Something's wrong here, and I don't know what. I'm not just saying that because I spent the day being ripped away from a celebration with my friends to an unknown land fraught with danger. That should be par for the course by now. The reason it concerns me is that I have no idea why I'm here, who wants me here, or how I even arrived here. None of it makes any sense.
I'm writing this from the Mordavian Inn, a charming little establishment frequented by the local residents who take about as well to unexpected strangers as genital warts. They're willing to tolerate me insomuch as they understand that my being here is inevitable, but you can't shake the feeling that they'd prefer for me to move on or just disappear quietly in the night. And the way that innkeeper was waving the garlic in front of my face left me thinking these people have a few issues.
When we last left our hero (ha ha), he was engaging in a short-lived celebration over the defeat of a demon wizard and saving yet another land from enslavement or annihilation. For those of you keeping score at home, this would make me the Hero of Three Lands, not that anyone in this part of the world would actually care or believe me. I was just taking a sigh of relief at no longer worrying that any misstep on my part might doom the land of Tarna to thermonuclear destruction, when I found myself being torn away by a terrifying and powerful magical force.
I'm no stranger to the world of magic, as you might guess from my profession, but this was beyond anything I had experienced myself. In that single instant, I was caught up in a terrifying nexus of energy as my essence was transported across the dimension of space, only to be dumped in a rather dark and confusing tomb. The last thing I heard was Rakeesh calling out to me, warning me of dark magic afoot, and then it was all gone. The world of Tarna disappeared in front of my eyes and I found myself surrounded by darkness. I fell to the ground and looked around to see... well, a whole lot of blackness. Nothing too intimidating by itself, but none of it made any sense. One moment I'm at the top of my game, the next instant I can't see my hand in front of my face. I had nothing but the clothes on my back left to me, unarmed and defenseless and with no knowledge of my bearings.
The convenient thing about being a wizard of course is that you never are truly unarmed. So long as you are in control of your wits and your body you have more skills at your disposal than most geared-up warriors could boast about. The first thing I did was seek some illumination to my problem. A simple juggling lights spell revealed my surroundings to be what looked like a dark tomb with skeletons scattered around, and a dark altar sitting imposingly in the center. Oddly enough the floor of the whole room seemed to resemble the skeleton of some giant beast. Not bad for décor, but not terribly impressive either. I couldn't help but think that somebody must have gone to a lot of trouble to steal me away from Tarna and put me here so they could bury me alive or something. There are a lot easier ways to kill someone, especially if you aren't in a hurry.
After exhausting what my physical senses could tell me, I tried reaching out my mystical senses to get a feel for what magic existed in the place. The result was overwhelming, even for a seasoned veteran like myself. I had to quickly close off my mind to avoid being mentally filleted by the sheer amount of mystical power pervading the area. The impression of something very dark and malevolent lingered in the area, resting just beyond the edge of consciousness, and I had no desire to wake it up. It took a few moments to compose myself and avoid going into a panic. Everything around me was obviously magical in nature, but dark and twisted beyond what I had ever dealt with. I started to wonder if this was just some giant trap, if someone or something had left me here to be consumed by part of the dark force I had felt.
The innkeeper just knocked on my door to inform me that he was going to be locking up for the night. For the record, the door to the inn is currently covered in a collage of padlocks, bolts, and bars with the kind of security you'd expect to see on a bank vault. Any robbers trying to get in would probably be forced to give up out of boredom alone. A row of crosses line the doorway as well as another likely redundant circle of garlic. He warned me to stay in my room and not to so much as open a window unless I wanted to be consumed by beings of pure darkness. Seeing as how I'm his only customer you'd think the guy could be a little nicer.
Back to my earlier horrifying adventure: I began to make my way around the cave and search the skeletons to learn what I could. A few copper and gold coins, a flint, and a small dagger rewarded my efforts. This at least confirmed that all the other bodies weren't heroic adventurers who had been teleported into a pit of evil and left to starve. Something about the way their bones lay told me these men had died hard. Fighting something, someone, I don't know.
The altar at the center of the room left me hoping I wasn't going to have the time to examine it much longer. It looked like some animal skull was formed around the base of the altar, which was filled with shifting sands. Torches lined the outside like a set of ribs hinting at some unearthly form. This wasn't your standard issue W.I.T. all purpose incantation assistant. It was built for unspeakable rites and dark incantations. Fiddling around with the torches around the altar let me pry one loose, and I was able to light it with a simple flame dart spell. The joys of being among the magically gifted.
With the benefit of some natural illumination, I began to circle the walls of the cave, looking for an exit. A sloping path along what looked like the tail of a giant skeleton finally took me to a door shaped like a giant valve. I was able to force it open with my knife and hurry through. The next room was better lit. What I saw wasn't any more encouraging.
A tall white altar was in the center of the room, and four valve-shaped doors like the one I had just left led out of the room. The altar seemed to grow out of the center of the room and was stained with blood. Between the altars showing up everywhere and the disquieting aura of evil around me I still hadn't managed to catch my breath. My heart pounded in my chest so loudly I was afraid it would awaken every dark creature hiding in these caves. I felt like if I spent any more time in this place I'd get sucked into the blackness myself. I grabbed a long cloth from the ground (left by the cleaning lady?) and made my way up to what seemed to be the source of the light I was seeing.
