Saturday, January 23, 2010

Episode 21: 10/25/09

The Party:
Ashelia Raminas, elf ranger-rogue/3-3
Nineve, human knight/6
Xicar, human cleric/6
Haroldur, human wizard 2/cleric 4

We find ourselves in a stone chamber, empty except for the bodies of Filge's minions. At the edge of the chamber leading deeper into the caverns, I recognize a large patch of yellow mold. We carefully burn a path through the dangerous mold with alchemist's fire. Then, we use our troll gut rope to navigate down a small cliff and deeper into the caverns. We advance down a rough-hewn stairwell and are ambushed by more Nerullian cultists and some acid zombies. We bravely charge in with Hezzrak by our side. We blast through the competition and take a moment to examine our surroundings.

Crates of slightly disturbed dirt and individually hand-crafted storage crates line the walls of this cavern. We notice some finely traced runes along the outside of the door leading to the adjacent chamber. Nineve insists on kicking open the door, and we eventually let her. She gets blasted with a glyph of warding, but successfully disables the trap!

We proceed cautiously into the next chamber. Blood stains over the floor of this high ceilinged room. A broken column lies undisturbed on the floor, and a large pile of skulls occupies the center of the room. Atop a raised dias rests a twisted altar to Nerull. A horrible skeleton horse-daemon flies towards us on moth-eaten wings and booms out a warning. Apparently, we should not be here, but we'll never be able to leave! (Dun dun dun!) We wade in.

The daemon blasts us with waves of sickening air and swirling clouds of choking flies. His disease-ridden weapon bites cruelly into our flesh, dripping with pestilence. At the end of the long and difficult battle, poor Nineve is suffering from Plague, Red Ache, Cackle Fever, and Slimy Doom. She just seems to catch every little thing that goes around! I suggest she look into vitamin supplements.

We quickly investigate the remainder of the complex. Through some locked doors we find a well-appointed office. We root around and find:

coded ledgers!
a small statuette of a jade falcon
a small chest containing 600 gp of diamonds
Journeyman's staff
potion - Resist Electricity
a scroll of Sending

We collect the loot and return to the Cabal to get Nineve sorted out.
A few days later, after we've all had time to recover from our ordeal, we get debriefed by Mossad.

There is no need to look into the warehouse. Other agents were sent to investigate and found nothing there. We've destroyed the cell of necromancers and Justice Ironbriar has been arrested. Mossad is sure our next step is the Shadowclock, referenced int he coded ledgers we retrieved. He thinks the Shadowclock is in the district of Fallen. He thinks our quarry is the Wanton of Nature's forms. The plan is this: Too many agents wandering around Fallen looking for the Shadowclock will spook our prey, so Mossad and the Legionnaires will be waiting outside the gates of Fallen. We will go in as bait and look for the Shadowclock. When we find it, we'll send to Mossad and he'll back us up.

Immediately, we head out to this ruined section of the city. We unlock the creaking gates and enter the district of Fallen.

Fallen, formerly called Godsgate, is a large district with wide expanses and dense construction, but a portentous dearth of visible life. From the tangle of chimneys, scarcely a wisp of smoke is visible, and the multitude of tall, ruinous towers looms stark against the horizon. Nearby, one is crumbling down at the top, and in another, there are only gaping black holes where masonry has fallen away. The vast huddle of sagging roofs and peaked gables conveys with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay, and as we approach along the now uneven road, we can see that many roofs have wholly caved in, or the buildings have collapsed completely to rubble.

Skill challenge!

We enter a slum. A few of the crumbling buildings here show signs of inhabitants. Here and there we spot a wisp of smoke or a hastily closed shutter. The few residents move around a lot, making it hard to recall anything useful about this area, but the locals are easy to push around, if we can find them. We meet no one on the rubble-cluttered road, but presently begin to pass a few inhabited houses with rags stuffed in the broken windows and bones and dead fish lying about the littered yards. Once or twice we spot listless-looking people working in barren gardens or digging in the piles of rubble, and groups of dirty, simian-visaged children playing around weed-grown doorsteps in the growing evening shadows.

