Rasennan Summer

88 - A Well-Stirred Pot
A brief pause to catch one's breath before things boil over.

“You realize that if you make Ettorio do that, his wife will parboil him?”
“Of course!” — Vestiri Iluni & Vittorio Marvigliozzo

With angry Miriadis and the Prince’s men certainly looking for them topside, the blades settle in to hide for a time in Garganta’s underpassages. Ettorio, by virtue of his superior stealth skills, is the one to head up to find his cousin. The others have a tense, long wait before a solitary halfling in dark livery arrives at their hiding place. The halfling has the group follow up through a series of passages, until eventually they emerge.

The blades find themselves in the crowded back room of a textile and clothing merchant, part of a large enclosed ragmarket. Apart from the piled goods, the room also contains a man dressed in flamboyant yellow attire, a second halfling with with a similar black-and-white livery to their guide, and a gnoll bodyguard in a yellow cravat. The man in yellow introduces himself with Vestiri’s voice — as “Cravino D’Ambergia,” complete with his attendants “Salt,” “Pepper” and “Mustard.”

Vestiri explains the convenient cover D’Ambergia eccentricity provides. He mentions that Ettorio is still out, busy exploring his potential shadowy connections. The Prince’s spymaster Helsperia does indeed have an interest in the group, and Vestiri identifies the agent charged with their location as one Nivrotto. However, the ragmarket owner Ot is no admirer of the Prince, and with an even lower opinion of Nivrotto. Vestiri thus reassures the group that Ot will make sure Helsperia’s eyes and ears don’t reach down their hiding hole.

A new set of disguises seems to be in order. The clothes are easy enough to procure, with the resources of the ragmarket. Vestiri also produces a comb and brush with minor enchantments; the comb changes the color of hair, and the brush lengthens it. He coordinates an outlander look for Vesper with longer red braids, a more Khavayish appearance for Vittorio (concealing the remaining horn under a turban), and crops off Kosvach’s hair to make him look more like a traditional Rasennan blade-for-hire.

With everyone properly disguised, Vestiri leads the group to an inn both he and Vittorio trust, the Clarion Call. They take the opportunity to clean up, particularly Vittorio’s wounds. Carenza goes out to organize the Ladies and make sure the cask gets moved to a safer location.

Vesper, Vittorio and Vestiri remain to plot their next move. Exposing the Miriadis would be ideal, if it can be done before enough witnesses. Vestiri suspects the Prince will throw a celebration once the Miriadis “recognize” his son as a mage — which unfortunately means letting Rofogarre go through with the infernal pledge. Less useful but perhaps equally critical, Fabria is sure to come under suspicion for her part in Vittorio’s escape. Extracting her would be useful but dangerous work. They consider Ettorio as a possible seductive sop to throw out as a distraction for Vittorio’s devilish ex-paramour or Helsperia, and don’t discard the idea entirely. The three discuss the options further as they wait for Ettorio and Carenza to return.

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87 - Devil By the Horns
The blades find their missing devil, but complications ensue.

“And then the street hit me. When I wasn’t looking. So I left.” —Ettorio Iluni

Somewhere in Garganta, Vittorio sags to the floor. A voice rich with mock kindness says “Rest for a while, and regain your strength.” She speaks to the other person in the room, then. “I’ll be out for the evening. Take an hour’s respite.”

Vittorio is alone in the room for minutes, and then a nervous young woman slips quietly through the doorway. Fabria Miriadis kneels beside him and offers him assistance. She takes out the materials for a sending, and asks Vittorio to name one of his friends.

In the Colosseum, Vesper, “Oirotte” and “Marcazo” are explaining themselves to Spadio Ironskin. Vesper tells him the story of the Vycalaca, beginning with their encounter in Ladona, and how the vampires are tied both with the Miriadis and possibly with the Prince. When the arena-master asks why they’re telling him all this, Vesper says “Because you are one of the few honest men in this city.”

As she continues with the story, a brass dragonfly descends from the sky, and whispers something in her ear. Its message delivered, it fades and dissolves into nothing.

-V,
Taken captive by the demons of my past. Enduring dire circumstance. Chimney, Smokebelcher Corner, Armory. Require assistance, arrive prepared. Eternally, V.

Vesper completes her appraisal of the situation to Spadio as Kosvach returns from his fruitless pursuit of Lestrata. Then the group gathers and sets out to find Vittorio. They use a coach, depart it quickly, then take a second coach to Smokebelcher Corner in order to lose any spies.

Smokebelcher Corner turns out to be a block built into a structure with a particularly prominent chimney. The chimney itself is large enough to be a tower, and at first glance it seems likely that the locals have converted it as they have so many other giantish structures. Upon investigation, they find several entrances into the chimney, but only one — on the highest floor of the block, in a carpentry shop that sees little business — is flanked by a pair of seemingly nonchalant men playing dice. The two look like mercenaries in plain clothes to the group. They resolve to wait until the carpentry shop closes, then make their entrance.

That evening, they break in. Ettorio lures one of the guards away with a thrown chisel, and when the sentinel straps on a barbed shield, Vesper stresses that they’re surely Miriadis — former Thornshields, folded into the house with their company. Ettorio neatly assassinates the guard that remains by the door, poses him accordingly, and when his companion gives up and returns to the post, it’s a moment’s work to finish him as well.

The blades let themselves into the tower. They enter a storage space, and pass up some stairs to a set of disused apartments. Ettorio scouts up the next staircase, where some light and noise comes from a nearby doorway. Then everyone hears a scream — one that matches Vittorio’s baritone — amid the sound of splintering wood. They charge up the stairs and into the room.

There, Vittorio is kneeling in the center of a thaumaturgical circle, a brazier and a table of well-maintained tools nearby. The devilish troubadour shows several marks of torture, such as one of his horns sawed down to the quick. But worst of all, his hands are smashed, resting among the splinters and strings of his violin and bow. A burly man stands over him, clearly the tormentor in question.

