An Empress Betrayed, Episode 4

The four council members stood speechless at Delsior’s verbal lashing. Valcora stepped forward, her jaw set, her gaze scanning each councilor menacingly. “One of you turned the Empress to stone, and when I find out which of you is guilty, I will avenge her!” she promised, thumping her fist loudly on her breastplate. The council members took a step back in unison. The heroes turned to leave the throne room, and when they were out of earshot, Afton turned to the others. “If someone wants the Empress dead, perhaps an ally of the throne petrified her, to keep her safe…”

Last week, we left the PCs in the Abandoned Temple of Melora. After freeing the Ambassador Cedric, the party decides to travel directly to Sarpadia, without stopping for any reason. However, curious graffiti covers the walls of this ruined temple, and the party passes a simple group Diplomacy check to convince the Ambassador that 5 minutes of investigation won’t delay their journey significantly. So the heroes spread out, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

The roof is partially collapsed. The bell in the tower is fallen and smashed. A family of raccoons has made a nest under a bench. The Knight Valcora searches and finds nothing. “Are you guys ready to leave yet?” Afton finds that the altar has been defaced with the words “Melora has left us” and a date pointing back about 13 years. Delsior wipes the moss away from a brass plate, reading “All ye who find rest on these grounds, be ye alive or dead, are under the protection of Her Grace Melora.” A successful religion check reveals that this sign refers to the standard ‘sanctified ground’ ritual, which grants several benefits to all creatures inside the temple ground’s borders: 1) +1 to all defenses 2) +1 to all attacks vs undead 3) healing spells automatically have maximum effect 4) all Priests of Melora’s spells function as if 3 Levels higher 5) all corpses are immune to black magic, shadow magic, necromancy, evil, possession, animation, and domination.

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Finally, the hero’s search has come to an end, and they head for the door. But not before (cue music:)

DUNT DUNT DAAAAAAN!

A figure in a hawk-feathered mask appears, blocking the exit from the Temple. “You meddling kids know too much!” Scooby and Shaggy tremble, hug each other, and say ‘Zoinks!’. Whoops, wrong story. Where was I? Ah, yes. Pointing at the DragonBorn Cavalier, he beckons. “Come with me, Knight of the Empire, for you will prove useful in defending the Empire.”

The knight is taken aback. Her voice strong, she answers in a very Lawful Good tone: “I serve the Empire. In fact, I am on a mission for the Empress herself. And I will defend my friends.”

The figure sighs. “So be it. It is unfortunate that a Knight with your talents will not serve me. But, you leave me no choice. You must die with the others.” And with that, dear Reader, the DM calls for an initiative roll.

Sometimes, in Old School D&D, the DM made the characters roll initiative NOT to start a battle, but instead to see if any of them can react before the NPC or villain. And that is exactly what is happening here. The DM has an action in mind for the figure in the hawk-feathered mask, but he gives the PCs the chance to have one action first, whatever that might be. However, none of them beat the whopping 23 that the villain rolled.

The party stands Flat-Footed as the figure in the hawk-feathered mask kicks over a lit lantern on a stand, spilling the oil and immidiately starting the building ablaze. The flames spread like wildfire through the rotting building, its beams lighting up like a tinderbox. The figure steps behind the smoke and flames and disappears from sight…

Their only doorway blocked by flames, smoke, and crashing timbers, the party quickly looks for alternate exits. The windows are all too small for people to crawl through. The party finds one single door covered with vines. Valcora gets a running start and bursts through it at full speed, followed closely by Delsior, then Ambassador Cedric, and finally Afton.

The shattered doorway leads the party directly into the graveyard. The sun has just set. The Ambassador turns to the group, and mumbles “It looks like we are in the graveyard past dusk. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to spend an extra five minutes searching the Temple.” The Ambassador, exhausted from being kidnapped, kept in a cage, not fed, as well as tied up and gagged, slumps against Delsior. The Satyr is forced to toss the unconcious Diplomat over his shoulder…

At this point, the PCs take a look around. In the center of the graveyard is a fountain, featuring a statue covered in chalky script. There are mossy tombstones scattered randomly, and in various states of repair. Some graves look like they’ve been dug up recently. The entire graveyard is surrounded by an iron fence, ten feet high, with spikes at the top.

