Saturday, July 30, 2011

Flip a Coin

Wir, Rhaan 25, 998 YK (Day 67).

Tam'elanath arrives at last in Fairhaven, and the Eclipse Collective meets him near the eastern gates of the city. Zil'dejin and Elyas are not with them; the former is in the midst of a grief-fueled drinking binge, and the latter is studying with the priests of Aureon at the Temple of Wonder, taking advantage of the ritual training offered by special permission through the Arcane Congress. On arrival, Tam'elanath reports the ritual he saw taking place in the Starpeaks Observatory after the party left, and declares that he believes Lucan to be beyond saving by now. He begins walking with the party to the lightning rail, when their path is crossed by an unusual looking individual.

His skin is blue in color, and his hair is sharp and almost translucent, resembling ice. Light aqua lines run throughout his skin. None of the group recognize his race, but there is certainly something magical about his appearance. He introduces himself as Zan-kyri, an artificer who has been studying his craft in the sprawling Cannith West enclave just on the outskirts of the city. This branch of Cannith has a focus on unusual plants and druidic artifacts from the Eldeen Reaches, but like any branch, also has a strong emphasis on artifice. His encounter with the party is merely a stroke of luck; he has heard some local rumors about their recent exploits, and this combined with his fascination with warforged draws him towards the Collective. He says that he is heading for the Eldeen Reaches as well (possibly due to his recent studies with Cannith West), and asks to join them in their travels. He offers his services as an artificer in and out of combat as an incentive, and the party gladly accepts him.

After this discussion, a nearby elven street performer finishes a monologue, takes a collection, and then approaches the Collective. He tells them that he is Lenathis d'Phiarlan, and that his House has been watching Tam'elanath since his arrival in Lakeside. House Phiarlan regarded him as insignificant until recently, when his value became apparent, and not wanting to lose an outsider with the Mark of Shadow, extends an offer of membership with one condition: he must complete a trial. Tam'elanath quickly agrees, as he has wanted to be a member of a Dragonmarked House his entire life. The trial involves Imre Levalle, the dwarven Curator of Acquisitions for the Wayfinder Foundation in Fairhaven. The Wayfinder Foundation is a group that conducts expeditions for the retrieval of artifacts and relics and the slaying of monsters, and is well-known among adventurers. Phiarlan has a spy in Imre's ranks, but he is out of Aundair on an expedition, and House Thuranni (another Dragonmarked House of Shadow and Phiarlan's rival) is going to attempt an assassination on Levalle. Tam'elanath is asked to stop it. He is given twenty four hours, and the location where the assassin is believed to be: a taphouse called the Gray Cat in the Golden Chalice district.

The party goes there at once, but before they even get inside, they are approached by an elven woman dressed in leather armor with a clear Mark of Shadow on her chest. She is Eralia d'Thuranni, the one to whom the assassination contract currently belongs. House Thuranni also wants Tam'elanath in their ranks, if only because Phiarlan wants him as well. She offers him membership if he takes care of the assassination instead. Feeling cornered, he agrees to this as well, and Eralia tells him to break into the Wayfinder Foundation headquarters at night and kill Imre in his office, where he will be unprotected. Tam'elanath discusses this with his party. Stahlstrauss strongly disagrees with the notion of murder, but for now, Tam'elanath considers it justifiable based on his own moral code. All but Stahlstrauss agree to go along with it. He leaves briefly to visit the House Jorasco hospice in the city in hopes of removing his curse, but the healers there tell him they cannot remove it. The only way to remove the curse is to be granted clemency by a fire archon, or another natural spirit of fire. He leaves dejectedly, and rejoins with the others.

The group goes to the Wayfinder Foundation headquarters a few hours later. It is now night. Stahlstrauss remains outside while the other four approach. The building is two stories, with windows on the second floor but not the first. Zan-kyri attempts to scale the walls, but falls and injures himself. Eshunu scatters as scarabs to look for a safe route in, but finds no alternative to the front door, which Garmeth then picks open. Tam'elanath is more successful in finding a different way in, and locates a somewhat-hidden door at the back apparently intended for use by Wayfinder Foundation officials. By a stroke of luck, it is unlocked.

He and Eshunu enter the back door, while Garmeth is followed by Zan-kyri through the front door. Unsurprisingly, the front door to the primary museum area where the Foundation's most precious artifacts are displayed is very well guarded by a large group of mercenary protectors who quickly advance on Garmeth and Zan-kyri. Eshunu, meanwhile, is nearly caught at the back entrance, and is forced to sneak outside to avoid being caught. Tam'elanath successfully sneaks into the building, and locates Imre's office.

