Aerie was on that horrible boat on the way from Spellhold asylum. It was shaking in a storm in the ocean. The sky was black and the waves were vast. Soon, the ship would splinter into timbers and send them falling into the dark maw of the ocean, where they would be lost in a wet hungry depth forever.
Her berth did fall apart, at that very moment, and she crashed to the floor and screamed. Someone else was screaming too.
Then Aerie rubbed the sleep from her eyes and picked herself up from a quiet, still, stone floor in an Athkatla tavern. She had really been shaken out of bed, not just shaken in her dream.
"Are you all right, Aerie? Please tell me that you are all right!" Minsc swept her up from the floor with one hand. He'd appointed himself Aerie's protector, the ranger to her witch, and took his duties very seriously.
"It's all right. I'm awake," Aerie said. She didn't know why Minsc had turned her out of bed. Were there assassins, vampires, beholders? Baervan help her, she would fight for her friends! Her spells were fresh in her mind and she could release her contingency immediately -
"Aerie, you must help me! You have a sacred duty as a Witch!" Minsc told her. Astonished, Aerie saw that there were tears in the mighty fighter's eyes. In the darkness, with Aerie's elven infravision, the grey tears quivered and fell like heavy drops of stone down Minsc's weathered cheeks. "Boo is missing!"
The little hamster was Minsc's constant animal companion through good times and terrible tragedies. He was adorable and furry, and Minsc never let him out of his hands. Minsc always swore that Boo was a miniature giant space hamster, but nobody else among the adventurers had heard of such a thing. Aerie thought Boo was probably just a normal hamster, but he was beloved and absolutely crucial to Minsc's mental well being. Without Boo, Minsc would likely fly into a berserker rage and attack everyone around himself. And Aerie hated the thought of either Minsc or Boo suffering evil.
Aerie turned out the contents of Minsc's pack and bedroll for the third time, meticulously looking in all the corners. Minsc had carefully examined every nook and cranny on his own person (since he was so big, there were quite a lot). Boo was most certainly gone. Minsc told the story that he had settled Boo in for the night with some walnuts, then fell asleep. Minsc woke up because he thought he had heard a noise in his room. He could not describe the noise but it seemed quite soft and different to normal sounds. Then he saw that Boo was gone.
A small object glinted on the flagstones; Aerie picked it up. A tiny screw, striped in silver and gold, looking shiny and new. It did not look to belong to any of the furnishings in the room, dusted by long years of service and joined together with old-fashioned mortices. She stood up and brandished her magelight. "We will find him, Minsc, fear not," she promised. "Let us go to the next room."
"Ah! The room of the treacherous gnome!" Minsc boomed. "It was Jan Jansen. He is always trying to steal my hamster! That sneaky hamster thief will have two-and-thirty fewer teeth when I PUNCH THEM DOWN THE BACK OF HIS THROAT!"
Aerie laid a hand on his arm. "Minsc, you cannot accuse without any proof," she said. In truth, she had seen Jan try to trick Minsc out of Boo's possession several times, including once by making poor Minsc doubt his own sense of existence. However, it was still wrong to presume anyone guilty, regardless of their past history of attempting the exact same crime. And besides, if she and Minsc crept into Jan's room quietly, they stood a better chance of finding the hamster while Jan was still asleep.
Aerie couldn't pick locks very well yet, despite some lessons from Yoshimo before he died, so she used a modified heat spell to melt the latch and get into the room that way. Uncle Quayle would have been so proud of her. She gave Minsc a spell of infravision so that he could see in the dark like her, and together they tiptoed into Jan's messy room, below the sound of his snoring. Although Minsc was huge, he was surprisingly soft on his feet, walking with velvet tread like a deer in the forest. They began their search for Boo, sifting through sacks of Flasher Master Bruiser Mates, raw alchemical ingredients, and three locked chests full of turnips.
Aerie's fingers brushed against a tripwire in the dark, slender as a spiderweb. And then the alarm went off. Typical for Jan Jansen, it set off a cascade of booby-trapped turnips, an unearthly repeating beep at high volume, and a flashing light that was purple and pink in alternation.
"Turn it off!" she shrieked as Jan woke up. "Do you want to wake Ivana?"
"Thieves, thieves, thieves in my room! Repel all boarders! Man the hatches! Thirty men on a dead man's chest, sent to walk the plank!" Jan yelled.
"It's just us - " Aerie said.
"Where is my hamster, gnome!" Minsc roared.
"Ivana - " Aerie hissed loudly, and Jan understood the hint and shut off his alarm system.
Ivana the Terrible, the Bhaalspawn of Candlekeep, looked like a small and unassuming human girl with mousy hair that constantly fell over her face. It was only when she smiled that you saw the set of pointed, sharpened iron teeth that she'd implanted inside her own jaw after ripping out her original set. Then you looked into Ivana's eyes and saw the madness that lurked inside. Ivana the Terrible's Bhaalspawn abilities gave her the power to transmit that madness at a glance, turning her foes into gibbering, raging imbeciles.
In short, Ivana the Terrible was a fearsome party leader, and it would be very important for her group to be functioning according to her requirements in the morning.
Jan gave Aerie and Minsc an icy glare in the dark, which they perceived through infravision. "At three bells in the morning, why are you rifling through a gnome's own precious turnips? Don't you know that they are his most sacred possession? Why, when I was only a wee gnomish lad and I slid in through my Uncle Scratchy's turnip trapdoor at three bells in the morning on a full moon night, I ..."
Minsc picked Jan up by the scruff of the neck, holding him by the fluffy pink human-sized bathrobe that Jan always slept in. "Where. Is. My. Hamster."
