Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fiction - Tyranny of the Stars, Part VII: Rendezvous

Tyranny of the Stars, by Robert Brookes
With Paizocon over things are returning to normal here at the Encounter Table. If you enjoy the work put out weekly here, please stop by Paizo.com and check out my latest work for Raging Swan Press: Village Backdrop: Hjalward and Demiplanes: The Twilight Demesne. Additionally, you can find some of my bestiary work in the Mummy's Mask: The Slave Trenches of Hakotep, out later this month!

This week the Encounter Table's fiction serial Tyranny of the Stars returns from hiatus with the ongoing adventure of Aribessa, Father Czanis, Iosef, Patris, and Serana in the city of Alkenstar! Let us know what you think about the Encounter Table's fiction series here in the comments or on our Facebook page!



Tyranny of the Stars, Part VII: Rendezvous

A pressurized hiss breaks tense silence in an abandoned storefront, followed by a puff of blossoming flame as one of Alkenstar's many gas lanterns comes alight at sunset. The dusty storefront of Wayfarer's Market hasn't seen foot traffic since its ownersdied six years ago. Situated on the edge of the Alken river near the falls, this business is one of many that has been forced to shutter after falling on hard times or running afoul of local law enforcement. Like many abandoned buildings in Alkenstar, however, its connection to the gas manes that cross-cross the city remains active. Three travelers stand expectantly in this abandoned place, examining the cloth-shrouded furniture, expansive cobwebs, and barrels of spoiled foodstuffs.

"This seems legitimate," one of them notes with a swipe of two fingers through thick dust and grime. Patris has been doubting coming here for a while now, and Aribessa's absence from this gathering has made that doubt more pointed. Instead, the young man finds himself among the company of two strangers. One, a wiry man with a face full of wrinkles and a shock of white hair. He's been fondling the talisman of Pharasma hung about his neck since Patris arrived. While he's young, Patris has lived long enough to know that when a priest is anxious, it's fro good reason. The other man, roughly the same age, has been patiently sitting on a stool since Patris arrived, quietly smoking out of a long ivory-necked pipe. His battered duster and wide-brimmed hat are clearly Alken fashion and were it not for the absence of a badge Patris might mistake him for a shield marshal. The rifle leaning up against the wall next to him helps sell that notion some.

Patris hasn't heard either of the men make a sound since his arrival. At least, no more than a cursory nod and grunt of greeting. The instructions Patris was given indicated that it would be best if he didn't discuss the particulars of his hiring, and he's left to wonder if they were given the same orders. "Are we seriously just going to sit here and not ask questions?" Patris isn't much for following orders, however, especially inscrutably clandestine ones.

The priest looks up from the heavy silver talisman in his hand, worry evident in his expression, before his eyes shift past the young man and to the gray-haired gunslinger seated on the stool. "Iosef and I spoke quite candidly right up until you showed up, actually." The priest's words cause Patris to scrunch his face up in an expression of frustration. But before he can muster a response, both the old priest and the gunslinger Iosef begin laughing.

"What, exactly, is so funny?" Patris jabs back at the both of them. Iosef tips his hat up and withdraws the stem of his pipe from his mouth, exhaling two jets of smoke from his nostrils like some gray, old dragon.

"Father Czanis an' I were bettin' on how long it'd take 'fore you talked, is all." Iosef smiles broadly at that notion, then fishes inside a jacket pocket to produce a single gold coin, which he throws in an underhand toss to Father Czanis. The old priest snatches the coin out of the air and holds it between two fingers, then stashes it in the coin purse hanging off of his belt. "Looks like the Father's got a better eye fer' behavior than I'd guessed."

Brows furrowed, Patris presses one hand to his head and exhales a frustrated sigh. "You know what? Nevermind. This was a ridiculous idea, I—" Just as the young man's patience wears thin and he finds himself turning for the door, it opens. The tiny, rusted bell above the threshold chimes off-key and in steps Aribessa, shaking ash flakes out of her hair and off of the shoulders of her drab cloak.

"I'm so sorry I'm late!" She chirps to the three in the abandoned storefront, looking up at Patris first as she makes hasty process across the room. "I was picking up some supplies," Aribessa explains, unshouldering an overstuffed backpack before thrusting it into Patris' arms. The young man gapes for a moment, starts an aborted sentence, then looks back at Iosef and Czanis who both offer a hapless shrug in response.

"Aribessa, where—"

She cuts off Patris again. "I was in a meeting with our patron, Serana Hightower." Aribessa quickly flicks her stare up to Patris, then over to the older men. "It seems like she's trying to compartmentalize this project because of its—questionable legality?" That's a fine enough assessment for Aribessa's sensibilities. "I was given instructions, however, and told to relay them so that we can begin planning."

"I'm sorry," Father Czanis interjects, "but I'm—and I mean, I'm probably not alone in this—but I'm a bit lost. Madame Hightower told me that she would require my services for an expedition that was backed by the Duchess herself. Not..." he motions to his current surroundings, "some illicit thing."

