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Part 10: Invitation to Disaster

Previously (Pt. 9) Home Next (Pt. 11)

Dismantling a cult.

Our heroes have begun putting two and two together about the danger to the villagers, but preventing a catastrophe might prove difficult. For awakening on the Shadow Plane and empowered by a believing cult is, quite literally, a demi-god.

(All players were able to make this session for a memorable end to the story arc.)


Real Date: July 12, 2014

Game Date: 5th of November, a.r. 231, seven bells, morning (Day 5)

Chapter 42: Upping the Ante

The time spent at Ivellios’s home was relaxing and rewarding. Finding a portal over to the Shadow Plane in his room, the party used the opportunity to regain their strength and composure by resting in their physical forms. Fortunately, they had little to fear from the monster there–the stone room had no doors nor windows, and the sigils mirroring those on Ivellios’s walls glowed with a very real power.

Not that they didn’t have visitors in the night. When they awoke the next morning, they found sooty paw prints the size of a lion’s circling where they’d rested. They appeared and disappeared at the edge of a doorless wall, suggesting the beast had actually passed through the stone. Though disconcerted at first, they recalled Ivellios’s comments about his “vestige”–a lumbering hound from the Shadow Plane. Well, whatever had secretly visited them, it had done them no harm.

Rina had also made the best use of her rest. As the others had turned in for bed, she had spent some extra time combining the rib from the defeated shadow horse with rope and wooden planks she had been saving. An hour later, she had fashioned a crude but usable weapon, not unlike a longsword. It was her first attempt at jury-rigging, and though she wasn’t sure how well it would hold up, she was eager to try it in combat. (DM’s note: The weapon does 1d8 + 1d4 Con damage vs. Fort save, but it also has a 1/6 chance of coming apart each time it’s used.)

Sadly, events quickly took a turn for the worse. As they were lounging with Ivellios the next morning, a frantic pounding began on the door.

Lucian: Ivellios? Spirits? Are you in there? Come quickly! Something horrible has happened! Two more people have died!

The party looked out to find a worried crowd behind a distraught Lucian. He had taken what the spirits had said to heart last evening, encouraging each of his followers to go home for the night and do any other prayers there. However, three of his congregation had been attacked while they communed in their house–a space on the first floor of Ivellios’s own building. One was still alive.

orrim

Orrim, an elderly member of Lucian’s fellowship

315b347c06eef4f27ef65ef5f2b5be7cLucian, Ivellios, and the spirits quickly rushed to the first level. (As they went, they noticed Marcellus emerging from his shop as well, pulling on his clothes as he hurried.) The sight that greeted them was grisly and horrific.

An older man and what appeared to be the bodies of two older women lied on separate beds in a shared room. One of the women had the entire top half of her head missing, cleaved off above her nose. The other had only her hips and legs remaining. Again, much like the scene in the outhouse, the walls were splattered with the blood of the unfortunate victims, but the actual remains of their bodies were missing.

The incorporeal ghosts immediately bent down and searched the floor. Just as expected, there was an empty glass vial for each of the three. It seems they had decided to use a little extra psychotropic help while conducting their prayers.

As Rina bent down towards the vial in the old man’s hand, she heard a faint whispering. Orrim, as his name happened to be, was thrashing in his bed in terror. His eyes darted back and forth, viewing terrors invisible. Although he had clamped his hands down over his mouth, delirious messages escaped.

Orrim: Shh! Don’t speak! It can hear you! They were praying, and it heard them…

1343404383-35617-mirrorAs she did this, the group noticed a waist-high mirror standing in the corner across from Rina. While the drug vials were not portals today, the mirror was; and it showed forth a shadowy version of the same room. (To the ghosts, it was as if two mirrored copies of the same room were joined by a door at their corners.) In that dark version, two beds were occupied by smashed statues; but a third still anchored a bobbing floating head.

Rina stepped through the mirror, looked around, and instantly froze. She returned immediately.

Rina: It’s right there! Just off to the side, where we can’t see it. (to Lucian) Make sure your friend stays quiet. Don’t ask him questions, and don’t let him talk. Staying silent is the only thing keeping him alive at this point. Also, see if you can’t move him to some room higher up in the building. That may sound strange, but it might actually save his life.

Tacitus: But no matter how you cut it, Rina, we’re going to have to take that creature down. As long as it’s around, these people will continue to be in danger.

Indeed, no sooner than he had said this than the familiar monstrosity lumbered by the mirror on the other side. It swiveled its head back and forth in the same searching mannerisms, seeking its next prey. However (and more importantly), the ghosts noticed the woven cable behind it was different. Three of the individual strands making up the whole had frayed and broken.

