Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Session 33 - The Cathdral of the Mind

Arydnn found herself somewhere else. Mist swirled like an endless sea about a small stone island. It appears to be twilight, but the sky was not visible through the fog. In the center of the island was a ring of stone, much like the ring she had just passed through, their surface carved with ancient swirls, arrows, and other patterns, the coded language of the druids. Extending from the island were three arches of stone, rising like narrow bridges with no handrails, though whether or not they connect to anything was a mystery as they vanish into the mists surrounding her. Another fourth bridge extended from the island a short distance before ending in a crumbling ruin.

Unsure where she was or what had happened, Ardynn retreated back under the arch, and found herself standing right back where she had started, outside the City of Greyhawk. The fey guardian was no where to be seen. Frustrated, she searched and called out, but he refused to show himself. She was about go give up when someone stepped out of nowhere and into the stone ring. A young druid, dirty, bleeding, and clearly exhausted fell to the ground in a pile of brown robes. Ardynn helped him to his feet and offered him a drink of water.

Once he had drank enough and caught his breath, he began to beg for Ardynn's help. He explained that his master, Bruhmen, had been traveling the Backways from far to the north, with urgent news to take to the High Druid in the Gnarly Forest. While inside the ways, they were attacked by some sort of monsters, and his master had sent him running along to the closest doorway he could find. It had brought him here. Ardynn, desperate to get moving, nonetheless said she would help, but explained that she could not find get the guardian to respond. The young druid seemed somewhat surprised he was outside the City of Greyhawk. He did not think a guardian existed here any longer, but Ardynn assured him there was indeed.

The young druid had seen his master call to a Backways guardian before, so he offered to try and bring it out. He announced himself in Sylvan and made a very elaborate and proper petition, but the guardian did not appear. The young man was disappointed, but told Ardynn is mission was too important. He left to secure passage to his next destination.

When he had left, the guardian appeared again. Once she was over her surprise, Ardynn requested the fey to open the portal to the Backroads, but he refused.

"This One requires a tribute, that his eyes may look upon what once was instead of this ape's monument to arrogance and ignorance." He gestured to the city.

It took a lot of thinking on her part, but, remembering he had open the portal unprovoked after seeing her using the ritual to bond with Rowdy, she decided to test a theory. Summoning a fly spell, she sent it through Rowdy to bestow it upon the guardian. The elfish creature smirked as if ammused.

"This One thinks That One is simply claiming a new blossom from the same bush, but This One is still pleased, and certainly entertained. That One my enter."

Again, the air shimmered, and Arydnn stepped through with more confidence that she had previously. She found herself elsewhere again, but this time turned to examine the stones. After studying the symbols, Ardynn realized they were directional markers representing the lines of power that crisscrossed the earth. She determined the direction for where she entered that would take her to Diamond Lake and set out. She traveled for the entire day, took her rest on an maker island, the set out again. She had traveled for half a way when she came across a robed man, slumped against the direction marker. She approached with caution, and the druid stirred. He was wounded and looked exhausted, and warned her to leave or die. His name was Bruhem, the master of the young druid she had encountered earlier, and he had been kissed by a blasphemous beast known as a Vargouille.

When she refused to leave and examined his wounds, he signed weakly and told her of the Vargouille. The creature was from the lower planes, the dark dwelling of fiends born of mortal sin and far worse, where they flew in great packs, torturing visitors and natives alike. It looked like the severed head with a large elongated mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, long tentacle-like tendrils for hair, and eyes that burned with evil, green light. Where ears should be were great bat-like wings. Its scream could render a person powerless to move, allowing it to place its dreaded kiss.

The kiss was a curse. Once affected, a person would first lose their hair, falling out in clumps, then the ears would elongate, growing into bat-like wings. Eventually, the head pulled itself away from the body, flapping its new wings with all its might until it ripped lose and a new Vargouille was born.

Bruhem explained, centuries ago, an unknown being had brought a group of Vargouille to the Backways and set them loose. Normally, the creatures were destroyed by touch of daylight, but in the place it was perpetual twilight and their was no sun. Over the years, the druids had tried to eliminate them, but all of fell to the monsters were doomed to increase their numbers, for the only cure for the condition was the touch of sunlight, or magic that could lift the condition.

