Recorded this 18th of Blossomflight, 9E 1197, by my own hand; I, Umbraspun Augury, do vouch for this archive’s truth and accuracy.
–Essence Class: Azure Meridian–
Warning: If you who read these words do so without my blessing, then know that you imperil your life and sapient soul. I accept no fault if you lack the true power to withstand the inevitable, yet read on regardless. Embrace folly should you wish. I shall entomb your fool-forged tale with its kindred tomes here in Spindlewane Elegy.
His name was Duncan Rhodes. A ranger, once, flown far beyond the realms he called home. Olive-skinned, his dark hair greying, his beard’s trim a rough thing–the impression of polish, perhaps, if he wanted to impress.
Duncan Rhodes no longer worried about impressing anyone. Whether that was wisdom or an old man’s downfall… to this I shall let his final hours speak.
Suffice to say that he had seen much, and done more; enough that he no longer cared whether he had seen everything. He had seen enough to confront the unknown without fearing it. In his time he walked the Feywilds and the Abyss, facing demons and tricksters and mad whispers from the Far Realms. A Horizon Walker. A warrior. And in his own eyes, when there seemed no other way, he was a monster. He bore many scars, did this aging ranger: upon his chest and upon his belly, and all about his limbs. Yet when my sight fell upon him, when I sifted the crushing shadows of the past that wove so heavily about his shoulders, the heaviest scars were these–
The angry lattice-work, the burns and gouges and lengthwise tears, that marred his left arm.
The rippling, like inferno undying at a sinking ship’s heart even as the waves closed in upon its broken hull, that sang his soul’s ruin to me.
Our ranger was no hero; not by Faerun’s standards, nor the Fringe’s, nor even by my own. I cannot claim that I witnessed all the time he lived in a time so little, a flicker-glimpse across distance so great. I saw enough. For many years Duncan Rhodes believed that evil was a thing born outside himself. Driven by that conviction, even as he hunted would-be liches and cults to Graz’zt, maddened sages who yearned to make the Far Realm one with Abeir-Toril–yes, even as he sought righteous purgation, so too at times did he slay the weak.
“Not always,” he told himself once, words spoken to a slantwise query, a question asked seeking an answer too awful to give. I suspect, as Duncan suspected, that the questioner knew that answer already. He carried that regret with him, and a broken hope’s shards: hope that someone would act on the answer once they had it. Hope that they would stop him this time. Hope that he wouldn’t have to weigh the scales in his head once more.
“Not always. Not when I can avoid it.”
It was not so often the case that he could. He did irredeemable things–his verdict, not mine.
The screams and the stench and the heated tang of blood that laced his memory were not always those of wicked beings. Sometimes, their only sin was being in the way.
Then, as a cool kiss by a clear spring’s water, as gentle dew on blistered grass at the first thaw of winter, there was Ha’.
I doubt any save I and the Lady herself caught a glimpse, for more than any other memory, Duncan shielded this one. Buried beneath his spirit’s twisting maze, trauma and broken trust and determination born by spite, he hid the dream of a future that might have been. A boyish face, soft brows full of life, a waterfall tumbling across one temple, down one side of his ice-blue neck, unto its dissipation about his sculpted shoulders: thus Duncan remembered his Ha’.
Each, for a while, filled the other’s needs. Ha’ gentled Duncan’s fury, and taught him kindness. Duncan taught Ha’ passion, to stand for himself. Duncan carried that soothing’s shreds with him as a mourning veil. It needed no sight so keen as mine to perceive its wraith-light, its memorial tides. At a single point in time, and body, and soul, all Duncan Rhodes’ scars converged as one: the day that a portal opened unbidden in their living room. A shadowy fist, a scream from Ha’, and the closing portal’s sear against Duncan’s arm as it stripped skin, flesh, and spirit.
Our bitter ranger died that day.
Oh, his name and body continued for a while, but the soul which drove them was a revenant thing. A heartbeat and pumping blood do not a living person make. The ghost of Duncan Rhodes told himself that he lived on to prevent any more tragedies such as this. He told himself that he would scour the planes until he found a place where he could seal them forever–no demons in the Abyss nor devils in the Nine Hells. The mortal realms of Faerun would be free, forever, from outside evil.
An honorable course, were it only so simple.
Of the years he spent training, becoming a wizard and summoner, and acquiring a piece of Faerun’s sky to anchor himself to home by Mystra’s Weave, of the final march which carried him across the plains and across the stubborn veil between universes… in truth, these things matter not. They matter not, save for the place they brought him to.
