Moments later the curtain billowed into the room as a Halfling pushed his way through it carrying a tray of drinks. The Halfling kept his head bowed ridiculously low and his eyes cast at the floor as he entered the room. He approached the nearest pair of feet that his eyes could see and said “Ambrosia my lord”, holding forth the tray offering a drink.
The drink looked to be a transparent, golden liquid served in exquisite crystal goblets. The halflings gaze travelled cautiously upwards and came to rest upon Blackjacks face….shock, confusion and fear became apparent on the Halflings face. He checked the faces of the rest of you, dropped the tray of drinks and turned to flee from the room but not before Ragnar had chance to grab him. The tray and drinks both vanished just before they hit the ground.
“Where in Kords name are we?” Ragnar demanded angrily, with the Halfling held firmly by the collar. The Halflings eyes rolled back in their sockets for a moment and his body convulsed before appearing to regain it’s composure and calm.
“My most sincere apologies to you esteemed guests. You were not whom I was expecting and I had not been…informed of the situation. Please be seated, take a drink and some food and I will answer all your questions.” Glancing in the direction that the Halfling gestured you see that the table is now covered in a banquet of divine looking dishes and the crystal goblets with drinks in are now stood on their tray on the table.
A very confused, very difficult, very deep conversation followed with the Halfling answering your questions and eventually establishing the following information.
You were standing in a place called ‘ The Crucible of the Gods’. It is the location where the gods come to play their games, pit mortals against each other and force their divine influence upon the mortal world.
The gods have a ‘meeting’ or ‘game’ there every ten years but it has been 7010 years since the last meeting, however a meeting was happening now because the gods Lolth, Gruumsh, Bane, Vecna and Asmodeus had arrived and are demanding one.
The Halfling had no name, he was simply known as “The Host”. He acts as host during the gods meetings and generally ceases to exist in between them.
You had been summoned there in order to act as opponents to the gods demanding a meeting. For each meeting the balance of good and evil must be maintained and the real gods present all represented for the evil side, so “significant mortals” had been summoned to act on behalf of the good gods that were absent.
Each of you were required to don the mantle of a good god and represent their interests at the meeting, making decisions on their behalf and furthering their beliefs, ethos and cause as best you could.
Once the games were complete, you would all be returned to the mortal realm unharmed and with all your possessions returned. Also your mortal identities would be obscured from your opponents, so you should fear no reprisals for their actions. You were however advised to watch what you say as your opponents will remember everything that is said and mentioning your home town or something similar may spell your eternal doom. This of course also means that upon returning to the mortal realm it would be crazy and suicidal to reveal to people the real reason that you have been missing for ten years.
Jingle also discovered that the ambrosia when drunk healed all wounds, restored all abilities and even cures aches and pains that you had assumed they would live out their days bearing….for example,the constant dull ache between Blackjacks shoulder blades from all the hours at the forge…he had gotten so used to it he wasn’t even aware of it….its now gone, Jingles permanent hang-over…..gone, Rileys pock scared face from the plague….now unblemished…..permanently!
The location of the absent gods is not something that the Host was able to discuss.
When you had finished asking questions you were asked to choose which deity you wished to represent. The Host produced tokens representing each choice and asked you to pick one. The available ones were: Avandra, Corellon, Erathis, Ioun, Kord, Melora, Moradin, Pelor, The Raven Queen & Sehanine.
Some of you found the choosing far easier than others. Choices were however made with the following combinations. Ragnar acting on behalf of Kord, Riley for the Raven Queen, Blackjack for Avandra, Jingle for Moradin and Mathas for Ioun.
When you chose, you literally felt like someone had draped a cloak across your shoulders. As the cloak settled you gained awareness of hundreds of voices all speaking at the same time, each in different locations. Each one was invoking the name of the god they have chosen and performing a prayer to him or her. You were aware of every prayer and utterance directed in the direction of their mantle.
After a few moments to adjust and gather your bearings, you were led through the red curtain to another white marble room, an amphitheatre some sixty foot across. Tiers of white marble benches rose around the outside of the room, and in the middle of the room is an 8 foot hole in the floor, through which can be seen a mass of land many miles below. You easily recognised it to be the continent of Flanaess.
Standing in the room opposite you were five beings of very mixed appearance, but easily recognisable from folk lore, tales, songs and murals; the gods!
The Halfling lead you down a short staircase into the room and left you on the opposite side of the hole in the floor. He moved to stand at the side of the hole with the gods to one side of him and you to the other.
The gods all displayed a look of true disdain at the presence of their opponents. With wisps of fire curling around his tongue Asmodeus issued the demand that the five evil gods were all thinking. “What is the meaning of this insult? The presence of…..mortals is not permitted in the Crucible!”
The host replied that it was the overlords will, and that someone needs to represent those that are absent. There was some mocking laughter from the gods but they were quite dismissive of the point in the end.
