Ignacio, having so bravely returned to Christoph Hoyle to procure the correct concoction with which the Agents of Ascension would poison the castle garrison, was reminded of the sheer madness of the eccentric alchemist. He tried to relay to the rest of the group just how bizarre the small man truly is, but his stoicism kept it to, “Trust me. He’s odd.”
It also left Ignacio uncertain of the potion’s accuracy and potency, so he again bravely volunteered himself as a guinea pig for the vicious brew. To say that Ignacio was “sick” several hours later would be like saying that the ocean is “damp.” Ignacio, pale, clammy and gleaming with a fevered sweat, spent the next 24 hours (including during the following events) between the bed and the privy, as everything that had entered his digestive system in the last half a day was sent rocketing from the nearest orifice.
Lanth and Mara approached the rendezvous point outside the castle, where they had agreed to meet the Agent of Ascension who would lead them to the vaults. Rounding the corner, to their great surprise, was Stevil! Casually leaning up against the castle, he pretended to have been waiting for them a long while, though in reality had only arrived a few moments before them as Peter Pantser had only just tracked them down.
They heard the faint “ca-KAW” of the Agent inside. This signal meant the poison had been successfully administered to both the water and food supply, and now, many hours later, nearly 90% of all the guards in the palace were currently incapacitated, leaving the entrance to the vaults almost completely unguarded. Producing a stolen key, the undercover Agent opened the door to the vaults and left the group.
The three companions, Stevil, Lanth and Mara found themselves in a dimly-lit stone hallway. Peering around the corner, they found themselves in the presence of 4 kings of High Pengard in statue form: Tomas, Odmaer, Hamish and Bertio. At the base of each was an indentation that house a stone with a unique set of runes. Lanth recognized them immediately as saying “Sword” “Orb” “Crown” and "Key. There also was a plaque that read:
“To each their own, but thrice an err of name and stone will bring thy doom in ways unknown.”
The group pieced together that they needed to get the correct stone in the correct statue in order for something to happen…but they could not agree on what that something was! Mara suggested trying to open the door first, but Stevil and Lanth bade her not to touch the door, lest it be trapped and solving the puzzle of the runes would make it safe. However, after switching the runes around a few times based on nothing by gut reactions, they heard what sounded like a low horn sounding in the deep, the stones beneath their feet trembled, and then they were greeted by the sound of arcane energy and rushing footsteps! Quickly they each hid behind a statue and Lanth cast a minor illusion to make it look like there was, of all things, a monkey in the room playing with the rune stones! Three hooded figures burst through the doors (which they all noticed swung easily like those on a saloon), ready to fight, but were brought up short by the vision of the monkey! They stared quizzically at it for a few seconds before Lanth made the monkey run from the room. One of the mages pursued, the others stayed behind, talking in hushed, confused tones. The mage returned shaking his head and the three figures retreated back through the doors. A few moments later there was another rumble and another CRACK of arcane energy, and then…silence.
Peeking through the doors that they now knew stood unlocked, they saw into the next chamber. It was a vast, circular room, at the center of which stood a 4-way set of stairs that rose up to meet at a small platform, and glittering atop that platform was a ornately carved pedestal which held on it a golden chalice covered in gems, including a large green gem…THE SHARD!
With more caution than before, Lanth looked at the display with vision imbued by “Detect Magic” and discerned that the image before them was an illusion, and most likely a trap. They decided to look into the various doors that lined the large room.
The first room they entered was lined entirely with racks and displays of swords. Many woven tapestries hung on the walls, including one very large wall-sized tapestry which appeared to have a large blank spot where the clear subject of the image was supposed to be. as they approached the tapestry to read the plaque next to it, Lanth stepped on a stone that sunk into the ground, causing to large insect-like creatures to crawl out of their tapestries and attack! Recognizing them as rust monsters, Stevil wasted no time in getting his whips moving as the metal on Lanth’s rapier attracted the beast. Mara’s Magic Missile and Shocking Grasp spells proved quite effective, and it didn’t take long to dispatch the monstrosities. As soon as they did, the blank spot on the tapestry was filled by a clear image of King Tomas wielding a mighty sword. The plaque below read, “The Sword Conquers the present, but fades with time.” Certain now that the rune marked “Sword” belongs with Tomas, they returned to place the stone in the correct spot and ventured to the next room.
At this point, they felt they had enough information to solve puzzle, so they returned to the statues and arranged the rune stones as they thought was correct. When nothing happened, Lanth peeked back into the main chamber to discover that the golden chalice was gone, as was all the illusion magic that had been emanating from it. The trap had been successfully disarmed!
