Sunday, March 28, 2010

Episode XXVIII -- The Destruction of the Ebon Hand

Juliar 22-23

It is early afternoon when the company emerges from the apartment house above the Temple of Deep Chaos. Dziga returns to his apartment, and the other three return to Emeris and Early’s house. They clean themselves off and change their clothes. Seanus informs them that someone from the Holy Order of Vigoor has stopped by on behalf of someone named “Heth.” They know this to be Brother Heth Netherul, the cleric who runs a small temple of the Holy Emperor called the Chapel of St. Thessina, who wanted them to use the legend lore scroll on the Sealed Door in the Banewarrens.

Before visiting the markets, they first stop by the Pale Tower, where they turn over the finger of Zophas, recovered in the outer reaches of the Temple of Deep Chaos and return their borrowed cold iron forged armaments. Although they wanted to speak with Aoska, she will not be back at the tower for a few days. They identify their magic items, two of which are particularly interesting – the bow carried by Gravele, which allows the wielder to make more precise, crippling shots, as well as identify the wielder’s most power foe within sixty feet. Her black leather boots turn out to be the source of her exceptional fleet-footedness, carrying enchantments to augment speed and jumping. All other treasure is liquidated. They return to Emeris and Early’s house to rest.

Later that evening, approaching midnight, Dziga fails to show up at Emeris and Early’s house. Dziga’s strange dreams and behaviour have made him somewhat unreliable as of late, so they decide to proceed without him for now. Considering their next course of action, they consider their leads on finding Khyron. They know of the Mrathrach Machine which exists somewhere beneath the White House, where the Mrathrach Game is somehow siphoning energies of randomness from the city to the machine below. They figure an investigation of – and assault on – the White House may be an effective course of action.

So Early the warblade, Vatex the tempest, and Emeris the half-dragon shadowcaster visit the White House, a luxurious establishment known for its high-class prostitutes and gambling. They recall that Phil would often spend his time here and at the Cock Pit, but they do not find him here tonight. Vatex smooth talks one of the waitresses and finds out about how the current owners sealed off the basement, which was supposedly the site of some ungodly crimes many years ago before the building became the White House. Figuring interesting secrets probably lie beneath this establishment that must lead to the Mrathrach Machine, they manage to get a meeting with the proprietor, THURMAN REES, a slight, clean-shaven man with short, dark hair and appears flustered about something nearly all the time. Rumors surrounding Thurman suggest he is extremely skilled with the bow and sword, and in his office, Vatex wears the magic lenses to ascertain his strength, but they find that they underestimated him – his aura suggests he is a much more skilled warrior than Early or Vatex. Pure force seems to be a poor option to get into the basement…

In Thurman’s office, the proprietor is not helpful and accuses the group of representing the Killravens or the Balacazars and wanting to cause trouble. They explain that they have business investigating what is in the basement and would like access to it. Thurman explains the current owner has sealed up access to the subterranean level so not even he can go down there. They push for the identity of the White House owner, but Thurman tells them the owner wishes to remain anonymous due to the nature of the business and its competition with other crime factions. Emeris pushes further, trying to diplomatically get the identity, but Vatex suddenly correlates this need for anonymity with other stories on the streets of Elan and tells him to drop it. They leave the office, and the urban ranger tells Emeris and Early of the obscure rumor that the owner of the White House is actually a lich named AGGAH-SHAN. Tangling with a lich seems to be most unwise.

Vatex suggests they focus their attention on the Temple of the Ebon Hand on Terrock Road. It is said that the Temple is on the verge of being banned in the city, for the mutation worshipping Ebon Hand is said to harbour degenerates and encourage wrongdoings of the highest order. If the city authorities knew what the companions knew, then they would certainly ban the cult, jail its clergy, and raze the building. They enter the small temple without molestation, and the main sanctuary is dominated by a huge ebony statue of a hand with priests in black and red robes tending to the hundreds of candles throughout the chamber.

The walk into one of the backrooms, used for storage and administration, where they find three guards and a priest who seem confused about the visitors. Early demands to know where Khyron can be found. The four Ebon Hand members exchange glances and show apparent ignorance, which leads the group to slaughter them mercilessly with a few well placed strikes and a blast of killing shadows from the half-dragon’s eyes. They pile desks and bodies against the door as other temple inhabitants come to investigate the noise. Vatex can hear voices on the other side instructing someone to go warn “Malek”, whom they know from other references to be the high priest of this cult. Two cultists disappear into a secret passage in the adjoining storage room.

