I actually drew up a new map. On a dry-erase board. I’m not sure I can replicate it properly. I took a photo of it with my cell phone, but I’m not sure how to get it out of there. Kinda lost my USB wire.
Anyway, new chapter! After this starts the Etrium arc with Kent and Svennia.
Quest 18 – The Lightless Kingdom
Croadin is an independent nation in the northwestern snowfields of Rym, east of Harl and separated by an impassible mountain range.
The people of Croadin mostly migrated from Harl and Rhea, though neither nation had a proper claim to it. Thus, it remains independent to this day.
Centuries before, Croadin was a kingdom constantly in war with Harl. In order to fuel its campaign against the Harlians, Croadin farmed materials from the Rhean forest, drawing the eastern kingdom’s ire. It was soon embattled on two fronts.
Croadin’s greatest warrior was a powerful Mage who had read the Tome of Cataclysm. It was his magic that created the mountain range that now divides Croadin from Harl. In an act of desperation, he attempted to create giant earthen siege walls to protect the the kingdom from destruction. Unbelievably, the tactic worked. Both armies were devastated and forced to retreat.
However, when the Mage tried to lower his siege walls, the entire kingdom sank into the earth, buried in whole.
Brier: And somehow, they survived.
Coleen: How do you think they’re going to react to outsiders?
Avery: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Avery led the way into Old Croadin. As they approached, the party made observations of the few inhabitants walking the streets. The Croadi looked normal enough, but were notably shorter than the average.
Avery: I read that the Croadi were almost as large as the Harlians. These can’t be the same people.
Coleen: Then… what? They’re the newest generation of Croadi?
Female Croadi: W-who comes?
Male Croadi: Seek shelter! Hail the Royal Guard!
Brier: Royal Guard? Sounds fun.
Coleen: We’re not here to cause any problems!
They calmly waited for the Royal Guard to arrive. Eight Croadi in full armor arrived and surrounded them. Unlike the other Croadi, the Royal Guard were tall, much like what was promised in the old texts.
Royal Guard Croadi: Tiny fellows, from where do you hail? Be you scouts from Rhea?
Brier: Hardly. I am Brier, the Dark Bard of Aria.
Coleen: Coleen Eiric of Helia.
Avery: I am Avery Sylvain of Lorath.
Brier: None of us hail from Rhea. We’re just travelers that found our way here.
Royal Guard Croadi: An unlikely tale. Wouldst thou have us believe thy madness?
Brier: It would be nice. Am I supposed to believe that you spent the last 600 years guarding an underground cave that no one knows exists from a potential enemy invasion?
Royal Guard Croadi: . . .
Brier: Unless… there’s something worth protecting?
Coleen: You were doing so well until you said that.
Royal Guard Croadi: It would be an easy task to slay thee now. But your madness shall be heard by the Grand Magus.
Brier: Grand Magus, you say?
Coleen: Sounds interesting.
Avery: Will there be tea?
The Croadi Royal Guard escorted their visitors toward the palace in the center of the underground city. As they walked through the city streets, they witnessed more inhabitants of the fallen kingdom. All of them were short except for the few large men in full armor, undoubtedly members of the Royal Guard.
The buildings were like the palace – covered in rock and ice, and with a pale blue color to them. Aside from those features, they were all well-kept and whole.
Croadi clothing was completely foreign to them. Both Brier and Coleen had visited Croadin before, and none there dressed as the Old Croadi did. No surviving texts described the fashion style of the Croadi, so it was expected they dressed as the Harlians do – primarily in thick hide tunics and tight cloth wrappings. Instead, the Croadi dressed in thinner flowing robes in multiple layers. Their clothes were also multicolored and had more of a patchwork pattern to them, in stark contrast to Harl’s simpler, solid patterns and dark colors.
Coleen: Quite colorful for an underground race, aren’t they?
Brier: Certainly puts Aria to shame.
The guards led the party through the palace grounds gates and inside the palace proper. The interior was nothing like its shell. Its halls were spacious, spotless, and grandiose, lined with a multitude of gilded pillars.
They entered a cloister that at one time must have housed a garden of equal beauty. Although the fountain in its center was in perfect condition and spouting water as it always had, no plant-life grew anywhere in the enclosure. Standing in front of the fountain was what appeared to be another statue, but its chest rose and fell with every breath. It was, without a doubt, alive.
Royal Guard Croadi: These three are of the overworld. They claim to hail of neither Rhea nor Harl.
Statue Man: It matters not. Leave us be; they are no threat.
