As if by coincidence, almost as soon as he put the growing mixture away, his left arm started taking on an excruciating life of its own again. The other half-elf would have witnessed the wizard jerk sharply, then bash his side into the wall as he tried to beat the limb into submission. With wide, feral eyes and gnashing teeth, he growled through the sensation. It was lasting longer this time.
His enchanted gauntlet fell to the ground, and the stitching around the cuff of his undershirt ripped. Eventually, Loic’s face returned to normal, if not a little exhausted. Dangling limp at the end of the offending arm was a swollen hand covered in disgusting, thick veins. The blood racing within them was green, not red, and showed up in great contrast to the bits of otherwise pasty patches of flesh in between.
It’s getting exponentially worse, he explained quietly, then stood up again and stepped away from the wall. Loic continued, however, with the exact same pace as before, down to the next level of the tower.
“Valdasar!” he called out loudly. “Where are you, Old Man?”
Not at all he replied, in response to Loic’s implied implications on his swordsmanship. He muttered the incantations and with a wave of his right hand the wound begun to heal. It would have been true without healing the wound. The left hand was simply there to control the speed and movement of the blade in fulcrum caused by the right hand. The grip needn’t be anything at all, just the wedge between the thumb and index finger would suffice.
He suddenly looked up as the wizard jerked in pain and smash his arm into the wall. Then the source of his distress became clear as the appendage was unveiled. “By the nine hells!”. He said instinctually. He watched as the wizard controlled the spasm of pain and calmly understated the issue.
Eran followed him as he entered the stairwell and took up the call for the Cleric. “Valdasar!”
Valdasar’s eyes snapped open at the sound of his name being called. He levered himself upright using his walking stick and made his way to the source of all the commotion.
What in Bahamut’s name is all the noise about? he asked Eran and Loic, his calm tone belying the sharp movement of his eyes as he took in the scene, and the state of the two men.
When Valdasar appeared to the rescue, Loic unceremoniously lifted his swollen left hand to show the cleric, rolling his sleeve up past the elbow. The green veins kept going beneath the borderline of his shirt, presumably covering the entire limb now.
I have a few ideas of what it could be, but I need your help to rule out some possibilities. I would not like to amputate it, if it can be helped. And at the very least, perhaps he could alleviate some of the pain. There had been a dull, consistent ache since the last fit that wasn’t going away.
The reason the wizard was so calm now was the same reason why he seemed so calm when facing down demon princes. There simply wasn’t any good reason to go nuts. Either they would figure out what it is an address it, or he would learn how to adapt to it. No reason to get overly excited yet without more information.
The old cleric’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of Loic’s arm, and then narrowed curiously as he leaned closer. He gently took hold of Loic’s elbow, moving around the mysterious wound as he inspected it.
After a time, his voice rumbled beneath a heavy breath. “Interesting… I have known of such a thing before but never among men.” He paused, visibly wondering how to best put his next words. “What you are experiencing seems to be a…transformation of sorts. Or, more accurately, an evolution, such as when a caterpillar undergoes its change into a butterfly within its chrysalis.”
Oh, he said with some disappointment, indicating that evolution had been pretty far down on his list of possibilities. After Valdasar was done touching him, he raised his hand to his face and flipped it back and forth curiously.
You seem fairly certain. That doesn’t sound life-threatening, at least. I was concerned I might have fallen into a patch of necrotic fungi. With his normal hand, he felt around at the base of his throat, to check whether or not the change stopped at his arm. It did appear to. There weren’t any odd textures around his collarbone.
He pondered upon the nature of how this came to be, and could only recall one entity that he’d been in contact with that could possibly wield the power of forced transformation or evolution. It began to dawn on him that this was probably meant to be a gift, not a crippling ailment. He would have to remain as calm as he could through the rest of it, so as not to frighten his companions.
He lowered the appendage back to his side. It would be most obvious to the two in the room looking at him that the arm was now slightly longer than its pristine twin. It was growing as they spoke, but was doing so only marginally faster than the rate at which mushrooms bloomed.
Thank you, Valdasar. After your input, I think I can confidently say this isn’t as bad as it looks. Weird, yes, but I have a good feeling about the end result. In the meantime, is there anything you can do for the pain?
“Unfortunately, no,” Valdasar replied sadly, “this is no wound, but seems to be a natural occurrence. When your arm has finished its metamorphosis, the pain should disappear along with it.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “When…exactly did it begin?”