Seeing that no one is coming in, Early pulls down the barricade and steps through, quickly slaying one of the guards. Emeris conjures blackfire at the feet of a second guard, who is badly hurt and tries to flee, only to have Vatex cut him down as he passes. The three companions pursue the others through the secret door and into a surprisingly large complex beneath the temple.

Early, taking the lead, descends some stairs in pursuit of the running footsteps deeper down. He enters a chamber adorned by a large red tapestry with the symbol of a black hand, and a black rug. As he walks over the rug, it animates and attacks him, trying to constrict and choke him. As he fights it off, the tapestry ‘steps’ down from the wall and attacks him as well! By now, Vatex and Emeris are close behind and start cutting into the animated objects. Vatex flaming sword burns away the magical threads of the tapestry while Emeris tears into it with his sword. The tapestry manages to wrap itself around Emeris’ head. He can barely breathe as he fights to tear it off, but its strength surprises him. When the tempest’s flaming blade finally cuts the tapestry clean in half, apparently killing it, Emeris pulls it free of his head and gasps for air with relief.

Down another set of stairs they are ambushed by two bow wielding guards. Two arrows fly at Early, one goes wide but hits him in the shoulder. Hardly slowing, Early charges into the first guard and Cryssaegrym tears off his face. Vatex’s spinning blades cut through the bow which was used feebly by the other in a desperate act of defense, then cut through flesh and the second guard goes down. They find three more sets of stairs, two of which have passages lit by torches on sconces. The other seems strangely dark. At the southern lit passage they find an armory full of unremarkable weapons and gear.

Down the eastern lit passage the staircase descends thirty feet to some kind of large ritual chamber. Inside is Malek, grey-skinned High Priest of the Ebon Hand, dressed like the other priests but with a large, ornate ebony headdress, standing with a priest and a guard. On two ledges over either side of the staircase, two other priests stand waiting for attackers. A young human male, stripped to the waist, is chained to the wall undergoing some type of horrible transformation. Foaming slime bubbles up through his grinding teeth, his skin blistering with pulsing green and black sores and he is covered in blood and pus.

Fearing that the chained human may become some hideous monstrosity they may be forced to fight, Vatex ends the transformation with a well-placed rifle round to his head. The human falls and its spasms end. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder he rushes into the chamber and doubles back up the stairs on the ledge to engage one of the priests. Early attacks the priest on the opposite ledge, burying his sword in his chest. Emeris dashes into the room next, taking a deep breath and unleashing his devastating breath of shadow. The wave of darkness rolls over the priest and the guard, killing them instantly. Malek is blasted against the eastern wall, but is quickly back on his feet, pulling a scroll from his robes. Quickly reading off the incantation at a great, excited volume, a massive column of magical fire strikes down from the ceiling above Early and Emeris. Emeris leaps aside to avoid the brunt of it but Early, pulling his sword free from his latest victim, is caught fully.

Vatex’s blades make short work of the remaining priest, whom he sees has six eyes, and the three companions converge on Malek. Early, still smoking from the flaming strike, demands to know where Khyron is as he cuts into the priest, but he gets no response. Emeris drains his energy with shadow power, and magic steel cuts through his magic protection and armor. Overmatched completely, the high priest goes down. As the body falls, Early spins and cuts off his head.

They find a set of keys on Malek’s body and take them. On their way out of the ritual chamber, six more guards meet them at the stairs. Emeris holds up his hands to tell the others he will handle these ones, and he steps forward as his eyes turn completely black and unleash a shadowy cone of punishment. The faces of the guards contort into voiceless screams and they all die in horrible agony, their armoured bodies falling over each other in a grotesque pile.

Now Emeris, Vatex, and Early explore the darkened passage, where they find what appears to be barracks for the priests and guards. These are empty except for one room where they find a heavily armoured, lithe red-haired woman with a huge red cape bearing the Ebon Hand symbol. She is FREIN AVATHON, commander of the Ebon Hand guards, and she appears to be packing up, perhaps to flee. Two priests are with her, and the battle is on. The priests are quickly slaughtered. Even Avathon, a great warrior by most standards, falls quickly. But in her dying breath, she staggers Early with a series of blows and opens his defenses. With great skill she recovers quickly, and swings her axe. For a split second Vatex and Emeris think they might be carrying their friend’s corpse out of this place, that blow should have taken Early’s head right off. However, Early pushes his spirit into the Vajra the instant before the blade connects with his neck, spins Cryssaegrym around him, and deflects the attack.

In the commander’s chamber they find a map that appears to show the full complex, complete with secret doors. First they use a secret door that connects the barracks with the armory, and explore the door to the west. Inside they find a disturbing room with a large stone slab that is stained with the blood of many sacrifices. It bears the image of a black hand atop it. Black chains, also stained with blood, hang from the ceiling above the slab. Early shudders to think what unholy rites were done here. With a profound urge to disrespect the cultists any way possible beyond even killing them, Emeris empties his bladder on the sacrificial slab.