A glowing figure floats out of a nearby crypt. She casts a ghostly blue-ish light all around her. Her insubstantial body stands in mid-air, about a foot above the ground. “Fresh bodies!” she shouts. “Before you become my victims, behold the awe of my creations. My minions, rise!” A frankenstein-esque monstrosity rises from one of the graves, sewn together from moldering corpses. The armor of the torso matches the armor worn by Valcora, although a more old-fashioned style. The runes on the statue in the middle of the graveyard begin to glow with that same sickly blue light. The statue turns its head toward the party, and dust falls from its neck. It stands, chains in its hands.

“Wait a second,” Afton comments. “I though all living AND DECEASED are under the protection of Melora. How can there be undead here?” She turns to Delsior.

The Satyr shrugs. “Unless Melora HAS indeed left this world…”

1 Level 4 Adjuvanant, 1 Level 3 Chain Golem, 1 Level 2 Headless Corpse.
Roll Initiative. After a few rounds of battle, it becomes clear that this ghast and her two minions are much more powerful than the PCs. The party decides its best course of action is to bolt for the exits, and leave the graveyard and the monsters behind. Delsior runs straight for the gates. The chain golem manages to hit each one of the PCs with a Chain Grab attack, but all of them break the grab with a successful Athletics check. The headless corpse falls, as Valcora attacks it about four turns in a row. Afton blasts each of the monsters with small amounts of damage, but knocks them back three squares each time, allowing safe passage for everyone to run out the gates. Delsior carries the Ambassador to safety, and then turns around and comes back, just in time to heal Valcora (who had only 7 Hit Points!). The ghast wails as the last of the party steps through the gate. The battle is over. Whew!

Now the heros find their horses and ride back to the temple with the magic circle. As the party prepares to step through the portal, Delsior suggests that the group take another five minutes to search this temple. The rest of the party reluctantly agrees. As they spread out to look around, it becomes obvious that this is ANOTHER empty Temple of Melora. But rather than being defaced, this one simply looks abandoned. Upon closer inspection, Valcora finds that most of the place is covered in dust, except the Altar. It has been recently cleaned and polished. Afton finds that the candles have been replaced and are fresh. Delsior finds footprints in the dust, from only a day or two ago. Someone has been coming to this place and taking care of it; not all of it, just the Altar. Hmmm….

The PCs step through the portal, and… (cue Wayne’s World Sound Effect:) DOODOOLOO DOODOOLOO!!!

When everything stops being wavy, and the party can see clearly again, they find themselves standing in the back of the throne room, in the Citadel of the Empress of Sarpadia. They approach the dais. And Dear Reader, do you remember the very first paragraph of the very first entry of this blog? No? Tsk Tsk. Well, let me remind you:

“The companions returned to the Throne Room, victorious in their mission to free the Emissary of Ultair. Her Majesty stood stoically, facing the party with unblinking eyes. Wondering why the Empress was so still, they approached cautiously. Before them was poised a statue in the perfect likeness of Brelia. Her face was frozen in a pleading gaze, her hands raised as if to shield a bright light. To their horror, they suddenly realized that in their absence, the Empress had been turned to stone…”

After s short conversation with the Four Royal Advisors leads nowhere, the party retires to the Blind Pig in to gather rumors and regroup. So far, it looks like the general public is not aware of the Empress’ situation. After some discussion, the party decides that Valcora will accompany the Ambassador into the alleyway to meet the Brown Fox. Afton climbs up on the roof to eavesdrop. Delsior climbs into a barrel, shuts the lid, and watches through a knothole. Ater waiting about a half hour, a figure in a mask made from the fur of a brown fox emerges and approaches the Ambassador. He stops about ten feet away. The Brown Fox utters one word, and one word only: “May.”

“-onaise,” the Ambassador replies. “It has been too long since we’ve spoken.”

“I see you brought friends this time,” the Brown Fox says, chuckling as he glances to the rooftop, then the barrel. Their cover blown, Afton and Delsior climb out of their hiding places and join the group. The party looks to the Brown Fox in anticipation, silently asking ‘What Happened to the Empress?’.

“I’m not sure who did it, but I have my suspicions. I was roused at the break of dawn by General Guren, who told me there had been a situation during the night. I ran down the hallway, outpacing the huge fighter and his metal armor. Arriving on the scene, I saw the Empress turned solid as a rock. I noticed a piece of a feather on the floor, so I picked it up. No one saw me take it.” He reached into his pocket and took out the feather piece, handing it to the Ambassador. “If you could find out what this is, and where it comes from, we will have another clue. Now, take this as well.” He reaches into a fold in his robes and pulls out a scroll, handing it to Afton. “This is the ritual for reversing petrification. I have all the necessary spell components, save one. It is Gargoyle Dust. You must travel to Aebris, to one of the lost Cathedrals of Sinde, and take a sample from one of the magical statues.”

