APoF 14: The Shadow of Doubt
Every coin you touch is stained with blood
Holding Dr. Roth
up by the collar of his shirt, the father of the little girl demands to know how much he was paid for her assassination. He asks Dr. Roth how much her life was worth to him. Dr. Roth vehemently denies that he did anything to the little girl, even as the father drops him and he falls to his knees. The man asks him why he did it, why he even bothered saving her if he was just going to murder her at another time. Again, Dr. Roth denies any wrongdoing and says that he saved her, that he didn't kill her.
You are a liar, a thief, and an oathbreaker. A greedy little creature that no one will ever love.
The father has a few parting words before the scene shifts and Dr. Roth and the group find themselves in another place entirely. They appear to be standing in the middle of a grandiose study. On the floor is a serpentine mosaic while on the right hand wall is a fresco depicting a tussari centhiri
wielding a trident with lightning bolts shooting from the tines standing triumphantly over the body of a felled dragon.
In the middle of the room is a stone desk, with what appear to be pillars for legs with snakes wound around them. Behind the desk is a large window that lets in copious amounts of sunlight, and a view that overlooks what appears to be a cove, with crystal-clear blue waters. The air is thick with the smell of salt, and all those present can hear the sound of waves crashing against the beast just outside.
In the room, there are a few people, a handful of what appear to be thugs, as well as a stern older man with salt-and-pepper hair, an angled, heavy-set jaw, and richly tanned skin who is watching the rest of the people in the room expectantly. Kneeling by one side of the desk is a young woman, her wrists and ankles tied together, her mouth gagged, her eyes bulging, tears streaming down her cheeks. Opposite her, in a similar predicament, is a significantly older man, and two children.
The stern man turns to Dr. Roth and asks him to do his duty. Dr. Roth's body act as though it is not his own and he walks over to the older man. He hesitates for a moment, but the older man tells him to do what he has to. The old man tells Dr. Roth that he doesn't have any regrets, that he has lived a good life, but he asks that he spare the children. Dr. Roth nods and administers the poison to the old man, but looks over his shoulder and asks the stern man, Haqo'ob, whether they really have to kill the children.
This could have been so much cleaner if you had just done your job
Haqo'ob is disappointed with Dr. Roth and commands his thugs to kill the two children. Both are stabbed to death with spears while the young woman screams into her gag. Haqo'ob gives Dr. Roth a pouch of coins and tells him that just this once, he is willing to overlook Dr. Roth's failings because he likes Dr. Roth, but tells him never to question orders again.
The scene fades into darkness, while Dr. Roth pulls open the pouch and tips coins onto his palm. He finds that hey are slick red with blood. Then, the vision ends and he has to face his own reflection. The battle is drawn out, but ultimately Dr. Roth is able to overcome his reflection and break the mirror, retrieving the brown gem from within.
Standing before the blue door, IkBroknard
pulls it open and the party is drawn into his vision. He finds himself sitting at a stone table, the air filled with the smell of spices, feeling quite at home. A woman comes, Broknard's mother, and she sits beside him, setting a bowl of soup down in front of him. She tells him it's been so long since she set her sights on him, and tells him how big he's grown. She tells him to eat up, because her big man needs energy. Broknard, confused and disorientated, agrees and takes a sip of the soup.
The rest of the party however notices one of the pieces of meat flip over to reveal green skin, like that of an orc. The mother deftly flips it over again before Broknard can notice, but when Broknard goes for another sip, the piece flips over again. Instantly, the smell of spices in the air evaporates, and instead the acrid metallic tang of blood fills the air. Looking around, Broknard spots a wicker basket, soaked through with blood, containing severed limbs and body parts.
Don't say a word unless you want to join him! Don't say a word... Don't say a word! DON'T SAY A WORD!
He asks what's going on, but his mother instead stabs two bone knitting needles into the table in front of him, still slick with blood, with bits and pieces of viscera still clinging to them. His mother asks him if he wants to join his father, and tells him that if he doesn't, he shouldn't say a word. He gets up off of his seat while his mother continues to chant this, growing more and more deranged with every repetition until at long last, she leaps at him, arms outstretched, fingers like claws.
