Rhys gave a genuinely nervous smile as he closed the gate. Being that these past few hours had more adventure in them than the entirety of his previous life combined, he was quite shaken. The idea of a barrier between him and the outside world, however feeble it may have been, was so obviously a boon to him and his morale that no one questioned his actions (or intent). Instead, they turned their attention now to the much-talked-about-and-now-finally-seen Temple City of Blesshu.
As one may have guessed, the theme of semantic dubiousness persisted. The city was only a city because it was bigger and grander than any other municipality they happened to have wandered upon so far. This is to say, it was nicer than a populated outhouse and was decidedly not a keep. The city itself was built around a central temple, and in the starlight of the predawn hours, it seemed absolutely and entirely devoid of life. Any life. There were no people, no animals, no carrion eaters. The only living things within the city walls other than the Intrepid Six (Plus One) was a potted plant; a potted plant that was, judging by its state of mild dehydration, on its fourth day without water. Dan decided that the whole thing gave her a good, solid case of The Willies. It had been a while since Dan last experienced The Willies, and not wanting such an experience to go to waste, she pondered on it a bit as her fellows tried to piece together the mystery of The (Empty) Temple City of Blesshu.
A thorough search of the city was made. The guard station was not guarded, the market place had no marketers, and the houses were not housing. In the center of the small market square they now stood within was a peculiar statue of peculiar shape and peculiar form. It was carved of stone—several stones to be exact, then placed together in such a way that no particular shape could be distinguished. It was a statue commemorating “light” and “goodness,” at least by the inscription at its base. Considering that “light” and “goodness” are not tangible things of tangible physical form, Dan conceded that this was an acceptable shape for the statue, and found no fault with which to critique it. Kryss however, apparently wanted a closer look and scaled the statue under the guise of “a better vantage point.”
As they walked through the town, certain impressions were made on some. It seemed as if the entire town had a lingering magical residue, as if there was, at one point not so long ago, a great and powerful spell cast about the place. The adventurers felt the presence of this aura more and more strongly as they reached the central temple, where it had been deduced that the catacombs must lie beneath. It was a protective magical aura rather than a destructive one, and it seemed this protective power was now concentrated on the central temple, and held its door soundly shut. This further enhanced The Willies which perturbed Dan, as she knew that temple doors did not close and lock except in the case of Very Bad Things. Considering that an angel had but hours before warned the Intrepid Six (Plus One) of The End, Dan was certainly certain that some Very Bad Things had (or were going to) happened here.
Being a woman of questionable nature, Kryss decided that lockpicking would be the best approach to opening the doors. She was quickly rebuked by the fact that the stone doors had no locking mechanism. Sprinkles strained very hard to deduce the magical properties of the place, and Malaggar remained confused by the lack of ground overhead. Jane and Rhys decided to try the obvious, and knock. Needless to say that there was no answer, which further heightened the aforementioned case of The Willies. Being a woman of faith, Sora decided to pray. Dan thought this to be the most likely tactic to enter a protected place of worship, but before Sora could even finish kneeling she was suddenly in tears, her sobs unexpected yet unmistakably true. Dan was openly taken aback by such a display of emotion by the usually calm yet fierce Dragonborn, and asked “What’s wrong?”
“Something’s happened,” she said, her usual air of peace colored with sorrow, “I feel a deep sadness.”
The pieces began to fall into place as she saw the temple door shudder ever so slightly. Dan took the lute from her back and in the Dwarven language, began to sing a comforting song, beseeching Avandra’s help to aid whoever this temple was trying so hard to protect. Without explanation, the entire group suddenly found themselves nearly overwhelmed by sadness, as if the temple itself were mourning the loss of something extremely dear. The doors slowly swung open, revealing an empty house of worship.
As the wave of grief subsided, Malaggar spoke aloud. “I’m confused,” his voice subdued, “what’s going on here? What is this?”
“The temple mourns,” Sora explained, “something awful has transpired here.”