"I don't have Boo this time, I swear by Garl Glittergold! Put me down immediately, you gigantic oaf of a numbskulled human!" Jan begged. Then suddenly the sleeves of his robe gave way, and he fell down to the bed naked. He urgently covered himself with a pillow.
Jan's denial had the ring of sincere truth, Aerie thought. She felt a little bad about rifling through his possessions in the middle of the night. "Please, Jan, will you help us?" she asked. "I am sure you miss Boo nearly as much as Minsc does."
"Well, you doe-eyed elvish lass, I've had plenty of insult from you tonight!" Jan scolded. "However, she did say please, and a Jansen is chivalrous down to the bone. Why, even when Henna-Haired Hulda turned around and smote Nick Jansen down nine times with an iron broomstick, Nick would still clean her chimneys whenever she asked. What do you need?"
"I need a blacksmith who's open overnight," Aerie said, "and maybe also a chequered tweed cap made for hunting deer, and some tobacco."
"We follow the Witch to find the hamster," Minsc said, backing her up. "Little thieving gnome, get dressed immediately. Boot must meet cobblestone, and the hamster must be back before dawn!"
They wandered through the night streets of Athkatla, where thankfully it seemed that all the thieves, assassins, and vampires were having a quiet night in for once. The only blacksmith in Athkatla who never seemed to sleep was Cromwell the dwarf, who was a specialist in uniting odd magical artefacts picked up in disparate places and tucked into the depths of Bags of Holding.
Minsc pounded on the door.
"Hold on, hold on, a dwarf doesn't extract himself from the outhouse very quickly or easily ..." Cromwell muttered. Eventually, he opened it. "How can I help you?"
"Boo is gone, and you never made him the tiny hamster armour with hamster greaves and hamster helmet that you promised!" Minsc said.
"Please analyse this for us," Aerie said. She handed Cromwell the screw she had found in Minsc's bedroom, the one that had matched nothing else in the room.
The dwarf bent over his giant forge. He shaved off tiny fragments of the screw, picked them up with large metal tongs, attempted to melt them, and examined them below a jeweller's glass. Minsc fretted and fidgeted, while Aerie tried to reassure him they would locate Boo. Baervan, please, we have to find him. She sat Minsc down on the dwarf's heaviest chair and patted his hand.
"Electrum, calaverite, and antimony. All in a very interesting proportion, and made to impressively precise dimensions," Cromwell finally said. "I doubt you would ever find a screw such as this in Athkatla. Or even on Faerun. Where did you get this?"
"It is a clue left behind by foul hamster thieves," Minsc said. "Let us find them, and steel-toed boots will meet their rib cages! They will taste hamster justice and their own blood tonight! They will ... Where are they?" Minsc asked.
"The clue leads us to interplanar travellers," Aerie said, and smiled a very thin smirk. "I do believe that the Sigil Troupe are still in town."
Raelis Shai, leader of the Sigil band of players, came to the door, her fiery hair wrapped in a towel and a green silken nightdress clinging to her body. "This is an original and entertaining hour," she drawled, then saw Aerie. "Shall I fetch Haer?"
Haer'Dalis was fully dressed but bleary-eyed, wearing a blue doublet the same shade as his hair and bright gold earrings in both ears. "I remember that I broke up with you several tendays ago," Haer'Dalis told Aerie.
"It was two tendays and I broke up with you," she said. "Or perhaps the meteor swarm I sent at your crotch was not a strong enough hint?"
"My dove who discovered her talons," Haer sighed. "Have you come again to rip out my heart with your iron beak?"
"I think it would be a lifeless thing of pasteboard and painted glass," Aerie said.
"Perchance so! For life is a play, and we are all but players in a design of dusty entropy," Haer'Dalis said.
"She's a frisky one," Raelis commented. "If she's anything like her uncle Quayle back in the day, you were a fool to let her go. What a long tongue that gnome had ... for divine and arcane spellcasting, of course."
"Have you seen any strangers here recently, Raelis?" Aerie asked.
"Dozens," Raelis said, without blinking an eye. "Our audiences are higher than ever."
"Let me rephrase that. You yourselves are from another plane, and the Warden kidnapped you to his planar prison. We found an artefact from another plane at the scene of the crime as a clue. Since the planar boundaries in this area are weakened from so many spells, I deduce that this is the likeliest place for our thieves to have stepped through a portal," Aerie explained.
"Interplanar thieves abducted my hamster," Minsc said.
"Or, what Minsc said."
Raelis looked thoughtful. "Now that you mention it, last night we did have a large subset of audience members that didn't seem to go out the front door after the play finished. I noticed them especially because they all wore heavy coats, scarves, and goggles. They were mostly short, perhaps gnomes."
The adventurers combed the Sigil Troupe's theatre looking for further clues to this travelling band. From a mere screw that did not belong in a cheap Athkatla tavern had come a planar travelling mystery. Perhaps the people who had dropped the screw were assassins out for the Bhaalspawn, who had searched Minsc's room first and accidentally picked up the hamster. There were certainly a lot of assassins out for the Bhaalspawn.
Jan Jansen brandished a small piece of paper on the ground. "A clue!" he called. "Jan Jansen the Wonder Detective strikes again."
Aerie peeked over his shoulder. Her long hair was now tucked up under a chequered cap with flaps on the front and back, similar to what a sportsman might wear to hunt deer. "Well done, Jan," she said. "This white page is made of surpassing fineness and quality - more than I have ever seen in any normal book. This is the second interplanar artefact we are looking for."
