19:15 – 19:25 – Sanity returns, and the group find themselves in an unusual place. It is mostly dark, and though it is clearly vast, the group sense that it has definite, unseen boundaries. The only light sources in the chamber are the intense silvery shafts of sparkling radiance that outline each adventurer, and, about 15' away, the glowing splendour of the angel they saw descending from on high after their fight in the streets.
No longer mantled in the terrible majesty of battle, the group can bear to look upon the luminous being before them – though it is no less intimidating in this relaxed state, and still radiates an unspoken might, both physical and metaphysical.
Were it stood upon the ground, and not floating a few feet above it, it would likely stand almost as tall as a giant. Every part of it is clad in layers and layers of shining, polished plate armour; forged from some heavenly metal and inscribed with blessings, wards and protective prayers, all written in the beautiful script of the angelic language. It's face is hidden behind a disturbingly lifelike daemon mask, who's baleful eyes pour the silvery glow of the angel's own from them like luminous tears. Across its back hangs a huge greatsword of shimmering metal. Ormid notes that it seems to be made of an impossible alloy of silver and cold iron, and finds himself wondering what kinds of incredible forges the celestial dimensions must house. Finally, from the shoulders of the being soar great wings of blade-edged feathers, spun it seems from glass, lightning and sunlight. Though the angel floats in this place, the wings are still; held open, their light blazing around it in a glorious halo.
“Mortals, I am Master Zanoriel, leader of the Bond Eternal. I understand we share a common enemy, and that you sought us in order to take sanctuary from them yes?”
His voice resonates like thunder within a bell of purest glass; a haunting, beautiful, terrible sound that holds all creation and destruction within it. The group are a little stunned, and can only nod dumbly.
“I also understand that you seek the activation rituals for an ancient weapon in your own world?”
“Err, yes your grace, your holiness, your excellency sir.” Mumbles Ormid, only just resisting the urge to fall into a ridiculous curtsey.
“If I were to tell you that we could decipher the ritual for you, and that we would be happy to give you sanctuary, but only if you were to help us, would you be interested.”
Furtive glances between the adventurers, and suddenly the feeling that an invisible noose is closing around them.
“What manner of 'help' would this be?” Asks Shadevia, her black eyes narrowing.
“Ah, the shadeborn,” Rumbles Zanoriel, the disgust clear in his voice, “It would be a rescue mission of sorts. One of our number, an angel named Mishazael, fell in battle many hundreds of years ago and was taken as a prisoner by the Syndicate. For long and long we have been unable to locate him, and we have been afeared as to what they may have been using him for.
“However, recently, his voice rang through the aether for a moment, and we were able to divine that he is being held on a small planet named Avrane, on the continent of Horengland, in the city of Black Hook...”
Shadevia gasps as the cities name is spoken, and all eyes turn to her.
“Oh, what a surprise, the dark one has heard of it.”
Shadevia grits her teeth, and glares daggers at the angel, the air around her dimming somewhat. “In my own time and place, in my own world, Black Hook exists. It was swallowed by my plane in the past – this time's future” (Llewellyn flinches, expecting the angel to pick up on the allusions to time travel, and is relieved when nothing is said) “Even in my dark world” - the sarcasm is clear and very intended - “it is a place of misery and suffering. A slavers city dedicated to the worship of the Hungerer and the Court of Famines”.
“It is no better in this time frame either, for the world in which it stands was long ago conquered by daemonic forces, its people subjugated by them utterly. Avrane stands as living testament as to why all mortal kin should battle the forces of the pit, and Black Hook is a monument to the evil that has infested that world.”
“It is interesting that you speak of the city as a slaver's port in your time and world, for it is the same in this world. Black Hook is a place almost entirely given over to the worship and service of its daemonic masters; all its heroes and hopes dying in the 'Scourging Wars' almost 300 years ago. It is a crumbling place that stands within a sucking bog overlooking the oily waters of the Writhing Sea, torn constantly by stinking winds and driving corrosive rains. It is a place given over to the gathering and sale of slaves, and the preparation of various commodities from their bodies; visited by horrors from all across the world, as well as many of the daemonic planes tied to it by portals and unholy dimensional junctions.
