Five Journeys

Episode 03: Masque of Dreams, Part 3

Prologue

At about an hour after sunrise in the desert, a dry wind blows. A teenaged boy staggers his way to the crest of a tall dune, his red hair bleached blonde by the sunlight. Bleary-eyed from exposure, his white skin blistering in the heat and his lips cracking and peeling from lack of moisture, he squints into the sunlit distance and sees nothing but more dunes in every direction. His costume – that of an impish warrior – once fanciful and neat now hangs in tatters from his bony frame, exposing bruises and cuts. Seeing no end in sight, he nevertheless trudges wearily on the ridge of the dune. He sees something in the distance and starts to rush at it, but doesn’t make it very far before his knees buckle and he collapses.

Above him, a shadow obscure the sun from his fading vision, and a rough hand turns him over onto his back. The face that appears above his is at first frightening – humanoid, but dark, angular and sharp, marked by the ancestry of something monstrous, sporting a fanged mouth and inhuman eyes. The boy reaches his hand up, and for a moment, this, he thinks, is how Death finally comes for him…

Renard pulls the boy’s eyelids back and examines him with a critical eye. As the shifter cradles the boy in his arms, he recognises him as a tavernboy who was in attendance at the ill-fated ball. The boy croaks out something about managing to get away, but Renard speaks soothingly to him and tries to feed him from his waterskin, a little at a time. Renard looks behind him, and the other camels start to come into view – he picks the lad up and takes him back to them, reassuring him that he’s safe now. Audax dismounts quickly to offer aid, and Klara hands him a magical curative potion to heal the boy of his wounds. Ashton starts to put together a makeshift gurney so that the boy can be taken with them. Tower meanwhile looks ahead to the trail that the boy left, leading eastward, toward the rocky cliffs on the horizon which mark the end of the Blade Desert…

The Lost City

Hours later, nearing the end of the desert with the Endworld Mountains in sight, a structure comes into view – a ziggurat of immense size, with three figures atop it, unmoving, perhaps statues. The base of the structure is still unseen, hidden by dunes. Renard scouts ahead of the group, watchful for ambushes, while the rest of the group equip themselves for battle. The light of the sun fades in the west, and several of Eberron’s moons are full enough that the area at the base of the ziggurat remains in good light – as he approaches, Renard sees the tops of tents and trails of smoke over the rise of the dunes, and eventually people, and returns to the group to report. They conceive a plan: when night settles in, Renard and Ashton will stay low and sneak ahead for a closer reconnoitre of the area – using their natural low-light vision – while the others stay with the camels and await word.

A short trip on foot takes the half-elf and the ranger to a high dune near the ziggurat – which now is clearly topped by statues of the three Cynidicean deities – giving them a good vantage over the encampment. They hear the whimpering and moaning captives from the party, and see that they are all individually bound with rope and kneeling in a group. A raven-haired Cynidicean woman in golden armour – clearly leading the goblinoids – appearing to examine each one with an appraising eye and ungentle hands over their physiques. This woman occasionally chooses one of the captives, who is then picked up bodily and separated from the main group.

Renard takes action and sneaks down to the camp, using the darkness as cover and making for the tents on the western side. He finds equipment and bedding fit for the goblinoid guards in two of the tents, then sneaks back unseen to report the whole situation to the entire group. Klara thinks that the captives are being prepped for sacrifice somewhere within the ziggurat, so time may be of the essence. They agree on a two-pronged strategy – Renard will circle around to the east and distract the goblinoids with ranged attacks, and the rest of the group engage the enemy hand-to-hand from the west. The shifter’s outdoor skills allow him to sneak around the camp in a wide circle, and the others use the cover of the tents to hide themselves from the captors.

“Monsters! Kidnappers! Give them back!” shouts Renard and an arrow arcs over from the east, piercing the skull of a goblin and killing it with a single blow. As some of the remaining goblins arm up with javelins and rush off to investigate this attack, Renard fires again, missing any enemies but hitting the bonfire in the centre of the camp, sending up a shower of sparks. The armoured woman orders some of her cohort to not charge off, although Renard continues to shout taunts from a distance while Klara takes the lead and keeps a hold of the rest of the adventurers, waiting for an opening. A bugbear leads the goblin charge toward Renard, but the shifter targets it with his bow, wounding the large goblinoid – not felled by the blow, the bugbear continues to lead the chase, and the armoured woman starts shouting orders to them in the Goblin language.

