The Fall of Faith

It’s been months since Cael’s mentor of many years, Father Dariel of the church of Selune, has been out on assignment. The paladin knows little of what the priest was doing other than seeing him occasionally as he made visits to the church for console from others, always hurried, with a worry in his eyes which Cael has never seen before. He is the source of the humility and compassion, which now fills the soldier’s heart. He has given hope to many and tirelessly helped those in need, no matter what faith they were of. He seemed different now. Much more serious as if hope was waning in his heart.

The last Ceal has heard from his mentor was a month ago and his mind fills with worry. His heart almost stops when Father Oman, the high priest of Selune, comes to his home. His face is somber, yet he does well in keeping most of the emotions in. He speaks: “As you know, Father Dariel has not been around as of late. He has been investigating the recent upsurge of evil cults in our province. Originally we thought that this was a local problem, but he has uncovered a much more grim scene. It seems that cults all over our land are preparing for an arrival of what they call Xascoratu. We know little of what this means. A rough translation from the demonic tongue means “stone of pain”. Dariel has linked it to a time long gone, when the appearance of something in the lands of Anorach far south, has brought dissilience of dread never known before.”

“We haven’t heard from Dariel for over a moon and fear the worst. You my son, have been chosen by the council as one to follow in Dariel’s footsteps and bring him back.” He hands you a medallion. “Where you’re about to go, no man should ever tread. This will bring you home, when all hope is lost.” You’ve never seen this before, but have heard of Selune’s Calling, a medallion which unerringly transports the wearer to their home church.

As Cael traces Dariel’s path, he is struck with recurring signs of the aforementioned danger. To many, it is a vile prophecy, a sign that their god will come to Oerth. The paladin’s journey takes him through the underbelly of one of the local cults, then another, then to Anorach itself. He was not alone, as he took few Sentinels to accompany him, but they have since fallen and as success looks most lacking, he notices Dariel’s Cloak a the cult’s dungeon. He picks it up and notices what looks like a puddle. It shimmers with yellow light and as he looks through it he sees what looks like white sand. Thanks to his recent teachings, he knows this to be a portal. Cael jumps through.

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Disappearance of Fr. Dariel

It was the eve of Cael’s second anniversary since being initiated into the ranks of the Order of the Stars when Father Oman sought him out.

The young prince was standing on the balcony of his chamber when news of his mentor’s disappearance was delivered. What could he have been thinking? To charge off on his own like that… it was not his way at all. Cael could think of any number of men, himself included, who were given to impulsive quests in the name of God and country, but not Father Dariel. It didn’t make any sense.

“Do you know where he might have gone? What he might be doing?” asked the impressive priest.

“No Father, it is… unlike him to keep such secrets.”

Cael wasted no time in collecting a handful of Imperial Guardsmen known as Sentinels. These men were more than men at arms, they were trained in more subtle arts including stealth, surveillance, and information gathering. They would prove invaluable if he were to trace his mentors’ steps.

The thought of any evil cult operating within the walls of Dragon’s Loft bordered on the absurd, but still, he could not ignore the possibility. His Sentinels confirmed that there was no such organization in the city proper, but there were several large towns within a day’s ride that would be far more susceptible to such influences.

They set off towards the closest of the walled towns with great haste. Cael elected to leave the trappings of his station behind, as they would certainly hinder his efforts. They dressed as mercenaries in non-descript gear so as not to raise suspicion. They would hole-up at a local inn, and begin their investigation come midnight.

The next several weeks played out in this manner. Probing deeper and deeper into the underbelly of every town and tracking then interrogating suspected cultists and their associates. It was slow work that required the patience of a saint, but Cael knew not to press, and before long one of his Sentinels brought promising news.

There was indeed cult activity in this town. It was impossible to say how many cultists there were, or even whom they worshipped, as those questioned dared not speak the names. There was one certainty: this was their best and only lead, so they followed up on it with great zeal.