“Natives to Black Hook have pale skin, lank, thin hair and usually sport a collection of sores, cancers and festering wounds. They are utterly given to the vile powers that dominate them, having never known any other kind of world, and as such, serve them without question. Though they can appear dim witted, they are not, and there are those amongst them who have willingly given their souls to the dark powers, and received incredible, unnatural strengths in return.
“So,” asks the Veteran slowly, “do you have any idea where this angel is being held?”
“Indeed we do. The Syndicate run a number of disgusting businesses within the city, and one of their most profitable is a tannery, which makes fine soft leathers from human flesh. Our divinations pin pointed one such tannery as the location where Mishazael is being held.”
“So let me get this straight.” growls Ardwaine, stamping her foot, “You want us to enter a world polluted utterly by daemonic evil, infiltrate a city of monsters and madmen, locate the place where their stock trade is turning the likes of me and Ormid into expensive seat covers, locate a prized possession of a powerful otherworldly syndicate of evil, and break them out?”
“In return for which, you will keep us safe from the same evil organisation and help us with our own ongoing mission?”
“You have understood perfectly child of the mountains.”
Ardwaine looks at the others, and sees their grim faces. However, she also sees the determination to get the job done, and to finish this “side mission” that came into their lives all those weeks ago.
“We'll do it.”
Zanoriel nods, his armour chiming, and at once, another beam of silvery light lances down from the hidden ceiling to reveal an armoured figure stood to the right of the group.
“This is Zaruel, a paladin of the Bond. He shall accompany you to Black Hook, and use his angelic magics to lower the wards that guard Mishazael, and to liberate him.”
The figure nods, and removes his silvery helm. He is a being of unnatural fierce beauty; a being with strong features, pale lilac and silver eyes, and luminous, argent skin tones. Like Zanoriel he wears highly ornate plate armour, covered in angelic scripts and glyphs, and bears two weapons; a fearsome angelic broadsword, wreathed in pale white flame and bound with celestial silver, and a brutal flanged-mace of cold iron – a perfect weapon against daemons. He speaks in a perfect, strong voice, and greets the group warmly (though both Llewellyn and Shadevia find themselves instinctively recoiling from him, and the aura of power that surrounds him).
“Zaruel will see that you are fed and watered before you leave.”
“B-but, we need to rest!” Begins Ormid, “We need to heal our wounds and to...to”
The darkness recedes, and Zanoriel fades with it. In its place is revealed a huge chamber of silver and pale grey marble, lit by high stained glass windows of vibrant yellows, golds and greens. Arched doorways stud the buttressed walls, each inscribed with an angelic glyph, and in the middle of the room, a stone table groans under the weight of a fantastic feast.
“Eat.” Says Zaruel simply, gesturing towards the food, “The food contains magic that will restore you, and which will harden you against the fear that the world we shall enter radiates.”
19:26 – 20:30 – The food is unlike anything the group have tasted before, and the Veteran finds that enchanted oils have been lain out for him to use. With each mouthful the group feel more rested, and feel a glowing confidence taking root within their spirits. The wounds they received in the marketplace simply fade, forgotten, leaving no scar or blemish, and each adventurer feels pleasantly filled without feeling bloated or sickened.
With their meal consumed, their vitality restored, Zaruel bids the party follow him to the portal they will use to journey to Avrane.
20:31 – 20:37 - The group follow the paladin down long echoing hallways of rune inscribed stone, the perfumed air faintly shining with angelic power. They come to a great golden door, worked with more glyphs and sigils, which swings silently open at their approach to reveal a golden room beyond.
It is a vast place with a golden dome, dominated in the middle by a complex framework of silvery metals, supported by seven pillars. Concentric circles of engraved silver surround the floor around the structure, and Ormid recognises some of the symbols as protective prayers. In the middle of the structure is a curious framework of heavenly metals, forged into the shape of a seven pointed star. Every inch of this is draped with protective talismans and inscribed with planar magics designed to forge portals between this place and other universes, and the group realise that this will serve as the focus for the magic that will create the doorway to Avrane.
