An Outlands InterludeBeing the First of the Chronicles of Jean daGrey
The Outlands were strangely comforting to Jean, being the closest thing to Faerun she had seen since they had arrived. A whirlwind escape from Oinos, followed by a short stay in Hopeless had highlighted the disconnect between the Outer Planes and the lands of Faerun, but neither had prepared her for the absurd unreality of Sigil. She sat upon a large sandy rock looking out into the desert fringe, watching the starless sky awash with moonlight yet with no moon, thankful for a view that resembled reality however superficially. Her friends slept quietly nearby, lost in the reverie of their own dreams, as relaxed as she had seen them in recent times. It seemed that things just happened in the Outer Planes, drawing in those nearby whether they wished it or not; beings alien and familiar had their own agendas, and while that was true of all lands and realities, here everything out here seemed larger, as if reality simply passed by those lacking the power to change its nature. This feeling was particularly acute as she pondered the events of the last day or two. Automata was a strange place, and even as it was, nestled amoung strange places, it stood out. A town of ultimate law, of extreme law for the sake of law, where existence was wasted on rigid frivolity and incomprehensible order. How must the actual plane of ultimate law be given the nature of the gate-town? Jean pushed the thought from her mind - it was not something she was prepared to contemplate. As if the multiverse had felt the need to force the point home, they had found themselves amid strange, mechanical creatures, pouring from the open gate to Mechanus - Modrons they had been told the creatures were. Modrons on an unscheduled march across the Planes. It made no sense for creatures of law to do anything without a schedule, but maybe that was the point. Who knew such things anyway she wondered, settling comfortably on "no one" as a pleasingly absurd answer.
With the beginnings of a wry smile forming on her lips, Jean was startled out of her musings by the sound of a throat being politely cleared from behind her. She whipped around, mentally cursing herself for getting lost in her thoughts while on watch, her hand tightly grasping Amon'Valura. As her eyes fell upon her visitor she stopped cold, the blood draining from her face as the Arcanaloth addressed her.
"Greetings to you my dear" the creature said, it's voice the tone of utmost civility, but, unable to hide the pleasure it took in Jean's reaction, it allowed a small smile to play across it's face. The Yugoloth hovered two or three feet above the ground, reposed as if resting upon a comfortable chair, though none was visible. It's golden robes swaying as if caught by a mild breeze, but to continue the disconnect from reality, the Outlands remained quiet and still. Making a display of sniffing the air, it leaned forward slightly and regarded Jean patiently from behind the black wells of it's eyes.
Jean had no words to start with. She had been completely caught off guard as she let her mind wonder, the very last thing she was expecting was a quiet visit from a Yugoloth, although she did have time to to think to herself that she should learn to expect the unexpected.
"Who are you?" Jean asked, voicing the most appropriate question she could conjure to her mind.
The 'loth sat up straight and formally declared, "I am Helekanalaith, Keeper of the Tower Arcane, or as some call it, the Tower of the Arcanaloths, the Seat of Power of the Yugoloth race on Gehenna," Jean winced inwardly as the 'loth continued, "and you are Jean daGrey of the Prime world of Faerun, a slave with no life but for that given to you by the desperation and weakness of a fraying mind."
Jean felt as though she should defend herself against the 'loth's words but found herself wondering at the meaning behind them, the outrage she did not really feel left hanging from her slightly open mouth. Helekanalaith watched impassively over the russet fur of it's snout as the spark of realisation crept into Jean's eyes and her gaze shifted slowly to the staff she still gripped tightly in her hands.
The 'loth nodded, "yes my dear," it said, "a gift from one so lost in feelings of doubt and despair, and of a desire to reclaim that which was lost, that desperation overwhelmed good sense. But destiny played it's hand well, and there are those who are not displeased with the outcome." It sat back in repose and crossed one leg over the other in the manner of aristocracy, it's inscrutable eyes never leaving Jean's for a second.
Jean sat back down from her defensive stance, although a little less elegantly than the 'loth, her mind racing at the creatures words. It seemed quite willing to talk, if she played her cards right she might be able to pry something from it that it may not otherwise be willing to give up. It seemed prudent to start small and see where it lead.
"How did you find us? The Planes are vast and we are but a speck."
Helekanalaith nodded sagely, enjoying the game. He again leant forward and held out his clawed hand, letting a small rivulet of bluish liquid run from his index finger and drip to the ground. A dull red light faded in above his palm, growing into a swirling red mist trapped inside a crystal sphere. It was all he could do to stop from laughing as Jean's eyes rolled back in her head as she recognised the crystal ball they had taken from Lunder Callonar's home.
