You are falling into darkness. Mastof spits out a spell at you. The screams of melee echo in your ears. The fetid Underdark smothers your senses. The light of a million sparkling stars bathes you. There it is. The gentle, unmistakable glow of Lake Sular in the selunlight is enough to make you wonder whether you have just awoken from a dream.
“Nimbus of the Lonesome Vast, child of Sentar,” Master Rif T’ling-os addresses you from behind. You are staring out at Lake Sular – he mentioned “the Lonesome Vast” – “I haven’t awoken from a dream,” you think, “I’ve slipped into one.”
You turn, and sure enough your mentor and protector, the Lunar Elf gardener of the Nocturnal Temple, stands before you. He is waiting.
When he speaks again, his voice and body are as clearly those of Master Rift as it is clear to you that whoever is speaking to you is not.
“It is time you learned something of where you come from.”
The blood pouring out of your chest makes you feel warm for the first time since you entered the Underdark. It pools around your knees and stretches into a vast ocean. On that bloodsea there are boats shaped as dragons and bobbing sampans with rhomboid sails. They always appear so grave and yet they make you smile. A voice wakes you from your reverie: “Rin-tin. Dear boy, bring me that pearl topped hairpin would you please?”
You turn and see your mother standing in her quarters. From the look of her, she has just finished with her dresser and is on her way to Court. A fresh breeze from Lake Seluna fills the room as the residential barge bobs gently with the great fleet moored at Selunaport.
This is a memory. You remember this night distinctly. She is on her way to court. A bard named Wooden Toad is performing. He is renowned amongst the dockhands, sailors and commoners of the Fleet as well as being a favourite of the Fleet Court. He has just returned after traveling the Mazari. Your mother is breathless in anticipation. She thinks she is hiding her excitement.
She had already suggested that she had known Wooden Toad many years ago. She and you do not speak of her work. She is very professional and seldom romantic, so it is all the more striking how clearly smitten she is with this man.
You are fourteen. Wooden Toad left fourteen years ago. The way she is looking at you right now… why did you never occur to you before…?
You are walking through the woods outside of Cauldron, with Donovan and Durgan. You have just battled an owlbear and Zealots of the One to rescue the maskmaker. The clicking, buzzing sound of cicadas fills your ears. “But not cicadas,” you think before your heart has time to quicken. Your eyes close in what should have been a blink, but it lasts an eternity.
Reality seems to twist on a point, and everything seems to bend towards a moment. Then it is over.
What comes next is awakening on the moist leafy forest floor next to a hulking, odorous half-Orc.
Except what comes next is turning and finding yourself standing in the woods of the Enclave. A childlike voice you’ve heard thousands of times greets you from behind. Argea!
“Sentar is Life.”
Rif’t holds up a decaying human head, thick with the stench and black oils of undeath. It’s yellow eyes roll sorrowfully. “Do you recognize this man?” he asks. The stink is unbearable and you nearly wretch.
“His name was Steffan. He was a farmer in life. He lived in Divinity. A year ago, he took up arms against the Monotheocrate Order and the only deity he ever knew. He did not do so for high principals of democracy and freedom. His dream was only to conceive and to raise his own children; a right denied all in the Order. The wife and daughter he fought for and won were the joy of his life before the Dream Cartels took them,” Rif’t pauses. His eyes hold yours steady. “He became one of Mastof’s undead soap soldiers at the end of his quest to get them back. He did live long enough, however, to see their beings hollowed out in the Dream herds, before he became a part of one himself. It is said that those who grieve produce a particularly potent form of the drug.”
“Mighty Sentar,” you gasp, the head is that of the zombie you had decapitated with one of your blows, kicking it in the air in a demented game to distract the cruel Nothics.
Rif’t places the head delicately back in its resting place in the cavernous boneyard. It moans softly. He looks down upon it with sad eyes. “His name was Steffan. He wanted life.”
Wooden Toad is your father. He must be, and now that you think of it, even Lu Rin, your namesake and protector must have known all along as well. Why did you never piece it together before now? Why did no one ever tell you?
It was said that Wooden Toad loved life above all else. His songs and tales were at once consistent with and challenging to the rigid strictures of Hankuan life. His farflung adventures and the ballads and tales they inspired were an affirmation of his every passion. So your mother had always told you whenever you started to bellow out one of his latest favourites. Did she not always tell you that she had seen the same passion for life in all that you did? She would look sorrowful then, but in your youthful self-absorption, you always assumed she was becoming maudlin over the prospect of your leaving the nest and traveling the far reaches of the world. How could you have been so blind?
A thousand other discarded clues flood your mind. They wash away the vision of your mother, the residential barge and the fleet. Only Lake Seluna, vast under a steel grey stormfront, remains. You are lying in the sand looking up at the sky. The unseasonably water warm laps up all around you. It is thick and oily.
“What is this place,” you wonder to yourself as you lift your arm to look at the thick liquid drip from your hand. Something shifts in the sand beside you.
In your blurred vision, a face leers down at you out of a nightmare. Mastof Golgadin!
“Waiting for the boatman are you?” he scoffs, “Worry not. He should be by directly.”
The fell necromancer, with whom you remember having just done battle, turns and walks away down the shore.
It is not long before you realize that, for all the verisimilitude, this is neither your Argea nor your Enclave.
“Welcome, Hunter Janarl of the T’Kel, to the place In Between. Normally we would appear to your people as we did to Zuras and the other T’Kel who come of age. Your being taken ought to have been a religious experience to celebrate and cherish. Circumstances, however, are changing rapidly, for us, for your Companions and for the T’Kel.”
Argea’s words should be far more disturbing than they seem. You wonder to yourself if you have been drugged? “In a matter of speaking, yes,” She replies, her fairy eyes sparkling. You had said nothing.
