12:19 – 12:22 – Fren stops in a small dank chamber somewhere in the bowels of the house. Like the others it is rank with greasy moisture, rotting papers and vermin, and the only light now comes from a shining stone that orbits the deranged artificer's head. The group wonder if she has got lost until she moves to one pile of dripping parchments and speaks a phrase of power which energises them, and sends them flying away to reveal a brilliantly illuminated corridor beyond. At the end of this corridor stands a great mirror of silvered glass – priceless in and of itself. However even from their current position the party can make out the spidery runes worked into its gilt frame, as well as the dimly glowing power crystals set amongst them.
“Use your key Istan and you will be in. You can look through before you pass through. Good luck!”
The artificer's words are dull and heavy, as if she is impossibly weary. Istan looks like he is on the verge of tears, but with a growl he turns his back on her and begins to march down the corridor. The group look towards Fren and notice that she is staring off into space, her lips moving slightly as if she is talking silently to someone. She looks suddenly over her shoulder and then, with lightning speed, jumps past the party to spin Istan round by his shoulder with surprising strength.
“It's been calling to me lately you know. It's still hungry for the kill.”
Istan grows pale. “Where?”
Fren moves closer, almost as if she is going to kiss him, her face sick and drawn. However she instead puts her mouth right next to Istan's ear and in a loud, harsh whisper says, “Somewhere close by. Too close. It senses the many here. It is hungry to kill, to feel their blood slide from its claws.”
Istan looks at the party and back to Fren who has stepped away from him and stares at him with a savage, insane intensity. He shudders, and slowly speaks.
“If I survive this night, I shall come back and we shall find it and lay it to rest. It must be stopped, though how, I know not.”
And with that he gives her hands a kiss before heading towards the portal. “Come on then you lot!” he barks.
Fren stares a moment longer, then melts back into the darkness of the house, her lightstone winking out a moment before.
12:23 – 12:25 - “What the feck was that all about?” growls Schnecke, “She's insane!”
Istan briefly looks furious, but he masters his emotions and nods instead. “She has been driven insane by the things she saw during the wars. She was part of the crew responsible for maintaining the Mortifer, and as such, she had grown close to the machines spirit. When it went rogue and turned to evil, she felt a massive burden of guilt, as well as the loss of a friend of sorts.
“Her guilt corroded her sanity, until Xix's whispers began to fill her mind. The ghosts she sees and hears are, she thinks, the souls of those slain by the Mortifer. Worse, she claims she still has a connection with the machine, and says she can feel every kill it makes.”
“Poor woman needs help. She was...she was so full of life and beauty once.”
He shakes his head. “Come on. Let's see about one friend at a time. Darius needs us urgently. Let's go.”
12:26 – 12:31 – Up close the mirror is clearly a work of incredible artifice, and those versed in arcane lore are forced to admit that Fren, for all her madness, must be a talented weaver of enchantments to have crafted, or even to have modified it.
As the group gather Istan produces a small shard of crystal that begins to thrum with energy as it is brought towards the mirrors surface. He then touches two of the crystals in the frame, and at once, the mirrored surface swims with light and become clear, as if a sheet of transparent glass was in it.
Beyond is a beautifully appointed bedroom, dominated by a huge four poster bed and a huge marble clad fireplace. At the bottom of the bed is a huge footlocker and various expensive pieces of furniture stand around the chambers curtain shrouded walls. Rich carpets cover the floors, and bright light spills from a spectacular chandelier set in the ceiling made from individual crystals of quartz and clear jade.
By the fireplace stands a robed man in his late thirties. He has long, oiled hair the colour of midnight, and noble features. A large ruby ring glitters on his left hand, and an aura of warding spells shimmers around him like a ghostly halo. He is currently holding the hand of a slightly plump but undeniably beautiful woman who sits on a plush stool before him, her eyes locked with his, a look of purest adoration on her face. She wears the ornate robes of a cleric of Buidrerenon'Tobes, has reddish-blonde hair, large blue eyes and pale skin.
This, Istan whispers, is Yithia, Darius' lover. The man with the dark hair is the pretender.
Peering through, Grigori spots something unusual about the wall hanging curtains, and realises that behind them lurk three armoured forms – hidden bodyguards. A closer look reveal that the outlines are consistent with those of warforged.
“The girl is an innocent dupe in all this. Spare her if you can, but be aware that she is in thrall to the monster.”
The group agree, though Jaeger does so reluctantly, having little love for the greedy merchant priests of Tobes.
“I have a plan.” says Varracuda suddenly. “Why doesn't Emmiven take on the form of Darius as well? It could be that the confusion of seeing two Darius' is enough to shake the domination the doppelganger has over Yithia. It could win us an ally?”
The group stare at the genasai for a moment, and then grin, for it is a most excellent plan.
