Shackled to the Age of Worms

Session 46 - The Ball begins.

We immediately teleport back to the safety of our rooms, and then discuss options. We could go staright to Zeech and tell him what has transpired. Nothing which has happened thus far suggests that Zeech is a member of the Ebon Triad. We could prepare carefully, and then return to fight the monster. Cirian is all for this, his major concern being that the monster may now break out and destroy the town. It may even be the monster heralded in the prophecies. Ezio is very unsure of our capacity to kill it – so we are divided as to how to proceed.
Is Fircotia Mother Maggot? Cirian believes this is obvious – although she succumbed to Velens spells rather too easily to indicate she has much power. Once again we are undecided.
I head out to find Quarion, and bring him up to date with all the latest happenings. I am keen to learn if he can help us defeat this new threat. He seems to believe he can be of assistance – so finally we decide to return to the underground cavern and take our chances.
After careful preparation we spring into action, though the beast has heard our spell casting and awaits us in its lair. To my great surprise and relief, we defeat it with relative ease. Cirian is magnificent in this battle. His powers grow almost daily now – he is a formidable foe indeed.
Traeven finds a hidden wall within the cavern, and we smash it to find a small room beyond. 4 chests hold much valuable loot – gold, potions, gems and magic items – which I stash in my pack. A ledger holds an out of date list of the chests contents – but one page seems different and holds the attention of Cirian and Quarion. A couple of spells later and the page reveals its secrets – a list of current Ebon Triad members, complete with places of abode. Wonderful!
Among the members are listed Theldrack and the Faceless One (both names crossed out, presumably indicating their death) – and Loris Raknian. Only one entry for Alhaster is noted, Ilthane at Traitors Grave. Notable by their absence are Prince Zeech and Fircotia.
We decide to inform Tenser of this new information, and teleport quickly back to Mage Point. He is most pleased, but has little to say. Other than a few words of caution he can offer no more help.
So we return and rest for the night. The next day is the “Day of Great Rejoicing”.
We are woken by blaring horns, ringing bells, cheering crowds and singing voices. And it is barely dawn. This day could become sorely tedious indeed!
We get dressed, and presently our carriage arrives to take us to the palace. It is an incredibly ornate affair drawn by four trolls. We get in, and the ridiculous charade begins. We slowly plod through various parts of the town, taking our time in a leisurely tour. Zeech obviously plans to show off his guests to his adoring crowds. At last we see the palace and prepare to alight, but the coach continues on past the main entrance.
Beyond the gates of Zeech’s Palace is a steep rising path, flanked by polished skeletons in gibbets. The path winds up the rocky promontory upon which the palace and its grounds are constructed. When our carriage reaches the top, we are asked to decoach and are then led to the Vertiginous Terrace—a lawn that overlooks a 200-foot-drop into the Nyr Dyv. Other guests have already arrived, and they mill about in small groups, talk¬ing quietly. Several of the guests carry wrapped gifts for Zeech. This causes some consternation in our group. We have brought no gifts! Obviously we cannot offer any of the booty we found in the hidden room – that would only expose us to any Triad members in the crowd. Then I remember the mithral shield we found in the acid monsters lair – and I quickly remove it from my pack. Cirian cleans it up in an instant, and we are saved a most embarrassing moment.
I spend many minutes studying the crowd, attempting to absorb as much information about all of the guests as I can. It is likely that somewhere in this room are our sworn enemies – unknown to us at this time. Any minute detail may be important.
I reproduce my observations here:-

Hosts and Guests at the Gala

Prince Zeech – Prince Zeech is a hand¬some man in his early forties, but a life of decadence and heavy spending has left him with the countenance of a man much younger. He wears his hair loose and just off his shoulders, and dresses at the cutting edge of the current style.

Zeech is in a sombre mood during much of the festival, despite the furious attempts of the nobles and his ser¬vants to cheer him up.

The Ominous Fabler, Zeech’s Fool – The Ominous Fabler looks like a sinister little man who stands only two-and-a-half feet high. He constantly clutches a mummified raven to his chest and always looks nervous. He’s dressed in crimson leather armour and wears a strange, three pointed but floppy hat wrapped in black and white ribbons and studded with gems.

The Ominous Fabler follows the Prince everywhere he goes, using his considerable talents at insults and sarcasm to mock and belittle the guests as much as he can. Zeech feigns shock at these comments and swipes at the fool with anything handy.

The Help – These overworked men and women consist almost entirely of freaks Zeech recently hired away from Montague Marat. Those in the party that have visited the Emporium in Diamond Lake recognize some of them—fat ladies, pin¬heads, men without legs, women without eyes, and all manner of deformity is on display. During the course of the celebration we are served wine by Afus, the Man with No Head (whose face in his chest), attended by Madam Hog, the Pig Woman (whose face is more akin to a sow than a human), and are led to our chairs by Ekestra, the Half-Man (who walks on his hands as he has no lower body).