The druid and all of his companions had perished. His apprentice he had sent running in hopes he could find escape and deliver his important message, important enough to risk the Backways. Now he was the last, exhausted, poisoned, and without magic to sustain him. He had not the strength to make it out the Backways, and the pack of Vargouille were never far away, waiting on his inevitable transformation. By lingering, Ardynn was dooming herself. He asked that she flee, or at least kill him before he became something unnatural.

Ardynn use what healing magic she could to bind his wounds, and lashed the druid to Rowdy's back and called upon the power of nature to wrap herself into the shape of a wolf and together they set out in all haste.

It wasn't long before she heard the flap of a great many wings, and the first of the Vargouille appeared out of the mist. The monsters did their best to catch them, but the flying monster could not keep pace with their fast-running canine forms. Unfortunately, the fiendish flying heads were not limited to the pathways through the mist, and managed to cut them off more than once. Using the island markers, Ardynn took different twists and turns to out-maneuver them, and managed to exit the Backways, the familiar stench of the sludge-filled lake letting her know she had made it home. She had made it to Diamond Lake.

Bruhem was fine, and the sunlight burned away the curse. With a grunt he stood, sniffing the air and frowning.

"Diamond Lake, a stain on the surface of the Oerth."

Ardynn laughed, despite herself. How often had she dreamed of the pristine lake it had originally been named for, turned into its current, slag polluted ruin long before she was born. Yet still, she could see it in her mind as clear as if she had seen it with her own eyes. Someday...

After a short rest to regain his strength and finally meditate for his spells, the druid thanked her.

"Anyone else would have left me. Any other druid would have killed me," he looked at her seriously. "I would have killed me. Your compassion is a compromise to the ways of nature." His expression softened and he smiled. "In this case, I am thankful for it."

In parting, he gave her a pouch of sparkling dust, explaining that a pinch would enhance her magic. The pouch contained enough for three uses. With that, he turned into a an eagle and flew south.

Ardynn quickly made her way to town. Allustan was not home, but it didn't take much asking around to find out he had been spending a lot of time out of town. She knew where to find him, and quickly traveled to her home near the Whispering Cairn. She found her teacher in the cairn itself, studying the crypt of the Wind Duke Zosiel, a Tenser's floating disk stacked with books, notes, and rubbings floating behind him and motes of magical light bobbing all about.

Ardynn threw her arms around him with relief. The flustered wizard returned the hug, and gently asked for an explanation. Allustan listened patiently, and shook his head in exasperation.

"You've just been gone a week! Your first trip to the city and you are already getting into trouble." He laughed, but nevertheless, he was concerned. it would seem that their activities under Dourstone Mine, or maybe the Mistmarsh, had not gone unnoticed. It was possible that the master doppelganger had read their thoughts to learn about the Faceless One and Allustan, himself, but possibly not. Allustan cautioned it was likely that the doppelgangers had already had been dealing with the Ebon Triad.

Arydnn warned Allustan to be careful, too. If that was true, they knew of him, as well. The wizard patted his hands in the air soothingly, assuring her no one was interested in a dried up old sage who knew more about the dead than the living, but when she did not relent, assured her he would. He had placed an alarm spell on her house, the password for which was Nardoc--the name of the wind duke responsible for creating the Whispering Cairn.

He was curious how Ardynn had gotten home so quickly. She realized that the three and a half days spent inside the Backways had been a mere a tenth the time on Oerth. She promised to explain it when she returned, but, for now, she needed to get back to the others. With another parting hug, she returned to the standing stones.

When she returned, the Backways guardian was waiting on her. His faunish features peeked out from behind one of the stones. Without pausing, she dropped to one knee and, almost second nature to her now, drew the twined rings, complete with the missing runes. The faun's face split in a grin, and he motioned her forward, vanishing behind the stone and appearing from a different stone on the far side of the ring. He waved his hand over a worn rune on the stone, the the ground before it dropped away with a grinding sound, revealing a narrow earthen tunnel down, smooth stone embedded in the dirt as steps. The air inside the tunnel was ancient.

The faun had vanished again, so Ardynn entered the narrow stairway, Rowdy's claws clicking on the stone behind her as he followed.

* * *

Ashbourn, Bolero, Brazzle, and Snuffy followed a small steam from the former cave of Fassash the spirit naga into another large chamber, over forty feet high, with a shelf twenty feet above the floor to the north. There was an exit across from them to the west, and a barred passageway to the south. Directly to their left was a pin erected to contain a number of pigs and a half-starved cow. The room was covered in the same glowing fungus found at the entrance to the caverns. Snuffy could tell from the tracks that this areas was frequented by dark elves.

