The atmosphere within the Nightingale was one of restrained elegance. At a rear corner table Darion Walthus enjoyed a dark red from the south in rather dainty sips, refusing any food himself as he suffered from poor appetite due to his advanced age. Near his elbow rested a still smoking pipe upon which he occasionally drew.
Across from him was Constance Vedigraw, now into her fifties but attractive and youthful still, possessed of a certain look that bespoke of an electric mind. She sipped hot tea, fortified with rum, while the two chatted. The stage on the opposite side of the room was empty this evening, adding to the somber air of the establishment, yet these two seemed almost giddy.
“You know it’s long been a fancy of mine, studying the chess game of the Icons,” Darion continued, lifting the pipe to his lips with a shaking hand.
“Those musings never made their way into your lectures at the University,” Constance interjected, eyes sparkling, “though of course I remember our private talks quite well.”
“Den of political vipers there, you know - get even a tenured man sacked if you posit the wrong theory,” he smiled, “safer by far to give the histories without too much speculation. But then, you never were timid enough for merely the history, were you?”
“It does take one to know one - how did I know to find you in Concord, professor?”
Darion smiled again at that, “I do follow my curiosity, as you well know, and what more curious that that which sits mysteriously in the midst of this very city? A proverbial tip of the iceberg, indeed.”
“So I take you’ve not been idle in retirement?”
“A man of my age certainly moves slower, but I’ve little but time on my hands these days. Time, too, to sit and gossip with others of a scholarly bent. Chattering on and on about the most ridiculous suppositions - with a good helping, of course, on what schools of thought are swimming about these days, who is researching what and all that sort of thing.”
Here he paused to puff on his pipe, bright blue eyes never leaving her face.
“I see now why you were unsurprised by my sudden appearance. You have knowledge you can share, I am hoping?”
“But of course. Still, it’s an ancient thing and though it only figures tangentially into what I guess is the full body of your work, it’s quite pivotal. I admit that have more guesses and conjecture than hard evidence. The 10th age was a busy time. The Lich King ascended, corrupting a good many mages, perhaps in some bizarre re-creation of how he himself was corrupted. Mages that were no doubt drawn from the city in which we now sit. In response the Archmage focuses on, well, what you would expect - knowledge. He forms, quite interestingly, magical colleges. Were there certain other colleges he was aping?”
“The magical colleges pre-date any mention of the ziggurat by quite some time.”
“True enough, but it makes me wonder if perhaps a lady of ill repute was whispering in his ear even then. Not that I think there was any love between the two - rather the opposite, deep down, I think - but certainly the Lich King is friend to none, and against a common foe . . . well, perhaps there was some benefit to both. Some time passes in which the mages do their learning while the Archmage lets the Diabolist build a quite obvious secret stronghold in the very heart of his city. The Diabolist, then, disappears - her work apparently finished - but what do the mages do? They take a sudden interest in, of all things, the Koru Behemoth Tribes - purportedly out of concern for the displaced tribesmen, but obviously for some other reason. Common interpretation typically points to the rivalry between mages and elves, and thus simply chalk it up to Archmage helping those the Elf Queen harmed. But . . . “
“But you think otherwise. And yes, now that you put it into the spotlight it seems like a rather trivial motive for such a long standing involvement.”
“Trivial indeed - when have the mages cared what happens to savages? Knowledge is all, I’ve heard often enough. So much so that scores of them were willing to sell their very souls to the Lich King not decades before, when he held out that particular carrot to them. But knowledge is one thing, and information quite another.”
“Well if you want a rumor go to a bard. Do you suppose perhaps that the Diabolist hadn’t really gone away and abandoned that ziggurat after all? Most consider it some sort of failed attempt at gaining power in the city, fewer contend it was a brief relationship between rivals, and those that are left have scores of ridiculous theories with perhaps a handful of subscribers each. I suppose I fall into that last category, though I like to think that as unorthodox my theory it isn’t at all ridiculous. I posit that the very founding of the Magical Colleges was the first visible result of machinations she may have started well before that particular event, and that she had been working towards events that didn’t come about until well into the 11th age.”
“Ridiculous - she’s far too fickle for such a dedicated enterprise. Mercer’s work certainly stands quite a bit more firmly than the alternatives.”
