The patter of tiny feet echoed through the ancient halls, the cold stone warmed by giggling and the gentle sloshing of bottles. A hand danced between the glass ampules before eagerly grasping the neck of one and dragging it out.
“Hello, young one.”
The rock gnome snapped upright, her faint blue skin shimmering like ore in the early light. The sound of trickling water echoed all around, and she glanced from side to side, clutching her vast ornate spellbook in one hand and the bottle in the other. “Who are you?”
“A pleasure to meet you.” The voice came closer from across the way, arms and legs knitting together from the particles which gently fluttered through the air. He adjusted his glasses and ran his fingers through his thick black hair. “I am the Zikaron, the Eighth of Many. I took the liberty of clearing your short-term when you arrived in my room, so you were most comfortable with my service.”
“Indeed. You requested from my colleague the Taoiseach to see – oh, you’re not listening to me any more, are you?”
She gasped as she looked at the bottle in her hand, and started to giggle.
The Zikaron tutted as he melted backwards into the wall. “That’s right. They never do.”
The gnome was already away, dancing off with the bottle in her hand. And with that, all was quiet once again, the morning sun dripping through the stained glass windows.
She jammed the door closed and excitedly scampered around the table, barely able to contain her excitement. Setting the bottle down and blowing the dust off the glass, she saw her wide eyes reflected in the gently fizzing purple liquid within, along with her beaming grin – which soon turned into a determined pout when she saw the cork firmly jammed into the top. Pulling a chair over with both hands, she took a running leap, hoisted herself up and – with one last exertion – was able to grasp some tassels and clamber onto the cushion. Turning around, she reached over, grabbed the stopper with both hands, and…
“Oh, I thought I heard you wandering around.”
She looked up and sheepishly grinned. “Master! It’s not what it looks like, promise.”
“Is that so?” The frost giant reached down and picked up the bottle in one hand, the other prising the cork out between a thumb and forefinger. He raised it to his nose and took two short, sharp sniffs. “Because it looks like you stole a potion of Spider Climb from my archives.”
Her grin faltered. “Yeah, I guess it is what it looks like.”
“Why did you take it?”
“You were always saying that I was so easy to step on when I was on the floor, so I figured I would walk on the walls instead.”
He looked at her for a short moment, and then laughed uproariously, slapping his belly. “A good solution!” He snapped his fingers and two glasses appeared out of thin air. “It is time for a lesson, wouldn’t you agree?”
She stood up and nodded as he placed the smaller tumbler before her and poured a measure. “What are we learning?”
Her coat flapped around her legs as she held out her hands, her fingers instinctively grabbing onto gaps in the brickwork, adhering to surfaces and digging into weakened plaster. Closing her eyes to gather herself, her breaths ragged, she allowed herself one look down into the cavernous abyss below the tower. The sheer cliff face gave way to endlessly swirling clouds, flocks of soaring birds and crackling lightning.
The giant was just above her, his beard whipping from left to right as the wind buffeted them both.
“Do you know what magic is, young one?”
She thought for a moment. “It lets us use awesome powers, and help people!”
Laughter echoed downwards through the gale.
“Indeed it does! But it is also a powerful denial of the natural order of things. This world works and progresses in a certain way, and we all carve our way through it. Wrapped up in fate’s strings, as it were. We are all words on a page, stories told in a grand adventure.”
A brick crumbled to dust in her hands and she lost her footing, tumbling backwards. Arms flailing, eyes wide and flecked with tears.
The wind stopped.
She opened her eyes, and found she was suspended in mid-air, her curly hair billowing around her head as if underwater.
“However,” he said, holding out a hand and clamping it shut, a gleaming light pulsing outwards towards her, “we mages – through study, or bargaining, or reward, or trickery – we can change that narrative. To open the book and write new words.”
She flipped backwards in the air, laughing, as he let go of the building himself and gently bobbed up and down. He reached out and – holding her gently by the back – kicked off from the brickwork and they soared upwards together to circle around the floating tower.
