Surrounded by darkness and guided by the light of smoldering torches, the heroes made their way over ancient stones slick with decaying algae. Their employer, Bertram Barnes, had made it a point to examine and re-examine every bump and crevice of these ruins as the group slowly descended into the lower levels… and now that he had been forced to split the expedition due to time constraints, they were eager to stretch their legs.
Despite the quality of construction common to all ruins from the long-past Cardean Empire, the land surrounding this complex had slowly become a shallow marsh over the centuries. The ruins had sunken deep below the surface, leaving only a sinkhole, discovered by chance, to reveal the existence of this place.
The adventurers, hired off the street in the capital city of Valcora, were a necessary expense for an expedition into completely unknown territory. Though they’d come in hand ymore than once, Barnes seemed eternally unsatisfied with their presence; he pecked like a mother hen, criticizing every move and loudly identifying each judgement that ran contrary to his own. Still, when one of the hired diggers fell prey to a poison dart trap set by feral goblin tribes on the upper levels, his true character was shown. He took the loss very personally, and asserted himself all the more as the only one experienced enough to keep everyone safe.
For all his abrasiveness, the group could’ve used Barnes’ critical eye a few seconds before they landed in their current predicament.
Lidya, an outspoken Valcoran and expert scout, hung from the lip of a dark and gaping hole in the floor, with Rose standing just above her, hand outstretched. The halfling bent to her knees, subconciously securing the many vials and bottles that hung from her person. Nearby, the dwarf Mogrir branged hammer against shield in challenge, facing off against a trio of feral goblins that cackled and lunged for him. Moloch, a looming reptilian presence in robes that only enhanced his sense of mystery, readied his blade totem staff behind a nearby pillar of broken stone.
The battle was harrowing, but the heroes skillfully dispatched their goblin foes, even after they started hurling wicked little thorned javelins down from above. In an incredible display of self-preservation, one of the goblins lurched between three seperate opponents before diving into the hole in the floor… shortly thereafter a splash, and a mysterious snapping sound were heard.
Finally clearing the stone deadfall that has trapped the party in this room, Barnes’ employees set about cataloguing the details of the chamber, as Bertram himself chastised the group for their lack of caution.
A narrow, spiralling staircase led them down to the ruin’s lower levels. Here, the masonry walls showed signs of their age and rivulets of water ran down from the cracks. Leveraging Lidya’s skills, the party disabled a cunning Cardean trap that would’ve peppered them from both sides with rusty crossbow bolts. At the end of this hallway, a fresco of stone hinted at the nature of this place; The relief depicted a regal looking figure with a strangely curved sword in one hand, a chalice in the other, and a crown that is also an armored helmet. Moloch surmised that it was an image of Galtuis III, the last king to reign over Cardea before it fell. It was difficult, however, to determine whether Galtius had lived here, or was entombed here.
Of the two halls leading East and West, the West had collapsed long ago. Barnes set his hired diggers to the task of clearing the debris, and took the East path with Moloch, Mogrir, Lidya, and Rose. The passage was narrow and footing was uneven, until it opened into a natural cavern so expansive that not even Mogrir’s darkvision could determine its exact shape. A stone bridge stretched out into the darkness, the sound of water to either side, and at its end, a circle of perfectly smooth, polished stone near fifty feet in diameter. On one side, a pedestal, bearing an object that had become overgrown with moss. On the other, an urn overflowing with gold coins.
Lidya was the first to step onto the circular platform, and it was a fortunate decision to send someone so well-balanced; she felt the entire circle shift under her weight, accelerating slowly downward before she was able to shift her weight back into the bridge. The heroes investigated the structure more closely, and determined that the platform was a hemisphere; polished completely smooth, it sat in a bowl-shaped depression at the top of a thick pillar that stood out of the dark waters of an underground lake.
Rose, light even for a halfling, volunteered to investigate the platform as those standing at the end of the bridge steadied it with their weight. She leapt to the far side of the platform, and, counterbalanced this way, was able to examine the two sides more closely. Creeping slowly closer, she wiped away the moss covering the object on the pedestal; a bronze helmet that resembled a crown. Reporting this to her companions prompted an insistant plea from Barnes; forget the gold, and get the crown out of there by any means necessary. Fortunately, the adventurers came to the same conclusion… but not without a longing look at the gold.
Reaching for the crown with slow, cautious hands, Rose was given pause by a previously unnoticed message carved into the pedestal:
“Heavy is the head that bears the crown.”