Lolth stepped forward and gestured at the hole in the floor, the world grew larger or came closer….she gestured again and it moved to the point where it is looking down on a large swamp area from above. In the middle of the swamp a swirling black column of energy could be seen.
“What is this?” Lolth asks, raising an eyebrow and looking to her deity rivals questioningly.
Refusing to rise to the taunt from a mere mortal the gods ignored the reply. Vecna smiled wryly and spoke.
“I do not know what it is but I likes the look of it…..a lot.” He gestured and the world shrunk or grew more distant….he gestures again and areas of the world fade slightly whilst small black dots grow in prominence. “Whatever it is, there is more than one, look.” Everyone watches as the necrotic tears of destruction are highlighted in the world view as small black orbs.
Gruumsh snarls and replies “I like it not, it has the smell of an old adversary about it”. He turned to the host and asked “Are any artifacts still unaccounted for from previous meetings?” The host nodded and confirms that two are still in place. The gods nod silently at the reply. Daring to test the boundaries of what is permitted, Riley asks “And what are those items?”
The host replies ‘Nightbringer’ and the ‘Sword of Kas’. At the mention of Nightbringer, Grumsh roared with anger and slammed his fist into his hand. Lolth smirked behind hers. Vecna turned away from the hole in the floor, making a dismissive gesture and the view returned to the original view of the whole continent.
The Host announced that the 5864th crucible of the gods shall now commence. He asked you all to roll dice to determine who goes first. The results were recorded and used to decide alternating turns from each side.
The first round was for the gods to select their Divine Champions. The Host explained that the mortals that each god chose as champion would receive divine inspiration and live with an absolute certainty that the gods existed and that they were a chosen one. They would strive to further the gods causes and in return they would receive divine boons of increased strength of body, mind and spirit.
Asmodeus chose first, he stepped forward and described the type of person that he was looking for in a champion. As he spoke various pin-pricks of red light appeared on the map and as his criteria was refined he was left with fewer and fewer red lights. When he was down to only a few he examined them each in turn.
All the gods were a little perplexed when they saw a Dragonborn for the first time, demonstrating that wherever they had appeared from fifty years ago was not something they knew about. In the end Asmodeus chose a Dragonborn resident in the city of Krackenheim. A supremely cruel individual that was both ambitious, strong and completely lacking in morals.
Mr Jingle stepped up next and chose a champion for Moradin. He stated criteria as a Clan-based individual, someone who was potentially a powerful warrior, but a good-hearted one with honour and an understanding of the importance of honour, family and balance. He found and selected such an individual in the Yatil Mountain range.
Bane, the god of war went next. To the surprise of his colleagues, he decided to look for someone young…..with the world so ripe for war, corruption and plunder he wanted to maximise his investment in his champion. To choose someone young that would eventually grow to remember nothing of his life before Bane. He said that he was looking for someone who had lost everything and was thus looking for something to seize onto. Before long you all found Bane staring at a young boy that you all recognised….it was Pete Dowd, the son of the Tringlee Marshal that you found dead. To your horror, Bane chose him and stepped back.
Blackjack stepped up to represent Avandra. Someone adventurous, outgoing, good at heart, single, young, were the criteria that he stated. He eventually continued refining the criteria until he too ended up looking at a familiar face; namely that of his apprentice from Tringlee, Tom the Cat. Grumsh laughed at the choice and suggested that Blackjack didn’t even realise he had the whole world to choose from. Jack said nothing in reply.
Lolth was fast by seeking a drow priestess and eventually selecting one that lived in the underdark below the Vesve forest.
Mathas selected a female, middle-aged scholarly elf, that lived in the “Valley of the Mage”.
Grumsh was quickest yet by selecting a powerful Orc leader from the Griffin Mountains. His criteria were simple and straight-forward.
Riley chose a similar tactic to Blackjack and used criteria of a person that he knew from his past and chose her. A wise woman, a healer, from the Kingdom of Keoland. None of his allies recognised the woman but Riley did and chose her as the Raven Queens champion.
At this point, the swirling black column of necrotic energy, seen on the map earlier, seemed to lose it’s integrity and spread outwards, corrupting and killing all living creatures nearby. From the viewpoint of the crucible you were all safe but knew that those nearby it were dying.
Vecna stepped forward and focused the world view on the area around the black necrotic cloud. His skeletal eyes lit up with delight at the scene and he almost purred with delight at the display. “Truly entertaining!” he declared, before focussing the view on the dying body of Prince Arvan. Surrounded in necrotic energy, choking and dying, his last gasps of life leaving his mortal body as you all watched, helpless to intervene.
“Splendid! Such vigour, such fortitude, he hung on well didn’t he? Few mortals could have lived as long as he did in that state.” He declared admirably, before snapping his fingers, choosing the prince and reanimating him as a death knight. “The first Death Knight the world has seen for millennia!” he stated proudly.
