Age of Ascension

Episode Fourteen: Feeling Out the Web

It was just past sundown when the heroes reached the clocktower overlooking the old market in the Gate Ward. Ascending to the top, they were greeted by buffeting winds whistling over the peaked roofs of the city. The skyline stretched out in all directions, much further than one could imagine from below. Several rooftops adjoined the clocktower, just a short drop below the stone rail around the edge of their platform. Positioned on many of these stood men in dark clothing, bearing bows aimed in their direction. At the end longest roof projecting outward from the tower, they could see two figures; the frail form of Professor Kardebrandt, held roughly in the arms of a stronger, cloaked figure.

“Tin Man’s totties, I told you ya couldn’t slip a lie past me, old man. What else would ya be doin’ up here all by yer onesies if not waitin’ for someone?”

There was a tense moment as the shrouded figure’s searching hands drew a fist-sized polyhedral of gold from the professor’s jacket pocket. It could only have been the Cardean Royal Seal, the key to promised power that the group had recovered from Haunted Grotto months ago. Then, the thief demanded the party lay their valuable out on the rail of the tower, walk back down the spiral stairs, and out into the square, where he could see them.

Banter was exchanged for a few moments, but Lidya grew tired of negotiating. With surprising grace she swung up her crossbow and fired bolt into the nearest roof-walker, nearly killing him outright.

The rooftops erupted in chaos as arrows were fired from all directions, most of them innaccurately. Moloch leapt from the clocktower and sprinted alomg the peaked roof, toward the startled thief holding the Professor. He had already loosed his grip on the old man and looked like he would shove him off the roof at any moment.

While Lidya and Mogrir engaged two of the roofwalkers who were climbing into the tower with startling speed, Rose flung a stone from her slingstaff, which struck the leader of the roof-walkers, and in an incredible twist he was unable to shake off the effects of the drow poison she had applied to it. He doubled forward…

The tips of two long, wicked knives thrust into the space he had occupied from behind, a double backstab that would’ve been brutal… but the attacker couldn’t anticipate the sudden collapse of his target, and half-stumbled over the falling man. Not ten feet away from Moloch, the Dead Man had revealed himself. Acting on instinct, fire welled from Moloch’s hands and he blasted the assassin with a fireball that knocked loose many of the slate shingles and set fire to the structure beneath. Unfortunately, the Dead Man evaded the brunt of the blast, and dove from the roof in pursuit of the Seal, which had fallen from the unconscious thief’s hand and landed in the alley below. Kardebrandt, caught in the blast, was killed, either by the fire itself or the impact with the street forty feet below.

Two of the roof-walkers, armed with longbows, caught Moloch in their crossfire, leaving him injured. Rose cleared the rest of the nearby threats with a frost bomb, while Mogrir bashed a completely outclassed enemy to paste.

Descending to the street, the group was not unmoved by the loss of the old man, and debated over how best to ensure his resurrection and recovery, even as the watch closed in on the now blazing inferno. They discovered clues to his reason for meeting them among his possessions. A small book kept in his inner pocket contained a journal of sorts, which said that he had brought the Seal here without consent of the Seven Lords, intending to give it to the heroes for safekeeping. He sensed a traitor among the Seven Lords! Reading on, they found that once again, Kardebrandt hadn’t completely trusted anyone, and had attuned the compass-like device on his person to the Seal so he could track it, within a reasonable distance. Somewhat heated debate ensued about whether to see to the Professor or follow the Seal with the aid of the compass… but in the end it was decided that they leave a note for the authorities with the professor, recommending news of the situation be dispatched to Magister Cloth at once.

They tore through the alleys in pursuit of the Seal, dodging watch patrols, vaulting the walls of warehouse complexes, and talking their way through a wedding party to save time going around these obstacles. Their haste proved valuable, as the compass began to spin wildly just moments after directing them close enough to identify their destination; a derelict whaling ship moored among the endless peers of the Sea Ward.

A crew of no more than seven dockworkers toiled into the night, in the light of a few scattered lanterns. They were loading crates onto a hand-crane on the other side of the ship. In their preliminary scouting attempt, Rose and Lidya sneaked onto the ship, but in the sparse cover, Lidya was seen. She played herself off as a wandering drunk, giving Rose, who had used a potion of invisibility, a chance to explore the ship. Unwilling to take her chances near any of the dockworkers, she climbed down to the skiff using the crane, which was now unmanned as most of the men had left to see what the fuss was about.