And so Emmiven allows his features to melt and shift into those of Darius – a process that none other than the sorceress are able to watch without baulking – becoming a perfect double in every way. He grins with the strangers face, and after everyone has controlled their feelings, Istan activates the mirror fully, opening a portal into the room beyond...
...”Yithia! This is a trick! He is a monster, a shapeshifter, for I am your love, come to rescue you and slay this fiend!”
It's a bit over the top, but Emmiven knows that in order to stand a chance of blasting through the mental restraints placed on her psyche he has to use a blunt instrument. His and Istan's arrival in the room has caught the pair off guard, and for an instant it looks as if the priestess might be able, in the throes of her shock and confusion at the strange and unexpected intrusion, to fight free of whatever holds her. However, as the rest of the party pile through, her eyes cloud over and she leaps to defend her “love”.
And so the battle to destroy the doppelganger begins. As predicted by Grigori three warforged, each showing signs of being lobotomised - the parts of their brains that allow them to think for themselves having been bored out and stoppered with grey, morphic flesh (that of the doppelganger) – begin to stride out from behind the wall curtains, heavy blades at the ready.
Spying the party, and clearly happy that Yithia is fully in his thrall, the doppelganger sheds the form of Darius. His flesh loses its human tone and becomes grey and formless, flowing like wet clay over the core of his being. He elongates and stretches, his eyes becoming flat discs of white, his mouth widening and filling with shark-like teeth. His arms lose any semblance of having a bone structure, waving with a rubbery looseness whilst his fingers grow long, claw-like nails. He howls with rage, an invisible aura of psychic “fog” oozing from his powerful mind, insidiously deadening the reactions and thought processes of those coming too close for too long.
One of the warforged launches in at Varracuda, who expertly parries the blow and returns a slash of his own fiery blade scoring a minor hit against the mindless construct. Istan, Emmiven and Schnecke all charge the shape-shifter; the warlord smashing him to the floor and the warrior cleaving several bloodless wounds, filled with wriggling nests of grey, doughy worms – his polymorphic flesh, working hard to restitch the wounds together. However, the most formidable blow of this opening attack comes from the Ulnyrr.
From the moment he entered the perfumed finery of the bedroom, Schnecke had changed. The sight of the powerful monster spoke to him, and his soul spoke to his homeland; its icy presence filling his spirit with bitter cold. Mercy, honour and fear all fly from him as the algid power of his people comes to flow through him, the air around him growing frosty, his breath pouring from him in great, steaming gouts. Ice flakes from his blue-tinged flesh and grows like daggers from his beard and plaits.
He charges the doppelganger, and strikes it with a blow capable of cutting a warhorse in two, his mighty blade literally tearing and warping the monsters form like a child tearing clay. The blow enters the beasts clavicle and ends in the middle of his belly, and the monster shrieks a scream so high pitched that no one hears it – though every glass thing in the bedroom shivers and cracks from it.
But Schnecke isn't even half finished yet.
Lost in the icy rage, his axe has come free and dived in again before anyone can register the sickening impact of his first blow, carving another hideous wound in the plastic things body, causing it to stretch upwards weirdly, his body elongated and sculpted like a piece of aelwyn art. Eyes now glowing with blue light, mist weeping from them like tears, his beard and hair now pure ice, the frost-souled barbarian manages to land one more blow, almost decapitating the fiend, his axe not just moaning at this point, but shrieking with daemonic glee.
It is Yithia. She leaps forth power seething from her holy symbol as she calls upon her god to smite those that seek to kill her love. The icy cold of the barbarian's rage is suddenly washed away in a deafening blast of incandescent energy as she calls a column of blue and black fire down upon the warriors attacking her love, and the assassin who has crept forwards, crossbow at the ready.
The flames are incredibly powerful, and small fires start all over the bedchamber as their heat washes out, the air growing thin and smoky almost at once. Those caught in the blast suffer horribly as the enchanted flames bathe them in agony, even the barbarian, wrapped up in the skin aurumvorax and his own fury.
But she too is not yet done. “My love!” she sobs, her symbol glowing once more, this time with a soft, golden light. “I shall save you!”
Auric energy leaps from her hands and settles on the doppelganger, immediately closing the wounds he has suffered where it touches them. The fiend roars his approval, and then, in Darius' cultured voice, thanks Yithia; the voice horribly incongruous with his alien, warped form. Another warforged enters the fray fully, missing the barbarian with a blow designed to open his belly up...and then the monster attacks...
The horror, an elder doppelganger that calls itself Aezmyth, is angry with itself for being caught by surprise, and is shocked at how badly these rampaging adventurers have hurt him in a few scant seconds. His pain is incredible and his mind scattered. However, with the initial shock fading, and his unnatural flesh on the mend, he focusing his powerful mind and at once tries to dominate the nightmarish barbarian. He sends hooked waves of mental power towards him, but finds, to his surprise, a surprisingly resilient personality in there – too strong for him to control. Fury boils up within him, and he takes this, shapes it, and uses it to unleash another purely psychic attack; an attack that he is positive will lay his enemies low.