Sensing an opening, as well as perhaps fearing that the orders given by the woman might be for the goblins to return, Klara gives the group a quiet word to begin their foray when ready. As Klara and Ashton sneak into a tent, Tower takes the vanguard and rushes in to attack one of the woman’s human guards – at the last second the man senses the warforged’s charge, shifts his weight and manages to slash at the construct, but this is still not enough defense to stop the monk, and Tower’s jumping side-kick propels the guard into the bonfire behind him. At the same time, Audax pulls a magical scroll from a tube hanging from his belt and reads aloud the words of power printed upon it, extending his hand in the direction of a knot of goblinoids – an enchantment bursts over them in a wave of fatigue, and one of them collapses asleep.

While the goblins chasing Renard continue to run after him and weather the arrowfire that the ranger is aiming at them, Tower’s melee opponent manages to extricate himself from the flames and rolls on the sand in an attempt to smother the burning clothes and equipment he is carrying, also rolling out of the way of Tower’s attempts to incapacitate him. The woman leading the captors then pulls a holy symbol from beneath her breastplate and begins incanting – as she does so, Ashton, Klara, and Tower hear a ringing sound, distinctly in their heads and not through their ears, and as this happens, the priestess squints her eyes, tenses her muscles, and appears to lose concentration, ruining her spellcasting; Audax recognises the telltale effects of a dazing enchantment, designed to cloud the mind of its target, but cannot determine where the effect has originated from – at the same time, Klara draws upon her own thaumaturgic training and casts a similar arcane effect on the bugbear, who stops mid-run and cannot act.

Audax and Delvis also charge forward together – the young artificer drawing his smithing hammer and felling a goblin with one blow, and the dwarf doing the same with a heavy battle flail. The charge brings the two close to where Tower is, and within hand-to-hand distance of his opponent – the burning man does not see the artificer close by, and as he attempts to get on his feet, Audax lands him a blow from behind, slamming the guard down and putting him out of the fight. A goblin takes his place, and Audax raises his shield in time to defend himself from attack.

The presence of so many of the partygoers as prisoners makes the combat difficult and confusing, as well as dangerous for these innocents, not only for the heroes trying to save them. Above the confusion, Tower hears the ringing sound and recognises it – it’s a sound that he has heard before in the presence of his kalashtar masters – the sound of a psionic power being used. The priestess shrugs this clouding telepathic effect off this time however, and aims a magical wave of fear at Audax – who sees a mental image of an intimidating figure from his past – but the young man steels his will and resists it. While the artificer is so distracted, Delvis’ flail lays low the goblin attacking Audax, as Tower trades blows with another – this goblin however swings an overhead blow connecting sharply with Tower’s head, rendering the construct temporarily inert. Ashton provides bowfire from under cover of the tent, but a goblin rushes at him and strikes him a strong blow, staggering him.

Despite this bad turn of events, Klara’s voice rings out over the fight, shouting encouraging words and bolstering their morale. Audax, angry at having his mind so violated, rushes to engage the priestess in single combat, who speedily raises her heavy mace in defense. Delvis meantime leaps at another goblin and floors it with a mighty blow from his flail, but before the dwarf can move any further, the bugbear runs at him with his morningstar and the two vicious combatants become locked in a mortal struggle.

Renard, having led off all of the goblins chasing him, returns to the camp and manages to let loose an arrow at the priestess from a distance, which slips under a chink in her armour and wounds her. In a fury, the woman lashes out at Audax, pummeling him to the ground. The pursuing goblins return to within range of the fire at the same time that Klara ministers a curative potion to Ashton which closes some of his wounds; he quickly recovers and just as the priestess casts a spell and reaches for the unconscious Audax with a dark energy surrounding her hands, the half-elf shoots an arrow into her, causing her to lose concentration on the fell necromancy she was casting. The Cynidicean chooses this moment to trade negative energy for positive and heals some of her own wounds, but more arrows from Ashton and Renard push her further toward the brink of defeat, and she finally falls – at the hand of Klara, who calmly crosses the distance and stabs her with a short sword.

