Posted by: lordkyler | May 2, 2015

Radiance Part X: Caught in the Middle

In the last installment, we witnessed a thrilling battle between the members of the party and the General Fisher’s men. After a fiery confrontation, they managed to escape to safety, bearing only a few mysterious locations marked on a map. However, they soon found out that their employer, Mr. Partridge, has been murdered… and they are blamed. We join them now at a secret hideout as they discuss what steps they must take next…

“Okay, guys, we have some decisions to make,” Aria said. She pulled up a chair and sat down, while the rest of the group sat on their bunks, except for Connor. He stood restlessly, tapping his fingers on his sword hilt as he listened to Aria speak. “It seems we are wanted for a crime we didn’t commit, although that wouldn’t make much of a difference in the face of the crimes we did. What’s next? Is this over? We’re not getting paid. It might be best to split up and make our own paths.”

Ian shook his head. “This is about far more than just the breaking and entering, or even the murder. Something big is going on here. I can feel it.”

“We’re wanted as a group,” Connor said. “And the government is serious about this. If we split up, we’ll keep them chasing us for a while, but when they catch up – and they will – they’ll take us down fast. We stand a better chance if we stick together.”

Such advice from Connor came as a surprise, but the group seemed to agree. “So we’re together,” Aria said. “Now the question is what we should do about it.”

“Book it,” Lilly said flatly. “I don’t want to mess around with this any longer. If we can get out of the country, they can’t follow us.”

“Well, not officially,” Aria said. “I’m sure they won’t give up that easily. But it would make it much harder, especially if we made it to Faith or Fate. Oh! Or we could go to Katé, in Fortune. I have family there that could help us.”

I have family in Meadowlark,” Lilly said. “So I don’t want to go anywhere near the lake.”

“Meadowlark is clear on the other side of the lake,” Aria said. “I doubt we’d run into anybody.”

“You’d be surprised,” Lilly replied.

“I don’t think we should run at all,” Connor said. “We’ll be running forever. I want to get to the bottom of this. Maybe if we follow these markings on the map, they’ll lead us to something we can shut down or use as blackmail.”

“I agree something strange is going on,” Drake interjected. “If nothing else, I’d like to know what it is. But I don’t think it’s worth getting killed over. We could head somewhere like New Destiny, and disappear.”

“You’re not even one of the ones with a warrant,” Ian pointed out.

“Not for long, I’ll bet,” Connor said darkly.

“I think Connor’s right,” Aria said after a moment of silence. “We need to get out of Republic City in any case. Let’s investigate these leads and see what we can find. We can always make for the border if it seems too dangerous.”

After a bit more discussion, most of which had to do with convincing the adamant Lilly, they agreed to investigate. There were four location marked on the map: the Saber Airship base to the north, the private island of Verdant to the east, a location westward, on the outskirts of Paramount, and an unusual mark on the southern coast just below the Guardian Mountains.

Saber base was quickly dismissed for being too difficult, as was Verdant. Paramount was considered but ultimately rejected as well. “It’s the capital,” Aria said. “They won’t expect us to run there, I grant you, but it’s still too dangerous.”

And so they settled on the fourth location. It was secluded and unlikely to have large amounts of troops, and it wasn’t terribly far from the border in case they decided to run for it. As for transportation, it was eventually decided that the best course was to hire an airship captain that wouldn’t ask too many questions.

“Sounds like a plan,” Aria said at last. “I just hope we aren’t getting in over our heads.”

“We’re already in over our heads,” Ian quipped. “I’m just looking for a snorkel.” Aria rolled her eyes.

There was a knock at the door.

Everyone went quiet and reached for their weapons. Connor readied himself for an attack as Aria slowly approached the door. There was a second knock, followed by a tentative “hello?” Aria peeked through a crack in the door.

“Reason Divine,” Aria said, “It’s Qeni!” Without further hesitation, she threw open the door to reveal a petite Oqidan woman with mysterious eyes and a broad grin. She stepped inside and embraced Aria tightly.

“I was worried when we didn’t see you at the safehouse the other day,” Aria said. “Is everything ok?”

“No, actually. We don’t have much time to talk. We have to get to a safer place. Follow me, I’ll explain when we get there.” Qeni beckoned for Aria and the rest of the crew to follow, but only Aria and Lilly made motions to follow.

“Guys, I’ve known Qeni for a long time,” Aria said. “I trust her. And she’s right, we could be in danger here. Who knows who might have seen us come here after the raid at Fisher’s?”

