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Ouroboros

This one-shot was played at Gencon this year on August 19th, 2005. Below is the teaser for the game in the Con-Con solicitation for players:

What do you get when you cross Elven Airships, Nilhen Chronomancers, a gate to the wastes of Neist and the banished contagious undead army of Demarian invaders? The End of Days! And to top it all off, you've got this nasty sense of deja-vu...

Cast of Characters:


Synopsis: (Assynt 37, 1022 E.C.)

The adventure begins with each individual receiving word from a half-elven woman named Aethra that there is an important job that requires their special talents, and that pays *VERY* well. Each person knows of Aethra through a contact, and decides to meet their employer in Arrowstead Park, in the Clovertoun district of Kalen. At the park, Aethra leads the party to a war memorial, a long slab of stone 8' high by 40' long that gives the name of the (known) fallen in the last war with Demaria. Aethra looks to see if anyone (other than the party) is watching, then traces a sigil on the stone slab, seemingly anchored in the letters of several names. A portion of the memorial disappears, revealing a verdant garden beyond, a stark contrast to the limited foliage of early spring found in Arrowstead park. A warm gust of air buffets the party as they step through the portal. On the other side, Aethra draws the same sigil in reverse, and the portal vanishes, leaving a stone obelisk in its place with the sigil etched where she traced it just a moment ago.

Following Aethra up a sandy path flanked by reflecting pools and beds of perfectly smooth sand, they climb 30' to a summit that looks out over the whole island. The warmth of the day, combined with the tropical waters is telling... they are much further north than Hebridonia, perhaps even in a different hemisphere! In the distance they can see another small island, and yet another on the horizon. Aethra takes in the view with the group and says 'This is a Nilhen sanctuary. There is no one here because a few days ago, something happened that has disturbed them greatly.' She gestures to a low pavilion down the slope from the summit, to a figure standing at the base of stairs leading up to the shelter. 'Selmoc will be able to explain better than I however.'

They walk down the path and reach Selmoc at the base of the stairs. 'Greetings my friends.' Selmoc extends a hand of welcome to each person. 'I'm glad to see that each of you has accepted my invitation to meet regarding a mission of great importance... to all of us.' He gestures for the group to follow him up the stairs. Entering the Pavillion, they see the floor has been covered by a thin layer of sand, and a circular geometrical construct has been traced in the sand, spanning roughly 12' across. The construct itself is 6 pointed star shape with two rather than three axes of symmetry. Along the perimeter of the figure is a circle, and beyond the circle there are clearly footprints, while none are seen within the figure.

Selmoc explains that the job is to retrieve a crystal, called the Chasiel (pronounced Sha-Seal), that looks similar to the figure on the floor (though clearly in 3 dimensions). He explains that it is important because the time of Ouroboros is approaching, and the crystal is needed in order to make the coming change pass successfully. The confusion on everyone's faces prompts Selmoc to explain that the nature of existence is like a circle, and that the coming end of this existence occurs when all peoples return to the "Shining Path" and become the beings of light that we once were. Since the world was made manifest when the celestial beings (the Drayen) fell from the shining path, the end is also the beginning. What has been, will be again, in a never-ending cycle. Though creation myths have similarities to what the Selmoc has said, the group seems quite skeptical about Selmoc's story.

Sensing their doubt, Selmoc asks for the party to have open minds in considering this, because his explanation of how he knows the time of Ouroboros is coming will seem impossible to closed minds. 'I have two memories of events that transpired two days ago, one of a normal day in quiet reflection, another of a day filled with horror of an undead invasion launched from beneath the city of Kalen itself!' Selmoc explains that in the latter memory, he helps a group of adventurers repair a defect in their timeline that resulted in the undead army pouring through a portal deep in the tunnels beneath Kalen. While not perfect, Selmoc believes the corrective magicks have put things back they way they should have been, restoring the city to it's 'correct' existence. This is... to put it mildly... beyond the fantastic for anyone to accept, and several party members indicate that maybe accepting the story isn't necessary to hear about the rest of the job. Jerran puts it best, 'I don't know what this Orbo-us thing is, but maybe we should talk about what we need to do to get this crystal.'