"These words mean nothing and show no sign or smell of hamster thieves," Minsc said.
Aerie also looked blank. "It appears to start halfway through a passage," she said. "Worship, worship at the fur of the prime. In darkest hour, seize him to save space and time. The gaze of the hair-snake will have all the world stuck, and without the prime we may only say - And the rest of it is torn off." She frowned. "I don't understand any of it."
"Then you need one who is far greater than you." From the shadows, a thief dressed in black and purple emerged, as if he had hidden under an invisibility spell. The thief was about three-and-a-half feet high, carried a quarterstaff, and smelt of rabbit dung and formaldehyde. He wore the symbol of Cyric, god of madness, about his neck. "You need one who is destined to rule. You need Tiax the Mighty. You need a theologian."
Tiax had been one of Ivana the Terrible's old companions when she faced her half-brother Sarevok. Apparently, his undeniable madness drew her to him. When Ivana met the insane Cyricist gnome again at Spellhold, the party had somehow never been able to shake him off.
Jan Jansen groaned. "We don't need the Cyricist who never knows when a discreet silence would be much easier on the ear," he said. "My great-auntie Diamantina Jansen, she was a chatterbox and a half. She used to train for marathons in talking by wearing a clothespeg on her tongue ..."
"Tell me, what are the nineteen shrouded names of Leira of the Mists, false goddess of the unknown?" Tiax interrupted. "What game played the Dead Three when they reached the Throne of Bones in the days of Jergal? Which surface elvish deity is known as the Chameleon? You can't tell me, can you, elf-girl?"
"Don't call me elf-girl, I'm an adopted gnome," Aerie corrected him. "And I'm a priestess as well as a witch. Baervan Wildwanderer favours me and grants my spells, just like my Uncle Quayle. But admittedly I know little of human and elvish deities." She had fallen from the avariel too young to remember the details of her own people's gods and culture; she knew herself that her beliefs were a hopeless mishmash of half-remembered childhood and the gnome ways that Uncle Quayle taught her.
"Then this piece of writing is what we theologians refer to as a prophecy. Doomsday subset," Tiax announced, with a very wide smirk written on his face. "According to the prophecy, the true believers must snatch away their destined saviour. Their saviour will then rescue their universe from destruction at the hands of their enemy, who apparently have the ability to petrify people and objects. Their saviour has fur," he said.
Minsc stared at Tiax. "Could it really be that Boo has a much greater destiny than even I thought?" he said, his jaw hanging open. "If Boo is their saviour, then we must rescue him and fight along his side!"
Aerie pored through her own spellbook as well as two heavy tomes borrowed from Raelis Shai, guides to interplanar travel techniques. As she pored, she lit up a long pipe filled with a strong-smelling substance, attempted to smoke it, and badly coughed. Finally, she looked up from the books. "If I modify a divination spell and combine it with a seeking spell on the transmutation axis," she said, "I deduce that I will be able to identify the last time the planar boundaries were breached, and thus bring us through."
"Now this is the duty of the Witch of a ranger with a hamster!" Minsc boomed. "Let it be done, Aerie!"
Aerie chanted, stared at the empty air before her in deep concentration, and channelled raw arcane power through her bare hands. The barriers between dimensions responded to her call. Bright colours swirled around her, pointing the way to where the planes had already been breached. She tugged open a portal, a door in the air, and Minsc was the first to rush through.
The adventurers fell three feet down to land on a steel floor. They picked themselves up with barked shins and shaken bones. The din around them was considerably loud.
Minsc, Aerie, Jan, and Tiax took in their surroundings. Gleaming metal surrounded them, shiny and impressive though tarnished in places. Men and women of many different species rushed around, calling orders and carrying luggage. It was a kind of transportation hub, a between-place, where people were clearly going only to get from one place to another.
Aerie took another sniff of her long pipe, her hair still bound up below her chequered hunting cap. She coughed again. "I do not know why this is supposedly an essential part of the detection process ..." she mused. Then an officious-looking creature that looked like a pink human-shaped slug slithered up to them, moving on a long tail. Tendrils erupted from its face and arms and waved as it spoke.
"No smoking in the hangar bay! Smoking is strictly forbidden!" it said. The entity pinched the end of Aerie's pipe between two gelatinous finger-like tendrils on its hand.
"I'm sorry," Aerie said. "We are strangers, and didn't know the rules ..."
"No excuses, no excuses!" the slug-person lectured.
"Where is my hamster?" Minsc tried to grab the official by one of its tendrils, but it shook him off and slithered rapidly away, carrying the confiscated pipe.
The adventurers moved forward. "We are looking for a vessel in good condition," Aerie said, "based on the screw that we found, likely of recent construct. Its pilots will be gnomes in heavy coats, scarves, and goggles, like the strange people Raelis saw. Let us spread out and search."
They inspected the strange silvery vessels. From scraps of conversation, only tiny amounts of it in the Common tongue, it appeared that this was not a proper ships' port but rather a starport. For ships that travelled not over the seas but through the distant space between the stars, in worlds and planes far beyond Faerun. Jan Jansen walked through it as if he'd been through a hundred similar before (and perhaps he had!); Tiax strutted through crowds of tall beings from other planes and still maintained his self-importance as the future ruler of the world; Aerie stepped through the starport with a wondering gaze that she sought to focus on what Minsc needed; and Minsc cared about nothing but the absolute need to find Boo.
They saw large ships that could have contained Faerunian cities and tiny ships that would have housed maybe one kobold or, smaller still, an imp. There were copper-coloured ships and golden ships with sharp hulls like swords and ships of rusted iron that looked too ancient and battered to reach space.
