As Dariss stared at the cultist sitting across from her, she thought, this is it…I’m going to die. Of tedium if nothing else.
The man unknowingly threatening the life of one of the oldest living beings on the planet stroked his oiled mustaches and took another sip of wine. “Have I ever told you about the time that I single handedly defeated the pack of goblin raiders that were threatening my grain barges?”
Only for the fifth time, Dariss winced inwardly. “No,” she smiled her most polite smile, “tell me more.”
Lord Brun was one of the members of the Council of Waterdeep. Not one of the actual Lords, but he was highly placed. A grain merchant from an old and respected family, he was so painfully boring that she had almost missed the fact that he was a cultist. She had found others within the council of course. She had assumed from the start that some of the council were members of the cult. The promise of power from a goddess was a strong incentive to join, but Brun had been very very subtle about his involvement. For him, it was strictly business: he had been moving large amounts of supplies to feed the cultists. He had been paid handsomely in gold and promises. He didn’t actually seem to be concerned about who won, as his fortunes had already been made in the months leading up to Tiamat’s release.
A consummate businessman and somewhat vain, he was also incredibly dull. He wasn’t stupid, but now that Tiamat had been released he was letting his guard down.
“I hear that reports that Tiamat has been sighted several times along the Swordcoast, near Icewind Dale,” he said as he wrapped up his story.
“I have heard the same,” Dariss replied focusing her attention now that he had changed subjects. What is he up to? “Many resources have been turned to finding a way to return her to the Nine Hells,” she said. “Perhaps the Drakenharn will prove useful.” This was a lie of course, the horn seemed to have no direct connection to the ritual, but it was curious that Brun was actively mentioning Tiamat so she tried draw him out.
“Yes well, of course, that does seem like one of the most likely solutions from what I’ve heard. Maybe draw her into a trap or some such.” He sipped more wine. “Of course I have also heard that she has eaten one of these ‘Bright Tears of Creation’ so is not Tiamats’s power firmly cemented in this plane? Our cause seems hopeless.”
Ah, thought Dariss with realization, he is gloating!
“There must be some hope,” Dariss responded, playing to his sense of victory.
“I fear not,” Brun sighed, stirring his pipe. “I have heard that she has been out of Hell for too long and that the bonds that once held her will have weakened and faded to the point of uselessness.”
Interesting. “But she is still connected to Hell somehow?”
“Perhaps, yes,” he was suddenly wary but then seemed to relax, “but as she has eaten this crow, even were she to be defeated, any lingering vestiges of power would surely not be able to pull her to Hell.”
Dariss slumped her shoulders slightly, as though to convey a sense of futility, “Then truly all is lost.”
The Lady Dariss looked up from her neatly organized report to look at Jandari, “It is my opinion that all, in fact, is not lost.”
The Eldest cocked an eyebrow. Here in the Necropolis Jandari was looking better than Dariss had seen him since Keemara had first been taken by the cult. Being Jandari, he actually seemed to radiate an aura of hope, despite his obvious wounds. In the other room Dariss could hear Mahemanti and Gary almost enthusiastically throwing out possible solutions. Noticing that she had heard his idea men, Jandari smiled, “They really do enjoy a challenge even if the situation seems impossible. Especially then. So, tell me why it isn’t.”
“What is left of the cult that did not perish at the Well of Souls believes that Tiamat has chosen them somehow by letting them live. In addition to being foolishly optimistic, they have also grown somewhat careless, as they believe that they have won.” Dariss nodded and continued, “There is a still a connection that links Tiamat to the Nine Hells.”
“Why would they reveal this? A misdirect?”
“No,” she said carefully, “I do not think so. The bond is weak, and will fade over time, possibly it is gone already. However, without the Bright Tear…”
Jandari smiled his winning smile, “Then there is hope, even if slender! Tell my great-grandson Baltin this news. He is a good Byranna lad, he may be able to find out more about this.”
Now it was Dariss’ turn to cock an eyebrow, “By ‘good Byranna lad’, you of course mean ‘demonologist and paladin of Secrets,’ yes?”
“Yes. This is old magic, dangerous. Gods that we do not know invoked it and set it into motion. But above all else, it is secret magic. If Vaid were somehow involved in it from the beginning it would not surprise me. Perhaps now that we have a lead, the Lord of Secrets will tell his paladin what we need to do.”
