at us.
The cloud filled the entire cage, loomed omniously above us with such a palpable feeling of dread emanating from it that the dance petered out to the sounds of scattered and uncertain victory cheers. We'd done it! Yay...
A moment to collect ourselves while Artemis looked the prison's gem-set panel over. Alright Isolde... alright. We're 'not' going to release it, we're just going to bust the cage wide open to storm inside and fight from within. It's ~not~ going to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world to feast on the souls of mortals...
'DO IT! Release me, I'll devour you ALL!'.
Did I hear it, or was it just the dread in my heart made palable? The faces within the cage hissed hatefully, stared hungrily down.
Artemis too halted, a momentary pause before we all looked at each other. No one was backing down. A sense of wordless resolve seemed to grow, I could feel it, see it rising in the eyes of my party members. In for a penny, in for a pound. The metaphorical lever was pulled, Duran's prison came tumbling down and the dark cloud poured forth to consume us.
The Final Countdown
The day of the final reckoning, I woke from fitful slumber with a nest of butterflies whirling in my gut. Nate had tried to hide his concern, tried to distract me and make me laugh with our silly little pixie parade, as though to boost my cheer into an inpenetrable armour - but I could tell there was nothing he wanted quite so much as to make me stay. Or come with me.
My heart wrenched painfully at having to deny him both, and I kissed him goodbye but lightly, forcibly pushing away the notion that it might be for the very last time. He let go of my hand reluctantly and I stepped outside, leaving the warmth and shelter of the College behind me.
Artemis, Atel and Leena, albeit with some hesitation and no small amount of apprehension, had been swayed to our cause, awaiting at the Commons with Roslyn. Sheserai soon joined us, accepting the task at hand with an unquestioning ease that left me far more disconcerted than the reluctance of the first - she simply took my word for it being the right path. A horrific flashback, a haunting rememberance of Hen doing just the same, following my stupid advice to her death. No - no, this was different, I'd thought this one out! Hadn't I?
Garric Hemway turned up, as though summoned by my internal doubts, to berate the foolishness of our venture, to instill doubts in the others as to the sanity thereof. I'm not certain how he knew my decision had been made - was that crotchety old man ~spying~ on me? Regardless, his ill-mannered approach seemed only to strengthen the others resolve, and perhaps I should be grateful. Fists were balled and chins lifted: we'd prove that sour nay-sayer wrong!
Horgrim's deep barytone reverberated in my mind: 'It is time, bardess.' I fixed my smile a little firmer and lead the group off towards our rendez-vous point, Fort Fodel in the nearby foothills, still lush and green from Silvia the Fey's last visit there.
The group grew at the last moment, making my heart wrench all over again - did they realize the stakes, having missed the briefing? Could we in good conscience ask them to take this giant risk? I explained once more the lay-out of our plan, while Horgrim instructed Artemis to the specifics of maintaining the tether - a tether stretched ever more thin with the growing numbers of our group. But there's also strength in numbers.
Joining us now were the stout dwarves Gnarl and Vanderkaus, the intrepid Ginger and the wily scout Rasuil, making the group of delvers into the heart of darkness ten souls strong.
The plan, outlined step by step, was the following: Horgrim, by drawing on the dreamjade, would open a portal into the Dreamscape and maintain this throughout our endeavours. The large chunk of dreamjade would be our anchor to the prime, bound to the smaller piece, tucked into Artemis' belt pouch. Protecting him and maintaining the sanctity of this tether would be paramount to us ever returning home.
Leena, well versed in wandering the dreamscape, would function as our guide and once we got close enough, I felt confident we'd recognize the area surrounding Beeble's prison, tucked away in the murky inbetween of the Region of Dreams and the Plane of Nightmares.
Once there, I had concocted a rough plan to weaken Beeble enough that the guise of the eye would falter, revealing the true horror of the multiple visages lurking beneath. Just as Aesso had once intuited, bombarding the creature with happiness and joyous emotion was the key. I'd stressed to each and all the importance of a positive attitude, asked that they fix their respective happy places firmly in their minds, but I also had a specific song in mind to magnify and coordinate the individual efforts made.
We'd have to tear a hole in the prison to enter the Dream Vestige's nightmarish core, however. There would be no turning back, after this point, no safety harness to protect our own world should we fail, and whatever was to come inside was firmly in the realm of the unknown.
'Remember the Dream Vestige's weaknesses', said Horgrim. 'Remember also that they're both necromantic and nightmarish in nature.'
Find Aesso - rescue her and whoever else could still be saved, and destroy the Dream Vestige itself from within. Such was the plan, repeated now to the full team of ten as Horgrim began his dreamcasting, a shimmering portal in bright green materializing before us.
Karnivor last edited by Karnivor
Option Four - it exists, it really does, at least as a possibility!
I'm so excited, but let me start from the beginning here: I felt a gentle nudge, a knocking on the proverbial door of my mind as Horgrim Blackweave reached out to contact me. It turns out he's been mulling over what I told him last, and in his exile from the Witch and Seer, spent his time researching the matter more closely.
I met with the ogre mage in the foothills shortly after, bringing two warm plates of braised duck with me from the Mermaid - Horgrim had looked so sad and lonely up in the Giantspires, and I know he likes his poultry. He was suspicous at first, thinking I was trying to butter him up for something, but munched both ducks down with bone and all.
We had rather a marvellous conversation, Horgrim and I, and I can't help but feel like we reached an understanding despite our differences in mindset - I shared my findings, the secret behind Beeble Ravelzilch, Aesso's true aim with her performance, my dream of speaking to her in the void, the dreamjade, everything, and he nodded his big ogre head, contemplating it all with a solemn air.
Horgrim's deeper delving into the nature of the Dream Vestige fitted well into the story of Beeble's creation, he said, as such beings feed on emotion and bards are typically skilled in just that field, both understanding and manipulating emotions.
A Dream Vestige, in its essence, consists of the memories, dreams or nightmares of the despairing souls trapped within it, held together by a necromantic core or 'living nightmare'. It feeds off the emotions of the souls it has devoured, fuelling their malice towards one another, towards themselves and ultimately the outside world. The Dream Vestige can, chillingly enough, pass through, back and forth from the material plane and that of dreams, at will.
Horgrim, in learning of the weakening state of the current cage Beeble's in, offered his help with option number two - if we so desire, he can construct a permanent prison for Beeble Ravelzilch within the dreamjade, provided we first defeat the eye and render it sufficiently vunerable.
However, to my great surprise, this is not the solution the ogre favours. Instead, my own 'dream solution' seemed to resonate within him, despite him stating many times over that it was very dangerous, nigh impossible and completely unheard of succeeding.
Option number four, as outlined by Horgrim, requires heavy dreamcasting and a powerful group of strong-willed individuals with a keen understanding of emotionality. Such a group could theoretically enter the core of the Dream Vestige, allowing themselves to be consumed by it, physically and mentally, to attempt to traverse its nightmarish realm and find the soul or sentience they sought to rescue.
The group would be in grave danger, exposed to the living nightmare consisting of all the nightmares of those the Dream Vestige had consumed - much different, he insisted, to a regular or even a lucid dream. Getting inside would not be too difficult, surviving on the other hand… and getting out? No one has ever managed that, as far as Horgrim knows. However, he believes he can use the dreamjade as a form of tether, a life line to the prime material.
The risk is great, I can't deny that. Not only do we risk dying, but in being consumed we might fuel Beeble's powers enough to unleash him on the prime. The Hemways are surely first in line for his ire if that happens, and I can't say I blame Garric for insisting on his three courses of action being the only acceptable ones.
But sensible, cautious, orderly Horgrim... he wants to try the risky path, for Aesso. I saw a light in his eyes rekindled when he realized there was a chance, and for the first time ever, he expressed regret for not allowing her the red gem for a complete performance. But he couldn't have known - none of us could. It's more than enough for me that he wants to help now.
Less helpful and more vengeful was the second of Aesso's old troupe, who turned up shortly afterwards. Silvia the Fey, hot in persuit of Horgrim to avenge her forest. While I could not persuade her to bury the hatchet, she did agree to postpone making Horgrim face 'justice' until we've dealt with Beeble Ravelzilch, one way or the other, and bid me be wary that there is a balance to all things.
She told me a story of the first nightmare experienced by the first mortal on the prime, and the creature who ate it - Dendar, a terrifying Primordial also known as the Eater of the World, the Night Serpent, Nidhogg - and in some parts, albeit erroneously, the Mother of the Night Parade. Horrid though Dendar is, if she did not exist, the world would be flooded with nightmares and every mortal would remember every one of them...
Silvia dismissed my encounter with Aesso as impossible, just like Garric had, and with the same exact reasoning. A mortal simply cannot interact with the memories of another, it must be a figment of the dreamjade - but then you can't interact with it at all. But Horgrim admitted there were things about my experience which defies what is known - Horgrim, the ever logical, willing to take a leap of faith with me.
Is it possible that both he and I simply wish it to be true - is Beeble manipulating Aesso's memories and my dreams to this result, luring me into 'his' realm to finish a percieved threat off? Honestly, yes. It's possible.
