The Stacked Deck Chapter 7

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"How am I to be tested? By the ultimate test of the universe; survival of the fittest"

Smithing the Soul: Part 1

Paul awoke before the sun had started its climb. He looked over and saw that Keltos was still awake and had kept vigil over Parri all night. It appeared everyone else was still asleep. Paul quietly packed all of his gear and set it next to a log by the campfire. The fire was only smoldering embers so Paul added some kindling and wood to it so it would be ready for the morning meal. After a moment the smolder turned into fresh flames.

"Where do you plan on going Paul?" Keltos asked him quietly.

Paul looked up from the mesmerizing fire at the bard. The glowing light of the fire danced across Keltos' shadowed face. A shiver went down Paul's spine as it dawned on him how supernatural the bard looked compared to how he was used to seeing him. Paul answered with his own question.

"So are you an assassin playing the part of a bard?"

Keltos looked into the fire for a moment before giving a reply. "I am many things, but a good bard is supposed to be." He looked back up at Paul. "I do what I must."

"As must I," Paul stated. "I am going to head back into Kelfor's Landing for some of my gear and to find some answers."

"It is not very safe there for you yet, so do your best to keep a low profile." Keltos warned him. He took the last of the poultice and started making a clean dressing for Parri's shoulder. "When you see Tyron, tell him what happened here, and ask him to send you back with more herbs for this poultice."

Paul nodded to the bard, shouldered his pack and headed off into the near dawn. "I will be back, soon."

Keltos watched Paul disappear into the darkness. "I hope so," he said quietly.

It was evening of the next day before Paul found himself approaching the east gatehouse of Kelfor's Landing. The weather was damp and chill, so it didn't look suspicious at all that his hood was up and his cloak was tightly wrapped around him. The guard gave him a casual look as he passed through and Paul made straight away for Tyron's Arms. Shopkeepers were out getting their lamps lit and street vendors folded up display stands or pushed their carts down the road. Nothing looked out of the ordinary as Paul walked through the streets.

He arrived at Tyron's Arms and the shop was empty, but the furnace was still hot so Tyron had been working that day. Paul went to his room and quietly closed the door behind him. He sat his pack down and pulled his spell book out from it. It was covered in a protective leather wrap, which he unfolded and then he set the book on the bench. He went to the corner and pulled his staff out from where it was concealed, within a jumble of metal spars and wood pieces that was standing in the corner. He laid the staff on his cot, and then took out his sword and laid it right next to the staff. He opened his spell book and then began the magic rituals that would endow both of his talismans with permanent magics.

Tyron returned from the Raging Threk and as he went through the shop he heard Paul's voice coming from behind the forge. As he came around toward the door he noticed a pulsating glow emanating from the cracks around the door and at the bottom near the floor. He recognized that Paul was in the middle of some sort of powerful incantation and decided not to disturb him at that moment. After a few minutes of observing from outside the room, the weapon smith, with a light nod and a tight mouth, headed towards his rooms.

After completing his spell casting Paul felt pretty drained. Both of his rituals were successful, and now his blade was enchanted, and would no longer be impotent against creatures resistant or immune to natural weapons. His staff would now boost his spell casting ability as well, as long as he held it when casting them.

Paul put all of his gear away and prepared for some much needed rest. Just before he climbed into the cot he went over to the bench and pulled out a block of wood. This solid piece of iron oak would become the catalyst for both of his final talismans. He would cut off one end to carve into a mould for making his pentacle, and the rest he would shape into a chalice. It had dried well, and no cracks had formed so Paul placed it next to his rucksack and went to climb onto his cot when a knock came on his door.

"Paul, can I talk to you for a moment?" The voice asked from behind the door. It was Tyron.

"Sure, come in." Paul stood to greet his benefactor.

After Paul and Tyron explained and discussed nearly everything that had happened since the adventurers left, the conversation dwindled down to some small talk. After a moment of silence, Tyron pulled out a curled envelope that was still sealed and handed it to Paul.

"This arrived for you from a very special courier. Do not open this until after you have had a good night's rest and a morning meal." Tyron turned and headed for the door. "I will send Tam over to the inn to bring you back some breakfast. After you are done eating, then you need to read what is in that envelope. Do you understand?"

Paul replied, "I understand what you said, but I do not understand why."

Tyron was closing the door behind him and his words slightly echoed through the shop room. "Trust me."

Smithing the Soul: Part 2

When Paul awoke the smell of coffee and bread filled his nose. The click of the door closing was what brought him to his senses. Paul sat up and looked around his room and saw that Tam had left breakfast sitting on the bench. He went over and sat down to enjoy the meal and as he sat there eating he kept looking the envelope over. There were some magic symbols drawn upon the paper. Some of the glyphs were right over the sealed part almost as if they were proof that the seal has not been broken. After he swallowed the last bite of food, he took a long swig off from the lukewarm coffee as he went over and sat on the cot. With a deep breath he broke the seal on the packet and lifted the paper. Bright light emanated from inside the folds of paper and in a flash the room was filled with coalescing magic. With a jerk Paul felt his body go stiff and he could no longer control it. It was like being trapped in a statue, and his mind raced as he was certain that he had just been caught in a trap.