"I have been watching you for some time my dear, you and your friends. How fortunate it was that you happened to be the ones to slay the Rakshasha's servant. Brampada has his uses but he is far to unfocused to be left to his own devices, I much prefer to guide his hand from afar, so to speak."
Jean's mind raced through all she knew about Silas and the Three Wheels, but she could not recall even a hint of her visitor. The thought that this Arcanaloth was somehow directing things filled her with dread, but she was not going to let it know that.
"What of this Brampada?" asked Jean, making the connection to Silas.
The 'loth shrugged, "a Rakshasa, a lesser fiend. Useful in his own way, skillful in dealing with mortals. He is known to you as Silas. The fact you possess Amon'Valura and he does not, even after years of trying, indicates his inferiority."
Not one to let such an opportunity slip, Jean pressed the 'loth for more. "What can you tell me of him?"
Helekanalaith sighed, "very well," it said, an air of boredom in it's tone. "He is a minor lord of an exiled clan..." and then stopped. "This is not why I am here."
Frustrated that her avenue of enquiry had been closed Jean tried to bluff. "I could easily wake my friends..." she said softly, letting the threat make itself.
Helekanalaith laughed to itself, "I could kill you all with a word if I chose," it threatened with narrow eyes. "not that I would, of course. Besides I am not really there, surely you realised this? If your friends awoke they would see nothing but you talking into the night." It waved it's hand over the crystal sphere, clearing the mist. Jean looked into the scene displayed in the depths of the crystal and saw herself from overhead, an eagle's vantage. There was no sign of the 'loth.
Nodding her understanding, Jean changed the topic. "I do not think you are here to make threats," she began, "I think you want me to know more. Tell me of this," she said, holding forth Amon/Valura. "Do you desire it for yourself?"
The 'loth raised an eyebrow, "would you give it to me?" it asked not bothering to cloak the curiosity it felt.
Doubt played across Jean's face and her bravado faltered as she drew the staff back, closer to herself. "Not while I still drew breath", she answered somewhat meekly, but honestly.
"That is well," replied the 'loth, "but you may relax my dear, I do not wish to possess the staff."
"Then what?" asked Jean.
The 'loth's eyes twinkled, it was clearly enjoying the game. "To each of us is given a role, mortal. Most do not have a choice of what their role is, but a few may chose. You chose," it said, smiling knowingly.
"I chose?" Jean asked, perplexed.
"You could have refused the gift of the Decayed."
The light of understanding dawned in Jean's eyes. "What did I choose?"
The Arcanaloth smiled, "the path to power of course. The path to that which all mortals desire but can only dream of."
Jean frowned - she did not like riddles, but it was clear from the creatures expression that it was not inclined to provide more detail for her.
"Eternity is a long time," continued the 'loth, seemingly pleased that Jean understood the game. "Time during which plans are made, and the tasks to realise those plans are undertaken. The stage is set and the curtains are drawn to protect the actors until such a time that their scene should be performed. Such a time is soon to be upon us, upon the multiverse, and your choice has given you, and your friends, a role in this grand story."
"Speak plainly!" demanded Jean, releasing more emotion than she had intended, "your gilded words mean nothing to me. Talk of stages and plays - your metaphors are veiled beyond understanding."
The expressionless face of the 'loth drained the spirit from Jean as surely as if touched by a wraith. She felt cold and immediately regretted her outburst - it was not part of the game.
Helekanalaith sat silently for some time after that, regarding Jean coldly, recalculating its next move. Oh what a fine game this one played! It's face relaxed somewhat as it leant forward.
"Twelve tasks," it said simply.
Jean forgot her uncertainty as those two words were spoken. Maybe she had done the right thing by demanding the 'loth speak plainly? Maybe she was playing the game better than she had thought? Whatever had prompted the change in direction for the conversation she was very keen to hear what the 'loth had to say about the staff.
"That is what I was told," she said, "twelve tasks and then..."
"Death," smiled the 'loth. "Yes, death. For thirteen tasks to freedom. Some things you cannot anticipate, and who would have thought of such a thing as a merciful Gish?"
Jean nodded to herself as this much she understood. The creator of the staff, Naz'Duk, a Githyanki Gish, bound the Arcanaloth Amon'Valura to the staff to perform thirteen tasks in return for it's eventual freedom, but Helekanalaith had hinted at more.