In the end, with Beeble's alterations defying the norm and pushing the boundaries of knowledge, it comes down to feeling, belief. I'd stake my life on that Aesso's still alive, still within salvation's reach - but will the others take my word for it, with no definitive proof? And knowing the risk of collateral damage if we fail, is it really the right course of action?
I want it to be. But I can't make this decision alone.
Roslyn, bless her big bold heart, tipped the scale of indecision for me. I laid out the options, emphasizing the risks and the uncertainty, but she had no hesitation whatsoever. If there's even the slightest chance of rescuing Aesso, then we have to take it, she said, plain and simple. If both Roslyn and Horgrim, some of the brightest people I know, are willing to take this chance too, then I refuse to dismiss it as impossible, naive or foolish.
Yes, it's a choice of the heart, for all three of us, but I can't help but feel that even were it not for Aesso, this would be the right, the ~good~ thing to do. We'll attempt to separate the good from the bad, reclaim the light lost to darkness, save rather than just smite - what cause could be better? How many times haven't I wished for just that, pouring over Chirade's journal, seeing the damage done to that man spread and multiply to others?
My happy ending involves more than just defeating the villain, more than dealing death or justice - it involves helping ~save~ someone. Perhaps even the one we might think of as the villain.
Beeble Ravelzilch, the bard sent into the Dream Vestige, he was no villain. Duran Hemway, whilst driven by relentless ambition, was no villain either. And Aesso… she just wanted to show everyone that secret world inside her head.
None of them are villains, yet all of them are lost and condemned to suffer unless we have the heart and the guts to do something about it.
Garric Hemway isn't going to like it - in fact, he's already accused me of going behind his back with the dreamjade, as if I was working for him, as if I had agreed to any sort of cooperation beyond the voluntary. I promised his wife to find him, and I did. I promised him that we'd stop Beeble Ravelzilch, and that's precisely what we're going to do. 'I'd much prefer that you kill the creature', said Garric, and we will.
But we'll do it from the 'inside', tearing soul after soul loose for salvation. The course is set now and while I still harbour doubts and fears, I can't allow myself to listen to any of them. Not if this is going to have any chance of success.
Happy thoughts, Isolde! Relentlessly cheerful optimism in the face of adversity is the way to go, and who knows? Between Roslyn and I, it might even be contageous enough to get us more backup.
A party consisting of myself, Roslyn, Ginger, Gnarl, Grorg, Vanderkaus, Arnie and Artemis were teleported far off into the Giantspires by Talbot's man Jean Taschereau (Mr Purple Muttonchops) to seek out the last location on Tristyn's map of old Night Parade haunts. Once on scene, the wily scout Rasuil popped out from behind a rock, having been out on a recon mission of his own.
We teamed up, Rasuil directing us towards a lesser known trail leading higher into the mountains - but not before we were spotted by a veritable avalanche of angry ogres, assailing us with the brutest of force. It got very sweaty, very fast, but once we were on the hidden trail, the ogres territory lay behind us.
Instead, snow goblins. Yes, 'those' snowgoblins, and as luck would have it, we ran across their chief and negotiated safe passage through a collective offering of shinies. One of the little wretches mooned Ginger as they all stood and watched us from up on the snowy ledges, however… I rather doubt we can keep the peace for much longer, but was thankful for the lack of exhaustive fights after the ogre ambushes.
After many uphill climbs, with legs beginning to burn from wading through snow, we came across what seemed at first a set of menhir stones. Vanderkaus halted, his canny stone senses telling him something about these stones was different, and he was right. Looking closer, I could tell there were runes on the inside of the stones, and stepped within for a closer look.
Yes! Yes, these were relevant.. these most definitely were Night Parade symbols or relating to Beeble directly, even: an eye with tendrils writhing out from it, an eye within three swirling clouds (the same as the tattoo on lady Whitedune's shoulder) and an eye within a full circle. As I studied the runes, my mask seemed to glow slightly around the eyes. I noticed marks beneath the runes themselves, a chronology of sorts, and pressed the eye symbols from tendrils to clouds and circle.
At first, nothing... then a rumble and a flash as the illusion shielding the tower's entrance gave way. Before us, set into the very side of the mountain, was a large and heavy double gate, closed and without discernible handles or locks. Artemis and Roslyn began to study it from their respective fields of expertise, and determined that the door had two hand-sized openings with a set of gears and levers within, but magically speaking, also held a surprise of some sort. Trying to open it might summon trouble, Artemis cautioned, but through it we must.
Brave, dear Roslyn - knowing the risk was there, but not of what sort, she slipped her hands within the openings and began to manipulate and fiddle with the controls - but as she did so, two things happened simultaneously. The slots closed around her arms, trapping her, while monsterous beings began to pour forth from, I can only assume, the plane of Nightmares.
Hideous and terrifying things, all tentacles, eyeballs and writhing limbs, spidery things giggling eerily like children - they shimmered into being around us in increasing numbers, and while there was little room for anyone to run on that narrow snowy ledge, there was no escape at all for Roslyn, mercilessly caught by the metal vices of the door.
Just then, my spells flickered and faded, and every monsterous thing in sight seemed to hit true. I tried to stay firm and shield Roslyn, but almost died in the process, tumbling back towards the edge of the cliff. Vander, ah trusty Vander, he kept her whole while Artemis hid her under invisibility's comforting cloak - meanwhile, Ros' clever fingers found the right switches, levers and mechanisms to finally open the door. But ~sheesh~!
Within, a vast and darkened room, the floor littered with traps. While Roslyn went about collecting them, Rasuil spotted a thin sliver of daylight coming from the walls, a waivering horizontal line traversing the black space. There were also a set of mirrors strewn about the room, the purpose of which was unclear at first.
The light, contrary to nervous belief, was not a magical tripwire, but had a distinct purpose nonetheless. It turned out that the key to progressing through to the tower's different rooms was through the mirrors, or rather a specific mirror. We needed to get the light reflected there from the others, in order to activate its magic, but how?
The first ray of light seemed to hit nothing but a pile of rocks - but as Rasuil studied these closely, he found boot prints nearby. Looking closer still, it was revealed that the rocks were illusion, and behind that, a mirror! From this, the light zig-zagged 'nearly' all across the room.
At the last intersection before the key mirror stood a wall. It seemed solid enough, but the light hit it and would not go further. Nearby stood a similar wall, five paintings hung there, depicting scenes seemingly related to the Night Parade - but they hung in no apparant order.
A group of humanoid figures against a pitch-black background, surrounded by snaking tendrils and faintly glowing eyes, followed by a single person starkly outlined against a giant explosion in white and blue, buildings collapsing all around him. The black background again, with a multitude of masked men, followed by a painting of a prosperous and beautiful city, hovering on a rocky isle in the sky. A picture of robed men fleeing explosions, rushing into a shimmering portal, lastly.
Netheril, Karsus' folly... and the exodus to the Region of Dreams, the plane of Nightmares. This was the story of the birth of the Night Parade! On closer inspection, the wall barring the light had little notches set into them - five notches, to hang the paintings on in the right order. Once rearranged thusly, the wall shimmered and dissipated, the paintings reappearing on the original screen wall. And behind, a mirror!
A mirror much like the one we needed, but it was blocked by a huge and incredibly menacing statue of a stone dragon. Two levers sat opposite one another on either side of it, and pulling these set off - or halted, a timer.
'1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10' - thinking back, this could be the answer to Tristyn's mysterious code found in his apartment... though at the time, all I could think about was the dreadful notion of the stone dragon awakening to eat us all. It ~was~ very big, and in its claws, it held a watch reminiscent of the Hemway masquerades pocketwatch. In dread, we kept resetting the timer as it ticked down to 0, yet in the end that's what it took to proceed.
And the dragon... contrary to my worst fears, did not awake, did not attack. It shimmered like the wall had done, and then faded out entirely. The light hit the mirror behind it and travelled all the way to the last one, triggering the magic within, revealing it as a teleportation device of sorts.
Levers with different settings were placed on consoles by the mirror, and manipulating these showed us three different rooms: a library, seemingly empty, a large and equally deserted room with four glowing orbs set around a marble slated floor and finally a room with a distinct dark green gem within, guarded by several robed and masked figures.
The dreamjade, the Finhunds! Excited, we tried to set course directly there, only to find a distortion in the magic, a protective scramble that required a password to clear.
When in search of information, please visit your friendly neighbourhood library.
We set the course and once the library shimmered into view, found we could walk ~through~ the mirror to enter. But oh my gosh... we were decidedly not first on that scene, the place trashed and most, if not all books burnt and torn. A few barely ledgible scraps read: 'Remember to take all the dreamjade stored... leave nothing behind... ' along with bla bla about obeying orders. Gnarl found a partially readable tome detailing the progress of the Night Parade's work in Narfell. '...more and more of us are beginning to lucid dream...' it said, mentioning needing to monitor this closely due to other cells rather unfortunate fates.
I, on the other hand, fared not so well in opening my first book - sigils within began to glow, and out popped a hulking minotaur with a greataxe that nearly cleaved me in twain! Oh my gosh, reading isn't supposed to be ~that~ exciting! Clearly some books within the library were traps or 'guardian' tomes, but others, like Gnarls, held potentially insightful information.
