Monday, May 12, 2014

Fiction - Tyranny of the Stars, Part I: Contract

Tyranny of the Stars by Robert Brookes
There's a lot going on behind the scenes at the Encounter Table this week. Among which I'm working on our next interview which should run next week if all goes according to schedule. But more importantly, today the Encounter Table introduces its new fiction feature!

This weekly article will feature serialized stories set in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. At the end of each installment is a new game mechanic or rule for Pathfinder either seen or referenced in that week's serial. The first story, Tyranny of the Stars, will take us across the Mana Wastes in a journey to uncover secrets lost during the war between the kingdoms of Nex and Geb. 

If you are interested in getting your own Pathfinder fiction serialized on the Encounter Table, please reach out to the Encounter Table at submission@encountertable.com with your pitch.

Tyranny of the Stars, Part I: Contract


The din of metal striking metal echoes with rhythmic cadence through darkened, stone corridors. The scalding heat radiating from the stone-walled forge is joined by dancing tongues of flame and glowing embers that rise towards the ceiling. The firelight casts the room with golden hues that shine off of damp stone and metal. The blacksmith working diligently over a battered anvil glistens with sweat from the heat, and sparks shower her bare arms with each stroke of her forge hammer to glowing hot metal.

She isn't youthful as her face might imply. The deception of her diluted elven lineage is betrayed by the gently tapered tips of her ears and snowy, shoulder-length hair that she wears tied back. A few errant locks refuse to be tamed, sticking to her sweaty brow in gentle curls. Hawkish eyes of silver are focused on her craft, narrowing reflexively at each stroke of the hammer and shower of golden sparks. The hammer looks too large for her frame, and that her arm shakes with each raise of the bludgeon over her head could easily be mistaken for physical weakness. Nervousness is a more accurate reading.

In each hammer strike, the sparks rising up from the forged metal drift on eddies and currents of heat. A casual observer sees sparks, but a practiced eye sees subtle shapes in them; twisting lines of eldritch sigils born of flame and willpower, swirling around each blow. Turning the length of metal with her tongs, the half-elven smith flattens down another side with a series of metered strokes, each one imprinting a fragment of arcane intent, a shard of power wordlessly called from beyond the mundane world.

After a few more hits, the hammer is set aside, and tongs used to lower the metal down into into a wooden trough. A riot of hisses and sizzles accompanies the metal being submerged in water, turning the artifice from white-hot to coal black in an instant. When the cooled metal is removed from the water, she inspects it with wide eyes. Carbon-flaked, though quickly brushed off by a gloved hand to reveal the coppery color of the material below. Each brush of the blacksmith's hand over the artifact shows more of its form, now freed of impurities.

She picks up the five-inch long spike, turns it over in one leather-gloved hand to inspect the octagon-shaped head on one end, then the tapered point on the other. A slow, proud smile comes, soon followed by a more inscrutable furrow of her brows as she carries the spike over to a nearby workbench. An oil lantern hanging over the workbench casts shadowy light across the delicate tools laid on it. With the forge roaring at her back, the blacksmith sets the spike in a pair of clamps fixed to the table, and delicately chisels text into the coppery metal.

The process is a long one, each glyph painstakingly copied from a small wood-bound book. The sigils are etched to run the entire length of the spike, with a row on each of its eight faces and a final, more elaborate glyph, on the flat head. Hours, she spends, toiling over this creation. When finally the task is done, she gently tugs off her gloves to cradle the spike in her bare hands, breathing a single exhalation across its surface. A swirl of words made from metal dust and firelight dance on the spike's surface, awakened by that single breath.

"Horicalcum," is stated by another figure looming unseen in the forge's doorway. Jerking her attention towards the unexpected voice, the blacksmith gapes wide-eyed at the tall, darkly-dressed man before relief and recognition tempers her expression. "It's a very deliberate choice," he adds. "Uncommon. But, clever for its purpose." Entering the firelight, the broad-shouldered man reveals little to the light. His face is covered by a black, lacquered mask, the left eye of which is surrounded by an acid-etched starburst with eight points. The rest of his figure is shrouded by a layered robe of heavy fabric, worn over fine chainmail. His blood-red sash, embroidered with white script and tied off by braided tassels woven through a gold medallion stands out against the otherwise monochromatic attire. Each article worn is symbolic, all of it intimately familiar to the blacksmith.

The smith eyes him with hesitance, then averts her stare down to the spike as her fingers curl around it, protectively cradling it against her palm. "It spoke to me," she explains of her choice, "I can trust it." Her companion's reaction is hidden behind his mask. Only words and actions can convey the reciprocal trust; not in the metal, but in her. He approaches, slowly, and her stare never leaves her clenched fist.

"Finish it, and meet us in the library when you're done." The instruction comes with the gentle touch of a gauntleted hand down on the blacksmith's shoulder. "We do not have the luxury of time any longer. The stars wait for no man." While his touch is light, the weight of what it implies rests more heavily on the blacksmith's shoulders. When his hand is finally lifted, that sense of weight does not pass. A burden has been placed on her, one of grave import.

Neither speak as he departs, and the blacksmith returns to her workbench. This time, however, she is not etching eldritch symbols into the metal. A grinding wheel, spun by a foot pedal, sharpens the tip of the faceted spike down a lethal point. This part, just as the others, it integral to what she is crafting. An intimate familiarity with her creation is important, so too is precision. 