As the creaked open the door to another room off the main chamber, they were startled to find themselves not in a coldly-lit, dank stone room like the rest of the Vaults, but instead a comfortable and lavishly adorned and warmly lit study. A sturdy oak desk set facing the door, the walls lined by book shelves and small dressers and tables. The group slowly approached the desk, examined the book that lay open on it. Its pages and binding were all blank, and when Lanth grabbed a pen and drew something, it just faded into the page and disappeared! When nothing seemed out of place (which in and of itself was out of place!), Mara began opening drawers on the desk. In one of the drawers was a small handheld golden mirror. . As Mara looked into the mirror, suddenly, the bookshelves behind her were covered in dozens of crystal orbs of all different sizes! When she turned to look she saw nothing, and when she reached out to grab one, she felt nothing. She tried again to touch an orb, this time while looking in the mirror, and to her surprise, her hand contacted something solid!
At the instant of her touch, the doors to the vault vanished, and the faintest breeze filled the room for a moment. They suddenly felt like they were not alone, but they could see nothing. Mara whirled around holding up the mirror, and approaching them was a vaguely humanoid figure who seemed to be made out of condensed vapor, wispy and immaterial at the edges. Suddenly, she realized that the group would not stand a chance unless they used the mirror to help locate the monster. With some clever maneuvering, some strategic mirror-swapping and some serious damage taken, they finally managed to destroy the invisible threat. As soon as it vanished from existence, the once-blank book that was open on the desk began to fill with words. The heading read, “King Odmaer, keeper of the Orbs.” They now had their answer for which king belonged to the “Orb” rune!
With determination, the wasted no time on entering the 3rd room…and were brought up short by the stark contrast from the warmth of the previous room. The trio now found themselves in what was clearly a room meant for torture. A large stone table with wrist bindings bolted to it stood in the center of the room over a drain. The room contained little else besides implements of pain…except what the 3 adventurers stood gaping at. Standing next to the head of the table, bent over with a hand to its ear as if listening to a secret, was a statue of a woman made of pure white marble.
Nothing happened as they approached the statue or searched the room, until Stevil had the idea that perhaps they needed to strap themselves in to the manacles on the table. He volunteered to try first, and the instant his second hand was bolted on, he heard a voice in his head that said “Only a pure heart and clear conscience may look upon King Hamish’s Crown. Confess what darkens your heart, what haunts your dreams, and what regret falters your step.”
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Stevil thought for a moment and then whispered into the statues ear, “My greatest fear is having people discover that I once simultaneously vomited, peed and pooped on a girl.”
Stevil was transported with a zap of magical energy. When he opened his eyes, things were still dark around him, but he felt that he was on a very soft and comfortable surface and quickly he realized he was on what felt like a luxurious feather mattress with blankets over his head. His first breath in brought with it two simultaneous feelings: fond remembrance and dread. He smelt the faint scent of lavender and rose water, and a distinct and unmistakeable scent that catapulted him back into the fond years of adolescence…the scent of Cordelia Bagley. With a jolt, he realized he was in her bed chambers on the night he lost your virginity to the lovely miss Cordelia. He had won access to the fair maiden’s bedchamber by performing a particularly stylish jump with his chariot at his first public performance under the name Stevil. Most would find this a pleasing sort of memory of young lust and conquest, but his heart filled with dread as he realized he was being made to relive the horrors of that night. As in dreams, he discover he had little control over his limbs but was lucid enough to know what was coming, and he got the sense the he might have a chance to change his fate. As he clawed his way out from under the magnificent comforter, a violent jolt rumbled in his guts and his body was racked by violent spasms. He (SUCCESSFULLY) clenched his abdominal muscles. He grunted with exertion as he flung the covers off. Cordelia stirred and turned to look at you, saw him rigid and sweating with the strain of some severe discomfort and asks “My dear Stevil, what is the matter? Are you well?” Stevil (SUCCESSFULLY) deceived her and told her he was fine. “I must be going,” he managed to squeak out as he rose up from the bed, still stiff with the effort of containing the avalanche of biological material that was building within him. Cordelia rises and comes over and put an arm on his shoulder. “Are you sure? You’ve gone all pale!” As one wave of discomfort passes, he realized this was his last chance to make it to the privy before disaster strikes. He (SUCCESSFULLY) dashed down the hall to the privy! To say that he was ‘relieved’ upon making it to the privy takes on many meanings, but he was lucid enough to realize that this isn’t how it actually happened. However, as he unloaded the contents of his entire digestive tract in the relative privacy of the privy, he realized how silly it is that he had carried this around with him all his life. As the memory faded to white and he found himself back in the vaults of Highcastle, he stood a little taller knowing that we all have embarrassing memories of our youth and he needn’t be so insecure of people discovering this."