You want to know how it came to be, he stated rather than asked the reptilian fellow. His eyebrows bobbed up and down enticingly, and he grinned. Briefly, his eyes darted around the room to ensure only Eran and Valdasar would hear him.
I would too, but I want you both to think first before you tell me you want to know. Being blissfully ignorant of the work of wizards is a completely acceptable and reasonable thing, something the vast majority of the world already abides by. If you cross that threshold with me, I will expect you to act professionally. No outbursts or running off screaming will be tolerated.
It wasn’t supposed to be a threat. He just wanted them to really think about it before pestering him to spill the beans. Being ignorant to the whole deal wouldn’t be such a terrible alternative.
“Ignorance is so often bliss,” Valdasar agreed, “but I can be afforded no such luxury if I am to ensure you come to no harm.” He showed no sign of emotion as he glanced at Eran, awaiting his response.
“Some burdens are better shared. " The wizards calmness had reassured him, surely even if he was hiding any distress then Eran showing any would not help. He decided to be rational about the situation and knowing more could only improve his rationale. " Go on."
Loic looked around one more time, then to Eran, nodding, and then to the cleric.
So we had a problem that wasn’t being addressed, and believe me when I say I understand why. Chasing the demons is a monumental task in itself. But the problem was that no matter what we do to put things right, there will always be someone one step ahead, infinitely powerful, working against us, who is so secure about the fact that she knows what we’re going to do that she called us tools of her own design. Yes, I’m talking about Lolth. I’ve seen mortal divination magic that can show a person the future, and with enough experience, it can be interpreted correctly consistently. Thus, our mission stops being one of free will, and we truly become subjects of predetermination. Made by Lolth. In the end, it doesn’t matter how careful or stealthy we are, because she’s going to tell whoever she wants to exactly what we’re doing, and they’ll be capable of preparing countermeasures long before we arrive. All we can do at that point is pray to her that she will be merciful to us. I wanted to give us our freedom back. So… he gestured with his hands out like a partial shrug. “…I decided to try fighting fire with fire. When I disappeared at the library, it was to contact someone with equal limitlessness who can help us, someone who has been an enemy of Lolth for a long, long time. Have either of you ever heard of the name Gaunadaur?”
Almost imperceptibly, Valdasar’s eyes widened, a brief flicker of recognition. His expression remained even. “I know…something of him, yes.”
Eran nodded staying impassive on the surface, dreading the thought of where this was going underneath.
They weren’t letting on about how much they knew. They were going to wait in case there were any inconsistencies in his story, perhaps. Or, perhaps they didn’t know very much at all. Either way, Loic’s eyes grew distant, focusing on nothing in particular that was present or observable.
I held conference with him. What I mean to say is that he spoke directly to me, not in some vague vision, but with words. It was incredible. He looked up, returning to the present. “I told him about Lolth’s play, and he’s willing to be our cosmic reinforcement against her. Our goals align perfectly. The plan has only just begun, but it involves sending the demons back into the Abyss with the knowledge of how they’ve been played. Ghaunadaur appears to be considering taking advantage of her distractions to exact his own revenge that has been centuries-in-the-making. Our part ends exactly where it did before, with banishing the demons. After that’s done, the battle will be taken to the lower planes, and we will see very little, if any, of it. Hopefully, our dark horse will win and we’ll see Lolth’s followers rendered impotent, which could potentially lead to a bright future in the Underdark. Or at least, less reason to be evil for its denizens.”
If, or rather, since this is a metamorphosis, the wizard indicated his arm, now speaking directly to Valdasar, “then it’s something that he thinks will help me. I’m inclined to let him do it and see what he’s got. I don’t know how long it’ll hurt for, but they say great things come with sacrifice. If all I need to do is endure some physical pain, I’m alright with that. He didn’t ask me to kill anyone, and he’s not taking anyone away, himself.”
Valdasar listened, calmly and somewhat distantly. He appeared to be digesting the revelation piece by piece, but he did not speak.
“Are you prepared for the repercussions Loic?” Eran said wardedly.
The silence after his attempt to explain things unnerved him. He half-expected them both to suddenly spring on him. After Eran’s honest question though, his shoulders slumped into their normal, relaxed position. He gave the hunter a helpless little smile.
I know how to navigate this as well as any mortal man could hope. To be frank, it’s insanity to think you know the will of the gods, any of them. But I signed no contracts, and I do not worship him like a priest. He can’t take my soul. In the way that this is the safest, fastest method I can think of to regain our freedom from Lolth, yes, I believe I am profoundly prepared for anything he can throw at me. Including death.
