I’ve got so much campaign prep to get done that if I don’t do it publicly, I’ll never get it done in time! Only one chapter this time, but it’s a biggie…
Clan Wars XIX: The Hidden Dragon
Beneath the granite facade of one particular mountain range lies a heart pockmarked by limestone caverns. Once, this region was beneath the sea, and coral and seashells littered the sandy surface. As volcanic pressure beneath the ocean floor exerted itself, this ocean floor was lifted clear of the waves. Eventually, a huge volcano punched through and erupted, spilling tons of ash and rock over the land. Much of this volcanic outflow formed a vast plain leading from the mountains that had formed. Slowly the rain and wind leeched the smoke and ash from the air, carving deep ravines and furrows in the rock and sweeping loose ash downstream. Then it grew much colder, perhaps because of the thick blanket of haze in the air, or perhaps because the elementals at the world’s heart were tired from their exertions, and great mountains of ice swept down from the Sinister.
Reminder: Directions in Fumanor are (clockwise): Sunrise, Sinister, Sunset, Dexter.
In time, the ice receded, and the mountains began to grow again, though not at the same dramatic rate. More volcanoes erupted, and then went out, laying down fresh coverings of rock from deep in the surface. The rains came, and the fertile soil bloomed, and the elementals beneath the mountains were driven out by the Gods, returning to their homes in the World Of Fire at the heart of the world. As is their way, some of the rivers that formed found the limestone deposits that once were shells, sand, and coral easier to attack than the granite, and caves beneath the mountain were opened. From time to time, the world would shake, and mountains would shift and move and tilt, and old watercourses ran dry as easier paths were found for the rain to flow, and some of the caves became dry.
Into one of these vast caverns, a teardrop 400 feet long by 200 feet wide at its greatest, a warband materialized as though by magic, riding the ritual cast in haste by the Hidden Dragon back to its originator. Standing back-to-back, not knowing what to expect apon their arrival save that it would be in the heart of their enemy’s stronghold, it took them a moment to get their bearings and make sense of what they perceived.
At the distant wider end of the cavern, a monstrous figure barely small enough to be contained beneath the 150′ ceiling was enshrouded in chains of mist and cloud that glowed with a pearly light. It had the body of a dragon, ninety feet in length (plus tail). From it’s feet sprouted seven toes, disproportionately large for the size of the body by a factor of five. But most monstrous of all was the incredibly oversized head, easily ten times the size it should have been, and a strange and disturbing blend of humanoid and draconic features. It’s eyes were closed, and its head rested against a silvery silk cushion of incredible proportion, 80′ square, which was held upright against the cavern wall by a rough scaffolding carved from the rock itself. The creature abruptly twitched in its sleep, one vast foot flaying out, and it suddenly became clear that the bowl end of the cavern had started existence not much larger than the narrow end, but had been excavated and carved out by the monstrous creature in it’s sleep over a span of centuries. But this was not the totality of its vile description; for the skin of the creature was mottled with age, mildew, and a leprous rotting, and the nauseating odor of decaying flesh filled the cavern. Slowly the creature’s tongue stole out through the side of its cheek and licked the lower extremity of one the great bat-like wings, a point some eighty feet removed from the head, leaving a slimy glaze over the rotting tissue. And yet, there was something slightly insubstantial about the creature, as though it were not fully present in the same reality as everything else.
Surrounding what could only be The Hidden Dragon were a small horde of devils and demons, fourty or more strong. Some were engaged in polishing the teeth or claws, others scrubbed the flesh of the dragon, or threw infant creatures down the monstrous mouth. One spotted the intruders and called a warning in a language that was painful just to hear. Many lay on sleeping pallets arranged in a ring around the dragon; at first, it might have been hoped that these were actually sleeping, but that hope was dashed when they began to rise from their reclining positions in response to the alert.
“Ambassador, watch the rear for more,” yelled First as both he and Third let fly with their arrows, taking two of the servants in the throat and eye, respectively.
