Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)
November 5th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning
The following day, another letter arrives from Uncertain Futures. It seems there is more to divine about the group, and Dame Ambrose is very keen to do so:
I hope this note finds you well, and I thank you again for your visit. I ask also that you not be alarmed by what I have to tell you.
I have seen many futures, many spirits, and walked untold paths. Some have come to pass, many have not. Every beginning is an end, every epilogue a rebirth. Such is the nature of things, and so should it be.
Discomfited by your reading, and those of your friends, I have taken some time to meditate on the images revealed to me. What I have discovered is unnerving to say the least. There is a veil there I cannot pierce, paths which descend into mist and void and pain, and there is a... presence, a terrible presence. I have no name for it, and surely would not utter it even if I knew.
I would ask that you pay me a second visit, and this is most important, in the company of all of your colleagues, at a time of your choosing. I am strongly inclined to perform a second reading of your group as a whole, that the uncertainties I am suffering may resolve into a clearer picture. I feel that this reading may cast into harsh light many of the paths which await me, and far from charging you for this favour, I can offer the sum of 250 gold pieces each for the privilege of re-visiting your futures, paid in advance. That is the extent of my coffer, I'm afraid, and is therefore non-negotiable.
Dame Malificent Ambrose
The party decides to follow up on this invitation as quickly as possible, but find the shop closed when they arrive. Isabelle opens the door to them, and informs them that Dame Ambrose herself ordered the shop shut until their arrival. Whereas last time they were led into the kiln-like basement one at a time, on this occasion they are led down together.
The party is reminded how the shape of the room and the general flow of energies seems to focus on Lord Eleron, the bespectacled observer sitting implacably near the outside of the room. Finial's keen insight detects a degree of trepidation in Dame Ambrose's posture, her finger-tips white with strain upon the table. He enquires after her but she waves his concern away. "It's very kind of you to ask, but it's merely the presence of so many subjects in the room at once..." Her furtive glances towards Lord Eleron, as still as a statue behind his reflective glasses, suggest otherwise.
Dame Underwood retreats to a small cabinet, withdraws a thumb-sized pearl, and hands it to Jonas. "You're giving this to me?" Jonas asks. "I would simply ask that you carry this focus with you for the duration of the ritual," she says, and with a glint in her eye: "I expect it to be returned." (Elumai later identifies it as a Pearl of Tunneled Insight, a ritual focus that can aid the casting of complicated divinations, especially on those who are unaware they're carry it.)
A glimmer appears in the crystal ball and Dame Underwood retreats to her customary seat. Dame Ambrose's eyes shift behind her eyelids, and then several things happen at once.
A door slams upstairs, and the curtains arranged around the periphery of the room waft inwards as if disturbed by an unfelt breeze. As they settle slowly back against the wall, there's a palpable vibration through the floor and table, and brick dust filters down from above.
Malificent's eyes unexpectedly flick wide open. "Well! That's fine then!" she says much too loudly. "I declare this reading complete, you may all leave!" Her skin glistens with sweat, and indeed the atmosphere does seem more oppressive than it had a few minutes ago. Berend tightens his grip on his axe. "I don't think so," he growls, as the table begins to rattle and the crystal ball trembles on its mount.
Malificent stands, her chair clattering to the stone floor, and turns towards her husband. "Eleron! You have to stop this now, this is going too far!" she wails, her voice teetering on the edge of panic. Eleron, his jaw tight, his fists clenched white around the haft of his cane, doesn't answer, and as Finial gets up to see if he's okay, the basement shudders in the wake of a thunderous boom which brings shards of brick and mortar showering down from above. A large crack appears in the ceiling, Isabelle screams from the office upstairs, and the room goes completely dark.
The party moves to a defensive posture. Sections of the wall, neatly sheared into geometric shapes along the mortar lines, begin to push in, as if pressed from the other side. Hoping to break Eleron from his fugue, Elumai conjures a searing globe of light in front of his face, causing (or so it would seem) the hitherto motionless gentleman to rise unsteadily to his feet. He lets go of his cane, which clatters loudly to the floor, and clutches his temples. "No!" he shouts in a voice brought low by fear, "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to pry! How could I have known--? There's no need for this--!" But then, as if in answer, his eyes erupt in eldritch fire, illuminating the whole room in a sickly green; there's a sudden, grotesque popping sound, and he collapses forward, writhing on the slate floor.
Saraiya begins to chant a low prayer to Corellon and Finial moves to help Eleron, but before he gets more than a couple of steps, Eleron gets smoothly to his feet. Behind his glasses, two streaks of burned flesh across his cheeks tell of the awful violence done to him, and when he opens his mouth to speak, it's not his own voice, but that of a woman, which issues forth. It's grim and potent, simultaneously distant and immediate, an expression of power which few in the room have ever felt before.
