Tuesday, December 21, 2010

EPISODE XL: The Banewarrens, Act II - The Outer Vaults IV - Danar's Assistant; Grailquest Team Two

Augustar 3

Over breakfast, the Rosegate Company discusses the events of the last few days. Early listens to the stories of the recent forays into the Banewarrens with great interest, and now feels recovered enough to return to the adventure. Vatex the elf suggests they raid the Vladaam Mansion, but eventually the consensus decides on returning to the Banewarrens.

The warblade asks Emeris the shadowcaster to acquire a book from Saharasahla’s library called “The Coming Age of Worms, and Other Dark Prophecies”. Emeris finds the request peculiar, and Early explains that he walked up to the Imperial University yesterday and spoke with an elven scholar named Shar, who was an expert on ancient history and religion. Early was seeking information about Kyuss, “the Worm that Walks” -- the mysterious entity for which his sword, Cryssaegrym, had profound antipathy.

Shar explains that many contradictions and uncertainties surround the elder evil known as the Worm that Walks. Most historical record points to it being Kyuss, a name that holds dreadful import not because anyone remembers any atrocity committed in his name, but rather the things that serve him still and yet walk the earth to this day. His numerous minions include undead and aberrations. It is these servants mortals have come to revile, and they extend their loathing to Kyuss -- if only because many milennia of persistent, harrowing legendry have attached the name to various monstrosities.

Scholars of the most forbidden lore agree that Kyuss walked the earth before the time of Danar the Saint, a time when primitive humanity dabbled in blasphemous arts and served dark gods. Most believe that Kyuss was either a mortal necromancer or considerable talent or an evil god’s ranking priest. The most common theory claims that Kyuss was so wicked that even his decadent society exiled, casting him out because he dabbled in forbidden magic and spoke ominous prophecies of an impending final age -- the Age of Worms. As an outcast, he became a prophet and drew followers who clamored to hear his grim words. Some believed him to be a god in his own right, and believed he would save them from the horrific age he foretold.

Unfortunately, that is all he knows. However, he refers Early to an eccentric book store owner who possesses an extremely rare tome by someone called “Balgor”, called “The Coming Age of Worms, and Other Dark Prophecies”. Coincidentally enough, the book store owner turned out to be Saharasahla.

Early joins Vatex and Dziga the shadowdancer-rogue, who head down to the Adventurer’s Square for supplies. Dziga purchases the “Boots of Althor” from Myraeth’s shop, which increase his agility when activated. After shopping they wait for Emeris in Oldtown.

The shadowcaster enters Saharasahla’s library and is surprised to see the old man looking terrible, as if had aged 10 years in the last few days. He was very frail, and his voice very weak. He ordered Emeris to get him anti-sleeping pills from the Shuul immediately. Emeris completes the errand with annoyance, and the old sage gobbles down a handful of pills within seconds upon his return. This seems to sooth the old man, who takes two items from a hidden compartment in his desk, gifts for Emeris. First is a smoky glass bottle, stoppered with a strange shadowy stone. When opened, it will summon a special kind of genie from the demiplane of Shadow, called a khayal, that will serve Emeris for 24 hours, then it will become useless. The bottle originally allowed the user to call the khayal, named BALIN-RA, three times, but Saharasahla had already used it twice. The second item is a leather collar with onyx spikes and a tarnished silver clasp. Although completely opposed to the idea of wearing a collar to gain additional powers, the collar of umbral metamorphosis is quite powerful. Saharasahla created it to give the wearer power to become a being of shadow.

When Emeris asks him about the book Early wants, the old man tells him to take it but that him and his friends are foolish for their tendency to “become involved in things [they] cannot understand.” Emeris shrugs and hurries to join his friends at the old manor house in Oldtown.

They head down the umber hulk tunnel without incident, but upon reaching the broken seal area they encounter three soldiers from the Holy Order. Two are completely paralyzed, the third wounded and scared. He tells them a monster -- some kind of troll with a massive brain -- appeared out of thin air, and attacked them. Its touch caused complete paralysis, and a fourth soldier was dragged off to the south by the monster. The company heads off to track the monster, following an obvious smear of fresh blood leading deeper into darkness.

Dziga stealthily follows the trail and locates the body, but no sign of the monster. Suddenly, Emeris and Early, holding up the rear, are attacked by the monster -- the “thought stalker”, a bane sealed away by Danar long ago. It materializes out of the material plane and attacks. Thoughtful of the church soldier’s warning about paralysis, Early repels the monster’s assault with masterful skill until the others join him. A flurry of blades defeats the monster, and they set fire to its remains until there is only a charred corpse showing no signs of regeneration.

They pass through the sealed door and see the staircase is blocked off by thick spider webs. They burn through and return to the freezing trap area. Dziga can find no means of disabling the trap, and the group is forced to suffer the magical ice by passing through one by one. Dziga and Emeris are frozen solid and need to be burned free. Fortunately, Dziga’s studded armor protects him from the flames with its enchantment.

Past this, they find a disarmed trap in a hallway, then In a room full of iron barrels, they find a humanoid made of metal trapped under the clutter. One of his legs mangled and one of his eyes -- a diamond -- is missing. It seems it has been trapped here since the geological upheaval that created the Spire, and over that time it has gone a little mad. The construct not somewhat hostile and distressed, because it says a black-skinned woman with two big furry beasts offered to fix its eye in exchange for information. It told them how to operate the “plug control room” -- then they just left him here. The companions remove it from under the barrels, and it is very grateful. It takes careful questioning to get the construct to speak coherently, and many details are forgotten or clearly incorrect, but they do get some useful information from it.

Geristranomos was Danar’s assistant in the Banewarrens, responsible for mechanical maintenance. It wonders why all these people are suddenly wandering around the Banewarrens, when the Sealed Doors could only be opened by Danar’s own touch. It says that the Inner Vaults and the Baneheart were corrupted when Danar fell. Now they are very evil places. The only evil in the Outer Vaults comes from the long-term residual effect of being near so many banes. The Inner Vaults and the Baneheart were the domain of a number of Darkstar’s lieutenants, some of whom might still be around. The worst of these is THE MALEFICITE, who was once an angel.

They tie the construct onto Vatex’s back. Because the construct is eager to clean the plug control room, which is the room with the pillar, the iron plates, and the many switches, trick it into disabling the ice trap in order to take him there. It tells them the correct order to hit the switches, and upon completing the sequence they find that Navanna must have already done it.

They head to the room where they’d met Navanna, and find the wall of force still intact, but a twenty-foot wide block of stone in the southern wall has risen to the ceiling, revealing a passage beyond. Geristranomos tells them they can bypass the force field through the “drainage pool”, but its damaged memory cannot recall where that is.

Meanwhile, the Grailquest Team Two -- a second, more powerful force sent by the Pactlords of the Quaan, having overheard the machinery in the plug control room, prepare to set up an ambush...

They move to get back to the unexplored passage past where they found the construct, on the west side of the outer vaults. Scouting ahead, one with the darkness, Dziga spots a set of black eyes watching him from the northwest stairs in the room where they’d fought Erzak and Derimach. Dziga signals to his comrades, who hang back on the southern staircase. Dziga advances and uses Tche’deng’s wand to launch a fireball into the corner of the room. The southern chamber fills with flame.

A terrible scream is heard from the direction of the black eyes, when an invisible hieracosphix named WIVER attacks, becoming visible to the shadowdancer only at the last second. The fierce monster’s claws cut only air as the nimble rogue dodges. Dziga repeatedly stabs Asura into its flank and ribs, and he is joined by Vatex, whose blades cut away ribbons of flesh. The two make short work of the monster.

A horribly burned monstrous spider rushes from the northwest stairs into the room, managing to bite and poison Vatex. Then, invisible until now, an ogre mage named OSTARACH emerges from the southwest passage, blasting a cone of wintery cold at the two of them as Wiver falls. He taunts them as pathetic humanoids, and says they are the Grailquest Team Two -- “much better than those chickens like Ios or Erzak.”

Dziga easily dodges, but Vatex is not so quick, feeling the burning cold of blasting ice. The spider is killed in the blast. A second monstrous spider rushes into the fray to take its place. Early rushes down the stairs, torch and sword in his hands, while Emeris flies over him towards the melee. He stabs down at the spider as he flies, dodges a net of webbing hurled at him by the ettercap, NISSLENTAR, who emerges from hiding on the northwest stairs. He then lands and begins to power up his magic.

Vatex cuts down a spider with a spray of green ichor, just as the final member of Grailquest Team Two makes an appearance -- YUINTHU the mind flayer, his deep crimson robes slightly charred from Dziga’s fireball attack when he was invisible in the adjacent corner. He telepathically taunts the companions, specifically selecting Vatex to say how hungry he is, and how badly he wants to eat a fresh elven brain. The tentacles around Yuinthu’s mouth flex and a blast of psionic energy rolls over the entire group. Early is knocked senseless, crumpling to the ground. The others resist the assault with tremendous force of will. Yuinthu’s alien visage seems to show fear that its attack was not more successful! These humanoids are stronger than he'd expected.

Dziga draws his bow, Roguefiend, and looses a poisoned arrow at the illithid. It takes the monster in the ribs and it hunches over, only to be blasted by Emeris devastating killing shadows mystery. Nisslentar is hit as well and is nearly finished. Wheezing and coughing up blood through its tentacle ringed orifice, Yuinthu can barely fight back when Vatex moves in and drives his sword through the Pactlord’s heart. Dziga kills the second spider, stunned by the illithid’s attack.

Ostarach sees there is no escape, and simply makes a gamble to take at least one humanoid down with him -- the helpless Early! His attempt to decapitate the helpless warblade shows embarrassingly poor aim, and Early survives, albeit with a gushing wound in his head. After dispatching the weak ettercap, the group converges on Ostarach. The ogre is quickly defeated by their combined might, with Dziga striking the final blow.

Early regains his wits shortly after the fight ends and curses his weak willpower. After looting the bodies, the group explores the western passages. In an old storeroom containing unused tools, they are attacked by a vengeful spirit. Its chilling touch drains Vatex’s lifeforce, but the group’s magic weapons dispatch the spectre before it can cause too much harm. The elf is weakened considerably, but he assures them he can press onward.

South of this chamber, they come across three more humanoid constructs made of bronze, which Geristranomos calls the Warrenbuilders. The constructs stand to attention but do nothing else. When they ask Geristranomos if they could use one of the Warrenbuilders legs as a replacement for his own, Danar’s assistant freaks out, and it takes some work to calm him down. They consider getting rid of the annoying construct, but Emeris thinks they should keep him. Maybe they can get him fixed in the city.

On a random hunch, Early asks Geristranomos about Kyuss. The construct remembers that name being mentioned by Danar, and the name “Wormcrawl Island.” No other information can be pried from the construct’s memory.

