Roster (Party Level 5th)
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Ranger
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord
Orontor leads the company to the teleportation circle and utters the command word -- "Cantratos!" -- without any attempt to disguise it (experts in the party conclude this is most likely a name, rather than an invocation). There is a sickening lurch as reality contracts around them -- especially disorienting to the eladrin in the group, and a very different trip to their familiar jaunts through the Feywild -- before they find themselves in the audience chamber.
It is a stone room, perfectly circular, with a door to one side and a series of round porthole-like windows around the edge (although what they look out onto is impossible to see, as they are sealed with metal shutters which are magically locked). Orontor looks unexpectedly confused, and admits he has never been here before, but suggests that the party waits patiently nonetheless. After a few minutes, a melodic chime sounds out, footsteps are heard on the other side of the door, and it swings silently open revealing a short corridor, and another, similar room opposite this one. Orontor, whispering into Xavier's ear, identifies the three men that stand there.
Two are side-by-side, and a third is at their back. One is a tall, stocky youth with hair cut around his head in a bowl, a pinched face, brown leather britches, and a red poncho draped over his chest. Orontor identifies this mage as Passeract, no small amount of dislike in his voice. The other is a taller, thinner man with a twitchy, squinting demeanour, and is dressed similarly; this mage Orontor introduces as Emerjis.
Behind them is Paldemar himself. He is nondescript of face, sporting a mop of stringy black hair, shot through with grey, and a large moustache of similar hue. A silver-clasped cloak is draped over one shoulder, although there is, unusually, not one ounce of gold or silver anywhere else to be seen on him, while the rest of his body, aside from tall black boots, appears to be clad in ribbons of multicoloured cloth and silk, bound about his midsection like a mummy's wrappings. His eyes alight on each of his visitors with an air of supreme dominion.
Passeract introduces "The most gracious Lord Paldemar", steps aside to allow the Lord of the Mages of Saruun to take a seat, and invites questions, but quickly, so that his "most esteemed and valuable time" is interrupted no longer than necessary. The party asks about the Court of Cloaks, flurock, and the Bloodreavers, but gets short shrift from the mage, who seems more distracted by the quality of his manicure than in anything the company might have to say.
He admits to having imported "a few kilo's" of the strange material known as flurock, and even examines the sample they have brought with them... whereupon, in his grasp, the rock begins to malform and elongate like clay. This draws gasps of surprise from the party but, when questioned, he simply explains that it is "one of the many properties of an otherwise uninteresting substance", and returns it to them.
On the subject of the Bloodreavers, he tells the party that he knows of their escapades, and asks Orontor directly if their excursion to the Chamber of Eyes was done at his behest, to which the mage, now even paler than usual, is forced to admit that it was. Paldemar shows neither anger nor approval at this, causing Orontor to fidget even more nervously than before.
Xavier tries hard to press home the issue of the kidnapped Kingsblade, attempting to convince the mage that is in all their interests that the slaves are found and rescued quickly, before word spreads to the King, and that a certain... package which is the property of the Court of Cloaks is also recovered before the Court comes looking for it Themselves.
"A fine institution, but of no interest here. They hold no dominion in the Labyrinth. If they have a presence in the Hall, I suffer it by virtue of not caring." -- Paldemar on the Court of Cloaks.
Neither the Court of Swords nor the Court of Cloaks appears to concern him much, that is until the party begins insinuating that they have contacts in the Court, and it may actually be in their interest, if not Paldemar's, to draw some attention to the Seven-Pillared Hall. The atmosphere turns a chilly at this point, with Passeract enraged that they should threaten Lord Paldemaar in this way, but the leader of the Mages, despite all claims to the contrary, eventually seems inclined to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the Courts of the King, and intimates that he is receptive to an agreement.
The company's proposal is simple: help them gain entrance to the Horned Hold, and do not warn the duergar that they are coming. Paldemar agrees, and instantaneously, information on how to reach the Hold resolves itself in all of the company's minds as if it had always been there. This small concession markes the end of the meeting, however. Ordering Orontor to stay behind to "have a little talk", Paldemar, his entourage (daggers of contempt firing from their eyes), and the terrified mage all depart.
(Orontor returns a short time later, and to their surprise appears renewed. Gone are the dirty, hand-me-down robes he was dressed in before, replaced with a resplendent set of clothes adorned in fine jewelry. Delighted, he tells them that Paldemar not only thanked him for dealing with the Bloodreavers, who, it turns out, have been a thorn in the mage's side ever since he gave them residence in the Hall, but also promoted him to the inner circle of the mages! "No more holding that great oaf's leash," he says in reference to the ogre Brugg, "now I get treated as an equal!")