She collides with his chest and the force of the impact is enough to send Broknard falling back, tripping over his own feet. But instead of hitting solid stone, he splashes into cold saltwater. He plunges into the depths and tries to swim for the surface, but no matter how hard he tries, the surface is just
outside of his reach. He struggles and struggles and struggles, but eventually loses the strength to do so and sinks deeper into the vast and infinite stretch of water he can see around him.
As he sinks, the daylight retreats further and further away until he is in utter darkness. Eventually, his feet meet something solid, a sandy floor. He notices that he can breathe. He realizes he is no longer flailing in water. But there is no light around him. He looks around, scared, for a moment, until he sees a light in the distance. He makes his way toward it, walking, running, tripping, stumbling. Eventually, he notices that the source of the light is a lantern on a pole slung over the back of a familiar tortle shell.
He sees Steve
, the only light in this darkness, and tries to run to catch up to his friend. But no matter how hard he pushes himself, Steve is just that little bit too far. Eventually, Broknard notices that Steve is walking toward a gigantic creature in the shadows, the only part of it the gleaming teeth and glowing eyes. The mouth stretches into a grotesque grin, and the teeth part to form a cavernous maw that swallows Steve whole.
I free you from the curse! Thank you for the sacrifice... I haven't fed so well in a while... The last one ran out some time ago...
The scene shifts and Broknard finds himself standing in the middle of what appears to be an obsidian temple. In the distance he can hear the sound of squelching and crunching. He walks forward until he sees, in the darkness, a pair of glowing eyes and a wide bloody grin. The creature speaks to Broknard, laughing maniacally as a dessicated corpse, the corpse of Broknard's master drops in front of Broknard's feet.
The creature then retreats, revealing Steve's shell, the soft underplate tossed aside, the ribs cracked open, the flesh gnawed on, the cavity filled with blood and the remains of guts. The creature cackles and tells Steve that it is looking forward to the next one.
The vision dissipates and Broknard faces his own reflection, emerging triumphant, like his friends, and retrieving the blue gemstone.
Theris pulls open the purple door. The vision presented to him and the rest of the party is different in comparison to the others. They all feel as though they have been shunted from their own bodies, stripped almost wholly of their identities. They open their eyes in unison and see the same image, feel the same cool breeze wafting through a nearby open window, letting in the draft and the brilliant sunlight. They feel the same warmth on their skin, and move the same body.
They hear a quiet laugh from nearby, which sounds like a young woman. But the timbre is strange, and the voice is somewhat unclear. A lock of reddish hair enters their vision... Or is it dark? Or is it burnished gold? It's hard to tell, almost as though the image shifts every time they try to think about what color the hair is. The voice speaks again and they remember that it is probably their childhood sweetheart, though it's hard to tell.
The voice fills them with a warm nostalgia, a familiar fondness. They feel fingers on their cheek, and on their chin. They are warm, but for whatever reason, they lack a certain character. The touch isn't quite what they expect. And then the girl kisses them, and their heart races, because it's so familiar, but also so strange. The taste of her lips is there, but it is muted and like ashes on his tongue.
They open their eyes and look into her face, only to see a blank, blurry face with undefined features. They don't remember. They don't remember her lips, her face, her touch, her smile. Worst of all, they don't even remember her name. They apologize just as she begins to fade like ashes in the wind.
The scene changes and they find themselves in the middle of a grove, sitting on a stump, a white cloak draped over their shoulders. They are facing west, their eyes to an archway between the trees, with white flowers growing along its arc. They know the symbolism. They are going to the land where the dead lie, the grove of his slumber caught between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
They turn around and see that a their parents are there with them. Their mother asks if they really want to go through with this, and they respond by saying that it is their duty. Their father asks if they want to know where 'she' is. They do. Their father says that 'she' didn't want to say goodbye. They say that they understand and look up, only to find that their parents' faces are blurry, like the girl's.
