21:00 – 01:30 (2/9/1472) : The group follow Niba into the flaming dome that crowns her tower; an unearthly room that immediately communicates to them just how powerful she is. Within moments of arriving, the swordmage realises that the blue flames that compose the dome are actually the spirit stuff of bound Cinderspawn; undead fire elementals, held in place by four slowly rotating pylons of silvery-black metal, inlaid with runes of shifting silver. The chamber is comfortably furnished, and Niba bids the group sit, bringing them refreshments herself.
She initially assumes that the group want her to do them some kind of job. However, they quickly explain why they are there, and at once, the archmage seems more than a little intrigued – more so when Grigori offers her some of the Cubed Water given to them by Ericanthros. She lets them finish, and then, with barely concealed glee, replies.
“You must understand, it would not do me any favours to have word get out that I have so easily given up the secrets of one of my custom vaults, for who would want to hire a mage to safeguard their precious things if they cannot be trusted? However, the Cani Mortali were not my original customer, and, I must admit, there is something residing in that vault that I desire.
“I would be willing to help you in return for that item, and for being allowed to scry your progress as you pit your wits against my tests, although, I would need some kind of assurance that you will not simply run off with the item I hope to gain. A deposit of 100,000 gold should be adequate.”
The group spend a moment soaking up what has been said, before, though the warlock's telepathy, holding a conversation about how to proceed. Niba it seems is aware of this, for her eyebrows rise in response to the start of the conversation, although it is impossible to say whether or not she can actually “hear” what is being said. After a few moments, the group are agreed. Grigori takes a sip of bitter tea, and then speaks.
“Lady Niba, what is this item you seek? It seems that as long as it will not place us in harm's way, it would be foolish not to get it for you...assuming you truly can get us into the vaults.”
Niba claps her hands in delight.
“Oh, I can get you in. I layered the guards and wards on that place myself, and left a hidden way in. The item I seek is the Sceptre of Kelestriel; the personal implement of a potent sorceress once allied to the Unified Order”.
Jaeger nods, recognising the name.
Niba smiles, “To be fair, she was interested in more than elemental magic associated with the air. She had a real flair for weather manipulation, as well as a thing for travelling the psychic plane's 'starways'
“Her sceptre is an incredibly powerful item. Physically it is a hexagonal prism, roughly a foot long, of an unknown blue crystal. Each facet is carved with rows of golden enchanted runes, and around the whole thing curls an exquisitely detailed vothniir carving of a golden dracane, who's eyes are made from chips of Ember Ore. I understand that when grasped by one able to focus arcane energy, it awakes and becomes wreathed in snapping sparks of electricity.”
The group say nothing, each imagining the epic item being described.
“I understand that it was given to old Jeddiker by an unnamed mage for some reason, and I want it. I have wanted it for a very long time. Bring it me, and I shall return to you the money you have left. Promise it me, and I shall open a way into the vault for you, right under the Cani's snivelling noses. So?”
No further conversation is needed. “We'll do it.” smiles Grigori, rising to kiss the mage's hand.
The deposit is paid using the Unified Order trade bars. Niba is somewhat interested in these, as, she says, they are “Calling out” to the Order, screaming that they have been stolen. “And yet, no one has been sent to recover them, or punish the thieves.” She speaks a word of magic, and a brief storm of hissing, unravelling magics flashes over the bars. “This adds weight to the rumours that the Order is no more. That its most potent mages either went insane or were consumed by their own power when the Sundering hit the universe. Interesting.”
With the main negotiations done, the group turn to other matters. Niba refuses to give them any information about what lies in the vault, not wishing to compromise her entertainment as she watches them go through it. However, she is willing to discuss the Splinter (or, as it is commonly called, the Scheggia) confirming that it is indeed a very unpleasant blade, and that it was once held within the Durance Occulta. She warns the group that to handle it is to put ones self in harms way, and rather vaguely makes mention of the fact that “The dagger itself is held within its arcane essence. Capture that, and you have it as surely as if you hold it.”
Grigori purchases a few divination rituals from the archmage, and it is agreed that when they have finished their preparations for the mission ahead, they will contact her and get under way.
“Don't take too long. I'm bored so often nower days, and this little mission could be most engaging.”