By the time the spike has been sharpened to a fine point, fatigue has set in on the smith. Dark circles shadow her eyes, sweat and soot streaks her brow, and the acrid stink of the forge has long overstayed its welcome. Spike in hand, she tugs off her apron and throws it over the anvil, soot-blackened hands leaving prints on its already smudged surface.

The blacksmith exits the forge into the catacombs, booted feet splashing through stagnant, shallow puddles along the way. With only flickering light from candle-adorned sconces on the walls, she unerringly navigates her way through this subterranean realm. The path to her destination is a circuitous one of snaking passages, blind corners, and dead ends. The chamber she seeks she has only been to once before, but such is the way of her order. No one person sees everything, knows everything. Information is compartmentalized. That fact does not make her any less anxious.

The sound of chanting did not greet her last time, but this occasion is different. The droning choir of voices echoing down the passage leading to the library raises hairs on the back of her neck. She hesitates, momentarily, at the closed door leading to the source of the chanting, looking down one last time at the artifice she created before opening the door and stepping in to the expansive chamber. The blacksmith is greeted by a sight of dozens gathered for her, standing in a circle at the library's center. It is a room named aptly for its purpose but deceptive in its appearance. It is a cylindrical chamber—a crypt to any other observer—with foot-by-foot alcoves lining the walls all the way from floor to ceiling. Within those alcoves, hundreds of skulls rest in silent observation of the proceedings. 

The chanting figures are all dressed in finely crafted linen robes of ink and terracotta color, each trimmed with runic embroidery. Just as each participant is robed, so too is each masked. While the robes are uniform in appearance the masks are exquisitely unique: a silver fox, a painted harlequin, a horned devil, and on, and on. At the center of the room stands the man with the starburst on his otherwise featureless mask, hands folded behind his back.

The blacksmith enters with sure stride, though all posturing and feigned bravado. Inside she is terrified, and perhaps that is natural given the circumstances. But in this environment, she cannot afford to show signs of fear. When she steps through a space in the circle of masked figures, they close in to seal the gap behind her. It is only then that the man at the center of the circle speaks. 

"Brothers," he proclaims with a somber tone, "we are here to witness the birth of a new Keeper." Reaching out with one gauntlet-clad hand, he pointsat the blacksmith. "Approach, and kneel."

Swallowing down bile in the back of her throat, the blacksmith approaches the masked figure and lowers herself down on one knee, then to both. Looking up, she still cannot see into the lightless hollows of his mask to find his eyes, as if he were little more than armor and robes filled with smoke and shadow. She's heard him breathe, heard him make soft protest to old wounds and even older joints. She knows he's just a man. Still, though, the thought lingers.

"You came to us with a name," he addresses the blacksmith with the same solemnity as he addressed the group. "Came to us with titles, dreams, and beliefs." As the masked leader speaks, he circles the her slowly. "Tonight, you cast them aside once and for all. Tonight, you devote yourself not to a cause, but to an idea. Tonight, you will become that idea."

Stopping in front of her, the masked figure holds out his hand, palm up. "Your contract," is requested, and in return she hands over the skymetal spike. It is inspected, turned around for all its eight facets to be viewed. Satisfied with what he sees, he motions to two of the other masked figures in the circle, one wearing a skull of ebony with an articulated jaw, the other a hammered metal faceplate with six eye holes. They approach the blacksmith from behind, grab her by the arms and hoist her to her feet.

Surprised by the sudden, forcible movement, a reflexive yelp escapes the blacksmith. "We are more than names," their leader proclaims, "more than identities, more than individuals." Approaching her restrained form, the masked lord of this cabal rests the spike's pointed tip to the center of her chest, then adjusts it to be slightly off-center to the left.

Extending a hand to another member of the circle, the man in the starburst mask is handed a warhammer. On seeing this exchange, the blacksmith tenses, her breath hastening. With eyes wide she begins to struggle in a visible show of that fear she has been attempting to hide this whole time. 

"Tonight, you die in obscurity." The warhammer is swung down like a judge's gavel, striking the spike on its flattened head. The impact drives the length of skymetal between the blacksmith's ribs, and a shower of orange sparks swirl around the impact. Blood sprays from the blacksmith's mouth with a wet gasp, spatters on black robes and equally dark armor, dribbles down her lips and chin to roll down her neck. One more gurgling protest is all her lungs have to offer, the blood much brighter this time.

The figures holding the blacksmith gently lower her to the ground where blood begins to pool out beneath, slithering into grooves carved in the floor, a seal etched in stone. Her legs and arms convulse, lips part to speak but no words come. She stares up at into a circular opening in the ceiling, a tapestry of stars set against a night's sky revealed to her. She blinks once, twice, and then never again.

The chanting comes to an end when the last of her life drains out onto the floor of the library. "All secrets to silence," the circle proclaims in unison. Their leader repeats the mantra, looking up through the same opening the blacksmith peered through on her death.

"All secrets to silence."


Between the Lines 

You can find out more about the spike the blacksmith forged and the mysterious order she serves in Wayfinder Magazine, Issue #9's Secretkeeper of Norgorber article and incorporate them into your own Pathfinder game!

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