Cael and the Sentinels discovered the time and place of a gathering of ranking cultists that was to take place one week hence. To Cael’s surprise it was to be held at the manor house of a very well known local merchant named Radechen. It was shocking to think that such a prominent member of the Sembian community was involved in this, but he had no choice but to follow this lead.

Sure enough, the Sentinels secured entry to the manor through the servants’ entry. Once they were certain of the cultists’ arrival, they searched out the stairs to the basement. They resolved to take Radechen alive, as well as any other members of importance, though they were sure to meet resistance.

They crept down the stairs, Cael doing his best not to give them all away, and stopped short of the landing. They could hear voices from the room below, and with the words; “Welcome to my home brothers…” they put their plan in motion.

There were over two-dozen men in the room, all covered in black robes. Most were kneeling on the floor facing a stone altar at the far end. Radechen stood in front of the altar flanked by a heavily armored cultist/bodyguard. Another cultist wearing far more elaborate robes stood behind the altar.

The Sentinels faded almost completely out of sight with a few words to the Bright Lady. They skulked around the edges of the room as Cael waited for the right moment to pounce. The group positioned itself carefully, and as Cael finished reciting several prayers he opened his eyes just as his Sentinels fired a volley of crossbow bolts into the crowd.

Cael charged toward the shocked cultists as they tried to understand what just happened. The group waded into the mass and made quick work of the cultists whose knives were no match for the trained warriors in their midst.

Within moments, the cultists were dispatched, and two of the Sentinels had Radechen cornered. The other four cut down Radechen’s bodyguard without ceremony. The priest however was another story.

As Cael advanced the cult priest was calling to dark powers for aid. Writhing in agony and ecstasy as his calls were answered. The slightly older man transformed before his eyes and began to take on the horrible visage of some twisted demon. Cael ordered the Sentinels to retreat and to hold Radechen for interrogation… The demon was his.

The Sentinels obeyed without a word, and dragged the merchant up the stairs. Cael dropped his heavy cloak to the ground as the demon-priest leveled his gaze upon the young prince.

“You cannot stop it…” hissed the creature.

“…but I can stop YOU…” Replied Cael as he held forth a shining pendant of a crescent moon. “…now YIELD!”

With that a light that was not present seemed to play across the face of the pendant and the demon shrieked in agony, cursing Cael and Selune in the terrible language of the Abyss.

As the creature staggered, Cael lunged at it calling upon the righteous might of the heavens to guide his blade. Thick black blood sprayed the room and the demon-priest slumped over the altar. As the creature’s blood slowly covered the stone slab, Cael could swear he felt eyes upon him for a moment.

The prince quickly produced a jar of clear oil from his pack and cleansed the room in a rite of consecration. Though this place was condemned, he did not want to chance another uprising here.

Cael crested the stairs to find the Sentinels interrogating Radechen. The merchant was bruised and shaken as Cael’s lieutenant carried out the questioning, but was reluctant to comply. As the prince approached, fastening his cloak, the Sentinel stepped aside.

“You’re life here is forfeit. All you have worked for is, as of now, no longer yours.”

Radechen sneered defiantly at the prince “You have no right!”

“Ah, but I do…” Cael produced a fine bejeweled ring hanging from a chain around his neck which bore the Imperial crest.

“NO!” cried Radechen. “Please your Highness… I beg you…”

Cael studied his prisoner carefully, with a calm intensity that was quickly becoming his hallmark. “I will tell you this Radechen… Your lands, goods, and title are hereby donated to the church as a gesture of your regret. However, I will spare your life and allow you to atone for your sins. If you are truly penitent then She will grant you forgiveness and a chance at a new life. Provided, of course, that you show your willingness to aid her cause… a name perhaps?”

Radechen looked around the room in a panic, searching for aid that was not to come. “Very well, my prince, her name is… Tianen.”

“I see, and where is this Tianen?”

“Please Highness, I mustn’t…” pleaded Radechen.