Their mother says that they are proud of him, but the words ring hollow before the two, and the grove around them, fade like ashes in the wind. Afterward, they find themselves in a grand marble hall, where the walls are plastered with moving images of memories that he recognizes, but one by one they fade to black. The shine of the marble grows dull. The stone cracks. Plants pock out through gaps in the masonry. The ceiling collapses partially.
A faceless man walks out from between the columns, his build and clothing identical to theirs. The man asks them how much they really
they really remember. Then the man questions the veracity of the memories that they do have. He asks how they know that the memories are true. He asks if they have been back to the village.
They say that they haven't. The man presses on and asks them how they can know that there was even a village there in the first place. The man asks them how they know that they truly exist and aren't just some figment of another person's imagination. The man asks how they know that they were ever truly alive in the first place. To that, they say that it doesn't matter, and the scene fades, and Theris finds himself looking at his own reflection.
The party joins battle again, and Theris emerges triumphant, retrieving the purple gem from the shattered mirror.
's trial, he tells the party not to get involved, that the fight with his reflection is his alone. The group is whisked away with him when he opens his door. He finds himself transported to the shore. He can hear the sound of waves crashing on the beach and smell the salt in the air. The sun is shining overhead, but there is also a storm brewing, the sunny day giving way to an overcast one.
As Zeph watches the rolling waves, he watches pieces of driftwood come ashore. At first, it's knotted pieces of wood. Then, it's planks. Buckets. Pieces of barrels. Scraps of cloth. Rope. Eventually, bloated bodies are washing ashore. They are strangers at first, but then distant relatives, then, familiar faces.
Zeph watches a body wash ashore. It would be slightly taller than he is, were it been standing. It looks as if it is the same age as him, though the face is a bit more rugged than his. The stormy gray eyes stare dully at the sky above. It is Actaeus, one of his oldest friends. Who taught him how to dive and lure the fattest fish while spearfishing. Another body washes ashore. This time, the heavily calloused hands are the first thing that Zeph notices. The bronzed skin has turned pale in the sun, but the face is unmistakable. The blue eyes and the glossy dark hair that frame the corpse's cheeks only make the truth hurt more. It is Mesolien, who taught him how to rig a ship and steer it.
Another body washes ashore, this time a woman. She is heavily muscled, which is still apparent despite the decay. Her brilliant red hair has been dulled by the seawater, and her green eyes have taken on the dull grey of death. She is Ambriara, Mesolien's wife, who taught Zeph how to navigate by the light of the stars. A fourth body arrives. This one more delicate than the others, smaller, almost more vulnerable. This boy is Zeph's age, but he has never taken to fighting or the physical aspects of life. His fingers are delicate, and his features are soft. He has hair like Zeph's and mellow blue eyes. He is Cryseus, who taught Zeph how to cook a proper meal after his third charcoal-tasting roast.
A fifth body washes up. It is thick, muscle-bound. Its face is rugged and aged. The corpse looks almost like an elder Zeph. It has salt and pepper hair, which Zeph knows would have been slick black in the man's youth. The corpse also has the steel-grey eyes of Actaeus. It is Trigellin. The man that trained Zeph. In whose name he had taken up the maul. All these people, important to him, have washed up dead on the shore. Though they are lifeless, they all seem to turn and look at him, asking him why he left, accusing him of abandoning them.
I have never felt more alive! Coming back to raiding was the best thing that our people has ever done.
Zeph apologizes, but insists that it was the only way. Just as a sixth body emerges from the waves, only this time, it is very much alive. Thrineus. His deep green eyes flash with malice. His lean musculature ripples as he clambers out of the surf. His richly tanned face sports a thin, lopsided smirk as he walks toward the beach. He stops halfway there, the water still up to his waist. Even the motion of the waves does not make him budge. He looks at Zeph and declares that nothing makes him feel so alive as battle.