The sight of Vittorio’s abuse does not stir compassion or diplomacy in the blades. They rush the torturer, knocking him off-balance, hurling him into the brazier, and smashing him to the ground with his face on the coals before they finish him off. Then Vesper turns her attention to the circle, and deduces how to break it and free their diabolical ally. Carenza encourages Vittorio as best she can, and some of the strength returns to him.

Before they leave, Vittorio moves to the wall and opens the secret door he’d watched “Donatessa” use. He goes into the small room beyond, collecting a pair of gloves, a conductor’s wand, and a flute — noting as he goes how much he hates woodwinds. As he struggles to pull the gloves on over his maimed hands, Vesper takes the spangly and revealing dress off its hanger and throws it on the brazier.

When Vittorio leaves the room with the ensorcelled objects, though, the brass bull’s head on the brazier bellows an alarm. The group decides on the better part of valor, and flees the chimney-tower at top speed. Once free of Smokebelcher Corner, they pile into the underground, with far too much haste for the local passerby to fail to notice them.

There’s plenty of room to hide in the Gargantan underground, though. The group holes up in a dry spot and plans their next move. Vesper is inclined to seek out the aid of Tacitarus Verastin, but getting an undisguised Vittorio past the Citadel district’s security would be challenging at the very least. Ettorio is dispatched to Donatessa’s house, to gather information and perhaps retrieve the glamored cap of disguise formerly owned by Iridios.

Vesper sends Kosvach aboveground to see if the warehouse where the Cenotic Cask is stored is being watched. He vanishes for a time. Then a body comes tumbling down into the sewer, with Kos appearing after it. He confirms that a watcher found the warehouse. A perturbed Vesper contemplates how best to move the artifact.

Ettorio finds that there are lights on at Donatessa’s house. He sneaks in the bedroom via a “suitor’s window,” and hears the sounds of light conversation from the parlor. His first impulse is to search to see if Vittorio’s hat is anywhere nearby. He does find a clothing-chest with an ornate lock, and what seems to be some sort of arcane ward carved into its lid. He does his best to disarm the ward, but fails — and pain runs through him like an hour’s torture in an instant. The Iluni can’t bite it back, and he cries out.

Fortunately, the pain doesn’t immobilize Ettorio. He leaps out the window, but he’s not at his best, and he lands badly on the street. He rolls to his feet as best as possible and dashes for the shadows. Glancing back at the window, he sees Donatessa and a saturnine gentleman looking out. If they spot the Iluni rogue, they don’t give any sign.

Ettorio regroups with the other fugitives, and delivers the bad news. Vesper surmises that Donatessa’s guess is likely Rofogarre Miriadis. They survey the situation, and decide on their next move.

“We need to contact Vestiri.”

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86 - The Noonday Duel
Carenza faces more than she bargained for -- and so does Ludovir Vycalaca.

VAMPIRE!” — “Marcasso”, and others

Dawn comes on the day of the duel. Ettorio awakens to find a note left for him:

Cousin —

In your many escapades, do keep watch for watchers. Helsperia has set an underling by name of Nivrotto to the task of investigating some bloody business in the catacombs. It would be fair to say he suspects Sespechs. Do keep your throats uncut.

—Your Mysterious Benefactor

At the habitual breakfast planning session, he brings up the note to the group. Vesper is somewhat perturbed that the Sespech are mentioned, but with the capture of the Cenotic Cask, it likely can’t be helped. The group decides that Ettorio will play the role of Marcasso’s second.

Vesper and Kosvach go to Invista that morning, to make sure that the Kaelite is well-positioned to enact the ritual safely. Along the way, Kosvach notices the two are being shadowed. They resolve to split up. Vesper’s early life as a poor urban child positions her nicely to evade her pursuer with a variety of street-level gambits. After having successfully lost her tail, she heads for the colosseum.

Carenza decides to scatter her Ladies through the crowd at the duel. She prompts them to be ready to cause a ruckus when Ludovir is revealed, so that there’s even less chance of him failing to be unmasked.

Another potion, and Marcasso returns for a few hours. The two of them arrive half an hour before the duel, as expected. The other party is there as well — “Larettio” has apparently chosen the young rake Velanter Carfineri as his second. Velanter seems quite proud to have earned the dashing blade’s trust, though he also seems a touch pale and distracted. The two parties exchange a few sneers, and then the arena master Spadio Ironskin and a legal witness formalize the duel’s conditions. Neither party will be reconciled, and then it’s simply a matter of time before it begins.

The arena skirmish playing out prior to the duel is a complicated team affair, with both sides using bola-like ball-and-rope weapons to entangle and stun one another. When it ends, the duelists are directed toward a platform with four large and dangerous-looking quintains at its corners. With just a few minutes until noon, Kosvach and Invista have yet to reveal themselves. Vesper spies Lestrata, however — “Lachrysia” sits under a decorated parasol, watching the preliminary preparations with keen interest. Vesper slips closer to the disguised Vycalaca without being noticed.

Carenza checks the stands, but nobody’s giving her the sign that things are set. She decides to make a production of examining one another’s weapons to buy some time. It’s not very reassuring — the vampire’s slim sword seems both antique in design and in excellent condition, two signs that make her suspect it’s enchanted. With her own Uromni blade in Ettorio’s belt, it looks rather like the odds are weighted even further in Ludovir’s favor.

“Marcasso” can stall only so long. A minute past noon, the duel begins. The smirk on Larettio’s face has barely solidified before his rapier has marked Marcasso. Taken aback, the disguised Carenza immediately shifts into a defensive stance, hoping to be able to actually see the next thrust. Larettio lazily rolls the tip of his blade, clearly intending to toy with his opponent for a bit.

But his next shot is a careless one. Carenza retaliates with a well-practiced strike that throws the Vycalaca off balance. Marcasso throws a jibe toward Larettio, which sparks an angry retort. Larettio’s next offensive is a flurry of blows with comparable speed, and two of the strikes draw shallow wounds. Now deeply worried, Carenza braces herself as best as she can.