They made their way to the self that sloped up to the ledge, they heard faint chanting coming from a chamber they could not see from the ground. A group of unusual gnomes entered the room form the chamber. They spoke with thick accents and claimed to be svirfneblin, deep gnomes. They had been hunting the drow that lived her for weeks, and had made short work of them in the chambers behind them. All of the dark elves had been killed with the exception one, now their prisoner.

Both groups talked cautiously. The gnomes had no interest in the mind flayer that laired past the current chamber, but suggested that now would be the best time for the adventurers to attack, with its thralls now defeated. The group saw through the trap for what it was, and soon enough the glamour that disguised the dark elves as gnomes was dropped and battle began. Brazzle fell to a poisoned sleep dart quickly, but the others stormed the ledge, enduring wave after wave of spells, poisoned darts, and blades until the last of them fell. They found more high quality gear on these drow. Their priestess leader, Myrianaas, carried a magic breastplate, strengthened to deflect blows to vitals, and a morning star able to store a single spell.

In the barred passage, they found a two pair of corpses lying face down, the backs of their skulls burst open. It wasn't hard to guess at what had happened. The brains of intelligent creatures was the meal of choice for a mind flayer. In a connecting chamber, they found prisoners, including a pair of merchants captured while entering the city, a pair of female tavern working abducted on their way home, and an elf craftsman taken from his own shop. Much like the pen outside contained livestock for the drow, this pin contained livestock for their master. The elf, a jewelry maker for the Garden Quarter named Rinnarall Elari, seemed the most willing to speak, and informed them they were indeed kept as livestock, kept in line by the four zombies--previous victims of the mind flayer and animated by the drow priestess--in the other chamber, and that the dark elves referred to their illithid master as Zyrxog. He could not tell them much more than that, except that the mind flayer wore a finely crafted ring, with a single gem, and runes of abjuration magic. After quickly dispatching the zombies and guiding the captives through the caverns, the group was forced again to deal with the yellow mold. Through trial and error, fire was discovered to be the solution, so they slowly burnt it away. Robert was summoned and escorted the liberated captives to the nearest sewer exit.

Once they were gone, the group returned to the drow chamber and considered their next move. They had bested this Zyrxog's minions, and had found his food supply. It was reasonable to think that the mind flayer would return for food eventually, so they could set an ambush for it, perhaps even stalling long enough for Snuffy to be able to pray for new spells.

* * *

Meanwhile, Ardynn made her way to the "cold forge." Rowdy caught their scent and told Ardynn that had done below. Unfortunately, it was impossible for him to track by scent inside the sewer tunnels. Ardynn was able to track for a time, but eventually lost the trail. A rain earlier in the day and increased the water and washed away the signs. For a time she wandered lost, and eventually heard a voice muttering. When she inspected, she discovered that it was File, now the Rain Barrel Man, babbling to himself as he wandered through a narrow tunnel, his bare feet splashing in the muck. When he spotted Ardynn, he pointed one shaking finger at her and ran. Rowdy quickly caught him and subdued him. Once she had calmed him down, Ardynn tried questioning him, but got little information that made sense. About to return to the streets and try something else, she heard the former necromancer babble something about a "mind eater." Hopeful, she pressed the issue, and finally Filge stumbled through the tunnels and passages, leading her to the cave entrance. Pointing proudly, he announced, "mind eater. You are going to die."

She passed through the tunnels and chambers and finally found the others. After they got over their surprise, Ardynn told them that Allustan was fine, and how she had encountered Filge. The other explained what they had encountered in Zyrxog's caves. After questioning Filge again, it appeared he had been here before. He pointed down the tunnel and informed them that was where the mind eater was.

Tired of waiting, they decided to go down the tunnel for a look. Brazzel summoned Talon again, as well as a hound archon. The celestial did not give his name, which was not part of the summoning, but, nonetheless, followed the summoner's commands, leading the way down the tunnel. Not far down the passageway, the archon triggered a warding glyph trap, but it had no effect on him and dispersed harmlessly.

Past the tunnel it opened into another chamber, but unlike the others, this contained constructed stonework. The far wall held a pair of white marble double doors, flanked by tall columns, each bearing the curled symbol of the sorcerer illithid. The doors were barred from the inside, so they were forced to batter them open. In the middle of their efforts, they were attacked.