Afton pockets the scroll carefully. The Ambassador continues the conversation. “The Silver Eagle will be struck down by a wooden song when he takes two steps with his left foot. That is the information I’ve brought to deliver to the Empress. We know the wooden song means a bow and arrow.”

“What exactly is the ‘Silver Eagle’? Valcora asked.

The Brown Fox blinked. “The King of what is now the Brother Kingdoms was known by that name. At his death, his twin sons argued and fought for the throne, each claiming to be the firstborn. The land has been split down the middle, each son reigning over half the Kingdom. Both of them now claim their father’s title ‘Silver Eagle’. Much rumor and gossip revolves around which of them murdered his father. A poison dagger to the back. A terrible way to die. Especially if it was your son that killed you. But there is no evidence or proof that either one of them had anything to do with it.”

“Why would someone want to kill either of the brothers? And what does that have to do with the plot against the Empress? Could the same person be planning both?” Afton wondered aloud.

The Brown Fox looked around, as if to seek out ambushers. “One brother killing the other would only consolidate the Brother Kingdoms. They would still be part of the Empire, under the Empress’ rule, unless they plan on a war of independence from the Empire. It doesn’t make sense that a usurper who wants to become Emperor would actively help a Kingdom secede…” The Brown Fox looked up at the stars. “Time is short, and I must be off…”

“Wait! One more question!” Delsior interjected. “We saw two temples to Melora that were abandoned about thirteen years ago. At one temple, her holy ground appeared to be corrupted, her altar defaced. At the other, we saw evidence that someone is still lighting candles and caring for it. What can you tell us about that?”

The Brown Fox sighed deeply. “Melora’s followers abandoned her temples about 13 years ago when she stopped answering all prayers. Her clerics lost all their powers and spells. Some of her congragation, angry at the betrayal, burned and looted her temples. Others are hopeful that she is simply in another plane, and will return shortly. They await her return secretly. As far as her protections on holy ground failing, it is obvious that she has indeed left this realm. Is she dead? Where did she go? And for what purpose? Will she return? No one knows.”

Valcora interrupted. “That seems like a side-trek, a distraction. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.”

The Brown Fox began to back away into the shadows. “Do NOT stay at the inn. Your lives are in danger. And do NOT stay in the Citadel, as every word you say will be spied upon. Don’t stay with any innocent bystanders, as you will be putting them in danger. Find a safe house that no one knows about, not even me, and hide there.  Make sure you aren’t followed, and make certain that no one sees you come or go.” With that last statement, the Brown Fox turned the corner, and disappeared into the night.

The heroes turned toward each other. Delsior broke the silence. “We don’t have money to buy land or buildings. And if we did, the tax assessor will know our names. Who knows if he is in league with the enemy. If we only know someone that owed us a favor…”

Valcora snapped her fingers. “Of course!” she exclaimed. “The Brotherhood of Light. They owe me a favor. Let’s go talk to Brother Peltanis!”

The PCs walk down the street a dozen blocks and enter the orphanage that Valcora so kindly paid for. The Brother greets her with a bear hug and gushes in thanks and gratitude to the DragonBorn Knight. After the initial pleasantries, the PCs and the NPC retire to the library. Taking seats, the tone turns serious. Valcora informs the Brother that she is here to collect on a promise. “Name it, and I shall do all in my power to make it happen,” he replies. Valcora asks about a safe place to hide while the party is in town. The Brother walks over to his desk, shuffles through some papers, and pulls out a rolled up parchment. Pushing away a candle, he spreads it out on the desk. It appears to be a map of the Sarpadian capitol. One specific building is marked with a large circle in red ink. “A faithful follower has recently passed on, naming the Brotherhood of Light the single heir to all his worldly possessions. Among them, a condemned warehouse near the docks. It’s not pretty, but no one goes there. Will it suit your purpose?”

“It’s the perfect hideout!” Valcora responds with a grin. “Keep this quiet. No one can know about this warehouse.”

“What warehouse?” the Brother asks with a smirk, lighting the map on fire with a candle.

The party splits. Valcora accompanys the Ambassador to the Citadel to protect him while he gathers rumors. Delsior and Afton go to the new hideout to scope it out. The pair sneaks in through a window. “The first thing we should do is add a flaming jet trap to the front door.” Delsior says. “Then, a false door/wall. Then maybe some other traps. And Afton, you’ve got to learn how to cast globe of darkness, so we can come and go without being seen…”

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