Monday, August 16, 2010

Episode XXXIII: Night of Dissolution, Act V -- The Final Ritual I

Juliar 27-28

While Vatex the elven tempest makes haste through the dark passages beneath Oldtown back to the streets of Elan, Dziga the shadowdancer conceals himself in the shadows, overseeing his petrified friends. A few hours pass and he figures Vatex must have reached the surface by this time. But how long before he can find a formidable enough wizard to restore Early and Emeris?

Suddenly, the large double doors at the end of the chamber, previously guarded by the gorgons, begin to open. Dziga remains in the shadows, confident in his preternatural stealth, but he instinctively rests and hand on the hilt of Asura in case he is discovered. A dozen wights emerge from the chamber beyond the double doors, accompanied by an incredibly ancient undead being that Dziga knows to be a lich.

The lich calls out, saying it can sense the lifeforce of Dziga in the chamber. The shadowdancer-rogue remains in the shadows, considering his options. The lich gives Dziga one final chance to reveal himself before he flushes him out with a cloudkill spell, and Dziga emerges from the darkness. The lich introduces himself as Aggah-Shan, owner of the Mrathrach Machine.

Surprisingly, Aggah-Shan reveals he wishes to make a deal with Dziga and his friends. He explains that he is no friend of Khyron, although he has used the cult leader’s resources and allies to work on the chaositech machine. He believes that Khyron plans to betray him and take control of the machine once it is fully operational. He says he seeks to use the machine to dominate Elan’s criminal underworld and give himself an advantage against the Balacazars and the Killravens. Given that the companions attacked the machine in search of Khyron, he says he will allow Dziga to his lair unmolested, and he will have the petrified Early and Emeris delivered to their home the next morning. Furthermore, he will provide the location of Khyron’s Apocalyptic Sanctuary. In exchange, the companions will never again interfere with Aggah-Shan’s operations and never again return to the cavern housing the Mrathrach Machine. Dziga reluctantly accepts the deal, secretly wanting to destroy the lich more than make any deal. He then hurries back to the surface to find Vatex.

There is a chaos on the streets of Elan as midnight approaches. The barbarian army is marching upon the northern wall of the city and battle should erupt imminently. The people of Elan, whose current generation is inexperienced in war, seem unsure what to do. Many are terrified and hide in their homes. Others are fascinated and thrilled, gathering in high points around the city to see what they can of the horde and the eventual battle. Still others attempt to take advantage of the situation and commit crimes while most authorities are otherwise occupied.

The barbarian army is smaller than the early fearful speculations had suggested, but it is nonetheless formidable. The horde from Silmaria consists of 13,000 men and woman, as well as dire wolves and dire lions. Most of the barbarians are warriors, but there are also shamans, and all wear their hair long and the men are covered with shaggy hair. They supplement their leather and hide armor with animal and beast skins of all kinds. They adorn themselves with bones and teeth of animals and foes they have slain. Some members of the horde ride particularly large wolves and lions, but mostly they are on foot. They have no horses. They also have no siege engines, instead intending to simply break down the city gates with shamanistic magic and brute force.

The commissar has mounted his guns along the north wall. Mages from the Inverted Pyramid gather on the wall as well, ready with battle magic, alongside clerics from the Holy Order of Vigoor. The Commissar’s Men, the most of the City Watch, and the troops of House Khatru assemble, ready for battle, alongside conscripted mercenaries, and various volunteers and other forces. All in all, he has amassed a defensive force of about 4,000 troops. Even though the barbarians outnumber them greatly, and rumors of their shamans’ powerful magic gives some trepidation, he is on the whole confident.

Dziga manages to locate Vatex on the streets in Oldtown, still searching for a wizard. He tells his friend of the deal he struck with Aggah-Shan, and they begin looking for a wizard so that they will be ready when the statues of their friends are delivered. They observe Elanians turn on anyone who looks like a barbarian – those wearing furs or with shaggy beards, for example – thinking them enemies even if they come from elsewhere. To ignorant townsfolk, there is little difference to distinguish between one of the light-skinned, wide-shouldered, hairy barbarians outside the city from a light-skinned, wide-shouldered, hairy individual from Andragoras or Gargaston or some other northeastern land, for instance. They also observe riots over food shortages due to municipal price controls, and several break-ins at shops due to the dearth of city guardsmen patrolling the streets.

