The Chaos Marches
Chapter 4, Discussions with the Black Mage
We left our heroes hunkered down outside the walls of the castle of the Black Mage, having just weathered an attack by a number of orcish folk who are part of a siege on that castle. Their shelter consists partly of a number of chunky but elastic gnomes and partly of the rock they drew up with them.
One of the gnomes, having recently extracted himself from the rocky dome he helped form, asks, "Anything else?" Tom asks who this is the Black Mage is fighting. "The enemy." Oh. And what race are the enemy? The Rock Person gropes for words. "They are ... of the enemy." ... Okay, who are you? "Rock People." Sigh.
Robbie shows the gnome his flying spy-eye, the cornea cracked by a collision with the force-dome currently protecting us from two dragons and assorted enemy legions. Can the gnome fix it? "You want the Gem People." We ask him to go get one. He does, climbing up the wall at speeds reminiscent of continental drift, by sticking his fingers in the stones.
We lick our wounds while he's gone. Tom tries to patch up Salimar but only makes the bad situation worse. (Note: DO NOT put iodine on a shapeshifter's cuts...) Exhausted, she breaks out her bucket and melts down for a nap.
We hear footsteps up on the walls. The stone knight looks over and asks, "You want Gem People?" We explain and Robbie flies his eye up to show the knight. We also explain about our current situation; the knight is impressed by our kill ratio -- eight of us taking out 23 of 24 enemy who infiltrated under the dome. The knight nods, asks if we know where the one that got away is, gets a fix thanks to Robbie's infrared vision, and chucks a spear up the mountains. (Crash. "Auugh!") Okay, 24 out of 24, with a little help.
The Rock People then abandon their ad hoc dome, form an inhuman pyramid against the wall, and resolve it into a door that opens for us. We enter and it closes. A gnome scuttles through just in time. He looks like a Rock Person, but is ruddy and shiny -- a Gem Person. Robbie hands him the spy-eye, which he holds and stares at for some minutes. When he hands it back, the cornea is all better. Thank you.
We go up on the walls and see we are on the outermost of two concentric rings of walls around the central keep of the Black Mage's castle. We see more of the eight-foot stone knights, rather inactive at the moment. The force dome is still overhead, the two dragons are still attacking it, the enemy horde is still at the gates.
The Gem Person is no more informative than the Rock People -- we suspect them of being more in the way of appliances than personnel -- so we climb a tower to explore and get a better view. Looking out, we see a black-clad figure racing across the courtyard between the inner and outer walls, pausing at the courtyard door of our tower, and waving his hands about, shaking the occasional fist.
Robbie sends his eye down and finds that the audio pickup is out. However, he is able to see that it is a young man, yelling at a doorknocker. He brandishes his fist again, the doorknocker nods, and he is able to open the door and enter.
We meet him halfway up the tower. While he catches his breath, Dafnord repeats the formal introduction he gave for the group to the stone knight a few minutes ago (in last week's session). Tom introduces us individually, including the bucket of slime that is Salimar in repose. The young man, who is named Kendar and is a page to the Black Mage, looks into the bucket in horror and asks if we have an image of her that might be of use in reconstruction. We explain she's just resting. Oh. Ah. Good?
Kendar leads us across the courtyard, through the inner walls, and into the keep, pausing to argue with various doorknockers, who, he explains, have been more than usually fractious because of the siege. They are even reluctant about responding to his pass ring, which is what he brandishes on his fist.
As he leads us, he asks if we're a rescue party. Well, no, but we'll be happy to help an old friend if we can. We ask to be taken to the castelan, since the Mage is still busy holding off the siege by sheer force of will.
In the keep, we encounter a lot of brownies, some of whom are sent for the castelan. Kendar then brings us to the kitchen, where our arrival flusters the enormous cook, who hastily heaves a curtsy to Mithriel and shows us in to the servants' kitchen. There, we partially restore ourselves on stew; she brings a couple of flagons of cooking oil for Robbie's fuel cells.
Soon, the castelan shows up -- a very dignified gentleman in the black livery of the Mage. He is clearly disappointed that we are not a rescue party, and is disconcerted at being given formal introduction to a bucket of slime, but brightens noticeably at Mithriel's presence. High elves are popular around here. We offer our help again.
An owl flutters in, lands on Kendar's shoulder, and murmurs to him. Kendar announces that we are invited to see the Mage himself. Taking the dozing Salimar with us for fear she should otherwise get put in a stew or used to scrub floors, we are led through more castle, up through a Renaissance-style elevator, to the battlement where the Black Mage has been standing for days, clear plastic staff held aloft in both hands, generating the force dome. He sees us, gives a little kick to the spells to "keep them busy" for a bit, then turns and greets us.
It's introductions time again. He mistakes Mithriel for her mother, Daewen, for a moment, and registers the by-now-usual expression of slightly horrified bewilderment of humans being introduced to Salimar. ("And this," says Tom, brandishing the bucket, "is Sentient Salimar, Liaison Officer to Its Unity, the KaiSenese Race Mind." Salimar languidly waves a friendly pseudopod. Tom puts the bucket down. Clunk. Slosh. "She's a shapeshifter," he explains. "Currently between shapes.")
