The Mask of Mask (updated 01/21/2023)

Salmakia

Explorer
This is a campaign that has recently started, so I'm back-writing a little bit and then will update as sessions happen... hopefully once every week or two. Enjoy!

Setting: Ekrido, the social and cultural capital of the plane. This world is fairly traditional sword & sorcery of my own creation comprised of many independent cities. Relationships are largely based on trade, with only a few longstanding political alliances.

Characters (all starting level 1):
  • Ewan – Human; Grave Cleric; looks haunted; recently arrived in Ekrido from the north.
  • Burny – Gnome; Wizard; constantly experimenting; son of the chief wizard in Ekrido.
  • Metis – Triton; Druid; quiet and standoffish; daughter of nobles in the neighboring town of Liport.
  • Veu (pronounced “view”) – Halfling; Rogue; skeptical and somewhat petty; raised in The Labyrinth, the largest library on the plane.
  • Althea – Human; Ranger; an explorer and a muckraker; recently kicked out of the official city Rangers for asking too many questions.

1. Callista
“...and obviously, if you should fail, your jobs will be forfeit and I will personally see to it that you never receive honorable work in Ekrido again. Are there any questions?” The party stood in the office of the Baron Antonio Giuseppe, one of Ekrido’s most powerful and influential noblemen. The man had a monopoly on farming in the city, and for several weeks the party had been employed by him as night guards to prevent bandits or “vigilante trust-busters” from raiding his fields.

Until, the night previously, his storehouses had been raided. The Baron had immediately fired his storehouse guards and promoted the five party-members from border patrol to storehouse patrol, a position that came with a slight pay raise and the Baron’s dire ultimatum: prevent theft, or forfeit any chance of a long and happy career in Ekrido. They had no doubt that the Baron could deliver on that guarantee, nor did they get the sense that gracefully bowing out now was an option. So they accepted the promotion and got to guarding the storehouse.

Burny was excited for the prospect of the raise because it meant he’d have more money to buy components for his spells and experiments.

Ewan was confused as to why the Baron had promoted a 19-year-old kid with seemingly no skills or experience. Admittedly he was probably right to be confused, but some logic must be sacrificed in the interest of making a game happen.

Burny and Metis, being the only two who could see in the dark, positioned themselves atop two of the tall silos to survey the storehouse compound. Althea, Ewan, and Veu took torches and walked a continual perimeter around the various storehouses (all of which were surrounded by a large fence).

Three uneventful nights passed. At this point I asked the players whether their characters were the type to keep up a vigilant guard after three nights of nothing happening, or whether they would start to get lax. Burny’s player freely admitted that Burny was assuredly scribbling notes about his newest experiments and not paying the slightest attention to his guard duties, but Althea was aware enough to hear the crash coming from the meat barn.

They immediately shouted to raise the alarm, at which point the rest of the party booked it to the barn. Their entire futures were hanging on this job, and somehow someone had slipped into the meat barn without them noticing a thing.

Althea unlocked the door and the party entered into the barn, all except Metis who clambered up the wooden slats to stand on the roof and survey the area. The barn was pitch dark, and even those with darkvision couldn’t see any signs of life near the entrance (the barn is over 100-feet long, and so they could only see about a third of it), nor could they hear anything from beyond. They began moving stealthily forward, with Althea and Burny moving silently along the perimeter while Ewan and Veu moved... less quietly straight down the center of the barn.

Upon arriving in the back half of the barn where most of the meat was stored, they saw six humanoid figures dressed all in black with black masks silently engaging in thievery. One was up on a rolling staircase lifting meat off the hooks in the ceiling and dropping it into a Portable Hole that was being dragged along by two more while the fourth pushed the staircase along the length of the barn. The final two bandits were up on the walkway surrounding the barn, bows drawn and covering their companions.

And cover they did as Ewan and Veu walked noisily into their line of sight. One released an arrow hitting Ewan square in the chest and dealing more damage than a level-1 character likes to take on the first turn of combat. The two with the Portable Hole quickly closed it up and began making for the back of the barn.

Here I’ll also mention that the bandits were wreathed in shadows, making them quite tricky to see unless you were staring right at them. I think perhaps the way I described this shadowy quality quite concerned some of the more experienced players who are familiar with powerful monsters and high-level magic that can have that effect, until Althea successfully identified the Pass Without Trace spell and there was a noticeable relief around the table. Or maybe I was reading too much into their reactions.

Veu unashamedly backed up behind a wall and, after debating whether or not to flee entirely, decided instead to hang out by the ladder to the second level.

The Baron had specifically asked for the bandits to be taken alive, a fact that Burny completely disregarded as he pulled a small diamond from his pouch, rubbed it hard enough to generate friction, and then launched a Chromatic Orb of fire at one of the two archers. Note that Burny was successfully hidden and so had advantage on the attack. Fortunately for him (less so because of the Baron’s desire for live captives and more for other facts that would soon come to light), this was no run-of-the-mill NPC bandit so the spell didn't quite manage to drop her. However, she was still not terribly happy about being scorched and so began running full tilt toward Burny who booked it back down the ladder.

Meanwhile, Althea scored a hit with their bow against the bandit who was attempting to flee with the Portable Hole, and Metis, hearing the commotion, tied off a rope and clambered down the chimney into the meat smoker (it was a cold smoker, so she wasn’t at any risk of being burned alive in the furnace, but she still emerged into the fray coughing and covered in soot).

Veu decided to climb up the ladder toward the second level, presumably to find a corner where she could hide and potentially attack from stealth, but came face-to-face with the bandit who had been chasing Burny. After successfully fending off an attempt to push her off the ladder, Veu struck the bandit with the hilt of her dagger, knocking the assailant unconscious.

Of course, what Veu had not fully considered was both of them were clinging to a ladder, and that unconscious people don’t hold on to ladders so well. Failing in her attempt to hang on to the rungs while a creature more than twice her size was falling in her space, both Veu and the unconscious bandit went tumbling to the ground right at the feet of Metis and Burny.

