Cornelius led the party to an old stone building which served as a shrine for several neutral and lesser-known deities. The place was practically empty. A dwarf smelling of alcohol lay snoring on a stone bench and a teenage human boy was inspecting some of the inscriptions on the wall.
Walking to the back of the building, they found a flight of stairs that led down to a hallway with several doors on either side. Asmodeus assumed that these rooms where where the shrine’s caretakers lived and worked. He followed Cornelius into one of these rooms.
The room was small and plain, containing only a bed, a small trunk, and a short bookcase. But when Cornelius pressed on one of the stones in the wall, part of the floor shifted and opened up to reveal a hidden stairwell.
“Down we go; down, down,” he said. “I hope none of you are claustrophobic. The stairs are a bit close, yes, but it opens into a nice large room at the bottom.”
Noctua wasn’t sure that she trusted this man, but her curiosity was piqued and there was no way she was going to show any kind of fear in front of Gaimon’s companions. So she stepped forward, commented about how small spaces were no problem for her, and was the first to descend.
In truth, Asmodeus and Nock were likewise unsure of Cornelius. He seemed a bit odd. His robes and gear marked him as a cleric of some kind, but he certainly didn’t seem to be a tiefling like the other contacts of Shok’ragal’s which Asmodeus had met. You never know though, the wizard thought, because many of them hide their heritage well. Or perhaps he’s not a tiefling at all?
Dustin, on the other hand, hadn’t spent any time at all wondering about Cornelius. He had been too busy staring at Noctua and wondering what her interest might be in dragons. The sorcerer followed closely behind her. Gaimon likewise hadn’t dwelt on wondering about the mysterious cleric, but in his case it was out of indifference. If he wasn’t he contact, then they’d probably have a fight on their hands. The elf was fine with either outcome.
Cornelius was the last to descend. The soft sound of stone being dragged was followed by a dull thud as the secret entrance closed behind them. A dull red flame lit the way down the steps. It was coming from a sconce at the bottom. Asmodeus suspected that it was a continual flame spell.
At the bottom of the steps there was a door. Noctua hesitated to open it when she saw a skull and sickle engraved into the thick wood.
“Allow me to get that for you, my dear,” Dustin said and then threw open the door. It opened up to reveal a large room lit by more red flames in metal braziers placed around the room. The door was up on a raised platform or porch about 5 feet from the main floor.
As the party entered the room, they gathered on the platform and took a look around the room. Several bookshelves lined the right side of the room, but most of them were filled with miscellaneous items, jars, and weapons rather than books. Wooden boxes and crates were stacked up on the other side next to some strange devices which were apparently used for torture. Two small beds and some shelves were on the far side of the room. In the center was a large wooden table surrounded by eight chairs.
“Please, come in and be seated,” Cornelius said as he moved from the back of the group descended the few additional stairs down into the room. “We have much to discuss, yes? Shok’ragal has work for you. Let me find my book. I cannot recall the specifics. Had to write them down. The demon can be very specific at times; quite picky, really.”
While the cleric looked on the bookshelf for his book, the party made themselves as comfortable as the circumstances would permit. Dustin pulled out a chair for Noctua who graciously sat down on it. But in his excitement to hear about dragons, the sorcerer shoved her a little too forcefully forward and didn’t even notice. The half-elf grimaced, but then recomposed herself. She intended to stay quiet and listen for now, then discuss specifics with Gaimon later.
Asmodeus eagerly pulled up a chair. His mind was completely focused on learning the details of the quest now. “How often to you speak with Shok’ragal?” he asked. “And how did you come to be his contact here in Fort Hamden?”
“It was inevitable, I suppose,” the cleric answered as he pulled out a worn leather-bound book and dusted off the cover. “My line of work is perfectly suited for the demon’s needs. It pleases Nerull to have me assist those who have dark and sinister goals; yes indeed.