The four immediately began formulating plans of attack. Guessing that the cable somehow empowered the beast, they first set their sights on severing it. Ikkath, with his innate understanding of tactics, suggested an auditory diversion to keep the monster occupied. He favored using the old man as bait, but this idea was quickly nixed. Again, the others were not comfortable with gambling with a human life, and Tacitus suggested an alternate method.

The final piece of their hurried plan involved Lucian disassembling his shrine, as they had asked him to the day before. This time, however, Lucian was far more amenable to their request, and he took off for his communion room like a flash.

When they were ready, the spirits moved in together, instantly flanking the creature on all sides. Tacitus reached deep into his memory, crafting an concept with arcane gestures. A globule of shadow mist swirled near him, coalescing into a small and recognizable shape. When he was done, a jabbering, animated monkey created from pure Shadow stuff had leaped into being.

angry_monkey1

The “concept” of a monkey–how Summon Monster works in Iqador

True to plan, Tacitus’s monkey began a deafening clamor, and the mechanical spider’s face swiveled to find it. While it was distracted, Ikkath moved to the fraying cable, raised his ax above his head, and brought it down with both hands. The ax rebounded in a spray of sparks, leaving not a scratch. Remembering that her “tin” adamantine sword had easily parted Tacitus’s mail shirt, Rina too thrust her sword into the threads, but without success. (DM’s note: As adamantine weapons ignore up to 20 points of Hardness, this cable is very tough indeed.)

GaBH_665CL_yDio8KG1XJh_DbcxjDpmlIt did not take long for the sphinx to pinpoint the screaming monkey. Its face tentacles lashed out, and the summoned concept was eviscerated in the blink of an eye. However, instead of blood and fur, the monkey simply exploded into a puff of smoke, which intermingled back into the Shadowy fog. Knowing that a constant distraction could spell the difference between life and death, Tacitus again moved his hands quickly. Two more monkeys leaped from the fog to replace the first.

Seeing that his attack on the cable had gotten him nowhere, Ikkath instead turned his sights on the monster itself. He brought his ax squarely into the side of one of its eight legs. The metal bars and sprockets contorted visibly from the impact. However, the leg’s components immediately began unbending themselves before Ikkath’s horrified eyes. The cable was impervious, and whatever damage they did to the beast was quickly regenerated.

In response, the sphinx turned its featureless face towards Ikkath. The orc realized the four spirits were vastly out of their league, and he edged towards the mirror. But as he tumbled backwards, tentacles from the monster’s head lashed through his body. Ikkath arrived in the physical world, leaving an agonizing trail of light blue mist. (DM’s note: A failed tumble check, a lucky swipe, and the gaunt orc loses 80% of his life in a single strike!)

From that point, the group focused on extracting themselves safely. Another conceptual monkey was literally vaporized, but its “death” was not in vain–Joriah took the opportunity to join Ikkath in the physical world.

Tacitus had one more trick up his sleeve, one he already knew would work. His voice boomed from the darkness on the other side of the creature: “Eat this Scorching Ray, squid face!” The sphinx snarled and crashed into the darkness towards the phantom challenge.

The party was safe again–for now.

Apparently acting on instinct and without consultation, the four spirits then split into two different groups to achieve separate tasks. Joriah walked the stumbling Ikkath back to the cult room, where Lucian was hopefully dismantling the shrine. Rina and Tacitus, on the other hand, decided to follow the giant spider’s trailing cable. One end hooked directly into the monster; what awaited at the other end was still a mystery.


Chapter 43: Splitting the Party

brek

Brek

Ikkath and Joriah arrived to find Lucian overseeing a few of his friends as they disassembled the shrine. It was a haphazard job, as most of the town’s men were already out on boats or sorting fish at the docks. For now, Lucian was simply disassociating the portraits, urns, and mementos, then returning the pieces he was able to their respective owners.

As the group worked, Ikkath caught a glimpse of one particular man out of the corner of his eye. A sudden sense of fear and hatred boiled inside his ghostly body, though he had no understanding as to why. This man did not seem immediately familiar. Ikkath mentioned his foreboding to Joriah, who in turn went quietly to Lucian.

Lucian: Him? Oh, that’s Brek. He’s a fisherman…works out on the boats all day, usually out to sea or around the cape. I can’t tell you much more about his job than that, but he hasn’t been a problem in my congregation. Why do you ask about him?