A moment or two passed, and feeling more themselves, the Intrepid Six (Plus One) carefully entered. The temple, for the first time in this narrative, what exactly what it was said to be. It was indeed a temple, it was indeed grand, and it was indeed beautiful; even if not the most grand or beautiful Dan had seen. It was made of stone, had a central aisle with a lush, velvety purple carpet, and wooden pews at even intervals at each side. The outer walls boasted humble, yet exquisite stained glass windows of faceless, genderless beings. Between the pews and the outer walls were stone pillars, each with a simple yet elegant carving of yet another genderless, featureless being, holding in its hand a candelabrum. Within each arm of the candlesticks was a most unusual candle, which emanated light from its entirety, rather than simply from a flame at its top. (This, of course, was of very vital interest to the rogue, who took only minor prodding from the Drow before she climbed a pew in an attempt to acquire these unusual light sources. (Un)Fortunately, these glowing sticks seemed to be rather permanent in their fixtures, and Kryss walked away empty handed, save for some minor burns on her fingertips.) Strangely, the temple gave no indication of to whom it was dedicated; there seemed to be no definitive evidence of who the priests of this temple prayed to, nor had any indication through its art or architecture of belonging to any particular faith. Wanting to better understand what exactly this temple was and what had caused it to emanate such an utter sadness, Dan strolled up the aisle and to the dais for a better look. There, behind the pulpit and against the far wall, were four thrones with four statues seated upon them.
The statue on the far left (Dan’s left, not the statue’s) was a depiction of the High Merchant. She wore the modestly regal robes to be expected of someone important yet not of royal stature. The statue to the right of her caused Dan to blink, rub her eyes, look, blink again, and rub a few more times. (It might be construed by someone of less worldly experience that Dan was in disbelief, but being a woman of worldly experience Dan was most definitely not in disbelief, but only had a speck of dust in her eye.) The statue was a perfect likeness to Probably the Queen (aka Maybe and Amazon), except, of course, this rendition of her likeness included clothing. To the right of Statue Probably the Queen, was a statue in the perfect likeness of King Rowan. A fleeting pang crossed Dan’s heart as she remembered the unfortunate lot that had befallen him. To the right of Statue King Rowan was the statue of a man, in slightly more regal and courtly attire. Dan recognized that this must be a depiction of the local regent; he sat in a strange position, with his right hand cupped upward and his left hand resting upon it, index and middle finger outstretched. Finding this a peculiar position for a peculiar statue in a peculiar temple, Dan leaned in for a better look. There, on the Statue Regent’s two outstretched fingers were grooves, as if something was meant to rest there.
“Sora!” Dan exclaimed, “The rings go here!”
Sora came closer and inspected the statue, also seeing the worn grooves of Statue Regent’s fingers.
“Hmm…” she said. “I thought she meant take the rings to the actual regent.”
“She said ‘take this to the Regent at the Temple City,’ and this is a statue of the Regent at the Temple City.” Dan explained in a most earnest voice, “She was a very clever queen.”
Still doubtful, Sora looked sideways down at the diminutive bard.
“Are you sure about this?”
“What’s the worst that could happen? Nothing! And then you can just take the rings right back.”
Seemingly satisfied with this, Sora took the two connected wedding bands from her pocket and slowly, carefully, and ever so cautiously, slipped them over Statue Regent’s outstretched fingers.
Then, magically and mysteriously, nothing happened.
The Intrepid Six (Plus One) were quite ready to be disappointed, but then, magically and mysteriously, something happened.
The Statue Regent’s hands began to lower, causing the rings to slide back off (to which Sora deftly caught them). As they lowered, his two fingers curled back in until his hands were neatly folded in his lap. Having only ever seen simple wooden automatons during circus acts, Dan found this to be quite impressive. But before she could vocalize the impressive impression this statue-contraption made upon her, the dais behind them began to slide slowly away, with a hard and heavy grinding sound. Everyone gathered and watched as it slowly revealed a wide, deep set of stairs descending into darkness. A quick breeze seemed to flutter up from the darkened abyss below, and Dan abruptly found her heart aching as if it would break. It was a strange sadness; a sorrow that was deep and true yet not her own, as if a thousand souls with a though woes had finally found an ear to whisper. It was unlike anything Dan had ever experienced, and she tried very hard to listen to it, to learn from it, but it was a hard lesson indeed.