These men and women may be overworked, but this is the first time in their lives they’ve been paid a fair wage and have been given any privacy; each has been given their own room in the palace. They have become quite loyal to Zeech as a result, and have nothing ill to speak of him.

B’kruss – B’kruss is a tall, well- groomed hobgoblin with a raven perched on one shoulder.

We know from our earlier encounter with the hobgoblin that his facade of politeness and compliments is just that. At the gala he seems very keen to impress Prince Zeech. He seems to view everyone in the party as foolish mercenaries barely deserving of his attention.

Hemriss – Hemriss is a strange combination of the beautiful and the grotesque. She’s a half-fiend human— her mother was an erinyes devil, and rumour holds that her father is Prince Zeech. She certainly shares Zeech’s piercing blue eyes.

Her beauty is marred by two unfortunate physical deformities. First, her face is misaligned; the right half of her face is about a half inch above the left, giving her nose an ugly twist and her mouth a perpetual upturned sneer. Second, her back is hunched with malformed wings; broken feathers protrude here and here from these mockeries, and she tries to cover them with a fine cloak but isn’t always successful. Her expression is one of bitter cruelty.

Hemriss is the leader of a traveling band of warrior-gypsies who wander Redhand enforcing the will of Prince Zeech. It’s suspected that the deformed woman is Zeech’s daughter, but neither has ever publicly confirmed the relation. Hemriss is quiet and unassuming during the party, and is never far from Zeech’s side.

Hoff – Hoff is an almost impossibly fat dwarf with a rosy red nose and piggy eyes dressed in browns and reds.

He’s foul-mannered and slightly insane, but he’s on his best behaviour during this party, and lets slip only a few minor profanities here and there. He’s generally found near the food, as he eats and drinks prodigiously.

Lord Malaven Kilraven – Lord Kilraven is an iron¬haired, weather-beaten man with a hook instead of a right hand. He carries himself with pride and speaks with a strong, clear voice.

Kilraven is the captain of the West Border Watch, and has served under three generations of leaders within Redhand.

Mahuudril – Merchant-master Mahuudril is an exotic and mysterious human woman in her late fifties with a thin face that has aged well. She wears her shocking red hair in braids woven around an elaborate headdress. Her clothes are rich and royal, and she wears too much jewellery. Her expression is mischievous and sneaky, a young grandmother who’s plotting the best way to sneak some candy to a grandchild.

Professor Montague Marat – This wide-faced human man is in his late fifties. He has rosy checks and a pair of wire spectacles, and is dressed in a clashing riot of flamboyant clothing and a strange pointed hat. His expression is one of vivacious energy and glee.

Montague Marat is the former “associate" of Zalamandra (hostess of the Emporium in Diamond Lake), although he abandoned his position some years ago to seek his fortune elsewhere. He came to Alhaster and found the place quite matched his temperament. When he heard of Ilthane’s attack on Diamond Lake, he sent a boat to invite his one¬time employees to join him in Alhaster, where they were then hired on to Prince Zeech’s staff.

Miszen Mitchwillow – Although slightly overweight, even for a Halfling, and a little nervous looking, Miszen remains rather cute in appearance. She’s got light brown hair, wears an amulet made of snake scales and teeth, and dresses in a black cloak and fine noble’s clothes in dark shades of blue and green.

Miszen’s a quiet, observant woman who seems to melt into the crowd. A well-respected merchant in the region, rumours of her powerful spell casting capabilities abound.

Mariss Quemp – Mariss is a half-orc, although as half-orcs go, he’s actually rather handsome, with his orc heritage almost unnoticeable. Well-groomed and always dressed in the finest clothing, his towering frame still seems as if it would be more at home in a battle than at a party.

Mariss is a reformed barbarian. He retains the loud, infectious laugh of his youth and an equally loud voice, but he’s abandoned his rough and foul manner for the cultured way of the aristocrat. He’s quite popular with the other nobles, who can’t get enough of his violent stories and ribald jokes.

Shag Solomon – Shag Solomon is a true curiosity. Known as a cultured "wild man” from the northern pine forests, he is actually a mild-mannered quaggoth, a humanoid creature whose kind are normally known for their bestial fury. Solomon’s vicious teeth and jagged claws contrast with his gentleman’s garb and cultured demeanor.

Toris – Toris is an extraordinarily long- nosed gnome with a magnificent handlebar moustache.

Of the guests at the party, Toris seems the most naive. He’s also the only noble from an outlying province in the Bandit Kingdoms who accepted Zeech’s invitation.

V’juss – A tall, lanky hobgoblin, Vjuss wears long, flowing robes and a bit too much perfume for a male hobgoblin.