Hesitantly, the rest of the group rose and gathered their things, although some kept their hands near their weapons. Within a few minutes, they were out on the street. Qeni had a car waiting, a battered open-top diesel vehicle that looked to have come from the military. Connor rushed to claim their stolen motorcycle, and the rest of the group climbed into the car, Aria in the passenger seat, and everyone else in the back.

Qeni pulled the car out quickly and headed uptown. Connor followed close behind on the motorcycle. Qeni made sure to stay off the busy streets, instead cutting through a complicated series of back streets and wide alleyways. She looked intent on driving, constantly checking her mirrors as if afraid she was being followed.

“Qeni, what’s going on?” Aria asked. “Is it the army? Other gangs?”

“It’s too complicated to explain now,” Qeni said shortly as she turned into another alley. “Just keep an eye out for-”

There was a loud bang and a shriek of metal. The car shuddered as the hood began to belch steam, and then quickly ground to a halt in the middle of the alley. Connor pulled up short behind them.

“Up top!” he yelled, and drew one of his pistols. Before anyone else had time to react, a shape descended quickly from the rooftop, dropping down each level of the fire escape like a monkey, and landing with a crouch on the broken pavement of the alleyway. Qeni and Aria drew their firearms and pointed them at the attacker.

The attacker – a woman – stood up and flicked her hair aside. It was Qeni.

“Stand down, gorgeous,” said the new Qeni. “Aria, honey, you’re pointing your gun at the wrong person.”

Ian reached forward from the back seat and caught the first Qeni in a headlock, pointing his gun at the second. Aria froze, her aim wavering. Connor stepped off the motorcycle and began to circle around the car.

“What’s going on here?” Lilly demanded.

“Morphology,” Connor said. “I’ve seen it before. One of them is false.”

She’s the fake,” said the Qeni in the car. “If I wasn’t the real me, how would I know where you were?”

“I don’t know how she found you,” the other Qeni said, “but she got there just before I did. I’ve been trying to catch up with you for five blocks!”

“You know Qeni, right?” LIlly asked. “Just ask a question only she would know.”

“No need for that,” Drake said. He reached out a hand to touch the first Qeni and read her mind. The first Qeni yanked her arm free, and fired at her doppelgänger. She missed. The other Qeni fired back, nailing the first Qeni in the forehead. The bullet passed clear through and pinged against Ian’s armor, and he let go in surprise.

“You killed Qeni!” Lilly shouted, but Aria inspected the corpse to find that the face had changed.

I don’t miss,” Qeni said.

“Who was that?” asked Aria, seemingly unfazed. “What did she want?”

“I think she was with the Blades,” Qeni replied. “Listen, you guys are in a lot of trouble. Like, tons.”

“You sure are,” came a voice from the end of the alley. A woman stood there, armed with a rifle. Beside her stood Noah Simonson. They were flanked by an assortment of members from the Seven Sisters and the Mongrels. More faces appeared atop the buildings, carrying guns, and a pair of women with sword and bow came up from behind.

“Ellen?” Aria asked. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on?” Ellen repeated sharply, resting the rifle on her shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me? You were sent to work a simple kidnapping job and get paid. Now I find out you’ve been making unauthorized alliances and raiding government buildings?”

“It’s all part of the job.” Aria said.

“You went too far and you know it. Do you even have my money?”

Aria’s eyes flitted to her new pet, curled around her feet. “Not yet. But listen, we’re on the verge of something big here.”

“Yeah, too big,” Noah said. “When we told you that Fisher had info, we didn’t expect you to set the place on fire and get the army mobilized! The government is itching for an excuse to wipe out the Mongrels, and if they trace this back to us, we’re through.”

“You don’t understand,” Aria began, followed by Ian and Lilly. Drake crouched down, trying to remain inconspicuous, and Connor readied himself for a fight.

“SHUT UP!” Ellen hollered, and everyone fell silent. “You’re a member of the Seven Sisters, and you’ve been faithful in the past. You’ll get a chance to explain yourselves. For now I’m going to have to ask you – all of you – to turn in your weapons and come with me.”

Slowly and carefully, Aria stepped out of the car, slowly followed by the rest. Aria carefully lowered her bow to the ground. “Okay, let’s just stay calm,” she said.

“I think not,” said a voice at the other end of the alleyway. The entire assembly turned to find a number of Oqidan men holding dangerous-looking machine guns. One man stood unarmed at their front, sharply dressed and holding a cane. “I believe you have some things that belong to us.” He nodded at the stolen motorcycle.

“Superstition!” Aria cursed under her breath. The Blades were the last thing they needed right now.