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Mara was next. As the shackled closed and the statue spoke, she whispered “I’m most afraid that my inability to control my magic will hurt the people I care about.”
She suddenly found herself back in the woods of Esovaria. As she wandered through the familiar woods, she realize that as if in a dream, she seemed to have a purpose that her waking mind couldn’t yet comprehend. She spotted the house that she and her mentor Vyncent had shared for her whole life. But something isn’t right. From inside the house comes a shriek of pain, and she immediately recognized it as coming from Vyncent. She burst through the door into the house to find Vyncent being held hostage by a pair of shadowy figures, hunched and cloaked, one behind him, the other in front. They are prodding him with strange implements as he moans and yells in agony. Instinctively, she cast Magic Missile, but without any chance to calm herself or contain your power, the Wild Surge comes leaping out from within her stronger and more violently than she had ever experienced before.
Despite the surge of wild magic, the projectiles (SUCCESSFULLY) found their mark, leaving Vyncent unscathed! The scene before her dissolved in a burst of black cloud, and she suddenly find herself in a dungeon-like room with Lanth, Ignacio and Stevil on various torture devices, each bleeding from many small wounds. A figure entered the room through a doorway on the far side…it’s Vyncent! It seemed he was the one holding the trio hostage and torturing them. He handed Mara a wickedly spiked hook dagger and said ‘Mara! I discovered that it was these 3 that have been corrupting the land around us! We must exact revenge on them for the land and restore the balance.’ Mara stared at the dagger in her hand and at the glassy eyes of the three bound men on their tables. Lost in the dream, she realized you must choose: Did she believe her oldest friend and mentor, Vyncent, and use the dagger on Ignacio, Lanth and Stevil, the villainous knaves who defiled the land she so loved? Or did she abstain?
After an agonizing few moments, she set the dagger down. The instant she did, the form of Vyncent ripped open and a demon lunged at her. Shrieking with terror, she instinctively cast another spell, the Wild Magic within her erupting from her….but again, she successfully cast her spells with no harm befalling her companions. She jolted suddenly as if waking from a nightmare and found herself standing back in the Vault room, shaken and nervous, but none the worse for wear.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Lastly came Lanth. As he was asked to recite his fear, he whispered “Dropping my instrument in the lake.”
He was transported to a lit stage in a vast, unending room, filled with a massive crowd as far as the eye can see of straight-faced people who stared, unblinking, at him. They stood in ankle deep water. Suddenly, he noticed the water was beginning to rise. Based on its speed, he figured that the whole room would be underwater, himself and his instruments included, in less than 1 minute. The entire crowd spoke in a monotone unison, “Sing a song of your truest fear or be consumed by it.”
As if in a dream where you are suddenly compelled without warning of strong emotions and urges, he realized that he must make up and perform a poem/song about his greatest fear on the spot. He took a breath and began to sing:
“AND I WOULD WALK 500 MILES
AND I WOULD WALK 500 MORE
JUST TO BE THE MAN WHO NEVER DROPPED HIS MOST VALUED
INSTRUMENTS INTO THE WATER ANYMORE.”
The crowd looked at him blankly, and Lanth held his breath as he waited to see if the crowd would accept his song. The water suddenly stopped rising and he was transported back to the Vaults.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
As the trio found themselves all back in the Vault Room, self-conscious that their secrets had been laid bare before their companions, a golden crown appeared on the statues head…and laid into the center of this crown was a large green gem shard: A Fragment of Duli! It carried an aura of very powerful Enchantment magic, so Lanth put the crown in his bag and they decided that even though they had the shard, they would still visit the last remaining room.
Inside was nothing but the statue of a small satyr. As you broke the magical aura around it, the doors behind you vanished and the statue’s face animated and began to speak:
“Answer King Bertio’s Riddles for the key to freedom. One chance is all ye be given so think before you speak”
He asked the group 3 riddles, all of which were answered correctly!
“Aura cadaver, in graveyards we gather. In the living we exist, in your closet we persist. What are we?”
“It dances and skips, it’s read in the eyes but it cheats with the hips. If it meets its match it’s easily caught, but it’s worth nothing if it is bought. What is it?”
Answer: The heart
“The shorter I am, the bigger I am. What am I?”
Answer: A temper
With all 3 correct answers, a crystal key appeared next to the door which the group used to unlock it, then Stevil pocketed the key.