To the west they find two strange, tentacled serpentine monsters that appear poorly fed and ill-tempered, in a room littered with bloodstains and bone fragments. These monsters are slain quickly with Vatex suffering but a bruise on his cheek from one of the lashing tentacles around a monster’s maw. And south of the sacrificial chamber is a long hallway that ends in a locked iron door. None of Malek’s keys will open the door, and their combined strength is adequate to break it down. They figure they will need to find the key or return later with Dziga.

They return to the ritual chamber where they killed Malek, as Avathon’s map shows two secret doors here on the east walls. Knowing where to look, the stone slabs that mark the secret passages are easy to find, but there appears to be no way of opening them that they can discern. At this time they decide to explore the long hallway that goes east of the barracks, where the map shows many other rooms exist. As they make their way to this location, the thoughtstone pulses in Emeris’ pocket. Saharasahla contacts him, telling him that it is urgent that he speak with the young shadowcaster posthaste. The old man doesn’t even await a response before the connection goes out.

Coming to a fork they go south and enter a guard room, where four cultist guards are waiting on duty apprehensively. The companions slaughter these four quickly, and take a set of keys off one of them. The rooms beyond to the south seem to comprise some sort of prison and torture chamber. The large main room has ten pairs of manacles hanging from spots on the walls. It also has wooden stocks, a rack, an iron maiden , and a large iron cage, as well as a small coal oven for heating tongs and irons. To young human abductees are chained to the wall, overseen by a sickle-wielding cultist with abnormally huge forearms. Vatex kills the guard with a single shot.

Emeris uses the guard’s keys to open one of the cells. They find two men and a woman, badly beaten and tortured, desperate to escape. Emeris tells the group to stay with them and they will be safe, but they are not ready to leave yet. Early goes to open the second cell, and the woman mentions that truly horrible things were done to the child in that cell. No one really makes much of that statement at first, figuring it went without saying, but when Emeris opened the door the truth was hideously clear. The “child” was a now a gross aberration, with a small bulging body on grotesquely huge, sinewy legs, and it had even more disproportionately large arms ending in twisted claws. The face was only remotely childlike at this point, contorted and asymmetrical, with a protruding lower jaw and large, jagged yellow teeth. It was a remarkable 9 feet in height, although it hunched dramatically, and its black and green mottled skin was covered in oozing sores.

Emeris blasts shadow magic at the monster and jumps back, letting Vatex step into his place, face to face with the creature, angry and fighting to get out of its cell. Vatex blades cut various wounds which began to mend at a preternaturally accelerated rate. The child of the Ebon Hand attacks back, grasping the slender elf by the shoulder and pelvis with its crushing clawed grip. With it picks up the elf and with great force and rends its claws from him. Before Vatex falls to the ground he feels claws grinding against bone and strips of flesh tearing away and terrible pain flashes in his mind. Upon landing, he rolls away to avoid the savage bite that goes for his head. Now Early takes the place of the elf, completing the final motion in a Tiger Claw maneuver and disappears into the Vajra. The warblade reappears above the huge creature and descends with lethal velocity, driving the Blade of the Silver Wolf through the collarbone and deep into its chest cavity. The warblade kicks off the monsters chest and lands in a low crouch with his back turned to the monster. He looks back expecting to see it falling over dead, but the monster is still coming despite that vicious wound!

Emeris casts an arrow of dusk which narrowly misses the monster between its bulk and the doorframe. Its wounds healing slowly but surely, the child of the Ebon Hand reaches down for Early, who skilfully fends off the attacks and rises back to a standing position where claws get through to cut four lines across his face. Vatex carefully aims with his rifle, waiting for the perfect moment. He fires. The head of the monster bursts apart as the round takes it clean between the eyes. Although the monster goes down, they can see its unnatural biology taking effect, repairing the head and skull with remarkable speed. Vatex ensures it will not trouble them again by plunging the Flame of Elmekia into his chest and keeping for a long while. Eventually the magical fires leave nothing but a charred husk showing no signs of regeneration.

Next: Only a little of the Ebon Hand complex remains unexplored -- what will they find? And what does the old shadowcaster want now?

Random Elanian Factoid: The Emerald Hill neighbourhood is a favorite of the elves. It is generally considered one of the nicer, safer neighbourhoods in Midtown, if not all of Elan. Unlike the rest of the city, the buildings here are uniformly made only of wood, mostly in the elven style with sloping span roofs and an angular or curved rather than rectangular layout.

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