One, two… Principle missing!

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Suspiciously eyeing the pentagram, Lilith tries to erase part of the circle. After a few moments she succeeds, thus severing it. She takes some time to heal herself and be ready for the challenges ahead.

The room of Thra’esue is bare, apart from a small stone table with parchments. Phaedra takes a chart of a graveyard with her. On the map directions have been indicated with arrows. Lots of humanoid skulls litter the floor. At the back is a locked door. Jharrath summons an earth elemental and orders it to demolish the door. With several power attacks, it splinters the wood. Inside is a sarcophagus, which – the lid pushed aside by the summoned elemental – reveals the resting body of the ogre. The cleric takes a vial of holy water and pours half of the contents in the giant’s mouth. His eyes snap open, and with a horrible scream, he pulverizes. No mist, no nothing; the beast is gone. In his sarcophagus  lie a pouch with three potions, a key and a magical chain shirt. The potions inflict moderate wounds when used.

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The drow now move towards the room of Mephisolis, the upper Principle. The corners of his room are decorated with big urns. Something clicks when the scout passes the threshold and she gets hit by an arrow full of acid. With Thra’Esue’s key she tries to open the door to the inner sanctuary, but it doesn’t fit. Jharrath gets the same treatment, when he tries to open the lock with a scorching ray. One of his Melphs acid arrow takes care of the problem: the door is gone. The inner room is lit by four ever burning candles. A huge jump brings Alvra almost to the sanctuary… almost. Another acid arrow finds its target.

Now the method to destroy the Principles is clear, the cleric decides to leave it up to her siblings to take care of the vampire ogre. Elegantly she throws the still half full vial of holy water towards her brother, almost into his waiting hands… almost. Fumbling Alvra fails to catch the little bottle and it crashes to the stone floor. Quickly he wets a piece of his robe with the remnants of the holy water, while Lilith scowls at him. He walks towards the second sarcophagus – lined in red silk – and pushes the lid off. It takes quite some strength and the help of the wizard to accomplish, but finally they succeed. The wet cloth is not enough to finish the ogre, so they cut off his head and set the corpse on fire. Principle number two is gone from this world.

In the coffin another key, a beautiful magic chain shirt and a ditto great sword stay behind. Phaedra decides to keep the chain shirt for herself, though she will have to resize it. There are also two pouches and two shiny flasks, containing a silvery liquid. Alvra recognizes it as silver sheen. With a mighty jump, the fighter manages to reach the safety of the central room. His brother isn’t that fortunate, his clothing damaged by the acid that’s still eating its way through the fabric. The fighter hands the pouches to Lilith, and she finds gold pieces and two blue sapphires, worth 3.500 gold pieces.

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Checking out the Principles’ third room, Lilith commands her shield to transform into a spider and sends the arachnid to investigate. When nothing happens, she walks in to and tries out the keys she has found. They won’t fit. Out of holy water, Alvra and Lilith coat their weapons in silver sheen and hammer down the door. A closed coffin awaits them, which proves to be empty though. Where is the third Principle?

The Xaniqos gather in the central space, where the cleric casts a mass shield of faith. She warns her siblings to let their guard down before releasing the spell. Then they continue towards the last door: the library. The key fits the lock smoothly, and inside there are several shelves with lots of books and scrolls. Two are especially beautiful, but when Phaedra tries to read them, she gets nauseated. The wizard takes her place and soon finds out these are magic scrolls about necromancy. He takes them with him.

In the room of the ghouls, Alvra discovers a pouch with a black opal. Hurriedly he leaves the filthy nest. The cleric once again checks out the central room and the pulpits, but there is nothing there. All siblings search for hidden doors and other hiding places, but there’s absolutely nothing. The bats have found a quiet corner and witness the search.

The drow decide to go back to the first room. The corpses of the two ogres are still there, but the body of the mage ogre has disappeared! Could he be the missing Principle? It must be. A trail of blood leads upwards, but when they enter the upper floor again, an occasional drop and boot prints in the dust are all that is left of the trail. Though they search the mansion, even the upper parts and outside, there’s no trace of the mage ogre. He must have regenerated. Perhaps he ran off to House Shi’quos, they simply don’t know. The Matron Mother can be content: the leader of the Principles is dead and the rest has been slaughtered.

Good tidings

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Tired and weary as they are, it is slow-going for the Xaniqos. Long hours pass before they finally draw near to Erelhei-Cinlu. Wrapped tightly in their cloaks, they head towards the Great Gate, where an escort of of eight guards is waiting to take them safely home. The Matron Mother appears instantly and only says

Do you have it?

