Renithar stared at the half-burnt tome in his hands. Among the scorched pages of several books, he had found the section in Z’alden’s journal that paralleled the very part of the True Writings that Nathaniel had been copying just yesterday. It was only in the last few weeks that he had gotten the courage to open these books – possession of them would be punishable with more than a trip to the Chamber of Understanding. He shuddered at the thought.
The aging monk could only wonder at the other treasures that had been lost when the Church had burned down his ancestral home. As a young child, he had marveled as his grandmother would show him scrolls and items collected by her ancestor the cleric Zenithar al Denithar. She showed him maces with runes that she said could destroy the living dead. Symbols of the Dragon god that could call down fire from the sky. Such power seemed at odds with her description of a kind hearted cleric of Bahamut that she had always called her “uncle” Z’alden. In these troubled times, Bahamut was no longer a god to be worshipped, but an image to be Understood and Z’alden a figure to be interpreted by the Church of the Eastlander.
But, the people had known the power of the place that the real cleric had raised up and used as a home to tend to the poor, find justice for the downtrodded, to serve those that needed hope, and seek vengeance for those that man’s justice had forgotten. When some started to venerate the small keep where Z’alden Silverflame had last been seen ages ago, the Zenith had let it go. That was, until a few starting having visions of the Silverflame while near the keep. The Marshalls of Introspection had solved most of the problems, but they could not quash the tales that said that a young man had brought forth an image of silvery dragon’s head with a shimmering silver and purple light around it. A sick man had been healed at the sight.
The bright red and orange flames that destroyed the structure were in stark contrast to that tale. Those flames took with them many of the wondrous items that his grandmother had hidden from the Church brethren as their power had grown. Renithar sadly shook his head and turned his attention back to the tome:
As I rock on this boat, driven by the wizard’s winds, I must surrender my innate desire for introspection. The poison courses through our veins, and I must search my recollections for any clue as to a means to combat it. Another day I will wrestle with the decisions we have made to help the Beholder, Xathros, and the actions we took that allowed him to gain the key to the Underdark.
Here it was in ashen text – a key tenet of the Church: we must only listen to the Church and not reflect inwardly. Thought is the poison of independence. Maybe the Zenith’s teachings had it right? He read on
Days ago it was now that we awoke to feelings of bruising and battering. We had been to a party, and the Wack a Thuns were us. An unruly mob of orcs stood in front of us. We were strung up on a wall, chained with magical links that suppressed our powers. Our possessions were gone. We were somewhere in the castle tower. An iris like pattern on the floor caught my attention but I had not the freedom to investigate it.
The surrending of freedom – there was another tenet of the Church! Did the True Writings also contain these crucial teachings? He must look at Nathaniel’s copy. Renithar continued through the page:
Compounding the helplessness of the situation, the very folk we had come to rescue were not 20 staff lengths away along with others of the barbarian tribe.
The list of names was obscured by scorching.
Also, Monica and Lars, our friends from the small village were trapped here, too. And, our comrade Prescott was also a prisoner. He was surrounded by masked bounty hunters as they kicked him and pummeled him. Just as he seemed ready to go the gods, an evil cleric would step in and heal him. I did not realize until then how even healing could be made to serve evil.
Our slight banter with the guards resulted in little information and more beatings. The only thing my wife could learn with her charms was that a being named “Xathros” would decide our fate.
His wife! What is this. The cleric was not married in the Church’s version. Then, Renithar thought back to his teachings on the Old Common that Z’alden was using here. What he read as “my wife” was an endearing term for a close female friend and not necessarily telling of a marital status. Still, the idea was intriguing. He continued
In who knows how many hours, a blob of putrid living eyes descended from the tower above. Xathros was a Beholder. The Beholder ordered the vile cleric to heal Prescott and Norfand and ordered the two to fight. I could not resist my feelings of pride when both flung down their weapons refusing this charade of a battle. For their courage, Prescott was dragged off to be “fed to the sea.” Felsmon is chosen as the next to fight Norfand. The dragonborn means no disrespect to Norfand when he declares the barbarian an unworthy opponent. For his insolence, a ray of pain strikes at Felsmon from one of Xathros’ eye stalks. Felsmon takes the hint, grapples with Norfand and renders him unconscious in a matter of seconds, drawing a cry of delight from the bloodthirsty orcs circled round. We still chained could barely see but could not resist the spectacle.
