The Adventure Never Ends...

The Impossible Tasks

 Heeding the summons of the Lord of the Supreme Council, the Fellowship reunites at the Temple in New Questport. All the heroes are present--except Gawain, who has been called away on mysterious business. The members of the Supreme Council are there as well, and they tell the heroes of a quest that is said to be all but impossible...

 The Dark Swine Approaches

The Lord of the Supreme Council welcomes the heroes back to the Temple. It is fortunate, she says, that for once they do not meet with the fate of the world at stake. This quest is rather different than anything the Fellowship has seen before. Sabriel DuLac elaborates that ever since the Questport refugees had taken up residence in Lord Bertram's castle, they have heard legends and fairy stories about the Lost Lady, a mysterious figure who vanished long ago. At first, the Supreme Council members had thought that these were just fanciful bits of folklore that explained why the brown lands, on the other side of the Road of Swiftly-Flying Death, were so barren. A story about the Lost Lady--titled, appropriately enough, The Fable of the Lost Lady--is even included in a well-known book of children's fables.

But earlier that year, when workmen were renovating the dungeons, an old basket of scrolls was discovered behind one of the walls. The Head Scholar examined the scrolls and found that most of them had been destroyed by mildew and damp, but three or four remained intact--and two of them dealt with a story very similar to one described in the fable. The Lord of the Supreme Council reads one of the scrolls--an entry in the archives of a long-forgotten kingdom--aloud.To the Fellowship's great surprise, it matches almost perfectly with the fable. 

And that is why the Lord of the Supreme Council has called them there. If indeed the scroll speaks the truth, then the Lost Lady is trapped somewhere in the netherworld, a bizarre world of demons and twisted magic. The Fellowship's task is to rescue her from that dreadful dimension, so that the dryads will return and the brown lands will flower once again. The Lord of the Supreme Council pulls out another scroll, which she says was written by the same scholar half a century later. She reads the scroll out loud, describing for the Fellowship the process by which they might summon, bind, and release a demon of the netherworld--in short, how they might accomplish the three impossible tasks spoken of in the fable! Sabriel DuLac queries Shadowa as to whether she knows anything of the vampiric power to bind demons that the scroll spoke of; Shadowa replies that her mother, the Countess Elizabeth, entrusted to her an Amulet of Binding that will surely be able to force the demon to obey their commands.

Excellent, the Lord of the Supreme Council declares. All that the heroes need is to go visit the dread Necromancer, who will be able to provide them with a Summoning Spell--for a price, of course. Although the Questport Treasury is quite low, there is just enough to be able to afford the Necromancer's fee. She gives a small pouch of gold to the heroes, and bids them depart.

It is a long journey to the dread Necromancer's abode, so the heroes are careful to carry blankets and provisions with them. This proves to be wise, for they are barely halfway to the Necromancer's lair when night falls, and they are forced to camp on the outskirts of a tiny village. The members of the Fellowship unroll their blankets and settle in for the night, leaving Mei to take the first watch. They sleep peacefully until a sudden scream shatters their dreams. The heroes awake to find Mei being held prisoner, with a sword to her throat. The villain threatening her is none other than that meddlesome foe, the Lord of Angels and Demons! 

Shocked, the members of the Fellowship wonder aloud how the Lord of Angels and Demons has escaped from the dungeons of the castle, where he was being held under the highest security. Their questions are answered as a sultry laugh rings out, and a red-haired woman in a sleek purple dress appears and drapes an arm around the Lord of Angels and Demons's shoulders. "Breaking you out of jail was the best idea I've ever had," the Queen of Rogues and Robbers purrs. Turning to the Fellowship, she demands that they hand over their valuables.

With Mei's life so clearly in danger, none of the heroes dare resist. The Queen of Rogues and Robbers relieves them of not only their own gold and jewels, but also the Amulet of Binding and the gold intended for the Necromancer. Taunting the heroes, the two villains flee into the night, allowing a very shaken Mei to rejoin her companions.

Seven very downhearted heroes return to Bertram's Castle early the next morning. The Lord of the Supreme Council is surprised to see them back so soon; the journey to the dread Necromancer's abode must have been shorter than she had thought. Her confusion turns to shock as the heroes recount what has happened to them. She is horrified to hear what her sister has done; she had thought that the Queen of Rogues and Robbers had turned over a new leaf! She had opened a halfway house for gremlins, and was clearly going to teach them cooking skills, because she had ordered a huge quantity of knives...

