During their stay in the Port District, visitors are warned to keep indoors or along the waterfront at night. Rogue vampire-spawn and feral ghouls are a real threat despite strict laws and heavy penalties for losing control of a spawn or other undead servants. Flesh-eating ghouls infest Nubia like rats in a cheese wheel. The Calabim authorities offer up to 500 gold per head for each feral destroyed and 100 gold for each ghoul-head.
Several times over the next weeks the rune-heroes observe areas of moving shadows in the vampire quarters beyond the ‘Star Gates’ and across the river. Dorn explains these are shadows cast by ‘Twilight Rings’ carried by rich or powerful vampires. These treasured rings allow a vampire to travel by day without fear of the sun. Vampire leaders on campaign in the west use the shadow-rings to shield their entourage from the harsh sun of the Malaki desert.
The Amurite wizard spends his first two weeks haunting libraries, consulting sages and hobnobbing with fellow wizards. He succeeds in adding two new spells to his repertoire: ‘fireball’ and ‘thunderstep’. A 3rd week is spent haunting the guildhall of the ‘Crimson Hand’ searching for wizards willing to trade spells. With sufficient monetary inducement, several come to terms on a number of trades. Mesmer dumps a few unwanted spells in exchange for more desirable enchantments. From a dark-elf wizard Mesmer discovers information about one of the spells he is unsuccessful at obtaining. ‘Expeditious retreat’ is favored by the Host of Hastur, a secretive warlock guild often working with or for the Overlords. Further research on the Host leads to a dead end…they guard their secrets well.
The devil-child looks for signs of the Nightwatch in Nubia, but comes up with nothing. Apparently the shadowy soldiers of Esus have not yet penetrated this far south. Have they made inroads at other Calabim cities? The Calabim are certainly a member of the Undercouncil, where the Council of Esus wields exceptional influence, but the Undercouncil and Council of Esus are far from allies. Fellow travelers, perhaps. Mavriy purchases a shirt of steel chainmail to wear while waiting for the armorer to finish repairing her heavy plate armor. She divides her remaining time guarding the ship and her fast-moving companions roaming around the Port Quarter on their personal errands.
After recovering from a three-day drinking binge, Hoxton acquires a few light weapons and sees to equipping the ship with brewing and cooking supplies, but has little use for most worldly things. His thoughts wander to the dead-drop where he was (is?) supposed to discover the nature of his mission. Spying? Assassination? Most days, the kobold travels with Leelo, but he finds some time to pass by the dead drop, an inconspicuous alley and iron lamppost. Sure enough, the secret mark is on the post. Beneath the box used by lamp-tenders for their supplies, there is a note scrawled in common runes: “We know who you are” signed merely “- S.N.” Who could “S.N.” be? Regardless, it appears his cover is blown and the mission compromised.
The burly war-priest of Xrarog (aka Aeron, god of war) makes himself known to the large ‘Temple of the Wolf’ built half-inside and half-outside of the Port District walls. The ‘Fellowship of Wolves’ is a thin reskinning of the ‘Fellowship of the Leaves’ religion and features the same pantheon of gods: Cernunnos (Angel of Nature), Amathaon (Angel of Fertility) and Sucellus (Angel of Life). Needless to say, the vampiric aristocracy of the Calabim don’t attend church regularly (meaning, at all). But the vampires seem to encourage worship of the Wolf, albeit with subtle manipulation toward the feral and bloodier aspects of nature (“the fittest will rule”, etc). Among the 90% non-vampire population, most of them subjugated humans, the Fellowship is nevertheless a soothing balm and perhaps a distraction from the reality of their condition.
The Overlords have also made significant inroads into Nubia. A large temple of nacreous blue and pink coral rises from the south shore of the Akobo river. More than a few vampires attend worship, philosophical discussions, wild dances and less savory ceremonies at the temple, no doubt seeking the mystical knowledge hinted at by the half-crazy priests of Danalin, Mammon and less well known entities. But the Octopus Overlords have not yet taken over the cities of the Calabim as they have the Lanun.