Nodding, Selmoc informs them that the Chasiel was last in the custody of the Demarian invasion force, almost 20 years ago, and was lost when that force was gated (along with the city of Deansburgh) to another existence, the realm of Neist. He tells them that there is still a rip in the fabric of existence, roughly 50' above the crater of Deansburgh that leads to Neist. To get through the rip, they will need to steal an Elven airship from the Royal court and fly it through the rip into Neist. The airship has the ability to be become invisible, and Selmoc indicates that Aethra can fill Pikes (a sailor) in on any special controls needed to fly the ship. Selmoc will help them gain access to the ship, and cover its absence while they are on the mission. Elias asks if there are any weapons on the ship, and Selmoc indicates that the ship has four magical cannons that shoot fireballs.... Elias almost seems too eager once he learns of this.

Jerran asks for tactical information on what they should expect when they pass into Neist. Selmoc tells them that when Neist was selected as the gating destination, it was assumed that it was uninhabited. They were wrong. The city of Deansburgh was displaced to Neist a few miles from a settlement of Iruska, a humanoid race that has very limited means and apparently no talent for magic. Were it not for the Iruska's apparent immunity to Demarian Chi magic, the Demarians might have conquered the surrounding lands of Neist and presented an even greater threat to Hebridonia. However, the superior numbers of the Iruska, combined with their immunity to magics forced the Demarians into a defensive posture, consuming much of their magical resources simply keeping the Iruska at bay rather than focusing on how to return to our realm. The Hebridonian Mage Corps has maintained an observatory at Deansburgh to spy on the Demarians in Neist, mostly using Ellylon agents, and has made contact with the Iruska. The Iruska are willing to help get the party into the Demarian stronghold, and Aethra can help the party find their contact.

Nara pipes up and asks how they're supposed to move around once they get inside the stronghold, given that none of them look like a Dargai. Selmoc produces six cloaks of disguise from a small 1'x1'x1' chest, and distributes them to the group. Nara grins devilishly as she dons her cloak and tries a variety of different appearances, including one that helps her blend into the wall, and into shadows!

Pikes clears his throat. 'This is all well and good, but there is the small matter of payment for this job?'

'Indeed.' Selmoc reaches into the chest and pulls out a slightly smaller box. Inside, he reveals six gems, which Pikes appraises to be worth 50,000 pence each! A small fortune that would make each character comfortable for the rest of their lives.

Myron clears his throat. 'I don't know if that's really useful to me. I mean, in my current circumstance, great wealth is not really much help.'

Selmoc nods. 'If I am able to clear your obligation, so that you will no longer be hunted, then that would be worth the risk?' Myron is taken aback, but indicates that it would indeed be very valuable. Selmoc indicates that he will arrange to have Myron's service to the Mage Corps and the Army forgiven in exchange for his assistance.

'As long as there are Demarian heads to clobber, and we really screw up their plans, I'm in!' Gulan growls.

'I think you'll be most please with that aspect of the misson.' Selmoc smiles. 'The Demarians, while they do not truly know what they posess, they have found uses for the Chasiel. In combination with their Chi magic, they are able to use the crystal to coordinate and control their vast army of undead, something that would usually require thousands of mages or suitably enchanted items. Though there are but 200 Demarians left in Neist, they still hold sway over 10,000 - 20,000 undead through the use of the Chasiel. If you remove the crystal from their control, the undead will turn on their former masters, both eliminating a threat to Hebridonia, *and* the Iruska.'

Gulan seems most pleased with the idea of watching the undead attacking Demarians.