Garmeth and Zan-kyri try to run from the building. Garmeth gets away, returning to Eshunu and Stahlstrauss outside, but Zan-kyri is captured by the guards who bind him and drag him further into the building. Eshunu informs Garmeth of the back entrance, and he uses this to sneak inside while Stahlstrauss tries to kick the front door down. He fails, but the commotion draws most of the guards away from Zan-kyri, leaving only one behind to protect him. Garmeth attacks this solitary mercenary and beats him nearly to unconsciousness, and the guard runs away. At this point Garmeth frees Zan-kyri and they leave the complex.

Imre is not in his office, but Tam'elanath sets a trap for him using poisoned arrow heads rigged on his chair. He also discovers a notebook of some kind, but it is written in dwarven. He searches for a dwarven guard that is separate from the main group, and finds one smoking a cigarette on a balcony. Tam'elanath sneaks up to him and springs at him with his greatbow strung and an arrow nocked, and threatens the dwarf's life if he does not translate. The dwarf decides quickly he is not paid enough for this, and translates the last entry in the notebook as asked by Tam'elanath. It mentions an abandoned manor and a crown that is "finally going to be worn." Further back, there is also a map to the manor.

Imre Levalle

Tam'elanath rejoins the others and they follow the map to the manor house, which is indeed abandoned and mostly boarded up. There is a cellar door on which the boards have been removed. Stahlstrauss decides to try and break it with a flying shoulder slam (?), and while he breaks the frail wooden doors the unusual maneuver sends him crashing down the stairs. Imre is at the bottom, holding a stone crown, and startled, he puts it on his head, pauses for just a second, and flees through a hole in the wall.

Stahlstrauss pursues, and the rest of the party is behind him. They find themselves in an abandoned sewer tunnel with a great door at the far end, guarded by a group of troglodytes screeching in draconic. They spring a trap of pendulum-like blades that attack Stahlstrauss and Zan-kyri, but fortunately do not cut anybody else for the remainder of the battle. The troglodytes are quickly dispatched, and realizing that Imre may be fleeing, they do not rest and push through the doors at the end. These doors are made of stone, and though the engravings on them have been eroded by time, they are identified by the party as Dhakaani (the ancient goblin empire) in origin, apparently depicting a war against aberrations and later some kind of alliance with them.

Inside, they find themselves in a ruin of a very large and old temple, with two stone altars and great pillars. Imre stands wearing the crown, and behind him, a purple dragon. Imre says that this dragon, named Vthrol, is his "new possession" because of the crown. He tells the party to leave at once, or they will be killed. The party stays, so Imre and Vthrol attack.

The fight is among the most challenging of the Eclipse Collective's career to this point due to the power of the purple dragon to cloud the minds of the party. Garmeth is quickly struck down by Imre, who then advances on Eshunu. Stahlstrauss is immediately dominated by Vthrol's gaze, and begins attacking his allies. Everyone else is intermittently mesmerized, save for Tam'elanath who unleashes a series of powerful attacks before being cut down by the dragon. In a very short amount of time, only Zan-kyri and the hypnotized Stahlstrauss still stand. Garmeth and Eshunu have the life pass from their bodies again; Garmeth stops breathing, and Eshunu shatters. Tam'elanath is rejuvenated, but only to be manipulated into attacking his allies at range. The door is sealed in one direction by magic connected to the crown, preventing Zan-kyri's escape. Things look dire.

Just when it seems there is no hope, the doors open once again as Zil'dejin charges through, only mildly inebriated. He does not know what is going on, but Imre's gloating and Zan-kyri's urging indicates to him that the crown the dwarf wears is the threat. Zil'dejin grabs the Wayfinder trustee and forces the crown off his head, then quickly decides to put it on himself. The true nature of the crown is then revealed: it does not control Vthrol, but rather affords the dragon control of the wearer. Seeing this, Zan-kyri quickly removes the crown from Zil'dejin and casts it aside. They then attack the dragon.

The fight is difficult, and even as Stahlstrauss breaks out of his trance it seems they might still fail. Vthrol, slightly wounded, offers the party a chance at leaving intact. He will break the domination on everyone and allow them to leave in exchange for his own retreat, and Garmeth's body, which he wants for an "associate who would be very interested in an Order of Labyrinths monk." After much deliberation on the matter, the party decides they will not surrender Garmeth.

