Previously in our story...
"Sometimes it's these little things that make up our character, being able to stick to our own convictions is sometimes harder than living by someone else's convictions."
As someone who strives to maintain balance, it is important, at times to take a look at the larger picture. It is also just as important to consider the smaller things, for if you focus too much on the long game, it becomes easier to lose track of your own internal harmony. This is the nature of balance. Yin and Yang.
For being and nonbeing arise together;
hard and easy complete each other;
long and short shape each other;
note and voice make music together;
before and after follow each other;
That is why the wise soul does without doing,
and teaches without talking.
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Standing there in front of the deep metal doors with the glimmering layan handles and rose marble columns, I was stuck again by the gaudy opulence of this place. Like someone who had been given all the money in the world, and couldn't decide what to do with it.
Shalev asked the party to check the doors thoroughly before touching them, his previous experiences showing through to a vigilance that I have seen become tiring to the others. Tiring as they may think it, I know that he finds comfort in the vigilance, and more often than not it has proven itself necessary in our adventures. Tobias did as requested though, and told us that there was no indication of whether or not the doors were holy or unholy. Fife also checked the door, looking for traps, and also came up negative. Shalev examined the doors again, and could not figure out how to open them, as they did not budge when pushed. He asked Tobias and I to try, thinking perhaps that the layan would somehow respond to an elven touch.
We looked at one another in wry amusement, but agreed, each grasping one of the layan rods on the massive doors. Then we looked back at Shalev, and pulled the doors easily and soundlessly open. Inside the room was a dais in the center of the space that held an ornate throne. Ebony and mahogany wood benches sat on either side of the raised area, and we noticed that the room was glowing with light. I looked up to see delicate hanging chandeliers that were woven with glowing layan leaves. The leaves were connected to delicate threads of layan that disappeared up into the ceiling, acting as a focus to bring the sunlight down to light the room. I looked at the elaborate and beautiful lighting, feeling the warmth of the sunshine radiating off of the leaves with a gentle heat, and I wondered again at the sheer extravagance that was exhibited here.
Jaeger said something to Shalev in dwarfish, and then he turned into a raven and flew up to explore the ceiling of the great room. Fife, Lan, and Tobias explored the walls, and Lan discovered a passage on the wall directly behind the throne, and another on the right hand wall. We checked the wall to the right first, and Fife discovered a lever for the passage behind the throne.
Shalev moved over to examine the throne itself, and saw that it was carved out of one solid piece of a green stone that matched the brooch that we had acquired from the merchant back in Eyore. The throne was a solid, stylized dragon with deep metal and gold shackles on each leg. Each arm rest has a fist sized gemstone where someone's hands would rest. The gemstones are the crowns of the heads of more stylized dragons, a star stone crowned the head of a serpentine dragon; and a gleaming opal crowned the head of a more lizard like dragon. I noted that neither of the dragons depicted here matched the great Fae dragon that flew over this area.
On a whim, I took a seat on the throne, and placed my hands over each of the gemstones. As soon as I did so, a mouth opened up on each of the walls on either side of the throne, and a voice boomed out in resonant tones an introduction of my person to any and all who might listen. The introduction was done in my native language, and consisted of my entire name and all of my titles throughout the ages. After about 10 minutes, the introduction ceased with the statement that all should show reverence, causing both Tobias and Shalev to instantly drop to their knee. I noticed that both of them seemed awed, and as they gazed with shining eyes, I felt a little embarrassed to be so outed. I had not ever made a point of mentioning any of the titles I hold, as they mean nothing to me. I hadn't heard most of the exaltations in centuries anyway, and found myself a little disappointed that none of them sparked any memory that may have once been associated with them.
Curious about the throne and it's capabilities, Shalev, Lan, Osman, and Fife all followed suit to sit on the throne and be announced. Each one received their own announcement, in the language that they spoke most often. Shalev then asked, bemusedly, that Amit do the same, and the great cat gave him a long-suffering look, but climbed up onto the chair. Again, the mouths on the walls opened up, and again they made their announcement. This time, however, the exaltation was said in a series of growls and chuffs that took almost a half hour to complete. Amit, bored with the whole thing, lazily left the chair once the voices had quieted, and looked at Shalev with cat-like superiority before flouncing back to the edge of the room.