Thrineus asks if Zeph has returned to finally join him, or if Zeph is going to run away from him again. Zeph says that he didn't run away back then, and that he isn't running away this time. He surges forward, ready to attack. Thrineus summons his storm, sand rising in clouds from the depths and creating an enormous tempest of swirling, crackling dust around him. Thrineus asks if Zeph is still serving the old, weak god Renata and mocks him for following a weakling.
Zeph says that it doesn't matter and wants to attack Thrineus, but Thrineus says that he doesn't want to waste time fighting Zeph, instead saying that they should let their gods do the battling for them. Zeph reluctantly agrees, but Thrineus' god prevails and the storm that has been brewing in the heavens is dispelled. The sun returns in full force, but this time, it is not the gentle sunlight of the beach, but the pressing, harsh radiance of the desert. Zeph throws his maul at Thrineus, but it is easily caught.
Did you think it was going to be that easy? Did you really think... playtime was over?
Zeph is already in motion by the time that Thrineus lest go of the maul and is charging through the surf to get at his enemy. Only, Thrineus reacts with supernatural speed and grabs him by the back of the head. Thrineus' eyes flash green and the smile on his face turns into a savage, sadistic grin. He asks Zeph if he really thought it would be that easy, just as the ocean around them turns into a bubbling pit of poison.
Thrineus tries to push Zeph down into the poison, but Zeph resists. Thrineus' form takes on a more draconic appearance. With increased strength, he pushes Zeph down, but Zeph successfully resists again. This time, with claws digging into the back of Zeph's head, Thrineus tries to push Zeph even further down, but again Zeph resists. With leathery wings sprouting from his back, Thrineus tells him to be a good boy and drown, in a deep guttural voice. At this point, Zeph is unable to overcome his enemy, and his face is plunged into the poison.
The rest of the party bears witness as the longsword strapped to Zeph's back flashes green and moves of its own accord, stabbing through Thrineus and letting Zeph stand as Thrineus staggers backward. The image of Thrineus begins to dissolve, leaving the longsword floating in mid-air. Zeph makes to retrieve it, but the image of Nalaa materializes, sneering at the illusion that surrounds them. She cradles the longsword and looks at Zeph, unexpectedly delivering an apology to him.
She claims that what she did, she just did to prove a point: that he isn't powerful enough to take on Thrineus. She says that she didn't mean to hurt him so badly, but that she wanted him to understand that he needs more to overcome his adversary. She makes him an offer. She tells him that he need only make a deal with her, that he need only trust her, and she will give him all the power he needs to ensure that neither him nor anyone he loves or cares for will ever have to be hurt again.
Zeph declines, saying that he will get stronger of his own accord, that he would find another way to destroy Thrineus. The vision ends and the party joins combat against Zeph's reflection, which is wielding the longsword. Zeph, on the other hand, wields his maul. He manages to deal a significant amount of damage to the reflection, but it takes him down with little effort. The rest of the party leaps into action, electing to keep Zeph unconscious so that they can deal with the rest of the problem without him getting in their way.
They shatter the mirror and bring Zeph back to consciousness. He understands what has happened, and thanks his friends. He gets up and grabs the green gem, but as he walks away, he drops the maul and doesn't look back. He doesn't take it back, even when Thurkear
presses it into his chest.
Before the party enters Thurkear's trial, Zeph tries to stay behind, but is swept along with the rest. Like with Theris' trial, the party is shunted all into the same body. Darkness is the first thing that they see, then they feel as though they're being rocked from side to side. Then, there's a hollow thud as they feel their backs impact something. They can't move, for some reason, and it isn't until some time later, when they feel like they're being lifted, that they see light. They squint as what appears to be a corner of fabric is removed from their face and they find themselves looking up at two tretalleri faces that are much larger than they have any right to be.
Oh, you poor ugly thing... Nobody wants you. This is probably a good enough place for you to grow up.