“Do you know why I call you Sta͍ͩ͐̚rl̯̳̭̲͛͐̃ͭ̓̊ĩ͈̞̬̭͒̔ͣ̃ͬgh̷͎ͨ̉͒t͔̲͖̙̓̌̔̉̐͆?”
Š̮̗̘̠͎̫͓̩̮̅̃́͒̋ͮ͋ͫ́͟h̢̰͔͎̹͔̮̥̺̤ͮͪ̿̌̅ͤͬͧ̂̄͌̉̎͌ͣ̚͝͞e̜̯̺̞̘͕̺̣̯̰͈̲̪͋̈́͛̍ͪ̈́ͪ̐̓̈̂̈͋̅̓͒͛̊̚̕ ̷̇͋͆ͣ͘͢҉̦̤̬͎̜̳̥̱h̴̵̝͖̼̩̬̰͎̫͖̪̭̻ͭͤ̒̀̓͒ͭ͆͗̊̄̈̅̎͛ͪͧ̆́ͅa̸̟̘̭͔̼̼͔̟͊͋ͮ͑̐ͦ̋̇̃ͫͅd̵͎̱̜̺̥̟̟̙̦͙͍̩̓ͫͭͩ̄̊̂ͥ̐ͪ̇͗̚͠n̴͉̮̘̰̯͉̱ͦͧ͛͛ͮͣͭ̾͡ͅ’̛͓͇͈͓̻̞͔̼̤̞̮̮̯̭̠̼͋ͭ̍͑̾͒́t̹̘̪̮̳̖͔͓̝̤͕̖̩͈̹͇̙ͪ̽̈́̉̀̿́ͪ̎͗͑͌́̕ͅ ̴̴͓̻̱̠̪̠̥̯̩͍̰̞̺̻͙̥ͯ͂̏̇͘h̺͓̦̞͙̏̆͋̑ͦ̂͗̈́̇̑̏̈͌͌̌̀̚̚̕͢ȩ̵͗̇ͦ̂ͭ̈́̔͌̂͂͊̋̊̓͞҉̪̪͙͉̫͓͇͍̻̰͚̭̠̭̻̯̼a̵̷̯̹͕̭̙͓̝̳ͮ͂ͨͯͨ͛̈͆͆͑͌̕͝r̵̡̝̝͍̤͚̲̙̝̰̗̣̤̣̪̪ͤͮͪ̊̾͜͡d̷͊̾͆ͥ͗͛̃͋̀̄͑͞͏̲̖͕͇͝ ̯̗͔̣̖̯͇ͪ̌̎̂͊͌͠t͇͍͍̥͖̬ͩͯ̄̒̇ͨͬ̒͒̋͠h̅͆ͫ̐ͭ̃͆͗̑͏̷̛̦͍̻̺͖a̴͖͉̣̹͍͖̠̬̞͉͍̩̗̋̋̌̄͐̓̈́ͥͩ͂͞t̪̗͓̩̻͎͓͍̜̩͖̗̬͙͍͔͍̓ͫͩ̂̏ͯ̕͜ͅ ̵̢͖̫̝̥͔͓̺̩̟̺̞͓͉͔̆͐ͬ͐̈́͂̍͐͆ͦ̃ͬ̆ͧ͐̔͆́̚͞n͆̀̍ͤ͐̾͊̓͊̓̂̂̔͏̵͇̻̹̖͢͠a̵̜̗̜͙̰̪̱͉̲̺̼̲͔̥͙͈ͪ̑̄͆͂͞m͂̂̓ͩ̔ͩ͋ͤ͌͆ͧ̂̃͌ͨͦͪ̚̚҉̴̛̭̯̥̳̖̭̱͝͞ȩ͕͕̣̣̹ͧ͌̏ͩ̾̚͜͡ͅ ̖̰͓͓͔̭̭̜͔̌͛̆̄̏ͨ̚̕͠i̲̥̟̟̺̩̗̳̭͙̲̦̥͈̔̓̂̃ͯ̾͊ͤ̉ͨ̃̑̈̉̆̆ͨͩ͜͟n̷̗̺͓̰̪͖̜̥̱̪̮͕̦̘̬̬͖̉͐̇̾̏̀ͮ̊ͯ͡ ̨͉̝̘͓̣̦ͬ͋̅̉̑̿͆̄ͫ̒̅̂̎͜͞a͗͆ͦ̿̍̿͗͐̾̚͏̛͕͙͓̼͖̤̣̼͉̱̪͇̥̘̩̫̦͢ͅͅ ͌̎̓́҉̷̛̺̝̠͇̩̜̯̯̝̝̞ͅl̓͐͊ͥ̊ͥ̄ͧ͗͏̬̲̥̯̱̳̭̼̥̀o͉̺̤̫͓̮̪͚͈ͦͫ̃̉̊̅̽̈́̀̚n̸̼̲̻̘͎̼̬͚͚̪̟̭ͯ̐̆̓̐͋͐̐̽͜͡͡g̡̈̂ͦ̌҉̴͇͈͙̮̦͓͈͟ͅ ̷̨͚̘̻̖̺̖̺̫ͮ́̊͐̑ͭͩ̇ͅt̓̏́͊̔̇́̅̂̓̃̓͟͜͏̧̥͙̫̘̺̻͍̩į̸̾ͥ͋͆͑ͩ͑̿ͬͧ̌̅̐͑ͥ̑͟͏̖̮̪̼͓͕̖m̃ͥͭͭͨ͋̃̑͊̓ͤ̅͐̃͆́̍̍̄҉̶҉͉̱̘̩͈̣̼̣́e̴̢̺̗͇̹̘̩̭̥̮͓͓̤̹͔̯̦̰̎̂ͧ̑̾͜ͅͅ.̡ͬ̉ͬ̉̎ͥ̇̇҉҉̝̖̠̠̫̦̟̻̼͈̣̙̺̫̬͍
“We Frost Giants don’t always get to choose our lives. Most of us are born into brutish isolation, or swept up in vast blizzards of war. I too was almost lost to darkness, but I was able to get my wish to study magic – and when you wandered into my life to become my apprentice, you became a beacon of that dream. My glittering starlight.”
She smiled from ear to ear. “I’m glad I can be that.”