Death was a malleable thing, too. It’s not like he has to stay dead. He had known a handful of wizards who hadn’t accepted that part of nature. So long as he was the master of his own soul, he could return and complete the mission, then maybe retire some place nice like Arcadia…
That is the worst-case scenario. I still think he is honestly on our side, rooting us on, as odd as that is. So, will either of you try to stop me? Or will you help me continue to fix the Underdark with my ultra-awesome ancient god-friend?
This was a speak now or forever hold your peace kind of moment.
Valdasar released a deep, long-held breath through his nostrils. His face remained unreadable. “I would speak to you alone, Loic, if it would not trouble you.” He looked to Eran. “Apologies, friend, but some words must be spoken in private…for many reasons.”
“I don’t speak of your personal repercussions Loic those you set upon yourself. I speak of those around you, and those far reaching ones no ones eyes can yet see.” He continued with his tone of warning." If we were to be successful without Gaunadaur assistance, Lolths resentment would be upon us regardless. However even she, in her twisted logic, would fully expect resistance from the material realm." It was something he’d already considered. " Yet what you propose is to shit on her door step as well. Her rage will likely be a 100 fold, and I doubt Gaunadaur patronage will last the term of that rage, upon you, upon us, upon the good creatures of this realm." He was calmly stern in his tone. " I hope you are prepared to take the responsibiltiy for the harm this may inflict on others Loic." He looked at Valdasar. " I’ll take my leave." Eran wallked away, deciding he needed to have a conversation with Ilia.
Loic’s brow furrowed into a frown, and he gave Eran a side-long glance. His personal preference was for the hunter to stay. Their trust had been tested successfully, and he felt like he could count on the man to act rationally. If something happened, he’d help stop it. He wasn’t quite there yet with Valdasar… On the other hand, this would be a good opportunity to start down that road with the cleric.
Before they could move, however, the other half-elf imparted a slice of wisdom Loic had only been marginally considering. Marginally, because he didn’t want to think about it. He feared Lolth, and her rage greatly. He knew it could paralyze him if he let it.
She shat on my doorstep first! he exploded into uncharacteristic outrage. It wasn’t meant to be directed at Eran, and hopefully the hunter could understand that.
What? What do you want me to do? Bow to her will?! Say it’s okay she’s using us, nothing we can do about it"? Short of additional divine intervention, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt!" Both arms began to flail madly in broad gestures. “I don’t accept that. The other people, out there, that we’re doing all of this for? They’re not here, walking through faerzress and standing in front of the demon lords. They will get what they get, and they get me. This was never going to be easy, never going to be clean, and never going to be without trepidation!” By now, he was yelling at Eran’s back, and when he realized this, Loic seethed and reeled his temper back in slowly.
Tell me, he started muttering to the cleric, much quieter, and in a rather sinister tone. “Has Bahamut come up with anything better? Because I’m all ears.”
Valdasar seemed unperturbed by the outburst, though he did not answer Loic’s question. Instead, he turned back the way he had come and began to walk. He raised his arm and his robed sleeve slid down a little, revealing a bony hand of pale blue scales. A clawed finger curled slightly, beckoning Loic to follow.
“I’m tired of the condescending attitudes when nobody seems to be coming up with anything, themselves,” he muttered again when he came to walk beside Valdasar.
I understand your frustration, Valdasar replied quietly as he walked, as if not wanting to be overheard, “but you must not dismiss the wariness of the others. They have their reasons for their attitudes, just as you have your reasons for your actions. Outright judgement of another serves no one, least of all ourselves.”
He had led Loic only a short way down the winding corridor when he came to a door. He opened it, revealing a modest room lit by a single candle. “My quarters,” he explained. “If you would hear me out, please enter. It will not take long.”
Loic merely nodded as he stepped through the threshold. Valdasar had listened to him, so this would be the least he could do.
Closing the door gently behind them, Valdasar said nothing for a few moments as he shuffled about the room, lighting a stick of sweet incense and rifling through a pack laid at the foot of his meagre bed. Finally, he straightened and peered at Loic, his eyes glistening from the deep shadows of his hood.
I apologise for the rather heavy element of secrecy, but I would not risk any further conversation reaching the wrong ears. Vizeran is no doubt the sort of man who would want to hear every word spoken in his lair. Furthermore… His expression shifted a little, showing a hint of compassion. “I do not wish to add my thoughts to a chorus of open outrage. It would be unseemly for both of us, do you not agree?”