Vatex manages to locate one of his information brokers from his early days as an urban ranger. This man refers them to someone named RICHARD SPARKLEWAND, a powerful mage selling his services to raise money for one wacky project or another. They find his house in Riversgate, and he insists they call him “Dick”. After some haggling over price, they arrange to have Dick meet them at Early and Emeris’ house at 6 AM, when Aggah-Shan said he would have Early and Emeris delivered.

With that arrangement made, they head back to Midtown to wait at Early and Emeris’ house. Midnight comes, and with it the barbarians gather before the gates of the city. Suddenly, the world is suddenly bathed in a greenish glow, and, visible to all, a green moon appears in the sky. The average person knows not what to make of it – the population at large, ignorant of ancient history and ancient lore, has never heard of the Vallis moon and never knew that the world once had a second moon in ages past.

But Vatex and Dziga recognize its significance, if only in part. For in their adventurers, the companions have discovered cultist documents such as the Book of Faceless Hate and the writings of Maquent from the Pythoness House, referring to the “return of the emerald moon”, which would mark the time of the Night of Dissolution. It would seem that Khyron’s plans to awaken the sleeping Ancients beneath the city is coming to fruition.

On the bright side, the event seems to scare the barbarians, who see the appearance of the moon as an ill omen, and call a retreat back to their camp a few miles away from the city. The Elanian citizens cheer, mocking the superstitious barbarians and thinking threat of invasion entirely allayed.

Then, strangely enough, approximately on hour after its appearance, the Vallis moon disappears as abruptly as it appeared. The companions get the intuition that whatever exactly is Khyron’s plan, it must be near its culmination.

Vatex and Dziga rest at Emeris and Early’s house. Just after 6 AM that morning, two heavily cloaked figures arrive at the house with a wagon. They unload the Emeris and Early statues, and depart without a word. Emeris has a rolled up pieace of paper tied around his neck. Vatex reads the note, which says:

“You will find Khyron in his Apocalyptic Sanctuary, beneath the Temple of the Fifty-Three Gods of Chance in Temple District. – AS.”

Dick Sparklewand arrives finally, nearly thirty minutes late. Vatex and Dziga demand a discount for his lack of punctuality, which is met with disdain by the pompous wizard, and he starts to leave. They barely manage to convince him to stay with smooth words and deceptive flattery. The wizard completes two arcane incantations that changes the stone composition of the shadowcaster and the warbade to flesh. Although the process is tremendously difficult, both survive. Dick is paid and he leaves, telling them they can call him up anytime.

Vatex and Dziga tell their restored friends of the developments over the last 12 hours. It seems they can ignore the lead on Erepodi all together since Aggah-Shan has provided the Apocalyptic Sanctuary location. What is needed now is careful preparation – if they are to have their final battle against Khyron, they need rest and gear. The group sleeps until afternoon.

In his dreams, Emeris unlocks more secrets of shadow. Upon awakening, he finds his power has increased. They stop by the Temple of Ashe and have their wounds healed. They visit the Adventurers’ Square and acquire potions. While there, they encounter a men-at-arms from the Knights of the Pale named BANON. He tells them one of the Knights of the Pale, named ARNGRIM, has been looking for them because of their encounters with the forces of chaos.

They go with Banon to the Knights of the Pale chapterhouse and speak with Arngrim, a holy warrior of great skill. He tells them he was a friend of Zophas, the aasimar paladin from the Pale Tower who died in the Temple of Deep Chaos. Arngrim read Zophas journal where he learned of his conversations with Early. He said Zophas had taken Early’s information as being very serious, and investigated the relation between the reappearance of the runebearers and the Vallis moon in relation to the Night of Dissolution, as prophesized by the chaos cults. Arngrim took up the investigation, and has been following the trail of various missing runebearer children. Dullin Balacazar was one of the boys missing, and he learned that Dziga had once been hired to protect him. It seemed Arngrim did not know of the missing girl from Riversgate, whom Keziah and Dziga had sacrificed – if they had indeed happened. That bit of information was kept hidden from the Knight of the Pale. Another child, Tarhia Kor, had disappeared.

Arngrim reveals that both Dullin and Tarthia had been entering the Temple of the Fifty-Three Gods of Chance. A known chaos agent had also recently been spotted in that area. Although worshippers at that temple were not suspected to be aligned with chaos, some rumors suggested they might be. The companions confirm for the knight that there is a chaos base below the temple.

