Inawenys has never known such deep trance. As her eyes twitch and come back into focus, her head is fuzzy, her joints stiff and achy, her back damp and chilled by the dewy grass that has soaked through her clothes. How long has she been meditating here? Is this what it's like for humans, dwarves and the rest when they wake from sleep?
The grass stretches all around her, for as far is she can see. It's quite dark here, though countless stars adorn the clear sky above, and lazy fireflies careen about, buffeted by the occasional breeze. One pale blue star in particular shines brighter than the rest, like an uncut, polished aquamarine. Seen with Inawenys' darkvision, everything else here is black and gray.
Three other people, human, lie in the grass nearby, dressed in simple traveling clothes like what Inawenys herself wears. Their eyes are closed and their chests swell and sink with the slow, regular movements of sleeping humans. She knows these three—Moire, Hircus and Tegen—quite well, she feels. The details of their personalities and lives drift through her mind. But, if asked, she'd be unable to say how she met them, or recall any shared experiences. It's almost as if each is a character in a different story she's heard over and over again.
Despite the damp and chill, it's quiet here, peaceful even, though there is something strange and foreboding about that pale star, like a distant, mournful cry carried on the wind.
Inawenys slowly sits up, frowning as she massages feeling back into her frigid hands. Seeing her companions nearby, she lets out a small sigh of relief that she isn’t alone, then confusion at her inability to recall how they’d arrived in this...place.
Noticing no danger in their immediate surroundings, she steadily gets to her feet - if only to lessen the amount of contact with the damp grass. She takes several deep breaths and takes a few minutes to take stock of her current condition, feeling for any wounds as she shivers in the slight breeze. No armour, no weapons... as she’s turning the information in her mind she glances warily at the blue star above, shivering this time with unease rather than cold.
Cracking her knuckles she moves over to her companions, gently shaking them and calling their names in turn, straining to remember anything about how they got there. She vaguely recalls a job, but for all she knows that could’ve been weeks, months ago, even. She waits patiently as they stir, keeping an eye out for any movement on the ground, keeping the star in the corner of her vision, reluctant to turn her back to it.
Tegan stirs and groans at Inawenys' prodding. His tongue darts around his mouth as he makes chewing motions in an unconscious attempt to rectify the dryness present there and rolls over in protest, his arms searching around for something to grasp. His hands find purchase in a nearby rock and he pulls it to his chest.
"Morning boy" says Teagan as he lovingly pats the rock.
A quizzical expression fills Tegan's face as the textural difference between the phantom of his dream and the rough surface of the hard earth at his breast becomes apparent. Tegan, now slightly more conscious, opens his eyes in an effort to confirm the identity of his sleeping partner. Tegan's pupils are wide, and between the starlight and tactile feedback, he identifies his companion as he lets out a disappointed sigh and pushes the rock away before sitting up.
Tegan then notices the following things in no particular order:
He is cold, wet, unarmored, unarmed, alone, lost, and practically blind.
In response to his current situation, Tegan assumes a prone position and focuses on trying to perceive his surroundings through sound.
"Go back to sleep soldier. It's the middle of the..." Hircus stops mid-sentence and sits upright reaching for his hammer and shield. After feeling around and coming up empty he whispers a hissed exclamation. "Gods! What enemy of Torm has brought me here." He freezes when he realizes he is not alone. Hircus looks around and tries to make out who is here with him in the cold, wet woods. "Tegan, Inawnys, Moire? What is this dark cloud that rests on my mind? Have I gone mad?"
Hircus stands with ease which brings on the sudden realization that he is not only unarmed but also he stands without the chinking of his chain hauberk and tunic. As the cleric's head begins to clear the fog of sleep his situation does not become more familiar. Years of military service with the Knights of Torm allow him to unconsciously prioritize his next few moves. Hircus drops to one knee and places his right-hand flat on his chest. Head bowed he begins to mutter his memorized verses and visualize the mighty Torm astride his golden mount.
"Torm you are my beacon in battle, my divine inspiration,
Please grant favor to your faithful servant."
Last to rise is the Paladin, Moire Cassiel. Though she knows this only because she hears the voices of all three of her companions (three companions, when did she find traveling companions?). Stiff and chilled from from dew, she gradually realizes she's been sleeping on grass all night. Except it's still night. And neither her armor nor her arms are in reach.
Gravely concerned, Moire cranes her neck around and futilely tries to perceive her companions. The starlight and the fireflies provide evidence that she hasn't gone blind but neither are they bright enough to be of any use to her. She notices the single blue star and frowns for a moment. That's not right. But the immediate situation demands action so she rises to her feet and brushes her hands off on her trousers.