“Fan out,” ordered Goral, and stepped forward, his war-axe at the ready. Reality dissolved around him…
The creature, suddenly vibrant and healthy, hung suspended in space with a litany of horror. A creature with tentacles where a mouth should be, an inky blot of 10,623 eyes, a relentlessly amorphous blob, a humanoid figure with a front but no back, and many more. Around them, reality shimmered, twisted, and distorted, straight lines and edges tying themselves in knots. One spoke, and somehow was understandable, though the language was nothing that had ever existed before or would exist in the future. *This order, this regularity, burns within me. I want it gone, gone, gone forever.*
Another replied, in still another incomprehensible tongue that was nevertheless crystal clear in its meaning, *it sneaks under my surfaces and insinuates itself. Sneaking up, it twists my thoughts until I find myself lessened, reduced to what I think I want to be doing. Who wants to have to wait for the perception of want before its satisfaction?*
*It is still a fragile thing. It can be broken.*
*If there are none to perceive it, there is no pattern. We must cleanse all existence of this foul corruption that confines and regulates the infinite possibilities.*
*If we destroy it all, only the void – and ourselves – will remain!*
*It burns, it burns.* Suddenly, one realized that they had fallen into the orderly pattern called “conversation” and screamed in pain, longing, and frustration.
Lukzal, son of Kyrd, Warrior of the Burning Eyes, shook his head to clear it of the clinging vision, and realized that the Demons had been unaffected, and had taken the opportunity to arm themselves and begin – according to their forms – to run, slither, or fly toward the invading force. Trying to recall why they seemed so familiar, he suddenly had a mental image of the “Army Of The Eye” summoned by what he had since learned was a false Gruumsh. Rage overwhelmed him, and he did not fight the berserker fury as it rose. If they had to fight while blind, at least some of the time, sheer violence would have to substitute for vision.
“It sleeps, it dreams, and we share those dreams!” exclaimed Garunch, the Clan Shaman of the Burning Eyes.
So that’s what it is, thought Lukzal. A trick of the enemy. Ignore it. Fight. That seems clear enough.
Reality swam around him as he dimly perceived that the two who had been struck by Elven arrows rose up. One ripped the arrow from its throat and tossed it aside, the other ignored the shaft protruding from it’s eye – it had two more, after all – and lurched toward the Orcish raiding party.
*These things of order create other things of order to oppose us. I cannot escape their thoughts, this unnatural progression of effect following cause becoming new cause in its turn. They twist and turn and collide within me.*
*The things they make are imperfect. There is a little of our nature within them.*
*But we have been contaminated a little by them, also. They are within us, under my surface, their thoughts slithering and crawling.*
*They can be rendered self-destructive, self-defeating, impotent.*
*Show us these creatures, Arioch.*
*Don’t call me that! I am me, not some label. Every time you say the words to mean me, you confine me to the limits, the content, of that label. You lessen me, you lessen us, you are seduced us with the order that corrupts you.*
*Just show us.*
*These are Dwarves. Made of stone, minds of stone, they may break but will not bend. Order is strong within their natures.*
*But they are flimsy things, whose sense of order can be shattered if the world around them is anarchy. They need order without to anchor themselves to, and without it, they are bereft. They pose no threat to our need.*
*These are called human. They will exist in great numbers and have the quality of imposing order on their surroundings with their presence.*
*Horrid, horrid, foul, vile.*
*Their strength is their flexibility. They can turn their attention to many things, all imperfectly, but improving in flawlessness each time.*
*They may one day be a problem, but their flexibility is a weakness. They will bend and not break. We can bend them our way and make of them our instruments.*
*Not all of them.*
*Enough that one will neutralize another.*
*More dangerous are these, called Elves. The inferior Order which names itself Corallen has designed them to withstand our greatest weapons against this befouling order, and uses these others, called Orcs, to rear and protect them. The Orcs are orderly without knowing why, it is so strongly embedded within their natures. The Elves have the ability to sew patches of order into patterns of still greater order, and with their immunities, can only be intended to serve as weapons against us.*
*But they will be aware of that ability, and it will make them vulnerable to corruption and desire. It will be difficult, but they can be overcome.*
*The Order of the Orcs can be corrupted and misled. Without their shields, these Elves will be easily ended.*
As the vision faded, the Orcish group completed their maneuver to put enough space between them to permit them to fight without interference. Goral had taken the left flank, and Lukzal had found himself on the right. Next to each was another warrior from the Mailed Fist clan armed with sword, shield, and long spears attached to their shield arms with a sharpened blade on one side of the point. Next in line on each side were the Elves, First and Third, with the third unnamed Orcish warrior shielding Garunch, who had begun casting a spell asking Gruumsh to Smite these unholy foes. Behind them was the useless Drow, armed with a wicked looking dagger of little combat value beyond intimidation – and the Demons and Devils did not seem particularly intimidated, perhaps because some of them had razor-sharp fingernails longer than the blade.