He arrived upon a fractured world where magic flows free and untamed, where demons walk among mortals and commune with them as friends, where planes and realities converge in maelstrom beyond any mage’s spellcraft. A sphere like a shattered eggshell spilling azure radiance, with planetoid shards tumbling through its orbit and a violet sun whose light, to his human eyes, somehow arrived on the world’s surface as summer gold.
He came to speak its common tongue, and so too learned its name: Creation’s Fringe.
After some few months his search for knowledge brought him to the Nine-Way Nexus: the Free City of Telsmarra. Aboard a runework schooner with its wards flickering and sparking as it plunged through oily mottles and distorting waves and the failure of gravity and time, he crossed the reality-rifts of the Riven Sea. There before him loomed the rundown bronzework of Quay Nadona, where the Free City accepted its least-honored guests.
He met others, then, and the specters of the future they might have shaped together may never fully settle. The trickster, humble in stature, noble in birth, rebellious against her family’s name and heart. The automaton, crafted in days now gone, by hands long forgotten, for a purpose unknown–save that her purpose requires violent power, and leaves her with the directive to attain it. The psionic who fears their own potential, and believes that they must not speak lest something terrible transpire. The cleric, dragonborn, golden-scaled and the sole emissary of Bahamut on this strange new world in a universe where his god is but a distant echo. And of course, the ronin, by nature if not by name: final retainer of a clan now vanquished.
They would have made fitting companions for this forlorn ranger. But if they saw it, they did not see how quickly they must act to make it so–for Duncan’s eyes were open, but his sight was always looking past them.
It matters naught what might have been. What matters is the moment, the day after he faced battle alongside them, the day after they confronted a bloody horror of a spirit called forth by the machinations of another mage, that Duncan Rhodes decided to confront the Boreal Lady. For from this moment, his future knew but one course, and it was this absolute causality which seized my regard.
He crossed over the long silvery bridge upon a brisk mid-afternoon with the surging waters of the Riven Sea below. Some might have seen an omen, or a warning, in the veils of freezing mist and snow-flurries that whirled around the Fortress-Temple. Though Telsmarra is a city of eternal warmth, the sea-waters froze, broke, and froze anew where they clashed against the Temple of Mirtulla.
Duncan Rhodes believed he was beyond fear, and so did not care.
He entered the sanctuary at the temple’s heart. He faced a long hall filled by fluted pillars of midnight-blue metal, hung by snow-white banners. Winter gusts seeped through the space. Here, alone, he found First Thawseeker Phaichiv Gol: a tall woman of the alien Latren-Laprani people. As always, she wore white robes over an ice-blue inner vestment crafted from palm-sized rectangular plates. Bands of white fabric wrapped her lateral pair of jaws; the reticulating silver plates bolted to her limbs and the back of her head were engraved with wintry gusts and scenes of figures kneeling in remote shrines.
He tested her, for a time, with lesser questions. The one that mattered, and sealed his course, was spoken without warning. His gaze too steady, he asked it the same way he would have asked a tavernkeep for a glass of whiskey. It struck kindly Phaichiv as a polehammer might have:
“Has a god ever died?”
Upon the central ridge which fixed her segmented skull and anchored its four interlocking jaws, Phaichiv’s bright eyes blinked in shock.
“I… I do not know,” the First Thawseeker answered. “That is… it is possible, so I suppose it must have happened at least once.” She shifted, glancing about the sanctuary, wringing her long hands. “If a more powerful entity destroyed them, or-or if their worshippers drifted away and they lost the power of prayer to sustain themselves.”
Duncan listened, nodded, and then asked in his gravel-drawl voice, “Has anyone ever taken a god’s power?”
Phaichiv floundered. She worked her jaws, blinked, and at last said, “… I am sorry, Mister Rhodes. This is… questions like this…” She trailed off for a time. “… they are for the clergy who serve our Lady at her seat, at the Linchpin,” she finished. “I fear I was not equipped with the answers to them.”
“Can you get the answers?” Duncan asked.
“I… I can ask the Lady,” the Thawseeker answered. “Please, give me a moment.”
“No rush,” Duncan said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
The priestess closed her eyes and clasped her hands. Three breaths passed in silence while the old Horizon Walker waited for his answers.
