Episode 124: A Walk to Warmer Welcomes
The Nein continue their flight into the frigid night. The Tomb Takers give a halfhearted chase as Lucien calls out after them “Run all you like. We’ll be right behind you!” The frantic friends aimlessly flee in the darkness just trying to put enough distance between them and their enemies to catch their breath for a second. Fjord remembers there’s a mountain range somewhere nearby that might give them some cover. He gets his companions focused and pointed in the right direction as they limp, fly, and fall their way to safety.
The deep, storming night is unforgiving and the way is unclear but by the grace of gods the Nein see the faint shape of a mountain looming in the distance. Caduceus alerts his companions that he can still see the Tomb Taker’s in hot pursuit. The hundred pound threshold crest is slowing down their escape and the Nein briefly argue about dropping the stone to escape with their lives but the idea is short lived; they can make it safely.
Just as their polymorph spells and stamina are sputtering out, they reach the base of the mountain. Caleb has just enough left in him to eagle carry his friends up to a high mountain ledge out of reach of the Tomb Takers. Everyone collapses under the cover of the ledge but rest is short lived. They have to get this threshold crest out of the grasp of Lucien. For tonight, the Nein will pray that the Tomb Takers will not try to scale this mountain in the dark. They bury the crest under two feet of snow and make their camp under the dome a bit higher up the mountain. Uneasy rest claims them.
Morning breaks and the stone’s hiding place lies untouched. The Nein retrieve the stone and try to come up with a more permanent solution to keeping the crest from Lucien. Caleb suggests teleporting the stone to a faraway location will be their best option. Beau posits they could send it to Yudala Fon at the Cobalt Soul in Rexentrum. A quick message to Yudala confirm that he is willing to recieve their package and Caleb begins casting a teleportation spell. Magic is still a bit wiggly in Eiselcross but the Nein would rather take this chance than continue to carry the crest on their persons. The spell completes and the stone vanishes…hopefully to the correct location. Caduceus spots some movement at the base of the mountain. It appears the Tomb Takers have caught up. He warns his friends and just as they consider sparking an avalanche to slow their pursuit, the Tomb Taker’s beat them to it. A well aimed explosive sets the ground shaking and the snow pack tumbling down towards the Nein. Jester and Caleb are able to polymorph and get their companions to safety. The Nein decide to ask a nearby friend for help and some cover. It’s time to visit Essek.
The Nein finally arrive in the general area Essek should be in. No noticeable fort though, just strange icy spires in a shattered and uneven landscape. Jester reaches out to Essek saying they are somewhere in the area, there’s some weird spires… where are you?” Essek replies that they are in fact in the right place and to approach the spires slowly with weapons stowed away.
They get within a few hundred feet of the spires when a handful of crossbow wielding Kryn surround them. Caleb and Jester show their Bright Queen medallions and see they’re here to see Essek and the group is quickly escorted inside to reunite with the Shadowhand.
A familiar figure meets them in the center of the spires, a shy grin on his face. Jester can’t help herself and rushes forward to give Essek a giant awkward hug. Essek returns an awkward greeting and calls the all clear to his crew. Suddenly the spires around them jump to life, secret doorways opening up to reveal a magnificently disguised fort within the ice. Caleb jumps right to the matter at hand asking to talk with Essek in private. Essek agrees and shows the Nein inside to more private chambers.
There’s a quick exchange of pleasantries, Caduceus gets a pot of hot cocoa going, and Caleb notices their friend is showing some fraying nerves. Eye contact can be very hard. Fjord uses his abilities to notice two invisible soldiers tucked into the corners of the room. The Nein ask again to meet as privately as possible. Concerned, Essek agrees and under the charade of a quick tour of his quarters the Nein are finally alone in private and are able to divulge their troubles.
The Nein warn Essek of Lucien and the Tomb Takers, cautioning that they may try and follow the Nein here. This sets Essek a bit on edge, but he trusts his Aurora Watch to keep the fort secure. The Nein try to impress upon Essek just how dangerous Lucien can be, layering detail on top of awful detail of the Tomb Taker’s abilities. You know, anti magic rays, life sucking choke holds, almost all of them died during their last encounter. Essek takes all this in stride but Caduceus and Caleb both notice his nerves are beginning to creep up again. They ask Essek what he’s doing all the way out here anways.