Minsc rushed up to Aerie and seized her arm. "Come," he begged her. He held up the screw that they had found. "I believe this one matches. You must hurry!"
Minsc and Aerie ran to the ship, calling for Jan and Tiax to return to them. This ship was gleaming and new, of silvery metal chased with gold and copper streaks like a hamster's fur, and of middle size compared to other ships. The name Prime XVI was stencilled in Common script above several other markings on its hull, perhaps the same text in many languages. People buzzed and moved about it and it hummed and shook, as if it were about to be let free into space.
As the ship shuddered and purred, the gangplank started to lift off the loading dock. Minsc bodily picked up Tiax and Jan, one gnome under each arm, and frantically leapt atop the bridge as it retracted into the ship. Aerie, light on her feet, managed to keep pace with him. They raced to the ship's door and Minsc pounded on it. It was locked.
"Stand aside," Tiax boasted. "For, besides being an accomplished theologian - I am also as good a lockpicker as any in the world. Nay, the galaxy!"
Tiax worked at the elaborate lock, and then chanted a prayer to Cyric that seemed to help him apply his picks. The door slid open.
The adventurers invaded the starship, and were met with a heavily armed security force. But no force could hope to hold a battle-maddened Rashemi ranger who needed his hamster. Minsc swept around himself with the butt of his sword and the head of his meaty fist, and his enemies toppled like ninepins to the floor of their vessel.
They were mostly gnomes with a few taller humanoids among them.
"Sleep!" Aerie chanted, with Baervan's divine power and her own arcane study working through her. Her magic rushed out of the tips of her fingertips and compelled most of the people still standing to drop. Minsc swept a gnome fighter around by his ankles and knocked out a human.
Below them, the ship hummed and spun as if it was speeding through space faster than Chiktikka Fastpaws. Trapped within it, hurtling to an unknown destination, they had no choice but to ask some pretty searching questions.
Minsc picked up one gnome who was still awake, albeit not very conscious. This one wore a gold chain around his neck above his heavy coat, and his goggles had particularly elaborate decorations. He was likely a leader of some sort.
"Where is my hamster?" Minsc asked again. Between Minsc's brute force and a well-timed enchantment spell from Jan, the gnome started to speak.
"Could you mean ... the Prime?" the gnome choked out. "The Prime says that you were good to him ... please ... we need him ... he is in the engine room."
Minsc kept a firm hold on the gnome and they went to the engine room. Aerie spread out a web spell to keep the other crew members exactly where they were.
In the engine room, a giant hamster, as big as a house, travelled on a spinning hamster wheel. Strange colours lit up brightly as the hamster seemed to trigger energy in the wheel, which then moved into a set of pipes and vast gears. The hamster's fur, Aerie noticed, looked exactly like the patterns on Boo's fur, except that this hamster was a thousand times larger than Boo and fifty times larger than Minsc.
The gigantic hamster did not seem to be in any distress. He chirped pleasantly at them.
"Hello, Boo!" Minsc said cheerfully. "I always told you he was a miniature giant space hamster," he told his friends, beaming. "Now he has been returned to his normal size!"
"Please explain," Aerie told the gnome. "And if it is not satisfactory ... then Minsc will help you with the answers."
"With the Boot of Kicking Evil," Minsc explained.
The gnome with the elaborate goggles brushed down the gold frogging on the fringes of his coat when Minsc put him down. "I am Captain Abdullah Solar of the Starjammers," he began. "We seek to save our universe from evil stone-eating medusae from space, who first petrify and then feast upon their victims. According to the Prophecy," he said, pronouncing it with a capital letter, "the Prime is the only one who can vanquish our enemies and save the galaxy."
"What is the Prime, and what does that have to do with Boo?" Minsc said.
"Since time immemorial, we Starjammers have relied on giant space hamsters to power our spacecraft," Captain Abdullah said. "They run on the giant hamster wheels in our engine rooms and generate enough energy to cross dimensions and travel faster than light. If my calculations are correct, we have just crossed hyperspace from the interplanar starport to return to our home universe. Perhaps you can tell me," he said, "where you met the miniaturised giant space hamster that you call Boo."
"I bought him from a mysterious old pipe-smoking man wearing a hooded cloak," Minsc said. "There are a lot of mysterious old pipe-smoking men wearing hooded cloaks in the Realms. It is very normal, especially in my homeland of Rashemen, a land of adventure."
The captain gave Minsc a long, cool, contemplative stare. "Destiny works in mysterious ways," he said. "Our research showed your Boo not to be any ordinary miniature giant space hamster, but the Prime giant space hamster. Giant space hamsters were created by gnomish genetic engineers so that we could power our starships using hamster wheel technology."
Minsc, being human, looked slightly bemused at this discussion of gnomish science. Aerie, Tiax, and Jan, on the other hand, being either gnomes or adopted gnomes themselves, completely understood the rationale behind making giant space hamsters.
"The Prime was the first, and had the most effort placed into him," Captain Abdullah said. "Then the Prime disappeared. Our priests prophesied his return in our darkest hour to save us all."
"What did I tell you about a prophecy, elf-girl?" Tiax reminded Aerie.
"Adopted gnome!" she corrected him.
"If I may continue," Captain Abdullah interrupted. "We know now that the Prime was miniaturised to the size of a normal hamster, and concealed in a magical Realm in different time and space. The scientists in my crew used intense research to find him. That darkest hour has come."
"Could you tell us more about this darkest hour?" Aerie asked.