A shockwave of presence surged through the sanctuary. Phaichiv dropped to her knees, every eye along her head’s center ridge flaring and panicked. Frost sprang out with her breath. She hugged herself, huddling into her robes, and managed to say, “I… I u-understand now… why only the Tundra-Chaplains are meant to s-speak directly with our Lady… she,” Phaichiv collected herself, still shuddering, and said, “she wishes me to tell you that it c-can be done… it h-has been done… I–”
“It would be best if you let me answer any further questions Mister Rhodes may have,” another voice said. It was cutting and resonant, less reassuring than when Duncan first heard it a day prior. It belonged to a drow priestess. A fine oval face, full lips made out in shimmering blue beneath blood-orange eyes. Her skin, a glossy dark grey. She wore white robes trimmed ultramarine blue with her platinum hair dyed in gradients to match it. She carried a mid-length spear with a sturdy mace-like counterweight.
Iyurneth of the Boreal Cadre; another expatriate from Abeir-Toril. How she came to the Fringe and the service of the Boreal Lady–this tale lies elsewhere.
Phaichiv only nodded, rising, and retreated deeper into the temple. The drow regarded Duncan with a flat stare, and he returned it in kind.
“The First Thawseeker is a gentle soul,” she said, as the last echoes of Phaichiv’s feet disappeared. “That should be a good thing. It’s how she needs to be. That’s also the reason why our Lady divides her clergy as she does. If you need to ask more questions like this, seek myself, or Chaplain Pariah. We have been to the Linchpin.”
The greying wizard heard this, nodded, and then said, “Alright, well, maybe you can answer this for me: I want to speak to your manager.”
Iyurneth furrowed her brow, looking at Duncan as if he’d just declared his intention to strike the sun in its jaw.
“That isn’t for me to grant,” she said at length, gesturing to the sculpture of Mirtulla which stood at the sanctuary’s end. “You can ask the Lady, I suppose.” Iyurneth shrugged and shook her head as she finished, “There is a chance she might answer.”
“Then that’s what I’ll do,” Duncan said. He strode past her, adjusting the broad hat on his shaggy head, and squared up against the statue. The marble avatar’s robes, carved as though stirred by a winter wind, swirled about her. Mirtulla appeared here as a beautiful woman with a mother’s smile and a sharp-tipped aquiline nose. She spread her hands in welcome.
Duncan spoke the words he had fated himself to speak from the moment he crossed the temple’s threshold.
“I want a word with you,” he said. His voice echoed, faded, and was gone. Iyurneth shifted behind him.
Then a wintry gust whirled out from deeper in the temple. It rustled Duncan’s short black cloak, stung his scarred arm, and cut through his blood-red vest. And in that whistling wind, he heard a voice, a whisper deep and sharp as the moan of a blizzard.
“And what are you willing to sacrifice for this meeting?” Mirtulla asked.
Without hesitation, with steel in his eyes, Duncan answered, “Everything.”
“Thus you act,” the goddess sighed. “I accept.”
Duncan turned to see Iyurneth’s mouth open in shock. The Cadrite gathered herself and said, pointing down the hall to one side of the sanctuary, “You will find a portal in the first doorway on the right. Pass through, and… and you will enter the Lady’s domain.”
Duncan nodded and set off without further answer.
“Mister Rhodes,” Iyurneth called. He paused, but though he turned, he did not turn back. “Our lady’s nature is that of winter itself,” the priestess said. “There is no malice in it, but–but if you pass through that portal, there is no guarantee that you will ever return to the Fringe.”
“Noted,” he answered. He resumed his march. He passed through the first ice-blue archway leading deeper into the temple, and as promised saw a glowing portal just to his right.
Snow hurtled across white plains on the other side, its glow made almost blinding by the light of the sun. Duncan paused to gather magic through the shard of the sky around his neck and ward himself against cold.
Then he passed through.
The instant he stepped across the threshold, the light shifted. Though snow still hurtled, he stood ankle-deep in a winter night’s abyss. Translucent buttresses and razor towers lanced towards a midnight sky. These were the outer margins of an immense fortress, a citadel wrought from glittering ice as immortal and unyielding as a glacier. The landscape fell away behind him and to the sides. Snowy tides leapt and frothed and ran like a raging ocean.
And the cold that cut him now was unhindered by his ward, felt beyond the skin, in something deeper than flesh and bone.
Duncan did not care. He knew that somewhere ahead, he would have what he wanted. He would pay any price for it.
Another freezing gust came to him, and Mirtulla’s voice with it–no longer a whisper, but a distant echo. It was dull, and tired, and full of regret. “Why have you come, Duncan Rhodes? What do you hope to gain?”
He gritted his teeth and growled “I need answers,” as if he could bind the Boreal Lady by his fury alone.
“You understand that the answers I could give you are answers you may not survive?” she asked.
“Try me,” he said, pushing forward through the snow.