Arngrim can sense evil emanating from the souls of Emeris and Dziga, but he believes they must put aside philosophical differences for the sake of temporarily joining forces. Arngrim reasons that if Zophas felt it necessary to work with these people, then he should do the same. Arngrim grabs his massive two-handed holy blade, called Durandal, and summons his followers – the men-at-arms Banon, PANKRAZ, and SANCHO, and the female fighter MYSTINA. Together, everyone heads for the Temple of the Fifty-Three Gods of Chance.

The large, heavily armed group walks into the temple boldly. Seven acolytes in multi-colored robes pray around the sanctuary. One of them approaches and asks how he can be of assistance. Emeris grabs him with a clawed hand and holds his sword to the man’s neck. “Where is Khyron?” the half-dragon demands.

The acolyte pleads that he knows nothing, tembling within the shadowcaster’s grasp. The High Priestess of the temple, JEWEL NABASCOR, comes down the stairs and demands to know the meaning of this invasion. Arngrim asks likewise, saying that they lack evidence that these people are chaos agents. Emeris squeezes the man tighter and presses the blade closer to his neck, drawing a spot of blood. He demands again to know where Khyron is hiding, and the man pleads ignorance and begins to cry. Arngrim demands that Emeris release him, ready to turn against the half-dragon if he gets no compliance.

While everyone is yelling at each other, Vatex looks around and notes that the various acolytes are all fearful and probably not interesting in fighting, except for one halfling who hides behind a pillar by the wall and looks on with a very different expression suggesting he half expected something like this. Vatex catches the halfling acolyte’s eye and immediately he pulls out a scroll and reads it. The spell goes off as Vatex rushes the halfling, his sword stabbing forward. Whatever the scroll’s effect, it is nothing obvious and the Flame of Elmekia plunges into the halfling, piercing and burning his guts. Vatex jumps back and the halfling, ERCAN, curses him as an enemy of chaos and says they can do nothing to stop the Final Ritual now. By midnight tonight, Khyron – now a Chosen of the Galchutt – will complete the ritual that will supposedly awaken the Ancients from their legendary slumber which has lasted tens of thousands of years.

Jewel seems shocked and demands how Ercan can be saying such things. He curses her as well and her pathetic gods and spits blood on the ground before him. He swings his mace at Vatex who dodges easily, the Early rushes forward with a heavy blow from his katana. Ercan’s head is split and his arm cut clean off. They figure Ercan was the only plant among them and his scroll may have sent a message to Khyron. The clergy of the temple helps the companions search the structure for any secret passage that might lead below.

They eventually find it in the north wall, and as Dziga finds no traps, only a tiny peephole, through which a demonic eye stares back, then vanishes. Dziga dismantles the mechanism locking the secret door. Dziga silently moves down the stairs and into a dark passage, followed by Vatex, Early, Emeris, Arngrim, and the four at men-at-arms.

The passage switches back and takes Dziga down another set of stairs and into a large chamber. Hidden from view, he observes a large vulture-like demon, likely the Gisszaggat mentioned in Caldor’s notes, pacing back and chattering to itself about how its been here longer than any other inhabitant, and how it thinks of the entire complex as his, and the intruders. Dziga sees a wood table at the southern wall, on which are three large wooden rods. Above the table on the wall are three holes that would fit such rods. Thinking them to somehow be important to the demon, Dziga creeps nigh-invisibly through the shadows along the wall towards the table. He moves more quietly than a sneaking cat, but still the preternatural hearing of the demon detects his footsteps. It calls out to him, taunting him to appear. Vatex moves into the room and fires his rifle. Gisszaggat shrugs off the round as Early rushes in, followed by Vatex who shoulders the gun and snaps out his blades. Dziga moves unnoticed from shadow to shadow to flank the demon. Early bursts into the air with a Soaring Raptor Strike, flashing through the Vajra and cutting Cryssaegrym through the demon’s chest. The wound is vicious and gushes black blood, but Gisszaggat’s fight back as if barely fazed. Vatex dodges the demons bites and claws and his swords strike several blows but the formidable demon’s resistance to mortal weapons leaves only superficial cuts, and the fires of the Elmekian blade burn for naught.

Gisszaggat the vrock draws upon its magic and creates six mirror images of itself. Emeris counters this effect by conjuring up black fire around the images, dissipating them instantly and revealing only the real demon, who is too powerful to be affected by the flames itself.

Dziga stabs Asura into the demons flank and it drives him back with swinging claws. Arngrim tells all but Mystina to stay back with crossbows. Arngrim swings his the massive Durandal and cuts the demon badly across the face. The demon’s resistance fails against the holy imbued power of the Knight of the Pale’s sword. Mystina lacks such power and despite heavy strikes from her own blade, she may as well have struck the demon with a pillow. The others fire their crossbows but cannot find a clear shot admidst the chaotic melee.

