The Strange Saga of Duke Rowan Darkwood, Hero, Conqueror, and Factol of the Heartless

Rowan was born in the world of Oerth on a small fief in northwestern Furyondy to a family of minor nobility. This fief, on the edge of the mighty Vesve Forest in Kalinstren Province, had the minor prestige of hosting a small grove of the rare and magical darkwood tree, as light as wood and as hard as steel. It had but a few of these trees, but through judicious cutting and careful care the landowners, named after the plant, were able to gain a modest but regular income from this property.

Young Rowan was only the third son and stood to inherit nothing. He could, if he liked, have joined the priesthood, but he found the clerics of Rao too bookish and pacifistic and those of Saint Cuthbert too narrow and bigoted. He could have gained status as part of Furyondy's royal army, but he could never stand kowtowing to authority figures. The only route left for him was a life on the road as a soldier-of-fortune.

So it was. Rowan's early years as an adventurer were fairly nasty and brutal. It seemed as if the warrior did nothing but challenge every rival he saw. Those he defeated in battle he took some token or ransom from, and those who defeated him he invited to become part of his party. Some were impressed enough by his brazenness that they accepted.

Typically Rowan and his partners would delve into some darksome orc's-nest or wight's-barrow, kill all they could, and escape with the loot. This pattern continued for some time with only Rowan bothering to save much money for later.

This all changed when Rowan met Merilyn. Merilyn was a tall, beautiful ranger and Rowan wanted her; he wanted everything about her. He barraged her with questions and demands, asking her what she was doing on such-and-such a night, why she was doing it, and who she was doing it with. For no reason she could articulate, Merilyn began answering him frankly, telling him of the ranger's life, of the care she had for the hearths and homes of the commonfolk and of her desire to protect them from the dangers of the wildwoods. And Rowan listened; he listened more carefully than he had ever listened to anyone.

Despite himself, he became a ranger.

Although hazy on the concept at first, Rowan found he had a real desire within him to save the world from the many menaces that threatened it. As he began training with Merilyn more and more, he found that the desire consumed him; at times it seemed it was his only desire. And if he could make a profit along the way, so much the better.

Rowan's family was delighted at their prodigal son's change in career. Theirs was a long line of woodland folk, and it seemed that the youngest Darkwood was finally, in his way, following in his ancestors' footsteps. They were even more delighted when Rowan began bringing from shadowed nexi of sylvan power impossibly rare seedlings of the darkwood tree, that tree whose acorns produce only ordinary oaks. Each year the family plantation grew bigger and more profitable.

Rowan was not satisfied in merely increasing the status of his family, however. He wanted status for himself, and so he and his companions (now including Merilyn) ventured further, eradicating bigger and more fearsome dangers - the Temple of Elemental Evil, the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the Temple of the Toad, the slavers of the Pomarj, the caverns of the giants and drow, and the Tomb of Horrors.

It was while fighting the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains that Rowan first knew hatred for that monstrous elder race. They seemed consumed with the idea of destruction for its own sake, laying waste to parts of the grand duchy of Geoff and the earldom of Sterich. With an equal amount of prowness, stubborness, and wit he helped defeat them, only to find that a dark race of elves he had thought purely legendary lay waiting, spiderlike, behind the giants' war.

Venturing to the very maw of the Abyss itself, it seemed there was no threat they could not conquer. Allying himself with a group of dwarves on a world called Maldev and a group of elves on a world called Caer Sidi, Rowan led a massive invasion of the Demonweb Pits, resulting in the destruction of a powerful artifact of Lolth and with it, her avatar. When the heroes returned to Furyondy at last, it was to a safer and more peaceful world. It was only after they checked the drow, the greatest threat to their continent's security that they knew of, that they felt comfortable with settling down. They succeeded in all things. With his wealth and prestige, Rowan was at last granted a fief of his own near that of his patrimony, called Darkwood-by-Ironstead after the nearest town. He and Merilyn were married. They continued to patrol the Vesve for monstrous invasions, but they mostly worked on tending and expanding their holdings and raising their two fine sons, Rory and Reuel.

 

This state of familial bliss lasted for almost twelve years. Then a stranger came to Rowan's lands. The stranger called himself the Piper, and the sounds of his flute were utterly bewitching. Even the usually stoic Merilyn insisted he stay for another week, and then another, and then another.

 

The Piper changed everything. A servant of the diabolic noble Mortifer, a marshall of the First Circle under the warlord Bel, the Piper was given an enchanted deck of cards that would summon a cornugon when a certain card was drawn. Why he chose Castle Darkwood-by-Ironstead to visit is unclear - it's more than likely that Rowan somehow offended the legions of Baator in his wide adventures, but it's possible that far-sighted Mortifer saw Rowan as more of a potential tool than a past adversary. The pit fiend noble had a long history of using his magical cards to ensnare those who might be useful to him. As the Piper ingratiated himself into the Darkwood household with his stories and songs, Rowan Darkwood eventually let down his guard, having grown comfortable with the performer and confident that his talents were unaugmented by enchantments. When the Piper finally took his leave, Rowan was the first to bid him good journey. When he noticed the battered deck that had been left among the papers on his desk he gave it to his sons, who began to play an innocent game of Go Fish.

"D'you have the Nine of Coins?" Rory guessed.

