The cousins settle into a nook the myconids are kind enough to provide them for slumber. After the events of the day, they are not inclined toward conversation; even Canter holds his piece. One by one, they slip into unconsciousness – though not a restful one.
In the Dreamspace, all three women appeared in a crystalline chamber with … things visible outside through the distorted translucent rock. They found themselves seated comfortably before a stone table, and Orange-Eyes sat across from them. Amaya reached for a blade that was missing from its scabbard, and the figure raised a hand. It had hands?
The rest of the distortion of murk and countless eyes faded, leaving what appeared to be a middle-aged human man. He had normal brown eyes, a broad nose over a severe mouth framed by a goatee, and a tumble of brown hair streaked with grey. “Peace,” he said. “Our antagonism has availed me not. Thus, I wish to converse if you will allow it. I am Madreus.”
Nasti’s eyes narrowed, unsure if she’s awake or dreaming. “I’m listening.”
“Converse about what exactly?” Nova said.
“Who exactly are you?” Madreus asked.
The question caught the tiefling off guard, and she deferred to her cousins to answer. Nova said, “I’m a fortune-teller. And a rock star. And a protector of our home. And a ‘servant?’ of the Black Butterfly. And that’s just the shortlist. Who are you … exactly?”
“And I’m a scholar,” Nasti added. “Just a scholar. But I have taken all knowledge to be my province.”
Madreus nodded at each woman’s introduction, quirking an eyebrow momentarily at the mention of the Black Butterfly. He looked expectantly at Amaya for a pregnant moment, but when she didn’t answer he shrugged and addressed Nova’s question.
“I too am a humble seeker of knowledge. Early in life, I became aware of alien energies beyond the perception of most mortals. I used this singular awareness to develop magical abilities similar in effect to common sorceries and magics. The powers I command can reach beyond the veil to allow interaction with beauteous alien creatures different to all life on this world.
“In my wanderings, I tracked the energies to their source here in Firestorm Peak. The Vast Gate has allowed sufficient influence of the Dark Tapestry to seep into the world to power my growing knowledge. I have devoted my time here to researching and perfecting the ritual necessary to permanently keep the Vast Gate open.”
He paused for a moment then asked, “What is your purpose here, ladies?”
“To stop the invasion of your alien curiosities,” Nova said. “I don’t see how sending them out to kill and destroy has anything to do with your ‘search for knowledge.’”
Nasti nodded. “Indeed. You’re causing more harm to the world beyond this place than we can allow.”
“I see,” Madreus said. “A grave misunderstanding, then. Those creatures that have made their way out of the mountain were not sent to do any such thing. In truth, I sent them away to make room for those that will come after. Those that will help the peoples of this world assimilate to the new reality.”
“Well, that sounds a little bit crazy,” Nova said. “And regardless of your intent, we are here to stop the consequences of your actions.”
“Agreed. Perhaps you aren’t native to this reality, but its current tenants seem to prefer things the way they are,” Nasti said.
Madreus seemed to consider their words. “You speak of madness. Rather, I think you do not understand the clarity of mind that I have been blessed with by the higher beings I have encountered. Do you know what this place is? Do you understand its significance? Shall I tell you?”
Nasti idly waved her four-fingered hand. “If you must.”
Madreus nodded and paused to collect his thoughts for a long moment. "The beginnings of this story stretch far, far back into prehistory, back to the time of the Elder Elves. Legend tells of the mighty tasks and accomplishments of the Elder Elves, and of the elvish civilization which thrived during a previous Age of the world. For the most part, all that remains of that civilization are the stories themselves. However, unknown to most, a complex of deep warrens under Firestorm Peak has survived the gulfs of time.
“In ancient times, a small group of Elder Elves delved into the mountain, carving a magical research facility at its heart, protecting their labors from unfriendly eyes in the depths of the earth past great valves of enchanted metal. Here, the ancients applied their theories, disciplines, and the protocols of high magic, forging portals and gates which spanned all the lengths of the world. Not satisfied with such mundane distances, the Elders created new techniques and spells which allowed them to Bridge the far distances between worlds.”
“I should have gotten a snack,” Canter mumbles.
Madreus continued. "The opening of gates to nearby worlds was a fabulous accomplishment for the Elder Elves. But in the flush of their success, they dreamed greater dreams. They soon became dissatisfied with the subjectively limited range of worlds accessible by the World Gates – only a few hundred of the uncounted millions of worlds they believed existed. With a new fire of determination, they set to work on their greatest gate of all: The Vast Gate. It was the Elder Elves’ goal to power a gate that could Bridge any distance, to the outermost Spheres of existence, in both space and time.