Yeah, you don’t need to say that, he said flatly. “It’s not as though I planned for that to happen. I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and my arm is turning into gods-only-know.” To emphasize the point, he looked down at the appendage. His fingertips reached his knee now, and all five digits were irregularly long. Beyond the agony, it felt downright alien – sensing that much space through touch.
I understand the use of secrecy, though. Personally, I would like to think Vizeran would be impressed with my initiative, but, he nodded. “I digress. Speak your mind.”
Valdasar dipped his head slightly. “First of all, you need not fear objections from me. Had you proposed this before taking any action then I would have done as any old man would; filled the air with babble about youthful recklessness, short-sightedness, any number of acerbic barbs… But it is done, and it is too late for any talk of what should have been.”
He eyed Loic once more and his tone became soft, “I ask you this as a man who has pledged his life to a deity, who has known their capricious and esoteric nature – as much as it is possible know such a thing – for most of his existence: What do you know of the being to whom you have pledged your allegiance?”
Loic shrugged and leaned his back against the wall. He didn’t think it was too late for anything right now. After the ritual, perhaps, but everything was still very new, delicate, and at the point at which it would be the easiest to interrupt. He didn’t know what exactly was going to happen when he conducted the ritual, but no doubt it would be the real pivotal point.
Then the cleric asked a valid question, and the wizard smiled softly. “I know a lot. Among the books I read in my youth, many of the best stories were about the gods and their influences. I just treated them like fairytales until now, but yes, I know Ghaunadaur’s. I have many reasons for selecting him, specifically.”
He held up the index finger on his right hand. “One: the Underdark is loaded with things that fall under his domain. We could potentially make minions of every single one of them, or turn their god against them and render them completely benign. This includes Beholders, which I happen to know we’re about to set out to dismember. Aberrations, generally. Two: it was a theory I read, but a sound one, that Juiblex is actually an aspect of Ghaunadaur. Hence, that’s one demon prince that could be directly controlled if Ghaunadaur wills it. Three: His hatred for Lolth rivals anyone else’s in fathomable existence. He will never set his wrath on us, so long as we’re actively working against her too, which is exactly what we are doing anyway. And Four: if the stories surrounding him are to be believed, then it’s been proven that he can show a full range of emotions, with which I can identify and use to properly communicate and work along-side. He… may not be the first choice of anyone else, but because I’m the guy reaching out, I thought it would be smart to reach out to someone I …could understand. At least, where he’s coming from when reminded of his past actions. I sincerely doubt he will ever do anything again like strip the intellects of his followers. Even he knows he had the greatest hand in his own downfall in doing that.”
And lastly, I’d like to remind you, I didn’t exactly pledge allegiance. I just told him what we’re doing and invited him to help.
Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Valdasar grunted as he sat on the room’s only bed. “You are clearly an intelligent and learned young man, Loic, that much has been obvious since our meeting. What you say is true, and so it must surely have crossed your mind that a creature as truly ancient and wise as Ghaunadaur would not consider any deal struck as a simple ‘invitation’? Consider all that have gone before you. Consider the many tales of those who claimed false worship of him, rewarded at first but eventually succumbing to his will. I mean no condescension but speak honestly; do you believe you are the first to think he can outwit a god, or take their gifts without a dear price being paid?”
The more the cleric spoke, the more the wizard relaxed. His face completely lost all signs of anger. He just looked very tired there, against the wall. His ease was caused by the fact that it truly seemed like the dragonborn was trying to understand him rather than judge him. He picked up on that loud and clear.
Thank you for the compliments, and I take no offense. These are good questions. It’s possible I’ve been asked already, but not like this. Let me think about how to phrase it… The wizard assumed a pensive posture. One of his long, gnarled fingers tapped his chin absently in thought.
He took in a breath, held it in hesitation, then began again. “I have taken these things into consideration, yes. That is the exact reason why I believe it could work, and why I have a better chance than my predecessors. I’m not trying to trick or outwit him, or get anything from him that he wouldn’t want us to have. I went to him with something he really wants, so I’m not some shmuck just begging for hand-outs. To him, I am a trader of information and services. A neutral party working in his favor. With that, yes, there is payment involved. I give him information he can’t get to where he’s at, and he gives us some of his magic. We send the demon lords back, giving him his shot at Lolth, and he just… gives us some of his magic. Seriously, it’s a good deal. A rare one. I doubt anyone else has brought him something of this magnitude in recorded history. He’s usually not the first guy to be there on the front lines. He lurks, y’know? If anything, I imagine he’s flattered to be included.”