“What do you want, Han?” Ellen asked, though she began readying her rifle like she knew what the answer would be. The tension was thick in the air, ready to explode.

“I want what’s mine,” Han said, grinning slyly. “My property, and my revenge.”

“You’re outnumbered,” Noah said, and a couple of his men on the roof trained their guns on Han.

“And you, street trash, are outgunned,” Han replied, and whistled. The sound of gunfire broke out on the rooftops, and Noah’s men disappeared. A moment later, new faces appeared, armed with high-powered sniper rifles.

Everyone stared at each other a moment. “OK,” Ellen said.

“You surrender?”

“That’s cute,” Ellen said, and fired. Han spun to the side, dodging the bullet, and then his men opened fire, filling the air with hot lead. Aria and Connor dove to the side of the alleyway, seeking cover, and Lilly went the other direction. Ian and Drake ducked down behind the car.

The Sisters with the sword and bow dove for cover as well, but were wounded, and the Mongrels opened fire, trying to avoid the shots from the roof. Bricks exploded, metal shrieked and sparked, the wheels on the car blew out, and all was chaos.

Suddenly, however, a shadow crossed the alleyway, and a figure fell from the heavens. It was a man dressed in a gray trenchcoat. He descended slowly, coat rippling around him like some angelic being.

“Oh, what now?” Connor grumbled, gun trained on this newcomer. Then he recognized him as the man that had tried to warn them off the case a couple nights back. His slow descent was an impressive display of telekinetic power, as good as any he’d ever seen. However, the effort must have used up most of his mana reserve. It was a bluff.

The gunfire stopped as everyone watched. It seemed especially silent after the chaos of the last few moments.

“My name is Agent Gray,” the man announced, completely calm. “I require your cooperation.”

Nobody moved. “I am here to take the following into custody: Ian Hancock, Aria Shingai, Connor Williams, Lilly Smythe, and Drake Weaver. Despite this shameful display, the rest of you will be free to go if you depart peacefully.”

Noah Simonson and the other mongrels were already gone, and the Seven Sister were in the process of clearing out, with the exception of Qeni, who remained at Aria’s side. Some, however, were not so wise.

“Not until I’ve had mine,” Han said, and pulled out a large pistol. He fired directly at Gray’s head. Gray twitched a finger and sent the bullet flying to the side, where it pinged off a trash can.

“Very well,” Gray said. Moving with the smooth grace of a dancer, he adopted a strong stance and placed the fingertips of one hand on the hood of the car. Then he spun, and the car followed, skidding across the pavement with the screech of burning rubber. It crashed into the massed Blades like a bowling ball into ninepins.

Blades screamed as the car rolled over them, and the rest turned to run, but Agent Gray was already moving, hands flying in the air as he used pieces of trash like projectiles, catching the fleeing gang members in the back with deadly precision.

One man rushed at him, a gold-plated knife in hand, but the agent pivoted neatly and avoided the blow. He caught his attacker by the shirtfront and then lifted and threw him like a shot put. The man flew fifty feet before crunching into the side of the building with a sickening thud.

Unperturbed, the agent turned to the members of the crew. “Your compliance would be appreciated,” he said.

To the surprise of many, Connor immediately stepped forward and dropped his weapons, kneeling with hands behind his head. Ian followed a moment later.

“Connor, what are you doing?” Aria hissed, but Connor only nodded at the car. It was clear that Agent Gray had not been bluffing, but instead seemed to demonstrate inhuman telekinetic skill.

“Coward,” Aria growled. However, she still knew better than to fight someone with that level of power, and turned to run, followed by Qeni. Gray watched them run until they were almost out of the alley, then stretched out his hands.

Aria and Qeni were yanked through the air as though by wires, cartwheeling and spinning until they landed, dizzy and disoriented, on their knees in front of the agent. Without a word, he splayed his hands across their faces. He twitched his fingers, and both women fell unconscious.

Lilly fired at the man from behind, but her arrow splintered in midair, and she found herself pulled on and knocked out in short order.

“I surrender,” Drake said. “Here, you can take my staff.”

He extended his silver-trimmed weapon, hoping to use telepathy when the agent grabbed it. The agent did grab it… and then shattered it into a thousand pieces. Before Drake could blink, Agent Gray grasped his face and shut him down.

The street fell quiet once again, this time the aftermath of a war-zone, with discarded weapons and broken bodies all around. Gray surveyed the destruction with something resembling sadness.

“Pointless waste,” he said, shaking his head. He turned to his two prisoners. “Your compliance is appreciated,” he said, and stretched out his hands.