Vthrol flees anyway, mesmerizing anybody in his path to prevent them from attacking him on his way, and disappears into some dark chamber behind a tapestry in the temple. He leaves Garmeth's body behind. Tam'elanath explains why he has come to Imre, but states he has decided to go with House Phiarlan and gives him some simple instructions to avoid the assassination in the near future. Imre is grateful for the party's help, and rewards Tam'elanath with a set of magic dice he found in the manor.

They then part ways, and Tam'elanath meets with Lenathis d'Phiarlan once again. He tells the story of what has happened, and Lenathis asks if he will stay one day to learn some elementary aspects of espionage in House Phiarlan in exchange for a free trip on the lightning rail for the whole group to Passage, their next destination on the journey to Greenheart. Tam'elanath accepts.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stargazing II: The Death of Lucan

Zol, Rhaan 10, 998 YK (Day 52).

Tam'elanath and Lucan return to the party after scouting the outside of the observatory. Eshunu is posted to keep watch at the entrance in case any more of the orcs' warband tries to enter, and the rest of the party continues onwards. Stahlstrauss kicks down a door, expecting the room to be full of hostile orcs, but instead it is a storage room. In addition to a water supply and some crates, there is another set of brass double doors identical to the ones they encountered in the barracks. These, too, are barred and locked, and disturbing it prompts the same muffled voice as before.

Eventually, Garmeth sees fit to pick the lock, and shortly thereafter the door is broken down by Zil'dejin and Stahlstrauss. Inside, they first find a cowering old man. After inadvertently intimidating him for a while, the Eclipse Collective is eventually able to clarify the situation. The elderly man introduces himself as Lahrut, the caretaker of the observatory and chief researcher. He has locked himself here, in the primary observation room with the observatory's telescope, for fear of the orcs outside.

He then explains the situation. The Arcane Congress first reopened research here after a travelling wizard investigated the place and discovered that the stars that can be viewed from the Starpeaks are unlike those anywhere else in Eberron. After a research group was installed, they discovered some old notes indicating why this is: the observatory was built on a very old portal to Baator. The stars observable through the telescope, then, are a mix of both Eberron's and Baator's. It was this same portal that drove the last researchers out, when their investigations on the portal led to its rediscovery and accidental opening. The result was an invasion of devils, and while it was eventually beaten back the observatory was then closed.

Some time ago, a band of orcs, trolls and ogres calling themselves the "Painchiefs" broke into the observatory, their leader apparently interested in the resurrected research on the portal being conducted by the Arcane Congress here. This oni, Sojin Karral, intends to reopen the portal to raise an army of devils for himself, believing himself to be a competent enough warlord to do so. He then mentions a dreadful discovery he has made in the meantime, and directs the party to the telescope to look at the sky.

They go to look in the telescope, but as they do, Lahrut pulls a book that springs a makeshift dart trap. Most of the party is able to dodge out of the way, and the poisoned darts do not do much to those they hit, but they slow the group down. Lahrut assumes a gaseous form and drifts between some bookshelves.

Stahlstrauss and Zil'dejin investigate the bookshelves, and pull them apart to reveal a hidden, vaulted door. Garmeth picks open the mechanism on the door, and they wheel it open and head inside. Here, they discover a room built in three tiers, with sinister statues on either side, trenches in the floor, and a large, black iron door at the far end. The oni, Sojin Karral (who Tam'elanath identifies as a night haunter, which have the power to disguise themselves as elderly humanoids) is guarded by a troll and two orcs. The ritual has evidently just been finished, and the door at the end is opening.

Sojin and his guardians prove little danger to the party, even as the portal opens further, causing more to change within the room with each increment. The trenches fill with lava, the statues emit fire, and the portal starts emitting fireballs at random. When all of the Painchiefs have been eliminated, Elyas sets about closing the portal. It is a three step counter-ritual, and once he has completed two steps, Stahlstrauss decides to look inside.

He is immediately sucked in to a whirling storm of red ash, and falls for a long time. The party votes to keep the portal open, and even once they have all scrambled to safety away from the fire-spewing statues they must dodge the fireballs being emitted. When Stahlstrauss stops falling, he finds himself on a plane strewn with ash and fire. A city of some sort is visible in the distance. This is Avernus, the first layer of Baator, the Nine Hells. He realizes that unless the portal is fully open on the other side, he cannot travel back through. Turning around, he realizes that oddly-shaped but vaguely humanoid beings are quickly advancing towards him from all sides.

