Delft met with the constables a few days after their return from Ber, but rather than hold a meeting in his office, they chatted on the way over to an unfinished brick safehouse he’d acquired in Stray River. “So we’re sure this is Grappa hanging out inside Leone Quital’s skull?” he asked, though he’d already heard reports from RHC divinists assuring him it was so. Delft was slow to trust this sort of convenience, but he shrugged as he considered the situation. “If nothing else, it’s been fun having a dozen boys with wooden billyclubs shoving him around for the last three days and force-feeding him coffee. Let’s go see what ‘Grappa’ has to say… but I’ll have a ritualist buddy of mine put a zone of truth on the building, first.”
After dismissing the guards and allowing the exhausted Leone to finally collapse, the constables watched intently as Leone woke again seconds later. He spoke in slurred nonsense, but the dormant personality of the Mindmaker eventually got used to steering the unfamiliar body, and spoke to the constables briskly, as though he were afraid Leone might awake at any second. Just as a precaution, everything metal was left outside, including Sir Hugo Von Gearkinson. Absent from this meeting, Talon Silverhawk had picked up some violent form of stomach flu from traveling abroad and was recovering at home.
“I’ll get right to business,” the man said, using Leone’s voice, but Grappa’s by-now familiar vocabulary and mannerisms. “Toward the end of my time with… my employers,” he said stiffly, still unable to overcome the geas that had clung to his mind through three different bodies, "I discovered they were working on a sort of excavation of Knütpara, an ancient dwarven city now covered by ice. While digging there, they happened upon a giant lich, frozen in the ice. Apparently, he’d left his phylactery in the city at some point before it had become consumed by a glacier, and after being destroyed in battle he reformed near his lost phylactery and was trapped. The only reason I can tell you all this is because it has nothing to do with why the organization originally started digging there; they found him utterly by accident, and from what I’ve heard, they have no interest in releasing him.
“He’s been stuck there for a thousand years… from what I was able to learn about him, he went by the name ‘The Surgeon,’ and he specialized in ripping out the souls of mortals and planting other souls into the shells of the still-living bodies. He plied this magic for allies of the Demonocracy, allowing them to infiltrate groups opposed to the demons, or simply to become effectively immortal by periodically taking younger bodies. It was apparently quite effective, even able to fool magical detection.
“I only risked one sending ritual while riding in Leone’s mind: I contacted the lich some time back, asking if it would teach me its knowledge of soul transfer—I think we could use it to give me free reign over Leone’s body and let me assume his identity. The Surgeon agreed, but only if we freed him first.” Grappa looked grim at his own suggestion. “But do not doubt my intentions here—we shall definitely destroy him once we get what we want. I’d hate to loose some ancient evil upon the world.”
Qiyet raised a point of moral concern. “Wouldn’t this solution involve enslaving Leone’s soul so you could permanently control his body?”
Grappa shook his head. “No, you misunderstand. I’m proposing that we take Leone’s soul out of this body and destroy it so that he can never be brought back from the dead.”
“Ah,” Qiyet replied with a shrug. “Then I’m fine with that.”
The others had mixed feelings. “Wouldn’t we be disrupting the natural order by removing a soul from the cycle of life and death like that?” Kida asked. “Isn’t there a chance that he could be reborn—even if it’s on some distant world—and have a chance to become a good person?”
“I don’t presume to know anything about the ultimate destination of mortal souls,” Grappa admitted, “but if the destruction of souls is something that bothers you, consider our common enemy’s use of witchoil. While the refinery in Flint has been destroyed, I’m sure they will continue to manufacture the substance, and that will require the consumption of innocent souls. Is it not better to destroy one evil soul than to continue to risk innocent bystanders while we wait for some other opportunity?”
Though it was a hard pill to swallow for some, eventually it was agreed that the group would go to Drakr, find the lich, and destroy Leone’s soul in the hopes that Grappa could then re-join the conspiracy and wait for an opportunity to lead the constables to breach its defenses.