From beneath the tangle of limbs, they heard Veu moan something about “please someone tie him up,” and Metis did so, making doubly sure her knots were secure and rolling the bandit off of Veu in the process.

Ewan, who had rolled maximum healing on a self-targeting Cure Wounds after being hit in the very first round, charged into the fray and up one of the rolling staircases to deal with the other archer... and that’s when sh*t went down.

The archer, who had her bow fully drawn and prepared to shoot this person running up the stairs to attack her, took one look at his face, lowered her bow, and gasped “Tavish?!”

Ewan stared back at her, entirely shaken, took a moment to clear his head, and then replied “if you ever cared for him, then call them off.” There was a moment of stunned silence while the bandit tried to process the face she was seeing, and Ewan repeated more forcefully "Call them off!" The bandit shouted a command and her group disengaged and began running toward the exit.

Ewan and the archer still stood frozen, staring at each other. "You can't be Tavish," the archer said. "Who are you?"
“Tavish was my father,” Ewan said, “who are you?” The bandit removed her mask, revealing features greatly resembling Ewan’s own.
“Tavish was my husband,” she said.
“Callista?” Ewan asked, and the woman nodded in affirmation.
“Come with me,” she said suddenly, and Ewan made a snap decision that would change the course of his life forever. Together, they began booking it for the back of the barn, where the bandits had cut a small hole.

Now, the rest of the party hadn’t really seen any of this interaction, and merely saw this kid who was supposed to be on their side suddenly running off with the bandits (we'd decided that the characters knew and liked each other as acquaintances, having worked together for some weeks, but hadn't yet gotten to the point of innate trust and camaraderie) . Naturally, they were none too thrilled and began heading off the bandits to try and prevent them from escaping. Burny hit the one with the Portable Hole with a Fire Bolt, dropping him to single-digits and sending him sprawling across the ground.

Callista looked furiously at Ewan and told him that she had called off her bandits and that he must call off his fellow guards. There followed a very hotly contested argument/fight as Ewan tried to sway the other party members to his side while also actively trying to escape with the bandits and having most of the party intent on stopping that escape.

Callista loudly decried the Baron, their employer, as a tyrant, and revealed to them something they had hitherto been entirely unaware of: while Ekrido plowed right along, comfortably sustained by the Baron’s farming monopoly, most other nearby cities were suffering from severe drought and famine and had been for several months. And the Baron had been hoarding all his crops, forbidding any trade of food with the neighboring cities.

At that revelation Althea hopped right on board with Ewan. As a ranger, they had heard rumblings of something bad from the nearby tribes and small towns, and this put the final puzzle piece into place for them (they had been kicked out of the official city Rangers for being too pushy with the government about these “bad rumors,” and so were all too happy to hop on the anti-nobility train).

It didn’t take much to sway Metis and Veu – neither had much reputation in Ekrido that defying the Baron would destroy anyways, and both were somewhat skeptical of the establishment. Burny was the only one vehemently against defecting with the bandits, which basically manifested itself as a constant stream of cursing and continually casting cantrips to try and prevent them all from leaving. To be fair, he did have the most to lose by incurring the Baron’s wrath, and he had the most need for the money he was getting from the job as it allowed him to buy components for his experiments and spells.

Finally, one of the players prevailed upon his logical mind by stating that, since they had failed to catch the bandits before they’d gotten into the storehouses, in the Baron’s eyes they probably had already failed and so their job and reputation was forfeit whether or not they went with the bandits. With that Burny nodded, used his second (and last) spell slot to cast Tenser’s Floating Disk beneath the unconscious bandit, and left with the rest of the group.

Burny and Metis also worked together to cast Mending on the hole the bandits had made to gain entry into the barn, in the hopes that it would look like they’d all simply vanished without a trace. And with that the bandits led them through a manhole and into the irrigation tunnels running below the farm just as other guards from further afield began to arrive due to hearing the commotion.
 

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Salmakia

Explorer
2. Omens and Dreams
Callista led them along the riverbank to their camp, a small collection of tents two hours north of Ekrido, masked from the road by an overgrown ridge. Burny attempted to interrogate her along the way, but she hushed him quite forcefully and said they all needed to be on their guard until they were safely away from the city.

Once they were seated around a warm fire in one of the tents, however, she proved to be very amenable to answering their questions. They had, after all, proven willing to abandon their honorable life in Ekrido for the thought of “doing the right thing” and helping to feed hundreds of starving people. Or, at least, most of them had. Burny was still dubious as to whether he’d made the right decision, and once Callista opened the floor for questions he leapt right into action.

Callista answered everything patiently, explaining how, while Ekrido luxuriated in the bubble provided by the Baron’s farm, much of the rest of the world was suffering from crippling famine and drought. Although there were those in Ekrido who knew of this truth, the ruling nobles were quick to silence anyone who spoke out too loudly which led to most of the public living in blissful ignorance of their neighbors’ strife.

None of the party were too happy about this revelation, and Veu, in particular, was furious about the fact that information had been kept from her. Growing up in an enormous library, she was raised to believe that information should be freely available to any who look for it, and the fact that something so huge was happening just beyond the corners of her awareness pissed her off to no end.

Callista also expressed concern that the Baron was up to something nefarious. From a political standpoint it would make more sense for him to distribute the food, thus gaining political allies. By hoarding the food he was turning Ekrido from a cultural capital into a tyrant city.

Burny asked how she and her ragtag band intended on unseating the Baron – one of the most influential nobles in the city, and she responded that, for the moment, they had to focus on simply stealing enough to feed the people of Onoln (their home, one town to the north of Ekrido). However, if the party should be inclined to assist them then perhaps they did have a chance of discovering his treachery... and if they publicly discredited the Baron then he wouldn’t be able to follow through on his threat of barring them from good society in Ekrido for abandoning their post...

