Secret of the Holy Crystal: Part I

Join Eathen Winswood, the young scholar who features prominently in the HEROES OF THORNWALL campaign starter book, on his first adventure!

Secret of the Holy Crystal

Hello Adventurers!
 
Great fiction is a vital element of any great fantasy campaign setting! How many fans of classic fantasy RPG worlds were inspired by the now famous novels of the Forgotten Realms® or the legendary Dragonlance® series? Our belief in the importance of fantastic fiction is why one of the first products we created was CHAMPIONS OF AETALTIS, an anthology of short adventure stories set in the lands surrounding the Amethyst Sea.
 
THE SECRET OF THE HOLY CRYSTAL, is the first of many stories we'll share with you here! In the first installment of this tale you'll meet Eathen Winswood, the young scholar who features prominently in the HEROES OF THORNWALL campaign starter book and who is intergral to the creation of the Adventurer's Guide to Aetaltis!
 
Enjoy!
Marc Tassin
 

 
Flames danced along the edge of the glittering blade as the dwarven warrior swung it in a wide arc. It struck the shadow creature again, this time biting into the fiend’s previously immaterial form. The flames exploded, racing up the creature’s side as if the monster were made of oil. Wracked with pain and wreathed in arcane fire, it let out an ear-piercing shriek that shook the stained glass windows around the great hall.
 
The warrior’s muscles strained, and he pushed the blade through the monstrous body, slicing clean to the other side. As it emerged, the monster let out one final cry before it was consumed in an inferno of blue arcane fire. When the last flame winked out—”
 
“—there was nothing left of the creature but a pile of cold, gray ash,” Eathen interrupted, the irritation in his voice clear. He sighed and set his quill pen on the table.
 
“Is there something wrong in my recounting of the story?” the elderly monk sitting across from him asked.
 
The young scholar looked at the older man and wondered if he truly didn’t know. The gray-haired monk in his night-blue robes looked deeply concerned, and the small, glowing crystal mounted in the silver headband on his forehead dimmed slightly.
 
“No, nothing is wrong with it,” Eathen said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his forehead. “And that’s the problem. You’re the fourth member of your order that I’ve talked to about the battle here, and you’ve each told me the exact same story. Word for word. Without any differences.”
 
The monk looked apologetic. “I am sorry for your frustration. The nature of the Holy Crystal means that all memories are shared between us. It is impossible for any monk to have different memories of the event.”
 
Eathen picked up the blotter and rolled it over the text he’d just written. There seemed little point to the document, since it was no different than the other accounts he’d already taken down, but University protocol demanded that every account be recorded as told. Granted, he doubted they’d ever considered a situation like this one, but it would be much easier to write it each time than to try and explain to Grand Master Wineman back in New Erinor why he’d broken protocol.
 
“I understand,” he said at last. “I just thought that you might at least have different opinions or perceptions of the event. You can’t all have experienced the battle the exact same way.”
 
“You are correct,” the monk said, “but the crystal has already considered any differences and then shaped the memory into its truest form. All differences of opinion or perception have already been taken into account.”
 
“Well, I think that’s all I need for now,” Eathen said. “And I don’t think I need to interview anyone else at this point. I’ll probably head back to the mainland tomorrow morning. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me.”
 
The monk rose with calm purpose. “It was our pleasure. As adherents of Toletren, we value knowledge above all things. Naturally, we were happy to assist you.”
 
He headed toward the door as Eathen put the stack of paper and his writing tools back into his pack.  Before he left, the monk stopped, steadied himself on the doorframe with a gnarled hand, and looked back at Eathen.
 
“You should really stay here in the main hall. It’s far more comfortable than the servants’ quarters, and we’d be happy for your company.”
 
“I appreciate the offer, I do,” Eathen replied as he buckled his pack and hefted it onto his back. “But the servants’ quarters are just fine, and Matron Underdown has been lovely to stay with.”
 
“As you wish.”  The crystal on the monk’s forehead pulsed faintly. “Good night, Eathen.”
 
With that, he left the room.
 
Eathen breathed a sigh of relief. He’d met all types of people during his travels gathering knowledge for the Royal University in New Erinor, but the monks of the island monastery were by far the strangest. At first they’d seemed normal enough, but the more time he spent with them the more he felt a deep feeling of wrongness around them.
 
He assumed it was something to do with the crystal that connected the minds of every monk living on the island through their headbands, but he wasn’t sure what bothered him specifically. There was just something in their manner that always left him wanting to look over his shoulder or keep his back to the wall.
 
He definitely didn’t want to stay in the main hall with them.
 
Eathen left the small room and headed down the long, arched hallway. He passed a pair of monks, a man and a woman. They smiled and nodded, the crystals in their silver headbands pulsing slightly. Eathen returned the silent greeting and hurried to the door leading to the courtyard.
 