Afterward, the scene shifts. They are lying on the ground, the remains of an earthen ramp next to them. They can taste dust in their mouth, and their throat is dry. They see their friends, Zeph, Dr. Roth, and Broknard walking away. They try to get up, but can't muster the energy. And no matter how hard they try to speak, no words come out. They can only watch, powerless, trying to keep up by scrabbling across the ground, until their friends disappear around the next corner, never to be seen again.
The scene shifts a second time. They are lying flat on a rocky surface. In front of them is a cliff. They look down and realize, with a start, that they are holding on to Theris, who is dangling from the edge of the cliff, looking battered and bruised. Blood trickles from Theris' temple. They also realize that their body hurts. Everything aches. A dull pain throbs through the entirety of their being.
But that is nothing compared to the chill of dread that shoots up their spine when they realize that Theris is slipping through their grasp. They try to pull him up but do not have the strength. They try to reach down with their other hand, but Theris does not have the energy to grab it. Once again, they are helpless and powerless as Theris slips from their grasp and plummets down the side of the cliff. They don't even see him as he crashes to the ground, a wispy cloud covering the bottom of the cliff and obscuring it from view.
The scene shifts and they find themselves standing at the bottom of the cliff. Ailos is standing on the trail ahead of them, back turned to them. When Ailos turns to face them, he is carrying Theris' limp and lifeless body in his arms. He starts walking in their direction, and just as he is about to reach them, they reach out with their hand. Ailos does not acknowledge their presence and walks through them as though they didn't even exist in the first place.
The scene shifts a final time, and they are afloat in a vast and eternal darkness. After what feels like eternity, they find their footing and in they distance they see a pale grey light approaching. The light resolves into the shape of a man who stops ten feet short of them before pivoting on his heels and walking away. Before the figure fades, however, beams of red light shoot out from its back as what appear to be fingers of grey light, more vivid and radiant, pierce through the image.
Have faith. I shall not abandon you.
The new figure tears the old one in half, letting the two pieces dissipate into motes of light to either side of him. The figure then approaches and reassures Thurkear that he is not alone. That he will never be alone. And the vision disappears. Thurkear finds himself standing in front of the mirror, which he bashes with his shield, dealing insignificant damage. He then watches as his own reflection sneers at him, turns around, and walks away.
Thurkear falls to his knees and meditates, praying to the Stranger. He feels a warm presence in the room with him. The presence remains until such time that the rest of the group destroys the mirror, and Thurkear stands up to retrieve the orange gem from the shattered remains.
The Shadow of Doubt
Returning to the seventh door, the group notices that it is open. They try to close it but are unable. Roth pushes it open and sees what appears to be a throne room, only there isn't a throne on the platform at the end. Instead, there are twelve mirrors. Six face the entrance, while three face the center of the platform from either side. They close the door quickly after seeing the situation inside.
One by one, they place their gems in the respective sockets. Once all six are placed, nothing seems to have changed from the outside. They walk into the room and find that six of the mirrors have been shattered. As they walk forward, the pieces of broken mirror scattered across the floor gather into the form of a dragon, and a deep, resonant voice speaks to them, telling them that they have one last trial to overcome.
The dragon is not immediately hostile, instead choosing to watch the group. They decide to rest for a moment before returning to take on the challenge. They realize rather quickly that the dragon is immune to their attacks, and they notice that the six mirrors behind it each carry one of the colored gems that they retrieved. The dragon summons shades of the party to attack them, causing all sorts of trouble and splitting the members of the group from one another, isolating them from their friends.
Theris attempts to destroy the mirrors, but ends up discovering that he can only destroy the one that belongs to him, as defined by the colored gem that corresponded with his trial. The party then rushes to destroy the other mirrors while battling the dragon, nearly all dying in the process but ultimately prevailing, reducing the creature to shimmering dust.
Having overcome their final trial, the group is approached by an erinindal
entity. He introduces himself as Mwrgynn
, the erinindal god of mirrors, reflections, and fear. As a reward for their triumph, he retrieves the six gems and fashions them into a circlet that he imparts on the party. He tells them that if they need to rest, that they can use his halls for the time being.