The Royal Guard bid their leave, unconcerned with the man’s safety.
Brier: Well. They certainly respect you.
Avery: Might you be the ‘Grand Magus’ we’ve heard of?
Grand Magus: I am indeed. Grand Magus Dmitrios.
Brier: You are… living stone?
Grand Magus: A side-effect. Beneath the surface, one cannot tell the number of suns and moons that have passed the sky. But I have observed the tides of the subterranean lakes and noted the number of generations passed since our fall. It has been 650 years, has it not?
Avery: 673. Since you caused it. You are the Tome of Calamitous Earth, aren’t you?
Dmitrios: That is I. And as I breathe, no other shall be. With skin of iron and the curse of the Tome of Calamity, I shall not die. Who can slay me? There can be none but myself.
Brier: The Tome of Calamity won’t allow you to die of old age. You must either be killed, or you must cast the Calamity of Earth one final time and be swallowed up by its power.
Dmitrios: I see you are familiar with the Tome.
Coleen: How long have you known?
Brier: Aria used to be the magic capital of Rym. Of course I know all about the Tomes of Calamity.
Dmitrios: Used to? What became of the Floating City?
Brier: 236 years ago, the Calamity of Fire evaporated the Eternal River. The Floating City sank into what is now a canyon, into darkness, where its people have been living ever since. Unlike Croadin, however, we still have the sky and contact with the rest of Rym. But the people are so stubborn. Still clinging to the old city, believing Aria will float once more.
Dmitrios: It is a fool’s hope. But one the Croadi share. Such is the fate of the Tome of Calamity. Spells of unmatched power, yet only capable of destruction, never creation. It is the Calamity of Water that submerged the Kingdom of Wilder 1400 years ago and split Rym in two. It is the Calamity of Wind that isolated Helia on a great peak and reduced its allies to dust 1100 years ago. That I have written another chapter in the history of Cataclysm pains me so.
Coleen: And… this is your atonement?
Dmitrios: Nothing can atone for my folly. To be a Tome of Calamity is suffering. Believing one can be its master is the greatest sin. No, it is not atonement. It is protection. All that remains is to ensure none foolish enough to form a contract with the Tome of Calamity ever takes hold of the Calamity of Earth. Is that not why you are here?
Coleen: Believe me, I have no interest in the Calamity of Earth.
Avery: And we are not here to attack a nation we weren’t even aware existed.
Coleen: We now know your story, but it doesn’t explain the reason we came here. It doesn’t explain the light. I know it isn’t you keeping this kingdom alive. You said it yourself. The Tome of Calamity can only destroy.
Dmitrios: Correct. It is not my power. It is the tree’s.
Coleen: Don’t tell me… You’re using the power of the Dead Ash?
Avery: The Dead Ash? Here?
Coleen: Yes. This eerie, unnatural glow. It can only come from a root of the Dead Ash, the upside-down tree in the center of the world.
Dmitrios: Thou hath knowledge of the Dead Ash. Upon this revelation, perhaps there is reason for caution. You are no ordinary travelers.
Coleen: These people aren’t undead like we saw at Lorath. They’re… relatively normal. They know only the light of the tree and have never seen the sky. They were born here. What are you doing down here?
Dmitrios: Make no judgments of these people. They owe their lives to the tree. They want nothing more than to live their lives in peace. And it is the impossible dream of peace that we have in this lightless land.
Coleen: Tell me how their lives are possible.
Dmitrios: The process is quite simple. The bodies of the dead are brought before the Dead Ash and absorbed like soil. That is all the tree needs of our people. The Dead Ash bestows soul energy upon a Croadi’s birth. They need and desire no food, no water. The lower class live without want. The Royal Family slumbers as stone, as do all but a rotation of Royal Guards. They have lived for hundreds of years and perhaps hundreds to come as they await the rise of Croadin. A rise that shall never come to pass. And if you like, a fate you are welcome to share.
Coleen: What? No!
Avery: As intriguing as all this is, we would prefer to return to the surface and continue our journey to Harl.
Dmitrios: How did you chance upon this land?
Brier: Fell down a hot spring. That turned out to be a geyser. But I suspect it’s something more.
Dmitrios: Clever fellow. Twas no geyser.
Brier: Then what?
Dmitrios: In a manner of speaking. Of the Dead Ash. The vapor of souls released from the root.
Coleen: That’s… what I bathed in?
Dmitrios: Perfectly safe. The vapors of the Dead Ash rejuvenate the body, strengthen it.
Coleen: But it’s powered by the souls of the departed!