They had the fragment, they had their lives. The group took a quick vote and voted to get the fuck out.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
The halls of Highcastle were eerily silent as Lanth, Stevil and Mara followed their contact from the Agents of Ascension back through the winding corridors of the palace towards their escape. The silence consisted partly of a lack of normal hustle and bustle in the castle (Christoph’s poison saw to that), but also of a lack of conversation between the party. Each member having had their greatest fears laid bare before their companions was not something any of them had been prepared for, and it showed on the blank and inward expressions on their faces. Even with a successful raid behind them and a powerfully enchanted crown in their possession, the crew didn’t really feel much like talking.
The Agent had exited the palace with them and promptly shed his disguise and vanished into the shadows of High Pengard mere seconds after rounding the corner and putting Highcastle out of sight. Once back out on the streets of High Town, below a thin sliver of moon, the cool night air seemed to help put the trio at ease.
“Well,” said Stevil quietly, “let’s get back to Jabari and see what he recommends we do now.”
Silent nods responded, and the group quickened their pace towards the address Jabari had scribbled down for them right before they left.
Having spent enough time in Low Town before they became fugitives of this great city, Stevil and Lanth still marveled at the sharp contrasts between High and Low Towns, cleanliness and aroma being the most obvious. At the top of the city, a constant breeze blowed softly carrying the scent of spices and incense from the luxurious shops that dotted the High Town streets. Low Town, on the other hand, carried with it the scent of the industry of the city and the crowded population. The stagnant air acted like a greenhouse, seeming to trap the scent of fish and the collected refuse of all its inhabitants. Beyond the smell, where Low Town was homogenous in its design and fabrication (mostly out of necessity of keeping cost low), High Town was entirely idiosyncratic. Every home, every estate, every store front all appeared to have been teleported in from some distant land and culture. And since the entire capital city was oriented vertically, wealth was not displayed in square footage, but in vertical stories and in exotic, unique design. Walking through the lamp-lit streets was like taking a stroll across the entire continent…or even across The Known World itself.
One building might have the solid, severe Dwarven influence of the masons of Stonehaven (dark stone, right angles, geometric heraldry and embellishments), but yet the very next building over would display the rounded columns and the curving white marble features typically found in the designs of Nysopoli, the capital of Spiros. As they approached their destination, the house Jabari had been granted to occupy during his tenure as a hired scholar for the Council of Nobles, they found themselves looking at a tall pagoda-style building, its tiers of gently sloping roofs extending well beyond its supports, creating a multi-leveled pyramid shape of curved eaves that rang of the traditional Mapuana architecture so favored by the nobles of their captial, Lakmuahni.
Following the directions scribbled on the scrap of parchment, the trio stepped up onto the front porch that nestled well under the overhanging eave, but didn’t approach the main entrance. Instead, they followed the veranda around to the side of the building to a small service entrance. Lanth reached up to knock but a moment before his hand made contact, the door gave a “CLICK” and slid open…but not on a hinge like your average door. It slide sideways, disappearing into a slot in the wall. In the doorway stood Jabari Amset, backlit by a warm glow from inside, his normal extravagance replaced by the practical clothing of one ready for a scrap. His dark hair was pulled tightly back, a loose but form-fitting shirt was tucked into grey knee-length breeches, which were in turn tucked in to a pair of soft leather knee-high boots. A long, curving dagger was in his hand, but a sly smile rested on his lips and a sparkle shone in his eye.
“Much sooner than I had anticipated, friends,” he whispered with his dusky accent, “but I’m glad for it. Do come in.” He stepped to the side and motioned for the party to enter.
The trio hurriedly stepped inside and as Jabari slid the door closed behind them and latched it in a number of ways, they got a chance to glance around the room. Befitting the Mapuana style, the room was relatively plain, but in a very different way than typical Vramoran style. There was no sturdy stonework or oak furniture, nor any couches or over-stuffed chairs. Instead, they found themselves in a wide open square room with white walls that were crossed by a grid of rich red cedar planks. Gleaming hardwood floors dropped down a small step into a few scattered 15-foot-squares that bore no furniture but instead were furnished by large, lavish pillows that were set around the inside edges. Above their heads, dozens of alchemical paper lanterns hung from cedar beams that crossed below a tall vaulted ceiling. In the corner was a small rock garden with a stone pool containing a few large orange koi fish swimming in small circles below the lily pads that dotted the surface. The atmosphere of the room was one of extreme calm, despite its wide open, obstruction-free design.
Jabari stepped down into one of the small, pillow-laden indents, crossed his legs on his pillow and bade the group to do the same. Once the trio was settled, he leaned forward expectantly and asked, “Well? Did you find the chalice with the Fragment?”
