We left the bodies of the unfortunate goblins in the foundry and gave our names to the foreman to be conveyed to the city watch. We then make our way back to the ‘Olucky Inn’ with haste and garner many looks of curiosity and fear because of our disheveled and dirty appearance. There is some blood and bandaged wounds that can’t be concealed as well. Twice we are accosted by the watch and have to explain our disheveled and bloody appearance.
As soon as we reach the inn, we leave the items to Untskra to examine and arrange for a hot bath, the cleaning and tending of wounds and nourishment for the rest. Waiting for the others to finish their chores, I spend my time completing the procedure of recall that I initiated unconsciously a number of days ago. Full knowledge of the grammar, syntax and nuance of several languages is recalled and stored in my mind-matrix. My initial intent was to recall the goblin language used in Droaam as the standard but the desire came upon me to recall the first two languages I learned in my life, quori and giant. This recollection is a lengthy and demanding process, even for knowledge learned so early in my life.
Clean and sated, we meet with Untskra. The goblin is awe-stricken by Ashurtah’s blade and launches into an account of the Ashen Crown’s history. The ‘Arkantaash’ as goblins name it, has control over history, a curious claim that leaves me wondering. The Crown was kept in six separate parts and these parts were held by mighty dhakaani leaders who were united in common cause. It was appropriated, not created by the dhakaani and initially it was composed of five parts. The sixth was added by the dhakaani and its enchantment was altered as well.
A surprising bit of news he has to offer after his narration is that the newly discovered tomb has attracted some attention. A band of goblins who declare themselves as wordbearers arrived in Sharn yesterday and inquired about the tomb. Untskra has his doubts about so many wordbearers arriving together and reserves judgment until he meets them. He then has another surprise for us. The wordbearer loses no time in contemplating events before offering us the quest of finding the rest of the pieces of the Ashen Crown and reassembling it. Direct and to the point, no time lost in thought. Is it overwhelming enthusiasm or lack of patience or something else entirely I wonder? Regardless, Untskra’s offer is intriguing to us all. To quest for such a storied artifact is a worthwhile endeavour and I feel I owe the goblin for the slaying of his kin and friends. However, I expect Breland to march against Droaam soon and when that happens, I’ll enlist and fight in the war. The hags must reap what they’ve sown and I’m going to be there when they lose their realm. I’m going to be there to savour their fall and their regrets. Until then I’ll hunt for the pieces of the Arkantaash and the company is likewise willing to embark upon this quest. We voice our agreement and the goblin’s face lights up and he jumps around in joy.
Untskra offers rich reward for this quest. He lays no claim on the items recovered from Ashurtah’s tomb, magical or otherwise, except for Ashurtah’s Blade which he leaves in our care until all pieces are recovered. In addition, he reveals to us a secret.
“About four thousand years ago, three blades fell to Eberron from the heavens. One of these I know of and it is a tower where resides the spirit of a woman. This spirit has the power to answer any question.”
The wordbearer pauses for dramatic effect.
“The tower, called the Scepter Tower by some, appears every one thousand years for just a few days, no less than seven and no more than ten although one can’t really be sure.”
Apparently, the Scepter Tower is due to appear on the northern arm of the Icehorn Mountains in just four days. A stunning piece of lore this, every one of us is silent, thinking of the implications, thinking of the question. Untskra continues his narration unbidden after a while. We learn that the Scepter Tower appears near the Precipice Monastery. The first being who entered the tower was the hero Kurion. After his emergence, he founded the monastery and wrote a rhapsody, describing his experiences inside the Tower. One of the first wordbearers, the goblin Sarina, visited the monastery and talked with Kurion. She never revealed what she learned but did write a ballad.
At this point, Untskra produces a crystal ball and sets it on a table. Then he draws a wand from his belt and points at the crystal. Images crawl on the goblin’s skin and an image of a goblin playing the lute, the aforementioned Sarina, appears in the air over the crystal. Her song is clearly heard, a beautiful piece. No matter what else is believed about them, goblins are as capable of producing beauty as any other race under the sun. Most of them have just forgotten how.
There’s no hesitation as we all give our agreement to Untskra to do this quest. The rewards are generous and time is pressing if we want to reach the Scepter Tower in time. Despite the late hour, I leave immediately for the Terminus to check the lightning rail schedule. I return with the news that there’s a coach bound for Fairhaven the day after tomorrow. From there we’ll have to ride to Mertylsward and then enter the northern fringe of the Eldeen Reaches. The journey from Mertylsward onwards will be difficult, the terrain rough and the dangers unknown. We’ll also have to seek the tower in the mountains. We probably won’t make it in time. Untskra may have divulged to us important lore of Eberron but he waited until the last moment to do so. Nevertheless, we have to try. I wonder why he didn’t go to the tower himself sooner and why he doesn’t make the journey now, with us. Is there nothing that he wishes to know? A man in love with history and with the past surely has many questions. At the least, he could ask for the whereabouts of the rest of the pieces of the Ashen Crown. Perhaps he is too much the coward to go on such a journey. To leave the comforts and safety of civilization and face the danger and the roughness of an adventure is a thing most men crave throughout their lives but only a few actually do, out of choice.
