Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Session 13 - The Spoils of War

The hour was late at the Rusty Bucket. In a private dining hall away from the common room, Chaum Gansworth and Luzane Parrin, two of Diamond Lake's mine managers, sat together, deep in discussion.

"Why will you not commit yourself completely to our cause, Chaum?" Parrin asked, not for the first time. Luzane Parrin was the only female mine manager in Diamond Lake, having inherited her holdings when her mother was stricken with the Red Death two decades ago. She had been young then, only seventeen years old, and had been forced to grow up fast, thrust into the poltics of the mining town. Her inexperience had gotten the better of her, unfortunately, and still she struggled to maintain what was hers from the machinations of Balabar Smeck. She was nearing middle age now, but things had changed little, her life a constant losing battle against the clever mine manager, who seemed to be untouchable, amassing more and more power and wealth while the other managers fell to bankruptcy and destitution, those few able to stand against him seeming to vanish or be killed under mysterious circumstances. One of those mysterious deaths had been her own husband several year ago, and Smeck had been pressing her on a romantic front ever since.

"Smeck is a powerful man, and dangerous to oppose openly. I am not ready to risk all I have. Better to play the silent partner for now." Chaum Gansworth was the youngest of the mine managers of Diamond Lake, but he possessed a cautious and calculating mind. Luzane and he had been involved romantically for some time now, and he was certainly sympathetic to her cause, but forming an open alliance with her and Gelch Tilgast was too risky. Even together, they might not be enough to stand against Balabar Smeck. The man was dangerous, seemingly untouchable, and his drive knew no limits. Besides, Chaum had not forgotten that Tilgast, the driving force behind the alliance against Smeck, had been little better. The aging manager had used the power he had held for most of his life to lord over the weaker managers, and had made Chaum's life hell when he had first arrived in town. That wealth and power had only made him a target once Smeck arrived, and Chaum admitted, if only to himself, that he enjoyed seeing the old man fall. He enjoyed it all the more now that Tilgast had been forced to crawl to him seeking help against Smeck.

His unwillingness to join directly did not mean he couldn't chip away at Balabar Smeck quietly. In this game, it paid to have something on everyone. Circumstances changed as often as the weather, and it payed to be prepared. Which was what they were doing here.

"Do you really think he is going to be of any use?" He had is doubts, having only recently even heard the person's name spoken, and then usually connected to trouble.

Luzane nodded. "I do. He seems capable, and has no love for Smeck at all. Even his price is reasonable. I think he just has personal scores to settle, and needs us to make it happen."

"That is what scares me."

A knock on the door signaled that he had arrived. Chaum called for him to enter. Their guest entered and set down, his features hidden beneath the cowl of his hooded cloak. His head bobbed slightly in greeting.

Luzane thanked him for coming.

"We have been informed you seek to work for us?" Chaum got right to the business at hand. "What could you possibly have to offer us that is of any worth?"

The newcomer leaned back in his chair.

"No doubt you have heard my name spoken recently"

"Indeed, and trouble is attached to it. It seems like everyone in town has a score to settle with you."

He nodded again. "Yet none have managed to get their hands on me, despite the fact that I remain in town. Proof that I can avoid being discovered when I do not wish to be." The managers could hardly argue that. Gorvic had every sell-sword in town looking for him, to no avail. He continued," You want to know what I can offer? I can act independently with no direct ties to any of you. I can get in places and do things that you cannot, and I am out of the sight of the Lord-Mayor. I can sneak in and find dirt in the corners of the deepest closets. What can I offer you?"

Jhero Balimar leaned forwards, letting the light of the candles illuminate the features of his young face, his eyes seeming to glow with fires of their own.

"I can give you Balabar Smeck."

* * *

Auric's strong features looked across the rocky expanse of the Cairn Hills, thinking, not for the first time, that coming to Diamond Lake had been a bad decision. The warrior had hoped to find adventure, and had gathered companions he had worked with in the past and knew were capable. Khellek's suggestion that they try their luck in the tombs surrounded Diamond Lake had seemed as good as any-he was the smart one, after all. If anyone knew where to look, it would be him. Auric frowned.

"I guess not," he muttered into the wind. He looked to his two companions, both scrambling around the rocks and through the undergrowth, searching.

Despite the lack of real adventure (killing hundreds of stirges hardly counted as such), Auric had in fact enjoyed his time in Diamond Lake, itself. The place was a thriving, exciting, and dangerous. You never knew who you would run into, but they were almost always up to something. He had particularly enjoyed his run ins with that other adventuring company... what did they call themselves... Auric thrived on competition, and so far they had given his band the most challenge. Maybe not the sort of challenge he really wanted, but cat and mouse could be entertaining, as well. That was, of course, why they were out here now, which did not particularly please him. This is a waste of time, he thought to himself.

