Hax looks surprised when Novox tells him to re-arm the woman but eventually shrugs and hands them over. The soldier takes them with numb fingers, not even grasping the leather hilts, her eyes not straying from Novox's face. She looks frightened, confused, over-whelmed. Clearly Novox is the master of this conversation, as is his right.
Bully young girls. Big step up from skinless priests. Bill offers, still in dinosaur form at the edge of the trees, idly tearing at some tender saplings. Next thing you know, maybe work your way up to old ladies.
Diseo, silent through all of this, merely shifts his head as to avoid exposing his face to the woman. Novox has a feeling this is more out of habit at hiding his horrid visage then any deeper reason.
The woman is so cowed, that when Novox suggest she help with the cart, she jumps up automatically. Hax chuckles at this but leaves Novox to his games and goes about dismantling the cart.
At Novox's 'casual' questions, the woman says, her voice apprehensive, "He just said you might head out of the town today, along the river. And if you did, someone should follow you. I took the job, since I was the best in a wood." Her eyes flicked toward Bill, "He didn't say anything about monsters." Novox has the feeling, if she was less scared, she'd have cursed Decius for leaving out that rather critical bit of information.
In a thrice the wagon is dissembled, the wide flat base set aside from the rest of the vehicle. The buoys, all 1616 of them, sit in small piles, copper glinting in the bright sunlight. The solider handled these with obvious confusion and growing curiosity. After the job ends the woman says, "You really going to let me go?"
"You really going to let me go?"
"What exactly is it you fear from me?" One well maintained eyebrow arched over the quizzical eyes. "That I'll lock you in my dungeon? Cut out your tongue to protect my nefarious plans? Murder you to appease my mad aristocratic whims? I realize the capital's reputation is less than ideal, but do think before you speak."
Ridiculing one's fears was a surprisingly effective social tool, Novox had found. No one wanted to feel like a fool.
"I'm a mere diplomat, miss," he went on dismissively. "I have no reason to harm a soldier trying to protect our nation, even one as misguided as yourself. No, that was not a slight against you. That was a slight against your guides. Are those buoys ready?"
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (15) + 10 = 25
Thought I might as well drop in a Sense Motive check, but let's do this. Air Bubble to Hax and Novox, Free Swim on the former. Casting extended Create Pit and dumping 80 odd spheres in it, with Novox following them. And off we go, Novox telling Hax exactly where the wreck is. Leaving Bill behind to watch over the remaining spheres and of course Diseo and new girl. Can't trust anyone but contractually enslaved fiends.
The woman visibly relaxes when it becomes apparent Novox isn't about to feed her to Bill. The stories about Chelish nobility (and surely a backwoods peasant like this assumes Novox is a member of that rarefied group) do not often list compassion as a defining feature.
She smiles, a bit sheepishly but does not say anything. With obvious interest however she watches Novox work his magic, as they prepare for the diving expedition. The magical pit is placed inside the wagon bed, and then filled with buoys. Hax, laboriously, hauls the wagon bed to the river's shore and manhandles it into the water. It floats easily, the seasoned wood bobbing in the current. Meanwhile Diseo casts Free Swim on the grumbling gladiator, although any effects are unnoticeable while he is still standing knee deep in the shallows.
The wizard casts Air Bubble on both of them, and soon a barely visible orb of fresh air envelopes both of their heads. To Novox's pleasure the scent inside the trapped sphere is fresh and clean, as if his magic was creating new air, never before breathed. A novel experience.
After a last minute check, both Hax and Novox plunge into the river's waters. There is a momentary struggle as Hax deals with the naturally buoyant wagon bed, which wants to remains at the surface. he is helped that part of the mass is extra-planar but enough remains for it to be difficult. While he manages, mostly with the help of the spell, Novox notes the man will be unable to fight unless he releases his burden (which would quickly rise to the surface of the river and be washed away by the current). Novox can't help but imagine what some downstream fisherman would make of the strange, arcane diving bell, full of buoys.
For now they descend into the murky depths of the Tomarsulk River, not for the first time. However, swimming during the day is a welcome change of pace from the panic night fight of the Revel. This time their way is clear and Novox easily keeps them on course, heading down. Not to mention, having a clear view due to the Air Bubble helps enormously.
They see little of interest as they head for the main channel. A few fish dart here and there, flickering like shadows on the edge of sight in the brownish water. One or twice a larger shape looms but simply turns out to be a turtle, gliding through the water, powerful limbs striding. Novox leads them unerringly toward the vessel, deeper and deeper.
Then, they pass through a temperature layer, and the water clears substantially. For the first time they can see any distance. The silty river bed surrounds them on all sides, marked with small rocks and boulders, and dotted with long sunken logs. There are too deep for much plant life, but small stands of river grass dance in the slow, deep current. But Novox only has eyes for the sight dead ahead.
There, at the base of a seeming vast stone cliff (surely Tusk Tooth Rock) is a shipwreck. It is much as Novox expected. A fat river craft designed for quick travel in shallow water. It seems to be in good shape, having fallen keel first, standing upright. The mast is gone, leaving behind only a ragged stump but otherwise seems stable. Much worse is what is around it.
A low stone wall, stacked with care, surrounds the shipwreck. Around it, laid on the smoothed muddy plain, are intricate circles of stones like some sort of primitive mosaic.
Nothing could ever be easy, could it? Novox looked out from the rim of the flooded 'diving bell' and wasn't pleased at what he was seeing. Something, a something with at least rudimentary intelligence, had taken residence within his wreck. No other conclusion seemed possible; nature certainly hadn't arranged those stone circles. This wasn't good. It was critical to proceedings that Hax reach the shipwreck before the spell ran out. Whether below deck, inside a cabin or where have you, it didn't matter - the cargo merely had to be in some enclosed space within the boat before the extradimensional space began regurgitating the buoys. If not it would all be for naught. And Narsus Novox did not accept failure.
Holding onto the wooden platform enchanted into playing host for 80 metal spheres and the smartest man in Cheliax, the diabolist thrust his other hand forward to a point, making it clear to Hax that he was not to stop for anything. The sunken vessel was their destination. Yes, if it came to it, if their aquatic squatter tried to prevent them access, Novox would actually have to distract them from the mercenary. Difficult given the circumstances, but not impossible. He had options. Nothing was impossible to him.
What would help would be knowing who or what had moved into the wreck. With nothing else to go on, the Egorian studied the rock designs and architecture below. He hadn't read about something similar before, had he?
Know (religion): 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (19) + 12 = 31
Also, forgot to roll for Mirror Image. Concentration check for underwater casting if you require it (DC 15 + spell level).
Concentration check: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (7) + 12 = 19
Mirror Image copies: 1d4 + 2 ⇒ (2) + 2 = 4
When Novox thrusts his hand forward, for all the world like a Imperial general ordering an assault on some tactically critical heights, Hax nods and sets his shoulders. The man was swimming with uncanny skill and ease, clearly the magical spell had been a wise choice.
As they approach the shipwrecks Novox casts yet another spell and, in an instant, four other Novox's appear out of thin water. Perfect copies in every way, complete with flapping cloaks and visible Air Bubbles around their haughty features. A rather impressive figure actually Novox notes admiringly, but then turns his attention to the art work laid out ahead. What clues could he derive from it?
The answer comes almost instantly, somewhat to his surprise. The design is strange but clearly based of off common Gozreh designs, the wild swirls and waves supposed to represent sea and sky in turmoil., Novox had to admit that a shipwreck made a very symbolic temple for a God of nature's wrath. Someone had a good grasp of the dramatic anyway, if not of valuable real estate.
It did worry Novox however, that they might be dealing with religious fanatics. Hardly the type to respond to reason, or even threats. Not to mention Hax's own prejudices. A diplomatic option may be ruled out, which was tedious. Novox had things to do, far more important then dealing with a bunch of underwater cultists.
As they draw closer, Novox sees movement and then a figure moves out of the dark hold of the ship. At first it appears to be another human, swimming easily in the current, a long trident in his hands. Then Novox spots the visable gills on the being's neck, the lithe graceful limbs, the pale pearly skin......gillman. Those strange aquatic remains of long dead Azlanti.
The gillman swims up, above the ship, arms spread out in a gesture of denial and forbidding. Novox can tell, as they grow closer, it is a male, well built and proud. He shouts something, presumably in Aquan, the tongue of the seas, but Novox does not speak it.
Hax keeps swimming but glances at Novox, eyebrows raised.
The gillman does not look pleased as they continue the approach. The sharp tips of the trident twinkle in the dim light.
Novox sighed into his little atmosphere. Gillmen. What a shame. Had it been a more monstrous race occupying the wreck, wanton slaughter could be more easily justified. Less so with this unfortunate offshoot of humanity. This wasn't to say that murder, that simple solution, was off the table. No, it was merely that the Egorian was loath to kill what could have been useful tools, especially so without even an attempt at establishing relations. His was a campaign of conversion first and foremost. Suppression and annihilation were distant seconds and thirds, respectively. Gillmen. What a shame.
Oh well. Circumstances demanded a confrontation. It wasn't as if he could manage speaking with the aquatic humanoids within the water in any case. Although knowing their history, Novox had to wonder if the gillmen might still comprehend that noble tongue Azlanti, a language he took pride in commanding. No, there was nothing to be done. Hax had to reach the ship and he had to facilitate this. And so the wizard began facilitating away, trailing vibrant streaks of the arcane through the water from the fingers invoking his spell.
Taking it that I don't get any more than a surprise action here, so Novox starts casting Summon Monster III, it coming into effect his next round. Don't even know what I'm summoning right now... Octopuses? More water elementals? Fiendish crocodile? I've got options. Definitely teleporting nearer the wreck come my next turn, away from Hax, though. Gonna see if I can get the heat away from him.
The gillman watches them approach with a stern gaze, shouts one more intelligible command, then hefts his trident. Clearly he plans to defend his...home? temple? With a swirl of mud he swims forward, face set in a hard mask. Novox notes a holy symbol of Gozreh around his neck, carved from driftwood.
Novox Initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (15) + 2 = 17
Gillman Initiative: 1d20 + 1 ⇒ (10) + 1 = 11
You are up first. You are probably roughly one hundred feet from the shipwreck, fifty feet from the outer low stone wall. (that is just for description, a wall is rather a non-obstacle in water combat). Hax is next to you, chugging along with the wagon bed. Lighting is dim, considering you are at the bottom of a river. Anything else you need?
Concentration check vs DC 18: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (12) + 12 = 24
Summon Monster III: 1d3 ⇒ 3
At a thrust of the wizard's hand a patch of water between himself and the gillman erupted into a cloud of angry bubbles, glowing with a red glare. From this boiling blur emerged three shapes. Large as a full-grown man, the scarlet squids conjured forth by Novox had something decidedly sinister about them, more so than what was usual for any tentacled deep-sea horror. It was in the eyes. The red orbs held a dull, unwitting malevolence, the sort that maimed and destroyed without reason, nor even pleasure. It was that most sad of all evils, the sort that killed because it didn't know anything else. This was how Novox had designed them. Stupid brutes to do his bidding. And they proceeded to do just that.
Turns out red devil squids are a real thing. Who knew? But here are their stats, fiendish template included. Note their speed, 60 ft, which coupled with the range of Novox's spell (40 ft) just let's them reach the gillman.
Speeding through the water, the cephalopods launched themselves at the intervening gillman tentacles first. Thirty-odd undulating limbs reached out to grab at him, an unwelcome sight for anyone.
Tentacles, grapple: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (10) + 8 = 18
Tentacles, grapple: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (1) + 8 = 9
Tentacles, grapple: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (1) + 8 = 9
Fully expecting this measure up to the task of distracting the lone amphibian, the Egorian was however not resting on his laurels. Barely had he finished one spell before his fingers, quadrupled via the four clones, were weaving their way through another. The tiny air bubble surrounding his noble head shook under the mighty reverberations of one more incantation before finally - Novox held his four hands out and made a fist. Tendrils of bluish-white lightning sputtered out to envelop it. The lone amphibian was in all likelihood not so alone, he reasoned. Should any more of his kind storm out to stop Hax's approach, Novox had a shocking deterrent in hand.