- * *
Dawn arrives and we go about our chores and last things before departing for Fairhaven. The brothers make arrangements with their House and we get a good price to ride coach. I try to get in touch with Lord Bren and the first place I try is the Council Hall in Upper Central. Unfortunately, the aides and lesser bureaucrats bustling through the lower halls aren’t forthcoming about his whereabouts or address. I go to Upper Northedge, his electoral ward and ask around until I learn his address. He lives in a mansion in the same ward, in the Crystal Bridge district. His mansion is a lavish estate decorated with vitraux glass and surrounded by a fenced garden. I run into problems with the gate guards who mock me and refuse to let me inside or alert their master. They are either bigots who fear and therefore hate warforged or else bullies who consider them easy targets. I leave the matter be. Violence isn’t an option over a petty disagreement. Also, in civilized surroundings I’ll have to deal with detainment and interrogation by the city guard and I don’t have the time for that. I wait patiently across the street from the gate for someone to enter or leave the house.
A plump human woman in her forties, dressed plainly, exits with an empty handbasket. She looks like a servant going to the market. I follow her for a few heartbeats to put some distance from the guards and ask her to deliver a message to Lord Bren. She’s very sympathetic and returns to the house immediately to inform her master of my presence. Presently, Bren comes out smiling and we clasp hands. The gate guards are relieved of duty at his mansion by his command. Bren’s gesture was more than adequate satisfaction for their behaviour. We talk about Aric and recent events and renew our friendship.
I’m back at the inn in time for supper. The brothers have made the arrangements for our journey. Curious to learn more about the object of our quest, we head to Morgrave University in Upper Menthis. We reach Dalannan Tower, crowned by the enormous dome of Lareth Hall and ringed by five slender spires. In the Great Hall of Aureon, we meet a colourful academic, the dwarf Kaldor, who’s eager to share his lore on the subject. He performs an enjoyable lecture for our sake but in the end, he provides very little knowledge that we don’t already possess. Fortunately, he directs us to a colleague, professor Gydd Nephret, a specialist on the occult and dhakaani lore. We seek her in Shava House, the academic community on campus.
The professor is a half-elven young woman of slight build and bookish visage. Her beauty is well-hidden by her disinterest in projecting it. Nevertheless, her natural charm isn’t lost on Kronos. He has the sense to refrain from blinking his many eyes which shows his interest in her. She strikes me as an introvert and a woman slow to trust but overcome her apprehension easily enough, if unwittingly. I speak a greeting to her in the goblin language, a common enough greeting in Dhakaan of old and she nearly faints from delight. Her enthusiasm at anything that has to do with goblin language and civilization is infectious. We learn a great deal from her about the Ashen Crown over a cup of red tea from Xen’Drik’s jungles.
Apparently, the Ashen Crown was created by the Keepers of the Past and named Crown of Remembrance or Valaes Tairn in the elven language. The elves of Khorvaire used it to return great heroes to life and maintain a tie to Xen’Drik, their ancestral homeland. When the goblins of the Dhakaan Empire appropriated it, they reshaped its power to reflect their love of history and ancestry. Karruuk’s Circlet forms the base of the Crown, two gems – Zaarani’s Solitaire and Mukoorak’s Orb – fit in the sides and Lurtaan’s Cord wraps around it all, binding the pieces. The goblins added a fifth piece, the Beastblade which adorns the front before the cord is wrapped. A ritual is needed to separate or assemble the Crown, the ritual of Arkantaash.
The Beastblade had come to be known by the name of the champion who bore it of course. I watch Hark itching to reveal Ashurtah’s Blade but he resists the urge and wisely keeps his tongue, as do all of my companions. This secret doesn’t live for long though. During the conversation, Gydd mentions that should she have one of the pieces of the Ashen Crown, she believes she could research the ritual that would enable her to ascertain the location of the rest. The advantages in revealing to her Ashurtah’s Blade are obvious. I’d rather we do it after we returned from the expedition to the Scepter Tower, not before. I’d also prefer that she didn’t know about the artifact in our possession as I don’t believe she would be able to keep her mouth shut. Of course, the Weaver of Fate shows the usual lack of interest in my desires and moves in her own way. I watch our secret struggling to cling to life and failing after a brief battle. Kronos gets the promise of a date from Gydd, so it wasn’t a total waste. A sensible, young woman will be good for him. We promise Gydd to give her Ashurtah’s Blade after we return and she agrees to research the ritual of Arkantaash.
Meanwhile, during the day Untskra divines the items we brought back from Ashurtah’s Tomb. Of these I claim the banner and Ashurtah’s belt which is ignored by my companions. The banner isn’t magical and it isn’t of goblin origin either. A curious thing, this. I task my docent to perform an arcane re-structuring using the banner as a matrix and new power is awakened inside me. Kronos takes the Skull Mask, another item that builds up the image he wants to project and helps him define himself, much like the Coat of Eyes. The next morning we leave Sharn and embark on the quest for the Scepter Tower
- * *
The ride on the lightning rail is exhilarating. So much travel time compressed in a journey of a handful of days and nights. Fairhaven is a beauty, as I remember it. We disembark the rail coach outside the northwestern gate and enter the city. To our right is the red-brick plaza of the Chalice Center, dominated by House Lyrandar’s airship tower. The pale towers of Fairhold dominate the city skyline. Orderly and grand are the two words I’d use to describe Fairhaven. Her grandeur is quite different from Sharn’s, less imposing and ostentatious and more dignified I’d say. Sharn embraces you but she makes you feel small, Fairhaven is aloof and holds you at arm’s length but she makes you feel important somehow. Unfortunately, we have no time to spare and so the wonder of the city is largely lost on my companions. We unload our mounts, secure supplies and the best map we can find and embark on the second leg of our journey. We make good time to Mertylsward and with a brief delay to rest for the last time in a room and bed, we continue.