Ashton seizes the moment, drops his bow and draws his rapier, and charges at the bugbear – the blade pierces the goblinoid’s calf, partially crippling it. Delvis uses this opportunity to execute a move of his own, bringing his flail in a frightening arc which connects sharply with the bugbear’s jaw, breaking it with a loud crack and bringing the beast to its knees. The bugbear, spitting blood and realising that their side has lost the battle, drops his morningstar and raises his hands in surrender. “Fight’s over, boys,” Renard says, raising his bow at the remaining goblins, who capitulate and disarm themselves as well.

The Return

Klara ministers a healing potion to Audax which restores him to consciousness, and in turn the boy works artificer magic to restore Tower to functionality. Renard tends to the priestess, administering first aid and reviving her from the brink of death so that she can answer for her crimes, then sees to tying up the captured goblins while the captive partygoers are released from their bondage. Ashton interrogates the bugbear, and through the goblinoid’s slurred speech finds out that their leader is a priestess of the dread god Zargon.

Klara locates Ashinana within the group of prisoners and unties her bonds, then chides the lady for attracting the ire of her captors by enslaving the Cynidiceans in the first place. Ashinana seems repentant in realising her error. When Audax questions her on where she found the Cynidiceans, but before she can provide an answer, Klara shoos Audax away, and the boy leaves hurt but still suspicious of Ashinana. Klara enlists the aid of Renard in questioning Ashinana and allows Audax to listen in on the proviso that Audax asks no questions of his own as Ashinana may think highly of her own actions as a result. Renard takes a softer approach with the lady, asking first about what the cultists had planned, theorising that the Zargonites must have had this in mind all along if they took pains to trek three days across the desert to capture attendees of the party. Audax eventually gets out of Ashinana that she was off hunting for exotic fauna to display at her party and came across these people as notable oddities to show off. Renard asks Ashinana has any enemies, and she tells them that she doesn’t – and she does not seem to be lying. Klara then begins to become suspicious of Ashinana as she does not seem to have much of a conscience for what amounts to slavery, and is keen to have the lady ejected from the House, but Tower deduces that Ashinana is kalashtar and defends her, putting forward that they are of two worlds and do not think the way that natives of Eberron would – unless she were of the Inspired, in which case she would be much more of a danger.

The heroes set about re-organising the remnants of the cult camp to accommodate the former captives – clearing space, burning the dead (and looting the enemies), seeing to the injured and ailing, giving food to those in need, gathering material enough to try to make comfortable bedding, and recruiting the hardier folk to keep watch over the camp for the night. Renard then scouts around the outskirts of the camp while Audax and Klara rein in some of the camels to assist with transport. Ashton searches the captors’ tents, and under Ilsinan’s guidance the Zargonite priestess is divested of her arms, armour and profane accoutrements, while Audax examines them closely for magical enhancements. Klara examines the Zargonite’s holy symbol, and determines that it resembles that of a Cult of the Dragon Below. Ilsinan also warns that there are more cultists yet at large in the area, but Audax advises that the evil demon-worshipper be taken back to more civilised lands to answer for her crimes. Ilsinan then states her decision to stay within range of the mountains to assist her own people.

In the morning, the heroes govern getting the caravan set up. Ashton takes the opportunity to climb to the top of the ziggurat to examine the statues up close. Klara joins him, and explains that these gods may be aspects of the deities of the Sovereign Host that they already know so well. After a period of silence, Klara suggests that they should be on their way.

“Of course,” replies Ashton. “I was just thinking… I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something here that we haven’t yet uncovered.”

“Should we be uncovering anything?” Klara asks.

“It’s our task,” Ashton asserts.

“I thought our task was to find out about Ashinana,” Klara says, looking questioningly at the ziggurat.

“That’s what I mean,” Ashton replies. “She seems to be innocent enough in this affair, but I’m not sure.”

Klara then suggests that they make themselves house guests at Ashinana’s lodge for a little while longer, claiming that they have justification enough considering the effort they went to in order to conduct the rescue, to which Ashton agrees. They also decide that the surviving Zargonites are to be tied to each other and marched back west across the desert.

