I stood in front of the giant stone and pondered a moment. Finally. The seventh monolith. My unexpected encounter with the spirit of Noloth’e while visiting the fourth monolith had spurred me to move even faster in my quest to find each rune-inscribed spire, seeking the knowledge they contained for those with the determination to access it. I was haunted by the image Noloth’e had used.
'Seven stones, four with a pair of golden eyes gazing out. Two with eyes cut out. One with eyes closed.'
What could this mean and how had it come about? My best hope for answers lay in learning the stories each monolith had to tell and thus, my search had continued with new purpose. These final three monoliths had been far more difficult to reach however, as I had discovered to my peril, being surrounded by various creatures hostile to those not of their own kind. Fortunately, I had learned much during my wanderings and so had been able to move silently through the unfriendly regions, carefully searching each time until I found the object of my current obsession. My quest had led me from burning desert to the demon-ridden city of Myth Drannor and a monolith whose eyes had been closed....from an island volcano to the water-filled streets of Skettrd-gul and a monolith with eyes cut out....until now, here I stood, ankle deep in the icy marshes of Tarsellian Forest facing the end of this pilgrimage I had set for myself. After experiencing the visions this one had to share, what would be the next step in my quest to gain information? Where could I find more answers that were not based on fear and prejudice of one sort or another? With an effort, I shook off these musings and resolutely touched my fingers to the shimmering runes, slightly prepared by my past experiences for what was to come. And it did come as it had six times before. Words murmured through my mind, telling of fallen heroes, of dark times and hope. Yet it wasn’t enough. There was more to be learned as with numb hands I quickly brushed aside the thorns surrounding the bottom of the stone to search the runes they covered. In my chilled carelessness, the vines slipped, the thorns embedding in my finger as my mind immediately succumbed to their poison. A moment of pain and then dreams....nightmares of demons and heroes unable to stand before their relentless wave...smoke and darkness...then for one horrifying moment, I was part of the destruction, eager to drink of the sweet juices of death...And suddenly, Noloth’e. Garbed in a blue cloak this time but with the same passionate message “It must not come to be. Your world must not perish in the rage of the Vile One. It must not come to be.”
With a breath-stealing wrench, I came back to myself aware at first only of a throbbing in my hand. As I shook off the dream’s fog, I absently wiped my bloody finger against my travel-stained robe, my mind even now marking my path through the marsh, omitting the wrong turns I had made in my searching so that I might find this place again. There was someone else who would learn all this monolith had to teach. I had looked at the ice-encrusted bog that stretched in all directions and realized I could not bring Lilira by moonwell as I had before in Skettrd-gul. Fortunately, there are other ways and means available to a druid but it would mean yet more journeying. Ah, well...time was wasting while I stood here pondering. With a quickly murmured word I was back in the druid guild outside of Waterdeep. Moments later I was roaming the crowded, noisy streets, alert for any glimpse of Lilira’s familiar face as I made my way to the inn where I had last seen her, hoping I would find her quickly so I could escape the suffocation of this city. How could people live like this? How had I lived like this for so many years? Shrugging aside my unease I continued my search and was finally rewarded by a glimpse of silvery hair near the Cleric’s Pathway. I should have realized she might be there, singing comfort for the wounded.
As I had anticipated, Lilira was eager to view the monolith but this time, she asked if she could bring another like myself who had been seeking answers to his own questions. As the risk was not much greater with two additional party members to protect instead of one, our small group soon set off heading north and making good time with Lilira’s song to speed our travel. The miles passed in this now-familiar journey until I was once again standing in the Tarsellian Forest. I did not dare take my charges any further into the marshes so I found them a relatively safe spot to wait while I continued deeper in a safer form. Hopefully the small finch I had become would be easy for unfriendly creatures to overlook and harder to catch if they did happen to glimpse me flying by. After a small run-in with a couple of overly alert moor hounds, I was once again standing before the thorn entangled monolith in my human form, Lilira and Ticarios beside me having been summoned safely past the most dangerous portions of the marsh.
“Be as quick as you can...this room is not safe.” I murmured, glancing northward to where I knew a large group of silver-backed gorillas lurked.
Lilira and Ticarios both sensed the danger and quickly touched the monolith, allowing themselves to be briefly overcome by the visions it offered.
The clearing was quiet for several moments after they awakened from their identical nightmare.