Leaving the tower, the group make their way back to the SC, being careful to avoid the many dark souls that wander the streets of the city, for once more, the psychic urgings of the Feyr can be felt thrumming through the aether. On getting back, the group try to fathom what Niba was talking about in relation to the Scheggia, but are unable to draw any conclusions. What they do agree, is that Grigori will head out first thing in the morning in search of a few more rituals he feels he may need, and that the group will then head back to the archmage, and into the Cani vaults.
07:30 – 07:50: All are woken by the banging and hammering of the men upgrading the ship, and soon all the party are busy preparing themselves for the trials ahead. Whilst Grigori heads out to seek his rituals, Thatari continues his efforts to find out what lurks within Hopes Famine – and this time, he is successful, for suddenly the black heart of the thing briefly opens to him, a wave of hunger and amusement and mockery blasting his mind in a psychic backlash that sends him sprawling. Filled suddenly with dread, and realising that he may have opened a door he cannot easily close, the warlock throws the full weight of his mind at the thing that giggles and mocks within the writhing rod, grabbing it with metaphysical hands and squeezing, feeling it fighting to be free. In the physical room all seems peaceful as the warlock locks psyche's with the – female? – entity within the implement, though anyone sensitive to magic would immediately sense the shifting planar pressures that billow and writhe within the room. For a horrifying moment that seems to Thatari to go on forever, the entity within the Famine seems to be about to break free. However, calling upon his own dark masters, he sends his will thundering into it, forcing it back, cowing it...controlling it even...and with a shriek of pain and weariness, the warlock snaps out of his altered state, dropping the rod, which lies still (though very much still energised) before him. After spending a moment or two gathering his wits, he reaches out and picks it up, feeling it writhe at his touch; subdued and bound to him for now, although more powerful than before, a little more of its source now allowed to leak through from within.
“I am your master thing!” He spits. “And that shall never change!”
At the edge of his mind, mocking feminine laughter.
With a headache starting to blossom, Thatari gets dizzily to his feet and decides that there is something else he needs to attend to. After asking around, he quickly locates Caleph and Hannah, both of whom glare at him as he appears. Forcing a smile, the warlock asks if he can have a word with the little girl. Caleph reluctantly agrees, a warning tone clear in his voice, and Thatari squats down to talk to her. Cleaned up now, she is remarkably pale, her hair almost white rather than blonde. Her eyes however are a remarkable emerald green, and Thatari feels a strange itching between his shoulder blades, as if all that should mean something. Vague memories swim in his bruised mind, and suddenly he remembers a single word.
The snow witches of the south. Powerful female spell casters from the Crescent Continent of Alnoi.
Nausea claws at his stomach as his mind continues to try and settle after his mental battle with the entity in Hopes Famine. He somehow maintains his false smile, and knows instinctively that she has seen through it.
He speaks to her mind using his telepathy.
“I understand you lost your brother, and I want to help you find him again. Indeed, I promise that I will do this. Do you understand?”
She flinches a little when he first speaks to her mind, but holds her nerve far better than many, and Thatari is now sure that she is a child of the Nadruul. She does not reply. Caleph continues to glare at the warlock, moving protectively to bring the little girl to him. He briefly feels supremely irritated, and entertains a fantasy of imploding the sailor's ribcage with a word of primal wrongness. Instead he rises, nods, and wishes them a good day before leaving.
16:40 – 19:00: The group once more find themselves in Niba's tower. They stand ready to take on the vaults, watching the mage as she weaves a portal into them. After several minutes of chanting and mumbling, the air chiming with focused power, a portal shimmers into existence before them; a green disc of shivering light floating a foot or so above the ground.
“Remember,” Niba says as the group move to enter it, “I need the sceptre. No sceptre, no money back.”
Eveyone nods, and with grim determination, step into the portal...
...The usual moment of disorientation, and then...
They stand in a corridor of worked stone, a strange symbol beneath them. Behind them, stone stairs curve up into darkness. Ahead of them yawns a vast chamber who's floor is covered is glowing symbols of various colours. They seem to be randomly placed, with bare sections of floor between some; blue, red, yellow and green circles, triangles, squares, X's and +'s. At the far end of the chamber can be seen two exits.