They woke up in chains. Though it was too dark to see properly, the rattle and sway of their room told them that they were on a train car. The only light came from a small slit running around the top of the car. Those that were magically sensitive could tell that the car was lined with a lead mesh, foiling any attempt at magic.

Aria awoke first, and quickly roused the others. This was somewhat difficult, since they were all shackled to a ring in the floor.

“Bloody curses,” Qeni swore, sitting upright. The rest of the group followed with curses of their own. “Well that was a mess.”

“Yeah, I think we have officially gotten in over our heads here,” Aria agreed, standing up. “Now how do we get out of this?”

“We don’t,” Connor said, not bothering to rise. “Or did you miss how futile your attempts were in the alleyway?”

“So what, we just give up?” Aria asked.

“We were fully armed then, and he took us out like a cat playing with mice. Now we’re unarmed and chained up. Resistance will only make things worse.”

“Oh, like if we go along with them, they’ll realize what nice guys we are and just let everyone go?” Qeni demanded. “We’ve only lost when we give up.”

While they argued, Drake convinced Ian to give him a leg up, so that he could take a peek out the slit. There was nothing to see but sky. However, the lack of buildings, combined with the salt breeze and their rapid speed, told Drake that they were probably on the great bridge leading from the island to the mainland.

“We’re on the bridge,” he informed the group.

“So we might still have a chance,” Aria said. “Here, guys, let’s see if we can pull this ring loose.”

Everyone but Connor grabbed ahold of their chains, and on a signal from Aria, they heaved. But the ring didn’t budge. They tried to burn or freeze the chains, but they were lead-lined, and impervious to magic.

They stood in silence for a moment, thinking. “This is futile,” Connor repeated.

“I’ve got an idea,” Qeni said suddenly. “It’s not the best, but we might have a chance. If we can rock the car enough, we can create a disturbance. It might be enough to get a guard to investigate, or let someone outside know we’re here. Worst case, we crash the train.”

“Or get that Gray guy to come in and knock us all out again,” Connor said. Aria ignored him.

“All right, Ian and Qeni, take that wall. Drake and Lilly and I will get this one. Now, on my signal, shift your weight. Ready?”

Working together. they pushed back and forth. They seemed to be making little effort at first, but after a few moments, they found a strong rhythm and soon began to feel the car shifting from side to side. As they kept at it, the swaying increased, until at one point they could have sworn it lifted off the wheels slightly, and they began to wonder if they might tip the car after all.

It was then that they heard the airship, a low drone coming closer. Drake looked out the window again. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “That’s the Helios. Arcaneum has come to rescue us!”

A grappling hook suddenly fired and blasted through the wood with a shower of splinters, nearly taking off Drake’s head. The grapple relaxed, then tautened, then did it again. Aria understood. Moving swiftly, she pulled the grappling hook into the car and hooked it around the metal ring in the floor.

“Stay out of the way, but don’t go too far,” she said. “Make sure you have plenty of slack on your chain.” Then she snapped the rope to signal they were ready.

The Helios tilted sharply to one side, and a second later, the ring exploded from the floor. The group chained to it were nearly pulled off their feet and through the hole, but the Helios corrected itself.

There was the distinctive whirring, rasping sound of a someone coming down a zipline, and a moment later there was a thump against the wall of the car.

“Stand back,” a voice carried over the wind. A few moments later, the metal began to glow bright red, and then a few sharp hits from the other side caused it to break apart.

A face appeared through the hole, goggled and grinning. “Ready to get out of here?” the man said. Even Connor couldn’t deny an opportunity like that. They gathered near the hole and the newcomer began handing out lines and harness.

“We’ve got to be quick,” the man said. “My cohorts are searching the car behind and the car ahead to look for your gear, but we can’t make any guarantees.”

“Understood,” Aria said. “Is everybody strapped in?”

Everyone indicated they were.  “Okay,” said their rescuer. “One at a time, crawl through the hole and start hauling yourself up the line. We don’t want you to get pulled back underneath the train.”

One by one, they got free of the car and began to rise up the line. As they did, they could see nothing but water and bridge. Two lines extended to the other cars, as their rescuer had said, and a woman seemed to be hooking up several crates and cages to the line. It seems their gear had been found.

But something else had found them. A grey-coated figure was sprinting along the top of the train directly toward them, leaping the gaps between cars with inhuman leaps.