Dmitrios: Souls are a part of nature. However much soul energy you absorb, ultimately it returns to the tree. And I must sympathize with your plight. Should you possess a method to survive the blast and return to the surface, it is a phenomena that occurs but once every four years.
Coleen: Four years?! I can’t wait that long!
Dmitrios: My previous offer stands. Become slumbering stone, and time shall be little more than a trifle.
Brier: If we trust you to return us to flesh in time.
Dmitrios: Thy choice is not mine. There is no food to share in this realm. Sleep, or perish. I await thy decision.
The three stood in silence as they considered their options. Coleen could escape with her trump magic, but traveling alone once more as she was now frightened her. Brier came up with seven escape plans, all of which ending in the destruction of Croadin. Three of them required that Coleen cast Cataclysm magic once more, and he had little faith in his ability to persuade her to follow through. Avery had only concepts running about his mind, none of which proven. He estimated they had only two days to test his theories before their strength gave way.
Coleen: Any ideas?
Brier: None you want to hear.
Avery: Ideas are all I have. I lack answers, however.
Coleen: What do you have in mind?
Avery: The Dead Ash. I believe that was your target in Lorath. You wanted to carve a staff from its bark.
Coleen: Yes. But I couldn’t, because…
Brier: Because of Duvall. He protected the Dead Ash root with a protective barrier.
Coleen: And a Null Field.
Avery: So you never had the chance to carve that staff. The Dead Ash is unprotected here, and its power is particularly strong. I think you should do it. Make the staff.
Coleen: The Dead Ash staff was just a silly idea I had.
Brier: Sometimes silly ideas pay off.
Coleen: Even so… It’s dangerous. If it goes wrong, I might end up destroying all of us.
Brier: Then do it right. It’s better than my idea.
Coleen: And what was that?
Brier: Cast the Spell of Cataclysm, flood the entire chamber, and ride this kingdom back to the surface.
Coleen: Not impossible. But stupid. Besides, I refuse.
Brier: Then let’s make that staff.
Coleen: It’s not so simple. First we need to find the Dead Ash root.
Avery: Dmitrios said the dead are offered to the Dead Ash. Perhaps we should attend a funeral.
Brier: Yes… and right after the offering is likely when a piece of the root would have the most power.
Dmitrios: You mean to carve a piece of the Dead Ash?
Brier: WAH! When did you get back?
Dmitrios: I never departed. If thy intention is thus, I shall not hinder thee.
Coleen: You approve?
Dmitrios: I do not. But thy design is of no consequence to the safety of Croadin. The Dead Ash is far greater than can be imagined. What damage thou inflict upon it is but less than a scratch.
Quest: Craft the Dead Ash Staff!
Recommended Level: 37
Party leader: Brier
Brier [Bard] lv. 32
Title: Dark Bard
Familiar: Arco [Winged Iguana] lv. 19
Coleen [Mage] lv. 38
Title: Tome of Calamity
Avery [Alchemist] lv. 46
Title: Blood Brother
The plan was set. By Dmitrios’ orders, the party was allowed to walk freely in the underground kingdom. However, finding a funeral procession proved tougher than they expected.
Brier: We’re allowed inside, but no one wants to talk to us. They must really hate outsiders.
Coleen: I don’t think you starting every conversation with “Hey, see any dead people lately?” is helping our cause.
Avery: I must agree.
Brier: Fine, I understand. I’ll just have to kill one of them, then follow the procession.
Coleen: We’re not doing that. Look, I’m just going to ask where I can pay respects to the dead. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll split up.
The Croadi seemed more willing to speak with Coleen, but they remained wary and quiet around the outsiders. The party learned that the practice of praying for departed souls was ended 10 years after the power of the Dead Ash was discovered. Thus, there was no need for cemeteries and funerals. The dead were taken to the Dead Ash root site and dumped off like trash. Nothing but food for the Dead Ash. Their bodies were completely absorbed, with nothing left to remember the departed by.
Interestingly, even in a society with few wants, crime still existed. A strict zero-tolerance law was put in place, with the penalty being death by sacrifice. Guilty parties were nailed to the Dead Ash root, then a stake carved from the root was driven through their hearts. Criminals would simultaneously die and be absorbed, their life force further nourishing the Dead Ash and empowering future generations.
Avery: No one seems to want to share the location of this root site.
Coleen: It’s the only thing the people hold sacred. They must not want anyone, especially outsiders, entering the site unless it’s for a procession or an execution.