"Minsc and Boo habitually bring the tapers of goodness to light up the darkness," Minsc added. "If you hamster thieves turn out to be good after all - then I will bring blade and boot to clear away the evil!"
"Our world, no, our very universe is in grave peril," the Captain explained. He fiddled with a strange looking crystal bracelet on his wrist, and seemed to present a particular combination by twisting on different crystals in order. Immediately, a glowing star map of his galaxy seemed to erupt out of thin air. It was like a painting on a scroll, but three-dimensional; like an orrery made out of light. Aerie reached out a hand to touch one of the planets on the star map and found that her fingers passed through it. This was an excellent wizard's illusion, she thought, and wondered what Captain Abdullah's spellcasting method was. Perhaps she could study it for her own spellbook. As a gnomish wizard as well as cleric, with no single specialist field, Aerie's spell learning strategy was to never stop until she had learnt all the spells that had ever existed or would exist.
The planets spun around the glowing suns and looked full of life, with complex gnomish structures dotting surfaces of green and blue and rich fertile brown. Then Captain Abdullah indicated one particular planet, a large grey one made out of ridged and pointed stone. "This is the planet of the evil stone-eating medusae," he said. Stone starships were shown leaving the planet and flying across space, reaching the living gnome planets.
And then the evil space medusae showed their special abilities. They began to turn the planets into stone, one by one, working until no living thing remained. The rich green worlds turned grey and barren and still. Then the medusae began to eat. Stone was their food source. They devoured the planets they had already destroyed, until nothing was left. The living lights in the galaxy blinked out one by one, all colour leached and destroyed from the worlds. The medusae ate and ate, and were not satisfied. Only one alive planet remained, Captain Abdullah's home. The Starjammers set out in their ships to fight. They were beaten back, turned to stone, forced out of the sky, but they never gave up. And one tiny ship found its way to another plane, in a desperate last-minute mission to save the galaxy.
Even just watching a galaxy being destroyed in images was heartwrenching. It was a scale far bigger than any evil Aerie had ever seen before, too vast to be comprehensible. Aerie looked at Minsc and saw that his face was wet with tears. Minsc was a big man, but by far the biggest thing about him was his heart. She placed an arm carefully around his waist and drew next to him to give some support and comfort.
"So you see why we broke into your room," the Captain said, looking defeated.
"Fear not," Minsc said simply, speaking through his tears. "You have Minsc, and you have Boo, and you have Aerie our Witch, and you have the tricky hamster-stealing gnome and the mad and somewhat evil gnome who wants to rule the world! We will fight the evil that threatens to destroy all you hold dear and we will smash it into itty bitty tiny stone pieces!"
Aerie went back and set Captain Abdullah's crew free from her web spell, and the adventurers plotted a course of action against the deadly medusae. There was only one chance. They had to penetrate the evil space medusae's home planet and take out the Queen.
The medusae had a hive mind. Their queen was the key. She controlled all the medusae in all the ships, projecting her mental command instantaneously, ignoring the speed of light.
Minsc sat next to Boo's giant feet in the engine room of the ship, sharpening his sword and reaching up often to pet Boo's fur and reassure himself the hamster was still there. Jan crafted his illusion spell, humming as he worked. He was laying a covering across the Starjammers' entire ship, protecting it from sapient sight as well as non-sapient signal perception. Aerie looked through her spellbook for the protection against petrification incantation. She knew she'd written it down somewhere. Maybe near those pages where she'd been soaked with soggy kelp by a fishpond monster, trying to help Ivana the Terrible recover a lost teddy bear for a little boy's ghost. What Ivana had done to the little boy's killer immediately before that should not be remembered by anyone who wanted to maintain their sanity.
"In our world we have science, not magic," Captain Abdullah's chief navigator Morgiana told her. "If you can show us your spell, we may be able to replicate it using sufficiently advanced technology."
Morgiana was a middle-aged gnome matron with bright mischievous black eyes. She was as energetic as a living dynamo as she bustled around the ship and ensured all the systems were ready. She wore a shawl around her head fringed with gold coins that clinked loudly as she scrambled back and forth. She and Aerie put their heads together to combine Aerie's magic with the ship's technology.
Tiax was in a corner, muttering to himself as he often did. "Pay no attention," he muttered to them. "I am communing with glorious Cyric's glorious and insane plan for this and all other universes."
They slipped out of hyperspace straight into the territory of the queen medusa, appearing in the orbit of her home planet under the protection of Jan Jansen's illusion. Since they were not immediately blown out of the sky by the medusae's fleet of stone ships, it looked like the illusion held. Aerie released a breath she hadn't thought she was holding.
She patted Minsc on the arm, then fastened the handcuffs on his wrists with a final click.
They were masquerading a delivery of prisoners. While the medusae ate only stone, the minions who served on their home world needed other food sources - specifically, the living. With only one planet left that was not turned to stone, they were becoming desperate for food supplies. Of course, after the last planet became stone, the medusae would no longer need their minions to fight for them.
So, under the second layer of Jan Jansen's extensive illusions, the adventurers and heroes marched boldly into the medusae's sanctuary. Boo was invisible, in his gigantic form, walking closely beside Minsc. Aerie stayed close to both Minsc and Boo, protected by Jan's illusion and her own spells. She couldn't see exactly how Jan had made her look but it was no doubt very evil and intimidating.
The scene others would see was medusae minions escorting a group of prisoners down to the kitchens. Most of the gnome crew and Minsc served as prisoners, with Jan, Aerie, and Captain Abdullah as guards. Tiax was somewhere Aerie couldn't see, invisible by his prayers to Cyric, and Morgiana was far above them, piloting the ship to keep it in a stable orbit.