“If you truly wish it,” Mirtulla said. “Why, Duncan? Why this desperation?”
“I need more power,” Duncan said. “Power to do the things I have to do.” With one hand, he clamped his hat to his head against the growing winter wind. Forward, through the obscuring snows, past the glacial bastions and glassine gateways, formed the outline of a colossal spire. Around it curled a spiral ramp that wound up, and up, and up into the void of the sky. Above even that there hung enormous broken spheres, all bleeding cobalt fire whose light reached the frozen realm only as dull glints and outlines on the pitiless ice.
“I need more power,” Duncan said, his voice ragged not with fear but mad conviction, “and you’re going to give it to me.”
“Oh, little one,” Mirtulla sighed, and this time there lay a pressure behind her voice, its echo that much closer. Against Duncan’s own mind came the first faint sense of an immense consciousness. For the moment, it was only a pulse, like blood’s rush through the pad of a behemoth finger. Yet upon it came a heavy clutching gnaw of emotion. It was the same regret which weighted the frost-goddess’s voice. “You have come for nothing. You want power like mine, but such power cannot simply be given. There is more to it–”
“Bullshit,” Duncan interrupted, picking up his pace. The wind howled around him, lifting his short cloak free from his shoulders. “Now, I’ll offer a deal.” His voice became strident, rising from a drawl to a shout. “I will spare you.”
“Spare me?” Mirtulla echoed. No bitterness entered her speech, nor her emotions. The sadness of her regret took on further weight: the weight of pity. “You have a strange way of bargaining, Duncan Rhodes. Turn back. Turn back to your companions and the Fringe. There is still time. You have not yet forsaken your future. Turn back.”
Duncan Rhodes did not turn back.
The otherworldly snow and its impossible cold dug deeper. Shadowy humanoid forms with stark head-crests and flanged limbs surged from nothingness on either side of his march, coronal gleams spilling around their outlines. They held dread weapons forged from stellar fire. Though their shapes wavered, each rippling distortion expressed its own perfection. Each new pair flickered their weapons into salute in exact time with his steps as he drew even with them. The aging ranger’s march carried him beneath a gateway of sculpted ice with sourceless gleams coursing through its depths.
Thus Duncan arrived at the Spire’s base.
“If you will not be dissuaded, then I will meet you at the top,” Mirtulla said. Her mind’s weight settled heavier against him, and the cold with it.
In answer, he set his feet on the ramp and started upwards.
“Why?” Mirtulla asked. “What need drives you, child? You speak of your need for power. Yet, why do you need it?”
“I’m going to seal the planes,” he said. “No more demons, no more portals. No more people losing the ones they love.”
With each step, now, the force of the presence above increased. It was endless and overpowering. It would surely swallow him. And still, Duncan pushed forward. The Boreal Lady pushed against him by virtue of her enormity alone.
“So you still believe that evil comes only from outside,” she said, her words a forlorn caress. “That all the suffering and injustice of your world will be ended if you can prevent others from touching it. But… some of the brightest and most beautiful beings I have known were planar spirits.” She spoke urgently, for the first time seeming the slightest bit desperate. “One of my favorite souls is a demon. She would probably be the first to sympathize with you–”
Duncan did not care to hear the case made. He came to a halt on that endless ramp and stared up into the whirling night. “Then why him?” he demanded, his voice breaking at last. His broad hat toppled from his head. He did not notice, and did not care.
“Who did you lose, Duncan?” Mirtulla asked, speaking with firmness for the first time. “I cannot look on the Fringe directly. My sight is my presence, and you feel already what my presence can do. I see only through my priestesses, only in my temple. Who did you lose?”
“Ha’,” he said, speaking his lost love’s name for the first and last time in this merciless place. “We weren’t doing anything. We were at home, in our living room, and that portal opened, and something took him.”
Mirtulla’s seeping aura returned neither hurt nor surprise, only deepening sorrow.
“And so you would close all worlds to each other,” she said. “Duncan, what of your companions? If you asked them, surely… will you not at least retreat to a safe distance while we speak? Will you not give me the chance to persuade you?”
Duncan did not. He resumed his upward march.
The Boreal Lady sighed. “If this is truly what you wish, if you will not turn back, then I have one last question for you. If, no matter the cost, you wish answers, then I shall give them to you. Once I begin, you will know too much, and so I will not stop until you are undone. You will become nothing more than the shards of a shattered soul, stripped even of the memory of its making. If you truly accept that, then I will give you your answers.” For the first time, Mirtulla spoke harshly as she finished, “Do you desire the Unraveling Truth?”
