[Fiction/roleplaying] Cults and culpability

The following is a tale from my Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the Sunless Shores. It is the first-hand account of a group of poor cultists who suffered an ignoble fate at the hands of my monstrous players.

“You alright to clean up here, Merkel?”

Erkel’s brother looked up from scrubbing bloodstains off the summoning circle. Nearby, the Null Censer fumed silently, just in case.

“Should be. Stronger than usual, wasn’t it?”

“A little. Guess our time’s coming up fast.” Erkel ran his hand through his tousled brown hair, slick with sweat from the hastily aborted summoning. He’d changed into his casual robes, but would need a hot bath later to really wash the slime off.

“Anyway, I’m off for a bit. You need anything?”

“Couple years, maybe,” Merkel said wryly, holding up his left arm. The black watch on his wrist was, as always, totally featureless. They both laughed, but it was laced with uneasiness. “What happened to this city, brother? It wasn’t so long ago we were freewheeling, summoning spirits, indoctrinating starry-eyed commoners without a care in the world. Now look at us!”

Erkel sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. He’d been having trouble sleeping lately – the curse of dabbling in divination magic. What had that instructor said… multiclass in thirty days or your money back? What a joke. Well, it was too late now. That one level of wizard would never go away.

“We got old, Mer.”

“Hell, that’s not it, and you know it!” Merkel tossed his washcloth back in the bucket, which sloshed dirty red suds onto the floor. The filthy water dripped sluggishly into the narrow trench cut around the circle.

“Okay, okay!” Erkel said, holding out his palms placatingly. “It’s not worth fighting over. We’ve got the Gathering in less than a week, and then -”

“And then what? No way will it go back to how it was. Not after Justin’s scheme.”

“Look at it this way, Mer,” said Erkel. “After this, we’ll all be exalted, or dead.”

Merkel grunted, staring at the floor as if ashamed. He’d been acting strangely too, but then, everyone in the church was on edge. These were harrowing times to be a Dweller’s Disciple.

Erkel exited via the secret door into the vestibule, whistling tunelessly. Out in the main hall, he saw Raff and Vee preparing the afternoon service and chatting with Gracie, the head of their chapter here in the city of Fortune. Vee was a delight, but Raff scared Erkel more than a little – he was a shade too close to madness for Erkel’s taste. Sure, the Disciples may aspire to Dweller-touched insanity, but there was something to be said for polite conversation and civility, too.

“Ah, Erkel!” boomed Gracie as he approached. “Just the brother I wished to see.”

“What’s up, boss? I was just ducking out for a quick break after that summoning.”

“Yes, yes, the summoning. Nearly blew my head off this time, didn’t we!” Gracie bellowed cheerfully.

“Any… premonitions lately, wizard-boy?” smirked Raff. Erkel gritted his teeth. He knew Raff was needling him on purpose, but felt compelled to answer honestly.

“As a matter of fact, I have. For a week now, I’ve been having a terrible sense of dread. And it’s getting worse – I can barely sleep anymore.”

“A vision?” asked Vee, eyebrow raised.

“Yes… there are stones, shattered and broken, littering the ground of a burning field. The visions have never been this clear before, Vee, Gracie. I’m scared something bad’s going to happen. Here. To us.” Raff laughed like the ass he was, but the other two seemed mildly disquieted.

“Can you believe this guy? Takes a wizard correspondence course and thinks he can see the future! Let’s head over to the Wheel, eh? We could clean up at the roulette with your psychic abilities!”

“Enough, Raff,” Gracie said. Raff’s laughter petered out, leaving him looking somewhat confused.

“Don’t tell me you’re taking Jerkel seriously!”

“I said enough, Raff.” Raff met her fierce stare for a moment, then stormed off towards the altar, muttering angrily.

“Now,” Gracie said, pleasantly. “I’ve got a meeting in the marketplace with some of Greenfin’s crew, and I wanted you along, Erkel. We’re trying to renegotiate the protection fee – word from our siblings out past the Kraken’s Maw is Sardinia Greenfin’s getting greedy again.” Erkel nodded. ‘Captain’ Greenfin – or whatever title the kua-toa fortune-hunter had finagled for herself – was notorious for taking way more than her share. You’d hear stories of merchants having their whole stock seized by Greenfin’s privateers on flimsy pretenses.

“Can do, boss. Wrangling with the fish folk’s my favorite way to spend a lunch break.”

“Just the attitude I like to hear! Vee’s coming too. It’ll be good for her to get a taste of diplomacy, don’t you think?” Vee’s cheeks flushed a darker grey. She was a recent recruit to the Disciples – they’d acquired her from the Orphan’s Network. Benny, the orphans’ unofficial leader, always got his crew a good deal and ensured they ended up where they wanted to go. In Vee’s case, she’d wanted the life of a cleric with none of that holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness.

“Shall we go, then?”

“Very good.” Gracie nodded appreciatively. “I trust Captain Greenfin will be pleased with these arrangements?”

