The Blind Clockmaker, Harishek Apt Thul’kesh, Baernaloth of The Demented (4 of 13)
Big Bloody Warning!!! : This story is rather extreme in places, seriously dark in its entirety, and there is no happy ending in sight. This made my players cry, not their PCs, the people themselves. I had to stop writing at one point before I did the same, so there's more than a bit of emotional grief to be handed out liberally in this tale. Mature readers only please.
"For the thing that I have greatly feared has come
upon me. And what I have dreaded has happened to me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, for
trouble comes." Job 3:25,26
The elder Ratatosk stood and looked down at the clouds that swirled below him down the vast trunk of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Great Mother of his people. One of the so-called squirrel folk who populated the limbs and branches of their plane spanning home, he had lived nearly a century, his fur streaked with lines of gray, and he was feeling his age now like never before. It was growing time again as it always did. Their duty to the Great Mother was paramount above all things, even their own lives, which they willingly would give in Her defense. But the pain of that sacrifice at times was great enough to make him wonder if it was worth it what they did, if it was too hasty, or if there might be another way.
He sat down on the branch and waited for the arrival of those who he knew would be coming shortly, knowing or unknowing, they always came when time was due and what was necessary would be done. Good, evil, chaos, law it didn’t matter to him and his people, only their Great Mother who created and sheltered them mattered. She was them and they were her in so many ways, leaves and fruit upon the trunk that created them, fed them, and they in turn watched over her. But sometimes…
He shuddered and wept, a single tear dropping from his eye and falling down the miles to strike ground on one of the planes that the World Tree touched with its branches and roots. As the single drop of saline spread down the miles and froze in the passing air, the elder remembered the tale told to him by his grandfather five times over before that one’s passing, a tale passed down the generations from time unknowable to when the Great Mother was first injured.
The branches had shaken, the Mother had trembled and her pain was felt keenly by Her children when the Serpent had coiled about Her base with its unending hunger and rage, seeking to destroy the World Tree in the hopes of destroying the universe that had created it. The blood of the Great Mother had flowed in rivers in those days as Nidhogg clawed and ravaged the roots of the Tree where they had sunk into the soil of the Waste.
The Ratatosks had been helpless, for nothing they did could harm the Wyrm, and it ignored them while spawning its own children with the fiends of the lower planes and evil dragons who flocked to its call. It and its brood seemed like they might succeed in killing the Great Mother, and they, the Ratatosks, they wept in their impotence.
But salvation came to them unasked for, but needed, and wrapped in nightmare. His people had never spoken its name since that time, neither in thanks nor in fear, but its existence still haunted them through the millennia. They had never written it down, but somehow they all knew its name. They had never drawn it, nor carved it, nor passed down tales that described the Horror than was the giver of the salvation of they and their Great Mother, but still they knew its face in their nightmares and when the time came for their bargain to be paid again, they all would dream of it, hearing its whispers in the darkness.
The Elder looked down and sighed, knowing how close that time was, and the dreams that had come the night before like a black winged angel, one wing dipped in blood and the other glowing with their love for the World Tree. And he, one chosen of his generation, the first in many years, would go willingly with whatever would come in the following days. He and the others they did so with a glad heart, knowing that it was necessary.
Those old tales of that first meeting, the elders of a hundred hundred villages, the leaders and wise ones of their race who had gathered to discuss their last attempts of desperation to stop the Wyrm that feasted upon the Great Mother. They had been desperate, willing to do anything to save all that they knew, everything they cared for, and everything that they knew. Desperation was all they knew at that moment. Somehow their anguish, frustration, fear and misery was heard, and something came to save them, but not out of mercy…
The elder shuddered at what had been implied in the latter half of that tale. That it might not have heard them and come to save them, but had waited till their fear had collapsed into desperation and they no longer cared what they would have to give of themselves to save what they loved. The darkness that had blindly clambered up the trunk of the World Tree and offered them a way to save the Great Mother.
“We agreed… we willingly agreed…” The Elder said out into the void beyond the branches as he cried once more, a broken man who had long ago resigned himself to the cross that he would willingly bear if the darkness came to give its bloody and poisoned salvation once again. “It always does, and we agreed, we willingly agreed…”
The six stood before the open gate and glanced at one another with a mixture of bravado, hesitancy, and worry tinged with necessity. The swirling gate burrowed a hole through the planes, nearly across the whole breadth of the multiverse, there from the Outlands and into the depths of the deep ethereal where the demiplane of time beckoned them.
