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Journal of Averyx: A Shadow Fallsby Cab Davidson
(From the joural of Averyx, Immortal of Time, finder of lost Gods and patron of the Alphatian Expansionist Movement)
The odd thing about being an immortal is... no, actually, one of the many odd things about being an immortal is that one can understand and see so many things before they happen. Its not just about having a sound understanding of time, nor is it becoming intelligent and wise enough to reasonably foresee the reaction to any action imaginable, its more about understanding communities and populations. One may expect a hundred people to behave a certain way in any given scenario, and it makes little difference where they are from. A hundred kobolds will behave differently to a hundred ogres, but whether the kobolds are from the deep mines of Trollhattan or the icy foothills of the Final range, they're still kobolds.
But we can still be surprised! It isn't villages or towns, or even kingdoms that surprise us, it is individuals.
We can control people directly or indirectly, we can influence them, we can cajole them, and we can trick them. But unless we take the most direct hand in guiding them we can never really know what they will do or how they will do it. And some mortals are more surprising than others, their actions seeming so irrational to our eyes as to be entirely unpredictable. Yet it is in moments of surprise that the gap between mortal and immortal, and the creative genius that can really only come from having an impending sense of ones own frailty, really brings home to us how incredible mortals are. I honestly believe that this is why so many immortals spend so much of their time meddling in mortal affairs. You fascinate us, you transfix us, you provide for us a sense of wonder and awe that otherwise might not exist for us in the entire multiverse.
You're waffling, Averyx old boy. This kind of philosophising is for another day. What I'm hoping to relate in this tale is the affair of Seesstheekk, creator of the shadows, his artifact the Doom Skull, the Pharoah of Thothia, the Night Spider, the mad old Alphatian Prince Alinor, and a hard core of mortal adventurers who have a nagging habit of surprising us all. And I very much think that the biggest surprise they have for us may be just around the corner.
To begin with, I must tell you a little of Seestheekk, and of the ancient, mysterious and overlooked race, the Shadows.
As I'm sure some of you will recall, my self-appointed goal as an immortal of Time is to catalogue and study the lost immortals. You will perhaps remember that I have documented the loss, revival and final disappearance of Hallucigena. And you may recall that I was left with a low opinion of the utterly self-absobed Grief. Here I shall tell you of another immortal, the unashamedly and gloriously entropic Seesstheekk.
In mortal existence Seesstheekk lived in the early days of vertebrate life on Mystara. He wasn't what you or I would identify as an advanced animal now, but I can assure you that in those early years there were few who were more advanced than the race into which Sesstheekk was born. These creatures now referred to by many scholars as Haikouichthys, were rather like a cross between a worm and a primitive fish, and they were little chaps for the most part. Their origin is unknown, but it is likely that they evolved from the other chordates in a period of rapid evolution on Mystara, and they were among the first to challenge the authority of the earlier gods such as Hallucigena. Seesstheekk possessed the same great gift that many of the early gods (up until Ka, really) did; the ability to survive, a mysteriously extended natural lifespan. Eventually, after a hundred years of sifting through the silt at the bottom of a great ocean, Seesstheekk (taking the name from the sole sound he could make, the sound of sucking mud) became self aware, and a slow realisation of the great evils of the world dawned upon him. Seesstheekk was not the first to challenge the authority of Hallucigena, but it was certainly Seesstheekk who led the revolts against that earlier god, and who led the other species in great wars against him.
Seesstheekk was born into a world where order dominated. It is hard to comprehend now, but the world of Hallucigena was a simple one, with simple organisms acting in unity through the will of their immortal, unable themselves to form complex thoughts but with a capacity to achieve great things together. Seesstheekk rebelled agains this order, seeing instead that creatures of his own kind could do better alone, as individuals, that cooperation to achieve a goal led to confusion and ultimately stagnation. He led a great surge in both individual organisms and species acting alone, in a way that Hallucigena and the other early immorrals could never anticipate, and it was this (very mortal!) unpredictability that led to first downfall of Hallucigena, but not without a fight. We know from recordings gleaned from ancient Meks that the wars that shook Mystara during this period were more harmful than anything the world has since seen; the employment of magical and nuclear weaponry on both sides led to mass extinctions and long term climatic damage. What is less well known is that an early victor in this battle was Seesstheekk; in the final destruction of the Hallucigenans, he gaimed immortality in the Sphere of Entropy. And from that point on, his individual brilliance knew no bounds.