It was about this time that the outside wind, which had picked up unnoticed after they had entered the temple, began to rise. First it was a whistle, then quickly began to rattle the windows. Looking out to the predawn sky, Malaggar spoke with an ominous tone. “That is not natural. We need to move. Now.”
Without a moment’s hesitation Jane stepped down first into the dark corridor and lit her torch. Seeming to feed off of, or be comforted by Jane’s stalwart and brave spirit, Rhys followed quickly behind her. The rest following in tow, the Intrepid Six (Plus One) descended into the catacombs below.
The first thing to be noticed within the catacombs was the sheer and absolute lack of coffins or remains. Or dust, or disarray, or any of the general creepiness that is generally assumed to be part in parcel of something called a “catacomb.” The room was far more spacious than anyone had anticipated, was neat, orderly, and simply, yet skillfully ornate. The walls and pillars of the room were etched with more faceless, genderless beings that Dan could almost swear seemed somehow angelic. Once again, no clues hinted at the temple’s dedicated deity, only that it was a temple of “goodness” and “light.” But before Dan could ponder very deeply about the Rondalonian habit of overstating the quarters of the living while understating the quarters of the dead, Malaggar called out to his comrades.
“Hey, I’ve found a button. I think it’ll close the dais behind us.”
Normally Dan would find a mysterious button in a mysterious building to be quite an exhilarating find, but the residual sadness pounding at her heart, combined with the oddities of the catacombs took up every inch of squishy thinking folds that she had. Hearing no protest from his fellows, Malaggar pushed the button and, as expected, the dais above them slid back into place with a loud, deep grinding sound.
With torches in hand the Intrepid Six (Plus One) began to cautiously make their way forward through the tombs. Jane, followed closely by Rhys, stepped forward and continued through a small, narrow path into another large room, which seemed to contain yet another large room within it. Before her was a thick stone wall, stretching from floor to ceiling and leaving only a small corridor with which to walk around it. Even more strangely, there were obvious doors, also stretching from floor to ceiling. Yet even more strangely, the entirely to the wall, edge to edge, floor to ceiling, completely uninterrupted by the doors, was covered in ornately carved words.
These words were very obviously, ornately, specifically and precisely etched, unlike the rest of the temple and all its shapeless ambiguity. The language was unknown to both Jane and Rhys, and she called over her shoulder to the rest of her group.
“Hey, do any of you read unusual languages?”
Feeling both a need to stay close and a fair degree of curiosity, the rest of the Intrepid Six (Plus One) gathered near Jane, their own torches casting eerie glows and dancing shadows upon the carved surface. Sprinkles examined the writing, leaning in and occasionally touching the script. He seemed deep in thought, yet made none of those thoughts known to the others. Sora also intently studied it, throwing her gaze up and down its entirety.
“It’s not Draconic,” she said, “but it is still very, very old.”
Dan took a few steps back, trying to get as much of the script into her sights as possible from her vertically challenged viewpoint. She stared at it, scratching her head, trying to make sense of the arrangement of the symbols.
“Wait…” Dan said slowly, “I recognize a few of these.”
“Really?” asked Sora.
“Yeah…” she stepped closer, pointing to particular character made of circular strokes. “That means ‘people,’ like a collection of people. And that one,” she pointed to another nearby character made of sharp, intersecting strokes, “means ‘danger.’ And this one over here,” she inched to her right and pointed to yet another character of upward strokes, “means ‘good.’ This one here means—”
“Bad.” interjected Sora as Dan pointed to another character of downward strokes.
“Yeah. And not just bad,” Dan almost whispered.
“But evil.” finished Sora.
Dan nodded. “And this one means ‘victory,’” she pointed to another character of upturned strokes, “and that one is—”
“Death,” Malaggar stated as he saw the short, violent strokes of the next character.
Dan nodded again, slowly, as she scanned the wall for anything else familiar. “Oh,” she said, “and that one means—”
“Knowledge.” said Sprinkles as he observed the squared strokes she pointed at.