Each member of the party agrees to take the job, and provides Selmoc with some requests for special materials they might need during the mission: Flash powder, potions of darkvision and healing, enchantments that can create darkness, and enchantments that can create silence, along with a suitable container to carry the Chasiel. For the last item, Selmoc hands them the 1'x1'x1' chest that the robes and reward were stowed in. For the rest, Selmoc indicates that he will do his best, and suggests that they meet at the Iron Hill (a tavern just outside the Royal Court) at sundown. There he will provide what he can in additional equipment, and take them to Elven airship.

The party disperses, passing back through the portal into Arrowstead Park in Hebridonia, and re-convenes at the Iron Hill to meet with Selmoc at sunset. He leads them to a private room, and lays out what he has obtained for their mission. He provides 2 flasks of darkvision, 6 vials of healing, a few pellets of flash powder, and a stone that produces a large area of darkness upon removal from a leather pouch. He indicates that the silence spell was not available, then unrolls a long swath of leather containing many obsidian-tipped weapons, including several short swords and daggers, and a dozen crossbow bolts and arrows. He indicates that the obsidian weapons will be helpful if they need to fight any Dargai, since they are especially hard to kill with mundane weapons.

Finally, Selmoc shows them an oblong ovoid stone with four runes etched in, and a deep cut across its middle, separating two runes from their reflections on the other side. 'If things go badly, and there is no hope for success, snap this stone in half... it will undo what has been done, but use it with great caution... the magics within are potent and mercurial.' The rest of the party is not sure what to make of the comment, but shrugs it off and takes the stone. For a moment, Pikes, Gulan and Myron feel an incredible sense of deja-vu, but they say nothing.

Emerging from the Iron Hill, Selmoc leads the party to the gatehouse of the Royal Court complex, and after a brief exchange with a few guards, they pass through the chambered gatehouse and into the unseasonably warm air of the Royal Court. As they make their way down a wide boulevard lined with trees in full bloom, the party observes the elven army currently encamped on the manicured lawns and among the trees. Selmoc leads them to a small field on the far side of the complex, where an Eloshai Airship (the Kaliya) rests on three struts on the underside of the ship.

Selmoc approaches a guard at the end of the gang plank leading up to the deck of the Kaliya, and a flicker of light briefly traces several runes across Selmoc's face before fading. The guard nods, and leaves on an errand. Selmoc walks up the gang plank and disappears onto the Kaliya. A few moments later, the crew of the Kaliya walk down the gang plank, followed by the Nilhen. 'They will not be back for a while. They think they've been relieved by a fresh crew. I will cover your departure, and hopefully maintain the deception until you return.'

Aethra takes Pikes up the gang plank, followed by the rest of the party. The party is struck with a strong sense of deja-vu, but the sensation passes quickly.

Aethra shows Pikes the additional controls that are unique to the Kaliya, including elevation shutter controls that adjust the aerobouyancy, outrigger sails that provide additional steering control, and a rune that can be used to make the ship turn invisible for very limited amounts of time. She also shows Elias how the fire-cannons on the front of the ship can be activated to discharge a massive fireball, but points out that aiming the canons involves turning the ship, since they are firmly affixed to the deck.

Pikes gives the rest of the party a quick lesson in the art of sailing... or at least what to do when he barks specific orders. With the party ready to assume the role of crew, Pikes activates the invisibility rune, and though they can perceive no change in appearance, the rune glows faintly and they assume that means the enchantment is working. The sails are unfurled, and at Pikes' command, Aethra and Jerran slowly open the lifting shutters, gently lifting the ship off its struts and up above the boundary layer of the Royal Court. The sails fill with a firm southwestern wind, the the party is underway. After clearing the outer walls of Kalen, Pikes disengages the invisibility enchantment to save mana.

After a half an hour of learning the feel of the ship, Pikes deftly navigates the Kaliya south toward Deansburgh. After 3 - 4 hours, Nara spots a glowing patch of sky ahead, easily seen in stark relief to the dark horizon below the star strewn sky. Pikes adjusts their elevation as they approach, trims the speed and traces the invisibility rune. As they approach the rip, the crew is at first seized by a vision that the ship is coming in too fast and hits only the edge of the rip. The vision fades however, and the ship slips effortlessly through the rip, into the dull overcast daylight of Neist.