We checked out the passage behind the throne to see a door to the left and a passage that continues along the wall. Inside the door there was a room filled with velvet and ermine cloaks hanging on ebony wood pegs. The party took the sumptuous cloaks, and discovered that there was another door on the left hand side. I ventured back out into the main throne room to check to see if there was another lever near the other passage. Finding nothing, I returned to the party and Fife checked the door inside the cloak room. It opened into a large bedroom that was completely empty save for a massive bed. Fife, Jaeger, and Kellyn flip the mattress over in hopes of finding more treasure, but only revealed more floor and a massive amount of dust. We went back out into the main hallway to escape the dust cloud, and Tobias took point so that he could use his dark vision ability to follow the passage to the right. There were two doors to the left, and we opened the first door into a triangular room filled with shelves that held small ingots of imperial stamped platinum plates. The room was filled, floor to ceiling, and we estimated 25,000 ingots in total.
The party members stood, dumbfounded, at the uncountable wealth in this room. As they began discussing how best to transport it, I pointed out that we already had more wealth than any of them had ever seen before, and that there would be no feasible way to carry it. Tobias and I urged the party members to leave the ingots behind, and if they must, return to them later. The rest of the party grudgingly agrees and Shalev asked KelLyn to come look into the room to remember the location so that they could return later and potentially transport the ingots elsewhere. She wryly commented that there were limits to even what she could do, but paid attention to the details of the location room as he asked.
Fife then moved over to the second door and checked it for traps. He discovered a needle trap which I am able to disarm after about an hour of tedious work. The room beyond was large and square, and completely empty. There was a door across the room on the opposite wall, and Fife also checked that for traps. Finding none, I moved again to start work on unlocking the door. As I worked through the tumblers, however, it tripped a trap that was expertly hidden within, releasing a noxious green gas. I blinked once in surprise, but felt no effects whatsoever, so I continued to concentrate on my task. After the door was unlocked, I stood up and stretched, glancing around to see that all of the rest of the party, including Amit, were fast asleep on the floor. I checked on all of them, and found them unharmed, so I left them to sleep off the effects of the gas and I opened the now harmless door.
Inside, I saw another triangular room with a circular depression in the floor. Inside the depression was a column of layan that rose nearly to the domed ceiling of the room. Encased inside the glowing layan was a man wearing full metal armor. The man was looking straight up into the column of light with an almost sadly reverent look on his face. I looked closer at him for a moment, but then decided that I wanted to wait for the rest of the party before I explored further, so I returned to the room where they lay and made myself comfortable in one corner before entering into the deep meditations that function to refresh my body.
After about three hours or so, the party members began to groggily come to. Shalev passed around some of the bitter espresso beans that he is fond of chewing on, and when Jaeger looked at him questioningly, Shalev also offered some to him to try. Jaeger sniffed at the beans, then following the example he had seen, popped them into his mouth to chew. He made a horrible face and promptly spit them out, muttering something to Shalev in dwarfish that made him chuckle.
Once everyone was up and fully aware, I tried to explain what I had seen in the room beyond, and then gave up in my explanations and just opened the doors so that they could see for themselves. The layan column was still there and still glowing radiantly. The man still knelt in the center, looking up reverently. Since the rest of the party was here with me now, I walked up to get a closer look at the man. The armor that he wore was very old, and appeared to be from the first imperial age. I posed the thought that this mand appeared to be a paladin of an old order, and Shalev checked to see if he could sense the alignment of the entombed knight. Shalev concentrated for a moment, and then noted with surprise that he felt TWO distinctly different alignments of Lawful Neutral and Neutral Good.
I looked again at the man, and then looked at the column of layan. I had never seen so much in one place before, and I wondered with a sudden suspicion if a sylvan tree could survive having so much of its sap removed. I reached out to touch the column, and find it to be warm and solid to my hand. As I rested my hand on the layan, I saw that it descended down into the floor and thought about how far it might go. Suddenly and silently, the layan column began rising up out of the floor as if responding to my thought. It slid up until it revealed the kneeling man inside completely, and we saw that he held onto the cross pieces of a massive sword.