Iosef eyes Czanis side-long, then inclines his head in the direction of the priest. "The Father's got a point," the gunslinger concedes, "but then, she didn't mention the Duchess none t'me."

For a moment, Aribessa seems tense and her teeth press down subtly on her bottom lip. As Patris looks over at her with a frustrated expression, she shuts her eyes and exhales a slow, steady breath. Aribessa is spared from needing to come up with a more convincing argument by a new voice calmly joining the other more strained ones. "I suppose there's no helping this," is clearly the voice of Serana Hightower, and it comes a few moments before the rest of her does, flickering into view like the guttering flame of a candle, misty and incorporeal looking on the edges before the shadowstuff that comprises her image coalesces entirely.

Father Czanis stands upright, brows rising towards his hairline and eyes wide. "A projected image?" His expression scrunches up as he inspects the phantasmal appearance of Serana, circling her illusory form. "Why this performance art? Why not show yourself?" He asks Serana in an accusing tone. Aribessa turns to look at Czanis and the rest of the conversation, her lips parted in surprise but otherwise looking transfixed in place, brows furrowed.

Serana's illusory form sighs, arms crossing. "I'd hoped to be able to discretely distance myself from this operation in a clean manner, but I suppose it was too much to hope for." She eyes Aribessa for a moment, inclining her head to her, then looks around at the other three in the room. "I know most of you have met me, and—Patris, was it?" Her stern stare levels on the young man, whose back straightens in response. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Aribessa has spoken fondly of you."

"Cut to the chase, ma'am," Iosef urges, taking another puff from his pipe. Czanis nods to Iosef in agreement, finishing his slow circuit around the illusion before coming to a stop near the gunslinger. Briefly, Czanis' eyes scan the room, settling for a moment on a large gap between the boarded up windows where the last vestiges of daylight filter through. His attention squares back on Serana once she replies.

"I've hired the four of you for a very sensitive expedition, one that requires a certain compartmentalization of information. I've given each of you personalized information, be it in a face-to-face meeting," he nods to Iosef, "or written documentation," then to Czanis. "The reason for the clandestine nature of this work is that we are not the only group of people attempting to perform the task I've hired you for."

"Yeah, see, I'd like to know that part," Patris grumbles, an expectant look on his face. Serana concedes with a slow, reticent smile and nod.

"And I'd like to know if the favor from the Duchess your papers spoke of is legitimate," Czanis inquires coarsely. To that, Serana offers a slow and certain nod.

"I assure you, Safan," Serana locks eyes with the priest as she speaks, "What was promised for you is legitimate. I'm performing a cover operation in direct view of the Duchess and her subordinates that you are being credited for. Your actual work, however, will be more discrete. Regardless, you're still receiving your payment."

Then, looking to Patris, Serana grows quiet, then uncrosses her arms and rests one hand on her hip. "The mission I'd hired you all for, that's a bit more long winded of an explanation."

"I got time," Iosef opines, taking a drag off of his pipe. Serana nods in acknowledgement, then clasps her hands behind her back and her illusory form begins pacing the room, contemplating where to begin.

"Thousands of years ago," is a good enough place to start, "the cataclysmic event of Earthfall sundered the world." The others relax as Serana begins her explanation, though the ancient beginnings elicit a look of momentary curiosity Patris. "Debris called from the depths of the Dark Tapestry rained down on the world, most famous of all... the Starstone. But, the Starstone was not the only celestial body to fall to Golarion that terrible day the world was cast into darkness. A fragment of that cosmic cataclysm landed right here, long before Alkenstar City ever existed."

Czanis shoots a quick and uncertain look over to Iosef, meeting the gunslinger's eyes and the two exchange a momentary expression of uncertainty before Serana continues her explanation. "The remnants of the object that fell to Golarion still exist, buried under centuries of earth, deep below this very city. I have reason to believe that the object I'm looking for plunged down into the subterranean realm of the Darklands known as Sekamina, where it has laid hidden ever since."

"An' you want us to retrieve your space-rock?" Iosef offers rhetorically, taking another puff off of his pipe. "I ain't much for the deep underground, but I'm more concerned about this other group you talked about. Ain't many people out in the Wastes I can think of who'd want t'get their hands on a chuck a'rock, lest know it even exists."

"Are you familiar with a group known as the Anaphexia?" Serana's question elicits a look of ignorance from all four. She closes her eyes, nods once, and seems to have expected the response. "Outwardly, they present themselves as ascetic priests of Pharasma from a remote mountain enclave in the Ulcazar province of Ustalav," her attention briefly flits to Father Czanis, "sworn to a vow of silence so severe they cut out their own tongues. But the truth is far darker. These cultists do not serve the Lady of Graves, but rather the Reaper of Reputations and god of secrets, Norgorber."

