Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 19
Axio sat back behind his desk and looked over the papers he had just been handed. “How troubling,” he said under his breath. “And we think there may be as many as five of these circles?”
The older of the two men sitting across the table from him nodded. He was a Watch officer in his late forties, and had brought the news with his Guard counterpart. “Indeed, Paladin.”
The young Aasimar set the papers down. “Gentlemen, what you’re telling me here is that the cult of Bane with which we’re struggling has at least three more places in operation nearby which we haven’t even located,” he pointed out. He had been reading the report by the wizards brought to the scene of the rituals. They had concluded that the sending circles were able to contact at least four other sites in one-way communication with ease, with matching circles serving as physical anchors.
“And have the interrogations of the captured cultists revealed anything?” Axio asked.
“Much. It seems all is not well in the Cult of Hate, which is kind of ironic, really,” the Watch officer said drily. “Their overall goal seems to be to shatter that part of the Prime Material Plane’s natural barriers which keep it from the Astral Sea, and allow specific beings – gods and greater exarchs – to simply manifest on Toril, with all their powers.”
“As if the Avatar Crisis wasn’t bad enough,” Axio said disgustedly. “So what is the internal problem?”
The Watch officer’s lip twisted. “The cult is in schism. The older members are trying to proceed with their plan manually, using the men we scared off during the attempted kidnapping a few days ago, while the more radical, younger branch is trying to use magical beasts to do the same. Interestingly, the leader of this young branch is actually one of the Waterdeep cult’s oldest members,” the officer informed him. “A man named Father Toller, a high-powered cleric.”
Axio sighed. “And the children?”
“On their way to the city, and the local farms the Baneites had been raiding,” the Guard said.
“Good.” Axio tapped the papers on his desk and looked back and forth between the two men. “Gentlemen, I had faced some resistance earlier from the Watch, regarding participation in this affair. From what did that displeasure stem, and why does the Guard not seem to share it?” he asked bluntly. He was aware that it wasn’t the most polite means of broaching the subject, but at that moment, he elected not to care.
The Watch officer looked offended. “Paladin, that was un-called for,” he said tightly. “Specific officers are unhappy with clergy being involved.”
The Guard officer simply shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not my business.”
Axio rubbed his eyes. “Very well. Then let us handle one of these cult cells. Do you have any idea where they may be?”
“One’s in Undermountain, the other two are in some buildings here in town, we don’t know specifically,” the Watch officer said, his voice still a bit taut.
Axio’s face fell. “Undermountain, huh,” he said darkly. “How fitting. And how many cultists should we expect?”
“Who knows? Ten, a million, four? The ones we have wouldn’t say.”
The Paladin rose to his feet. “Thank you, then, gentlemen, and please keep me in the loop. If you mean to attack Undermountain, you’ll need adventurers and healers, and I can provide you with both.”
“Of course.” Both officers rose and shook his hand, then walked out.
Axio waited until they were gone and rose from his chair. He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked slowly out to the garden.
Cavria wasn’t there at the moment. He had the place to himself. He sat down on the bench behind the little vegetable plot and kicked back, staring blankly up at the spring clouds.
Undermountain. Fantastic. The largest, most incomprehensible dungeon in history. Larger than a city, more destructive than an army, more dangerous than a thousand ghosts on a rampage. Not coincidentally, it contained at least that many ghosts on a rampage at any given time.
He heaved a sigh and thought back to his childhood. When the last, lingering vestiges of the Spellplague were gone, adventurers had descended into the Undermountain complex again, only to find to their horror that the lair of Halaster Blackcloak had changed beyond recognition. Whole sublevels were simply gone. Other were intact, but sealed off because their transitory portals had collapsed. Portal hubs on the upper level had shifted, revealing new areas, while others yet had re-connected themselves incorrectly, and now dropped people off on the surface.
The best-known incursion into Undermountain in recent years had been the team of Acquisitions Incorporated into the previously sealed upper floors under the Trade Ward. Four adventurers from Acq Inc, as they called themselves, had delved into the final project Halaster had made before his death, a secret wing of the upper reaches of Undermountain that contained a massive golem he had fashioned. In the imitation of the moving statues of Waterdeep and the golems of old Thay, the Ark of Blackcloak had been meant as the repository of Halaster’s consciousness and all his power. It had partially succeeded, and the Ark had certainly been completed, but in loading his consciousness to the device, Halaster had exploded, and his fractured spirit had been flitting around the continent for the previous hundred years, incoherent and lost.
Only after the last shard of his consciousness had been reassembled, and the whole spirit flushed out into death by the adventurers, had the Ark been reactivated to fight the Tarrasque. The Open Lord of Waterdeep at the time, Neverember, had ordered the levels of Undermountain that had opened with the rising of the Ark to be sealed off and paved over, to be explored in safety in the future, but a few entrances remained. The Yawning Portal, of course, still existed, as did the well-guarded ramp way down into the city from outside the city walls, through which the Masked Lords could exile the worst criminals to clean out parts of the labyrinth in their dying efforts. There were also some tombs and crypts the city maintained down there, though how the city kept criminals out of those, Axio had no idea.