With one final beat of their scabrous bat-wings, the first wave of infernal enemies reached the skirmish line and engaged. Lukzal, Goral, and the three Orcish warriors swung as one, even as the Elves ignored the attackers immediately in front of them and fired at another pair of approaching enemies. Lukzal’s preferred weapon was a broad-bladed sword of his own design, with a sharpened narrow-bladed hook at the point; swung one way, it gave his weapon additional weight that enabled it to chop through poorly-crafted mail, swung the other, the hook would catch around limbs or weapon-shafts or necks, and sever them. Spikes on the heavy pommel gave additional threat. Like most Orcish weapons, it was sharpened regularly but not cleaned very well.
“Fight even if you can’t see what you’re doing”, Goral instructed. Better the right instruction late than never, thought Lukzal. Their first two attackers had paid the price for daring to attack while outnumbered; it would not be so easy when there were more of them attacking at once. The cavern shimmered….
*These are called Dragons.*
An unholy scream of withering frustration erupted from the gathered Chaos Powers.
*Every scale is in a predictable place on the body. These scales have shapes that progress in shape in predictable pattern. They bend and reflect light from one surface to another and then back again, giving them an iridescent metallic shine that is perfectly orderly. And more, they are beings of great power, imbued within them by the order that twists around them and shapes them.*
*They will be few in number. Such order will be slow to develop.*
*It will be hard to overcome them, but they cannot be everywhere. We have only to act wherever they are not.*
*There is a chaos within that pattern. By being so predictable in pattern, there are more places where no scale should grow than there are right places. If we can but invade their forms while still growing and grow in one of those places a single wrong scale, or scale of flawed shape, that chaos will overwhelm the end result. They will destroy each other for us, and pose no threat.*
Goral felt, rather than saw, the satisfying crunch as his war-axe met flesh and bit deep, spraying him with blood. One of the demons hooked its claws into the shoulders of one of his warriors and scissored it’s hind legs into the air to rake savagely down through the innards of the Orcish fighter. Lukzal had just beheaded another with that wicked weapon of his. Garunch swung his light mace overhand to strike the four-legged bird that had just savaged his protector; when its barbed spikes bit into the back of the attacking creature, the air around the head of the weapon seemed to burst with a forceful thud, shattering the creature’s spine in multiple places. First let fly with another shaft, ignoring the proximity of enemies to either side of him with great discipline, while Third wrestled with another flying creature that looked like an octopus with bat-wings that had wrapped it’s tentacles around his bow. The warrior to Goral’s right was hacking one enemy with his sword while the polearm blade swung past that foe to strike the chest of another coming up behind it. Abruptly, the Ambassador seemed to throw his dagger with a peculiar underhand motion, the blade flicking out on a long chain to whip into the lone eye of the octopoid engaging Third. He had never suspected that the Ambassador had such hidden talents. Eleven of their enemies had fallen, and another six were wounded; the band were giving a good accounting of themselves.
*These are the most foul of all creations. They are called Trees. They exist purely to exist in orderly manner, day after day, year after year. Infinitely flexible, inexorable, persistent, there is nowhere that they cannot take root and multiply, given time. And once they do so, their very simplicity of purpose makes them inherently almost purely order.*
*We can twist their shapes.*
*They seize the chaos within them and twist their own shapes, rendering it harmless to affect their central existence, their purpose, their order.*
*They are inactive, though. They do nothing but exist, and that means that things can be done to them by others.*
*Against one at a time, yes. But even that does nothing against the next save perhaps giving it more air, water, and light, the things that it binds into more of itself. Destroying one makes the next imperceptible stronger. Destroy many, and the remainder become many times stronger, and more pernicious.*
*If there is no water, no earth, no light, no air, they will be destroyed. They anchor order, and will be the last to fall, but they do not impede us.*
The warrior beside Lukzal was gone, half-swallowed by a serpentine bear before the terrible jaw with a hidden forest of razor-sharp teeth had closed and severed upper torso from lower. Lukzal himself held three foes at bay with his maniacally-swinging weapon’s figures-of-eight. Occasionally an attacker would spot an opening and strike, only to lose a limb or suffer a deep wound as the blade came out of nowhere. First and third continued to pepper the oncoming attackers with arrow after arrow; Goral thought they had yet to miss, even though half their shots were fired from memory while ‘blinded’ by the Hidden Dragon’s visions. Garunch alternated casting spells with savage strokes of his mace against any foe who dared come too close. Tathzyr was the least effective of them all, though since they had not counted on him to make a difference in the fight at all, that little benefit was a welcome bonus. The Ambassador was restricting his attacks to nuisance strikes against an enemy coming against the Priest or the Elves. Half of their enemies were dead or dying, and half the remainder were crippled or injured sufficiently to impair them in battle.