Three days later, the long caravan arrives back at the estate…

TBC

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Episode 02: Masque of Dreams, Part 2

Prologue

The pale woman from the end of the last episode appears from the darkness and only dimly lit by a nearby flame, telling the story of the ancient Kingdom of Cynidicea and its fall from grace with the discovery of the evil creature known as Zargon. It seems that Cynidicea’s leaders fed people to the creature and a cult grew up around Zargon’s worship due to fear and awe, and the Kingdom – which was once peaceful and booming – started to rot from within with decadence. Lizardfolk from the mountains nearby sacked the Kingdom and its survivors fled to caverns beneath the civilisation while the desert claimed the ruins above. With the cultists well in control of those who remained, they exerted further dominance over them by poisoning the water supply with a sedative called the Elixir of Fantasy. Only a secretive movement of followers of the old gods remained free of the Zargonite tyranny, and two paragons of the rebellion led their people, overthrowing the cult’s rule, but the surviving Zargonite cultists rallied, waging a campaign of violence called The Time of Rage against the old gods’ followers, who fled the city after the onslaught. Zargon’s clerics were then left with the onerous task of sating Zargon’s appetite, and they travelled far and wide to claim victims…

Nightmares at the Ball

In the ballroom, despite all partygoers seemingly under the ill effects of a mass enchantment which forces them to act out the experience of their costumed aliases, one thing is certain: there are also goblinoid invaders who are not so ensorcelled and mean to at least kidnap the unfortunate guests – if not also mean them outright harm. Tower, in the process of tucking unconscious guests safely under tables for their own good, sees the goblinoid captors and engages them in combat. Amidst the confusion, Klara tries to free the Cynidicean slaves from their cage. She enlists the aid of a partygoer who is dressed as a wizard, but his evocations on the cage door have no effect. She abandons the effort, and using her dabbler-level training in the arcane arts, manages to distract one of the goblins with a spell while she hides herself in the roiling crowd.

At the same time, in the kitchen, the pale woman – who calls herself Ilsinan – despairs to Ashton and Renard that she is too late and that the party guests have been poisoned and will no doubt be captured, also explaining that the effects of the drug will last a few hours at least. The three of them quickly decide to try to rescue as many guests as possible by ambushing the invaders one by one, and Ilsinan arms herself with a morningstar from one of the fallen goblins. They cross into the east hallway next to the kitchen, encountering hostile invaders almost immediately and entering into melee.

In the south hallway, Audax struggles to subdue the dwarf, and manages to knock him unconscious. He spots a polearm-wielding guard who is dressed like a statue standing further along, and Audax arms himself with the guard’s longsword and dagger, who doesn’t make a move to stop him. He opens the doors to the ballroom, desperately seeking his comrades. He doesn’t spot Klara, who busies herself by acquiring a curtain rod to lock off the doors into which the invaders are attempting to enter, but has to defend herself with it against attacking goblins.

Tower holds his own against many foes and drops quite a few invaders using his considerable martial skills. During the fight, outside on the patio he spots an armchair general who opens a cage holding a krenshar, which immediately escapes and attempts to gut the hapless unfortunate. Audax sees this and rushes to rescue the poor old man, but is stopped short physically by Klara, who strongly grapples Audax before he can commit to dangerously sacrificing himself. They block the doors off before any more goblins can make their way in by pushing the curtain rod through the door handles.

Ashton, Renard and Ilsinan combat the goblins in the east hallway, and during the struggle, Renard is clubbed viciously across the side of the face by a goblin morningstar and he strives to defend himself under the onslaught of enemies. The pale woman steps up and intercedes, protecting Renard from further harm. Together they manage to defeat the small pocket of attackers, and Ilsinan then unexpectedly calls on divine power to heal Renard of some of his wounds.