Silent attendants, hooded and robed in white, tend to large machines of polished silver and crystal, which appear to be control units for the portal device. As the last of the party enter the chamber, the doors close behind them soundlessly, and at once, a tension charges the air; a low humming of power that begins to gather as the robed figures manipulate the control panel and awaken the machine.
“Stand ready.” whispers Zaruel, his eyes intent on the star shaped device.
The air becomes dense with power, and the walls, ceiling and floor suddenly ignite with a million shimmering runes as magic flows through them. The star in the middle of the device begins to shine with a sympathetic radiance, and those members of the party with flesh ears feel them pop as the pressures increase even more. Sound becomes muffled and the arcane pressures near unbearable before suddenly, with a silent blaze of light, a golden portal snaps open within the star structure, a wave of defensive runes whirring into place in the concentric carved circles on the floor as they align to contain the darkness beyond.
“Now!” Shouts Zaruel distantly, “Before the portal is noticed in their world!”
The party need no more encouragement, and with all haste, pass through the golden doorway...
20:38 – 21:05 ..Into an uncomfortably warm world, currently being battered by driving, oily rain.
The group are in a graveyard, though almost every grave is ancient and empty. A strong, putrid odour thickens the warm and chokingly humid air, and thunder rumbles above somewhere. Everything is outlined in a dark greenish light, that is heavy with shadow, and at once the group can feel the subtle pressure of despair weighing down on their souls. Zaruel is immediately alert, his eyes points of pure light in the stinking storm.
“This is a foul place, but a breath away from the true corruption of the pit. Be wary mortals, for the dark knows we are here.”
The city of Black Hook can be seen in the distance; sinking slowly into a stagnant, polluted bog. Its towers are curved, vicious things (the source of the place's name), and below it, to what the group instinctively think of as South, can be seen a harbour filled with armoured ships. Peering through the miserable rain and slimy fogs, the group can see that there are masses of wretched looking humans being moved from the ships in towards the cities southern gate, each shackled to the one in front and behind them. Several hulking daemonic figures, wreathed in green flame, crack whips to move them along, whilst other humans prod and smack them with poles and clubs.
“We will need to be careful as we approach the city.” growls the angelic paladin, “If we get spotted before we can locate the tannery, we will be done for.”
“I can conjure mounts,” whispers Ormid, “that can fly, though I may need a little help. That way we can avoid a trudge overland.”
“A fine plan, though we cannot fly too high, for fear of being spotted by the sentries.”
With their eyes adjusting to the gloom, the group help Ormid as he begins the ritual with which he can conjure spectral mounts. Anxiously the group chant in time with the artificer, helping him to focus and to manipulate the energies as best he can, and soon the air before them is thickening with shadowy, equine forms. However, a moment before he can finish the ritual, Shadevia and Llewellyn hisses a warning, and the ritual ends with a damp “Voof” of collapsing magical energies, and a liquid shimmering as the conjurations fade away into their component energies.
A patrol is headed this way; five gaunt horsemen clad in black plate armour, fashioned to resemble the exoskeleton of some daemonic being, each carrying a long pole with a globe of witchfire suspended from it by a chain. All have starved pale features with wide, yellowish eyes and thin, sharp cheekbones. They carry themselves with broken resignation, hunched over in the saddles. Sores and open wounds glisten on their flesh, and were they not breathing, the group would assume them some kind of animated undead, so dire is their state. They ride equally wretched horses; each one skeletally thin, their ribs clearly visible beneath their lustreless, filth caked flanks, and are accompanied by four dog-like creatures, which run with unnatural energy around them, barking with snapping, slavering yelps. Each has six eyes, arranged in rows, three on each side of their long, snouted heads. Their jaws are powerful and filled with rows of jagged, ripping teeth, and their yellowish fur is very short. A powerful stink comes from them, its aroma that of the steam that rises from vomit, and as the patrol get closer, the group can feel their stomachs coiling at it.
