Two years before, at the siege of Castle d’Argnac, the young artificer’s apprentice Audax Harfleur leads townsfolk away from the growing danger of the invading Thranes, as the Warforged guard Tower watches on. The horns of war sound, and Tower responds, passing a knot of castle-based refugees being ushered to safety by Shifter huntmaster Renard.
Inside the castle, Ashton d’Argnac, the Half-elf son of the Baron, sneaks away from the pomposity of his father as the Baron holds forth, spurring his generals to great deeds in the field of battle and in the defence of the nation of Karrnath. As his armies’ leaders leave to their assigned posts, the Baron looks at the rest of his huddled and frightened family with a grimace. The sounds of war draw nearer…
To the Oasis
It’s the present day. The heat haze of a desert reveals a single-file train of camels led by Renard, tracking a wide array of imprints in the sand. Following on camelback, Ashton surveys the horizons nervously as his governess, Klara d’Deneith, looks on patiently. Audax, on the next camel, is clearly uncomfortable in the environment, and Tower, behind, leads more camels as he sifts fine sand curiously through his fingers.
Four days before, Audax and Tower are in a richly-appointed office in the Deneith compound in Vedykar as the rain pours down outside. Arral d’Jufet, a representative of new Lady Seneschal Tifesa d’Deneith, has brought them there for a renewal of employment for the House. They are happily reunited with Renard, who has assumed that the two were dead after the siege; Renard has been an active agent for the House since the end of the Last War. Just as quickly, they are also brought back together with Ashton and Klara, who have been living in the City of Towers, Sharn, running an independent investigative firm with some small success despite heavy competition by established House firms.
Tifesa joins them shortly, and offers them all employ as a team of troubleshooting House agents, with a project immediately at hand. Lady Ashinana d’Vestang is a recruiter of Halfling mercenaries in the Talenta Plains to the south, but she is also a relatively unknown factor, having been employed herself in a drive sometime toward the chaos of the end of the war. Ashinana is holding a housewarming of sorts – a masquerade ball – at an oasis on the edge of the Blade Desert which is her new home, and Tifesa engages the group on a fact-finding mission to see what they can learn about this mysterious woman. The party accepts the mission and makes plans to travel to the Oasis. Before they leave, Tifesa and Klara – cousins by blood, and old friends – chat together privately, and Audax and Tower, having never left Karrnath, obtain identification papers for their travel.
On the lighting rail south, the rain disappears and the cool, clear night air of the Plains appears above. The group catches themselves up on their activities for the past two years, and discusses how they will approach their mission – Tower prefers a military approach, while Klara urges guile and subtlety. Renard obliviously engages in flirtation with a woman on the bar car and, obviously successful in his seduction, is not seen by the rest until early in the morning.
At the Halfling city of Gatherhold, they are met by the amiable and good-natured Kenec d’Ghallanda, who gets them all onto their own glidewings – flying dinosaurs – to speed them on their way to the Oasis. Kenec makes their four-day trip as easy and enjoyable as possible, and turns out to be good company, confirming House Ghallanda’s reputation for being the perfect hosts.
The Oasis township is usually a small town, but it seems that the invitations far and wide have attracted many from surrounding areas and the township has almost doubled in size, adding a tent city to the western portion of the area. Kenec flies them into a sizeable corral to meet with Delvis Sandstone, a Dwarf from the Mror Holds and personal bodyguard for the Lady d’Vestang. The sudden influx of people and the Lady’s behaviour of late – her exotic animal displays in particular – have put the Dwarf on edge, but he does his best to welcome the House representatives and puts them up in a couple of rooms at the Dancing Tabi, a local inn.
Hajean Qatari, the Lady’s personal assistant with an effusive manner and a bothersome cat, obtains masqued costumes for them, despite Tower’s protestations about the lies that organic lifeforms seem to weave. The Warforged is reluctantly dressed in an angel’s outfit, Renard immediately snaps up the peacock costume, Ashton outfits himself as a royal prince, Klara gets herself into feline attire, and Audax obtains a demonic mask and cloak.