Still touching the glowing layan column, I cast my Nature of Things spell and it told me what I had feared it would. The column was the life blood of the sylvan tree of this land, and incorporated nearly 1500 gallons. There is no way that any tree could have survived having that much sap taken from it, even a little at a time, and I yet again felt frustration with myself that there was knowledge that I should have known that lay just out of my reach. I wondered at the arrogance of such a man, who would take the essence of such a thing to make himself a tomb. I also wondered if this was the original ruler of this land and if the wizard had displaced him somehow.
I touched the layan again with the thought of retracting it back into the depression in the floor, and it once again answered to my thoughts. Once it was down, however, I found that I could not get it to raise again. Shalev asked KelLyn if she would also cast Nature of Things in here, and she scoffed that the sword was so magical that she could feel it from outside in the courtyard. Shalev was intent on removing the sword though, and asked if I might be able to soften the sap enough to get to it. I looked at him for a moment, then nodded my assent, and concentrated on trying to craft a spell that would allow me to return the sap to a liquid form. It took a very long time to do, and I had to maintain constant contact with the material. After a day, the layan column rose up again, and I realized that the rising and lowering was not thought based, but rather time based.
20 hours of focused concentration later, the man's face, the decorative chain of his armor, and the sword were uncovered. The effort to reveal him completely exhausted me though, and I broke away from the column to stumble over to Tobias. I fell into his arms and murmured to him a request to guard my back before falling completely away into a dreamless sleep to recover. I awoke some time later to the rumbling purr of Amit, who had laid down beside me, and Tobias standing watch in front of me. He filled me in on the events that happened while I lay sleeping, and I found out that Lan had wanted to cast first aid on the man to see if she could discern why he had died. Jaeger had offered to help boost her power, but he botched the spell. There were thankfully no visible effects of the wild magic, though, and Lan was able to cast her spell successfully. She learned with distinct clarity about the weather for the next day, and looked at confusion at Jaeger before trying her first aid again, this time without his help.
She was able to learn that the man had died of old age, and then was encased post mortem by his people. Shalev spoke up then to say that he could only sense the alignment of the sword now, and suspected that the man's soul had been held within the layan prison until we had released him. The sword had Fyrewerian writing along the blade, and KelLyn read it out to the party saying that the blade was presented to Alberich Chrondor by the Fyrewerians. The blade was three feet in length and it radiated enough magic that, according to KelLyn, it glowed like a star.
I could tell that Shalev itched to hold the sword, but having been burned literally once before, he held himself in check to my silent approval. He said that Jaeger was the only one of the party who was properly aligned to wield the weapon, and though I could see the disappointment in his eyes, he shrugged it off and stepped back so that Jaeger could take up the sword. Jaeger thought for a moment about this, and then asked if we could clear the scabbard of the weapon as well. I once again agreed, and after another exhausting 16 hours, was able to do so. As Jaeger picked up the scabbard, a molded layan blade fell out onto the floor which Tobias promptly picked up and claimed.
Scabbard in hand, Jaeger then reached out to grasp the sword, and paused for a handful of heartbeats before sheathing it home and belting it on. Jaeger also claimed the imperial armor that the old paladin had worn, and I took some care to wrap the body in the ermine and velvet cloaks that I had taken from the closet. I said a simple blessing over his corpse, and then worked steadfastly to encase him once again in the layan tomb. Shalev also blessed the body in human tradition, and the scabbard that Jaeger wore rang like a bell in response.
After a short period of rest, we continued to explore, and we discovered that the old paladin's spirit was what had maintained the palace here. Every room we encountered was now falling into ruin, and we confirmed that even the materials we had gathered from this place were crumbling to dust. The keep as a whole now felt empty and abandoned. The party returned to the room with the platinum ingots, and after another intense discussion, they took 32 of the ingots from the shelves. I reminded them again that taking it was pointless, and likely could carry some kind of death-effect on it, but they placed the bars into Tobias' treasure box anyway. Shalev took one extra bar and offered it to Ma'at, but she responded to him with a gentle rebuke telling him directly that he should not tithe from the tombs of others.