We move on into a desolate area, the swath of destruction caused by the fall of the Glass Tower many years ago - the event that sealed the fate of the Godsgate district. There is little here but mounds of rubble, making navigation difficult. Even the locals avoid these areas, as the rubble can be hazardous. The decay is worse further into the district. The ruins, long clogged with rubble, are enclosed by mounds of stone; on which we can just discern the minute forms of a few solitary figures, and at whose end are what look like the foundations of another bygone tower.

We pick our way through to a ruined area. This area is little more than piles of rubble and garbage. A few buildings and towers remain, but even these are damaged so badly the desperate residents of this area have abandoned them. If anyone lives in this area, they hide themselves well, making it very difficult to interact with the locals. Here and there the ruins of towers jut out from the tangle of buildings to end in indeterminate decay and collapse, those closest to the swath of rubble seeming the most ruinous. And far out in the district, despite the multitude of high, crumbling towers, we glimpse a tall, decrepit clock tower rising above the sagging roofs and crumbling spires, yet carrying a suggestion of odd latent malignancy. This, according to our directions, must be the Shadow Clock mentioned in the cult’s notes.

In the distance something howls, a long, agonized wailing, as if from fear. The sound is taken up elsewhere, and then another and another, till, borne on the wind which now sighs softly through the ruinous buildings, a wild howling began, which seems to come from all over the district, as far as the imagination could grasp it through the gloom of the evening. Soon, the shapes of wolves, huge and shaggy in the dim light, appear behind and ahead of us. An especially large grey wolf leaps upon the remains of a fallen statue and regards us with keenly intelligent eyes. Few things would seem more out of place in the squalid ruins of Istivin than this pack of wolves. We hurry along towards the tower, and enter another slum.

Ahead of us a small group of thugs is viciously beating someone on the ground. As we approach the thugs flee, leaving a pitiful figure groaning and struggling amidst the rubble. Xicar and I quickly render aid to the person, who gives us directions in thanks. Though still trailed by the shaggy grey wolves, we follow the directions and come to a sort of open concourse or radial point with the ruins of churches on two sides and the bedraggled remains of a circular green in the center. On the far side is the clock tower we seek. The structure's once white stone is now gray and mold-stained and the black and gold sign on the pediment near the steps is so faded that we can only, with difficulty, make out the words "The Bells of Godsgate" with the word “Danger” scrawled across the sign in red paint. As we strain to decipher this inscription, we are distracted by the raucous tones of a cracked bell high in the tower. The tolling bell sets the wolves to howling again, the loud, sharp howling of many wolves together.

The sound came from the sagging belfry high above the roofs of most of the houses and towers, which was built in a clumsy Gothic fashion, with a conical black roof. Though the hands of its clock are missing on our side of the tower, we know that those hoarse strokes were tolling the hours of late evening. It was surrounded by a high wall, of ancient structure, built of heavy stones that has not been repaired for a large number of years. The gates are of heavy old oak and iron, all eaten with rust. There are many dead and skeletal trees nearby, which makes the area even more gloomy.

Then suddenly all thoughts are blotted out by an onrushing image of sharp intensity and unaccountable surprise which seizes each of us before we know what it really is. The doors of the tower stand open, revealing a rectangle of blackness inside. And as we looked about, a certain object crossed or seemed to cross that dark rectangle...

It was something living - the first we have seen apart from the wolves since entering this part of the district of Fallen - and under other circumstances we would have found nothing whatever unusual in it. Clearly, we realize a moment later, it was the form of a child; clad in filthy rags. The thing which had probably caught your first subconscious glance and supplied the touch of bizarre horror was the strange way in which it moved, jerkily crossing the doorway.

