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Cryptic Recesses (contest submission story) - Completed 
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Evil Genius
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Post Cryptic Recesses (contest submission story) - Completed
Cryptic Recesses: An Arcane Interlude




Quote:
No blossom compares to the gallow weeds.

~ Darkonian aphorism. Roughly translated: “Life seems most vibrant to those closest to death.”


* ~ * ~ *

Death concentrates the mind. Most have heard this from the fireside recollections of an old soldier, scarred with one battle too many. Others might hear it from the lips of a condemned sinner, lucky to escape the law at the last stroke. In each case, the experiences are broadly the same. A dilation of time. A compression of emotion. A clarity that strips away the incidental, and leaves the brain cleanly apprised of a naked certainty.

Regardless, the gains in clarity from merely facing death are truly insignificant next to the clarity one gains from embracing death.

When one is free from humors and dura – liberated from the fleshy treachery of grey matter and the flux of fallible organs – all uncertainty and vicissitude disappears. All that remains is one’s purpose, purified by the flame of rational thought, unsullied by sentiment or qualm.

Understandably, very few have even heard of this elevated condition; fewer still have sought it. Of the handful to find their way to me, Scherbinung was the first.

* ~ * ~ *

Even among the variegated, cosmopolitan citizens of this realm, Scherbinung stood out. His features were angular and deeply carved, with a certain set to his almond-colored eyes that marked him as different from the average Darkonian. Distant memories suggested to me that he might be part-Olvish. He wore his black hair long, in a top-knot. His style of dress favored loose, flowing silks.

None of this mattered, naturally, in the long run. The Becoming stripped him of his features, just as it consumed his strange eyes, his tied hair, and his foreign clothes. As it ravaged his exterior shell, it refined and focussed his intellect.

By the early months of 652, Scherbinung was already skilled enough to help with the groundwork in the Peering Project. Instructing him as a servant was easy – he had a precision to his methods which made my heavy-handed Reach unnecessary. His autonomy was a refreshing change compared to the rest of my servants, most of whom were literally mindless, and the rest who might as well be as far as my experiments were concerned.

Together, over the course of the year, we converted the High Tower into an arcane refraction well. This would be the first stage of the Peering Project. In the southern wall, we opened a massive circular window to the outside, fully twenty feet in diameter, and inscribed with runes and sigils. This was to be our Passage through the planar boundaries, and I explained this once - and once only - to Scherbinung. He only ever needed to hear something once. He gauged my teachings well, never speaking out of turn, and weighing his thoughts well before voicing them. Scherbinung was a model student.

The crows – normally gregarious and eager to serve – were absent during this time. It was as though they could sense the area’s growing magical intensity. When I needed them for a task, I would have to meet them lower in the castle, away from the buildup.

In a human, such reticence would have been annoying. But in an animal, this canny self-preservation was strangely gratifying to see. And who could blame them for keeping their distance? Even before we began our ley-markings, the area fairly hummed with energy. Cycles of the moon, high-altitude thunderstorms, and the gusty sloughing of the wind… all these served to channel latent energies into the tower. Thaumaturgical conduits stored them in the well, building steadily through the cycles of days, weeks, and months.

Scherbinung took over the purely mechanical preparations in the autunm, casting the spells with growing mastery, as I devoted myself to the paperwork. This was the most important step. As in any venture, careful planning was essential - and this held no less for the dead. Already free from the shackles of sleep, hunger, and boredom, our time was a great empty book lying open to fill, presenting new orders of efficiency far beyond anything human. Eyes that no longer needed light to see also no longer waited until daytime to read. To make the maximal use of this efficiency, one needed careful timetables and flowcharts.

A partial, but important, liberation for the mind lay in the realm of casting spells. A living wizard’s skull-full of porridge is subject to the cycles of day and night, and sleep and wakefulness. Now, after the Becoming, whatever physical remnants of the brain are no longer beholden to any cycle. The greatest liberation is the ability to sit down immediately after casting a wracking spell, and then remastering it all over again.

One benefit I will concede for the human condition, however, lies in the fingerwork. After several painful early experiences with the physical limitations of my own cadaverous tissue, I took to wearing a ring for tasks like writing, or measuring fine quantities of reagents. The ring possessed an enchantment that even novice apprentices would find trifling – the magic to handle something at a slight distance without touching, as if with a magic hand. Yet it was essential for one such as myself, with my necrological handicap literally and figuratively snapping at my fingertips, despite all the mightiest sorcery at my disposal.

An object lesson, if ever there was one.

_


Last edited by HuManBing on Sat Mar 05, 2011 2:34 pm, edited 7 times in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 7:58 am
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The Project’s momentum grew through 652 and into 653. We encountered a brief setback near the yearchange, as the arcane concentrations began altering the weather patterns near the castle and an unusually heavy snowfall blocked us in. Solving the problem was a simple but lengthy affair, requiring first the use of my Sight to view the drifted roads, and then the Reach and Seizure of several hundred of my cellar servants to manually shift the snow by hand.

Under cover of night the shambling army went forth, lurching and moaning, and dug tirelessly at the drifts. At dawn, they returned to their cellars in neat stacks. Two more nights of the same, and the snow was down to manageable levels.