The road through the northern fringe of the Eldeen Forest is unpaved and poorly maintained but large and hardpacked. It could be worse. To the north, the shimmering waters of Eldeen Bay stretch to the horizon. Apart from animals and birds, the first living soul we encounter is a monk, lying bleeding by the roadside. The unfortunate man has been savaged by a beast and is obviously dying. As we tend to his wounds, the monk startles us with his request, “kill me.”
It wasn’t just any beast that attacked him as we learn from him. It was a werewolf and this poor man has surely been cursed with lycanthropy. At the next full moon he will transform into a wild man-beast, a bloodthirsty monster. My companions all agonize over this decision but I do not. Life is the most precious of gifts. There comes a time when one who takes the lives of others as a matter-of-course accumulates enough wisdom to seek to preserve it, whenever he can, no matter how impossible or futile it may be. I deny the entreaties of the monk and strap him onto my horse as gently as I can. The Precipice Monastery will surely lie in our way and there they’ll tend to him, if he makes it that far.
“No,” declares the only one of us whom I was afraid of in this matter. The goliath takes the monk down from my horse and decapitates him with a quick and sure swing of his axe. The head rolls off with an expression of relief frozen upon it forever. I watch as do the others, I don’t make a move to stop him nor do I raise any objection. Gorbir made his decision and I left him to it. Each has to learn the lessons that life has to teach in his own time and in his own way. We build a cairn for the monk’s remains and continue on in silence.
Early into the third night out of Mertylsward, five fellow travelers arrive at our camp. After the initial tension come the introductions. These five men are the Company of the Crescent, adventurers who seek the Scepter Tower as well. The human Devlin is the leader of the group, an aundairian warrior of noble bearing and boisterous disposition. The eladrin called the Dark-Eyed One is a hooded figure of mystery. It soon becomes apparent that he is a warlock. To our surprise, the eladrin speaks to our minds instead of our ears. The human twins Farak and Harak can only be told apart because one bears twin swords and the other bears twin daggers. They keep to themselves and say few words. The scarred half-elven Alan Redhand is of great size and brawn for his race. A man of the sword as well, his weapon of choice is a greatsword that he carries strapped on his back. Although he’s the only talkative one of the group, apart from Devlin, his intelligence does not lend itself to spirited conversation.
Devlin talks freely of himself. He fought for Breland during the war, despite being an aundairian. Curious. He has the affectations and manner of aristocracy. He has an almost childlike enthusiasm about war stories and several are shared between us around the campfire. The eladrin carried out some few private conversations with some of us. He talked at length with Kronos, which convinced me of his calling. It’s a pity that one of such a fair race has become a nameless, hooded figure. Although the Dark-Eyed One follows Devlin’s lead, whatever he says is gospel for his companions. When the eladrin remarks that four days yet remain before the tower disappears, Devlin adds that the warlock is never wrong. The newcomers have such blind faith in the Dark-Eyed One’s abilities, that they set no watch.
We do not share the same trust in the eladrin and so we set watchmen for the night. Devlin stays with Nairo for the first watch. It’s amusing to watch the boisterous Devlin try to carry a conversation with the silent archer. Sometime in the night, the eladrin’s mind-voice alerts me to imminent danger. Both companies rise as one, awakened by the same warning. We prepare for battle and it’s not long after that bobbing globes of light appear all around us. This light gathers and coalesces into luminous humanoid beings. In addition to them, arachnids melt out of the dark wood around the camp, seemingly made of shadowstuff. We battle these unknown assailants who offer no words, no threats or demands. The luminous ones project rays of killing light while the spiders move in melee range. Each arachnid that’s destroyed explodes in darkness and blinds everyone around it. The two companies fight well and our combined might prevails over our enigmatic enemies. When the fight is over, nothing remains of our opponents. We question one another about the identities, origin and reasons of our enemies. Only the Dark-Eyed One has answers and he says that the Tower seeks to test us. He then returns to sleep telling all of us to sleep easy because the rest of the night will be uneventful. Without question, the Company of the Crescent lie down to sleep. Hark watches the night with Devlin for company, ever eager for more war stories.
The night of the first test gives way to a muted morning. After we strike camp, the eladrin summons a black sphere and bids it to show him the way to the Scepter Tower. The sphere floats away for a few meters and dissipates, a feat oft repeated during the day. We consent to follow the eladrin’s lead and the two companies travel together. In the second hour of the day’s journey, the Dark-Eyed One summons thick mist to envelop us and hide us from view as something flies overhead with a sonorous sound that only a huge wingspan can make. Later in the day, the eladrin warlock finds tracks of lycanthropes and bids us to follow his lead to avoid contact with them. He makes us sheathe our weapons as he draws a circle on the ground with a powder that smells of cinnamon among other, unidentifiable substances. When it’s completed, we all step inside and the Dark-Eyed One conducts ritual magic. His voice rises and falls rhythmically in a chant and when he stops, the circle glows momentarily and a soft wind disperses the powder. The warlock forbids us from drawing a weapon or attacking a foe until after nightfall. He claims that no foe can detect us if we follow his instructions, in effect we are invisible to any and all creatures that would do us harm. We continue on our way unmolested until we make camp. We happened upon no lycanthropes to test the eladrin’s claim but one could claim that this very fact is proof of his power.