Taking no chances, the party agreed that the Cardeans wouldn’t have gone to all of this trouble and yet allowed the crown to be taken so easily by anyone with a couple of friends to counterbalance their trap. Cautiously, Mogrir threw rose the end of his rope, and after a few attempts she was able to secure it around the prize before the platform shifted to far from her weight on its edge. As one, the group tugged the ancient armored crown free of the pedestal… and as one, they were nearly thrown into the darkened waters alongside the bridge, as the crown’s weight proved many times what it would’ve seemed and it swung over the edge.
The removal of its counterbalance sent the platform slowly tipping, and just as the party managed to heave the incredibly heavy crown onto solid ground, the massive stone hemisphere was sent spinning into the water, impacting heavily with the pillars supporting the bridge and shuddering the weakened stone walls. Mogrir was quick to convey his concerns that the buckling stones were about to succumb to the pressure of the water surrounding them, and the crackling of ancient stone masonry emphasized his assessment. Sprinting for their lives, and thankful that the helmet has shed its supernatural weight when it left the platform, the heroes lurched up the stairs, steadfastly refusing to believe that the noise of rushing water behind them was as close as it seemed…
Silence settled about the common room of the Fair Winds Alehouse. Surrounded by strangers and accomplices, perhaps even a few friends, the heroes finished recoutning the tale of their venture into the Cardean ruins. After passing a few appraising glances between themselves, the patrons gave a round of applause, and even the tavern owner sent over a round of free drinks in appreciation of the tale.
The evening wore on. Concerns grew; Barnes had summoned the four of them here tonight to discuss another venture, but he was over an hour late. The Alehouse began to empty for the night, and still they sat in waiting, in a room nearly empty save for those too far gone to notice the time. It was one of these drunks that spilled his drink on Mogrir’s back as he passed. Thus distracted, the group didn’t notice five well-armed thugs sauntering into the tavern. Before they could react, strong hands rested in each of their shoulders, pinning them in their seats with knifepoints to their backs. An expensive-looking flintlock pistol levelled itself over the table, pointed at the diminunitive Rose, as its bearer stepped into focus. With a snide look on his face, the half elf was dressed in the lastest and most expensive fashions beneath his armored vest. From his pocket, he produced and unfolded a piece of paper with a likeness of each hero’s face, and their names.
He demanded that the heroes hand over ‘the Royal Seal’. He was insistent. Uncertain about his intentions and unwilling to give him any edge, the party rebuked his questions. Becoming frustrated, the man with the gun threatened to bury the four of them with the late Bertram Barnes if they didn’t comply. Lidya skillfully avoided the clumsy hands of one of the men as he ‘searched’ her for the mysterious Seal, and just as it seemed the impasse would explode into violence, the feathered shaft of a thick crossbow bolt thudded into the back of Rose’s assailant, and he fell heavilly atop her. The bartender, a heavy Osprian man, had kept the crossbow from under the bar trained on the thugs from behind, waiting for the right moment. Fortunately, he chose well… the distraction drew the gunman’s attention, and he fired a deafening shot into the barman, sending him sprawling. This in turn fouled Mogrir’s attempt to grab the gunman’s arm… a bold move that could’ve gone either way.
As Lidya slipped a dagger into her man’s ribs, Rose struggled to escape the chair she was pinned into. Moloch tossed the contents of his mug of strong liquor back into the face of his own thug, igniting the liquid in midair with a spell. Fortunate that he had managed to avoid the splash, this thug’s attention was drawn by the flash of a bomb lobbed over by the table by an enraged Rose, which singed the gunman and precipitated their flight from the tavern.
As the flames from Moloch’s deadly drink spread, Mogrir snatched the parchment that depicted the four of them, and the four left the tavern as the Watch arrived to put out the fire.
Under cover of darkness, the group searched the home of Bertram Barnes, a small house in the Gate Ward with spartan furnishings. The house had been ransacked, and the telltale signs of a struggle, especially the blood splattered on one wall, told the story of Barnes’ struggle… yet his body couldn’t be found. Sifting through the debris, Lidya gasped as she held up what appeared to be the shrunken head of a goblin, its eyes sewn shut. Moloch, unmoved, took the object out of curiosity. Being well versed in he subject of obscure religious rites in the warm southern lands, he determined that it was a Soulspeaker; the shrunken head of a creature with the soul still trapped inside, able to store a short message and speak it again at a later time. He took the trinket with him.
A number of papers strewn about the darkened home bore fragments of the same names or addresses as the one stamped on the back of the one the group had recovered from the floor of the Fair Winds; 13 Shallow Street, Gate Ward. They resolved to investigate.