They'd passed the first hurdle by walking into the first level of the medusae's citadel. And then they were spotted by some sentry of more ambitious observational skills than the rest. A loud alarm sounded in all their ears, deafening and piercing as a spear thrust.
And so Minsc broke his shackles with a single flex of his wrist muscles, and flung himself on the nearest enemy.
These minions resembled Faerunian illithids, grey-blue creatures in black with tentacles for mouths. The tentacles wrapped around Minsc's head, but he easily flung the creature aside to make it crash into a second one. Aerie dropped her invisibility and let loose her first contingency. A hail of meteor swarms, lightning bolts, fire, and magic missiles swept over the attackers, striking many down before they could even begin to fall on the Starjammers and Minsc. Aerie kept pace with Minsc, standing behind him. Minsc didn't need any help when it came to physical force, but she cast the speed of Chiktikka Fastpaws and the protection of Baervan on him as he struck illithids down with his sword.
Minsc was remarkably good at fending away brain-eating creatures. They seemed not to find him a very attractive target.
"Butt-kicking for goodness!" Minsc howled one of his battle cries.
Beside him, the giant hamster had dropped out of invisibility and was also bearing down on their evil brain-eating foes.
"Go for the eyes, Boo!" Minsc shouted, and then realised his mistake. "No, go for their entire bodies, Boo, for you are truly a giant space hamster!"
Boo leapt on an evil brain-eater with hamster claws and hamster teeth and hamster fury. In moments, the brain-eating minion was a pile of blood-soaked shreds on the ground like a discarded spinach leaf. Using fighting skills he must have learnt from watching on Minsc's shoulder during battles, Boo the gigantic space hamster sprung quickly to destroy the next foe.
But their enemy swiftly regrouped. Medusa minions appeared on balustrades above them with projectile weapons that fired what looked like light downwards. One of the Starjammers screamed and fell to the ground with a black burn mark on his shoulder. Aerie rushed to him and chanted to Baervan to knit the flesh together and heal the burn. She fended off blows with a shield summoned to her, made out of thin air from raw abjuration energy. Minsc ran back and grabbed both Aerie and the wounded gnome, and carried them out of there. They had temporary shelter under an alcove. Captain Abdullah and his Lieutenant Samira returned fire on the enemy using projectile weapons of their own, firing highly compact ammunition at great speeds.
Another Starjammer took up their injured companion, Sinbad the ship medic. Behind them, other Starjammers hadn't made it. Their bodies lay still on the ground, three gnomes and two humans. There was no choice but to continue on in the names of the dead.
The adventurers faced a choice of three doors. Another burst of intense fire from behind them made them choose very quickly. Aerie, Minsc, Boo, and Jan found themselves behind the door on the right, with Jan fiddling the lock closed behind them, while Captain Abdullah and his living crew members had taken the other route.
A deeper stone cavern opened before them. A group of naked snake-women with six voluptuous breasts each all pointed crossbows at them. They looked like yuan-ti, with scaled tails like snakes but the torsos of incredibly beautiful six-breasted women. There were two brunettes, three blondes, and one redhead. Without much structural support in their non-existent clothing, their perky bosoms and rosy nipples billowed up and down as they gracefully swayed and undulated. They hissed in a tongue that Aerie didn't know.
Jan Jansen hissed back at them. They seemed to understand what he said. Jan reached into his pack and looked to be gathering the spell components for another grand illusion.
"Go ahead without me!" he called to the others. They had no choice. They went on.
The medusae needed to eat stone to survive. Therefore, they must feel safer deeper underground. Aerie, Minsc, and Boo rushed through the passages that seemed to direct them deeper, to find their way to the medusa queen and end this war.
They ran into a cavern that was like a set of underground pools, with deep blue water and moss lining the walls. There were even trees in here, but when you touched them they were made of some synthetic substance. Soft mood lighting gleamed from the walls. They slowed down as they skirted the environment, looking out for any traps. Boo chirped an alert.
A group of naked male fauns approached in this somewhat lovely forest setting. Aerie blushed. They had obviously been bathing and water soaked their handsome chests and long hair. They were completely naked, and the comparison to Haer'Dalis was rather favourable if anything. Their pectorals rippled, and their abdominal muscles gleamed as if they'd been oiled up like gladiators. They had all attained a perfect state of gymnastic fitness, tall, slim, and well built. Soft fur coated their muscular legs, leading down to wickedly cloven hooves.
Well, if the medusae hire six-breasted snake-women I suppose they have goat-men as well; one must cater to all kinds of adventurers and tastes ... Aerie thought.
Then she incinerated them with a series of fireballs all around the lovely clearing.
"Come on!" Minsc, Boo, and Aerie travelled ever downward. They fought squads of medusae that seemed to teleport out of the stone walls, or materialise as if created out of them. With Aerie's protection against petrification, they did not have to fear the snake-hair, but they heard the chants and felt the strength of their enemies. Every last medusa was connected to the Queen, sending her visions through their cold black eyes ... and the Queen knew that they were coming to find her.
There was a long shaft, a platform, and a metal pulley. Enemies approached on their left and right. There was no other way to go but down.
Aerie, Minsc, and the giant space hamster leapt onto the platform. Boo's giant weight was enough in itself to tear the metal rope as if it had been a dry autumn twig. They plummeted. Aerie clung to Minsc with one hand and to Boo's fur with the other, and frantically cast a spell to make the three of them fall as aerodynamically as feathers whirling in the breeze.