"Inawenys," she says at last. "What can you see? We're basically blind at the moment. Can you describe our surroundings?"
To Hircus, Moire doesn't interrupt his prayers, realizing full well how much good they may do them all. Instead, she feels around for him, gauging his location by the sound of his prayers and then finds a shoulder to squeeze. A sign of solidarity, of strength and support.
"Tegan," she says, addressing the only member of the group she has no sense of at the moment. "Follow my voice. Inawenys, group up with Hircus here. We'll stand watch on the pair of you, for all the good it'll do, while we figure this out. There's two things we need to engage with, my friends. Let's deal with the first. Inawenys, can you see any landmarks? Any sign of anything moving? If not, I suggest we wait for dawn in hopes of a clearer line of sight."
Moire sighs then and says, "Now for the second. I've sailed the oceans near Luskan for most of my life. I've ranged as far south as Calimsport. One thing I've learned at sea is that the stars hold true. If you travel a very great distance, they gradually shift but you can still spot the constellations if you know what to look for. I've never been lost in my life as long as the stars are in sight. Friends?" She draws a breath. "I've never seen these stars. I'm not sure there's a place in all of Toril where we could be so far away that the stars are utterly unrecognizable. But I don't know where we are. So let's prioritize dealing with our immediate environment...and then let's get to work on finding out what sorcery brought us here and if it can send us back."
Inawenys crouches down next to Tegan and places a hand gently on his shoulder.
"Ah, yes, humans. How did I... okay," Inawenys wipes her face with her free hand and stands, taking another look around, squinting as if it will help her see further, or lift the cloud from her mind. The hairs prickle on her neck as she listens to Moire explain about navigating by the stars. They were ...elsewhere, somehow?
"Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on a plain of some sorts, as far as I can see. Which isn’t far, considering," she glances down at Hircus, taking a step closer to him at Moire’s suggestion, "hopefully we’re not out of reach of the gods, at least. But as you may have noticed we have little but the clothes on our backs."
She glances again at the blue star, then at Moire even though she knows the human can’t see her do so.
"The only real thing of interest I see is that star. I don’t like it. And," she pauses, "I have no idea how far away dawn might be, it seems it’s a new moon tonight, if there is a moon here. But you’re right, I don’t want to be the only one able to see."
She shifts uncomfortably, "I... also can’t really remember you all. Basics, yes. A sense of familiarity. Have we been together long? Does anyone remember anything about how we got here?"
Hircus continues to mutter his rhythmic pleas to Torm in a steady practiced cadence. His chest suddenly swells with a sharp inhalation and then after a pause, he releases a slow satisfied sigh.
"We may be lost, but Torm is still with me in this dark place. Give me a moment and I will shed light a little more light on our situation." Hircus whispers to his comrades. From his kneeling position, he bends forward and feels around on the ground for 4 small stones and arranges them in a square on the ground in front of him.. Then with a slow steady motion, he captures a firefly between two cupped hands, then gently pinches it between his thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Leaning over, he places his right hand over the four stones on the ground.
In a low muttering voice Hircus recites, "Torm, please spare a fraction of your divine light so that your servant can find his way out of the darkness." Then Hircus crushes the firefly and smears it across the back of his right hand. The glow of the firefly amplifies and momentarily glows red as it passes through his hand and into the four stones. With a proud smile as bright as the stones, he stands and tosses one to each of his companions. "One problem solved, now let's see if we can discover a route out of this place." Hircus stands and looks around.
Tegan recognizes the rehearsed chanting of Hircus, a practice he thinks wholly foolish save for the fact it grants magical powers. Inawenys' words calm his nerves somewhat, and Tegan stands, brushing the dirt and grass from his clothes.
Turning to Inawenys he says "This isn't the first time I've woken up in an unknown location, there's usually ale involved." he pauses and then continues "... or a grievous head wound." As he finishes his statement, he begins running his fingers through his black hair, feeling for any signs of trauma.
The sudden influx of light assaults Tegan's pupils and for a moment he's blinded by the radiant stones which Hircus has produced. His eyes still adjusting, Tegan fumbles his catch when Hircus tosses the stone, popping the luminous rock into the hair a few times before solidifying his grip on the makeshift torch.
With the glowing stone in hand, Tegan begins a search of the area for tracks, signs, empty bottles of ale, or any other explanation of their arrival.
The light from Hircus' cantrip flares silently out, briefly overloading eyes accustomed to the dark. A series of sudden rustling noises outside of the light's range suggest small creatures darting away through the grass. As the throbbing afterimage fades, you all see the same expanse that Inawenys did, only now deep green instead of gray. Grass, rocks, a few small shrubs.
