Chapter 01

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                     The Saga of Aristobulus the Dark

                                  Book I

                          Descent Into Darkness

                   by Jeff Standish and Dreamwalker

                             -- 7/11/6526 --

     He called himself Aristobulus the Dark -- dark of spirit and dark of
     Standing amongst the weed-covered mounds of stone and rubble which,
millennia before, had been a magnificent fortress, he turned his amber
eyes away from the darkening twilight.  Not unlike the way red blood turns
dark as it dries, he thought morbidly.  Before him, half concealed by a
large slab of granite, was the entrance to a downward-sloping tunnel.
     Aristobulus resumed his contemplation of the dark passageway.  In a
way, the tunnel symbolized his own spirit: a yawning blackness which
eagerly awaited the opportunity to reach out to engulf him.  And here he
stood, ready to embrace it.  This event seemed the culmination of his own
miserable existence.  Perchance it would be.  Or at least, most of him
hoped it would be.
     Two centuries of unpleasant life had brought him to this place.
     Never had he conformed to that which was expected of him.  Grey elves
are a race of wise and peaceful people; playful, jolly, they are usually
referred to as "light elves."  Respectful of life, they seek to elevate
themselves and others to a higher plane of existence.
     Aristobulus sniffed derisively.  Poppycock.
     That was naught more than a wagon full of dragon offal.  Grey elves
were really no different than any other race, only somewhat more subtle.
If an orc hated you, he would just try to stick a sword through your gut.
An elf would rather plot against you and make your life more miserable.
     Aristo's brow furrowed for a moment.  That would help to explain why
his life had been so miserable.  He had considered as much before.  None
of his kinsmen understood him, so none of them bothered to tolerate his
differences.  Aristobulus refused to hide behind the elven facade of
flowing dances and lyrical poetry.  He considered that to be hypocrisy,
and saw the inherent elven beauty to be little more than the incarnation
of the irony of life.  Outside, some races were beautiful, while others
were revolting.  But on the inside, all were just as repulsive.
     For all of his life, Aristobulus had sought for some means to express
himself, for some type of art which would embody his depressed feelings
for life.  It was the typical elven way: expression through art.  All who
had read his poems and prose were reviled by their words on the ultimate
futility of existence.  "Write about something cheerful," they had always
said.  But he had never felt cheerful.
     He had eventually turned to darker pursuits.  He had tried to hire
himself out as a mercenary.  An elven mercenary?  A killer elf?  Har, har!
He had been laughed out of the merc captain's tent.  They had not wanted
to bother with Aristobulus.  No one had taken him seriously.  Of course,
no one had even thought about that would-be elven mercenary when the
captain's tent had that night burned to the ground around his ugly human
     That may have been the first time Aristo had ever even considered
     A brief carrier as a thief and cutpurse had been slightly satisfying.
But it had not lasted.  Aristo had no need to steal for a living.
     His time spent as the apprentice to a sorceress had been the most
enjoyable time of his life.  He had loved learning how to manipulate the
world around him to his own ends.  But that had finally come to an end --
a most abrupt end -- when a crazed mob of peasant farmers had burned her
at the stake when an outbreak of anthrax had killed off some of their
flock of sheep.
     Eventually, Aristobulus had heard rumors of this place, and
considering for a second or so, said "Why not?"
     He had spent nearly two years researching and tracking down an
entrance to this dismal subterrene world.  But then, what is that to one
of a race who measure their life-span in millennia?
     But now, here he was at one of the openings into a vast underground
realm known as The Caverns of Shank'marr, The Dungeons of Trelesk, The
Underdark, and countless other names.  The stories told of this place
spoke of endless passages stretching into the darkest depths of the world.
Eldritch forces dwelt in these dark chambers.
     It had tantalized him enough that he, Aristobulus the Dark, had
decided to journey down into these tunnels.  The tales spoke of malevolent
powers, ancient lore, eldritch wisdom, and mortal danger which abided in
this heinous region.  Exactly that in which Aristobulus was interested.