In the stands, a hand claps down on Vesper’s shoulder. She grips the hilt of Styriax as she turns, but it’s Kosvach. He nods. She looks up, and the thick clouds are beginning to churn.

Marcasso goes into a fully defensive stance. Larettio idly circles his opponent, apparently judging where to place a more painful blow.

And then the sky opens.

The sunlight pouring down immediately blisters Ludovir’s skin, and he lets out a furious and pained shriek. In the stands, Lestrata barely has time to comprehend what’s changed before Vesper speaks a phrase of accelerated aging, and her parasol disintegrates into threadbare scraps. She screams as well, to the astonishment and fear of the crowd, and to Vesper and Kosvach’s satisfaction. “Marcasso” immediately shouts “Gods! A vampire!” in tones of alarm well different form Carenza’s actual relief.

Lestrata bolts for the underworks. Ludovir runs toward Velanter, crying out for his cloak. But Ettorio races up the platform, leaps atop a quintain, kicks off as part of the same motion, and with an acrobatic vault tackles Velanter to the ground. With a curse, Ludovir changes direction to race for the tunnels below. But the arena master has already recovered from the initial shock. Spadio Ironskin draws his sword, and at his command the portcullises close and a volley of crossbow bolts flies at the still-burning vampire.

Ludovir has no choice but to change direction a second time. He still has enough speed to close on Ettorio and bite into the half-elf’s shoulder, fortifying himself with a quick swallow of blood before he darts into the shadow under the duel’s scaffolding. Ettorio is still hale enough to pursue, though, and he races into the shadow as well. He strikes Ludovir with a quick shot very near the heart, and the vampire falls, seeming to flash into a momentary torpor.

In the stands, Kosvach presses after Lestrata, but the crowd isn’t parting quickly enough. He swears an ugly oath in Lokvan as the vampire girl reaches the safety of the tunnels. Vesper chooses a different tack, fighting her way down into the arena.

Carenza bolts under the stands as well. “Marcasso” aims a shot at Ludovir along with a call to arms. Ettorio and Spadio both move almost without thinking, striking in tune with the command. Ludovir jolts back to consciousness, and a spray of poisonous Vycalaca blood touches the combatants.

Vesper reaches the brawl as well. She focuses, and the vestige of the Lucovol wolf-grim leaves her body. It takes a great effort on Ludovir’s part to fend off the attack of the avenging Vargari ghost. But he keeps on his feet all the same, and attacks all three of his close foes with another flurry of rapier strikes.

Ettorio’s response is a clever knife feint at the heart, one that Ludovir narrowly avoids. Before the vampire can assess whether or not the strike was intended to be true, Carenza calls for another strike right to the heart. Ettorio quickly moves at the disguised commander’s behest, and Ludovir’s reflexes betray him. He evades the half-elf’s stab at his heart — only to realize too late that he was maneuvered into leaping free of the shadow under the platform. With a last anguished shriek, Ludovir Vycalaca falls to his knees, and his body is at last annihilated by the light of the sun.

Marcasso and Ettorio state rather gamely that they have earned their satisfaction. The arena master regards the two, looks over at the sorceress who conjured the wolf-grim, and then says that he is going to want to talk to them.

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85.5 - An Unexpected Conversation
Ettorio discovers a new D’Ambergia friend is not what he seems.

So, do we continue to banter for a while, or can I skip right to ‘what the fuck?’” — Ettorio Iluni

With one of the Prince’s favorites dead on the floor behind them, and the covert necromantic operation in shambles, the first item of business is the logistics of hiding the Cenotic Cask. Vesper opts to rent a small storage facility on the other side of town, and asks Carenza to delegate a couple of the Ladies to keep an eye on it.

Invista also has to go into hiding. Although she’d rather stand openly with the shrine, she agrees that it would be best to lie low until the duel, to give them the best shot of exposing and possibly crippling or even killing Ludovir. She vanishes into the lower-income portions of town, claiming to have allies there.

So it’s time to rest again. With one day left before the duel, Ettorio gets back to the process of information-gathering in an attempt to locate Vittorio. Unfortunately, Donatessa Miraglia doesn’t seem to be a morning person, nor do her associates. He does discover that she has withdrawn from her recent opera, leaving her role to an understudy, claiming some form of illness.

As Ettorio is taking a break at an open-air cafe, a very eccentrically dressed person chooses the table next to him. The gentleman is dressed largely in yellow, and has either dyed half of his blond hair black or half of his black hair blond. A pair of halflings wearing black and white livery attend the gentleman, and a gnoll in warrior’s gear and a yellow cravat stands watch over him. The fellow gabbles with the server for a minute, then strikes up a sudden conversation with Ettorio and invites himself to the Iluni’s table.

“Cravino D’Ambergia,” he says in a self-satisfied tone. As the other customers turn back to their own business — perhaps aided by the level, assessing stare of the gnoll bodyguard — Cravino lowers his voice a bit. “And how are things with you, cousin?”

“Wait. What did you say?”

Looking past the blond facial hair, Ettorio recognizes Vestiri. He quietly interrogates his cousin. Vestiri claims to be in town on business, and that the D’Ambergia disguise is eccentric enough that few people even question it. The halflings — “Salt” and “Pepper” — are no ordinary servants, and the gnoll “Mustard” helps to keep people from looking too closely.

“I believe I mentioned that I did work for Prince Cortifo.”

“You did. And I was under the impression it was a singular event.”

“Did I imply that? Dear me.”

Vestiri explains that he hasn’t been in town very long, and that he’s mostly working to counter the Prince’s spymaster Helsperia. He mentions that he’s already discovered a troubling thread. He suspects that House Miriadis is building a case of infernalism to use against the group, and if they have Vittorio, he would make a fine key piece of evidence. He wishes his cousin the best of luck, and then gathers Salt, Pepper and Mustard and departs. Ettorio returns to the others, and informs them of the new wrinkle in their intrigues.