Krag is able to use his knowledge of religious customs to achieve a rapport with the Fellowship priests (mostly human, with a few half-elves and elves). After a few weeks they even bestow a healing potion upon their new half-orc friend (for a small donation of course). Perhaps friendship with the Fellowship could be useful in other Calabim cities?
Leelo spends her time searching for magic, particularly magic arrows for her bow, and attempting to sell (with Mesmer’s assistance) the ‘Pact Keeper’ magic rod looted from the Shrine of Zencotan. She does manage to find a few magic arrows. The real find is a buyer who desperately desires the Pact-Keeper and pays over a small fortune in gold: 5000 newly-minted calabim coins. Leelo’s customer is a warlock and perhaps a vampire as well.
While crossing a street-corner accompanied by Hoxton, Leelo spots a shadowy watcher high in a 3rd story window. The figure appears to wear a blindfold of some purple-gray shiny material. The most interesting aspect of the watcher is a nimbus of ethereal tentacles waving around it’s head. Each of nine tentacles ends in a gleaming black eye.
Leelo attempts to dissemble, but the watcher disappears from view. Leelo and Hoxton rush through a ground-floor shop and up a flight of stairs. An open shutter is still swinging at the end of a 3rd floor hallway. The chase is on! Two pursuers and one pursued run, tumble and leap through a melange of shops, across roofs and even through private apartments accompanied by surprised shouts and hurled invective. The watcher is deft and quick as a snake, unnaturally so. A fellow monk or rogue? Or assisted by magic? The elf and kobold are able to catch only fleeting glimpses of their quarry: a man-sized figure obscured by a flapping mauve-black robe. After thirty minutes the watcher escapes. What tales might he have told if captured! Hoxton recalls the note…“We know who you are”. The one small comfort is that ‘We’ must not be the Calabim authorities, or the rune-heroes would have been picked up by now.
La Villa Strangiato
On the 17th day of their stay in Nubia, a messenger arrives bearing a red-and-gold-gilt letter from Tloques inviting Leelo, Mavriy, Krag, Mesmer and even Hoxton to a ‘Grand Fête and Masquerade Ball’ celebrating the new plantings at the estate of Lady Avurnix of Nubia. ‘Suitable appurtenances will be provided in your carriage arriving tomorrow at noon.’ Signed ‘Your dedicated business associate, Tloques Popolocas’.
At noon the next day, a huge carriage of black and gold rolls down the jetty to the dock where the Witches Brew is moored. Within are enchanted masks of gold, silver and ivory that effectively conceal the face of the wearer. No other costume is provided. The valet advises the rune-heroes to wear their own standard dress and light or medium armor, storing heavy weapons in the carriage and carrying only light weapons into the manor. Others will be viewed as guards and let off at the guardhouse with the retinues of other noble attendees.
Mavriy dons her chain-mail shirt and takes up a short sword and dagger. Hoxton of course needs only a stick or a knife, if that much. Krag takes up a light hammer, leaving his beloved magic hammer behind. Leelo and Mesmer are suitably equipped.
The trip across the river and through the Calabim coastal countryside requires eight dusty, bumpy hours. The countess’s estate is a large walled villa of three stories atop a low hill overlooking rolling vineyards stretching three miles down to the Akobo river estuary and 10 miles east to the Lanthir coast. Apparently even vampires enjoy pastoral beauty…but probably mostly by night.
The first twilight stars glitter in a mauve-and-gold sky when the carriage finally rolls through the gatehouse. A disparate collection of men-and-women-at-arms stand around the gatehouse or atop the flanking towers. Many races, cultures and fighting styles are represented among the guest’s retinues including dark elves, half-and-full-blooded humans (some of whom are Moroi caste-warriors suckled on vampire blood), devil-spawn from Sheai, orcs, hobgoblins, a few light elves, and even one dwarf champion from far Khazad.
A file of lacquered and gilded carriages disgorge noble passengers and their favored ‘friends’ beneath a wide portico protecting the manor’s main entrance. As per the custom, all guests are attired in masquerade, torlivani and mortals alike. The yard before the manor swirls with a kaleidoscope of multicolored satin, silk, samite and even cotton from far Malaki. Each guest is costumed as a jester, pirate, rogue, angel, fiend or a dozen other fanciful beings. The rune-heroes notice they can understand (but not speak) the Calabim language when wearing the masks. Alone among the rune-heroes, Mesmer the Amurite is fluent in Calabim. Not unusual for someone from an island nation garnering most of it’s wealth through ocean-going trade.
