Somewhere in the world, a ship passes close to a scrub-brushed shore, weaving between looming stones that jut from the sea, some of them even higher than the vessel’s sails. Hazy clouds and sea spray fade the island into a foggy gray, but somehow the crew navigates to a small pier.
The ride inland from the dock is brief and surprising. As the passengers look out from their two carriages, the island looks wholly abandoned; it’s hardly an auspicious gathering place for a group as powerful as the Obscurati.
Everyone’s only barely had a chance to meet or speak with the other guests—some priests from the Clergy, a dwarf from Drakr, a man from Crisillyir, even an elven woman from Risur, plus two whose nationality are harder to place. It’s been a convoluted route, but these precautions are necessary.
The drivers bring them all down an overgrown dirt road, along a weed-choked reflecting pool, and finally pull to a stop just outside a run down mansion. Cracked and empty windows leer down at the newcomers, and even the plants that have taken over the estate are tattered and bug-chewed.
Two figures stand at the front door, and though the entry behind them is rotted, they are resplendent. A distinguished old tiefling, dressed like a head of state in a black silk suit and golden jewelry, is attended by a younger tiefling in a suit and tie. The suited one whispers something to his elder, then lifts off the ground an ornate glass lantern the size of a small pumpkin.
“My apologies,” says the robed tiefling. “One drawback of secrecy is that we have to carry our own luggage.”
Once the travelers have retrieved their luggage, the carriages drive off. The tiefling with the lamp talks as he reaches into his coat and pulls out a small vial of black oil.
“Gentlemen,” he begins, then stammers as he realizes the elven woman’s presence. "Er, and l-lady: may I introduce Han Jierre, sovereign of Danor, my uncle, and… w-well, one of the people you’ve been working for. That is, ah, whether you knew it or not.”
The tiefling gives a slight smile to you, then works his way down the line of visitors, greeting them each with a handshake or a bow or a subtle blessed gesture, always appropriate to their culture, always comfortable and with the practiced ease of a seventeenth generation politician.
“Monsignior Dexlano, Patre Hevny, Bishop Vigilio your grace. Oscan! How’s it going? Herr Hetman. Miss Hatsfield, thank you for coming so far. Mister McDruid, Sir Sangria. It’s a pleasure to meet you all.” He nods to his assistant. “Luc, if you would?”
Luc has finished loading the lantern oil, and now he lights it with a quick strike of a match. A purple glow covers the area, and the surroundings are spontaneously transformed. The cracked dusty ground is now also smooth and swept clean. The façade of the mansion is somehow both decayed and coated with pristine white plaster. And the small gathering has been joined by dimly visible figures on the periphery of the light’s radius—armed men. Each one is clad in plate armor, bears a longsword and shield, and wears a cloak held in place by a book-shaped silver pin.
“We are currently coterminous with the Bleak Gate,” Han explains. “We do apologize for the inconvenience of planar travel, but as you know, secrecy is of the utmost importance around here. Thankfully, my nephew has at least perfected the technology involved,” he nods, gesturing to Luc and the lantern. “Earilier incarnations of this device involved the use of amulets or wands to bring one fully to the other side, but for now we need do nothing but wait.”
The guards around the area part slightly, and Han clears his throat. “Oh—Please pardon us as we perform a bit of security.”
From outside the light radius a massive snake slithers in, at first inky black. The moment it gets into an area of bright light its scales turn a brilliant iridescent in reds, greens, and purples. It grasps the ground with short, stubby forelimbs, and its eyes glow like pale yellow suns. It looms menacingly over the group, its gaze turning to each of them one by one.
Suddenly the guards start to level their weapons, for one of the newly-arrived guests looks like someone completely different. Monsignior Dexlano, originally a heavy-set pale priest, now has a second face: that of a muscular, dark-skinned man, with the glowing halo of a Clergy godhand. As he realizes his disguise has been pierced he turns to flee, but the serpent moves first. Its eyes flash with blinding light, and the man’s body starts to blacken and peel away while his shadow is slowly burned into the manor wall behind him.