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85 - The Prince's Necromancer
The band challenges the necromantic captain and his largest work.

“Let’s kill these assholes and get out of here.”
“Some of them are already dead”.
“Let’s kill the rest of the fuckers, then.” — Carenza Vega and Vesper Sespech

The captive in the cage is a woman with some gray in her dirty blonde hair, a bit weathered though still youngish. She admits to being the brightfalcon Invista, but is at first wary of the people who burst in and cut apart her captor.

“Well,” says Ettorio, “I am the one opening this door, so consider that.”

She does, and her suspicions ease. She explains that her vestments and tools of the faith are likely in Voratio’s workspace. The blades assure her that they aren’t leaving without the Sespech artifact, and therefore they’ll help her retrieve her belongings along the way.

They aren’t very quiet as they approach the massive crypt where Voratio works. Apparently the sound carries through the vaults, as the necromancer is alert as they enter. He stands on a scaffold, the giant skeleton raising itself to its full sixteen, and demands that the intruders declare themselves.

“We’re here for the cask!” says Carenza.

“It’s not yours,” adds Vesper.

“But it is,” replies Voratio. “It was a gift.”

Carneza scoffs. “Well, we’re going to take it.”

Voratio’s smile is thin. “I have more swords at my disposal,” he says, and the skeletal soldiers around the crypt draw their weapons.

“Ours are better.”

Voratio extends a carven ebony rod toward Carenza, and a withering bolt of darkness arcs out at her. The giant skeleton swings into action, and the skeletal soldiers come rushing in from all corners. The bone colossus’ strikes are wide and overpowering, injuring some of the blades and smashing apart a few of its skeletal allies at the same time.

Ettorio leaps atop the leaden cask and throws down a smoke bomb. He uses the smoke as an opening to dash past the skeletons, nimbly vaulting up onto the scaffolding and striking Voratio with the pommel of his dagger. The necromancer drops, momentarily stunned. As the skeletons close in on him, the Iluni manages to distract them with a remarkable impersonation of the graverobber-captain’s voice.

Kosvach plows into the leg of the skeleton in a vain attempt to topple the thing. He then works at keeping its attention, while Carenza directs the flow of battle. Vesper keens with her banshee’s voice, then falls back to use her supernatural gaze of condemnation.

As the brawl intensifies, Carenza exposes a weak spot on the immense skeleton’s construction. She coordinates a succession of attacks. The huge undead stumbles and comes crashing down, splintering more of the human skeleton soldiers under its bulk. Ettorio dives in to carve into it, leaving Voratio to recover his senses but doing considerable damage. He exposes himself to more of the bone soldiers’ attacks, though, and is rather ragged before long.

Carenza finally strikes a final blow, breaking the animation and bringing the giant bones raining down. Vesper shifts her attention to Voratio, and produces her hand-mirror. The medusa’s face swims up at her bidding, though Voratio manages to elude its gaze. The captain reads the odds, and decides to leap free. He lands badly, and gestures from his prone position. Bones erupt from between the cobblestones, shifting together into a jagged wall to cover his flight. Kosvach immediately begins hacking a way through, followed by Carenza.

Voratio gets up and flees, yelling for assistance. But he takes a grazing crossbow bolt from Ettorio, and another of Vesper’s phantasmal attacks before he’s out in the corridors. The group moves into pursuit, some tracking him, some attempting to outmaneuver him. He’s finally flushed from a hiding place under some scaffolding when Carenza barrels past. As he races for safety, Vesper pronounces the words of unmaking, and the joints of the scaffold corrode away in an instant. The structure comes crashing down on Voratio, with the corner of a heavy board punching through his skull.

They quickly search his body, taking a few bits of jewelry, the ebony flensing rod carved with skulls and beetles, and his ritual book. In the book they find a letter, carefully folded.

Master Voratio:

We are most impressed with your ability to make use of the Cenotic Cask. You are proving yourself most invaluable to your Prince. He may well elevate you beyond your captaincy, perhaps to the dismay of M. Azilro.

However, if you are interested in a less temporal — and perhaps less limited — opportunity, we would ask you to consider our House. We would be delighted to transfer the Cask permanently to your stewardship. And, of course, as we lack any practitioners at your level within your Art, the Onyx Seat stands open at present. Consider it.

—R.

With little time to spare, the group makes sure that Invista has her belongings. They place the Cenotic Cask in a wheelbarrow, and Vesper conjures a minor spirit to move it. They then make for the rendezvous with Vanst, and from there to the surface.

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84 - Daggers and the Dead
The blades pick off the stragglers in Voratio’s corpse works.

“No, I can get it out of here. That’s not a problem. But where do I hide it until I need to move it home?”
“That is a problem for future you.” — Vesper Sespech & Ettorio Iluni

The catacombs beneath Garganta are, like the rest of the city, built up within the cavernous spaces of giant architecture. But in some portions there has been less work. The “corpse works,” as Vanst called them, lie in a section of crypts that have not yet been claimed in earnest. The stone vaults are emptier and the echoes of footfalls more distinct. But it’s clear others work here. Scaffolding runs around some walls and occupies a few mausoleums. Lanterns hang at periodic intervals, providing clearly lit if shadowy paths through the area.

Ettorio excuses himself from the colleagues and slips into the patches of gloom. He scouts around the occupied catacombs. The activity he finds is at a low ebb — the necromancer’s helpmates are apparently largely diurnal. A few converted crypts boast scaffolding built around the central giantish biers, with skeletons standing at immobile attention.