Concentration check vs DC 16: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (20) + 12 = 32
Casting and holding Shocking Grasp.
The gillman looked both shocked and confused when infernal squids rippled out of the ether and began to attack him. His trident flails a bit as he tries to beat off the sudden storm of tentacles which swarm him. The aquatic man is quite agile and evades most of the clawed suckers but one of the squids, manages to latch on. A thick, rubbery tentacles wraps around the gillman's slender neck, squeezing tight. The violet eyes close in worry.
Novox ignores this and prepares himself for more trouble. An electric tingling sensation soon pools in his arm. A shivering sense of...anticipation as the spell rests, waiting for his command. At his side Hax keeps swimming toward the shipwreck, doggedly dragging along the clumsy wagon bed. He spares a glance at the struggling gillman and then shrugs. Their destination looms larger and they close more of the gap.
Then the gillman smiles. Still enmeshed in one squid's grip (and surrounded by the others) he simply reaches one hand, touches his holy symbol and mouths something in Aquan.
There is a pulse of blue-green light, shafting through the water. It penetrates the squid instantly.
Squid Will Save, DC 21: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (3) + 2 = 5
Squid Will Save, DC 21: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (18) + 2 = 20
Squid Will Save, DC 21: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (17) + 2 = 19
The fiendish summons suddenly pause, as if confused. Mentally Novox feels something shift, like a rope being sliced, a loss of control. Then it becomes apparent. The squid are no longer his.
The gillman points a long pale finger at Hax (who is much closer then the still distant Novox) and grins a wicked smile.
The squid dart forward with speed, easily reaching the hulking (but burdened) atheist. In an instant the tentacles flare out, trying to wrap around his thick arms and legs, entangling him.
Squid Grapple Party: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (20) + 8 = 28
Squid Grapple Party: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (4) + 8 = 12
Squid Grapple Party: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (6) + 8 = 14
Again most fail but one manages to lock itself firmly around Hax's chest, constricting him. The man, to his credit, keeps grip on the wagon bed, but looks annoyed. He looks over at Novox with narrowed eyes. The other two squid swarm around him.
The cleric, now free, drifts forward, narrowing the gap between himself and the two invaders. The holy symbol on his neck pulses lightly, the shifting light gleaming off the polished wood.
Ok, the gillman is 60 feet from you, twenty feet from Hax. Hax is grappled and flanked by a few squids, with one wrapped around him. The squids are no longer responding to your commands.
How dared he? How dared he?! Turn his own minions against him? How dared this mucus dwelling frog-man take what rightfully belonged to his better? He wo... No. Novox set his noble mouth in an almighty frown and, with some aid from the chilly river bed, let cooler heads prevail. This wasn't the time. There was only one correct play from the corner the gillman had backed him into, and like any inevitable move, it was best taken at once.
Waving one hand in a dismissive sweep through the water, he did so. Immediately the fire-red squids, otherwise so flexible, stiffened. The next second all three of them erupted into clouds of boiling bubbles, the wizard having undone the complex web of arcane energy that had held together their being and allowed for their existence. Hax was free again. And Novox - Novox was annoyed.
Not so much at the gillman, although he certainly wasn't pleased with that one; no, he was more so irked at himself. That he had allowed his pride to get the better of him, for even a moment - this was what vexed the Egorian. A Chelaxian's pride was supposed to immure them from any insult, to be a wall no abuse could scale. No jealous jibe could shake someone with certain knowledge of their superiority. Pride was a virtue, not a vice. This was what the lesser nations failed to understand. It could not be used against the true Chelish.
And yet Novox had nearly let his temper fly off with him. Hmph. Well, it was only to be expected. The greater the man, the greater the temptations. It only followed that the greatest man the world had ever seen should stumble every now and then. Yes, he was still in control of the situation. It was just... Seeing the gillman subvert and manipulate one's efforts; it had felt almost like he was encroaching on his modus operandi. Novox would not be upstaged. Not by anyone.
It was fortunate that Bilbastis wasn't present to comment. Because following a swift teleportation nearer the amphibian, the gillman certainly had him upstaged in swimming: Novox emerged from his short extraplanar jaunt flailing and upside down.
Think I can simply dismiss the spell maintaining the squids. Doing so eats up my standard action, though. Following that with a 10 ft. teleport nearer the gillman as a swift action, and then just trying to get at him with the remaining move action.
Swim: 1d20 - 1 ⇒ (1) - 1 = 0 Which failed real hard.
In a moment there are five Novox's gyrating in the water, the wizard having lost his plane of reference in teleportating into water out of the make-shift diving bell. Even for a arcane master of his caliber, it was a tricky transition. Hax, after taking a moment to shake himself after the squids vanish, pushes on toward the shipwreck, quite aware of the time crunch.
The gillman smirks at Novox's clumsy attempts to right himself, the human's cloak billowing awkwardly in the water. It dramatically waves a hand and, in shaft of sunlight from above, a glowing trident appears. As if wielding by invisible hands it rushes toward the swarm of Novox's, spearing with abandon.
Mirror Images, 5 is the real Novox: 1d5 ⇒ 2
The trident fairly flies through one of the illusionary wizard's, making the phantasm waver then vanish. One less fake Novox
The gillman frowns at this failure to draw blood, and the wizard can see his maritime foe trying to figure out a way around this problem.
It was a smiling Novox, noble mouth curled and darkly amused, that was speared by the conjured trident only to fade out of existence. Behind that illusory copy four other Egorians loomed, all wearing that same grin, all eerily foreboding. Ah, the first blow. What a delight. What a relief. Entire philosophical tracts had been written on the moral and military implications on the concept of the first blow, and Novox had read most of them. It was a wondrous thing, really, that first strike. Being a student of magic, he had an appreciation for everything transformative, wondrous and impossible, especially when that something employed no actual magic whatsoever. That only made it all the more remarkable. So it was that Novox enjoyed the first blow's power to wholly transform a conflict and a people's soul. The first blow could change aggressor into defender, depending on who struck first. It could change a people's perception of entire wars, simply on hearsay of who was first to invade whose borders. Throughout its history Cheliax had made ample use of this fact, altering history to ensure that everyone knew Prince Haliad I had been entirely justified in laying siege on the whole of the Inner Sea; it was pirate infested, you see, and in need of rightful authority. Likewise, the annexation of Isger was a just consequence of Taldan agression in the area; they had struck the first blow, not innocent Cheliax.
And now this gillman had lashed out at him, marking the first strike with lethal intent in this little encounter. The poor fool. If he only knew what he had wrought. The diabolist was a practical man, suffering few scruples. But what reservations there may have been were now wholly banished. The gillman had struck first. Novox was now free to do whatever he pleased in retaliation. After all, he was only defending himself. The smile grew wider.
Swim: 1d20 - 1 ⇒ (17) - 1 = 16
With a sudden shift in the river all four Egorians disappeared only to rematerialize right before the Gozren, displacing water with their arrival. Four identical hands reached out, all sparking with blue lightning waiting to be discharged into soft, malleable flesh. There was a term Novox had come across in his military studies: 'first blood'. He thought he much preferred it to the first strike. The latter had its uses, definitely so, on the political scene, but it was the former that shaped reality, that had practical applications, that killed. Let the gillman have the first blow, so long as Novox drew first blood.
Attack (touch, +3 if opponent is wearing or wielding anything metal): 1d20 + 1 ⇒ (16) + 1 = 17
Damage, electricity: 5d6 ⇒ (6, 3, 6, 6, 4) = 25
Novox's hand, as well as three other phantasmic ones, reach out and touch the gillman's fine, pale flesh. Instantly, there is a sizzling bolt of lighting rippling through the water. A small gout of steam erupts as the surging power slams into his floating foe. As the arcane energy pulses through the him, the gillman spasmodically jerks and writhes in a induced seizure. Watching the muscles move out of control, a small part of Novox' dispassionate mind wonders if such shocks would have medical uses....
An angry red burn appears on the gillman's smooth flesh as recovers from the assault, but his swimming is less sure now, his eyes narrowed in fear and anger. Novox can tell this was a sore blow to the creature, the spell has wrecked much damage.
Even as the Gozrean recovers, the spiritual trident attacks again, needing no fresh bidding.
Mirror Images, 4 is the real Novox: 1d4 ⇒ 3
Again the divine weapon merely spears an empty illusion, causing another fake Novox to flicker and fade.
The gillman himself, not master of his own nerves, rallies. His mouth opens in some Aquan chant, and a miasma of flickering green light appears round his open left hand. Then, with a thrust, he darts forward in a touch attack of his own.
Mirror Images, 3 is the Real Novox: 1d3 ⇒ 1
Touch: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (1) + 2 = 3
Novox can't help but smile as his foe not only chooses the wrong target, but flails hopelessly.
Hax, somewhat as a distance, keeps swimming toward the ship, ignored by the increasingly frustrated and worried gillman. Clearly he regards Novox as the greater threat. As he should.
Boiling water and murky steam subsided. Wondrous force really, electricity. It had that special distinction that all great things do, of invoking both blind reverence and curious interest - it bridged the usually so irreconcilable spheres of divinity and practicality seamlessly. The idea of wielding Mother Nature's lightning bolts, her most impressive display of power that had once sent a young humanity scurrying back to their caves in dumb fright, was a tantalizing one. Bright light! Booming noise! It invoked something primal in the human spirit. To then spit in her face by utilizing that awesome power for something as mundane as... heating? Yes, Novox could imagine such an application. Was it any wonder electricity had grabbed the Egorian's attention? Anything to turn the divine mundane, anything to humiliate humanity's previous mistress, the cruel b*tch that was Nature. How dare she think herself above them? How dare she think herself above him?
The quasi-real trident speared another smirking illusion. Mind you, there was genuinely compelling research being done on lightning these days. Novox understood that Alkenstar was making strides in harnessing it as a power source, although the desert dwellers were doggedly secretive about their work. Certain necromancers had also been all in a tizzy post the widely publicized displays of electricity inducing spasmatic movement in fresh corpses, although the wizard expected little of their enthusiasm. Any half-brain could see that all that was induced were crude muscle spasms, much like the one he'd just imparted onto the gillman. However, a recent thesis paper from one of Egorian's most promising natural philosophers theorized more radical effects on the internal alchemy of live humans. Having independently confirmed water's ability to conduct electricity, Novox found this avenue of research more compelling, especially as he had also verified that the mortal brain was primarily water. What a mess that experiment had been. He had given the halfling's family an extra ration in compensation. What might light shocks to the cerebellum lead to? A heightened intellect? Or merely debilitating 'spasms' of the mind? While fascinating, a intelligence such as his own was of course far too precious to risk for such theories. Such was his burden.
Hm. A shame that they were in a river, the diabolist thought as the priest garbled a spell. He'd found that even minor doses of salt improved the conductivity of any fluid. Perhaps his magic might have knocked out the gillman had they been saturated in sea water. No no, that was quite enough of that; Novox pushed aside the stream of consciousness. It was a privilege of one as intellectually gifted as himself that he could divide his attention to several different matters at once, especially given that his prey was already half-dead, but here he should concentrate. Magic always warranted one's full consideration. The gillman was still far from harmless. What was this spell he was casting?
Spellcraft to identify, DC 15 + spell level: 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (15) + 15 = 30
Perhaps more importantly, what spell was he himself to cast? Novox did not fear this fish-man with one fin in the grave, but he was awfully light on magic that could do much of anything below water. With Hax nearly at the wreck and the gillman's attention squarely on himself, the mission was practically already a success, this was true. The next few seconds were uncertain, however.