“We’ve got company!” Aria hollered. Their rescuer began tapping furiously at a device on his arm, and the members of Arcaneum in the other cars readied themselves for rescue. The lines began reeling in, and the Helios began to rise, but just as quickly began to slow. Agent Gray held an outstretched hand toward them. He was somehow managing to slow an entire airship with telekinesis.

“I told you!” Connor yelled, though he continued to climb the rope.

However, Gray wasn’t the only person with telekinetic powers. As they struggled to climb, a row of faces suddenly appeared at the windows of the Helios, and a forest of arms began to sprout, outstretched fingers pointing straight for Gray.

Gray suddenly halted and began to use his telekinesis to throw himself forward, bracing against a telekinetic push. But at that moment, the Arcaneum members pulled instead. Rather than being thrown back into the bridge, Gray was instead pulled free, and tumbled toward the ocean.

After a second, he managed to right himself, and even tried to chase after them, levitating himself through the air. However, even this miraculous display of power was insufficient, and he could not fly fast enough to keep up with the rapidly retreating Helios. As he watched, the Helios took to the skies and turned west, its stolen cargo dangling from its belly. Soon the bridge was little more than a line on the horizon.

The crew were pulled up into the ship, along with their gear and their rescuers. Aria tried to thank them, but they declined the gesture and merely told them to get ready for departure.

Not ten minutes later, now fully geared up, they came up on a small ship waiting in the middle of the sea with its lights dimmed. The Helios hovered over it just long enough to drop off its stolen passengers, and then raced off again.

The sun was setting, but no lights were lit on the ship. After a moment, a figure appeared from the cabin, bearing a weak lantern. His hair was close-cut, scalp criss-crossed with scars, and tattoos spiraled around his arms and shoulders. He wore an earring in one ear and a confident smile.

“Hello, friends,” he said, his voice polished and warm. “My name is Brutus Salk. I am the leader of the Arcaneum.”

A small ferret appeared on his shoulder, spotted Lilly’s shadow sable, and promptly began playing with it. Lilly smiled. “Pleased to meet you,” she said.

“Sir, it’s an honor to see you again,” Drake said, sounding awed. “I didn’t think you would come to rescue us.”

“Of course I did. We are brothers in this fight.” Brutus swept his hand across the group. “All of us are brothers and sisters in this. As you may know, we in Arcaneum believe that magic is a natural part of the world, a gift to every man, woman and child, to use or ignore as they see fit. Government has no role in oppressing it.”

Several members of the group nodded, none more fervently than Drake. “I take it from what I have heard that you are skilled with the arcane arts,” Brutus continued, paying no heed to the twisting ball of fur at his feet. “We are spread across the nations, and are always looking for new members to help further our cause. Today, that’s you.

“Take this rescue as a show of good faith. I understand that you have found some intriguing secrets about the Foundation government. I would like to encourage you to investigate this. In fact, I will help get you an airship to take you wherever you need to go. I ask only a few favors in exchange.”

“Of course,” Aria said, and the rest of the group nodded. “What do you need?”

“Whatever you may find, I ask you to bring word to me or one of our agents. Drake here knows how to get in touch. Second, uphold our cause, and help any members that may be in need.”

“Is that all?” Ian asked, looking slightly suspicious.

“That is all,” Brutus confirmed. “I believe you have stumbled on to something big, and I believe it is important that Arcaneum is involved. If you would like to join officially, there would be further steps, but for now, I am happy to call us allies.”

“Deal,” Aria said. One by one, the rest of the group gave their affirmations. Brutus nodded and shook each of their hands, welcoming them. Last of all he shook hands with Drake.

“I know this is a lot to ask of an acolyte,” he said. “But I believe you can do it.”

“I will do my best,” Drake said.

“I know you will,” Brutus replied. “That’s why I’m going to jump the gun a little bit and make you a full junior member.”

Drake’s eyes went wide. Brutus pulled out an ring and handed it to Drake, along with a coil of silver wire. “Learn to use this weapon well,” he said. “If you’re clever, it can be very useful to one with your powers.”

“Thank you, Mr. Salk,” Drake stammered. “I don’t know how I can repay this…”

“Find out what’s at the bottom of this business and I’ll be in your debt,” Salk replied. “All right people, I’ve got food, but eat quick. We’ve got an airship to catch.”

•••

 This concludes the first “chapter” in the campaign. It’s been an interesting experiment. I think that we did a pretty good job of setting things up. The next chapter will focus on expanding things a lot. They’ll get to see the wider world, we’ll experiment with new gameplay mechanics or retooled systems, and depending on the choices they make, we could end up seeing a lot more of the world. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far, and if not, well, I believe things are only getting better from here.

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