With Avach gone, the Emeris the shadowcaster, Vatex the urban ranger, Early the warblade, and Dziga the rogue-shadowdancer head higher towards the Spire. They hope to get lucky and encounter Navanna Vladaam, kill her, and loot her corpse for the Banewarrens key.
They pass a locked vault that they leave be, and reach another big staircase. Vatex hears gibbering and gabbering and ape-like noises up ahead. Early stays back, stealth not being his strong point, and the others quietly make their way up the stairs.
A huge cavern rises up into the darkness, and not even Emeris can see the ceiling. The floor, 30 feet below the ledge, is swarming with the banebrutes. There must be nearly a hundred of them. There is a stone staircase going down to the floor, and another staircase heading 60 feet up from the ledge, to a landing where another staircase provides a path higher yet heading south. The staircases appear to have been hewn from natural rock formations at one time.
The steps continue another 60 feet to a higher landing, then 60 up to another ledge -- obviously the way to the Baneheart. Yet it seems the Banebrutes must be dealt. Emeris uses shadow magic to telepathically inform Early as to the situation, and the warblade storms up the stairs as the Rosegate Company launches its assault.
Fireballs launch from Dziga’s wand into the cavern below, blasting apart half a dozen clustered brutes. The cavern briefly illuminates with the explosion, revealing a horrible tentacled aberration in the southern end of the cave for a brief instant. Vatex positions himself at the stairs to the cavern floor, ready to slay any brute that charges up. When he draws the Rudeus of Vazdah, the purple flames spill an eerie light over the cave. Dozens of pairs of glowing banebrute eyes look back at him with an appetite for violence. Emeris takes flight off the ledge and blasts freezing shadow breath and killing waves of shadow magic into the banebrutes.
Early reaches the ledge and scans the for landing with his darkvision goggles. He fires off a few electrical rounds from his pistols, putting down a few more brutes. Banebrutes have begun to pile up the stairs from the cavern floor, leaving Vatex and Early to fight them off while Emeris supports by casting black fire beneath them. Banebrutes howl as the die from the freezing shadow flames, and the warblade and urban ranger fight side by side, slaying the others with the efficiency. To the right, Dziga fights off the blasts more fireballs at the brutes climbing up the wall to the ledge. Many die, but more are coming. Other groups of brutes are climbing up the stone landings to reach the staircase and charge down to the companions.
Vatex and Early tear through a few more ranks of charging brutes, who try to get over the black fire but get damaged as they try. Brutes are climbing up around Dziga faster than he can put them down. Another dozen is rushing down the great stairway.
The aberration -- a somewhat handicapped deepspawn wielding wands, an axe, and a greatsword along with its mawed tentacles -- fires magic missiles from its wand and begins to slowly pull itself out of the fetid, bubbling black pool where it resides. Emeris is jolted by the bolts of energy as he blasts away more brutes into bloody shreds. More magic missiles strike Early as the warblade hacks and shoots away at brute after brute. Vatex meets the charging brutes coming down the stairs and his efficient blades kill brutes with each strike. Bodies continue piling up, and more brutes climb frantically over their companions to strike down the elf. Black claws find no flesh to rend as Vatex weaves around, using their numbers against them. More brutes fall.
On the right, Dziga’s flurry of striking daggers piles up dead brutes around him. On the left, Early fights more brutes climbing up the wall to avoid the black fire on the stairs. Lightning pistols and Cryssaegrym reap their toll in monster blood. In the end around 60 banebrutes are dead, and the rest, stupid and brutish and primitive they might be, their hunger for blood has been replaced completely by the need for self-preservation. The pool from which the deepspawn crawled seems to be the source of the brutes, as slime-covered half-born brutes claw at the air and twist with the agony of their evil genesis. With most of their population dead and an awkward lifecycle, they submit to the dominant predator of the cavern.
The group now moves against the deepspawn. Dziga loses arrows from Roguefriend, and the aberration howls. Moving forward more quickly now, firing more magical missiles, it is devastated when the swooping Emeris’ killing shadows blasts flesh from its body. Vatex’s rifle hits true, and blood sprays across the cavern floor from a smoking gory hole as Early moves in to make the kill.