Essek reveals that he asked to be sent to this posting to get as far away from the Dynasty and the Empire as possible. Too many questions were being asked about his possible involvement in the mess with the beacons. Also, seeing as he was no longer of use to the Empire and was their only dangling thread, it appears they have sent several…dozen assassins out looking to cut this loose thread for good. He is not currently suspected as the traitor in the Dynasty but his continued involvement with the Nein are not helping his standing with the Bright Queen. He is quickly finding himself out of options and backed into a corner.
Jester and Caleb ask if Essek is up for some new and interesting work out here. He admits that he hasn’t minded the research opportunities and day to day out here but who can turn down the offer to save the world with their friends? He also reveals that he has recently discovered new Beacon iconography here in the ruins leading him to believe he was correct that Dunamis has roots far beyond what the Dynasty currently believes. He is acutely curious to uncover more of what the beacons and Dunamis are capable of but he knows this is what led him down a dangerous path previously.
Caleb wonders if somehow the Beacons were used by Aeor in an attempt to save themselves from their untimely end. Caleb has also noticed some strange parallels or bastardizations of Dunamis magic in these ruins. Essek and the Nein debate which came first, the mythos of the Luxon and Dunamancy or fragments of advanced Aeorian science and mathmatics that survived the apocalypse and grew into the Dynasty’s religion.
The Nein recount their visions of Cognouza and the nightmare that Lucien wants to resurface. They do however withhold the new appearance of tattoos on Beau and Caleb. Essek is a bit spooked by the tale of this tortured city of dreams but wonders what the Nein would have him do about it? Doesn’t this seem a little out of their league? Oh, yeah no, the Nein agree this is all well beyond them (much to Essek’s panic) but, what else can they do but try to stop it? Essek shakes his head but agrees, saying that he’s spent so much of his life focused solely on his selfish wants and desires. But the Nein, with their kindness and forgiveness, have shaken him to his core and he knows it’s time to try to do some good. He doesn’t ask for their trust, and they are not yet willing to completely give it, but they all agree that he will do what he can with the time he has left to help his friends.
Fjord suddenly interrupts this heartfelt conversation with the realization that they forgot to mention that Dagen should be arriving any second now. Just then, alarms begin going off and Essek rushes out to the center of the fort. Dagen has an Aurora Watch soldier in a headlock, holding up the Nein’s message. They quickly calm the situation and get Dagen inside, passing him off the the head of the Aurora Watch under premise of a job interview. Caleb suggests they and Essek continue their conversation inside.
Returning to the private study, the Nein make plans to delve into the secret entrance into Aeor and stop Lucien. Essek knows that the Tomb Takers will need to travel with the threshold crests into the astral sea to plant them on Cognouza to be able to physically bring the city back. They should look for a possible doorway or portal to intercept. Talk returns back to the history of the beacons and the coincidence that the Dynasty rose to power after finding these beacons possibly filled with trapped souls from Aeor. Essek finally makes eye contact with Caleb and reveals he thinks the Beacons could possibly be used to unlock the secrets of time if they could just bring one here and research. The idea is tempting but sets off uneasy tension. They are still too fresh from Essek’s last betrayal surrounding the beacons.
Jester then lets slip that Lucien still has Vess DeRogna’s body which finally snaps Essek’s increasingly fragile nerves. The full weight of Lucien’s power combined with the fact that the Nein were the last people to see Vess alive and now they have led any Empire inquiries straight to Essek sends him into full panic attack. He’s so sorry but the Nein can’t be here anymore. Things are too dangerous and volatile. He wants to help, he really does but right at this second its not safe. He asks the Nein to regroup elsewhere, maybe get a few more powerful allies on board then contact him when they are headed into Aeor.
The Nein reluctantly but understandably agree to part ways. Things are still too tense for them to be comfortable together. As everyone leaves the chamber, Caleb quietly grabs Essek’s forearm and tells him to breathe. Just breathe. It takes time. Not weeks, not years. It takes time. Essek seems to take a small comfort in this interaction. The group says their goodbyes. For now, the Nein will pay a visit to Archmage Yussa in Nicodranus and see what leads may be followed there. They will reach out again soon when it is time to delve into Aeor together.