The players put a pin in that and continued with their questions, curious as to how Callista had been able to so successfully sneak into the Baron’s storehouses to begin with. That’s when Callista explained what would perhaps turn into the biggest mystery of the session: when first they came to Ekrido intent upon getting some food for the people of Onoln, an elvish druid named Hymnara Ebi met them on the road and offered to aid them. Naturally they were suspicious, but she proved trustworthy and it was she who cast Pass Without Trace upon them, allowing them to sneak past the guards. Now, every time they are near the city, Hymnara somehow knows they are coming, meets them, and hides their passage. They have come to view it simply as a gift from the gods.

Metis, as a druid herself, had some passing knowledge of Hymnara, and was able to share that the woman operated a small pineapple farm in the south of the city (although the Baron had a monopoly on basic necessities such as meat, grain, and dairy, a number of small specialty farmers were still necessary to fill in the gaps). She related that the woman seemed to have no interest in anything but her farm, and that it was uncharacteristic of her to involve herself in a political situation like this.

At this point the group decided to take a long rest, and Callista offered them one of the tents to sleep in. Ewan, however, hung back to speak with his mother privately. He related to her that, several weeks prior, his father Tavish had died, a fact which she had not known. He also informed her that there were signs of necromancy around their homestead in the woods and asked for her help in rooting out this evil.

Callista was quite subdued at the news of her husband’s death, and it suddenly registered for Ewan that she had called Tavish her “husband.” (the backstory Ewan’s player provided me was that Tavish and Callista had had a simple fling, and that Callista had left Tavish to care for their child in his isolated homestead while she went back out into the world. I decided to complicate matters somewhat...)

Ewan told Callista what Tavish had told him of his upbringing (namely, the backstory the player had given me), and then Callista related her version of the tale:

My father was a merchant named Nidaar Rowland, who was one of the chief suppliers to the frontier town of Onoln. Growing up travelling with him felt like an adventure – we were always on the move – and he may have been a little lax at encouraging my restless spirit. Tavish was one of my father’s customers. Oil and salt, that’s all he ever bought. I thought he was a man of mystery, and more than once tried to engage him in conversation – perhaps slightly flirtatiously – but he always evaded my inquiries. After years of this, seeing him not more than once every several months, I decided to follow him home. I bought a charm from a local druid that hid my steps from his eyes, and I trailed him. Imagine my surprise when he left the town and began hiking up into the mountains! Anyone should have known that to wander into the mountains alone is suicide, and yet he walked on fearlessly. Well, long story short, the charm hid me from human eyes, but not from the eyes of the wild. And whatever mysterious force protected Tavish from the dangers of the forest certainly didn’t shield me. He saved my life and took me back to his house, the same house where you were born. I decided to stay, and he didn’t object. My father was saddened to see me leave, but he was a devout follower of Waukeen, and the way of Waukeen has always been to take what comes. At any rate, I was twenty six at the time and he had probably known for some time that this day was coming.

In spite of the dangers surrounding us in the wild mountains, Tavish seemed to live in a bubble. When I asked him why the beasts of the forest never encroached upon us, he always deflected, saying that his family always had a way with wild things. A year later, I discovered I was pregnant, and in due course you were born.

That’s when the strangeness began. Tavish, who had always been withdrawn, retreated entirely from me. For weeks on end he would lock himself in his room or go out wandering in the forest. Once I heard him through the door, almost begging. “Please,” he said, “don’t let it start again. I was meant to be the last. Not my child. Please, not my child.” I got scared. Scared for myself and scared for you. Finally I had enough, and tried to secret you away in the dead of night. He caught us just on the border of our property. I had never seen Tavish angry before. He took you and threw me out, and I was thrust suddenly back into the tumult of the world.

Naturally, this account left both Ewan and the player with a lot to think about, and Ewan joined the rest of the party for a long rest.

When they awoke in the morning they decided that the best course of action was to go see the druid Hymnara, as her piece of the story was the only thing that seemed wildly out of place. How could she, a relatively low-level druid, possibly know when and where the bandits would show up? They ventured back into Ekrido, doing their best to remain inconspicuous lest the Baron already be spreading slander about them, and located Hymanra’s farm with no trouble.

Upon knocking at the door they were greeted by an elderly human woman – Hymnara’s housekeeper of sorts – who informed them that Hymnara was out back tending to the pineapples. Rounding the cottage they saw the elf druid, walking with the poise and grace peculiar to elves, and watering her pineapples. (I’ll also note that Burny had cast Detect Magic, and didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary, either around her cottage or on Hymnara herself)

Without even turning around, she hailed them and welcomed them to her farm. The party didn’t waste time beating around the bush, asking immediately how she knew when Callista’s group was coming. Hymnara, who came across as entirely guileless even in the face of the many Insight checks rolled against her, told them that everything came to her in visions. When the famines started several months back, even though news about them was kept hushed, she saw images of a masked figure rampaging through fields and slaughtering livestock. Then, one day, she left Ekrido and began walking north on a hunch, and that is when she came upon Callista’s group. Now, each time they are near, a similar hunch guides her to them.

She is convinced that the visions are from Chauntea, the goddess of agriculture, farms, and the earth, who herself has been grievously injured by these famines, being the very embodiment of the crops that are dying.

Althea notes that these visions align well with what they’ve been told by the elders and shamans in the various outlying tribes they’ve visited about a shadow that is coming to the world. The rest of the party is less convinced, as direct visions and compulsions from the gods are, in this world, nearly unheard of. They even question whether it could be some sort of high-level magical compulsion, although that runs contrary to the moral fiber of their society.

(in this world there are some Moral Codes of Magic, and compulsion is strictly against those codes. “Immoral Magic” still exists and it is possible to cast spells such as Geas, but there is such a strong social taboo against it that most people would feel queasy even thinking about doing such a thing. Also against the Moral Codes are reviving the deceased, magical creation of mundane items that craftspeople toil hard to build [i.e. using Fabricate to make a bridge instead of letting a bridge-builder make it], and the casting of Counterspell. That last is a special provision by Azuth, the goddess of wizards, so that none may tamper with the experiments of her devotees).

