In comparison to other, similarly sized villages, Grayberry would be considered unremarkable save for three, quite noticeable quirks.
The first is its location: Nestled in the valley of the Alterdan Mountain range, access to Grayberry is best described as challenging. Known as much for its treacherous, jagged peaks as for the multitudinous tribes of orcs, hobgoblins, trolls and other equally nasty creatures that dot the range’s countless caves as for the brutal snow storms that plague the mountains preventing access by air. Travelers are forced to brave narrow, icy paths in hopes of reaching the village alive.
Second are the berries from which the village gets its name. Found only in the fertile ground surrounding the village’s 200 or so residents, the fruit is prized for its use in rich, deep gray dyes, medicinal poultices and, most of all, the realm-famous, highly intoxicating, odd-colored Gray Beer, the brewing process kept secret by the town’s brewmasters.
But it is the third unique characteristic of the village of Grayberry that most differentiates it from the hundreds of other villages that dot the continent of Aramuk: The Knotted Oak.
Ancient in age, deep, dark brown in color and standing more than two hundred feet in height and forty feet in circumference, the Knotted Oak (never just, “the Oak” and certainly never, “the tree”) is marked with scores of deep knots, their inner shoulders worn smooth from countless millennia of wind and rain. Dark green, light brown and pale tan leaves form the canopy of the tree, never falling, regardless of the season.
The largest of these knots measures a full eight feet high and slightly more across, passage through which is blocked by a stout steel door on which is bolted a sign unnecessarily proclaiming that this is, in fact, The Knotted Oak.
Despite its imposing size the door pulls open easily, revealing the comforting characteristics of a tavern’s warm, welcoming light, the sound of revelry and smell of roasting meats and the simultaneous sweet-and-bitter aroma of the town’s famous ale.
Stepping through the knot-cum-doorway reveals something that might – if it weren’t for the all-too-real presence of dragons, magic and elves in the world – cripple the sanity of visitors: The inside of the Knotted Oak is immensely larger than the outside. The boundaries of the tree’s walls are at least four times larger than appeared outside. The arboreal top lies (perhaps literally) countless feet above the smooth, planked ground and platforms separated by at least 20 feet apiece mark an unknowable number of levels, access to each gained by riding the large steel platform in the tavern’s center. The platform’s mechanism of pulleys that raise and lower riders are manned by two massive orcs, the muscles on their arms, backs and legs stretched taut and bulging as they heave on chains as thick as a man’s waist slowly raising the elevator to the appropriate destination. A dozen species of birds fly up and down, delivering messages in unnerving human voices.
The hewn pine tables that fill the place are continuously filled, but there always seems to be just one more available to receive newly arrived customer. Waiters and waitresses of all multitude of races scurry between tables, plates of all manner of food and drink balanced precariously on heads, arms and for some of the non-human servers, other, often unidentifiable appendages.
Along the back wall stands a 60-foot-long bar, its surface pockmarked by the glasses and elbows of the uncountable number of patrons that have visited the established over the centuries. Manning the bar are three sets of identical twins. Each works a third of the bar and stands almost magically ready to deliver the next round.
Finally, and most disconcerting, are the countless portals lining the walls of each floor of the Knotted Oak, each a recess that periodically glow blue as patrons step in or out, coming from, or headed to, each portal’s unique destination.
Because such is the true nature of the Knotted Oak. It stands as an interdimensional crossroads to the infinite number of planes and realities that make up all of existence. Neither distance nor time impede travel – a traveler steps into a specific knot and travels instantaneously to the destination where they step out through an equally specific portal.
At the moment, the portals are not your concern. More than a month ago you received a letter asking for your appearance at the Knotted Oak, the promise of fame and treasure enough to convince you to make the treacherous journey. After braving the weather, the orcs and (not fewer than a dozen) other rabid, vile beasts you’ve arrived. If he or she is present, the note’s author – expressive penmanship establishing it to be one “Benefactor 43” – doesn’t stand out among the raucous crowd. You momentarily fear the validity of the message, wondering if the journey was worth it.
But after the cold, the combat and the consternation you realize that you stand inside a magical tavern, the promise of warm food and good, famous ale enough to at least temporarily assuage your concern.
After all, this is the Knotted Oak. Literally infinite opportunity lies ahead.
And so, as the best of adventures always begin, the question is …
What do you do?