Shadow of The Silken Hand

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Shadow of The Silken Hand

Post by Dungeon Master on Thu Feb 04, 2016 9:45 pm

Shadow of The Silken Hand

”Tcian Sumere ? And you know this from what source ?” As always, the assassin master was sceptical and outwardly hostile. He usually had his reasons, but the unpleasantness with which he presented himself, made most men avoid the hard Calimshite. Lean, wired, and overly intense, Harun Al-Rashied made most people uneasy. The rumour went that “mistake” was a word he had stricken from his vocabulary, and few people had lived using it in his presence.

Calmert had heard the stories, and had had no real desire to meet the man. He didn’t keep the Silken Hand in high regard, but understood why Darion needed the mercenaries. He cast a glance around the non-descript cellar at the men gathered around the oaken table. This wasn’t anything as dangerous as bartering with a succubus queen, but none-the-less he expected the proceedings to be delicate. He hadn’t met the hard taskmaster before, and had been taken aback by the anger practically oozing from the man. He knew he would have to be his most diplomatic self not to anger the assassin master with the requests he and Darion had come with. The lord of Canton was dressed in a simple grey cloak, but his green leather armour was adorned with intricate silver patterns and yellow gemstones fit for a king. Although the garb was designed to impress, Calmert had no doubt that it was also functional, and heavily imbued with magical abilities. The silence about the old bookkeeper was unusual. Normally there would be some sort of melody emanating from him. Not an actual song of course, but more like you would feel in tune with the bard when you were with him. It was hard to explain, but the lord of Canton had a pleasant, otherworldly way of putting people at ease around him. It didn’t seem to work on the Calimshite though. The gnome Ethluwar, Calmert’s half-dragon companion, was also at the table, but looking disinterested and a bit annoyed at Harun. He wore that scowl which usually meant he was about to pick a fight. Although gnomes were diminutive, Calmert had great respect for the little being. He had learnt that very few things could harm an Ethluwar, and he had lost count of the times the half-dragon had saved the Planewalker Five from certain destruction. There were others in the room too. Near the wall, in the back of the shadows were mercenaries from the Silken Hand and also one of Darion’s trusted lieutenants, Cheriel. Calmert knew the enchanted table would prevent any of them from eavesdropping, and so he leaned in to tell his tale, hoping to pique the interest of the angry man across the table.

“I followed an informant to the world-tree, Ygdrassil. Securing a guide, which is another story entirely, I was led to an enormous expanse in the planar-spanning tree. Branches thicker than a leviathan supported a structure of some sort. I believe it to have been a temple to the gods of the giant eagles that soar through and from the Outlands.” Calmert noticed that Harun’s scowl had gotten deeper, and he had to remind himself that he would have to tell his tale dry and factual. He paused for a second, composing his thoughts. The lord of Canton imperceptibly nodded his approval to the planar operative as he went on.
“The creatures that I had been following from Canton – otherworldly shapeshifters, had called a meeting there. I had expected maybe a handful, but there were more than sixty. Gathered in a natural bowl in the tree, the edges of the natural gallery were lined with statues of giant eagle kings. From a vantage point on an overhanging branch, I was well within earshot. For a long time, nothing happened. The visages, each a sort of undead shade with a faceless porcelain mask would simply stand there and sway to some unheard tune. Hours passed before a misty portal formed and a messenger stepped through.” Out of habit, Calmert had begun looking for weaknesses with the taskmaster, but stopped abruptly when he realized the master assassin was studying his eye movements. Continuing his recount, he kept his gaze stiffly on the table in front of him.
“The creatures went silent and practically motionless, obviously waiting for something. Smoke or steam began to roll down the steps from the portal. The ethereal monsters gave it their full attention. From the mist, the form of a small, winged humanoid devil with pale blue skin materialized. It made its way down the steps and announced with great confidence that it brought news from Thanatos”.

Calmert had paused for effect, and was instantly reminded that the audience was not enamoured by theatricals. The silence that followed was not one of awe and wonder, as might have been the case in any dozen taverns across Waterdeep or Suzail. Darion gave him a small sign to get on with it, and he hurried on.
“To make a long story short, the messenger was a mist devil of some power. It told the visages that the next phase of their master’s plan was ready, and that the prisoner had been brought to Tcian Sumere. Then the visages tore the devil apart.” Feeling like a good story had just been ruined; Calmert sank back in his chair, spreading his hands in a “there-you-have-it” gesture.