Prying open one of the crates with a found crowbar, she dug into the straw lining, discovering a smaller box packed at the center. Inside, cushioned with down, four vials were filled with a familiar yellow fluid… the plague agent she had seen in the wererat den earlier. Unconcerned with the consequences, Rose knew that the plague agent had to be destroyed before it could be dispersed. She climbed back onto the deck of the ship, and dropped and explosive bomb on the skiff.

The resulting explosion attracted the attention of numerous distant Watch patrols visible in the night by their lanterns, but the group elected to press on when the dockworkers fled the mysterious explosion. They pressed onward, entering the old derelict’s underbelly.

Though they cautiously made their way to the hold, after hearing voices beyond the next door, the party chose to preserve the element of surprise and had Rose open the door invisibly, hoping no one would notice. They needed a moment to fully understand what they were seeing.

Metal vats lined either side of the ship’s interior, normally used for the distillation of whale fat into oil at sea, as was common among Valcoran whaling ships which processed several whales before coming back to port. Each of the vats had a viewing port on either side, and some were backlit by wall lanterns that revealed the oily, yellow contents bubbling within the vats and bathed the room in a sickly light. A series of tables stood in the center, scattered with lab equipment and papers. Toward the stern of the ship, atop a slightly raised section, stood the apparent master of this hideous operation; he wore a bloodied longcoat of brown, and a black beak-nosed doctor’s mask. His two accomplices toiled around the vats, mixing and adding ingredient… one little more than a blur of motion as it moved, and the other a werecrocodile. On either side of the plague doctor stood a large cage, and two people were within each.

Despite a lightning bolt cast by the plague doctor, which nearly friend Moloch, the battle was quick and bloody, especially with the addition of the crate of entrails dropped by the werecroc when the battle began. When all was relatively still, Rose made for the tables, determining that the plague was definitely developed here, and further that a slightly different version of it was being cultivated in each of the four vats. She also discovered another letter, signed by the mysterious MAVEN.

_ Brother Melius,_
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_ Though it is unfortunate, your existing research is promising enough that we’ve elected to move our schedule ahead by three weeks. Dockworkers will arrive tommorow night to begin loading the crates. We are sending someone to inhume Doctor Devahl before he returns from Wightlade, but be absolutely sure you’ve made full use of his office, and put it to the torch._
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_ When this is done, you are commanded to provide Nym with every means at your disposal to ensure that she recovers our Keshite prize from the museum successfully. She will make her play within the week. Be warned that one of the Cross ships got ahead of themselves and already pawned a good deal of their other take from the Sutulak raid, raising suspicion… remain vigilent._

Rose struck upon the idea of matching up the two broken halves of the wax seal that once held the letter, and found they showed the symbol of the Dead Man. It was an important moment; between the seal and the two letters, it was becoming apparent that the plague, the Dead Man, MAVEN, and Vondreaux were somehow connected. They’d also been provided with two names between the letters; Esmos, who would be checking up on the progress of those releasing the plague, and Nym, who would be stealing an important object from Kesh from the Valcoran Historical Museum very soon.

Lidya’s local knowledge provided that Doctor Isaias Devahl was famous in Valcora for discovering the cure for the blackblood epidemic, 13 years ago. The group discussed the possibility of reaching Wightlade before whomever was sent to murder Devahl did.

Lidya and Mogrir examined the rusted iron cages. The occupants of the first were beyond help, and must’ve been test subjects for the plague… most of their hair had fallen out, their skin was ashen with visible boils, and their eyes were not only glazed but as if sheathed in a yellow film. Black fluid dribbled down the chin of one of the two. They made no reaction as the group approached, save for the occasional spasm of a limb or groan.

The other cage contained two prisoners much more lively than the other two. Each was an unshaven human, taken from the streets of Valcora by their clothing. One professed to have been an Investigator for the Watch, caught while observing the unusual activity aboard the derelict. Moloch’s examination confirmed that the investigator showed no signs of infection as yet, though both men claimed they hadn’t been given anything that would make them sick. The second man, despite his hysterics, was left behind for the Watch to find; boils were visible under the collar of his shirt.

As they climbed back onto the dock, the heroes were surprised to find someone had loosed the moorings of the ship, and it had floated about a hundred feet out to sea… which explained why the Watch hadn’t come in behind them, yet. They could see small boats being commandeered and prepared by soldiers on the distant peers, as well as a naval ship approaching from the opposite side, it’s beacon lanterns straining to illuminate the derelict at this distance. Diving into the water, the group chose to swim to shore in the darkness.