A warm smile crossed the half-elf’s features. “Y’know, he actually warned me about himself before I left, like even he feels like he’s burdonsome. If he feels, then I wonder if he gets lonely. If he does, then I wonder if he’s got some kind of totally human-esque self-esteem issues, which leads me to wonder if maybe I couldn’t help him be a little less… evil.” Loic laughed at himself, a kind of half-hearted snort. “I know how that sounds, but I guess I am a bit of a romantic. Don’t worry, that is something I will keep in check. I don’t seriously presume to change a god’s ideals. I do think, however, that my relationship with him will be a special one, not out of faith or hope, but rather a mountain of facts and evidence and educated guessing.”
A low growl came from Valdasar’s throat as he listened, occasionally nodding in agreement. “You look tired,” he said after a brief silence before nodding to his side, at the empty space on the bed beside him. “Sit a moment.”
It wasn’t a great distance between where he stood and the bed, so he just turned a little and took a backwards step and a half to oblige the cleric. He didn’t understand why he wanted him to sit. He didn’t intend to sleep here, so he felt like all this would serve to do is to make it harder to stand up again. Perhaps he was making the fellow uncomfortable what with all the looming.
Loic turned to stare at Valdasar, tilting his head like a confused dog.
A husky chuckle came from the hood. “No? Very well. These bones of mine feel as ancient as any god and I am grateful for any chance to rest them. Ah, how I do miss the vitality of youth.”
The warmth of Valdasar’s voice melded with the steady flickering of the candle, until it seemed as if the tiny flame were ebbing and fluttering alongside his words.
You know, he began after a time, “I was once a scholar, like you. I studied under my clan master, the wisest man I have ever known, an upbringing I am guessing you are familiar with?”
“I suppose… But in Silverymoon, everyone sort of claims to have the wisest master. The Lady’s College is a little more competitive, I figure. That’s not to try to discredit you, but we may not have had similar upbringings in those particular regards, depending on the population and nature of your clan. …Anyways, go on.”
Wisdom is so often a matter of perspective, you are certainly correct in that, he grunted softly, bobbing his head. “Nevertheless, I may be wrong but I sense there is much we share. Perhaps you remind me of myself when I was younger; ever striving for understanding, for comprehension. You speak of Ghaunadaur not in certainties, but in possibilities. Long ago, in my youth, I would have found no reason to argue with anything you have told me thus far.”
His next words came slowly, and his gaze settled beyond Loic to rest upon the far wall. “In my thirst for knowledge I devoured books, tomes, scrolls by the hundred. When traders visited my clan I was the first among them, eagerly seeking what scraps of lore I could find amidst the mundare wares. I was even trained in the arts of the seer, to untangle the threads of time and fate to portend visions for my people.”
He smiled up at Loic. “I pledged myself to Bahamut, as did all members of my clan, as a part of that upbringing. I was not raised to question His will, nor His intentions. It was simply life; to worship Bahamut and renounce Tiamat. To me, he was more than a god. He had laid the road for me to travel through the twisted forests of knowledge and time. Only too late did I realise that nothing is quite so simple.”
After another slight pause his eyes met Loic’s, and his smile became sorrowful. “All I can do, young one, is remind you that you are a man and Ghaunadaur is a god. Take nothing for granted and, most of all, /never/ believe that you have come to understand him. Should you lose yourself to pride, you may save the Underdark that is true, but you may lose something far dearer to your heart.” He looked at Loic earnestly, almost pleadingly, with what could have been pain in his eyes. “Do you understand?”
He listened politely after once again becoming embarrassed at the last thing said. His little interjections weren’t helping or speeding this along, and he’d given his word that he’d allow the cleric a chance to speak. Through most of it, he wore and unchanging expression and appeared statuesque.
At the end, when Valdasar was staring at him, he nodded slowly. What was on his mind and on his motionless face, however, were two different things. In his heart, he could not find that common ground the cleric was seeking with him. His pledge to Bahamut was unrelatable. As he’d said, Valdasar was led to his decisions by the nose. One could say he was indoctrinated, which was entirely not the case here. Valdasar went blind and willing. Loic would not be doing this if he knew a way to get the same result without the power of a god, and he certainly wasn’t pledging anything except for the fact that he was going to do what was in his power to kick Lolth’s spider ass. In the end, all he could conclude was that Valdasar had failed to know the gods the way the wizard wanted to. At the same rate, he couldn’t say whether or not the fellow had ever given it an earnest shot, or if he has lived his life content on the other side of that curtain, too afraid to meddle beyond his mortality bracket.
