Some stories become legends only in the romance of hindsight; the banal and unglamorous moments glossed over by the pen of the skillful bard until all that’s left is bravery and resolve and historic impact.
Other stories carry the burden of legend even before they’re begun, however – and it is a uniquely heavy, particularly awful burden to carry.
It hung like a choking fog over the entire caravan – each morning meal a little quieter than yesterday’s, each evening’s drink around the campfire a little more contemplative and solemn. A peaceful night’s sleep was becoming a scarce commodity
The shoulders most directly pressed upon, of course, were the caravan’s adventurer owners – the brave but unlucky souls who stood at the gates of the journey laid out ahead of them. Though the weight was theirs to carry, it trailed behind them like a cold fog touching every member of the troupe.
Seven nights had passed since they’d returned at the helm of a strange and wonderful ocean vessel, sailed all the way from frozen Helheime to the balmy Sea of Sapphires. Seven nights of seagulls and southern sunsets and fresh fish – the coastal encampments were typically among the best memories available to a caravaneer, even if this one was underpinned with a pernicious dread.
It was on the eighth restless night – after the eighth contentious day of planning and evaluating and arguing over the path forward – that the strange dreams happened.
Later, it would be discovered that each member of the party had experienced the same thing: an extended pursuit of elusive sleep coupled with an eventual surrender to the idea that this bed – each adventurer’s own bed, a thousand times more familiar and comfortable than the wilderness camps they’d often endured – was entirely unsuitable for rest. Their vardos encroached upon them with an asphyxiating claustrophobia, and they needed more than anything to throw open the door and leave.
They were drawn to the open night air, to the crashing of waves on the rocky beach below the cliffs of the encampment. It was clear in their minds that there was no other place in the universe that they might find restful peace, and so each made their way – half entranced – down the winding switchback path to the cold misty beach below.
No memory of what they found at the end of that path remained in the morning as they opened their eyes, blinking in the salt spray with sore necks from sleeping on loose stones. The only memory was of a dream, a dream more vivid than any they’d ever experienced:
You’re in a room. No, a one-room cottage – a stone-walled, thatched-roof cottage with shafts of dusty evening sunlight poking through the gaps in the hand-hewn plank door and heavy wooden shutters covering the windows. The walls are covered with bunches of dried herbs, roots, and cooking utensils – mostly wooden, with a few hammered iron pans and pots picked out at random.
You can smell onions and carrots boiling, though you can’t see them. It’s nearly dinnertime.
A woman – her back to you – works at a rough wooden table preparing the meal. She’s cutting potatoes with a sharp knife. The knife’s handle is made from a deer’s antler, and was given to her by her mother who passed away six years ago.
She is humming pleasantly to herself; her wrists are covered in wooden beaded bracelets and her pale blonde hair is gathered in many braids collected under a headscarf.
You feel welcome and comfortable here. This is a good place, a safe place. Dinner smells good and simple and warm.
You are now focused on the contents of a cooking pot filled with cold, clear water. The rest is silence and black – the pot is the only thing in the world.
A woman’s voice speaks softly but with a sureness that communicates intimidating wisdom:
“There is no word to describe the emptiness within which reality exists,” she intones, “but know that there is such a space. A hollow void that exists only to contrast against the worlds that float within it.”
At this, a slender hand – beaded at the wrist – pours a tiny trickle from a vial of red oil into the pot, creating a shimmering round puddle on the water’s surface.
“There are realms in this space which exist unto themselves, and which are defined by energies more pure and powerful than any we know here in our world.”
Another vial – this one green – contributes a small disc of oil to the water’s surface.
“These realms are bounded by the rigors of their energies; defined so fully and perfectly as to exclude each other at every possible point of connection.”
The green puddle drifts ever closer to the red puddle, until they meet – forming a razor-straight line between them where the dissimilar oils refuse to mix. The hand adds a puddle of pearlescent oil to the mix, which follows suit – the three puddles now balancing around a symmetrical triad of border lines.
“The worlds are, however, aware of each other, jealous of each other. Each wants what the other has, and in turn desires to trade away their treasures for treasures of a more exotic nature. But they cannot. It is not in their natures to be able to penetrate the unbreakable barriers that separate them.”
