Sunday, August 2, 2009

Session 16 - Dark Faith Rewarded

Waterday, Readying 19th, 595 CY (Cont.)

Arydnn, Ashbourn, Bolero, and Snuffy searched through the belongings of the fallen kenku, finding a small amount of minor magical items on the leader and the sorcerer of the group. There was still no sign of Filge, and Rowdy was unable to pick up his scent amidst the charred and bloody battleground. All had mixed feelings concerning the disappearance of the necromancer, but no one had any real idea where he might have gone. Wherever he was and under what circumstances, they all agreed it couldn’t be good for them.

With little in the way of options, they began doing their best to chart the labyrinth. The backtracked to the last place they had been on the trail and looked around. Another sleeping den for the kenku was discovered, with a secret compartment containing some gems and a small wooden box. Inside the box where a pair of small, crystal lenses that resembles the eyes of a bird of prey. When placed directly over the eyes, the wearer gained incredibly sharp senses, like a hunting bird, but they eyes bore the look of a predator. The group decided Bolero benefited the most for having them.

Eventually they came across a supply room. The supplies were marked with Balabar Smeck’s seal, the evidence the mine manager had been concerned about. Searching through the goods revealed food and drink, oil, building materials, tools, weapons, and alchemical supplies. Ducked in the shadows, they spotted a tiny figure, shredded cloth draped around it like a cloak –a tomb mote. The tiny undead, obviously either a new creation or a survivor of Filge’s last batch, bore a note, scribbled in the necromancer’s handwriting.

-Flige's Note-

The group was angry, to say the least, but there was an odd mix of feelings that went along with it. Despite the fact that they all wanted to kill him, there was concern that he had just willingly walked right into his own death by being a reckless, power-hungry fool. Among them was an odd since of betrayal, as well. The crazed necromancer was hardly what any of them would consider a friend, but fighting for your life beside someone created strange, inexplicable, and unexplainable bonds. They were smart enough to read the subtext in the note that, despite his turn against them, told them Filge was trying to warn them away, as well.

They grimly went back to their search, prepared the rescue the necromancer if need be so that they could, in turn, kill him.

After an extended search, they finally discovered the secret door to the true sanctum of the cultists. Releasing the hidden latch, the door swung open soundlessly, revealing a hall beyond, where two wizards waited for them, as well as a ghostly undead allip. Bolero dropped his shield and drew his greataxe as he charged the undead, while the others took on the acolytes. The battle was over quickly, with the group victorious.

Scouting ahead, Ash overhears Filge speaking the Faceless One. The masked wizard casts a spell, summoning a huge black centipede, the monstrous insect blocking the way into the inner sanctum and covering their retreat as they leave the room. With little in the way of options, the four adventurers rally and attack the summoned monster. It proved less hardy than expected, but it had given the wizards time enough to escape. There was no sign of them save a single dagger on the floor.

The masterwork dagger, Filge’s claim from the grimlock encounter, drew their attention. It bore the muck from the grimlock cave, likely from the necromancer’s boot, and the scrapes on the floor revealed that it had been dropped then deliberately turned. It was clear it was no accident that weapon was left behind, but they were uncertain of its meaning. It seemed that Filge was trying to tell them something. The tip of the dagger pointed to the south, leading back into the maze, but there was no sign of passage. Was the necromancer trying to warn them, or was it an attempt to lead them in the wrong direction?

They quickly explored the Faceless One’s lair. In his fully equipped alchemical laboratory they discovered a research library and several disturbing experiments. The library had several missing volumes, and the contents of one table had been broken. Scattered about the lab were some minor items of magic, including a headband of alluring charisma, and a shield emblazoned with a shining sun, both of which Bolero claimed. The most important discovery was the Faceless One’s cipher, the code breaker for Theldrick’s encrypted message, which Ardynn, studied in language, took to translate.

Finding nothing else of interest, though the lack of sleeping quarters for the Faceless One was curious, the group made their way back through the inner and outer sanctum to search through the labyrinth for signs of Filge and the Faceless One. Finding nothing, they returned to the Black Catherdral.