The grounds of the villa are lit by magical torches of red and gold. The masked guests wander through mazes of topiary depicting fantastic beasts, from dragons to wraiths. Waiters in black and gold livery serve red refreshment of all kinds. It is not obvious who drinks blood and who drinks wine. Small bands of minstrels wander the grounds playing soft, eerie music. After a period of mingling upon the starlit grounds, the doors of the villa are thrown open.
The imposing white marble entry hall of the villa is decorated in black silk and gold. Countess Avurnix flies into the hall, ending in a dramatic curvet above the assembled guests, who call out compliments and clap with delight. Avurnix is a slight ghostly-pale torlivani barely five feet tall with a fascinatingly flexible face, flaming orange hair, quick eye and quicker wit. The capricious and extravagant Countess must be unique in all things: she alone wears no mask. Avurnix magically flits about the villa during the festivities, alighting only to converse or dance with a few favored guests.
The chief butler announces the start of the ball and throws open the doors to the grand ballroom. The sumptuous red and gold hall is illuminated by floating faerie lights of many soft colors. A hidden orchestra with choir, woodwinds, strings, drums, chimes and pipe organ plays from a wide balcony high above. All dance together, torlivani and mortal friends alike (Torlivani of gentle birth never use the term ‘slave’, only ‘friends’). Many of the dances are pavanes or other types of intricate group steps. At one point a troupe of trained dancers costumed as sylphs and pixies thread through the crowded ballroom in a weaving daisy-chain formation.
The guests seem to assume the rune-heroes are also in costume. Mesmer is able to engage in idle conversation not dissimilar to what one might hear at a fancy dress ball in any land. Hoxton and Krag stake out positions near the bar and buffet respectively. They are able to discern potential ‘Torlivani’ (the vampire term for their race) from ‘Udrani’ (mortals, typically humans) by their choice of viands and drink. Certain of the refreshments seem unpalatable to the Torlivani.
Leelo is a superb dancer owing to her diplomatic service. After a time she moves up to one of small balconies overlooking the ballroom. There is no sign of Tloques, who should be extremely obvious as an eight-foot tall bat-humanoid monstrosity. Both Mesmer and Leelo attempt to engage Lady Avurnix in conversation at various times, but she seems to pay them no mind and flits about the ballroom like a faerie from the woods around the Pool of Tears. Clearly Avurnix enjoys being in control of the situation. Butlers and footmen appear and disappear discreetly via innumerable sliding panels and false walls. Leelo and Hoxton are tempted to sneak away and explore the manor, but sound judgement prevails and they remain in the ballroom.
At the height of the dancing, a magical shadow-dragon of purple and black flame soars across the ballroom and disappears into an expanding sphere of darkness, to the roaring approval of those below. The ballroom is suddenly plunged into magical darkness. Rather than panic, the darkness is greeted with a chorus of exultant cries and peals of crazed laughter from mortal and Torlivani alike. When the light returns, many lay sprawled upon the floor or across tables. Guests pick themselves up from where they lay tangled, some with torn clothing. More than a few have blood on their necks or upon their lips. Festivities resume as if nothing untoward has occurred. Various entertainments commence upon the nearby stage, performed by bards, minstrels, jongluers, fire-eaters, acrobats and magicians.
A few minutes later, Lady Avurnix alights on the stage: “My lovely guests and friends, now is the moment you have all been waiting for! As you know I have hinted at a mysterious stranger from a far realm and a far time. And now I, your beloved Countess Avurnix, deliver to you the daring and mysterious Master Tloques Popolocas of Ancient Zencota!”
A bat flies down from the shadows. On the stage appears a tall man of impressive physique dressed in a black and red silk suit. A magnificent cloak of green feathers cascades from his shoulders like a waterfall of glittering emeralds. The handsome square-jawed, hawk nosed countenance is completely changed yet eerily reminiscent of the savage bat-humanoid from the island of lost souls. With eyes like burning obsidian, Tloques boldly surveys his breathless audience.