And so begins a painful process, where the group begin to step onto various shapes, discovering that some are safe, and others deadly; channelling ripping waves of energy into whoever treads upon them. They try their best to fathom a pattern, but fail. However, over the course of almost an hour, they painfully, by trial and error, make their way across the chamber – never once realising that blue and yellow shapes, as well as triangles of any colour are safe, with one exception – blue and yellow triangles are particularly lethal. (I nicked and modified this puzzle from the Adventure Game).
Finally across the first room, the group find that they have two options for going on. One is a tunnel that leads down a flight of stone steps into a darkened chamber, whilst the other is a corridor filled with bursts of arcane flame, mostly unseen as its main bulk lies beyond a right-angled turning. After several moments of concentration, the group realise that the bursts (being spat from gargoyles cut into the walls) are timed in such a way that a very fast individual could pass along the corridor without being incinerated. Able to teleport, the assassin volunteers for the job, standing ready to leap into the hall and then, hopefully along it to (again, hopefully), whatever mechanism lies at the far end to stop the bursts.
The group stand ready, in case they have to move quickly at a moments notice. Breathing deeply, the shade spends a few moments counting the timing on the flame bursts, glad in the dry heat of the spells of elemental warding Grigori wove around the group before they left. After a short while, he is sure he has it, and with a thought teleports into the corridors middle, desperately seeking somewhere ahead to leap to again.
As he arrives, he feels his feet attach indelibly to the floor, as the Sovereign Glue spread there takes hold. He chuckles. Were he relying on mundane movement, he would likely be about to die; stuck fast to the floor whilst twin blasts of raw elemental flame wash repeatedly over him. He is also dimly aware of his allies surprised yelps, and feels the thunderous CRUMP as huge doors or reinforced Durium slam down either end of the corridor, sealing him in. However, he can see that the corridor turns sharply to the right ahead, and realises that he can leap there and out of the path of the flames. He activates his power, and appears to the side of one gargoyle as it spits another burning load of fire down the corridor with a roar.
Unfortunately, a quick search of the place where he appears reveals two things. Firstly, another door stubbornly blocks egress. Secondly, there are no mechanisms here for stopping the flames. He tries to communicate with Thatari through his telepathic link, but is unable to. Sweating in the furnace like heat (though still protected), he can only hope that the group realise that something is up, before the ritual expires, and he does the same shortly after.
Outside the corridor, the group are desperately trying to fathom what happened. They saw the assassin teleport in to the tunnel, but were immediately forced to leap back as a black door suddenly appeared before them, sealing off the fiery corridor. They wait a few moments, expecting the doors to suddenly vanish as the assassin activates some mechanism in the halls beyond. However, when this doesn't happen, they realise that something has gone wrong. It is decided that they will explore the other corridor, to see if they can find anything to help, and shortly afterwards they come across a strange sigil carved into the floor. On closer examination, Varracuda and Grigori realise it is some kind of switch, albeit, one that can only be activated through gentle magical manipulation. Working together with the warlock, they manage to safely awaken the glyph; causing it to turn in place 180°, and to begin to shine with pale light.
Back in the corridor, and the assassin is relieved when the flames suddenly cease, and the door vanishes. However, it is short lived, for he finds himself face to face with a nightmare – a Xareth'Chelde of some kind, floating beyond the portal; a veiny sphere of pulpy purple-grey flesh, with five stubby eyestalks, and a leechlike mouth. In the middle of its bulk, a huge golden central eye glares at the assassin, taking him in – though it makes no moves to attack.
The rest of the group arrive shortly after, and react with shock at sight of the floating eye tyrant. However, Varracuda quickly realises that it is not a Beholder, but a relative; strange dimensional beings sometimes bound to serve as guardians, known colloquially as Spectators. He reports this to everyone, warning them that it may try to communicate using one of its eye beams, and that they tend not to attack unless defending themselves or whatever they are bound to guard. After some discussion (and secretly hoping it attacks), the Ulnyrr tries to enter the vast dark chamber behind it to test the boundaries of its guardianship. However, as he nears it, it moves to block him, one of its eyes flashing with colourless energy. As the beam hits, so the barbarian hears a smooth, authoritative voice in his mind, telling him that to pass safely, he must speak the password.