"Go to Hell," said Reuel, in a voice like shrieking iron forged through centuries of torment into something as cloying as a flute.

This is how they met Amaggel.

The master of Darkwood was instantly summoned by the sound of hellfire in his study. Merilyn was visiting her sister. Perhaps if she had been there things would have gone differently, but she had been spending less and less time with her husband of late. As it was, Amaggel was threatening the life of their two sons using Reuel's own mouth. Not knowing what else to do, Rowan challenged the devil to a single game of cards. If he won, the boys would go free and unharmed. From the shadows, Amaggel smiled, and nodded in acquesiance.

The game was short and uncomfortable. Neither could bluff the other. Rowan won by a single point.

"Now let my sons go," said Rowan Darkwood.

"Absolutely," said Amaggel, using Rowan's mouth this time. "But now it is you who have used the deck, and it is on you I stake my claim."

"Best two out of three!" shouted Rowan.

"I think not," Amaggel replied. And he dragged him down to Hell.

 

Only the kocrachons could bring relief from the agony. For that, Rowan very badly wanted to love them.

But he resisted.

They made him feel both hot and cold. They humiliated him continuously, taking away his dignity and his self-respect. Sometimes he was locked in a very small box for months at a time, forced to lie in his own filth.They removed his eye while he watched. They told him lies about what they had done to his family. Still he resisted. They inserted a cerebral parasite into his spine, hoping to make him their puppet. After six weeks he expelled it by sheer force of will.

When torments wouldn't work, Amaggel would try talking. Speaking through the mouths of the kocrachon torturers, statues in the wall, even Darkwood's own wounds, he would rhapsodize about the benefits of serving the Hells. He spoke in a language made for deception, with a mind that had made it his only goal for thousands of years, and still Rowan resisted. In frustration, Amaggel would order the torturing to begin again.

Despite himself, Amaggel had begun to respect the human.

Rowan was in Hell for nine years, all told. Nine years where the baatezu tried every torture in their volumous libraries. Toward the end, when they got really desperate, they even dared to invent some.

Finally, Amaggel did the most inventive thing of all. He set Rowan Darkwood free.

"Damn you," he whispered, using his own lips for the first time in centuries. "I've spent a decade trying to convert you to our cause, but I think you've converted me."

If Rowan still had all of his facial muscles, he would have smiled at that.

"Go now," said Amaggel. "Run through that portal; it will take you to Sigil. I'm going to have some explaining to do, but I'll face up to it. You've taught me that much.

"Go."

And Rowan went. He had never been to the city called Sigil before, and he didn't stay long; just long enough to earn some magical healing and directions to his homeworld.

 

It was an older and much more scarred Rowan Darkwood that limped into Chendl. The route he had been given was long and circuitous, sending him first to the halls of Gladsheim and down the world-ash Yggdrasil to the northern extremes of a world called Toril. Hiking hundreds of miles through the winter snow, he came at last to a song path created by the elves of Ilefarn in the twilight of their kingdom. With the proper harmonics it would open a portal between worlds. The normally isolated elves had built it in the forlorn hope of communicating something of their civilization to other, more vibrant elves before it vanished. That it reached another world was a whim of fate, but one that planar explorers had carefully charted out centuries before. Rowan was assured it would still work, and, miraculously, it did. It gave him respect for the Fated and their Hall of Records.

The battered, one-eyed ranger ended up in the ancient woods of Celene. The elves avoided him; they seemed more withdrawn than he remembered. It wasn't until he reached a human town that he found out what had happened.

Everything had changed. While he was trapped in the infernal planes, everything in his homeworld had gone to hell.

The giants had invaded again (he didn't at the time know how they had regained their strength), and this time conquered two whole nations. The cambion warlord Iuz had swept across the northlands with demon armies, and among the many nations now in thrall to him, he had conquered Rowan's fief and that of his ancestors. In the south, the Great Kingdom and the mysterious kingdom of Shar had both conquered many lands. A tenuous peace had been struck, but no one knew how long it would last. No one knew what might have happened to Rowan's wife and children.

As quickly as he could, Rowan made his way to Furyondy's capital. In Chendl, he tried to make contact with old friends and acquaintances. Many were dead, and all had assumed him dead. Somehow, though, Merilyn and the boys were alive.

"That's wonderful!" he had said. "Not so fast," they had answered. "Merilyn has remarried."

"No," said Rowan. "No."

He found her in a castle owned by someone he had never met. She came into the main hall, and saw him for the first time in nearly ten years. "Sweet Pelor!" Merilyn exclaimed. "Rowan! You look like hell."

"I'm so damned sick of that word," Rowan told her. "What is all this? All those times I thought you were visiting your sister…"

"Rowan," said Merilyn. "It's not like that. We didn't meet until long after you… disappeared."

"I died," said Rowan. "I died and went to Hell. I burned in Hell for ten years, and all that time I thought of you. I thought of you and they couldn't break me."

Merilyn's eyes filled with compassion, but she said "No," and shook her head. "No," she said. "You didn't think of me."

"I did," said Rowan.

Merilyn looked at him sadly. "Rowan," she said. "We both know you didn't."

"I did," Rowan insisted. "I… tried."

"You thought of yourself," said Merilyn. "You've always thought of yourself."