A door to the south leads to what appears to the the drainage pool. The floor is about three-feet below the door, and blue tiles cover the floor and walls up to the point just below the door. Here and there are rectangular gates covering various holes. Near the middle of the room, two tall columns made of glass rise from floor to ceiling. They are filled with water, and each also contains what appears to be a giant, monstrous octopus. Between these pillars is a steel cylinder, the bottom of which has a heavy, hinged metal cap with a circular wheel-valve in the middle of it.

In the southeast corner of the room, the group finds a secret door leading to a passage, at the end of which is another secret door that leads to the area behind the wall of force in the plug room. After some discussion, they decide they should return to town, identify their loot, and get Vatex’s energy restored at a temple before they continue on.

They get back to the surface without incident. The sell all the Pactlords’ loot except the useless Quaan bone rings, of which they have amassed quite a collection. Dziga uses Wiver's magic bracers, which increase his strength when worn. The companions then take Geristranomos to the Temple of Vexander, where specialized dwarven engineers get to work fixing the leg and eye in exchange for a donation to the temple. After a hearty meal prepared by their butler Seanus back at the mansion, the Rosegate Company retires. Tomorrow, it is back to the Banewarrens.

Next time: Will Navanna reach the Inner Vaults before the Rosegate Company? Are the Pactlords of the Quaan's "Grailquest Teams" all gone?

Random Elanian Factoid: Adventurers rarely frequent the Guildsman District, although this is where much of Elan’s real power -- and money -- lies. Many speak of this area as if it belongs to a different city, for its allegiances are primarily to Elan’s tradition of commerce rather than the Holy Empire. It is rife with rumor -- some say the Shuul run secret operations out of the Foundry, an outright violent war is said to be on the verge of breaking out between powerful guilds, and one particularly esoteric rumor says an evil artifact called the “Black Grail” lies somewhere in Ghul’s labyrinth beneath the Darkbirth Madhouse (this last rumor is obviously untrue, for the Black Grail lies in the Banewarrens).

Friday, November 12, 2010

EPISODE XXXIX: The Banewarrens, Act II - The Outer Vaults III - Enter Navanna Vladaam; The Dread Osyluths

Augustar 1-3

Maurice the gnome fighter and Kazinor the elven cleric express wonder and amazement as they accompany the Rosegate Company past the Sealed Door and into the Outer Vaults of the Banewarrens.

The group moves up to where they encountered the Pactlords Erzak and Derimach. The dire ape’s corpse remains where it fell, but a bloody smear runs up the stairs to the south, indicating the other bodies were removed. The group quietly follows the bloody trail to a square room at the top of the stairs, containing a broken pit trap. Peering into the pit, they see it drops fifty feet to a bed of deadly spikes, and the Pactlord bodies were dropped therein.

The group checks out the double-doors east of the pit, on which is painted a pastoral scene with a soaring pegasus. Dziga unlocks the door and the group investigates the strange, 60-foot round room beyond. Within, an iron pillar rises from floor to ceiling. There are four levers on the pillar, one turned right and the others turned left. A metal track set into the stone runs all around the circumference of the room. A flat iron plate, like a pie-shaped wedge equal to about a quarter the room’s area, covers the northwest portion of the floor; the plate is attached to the pillar in the center and to the track. A set of iron stairs 5 feet wide runs up to a 5-foot-square hole in the ceiling.

The ceiling appears to have a similiar track to the one on the floor. It is also fitted with an iron plate attached to the pillar. This plate covers about three quarters of the ceiling’s surface -- everything but a pie-shaped wedge directly over the floor plate, which exposes the hole in the ceiling.

Emeris investigates the pillar while Dziga heads up the stairs into a hole, where he finds himself in a 10x10 room. It is empty but for a lever on the wall, turned to the left. He checks carefully for traps, finds none, and turns the lever to the right. He did not notice in his search that the lever activated a sonic wave mechanism, and he is blasted by it. The second component of the trap activates, and it tries to teleport him elsewhere. Dziga resists the effect with tremendous strength of mind. The lever moves back to the left with a clank.

Wary of possible traps, Emeris tests the level on the pillar that it moved to the right, realigning it with the other three levers on the left. There is no sonic blast, only loud noises of gears or mechanisms moving above and below the round chamber. Emeris deduces that the iron plates must rotate to expose other rooms, but it could be very dangerous to experiment by randomly pulling different levers. They figure the dungeon might somewhere contain information on the operation of this device.

They exit the chamber and go through a door to the south, where they find an apparent dead end containing a slender, fit woman of demonic heritage. She is human-looking, but with black skin and hair, four small horns along her hairline, and pointy yellow teeth. She only says, “I should have known I’d be running into you soon.”

Emeris demands to know who she is, saying he doesn’t want to have to watch his back. She refuses to answer, just seeming mildly amused. Vatex looks upon her with the lenses of assessment, and sees her aura puts her at about 20% stronger than himself. Between the five of them, they clearly have the advantage and boast this to her. Guns and arrows are leveled at her. She asks, “Do you really wish to fight me? Go ahead and try.” Her confidence is somewhat unsettling. Vatex eyes the room carefully, looking for any sign of trickery. He sees none, but does notice that a twenty-foot section of the south wall has a tight but visible seam from floor to ceiling. A secret door of some kind?

Maurice charges the woman, sword drawn. She makes no motion to draw her sword and defend herself. She simply watches as Maurice is stopped dead in his tracks as he crashes into an invisible wall of force bisecting the chamber. Vatex fires a rifle shot, which bounces off the force wall also. The woman cannot help but laugh, and her smugness is really rubbing the companions the wrong way. To taunt them further, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a mummified hand -- the Banewarrens key! Their suspicions are confirmed that this is Navanna Vladaam.

They need to find a way to get at her, so they can get the key. They decide to backtrack to the room of stairs and head down the southwest passage. Their path is blocked by a trapped floor that freezes Maurice solid. The group pulls him off the trapped tile and waits for him to thaw, which does not happen. The only way to get him back to normal, they find, is to burn the ice away with fire, which burns the gnome as well. After he warms himself and is healed by Kazinor, the group decides not to test their luck with the frozen floor trap. They backtrack again and head up one of the westbound stairs.

They pass a pit trap that has thankfully been disarmed already. Beyond is metal door marked with runes and sealed with that silvery substance they’d seen earlier. Dziga picks the lock and gets the door open. Beyond are two more doors. Since the north door has no discerable way of being opened, Dziga unlocks the west door. When he enters the corridor beyond, he fails to notice the mechanism which was triggered by the door’s hinges. Six arrows fire from holes in the far wall, and Dziga does an evasive flip in a split second response. Two of the arrows catch him, but his wounds are not severe. A moment after the arrows fire, a portcullis drops down, blocking off the western half of the corridor.

Emeris assumes it is an incomplete trap serving no purpose, but Kazinor suggests that the portcullis is meant to keep people from getting to the other side of the room, despite it appearances of being an empty deadend. Vatex’s tremendous strength, enhanced by his belt of giant’s strength, allows him to lift the portcullis a few inches, enough that the mechanism resets and it rises back into the ceiling. They search the west wall, finding a hidden compartment in the stone. Again Dziga fails to notice a dangerous trap, and when he attempts to open the compartment he is jolted and his nervous system is damaged. He drops to the ground, completely paralyzed. Fortunately, Maurice happens to have a potion which alleviates the shadowdancer’s condition. The gnome tells Dziga “you owe me one.”

Within the secret compartment is a switch that opens the door in the north wall of the previous room. Within they find eight brown, wooly cocoons hanging from the sealings. Whatever is inside begins to stir within four of the pods when the companions enter. From them emerge the “dread osyluths,” unique devils rightly necessitating imprisonment in the Banewarrens thousands of years ago by Danar. Despite its formidable resistance to Emeris’ shadow magic, the first one goes down quickly, but upon its death, it is replaced by two more identical creatures. They had a bad feeling about the situation, but they continue the battle suspecting the devils’ capacity to reproduce must be limited. When the spawned duplicate is defeated two more replace it. They realize with great distress that this is a hopeless battle.

Kazinor and Maurice flee the chamber, heading back to the switch that should close the door. The gnome shouts desperately for the cleric to hit the switch even though the others are still inside. Fortunately for the company, Kazinor refuses to do it, insisting that the others must escape. Fighting desperately, Emeris and Vatex pull back, almost reaching the door when Dziga is grappled by one of the osyluths as it drops from its broken pod on the ceiling. The twists and fights but cannot break free, and he feels consciousness fading as the large devil crushes him in a bear hug. Emeris tries to trackle the osyluth to free Dziga, but its size and strength foil him. Vatex rushes in to help, his empowered strength making him even stronger than the devil that towers over him. He delivers a crushing bodycheck which causes the monster to drop Dziga, who scrambles away.

Maurice is still screaming at Kazinor to close the door. Emeris, Dziga, and Vatex fight their way out of the chamber. As the osyluths pursue, Emeris unleashes his breath attack. The blasting cold seriously injures a few of the devils, and they fall back for a moment. Kazinor pulls the switch and the door closes. They are all safe.

An argument breaks out over Maurice’s desire to save himself by sacrificing the others. He retorts saying that they would do the same if given the chance. If the traps they’d encountered so far did not convince Maurice and Kazinor that randomly poking around the Banewarrens was a bad idea, then the dread osyluths sure did. The gnome and the cleric question their continued presence in this place. The Rosegate Company uses their reputation as the heroes who saved Elan from the barbarian horde to convince them to stay, “for the adventure.” But there is still tension between the group and it is obvious they will not be able to work together much longer.

Saharasahla contacts Emeris at that moment, and tells him that he has learned that Navanna is possibly a member of the Keepers of the Faith, the mysterious organization to which Khyron and Andross had belonged. He says if that is true, then her objective is probably to reach Jabel Shammar, for if the legends are true, the Banewarrens are somehow connected to the dark fortress at the top of the Spire. They had learned some time ago in the Book of Faceless Hate, that the Keepers of the Faith were enigmatic seekers of the darkest secrets of the Ancients.

Back in the stair room, the companions take the other stairs going up to the west. This leads through the passages comprising the north and west portions of the outer vaults. Dziga disarms a complex trap involving a 100-foot pit that already seems to have claimed a victim -- dropping down a torch, they can see the body of what seems to be an orc broken amidst shattered stone.

Down a long chamber going east they find find a large, two-level chamber containing a large device like the one outside the Sealed Door. This one, however, looks to be fully built. That said, it shows no visible or audible sign of functioning. Based on knowledge of the arcane runes on the device, Emeris presumes that it is related to the magic powering the Sealed Door.

Continuing on, they pass through a series of chambers. In one, Dziga is badly battered by a trap which fires bolts of force from the wall. He scrambles down the passage. It seems too dangerous to disarm, but the others bypass it as the rate of fire allows it to hit only Vatex as the others rush past. In the chamber to the south, they find a putrid stench coming from a ghastly flesh golem made of animal parts, its head being that of a bear. The golem carries many vicious wounds, and it seems that someone passed through recently and killed it.