It was a strange and collective realization that whatever this was, each of their respective languages had derived from it. While none could read it, each could see a certain familiarity within its chaos. Dan found it to be both exhilarating, and reminiscent of The Willies.
And no one noticed that while they scanned the wall of script before them, the half-elf stood silently behind them; an expression of apprehension and foreboding darkening her tattooed face.
“Well, let’s see what’s in there, shall we?” Jane said with her usual earnest and simple cheer. She put her armored shoulder against the door and began to push.
“Let me help,” offered Rhys. Together on a three count they heaved mightily against the stone door.
The door first seemed like it would open, as it gave an inch or two under the two warrior’s combined strength. However, an inch or two was all they got, and the door gave no more. Behind her, Dan heard a slight, metallic noise and saw an unlit sconce shudder. “Hey, pull those sconces!” she called out.
“SHH!” the Drow suddenly scolded the group with severity. He held a hand up for silence, his eyes and ears straining against the darkness of the corridor to their right. “Footsteps,” he whispered back, “we have company.”
From around a corner, into their weak torchlight came several armed, armored, and walking skeletons. Dan inwardly congratulated herself on her accurate prediction of Very Bad Things, and the rest of the Intrepid Six (Plus One) readied their weapons. As battle ensued, Sprinkles made a most remarkable move, and walked right into the forefront of the battle, blasting the decrepit foes with fire. Doing what bards do best, Dan pulled her lute and struck a song.
“I think you have to pull the sconces at the same time,” Dan said to Rhys as he stepped up to one of the sconces.
“No, I think they have to be lit first,” he placed his torch low and watched it light.
“Oh good! Now the other one!” Dan called above the sounds of clashing steel and bone.
Sora heard her call and, being closer to the second sconce than Rhys, lit it with her own torch. “Now PULL!” Sora called. They both wrenched back on the sconces, and once again the low, deep grinding sound of stone sliding upon stone was heard. The large inscribed doors began to slowly open inward.
Before the doors could fully open, a smaller door at the end of the left corridor crashed open, and more self-propelled skeletons, sword and shield in hands, stormed through the door. Proving to be growing into his role as a warrior, Rhys readied himself and took a stand, blocking the foes from reaching the back of his companions.
Battle clanged and crashed on all sides, and Dan played on. No sooner had the large stone doors pulled fully open than Kryss disappeared inside. Unable to leave the battle, the rest of the heroes fought on.
When the final skeletal foe crumbled to dust, the Intrepid Six (Plus One) dusted themselves off and joined Kryss in the enigmatic room. It seemed lit by an unseen source, and the entirety of the interior, including the ceiling, was covered in the same strange language as on the outer wall and door. And there, at the back of the room on an elevated platform, they saw her, clutching a large, silvery tablet as if she could not, nor would not, ever let it go. Several of the group would have questioned Kryss and her choice to flee the battle, except that, inexplicably, each of them was impulsively drawn to other tablets at the back of the room. It seemed as if the tablets were the only thing they could focus on, and each focused on a different of the eight tablets present. Each in turn, drawn in by the curious feelings, picked up a tablet and inspected it. Dan, however, quickly ran up and snatched ‘her’ tablet, hugging it close as if it were her oldest and bestest friend.
A loud boom and crash was heard, as if a small explosion had taken place near the entrance of the catacombs.
“Not good,” observed the Drow.
Slow, steady footsteps were heard, as if a single person had decided to take a leisurely walk. Although why any good, sane person would ever want to take a leisurely walk through a place of final resting, much less after a small explosion, was completely lost on Dan, and those darn persistent Willies danced and little louder.
A faint “fwoosh” was heard, and a silhouette could be seen at the end of the corridor, slowly nearing the enigmatic doors between them. The mage ignited a ball of fire just before the creature, hoping to deter it from entering. The being, however, simply walked through it, dispelling it as it passed. A slow clap was heard, followed by a sinister yet refined voice.
“Thank you. I couldn’t get that door open on my own.”