We kept looking, but warily now. Rasuil and Gnarl suddenly shouted, they'd found something, a hidden lever in one of the shelves, and tugging it caused the whole thing to slide aside, revealing a small box, seemingly untouched by the trashing party. Inside was a small piece of dreamjade, dark green and darker yet towards its heart. Huzzah!
Could it be that this was supposed to fit somewhere in the room with the glowing orbs, perhaps? We went to try this next, but ahhh... not before curiosity and, I would argue, an aching for knowledge made one of our number open up another tome.
Errm... so maybe I was the one pushing the issue, and maybe I should be ~really~ grateful that Artemis insisted it ought at least be Vander and not me who opened the book, because out popped a massive iron construct! It was huge, and SO tough! Vander held it back while the rest of us scurried like rats off a sinking ship, rushing to the mirror and all but diving out of it - then waiting, breaths baited, as an increasingly bloodied dwarf backed towards the exit with the construct still assailing him.
Please live, Vander.. ~please~!
Near death's door, the stout priest staggered out and Artemis flipped the switch as fast as he could. The mirror's doorway closed, the construct's vicious metal arm sheared off in the process. Paahhhh-ew!
Note to self, Isolde: curiosity killed the cat.
The room with the glowing orbs, that's when it got really interesting however, and the pains of the library of death soon faded out. Near the marble floor, the orbs set into each corner of the square, sat a large flat hand, outstretched and with a gem-sized socket set into it.
This must be where the dreamjade was supposed to go, surely! Artemis, being our appointed expert in the arcane, took to the task of finding out. The gem slotted in neatly, and the orbs began to activate, glyphs appearing over the hand. The dreamjade stores memories... and the device was a projector of sorts, allowing access and viewing of just that.
It took considerable skill and focus to work the device though, our frail arcanist increasingly pained as he delved through the memory banks of the stone, deeper and deeper.
The first scene, displayed in green light, showed the image of a mage bearing a clear family resemblance to Garric Hemway. Around him floated a gibbering, twitching orb, the two of them in heated conversation. Duran, as it assuredly was, looking apologetic one moment and angered in the next.
'The side-effects are not your concern, they're mine. You just keep inspiring me and making sure I can sleep at night, and we'll see this through', he said. Beeble, obviously upset and agitated, responded: 'That's not the DEAL! The deal is you FIX ME! This is ON YOU! If you don't FIX ME, I'm going to make you regret it! You and everyone else in your family!' Duran replied: 'Will you relax? Keep up your end and I'll keep up mine. Now's not the time to lose our heads.' Beeble screeching: 'I DON'T EVEN HAVE A HEAD!' before the green light flickered out, the memory fading.
Next scene, still on the surface layers of the dreamjade, displayed the following scene: Duran Hemway, standing infront of a magical cage with a writhing, horrific Dream Vestige caught inside, the swirling dark cloud with the multitude of screaming, agonized faces and voices within. He speaks, as if making mental notes: 'We've captured another, similar to before... Beeble grows more desperate, needier and frantic. Could compromise everything in a panic.' He leaned in towards the cage, musing at one of the tormented faces inside the cloud: 'I wonder if it's possible to get one of you out...'
Pushing deeper into the stone's stored memories, Artemis began to struggle, strained and pale, blood dripping from his nose. I sang to help him focus, but we could all see the cost of using this magic. The scene that followed though.... that really chilled my heart.
Duran Hemway and a cheerful, bouncily energetic man stand next to another cage, with another Dream Vestige inside, this one looking a little different from the last. The two are discussing something, the gist of it going something like this:
Duran: 'The procedure shouldn't be too risky and it'll bring us closer to our predecessors original habitat...'
Cheerful man: 'Yeah yeah yeah, I trust you completely, bub!'
Duran: 'According to our calculations, we should be able to reverse it after you've gleaned all that there's to know on the inside... I wouldn't ask this if it wasn't absolutely necessary... These creatures feed on emotion and we need someone who understands that on an arcane, innate, personal level.'
Someone like a bard.. someone like whoever it was that became Beeble, at Duran's request. Oh my gods... he sent someone ~inside~ the cloud, and not just that, someone who liked and trusted him. And reversing it proved impossible...
Deeper still, accessing memories long since hidden. Artemis crying out in pain, all but collapsing over the stone and knitting his eyes shut. Blood drips onto the marble surface, but he soldiers on somehow, and the following scene comes to life before us:
Duran Hemway and the same bard, youthful now, relaxed and happily laid back on a hillside, sharing a mug of mead in the sun. The summer's lush green grass and flowers all around, bowing gently in the breeze as they speak of their dreams and ambitions, before any darkness crept into their lives, before the Night Parade, before Duran and Beeble. 'Why choose a stage name like Ravelzilch?', asked the young mage, smiling, teasing, and the bard explained, enthused, countering: 'If you were to pick a name for yourself, what would it be then?' The mage mused: 'Something with D, I think... I like that letter.' Grinning and nudging him, the bard replies 'Yeah, you WOULD like the letter D!' and laughs uproarishly, the mage joining in.
They were friends, once. Close friends... lovers even? There was an intimacy to that scene, a privacy that tightened my throat, clenched my heart painfully. No wonder Duran couldn't kill Beeble, it was SO much more than just a 'soft spot'!
One last dark glimmering memory remains, but Artemis is in a bad way now, white as a sheet, drained from the increasing strain on body and mind. But determined, gathering himself for one last go:
Hesitantly, waivering momentarily, the green light flickers into view and we see a young Duran, somewhere between boy and man, with his peppy friend beside him. 'Just you wait and see, I'm not going to be a nobody! I'm going to be a lord, build a house for myself, get rich and respected', Duran said, to the hearty laughter of his friend. The bard - for I cannot bring myself to call him Beeble when still a hopeful boy with all of his life yet to live, had no such desires, he assured his friend. 'But I know you have ambitions, come on! What is it you dream of?', asked the boy who would be Duran. The bard smiles, a glorious and bright smile, replying simply: 'I'm going to be ~amazing~..'
How much of the girl we knew and loved was Sarah Snow, and how much was Beeble? Is it possible now to do what Duran pondered and separate the faces in the cloud - to tear individual souls loose to freedom? What if... what if Aesso, Duran, the bard who became Beeble Ravelzilch, what if we could unravel each one from the angry, necromantic essence they're bound within - what if we could manage to not cage Beeble and not kill him, but to ~fix him~. Like he was promised, like Duran must've tried to?
What if we could save not only Aesso, but all the lost souls?
All these questions in my head, pushed back for the necessity of what we had yet to do - get to the last room, get the dreamjade and defeat the Finhunds. But how? What was the password?
We could return to the library to seek more information... but no one, least of all me, wanted to try that. Instead, we stood infront of the mirror, trying to base our guesses on the things we had just learnt. A smaller group now, none of our dwarves, no Grorg and no Rasuil either. But we couldn't call it quits now. Not if we wanted any options other than repairing the prison available to us.
'Ravelzilch' was tried, then several other guesses in the same vein until I spoke the word that was still echoing inside my head, laden with so much conflicted emotion and meaning: 'amazing'.
The image in the mirror shimmered, then cleared, liquified - the door was open and the Finhunds on the other side noticed. But remained in place, watching us closely. Strange, they don't seem alarmed, don't seem to be preparing... and thankfully sharper eyes than mine noticed why - a set of magical traps, just past the mirror's first few steps on the other side.
I didn't learn that Dispel song for nothing, though! I formed the words, felt the shape of the spell, its rythm and beauty so clearly, and released it. The wards dissolved, it was magnificent and it was all I could do to restrain myself from a little victory dance on the spot! No time for that now, the Finhunds were finally on their feet.
We prepared ourselves and dashed through the mirror to the fight, with only a moment's brief pause for the bla bla what do you think you're doing kill them all threat speech from Lord Finhund, then swords flashed and spells flew! Despite being several men short of our original party by now, we won, much thanks to Ginger and Artemis clever targeting of the spellcasting Lord Finhund.
Who, as you can guess, twitched and gibbered soon afterwards as Beeble took possession anew, angrier than ever, claiming he felt sick of late and demanding to know what we had done - clearly, the dreamcatchers are working! 'This one's useless!', he screeched, and proceeded to make Finhund try and bite his own tongue off. We stopped him, just barely, and dragged the lot of them outside along with their stashed goods and - not to forget - a hefty lumb of dark green, unspoilt dreamjade!
Success, but so much thinking to do now. Choices to make, and knowledge to arm ourselves with for what's to come.
The Meddlesome Mister Anderson
That did ~not~ start well - whilst plotting and planning our next move at the Commons, two of Talbot's goons approached myself, Roslyn and Atel. The latter was pointed out, after much hushed mumbling between the two, who then proceeded to go ahead and arrest her on the spot - not being guards, not having a shred of evidence or any clear accusation. It sounded very much as if they were making things up on the spot, and I grew absolutely livid.
A remarkably calm and collected Atel followed willingly, but Roslyn, myself, Grorg and Gnarl trailed after, full of questions and on my part, much ire. As they patted her down, it became apparant the two bozos suffered the miscomprehension that she was Aesso and wouldn't listen to anyone's claims otherwise.