Abruptly, Garunch yelled “Down!” as a gout of flame erupted from the throat of a creature consisting of nothing more than necks and mouths attached to a wolf-like body. Fortunately, everyone reacted without hesitation, but even so Goral could feel the flesh on his back blister and burn. But the attackers, who seemed immune to the flame, or who ignored it while showing no injury, were able to take advantage of this moment of vulnerability. One leapt on the Lukzal’s back and began to slash and worry at the Warrior. Another gored Goral’s side. A two-headed snake bit Third repeatedly, who immediately stiffened. A flier slashed at First, but the Elf was able to roll to one side and seize the polearm still strapped to the arm of one of the fallen warriors, impaling his would-be attacker. Tathzyr’s dagger whipped out and around again from the Ambassador’s prone position and sliced through the bat-wings of the creature on Lukzal’s back. The warrior stationed between Goral and First leaped over his fallen Warblade to engage the attacker who was goring him with it’s antlers, severing it’s head with one mighty stroke of his axe, but in the process leaving himself exposed; the barbed tail of another attacker struck at the warrior’s undefended right flank, inflicting a deep wound. The skirmish line that had proven so effective was broken, with Goral and the Warrior isolated. And then his vision wavered once again.
*This is the last. These are creatures of pure order, expressed in form reflective of that inner order. The Gods name them Celestials, and they are a part of the Gods themselves.*
*What is their purpose?*
*The Gods intend them to function as their proxies, sheltering and marshalling the other races against us.*
*Their purpose is to confound us, then. We must destroy these before all others.*
*No. That is orderly thinking. We will destroy them when opportunity presents itself, and not bend ourselves to the timetable their existence seeks to force apon us.*
*Clever. A subtle trap to bind the order that contaminates us ever more strongly to our natures.*
*I was going to suggest that we each take one of these creatures and seek its destruction, but I see that is another such trap.*
*Yes. Each must seek the destruction of all, as our chance and anarchy creates opportunities. Predictability and logic and pattern are the weapons of the enemy.*
*I have an idea…*
*Then implement it. You do not need anyone’s approval, and should one of us have an idea that works at cross-purposes to yours, it only acts to increase the chaos in this unnaturally orderly world and give opportunity to the rest.*
A wall of whirring blades manifested between the enemy forces and the Orcish party as Garunch released his spell, giving the invaders the chance to regroup. They had all been wounded to some extent, save Ambassador Tathzyr. Healing drafts were quickly quaffed, stemming the flow of blood. Without warning, Goral fell through a chasm that opened from nowhere beneath his feet. With a crash, he landed, and felt one of his leg-bones snap. Involuntarily he gave a roar of pain and collapsed, unsupported by the damaged limb. “Goral! Grab the rope! Quickly” yelled First as he tossed one end of a thin grey rope down the chasm.
“My leg is broken, and I have not the strength to climb!”, he called back. “Leave me!”
“Your leg can be healed, but only once the bone has been set, or you will have a permanent limp. Now grab the rope, Warblade Of The Mailed Fists, and hold fast; I will pull you up!”
“Elves! Only thing more stubborn than a Dwarf,” yelled Goral. Abruptly he realized that the mouth of the unnatural chasm was beginning to close, and hastily wrapped the rope around one arm repeatedly. There wasn’t much that scared the Warblade, but being buried alive was one thing that did. “All right, I’m secured.”
With a speed that astonished him, he was hauled back to the surface. With an astonishing economy of motion, First released the rope and grabbed the foot of the broken leg, the jagged bone protruding through the flesh above the ankle, and pulled firmly. Garunch was immediately at the wounded Warblade’s side, casting a Healing spell. “You’re stronger than you look, Elf,” murmured the Warblade.
“So are you, Goral,” replied First.
“I felt a twisting in the earth just before the chasm opened,” reported the Ambassador.
“As did I,” admitted the Clan Shaman, “but I did not know what it meant.”
