Knowing the location of the research center, where the Kalashtar and Imperium were working on their portal ritual, the group sneaked in after seeing the researchers leave, following the lead of Kirisame through the winding passages. Before proceeding into the main chamber, they searched the adjoining hallways where they found storage rooms containing two things in great quantities: blood and souls.
Disturbed by this discovery but seeing an opportunity, Mercy set about collecting as many of the shards of souls that she could carry (dismissing the rest to the Shadowfell). Stocked with more than a hundred shards, Mercy assisted the group in dumping buckets of blood and searching more storage rooms. Once enough damage had been done, they went into the main chambers of the laboratory.
This expansive room was dotted with stations for various researchers – desks piled high with papers and equipment – and was centered around a machine that Silk recognized as a larger version of the Dwarven soul harvester, all of which was overlooked by a massive glass cabinet filled with ever more soul shards. Electing to deal with those later, the group searched the lab finding two researchers – one Human sleeping in his chair and a Kalashtar sleeping at his desk. [Description of how they were silently dispatched]
After dealing with the two stragglers, the group searched the lab for more information on the portal and the nature of other research being done here. While the intellectuals did their work, Byron went off to the massive, engraved gate on the far side of the room. Looking directly toward the door, Byron felt a surge of inspiration, gaining an understanding of his current situation that he had been unable to reach before (effectively bringing him up to speed with everyone else). Immediately sharing this with the group, the others were drawn to investigate this phenomenon further. Aegon found that the Spark of Io reacted strongly to this inspirational effect, like a hatchling hearing the call of its mother, and the others found their own thoughts passing from one to the next faster and more clearly than ever before. Aegon concluded that the researchers must have been using this effect to facilitate their studies.
Indeed, Aegon had found from their papers that this lab had achieved a great deal over about ten years of research – breaking ground in areas that had been untouched for millennia. They had learned how to permanently sustain not only a portal but an interplanar portal – indeed they had found a way to breach any interplanar barrier regardless of its rigidity. The Imperium could reach any divine plane it desired – the wishes of the resident deity be damned. Worse still, Aegon uncovered plans for the Imperium to teleport an enormous machine of war – an airship outfitted with newly-invented magitechnology – onto the capital of the Manichaean Confederacy. Weaponry on this ship exceeded anything that a single mage could accomplish – an expansion on the earlier beam weapons used to destroy the city hall of Byblos. With this information in tow, Silk and Mercy dismantled the soul harvester and destroy all of the relevant papers on its construction and use that they could find.
Before entering the sealed chamber, Mercy used a short-range scrying spell to check for any threats. Inside the room was a flock of angels surrounding the (second-largest) dragon that Mercy had ever seen – an ornate golden dragon held down by heavily-engraved chains and surrounded in sigils of increasingly bewildering complexity. Seeing that the dragon was unconscious, Mercy and Aegon used their rings to communicate with the dragon, both of them entering a trance as the three of them joined minds.
Within a dream of sorts, Mercy and Aegon found themselves face to face with a hooded figure whose hands were skeletal thin – the spitting image of their employer! Revealing himself as such, the man expressed his relief that the group had succeeded in getting to him after his guidance ceased. He apologized for his absence of late and for his inability to explain events more directly – his visits to their dreams were as a mere fragment of himself, with only his strongest intentions coming through clearly.
As none other than the god Io himself, their employer said the group deserved a more full explanation of recent events:
Ten years earlier, when the Imperium acquired Dwarven tech and a jar of souls, Io – having support from none of his brothers or sisters, nephews or nieces, – chose to cross into the mortal realm of Vala and stop the Imperium himself, him alone believing that these actions went beyond mere jingoism and were manipulations of a more sinister force. Left in a weakened state by the crossing, Io was confronted by a human army and subdued, allowing imperial mages to suppress his powers for transport to a proper dungeon. From there, he has made every attempt to gather forces of his own to deal with this threat, making his greatest steps forward in bringing the party together.