Joriah gave Lucian some token response and approached Brek on his own. Despite Joriah’s open and charming behavior (for a ghost), Brek was immediately suspicious. He gave no more than three-word answers as he ferried articles from the room, and his only comment of note was grilling Joriah if he were an orc. Gathering that he would gain little, Joriah let him return to his work.

*          *          *

Coincidentally, at that moment Rina and Tacitus were standing in almost the exactly same location, save on the Shadow Plane. Having followed the steel tether to its end, they found the cable originated at the “stage” of the quarter-circle Shadow amphitheater–the southern-most portion, and the area directly contiguous with Lucian’s cult room. Where it terminated, the cable split into its component strands, each ending in the mouth of one of thirty-seven praying statues.

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wUnlike those they had seen till now, these statues were miniature versions, rising no more than a half-foot to a foot off the amphitheater’s floor. Also, they lacked distinct features. Previous statues seen had fine details like skin pores; here, it was difficult to tell which were even male and female.

Interestingly, three of the statues were lying on their sides, their mouth-cables frayed and broken. Rina and Tacitus nodded at each other in understanding. These were the three members of the cult that had died–the man and two women.

If the Shadow Realm continued to be a metaphorical representation of the physical, then it seemed the sphinx was empowered by the prayers and supplications of Lucian’s congregation. To end its reign, it was important for the spirits to end its source of power. Rina took hold of one of the strands connected to a statue’s mouth and yanked, attempting to free it from its mooring, but she was successful only in pulling out extra length of the strand. The two ghosts then considered knocking the statues over in turn, to break the other threads making up the cable. They eventually decided against this, realizing they still didn’t know if the mini-statues reflected only the beliefs of the cult members, or their actual lives.

It appeared that the most direct way to defeat the malevolent beast was to break the source of its power, Lucian’s cult. Their current soul searching was unknowingly giving rise to a blind, hungry monster. Knowing that people won’t simply give up a belief system without another to take its place, Together Rina and Tacitus began brainstorming alternate cult possibilities. They invented a few that they wanted to discuss with the others later…

Drider-Scout

Electrum Horror (small construct), CR 4, Monster Manual II

DSCN2823Without Ikkath’s flaming ax, their vision was obscured by mists beyond thirty feet. Taking a better look around, the two discovered several items of interest in the fog. To the east of the amphitheater, in a spot definitely not inside Lucian’s building, Tacitus found a stack of six mechanical eggs. They seemed cobbled out of scrap metal and spare parts, and each rose roughly two feet in height. Curious who could have crafted these sculptures and why, Tacitus poked one.

Unfortunately for the duo, the items proved very much alive. The egg Tacitus had touched split apart along an uneven seam, and a much smaller-version of the sphinx crawled angrily out. Like some insects of the real world, it seemed baby sphinxes needed a few moltings before they matched their parents–this one only still had both its arms, and only the barest sprouts of a headdress.

Still, it was no less vicious, however. It hissed from its tentacle-rimmed mouth and stabbed Tacitus with two sharp pieces of metal. Tacitus hobbled backwards and threw a Scorching Ray in its direction. Being much smaller than his usual targets, the baby spider easily dodged the blasts.

For his next attempt, Tacitus decided to play things safe. Three Magic Missile bolts hit the creature unerringly, knocking four tiny legs away with the force. Realizing it was outmatched, the spiderling jumped off the egg and made for the safety of the darkness. Unwilling to let another potential sphinx grow to full size, Rina and Tacitus pursued it, failing to kill it with arrows shot wide, stumbling charges, or swings of makeshift longswords. (To Rina’s frustration, she learned that the draining effect of the horse rib did not work on constructs.)

Eventually, Tacitus grew tired of the chase and finished it with another Magic Missile. He paused for breath over the twitching corpse of the spiderling. The day’s activities had left him weary, costing him five of his seven 1st-level spells and a third of his health. By his count, he and Rina had only destroyed one of six total eggs, and he did not feel ready for any more.

BRCLEARbody-floating-face-down-in-water-sandra-cunninghamRina had also sighted something earlier, and the two went to investigate. Beyond the edge of the stone amphitheater, a featureless glass plain stretched to the horizon…or, at least, as far as they were willing to venture. If it had a bottom, it too was beyond their field of vision. The ghosts guessed it represented the ocean beyond Lux Æterna.

The object Rina had seen proved to be a body, floating under or through the plain of glass beneath their feet. Ikkath’s recognizable form drifted slowly by, a horrible wound visible on his forehead. No sooner had it disappeared beyond their field of vision than it reappeared again in a different place. This phenomenon was present wherever on the glass plain they went.

Rina: It’s the Shadow Realm’s memory of Ikkath. Somewhere near by, Ikkath must have been killed and his body dumped in the ocean.

