Wiliken had told the guards that he’d brought his bow because he’d heard word of upstarts in this side of town and he’d just as soon not die at their hands. He’d mentioned something about how the youth no longer respect their elders, something expected, but the truth was that he mistrusted his host, Valgaman, now the self-aggrandizing Valgaman the Terrible, even less than street thieves.
“I’ll be happy to check the bow with you at the door,” Wiliken said. He’d been uncharacteristically long-winded in his explanation and he feared he’d roused the suspicions of the heavily armored guards. He’d expected to be seized, but instead he was laughed at.
“Valgaman trusts his guests,” said the guard to his left. Rather, he trusts his own ego, thought Wiliken.
“And, after all, that bow might come in handy during tonight’s entertainment,” said the guard to his right.
Wiliken hoped the event would start soon, not so he could witness the Menagerie of Death, but so the event might end soon as well. He enjoyed the company of his wife far more than that of a bunch of thugs and buffoons calling themselves nobles, and least of all Valgaman, yet it was Valgaman who first approached Wiliken. The gnome was dressed in a black robe with a skull on the front. If Wiliken was not mistaken in his estimations, this was the costume of a petty gang of criminals with aspirations at prominence called the Boneheart Clan. Valgaman was making some sort of power play, and Wiliken doubted he’d much enjoy the consequences.
A series of guests passed between Wiliken and Valgaman, and the githzerai used the opportunity to lose the attention of the host. He did not stop until he’d reached a table laden with piping hot appetizers and strange glass decanters of drink. It was here that Wiliken bumped into the sullen deva Jurgen. If he had to pass his time with anyone, he supposed Jurgen was as good of a conversation partner as anyone.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Jurgen said.
“The gnome,” Wiliken said. “He’s up to something.”
“Well, of course,” Jurgen said. “Do you think a Menagerie of Death just comes together of its own volition?”
Perhaps Jurgen’s voice was the trigger – after all, he was the last being Wiliken had encountered before the invitation incident – but a panic came over Wiliken far worse than any social anxiety he might feel over being forced to attend this party. He felt suddenly nauseous and fought to keep from giving outward sign of his inner turmoil. Instead, Wiliken focused on Jurgen’s voice, used it as an anchor.
“I had been meaning to ask you,” Jurgen said. “When the golden city fell -”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Wiliken interrupted. The panic grew in him like a child, and like any life form it felt as if it were forming intention and will. Wiliken gave into this strange sensation and turned around. Though the room he’d entered had been on the ground floor, there was a broad balcony circling a central pit which appeared to be full of sand, and in the center of the pit was a rickety cage occupied by the camel that he’d seen day after day since receiving the invitation to this event, each time he closed his eyes.
Wiliken was no longer bothered by the fact that he’d envisioned this camel. Many people have brief images of things before seeing them, probably little slivers of the infinite number of images one sees while asleep. It was not the fact that his eyes had predicted this scene that made boiled his githzerai blood, nor that strange sense of foreboding that beat the war drum of his heart – DOOM, DOOM, DOOM, DOOM – but the fact that the quivering camel was locked inside a cage, and all for the sport of an arrogant gnome and his social climbing friends.
For you too were once a slave.
Before there were githzerai or githyanki, there was a race of beings in the world next to this called the illithid. Wiliken couldn’t remember these times any better than his grandfather might have – these truths were the content of stories passed down generation after generation by Wiliken’s people. But before Wiliken had ever heard of these tentacle-faced monsters referred to as illithid, he’d heard the older children refer to them as “mind flayers” because they ravaged the psyches of the creatures they imprisoned, all the creatures of the land, including the ancient ancestors of the githzerai. The inscription on his bow may as well have been tattooed on his body. “For you too were once a slave” meant that Wiliken descended from a race who were familiar with life inside a cage.
Wiliken was aware that the small talk had died down and that Valgaman the Terrible had begun a speech, but his heart spoke louder than the gnome, for Wiliken saw a ripple beneath the sand, no doubt a predator abused and coaxed into ripping apart the imprisoned camel. Wiliken had to act now, to jump over the balcony and free the animal, or at least to put a body between the beast and certain death.
Wiliken stepped forward but was stopped from rushing the banister by a hand on his shoulder, Jurgen’s, and the words, “Restrain yourself, my friend – you’ll get killed,” also Jurgen’s.
Jurgen often seemed like he was only looking after his own best interests, but his pragmatism was an endearing quality. Their lives would be on the line, certainly, but the more sobering thought Wiliken faced was the likelihood that his own family would be targeted. Githzerai valued their self-control more than anything and humans – the race Wiliken had been raised as – valued their families. Both of these tendencies shamed Wiliken for making such a harsh decision.
“Across the lobby,” Jurgen whispered. Wiliken followed Jurgen’s gaze across the circular balcony where a guest lurked in the shadows, our of view from the other guests who had faced the opposite direction in order to listen to Valgaman speak. It appeared that this guest had the same intention as Wiliken, to jump the rail and enter the pit, but just as soon as he was airborne his forward momentum stopped abruptly and he fell to the ground. A dull blue light revealed a matrix of squares in the place where the guest had hit. Valgaman had erected a force field of some sort across the pit.
The guest across the room had tested the shield in relative obscurity. Had Wiliken done the same he would have fallen mere yards from Valgaman with all eyes upon him. Wiliken had certainly dodged an arrow, but only with the help of Jurgen’s wise counsel.
Acting the party guest, Wiliken scanned the room. He was looking for a power source or control panel, perhaps a talisman or a group of mages concentrating on the center of the room. Any of these might be a means of dropping the force field, but none were present to Wiliken’s keen archer’s eyes. Valgaman must have installed a secret panel of some sort. This would be more difficult a situation than Wiliken had thought.
Wiliken’s concentration was broken by the loud din of a cheering audience. Around him nobles raised glasses or clapped.
“What is this about?” Wiliken asked Jurgen. “I wasn’t listening.”
“Valgaman announced the sacrifice of your camel,” Jurgen said.
It seemed that the camel would die and there was nothing Wiliken could do. Wiliken saw his vision once again, but this time the camel burned into his eyes was superimposed over the actual camel’s image and the juxtaposition spoke to the githzerai. It said, “You must prevent the slaughter that is to come.”
For you too were once a slave.
Wiliken was shown that flesh could not penetrate this force field, but during his years he’d seen many similar walls breached by some object or other. He didn’t have any enchanted items on him, but he was aware that iron had certain properties that allow it to overcome magic, and he had several iron-headed arrows. One such arrow could collapse an arcane force field, and if not, the same arrow could split the head of the party’s host.
The githzerai quickly drew his bow and, shouting a battle cry in deep speech, nocked and fired an arrow at the force shield. The arrow snapped on impact, but before it hit the ground, Wiliken had wheeled to his left and fired once again, this time at Valgaman the Terrible. As the arrow passed through the gnome, his image flickered and disappeared. Wiliken’s aim was true. Unfortunately, his target was false. The Valgaman who had hosted the party was a hologram.
For a moment, nobody spoke or moved, but then the booming voice of Valgaman returned. Voice divorced from body, Valgaman’s words sounded like those of an angry god:
“You’ve made a dire mistake.”
Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 3.
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