“Several days from now, you and your Companions will battle a necromancer in a cavern beneath the Wall of the Righteous. The one you call Nimbus will fall, as will the necromancer.
“You will accompany me from this when to that in order to assist Nimbus and the one called Mastof in their quest.”
You are miserable. You are looking forward to Ivindof summoning you back to life, so that you can beat him senseless. Trudging down the banks of the River Styx, you almost tripped over the whelp that Haggledip’s poison must have killed after the battle in the cavern, but he was not the one that the Inbetween Man had told you to find. No. The Inbetween Man had compelled you to find the abomination you had extinguished with your own final breath, your son.
You had heard rumours that those called the Inbetween Men would sometimes be encountered here, but you never really expected to encounter them yourself. Until today, you were not sure you even believed in them, yourself. They were all recent rumours and you have always considered ancient rumours far more trustworthy. The Inbetween Man’s interest in the abomination was as clear as his apparent invulnerability to your attempt to attack him.
For a moment you wonder whether you would have gone ahead with your assault on the Companions had you know that such numinous powers as the Inbetween Men held such great interest in their activities. You certainly have no need for anymore powerful enemies, but you certainly have no need for upstart adventurers wiping out your operations either. If the abomination and his friends had been working for your father, they could hardly have done a better job of achieving his ends, you scoff.
“Family is my curse,” you growl.
The creature that appears to you as Rif’T ling-os draws himself up to the Elf’s full height and gathers his robes up above his ankles to walk through a tiny streamlet trickling down the stony beach to feed lake Sular. You have been walking some time now it seems. The boneyard is far behind you.
“Nimbus, we do not understand all about the tie you had to Sentar, but we understand enough to recognize that it was real and that it was lost when you were. Sentar is bound by certain principals – were it not, it would tear itself apart. Those principals ensure that behaviour has consequences. We could not remake the rules anymore than we could remake Sentar. You have strayed from the path that the Lunar Elf, Rif’t-ling’os set you upon.
“You are lost in a labyrinth of your own being. You must find your way back. You must reforge that link. You must do so for the sake of us all. For Sentar. For Life. When you fight to protect life. Life protects you.”
Up ahead you see a figure.
Rif’t sees your gaze as it rests upon Rin. The enthusiastic young half-Elf is running up the beach, waving at you.
“He got here and left before you arrived,” Rif’T says with a smile, “and yet somehow managed to leave a piece of himself behind. It was as if he knew that you were coming. A light to guide you out of a labyrinth, perhaps?”
[RIN JOINS NIMBUS]
“A reunion of sorts then, Nimbus, Rin [ENTER JANARL] I believe you know Janarl?” Rif’T smiles again, "He is joining us from a few days ago."
* * *
For now I will answer questions for your immediate purpose. The time may come for us to speak more frankly, but it is not now.
WHO ARE YOU?
“I am one of those you have sometimes heard called the Inbetween men. I am not actually here, but neither are you.”
WHERE ARE WE?
“You are not Inbetween. Places such as this are generally as close as we may now get to Sentar without causing an enormous disruption such as that which occurred when we intervened to bring you here. We no longer are, but through you. We may now only reach Sentar indirectly and through great exertion.
“The waters you see as lake Sular, are not. They have been called Styx. It demarks the borderlands of Being and the Sublime. They are vast. Beyond them, our designs do not govern.”
WHY DO YOU APPEAR THUS?
“I appear to you as you wish to see me and I remain thus until your wish to see me as I truly am, is greater.”
There is a piece of him that wanders these shores waiting for the rest of him that he may send himself back more easily. It is a skill many Necromancers seek, but few possess. In fact, it is a skill we had to learn from them, since our return. It’s not immortality, but it is a second chance. In light of the prophecy that binds you and your companions, and even us to you, I cannot but believe that Mastof has a role to play in your own redemption. I sent him for a walk to think about his new circumstances. Our own subordination to Sentar now means that we are now bound by its vagaries – it would seem that the prophecy of St. Cuthbert that binds you to your companions and your quest for Tallim, affects us as well. There is an imperative task we would ask of you for which the four of you are peculiarly well suited; and it is a joint task Nimbus that we trust will be the vehicle of your critical rehabilitation.
We are aware of the deity, Cuthbert, and the prophecy that binds you and your companions. It was the Prophecy of St. Cuthbert’s interest in you that attracted our attention in the first place. In that, we realize now that even we became a tool of that same prophecy. Although it was not so before our exile, it would now appear that even we are subject to the rules that we long ago established to preserve Sentar.
Sentar is the fulcrum upon which all life now turns. Everything else has become one. All that is – all that remains – emanates from Sentar.
Ahhh – now that is a delicate matter which I have introduced rather indelicately. Once we walked upon Sentar, now we cannot; once we were unified in our purpose, now we are not. We brought the exile upon ourselves, and it changed us.
It may seem difficult to believe, but you humans are our fathers and we your children. That is the paradox that banished us from Sentar. Now, of that I will say no more.
THE INBETWEEN MEN
There was a time when our presence would have been noticed no more than a gentle breeze. Times have changed.
There are those who believe Sentar, in our absence went to seed, and needs tending. They now intervene vigorously, more so than we ever did even in the past. At times, their interventions are effective, at others they serve only to complicate matters. Janarl’s people, the T’Kel, are the product of such interventions, for good and for ill. As is their recent disappearance.
Some of us, myself included, believe Sentar has grown past its need for us, and any further veiled interventions might serve only to disrupt the balance that developed in our absence. We are now bound to Sentar’s rules, and we seek to inhabit our garden at last.
Then there are those who have come to believe that we should abandon our project altogether.
It is the end.
WHAT MUST WE DO?