“And isn’t there some other mission you were planning?” Delft asked, pulling out a letter he apparently hadn’t yet read. “Island of Odiem, blah blah blah, rescue the angel, yadda yadda yadda, requesting the following personnel: Hugo Von Gearkinson and Xambria Meredith, Nathan Jierre, Kaja Stewart, and a skilled psychotherapist." He put the letter back into his coat. "Yeah, I’m authorizing this mission. But I recommend you bring the rest of your team with you, too. I know you’ve been there before, but there’s no telling what could happen out there.”
GM’s Note What follows is a controversial scene from the table which ruffled a few feathers both in- and out-of-game. It is included here for the sake of completion, and not meant to serve as a reminder of lingering grudges or slights, but as a testament to the party’s ability to overcome interpersonal differences. As GM, I’m of the opinion that this was fully an in-character miscommunication/disagreement, and I don’t detect any unfriendliness among the players in my group, even though the scene created a level of tension around the table that I’ve only rarely seen.
Frankly, stress levels would realistically be high among government law enforcement officers working an anti-conspiracy case for more than a year, so I’m not pretending this didn’t happen.
Qiyet raised an eyebrow, somewhat curious. “How come you requested Hugo to come, but not me or Templeton?”
Kida replied impassively, “Hugo is the only one who has skills I don’t.”
Templeton groaned, knowing what was coming.
“Oh, so I’m useless?” Qiyet fumed, understandably upset. “Is that it?”
Kida tilted her head. “I simply didn’t think you’d be doing much there besides leaning up against the wall and being bored. Anything left in the Vault is probably way below the sort of threat level you’re used to handling for us.”
“That’s not the issue here,” the martial scientist said flatly. “You think you’re above us, don’t you? Or at least me and Talon—you’ve done nothing but badmouth our skills during the last mission or two! Why?”
“Okay, just hold on,” Templeton said, stepping between the two and putting his hands up. “Qiyet, you know that Kida sucks at saying things right. And Kida—just apologize and get this out of the way. You did kinda say she was useless.”
Kida looked flabbergasted. “I didn’t say that at all! I simply didn’t think there was a need for her to come along if there’s nothing dangerous to fight—”
“How many times do I have to say that’s not what this is about!?” Qiyet cried out.
At this point, the noise drove Delft to shoo them out of the house, lest they somehow wake Leone. “Alright, this is probably a conversation you need to include Hugo on,” he said lamely, then quickly explained the situation to the young constable. “Basically Kida said something, Qiyet got upset… just calm them down, huh? I kinda see you as the mascot of this group. Er, morale officer. Yeah, that.” And with that, he retreated back indoors.
Hugo tried his best to remind the group that they were all friends, and that Qiyet had saved his life more than once. But the fundamental misunderstanding between the two co-workers remained.
“Look,” Qiyet spoke, increasingly frustrated by what she perceived as Kida’s stubbornness. “I don’t think I can even WORK in this group if you think THAT little of me. Odiem could be dangerous. I should go.”
“Fine, then I guess next time I need to fetch myself a glass of water, I’ll ask you to tag along too.” Kida said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh hell.” Templeton buried his face in his hands.
Tempers were burning hot, but neither side exploded or drew their weapons. Instead, both women seemed to reach an understanding that there would be just no getting through to the other, and so the conversation slid into icy silence until Delft re-emerged. From the lack of footsteps leading up to his exit, it was obvious he’d been listening behind the door the entire time.
He spat a wad of tobacco into the grass. “Can I say something?”
“I wasn’t aware you needed permission, boss,” Qiyet pointed out.