"I thought of others," said Rowan. "Why did I slay the giants and liches and demons? For the world."

"You're your own world," Merilyn said. "That's why they couldn't break you. Your world is so big that all they could do - all anyone could ever do - was fall into it, become a part of it and become a part of you. When you've made your mind up, no one but you exists."

"Merilyn," said Rowan. "I've come to take you back with me. To reclaim our lands with me. Be my wife again, Merilyn."

"I can't," she told him. "I have three young children - three of his children."

"I'll raise them," Rowan said. "Come with me, Merilyn."

"The world doesn't work that way," Merilyn said, turning her head toward the door. "Even your world can't work that way."

Merilyn is the only person Rowan Darkwood has ever surrendered to. He left.

 

Two days later, twenty year-old Reuel Darkwood was terrified to see a one-eyed hellborn monster at his door. All of his childhood nightmares had somehow come to life, creating a fiendish mockery of the father a devil had taken from him. "Back!" he screamed. "Guards! Guards… oh!" With a single movement, the creature disarmed him and pinned him to the floor. "What are you doing here?" it rasped at him. "Why aren't you out reconquering your lands?"

"The Treaty," Reuel choked out. "I'm a court advisor! A scholar! A priest, not a warrior."

Almost tenderly, the fiend released him. It sighed, a fearsome noise like a serpent's rattle.

"Tell me about this treaty," it said.

Still terrified, Reuel choked out what he could.

Long before the guards arrived, the beast was gone.

 

Sir Rory Darkwood, handsome and twenty-two, was out riding his horse. Angela, his latest conquest, was riding in front of him on the same steed; being a knight in the service of King Belvor IV had its advantages. Rory was looking for a glade where the horse could graze and he and Angela could rest for a time.

Out of the trees, another horseman stepped in his path. His armor needed repair, and his helm covered his face. "Halt," he said. "Are you Rory Darkwood?"

"I'm Sir Rory," said Rory. "Who would you be? I don't believe we've had the pleasure."

"Perhaps not, but we've met. You're the heir to Rowan Darkwood's estates?"

Rory laughed. "Heir to the Defiled Glades? The only heirs to those estates are orcs and crows. I serve the king, and get fairly rewarded."

"What is your king doing?" the stranger asked, irritably. "Why does he stand by and do nothing with half his kingdom gone?"

Rory turned more serious. "Do nothing? Then the thousands dead against the Old One, their own corpses turned against their former comrades is nothing? We fought a horde, sir! With demons in it, goat-headed, toadlike, vulture-headed, and reptilian monstrosities who summoned fog, fire, and plague against us. We fought a demon horde to a standstill and forced them to sign a treaty with us! Hardly nothing!"

The stranger sneered. "While you stood in the back with the other nobility, watching as the real soldiers fell like scythed wheat so you could keep a pretty face for your doxy. And Geoff and Sterich fall while you wait uselessly here, whining about a few demons among the orcs."

"Don't let him talk to you like that, Rory," said Angela.

"Sir," Rory growled, his face growing pink with rage. "If it's a fight you're trying to provoke, you can have one. With my complements."

"You couldn't handle me," the stranger said dismissively. And the way he said it, Rory believed it. "It's not me you should be fighting, anyway. Where's your sense of outrage, boy?"

"I do as commanded by my king," Rory said stiffly. "I do my duty."

"Duty!" the stranger spat. "Wasted on a coward king like that? I'm told the demons are gone, banished, and still he clings to his treaty. As if Iuz ever intended to keep his side of it."

"King Belvor is a paladin! His word is his bond! There's nothing more sacred than…"

"I'll tell you what's sacred," the stranger said quietly, but with iron firmness. "The human spirit, and our obligation to fight against injustice. Not pretty words."

"None of that means anything without honor," Rory said with equal tenacity.

"Then there's nothing more for me to say to you," said the stranger. He turned his horse, which trotted off.

"Rory," said Angela. "Take me home."

Rory cursed under his breath.

 

Rowan Darkwood began wandering the whole of the remaining kingdom, visiting each of the landed nobles in turn. Many of them were receptive to him, most of all those of the South, for whom the fighting was not as painful in their minds. They were eager to begin the war anew. Rowan came back to Chendl with the delegation they sent.

"It's like this, paladin-boy," said Rowan. "You can keep your precious treaty, or you can keep your job. We can easily replace you with someone who sees things our way. Who would miss you? You don't even have an heir."

"You would risk civil war, with the Old One still a threat?" Belvor rumbled.

"Risk it?" Rowan asked. "We would relish it."

Belvor's brow darkened, but he acquiesced. Using a border skirmish as an pretense, the Treaty of Greyhawk was broken, and Belvor's Northern Crusade began. Without their demonic support, Iuz's legions fell back, and Furyondy's lands were restored.

Inspired by Furyondy's example, other lands followed suit. The warriors of the Pale joined with those of Tenh to free those lands, and great Keoland finally lent its support to the exiles of Sterich and Geoff.

Only when he was confident that the tides had turned for good did Rowan leave the fray. He went alone into the Vesve, and began to make camp.

"Was it worth it?" asked a voice in the shadows of the trees.

"Of course it was worth it," said Rowan, not bothering to look up.