The guests ooh and ahh. Some shout in excitement. A few of the more sensitive ladies swoon and fall into the arms of those nearby. A buxom lass dressed as a pirate feints into Krag’s lap. The noble half-orc takes only minimal liberties with her person before rendering assistance. “After all, she might be a vampire and my blood is half-human.”
Lady Avurnix continues, “Lord Tloques visits us from a time when our lords Alexis and Flauros ruled over the ancient Zencotan empire, gifting their most favored friends with the blood of the torlivani. Isn’t it delicious that you see him here first, courtesy of your dear clever Countess?”
The countess pauses for dramatic effect, an arch and knowing expression lighting up her pale features.
“But wait, there is more! I would be remiss if I did not also bring you the mighty heroes who rescued our new darling from his unjust imprisonment atop the sacred mountain of his ancestors.”
Beams of magical light illuminate the rune-heroes singly or together, wherever they stand. The ‘heroes’ immediately become the subject of wide-eyed stares and excited whispers. Some guests sidle away, but most edge closer to peer in fascination.
“Marvel at the barbaric dress and savage habits of these dangerous warriors, wizards and priests from the far corners of Arcanearth! Is it not simply fabulous?”
Though Lady Avurnix seems to revel in the event as an end in itself, she’s clearly staging this dog and pony show for more practical reasons: to impress and dazzle her social superiors and inferiors among the guests.
The Countess flits about the ballroom, speaking to each of her new ‘heroes’ in turn.
Leelo bows deeply from the balcony as Avurnix hovers down to eye level: “How cute and yet murderous in your black dragon skins! It is truly a shame we don’t often receive visitors from the Alfar lands, we really have so much in common, my dear. You should take a hint from your dark cousins and visit us more often.” Leelo murmurs various diplomatic pleasantries, knowing she and her companions are being used to further the canny Countesses political schemes (and certainly Tloques’ ambitions as well).
Avurnix gasps in mock-terror as she addresses Mavriy “So monstrous, you frighten us by your very presence! I wonder who your infernal parent is? My darling devil-child, you bear a remarkable resemblance to a certain Mathistor, a wayward former captain in our fleet.” Avurnix’s expression becomes whimsical. “If only our fearful grandmother wasn’t so unpredictable, we could form an alliance sufficient to send our enemies shrieking into the outer dark!” Unwilling to play Avurnix’s game, Mavriy holds back urgent questions about this ‘Mathistor’.
The Countess next looks down on Hoxton: “Seldom are we graced by the presence of a monk of the Order of the Elohim, and a kobold from the Age of Magic no less! They simply will not see reason and submit to the masters nature intended. Ah well, we do what we can…” The countess smiles slyly. “Is Master Cosmas having trouble finding udrani (human) recruits?” Hoxton tries to counter, but Avurnix controls the conversation. “If Cosmas wants to donate blood to our cause, perhaps he should come himself! We have no use for kobolds, except as servants.”
Lady Avurnix takes on a condescending tone with Krag, “It is delightful to see one of our friends from the land of flame and stone. You are truly a credit to your unfortunate race! We must convince your people to quit flirting with those awful Bannor and join with us. Why, I have a number of your kind in my own personal bodyguard…”
She addressees Mesmer last: “What a treat to see an udrani (human) who fears not to enter my home of his own free will! Ahh…I have heard tales or your impressive, if somewhat erratic fire magic. As wizards, we have much to discuss, and I have received word you desire Torlivani magic.” In view of his past history with ‘ladies of the night’, Mesmer braces himself for the worst. “May I count on seeing you later in the evening, darling?” Mesmer’s face is a frozen mask as he mumbles a suitable pleasantry. The countess’s expression exhibits a taunting mixture of impish glee and avid desire. She sweeps off before Mesmer can say something he’ll regret. It could be a long night for Mesmer indeed!
Lady Avurnix flies off to mingle with the guests for a time and bask in the glow of her celebrity.