One of the larger crypts, though, stands out. The wooden construction surrounds a particularly sizable sarcophagus, and laid out atop it is a giant’s skeleton. The living man working here wears a uniform that appears similar to that of the Prince’s captains, though in darker colors and with a distinct skull badge. Also of note, an odd leaden cask has been set in the open portion of the room, with metal rods extending out from under it and bending at 90-degree angles, something like lightning rods. The cask is marked with strange glyphs that Ettorio doesn’t understand, but he memorizes the best description he can and returns to the group.

Vesper recognizes the leaden cask by its description. The original Sespech the Shadowed, founder of her house, used such a cask to gather the animating force of the dead. If this is Sespech’s relic and not simply a cunning replica, then it explains much about how Voratio is able to animate and command undead soldiers beyond what one would expect. Vesper immediately resolves that they need to steal the cask back, though she is somewhat short on the specifics of how.

Ettorio excuses himself again, this time to go ply his… more recently acquired trade. The skeletal troops seem inactive until actively commanded, and he promptly exploits this flaw. The first necromancer may as well have been alone — Ettorio slips up and ends him with a single thrust. He rifles through the necromancer’s goods, and returns to the others with a pouch of components, a tarnished copper ring, a ritual book, and a slightly damp folded parchment holding a drawing of a generously proportioned woman.

The next stop on his agenda is a sepulcher where an apprentice necromancer is boiling corpses, presumably to peel away the flesh. (Vesper scoffs that it’s an amateur technique that softens the bones; it’s more practical to use flensers.) Ettorio first distracts the guard with a thrown pebble, then diving down on him from a scaffold to put him to rest. The apprentice is summarily dispatched thereafter, and Ettorio takes him by the heels and pitches him into the pot as a flourish.

The Iluni assassin pauses at the third occupied satellite crypt. The necromancer within is using a bone rod to direct the movements of a well-armored skeleton. The undead soldier’s practice strikes are quick and decisive, and Ettorio decides it’s best not to engage this duo (and likely the other, lesser skeletons at attention around the tomb) alone. He returns to collect Vesper, Carnenza and Kosvach, and the four are able to assemble outside the crypt’s entrance without causing too much noise.

As a group, they rush Voratio’s prodigy. The young necromancer is nearly cut down in the initial charge, but rallies and directs his skeletal champion against the intruders. He manages to blast the party with a wave of deathly chill before they finish the job. But the skeletal hero is made of sterner stuff, and the crypt’s bone soldiers are numerous. Kosvach holds off a number, taking a score of small wounds in the process. By the time the blades have dispatched the troops, they’re battered but still full of fight. And from a cage in the corner of the room, a disheveled woman sits up and calls out to them.

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83 - Hidden Sun
A missing sun-priest hints at divine inaction and a possible way forward.

“So we deal with this, and then set up for the duel. I need a calendar for our intrigues.” — Ettorio Iluni

A messenger arrives at the Shield & Crown Inn to formalize the terms of the challenge. “Larettio” has called for a duel in the Colosseum, at midday in two days’ time. It seems the weather divinations call for heavy cloud that day. In addition, the Miriadis are set to offer the Prince’s son their “grand bargain” in three days’ time.

Vesper’s plan for dealing with the vampiric rake is to find a magic that will part the clouds. It seems most likely that the priests of the sun god Kaeal would possess such a ritual. So she and Kosvach go to the Grandtemple district, where they call on the Shrine of the Noonday Sun. However, the acolyte there tells them that Brightfather Antolio is still indisposed, and should be better recovered by the afternoon. Given that Kaealites are renowned for rising when the sun does, Vesper feels some shards of doubt at the news.

She regroups mentally and heads to call on Tacitaris Verastin in the meantime. She lays out most of her suspicions to the militant wizard, specifically that the Miriadis plan to offer an infernal bargain to the prince’s son Gorvari, and that she is absolutely certain that Cadmiro and his “guests” are Vycalaca vampires. Tacitaris grumbles that there’s little he can do without more concrete proof. He does agree to speak to his contacts and see what balls he can start rolling. Vesper asks about the disgraced Felastria, but Tacitaris is defensive about the details of his friend’s situation.

In the meantime, Carenza and Ettorio work on plots of their own. Their primary goal is to figure out a way to induce Ludovir to make a terrible, fatal mistake during the duel. His bloodthirst seems a possible option, though very dangerous to invoke. Unfortunately, the secondary plan of showering Ludovir with quarrels and spells from the stands does not seem to be feasible without serious consequences. And still the question nags them: Where is Vittorio?

Vesper returns to the Kaealite shrine after lunch. Brightfather Antolio is mobile at that point, though the bristly sun-priest is still testy. He is unwilling at first to discuss anything with her, but her diplomatic skills have seen much practice in the past few years, and she eventually wins him over. He confesses that although the ritual of opening the skies is known to the shrine, it is currently lost to them for all practical purposes — the only priest who could perform it safely is absent. After further interrogation, he finally admits that Brighthawk Invista is kept captive by the Prince’s most recent “captain,” the necromancer Voratio, in order to ensure the Kaealites’ good behavior.

Naturally Vesper offers her assistance. Antolio is leery of further endangering the captive brighthawk, but is ultimately convinced of her band’s reputation. Vesper asks for a recommendation to the Thehtites, who would logically know the most about the Gargantan catacombs. Antolio provides it, and soon Vesper and Kosvach are speaking with the ranking priestess of Theht. The death-priestess Amrisa is peculiarly young and pleasant, despite her somber bearing and rank. She agrees to provide assistance as though it had already been settled.

In the meantime, Ettorio heads to Donatessa Miraglia’s house to find Vittorio. He quickly discovers the troubadour was seen entering the opera singer’s house, but not leaving. A bit of innocuous conversation with the servants determines that they’re covering for her; they say she is indisposed but when Ettorio inevitably breaks into the upper story of the house, he finds it empty. The apartments are nicely appointed with all manner of mortal pleasures, from overstuffed furniture to exotic liqueurs. There is no real sign of Vittorio’s presence. Ettorio decides to look for arcane-seeming clues in particular, with success — he finds a faded thaumaturgical circle drawn around Donatessa’s luxurious bathtub, the water still in it.