They said they were going to keep her in there for a week, pending questioning, and I just wasn't going to stand for it. Talbot thinks we'll let him take a single shred of credit for our work while mistreating us so? He's got another thing coming!
Furious, I stomped off to City Hall to find him, Roslyn doing her best to calm me down along the way. But I was burning up inside - is this what paladins feel in their righteous rage? I was definitely ready to smite and blackmailed the poor Herald terribly with threats of the language teachers continued lectures on the proper use of the semi-colon, until he agreed to look the other way as we continued downstairs - downstairs, where Talbot and General Del'Rosa were meeting.
I could hear them speaking as we approached the grates of the door, a tense and borderline angry discussion, but hesitated not a second in hollering. 'TALBOT!'
To the General, I explained that Talbot's underlings had thrown the very person assisting myself and Roslyn in Tristyn's capture in jail, and asked snippily if this is how the city repays its citizens for their voluntary assistance. Del'Rosa was displeased - at the interruption, then the revelation that Talbot's people were playing guards again, and finally at the wrong person being behind bars. 'Fix it', he snapped to Talbot and left.
I could sense my bridges burning as Talbot locked those cold, harsh eyes on mine, but I wouldn't stop, couldn't if I'd wanted to. While not apologizing in any way, he made it out to be his men's mistake, but I'm not so sure. Roslyn suspects he wanted to put the squeeze on us to let his regiment in on the coming search for the dreamjade, though if that's true, I think he underestimated the lengths we'd go to in busting Atel out.
A short time later, Talbot Anderson's heavy boots echoed through the jail. He inspected Atel briefly, gave his goons a hefty dose of sewer patrolling and let her out. He was just about to leave when I halted him, again. I could tell I was pushing it, he was very much on the not pleased side of things now, but I insisted. 'If you want your regiment anywhere ~near~ Tristyn's map location, you'll let me give him this. And he's to keep it, understood?'
Ultimatums and demands, so not popular with Mister T, but I knew I had something he wanted to lay claim to and damnit if I wasn't going to use it. He'd probably have forced the issue else, or lied about his company's involvement. This way, I could help someone who might not have deserved it, but definitely needed it. I wanted very much to help Tristyn, and in some small way put a stop to the corrosive damage Chirade had done.
As I hung the dreamcatcher around his neck, a grateful Tristyn confided, weariness etched deeply on his face, that he knew more of the Night Parade's mask and amulet than he'd said before, for having helped Garric researching the family heirlooms. The mask, the one I'm now wearing, can let you 'see' things, as well as hide. The amulet around Roslyn's neck, it allows one to hide things, temporarily. Just how one does these things, he could not say. There must be a knack to it, perhaps something intuitive rather than explicable through verbal instruction alone.
Outside the jail, a group of adventurers had gathered upon hearing of Atel's predicament, enough in numbers and prowess that Roslyn and I felt confident in taking the next step towards defeating Beeble Ravelzilch - aquiring the dreamjade from the last unexplored haunt of the Night Parade.
Garric Hemway is now resting, without orange dreams tormenting him, in his own bed in Peltarch. Roslyn and I managed to get an able party together for the effort, consisting of Ginger, Rasuil, Belia, Gnarl and Nuwairah besides the pair of us, and though not without significant danger and spilling of blood, both our own and that of House Finhund, we found the cave, traversed its traps and puzzles and got Garric out unscathed.
The aid of the snowgoblin tribe we'd ran into previously saw our path considerably shortened through the dangerous ogre territories, though Ginger twitched a bit, looking very much inclined to murder the lot of them regardless. Still, everyone kept their focus, kept their cool and stayed alive throughout, despite the Finhund crew's considerably augmented power through Beeble's dubious blessings.
Nuwairah's apparantly the grand prize winner of the masquerade (oh yes, admit the sour grapes feeling Isolde, then let it go!) and used the clock to halt time itself when the Finhund enchantress held the sleeping Garric Hemway at swordpoint. This, coupled with Rasuil's rather frighteningly potent mask of desire, saw the woman completely disabled, though again Beeble manifested itself in angry orange possession afterwards, screaming and twitching irately.
I do believe we're ticking the evil eye off in increasing degree, and this, at least, is a win that feels entirely like one. I feel like we're finally catching up, but have to stay running to make good on our advances. Dreamcatchers, pamphlet.. get those out, cut off more 'food' for Beeble and then deal with the last remnants of House Finhund. Get the green gem, and ~then~ we can turn our attention and the sharp finger of blame where it's most decidedly due.
Dreamcatchers - the how-to-guide according to Elaliel Mooncloud, priestess of Sehanine Moonbow, the Lady of Dreams, include the following elements: a circular frame with a net or web of string within, feathers, pixie dust and prayers. The better quality of components the better, but most importantly, pixie dust!
Rude did an ~extremely~ embarrassing hip-thrusting dance infront of said priestess, though luckily she found it nothing but amusing, gathering up the dust debris and promising to provide the necessary prayers if we got her the catchers themselves and the pixie dust. Veeery keen on the pixie dust…
So - the better the quality of armour, the safer we shall all sleep and the lesser will our evil eye grow. I spent the entirety of lady Hemway's reward for Garric's return and then some on purchasing the finest stuff to work with: ash and balsa wood, avariel feathers, beads of moonstone, amethys and crystal, elven-twined silk string in a light silver hue - all that, but three helping apprentices who spend 90 % of their time doing everything but making dream catchers.
Vanoogle totally trashed the lounge, and even after Ros and I spent all evening cleaning up, the place looks like a war zone, plaster and pieces of wood panelling blasted right off the walls. Meanwhile Sprocket steals avariel feathers for his girlfriend and Olil sighs in brooding melancholy, tying nothing but raven feathers in her dreamcatchers, and Jessica Hemway screeches about how much trouble I'm in.
Which, for once, is actually true. Not that it was MY fault! I should've known to supervise them though, if there's one thing bards never do, it's follow directions.
But I'll have to leave them to their own devices again, because that pixie dust isn't going to collect itself. I'm hitting Rude's old glen to see if maybe they'll be a) happy to see him or b) thankful that I took him away. Either works, but just in case, I'm preparing a song as a bribe and/or rythm-making enticement.
Needs to be a properly peppy one...
Pixie dust: CHECK! About a thousand dreamcatchers and counting: CHECK! Vanoogle, Sprocket and Olil, once they finally started working together, came up with the most brilliant method of manufacturing the things. I mean seriously, brilliant! It's worth the hours of manual labour and the scolding by mister Blue-tot, for sure!
So, just need to get Elaliel's blessings set in place, then these babies are ready to be handed out. Woo!
Once we've covered the home base, as best I can think of anyway, we can turn our attention to a more dangerous but pressing matter - the last dot on Tristyn's map, the last unchartered location of the Night Parade's old haunts. That's where we'll find the rest of the hounding Finhunds, and with any luck, a big ol' chunk of dark green stone, the like of which was ruined in the mages tower.
Garric Hemway, stubbornly up on his feet way before Monty would've liked him to (I overheard arguing in the hallway), told us just what that stone really is - dream jade, a rare mineral which holds many unusual properties. It's the stuff Aesso's gem was made of, and while Horgrim described some of its magic already, that was only the half of it.
'Tell me', he asked me with a shrewd look in his eyes, 'have you felt that you've been walking in someone else's shoes of late? Looking over their shoulders, in a sense?'
Aesso. In every dream, Aesso, seeing through her eyes, feeling what she felt. 'That instrument of hers, did you do anything with it - was she the only one to play it?'
I sat astride it, guiding and directing the rod's motions in pixie form while Jonni held it, wringing the last of its failing magic out to get us home. Garric spoke of transference, that the dream jade not only functioned somewhat as a spell crystal, but could also retain memories, dreams, as well as power dreamcasting, enabling skilled spellcasters to open portals to the Region of Dreams and the plane of Nightmares.
'Beeble Ravelzilch is a parasite', Garric went on to say. 'He needs a host, and once that host dies, he consumes them'. Eating away their memories, their dreams, their very essence until there's nothing left - of Duran, there was nothing left. Vanished, like Aesso, but the likeness stretches further still. Like Aesso, Duran took the deal but somehow managed to remember. He remembered who he was and he fought back, creating the prison which holds Beeble though did not choose to kill him. Garric said this was not because it can't be done - Dream Vestiges can certainly die, they're just frustrating to fight and very skilled at messing with your head - but rather because Duran seemed to have a soft spot for Beeble.
Perhaps Duran felt responsible, having been part of the group creating this altered and self-aware being, perhaps he felt a sort of affection or attachment to it - but there might have been other reasons still.
Duran created the prison, the three gems that bind it together all on the prime, kept separate for safety reasons. One was buried in his grave - the one that Aesso and the Deepwood Court recovered. Garric very strictly laid out for us what he believes are the only three options available for dealing with Beeble Ravelzilch:
- Plug the hole in the fence (my original plan). Repair the original prison by finding a replacement gem, and bind it to the other two. This is the safest option, and the most easily doable, yet Garric noted that the prison had been slowly fading in power since Duran's days. Beeble had reached Aesso, after all, even with the three gems intact. A fair point and something to consider.