“Back away from the road.” Whispers Ormid, “We'll hide over there.”
The group crouch low, using the crumbling wall of the graveyard as a shield from the patrol's gaze, and scurry into the sodden embrace of a clutch of slimy bushes that sprout from the spongy foetor of the cemeteries soil. Silently willing themselves invisible, they watch as the patrol moves by, the listless soldiers casting their faintly luminous gaze over the rotting headstones and shadowed plants. For a moment one of the hounds stops and sniffs the air, and the group think the game is up. However, it gives a curiously human like growl of disappointment, and moves on, the rest of the patrol with it.
The party allow them a few minutes to move further on, before emerging, soaking into the open.
“Let's try that again, but somewhere a little more secluded.”
21:20 – 21:45 – The group are airborne atop the mounts that Ormid has conjured. As before, the nature of the local plane has influenced the appearance of the mounts, and here they are solid equine shadows; blocky and poorly formed. They fly low over the wretched countryside, skimming above the oily waters of the bog and the foul stenches of its gasses, and note that the countryside shows the signs of overwhelming daemonic taint; warped plants, poisonous soil, the manifestation of daemonic energies in the form of low burning greenish-purple fires that consume nothing, and terrible psychic stenches that sicken the mind.
As the group near the walls of the city, they can see that they are decorated with truly monstrous sigils of protection; daemonic spells painted in blood and ichor, that radiate a palpable aura of malevolent horror. The walls are also decorated with leathery oriflammes, and the mummified corpses of hundreds of sacrificial victims. There are three tiers of defensive walls, each manned by armoured humans, daemonic entities, and bolstered by cruel catapults and wickedly glistening ballistae. A poorly maintained road stretches from the cities northern gate, and splits into a number of roads, and as the group draw nearer the true scale of its three tiered outer walls becomes apparent.
“We need to land and form a plan.” Shouts Zaruel, “We will be seen if we fly much closer, and I have no desire to find out how accurate those siege weapons are.”
The group agree, and touch down in a fairly dry area; a stand of skeletal trees, scorched by lightning and hollowed out by fungi. Ormid casts another ritual – a spell that will grant him a better chance to see hidden paths into the city – and whilst he works on this, the group discuss their options.
“We should steal one of the ships and ram it into the harbour.” suggests Veteran, “The confusion would allow us to enter the city undetected.”
“Or ensure that the guards in that area are doubled.” Counters Zaruel.
“We could try the oldest trick in the book?” Pipes in Llewellyn. “Shadevia looks like she belongs here,” The shadeling glares at the vyrleen, “Er, uh, no offense.”
“Well?” She asks tersely.
“Well, we could do the old 'these are my prisoners' routine and...”
“And get you hauled away by the city guard and put in some kind of high security area?” Interrupts the seeker. “A stupid idea.”
“What about just trying to bluff our way in?” Asks Llewellyn, apparently in no way upset at the shadeling's harsh words. “You know, just paint ourselves with filth and stumble up like we belong.”
Zaruel says nothing vocally, but his face clearly displays his disdain for such a sneaky method.
“There!” Murmurs Ormid, pointing a finger towards the cities western wall, “There are tunnels that burrow from outside to beneath the city all along the wall. I have no idea what they are for, or why they would be left as they are, but they seem to be the best way in.”
The group stare hard at the lower walls.
“Um, what are those heaps made of?” Asks Llewellyn after a moment, “And what are those things crawling over them?”
21:46 – 22:00 – The piles, the group soon learn, are of corpses – hundreds and hundreds of corpses, and the things that scramble over the piles are ghouls of various types. The tunnels are their warrens, and the group – mounted but riding on the ground, the hooves of their steeds floating above the stinking mire of blood, other fluids, and churned up mud – realise that the easiest route for them will indeed be through the undead's lair. No one is happy with the idea, but it's that, or a major confrontation with the cities soldiery.
Keenly aware of the guards that patrol the lowest, outer walls only 40' above them, the group move swiftly towards the nearest tunnels, their eyes burning with the sickly-sweet stench of the massed corpses, their stomachs churning at the sights as the undead tear into them ravenously, or drag their limp, floppy forms away, to be eaten in the darkness of the tunnels.