My breaks from the Project became rarer. The Kargat enforcers had to make do on their own for weeks at a time. The crows left the castle altogether, seeking safety in the blasted forest below. And always, Scherbinung worked tirelessly – the model of a thinking servant.

As I plotted it, the first round of castings would get the Amplifier running. Once a certain amount of energy coalesced on the castle, the attraction would feed off itself, leaving us free to devote our energies to casting spells. That done, I set to work committing our magics to paper, so we could retrieve them from a scroll immediately, rather than having to rely on a full casting.

Though he could not replicate all my castings, Scherbinung keenly understood the theory behind them. Another mark of a worthy student. Best of all, he never seemed to inquire why I gave him the newly-researched spells to cast. If he had any reservations about my heavy reliance on him, he wisely kept them to himself.

Our first casting occurred during a night of heavy cloud cover, and it was also one of our most powerful. The southern window glowed bright with cracklings of energy, then coruscated with the power of an otherworldly gate – the Passage strong and true. Amplified far beyond its conventional levels, it pierced the border and gave us a clear, unmistakable glimpse of an outworld.

We had only a few brief moments to study it before I lowered the intensity of the spell to a safe minimum, but the vision seared itself into the memory in a stark, transfixed lightning-flash of recognition: a barren magma-spotted rock, bathed in sickly clouds of glowing crimson vapors as a distant cold sun leered redly in the jaundiced sky.

A grim enough prospect, but it served as Scherbinung’s first sight of a world beyond the Mists. I could sense the cool, detached wonder in his mind as he beheld it for the first time. And, though I steeled myself against it, it stirred the embers of hope in some forgotten corner of my mind too.

* ~ * ~ *

Normally, such gates were unstable and collapsed within minutes of formation. But I had once found in Quantarius’ library an old tome with a nifty trick to prolong a gate’s life to several hours. This required some careful parameters, but the essential technique was to immediately close its dimensions to an infinitesimal hair’s-breadth. In my experiment, the arcane refraction well provided enough steady power from Castle Avernus’ environs to maintain it for days at a time.

I knew a moment of keen elation at our success. I had never cast that spell before, in quite that manner. Even though materially nothing had changed, I had succeeded – a rare occurrence these days. More often than not, my efforts at magical innovation collapsed in catastrophe or, worse still, simply failed outright – as though an invisible hand was at work, thwarting and frustrating all my purpose.

The mystical gate required regular recastings to renew, at a rate far above my capacity to write new scrolls. My paperwork stockpile of renewal spells would allow for a maximum observation of just over two months, at the minimal level of use. Each time we opened the gate a crack to look through it, we consumed more power and shortened its lifespan drastically.

And yet we did. I scanned the dead surface with my Sight avidly, knowing that even a dead world was a potential haven for me. Whatever the world lacked in life, it more than made up for it in its new topology, magical reserves, and physics. And any world apart from this one held the possibility of freedom from the invisible powers constraining my magical growth.

Before long we found that the surface concealed a myriad network of tunnels and caverns. We summoned my servant Axrock, who had once hailed from an underground homeworld. He took a squint at the gate, chewing his beard in concentration, before giving me a fearful look and shaking his head uncertainly. I released him to return to his armorsmithing.

During the third session, we located signs of life.

They were shuffling wretches, to be sure – haggard, lank-haired bipeds with eyes nearly blind from lack of sunlight, but their discovery allowed Scherbinung to assist with Scryings. We followed individual creatures, and discovered very quickly that the world still harbored a substantial population of them, as they burrowed deeper towards the core, away from the cooling atmosphere and their dying sun.

They were cunning, too. Scherbinung was the one who first discovered them threading hoses and fans into their caverns – though for what purpose, who could tell. We watched for so long that the gate began to lose its integrity, coming perilously close to collapse. I reduced it to subsistence level just in time. If it did collapse, we could always open another gate somewhere else, but it would take a colossal amount of calculations and triangulations to find this same world again.

The next step was to capture some matter from that plane and bring it to our own. The gate magic accomplished this easily enough, although for a harrowing moment it seemed the refraction well would not be able to contain the massive energies involved. After many readjustments and reinforcements, we brought a sample through with a thunderclap of energy.

The mineral sample burned our hands ferociously when we touched it, so I used my ring to carry it safely to the Room of Divination. I studied it for as long as I dared, knowing that time spent away from the gate was arcane dweomer wasted. The porous rock showed a strong concentration of positive planar energy, perhaps thrown off by the red sun as it circled the world. The gases contained within it seemed charged with energy, of a type I could not understand or grasp in the time I had.

The rock was dangerous to deadened flesh, but it proved eventually lethal to living creatures too. When I gave it to a test subject in the Room of Alteration, the subject developed burns across its skin, rapidly lost all its hair, and died of organ failure within the day. I summoned one of my larger servants – a construct, fused together from bones of fallen undead – from my cellars to hold the rock in its construct’s hands, and it appeared to do so safely.

But what promise this was! The first glimpse of another world, since… that time… in the Creature’s laboratory.

Scherbinung noted my growing vexation. As always, he left me alone. Diplomatic tact was just one of his many talents.