If he did not find any insight on his pitiful existence, then perhaps he
would at least end up dead.
     If there were indeed no reasons for living, then why trouble oneself
to perpetuate such an unpleasant experience?
     As he saw it, either way -- dead or enlightened -- he would come out
ahead.  But then again, if life is a game, it is one you can not ever win.
In all probability, he would end up no wiser for his efforts, and yet
still alive.  Well, he would have at least tried, and in any case, he
could always make certain that he would end up dead.  A grey elf would
never take his own life; however, Aristo quite fortunately did not
consider himself to be a grey elf.  He was merely himself, which was not
saying much in his own opinion.  So if all else failed, he would certainly
find some solution to life.
     And thus, here he was, poised at the literal brink of what hopefully
promised to provide some solutions to Aristo's many questions on the
futility of life.  He cast one last glance up at the encroaching night.
What an appropriate time of day to enter this place: with any hope, this
would prove to be the twilight of his miserable existence.
     He did not expect to ever see the sky again.  And somehow, he doubted
he would miss it.
     Aristobulus placed one hand upon the granite slab which partially
concealed the tunnel opening.  The weather-worn stone was cool to the
touch and slightly damp.  Having been around since the dawn of time, it
was not about to take any notice of a single elf.  Yet Aristo fancied it
to be an appropriate welcoming.  He was planning upon spending the
remainder of his life in the embrace of cold, unfeeling stone tunnels.
The stone neither noticed his presence nor cared that he was there.  To
the stone, he did not matter in the least, and that was a welcome change
from his past life.
     The silver-haired elf gazed down into the gloomy opening.  Gradually,
his eyes adjusted to the lack of visible light, becoming more receptive to
heat sources.  This so-called "infravision" allowed him to make out the
cool bluish outline of a timeworn staircase leading downward.  As his eyes
grew more accustomed to the Stygian darkness, his view of the passage
became clearer.
     Once fully adjusted, his eyes gave him a fairly clear, if slightly
distorted, view of the stairwell.  Aristobulus drew his sword and ducked
under the granite overhang.  Any other elf might have stepped through
upright, but at five feet five, Aristo stood a good half-span taller than
most of his ilk.  And he was also more broad of shoulder as well as
stronger than many elves, probably due to his highly active life.  Still,
it had led him to conjecture that he might have some human blood flowing
in his veins -- as though being an elf were not bad enough -- for it would
explain a great deal about his unelven view on life.
     Casting aside these old thoughts, Aristobulus cautiously descended
the stairs: he was not about to be snuffed out before he had a chance to
search for at least a few of the eldritch secrets purported to be
concealed in the depths of these caverns.  If he was to die, let it occur
later, after he had proved to himself that there were in truth no answers
or solutions to life... beyond death, that is.
     The stairs descended at a steep angle for one hundred eighty-seven
steps.  Eventually, they opened up into a small room.  Aristo peered
around the room before entering.  Except for some debris which might have
once been crude furniture, the room was devoid of anything to catch
Aristo's imaginative attention.  Aristobulus remained where he was for
some time, making certain that he was truthfully alone.  Down here, he
recognized, his inherent paranoia would serve him well.
     Stepping into the room, Aristo surveyed his prospects.  Aside from
passage openings in the two walls to either side of him, there was also a
door set in the wall in front of him.  Was that a trace of light showing
from under the door?  He moved silently to crouch next to the door.
Listening intently, his keen elven ears picked up several grumbling voices
from the other side of the door.
     Straightening up, he considered what to do next.  The door did not
appear to be locked, so he could just step through if he wished.  Since it
was more plausible to assume whoever on the other side of the door would
be hostile, considering where he was and his previous experiences with
life, that course of action would be foolhardy even for Aristobulus.  Yet
his curiosity -- and a morbid one at that -- made him want to know who or
what was there.  If highly unlikely, it was still possible that he might
gain some information from those behind the door.  If he were to barge
through the door, the element of surprise would give him an advantage,
whatever happened thereafter.