In the caves deep below the northern cliff-face of the ruins of Thark, Baltin sealed the portal to the Whisper Chamber behind him and was immediately engulfed by comforting silence. There were many such chambers that were holy to his faith but this one was his, the one that he used in the temple that he practically built with his own hands. Built on the site of the old slave market, the first publically visible temple of Secrets abutted the cliffs surrounding the city. Everyone assumed that there were hidden caves and rooms built into the cliffs. Everyone was right: but those were the secret rooms that were meant to be discovered. There were others, many others, deeper beneath the earth, and while the temple above them was in ruins, these had survived. That was where Baltin was now. His long hair clung to the sweat on his face. It had not been an easy trip. The ruins were dangerous and in flux. But it would be worth it he knew.
Hovering in the center of spherical chamber he closed his eyes and relaxed his breathing. As he did so, he let his mind wander; random thoughts, freeing themselves to echo and fade, merged into a dull background noise of sound in his mind and then slowly vanished altogether as he enter the holy trance.
Images began to flash briefly across his mind’s eye: Old Thark, the ruins left behind in the wake of the Daggerlands’ passing, the slow mists that never burnt away in the sun…then chains, blackened as though by fire, the smell of blood, the cries of crows, and then the whispers began as he knew they would.
<My son> came the voice.
My Lord of Secrets, thought Baltin. Rarely did Secrets speak directly to his followers. Signs, omens, hidden things revealed; these were the tools of Secrets, but here in the Whisper Chambers, with all distractions purged, true secrets could be shared between man and deity.
<Why are you here?>
You know the danger we face my Lord, Baltin thought in response. I am loath to name it. There is power in names.
<Name it, here in this place she will not hear. There is much that is hidden. Much buried by the weight of time.>
Tiamat. How do we free the Bright Tear of Creation and how do we utilize Tiamat’s chains to return her to hell – if they still exist? And if they do not, how do we create them again?
A susurrus of whispers flooded into the chamber. Baltin was not alone with his god anymore. Others were here now.
<Gods, some old, some forgotten, some merely echoes from ages past.>
The whispers swelled. Voices overlapping and blending until they spoke as one, a multitude, and with them came understanding.
<Tiamat is an old goddess. Older than many. Once she ruled over her own dominion, her own heavenly realm, sustained by the worship of her followers as is the way of all gods. But as is the way of dragons she grew covetous and greedy. It was not enough to manifest in the realms of mortals when called by her faithful. Such manifestations have a cost. There are rules. RULES!>
The multitude of voices roared in Baltin’s head. Eventually they grew calm again.
<Gods are not meant to roam the realms of mortals for too long. There are many gods and their presence would lead to conflict and chaos. Death. As such the power must be expended to do so. Tiamat began to feast, preying on weaker gods, and younger creatures of divine heritage. She slew them, devoured them, hoarding their power and using it to cement her place on the plane. Many died before we understood what was happening.>
Baltin saw Tiamat now in his mind’s eye. She battled with strange creatures, being of light and shadow, some through direct challenge, others through guile and subterfuge. Each fell before her, and with each one she grew stronger. Baltin knew that some of the voices he was hearing were the echos of those dying gods.
How was she defeated?
Now Secrets spoke again. <The old gods of Tivalera, came together, and confronted her. She had not expected it, she could not conceive of them cooperating, as gods by their nature tend to be so different from each other in their dominions and goals. They challenged her and they fought. But not all the gods fought her. Others, gods of trickery, mischief and shadows, secret gods, acted while she was distracted. For they knew that even if Tiamat was defeated that she could manifest again. While she battled they slipped chains upon her. Red, blue, black, green, and white dragons were slaughtered and from their blood five chains of spirit had been forged and anchored in Hell. Each chain represented an aspect of her essence and held her tight, binding and damning her as was the judgment of the gods. When Tiamat finally fell in battle her god-force did not return to her realms. It was sealed and she was dragged into Hell, cutoff from her godly powers. There in Hell she roamed and wailed, gnashing and snapping, but powerless to escape. But not without power entirely. There still existed some links to the material plane.>
The Masks. She left those behind, thought Baltin.
<Yes. She was wilier and craftier than we knew and had left tools and rituals by which her followers, mortals, could call her back. Such is their right as her believers. Even from the Nine Hells to which she was banished. The masks were the key to her escape. They provided her with a link to the material plane. They can still be used against her.
But they are gone. Eaten by her.
<Yes. Eaten, but not gone as of this moment – it takes a while to assimilate the power of greater things. The masks, or rather their essences are within her, even now, circling her heart. Each marks an anchor point of one of the chains.>
What must we do?