They did not hazard the storms of that pocket dimension without need or cause, and they had only considered the trip due to having reached an impasse in a quest of their own that was largely unconnected with the demiplane. They needed to discover a method of understanding and deciphering the dread and nonsensical operation of a device in the Gray Waste known only as the Oblivion Compass. Nestled in a valley on Oinos, the bizarre and sprawling machine seemed to jut from the soil of the plane itself with ancient and rusting mechanisms that still ran smoothly and coldly with a progression and purpose shrouded, but born of nightmares. The device within that desolate valley somehow held a way of determining events key to their larger aims and goals, their own holy quest in a manner of speaking.
But, holy quest or not, the motley group of six seemed hardly a group to typify anything holy whatsoever. There was the half-fey bladesinger, known half-jokingly as Clueless; prone to good one moment, and cold, machiavellian rationality the next. A decidedly neutral being with his black, iridescent, dragonfly wings betraying a fey heritage that was unquestionably Unseelie. There was Toras, the half-celestial fighter and servant of Andros, an obscure deity from Ysgard, a protector of children, the weak and infirm. Though sometimes overzealous in his methods, the warrior was true to his patron’s goals.
Next there was Tristol Starweather, the aasimar mage from a wizard nation on the prime world of Abeir-Toril whose vulpine tail and ears betrayed his guardinal descent. Still, his heritage aside, his hunger for magic and his upbringing had instilled in him a largely ambivalent personal attention to good and evil. All said, he was more attuned to the goals of his own goddess of magic than to the multiversal conflict of good and evil.
Standing next to the wizard was his wife, Nisha Starweather, a quirky and spontaneous tiefling rogue who dabbled in some magic herself, but dabbled more in Xaos than anything else. But, as much as she might have typified a member of her faction, she was good at heart nearly as much as she was random.
Standing almost apart from them was a relative newcomer to their fold, a blond haired cleric of Brigit and member of the Ring Givers, Aiden. Though good and serving a goddess of good, he was, more often than not, prone to revelry and charity more for the gifts it brought, than out of a purely noble desire for good.
Finally though, standing opposite the half-fey like a bookend of neutrality to cap off their party and define its character, was the fallen lupinal, Fyrehowl. The lupine humanoid exemplar of pure good was, in many ways, jaded and disillusioned rather than fallen. She had long ago lost the idealism of her race, and lost faith in her race’s ability to do what needed to be done. Since her fall from grace, she had adopted the philosophy of the Transcendent Order and preferred to think that she was simply doing what had to be done, what was, on the grand order of things, the proper action to do at the proper time. Her own race, in her opinion, had spent too long pondering what to do without ever acting.
Through various unsavory routes, long examination of obtuse lore of the planes, and perhaps in no small measure a hunch, they sought out a location deep within the demiplane of time. A stable bubble within the roaring and unending storms of the temporal plane, almost a demiplane within a demiplane. They had spoken at length to a wizard known only as the Sapphire Mage in his floating tower at the edges of the demiplane itself, and asked for his advice upon entering the plane. Finally, given his own experiments with broaching the borders of the fickle and dangerous demiplane, they now stood at the open end of Tristol’s gate into the plane’s interior in order to avoid physically breaking the barrier themselves. Whether it would work or not remained to be seen.
In the space of seconds they were through the gate, and its burst of utter cold, as they burrowed into the depths of the trackless sea of the deep ethereal, far from the shores and shallows that surrounded the prime, and down to the waiting darkness of the Demiplane of Time. They emerged into madness.
All around them raged a storm to dwarf any hurricane of the prime, and winds to make the screaming of Pandemonium seem like a spring breeze. Glowing, burning lines of copper and gold, blue and red, erupted from each of them and spiraled out of sight into the maelstrom. Legends claimed that the lines represented the timeline of a person, their past and future, with themselves tethered to the present, and that to wander along it would lead them to either of those two destinations. But such idle speculation on the legends of the plane was gone after barely a moment when Tristol teleported them all through the near infinite stretch of the demiplane and into the stable bubble that seemed to hold their destination, and perhaps promised to hold their desired answers.
Once again there was a sudden wash of cold over their senses before they reappeared, but unlike before there was a sharp tugging sensation immediately before they passed into the interior of the Clockwork Gap.