“Ah, a scholar of Mercer? I won’t ask how you obtained that particular text. Yes, fickle indeed but I think you underestimate her resolve. Is she orderly? Not at all. Rational? Only a fool would think so. But she is ruthlessly dedicated to power, and the power of demons in particular. Ask yourself again about this very city, indeed, about a monument that lays mostly buried here - a mystery in the midst of a city of knowledge. Strange, and stranger still when you think more on it.”
“Long standing tradition to stay away?”
“There’s that, certainly. There are also the Grimembrances.”
“Grimembrances, dear,” he said with that smile so common to cats who have recently dined on mouse. He sipped his wine around a grin. “Or hadn’t you heard of those mages that attempt illicit entrance to said dwelling? No? I shouldn’t be surprised, a sizable effort goes into covering it up. Yes, every so often some mage gets it into his head to circumvent the wards and try to find their way in and,” here his voice drops to a rough whisper, “down.”
“The results are quite ingenious, in a gruesome way,” he continued. “A blasted shell of a man, aged centuries in a few moments. A man turned inside out apparently. Still another covered in gibbering mouths. Some turned to jelly, or wasted to skeletons and covered with writhing wormlike appendages.”
“What horrible ways to die!”
“Oh no, not dead. Though what happens to them after I can’t say, and even this much is enough to have me quartered for blasphemy. I’ll trust you to keep it likewise close, lest you find yourself like that proverbial cat. Stonewalled, there, I’ve been. Still what I find most interesting: there is no mention of such occurrences until the 11th age.”
“You think the mages respected the sanctity of this unknown entity for an age.”
“Not at all, my dear, not at all. I have many thoughts, as it happens. The Koru tribes dispense lunatic ravings which the mages scribble down and then scurry back here with their scrolls. What might those ravings look like? What do you suppose the mages learn? None can say, so far as I know. But I had a thought, a most strange thought. What if those tribesmen weren’t spewing out thoughts from this world - what if they were thoughts from another world? The Diabolist is concerned with Demons. But do you recall the major events of the 11th age?”
“The war with the Outer Races?”
“Precisely. I have done my homework with regards to that event, and one thing I found - everyone knows the Gnosians were summoned by the mages. Common thinking is that they were inadvertently summoned.”
“But if such a thing were true, why would the mages summon this threat?”
He shrugged noncommittally.
“Who can say? What I can say is this: the mages weren’t the only ones interested in the Koru tribes. Oh no, not at all. I’ve done a good bit of research on Olivander - the skald who gave up a decadent life at the Bardic Colleges to live like a peasant with the Koru. An interesting choice, if we view it through the lens of the Diabolist and the Archmage. I’ve confirmed the dates, and not awfully long afterwards the debacle with Gnosis occurred.”
“Yes, but that does nothing to refute the fact that it was the mages who started that with their summoning.”
“Ah, but as you say, why did they summon these outsiders? Could it be that the Diabolist became aware of the outsiders of Gnosis an age before? I’ve done my homework here also, and while there does seem to be a lot of resistance to considering these outsiders to be demons there is, in point of fact, nothing I can find that separates them from being actual demons. And who is more interested in demons than the Diabolist? I think she connived her way into the Archmage’s good graces and convinced him something was afoot in the outer worlds that would cause great unrest here. Based on the horrors that were released, some of which still haunt the elves to this day, it is obvious there is some tie to the Lich King with these creatures. Perhaps under the guise of helping to remove this threat, the Diabolist was attempting to bring yet more demons under her sway.
“Look at the ziggurat - like yet unlike her hellholes. Built and emptily waiting an age for . . . what, exactly? Some sort of demon to fill it, I say. Demon that she tricked the mages into summoning for her.”
“This is all quite interesting but also very fanciful, don’t you think?”