In the meantime, the partygoers are overturning tables, swinging from chandeliers, breaking windows and doors, and spilling out from the ballroom in the hallway in a seething mass of bodies. A group of effected guests start a mock crusade against any of the other guests that they deem ungodly, and another few mount a hunting party, throwing random missiles at other guests who are dressed as wild animals. Audax and Tower manage to clear the room of goblins, and Audax then attends to the captured Cynidiceans, endeavouring to open their cage by smashing at the lock with a goblin morningstar. At the same time Ashton, Renard and Ilsinan enter the ballroom and spot a number of Zargonite cultists capturing the drugged and oblivious Ashinana. Ashton follows the Zargonites as discreetly as he can by acting like one of the crazed partygoers, and as the goblins and their nefarious allies escort the hostess out of the front gates of the compound, a crossbow bolt whizzes out of the front stables and kills an unfortunate guest standing next to Ashton.

Tower then charges up the mezzanine level of the ballroom, opens the doors to the balcony outside and then leaps heroically onto the back of the wild krenshar, wounding it. Tower then rolls off badly but comes up into a ready stance, facing off against the great cat. The krenshar then peels back the skin on its own face and lets out a keening howl – Tower feels a wave of unnatural fear creep into his mind, but his discipline and mental training allow him to shrug the effect off. This is followed up by a savage physical attack as the krenshar leaps onto the warforged and shreds at him with claws and teeth – Tower comes close to being rendered inert by the onslaught but rolls with the blows, and lashes out with both fists against the animal, crushing its skull.

Renard joins Ashton at the standoff near the stable as they hear a dwarven-accented voice yelling as if he were in wartime and under heavy fire. Renard recognises the voice as that of Delvis, Ashinana’s head of security, who is apparently – as a result of the Elixir of Fantasy – having a flashback to his days in the Last War. Experienced with the shellshocked, Renard plays into the delusion and pretends to be a part of Delvis’ “reinforcements”, and finds that Delvis is protecting his two “wounded comrades”: an overturned bucket and a barrel of apples. Renard successfully fools Delvis into thinking that he has magically healed them, and the dwarf – satisfied that his “friends” are safe – gives charge to the goblins. Klara intercepts Delvis and she manages to convince him – even in his unhinged state – to assist her in rounding up the escaping guests and keep them indoors, separating the more dangerously psychotic guests from the others and locking them in the estate’s guest rooms. Tower assists with the more dangerous guests – taking on the group of “crusaders” by himself – but is overwhelmed by them.

Ashton in the meantime shadows the retreating invaders, and spots them being accompanied by at least one bugbear; the captured guests are then rounded up into a camel train and are being lead into the desert. Returning to the ballroom to report to his comrades, Ashton confronts the leader of the crusaders and manages to convince him that he is the leader’s princely leader and orders him to stand down. Audax then uses his artificer magics to repair Tower, bringing him back to working order.

By midnight, the group manages eventually to get the chaos in the ballroom under control, the invitees’ magically-induced psychoses wearing off after a few hours as Ilsinan promised. The heroes comfort those in shock, and bind the wounds of those who were injured. They take stock using a master list of guests, and realise that Ashinana herself is among the missing. As they try to figure out why the guests were captured by the Zargonites, Ilsinan tells the story of the Cynidiceans…

Into The Wastes

The group commits to rescuing the captives immediately. They gather their equipment and form a posse to venture into the desert. Delvis and Ilsinan agree to accompany the Deneith representatives – the dwarf feels that he has failed the Marchioness and will rescue her or die in the attempt, and the pale woman knows the three-day trek to Cynidicea too well to merely stay behind with her enslaved people.

Renard examines the tracks of the camel train from the courtyard, and the group mounts up on their own camels to follow. The long day before wearies the group as they ride through the night, and the morning desert sun beats down relentlessly upon them, making the expedition an exercise in endurance even before the first day into the dunes is over.

In the middle of the day, they reach a hollow in between in a few rocky bluffs. Ilsinan rides forward on her camel, catching up with Renard, who is leading the train. She warns the shifter of this area – apparently it is a dragon graveyard, and legend has it that the place is haunted. Renard tracks the trail through the area, so decides that there is no choice about avoiding it by skirting around. Moving into the defile, the wind picks up, and Klara spots something in a crevasse that initially looks like a dinosaur skeleton, but ridges upon its skull belie its draconic origins.