“Now we do. How did they do that?” answered First, still breathing heavily after his excursions. Goral’s vision swam…
The Chaos Power roared with laughter, exulting in the anarchy, blood, and confusion, watching as the last Celestial was slain and its skull ground into the reality beneath it.
*You should tell us what you have done that we may learn from it.*
*Learning from experience, even from the experience of another, is a symptom of order. It is anathema to our nature.*
*It is foolish to ignore the contamination of order within us. If it is there, we must try and use it to our own ends.*
*You seek to pervert the order within you to serve the cause of Chaos? Intriguing. Very well. I implanted in a few of the Celestials the thought that if the Gods were dead, they would be all that was left of them. They would then be the Gods. Each was drawn by the order within them to contaminate a few more, and then a few more. A few resisted, by chance, as it should be when chance rules supreme. That resistance caused them to fight each other, but they were too perfect for either to fall. Only by drawing on the chaos within them could those I corrupted succeed, twisting and transforming them into agents of Chaos and not order. Those that had resisted were no match for the power of order augmented by the nature of chaos. Now the chaos within them burns them as it does us, and they corrupt the order around them to ease the suffering. They cannot do so perfectly or completely, of course – there is too much order still within them – but imperfection is chaotic.*
*The Chaos is stronger in some than in the others.*
*Yes. Again, it is by chance – some held on to the order within them more strongly than others, who rejected it almost completely. The Gods foolishly showed what was occurring to the humans they breed to oppose us; those more orderly have been named Devils, those who rejected order more completely, Demons. They will hate each other for the order in some of them, and compete endlessly to be the ones that tear down all order and remake it all to their liking. And already, some of the humans begin to think that one day they will be able to supplant the Gods.*
*It will take time for this to grow, but it will give us endless opportunities to act, to cleanse existence of this agonizing regularity. You have done well. Already, I can see a way to take advantage of what you have wrought.*
*Then do it!*
*I have only to put an idea in the minds of these Devils or Demons, and they will act as my proxies, thinking it all their own notion. I shall start by turning one against the other, that the chaos within them will never be stilled by order and predictability…*
The Chaos Powers exulted.
“This place is part of the Dragon’s dreams!” said Tathzyr with a sudden insight. “When it is not distracting us with visions, it can reshape it! That’s how it opened the chasm!”
“My barrier is about to go down,” warned Garunch.
“And here they come again,” announced Goral, climbing to his feet. “Ready yourselves!” Suddenly, his vision shimmered once again. “Oh, not now!” he moaned, tired of fighting blind. “Advance, slowly!” he instructed.
“It is boring! I want to hunt, not care for these pathetic mewling cubs!”
*That’s right, little Orc. Doing what you want to do is more satisfying than doing what you are supposed to do.* The Orc was in a forest, gazing longingly at a stone-headed axe and leather shield that rested against a tree. The Chaos Power was in a lair that it had created for the benefit of the many demonic and devilish servants who worked on its behalf, convinced that it was merely a Demon Prince gaining power in Stealth. But it was also whispering into the mind of the young Orc.
“I am going to hunt! Let the child cry, I am tired of putting its needs ahead of my own!”
*Yesssssss…. that feels good, doesn’t it? And its not as though you are neglecting it. Someone else will do it if something has to be done for it.*
— YOU DARE!?
*Corallen? None of your kind have ever dared confront one of us Directly!*
— My ‘Kind,’ as you put it, never do anything without a plan. I have such a plan, prepared against this day, and so I act! Understand this: the Elves are under my protection. Their Guardians shelter and guard them, and so I protect them, also. I tell you this so that your Brethren will understand the consequences of your action and never dare to confront one of us directly, in the future.
*You are too late, Corallen. This is not the first of your Guardians that I have corrupted with indifference and desire, and already many of your beloved Elves have buried kernels of arrogance, pride, cruelty, hatred, and ambition growing within them. If I fail, another will find a way to make those seeds bloom.*
— I know you engage me in conversation in hope of buying time for your servants to come to your aid, for you are unsuited to physical actions of your own. It will avail you naught, for in assuming a physical manifestation for their convenience, you have made yourself subject to the Order inherent in a physical existence, and have slowed the passage of time within this chamber. I shall be finished and gone long before time ceases its temporary, leisurely, crawl.
— Around you I weave a spell of order.
— A Spell of purity of purpose.