Burny in particular is doing logical contortions to try and decipher what precisely is going on with Hymnara, and ends up in a rather philosophical debate that went something like this:

Burny: I’m going to figure out what is going on here.
Hymnara: You move so fast, searching for answers everywhere, when really, if you stopped and looked around for long enough, you’d realize that the answers have always been right in front of you.
Burny: I know the answers are in front of me, I just have to find them.
Hymnara: No, they will come to you.
Burny: What, you think the secrets of the cosmos are just going to be presented to me as a gift?
(Hymnara reaches down to dig up a pineapple from the dirt, dusts it off, and hands it to Burny as a gift.)
Hymnara: Indeed.

The party left soon after that, although I will also note that Hymnara took a special interest in Metis and offered to teach her some of the history and rituals of the druids that she would be unable to learn without the aid of an elder. Metis said she'd consider it.

Burny, still intent on discovering answers, decides to do some additional research on the nature and history of visions from the gods. The best place to research would be The Labyrinth, Veu’s home and the largest library on the plane, but it’s a 10-day journey from Ekrido and they don’t have enough time to get there and back before the Baron publicly rips them to shreds for abandoning their post and letting thieves get away with his stores.

So they decide on the second best option, Laboratory X, Burny’s own home which is essentially a mage academy/research institution/temple to Azuth in Ekrido. It has quite a substantial library, and they hope that there will be something useful to them. They arrive at Laboratory X, and one of the scribes at the door informs Burny that his mother is searching for him, and advises him to avoid the north wing if he doesn’t want to face her. Burny audibly groans at this news.

The party moves stealthily on to the library, where Burny, who knows the stacks quite well, finds a number of books that look like they might be useful. He brings them to the librarian, an old gnome named Randolph, who glares at Burny, makes him promise that he won’t incinerate these as he did with the last rare book he checked out, and reminds him that he still owes 150gp as payment for that mishap.

Metis, meanwhile, has gone off on her own looking for something in the stacks, but, unable to find it, returns to ask Burny if he can find her a volume on code-breaking. The party is quite curious at this, as Metis’ player hadn’t shared her backstory with any of the others, but Burny eventually agrees to find her the book she seeks.

No sooner does he find it, however, then he hears a voice calling “Mortimer! Mortimer, I thought I heard your voice!” He curses abundantly but quietly and mutters about how he cannot deal with his mother at the moment. He makes his way back to Randolph and attempts to check out the book on codes, only to have Randolph shout that Burny is at the checkout counter. Cursing all the more, Burny leaves the book and dashes down the hall, the rest of the party following and laughing that they now know his given name to be “Mortimer.” As they dash out the entrance, they see one of the scribes at the door sigh and surreptitiously slip a gold piece to the other, who smiles smugly at having won his wager.

If they weren’t already puzzled enough, upon leaving the city gates they find that they have all come under the effects of the Pass Without Trace spell, although Hymnara is nowhere in sight.

To wrap up the session, they arrived back at Callista’s camp, searched through the books, and learned that the last recorded time that people had received such overt visions and compulsions from the gods was when Azuth was trying to make Counterspell an immoral magical act. Then the gods had acted through their proxies on the Material Plane in addition to their conflicts across the Outer Realms, sending visions and omens to priests in an attempt to sway popular support to their cause.

At this point they know that something big is going on, whether it’s the gods themselves or some sort of high-level taboo compulsion magic, and they agree to help Callista infiltrate the Baron’s house to see if they can unravel at least a part of the puzzle: why is he hoarding all that food, and how is it that his farm is untouched while all the nearby cities are struck with famine?
 


Salmakia

Explorer
This is superb. Love the politics mixed with the gaming; makes the campaign setting real.
Glad you're enjoying it! I've been working on the world for a little over a year & this is the second game I'm running in it. Let me know if you want any more in-depth info, I didn't want to dump an expository overload right at the beginning so I'm trying to sprinkle some of the politics in as it goes along.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Glad you're enjoying it! I've been working on the world for a little over a year & this is the second game I'm running in it. Let me know if you want any more in-depth info, I didn't want to dump an expository overload right at the beginning so I'm trying to sprinkle some of the politics in as it goes along.
The world looks fascinating. The whole story about warehouses of food stuffed for political/economic power brought back my old high school politics teacher talking about Henri de Saint Simon witnessing grain ships waiting offshore during a famine till prices rose high enough. His world didn’t have parties of adventurers though!
The backstory links are deep too and your writing style is excellent; I’m engaged with the characters already.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
3. Forgery and Evidence

I love my players so much. They decided that they needed to get the Baron out of Ekrido so they could have a look around his house and see if they could find evidence of what he was plotting. The plan they came up with was to forge a letter from Metis’s parents (the ruling nobles of the nearby town of Liport) urgently requesting the Baron’s presence. They got together during the week, hand wrote a letter on tea-stained paper, and delivered it to me as a scroll wrapped in twine at the start of the session. Also it turns out that my friend playing Metis has a wax seal set which she used to formally seal the letter.

To provide some context for the success of this plan, Metis was brought up with formal noble training as her parents were preparing her to eventually take over their position, so she knew all the proper formalities and codes (she didn’t take much to the noble life and left on bad terms with her parents so wasn’t too scrupulous about forging a letter from them). The person playing Veu had also decided from the outset that Veu’s “special rogue skill” is forgery, and so between her skills and Metis’s knowledge I didn’t even make them roll to try and pass off the letter as legit. The letter read:

Attn: Antonio Giuseppe, Lord Baron Third order of Ekrido,
It was marvelous to see you upon your last visit to us. Did we not have a wonderful time? We hope you and your endeavors have flourished in the time since.
We request your presence urgently in Liport as we have important business to discuss. A splendid feast will of course be provided in return for the inconvenience. We eagerly await your arrival at the week’s end.
Most sincerely,
Argus Delmar, Earl of Liport
Odele Delmar, Countess of Liport


Unbeknownst to the players at this point, there were other factors at play in the relationship between the Baron and Metis’s parents that made it virtually guaranteed that he would accept the summons.