Even more important than Lirael DuLac's faulty moral compass, though, is the loss of the Amulet of Binding. There is just barely enough gold left in the Treasury to scrape together a second fee for the Necromancer, but without the amulet, all will be for naught. They will have no way to bind the demon if they were to summon it.

Just then, a small gremlin sidles into the Temple. With an awkward expression on its ugly face, it announces that it has brought a message. Indeed, there seems to be something tied to its collar--the amulet, as well as a scrap of paper! While the Fellowship hurriedly retrieves the Amulet of Binding, the Lord of the Supreme Council inspects the missive.

The Note

Sabriel DuLac smiles. How typical of her sister, to think that the most valuable treasure she had taken was completely worthless. However lamentably shortsighted Lirael may be, at least they can continue the quest now. She dispatches the Fellowship with a new sack of gold, and warnings to be more careful with it this time.

After a two-day journey, the heroes come upon the dread Necromancer's abode, a sinister-looking shack in a swamp. The shack's owner, a shifty-looking creature dressed in ragged black robes, squints at them and mutters that they look familiar. What do they want?

The Fellowship presents him with the sack of gold, and asks for a spell that will allow them to summon a demon from the netherworld. The Necromancer cackles as he strokes the feathers of his raven familiar. It so happens that he has three such spells... but which to give them? The red-stripe demon? The crazy banana-nosed demon? Or--and he laughs unpleasantly--the Dark Swine? Yes, he decides, that one will do; surely such experienced heroes have nothing to fear from even a most foul and vicious demon like the Dark Swine. He hands over the spell, and growls at them to leave his abode.

It is another long journey in store for the Fellowship, for they must summon the demon at the World's End Gate, where the gap between reality and the netherworld is the thinnest. As they walk there, they confront a problem that had, until now, escaped their notice: the demon, once summoned, will need to possess a host, otherwise it will be unable to walk and talk to guide them properly. Clearly, one of the Fellowship must undertake this grim duty.

But who? Emmy and Tulip, gentle spirits with hearts full of good, would be impossible for the demon to possess. Scorpio, as a dragon, would be too dangerous to risk the demon taking control of him. Shadowa cannot, as only she knows how to work the Amulet of Binding. Mei doesn't dare, not knowing what shadows lurk in her forgotten past; Spiro has a gremlin and a demon bunny to care for; Gawain is absent. That leaves only Ato, and the elvish assassin reluctantly accepts the task.

The heroes arrives at the World's End Gate, finding the great wall of black stone unchanged from when they had visited two years ago. They read the Summoning Spell. Thankfully, the Necromancer had given them a skull to go with the spell; they place it on the ground and circle it thrice, and then clasp hands, close their eyes, and count slowly to ten. The small door in the wall, which none of them had been able to open, creaks ajar. Ato, a bit pale beneath his mask, steps through. 

There is a long, unpleasant pause, as the remaining heroes exchange nervous glances and wonder what is happening. Then Ato steps back through the door, which closes behind him with a sharp snap. The members of the Fellowship pester him with questions, asking him whether he feels all right and if the demon is under control. The elf is silent, and his eyes glitter strangely behind his mask.

Suddenly, he lets out a tremendous scream. "I am Rodrigo Noire, the Dark Swine! How DARE you bind me into this body?!" Shrieking and foaming at the mouth, his limbs flailing wildly, he races in circles while the Fellowship tries to subdue him. Eventually, and at the cost of many bruises, they bind him with magical rope and lead him away.

The demon is silent for most of the journey, although he occasionally snarls about how eager he is to kill them all. But the magic rope constrains him; although he will not obey commands, he is forced to follow them as they return to Bertram's Castle. There, Shadowa leads the Lord of the Supreme Council and the other heroes in the Spell of Binding that the amulet will place upon him. The Dark Swine tries to squirm away as the Lord of the Supreme Council places the Amulet of Binding around his neck, but the magic rope holds him fast. "Now," the Lord of the Supreme Council says in a stern voice, "I, Sabriel DuLac, Lord of the Supreme Council of New Questport, command that you take these warriors to where the Lost Lady is imprisoned."

A terrible grimace distorts Ato's face, and his eyes glow as if lit by inner fire. "I hear," the Dark Swine rasps, "and I must obey."

 Into the Netherworld

 Bright and early the next morning, the heroes remove the Dark Swine from his dungeon cell-where he had been held for safekeeping--and follow his lead towards a place where they may enter the Netherworld. To their surprise he takes them not to the World's End Gate, as they had thought he would, but rather to the Bridge of Souls, which crosses the River Acheron. On the far side of the bridge is a pair of immensely tall wrought-iron gates, securely closed. The Dark Swine raises his--or rather, Ato's--hand, and the gates swing open silently. Following the demon's direction, the heroes close their eyes and hold their breath as they step through the gates and enter the Netherworld.