And that wasn’t even going into the nature of wizardry, and how it differed from the mechanics of priesthood. Again, he had to remind himself that it was his job to reach out into the cosmos as far as any person could, to experiment and study it, and bring that information back to the rest of the world. He was a pioneer!
But he kept it all beneath the surface. Valdasar was obviously pleading with him, and he felt a little bit of regret that he couldn’t honestly tell him what he wanted to hear. So, he just nodded.
…There actually is something else you can do, he said after a moment. “Nothing is going to happen until I cast the ritual that will cloak us from Lolth. I need one more ingredient for it. Then we can wander around the Underdark without worrying if we’re being hunted by Drow.”
“Very well,” he replied cautiously. “What would you ask of me?”
First, because I understand how much of a leap of faith this will be, I implore you to use your divination talents to obtain a sense of the outcome of the ritual. Specifically, will it do it’s job, and how bad the side-effects will be, if any. Do you have enough left in you tonight to do that?
He was curious, himself. If Bahamut says they were being played for fools, that Ghaunadaur was going to do anything except what he said he would, then he would consider aborting the plan.
Valdasar seemed to consider the request carefully, silently tilting his head in appraisal of the young wizard. “It is not overly strenuous, though you must understand the omens granted me are not precise, such as those in Gravenhollow. They do not manifest in images or sounds but innate feelings.” He sniffed. “The vision that brought me to Gauntlgrym was my first in many decades, and so perhaps it is simply lack of practice that has dulled my interpretation; something that may improve as time goes on. Nonetheless, if you are satisfied with a lack of clarity, I will proceed.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the nebulousness of the future from a present perspective, but I think you will agree with me that especially in this delicate matter, having some inclination is better than having none at all. I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
Oh, there is no need for me to leave. He rose from the bed and waved a hand dismissively. “This will take but a minute.”
He settled down on the floor, resting upon both his knees, his robe bunching slightly as he settled his hands on his thighs. He lowered his head, until only his snout poked from the shadows and all the while his lips moved in times with murmured, almost lyrical chants.
After only a minute, he slowly raised his head. He beheld Loic with a clear, assured gaze. “Should you perform this ritual, the outcome will be very favourable; however, there will be undesirable consequences. That is all I can say, and I suspect it is an answer you were already expecting.”
Loic smiled softly at that, shaking his head. "What I expect and what is are two different things. I know that. If results had come back more negative than they did, I would have accepted it and altered my plans. Now, what I want to know is: how do you feel about that revelation? Do you believe, as I do, that a little bit of sacrifice would be worth a “very favorable” outcome, particularly if it saves the world or helps bring the Underdark a little more peace?"
The question brought a rough, hacking chuckle from Valdasar, which turned into coughing fit that he stifled with a clenched fist. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, clearly in good humour, “but that tickled me. A young fellow like yourself asking an old buzzard like me his opinion? Oh no, no, you already know best. Nothing a feeble stick insect who dresses like a beggar can tell you that you don’t already know.”
His features mellowed quickly and he continued in a more serious tone. “Honestly, my friend, I think I am not the one to ask. I have little to lose at this point in my life and even less to gain. If you truly believe that any sacrifice will be worth the gain, then that should be enough. But you should first consider exactly what you would be willing to lose. Is there anything you would not give to see this through, if it did indeed save the Underdark?”
The wizard let the lizard laugh, although he didn’t wholly understand where the humor was coming from. He found the cleric’s verbal self-flagellation to be off-putting, though. Humility was one thing, low self-esteem was another. Suddenly, he wanted to give Valdasar a big hug and tell the man he mattered. After all, he was one of the very few people who would be deciding the fate of the world, ancient as he was. Maybe after he acquired his blood. First things first.
Loic pondered Valdasar’s question, staring at the ceiling. “I think my family would be ashamed if I said I would put them first. You guys, as well, knew what you were going up against when you decided to tag along, so that discounts pretty much anyone I care about. The only thing left would be my mind and my soul, the latter he cannot have without my consent. The former, like I said: last time he did anything like flaying minds, it lead to his brutal defeat and consequent exile, so I don’t believe he’d try it. He should want to keep me sharp for the work we have to do.”