Tacitus: And his murderer still walks free. Which is why his soul cannot rest.

Having little reason to remain on the Shadow Plane, and having new information to share, Rina and Tacitus sought to return to the real world. Luckily, Rina still had her hand mirror, and she eventually “dowsed” a connection. The two stepped through, appearing above a picture frame on the floor of the physical room.


Chapter 44: A Surprising Link

Rina: (upon seeing the others) Hey, we saw Ikkath’s body on the Shadow Plane! Somebody murdered him!

Joriah: (gesturing quickly at Brek outside) Shhh! We think it might be that guy!

Rina: And there are spider babies! (to those standing near Lucian) Your misguided faith is creating torment on the Shadow Plane! A monster stalks because of you, and it’s going to kill the loved ones you can’t let go of!

themagic0091Despite her fervor, Rina was not a practiced public speaker, and those of the living world watched with confusion and distrust. As much as they revered “those who had gone before,” her aggressive accusations were too unfamiliar and jarring.

Sensing what Rina was trying to accomplish, Ivellios stepped closer to Lucian and suggested calling all of the faithful together for another congregation that night, to better explain the situation and the spirits’ wisdom. As he did so, Tacitus noticed Ivellios moving his hands quickly and subtly. None of the movements involved spellcrafting; Ivellios was likely channeling some of the abilities that his vestige “Naberius” granted him. Lucian nodded in agreement as he listened, then went to spread the word as soon as Ivellios was finished.

Pleased that the situation was beginning to come to a head, the spirits now set to the issue of “Quicksilver.” While the drug was not a direct cause of the sphinx, using it made people somehow simultaneously appear in the spirit realm, making them vulnerable to attacks. They learned that Marcellus, the purveyor of the drug, was currently tending at Orrim’s bedside. They went there next.

As an apothecary, Marcellus filled the contradictory roles of selling drugs that could both help and harm. Some eased physical ailments like fevers or flus; others eased ailments of the mind, such as depression, loneliness, or the pointlessness of life. But regardless of function, Marcellus’s business thrived from return customers. Which meant a knowledge of how to flush toxins was essential.

apothecary medicineThe four spirits found Marcellus administering a cleansing tonic to Orrim. The elderly man seemed flushed and sweaty, but far more in control of his faculties.

Marcellus: He’s coming around quickly. He took only the recommended amount of the drug, and this medicine is forcing him to sweat it out. He should be fully coherent within the hour. Likely far sooner. (finally around turning to the spirits) I apologize if I have been curt with you in the past. There are plenty of those who direct blame at my establishment, for a variety of reasons, and I’ve learned to be defensive. However, seeing as your warnings were completely accurate, I feel it is only right that I come clean with you.

Marcellus led them back to his store on the second floor above the pawn shop. Then, after making sure no one else was in the room, he walked around behind a stack of shelves, where he did more private studies and preparations. 

Marcellus: There has been an “illness” afflicting those of our village for some years now, evidencing most often in the very old or the very young. Symptoms include “pins or needles” in the extremities; extra pinkness in cheeks, fingers, and toes; sometimes tissue swelling; and even peeling skin. There have been some deaths.

Rina: Had you checked their diets? These people are eating fish taken from very dirty waters.

originalMarcellus: Your suspicions prove correct, my lady. Ivellios, a learned man, often makes house calls for matters of medicine. His own studies had isolated the problem to a foreign substance in their diet, though he was unable to pinpoint what exactly. For that, he turned to me. It wasn’t long before I’d isolated the element–mercury, in the sewage from the upper city. I don’t know what they do up there in the upper districts, but they are dumping large amounts of toxins into the water. The fish here (and even in the bay) will ingest it, passing it on to any human who catches them. But the story doesn’t end there.

Here, Marcellus slid a wooden panel on a bookcase aside. From inside, he brought out a gauntlet immediately recognizable to three of the four–it was the same gauntlet sported by the Royal Guard when visiting Wayward Prison.

Marcellus: I managed to…acquire this device about the same time that I was conducting my studies on mercury poisoning. Interestingly, the gauntlet contains a light-blue fluid that can be distilled into a very similar-looking substance–a reflective, metallic liquid. While I quickly ascertained that it was not mercury, my studies with lab rats showed it to be a powerful psychoactive drug. And hence the beginning of “Quicksilver.”

The spirits looked at each other in alarmed comprehension. From their forms in the physical world, to the potions of Cure Wounds they drank, to the mists they bled when wounded, the color of light blue had always represented the same thing–spirit life. Following that line of reasoning, this could very well mean that the weapons the Royal Guardsmen used somehow operated from the use of spirits.

