PORTALS: Doorways Between Worlds
(a treatise by Ser Ceannric MacEoghn)
By Kenneth Rice
The sickly purple light moved through the trees, barely more illumination than a candle in the gathering gloom of the Wood, casting its pall upon the dark leaves of dusk as it winked in and out of sight. The slight bobbing of its movement was evidence enough that it was likely being carried by someone or something, but even at this relatively short distance, Ceannric could not tell what.
He silently cursed his human sight, and not for the first time wished he had the eyes of an Elf, or at least had better learned some manner of eldritch enhancement for seeing in the dark. But now was not the time for complaints or regrets. Something was afoot, probably bad, and as the only Ranger for leagues around, it fell to him to investigate. He slowly slid his sword from its scabbard, the oiled steel as quiet as a whisper, and stalked toward the light.
A low grunting brought him up short in his tracks, all senses on alert, and he strained to make out what appeared to be about a dozen figures gathered in a small bunch, hunched and powerfully built, and a rank smell of unwashed fur wafted across his nose. Beastmen. He could see the silhouettes of curved ram horns, and caught the glint of the purple light upon the hilts of crude weapons strapped to their misshapen hips and backs. They were being uncharacteristically quiet, compared with their usual exuberant fervor, and this only added to his unease. He knew the creatures' habits, and this could only mean they were being reined in somehow, kept in abeyance with stronger leadership, or perhaps magic. Mayhap both.
Ceannric risked another few steps closer, moving at a glacial pace, careful not to crunch any dead leaves underfoot, or let his outline part from the thick boles of the trees. When he finally caught a glimpse of the light bearer, it all began to make more sense, and his blood ran cold.
The figure was tall and slimly proportioned, moving with an elegant grace that was apparent even through the long black robes, and the light briefly revealed saturnine features, sharp and cruel. Pale skin set off shadowed, feral eyes, and silver-white hair spilled out from beneath the hood. Ceannric had no doubt that pointed ears lay close to the slender skull, hidden from view though they were. He'd seen enough Shadow Elves in his time. This one had the bearing and accoutrements of one well versed in the Thaumaturgic arts, and carried the source of the light reverently in both hands...a fist-sized orb, throbbing with an inner pulse, like the heartbeat of a living thing. Each new pulse made his eyes hurt to see it, a low headache forming between the brows.
He involuntarily spat a soft curse, and immediately chastised himself, flattening against the tree as one of the Beastmen turned its horned head in his direction, scanning the darkness with nostrils flaring. Ceannric was thankful he'd long since adopted the habit of crushing a bit of wild black pepper into the dark woad which served to break up the planes of his face, the better to blend into the shadows; the spice camouflaged his scent, and more than once had kept him from being detected by beasts with sharp noses. He breathed a sigh of relief as the creature swayed its head for a moment, then turned back to more immediate diversions.
The Elf was moving in a tight circle, seeming to search for a particular spot, and then apparently found what he was looking for as he froze in place, head turned away from Ceannric's hiding spot as he braced his feet and lifted the orb, beginning a sonorous chant of ugly syllables that sounded like the Common tongue spoken backwards. All the Beastmen likewise closed ranks behind the mage, jostling one another for position, but obviously being careful not to disrupt whatever he was doing. Ceannric took advantage of having all their backs to him, inwardly thanking the gods for small favors as he moved to the next tree over for a clearer view.
His thankfulness was short-lived as the Shadow Elf's chanting hissed to a sibilant, victorious halt, the orb glowed like a miniature star, and what appeared to be an outline of neon purple light began to coalesce in mid air between the trunks of two wizened old trees directly in front of the mage. It swiftly grew, both in height and width, until a doorway-sized hemorrhage of reality hovered there, the edges burning and wavering with entropic energy. Through the opening, Ceannric could make out a landscape that was nothing at all like the Wood, a blurred assortment of structures that looked like ancient, monolithic ruins, wreathed in shadow. It was no place he recognized, and, he realized with some lucid flash of native instinct, it was nowhere in this world.