"The wars were at an impasse. People were starting to rebuild. Now everything's torn down again, and tens of thousands more are dead - soldiers and commoners alike. Sterich and Tenh are in anarchy, and it will be years or decades before Geoff or the Shield Lands are completely free. And the monarchy's been savaged; Belvor will never again be independent of his nobles."

"You'll be one of those nobles, boy. You've got your lands back - by the Abyss, it's a duchy now! - in a world where tyranny's been dealt a savage blow."

"Savage indeed, father."

Rowan Darkwood finally looked up at Rory. "You can run your lands, and this world, however you damn well please now. I'm moving on."

"Sick of the living world so soon?"

"No. I'm just sick of this one." Rowan began to pick up his camp. Rory hesitated.

"Father? I never had a chance to… thank you for saving Reuel and me from the devil."

Rowan Darkwood only grunted. "That devil would have been the best thing that could have happened to you two."

 

Rowan set again for the Ilefarni song path. To his great satisfaction, he found it worked both ways. His rough voice making the proper tone, he stepped through. He didn't look back.

 

One year later:

Rowan Darkwood walked back to his lodge in triumph. Tara knew that look; she had seen it often enough before. "What was it this time?" she asked her lover.

"Mechanical spiders," said Rowan proudly. "The dwarves of Nidvellir make them."

Tara was from one of the countless half-worlds connected to the Tree. Some claimed the Tree branched into every reality imaginable. This was not quite true: the worlds and half-worlds accessible from the Tree were only those that could be extrapolated from the primal Runes of fire and ice. Still, they went on without end.

Tara's world was dominated by a race of three-armed, bristle-haired, seven-eyed humanoids with blood of transparent blue. They enslaved other races to act as personal grooms, and occasionally for more than that.

Tara had been a prostitute in one of the inns catering to Tree-climbers. She haed lived there since some khaasta slavers had brought here there at a very young age. She didn't know what her world of birth might have been, though her golden eyes suggested it was the land of the varicolored sky several branches down.

The patron had been a tough old man with weariness in his single eye. He told her that she didn't have to be a slave, that she could make anything of herself that she wanted. She had given him a look of cynicism well beyond her few years. "They'd kill me," she told him.

"What do you have to live for here?" he had said contemptuously, and left.

She had sadly laughed him off, but later she found herself doing exactly as he had suggested. Somehow, she found herself breaking the lead framing out of her window, scaling down to ground level, and making it to the Door and the Tree before her pimp could wake up. The guard was surprisingly pliable once she offered him the right incentives, and suddenly she was free. Free with no food or means of survival, yes, but free.

Still she endured. She climbed all the way to Ysgard, where the stranger Darkwood had been going, and found him, to thank him. And she made herself at home there.

Rowan Darkwood was a different man than he had been when she last saw him. He was no longer Sir Rowan Darkwood of Darkwood-by-Ironstead, or Duke Rowan Darkwood of the Defiled Glades. To many, he was simply the Duke. The weariness was entirely gone. Despite his scars and his damaged eye, he was stronger, tougher, fitter, healthier, more productive. Every task he took on seemed to feed him, but above all his goals were simple: defeat evil, take its stuff.

As before, his main target was giants. That was why he had chosen the Plains of the Heroic Dead, near the realm of the god he knew as Kord, as his base of operations; giants were always trying to tear it down. Bigger giants than those he had known before, almost divine themselves. He believed he was unraveling a plot of theirs that was bigger even than they were.

He had built his lodge near the realm of Kord, but sharing the plane were other gods, different from those he had known. He studied them casually at first, with a tactician's eye, but to his astonishment he found himself thinking of them in different terms than he had ever thought of gods before. Not just crutches for the weak-minded (My boy Reuel, a cleric of Rao! I never should have let his mother name him), but entities that served a vital function in these worlds where giants and demons constantly threatened all of creation. Some of them were adventurers, protectors of the wild spaces beyond. Far from being an ignorant barbarian like Kord, intolerant zealots like Cuthbert and Pholtus, bookish geeks like Delleb, Boccob, and Rao, or irresponsible fanatics like Trithereon, they were kindred spirits.

In particular, he had gravitated toward the divine agents of Heimdall. Not just walking potions of healing, the agents of Heimdall were competent, disciplined, and smart. Many of them had ranger training, while others were brilliant spies and masters of subtle deception. Each was an individual, well-trained but autonomous, with a minimum of interfering bureaucracy. And yet: on each the fate of civilizations hung.

Naturally, the Duke began working with them. As a deputy agent, he made allies among the local root gnomes, bariaurs, and even khaasta. He met with the ruling triumvirate of the Charmed Ones, a race of mystic warriors who fought in threes. Reporting, when he deemed it important, to a mysterious fighter-priest known only as P.K., he set to the task of cleaning out his earthberg.

Sometimes, Tara felt like she had been stowed in the lodge to keep her out of the way. Then she remembered that she was free to go wherever she pleased. She was there because she wanted to be. Repeat.

"I've made a breakthrough this afternoon," Rowan told her one day. "A fensir slave we liberated informed us that he had seen his master, the crag giant Angrim, meeting with a group of demons. The demons were led by a wizened githzerai named Rule-of-Three. Demons, Tara! I knew this jotuntide had the smell of the Abyss in it. Now I've only to track this Rule-of-Three down."