Although tempted to swat the monster aside, Shnecke manages to hold back, and returns to his colleagues, telling them what it just said. This seems to delight the priest, who has spent money on several ritual scrolls, including one that is perfect for this situation. Bringing the scroll forth, he spends the next ten minutes intoning its words, the air in the vault shivering with whispered power. At the end of the casting, the scroll disintegrates into glowing green ash, which whirls around the group as if caught in a breeze, and coalesces into a vaguely humanoid cloud of shifting green motes and ashy vapours. At once the group become aware of a sense of great age and power entering the chamber, and with a bow to the summoned being, Grigori informs the party that it is an Oracle; a timeless being that knows almost everything.
“We just need it to tell us the password. Then we can ask it what else to do!”
The password is “Big Eye, Small Eyes”. As it is spoken, so the Spectator glows with a golden light and vanishes, leaving the way ahead clear. A quick exploration of the chamber beyond reveals it to be huge and circular, curled around a central cylindrical wall. At the cardinal points of the room are found four more switch sigils, similar to those used to deactivate the flame gouts and doors earlier. The Oracle is asked which order to activate them in, and tells them that “The order matters not.” Eager to get as far into the vault as possible before the Oracle leaves, the three spellcasters almost run around the chamber, channelling their eldritch power into the sigils, activating each in turn. These sigils are somewhat harder to awaken than the previous one, and several times, the three fail to immediately do so – each time, becoming aware of a gathering energy in the air; almost certainly some kind of alarm, waiting to be triggered by a pre-defined number of failed attempts.
As the last sigil is activated, so the group feel a sharp, dry crackle of power leap between them, as well as the distinctive itch between their shoulder blades of dimensional contact. Suddenly, above each sigil, blossoms a rose coloured portal, through which can be seen a circular vault piled high with an impossible amount of treasure.
“WE DIDI IT!” Roars the Ulnyrr noisily, reaching out towards the portals.
“Wait!” Hisses the assassin, holding up a hand, “Remember, we are here for two things only; the Scheggia, and the sceptre. Technically, we are breaking our agreement with the Feccia by taking the latter, but needs must.”
“But...the treasure!” Whines Shnecke, looking crestfallen.
“Is not for us.” Finishes Jaeger pointedly.
The group enter the inner vault (which is crammed, floor to ceiling with locked coffers and chests of exotic and strange designs, rune-struck armour, enchanted weaponry and implements, and all kinds of other items of power, as well as various works of art, jewellery and similar priceless treasures), and at once spy a column of perfectly clear crystal set ceiling to floor. Within this is suspended the main goal of their quest; a small, innocuous looking curved dagger of brown flint, with a carved bone handle bound in plaited hair. Kelestial's sceptre is also easy to spot, for it is exactly as Niba described it. Grigori rushes to it (after spending a moment trying to sense if any warding spells protect it), sweeping it up, his hand going numb with the power it contains.
“Oracle,” he breathes, looking at the item of power he holds, “how can we get the Splinter?”
The summoned entity appears diminished in this place, possibly a side effects of the layers of warding magic placed upon it. However, it is able to speak a single, vague sentence before it sighs and fades forever.
“Possession does not always mean to hold. To possess this thing, one must merely hold its vital essence”
“Worryingly similar to what Niba told us” Comments Thatari scornfully. “Is there something we forgot?”
“I have a plan.” Whispers Varracuda suddenly, his face pale, “Though I fear it is a dangerous one for me.”
Everyone turns to regards him.
“I can bond with weapons.” He begins, “And once this is done, I can call them to my hand with a simple act of will. I believe I can probably bond with the Scheggia, which would let me bring it forth. However, I am worried that once I touch it...well, you know what it's supposed to do.”
His companions seem unsure what to say, realising that his plan is almost certainly their only hope of success.
“I shall stand by you friend.” Offers Grigori, “And bolster your spirit with chants of logic and clarity.”
Varracuda nods his thanks, and with a deep breath sits in front of the column, raising his hand, and holding it, palm out, a millimetre away from its surface. He then closes his eyes, and begins to slow his breathing, allowing his mind to drift from his body and out, towards the dagger. After a few moments, the physical world falls away, and he opens his eyes into another realm; a place where the spirits of weapons dwell.