“In the Inner Sanctum of the research facility, they constructed their masterpiece. In a world-shaking feat of sorcery, they empowered the Vast Gate through associative magic with a periodic celestial event known in present times as the Dragon’s Tear comet. Every twenty-seven of Golarion’s years, the Dragon’s Tear appeared in the skies, providing an enormous store of potential magical energy built up in the long years of its travel through the deep places of the night. Once tapped, it supercharges the Vast Gate deep within the mountain, while at the same time a superficial firestorm rages upon the peak.
“Only during the time of the comet’s discharge – lasting twenty-eight Golarion days – was the Vast Gate empowered to Bridge the far distances between the most unreachable Spheres. Three times in eighty-one years did the Elder Elves find worlds of strange delight and fresh beauty. However, on their fourth Bridging, they found what they considered to be a disaster. They opened the Vast Gate to a world so distant in space, and possibly even time, that it may not even have been a part of the cosmology of worlds and planes as it is presently understood. Instead, the Gate opened into a realm with its own closed geometry, a multiverse utterly unlike our own.”
While Madreus took a breath, Nova commented, “A hidden cabal, practicing in secret because the ‘uneducated’ ones wouldn’t understand. Sounds familiar. We should definitely follow their example.” Nasti’s face showed her unconscious fascination with the subject, but she said nothing.
Madreus is so caught up in his narrative, he either ignored or did not even notice the interjection. "There were inhabitants abiding beyond the Gate, but only by the slimmest margin could these entities be defined as ‘alive.’ Herculean minds absorbed in alien contemplations of madness – this is how the Elder Elves perceived the new vista before them. The might of these incomprehensible beings warped reality in amazing, unaccountable ways by their very presence. Contradictions and bizarre physical laws came into existence at the very whim of these beings, only to dissolve like vapor to make way for newer, more miraculous imaginings. To the rational ancients, the implications of such potent power unchecked rocked the very foundations of their theological faith. When beings of such vast power began to show a vague interest in the opening, the Elder Elves believed that they had made a mistake of possibly catastrophic magnitude.
“Desperate to Close the portal, the Elder Elves began the necessary ritual. Before they could finish it, however, a powerful entity entered our realm through the Gate. Its very presence killed all but a handful of the Elder Elves before it lost interest and drifted back through the Gate to its own world. Those who remained fled their secret research facility, but not before attempting to Close the Outer Gates on the mountainside for all time, sealing away the fruits of their research to languish in the dark.” Madreus shuddered momentarily before continuing.
“These massive doors were a triumph of Elder engineering, able to withstand the harshest abuse. The Elder Elves performed the Ritual of Closing upon the outer entrance gates, believing that there could be no greater enchantment of sealing. To strengthen their spell of Closing, they linked the Outer Gates with the Dragon’s Tear comet, believing that this might divert power from the Vast Gate and cause it to close prematurely.
“However, in their haste, the Elder Elves made a mistake. When the Dragon’s Tear comet vanished from the sky, the Vast Gate did indeed close, for such was the design of the enchantments. But when the comet next returned, both the Vast Gate AND the Outer Gates to the deserted complex, opened again.
“Thus it has been for time unremembered that the periodic firestorms above have heralded the opening of both the Outer Gates of the mountain and the Vast Gate hidden deep within. Over the millennia, the recurring openings of the Vast Gate have allowed a significant influence to bleed over and spill out into the deserted Inner Sanctum of the Elder Elves. Alien symmetries have developed in the subterranean passages near the Gate, and lesser entities of the Dark Tapestry have slowly begun to make permanent homes deep within Firestorm Peak. The zone of influence only advances a few feet with every Bridging.
“As such, things progressed slowly until recent times. Three hundred years ago a colony of Duergar tunneled up from caverns far below, following a vein of nephelium, which they prize highly. The dark dwarves did not breach the surface in their quest for nephelium, but they did establish a large complex just within the Outer Gates of Firestorm Peak. As the colony grew, it eventually encountered the spreading field of influence which was seeping into Golarion in small increments from the Elder Elves’ Inner Sanctum. Unwilling to abandon such a rich vein of nephelium, the Duergar merely set a continual watch on the edges of their complex, guarding themselves against occasional excursions by the alien creatures of the inner caverns and sanctum.
Nasti’s nephelium necklace had become so integral to her self-image that even her dream self was wearing it. She tucked it under her robe.
“Three Bridgings ago, while studying the alien-touched Abyssal energies flowing through the obelisks, I found my way to the mountain and entered as the Outer Gates opened. Bypassing the Duergar with subtle magics, I came into the Inner Complex and gained mastery over the lesser minions and mutations of the Dark Tapestry which abided here.
“Since that time, I have been studying and learning more with each Bridging to the world of wondrous imaginings, working towards greater power. In the last year or so, I have made significant strides in understanding these alien philosophies, and I have devised a way to accelerate the spread of the Vast Gate’s influence. Until you arrived, I also had control over the Duergar at the Outer Gates. Alas.
“And now I find you on my very doorstep with no understanding of the benefits this world will enjoy when I succeed at permanently opening the Vast Gate. Still. I hold out hope that you may be convinced.”