Nisha blinked as they reappeared, then looked over at Tristol. “Umm… you’re off. Just a bit.”
They stood on the edge of a huge disk of flat rock centered within the bubble, the exterior boundary of which stood directly behind them. Stretching out before them was a massive, labyrinthine hedge maze that surrounded a large, several story fortress or keep at the very center of the disk. The keep itself seemed to hover slightly above a hole cut into the rocky disk, situated above a swirling morass of ethereal mist that glowed with an almost blinding intensity: an ether gap.
“No, we didn’t miss anything, we were redirected by whatever made this place.” Tristol said as he stared at the ether gap in the center of the domain. Whatever it was, the gap was truly massive, easily larger than any other such gap they had ever encountered, and it seemed perched on the edge of either expansion or utter collapse.
“And honestly, I’m not sure what’s frightening. This place itself, or the fact that there’s not a single glimmer of magic from anything here…” Clueless mused.
“No, there’s magic here.” Tristol interjected, “More than I’ve seen in a very long time, but it’s not any sort that I’m familiar with. I can’t even tell you what school of magic it belongs to, if that would even apply to it really. It feels… wrong… but that’s all I can gather really. It doesn’t want to be seen, and for whatever reason, I’m not seeing it when I should.”
Taking the mage’s words into account they collectively looked up at the black marble archway that stood above the entry into the mazework of hedges. A single, carved refrain stretched across the stone, written in obscene letters only vaguely reminiscent of the written tongues of the fiends: Baernaloth.
“Anyone care to translate?” Toras asked.
The moment he posed the question though, the letters seemed to warp and ripple, like the pitch black stone was made of liquid, and then it was replaced with the same refrain, written in a mixture of infernal and abyssal.
“What you can see can kill you. What is illusion is reality. What
you behold is reality, or is it?”
“I don’t suppose anyone has a dispel reality spell handy, hmm?” Toras deadpanned as they slowly passed under the archway and into the maze.
“Hey, think about it this way. We can pretend that Toras sucker punched a Dabus and we all got mazed!” Nisha said with a chuckle as they moved deeper into the hedge work.
“No thank you, already tried that and it wasn’t what I’d call fun.” Toras said before quickly adding, “Being in a maze I mean. Not sucker punching a Dabus. I don’t want to ever do that, thank you very much.”
It took them several hours to pass through the twisting verdant maze that grew up from the rock itself, flourishing and alive despite the lack of soil, water, or light besides the ghostly, moonlight glow of the swirling ether gap at the center of the demiplane. They felt watched constantly as they walked, and the interior of the maze seemed to twist the concept of space itself as they found that any attempt to fly above the maze, or to pass through its walls by any but the obvious routes provided to them ultimately proved fruitless.
Regardless, they passed through a series of puzzles, based upon their own experiences, and others that seemed designed to test their concepts of morality and their own intelligence. At every step they were forced to question what was real and what was not, with illusions that seemed partially real and substantive prowling the mazes and stalking them.
It was not a pleasant few hours as they crept steadily closer to the interior of the demiplane and the waiting castle. At the end of their passage they emerged shaken and disturbed at the gates of the black marble fortress and the whirlpool of light that it perched atop, but now the doors were open, swung wide and waiting for them.
“Those weren’t open before were they?” Nisha asked as she stepped behind Tristol.
“No, they weren’t. And you’d think we’d have heard them swinging open.” The lupinal said as she climbed the steps warily.
“And it’s not stone. It’s solid protomatter, and it’s stable.” Tristol said with amazement.
“And what? It’s right next to the ethereal, the stuff’s easy to find.” Fyrehowl stated as she tapped the walls of the keep with her sword.
“Ethereal protomatter isn’t stable. It’s liable to dissolve into nothing or erupt into a living thing at any given second. It’s worse than chaos matter.” Tristol said.
“Mmmm… karach. Fun stuff.” Nisha interjected.
“Protomatter is stabilized by force of will alone. When the githzerai solidify their cities they make from chaos matter, they have thousands of chaos shapers working together. Protomatter is more difficult, and I haven’t seen any evidence of a living thing here at all yet.” Tristol explained.
“So who’s making this stable?” Fyrehowl said.
“Exactly…” The archmage said with an intake of breath as he walked up the stairs to the massive doors.