Talk turns to their next step, but the conversation suddenly turns prickly, as Jonas reveals what he saw of Xavier's visit to the duergar, and the issues which have plagued the two of them since the dragonborn joined the party are finally given voice. The discussion is terse but fruitful. Elumai also opines that trust has been difficult to give to Xavier, given his authoritarian tone (and revealing a little of her noble background in the process), while Berend (claiming a title himself - "Heir to the chieftainship of the Moddison Branch of the Hrafnkells") is, as usual, phlegmatic about the whole thing. The discussion comes to a cordial end, but a feeling of unresolved tension still lingers somewhwat over the proceedings.
Using the teleportation command to return to the Hall, they examine their options. The mental instructions transmitted to them from Paldemar suggest two approaches. First, they can use what is essentially the front gate, but since they know the Hold is in effect a duergar fortress and likely to be stuffed with dwarves intent on killing or capturing them, this is not an attractive option. Second, and more interestingly, there is apparently a hidden entrance accessed by traversing the abandoned cistern beneath the Seven-Pillared Hall. This old and disused facility is, by repute, haunted by memories of its ancient past, but this serves more as an enticement than anything else, and they decide to make use of it.
Jonas scouts the entrance -- a grating into which the river running through the Hall plunges at its north end -- and declares it cold and wet, but serviceable, and the company drops into a frigid pool below. Following the mental map in their head, they delve into a broad, half-submerged pipe, which ultimately culminates in a collapsed dead end. However, built into the floor is a valve of sorts, leading into a slimmer underwater pipe, which Berend, being the smallest member of the party, volunteers to investigate.
He emerges into a large inner chamber, but before he can investigate further, is hauled back by the rest of the company. His hair and beard are covered in tiny white pods like seeds or sports, and within a few minutes, he starts to feel ill. Upon inspection by the rest of the party, he is found to have contracted Delver's Cap, a fungal disease known to thrive in stagnant water. This news does not put a smile on his face... however, he points out that if anyone had to be the first to catch it, better it was a dwarf.
Navigating the confines of the access pipe, the party emerges into a square, vault-like room supported by four pillars that arch up into the ceiling and about a hundred foot or more to a side. About three feet of stagnant water covers the floor. In the center of the room, a shallow circular bowl of stone appears brightly illuminated, and upon closer inspection, appears filled with a strange, glowing plant. Above, a recess in the ceiling contains long, dangling fronds, all glowing with the same phosphorescent light, and the party wisely decides to circumvent this obvious trap.
Jonas uses his exceptional climbing skill to traverse the walls and ceiling, but suddenly finds himself under attack from a dark corner. Arrows whistle ineffectually past him in the dark, clanging off the walls and sploshing into the water, riding on a wave of verbal abuse from someone as yet out of sight:
"Villains! Green-skinned pirates! You'll not assail this kingdom, my life upon it!"
"Foul demons! You see my strength of arms! You'll find no revenge here! Retreat, or welcome Luhnarstes' wrath!" -- Luhnarstes at the approach of the party.
Guided by magical light provided by his friends, Jonas closes in on the voice and finds an island of refuse built of wood, cloth, wire, and seemingly anything else that might have been washed into the cistern, built into one corner of the vault. Crouching behind a makeshift rampart, he spots what looks like a tiefling, although the man's horns have been filed or snapped off just behind the ear. Dressed in rags, thin of form and with leathery tan skin, the man's crazed albino eyes look out from under a makeshift crown fashioned of crooked forks and spoons, and he exhorts Jonas with promises of pain and damnation if he comes any closer. Eventually, the tiefling stands, launches a poorly-aimed spear which splashes into the water over Jonas's shoulder, and retreats to a corner, cowering in fear.
The party approaches, but the derelict, who calls himself Luhnarstes, seems inconsolable, muttering variously about green-skinned devils, the rise of the pale moon, the fact that "he is not worthy of revenge!" and other nonsense which makes very little sense. Slowly, gradually, with the combined skills of the party brought to bear, he at least calms somewhat, and although questions about his own situation and how he came to be down here result only in frantic gibberish, they're able to ask him for help on the matter of the cistern itself.
In fact, with the proper persuasion, he is able to scrawl a map for them, showing nine vaults in a 3x3 pattern, interconnected by a network of pipes and tunnels, some of which have collapsed. The "green-scaled pirates" that occupy so much of his banter appear to reside near the center of the complex, but he also warns the company of the "horned ones, who will make you but players in their devilish game!"
Thus armed, the party clears away the flotsam accumulated by Luhnarstes over the exit tunnel, and pushes on into the darkness...