The Gatekeeper

3. Contemplation and Treachery
Of honorable tests, deep treacheries, and past pain shared

The heroes emerged through the portal only to find the Pandemonium Stone: a floating mountain of a castle that appears randomly in both space and time. J’Div took off running toward the stone for a then-unknown purpose, and Vayne immediately ran after him. The rest of the party hesitated, but Vayne cried out that if J’Div reached the stone, he would vanish along with it forever. The heroes managed to restrain the genasi before he could reach the stone, and it vanished, sending them all flying with a shockwave of force. They managed to fly or teleport to the ground safely. Though the stoic J’Div passed it off as no concern, Vayne’s act in thwarting him shook their relationship deeply (or at least so Vayne believed).

Upon looking around, the heroes found themselves in the Elemental Chaos near the Dragon Tear monastery, where Brandis had been trained. The githzerai monks of the monastery welcomed them openly as friends, and Brandis reunited with his old master, the elderly githzerai Funikashi—one of three ruling masters and the one who had sent him to find and protect Ysabelle in the first place. The two of them fought a friendly sparring match, at the end of which they retired for a private moment in which Brandis gave unto Funikashi the “One True Vision” (or, as the rest of the party had taken to calling it, the “Tome of Pure Thought”) they had acquired in the underworld realm. Funikashi promised to keep it safe. Meanwhile, the rest of the heroes made themselves comfortable in the monastery. J’Div and Vayne sparred, as was their wont. Tristan stuck close to Ysabelle at all times, and the girl was fascinated by the philosophies of the monks. Razor’s natural curiosity and mischievous streak got the better of him, but the monks easily kept tabs on his attempts to sneak about.

At the monastery, they also met a suspicious silver-haired monk called Matsumura (the second ruling master), who Vayne recognized as her employer to kidnap Ysabelle. The third ruling master was absent under suspicious circumstances. Vayne drew Brandis aside and told him that if she ever acted strangely or he was concerned for her sanity, he should utter two words: “Viridian” and “Chromium” in her presence. It had to be him, however, as he was the one she most trusted. She told him that he would know when to use the words. The monk didn’t understand what she meant, but agreed. Thereafter, Vayne met in secret with Matsumura to arrange for their betrayal. He paid her a large sum of gold in exchange for killing Brandis, Tristan, and Razor, and bringing Ysabelle back unharmed. Vayne handled it all with icy detachment and complete believability.

Before the quest to rescue Ysabelle, Brandis had been poised to complete his training in the githzerai way, and Funikashi offered him the final step: to claim the “last breath” of a storm dragon in the Elemental Chaos. The group undertook this quest without hesitation, climbing about the skyship Chromium that the monks provided for the journey. Not coincidentally, the crew of the Chromium formerly called Vayne their captain in her days of Astral Sea piracy. Currently, the ship was commanded by Vayne’s old first mate (and lover) Ruthchek, a gruff, dirty, but very strong hobgoblin. She immediately gave him hell for even taking “her” ship into the Elemental Chaos, as well as hiring a crew of scurvy sea dogs, rather than their much superior crew they’d had before. The two of them bickered and almost fought upon their reunion, but ultimately the party got underway.

They fought their way through the dragon’s lair in the clouds and, in a harrowing battle made worse by the aura of swirling storm around it, slew the creature and captured its last breath in a receptacle made for that purpose. On their way back to the Chromium, Razor grew increasingly apprehensive around Brandis, particularly when they were ambushed by some of the monks from the monastery. The heroes quickly defeated the foes, even when one of them summoned an air elemental to capture Ysabelle (Vayne saved her). Afterward, the monk and the avenger came to blows when Razor swore his oath of vengeance upon Ysabelle, thinking that she was a danger to all of them.

Vayne seized the moment to escort Ysabelle back to the ship, along with J’Div and Tristan, where Ruthchek pushed off from the cloud-isle and commanded his men (and the two monks escorting them) to seize the girl. Vayne instructed that Tristan be seized but not harmed unless he fought back. The betrayal might have gone smoothly had not Brandis and Razor returned and leaped desperately onto the trailing ropes to the ship. Brandis spoke the words Vayne had told him, and both she and Ysabelle were immediately flooded with memories that reversed their course of action. Weeping and glad at the same time (she actually kissed Brandis when he arrived safely on the ship), Vayne helped the others seize control of the Chromium and dispatch the two treacherous monks. Ruthchek, being inclined to side with Vayne—and more importantly, upon seeing the potency of the heroes—pragmatically chose to become their ally rather than their enemy.