     An important consideration was that since there was some source of
light beyond the door, however dim it might be, he would be effectively
blinded until his eyes readjusted to the light.  Also he recognized, that
worked both ways.  With a twisted half-grin, Aristo sheathed his sword --
though leaving it loose in the scabbard -- and hefted a dagger in one
hand.  What did most people use as a source of light?  Closing one eye and
squinting the other half-closed, he kicked the door open.
     For a moment, he was disoriented by the sudden brightness.  Then he
was able to make out where it was.  Aristo hurled the dagger and the
lantern was knocked from the table, crashing to the floor and being blown
out by the impact.  With the light source extinguished, Aristo's eyes
rapidly readjusted to the darkness.  In various positions around the room,
surprised by his rather dramatic entrance, were half a dozen orcs.
     Well, there went any possibility of receiving any sort of help here.
Since they were orcs, they would probably attack as soon as they recovered
from the shock of his unexpected entrance.  And because orcs loath elves,
in Ari's case they would assuredly attack once they perceived what he was.
     Aristobulus drew sword and dagger and leaped upon the nearest orc.
The foul humanoid immediately fell before the elf's onslaught.  Turning
his attention to the other five orcs, he saw them scrambling for their
weapons as their eyes adapted to the absence of light, for they too
possessed heat-sensitive vision.
     Evading their clumsy attacks, Aristo cut down another orc and wounded
a third.  But a longsword struck the back of his shoulder, only to be
deflected by a shimmering flash of light -- a nice little protective spell
Aristo had leaned some time back.  With his dagger, Aristo finished off
the wounded orc.  Then, with a backhanded blow, he slew the orc who had
almost wounded him.
     A brief exchange of blows left the next orc on the floor, missing
half of his face... a remarkable improvement to his appearance.
     The remaining humanoid took the wise course of action -- a surprising
thing for an orc to do, admittedly, but then, they are inherent cowards --
and fled down a passage exiting one side of the room.  Not caring to have
the fleeing orc raise any sort of alarm, Aristo hefted his two remaining
daggers and let them fly at the retreating back.  Both buried themselves
to the hilt in their target, who sprawled on his face and skidded for
several feet.  That would likely improve his appearance as well.
     Aristobulus surveyed the carnage with a sour frown.  Elves revere
     Aristo was merely helping them on to a better existence.  He
recovered his dagger from next to the overturned lantern.  Too bad it had
not been made of a breakable material, then it might have shattered and
set fire to the orcs who had been seated next to the table.  Oh well,
Aristo so seldom got what he desired.  Moving to the corpse in the
passage, Aristo knelt to recover his two other daggers.
     He noted that there was a passage leading off to his right and
further ahead this passage turned to the left.  But most important was the
fact that at the far end of this passage stood five more orcs, presumably
drawn by the sound of his tussle with the first group of orcs.  The first
group may have been guards, Aristo considered.  I wonder what they were
     Aristobulus gave a little shrug: no need to stop the fun on their
account.  Brandishing his two daggers, he charged them.  As for the orcs,
they saw themselves being charged by an obviously demented elf.  Who in
his right mind would dare charge a mighty orc?  But what could they say,
they were certainly not going to pass up the opportunity to turn an elf
into mincemeat.
     Then a hurled dagger caught one orc in the chest and this crazed elf
was upon them, waving sword and dagger.  Aristo immediately slew one of
the orcs, and as another one fell, the remaining two began to think that
standing their ground against this particular elf was not such a brilliant
course of action after all.  And then the last two were dead, and what
they thought no longer mattered.
     As he cleaned off his blades on the orcs' clothing -- they were,
after all, not about to complain -- Aristobulus noticed that there was a
fair amount of light emanating from around the bend in the passage.