His attention landed on the cleric again, and he nodded, “Yes, I think I am in the best predicament I could ask for. He can have my arm. As long as I can still cast, I’ll be fine.”
Valdasar let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, about that. I did not voice my fears aloud in front of Eran but here lies another element to your ‘predicament’. In the stories you were told of Ghaunadaur, did you learn of his symbolic weapon? His preferred instrument of destruction?”
Loic shrugged. “He’s a God. He’s has infinite ways to cause destruction. I understand that his designs are very chaotic, so there is nothing that says he will follow the same pattern of… whatever you’re thinking of. In other words, I don’t believe he has a true preference because it changes. That said, he’s said to be a fan of self-inflicted harm. He is also said to enjoy larger abominations rampaging around, and commands a legion of giant Ropers.”
He didn’t know what the cleric was looking for. When considering a god, picking out a single “symbolic weapon” was damn near impossible. Everything they do is a symbolic weapon to someone. Perhaps he was having the biggest problem with the word “symbolic,” given that such a concept was often debatable or easy to misinterpret.
“Let me explain,” Valdasar said, adopting a sudden seriousness. “Many deities are very particular about the weapons their followers, servants or thralls carry into battle. Ghaunadaur’s preferred implement…” he paused to nod directly at Loic’s misshapen limb, “…is a tentacled arm.”
The wizard simply stood there for a moment, staring at the dragonborn. Then, he smiled widely and began to laugh. The laughter increased into a roar of elation, and the half-elf slid down the wall to land on his bottom, on the ground.
He stared at his messed-up hand as his giggle fit died, but he was still grinning like a fool. “Ah, haha, sorry to disappoint you. That’s about the best thing you could have told me. Gods, I hope it’s true.”
He wasn’t thinking about tentacles as aesthetically repulsive, though they were. It was Loic’s immediate reaction to always ask how could this be used to its fullest potential. In that case, the alteration was a grand thing. Hopefully, the length the limb was stretching to now would remain, and thus his reach would be unnaturally extended. He could think of a million ways that could give him an advantage, either in combat or in a library. Oh, and that’s not to mention his Psionic ability to meld with his hexed dagger. That could be a lethal combination if he practiced with it. Tentacles were also commonly prehensile, meaning he’d be a better climber and potentially stronger on one side of his body. Yes, he was sure this was a gift, if it was going to be what Valdasar said it was.
No, that’s great, he reiterated. “I was afraid he’d take the whole thing, or give me the arm of a Glabrezu or something less useful. Perhaps my feelings will change, but right now I am grateful. I will use it likely more than I use my left arm now.”
He looked up at the cleric, eyes sparkling with delight. “If that is the little bit of bad that goes along with everything, then that’s not bad at all. It’s just …different.”
Valdasar shrugged. “You seem to be satisfied enough with the mutation, so I cannot judge. However, there is one thing to consider.” His tone became grave. “That arm of yours, if it does indeed become this symbol of Ghaunadaur, will need to be hidden from view. Any follower of Lolth – or any of the Eye’s many foes, for that matter – may spot it and immediately see you as an enemy. That will only place ourselves and our companions in unnecessary danger. Allow me to bandage it to your body, to make it less conspicuous.”
Loic’s smile flattened out, and he stared at Valdasar with unabated pretention. He was just too tired to keep hiding it.
That won’t be necessary. In fact, that actually would cripple me. No, if you need me to change it for the sake of espionage, I’ll just use my magic. Most of the time, it will be well-hidden within my cloak, like the rest of me tends to be. Besides, I imagine godly intervention will not be the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds when they see it. I’m a wizard. Might as well have been some experiment gone awry, which, technically is a bit true.
He shook his head and exhaled, “I’m afraid all you’ve done here tonight is make me more certain I want to be doing all of this.”
Valdasar raised his brows. “You believe I have tried to convince you otherwise?”
“I hear the wariness in your words. I think you’re afraid,” he said honestly. “So yes, because of that, I think you wish I wouldn’t do it, and I think your guise of humility and helpfulness is a ruse to give your words more weight. It’s the dance of conversation. Still, if that is true, I don’t mind. You know I’m going to do what I think is right. I believe you when you say that.”