Carenza spends some of her time spreading rumors about the duel, and backing up the existence of the fictional Marcazo. She visits the Colosseum to check the odds, which are still in the early stages of forming, but clearly favoring Larettio D’Oscura. She also evaluates the possibility of cheating in the arena, but it seems that the arena-master is one of the few honorable men in Garganta, and the crowd is known to get violent if someone cheats them out of an anticipated fight.

Vesper and Kosvach finish up their trip by dropping by Bronzarion Bascho, to inform him of the Miriadis intrigues. The Bascho seems reluctant to engage himself deeply in dangerous politics, but Vesper plants the seeds of temptation by bringing up the dissatisfaction of Fabria Miriadis and the possibility of winning access to the lightning-forge should the Miriadis be discredited.

The group reunites in the evening. Vittorio is still not present, and Ettorio brings up his suspicions. The thaumaturgical circle around the bathtub is a dangerous concern. Vesper advises that they focus for now on freeing the captive brighthawk, as the Vycalacas are a known danger with a timetable.

They depart after sunset for the Thehtite shrine. The priests of the Goddess of Death and Time are notably genial toward the blades. The high priestess, a woman who appears much younger than she should be, calmly shows the group the way into the catacombs. She also provides them with a guide who knows the passages, a large and gentle-seeming man named Vanst, whose grey cloak makes him slightly resemble a menhir.

During the walk through the catacombs, the adventurers discuss the possible resistance. They reasonably suspect that the undead could well be mobilized and guarding the location. More sobering is the thought that some of the giants’ remains might be sturdy enough to reanimate, and that Voratio is capable of such a feat. Carenza announces that it’ll probably be fine with Vesper along.

“Well, I mean, you’re Sespech. You can just wave your hand and command the undead, right?”

“I can command undead.” Vesper taps one temple with a fingertip. “But only the ones in here.”

Vanst announces that they’ve reached the edge of the occupied catacombs. He tells them he’ll wait for them there. If they’re not back in four hours, he’ll assume the worst and return.

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82 - The Vampires’ Salon
The blades-in-disguise attend a party with many enemies and much to learn.

“Are you of local repute?”
“…Yeah. I have a huge repute.” — Larettio D’Oscura & “Marcazo”

The forged invitation unfortunately fails to pass muster. The disguised Carenza and Ettorio bluster, argue, invoke “Marcazo’s” reputation (having allegedly served with the Ruby Band condotierri), make a few threats, insinuate a few things about Brassado, then turn apologetic. A bit of wheedling and bluffing does manage to plant a seed of doubt in the butler’s mind. Just as crucially, Ecaterina manages to catch Larettio’s eye, and the dashing swashbuckler instructs the guard to let the couple in.

Before too long, the majority of the guest list has arrived; the only ones missing are Donatessa and her escort, the disguised Vittorio. The newcomer guests split up and mingle, while the extra muscle stands conveniently near conversations for a little inconspicuous eavesdropping.

Ettorio chooses to attach himself (or herself) to the conversation between Larettio and Velanter. “Ecaterina” plays up the image of the young lady with an interest in dashing young men, and listens intently while projecting a sense of less than total comprehension. The two rakes discuss the finer points of swordplay, but it’s clear Larettio is mostly being tolerant rather than interested in Velanter. The most interesting tidbit of conversation is when the incognito vampire mentions a desire to fight in the Garganta colosseum, to enjoy the glory of a fight held before a cheering audience.

Vesper stations herself near the conversation between Grunestia Miriadis and Tilanna Nemedian. The Topaz Seat alchemist is easily drawn into “modest” boasting of the importance of her work, and lets slip that she’s working on Garganta’s non-functional lightning-forge. Vesper also picks up that her apprentice Fabria Miriadis seems rather unhappy with her mistress, the situation, or both.

Carenza hangs near Captain Occorro, who spends some time speaking with Patrios Divaldi. There’s talk of the Firedrakes being dispatched to the northern border. The Prince’s confessor speaks of how a faithful heart will be carried on the horns of victory, a reference Carenza misses at first. In the condotierre’s defense, she (as a he) spends a bit of time reinforcing her cover by flirting with Divaldi’s pretty and rather bored daughter Nania

When conversations end and the clusters of guests reassemble into new configurations, the disguised blades shift as well to search out new bits of information. They cross paths, reconnect, and briefly exchange information. Ettorio speaks with Carenza for a moment, in the guise of a couple reconnecting. He reveals that “Larettio” would dearly love the excuse to kill someone in the arena, and follows up by proposing that the group draw him out by inciting a duel.

“One on one?” Carenza is unimpressed. “None of us can take him in a fair fight!”

“It’s not going to be a fair fight. I’m going to cheat, he’s going to cheat, it’ll be fine.”

“Ecaterina” drifts near a conversation between Captain Occorro and Cadmiro. The two act as old associates might, though they drop not even an oblique reference to the Salon of Enigmas. Instead they talk of more social affairs, in particular an interesting note that “Larettio” is now in search of a bride.

“Marcazo” chooses to mingle with the ladies, particularly Larettio’s admirers, the fair Lachrysia, and the Miriadis apprentice. Unfortunately, the group is bereft of truly meaty discussion.

Vesper takes up position near Grunestia again, who is now speaking with Larettio. The Miriadis discusses her house business openly, mentioning that Rofogarre has brought three of his pyromancers with him. When Larettio inquires as to whether or not Prince Gorsino’s son shows promise, Grunestia says that Rofogarre will offer him “the bargain” shortly.

The evening comes to a head when Carenza and Ettorio decide to initiate their plan. After “Ecaterina” hangs on Larettio admiringly for a bit, the slurred and apparently drunk “Marcazo” grows very offended. He chastises her for flirting with another man, even raising his hand against her. When Larettio seizes his wrist, it’s with an inhumanly strong grip. “Marcazo” recoils a bit, and once released, draws himself up against the other blade.