"So it did not have to be?" she asked. "Thirteen tasks, or more?"
"It did not. Thirteen was the pact, but it is arbitrary. Eternity was possible."
The possibilities ran through Jean's mind. "And the curse?" she asked.
The Arcanaloth nodded, "very good," it said as a teacher to a student. "Some deemed eternity preferable."
"So the curse was not the making of the Gish? Nor Amon?"
The 'loth confirmed Jean's suspicions, "it was not."
Jean smiled, "it was your doing?"
Helekanalaith laughed at her words, a cruel, barking sound that gave Jean pause. "It was not," it continued. "My work is focused elsewhere, but always am I interested in the events set in motion by the ancients."
Jean was unable to hide her excitement as a piece of the puzzle fell into place. "The Baern?" she asked, surprising herself - she knew she had got it right.
It's face was cold slate, but inside the 'loth was smiling broadly. It was not impressed by mortals, they were little more than chattel, beasts to be used and discarded, but this one showed promise. Her grasp of the game was impressive, but she could be easily led.
"Perhaps," answered the 'loth, letting a small note of feigned apprehension enter his speech.
"Then they are real?" Jean pounced on his tone.
"They are," confirmed the Arcanaloth, delight shining in the darkness of his eyes. "The father/mothers ever guide the multiverse, plucking the strings and weaving the dancers, forever designing and constructing the wheels within wheels that give the puppets their animus and fulfill their unfathomable desires."
Smiling broadly, Jean continued, letting the subject of the Baern drop, and pressing the Master of the Tower on it's knowledge of the staff. "So I am destined to die? Twelve tasks and my life will end?"
"That is the design..." nodded the 'loth, letting it's words trail off unfinished.
There were two questions that needed asking, the second hinted at by what the 'loth did not say, but the long standing question was burning on Jean's tongue. "What constitutes a task?"
The 'loth was happy to follow her along the path, it's purpose here was almost realised. "The power of the staff is the power of Amon'Valura, and the power common to all of my kind. At its simplest the staff can identify the dweomers of items of arcane power. This does not count as a service of Amon'Valura, and apart from the dreams, there is no negative effect on the wielder. Four other powers are gifted to the staff wielder, revealed over time they are; the power to craft illusions, the power to divine the histories of items of power, the power to call upon lesser of our kind, and the power to take the shape of any creature desired, as revealed in dreams. Each of these uses a "favour" or "deed", and after twelve such favours, the wielders death is assured."
Taking a cue from her visitor, Jean's face was a mask, hiding her surprise at the 'loth's words. She was not prepared for the creature to speak plainly, and given the degree to which it's words agreed with what she already knew, she had no doubt as to the veracity of it's explanation. She became suspicious, even more so than she was at the fact of it's presence, as the warnings of Fallon and of Dianna were ever present in her mind. Liars they called the 'loths, deceivers. When you appear to be on the better end of a deal with a 'loth then you should know fear - the phrase had been repeated to them on several occasions, and Jean had no reason to doubt its wisdom. But even as Jean's blood chilled under her thoughts she realised she had little choice but to play this game to its end.
She asked the question hinted at by the 'loth's thinly veiled allusion, "but the design is deeper than that isn't it?"
"It always is my dear," replied Helekanalaith.
"So I can change it?" asked Jean, now intrigued at the possibility that the power of the staff could be hers without the concern of the shadow of death.
"It is possible. You must seek the key to the key to open that door."
Jean frowned - more riddles. Why was it always so difficult to speak plainly? Clearly the 'loth could do so if it chose to, but now, with an answer so close, it returned instead to the game. "What is this key to the key? Riddles and obscured truths mean little to me."
Helekanalaith smiled in anticipation of Jean's frustration. "It is closer than you think," was all it said.
Jean was indeed frustrated, but looking at the Arcanaloth, she knew that would be the only answer she would get from it for now. She looked at Helekanalaith and nodded, and finding no words that felt worthwhile, she simply turned away from it.
"Before we part ways my dear I would feel better if I had your word that you will not tell anyone of our little talk. I do not like to make open threats, it seems so crass, but given your willingness to play our little game, I feel I owe you that much. Your friends will find death to be a welcome pleasure should I feel you have not kept my visit to yourself."
Jean looked back over her shoulder, a little disappointed that the 'loth felt the warning was necessary. "You have my word."