The being entered into the mysteriously lit room. It was a very distinguished looking man, with dark, regal facial hair and a short, dark ponytail knotted cleanly behind his head. His skin was exceptionally tan, a particular shade of darkened bronze that did not come naturally to most. His eyes were a deep, dark blue that bordered on black, and from his back protruded two black, feathered wings.
“Hello,” the being said with a calculated, cold politeness. “My name is Jorreth, and I’m here to help. We’ve been looking for these—they are going to help us,” he paused, as if looking for the proper word, “fix what is happening.”
Dan stood stock still, hugging her tablet, and inwardly cursed herself on her accurate prediction of Very Bad Things. This being, she somehow knew, was pure evil. She knew this being had something, if not everything to do with The End.
“Okay hoss, what do you want?” asked the Drow, aloof as always.
“I want those tablets.”
The being began to walk up the stairs to the platform they all stood on, holding their respective tablets. A feeling of overwhelming anger suddenly washed over the bard. This being was in some way responsible for that which Amopholes was seeking to stop; this being was in direct defiance of Avandra; this being was exactly why Dan was there.
“No,” Dan spat with a startling amount of venom for one so small. Two more words left her mouth, letting Jorreth know exactly what she thought of his ‘wants’:
With a small flinch of surprise, Jorreth stopped his ascent. “That attitude,” he seethed, “needs to be corrected.” With a wave of his hand a force slapped the Halfling across the face; but her newfound fury made her more defiant than before, and she refused a reaction, only keeping her eyes level on his.
Seeing that times were indeed dire, Sprinkles suddenly dropped to one knee, and slammed his tablet with all his strength against the edge of the stairs. A smack resounded as stone hit stone, yet the tablet remained in one piece. Jorreth smirked, seeming to revel in the failure of this act of rebellion. Trying his hand at something now, Malaggar threw up a cloud of darkness around him.
“Oh, how cute,” mocked Jorreth. He snapped his fingers and the Drow’s darkness was dispelled as easily as the mage’s fire.
“How the hell did you even get in here?” Dan seethed at him, “I know you shouldn’t be here.”
“A few thousand years can do things to locks.” Jorreth responded.
“Well, you have us at a disadvantage,” Malaggar said with a flippant air, “if you want us to give it up on the first date, you can at least tell us more about yourself.”
Jorreth tilted his head, seeming to calculate the Drow’s words. “Fair enough,” he said, “I am trying to keep things the way they should be. I usually don’t do this, but you should just hand them to me. Or I will just have you killed.”
“By what?” challenged the bard.
“By me.” Jorreth said simply. “I usually like to be a bit more devious, but time is of the essence.” With a speed no mortal could match, Jorreth was upon the group, mere inches away from Jane and Rhys. “I am going to ask one last time that you hand those over,” he met each of their eyes, “or I will take them by force.”
“Who do you serve?” Dan asked, ignoring his threats.
“I have the luxury of serving myself.” The dark archon raised his hand and each of the tablets began to glow a deep orange. Then, miraculously, each of the Intrepid Six (Plus One) began to glow white.
A guttural growl escaped from Jorreth’s lips, his face showing outward rage. He began to strain, obviously concentrating very hard on holding on to the tablets. The walls of the room suddenly went ablaze; six of the seven heroes suddenly felt the need to act, and Kryss fell to the floor in a writhing, whimpering heap.
Malaggar, with a swiftness that had not been seen until now, deftly loosed an arrow from his bow. It sailed cleanly, accurately, and beautifully, into the dark archon’s shoulder. A low cry and a wince proved him vulnerable.
“Where is the Raven Queen in all of this?” Dan shouted.
Jorreth chuckled. “You have no idea.”
Rage still seething from her pores, Dan struck an angry chord, followed by a dirge, impossible sounds flowing from her hands as they strummed the four strings of her simple lute. The seven heroes seemed to glow brighter, tendrils of white light lifting off of them like steam.
Jane took her moment, stepping forward as she brought her sword upward, slicing through the dark angel with an arc and spray of blood. “You should really learn to play nice.”