The other arrivals are panicked and confused. Luc starts shouting for people to stay away from the monster and to remain calm. Xavier reaches for his sword, and Han calmly grabs a nearby guard and tells him to fetch Vicemi, and the guard runs indoors.
about six seconds later the man has been totally disintegrated, leaving behind only a silhouette on the manor wall. That silhouette twitches slightly, as if it is somehow still alive. The reptile slithers up to the wall and starts licking the silhouette’s fingers.
The other Clergy members demand answers, asking why the snake just murdered one of their fellow priests. The answer comes from the door as four spectral figures glide through.
Three of the ghosts hang back, while the one in front takes control of the situation. Vicemi Terio speaks with a raspy voice that reverberates unnaturally and chills all those who hear it. “That man was a spy,” he says. “Your fellow priest was replaced and likely died long ago. You should be more careful in keeping your secrets. But we will find out how you were compromised. Macbannin.”
One of the three other ghosts walks forward. While Vicemi’s face is withered and decayed, and the other two ghosts’ features are faded like they don’t remember what they looked like in life, Reed Macbannin has barely been dead a year, so he still mostly walks rather than floats. He stops next to the still-twitching shadow of the intruder, casually shoos the beast aside, and draws a very solid vial of blood out of his spectral cloak.
“Really,” Macbannin laughs, “it’d worry me more if we didn’t have any spies trying to come here.” With that he coats his hands in blood, then reaches into the wall and grabs something. He yanks, and the intruder falls to the ground shivering and burnt, barely alive. The guards swarm him, search him, and manacle him. “I’ll take him to the dungeon,” Macbannin says. Then he grins and winks to the new arrivals. “Welcome to the Obscurati.”
As Macbannin and the guards drag the impostor away, Han introduces the newcomers to Vicemi Terio, and then asks the two remaining Clergy priests to stay and answer a few questions. Han leads the other five visitors into the mansion. A far cry from the decrepit shell of its real-world counterpart, the Bleak version of the building is richly decorated with tapestries, lush carpeting and finished wood paneling.
“So how much am I getting paid for this gig?” Oscan asked impatiently.
“I apologize,” Han said after a pause. “I fear there has been some miscommunication, likely owing to the secretive nature of our communications. None of you are here to perform a service. Rather, you are here to be heard. We are holding a forum about the plan we have all worked so hard to bring to fruition: the Grand Design. A few days from now, at the end of this convocation, we’ll hold a vote—that’s why we need everyone here.”
Seeing an opportunity for further questions, Xavier spoke up. “What was that… thing at the entrance? Is it native?”
“A shadowlisk, and yes, it does call the Bleak Gate its home. Our leader has seen fit to tame a few to ensure that we have no uninvited guests slip in. You see, the creature’s truesight gaze not only sees through illusion and shapechanging and the like, but it also dispels such effects, letting everyone around see things for what they truly are.”
As the group passes through the lounges on the ground floor, they spot a few early-arrivals smoking cigars, swapping stories, or simply browsing the numerous bookshelves that are scattered about. Once they head upstairs and down the west wing’s second floor hallway, though, the mansion appears nearly empty. None of the hall lamps are lit, lights are visible from under only a few doors. But there is a dim red glow at the end of the three hundred foot long hallway.
In the vast room at the end of the hallway, a central fireplace roars warmly, but out the glass windows on the north, south, and west walls the whole landscape is nearly black. Together it creates the effect of light disappearing, and darkness encroaching. A set of luxurious leather chairs are arrayed near the west windows, and one man sits smoking. His hands are gloved, and a necklace is visible around his neck, but tucked into his shirt. At first he seems alone,
but as he stands to greet the group, it becomes clear that a dozen or more ghosts are floating outside the windows, watching.
He says, “Call me Nicodemus. I’m glad you came. Together we’re going to change the world. Come on. Let’s have a drink and talk.”