The black pool was still, and all could feel an overwhelming since of dread. Slowly making their way closer, they spotted the Faceless One and Filge, both standing high up on the platform jutting from the wall and out over the ink black liquid. The necromancer lowered his crossbow in their direction. He shouted a warning at them to flee while they still could. Bolero tried to talk Filge down, but the necromancer shook his head.

“You don’t understand. You are going to die here. The Faceless One is more powerful than we realized.”

“They come to steal your chance, Filge. They seek to keep you from the power and knowledge you have earned.” The Faceless One wheezed in Filge’s ear. “But, it is too late!”

“You fools have nearly ruined everything. How you stumbled in here I will never know, but this place will be your tomb. The ritual is complete, thanks to your friend here. I could never have done it alone.”

“As I have promised, necromancer. The secrets of the Ebon Triad lay below.” The masked wizard gestured below at the black water. “Enter the pool and see things few mortal eyes have witnessed.”

Filge hesitated, but the Faceless One had subverted his mind with magic, and the necromancer could not resist. With one last pleading look at the party, he took his last step off the ledge, plummeting sixty feet to the pool below.

The Faceless One was already casting his spell as the party, too, exploded into action. Lightning leapt from his hands to strike at the party. Rowdy was off with a growl, and Snuffy called upon the Dweller to steal the sound from around the mage. Rowdy charged the stairway leading up, but the Faceless One had been prepared, and left an alchemical trap that nearly sent the dog sliding into the pool. Ash, his instincts keeping him from entering the pool, drew forth a grappling hook, throwing it out as gently as possible (which is to say, not at all) to the center of the pool. Luck was with him as he hooked onto Filge’s robe and pulled him to the surface and towards the edge. The pool began to churn violently once again, and the necromancer let out a bloodcurdling scream.

While the Faceless One moved to the next lower platform, Bolero cast his rope of climbing up to the top and climbed as quickly as he could. Meanwhile, Ash found himself in a tug a war with some unseen force. Something had hold of Filge and did not want to let him go. Using every once of strength, the monk finally managed to pull the necromancer to the edge of the pool. Ash saw that Filge’s legs had been mangled and blood mixed with dark water on the stone. Ash had been forced to touch the water to pull the necromancer free, and they had been freezing beyond any cold he had every felt. Filge had passed out.

After stabilizing Filge, the fight was full on against the Faceless One. The group flanked him on the winding stair, cutting off all escape. The wizard was powerful, and fought back viciously, but he was simply no match for the group. Summoning another centipede, he attempted to make his escape up the wall, but quick thinking by the four adventurers had the summoned monster peppered with arrows. It vanished in a puff of sulfurous smoke, dumping the leader of the Ebon Triad in a heap at their feet. With no escape possible, Bolero offered him once chance for quarter, but the wizard instead conjured black tentacles all around them. The tentacles wrapped both the party and the wizard in a death grip. Bolero dealt the final blow to the evil mage, ending any more spells, and has tentacles squeezed the wizard’s corpse, snow and splinters burst from his now tattered robes.

The Faceless One had been some sort of construct.

Again calling to Fharlanghn, Snuffy pulled everyone free of the Evard’s Black Tentacles spell. When it finally dissipated, they searched to ruin of the Faceless One for items or clues. Below them, the pool had once again grown deathly still.

The elevator shaft was indeed blocked, leaving the party trapped inside. There was an entry in Theldrick’s journal that mentioned the grimlocks’ arrival to the Black Cathedral led by a vision from Erythnuul, claiming they had traveled a great distance through the Underdark to find it. Perhaps that meant there was another entrance to the Black Cathedral, an underground entrance that would allow them to escape. Ashbourn, Bolero, and Snuffy began to search, starting with the grimlock caves. They found an area that looked to have been intentionally caved in. It would take a proper crew at least a week to dig out the tunnel that they were not even certain existed behind it. They gathered the liberated gear they had been unable to carry during their battles and returned with it to the Cathedral.

Ardynn had remained in the Cathedral to tend to Filge and begin working with the cipher. The necromancer was stable but unconscious, his rest fitful as he twisted and jerked, muttering nonsense under his breath. They had done the best they could for his mangled legs, but it would take powerful magic to mend them completely.

