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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