Stowing the now-dimmed orb somewhere in his voluminous robes, the Shadow Elf issued a curt command to the Beastmen, now snorting and stamping in excitement, and stepped through the opening. In a swift surge, the creatures all followed suit, drawing their weapons in anticipation of bleeding whatever hapless inhabitants lay on the other side. Within seconds they were all lost to view, swallowed by the shadows, and the portal began to waver more wildly, slowly diminishing in size.
Ceannric's morbid fascination evaporated as he realized he had been standing there with mouth agape, stunned by what he had just witnessed, and he knew he had but a moment to make a choice. Too much to take in and not enough time to process it...any second the portal would be gone. With another curse he rushed toward the opening, not even sure why, except that he felt some sort of bound obligation to stop those servants of the Shadow from doing...whatever it was they planned to do. He leapt through the light with a grunt from old, pained knees being strained, and felt a sharp, biting cold, like jumping into a winter lake. With a last, sizzling flash, the purple light closed in upon itself behind him and was gone.
The Umbral Wood went back to its silent brooding, uncaring as always.
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The very word elicits images of high magic, ancient ruins, risky adventures and distant vistas. They figure prominently in tales of yore, gateways through which opportunities for heroism arise, or monsters from our deepest fears come to wreak destruction. But what is the reality?
Sages have long speculated on the nature of portals between dimensions, or even just thruways to other locales. After a great deal of conjecture and hypothesis, however, certain factual evidence has come to the fore, which shall be shared with the reader here.
Types of Portals
It is generally agreed that there are three basic types of portals (an oversimplification of sorts, but it will serve the purpose for the layman):
Resonant: When great forces clash, great energies are released. This may be from apocalyptic elemental disasters (such as tempestuous hurricanes, erupting volcanoes, raging infernos or deluge-scale floods), the emotional traumas that emanate from particularly bloody battles or horrific soul-searing loss, or even conflicts between the gods themselves. While it is almost invariably some potent distress that can cause a rent in space, this is not always the case...sometimes great love or willing sacrifice can forge a passage between worlds. These portals are also the most unpredictable and prone to cast an unwary traveler into danger, so caution is suggested.
Natural: Not all portals come into existence with sudden alacrity, some simply evolve from favorable conditions and the deep, eternal power of ancient places. Examples include the fabled "fairy rings" of mushrooms or rare flowers, dark cave openings that twist and turn into other worlds, or deep pools that lead the underwater swimmer to resurface in a completely new realm. Of all the types of portals, these are ascribed to be the most stable and permanent, but as with Nature herself, they are not to be trifled with lightly.
Scholars have speculated upon the existence of a fourth type of portal: Hungry. Though these might more formally be categorized as "conjured", as they are deliberately created for the purpose of allowing a traveler through into a destination on the other side, that destination is not another world, but actually just the maw of some powerful entity with an insatiable appetite, whether it be one of the elder gods eager for sacrifice, or some other cosmic horror. Passing through one of these gates will result in utter, wholesale destruction, usually without any hope of reversal or recourse. The traveler is urged to be wary of any portals that seem too good to be true--they probably are.
Contrary to popular belief, creating portals does not usually require any specialized knowledge, powerful wizardry, or exorbitantly expensive artifacts. What it does require, however, is power. Massive amounts of it. Even the smallest portal represents an extravagant expenditure of raw, primal force to literally rip a hole in space and hold it open, even if only for an eye blink. Naturally, the larger and more durable the gateway, the more power it will consume each and every second it exists.
This is why one typically only ever hears of mighty wizards or rare relics being instrumental in opening portals--because serving as a conduit for such magnitudes of power is extremely dangerous, and only the strongest wills or most puissant magic can withstand it for long. This perhaps by cosmic design, or so philosophers postulate...after all, if anyone could open a portal, wheelwrights would soon be out of business, and castles would topple like houses of cards.
It is also why portals are often found on ley lines, the ancient intersections of natural and spiritual power that crisscross the world (perhaps many worlds) and act as endless founts of magical energy, for those who know how to tap it. This exponentially reduces the amount of power the erstwhile planar traveler must provide, greatly minimizing the risk of instant evaporation and death (always a plus).