“But I’ve never spoken to him myself,” he continued as he brought the book over to the table. “Always his servants. Tieflings mostly. Sometimes a glabrezu. Succubi are nice to look at, but it’s unwise to let them get too close.”
Nock took up a place standing against a wall, deliberately avoiding the chairs. He hated chairs. They were always too big for him and caused him to feel childish. The gnome preferred to be taken seriously, so he pulled out his daggers and began to sharpen them as he listened. The atmosphere of the room didn’t seem to affect him at all. He was extremely calm—almost unnervingly so—despite the flickering red light, a slightly unpleasant odor, and generally horrific scenery.
Gaimon was the last to move down and take a seat at the table. He looked on the room and Cornelius with disdain. Torture would never give him the rush he felt in open combat, and thus he really couldn’t understand the point it served. It’s too easy to kill an opponent who is tied down or drugged, he thought. Is this cleric a coward? A weakling who fears to test his mettle against an armed enemy?
Cornelius noticed the elf’s dissatisfaction when Gaimon passed by the implements of torture. “Are you uncomfortable here, I wonder? You do not like the work I do. But not because of the pain or killing, I think. You are a fighter, no? You enjoy combat. Victory.
“I’m afraid that is not my specialty. But torture can be useful, you know. For getting information. For pleasing Nerull.”
Asmodeus forestalled any further digression into the topic. “Indeed, but we are here to discuss dragons, not torture, correct?”
“Of course. My apologies.” Cornelius opened the book and flipped through several pages. “Ah, here we are. Shok’ragal would like you to retrieve a special gem. It is a large, smoky black diamond with a faintly glowing red center. Should be easy to recognize, I think.
“Ah, but it’s owner will be reluctant to give it up, I imagine. The diamond is in the hoard of the black dragon Calissima.”
“So how will we find and kill this dragon?” the wizard asked.
Cornelius stopped short and then began to laugh. “No, no. I think you have the wrong idea. Unless you think you could succeed where so many others have failed? You would kill the Black Matron?”
“Calissima is the Black Matron?” Dustin asked.
“Yes, that is her name, though few living now remember it. She’s an ancient creature. Yes. She’s lived longer than this city, longer than this kingdom. Old. Massive. Cunning.”
“So I’ve recently heard,” Asmodeus replied. “Then how are we to get the gem from her?”
“You’ll have to ask her for it.”
Nock blurted out a sardonic laugh, then spat in disgust. “You fooling us, right? I know they’s gnome tales of we tricking dragons, but I’s not stupid enough to try.”
Noctua managed to stifle her snort of derision, though she felt much the same way as the gnome. She was increasingly anxious to discuss things privately with Gaimon. On the other hand though, didn’t Bruno say that the Black Matron had taken the amulet? Perhaps then, if somehow they can manage to get this gem they could also get what I need?
Skepticism strove against Dustin’s excitement. “Well, as eager as I am to try my Draconic with a native,” he said flippantly, “given what I know about black dragons, that seems unwise. Surely you have some additional details to this plan?”
“Does Shok’ragal have anything in mind that we could offer in exchange?” Asmodeus asked. “Or was he just going to wish us the best of luck?”
Cornelius peered into his book. “Ah yes, here we are. Shok’ragal has prepared a significant amount of money for you to use to bargain with the dragon. It’s been placed at the local branch of Kessler and Sons. There is a token here…” The cleric looked back toward his bookcases, “ah, somewhere, that will allow you to retrieve the coins from the bank.
“When you meet Calissima, you must call her by name and then say this phrase. I don’t read or speak Draconic, so here.”
Cornelius pushed his book over to Asmodeus. The wizard read the ancient script as Dustin, having left his chair, looked over the shoulder. “What does it say,” the sorcerer asked impatiently.
“It’s quite formal. But a short, rough translation would be, ‘We request an audience with your greatness, by the rites of the old alliances and powers of this world.’ So if we say this, she’ll speak with us?”