Seestheeck revelled in entropy. Not evil, not even very nasty, just entirely unpredictable. His world view was simple; organisations could bring collective destruction to the world, but individuals working alone or cooperatively for brief periods when their interests were shared could bring about great things. Order was evil, order killed, but individuality and chaos were liberations from order and hence brought freedom. And the only way to liberate individuals from collective control was to exterminate that controlling element. It has often been observed that the dividing line between entropy and energy may wear as thin as Nyx's negligee after Ixion has paid a visit, but I wouldn't care to comment upon the intimate relationships between other spheres.
Seestheeck became a patron of predators. Things that hunt, that kill off the young herd animals, depriving that herd of a safe future. Taking out the older, experienced members of a pack such that the younger ones may not learn all of the survival tricks they need. His goal was not the death of families or herd, it was the achievement of greatness by individual members, whether at the cost of others or not. It just so happened that in his fish-eat-tadpole world, it was far common for success to come at enormous cost to others.
Seestheeck had a great insight into how entropy is a great part of creativity, and soon set about creating his perfect entropic life form; the shadow. Although as I shall now relate, the shadow of his creation was not quite the same as the shadows you and I are familiar with now.
The premis of the shadow is utterly simple. It is a predator, one that you will struggle to differentiate from any normal shadow cast by any normal light source, and one which drains strength, rather than life force, from its victim. It will strike unawares, weakening you, and vanish, to reappear moments later to strike from another angle. It will slowly drain the strength of its foe until it is bereft even of sufficient motive force to continue breathing, and its foe will perish, soon to be reborn as a shadowy form of its former self. Not undead, but a thing of sinister, living entropy. A conduit that drains strength and life away to entropy. And its creation was a moment of genius; the original shadoes predated fish, amphibians and countless slimy things, but were able to adapt to the form of anything they later killed. The ancient shadow race represented a step change in what could be achieved with the magical creatio of new species, and Seestheeck unleashed his children onto an unsuspecting world where they laid waste to whole species; what a thing of dark beauty a coral reef populated entirely by shadowy forms of life must have been. What a sinister sight, to see a giant horsetail forest devoid of all life save for those things of darkness seen only through a corner of the eye. And what an awful thing to befall a young world that was only just recovering from millenia of magical nuclear war; recovering life on Mystara was almost stopped by one simple, ingenious creation of Seestheeck; the shadow.
The result of this brilliant entropic move was the second great extinction. While the great war between Hallucigenia and the other immortals had caused the first by a succession of massive releases of atomic energy, this second extinction was brought about by Mystaras first super predators; the shadows. Few large animals survived, and for millenia the most likely future masters of the world were a range of intelligent plant like organisms (I'll tell you more about those another day).
Only one other intelligent species survived this plague. Their ancestors had been victorious in the war against Hallucigenia, and although lacking in numbers, by this time they had become favoured by many gods.The Carnifex were a species ahead of their time. They were larger, more intelligent and massively more adaptable than anything else in their era. By a guiding force unknown to the immortals, these creatures had developed to become large, rather intimidating reptile like humanoids. They had become the 'go to' species of the immortals, the creatures the gods trusted to do their bidding for them on the planet below, like the humans are today. They possessed an immunity to the draining ability of the shadows, so they and the strange plant like creatures slowly started to dominate.
Now much has been written about the Carnifex, and with good reason. But most of what you know about them came later, much later. This, however, was the first time that the Carnifex betrayed the gods, who had chosen to use the Carnifex to wipe the shadow blight from Mystara. I shall not at this stage go into the details (I am still piecing that tale together myself), but suffice to say that the Carnifex performed their work superbly well, desroyed most of the shadows, and used the power and knowledge they gained from this to rise up agains the immortals, almost overthrowing them. The Carnifex were not just strong, but they were creative, and they were organised (and unknown to the immortals at the time, they had allies). They were everything Seestheeck most despised, and they had just wiped out most of his followers.