_


Last edited by HuManBing on Mon Sep 17, 2012 9:02 am, edited 5 times in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 8:05 am
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If the pursuit of knowledge is a goal that transcends the mortal condition, then it stands to reason that immortality removes the greatest impediment to that goal. Immortality comes with a price, however. Already I have mentioned the brute and stupid motions of my cold, dead hands. A similar sluggishness grips the creativity, dimming the flame of innovation – or, for too long in my case, stifling it altogether.

Perhaps there is a poetic balance to this. After all, undeath does wonders for the memory. Any fact, any concept, any association – it all leaps to the mind like a well-ordered compendium.

Thus, the huge sweeping gaps in my memory are all the more distressing. My inability to learn new magical concepts might limit my future, it is true. But whatever power was meddling with my memory, as some truant child tearing out pages of my history, undoubtedly weakened my sense of past. Science and experimentation is an iterative process - without a solid grounding of what has gone before, how can any rational being know how to proceed correctly?

One particular example is still especially vexing, even after all this time.

Once, there had been another experiment – in another land, with another assistant. That time, the Creature had been a halting scholar at best, an unreliable assistant, and easily distracted from work by petty struggles for miserable little power plays. Early on, I even took to feigning ignorance of the simplest teleportation spell, a facade I kept up for four decades whenever I was in his presence. (The ruse had worked, too. After finding the Creature’s hidden diary in his sanctum – by teleporting there, no less – I confirmed that he genuinely believed I was limited to purely physical means of transportation. Quantarius himself would have laughed.)

Under my guidance and instruction, we had constructed a crude prototype of the same Project, and after several attempts, we had succeeded in activating it, after a fashion. A new world opened itself to us…

…and my narrative ends there.

Not even the threat of eternal oblivion itself could make me tell what happened next, because – impossibly, inexplicably – I cannot remember it myself. A seaside town? A machine? The maddening half-memories all blend into each other. Only a mocking figment remains to taunt me. As immaterial as a dream, and as mute as an ancient ruin, the facts of that journey elude me still.

* ~ * ~ *

At times like this, the trivial tasks of rulership seem suddenly more attractive, and I descend to the lower reaches of the castle to address them.

All servants still possessing their free will know to avoid me during these times, unless I specifically request to see them with my Voice. I so request my Castellan - Aquinus - and he solidifies, all obsequious bowing.

Apparently, the enforcers have brought news of progress in their political dabblings. The cell in Gundarak has botched its smuggling deal, as intended, with a whole consignment of unmarked illegal weapons intercepted before they could reach their intended buyers in the disgruntled peasantry. The fact that the weapons are forged with a unique Barovian alloy is sure to give Duke Gundar pause - but I need hardly worry. Any further friction between the bloodsuckers was a decidedly good thing.

A crow brought me a request for a deed at the Hylocian Mines. A few years ago, dark Olvers crossed the border into my kingdom, bearing a series of magical items in exchange for asylum. My Kargat enforcers gave them access to an exhausted mine network near Tempe Falls, and delivered the magical goods to me. The Hylocian Mines deed would allow the dark Olvers to stay in perpetuity, free from the legal eyes of barons and earls who might mistake them for enemies of the state.

I summoned a quill and dictated a deed, the words appearing with no more effort than my mere thought. With a gesture, I maneuvered my seal over it and stamped it with a crisp, sharp motion. Done, and done. The paper folded itself, and the crow gently tucked it into the carrier tube tied to its leg. It gave a single harsh cry, and then it was off.

In the Room of Divination, the Orb of Scrying gave me insight to Gundar’s whereabouts. This afternoon he was on horseback, touring his defenses and watchtowers near the Barovian border. Even at this distance, his brag and bluster were plain to see. The possibility of action against Barovia seemed gratifyingly real.

I turned my Sight towards the interior of Gundarak and sought out a certain fortified keep. There, the Duke’s son could reliably be found, scrabbling in the playthings of what passed for wizardry in that ignorant realm. Medraut’s methods had little in the way of systematic discipline, and his crazed tinkering with magic rarely bore any useful discoveries worth watching. The few breakthroughs that I had observed from him were born purely from random luck and dogged perseverance, much as a flailing blind man might be lucky enough to strike back at his assailants with his cane.

Today, Medraut was shrinking farm animals and feeding them to lizards and snakes. Nothing worth watching here.

I sent my Sight eastwards, dropping briefly at the Creature’s domicile in Barovia to see if I could find him. Unsurprisingly, the Orb clouded and fogged when I pressed it harder. The Creature had taken to wearing a ring that made him impossible to locate through magical means. I had long since given up any attempts to monitor him the easy way, insteading assigning Kargat agents to keep me apprised of his whereabouts and doings.

One comforting thought always suggests itself when I think of the Creature and my Sight. He, too, had an Orb of Scrying - though he called it a "Crystal Ball", like an untutored savage unable to grasp an object's function beyond its crude physical composition - and he complained regularly of crippling headaches when using it. Whether from skill or simple acclimatization, I never suffered from any ill effects with my Orb. Knowing that such a simple tool still gave him so much trouble filled me with a mix of wry amusement and faint exasperation.

Then again, given how much time I can spend gazing through it, perhaps I shouldn't be too quick to mark this as a benefit.