It goes without saying that a journey through a magical portal carries with it an element of tremendous, potentially fatal risk. Unless one is well-versed in planar study (and has made requisite preparations), or is thoroughly familiar with the destination, there is no guarantee that what lies on the other side will be a welcoming atmosphere, or indeed support the traveler's physiology at all. Some extraplanar realms are comprised of hostile elemental and spatial forces that can instantly crush, drown, suffocate, implode, incinerate, or otherwise spell the doom of the passer-through with no chance given to adapt. Yet others might drive the traveler irreversibly mad, or cause more insidious mutations that are not immediately apparent and take years to surface, like the most virile diseases.
To this end, numerous dissertations have been written exhaustively detailing the snippets of relevant information that have been compiled over centuries, and the wise traveler is urged to take advantage of such knowledge before essaying to step through any sorcerous gateway. A few hours of research might prove the difference between fantastic, life-altering adventure or a heinous, soul-wrenching demise. Seeking a skilled and experienced guide is also exuberantly recommended, preferably one who has been through whatever portal is being considered, or at least finding a sage or other perspicacious sort that can aid in plotting out the endeavor.
With this in mind, taking a few common-sense precautions will aid in a successful (and survivable) adventure:
Have a way back: It is amazing that this even has to be said, but the frequency of portal travelers who never find a way home seems to necessitate it. Many portals (in fact, most) are only one-way...once you are through, you cannot simply turn around and go back the way you came. Indeed, the portal may not even exist on the other side; if you look, there will be nothing there. It is highly recommended that the traveler makes arrangements for a round trip, perhaps posthaste if circumstances go south quickly.
Take survival necessities: One cannot assume anything found on the other side is edible, or the water drinkable. Consuming local delicacies can have unknown effects; the stories of hapless travelers partaking of Fey offerings and thus being stuck there forever springs to mind. Shelter may not be readily available, and environmental conditions may cause an immediate need for it, so at the very least a tent is a good idea. Hunting may also be out of the question, and even if game is in evidence, there is no telling whether it is good to eat (or, in fact, whether it is actually game at all...see below).
Use caution in approaching the locals: Just because they may look like you doesn't mean they won't try to kill, eat, or forcibly mate with you on sight. Also, what appears to be a deer or a cow or any other sort of meat animal might actually be sentient (tales abound of wildlife in certain Celestial realms having the powers of reason and speech), so stow the bow until you are sure. Language barriers are another potentially huge issue, and have more than once led to very unfortunate misunderstandings (yet another reason to obtain the services of a skillful guide). In all cases let common sense and cool heads prevail.
Tools of the Trade
In the endless search for power, advantage, or consummation of simple curiosity, mankind has discovered many ways to make planar travel more successful and accessible. Spells figure most prominently in this equation, of course, but those are the province of powerful wizards, and that deserves its own treatise. But the long-standing traditions of artifice, or, in some cases, lucky finds of artifacts from ages past, have accumulated objects that facilitate safer portal travel and can be used by anyone (or nearly anyone). That is not to say they are readily available or easily obtained, however; in some cases their acquisition may prove to be a quest in and of itself. A few are described here:
Orb of Passage: The seemingly never-ending fascination with crystal balls and the like as conduits of magical power carries over into planar travel as well. Though very costly and coveted, these fist-sized translucent orbs can be attuned to almost any realm of existence, and serve as functional reservoirs of energy which at once accumulate, filter, and expend the power needed to open a portal for a short time (usually only minutes if not seconds). The portal thus created is generally stable and foolproof, but this is also contingent upon the focus of the user. In the same way, the user's ability to absorb and moderate a scaling portion of the power spent dictates the durability of the orb...relying solely upon the orb will greatly shorten its lifespan, and it may 'burn out' and turn grey, or even shatter, after only a few trips. The more magically skilled the user, the longer the orb can last (again, another reason why folklore seems to advance the mythical notion that only wizards can create portals).