Once the Nein have gathered enough supplies, Jester sends a message to Wenceforth letting him know they are on their way into Yussa’s tower and need an urgent meeting. Wenceforth gives the all clear and Caleb casts the sigil. The Nein step through leaving icy Eiselcross behind and appear in Nicodranus once again.
What a wind down after last week’s monster session! My nerves. The break in the intense action is quite appreciated. The twists and turns in the story line during this session have me desperate to know how the Nein will tackle Lucien and the Somnovum next.
The denouement of the chase between the Nein and the Tomb Takers took up the first half of the session. While the danger was still very real, the mood from Lucien and crew was more like a lion letting his mouse toy scamper away. Lucien may be slightly irritated by the Nein but he still has the upper hand. They know the Aeoran ruins better than the Nein, Essek, and even Dagen. Losing the threshold crest is a minor hiccup, he’ll deal with the Nein later.
It’s been a minute since we’ve seen the Nein in absolute panic mode. Two fights in one day, both of them ending in flight. The magic users mostly tapped, Beau hanging on by a thread, and several of the party fighting the effects of exhaustion, things were not ok. Thankfully though, after a few rounds of chaotic running, the Nein were able to form a semblance of a plan, choose a purposeful direction and keep just out of the Tomb Takers grasp.
Even after the immediate danger recedes into the background, the Nein still faced some tricky predicaments ahead. They managed to escape with the threshold crest, barely, but…now what? Lucien is able to magically track them, so hiding in the vast expanse is not a viable option. Caduceus was ready to drop the stone and keep running in the hopes that Lucien will give up the chase and the Nein will escape with their lives. Not the worst deal, but it invalidates everything the Nein have tried to accoplish here thus far. Caleb is still hoping they can find a way to destroy the stone or at least keep it out of Lucien’s hands long enough to see a better plan. They do have a flight and speed advantage over the TT’s which gives them the slimmest margin of error to operate on. This chess game enters into it’s final moves. Any mistake could spell the end.
Ultimately the decision to teleport the stone (hopefully) out of reach and flee to Essek seems to be working for now. Lucien turned his attention back to the ruins and onto plan B for now buying the Nein at least another few days if they’re lucky. Caduceus has offered to keep an eye on the Tomb Takers to warn the Nein if Lucien manages to get his hands back on another threshold crest. This will push their doomsday clock forward and springboard the story into endgame strategy. The location of the teleported threshold crest is also still a mystery that will hopefully be solved next session. We’ll also see what Caleb can gather from Yussa and/or Halas. Hopefully some final puzzle piece or breadcrumb that will give the Nein the confidence to face Lucien and the Somnovum again.
We still have the problem of Caleb and Beau’s fancy new eye tattoos! They could be unwilling informants making it impossible for them to get the drop on Lucien. They are also at risk from possibly being drawn further into the Somnovum chaos and turn on their own friends during a pivotal moment. I am loving all the mind-controlling, reality warping big bads that have been featured in this campaign.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it a thousand times, I am living for the stark difference between International Legendary Heroes Vox Machina, and the group of [email protected] just trying to figure out who to trust and save the world without anyone knowing it was actually in danger.
With the Chroma Conclave and Vecna, there was a clear line in the sand- our heroes standing up against evil. All their allies quickly came to their aid without question and cheered their victories. The Nein must feel like their screaming into the wind at this point. “Hey guys, Obann is bad news and probably trying to bring back a nightmare betrayer god!” “Hey guys, Lucien is into some weird sh*t, it’s creepy, probably should stop him.” And what do they get in return? Cobalt Soul- we’ll look into it and see what the books tell us. Dynasty- we’ll keep an eye out but that sounds like its more your problem than ours. Assembly- ooh that sounds rough, we’re probably involved in some nefarious way, sorry not sorry.
I agree with Caleb, they’re better off going with allies that have no strong allegiance to Dynasty or Empire. Appealing to Yussa’s greed and self-service might just work. Maybe getting Allura involved again would be helpful, but they have a very tenuous relationship and no real ties or incentive beyond “the world might be in danger and we don’t know how to stop it.” Halas, I will say, is an incredible wild card in this arc. But, the Nein have almost certainly burned that bridge when they refused to uphold their end of the bargain and release Halas back into his body.