Joriah: Well, Madame Guerre did say the Guard had ways of making us “disappear.” Maybe this is what she meant.

Tacitus: I would be very interested in researching more about these “spirit weapons” when we get the chance.

Rina: (turning to Marcellus) If our beliefs are correct, there might very well be spirits trapped in the fluid you’ve taken from the gauntlet. Can you release them?

86865780_d5d05b33ceThough Marcellus had no knowledge of how the ghost world worked, he guessed that since he was able to condense “Quicksilver” from the fluid’s gaseous form, that simply burning off the fluid without condensing it might serve Rina’s purpose. The four spirits agreed to this, and the next half hour was spent recalling the remaining dosages of “Quicksilver” still in the population (or simply making sure they hadn’t died while using it).

It had actually been only an hour since the discovery of the bodies in Ivellios’s building, being now around eight bells. The able-bodied who lived on the wharf had gone to work some time ago, whether it be fishing, repairing nets, butchering, mending clothes, or any other profitable task. The spirits had little to do but wait for the villagers to finish for the day and attend Lucian’s emergency congregation. In the interim, they decided to check up on Shamus, whom they had not seen yet that day.

*          *          *

shamus

Our old pal Shamus.

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Inside the eastern fishing building

As it turned out, Shamus worked during the day as a dock worker at the nearby fishing company. There was no shortage of jobs that needed to be done before fish were ready to be sold on the streets or to businesses from higher up in the city. Because the water of the harbor was only a few feet deep, fishermen used small rowboats and canoes to bring in loads of fish; these would be offloaded at the eastern-most building, where they’d be sorted and prepared.

Word of the spirits had spread through all the docks by this point, and the fishery workers whispered and pointed eagerly when the adventurers appeared. They did not run screaming or summon authorities, which was what the spirits were most concerned about. They found Shamus working in a separated, isolated area of the main floor fishery, servicing special boats that only unloaded there.

Shamus smiled when he saw the ghosts, then quickly waved them over and hushed them. Glancing around to make sure no one else had followed them, he continued helping a rowboat offload its newest cargo: giant sturgeon. Shamus apparently waited until after work before taking any of Marcellus’s “medications” and thus seemed a good deal sharper than yesterday.

Shamus: Hey, friends, welcome to the grind! Here you can watch us continue our righteous crusade against the worst bottom-feeders and lowliest scum there are: fish!

At first, the spirits assumed the boxed-in area where Shamus and his friends worked was to help them gut and sort their sturgeon more easily. Sturgeon were bottom-feeders fish that preferred fresh-water deltas (like the one that Lux Æterna sat upon), sometimes venturing upstream or out to sea. Their eggs sold well as caviar for the higher-classes, though Rina suspected their bottom-feeding habits meant they absorbed a lot of the city’s toxins as well.

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However, as Shamus began lifting small bladder pouches, tied off with string, from a sturgeon he’d just opened, they suspected there was more to this operation than met the eye.

YS161_3-3h_bottleShamus: (quickly glancing around the fishery floor again) And welcome also to the best-kept “secret” of this wharf! Everyone’s in on it, mind you; we just need to make sure no inspectors or Guardsmen are around when we do this.

Tacitus: What’s in the pouches?

Shamus: What isn’t in these pouches, man? Mushrooms, cannabis, opium, you name it. Stuff that isn’t illegal in Veritan, of course…just heavily taxed. And it’s hard to make any money with the government always breathing down your neck, you know? So people like Marcellus under-report. Tell them he’s only bringing in a little bit each day. Make sure they see only a little bit each day. Then we bring in the rest for him, inside fish!

Rina: How do the…pouches get inside the fish you catch?

Shamus: We don’t actually catch them. We have some friends up around the coast…some orcs or something. They grow the stuff, put it in pouches, stick it inside the fish. Then their boats meet our boats out at sea, or around the cape. The trade goes on where no one can see it, out on the ocean. Then the orcs go home a little richer; we come back with some great stuff.

The spirits were intrigued by the business model, though they had nothing in particular to add. After watching Shamus sort his fish guts and drug pouches into waiting containers, they said goodbye and retreated to Ivellios’s apartment. It was still a full work day until the emergency cult meeting, and a few of them had wounds to sleep off or soulmelds to reshape.

That evening would prove eventful enough for all.