With little in the way of options, the others continued searching, gathering more gear as they went and returning it to the Black Cathedral. All of them were exhausted after their three-day battle inside the Ebon Triad’s hidden temple, but something about the place had changed, an odd energy in the air that left them unnerved, and no one wished to rest until they had found a means of escaping the evil place.

Fortune smiled upon them. Searching the Black Cathedral, itself, they found a hidden door, a large, arched doorway that blended in with the design of the temple, hidden behind the pool itself, under the offering stairway and opposite the door to the Vecna chambers. Behind the door, they discovered a chamber and a recently excavated tunnel. The animated corpses of miners stood against the back wall of the chamber, along with two pull-wagons and a large amount of rubble. It appeared that the cult had animated the zombies to dig the tunnel, using the wagon to clear the stone from the passageway. A short distance down the new passage, it joined into another older tunnel.

Gathering their loot in one cart, and Filge in the other, and tying their grimlock prisoner behind, they set out down the tunnel, pulling the secret door shut behind them. A quick look down one direction of the tunnel revealed a massive cave in. This tunnel had to be the original path used by the grimlocks, which meant the other direction led them into the Underdark.

Why would the grimlocks bother collapsing their tunnel if another existed? Theldrick never mentioned the secret door in any part of his journal they had read so far, and the cult moved their supplies through the elevator shaft. What, then, was the purpose of the tunnel? Was it a secret kept by the Faceless One, and if so, to what end? He certainly did not try to escape through it, even though he had had plenty of time. They had no answers, only speculation, as they made their way through the tunnel, to find a way out before they ended up deep underground.

After a time they came to an intersection within the passage, and Snuffy discovered signs of passage in all directions except the way they had come. One of the tunnels angled upward slightly, so they decided to take it. A short distance later, they came to a pair of portcullises. Trapped between the two gates were four savage-looking apes, without a doubt the same breed that guarded for first floor of Balabar Smeck’s townhouse. The thrill at finding a chance to reach the surface was balanced by the danger of this new discovery.

Ardynn, using gentle gestures and soothing sounds, seemed to lull the dangerous animals into a non-aggressive state, allowing the group to cautiously pass.

They found themselves in what must have been a dry mine, much like the one below the abandoned observatory. This one, however, was far from abandoned. They found cages, and inside the cages were “missing” miners, as well as a bard by the name of Adros. Adros was a follower of Fharlanghn and had come to town following rumors of missing miners and slave trade. He laughed at his own expense at having uncovered the truth by getting hit over the head and thrown in with the others.

The group had accidentally stumbled even darker secret about the corrupt mine manager Smeck-he was a slaver. Even worse, it appeared he sold the slaves to creatures from the Night Below.

The already surprising turn of events became even more shocking as Jhero came skulking down the tunnel, keys to the cages in his hand. The young Balimar was as dumbfounded to see them as they were him. He explained he had taken Bolero and Ash’s words to heart. Realizing it would be foolish to turn into an outlaw just to annoy the hated mine manager, he had instead played the political route, approaching some of the other managers and offering to deal with Smeck. He had found the support he needed, though he would not say who exactly he was working with, and had managed to uncover Smeck’s dark little secret. He had come here to free the slaves, himself. He had even taken some of Smeck’s papers from the manager’s own office, records of his dealings with drow and worse.

The slaves, so relieved the have their freedom and their lives, allowed the exhausted heroes to walk while they pulled the handcarts for them. As they went, they found guards-some tied up, others struck down. It had seemed Jhero had not had an easy time in getting to the slaves, either.

The four adventurers and their canine companion all took deep breaths of the cold, polluted, and sour air of Diamond Lake like it was the sweetest smell they had ever experienced.

With their horde or rescued townsfolk forming a mob about them, they made their way to the garrison. Captain Trask and Fathers Dun Velius, were eager to meet with the four of them, Jhero, and Adros the bard.