Past this, they find a door that reconnects to the round room with the iron pillar and the many levers. They unlock another door connected to this room and find a vault of weapons featuring dreadful appearances. Within steel, glass-fronted display cases are swords, axes, and maces, with such things as bat wings for hilts, snakes as hilts or handles, demonic faces leering from pommels or heads, and various symbols of evil etched into blades and other surfaces.

Protecting the vault is a giant scorpion construct, and four miniature scorpion constructs. The mini-scorpions uses sonic wave projectors to slow down their foes, which the large scorpion blasts out a cloud of purple gas that fills the corridor. The Rosegate Company resists its effects, but Maurice and Kazinor are instantly petrified. The scorpions are defeated with a combination of blades and shadow magic, and the group overcomes the magical protections surrounding the evil weapons, which blasts holy energy at anyone not philosophically aligned with Danar himself. Gathering up the armory’s contents and leaving the statues of Kazinor and Maurice where they stand, the Rosegate Company leaves the Banewarrens and heads back to the city.

The next morning they sell most of their loot at the Adventurers’ Square, but the evil-looking weapons are difficult to liquidate with legitimate merchants, because non-evil users are negatively affected by them. They eventually get a contact with a illegal weapons dealer from the Docks named RAMONE. Over the next day, they work out a deal where they get paid eight platinum bars in exchange for nine of the evil weapons. Dziga hangs on to one of the evil-looking daggers, thinking it might be useful. The group also keeps Tche’deng’s cloak, which grants the wearer more physical resistance; Tche’deng’s headband, which can apparently attaches an intellect to a skeleton; and a wand of fireballs that still carries many charges.

By Augustar 3, well stocked and well rested, the companions are ready to return to the Banewarrens.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

EPISODE XXXVIII: The Banewarrens, Act II - The Outer Vaults II - Aelrich's Return

Juliar 31 - Augustar 1

While Vatex and Emeris await Early's resurrection and load up a wagon to move to the Rosegate House, Dziga the shadowcaster, charged for double murder, finalizes his deal has worked out a deal with Judge Rahl to avoid jail or capital punishment. By turning over documents that implicate the leader of the Republican movement, Helmut Itlstein, in treasonous plot to attack the Holy Palace. His lawyer, Luigi Nono, tells him that he and his friends will be required to testify against Itlstein, and Dziga will be marked as a criminal but otherwise not punished or imprisoned.

Dziga gets out of jail with horrible X's burned into both cheeks. He meets the rest of the Rosegate Company just as they are loading up the last wagon of their stuff to move to their new house in the Nobles District. Seanus the servant is commanded to take the wagon and unpack their stuff, for they must return to the Banewarrens posthaste. Emeris notes that Early's hands shake when he carries even light objects, and the warblade retreats to the ally every so often to vomit fiercely. The shadowcaster convinces him to stay behind when they return to the Banewarrens and recover from his experience with death.

As Dziga the shadowdancer, Vatex the tempest, and Emeris the shadowcaster make their way back to the abandoned manor house in Oldtown, Dziga is brought up to speed on the current situation.

Saharasahla contacts Emeris through the thoughtstone and chastises him for delaying so long, and letting other factions get into the Banewarrens first. He says the Holy Order, the Inverted Pyramid, the Pactlords of the Quaan, and House Vladaam were now obstacles. Additionally, the old shadowcaster suspected that House Sadar knew of the Sealed Door as well. He tells Emeris that he would seek the missing page of the Book of Inverted Shadows himself but for the fact that he cannot leave his library. He calls Emeris his “avatar of shadow” on a quest to recover the lost secrets of history’s greatest shadowcaster. By working together, they will share the glory. He is building a new tool to give the half-dragon when it is ready as well. Finally, he says that they will probably need to eventually get the Banewarrens key to progress through the different levels of the Banewarrens. Saharasahla believes there are three levels beyond the sealed door -- the outer vaults, the inner vaults, and “Tremoc Korin” aka the Baneheart. It is likely that the 751st page is in the inner vaults or the Heart of Banes.

When they enter the old manor they find by the umber hulk’s tunnel MAURICE, a gnome fighter with big hands, and KAZINOR the elven cleric of Maduin, a god of magic and secrets. They are faily impressed when they learn these are the folks who stopped the barbarian invasion and saved the city. Emeris lies and says they came here because they heard a halfling at the Ghostly Minstrel talking about this mysterious tunnel. Coincidentally, Maurice and Kazinor are hunting a group that is accompanied by a fiendish halfilng named GUMMERS. Kazinor reveals that for the past month or so, the followers of the demon god Vazdah, have been converging on the city of Elan seeking out a “favored soul” of their dark master. They pursued a group of these Vazdah followers, including one believed to be the favored soul himself, into this house. They are unaware that the tunnel leads to the Banewarrens.

Finally, he warns Emeris about the banes trapped in the Banewarrens. He worries that Emeris’ dark soul will cause him to be tempted, which could be dangerous if even someone of Danar’s power could be utterly corrupted.

The followers of Vazdah only have a 20 minute headstart on the group. Joining forces, the Rosegate Company, the gnome, and the cleric head down the tunnel. Emeris has a sneaking suspicion that the “favored soul” is their missing friend, Aelrich, who they have not seen since the fight against the chaos beast beneath Derby and Anamethe’s house.

In the broken seal area, the companions encounter the followers of Vazdah. There indeed is Aelrich, covered in evil looking full plate mail that is fused to his flesh. He is accompanied by an orc ranger named KULGORI, who wields a battle axe in each hand. There is also TCHE’DENG, an extremely frail humanoid in robes and wrapped in rags. Finally, there is Gummers, the fiendish halfling assassin.

Tche’deng orders Aelrich to kill these enemies, but the favored soul of Vazdah pauses when he recognizes his former friends. Aelrich explains that after the battle with the chaos beast, he sought to remove the curse Vazdah had placed on him. One night, however, Vazdah sent Aelrich a vision, and he learned it was his destiny to find the “Sword of Lies”. The next day, he met Tche’deng and many other members of the Church of Vazda,. who convinced him that he was not cursed but blessed. He says he awoke last night after receiving another vision from Vazdah, which told him the Sword of Lies was in the Banewarrens, which were now open, and that anyone in their way must die.

Maurice and Kazinor are confused as to how Dziga, Emeris, and Aelrich know each other. Emeris tries to convince Aelrich that they should work together, but it seems the favored soul has been essentially brainwashed, convinced that battle is the only option. Dziga and Vatex cut down the Gummers, while Tche’deng casts a haste spell on Kulgori, who charges the others like a whirlwind of blades. Aelrich powers himself up with dark magic. Kazinor is badly wounded but Kulgori eventually dies when Maurice puts the tip of his sword through his heart. Tche’deng a spell on the area and causes Maurice, Vatex, and Kazinor to move as if mired in molasses. Aelrich and Tche’deng unleash various spells at their enemies but they are resisted.

Dziga strikes a blow that should have cut vital organs, only to learn that Tche’deng is only a skeleton under those robes. Tche’deng is taken down by Vatex’s flaming sword, and the group converges on Aelrich, who fights despite hopeless odds. Emeris tells him to yield, but the favored soul of Vazdah will not. Dziga finally kills him, stabbing him twice in the back, then running his blade across Aelrich’s throat as he goes down.

Kazinor casts healing magic upon those wounded in the fight. Emeris lets slip that they are going “back to the Banewarrens”, which exposes the lie they’d told to Kazinor and Maurice. Although trust is very strained, the group patches things up enough explore further. Kazinor and Maurice wonder if that was the last of the followers of Vazdah.

Before returning to the outer vaults, the group decides to investigate the unexplored areas surrounding the sealed door. In one room, the evil of the Banewarrens has animated dead insects into humanoid shapes, creating two wight-like creatures that attack them. Kazinor’s holy turning power causes the undead to cower against the wall. Maurice, Vatex, and Dziga fire guns and arrows, and Emeris casts black fire. The monsters are dispatched without difficulty.

They find signs that mark someone else’s passage. One room contains four ghoul-like creatures that appear to have been hacked violently apart. They also find a hallway full of doors, three of which are open. One opened room is extremely cold, and the floor is covered in water as if ice recently melted. In another room, they find a glass box fixed with straps, meant to hold a roughly man-sized humanoid. Was this the ‘eternal’ cell of ancient dark elf, Tavan Zith? All the other chambers are completely empty, perhaps having been intended for something at one time but unfinished by Danar before the legendary priest was utterly consumed by evil.

Elsewhere, they find a deep empty pit fitted with big chains and manacles, but fortunately holding no monster (which appears to have been the intent). Another room contains a pile of stone that appears to be the result of a large statue of a warrior being shattered. In the room where Kalerecent had hidden for several days while being hunted by one of the Pactlord lamias, they find a bunch of strange tools and brass plates, apparently meant to complete the partially constructed-device of mysterious nature that sits outside the sealed door to the outer vaults.

In another room, behind a door marked with unrecognizably ancient runes, they are attacked by a fierce reddish-purple wraith. It is defeated easily enough. The group moves through various archways connecting different sections of the chamber, and finds an altar holding a massive jewel roughly the same color as the wraith. Dziga disables the traps meant to protect the jewel, and takes it. The group makes their way back to the sealed door, and is attacked by three more wraiths, each appearing a few minutes after the destruction of the one before it. It is deduced that the stone itself is generating the wraiths, so they decide to get rid of it. Dziga runs off and tosses it in the big pit. Regrouping at the sealed door, they step through and back into the outer vaults.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

EPISODE XXXVII: The Banewarrens, Act II: The Outer Vaults I -- Pactlord Ambush!

Juliar 30-31

The companions finish packing and decide to go with the name “Rosegate Company,” to go along with their new property up in the Nobles District. They hurry to the city registry before it closes, and sign the papers – and that means the Rosegate House is now theirs. With that done, the company decides that it is time to return to the Banewarrens. First, they will need the key from House Vladaam. Vatex is dispatched to find Nicalon, the Knight of the Chord who wanted them to help him break in for his own purposes.

Emeris stays at home, reading Saharasahla’s copy of the Book of Inverted Shadows. Early heads out to once again visit the dwarf Magnus, trying to haggle the dwarf on the price of his six-shooter magnum, a marvel of old dwarven engineering. The dwarf won’t budge from his original price – 16,000 gold coins, or a key to Shadowhearth, the lost dwarven city underneath Elan. Given that legend says only nine Shadowhearth keys exist in the whole world, Early presumes one of those is worth far more than 16,000. He’ll have to keep saving up his money.