Finally, my Sight sped to the southwest corner of the world, to a thickly forested land. I searched for a rocky outcropping rising from the wooded hills, where a brooding pile of a fortress crouched like a great cat above the valley below. I liked to end my Sights by looking in on the One Who Got Away. A beast who dreamed of being a man, this one had once been a servant to me, just like any other in my Kargat ranks. But this one was different – he demonstrated an exemplary courage and resolution in escaping my enforcers and throwing off any pursuit.

When viewing him in his natural habitat, in the corner of the world furthest away from me, sometimes I throw him a grudging salute – for, like me, he fled the prison he knew for the chance of freedom.

_


Last edited by HuManBing on Mon Sep 17, 2012 9:31 am, edited 8 times in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 8:47 am
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I told Nanje about the new world. I even brought her the rock, though I had to use an illusion so it appeared that I was holding it. When she reached out a hand to touch it, her look of shock and pain was singularly droll. She spat and jabbered, her brief moment of lucidity once again lost to the fog of her insanity.

Nanje isn’t what she used to be. She had once been a calculating, strong-willed woman with sufficiently devious cunning to infiltrate my Kargat officer ranks. In a supremely regrettable incident shortly after I took ownership of Darkon, she and a few other Barovian agents had snuck across the border and decapitated the Kargat leadership of my border guards. This was both figurative and literal – I’d lost a good number of my most trusted Kargat nightstalkers, including General Vychen, whose military expertise I had nurtured as the lynchpin of the invasion to come.

Oh, my bloodsucking nemesis had won that round, for sure... although by a very narrow margin. As his agents fled for the border, I almost had him, trapped in his borrowed body. Unlike my kind, which can move at will between corporeal shells, the bloodsucker had to rely on more mechanical means to achieve his end. Yet, even as the stake was descending upon his alter-ego, the Creature somehow escaped.

The Barovians celebrated for weeks at defeating what they thought was my entire army. Their ignorant joy teetered somewhere between the entertaining and the sickeningly presumptuous.

Nevertheless, the Creature underestimated the scope of my vengeance. Within the year, I had the names of all the people involved in his daring little exploit. There were Barovians among them, but also foreigners: Darl Voan, Nanje, Cylla, Alvi, Ag’n. Then there had been members of Barovia’s own military forces: Resvalan, Aldrick, Yersinia. One by one, my Kargat trailed them to wherever they scattered and struck at them, and neither distance nor time could spare them. Darl Voan they caught first, trapped in a twilight duel, never realizing that his rival would not fall to steel alone. Ag’n, the brute, they intercepted in a tavern and steered his footsteps far from home. They left his remains at a number of different locations in Krezk that not even I can keep track of.

Not every attempt was successful. Cylla, who must now be in her late seventies, now cowers in a nunnery outside of Skald, immune to my best agents for the time being, but knowing her acts of half a century past have doomed her to a life - and death - behind cloistered walls. Aldrick fled to Gundarak, throwing off my Kargat pursuers for a number of years until a completely unrelated assassination attempt by Gundar finished him before my agents could.

But that was beside the point. The important thing was demonstrating to those who opposed me that nobody was truly beyond my reach – not even their lovelorn, broody master in Castle Ravenloft.

Nanje, however, was a special case. She was personally responsible for ensnaring my best Kargat general. Furthermore, of all the people the common peasants talked about, Nanje was easily the most popular. Songs and poems abounded of her resourcefulness and bravery, not to mention the tedious formulaic beauty of her hair, face, and all the other body parts that living people see fit to waste their short lives in discussing. Admirers said no man could resist her. Bawdy bards said even the dead would rise in her presence. Winking scoundrels said she was skilled in every art of earthly pleasure.

Clearly, making a violent and degrading example of her would cause some… resonance.

My agents caught up with her in 593, nearly fifteen years after the incident. They brought her north from Barovia, through Keening into Darkon. The Creature, slumbering at the time, could do nothing more than to raise his noxious vapors at the border - probably thinking in his confusion to stop my agents or to kill Nanje. But my agents had no need of breathing, and they had acquired the Vistani antidote from an unsuspecting tasque earlier. I can only imagine the Creature’s fury at knowing his own Vistani’s brew was responsible for spiriting his prize agent out of his own country. I should imagine that relations with the Vistani tribe responsible for the sale were strained for some time afterwards.

Nanje made it to my realm in decent enough health. Physically, at least. My agents had begun the tenderizing process on the journey up, and her mental status was already starting to grow quite malleable. There was a brief triumph tour of stocks and partial stonings in the border towns, to make absolutely sure the bards would take notice, and then she was delivered to Avernus and into my personal care.

Given my condition, perhaps the bards can forgive me for failing to verify their claims of earthly pleasures. But I can definitely attest to the mental satisfaction she gave me. When I released her in the castle to Aquinus’ tender ministrations, her screams gave a me wonderful sense of gratification, poetic yet piquant. The process took about three or four days, and I was in uncommonly good spirits the whole time.

Today, she lives – if that is even the correct term – in the dungeons below Avernus. The passage of time and the rancid diet of trolls’ blood have not been kind to her, nor have the holy water dousings. Lightly-enchanted implements stretch and present her ruined body neatly against the far wall, facing a variety of holy symbols crafted with loving care to bring comfort to the dying and excruciating pain to her breed of irredeemables.