Before they even passed over the threshold of the keep, they heard from out of its interior the faint, steady sound of clockwork. The routine tick and clatter of gears and pendulums echoed from the halls to grace their ears with its eerie refrain, cold and distant. The cipher paused and shook off a feeling of dread as she stepped into the fortress, throwing aside intuition in the name of necessity for a time.
The others followed and they steadily and warily progressed through the otherwise vacant and sterile halls, all alone but for the mechanical ticking and methodic grinding noises of gear against gear that echoed through the halls and grew louder the deeper they traversed.
“We’ve been walking for a half hour and we haven’t found anything.” Aiden said, looking up at the walls.
“Same as the hedges outside, it’s changing as we’re walking, or the space here it’s built in isn’t normal.” Fyrehowl replied.
“One or the other, it really doesn’t feel right, at all. And it’s been getting worse.” Nisha added.
Then, seemingly as if on cue, the hallway they had been walking down led to a series of alcoves, each connecting to another chamber. Curious, Nisha approached the first of four doors and swung it open without warning. The tiefling blinked and stepped back. Beyond the open door was a solid expanse of clockwork from wall to wall that blocked entry into the chamber except to watch and observe the gears, counterweights and pendulums all clicking along in sterility.
“Strange…” Clueless said as he swung open the second door and looked into a round chamber that resembled a laboratory. The walls were covered in glowing script in the same bizarre language they had seen upon the archway leading into the maze, but this time the language did not translate itself for them to read. The center of the room was dominated by a metallic pedestal that held a dozen or so leathery eggs in a field of purple light. Inside the eggs, heavily backlit by the glow to the point of translucency moved black, shadowy forms, very obviously alive.
“What the hell?” Fyrehowl said as she and the others glanced at the eggs and the rambling notations scrawled upon the walls.
When they entered the chamber, the things in the eggs seemed to take notice and move to face them; it was unsettling to say the least. Toras paused and concentrated on the eggs before wincing and backing away.
“What?” Nisha asked.
“I had to stop.” The fighter answered.
“Why was that?” The tiefling asked again.
“It’s like trying to see a candle flame held in front of the sun. The whole place is evil and I couldn’t feel anything except that in the background overtop of anything else.” He replied.
“And those would be dragon eggs if anyone’s curious. Gold or Red, one of those two.” Tristol said as they all moved out of the chamber and on to the next.
The next door was open when they stood in front of it and looked onto the wretched scene therein. The chamber was lined with individual cages wrought of some black metal, carved with runes and symbols and each holding a single warped and twisted individual that by all rights should not have existed or should not have been alive.
“Mystra forbid…” Tristol muttered in shock as he looked into the first cage and the occupant that seemed to have been the result of either a forced attempt at breeding a Vrock and a Hamatula together, or the sorcerous fusion of the two.
The lupinal stared for a moment at the other cages within the room before turning away, feeling sick. Various other Baatezu and Tanar’ri hybrids, fusions, or grafting attempts were locked within the cages and tanks situated within the room. Volumes of notes were written upon the walls and stacked out of reach of the twisted, sickly occupants who seemed to exist in a state of constant agony, each of them kept alive only by magical interference.
Nisha turned a slight shade of green more than her already olive toned skin and walked out into the hall, soon to be joined by the others. The lupinal looked at them, “After that I’m not sure I care to know what’s in the other room…”
“Yeah, but I’m curious. Morbidly curious, but still.” Clueless said as he opened the door opposite the last.
As opposed to the active experimentation in the last chamber, the next room was more a display of completed work than a lab. Several crystalline tanks held what could only have been described as trial runs and false starts along the way of creating a Mezzoloth. Dozens of books and tomes lay stacked on shelves between two dissecting tables, both of which held magically constrained and still living subjects. One table held a gutted, mewling and struggling Mezzoloth, each of its organs separated out, tagged and levitating slightly above its torso. The fiend was still alive despite the dissection.
The second table held a series of still living saggital and coronal slices of a canoloth, somehow kept animate and alive by magic, and a nearly solid illusion of a whole example of the subspecies in smaller scale.
Nisha gagged and dashed from the chamber when the sectioned eye of the dissected yugoloth turned to look at them. The others followed soon after, though Tristol stayed just a second more to note the sheer size of the notebooks littering the room. Each of them was easily four times the size of his own spellbooks, and that worried him simply on the matter of how physically large the author would have to have been.