The hand adds a fourth, black oil to the pot, and the four fields of liquid come together, forming four perfect quadrants arranged around a sharp cross-shaped boundary.
“There are great, old intelligences that dwell in these worlds. Architects and astronomers, strategists and librarians. Scholars and inventors. And once, long ago, they sought to pool their ingenuity, endeavoring to create a means by which they could partake of each other’s wealth. A realm bordered by all and built from the primal energies of all. A shared space where councils could be held and deals could be brokered. Our realm. The Prime Material Plane.”
With this, the hand adds a single drop from a smaller vial to the very center of the four-oil formation – as it lands, it retains its shape as a bubble separate to all but nestled in the middle, and begins to leach wispy strands of color from each of its neighbors. They intermingle and interweave.
“Representatives from each plane contributed to its creation, but none so intently as Gladanvrana, high vizier of the Plane of Shadow. As he toiled alongside his peers, he also scratched secret pockets into the unseen places of our world – scars intended to provide advantage to his kind when the realm was completed and access became a much-desired thing.”
You now are quite aware of being back in the cottage. You’re sitting on a bed whose frame is carved from logs and whose mattress is sewn from soft velvety hides stuffed with feathers and raw wool. It’s unbelievably comfortable in its primitive simplicity.
The woman preparing dinner – now clearly the woman who had been speaking to you – walks to a wall cabinet and procures a large hand-thrown clay jar stoppered with a rough-hewn chunk of cork. She carries it back to the table. You do not notice her face, but are still drawn to her beaded bracelets. You’ve seen them before but it’s not troubling you that you aren’t able to place them.
“Gladanvrana’s greed – indeed, his very nature as a denizen of the Plane of Shadow – prevented him from obeying the laws set in place to govern access to the Prime Material. He and his foul brothers cheated and stole and misused the shared realm, and it was this treachery that led to new laws being laid down; laws which cut off access to our world from all but the most powerful of the lords of the Outer Planes. Presence in this realm was now a rare honor bestowed sparingly, and in this quiet absence of outside interference arose the native races of our land – elf and dwarf, man and gnome. These beings – each a mosaic of intermingling energies – carried inside them souls of unique power and beauty, souls which quickly became the most sought-after prize in the collected congress of realms. While Gladanvrana had lost access to his treasured Prime Material, the cracks and channels he’d carved into the world served to leach away the souls of the dead as they left their bodies behind. The devils and demons of the Plane of Shadow became brokers to all other realms for the shining diamonds that were mortal spirits.”
You are in a large mead-hall. The smell of roasted meats and sour ales haunts the air from prior feasts, though at the moment the hall is empty save for five figures at the head of the room – an older man sitting on a rough dais, his eyes swollen and red from fatigue and sorrow. A young woman with wooden beads on her wrists, dressed in white robes trimmed with marten fur. Two burly young men in lamellar hauberks, fierce-faced and armed with iron axes, standing on either side of the seated man with their gazed trained on the fifth figure: a stooped, hooded individual with a pale hand extended outward. You know that he is the Provost. He is Gladanvrana.
“He came to us as a miracle-worker, a traveling healer. The king’s young daughter had fallen terribly ill, and my medicinal knowledge – extensive as I’d believed it to be – had yet to do anything for her but ease her pain. With each day it became more difficult to deny that she was dying. He promised that he could answer the king’s prayers, that he knew exactly how to prevent the young Princess from dying.”
“He produced a contract – a very simple but clear pact promising that the King’s daughter would not die, and demanding as his reward ownership of an estate in the King’s land. He would own this land and serve as its Lord for as long as the Princess remained in this world, and would not submit to fealty under the King.”
“The King, even in his weary state, was a wise man, and knew deliberate wordplay when it was given to him. In an attempt to call the traveler’s bluff, he appended a clarifying clause: should the young Princess’ soul ever leave this world, the traveller would be expelled from the kingdom immediately and banished to wherever it was from whence he came.”