We send to Mossad that we've found the Shadowclock, and approach. The grubby, pale little girl inside the tower entreats us to play with her. Anxious to get away from the pack of scraggly wolves, we go in. As we're closing the doors, the little girl's friend, "Mr. Bigs", slams into Haroldur. Mr. Bigs is a huge hunchback gravekeeper. He tells us to leave. With his shovel. Haroldur casts Hold Person on Mr. Bigs and I coup de grace him. The creepy little girl gets angry and tries to escape by jumping into a pile of straw. We burn it. Unfortunately, after the straw burns away, we can see several large cracks in the wall through which she could've escaped. We grudgingly move on to the stairs to ascend the tower.

The inner walls of the tower are traversed by a winding wooden stairway supported by an intricate network of wooden beams, but lacking, in many stretches, a handrail or other enclosure. In certain places, two or even three stairs are missing. Far above we can dimly see the great bronze bells swaying gently in the belfry. Apart from the occasional mournful howl of a wolf outside the tower, the silence is complete and oppressive.

Nineve, Haroldur and Xicar have difficulty managing the treacherous spiral stairwell, and fall a few times. About halfway up the tower, one of the bells comes crashing down and almost takes us all out. It hits Xicar squarely but since he is tied to me, I manage to prevent him from tumbling down the yawning gulf of blackness. At length, we arrive at the top of the tower. I sift the broken mount for the bell - it seems like someone is trying to kill us!

Looking around, we see the smoky, filthy rooftops of Fallen sprawl below this dizzying perch. Above, the conical roof supports an onyx statue of an angel. Towering above the stricken district, her weathered features are streaked with grime, giving her a demonic appearance. Beyond the open doorway is a chamber strewn with cushions, silk curtains, and other incongruously fine bits of décor. Antique lanterns throw long, quivering shadows about the room as their flames flicker in the draught of the open door.

We enter the strange room. The décor of this odd chamber shows extraordinary evidences of wealth and taste. The antique lanterns are beautifully wrought and each must be of great value. The curtains and upholstery of the chairs and hangings are of the costliest and most beautiful fabrics, and must be of fabulous value, as they are clearly centuries old, though in excellent order. One area appears to be a small library. The bookshelves contain numerous volumes of the most varied kind; history, geography, politics, law, economy, all relating to Istivin and Caledonian customs and manners.

As we're looking around, we are suddenly addressed. The voice came from the entry behind us. Just inside the doorway stands a tall, voluptuous woman with long black hair and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of color about her anywhere. On her side hangs a simple sword in a black scabbard. Her face is strong, aquiline, with high cheekbones; overall an exceptionally beautiful woman, although with a pronounced predatory aspect, and an unhealthy pallor. From far below, we can hear the howling of many wolves. The sound seems to please the woman, as her strange, dark eyes gleam with sudden emotion.

She begins with a welcome, but relations quickly sour. We deduce that she is Akasha Von Stratt, also Wanton of Nature's Pagan forms, and a vampire. In particular, Akasha seems to have been expecting Nineve. The vampire asks if she has come to follow in her father's footsteps. A heated conversation ensues, wherein Nineve's past, and Akasha's involvement in it, is revealed.

Nineve's grandfather and Mossad were great friends, and served together. They had been tracking a vampire, Akasha, for some time, and finally saw their chance to take her out. They enlisted the help of Nineve's father as well, as he was a good man and a seasoned warrior. At some point during this foray, Akasha claims to have brought Nineve's father under her power, and in the climactic confrontation he secretly betrayed and murdered his own father, Nineve's grandfather. The battle was lost, Mossad and Nineve's father were forced to retreat, and Akasha escaped. Nineve, troubled by the death of her beloved grandfather, investigated and through magical means discovered that he was murdered by his son, her own father. Filled with a desire to avenge her grandfather's death, she challenged her father to a duel, and defeated him, losing an eye in the process.

Now, Akasha insists that this has all been part her plan, and is the will of Nerull. Akasha claims that Nineve serves Nerull in all but name, that she cannot deny her fate, her destiny is inescapable, etc. Nineve has heard enough and it's showtime!