At least half the bodies are skinned. The other half bear weapon wounds, or bear signs of prolonged agonies.
At first the undead pay the group no heed. However, as they move closer and closer to the walls, curious, yapping cries go up from the monsters, and soon a large force of them are closing in on the party; scrambling on all fours down the slippery piles of cadavers and emerging, sniffing the air like hounds, from the tunnel the party are headed for. All are humanoid fiends, covered in gore and grave moulds, their flesh partly decayed and stretched over their bones. All have nails which have become savage claws, and wide mouths, filled with gore streaked teeth. Some are thickly covered in mould and emanate toxic spores, whilst others are gifted with overdeveloped jaws, giving them better strength with which to crack bones and tear tendons. All have the ability to paralyse the living, and all move with purpose and hunger towards the party.
“Okay, let's clear the way, and get in there.” Snarls Zaruel, drawing his flaming sword.
22:01 – 22:02 – Realising that the mounts could get in the way, the group dismiss them before charging the undead, and within moments they are fully enveloped by the madness of combat. Ormid works his artifice to bolster the armour and weapons of his allies, occasionally sending his oversized machine fist out to smash against a slimed skull or yawning mouth, whilst Llewellyn darts to and fro through the melee, shattering knees, cracking faces and collapsing chests with his potent mace. Zaruel strides boldly into the mass of hunched monsters, his sword a blinding brand of magnesium flame which consumes their flesh with even the slightest touch. Even when he finds himself momentarily held rigid by the unholy venom of the undead, he only laughs grimly, and thanks the planes of light for so many foes to destroy. Ardwaine skirts the edge of battle and puts her hammer to good use. Lightning cracks and snaps as time and again it is brought down on a ghoul; blasting mouldering brains from skulls, and turning limbs to rubber as it crushes the bones within to jelly. The Veteran strides through the massed hoard with near impunity, his heavy spiked armour plates turning almost all blows aside, his darting, buzzing axe leaving a mangled wake of torn and smoking cadavers behind it. Furthest back, Shadevia repeatedly whispers prayers of summoning, calling the polluted elements to her and binding them to her arrows. Swarms of necrophagic vermin swarm over her arrows and then devour her foes as she sends them ripping forth, and elemental flame chews through rotting meat leaving the bitter stench of its combustion thick in the air. Finally, Ferrous finds himself surrounded by the undead, and takes several serious blows. However, undaunted, the Iron Defender sinks his rune-carved fangs into any dead flesh that gets too close, and sends a withering blast of electrical fire erupting into their ranks; searing and blasting everything it touches.
No one escapes the battle unscathed, and Zaruel and Ferrous in particular bear deep, freely bleeding wounds. Several of the group are blinded and partly paralysed when the fungus covered undead disgorges a repugnant broth of half-digested flesh over them, the necrotic acids and rampant spores within it consuming living tissue in moments. But they fight though it, and wipe the horrible filth from their eyes, their tears washing the contaminated filth away. Moments later, they make the undead pay for its actions – though its death unleashes a toxic cloud of spores that sap the strength of anyone that breathes them, and which sprout in living flesh.
Slowly the group make their way to the entrance tunnel, their feet slipping on the unspeakable detritus of the battle, and the unfeeling masses that slip wetly from the piles either side of them. Soon they find themselves staring into the horror caked darkness of the tunnels, the last few ghouls that stood against them fleeing into the gloom. The stench that comes out of them is beyond description, and the slimy masses of rotting flesh and organs that cover everything are a source of total horror to them. It is almost completely black in there, only the dim glow of patches of grave mould giving any illumination, and the ceiling is low, and festooned with dripping fat and rotting masses of hair and flesh.
Swallowing his gorge, the artificer moves forth. Zaruel raises his sword, allowing its light to spill forth into the darkness, glistening off the wet shapes and smears within, and grimly, with countless ghouls howling and gibbering behind them, the adventurers enter the warrens, and pass into the darkness beneath Black Hook's walls.