They made their way home to 13 Shallow Street, finding most of the Watch had been pulled from their patrols to either the fire in the Gate Ward or the explosion in the Sea Ward. Mogrir insisted the group make a stop at the Pheonix Pub, as they’d stashed all of the wealth they found in the sewer vault there under care of the owner, Wolfram. Despite the story their appearances told, Wolfram asked no questions. They hauled their treasure home, and slept.

At midmorning, the decision was made that the group would investigate the office of Doctor Devahl, here in Valcora, as it was mentioned in the second letter. Finding the back windows unlocked and one partially open, they crept inside… rifling through the guest book revealed that Devahl was the person physician of both Lord Travere and Lord Marley, of the Seven Lords.

A rollrop desk, when opened, spilled outward with papers that must’ve been stuffed back in after digging through them. While mention was made in several places about the cure for the Blackblood plague, all record of the cure was conspicuously absent.

Lidya busied herself with a wall-safe she skillfully picked out from afar, behind a painting. A bag of gems was discovered inside, as well as a wooden box of dried bloodcaps… a mushroom from the deepest caverns of the dwarves, which grows near iron deposits and can be used to speed the passage of a compound through the blood.

Rounding a partition that provided privacy during examinations, the they found a display case that had been smashed open, glass scattered across the floor. Dark stains in the smooth wood indicated that several of the preserved corpses of rats from the Blackblood plague, which were displayed here, had been removed. Rose’s eye was caught by the painting above the smashed case, however: It depicted five people, one of which Lidya recognized as Doctor Devahl himself, and another Rose recognized from her years spent studying alchemy in Wightlade: Sunad Turziel, a prominent alchemical researcher living in Waylar. The group concluded that they knew where and with whom Devahl must be staying, and as they left, they sent off a message to Turziel in hopes it would reach them before the murderer sent by MAVEN.

Pressed for time, the group made haste to the Brass Feather, where they had been invited for a meeting with Vondreaux on his return from abroad, three weeks ago. On their arrival, they were directed to the Silver Room, and handed a bottle of expensive chilled wine. Whispering briefly amongst themselves before entering, they pushed open the rich cherrywood double doors.

The meeting room was large and well appointed, dominated by a single long table, and the walls were lined with portaits of famous Valcoran officials. One one side of the table, Victus Vondreaux sat with his hands steepled. In a completely silent vigil around him stood six black-armored soldiers of the Enclave. He beckoned them to sit, and a tense discussion ensued.

Vondreaux said that he believed the group had been incentivized to get in the way of his progress without fully understanding his intentions. When pressed, he explained it was his intent to enable the Enclave to flush out and rid the city of its demons once and for all. He explained that the Seven Lords were no more than a pack of jackals momentarily standing at the peak of citizen-powers in Valcora, and that they only oppose him because they fear anyone else gaining more influence than they have. The heroes confronted this, citing several past incidents in which Vondreaux has been responsible for threats against them. He called the incident with the seal unfortunate; a favor for the Enclave, who wanted the Seal for protection, which he had passed on to a lieutenant who had proved most unreliable. He dismissed accusations that he was responsible for the smuggling and theft of archeological objects that was on the rise, explaining that treasure hunting is in itself a foolhardy, profiteering business, and he can’t be blamed if the fool who undertake it try to cash in on his interest.

The conversation began to take a turn for the worse, as animosities flared. It was made plain that the group wanted to hear what Vondreaux intended to propose with this meeting.

“What I ask is that you distance yourself from the Seven Lords long enough to see for yourself how quickly their loyalties shift. I know of a great many opportunities for a capable team like yours to make their fortune, and you must all miss the simplicity of life before you got involved in this… whirlwind. Venture West and make your bid toward fortune and freedom, while you still can. I can supply you with leads I’ve uncovered… I am unfortunately not in the business of treasure-seeking, but the information may be too good to waste.”

A decision was reached. The heroes had become hopelessly entangled in something they didn’t yet understand, and could use some time away, if only to approach again in some months from a less precarious angle. Besides; travelling West meant the opportunity to visit Wightlade in secret, and discover the fate of Doctor Devahl. It was established that in the space of a week, the group would leave the city for a time, having first received the information they were owed by Mr. Morgeaux and Vondreaux’s promising leads in the West. He assured them that it was a wise move that would allow them to see how quickly the Seven Lords would change their loyalties without them as capable, but unwitting pawns. They set about planning their expedition West…

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Grimstead

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