Tegan feels no wound or sore spots on his head. The others also appear uninjured and unsullied, at least to his untrained eye. Just a little wet. However, when Moire turns to survey the scene, Tegan sees that she has a tattoo behind her ear that doesn't belong to his memory of the paladin. It looks like this:
Inawenys is the first to see the robed woman's approach, in the dim, nebulous region between the edge of Hircus' light and the limits of her darkvision. Stooped of stature, with the features of a human advanced in years, she meets your gaze with a broad smile open to any number of interpretations.
Crossing the margin of the light, so that you all see her, she adjusts the bundle of cloth she holds under one arm, tips her beaming face skyward, and proclaims, "Great Zhudun, the sleepers awake! The pact is complete!"
Looking back to the four of you, the woman nods in approbation. "Yes, fine work. You see, Zhudun's word is good. Here you are, restored in body . . . and mind? It took some doing to track you down, and Zhudun will not confine himself to our limited perceptions. No, I think the arrangement is satisfied."
"May I?" she asks, pointing to a spot on the ground. "These bones are frail." There is something familiar about this woman. You have seen her before, but the memories swim deep in the same ocean where so much seems to be buried.
Inawenys nods gratefully to Hircus as she catches the rock.
"I don't think this our doing," she hisses as she sees the figure approaching, pointing the others towards the stranger. Yet another memory beckons at her mind but she doesn't recall anything specific about her, only that they've met before. Ina takes a step forward and glances warily at the bundle of robes the woman carries.
"Who are you, and who is this Zhudun you speak of?"
Hircus' light is welcome indeed, even if what it reveals raises more questions than answers. It gives the group the means to see the approaching woman, at least.
"Well met," Moire says, her tone polite and friendly even if her face shows the caution and wariness she feels. While a Paladin doesn't need a sword to have a cordial conversation, she'd feel much more comfortable in this unknown place if she had the means to defend herself from other unknown things. "And please." She gestures to the ground before taking a few steps closer and sitting herself, putting herself at eye level with the strange visitor. It was a way to establish rapport, something valuable given how unequal this situation was.
Inawenys makes perfectly reasonable demands. To them, Moire adds a smile and introductions. "I'm Moire Cassiel. These are my friends, Inawenys, Tegan and Hircus. Are we to understand that you know something of how we came to be here? And why?"
Ina reddens slightly as she watches Moire make her introductions. Temper, temper. How foolish of me. She hesitates before crouching beside the paladin, glancing up again briefly at the star above before focusing intently on the woman, trying to gauge whether she's using any illusory spells and racking her brain for the name "Zhudan". She keeps her ears pricked for any movement behind them as she plucks a few blades of grass and twists them between her fingers.
Hircus surveys the area and also keeps an eye on the old woman as best he can. There has not been one rational thing about this night since his rousing just a few minutes ago. His heart thrums in his chest from the oddity of it all. Not quite feeling threatened just yet he allows those blessed with the gift of diplomacy to feel out the old woman and press her for information. He paces around the area with a watchful eye trying to mind the various entry points that could supply an ambusher with a route to attack. Though, he realizes that he might as well be naked without his fighting gear.
The old woman's smile falls at Ina's brusque questions. "Oh dear, then there has been some loss." She slowly extends a wan hand towards Ina's forehead, as if to check for fever, but does not make contact if Ina recoils. "And here, fool I, I thought you would appreciate a familiar face. As I said, it took some doing to find you all. More time might have passed than you would have liked."
"As for Zhudun . . ." she looks up again at the starry expanse, then shakes her head in vigorous denial. "No! That was not part of the agreement. I will not speak further on these ancillary matters."
With lips pursed, she unfurls the bundle under her arm, revealing a heavy blanket, which she begins to shake out onto the grass in front of where Moire, and now Ina, crouch.
"I'm Moire Cassiel. These are my friends, Inawenys, Tegan and Hircus. Are we to understand that you know something of how we came to be here? And why?"
The woman's smile returns, and she chuckles a bit. Saying, "Moire Cassiel and friends, I am very, very honored to meet you," she pinches the lower corners of her garment and performs what Ina recognizes as a quite proper curtsy. Then, with a slightly pained grimace, she slowly lowers herself onto the blanket and waves her arm to indicate that any of you who like may join her there.
Her answer to Moire's questions are much the same as before. "No, I am not bound to answer these assorted inquiries. In the future, best to clarify such perquisites up front."
"Why, not at all," the woman answers Tegan with a kinder smile. "In his wisdom, Zhudun always insists on payment in advance. You did your part, now Zhudun has done his, and you are free to return to your task. Perhaps this time you will succeed even. Who can say?"