Lilira was first to break the silence. “Are we done?”
“One moment and I'll summon you back out.” I said. “This is not a good place to linger.”
But Ticarios was still preoccupied by all he had just seen. “The Priest said those runes are indistinguishable.”
As far as I was concerned, there seemed to be only one answer to that statement “Then he lied.” I suppose the monoliths might have blocked the knowledge of their meaning from him but it didn’t seem likely they had that ability if Noloth’e had roused itself to chase him away to keep him from the monoliths as he had claimed.
Still pondering, Ticarios continued, “You could read them, could you not Lilira?”
Lilira nodded. “I understood those.”
After thinking another moment, Ticarios concluded, “I am not impressed. I understood the other two monoliths I visited as well...And of course Sonon does not impress me either, and he supports the Priest as well.”
“Maybe Noloth'e does something to confuse him.” Lilira offered.
“Let us continue this conversation elsewhere if we can.” I inserted quickly, unsure of my ability to keep these two alive should even one of the nearby gorillas chance to glimpse our gathering here. With that, I was a small fox, racing back through the marshes until I found a safe spot to which I could safely summon Ticarios and Lilira.
My companions were silent as we wound our way out of the forest and into the more open pathways of the mountains. Once again it was Lilira who spoke first.
“Thank you so much Sotana.”
“You are most welcome. I have now seen all of the monoliths with my own eyes.” And had more questions about this current struggle than ever before.
Lilira thought for a moment before commenting “I have seen all but the one in the ruins.”
Ah....Myth Drannor. “I could take you to the one in the ruins but the danger would be greater even than here,” I said, remembering well my own silent passage through that city long since abandoned by those who had built it but by no means uninhabited. Many of my spells such as moonwell and summon, which might serve to help her avoid some of the demons wandering the broken streets, were be useless there.
Ticarios said “I have seen...three.”
Lilira looked at him. “Ticarios, have you seen the one far to the north?”
He shook his head. After taking a moment to mentally judge the distance from our current location to the icy cave which housed the monolith, I offered “We can visit that one while we are here if you wish...it is not far.”
At his nod, I changed our course, taking us deeper into the mountains serenaded by Lilira’s lilting melody and moving as swiftly as I could in my clumsy human form. I suppose I could have changed my shape to mirror that of some creature made for traveling in these snowy lands and left my two companions here to be transported in through a moonwell when I reached our destination, but I found to my surprise that I was enjoying the strangely comfortable presence of my travelmates on this trip. Maybe I had been too long alone. Or maybe I was more weary than I had realized.
We continued across the tundra, passing the strange mosses and shrubs that thrive in this harsh climate, picking our way through a cold fog along barely visible trails on the gorge walls while ice-covered boulders occasionally fell past us to crash into the freezing waters of a river rushing far, far below us. Our progress was steady and untiring until at last we stood in front of a large obsidian monument. Patiently, I waited as Ticarios touched the monolith, slept for a short time then awoke with a start.
Curious, I asked “Did you understand those runes?”
He nodded then frowned.
“What troubles you Ticarios?” I asked.
Ticarios said, “These monoliths harbor wicked prophecies indeed.”
Questions swam through my mind, snatches of conversations I had overheard, second-hand explanations of motives and beliefs and I felt compelled to add, “Provided they are prophecies.”
Ticarios quickly retorted, “They are not here for mere amusement. I've found that the wise of our past do not play games, or leave games, for their future - our present. Things were much more straightforward then, this should be no different. Games are a passion of the present, not the past.”
A little bitterly I agreed, “No...little in life is for mere amusement I've found.” then added more evenly, “But they could serve several purposes.” Thinking aloud, I continued, “The Priest of the Vile One would have you believe the monoliths are to frighten you into fighting the Vile One, would he not?”
“The Priest would say they have been warped by the half-drow creature that has warned us in each vision.” Ticarios replied. “I have a meeting with the Weaver. She follows Selune, who the Priest said created these monoliths.”
“She knows much,” Lilira murmured.
Ticarious continued, “I will decide then, although my heart has nearly been decided for a side, and that is half of the battle itself.”
Still lost in thought I barely heard him. “I have spoken with Noloth'e.... I must find some way to speak with the Priest of the Vile One to confirm my suspicions before I can decide any further course of action for myself.”