“Yes, you must. It is the only way to begin the path to salvation. Otherwise you will die here in disgrace, condemned in Heaven for your blasphemy and in hell for your cowardice.”

“Yes… yes… salvation! The Dalelands… she has been in the Dales for some months now. I don’t know where exactly…”

“Well done Radechen. May Selune’s light fall softly on your shoulders hereafter.”

Cael gestured at two of the Sentinels. “We are but two days ride from Selgaunt, take him to the temple there and inform the Priestess of my decree. We will ride ahead and see what news we can find of Tianen and her plans. Meet us in Hillsfar as soon as you are finished.”

The two Sentinels disappeared through the back of the manor with Radechen in tow. Cael looked to the four remaining men. “If this Tianen is in the Dalelands, we must act quickly. I smell the stench of the Zhentarim…”

The others nodded with grim expressions, and they exited the manor, leaving some instructions with the servants to expect word from the Magistrate.

Again it took weeks to lay the ground-work for their investigation. Again they were forced to travel throughout the Dales and the surrounding lands to find any signs of the cult’s activities. Luckily, they were permitted travel through Cormanthor, as relations with the Elves of these lands were very strong. This would be a great advantage, as no cult would dare set foot in the hallowed and ancient forests.

Cael had decided to make arrangements in Hillsfar and let the Sentinels move independently for a while. This would give him the chance to rendezvous with the other two dispatched to Selgaunt, and perhaps cover more ground.

Within Hillsfar, Cael and the two Sentinels set to work, and uncovered a small coven which gathered outside the city every night. They found out that they were preparing an important ritual on the night of the next full moon. Cael smiled as he knew Selune’s influence was greatest on these nights. Victory was assured.

The coven was no match for them with Selune’s moon in full. Sadly, these witches would fight to the death to preserve their unholy ritual. They did however manage to save a young local girl from a horrible fate as she was to be sacrificed. She was clothed and returned to her family.

While awaiting the return of the other Sentinels, Cael also found out from the local clergy that Father Dariel had passed through some time ago. The news made Cael rejoice as this was the first news of his travels they had found. According to the priest, Fr. Dariel planned to travel north to the town of Teshwave, and then west along the Black Road into the heart of the Great Desert.

Cael was confused to say the least, but the priest informed him that Fr. Dariel said that he was on some sort of a pilgrimage of solitude. Cael knew this was just a cover, but agreed with the priest that this was Fr. Dariel’s intent.

Days later, the other Sentinels returned, short one in their number. They had encountered a group of Zhentarim escorting the woman they assumed to be Tianen. They managed to capture her, but lost one of the faithful in the fight. They handed his body over to the Moon Elves who agreed to see the remains back to Dragon’s Loft.

The Sentinels learned that Tianen was indeed a priestess of this cult, and were able to secure on small clue. The true power of the cult resided in the center of Anauroch. They had a rough idea of where to look now, so they quickly packed their horses, and headed for Teshwave.

The locals in Teshwave confirmed that Father Dariel had passed through over four months ago, but gave no clue as to where he was headed. Cael and the Sentinels spent the night in the town to rest and water the horses. In the morning they made for Dagger Fall, the last stop before heading into the desert.

The group re-supplied in Dagger Fall, trail rations, water skins, and a great deal of equipment for the difficult road ahead. They were treated like royalty (though the prince still concealed his identity) since they had given the local merchants the gift of five strong horses (since they dare not torture the beasts by riding them into the desert where they would most certainly perish.)

Xascoratu
 

On foot the next leg of the journey took nearly a fortnight. They followed the route the believed the priestess had reluctantly described, and after many days were wondering if they had been fooled by her confession.

Finally they had come across a cave leading into a large rock face. It was difficult to know if this was the place, but Cael could sense the presence of something sinister nearby, so they proceeded inside.