Thereafter, Vayne explained that she had hatched a scheme with Ysabelle and her psionic powers to “program” herself to betray the party into Matsumura’s hands. After she had recognized him at the monastery, she had known that he meant to have Ysabelle killed and the only way to keep her alive—and to let Vayne find out more about Matsumura’s scheme—was to make him believe she was still in control and the plan was still progressing as discussed. Ysabelle wiped many of Vayne’s memories (including her growing maternal relationship with Ysabelle) and turned her into a conniving, cold-hearted traitor (which, admittedly, was not too difficult), then wiped her own memories of the incident. This way, Vayne would smoothly convince Matsumura that she had the girl well in hand and would arrange for the deaths of the rest of the party on the expedition. If/when everyone survived, Vayne would operate under the assumption that Matsumura would need to keep all of them alive for the moment. They both labored under a post-hypnotic suggestion to “wake up” and remember everything when Brandis (and only Brandis) spoke the passwords Vayne had told him about. The scheme hadn’t succeeded in full (since Brandis had tripped the suggestion early), but at least they’d got out of the monastery safely. Now they could return at their leisure.

As the Chromium was returning to the monastery, Brandis approached Vayne for a private discussion. The shadar-kai was weeping quietly at the prow of the skyship, which stole a bit of the furious castigation Brandis was going to give her for an ill-thought out plan. He cleared his throat, offering her a chance to compose herself. Then he admitted the efficacy of the plan, though informed her that he would have appreciated it if she had been forthright with him. Vayne explained that she was concerned Matsumura or one of his allies would be able to mental scry all of them, and if anyone had known about the plan, it wouldn’t have worked, but she promised to make more of an effort to trust him.

Brandis shared with her a revelation about his past: he was a former thief until his former colleagues betrayed him during a heist from the Thousand Fists monastery for an item called the Dragon Tear Sword. They cut the rope he was climbing, allowing him to plunge three hundred feet seemingly to his death. The benevolent monks took him in, repaired his body, and trained him in a new path. His quest, when he leaves the monastery after having completed his test, is to find the sword and restore it to its rightful place. In turn, Vayne told Brandis about her own past: that she was once a sworn bodyguard in Gloomwrought, but had killed her master out of vengeance for her murdered daughter, Viridian. She turned ronin and fled the city, leaving everyone there to believe her dead along with her master. Brandis inquired as to whether he could truly trust her with regard to Ysabelle, and Vayne asked: “You heard the part about the dead daughter, right?” To that, the monk nodded.

They shook hands, resolved that while they might not always see eye to eye, they would at least attempt to trust each other and work together.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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2. Dust and Fire
Delving an ancient, ruined city of madness and a world of fire

The heroes found themselves in a deep well of dark water.

Fumbling and flailing for the surface, they reconnoitered and determined they were in a far removed world from where they began that day. Surrounding them were the walls of a dusty crypt, a place that hadn’t been touched in centuries.

They spent a few moments conversing, though not to much effect, due mostly to their conflicting interests as regards Ysabelle. Vayne spoke on behalf of herself and J’Div: they’d been hired to “rescue” the girl, and she meant to hold up her end of the bargain. Tristan countered this, saying they would only take Ysabelle over his senseless or dead body, and Vayne replied with “a girl likes a challenge.” Brandis defused the situation before it could get any worse, saying that they had to work together to find a way out of that dead place, and a tentative agreement was reached. The look between Vayne and Tristan made it clear more than words would be exchanged.
As would become a pattern of behavior with him, Razor triggered an ancient defensive ward in attempting to find his way out of the crypt, summoning rock-like guardians that seemed loath to attack Ysabelle (but happily mauled the rest of the heroes). When she connected with their minds briefly, Ysabelle had the sense whatever was controlling them thought it could connect with her in some way. The heroes vanquished their foes, but the unease lingered. Rest did not come easily in that place, and the heroes’ sleep was shattered with dark and violent visions, particularly for Ysabelle, who woke screaming every few hours.

After a bad night (or day, there was no way to tell), the heroes pressed on into what turned out to be a vast, uninhabited subterranean city. There was no sign of anything alive in that place, though the heroes had the constant sense they were being watched. Ysabelle’s mental connection grew, until she became aware of a mental presence in the city that sought to draw her to it. It began to speak with her, asking her to join it in a central temple. The crystal was vague about the origins of the city, saying its inhabitants had gone silent long ago, and that “the world above” was a fiery horror.