- Make a new prison. This requires new dream jade, and the assistance of skilled and powerful arcanists, more potent than Garric himself. The likes of Maria perhaps, Elvadriel and Horgrim? Definitely not for my feeble spellcraft skills.
- Kill Beeble Ravelzilch. This is Garric's by far favourite option, and I'll admit, the prospect of putting a definitive, final dot at the end of the line would feel good. It's doable too, in fact Garric believes that this is what Aesso was attempting to do in her last performance.
Dream Vestiges become vunerable when exposed to positive emotion, while the negative feeds them. Aesso's magical realm, filled with the whimsical, colourful, kooky and ~amazing~ essence of herself, was supposed to be amplified manyfold through her friends and overwhelming the parasite within with happiness and wonder. In essence, killing Beeble with sheer joy.
It's such a brilliant plan, so very Aesso! Unfortunately it didn't work, we had one too many unbelievers and nay-sayers there, added to the incompleteness of the rod itself… but it fits with what she told me when we fell through the void. He's ~afraid~ of me, and that's why.
What if Duran had good reason not to kill Beeble? What if that orange leech is the key to retrieving Aesso, given their close bond? He threatened to do harm to her earlier, as if he had her in his grasp, but I don't think he can. I think she's outside his control, she found a loop hole somewhere, an 'inbetween'.
Garric believes the dream I had of falling was more than just a dream, but insists it's impossible that I could have interacted with Aesso there, as if my experiences were but echoes, her memories bleeding into mine through the dream jade.
Aesso believed in the impossible - and so do I. She heard me sing, I know it in my heart. She's still out there, 'somewhere'. I am not ready to close the door to the possibility of the impossible.
The man who set me up, who decieved me, betrayed me, tried to kill me and all the others. The man who abducted Garric Hemway, brought his family name to new lows and saw to the murder of their friends, the Kildorns.
I'd trusted him, I'd trusted him without question, been so stupidly happy to see him that all the warning signs had gone unheeded. No wonder Garn Whitedune was confident, with his ringleader right there in the cell - no wonder James had been trembling, whispering that 'he' was always watching.
'There's no magic in the Hemway brew, Isolde.'
'Are you alright? You seem to have fallen asleep, Isolde.'
'I've got a location for a mages circle reported to have possessed one of Duran's gems, Isolde.'
Lies, misdirection and entrapment. I should be furious, I should be screaming, demanding to know the why, the how ~could~ you. How could you do this to me, Tristyn?
All this went through my head as I approached the cell with Roslyn close by, talking my way past Talbot's two sneering guards, but as I looked through the bars to see him there, bound and gagged, his blonde hair matted and an air of hopeless defeat to his every fiber, all I felt was a stinging sense of regret, a stab of unsuppressable sympathy.
Bound and gagged, locked behind bars by Captain Talbot's rough-shod regime. Like last time, so much like last time that it threatened to bring tears to my eyes. The fear in his eyes then, the confusion and pain. He thought us phantoms, illusions created by Chirade in another cruel game of trickery, raising his hopes only to dash them, smash them to ever smaller shards until there was nothing left.
It took our best efforts then to convince him his rescue was real, that we were real, and Elvadriel drove the dark magic still sunk into him out. The magic was banished, but not the memories. Not the knotwork of sundered emotion, of hope and faith lost and tangled. I ~knew~ he wasn't alright, I knew he had no family, was a reserved and serious type of person. But I just went on with my life, never once thinking to reach out, to check how he was doing.
We were never close, Tristyn and I - yet somehow, surviving Chirade grants a certain camradery to my mind. I know full well I got off easy by comparison, but I saw the damage done, saw the dark seeds it planted in us all. One man's pain and loss, inflicted unto others, spread on in turn.
The dream fodder for a creature like Beeble Ravelzilch, who can consume the nightmares and earn the gratitude and service of a clever but lonely man, all in one go. I don't condone or excuse Tristyn's choices, but I understand it. I understand it all too well, and the vicious cycle behind it. That's why I decided to forgive him, in the midst of our questioning.
He wasn't expecting that.
~I~ wasn't expecting that, but the words spilled out, demanding to be said. The hug I'd never offered at his previous low, I could not resist giving now, and it shook his composure like nothing else had. He told us everything, told us of his own actions, ordering the deaths of the too nosy Kildorns at the hands of the Whitedunes on Beeble's request.
He told us of the abduction of Garric Hemway and where he was held, kept in a sleep-induced state so that Beeble could continually probe for answers on the prison that Duran Hemway constructed. Duran, who Beeble claims is 'responsible for how he looks'. Duran who took the deal and broke it, just like Aesso.
Tristyn said Garric had found and read his ancestor's journals, but burnt them when suspecting his enemies were close - and so they needed him alive. House Finhund are guarding him, in a cave not far from the one we were taken to in the far off Giantspires. Retrieving Garric is now our first priority, to my mind.
For all that he did, Beeble's abandoned Tristyn now. He's having nightmares again. I wonder if a dream-catcher would help?
Talbot, keen to persuade us to take a token part of his regiment along on the quest for the green gem, sent over two items taken from Tristyn besides the map itself - a mask and an amulet, both bearing the mark of the Night Parade.
The mask, beautifully crafted and seemingly designed with the specific intent of strengthening one's will power and ability to manipulate the dreamworld, covered only the top half of my face, comfortable enough that I chose to wear it near constantly for the days and nights that followed, while I worked on my 'Beware the Beeble' pamphlets.
Early one morning, night having bled into day before I even realized it, I walked into Hemrod's to sell a few things and maybe find a useful scroll or two to replace what I'd spent. But weariness crept up on me, snuck warm and languid tendrils all around, tugging softly.
Hemrod complimented my mask, querying whether I would be interested in selling it and then moved on to chit-chatting endlessly about an exciting new knife of gnomish make - meanwhile, my head swam and his voice blurred into white noise, with just the odd snippet here and there dechifferable by my increasingly sleepy mind. Finally he thrust the knife into my hands, smiling blithely. Had I bought it, was it a gift? I could scarcely remember, but smiled back and walked outside, taking deep breaths of fresh air.
No, not now Isolde… too much to do, mustn't let sleep take you now. Fight it!
I stretched, yawned, asked for strong, hot tea and opted for the hard wooden chairs by the dinner table in the lounge as I kept working, but all in vain. My head nodded forwards, my eyelids drooped inexorably closed, and the table infront of me seemed suddenly the softest, most tempting pillow to lean against.
I'll just rest my eyes... just a little while.
Sleep claimed me instantly, and as I drifted from the waking world, it seemed to fall apart around me, dissolving into pieces, drifting upwards, falling into a dark void. And so did I, I fell through deepest darkness and kept falling, past glittering constellations of stars.
Ahead of me, a white blur, a shimmering flicker of light, falling as I was.
I curled up, made myself small and fell faster still, starlight streaking past at the edge of my vision. I caught up and I saw, I saw ~her~. The white light, the shooting star: Aesso.
Aesso, falling blissfully through space with her arms and legs spread wide, her hair billowing like the tail of a comet. She saw me and she smiled, oh that true and sparkling smile as I reached for her hand, holding it tight as we fell together. 'Isolde!', she exclaimed, happily.
Aesso's cheer is true and bright, lit up from within her - this wasn't Beeble's trickery, it couldn't be, I knew it, I felt it in my bones as we laughed, drifting in a joyous dance of reunion.
I told her we missed her, that we'd been looking for her ever since she disappeared, but she just laughed. 'I'm right here!' She looked so happy, until I told her, shouted across the whirl and whoosh of our endless descent, that the aftermath of her performance had seen the orange leech stir trouble.
'Oh NO!', she cried, alarmed. 'The performance was supposed to fix it, fix it for everyone!' She had taken the deal, she admitted so with much regret, when she was feeling lonely and sad. Somewhere along the way, she'd realized her mistake and tried to correct it.
'You can do it, Isolde', she said and squeezed my hand tightly. 'You can! You want to know a secret? Want to know why he's coming after you so hard? It's the same reason he came after me - he's AFRAID!'
She smiled, that radiant optimism returning and we twirled again as she shouted the rest across the space dividing us.
'Don't let him win! Don't let him project that fear unto you!'
'We'll get him, we're stars, Aesso', I replied, though she countered: 'My starlight is only borrowed, but you, you really are amazing!' But so is she - the heart of her shone through even Beeble Ravelzilch's dominion. He took her memories, but he could never claim that light. I'm sure of it, I shouted it to her as the world began to blur.
I fell, I fell towards a piece of earth, a place suspended in the void. Her hand was no longer in mine, but when I landed, there she was.
Aesso, sitting by a moonlit stream with Silvia the Fey, her little feet splashing in the water, sharing a mug of mead and a quiet conversation. 'That' conversation... it must be a memory, I thought, drifting closer like a ghost, unnoticed.