The deepspawn charges the warblade and swings its greatsword. Early easily deflects the attack despite its force, and advances closer, evading the swinging axe then allowing himself to be scooped up by the biting tentacle. He ignores the pain of its jaws biting through flesh and into his ribs, and feels the Vajra in his mind. As the deepspawn pulls Early in to bite him with its huge primary mouth, Early wrenches Cryssaegrym free and raises it high. The other companions could swear that for an instant they saw a silvery, spectral image of a great beast, maybe a dire bear, appear behind their friend in the clutches of the monster.
Early strikes, and a geyser of green blood sprays from the wound, a literal crevice in the monster’s body. The warblade, covered in gore, falls away from the aberration as its tosses him away in its death throes. It writhes and twists a few more times then dies.
There is nothing in the cave other than the weird pool which seems to spawn banebrutes, and bones and debris. The group climbs the great staircase, then comes to another cavern, the eastern half of which is worked and finished stone. There is a huge staircase going up to a Sealed Door that has not been breached.
This means Navanna has not gotten this far, but they cannot proceed any further without a wish spell or the Banewarrens key. They resolve to leave Dziga’s shadow companion behind to watch for her -- when the shadow sees her, he is to report telepathically to Dziga immediately.
The party returns to the surface. On the way, they find a group of dead adventurers Vatex recognizes as mid-grade company called “the Blue Hand.” They have been killed by drow weapons. What the hell? Drow in the Banewarrens? Vatex takes on the tiny crossbow bolts as a curiosity. And in the umber hulk tunnel, they find new tunnel, smoothly carved with magic, has connected to the original tunnel from below. This must be where the drow came from. What are they doing? Looking for evil magic treasure, the groups figures. Which seems reasonable, because they are basically doing the same thing, but having to deal with another faction -- and dark elves of all things! -- just complicates things too much.
The guards from the Holy Order watching the abanadoned manor say that no one matching Avach’s description came this way, so the group figures he did not make it out. But they did not find his body either. Did the dark elves kill or capture him somewhere?
It is only late afternoon so they can get to the Adventurer’s Square and buy potions before the shops close. After doing so, Early is suddenly scried. Must be Judge Rahl, they think, since they ignored his summons from the other day.
They are wrong. It is the powerful wizard, Aliaster Vladaam. After casting an array of defensive and utility spells on himself, he teleports into the street adjacent to the Adventurers Square. A man shouts, “Hey, something just appeared beside me!”
Aliaster unleashes an empowered fireball in the moment of surprise, engulfing the companions. Dziga escapes unscathed, but the others scramble away, smoking and burning. Vatex dives through the flames and rushes the space beside the man who yelled before, and hopes to strike true. He activates the magic of his skirmish vest and strikes twice, both swords hitting flesh and spilling blood across the cobblestones.
Next Emeris lunges foward, blasting the cold shadows of his draconic breath at such an angle that it will hit the wizard and miss the elf. But, he does kill a couple of civilians. Oh well, collateral damage, he figures. Aliaster roars in pain as shadows numb his flesh. He’d not expected to get hit back so hard! He takes flight upwards, propelled by magic, and unleashes a maximized fireball and a quickened fireball within five seconds. Emeris is smote and nearly killed. Early and Vatex are badly hurt. Dziga avoids the blasts again with peerless agility and reflexes.
Dziga lands deftly after avoiding the second fireball, and pulls his dispel magic wand from his belt. He targets the flying wizard and gets lucky enough to dispel the invisibility, but all the other wards and effects remain in place. Early and Vatex try to gun down the wizard, but he teleports away, promising that he will make every day of the rest of their lives miserable until they are dead.