As you all consider her words, the woman reaches into her robes and draws out a delicate purple scarf tied in a bundle, which she places on the blanket beside her. Accessing her robes again, she produces a beaten copper plate perhaps a foot across and lays it in front of her. She bites her lower lip and looks from one of you to the next as she slowly runs her forefinger around the rim of the dish.
Studying the woman at this close distance, Ina is unable to detect any signs of illusory magic. If there is a dweomer in effect, it's certainly more sophisticated than gilt leaf over iron.
Ina holds herself very still as the woman reaches towards her, but doesn't back away. She watches warily as the stranger lays down the blanket, and with a side look at Moire decides to kneel down on the blessedly dry surface.
"I apologise, I seem to have forgotten my manners. As well as other things, it seems. I'm not accustomed to such deep...slumber?" she rubs the back of her neck, "You seem reluctant to answer our questions - by all means, if that is part of some agreement we had, then..." Ina shrugs and raises her palms in a gesture of submission. Her eyes flick back to the star quickly.
"Perhaps we can come to some sort of new agreement? Information for cooperation? I remember two vague things - something about a 'Corpse Star', which I am guessing might be that one?" she gestures to the blue star, "And something about amber. Neither of those things fills me with any confidence." She smiles flatly.
Tegan's weight shifts to his heels while keeping his gaze focused on the minute details of the old woman's face.
"Truly, I would appreciate a familiar face, preferably one that was not fabricated. Your disguise is skillfully crafted and utilized, but I much prefer to know the players sitting at the table when I gamble. Less chance of ill fortune, you see."
Tegan puffs out his chest with pride, excited with himself for spotting the old woman's deception.
"Your words are littered with riddles. Speak clearly of your intentions and purpose for your game is foiled."
Tegan focuses on the old woman with the intent of discerning the truth of her words.
Ina: "Perhaps we can come to some sort of new agreement? Information for cooperation? I remember two vague things - something about a 'Corpse Star', which I am guessing might be that one?" she gestures to the blue star, "And something about amber. Neither of those things fills me with any confidence." She smiles flatly.
The woman's finger continues its orbit around the platter's rim as she replies. "Good! Good! Not all is lost. You see? Some do say, 'Zhudun, the Corpse Star,' and his many-angled house glows with beautiful shades of orange and sepia. Zhudun looks down on us here, and I am but an interlocutor. In another place, I would relish a bargain with you, Inawenys Hanali, who knows the difference between true treasures and ersatz trinkets."
Ina can't help but notice that with each circuit of the copper plate's perimeter, the vessel has grown slightly larger, so that it's now the size of a small table top. The woman flicks her wrist upward and the enlarged dish floats off the ground, coming to rest about a foot above the blanket.
Tegan:"Truly, I would appreciate a familiar face, preferably one that was not fabricated. Your disguise is skillfully crafted and utilized, but I much prefer to know the players sitting at the table when I gamble. Less chance of ill fortune, you see."
"I wonder, would you?" She muses, meeting Tegan's gaze. At once, her darting eyes and animated mouth deaden and droop, though voice continues just the same, though this inert death mask. "All of this--the glade, the sky, the air, this visage--is made for your benefit. Were the mask removed, I fear it might break you." A deep orange aurora snakes across the sky, and, while the rest of her face remains frozen, her eyes open to reveal glowing amber irises. "If you chafe at the artifice, rest assured you will depart soon, and this will all vanish without a trace. But if the imposture truly offends, my gamester, just say the word and you may have a taste of reality." Though the words are not addressed to Ina, she is the one to fully grasp the weight of the gauntlet just thrown down before Tegan.
At once, the life returns to her face, and she reaches for the purple scarf. "It is apt you speak of games and fortune, for I have just such a one here. It is called Tarokka, and it will take you back from this place." She undoes the scarf and slides a deck of playing cards onto the floating table. "Tegan will insist that Tarokka is but another mask. True, but it is the way home. What do you think, restless Hircus? Which is more important, truth or efficacy?"
She takes the deck in hand and begins to shuffle. "Are you familiar with cartomancy? One of you must draw from my deck. Much depends on this card. Who will it be?"
The old woman's words unsettle Tegan, and he senses not malicious intent from the old woman, just layers of mystery.
"A-Ah..." he stammers "I'll pass, on viewing your reality. I fear I don't quite know you well enough to fully commit to calling your bluff. Allow me to apologize by participating in your card game."
Hircus turns slightly at the mention of his name and begins to pay closer attention to the strange woman and her impious magic card tricks. The cleric is disturbed by how easily his friends are being drawn into this charlatan's game.