Aesso was quiet, troubled, before asking in a very small voice, staring into her mug: 'Do you know Sarah Snow..?' As Silvia began to shake her head in gentle consternation, their voices dropped low, inaudible. Aesso wept, heartbroken and forlorn, while Silvia mumbled soft soothing somethings.
I couldn't stand it, it tore my heart apart to watch, and so I tried to reach out, resting my hand on her shaking shoulder. It was a memory, I was just observing, reliving it... but I could've sworn she noticed, a sob suddenly catching in her throat.
And then I saw, I saw so clearly in a rush of images: a brown-haired, unspectacular looking halfling girl performing in a grubby slum theatre, with sticks, strings and puppets. The crowd jeered, a rotten tomato flew through the air. Her hopeful smile faltering. And then her bedroom, a small inn room, achingly familiar... Lyrabar, Shauna?
Oh ~Sarah~! My heart contracted painfully. I knew, I ~knew~ her dreams, her hopes, her past - I'd dreamed all that, seen it through her eyes and I understood, I understood with perfect clarity why she'd taken the deal, reliving those memories with her. I had to hold her, had to tell her it would be alright, somehow.
Ghostly, ethereal, I knelt behind Aesso to wrap my arms around her gently. She stopped crying, seemed to lean a little into my embrace. I sang a lullaby from my childhood's Lyrabar, and she tilted her head, as though listening, as though she could hear me, swaying ever so slightly to the melody. The hint of a smile returning to her face.
And then I woke, my head on my arms, resting against the wooden table in the lounge. Despite the odd sleeping position, I woke feeling more rested and peaceful than I have done for weeks.
The Man in the Blue Mask
Intent on following the lead our dream-inducing bouquet of flowers had provided us with, Roslyn and I gathered a party of helpers. Knowing the sort of trouble Hen and I had found ourselves with in our much smaller operation, I felt good about having the solid dwarven assistance of Maythor and Vanderkaus, alongside brave Grorg and multi-talented Ginger on our side.
We sought out Tristyn at City Hall, and found he had prepared a teleportation spell to take us to our destination. A little strange, I thought, having gotten the impression that our mystery spot was a building within the city itself - but then again, sleep has been scarce and rather filled with struggles of late. I've found that whatever I fail to jot down in my notes, I can't really rely on remembering these days. I thought nothing more of it, and after a quick briefing, we all held hands as Tristyn cast the spell to send us off and away.
Teleportation, ugh - I'll never get used to that strange feeling of dissolving, shifting from one spot and reapparing in another. I was slightly disoriented when we arrived, but soon noticed two things: first, this was ~definitely~ not a building. We found ourselves in a large cavern, darkness spreading out around us past the ring of greatswords encircling the group.
Secondly, there was no sign of Tristyn anywhere. Where was he, had something gone terribly wrong? Is it possible for hostile agents to disrupt a teleportation spell to alter the destination so, and what would the consequences be for the caster if so?
Worry knotted my guts - was he alright? Had he been abducted ~again~, after all he'd been through? It would be too unfair, too harsh a fate! And who if not Tristyn could I rely on, in City Hall? Talbot would be all too happy to get his fingers into this pie, readily claiming all the credit for success and equally readily throw us under the proverbial wagon for failure.
As Maythor impatiently stomped off to search the cave, he ran into a strong and jarringly painful barrier of magic, bound by the swords in the ground. Four glowing portals were set at intervals around the circle, and as we began to study this elaborate trap, 'he' appeared. The man in the blue mask, shimmering with magic.
'You've gotten too close', said the man, his voice garbled by the mask's magic, but the tone quite calm and without malice. As if what he was about to do was a necessary, but regrettable thing. 'This trap won't hold us, we'll find a way out', I hollered, and he simply nodded. He thought we might, but it needed only last for a while. For long enough that the creatures soon to be unleashed through the portals could tear us apart…
As the man in blue spoke his intent and activated the portals, arrows flew from Roslyn and Ginger's irate bows. The former got a nice hit in - it tore off a piece of midnight blue fabric from our mysterious foe's sleeve, just before he teleported off. 'Yes!', I thought in glee, only to abandon the feeling rapidly when the portals began to spew out their nightmarish denizens into our circle of doom.
And nightmarish really is the right word - my skillcraft skills may be feeble, but those 'things'... definitely plane of Nightmare stuff, ugh! Gargantuan screaming spider beings, so large they near scraped the ceiling, eyeballs and deformed doglike creatures, wave after wave keeping us too busy for anything but fighting, scraping for survival. In the brief lulls, attempts to dispel the portals, using scrolls and wands and whatever means we had available. One down.. then two, some of the swords flickering as though the magical barrier holding them up was weakening. But we were still trapped, our resources straining.
I ahh... grew hurried, desperate. One of the portals ripped wider at my attempt to close it, and a huge, hulking beast tore through it, roaring. It seemed made entire of rippling muscle, every inch of its skin covered in biting, razor-toothed mouths...
The beast tore into our ranks, sending party members sprawling across the stone floor, tearing and rending. One swipe saw my side gushing blood, and not a single of my arrows penetrated that horrendous hide. Roslyn, bless her clever mind, shouted at the top of her lungs: 'The barrier! Push it against the barrier!'
This, more than anything else, worked to harm the hulking monstrosity, though it was at great risk and pain by which our frontliners and Vander's earth elemental shoved, heaved and pushed the thing against the magic wall, until finally, ~finally~ it fell. Ginger successfully dispelled the last portal, and then we were free.
Exhausted, ragged and bleeding, we set camp in the seemingly abandoned cave before venturing further. Roslyn and I huddled together, sharing our concerns and fears. 'Isolde..' she murmured, 'how much do you trust Tristyn? What if he is the blue-masked man?'
A chill inside, a wrench of fierce denial. No, not Tristyn, it couldn't be, he's one of the good guys! Yet even as we spoke, I felt warning bells ringing, a sense of imminent danger rising. I still pushed the notion aside - he was in trouble, that must be it. We had to find him.
We gave the cave a thorough search, but found no trace of our missing Cerulean. What we did find, however, is a sight I'd rather have unseen. Under a tarpe with the sickly sweet stench of decay clinging to it, four bodies. Two women, two men, all belonging to the minor noble house of Kildarn - friends of the Hemways. They'd all been stabbed, but for one woman, her bulging eyes staring unseeing at the roof of the cave. Strangled to death.
Bile rose in my throat, I backed off and wanted quite desperately to be anywhere but there, in stark view of what people do to one another for the lure of power. After concluding our search and finding a small stashe of belongings in a chest, we headed outside.
The wind was cold, snow whirling and whipping around us. The cave was set high in the mountains, white slopes below, crawling with winter wolves and snow goblins. We fought through a couple of throngs before catching the goblins speaking of other intruders before us.
The next lot, swarming around a camp, we fought until but one remained, a chieftain of sorts, held for questioning. He was an odd sort, cheerful even at axe threat and with Ginger glaring daggers, and told us robed men in masks had come through a couple of weeks back. Five in total, one of them a leader. They'd mentioned experimenting on the goblins, but had not actively attacked them in some time now.
The goblin showed us the fastest way down to the lower slopes, where ogres roamed instead. Here, we let him go.
Fighting our way down through the ogres, we suddenly came across a pair of sword-swinging skeletons, controlled by a very familiar black-robed ogre, green eyes glowing underneath the hood. Horgrim Blackweave, exiled from his comfy inn retreat due to Silvia the Fey's wrath.
To say he was happy to see us would be a stretch, but cool and composed as ever, Horgrim offered us a quick way down the mountain, in exchange for a future favour. The dwarves declined however, and being dwarves, a change of heart seemed unlikely. We walked, we walked the looooong way down, completely exhausted by the time we reached Peltarch's walls.
Roslyn's question still echoed inside me. How well did I really know Tristyn? Why is it that the masked man was always, ~always~ a few steps ahead in this game? And where was he?
I had to find him, had to dispel these doubts. Tristyn was solid, dependable - I ~liked~ him, trusted him. Didn't I? A sinking, crawling feeling in my gut as I spoke to his collegue, searched his office to find it barely used, with no sign of Tristyn anywhere. He had reported nothing in months, acted strangely, though admittedly had always been rather a reclusive person. But after the Chirade case, much more so...
I got his home address from his collegue, Atel and Roslyn assisting me in 'inviting' ourselves in unseen. 12th Goodwick Street, in the poorer parts of the Residential district. A small and darkened apartment, screaming lonesome bachelor.
On the floor underneath the dresser, a scrap of forgotten parchment, crumpled: 'IHR->B B->IR B->H? DPN: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10" The last segment was hastily written, in a style suggesting it had been oft repeated, and the numbers 2 and 5 were underscored. A checklist, a cypher? We could make little sense of it, but continued on to find a hidden lever set into a pillar by the small bed. Roslyn deftly plucked a blonde hair from the lever's knob - a handy thing for scrying, should it come to that.
When turned, the lever revealed a sliding door, leading to a secret garden. A garden filled with daffodils and lilac....
Despite the suspicion having sunken in, despite thinking I could prepare myself for the worst, all of the pieces slammed into place, fitting inexorably in, hammering home my blindness, my stupidity. Why was the masked man always ahead of the game? Because I ~came~ to him, I told him 'everything'. Because Garric Hemway came to him as well, a lamb seeking the wolf for slaughter.