“Satisfaction!” he shouts.

The disguised Carenza openly challenges Larettio to a duel. The vampire retains his composure, but the bloodlust is starting to flare in his eyes as he accepts. Larettio agrees to send a courier with the appointed date and time. Carenza names the Shield and Crown Inn at random, and put on a show of great anticipation.

That settled, the hired muscle is compelled to eject the quarreling couple. The disguised Kosvach and Vesper refrain from taking actual enjoyment in the action. With that, Carenza and Ettorio are set to head quickly for the inn where they are supposedly staying, arrange for quarters, and figure out how best to deal with a one-on-one duel with a duel-thirsty vampire princeling.

And still there was no sign of Vittorio.

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81 - Party Planning
The blades go to great lengths to ready themselves for a dangerous salon.

“I could be Carenza and you could be Ettorio.”
“Oh yeah, that’d be helpful.”
— Ettorio Iluni & Carenza Vega

Now that the group is resolved on mostly changing their genders in order to make the most of anonymity — with the exception of Vittorio, who can use Iridios’ headwear to take any appearance — they start planning the details. The first question is how dramatically the change will affect size and body type, and the answers aren’t obvious. “You’ll make a lovely Rovino,” Ettorio reassures Carenza all the same.

They also begin choosing aliases. Carenza decides she likes the name “Markaso”; Ettorio selects “Ecaterina.” Vittorio decides the name “Larquezo Castellano” sounds appropriately magnificent. Vesper chooses “Alisandre Vinceri,” and has to dissuade Kosvach from selecting a Lokvan name. Grumbling about the appeal of Lokvan women’s names, he eventually chooses “Morella” instead.

“Larquezo Castellano” then sets out to snare Donatessa. He first inquires about her at the shrine to Kylir. Learning that she likes to take a leisurely midday meal in a local plaza, he establishes himself at a nice eatery in the area. When she shows up, he presents himself as an effusive fan and aspiring musician in his own right, and does quite the excellent job at winning her over. She invites him to be her escort at the Zarocci party, and in the process he gets a careful look at her invitation. The two enjoy a lovely lunch, and part on just as good terms.

The rest of the group goes out to purchase new outfits for their imminent changes. They choose clothes that will fit to their best estimates, and make plans to have speedy halfling tailors make the final adjustments. Vesper goes the extra step of having her hair cut back to jawline length, dying it dark, and picking up an alchemical bronzer as well as the potions.

Ettorio gets the difficult task of forging an invitation for “Markaso and Ecaterina,” based solely on the description Vittorio gives. He completes it to Vittorio’s satisfaction, though it’s unclear how accurate the devil’s memory may be…

The next day is the day of the party. Getting Kosvach and Vesper hired as security becomes the first task. Ettorio and Vittorio take the route of introducing a rumor about the murderers from Maviolo having come to Garganta, in order to amplify security concerns. They are remarkably successful, and Dowser agrees to furnish extra security at a discount. “Alisandre” and “Morella” are deftly maneuvered as new hires, given their pedigree of swordfighting. (Alisandre is reputedly a graduate of Arisant’s school in Raspian City, while Morella’s credentials lie with the Cinquedean Iron Fang school.)

With all the errands complete, that afternoon they drink the potions. The results are somewhat variable. Vesper as Alisandre is very close in build and height to her normal form, putting her just a shade out of androgyny. Morella is similarly close to Kosvach’s usual self, making for a strapping and intimidating woman. Marcazo is a little taller and stronger than Carenza, and cuts quite the dashing figure. Ecaterina, somewhat surprisingly, comes out on the voluptuous side, with on acrobatic build somewhat obscured by more feminine curves. The miserable “Carpetta” hangs her head in shame, which unfortunately only adds to her bashful charm.

And they depart. The two “extra security” arrive half an hour early, while the others plan for various shades of fashionable lateness. The apartments are a fine two-floor affair, with a grand central room that is open to the ceiling, and half of the upper floor as much a loft as anything. Cadmiro’s butler sniffs that the extra security is highly irregular, but allows for it. Somewhat to Vesper’s consternation, Larettio D’Oscura is already present, along with his faithful ward Lachrysia.

In the process of making certain the apartments are secure, Vesper attempts searching for secret doors. She finds nothing in a casual glance, though. And soon after, some of the lower-ranking guests begin to arrive. Markaso and Ecaterina arrive at roughly the same time as Captain Occorro Drakeshand and his escort (a woman with the practiced grace of a courtesan), and they gossip in the hall with the infernalist condottiere for a bit while the butler looks over their invitation…

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80 - King of the Hill
Carenza settles a private debt with a public wargame.

“Preferably don’t kill him at all! You know, it was a mistake even asking you for help!” — Carenza Vega

While the others were engaged in their various efforts, Carenza was pursuing Cormarro Dusaam’s signet ring. She found out that the Fisher Knights were quartering in a number of inns around the Sword Forum district. It takes her a little longer to find out that Vico is part of the Black Marlin squad. That narrows it down to where the Marlins are bunking, specifically an inn called the Oxbelly.

The Oxbelly’s common room contains about half of the Marlin Legion, but Vico isn’t among them. Carenza dispatches her five girls to settle in at the bar, and talks first to an ordinary trooper, and then to a sergeant. She convinces him to fetch Vico.

Vico comes downstairs and is rather affable at seeing his old captain, if a touch wary. She explains that she needs the Dusaam signet ring to settle the last of an old debt. Vico expresses sympathy, but tells her he sold it, and he has to protect the confidentiality of the buyer.

Carenza argues the point with Vico until his lieutenant shows up — Rastari, last seen being dragged from the Life & Death’s fighting pit in Redfathom Cove. Noting that Carenza requires something of his trooper, something Vico seems unwilling to give, he offers her a chance to win it in challenge. Carenza offers money in exchange, but Rastari seems far more interested in a glorious competition in the Garganta arena. He even offers her the choice of the contest. In a strange tactical move, Carenza suggests a King of the Hill match. Rastari takes note of the other Ladies wearing her colors, and agrees to a five-on-five match.