If anything, the Calimshite looked even angrier after the tale. “And equipped with this information you expect the Silken Hand to mount an invasion on a secret fortress in the dead of the negative plane.” Harun did not pose this as a question, and his sneering delivery made it clear it was an insult. Galean hissed as Darion started to speak, but the assassin taskmaster interrupted them both with a dismissive gesture. Calmert could see the annoyance the old bard felt, and could almost feel the anger from the gnome, but took the cue to hear Harun out. The planar operative had met enough dangerous men in his travels to know that he was sitting across the table from someone who could back up his bluster with force.
“One does not simply go to the plane of negative energy. A man without divine or exemplary magical protection will simply be dissolved into necroplasmic goo. If he has a measure of power, he might merely be transformed into a being of undeath and evil so far removed from himself he would kill his own brothers. That is just the plane itself. The things that dwell there are far worse. If you want to go there, you can go and die alone. The Silken Hand will not follow.”

It was clear that the assassin taskmaster expected to that to be the end of the conversation. As the lord of Canton interjected anyway, Harun's angry scowl got even deeper.
“Harun, let me just explain what is at stake here.”
As much as Darion tried to hide his frustration with the Calimshite, it was clear that he had not expected a dismissal of such a base nature. The taskmaster sensed it also, but it only seemed to fuel his resolve to deny the lord of Canton any help.
“I have done my own research into the matter, as I expect you have done yours when we called for this meeting.” Darion did not wait to get confirmation from Harun, since the man was clearly well informed about the obscure fortress of which Calmert had only recently learned.
“This information was not easy to come by, nor was it cheap. You know me, right hand of Abu Jafar, and you know I don’t squander my resources lightly. Tcian Sumere is, as you say, an immense fortress at the bottom of the multiverse. I bear no illusions; I know the dangers are very real. My sources paint an even bleaker picture than the one you have been gracious enough to provide us with here today.” Harun gave a smug self-satisfactory nod at this comment from the old bard.
“As much as I hate to admit it, its dangers are too much for me to take on alone, even with the resources at my disposal. I need the Silken Hand to take the fortress for me.” With finality, Darion planted his hand solidly on the oaken table.

“And I said no, bookkeeper.” The dark-skinned Calimshite leaned back in his chair, folding his arms in a dismissive gesture. He said nothing more, but his eyes were shooting daggers.
“The fortress has to be taken,” Darion continued, clearly intent on explaining his point of view to the Calimshite, “and it has to be taken soon. A menace threatens all of Canton, powerful creatures that can go through our wards undetected, controlled by an unseen master we know little about. Calmert here has faced these visages, a force of undeath able to distort reality and suck the very essence from your soul. We have no idea how long they have been in Canton, but your cadre of unskilled thugs have not caught a single one!” The master of Canton had levelled an accusatory finger at Harun at this final outburst, clearly meaning to confront the man. Harun said nothing, his hard stare making his eyes look glass-like. Calmert could taste the tension in the air. Normally Darion would be the one to diffuse such confrontations, and so the operative found himself in an unusual situation. Looking at the gnome for help, he could see that the little creature was clearly relishing the escalation of events. A grin split his face from ear to ear; his tiny fangs and too many teeth making him look disturbingly menacing. Calmert caught the innuendo well enough: “let the bard play this one out.” Out of pure instinct, he again started looking at the Calimshite as a mark. Again, he was reminded of the assassin masters acuity, as the man caught his stare and gave an imperceptible tilt of the head as if to say, “Don’t even think about it”. A bit at a loss, Calmert withdrew a bit, leaned back in his seat, trying to look relaxed and overly non-confrontational.

Harun was fuming with badly contained anger, and Calmert expected a fight to erupt as the man forcefully stood up.  Planting his wired arms square on the tabletop, he mirrored the accusatory stance of Darion.
“Don’t pretend to tell me what to do, bard.” No one had taken that kind of tone with the master of Canton for a long time, and Calmert saw something turn off behind his friend’s eyes. The taskmaster didn’t know it, but Calmert guessed it would only be a matter of moments before Darion let the gnome ball of destruction off its leash.
“We are not here by your grace. The Lord of Shadows…”

Harun had stopped talking. The light had dimmed and the shadows suddenly grew deeper. A chill in the room made frost form on the breath of anyone near the table. The darkness grew tangible and became a man standing next to Harun, who took a tentative step back from the table. The man was likewise a Calimshite, a full two heads taller than the assassin master. Clad in simple black sleeveless leathers, his arms covered in tattoos of raging dragons. The new arrival put a reassuring hand on Harun’s shoulder.