Yes.

Without further ado Lilith hands over the Cloak of the Consort to her mother. At her sign Taldinyon walks forward, awed by the fact that he is honored in this way. When he dons the cloak, the effect is stunning – simply amazing.

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Did you encounter any trouble?

Might we discuss this in private, Lady Thandysha?

the Cleric replies. Taldinyon and K’yorl accompany them towards the throne room. In stead of the usual two, four minotaurs guard the room after servants have placed pillows on the gr0und. When everyone is comfortable, Lilith continues,

House Shi’quos tried to ambush us and – well, let’s just say Matron Mother Ythesha’na lost her second son, Jhael’min. How did you know the cloak was ‘accessible’?

We received the information about the attack on the transport from House Vae; they are ever watching the trade routes.

And how about the cloak? Are you planning on letting Taldinyon wear it in public?

Phaedra inquires.

Oh yes! There are more cloaks like this and I presume there is no evidence our House took it?

She looks at her daughter, daring her to say otherwise. Lilith keeps quiet.

By the way, didn’t you leave on a lizard?

We had to choose between the lizard and the cloak, battling the aranea that waylaid the caravan. They were wearing Godeep House insignia.

That is valuable information. Don’t you worry about the Lizard, Lilith, you all did well. Bringing back the cloak proves that the investment in the war beasts was a good one. Perhaps our clerics can find ways to strengthen them. Now you and your sister and brothers take a well deserved rest.

The minotaurs open the doors and the siblings leave for the Armory. In the throne room a happy scene unfolds: the Wizard K’yorl is smiling, while the Matron Mother contently looks at her stunning consort.

Back Home

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After a while, the three barges that harbor the Xaniqos and their riding animals veer away from the other barges. Vuon and twenty warriors stay with them, while the other Kua Toas accompany the slaves – slaves who get only mediocre food and very short breaks. The Kua Toas move with military precision. Though Lilith immediately asks for Vuon, the Kua Toa waits a couple of hours before answering her call.

First you say that you were ‘heading this way anyway’, and now we are the only ones traveling in this direction? Where are the others going?

Are you worried, Priestess?

Lilith snorts.

Of course not. Just curious.

The Kua Toa explains that the other barges are headed for places around the Glimmersea and that all is going according to plan. Nothing else to do than sit back and enjoy the view, which is very boring. The journey continues smoothly and three times a day the Kua Toas dive with their tridents to catch fish and collect seaweed for the lizards.

Four days later they see Blessed Seahaven in the distance. Vuon asks Lilith if they want to debark at the village or in the vicinity, since they want nothing to do with the ritual. Lilith tells the Kua Toa to disembark nearby. Though it is a smooth landing, the lizards get a bit restless, so their chains are deftly removed. Everyone is glad to be off the rafts and they quickly say goodbye to Vuon.

May the darkness be with you.

Where upon the Cleric replies:

And may the Spider Queen kiss you!

Glimmersea

The Drow climb on their mounts and ride off. After two hours the familiar big gates of Erelhei-Cinlu rise up from the gloom and soon the bigger buildings are visible. Two more hours have passed when they are welcomed by the City Guards. The Xaniqos show their House insignias and are allowed to pass the gates, notwithstanding their looks. People make way for their party; whether that is because of their House insignias, the lizards or the intrusive sea scent remains unclear. With their hodgepodge clothing and armor they look a band of mercenaries. At the Noble Gate, they are halted by a female Cleric of House Thorntor, who denies them access. Lilith is fed up with the delay and it takes quite a bit of her diplomacy skills to gain access. They are allowed through under escort of the Priestess and ten of her armed guards so nothing happens on her watch.

When they arrive at the Xaniqos mansion, the Thorntor Cleric enters the house. Several patrols are guarding the premises, more than usual. Surrounded by the Noble Gate guards, the siblings impatiently wait until someone with authority acknowledges them. After an hour the Priestess emerges again, accompanied by Taldinyon, who has a big grin on his face. He nods to the Priestess and tells her they are Xaniqos alright. The guards move aside and finally the favored consort escorts them into the the house. Goblin slaves lead the lizards to the stables.

A lot has changed, Taldinyon say, please follow me. The House is bristling with activity. There are many Bugbear slaves and armed Drow patrol the corridors and hallways. Word of your arrival has been sent to the Matron Mother, so you might want to freshen up, Taldinyon suggests. But Lilith first wants to visit the Chapel. When she enters, her sister Quarra is leading a sermon for several praying Priestesses. Some seem familiar to Lilith from her time at the Clergy School, but others are strangers.