The three Egorians suddenly shifted and disappeared, leaving a little trail of foam to where they materialized again, some 10 ft. away from the priest. Whatever magic he was to weave, he needed some space to do so. In this sense Novox's teleportation was only logical. This didn't make his clumsy flailing in trying to reorient himself in the water any more dignified.
Swim: 1d20 - 1 ⇒ (5) - 1 = 4
According to the whole aquatic terrain rules, that check ruins my Dex for the round and gives any attacker a +2 against me. So if the gillman tries that touch attack again, I think he'd effectively only have to hit a touch AC of 9.
Still, having all the aquatic grace of an anvil didn't make spell-casting underwater any more difficult than what was usual for a land dweller, so the wizard concentrated and readied his magic: more specifically, he readied the cancellation of magic. Let the Gozren do what he will. All Novox had to do was counter his efforts and stall for time. Once the mercenary delivered his payload, the fight would turn two on one and effectively won. Battles were won by fighting smarter, not harder.
Concentration, DC 15 + spell level: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (13) + 12 = 25
Oh yes, and then there were the devils, ugly hides resistant to just about everything but lightning. This had not escaped him upon first studying the effects of electricity, Novox recalled as he confidently sank back into lazy pontification.
Casting and readying a Dispel Magic against the gillman, assuming he goes at me with that touch spell or another offensive spell. That's a caster level check versus 11 + his own caster level to just waste his turn.
Novox eyes the fading miasma that just missed his chest, wondering what it was. The color of the mist, the particular swirls, the ever so faint hum....ah yes. Unholy Blight, a formidable spell, capable of not only harm but temporarily crippling a foe. Novox's sore insides, only so recently healed, do a slow somersault t the idea of being re-infected.
The gillman's eyes narrow to mere slits when Novox did not take any offensive action of his own. The aquatic water breather looked around, as if expected a surprise attack of some kind, turning slightly in the water. Seeing nothing, he shrugged and began to chant some magical mantra.
Spellcraft to ID: 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (20) + 15 = 35
The gillman tries the same spell again but Novox instantly begins to smother it with his own magical abilties. The sickly green light flickers like a candle in a sudden wind, then vanishes. The gillman howls in Aquan and shakes his fist. Novox meanwhile spots Hax reach the boat with his awkward cargo and begin heading inside.
Sense Motive, Gillman: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (3) + 8 = 11
Novox Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (10) + 13 = 23
But the Gozrean doesn't notice Novox's momentary distraction and continues to focus on the wizard, Hax forgotten.
Your move, nicely played.
Bah. Was hoping to avoid using the bonded item ability, but here we go.
No, there was no way around it, Novox concluded. While he was loath to expend any resource, valued or otherwise, on this water-logged pissant, the wizard had few other options; Hax was still occupied and wouldn't be able to join the fight just yet. Pale sparks began to fly from the Egorian's ring, struggling to combust into something more in the water.
Concentration, DC 15 + spell level: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (7) + 12 = 19
One second later they burst into tendrils of blue lightning once again enveloping their wielder's hand. Yes, perhaps it was better this way. Was he not Narsus Novox? Why should he put his trust in the mercenary? Better to end this pitiful mediocrity of a priest on his own terms.
Swim: 1d20 - 1 ⇒ (3) - 1 = 2
The three Egorians popped to and fro existence again, reappearing right before the gillman. How had this ended last time? Oh yes. With himself frying the poor fool inside out, river be damned. He would have done so again now. If that damn current could just stop turning him upside down!
Standard action to cast Shocking Grasp again, then swift to teleport the 10 ft. between Novox and the gillman. Not sure I even get an attack here as Novox's teleport isn't exactly a normal move action, but it doesn't matter with a roll like this:
Touch attack: 1d20 + 1 ⇒ (3) + 1 = 4
Novox (and his magical duplicates) teleport forward, a grasping hand sparkling with flickering arcane energy. A thin boundry of steam forms instantly, creating a steady stream of bubbles that rise toward the distant surface. But again the gillman smirks, and dodges the clumsy blow. Fighting at the bottom of a murky river was not Novox's native terrian. What he wouldn't give to have this grinning gillman on dry land!
Trident,3 is real Novox: 1d3 ⇒ 2
Another fake wizard melts away like summer mist as the trident closes in. The divine caster smiles widely now, another curse on his blue-tinted lips. A surge of white power forms around both of his hands, making Novox's eyes squint, and he can hear a rising roar of divine energy building. The wizard's hair stands on end as the onrushing spell approaches-
Then a silver spike erupts from the gillman's chest, like the finale in a magician's act. A tiny spurt of blood joins the bubbles of the caster battle, and the gillman looks down, confused. Then a bright gout of blood comes out of his mouth, like the smoke from a pipe. His eyes roll back, head tilting. From behind, Hax suddenly looms and kicks the Gozrehan off his sword with a savage blow. The cleric falls off cleanly, releasing another gout of blood. He twitches, twice, then starts to drift aimlessly in the current.
Hax glances at the body, shrugs, points to the ship and nods affirmatively.
The illusion had certainly served its purpose, Novox mused as yet another duplicate of himself faded beneath's the trident's assault. Fighting a priest with enough divine power to rival his own - and what a fool Gozreh was to empower this mediocrity so - in highly unfavorable terrain should have presented some challenge, but the Egorian was completely unscathed. More than that, he was winning. The gillman was heavily wounded and Novox had the proverbial nail to his coffin in hand, sparking and steaming. This fight was over.
Or it would be if he could just avoid the death throes that were the Gozren's last spell. Reaching out for him with the lightning enveloped hand, the wizard hoped to silence the magic before it could manifest. Only to nearly see the furiously sparking bolts arc from himself to the metal spike suddenly protruding from his victim's chest. Damn the mercenary fool, Novox thought upon realizing what had happened! He had nearly gotten himself electrocuted.
The diabolist's anger was short-lived, however, as he nodded to his companion. Hax had only done his job, and apparently so only after completing the task Novox set out for him. Good. Now if he had only managed to do so six seconds earlier... The Egorian held up a hand. A thousand tiny tendrils of lightning lit up the dark depths for a moment, ineffectively dispersing trough the water as he released his hold on the spell within. The costly magic was useless to him now. His specially bonded ring's ability had been wasted. And just when he had seen a very specific use for it - the dark eyes spied the bobbing corpse of the gillman. Bah, had Hax only been a few seconds earlier.
But that particular venture was not wholly lost. Pointing from the cadaver to the agile Rahadoumi, enhanced to glide through the water better than any fish, Novox made it clear that he wanted the mercenary to take hold of it. He then set out for the wreck with clumsy, yet not entirely ineffective, strokes through the water. There was something the wizard wanted to see before raising this ship.
Swim: 1d20 - 1 ⇒ (15) - 1 = 14
Heading for the wreck to inspect it. Just checking whether there are any other threats and the general state of it. Probably also scattering the buoys within a bit, just so that the boat is more evenly balanced when it floats again. Finally also very interested in finding a small air pocket or the like. Have an idea.
Hax glanced from Novox tot he floating corpse and back. Then, with another shrug swam after it, still moving with the magically induced ease of Diseo's spell. In a moment he had it firmly tucked under one arm and followed after Novox, easily catching up despite the awkward burden.
Novox reached the wreck, swimming over the intricate swirls of Gozreh prayer lines, and into the shipitself. It was in solid shape, with no cracked spars or holes in the hull. It must have been swamped in high seas and taken on water over the gunwales, instead of striking the rocks. That was perfect for Novox's plan. Frankly, except for the entire lack of mast and sails, it seemed in perfect condition, if one didn't mind seaweed and barnacles. Small fish darted out of Novox' way, but nothing bigger then a turtle seemed to lurk in the gloom.
The wizard swam into the dark hold, his darkvision taking over for his usual sight. Shades of gray filled the view, and he saw a very strange sight. One hundred and five bobbing bouys, floating against the top of the hold. They were clumped in a single undulating mass, the wooden former pit, now simple wagon bed, nearby. Clearly Hax had merely heaved the entire thing in here and swam back out to rescue Novox.
Sadly, the ship has been wreaked for far too long to find an air bubble.
Hax followed behind, the corpse leaving a small trail of light blood behind them.
Chin with immaculately maintained goatee bobbed in the water as Novox nodded to himself upon inspecting the wreck. The ship was in even better condition than he had anticipated, practically seaworthy. Assuming the rudder was similarly preserved, they would have little trouble letting the river take them back to Dekarium and then steer into port. Excellent. Less excellent was all the buoys being clumped together in the hold, but the Egorian graciously forgave Hax this little mishap. He had done the best he could with the limited time afforded to him, he was sure. And if they had to be gathered anywhere, then the cargo hold would do, accounting for a fair bit of the vessel's size as it did. The second batch of buoys would simply have to be placed nearer the stem.
But where one timer had expired, others were still ticking away: the mercenary had dealt well with the wagon bed made temporary extradimensional depository handed him, but Novox hadn't forgotten the air bubbles keeping them breathing: if his assessment of the Asmodean's power was correct, their magic was fading fast too. There was no time to waste. So the wizard acted quickly. Looking to his companion, he motioned for him to hand over the floating cadaver of the priest. Once he had the deceased in hand, he pushed it up against the hull and concentrated.
Concentration, DC 15 + spell level (16): 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (18) + 12 = 30
The spell came to him easily. Within the second a great gout of yellowish something shot out from the diabolist's motioning fingers, flowing directly on and into the gillman's stab-wound left by Hax. There it solidified into a sticky resin-like substance, filling the wound entirely, front to back, to adhere the corpse to the wall. More importantly, it stemmed the flow of blood from it. This was Novox's design. He had plans for that divinely empowered blood.
All of this was most likely terribly confusing for the Rahadoumi, the two not being able to speak in the murky depths, so it probably came as some relief when the smartest man in Cheliax pointed to the wagon bed and then straight up. They were going back to the surface.
It was a very wet, very cold and very tired Novox that reached the river bank some minutes later. His muscles were simultaneously screeching in exertion and shivering with cold. While he didn't share some of his lesser academic colleagues' disdain for physical exercise, believing themselves somehow superior to such crude concerns, the Egorian rarely managed to make time for it. The fools ignored their health at their own risk. But in this moment, lungs clamoring for air and magic-working fingers trembling and near entirely beyond his control, he really regretted not making time.
"Yer alright there, skipper?" The fanged maw of Bill the lizard-beast came into Novox's view. Why he was speaking in a some bastardized variant of an old mariner's cant somehow became the foremost question in the wizard's frigid mind.
"Hax," he called out after a moment, still not feeling strong enough to rise and ignoring his familiar's antics. It took a titanic effort to keep his voice steady. "You can deliver the next batch of buoys without me now that the wreck has been cleared. Deposit them nearer the stem if possible. I'll fly us onto the ship when it rises."
"Aye-aye, cap'n," Bilbastis responded, quite unbidden. "Arr me hearties, keelhaul the mizzenmast and set course for the stormy seas." He had clearly been practicing.
Think that's the plan. Casting Novox's second extended Create Pit on the wagon bed, dumping the remaining buoys in it, Hax takes 'em down to the wreck (his swimming spell lasts almost a full hour), and then we fly on board as the ship takes off. Off into the sunset.
To skip ahead a bit
Hax lugs the magically enchanted diving bell into the river, the soft clinking of bouys audible inside. The river water swirls around his legs as he wades into the current, shaking his head. At the last moment he turns and says, "Try not to make things more complicate while I am gone." With a flick he throws himself into the water with the speed and grace of a ocean porpoise.
The woman who had spied on them from the woods is on the bank, sitting as far from Bill as possible. Despite her earlier fear she seems happy Novox is back, perhaps as a check to the toothy monster sitting on the sand. How more afraid would she be if she knew Bill was not only a scaly beast but was an actual devil?
Novox watched the man's tanned head vanish below the rippling surface with satisfaction,. Everything was going according to plan, so far. Granted, the Gozreh gillman had been a wrinkle, but nothing he couldn't handle. In short order the boat would be re-floated and they could sail back into Dekarium like conquering heros. The wizard smiled to himself at the image.