When they open their eyes, they find themselves in the midst of an utterly bizarre forest, where trees flicker and waver like columns of smoke, and the light shifts abruptly from shadow to darkness with no explanation. Cautioning them to be quiet, the Dark Swine leads the heroes through the trees. The path he takes is seemingly random--five paces forward, three paces back, two paces to the left and then a sharp turn--but the confusing surroundings make it impossible for the Fellowship to judge their progress. Once the demon stops as a tiny light flares at the base of a tree; looking as though he fears the light might hurt him, he beckons Tulip forwards instead. To the pixie's surprise, the light vanishes and is replaced by a flower the size of a fully-grown human's head. The petals glow oddly, and it gives off a cloying scent. With an expression of distaste on his face, the Dark Swine breaks off the flower and hands it to Tulip.

Thrice more the heroes pause as the demon spots a tiny light; each time, the Dark Swine plucks the object that reveals itself and hands it to one of the Fellowship. Soon Mei is lugging along a dusty old harp, Scorpio is clutching a diamond the size of a chicken egg, and Emmy is carrying a tarnished flute. This last item seemed to particularly trouble the Dark Swine; he dropped it into the fairy's hands as though it had burned him, and began scrubbing his hands frantically against his cloak.

The heroes ask the Dark Swine where these items are coming from, but his only explanation is a single terse phrase: "There are other powers besides demons in the Netherworld." Not content in the least with that enigmatic answer, the members of the Fellowship mutter amongst themselves--until the Dark Swine snaps at them to be silent. Another demon has appeared just in front of them.

At least, the heroes assume it to be another demon, for what else could such a repulsive being be? It is pot-bellied and bow-legged, with hanks of wiry hair and unpleasantly long nails. Its face is so fleshless that it appears to be only a skull, and faint lights flicker in the depths of its eye sockets. "Is that you, Rodrigo Noire?" the creature asks in a slobbering voice. "Why have you brought these living ones here?"

Discomfort crosses Ato's face, and the Dark Swine mutters that the Fellowship had bound him into this body and forced him to do their bidding. The demon's tiny eyes flicker with interest, and it warns the Fellowship not to trust the Dark Swine. Rodrigo Noire's response is an unpleasant laugh, and he leads the Fellowship past the ugly demon and deeper into the Netherworld.

Only a short while later, the heroes encounter another denizen of the alternate dimension. A huge form shrouded in black leaps out from behind a tree and demands that they halt, for he is the Testing Demon and they must answer his questions to pass. Thankfully, the questions he poses are not challenging, and he rather genially allows the heroes to proceed. The Dark Swine, scratching fitfully at the chain of the Amulet of Binding around his neck, growls that they are getting closer to their goal. A strange shadow seems to cling to him, despite his elven body, and his eyes flash with red and dark fire. 

Further and further the heroes walk into the Netherworld. Grey shadow and true darkness blend together in dizzying swirls; it is impossible to tell how far they have walked or how long they have been in this dimension. Save for the sound of their feet, it is utterly silent. Many of the heroes clutch their weapons tightly; if another demon were to leap out at them, it would not be greeted as cordially as the first two. 

Suddenly, a tall barrier looms out of the shadows. Coming to a stop, the members of the Fellowship realize that it is a great dome of magic, covering an area at least the size of Bertram's Castle. Clearly, this must be where the Lost Lady is imprisoned! The heroes prowl warily around the outside edge of the dome; about a third of the way around, they find a small black gate, tightly locked. In front of the gate lies a pile of bones, all that remains of the villainous wizard that had imprisoned the Lady. Beneath one skeletal hand lies a rusted key ring.

The Dark Swine scoops up the key and marches forward to unlock the gate. With a mocking bow, he opens the portal and waves the Fellowship through. Eager to reach the Lost Lady, the heroes pile through the gate and are halfway across the interior of the dome when they realize their mistake--the key turns in the lock with a loud click as the Dark Swine locks them in. Flinging the key carelessly aside, the demon lets out a terrible laugh and tears the Amulet of Binding from his neck. They had ordered him to take them to the Lost Lady, but not to take them back. Now New Questport will burn as repayment for trapping him in this body!  Still laughing maniacally, he flees. 

Overcome with despair, the members of the Fellowship rattle the gate, but it will not open. The key lies temptingly on the ground--just out of reach--and there appears to be no way to pierce the magical barrier. They are trapped!