I came to a giant cave with sunlight leaking through, and a yawning chasm separating me from a far ledge. A rope bridge stretched over the chasm, while a tentacled mass oozed around below. It's times like this I wish I had stuck around W.I.T. long enough to learn a decent fly spell or something. I thought about trying to cross the rope bridge for a brief moment, but it wasn't anything I was cut out for. And really, what's the point of being a wizard if you're forced to do actual physical labor? As the wind rushed around me, I could see a tentacled arm snaking up from below. I levitated into the air, and used the cloth as a sail to carry me over the chasm.
Forgive me for pausing the thrilling action for a moment, but I still have a hard time seeing what I was doing in a strange land with no welcoming party, no immediate threats to face, just dumped in a dark cave somewhere and left to fend for myself. If this is someone's idea of revenge it's hard to think what I would have done to merit such a passive-aggressive form of retribution. It's difficult to see why anyone would do this to me. It's not as though I haven't acquired any enemies in my time. You don't get to be the Hero of Three Lands without cutting off a few toes.
Speaking of which, this is as good of a time as any to explain my tempestuous past, reveal my inner demons, and show forth the struggles and valiant deeds which have made me the man I am today—an unwelcome boarder at the inn of Mordavia who can't manage to strike up a conversation with a match. The first title acquired before my self-styled current one was the Hero of Spielburg. I kind of liked it. Short, to the point, and if you knew what Spielburg was you had a chance of believing my story and buying me a drink or something.
Spielburg was a disorderly mess before I got there, not that I was in much better shape myself. I was a recent graduate of the Famous Adventurer's correspondence course, ready to prove my wit and worth to the world by doing some heroics for the local Spielburgian population. The people there weren't much in the mood for magic tricks unfortunately. Their king was ill, their prince and princess missing, and their kingdom being picked apart by bandits and terrorized by an ogress named Baba Yaga.
For all the fuss it caused, you would have think I charged in there and slaughtered the brigands single-handedly, broke the magical enchantments afflicting half the royal family with my wizardly ways, and out-spelled Baba Yaga at her own game. The reality was nothing of the sort of course. I was unnaturally lucky, in the right place at the right time, and blessed with a good dash of cleverness and ingenuity the locals lacked. There were people there a lot stronger and more capable than me, even if they didn't make heroics their full-time profession. What I had going for me was the will to try and the wit to accomplish what I needed. A fresh beginner in the world of magic, I picked up a few spells and earned myself a nice reward and a new title in the process.
Shapier was a bit of a different story, with an antagonist trying to outsmart me every step of the way. Ad Avis. A case study in my triumphs and failures right there. I fight off his elemental creatures and undermine his corrupt government, but he ensnares me with a simple spell and uses me to unleash a demon. The only reason I ended up doing more good than harm was due to a convenient misinterpretation of the prophesy he relied on and a lot of help from the people of Rasier.
One of the things you learn doing this is that one man is never a hero by himself. I had an entire city counting on me and supporting me in my efforts. They supplied the knowledge and the skills I needed, I supplied the courage and wanton disregard for my own life which they needed. I was able to capture four elemental creatures and free Rasier just because I was there and willing to do what it took. To hear people talk you'd think I was an army or an all-powerful wizard dispensing judgment on all the evildoers I meet and fighting off legions. I'm not. Ad Avis was just one man in the right position of power. I was just one man able to do what it took to stop him. Everything else was just a matter of brains and luck, and I had more allies than him backing me up. His demonic friend almost cost us the city, but we pulled through and I sent him to his grave. Assuming it ends there.
Shapier was also the first real place I had to test my powers and compare them to what a real wizard would be able to do. I managed to locate the entrance to the Wizard's Institute of Technology (W.I.T.) and get the crazy old wizard Erasmus to sponsor me for admission. He was all too thrilled to have a pupil, and I managed to pass the entrance exam with flying colors, despite having only a handful of practical elementary spells at my disposal. And that's when they chose to inform me of what the pursuit of magic was going to cost me. Immersion in the world of the intellectual over that of the real. I had to choose to give up on Shapier and Rasier and devote years of my life to studying and learning more of the magical arts, and maybe add a minute portion to the immense tapestry of knowledge they were attempting to weave. It was a classic bait and switch. Join us and we'll give you more power and knowledge than you can imagine, but we'll also take away every reason you had to seek that power in the first place. I suppose you could consider it an intellectual safeguard. They have control of forces most mortals could only dream of mastering, but prefer not to meddle in the affairs of this world and isolate themselves.
Needless to say, I refused, and was kicked out until I learned some discipline. Oddly enough Erasmus congratulated me on my choice and taught me an extra magical trick of manipulating spells by reversing them that would let me keep up with the finest of wizards. Made me wonder if the old Magus himself didn't envy my reckless involvement with the problems of the uninitiated.