In a basement, the heroes discovered a set of ancient books, including (in an unbreakable magic box) a tome that appeared to be bound in human (or something like it) flesh. Entering this chamber invited an attack from shadowy creatures (remnants of the city’s former inhabitants) but the heroes handily chased them off. Called the “One True Vision” (or something the like, Deep Speech doesn’t translate well into Common), the book was a treatise on all things aberrant and the Far Realm. Within its pages lay secrets to drawing upon the power of madness. The heroes took turns reading the book, but for Ysabelle, who wanted nothing to do with it. The hero it most affected was Brandis, who had received his training at a githzerai monastery and was used to mental discipline. This intrigued the heroes, particularly Vayne who speculated that she would have tagged him as a thief at first glance. This proved truer than anyone suspected.

Shortly after locating the book, the heroes found a temple with a gleaming gold disk embedded in the floor. The temple appeared to be to some sort of aberrant deity, as the great statue in the center depicted a squid-headed creature all of us could identify but didn’t dare name. Ysabelle did the honors, though none could say where she came by the knowledge: Mind Flayer.

The room had an odd effect on Tristan, who got a feverish gleam in his eye and searched his pack for a short rod of steel that looked like a piece of a staff. None knew its purpose, but it appeared clearly magical. He fell into communion with the rod and it pointed toward the disk, where he insisted ‘the next piece’ lay waiting. The heroes worked to remove the golden disk, only to trigger a trap that landed them in a 3-dimensional fight with a gibbering mouther. When they defeated the creature and found their way out of the trap (mostly thanks to Brandis, whose disciplined mind solved the puzzle quickly), they found themselves back in the temple, where another battle ensued, which they also won. The disk removed, they found another length of rod, which Tristan promptly set to his first piece, making them bond instantly. He stated his desire to find the next piece—that is his quest, it seems.

The heroes spent that “night” under the vigilance of their mental companion: a massive, intelligent crystal that glowed at the heart of the underground city. Though the entity was clearly not to be trusted, the heroes made peace with it long enough to rest from their battles. That was until Razor provoked it by attempting to smite it with his sword, causing it to summon a frost beholder and four foulspawn hulks. A mighty battle ensued, wherein the betrayed crystal sought to take over Ysabelle by replacing her mind with its own. The heroes barely defeated the creature, only to open a rift to the Far Realm beneath it. Promptly, the portal began to suck anything and everything nearby into it, including all the shadows of the city’s former inhabitants. The heroes waded out through the stream of shadow, their vitality draining away as they went. Vayne, who had a strong resistance to shadow thanks to her shadar-kai blood, protected Ysabelle as best she could, sacrificing some of her vitality to help her (and the others) escape.

When it was over, the city lay in ruins, but at least the awful menace that had attempted to steal Ysabelle’s mind and soul was defeated. With nowhere else to go, the heroes discerned the location of the nearest portal off the world (thanks to Brandis’ planar astrolabe), which lay upon the surface, and set out in that direction. They hadn’t gone up through more than a couple tunnels before the air about them started to heat up. A colony of bats that were as much fire as flesh attacked them, but the heroes valiantly fought them off. Vayne’s swordmagic proved especially useful in paralyzing the firebats long enough for the others to kill them, lest they take advantage of their superior mobility.

When they arrived on the surface, the heroes found themselves in a hellish world indeed. The Elemental Chaos was bleeding into the world—mostly forces of fire and earth—and it left the surface a burnt cinder. The heroes pressed on toward the portal, though they knew they would need help to make it through this harsh landscape.

Help soon arrived in the form of a volcanic dragon—a terrifying beast whose insides coursed with super-heated magma—which at first attacked, then opted to bargain with the heroes. Its egg, it claimed, had been stolen, and if the heroes retrieved said treasure, the dragon would take them to the portal it knew of. This the heroes did—and the dragon kept up its end of the bargain—only to discover the truth of the dragon’s claim: the egg did not belong to that wyrm, but rather to a bigger, older, and more powerful volcanic dragon who soon enough was on their trail. They laid an ambush for the elder wyrm and fought it to a standstill, at which point they made a new bargain: they would return the egg if the older dragon carried them to the portal, and (of course) if the older dragon would kill the younger, treacherous one. The dragon agreed, slew the thieving dragon, and (pleased with the heroes’ ruthlessness) carried them to their goal: a volcano filled with fire giants and elemental archons.