Striding obliviously around the corner, he squinted his eyes against the
light as they adapted to the relative brightness.
     He then found himself standing in the entrance to a fairly large-
sized chamber.  Obviously having heard the sounds of battle, more than
five and ten orcs were heading towards this passage, with their weapons at
the ready.  In fact, this was the only exit from the chamber, which looked
to be a guards' barracks... which is to say, extremely messy, even for
orcs.  This brought to Aristo's mind, for a fraction of a second, the
thought that these orcs must in truth have been placed here to guard these
dungeon passages.
     Following on the heels of that thought was the brief consideration
that perhaps he was a bit outnumbered.  That was easily attended to.
Taking a deep breath, Aristobulus quickly focused all of his magical
powers, since, by this point, the lead orcs were closing upon him.  Aristo
put all of the strength he could muster into a spell to put the whole lot
of them to sleep.  As he set off the spell, an even dozen of the orcs
wavered and dropped to the ground.
     The remaining quartet became immediately uneasy as they realized they
were facing a spell-caster.  Aristo drew sword and dagger and launched his
own assault before they could gather their wits about them.  Ari sliced
into one orc, killing the humanoid instantly.  Another orc hurled a brace
of throwing knives.  Though one went wide, almost striking a fellow orc,
the other bounced off of the ensorcelled armor surrounding Aristo.  The
elf sensed that the spell would not even withstand one more blow.  The
protective forces it generated could only deflect so much before they
faded away.
     And then it happened: an orcish blade whizzed in from out of the edge
of Aristo's field of vision, shattering the spell and slicing deep into
his thigh.  He almost passed out from the fiery explosion of pain that
erupted from the wound.  Reeling off balance, he saw the orcs closing in
to finish him off.
     Rage at the prospect of being slain by a mere trio of orcs boiled up
inside of Aristobulus, especially considering he had just defeated more
than a score of them in less than half as many minutes.  His eyes
reflecting the rage inside of him, Ari leaped at the trio one-legged.  An
orcish spear pierced the spot he had just vacated.
     Caught off guard by this surprising turn of events, two more of the
vicious humanoids fell before Aristo's sword and dagger.  And then he was
facing off with the last orc.  He managed to snick the orc's wrist with
his dagger, yet the severe pain from his wound slowed him to the point
that he only narrowly evaded a slash from the orc's wickedly curved blade,
a slash which would normally have not even come close to the agile elf.
     Seeing he would not be able to keep upright for much longer, Aristo
threw himself towards the orc in a desperate final move, a move certain to
end the battle one way or the other.  He batted aside the orc's sword with
his dagger and the silvered blade of his short sword drove to the hilt
under the orc's ribcage, piercing his heart.
     Aristobulus slammed painfully to the ground beside the dead orc.
     Unfeeling, unsympathetic, the floor took no notice of the blood
seeping from the elf's wounded leg.  However, Ari drew strength and
comfort from the chill stone.  He wanted no sympathy.  He lay there for
some time before being able to force himself to roll slowly over and draw
some bandages from his pack.
     But then he dropped them, realizing that the spell of induced
somnolence would not last much longer.  With the support of an orcish
spear near at hand, Aristobulus was able to climb to his feet.  He then
proceeded to hobble from one orc to the next, slitting the throat of each
one in turn.
     Rather would he have slain them in battle -- not from any sense of
fairness, but because that would have been more of a challenge and hence
more enjoyable.  And of course there was a chance, however slight, that an
orc might actually manage to kill Aristo.  Yet he had no doubt they gladly
would have carved a bloody smile in his throat had ever they been given
the opportunity.  Besides, there was naught else he could do to constrain
them, certainly considering the condition his leg was in and the time
remaining before the spell would begin to fade.  Finally, the foul deed
was done, and foul indeed it was, for orcs are by nature a beastly and
unkempt lot when alive.  Dead, they are even more offensive to the senses,
though one who has not met a dead orc might find it inconceivable for
there to be something more offensive than a live orc.