Last but not least, Ragnar stepped forward to represent Kord. He described a proud honourable warrior individual. He was left with many options and narrowed it down to a female captain of a ship, one that wielded a scimitar and with a slightly unruly reputation and was known to oppose the strong and support the weak.
With the champions chosen, the second round required a vote to be cast. The Host asked the question ‘Should the immortal armies be released?’ Riley queried exactly what that meant and was informed that the immortal armies were the collective name for angels and demons. Releasing them would mean that mortals could once again summon them, communicate with them and allow them to influence the mortal realm.
All votes were cast silently by the mind. The outcome was a decision to release the armies, with six in favour and four opposed. You all cast accusing eyes at Jingle, whom just shrugged.
Next it was time to bestow relics and artifacts on the mortal realm. Items that would allow true heroes and villains to wield incredible power and have a real impact on the destiny of nations. A hole in the air, named the Well of Artifacts appeared in front of Mr Jingle….he reached inside and brought forth The Seal of the Law Bringer. The Host nodded towards the hole in the floor and Mr Jingle released the seal to fall to the mortal realm and await someone to find it.
Asmodeus went next and was supremely delighted to bring forth the Book of Vile Darkness. Blackjack produced the Wand of Orcus and Bane frustratedly withdrew his hand with nothing in it. Each item in turn was cast downwards, spiralling out of view to be lost among the clouds and land in a location unknown even to the gods.
Vecna went last and withdrew his hand also empty. Just as all were turning away though he threw back his head and cackled like a manic. At which point his hand dropped off at the wrist and fell through the hole in the floor. Grumsh also roared with laughter at this event and slapped Vecna on the back as a gesture of amusement. In doing so Vecna’s eye popped out and also fell downwards. Vecna and Grumsh turned to face their audience and bathe in the applause they expected. Only Lolth spoke.
“Pitiful fools, even the morals are not entertained. You’re embarrassing us all, stop it”.
“Enough!” declared the host, showing more emotion than he had done until now. “Do not anger the overlord with your mockery.”
The fourth round was another round of voting, with the outcome to decide with the sleeping dragons were to be permitted to awaken and return to the mortal realm. The outcome was a convincing yes, with only two saying no.
The final round was to allow the gods to place titans. Creatures to act as either a challenge, a danger, a tool, a guide, a teacher or some other powerful role that mortals would not be able to perform.
All five of the gods chose to abstain from placing a titan, meaning that at the next crucible of the gods there was the potential for them to place a much more powerful titan. On the other hand, you all chose to place titans with the following choices being made.
Mr Jingle placed an Earth Elemental guided by Moradin in the depths of a lake south of Amundfor. Jack placed a Sphinx in the Bright Desert. Mathas a Baelnorn deep in the Valley of the Mage. Riley a Sorrowsworn Doomguard close to then nearest Tear to Krakenheim. Ragnar a Minotaur high in the Corusk Mountains.
The Host announced the end of the turns and stated that it was time for you all to withdraw back to the preparation chambers. Once there the Host congratulated you on a game well played and he hoped that the decisions you had made would work out well for the individuals involved.
Without any sensation of moving you suddenly found yourselves no longer in the white marble preparation room, but instead stood on a wet, windy hillside on a dull evening. The Host was there with you and you were again dressed in your own clothing and your possessions had been returned.
After a few moments you recognised the surroundings as a hillside overlooking Tringlee. The town had changed though, what was a spread out haphazard collection of wooden farm houses was now a compact collection of stone buildings, with a stone wall surrounding three quarters of it and a wooden palisade on the other side, and burnt out ruins outside the wall.
The Host informed you at this point that in order for you not to take advantage of the choices you had made in the crucible of the gods, a certain amount of time has passed since you were last here. Ten years. You complained and argued that that was not fair and had not been agreed but in the end there was nothing that could be done and….it was quite an intriguing and exciting prospect for you to explore.
As as result of the decade passing you will find that the world has adjusted and is a different place, no small part of which is down to your actions. The Host then wished you luck and vanished.
Moments later, a voice calls down from a tree twenty feet away. “Where in the seven hells did you lot come from?” It was Stanley Prand, the hunter trapper that first brought news to Tringlee of the attack on the Heathstone brothers farm. “One minute the place was empty, the next moment you’re stood there plain as day. That doesn’t speak much for me considering I’m keeping watch up here.”
Before you had much chance to respond, a flaming arrow was fired high into the air from higher up the hillside above you. A fifteen foot high wooden beacon also bursts aflame on the opposite hillside about two miles away, illuminating a newly built mansion next to it.
“It looks like the lady will be helping us defend tonight”. Stanley commented before adding that “Unless you are part of a raiding party come to pillage and loot the town then you had best get to town and get behind the defences before the attack starts. Come on, no time to lose if you like your heads attached to your shoulders.”
END OF CHAPTER.