From the ceiling of the chamber slithered four monstrous aberrations. Six purple tentacles supported a single alien eye that dripped with a thick slime, the single pupil shaped like a star. The tentacles on the front were twice as long as the other and ended in vicious, snapping claws. The monsters, resembling some sort of monstrous, wall-crawling octopi, seemed to turn the air around them heavy if looked straight into their darting, alien eye, so the group did their best to not look directly at them. Despite their deadly claws, the monster fell easily to the weapons.

Cleaning their weapons, they went back to the door, finally busting the marble doors open. Beyond, a round chamber or worked stone opened before them. Benches lined the walls with shackles periodically mounted to the wall, and a large statue of a brain dominated the center of the room, carved from a single piece of blue-veined marble. The veins pulsed with power. The archon suggested everyone stand back, and entered. He was blasted by the magic, but again seemed to have no effect, so Brazzle had him smash the statue to pieces. After it tumbled to the group, the magic dissipated, and they continued on.

Down a curving hallway and a short flight of stairs was a laboratory. A large vat of liquid hid another octopus-monster. During the battle, the vat was busted open, spilling slimy liquid into the chamber. The adventurers staggered and stumbled, and the monster itself became wedged in the breach. They finally managed to dispatch the monster, and, still soaked in some unknown slime, searched the room.

On a desk they found extensive logs in undercommon on the creation of the monsters they had encountered, which Zyrxog had named octopins. Also in the log was another experiment he had yet to begin. Called a "mind worm," when placed in the victim' brain it would allow greater susceptibility to magical suggestion. I pair of bookcases contain books on anatomy and arcane fusion techniques. It was agreed to burn the research notes, but the books they decided to keep.

Another curving hallway ended in a door. Through the door was what appeared to be a museum of sorts. Glass cases lined the walls, filled with items. In the center of the room stood a statue of a Vrock. The hound archon made to topple the statue, which, predictably, sprang to life, but not as construct. The stone cracked and a true demon burst screaming from within. The celestial and tanar'i clashed with a fury of opposites ethos. The demon sprayed the air a cloud of spores, filling the room, and let lose a powerful screech laced with the power of the Abyss. Some of the group were stunned by the unnatural sound even as the spores settled on the skin of others and began to grow, vine-like tendrils bursting straight from their skin. The room was small, with no room for flight, so the adventurers surrounded the vulture demon, inflicting blow after blow on their foe, finally sending back to the lower planes in a puff of acrid smoke.

The hound archon followed quickly after, fading away in a soft golden light. The extended magic of a summoner could not keep the archon bound to this reality forever.

The battle over, they searched the cases. Resting on top of the first case was the stuffed and preserved head of a juvenile black dragon, the eyes enchanted to glow with green light. Inside the case was a birdcage made of cold iron and carved like twisting, thorny vines; a dagger that radiated strong evil, which was promptly destroyed; and a set of chains from a chain demon that twitched with a life of their own.

In the second case they found four books labeled "Unspeakable Tome," Volumes I through IV, and empty of any writing. A fifth book, unlabeled, tried to drain Ardynn's mind when opened. This book they tried to destroy but could not, so they brought it with them for now. A small griffon statue summoned a fiendish griffon instead. The beast was quickly destroyed, but Snuffy's disappointment was not. The last items were four jars, each containing an eyestalk from a beholder, and six empty jars. Ardynn took these.

On top of the third case was the statue of a pseduodragon, carved in great detail and to scale, which they kept. Inside the case they found a stuffed doll dressed very similar to Ash, with what appeared to be real human hair added for its head. It radiated strong necromancy and was pierced with twenty organic black spikes of unknown origin. Ash, for obvious reasons, claimed this. A four inch thick tome rested next to the doll, bound with a chain. When the chain was removed, the book took to the air, attacked like some sort of angry mephit. Once the book was subdued, inside were the names of one hundred demons, including their homes and details of their conquests. Bolero was adamant the book be destroyed. The final two objects was a periapt and a ornate and vicious-looking greatsword. No one was willing to test the periapt and it was added to the items for later examination. Bolero claimed the sword, the heavy blade ending abruptly instead of tapering to a sharp point--a blade made for chopping. It tingled the paladin's fingers when he held it. Everyone else eyed the blade with concern, but Bolero refused to give it up.