Asked if the forces manipulating the Imperium were these Illithids, Io replied in the affirmative but revealed that this only scratched the surface. These mindflayers were only the servants of a primordial god that predated even the the Father Sol and the Mother Gaia. Before the birth of any of the present gods and goddesses, Sol and Gaia created a plane in which to trap this First Being, sealing it within a material prison in the form of a truly infinite column – the mountain on which all mortals now reside! When Sol and Gaia were betrayed and killed millennia later by their children, this knowledge was lost from the world, only to be discovered piece-by-piece by Io. With none of the gods able to see what he had seen – quite literally as a result of the First’s influence over memory of itself and its creations – Io was left alone to prevent the First from becoming a threat. Only the goddess Avandra, who Io spoke of admiringly, listened to him sympathetically and was prepared to act should this situation escalate.
As creations of the First, the Illithids carried its memories and were connected indirectly to its mind, following its orders despite its imprisonment deep within the Underworld (far beneath the realms designed by Anubis for the dead). Able to act freely in the mortal realm – with no mortal capable of remembering their existence even once seen – the Illithids have finally found a means to their ultimate goal of freeing their god – they have completely taken over the mind of the Emperor of Mankind, convincing him to steal soul technology from the Dwarves and use souls to power an interplanar portal that would pierce the shell of this prison. The Imperium has been led to believe that the interplanar portal will only be used to enter the Apocrypha – the infinite library of Io, now abandoned by his absence – but the Illithids will ensure that this is not the target of the first portal opened.
During their time on Vala, the Illithids were opposed only one other time in mortal history – the Kingdom of the Rakshasa learned of their existence and sought to prepare for a war with the Illithids, using their vast resources to build an army and research ever greater forms of magic. Before their goal could be accomplished, thralls of the Illithids among their ranks used this magic to summon a fragment of the First – a mere manifestation of its will – into the kingdom. Despite putting up a fight, the Rakshasa were defeated and the result of this brief foray of the First into the mortal realm was the great desert near Manichaea – no trace remained of the once fertile lands of the Rakshasa.
Absorbing this new information, Mercy and Aegon promised they would free Io momentarily but that several angels – of Julius no doubt – stood in their way. Saying a temporary farewell to the god, they returned to consciousness among their party members and relayed all that they had learned.
Working quickly, Aegon broke the seals on the gate while the rest of the group forced it open. Although the group had fought two angels before, there were eight in this room and more continued to stream into the room, through the walls, as the battle continued. Without exhausting themselves, the party won the day and set about freeing Io.
Once unchained and awakened from his magical sleep, Io thanked the entire group in person and urged them to leave him to recover. While they had to prevent the Imperium from activating their interplanar portal, he would steel himself to attack the Illithids directly, assaulting their great hive that lay beneath the city of Terra.
Seeking more information, before embarking on this direct attack on the Illithids and the imperial palace, Mercy decided to commune with the Illithid soul she had trapped within a shard.
The Illithid was uncooperative at first, but Mercy used her knowledge of trapped souls to force it to reveal a memory. She saw a war against people whose garb was reminiscent of Caire styles. Dozens of Ilithids, some as big as dragons, were being killed by magic of a magnitude she had never witnessed, even from Kirisame and his amulet. One lone Ilithid was taken aside by someone who appeared to be a priest of Anubis.
The memory skipped, and another set of horrifying images and sensations arose. She was engulfed in light and feeling immense pain. She could see two gold dragons floating in space watching her. The memory skipped again and she woke up in a cavern. It skipped again and she saw an infinitely tall mountain cracking near its peak as water flowed off the top and fire erupted from all sides. In the background, a ball of fire appeared and came crashing down into the mountain as dark gas engulfed it and snuffed it out. This last memory felt less real than the others.
She then telepathically asked Io about the crown and the Ilithid memories, and received the following information. Io told her that the events she saw occurred in a great battle when the First was almost summoned into the world and the Rakshasa stopped it, at the cost of their entire kingdom. The crown was likely made from the skull of one of the defeated Ilithids. Io said he believed the two dragons were Gaia and Sol imprisoning the First in the mountain of the world. He believed the last memory came from the imagination of the First itself. Io also believes that only the First or the power of an Ilithid can destroy the crown. Io also urged the destruction of the jar of souls and cautioned that it must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the First, as he would certainly consume the imprisoned souls.
[to be continued]