"I am Vrexima, wardress of the Eighteenth Layer, Lady of the Dark Glass; Matron of the Writhing Womb! These destinies are now mine! Your sensor is rebuked! Your lives are forfeit!"
-- Vrexima, speaking through Eleron, in the basement at Uncertain Futures
Dame Ambrose screams and jams her palms against her ears, while Dame Underwood presses herself against the wall, immobile with terror. Finial, who had braced himself for any funny business from Eleron, unhesitatingly swings his flail into the diviner's face, intent on knocking him out before he can do anything else. Eleron is sent reeling over the back of his chair and slumps unconscious to the floor.
As he does so, there's another resounding crack and a great chunk of the ceiling collapses in pieces to the floor (luckily for Jonas the table doesn't give way under the cascade of bricks). A wave of sudden and unexpected cold rolls out of the dark crack in the ceiling, through which is visible a starless night sky. A long, spindly leg reaches tentatively through, followed by a claw, followed by a devilish face, as a hideous babau drops down onto the table and hisses at everyone in the room. Berend swings at it, but the blow is clumsy and the creature dodges easily aside; it does not, however, anticipate the agile reverse swing which slashes across its thorax and sends it tumbling to the floor. Acid sprays from the wound but rolls ineffectively off Berend's armour.
Eyes narrowing at this unexpected injury, it leaps onto the dwarf, ichor dripping from its claws, and both of them suddenly teleport away, appearing away from the others on the opposite side of the room in a tangle of claws, teeth, and blade. The babau bites down towards Berend's neck, but he deflects the blow with his axe, acid hissing and rolling down the wooden haft towards his gauntlets. As he does so, sizzling energies from Elumai's wand streak past the creature's head and slam into the wall.
Elsewhere, several low sections of basement wall complete their ingress and cave inwards. Two cackling, diminutive humanoids - demonic quasits - clamber through from the other side; one of them leaps onto Dame Underwood, wraps its arms around her and begins heaving her back from whence it came; the other looks around for a second -- exposing itself to a snap-shot from Jonas, which goes wide -- chuckles to itself, and vanishes from sight.
Stripped of his target, the rogue tumbles out from his vantage beneath the table and delivers a telling blow to the babau's flank, spraying steaming acidic blood all over the room. This gives Berend all the opportunity he needs to send the creature reeling on the blade of his axe. Several more assailants drop down from the cracks in the ceiling, slimy rupture demons, plopping down on a wave of steaming gloop which continues to drip into the room. In the wake of these new arrivals, the babau waits for its quasit minion to reappear opposite Berend and then focuses on the dwarf's mind... a smooth voice in his head, confusing and dazing him, taunting him with the possibility of relief if he would but attack his friends... Finial meanwhile smashes his flail against the demon, but the explosion of ice normally accompanying such a blow hisses and evaporates off the creature's leathery hide.
Mavy Underwood's hysterical screams become tinny and distant as she's pulled through one of the low holes in the wall, her flailing hands clutching and grasping at the rough brickwork. Jonas lunges forward, pulling her back through the hole and sliding in, feet first, to take her place. In doing so he gets his first good look at the landscape beyond: an almost featureless plain of dust beneath a steel-grey sky. On the distant horizon he can see a cloud of dust and smoke which he knows, suddenly and instinctively, is the wake of a battle which has raged ten-thousand life-times. Huge winged combatants stride amongst hordes of smaller foes, and the sounds of unfettered carnage drift across the tractless landscape towards him. The demon he has chased laughs cruelly at him, grabs his feet, and starts dragging him into the Abyss.
Elumai chooses offense as the better option, fey stepping across the room and erupting into a cloud of flame, setting many nearby enemies alight. The rupture demons, as expected, explode, splattering demon-goo on their allies and healing their wounds (more oozing demons soon arrive to replace them). Saraiya sends a blessing of good health to the besieged Berend, before carving the brand of Corellon into the unwilling flesh of the nearest quasit. It hisses at her, flickers, and disappears.
Finial, Berend, and Elumai attack all about them in an effort to turn the tide and slowly the third wave of demons is beaten back. Mavey is healed by Saraiya and gets unsteadily to her feet before heading groggily towards the stairs, walking like a drunkard through the ferocious melee and emerging, miraculously, without a scratch.