“Think nothing of it, Starlig̫͇̱̟̞̠̅̅̄͠ht. Now. Lunch beckons!”
The plate was stacked high with assorted meats, sweets and drinks, in no particular semblance of order. Starlight dug in with her fork and pulled out a chunk of steak, stared at it for a moment, and then ate it.
“You know, I never fancied myself as a c̞̅͆ͪͣ͆͂̽̀ook,” said her master. “Never did quite get the balances right. But I’ve gotten pretty good, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It’s lovely!” It was indeed tender and succulent – though perhaps a bit too much uncooked cake batter in the aftertaste.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Aha! I wonder who that could̵͍͕̤̙̣̪̩̲̝͉̈͑͋́͘ͅ be,” he said, setting down his spellbook, and walked out of the room to answer.
And for a moment, Starlight was alone. She stood up from her salmon ganache to inspect the book, running her hands over its azure surface, lost in its embossed lightning bolts and fractal stars.
The Zikaron walked in through the wall of cooking utensils as though it wasn’t there, checking his pocket watch before snapping it closed and taking a couple of sharp inward breaths. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Argh!” She startled and took a few steps back, attempting to lift the book off the desk only for it to come crashing down on top of her. “Who are you? What are you doing in our castle?”
He grimaced. “What exactly does it take for one of you people to notice me once in a while? Honestly.”
He folded his arms and watched as the frost giant came back into the room, along with the new guest.