“You are right brother. As always.” When Gom Jabba, left hand of Abu Jafar spoke, all anger left the taskmaster as if a different man had replaced him entirely. Gom Jabba leaned in over the table, the light reflecting in his bald pate and making his dark eyes gleam. Turning his full attention to the three gathered planewalkers, what he said beckoned no arguments:
“The Sheik Emir Abu Jafar would like a word.” He said nothing more, clearly awaiting some sort of response.

The master of Canton nodded, the silver in his armour sizzling with contained lightning discharge.

- - -

All light left the room. It didn’t turn dark, it was quite another experience; the darkness turned as tangible as if he had been submerged in liquid. Calmert knew that the two others were nearby, but more from a sense of affinity rather than any tangible connection. He realised he could hear Darion’s music, and a sense of purpose and security found him. He heard the gnome cough, and saw a ball of flame rise from the Ethluwar. The ball’s brightness muffled quickly and was engulfed by the darkness, leaving an afterimage in the darkness. Calmert imagined the half-dragon smile.

“Easy, friends.” The master of Canton spoke with confidence, and then addressed someone else in the room. “We do not appreciate your theatrics, Sheik, nor are they needed. We are not novices to be impressed with parlour tricks.” There was no waver in Darion’s voice.

“Of course not.” The response was clear, non-threatening and with a heavy Calimshan accent. A man clapped once, and the darkness receded slowly, revealing the location the planewalkers had been brought to. It was an emperor’s ballroom, each wall bedecked in priceless tapestries and ornaments. The floor was covered in a deep plush carpet. A couple of grand fireplaces were set in each wall, their embers not quite illuminating the room. The heroes couldn’t see any source of light, but they could see fine, as in daylight at dusk. Shadows clung to everything, like a thick viscous substance that had lingered for years. An emperor’s table set with a feast dominated the room, with enough chairs to fit three score nobles. Two men were seated at the table, not at the end, not in the middle, but a bit off to one side. The man closest could be no other than Sheik Emir Abu Jafar. Even sitting down, Calmert could tell that the man was tall. His angular features and dark piercing eyes gave him a regal look, his posture rigid and still. Staring intently at the heroes, the dark orbs of his eyes were slowly weeping wisps of shadow or smoke. His dark beard was full and glistened in the embers from the nearby fire, giving off an illusion of burning coals deep within its depths. His thin lips were almost completely covered by his beard, making him look gruff and unyielding. He was clad in an expensive black satin robe, betraying the shape of a set of underlying heavy armour. Next to him, reclining in an overly relaxed way was a young rogue, his face hidden beneath a heavy leather cowl, cleaning a set of throwing daggers. Where the Sheik was looking at the heroes, the rogue didn’t seem to pay them any notice at all.
“Please. Have a seat.” With little movement, the sheik indicated the chairs opposite himself.

The Ethluwar didn’t take the Calimshite's offer. Locked in a determined Nid Slag fighting stance, he had no intention of moving either. His dragon senses picked up riches and dangers. And rivals. Scanning for the other treasure hoarders, the gnome’s nostrils flared and his eyes turned the same golden hue as when he was about to spew fire. It didn’t take long for him to spot them. He noticed small things out of place. The flicker of a scale. A fang exposed for too long. The flutter of a draconic eyelid. Every fireplace had ornamental dragons holding the mantelpieces. Only, Galean determined soberly, they were very real. At least two scores of shadow dragons lined the emperor’s hall, lying dormant, awaiting to be called into action. The gnome adventurer would be damned if he were not the first to join a scrap were his kin was involved, and so he kept alert, scanning the room for when the trap would be sprung.

“What is it, friend ?” Calmert signalled in the rogue cant that they both knew. Galean gave him a hard stare and a grin. “My superior intellect tells me I can get out of this mess, but I’m pretty sure you two are fecked.” The gnome whispered through gritted teeth and fangs. Then he turned his full attention back to the shadow dragons.

Calmert shrugged and looked to Darion. The master of Canton seemed poised as normal, but Calmert could see that his old friend was rattled. This was not going as expected. Calmert mentally took inventory of his concealed weapons and what magic he had left from what the archmage gave him. A saying he had read in a journal left by Malinordell the Sage came to him: “When everyone goes crazy, you just have to go full out crazy too.” He shrugged to Darion, and leisurely plopped down in one of the comfortable seats at the table, throwing a deferential nod to the Sheik.

