A fulcrum is, as everyone knows, a place where opposing forces are held in balance. Like the center of my merchant’s scale, the needle pointing directly up to indicate perfect equilibrium between the polished metal weights on one side, and the chunk of mithril on the other. But it is also the point at which the balance tips from one side to the other. And it is also the point that gives a lever power to effect change.
I have never sought a starring role in the mad schemes of deities and planes, and it does not come easily to me to assist in what might upset the status quo. But as I was preparing to exit stage left, Gilly cornered me, and put it in terms that made the decision obvious. (It’s usually Gilly in these situations, isn’t it? No idea what gain she’d find in strengthening my influence, it certainly isn’t in the direction she’d advocate. Maybe her earnest heartfelt words are actually honest this time?) “Maybe this isn’t the world-changing thing it hints at being. If that’s the case, you don’t have cause to complain, do you? Of course, maybe it is. But if it is, and you’re here, then you’re meant to be here. You, Maral, are important to this, and not just because you’re skilled at fighting. If — and I’m not saying it is — this is a conflict between cosmic forces, those who represent all you deeply love in are counting on you to represent your heart. If you refuse, if you turn away, the things you believe in will come out the worse for it. You don’t need to advocate or make speeches (frankly, if they needed that, they’d have someone else), just be yourself, and be true to yourself.”
So I’m in, come what may.
The next few days give me a rude awakening to holes in my training. I’m sure half the cadets would have been able to identify a rust monster, if not the chaos-spawned ‘mouther’ we found later. Fortunately, I carry an extra suit of armor. I must make a point of getting at least basic understanding of underground creatures.
We returned to Atur, learned a bit more about the prophecy, and a good bit about the Fulcrum, and went to seek it out. It was a reasonably uneventful journey, until we found ourselves followed by a giant metal floating eye-thing. Victor said it was an ‘arbiter’, a sort of lawful outsider construct. It was generally uncommunicative, though it did allow that its mission was to observe and report. At least it is on our side, as much as we have one. Eventually, we spot a silver dragon in the distance, also keeping an eye on us. Apparently the extraplanar interests are generally aware of our intended Fulcrum visit. Which might be a good thing — if they have foresights and prophecies about it, that makes it seem more likely that it’s real? that we will succeed? and then there it was.
The next few hours were a jumble of challenges. The first two were complex — first we fought duplicates of ourselves, and won with surprising ease. Then we exchanged riddles with a ‘sphinx’ (a sort of lion with bird wings, a human woman’s face and torso, and an inordinate love of puzzles). I regret letting the party down there — if I’d been paying better attention, I’d have figured the Mror Holds one, and we’d have won instead of merely coming to a draw. But it seemed a good enough performance. Proceeding, we were tested against a dizzying array of skills useful to adventuring, and repeatedly required to leave one of our group behind to continue (though we could go back to exchange them if needed, which we definitely did). Eventually, we (well, the magic people) passed a grid where you needed to produce various magical effects to advance, and then we were at the end. Or at least, something like an end, a chamber like the one housing our first battle, with alignment-based alcoves on four sides. Very symbolic. It took a bit, but we figured we needed to augment the natural party alignments with summons. Seemed cheating to me, but so did Gilly’s ‘mage hand’ trick in the stealth challenge, so there it is.
This triggered some manner of revelation in Syama, and she discovered the power of making a bridge out of moonlight. Something in me says this will end up being vitally important sometime later when we least expect it. I only hope it’s useful before then as well.
The arbiter approached us afterward, a bit more talkative when we confirmed that we had passed the Fulcrum’s tests, and the dragon approached with somewhat greater distance. Gilly called it something in her dragon-speech, and it seemed pleased. Then we were left to ourselves, and we decided it best to keep our recent activities quiet, as least for now, lest we expose our hand in a game we don’t know we’re playing. Or, as Dolg and I would have it, to not need to trumpet our successes at every chance, but instead take a humble stance and let our nature shine through.