Then Bill said, "Ahoy! Ship ho, off the larboard beam!"
Novox looked up sharply, detecting more then the usual distracting nonsense from the planar being. The wizards eyes narrowed as they saw a ship heading up river, oars fighting the current.
No, not a ship, but a mere boat. It was one of the fishing vessels Novox had seen countless times on the Tomarsulk, although on the larger side. It was not as big as the sunken smuggler vessel Novox had just explored, with low sides, a single mast and a triangle of blood red sail. From this high point Novox could spot a single fluttering flag, although at this distance he could not quite make it out.
One thing he could make out though. The boat was filled, not with dour fishermen, but soldiers. Armed men and women filled the small deck, nearly shoulder to shoulder. One stood apart at the very prow, although Novox could not see any faces at this distance.
Blessed Beelzebub's bounteous buzzing bugs, what now? Novox had only just gotten some sensation back into his hands via a warming cantrip when the approaching vessel came into view. The dark eyes sharpened, not just in trying to discern the boat, but in suspicion. Somehow it was Eslih who came to mind first. His most open and obvious opponent, the guild mistress was not his greatest adversary in Dekarium, in part precisely because she was so overt, but she did command plenty of ships and men. And this appeared to be a fishing vessel at that. He had no doubt that she knew where he was. Could she really be so brazen as to launch a coordinated attack on him outside the city walls? Then again, the crew of what looked like soldiers rather pointed to the landlubber Decius...
Perception: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (3) + 11 = 14
Practiced fingers weaved their way through the cantrip again before the wizard ran them through his soaked hair, slicking it back and drying it in the same motion. He was staring out to the Tomarsulk. Surely they couldn't be river pirates? Novox was all too aware of this particular menace, his original transport to Dekarium having been sunk by such scoundrels. Approaching upstream from the settlement, though? Surely not. Surely the guild mistress herself would have done something to stop them?
"Beast," he commanded to the transmogrified Bilbastis, never turning his head, "Make yourself scarce." Whether these were friends or foes approaching, keeping one's devil ally hidden could only be an advantage.
"Unseen as a ship's hull, skipper," the giant lizard grinned as it disappeared from sight.
Ah, but the blood red sail, the Egorian kept on musing. It was too difficult to tell at this distance, and yet - a Chelaxian flag? Was it possible? What would that even mean? More deserters perhaps? No, these speculations served no purpose.
"Acquaintances of yours?" he called out to their inept spy, hands at his back and sounding utterly unconcerned at this development. Which was not wholly true, of course. Should it come to it, dispatching a full regiment would prove difficult in his diminished state; most of his spells were expended. There were still options, however. He was Narsus Novox. There were always options.
The tiefling was one such, and he looked to him to make sure he too was ready for all eventualities.
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (18) + 11 = 29
Just on assessing soldier girl's response.
Steam rose off Novox's quickly drying robes as he made himself presentable. Eslih, river pirates, Decius or some other unknown faction? Regardless, it was no excuse not to look his best. Arcane magics swept back his hair, tucker in his shirt and removed the smudges of river silt on his face and hands. Even his boots were instantly polished by the simple spell. In a trice he was ready to attend a Eorgian ball, let alone meet some backwoods bandits on a riverside.
At his side the woman shaded her eyes from the sun, peering out at the boat. After a moment she said, "Yup. Decius. He, watch'ya call it, commandeered some local fishing boats a few week back. For water patrols, you know. That sort of thing."
In a few moments, Novox could see the local....mercenary? Bandit lord? Rogue military officer? for himself. The man was standing at the prow of his ship, cloak flapping dramatically in the wind, gloved hands grasping the gunwales, easily riding the chopping motion of oars on water. They made good time and soon were pulling up along shore. Decius barely waited for the ship to stop before jumping off, splashing into the shallows.
He made directly for Novox, a tight smile on his face. The man wore a sword at his belt, but kept it sheathed, not reaching for it. Indeed, he was keeping his hands scrupulously away from the weapon. Still, his eyes roamed the beach, the river, the woods as if expected to see others. A trace of doubt lingered on his features, as if he did not see what he expected.
"Ah, Master Narsus. I see you have one of my scouts. Has shebeen helpful to your mission, whatever that may be? Anything to help serve the Crown, of course." He waved to the woman at Novox's side. "May I have her back?"
Behind, with less grace then their commander, other soldiers started slashing into the mud of the river side, weapons at hand but not drawn.
Water patrols, eh? He considered the woman's words. It made sense enough in explaining a rogue paramilitary's comings & goings on the river. But if this was a random patrol, Novox would eat his boots. Decius had come here looking for him. His purpose in doing so, however - that was still unclear.
"Good day, Mr Decius! Always a pleasure to see Dekarium's stalwart defender," the Egorian called out gregariously as the deserter's feet found land, smiling civilly and sounding for all the world as if the two had simply hit upon one another in walking the city streets. Whatever game the ex-soldier was playing at, Novox would not join in. A clever man never played by the rules of another's game. One should always aim to make your opponent play by yours.
"I never got the chance to thank you for the wonderful company last evening. The Revel's dramatic conclusion had you all tied up I understand. How is your Molly? I have thought of her more than a few times out here - her talent would have been of great help."
"Ah, Master Narsus. I see you have one of my scouts. Has shebeen helpful to your mission, whatever that may be? Anything to help serve the Crown, of course." He waved to the woman at Novox's side. "May I have her back?"
Ignoring the query on his own purpose in being here, the wizard's pointedly trivial social niceties came to a stop at Decius's request. The pause was filled by look of polite confusion. Why, whatever was the man implying?
"I beg your pardon? Miss," he said in turning to the soldier,"have I held you here?" What a silly misunderstanding on the commander's part. What a rude insinuation. How affable of the diplomat to forgive him this faux pas.
"You haven't come all this way to retrieve one of your soldiers, have you, Mr Decius? With a full regiment at that? I'm sure she's honored. As am I." A minor platoon to confront a little old envoy such as himself? Novox made sure to pause again to let what this suggested Decius thought of him, how much he feared him, set in. These were the games Novox enjoyed. "If you will allow me a request, do not judge your soldier here too harshly upon your return. I assure you she did the best she could on her spying mission... I mean, scouting mission! Excuse me. I fear Egorian politics are too ingrained in my vocabulary. A slip of the tongue."
And the good old seed of 'you are no better than what you hate' was planted. Also on the topic of politics, the diabolist's guest's oversight in mentioning how Decius had commandeered his boat from Eslih's guild was still on his mind. His old inclination to perhaps set Dekarium's factions up against each other stirred within him. But this was not the time. No, this was just about the time for his transport to make its explosive and foam spraying entrance.
"But I digress. You may wish to instruct your men to secure your vessel more firmly. It could tip over when the wave of displaced water strikes."
"Melly." Decius corrected absently, still gazing at the sandy river bank. "The diver's name was Melly. As for the Revel, yes, it was quite the exciting evening. Although," And here he breaks off his gaze and locks eyes with Novox, "I have a feeling it is not the conclusion, by any means."
The uniformed commander (although his robe lacks any mark of rank), waves a hand at the scout at Novox's side. "No, I did not come just for her, but accomplishing more then one goal at a time saves effort, wouldn't you agree?" He smiles at the scout and waves her toward the ship. She looks awkwardly at Novox for a moment, as if asking permission,t hen hurries off, feet making a soft scrunching noise on the beige sand.
"Displaced water? Decius says, looking surprised. He scans the river again, but sees nothing. Novox too sees no disturbance, and wonders what is taking Hax so long. Surely not trouble? "I don't see anything amiss."
Again the man waves his hand and smiles again, "But yes, Egorian politics. It is funny you mention that, for, I think, that is why I am here. Well, for the reason we are all here. You, me, and a number of nautical bouys."
The Chelish army captain inclines his head, "Oh yes, I know about the bouys and your little deal with Vannellus. And while our...large friend back int he city is still thoroughly confused as to what you are doing with them, it is no mystery to me. For I, unlike he, has a military mind. I know exactly what one needs a number of marking bouys for."
His eyes smolder slightly as he says, "And I have come to be a part of the plan, my dear Novox. Never let it be said I did not do my part to aid the throne in replacing law and order over this part of Cheliax."
"And I have come to be a part of the plan, my dear Novox. Never let it be said I did not do my part to aid the throne in replacing law and order over this part of Cheliax."
Ah. It would seem that Decius and Novox had a misunderstanding on their hands. A momentous misunderstanding at that. While the wizard had merely readied himself for a rousing round of trading barbs the Egorian way, i.e. the competitive art of wrapping sh*t in silk, this was evidently not the commander's intent. No, the commander wished to engage in an another fine Egorian tradition: plotting conspiracy. If Novox was hearing him right, the good Decius had somehow reached the conclusion that he was here to overthrow Dekarium's Jireen and install a new mayor, one more supportive of and useful to the capital. And he might even have an idea as to who could fill such a seat. After all, 'Lord-Commander' had every bit the ring to it 'Lord-Mayor' did.
My oh my. Novox had to pause, face still masked with a polite little smile. So the deserter was not just unfaithful, but traitorous to boot. He supposed this should come as no surprise, these ignoble qualities going hand in hand, and yet this turn of events presented a challenge for him. Where to go from here? Actually going along with the fool's hopeful ploy was not an option. He had just proven himself as trustworthy as a hungry tiger. 'Trust me not to be treacherous, said the traitor as he very literally invited you to betray the local lord along with him.' No, while the diabolist was not averse to the idea of completing his mission via simply replacing Jireen with someone more sympathetic to his own cause, he needed this someone to be reliable. Whether through goodwill or plain intimidation, Dekarium's continued loyalty had to be ensured throughout the civil war, long after he had left the hovel. Decius could not provide this.
Even pretending to play along with this plan, with the real intent of warning the mayor, wasn't possible. When he saw what Novox was actually doing here - and that would become explosively obvious in just a few seconds - any such ruse would be undone. And on that note, what would happen when he realized his mistake, that he had admitted to mutiny in front of what was actually a possible ally of Jireen's? Would he attack in order to silence the Egorian? Or was he comfortable with the mayor knowing this, confident that she couldn't harm him, Dekarium's only real line of defense? The two displayed little love for each other, after all. This was a delicate position Novox found himself in.
Not less so because all of this assumed that the man was being truthful here, that he wasn't attempting to deceive him for some unknown end. How frustrating. The wizard would prefer winning over Jireen to slaying her. The love and respect she commanded over her citizens was a valuable commodity to dash like that. Simultaneously, Decius was a necessity as Dekarium did indeed need a standing military in the civil war. Having to choose between the two was less than desirable.
But perhaps he was looking at this from the wrong angle. Perhaps Decius wasn't truly necessary. Perhaps all that was needed was his band. Perhaps it might be best if the ex-soldier... disappeared.
'Get into the mayor's pants by killing this chump, her main headache, while ensuring her the army she needs to survive this little civil scuffle of yours,' the invisible Bilbastis summarized, following along with his master's thoughts. 'Eh. Could work. If you can just keep his merry little gang together post corpsing.'
A plan was slowly coming together in the brief seconds afforded Cheliax's smartest man in the conversation. It wasn't perfect, yet. But it was a promising option. 'If this is the road we're walking, you know there's only thing to tell him.' Yes, Novox knew. There was only one reply he could give.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
'Oh, he's not gonna like that one,' the devil grinned.
Decius's face is hard to read as he absorbs Novox's simple phrase and play for time (and information). The dark eyes linger on the wizard's face brow furrowing slightly as he focuses. Did the deserter see what was happening, did he see through Novox's charade? Did he realize that Novox had no idea what the former Cheliaxn army commander was driving at?
Then the man gives a self satisfied, knowing smile and Novox knows he has him.