Chastised, he put the platinum back, and when he noticed that Jaeger also seemed reluctant and averse to taking the ingots, he refused his share as well, saying that he wanted nothing to do with it. We gathered what items we had with us, and decided to continue traveling away from this now desolate place. On the way out, Osman, Fife, and Jaeger all decided to get into a pumpkin flinging contest using the giant trebuchets on the battlements, but found to their great disappointment that the giant gourds had also been affected by the removal of the old paladin's spirit, and were now nothing but sludge and dust.
KelLyn asked Jaeger pointedly if he would like her to identify his new sword, but Jaeger refused saying oddly that the sword would tell him it's name in time. The party broke out into a heated discussion about where to travel next, and I pushed for sticking to the original plan to go and visit the next city in the circle. We decided to travel the long way around the lake, and after about four weeks of uneventful journeying, we saw a group of mercenaries camping along the edge of the lake.
The mercenaries were all human, and wearing mismatched and dented aluminum armor. There were 11 men around the campfires near the lake, apparently paying no attention whatsoever to the fact that we were approaching. Shalev murmured to Amit, asking if he saw or sensed any others, and Amit turned to face the forest with a quiet rumbling growl. I immediately drew my bow and took aim at the area where he stared, and another group of 18 men emerged from the trees, splitting into two smaller groups. They tell us with dark amusement that it would be wise of us to join them for dinner, and Shalev's response was to draw his sword and ask them how they preferred their remains to be cared for. KelLyn looked distinctly bored with the whole situation, and Lan and Osman turned to look at one another with an expression that the party had come to recognize as their tandem call to the fairy folk.
Jaeger said something to Shalev, and Shalev looked at him with alarm before shouting out to the party in desert common that we should all close our eyes quickly. We followed his advice, and a blinding flash of light erupted from Jaeger's sword. A wave of energy followed suit, and the group of 11 men by the lake were blinded completely with cries of surprise.
I took aim at the two bowmen on either side of the leader of the first group at the tree line, and Shalev charged after the leader of the second group of men, killing him instantly with a precise decapitation. Fife speared one of the archer's arms to his chest, and though Shalev missed his second attack, he quickly struck again, hitting one of the bowmen in the face. Fife and I took out two more of the bowmen, and Tobias took out the leader with a solid strike to the head using the morning star that he favored.
The mercenaries hit Jaeger in a group, but Jaeger bemusedly ignored their attacks completely. Lan and Osman cast their summon spell successfully, and an elegantly garbed woman stepped out of thin air, saying quizzically that she had no idea why she should have been summoned here, as everyone seems to have perfectly functional clothing. Osman, thinking quickly, said that he was not perfectly dressed, and her eyes lit up with delight as she began to measure him precisely for a new garment.
The remaining bowmen all turned to target Shalev, and the second group of mercenaries all turned and began murmuring together to apparently elect a new leader right there on the spot. Amit was over by the group near the lake, toying with them as cats tend to do with their prey. Fife watched Amit for a moment before targeting the last one that Amit had tagged to spear in what quickly turned into the oddest game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" in history. One by one he took them out, until at last only one remained. That one he speared through the shoulder, effectively pinning him to the ground, but leaving him alive to question.
Tobias attacked the group targeting Shalev, and Shalev turned to attack the remaining bowmen. His strike was true, and he managed to disrupt the concentration of his target. Tobias missed his brawl attack, though, and one of the bowmen managed to strike Shalev, causing minimal damage. Shalev retaliated by smacking the bowman in the face and removing him from the fight. I targeted the group of men huddled together, and threw one of the exploding pineapple seeds right into the center of them. The seed hit the ground and exploded with concussive force, killing everyone in the huddle instantly and causing minor damage to everyone within a large radius. The spray of falling gore suddenly froze in midair for some reason, along with the two bowmen who remained alive. We all looked around in some confusion, only to see Jaeger sheathe the sword with a smug look on his face.