They shook away the images still lingering in their heads of what they had seen on display, and walked deeper into the keep. As they strode onwards, they began to notice that the ubiquitous ticking of the clockwork devices echoing throughout the halls was not as constant as it first had seemed. In fact the pattern and rhythm of ticking would pause, reverse, increase or decrease in volume, and spontaneously change frequency and pattern. What was more, the changes they noticed were not always the same for each of them.
Fyrehowl’s ears perked at each of the changes, and the motion of her ears was not directly corresponding to that of Tristol’s ears, and he noticed it as well. “You’re not hearing the same patterns that I am, are you?” He asked.
“Doesn’t seem that way.” She replied.
“Nisha? You have any opinion on it?” Tristol said to the tiefer.
“It might seem like an exercise in xaos, but trust me here, it’s not. Is it whatever, not it that’s. … Whoops, sorry, bad habit.” She said as they drew near to a large, vaulted chamber.
They stopped in amazement and looked up at a series of steel and silver astrolabes that stood at the compass points in the chamber, each of them with several great crystal lenses focused on some distant scene. While half of the lenses seemed inactive at the time, others opened up onto a scene within the ethereal plane. One by one they saw moving images of Lycester’s Gap, the White Ship, the Pyramidal Gap, and the ethereal protomatter comet that hurtled through the depths, studded with shapes reminiscent of buried cities, known only as the Body Luminous.
Each scene would pan, focus on minor details of each, and then draw out from each scene before repeating once more. Then the ticking stopped, the scenes dimmed and paused, and the inactive lenses rotated and glowed with activity.
“This can’t be good…” Nisha said with a wince.
“It’s not…” Fyrehowl said as she glanced around nervously.
The newly active crystal lenses then showed their contents, each a series of grim and morbid potential futures: Toras watched in one lens as he was torn to pieces by a pack of invisible beasts. Fyrehowl watched as she was devoured by fiends. Nisha watched as she slipped and was ground to meat inside the gears of one of the astrolabes. Scene by scene the lenses played out a dozen or more grim fates, and eventually the six of them stopped watching and continued walking after they watched a scene where they all killed one another.
“Someone’s having fun at our expense.” Aiden said with a smirk.
“No, what I worry about is that each of those was an actual possible future, however bizarre and remote.” Clueless said.
The next twenty minutes were filled only with their own lurking dread at what they might find at the center of the fortress, and the constant ticking of the clockwork that seemed to fill the spaces between the walls. It was uncomfortable, but they pressed onwards because they had to, and finally they reached their destination.
They entered the grand chamber at the heart of the keep and stopped in their tracks at what turned to face their approach. The air was still and cold, but skirting the edge of their hearing was the combined chorus of innumerable whispers that rushed forth from the swirling ether gap at the very center of the room that opened up below a circular portal nearly thirty feet across. Above the swirling ethereal abyss like a giant iron spider was a great clockwork device of gears, pendulums, and crystalline lenses that hovered and shuddered with its own infernal motions above the pit. Extending out up and across the room with iron rods and spinning gear work, it was eerily silent except for the subsonic vibrations that ran through their bodies with the whir and clatter of a hundred thousand maddeningly spinning and grinding gears.
But the insensate, unspeakably complex device was not what drew their attention immediately. Rather, it was the creature that peered out at them from behind the machine, standing at the edge of the pit. Nearly twenty feet tall with wasted, elongated limbs, the Baernaloth turned at their approach and flashed a grin of yellowed but razor sharp fangs. It sniffed at the air as it noticed them and flicked it blackened tongue at the air like a serpent, and then they all noticed its eyes.
The monstrous fiend’s eyes were clouded and opaque, blind and unseeing as they randomly twitched in their sockets, wandering and not focused on them as the fiend blindly felt its way along the edge of the pit by taking hold of the iron device like a guide rail. “It certainly took you long enough to find your way here, though time is entirely subjective in this place. But do not make me wait anymore than I must. Ask your questions and I will give you my price. And stay where you are…”
The Baernaloth drew close to them, hunched over to lower itself to their stature; otherwise it would have towered above them. When it had drawn to within a single stride of their position, it stopped and lowered its vaguely goat-like head.
Toras objected first, “What are you doing?”
The Gloom Father’s head jerked around at the half-celestial’s voice and it lowered itself to blindly examine the source of the objection. It paused inches from Toras and sniffed before abruptly seizing him by the shoulder and licking up the side of his face. Toras struggled before it threw him down to the floor and a chuckle echoed through his mind.