Early then feels that he needs a drink. He shouldn’t be drinking of course, but he feels he deserves it after all the action of the past few weeks. But he feels drawn to a seedier type of place than is offered around Midtown, so he heads down to the Warrens. On the way, he finds a starving dog that looks at him pleadingly for food. He gives the dog some jerky from his pocket. After a few hours of drinking, he finds the dog has waited for him outside, and follows him home after that.

Vatex’s night is spent roaming the city, trying to get in contact with Nicalon. At the Knights of the Chord’s chapterhouse, he meets with HALUSIAN EVERFAR, the knights’ leader. Halusian informs the elf that Nicalon failed to show up for mission, and has been missing for several days. No one has seen him at his home, the chapterhouse, or his favorite tavern. Vatex tells Halusian that they’d planned to help get back Nicalon’s family relic from the Vladaams. This worries Halusian, who fears Nicalon has gone and done something terribly rash. Did the fool try to break into the Vladaam manion on his own?

Vatex hits the streets, trying to find any sign of Nicalon’s whereabouts. He finds a shivel dealer in the South Market who claims to have seen Nicalon speaking with KARVIS, an urban werewolf who is known to be one of Navanna Vladaam’s bodyguards, in the last two days. He later finds a loose-lipped thief who sometimes does contracts for the Vladaams, who says Karvis is out of town with Navanna, and they’ve been gone for at least a week, probably longer.

Vatex confronts the drug dealer with the inconsistent information, but he sticks to his story and Vatex is convinced of his honesty. The tempest brings this information to Emeris and Early, and the group wonders: did Nicalon sell them out? His hatred had seemed so profound, it did not seem possible that he would make any deals with the Vladaams even to get back his relic. But why would Nicalon be chatting with this Karvis fellow?

That night, Cryssaegrym imparts visions on Early through his dreams. He sees a lanky, hunched figure in heavy cloak and a silver mask walking determinedly across a grassy meadow, leaving a trail of decaying in its wake. He sees a humanoid seemingly made of metal flying on a massive winged beast across a blood red sky. He sees a massive black obelisk on a faraway island. He sees a stone tablet being crushed to dust by an unseen force… He can also feel the sword instructing him to grow more powerful so that he can soon complete the next legacy ritual of the weapon. He awakes suddenly, knowing that when he gets the chance, he must learn more about Kyuss, “the Worm that Walks.”

When the sun comes up on the last day of Juliar, the group negotiates a salary for Seanus to work as their servant at the Rosegate House. As they are eating breakfast, a message arrives by courier from someone named DANETH SONNEL at Mahdoth’s Asylum. Emeris reads it over, assuming it to be about Edward Caerleon. Instead, Daneth says an inmate named TABAEN FARSONG has been asking about them.

At the asylum, Daneth tells them of Tabaen. He was an elven mage on his way to pay a fine for public drunkenness when Tavan Zith had started running around Oldtown on Juliar 9. The ancient dark elf had triggered the latent divination powers in Tabaen. His mind constantly assailed by visions of doom, he went insane and had to be admitted to Mahdoth’s.

In his moments of clarity, Tabaen has been asking about Emeris, Early, Vatex, and Dziga, all by name. They pass by Edward Caerleon’s cell, and see the young man picking at the hideous growths on his chest. When they see Tabaen, they know he must have deteriorated in his time locked up here. His eyes are sunken and his frame withered. He wears leather restrains that bind his hands and to a strap around his waist – probably because of all the clawed scratches near his eyes. He babbles quietly to himself, but when he finally sees the companions his voice rises:

“The key! The key! The key that was deep under Vladaam. You have to get it back. Navaana has the key. You know the door. You have to get inside to keep people out. Many dangers. So many evils. Great evils. The key is a hand. You must use it so they cannot. Navanna will use the key. She knows the door. You must use it to find the staff that will destroy it. A key that is a hand and a staff that is a dagger.” With that, his voice trails off and he ignores the group.

No further information can be obtained from the madman, but Emeris infers that Navanna is most certainly not out of the city and could be headed out of the sealed door in the Banewarrens right now. The group quickly obtains supplies and wishes that Dziga were with them, but they fear any further delay could be too dangerous. If they are lucky, they can beat Navanna to the door and set a trap. Despite the admonitions of Jevvica from the Inverted Pyramid, Brother Heth at the Holy Order of Vigoor, and Saharasahla the shadowcaster, they had waited too long and now someone else could get into the Banewarrens before they do. One nagging question hangs over them – how did Navanna find out about the Banewarrens door? Did Nicalon tip her off? And how long before more and more factions learned of the door?

The group returns to the abandoned manor and the umber hulk tunnel in the wine cellar. They travel down the long, dark passageway until they reach the broken seal area. It is pitch black everywhere and dead silent, and they’d expected Kalerecent to still be here guarding the door. In the room with the strange tower-like device where the group had fought the Pactlord’s “Grailquest Team”, they find Kalerecent and the three soldiers with him dead by the sealed door, which is slightly ajar. They are too late!

Passing through this door, they enter the an entry chamber with stairs going up to the west. There is relief on either side of the stairs, showing a tall man with a halo in long robes, and a winged white horse rearing. Early recognizes them from his historical studies as Danar and his pegasus Voastra.

Vatex creeps quietly up the stairs, into the next room. There is not enough light to see the chamber, other than another staircase straight ahead going up further. Someone however does see Vatex. An arrow cuts through the darkness on the left and takes Vatex in the ribs. On the right, heavy footsteps are heard rushing towards him, at the last moment he sees a dire ape swing a huge fist that strikes across his face, splitting the skin along his cheekbone. He orders Early up the stairs with the torch, and brings his swords to bear against the wild ape.

Early goes into a stance, contacts with the Vajra, and draws upon power that will give him the right abilities for this battle. Emeris conjures up a web of steel shadows around himself. Vatex curses them for not coming to help, for the ape is pounding him severely and he cannot land a hit. He cannot fight effectively with the arrow in his side. The ape grabs him with its claws, picks him up high off the ground, then tears its claws free and lets the shredded elven body drop hard to the stone floor. Vatex rolls aside and retreats down the stairs, leaving a thick trail of blood all the way down.

Early rushes up the stairs, and dodges two arrows fired from the left. Mindful of the ape closing in on him, he looks south and sees a pair of shadowy figures – one a humanoid with a longbow, and another a larger creature of some kind, around which stand seven mirror images. The dire ape fiercely attacks, knocking Early back, at which time he uses the Soaring Raptor Strike to inflict a vicious wound. As he parries the counterattack, he is hit in the back with two daggers, thrown by the large figure on the stairs. The daggers are the size of short swords, and one of the apes swinging fists unluckily knocks one of them deeper. Astonished by the ape’s ferocity but unafraid, Early uses uses the Death from Above maneuver and strikes another grievous wound on the beast.

Vatex drinks potions while Emeris moves up the stairs, empowering his umbral touch with the shadow rod from Saharasahla. Emeris waits for the ape to lunge at Early again then makes his move, his hand slamming into the ape’s back and blasting it with shadowy power. Emeris’ darkvision enables him to clear see their enemies on the stairs – a gnoll ranger named ERZAK and a female lamia called DERIMACH. It goes down thankfully, but then the lamia conjures up another ally – an umber hulk! It suddenly bursts through the northern wall and comes rushing towards the group. Emeris moves to engage while the others kill Erzak and Derimach.

With the ape down, Early fires off three quick shots from his pistols and eliminates three of the lamia’s mirror images. Vatex joins him, healed up sufficiently to reengage. He fires a shot from his rifle at the gnoll ranger who grunts from the impact. Emeris closes in on the charging umber hulk, carefully avoid its gaze. But as the claw of the monster swings at him, he catches its glance and … realizes it is an illusion meant to keep him out of the fight, for had he not disbelieved it who knows how long he’d have fought it.

Derimach pulls out a sizeable glass bottle and throws it. The bottle breaks apart easily at Early and Vatex’s feet, and from it a powerful cyclone swirls out. Vatex’s lightning reflexes get him safely away, but Early is caught up in the fierce winds, buffeted and wrenched from the ground towards the ceiling.

As he is battered by the fierce winds, Early calls for Emeris to fly up and pull him out of the whirlwind, but Emeris thinks that will just get him caught in the cyclone as well. Instead, he continues rushing towards Vatex and the monsters, readying his powers.

Vatex dodges three of the gnoll’s arrows and spring attacks the lamia, who fights back skilfully with its large dagger. The tempest ducks the stabbing tip and cuts twice across lamia's torso, but finds himself only dissipating mirror images. In exchange he takes a nasty cut across the back.

The whirlwind dissipates suddenly, dropping Early 15 feet to the ground where he lands with a crunch. Erzak lines up his aim with the prone form of Early. As the warblade gets to his feet, he is hit with three arrows, one of which is pierced deep into his skull. The warblade is dead! The gnoll ranger snarls in excitement. Fueled with anger, Vatex increases the fury and speed of his attacks on the lamia and finally cuts away the last of the mirror images.

Emeris joins the battle, unleashing a cone of shadowy destruction upon his enemies. Erzak is slammed against the wall, blood pouring from mouth and eyes. Derimach is badly hurt, and falls back, away from the elf's biting swords. She throws two daggers at Emeris but the shadowcaster's steel shadows defect the attacks. Vatex’s flashing swords finish the monster and the Rosegate Company prevails, but at great cost.

They search the bodies of their enemies, finding both the lamia and the gnoll wearing distinctive bone rings. Pactlords of the Quaan! They must have followed Navanna inside. Although Emeris and Vatex hate to give their competition more of a headstart, they must get Early’s body back to the city immediately.

The Rosegate Company makes a significant payment to the Temple of Ashe in order to get a ritual for Early’s resurrection. This takes the rest of the day. Early is considerably shaken by his experience with death. But this feeling passes, and is replaced with the burning desire for revenge. The Pactlords of the Quaan would suffer his vengeance, swears Early, just like the forces of chaos that fell to his blade.

But now the group is torn between heading back down to the Banewarrens, and waiting for Dziga. They need to hurry, for each moment gives Navanna and the Pactlords more time to loot the Banewarrens, and gives more time for other factions to learn of the situation as well. But the Pactlords have twice now proven to be powerful adversaries, and they know nothing of Navanna’s capabilities, so they will need all the help they can get.

Next time: Will the second foray into the Banewarrens’ outer vaults be more successful than the first?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

APPENDIX A: The Heroic Legend of Drax the Destroyer

In the official history of the Holy Empire, Draxalanon of the Bear Clan is known as King Drax the Destroyer, the evil tyrant who invaded the imperial domain and sacked the capital city, Tairon, before being driven back by a valiant counterattack. Outside the Empire, and even in some anti-government circles and revisionist bardic tales within it, Drax is a beloved hero whose exploits have shaped the history of many nations.