V’juss is quiet and observant, and has little to say during the gala.

Captain Vulras – Vulras is a dark-skinned man with a small neat goatee. He is dressed in flamboyant and very expensive robes.

Vulras commands a band of rangers to the north who are coldly efficient and sometimes brutal in their work against the Reyhu orcs who plague the northern reaches of Redhand.

About 20 minutes later, Zeech arrives amid great fanfare with his fool, the Ominous Fabler. Flanked by his deformed servants, Zeech stands quietly while his fool steps forth, clutching his mummi¬fied raven, and blows on a strange horn to attract everyone’s attention (a need¬less move, since by this point everyone’s attention is already focused on the prince). The Ominous Fabler clears his throat, and then speaks in a surprisingly strong and deep voice.

“My lords, ladies, and other honoured guests! Prince Zeech bids you welcome, and I trust you will enjoy the hospitality of his humble home”.

The strange little man looks around, leers at some of the guests, then flaps his free arm and lifts the mummified raven up on his shoulder. Using the dead bird as a ventriloquist’s dummy, he chirps out in a raspy voice: “You may now present your gifts to honour the prince!” and then steps back, giggling quietly as the other guests reach into folds in cloaks and pockets.

Before the party begins in earnest, Zeech announces that he’s heard from Lashonna, and regrets to inform the partygoers that business will be keeping her from the day’s events, but that she plans on arriving in time for the feast this evening.

The Harlequinade Mortificatio
The first true event of the day takes place immediately after the gift giving. Servants appear with padded chairs for each guest and beg them to be seated.

The fool appears again and blows his strange horn. “My masters! We beg you to enjoy our little tale —‘tis a small thing I penned myself, a tale of menace, revenge, lust and death which I have called ’The Harlequinade Mortificatio.”’ The fool moves back, and as he does, the servants arrange a small stage with a backdrop of a town street at night. A wooden moon wafts over the scene, and suddenly a host of ani¬mated skeletons dressed as clowns march on stage.

The play is performed in silence, apart from guests applauding as the skeletal clowns perform particularly ridiculous stunts, such as drinking wine, since the entire cast is composed of actors whose previous performances annoyed Zeech. Each met with an accident, and was subsequently animated as a skeleton by the Ominous Fabler using a wand of animate dead and his Use Magic Device skill. The entire play is a curious affair, and it soon becomes obvious that the whole plot recounts how each of the skeletons is act¬ing out its own death, always by suspicious circumstances that aren’t quite accidents.

During the play (which lasts for an hour), servants flutter about with wine and trays of lightly roasted almond bis¬cuits of exquisite taste. At the play’s end, the curious actors bow and everyone applauds. The Ominous Fabler appears, now dressed as a scarecrow on stilts and with a hare’s skull where his head should be. He leads guests across the grounds to the next event, singing a song about boiling sparrows as he goes.

The Handsome Slaughter of Curious Avians
Eventually the guests arrive at the Balcony of Expectorance, a wide deck jutting from the cliff-side about twenty feet down from the palace. The Balcony is sheltered from the wind and the view of the Redhand coastline is even more magnificent than that from the Vertiginous Terrace.

The fool trundles up onto the balcony railing, somehow managing to balance there on stilts as he addresses the guests. “And now, welcome to the Balcony of Expectorance, my friends, and the Handsome Slaughter of Curious Avians!”

Two deformed servants march out, carrying between them a large rack of repeating crossbows. Another group of guests wheel out a number of cages filled with brightly coloured red birds. “Please, select your weapon, and make ready to…"

Prince Zeech cuts him off with a dismissive slap as he steps forward. The fool teeters, but manages to catch his balance and clambers down from the ledge as the prince selects a magnificent-looking crossbow and says, “I’m feeling particularly lucky today. If anyone can bring down more than me, I’ll give the lucky soul a thousand gold coins."
A quick discussion within our group decides that beating Zeech at this game would likely be a huge mistake. We agree to lose while appearing to try.

Once everyone has selected their crossbow, the guests take turns as the Fabler releases ten of the brightly coloured corollaxes (bright red exotic birds with the ability to generate Colour Sprays) into the air. The corollaxes immediately scatter and begin flashing sprays of colour as they wheel in the air. Each guest has three rounds to shoot and bring down as many of the corollaxes as he can before the birds escape around the sides of the cliffs. Zeech goes first and manages to take down six; the other guests do their best, but none beat Zeech.

As the shoot progresses, servants pass roasted corollax glazed in honey and mulled spice wine amongst the guests.

Some Lively Sports and Baiting
After the slaughter of the curious avians, the fabler leads the party back into the house, through a maze of doors and halls, and eventually down into the extensive basements. He does so by walking on his hands the entire trip, finally leading the group into one of Zeech’s underground miniature arenas. The guests are directed to sit on the curved benches surrounding the sunken fighting pit, which contains two four-foot-square bird cages swathed in dark silks, while the Fabler explains the nature of the event.