While Darion walked to the table more slowly, the assassin in Calmert started studying the two men before him. He thought he saw the rogue smile at him from within the darkness of his hood, but it was the Sheik that demanded his attention. Then the bard started talking:

“We are no longer in Canton.” It was a statement, not a question, yet the Sheik nodded.
“You are not in agreement with taskmaster Harun, but you don’t want him to know.” Again, Abu Jafar nodded and Darion spoke a bit faster and with more conviction.
“You too have perceived the threat to Canton. Harun would have his thugs disrupt all vital operations trying to ferret out an enemy that he would not have been able to find – much less able to best.” A small twinkle, not unlike a smile, hovered in the corner of the Sheiks eye as he nodded.
“The theatrics were needed in order to evade our enemy, while letting them believe that our efforts to mount an attack on Tcian Sumere were met with failure. This place here,” still standing, the bard made an indication of the grand hall, “is safe. The safest you can guarantee to hide our discussion from our enemies.” The bard paused. If for effect, or simply because he was putting the pieces together, Calmert couldn’t determine. With finality, and a smile, the master of Canton declared:
“We are in Castle Shadow. You have brought us to the seat of power of the Shadowlord.” A slim smile creased the Sheiks lips as he nodded slowly. His companion stopped cleaning his daggers, turning his attention to the bard. His eyes were pinpricks of red, deep within the darkness of the hood. In that one look, Calmert saw respect… and hunger.

The Sheik indicated the chair next to the one Calmert had commandeered, and then formed his long fingers in a steeple.
“As always, your powers of deduction are second to none, lord of Canton. Come; tell me what you make of these creatures and their interest in your realm.” As Darion took the seat, Calmert could hear a melody of confidence flowing from the bard, and some of his worry about the outcome evaporated. The gnome was still locked in his paranoid fighting stance, not noticing what was happening at the table.

Resting at the edge of his seat, Darion took a sip of the thick wine in front of him, tipping the goblet towards Abu Jafar as he started unravelling the mystery before him.
“We have both faced powerful creatures before. That the visages are able to avoid detection must hail from their ability to distort reality. If it were a magical effect, our wards would have been triggered. If it was supernatural, I would have been able to sense them in Canton. No creature can hide its presence from me there. Or so I thought.” Darion grabbed a Thayan blood orange, and started peeling it, as he continued his thinking aloud.
“We have faced contenders before, and many have been crossed off our list. A good few thanks to my friend here.” Darion nodded at Calmert, who accepted the praise with a slightly dismissive gesture. It was not in his nature to boast of his shadowy deeds. Assassins, who did, usually didn’t live very long. The Sheik didn’t hide the fact that he took the measure of the operative as Darion went on.
“These undead should not have powers to alter the reality of Canton without my permission, yet they are clearly able to. Which leaves only one explanation: they are invested with divine essence of a god.” The Sheik nodded for the bookkeeper to continue, clearly agreeing with his train of thought.
“Even the demon lord Graz’zt who controls at least three layers of the Abyss, would not be able to invest such power in his minions. Maybe in his own domain, but certainly not in mine. If Graz’zt himself came calling, that would be another thing entirely. I have not yet had the pleasure of entertaining a deity in my realm, nor do I have any particular wish to do so. A fight on my terms could turn either way as things stand now. When we remove all contenders, it will be a different matter entirely.” The old bard smiled to himself, the shadows receded around him as his song got stronger.
“Meaning we are dealing with divine emissaries of at least a lesser god, and not some demon lord looking to increase his domain.” Darion let the statement hang in the air for long enough that he was sure everyone at the table knew that they were facing.