Fortunately, the heroes had planned a distraction: they secreted the egg among the giants and archons, prompting the dragon to rampage through their ranks and kill as many as got in its way. In the confusion, the heroes were able to slip through, find the portal, and take it away from that awful place.

To Be Continued!

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1. The Gathering, the Duel, and the Demons
On the origin of the Worldwalkers, Guardians of the Gatekeeper

This story is, as they all are, about a girl: Ysabelle. She’s a kalashtari girl with no clear path, no remembered past, and (if her enemies have their way) no living future. Which is where the rest of us come in, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The story begins in Sigil.

What a child was doing wandering the streets of such a dangerous city, no one could say, but soon enough she met a protector: the elf-blooded dragonborn paladin Tristan Evensong. Tristan was in Sigil for his own reasons, but he knew an important cause when he met one. Moved by his own sense of duty and honor, he swore to protect Ysabelle against whatever unknown dangers might be pursuing her.

And there were dangers.

Four others came to meet Ysabelle along their own means, for very different reasons. The former-thief-turned- monk Brandis was dispatched on a mission for his master Funikashi to find and protect Ysabelle, who held some measure of import to the monastery. Allied with him came the dangerous Razor, a goblin avenger sworn to the Raven Queen, goddess of Death, who served with Brandis for reasons of his own. The goblin more-or-less under his control, Brandis kept a firm purpose in mind: protect the girl at all costs.

Then came the mercenaries: the stormsoul genasi warlord J’Div and the shadar-kai swordmage Vayne, planar sellswords hired to find and return Ysabelle to a mysterious silver-haired patron. As it turned out, said patron was not interested in “protecting” Ysabelle, but they only had their suspicions at that point—besides, the life of a sellsword sometimes requires a little moral blindness.

The six converged on a lonely tavern in Sigil, all competing over a single interest: Ysabelle.

When the heroes first met, we sussed out very quickly that we were after the same thing. Tristan, who had no intention of giving up his ward, stood firm against Vayne and J’Div, who were poised to take her. Vayne convinced him to fight a duel over the girl. Whoever won would take Ysabelle, and the demands of honor would be met. The duel’s dishonorable beginning set the tone: Vayne immediately hurled her sword into Tristan’s face, which he barely parried away. For the rest of the duel, she used her guile and her shadar-kai abilities to best effect, absorbing Tristan’s greatest attacks into her shadow form and often teleporting where he couldn’t reach. Frustrated, Tristan struck again and again, and Vayne only laughed at the wicked wounds he dealt her.

It was a protracted fight, between the scrappy shadar-kai and the honorable paladin.
J’Div subtly supported Vayne, shouting inspiring words, while Ysabelle blasted Vayne with psychic attacks that she barely fended off. Meanwhile, Razor set a tracking spell upon her, so that he’d never lose her whatever happened, and Brandis positioned himself to grab her in the confusion. Ultimately, Vayne went down to one knee and feigned to yield, but when Tristan came forward to help her up, she kneed him between the legs; an underhanded strike absorbed by his thick codpiece. Clearly, he’d fallen prey to that particular trick before and wasn’t about to suffer it again. He responded to that by smacking Vayne in the face hard enough to draw blood, which made her giddy in the way only a shadar-kai might become at great pain.

Ysabelle herself called a halt to the duel before it could properly end. The six adjourned to a room in the tavern, where they discussed matters. Tristan interpreted the duel as having ended in his favor, so he kept custody of Ysabelle, but Vayne argued that the duel hadn’t properly ended, and they still had unfinished business. Until then, their interests aligned, so she and J’Div would go along with them and protect Ysabelle. They’d proved themselves effective protectors thus far, so Tristan agreed uneasily.

Before the full details could be determined, a flock of vrocks and other demons arrived, seeking to take Ysabelle for themselves. The heroes set aside their differences to work together to destroy the threat, but the demons kept coming. Worse, a hulking goristro appeared, which tore apart the tavern to get at the girl. A tiefling (one of the patrons) appeared and offered a way out: a portal upstairs Brandis and Razor took Ysabelle while Tristan and Vayne covered the retreat, with J’Div offering healing support to both sides. The oddly matched shadar-kai and elf-dragon proved an excellent team, covering the heroes’ retreat. Of particular note was Vayne’s magic summoning a dimensional vortex to turn a goristro’s attack from Brandis to one of the vrocks.

The heroes hurried through the portal, finding themselves in a fiery tunnel through the Elemental Chaos. They fought their way across, only to awaken deep under water . . .

TO BE CONTINUED!

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