Having learned that Ashinana intends to display a particularly unusual set of creatures this night, Renard decides to learn the true nature of the beasts in the hours before the party starts. He scouts along a gully formed by runoff from an actual oasis on the Lady’s estate grounds, and is set upon by goblins making their way back along the gully in his direction. He is injured and flees the melee, and the goblins escape in the other direction. Seeing no alternative, Renard raises the alert with the estate guards, but they and their commander Delvis are too late to interrogate the suspicious goblinoids and the invaders make good on their escape. In the confusion, Renard makes an attempt to search what he can of the Manor, but can’t get very far.
Evening descends, and the entire township fills the Manor. All sorts of costumes abound, and the party is lively with abandon. Their mystifying hostess has yet to be seen, but the partygoers are largely unconcerned, anticipating a great surprise at the height of the festivities. Exotic animals are already being shown: handlers let birds of paradise fly about, leashed zebra and monkeys provide entertainment for the curious, and caged great cats – including a fearsome krenshar – are on display on the Manor’s patio overlooking the glimmering oasis. Renard immediately ingratiates himself with the handlers, as a fellow animal lover.
Everyone else mingles with the gathered guests in the mezzanined ballroom. Ashton meets a young woman dressed as a beautiful lady, dances with her, then accompanies her to the animal exhibits. Audax meets several personalities – some armchair generals full of bombast, an inebriated couple dressed as a fish and a shark, and a townswoman in a mouse costume whom he dances with. Klara advises Tower on how to socialize, and the construct does his best but is clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation, while the governess tries to learn what she can about the Lady d’Vestang by shrewdly questioning guests.
As the Ball continues, an event in the kitchen goes unseen by the partygoers. A pale woman examines flutes of sparkling wine and dumps several, but is overcome by plain-masked kitchen staff, and she is shoved rudely into the kitchen’s well room and locked in. The wineglasses are then taken out into the ballroom and distributed…
The Lady Ashinana finally makes her grand entrance, dressed resplendently in a shimmering silver cloak and the crown of a queen atop her mask. A curtained cage is wheeled in, and as Tower tries unsuccessfully to question her, she calls for a toast. It seems that her expeditions into the desert recently have uncovered a place called Cynidicea, and she reveals that the creatures in the cage are albino inhabitants of the area. The audacity of the capture delights the invited peerage, but not the common locals. Ashinana is seemingly unmindful of the boldness of her show but inexplicably intent on the reactions of the crowd, and Tower, for a moment, thinks he hears a familiar sound but can’t place it.
The toast is charged and all drink. Then a woman wearing a rust monster mask seems to start, then violently begins to consume the cutlery. Ashton’s companion is overcome soon after, and then proclaims her undying love for him. A man in a fish costume runs into the window next to Renard. Audax, who had wandered off from the ballroom, encounters a dwarf dressed as a bullywug who becomes violent and smashes everything he can get his hands on. Soon, there is pure chaos, as the partygoers all seem to fall under a spell and are living out an extreme likeness of their costumes. All, that is, apart from our protagonists.
To stop people from hurting themselves and others, Tower sees to knocking aggressive patrons unconscious, and does so easily, having trained with the monks of the Path of Light in unarmed combat. Klara and Renard, suspecting that the captured Cynidiceans have cast a mass enchantment over the guests, cover the cage from view, but it has no effect. Audax, in the hallway, struggles in vain with the tough dwarf, attempting to emulate Tower’s stratagem to stop the dwarf from damaging anything.
Now suspecting the wine, Renard makes for the kitchen, and, at the same time as Ashton, spies a partygoer being roughly grappled by a kitchenhand. They run for the kitchen as Klara seeks to unlock the albino slaves’ cage with the help of patrons that she suspects are spellcasters. In the kitchen, they are confronted by the kitchenhand, now armed with a long dirk, and a goblin, similarly so with a wicked morningstar, who both attack immediately. Ashton and Renard are wounded in the exchange, but rally quickly – Ashton parries expertly with his rapier and Renard arms himself with a meat cleaver from the kitchen bench, dispatching the goblin with a blow that cleaves its skull.
As Renard deals brutally with the now retreating chef, Ashton hears a banging on the well room door and frees the captured woman. She asks Ashton what has happened, and is clearly alarmed when she realises that she is too late. She tells Ashton that it is the work of the “cultists of Zargon”, to Ashton’s bewilderment as the chaos continues to rage unabated and more goblins descend to abduct the unwary…