Early into the night, another traveler happened upon our camp. People seem to journey long into the night in these parts, perhaps in their haste to reach the tower. If the lycanthropes could find our camp as easily as the various travelers did, we would be dead by the roadside like the unfortunate monk by now. I can only surmise that there’s some unseen force at work that brings together the seekers of the tower. A human woman in her mid-thirties with unkempt hair approached and hid into the foliage but her eagerness at seeing men like herself made her careless. The fact that she approached as closely as she did was significant though. She wears simple clothes and carries a dagger and satchel. The eladrin’s mind-voice informs us all that she seeks the tower to ask about her brother and that she’s no threat. She introduces herself as Cheera and she comes from a village far away. She’s been travelling for a month now to reach the tower. She journeys alone because no one would accompany her. No one in her village believed the tower to be more than legend and of course, they were afraid of the dangers of the road. Her courage stems from her love for her brother Darren who was a soldier in the brelish army. He never came back and in her desperation, she has come to ask the spirit of the tower about him. Our group grows. She’s the only female among a company of men of open violence and hidden menace and she fares well. That alone shows why she made it this far.
Unless one is willing to believe that Cheera walked all the way from Breland, then here is another aundairian with ties to the brelish army. Perhaps she’s from an Eldeen village rather than Aundair, her woodcraft and survival in the Reaches indicates that. I remember meeting or hearing about a few eldeens in the brelish army. This puts me to thinking at what kind of man of one of the Five Nations would choose to fight for another nation. What else but a criminal, an exile, a deserter or a mercenary. Devlin must have been such a man and the people that gather around such a man must be of the same sort. The Company of the Crescent has done good by us and so I must give Devlin and his men the benefit of the doubt. If I share my suspicions with the rest, Gorbir will overreact and the two companies may come to blows or go their own ways. We need the eladrin to lead us to the tower and I have no wish to do battle over past deeds and angry words. Therefore, I keep my peace but remain watchful for treachery.
- * *
Finally, in the third day, we reach the tower. The Dark-Eyed One assures us that he has led us to the Scepter Tower but all we see are old ruins of a fortification wall, a broken tower and the remains of buildings that the wall protected once. Only one building remains remarkably intact, probably of later construction. There is some excitement as we explore the ruins when Hark warns us of a hovering monster with a clump of tentacles as his lower face. The rest of us see nothing though. The Dark-Eyed One warns us that the tower is playing with our minds. I wonder. This is not the first time that Hark sees something that isn’t there.
We had no chance to evade entrapment in the Scepter Tower. Even if there was, I think we wouldn’t avoid it since it was the only way to enter the tower. We knew that there would be trials to be faced and possibly battles to be won before we would get our answers. We weren’t prepared for the gauntlet we went through though, not in the least. Fortunately, adventurers such as ourselves thrive on adversity, laugh at danger and piss in the face of death. At least, that’s what I was telling them to inspire them to greater effort and keep them on their feet. One by one, we disappear from the ruined fort and reappear in a great stone hall, inside the tower. Each of us is paired by another, not of his company and each group faces a different challenge. This is the Scepter Tower’s welcome.
I find myself in a large hall of dressed stone and a pillared vault. The Dark-Eyed One is with me. “This tower is testing us,” he says and despite his impassiveness I realize that he’s rattled since he’s not one for stating the same fact thrice now. Our enemies must have been magically transported here, like us, because they certainly don’t live here. A werewolf of singular size and strength and a pack of his lesser kin growl and fan out to surround us. A non-violent solution to this encounter is impossible since the lycanthropes are clearly hungry for our flesh – so to speak in my case. My estimation of Devlin as a leader of men is confirmed, unlikely as this may seem. The warlock is used to working as part of a team and obeys orders. He proves to be an able soldier and powerful are the gifts bequeathed him by his master of the pact. At one point he declares “they anger me,” but his mask of impassiveness does not fall. No passion, no zest, no cries of battle, no curses at the foes, no spit upon the slain. It’s a pity that this man has come to feel nothing. I look at him and see only loss and regret. This is Kronos’ fate.
I learn the trials that the others faced after the fact. Gorbir and Alan found a lone halfling that turned into a werewolf and attacked them. Kronos and the twin rangers faced a menagerie of foes, a bat of shadow, two drakes and two brelish soldiers whose emblems and arms were of a bygone age, a millennium ago. Hark and Cheera faced a swarm of giant beetles and a huge werewolf who also commanded magic. She was revealed as a priestess of the Silver Flame then and fought well but she fell in battle. Fortunately, Hark carried a potion of healing with which he revived her and the two of them prevailed in the end. Victory didn’t come without cost though; Hark is infected with lycanthropy. Cheera promised him that the church of the Silver Flame can cure him. “The death of the beast that brought this plague upon you is the first step towards being whole again,” she added. She bestowed a gift upon him, a coin stamped with the silver flame, a priest’s token. With this coin, Hark’s need will be answered in any church of the Silver Flame. Encouraging news, now Hark has to complete the second step and survive the tower. What is Gorbir thinking, I wonder. Does he regret his decision to execute the monk? The goliath doesn’t share his thoughts.