Drax was born in the land of Arsis, a place known to most Imperial citizens as Avondale, the arctic region far north of Old Silmaria before the northern kingdoms and tribes were united under one banner. During the ritual in which he completed his rites of passage into adulthood, he received a vision from the animal spirit to which he was bound. In that vision he saw that he was destined to become a powerful leader. From here he went on a quest to become a great hero to meet his destiny.

It is somewhat ironic that Drax’s first heroic deed was saving the Vigoorian province of Guardia from the evil forces threatening it, including defeating a powerful night hag who had turned the baron into a frog and rescuing the baron’s daughter from bandits, and defeated undead forces threatening a sacred dryads’ grove that had existed for thousands of years.

After this he traveled with far to the south with the Shapiran Abdul, to help in a century-old war between Shapir and Raseir. Drax discovered that this war had been engineered by a deranged immortal alienist named Shadrack, who helped a brutal military dictatorship dominate the people of Raseir and wage war against their neighbors. First he defeated the four mighty elementals Shadrack sent to destroy Shapir. When Shadrack placed a curse upon Shapir’s beloved caliph, Drax found the means to dispel it. Shadrack’s final move was to attempt the summoning of an undead demon prince, who was bound on the extradimensional realm of Ine. Drax killed Shadrack and sealed the portal in a climactic battle on the roof of Raseir’s royal palace. For his heroic deeds, the caliph awarded him an estate within Shapir and a phoenix medallion that would later save his life.

Drax then travelled with the litorian paladin Rakeesh to the kingdom of Tarna, seven years before it was brought into the Empire. There the barbarian was asked help stop a war from starting between the Xerani human tribes of Tarna’s eastern lands, and the lizardfolk kingdoms of Narshe. If a war were to result, the liontaur rulers would be bound to an ancient treaty, never before invoked, to fight with the Xerani against the lizardfolk in a war that would be disastrous.

The Xerani had stolen the Dragon Crystal of the lizardfolk. In order to get it back, he had to earn the favour of the Xerani Grand Master. Drax is given the Dragon Crystal when he saves the master’s son from the mutant dire elephant Gigatusk, completes a pilgrimage to the Eternal Tree (a holy site to Sarnath, the god worshipped by all Xerani and most litorians), and marries his daughter. The lizardfolk had stolen the Xerani’s Spear of Death, a legendary weapon reputedly capable of killing anything in a single attack. Drax earns the Spear from Narshe’s leaders when he ended a terrible curse afflicting the lizardfolk.

After war was averted, Drax discovered that a demonic sorcerer named Balur was bringing legions of demons through a portal in the lost city of Mazamar, deep in Narshe’s jungles. Alone and unafraid, equipped with the Spear of Death, Drax traveled to the lost city, slaying all fiends in his path. Some say a thousand demons fell to Drax as he wielded the Spear that day.

At the portal, the wizard deployed one final guardian, a massive demonic gargoyle whose flesh could not be cut by the spear. The gargoyle grabbed Drax, and threw him into the deep chasm separating the inner and outer city, where the barbarian body was utterly broken and he died.

It was the phoenix medallion, gift of the Caliph of Shapir, which brought him back to life. And luck gods were with him that day for at the bottom of the chasm he found “Final Honor”, the magic axe of great power. Climbing up from the chasm, Drax used the axe to destroy the demon gargoyle. Then, just as Balur prepared to smite Drax with a spell that would surely destroy him, the barbarian hurled the Spear of Death. Such was his strength and accuracy that the spear flew unerring across an impossible distance, killing the demonic wizard. It seemed all was well…

…But at the same time, Shadrack had been scrying across dimensions, and used powerful magic to realign the Mazamar portal. Through this conduit, he cast a spell which pulled Drax into Shadrack’s citadel in the realm of Ine. Though Drax had indeed slain the wizard in Raseir, Shadrack had in place a contingency spell that would transplant his soul into a clone body back at his citadel. Drax escaped Shadrack’s citadel, and Drax found himself in a hostile world filled with undead, and only a few living people

Here, Drax fought legions of undead fiends and engaged in a long struggle against Shadrack’s allies, the Dragona family of vampires. Circumstances eventually had him allying with the vampire matriarch against her husband, sons and daughters. It is said that he destroyed an army of 10,000 undead skeleton soldiers with nothing more than a club. In the end, he returned to the citadel and defeated Shadrack for good, but the evil wizard’s magic was even stronger than before. He managed to summon the undead demon prince Skallathrax, and sent it through a portal back to Enhasa. Drax followed it back, and defeated it in a spectacular battle on the mountains of Avondale.

After this he found himself in the region now known as Old Silmaria, but it was just Silmaria then. The kingdom was under siege by the mighty dragon Norlac, which had taken the ruins of an ancient temple as its lair – a site that happened to be holy ground to the religious Silmarians. Yet only the king was allowed to step into this holiest of places. The king was assassinated with no successor, and the kingdom was thrown into chaos while the dragon levelled devastating assaults upon them on a weekly basis. Hundreds were killed across the region, and property destroyed on a grand scale.

Drax is nominated as a noble hero to complete for the Silmarian crown. Upon earning the crown, he travels to the ruined temple to kill Norlac. Drax was nearly defeated, but in the last moment he used his epic strength to push down one of the only pillars left standing in the ruins. It collapsed a part of the roof and nearly crushed the dragon’s huge head, enabling Drax to strike a final blow to the neck. Norlac’s head is famously mounted in the Silmarian palace.

Under King Drax’s rule, Silmaria opened itself to trade with other northern lands, and the entire north eventually became united under Silmaria’s flag with the Covenant of the North during the Giant Wars.

Through all these adventurers over the years, Drax was constantly followed and tested by a pair of awesomely powerful and enigmatic elves named Dalamar and Dalara. They were not normal elves, but they were “Urthon Aedar,” who always seemed to appear suddenly, perform some inexplicable task (usually conjuring up a powerful monster to fight Drax), and then leave. Drax never discovered their intentions, and was never able to defeat them. Only the rarest scholars on the most esoteric elven lore even knew the Urthon Aedar existed, much less hard facts about them.

Drax was a beloved king, and when war came between the Silmarians and the Empire, his people fought with great passion and love for their homeland. His legendary counter assault culminated in the sacking of imperial capital Tairon.

That is the story of King Drax the Destroyer.

Friday, October 22, 2010

EPISODE XXXVI: The End of the Trail III

Juliar 29-30

The next morning Early disguises the barbarians in heavy gray robes and works on sneaking them out of the city. Vatex, Dziga, and Emeris head to the Adventurers’ Square to have their reams of loot identified.

The staff at Myraeth’s Oddities identifies their many goods. They sell everything recovered from the Pythoness House arsenal, and everything else they looted from their dead enemies at the Apocalyptic Sanctuary. In the end the group collectively has about 40,000 gold coins. Vatex drops every last dime he has on the belt of giant’s strength that he’d been eyeing for weeks at in Myraeth’s shop. It is practically a miracle no one had purchased it already.

The group then heads to the fortress of Dalengard in Oldtown with Drax’s treaty, getting through the bureaucratic layers of security to eventually speak with the Commissar himself and a few members of the city council, as well as other advisors from the Holy Order of Vigoor and the Inverted Pyramid. The companions give a limited account of their recent conflicts with Khyron’s forces, and how their adventurers led them to rescue King Drax. They explain Khyron’s plan to use Drax’s death and the barbarian siege as components in a dark ritual that could have awoken the Ancients sleeping in the caverns beneath the city. A debate ensues among the council members and advisors, some thinking it must be some sort of deception and the clerics wanting to end the bloodshed. The Commissar, an eminently practical man, agrees to sign the treaty and allow the barbarian army to withdraw without interference.

With that, the Commissar bids that the companions return to the barbarian camp to seal the deal with Drax. He also insists that his ambassador, a cheerless old bureaucrat named ARUTHA, accompany them so as to observe the proceedings. He offers a unit of soldiers as well, but Emeris discourages any appearance of a threat. The companions regroup with Early and the four of them head to the barbarian camp with Arutha.

The barbarians greet the companions with open arms and cheers, celebrating them as heroes as the story of King Drax’s rescue has been heard by everyone there. When it is confirmed that the Commissar has accepted the treaty, Drax tells everyone to prepare to return to the portal in the mountains of Willendorf, so they can go back to Silmaria.

Drax thanks them profoundly:

“You have saved my life and saved my people from a needless conflict with the Elanians. If we were at my palace in Silmaria, I would lavish gold and jewels upon you. Here, let me offer you a more personal gift, one that could be far more valuable than any treasure.”

He gives them his last Phoenix Medallion, given to him by the Caliph of Shapir many years ago. When they ask about the nature of its power, he mysteriously answers, “Learn of my adventurers and you will learn of the Phoenix Medallion’s great power.”

With that, they bid farewell to the King of Silmaria, and return back to Dalengard. Along the way Arutha tells the companions that the entire city will regard them as heroes. Although the Commissar would never acknowledge that they “saved” the city of Elan, he will still reward them handsomely.

At Dalengard, the Commissar thanks them and invites them to an impromptu banquet in their honor, to be held that evening. The group is excited about their sudden burst of prestige, and purchases excellent courtier’s clothing so they can fit in with the high-status crowd.

When the companions arrive at Dalengard’s banquet hall, they are heaped with attention and praise. The entire gathering is not huge likely on account of the short notice, but many interesting people are there, including the Iron Mage, who arrives at one point to observe silently. Emeris, the most charismatic of the group, commands the most attention, especially from a couple of gorgeous socialite girls from the Nobles District. But the woman who really catches his attention is SILVARA DALLIMOTHAN. The blood of dragons is known to flow in the noble family’s veins, and Silvara’s draconic beauty is staggering. Unfortunately, his flirting is unable to impress her.

After an extravagant dinner, there is a ceremony in which the Commissar gives the companions some extremely generous gifts. First there is an exquisite painting of the the late Emperor von Tessel’s naval flagship. They are also given the crown of an old kingdom called Vel, long ago absorbed by the Empire, made of pure silver and decorated with black pearls. Their third gift is a set of three beautiful sapphires called the “Ocean’s Daughters”. Their fourth gift is the Amulet of Cassima’s Tears, which can grant the user the ability to stay alive longer in battle.

Lastly, and best of all, they are given the property deed to the Rosegate House, an exquisite mansion in the Nobles District. It had been taken over by the city when the previous owner went delinquent on taxes. The only problem is that the Commissar insists it be signed over to their adventuring company, not them personally. But because they have never done any formal “dungeon delves” they have never registered with the city as such a company. Therefore they will need to come up with a name for their group.

The companions feel like they are on top of the world when they leave the banquet. That changes quickly. Judge Rahl confronts them outside the banquet hall, with a contingent of troops. He says that he is arresting Dziga for the murder of his girlfriend Marin, and the infant girl from the Rivergate District. The Commissar is clearly disturbed and angry by the turn of events, and tells Emeris that if Dziga is innocent of these crimes, he has nothing to worry about. If he is guilty, he will need an excellent lawyer. As Dziga is shackled and hauled away, the others presume their friend is doomed. While Elan’s law enforcement was considered a joke, the same could not be said of its justice system. If charges were being laid against Dziga for murder, they would probably never see their friend again.

