Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Order of Corellon 4: Echoes, Part One
Gray. Gray. Everything is gray.
The soldier moves forward at a steady pace with the rest of his mounted column. His heavy armor is cold to the touch, inside and out; a fitting companion to the gray world his eyes reveal to him. Gray banners stir listlessly at the ends of their poles, held aloft by equally listless pages. Gray light barely reflects from the gray metal of the armor plate worn by every soldier in the heavily armed group, as if even the light itself is weary and devoid of energy. This is not the light’s domain.
His eyes stare out at the gray landscape, the rocky ground melding with the gray sky in a wall of limitless, colorless stillness. To his right, an infinite well of gray mist marks the edge of the Mournland. He stares into the mist, looking, but not seeing; taking note and reacting, but not comprehending. He has been trained well how to survive the regular patrols along a border that even the mad would dare not cross.
In the mist, shadows begin to form. The column turns as a machine, silent but for the clinking of metal and the clopping of hooves. Weapons are drawn. Shields raised. Glassy eyes stare toward the shadows as they coalesce into solid creatures. The creatures emerge, crossing from the terror of the eternal mist into the lands of the living. Twisted abominations, they barely resemble anything the soldier would recognize even if he could allow the rest of his conscious mind to comprehend the sights in front of him.
His sword swings in wide arcs as his mount circles madly in the swarm. Blood and other, less noble things cling to his blade. His mind is operating on something akin to instinct, something he gained only from long, difficult training. Letting thought interfere with that training would mean death, or worse.
Still, a part of him does see. A part of him does comprehend. That part of him cannot be fully suppressed, no matter how rigorous his meditation. A particularly nasty creature falls to the might of his blade, but then, deep in his mind, recognition resonates like a gong…
Lucatro sat bolt upright in bed, gasping, covered in sweat. The shock of that moment five years ago filled him as if he had just lived it again; his heart hammered loudly in his ribs; his fingers clenched and unclenched, as if expecting to find the hilt of his sword. He looked down at his hands, almost expecting to see blood there.
The half-elf composed himself, running through the prayers that the Reverend Father had taught him for just these occasions. His heart stilled. His breath became deep, and regular. His mind became a placid pool, a place of rest and cool waters. A quick glance in the mirror showed him something that he could not afford to reveal. He kneeled, taking a small, wooden box from beneath his pillow. He opened the box and removed a small, silver pendant, intricately made in the shape of Syberis, the dragon above. He clutched it tightly, marveling at the skill required to etch such perfectly even scales, as he said another prayer. Satisfied with the results, he placed the charm back in the box, and the box back beneath his pillow.
Lucatro scolded himself inwardly. He had been neglecting his meditation. He knew that he had come close to losing his carefully sculpted self-control in the goblin cave. He could only hope that the rest of his party was willing to chalk it up to the stress of his recent resurrection. After all, they had no way of knowing that he had experienced more disturbing things than death. Now the dreams were starting again. Dreams he hadn’t had since shortly after joining the Order of Corellon.
Shaking off his unpleasant thoughts, he dressed himself quickly. It was far too early for a nominally sane Paladin such as himself to be wandering about the grounds, but Lucatro had a hunch that a certain wizard was already hard at work.
Petrick didn’t hear the knock at his door. His eyes flew across the pages of the huge book on the table in front of him. The book, made by giants for giants, had already revealed several useful bits of information.
The Reverend Father had indeed been very interested in the circlet the team brought back from their trip to the Seawall Mountains. He had never seen anything like it, and that meant that, in all likelihood, neither had anybody else.
Petrick feverishly scanned the massive pages, searching for more clues. The easygoing young man wasn’t suffering from the same emotional bruises as his wife, Amelie, from their death and subsequent resurrection on the Mistmarsh expedition (aside from a strange recurring dream where he was being suffocated by a porcupine whom he’d offended somehow), but he did have a driving need to prove to the Reverend Father that he was worth the effort of his resurrection ritual.
A louder knock startled Petrick out of his thoughts. He scratched a few quick notes in his booklet, then went to admit his visitor.
"Lucatro! What are you doing up so early?"
"I couldn't sleep. I thought I'd see if there was anything I could do to help with your research."
"Well, not really. I think I've learned all I can here; I'm just finishing up a report for the Reverend Father. If I'm right, this is a truly remarkable find."
"Oh? What have you turned up?"
"At first, not much. I kept hitting one dead end after another. I wrote a few of my old professors at Morgrave University." Petrick gestured to a massive pile of papers filling a table on the far wall.
Lucatro raised an eyebrow, "a few?"