“Getting to know my guests. Unless you would prefer that I rip your memories from your mind before butchering and devouring you as another method. Mortals typically object to this, not that I care, but I would not wish to be overly distracted at the moment.”
Toras glared at the fiend as he stood up and watched it similarly examine the others by pawing, feeling, smelling, and looking into their minds without so much as a struggle. Tristol in particular felt his own mental protections buckle and rupture in the space of heartbeat when the fiend’s rancid breath washed over his face.
“Your question now. Surely you have one, or otherwise you would not be here in my presence. Not willingly anyways, and I know that my brother the Lie Weaver would not have sent you to me.” The Clockmaker said curiously as it sat down upon the stone and faced them with its hands folded upon its lap, spindly fingers tapping against one another in a rhythm to match the ticking of the gears.
Tristol asked first, “I need to know about the Oblivion Compass. The…”
The fiend cut him off, “I am aware of what it is, considering that I designed half of the inner guts of the device along with He that designed the other half and constructed it all, The Architect. Yes, I can tell you how to read it and when it will strike a specific time. That is what your thoughts hold of significance at the present moment anyways… yes?”
Trying to remain standing despite the aura of spiritual filth that radiated off of the blind fiend, the six nodded warily. The Clockmaker smiled back at them, only vaguely positioning its head to grin at each of them as it clasped its hands together and stood again.
“But, if you do not already know my name, you should since you will very shortly be performing a task for me. I have been known by many names through the eons, but most know me as Harishek Apt Thul’kesh, the Blind Clockmaker. Your names are already known to me, so remain silent.”
The Baernaloth stood and for a moment its clouded, snake-like eyes jerked towards the ether gap and it unsteadily walked towards its edge before pausing and muttering something about, “…and other wretches. But you will not be silent…fool…”
The Clockmaker turned to stare down at the swirling morass of the ether gap below where an animate darkness seemed to move of its own accord, and then back to his unwitting emissaries. Drawn from out of nothing, he held a crystal vial in his wasted hand and offered it to them.
“Take it,” he said, “Pour it onto the wounds in the roots of Yggdrasil the World Ash where its blood drips and the great tree bleeds out into the dust of the Waste.”
The vial was carved into the shape of a tree with a crystal dragon curled about its base. Filled to the brim with a thick, almost syrupy liquid, it swirled with reddish, glimmering sparkles and exuded a light of its own that felt chill and cold.
Clueless took the vial and the Baern spoke again, its dead, blind eyes twitching with intensity even as they wandered. “Pour it on the roots but do not allow Nidhogg or its spawn to notice your attempts or else your lives are forfeit. Climb the tree and then follow the tug and pull of the vial to the first ratatosk village you find and accept what they give to you. The vial will know where to go, and the squirrels should be expecting you. Take their gifts and return to me and then I will give you the information you seek.”
“What is this in here?” Toras asked, concerned.
“You expect some act of evil. You expect that it is poison. Perhaps you think that I wish you to poison the great tree? No, I do not, and your wretched touch of the divine should tell you that I’m telling you the truth. In fact, what I will have you do might even be portrayed as an act of charity on my part.” The Clockmaker said with a grin, exposing crooked and malformed fangs, its breath like wind over the rotting remains of a hundred fresh battlefields.
The fighter winced and turned away from the fiend’s direct gaze, which even though it might have been blind, he could feel its mind burrowing into his to paint a picture for its senses that was likely more accurate than their own, even if its sight was useless to it.
“That’s all? No hidden terms or costs to us?” Tristol asked.
“None at all. Do with the flask as I have told you, then bring back to me that which the Ratatosks give you willingly. Do that and you will have your answer from me truthfully.” The Baern said with a malign chuckle.
Toras nodded, the fiend father was telling the truth.
“I am not my brother the Lie Weaver, painting you a pretty image with falsehoods and half-truths. I am honest in this and will give you what you purchase with your deeds. But do not fail me,” the Clockmaker said as it turned away from them, its voice taking a darker tone, “For the vial would find its way back to me and I would find others to do my tasks. You are worthless outside of this. Wretched husks of meat and bone wrapped around souls that come to dot the planes like mewling little vermin, impure…”
But the Baern was talking to itself by that point, turned away from the receding footsteps of his pawns. He couldn’t see them leaving, but he heard them clearly and saw their thoughts as well, as they removed themselves from his presence, uniformly disgusted by the experience.