At the bottom of the shaft, Aerie and Minsc fell into Boo's soft fur instead of into the ground. They got up, a little shaken. It was completely dark down here. It felt as if they had fallen into the centre of the planet. This was the pit, the final destination. They walked through complete darkness, with nothing there even to Aerie's infravision, no reflection or refraction, as if light itself was eaten alive here.
And then a new light burst upon them. They turned out of the last dark passage and saw a searing white glow in the distance. They had finally reached the bottom of the pit.
This was the medusa queen's domain. She was in the centre of the hive, in her position of strength below countless miles of stone, and her power source lay immediately below her. It was a pit of pure energy that she drew on to control her followers and speak to them through the speed of light. The white light was so searing that none of the adventurers could look at it directly, like the heart of a blazing star. The medusa queen was only a shadow on its surface. She awoke to see them before her, and the long curling trails of her snake-hair untangled themselves and hissed like ten thousand wyrms.
"Now taste hamster justice!" Minsc shouted, and leapt into action. Boo moved with perfect synchronicity with him. Giant hamster and ranger fought side by side with the familiarity borne of long companionship, knowing each other's movements exactly. They set upon the medusa queen. Minsc sought to strike directly at the monster, while Boo occupied her vast snake-hair with his claws and teeth. But the medusa queen had skin like stone, and Minsc's blows did little or nothing. The medusa queen struck back at Minsc, almost lazily. He tried to fend the blow off with his greatsword.
And the sword shattered into tiny pieces. Minsc was left unarmed. The medusa's next punch drew blood. Minsc fell to the ground. The right side of his chest was a mass of blood, but still he got to his feet to fight. He had no weapons left, only his fists. The medusa hit him again. Aerie tried to protect him, sustain his life, but she could heal only so much damage.
"Do not let ..." Minsc pleaded. "My little hamster become an orphan ..."
His gigantic little hamster fought fiercely, twice the size of the medusa queen. Minsc landed a punch on the medusa's stone shoulder and it did nothing. One of her long serpent-hairs wrapped itself around Minsc's body. He tried to fight it off but could not untangle himself. It squeezed Minsc's chest, strangling him. Then another serpent tripped up Boo, knocking the hamster down.
She loves stone, Aerie thought. She rushed to the queen of the medusae. Then she cast a stoneskin around herself.
Immediately, the snake heads all rushed toward Aerie, the queen medusa's attention torn away by the food source in front of her. The serpent around Minsc released him. Aerie waited until the very last moment, with the medusa's serpents all arching toward her, ready to devour her. Then she dropped her stoneskin. The serpents still struck at her, but by that time Aerie was close enough to look into the queen medusa's eyes.
Blue eyes met cold black and Aerie's spell of confusion hit. The queen medusa's brain was painfully struck by dazzling lights and bizarre reflections and refractions. She could no longer think and could no longer control her followers.
But she could indeed hit back, and the blow knocked Aerie back against the wall and into sharp hard rock, where she landed, concussed, blood running down her face and so badly injured that she was out of the battle.
"My witch shall be avenged!" Minsc shouted, and his battle-rage gave him renewed strength and power. He flung himself on the queen medusa and punched as hard as he could, and this time he began to crack the stone.
The medusa flailed, confused. Her random blows missed Minsc, because Boo took them for him. She knocked the giant space hamster into the pit below, into the glowing white energy that fuelled her. Minsc screamed, fearing that his hamster would be lost and incinerated alive.
Boo, perhaps, had expected to be incinerated too. But it turned out that giant space hamsters were designed to absorb and dissipate energy - and that the Prime space hamster was fitted for this more than any other hamster.
Boo opened his mouth. He began to devour the queen medusa's power source as if it were a cache of hazelnuts to store in his cheeks. He fed on the central energy source, and with every bite, the queen medusa became weaker and weaker. The cracks in her stone became wider.
This was the mighty giant space hamster, the Prime space hamster, playing the role he was made for - to save the galaxy!
And without Minsc, Boo could not succeed. For Minsc grimly hit the medusa queen over and over, splintering and bloodying his own knuckles as he did so. He was in deep pain but surged forward under his berserker rage, opening the cracks in the medusa's stone form with each blow. The darkness grew around them as Boo continued to consume the medusa queen's energy. She stayed confused under Aerie's spell, her serpents weaving as if they were drunk. But she still maintained her formidable strength, and in her final desperate moments she was powerful indeed. She knocked Minsc down with another fierce blow, and pinned him below one of her serpents.
If the medusa queen was to die this day, she would die and take at least one enemy with her. Returning consciousness glimmered in her face even while Boo devoured the last of her power source below. Aerie felt her protection spell against petrification fade even as she herself did, bleeding and broken and losing consciousness. She could only watch in horror and despair, unable to move. The medusa queen and her serpents readied themselves for the death blow against Minsc. Stripped of any protection, he would be turned to stone and then shattered in the medusa's own death throes.
And then, out of nowhere, came a cry.
"Tiax the Mighty strikes this blow in the name of Cyric the Mad!"
Tiax became visible, and with him the undead ghast he controlled and summoned wherever he went. The ghast materialised in front of Minsc, protecting him from the medusa's blow. The undead could not be turned to stone, since they were already dead. The ghast under Tiax' control grappled with the medusa queen, and she could do nothing to harm it. The undead creature forced her to the lip of the pit that had once held her power. Then, it gave her a final shove.
She plummeted. And Boo the giant space hamster rose.
With the energy Boo had consumed, he was now a flying giant space hamster. He glowed brightly with more power and light than even he could contain, and levitated out of the pit, his black eyes glinting with wisdom and joy and victory.