“I must say, it’s such a pleasure to see you agai – oh, my goodness, Starlight! Are you all right?” Her master rushed over to her in two bounding steps. “You know that book̇ͥͫ̌҉̫̳̠ is solely for experienced wizards, you can’t lift it-”
“It’s all right, Cerym. Leave her like you left me.”
He faltered and slowly turned to look behind him. Starlight was just able to make out the new arrival; her skin bright red, clad in a cloak as black as her eyes.
“What do you mean, Esteem?” The warmth in her master’s voice was gone.
“Oh, you should know well enough. Magic is a gift only suited for those who deserve to wield it. But you filled my head with lies and told me I was fit to learn it. Blinded me to the truth. But my new master showed me the light. Said I can learn from her lieutenant in Waterdeep if I just perform one little test.”
“Esteem, I” – the frost giant stood slowly – “I did no such thing. Your aptitude for magic was extraordinary, and I taught you everything I knew! You were a prodigy, I named you as such!”
“What do you know, Cerym?” Esteem had produced a small bundle of wrapped cloth, and slowly unfolded it to reveal a glittering crystal dagger – its colours shifting to every hue from reds to golds to deepest black.
“DON’T LIE TO ME, GIANT!” Esteem bellowed in the confined space of the kitchen. The rock gnome’s eyes welled up, her lip quivering. “You know full well what this is. And you should tell your new student.”
He looked with mournful eyes down at her. “Starlight, this is the metagospel dagger. Legends tell of its power to…to-”
“N̡̩͈͕̝ͧ̍ͭͬ̈́ͧ͜ǫ̲̩̺̦̟̬̜̜̀̐́t̵͇̟̜͚̹̗̮̰̤ͫ̄̉ͪ̊͂ ̜̘͔͖͎͎̙̉̅ͨ̇͐̿̑ͅg̰̞̗͙͈̟̳̳͕̓ͪ͛ͥ̓̋͑̔́ǫ̶̢̲͚̮̪͙̆ͥo̽͐҉̧̮̦͎̀d̡̼̹͍͈̣̬̄́̂ͩ͘ ̟̻̯̠̜̤̪̲̥̏̀ḛ͔̞̳̼̖̔̓ͧ̀ͪ̈ͯ̃nͭͬͬ̓͆͗̇̈́̚͏̫̼̼̭͓͇͕̟̱͢ỡ̖͈̠͕͈̖̭͉ͭ̊̏ͯ̇͘͝ͅụ̸̶̪̺̝͚̭̮̯͇͊ͤ̓ͩ̄̚͜ǧ̓͏̩̟͖̱͈̗h̥̼̻͙̥͂̑̿̓̓̽.” Esteem was across the room in a flash as she stabbed the giant square in the chest. He roared in pain, blood gushing from the wound as Starlight screamed. “Poor Cerym here was s͆͑̊̿͆͏͏̛̘̮̘̞̻̼̘͔̝̱̣̕͜ͅǫ̤̼͕ͯͤͥͭ̐̽͑̋ͥ̽̉͋ͭ̀͘͢͝ͅ upset at being born outside of his pitiful lot in life, so he sought out the mythical weapon that could alter ṙ̴̭̻͍̳̲̼́ͦ͜͡ȩ̼̭͎̖̫͕̙̃̆̂͗ͬ̿͒ͤ́ȁ̢̨̡͈̲̻̹̐̀ļ̘͉̳̣̒̓̎ͅi̱̓̔̇́̽ͪ͆̂͞t̛͇͚̙͈̺̺̤̩ͤ̊͗̅͗̾͝y̢ͮ҉͔̠͍͙̟̼͉͢ ̡̲̜̪͖͚̰́ͯͨ̿͜ị̶̣̻͕ͫͩ̈t̸̡̮̜̻̤̞̥͓̎ͨ̑ͪ̑̀s͖̗͚̖̈́̾e̻̬͔͍̯̋͌l̖̥̿ͣͩ̓͌͐̇́̃̕f̭̪͋̽̂̄͂ͧ́̀͝ ,” she snarled, her eyes flaring and teeth gnarled. “Not like a simple Wish spell, you understand, something far greater in power. Something which could make him a wonderful old wizard respected t h r o u g h o u t t h e l a n d . . .”