Seestheek was foremost among the gods leading the fight back agains the Carnifex, and he was to be forced to risk much to gain this victory. But win he would; he had learned things in the earlier war against Halucigenia, some terrible truths about which the Carnifex as yet knew nothing. Seestheek developed a plan that would see to it that he would never be forgotten, that his shadows would forever prosper. But it would need some resources rarely found on Mystara. With that knowledge he could create his greatest artifat, the Skull of Doom.
Seestheeck had combatted the dreadful atomic weapons of Hallucigenia with rare metals usually found off-world. Just as there are materials that contain enormous physical energies, there are some that are potent stores of different kinds of magical power. Interestingly, the two kinds of power are entirely att odds with each other; the best means of defending oneself against the ravages of one is by shielding oneself with the other. Some have speculated that the two forces are so directly at odds that both cannot coexist peacefully on the same world, and that the terrible accident at Blackmoor and indeed the initial crash of Beagle were ultimately brought about by the incompatibilty of magic with atomic energy. I myself do not subscribe to this theory (in fact I know for certain that neither had nothing to do with that), but it is interesting that people so often see fundamental forces as being in strange, mystical opposition as a more likely explanation for things going wrong than people or gods simply making mistakes.
The knowledge of how to access this power has for a long time been a tightly guarded secret. Even before the dawn of life on Mystara, nearly all of the magical metals that can be thus used were removed by forces unknown. So, for example, the magical metal cinnabar is common only in one secluded region, and the far more potent metal iridium has only a few deposits on the entire planet, each of them extra-terrestrial in origin. Seestheeck was the first to extract raw magical energy from iridium, and had used this to counter Hallucigenias nuclear weapons, and to shield other species from the terrible radiation that ultimately killed the Hallucigenians. And it was to this resource that he again turned to vanquish the upstart Carnifex race.
With metals such as uranium or plutonium, the problem of energy release is not so much how to do it, more how not to do it in the wrong way or at the wrong time. With iridium and to a lesser extent cinnabar (and to a MUCH lesser extent lead and gold) the problem is one of activation energy. Whereas a suitably large piece of plutonium will go bang all on its own, iridium will sit there indefinitely until the right energy key is used. Its an activation energy problem. Seestheek decided that the best way of countering the Carnifex threat once and for all would be to make his followers the natural enemy of the Carnifex, and to give them a tool with which they could always defeat their foes. So he took around two dozen of his followers, the shadows, and modified them; they would now only be able to harm enemies that superficially resembled the Carnifex, creatures that naturally had two arms, two legs, a head atop a torso (the word 'humanoid' would not be coined for two hundred million years!), and they would forever be immune to harm caused by any of the magical or physical forces that had brought about so much damage during the Hallicigenian war (which in turn imbued them with a strange vulnerability to silver; note that this is quite different to why lycanthropes and certain undead are vulnerable to silver... Oh, Averyx, stick to the point...) and he aimed to give them an artifact in the form of a crystalline Carnifex skull. This skull had (and still has) many powers; it can create, summon and control vast numbers of shadows, not so much by the use of power but purely out of reverence for what it is and what it represents. More ominously it can summon and control nightshades (whether or not Seestheeck was the first to create nightshades is the subject of yet another tale that I may yet bore you with). And it can allow any owner who controls it to utilise the energy contained within any metal that stores magic; that includes cinnabar, iridium, gold, lead and various of the rare earths. Few contain sufficient energy to achieve anything; gold and lead, for example, contain so little as to be of no more use than shields from magical effects (the ever-present lead lined box to prevent scrying). Iridium and Cinabar, on the other hand, contain a vast store of power.
The Carnifex were not inactive during the period that Seestheeck worked on his masterpiece; with their allies (which we belive now were related to the strange 'outer beings', whose involvement was also implied in the tale of Hallucigenia, and who would later cause the Carnifex to rise again, and again) they tracked Seestheeck to his home plane, and killed him, but not before he had transferred much of his essence to the skull, and sent it to the Prime, to an asteroid in fact, one made largely of iridium. The asteroid had already been aimed squarely at Mystara.