So when Carenza returns to share information, she admits that she’s part of an arena mock combat the next day, and that she may have picked a contest that gives a strong edge to the Fisher Knights. But since the deal didn’t speculate that her Ladies had to fill out her five, they soon decide to stack the deck with the best fighters they can. Ettorio quickly signs up, and then Kosvach notes that he has relatives in town. Given the Vargari reputation for freestyle violence, the group decides to pursue the possibility.

Kosvach takes them to the Howling Sword, a rowdy-looking tavern in the Armory district. The proprietor acknowledges Kosvach and lets the group into a back room. There they meet Basilcar and Venetta Vargari, a brawler with punch-daggers and his archer wife. Once the purpose of the visit’s explained, Venetta mentions that Angisera Vargari’s also in town. The name impresses Kosvach, who explains that she’s a saint of the spear. Angisera shows up within the hour. Though she has the mousy appearance of anything but a hardened warrior, the Vargari spearwoman has as much level confidence as a spartoi. When Kosvach outlines the help that Carenza and the others have provided for the family, Angisera and Basilcar agree to join the fight.

The following morning, there’s a good turnout at the colosseum to watch the wargame. A small hill has been built in the middle of the arena, with a banner-pole at the top. The traditional rules are in play: touching the flagpole contests it. Victory goes to the team who can keep the others from contesting the banner until a set amount of time expires.

The Fisher Knights soak up a generous helping of applause as they emerge, proudly waving to the crowd. It’s clear that they’ve been stationed in town long enough for their reputation to settle in. Team Vega has no such reputation to precede them — but when Rastari gets a full look at Carenza’s team, he suddenly seems much less confident. He seems even to recognize Angisera — and he definitely recognizes Kosvach. Although rattled, he waves it away and gets his team into position.

A horn and drum beat out the start of the match. The Fisher Knights begin leaping up the hill, but Ettorio is easily the fastest. He runs right past the flagpole, down the other side, and throws a smoke bomb right into the enemy’s midst. Carenza and Angisera crest the top then, taking up positions as Ettorio races back. They form a three-person defensive wedge and brace.

Vittorio leaps up and begins a booming play-by-play from the stands. The Fisher Knights emerge from the smoke, their momentum disrupted. Kosvach and Basilcar then slam into the Knights from either flank, having ignored the top of the hill in order to move around. They successfully draw down the flankers, leaving only three to advance on the defenders at the top of the hill.

Never shy to gain attention, Ettorio climbs the banner-pole and perches on it until the enemy draws near. Then he kicks off with what might have been a very elegant dive from above. But due to some miscalculation on the part of either himself or his semi-sapient cloak of living shadow, his cape dramatically billows out at exactly the right angle to snag on the top of the pole. The snag sends Ettorio down rather more awkwardly than planned. He hits the loose earth of the hill and goes rolling down the side, further entangled in his cloak.

Fortunately for Team Vega, Carenza and Angisera are enough to hold the line. Even with a simple, lightly padded staff, Angisera strikes accurately and viciously. Her blows become even faster and more effective with Carenza’s encouragement and distraction. Rastari has to pause to consider the approach, and at that point Kosvach catches up for a rematch. From the sidelines, Vesper muses that there’s probably no reason for her husband to hold a grudge, given that he won in the pit — but Kos doesn’t seem to agree.

While the Cinquedean Vargari continues to express his dissatisfaction with encouraging non-consensual legal pit-fights, his distant cousin Basilcar has planted his knees on the shoulders of the largest Fisher Knight, and is sledding the big man downhill, throwing punches the whole time. Vico comes face-to-face with Carenza, but as he’s assessing the wisest form of attack, a newly disentangled Ettorio hits him in the kidneys from behind. The fight leaves poor Vico at once.

Carenza simply leans against the flagpole to issue commands from that point. Following her lead, Angisera quickly disables two more Fisher Knights. Ettorio pitches in to help Basilcar, dropping the largest foe, and Rastari is unable to break free from Kosvach. The time expires on the scene of a rout. The official announcer, somewhat surprised (and decidedly more surprised than the enthusiastic unofficial announcer Vittorio), announces victory for Team Vega without the other team having touched the bannerpole once.

Carenza approaches Vico, claps him on the back, and offers to take him drinking to ensure that there are no hard feelings. Vico seems chastened by the experience, and agrees. He also freely offers what he knows about the ring’s buyer — a Miriadis, name of “Rofosomething.” Carenza passes along the information before she goes off to drink. Vesper is not pleased.

That afternoon, they gather more information about the upcoming Zarocci party. Vittorio mingles with the Grandchapel crowds, and discovers that one of the guests is the opera singer Donatessa. She seems to be currently without an escort, and Vittorio muses about the possibilities.

Carenza goes to pray to Goreador, and along the way winds up speaking with the right people to find out that the party’s logistics are being overseen by a halfling broker by the name of Dowser. Once that information is passed on, it leads to a new swindle.

Ettorio and Vittorio disguise themselves as servants, and pay a visit on Master Dowser. They present themselves as servants of a “Master Opilio Chapelwood,” making inquiries on his behalf. Dowser points out that Master Chapelwood is not present on the guest list. They quietly confirm that for themselves, committing the list to memory. Ettorio complains about how “the rumors surrounding Garganta are apparently true,” solidifying the cover story of the rebuffed and undesirable social climber, before the two leave.

The list in hand, the group convenes to go over their plans for infiltrating the party the following night. As they discuss disguises and the various merits of replacing servants, Vesper adds an unexpected piece of information to the pot. Bronzarion Bascho manufactures potions that will change the sex of the imbiber for eight hours — one sure way to make themselves less recognizable.

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