     Aristobulus dragged himself and his pack to a bunk, even though it
was smelly and unkempt -- not unlike those who had previously slept in
it -- and as such he would rather have chosen the floor if given a choice.
In this, however, he needed something to sit on where he might wrap the
bandages around his leg.
     Through the pain, he cleaned and bound the wound as best he could,
applying some of the elven healing salves which he had had the foresight
to place in his pack.  Most likely, the elders of his House would not have
approved of his taking these precious medicaments had Aristobulus asked
for them -- but then, he had not bothered to ask.  The same could be said
for other items of his equipment, such as the silken ropes he carried:
thin as his little finger, they were almost as strong as a steel chain.
     Items of this sort were actually fairly rare and precious, and it was
unlikely that any of the elders or the elf-lord of Aristobulus's House
would allow their use in what was tantamount to a suicide mission without
(what they would consider) a reason.  And since it was Aristo who was
journeying into these caverns, the elders were almost certain to have
denied him access to these items.
     That was because Aristobulus did not conform to accepted elven
standards: he was, for all practical purposes, an outcast, tolerated at
best.  He was not a "normal" elf, and hence did not deserve what was
awarded to a "normal" elf.  Praise Demogorgon for that.  Hypocritical
fools.  He was glad to not be considered a "normal" elf, preferring to be
his own unique self.
     With his leg finally intact -- more or less -- Ari glanced around at
the orc barracks: a large and grimy chamber with numerous beds and several
storage cabinets.  On a pair of long-tables lay a half-eaten meal.  But
then, that was only to be expected: when not fighting amongst themselves
or torturing some helpless prisoner, orcs were generally to be found
eating or drinking something, however unpalatable anyone else might find
it to be.
     Debating with himself over whether or not to raid the chests and
cabinets -- if only to see what they contained -- Aristo finally decided
against it.  It would, admittedly, be best for him to find some other
place to spend his time, considering that there might well be more orcs
about who could turn up at any moment.  With a large hole in his leg, it
would not be quite so fun dispatching more orcs -- or anyone else, for
that matter -- to a better world, and improving this world at the same
time.  And besides, the malodorous aroma of dead orcs was growing rather
heavy in the air.  After gathering his equipment together, Aristo limped
from the chamber, still using the spear to lean on.
     He wandered his way back up the corridor and around the bend, making
his way back to the side-passage he had noticed before gleefully charging
the second group of orcs.  Gazing down this second passage, he saw a door
ahead on his right, and further along he could just make out where the
passage ended at another door.  That was the problem with his elven dark-
vision: you could never really see all that clearly, and at best could
only make out things fifty or sixty feet away, though strong heat sources
could be detected as blobs of brightness at greater distances.
     At the first door, Aristobulus stopped to listen.  He heard nothing.
Ari stared at the door contemplatively for a second or two, then shrugged
his shoulders and gave the door a look that would have told it, had it
bothered to take any notice, that he cared not the least for what dangers
lay behind it.
     Aristobulus pushed the door open and saw a passage leading off
straight ahead.  He limped through the door, pausing a moment to close it
behind him, remembering how an elder had once berated him on the ill
manners of leaving a door open.  "If one has placed a door in a wall, it
is there for a reason, and is meant to be closed when no one is using it.
And should one not know what is on the other side of a door, then it would
be best to not open that door at all."
     Young Aristobulus had then that very night proceeded to open every
door in that elder's apartment -- especially the locked ones -- and remove
several items of curious nature, including a small diary that included a
number of chapters on the elder's clandestine dalliances with the wives of
certain respected members of the House, copies of which had then appeared
in several of the meeting-halls of the House.  But alas, those named in
the diary had not cared for the public display of those secret rendezvous.