"This is a waste of time," he said aloud to his companions. Tirra smirked at him, like usual. Khellek did not respond at all. "That crazy necromancer led us on a fool's errand. He just wanted to rip you off for magic items, Khellek. Even if we find this Cairn that group from town has been exploring...what do they call themselves again? .... they have already taken anything of any value with them.

Khellek was moving through the bottom of a gully and stopped to stare at the large tunnel cutting a line into the side of the bluff before him. An arch of ancient design marked its entrance, and the whispers of an ancient language whistles from within, warning of a swift death to those who trespassed.

"Oh, I would not be too sure of that, my friend." He looked at the barely visible runes carved into the arch. "I would not be too sure of that at all."

* * *

Ragnolin Dourstone sat at his desk, going over some of contract records. It was late, but the mine manager couldn't sleep. He was agitated this night, and knew sleep would never come. The business of late tended to keep him agitated. the Faceless One kept his own council, but Ragnolin had little love of Balabar Smeck. Bringing him into things was dangerous, at best. Nevertheless, he knew better than to question the wizard's plans. the dwarf just hoped he could weather this storm until it passed. He prayed to
Vergadain that it would.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He bid them enter. It was one of his guards.

"What is it?"

The dwarf cleared his throat. "Master Dourstone, there had been a disturbance at the mine. Several outsiders have broken in, sir. One of the miners awoke to discover them trying to sneak past. We followed them, but can't seem to find any sign of them."

Could it be time, already? The Faceless One had given no impression he was ready to move forward with his plan.

"Assemble the overseers. Tell them to meet me outside the mine." The dwarven guard left with his orders. Once the door was closed, Ragnolin pulled a small locked coffer from the corner of his desk, drawing the key from a chain around his neck. He removed a scroll from the box, broke the seal and unrolled it. It's surface was covered in pictorial glyphs. Pushing up his sleeve, the mine manager looked at the runes that had been magically tattooed there, matching the ones on the page. Looking from his arm to the letter, he translated the code and read his master's commands...

* * *

In the activity inside the compound, few eyes were turned towards the outside, and in the shadows a figure crept silently towards the wall, darting from one cover to the next effortlessly. Reaching the wall, he pulled a rope from his pack, its end looped in a loose knot. With practiced ease, he spun the rope around, sending the loop up and over one of the wooden spikes topping the wall, the knot tightening as he pulled. Taking a quick look around to make sure no eyes were upon him, the shadow quickly scaled the rope to the top, crouching balanced between the sharpened wooden posts as he surveyed the area beyond the wall. It seem young Bolero and his companions had stirred up some trouble. What the ramifications of that trouble meant were unknown, but that was not why he was here. Not completely, anyway.

Reaching around his neck, he pulled forth the symbol of Pelor, muttering a quick prayer to steady himself before dropping into the closest shadows inside the wall.

* * *

Two Nights Ago...

Two men dug the cold ground with their shovels, their sweat making them shiver. Spring was fighting to take hold, but it had been a harsh winter, and its cold sting was still carried by the wind, finding its way to the skin despite their heavy clothes.

"Grave diggin' ain't what I had in mind for a night's work," one of the men muttered to the other.

"It's good coin for the job. Keep quiet and keep shoveling'," the other retorted. "You don't want to make him angry and drain our souls or sumthin'." he cut his eyes back to the necromancer, standing farther up the hill with his nose buried in a black and red book, his pale skin seeming to glow in Celene's blue light. Behind him, the ruins of the Land farmhouse could be seen.

After several minutes, they finally uncovered the yellow-white of aged bone. before they could even speak, Filge's shadow fell over them, a dark look on his hawkish face.

"You employment has come to an end, gentlemen. Please remove yourselves from my sight."

"You promised us gold.." one of the diggers began. Filge drew forth a fistful of coins and threw them into the dirt.

"Here is your gold, now gather it up and flee before I decide to murder you both and turn you into my servants." The necromancer's hand began to glow with dark energy. The two men scrambled to grab the scattered coin, then ran for their lives, leaving their shovels behind. Filge grinned.

The wizard grabbed the closest shovel and dropped into the dark hole. Using the tool, he cleared the remaining dirt away before planting it triumphantly into the ground, as if he, himself, had dug the entire thing. The exposed bones of Alastor Land were spread out before him. Pulling out a piece of graphite from a hidden pocket of his robe, he began to scribe arcane symbols upon them.

"Oh, little Alastor Land, what secrets do you keep from the living? I am not as naive as our new friends. There is more to you than meets the eyes, isn't there, boy? What were you really doing in the tomb of Zosiel, eh?"