Eventually they remember the task that had brought them to the Netherworld in the first place. A small stone statue stands in the center of the magical enclosure, a garland of ivy and flowers around its neck. The statue is exquisitely fair--the Lost Lady of the Gardens, trapped in stone. The heroes remove the garland containing her essence from around her neck; now all they need to do is place it in the river. But if they cannot escape, how will they manage to do that?

Just then, they hear a burst of chiming laughter from outside the barrier. Peering through the gate, they see a group of extraordinarily fair spirits approaching: beautiful creatures with hair like gold and silver and eyes that flash like jewels. The heroes call out to the spirits, asking for help. The fair spirits, laughing amongst themselves at the Fellowship's predicament, reply that they would be happy to free them, given the proper incentive. After a short period of bargaining, the heroes hand over the huge flower that the Dark Swine had picked--and the spirits take the flower and continue onwards, waving good-bye to the still-imprisoned heroes.

Angry at the demons' betrayal, the members of the Fellowship redouble their efforts to try and escape, but the magic barrier is too strong. Another spirit passes by, apparently a young maiden with flowers woven in her hair. Wide-eyed, she approaches the gate, and asks the heroes if they are in trouble. More wary this time, the members of the Fellowship ask her politely to let them out. Of course, the spirit replies--but what will they give her? The harp is agreed upon as fair compensation. The spirit picks up the key and takes the harp as the heroes slide it under the door--but she drops the key just out of reach of their grasping fingers and walks away, coaxing a merry little tune from the harp strings.

The Fellowship is growing desperate now. They have no way of keeping track of how long they have been in the Netherworld; for all they know, New Questport could be burning while they sit there uselessly. But just when they have reached the depths of despair, another being  approaches the magical barrier. It is the same hideously ugly demon that they had encountered before.

The demon appears to be surprised to see them. Upon hearing of the Dark Swine's treachery, it shakes its head wearily; hadn't it told the Fellowship not to trust Rodrigo Noire? The heroes plead with the demon to let them out; it agrees--provided that they hand over the diamond they have found. Sure that this will only lead to another betrayal, the heroes reluctantly hand over the diamond. To their surprise, the demon unlocks the gates and allows them to go free. Thanking it wholeheartedly, they gather up the Lost Lady's garland and hasten away from the magical prison.

Due to the loss of their guide, the Fellowship have a much harder time getting out of the Netherworld than they had entering it. Eventually, they stumble back across the Bridge of Souls and into the world of the living. Remembering the instructions of the old scroll, they hurry to the edge of the river and cast the garland into its pale waters. The garland is washed beneath the bridge and out of sight.

Had it worked? Doubt begins to shadow the heroes' hearts--but then a voice calls to them from the other side of the bridge. Rushing to that side, they see a fair young lady clad in a dress of summer leaves, sitting on the riverbank. She looks up at them with a radiant smile, and ask it they were the ones who had freed her.

The Lady of the Gardens

 At that moment, the Fellowship hears the sound of distant explosions--coming from the direction of New Questport! With little time for explanation, they urge the Lady to follow them as they race back to the castle. When they arrive, they find a scene of utter chaos. The Dark Swine, still in Ato's body, has apparently enchanted a cohort of guardsmen, and all are engaged in destroying the castle as thoroughly as they can. A handful of guards, led by the Princepia Altoratrix, are putting up a brave resistance, but they are no match for the Dark Swine's sorcery.

Realizing that Ato is possessed by a demon, the Lady tells Emmy to play the flute that she had found in the Netherworld. The flute is old and battered, but a sweet tune emerges--and suddenly the bespelled guardsmen drop their weapons, looking around in confusion. The Dark Swine snarls with rage, covering his ears. A red rash creeps steadily across Ato's skin. 

"Quickly!" The Lady cries. "We must take him to the lake!" The guardsmen, assisted by the heroes, restrain the Dark Swine and drag him away while he wails and struggles. As they approach Lake Anava, his cries take on a piteous tone, nearly lost beneath a flood of panicked snorting that sounds oddly like a pig. He lets out one final oink of distress as the Lady orders the guards to cast him into the lake.

He hits the water with a tremendous splash, but when his head bobs to the surface the fury is gone from his face, and it is Ato's dark eyes that are sparkling behind his mask. The Dark Swine, unable to stand contact with water, has been banished back to the Netherworld.

Just then a messenger appears, looking for the Lord of the Supreme Council. There is great news, he says. Apparently plants are beginning to grow in the brown lands, a hopeful sign that the barren lands might once again be fertile and green in the future. A delighted smile lights the Lady of the Gardens' face.