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After several minutes, Quarra turns around and greets her sisters.

We have prayed for your safe return,

she says and then kisses Lilith.

There are new developments. Our revered Matron Mother has assembled more of the lower Houses to our cause. We have had some rough times since you left, but the Lady Thandysha has made wise and strategic moves. We gained fifty warriors, five Priestesses and over a hundred slaves. Too bad you weren’t around when these great tidings arose.

Good news indeed, Lilith says, but we didn’t do too bad ourselves either.

The travelers all go to their rooms to freshen up – Lolth knows they can use it – until a ruckus downstairs tells them that the Matron Mother has returned.

The Hall of Shadows

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The Xaniqos gather in the throne room, where the Matron Mother awaits them.

Because of the latest developments, House Godeep is not interested in a collaboration anymore. We have been made a fool of. House Vae is still interested – though they are not well liked – but for it will suffice.

The day has come to strike back against the second House. Take all your gear with you, for you will leave the city immediately. Do not expect to return until things have cooled down. You will act against House Aleval tonight!

Your target is Charicide, a Bard of great renown, who was once part of the family of Aleval. This evening Charicide performs in the Hall of Shadows, a theater in the Ghetto of Performers. Afterwards she will pay a visit to the Silk Curtain, to enjoy the company of men. Take care of her there.

Further instructions will be given to you in Blessed Seahaven, a small Kua-Toas settlement, led by Pliil Seachild. Since – being Drow – we are all honorary Kua-Toas, these creatures will help you. Their demi-god is Blid Dool Poolp. Take the route over the Glimmersea to Dunspeirrin and return overland with an army of lizards in a few weeks.

The siblings prepare themselves for the journey. Lilith hands her sister a bottle of holy water, and together they visit Lolth’s shrine. Platinum and diamonds, worth five thousand gold pieces, are entrusted to the Cleric for negotiations over the riding lizards, plus extra  gold pieces for daily needs. Jharrath has crafted anti-toxin and gives his sisters one potion each.

In the evening they leave for the Halls of Shadows. The buildings in this Ghetto are fancy and lush, it is all decadency – no slums. The old Hall of Shadows was destroyed in the past and the place has been rebuilt into a grand half-circle theater in the typical Drow architecture. The theater slowly slopes down towards the stage and it is crowded with nobles. Aleval Guards patrol the area and the Xaniqos leave their weapons and backpacks in the checkroom.

They are escorted to their seats and watch flashy and magic acrobatics being performed on stage. Next is a mime artist. He is not really that good and the more nervous he gets, the more mistakes he makes. The crowd gets agitated and suddenly a Drow magician stands up, deep in trance. A moment later a dirty filthy demon appears on stage. It grabs a heavy chain that is wrapped around its body and, cheered on by the crowd, crushes the mime artist with its multiple arms. He then devours him. The magician, notwithstanding the clamor that erupts around him, never loses his concentration and sends the demon back to its plane. Bugbears clean up the mess on the suddenly empty stage.

Ten minutes later the curtains open again to reveal a man in flashy – though bit overdone – garments. Meet Shelos, the owner of the amphitheater. He has a ready, cynical tongue. For a Drow, he is even comical. When he announces Charicide, the audience goes wild.

A young Drow female steps out. Dressed in a shimmering cloack she is gorgeous and lithe. Then an ugly troll enters the stage. Next to Charicide, this giant seems extra large. The Bard takes out her 64-stringed lute, called Vazhan-do, and starts playing. A wailing sounds fills the theater. When after a while the music picks up speed, she suddenly draws her rapier and starts cutting the troll, faster and faster, while the music somehow lingers. The giant stands motionless and doesn’t move. Fingers and other body parts are hacked off. Fortunately trolls have the ability to regenerate their limbs (as long as they are not hit by acid or fire). For the next fifteen minutes the audience is captivated, under the spell of the performance of music and fight. When Charicide finally stops, the whole theater erupts in cheers and salvos of applause. This artist is a feast to the eyes: a true performer!

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>>  what came before

The Lizard Rider

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The next day, Phaedra, Jharrath and Lilith are invited into the Matron Mother’s throne room. They are led onto the balcony, which overlooks an arena where three goblins are waiting. Two rows of dummies are situated near the opposite walls. On the other side, their brother Alvra is atop a huge riding lizard, dressed in a brand new shiny piwafwi. Alvra greets the Matron Mother, who nods back. She explains to the others that the Fighter will give them a demonstration of the use of mounts in combat. ‘This might give us an advantage over the other Houses’, Lady Thandysha says, ‘but its usefulness remains to be seen’. Because of the Priestess Wars not many mounts are left; this would be House Xaniqos’ first.