The saddest story comes from Nairo. He was paired with Devlin and they faced down a werewolf and a pack of hounds from beyond the grave. Devlin survived the trial but not the battle with his comrade-in-arms. He died from Nairo’s arrows. The words are a shock to all and I expect violence then and there between the two companies. The cyran ranger maintains that Devlin was a different man and that he drew blade first. In death he assumed his true form, that of a featureless changeling. The Dark-Eyed One doesn’t dispute Nairo’s telling and comments to my surprise, that Devlin was a very troubled man and that he is now free of him. The twin rangers become wary but they don’t seem to bear any animosity to Nairo over this. They talk among themselves but offer no words to the rest of us. Alan is the only one upset by Devlin’s death. The eladrin comforts him and explains things to the dim-witted man gently, like he’s speaking to a child. The warlock shows a sensitive, human side in this affair. The worst was averted. There’s no more time for words as dark tendrils suck all of us and we’re magically deposited in another great hall of the tower.
Both companies and Cheera remain together. We expect to see enemies with every heartbeat but an apparition of a woman appears instead, clad in a richly embroidered robe, both she and her garments ice-blue in colour. She introduces herself in a voice that seems to come from far away, a voice that bridges the void between life and death to reach us. She’s Lady Saharel, the spirit of the Scepter Tower. She informs us that everyone present has passed the first test and so she will grant the answers we all crave but only to some of us. Cheera and two persons of each company may ask their questions. Although we all hear the question spoken, only the questioning seeker may hear the answer.
Cheera asks whether her brother still lives. The Lady’s lips do not move but Cheera hears the answer regardless. Her tears and soft sobs tell us all the answer she receives. Alan learns the whereabouts and identity of the slayer of his family and his face hardens. The Dark-Eyed One asks for salvation from the pact he has made. I watch Kronos, his gaze is on the eladrin and almost childish expectation is written all over his face. The eladrin warlock betrays nothing of the answer he receives but his shoulders slump just so. Of us, it is decided that Hark and Nairo will be the ones to ask. We all expect the questions I believe. This time, all of us hear each answer given.
“Who or what is responsible for the destruction of Cyre?” Nairo Drake asks.
“The one responsible for the destruction of Cyre is the Son of Khyber, the Manipulator, the one who’s planning the destruction of all Khorvaire. He draws upon the power of his father and ancient magic and he will stop at nothing until everything is ash and the demon spawn of his father once again rule the land.”
“How can we restore Cyre?” Hark Drake asks.
“The land of Cyre is beyond healing. Nothing will grow or live there again until the end of times. However, Cyre lives within the blood of its peoples. Your nation can rise from the ashes but your land will not. Seek other places to call your own. All nations must unite or all will be destroyed. Look beyond your differences or soon there will be nothing left of Cyre to rebuild.”
These answers carry with them an omen of doom for all nations and peoples of Khorvaire. I find myself in doubt of the veracity of the spirit’s words. Has she never been wrong? Can she see the future or does she merely speculate on the course of events? She leaves us little time to think and overcome our shock at her words before she makes a request of her own.
“I have an enemy, an intruder in this tower who seeks control and obedience. The one who controls the Scepter Tower controls me as well. The one who controls me may receive my gifts freely. No one should have unlimited knowledge because it will lead to unlimited power. This was never the tower’s purpose or mine. Be warned of this enemy and show it no mercy.”
This, Lady Saharel speaks and the world fades around us.
- * *
The five of us are together in a hall with deep-set burial vaults with rune-inscribed doors. A section of the wall is a trap that has been already been sprung. Cheera’s body is impaled on protruding iron spikes. Hark’s moan of dismay is a sound that brings back memories from a thousand battlefields, the sound of a man who sees a fellow soldier, a dear friend or valued comrade gone forever. We pull her corpse out of the spikes and she doesn’t bleed. The blood on the spike and on the floor is already dried, the limbs are stiff, the smell of death sickly sweet. “She’s been dead for a day,” I say but can scarcely believe it.
“This place doesn’t transport us through space alone. We’re transported through time as well.” This is all the time we have for words before the undead erupt out of their vaults. A yellow-eyed wight leads rotting zombies and animated skeletons against everything living in this hall. Perhaps Cheera was lucky after all to die from iron than the undead. These aren’t the first undead that this band has faced and we do battle against them with passion. Hark fights for vengeance and his rage is infectious. After all undead have been destroyed, we loot their tombs. Kronos suffers from a failed attempt to negate a magical trap on the wight’s tomb but it’s not serious. We find gold and silver and tomes of magic that detail rituals. Kronos manages to negate the magical traps on most of the tomes but two are lost, consumed in fire. Hark has covered Cheera’s corpse with his cloak and carries her. He anticipates our transportation from this chamber and doesn’t want to leave her remains behind. Indeed, when we open the door of the last vault, we’re translocated to another hall.