'I just stepped out for some tea, Isolde.. did you fall asleep?'. He ~made~ me fall asleep, just like he did at the College, sneaking in through the roof to plant those flowers! The taste of betrayal, bitter and rank, too familiar by now, my mind reeling with the thousand and one little clues I should've noticed, should've seen. Tristyn, always correcting his cloak for rushing between clothes changes, Tristyn, asking so many questions, Tristyn, grabbing the bouquet from his collegue to 'scry' himself.
What was the one link between all the special invites to the masquerade - and who can consume the dark nightmares and terrors suffered at the hands of someone so cruel as Chirade?
I was still in shock when we heard it, the soft but unmistakable click from the door handle. We slid the garden door shut, hid under invisibility's cover and held our breaths. The blue-masked man entered, pausing at the pillar for a long while. Alert to something being amiss.
He prepared to leave, and we had to tip our hand, had to try and stop him. The fight was intense, filled with bitter accusations. Tristyn blamed me, blamed Talbot and all of the team who took the credit for Chirade's downfall, the case he had put so much work into, suffered so greatly for. He felt cast aside, discarded as a broken toy. Not a single visit, not a shred of care for his well being, as nightmares continued to haunt his sleep.
Beeble Ravelzilch had found a willing pawn in Tristyn, but my heart ached for him, even while we fought. All that pain, all that suffering only to turn out just like his tormentor, passing the dark legacy forwards, hurting others and feeling 'justified' in doing so.
He took out Atel with a magic wand of considerable power, resisted the spells Ros and I attempted to hold him with - but through a feat of agility the likes of which I won't even try to describe in words, Ros managed to knock the wand out of his hand. I in turn tried to rush him, but found my weight (as ever) insufficient for brute force.
While I gasped for air, Tristyn dominated Roslyn's mind, wrested control of her actions. 'Kill her', he bade calmly, pointing to me. And she tried.
I managed to just about knock Roslyn out, but Tristyn remained, a far stronger fighter than I. I was not faring well, but refused to give the fight up as lost, refused to leave Atel and Roslyn defenceless behind.
Ros came to, her mind cleared. She chugged herself up to health through potions and came to my aid, the odds finally evened. Tristyn was knocked out, but soon began to twitch and convulse, his eyes glowing a glaring orange as Beeble possessed him, gibbering and agitated.
Once the fit was over, we carried Tristyn off to Gaol, in the all too pleased hands of Captain Talbot, who once again saw to gagging and binding him up tightly. Ugh.
The man I liked, hogtied and caged, and the one I dislike gets credit - again. Life is so cruel, so unfair at times. It was a win, we had taken Beeble's best, most competent agent out of the game, but I felt only bitterness.
A map in Tristyn's pocket, three locations marked. One of them, the ruined tower Hen and I had searched, this and a second crossed off with an 'x'. But the third... the third remained, a clean and promisingly blank. One last chance to find that green gem...
An Interlude with Silvia the Fey
Roslyn and Ginger tracked down Silvia the Fey, who spoke to them at length in the Druid's Glen. Silvia provided welcome insight on the Night Parade, information which fits all too well into what Hen and I found in the abandoned mage's tower. That circle must assuredly have been members of this secret society, or tied to it somehow.
Once upon a long time ago, a group of Netherese wizards emigrated from the prime to a place they carved out for themselves a little inbetween the Region of Dreams and the Plane of Nightmares, seeking to tap into the power of dreams. Thus was born the secret society of the Night Parade.
The nature of the planes deformed and twisted the wizards of the Night Parade however, and they returned to the prime, utilizing masks to hide their grotesque visages and continuing their work in secret. There was an incident, Silvia said, in Calimport some time ago, where the Night Parade's cell was wiped out after the abduction of babies - seeking renewal of their ranks I suppose, but stealing babies, tsk tsk!
Amongst other things, the Night Parade experimented on the creatures of the dream realms. The burnt notes and the creature Hen and I found caged corroborates this entirely, and the going theory now is that Beeble Ravelzilch is the result of this group's tampering and altering of what was once a Dream Vestige. These beings don't usually have names or what you might call personalities - Beeble is clearly different, in more ways than one.
Dream Vestiges, Silvia said, have the following known weakness: they hate themselves, more than anything else. And I'd say that hits rather close to home with Beeble too, given how insults and taunts invariably make the eye flare red. But Beeble Ravelzilch is uniquely alterered, and we can't rely on the norm for its kind to hold true.
Silvia also gave advice on dream catchers, saying that properly constructed and enchanted, they do offer protection, if not a foolproof such. Rather, the dream catcher is the 'armour' for one's mind in slumber, and the better the make of the armour, the better it will shield you of course. Definitely worth persuing, then! We just need to figure out the specifics and find the right clergy to bless them. Coupled with a wide-spread Beeble-alert, it could serve to prevent a lot of people from falling for its wiles.
Lilacs and Daffodils
After a bit of a falling out with Hen outside the Gaol - she accused me of withholding information and insisted I fill in her notes on the investigation, as though I hadn't repeatedly offered to tell her what I knew - Roslyn found us. Hen stalked off somewhere else while Ros and I opted for the comforts of the College lounge, where Christina served refreshments. I finally relaxed, Ros' company was like the finest champagne after the continual and pointless headbutting with Hen, and I finally got to pitch a few ideas I have to thwart our mutual foe. Ros threw her own into the ring, and there was a moment of lovely brainstorming activity.
Until suddenly, my eyelids dropped. The world turned black, and I felt the sweet scent of vanilla and tobacho in the air. Someone nudged my shoulder, and the surface pressed against my cheek was hard, clad in worn velvet.
I looked up, confused, meeting the gaze of an equally confused Roslyn nearby. Between us sat a kind looking elven lady, the one who had roused us both, and further off a portly looking gentleman. Infront of all of us, a poker table, and a dealer with a white smile and quick hands.
'Shall I explain the rules to you again, before we get this party started?', said the dealer with a grin. 'The pot's already considerable, someone's going to win 'big'.'
The stakes, apparantly, were not gold. Maxwell, the gentleman on the far left, had deemed that too mundane and dull. Instead, we played for books. Books... a warning bell started ringing inside me at that, and though the dream felt very real, believable in every detail, I just knew something was wrong.
I looked at Roslyn, seeing the same doubt in her eyes. We each had a stack of books next to us, the top ones seeming of little significance, though hers held some rather lame gags. But the other books, the ones being offered up in the grand pot? 'The Night Parade'... and 'Secrets of the Fey'.
Exactly what I wanted to know, right? Which just made it much, much too convenient a prize. I was tired, I claimed, didn't feel like playing - the dealer instantly insisted that we MUST play. More unease, a trickle of suspicion down my spine, the dealer backing off to smile insincerely, trying to amend the rules instead to entice us to stay in the game.
Another exchange of glances with Roslyn. A closer look at the books in our own stacks, and boy... they were familiar titles. 'A Game with Chirade', 'Aesso's Last Performance', 'The Bardess and the Mystery of the Eye'... Roslyn too seemed to recognize her own adventures, and we rose from the table, abandoning the game.
The dealer jumped to his feet, circled the table. His composure had already slipped more than once, that Beeble-like franticness showing. 'We want to see the dancers instead', we claimed, book stacks held tight, and approached the door to leave.
But Beeble had no intention of allowing ~that~. The eye showed, the ruse abandoned and now the dark nightmare maw of a corridor opened up, sucked us both in. A hulking, monsterous being before us, tendrils and rippling flesh, deformed and utterly horrific - so close this time, so close it could reach out and grab us. We tried to back off, tried to run, but could barely move, frozen with fear, with the heavy, paralyzing dread of the place. Beeble was a huge reddened eye, taunting, angry, threatening to have the nightmare tear us apart.
But I wasn't alone. As bad as it was, I was with Roslyn, my friend, and her hand in mine gave comfort and a shred of clarity to think. 'Disbelieve it', I said. 'Go to your happy place, lock the image in your mind and tell me what it looks like'.
'A temple of Yondalla', she said, shaking as badly as I was. 'Green grass, the sun shining...'
We focused on that image, even as the nightmarish being lashed out at us, painfully. And suddenly, a door appeared in the pitch-black wall of the corridor.
'That's not supposed to BE THERE!', shrieked Beeble, instantly making sure it was locked.
But I had the best lockpicker in the business beside me, psh! Roslyn, with shaking hands, brought her tools out and began to work on the lock, while Beeble assailed her with abuse, with threatening comments about her past, about her parents, about anything it thought would shake her composure. But Roslyn stood firm, her face pale but hardening in determination as she kept her efforts up.
The nightmare's tendrils were wrapped around our legs, tugging, tearing, but the door's lock went 'click', the sweetest, softest, most wonderful sound imaginable in that place. Click.. and release.
'You're NOT walking out that door! I'M NOT DONE WITH YOU!', cried Beeble, but in vain. The door slid open, the sweet scent of dewy grass on the other side, a hinnish temple gleaming in far away hills. We stepped through the door, hand in hand, and awoke in the College lounge.