During the fight, like solving a puzzle, I had managed to work a hand free. I consecrated the ground around me to restore us, but for my trouble an eyebeam from Xathros rendered me unconscious. I could not sustain the consecration.
Later, my wife would tell me of Felsmon’s valiant aerial combat, dragonbreath searing the orcs and Xathros, but even for the great Paladin, outnumbered and out powered by the Beholder, the result was predictable. Soon, he was shackled again. As I was awakened by healing from the vile cleric, I heard the Beholder laugh a booming laugh that rattled the bones. “You will serve me well”, the ball of eyes intoned. Never have I felt so helpless. It was as though the gods were punishing us for our hubris of having so successfully defeated each of the foes we found below the castle. Could the powers have found us too powerful and given us over to the hands of our enemies? No, this was a test that we must pass but at a price whose debt I may never cover.
His mind drifted from the difficult Old Common back to the days after the destruction of Z’alden’s keep. That had seemed as helpless as this story his ancestor was relating. With the keep gone and the other hallowed places also destroyed, the people had nowhere to turn but to the Church’s wisdom that sprang from the tales of the great adventurers from the Vale. But, no sick were ever healed at a Surrender of Independence. Still, hope remained for the monk. Luckily, the small black ring has grandmother had pressed into his hand was of little note to the Understanding Marshals that the Zenith had sent to make sure that nothing was left of the keep. His grandmother had hurt him she pressed it into his hand so hard even as she pressed him into service as a monk of the Church. She had wanted his attention. “Watch, learn, and listen. Find what is true quietly, and wait for the time when powers and courage like that of our ancestor and his friends are needed once again.”
It had taken fiften years after his time in the Halls of Understanding to remember those words. Even now, the scars from his days in the Chamber still hurt. He wondered if the adventurers had similar scars from the beatings they endured. Maybe it was this very scene that inspired the Chamber, as it was here that the Church’s story said the Paragons learned obedience. Renithar read on:
The one item of note I hold to is the surprising realization that Craete, Elena’s uncle, was somehow among the lowly guards. Was he a friend or another foe? Perhaps he will find a way to aid us. Suspended as we were, the evil cleric taunted us even as he explained the horrible situation we faced. “Xathros has no arms. We will go to the man who makes arms. You will help us or die a painful death.”
The evil cleric related with glee how we had been poisoned and that only by helping Xathros obtain a key from this armorer would we be given the antidote. I was in a horrible position torn between goodness and loyalty. I could not serve an evil being, but I could not let evil win and see my friends die when there is so much for us to do in this world filled with pain and injustice. I would use the means of helping Xathros to the end of seeing my friends freed. This was justified. We had 4 days to live.
So, there it was, in Z’alden’s own hand. Many of the rationalizations of the Church had a similar structure. Few involved real life and death.
The next few pages were scorched almost beyond recognition. Something was readable about longboats and chains, “returned our weapons”, “The Beholder stayed behind”, “slow march of two days chained to a pole”, “ big foot prints”, “giant’s camp”, “reached a volcano”, “ just the Fands and their wizard, Monica, Lars, Rajel, and us”.
Then a part that the flames had not consumed:
The evil cleric spoke with us as evening fell, “Tomorrow you will go into battle for Xathros. You must bring him the key. No key, no antidote. We will restore your armor and weapons.” We should have turned on the cleric and his companions then, but driven by the helplessness of the situation, we rested or tried to. The Slaad embryos inside of us, part of the Chaos Phage, tried to get out. Tira, Barrick, and I fought them off and vomited up the remains. Felsmon was not so lucky, but his constitution is so strong that he suffered no ill effects. The next morning, before leaving, the evil cleric repeated the instructions and added in one small new bit, “If you find the key, Xathros will give you good weapons. Xathros will not harm you.”