The forged letter requested the Baron’s presence at the week’s end, meaning that they had about two days of downtime before they would even know if the plan had worked. They used this time to take care of some business in the city (as inconspicuously as possible since they still didn’t know what the Baron’s public reaction to their disappearance was), and also to pray, train, and study their spellbooks. In other words, they leveled up to level two.

Burny returned the books he had checked out from the Laboratory X library under the severe glare of Randolph the librarian, who sniffed each book carefully to try and detect signs of burnt paper. He also retrieved the book on breaking codes for Metis that he’d been forced to abandon the day before. Metis spent the rest of the day puzzling through the book. Unfortunately it was highly technical and mathematical, and largely over her head. At the end of a very frustrating day she felt as though she had a basic understanding of common ciphers, but was no closer to deciphering the letter that she was so anxious to read.

Veu, who was worried about her family back at The Labyrinth ever since learning about the famine, wrote a letter in Halfling, wrapped it around a feather token, and sent it off with a man named Wren, a contact of hers who made frequent journeys to The Labyrinth.

(Another reason my players are great: Veu’s player is currently in the process of creating a Halfling language for this world. The letter she wrote was disguised as a drawing, with the symbols of the actual message hidden cleverly within the picture. She also brought a hard copy of this and showed it to the group.)

Ewan, meanwhile, set out into the woods near Callista’s camp to pray and meditate. He had a lot to think about between mourning the recent death of his father, the sudden reappearance of his mother, and the revelation that his past might not be as straightforward as he had been led to believe. He turned his thoughts to the gods and spirits of his woodland homestead in the north, trying to find them here in the ground and the trees and the air surrounding him in this foreign city. In his youth, his life had revolved around tending to the soil and caring for the graves of his ancestors. Now everything seemed so much more complicated.

Lost in thought, he almost didn’t see the bird’s nest that had tumbled out of a nearby tree. Although he knew the frequency of such occurrences, his heart nonetheless ached for the babies that would never learn the miracle of flight. However, kneeling down beside the nest, he discovered, not the shattered remains he was expecting, but three round and perfectly intact robin eggs. With all the tenderness and care in the world, he picked up the nest, placing it high in the crook of a nearby tree and praying, not for himself anymore, but that the mother bird might be granted the means to find her nest upon her return.

Returning to the camp late that night he was startled to see the glow of fire emanating, not from the outdoor fire pit, but from inside the tent he shared with Burny. Yelling loudly enough to wake the rest of the party he dashed inside and saw the gnome wizard sitting and muttering with his spellbook on one side and an unfamiliar book burning brightly with flames on the other.

Grabbing a blanket, Ewan quickly smothered the flames, breaking Burny from the trance of his studies and eliciting a series of curses and protests from the gnome.

“What are you doing?!” Ewan exclaimed as Althea also burst into the tent. Metis and Veu stopped just outside to overhear what was happening.
Burny fidgeted. “It’s hard to explain.”
“We have all night.”

Burny sighed and decided it would be best to come clean (Burny's player had spent the week between sessions coming up with this backstory, and I think he was quite excited to share it with the rest of the group). “Have any of you heard of August Firestorm?”

Ewan and Althea both shook their heads. Of all of them, Veu was the only one who knew the name as she had come across it many times in her work at The Labyrinth.

“Well, August Firestorm was a very powerful wizard. Some say he was the most powerful wizard ever to live. He was Azuth’s agent on the material plane in the age when the goddess was fighting for our rights as wizards and trying to prove the immorality of the Counterspell.” Burny cringed visibly upon saying the word that was anathema to most modern wizards. “When he died, his spell book was split into five copies, all of which were lost... until now.” He proudly held up the book he had been studying along with his own spellbook. “This is one of the most potent magical artifacts in our world. One fifth of August Firestorm’s spellbook”

“And so how did you come by it?” Althea asked, still not entirely sold on Burny’s story (the gnome had, after all, been known to exaggerate his own prowess before).
“Remember how I owe 150gp to the librarian at Laboratory X?”
“They sold you this book for 150gp?!” exclaimed Ewan.

“Of course not! They think it’s destroyed. And besides, they don’t even know that it contains the spellbook. You see, it’s disguised as a copy of Firestorm’s memoir My History of Storms. But, if you do this...” Burny kindled a small flame in his hand and touched it to the book. As Ewan and Althea looked on, the writing in the book seemed to melt, revealing a set of glowing blue runes. Burny snapped the book shut and the fire went out. “With this I could become the most powerful wizard of our age. I could create magic that no one has ever before seen. All I have to do is figure out how to read it. Wizards do love their damn codes.”

With that they decided to call it a night, and awoke the next morning prepared to see whether their plan had worked and the Baron was gone. When monitoring the road to watch for his carriage yielded no results, they decided that they would have to sneak into his property and see if he had taken the bait.

“That’s no problem,” Metis said. “I’ll just turn into a spider and check around his house.”
Burny’s jaw dropped. “You’ll do what?”
“I can turn into a spider.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m... sorry?”
“Do it. Right now, I want to see you turn into a spider.”

Metis shrugged and, before Burny’s eyes, morphed and shrunk until there was nothing left of her but a small spider scuttling along the ground. Then, just as quickly as she had shrunk, she was restored to her original form.”

“That’s AMAZING!” Burny turned to the other party members. “Did you all know that this was possible?”'

They all nodded and muttered an affirmative as it began to dawn on them that, though Burny’s mind operated on a level that most of them couldn’t begin to comprehend, he had spent basically his entire life studying one topic in Laboratory X and was far and away the least worldly out of the party.

It was decided that Veu and Althea (the stealthy ones) would accompany Metis on her infiltration mission, and would stay right outside the house as backup in case things went south. Having spent many weeks working on this farm as guards, they were all intimately acquainted with its layout and also with the schedule that the guards followed. They made it to the Baron’s house without incident, and Metis transformed and slipped under the crack in the door.