Vampire spawn drop in from the ceiling, and Nineve is Dominated almost immediately. We rush forward. Captain Lorring's longsword bites into Akasha and unleashes a powerful blast of searing light through her undead form. That's about the extent of our success, though. The vampire spawn quickly swarm us as Nineve stands idly by. Xicar and Haroldur throw down buffs and use our newfound falcon statue to attack Akasha. Meanwhile, I am dazed by one of the vampire spawn and stand by helplessly while Xicar and Haroldur struggle against increasingly overwhelming odds. Just as I'm about to break free of the vampire spawn's thrall, Akasha crushes my will, Dominating me. I am again forced to simply stand by and watch. Xicar takes up Captain Lorring's sword and makes an impressive stand, but the tide of the battle has long since turned against our party. Just as things are looking bleak, Mossad and the Legionnaires burst in and save the day. Akasha flees, and we return to the Cabal.

We are ushered into Mossad's office for a debriefing. Immediately, he gives Nineve and me amulets of Protection from Evil. This suppresses Akasha's domination and allows us to act and think freely - for now. He encourages us to sit down, while he begins pacing his office. His excitement is as palatable as it is unexpected.

"Akasha von Stadt is a foe I have pursued most of my life", he begins. "She is the bitch of Nerull, a whore of Darkness! She lives beyond the grace of the Gods – a wanderer in the Outer Darkness. She is Vampyr, Nosferatu. We may yet stop this foe – this concubine of death – but not on an empty stomach!" He laughs heartily. We stare at him in shocked disbelief. But, we ARE pretty hungry... Just then, an acolyte delivers a tray of food.

Mossad continues with a cheerfulness which shows that the serious work has begun.

"Let me be accurate in everything,” says Mossad, “for though you and I have seen some strange things together, you may at the first think that I, Mossad, am mad. That the many horrors and the long strain on nerves has at the last strained my sanity. There are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples.

"I have studied, over and over again since you returned from the mountains, all my papers relating to this creature, and the more I have studied, the greater seemed the likelihood that she had come again to plague me. All through the city there is evidence of her designs. The corruption of Justice Ironbriar and the recent murders carried out by Ondore Lillybrook’s walking corpse are only the most obvious, and most recent. I thought it impossible that this creature would be so brazen to return to Istivin. But return she has, as you have found in that clock tower. Now we must bend our every effort to stamp this creature out!

"The vampire lives on, and cannot die by mere passing of time, she can flourish when she can feed on the blood of the living. She throws no shadow, she makes no reflection in the mirror. She has the strength of many men, and within her range, she can command all the meaner things, the rat, the bat, and the wolf. She can come and go in a mist and disappear at will; those slain by her hand rise later as her thralls. She can see in the dark, no small power this, in a world which is one half shut from the light.

"Well, you know what we have to contend against, but we too, are not without strength. We have on our side power of our faith in the Ruby Lady, a power denied to the vampire kind, we have sources of science, we are free to act and think, and the hours of the day and the night are ours equally. In fact, so far as our powers extend, they are unfettered, and we are free to use them. We have devotion in a cause and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one. These things are significant.

"Now let us see how far the general powers arrayed against us are restricted, let us consider the limitations of the vampire in general, and of this one in particular. She can do all these things, yet she is not free. Nay, she is even more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell. She cannot go where she wishes, she who is not of nature must obey some of nature's laws. She may not enter anywhere unless invited by one with the authority, though afterwards she can come and go as she pleases. Her power ceases, as does that of all evil things, at the coming of the day. By day this Vampire is limited to the powers of man, and till sunset she may not change her form, nor enjoy her unearthly powers until sunset. Finally the vampire cannot stray far from the unhallowed earth of her burial. The vampire must always return to this unhallowed earth, which restores her strength, and without which, she is powerless. This is, of course, the purpose of the cases of earth scattered about the city.

"We are faced with a grim duty, and in such case do we turn away? For me, I say no, but then I am old, and life, with its sunshine, its fair places, the song of birds, music and love, lie far behind for me. You others are young. Some have seen sorrow, but there are fair days yet in store. What say you? None will think the lesser of you, should you turn away from this foe.