A lot of the time mortals make assumptions about artifacts that are just wrong. These things are not just trinkets, they are not magic items to be used and abused, they are made up of the essence of what it is to be a god. Here is a little context for you, were you to have ten thousand gold coins, if you could convert that much treasure straight into power, you would have one hundredth of the potency of almost the weakest imaginable artifact. Or, to put it another way, if one were to consider the 'worth' of an inexperienced infantryman on a battlefield, the weakest artifact has the raw, universal power of 100,000 of them. And the skull is not a weak artifact; Seestheeck, quite irrationally on the face of things, put a heck of a lot more of himself into the artifact than that. Something in the region of eight times more, making this one of the more potent artifacts of its time, probably of all time. Indeed, Seestheeck put the vast bulk of his remaining power into the skull, and it is my belief that he knew that the Carnifex and their allies were coming for him and that he could not defeat them. He knew that he was most likely facing a final death, and purely in the name of hate he place the skull on an iridium asteroid and flying through the void towards Mystara.
The thing that all of these magical metals have in common is that they're rather hard to scry for or through. One can add to that list a few metals that are not in themselves magical, but which merely have an innate resistance to magic; cold (bog) iron and meteoric iron are the two best known examples of course, but I have found a few more. The full genius of Seestheeck was such that even the vast amount of magical power stored in his artifact was hidden by the iridium asteroid, and the presence of his shadows on the asteroid was also completely masked. More to the point, the use of mass drivers in warfare, now considered entirely against the laws of engagement (are you listening, Alphaks?), had never been done. No one, not a god, not a mortal, suspected it. No one saw it coming.
The asteroid made impact on a site that is now a mountain range in Norwold (the two facts are not unlinked - more on that soon). The blast itself killed everything larger than a gnat within a hundred miles or so, and unleashed a cloud of iridium dust across the planet. Most large organisms died, including those strange plant creatures (a pity), most of the carnifex, and to the best of my knowledge all of the original race of shadows. The new shadows, however, well, they were fine. They had a world that was now dark with heavy ashen clouds, toxic to most of their foes, and most importantly they were immune to most non-magical attacks of the primitive Carnifex, and for each one of their foes slain they could add another to their own number. They had a vast supply of iridium with which they could power any number of magical powers, and should push come to shove they could even summon and control nightshades. Their position was unassailable, and within a few short months they defeated the Carnifex and once again the shadows started to dominate Mystara. The Carnifex were defeated, but not destroyed, and they would rise again. And again.
Of course, there are always other gods. The ancient gods like Hallucigenia saw Mystara as their own, a place producing life upon which they could reasonably and profitably express their own personalities; the early species were, mentally, just extensions of the gods. The next generation of gods like Seestheeck sought to overthrow that control in favour of their own liberty and freedoms for mortals to make their own decisions, and some (lile Seestheeck) were willing to pay with the lives of any number of mortals for that freedom. Mystara stood at a turning point; neither approach could possibly see life evolving and developing in any meaningful way. Other immortals saw that something must be done, and for the first time some sought mutual agreement on restricting direct intervention on the prime plane. But it would be many more millions of years before that would happen!
With the Carnifex in full retreat and Seestheeck gone, and with few 'humanoid' species present on the surface of Mystara, the shadows starved. They are a resiliant bunch, but can you imagine what happens to any species deprived of susteinance for countless millennia, with nothing but the distant memory of their creator, who are shunned by the remaining gods? All of them, collectively, and individually, slowly went mad. Some remained quite rational for hundreds of years, but hunger and loneliness slowly tore the shadows apart. By the time another race of humanoids evolved far enough to become their prey, the shadows were nearly mindless, disorganised things knowing nothing but hate and hunger. A race who had dominated the world, who had achieved the ultimate irony, that of saving the world in the name of entropy, were now shades of the shadows they had been. No longer could they be considered among the contenders for global domination; perhaps more importantly, they would never again be Mystaras first line of defence against the Carnifex.
Ahh, yes, mortals and their assumptions about artifacts.