But the strangest part was two nights later. As we pitched camp with a storm approaching, and having actually made a fire for the first time in weeks, we were approached by a human, an elderly man with but a wineskin for supper. He claimed to be a traveler, unversed in magic, having survived difficult places by virtue of friends and luck. We gave him a place by the fire, and some of our food, and spoke of philosophy, history, tales of adventure and such like. Various of the group seemed to not entirely trust him; Gilly even pointedly refused to sip his wine. When the orcs attacked in the night, we feared the worst — was the man in league with slavers? Were we about to be enslaved or killed? I fought with strength and speed born of desperation, the sort of performance you know you can’t rely on reproducing. Though at the brink of collapse for much of the fight, I kept going, and after some tense moments, we had the leader cornered, invisible, a elf-child captive in his arms (or as it seemed, floating in the air). He demanded free passage or the elf would die. Without thinking, I grabbed the hostage, trying to hold my balance at the edge of pit Victor had made to hem him in, trying to cover the elf with my shield and trying not to think about how inaccessible my axe was in this configuration. A thought ran through my head then: was I trying to be lucky? In the last few seconds I had taken extra swings that would normally be unwise, desperate to save my skin. Then I’d grabbed the elf and instead of backing away from the pit as would be sensible, held my ground even though it might mean we both fell in. Yes, that sounded like relying on luck. Immediately after, luck found me again. Struggling to keep my footing, I inadvertently rotated my shield, which caused the orc’s falchion to miss the elf’s throat as it glanced off darkwood instead. We set upon the orc with a vengeance… and then he, the other orcs, and elf melted away like mist before the sun. The old man, suddenly imbued with a divine majesty, proclaimed his approval of our actions, said that he hoped Syama would become the P.N., and give us ‘his gift’, flasks of highly potent magic that we could call upon in our need in future. Then he was gone, Gilly’s cry of ‘Who are you?’ vanishing into the downpour.
We discussed the details of the visitation, Victor writing everything down in the relative comfort of his rope trick space, and came up with no fewer than seven deities our visitor might be (or be the representative of, though as several of us noted, he had offered approval and gifts on behalf of himself, not another — might some gifts only be plausible for actual gods?) Eight if you count my thought that it might just be an “after you think you’re done” test of the Fulcrum, though none of us thought that likely. Syama seemed particularly interested/concerned in the possibility of it being The Traveler, on the account that it is said one should be wary of his gifts. Gilly pointed out that a gift’s hidden effect might not even be negative for us — if our actions resolve the current surfeit of gods into a more reasonable accounting, being tied to one might elevate him over gods of similar domain.
Gilly was in a surprisingly foul mood after this, and threw herself into the work of scouting and being prepared for a fight. We passed over the village with the innkeeper lady she had talked with before, to avoid having to reveal or lie about the Fulcrum, and stopped in another. There we met a young halfling man, who wished safe escort to Atur, as he needed to travel there to claim some inheritance. Gilly sized him up, and must have believed him, as she said of course we’d help him, and we can work out any payment later, etc.
The only actual danger on the route back came from a pair of shocker lizards, reptiles that hunt with electricity, but probably should not have tangled with a party of our prowess. But beyond that, there was the intensity of halfling flirtation. I swear, it seemed like it was only the complete lack of privacy on the road that kept them from sharing a bed. At one point, I pulled her aside and tried to gently broach the subject, and she practically exploded at me. “If a man finds me desirable, if I choose to accept him as a lover or not, what business it is of yours? I don’t tell you who to bed and who not to. You say you’re saying this as my friend? If you’re really my friend, let me make my own decisions! I’m a big girl, I can handle myself. I know which weeks to refrain, I know what tea to make if my course should be late, I’ve got priestly connections if I need them. Don’t you blush and look away, Maral Glorgirn. Oh, and don’t you even dare try to insinuate that I might be doing this for his money.” I hadn’t! I was just… Sigh. I don’t understand Gilly. I really don’t.