— A Spell of unalloyed slumber.
— Into this spell I confine you.
— Your assumed fleshly form will wither with disuse.
— Your servants shall tend your needs for eternity in hopes of releasing you.
— The Words shape your mind, the words give structure and formality, the words impart order and confine your thoughts within that order.
— The Chaos within you shall suffer for eternity in these chains of order. I bind them with the final word: I name you Ethraztia, the dragon which hides within slumber, the sleeping nightmare. And I bind you to that name and its meaning for all time.
“What does this mean?” demanded Lukzal, killing another demon as the group slowly advanced, and their enemy just as slowly retreated. 25 of them were now dead, and 12 were wounded; only three remained unmarked by the battle.
“I don’t know. Worry about it later,” replied Garunch, fending off one attacker with a borrowed shield and chopping into the arm of another with his War Axe one-handed.
“It’s the Dragon trying to distract us,” answered First, interpreting the question in a way that would forestall a theological debate.
Abruptly, stalactites ripped themselves from the ceiling and flew like javelins at the compact group of invaders. Once again, Garunch instructed “Down!” and was instantly obeyed. He had clearly been anticipating this mode of attack, and released a spell that created a wall of wind that swept the delicate spires of razor-sharp stone to one side and away from the group. Most shattered harmlessly against the cavern wall, but several struck and wounded the waiting demons, killing another four outright, and wounding two of those who had been whole.
“Predictable,” muttered Garunch as their vision again began to waver. “Whenever we seem to be gaining the advantage, the Dragon cloaks his forces in these visions. Brace yourselves!”
The Dragon slept, and dreamed of its confinement, and slowly came to realize that Corallen had sacrificed much of his power to confine it, and then to recognize that the binding was not purely directed at it alone; should any of its brethren seek to interfere directly with the Elves, they would be trapped, confined within the dreams of Ethraztia, helpless. And for a time, its dreams were full of anger, fury, and frustration. He dreamed of the Elves as a unified race, standing proud as bastions of Order, and knew that this was what Corallen planned, and that nothing would stop it, for this was the future.
“Woman! Why are you here?” cried Goral.
“My heart knew you were in danger, and I prayed to Luthic to permit me to share in that peril,” replied Goral’s mate. All around the group, other reunions were occurring, no matter how improbable.
“Father! They told me you were killed!” exclaimed Lukzal.
“Gruumsh released me to aid you, my son,” answered Kyrd. “We fight side-by-side one last time.”
“It’s a trick, a deception,” shouted First. “They are demons! The Dragon defiles the memories of your family and friends!” One-by-one, he touched each of his companions, permitting them to share his Elven Sight, and revealing the true shapes of the monstrosities approaching casually. Though the true sight was immediately again clouded in the deception when he released his touch and moved on to the next of his companions, the one brief glimpse was enough to convince the others and rouse the Orcs to new levels of fury. As one, they snarled their defiance and anger and struck out at the cloaked demons. Abruptly the deception was lifted.
“How did you do that?” demanded Tathzyr.
“Long ago, Corallen taught me to do it, though it only works for a moment. ‘One day, you may have need of this ability,’ he told me. Perhaps he foresaw the possibility that Ethraztia would one day pose a danger, and prepared me to counter it, I don’t know!”
The Dragon slept. And the dragon dreamed of what had been, and what had been done, and of the things that it had seen in Corallen’s mind when it opened before him to expose the chains of order that bound it. All of it’s existence, past, present, or future was open to its dreams. And slowly, the dragon learned to turn the pure order in which it was chained to the cause of the chaos that was its nature.
It started when a wanderer chanced to sleep on the mountainside above the lair, and Ethraztia found that it could present its dreams to the wanderer as his own. And the wanderer, comprehending what he had seen but a little, and remembering less than he had comprehended, spread the word that this was a holy place where visions came to those open to them.
Other pilgrims followed. Some were holy men of various species; others were troubled souls seeking solace from pain, fear, doubt, and confusion; and still others came to test their theories and imaginings. To each, Ethraztia showed a different vision, a different dream, one chosen at random. It could not lie in these dreams, for they had to be filtered through the orderliness of its confinement; but it could shade, and distort, and present a portion of the truth that each dreamer would find unsettling or affirming or gratifying. And Ethraztia fed apon the other dreams and nightmares of the dreamers through this connection, and slowly it grew in strength. This was not a strength as it had possessed before, the power of whispering within the mind and soul of another, but it was akin to it, though more indirect.