You often seem to assume that we're just mean. Making those lovely magical toys for you to play with, only to disover that you're slowly turned into a green slime by using it. The thing you need to understand is that a god is not merely power, not merely a manifestation, but a location in a continuum of all of the five spheres. We exist in multiple dimensions, we exist both before and after we are, within and without matter, as a thought and a reality, as a spark of energy and our own deaths. We are an expression of our own power, and in a real sense we exist against the will of the multiverse. We don't have downsides, but our power, when deposited, comes with a cost. A mortal cannot possibly hope to resist the multiverse in the way that a god does, and the adverse effects of handling an artifact come about because the multiverse actively resists the expenditure of godly power by a mortal. This is a long winded way of saying artifacts are dangerous, but that isn't our fault.Think of the bad things that happen when a mortal gets an artiface, and the extraordinary means required to destroy an artifact, as necessarily being the result of a bargain struck between the creator of the item and reality itself, and you'll have an idea whats going on.
Now, the skull! It allows the owner to use and control certain magical metals, such as iridium. Thats an immense boon. The down side is that this is paid for by killing the owner, really rather rapidly, if there is no iridium close by. Cinnabar would do. So any mortal picking it up had better hope to have some iridium to hand. Of course, one might imagine merely dropping the skull to survive this blight, but regrettably the owner invariably feels an immense compulsion to keep the skull. And the skull 'knows' who its owner is anyway, merely losing contact with it doesn't save you. You may then assume that someone could teleport you in some iridium; well, they can try. Iridium is resistant to magical transportation; its heavy to fly with, and it simply refuses to cross the fourth and fifth dimensions. It cannot be teleported. The artifact also wants its owners to be more like it is; the down side of that is that human owners slowly start becoming just a little bit like the undead. They appear as vampires, and while they don't believe that this is so, they start avoiding sunlight, they start acting strange around holy symbols. The owner is aware of nothing being amiss; he sees no compulsion to own the artifact, he doesn't believe he is becoming vampiric... But those around him do.
The costs therefore are immense. The benefits... The owner effetively controls the shadows. Within hundreds of miles, the owner can create, summon and control shadows. And if that is insufficient he may do the same with nightshades, which in turn can control other undead. But to be sure of having enough oomph to solve any problem, the artifact allows the owner to access the raw magical power locked tight in materials such as iridium and cinnabar. And the owner can expend that power in almost any way; the only difficult part is in working out how much power is required to do something. And thats where we will pick up this story again; we will skip most of the next few hundred million years and fast forward to the artifacts first human masters; Alinor, and his cronies. And that mountain range.
The oddest thing about time is that there is so much of it. I think that even the immortals of other spheres don't quite get that; mortals certainly don't. In fact I think that time is rather like the void; if a mortal ever really did get a sense of its own perspective within the vastness either of the whole universe or the whole of time, complete insanity would be unavoidable. Its not so much the insignificance of the individual relative to the vastness of eternal space-time, its more that the concept is too big. To fit that in to a mortal psyche would effectively require breaking it.
And that I think is why mortals see coincidences as being so, well, coincidental. I'm going to relate a coincidence in a little while. So, brace yourselves. Don't get too excited by it, these things just happen occasionally in the vastness of space and time.
The iridium source (being remnants of Seestheecks asteroid) in Norwold was finally exploited by another enterpreising little species called Man. A particularly enterprising man, in fact, called Alinor, crown prince to the Alphatian empire. And a fine chap he wast too; he had the makings of a great imortal in my own sphere. He had pushed the Alphatian empire deep in to the Norwold territories, first conquering and then going some way towards civilising the natives. He had followed the old Sabre river up to the foothills where a strange phenomenon was reported by some of the native tribesmen. He found something that he and his scolars could not readily explain, a series of valleys covered with impassable woodlands, where there were no birds, there were no insects, there was nothing that crawled, slithered, flapped or blinked. Only the trees, and a dense undergrowth. His journals (which are in my possession) then relate the fact that he set out to map this phenomenon, from around the outside and above, and thence to determine its source. Other than a little flying, none of this requried any magical expenditure, all he required was some good map making; he determined that the zone was circular, 30 miles across, and he reasoned that the cause was most likely in or near the middle. He put together a team of followers, and set off to explore.