Suddenly the demon shakes violently and spores burst from its body, covering the combatants. Only Arngrim resists, and the spores begin burrowing into those affected. The vrock fights back, swingining claws, snapping with beak, and swiping with talons. Although the demon lands several attacks, the press continues, and black blood quickly pools beneath the fighting vrock. It uses magic to teleport elsewhere.

The demon’s spores continue to bore into their victims, and Arngrim uses two vials of holy water to eliminate them on himself and Mystina. For Early, Dziga, and Emeris the damage eventually stops, but they find various seemingly harmless vines sprouting from where the spores had entered.

With combat finished, the group check out the table with the wooden rods. Their nature is not clear, but also on the table is a book bound with human bones and batwings. Emeris skims through the short book, which discusses “the Final Ritual” as a way of awakening the Galchutt. Before he can relay the information to his companions, the wounded Gisszaggat teleports back into the room, accompanied by another vrock, fresh and unhurt, he had summoned.

The group explodes into action when the new vrock unleashes a horrible screech which stuns Vatex, Dziga, and Emeris. It then rushes towards Vatex, planning to rip him apart in the elf’s moment of incapacitation. Gisszaggat likewise uses the opportunity to rush forward, with Early, Pankraz, and Arngrim meeting him. Gisszaggat attempts to evoke magic but the press of blades prevents this. He fights with demonic savagery and mortal desperation as Early and Arngrim’s mighty blades alternately cut deep wounds. His claws rake at his enemies and Pankraz takes a bad blow to the head which knocks him out cold. Mystina falls back, firing her crossbow, while the other men-at-arms charge the second vrock as it closes on Vatex.

The summoned vrock is on Vatex in seconds, slashing and stabbing at his with claws, talons, and beak. A final swipe of the claw likely would have taken off the elf’s head, but he regains his senses at the last moment and dodges low, slashing back with his two swords. Banon and Sancho drive their halberds at the demon, who virtually ignores the impotent attacks as it continues drawing blood with its claws.

Finally, Gisszaggat goes down in a plume of black blood, and the rest of the group converges on the second demon, which is still largely unharmed. Slender elven swords, holy blade, silver katana, vicious curved dagger and bolts of shadow magic take their toll on the formidable demon, who suddenly teleports away. Instead of fleeing the area, the summoned vrock reappears beside the wooden table and the rods. The group charges it, freely hacking into its back while it inserts a rod into one of the holes in the wall. The group hears and feels a deep rumbling somewhere deeper in the complex. Is it a warning system of some kind?

The demon ignores the rest of the rods, seemingly satisfied that it did all it needed to do, and again fights back. Arngrim draws upon holy power to smite the demon through his sword, which nearly takes off the fiend’s leg. A kicking talon cuts Dizga as he slashes the demon’s neck, and Cryssaegrym howls like a wolf as it cuts through the air into the monster’s upper beak. Emeris launches bolts of darkness at the monster to weaken it. Although fierce and cunning, the second demon eventually goes down, too much weakened by the taxing shadow magic and the wall of blades pressing it against the wall. When it finally falls, Early quickly decapitates them, ties rope around the heads, and slings them over his shoulder. Arngrim draws upon holy abilities and heals deep cut in Mystina, and heals the nasty cut in Pankraz’s head, restoring him to consciousness.

As the group catches its breath and patches up its wounds with salves and potions, Emeris relays the information from the book. The short book explains how to conduct the Final Ritual, a process too esoteric for Emeris to comprehend. That said, there are some intelligible details of interest concerning the six components required for the ritual to be successful. They are:

1) At least ten thousand people with one mile must be afraid for their lives while it is being performed.
2) The runes of four runebearers must be consumed in flames.
3) An altar resonating with arcane energies must be split asunder.
4) A Chosen of the Galchutt must oversee the ceremony.
5) At least four devoted cultists must chant and dance wildly for a full day.
6) A beloved king must die.

With this information, a few obvious pieces fall into place. Ercan intimated the ritual would be complete by midnight tonight, which means if the ritual must last a full day, then it began with the appearance of the Vallis moon, although that appearance itself was not a component of the ritual. It also seems to suggest that the runebearers involved in the ceremony might explain why Helmut’s prophecies foretold that the runebearers would bring disaster to the city. On the other hand, Helmut might still have known something more if his prophecies were accurate. It seemed Keziah’s sacrifice of the Riversgate girl was unrelated.