And through the dreams of the pilgrims, Ethraztia learned of events beyond its confinement, and learned to add their dreams to its own.
“Did you sense an air of desperation about that last vision?” commented Tathzyr drily as Lukzal slew the last of the demons. “I had the distinct impression that Ethraztia was trying to convince us of it’s power, of the futility of attacking it.”
“I don’t think I’ll let that stop me,” answered Goral, striding forward, war-axe at the ready.
In time, as the Dragon slept, the servants of the Chaos Power now named Ethraztia noticed the pilgrims, and tortured a few to learn what brought them hence, and through the dreams of these pilgrims did Ethraztia re-establish contact with its servants. It directed them to labor to further grow its powers, summoning forth skilled artisans from the nearby Dwarven realm to craft a great temple in the place of dreaming, which they named Gottskragg. And Ethraztia dreamed a fantasy of its own devising, in which the order of the chains which bound it was linked to the purity of the temple, enabling his dreams of what was, what had been, and what would be, and all that it desired to appear as holy writ apon its walls. And through this medium, it was able to lure the servant of another of its Brethren, and through its dreams, to warn them of the trap that had been layed for them by Corallen.
With an angry bellow, Goral struck at the Hidden Dragon, but his blade passed harmlessly through it as though it were nothing but smoke. Lukzal, First, and Garunch joined in, but again nothing was achieved. “Ethraztia is definitely growing desperate,” remarked Tathzyr. “If I were to translate the last two visions, I would say: ‘I warn you, I’m stronger than you are, and I have powerful friends.”
“I don’t know why it’s so desperate, nothing we’re doing can hurt it,” screamed Goral in frustration.
“It’s as though there’s no substance, it’s like trying to cut through a dream with a knife,” added First.
“If I’m right, next it will try to subvert one of us,” answered Tathzyr.
With each dreamer lured to the Oracle of Gottskragg, the reach of Ethraztia’s dreams became greater. Eventually, a high Elf of the Orb-spinner totem came to dream, dimly, of the Oracle, and set out to discover if it was real. Elves do not sleep as do humans, but they do rest and meditate at need, and they do walk the path of dreams at such times. Ethraztia, unlike his brethren, had no fear of direct meddling with the Elves, but soon found that the immunity to enchantments built into their natures by Corallen left the elf immune to his whisperings, as the Chaos Powers had long ago forecast would be the case.
But, to his wonder and amazement, Ethraztia found that the Elf’s spider-totem was not immune – but only because of the trappings of order in which it was confined. Sympathetic to such order by its nature, Ethraztia was able to pour into that vessel the same dream of supremacy, ambition, and hatred that it had once instilled within the Celestials, and spun a fantasy of the spider-totems uniting into a single being, a near-Goddess. And when reality mirrored art, that being named itself Lolth, and the high elf became her first hand-maiden. And thus Ethraztia fulfilled his own threat against Corallen; it had indeed found a way to make the kernels of chaos and evil that it had, in its former existence, instilled within the still-unborn Elves.
And, having learned that it could still influence events profoundly and further its cause in spite of dreams of a contrary future, Ethraztia began to examine its own visions of the past and future, and to dream schemes of victory. His Prophetic dreamings were not what would happen, they were what could happen – if no-one did anything to change them.
With a snort, Tathzyr said, “See! I told you. Claiming to have created my Mistress and Queen, implying that I should be loyal to it. What nonsense.”
“Then what can we do? Our weapons are useless,” answered Lukzal. “I did not come here and fight demons and dreams to do nothing.”
“Dreams. Dreams. First, what did you say? ‘It’s like trying to cut through a dream with a knife’… Almost, almost. The answer’s there, I can taste it.” For long minutes, the Ambassador was lost in deep thought. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “What did the vision say? Of course! It all makes sense, now!
“You, Ethraztia! Show us why you have done all this – and the truth, mark you, or as much of it as you are capable of. If you do this, I will release you – I know how to do it, now!”
“What are you DOING!?” roared Goral.