Tara nodded encouragingly. "When will you be back?" she asked.

Rowan waved a hand dismissively. "Shouldn't be long," he said.

He was gone before she woke the next morning. She never saw him again.

 

 They tracked down Rule-of-Three and found him, unsurprisingly, among the Charmed Ones. What had seemed an ordinary warrior triad warped and shifted under the gaze of the seeing-stone Darkwood had stolen from a three-headed troll. The warriors became a large, black-furred creature with vicious claws and wolf-like hindquarters. From one of its shoulders a third, much larger arm grew, with claws that were almost chitonous. Its half-human, half-bestial face was framed by long pointed ears.

"Greetings," the creature smiled. "Salutations and hallo! Greetings, Duke-From-A-Dying-World, Duke of Nowhere-in-Particular. Greetings, Duke of Overcompensating-for-His-Frustrated-Paternal-Urges."

"What do you know about me?" Darkwood demanded. "And how?"

"Nothing," Rule-of-Three grinned. "Everything. I've had time to pick up a bit, when I was acting as Graz'zt's ambassador to Iuz. Or was I Iuz's ambassador to Graz'zt? Or perhaps I was working for the Queen of Spiders all along?"

"You tell me," Darkwood said grimly.

"Maybe you'd rather I tell you about your wife Merilyn, and what I did to her? Or your third son - the one she never told you about? Maybe I have nothing to tell you."

"Maybe you'd like me to destroy you right here," said Darkwood, "Or you can stop the mind-games and tell me what you know about your master's plot. I've had an eternity of fiendish mind-games already and there's nothing left that will be remotely fun to play with."

"You think because I'm a demon I must be a traitor, is that it? Or because I'm a cambion I must have no loyalty to the tanar'ri. Or you seek to take advantage of my perceived human weakness? You won't get anything from me, 'Duke.' You'll get nothing but what I want you to get. You'll get everything in all the worlds, whether you like it or not."

"Got it in three," said Darkwood, twisting the cambion's third arm. A root-gnome called Dori pointed a spear at its heart. "Get moving."

Rule-of-Three didn't say anything else for a while, but he moved.

 

The plot, it turned out, was fairly straightforward. Graz'zt Demonking was offering the giants demonic allies, hoping to pull one of Ysgard's great earth-islands into the Abyss.

"The solution is simple," Darkwood told P.K. "We go into the Abyss and teach Graz'zt a lesson. We make him hesitate the next time he wants to try something like this."

P.K., a hairless albino who nonetheless radiated strength, blinked. "Are you insane?" he asked.

Darkwood gave him a level stare. "I've punished demon monarchs before," he said flatly. And P.K. knew it must be true.

"What do you need?" he said finally.

"What have you got?" answered the Duke.

 

The portal in the viper forest Zrintor resembled a huge furnace burning with green flames. Giants and demons were moving in and out of it.

"So, what?" said Dori, crouching behind some of the less poisonous foliage. "We close the portal, go home?"

"First we destroy this portal," said Darkwood. "Then we close the one that leads from here to the Web of Lolth. Finally, we destroy one of Graz'zt's cities. To show we mean business."

Dori whistled nervously between his teeth. "You have an escape plan, I assume?"

Darkwood patted the map in his pocket. "Plain of Infinite Portals," he said. "No problem."

He had an army prepared. Bariaurs, root-gnomes, Charmed Ones, einherjar, even elves. And the elves of Caer Sidi, close to their kin in Alfheim, were happy to help.

A shockingly large percentage survived.

 

The demon sun burned above the barren plain, doing its best to peel the skin off everyone's bones.

"I'm not asking any of you to go with us," the Duke told the ragtag remnants of his invasion force. "The gate to the Outlands is in Broken Reach, ahead. From there you can easily get to Glorium. But this is something I have to do."

"Duke," Dori said, shocked. "Another Abyssal lord? Before you've even left the plane to rest and recover? They say wounds gained here will eat you alive."

"I know what can happen," said Darkwood. "I've treated my injuries properly. These people need me."

The adventuring band shifted their feet awkwardly. "We're happy for any help you can provide," said Sir Gareth Dragonsbane, the paladin. "But we're no mean adventurers ourselves. We can make do…"

"Ever been in the Abyss before?" Darkwood demanded.

"No," said Sir Gareth. "Not as such."

"You need me," Darkwood repeated.

"Right, then," Sir Gareth sighed.

 

Seven adventurers, guided by Rowan Darkwood, entered the mouth leading to icy Thanatos. They were Sir Gareth Dragonsbane, the ranger Sir Olwyn Forest-Friend, the Friar Dugald, the bard Sir Riordan Parnell, the mage-thief Sir Celedon Kierney, the wizard Sir Emlyn the Gray, and the monk Kane. Only three came out alive.

Darkwood was one of them.

"The evil is vanquished," Sir Gareth told no one in particular. "The Witch-King is dead. The Wand of Unlife has been cast in the Styx."

"Hurrah," said Celedon, whose cousin Riordan was now, last he checked, a bodak.

"This is Faerun, then?" Darkwood asked.

"Yes," said Sir Gareth. "You said you'd been here before?"

"Not this part," Darkwood said. "I guess you'll be needing to rebuild your country, now."