From jail, Dziga hires the lawyer LUIGI NONO. Although he is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the city, when he reviews he evidence he sees that it is impossible to get an acquittal at trial. Judge Rahl has a witness who saw Dziga running from his old apartment, splattered his dead girlfriend’s blood. Even more damning, when Rahl searched the apartment, he found a tiny hidden room that contained children’s bones, an old blanket with dark stains, a sacrificial knife, and a stained bowl made of some unidentifiable metal. With magic, Rahl determined that the stains were from old blood that came from the Rivergate girl.

This seems to confirm for Dziga that the murder of the infant that night with Keziah the hag really did happen. And yet, something did not seem quite right about the whole thing. Dziga was allowed to see the evidence. The knife, the bowl, the bones… they all looked very old, although the murder was supposedly only a week or so ago. He definitely was not consciously aware of any tiny room in his apartment where this evidence was found.

It seems that Dziga will be facing a death sentence, but then a way out comes to mind. Back when they broke into Helmut Itlstein’s house, the shadowcaster had stolen various documents, including esoteric prophecies and political writings. Itlstein was, after all, the high priest of the Watcher of the Skies here in Elan and the leader of the Republican movement. They had information that should be damning to Helmut -- the battle plans accompanying one particular prophecy:

“A test of will, a test of faith, the children of the New Gods are Silenced by the Black Rain.”

According to Helmut’s writings, this meant that on a single night black rain would fall from the sky, and all clerics who draw their power from the “new gods” (that is, virtually all gods commonly worshipped in the civilized world today) would lose their divine magic. Helmut had laid out battle plans with intricate maps and tactical descriptions where he would attack the Holy Palace in the Nobles District. How exactly he planned to do this and with who was not clear, but it might provide leverage for negotiation.

Luigi visits the rented house of Emeris and Early, where the companions are packing up their stuff with Seanus, getting ready to move into the Rosegate House. The lawyer tells them of Dziga’s situation and gets the documents from Emeris. He then returns to Dalengard to meet with Judge Rahl. He negotiates a deal whereby Dziga will be granted full immunity for providing evidence that gets Helmut conviced of treason. As the leader of the Republicans is a major political enemy of the Empire and especially the Elan government, to imprison him for life with treason charges is worth making a deal with the devil. However, Vatex, Early, and Emeris must agree to testify against Helmut at trial as well, if necessary to confirm the documents came from Helmut’s home.

Luigi assures them with this deal Dziga will get out, so long as everyone provides truthful testimony at Helmut’s trial, but getting bail until then for the shadowdancer will take a day or two. Luigi also warns the companions not to leave the city until these legal issues are resolved, for they are considered vital witnesses in a case against one of the city’s most powerful men and failure to fulfill those duties entails serious consequences under imperial law.

As the group finishes packing up the old house, they discuss possible names for their adventuring company so that they can take ownership of the Rosegate House. Many adventurers still await them – the lost page of the Book of Inverted Shadows lies somewhere in the Banewarrens, where powerful monsters seek dark treasures of their own; Shilukar’s contract still stands to kill Dr Feagus so that he cannot build his anti-chaositech machine; the portal to the Glade of Ravaan remains open; and they may have to face more of Helmut Itlstein’s assassins.

Early can feel Cryssaegrym growing more powerful, and as it does so does the fatalistic sense within the warblade that he must someday fulfill the sword’s purpose by destroying “the Worm that Walks”. But first he must grow more powerful and complete two more legacy rituals. This will take much training of mind and body.

In jail, Dziga wonders about his dark dreams of Keziah and the Black Man. Occasionally he thinks of the mysterious star-headed thing, and his gaze sometimes shifts through the barred window to the Spire in the distance, and Goth Gulgamel. Why did the entity possessing the star-headed thing have him go up there?

And Vatex, while washing his face again sees the silver haired elf woman in the mirror. It is the same woman he saw in the mirror in the abandoned manor above the tunnel to the Banewarrens two weeks ago. He gets a better look this time before the image fades, and sees that she is extremely beautiful and looks very sad. Again she seems ineffably familiar and he wonders who she is and why she is appearing to him. Is she some sort of spirit or the image of a living person?

Random Elanian Factoid: The Holy Palace is the home of the Holy Order of Vigoor’s religious leader, Archprelate Ronway. He believes he should be the secular leader of Vigoor as well, above the Circle of Nine and second only to the Holy Emperor himself.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

EPISODE XXXV: Night of Dissolution, Act V: The Final Ritual III

Juliar 28

The barbarian horde from Silmaria saw the appearance of the emerald moon as a bad omen, but only temporarily. By evening they again mached on Elan and clashed against imperial city’s defenses. The Commissar had mustered a powerful force to protect the northern wall of the city, including city guard, elite imperial soldiers, some of the noble houses’ private forces, the Holy Order of Vigoor, and the magi of the Inverted Pyramid. His mighty cannons could decimate a column of Silmarians in an instant. But it seemed the magic of the barbarians had been underestimated. The primal power of the shamans came from the most ancient traditions of the Arsis tribes, bending the elements to their will in spectacular ways, including and bringing down the north wall in two locations. Battle spilled into the streets around the breaches.

Beneath the city’s Temple District, another battle raged on for the Elan’s fate. Emeris the half-dragon shadowcaster, Dziga the shadowdancer, Early the warblade, Vatex the elven tempest, and Arngrim the Knight of the Pale with his men-at-arms, fought Khyron’s forces in the Apocalyptic Sanctuary.

Early cuts down a ratlord and guns down another. Arngrim attempts to heal himself with potions and magic. Vatex and Dziga attack the dancing cultists around the altar, who fight back with blasts of flame from their hands and conjured octopus-like chaos creatures. Andross screams at Khyron that the ritual will be interrupted if the dancing priests are slain. Khyron hardly seems to be bothered, saying the Final Ritual can only truly be stopped with his own destruction, for which death itself was no threat because he had become a “Shigmaa.” Wings of lightning flash from Khyron’s back, and begins flying towards the battle with rushing forth on foot Jerallan, Ibard, and Andross beneath him.

Emeris needs healing as the wounds he has suffered are grave, and the chaos ball continues to damage his flesh, so he flies to the bottom level where Banon, Pankraz, and Sancho were killed to get the potions from their corpses. While Mystina trades blows with one of the ratlords, Emeris slays another instantly with his umbral touch. He rummages through Pankraz and Sancho’s body and takes their healing potions. Mystina runs for the last potion, not wanting Emeris to take them all for himself. Emeris kills the last ratlord and takes flight again. Mystina rushes up the stairs to join the others.

Vatex is struck by Khyron’s chaos ball and pain blurs his vision as his flesh is ravaged, but he continues slashing at the desperate cultist. The cultist goes down in a spray of blood and the elf moves towards another cultist who stops dancing and draws a long ritual knife. The aggressive cultist’s fervent slash gets past the elf’s skilled defense and cuts him badly. Dziga fights off the lashing tentacles of the octopus-thing the cultist hurled at him, steps around it and quickly stabs Asura into his throat. Before the body hits the ground, Dziga vanishes into the shadows cast by other combatants. Another cultist stops dancing, looks around for the undetectable shadowdancer, then draws its knife and charges Vatex, stabbing him in the stomach.

As he drinks a potion, Early notices Andross watching him intently, acid dripping from his tentacle-arms. Khyron suddenly casts an enchantment on him that leaves him completely paralysed. While the warblade is helpless and unable to dodge, Andross spews acid on him. He cannot move, and he cannot cry out in pain, but the awful spittle burns terribly. Ibard moves down the stairs to the second level to join the melee, empowering herself with a suite of magic spells that enhance her strength, protection, and fighting ability.

Arngrim raises his sword and rushes the cultists fighting Vatex, his huge sword sweeping across and forcing the cultists back. Vatex is losing blood quickly from the stabwound in his stomach and significantly weakened from the chaos ball. The elf uses the reprieve to step back and consume a healing potion. Dziga, hidden in shadows, does the same.

The helpless Early is struck by Khyron’s chaos ball, to which Khyron laughs maniacally. “What makes you think I will not crush you now like I crushed you before?” he taunts. Enraged, Early breaks free of the paralysing magic with tremendous force of will. With a mighty leap, he lands on the edge of the third level, toe-to-toe with Andross. He finds himself assaulted by Andross’ three poison-dripping mouths, their teeth shearing and burning flesh at once. He is too busy fighting off attacks to strike a blow of his own, and the chaos ball continues to wear him down.

Vatex leaps back into the fray, his slashing blades utterly dismembering the last two cultists in a gruesome display of bloodletting. Arngrim, practically wading through cultist body parts, runs over fight Ibard, knocking aside the Spear of Chaos as it thrusts towards his heart, and swinging Durandal across in an unblockable strike. One of the points is cut right off Ibard’s star-shaped shield and the blade continues into her ribs. She fights well despite the injury, stabbing through Arngrim’s mighty plate mail many times, the power of the spear stunning him with chaotic power. Holy paladin of law against unholy cleric of chaos – despite vicious injuries inflicted upon each other, their mutual hatred drives them to fight fervently beyond any mortal pain.

Dziga emerges from the shadows suddenly and fires an arrow at Khyron. Though unaware of the rogue’s location until the last second, so agile is the cultist leader that despite his hulkish mass he dodges easily. Khyron laughs again, taunting them, and suddenly flies into a killing rage, his muscles surging with even greater proportion. He charges Early, jumping into him headfirst. His huge forehead connects solidly with Early in the face, breaking his nose and splashing blood across his cheeks. Jerallan rushes in behind her master, and the dying Early. A desperate leap takes him thirty feet into the middle of the second level, just as the fiendish ogre’s weapon strikes the stone where he stood a split second ago.

Andross floats down to the second level and blasts Dziga with acid but the shadowdancer easily evades. Dziga strikes back with Asura and a gout of thick purple blood spills from Andross’ throat, but still the monster fights. When Jerallan jumps down from the third level, she swings at Dziga and he dodges easily enough, but he takes note of how easily that weapon would kill him if it connects. It seems the shadowdancer will be quickly overwhelmed. Early quickly drinks a healing potion, then charges.

Vatex is there to follows up on the attack, swords flashing against the Keeper. With Jerallan stunned, choking up blood, Andross is alone against the three attackers, but he fights fiercely. Burned by acid and shredded by vicious bites, Early hits the ground dying.
Emeris sees him go down and starts flying in that direction, powering up his magic as he glides over the second level. Khyron takes to the air on his wings of lightning to intercept him. As Khyron flies by he slams his huge fist into Emeris’ back and nearly sends him crashing to the ground, but he stabilizes and continues on his course. The shadowcaster unleashes a blast of killing shadows that is smashes Jerallan while Andross’ spell resistance blocks the attack. Emeris curses his luck, for stopping Andross’ deadly offensive power was vital and he had hoped that attack would do the job.