Over aeons, the crater had been alternately filled with lava, an ocean, and for one memorable year a plague of black puddings. But eventually the rock that had formed above it weathered away. Many of the remaining shadows of Mystara, spread far and wide across the whole of the world, felt a calling, and slowly converged on the site. The rocks themselves were perfused with oxides of the iridium asteroid, and the shadows instinctively knew that this was important. They also knew that they should maintain complete secrecy regarding what they were finding there, and that they should gather the iridium together. By now the shadows were dumb beasts, acting purely on instinct. At the centre of the woodland circle Alinor found a cairn made of these stones, guarded by hundreds of shadows, who had kept the area clear of all living creatures. Alinors journal relates that after defeating the shadows, he tried to teleport some of the stones away for study but was unable to do so (remember, iridium is resistant to teleport). He decided to set up an alchemy lab in the forest to study these rocks, or so he told his staff.
What few outside of my own sphere know is that Alinor was a chronomancer. Generally speaking, we only allow two or three chronomancers to live on Mystara at any one 'time', as it were, although that number is of course surprisingly mutable. Having chronomancy in mortal hands is useful to us; we need magic that can shape or affect time else there would never be any new Dynasts, and sometimes we can make subtle changes to the timeline through chronomancers where doing so ourselves would be too intrusive. Alinor didn't know much alchemy, nor was he skilled in metallurgy, so he had to bring sages from Alphatia. While they worked he set of to determine what had befallen this strange wood. He discovered that there had been dwarven mine workings beneath him for hundreds of years, until the dwarves fell upon a strange artifact, a crystal skull. Alinor observed how many of the dwarves had been slowly turned into strange, vampire like creatures by the skull, but that it also gave them great power. He rightly deduced that this was an artifact, but one so dangerous as to be impossible to control. He correctly surmised, with the help of his alchemists, that he was sitting on two potent sources of power; a supply of a magical metal, and an immensely powerful artifact.
Alinor was not at this time evil. Morally dubious and self serving, perhaps, but his intentions were noble. He was one of the first generation of young mages born to the New Alphatian Empire on Mystara, and he aimed to civilise this savage world. While he wasn't a follower of mine, I approved of his goal, but I became increasingly skeptical of his methods. But, still, the establishment of a new city in the wilderness (in a giant bend in the old Sabre river) not 100 miles away from this new potential power source made a good deal of sense; he saw this as his own great capital city, the city of Alinor, which would be his seat of power, and the place from which he would launch the great Western expansion of the Empire. Construction mages travelled to the site of the new city, and in classic Alphatian fashion dammed and re-routed the river, stripped the site of the city down to bedrock, capped it with new, solid stone, and built from there upwards. The city of Alinor was to be as solidly built as the great cities of Old Alpatia, and no expense or effort was spared. The city was, within only ten years, expanding rapidy and attracting settlers from across the Empire.
As soon as this was progressing Alinor set about studying the strange magical metal he had found. Iridium would give Alinor a power source independent of the Empire, one he could exploit not only to expand his own holdings in Norwold, but one which would be useful in pressing his own future claim to the imperial throne. He expanded the old Dwarven mine workings to extract more of the ore from the ground, and worked tirelessly to find a magical means of releasing and using the enrgy contained with the metal, while leaving the 'skull of doom' untouched in the darkest recess of the mine.
Exactly when disaster struck is unclear. Yes, I know, I'm a god of time and I should know these things. But remember that Alinor was a chronomancer. There is a reason why we only allow a small number of chronomancers on Mystara, thats because of the damage they can do, and Alinor caused a hell of a lot of damage. Something went wrong, somehoe too much energy was released, in the wrong way, so Alinor broke one of the prime rules of Chronomancy and travelled in time within his own lifespan to solve it. And he failed, so he tried again, and again, and again, using more of the energy from the ore to hold the time guardians at bay while he sought a solution. The resultant timestorm at that point is now impassable, its an awe inspiring thing to see on temporal prime. But it caused Alinor yet another problem; he was expending an extraordinary amount of energy to stop another huge amount of power being released, and he was now working blind with his best means of escape (temporal prime) cut off to him. Something very bad was about to happen.