Meanwhile, in the Abyss... Jonas draws a spray of blood from his foe, a wicked wound which bleeds thick globs of steaming blood onto the dusty ground, and as the creature yelps in agony his next blow sends it reeling across the desert before it collapses, dead, in a puff of dust. Smiling in the knowledge of a job well done, he throws a look over his shoulder at the barren landscape, a look, perhaps, of temptation on his face, before retreating back into the basement, where he finds the attacking hordes have at last been beaten back. Acid runs in rivulets down the walls, and the air is laden with the metallic smell of demon blood.
Eleron is in a bad way. His face is terribly burned, but to Elumai's trained eye it's obvious he is, or was once, a wizard. Berend treats him and brings him round. "Do I live?" he asks. "Is this.. Hell? Malificent! My darling, are you still alive?" Dame Ambrose is still in a faint but Berend assures him that she's unharmed. Eleron gasps his last testament into the cloying air.
"You have to... have to know.. your futures are not uncertain... they are gone! There is nothing there, no paths, no potentials... She has them now...!"
-- Eleron, in the aftermath of the incursion at Uncertain Futures
He gasps in agony, clutching at Berend's arms as black goo wells up in the bloody holes where his eyes used to be. "Find the bard... he brokered this... this transaction..." but with that he breathes his last. Berend looks up at the others, the same questions on his face as those going through everyone's minds: who is this 'Vrexima'? Unfortunately, the name means nothing to them, but Berend frowns as another memory tickles his mind.
"Eleron! What happened to him!" Dame Underwood reaches tentatively out to Eleron but Berend gently pushes her hand away. There is a thoughtful look on his face, and he reminds the others of the minstrel who apparently sung their praises all the way back in Winterhaven, a fellow by the name of Richmond Homily. Could this be the bard Eleron was talking about? It would seem to be the only connection they can make at this point.
Berend is of course keen for all manner of rituals to be cast on Eleron's body, including Raise Dead, but they certainly can't afford the sums of money involved and it will depend on whether Eleron's estate can stump up the cash. Either way, his remains will need to be presented to the proper authorities, and his corpse is gently shrouded and together with Isabelle and an almost catatonic Dame Ambrose, they take leave of the premises. (Jonas, of course, ensures the promised payment is collected before they go, and it seems in all the excitement that Eleron's Glasses of Obfuscation have somehow found their way into Elumai's pockets as well).
Father Layre at Cathedral Solace, the most majestic of all of the city's temples, and center of learning for those rites applying to the deceased, accepts Eleron's body and asks only one question: what fate do the bereaved seek for this corpse? Elumai asks the attendants if anything can be done for Eleron's wife, and they reply that due to Dame Ambrose's status they would be prepared to apply the necessary rituals and seek payment from her after the fact.
The Speak with Dead being requested of Eleron's body is, however, a different matter, usually requiring all kinds of forms and permissions... but at that point a nearby clerk steps forward to inform Father Layre that a representative from the Cloaks has arrived to personally oversee an invocation of the necessary ritual, with the Court itself picking up the cost. Layre frowns at his subordinate but the young man simply nods and shrugs.
"It seems," says the good father, "that news travels faster in Emerandes every day."
A room is set aside and as preparations are made, Jonas takes the opportunity to slope off and sell the Pearl of Tunneled Insight (later, when he shares out the proceeds, he makes no bones about where the money has come from). Saraiya performs the necessary incantations, and Eleron's charred remains shudder into some semblance of life. In this macabre setting, the company asks the questions most on its collective mind.
"Who is the Bard?"
"His name was shown to me... the name of Homily..."
"What was the deal you made with the bard?"
"I have made no such arrangements... The bard has been given insight and power beyond his ken... he has made associations with demons who will take his soul... for power over story... over legend, and life... "
(This is not the first time the company has heard of someone's fate being used against them, as they recall how the potential futures of the patrons at Pargsmeer House were stolen to feed the devil who had long-since taken control of the vile old ruin.)
"How do we reclaim our destinies from the demon?"
"The contract has already been struck... find the one in the middle... find the Broker Inbetween..."
(This name also rings a bell: the "Broker Inbetween" was a power otherwise known as Obery, who took the form of a goliath and held ultimate control over the mercenaries wondering the Underdark. Finial had identified Obery as the name of the old messenger of the Gods, the only power which allowed the deities to communicate with each-other before the Fall.)
At this point Eleron's body sags and exhales a long, final, fetid breath. One of the attendants steps forward and examines the corpse. "I believe your ritual is over," he says, bowing to Saraiya, "but an impressive display nevertheless, madam. The dead do not lightly give up their secrets."
The company retreats to the inn, there to ponder the latest turn their lives have taken...