Alvra urges his lizard forward and charges the goblins. The creatures react enthusiastically. Weird, considering their survival chances. The Fighter’s javelin misses the walking fodder in the middle. When the lizard next tries to bite the green creature, it starts to look a bit doubtful. That expression is wiped away when the reptile’s claws rake off its head.

The remaining goblins take up new positions and Alvra takes the opportunity to throw a second javelin. This time he hits and one of the creatures takes a spear in his body. The other humanoid has a big smile on his face, gazes up at the Drow and… attacks his injured fellow goblin!

With one thrust, he kills the other and parades the battle field like he’s the winner. Apparently the creature made a pact with the Drow Fighter. But there can only be one winner, and that is not this goblinoid! Alvra steers his mount towards the beaming goblin and with one swipe of his mighty sword he cleaves the green monster in half. Seems like the deal is off!

Alvra leads his riding lizard towards the balcony. The Lady Thandysha tells her son that he might need more training and further development of his combat tactics, but that overall it was an enjoyable performance.

Well done, Alvra. You have shown me you may spend more time on cavalry. Acquire more of these animals in Dunspeirrin.

Guards, clean up the area, and son, report up here within the hour!

With a swipe of her garb, the Matron Mother leaves the scene.

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>>  what came before

Hide Away

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While Amalika heads back to the Council of the Eight Ruling Houses, Quarra hurries towards the Throne Room, Alvra and her sister close on her heels. She is greeted by chaos: the room is covered in sticky material and her siblings and an unknown, immobile male drow are glued to the ground. Cursing, Quarra dispels the magic web and – after listening to Phaedra’s report – sends the assassin off to the torture rack.

Quarra seems a bit nervous. Her door has also been tampered with, causing a fire spell to ignite. The situation is getting out of hand.

Once freed, Jharrath and the Scout start searching the mansion for the missing Treasury guard. They find him, cuffed, gagged and poisoned. The treasurer awakens – dizzy and nauseated – and tells them he left his post for food. When he came back, the other guard was missing and he was attacked from behind. The Scout senses there is more to his story and takes him to the interrogation room too.

Left your post for food? Your duty was to the Treasury, you miserable worm. You can take your turn when the other prisoner has spilled his guts.

Lilith sends the guard into the room, where Quarra and a bugbear overseer are interrogating the assassin. After extensive torture, the assassin finally breaks and mumbles ‘Demon’s Den’. Soon after he dies. The Treasury guard – next in line – soon admits to accepting a bribe and looking the other way. That seems to be all he knows though.

Phaedra once again sets out into the mansion, in search of the other missing Treasury guard. When she enters the Armory, she notices fresh blood on a large chest. She opens it and discovers the body of a drow warrior; she has found the missing guard, who has been stabbed to death, greenish poison oozing from a deep wound. The Scout pulls the body from the chest and orders a passing guard to secure the room and get slaves to clean up. She then checks the family kitchen. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, but she gives the order to leave everything as it is anyway.

In the meantime Alvra patrols the house, while the Wizard mingles with the guards to find out all they know about the Demon’s Den. Though the establishment is well known in Erelhei-Cinlu, it is not much spoken of. The Demon’s Den is a favorite hangout for rogues, situated in the Ghetto of Outcasts. It is led by Zaetha, a female drow who fell out of favor with Lolth after the Priest Wars. Zaetha is neutral and pragmatic, even for a drow.

The two guards Lilith sent out earlier, return to report to the Cleric. Although they haven’t found the missing cook, they did discover that Jevan has taken refuge at the Hide Away. Lilith sends slaves to find her sister and brothers with the orders to have them come to her room. When they arrive, she quickly informs them about the news on the cook and inquires after their knowledge of the Hide Away. Alvra and Jharrath know that the address changes every three months. Anyone can hide there; the only thing needed is money, much money. The fake inn has secret walls and double rooms and is run entirely by males. Females are not welcome there. The Hide Away is owned by Melash d’Valla, a half drow slumlord. After a short consideration, the Cleric sends the brothers into the Ghetto of Outcasts to bring back the cook, preferably in one piece. She withdraws thousand gold pieces from the Treasury in case they need to bribe their way to Jevan and orders them to hurry. They need to have more information on the Mask of the Matriarch before the Matron Mother returns.