As the third warforged strides into battle, an invisible cone of nightmare energy erupts from the reforming doppelganger's forehead, washing over the three warriors toe-to-toe with him, as well as the assassin. Those touched by it are suddenly plunged into their worst nightmares, the real world a faint image superimposed on the sanity shattering reality they suddenly inhabit. To those beyond the powers' reach, the four adventurers suddenly stop dead, their guards dropping, their faces suddenly contorting into masks of abject horror. Silent screams issue from them as they are briefly overwhelmed by the attack, though they seem, somehow, to be able to continue to fight – albeit at a substantial disadvantage.
Grigori's voice, powerful and clear rings out over the cacophony of the battle, and Schnecke is immediately woken from his waking nightmare, his boreal fury returning in a hearbeat. He then weaves a potent healing spell and send it over towards the assassin, who is burning brightly after Yithia's flame strike and is mewling within his psionically invoked personal hell. And it is a good job that he does, for the assassin, within his crisped and sticking armour, is more seriously hurt that even he realises, his entrails only held in by his armours press, his flesh charred through its entire thickness. The cooling, restorative energy pours over him; a luminous balm that restores him to full health; new flesh ballooning like a weird pink fungus from within his body, filling the cuts and blisters with healthy new tissue.
And then everything is thrown into sharp relief. Seren, who has stayed close to the portal (which this side is framed within the belly of a great chronometer), has been forming a barely stable sphere of clashing, spitting, spinning energies; a mad maelstrom of potential destruction bound within the small ball, held in place only by force of her will and her art, within her clawed hands. Now, with a wash of power, she launches it the length of the room towards Aezmyth, striking him with incredible accuracy and power.
The missile disintegrates and a blast of eldritch cold erupts from it, flash freezing the monster, blowing it into chunks with a thunderous report.
As fast as that, and the powerful foes is slain!
The group (those not babbling and screaming anyway), can barely allow themselves to believe it – the doppelganger, powerful enough to dominate a household and keep its foes guessing, is undone in but a few seconds....this is....this is...
….not the case...
The group blink in horror as the frozen pieces begin to seethe and boil like wax on a fire, each piece suddenly erupting into a lashing mass of grey, whipping feelers, which connect with those of their neighbouring shards, slowly bringing the mass together in a frenzy of regeneration and polymophic rebirth. So rampant is the growth that any attacks are immediately undone, their damage lost in the crazy morass of cellular multiplication.
And so, whilst Aezmyth rebuilds himself into an increasingly bulky and loathsome form, the
party turn their attention to the others. Seren quickly summons radiant energy around the priestess and the two warforged that stand by her, dazzling them and forcing them to squint in the painful glare, whilst Jaeger, still distracted and blinded by his visions of horror, almost reflexively sends a wave of bladed darkness towards one of the warforged. By sheer luck, the bolt strikes the monster in its headwound, striking with terrific force, and as it falls backwards from the blow, so a fuming portal of absolute darkness yawns behind it, ready to swallow it whole. The warforged pitches into the darkness, and with a grunt, the assassin opens another portal next to Yithia, the warforged hurtling out from it to smash into her and the other living construct, all three of them slamming into the ground.
Varracuda continues to slash and poke at the first of the warforged to emerge, halfway between Grigori and Seren and the rest of the group, whilst Jaeger, now free of his horrors, unleashes another shadow-tinged cone of tenebrous bolts towards the downed enemies, poisoning them with stunning attercop venom and filling them with biting toxins.
Seeing their chance the warriors launch at the downed enemies, scoring a number of telling blows. Yithia, previously senseless from the venoms in her blood, is drenched in gore, her hair plastered to her sweating face. Despite this she rises shakily to her feet, and with a word of magic heals herself of the worst of it, before commanding the barbarian to drop to his knees, her utterance laced with magic.
But Schnecke seems not to hear her.
She screams and convulses as the assassin's venom surges painfully through her.
And suddenly Aezmyth is back in the battle, his new form a grotesque amalgam of several ferocious monsters. His bulk is that of a great bear, his flesh warty and scaled. From his posterior wags a wyvern's sting, from his powerful arms curl the claws of a primal lizard hunter, and in his face yawns the ferocious maw of a gigantic amphibian predator – the Froghemoth. His roar eclipses all other sounds in the chamber, and Yithia suddenly seems uncertain, the domination no longer so easily reinforced. She seems suddenly distracted, and although she continues to fight, her movements are now mechanical and clunky, as if against her will.
And there is fear in her eyes now – the doomed fear of one helpless against their grim fate.