It’s a grand hall with a throne on a dais at its far end. A pale, bearded figure in black leather sits upon the throne. “I am Barthos, I protect the tower. I died failing the tower’s tests and this is my punishment,” the man’s deep voice echoes in the chamber,
“If you protect it then we aren’t your enemies since we mean no harm to the tower or the Lady,” is my response to his subtle challenge,
“No, you are my friends,” he says and the meaning becomes clear when Hark lets Cheera’s corpse fall and draws his blades. The ranger attacks us and I meet his attack as Gorbir charges Barthos. It becomes obvious that Barthos isn’t human, he is undead, a vampire. Gorbir and Hark become pawns of Barthos’ dominating will. He crawls on the wall and roof and erects a desecration zone, inimical to all life, in the center of the chamber. It is a terrific battle, waged in confusion and fear, allies becoming enemies from one heartbeat to the next, the vampire feeding on our lifelight. A hard battle but not impossible for this company. Eventually, Barthos cedes the field and flees and is swallowed by the shadows behind his throne. Wounded, drained and exhausted, we lay down to rest but soon enough, this hall fades and we find ourselves once again in the presence of the Lady Saharel.
“Was Barthos the enemy you spoke of Lady?” I ask her,
“No, he was not my enemy”
One could hope but it’s not going to be that easy. The Lady grants the prizes we’ve fought for, two more answers.
“What is our place in the draconic prophecy?” asks Gorbir Neylevic,
“Five at the brink of desolation stand as one against the tempest’s roar. This is the last prophesy. The Son of Khyber will bring destruction upon Eberron. All nations will die and the living shall be the playthings of demons. Five hold the power to stop him. Five must give up everything before they come to see that only together can the tempest be stopped. The Son of Khyber seeks to destroy the five for if one of them dies, all will be lost.”
“How can I get rid of the Pact and still retain the power?” asks Kronos with barely concealed expectation,
“You cannot free yourself from the Pact you have with the Lord of the Daelkyr. His darkness will consume you and the ones you love, before you’re given a glimpse of light again. However, not everything in your path is dark, for the evil within you seeks to stop the evil that will destroy Eberron. You can control the darkness within you. Use it to bring light into the tempest. Everything is not lost. You will come to see that, before you make the ultimate sacrifice.”
More portents of doom for all life on Eberron. More disappointment. Kronos, Nairo and Hark, what did they gain from the Lady’s answers? Nothing much I would say. The cyran brothers must now put aside all hopes of seeing their homeland whole again. If they didn’t know, they’d still have hope, they would eventually set their bitterness inside and build a new life. Now, all they have left is hopelessness and a name to focus their anger on. All they have left is vengeance. As for Kronos, I can’t say if knowing is best for him or not. Would ignorance grant him a happier life? Now he knows that he’s damned to serve a lord of madness until the time comes to die. For a sacrifice to be ultimate, it must be the end of life and for death to be a sacrifice, it must be his own decision and it must come while he’s still young with a long life ahead of him. A pity. What remains to be seen is whether knowledge will give him strength or make him weak, whether it will make him a better man or an utter bastard.
Portents of doom with a promise of hope, of deliverance from annihilation. If Lady Saharel is telling the truth, none of us can afford to die here. We must conclude our business here and find the others, to warn them. The elf Demise, Lord Bren, Aric Blacktree of the aberrant dragonmark and the warrior who served the skullborn elf must be warned. Five men and women of this group are those who will stand against the tempest’s roar. They must be preserved until then. I wonder if it would be possible to forego asking my own question and so be allowed to leave the tower, when the hall and the Lady herself fade from view.
- * *
We are in a circular dungeon chamber with a low ceiling that will hinder the use of weapons. There are four openings blocked by iron grating and loose jumbles of bones and skulls on the floor. A floor stone under Hark is depressed by his weight and a deep rumble reverberates throughout the chamber before water starts pouring in from the blocked openings. Even worse, the piles of bones animate and attack with rusted weapons. I hold two of the skeletons occupied while Gorbir faces the rest. I order my companions to take the fight first to Gorbir’s group before moving to mine. Nairo remarks on the ancient cyran emblem adorning the pitted shields of the skeletons. Water level rises quickly and the battle becomes desperate. My companions fight on even while close to drowning. Gorbir’s vigor will be remembered and Nairo’s shafts prove no less deadly when fired underwater but it’s Hark who gives the mortal blow to the skeleton captain when I give him the opening he needs. When the last enemy falls, the chamber is all but flooded and the survival of my companions is measured in heartbeats. I help Kronos find and manipulate the same pressure stone that activated the flood and when the warlock resets it, the water drains. It was close. As usual we barely have time to catch our breath and tend to our wounds before we’re thrust into the next trial of battle.
The next trial is a battle against a band of ettercaps, a nightmarish cross of spider and man. They wield greataxes with their many arms. A large stone tank is the only feature of this chamber and from behind it emerges another foe, a luminous dwarf, like the beings that attacked us that night on the road. The battle ended as it should, our foes defeated at our feet. One door offers exit from this chamber but when I try to open it, we fade instead and appear in another chamber. This one has walls covered with sheets of hammered lead and eight stone chests. Seven of these are arranged in a semicircle and the lids are open, the last lies within the semicircle and it’s closed. Kronos warns us of the presence of a mind flayer but no one else sees the creature. Hie eyes are black and he sees with the Coat’s eyes, not his own. He continues to narrate the creature’s actions, as the monster opens the center chest and is immediately blasted by jets of scalding wind from the sidewalls. Its skin is peeled off and the creature staggers a few steps before it’s struck again a second time and its exposed flesh is seared and peeled off as black flakes. The flayer collapses and is struck mercilessly for a third time. Only bones are left. A horrible way to die, even for such a creature.