Her empathy ever present, Sora reached out to help the fallen Kryss to her feet. The half-elf only snarled with a feral mindlessness and scrambled away. With his spell now readied, the Eladrin stepped forward, raised his hand, and uttered a single command: “Sleep.”
Jorreth tried to resist the command, but he could not fight it with his attention so divided. With an angry, guttural utterance in a language none of them recognized, he summoned a ball of ice and hurled it at the mage before slumping over.
Everything went white.
After a brief time, the whiteness faded, revealing the Intrepid Six (Plus One) to be in roomy, yet dilapidated house.
Before them stood Amopholes.
He seemed a little worse for wear; he had a few new cuts and burns, and his right eye sported a deep gash that, had luck not been on his side, would have surely rendered it blind. Even viewing him from the front, one could tell by the redness creeping over his shoulders and around his sides, that his back was caked with blood.
And his wings were gone.
A fierce pain stabbed at Dan’s heart; this was not the kinds of Change she had hopped for.
“Well, that was interesting,” Amopholes said in his kind, eloquent voice. “You found the tablets, but I see we only have seven. If the eighth tablet is still there…” he trailed off, “it means she didn’t make it.”
“Who?” Dan asked, trying to hide the quiver in her voice.
“She refused to come with us.”
“I know…” he seemed distant for a moment, “but she was to meet you there, that tablet was for her. I’ll see what I can find out. In the meantime, we will do the best we can with just seven.” He gave a small sigh. “Well, it seems you finally met Jorreth.”
“He’s an asshole,” Dan said with resolve.
“That is one of the nicest things he’s been called in a few millennia.”
“I could think of some other things.”
“I have no doubt, Halfling.” (To which Sora gave a snicker.) “Our kind always works under the orders of a master,” Amopholes continued, “But he…doesn’t follow the rules. From what I can tell and for reasons I don’t understand, he wants to destroy the world.”
“So he can recreate it to his will?” Dan offered.
“There is no way that he has enough power to do that.”
“Not even with these?” she asked, holding up the tablet she’d still been clutching.
“No, not even with those,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “Wait, you can’t read those, can you?”
“No,” replied Dan, “but I take it it’s in Supernal?”
“Hmm. Well, we can read it, and it’s in a language of the gods,” he seemed to contemplate the proper explanation, “but it’s only possible to read them when you have all of them.”
“What are they?” Sora asked.
“Prophesies. And each one is destined for someone. If the queen didn’t get it, yet no one else did…”
“Then she’s still alive?” asked Dan.
“That would be my assumption, but…I can’t find her. She seemed so close; I had supposed she was with you.”
“So then, we should go find her,” said Malaggar.
“That would be quite important,” Amopholes responded. “I’ll see what I can discern from the tablets myself.” He quickly explained to the Intrepid Six (Plus One) their whereabouts, letting them know that he often liked to walk among the mortals, and therefore had this modest house on the outskirts of a city on the eastern shores of Rondalon. Despite his friendly, comforting tone and his insistence to the matter at hand, Dan could not pull her eyes away from the bloodstains across his back and shoulders.
“Amopholes…” she said as she stepped closer, “are you okay?”
With a smile, he patted the little woman on her shoulder. “I’ll be okay,” he said. “I can no longer help you in the ways I did before, but I am not done yet.”
Despite herself, tears welled in the corners of her eyes. She lowered her face in an attempt to hide it.
“On the bright side,” he said, seeming to understand her grief, “I always wondered what it was like to be mortal.”
Perhaps it was the confirmation of her fears, or perhaps it was the silent strength this fallen angel still radiated, but the tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Do you know what this occasion calls for?” interrupted the Drow, “We have to get you drunk.”
Dan suddenly perked up, lifting her still wet eyes to Amopholes’. If this was the Change he had been handed, then she would do everything she could to turn it for The Better. “YEAH!!” she said with enthusiasm. “There’s SO much stuff I have to show you now! Like eating! Eating is SO AWESOME!”
Amopholes actually let out a hearty laugh, and patted the Halfling on the head, “Yes, yes. I must admit that’s always been on my list…”