Chapter 45: A New Religion

That night’s meeting began just after six, as soon as all the fishermen and dock men and general village workers had cleaned up for the night. The spirits noticed that there were a good deal more present this evening than the thirty-five from before. Apparently, Lucian’s emphasis on “emergency” meeting, combined with the three recent deaths and the presence of the ghosts, had seized the wharf’s attention. The congregation room was packed to the walls with attendees, and there were several rows of people standing around the windows outside.

Although Lucian had personally called for the meeting, Ivellios was to be the main speaker. Earlier that day, he and the ghosts had discussed the finer points of what he’d present. Ivellios had also revealed that he would ask a boon from his vestige, Naberius. Being the only known entity that could manifest simultaneously in the Shadow and the physical planes, Naberius was a prime candidate for assisting Ivellios in his presentation. The elf only smiled silently when questioned about his plans; he simply promised he planned to make the night one to remember.

Ivellios’s plans had begun even before the meeting had started. With Lucian’s help, he had set up roughly fifty lit candles in rows along the back wall, where the shrine had once stood. The spirits were to float silently in front of them, creating a new mystical atmosphere—one Ivellios was hoping could replace their old.

mystical

two row boatsWhile the spirits bided their time, waiting for all parties to be assembled, Ikkath took another long look at Brek, scowling in a corner. A new memory sprang suddenly to his mind–a clear image of two men, standing on adjacent boats, embroiled in a heated dispute. Ikkath remembered the exchange through the eyes of one of these men; the other figure was Brek.

Ikkath sidestepped to his fellow ghosts and described his sudden revelation. They nodded as they listened, admitting the story seemed plausible. They recalled Shamus’s explanation of how drugs were smuggled illicitly into the wharf, and Ikkath could easily have ended up on the wrong side of an argument. That would then imply that Brek had secretly disposed of Ikkath’s body in the ocean, counting on no one else discovering the deed. The four agreed to pursue the matter later, after the night’s events.

afro-cuban_ritual_sacrifice_4As soon as everyone was seated or in place, Ivellios moved to the center of the communion room and raised his hands. To startled gasps, shadows flowed from the corners into his waiting palms. Bending to the floor beneath, he scrawled a precise and complicated symbol, a copy of the five-foot sigil on the floor of his bedroom.

Ivellios: (chanting as he worked) Naberius, Kaberon, Cerbere, Serberius, the grinning hound and guardian of the gates of Hades, I summon thee to this mortal realm! Listen to our pleas, lend us your aid, grant us your knowledge, and manifest yourself before our waiting eyes! Custos portae inferni, te invoco!

As soon as he had drawn the final stroke, a plume of black smoke and fire erupted from its center, and a three-headed hound as large as a bear reared into view.

There were immediate shrieks and exclamations from the onlookers, but Ivellios quickly calmed them with soothing words. (Again, Tacitus noticed the elf’s hands working swiftly as he spoke, no doubt boosting the powers of his diplomacy.) With effort, Ivellios managed to prevent a mass panic, and the villagers reseated themselves nervously before the apparition.

naberiusIvellios: Friends, Veritans, countrymen! Lend me your ears. The terrors that have stalked your village and your lives are of your own making. Your senses of longing, your unwillingness to let go, your blind hunger for satisfaction—all of these have left their mark on the Shadow Realm. A mark that has grown to love the taste of your ancestors and the flesh of your friends!

With Naberius’s aid, a wavering mirage appeared in the smoke issuing from the circle: the townsfolk’s first sight of the sphinx itself. Rather than alarm, the crowd watched it in silent horror and fascination as Ivellios described its origins. A blind, starving faith had created a blind, starving monster–a sad perversion of the believers’ honest intentions. Sadder still, as long as the congregation maintained their current faiths, the monster would grow bolder still, pushing into the physical world to appease its hunger. Worse, any true spirits on the other side could fall victim to the strengthening demigod.

With a wave of his hand, the image of the sphinx vanished, leaving only the smirking Naberius in its place. (Though it had not spoken a word, the ghostly adventurers sensed a very real intelligence behind its glowing eyes. They couldn’t shake the feeling that the giant hound very well understood each word and detail, and that it only held its tongue to let Ivellios finish his craft.)

Ivellios: But all is not lost! Tonight, we shall break the power of the sphinx over our lives, and over the afterlives of those you’ve loved! Tonight, we shall band together as one people, one village, and send our beloved to their final destinations–destinations far beyond the reach of anything that might harm them!

sf-09-origami-boats-and-candlesAnd with the villagers now enveloped in simultaneous emotions of fear, concern, and guilt, here Ivellios revealed the final piece of his plan, the new religion to supplant the old. The Shadow Plane of Hades was not the final destination of departing spirits, and any that found themselves there did so because something held them there. Ivellios suggested it was the villagers’ unwillingness to let go of their loved ones that would keep them trapped.