* * *

The dark waters of the pool began to sputter, at first just a few bubbles breaking its black surface, but quickly building to a boil, as if a hundred mouths screamed for released from just below, expelling the last air in their lungs and that bellowed in rage and denial. A large form, as black as the pool itself, broke the surface of the water, its powerful muscles flexing as it pulled its way out, its clawed feet clicking on the cold, black marble. Lifting its six powerful arms, it roared, the bellow echoing through the Black Cathedral and the chambers beyond, empty save for the corpses of the fallen.

* * *

The respective groups each told their part of the story. Jhero left out the mention of the mine managers, making it seem as if he was motivated by a grudge against Smeck, alone. Captain Trask took it all in quietly, asking only the occasional question. The unlawful break-ins did not seem to please him, but the results, and stacks of evidence, spoke for themselves. More importantly, the existence of the cult and Balabar Smeck’s slave trade fell under his jurisdiction, allowing him to act. Meanwhile, Ardynn had managed to decode the note the Faceless One had given to Theldrick. Her face was grim as she handed it to Bolero, who read it aloud.

-Theldrick's Note-

The four adventurers looked at one another in alarm. What had they helped set free?

A soldier, urgently needing to speak to Trask, interrupted their discussion. It seemed a fire had started at the Dourstone compound. Trask, wise enough to see it was no coincidence, grabbed his cloak. Valkus Dun joined him, but Trask ordered the others to stay here and wait.

“Whatever is happening, the last thing we need is for Dourstone or one of his men to recognize you and either run or try to have you killed.”

With that Trask and Dun left, bringing most of the garrison in tow. The others sat looking at each other while Father Velius tended to their wounds. If had been only a score of minutes when one of Diamond Lake’s deputies came rushing to the door, winded, panicked, and asking for Trask.

It was doubtful one of Cubbin’s men would have been so open with the four of them under normal circumstances, but the fear in his voice was obvious as he spoke to them without hesitation. It seemed that some sort of monster had been spotted, and it was cutting a swath of destruction through the town. The four looked at one another and without a word rose as one, buckling on their weapons and cloaks. Jhero followed.

With all haste they made their way towards the center of town, following the screams. Standing in the center of the town square was a large, heavily muscled beast, black as pitch with six arms, three ended in handless stumps, the other three ending in large clawed hands. Its face was bestial, with a large maw full of teeth, and its skin was pulled tight across its skull making it look almost like bare bone . One glowing red orb looked out from a deep socket. The other was an empty well of blackness.

The Ebon Aspect.

Even as they watched, two were battling the Ebon Triad’s monster. An elf, armed with glowing daggers, and a bear with glowing claws dashed around the beast. Arydnn recognized the elf as the person that had come to her defense at the Bronzewood lodge. The bear must have been her druid companion. The monster grabbed the women-turned-bear in a grapple and threw her into the well even as the elf struck again and again, black blood hissing as it struck the cold ground. The Ebon Aspect whirled, chasing the nimble elf as he bounced away, but the monster was surprisingly quick, and before the five newcomers could even reach the battle, a great claw opened the elf’s chest in a spray of gore.

Jhero screamed and ran to the elf as the four and Rowdy charged to monster. Their resources exhausted, they fought with desperation. The abomination had to to stopped, no matter the cost. Jhero, armed with the fallen elf's dagger, joined them. A crowd formed as they stood toe-to-toe with the towering monstrosity, exchanging blow for vicious blow, until finally the Overgod's avatar toppled in the mud.

Cheers rose as they stopped, bloodied and exhausted, but their relief was short lived. The body of the monster began to melt, flesh rolling off in streams and forming a black pool beneath it. As the Ebon Aspect quickly disintegrated, the pool grew larger, and began moving with a life of its own directly towards the town well! The heroes scrambled, trying everything they could think of to stop the flow of the liquid, but to no avail.

"Get out of the way," a voice shouted across the square. Allustan, dressed in his nightclothes, ran towards the well and began weaving his hands in spellcasting. The party scrambled to get clear, and the night split with blinding light as a bolt of lightning flew from the sage's outstretched hand, cutting a great rift in the ground before the well. The black fluid that had been the Ebon Aspect poured into the hole, pooling up along the bottom of its length, unable to escape. After a moment, it stilled, then suddenly dissipated in a cloud of black smoke and vanished.