The Zikaron stepped in as the room ground slowly to a halt. “Alright, that’s enough. This is clearly too traumatic for-” He stopped. Dust burst from his mouth, which became a dribble of blood.
“I̡̨̲̠͉̫͇͔̱̟̖̮̘̭̦̠ͩ͋ͪ̓̉͛̓ͦͨ̂ͥ̑ͬ͟ ̶͙̜͚͉̞̗̠̠͎̞̬̠̺̒̎̋̓̉̓̍̃ͤͨͭ͑̆̈͝w̡̉ͫ̃̋̽ͬ̆̇͑ͬ̍̈́ͭ̃̄͌̒͛͏̡̬̺͍̟̳̙͖̫̣̞̺͇͎͉͖a̦̺͚͇̲̝̳̭̯̮͔ͭ̎̍̚͠͞s̢͈̩̩͖̞̹̈̌ͪ̊͐̐̈̎ͬ͂͞͡nͬ͗̀͗͆̔͐̓̈́ͦͫ͋ͤ̍̓̓͆͠҉̨̜̫̥̮̻͟͡’̴̎̋ͩ̄̒ͯ́҉͔͙̺̪̞̺̖̞̫̣͕͙̮̤̰̙͠ͅt̲̫̙̾̉ͪ̉͋ͮ̆̉ͤ̑͋̊́̕͢͝ͅ ̄̄͛̒̊̔͊̈͋͋̆̇̓̚҉̴̧̺̥̺̩̼̘̠͠f̫̣̣̝̪̰̼͖͎̙̜̤͚̠ͫ̇ͯͩ̂̐ͨ̆ͧͯͯ͂̊ͦ͗͌͐̌ͧ̀͘ͅȉ̢̗̺̠̘̣ͤͮͨ̔̆̉̽ͧ̌ͥ͑͂̿̓̏̒̒n̈́͋̌̾ͥ̆̐̂͂̊̀̇͑ͤͮ̌̀̀͏̧̰͕̺͕͈̺͘ͅí̬͔̦͍̲̣̟̤̲͓͇͍͒̿̃̈̔̃̎ͭ͛͊ͨ̅̾͊͢͢͠š̡̱̺̫̺̲̰̪͖̣̦̱̫̯̯̈ͬ̂ͫͯ̓̋̈́̃ͫ̓̎́͘ḩ͔̩̼̟̻̬͇͉͖̜͖͇̩̰̟͌ͮ̓̔̃̏̊ͬͦ͒̂̀ͮ͑̊͂ͯ̎̀͢͟e̽̾̿ͫ̈́ͦͭͮͦ͑̐͛̆ͣ͏̶̬̝̰̜̻̺̻̰̟̫̬̯͖̘͔̪͙͡ͅḍ̴̸̶̴̢̭̱͕̲̪̘̖͖̯͓̼̩̹͛ͯ̐̿̎͑̔̒͗̔̓ͣ̈ͣ͆͐. ” Esteem laughed as the mysterious apparition fell to his knees, sputtering. “This tells me all about who you are,” she said. “You’re one of the Hosts of the Nexus, an extraplanar inn that gives its guests whatever they want. Which means…”
She knelt down to look at Starlight directly in the face. “You can’t stop reliving this memory of us, can you?” She tapped the dagger’s hilt against Starlight’s forehead, its blade still dripping with blood that fizzed and boiled into shapes and colours she didn’t understand. “Look at me, living rent-free in your stupid little head.”