“Exceedingly pleased, mmm,” hummed Jervais, slimy throat throbbing wetly. “Packleader Sardinia will find them most satisfactory.” It was a few hours after they’d departed the church, and the city’s lights had brightened, driving back the monotonous falselight that lit the Sunless Shores.

The Dweller’s Disciples were ambling through a marketplace, flanked by Greenfin’s lieutenant Jervais and a few toothy shipmates. Alone among the beings that crowded the plaza, Greenfin’s crew lacked black lifetimers on their wrists – a sign of their privileged status in the city.

“Expect the first payment later this week, under our new agreement,” said Gracie.

“And the other matter?”

“They will be dealt with. I will see to it personally. Our exarch Justin Time does not brook dissent, especially of late. If I did not deal with them, he would. Now. Is that all?”

“Not quite. There is still the small issue of the Gathering…” Gracie froze, as did Erkel. Vee very nearly stumbled into them.

“And how,” asked Gracie, pointedly, “could you possibly know about that? I wasn’t aware the internal affairs of the Dweller’s Disciples were public knowledge.” Jervais’ only response was to shrug in a most infuriating manner.

“I would remind Captain Greenfin of the role our church played in securing those letters of marque she values so highly, and advise her against meddling with Disciple business. Especially as it doesn’t concern her or you in the slightest.” Jervais opened his mouth to respond, but enthusiastic shouts came from the side.

“Brothers! Sisters! How good to see you!” Erkel whipped his head around to behold a very curious group approaching. At their head, two beaming duergar wearing the insignia of Disciples were waving their greeting. Erkel didn’t recognize them.

“Enough,” said Gracie, sharply. “If Captain Greenfin wants to discuss this further, she can do it herself. For now, I must deal with this. Leave us.” Jervais smiled, adjusting the belted cutlass at his waist, then slunk off, taking his lackeys with him.

“Fellow Disciples! Dweller wrack and ruin you!” Gracie shot Erkel a sidelong glance, as if to say who are these jokers?

“Dweller take your sanity, friends,” replied Gracie, courteously. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure…?” The two clerics nearly tripped over themselves answering.

“I’m Dana!”
“And I’m Kieran!”

“We’re Dweller’s Disciples, like you!”
“And we couldn’t love our great leader Justin Time more.”

“Oh, absolutely not, Kieran. Isn’t he wonderful?”

“Positively the best! Why, we’re all just so keen on what he’s doing with the church.”

“Aren’t you?”

Erkel stared in disbelief. The two clerics acted like they were putting on a bizarre comedy routine. True, members from other chapters of the Disciples did visit Fortune frequently enough. But they always, always wrote ahead by Spanogram, the rapid communication system created by the gnomic visionary Span on the surface world.

Clearly, these two were impostors, and bumbling ones at that. Their friends, however, seemed altogether more competent. A tall genasi with arms folded; an aarakocra with wicked shortswords at their belt; a small, hooded fellow who was rubbing his hands together and cackling for some reason; and towering above them all, an impassive construct bearing the mark of Cognoscendia on its chest.

Altogether, an eclectic group, and one Erkel didn’t particularly wish to tangle with. Luckily, they didn’t seem too bothered with the situation, preferring to let the duergar field questions.

“You have surely travelled far,” said Gracie. “You must be exhausted. Come up to our church and sample our hospitality, such as we can provide. We will discuss what business of the church has brought you to our fair city.”

“Great!” chirruped Dana, and Kieran beamed broadly.

“We wish to accompany our friends,” said the genasi, suddenly. Gracie adopted the slightly condescending smile she reserved for pushy non-initiates.

“My apologies, outlander, the internal business of the Disciples cannot be discussed among the uninitiated. I fear only clerics of our order may be privy to such… sensitive conversations.”

“Oh no, you misunderstand me,” the genasi replied. “We want only to enter your beautiful church. We would never dream of nosing in on your… private affairs.”

“Of course. Our church hall is, after all, a public place. Follow us, please.” They set off up through the terraces, the two duergar newcomers babbling away. Vee and Gracie carried the bulk of the conversation, allowing Erkel to focus on their four companions.

The aarakocra and construct kept silent for the most part, but the little hooded fellow was continuously rubbing his hands together and muttering, chuckling at odd intervals. Erkel could barely make out what he was saying, but he kept picking up murmurs about captains and orphans. He even thought he saw a gently glowing rat peek its head out of a pocket somewhere, indicating that this little man was some sort of magician. The hood draped over the mage’s face did nothing to detract from the unease stirring in Erkel’s stomach.

This group was bad news.

Back at the church, Merkel greeted them. A sermon was underway, and many of the pews were filled with curious or devout citizens of Fortune. At the altar, Raff was conducting the sermon, holding aloft a brimming goblet of the Dweller’s Blood and blessing it in his erratic manner. Leaving Vee at the door with the outlanders, Gracie and the two brothers ushered Kieran and Dana towards the vestibule in the back, where they could find out what the suspicious duergar were really after.