Grigori pronounces a holy curse on the doppelganger, and his words strike at the beasts spiritual resonance, weakening him physically and psychically for an instant. The rest of the party concentrate on the priestess and the two warforged by her, all three of them being removed from the battle by flying blades of thunder and frost summoned by the drakven.
And then something truly horrible occurs.
The chest at the bottom of the bed suddenly bursts open, a stench so foul as to be overwhelming filling the room. A cold wind, clotted with the reek of advanced decay howls through the chamber, the small fires started earlier burning deathly blue as it touches them, and a ghastly thing – a corpse effervescent with putrefaction, dressed in rusted armour, a pitted and decayed longsword gripped in its fluid hands – erupts from the chest like a nightmarish jack-in-the-box. The zombie is animated by scores of pale grey worms, which Emmiven realises are small pieces of Aezmyth's own flesh, and when Istan gives a bestial, broken scream, the group realise who's remains stand before them, making them dizzy and sick with its stench – Darius Valde; Moneylender, lifelong friend of Istan and murdered victim of a conniving doppelganger.
Istan is stunned, his eyes locked on the dripping mass of black filth and writhing worms that used to be his best friend.
The group intensify their efforts to end this as soon as possible.
The battle, thought to be almost over with the first fall of Aezmyth proves to be far from over yet. The new form the monster has taken is a horror of lashing poisoned stings, disembowelling claws and devouring fangs. It leaps to and fro in the room; smashing furniture to kindling and laying about the party with brutal efficiency – though his attacks would be far worse were it not for the warlord's repeated distractions somehow penetrating his rage to make him pause and glare when he could be striking out.
Ultimately however it is the doppelganger's own rage that defeats him.
Having moved the entire length of the room he finds himself surrounded by the party, the swordmage cursing him with a hex that leaves him vulnerable to fire. Lashing out at random, the brute is still a deadly foe, though his regenerating flesh is hanging open in a score of places, the internal worms madly dancing to try and close the injuries up. However, he makes a fatal mistake, for seeing Seren before him, he strikes at her, and at once is surrounded by a nimbus of fiery magic – a defence the sorceress had called up around her scant moments before. Channelled by Varracuda's magic into the very core of his being, the fiery magic that leaps in a shimmering sheet from Seren's golden scales blazes within him with a fierce, unnatural intensity, withering the worms of flesh and striking at the very essence of the monster, burning the life from him.
As the killing blow falls against Aezmyth, so a horrific scream goes up, ripping the air. The greater doppelganger froths and boils, his physical form seething with uncontrolled change as consciousness flees it. Tentacles of raw flesh blast outwards from its suddenly greying and sagging mass, smashing furniture and smashing the party to their feet. Then a horrific column of melting flesh, bearing a nightmare visage like that of Darius erupts from the stinking morass of its collapsing form. It gives a phlegmy, bubbling wail, and then wilts like a mushroom in time lapse, collapsing back into the churning, burning mess that was the doppelganger's last form.
Soon there is nothing but a putrid, oily mess of unholy filth where the greater doppelganger once stood.
12:32 – 18:30 – The group gather their wits and begin to feel their wounds. Grigori tends to them, noting with concern that the barbarian has been bitten by Darius' corpse (which was cut down just before Aezmyth was taken out), the punctures already showing signs of advanced decay. Istan rushes to Yithia's side, and sobs with joy when he sees that though gravely wounded, she lives. He gives her a healing potion with shaking hands, smiling down at her as her eyes flicker open.
Once she is comfortable (though she is dazed as grief and shock begin to work their foul spells on her) Istan returns to the party. He is grim and pale, but he shakes each person's hands with a fierce strength.
“It's over my friends, and I have a huge debt of gratitude to you. My friend, alas, is no more, though I can at least ensure he is laid to rest. As for Yithia, she will be in need of a lot of care, and will be needed to manage the estates, for she is named as the successor to Darius' empire.”
Istan then shrugs, looking lost,
“As for me, I shall stay long enough to ensure that all the affairs are put in order, and then I have my promise to Fren to fulfil. Seek me out if you fancy hunting the largest prey you have ever imagined.”
He then looks around the devastated bedroom, and moves to a part of one of the walls. After a moment he presses a secret panel, and a previously hidden chamber is revealed, its interior filled with various bits of enchanted equipment, all of them glinting in a disembodied blue-grey glow.
“Through there is a secret stash of equipment and items. Help yourself, you have more than earned it.” He then gives a sad little grin, and adds, “I call you friends now, and shall be here for you when I am able.”
The group are given food and drink by the houses terrified staff, most of whom barely dare believe that Istan has come back and saved them, and as the sun begins to set, they make to leave the splendour of Darius' estate, before being told that a carriage awaits, ready to take them back to the Staff of Wands.