The brothers go quickly, hiding the Xaniqos house symbol beneath their piwafwis, and arrive somewhat later at a nondescript house. Few people are sitting in the common room of the small tavern. Melash d’Valla walks up to them, almost dressed like a drow noble. He has quite an air for a half drow. Jharrath quickly comes to the point and offers Melash money in return for information on a fugitive drow who is known to be hiding at the Hide Away. The inn keeper looks puzzled and pretends not to know anything about it.

When the wizard’s diplomacy skills fail, he slams a bag of gold on the counter. The owner acts outraged at the allegations about hiding a runaway slave , but becomes more lenient when Jharrats threatens to expose his ‘secret’ business. The Xaniqos males are quickly led into another room, where they agree on the sum of eight hundred gold pieces for handing over escaped drow: four hundred in advance, the other half after they catch the run-away.

They follow Melash down into the cellar and find Jevan behind a hidden door. The cook – alerted by their voices – tries to make an escape. Jharrath quickly summons an earth elemental, which rushes Jevan against the wall. Alvra blocks the exit. Melash throws the wizard a rope, but before the cook can be bound, he tries to take a flask from his pocket. Alarmed, Jharrath calls out to the elemental and the creature immediately attacks. Jevan slowly collapses, the flask spilling a yellow, awful smelling liquid. The Wizard recognizes it as the skin of an Umberhulk, an uncommon poison.

Well, that brings the gold down to four hundred. This is a useless corpse. We will take the body with us.

Alvra accepts a sheet of canvas from the tavern keeper and wraps the former cook in it. They ascend the stairs again towards the common room, where the atmosphere has turned grim. The fighter carries the corpse back towards the Xaniqos mansion.

Council of the Eight Ruling Houses

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In the evening, just before the Matron Mother will leave for the Council of the Eight Ruling Houses, our four brave drow are summoned to their mother’s private quarters. Dressed in a robe of spider silk, Thandysha does not even bother to ask after Vorn’s fate. Since Taldinyon is also present, the youngsters presume she knows about Vorn’s defeat. Two impressive minotaur impassively guard the door. Security is very high in House Xaniqos tonight, and Mother Thandysha reminds her children of their house insignia’s.

The Matron Mother then accepts the letters of her children with their choice for a possible alliance with one of the Ruling Houses. After reading the notes, she tells them they have named two alternatives, which she will keep in mind when making her final decision. Thandysha thanks them for their opinion and sends Phaedra, Lilith and the brothers to their chambers to get some rest. They have to be ready to be called upon though.

Later that night, the Matron Mother, her favored Consort and most of the house guard leave for the First House, where the Council will be held. Quarra, the eldest sister, turns to her siblings:

Pay attention. We are undermanned, so I expect to see you in full armor as soon as possible. And bring your weapons with you. We need to stay at high alert!

Jharrath looks rather smug wearing his new dark snakeskin outfit.

The hours pass and the attentive drow enjoy a good evening meal, separate from the main guard. Rumors already buzz through the mansion when Quarra sends for them: Cleric Amalika has arrived with news from the Council. House Xaniqos has been accepted as Eighth House! Only for their ears though, she tells them that Mother Thandysha has talked to Matron Mother Sereska of the House of Vae, who is quite interested in a coalition but can not see the benefits… yet. The other option was House Godeep, and Matron Mother Siadef is ready to return Thandysha’s favor, though on one condition. House Xaniqos has to prove itself worthy by obtaining a special artifact: the Mask of the Matriarch. This mask used to belong to one of the lower old noble houses and has been lost from sight. The Mask of the Matriarch has the powerful ability to make others cower in fear.

Cleric Amalika asks the four Xaniqos siblings if they are up to the task of retrieving this mask in the Ghetto of the Dead (situated next to the Ghetto of Outcasts). As one they raise their chins and Lilith replies with a definite yes. When she asks for specifics, Amalika tells her the mask is made of obsidian and bears resemblance to the face of a female drow. The Mask of the Matriarch is thought to be buried underneath the House of Nuchar. Strange necromancy experiments have taken place in that house, which is now totally obliterated.

The Ghetto of the Dead, also called the Necropolis, is the home of necromancers, vampires, ghouls and undead. Long ago, the ghetto was a traditional place of the dead, known for its mausoleums, cemeteries and tombs. There are eight big obelisks at the Necropolis Square, one for each of the Ruling Houses. Most drow avoid the district, venturing into the ghetto only when they must dispose of mortal remains. Once the mourners depart, the hungry undead descend to feast upon the corpses.

With Alvra in the lead, they set out into the night…