The misshapen gnome retrieves a small oak box from a locked chest and opens it, withdrawing a pair of silver rings. “And now, we come to some lively sports and baiting, my friends! These rings are ensorcelled with magic such that those who wear it can direct the actions and movements of one who has been… specially prepared, as a receiver.”

He hobbles over to the prince and hands one of the rings to him.

“The prince would like to challenge one of you to an honest fight, utilizing what lives at the other end of these rings as proxies. Are there any of you brave enough to meet the prince’s champion on the field of battle?”

None of the guests immediately rise to the occasion. Eventually Mariss Quemp accepts the ring and challenges Zeech.

The Fabler pulls a silk cord and releases a dozen feral cats into the arena—the cats immediately begin racing in circles, fighting and yowling in anger. The Fabler raises his voice over the rest of the crowd and announces “If you can create more ornaments than the prince, and if you can survive his champion’s wrath, you’ll win a most fabulous prize indeed!"

With that, he pulls a second cord and the cages in the pit below open, allowing the two cockatrices within to escape into the arena. The fighting pit is thirty feet square, and the object is to control one’s cockatrice and petrify more cats than the other cockatrice. Once all of the cats are petrified, the two cockatrices are to fight one another for the win.

Prince Zeech defeats Mariss Quemp handily.

During the fight, dishes of eggs are served—boiled ones of unusual size, eggs scrambled with fine meats, and even a strange cocktail of egg mixed with rum.

Bowling the Devious Heads
After the cockatrice fight, the Fabler leads the guests back upstairs and out into a long, narrow garden on the north side of the palace. By this time, twilight has fallen, and the garden has been lit by numerous differently coloured continual flames cast inside skulls hanging from delicate silver and golden chains. Here, a curious game has been prepared. A mound of differently coloured human skulls has been arranged at one end of the garden, and the Fabler takes pains to ensure the guests are arranged in a semi¬circle around this mound of skulls.

“And now, my beautiful friends, we come to the final game of the evening. I present to my wondrous prince an unfortunate criminal named Jack," announces the Fabler, as he hands the prince a human skull that has been painted black.

“And to the rest of you, I present these delicate treasures!” The Fabler indicates the stack of differently coloured skulls. "The prince shall throw Jack to the far end of the garden, and the rest of you shall toss a chap of your own. The thrower who comes the closest to Jack shall be declared the winner!”

Zeech makes his throw, and Jack lands near the far end of the garden, about 50 feet away from the party-goers. Each guest selects one of the coloured skulls from the pile and then makes a throw to try to come as close to the skull as possible.

After a close contest Hoff, an almost impossibly fat dwarf with a rosy red nose and piggy eyes is declared the winner and receives a necklace with a small silver skull with ruby eyes.

During the sport, servants pass around gingerbread men without heads. The evening grows late as the game ends, and the sun sinks behind the horizon.

Setting the Table
After the bowling of the devious heads comes to a close, the peal of an unseen gong sounds the call for dinner—the feast is ready! The Fabler leads the guests back into the palace and thence to the Great Banqueting Hall.

A massive, cylindrical chamber rises through the heart of Zeech’s Palace. A tremendous round table of polished mahogany dominates the room, the walls of which are decked with portraits and landscapes of great quality. A large number of these feature Zeech himself, although the enigmatic Lashonna, a silver-haired, pale, remarkably beautiful woman, dominates one prominently placed portrait near Zeech’s place at the table. A vast stained glass dome depict¬ing what appear to be angels at play arches gracefully above, its perimeter decorated by a ring of severed heads mounted on iron spikes some twenty feet above the polished marble floor.

We spot that the "angels” in the window are, in fact, erinyes devils, and their “play” is anything but something one would normally associate with angels. The mounted heads are no mere mortal decapitates—they have been animated and given the power to speak. All twenty heads cheer and encourage everything Zeech says in strange and sonorous voices powered by magic.

The Fabler bids the guests to be seated. Each setting bears a name on a card and a dazzling array of cutlery, including ten different spoons. Everyone except Cirian, who requires a bit of help from Prince Zeech, is able to figure out which set to use for the first course.

One chair, the one directly opposite Zeech, remains curiously vacant—at least until a few moments after everyone has seated. At this point, one of Zeech’s servants announces the arrival of the final guest.

Lashonna’s Arrival
As Lashonna enters the Great Banqueting Hall, everyone rises from their seats. The woman is dazzlingly beautiful, with alabaster skin and long silver hair set back with a tiara of black diamonds. Everyone in the rooms feels her gaze settling upon them. Lashonna greets Zeech with a nod but says nothing, and gracefully takes her seat at the opposite end of the table from the prince.

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