Saving Shapier gave me the status of an the adopted son of the Sultan and the hero of Shapier. Then it wasn't long before it was decided Tarna needed me more than I needed a break. The villages there were all on the brink of war with each other, due to a set of troubles stirred up by demonic influence. Rakeesh and I had the job of playing both negotiators and enforcers of the peace.
Visiting the village of the Leopard Men made me realize just how far my skills had progressed. I, a magic-using hack who'd learned most of his skills from a correspondence course and simply acquired whatever magical knowledge people were willing to doll out, managed to defeat the highest ranking shaman in a society built around the study and worship of magic.
All the best ritualistic magic he had to offer was easily undone by my application of all the basic magical principles I had learned. Whatever illusions, traps, or tricks he threw at me I was able to dispel them and make a mockery of his art. Granted, this only worked because I forced him on the offensive, I scarcely knew any tricks myself that would work against another skilled wizard, but it was rewarding nevertheless. Magic is elegantly simple in its practical application, whereas ritual seeks out complication and complexity for its own sake and to disguise its nature from the ignorant.
The greatest prize I achieved in Tarna, but was unable to take back with me, was the creation of a magical staff. It's an essential component in the arsenal of most wizards, an external agent with which one can concentrate and draw on sources of magical power. And then I did just about the stupidest thing a wizard can do. I detonated all of its energy and undid all my work to get rid of a single foe. It's not as though I had any alternatives. Demonic wizards are even harder to dispose of than the regular variety.
All of which leads me to being transported into a network of caves, forcing my way out of one and past a giant altar, and soaring through the air above some troglodyte monster. I think that basically covers everything so far. After I cleared the ground it was a mad dash towards the source of the light, and a leap through a giant set of stalactites and stalagmites to see the walls of the cave break away to the sky above me.
I rolled onto the ground, gasping for air. I was in some kind of a shallow swamp, with small rocks forming islands within the ooze, and a giant arch stretching over the sections of dry land. The cave formations I had just leaped through bore an uncanny resemblance to a giant set of teeth. I just had time to observe that the cave itself looked like a giant mouth, when it suddenly snapped shut behind me. If I hadn't left when I did something told me I might not have been willing, or able, to escape.
Standing in front of the giant arch, a stone's throw away from me, was a woman dressed modestly in some short of a shawl. Her name was Katrina, and she turned out to be the first and the last friendly face I'd find in this place. She seemed surprised to see me, and rather curious as well. She told me that only one other person had ever escaped from that cave before, and started asking me a string of questions about who I was or how I got there. I barely had the time to stutter off a few phrases, when she suddenly had to leave. Apparently the Mordavian night was very dangerous and I needed to watch myself as well. Mordavia. At least I knew where I was now. She disappeared into the night without another word.
It was night, in fact. And about to turn into morning from the look of things. Stepping out into a swamp was a breath of fresh air compared to being trapped in that cave at least, and I finally began to feel a little less claustrophobic.
This all leaves me standing outside a cave of pure evil, inside a swamp of evil, examining an arch of evil and a six tentacled squid that's most likely evil as well. The cave I had just left was definitely a giant mouth, it looked like it had giant bony arms stretching out from all sides as well. This was either an extremely unlikely natural formation, an eccentric bit of architecture, or some kind of enormous creature mired in the ooze. None of these explanations really satisfied me.
The arch in front of the cave stretched over the path and each segment of it was lined with a magical symbol, five on the right side, and three on the left. Counting from the left, the seven magical signs I recognized were symbols representing pure essence, the heart, the five senses, breath, blood, bones, and the mouth. The eighth symbol wasn't carved into the rock like the others, but it appeared to be sitting on top of the face of the rock. It looked like a golden six armed starfish, or maybe a squid, or even the tentacles of an octopus. As I reached out to touch it, it crackled with energy, and I got the strange feeling that I was meant to take it with me. It's currently resting in my pack. I've been unable to get let go of it ever since. Not that I'd trust anyone else with it.
Passing through the arch took me down a slippery path and into another part of the swamp. Heading north I finally reached a forest to take me away from the gagging smell, and I arrived at the town of Mordavia by sunrise.
To make a long story short, it turns out that I'm trapped here. The swamp extends all the way to the south, and floods and rockslides have cut off the valley of Mordavia from the rest of the world. The villagers don't seem to know what's going on any better than I do, any talk of the cave or magic in general brings glares and fearful looks.
As I'm writing this in my room, I'm grateful that I have at least some measure of freedom and am not as helpless as I expected to be at the start of the day. But it still makes no sense that I should be here. If someone brought me here because they wanted my help, I would have expected to at least meet them by now or learn what was needed, rather than being thrust into the middle of nowhere on my own. If someone wanted to kill me or get some sort of revenge on me, they hardly picked the most effective means of doing that either. The only possibility that I can see is that someone wants to use me. Someone must stand to benefit from my presence here, but prefers to keep me in the dark for now as to why or even who they are.
There are still too many unanswered questions. Why was I brought to where I was? What was the purpose of the cave I found myself in? Why am I carrying around a faux starfish? What is it that everyone here is so afraid to talk about?
I've learned a little bit more about the valley and the people here, but I'll save that for later. Good night for now.