"Ah of course, you have no idea." Decius says, turning away fromt he wizard and instead facing the rippling river. He clasps his hands behind his back, standing at parade-ground attention. The dark red cloak billows slightly in the midday breeze, flicking idly at the grains of sand around his shiny leather boots.
"Then allow me." he says, still facing away. "A servant of the crown arrives in Dekarium to restore order and law to the wayward town. Finding it in the grip of dissent religious forces and a helpless Mayor the servant decides to use force." He looks up the river, "He has few forces at his disposal as the crown is busy with weighty affairs farther away, but perhaps a small team can be assembled, crack elite troops. Still, the servant's task is difficult, he cannot simply march them up the road. For one, it would tip his hand and for another, who knows what local military forces he might entangle himself with."
Decius turns with a faint smile, inclining his head. Then he turns back toward the open air and continues, voice calm and smooth. "So the clever servant decides to infiltrate them by river transport, silently at the docks in the dead of night. All very well, but now he has another problem. The Tomarsulk River is famously difficult to navigate, especially around Tusk Tooth Rock, and any locals guides will surely betray him."
"So, the clever servant hires a local fixer to supply him with marking bouys so he may carefully chart out the path during the fullness of day. The fixer of course has no idea, and therefore is no risk to the plan. So now the clever servant has a safe route into the town with his troops."
"Except he hadn't counted on the scouts spying out his mission and an equally clever mind nearby, able to put the clues together. So the clever servant is found out, while he is alone and surrounded by dangerous men."
Decius turns suddenly, boots grinding on the small stones at the river side. His voice grows softer, "And now my story splits, for there are two paths. One path is where the clever servant becomes foolish, defies the offer from the dangerous men and is killed for his foolishness. He dies, a forgotten failure in a backwater town his masters can't even spell."
He steps closer and Novox realizes the man is a good six inches taller then he, "The other path is where the clever servant keeps his head and brings in the local forces into his plan, and offering...well, whatever he thinks the other clever man will want to hear."
Decius grins, "What do you think of my story?"
There it was: the death threat. Somewhere on the river bank an invisible smile widened, scaly maw stretching over pointed teeth. Decius the Deserter had given Narsus Novox an impossible ultimatum - join me or die - and with a sword at his hip and a regiment at his back, he had the means to enforce this threat. Was this it? Was this where the inevitable happened? Was this where the soul a young diabolist had foolishly consigned to Hell was sent screaming to that dark pit? Master and familiar both couldn't help but wonder, and the devil was practically turgid with anticipation. To see the haughty Egorian humbled, to be freed from his tyranny, to join in on his infinite torture - the mere possibility of this moment marking the man's demise was enough to set his black, infernal heart aflutter. And the wizard knew this, linked as they were.
Disappointing then, that the smooth brow merely wrinkled in polite puzzlement upon the commander finishing his spiel.
Decius grins. "What do you think of my story?"
"I think that's the nation's dramatists would find it wanting."
Novox sounded for all the world as if Decius had just made a minor misstatement among friends, something like the pronunciation of gnocchi, with himself graciously stepping in to correct the mishap. "You'll forgive me for flaunting the benefits of an Egorian education, but you see classical storytelling requires a three act structure. Beginning, middle and ending. Your yarn, while engaging enough, lacks a finale. 'Loyal servant of the crown ventures out,' followed by 'loyal servant is then killed by villain' are plenty fine as introduction and body, but where is the conclusion? How does the story end?"
And this was where the change come over him. With a swiftness few actors on the Chelish stage could emulate, everything cordial and helpful dimmed from the diabolist's dark eyes. What replaced it was hard, cruel and certain as one's own shadow. This was not a dinner guest correcting your faux pas. This was a coroner explaining how you came to die.
"You don't know how the story ends? Well, allow me to illuminate. Any narrative's villainy demands a cathartic reversal, a finale wherein the listener may purge via the just punishment of the oppugnant forces. In this instance, the loyal servant's murderer must face retribution. Fortunately your yarn provides an easy means of comeuppance, and as in all good stories, it comes as a direct result of the antagonist's actions and folly. For the loyal servant isn't just a servant. He's a diplomat, that most vaunted of civil servant. When happens when he dies? What happens when his friends, his loved ones, his superiors notice that the Chelish mediator sent out to guide Dekarium home into the fold isn't coming back?"
The brief pause that followed was meant to let the ex-soldier ruminate on the implications. The deep scowl curling Novox's noble face was meant to show him just how severe this blunder of his really was.
"This is not a rhetorical question, Mr Decius. This decides your fate. Lest you've forgotten, we are a nation at war and diplomats are never more sacrosanct than at times of war. I was sent here to turn Dekarium. If I die here, Egorian will take that for its answer. If Dekarium is not an ally to the crown, then it is an enemy and even my most hated rivals in the capital will demand retaliation for this insult. Dekarium will burn, you first of all. You, and all your men with you, first wall of the city that you are. That is how your story ends."
That the last few words were not intended just for the commander, but also his men waiting by was obvious. And if stares could truly be like daggers, then sparks would be flying between the two now, such were their glares. But it was the wizard who yielded first. In a moment every harsh features sank and softened, the cruel eyes were made mild, and the turned lip brightened in a benign smile. All the more to reinforce the implicit message that Decius really did not know the nature of the man he was menacing. Nor the depth of the mistake he was about to make.
"A bit grim as far as fiction goes. No happy ending. Not entirely ineffective as a moral tale, however."
Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (10) + 13 = 23
Intimidate: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (10) + 13 = 23
Decius looks confused for a moment, puzzled slightly. Over his shoulder Novox sees a trail of bubbles foaming in the center of the river, as if a large fish or turtle was shifting in the brackish gloom. His focus snaps back to the deserter when the big man hunches his shoulders and says, "You doubly wound me. First, you criticize my narrative skills and now you....mention the risks associated with yourself?"
He sighs and shakes his head, "You misunderstand me. I do not bring my men here to threaten you, but to ally myself to your cause. Our cause." Decius picks at the crimson robe of his uniform, "I confess, me and the Cheliaxn army has had our differences and much that was sure is uncertain in these troubled times. Men and women with divided loyalties and long grudges set aside. But in such chaos there is often opportunities, especially for those who might be passed over in more peaceful times? This is a time when a man who can call upon a regiment at the proper time may be rewarded, not punished, despite past sins."
More bubbles in the river, more distinct now. One or of the soldiers clearly see it, pointing. Decius ignores them, intent on Novox, "So you don't you see? You are my way of here, not an obstacle. We are natural allies, against the people behind those walls. For I am sure your own future rides on success here. Unless Egorian has changed greatly since my time there, they punish failure in ways even a man such as yourself would find...unpleasant."
His words are punctuated by loud splashes from the river. The commander turns, just in time to see a veritable foundation of water erupt mid-stream, arcing into the air. A dark shape looms under the rippling surface and a few soldiers shout about the return of the sea serpent. Swords are unsheathed, arrows set to bows.
Suddenly a spike of wood splits the surface of the river, gleaming wetly in the noon sun. The river seems to part as a huge bulk emerges from the depths, a roaring sound like a waterfall. Spouts of water rolls off the wooden shape, falling in cascades over stained hull, cracked gunwales and uneven spars. Trails of seaweed follow, curling in the rushing torrents. In moments it is clearly a ship, wallow heavily in the river, water streaming off of it. A heavy iron chain is visible, one end lost in the gloomy depths.
Near the prow a big man is standing, hands gripping onto the wood to keep himself upright. He waves once at Novox and nods, as the ships creaks and settles.
Decius is silent for a moment, facing away from Novox, but the wizard can almost hear the wheels in the man's head turning. It was a dangerous moment and Novox needed to make sure the commander did not decide on anything too....rash.
"So. On the topic of salvage," the Egorian went on conversationally after the heavy cascades flowing from the newly resurrected smuggling vessel had faded to gentle droplets, "how would you like to go about salvaging this blunder of yours?"
Prodding at what was in all likelihood a volatile man right now was no doubt foolhardy, but this was a risk Novox felt he had to take; to suddenly switch demeanor now to something sweet and reassuring would come off as completely disingenuous, after all. And offering Decius a way out of this rickety tower he'd built around himself - one that didn't involve simply gutting the wizard, a proposition he was undoubtedly weighing the pros and cons of at this very moment - would go some way in mollifying him. Because Novox wasn't so eager to exit the scene yet, even with his chariot having arrived. He still saw opportunity in the situation. Despite the dialogue already fomenting the beginning of an effective plot calling for the commander's death, he was willing to be swayed otherwise, given the right reason. And there was still valuable information to be gleaned here.
The exact nature of Jireen and Decius's dispute was one prime example. Fool that he was, the deserter had admitted to conspiracy - wishing to replace the rule & law of Dekarium in so many words - but had only spoken of joining the wizard in striking not at the government, but the town's ever-present mystery cult. If he was willing to do so, why the mayor's animosity given her own opposition to the sect? Surely some mutually beneficial agreement could be found? Was Jireen's worry really just about him amassing too much power in town? Or had Decius's price been too high? Might Novox have to step in as actual mediator between the two?
"It's funny, though. No, I dare say it's outright comedic." Deciding upon a gambit, he sealed it with a low laugh. "This predicament you've stumbled into, this misinterpretation of yours - it's entirely your own fault. And it all stems from one fatal assumption: that Narsus Novox must be a liar." The laughter dimmed to a superior smile. "An Egorian diplomat? Oh yes, of course he can't be trusted. Mustn't trust a word out of his mouth. False as all of Hell's oaths that one, without doubt. Every single person I've encountered in this quaint little town has harbored that some assumption, you being no better, and every single one has attempted to preemptively counter this diabolical mastermind they've dreamt up by lying to me with your every breath. It's why you're here, rowing upstream merely to impress me with what you thought to be a oh-so-very astute observation. But you're all wrong. I haven't spoken a single lie since arriving here," Novox lied. "I have been entirely forthright with my mission and purpose. In the attempt to combat your narrow-minded idea of the Egorian, the proud Dekarians, all of whom believe themselves better and more honorable than the cheats of the capital, have turned themselves into what they hate most: liars, the lot of them. Consequently and very ironically, I am the most honest man in Dekarium. Heh."
More laughter followed, lighter this time, like the lashings of leather on skin. The diabolist turned from the glistening ship to the compromised commander.
"My apologies. I'm rambling. But my point is this: in deliberating where to go from here, may I suggest you try the truth? It should be obvious by now that you lack the wit to manipulate me. And even if this wasn't the case, you still couldn't match me in sheer practice. What do you want, Mr Decius? Just answer me that. A royal pardon for your desertion? A comfortable seat to call your own? You say we serve the same cause. Go on. Convince me. This gaffe of yours doesn't have to be the end of you. You know I have the good mayor's ear. After last night she's doubly obliged to listen to me. If I can see a place for you in my plans, be assured that I'd be happy to utilize you. This little heart-to-heart of ours doesn't have to spell disaster for anyone."
It was a risky ploy, Novox knew. Provoking the deserter at this stage could indeed spell disaster. Ever inquisitive as he was, however, the opportunity to ascertain more of Dekarium's true political arena was too tantalizing. Hence the lies. Because the wizard really was plotting the man's death. Hence the truths. Because he was equally willing to work with him under the right circumstances. And hence the half-truths. Because he was also considering employing Decius only to then kill him when convenient. Truth and lies were all a tangle with the Egorian. Only one thing really flowed from his mouth, and that was manipulation.
Decius stared at the water-logged vessel, jaw visibly agape. Slowly he straightens, shakes his head and clasps his hands behind his back. He turns to Novox, Hax's distant figure just visible over his left shoulder. The Chelish commander gives a quick glance toward his armed men, eyes narrowed slightly. He is thinking hard, weighing his options, jaw clenched.
Then he focuses on the wizard saying, voice rough "I admit you....misled me, Master Narsus. I wouldn't have thought you'd waste time with some old wreck. Or is it more then it appears? Do you perhaps need a vessel for your plan to work?" The captain looks into Novox's eyes, hoping to salvage his earlier remarks. He sees nothing to save him in those dark eyes.