The Eye of Guǐwáng: An example of an ancient relic lost to time but spoken of in dusty tomes, the Eye was said to once actually be an eye of the Archmage Guǐwáng, a powerful wizard of Eastern descent, who, in the later stages of his existence, imbibed ever-increasing amounts of Starmetal in the quest to transform himself into a living construct. Whether or not Guǐwáng was successful is unknown, but the relic is a perfect eyeball-sized sphere of flawless green jade, with an iris and pupil comprised of minute, exquisitely detailed Asian pictographs closely packed together. When held up and peered into, the user can clearly see into other planes of existence, finding specific planes by sheer force of will. Upon finding the desired destination, the wielder may then simply envision a doorway into that place, and it will be so. The use of the Eye is extremely taxing, however, and strains the eyesight of the user (excessive usage can result in permanent blindness). It is rumored that actually replacing one's own Eye with the relic will add a magnitude of power, but the truth (or wisdom) of that is left to the reader to decide.
Planar Tuning Forks: Not actually meant for music at all, the use of special tuning forks of specific metals/crystals and frequencies is a known method of attuning to particular planes. Along with a method of opening the gate (whether via spell, item, or some other way), the tuning fork will all but guarantee a successful "landing". Needless to say, an entire cottage industry (albeit modest) has sprung up around the manufacture of such instruments, although obtaining the often rare or expensive materials to make them is another story.
As many and varied as there are worlds, there are hundreds if not thousands of portals in existence at any given time, most of the temporary variety spawned by magic or intense circumstance. Not all lead to other dimensions, some are mere openings meant to hasten long-distance travel in the same realm, covering leagues with a thought. But of those that have lasted long enough to achieve legendary status, a few are of especial note:
The Cleft: Named after the battle which spawned it, this is thought to be one of the largest portals in existence, spanning a colossal five hundred feet from edge to edge. It was brought into being some three centuries past when the priest-king Hazad the Zealot found himself and his holy army trapped and besieged by a horde of Orcs, Gnolls, and other creatures, a massive force that outnumbered them a hundred to one. The huge desert outcropping of rock on which they were making a last stand gave little in the way of provisions or precious water, and Hazad knew they were running out of time before they would be forced to surrender or sacrifice their lives in a fruitless counterattack...but his faith in his god was strong, and his prayers were answered with a vision of an alternative. Gathering his men together, he exhorted them to fervent worship, and in the frenzy of their combined faith a gateway to another world was opened, stretching between the edifices of rock. To a man, they all knew this for divine intervention, and stepped through the gap, leaving the humanoids to wonder at what had happened to their vanished prey. The Cleft still sits in its wind-scoured spot, awaiting any who have faith enough to unlock its power.
The Port Gardens of Kol: One of the few permanently established and maintained system of portals in any world, the Port Gardens are an architectural marvel. Layer upon layer of carven and engraved magic circles embellish the pristine white marble porticos, inlaid with precious metals and gems worth a king's ransom. To those with the proper knowledge, the circles can become gateways to virtually any world...for a price. The city-state Magocracy of Kol has enriched itself with supplicants wishing to avail themselves of the portals' power, and has spared no expense in warding them from unwanted use with some of the strongest abjurations known. Some think they tempt fate and risk something coming through the other way, but this has yet to happen.
Tovon Lór: Legend tells of a place deep beneath the waves that only coalesces into full existence at high tide during a Spring full moon, and leads to a place where dreams come true. At such times, it is said, if one but follows the schools of colorful fish which frequent those warm waters, they will congregate into a living circle of magic through which that place may be reached. The truth of such claims is hard to verify, but it is beyond question that many brave adventurers have drowned in the brackish seas trying to find out. Only the Sea Elves know for certain, and they are not divulging their secrets.
Conjured: As the name implies, these are intentionally created doorways, either through magecraft or artifice, and greatly varying in duration and scope. Some may last only seconds, allowing a single traveler through before dissipating, while others may be towering edifices large enough for an army to pass through, and made to withstand the passage of centuries. Whatever the case, they are inevitably made to serve some preordained purpose, and are usually jealously guarded secrets. As will be discussed later, there are as many ways to make them as there are places to go through them, and no two are alike.
Who hasn't stood and looked at a distant horizon, wondering what lay beyond? Or dreamt of another life, another existence, a new world? Portals may not be the answer to those yearnings, but they are most assuredly a way in which to seek it. One must simply accord them the respect they deserve, and expect the unexpected.
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