Hardluck awoke on a stone slab that wasn’t in a jail cell for once, with four figures hovering over him. Two were familiar to him: the beat guards Laszlo and Skippy, and two were not: a human cleric who did not introduce himself, and a creature of a race he did not recognize (tall and rocklike), who introduced herself simply as Gratia. Gratia informed Hardluck that he was at the Temple of the Triune and that she had removed a small spore from his brain that had most likely been planted there by Ulrica Starcaller. She was almost completely certain that he would, therefore, not be taken over and eventually transformed into a horrible being of a kind that man’s nature cannot comprehend. She also offered him the presumably-inert spore as a keepsake, which Hardluck politely declined. Laszlo and Skippy did not detain him, and in fact informed him that Deputy Chief Lazgar had been quite insistent that he be brought to the healers immediately on hearing of his predicament. Hardluck took the opportunity to slip out before they changed their mind.
After the combat and conversation with Sorrow, the rest of our heroes retreated to their separate apartments for the night. Sorrow went with Gable to his place, where she promptly barricaded herself in the bedroom after removing everything that might be flammable, which proved to be…everything. Hardluck tried to track his friends to Gluurug to find out what had happened, but neglected to bank on a rather sizable debt he still owed to the orc, and instead retreated to Zharra’s. Zharra was less than pleased to see Hardluck enter through the cat door, but quickly brought him up to speed on the situation. Hardluck then departed to spend the rest of the night in drunken dissolution, as was his wont.
Everyone slept well except Zharra, who was woken in the middle of the night by her distraught familiar, who sensed something bad on the figurative horizon, somehow related to the Magician. Unable to sleep after that warning but unsure how else to proceed, she dressed and paced the room until sunrise, when messengers found her and, separately, the other party members, asking them to gather at the Hellfire Club.
Upon arriving at Prosper’s office, they found an impressive, and in some ways frightening, group in attendance: Saerzra and Gianna, managers of the two rival casinos, and representatives of the Circle and the Herald. This last, a Reborn halfling named Lazarus Coppermein, appeared to be in charge; he informed the party that word of the possible incursion in the tunnels below the Golden Vault had reached him, presumably through Iron Horse via the devas. He asked the party to accompany him into the tunnels to stop the operation, and, to their suspicion, not to inform the Merchant Prince, the Water and Power Company, or the Constables of the operation. This was not universally well-received, but they did agree.
Gable was able to analyze the map and find a surface entrance that did not require entry to the Golden Vault itself; the Invoker’s people being unlikely to look kindly on this. Once inside, he and Harley navigated to the marked position on the map, while Iron Horse tracked their progress in case a hasty retreat was needed.
It did not take long to arrive at the source of the disturbance; several dwarven automata guarding what could only be described as a squamous drill, burrowing through the rock by secreting a powerful acid that also produced noxious vapors. Zharra and Hardluck destroyed several smaller versions of the drill while Harley, Iron Horse, and Coppermein attacked the automata.
It was then that a familiar voice called from the other end of the tunnel. Yet another Zharra-duplicate appeared, calling herself Zora Calderón, and began a monologue describe the torture and torment that she had inflicted on others to find them, and also of the particular horror that she claimed awaited Zharra: her body was to become the new host for the Magician as her old one failed. Her words were more than pompous posturing; they twisted inside the party’s heads, filling them with horror and dread, though Harley quickly put a stop to that by striking at her, only to watch her fade out; she had never been there at all. Hardluck performed a quick negotiation with her rather more solid orcish guards and convinced them to walk away, while Gable and Lear put the drill and the rest of the automata out of commission.
The fight, while brutal, was over quickly, and Coppermein praised them, offering each the reward they had requested: sacks of gold for Hardluck, Zharra, and Harley, an improved position within the revue for Gable, increased status for Duna Sparksteel as requested by Iron Horse, and…nothing, yet, for Lear, but the promise of assistance in the fall of Asher Macavoy.
(Speaking of Macavoy, Madeleine MacGillicudy sent a message to Lear announcing that while she was rifling through his papers, she came across the strong scent of a perfume she knew to be worn by his ‘mistress’, a prostitute named Evony who worked for Mother Mercy.)
The party decided to quickly return to Gable’s rooms to make sure Sorrow was safe, and found her unmolested, though the smoke smell from her attempt at breakfast would probably not clear out for some time. She was less than pleased to learn about Zora and her possible fate, but agreed to bundle up for the trip to Bette to see if, now that they knew what to look for, she could locate the others of their kind.
Bette was willing to offer assistance, and announced the presence of five individuals besides Zharra and Sorrow: one in the nearby mountains (presumed by the party to be Zora, at the Magician’s tower), one to the south, somewhere in the Dragon Empire, and one far to the north, where there were no large settlements to speak of. Since none of the others were in any position to be contact easily, the party dropped Sorrow off again at Gable’s and went to discuss developments and next steps.
Iron Horse had a proposal. It was customary among his people for individuals who shared a purpose to bind themselves into a group through the use of ritual and certain drugs. He sent Hardluck to acquire the drugs, who agreed. While the salesman’s back was turned, he attempted to pilfer a small packet of dreaming grass, but was troubled, for perhaps the first time in his life, by a twinge of conscience, that was so strong that fighting against it left him slightly but noticeably physically weakened. Everyone but Lear, who for reasons undisclosed claimed to be unable to participate, agreed to take part in the ritual. Lear accompanied them into the desert late at night to stand guard, and the others smoked from a communal pipe and slowly drifted out of consciousness….
…only to awaken in a strange place, with geography similar to the desert they had come from, but at midday, and filled with bright, almost garish color. As Iron Horse had predicted, spirit guides approached them; a dark crow perched on Hardluck’s shoulder, a sandy-colored dog trotted up to Harley, and a beautful tropical fish that could have been mistaken for yellow and blue jewels swam through the air to Gable. Zharra was not approached by a guide, but her cat familiar accompanied her to this place, and just as everyone was about to ask Iron Horse about his spirit guide, the sillhouette of a woman came over a small dune, sun at her back. As our heroes’ eyes adjusted to the light, they came to recognize one of the most famous women in the world; the hero of Jackson’s Fall, the only person to walk out of the Rift alive at the end of the Dragon Crisis, Jelenneth van der Graff, known better to the world as the Trickster.