The man sighs heavily and says, "I see, I was wrong entirely. Very well. Such is the fate of many plans upon contact with the enemy." He waves a hand at the ship, turning slightly, "Shall we retire to yonder vessel? Perhaps we can both fill in the gaps of our knowledge and see if we can be of use to each other."
For a moment the deserter received no reply to his suggestion beyond a probing look from his better. Then Novox turned to the boat and called out.
"Hax, see if you can find a boarding ladder on there. Or even just some surviving rope. Mr Decius will be joining us for a brief talk."
So Decius was willing to talk openly now, though not within earshot of his men? How intriguing, assuming the offer was genuine. It was just as likely that he was simply hoping to regain some advantage by inspecting the vessel. Which the wizard would not allow him to do; neither commander nor soldier was getting anywhere near the mysterious cargo hold, the goods of which he was yet to ascertain himself. Yes, there was no threat in allowing the man to speak. His tongue wasn't half as sharp as his sword, and the latter was little danger in the face of the combined might of himself, Hax, Diseo and the imp.
"Oh, Miss Scout?" the Egorian spoke over Decius's shoulder, speaking to the woman sent to spy on him and now standing among her fellow militiamen. "Be a dear and row your leader out to the ship, will you? And bring along my acquaintance here." The most casual of nods was thrown towards the tiefling. "He'll be returning to town with me."
Offhandedly ordering the deserter's crew around was of course likely to rile some feathers, but then this was Novox's intent. All the better to further demonstrate his dominance here. He was getting quite tired of these fools thinking they could intimidate him. Waiting patiently for Decius to corroborate his command, he then flicked his fingers through a complex gesture upon which the wizard lifted from the ground. He wouldn't allow any further attempts on his dignity today, least of all from some dingy rope ladder. Let the others suffer a cramped rowboat and a strenuous climb. The flying Novox was very literally above them.
"Were there any complications?" he asked of the Rahadoumi upon landing on the glistening deck, closely followed by an invisible imp just a bit disappointed that his master had escaped death yet again, but nevertheless enjoying the manipulation/browbeating on display.
Decius's face hardens when Novox issues commands to his own scouts but says nothing about the flagrant insult. At least he has the sense to not complain to Novox's face. A small rowboat is lowered into the water from the fishing vessel, little more then two seats and a set of oars. It is being manhandled into the shallows as Novox flies away and lands on his own ship, boots thumping solidly on the wet wood.
"The anchor was tangled around the deck." Hax grunts, pointed tot he rusty, seaweed choked chain. "I had to straighten it out so she'd float. Took awhile." The mercenary's eyes sweep the sandy shore and he adds, "Looks like I missed something.
[b]'What did the deserter want?" Hax says, an unexpected edge to his voice, "Are we having company?"
Then he looks back at Novox, "So you'll never guess what the hold is filled with." He waits a moment while, unheard by the Rahadoumi Bill guesses, 'Undead harem girls? Then again, Novox wouldn't know what to do with a live harem girl-'
He cuts off when Hax answers, "Ice. Blocks and blocks of ice. Magical, obviously, to not melt. Any ideas why? Undershale give you a clue?"
Then the big man pauses, as if remembering something, "And I found this in what must have been the captain's quarters." From a pile of sodden and rotting crates he picks up a sealed sea chest. "Wax sealed, water proof. Must have been a private stash of...something. Is this for us or the dwarf?"
"Looks like I missed something. What did the deserter want?"
"Oh, the good commander thought he had deduced my diabolical plans," Novox replied with utter disinterest; the searching eyes were obviously more taken with the chest at the moment. "Tried to coerce me into an alliance. Then threatened my life. It was all a bit like hearing a flea bark. I proceeded to demonstrate his inferiority and helped him see reason. He then asked for a small private chat. Hence his approach now."
"No cause for concern," the Egorian went on with a look to Hax before the larger man could protest. "It won't be so private to exclude yourself. I think I've been charitable enough to the deserter. As for the ice... no. I'm not sure what Undershale could want with such a cargo. Not yet."
"I'll tell you what they do with the stuff in Cocytus," the imp piped up, dropping his invisibility in favor of the feathery guise. "You ever see what happens to soft skin when water freezes on top of it? Oh, it's like fire, but worse. It doesn't just burn, it cuts, penetrates and deforms. Crazy stuff. What they'll sometimes do is they'll cut up some poor schmuck, and then stuff this never-melting ice into his..."
"Shut up, imp," came the by now thoroughly practiced response. The diabolist never even looked up at his familiar, even as the latter took his usual spot on his master's shoulder. Novox's gaze never left the chest. Although this didn't stop his prodigious mind from looking elsewhere. What did Undershale want with such ice, he wondered? Having some proficiency, even expertise, in the practical sciences, he could see industrial applications for such a material. The rapid heating and cooling of metals could be eminently useful in a forge, for one relevant example. However, the dwarf had described the cargo as 'mutually beneficial' to them both, and the wizard was less sure he understood how this could be true.
Something to speculate on later. For now he chose to inspect the insulated chest. Such containers were only used for something of value, so the box was naturally intriguing. And perhaps trapped. Could he hear anything rattling inside? Was there any magical aura to divine?
Perception: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (1) + 11 = 12
Spellcraft: 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (18) + 15 = 33
Cursory glance of the chest, checking for traps and casting Detect Magic, before slipping a knife through the wax sealing. See if we can open it.
Hax grunted at Decius, a somewhat vague shape on the shore. "Do you expect trouble?" His hand touched the leatherbound hilt of his sword, "Or do you want trouble?"
Novox investigated the box, looking for any obvious mundane dangers. It was a well-kept chest, with weathered edges and faded trim that spoke to many years on the water, shuffled from cabin to cabin. The wood was still sound however, very solid. The wax lining was much worn and rippled, indicating it was opened and re-sealed quite often. Finding no traps or problems, he looked at it for magical issues.
After only a few moments he found a faint magical aura about the chest, a universal aura. Peering at it closely, and untangling the magical threads binding it, the wizard discovered a permanent alarm spell, but nothing else. Still, even on it's own that was a rather expensive item. Clearly the smuggler had been doing quite well for themselves to afford such protection.
Seeing nothing else, Novox shrugs and cracks the box open. His dark eyes search it out in an instant and he soon has a mental inventory.
Most of the chest is filled with bound maps and charts, mostly concerning smuggler drop-off points and hidden shoals. There are many hand written notes in the margins, with names and dates, presumably of illict rendezvous, past and present.
In a small pouch Novox also finds three doses of Allnight, a mildly addicting drug renowned for it's stimulative effects. While not illegal, it wasn't sold at most reputable pharmacies or herb shops. It would fetch a pretty crown, more so now with trade disrupted (it was not grown in CHeliax).
He also found a stash of fifty gold coins and shiny a platinum piece, neatly sawed in half.
Settled in a small velvet nook, built directly into the chest was a very expensive looking bottle of wine, the cork sealed with heavy wax. Tied tot he neck was a yellowed card saying, 'From Cress, to Ini with love. For the final voyage.'
Of most interest to the wizard however, Novox found, in a corner a small gem. At first he assumed it was more money, a quick and transportable currency but closer inspection revealed it was something much more valuable.
"I'd prefer he didn't die here," Novox replied to his bodyguard in retrieving a gem from the chest.
"Try wagging your eyebrows, chief. Really helps in getting those insinuation across." Stately master ignored his crass familiar, as was his wont, but Bilbastis's jibe wasn't entirely unfair. The dual implications of Novox not being opposed to the deserter's demise here if necessary and even plotting his death in the near future were obvious. But the wizard merely appeared his cool self. In fact, the scrutinizing eyes never left the gemstone.
"Lovely." The sunrays sparkled off the stone's every facet. The charts with their many notes would make for an interesting bit of nighttime reading, but out of all the chest's contents it was definitely the jewel that had caught the Egorian's attention. Because in staring into its opalescent heart he could see a spark there, a shimmer that was something more than trapped sunlight.
Novox closed the trunk and dropped the gem securely into a breast pocket. No reason to advertise this find to their guests.
Novox has just enough time to pocket the gem and push the rest of the chest out of sight when Decius's small craft arrives, bobbing over the shimmering water. There are three figures in the boat, the renegade commander, the scout Novox had spent the morning with, and a tall lanky man wearing a sword. His face was beaten and criss-crossed with pale scars, telling the story of a lifetime of violence. He stood easily by the gunwale, doing his best to remain unobtrusive.
Decius, meanwhile, stomped loudly on the deck, as if sounding out the timbers. "A fair enough vessel, Master Narsus. By custom and law, she is yours now. Do you have a name for her?"
He glances at the wizard and Hax, and smiles, "I hope you don't mind I also brought my own silent enforcer. We wouldn't want any acciddents."
The scarred man appraised Hax carefully for a few moments then shrugged. The atheists did the same and muttered to Novox, "Watch out, he knows how to handle himself." A short pause and then, face wrinkled slightly, "Not an army stance or blade. He probably fights dirty."
Decius then spoke up, pitching his voice a bit louder then needed, "So, shall we stand on ceremony or do you have some water-logged chairs for us to rest on while we talk? I assume we have much to discuss?"
It was a less than pleasant host the trio came upon on boarding the ship. Novox stood staring into the river below with the simultaneously patient and grim expression of an old mariner; it was the cast of someone expecting storm having already experienced a lifetime's worth. Had the raven on his shoulder only been a parrot the image would have been complete. When he spoke his tone was polite, as always, but the earlier smile was nowhere to be found. "Please, Mr Decius. When men have threatened each others' lives I should hope them beyond these niceties. Yes, we will stand. But I'm doing away with all ceremony."
And already the lies had begun. If the Egorian appeared forthright, it was only to encourage that same sincerity from his opponent. There was never a moment Novox's manipulation ceased. That said, he hoped to hear something genuine from the deserter. Something useful. He tired of the man. He already saw a viable path to securing Dekarium involving his death. And unless something changed here, that was the path he would choose. Decius didn't know it, but this conversation decided his fate.
"You indicated that you wished to parley. I graciously accepted. So if you have something to say, I would hear it. If not, this is how I view our positions: I wish for Jireen to remain in power to ensure as smooth a transition as possible for Dekarium from ally in name to an ally claimed. With you and your band being the city's primary line of defense in this civil war, I should also like your cooperation. You, however, wish her gone. She too is not overly fond of yourself. This is a conflict."
The dark eyes bored into the commander, honest as the open grave. And false as an obituary.
"So. What can be done?"
Decius smiled, "I think you overstate our differences, Master Narsus. I merely-" he breaks off as a crab scuttles over his foot, the crustacean clearly searching for water. The pointed legs clamber nimbly over the commander's boots, heading for the river. The small creature is just about to vanish into a hawser hole when the lanky man suddenly draws back and throws a knife. The flash of silver gleams like a star for a moment before the blade thuds deeply into the deck, crunching the helpless crab in two.
Behind him, Novox can sense Hax tense at the sudden reaction but the nameless man merely smiles and shrugs again, leaning on the ship's rail with calculated ease.
Want me to transform into a crab and run across the deck? Bill says, the grin audible in his voice. I'd like to see him do that trick with a dinosaur.
Novox ignores both of his hired help, focusing on Decius. The man does his best to project calm with a wide, easy stance, hands clasped behind his back, eyes clear and steady. But Novox has a nose for such things and he can smell desperation and stress. Clearly this man was worried, worried he had over-played his hand on the beach.
"As I was saying, I think you misunderstand me. I was merely sharing what I thought was your plan and how I might assist. If your plan is otherwise...I am sure we can come to an arrangement. Whatever your mean to do, having my men on your side would be a help, I imagine. Even if that end is propping up Jireen, you'll need blades. Surely you have seen she is hardly stable at the moment?"