<You must free the Bright Tear of Creation from Tiamat and empower her chains once again.>
<The Dragonsoul. The Dragonsoul must face her. The meeting of Keemara and Tiamat is a tipping point, a merging and knotting of their destinies. It is Fated. They must fight, and while they do, as before, others must act. It was Keemara’s blood led Tiamat out of Hell and her blood will energize the chains to pull her back. During the fight the goddess will be distracted. Heroes must enter the god-force…they must gather the essence of the Tear. Then they must find her heart and perform the ritual. Then she will be pulled back into Hell if she is defeated.>
The other voice spoke again.
<…we will help…>
<…show you the path, the way to access the god-force…>
<…send them inside…>
<This will take time. Jandari’s son Ethyn carries with him a scale from the Catfish who swims in the Timestream. We can use time trapped inside this artifact to give the heroes the time that they will need once they are inside the god-force. The battle with Keemara will rage around them but they must hurry and complete their tasks.>
<I will give you the ritual to open this link, this path to Hell. It is for you to know. It is a Secret thing. Secret like the Black Key. There five parts. You may share this secret with no one hero so that it will not be misued. Five will share the ritual, carrying the keys to once again lock her chains, and the blood of the Dragonsoul will complete the binding.>
What of the heroes?
<Once the ritual is complete all of those inside the god-force will be called to Hell as well.>
So they will be trapped in Hell.
<Perhaps…perhaps not. Heroes surprise even the gods. There is one more piece wanting to be set right before the end. Heroes may fall and one of the Tears would be lesser for it, but Tiamat will still be locked away.>
Tina’s foot, thought Baltin, it is in Hell around the neck of the Angel of the Written Lie. It is bound to the material plane…
<Yes. It would be best retrieved so that others may not use its power.>
<Time is short, my paladin. Soon Tiamat will come for Thunder and all must be ready to play their parts. There is a price for this knowledge.>
I will pay it, My Lord.
<It is not a price for you – but one for the heroes inside, the ones who will carry the five parts of the ritual.>
Tell me what we must do, thought Baltin. He pulled parchment from nowhere, five sheets. As the Lord of Secrets spoke in his head, writing like blackened blood began to appear on the parchment.
Soon he exited the Whisper Chamber, voices of old gods echoing behind him.
<…there is little time…>
Baltin quickly teleported away to the Necropolis.
“Grandson, come quickly!” Jandari waved Baltin over to the knot of people just beyond the Temple Gate. “The Catfish Scale is floating. The time is now.”
There didn't even seem to be time to swear aloud. A quick report matched their pace as they went to a pretty receiving area to the left of the Necropolis doors. There, the heroes and world-shapers gathered near the pulsing field of the floating fish scale. Mayhemanti had a staff and was finishing a circle drawn to enclose the field.
Keemara strode into the crowd, her energies commanded it. She buckled on an old red dragonleather jacket as her eyes darted around – sorting people into places and groups. She went to Jandari and kissed him. She set her forehead against his, and the two closed their eyes.
The Dragonsoul turned and spoke. Her power was welling within, it echoed in the dragons in sight. Brimstone moved his head over the people and touched his tongue to his soul-bond. “Time to set the world back on it's feet. I am The Dragonsoul, I can take her.”
“There is no time to brief everyone of everything. And with draconic mind-speak, I do not feel that would be best.” Jandari sliced the air with a gesture making groups of people. “Keemara will face Tiamat – her job is to kill. Some of us will play at being back-up and curing – our job to keep Keemara going, and to keep Tiamat's attention. Others of us will go to the Sunkin Well of Souls - attend to the binding magic's there. The last of us goes inside – their main job is to pull out the crow. We will take a short moment for the last breath before the plunge.”
Organized frenzy happened. People darted to speak with someone. Things were handed from person to person. Prayers and blessings were made. Jandari would not be parted from his lady.
“Your main job is the Crow. Get All The Crow Out. It is the most important job. Without this success, the rest is just slowing down the world's decent into fire.” Mayhemanti address the 'Incredible Journey' team. “Here is a ribbon with the 'Gathering the Sheaves' spell. You will need to find a part of the body of the Bright Tear in order for it work. My hope is that the digested parts will be close – or perhaps in some nearby bloodstream. You might need to open a vein. Only the parts that are able to come will do so. Fortunately, there is little in the body that the mind can clench shut.”