“This god must be a rising power. Or, one having fallen from grace, trying to restore his former magnitude. Most demon lords are too busy defending their piece of the Abyss, and keeping the Blood War with troops to care about other planes. The drow goddess of Undeath, Kieransalee would have been my first guess, but the recent war with the Spider Queen has kept her occupied and weakened. No, she would not be interested in Canton. Maybe one of her brothers, or someone she bested on her way to overtaking Thanatos.” Calmert noticed the man next to Abu Jafar had not moved at all while the bard had been talking. He tried to get a better glimpse of what was under the cowl, but saw nothing but darkness and shadow. It didn’t seem to affect Darion as he was spinning his tale before the attentive Sheik.
“I have researched how Kieransalee took over Thanatos, but no information exists. None of my contacts, in Sigil or in the Jade Court, can find information on who she took over the 113th layer of the Abyss from. At a point, Jergal ruled it, and some claim it was part of Myrkul’s realm, before it descended into the Abyss. This seemed to have happened well before the rise of Kelemvor, and significantly decreased the powerbase of Myrkul before he was cast down to the mortal realms during the Godswar. At first, I didn’t understand something was missing, because it was never there to begin with. Then I finally pieced it together: if magic is the weave that Mystra spun around Faerun, then the shadow weave was created from the blank spots in between the threads of fate. We know the Shadovar returned from exile, to wield the power of the shadow weave, and so we know it exists. We know so because we have seen wizards wield its power – even though we did not understand how it could be!” Darion exclaimed this, as if he was making some grand revelation to Paladinson’s Court in Waterdeep. Calmert was a bit lost as always when Darion started naming this and that god the power behind a plot, and he could see that the Ethluwar had no interest in the conversation either. The Sheik, on the other hand, was listening intently on Darion’s every word, his eyes gleaming with anticipation.
“And so, I finally understood. It was not what I couldn’t find that was the problem. It was, that what was there to find, had never been there to begin with!” The lord of canton made a small pirouette with his goblet, and stuck his finger up in the way of a Waterdhavian hero play would have done.
“Whoever was the lord of Thanatos, was someone who have not only been killed and removed from power, but erased from existence entirely! And this entity may very well be our hidden adversary!” Had it not been a little out of place in the shadowy hall, Calmert was sure the bard would have leapt upon the table to emphasise this point of his speech. Instead, he did a quick shuffle of the peeled orange, and threw his cape over his shoulder, assuming the “hand-upon-hips” pose that an actor would strike after having delivered the morale of a play. Remembering that he was in Castle Shadow, and not the Yawning Portal, the lord of Canton composed himself, sat down and reached for his goblet. Even before the cup touched his lips, he had forgotten about the wine, as he again took up his performance.

“My friend here has already established that our adversary has spent considerable resources looking for, and quite possibly acquiring, a rare artefact known as desert’s night. The only artefact said to be able to restore a man’s mind after he has drunk from the river Styx. Someone with knowledge about something that have been erased from existence. Someone powerful, or important enough that simply killing them would not be an option. Not even for a god of vengeance.” The bard was now in full story mode, his every sentence heightened the tension in the room.
“I will make the case before you, my fellows, that this powerful person is the prisoner in Tcian Sumere the visages talked about. Therein lies the key to this whole affair: We must mount an attack on the fortress in the negative plane, steal away this prisoner and bring him to Canton as an insurance policy. Against a hidden adversary with servants who wield forgotten godlike powers, I deem no sacrifice too great to protect our city and our investment. This threat must not be underestimated, and our efforts to locate the others on our list must also be doubled. There can be no hesitation.” Darion was staring intently at the Sheik. Had he not been wearing gloves, the others would have seen his knuckles turn white as he clenched his goblet tight.

The Sheik rose from his seat, setting his nursed goblet aside. He smiled amicably, and his face lit up in a smile that Calmert guessed didn't very often find it's way to his features. He spread his arms wide, his satin sleeves draping like shadowy curtains, and took a step back from the table.

“Come with me, lord of Canton. There is something I must show you.” He made a gesture to a side door, and Darion stood up as well.
“Please, bring your friends. This secret is equally meant for them.” There was a glint of anticipation in those dark orbs, as the master of the Silken Hand looked to the two other planewalkers.

The trio of heroes followed the Sheik down a dark and shadowy passage onto a balcony that ran along an inner courtyard of Castle Shadow. The vista arrayed before them was not what they had expected to be shown. The grand courtyard was filled to the brim with row upon row of battle ready mercenaries. Arranged in neat files, fifty wide and a hundred deep, more than twenty companies were gathered, and more men were arranged as sentinels on walls and peering from windows. Huge braziers chased shadows away and made spiked helmets and polished weapons gleam as lava in the eternal night. Calmert heard the lord of Canton let out a small gasp, as he himself was coming to the same realization as the old bard. An amused crinkle accompanied the dark twinkle in Abu Jafar’s eyes, as he too saw that the heroes understood what he had known all along:

The decision had already been made. The Silken Hand would go to war.
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