Tloques works the crowd like a master, seeking out the most influential guests as a bee is drawn to nectar…or a vampire-bat to blood. The darkly-handsome stranger from ancient times leverages his temporary novelty to the utmost. His attempts at Calabim speech are clumsy, but the exotic accent only further enhances the aura of mystery surrounding him. The smitten guests vie for his attention. Who can say how far Tloques’ newfound notoriety will carry him?
Tloques bows sardonically to the rune-heroes. Leelo addresses him and tries to get information, also to influence him toward her way of thinking regarding the world situation. However Tloques speaks mostly of his grandiose plans and extravagant ambitions. If Tloques achieves anything close to his ambitions, perhaps he can be leveraged in the future to influence the situation in eastern Malaki and San’ta’ron.
Avurnix’s new Beau
Later in the night, as the last guests depart the villa, Lady Avurnix again addresses Mesmer:
“Let us repair to my chambers, lovely raven-haired Amurite! There we shall explore the near and far shores of arts arcane and otherwise.” The fascinating Countess looks deep into Mesmer’s eyes and breathes huskily, ”Surely you would not deny me the taste of your sweet, sweet nectar?"
Mesmer falls completely under the sway of the seductive flame-haired vampiress. He makes a discreet symbol to communicate that his comrades need not wait for him before leaving. Krag and Mavriy immediately take to their heels. Leelo and Hoxton briefly debate hiding out in the manor to observe what fate befalls their lecherous friend, but ultimately decide against risking a long walk home through vampire infested countryside.
Avurnix keeps in readiness a Malakim potion known as ‘The Phoenix’ (“aloft by day and by night”) to reflate the flagging zeal of terrified udrani lovers, but it will not be needed this night! Some time later, Avurnix admits to being fascinated by the magic circles burning upon Mesmer’s chest. She demands to hear the tale. Mesmer happily babbles the complete story of Asmoday-wight’s release from the Patrian sepulcher/prison and his subsequent restoration to lichdom, including the role played by the lich’s armies in exposing the southern flank of the Luchuirp empire. Avurnix claps her hands in excitement, “This goes far in explaining the sudden collapse of the Luchuirp kingdom to the Sheaim-Infernal alliance. Our greatest Torlivani Lords may well aspire to lichdom. In Prespur you don’t need to search long to discover lore about this arcane and coveted process. How lucky you are to have met the great archmage Asmoday in the flesh!” The death of thousands doesn’t seem to factor into Avurnix’s appreciation of these tragic events.
At some point during the voyage from the Isle of Lost Souls to Nubia, the burning ember or dark smudge indicating the direction of Asmoday switched from east to west, indicating the rune heroes have come halfway around the world. By this point Mesmer has triangulated the haunt of Asmoday to within a hundred miles of the southern end of the Dragonspine mountains, though the lich does appear to move around within that general area. The other changes, pale waxy skin and long claw-like nails, have progressed steadily and now are difficult to conceal. Perhaps these physical manifestations of Asmoday’s curse (or promise) drew Avurnix’s attention to Mesmer in the first place?
Lady Avurnix is well-pleased with Mesmer. She takes her toll of blood, but gifts him with a spell scroll of vampiric touch. Later in the night she offers Mesmer ‘The Gift’ and a place within the vampire hierarchy, but Mesmer politely declines. Avurnix doesn’t seem too disappointed. She offers to perform a ritual to remove Asmoday’s lich-geas, in exchange for future consideration: “We can always use a mage on his way up in the world!” The half-hour ritual removes the lich-geas, which according to Avurnix would eventually become a debilitating compulsion driving Mesmer to seek out Asmoday and either serve the lich or die trying to destroy it.
In the wee hours of the morning, Lady Avurnix bids Mesmer farewell in her own peculiar way: “And now my darling, you may let yourself out…” The dim red light of her bedchamber suddenly goes black. Only silence answers Mesmer’s tentative inquiry. The exhausted wizard must fumble his way from Avurnix’s suite into the dim maze of halls and rooms beyond.