In some surprise, Ticarios remarked, “The Priest said she flees when he tries. She is still about?”
I did not answer at first, still buried in my own musings but was brought back to the present discussion as Ticarios demanded, “Answer me, Druid.”
I nodded. “She spoke with me when I first visited this monolith.”
Ticarios then asked, “Why would a single Priest preaching balance be confronted by such a large and outspoken force...Allied evil and good race, combined?”
I smiled wryly. There was an age-old answer to that question which had always served to deflect that particular argument, “I'm sure when asked this, he would tell you people fight that which they fear and much has been done to teach us to fear him....But I would have these answers straight from him if I could.”
Ticarios shook his head as he replied, “I have asked him, and gotten his answer. The question is to you.”
Now, I was silenced since I could only guess at an answer, feeling that I did not yet understand what compelling argument the Priest might give that would lead others to support the Vile One. Anything I could offer by way of explanation would be nothing more than a guess and I did not care to make observations I could not rationally explain.
“Sotana has not met with him.” Lilira explained.
Feeling my way carefully through what others had told me of his preachings, I murmured, “His arguments of balance do not make sense to me and I have studied balance all my life, being a druid of Silvanus.”
This appeared to interest Ticarios and he asked, “Why are druids not harassed in the same manner - the more resolute also striving for supreme and utter balance, as he does.” Again I was silenced, helpless to explain that the balance the Priest seemed to be preaching was not the balance I served. How could I quickly explain the nuances of balance to one whose primary exposure to the concept had been through a man whose preachings I had not even heard firsthand?
“The blade does not explain the wounds.” Ticarios asserted. Yes, the end might not justify the means but life was rarely simple enough to be summed up in such straightforward statements.
We were silent once again, each buried in our private thoughts for a moment, my own mind paralyzed with frustration at my inability to answer Ticarios’ question due to my ignorance of exactly what he meant when speaking of balance. I sighed inwardly. Well, at least I had found the next step I needed to take in my journey.
Finally Ticarios spoke again. “There is something far more devious that this Priest fails to mention.”
Grateful at the change of subject I asked, “What would that be?”
Ticarios said “Nothing has ever driven the Dwarves and the Duergar, the Greys and the Drow, the Humans and the Trolls, to work together. The fall of the Realms, as the monoliths suggest, would be adequate, would it not?” He paused for a moment then continued, “ The world is based upon a scale, Sotana. There is evil and good. There are no judges to determine which is better, only mortals to enforce which is stronger. And all of the mortals of the Realm are allying against this Priest. That says a lot to me.”
I was certainly not a scholar of history so could not know if any other event had resulted in good and evilrace alike aligned against a common foe. But I had been the minority too often in my life to believe that sheer numbers, however diverse and unlikely the composition, determined the truth. Perhaps my own experiences had made me somewhat blind in that regard instead of wise.
Then a quick memory surfaced. “This reminds me of a conversation I had with a rogue the other day...he would argue that the threat of world destruction has been used to motivate many through fear for generations.” I had run across this unlikely individual near Myth Drannor shortly after viewing the monolith I found in one of the city’s ruined gardens. Our interaction had not been long but it had been memorable.
“Oh?” asked Lilira but I did not have time to appease her curiosity as Ticarios responded, “Indeed. But on this scale? There are....were...many Gods who did such, especially in a region dominated already by their rule. To discuss options was to mean death, to oppose, to die and to keep order, the 'threat of the Realms' was typically an answer. But never has it really affected -all- Races and divinities at once. The threat, whether real or not, is too broad to encompass the 'slander' of one Priest.”
Seeking an argument to explain his point, Ticarios asked “Do you know of the Orc and Goblin hordes that rained upon the Ten Towns Settlement of the North?”
I shook my head and he continued “An army, the greatest of giantkin and goblinkin ever assembled, threatened to take the entirity of the north.”
Puzzled I asked, “For what purpose? Conquest for conquest's sake?”
Ticarios nodded and continued “Yet, the surrounding kingdoms barely registered it in their politics. When an entire portion of the north, swallowing the cities of Nesme, Longhollow, the entire Ten Towns, was threatened to be painted in red and black, swallowed by the goblin and giantkin, few men made moves to rectify it. And now? A lone Priest preaches balance, and all from goblinkin to ...dragonkind, as Lilira would tell me, unite to face him and his threat?”