A specially enchanted wooden stake quivers shallowly beside what once used to be her left breast, where its tip crudely spears her still-beating heart. As for her mind… well, I am told by the torturer that few things penetrate her mind deeply enough to make her lucid these days. Apparently, after decades of unending physical and mental torture, she has lost all cohesion and ratiocinative ability.

Be that as it may, it is worth noting that every time I go to meet her, her one good eye fixes on me and keeps me firmly in sight – wide and absolutely unblinking – the whole time I’m with her. Sometimes this has lasted weeks. Evidently, no matter how profound her delirium, Nanje remembers me perfectly well.

* ~ * ~ *


Far above, in the Peering tower, Scherbinung hailed me silently.

My lord, please come quickly, he said.

I gathered the rock from where it had fallen. With a single word of power and a mental vision of the circle in the Peering room, I was abruptly by his side again.

_


Last edited by HuManBing on Mon Sep 17, 2012 9:38 am, edited 7 times in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 10:36 am
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The Passage was still pinhole-tiny, but the moment I arrived I could immediately tell the agitation on the other side. Flashes and sparks lit the room briefly as the disturbance continued.

I gave Scherbinung a nod – more in acknowledgment of the fact that he had undertaken to do nothing without my presence. A less self-controlled student might have been tempted to open the Gate further, letting who-knew-what into our world.

I reached out and tested the fabric of the gating spell. All seemed well enough. In that case, it was something happening in the rocky world on the other side, then, and not a flaw in the casting itself.

Still, I kept a scroll with a recharging casting of Gate by my side, ready for use at the first sign of wavering.

Then, with a command word and a complex sigil in the air, I opened the Passage gently again.

It was pitch black - not that it mattered to my eyes. A pitched battle was roiling the bowels of the caverns. Scherbinung applied his Scrying ability to the hunched wretch that he’d seen before, and our Gate narrowed in on a single creature, marching inexorably onwards.

There were swarms of them in the chaos and confusion. At length, it seemed that the wretches were being driven back, taking their retreat in careful, measured lengths. At the same time, another contingent of them seemed to be marching onwards, dumb to the danger. Rocks and boulders flew through the air, crushing entire bodies. A great scything darkness cut through their ranks, scattering body parts and torsos.

At that point, the darkness opened an eye – and the unmistakable glow of a wyrm’s gaping maw filled the Gate. Before I had time to reduce the gate’s dimensions, the dragon had opened its jaws wide and unleashed a great choking cloud of shadows. They engulfed the nearest shambling wretches, who shuddered once as it touched them, then progressed onwards undaunted.

The melee continued awhile, but I soon noticed that the rearguard of the wretches were feeding something into the cavern. Soon it was clear what they were doing – having cornered the dragon in an entrapment cave, they had split into groups to block each exitway, and now they had their mysterious tubes and pipes with them.

A ghastly, billowing cloud of red began to fill the room, slowly at first, but then in a thickening mist. The mindless wretches fell still and then collapsed when the mist touched them. But the effect on the dragon was dramatic.

It convulsed and choked as the mist reached it, flapping its wings. Yet even as it did so, the lining of its wings began to boil and bubble. Crystals and scum began to form on its eyes, and also on its mouth as it breathed its own vapors against it.

The wretches held firm, however. Ever more gas began to pump into the cavern, and the dragon, belatedly now, was realizing its only way out was to fight. Yet even as it lowered and charged at the nearest group of humanoids, its eyes were sealing shut already, and the encrustations were filling its mouth like a vile foam.

The wretches scattered at its first charge, but regrouped and directed the stream of gas straight into its face.

And the magnificent wyrm, choking on the solidifying scum in its orifices, collapsed to the ground. Its struggles continued to rock the cavern, in decreasing eddies, for a long while afterwards.

* ~ * ~ *


We managed to isolate part of the gases used in the battle by commanding the Gate to inject just a small quantity into our universe. However, I already had a fairly good idea what the results would be. The small sample of gas burned through my flesh and left large scablike calcifications on my corporeal person. As Scherbinung and I never bothered with illusions in each other’s company, I could see the gas effervescing on the strips of flesh on his skull.

That alone was enough to confirm that it was richly saturated with positive planar energy, once again likely thrown off by the dying sun and trapped in the world’s atmosphere and surface reaches. A few minutes’ concentrated work with my Withering helped to restore the negative energy that our kind requires. Even so, it was abundantly clear that physical undead would not survive long on the surface of this world, if even a roomful of air could cause serious structural damage to a body.

As I saw it, the reasons for continued study of this world were rapidly decreasing.

First, it appeared to be as inhospitable a place as one is likely to find. Liches don't require much in the way of sustenance, unlike other forms of undead (the Bloodsucker, and his cellar full of blood-brood prisoners springs to mind), but like all undead, we must avoid positive planar energy. The heavy concentration of this radiation in the outworld's atmosphere meant that a lich would have to retreat deep underground if he didn't want his undead body sublimating out from under him.