Avery: In that case, we have two options. We find someone gravely ill and hope they die soon, then follow the procession, or…
Coleen: We catch a criminal in the act, then follow him to his execution.
Avery: Unfortunately, both actions rely on luck. What do you say, Brier? Do we split up?
Brier: No. We’re going to catch a criminal in the act.
Coleen: Oh? Did you happen to see one?
Brier: No such luck. But we can cause a crime to happen.
Coleen: How? Do we have some kind of bait?
Brier: Try to think simpler. I mean we’re going to commit a crime.
Avery: …What? But then we’ll be executed.
Brier: Precisely. Executed at the root site.
Coleen: You think we can just overpower them? We left almost all of our equipment on the surface.
Brier: But you’re a Mage. You don’t need equipment. And we have Arco. As long as he stays out of sight, we can count on him to break us free.
Coleen: I don’t like the sound of this.
Avery: It does seem to be the most effective way to accomplish our goals with the least amount of variables.
Coleen: Fine! But no killing.
Brier: Well, that’s all on you. You’re the only real fighter we’ve got, aside from Arco.
Avery: So, what crime shall we commit? A heist?
Coleen: Heist? I haven’t seen anything worth all that much since we arrived. Except for what’s in the palace. I don’t suppose we can try raiding the palace for treasure.
Brier: You’re overthinking things. Follow my lead.
Brier walked up to a Croadi couple and punched the young man in the face.
Croadi Woman: Kyaa!
Croadi Man: Gah! You scoundrel!
Brier: Avery, Coleen, hold him back.
The two grabbed the man’s arms and pinned him to the ground.
Avery: What’s going on? Are we robbing them?
Croadi Man: Rob? I carry nothing of value with me!
Brier: Is that the same for the girl?
Croadi Man: She has nothing!
Croadi Woman: Tis true! Your violence is for naught. Unhand me!
Brier: You still have the clothes on your back. Take them off. Slowly.
Croadi Woman: What?
Croadi Man: Sinister cur!
Croadi Woman: You… you wish only my garments?
Brier: For now. I’ll see if you have anything else that interests me after you’ve undressed.
Avery: (Brier… He’s certainly into the role. Nearly has me convinced.)
Coleen: (He doesn’t have me convinced that he’s just acting. Grip him tighter, Avery.) So, do you still say you have nothing of worth?
Croadi Man: If I had, I would trade it now if you let her free!
Coleen: So that’s your answer.
Brier: Fine by me! I’m sure there will be much more pleasure to be had than otherwise, wouldn’t you agree?
Croadi Woman: Won’t someone please…
Brier: Enough sobbing and disrobe, or I’ll be forced to do so myself. Not that I wouldn’t derive any pleasure from it.
Croadi Royal Guard 1: Enough! My eyes have born witness to your acts, and condemn thee. You outsiders have overstayed your welcome.
Croadi Royal Guard 2: You will be punished in accordance to the law of the land. You shall be bound and escorted to your execution. Resist, and I shall see to it you are slain immediately.
Brier: Sounds fair enough.
The three had their wrists bound tightly with rope. Their ankles were tied together loosely enough to walk, but not much more. They were led, surrounded by armed soldiers, to a building in the center of town. Inside was a shallow pit, at the center of which rose the surface of a giant root. This was certainly the root site, where the dead and the condemned were sent as offerings to the Dead Ash.
Coleen was the first of the three to be brought to the root. Two Croadi soldiers held her down as the tools to nail her down were prepared?
Croadi Royal Guard: Have you any last words before you depart the realm of the living?
Coleen: Shocking Touch!
She rarely had reason to use the spell, which electrocutes anyone who makes physical contact with her body, causing them to knock out. Coleen was pleased that this wasn’t reason enough for her to be out of practice. Before the remaining guards could react, Coleen unleashed two simultaneous Pocket Blast spells to knock the guards holding Brier and Avery away. Arco took this opportunity to scuttle out of hiding and snap through everyone’s bindings.
Coleen: They won’t be out for long, but we need a lot of time to carve enough wood out.
Brier: We’ve got plenty of rope. And Arco’s got Paralysis Bite.
Avery: I’ll help tie them up. Coleen, please get to work immediately.
Coleen: Right. Just keep some distance. There might be some discharge from the root.
Coleen used the Royal Guard swords to cut into the Dead Ash root. She was quickly able to procure three large pieces of wood to carve her staff with.
Brier: Isn’t that good enough? There’s plenty of power in those blocks. You don’t need to make it look pretty yet.