The next 15 minutes were spent with the trio relaying the events of their raid on the vaults, and at the end, Lanth reached into his pack and pulled the crown to show to Jabari.
“Ahhh, clever,” Jabari mused. “Display the fragment on a chalice, then move it into hiding on a different artifact while using an illusion of the original artifact as a trap. Quite clever indeed. May I examine it?”
Lanth handed the crown over (slightly reluctantly), and Jabari stared wide-eyed at the large gem fragment inlayed into the golden headpiece.
“I never thought I’d actually see one…” his hand rose to touch the gem’s surface gently with a few fingertips, “…I almost stopped believing they were real.”
Lanth saw Jabari’s eye glow with an arcane tint and realized that Jabari was using Detect Magic to examine the fragment. “You were not exaggerating, master Lanth, this gem is indeed brighter than any single source of magic I’ve yet encountered in my life. And I can confirm again your initial judgement of it being of a strong source of Enchantment magic.” His voice trailed off, and he closed his eyes. A small crackle of arcane energy began to dance around Jabari like static electricity…a thin smile pulled at the corner of his mouth after a few seconds, and as quickly as it began, the energy around him disappeared.
Opening his eyes and looking at the trio, he smiled fully and spoke.
“To my eyes, our mutual friend Master Gemheart’s suspicions are all but confirmed. I do believe that King Hamish has been using this fragment, whose entire magical energy seems concentrated on Enchantment, to slowly but consistently charm the people of High Pengard into submission. How else can a city of this size have been so free of political unrest despite the great divide in wealth and status between the High and Low Towns. This fragment isn’t enough to actually CONTROL the minds of so many people, but it is enough to create a calming effect like a warm blanket over the population…easing unrest, calming angers, and instilling a sense of loyalty, love and submission to the King. It would be very subtle, being spread out among so many, so subtle in fact that it’s absence most likely won’t be felt for a while…how long I do not know, but eventually its influence will wane and the city will be subject to the same unrest as any other capital city.
This crown and gem, if concentrated on a single target, should be MORE than enough to charm that person if focused properly by a skilled user. It also can be used as a shield from attacks that aim to do the same to the wearer of the crown.”
(PLAYER NOTE: You now understand, thanks to Jabari’s knowledge/book smarts that this crown, if worn, makes the wearer immune to Charm, and they gain advantage on all Intimidate, Persuasion and Deception checks. Anyone attempting to use any of those abilities against the wearer of the crown does so with Disadvantage. Also, (with a 24 hour recharge), the crown can be used to cast “Charm Person” as a 2nd level spell, even if the caster has no remaining spell slots at the time of casting.)
After a short lull in the conversation, Jabari seeming to be deep in thought, he continues.
“Friends, you now find yourself with a choice to make. You can give me the crown and I will take it back to the Supreme Atheneum where Master Gemheart is equipped to conceal the fragments for a time while you search for the rest. Or, you can keep it in order to use it…but I’m sure he told you that these fragments are very dangerous to use, as they draw all manner of dark creatures to you…the fate of the Dwarves of Duli tell of the folly of repeated use. Should you choose to give me the crown, I will depart for Stonehaven in the morning. But either way, I am to charge you with continuing the search for the fragments. Master Gemheart says that you already have a lead on one in m’Lady’s home of Esovaria,” he gestures softly to Mara, “but I have news for you that Kurgi knows not yet. I hail from the capital city of Tel Kir’ah on the southern continent of Sudreas, and my network back home as kept me abreast of the comings and goings in the years since my departure. For the previous year or so, excavations have begun in secret in the catacombs under the city by wealthy and powerful nobles who believe great wealth resides in the bones of the ancient city beneath…but very recently, in the last few weeks, excavations have been reporting attacks by a strange band of warriors. Some excavation parties are discovered entirely slaughtered, but a few survivors have managed to escape and have described their attackers as fanatical and vicious, they show no mercy and give no quarter. It is my belief that this group is trying to protect something powerful and important, and I believe it could be another fragment. The timing of their appearance with the strange event you witnessed and now the confirmation of a Fragment of Duli is too much to ignore. Should you decide to venture to Tel Kir’ah, send word to me and I can connect you with my network there. It is a tricky city to navigate as an outsider, so a helpful ally who is connected to the locals will be invaluable.”
He breathes deeply, closes his eye for a moment before opening them and asking, “So what will you do? Will you give me the crown or keep it for use at your own peril? Of the leads you have so far on other fragments, which scent shall you follow?”