Having been raised in a noble house herself, she was familiar with the general hustle and bustle of the servants. Therefore a cursory glance was enough to tell her that the Baron’s household was operating on a skeleton crew. After checking the Baron’s office and bedroom and finding him absent from both those locations, she contented herself with the fact that he had indeed fallen for their trick and left for the sham meeting in Liport.

Upon emerging, those suspicions were confirmed by Veu who had gone to the Baron’s stables and found his carriage missing. The party had three more days before they were expecting the Baron’s return from Liport, and so they decided to wait until the following day to stage their heist as Metis had already expended an enormous amount of her natural energy turning into spiders (once as demonstration for Burny, and once to surveil). Upon consulting with Callista, the woman decided that she and her group would use that same time to raid the storehouses once more, thereby hopefully dividing any of the Baron’s security who might spot them.

And then, of course, they decided to split the party. “Team Stealth” (Metis, Veu, and Althea) would sneak into the house and search for evidence while “Team Loud” (Burny and Ewan) would create a diversion outside to draw the Baron’s butler away from his office door and out of the house.

The Butler, I should mention, was somewhat inspired by the character of Butler from the Artemis Fowl series, and is a very large man who seems like he would be more comfortable in a chain shirt than a tuxedo.

The party rolled ridiculously well on stealth, and made it within spitting distance of the Baron’s house with no problems. Burny and Ewan staked out a spot in the fruit orchards about a hundred feet away.

Burny looked at Ewan. “Cover your ears,” he said. And then proceeded to cast Thunderwave. A clap of thunder split the air, the kind that causes fine wine glasses to rattle on their shelf, and the Butler came dashing out of the house toward the sound... straight toward where Burny and Ewan were standing.

“Oh sh*t” said Burny, and they ran off to find a place to hide (again, rolling absurd stealth checks, especially for Burny who has -2 DEX).

Team Stealth slipped easily into the house and into the Baron’s office. Metis remained a spider perched on Veu’s shoe while Althea riffled through the papers on the desk, finding nothing but the farming documents one might expect. Veu decided it might be wise to start tapping on the panels of the wall, and, when she got to the panel adjacent to the desk, realized with some certainty that there was a hollow space behind it. In quick order she found the hidden keyhole and picked the lock with ease, causing the entire panel to slide away and revealing a small room that seemed to be built into the very wall of the house itself.

A steep ship’s ladder led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling, but what really got their attention was that the room was filled – literally filled – with filing cabinets. Metis quickly changed back into Triton form so that they could divide and conquer the immense reading task before them, and they began skimming through files as fast as they could. What they discovered was alarming. The cabinets contained the farming documents from every farm in every city on the plane, and there were notes in the Baron’s hand detailing which ones were doing particularly poorly.

The information network alone that he would need to gather all these documents was truly staggering to conceive of. It wasn’t long before Althea found one cabinet that was locked, and quickly summoned Veu over to work her magic. Whether Veu was distracted by their findings or whether this lock was particularly well-crafted they never found out, but Veu's lockpicks slipped and a small spike shot from the face of the cabinet and pricked her hand.

She exclaimed in pain and grabbed her hand to check her injury, only to see that her hand was turning bright red. Then a wave of queasiness washed over her and she leaned against the wall as her whole body began shaking with violent chills.

“What is it?” Metis asked, concerned.
“Some sort of poison,” Veu groaned. (in my world this is actually a fairly common type of poison used to forestall thievery. It doesn’t do any damage, but it leaves the thief literally red-handed and it lasts until cured so it’s easier to locate them if they wind up laying low for days or weeks)

Meanwhile, outside, the Butler seemed satisfied that all was in order and began heading back toward the house. Still seeing no sign of the rest of their party, Burny proceeds to cast a number of Fire Bolts into the air, which worked about as well as yelling “Hey! Over here!” The Butler smelled the smoke, began booking it towards them, and once more they found themselves running for their lives.

Only this time the Butler had seen them and so there was no easy way to hide.

As Burny is a gnome with little legs, the Butler quickly began gaining on them. Burny mentally ran through every spell he knew, trying to think of something, anything that would slow down their pursuer. He cursed. He’d almost forgotten that he knew Ray of Frost (not being a fire spell, he was apt to pass over it). He paused, turned, and shot the Ray, connecting and slowing their pursuer. The Butler, in response, pulled a knife from the inside of his jacket. Burny laughed, knowing that he was 60 feet away and there was no way the Butler could possibly hit him. And then the knife buried itself in his shoulder.

Team Stealth decided to leave the locked cabinet alone for a while and check out the trapdoor in the ceiling. Upon emerging into the room above, they saw an even more troubling sight than anything they’d been expecting: the room was pitch dark, but their torch revealed a massive seal of Tempus painted on the floor (in this world Tempus is the god of Law who assumes the aspect of War during wartime). Surrounding it were black and red candles that had burned themselves out, and written around and around the wall in a tiny cramped hand seemed to be the complete legal codes of Ekrido. One section of the room was divided by a set of steel bars, and within the cage they saw a humanoid figure hunched in the corner, entirely bald and with pale white skin.

Althea approached the cage. “Hello?”
The figure responded, faintly. “You’re not my father.”
“We work for your father. He sent us to check on you.” (no need for a Deception check, the figure is in no mental state to bother doubting Althea’s statements)
“There’s still plenty of food.” Indeed there were sacks of food lying about the figure, mostly untouched.
“Remind me again... what’s your name?”
“Alaya.” Metis’s eyes widened. She knew Alaya. The girl was some seven years younger than her, and she had babysat and played with the child when the Baron attended her parents’ famous dinner functions in Liport. She had certainly been human then, but looked far different now.
“And why does your father keep you locked in here?”
“He’s ashamed of what I’ve become. I was to be his heir. But I suppose some things must be sacrificed.”
“How would you like to see the sun again?”
Alaya moaned at the thought, and they could barely detect her whispering “yes, oh yes, ohhhh yes.”