At this point, we all agreed (especially Nineve) that we were willing to see this through to the end.

Mossad looked pleased, and continued. "My plan is this: We will trace each of these boxes, and when we are ready, we must kill this monster in her lair, or we will sterilize the earth, so that no more can she can seek safety in it. Thus in the end we may find her in the form of man between the hours of noon and sunset, and so engage with her when she is at her most weak, or drive her from the city and confront her with no sanctuary in which to hide. Then we cut off her head, and drive a stake through her heart, and burn her remains, and then may she find peace."

After the meal we returned to our chambers to reflect on the plan, and this new side of Mossad. We stayed in the Cabal for a few days recovering, while the Legionnaires hunt down and destroy the boxes of desecrated earth. Around mid-morning one day we receive an urgent message from Mossad to meet him at the Aerodrome in the city's center.

We rush to the Aerodrome and find him with Arrad and a squadron of Legionnaires. Mossad explains that despite placing checkpoints along all the roads in and out of the city, Akasha has managed to escape via ship! She is traveling downriver on a vessel called The Harbinger. He thinks her most likely target is Varna, a large port city. He's already made the arrangements - he bustles us all onto an airship as he explains his plan to intercept Akasha and The Harbinger at the docks in Varna.

As soon as we arrive in Varna, Mossad secures permission to board The Harbinger as soon as it docks, thus trapping the vampire. We wait for the ship, but it never arrives. Mossad gets word from the Legionnaires that The Harbinger sailed past Varna in the night!

Not to be outdone, Mossad charters a ship and we set off down the river after our quarry. We find The Harbinger 2 days later, run aground on the riverbank. A quick investigation finds most of the crew dead, and signs of several people dragging something heavy onto the bank. These tracks end in a set of deep, muddy wagon tracks.

Consulting his maps, Mossad determines that Akasha is headed for the Borgo Pass, a narrow pass 70 miles to the west. Once through the pass, she will be nearly impossible to find in the mountains.

He decides to split the pursuit up. Wagons are slow, so our advantage must be speed. He will go with several Legionnaires via boat to the next sizeable city, and then by carriage. Arrad will take his Legionnaires and travel to the nearest town by land to continue the pursuit via carriage, and the party will take the first horses they can find, and head to the Borgo Pass immediately, ensuring she has no chance to escape.

Skill challenge!

We run inland and happen upon a tiny fishing hamlet nearby. They don't have much, but Nineve's keen eye spots a few swift horses for us from a pen of mules and nags. I guide the party inland for 2 days, picking paths through the mountainous terrain I hope will lead us swiftly to our goal.

Near the end of the third day, we arrive at the pass. We're the first ones there. We have a chance to set up a bit of an ambush for once. In the distance, we can see Akasha's wagon, with riders along side, coming up to the pass. But, we're ready.

As Akasha draws closer, we see Mossad and Arrad's carriages, from different directions, also closing in on the pass... and Akasha.

As Akasha's party approaches, we pick off the horsemen with arrows and spells. Akasha's wagon attempts a charge to burst through our barricades, but we've set up several layers of impediments, and they hold firm. The horses rear, upsetting the wagon. The crate carrying Akasha topples and shatters upon the stony ground. The still form of the vampire lies within the box upon the unholy earth, scattered with dirt from the rude fall. She is deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and her eyes glare red with a horribly vindictive and savage light. With an eerie smooth motion, she rises from the scattered dirt, bits of soil clinging to the white and gold of her burial shroud.

On even footing, Akasha is no match for us. She waves her sword around in an impressive display, but we easily overwhelm her and her remaining lackeys. Nineve lands the killing blow just as Mossad arrives. He jumps out of the carriage and strolls up to the wreckage of Akasha's wagon. He reaches down and unceremoniously beheads the fiend, then straightens and pats Nineve on the back. He looks up at all of us, nodding, and says simply "Good job....Good job."


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