“Trust me,” answered the Drow, with no hint of irony, as once again, their vision twisted…”
Ethraztia discovered that one day, an Elf, an Orc, and a Drow would unite with diverse others to directly threaten both itself and others of its brethren with ultimate defeat and destruction, including – horror of horrors – a walking, talking, tree, or something so close to one as to be anathema to his kind. Let others fight the battle against order in their own way; Ethraztia was the only one who knew of this eventual threat, imminent from the perspective of an immortal, and so it was Ethraztia’s battle to fight. When an Orcish exploring party discovered the Oracle of Gottskragg, Ethraztia began to discover part of the reason this combination would be so dangerous: the Orcs had a gift for being able to see many spiritual parts as a whole. They did not perceive a single Deity within their pantheon, they saw – and believed – in it as a whole, as they did their tribes, and their clans, and their race. The simplicity and directness of this perspective made them more closely attuned to Order than any other race. Elves were not the true threat Corallen had raised against the Powers Of Chaos, the Orcs were, for – while the time would come for them to set aside the deities in whom they now believed – they would view the true order of the Gods as a united whole, almost instinctively. The purity of their belief already enabled them to call apon their Gods as though they were real. So strong was this belief that those Gods were real, at least so far as the Orcs were concerned. The Orcs had been deliberately designed to compliment and complete the Elves, the more overt threat, and a distraction from the real menace. Together, the three would have the knowledge and power to unmake his prized creation, Lolth, and remake her into a weapon against the Chaos Powers themselves.
And it all stemmed from the sense of unity of the Orcs. At all costs, this unity must be shattered, and the Orcs set at each other’s throats.
Ethraztia’s dreams were a blend in equal measure of careful strategic planning, opportunism, and fantasy wish-fulfillment made manifest, and all were directed to this end. It was not enough for the Orcs to go to war against each other, they must be convinced that their gods were equally divided. Only then could they persuaded to set in motion a vast summoning, to bring forth permanently every fiend of the Abyss from which Ethraztia had obtained loyalty, that every last one could be hunted down. If extinct, or close to it, and at the hands of their own Gods, the Orcs would never threaten Ethraztia again.
“Half-truths and distortions. But probably as close to honesty as your kind can come. Very well, you have met the terms of the bargain. Goral, please stand here. Garunch, you here. Lukzal, over here.” Having positioned one of the Orcs before each of the chains. “The purity of belief of the Orcs is enough that their Gods don’t have to be real for them to be able to work miracles in their names. That belief is pure order. I want you three to concentrate on your beliefs and, on my signal, strike at the chains. First, I expect a rather important visitor to show up a soon as I give the signal; I would appreciate it if you would prevent him from incinerating me before I can explain.
“Ready? Three, two one, NOW!”
With a sound like breaking glass, three weapons struck the chains, shattering them. The Dragon’s great eye snapped open in an instant; lifting it’s great head from the pillow against which it had rested for centuries on it’s impossibly thin neck, it gave a shattering trumpet of triumph and exultation.
The Ongoing Elvish Glossary
I’m going to forego this while our attention is focused on the Orcish side of the story, as it has no relevance to the narrative.
I love it when a plan comes together! For those interested in the technical details: I wrote the “Vision” sequences first, answering almost all of the questions posed by the “behind the curtain” article published last week, and with a few more ideas thrown in for good measure. This told me how many action sequences I needed in between them, so I worked out (roughly) what was going to happen in each, and then wrote all of them up. Because I knew which ‘vision’ scenes would be significant to the Orcs, I was able to attune the interaction to match. This whole thing was done in two sittings, with a ten-minute break in the middle, totaling about 10 hours. There was virtually no correction needed, last week’s article had primed me so that the words just spilled out one after another. I haven’t been inspired like that in a long time.
And oh yeah: if you think I’ve written myself into a corner, getting specific about all sorts of things that I said I wasn’t going to get specific about, or making it clear that the characters would have had access to the top-secret information I’ve only revealed in the course of this series at the start of play, there are a couple of twists on the way that should explain everything… Like I said, I was inspired today.
Next time: The Conclusion of the Clan Wars saga, and what happens afterwards. Chapters 75-77!
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 1
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 2
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 4
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 5
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 1-4
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 5-10
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 11-14
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 15-17
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 18-20
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 21-23
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 24-26
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 27-28
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 29-31
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 32-36
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 37-40
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 41-43
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 44-46
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 47-51
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Orcish Mythology
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 52-54
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 55-58
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 59-62
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 63-65
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 66-68
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 69-70
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 71-73
- Who Is “The Hidden Dragon”? – Behind the curtain of the Orcs and Elves Series
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapter 74
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 75-77
- On The Origins Of Orcs, Chapters 78-85