"Looks like it," said Sir Gareth. "Damara's a bit of a mess, isn't she?"

"I've seen worse," said Darkwood, thinking of Furyondy.

"I suppose you'll be heading back to the afterlife," said Sir Gareth. "The gods must be getting anxious for you. They expected you, what, three demon lords ago?"

"Heimdall knows where I am," Darkwood said casually. "You wouldn't need a hand here, would you?"

Sir Gareth sighed. "We're happy for any help you can provide," he said.

 

King Gareth Dragonsbane of Damara named him Duke of the Earthwood. After organizing militias to help clean out the region, the Duke did some simple dousing to find where the magic flowed thickest in the ancient forest. The patterns magic made were different in this world, but… yes. Just where they should be. Darkwood trees.

Duke Rowan Darkwood smiled to himself. It was beginning to feel like home.

 

 He was there over a year before P.K. found him. Darkwood met his old ally with a hearty embrace.

"Some good news," said P.K., but his pinkish eyes looked troubled. "You've been promoted to full Agent. You're officially one of Heimdall's right hands."

Darkwood nodded. After all that, he'd damn well better be. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"You knew a young woman named Tara, yes?"

Darkwood's face clouded. "I expected her to come with you," he said. "Willful girl, always turning up at awkward times."

P.K. paused. "She's met someone else."

"I'm not going to stand in their way," said Darkwood. He thought: if I didn't stand in Merilyn's way…

"Darkwood, this isn't some boyfriend she's picked up. This is a sorcerer, a bad one. He's on our Shit List."

The Duke became serious. "He's taken her against her will?" he asked.

"Not exactly…" said P.K. With a grimace, he told Darkwood the story.

Darkwood and P.K. left the next morning. The Duke left Dori the root-gnome in charge of his duchy while he was away. "I barely had the chance to break it in," muttered the ranger, looking at his castle one last time.

 

The sorcerer styled himself Cinnabarius. He was in the business of memory sharing. It seemed innocent enough - it wasn't as if he took memories from anyone. He simply gave them the ones he thought would benefit them most, while sharing as many of theirs as he could.

He was an initiate of the Society of Sensation, and he believed in its principles firmly. By expanding his cult of devotees, he was saving the multiverse.

Thus, he was somewhat perturbed when two agents of Heimdall broke his front door down.

"What are your respective problems?" he complained. "Do you think I'm keeping giants in here? I assure you, I'm not."

"Where are they?" said the hairy one with his right eye gone missing. "Your coven, your harem, your slave ring," he spat, before Cinnabarius could ask him to elaborate.

"Third door on the right," the sorcerer said, managing to sound nonchalant until the final syllable, which squeaked like a suddenly stopped carriage. "Help yourselves. They're for everyone."

One-Eye knocked him down on the floor as he barged past, which Cinnabarius thought was quite uncalled for.

In the other room, the stranger screamed in rage. Also unnecessary.

"What have you done with their skin?" he shouted as he ran back in and picked up Cinnabarius by his throat. The other one, the pale, bald one, pointedly did not attempt to calm him down.

"You're on your own," said Baldy. "You sick bastard."

"How -" Cinnabarius managed to find some more air, somehow. "How do you expect me to experience the world as they do without getting inside their skin?"

The grip tightened. "What did you do with it?" One-Eye repeated, his one eye blazing in anger.

The sorcerer's voice got several octaves stranger. "If… if everyone… walked a mile… in everyone… every…"

"WHERE?"

"End closet."

"Put them back on them!" One-Eye gave him a shove.

"I don't have the spells prepared!" Cinnabarius gasped. "You think those are magic items?"

One-Eye turned to Baldy. "P.K.," he said. "Can the Agency deal with this mess?"

P.K. gave a quick nod.

One-Eye put his sword into Cinnabarius' heart.

 

"Naturally," said Factol Erin Darkflame Montgomery. "The Society of Sensation deeply regrets this senseless tragedy." Her voice was smooth and melodic, with just the right hint of genuine regret to balance its professionalism and charm.

Rowan Darkwood didn't trust her for a minute. She could order all the regret she wanted, and get it bottled. She could get charm hand-delivered by the same factotum.

"You teach the members of your group to seek out all sensations, good and bad."

"No," Factol Montgomery corrected him gently. "There are an infinite number of possible experiences in the multiverse. The faction teaches its members how to best find those that will help them learn an' grow as people."

"Or help them cut peoples' eyes out, as the case may be. Did I mention he cut their eyes out?"

"Your Grace," she said politely. "Most Sensates are decent and caring individuals. We use non-intrusive methods to help ourselves experience as many different vantages as possible, so we don't, as a rule, hurt people. An' why would we? We know how it feels."

"Non-intrusive methods," he repeated.

"Roleplaying scenarios," she clarified. "Apprenticeships. Exchange programs. Magical stones that hold memories."

"This is all available only to those lucky enough to live in Sigil," Darkwood pointed out.

"We have centers of learning all across the planes," said Factol Montgomery. "Sylvania, Tir na Nog, Tradegate, even Mechanus. The Gilded Hall in Arborea is an especially large one, where all the memory addicts victimized by the rogue sorcerer Cinnabarius will have their needs taken care of fer the rest of their days. Fer free, no less."