The Mage bows to Mithriel and hails Tom with, "Tom! Long time, no see! Metaphorically."
Metaphorically? Tom hasn't seen the Mage in years. "Literally?" Tom suggests.
"Literally?" the Mage echoes. "Oh, dear!"
"This lady, then, is not Daewen, but some kin to her?"
The rest of us, wondering how long the force dome can stand up to the dragons without the Mage's attentions, start arming ourselves. But then the Mage comes barreling out of the elevator door and lofts into the sky, staff at the ready. After him, Daewen flies out. The Mage takes the force dome down and throws lightning at the dragons. "Daewen" grows to some twenty feet high, in a silvery aura.
Down on the ground, the first ranks of enemy fall over when the dome vanishes and get trampled by their eager comrades behind. Some of them unfurl leathery wings and loft. Then the giant "Daewen" registers on them, and then the rocks begin opening, earthquake fashion, swallowing large numbers of them. The dragons recoil from the lightning and the troops recoil from the rocks and from "Daewen" as she begins to conjure a large ball of silvery fire.
The Mage raises his staff again, the dome comes up again, and turns opaque. He and "Daewen" land, the latter resolving into Mithriel. Then he takes down the dome. No enemy. He explains that he and Mithriel frightened them to get a little breathing room, then he pushed the castle a couple of days into the future. But they will probably figure out soon what he did, and be back.
Meanwhile, he leads us to the palatial "small" dining room, where he ravenously devours lots of food, catching up after the siege.
We explain what we're doing and show him the letter from Dinlai. "I remember that," he says. "Very odd you'd be going there." But, because of the time-twist, he won't say more.
We show him a picture of the mysterious fay from Kate's dreams, and from our first foray into the Marches. "Oh, yes," he says airily. "The Marginalia." After hearing more about our travels, he says he recognizes both these fay and the horrors that dog them, and thinks he understands our timing. He asks that, after the time-twist is over, we send some help to him soon. Certainly.
The Mage remarks wistfully that life was simpler back in Hreme. (!) Aren't we in Hreme now? "No! Didn't you see that mountain?" We were rather busy. "It's got no top! None I've been able to find, anyway." So we are still in a place rather like the one where we met Dinlai.
The Black Mage chokes on his chicken after venturing a couple of incautious remarks and pauses to consider what he can safely say to us about the future. The Marginalia, he says at length, are the key to the whole situation. He also remarks that he is glad to learn that we are out looking for a home and not for a gathering place. Very oracular. Also calls to mind Kate's dreams (from a Marginalia's point of view) of Daewen staring anxiously over a bay and sky full of ships.
He can't tell us much about the enemy, but points out their habit of growing poisonous fangs and talons. He makes a general remark about how useful thick padding is under those circumstances.
We decide that, what with the time twist, we should just heal up as much as possible, rest up for a night, and then leave. Of course, some of us don't exactly heal. What can be done for Robbie? The Mage at first disclaims being any good with machinery, but then notices what Robbie is made of and quickly fixes him in his capacity as the Plastic Mage. His surgeon patches up the organics.
And so to bed. Only, on the way to our rooms, we are led past an armory. It's a back room, we're told dismissively by the castelan, but, as Mithriel remarks in our chambers, you usually keep even a spare armory shut. Is this a hint? We go look.
There is quite a lot of nice armor in here, in sizes to fit all of us, made of various good elven and dwarven alloys. And a couple of chests have been dragged out, to judge by the tracks in the dust. So we wouldn't take anything they didn't want taken? And, although there's lots of good armor, there's no padding. Hmm. We'll sleep on this one.
Mithriel has to have the time twist explained to her. (Mother never liked talking about them.) Tom opines that the enemy hordes are time-twisted with Daewen, and have already picked up a good phobia of her.
Mithriel also tells us about Marginalia. Or at least about the Margins. The Chaos Marches are the ragged edges of Faerie, where it trails off into Chaos. But the Margins are the actual borders where Faerie ends but some bits and pieces of geography (or even other entire realms) begin. It seems clear that someone nasty and, probably, draconian in some degree, is haunting the Margins and harassing the Marginalia.
We give some of the talon poison to the autodoc, so it can develop an antidote. It fails, with an error message that the venom works, at least in part, psionically, and it can't cope with that. Hm, but a psilencer might help.
In the morning, we decide that we have been given a hint to take some armor -- obliquely, so as not to tangle the time-twist any further, e.g. so we will just naturally and freely take the armor they have already seen us in. So we make our selections and leave a polite thank-you note.
The castelan greets us (making no remark about the armor we're wearing) and leads us to the outer bailey. Mithriel gets up a running start, and soon we fade away onto the witchpaths.
As the blur descends, Tom faintly hears a whir. Sounds like an air-cycle. Turning, he glimpses one, ridden by someone with long hair flying in the wind. Mithriel figures it must have been something back in the Mage's world. Very odd.
Soon, we shift to fog and real ground. We're in a valley with trees. It would seem almost like a real place, except that the blue sky has no sun in it. We look about. Now what?
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.