Second, while a lich could certainly continue to exist in regions lacking heat, water, and even breathable air, the practicalities of the existence suggest it would be a singularly pointless one. A lich needs access to raw magical dweomers, which this world admittedly had a profusion. However, a lich also needs access to a working laboratory, alchemical reagents, and a variety of different base elements and materials to do any focussed research. Putting an agent on this world would be like dropping a castaway off an a desert island, then expecting him to build a ship to sail to the mainland.

However, Scherbinung was more optimistic. He reasoned that a world such as this likely comprised a negative energy core, giving rise to the dragons we saw. An undead wizard could remain underground for millennia to come, harnessing the power of the core in his magical studies.

Admittedly, any stay on the world would ideally be a short one, but Scherbinung felt confident that time was on our side.

His optimism was jejune and trite, but we had little other choice. We already had the gate open and the world’s parameters known. To let it go now would mean hundreds of wasted work-hours trawling for another world in the Void.

Whatever we did, we would have to do it soon. The Gate’s lifetime, as measured in the number of scrolls I had prepared to recharge it, was nearly half over, by my calculations. And, given that the final phase of our experiment would tax the gate to its maximum, that meant we were in reality playing with about two or three more days of observation time, and at most a handful of minutes of actual travel time.

* ~ * ~ *


Aquinus knew I was very busy, so he had to swallow nervously - a curiously human act - before imposing on my time. He had already been filing his written synopses, and I had already been leaving them in a growing unread pile in my study. If he came to disturb me now, it was likely important.

“The Mayvin Kargat received Thelandrus Dach’s head in a parcel yesterday. There is evidence to suggest the Barovians were behind it.”

I reached into my memory. Thelandrus Dach… – ah yes, a gifted speaker and quick-thinking dissembler. Also, a doppelganger and spy leading the Mayvin Kargat cell.

His loss would be a substantial setback to our intelligence-gathering along the border with Barovia. It could take weeks to find a suitable replacement.

I turned away from Aquinus with a wave of the hand. Not important enough. He immediately bowed and withdrew.

Back at my lectern, the quill continued sketching complex lines and graphs. Some were calculations for power capacities and remaining dweomers. Others were flowcharts with timetables and milestones.

The Gate would survive in its minimal state for another few weeks. However, to bring something into our world through it consumed a massive amount of power. And to send something out of our world through it would require a power expenditure truly staggering, especially given the Demiplane’s reluctance to let matter escape.

My most powerful spells would be geared to harnessing the pent-up magical dweomers in the castle’s refraction well, and focussing them at the critical juncture to force something through the Gate. Although I had two scrolls with that most potent spell – Wish – inscribed, I preferred to save the scrolls for an emergency.

In the years since I developed an inability to learn new magic, I have found a possible workaround in using the Wish spell to mimic a spell I could not learn. The effort is hugely wasteful, being the magical equivalent of using a millstone to break open a walnut. Worse still, oftentimes the spell itself simply fizzles, or manifests an unexpected effect. Still, it was a start.

Working with Scherbinung, I came up with the idea of the transport gem.

It’s well acknowledged that transporting matter costs energy. Thus, if the matter can be minimized, the energy cost is similarly lowered. The last time I had tried a planar transference, we had tried to shift two human sized creatures – myself and the Bloodsucker – and the last memory I had was of the gate collapsing in a mighty explosion.

However, if I could minimize the mass to be sent, perhaps in a gem, then the power levels required would fall to the upper limits of realistic, attainable quanta.

At least two, and possibly more, well-established incantations existed to place a soul inside a gem. For a human, this was a problematic existence, leading to corporeal issues when the gem releases the soul. But for a lich, the problem of a body was trifling. Once the lich emerged on the other side of the Gate, literally any corpse would do.

And judging from the battles taking place on the distant underground world, there would be bodies enough for the taking.

As we prepared our final stage of preparations, the largest expenditure of time was the creation of the gem and the invocations concerning it. Scherbinung directly suggested using his phylactery gem, but I weighed the dangers in physically shifting his gem through the planes, and decided it was too dangerous. We would use a mixture of Trap the Soul and Magic Jar to place him inside the transport gem, then two more Gates to ensure the Passage remained open long enough for the Wish spells to propel him through the planes and into this barren, old world.

Never resting, never hesitating, we both busied ourselves with the magical and mundane chores before the final phase.

_


Last edited by HuManBing on Mon Sep 17, 2012 10:49 am, edited 12 times in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 9:13 pm
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Post 
We picked out a good spot. One dragon, old and weak, was still guarding its hoard of treasures. We estimated the wretches were barely a few days away from discovering its cavern and engaging it in an asymmetric battle. Doubtless, dozens of the wretches would die, but the dragon’s chances looked decidedly bleak. As long as Scherbinung could leap from the gem into a waiting corpse, the experiment would be a complete success.

Importantly, the wretches had shown a predilection for treasure. They had looted the previous piles with larcenous abandon. We felt it a safe bet that if Scherbinung’s gem landed in that pile, he would have no shortage of corpses at his disposal later on.

The time for our actual castings to begin was not particularly dramatic. It rarely is, for a lich. You simply finish whatever previous bottleneck task you had, then you check the list, and find there’s nothing left to do. In this case, the Darkonian sky behind the Passage’s window was that of a melting spring morning.