To his sight, this realm is a murky place of shifting grey and black mists, studded with the flashing, glowing souls of the weapons around him. He can feel them – mostly manageable things, like hunting animals; willing to follow a powerful master and to direct their innate viciousness at whoever they say. Some however are very different. For example, an axe that lies nearby writhes and shrieks, furious that it has not been unleashed on someone for long and long, whilst the Chansword that Grigori wields snarls with mechanical eagerness, straining to be unleashed at something, anything. However, these items are a class removed from the Scheggia.
It is a thing of writhing, hungry blackness, shot through with tendrils of bloody light , constantly putting out thorns of seeking blackness. It spits and coils, hatred and endless hunger radiating for it. If the other weapons are bound hunting animals, this thing is a daemon; aware, vicious and waiting, aching for a chance to pursue its own destructive agenda. Hardening his mind, the swordmage recites mental katas intended to protect him from the worst that the dagger has to offer. He conjures psychic armour, and mantles his hands and arms in thick plates of serenity and ordered thinking. Then, with the grim determination of a man reaching for an angry serpent, he reaches out.
Back in the room, all seems to be calm. The swordmage is still, though his face has become knotted as if in deep concentration. Within the column of crystal, the dagger sits immobile, although each hero is vaguely aware of a subtle shifting in the aether...as if the air pressure is changing locally, and they realise that somewhere a terrible battle is taking place...
“I'm losing” Despairs Varracuda, as Sheggia's soul fastens even more barbed tendrils on him, easily piercing his rapidly collapsing armour, and reaching into his soul.
“CONSUUUUUME!” It drools, “DEVOOOOUUUURRRRR!”
Varracuda fights desperately against it, but his mind is ill prepared for the onslaught of the dagger's ego. With each tendril entering his soul, he feels a little of him being consumed, and with absolute horror, he realises what is going to happen.
Several tiny cracks mar the crystal suddenly, radiating out from the dagger. A strange pressure enters the room; oppressive and despairing, and then, with a crack, the Scheggia, appears in Varracuda's hands, the pressure departing in the same instant. For a moment the swordmage says nothing. Then he opens his eyes, smiles grimly, and says, “Time to claim back what is ours”
19:10 – 20:00: Niba is called, and the portal in the vault warps briefly, the location beyond it becoming the archmage's tower. Beaming, the group step through – well, all save Varracuda, who seems oddly reluctant.
“Come on lad!” Urges Shnecke, “time to, “ (he puts on a grim voice) “claim back what is ours!”
The swordmage gives the Ulnyrr a withering look, and grimly steps through the portal.
At once there is abject chaos!
As Varracuda enters the dome, so the air is filled with brilliant flashes of light, and deafening arcane alarms sound. Niba spins round, her eyes aflame with drizzling energy, and without hesitation she spits a word of power towards the source of the alerts – the swordmage. Scheggia recognises the threat the spell presents, but is clumsy, having only worn its current host for a few moments. Magic flares around it, smashing it backwards, and the swordmage falls to the ground, twitching, bound within several bands of tightly restraining runes.
“Nasty little thing.” Growls Niba, ignoring the shocked faces of the group, “How long has he been possessed by the dagger?”
“You what?” Gawps Grigori.
“The dagger. It has crushed your friend's psyche and has control of him. I can hold it for a while, and indeed, with another spell force it into submission for a short while. However, to permanently extricate its tendrils from his soul, I would need some pretty specific items imbued with radiant power. With those I could enact a cleansing ritual.”
The group look at their struggling ally.
“Where do we get them?” Asks Jaeger.
“I know a place.” Replies Niba, “But know this. I do not work for free, and would require a service from your troupe if I help you with this.”
“But you have the sceptre!” Yells Shnecke.
“Which was my payment for helping you so much with accessing the vaults. This is another matter entirely.”
The group stand silent a moment, communicating through Thatari's mind link. Then, grimly, the priest asks.
“Where do we need to go archmage?”
Niba smile, and behind the group, the portal crackles and shudders as its destination changes.
“A place of legend where almost anything can be found or sold. A place trod by heroes and gods, where a wrong word can mean something far worse than mere death.”
“Where is it?” Snarls Thatari, chafing at the melodrama.
“The Crystal Villa.”