The manor, a four story old-style construction that was unusually large for its neighborhood, appeared to be abandoned. While Lidya distracted a passing Watch patrol, Mogrir levered the back door off of its hinges with a crowbar… but a search of the house revealed nothing but furniture covered in white sheets and dust. This left only the closet door below the staircase on the first floor. Tension was high as the group opened the small creaky door, and the group collectively leaped backward as the bones of some unfortunate soul clattered toward them and onto the floor, raising clouds of dust in the subtle moonlight.
Upon closer examination, however, Rose determined that the bones were much too clean… this skeleton was placed here after being specially cleaned. After a brief contemplation over the meaning of this, the heroes took notice of soft light emanating from the bottom of a flight of stairs through the door. Cautiously they made their way down, until they found themselves in an octagonal room that resembled a basement parlor. A sound in the closet tempted Lydia onward, and she voraciously rifled through a number of fur coats until she found an elderly woman cowering their, clad in an apron, and bearing a feather duster.
The shrieking woman drew the attention of three men, who charged into the parlor from a pair of double doors, half-dressed in their armor and brandishing swords. The confrontation was intense as Mogrir traded words with the leader of the three, a man called Justin. Deftly out-argued, Justin was just reaching his bursting point when the frail, out of breath form of a thin and wispy man thudded up behind him, and told everyone to stand down. Justin called this nightclothed, white haired old man “Professor”, and begrudgingly defered to his request. The heroes were beckoned into the hallway beyond, and seated in a well appointed office.
“I would’ve preferred something a little more formal for our first meeting. No… I would’ve preferred we hadn’t met at all. I am professor Celshire Kardebrandt, former advisor to the Valcoran Department of History. The first thing I must ask you is why in all the blazing layers of hell Barnes told you how to find me.” He addressed them.
The professor wearilly settled into an ancient chair padded in purple, and withdrew a silver flask from one of the drawers. He sipped it in silence as the party told him about the events of the evening.
Realising he owed the heroes a full explanation for the hardship they had been put through, he explained that a thief had somehow broken into this office two weeks hence, and stolen the latest page from a book he used to keep track of the people he hired. Barnes, he said, was a close associate of his… and the truth of the statement was obvious by the way he took the news of his death. The latest expedition sent out by his organization was supposed to bring back the Cardean Royal Seal, and the Professor believed the thief had mistakenly assumed the page he had stolen depicted the expedition members.
He went on, however, to explain that he and his organization had indeed dispatched an expedition to the ruins of Haunted Grotto… a forgotten site in the Skyhall Mountains that was believed to hold the Royal Seal of Cardea.
Legend stated that assembling the three objects of power used by King Ethas to forge the Cardean Empire would convey the power to rule all men. These three items, known as the Artifacts of Ethas, were passed down through the generations of Cardean kings and eventually lost after the empire crumbled, during the reign of Galtius III. The crown that the heroes had recovered from the sunken ruins, however, had reawakened interest in the obscure subject. Though its properties were still unknown, it was undoubtedly one of the three Artifacts of Ethas.
The location of a second artifact, the Chalice, was already known; somewhere beneath the city of Valcora, within the layers of history the modern city is built on, lay a chamber that can only be opened by the Royal Seal of Cardea. And, though the chamber is yet to be found, his organization wanted to acquire the seal and keep it out of the wrong hands. As the first expedition sent to Haunted Grotto hadn’t returned, he extended the offer of employment to his present company. Once their palms were greased with an advance payment to cover the cost of supplies, they readilly agreed. Moloch, however, chose not to accept payment, instead asking that the Professor supply him with whatever information, lore, or artifacts he may have concerning the nature of fire.
When questioned about the thugs in the Fair Winds Alehouse, Professor Kardebrandt readilly supplied a name; Vondreaux, a fabulously wealthy merchant prince who had recently taken and interest in archaeology and was using every means at his disposal to intercept additions for his collection. The group elected to get some rest and prepare for the journey to Haunted Grotto in the morning, rather than pursue Vondreaux, believing that they would do him greater insult by keeping the seal out of his hands.
In afterthought, Moloch withdrew the soulspeaker he had found in Bertram Barnes’ ransacked home. He set it on the professor’s desk, and bade him “Make it speak.” Though perplexed, the professor admitted that he had known Barnes a long time, and believed he knew how to activate the message he had stored inside. Tenderly, he stroked the hideous, tiny head.
The sewn eyes opened slightly as the lips began to form words.
“Egggsss… Onionnss!… Wheeeeeat flour…. Miiilk……”