A sending ritual was all that was required to ensure the eternal safety of the departed. There was no good reason for the villagers to believe anything more.

Together, the congregation spent time building small boats out of any material handy–bamboo, wood, or even paper. Then, each person placed a meaningful item in their boat that signified their beloved. Some put in locks of hair or drawings they’d saved; others, small items the dead used to own. When all were finished, they went outside, where each placed their boats on the ocean water in turn.

As Lucian and Ivellios led the faithful in a new prayer of release, the adventurers played their part. Ikkath used his telekinetic abilities to gently push the boats away from land, and the four guided them like shepherds to sea. With a little luck, the new ceremony would easily supplant the old with its rich but simple imagery.

The spirits continued their duties until they were out of sight at sea, and the burning boats had released their cargo into the depths forever.

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disappearing on the waterIt was not until around half after nine bells that the spirits, waiting on the dark waves, finally saw the three-light signal that all was clear. Returning to the cult’s congregation room, they put into action the final part of their plan, one which only Lucian and Ivellios had been aware of. For the other villagers, it was important for them to believe that the four ghosts had returned to the spirit world, taking with them the wishes and the prayers of the supplicants. However, there was still one very important task to be addressed.

Ivellios had stressed  that the sphinx must be faced on the Shadow Plane as well. His own vestige, powered by the prayers of a single man, had already grown beyond the beliefs placed in it, and it would continue to exist even if Ivellios ceased to believe in it. So too would it be with the sphinx, except the sphinx had feasted on the beliefs of nearly forty people over a two-month period. It would take at least that long for it to dissipate again, assuming it didn’t create new believers by killing again. The actions of Ivellios, Lucian, and the spirits had undoubtedly dealt it a mighty blow by severing the belief systems that empowered it. Now, it was time to finish the task.

The four spirits stood in a circle over the inky portrait in the middle of the floor. They nodded knowingly to each other.

Lucian: I would normally say, “Spirits be with you,” but today I think I’ll simply say, “Good luck.”

And with that, the adventurers jumped into the portrait together, as if they were taking a plunge into a deep, dark well.

They arrived in a Shadow World lit by flame.


Chapter 46: The Final Showdown

seamless fire flames border

A layer of fire covered every surface around the startled party, though they stood unharmed in its midst. The conflagration had destroyed the circle of tiny stone statues. Only three or four steel threads still remained attached to the tether, but all others had frayed and snapped. Even the mechanical eggs had burst in the inferno, and the party could see smoldering remains of what had been inside.

the sphinx

A modified Tendriculos, CR 6, Monster Manual

Directly in the center of this inferno, a familiar monstrosity writhed and screamed in fury. In one fell swoop, it had lost both its source of power and its offspring. Seeing the adventurers appearing near it, it gave a howl of rage and charged.

Deacon-Trilobite_zps09922e6bTacitus managed to enlarge Ikkath the moment before the Sphinx wrapped him in its mighty jaws. The orc screamed in agony as he felt flesh and muscles torn from his body by hooked suckers. At the center of the abomination’s face, the inner mouth gaped open; the thing was preparing to swallow his helpless form! (DM’s note: The sphinx rolled max damage on its attack, knocking the thin orc down to 3 hp in a single attack!)

Realizing that his afterlife could very well be over as soon as it had begun, Ikkath strained mightily against the tentacles. For a terrifying moment, he felt his foot slip down the sphinx’s throat. Then, he burst from the creature’s grasp and fell prone to the stone beneath. (DM’s note: With a +23 on its check, the sphinx is built for grappling. However, a lucky tie at 26 vs. 26 meant that the defender wins!)

As Ikkath fought for his life, his friends pored on the damage. Knowing that the monster was too wrapped up with Ikkath to make attacks of opportunity, Rina dashed close enough to splash it with a ring of fire.

Tacitus too gauged the giant enemy and realized missing with a Scorching Ray was unlikely. A bolt of fire washed slammed into the side of the monster, sending gears and rods flying.

Joriah considered all actions he had seen so far by the sphinx–wanton destruction, violent murder, and incoherent hatred. If there was a better definition of “evil,” he could not think of one.

Joriah:(raising his rapier upwards before striking) With all that is good and just, I smite thee, foul beast!

The elf grinned as he felt his sword connect with extra force. Also heartening was the fact that each attack struck home, smashing flesh or machinery that did not repair itself. Their time spent reinventing the cult had not been wasted.