“Well, I was mostly asking for effect,” he admitted, unperturbed. "You five—er, four right now—are the best employees I’ve ever had. And yeah, a lot of that has to do with your investigative ability, field records, and combat ability. But I also know from working with you that you’ve always got each other’s backs. I’ve seen that time and again, you are always looking out for each other out there. I’ve been working with you for what feels like years, and it would break my heart to see you guys tear each other apart now… and I’m not just saying that because I have an obligation to King and Country to ferret out the Obscurati leadership, and it would be a nightmare to try to replace any one of you.
“Who knows? Maybe you guys are just here for the paychecks. Maybe the whole patriotism thing goes right over your head. But if you didn’t care about each other, I’d know. Now then… Kida? Do you think Qiyet is a highly-skilled individual?”
“There’s no question,” Kida replied, without so much as a pause. Qiyet looked surprised.
“Now Qiyet,” Delft said, turning around, “I want you to know that the zone of truth extends out a few feet from the building, so you can take Kida’s statement there to the bank.” Hugo and Templeton chuckled appreciatively.
“Qiyet,” Delft spoke again. “Do you think Kida is a highly-skilled individual?”
This time there was a significant pause. Qiyet shifted from foot to foot as she weighed her answer. “I guess,” she said.
It wasn’t the answer the Chief Inspector was looking for, so he pressed further. “And do you think that her personability is among those skills?”
“No.” This time there was no delay.
“Okay! So maybe she screws up what she wants to say sometimes?”
Qiyet nodded. “Maybe. Though to be fair, I don’t have that skill either.”
“Right. So disagreements are bound to happen,” Delft agreed.
Kida seemed reassured, but Qiyet looked expectant for some more solid resolution. “And…?”
“And nothing,” Delft said, shrugging. “I’m no shrink. But that psychotherapist Kida requested is going to be a permanent member of your ship’s crew from now on. Now—I’m not saying you guys are unstable… but I’m saying I would be unstable after working this case on the front lines for as long as you have. No judgments, ya hear? I just want you guys to have an outlet if you need it, and definitely with someone more qualifed than me!”
(End inter-party conflict)
The constables set out for Odiem with Kida’s requested specialists (though with the order that they were not to be brought on shore until all other avenues of breaking the angel’s chains had been attempted.
“Visitors to Odiem are rare, and return visitors are rare beyond rare,” spoke a soft voice. It seemed to echo over the whole island as the party rowed ashore. “Why do these four return to Ashima?”
“We’ve come for Linia,” Kida answered to the empty air.
“Ah, they have come for the angel. Ashima’s restraints are unbreakable, truly, but Ashima wonders if these four even have enough strength to free her lesser cellmate…”
Everything in the Vault was as they’d left it. As they reached the end of the first room, Linia’s eyes lit up with hope, and she reached out for Kida like a child for her mother. Kida gave her water, and promised to do everything she could to free her now. Six golden chains ending in cruel golden hooks pierced her body; two each on her arms, legs, and wings. A skeleton key had no effect on them, and it took two uses of dust of disenchantment before the chain on her left leg was rendered inert. Qiyet (standing by with a craghammer of the titans) demolished the unprotected chain with a whopping 70 points of weapon damage.
Lacking more dust, it was found that the least protected part of Linia’s restraints was the stone in which the chains were moored – after applying enough Sechim-brand StoneEaterTM to the floor, the eyebolts easily pulled free. No longer fed magic from the Vault itself, the hooks fell free of the angel’s body after a single coating of oil of etherealness.
“And the seventh?” Linia asked excitedly, looking to Kida.
“Seventh…?” The constables looked at each other, confused.
“The seventh…. the seventh! The seventh chain!” Linia cried, clearly panicked. Suddenly, an alarm began to blare, and the walls lit up with ominous red sigils. Similar markings lit up on the angel’s own face and shoulders, and arranged in a circle upon her sternum. Suddenly she was filled with an unnatural vigor, and she attacked!
Most spells and strikes did little to harm Linia’s divine form, but now and then the veteran constables’ considerable skill managed to pierce even her defenses. A lucky blow from Qiyet’s carrikal bit into the angel’s chest, and her weapon clunked against a length of gold chain that now hung from the wound. “Found it!” the ranger exulted.