Elyas, too, realizes this, and after consulting with the others, he forces it open. Stahlstrauss leaps through, but is soon followed by the devils. After a time, he reemerges into the portal room, but indicates to the rest of the group that he has been followed. This is shortly confirmed by a large shape entering through the portal after Stahlstrauss, which quickly reveals itself to be a powerful devil called a malebranche, better known as a war devil.

Elyas forces the portal closed with the help of some of the others when the war devil is only half through, but he is not forced backwards, and is instead only injured. Tam'elanath and Garmeth run, with Garmeth preparing to lock the door after the rest of the party can get to safety. Zil'dejin, meanwhile, is trapped by the malebranche, and with one piercing trident attack from the devil Stahlstrauss is knocked unconscious. Lucan and Elyas are clear to run, and Elyas does so, but Lucan stays behind. He uses his powerful emotions to distort space and swap places with Zil'dejin, now trapped himself. Zil'dejin takes the opportunity to grab the unconscious Stahlstrauss and drag him to safety, and outside the room, is prepared to slam the vault door shut so Garmeth can lock it if Lucan cannot escape in time.

Lucan sees how dire the situation is, and realizes he has little hope of surviving. In one last, desperate effort, he concentrates all of his power into one great cleave, which slows time in the vicinity of the malebranche. Seeing this and realizing Lucan has slowed him down too much to chase the rest of the party, he sets his sights on the half-elf and attacks him viciously with his trident, rending Lucan's midsection. He falls to the ground, lifeless.

Lucan's last stand

At this point, Zil'dejin is forced to close the vault door, and Garmeth re-locks the mechanism and attempts to jam it. They then flee the observatory. Of the six remaining, all but Tam'elanath set off for Askelios to meet the caravan before it departs. Tam'elanath instead camps out in front of the observatory in a hidden location for a few days. He then goes back inside to discover the vaulted door now open, and the malebranche still within, conducting some sort of strange ritual with the bones of the oni, trolls, and orcs, with Lucan's corpse apparently being some sort of focus. Tam'elanath then immediately leaves to Fairhaven, realizing he can do nothing here.

During this time, the party rejoins with Ephos and Roswyn, and informs them of the situation. They depart from the caravan to ride ahead and tell the Arcane Congress what has happened. The party reaches Fairhaven in seven days after leaving the Askelios (and ten days after leaving the Starpeaks Observatory), but must wait for Tam'elanath to arrive. Fortunately, due to his natural speed and ability to navigate the wilderness, the party has only to wait five days for him to enter Fairhaven.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Compulsory Intrigue

Zol, Barrakas 24, 998 YK (Day 38).

After almost an entire day on the ferry, the party crosses the river to Thaliost, where they part ways with Equis in a quiet area of the riverfront. After some time spent discussing their next move, they are approached by a scrawny half elf who announces that he is looking for one Lucan Vrinsk d'Medani.

Lucan confirms his identity, and the stranger introduces himself as Pethin, an agent of House Medani. There is an outpost within the city that has recently received a request from an archpriest of the Church of the Silver Flame (the predominant religious and governing entity in the nation of Thrane, of which Thaliost is part). The archpriest has asked specifically for a dragonmarked agent, and since the only ones native to the city are otherwise occupied, and Pethin himself does not possess a dragonmark, Medani uncovered Lucan's current location and waited for his arrival to extend the request to him. The contract concerns a series of assassinations that have been taking place in the city, primarily targeted at church officials. They seem to be related to Aundairian nationalism, as many in the city still feel that their city belongs to Aundair even after it was captured by Thrane in the Last War. The archpriest, fearing for his life, has commissioned House Medani to investigate. Lucan, realizing that Medani has not really given him an option, accepts, and Pethin gives him a list of locations in which previous assassinations took place. The party sets out to investigate the matter.

Pethin d'Medani
They divide up for their initial search. Zil'dejin and Lucan walk the streets of Thaliost, Zil'dejin looking for some kind of unifying mark that might identify the assassins and Lucan talking to people about the assassinations. Zil'dejin finds nothing but Lucan finds some leads pointing to the Blue Gardens, an old Aundairian noble district. Garmeth searches for somewhere important to the Aundairians in the city, but turns up nothing. Eshunu looks for suspicious-looking areas, and finds a few, but they don't seem to involve much regarding the assassinations except in the Blue Gardens. Stahlstrauss searches for information in a tavern, but turns up nothing, and Elyas confers with members of the clergy of the Silver Flame to glean some information from Thrane's perspective.