Whole parties of adventurers regularly died in Undermountain, since even the best pre-Spellplague maps were effectively worthless now. If there was a cult of Bane down there, it meant more trouble.
Axio sat up as a thought occurred. Did it mean trouble, though? Duergar, drow, aboleths, and Beholders regularly warred over Undermountain even when Halaster had ruled it. Whispers of intelligence from the Underdark passages beneath the Undermountain itself had spoken of bloody battles fought between whole armies of drow and duergar from the kingdoms displaced by the madness of the Abyssal incursion. The sheer size of the Illithid problem in Undermountain meant that the city had had to send mercenaries down to clean out some levels. If there were a cult, where could they safely operate?
The young Paladin rose to his feet and walked back into the temple. There was a place he could go to find answers. He donned his coat and slid his sword onto his belt, and walked off into the city.
The twisting roads of the town flowed down from the elevated line of temples into the main city blocks. Axio strode through the city, walking straight for the Trade Ward, where he knew he would find help.
He stopped at a small construction site. It was rare, but not un-heard-of, for temples and religious sites be located outside the Sea Ward. This was one of the few. The construction wasn’t done, of course, but all who lived nearby could already tell that it would be beautiful.
The Temple of the Dark Dancer, a holy site for Eilistraee, was coming along nicely. Axio wandered up to the finished façade and looked around for the long white hair he knew he would find.
“Axiopistos!” a female voice said. He turned and smiled.
“Luanea, it’s good to see you,” he said happily. A strikingly lovely elven woman was standing in the shade of the central tower of the little temple as it came together. She would have been gorgeous in a parka and mask, but in her simple, revealing formal gown, she was positively stunning.
“Axio, it is,” she said, and she gave him a quick hug. “Are you all right?” she asked, worried.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Axio assured her.
“Really? I hear tell you ripped a building in half,” Luanea reminded him.
Axio made an enormous show of casually flexing his biceps as he scratched his head. “No real effort, that,” he said, oozing false modesty.
Luanea giggled. It sounded like music to Axio. She had always been a friend of the Church of Ryaire, going all the way back to its founding in the aftermath of the Spellplague, and Axio had come to her for advice on magic in the past. Now would be no different. Of course, now she was building a temple of her own, instead of serving as a roving missionary in the city.
Axio craned his head back. “The temple looks nice. When does it finish?”
“Oh, next autumn it shall open, but the roof will be done in seven months,” the priestess said. “We’re all so excited.”
“I imagine,” Axio said. “May I ask you something? I came down here seeking your help in an investigation my people are working with the Watch.”
“Of course, my friend, do come with me,” she said. Axio followed her into the building.
The interior was a mess of construction materials and tools. Laborers were grinding rocks into place and mortaring things down. Axio navigated the chaos in Luanea’s wake, mulling his questions over.
Luanea was young, for a drow cleric. In the aftermath of the War of the Spider Queen, horrible times had befallen the drow people. Some few thousand had escaped their curse and reverted to their true dark elf form, with chocolate skin and black hair, freed of the taint of the balor with which they had been cursed, tens of thousands of years past. Luanea had been but a small child then. The faithful of Eilistraee had transformed back, but her parents had not been among them. The undeniable evidence that their whole lives in service to Lolth had been a waste, and that only the Seldarine had the means to undo their ancestors’ curse terrified them. Her parents had fled the Underdark as if hounds had been at their heels, and followed the bribed reports of miners to the surface, where they had fallen in with the restored dark elves of Rhymanthiin. Her parents had died shortly thereafter, and Luanea, confused and angered, had run away, only to be picked up by the clerics of the Promenade, and taken to Skullport.
Skullport was aptly named. A cramped and dangerous community of pirates, proselytizers, and runaways, it attached itself to a great underground river that ran beneath Undermountain’s outer layers. In the middle of it all, like a shining gemstone in a pit of mud, was the Promenade of the Dark Lady, the center of worship for Eilistraee before her murder. The Dark Ladies, the priestesses of the Promenade, had taken the girl in while they had been out working. They explained to her that the nature of the curse in their blood was such that its removal from a few thousand had been a singularly rare event, and that the remaining drow were no more ‘dirty’ or ‘unholy’ for it; such things could be determined only by deeds.
Axio raised an eyebrow as the curtains over one section of the temple raised. “Nice place,” he said. This room was clearly complete. Huge cushions dotted the carpeted floor, and the only other person there was barefoot. Magic sheets of cloth draped over all exits from the room, muffling the sound of construction. Axio noted a small cabinet on one wall with glass doors, containing what looked like a holy water decanter, and a pair of solid silver bastard swords on a rack above it.