Dziga rushes to Early’s aid and drags him away from Andross. Mystina comes up the stairs helps him administer aid to their dying friend. Vatex is left to stand between them and Andross deadly offensive power. In that moment, with his companions struggling on the edge of of utter disaster, Vatex fights as if possessed, hackng with vicious abandon into Andross, with such speed that the Keeper produce any sufficient defense. Vatex is literally showered in gore as is Andross shredded by elven steel. Jerallan thrusts her halberd to gore the elf, but his potion of blur makes it too difficult for her to hit him.

Still bleeding badly but now conscious, Early gets back on his feet against Mystina’s admonition. The enraged warblade’s need to spill blood overrides any immediate health concern. He pushes Mystina back and jumps into the air, disappearing into the Vajra and completing a Soaring Raptor Strike maneauver. The perfect attack severs Jerallan’s head.

Ibard stuns Arngrim with her spear, Khyron lands close by, powering up a chaos ball in his hand. Dziga fires Roguefriend at Khyron who dodges again, unleashing the chaos ball at the helpless Arngrim as he does. It smashes into the paladin who goes down hard. Shaking off the spear’s effects and fighting the pain of the chaos ball, he is back on his feet for only a moment when Ibard’s spear pierces his ribs. Before she can withdraw it he strikes back at her, cutting deep across her face. Then Khyron is upon him in a fury. His fist punches Arngrim in the gut, doubling him over. He then uppercuts the paladin, breaking his jaw. On his hands and knees, spitting out broken teeth, Khyron stands over him and with a twisted smile stomps the paladin’s head like a melon.

Vatex pulls the Cheilsecaro from his pouch and throws it at Khyron. The ceramic object breaks apart on his chest and for a blinding instant the entire sanctuary is filled with blazing white light. Ibard is blasted to oblivion and Khyron staggers back from the blast. Dziga fires arrows that deflect off Khyron’s armor.

The cultist leader charges Vatex, assailing him with crushing blows. The tempest fights back, but Khyron is very powerful. Emeris blasts him with shadow magic, and Khyron resists it with ease. Dziga cuts at him with Asura, and Khyron dodges. Mystina drives her halberd in and Khyron knocks it aside. Early flies into with another Raptor Strike but Khyron’s swinging fist knocks him out of the air the second he reappears from the Vajra.

Two powerful punches to the face send Vatex barely hanging on to consciousness. His swords cut flesh but they seem like beestings to the mighty Khyron. It is Dziga who turns the tide, shifting into the shadows to avoid a swinging fist, then reappearing behind Khyron and driving Asura into his back. He then dives out of the way while Emeris unleashes the freezing shadow of his breath weapon upon Khyron, who howls in pain. It appears their attacks are finally starting to take a toll.

Vatex decides to risk it all in one final storm of attacks against Khyron. His blurry image and incredible agility keep him safe as he strikes not one, not two, but four more wounds into Khyron. But the raging cult leader is not finished yet. He dodges an attack from Early and Dziga and prepares to crush the skull of Vatex at last.

And it is likely that Vatex would have died at that moment, had not Emeris intervened. The power of shadow surges within Emeris, powered by a greater force of will than he’s ever before mustered. A lance of blackness shoots from his outstretched hand and pierces Khyron’s chest. He arcs his back in agony, screaming in agony and falls dead to the ground.


For an instant, they cannot really believe it is over. Their intuitions seem vindicated when Khyron’s body stirs, almost imperceptibly, and a shadowy spectre of Khyron surges from the corpse for Emeris. The ghost touches merely touches Emeris with a single pointing finger, and his lifeforce is drawn away into the body of Khyron, bringing him back to life. Khyron arises, telling them they were fools to think death had any power over someone who has attained power such as his.

Emeris is dramatically weakened by the lifeforce-draining attack and Khyron attacks him with brutal strength unabated by his interlude of death. A blow to the ribs leaves several broken bones, and a second blow to the head puts the shadowcaster on the ground, dying.

Early feels his spirit connected to the Vajra, feels his spirit connected to Cryssaegrym, and the Blade of the Silver Wolf destroys the resurrected Khyron’s blood with a final blow. Khyron goes down again, and Early removes the head with two heavy swings.

Upon Khyron’s true death, the huge hand jutting out from the floor on the third level seems to emit a deep moaning sound, and it begins to melt into viscous black ooze that burns a deep hole into the stone beneath. Emeris examines the altar containing the runechildren and recalls from his early days of studying arcane magic learning of this sort of thing, and knows the children can be freed by simply breaking the altar apart. The five companions grab halberds and chop through the altar, eventually breaking it after several minutes. The runechildren float out, into the air, where Emeris grabs two of them. The other two drop to the ground after a few seconds. Next, the group examines the humanoid figures in the gas-filled tanks. Emeris breaks one open easily and a naked, slime-covered man drops out, lost in absolute disorientation. The break the other four tanks, and all have similar contents.

For now, Early guards Mystina while she gives first aid to the nine people they’ve rescued. Vatex, Emeris, and Dziga check the doors behind the melted hand. They notice black ooze has melted hundreds of feet down into the rock, so they are careful not to step in any drops.

Behind the hand is a dungeon, with a cell containing three barbarian prisoners stuck to the wall with mithril chains. One barbarian is particularly muscular and huge. Standing guard is an elven vampire naked AELINDAI WHISPERSONG, accompanied by four wights. She tells them that this means Khyron must be dead and the Final Ritual ruined, but her orders are to watch the prisoners regardless of anything else, and she says Khyron’s will reaches beyond death. They are forced to fight her. Emeris destroys three of the wights with blackfire. The fourth wight drains life from Dziga. Aelindai uses a magical circle of protection against law to protect herself against her lawfully aligned adversaries, as well as a spell of cat’s grace to increase her speed and agility. With her resistances to all but silver magic weapons and fire, she proves to be a difficult foe. Her icy touch drains Vatex’s energy severely. His flaming sword at last strikes through the circle of protection and she turns into a gaseous cloud and flees through a crack in the ceiling. Dziga finishes the final wight.

They learn that the prisoner in the cell is King Drax the Destroyer, ruler of Silmaria and the united barbarian tribes, and his two bodyguards. Drax speaks excellent Imperial Common and seems extremely knowledgeable for a barbarian. He explains that he was captured by Khyron by means of some chaos enchantment, and brought here to be sacrificed in Khyron’s ritual. He doesn’t even know where he is. Emeris tells him about the situation with the barbarian army attacking the city, the Drax asks that he be freed and brought back to his people to stop this needless battle.

Dziga picks the cell door and the locked chains, and the companions return to the surface. Early is rather in awe of the mighty Drax. Although the average citizen is familiar only with official imperial history would consider him a tyrant, the warblade was well-traveled outside the Holy Empire and familiar with stories of the barbarian king’s heroic adventurers. He admired him greatly.

The group emeries battered and bloodied in the Temple of the Fifty Three Gods of Chance. The priests treat wounds and offer restoration from the undead energy drain attacks. The High Priestess warns against the barbarians going out into the streets as some crazy civilians are roaming around attacking people who look like barbarians. So Emeris proposes that they use a potion of fly, found on the body of Saavia, on Drax so he and the king can fly outside the city and meet up with the barbarian horde. Emeris assumes the barbarian needs help flying but Drax seems very experienced. Emeris does not realize that Drax had done a lot of flying in his adventures over the years.

They fly over the walls of the city and out to the rear-most ranks of the barbarian army. At first the barbarians are confused and look as if they will attack the shadowcaster, but Drax calls out in his language to his warriors. Word begins to spread quickly that the king has returned. Drax takes up one of the battle standards, dropped when its bearer was blasted by a spell. Eventually the battle stops and Drax leads his men back to camp. The defending forces, somewhat confused, do not engage further.

Back at the camp, Drax explains to his people that the city of Elan had nothing to do with his kidnapping. Only the forces of chaos were to be blamed, and they had been defeated, so there was no more need to fight. Then Drax draws up the terms of a truce between the barbarians and the city of Elan, and tells Emeris to deliver the document to the leader of Elan. Essentially, Drax will withdraw his armies back to the waygate through which it came to find him, and the defenders will let them do so without attack. Emeris flies back to Elan with Drax’s letter.

The shadowcaster has been gone several hours by the time he returns and tells everyone about bringing the siege to an end. But before they can visit the Commissar, they decide sleep until morning. It has been a very long day.

Next time: What awaits the companions when vengeance is exacted and the city is saved? Events previously set in motion will determine their fates.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Episode XXXIV: Night of Dissolution, Act V - The Final Ritual II

Juliar 28

As the companions enter the Apocalyptic Sanctuary, Khyron smiles with the confidence that can only come from someone convinced that his plans will reach their fruition. His forces were strong and plentiful, and he was utterly confident he would prevail. He taunts the companions, urging them to fight and die while the ritual reaches its explosive apogee.

Vatex the elven tempest, Emeris the half-dragon shadowcaster, Early the warblade, and Dziga the shadowdancer all feel the swell of urgent vengeance within them. Arngrim the Knight of the Pale is likewise filled with desire to carry out brutal retribution on these evildoers, albeit for different reasons. He still hopes that the runechildren taken by the chaos agents can be saved.

The companions begin spreading out and moving towards the stairs to the second level and the three orcs defending them. Khyron waves his left arm in a wide circle and conjures up a spirit of chaos. This thing, an inky cloud of shadowy tentacle-like appendages, begins floating quickly across the chamber to attack.

Early slugs back a potion of strength as he rushes forward and grunts as two lucky ratmen snipers hit him with rounds from their rifles. Dziga slides sideways to dodge a sniper shot as he looses his own attack from Roguefriend. The arrow takes an orc clean between the eyes. The shadowdancer laughs as he takes first blood and the others close in on the orcs. More orcs on the second level take position blocking the top of the stairs and spreading out around their commander, Muallah, who shouts at them in a harsh mix of Imperial Common and Orcish languge.

Banon takes a round in the lower body as he rushes forward with his halberd. The shocking pain of the metal bullet tearing through his stomach cavity causes him to stumble. One of the Toruk-Rul orcs takes the opportunity and, with a swing of the its heavy axe, cuts through Banon’s helmet and into his skull. Amazingly, he still fights as blood pours down the side of his face. Angrim gets to Banon’s side, cutting down the orc with a single stroke of his huge sword Durandal. Vatex evades a sniper round with a subtle twist and drinks a strength potion of his own. Great magical strength disproportionate to his slender elven frame flows through his muscles as he advances towards the orcs.