The party then largely moves into the Blue Gardens. Zil'dejin looks for nobles acting unusually, and obtains some suspicions about a noblewoman named Setia ir'Tanast. Stahlstrauss and Eshunu set about looking for an area with a high degree of nationalism, which they find in a particular plaza in the district. Lucan looks to see if anybody is hiring in the Blue Gardens, but people are guarded due to the Mark of Detection on his face. Elyas and Garmeth stay outside of the district, with Elyas looking for signs of nationalism outside of the district (there is nothing significant) and Garmeth asking around more reputable areas of the city to find out who has the most money. He is then arrested by the Thrane knights after several complaints from the locals.

After this, the rest of the group meets up to discuss. Zil'dejin and Stahlstrauss stake out Setia ir'Tanast's home, in an effort to spy upon her. Eshunu eavesdrops on the nationalist plaza in swarm shape, and Lucan investigates one of the crime scenes. All three of these leads point to one place: an old government building at the edge of the Blue Gardens, where something big is happening today. Elyas also tries talking to the Thrane knights, but they are of little help. Meanwhile, Garmeth manages to escape from his restraints and flees from the Thrane knights after accusing them of corruption and berating them. He manages to rejoin the rest of the Collective in the Blue Gardens.

Lady Setia ir'Tanast

In the government building, which is mostly deserted, they discover a gathering on the rooftop of people, a bishop of the Silver Flame among them. A rope is tied around his neck. Though they move cautiously at first Lucan eventually drives an attack against them, and the bishop is pushed off the edge of the roof, but the rope is the wrong size - he is being strangled. A fight breaks out as they try to save the bishop. After cutting through a few of the assassins and a wizard among them, they are able to help the bishop up and bring the forces down to just Setia. At this point, the Thrane knights break in and Lucan is accused of spearheading the assassinations. He and Setia are taken into custody, and Garmeth with them after some of the same knights realize his identity.

They are brought before Archbishop Solgar Dariznu, governor of the city who is widely abhorred and feared by the citizens of Thaliost. A public trial is held, and Lucan claims no affiliation with the assassins. The archbishop has him execute her to prove this, and he does so. Garmeth is tied to a stake to be burned alive for his charges. The Thrane knights then begin grabbing random citizens "believed" to be associated with the assassinations for Lucan to execute in the name of Thrane. This, he believes, is too much. He refuses, and Zil'dejin starts rallying the crowd against the Church of the Silver Flame. The crowd begins to get angry, and Lucan folds space using his powers to swap places with Garmeth, who is now standing on the platform used for these public trials. Zil'dejin fights his way to the dais and throws the archbishop into the crowd. He scrambles to free Lucan, believing him to be the most useful source of protection as the people start to overwhelm the Thrane knights. When freed, though, Lucan instantly cleaves Dariznu with his axe.

Pursued by the Thrane knights and caught in a sea of rioting people, the Collective attempts to escape to safety. Zil'dejin tries to "crowd surf" to safety, but fails utterly. Garmeth jumps off the platform and runs madly away from the crowd, and gets away along with Eshunu who does the same. Stahlstrauss uses his flaming hammer as a beacon and runs towards Lucan to get him out of the middle of the crowd, and Lucan in turn runs towards him. They are reunited, but Stahlstrauss is forced to put out the flame after his curse causes it to turn back against him. Meanwhile, Elyas is caught up in the crowd.

Zil'dejin remains stuck in the crowd with Elyas, despite their efforts to escape. Garmeth and Eshunu are pursued by a detachment of Thrane knights elsewhere in the city, so Garmeth climbs up the wall of a nearby building to escape on the rooftops and Eshunu disperses into beetles and hides from them. Stahlstrauss and Lucan push through the crowd to get out of the main body of the riot.

Finally, Zil'dejin pushes through the crowd aggressively, clearing a path for Elyas and himself. Garmeth moves nimbly about the rooftops, taunting the guards all the way, and eventually finds a sort of trap door to hide beneath. Eshunu looks for an area that can be reliably hid in, but finds nothing. Lucan looks for a good hiding spot while running with Stahlstrauss, and discovers the Medani outpost in the city. The party ducks in there.

Pethin is willing to harbor them there until the end of the riot. As they wait, a group of Thrane knights (the one that was pursuing Garmeth and Eshunu) breaks into the building, and the Collective fights them alongside Pethin. After this is done, Pethin and a few other House Medani agents bar the door and buckle down to weather the first part of the riot. The agents also proceed to teach Lucan some rituals that will be useful for a member of the house.