Even now, even as the first dragging chill of a long-forgotten fear rose in his belly, Duncan never hesitated.
“Yes,” he said.
Mirtulla drew a deep breath, and as she drew it all the icy ramparts reverberated and all the howling snow hurtled upwards around the unending spire.
“Unto Void, then,” she answered. Snow-speckled night and the eldritch glow from the broken worlds above fractured and clashed and blended together. They sifted Duncan’s body from his further skin-pores to his utmost bones. The shard of the sky heated against his chest.
Then he stood upon a broad circular platform forged from silvery metal, surrounded on all sides by the shadowy figures with the ramp’s lip behind him. Ahead sat Mirtulla the Blizzard-Bringer, incarnate and immortal. She appeared as a mountainous shadow, looming so far above that he could not guess her true size. She might sit miles away and tower miles more, or she might be larger than the Fringe itself with the broken spheres and the blue fires surging from their broken crust orbiting her like the corpses of a star-system. Only the faintest traces of light caught on her face: the hint of a perfect cheek’s line, the arc of a nose. Her corona spiked and leapt about her dark shoulders, and her true presence crashed against him.
Memory and emotion cascaded forth: gleaming cities consumed by discolored sunbursts, metallic constructs and austere beings clashing against race after race until oblivion reigned supreme. Scoured vistas and mournful dawn upon ashen cities, and a sprawl of hateful fangs and oily flesh covered in rending barbs, and still her Truth vised upon him. In answer Duncan gathered all the pain buried deep within him, all the longing and regret, and hurled his emotions at the distant presence–enough agony to unseat even a seasoned psionic.
It formed but the briefest flickering barrier against the immense mind.
“Very well, Duncan Rhodes,” she said. Nova poured from her mouth with each word, yet illuminated only the faintest hints of her visage. She subsumed all things, immutable. The infinitesimal mortal started to buckle. “I acknowledge and cherish your conviction. Under normal circumstances I would honor it by speaking My people’s true tongue–enough. You have no time for that particular answer. Know that I will remember your end. Know that I am the eldest of the Zealwrought Augur Caste, carrying the burden of penance for the sins of the ancient Ruinborn in the Elder Wars–”
Each word crashed against his soul, a sledge to level empires. Mirtulla’s domain warped and twisted on every side until the nocturne horizon broke. Figures and splintered vistas appeared, gauzy smoke and glassy frames at first, but quickly growing stronger. Sundered armadas of swooping-hull vessels with faceted terraces full of guns gone silent, sharp-jointed searing beings flickering through the ranks of a reptilian army in reaping splendor–these layered into further visions, more and more wedging themselves into a mind far overburdened until their bulk alone ripped seams in a place where seams should be impossible. With them came a cloying metallic taste and a pungent too-clean scent, and an itching burn across all skin.
In desperation to avert the inevitable, hand shaking with sudden terror, Duncan ripped the shard from his neck and plunged the piece of Faerun’s sky into his own heart.
Mirtulla sighed. “If you had done that sooner, it might have been enough.”
Even as cold and a thousand ages’ worth of this entity entombed him, Duncan managed one last question.
“Will I see him again?” he asked. Something damp trickled down his cheeks. It froze before it reached the dampness staining his vest.
Mirtulla waited a single beat. When she answered, her words rang final. “That will depend,” the Boreal Lady said, “on the whims of lesser beings.”
Some last, frail barrier gave way, and in that instant so did all the sapience of Duncan Rhodes. Screeching power ripped him asunder. Forth there hurtled a ruined something. It was nothing more than the shards of a shattered soul, stripped even of the memory of its unmaking. It recoiled and coursed through the emptiness beyond the farthest stars until it passed from the sight of mortals, demons, and gods–through a stubborn veil that at last parted.
What became of that broken soul, only She might know.
This story is my write-up of the events which transpired in my DnD 5e campaign, Spires on the Riven Sea, during the session before last. This was back on Thursday the 6th, so a few of the details may be different, I retconned a couple of others to account for post-session discussion, and I have omitted some of the DM-player prompts. Otherwise, this is as accurate as I can manage to the events in question. Duncan was my friend Lyla’s PC, so, a shout-out to them for giving me leave to present this bitter tale here on the blog. This was a dread trifecta: my first time DMing a PC’s death, this campaign’s first PC death, and our first PC perma-death.
As of this post, it’s also the first canon appearance of the Ruinborn in the broader Twin Spirals continuity. I’ve elected to put that ill-omened name into the world a tad sooner than expected because Duncan’s sacrifice deserves that much.