"With no chance of recovery," Darkwood said stubbornly. He didn't trust 'free.' "And meanwhile those far from your 'centers' are busy using home surgery to get the next best thing."

"Duke Darkwood," the factol said, allowing a drop of impatience to creep into her perfectly controlled voice. "Ye're being unfair."

"Factol Darkflame Montgomery, I have no problems with your group's basic philosophy. Going out and experiencing the multiverse has done me nothing but good." Even Baator, he thought. Made me the man I am today. "This culture that exists within it, on the other hand, that encourages people to find knowledge vicariously, creeping around in other peoples' minds… I don't hold with that. It's an addiction. It turns people into vegetables, unable to bear the world on their own. It's unnatural, and it has to stop." He hesitated a moment. "It's what illithids and baatezu do."

"It's no different in principle from reading a book," she answered. "You can read, I assume?" She smiled wryly. "Alright, I apologize for that, but it's obvious that we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. As long as it's purely metaphorical, there's nothing wrong with 'crawling around in someone's skin.'" She crooked her fingers to indicate the quotes. "It broadens yer mind. You should try it."

"Perhaps," Darkwood said coldly.

"Oh, come now! Don't leave angry!"

"I don't get angry."

"Fine," she said to herself as he left. Some people you just couldn't reason with.

 

"I'm going to take over the Fated," Darkwood told P.K. over eggs and coffee.

P.K.'s eyes widened briefly. "The whole faction," he said. It wasn't a question.

Darkwood didn't feel the need to nod. "Bunch of accountants and bureaucrats, now. Don't know what to do with all the knowledge they have. All the power. They had heroes in their past, though. People who changed the planes. They're mostly reduced to dusty old statues now, or banished to Ysgard. I'll bring them back. I'll remind them of what they are, what they can be. They're the ones who grab Destiny and force it to take reins and a bit."

P.K. didn't bother telling him how impossible it would be for an Outsider to come in and just take over something as massive, ancient, and tradition-bound as the Fated, with their complex examinations and rules of seniority, with the nations, realms, and worlds that it contained. This was Darkwood, the Duke. However, he was obliged to point out a few things.

"The Agency still needs you," he said. "You swore an oath."

"This is to the Agency's benefit," Darkwood said, chewing on eggshell. "Imagine what we can do with the resources of the Fated at our side."

"What will you do?" asked P.K.

"What I've always done,"

"Darkwood, Sigil's not some haunted wildland full of orcs and trolls. I mean, there are some orcs and so forth, but no more than any of the other hundred million races you'll see there. You can't reduce it to simple dichotomies…"

"P.K.," Darkwood said, using his Resolved Voice. "I know what the city is. I know it's filled with more plots and mysteries than most universes. Even kobolds have more going on in their nests than you'd think at first glance. I didn't get where I'm at by being unobservant, or simplistic. I'm not some… Cuthbertite, bashing everything on the head because it's doing something not written down in gold leaf in their holy book. You've worked with me for some time. Do you remember how I defeated Angrim?"

"You recruited him," P.K. said. The giant was the strangest Agent in their god's employ.

"Do you remember how I got rid of Rule-of-Three?"

"You got him a job in Sigil's underworld," said P.K. "I wondered why you didn’t kill him."

"Do you know how I stole the Wand of Unlife?"

"No, you never said."

Darkwood allowed himself a grin. "I took advantage of the politics already in place. Do you realize how complex a society where everyone is a minor personification of Chaos can be? Every demon is a kingdom to itself. But if you look far enough, there's always someone who both can and will do what you want."

P.K. rubbed his eyes. "I can barely keep track of the names of the major princes."

"They change all the time anyway. The point is, the complexity of a problem isn't the important part. The important part is identifying what you need done, and having the moxy to go out and do it."

"Defeat evil, take its stuff," summarized P.K.

Darkwood smiled again, generously. "If that's the way you want to put it. You always have to take something from someone if you want to accomplish anything. I make it my policy to take from those who would use what they have badly." He thought: if I have nothing else of Merilyn, I have that. "So I'm taking what the Takers have. And after that, I'll take Sigil."

P.K.'s breath stopped. Getting it going again was a noisy and undignified effort. "I can't be a part of that," he managed.

"I know," Darkwood said, with a bit of affection, but no regret. Never any regret.

"If you need any giants slain…"

"I know, Phillip."

P.K.'s mouth made a silent exclamation. "How -"

"I know."

 

One year later:

"Would you tell me about your homeworld?" Alisohn asked him dreamily, lying by his side in their marriage bed. "Tell me about… Toril."

The name still felt wrong, but not as wrong as the name of his birth world. "It's where I was happy, for a time," he told her. No messy relationships, he thought.

"You punished the evil there," Alisohn prompted.

"Yes, I did."

"Tell me how you punished them." Alisohn Nihlesa had the bloodiest mind for details of anyone Darkwood had known. Well, that wasn't quite true…

That sparked an idea, an idea that had been growing in secret for some time. Now it began to crackle in his head, like flames.