Coleen: Oh, there’s more than enough power. More than I expected. That’s not the problem. If I want this to work the way I want it to, then the form absolutely matters. I have a lot of glyphs to carve. It’ll take me a little over an hour.
Avery: Take all the time you need.
Brier: No skin off my teeth. I’ll just have Arco keep reapplying paralysis.
The task took Coleen a bit longer than she promised, but the result was more than what Brier and Avery had expected. Coleen crafted three staves with the pieces of Dead Ash root. Each one had a triangular staff head pointed upwards from the shaft, and on each staff head was a different glyph.
Brier: What’s this? You made a staff for each of us?
Coleen: Not exactly. The glyphs I carved into these the staves effectively make them useless. These staves have no power by themselves. But if we join the heads together, it completes a glyph. Then and only then will the power of the Dead Ash inside be unlocked.
Avery: Ingenious! But this means you won’t be able to use it as a weapon either.
Coleen: Not without two others to hold the other pieces, no. But that’s fine. I don’t think I trust myself with this kind of power, anyway. Now, just hold the staff the same way I do. I’ll get us out of here. Brier, hold Arco tight or he’ll get left behind.
Brier, Coleen, and Avery held their staves so the heads formed a single complete piece in the center.
Coleen: Hold it just like that and don’t move! Spirits of Air and Flame, I beseech thee! May we embody your form and descend from on high! Lightning Flight!
They woke up a short while later. Lightning Flash is a dangerous spell that transforms humans into the form of lightning, sends them into the sky, strikes into the ground where they once again take human form. The farther the distance, the longer they are knocked out. Many inexperienced Mages have died trying to travel distances too far for them to handle. The three were able to recover quickly enough because Coleen chose the surface directly above the root site as their destination.
The snow within 20 meters of them had been melted from their landing, and what nearby brush that had not been reduced to ash was lit aflame.
Coleen: Hey… you all okay?
Avery: I’ll live.
Coleen: Good. I’m not doing that again.
Brier: That was Lightning Flight. I thought you could only cast that on yourself?
Coleen: The power from the Dead Ash. Plus the fact that, when we combine the three staves, it counts as a single focal point.
Brier: Those staves… So do they still have some power?
Coleen: More than anyone should have. The glyphs I carved limits them to four more uses. I can use the Dead Ash staves to strengthen four more spells. Then they’ll be useless.
Avery: So we’ll save them for emergencies?
Coleen: I’d prefer not to use them at all. Lightning Flight is a utility spell, not an attack spell. But just look at the damage we did landing here. They have the power to turn ordinary spells into almost Cataclysmic-level spells.
Brier: Or a Spell of Cataclysm into…
Coleen: I don’t even want to think about it.
Brier: Then why not just destroy them?
Coleen: Because they can’t be destroyed. Not until all the power is drained from them. I can cut them up into pieces, but that would just break the limitations I placed on the staves. That would make them even more dangerous. It’s best that we hold on to them as they are. We should look for the springs and get the rest of our items. We can wrap the staves up in hides until I can buy some suppression wrappings.
What Coleen didn’t share with her companions was the fact that the three-part design of the staves wasn’t entirely because of her own temptation. She tried not to let it show, but she had witnessed signs in both Brier and Avery that prevented her from trusting them completely. Brier had never been the dependable sort in the first place, but his weakness prevented him from acting independently. As long as he needed her, Brier was predictable. Avery on the other hand acts innocently enough. But there was a dark side to him. He claimed to be an Alchemist, but she saw him using high-level hex magic. He was a wild card, and thus perhaps more dangerous than Brier could be.
Of course, Coleen knew she was using them as much as they were using each other. Despite this truth, this was the best party she had ever been with. With the exception of magic, in terms of knowledge, Avery possibly exceeded her. Though Avery lacked her experience, Brier has shown to be at least her match. And he was much older than he appeared. And before he was cursed, Brier was most likely a much greater Mage than she was.
Together, they could likely take on any challenge. But allow either one of them, even Coleen herself, the power to act independently without limit, and…
She was certain nothing good could come from it. As long as they were together, they would keep each other in check. Even if no one said it or wanted to admit it. That was why she created the three staves. Because she trusted them. And because she didn’t.
Next time, on Bardass! Svennia and Kent (or Kendrick as he is now known) have gotten used to their new lives in Etrium. But the situation takes on a new turn when the two are recruited to join Balken’s Army, an underground force supposedly led by Balken himself and aims to overthrow the Seven Heroes. Svennia recognizes the fake Balken immediately, but what is his true desire? Find out in Quest 19 – Balken’s Shadow.