Ok nerds, it’s Essek time. It’s been horribly hard for me to separate my personal excitement at Essek being back in the story with his actual usefulness and reliability. I have no one to blame but myself, I, like many, am a serious sucker for tortured souls. After hearing Liam/Caleb’s sentiments towards Caleb in the most recent episode of Talks Machina, I decided to deep dive and re-watch Essek’s storyline in this campaign. As a side note, the Nein’s interrogation of Essek happened almost a year ago to the day. Episode 97 was also Critical Role’s last live show just before quarantine began the final week of February. Oh the memories. Anyway, I am desperate for Essek to have his redemption arc and continue his working relationship and friendship with Caleb and the Nein but I think Liam is right. Essek is absolutely toxic to Caleb right now. Mercer has been really pressing on Caleb lately and dangling “Time Dilation is my specialty” Essek in front of him again may not be the best idea right now.
Caleb sees too much of himself in Essek to completely disregard everyone’s favorite war criminal. Essek has move for move experienced everything that Caleb went through ten years ago when he broke from Trent and the Volstrucker. Just like Caleb, Essek though he was above reproach, above societal norms, and meant for greatness. They both held no loyalty to king (or queen), country, or family but only to themselves and look where it got them. Liam is right though, Caleb only came as far as he did in the right direction because of his constant relationship to the Nein. There were so many close calls and slip ups with Caleb early on in the campaign, but now it finally feels like he has a firm foot in something real. I think Caleb’s hesitance to trust Essek again is valid. Essek has no one to keep him accountable or hold him to an exacting standard like Caleb did. Essek could be free falling for all they know. Lucien or the Somnovum could tempt Essek with that knowledge he’s been so desperate for and Essek’s ego could get in his way again.
I will say Mercer seems to give Essek a real chance at redemption in this episode. Last time the Nein and Essek clashed he was in a vastly different mindset over his actions. The Nein had just unmasked Essek as the Dynasty mole that knowingly handed over the Luxon beacons and triggered a war. When asked why he would betray his people and his friends in this way he had no real answer other than he wasn’t expecting the Nein to be so involved. At first he claimed he did not regret his actions. He claimed that he still stood by what he did for the ultimate betterment of his people whether they wanted it or not. He convinced himself that he alone knew the true power the Dynasty could have but they were too blinded by childish religion to see the truth. Caleb left Essek with the same words Molly used that shocked himself into realization. Leave the world better than you found it. This and Caleb’s plea for Essek to see the light, let go of his selfish ideations, find faith in friends and do the right thing.
It seems that Caleb had more of an impact than he thought. The Essek we saw in this episode was definitely feeling the weight and shame of his actions. He’s here in self imposed exile, in hiding from Empire assassins, and losing credibility with the Bright Queen and the Dynasty. He also showed a much more vulnerable and fearfully anxious side once the Nein dropped the nightmare that is Lucien in his lap. It broke me a litle seeing how torn he was to ask his friends to leave so quickly after they arrived. The Nein are good for him but they are too much danger for each other right now. It’s sweet that he worries about them and so quickly agreed to face Lucien together with the Nein so quickly. He’s a far cry from the snarky, aloof genius we met 70 episodes ago. He’s still stuck in lost cause with no reason to live mentality , but if he does end up helping the Nein in this encounter, it’ll be one step closer to righting some wrongs. Damn Mercer for making such compelling villains this campaign.
I hope next session keeps the tension going! I think the Nein are definitely feeling the pressure from Lucien. But now that they’re out of Eiselcross, I do worry they’ll lose the urgency or get distracted by other threads of the story. It’ll be interesting to see what allies the Nein can rally in the few short days they have. It’s absolutely insane that Veth is considering going to Trent and the Assembly for help or at least information, especially after everyone they come across tells them not to trust the Assembly for anything. Not to mention, they are most likely held responsible for Vess DeRogna’s death/disappearance. That can’t have gone unnoticed by the Assembly for this long. So many options, so little time! Don’t worry Critters, it’s almost Thursday.