“I’ve said as much myself my dear. I’ll grant you it doesn’t seem like much to go on, but you have to admit the tie with the Behemoths is . . . oh, I haven’t mentioned it have I? Yes, it seems the Behemoths themselves are outsiders - don’t ask, it’s a long story that I would be happy to get into another time. But yes, they hail from a place that - by my reckoning - lies near enough to Gnosis that if it isn’t one in the same there are certainly some shared portals between them. Those ravings from the tribesmen are likely imparted to some resonance from the Behemoths themselves, either psychically tuned to their homeland or perhaps communicating with actual outsiders in some other way. Whether Olivander somehow manipulated the tribesmen, perpetrated some hoax for the mages, or managed to violate their documents is still a matter of mystery. Still, I daresay it was he that precipitated the summoning, under the guise that an invasion was about to occur, and a summoning into the prison the Diabolist created would head the whole thing off.”
“Are you saying that the ziggurat is full of demons from Gnosis?”
“No, of course not - for one thing, it’s quite obvious they weren’t summoned into the ziggurat at all. Maybe that was meddling from the Elf Queen or maybe the Archmage was too smart for his own good. I can’t say what’s down there, honestly, but it certainly isn’t good. Much better, I daresay, than if the Diabolist had gotten her way.”
“I suppose, but can we really say that? I mean, who can say what it is she’s really after?”
"It is said by the Lich Zandravous, who claims to have once been high in the Archmage's court before falling to the lure of forbidden knowledge, that every Age comes about because the Prince of Shadows has a new enthusiasm, and each Age perishes when he succumbs to ennui and lets the myriad threads of conspiracy tangle and fall. This gives the Prince far too much credit, of course, and yet there is truth to it, in that the collapse of every Age cuts a swath through the machinations of the Icons and clears space for new devices and schemes.
While the depths of these plots may never be plumbed by mortal mind, the sensitive may perceive their shape and vibration, as a fisherman sees a leviathan swim beneath his skiff, a vast indifferent shape. The Koru tribes' shamans, having adapted handily to parasitic life, were ideally suited to just this sort of unsophisticated divination, and indeed a whole host of divinations and rough prophecies poured forth, all stating the same thing: that one of the great cities was doomed. That it was destined to be sacked, its inhabitants given to the sword, to become a dwelling place for dragons and lesser beasts. Yet the symbology was stubbornly unclear as to which city was destined to fall..."
--Popular Historiography and Prophecy in the Turbulent Tenth Age, Drow & Dwarf Underground Press
"He never touched the girls himself, you understand, but only watched, and for that paid in gold and gems, never haggling. He was not fond of elvish women, and so I did not perform, but simply played the harp and kept his wine glass filled, and for that he gifted me with stories and, sometimes, with rare insects. He liked to gossip about Concord's Council and there are many stories that would amuse and shock you, dear reader, if I could only share them; alas, their subjects are long-lived or their descendants are touchy.
One is fantastical enough I see no danger in repeating it here: he claimed, while very drunk one night, when the twin dwarf contortionists had called it quits early due to inclement weather and the pox, that our lovely city only thrived, only survived at all in fact, because of a surreptitious deal reached with one of the Icons, to divert the Doom long proclaimed for Concord onto another city, which would be conquered and destroyed instead. When I asked which Icon could do such a thing, he made a dramatic gesture, wrapping a curtain around him as a cloak, and shading his eyes mysteriously. When I asked him later, he denied any knowledge of the matter.
But I am more resourceful than that, so that when I next entertained the guildmasters at their annual ball, I retold the story, first to one, then another as I danced with them, changing the Icon at each telling. Most smiled indulgently, but the Mistress of the Guild of Messengers and Knives kissed me when I told the story naming the Prince of Shadows. Kissed me deeply, and told me she'd been the one to bear the signed contract back to the Council, and that the Council members had wept to see it, wept both tears of shame and tears of joy. This was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, one that took me from Concord across the sea..."
--From Naked Sages, the Unexpurgated Confessions of.a Ex-Scribe, Mandato Edition, from a private collection
#36: Ollivander's Lament -- a haunting, wild melody, frequently played by bards as their final song in a set, notable for its quality of lingering in the mind long after the last notes have faded. If there were ever words to go with the tune, they were lost or suppressed long ago. The notion that it was written by Ollivander himself before he set out to live with the Koru tribes is too ridiculous to discuss further
#35 The Orc Lord and the Pie-Maker...
--100 Songs Worth Paying a Bard For, Glitterhagen Guide to Nobility