We crossed the volcano’s plain and made our way to the hut of the armorer. Walking off of a cleared path resulted in explosions. Some people are very paranoid about visitors. Felsmon flew up and over to the cottage while Werkofend walked safely and knocked on the door. A Flesh golem was their greeter. With danger at the door, we attacked. Bahamut be praised, and the searing light blinded the golem. Tira’s bright bolts of chaos made the construct of flesh begin to fall apart. Felsmon’s waraxe glowed with the light of the Dragon and smote the creature. Our attention distracted, the stone giant that crouched behind the hut was able to engage and prepare to hurt our wizard. An arcane gate from Rift moved her out of harm’s way and onto a nearby bridge overhanging the lava pool behind the hut. The Fands could not seem to take a good step or swing. Explosions rocked us as they continued to leave the path and find every mine. Mechanical iron men they also awakened. These constructs entered the fray causing massive damage to our friends and Fand comrades. These were not all of our foes. An Eladrin man with a longsword came out of the hut. Clad in little but leather armor, he engaged the Paladin. It is not often a blade touches our valiant dragonborn. But, this one did with such effect that Felsmon’s arms went cold. For the remainder of the battle, his strength was at half its usual potency.
In the course of spells and powers, swords and axes, Tira had the most amazing use of a spell. I have seen her use the Chaos Storm many times, but on this occasion, the Storm battered the stone giant and carried him over the lava pool, where he sunk into oblivion. Unfortunately, her Hurricane that could have tried the same trick on the mechanical was ineffectual against the immovable constructs. The tide was clearly ours after many heartbeats, though Monica and a few Fands had fallen. I consecrated the ground around our friend cleric, and she was soon restored by the dragon. The power of Barrick shifted the battlefield in our favor. One point I must recall, the armorer had a magic amulet shaped as Beholder. It was flung into the lava, but Felsmon flew to recover it. Even now, it may have an important part to play in what becomes of this tale. But, a bright blur that moved in and out of the hut would have more effect in the short term.
With the battle going against him, the Eladrin Elbad surrendered but mocked us for serving Xathros. The truth of his words stung. He went to get the key Xathros sought, only to find it gone from its chest. Somehow, the blur was a being that had stolen the key even as we distracted the Armorer. Xathros had triumphed and tricked us in the process. Elbad implored us to make sure that Xathros was never able to use the key. “You must defeat Xathros”. He explained that the Key opens the iris in the Tower floor. It would send the Tower to the Underdark, allowing great evil to be released. He gave us well-meant gifts. To me, a pair of gloves that would strengthen my faith and allow my healing powers to be more effective. The others he gave gifts also.
Renithar paused. He reflected on the gift his grandmother had given him, the small black ring. It had taken him another twenty years after the keep’s destruction and his time in the Hall of Understanding to wonder whether the obsidian ring might be more than an heirloom. He marveled at the foolishness of the Church whose mantle he wore. The adventurers had had real powers. This was not simply a story to give instruction on the life of the Riftness. The ring was proof. His recent dreams of a great walking flame rising from the South meant that such powers might be needed soon. They continued to haunt even his waking.
The monk was nearly certain that the time was coming that his grandmother had foretold. He could now remember almost everything that she had taught him. Reading the journal of his ancestor helped to clear away the teachings of the Church. And, the arrival of the inquisitive Nathaniel and Milandra he took as a sign from the old gods that he would need to drop his farce and begin to train them and others to stand against the forces of real evil that would soon threaten this land.
He looked around his small cell. The Apogee had not even blanched when he had asked to be moved from the Masters Hall to the Librarian’s quarters near the True Writings. His grandmother had taught him how to get people to cooperate, how to make friends and influence people. A good smile she called it. He could only hope that the Apogee did not realize his true motives – to be close to Nathaniel and Milandra as they began to learn the real Truth for themselves, and to find the powers that he hoped the gods had given to them.
His ruminations were interrupted by the sound of angry voices that culminated in the Zenith booming out a “Who’s there” not 10 staff lengths from his cell door. Taking off the obsidian ring and tossing it into the air, an inky disk of nothingness his full height appeared next to the monk. He placed the tome in the disk, waved his hand, and the ring returned to his finger. He would have to study further his ancestor’s beloved journal another time.