The vision’s warning makes us search the chamber and the chests thoroughly. We don’t have the luxury to ignore the chests since it seems that this isn’t a trial by combat but a puzzle that must be solved. The seven chests are filled with lead and built into the floor. Kronos perceives no enchantment on the center chest. There are two tiny holes at the sides of the center chest that correspond to similar holes on the walls opposite. The warlock tries to disarm the trap and partially succeeds. When we open the chest, only one jet of scalding wind blows. Despite the precautions we could think of, we’re still scalded by the flaying wind and Hark suffers the brunt of it. The treasure that the chest contains is a rod topped by a crooked half-moon. This ordeal over, Nairo and Kronos want to rest and sleep but I argue against it. No matter how exhausted we are, time flows differently in here and if we’re not done before the tower disappears from Eberron, we’ll be trapped here for a thousand years. As we’ve experienced, those who fail at the tests serve the tower, both before and after death. This fate isn’t in the stars for us.
Two luminous men offer us battle in our next trial. The battle would be easily won, even at our condition, if we weren’t naked and unarmed. The crackle of lightning bolts fills the chamber as we desperately do battle. It is Kronos who kills one of our foes and it’s Nairo, right after Kronos’ victory, who overcomes the illusion first and we see him fully armed and armoured. The second foe is swiftly bested and the illusion is shattered. We find that Cheera’s body is missing and so is her coin, to Hark’s dismay. Two doors lie at the end of a short corridor that was cloaked by illusion and we hear a moan behind one of them. That door leads to a small room and upon a cot lies Cheera, bound and discomforted but very much alive! She remembers being defeated and bound by the luminous men. She tells us that she saw them assume human form and talk about their duty to the tower to recruit more guardians. Their duty came to an end. We converse with the priestess and all seem well. I dare to hope and so does Hark.
When the translocation comes, it is a cruel thing because when we find ourselves in yet another chamber, Hark carries Cheera’s corpse and he bears her coin. Another transportation through time as well as space. We’re given no time to think or grieve because a black curtain that eats the light parts to reveal a strange, otherworldly man with a retinue of shadow spiders.
“Finally, you arrive,” the man says, jubilant. Thoran is the name of this vile creature, this servant of the Son of Khyber by his own admission,
“We were expecting you, the Master sent you here to meet your end at my hands,” so says Thoran and my mind-matrix reels under the confusion. How could the Son have manipulated us so?
“Untskra, he’s in league with you?” I blurt out the question, disbelief in my voice,
“Untskra?” Thoran asks in puzzlement and I feel relief that the goblin isn’t known to him,
“I’m here to control the spirit of the tower, so that the Master will have the knowledge to destroy Eberron. The deed is done and the demon is bound, soon the Master will have the tower and as soon as three of you fall, the Master will be unstoppable and victorious,” so boasts Thoran.
Three of us are the targets of Thoran and his minions. Nairo is the first to fall but his spirit burns and I fill him with the conviction he needs to stand tall and rejoin the battle. Hark falls next, defeated but not dead. I am the third. Alan Redhand and the Dark-Eyed One are brought in this battle by the tower or perhaps by Lady Saharel and fight at our side. In the end, we are alive and unbowed and Eberron is rid of the vile Thoran and his minions. ‘The deed is done and the demon is bound,’ he said. Thoran failed to claim the lives of three but his other task is already completed. This isn’t over.
- * *
Three out of five, five out of the nine that were present at the broken tower that fateful day. Did Thoran and thereby his master, know which ones of us belong in the draconic prophecy or did he strike out blindly? In the latter case his master would need five lives to make sure that one was destroyed and all hope lost. Two more out of the remaining four would have to die. If he knew the five then Thoran would strike at only one among us and that would be enough. His targets made tactical sense as well, Gorbir is the toughest of us to bring down and Kronos is the bearer of a daelkyr artifact. No one of them presents an easy target. Hark and Nairo are the two of us easier to kill and I am the only one that can make these men more than they are, make them give more than they have, make them endure more than they should. If I struck out blindly against us and if I knew enough, but not everything, I would choose the same three targets.
Alan and the eladrin warlock’s help was welcome but they shouldn’t be here still. The Dark-Eyed One says that they’re not allowed to leave the tower yet. Farak and Harak were bested by shadow spiders. Servants of the tower they surely are now. During their trials, the eladrin mentions meeting Devlin and saying his farewell. A small kindness on behalf of the tower. Treasure can be found in this chamber and we take the loot as is our right as victors. Armours and weapons and a rare treasure is found, a Potion of Life, a draught capable of resurrecting the dead if given quickly, before the soul has flown on ethereal wings. It cannot save Cheera, it’s too late for her. Lastly, we take Thoran’s medallion, bearing an engraved paw with a slot for a stone or some other item. The chamber fades and our next trial beckons.
A huge, vaulted chamber of dressed stone, ten bright pillars set in a circle. The remaining members of the Company of the Crescent are with us. A nightmarish creature waits for us, a scaled and winged devil, Shaktorektus.
“You are not the dark ones who trapped me, Asmodeus be praised,” so speaks the devil and it’s fortunate that Shaktorektus seems more interested in dialogue than violence. The company is at the end of the tower’s trials but we have little more to offer. The gauntlet we’ve ran has left us bloodied and exhausted. The devil is bound to the Scepter Tower by the servants of the Son of Khyber but the binding was done against his will. Should he be slain, he will return to Hell as his material form cannot be truly destroyed on Eberron. However, he will not submit to an execution. In the shape we are in, it wouldn’t be a fair fight, therefore he gives us his word that we may rest in this chamber, unmolested. After we are rested, we will do battle.