He waves a hand downriver, toward the unseen town, "The current regime of Cheliax is, I'm afraid, not overly liked in Dekarium. Jireen, whatever her own views, must placate many who would prefer to see you hanged from the bridge. How do you intend to win the people over? By winning a diving contest?" The deserter scoffs, 'Hardly. Blades is what you need, and a strong right-arm. Men that will back your play and perhaps help root out undesirable elements, if given the right motivation."
"Ahoy there!" Novox's commanding voice echoed over the river. He was standing by the gunwale, back turned to Decius, and waving to those soldiers still waiting by the beach. "See that board caught on the bank? It's a wagon bed. The rest of the cart is lying over there in the grass. Make yourselves useful and see if you can put it back together, won't you? I fear this may take a while."
It was utter disinterest that greeted the deserter when he turned back to face him, the expression of a theater director having sat through the performance of too many dismal applicants. This had been a very poor opening to the negotiations. For Decius, that was. For Novox the man represented nothing but a Plan C.
"You'll have to excuse me," he sighed. "That bit of hollering seemed a more productive discussion that the one we're having. Yes, Mr Decius. You believed me to be planning on attack on a certain warehouse and thinking that you had an edge over me, you somehow immediately transitioned this to replacing Dekarium's rule and justice. No, clearly you have no outstanding issues with the good mayor. Clearly. Would your man here like that piece of phallus extension he just launched into my ship back? He is obviously in need of all the help he can get being so eager to display."
A raven's snort was a bizarre one, but that was nonetheless what escaped the familiar's beak as his stately master thought his opposition so ludicrous as to target them with dick jokes.
"Do I need to provide a room for yourself and Hax?" he went on, now eyeing the showy sellsword with a tired gaze. "Or will you drop your trousers to compare right here? Although if you're attempting to compensate with a dagger, you must have started off with a very cruel handicap indeed... Now then." The dark eyes shifted back to the commander. "What did I just say? No ceremony. An Egorian negotiator offering to speak with you openly and honestly is a rare opportunity. Do not squander it. I enjoy my games, Mr Decius, but your board has no pieces. There is no fun for me to be had. So understand this: my preference for 'propping up' Jireen is precisely due to this precluding the need for blades. No change in regime means no disaffected masses. No disaffected masses means no need to win them over in the first place. Do you see?"
How tiring, having to explain simplicity itself to a brutish warmonger when peace was his purpose and vocation. "You're looking for me to upend the whole town whereas the truth is that I wish to preserve Dekarium exactly as is. I want the experienced administrator loved by her people. I want the capable commander and his band of brave volunteers. I want the quaint settlement, culturally distinct, but nevertheless staunch ally to the crown. I have no intention of corrupting or subverting a thing about Dekarium. Nothing but this: I wish to make the vision described a reality. Because Dekarium is a city of liars and I am the most honest man walking its streets. In truth the administrator is at her wits' end. In truth the commander is a deserter. In truth the people have something rotting them from within. Dekarium is a mirage, every aspect of it false. It is my wish to fix it - to make the image projected real - to make an honest town out of it. Do you see? There is no revolution if the deception already accepted is turned into reality."
Dekarium was already pretending at being a stable settlement loyal to Cheliax. Why not utilize this? His revolution would be a quiet thing, Novox's true victory laying in making what was false true, introducing stability and loyalty where there was none. The true mark of his success would be turning the town to the crown's cause without anyone outside even noticing his influence. Dekarium would simply graduate from pretending to being.
"So what will it take, Mr Decius? Because my only offer at the moment is turning you and your men into what I and this town need you to be: war heroes, not deserters. I offer you the chance to stop pretending. An actual leadership post. The actual gratitude of a people. If you want any more than that, if you want to sack the city and rule the cinders I cannot and will not help you. I am not Dekarium's despoiler. I am its savior. The only way it survives this war is through me."
'No, no, no,' Bilbastis croaked within the wizard's mind as Novox finished his spiel with a steely gaze. 'You can't end your sermon like that. We need more dong jokes! There's so much more we could go for. Like Hax's sword being way bigger. Or the poor crab! Crabs, chief! We can workshop this!'
"Apologies for the earlier crude language, Miss Scout. I assure you I'm not normally so crass in front of a lady."
The lanky sellsword starts at Novox's words, looking surprised. The wizard gets the distinct impression not many men insult him directly to his face. He gets the idea quickly however, and pushes off the railing, hand going for the hilt of his sword, a snarl in his throat.
Hax begins moving, feet moving lightly over the still dripping deck but Decius steps forward, turning toward his enraged companion. "Krin! Not now." The deserter's voice is like a whip, with none of the honey he has been using on Novox. The wizard finds it interesting and can see how the rather imposing man has held together his unlikely band through the trials and tribulations of civil war.
For a moment Novox thinks Krin won't stop and that a fight is going to break out. The wizard idly considers if he is about to see what Hax can really do, set against a suitable rival but then the lanky man pauses. Slowly he takes a deep breath and steps back, nodding to Decius. His eyes though...they lock on Novox and make a silent promise to the wizard.
Watch your back
Decius grunts approval and says to Novox, "I would dispense with the jokes, I might not be able to stop him a second time. It will be hard to be the savior of Dekarium if Krin spatters your guts across this deck."
He shrugs then and goes on, "Very well. As I said before, I serve Cheliax and the quest for law and order. If you wish us to be loyal war heros of the Empire, then war heros we shall be." Decius nods slightly, "When does the gratitude start rolling in?"
Oh Decius, Decius, Decius. There was hope for you yet. Not in the inevitable betrayal that Novox had no doubt this acquiescence of the captain would culminate in. No, the wizard would be ready and prepared for that confrontation. But there was hope in the brief period of cooperation this agreement would ensue. Maybe, just maybe Decius would realize it was in his best interest to step in line with the wizard's vision for Dekarium in that time. In such an event the man might live to die of old age, a luxury for any soldier. Or at the very least to die fighting for a decent cause, a greater luxury still, neither of which tended to be options for deserters.
But Novox doubted it. Oh well. He only needed him to step in line for now. No use crying over spilled blood, even Chelish one. The Egorian had a country to worry about. He couldn't be concerned with one measly soldier harboring delusions of grandeur. Those 400 men under his command, however - that was a number that mattered on a political scale. That was blood the diabolist could put to use.
"You're making the right choice," he nodded at Decius's words. "The nation won't forget this. And I will ensure that the crown doesn't either. For now, I shall speak with Jireen. I will convince her to name your band an official militia of Dekarium with you as its commander. That will set the stage for your vindication. As for your war record: one good deed may not undo a felony, but Cheliax's legal system is vast and... modular. I shall speak to Egorian on granting you a full pardon. Of course, such an endeavor would be made that much simpler if I could point to examples of your selfless conduct in these trying times."
'Be on your best behavior' was the implicit message here. A message the feather-clad imp wasn't ascribing to at the moment. '"A crab, really? Are your genital lice so bad that you have to lash out at any..." Nah, not punchy enough. Help me out here, chief.' The vast halls of his master's mind were at the moment acting as a workshop to Bilbastis for provoking the showy sellsword. It spoke wonders of Novox's mental acuity that he was even able to engage in diplomacy with this running through his head.
"Do we have an understanding?" he queried in reaching out a long-fingered hand. The shaking of hands was traditional in these circumstances and the Egorian was a stickler for tradition. That he was considering murdering and replacing the captain had no bearing on this; tradition was tradition.
"Oh, and Mr Decius?" he offered in a softer, more reassuring tone. "You weren't entirely wrong about my intentions, if that gives you any solace. The dissident religious forces you spoke of, the rot at Dekarium's heart... It is an obstacle I shall have to overcome. I'm gladdened to know that we share no fondness of this opponent."
The man's ego had taken a beating today. It cost Novox nothing to stroke it, and it could even pay dividends later.
Decius did not take the offered hand, instead looking down at it for a moment.
"My vindication..." The man says softly, voice barely audible above the rush of the river around the looming rock that towered over them. "A laudable goal, but one too important to leave to later affairs."
The commander looked up directly at Novox, "I want your recommendation that I am pardoned, in writing, before we begin this partnership." The man paused and nodded, "I do not, of course, insist you give it to me or send it along now. For one, I don't trust any messenger and secondly I understand that is too much to ask up front. But forgive me if I don't accept a vague promise of later assistance. Your written recommendation, now, today, before we agree."
Silence followed this, broken only by the creak of the vessel under their boots and the slow trickle of water draining out of unseen holds. Hax eyed Decius and then the boat full of soldiers. He grunted and nodded toward it, and Novox could see it was full again, making way toward them.
Novox remained cool as the captain insisted on what was obviously a ludicrous and worthless stipulation.
"That is a fair and reasonable stipulation," he said after a moment of pretend deliberation. Best to let the fool think he had won some ground with this provision. "Very well. You won't be surprised to learn that I just so happen to carry pen and paper. Would your man there please bend over?"
The request carried all the innocence of a cloistered run. "So that I might write on his back," the wizard clarified. "Every other surface here is wet. The paper, you see..."
'Admit it. You're enjoying emasculating this idiot.' Maybe he was.
Decius can refuse. I'll just write on Hax's back if necessary.
"Now then. Full name?" the Egorian queried upon unfurling a scroll, sounding for all the world like a professional clerk. Which wasn't entirely untrue. He had apprenticed under a diabolist at a young age, after all. Acting as scribe had been part of the job. "And your previous rank and division, if you would. Forgive me, but if this has to be done then I rather it be done right. On which topic, what is the exact nature of the crime I am to recommend your pardon? In your own words."
Novox had no qualms about jotting down a promise that no one was going to see. Decius wasn't getting the page and he himself had no intention of sending it to the capital, so he failed to see the harm in appeasing the man. Indeed, he used the opportunity to draw more information out of the commander. Had his crime been as minor as desertion? Or was there something more at play here, something he could perhaps hold over the man's head at some point?
Was about to turn the man down before I noticed I actually have a scrivener's kit.
"I trust this wording is acceptable, Mr Decius," Novox said upon finishing the little document, it being a recommendation to the Chelish war council (what remained of it) to pardon the deserter Decius. In truth, however, his eye was more so on the approaching vessel. He nodded back at the mercenary. Then, in full view of everyone present, he retrieved a small vial from an inner pocket.
'Imp. Fly this over to Hax,' he transmitted to the familiar, holding up the flask to the bird's talon.
'Eh? What did I miss? What's up? What's with the, uhm...' The tiny devil combed his recollection for where he had seen the potion before. Right, the Asmodean church basement. '... the elixir of fire resistance?'
'Because if Decius moves to betray us, I intend to firebomb this entire deck and everyone on it.'
It was a chortling raven that flapped the short distance from the Egorian to the Rahadoumi. "Now then," Novox said in that very civil tone of his that marked him at his most dangerous. "Will that be all, Mr Decius? I have somewhere I need to be. As do you, stalwart defender of Dekarium."
Decius raises an eyebrow at Novox's request for the mans back and turns to Krin, 'What do you say? Want to go over there and help him?"
The armed man scowls, "Only if you want help seeing what his insides look like."
'I wouldn't insist, Novox. For your own safety, you understand." Decius says easily, "Krin has a nasty temper, or so I am told."
"Decius Malco Axillusus" Decius said, eyeing Novox's quickly writing hand. "The rank and unit well....Let us just say, it would raise more questions then answers. And for my crime..." Decius's face twitched slightly as if with remembered pain and Novox saw his gloved hands clench, involuntarily. "Refusal of carrying out an ordered duty. Dereliction, if you must. The details are not important, Master Narsus. You and I both know the legalities will be over looked, if the right name signs the documents."
The renegade army commander watches Novox hand the small vial to the seeming bird without comment, but he clearly comes to the correct conclusion.
"That is all. So we are in agreement?" Decius says, tearing his gaze from the signed bit of paper in Novox's hands. "Shall I await your orders then? What should I tell my men, anything?"