Two of the Sentinels proceeded ahead, and discovered several traps and pitfalls that might have escaped the prince’s notice. Two covered the rear as they proceeded, in case they were to get surrounded.

A passage, concealed by an illusion, led down deep into a manmade structure. The group made the descent quietly, and the Sentinels each faded into the shadows as they began to reconnoiter the compound.

There were a few guards and cultists along the way that were dealt with swiftly and without a commotion. This led the to the center of the structure which housed a huge vaulted chamber. In the center of the room was what Cael knew to be a powerful summoning circle, an altar, and several cult priests and many others. It seemed this was a meeting of great importance. There were many armed and armored men and elaborately dressed priests, as well as dozens of cultists who were from all walks of life.

Once again Cael beseeched the might and the favor of Selune as did the Sentinels. As they prepared to enter the room Cael’s lieutenant, a former priest of Selune, pulled a long scroll from his belt and began to whisper a prayer…

Each of them began to shimmer with a nimbus of silvery-blue light, and as all but the lieutenant charged the room, the fury of Heaven and hell was unleashed.

As Cael and the Sentinels set upon the cultists many were in a state of momentary shock. The advantage was enough to let the group gain more tactical positioning at first. By the time the cultists knew what was happening, several of their number had already fallen. It did not take long, however, for the priests to take command of their followers. They began barking orders and the cultists began to mount a counter attack.

As they did, more chanting from outside the archway began to drown out the sounds of battle, and the room erupted in divine energy. As the prayer continued waves of pale light cascaded over the room and arcs of electricity lashed out punishing the cultists for their heresy.

Quickly the dark warriors intercepted the Sentinels, who found themselves a bit overmatched by the prowess of the armored men. Cael was able to match their force, and slowly began to even the odds.

Priest called down unholy favors and cursed the small group of infidels in their midst. The battle seemed to be nearing a stalemate where perhaps all involved would perish. All that would change as the ranking priest dragged one of his flock to the center of the room.

“Do you believe?” asked the priest.

“Wha…”

“Good enough.” said the priest with a wicked grin as he plunged a curved dagger into the belly of his follower.

The cultist dropped and convulsed on the ground as the priest called forth the very fire of hell itself… and hell itself answered.

Moments later the entire chamber shook with the roar of the demon summoned to aid the cultists cause. With this many of the cult’s members began to flee up the stairs or simply cower in the shadows of the room. This was far more than they could handle. Cael’s lieutenant cut down as many as he could before they could escape, but quickly turned to even the odds inside the ceremony chamber.

The fight raged on for several minutes with the demon killing indiscriminately. Cael tried to censure the creature but the attempt only enraged it more. He could hear the frantic calls of the Sentinels as the fight around him went on, but he had to focus on the beast. No one else had the means to vanquish this type of fiend, so as he tossed the body of a cult-priest aside, he charged the thing.

The fight was furious, and there were many times when Cael thought he might not survive, but in the end faith won out. When all was quiet, he took stock of the chamber. None but himself was standing. Instantly he ran to find his comrades, but sadly none of them had survived the furious battle. Nor did it seem any of the cultists. The demon lay sprawled just outside the circle from which he was summoned. The cultists lay scattered throughout the room in various states of demise, bearing scars from all manner of elements as well as weapons.

Cael was overwhelmed at first, but steeled himself to the task. He collected the bodies of the Sentinels and set a pyre outside the cave. He stood vigil as the holy fire consumed their flesh and sent their souls to rest with the Bright Lady.

When this was done, he went back to the site of the carnage and found a door leading down behind the altar. Below was a small dungeon with no inhabitants, but in the far end he could see something glimmering. He approached to find what he recognized as Father Dariel’s cloak. As Cael held the cloak tightly, he noticed that it concealed a portal beneath it. Had this been kept secret from the cult? Was Fr. Dariel alone when he went through? Where could it lead?

Cael took one look back, as if looking for his mother’s eyes, and stepped through…

Xascoratu
JungleJuice

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