Can't they see that this woman is not some kind of oracle? She speaks of corpse stars and channels the voice of a demon. I know not how I was brought here, but I refuse to trust the words of a crone who speaks in riddles.
After taking a long moment to take in the scene Hircus responds to the woman, "Nothing is paramount to the truth, but I suspect you speak of different truths than I. As for efficacy, Torm draws my path, not a deck of accursed cards splayed by a hag in the woods." His frustration with the situation is clearly bearing down on him apparent by his clenched fists.
Moire witnesses the conversation with growing dismay. In retrospect, the woman's remarks seem stranger and stranger. Might her comment about them appreciating a familiar face be literal; that this guise wasn't actually her face but one chosen because presumably they'd find it comfortable? More dismaying was the thought that this land was made by someone to put them at ease...and the most comfortable concept they could come up with was a strange, cold, wet field of grass shrouded in darkness with an unfamiliar sky and a threatening star. How much worse was the reality?
"You volunteered that more time passed than we would have liked. May we know how much?" she asks, when given the opportunity. Immediately, the Paladin holds up a cautionary hand and adds, "I know you're not bound to answer. But you volunteered that much already and, as far as I know, you're not bound not to answer our questions, true? While you're at it, you also just mentioned our task. What do you know of it? And what do you mean this time?"
As the conversation moves on, though, Moire watches the old woman shuffling the Tarokka deck and shakes her head when Tegan offers to take first hand. "My friend," she says, meeting the gambler's eyes. "We may need your experience as well as your luck, if the draw is a poor one. Let me."
"Noble ideals," the woman replies. "But don't think me some mealy-mouthed equivocator. What is, is. There are no different truths, only the truth. It's merely a question of how much of it you can stand. When you leave this place, think on how well these ideals served you the first time. Maybe you will reconsider."
Seeing Moire and Tegan discuss who should have the first draw, she holds up a warning finger. "There will only be one draw! One omen to send you forth. But each of you will read the card in turn. Not separate truths!" she exclaims, pointing the finger at Hircus. "Separate attempts to see."
With this, she mashes the deck into a clumsy fan across the table.
Moire: "You volunteered that more time passed than we would have liked. May we know how much?" she asks, when given the opportunity. Immediately, the Paladin holds up a cautionary hand and adds, "I know you're not bound to answer. But you volunteered that much already and, as far as I know, you're not bound not to answer our questions, true? While you're at it, you also just mentioned our task. What do you know of it? And what do you mean this time?"
The woman shakes her head and rolls her eyes, chuckling in mock exasperation. Leaning in, she whispers to Moire, "Since you are to draw, I will answer one of your questions. Then you will pick your card."
Moire leans forward and taps a card at random. She'd offer a prayer to Illmater for success but he wasn't the god of luck, nor did she feel comfortable asking for luck. Only for the courage to endure whatever trials were placed on her shoulders, to save her friends.
"Tell me what you can of our task," she says, having used the time to select a card to consider the questions. Knowing the time that passed would be nice to know, but was unlikely to be the difference between life and death. Knowing their task probably was. And as for this time, perhaps learning what they'd evidently tried to do before would tell her about what that sentence might mean.
Ina stiffens almost imperceptibly upon hearing the woman address her using her full name, though Moire probably notices as she’s close. Hands needing to fiddle with something, Ina seeks out a loose thread on her clothing and begins to work it free, eyes not leaving the table as she watches the scene unfold before her. She draws a sharp intake of breath as Moire taps the card.
"Zhudun is eager to see this business completed, but it can't hurt to tell you a little story first."
There was a girl, a foolish girl, who heard stories of a cursed land shrouded in mists, where the people suffered under the hand of a cruel tyrant. Nobody knew where she heard these things—some said from a vagabond, some said a god whispered it in her ear. The girl came to think of these poor oppressed subjects as her own special flock, and wherever she went, she would tell people about their terrible plight. Nobody listened. Nobody cared.
The girl grew and learned to be a warrior. She took a vow to a god of light that she would raise an army and vanquish the dark land's tyrant to make the sun shine there again. She repeated the perigrinations of her youth, going from place to place to spread word of the cursed land. But this time, with shining armor, stirring words, piercing eyes, people did listen. She drew many to her cause—zealots, adventurers, lost souls seeking purpose—and together they rode forth to liberate the shadowy land.
At the edge of civilization, where monsters stare out from the forest, the little army marched into the mists on their holy mission. They did not return.
The woman's eyes twinkle. She looks around, gauging your reactions. "But perhaps you have heard this tale before."
"And now, is that the card you choose? Please, turn it so that we may see your way back."