Four hundred feet below the ship, the remains of the city of Deansburgh are clearly seen, with a new ramshackle defensive wall built around the inner 1/3rd of the original boundaries. Beyond the wall is a wasteland of rubble and streets that lead nowhere. Within, the most prominent structure is a tower at the city center, crowded on all sides by houses and buildings in various states of disrepair. The streets seem crowded with figures, though only a few groups seem to be moving.

With Aethra's guidance, Pikes navigates the ship over a ridge and into an adjacent valley, landing on a relatively level stretch of land beside a babbling brook. Pikes disables the invisibility enchantment again, and the party climbs down a rope ladder to inspect for damage from the landing. Though the ship rests firmly on the three struts, it is clear another similar landing risks breaking the struts altogether. Still, the ship is whole, and mostly level, so the party departs to rendezvous with their Iruska contact.

Down a path following the brook, Aethra leads the party to a large Iruska village beside a pond fed by the brook. They meet their contact, who is clearly uneasy about the newcomers, and wonders if they will be any better than the Demarians that have attacked them for the past 20 years. No one mentions that Hebridonia is primarily responsible for dumping the Demarians on the Iruska in the first place...

The Iruska contact explains that they will be able to smuggle the party into the city with a food shipment. He explains that the Iruska now supply the Demarians with food in exchange for the release of a hostage for each shipment. They've tried poisoning the food, but that just resulted in the brutal disemboweling of three of their women from the top of the Demarian wall. This blackmail has been endured for the past dozen years, with fresh raids by the Demarians used to replenish their supply of hostages.

The infiltration idea is well received, though the Iruska seem unsure how the party will disguise itself to prevent detection by the guards. As a demonstration, Elias changes his form to look Demarian, startling their contact and sending many of the onlookers scurrying in fear. Nara also joins in, using a variety of flesh tone patterns and shapes. The contact, through clearly sweating, asks that the party refrain from further terrorizing his people.

Each party member practices assuming Demarian form, while Nara and Gulan make a space in the cart to disguise themselves as sacks of food. With all the practice they can stomach, the party leaves with an Iruska escort back up the winding path with a cart of food. As they pass the ship, two of the Iruska detach from the group and take watch, just in case someone spots the ship while the party is inside the city.

At the city gates, the party can see first hand the cobbled-together wall and gatehouse that the Demarians have constructed from stone and wood gathered from the outer reaches of Deansburgh. Several undead thralls linger by the gate, near two Demarian guards. The Iruska contact exchanges a few words with the Demarian, and for a moment the party has a vision that the Demarians have discovered Nara and Gulan in the back of the cart, followed by Gulan chopping the head off of the guard with two hand axes. Then the vision fades, and the guard waves the cart and entourage through the gate.

Inside, it is clear that the remainder of Deansburgh has not weathered well in the past two decades. Many homes and buildings are in an advanced state of disrepair, and the stench of rotting flesh and waste is almost overpowering. In the streets, hundreds of undead are apparent, standing motionless, almost as if they are listening to something. Here an there a Demarian walks among them, holding a crystal and directing a handful of undead to one task or another.

The guard gestures to the party, assuming that they are Irusks, to unload the cart. Another Demarian approaches with his hands on the shoulders of a young Irusk girl. As the party starts unloading the cart, she is released and runs from her captors to the leader of the Iruska. He lifts her, and carries her back through the gates and back down the path toward the valley.

One by one, the party changes their disguise from Iruska to Dargai as they finish unloading the cart. Aethra helps Nara and Gulan out of the cart as small Dargai and together the party leaves the empty cart to walk toward the city center and the tower, situated less than 400 ft from the gate. The tower itself has a broad ground floor level, with a smaller second story, and then a 30' - 40' tall circular tower capped by a bulbous dome similar to a minaret.