Unfortunately for Joriah, however, the sphinx next turned its attention to him. Having been unable to swallow the large-sized orc, the eight-legged monstrosity instead snatched the smaller elf in its mighty jaws.

Knowing their friend had neither the strength nor the size of the enlarged Ikkath, the rest of the party did their best to distract the monster. Tacitus again let loose with a bolt of fire; a trickle of blood began running from his nose, the associated costs of magic. Rina, who’d taken time to prepare new soulmelds, screamed a sonic attack against the sphinx’s sensitive ears. Though it was obviously hurt by the sudden noise, it managed to shake off being stunned. (And Ikkath, bloody but eager to get back into the fight, snatched a vial of light blue fluid from the adjacent Tacitus, healing himself enough to stand back on his feet.)

ns2cdev3To their dismay, none of their attacks had forced the sphinx to release its prize. They watched in horror as Joriah slid slowly down the monster’s gulping maw to a grisly fate.

Joriah found himself crushed between digesting fragments of stone statues and remains of villagers torn from the material plane. Fortunately, all was not yet lost. Joriah allowed himself one small smile as he felt the sphinx’s acidic juices attempt to paralyze him; his incarnum defenses made him naturally immune to such things. The sphinx had chosen poorly in trying to digest him, and he let it know with a jab of his rapier.

Outside, the three other heroes piled on the damage to save their friend. Dissatisfied with her previous attacks, Rina drew her adamantine “tin” sword and stabbed it into the metallic underbelly. Ikkath cleaved a piston-driven leg clean from its housing with a swing of his guttering ax. And Tacitus, straining under the effort, threw another burning lance directly into the monster’s face.

The sphinx finally quivered, took several shuddering steps sideways, and collapsed to the flaming stone surface in a heap. The party lost no time in hacking it to bits with their weapons, ensuring its end and freeing their companion from within.

True to his unflappable nature, Joriah stepped out from the stomach with a smile and a flourish.

Joriah: I’m not sure why you were all so worried. It was actually rather cozy in there.

The final nail in the coffin had been driven, and the threat was at an end. And their sortie had not been without its benefits. In the remains of the destroyed eggs, they found a ring granting a supernatural bonus of protection, and a climbing rope that could move and tie itself on its own.

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The four spirits stayed with Ivellios for two more days before they returned to the upper city. Through him, they learned much about the mechanics of the Shadow Plane and its close relationship with religion, or any other strong system of faith. They also were treated twice to the presence of Naberius, who was a surprisingly eloquent-speaker, for a supernatural hound. He loved talking in length on any particular topic, and rather enjoyed riddles; and the group could see where Ivellios picked up his skills of oration.

At one point, Ikkath approached Ivellios concerning the strong likelihood that Brek had murdered him out at sea. His friends had been inventing ways to make Brek admit this, or trap him in a web of his own deceit. Ivellios looked at the orc ghost with a sad countenance as he replied.

walkintothelightIvellios: Ghosts remain in this world, Ikkath, because some unfinished business binds them here and prevents them from moving on. They will remain here until their business is finished. Should it ever be completed, however, that restless spirit will complete their journey to the final afterlife…or, perhaps, simply fade into the mists themselves. No one truly knows what lies beyond Hades.

Sensing Ikkath’s sudden consternation, the wise elf continued.

Ivellios: But, thankfully, you do have a choice. If you wish to remain in this realm–even as merely a shadow of your former self–then perhaps this is one injustice in the world that needs to go unrighted.

Ikkath’s misty face progressed through several distinct emotions before he spoke.

Ikkath: Very well then…Brek can live. For now.

inhalationLucian too made sure to visit in that time, thanking the ghosts profusely for saving the lives of his entire congregation. The new “religion” seemed to be taking hold, and while Lucian seemed saddened that his followers spent less time communing together, he agreed they seemed happier and more content. Freed from their psychic chains, the townsfolk were more eager to deal with the concerns of daily life.

There was, however, one final gift that Ivellios and Lucian, working together, were able to grant to the spirits: the knowledge of possession. Combining what the elf knew of ghostly mechanics, and what the human knew of spiritual infilling, it was not long before each of the ghosts in turn had taken independent control of Lucian’s body. (The secret of possession, it turned out, was targeting not the individual’s lungs, but their nasal passageways, where the barrier to the brain was thinnest.) All parties agreed the experience was unusual—Lucian, because he remembered all his possessed actions as “his own”; and the spirits, for finally moving within a corporeal body again.

When the two days were complete and the spirits ready for what lay ahead, they said their goodbyes. The four of them secretly returned to the upper city, to what new perils awaited there.

Previously (Pt. 9) Home Next (Pt. 11)

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