He opened his door, grabbed his staff, and quietly went down the small corridor that separated the Quarters from the Stacks. Renithar could easily see the Zenith and his entourage close to the very table where Nathaniel was conducting his illicit copying of the True texts of the Eastlander.
Masters Windebagg and Stoufful looked ashen. And, Nathaniel and Milandra? Nowhere to be seen, when they had been working here not long ago. This was not good.
“Your Zenith,” the monk called out, “and Mother Nadir. Good man Apogee. My fellow Masters. May the Wisdom be with you all,” he intoned the greeting that reminded all of the wisdom of the writings that the Church espoused. “I see you have found my little mess, my apologies. Since coming to the work at the Library as the Apogee directed me, I find I am at a loss without an Acolyte to serve. Of course, in this sacred area, one cannot have young monks, but these old hands have a harder and harder time with the locks and the quills. You will pardon my lack of cleanliness as my work continues?” The slightest twinkle glowed in his eyes.
From their hiding spot, Nathaniel Yewprick could actually see the side of the face of the Zenith. Even as Renithar spoke, the Zenith immediately relaxed, as though a friend had come to greet him with a few kind words. It was an amazing change, almost a magical change he started to think, but that was silly, magic does not really exist. Magic is the symbol for the forces of the Church. He really had been reading too many of these stories of the Paragons.
The Zenith asked with little more than idle curiosity, “These bits of parchment and locks left undone – that is you?” Renithar nodded saying, “These are not the clues you are looking for, “ and the Zenith continued, “These are not the clues we are looking for.” His eyes looked a little glassy from Nathaniel’s vantage point.
Renithar looked at the others assembled. Nathaniel was sure that he saw the faintest twinkling around Renithar’s mouth, “My wisdoms all, the hour is late, and the people will need your teaching in the morning. Let us retire to the Masters Hall, toast the greatness of the Zenith and the Nadir, open the great Book, and hear Master Windebagg recount the tale of the poison gases and the great chains that bound the heroes as they were held captive by the monster of eyes, Xathros.”
Windebagg perked up immediately at this suggestion, coloring returning to his face. He was an expert on the meaning of Xathros. “Yes, yes, well, glasses from my personal wine cellar of Nentir ’97 would be just the thing as we find the depth in that tale. Felsmon’s role is particularly important, but Barrick’s is not to be slighted, either. And the cards held by the sorceress, why did she not draw while they were in the chains? Oh, such items to consider as we find our guidance. And, the meaning of the Beholder is not just in the eye of the beholder! But the pile of ash that was the Norfand, Yes, yes, let us raise a glass and recount the tale, indeed. We must make the introspection that saves the people from the poison of introspection.”
Renithar intoned, “Your Zenith, shouldn’t we be off to hear the Master’s teaching?” The Zenith nodded dumbly, “we should be off to hear the Master’s teaching.”
The Apogee could only just keep from gaping with mouth open. The Zenith had been furious just seconds before. And, they had come knowing full well that these two Masters were failing in their duties. He was sure that he would have not one but two Masters in the Chamber for days! And, now, nothing but a glass of Nentir ’97. It was not the same. But, he said nothing. He was a bit chagrined. He could not remember exactly why he had assigned Renithar to his cell in the Library or what the old monk was supposed to be doing. He was sure the reason would come back to him. Yes, it would. The Apogee is the High Point of Reason.
As the little party moved off, Nathaniel gently let out a breath of air and looked up to see Renithar looking back at him. The old monk winked and then turned, putting his arm around the Nadir. Nathaniel heard him say quietly, “You should come with me deeper into the stacks of the True Writings some time. We could find Wisdom there." The Nadir tittered as they walked away.
After the silence had lasted long enough to consitute real safety, Nathaniel stared at Milandra, “How did Master Renithar make that all work out? Quills be broken, but I thought we were goners!” The red-headed half-elf only smiled slyly, “Well, it couldn’t have been magic. Everyone knows that is only a symbol of the stories, right?” “Right,” replied the young monk. The beguiling half-elf continued, “At the moment, we’d better return to our cells before we are missed. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to make sure you don’t screw up so badly again. There is a lot to be done, and we don’t have time for any more of your mistakes.”
The steps back to his Acolyte’s cell passed without Nathaniel even realizing he had completed them.