Emeris’ wings snap out from behind his cloak and the shadowcaster takes flight. Saavia, on the second level, takes note and advances towards the edge overlooking the ground level. She puts a colourfully feathered arrow in her bow and fires at Emeris from across the chamber. He dives a few feet lower suddenly and the arrow misses. Immediately ahead, he can see Khyron’s fast-moving chaos-shadow floating to intercept him. A wispy lash of tentacles reaches for him, but Emeris’ ring of protection seems to force it back. It lashes out again as he flies by, but again the ring’s magic proves effective. He doesn’t look back – let the others fight their way to the second level and kill the incorporeal-thing. Instead, he would rain shadowy destruction upon the cluster orcs on the second level from above.

Following Arngrim’s orders, Mystina and Sancho fire their heavy crossbows upon the rat snipers as the monsters reload. Pankraz moves in to support Banon and get him off the front line of combat, but it is too late. One especially quick-fingered ratlord gets its rifle reloaded with surprising speed and it fires through an opening in the melee to catch Banon in the throat, putting him down in a pool of arterial content.

An orc flails violently as Early’s slashing katana takes it down. Another comes at him, swinging its axe in a powerful overhead chop. At the same instant, a sniper fires at him. He channels the vajra and traces the path of the bullet, bringing Cryssaegrym around to deflect the shot, then sidesteps past the orc’s axe which cracks the stone where he was standing. Early holds out his pistol as the orc’s momentum carries it forward. When its head lines up with Early’s aim, the warblade fires and splatters the contents of its skull across the floor on the other side.

As the bottom erupts into battle, the cultists around the altar on the middle level keep dancing and chanting away, consumed with religious fervour and possibly ritual psychotropics. Andross whispers something to Khyron then moves to the edge of the third level level, and transforms into his monstrous form. Ibard joins him and a wave of energy bursts out around her, giving the blessing of chaos to herself, Andross, Muallah, and the kython. Khyron conjures up a strange… blob… of distorted reality, and his eyes narrow on Emeris as the half-dragon flies above the second level.

Vatex drinks a potion of blur and barely consumes the last drop before a sniper round blasts apart the flask in his hand, just an inch from taking off a thumb and finger or two.

Dziga puts an arrow into the ribs of an orc at the top of the stairs. It lurches to the side a bit but holds its ground, yelling back at him. Before he can fire again, the shadow descends upon him after passing Emeris in the air. The nimble shadowdancer avoids being touched, but he can feel the profound cold that pulses those shadowy appendages, colder than death itself, and he urges the others to help him finish this spirit. Arngrim advances upon the shadow like a tank, ignoring the sniper rounds that deflect off his impressive plate armor. His holy sword partly discorporates the shadow as he cuts into it. Early and Vatex’s magic blades finish it with a flurry of attacks. The group advances towards the stairs.

Dziga stumbles a bit as Muallah, the Dark Blessed, uses dark magic upon him. He can hear the rambling madness of a hundred cultists insane nightmares, but with great strength of will he shuts it out of his mind and the magic fails to take full effect. Muallah then looks above as Emeris flies in. Another one of Saavia’s arrows misses the graceful flight of the shadowcaster. Khyron hurls his chaos ball at Emeris, and it speeds along a strange, curved trajectory before smashing into him. Where it strikes him, on his arm, he can see his very flesh becoming distorted in the same way as the chaos ball.

Despite terrible pain, the half-dragon begins to surge with the power of shadow. A dark wave seems to trail behind him as he rises over the heads of Muallah and her orcs. Emeris’ eyes, suddenly pitch black, open wide and from them bursts a cone of devastating shadow magic. Six orcs fall, blood oozing from their mouth, eyes, and ears. The force of the blast nearly knocks Muallah off her feet.

Dziga cuts down an orc at the top of the stairs while ducking its swinging axe. Angrim decapitates another. Vatex and Early rush up the stairs behind them, followed by Pankraz. Early tells him to cover their back, helping Mystina and Sancho with the rats. Pankraz protests, saying he wants to fight with Arngrim. Early reissues the instruction with practically a roar, and Pankraz starts shooting at the rats with his crossbow.

Emeris lands, hurtling a body on the ground as he does. He stops in a kneeling position, presses his fingers to his forehead and channels the shadow magic back into his mind. This temporarily opens his mind to deeper secets of shadow, and the new understanding thus offered. Patterns and formulae coherently expand before his thoughts. His powers for the duration of the battle will be enhanced. Just as the orc swings its axe down at him, he raises his hand with a calm gesture and steel shadows arc across his front and easily divert the orc’s chop. Standing, trying to ignore the pain of the chaos damage on his arm, he notes all the orcs have been slain but for this one. Ibard suddenly blasts him with a targeted dispel to eliminate the protection of the steel shadows, but much to her anger her magic does not interact effectively with Emeris’ shadow magic and his defensive mystery holds.

Dziga sees Muallah and the kython moving quickly to flank Emeris and he moves to intercept. He goes toe-to-toe with the kython, its twin bastard swords, claws, and teeth all striking with fury and skill. Dziga slashes the vicious blade of Asura, at once fending off the flurry of the kython’s attacks and trying to drive the blade past its exoskeleton into the soft tissue beneath. Dziga notes that this kython has extra chitinous plates, more difficult to penetrate than the kython creatures at the Mrathrach Machine. Dziga accepts the cuts of the kython’s swords and claws, focusing primarily on avoiding the poison dripping maw of the monster, then is forced to roll low when Khyron’s chaos ball arcs towards him. The distorted ball of reality scatters across the stone when Arngrim joins him, his holy sword Durandal cutting deep and leaving a long steak of green blood across the floor. Even then, the multi-armed kython handles the shadowdancer and the paladin with great skill, crossing its swords above its head to parry a swing from Arngrim while its claws slash at Dziga. Arngrim moves to strike again, but he is suddenly blasted by a stream of horrific acid from Andross’ tentacle mouth. Acid splashes across his face, burning away flesh and hair and forever closing one eye. Large chunks of his magic armor on his shoulder and body melt away. Arngrim screams in pain and anger, and Dziga finds all the kython’s attention again focused on him. Claws rake his face and one of the swords cuts his shoulder.

Emeris deflects the attack of the final orc, only to scream at the explosive pain of Muallah’s wicked sword cutting across his back. Then Vatex is there at his side, his swords dancing in bewildering maneuvers, deflecting Muallah’s aggressive strikes. Muallah is an excellent warrior, able to exploit barely perceptible weaknesses and move with perfect grace even in full plate armor. But Vatex is better. Flaming steel cuts through tiny gaps in her armor and his short sword jabs through magic plates into her guts. Before she can recover to retaliate against the elf, Early is there, his sword stabbing into her chest, collapsing a lung. In her final seconds, she counterattacks Early, her sword twice drawing blood. The blade seems to savor human bloodshed, for the eyes sockets of the skull on the pommel begin to glow red and the jaw starts dripping blood. Emeris fends off the orc as he pulls from his belt the rod of empowerment given to him by Saharasahla. With this, he enhances the power of his next mystery, where his hand becomes surrounded in darkness.

The Flame of Elmekia cuts through Muallah’s breastplate and he drives the point of his short short into the side of her head. In a fluid motion he wrenches her body off his swords and dives towards the orc fighting Emeris. Flaming elven steel strikes once, and the orc is dead. But as the body falls aside, Vatex sees Savia approaching with her anarchic sword from the Pythoness House arsenal and he moves to faces her.

Back on the first level, the rat snipers have foregone reloading their rifles and instead and emerged from their defensive positions behind the cell doors, attacking Sancho, Mystina, and Pankraz with their longswords. Three rats engage Pankraz by the stairs. One ratlord’s skull is crushed by Pankraz’s halbard, but the other two overpower him and hurry up the stairs to assist. The other rats gang up on Sancho. One blade cuts the tendons in the back of his knee and he falls to the ground, at which point he is stabbed and slashed to death. One rat stays below to engage Mystina while the others head for the stairs.

For each hit again the kython, Dziga suffers two. Defending against the various limbs is exhausting. With Arngrim shaking off the shock of the acid burns, Dziga cannot withstand this monster’s assault single-handedly. Suddenly Early enters the fray, landing from a long jump some distance away. Early is one with the Vajra, as is Cryssaegrym. The silver flashes into the kython’s back and green slime sprays the warblade’s chest and face as he tears the weapon free. It still fights fiercely, swinging its swords in parallel arcs to strike back, and Early is cut by the lower blade as he ducks at the last moment. Arngrim, badly burned, strikes again, taking off the kython’s lower left arm. Dziga strikes the final blow, with Asura’s curse causing him to pay a price for his bloodlust. He coughs up blood as the kython falls. He is then hit dead on with Khyron’s chaos ball, knocked to the ground.

Emeris cringes as he drinks the healing potions to mend the cuts in his back and heal his arm, and he takes a moment to more closely regard the altar around which the four cultists – who are apparently completely oblivious to the carnage around them -- are dancing madly. It is low, round, made of black stone veined with red streeks. Emeris can see that inside the altar, through some magical violation of spatio-physical laws, there are four children cowering in terror, each with a runelike tattoo on their face or hand. Then there are the five glass boxes containing… humans?... suspended in some fluid. Whatever the meaning of this strange arrangement, the shadowcaster figures it is central to Khyron’s ritual. His focus becomes killing the dancing cultists.

With his hand of darkness Emeris grabs the nearest flailing cultist by the wrist, yanking him from his dance and ravaging him with dark, shadowy energy. The cultist screams and pulls away, holding up his hands and blasting a wave of fire at the shadowcaster. The other cultists continue dancing, and Khyron hurls a pixellated ball of chaos at shadowcaster, hitting him in the back. The wounded cultist resumes dancing as Emeris is wracked with pain.

Andross hits Early with a blast of acid as Saavia and Vatex fight at the edge of the second level. Though Saavia is nowhere near the skill level of the elf, she fights with “Gommueon”, the anarchic longsword which strikes deep wounds in Vatex, whose soul is lawfully aligned, and while she is much slower, her natural scales and chainmail armor make it difficult for Vatex to score a decisive hit. Early then joins him, and the two quickly overpower the lizardwoman. A flaming strike from Vatex ends her life.

Early and Arngrim face the ratlords, cutting down two of them as more come up the stairs, and Dziga joins Emeris in drinking badly needed healing potions, which dramatically slow the effect of the chaos ball. Vatex’s flaming sword hits a dancing cultist, who continues right on dancing. Ibard and Andross fall back towards Khyron and Jerallan, the fiendish ogre who has not moved from Khyron’s side the entire time, and the cultists continue dancing, and the other ratlords come up the stairs. Mystina fights against the ratlord below, parrying its thrusts while her free hand holds in the glistening ropes of her intestines, cut free by a bad wound.

Next: The epic battle continues!