     Though no one ever proved that Aristo had a thing to do with this
"unfortunate incident," that particular elder never deigned to lecture Ari
on anything again.  This bothered Ari not in the least, considering he
never troubled himself to waste his time heeding any of their foolish
     Hobbling along this new corridor, he noticed a narrow side-passage
which branched off to his left.  It appeared to be seldom-used, and it had
always been Ari's experience that narrow, seldom-used passages tended to
lead to the most fascinating places of all.  However, this particular one
soon ended most abruptly.
     What kind of an imbecile would take the time to construct an
interesting little side-passage, only to have it lead to a dead-end?
     It was too small to be used for storage, so it had to lead
somewhere.  Perchance there was a secret doorway here.  Aristobulus had
had plenty of experience at finding hidden passages in his time -- indeed,
it was one of the few things elves were honestly good at.  It probably had
something to do with their scheming little minds.  And Aristo had sought
out an abundance of intriguing concealed places in his life -- as one
particular elder of his House could certainly not deny.
     It took him little time to find one stone that was slightly loose.
After a bit of examination of the stone and the mortar bordering it, he
pressed on one edge, causing the stone to swing out on a skillfully
crafted hinge.  Peering closely at the hinge, he raised an eyebrow: dwarf-
crafted it was.  This served him a tad of satisfaction -- of them all,
only dwarves were admittedly better than elves at devising concealed
     Behind the stone there was a lever.  Flicking the lever upwards
should activate the door mechanism.  Or so he assumed.  He started to
reach for the lever, only to pause and think about it for a second.
Instead, he drew a dagger and gently eased up the lever with the tip of
his dagger.  There was the faint grinding of stone against stone, and part
of the wall before him swung open.  But nothing else happened.
     He scowled at the lever.  How disappointing.  He had at least
expected some sort of trap to be set off.  Oh well, dwarves were notorious
for their dour ability to spoil the fun of others.  The chap who had build
this could have at least had the decency to put in a scything blade or a
spring-loaded dart or something.  Ah well, that was a dwarf for you.
     Aristo pushed the stone back in place and stepped through the newly-
opened door.  A tap from one finger was all it took to send the finely-
balanced door rotating back into place.  When a door is not in use, it
should be closed.  After all, a door is there for a purpose...  Yes, it is
rather difficult to walk through a solid wall, isn't it?
     The other side of the secret doorway proved to be a bend in a
passage, with one tunnel heading off straight ahead and the other to the
left.  Slowly bending over to avoid straining his leg -- pain could be so
irritating sometimes -- Aristo ran his finger over the floor of the
passage, leaving a trench in the thick layer of dust that carpeted the
tunnel.  This pleased Aristo.  He loved dust.  It proved that a place or
an object had permanency, and thus, character.  To have a lot of dust on
something showed it had been around for a long time, and hence had a
history -- a life of its own.
     The passage to his left looked to open up after a brief distance, and
Aristo's leg did not feel as though it were up to much more travel --
sword wounds could be such a nuisance.  He felt rather comfortable in this
out-of-the-way passage, and he doubted anyone would pop in to get on his
     Supporting himself with the spear, he tottered down the short passage
on his left.  This brought him to a small storage room stacked with crates
of various sizes.  Thick layers of dust covered everything here.  How
quaint.  I like this place, Ari thought to himself.  None of the crates
appeared to have been disturbed in decades, if not centuries.  Wonderful!
Perfect solitude: something he greatly appreciated and yet something he
seldom found.
     He lifted himself up on one of the larger crates and stretched out
his leg.  This create was long enough that he was able to spread out his
sizable elven frame and use it for a bed, albeit a hard one.  That was
alright.  He did not dislike discomfort.  He actually enjoyed it as it
made comfort enjoyable.  Comfort was a reward, not a right.  His kin were
too inured to their cushy lives to realize this.  They had no tolerance
for discomfort.  Well, it would do for them to get a kick in their
complacency and endure some real pain for once.  And it would serve them
right, too.
     But for now, he needed some rest.  With any chance, he would remain
undisturbed as nothing had been here in decades.

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