As they passed behind the half-drawn velvet curtain behind the altar, Erkel shot one last look back – and nearly doubled over in pain. The moment his eyes fell upon the party at the door, a wave of sickening dread washed over him, and the vision he’d been plagued by nightly flashed before his eyes. Muttering weak apologies as Merkel caught him, he wondered at the dizzying burst of divination. Somehow, these outlanders would be responsible for the doom he had foreseen.

In the vestibule, Erkel carefully shut the door behind them. The secret portal leading to the ritual chamber was closed, too, and mostly invisible to the naked eye. From outside, the strains of Raff’s sermon could still be heard.

“Take a seat,” said Gracie, gesturing to a couple of chairs arranged against the wall. Kieran and Dana sat, without even a whiff of apprehension.

“So,” Gracie said. “Who are you really? Which chapter are you from?”

“The, uh, Isle of Light,” answered Kieran.

“Oh, yes? And how is old Selwyn?”

“Fine, fine.”

“Last we saw of him,” piped in Dana.

“Which was?”

“You know,” said Kieran. “You know, about uh, well. A month ago?”

Gracie waited a moment, then sighed.

“Right.” She nodded to the brothers, who stepped forward, pulling out the heavy, club-like symbols of their order. Kieran and Dana’s looked nervously at the burnished metal twisted into a grasping tentacle.


“Here’s how this’ll go down,” Gracie said. “You’re going to tell us what your little game is, or I’m going to have the brothers here offer some enticement.”

Silence fell. Surprisingly, because Raff’s sermon had cut off mid-word. Merkel paused, then crossed to the door and peered out. A few surprised shouts came through, and the sound of metal on stone.

“What in the undersea…?” started Erkel, but Merkel slammed the door shut, face pale.

“The outlanders!” Merkel said. “They’re headed this way!”

“Damn!” Gracie paced, thought for a moment, then jabbed a finger at Kieran and Dana, huddled in the corner. “You two! Stay put! Any trouble, you’re through, understand?” They nodded mutely.

“What do we do, boss?” urged Erkel.

“Weapons out,” she growled back, then muttered an incantation and spread her arms. A fiery cutlass shimmered into shape before her. Erkel and Merkel followed suit, summoning cutlasses of their own. Merkel put an ear to the door.

“I can’t really hear anything…” he began, then: “Wait! Someone’s running this way!”

“Weapons ready!”

The door burst open as Raff rushed in, clutching his side. Merkel slammed the door behind him.

“The outlanders…” huffed Raff, before turning to the two duergar in the corner. “It’s your fault! Kill.” This last word was spoken with arcane force, and Kieran drew his weapon with wide, horrified eyes, thrusting it deep into Dana’s chest. She collapsed with a strangled gasp, crumpling to the floor.

“Raff! You madman! What have you done?” shouted Gracie. Merkel’s face grew paler, and his voice dropped to an absurd whisper.

“They’re… they’re coming closer. They’re just outside!”

“Shit!! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Wards! Lay wards!” The assembled Disciples concentrated briefly, placing protective wards upon the door which flared before fading into the stonework.

“What are we going to do?” wailed Merkel. “They’ll kill us, they’ll freaking kill us!”

“Shut up, Mer! Where’s Vee?” pressed Erkel. Raff sneered.

“The nasty little wizard chased her into the dining room. I didn’t see what happened after that.”

The door began to rattle, as if battered by some great wind.

“Here they come!” yelled Merkel. “We can’t fight them!”

“We’ll never make it out through the courtyard in time… unless…” Gracie, Merkel and Erkel all exchanged glances, then nodded. “Sorry, Raff. We wish you luck. Dweller hold you in its foul embrace.” Raff’s eyes widened, but the others were already stepping toward the wall bordering the hidden chamber.

“You bastards! You absolute bastards! Don’t you dare!” He raced to grab hold of Erkel, but the brother was sinking inexorably backwards, his body melding into the well-cut stone. Raff abandoned his attempt and dashed for the courtyard door – just as the vestibule’s door was wrenched open by a howling gale.

The last thing Erkel saw before he became one with the stone was Kieran’s pain-filled eyes staring down at the corpse of his friend.

Inside the wall, there was nothing. Erkel could not hear his heartbeat nor see any of the drama unfolding outside. All he had was the cold, dead stone around him and the excruciating advance of time. He would stay here, he thought, for as long as he could. Anything to escape the horrible, murderous creatures waiting.

He would be safe in here.

An hour passed, and then another. Erkel’s mind wandered, and he felt a pang of concern for Vee, who they’d left to the tender mercies of the rampaging outlanders. He hoped she was okay. Raff, though… Raff deserved whatever fate he got.

Out of nowhere, a wave of nausea magnitudes stronger than any before it swept his body. His mind burned as if a flaming spike had been driven into his skull. If stone had voice, his cry would have been rung through the city of Fortune.

In that moment, a vision flashed before his eyes, one last time and he saw stones, shattered and broken, littering the ground of a burning field. The end of it all.

Then the wall blew apart, and Erkel knew no more.


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