I returned to a statement Ticarios had made earlier. “What was his response when you asked why all had aligned against him?”
“Mainly confusion by the monoliths. Failure to see the need of balance, failure to believe in what 'Ao' may or may not be doing.”
Ticarios then said, “The mage, Sonon, would have me believe that Ao usurps the prayers of other deities. No longer my concern - prayers.” Had Ticarios experienced a falling out with his faith? This might explain his strong desire to completely understand a side before allying himself with it.
Lilira murmured “He is merely one man. I know not what power he holds in that cult, or even how large it is.”
Barely a man, still a child yet this was new information to me. “Hrm...Apparently I have not had enough discussions with Sonon.”
Ticarios continued, “But I said it then, and I say it now, the Priest is foolish for his notion of meddling in an immortal’s power. That is another thing. The Cult...or whatever band he has. Rare are these cults that would require an army to quiet it and rarely does an army preach for balance.”
Confused at his first point I asked, “This priest merely serves his God as do all priests, does he not?” to which Ticarios nodded and responded, “Without question.”
Then my mind processed his second point and I asked in some surprise, “Does his cult seek to enforce their preachings of balance by the sword?” Had I understood his statement correctly?
Ticarios said “I think the question is more, how far do they plan to 'teach' it.”
I was growing rather tired of being continually confronted with my own lack of understanding of current events yet could hardly blame others as I had brought it upon myself through a single-minded preoccupation with my own life. Silently (and somewhat forcefully) reminding myself of these facts, I continued determinedly, “Have they gained converts through force? Or through persuasive words?”
“Persuasive words,” Lilira answered. “The Priest promises everyone what they wish most. Or rather...” she allowed her words to trail off for a moment. “He learns what is wished the most and shows you how to attain it through following Auzrom'tvorl.” Interesting indeed but hardly a new trick. Then I found myself wondering what Lilira wished most. As if divining my thoughts, Lilira said, “He plays upon my wish to remain impartial and counsels such.” A telling argument since evil is the side which benefits most when people who might do good choose to do nothing. Might this reveal something about the Priest’s allegiances?
“I felt like a prospect when I met him myself.” Ticarios agreed. “And I have been warned of traitors in the Alliance.”
Speaking mostly to myself I murmured, “I really must meet this Priest.”
“Ware your guard, Druid. He does have a bit of charisma to him. A wise thing to make note of, Druid.” came Ticario’s reply.
Surely an understatement! “As he must, to have done as much as he has. But I cannot rely merely upon the opinions of others and heresay.” Still considering Lilira’s words I wondered aloud “I would be interested to know what he decided I wished for most.”
Ticarios immediately answered my semi-rhetorical ponderings. “A druid? Balance would be too easy for him to play on, no?”
I nodded. “Yes but having studied balance all my life, I wonder how easily the lies might be found.” If lies they were.
Ticarios’ next words seemed to echo my previous thoughts, “He seems content with impartiality - if not aligned against him, you remain more or less with him.”
Lilira said, “It is easier for him if I do nothing.” I was in no position to counsel Lilira having not yet entirely made up my own mind, yet I hoped that our conversation today would at least prod her into standing firmly by the choices she might make without the crippling second guesses which seemed to plague her now.
After some thought, Ticarios spoke again. “I still question much of what I see in the monolith. Seeing these two has helped me answer some of those questions, and shine some light on this Priest’s intent but I have much more to learn before I truly decide.”
I could certainly sympathize with him on that point and felt compelled to explain my own motivation. “Evil has often won when those who might do good do nothing. I cannot be impassive but also cannot make decisions without the most information I can gain.” Yet how much more time would I have to gather this information?
Ticarios shrugged and asked “For balance, evil and good must share victories and defeat, is it not true?”
“Balance isn't always about good and evil...there are many forces at work in this world,” I pointed out then was struck by a thought. Could this very argument be the basis of the Priest’s case for balance? That the current chaos was not about good and evil, wrong and right but rather about a balance not connected with a moral value? Slightly troubled I withdrew from the conversation and silence fell on our small group once again.
Finally Lilira noted quietly, “While this place is out of the way, we still could be watched.”
Ticarios said “Perhaps we should return to Waterdeep.” I had pressing concerns of my own to see to and a priest to begin searching for, so with that, we turned as one and began our return trek to Waterdeep.
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