Before long, they hear a mysterious whisper on the wind, asking the group who they are. The heroes explain their situation – that they are servants of House Deneith, tracking a group of captured innocents across the desert – and they realise that the voice is coming from the dead dragon’s skull. The voice reveals to our heroes that many travellers came through the gorge moving east, but the voice also stipulates that our heroes’ passage through will not be allowed through its “domain” unless they can solve its riddle.

A storm without water,
And earth without land,
I drown the unwary,
Tell me what I am.

The group confers, and settles on the answer “sand” – logically thinking that a sandstorm and quicksand can both drown the unwary. The voice answers, asking them to approach. Tower does so, and the voice asks Tower why he cares so much for these people. The warforged answers that it is his solemn duty; the voice tells him that they have failed the riddle, and asks why it should let them leave his domain. Tower offers a tribute of a hundred gold crowns to the dragon, which the voice accepts. The voice ceases and they never hear it again – they then assume that the spirit has been satisfied and leave.

Hours later, still on the trail, they hear the flap of leathery wings in the distance. They look toward the sound and see a horrific sight – from behind a pile of dry rock, a red skull borne on two sets of demonic wings, its eyes and mouth burning with green flame, is speeding toward them. Tower is ever alert, and before anyone can react, cocks his crossbow and fires – the bolt pierces it between the eyes and it drops dead to the sand. Audax identifies it as a vargouille – an evil entity with a paralysing voice and a deadly kiss, spawned from infernal planes of existence. Tower sets fire to the corpse, and asks Ilsinan if this thing is a harbinger of Zargon – she has not seen its like.

The day passes uneventfully, and the next day dawns, the same unrelenting heat wears at the travellers. It’s not far into the morning when they discover a body – a partygoer, specifically the mouse-masked woman that Audax danced with at the party, who seems to have died from exposure to the elements and left behind. Ilsinan gives the woman last rites in her own tongue and to her deity Madarua as they bury the unfortunate, and it is then that Audax notices that Ilsinan wields her reclaimed halberd with some familiarity – and since that weapon is favoured of Dol Arrah, the god that Audax reveres, the young artificer then realises that while Ilsinan’s deity may go by a different name, they may have very similar origins, lost to time.

Death’s Oasis

Nearing the end of the second day, the heroes come across what initially appears to be an oasis, but the trees and plants here are dry and lifeless, and where there should be a stand of water rests a dustbowl instead. As the party reaches the area, the dessicated foliage parts and something which looks like a dried-out zombie with a distended stomach lurches its way toward them. With each step closer, its very presence seems to steal moisture from the air, and an unnatural dryness creeps toward the group.

Ever at the ready, Tower immediately sees it as a threat and charges toward it, swinging a backfist at its head which connects sharply – but the creature does not appear overly hurt by the blow. With an empty moan, the thing quickly reaches out menacingly to Tower in return, but the warforged deftly dodges and counters with another devastating blow from his fists. Delvis and Ashton heft their bows and both manage to hit the creature with missiles, but seemingly with only little effect.

The thing returns Tower’s blows and slams the warforged, as Audax dismounts and charges into the fray, shouting for Ilsinan to use her divine powers to banish the obviously undead monster – she does so, clutching her holy symbol, and while she successfully channels positive energy from her god, the thing is not cowed by it. Klara and Renard follow up with missiles of their own, which go wide as they struggle to get a clear shot around Tower.

Tower, still trading blows with it and dodging its touch in return, then manages to drive a powerful fist straight through the creature’s breastbone. In an instant, the preternatural dry aura surrounding the oasis dissipates as if disspelled, but the bone-dry plants and dust remain. The heroes continue on, still vigilant for more dangers yet unseen in this inhospitable landscape.

Epilogue

That night, miles ahead of the group, a full moon lights the sky above a fire raging in a pit at the base of of a mighty and ancient ziggurat, the base of which is enshrouded by whirling sand. At the edge of the fire, a woman in flowing robes and an armoured breastplate stands, her head covered with a helmet adorned with the visage of a seven-horned demon. A low chant is heard around her as she watches westward, and a baleful gleam of anticipation lingers in her gaze. “They will come soon,” she whispers to herself, “and Zargon will feed…”

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Episode 01: Masque of Dreams, Part 1

Prologue

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.

Ashinana’s Oasis

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.

The Ball

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…

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