“We like it.” Luanea took in the well-appointed room with a sweep of her hands. “We insisted this room be finished first. We can meet here.”
Axio greeted the other drow in the room with a smile. “Dessa, good to see you.”
“Hi, Axio!” a chipper girl said from her cushion. She rose and sprang up into his arms. “How’s things? Taken up demolition?”
“Nope, that was spur of the moment,” Axio said drily. He set the young girl down and stepped back. Dessa was a refugee from the endless violence of the Underdark, and had taken to Eilistraee’s message of love, generosity, music, and self-defense with admirable gusto. She was also nearly unbearable in her aggressive cuteness, and Axio had had to, in the past, exert immense effort not to pinch her cheeks. So he joked. In reality, he could tell that at least part of her irrepressibly cheerful nature was a front, to cover up her sense of loss. She had been the only one of nine siblings to escape the utter chaos of Menzoberranzan in the final days of the Spellplague.
“Sure you should be dressed like that?” Axio asked. Dessa was dressed as if she was about to go swimming.
The girl scoffed. “How do you surface types bear it? It’s boiling up here!”
Axio laughed. “It’s barely spring, and you’ve lived up here twelve years.”
Luanea laughed too. “Dessa, sweetheart, at least put on a proper tunic. What if the construction workers wander in? You want them to see you in your swimsuit?”
The girl blew out an explosive breath at the unfairness of it all. “Fiiiiiine,” she groaned. She walked over into the corner and started fishing around in a trunk. “It’s just so silly,” she grumbled.
The priestess rolled her silver eyes and looked over at Axio. “Sit, my friend. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was hoping you could tell me what the progress of the Skullport project would be,” Axio said. The Promenade had fallen in the aftermath of the War of the Spider Queen, but Axio knew that small teams of Seldarine-worshippers and Oghmites had been covertly clearing it out on excursions to the region, ever since Eilistraee and her brother had been re-built from their Weave patterns after the Spellplague ended.
Luanea tsked. “Axio, now… you know I can’t really say unless you’re there in person,” she said cautiously. “I love you like a dear friend, but some things are simply too secret. Why do you ask?”
“We may be going there soon,” Axio said bluntly. He sank into his deep cushion as Dessa sprang into his lap. “Oof! Hi there,” he said, dislodging the garrulous child who had nearly landed on his sheathed blade. “Careful, Dessa, I’m armed.”
“Huh? What are you going around with a sword for?” Dessa asked, rolling away and staring at his weapon.
“Because there’s a cult of Bane active in the city, and I can’t be too careful.” Axio lifted her back up and settled her back down in his lap in a safer spot. “There you are.”
She snuggled back against him and wrapped one massive arm around herself. “So why are you going to Skullport?”
“Because part of the cult of Bane is active in Undermountain also,” Axio said gravely. “I may be going there to fight, and soon.”
Luanea simply looked worried. “Oh, I see,” she said softly. “Well, that’s bad. Yes, I suppose I can relay that Skullport is still horrible, that’s no secret.”
Axio smiled wistfully. “I’m not surprised. We may have to go down there, that’s all. My contacts in the Watch tell me that the cult of Bane was using a sending circle connected to the upper levels of Undermountain.”
“Well… I can tell you that the Promenade is in no shape to receive visitors for the long term,” Luanea counseled. “The Port itself may be in better shape. You may want to find another entrance, though. A powerful Beholder has taken over the Port, and is using it in their enslavement efforts.”
Axio rubbed his eyes with his free hand. Dessa looked up at him in concern. “I see.” He looked over at the priestess and nodded gravely. “Then we go in with care. Skullport can get us right onto the third level of the Undermountain complex; we can bypass the upper levels entirely.”
Luanea looked distressed. “Perhaps I should go with you,” she said. “The path to Undermountain is a long and dangerous one, filled with monsters from Halaster’s labs. I won’t be of much good in the city until my temple is finished, and you may need help bypassing the traps we mapped out.”
Dessa wriggled free of the arm she had been using as a seat belt. “No! Luanea, you can’t leave!” she said in distress. Her wide silver eyes flashed with worry.
“You won’t be alone, sweetheart,” Luanea said soothingly. “The other priestesses and the priests will look after you.”
“But…” Dessa said unhappily.
Axio cleared his throat. “I don’t want to drag you away from your duties here,” he said awkwardly, though internally he was relieved. Three was better than two, when it came to adventuring. “But, if you’re offering, I would be happy to have you."
Luanea nodded. “I would be honored.”
|The tale of the Holy Opposites ||
|Arc 1: | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 |
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
|Arc 2: | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 |
Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20
Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25
|Arc 3: | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30|
|Arc 4: | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 |
Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Glossary