"Well. Relatively speaking. Anyway, one of them noted in passing that he once saw similar designs on an old Giant book, though only the leather cover of that one had survived, so he couldn't tell me what it might have said. That got me thinking: we're assuming that the circlet belonged to someone roughly human-sized. What if the owner was not an adult? A Giant child would need clothing of about the size as an adult human."
"That does put a new spin on things."
"Right. I started gathering every piece of information I could about the Age of Giants. I've even got a few actual Giant books here on loan from a few different universities. There's not much information, but several of them mention a lost tribe of, for lack of a better term, Frost Giants."
"I don't know much more than that. There are just several allusions to a tribe of Giants that had taken to living in extremely frigid climates. The markings on that circlet seem to be specific to that tribe. I haven't found any information about how they ended up in the Seawall Mountains, nor what would lead them to migrate that far. An old business journal from a tribe of giants that used to trade with these Frost Giants simply notes that they didn't show up to the summer markets one year. That's it."
Lucatro rubbed his chin, "so we're looking at the circlet of either a crown prince or a child king or chieftan of some sort from a long-lost tribe of Frost Giants that nobody in our time knows anything about, and few of their contemporaries had any dealings with."
"Pretty much." Petrick gave a winsome half-smile, "But I bet we can find a whole lot more."
"The FROSTFELL?" Amelie was on her feet in an instant. "Petrick, nobody comes back from the Frostfell!"
"The Wayfinder Expedition seemed to do alright for itself."
"And how many others simply disappeared?"
Lucatro, raised a calming hand, "Please, Amelie, sit down. We don't want to disturb the entire Order."
Amelie, Petrick, Ghejhann and Lucatro argued together in the crowded central dining hall of the Order of Corellon. Amelie glanced around at the curious looks beginning to fall on her and sat down, slowly. Her voice remained tight, however. "What could possibly be so important to risk going to the Frostfell?"
Petrick grabbed her hand, "I know it's dangerous, but we found the first real evidence of a lost tribe of giants that apparently lived in the Frostfell and only traded with the Giant tribes in Xen'drik out of necessity. Even if more of the old Giant civilization had survived, I'm not sure they knew much about them even then. We don't need any more reason than that. Finding the lost fragments of civilizations - any civilization - is our mission. And something as old as the Giant civilization... who knows what kind of lost rituals or art may be there?"
Amelie dropped her chin and stared and her bowl of stew. "I know. But.. "
"I'm just not sure it's worth it any more."
A silence settled over the group. It lasted several moments until Ghejhann ventured to speak. "The history of this world is a history of loss. We fight daily against the dying of the light. The few candles left flicker in the winds of a war that has not truly ended, though we like to pretend it has. If there is to be any world worth living in at all, for you and for your children, then we must seek out whatever we can that may help restore some of what we've lost."
The normally taciturn Dragonborn held Amelie's gaze for a long moment, adding, "Nothing worth having can be acquired easily, or without risk. You are no coward. Do not act like one."
Amelie's nostrils flared slightly as his words hit home. "I guess I lost sight of the stakes. Death has a way of changing people you know." She gave a weak smile, "Thank you."
A nod was her only answer.
"In that case," Lucatro announced, "it's safe to tell you that I've already presented Petrick's report to the Reverend Father. We leave for the Frostfell in the morning."
Early the next day, all four adventurers were packed and ready to go. They had breakfast together in the dining hall before heading to the bottom floor, as directed, to receive final instruction.
"How do you think we'll get there?" Petrick asked.
Lucatro admitted, "I'm not entirely sure. I suspect we'll be sent as far as possible on the lightning rail, then on a House Lyrandar galleon to the Frostfell. I suppose we might be sent by airship, but my guess is that would be a little too conspicuous."
As the group reached the end of the hallway, a plump, grandmotherly woman in a modest dress was there to greet them. Her face was like a smiling moon, her eyes as bright stars.
"Mother Franseen!" Petrick exclaimed, stopping suddenly and almost causing Ghejhann to crash into him. The group said, almost in unison, "Corellon guide you, Mother."
"And you, dears," she answered, chuckling.
Lucatro offered an apology, "the Reverend Father didn't tell me we'd be meeting you here. He just told us to report here for our final instructions."
"Oh, I suppose he wouldn't. Dear Willyam so enjoys playing the part of the mysteeerious old priest. But don't you believe it for a second. He couldn't keep a real secret more than a day even if I threatened to stop cooking for him if he didn't." Her voice was warm and welcoming, washing over the group with a strong sense of peace. Mother Franseen unlocked the door leading to the part of the building normally reserved for the highest levels of the Order's heirarchy. She motioned for the party to pass through before following them and locking it tight from the inside.