Searching the remains, Shalev picked up a striking long bow which he promptly offered to me. I could not draw the weapon though, and so I declined and offered it to Tobias. Tobias also declined, preferring his own bow, and it was offered to Fife. Fife took the bow with thanks, and the asked if Jaeger could unfreeze the remaining bowmen, I noted that Shalev offered his share to Ma'at, and raised an eyebrow in quiet observation at the new behavior.
The elegantly garbed fairy woman finished the garment that she was making for Osman, and then she asked what she would receive in payment. Knowing the perils of bargaining with the fair folk, Osman offered her a dragon short rib to use as boning for corsetry, and she quickly agreed with interest, on the condition that he could fashion her a needle out of the bone immediately. Osman did so quickly and efficiently, and she looked at him gravely stating that she appreciated that he did not try to draw her into bargains or traps or additional conditions. She also warned us all that there were four wars going on within the fairy kingdoms right now, and that he should be extremely careful about whom he summons from now on, as she could not guarantee that the next person to answer their call would be quite so... pleasant. Osman took her warning to heart, and then the woman gathered her new supplies and promptly vanished.
Shalev then walked over to question the one remaining mercenary by the lake who remained blinded and speared to the ground. Tobias quipped in irony that it would be wise if he joined us for dinner. The mercenary told the group that he and his men had been hired to fight in the war against the Ros Baban's on the other side of the mountains. After helping the gnomes until the passages collapsed, however, they found themselves trapped here on this side and decided turn to brigandry. He continued on to tell the group that the nearest township was near Mount Wanake, confirming that we had been heading in the right direction. He also told us of the Wagleburg colleges where there were maps and older fairies who had stayed and become the academics who ran the university. He proved to be a wealth of information, telling us that we shouldn't bother the dragon at Emer, but that the minions of the beast and others of the township were able to coexist peacefully. He warned that the dragon kept a harem of the most beautiful women so that he could show off his singing abilities, and that as far as he knew the sylvan tree was not there.
This confirmed, to my sorrow, what I had come to suspect when I saw the old paladin encased in layan. The mercenary added, however, that the wizard had journeyed around the entire area looking for tree seeds and saplings in an attempt to regrow or replant the tree. The maps and journals detailing his travels were rumored to be held at the university, and I made a note to try to visit if possible.
After the mercenary had finished his tale, Shalev offered the man a chance to start a new life. He offered to give him a recommendation to work as apprentice to Ishmael in the dwarven city, if the mercenary could give his word that he would give up forever the life of brigandry. The mercenary thought about it for a few moments, and then told Shalev that he would try it out, but could not guarantee that he would not return to thieving to get by. Shalev, not satisfied with this answer, or the risk to his name, killed the man quickly and mercifully. Jaeger walked over to the two bowmen that were pinned to the tree and killed them quickly as well, saying in broken common that they should remember the name Antarna.
Shalev's action immediately caused outrage in the rest of the party members, and it puzzles me as to why they took such offense at a merciful death. Tobias, especially, seemed infuriated by the action, and has shown great animosity toward Shalev. Fife too seems unnerved by Shalev's apparently sudden coldness, and I see fear in his eyes when he looks at the man he is supposed to bodyguard.
Having spent so much time with the desert human cultures, I can understand Shalev's reasoning, though I might not have done the same thing. We could not have cared for the man, and our food stores are dwindling to the point where we could not have supplied him to make it to the next town on his own. Shalev put his own honor at stake for the man's solemn promise to uphold the law of the land, and the man refused. It was merciful to grant him a quick and painless death this way. Still, however, I feel I may have to act as a mediator among the party members for a time, as none are willing to deal with Shaelv now.
Balance is a difficult thing to maintain, and the balance within the party has been shaken considerably by this apparent betrayal of trust. I am reminded, again, that humans have a much different outlook on things like this, although I do wonder at Tobias' anger. I would think that he, being from the same harsh desert cultures, would understand more than the rest. Only time will tell, but I think that I will have a difficult time trying to keep the peace.