Approaching the base of the tower, they party cannot discern any door or entrance into the structure. They find a geometrical construct carved into one wall face roughly 6 inches across with 6 glyphs situated inside 6 circles, each nested within 3 larger intersecting circles with elaborate lines of conjunction. After a few moments, they decide that the glyphs provide entrance to the tower by placing fingers on the 6 circles using the proper fingers in the proper order. Nara tries it first, but her hands are too small. Jerran tries next, but does not have any luck. Elias also tries, but despite many combinations, he is unable to activate the enchantment. 'Maybe the door requires the user to have six fingers?'

Aethra clears her throat, 'Let me try.' She approaches the carving and wiggles her fingers for a moment. For the observant, her hand seems to solidify substantially, as if her disguise has been cast off, and she touches the glyphs in the order directed by Elias. A portal appears, providing access to the base of the tower. Gulan is clearly upset by the revelation that Aethra has six fingers, but manages to control his rage, and avoids a public confrontation where it might be observed by others.

The party enters the first story of tower, and Aethra closes the portal using a similar set of glyphs on the other side of the wall. Recognizing the need for total silence, a discussion of Aethra's heritage is deferred for the present, and the party spreads out to examine the 30'x30' room. The ceiling in the center of the room has a circular hole roughly 6' across which leads to a second floor, and the shaft of the tower beyond. However, there are no stairs or other apparent means of ascension, either to the second floor, or from the second floor up the tower. At the top of the tower, the party can see a brilliant light, supported by six gnarled struts that are anchored to the tower walls.

Looking around the room, they find a 8-pointed star carved into the stone floor, each point terminating at a structural support (for flying buttresses) that hold up higher levels of the tower. Each support has a glyph carved into it, similar to the enchantment on the wall, and using the order of the glyphs from the wall, they activate each glyph on the supports. Nara, who was standing in the center of the star, begins to float upward through the hole in the center of the room, and is gently deposited on the second story. The others step into the center and are likewise transported.

On the second level, they find a small 20'x20' workroom with benches for mixing alchemical components, and some bandages with odd patches of goldspun fabric. After a complete search, they find no obvious additional magical or mundane means of moving further up the tower. As a test, Nara leans out over the hole in the floor and feels magical currents pulling her up the towers shaft. Jerran and Pikes enter next, followed by Gulan and Pikes and Myron.

As Nara ascends, the struts holding the glowing crystal become easier to see, and her first impression is that they are tree roots that have sprung from the tower walls and enclosed the Chasiel. Approaching the lip of the tower's top landing, she can see that the roots have also spread across the interior of the tower's bulbous dome, all but obscuring the underlying stone. She suppresses a scream as she lands in the dome, the horror of what she sees chipping away at her sanity: six Dargai standing opposite the Chasiel support roots, each with dozens of tentacles penetrating their flesh and spreading into a subcutaneous network of black veins.

Jerran lands next and begins to communicate with the others using hand signals. Each person lands silently, and Jerran starts formulating a plan to kill the six Demarians simultaneously. Step one is for each person to get into position in front of their chosen victim, then step two is on the count of three, for each person to deliver a coup de grace. There is only one flaw in the plan: Myron is a pacifist and refuses to assist. At this point everyone realizes that Aethra has not come up from the 2nd floor, and cannot be seen from the tower's dome. Suddenly, that conversation about her heritage seems alot more relevant.

Pushing that issue aside for the moment, Jerran indicates that Nara, Pikes and himself will use crossbows to shoot the last remaining Dargai after the five of them deliver the coup de grace. Using only hand signals, Jerran runs through the plan one more time, and with agreement from everyone by Myron, each takes their place. On the three count, five of the Dargai are slain, and the tentacles start to wriggle, reaching out toward the party. The eyes of the remaining Dargai open just as three obsidian-tipped crossbow bolts fire true into his head and chest. The tentacles slacken, then go limp.