“That’s the idea,” the cleric replied. “You may also want to appease her by bringing her live sheep or a young girl or boy; though not too young, maybe about twenty years of age. The Black Matron loves a snack, yes. Especially one that she can toy with before drowning in the swamp.”
This sick suggestion was a little too much for Noctua who this time was unable to hide a look of disgust.
“It’s not necessary, my dear,” Cornelius said, “No. Not necessary. Just improves your chances. Even with the words and coins — and black dragons do love their coins — there are still risks. I believe that’s why Shok’ragal chose you,” here he turned to Asmodeus, “because of your skill and linguistic ability.”
“So we’s not tricking dragon, and no killing her.” Nock spoke with disquiet, still not convinced of this quest. His grammar suffered slightly as he blurted out his complaints. “Jus’ risk our necks mayhaps she don’t gobble up somebody. Maybes we lucky, but even den how dis help kill Isley or overthrew kingdom?”
“The book doesn’t say anything about a reward,” Dustin added, still peering over Asmodeus’ shoulder.
“Shok’ragal is never one to hold out on his allies,” Asmodeus started. “He was quite generous with Tyrus. He gave me my book of spells. I’m sure tha—”
The sound of a hand bell ringing interrupted his sentence. The group looked about the room for the source of the sound, but nothing could be seen. It appeared to be coming from near the door up on the platform.
“Oh dear,” Cornelius said. “It would seem that we have unwanted guests. Perhaps we were followed? Hard to travel far discreetly with so many. Hard indeed.
“It is most likely the Knights Justicar. Would you be so good as to help take care of them? And someone will need to sneak up the stairs to ensure no runner gets away with a message.”
Asmodeus and Gaimon immediately stood, ready for action. With a smirk, the elf looked over to Noctua. “Looks like we’ll get to see if the Slevain Sisters’ training is actually worth anything in a real fight,” he said while drawing his sword.
Noctua gave Gaimon a slightly disdainful look as she stood and drew her daggers.
“Let’s try to draw them in,” Asmodeus began, “then I’ll cast a Wall of Deadly Chains to trap them in here. We can all back up to lure them into the room.”
Gaimon disagreed. “No, we should surprise attack them. Then their allies will rush in to help.”
“We are men of action,” Dustin interjected. Then looking at Noctua, “No offense, my dear. I say we surprise them!”
“Very well,” the wizard replied as he finished casting spells upon himself. “Who wants the last casting of Mage Armor? And someone needs to get up the stairs to take care of any stragglers or messengers. Nock, you’re Invisibility may come in useful for such a task.”
“I could do that too,” Noctua said and immediately began to blend into the shadows.
“Impressive!” Cornelius declared. “I can only just barely make out where you are, and here I was just looking at you.”
“Give me the magic armor,” Nock said with a look of determination. Knowing from previous experience that the gnome was stubborn once set on a course of action, Asmodeus went ahead and cast it on the little assassin.
“Now, cast this death wall as soon as I’s slam the door,” Nock said. He then pointed a stubby finger at the wizard to cast Message. Without another word he winked out of sight.
“They’ll be here any second now,” the cleric said quietly. Each member of the group sprang into action, taking their desired positions around the room. Corneilus circled round to the far end of the table. Asmodeus and Dustin took up position near him. Noctua and Gaimon hid on either side of the platform. Unseen, Nock waited by the door.
There were several loud knocks against the heavy wooden door and then it was kicked open to reveal a man in full plate armor. He stepped into the room and his fellows quickly filed inline behind him, all with weapons drawn.
“Worshipers of Ner—gah!”
The intruder’s words were cut short as Dustin roared and let loose a volley of Magic Missiles. A second of the intruders wearing plate, and who happened to be the only woman, stepped forward. “We are the Knights Justicar! Surrender now if you want to live!”
Asmodeus made quick mental notes of those who entered. Looks like three are well armored, probably paladins or fighters. One is wearing leather armor; he’s got a bow. The last is wearing robes, a spell caster?