"You may tell them whatever you deem necessary, Mr Decius. You are their commander."
'Shall I await your orders'? Oh me, oh my, it couldn't be, could it? Was this the good commander attempting to beguile his new collaborator? Was he trying to appeal to his vanity? Novox would have been insulted at the attempt if hadn't been so obvious and amateurish as to be adorable. Social manipulation was his game. The captain couldn't have been any more outclassed if he stepped up to a master swordsman armed with a wet stalk of wheat. Or the imp in the bedchamber of a cloud giant matriarch.
'Ey, you really are in a catty mood, aren't you?' the none too hurt familiar replied to his master's thoughts. But still - assuming this really was the case, that Decius really was trying to maneuver his better, there was little to gain from bringing attention to it. Let him try. Better yet, let him believe his efforts were bearing fruit. It would make any future treachery of his that much more obvious. And render him blind to the wizard's own inevitable betrayal.
"Once I prompt Jireen to grant you and your band greater privileges in town, you will hear quickly enough. You could tell your men to expect better circumstances, if you must say anything. I intend to have your role as Dekarium's defenders recognized. I imagine they'll be pleased at that."
Bilbastis was grinning. Bilbastis was sitting on his master's shoulder and he had been grinning for the last three-odd minutes straight. He was smug about something. Novox knew this, he could feel it in the fiend's slippery little mind. And he knew that the Bill knew that he knew. Such was the nature of their bond. The imp was goading him, trying to make him angry. But Novox wasn't biting. No, to acknowledge that the familiar was capable of annoying him, that he had any effect on him whatsoever, was a losing condition of this game they played. So he said nothing. Which only increased the tension. Which only made him more annoyed. Which Bilbastis knew. And Novox knew that he knew. Bah!
"So what's this artery called again?" the devil asked innocently, breaking his own silence. The hold was dark, illuminated only by the wizard's cantrip. The two were standing in front of the cadaver that had once been the gillman priest, with Novox holding a slowly filling waterskin to this ex-person's thigh; he had made a small incision there. The blood was flowing from it steadily, as it should. Gravity had had time to gather it in the lower half of the corpse since the Egorian had left it here, upright.
"I never told you what this artery is named, imp," he replied coolly, dismissively. And with no small hint of the irritation he was otherwise trying to hide.
"That's interesting. That's real interesting." The smugness was exceeding that of a cat having just relived itself in your best shoes. "You know what else's interesting?" the fiend immediately went on. It was ironic that the immortal's patience was lesser than that of his mortal master. "The supposed paragon of humanity butchering another of his kind to collect his damn effluvia. The poor bastard's literally hanging off the wall!" he laughed. "Like slaughtered cattle. And 'the greatest man since Aroden' is harvesting his meat. For the express purpose of literally consuming his blood. For just a smidgen more power. In his quest to uplift all of humankind. Paragon of humanity, everybody! Not for nothing, chief, but I think hypocrisy might be my favorite sin."
A dismissive puff escaped the diabolist's straight nose. Was that all the imp was getting worked up over? The growing irritation faded at once. Of course the idiot outsider did not understand. There was nothing hypocritical in him draining the gillman for blood. On the contrary, it was entirely accordant with the ideas that indeed made him the greatest human to walk this earth since Aroden. He wasn't harvesting this poor sap for blood; he was harvesting him for what was in the blood. Magic. Divine magic, at that. And Narsus Novox wasn't just willing to take that for his own, he was practically giddy at the thought. Robbing the gods and their servants of their undeserved power was a pleasure. Deities - pah! Supercilious men in the sky who thought themselves superior to the mortals scurrying below, superior to him. They robbed humankind of its agency, its destiny, constantly vying to twist and transform humanity to their own agendas. Unacceptable. Humanity could never reach its grand destiny until it stepped out of the shadow of these giants. The parent had to die so that the child could stand on its own feet. Just as Novox parents had had to die. Just as Cheliax could never be perfect before it rid itself of its infernal supposed ally. This was what the Thrunes had never understood; that the devils were not a strength, but rather a crutch. That they had to be subjugated, not bartered with.
Well, not in Novox's Cheliax. This civil war was the opportunity meant for him. Cheliax would come out of this war a new nation, a better nation, shaped by his hand. His bloodstained hand, clammy with cold blood. The Egorian looked to his red arms and smirked. That would do; the waterskin was half full. Plugging it proved a bit tricky with his fingers so slick. But while he was no mighty warrior like Hax or Decius, staining his hands with divine blood was always a pleasure. How good that so much more of it was due to flow.
The imp was annoyed and disappointed in equal measure that his master cared so little for his taunts as to not even answer. Two cantrips later a clean wizard left the grey corpse behind to inspect the cargo hold. Never-melting ice was a curious substance, after all, one Novox was eager to survey. Where had it come from? How did it maintain itself? How might it be applied? These were relevant questions, and not just to sate the man's burning curiosity.
Checking out the ice with Detect Magic and stuff during the journey. Should this all be take 10s perhaps?
Perception: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (8) + 11 = 19 To see whether there's anything to see.
Knowledge (arcana): 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (8) + 15 = 23 To know whether it is magical.
Knowledge (planes): 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (13) + 15 = 28 Does it come from a different plane?
Hax rigged the small smuggler vessel to set sail, and Novox noticed he seemed to know his way around ships, at least a little. Without a mast there was little he could do, but he at least rigged the rudder to sail straight down the river.
"Without a crew we can't bring her into a dock." Hax said, eyeing the river. "Best we can do is beach her near the city. She is salvage anyway, right? I'll do my best not to tear her bottom out, but no promises."
As he prepares Novox sees Decius's little rowboat heading back, and wonders if there is some twist int he tail, some final petty betrayal. Then the wizard notices the lack of the captian commander. Instead of the tall robed renege at prow, there sits a hunched robed figure wearing a leather mask.
Ah, Diseo. So easily forgotten in the excitement of events.
A few soldiers dump him off on the resurrected smuggler vessel without ceremony but a few catcalls. The cleric remains stoic, face hidden and unreadable but there is a slump in his shoulders and a slight tremble in his step.
"Aah, they hurt his feelings!" Bill crows (quite literally), in Novox's ears. "Also, forget what I said earlier, about hypocrisy being your greatest sin. I think I enjoy unnecessary cruelty that serves no aim."
Diseo, without a word, takes up a seat amidships, out of everyone's way.
Slowly the ship starts to make way, being more pushed by the river's current then anything else. Still, the prow faces downstream so Novox figures Hax must be doing something right. Instead of wasting his time watching forest drift past, the wizard heads below to inspect the interesting cargo. The hold below is frigid cold, and the glitter of frozen rime glints off the walls as approaches. The entire area is littering with chunks of solid ice, some the size of bricks but most larger then a man. Instead of translucent cubes, they are frosted white, gritty to the touch.
The pooled riverwater around them is already hardening, and Novox's boots crunch as he walks around the blocks.
Novox is no expert but he quickly ascertains that is is normal ice but heavily enchanted to remain frozen at normal temperatures and perhaps beyond. He finds no maker's marks, but guesses it is of dwarven origin, he has read of such things. Valuable items and, due to being magical, subject to steep Cheliax tariffs. Before the war, this load would have made a crew's living for a decade.
Looking closer, and running his hand along the pitted surface, Novox suddenly recalls a book he read once. The frosted surface, the blocky edges, the distinct tangle of magic...much of this ice was destined to be a construct. These were golem parts!
Anything else? I'd have posted more but I wanted to know if you were fine with Hax's plan to beach her or if you had another scheme
"That'll do, Hax. That'll do."
Frost was still caking the Egorian's boots as he stepped back on to the sunlit deck. Yes, beaching the vessel outside the city was preferable to a proper docking regardless. It allowed Undershale some limited privacy in picking up his cargo. And on that note: "Imp, ascend and fly ahead of us. Reefs are more easily spotted from above. Warn us if necessary, but scout for a sandbank somewhere near town. Once an appropriate location has been found, you are to go to Undershale's forge. Inform him as to where he may meet us."
"Can do, chief. Been a bit since I stretched my wings anyway." The raven that was not a raven alighted from its master's shoulder with minimal fuss. The river journey was set to be a dull one, after all. The image of peoples' faces in seeing a raven soar over the Tomarsulk whilst croaking sea shanties, however, was not. And so it was that Decius and everyone else on or indeed just near the river were treated to an off-key performance by a gruff voiced bird somewhere far above.
"What will we do with a drunken sailor?
What will we do with a drunken sailor?
Shave his belly with a rusty razor.
Early in the morning.
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises..."
Novox had to wonder in watching his familiar disappear among the treetops. Sea shanties? Where was the devil learning this stuff? Then again, the fact that most outsiders didn't sleep was one that had plagued him early in their relationship. He could order the fiend to stay put during the night hours, but then again devils were masters in circumnavigating the rigors of both the written and spoken word. Who was to say what the mouse was doing while the cat slept? Certainly not the cat. It had at one point driven him to a state of paranoia, not knowing what the monster out after his soul was doing at all times. He was all better now, of course. He was confident that Bilbastis couldn't outsmart him or his carefully worded contract. But one still wondered.
A more pressing subject of speculation was the enchanted ice. So Undershale was planning to construct an ice golem? How curious. This was a powerful tool, though not one particularly dangerous to himself. He had the means to subdue such a device should it ever be turned on him. As such Novox had little hesitation in surrendering the cargo to the dwarf. "Mutually beneficial to our goals," eh? This was how the smith had described the haul. Did he merely mean to lend the wizard ownership of the construct? Or did he have something more concrete in mind? Questions soon to be answered. For now he stood at the ship's bow in contemplation, proud, austere and dignified as any figurehead.
The passage downriver is slow going, and Novox is forced to spend a considerable amount of his valuable time watching trees drift past at a snail's pace. With only one crew member, Hax plays it safe and simply lets the river's current carry them away. He had little choice anyway, with mast long-gone and no way to row the ungainly smuggler vessel.
The landscape around the river is that of civilization gone to seed. Small-hold farms dot the river-side, stone cottages hacked out of the forest surrounded by small farms. A few have small wooden jettys, sticking out in the stream. Everything is dark and cold however, covered by a spring's growth of weeds. The civil war has made such isolated homes unsafe, clearly everyone was packing inside Dekarium proper. Seeing all the wasted land made Novox feel the weight of the as yet distant conflict. The damage it was doing to Cheliax was profound and would last many years, even in relatively isolated towns such as this.
The sun is just starting to head westward, when they round a final bend in the river and come into full view of the town. Upstream from the many docks of Dekarium, Novox spots a crowd of people at a shallow, muddy riverbank. As they drift closer the figures coalesce into recognizable shape and the wizard spots the stout shape of Undershale, as well as his hunch-backed guard/overseer Grimm. Along with them are over a dozen men, presumably workers from the forges here to un-load the cargo.
"Brace yourself." Hax says, when Novox indicates the small group. "This may get rough." With that the former gladiator heaves on the tiller and sets the smuggling vessel on a direct course with the sandy shore.
Novox finds a seat and braces himself between the raised gunwales of the boat and the stump of the mast. Unable to see the shore now, he can only hear the water rushing around the hull below, and the sky titling as they change course. The rushing water grows louder and Hax's muscle visibly flex as he drives the ship across the powerful current.
Then there is a loud crunching sound as the ship slams into the sandy beach, and throws up a huge gout of foaming water. The impact jaws Novox loose and throws him onto the deck, luckily out of sight of anyone but Hax who is far too busy trying to keep the beached ship upright to comment. The grinding noise of wood on sand continues as the momentum pushes the ship hard ashore. The ships slows and then finally comes to a stop, still sitting on her keel.
Hax grins and pats the tiller. "A good ship to the end. I thought she would throw us there, for a moment." he glances over at Novox and says, in a mockery of a rustic Chelish accent, "All ashore that's going ashore!"
For a brief moment he wondered if Hax and Bill were coordinating their 'comedy' routines.