Moonday, Readying 17th, 595 CY (con't)

Ardynn, Ashbourn, Bolero, and Snuffy took inventory of the items taken from the fallen Hextorites. Ardynn and Snuffy wove spells of detect magic to help separate items of use from the ordinary. A large pile of mundane masterwork items were found and laid aside, to be reclaimed if they managed to live long enough. The items of magic bore greater scrutiny, and some unused potions and scrolls were uncovered and distributed. A ring of protection and a wand of cure light wounds were given to Ardynn. Bolero was to wear Theldrick's magical suit of full plate, but no amount of cleaning would remove the symbol of Hextor, painted in blood, from the chest piece of the armor. Several things were tried and nothing worked. Snuffy could sense three distinct enchantments upon the armor: one of universal, one of abjuration, and one of divination. It was surmised that the universal was simply the enhancement of the armor's protective qualities, and the abjuration aura must be what protected the painted symbol from being removed. The divination was a mystery. Bolero set the armor aside for the time being.

There had been no sign of reinforcements so far, so they decided to take a careful look around the Hextorite compound. The prisoner, Garras the half-orc, had spoken not a word since he had been stripped and bound, and numbly walked where led.

They explored the entire compound, searching carefully for anything that might prove useful. In a small chapel to the Duke of Hell, they found two everburning torches to replace the one they had lost, as well as a small iron box in a trapped secret panel behind the alter. Inside they found some more items of value, as well as a magical pearl of power, which Snuffy claimed. In Theldrick's humble chamber, they found more loot, a journal, and a strange scroll written in some sort of code. They read the first page of the journal, as well as the last two, discovering some useful information concerning the Ebon Triad, particularly the names of the other two sect leaders, and what roles they played in the cult. A more thorough read of the journal would have to wait, so Bolero placed it in his pack for the time being. The cipher, which was mentioned in the journal, was a riddle they could not crack, and was pocketed for later scrutiny, as well. Perhaps it would be the evidence they needed to get the garrison involved.

As the group searched Garras and Kendra's room, the half-orc suddenly attacked Bolero. The paladin responded by stepping back but not retaliating. Giving the Pelorite a hard look, the cleric instead attacked Ashbourn. Bolero jumped on him and subdued him, the Hexorite screaming, "Kill me!" His loss of honor coupled with his grief over his wife's death had seemingly devastated the cleric, and he nearly begged them to take his life, which forced the group to make a difficult decision. They could not bring their prisoner along with them, but had no real way to dispose of him otherwise, short of murder. Ash argued in favor of the practicality of this, and Filge supported him. Bolero refused to even entertain it. Ardynn felt compassion for the grieving husband, if not for the defeated priest, but did not speak her opinion on how to deal with the situation. Snuffy did not outright propose an option, but quietly agreed that killing him now would be wrong. Seeing no real solution, Bolero removed the manacles and told Garras to leave. Ash was not pleased with the solution, nor, to a lesser extent, were the others, but no one stopped him. Filge was furious, informing the paladin that he had lost his mind. The cleric requested an additional boon, as well-that he be allowed to take his wife's body with him. No one disputed it, though many thought Filge might have considered doing so. Garras was cautious as he turned to leave, but no one tried to stop him.

The rest of the compound was explored, yielding more valuables and a wand of enlarge person. Ardynn alone possessed the ability to use the wand, so it was hers to keep.

The entire compound explored, with the only apparent way was back out the front entrance, they stopped to plot their next course of action. They were mostly healed of their wounds, but most of their magic was exhausted. They lacked the strength to battle against the foes that no doubt waited beyond the other two doors, but had nowhere to rest, and a trip up the elevator would lose them the element of surprise, not to mention getting back into the mine would be impossible. Seeing no other recourse, it was decided that they would seek out the followers of the Lord of Slaughter. According to the journal, they-whatever they were- were still weakened from a trek through the Underdark to join the Ebon Triad, and the leader, a proclaimed prophet, seemed to be the source of information for the cult's endeavors. Though this Faceless One was clearly the leader, if they could take away his seer, perhaps they could hurt their activities.

Exiting back into what Theldrick referred to in his journal as the "Dark Cathedral", the group found the water was now violently moving, and the haze had turned into a cloud of greenish-black energy. Their concern grew at contemplating the meaning. Garras was on the elevator, but Ash had disabled it after the battle with the guards, so he was unable to leave. The Hextorite agreed that he would leave and handle the affairs of his deceased spouse, then return in three days to aid his comrades as best he could, but would not sound an alarm if they would allow him passage. Ash reset the mechanism and Garras left. The monk gave him time to depart before pulling the platform back down. Another discussion began about how best to proceed that turned into more of an argument, while Ash disabled the elevator again, this time removing core parts and putting them in his pack. The same arguments concerning their weakened state versus losing the only chance they had were repeated. Filge confirmed that travel back up to the mine was a bad idea, letting slip that his owl familiar was actually keeping a watch from outside the mine. Bolero was not pleased the necromancer was keeping secrets, but Filge sited that until recently, he had been their shackled slave, only being allowed free to help them fight. He was well within his rights to keep secrets from them. The group realized that a peculiar owl they had noticed days ago but dismissed must have been Filge's companion. Ash considered the necromancer’s comments concerning knowing more than he let on, and realized it was due to his owl eavesdropping even when the wizard was indeed out of earshot.