I began the Gate castings that would reopen the dormant Passage, as Scherbinung cast his Scrying spell. The Gate turned quickly dark and the morning sky vanished from view, to be replaced by the glowering poisonous hellscape of the cold world. Then, as Scherbinung completed his spell, the Gate’s view delved beneath the surface to find the elder dragon, locating it without difficulty. The beast lay, brooding as though knowing the end was near, on its pile of coins and gems. Occasionally, a ragged breath escaped its fearsome nostrils.

I readied my first Wish to prepare the arcane energies of the refraction well. The incantation took effect, and I felt the combined powers collected in the castle’s firmament gathered in my hand, like an arrow ready to loose from a drawn bow.

I held the Wish in abeyance, tying its activation to an unusual syllable. I began the second Wish, crafting a basic spell that I had seen other wizards use in this fog-damned prison, but always to no effect: Plane Shift. Where Gate drew matter and information into your plane, Plane Shift was a way to expel matter and information out of your plane and into another. The only drawback with Plane Shift was its inherent inaccuracy - sometimes up to hundreds of miles wide of the mark. Fortunately, we had further contingencies that would see to that problem.

This Demiplane’s oppressive physics had been steadfast against the standard spell itself. Today, we would find out whether the same spell, with the power of a Wish behind it, might prevail.

I tied the second Wish into the same concluding syllable as the first. The theory went that, properly executed, this would cause two non-contradictory Wishes to take place simultaneously. This warranted extreme care, however, and much of my preparation time had been the exact wording of the Wishes so that no unforeseen interpretation or condition remained.

Quantarius had a story, possibly apocryphal, about one dimwitted wizard who tied together two contradictory Wishes, which left him in a seeming state of Temporal Stasis until a colleague broke the Wish pattern. His humiliation at having unintentionally alternated himself to infinite regression between two incompatible sets of universes was rivalled only by the derision he faced for casting two Wishes to gain the effects of a single Temporal Stasis. Quantarius even said he took his own life in the end, though whether this was an intentional act of suicide or the byproduct of another inspired experiment was unclear.

But I digress.

We currently had a Gate, carefully supported with multiple redundant castings, just in case of failure. We had a Plane Shift founded by a Wish and backed by a truly prodigious amount of magical energies ready to supercharge it. There was some theory that the Gate itself, mixed with the Scrying, would help to direct the Plane Shift, which otherwise could be inaccurate to the tune of up to several dozen leagues.

However, theory was just theory. Scherbinung was a good and capable servant and I thought he deserved better. The final incantation was a Teleport Without Error – the spell I’d kept so carefully hidden from the Creature, back in Barovia. Scherbinung placed the stone on my lectern and concluded his casting, vanishing with a burst of arcane energy into the depths of the gem.

As the magical powers built from the foundation of the tower, I was just a measure behind, and I pronounced the last syllable of the spell – which also happened to be the same activation syllable for both the Wishes.

There was a bright flash as the three incantations took simultaneous effect, and a sound so profound it shook the castle to its foundations. I held onto the lectern as the floor swayed and the gem physically distorted, stretching like a rope towards the Gate. Simultaneously, the Plane Shift penetrated the barrier of the Demiplane’s Border Ethereal, as the Teleport Without Error tied it dimensionally to the dragon’s hoard, and the collected magical radiations of a year’s worth of refraction powered the whole endeavor.

The castle’s trembling grew even more violent. I unfurled a Wish scroll, just in case. What was going on?

The gem was now a colored streak plunging into the depths of the roiling Gate, the vision of the dragon’s hoard nonsensically distorted. I looked down to where the transport gem met the lectern. The lectern was morphing and stretching into a hideous snakelike shape, inclining to follow the gem into the Gate.

Numerous possible outcomes occurred to me. None of them were good.

The spell was trying to move the gem and everything touching it. Where would it stop? The lectern? The room? The entire tower, perhaps? The entire castle?

My first instinct was to reach out to the gem and detach it forcibly, but I stopped myself. Who was to say it wouldn’t try to drag me in too if I made even the slightest physical contact with it? I stole a glance at the Gate, which was roiling like a sea in a storm. Privately, I hoped the slumbering dragon on the other side didn’t notice anything untoward.

My second instinct was to use the Wish scroll. I could simply dissipate the magical energies back into the sky and collapse the Gate. It would probably cause all manner of weather aberrations, but it was preferable to losing my castle, my collected research, and my dignity to a wayward spell.

I had already maneuvered the scroll into midair with my ring and started reading, when a third idea occurred to me.

My ring… Mage Hand!

Quickly, I focussed my mage hands on the warping space around the gem and willed it to leave the lectern. It was like removing jam from a carpet at the bottom of a bucket, with both arms tied behind your back – slow and finicky work, and I didn’t have much time at all. The Gate had already exhausted the initial measure, and the two reserve castings were laboring to contain the massive energies coalescing within it. But the last few oozing crystals of the gem wormed their way free at my efforts, and with a backlash that threw me against the wall, the gem snapped through and the Gate emitted a sleeting burst of energy.

At some point, the noise generated by the experiment finally deigned to descend to the realm of mortal hearing, and became quite simply the loudest noise I’d ever experienced in my entire existence. I crouched, grateful that I no longer had eardrums - they would be pierced, raw, and bloody by now.