The cool air of early evening felt fresh and clean. A hint of the sea blew in on the wind, and in the distance he heard the low swish and boom of waves rolling against the base of the cliffs surrounding the island. Except for the strange monks that called the place home, he quite liked it here. The rocky outcropping, with the monastery balanced precariously on top, sat about a mile offshore in the Gulf of Agthor. It had a pleasant, mild climate, as was the norm in the region, and the constant sound of the waves had a hypnotic quality that calmed the mind.
 
Unfortunately, he’d be leaving in the morning. That was, after all, the nature of his work. Visit some out-of-the-way town or the site of an important event, record what he learned there, and bring it back to the University. It was interesting work, but Eathen looked forward to the day he could return to the University permanently and begin teaching.
 
As he passed under a high window, he heard the slow monotone of one of the monks reading a book aloud, part of the process that allowed the monks to memorize a text they wished to add to the crystal’s shared memory. He wondered what that would feel like, to have a perfect memory of everything that not only you had read, experienced, or thought, but to have access to the thoughts of every other person connected with the crystal as well.
 
In some ways it was the ultimate expression of what he and the other scholars did at the University—a perfect shared knowledge. On the other hand, the crystal required a sacrifice of one’s personal self that Eathen could never imagine submitting to. Even though the monks were blessed by the grace of Toletren, Enaros of Knowledge and Truth, he couldn’t shake the feeling that joining the order was a kind of death. Who did you become when you shared and mingled your mind with all those other people? Were you even yourself any longer? Or were you washed away, like a glass of water thrown into the ocean?
 
Eathen’s stomach growled, reminding him that his self hadn’t eaten dinner yet. Putting the uncomfortable thoughts behind him, he pushed on to the servant’s buildings at the far side of the wide lawn of the courtyard. When he pulled open the door of the long, low-slung building, a rush of warm air laced with wonderful smells struck him. Smiling, he entered the room and closed the door behind him.
 
“Well, there’s our houseguest,” said Matron Underdown. “We were beginning to wonder if they hadn’t convinced you to join the order.” The rotund halfling woman laughed, her rosy cheeks shining in the warm lamplight. She gestured with her rolling pin at the small table near the wall. “Don’t just stand there like a roof post. Grab a seat, and I’ll have Halie bring you something to eat. I’m sure you’re famished. Halie!”
 
A clatter of pots and pans came from the pantry, and a moment later Halie rushed out. Eathen guessed she was in her late teens, but he wasn’t entirely sure. She was younger than his own twenty-four years for certain, but the way she moved suggested someone grown beyond youth.
 
She approached the table, smiling, and Eathen couldn’t help but smile back. Something about her freckled cheeks and mop of dusty brown hair, combined with an eternal twinkle in her eyes that spoke of impending mischief, made it impossible to feel anything but joy when she was around.
 
“Good evening, Master Winswood,” she said. She wiped flour from her hands onto the apron she wore over her acolyte’s robes. “Dinner and drink for you, sir?”
 
“Yes, please,” he said. “Don’t go through any trouble, though. Whatever you have at hand is fine.”
 
She started pulling plates and cups and jars and jugs from a cabinet. “Oh you needn’t worry yourself, Master Winswood. I’ve too much work to finish before bed tonight to get fancy.”
 
Eathen watched her arrange the dishes on a tray and begin doling out dollops of apple sauce, chunks of dark yellow cheese, slices of fresh bread, and the centerpiece, a bowl of warm stew. The smell made his mouth water.
 
As she set the food before him, Eathen imagined Halie becoming like the rest of the monks up in the monastery, and it sent a chill down his spine. Would she still have the same energy behind those eyes? Or would it be diluted into the vast sea of memories all the monks shared?
 
“Tell me, Halie,” he said as she handed him his silverware. “Why do you want to join the order?”
 
She stopped, glanced back at Matron Underdown, who was busy pressing dough into a pie pan, then leaned in conspiratorially. “Can you keep a secret?”
 
“Of course,” Eathen answered.
 
“The truth is I don’t want to join the order. In fact, just between us, I think the monks are all a bit off. I’d never want to live like that.”
 
Eathen’s eyes went wide, and he leaned back. “Then, why are you here? As I understand it, you can’t be part of the order if you don’t, you know…” He tapped his forehead.
 
“Oh it’s not a problem,” she stated, dismissing the notion with a wave of her hand. “You have to serve as an acolyte for five years before they accept you, and I’ve only been here for a little over a year. I expect I’ll cause enough trouble that they’ll kick me out well before that happens. I’m almost always in trouble already, which is part of the reason I’m always down here working with Matron Underdown.”
 
Eathen picked up a spoon and scooped up a healthy serving of stew, thick with carrots and chunks of beef. Taking a bite, he said, “I’m a bit surprised they even let you become an acolyte. Orders such as this are rather strict about who may join.”
 
“Oh they’re choosy, all right,” Halie said, grinning. “Choosy about how many of the books from my father’s library they’d receive if they agreed to take me on. In the end it wasn’t much more than a business deal, really. They got books, I got away from the castle, and my father got rid of me. I think I got the best of the deal. I can read as many books as I like, and no one yells at me to practice my embroidery or train with my dance coach. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where you’re not only allowed to read as much as you like, but it’s part of your job. I’ll actually miss it when I have to leave.”
 