Althea looked at Veu. Even with the rogue’s queasiness and shaking limbs, she was still able to break a simple lock like the one on the door the Alaya’s prison. Althea entered and helped Alaya to her feet, the girl’s hand clammy and cold in her own. As they began walking toward the exit, some of the girl’s strength seemed to return and Althea felt her grip growing stronger and her steps becoming steadier. She continued rambling as they walked, seeming almost to be talking to herself.

“When the famines started, my father, always a devoted servant of Tempus, prayed that his farm be spared. But it wasn’t Tempus who answered. It was an angel from his host. The angel offered to protect my father’s farm from the blight in exchange for many things. I was part of the bargain. And, while my body was mutated, my spirit was cleansed, allowing me to perfectly serve his will here in this world.” Alaya released Althea’s grip entirely and took a few steps forward on her own, standing just on the tip of the seal of Tempus painted on the floor. As soon as she stepped on the seal a change overcame her – her muscles seemed to relax and she breathed deeply with the relief of one who has been holding their breath too long. “He cleansed my spirit, and left me to the task of cleansing others. His symbol restores my strength. Now, not even I know what I’m capable of.”

Behind them, the door to the prison slammed shut with a clang. Alaya turned and raised her head for the first time, revealing jet-black eyes. The symbol of Tempus on the floor began to pulse with a dull red light.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Wow!
Your players certainly are awesome, but they are equally lucky to have you as a DM. This story hour is superb.
I'm not sure who/what Alaya is, but I'm nervous.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
4. Alaya
So... the players decided to split the party and then initiated two separate combat encounters. What else is new?

Burny and Ewan quickly realized that if they stopped to cast spells while the Butler continued to run that he would catch up to them. And, since they couldn’t outrun him without casting spells to slow him down, they decided to stand and fight. Burny popped off another Ray of Frost and Ewan held out a holy symbol, causing an ominous chime to sound near the Butler that seemed to weaken him only slightly (rolled a 2 on the d12 for Toll the Dead), and then their assailant was upon them, pulling a second knife from inside his jacket.

Ewan reached deep and tried to feel the connection to the land as Tavish had taught him, bringing the blessings of the orchard to bear upon him and his companion and filling them with strength and resolve. Burny chanted arcane words of power from his spellbook, creating another Thunderwave that shook the Butler’s very bones, but did not deter his attack.

However, whether it was the ice that still stiffened his joints or a slippery patch on the ground, the Butler swung wide and Burny let out a short laugh more out of fear than anything. However he quickly realized that he’d underestimated his opponent as the Butler sliced him neatly across the ribs with a backhanded sweep.

Burny yelped in pain. Knowing that he was only one solid strike away from death, he closed his eyes, held up his hands, and summoned a bolt of fire right in the Butler’s face. When he opened his eyes again their attacker was lying dead on the ground.

“I didn’t really mean to kill him...” Burny muttered, half out of guilt and half relief.
“We should get back to the house.” Ewan said.

Meanwhile, Alaya reached out in an attempt to grasp Althea’s shoulder, but the ranger was having none of that and nimbly sidestepped. Metis, however, who was standing at the ready near the trapdoor, felt a strange compulsion from Alaya, an irresistible urge to walk toward this being who suddenly seemed a paragon of righteousness. She relaxed and strode calmly forward, but as soon as she stepped onto the seal of Tempus she felt her limbs lock up and her body stop obeying her. She tried desperately to pull her dagger from her sheath and throw it at Alaya, only to have it clatter uselessly across the ground.

Veu, who had seen what happened to Metis and resisted the same compulsion, backed down the ladder and out into the Baron’s office and started yelling for Ewan and Burny to help them. Althea shot an arrow at Alaya, but the woman dodged nimbly to the side and took only a glancing scrape across her arm.

Ewan and Burny, now back hidden outside the Baron’s office window and hearing strange sounds from inside, decided the time was right to make their entrance. Ewan dashed around up the front steps of the Baron’s house and heard Veu shouting for help from the other side of the office door. Burny decided on a more direct approach, Fire Bolted the window, rolled max damage, and catapulted his tiny frame through the hole he’d melted in the glass, tumbling down the Baron’s chair to land prone behind his desk.

Upstairs, Metis, who has a Strength score of 8 to resist being restrained by the seal, closed her eyes and transformed into a Giant Snake. In that form she easily regained control over her body, slithered toward Alaya, and rolled a natural 1 on her bite attack. The seal flashed a brilliant red, and she found herself once more restrained, only this time in the dead center of the room.

And that’s when Alaya floated up off the floor. She swooped toward Althea, nimbly dodging the (mostly immobilized) jaws of the snake, hand outstretched, and connected with Althea’s shoulder. A burning pain lanced through the ranger and their shoulder felt like it was on fire. Alaya’s inscrutable black eyes met her own and seemed to be penetrating deep within her soul.

Burny, Veu, and Metis charged back up the ladder and beheld the floating woman locked in combat with their companion, as well as a giant snake in the middle of the room and no sign of Metis.

Burny looked back and forth between Alaya and the giant snake. “Which one do I blast?!” he exclaimed. Veu pointed desperately at Alaya and Burny let off a Fire Bolt. Ewan held aloft his holy symbol, but the Toll that sounded near Alaya’s ear seemed not to phase her one bit.

"I suppose I should have guessed as much," he muttered as he noticed the angelic influence written all over Alaya's features.

Veu, who had been well-hidden and prepared to attack, suddenly looked into Alaya’s eyes and felt the same compulsion that Metis had felt before. She found herself walking unwillingly toward their opponent, entirely breaking her cover. As soon as she was within grasping range she snapped out of it, ducked under Alaya’s arm, and, seeing Metis still frozen in the middle of the room, ran to the seal on the ground and began scratching at it with her dagger in an attempt to break its magic.