“I’m going to go with NO,” Amaya said, breaking her silence.
“The rude one who refuses to so much as introduce herself has finally spoken,” Madreus said.
“Hey, you can’t talk to my cousin like that,” Nasti said.
He quirked an eyebrow. “I am not speaking to her but of her. It seems an accurate assessment.”
“So far you aren’t making a very strong case,” Nova said. “Trying to kill us in our dreams last time didn’t really help either.”
“If someone threatened paradise, would you not seek to defend it?”
“I’d have done this whole explanation bit first.”
“So you claim. But if someone murdered your servant, I think you might be less inclined to lead with parley.”
“Threatening my paradise is exactly what you’re doing,” Nasti said. “I have everything I ever wanted, and opening your gate will take that from me. It’s a pity you didn’t ask me eleven years ago; I might have had a different answer for you, then.”
Madreus’ face wore a dubious expression. “Golarion is paradise, you say? Highly questionable.”
“Love makes any prison a paradise,” Nasti said.
“That’s true,” Nova agreed. “And love is one thing glaringly absent with your brood.”
“Love? And you call ME crazy.” He chuckled politely.
“Potato, to-mahto,” Canter muttered.
Nova placed a hand on Nasti’s shoulder. “I AM curious though. How exactly would your plan make everyone better? I’ve seen into the souls of your pets. Felt them in my own. So far it’s been awful.”
“Nothing of value comes without cost,” Madreus said, which sounded like a litany. “As I said earlier, those that will come can ease the transition of mortal existence to the better, blissful one that awaits.”
“You still haven’t really given us a reason. Another example is those you have ‘turned’ before. They begged for death when their wits allowed them to do so. And Nigel, what has he done? Atrocities it looks like. And you still have him.”
“Ah, my apprentice. What of him? He came to me during the last cycle. He sought to understand the mountain’s secrets to alleviate his own fears and uncertainties. And he has, perhaps, learned much and more than he expected. But as I said, nothing of value comes without cost. Fortunately – for him – he understood this implicitly. His former companions made fine contributions to our research. His analytical mind has been a boon to me.”
“Not a cost his family, his friends, would have chosen to pay if they’d had the choice,” Nasti said, her blood heating up.
Madreus idly fingered a wooden staff. “Perhaps. An open mind can lead one many places a closed mind would not.”
“It saddens me to close my mind to you, then. But I’ll get over it,” the tiefling said.
“A pity. I hope we do not meet. We will all be better off for it.” Madreus smiled wanly then faded to nothingness. Then the cousins slipped away from one another into their own dreams.
* * *
13 Calistril (II), 4721
The women awake to find themselves beset by freaky monsters. Above them lurk sleek, dark creatures resembling hairless, emaciated tree sloths with red glowing eyes, wicked claws, and mouths full of needlelike teeth. The first creature drops down onto Nova claws first, but she evades its slashing digits as well as its gnashing teeth. The next drops onto Amaya, digging claws into her unarmored flesh and grabbing on tight. The half-elf gains her feet and counterattacks with her silver short sword.
Nasti’s attacker misses her with claws, but sinks its teeth into her shoulder, drawing her attention to the danger. She stands and evokes chain lightning into all three creatures, then searches her sleep-fogged mind for any information about the aberrations. “Niliths! These things will resist any weapons but your silver one!” she tells Amaya. “And they’ll resist your mind magic as well, Nova!”
A second nilith leaps at Nasti, but she stays ahead of its flashing claws and teeth. Amaya feels her mind assaulted from the aberration gripping her, dragging up old fears to hurt her. She grits her teeth and resists the worst of it and calls out, “Nova, he’s doing your spell!” The nilith bites her in a fit of pique then squeezes its claws down on her biceps so she doesn’t slip away.
Nova takes a cautious step away from the creatures and reaches for cosmic magic that changes her body into a lunar battle form. Her body resembles a starfield, and her eyes glow like full moons. Her cousins look over in awe, and the niliths screech in concern.
“She’s achieved her final form…!” Canter says.
Amaya shakes free of the nilith grabbing her momentarily and stabs it again before raising her blade defensively. Nasti evades most of the incoming attacks that barrage her, but one of the nilith’s claws manages to pierce her magic shield to rake and take hold of the tiefling. The half-elf is slashed, grabbed, and mind-crushed a second time. Nova lances one of the niliths with a magical moonbeam.
The desperate pre-coffee fight continues until the cousins gain the upper hand and eliminate the monsters. Embarrassed myconids show up as the last creature falls, incredulous that their guests have come under attack. They provide a handful of magical consumables and a rune for the inconvenience.
Amaya dons her armor while Nasti informs her cousins that the Leng spiders are immune to cold, and resistant to poison and sonic damage. The party cleans up and prepares to delve once more into the Inner Sanctum.