After fumbling through many secret passages and mysterious rooms, Mesmer comes upon a reeking fountain and pool filled with dark liquid: blood, seemingly drained from a hole in the ceiling above. Three pale human corpses lie nearby with throats cut. A ring of braided black metal carved with Calabim runes sits on the edge of the bloody tub. Mesmer can’t resist using mage-hand to retrieve the ring, obviously forgotten by his terrible lady-love during her ‘bath’. The wizard flees from the horrid bath-chamber when a serpentine column of blood rises from the pool and strikes at him.
Next Mesmer happens upon a small museum. One of the locked cabinets displays Calabim script describing the contents as ‘scrolls of ancient power’. Unable to resist the lure of spells, Mesmer uses his knock spell to open the cabinet, thereby averting a fiery blast from the magical trap laid for anyone breaking into the container. Within is a scroll documenting a necromantic spell imparting false life upon it’s recipient. A worthwhile find!
Mesmer climbs a narrow spiral staircase to another floor. So far he’s not found the outer window he so desperately desires. A door opens into a tiled chamber, an abattoir splattered with blood. Within are eight corpses, some several days old, others fresh. Their blood has flowed into a drain in the center of the floor. One corpse hanging from a rack on the far wall is being skinned by an elderly goblin wearing only a bloody leather apron: “The lady has finished her bath Kothik, we need no more bloodbags! Huh, who are you?!” The goblin gives directions back downstairs, but Mesmer can’t make heads nor tails of the jabbering.
The top floor of the manor must be close now. Down a dead-end hallway Mesmer spies a softly glowing suit of mithril plate armor enclosed in a glass display case. A key is in the lock. From a distance of 10 paces Mesmer uses his spectral mage-hand to turn the key. A wall of glowing transparent force now blocks the hall. From the armor emerges a ghostly beautiful wraith. The evil spirit is much vexed that Mesmer stands safely beyond the wall of force. But for mage-hand, Mesmer would be within reach of the moaning undead spirit!
Finally a window is found. Mesmer carefully climbs down the ornate back-facade of the manor. The stars and moon indicate it is likely only an hour before dawn. Mesmer creeps around the abandoned villa grounds like a great black rat. Beneath the portico stands a small 2-person carriage drawn by a single gaunt black horse with eyes like embers. The beasts hooves burn like hot coals and a curl of smoke rises from it’s nostrils. The driver is a hunched figure completely obscured by a high-collared black great-cloak. Seeing as a 60-mile walk through Calabim countryside is probably suicidal, Mesmer climbs into the accursed carriage. An obscenely-long arm reaches around from the driver’s seat and shuts the door. The hellish steed pulls the carriage along at insane speeds. In only four hours Mesmer arrives back at the pier where the Witches Brew is moored, richer in spells if poorer in blood. A letter arrives a few days later inquiring about ‘a missing ring’. Mesmer opts to return the ring and does so in style: he commissions a fancy obsidian-and-gold gift box including a letter praising the qualities of Lady Avurnix and otherwise ingratiating himself. Who knows if this chilling amour might yield rewards in the future?
The rune-heroes elect to extend their stay another week, sans the protection of Tloques. The time is used to purchase and bring aboard 50 tuns of various Calabim vintages. Including more than a few barrels from the estate of Lady Avurnix. Dorn is confident the Calabim wines will fetch a good price at various ports of call up and down the Earthsea.
Leelo is interested in sailing north, where according to the advice of High Runekeeper Tor-kra’hom, she may find knowledge of other rune-heroes in history. Specifically from Cassiel, fallen angel and immortal leader of the Grigori people. But the Crown of Danalin is a more pressing issue. Krag wants to offload the Crown as soon as possible, and since Leelo doesn’t want to throw it overboard, sailing to Lanun lands seems the only other option. Leelo meets with Dorn and finally shows him the Crown. His eyes widen. In a shaking voice, he asks “The Crown of Danalin…fabled among my old comrades that still worships the true lord of the sea. What will you do with it?” Sailing to Innsmouth means entering the ‘belly of the beast’, the holy city of the Overlords and pretenders to the legacy of Danalin, according to Dorn. The Overlords command great spiritual and temporal power all across the Lanun archipelago.