Now facing five opponents and with an open trapdoor adjacent, Alaya flew down and towards her freedom, nimbly evading all attempts to strike her as she fled. Ewan tore down the hole after her and saw that she had just cleared the hole in the Baron’s window that Burny had blasted and would be beyond reach in only a few seconds (the players realized at this point that she is fast).

Calling to mind his meditations over the past few days, Ewan raised his hands and called upon the spirits of the land and of his ancestors to aid them.

Metis, who finally managed to break free of the seal’s grip, transformed back into a Triton (snakes don’t do ladders too well) and made it downstairs just behind Ewan. Reaching out with the tendrils of power still available to her, a thorny vine lashed from her hands, wrapping around Alaya’s ankles and pulling her back into the room. At the same moment, Ewan’s hands clapped together, channeling his own power through Metis’ spell and causing Alaya to go skidding across the Baron’s desk and down onto the floor in a heap.

Arriving just behind the other two, Althea, her shoulder still burning from Alaya’s touch, notched an arrow, and shot the other woman through the chest. Ewan cursed, knelt, and immediately cast Spare the Dying to prevent them from losing a valuable source of information. He did manage to stabilize her in time (albeit barely... Althea rolled max damage with Hunter’s Mark active) and they tied her up.

Then, taking barely a moment to breathe and hoping that the commotion of the fight didn't attract the attention of the servants, they went back to examine the locked filing cabinet. With Veu unable to open it the rest of the party didn’t even try to pick the lock. After thoroughly examining it to ensure there weren’t any more traps, Burny froze the lock with a Cantrip and then used the dagger he’d taken from the Butler to handily break it off.

The rest of the party was perhaps a little skeptical as to where he’d learned such a technique, but he blatantly ignored their glances and proceeded to open the drawer. They were all too glad that it worked to question him much anyhow.

Inside the filing cabinet Burny saw six envelopes, all clearly very official and from the ruling nobles of several nearby cities. They were all already open and so he wasted no time in picking one out at random and checking the contents of the letter it contained:

Attn: Antonio Giuseppe, Lord Baron Third order of Ekrido,
It is with the utmost honor that I pledge the support of my title, my family, and my city to you should you be in a position to become the Ruling Noble of Ekrido. We will stand by you and support your claim, and the full weight of our resources shall go toward ensuring and maintaining your right to rule.
May Mask watch over your shoulder always.
Most cordially,
Gardinsferth, High Criminal of Xey


(For context, Xey is a major port city, and is also the only city that recognizes Mask, god of thieves, as its patron. Mask, in this world, is not viewed as an evil deity, but as more of a Robin Hood-esque figure who balances the rise of the very wealthy and helps to uplift the poor who cannot make a living honestly. Of course there are some worshippers of Mask who are perhaps a little too zealous in their activities, but then the same could be said for any religious group.

The ruler of Xey is, in fact, titled the High Criminal, a fact that those unfamiliar with Xey’s customs and beliefs view with amusement and some disdain, but which the folks of Xey understand to be a perfect irony and a constant reminder to the governing bodies in the city where their power and support truly derives from.

The rulership of Ekrido is determined by whichever noble house has the most resources and support to claim the title. The title is usually transferred with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed, as any noble who would make a genuine bid at rulership would need to have a truly overwhelming advantage over the current ruling noble. Currently the Lingston family holds the position, and has held it for three generations. However, despite the relative security of Lord Lingston's position, a pledge of support from the six largest neighboring cities does represent a genuine threat to his rule, the kind that might force him to cede power if revealed at a politically opportune moment.)

Without further ado, and fearing that they’d already stayed too long in the Baron’s house to risk attracting attention, the party grabbed the six letters, placed Alaya onto a Floating Disk conjured by Burny, and made their escape, dodging patrols on the way out as easily as they had on the way in.

Once back at Callista’s camp they examined the letters and, as expected, found them to be all cut from the same mold as the one from High Criminal Gardinsferth. The leaders of Denzonen, Liport, Xey, Glever, Onisas, and Fasa had all pledged their support to the Baron should he make a bid for political control over Ekrido. Looking at the map the party realized that these were most of the major cities on the eastern half of the plane, with only Onoln (Callista’s home city) excepted.

Of particular note to the players was the fact that both Denzonen and Liport were among the cities that pledged their support. Denzonen is the city that houses The Labyrinth, the massive library where Veu was raised, and the rogue worried more than ever over the state of the family she'd left behind there. Of perhaps even greater alarm was the fact that it was Metis's parents themselves who had signed the letter pledging Liport's alliance to the Baron.

Even as they were digesting the political ramifications of these findings, Ewan slipped away and sought out Callista. His mother had had a very successful mission and had acquired enough potatoes to feed much of Onoln for several weeks. Upon seeing her son clearly badly shaken, she sent away the person she’d been debriefing and gave Ewan her full attention. He seemed hesitant to speak, but Callista waited patiently and didn't press him until he'd gathered the words he needed. After all, she remembered, Tavish had often taken days or even weeks to formulate his thoughts.

“I wanted to ask,” Ewan began haltingly, “that is, I realized I never asked, are you ok?”
“Ok?” she laughed gently. “Ok about what? About finding you?”
“About Tavish. I know you didn’t know he was... dead... until, well...”
Callista sighed. There was so much of Tavish in the boy. So much of herself too, much as she struggled to admit it. She could see that he was hurting, but decided to be honest with him anyways. She would do him no favors by pretending at feelings that had long since been buried.
“It’s been, oh, seventeen, eighteen, how old are you now?”
“Nineteen.”
“Hm. Almost nineteen years since I’ve seen your father. And when I left, the way I did, I knew there was no going back. I did love him, but, in a way, for me, he’s been dead for a long time.” Ewan nodded his understanding then let his gaze slip to the ground. Callista looked at him gently. “Are you ok?”
Ewan fidgeted and said, too quickly, “Yes.” (Deception check... ....failed)
Callista cocked her head and stared at him, clear concern in her eyes. Then she smiled tightly and nodded, once. “Good.”
 

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