“The deal was struck, and we were damned. The Princess was sealed away inside a stone, frozen forever outside of time, neither living nor dead. Our King sank into madness and withdrew into himself. As the months wore on, the forest estate of the stranger became strange and dark, the woods themselves bending and twisting into a nightmare. Our home was swallowed up by rot and sorrow and frightful things. Our brothers and sisters became terrifying monsters, and even the King and his Queen were transformed into dark, ravening things.”
You are in the hut of the mysterious witch who gave Lusus his new arm. Her wrists are adorned with wooden beads, and her blonde braids have turned silver – though her face is still the face of a beautiful young woman. She speaks directly to you.
“The sum of my knowledge of the old magic was barely enough to prevent the curse destroying me; even not having suffered the worst, I was forever tainted – granted this unbearably long life but tormented at every turn by nightmares and waking visions. I have spent centuries in exile, studying and seeking communion with long-dead gods and monsters. I am driven by one task and one task only – to release Gladanvrana’s claws from our world and find some measure of redemption in death.”
You are back in the cottage. It is clear that the young woman preparing the meal is and always was the witch. You know that her name is Sulfada, and that she is the eighth daughter to proudly hold the same name as her mother, heir to a long family line of healers and mystics in service to the King. This place is the Guldenweald, a thriving kindgom of brave warriors and hard workers who make their home on the banks of the Silber river in a rolling field that will one day be swallowed up by the Schadenwaldt.
She uncorks the jar and pushes a wooden scoop inside.
You are now focused intently on the scoop, laden with dry rice. Everything is moving very slowly as she tilts the scoop to add the rice to the oil-seasoned bowl of water, which now boils over a cooking fire.
“Building our world was no simple feat – the energies from which it is woven were not made to be mixed. They clash against each other violently and unpredictably, and this led to many failed attempts before our realm was successfully created.”
The grains of rice begin sliding and tumbling down the scoop on their voyage to the boiling pot below. They collide and bump, but inevitably travel in only one direction: down.
“It was impossible to commingle these energies in their native states – the outer planes do not experience time as we do. The only way to keep the interwoven elements viable indefinitely was to bind them in a confining system of consequence – time that flows in only one direction.”
The grains rain down into the roiling stockpot, the surface of the water welling and bursting as each boiling bubble rushes upward. Little explosions radiate outward, colliding with other explosions. Grains of rice are carried in swirling currents from one side of the pot to the other, then back again.
“There is no time in the outer planes. There is consequence – actions have impact – but those impacts radiate in all directions. The future – though no such thing exists in the Plane of Shadow – affects the past just as readily as the past determines the future. It is impossible for the human mind to grasp. Simply know this: devils do not fear failure, because no failure is ever truly permanent for them. They can simply undo the knot and begin again.”
The stew is ready. She ladles it into a bowl that is set before you. The aroma is intoxicating and hearty, but you know that it isn’t for eating. You reach into the bowl and gather the stew into your hand – it has the texture of a warm, dry piece of soft-tanned leather – and when you unclench your hand it has become a tiny, seemingly empty blown-glass ampule. It’s warm to the touch and comforting.
“The lesson is over and my license to speak clearly is exhausted; the rest you must commit to memory and seek to understand.”
The young woman hovers above you, her clothing flowing as if she were underwater. Her mouth moves but no voice comes – you know, however, that she speaks the following words:
The blood of kings in frail cup
By father’s hand the line is cut
An oath undone but change not wrought
The trick replayed, the war ne’er fought
Her eyes grow more intent as she begins another verse.
Ply your steel against his pride
In flesh beguile his wrath to hide
Pull his hooves from sea to road
The devil’s harvest ne’er again re-sowed
Each member of the party awoke the next morning at sunrise, cold and wet with ocean spray. The dream scorched into their mind was had by all, and did not fade as the day moved on. Shivering as they climbed up the path back to the camp, they found Kolya pensive around the smoldering ashes of last night’s campfire.
“A strange woman was here…. or maybe wasn’t. I’m… I’m really not sure. I know I’ve seen her before but I can’t tell you where or when. She was just sitting here by the fire as the sun began to come up.”
Reaching into the vest pocket of his embroidered overcoat, he withdrew a small wooden box.
“She said to give this to you. To all of you.”
The box contained a single glass ampule, seemingly containing nothing. It was warm to the touch and filled whoever held it with a sense of comfort.