Harishek pondered for a time after they had gone just how many of them would return to him looking for their answers; just how many of them would sully their values to gain his promised answers, and just how their thoughts would differ at that time compared their expectations currently. The Baernaloth smiled.
They stood at the base of Yggdrasil where the roots of the Great Tree sunk deep into the dust and ash, solidified with the bloodshed of the war eternal, that passed for the soil of the Waste. The World Tree rose out of sight into the wispy, mournful clouds that hung above the layer of Niffleheim, a thing of plane spanning greatness, somehow drawing sustenance from the frigid dark of the second Gloom. But as they huddled there in the shadows of the roots, they were not alone.
The base of the World Ash crawled with hundreds of dragons, wyrms, and Linnorms. The blighted progeny of the beast that daily sought to bring down the tree by clawing, gnashing and gorging upon the roots. Most of the scaled terrors seemed content to sit and gnash madly at the roots, though they collectively seemed to do little more than scratch the bark to no great effect.
“Powers above…” Fyrehowl said as she pointed to the horizon where the trunk of the World Tree curved out of sight. Where the tree met the horizon, the tail and part of a wing of the mother of dragons itself lay upon the Waste amid a river of sticky, slowly flowing sap. Nidhogg’s tail twitched in irritation every few minutes and they could feel the earth shake ever so slightly from miles away as it vented its apocalyptic desires upon Yggdrasil’s roots.
“Let’s just pour this vial out before that thing or any of its children notices us, alright?” Clueless said.
“Sneaky would be good right now. That thing would give the Mother of Serpents a dance partner…” Nisha said as she scanned the tree for any recent wounds.
Toras climbed up one of the roots to where the flesh and bark was stripped raw and sap bubbled forth from a deep slash that went several feet into the massive root, itself thick as a house. Looking around once more for any sign of Nidhogg’s children, or that the beast itself had noticed them, he unstoppered the crystalline flask and hastily poured its contents onto the wound.
The syrupy fluid was absorbed instantly into the wound, and the wound sealed almost as quickly with a sparkle of cold, violet light.
“What the hell?” Toras said as he stepped back from the rapidly spreading glow, watching the root seem to regenerate, grow, and shed itself of its wounds and the dust of the Waste itself.
They watched in amazement as the glow rocketed across the swath of roots in range of their vision, watching the wounds heal and then listening to the confused and angered roars of the drakes that had been madly seeking to fell the World Tree. A moment later the ground and sky rattled as Nidhogg sensed and saw the changes, watching as its centuries of wrath were reversed and erased.
“Umm… let’s move. Now! Before that thing comes hunting for us!” Nisha whispered harshly as she waved her arms wildly, pointing up the side of the tree into the sky.
She had little need to say so as Clueless and Fyrehowl were already hurtling up into the sky as Tristol was casting a spell to give flight to him and the others. Moments later they too joined in their skyward flight, glancing downwards only once to watch the healing of Yggdrasil’s roots continue and to watch the blind, but ultimately impotent, hatred of Nidhogg and its children.
“Guys, slow down a bit. The vial. It’s tugging at my hand like a compass.” Toras said as he caught up with the others.
“Well, the fiend said that the vial would know where to lead us to. Now we just need to find some Ratatosks.” Fyrehowl said.
“Big, sodding, squirrel people.” Nisha said, dramatically sticking her upper jaw out in an overbite and twitching her upper lip like one of the fuzzy tailed guardians of Yggdrasil.
“Heh. Well, regardless, that’s who we need to find. And so far, this hasn’t seemed like a bad thing we’re doing. Hells, we just healed the World Tree, I can’t see any way that would be evil.” Toras said with optimism as he smiled and laughed at Nisha’s pantomime of one of the squirrel folk.
As they climbed up the Great Tree, led onwards without pause by the pull and tug of the crystal vial they held, they were being watched. Perched upon a branch high above them and looking down was a solitary woman of fey or vaguely half-elven features. Her hair was long and green, tinged with the red of autumn in places, and her skin was a milky nut brown. She was naked but unashamed as she watched the six travel towards her children, her guardians and caretakers.
And there, as she silently watched, unable to act, she wept. Yggdrasil wept. Far below, on another plane or two or three, her tears would fall like glistening raindrops upon the ground and sprout spontaneously into saplings and flowers which then withered and died, blooming and passing in an instant, evaporating in the sunlight or the gloom where they might touch the earth. Yggdrasil wept.