Filge abruptly ended the new argument, waving everyone to silence. He noting that they were foolishly arguing in the main chapel of the evil cult’s lair. While doing so was a stupid thing to do, it was not the point he was trying to make. They had been loudly talking and no one had responded. After all the time they had spent and all the noise they had made, not a single member of the other factions had even come to investigate. The theological difference between the three factions separated them as much as the belief in the Overgod bound them. It was possible they had very little contact with one another. They decided to retreat to the Hoxtorite chapel again and take a closer look at the Theldrick's journal. Perhaps a solid read would reveal more concerning the operation and communication between the cult's varying factions.

After a complete read of the journal, a two hour undertaking, it was discovered that the three factions would go for days on end without communication. Relief flooded through the weary bodies of the group, and they finally decided to hole up inside the Hextorite chapel and rest.

Godsday, Readying 18th, 595 CY

The remainder of the night passed uneventful. The group again turned to Bolero’s armor, and finally figured out that anointing it in holy water would cleanse the breastplate of its evil symbol. Having no holy water amongst them, Filge offered to trade some in exchange for his potion syringe. Bolero refused the offer, telling the necromancer that he would use the items for evil purposes. Filge pointed out that they were now allies, and they had taken everything he owned except his spellbook. He wanted his syringe returned. Filge sited that everything he used it for were no evil at all, such as administering potions of healing and defense to himself. He also admitted he had used it to inject chemicals into corpses he intended to use for animation, but obviously it would prove useless for that now that he was a slave to the Shining Light of Pelor.

Ash gave the syringe back, despite Bolero, but the paladin refused to use the holy water because it had come from the necromancer. Filge became outraged, screaming that no amount of aid would ever prove himself to the paladin, or the entire group for that matter. They simply let a known enemy go because it was inconvenient to be responsible for him, while treating Filge himself with nothing but distrust and disdain. Bolero said that it was because the necromancer was not sincere in any of his platitudes towards the group. Filge’s eyes bulged with uncontainable rage as he screamed at the paladin, claiming to have actually killed all of the members of his dinner party, murdering them all in their sleep and savoring every death, because he was a soulless monster. Filge then stormed off to the far side of the room, fuming. While the group discussed the wizard and his reaction, Ardynn noticed Filge had several more of the glass potion bottles that fit his syringe hidden beneath his robe. She quietly pointed it out to the others, but no one took any actions against him.

Snuffy prayed to the Dweller on the Horizon for his spells, and blessed a flask of water, giving the liquid to Bolero.

Washing the bloody symbol of Hextor away, Bolero proceeded to strap on the pieces. Ashbourn, looking at the armor fully assembled, could not help but notice the large open diamond in which Hextor’s symbol had once resided seemed oddly empty, as if designed to hold a symbol of some sort, and suggested that perhaps the paladin should draw his own god’s symbol within. Bolero quietly refused. Filge joined them again, quiet and grim, and the five and the dog set out towards the west door and the followers of Erythnul beyond.

The battered door creaked aside, revealing a cave tunnel beyond, twisting down and back on itself in a sort of natural stairway. Ash strapped his new everburning torch to his quarterstaff and Ardynn held the other. They descended, Ash a step behind Bolero in the lead.

After a short decent, the tunnel opened into a small cavern, its area a thick forest of stalactites and stalagmites, making crossing it difficult. Rowdy growled deep in his throat, sniffing the air. Shortly after, a pair of muscled gray humanoids leapt from the shadows on both sides of Ashbourn, taking swings at his light source. In the magical glow of the torch, the group noticed that these creatures possessed no eyes, a bony ridge over unbroken skin where the organs should have been. A third appeared close to the far exit of the cave, taking a shot at them before fleeing, bellowing as it went. Again the group had managed to send their enemies on the alert.

Filge stepped forward in a burst of rage, screaming, "Burn," blasting the two away with a spell of burning hands. The group gave chase to the fleeing grimlock. Another natural stair led to another chamber, the far side of which dropped off into darkness. Two gray-pelted, subterranean offshoots of Krenshar jumped from hiding, and their keeper joined in as well, a large beast of a grimlock that fought like a wild man. He never asking for quarter as he was hacked down. As the last foe fell to their blades, the caverns settled into a deep and foreboding silence…