I seize on this chance to request a boon of the devil in return for the service we will do to him, the battle and hopefully, the slaying.
“I want something in return, the life of one who fell within this tower,”
“This isn’t within my power, only the Lady can grant this,”
“Then tell me the name of Thoran’s master, Son of Khyber isn’t good enough, I want his true name,”
“I do not know his name,” thus Shaktorektus denies or evades my requests.
We rest as we can in that chamber in the presence of the foul devil. My companions have no food or water and so, even after their rest, they could hardly be said to be in peak condition. Nevertheless, it has come to this, either we slay Shaktorektus or we die. Thoran’s words implied that Shaktorektus will deliver the Scepter Tower and Lady Saharel to the Son. Should we lose this battle and be slain, our fate will be much worse than service to the tower.
This battle is a nightmare. We can hardly engage the devil in melee, his foul power can’t be resisted and half the combatants are unconscious at any one time, their lifelight feeding Shaktorektus to heal him and make him stronger. It’s a desperate battle, the most difficult battle I have fought since my awakening. In the end, the killing blow belongs to us and it was delivered by Kronos.
Ragged cheers fill the chamber. Battered but alive, we rejoice in this victory and in the end of our trials. Lady Saharel appears in this chamber and she is smiling, a cold blue radiance bathes us and her gratitude is spoken from the heart. Her first act is to release Alan Redhand and the Dark-Eyed One. We part as friends. They’re bound for Fairhaven but I’m sure that Alan will seek the slayer of his family and the eladrin will accompany him. We’ll meet again somewhere, of that I am sure.
Only one question remains to be asked and we’ve paid dearly for the chance to ask it. Before it is asked, I gaze at Cheera’s corpse and voice my request,
“Lady, we did good by you and so I ask for a boon, the life of the woman who fell in the trials,”
“It is not within my power to grant such a boon. Moreover, she’s cursed to remain in the tower unless her remains are taken away.”
So, Shaktorektus was lying. One shouldn’t expect more from a fiend. At least the Lady gives us the chance to release her soul from the tower’s service and imparts to us knowledge of the answer that she received so that the prize she sought and died for won’t be lost.
The time has come to ask my question. I left myself for last because I deemed my question less important than those of the others. Nevertheless, it’s important to me to know. Never have I lost memory of my deeds and wanderings, never has my docent failed me. I remember nothing of the past four years and normally I wouldn’t doubt that it is so because I wasn’t active in this period. Why then did Kronos’ master sent him to find me and awaken me? Why did the darkness seep into the tower just then and we had to flee? I dreaded the possibilities. Me, a servant, a slave even of otherworldly powers. I had believed that part of my existence to have ended long ago, with the destruction of my makers, their horrible defeat and the end of everything that was them. In many ways, I dreaded the answer but I had to know.
“What were my deeds during the last four years since the Day of Mourning?”
“Child of the Quori, you were abducted from the field of battle in the ruins of that tower. There’s one who knows everything about you. He has been tracking you for ages. He has plans for you and he needed to protect you. He has tampered with your docent and your memories were wiped. The abductor will be known to you and if you wish for this land to survive, you will protect him and do as he asks. Worry not for that does not make you a slave, it makes you a protector.”
Much as I would like to deny the truth, the Lady does seem to be all-knowing. In the days to come, I will cast doubt on the Lady’s words, born of my wish to be rid of the dooms she foretold. My doubts will merely be wishful thinking. Proof of her omniscience could be found even in the very beginning of her answer. Truth is always uncomfortable and terrible and men do everything they can to avoid it or deny it. I’m shamed to admit that I’m not always exempt from such unwise behaviour. So, there is one man who knows enough about me to be able to tamper with my docent. I would not rest until such a man was dead but the Lady’s words and the fact that he has done me no harm or forced me do harm to others, tempers my judgment. I already suspect his identity. There is one man who was indirectly involved in events at both broken towers where I was abducted and awakened. I’ll ponder the Lady’s answer for a long time. Now the time has come to leave the Scepter Tower with the burden of the world on our shoulders and an unavoidable responsibility to all peoples and nations of Eberron. The Lady speaks again,
“I release you from the Scepter Tower brave ones. You have slain my enemy and therefore I will grant you a boon. I shall transport you to your place of origin and release Cheera’s body to you,”
“You have our thanks lady. Tell me if you will, the place where the tower will appear a thousand years hence,”
“The Scepter Tower will touch Eberron again in the continent of Xen’Drik. There, at the highest peak of its mighty, snow-capped mountains, will the tower be seen again by the eyes of mortals.”
“Until we meet again Lady.”
The chamber fades from view for the last time. Magic propels us across Khorvaire, to the City of Towers at an impossible speed and in the time one needs to make one step, we find ourselves in the ‘Olucky Inn’. For a moment we tense, weary to the bone, anticipating the rush of enemies, the howling of werewolves, the sibilant whispers of undead, the foul stench of demons. However, the patrons of the inn spare us but a glance and return to their eating, drinking and talking, unwilling to offer us battle.
We laugh at the absurdity of our expectations, relieved that the trials are truly over. However, mirth dies down quickly as the weight of our duty to the world settles again on our shoulders, a burden heavier than a mountain.