The pervasive scent of lilacs and daffodils clung to the air, an all too familiar smell. On the table, there was a bouquet of flowers that neither of us remember being there, and recognition hit. The masquerade... the shared dream, that wasn't ~quite~ a dream... it had happened again.
Illusion and enchantment magic from the bouquet, strong, but fading fast. I grabbed the flowers, and with haste enpowering our steps, we ran to City Hall to find Tristyn. That clever man put a trace on the bouquet and now we have a solid lead, a location that could give us our mysterious blue masked man - perhaps, just perhaps, we might even find Garric Hemway?
The Night Parade
Sleepless, my mind twisting and turning the mystery before me, I grew desperate enough to resort to actual studies. Yes, I hit the books and tried to find whatever little scrap of useful knowledge I could find that wasn't entirely obscure. Specifically, I persued my most recent idea, born from the increasing need to ward the orange invader off - dream catchers. I'd heard of such things before, but did they actually ~work~? And if so, how does one go about making or aquiring such a thing?
I found nothing substantial to prove or disprove the dream catchers efficiency, though several clergies have dreaming and dreams as their domain: for instance, the elvish clergy of Sehanine Moonbow. They believe that dream catchers blessed with prayers can work to prevent nightmares and provide good dreams.
Rude, when bribed with enough jam, remarked that certain fey are known to deal in dream-like magic. Hybsil and sprites can put creatures to sleep for a long time, and may know more about sleep magic and dreams in general. I really must try to find Silvia the Fey, she might know more about this sort of thing.
I also found a very vague, footnoted reference to Netheril, Netherese, and "the Night Parade." It tugged at my curiosity and I tried to learn more, alas in vain. But the words would reappear, sooner and in a way I hadn't forseen on that sleepless night in the library.
Some two days later, Tristyn found myself and Hen at the commons. Our assailants were ready for interrogation, and he would allow us to persue the questioning under some superveillance.
Garn, Sophilia and James Whitedune, all belonging to the same minor noble house, entirely ruined now, by Beeble Ravelzilch's ensnarement. Such a waste, I couldn't help but think. So entirely stupid to be born with privelege and all that advantage, only to reach for more at any cost. Beeble had promised Garn power, it said before, and in speaking to the now seemingly unpossessed man, I could see that being true.
Even jailed and with his entire house cast in disrepute, Garn remained an arrogant man, confident that he would soon be set free. 'You know that wasn't me', he insisted, but instead of blaming Beeble's manipulations, it was the Hemways who bore all the fault in Garn's eyes. He would tell us little of any use, mostly just insisting on his innocence and vehemently calling for his right to legal representation.
His wife Sorphila, however, proved more reasonable. It soon became obvious that it was Garn who had coerced both herself and his brother James into this, and she said they had been given instructions by the blue-masked man to go to the tower to wreck the place up. She denied having taken anything from it, so if the gem was still there at all, it was not the Whitedunes who claimed it. She seemed genuine to me, dejected at their failure and lamenting ever taking the deal.
Sorphilia was quite informative as to why Garn had pushed for this too - first dreams of power and influence, destroying the Hemways, their rivals - and the blue masked man had also promised something else: access and membership to an elusive, dormant organization of some sort, known as the Night Parade. A revival of the Night Parade, a new beginning. The first cell. The blue-masked man had even branded them with the mark of the Night Parade: a circle, within three spiralling clouds, with an eye in the center. The mark is placed on her shoulder, in black.
James, lastly, was a broken man. He hugged his knees, begging for sweet release in sleep, because that's the only place where he could find happiness. His dreams were filled of the things Beeble had promised him - happiness, a wife to love him, good fortunes. Each waking moment seemed torment though, he was obviously frightened and much perturbed, whispering that 'he said… they are everywhere' and that 'every gain has a price... both in there, and here'.
James and Sorphilia both payed a high price, and I can't help but pity them. But Garn... he chose this, freely. Wanted it, and showed not a shred of remorse. His confidence, if it isn't faked, suggests he still has 'backing' by the Orange Leech.
Pieces of the Puzzle
Tristyn found myself and Hen at the Commons with news on the gems I'd asked him to look for. He'd found something promising, the location of a ruined mage's tower, in the deepest reaches of the Nars pass. A mages circle once resided there, said to have had a deep green gem in their possession. Vague, but definitely a lead we couldn't afford to pass up on.
While Tristyn prepared the teleportation spell to send us directly to our destination, I filled Hen in on my findings, in as much as time allowed. Soon, the trip was underway, Hen and I making our way up a darkened hillside towards the tower, the heavy door locked solidly, but still functioning despite the poor condition of much of the place.
Within, a myriad of traps, many of which were set directly into the floor and could not be undone. Hen slunk through the maze with catlike ease, but I missed a single step and found a burst of acid as my reward. Ow ow OW!
Past the traps, however, came the truly frightful part - a magically constructed cage, with a creature inside that struck every chord of fear in me, fitting Horgrim's description of a Dream Vestige. It cried and moaned in a myriad of despairing voices, begging for release, for freedom, in appearance a swarming mass of cloudy, misty wispiness with floating faces inside - the souls of the lost, the consumed and damned?
Chills, chills down my spine and growing worse in realizing the mechanism that controlled the door to lead us onwards also controlled the cage's bars… three levers, each of which could be set to different positions. We both tried to make sense of it, but the magic and the mechanism itself was complex, beyond my grasp. I was ready to turn back, get sharper minds on the job, like Elvadriel's keen understanding - but Hen was clearly getting into the spirit of adventure.
While I stood there in dread, she began to push levers and experiment... and through a magnificent stroke of luck that will see me give praise and thanks at Tymora's shrine, she found a setting that not only killed the Vestige within the cage, but also opened the door AND a secret treasure compartment beside it.
Seriously, Tymora - I'll sing a song to Lady Luck for this, may fortune ever favour the bold!
At the centre of the tower, we found four doorways hovering in the air, magical paths to different parts of the tower. Two were destroyed however, and one of these showed signs of it being a recent thing. We were not first on this scene, and Hen had noted footprints earlier. The magic traces were still palpable, even to my untrained arcane eye - dispel, destruction. Whoever had done this hadn't been far ahead. In fact, they may still be around.
Past the first door we tried, a room with a large and blackened viridian gem set into the floor. It was huge, raw and with a myriad of footprints around it. Sabotage again, fire? Killing the magic it once held? The gem was a deep jade, but the surface of it was blackened, sooty, and neither of us sensed any magic emanating from it. Surely the gem we were looking for was much smaller, and would hold a great deal of magic? Still, I felt the urge to chip a piece off, but didnt want to make so much noise if we were not in fact alone in the ruins.
We continued on to the next and last available room, which looked like a mages laboratory, turned upside down and smashed by an angry dragon. Broken vials, broken tables and scattered, burnt papers all around. We were a step behind, ~again~, but each of us found one slip of parchment that was still somewhat ledgible.
Hen's paper read: 'Members of the circle... each devoted to a particular region... secrecy paramount... by popular decision, we..."
My paper read: 'Trapping the creature... a number of faces... resisting paramount... a weaker entity... experimentation'
Was this the purpose of the mages circle, then? To fight nightmares, dream vestiges or other beings like them - like Beeble Ravelzilch? Or ~specifically~ Beeble Ravelzilch - did the mages circle set his prison up, with Duran's aid?
While we stood there pondering, three black-clad men appeared behind us, each armed, each wearing a mask that garbled their speech. Each, it seemed, recognizing us. Beeble's cronies, the ones who had gotten here before us. Was the gem the thing he taunted me about having aquired, earlier?
The hostility was obvious, and I quickly covered Hen and myself with improved invisibility before the fight broke out. Two of the men went down, after a number of painful stabs at me, but the third was captured through Hen's use of a Dominate Person scroll - one of the finds in our treasure cache by the door.
He wore a black robe and a grey and white mask, garbling his speech. While Hen tied him up, I removed the mask, finding a face I recognized beneath: Garn Whitedune, belonging to a minor noble house in Peltarch known to be rivals of House Hemway.
He scowled, an ordinary looking man with dark hair, but his eyes... oh, his eyes were glowing orange. Vertically slit irises... and an all too familiar tone of voice emerging, over-enthused and gibbering in glee. Beeble Ravelzilch - in full possession of the man, who apparantly had given in to his deal for wanting power, easily swayed. Now, Whitedune was little more than a meatpuppet, with a disgusting parasite within.
Gleeful, triumphant, Beeble taunted me with his increased power. 'You think I could do 'this' before? I made a new deal, with someone who knows a lifetime of pain! Soon I won't even NEED the gem! You're too late to stop me, you're TEN STEPS BEHIND!'
The man blacked out after that, and a polymorphed Hen dragged him and the two corpses back to our rendez-vous spot with Tristyn. Now, interrogation remains...
This is bad.. this is really bad. We need to find Garric Hemway, I need to learn more about what we're up against, the weakness that Horgrim hinted at - and maybe I need to spread the story of Beeble Ravelzilch around. Maybe if people ~know~, they'll be more careful in their choices. Maybe they'll even remember.
Maybe they'll dismiss me as crazy...