Less obvious correlations suggest themselves to Early. The ten thousand fearful people requirement is fulfilled by the barbarian siege of Elan. It seems absurd that Khyron could have somehow motivated a large barbarian army to somehow travel from the northern imperial provinces all the way to Elan. Then the explanation dawns on Early – he recalls when the group heard rumors of the barbarians’ invasion of the Empire up north, particularly one rumor saying King Drax of Silmaria, the Destroyer, leader of the invading army, was killed in battle. The Final Ritual requires a beloved king to die. What if instead of dying in battle, the barbarian king was here in Elan, and the barbarians had come to find him – and destroy the city in the process, if necessary? To what extent was the siege of Elan playing out according to Khyron’s design?

The group gains a deeper appreciation for the scope and ambition of Khyron’s plans, and the gravity of the situation raises the stakes beyond mere revenge. The group continues deeper into the sanctuary, on the hunt for their enemies.

The place seems strangely deserted. They explore a few empty bedchambers and take a few things, including money and couple of elixirs of truth. When they come across a huge staircase going farther down to a passage that ends in foreboding double doors, they anticipate they have found the right place, and the sanctuary’s inhabitants have gathered beyond, expecting trouble and guarding the grand ceremony of chaos. The group approaches the doors carefully, and Dziga checks for traps. He finds them safe and unlocked. The thickness of the doors make it impossible for anyone but Vatex to hear anything past them, and all he can make out are some chanting and also what sounds like disciplinary shouting.

Dziga disappears into the shadows and pushes the double doors ajar. Beyond is a massive chamber with three levels, built with grey masonry stone and forty foot high ceilings. It is immediately clear this is the site of the Final Ritual.

The first (bottom) level is an open area where the far wall has built-in cells with iron bars. In these cells are waiting ratlords, two in each of the three cells, equipped with dragon rifles trained on the entrance.

The next level up has five tanks filled with some kind of purple gas. Within each one, a human stands perfectly still. Each tank measures about seven feet tall and three feet wide. Tubes run from the tanks to a round altar, around which stand four dancing and chanting humans in dark robes and painted hoods. Guarding this second level are twelve Toruk-Rul orcs, from the southern lands between Shapeir and Zeltenna. They are distinctive because of their Herculean physiques, good posture, and red skin. These orc troops seem led by a woman called MUALLAH ELIDIA, the Dark Blessed. She wields a savage looking sword that has a human skull as a pommel, and spiky black plate armor. She moves with the grace of a deadly warrior. Also on the third level is Savia, the lizardwoman warrior, equipped with the chaos-empowered longsword from the Pythoness House and her familiar bow.

In the third level, a small set of steps leads up to what appears to be a massive black claw on the end of an arm thrusting itself up from the floor. Dark blue blood pours from a wound in the palm of the claw and runs down the sides of the arm. Standing on the palm, with a short flight of stairs leading up to it, is Khyron, who seems to be bloated with power – he has already taken his demonic form, and he is much bigger and more horrid than before. On this level he has several figures at his side. There is Andross, one of the Keepers of the Faith’s agents, in his human form. There is also Ibard, the liontaur chaos cleric whose magic bell had thwarted the companions in their previous encounter. Now she carries no bell, just her shield with the six pointed star, and the black-hafted, red-tipped spear of chaos from the Pythoness House. There is also a kython, wielding the twin bastard swords from the cache in the Pythoness House. Finally there is an unfamiliar figure, JERALLAN, a fiendish female ogre, eight feet tall and bald, with a spiny ridge running from her scalp down her back. She wields a huge halberd.

This is the showdown the companions have sought since their humiliation and defeat long ago. The ambush at the Pythoness House… the Brotherhood of Venom’s secret meeting… the Surgeon in the Shadows’ secret lab… the apartment house and the cultists’ twisted experiments… the Temple of Deep Chaos… the Temple of the Ebon Hand… the Mrathrach Machine…Aggah-Shan’s lair… everything has led them to this final battle, not only for revenge but also perhaps to stop an Final Ritual, which if successful, would be event so cataclysmic the repercussions are beyond imagination. For if the Ancients are as powerful as told by lore, then the city of Elan could simply not survive them awakening beneath it.

Next time: The final battle between the companions and the forces of Khyron. This is the greatest challenge they have faced thus far – will they prevail, and who will make it out alive?