A final jolt shook the bowels of Avernus as the last of the magical energies discharged, and the Gate collapsed to baseline. Cautiously, I picked myself up from the dust and hobbled over to the Gate, trying to open it slightly to see Scherbinung’s progress. All in vain – there were no spells left in me today, and the scrolls were all gone in the experiment.

A short while later, the Gate magicks dissipated and the Passage itself gently vanished from view. The blue Darkonian skies appeared, bright and steely, through the circular window.

I stood there awhile longer, lost in contemplation, before recollecting that one final step remained.

My skeletal legs too weak to support me, I teleported into the Demon Room and retrieved a warded box from a pocket there. Too rattled to bother with my ring, I opened it with uncertain fingers and jostled out the jewels inside. I searched for the one with the mystical inscriptions that formed Scherbinung’s name, in the distant tongue that he once spoke.

Ah – here it was:

Image


Fumbling it between reluctant fingers, I held it up to eye level, to look for the glow of his spirit that would show me that he had survived.


Last edited by HuManBing on Mon Apr 02, 2012 9:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 10:31 pm
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Post Re: Cryptic Recesses (contest submission story) - Completed
Epilogue:

Time passed, and my routine returned to normal. It turns out I did not need a new body – a day spent applying repeated Witherings put me back to roughly full capacity. There was some political housecleaning to do, and I threw myself into clearing Aquinus’ backlog of synopses as quickly as I could.

The crows returned to the castle. I found a replacement for Dach. The Arak dark Olvers took possession of the Hylocian Mines estate. Years later, the Kargat even finally got Cylla, although she had died and been buried for a while before they managed to bring her remains back for my purposes.

The Peering experiment proved for now that it would be impossible for me to travel the distances between the planes. Somebody would have to remain behind to propel me through the barriers, as I had propelled Scherbinung. And in his case, all he'd used was a single gem. I thought of the Demon Room and the massive dragon's skull lying on its pedestal. What ungodly energies would it take to shift that through the planes? Whatever it was, it would take much more research - and that, in turn, would require me to circumvent my cursed inability to learn new magic.

My interests turned to other subjects, and I never did get to see the cold outworld again.

I also never saw Scherbinung again. Nor, given all that happened with the experiment, did I really expect to.

And there it might have ended, but for a strange addendum.

* ~ * ~ *

Years later, I had been middling to deep in my studies of an unrelated magical matter, when Aquinus brought news from Tempe Falls. Apparently, the Arak Olvers had faithfully undertaken to explore the Darkonian slopes of the Nyid-Nirka mountain range as per our agreement. Delving into the depths, they found something lurking in the cryptic recesses of the Southern Mountains that so frightened them, they were seriously prepared to move back to Arak and to the factional persecution of their own race.

The Kargat had conducted their own investigation. Whatever it was they found, it wasn’t safe to relay to me in message form. The message from cell leader Lixantri tactfully invited me to Sight for myself.

Equal parts irked and intrigued, I made my way to the Room of Divination with the usual set of scrolls, and loosed my Sight through the Orb. I passed over the Kargat and the cowering Olvers in a flash, and plunged my way down into the depths of the mountain, following the markers left by the Kargat investigators.

Untold fathoms below the surface, my Sight reached the last marker and stopped, as I felt a growing sense of certainty. Back in Avernus, I unfurled a scroll in midair and read an enchantment through the Orb, projecting an image of myself – shorn of all other illusions – in the palpitating darkness below Mount Nyid. Reaching through the Orb with my Voice, I sent a message of greeting that echoed in the empty caverns.

For a moment, my words met themselves and then faded in the far reaches.

Then, with a rustling like hundreds of bats, a red eye appeared dimly in the darkness and regarded my image. A sibilant tongue hissed a response, well-nigh incomprehensible save for my Crown.

“The Defender spoke of you,” it said in a great, stentorian voice. “He told us you sent him to the passages of our underworld. He was the only one who came, at a time when all others were trying only to escape."

A yawn, then a reflective pause.

"He helped us. My kin had great respect for him. The invaders used their dead against us, and our mighty Breathings were powerless to affect their dead. They had some foul vapor that choked and strangled us. He bought us time, though the effort was doomed in the end. At least we had one dead man on our side.”

The great head lolled to one side with a sighing whisper. I saw that this specimen was relatively young – its hide nevertheless etched with old wounds.

Through the Voice, I told the newcomer that it and its kin were welcome to make a new home in this realm.

It laughed, then – a silvery skittering in the depths.

“There are no kin. I am the last,” it said. “But it would please me to rest here, for a while at least. The dead of your world make for agreeable companions.”

I immediately thought of the Peering chamber and its large circular window, and of the proud view it offered of the lands surrounding Avernus. This mighty one could lair there, I thought.

The image of myself began to waver, and I could feel the spell coming to an end. There was one final question I had to ask, and the Voice carried it to my visitor, translated into its interloper's speech.

The beast shifted its bulk with a great, sloughing gasp.

“I do not know. My race, the hordes, even the sun is dead - all dead and buried,” it said. “If he truly remains there, he shall soon be the only thing left. Watching the underworld grow cold and still, among layers and layers of outer silence.”

_________________


Sat Mar 05, 2011 2:35 pm
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