“I’m not surprised. I’ve yet to see you without a book close at hand,” Eathen said, pointing to a small volume poking out of the pocket of her robe. “What are you reading today?”
 
“Oh, these are the collected adventures of a scythaan swordfighter named K’lynn.  I’m certain most of them are made up, but it doesn’t matter to me. I love adventure stories. The action and romance, the danger and thrills. It’s wonderful stuff.”
Before Eathen could say more the door burst open, and the old sailor that ferried people to and from the island stomped into the room. He must have been at least seventy years old, but he had the energy and demeanor of a man half his age.
 
“Blessen yer home and blessen yer heart,” he called to Matron Underdown and tipped his floppy fisherman’s hat to her politely.
 
“Come on in, Pylas,” Underdown called without looking up. “Just keep your fingers out of my apricots. I know you love them, but I’m saving those to make tarts tomorrow.”
Pylas stomped his boots clean as he pulled off his hat and jacket. He tossed them over a chair and then clomped over, bent down, and planted a kiss on Matron Underdown’s cheek.
 
“Pylas! What are you doing?” she cried in only slightly veiled mock disapproval.
 
“Oh, don’t get too excited,” he said with a cackle. “That was for my luck, not yours. Storm’s coming in, and I’m still supposed to sail back to the mainland tonight. It’s said that if you surprise a beautiful lady with a kiss before a storm, Larayil will make sure the winds blow your way. I’m just staying safe.”
 
Matron Underdown rolled her eyes and flicked flour at the wrinkled sailor. He laughed again, tromped over to a chair in the corner, and plopped down. Pulling out a clay pipe and a pouch of leaf from his pocket, he began to carefully pack the bowl.
 
“How goes the scholaring?” he asked Eathen.
 
Eathen swallowed his bite of bread and washed it down with a sip of ale before answering. “Well enough, I guess,” he answered. “In fact, I think I’ll probably be ready to head back as early as tomorrow, if you’re coming back out.”
 
“Aye, we can do that,” he replied.
 
Halie came over and collected some of Eathen’s empty dishes from the table. “I’m sorry you’re leaving tomorrow,” she said. “It’s been nice having someone closer to my age to talk to.”
 
“Well thank you, Halie.”
 
“If you don’t mind me asking,” she said, “it didn’t sound like you were all that pleased with how things turned out. Did something go wrong?”
 
Eathen sighed and lifted his pack onto his lap. He pulled it open and removed a few of the papers from inside. Making some space on the table, he laid out the sheets.
 
“It isn’t that something went wrong, exactly. It’s just that because of the crystal, every monk gave the exact same accounting of the battle. Hearing different opinions and points of view is one of the best ways to truly understand an event, but here, listen, this is from Brother Rejem’s account.”
 
He lifted the first piece of paper and read:
 
“Flames danced along the edge of the glittering blade as the dwarven warrior swung it in a wide arc. It struck the shadow creature again, this time biting into the fiend’s previously immaterial form. The flames exploded, racing up the creature’s side as if the monster were made of oil. Wracked with pain and wreathed in arcane fire, it let out an ear-piercing shriek that shook the stained glass windows around the great hall.”
 
“And then this,” he said, replacing the first sheet and taking the next, “is Brother Leson’s account.”
 
“Flames danced along the edge of the glittering blade as the dwarven warrior swung it in a wide arc. It struck the shadow creature again, this time biting into the fiend’s previously immaterial form. The flames exploded, racing up the creature’s side as if the monster were made of oil. Wracked with pain and wreathed in arcane fire, it let out an ear-piercing shriek that shook the stained glass windows around the great hall.”
 
Eathen sighed. “They aren’t just similar. They’re exactly the same. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering the nature to the crystal but—”
 
Halie snatched one of the sheets. She narrowed her eyes as she read the account. “Can I read the rest of this?”
 
“If you like,” Eathen answered, pulling the other pages for the account from his pack.
 
Halie took them and flipped through the pages, mumbling words aloud as she quickly read the account. The more she read, the more worried she looked.
 
“What is it, Halie?”
 
Handing him the sheets of paper, she ordered, “Wait here.” She rushed out of the room and down the long hall that connected to the sleeping quarters.
 
“You’d best come right back,” Matron Underdown shouted after her. “I need you to swill the floors in the cutting room yet tonight.”
 
Halie reappeared a few moments later carrying a thick, ancient-looking book. She slapped the book on the table in front of Eathen. Throwing open the cover, she flipped through the pages until she appeared to find what she was looking for.
 
“There,” She stabbed at a page. “Read that.”
 
She was so serious and insistent that Eathen couldn’t help but to obey. He read aloud.
 
Flames danced along the edge of the glittering blade as the Ondelvetch swung it in a wide arc. It struck the shadow creature again, this time biting into the fiend’s previously immaterial form. The flames exploded, racing up the creature’s side as if the monster were made of oil. Wracked with pain and wreathed in arcane fire, it let out an ear-piercing shriek that shook the stained glass windows around the great hall.
 

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