Nara uses a grappling hook and rope to latch on to the roots holding the crystal, and with a solid tug, she frees the Chasiel, which is caught by Pikes as he jumps across the 6' hole in the floor. It is clear to Pikes that the ascension magic is no longer in place. Aethra calls up from below: 'Everything alright up there?'

As Nara shakes loose the grappling hook, she says 'Just fine.'

'Why don't you toss the Chasiel down here.'

Nara says nothing, but anchors the rope and starts climbing down the tower shaft, followed by Gulan. As she descends, she sees Aethra tumble through the hole in the 2nd floor and disappear onto the first floor. Nara lands on the second floor, then quickly tumbles to the first floor, intent on confronting Aethra.

By the wall enchantment, Aethra has five of her six fingers in place to open the portal. 'Is something wrong?'

'Who is your mother, Aethra?' Nara asks, stalking slowly toward her. 'Why do you have six fingers?'

On the second floor, Gulan lands with a thud, and draws his weapons. His monk training forgotten, nearly blind with rage, Gulan drops to the first floor with murder in his eyes.

Seeing the gnome's intent, Aethra blurts 'Cira Nai is my mother! I am not Dargai! I hold no allegiance to them!'

'If you're not Dargai, what are you?' Nara can tell Aethra is telling the truth, but doubts still linger.

'You must promise not to tell. It would be dangerous for me and my people.'

Gulan manages to hold back long enough to hear Aethra say 'I am Scaryn.'

Both Nara and Gulan have heard of the Scaryn, though for different reasons. Halflings love nothing more than a good tale spun over a fine meal beside a roaring fire, and many tales have been told of the war of extermination between the elves and the Scaryn a thousand years ago. Gulan knows that some Scaryn live in Demaria, usually in the lower Phyles of society, and that they now live underground in a wasteland to the north colloquially call the Ring of Fire. Both know that the Scaryn still hide from the elves, and understand Aethra's desire for discretion.

Jerran drops through the hole to the first floor. 'Everything ok down here?'

'Yes, just fine. Aethra was just about to open the portal so we can get out of here.' Nara winks at Aethra, suggesting that her secret can be kept.

Aethra rests her sixth digit on the glyph, and the portal re-opens. Beyond, the city is now considerably more active... all the undead are moving. As the rest of the party drops to the first floor, they can see Demarians moving about with small glowing purple crystals in their hands, ordering the nearest undead to fend off others not currently enthralled. It's plain that such tactics are not going to work for long.

Elias, who has been chomping at the bit to burn something since this adventure began, conjures a 10'x10'x6' inferno, and creates a scorched path from the temple through the gate. The party follows behind the inferno, staying as close as possible without getting burned. Their footsteps crackle on the newly formed glass underfoot, and several undead are utterly disintegrated as the spell cuts through town. Halfway to the gate, a Demarian back by the temple spots the party and commands them to stop, rushing after them. Unfortunately, in rushing toward the party, he was also rushing away from his protective undead escort, and he is quickly caught by several roaming undead before he could close the gap. Gulan's ear-to-ear smile is creepy.

The party pass unscathed through the ramshackle gate, just before Elais' spell lapses. They hasten back to the airship, where their Iruska contact and two guards are waiting. They are overjoyed that the Demarians are now under seige by their own creations. The Iruska leader takes a horn from a belt loop, and sounds a mighty blast. From down in the valley, a rag-tag Irusk army marches up the path bearing torches and heavy casks. Aethra bids them good luck, and the party boards the ship.

Back in his element, Pikes directs the crew to unfurl the sails and open the elevation shutters. Soon, the ship is back in the air and flying toward the rip between the worlds. As they pass over Deansburgh, they can see the chaos below, and the approaching Iruska army. Then they pass into Hebridonia, where a red sunrise greets them from the east.

Epilogue
The party returns to the Royal Court in Kalen, and lands the ship roughly where it was when they departed. The elves will wonder how the landing struts were damaged, but otherwise they should be none the wiser. Each party member is paid their due, and departs to find their own destiny. But that is another story...


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