Everyone Rowan Darkwood had ever met had had a destiny, a place that fit them best. He tried to help them find it. His son Rory, unfortunately, was meant to be a knight, and Reuel a priest. The giant Angrim really fit better on the Aesir side of the eternal battle. The cambion Rule-of-Three was better at finding out information than he was acting as a mere errand boy for the Abyssal lords. Dori the gnome was meant to be a duke. A special few made their own fates, though. Merilyn, probably. Tara, disasterously. Young Alisohn had never been anything but a weapon for the abstract principle she worshipped, or, once he figured out how to manipulate her, for him. But perhaps she could become something more.

He knew just the one to teach her.

He sat up in bed. "Put your clothes on," he told his bride. "I'll show you all the punishment you could ever want."

The tiefling girl's eyes gleamed. "I love you," she said.

"Of course you do," he said gruffly. Now, who did he know who could contact the lower planes quickly? Ah, yes. Perfect. It must be fate.

 

"A baatezu, you say?" asked Rule-of-Three, tasting the word. He was in his githzerai disguise. "A devil, a soldier of Law."

"An independent thinker," Darkwood clarified. "One with potential. An opportunity for you."

"Oh, yes? Maybe? I think not. His mistakes have truncated his rise in the hierarchy. One offering would help him little. Still, a factol…"

"The Factol of the Mercykillers, a thought-guild the baatezu have been fascinated with for centuries. Punishment as a sacred act, as the fulfillment of the multiverse's will. And torment, at least, is an interest they have in common with your side…"

"That was three sentences, at least," Rule-of-Three allowed. "Two periods and one ellipsis. It didn't feel like three different things."

"Here's three things, then: a promising contact among the baatezu; the answer to a great future mystery in Sigil's political circles… and a debt from me."

The cambion raised a single eyebrow three times. "Then you have my will, my action, and my fulfillment of the deal. Where is she waiting? Where is she resting? Where…"

Darkwood cut him off. "She's in the Styx Oarsman, glaring at the slaadi. When you're ready, I have people prepared to take her wherever you go. If you try to harm her in any way but the way we've agreed, you'll suffer the same fate she does, and the baatezu don't think so highly of you."

Rule-of-Three nodded and bowed his usual number of times, and left. Darkwood forced himself to appreciate the irony. Amaggel was going to have a new guest. No regrets, though. Don't look back.




D&D Stats

Here's one take on the character. I'd actually like to give him at least two more ranger levels to get him up to the 19th level he was in 2nd edition (definitely no more than three divine agent levels, though, since after 3 physical appearance starts to change, and three do all they need to). Unfortunately, I don't have the ELH. Also, to be true to his original the points I put into Spot and Search should go into Move Silently and Hide, but I think my version is more appropriate. I think, technically, there's no alignment restriction for divine agents, though one would probably be appropriate. Divine agents are from the Manual of the Planes.

Factol Rowan Darkwood
Male Human Prime
17th level ranger/3rd level divine agent of Heimdall.
Fated (factol)
Chaotic Good
Str 20          Int 17          HP 218              Init +3
Dex 17 Wis 20 AC 13 Spd 30
Con 20 Chr 18

Melee +24/+17/+12/+7
Ranged +20/+15/+10/+5
Fort +16; Ref +11; Will +15

Equipment: Noble's outfit, masterwork full plate, red ioun stone (water breathing), portable hole, potion of enlarge, ring of blinking, ring of protection +5, splint mail +3, bastard sword +2 giant slayer

Spells per level: 5/4/4/4

Skills: Appraise +1, bluff +5, climb +5, concentration +10, forgery +1, gather information +5, hide +5, intimidate +5, intuit direction +1, jump +10, knowledge (nature) +5, knowledge (religion) +7, move silently +10, profession (woodcutter) +5, ride +2, search +20, sense motive +5, spellcraft +5, spot +20, swim +3, wilderness lore +5, use magic device +5, handle animal +5

Feats: Alertness, blind-fight, combat casting, iron will, lightning reflexes, track, leadership, endurance, weapon focus (bastard sword)

Special: Human qualities, track, favored enemies (demons, devils, elves, giants), Protection domain (protective ward 1x/day)

Divine Agent: Contact deity, menacing aura, godly gift (hear any sound within 500 yards)


A fully buff version of Darkwood might look like this:

Factol Rowan Darkwood
Male Human Prime
23rd level ranger/3rd level divine agent

Fated (factol)
Chaotic Good

Str 24          Int 18 
Dex 18          Wis 21       
Con 21          Cha 19 

2nd edition strength 20 converts to 3rd edition strength 24. Everything else is the same, but as a 26th level character he gets six extra points to distribute however he wants.

In 2nd edition, the character was designed around the dual-class system. He was even given a traumatic event to explain why anyone would abandon all their class skills to start completely over with a new life, and then exceed the earlier one. Outside of the Path of the Paragon in the old D&D Master set, he might be the only dual-class character that ever made any sense at all. He made the maximum use a human can make out of dual-classing using the core rules, and was given some extraordinary circumstances to warrant it.

Now, we can probably assume he left Oerth at something like 17th level and then alternated ranger and divine agent levels until he reached his present state.

As I said, this is the fully buff version. The only way to explain scores like that are powerful magic, or maybe he advanced to a high level in some other class, and then was sent back in time and forgot everything but kept his ability scores, and advanced again, and this happened over and over again, on numerous different worlds, and he has no idea. He just thinks he's special.

But that's crazy talk.
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