She led them down a long, colorful hallway, lined with wooden doors leading to offices and apartments. The hallway opened onto courtyards and verandas at regular intervals. "He has such a difficult job, my Willyam, and we both take it very seriously. We're both quite a bit older than we look, you know. Oh, don't give me that look Petrick! Trust me, I look quite good for my age."
"What look? I'm just listening very closely!"
With another easy chuckle, Mother Franseen continued, "Oh, but your thoughts are written all over your face, dear. You're still so young that way. When Willyam and I were first married, he was very much like you, in fact. Back then, the Last War was just a war, and we all knew it would be over soon. We all thought of ourselves as Galifarians first, and Brelish second. Those of us in the heartlands could go about our lives as though nothing in the world was wrong, and we could pretend that all the horrible bloodshed on the borders was just a royal argument that would be resolved once everyone came to his senses. Some of us even believed that.
"But as the decades passed, the war pressed in, ever farther from the borders." Rounding a bend in the corridor, the party passed through another locked door. It merely opened onto another hallway, this one dimly lit. Even here, where few would ever see, the cieling was decorated with masterpiece paintings. Mother Franseen's voice grew somber as her tale grew closer to the present, "We faced shortages. The glass tower in Sharn was sabotaged by enemy agents. We watched House Canith turn from creating wonders, to creating weapons. We lost friends, and children, and grandchildren to the fighting. And we watched much that was good, and beautiful, and right pass from the world, destroyed by this terrible conflict. The world you were born into was already much diminished from the one Willyam and I started our lives together in. And then at the last, when we lost Cyre to the Mourning..." The old woman shook her head, eyes closed in remembered pain, "you're too young to truly know the brightness of the light that was extinguished that day."
The entire group was silent, in shared rememberance of Cyre. They reached another door, and Mother Franseen paused, her voice now quiet, tinged with deep sadness. The laugh lines around her eyes stood out in stark contrast to her tone. "I know that now, we call this peace. But we know it's not peace. It is only a respite. As soon as one of the Five recovers, war will break out again. Sooner, if the goblins have their way. We looked on in horror in the early days of the war, when Karrnath raised their undead legions from the bodies of the fallen. But this so-called peace is just as horrific. The nations as you know them are nothing more than the dismembered corpse of Galifar, moving about as if they have life and purpose, when in truth, it would be much better to let Galifar's remains die, and for the old kingdom to rest in peace. Then we can forge something new, and true, on the ashes, and keep the darkness at bay."
Mother Franseen unlocked the last door and led the party through into a huge, dark room. A few small lamps provided some feeble light, but none of them penetrated far into the surrounding darkness. "I do apologize, my dears. This old woman is just feeling her age today. I only wanted to remind you how important it is that we gather to ourselves every bit of light and beauty that we can. We lean on Corellon, and trust that he will allow humankind a new spring. But you... the four of you are four of the brightest lights we have. Remember that.
"Ahh, here we are at last."
The party stopped in front of a large circle of black stones placed in a perfect circle. The air around the circle was charged, expectant.
Lucatro spoke first, "is that a ..."
"Yes, dear," Mother Franseen answered him, "a teleportation circle."
"I never imagined...."
"Oh, we don't exactly advertise it. I know of a circle in the heart of the Frostfell. The coasts are dangerous for sure, but the heart of the continent is home mainly to animals. Not to say they aren't dangerous at all, but they'll find you much stranger than you find them. Willyam decided that the circle was the best way to send you, mainly because it means that someone, somewhen decided that part of the world was of paramount importance to have built a circle there. It seemed the best place to start your search.
"Now, step into the circle, loves."
Still mostly stunned, Lucatro, Petrick, Amelie, and Ghejhann stepped carefully into the circle. The dim light of the room didn't allow them to take in many details, but it seemed that Mother Franseen's eyes were as bright as ever. As the old woman began the Linked Portal ritual, she was transformed. Power rippled from her in waves; her eyes went from bright stars to blazing suns. She moved her hands with power and precision, speaking in words that none of the others could understand. Her gentle voice, which had alternately soothed and expressed a sadness to great for words alone, instead boomed with strength and the aura of command. The adventurers huddled close as fire began to glow in the spaces between the stones. As the Reverend Mother worked, the flames grew higher, though they gave off no heat. Lightning began to flow from her hands to the stones. With a loud, final crack, the party was gone. The flames winked out in an instant, and the silence returned with an almost audible thump.
Alone in the darkness, an exhausted old woman collapsed to the ground.