Again the dragonborn laughed and shook his head, continuing to do so as he climbed into bed. “Yes, yes, a true master of intrigue and subtlety, ever seeking to subvert. No, young man, I have no interest in whether or not you carry out your ritual. It is not my place to avert the folly of others, not when I have committed more than my own share; an opinion forged not by humility but simple, plain experience. Experience is a teacher you will never meet, but will hand you your harshest lessons. But enough of this. You have listened to my words and that was all I could ask. For that you have my thanks.” He coughed and lay on his side, his back to Loic. “On your way now. An old man needs his rest.”
The cleric sounded sincere, so Loic easily accepted he was wrong. He didn’t have any proof to contest the man with, but sometimes taking stabs in the dark was a quick way to get to know someone. Now he felt like he understood Valdasar a little better.
Then, I apologize for assuming. It’s just how most people are, but that doesn’t mean you are most people. He grunted as he used the wall to stand himself back up, receiving the request to leave clearly.
Instead of moving to the door though, he stood at the side of Valdasar’s resting place. “There was the matter of the third ingredient that I mentioned before your divination. Before I go, I need a drop of your blood. It will either have to be from you or Ilia, and as you say, you have little to lose and less to gain.”
He whipped out one of his throwing daggers, prepared to hand it over. “And then I’ll go.”
Turning slowly to peer over his shoulder, Valdasar let out a soft grunt at the sight of the dagger before resuming his position. “That I cannot do. I will not judge you, nor move to stop you, but I cannot be a part of this. It is not a matter of what I would lose or gain. I am sworn to another, and He would not look kindly upon such things. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
Loic’s eyes narrowed.
You’re not pledging anything, either. We need the blood of Lolth’s mechanisms to attach her to the spell of non-detection. I’ve already got one of Eilistraee’s paladins. That part doesn’t matter.
“Not if Ghaunadaur himself emerged from the darkness to demand it of me,” came the disinterested mumble from the bed. “Now please leave me to my sleep, and I recommend you do the same. You will no doubt need your strength for what is to come.”
A black eyebrow raised, and he wondered if Valdasar understood what would happen if Ilia also refused. If that did happen, he’d give the cleric one more chance, but then he would have to begin constructing ways to obtain the blood that perhaps wasn’t as gentle as asking for it. He’d come too far already.
He said nothing in the end. Instead, Loic’s shrouded form was swallowed up in silvery mist, and he was simply gone half a second later, to gods-only-know-where, to do gods-only-know-what…
A few moments go by….
If I tried using my own blood, and it was a controlled variable, then nothing would happen and the formula wouldn’t be ruined, because the spell still takes it into account. It just won’t work ‘cause it’s not enough, so I’d just drink as little as possible…
In a room on the third level, Loic paced back and forth. There, on the bed, sat his conversation companion: a tiny blue Basilisk. The only indication Peet was trying to understand his master was the way that his big head tilted from left to right at times.
…And then if my blood did work, then it works. And then I’ll be able to put myself along-side the other sacrifices and whatever happens to them will happen to me, too. He looked directly at Peet, “That might make them more amenable to it all, right? It’s not like I’m trying to get away, home free, with anything.”
To this, the baby Basilisk made a noise, something like an exclamatory growl. Naturally, he had no idea what was being said, but the creature felt like it was an appropriate time to make a noise, because that’s what he and his master were doing right now.
Loic sighed heavily, then unceremoniously sat on the bed beside his pet. Peet scrambled into his lap, and he gave him a few appreciative head-pets before rifling through his satchel to retrieve the blood vial and a dagger.
No risk, no reward, he said quietly, then moved the blade over his disfigured forearm. With a hiss of pain, a few dots of bright red, mixed with a green substance that was less viscous than blood, rose to the surface of his skin. He carefully popped the vial open with one hand and held it beneath the wound. When the first drop made contact with the rest he’d collected, the solution shimmered for a moment, indicating something indeed had happened there.
If I die here today, he looked down at Peet, “…then don’t try to avenge me. You can’t take on Ghaunadaur. Maybe one day, but not this day.” Peet made another noisy growl in response. The wizard smiled what might have been his last smile, and raised the concoction to his mouth.
But he didn’t drink it. He only sat there, unmoving, staring at the wall. This lasted around three whole minutes. Then, the vial dropped to the floor at his feet, spilling its contents harmlessly into the stone…
Loic’s hands were shaking as he brought his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, curling up into a black ball of torn fabric, displacer beast fur, and broken nerves. He kept seeing their faces. Lael’s in particular, twisted in a mixture of rage and sadness, was burned into his brain.
Sorry, Ghaunadaur, he whispered. “…I’ll find another way.”