The magic swirled around his body faster and faster and Paul soon had the feeling that he was being pulled along in the current. He tried to hold on to his body but the swirl went faster and tugged him harder. The next sensation was as if a rope had snapped and Paul felt his essence slip free of his body and begin to swirl around the room with the magical gusts. An extreme calm took him over as he somehow came to the realization that this was not a trap, and that he should be returning to his mortal coil upon completion of this astral journey. He focused on maneuvering in this spiritual form until he started to get the hang of it. He looked down upon his mortal form as he swirled around the room and felt how strange and exhilarating this whole experience was. It was as if he was joined to the universe and although he still seemed himself, he also could tell that in this state he was connected with something more. He knew his departure was soon coming, so Paul swooped down and grabbed hold of his sword and rod, which became astral within his hands and in an instant he was swept out of this world on an astral journey.

The magic vortex slowly dissipated and Paul found himself on a simple sandy plane as if he stood in the middle of a desert. There was no sky, no horizon, and the ground seemed perfectly flat. He walked around a little and noticed that although there seemed to be light, he cast no shadow and his feet did not leave prints in sand. After a short time of exploring this strange place he started to become a bit antsy. He did not get the same impulses of understanding that he seemed to receive when he was in the vortex.

"Hello?"

Dead silence. There was no echo and very little carrying of the voice.

Paul started to have second thoughts about his possible imprisonment. What would be the purpose of his presence here in this empty space?

"You are here to be tested."

The voice totally startled him, because it spoke inside of his head.

"Who are you?" Paul asked.

"I am the adjudicator, here to insure all contests are kept fair," the voice replied.

Paul wondered to himself "why"?

The voice heard even that. "All champions of both the forces of Life and Unlife are tested."

The Unlife?

"Those who wish the universe reduced to nothingness."

Paul felt a bit overwhelmed with this title of champion, but many of the experiences in his past now started to make some sense.

"How am I to be tested?"

"By the ultimate test of the universe; survival of the fittest," was the answer.

"So when does it start?" Paul asked.

"As soon as you are ready."

Smithing the Soul: Part 3

Paul stood there and contemplated his situation. How did he ever get this title of champion, and what if he didn't want this role? In fact, considering all the things he had already gone through in his short life, he was pretty sure he didn't want the job. Now he had to face life knowing that he is part of the very fabric of the future of Kulthea. So how many more friends would die because of this part that the fates have decided he must play? No matter where he goes or what he does, the mantle he now wears will weigh upon him, and as those he cares for fall, his conscience shall bear that burden.

Paul's brow furrowed and his face grew taut like steel. He pictured Parri, lying on the ground with that werewolf towering over her. Never again!

Suddenly the scene around him changed. What seemed like an endless expanse of sand shrank to about the size of a large room. Beyond the edges there was nothingness. From the far reaches of his vision, the mage noticed a speck of something and he focused on it. It seemed to grow larger or more likely closer to his current plane of existence. As it drew near Paul saw that it was a plane similar to his. Inside the sand was black and smoke rose from it as if it were burning hot. That was when he noticed what he assumed to be his opponent.

Hovering near what might be considered the top of the planer cube was a blue skinned hairless creature. It had to be at least half again his height; a huge pair of bat like wings protruded from its back. It sported a blade that was as long as Paul was tall, the edge of which was jagged like teeth. The demon slowly turned this way and that, as if searching, but not with its tiny eyes. Then with a sudden twist the monstrous beast looked straight at Paul and flew towards him, the huge sword swinging in the air. There was no sound when the demon came to a sudden halt as he reached the boundary of his planar space.

Paul looked down and noticed that there were only a few inches between his plane and the demons. Although still in the air, the creature paced back and forth across the barrier. He tested it with the edge of his sword to see if his prey was in reach yet.

Paul was amazed at the strength and prowess of his opponent. He knew that in a stand up fight he had absolutely no chance of defeating a demon with his current spell and combat abilities.

Suddenly Stragen's voice drifted into his head, repeating something he once told Paul.

'Many times when one is put to the test, the odds seemed insurmountable. To find a solution in the face of such a daunting challenge is the whole point.'

After a few moments of watching the feral demon try in vain to reach him through the obstruction, a look of fear and dismay crossed Paul's face.

Paul turned away from the barrier and walked to the center of his area. When he arrived he moved the staff to his left hand and drew his sword. With his back to the demon, he took a kneeling position, quietly concentrated and within a moment his far hearing and presence sense had kicked in. He could now hear the sounds of the demon's roars, the clashing sound of sword against barrier as well as feel his presence.

The barriers silently dropped away between the two planes and with a screech, the demon swooped in above Paul sword leading in to pierce the back of this stupid mortal. The demon could not wait to sink his claws into the weak flesh and cover himself in the warm blood of this human.

Paul sensed the demon dive down towards him and the mage threw himself backward into a somersault and came up standing. He was right behind the flying demon who was now conveniently located near the ground. It realized its plight and prepared to launch itself back in the air where its powerful wings could lift it to safety. Paul's sword sparked red and silver as the blade descended and lodged itself deep in between the wings of the fiend. The huge jagged demon sword dropped to the sand, and a keening wail escaped the mouth of the beast as it crashed onto the ground. Paul stepped back as the demon thrashed a bit before it became motionless. After a moment Paul yanked his sword out of the vile creature.

"Fair victory," the voice returned in his head. "You recognized your weaknesses and his and took advantage of them both. You will serve your role of champion well."

Then a sudden sharp burning sensation shot across his chest, and then all physical feelings left him as the swirling magic returned to bring him home.