At a loss as to how to remove something buried in her body, (and being mercilessly pummeled by Linia’s short-hafted warhammer), the constables retreated into the southern hallway, hoping that the Leaden Curse they’d encountered on the doorway previously would affect the golden chain in her chest and hopefully disenchant it. But the spell of domination upon her forbid her to give chase, so she only screamed her hope that they would “rot in the Vault” and slammed the door on them.
“Two chains the Clergy forged for Ashima’s manipulative hands," spoke a familiar whisper. "Two chains they forged for her cowardly legs. Two chains they hooked into her back so she might feel the eternal sting of the betrayals she wrought, and a final seventh chain they hooked into her blasphemous lips, for the Clergy feared Ashima’s lips above any other part of her. So it is with your winged friend, though it is not her lips they feared…”
“…but her heart,” Templeton finished.
Sparing no time to think of a plan, Kida rushed into the room and drew the now-airborne angel’s ire. All attempts to reason with her verbally were failing, as Linia’s broken, enslaved mind caused her to mumble curses and promises of doom to enemies of the Clergy, to the point where she couldn’t hear anyone talk but herself. Templeton fired off a shot from his handcannon to deafen her, hoping that it might cause her to stop her chatter, and then they might get in a word edgewise.
“¡Liberdad!” Qiyet shouted, hefting her patriot’s carrikal, but her word of liberation had no effect. Taking a long shot, she dropped her handaxe and used her new spell of teleportation to get herself to Linia’s height, grabbing for the chain even though she was not practiced in the difficult art of grappling…
Somehow her hand closed tightly around the blood-slick length of chain, and Linia screeched as a half-orc was suddenly hanging off her. Even so, she was more than strong enough for her wings to keep herself aloft.
Hugo acted quickly, retrieving a rope from his backpack and tasking Xambria with handing off the grappling-hook end to Qiyet. With no time to hand off the rope to a stronger teammate, Hugo activated his bracers of mental might, which flared through his tailored sleeves as he hauled backward on the rope, somehow besting the angel’s inhuman strength as he nearly got her through the cursed doorway. The bracers didn’t quite have enough juice to get the job done, but as Linia backwinged away, Qiyet’s iron grip on the chain exposed her orb-shaped heart, and the large golden hook curled around it. Just before Hugo’s temporary strength ran out, he used charm of misplaced wrath to compel her to break the hook with her warhammer—!
Everything went white after Linia screamed and brought the hammer down, but Qiyet saw a piece of the hook break off inside her chest just before they all fell to the ground. Xambria told them to bring the angel through the cursed doorway just in case, and then they returned her to their ship.
“You were right,” Qiyet said to Kida. “Standing up against that wall was SO boring.”
In the morning, Linia woke. She was alive and recovering, though the strength the wards had given her had faded, and her muscles were atrophied from her long imprisonment. Even so, she thanked her rescuers from the bottom of her heart, and pledged to repay them somehow, as soon as she was well.
In speaking to her, they learned that she had known Triegenes personally, and that the corruption of the Clergy was hardly recent, for she had no knowledge whatsoever of Srasama’s fall, or the effects of the Great Malice. She also claimed that she had been living in this world for countless centuries, and that returning to her home plane was impossible, as the world was inexplicably cut off from the celestial domain of her birth long, LONG ago.
Between the inability to travel between the world and the domains of the gods, and the supposed invulnerability of deities, Linia could hardly believe that a being like Srasama could be called here, let alone killed. Templeton mentioned Ashima’s Secret – a ritual that could give form to a belief.
“I have heard of this magic,” she said, thinking back to dim memories from before her long years of torment. “The Demonocracy tried to use it against Triegenes, once. It is called the Sacrament—”
“Stop,” Templeton said. “Even Ashima, a demoness, fears this ritual’s power. I don’t want to know anything about it.”