Gary nodded at Mayhemanti's comment, “Your second mission is to see if you can find the remnants of the chains that held her and see if you can get them working again. A lot of this part is find out things as you go. Best guess. Here is a vial of Keemara's heart's blood. Tiamat followed Keemara's blood out of hell, it may be tied in with this chains somehow. It will be a greater power within. Take care not to feed it to the body. Use it as you see fit.”
“If the chains that use to bind her are viable, the essence of the masks are their anchor points. They float around the heart of the Beast. These rituals may help.” Baltin held blackened pages out. He dropped the pages, and instead of falling they floated like leaves over to chosen speakers. They left a blackened smoke trail as they went. Hands carefully collected the sheets.
Mayhemanti looked over toward Master Vastar. He nudged Gary as the Master made an 'attend' gesture. He looked at the small party. “This is a secondary objective. Manage it if you can – but not at the expense of the First. The Masters will be working on the chains.”
As the two mages departed, Baltin took a step closer to the group. “The third and secret action to take is desperate. If the chains are restored, the blood and rituals all work, and Keemara kills the Beast – then you have a fast ride to Hell. IF you take it, Tina's foot needs to be taken from the Fallen Angel who rules that Circle where you will land. It is bound to the material plane and needs to be out of Hell – even before your own souls.”
Keemara powered up to the group. She smiled widely, communicating an excitement without words. In her wake was a lady with wings made of swords. “What we will do is leave your bodies here, take your souls essence and coat the flat of a sword of hers. I will wield this sword and stab you inside. Once inside, the blood and gore will allow you a manifestation and you can go about your work. Beware, 'cause I'll be taking chunks out of her as quickly as I can.”
Jam gestured with one arm and opened her wing. “Just step into Time, and we will begin.”
Keemara looked over the blades and chose one the size of her liking. She reached in, and jerked it out of it's feather's place. Her head jerked upward. “I can not hear The First.”
The Dragon Isle was scarred and stained. Keemara's mind left off the emotional reaction, but counted her places of advantage and what quick state they were in. Blood trails could be seen from the sky. Scorches and ice packs. Poisons colored the trees.
Brimstone curved his spine and set out his wings to turn hard. Keemara gripped with her legs and held onto his spine ridge with one hand. Sword and spell at the ready – but she knew that wasn't how it was going to begin.
The soul-bonded pair winged over the horse-shoe beach and saw Tiamat further in. She stood on Thunder's great receiving dais. Thunder's back claws set at her belly, and marks crisis-crossed her scales. Thunder's limp neck was held in two mouths.
Brimstone shouted their arrival. A trumpeting challenge. His iridescent claws caught the sands of the beach, putting the deep water to his back. He tucked his vulnerable wings tight to his body. His Keemara slid off his neck, down his front leg and gained the ground. The two of them pulled themselves upright and shook their heads in unison.
Keemara dashed windblown hair out of her face. She walked to the Receiving Dias, slow and purposeful - avoiding the blood there.
All five of the dragon heads locked on the small human's movement. She had dropped Thunder and kicked his un-moving body to one side. “Well, well. There you are. Done hiding?”
“Done living?” Keemara returned. She shifted her weight backward and held the new unfamiliar sword tight. There was no need for banter. No need to call out names, titles, threats or epitaphs. They knew each other immediately, and knew Fate watched.
Keemara took the power that lay curled in her back leg and pulled through it like a wave of movement. She charged. Brimstone set his head down low, legs shoving sand backward and followed his rider in to battle.
One of Tiamat's heads hissed, but the others darted forward. In coordinated attack, two heads reach to snap at different part of human limbs. One head, darting forward to pass the rider and sweep to the small dragon. Teeth and jaws snapped.
It was an old tactic, and Keemara read the start of it well. She dove under the lowest jaw, legs pumping against the ground. Her free hand grabbed onto a tooth and she used it to propel herself up onto the face and down the jaw. Arching wide with her whole body, She banged the new sword across the gum line. The new sword drew sparks following her gleeful power and light danced across Tiamat's black head.
Tiamat knew where she walked, feeling through the bond of many heads. Blue shoved herself against Black, swatting at Keemara with horn first, then teeth.
Keemara was use to such movements when Brimstone had his six heads. Twisting, she knew contact would be coming, she lined the sword up with the blow and let Tiamat draw the first blood in their battle - against herself. The sword went in, and Keemara looked to make certain it was jammed in, and abandoned it. She could always come back for it if necessary.
The Incredible Journey was away, and now she needed to cover her own ass – with a sword she knew well.