He had fulfilled his destiny and saved his galaxy of origin. He flew out of the pit while the medusa queen fell and cracked to smithereens at the bottom, and he gently nuzzled his friend Minsc with the tip of his nose. Healing power crossed from Boo to Minsc, who were bonded and readily shared their life force with each other. The ranger stood up, fully replenished in health and vigour. Minsc petted Boo's head enthusiastically, then went to where Aerie lay. He gently picked her up and held her carefully in both arms.
The entire planet shook and trembled. Tiax jumped and swore.
"Cyric curse us! The entire planet's going to blow with the death of its queen and destruction of its power source! They don't make these things like they used to."
"Need a lift?"
A fleet of well-lit flying vehicles dropped in from above. Captain Abdullah piloted the one in the lead. He saluted them.
"Bravo!" he said. "I knew the Prime could do it! Our route took us through the garbage chutes," he explained.
There were always garbage chutes or sewers. It was a standard rule of adventuring.
"After sundry adventures including spiked death traps, enormous slugs, and king-size miniature death worms, we found ourselves in the invasion hangar. These anti-grav sleds will let us escape before the whole thing blows!" Captain Abdullah offered a hand to Tiax, who clambered on behind him.
Minsc looked up and waved to Jan Jansen, who'd come in the rear and looked hale and hearty. "I thought you had surely sacrificed yourself to save us, brave tricky hamster-stealing gnome!" he called. "I must forgive you now for trying to thieve Boo away!"
"Believe me, I don't think I could handle Boo any more," Jan muttered. "As to how I survived, it's a very interesting story. Did you know that it's a well known fact that tall voluptuous six-breasted women feel an irresistible attraction to short ageing gnomish men? Particularly older gnomish men with clever tongues. So first I started with some love poetry, then we brought out a few bottles of pit viper wine, and then things rather developed from there." He looked rather pleased with himself. "But it was all in the name of duty and I was really making a heroic sacrifice, of course. I would be much happier at home with my Lissa, if she were still available."
The planet cracked and shuddered some more in a terrifying earthquake, tearing itself apart from the inside out.
"Time to go!" Captain Abdullah cried.
And, behind the fleet of Starjammer gnomes, Boo the giant flying space hamster swept up into space. Minsc the barbarian ranger rode on the back of the giant hamster, and carried Aerie fainting in his strong arms with her long blonde hair sweeping behind her. As they left the site of their great battle, Minsc could only shout his battle cry.
"FOR HAMSTER JUSTICE!"
Back on the ship, Sinbad the medic tended to Aerie's battle wounds, while the dead crew members lay in state, covered by white sheets. They would be well remembered for their sacrifice by their friends. Departing, the Starjammers had taken back their dead at the last moment to lay them to rest as heroes. Aerie blinked, swayed as she stood up, and relaxed into Minsc's steadying arms. She quickly kissed his cheek to reassure him that she was well again.
"Did I mention that as part of our priestly training, both Tiax and I are able to resurrect the dead?" Aerie said.
And the lights of the galaxy slowly blinked on again with fresh life and renewal. The stone-faced medusae had all stopped in their tracks and frozen at the very moment that their queen was dead. Their hive mind was stopped with a single blow. The heroes had saved the day.
The Starjammers' ship travelled once more through time and space to reach the interplanar starport. With the power of a giant space hamster who had recently consumed a queen medusa's entire energy source, the trip was nothing. They could return the Faerunians to the very moment in time and space they had left, Morgiana the navigator promised. Boo, still glowing, looked smug as Minsc and Aerie petted him, as smug as only a hamster who had recently saved a galaxy was able to look.
"The Prime has a choice," Captain Abdullah said. "He has fulfilled his destiny. He could remain in our galaxy, power innumerable starships, and be feted as a giant space hero ever after. Or else ..."
Boo chirped. His eyes met Minsc's with meaning.
It takes colossal amounts of power and many wild and different violations of the laws of physics for a creature to change size, whether it be through compression or expansion. Boo realised that he could use the power he had taken to once more become a miniature giant hamster, and return to his first and truest friend. He and Minsc were true companions in good times and bad, and the choice was no choice at all for a hamster whose heart was the greatest part of him.
Boo shrank into a miniature giant hamster, and his power dissipated from him. The tiny hamster took his accustomed place on Minsc's shoulder. He chirped wisely. Minsc patted him with one hand, and held Aerie's hand at the same time.
"Farewell, Boo, hero of time and space." Captain Abdullah nodded at Boo's choice as if it was what he had expected, and knelt before the miniature giant space hamster who had saved them. The rest of the crew followed suit, bidding farewell to their Prime and Saviour. Or at least, farewell until they should meet again in multiversal adventures.
"He left us enough power in the engines to get you and us safely home," said Morgiana, standing up.
Minsc, Boo, Aerie, Jan, and Tiax quietly appeared in Minsc's room almost at the very moment they had left it. Outside, the Athkatla dawn was beginning to light the day in blue and slate-grey shades that crept in through the window.
That was when Ivana the Terrible knocked on their door. She only ever knocked once.
"I hope you've enjoyed your sleep-in," Ivana the Terrible said, the Bhaalspawn of Candlekeep, the Terror of Baldur's Gate, the Slayer of Spellhold, the Doom of Ust Natha. The party leader. She smiled with her iron teeth. "Let's slay some vampires today."
Minsc and Boo exchanged secret smiles. "Let us kick vampire butt," he said.
And the adventures continued, as they always would.