While they may not have recognized the Anaphexia, based on the expressions of Serana's audience, the name Norgorber does not go unrecognized. Aribessa remains tense, barely moving at all save for the twist and turn of her expression at each revelation. Patris looks the least affected, whereas both Iosef and Czanis have much more visceral reactions of curiosity and disgust, respectively.

"They would profane Her name so?" Czanis intones gravely. "These cultists seek your sky stone? Why?"

"Why does fire burn or a plague spread?" The Chelish woman rolls her shoulders in a helpless shrug. "It is what they are— what they have become. The members of the Anaphexia are no longer people, they are instruments of Norgorber's will made manifest in the world. If they are allowed to get their hands on this fallen star, it will disappear forever. Any knowledge that could be gained from it will be lost, and—" Serana stop herself, tone calming, composure returning. "That will not happen."

"I suppose not," Iosef agrees reluctantly, "but it's gonna be hard finding a pebble in a rock quarry. I mean, unless you happen t'know what this here fallen star looks like." Sliding off his stool, Iosef smacks the embers and ashes out of his pipe onto the floor, then grinds them out with the heel of his boot.

"That information has been given to Aribessa. As I said, each of you have compartmentalized information, so as to avoid everything getting into the Anaphexia's hands, should one or more of you fall to them." Though Serana's words convey a certain level of desperation, Iosef seems more concerned with the implications that he'd spill secrets under pressure.

"No offense, ma'am, but I ain't a snitch. I'd sooner eat a bullet than let some mutes torture information out of me."

"Were I to guess," Czanis looks over to Iosef, "they have ways of making your corpse talk." That bit of macabre insight elicits the first real look of surprise from Iosef, followed by a grimace as he tucks his pipe inside of his coat.

"Well, I stand corrected."

"I'd like to avoid that all from happening," Serana assures. "Now, the location we're standing in once served as a smuggler's den for illegal goods coming in from Katapesh through Nex. Specifically the import of pesh. A series of derelict pesh dens below this building were ransacked by the shieldmarshals six years ago and passages that connected to a network of warrens and tunnels in Alkenstar's sewers—used to smuggle in the pesh—were sealed."

Serana motions to Iosef with one hand. "Iosef was on the raid that closed down this pesh den, and knows where these sealed entrances are. The first part of your assignment will be finding and re-opening one of these passages to gain access to the sewers without being noticed by local authorities." Then, Serana's attention turns to Czanis. "From here, you'll need to negotiate your way through the warrens and find out from the people living down there where the nearest entrance to the upper-most layer of the Darklands—Nar-Voth—can be found. Father Czanis has an established rapport with the mutants who—"

"Mutants?" Patris blurts out.

Everyone in the room squares a look on the young man, but only Czanis takes the question seriously. "Your previous stays in Alkenstar must not have been long," he notes wryly. "The subterranean warrens and sewers of Alkenstar are rife with the unwanted and hopeless, from those mutated by the Mana Wastes beyond the city's walls, to the poor and forgotten. I... performed funerary duties and healing services for the residents of this forgotten ward with—with help from..." he dithers, waving one hand dismissively. "I'm familiar with the residents."

"So, Iosef gets us down there and then supports with that fancy firearm of his," Patris clarifies. "The priest," he adds with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder at Czanis, "helps us negotiate with the people under the city to get us into the Darklands and patches us up if we run across the Anaphexia..." Having pieced Czanis and Iosef's roles together, Patris squares his attention on Serana. "So, where do Aribessa and I come in?"

"Aribessa is a scholar of the forgotten, an explorer, and Pathfinder. Once you find what we're looking for, Aribessa's expertise will help with the conclusion of this task." Though Serana's answer for Aribessa is specific, Patris' role seems broader. "As for you?" So broad, in fact, it brings the corner of her mouth up into a smile. "You're in charge."

And at that, all the color drains out of Patris' face.



Between the Lines

Concealed Spell
You carefully craft your spells in such a way that they are difficult to correctly identify.
Prerequisite: Ability to cast illusion spells, Bluff 3 ranks, Spellcraft 3 ranks
Benefit: When you cast a concealed spell, choose one spell of the same school. The spell you cast now appears to be the chosen spell instead, emulating its visual appearance. The spell's effect does not change—fireball still burns, cone of cold still freezes—but visually it appears as something else. A creature witnessing you casting a concealed spell may make a Spellcraft check as normal to identify the spell, but unless they beat the required DC by 10 or more they only identify the spell you chose to emulate. The same rule applies to Knowledge (arcana) checks for spells with a duration greater than instantaneous. Targets interacting directly with the spell may see it for what it really is with a successful Will save (DC equal to the spell being cast, even if no save is normally allowed). A concealed spell counts as both its original school and illusion (glamer) simultaneously.
Level Increase: +1 (a concealed spell uses up a spell one level higher than the spell's actual level.)



Open Content: The game mechanics of this game product are Open Game Content, as defined in the Open Gaming License version 1.0a Section 1(d).

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