Starlight’s eyes burned, the tears streaming. “WHY?!” she yelled. “He told me about you, he told me he loved you, he told me he was proud of you! And you KILLED HIM!” She pushed with all her might..and the massive book rose as if lighter than air and slammed Esteem against the wall.
The tiefling coughed as the tome fell to the floor, as both slowly rose to their feet. “i̶̘̪ͭ͋ͭ͑̄̐ͥ̄͂͝ṃ̹̺̯͇͍̞͇ͮpossible. You don’t deserve his power. You were nothing but a street urchin when he found you. Begging for bread and scraps. You’re n͕͇̜̞͓̮͓͙̾̽͋ͯ̋o̮͔̠͇̜̾͠t̑͑̕͠͏̺̤̙̖̹h̦̝̫̹̯̄́̿́̇ͬ̎͝i͈͔̣̣̟̝̥̗̠͐͑̄n͎̟̱͎͒ͬĝ̶̤͍͕̥̑ͧ̍̚̕.”
Her hands aglow with power, her tear-ridden eyes bursting with brilliant light, she gritted her teeth. “I guess you were wrong again.”
The dagger dug deep into her stomach. Esteem twisted it. “You m̪ͭ̿͛͊ͪ͊͝i͆͆̌̊̆ͧ̊͏̝̹sͣ͒̌҉͕̟̼u̙̝̦̭͆̇ͬn̘̟̩̮ͬ̃ͮd̩͍͉̙̜̘̑̃̐͂ͨ͢é̪̥̱̽͆̆́r̟̲̠̭̗͉̍͛͐͌ͦs͕͓͓̰ͪt̙ͯͥàǹ͂ͩ̅̔ͮ̚d̺̤̯ͨ͋ͦͭͬ me. My master told me about whelps like you. Those who don’t appreciate gifts. You are nothing. You have no meaning. You are a zero sum.”
Star////____—_____||||||| f%%%%ell t[[[]]]]]]ound, 888&&&&&&ing.
⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠ looked up from the ground. “It’s so dark here. Wh..who am I?”
She saw the corpse of the frost giant, his blood soaking the kitchen.
“Master! M…aster! Aster!”
Esteem laughed, a mocking tone that cut the air like a knife each time. “That’s right, Aster. His name was Aster, you fucking moron. And you?” She kicked ⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠ in the stomach, the gnome howling in pain.
“Your name is Squish. Because that’s the only thing that deserves to happen to you.”
And with that, she turned around and dissipated into dust, the room with her.
Squish started awake with a gasp, clasped her hands to her stomach. She was okay. She looked over and sprang to her feet, racing over to the still-kneeling Zikaron.
“Oh my days, Mr. Zikaron, are you okay? I didn’t realise you could be hurt, and because of me!”
He stood up, holding up a hand. “It is alright, young one. I…I am sorry. If I had known that memory were so traumatic, and involving such a powerful artefact, I would have never accepted the Taoiseach’s request to take care of you in this way.”
“I’m so, so, so, so sorry!” Squish helped the host to his feet. “But don’t you worry! Me and my friends, we followed Esteem to Waterdeep after this and we sent her packing along with her boss-man Manshoon!”
“Manshoon the Manyfaced,” pondered the Zikaron. “Perhaps he was the lieutenant she mentioned. If there was any power that would let someone split their consciousness across so many bodies and times, it would be that dagger. And to think it a mere gift for the true master to send…”
He stopped himself.
“But that is not for me to ponder any further. Did you…get what you desired from this visit?”
Squish looked up, and smiled weakly.
Not really. I wanted to see Aster again, and I wanted to learn more about my past. Apart from that dagger thing, I guess I’m just the same old same old. Squish, unchanged!”
The Zikaron opened his mouth to say something, but…closed it again.
She raised a hand to her cheek. “Have I been crying? Can I go back to see my friends now, please?”
“As…as you wish, ma’am.”
There was a bright flash of light, and Squish was gone.