The Gatekeeper

15. Journey into Darkness

Of Ancient Mistakes, Imprisoned Gods, and the Underdark

After Ellerin lay defeated, he began to reform, and the heroes knew they would have to act quickly. A search of the laboratory revealed little that had survived a great catastrophe, and it appeared their inquiry had reached a dead end. It occurred to Ysabelle, however, to use a spell to witness the last momentous events that had come to pass in that chamber, and immediately, her magic whisked her mind away a hundred years in the past. All the heroes could accompany her into the rift in time, and they watched a terrible sight.

Ellerin and a plain-clothed warrior Brandis identified as a monk were setting about to reassemble a broken tablet that contained an epic spell. In casting the spell, however, they were doomed to set off a chain reaction that would leave the laboratory in its current state of disrepair. Immediately, the spell caused chaos in the magic dimension, even if Ellerin and his companion could not feel it. The initial castings took time, however, allowing the heroes to look around.

In particular, not interested in seeing the grand display of arrogance that is the ritual spell, J’Div found just the book they were looking for, on Ellerin’s shelf: his journal of magical devices. Vayne saw where he was looking and went to reclaim the book, but they were as ghosts in the magic and could not affect anything in the physical world. A plan occurred to her, and much as the original Vayne would have done, she asked J’Div for the githyanki silver sword, then was surprised when he didn’t immediately give it to her to use. The two shared a tense moment, in which they argued over the true ownership of the blade, and Vayne interpreted J’Div’s hesitation as distrust, driving a wedge between them (just when they had been forging a relationship of their own). Ultimately, there was no time, as the ritual was drawing on quickly, so J’Div gave her the sword, which she used to cut a hole in reality to spare the book the coming cataclysm. Things wouldn’t be the same between them afterward.

Sure enough, Ellerin completed the spell, and the casting destroyed him and much of his lab. The heroes felt it even in the time-bridging magic, and it almost slew them in its ferocity. Ellerin’s monk companion dodged the initial deadly blasts, only to be subsumed in the magic. The full purpose of the spell was revealed in the casting: to bring back the mythical Gith, who would need a vessel. The time-scrying ended before the heroes saw the result of the spell, though, whisking them back to the ruined laboratory, this time with the book lying on the floor as though it had been there the whole time. They realized that their eyes gleamed with blue fire that allowed them to see magic—Brandis in particular wondered if they had left something of themselves behind as well.

Vayne picked up the book and flipped through it, while the rest of the party watched tensely, giving her a series of untrusting looks. She informed Fiona that she had but to ask for the book, and handed it over to the tiefling when she did. She has a conversation with the party in which she accused them of not trusting her without reason for suspicion—indeed, they have much less reason to trust Fiona the tiefling, who has actively betrayed them on at least one occasion. This predictably did not go well for Vayne, but of all the heroes, Tristan stepped up and asserted that he trusted her and welcomed her as part of the group. Vayne, who had been growing increasingly upset, was struck by this act of kindness, and immediately stopped all her barbs and witticisms against the paladin and has yet to renew them. After Tristan, J’Div expressed his genuine trust of Vayne, but she was either too upset to hear him or didn’t believe him.

The blueprints for the Orb of Reality’s containment apparatus were simple, and the heroes rebuilt the thing when they went back to the City of Brass. Their next stop was Faerun, where they returned to Cormyr and enclosed the Orb of Reality in the case where Tristan’s mother had been keeping it safe.

Meanwhile, Vayne confronted Brandis about his distrust of her, and inquired whether he disliked her because he genuinely thought she was a Far Realm aberration, or because he had feelings for “the real Vayne.” Because, as she asserted, “I’m not her and never will be.” The monk quickly denied such feelings existed, to which Vayne said she had no doubt at least the original Vayne felt that way, as were circumstances different, surely Vayne-the-White would have such feelings (though Brandis had made where things lay between them very clear). The monk asserted that he hoped when Vayne returned, she would not hold unreciprocated feelings for him, to which Vayne-the-White said “I’m sure that would never happen.” The conversation might have gone on longer, but Fiona returned with the Orb of Reality in tow, Tristan’s mother having refused to safeguard it any longer. The heroes took it with them on their next quest: to find the well of living steel.

To this end, they set out in the Chromium and flew to the great rift in the south, where the fortress Observer had once floated. With a bit of luck and the Gatekeeper staff, they found the ruined fortress, where Ysabelle experienced visions and memories suggesting that she was not simply the daughter of Ruha the witch, but IS Ruha in some way. Also, they found a set of symbols similar to those they had discovered in the Shrapnels—one symbol for each of the heroes, encircling a central symbol of Ruha herself—but one was added: a lich’s phylactery, possibly representing Fiona’s involvement. The discussion also led Vayne to the realization that Ysabelle was not the mere girl that she seemed, but mysteriously kept young as though by magic. The rest of the party was unnerved that she did not seem to have previously known this, and wondered about the gaps in her memory.

In the fortress, they found a glowing human skull that shed a purple nimbus of magic. The power of the object was immense, and they realized very quickly that it was a lens through which Cyric, god of deception and strife, was watching them. Tristan favored the evil deity with a rude gesture, while Fiona actively put the skull in a burlap sack. Vayne remarked that she was sure a god would have trouble seeing through cloth, but the tiefling ignored her. They left the skull there, wrapped in the sack, and explored the rest of the castle. They determined there might be treasure in the vault, but they couldn’t open it, at least with the resources they had currently. The heroes left Observer and delved into the Underdark of the rift to begin the search for the well of living steel.

The heroes had not seen the last of Cyric’s skull, however. The cursed object reappeared in Fiona’s bag, and kept reappearing despite her attempts to remove it. Worse, it promised great power if only someone would wield it to cast magic. Brandis was extremely upset by this development and went so far as to suggest that Fiona leave the group. Fiona and Tristan argued as to which of them had drawn the deity’s foul attention. J’Div stood up for Fiona’s value to the group, and did not doubt her when Brandis asked if she should continue with the party. The others watched the arguments from afar, Vayne in particular with great interest. Ultimately, the group remained together, certain they could do nothing about the skull immediately.

The trek through the Underdark was no less frustrating. With no map or guide, they spent days wandering through the tunnels until finally they came upon two mad-looking svirfneblin (deep gnomes) who warned them against progressing farther. An active pocket of spellplague dominated the next cavern, they said, which they were actually there to study. The lifecycle of the creatures there was so fast they were witnessing evolution day-by-day. Also, the gnomes confessed several of their fellows had been killed during the study, and they made a habit of eating spellscarred meat.

The heroes might have turned back at that point, but the gnomes also said that a group had come through recently—perhaps a week ago—led by a prodigiously fat halfling that matched the description of Henri, Brandis’s old friend and the heroes’ current employer. It was revealed that Henri carried a compass similar to the ones the heroes carried, pointing them toward the Well of Living Steel. Ultimately, Fiona confessed that she was the source of Henri’s compass. More discussion abounded, and while Brandis and Fiona were distracted with the gnomes, Vayne sneaked away with J’Div for a liaison of their own. This, she demonstrated, was necessary to keep the perpetually lustful Vayne 2.0 from jumping one of the gnomes. And as upset as Vayne was at J’Div at the time, he was still a far better choice than either of those unsettling creatures. The others came to find them, but Vayne had already gone by the time they found J’Div back in the tunnel, looking quite satisfied.

The decision was made to venture through the spellplague pocket despite the dangers. The heroes simply didn’t have the time, if Henri and his party had already come this far. They delved into the bizarre subterranean forest and managed to get only part of the way through before the native wildlife caught their scent and rushed to the attack.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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