Fuck House Vladaam! everyone thinks collectively. They promise they will win this war against the Vladaams, but for now Emeris reminds them they should visit Judge Rahl at Dalengard. After all, their testimony is going to be vital in making sure Helmut Itlstein gets convicted of treason, and Emeris wants that guy dead. At Dalengard, Rahl chastises them and explains the situation. Prepping testimony is not the most pressing concern it seems -- it is just keeping witnesses alive. A whistleblower in the Republicans who’d agreed to testify against Helmut at trial was found murdered. Not only that, but Hitomi, the warrior woman from Pyrna who’d been hunting the assassin Vermillion and Methul Watcher aka Helmut, was found murdered as well. She was originally going to testify about her little brother’s murder to corroborate the whole Helmut the “traitor and killer of runebearing children” aspect of the case (which has nothing to do with treason per se but will be introduced for context). These killings seem to be the work of the gun-wielding assassin Vermillion, Helmut’s hired killer from the Vai. Rahl tells them to be careful, for they are obviously targets as well.
Saharasahla summons Emeris to the library, where he provides the young shadowcaster with a device he has prepared. When set up in a location, it will allow teleportation between that point and the storage closet of the library. This will make it easier to move in and out of the Banewarrens quickly, without having to hike down the umber hulk tunnel each time.
While Emeris and Dziga receive this item, Vatex and Early ask around the elf’s various contacts, trying to find information about Navanna’s whereabouts on the one hand, and information about Vermillion on the other hand. All they can find about Navanna is that she is “actually in town” but it seems rumors were deliberately set to make it seem like she was out of the city. No one they talk to knows much else, and everyone assumes she hangs out at the Vladaam Estate. One man alludes to the fact that she has been seen exiting the Dark Reliquary.
About Vermillion, the mysterious assassin, it takes many hours to find concrete information. But one man, a former member of the Vai, reveals much to them over a bottle of mediocre elven wine at a shady tavern in the Warrens district. He says that Vermillion has crack team of assassins with a super dangerous reputation. Due to deals made with the enigmatic Surgeon in the Shadows (whom the companions had encountered briefly once), Vermillion and his team are all equipped with chaositech augmentations and weapons and tools. Vermillion in particular has wielded chaositech for so long that he has mutated in many strange ways. He has strange, charming red eyes and dark green hair, and although he is a human male over the age of 40, he looks no more than 16 or 17 years old. It is said Vermillion studied with an obscure sect of killers from a monastery in Dezolis’ Ozar Plateau, who reveled in the thrill of the hunt.
Vermillion’s team, as far as this guy knows, consists of the following:
> Dorath Kir, Vermillion’s lieutenant. A fighter.
> Terquad and Varimer, nasty and cruel human rogues, male and female respectively
> Enchilios, taciturn elven sorcerer
> Bartoli, a half-ogre that Dorath rescued from the streets and molded into a vicious barbarian. Usually only used on kill missions that require little stealth.
> Varis, a mysterious gentlemen said to tag along with the group but not directly fight. Rumored to be a wayward aristocrat from a northern province.
> R17, Vermillion’s warforged bodyguard. Wields psionics.
A visit to the Temple of Calethon is made so Vatex can again ask about the silver-haired woman he sometimes sees in mirrors, as he again saw her briefly in the mirror behind the bar while they had talked to the former Vai agent. One of the priests there says the Fateweavers speak of “mirror seeing” ability with some divination aspect. It is this particular priest’s opinion, however, that the Fateweavers are all charlatans and phonies.
It is nearly midnight, but Vatex and Early head to Castle Shard to ask Shilukar about dark elves. Shilukar actually recognizes the crossbow bolt as that of House Vrama. It has a tiny hidden compartment. Shilukar says he “associated” with House Vrama once, and they have a weird, neurotic obsession about hiding things. Vrama drow have hidden compartments in their armor, in their weapons, and in their everyday items.
To keep away from assassins, Early and Vatex hang out at Castle Shard that night. Dziga and Emeris stay at a dive of an inn down at the Docks to get some rest.
At about 4 am, Dziga is awoken telepathically by his shadow companion, who is still in the Banewarrens. He reports that Navanna has arrived at the stairs, along with five henchmen. Emeris relays this news to Early and Vatex with shadow magic. Everyone gathers their things and heads to the Banewarrens in a rush.
Indeed, Navanna had brought new henchmen to the Banewarrens. Her last encounter against the Rosegate Company had gone extremely poorly for her. This time she was better equipped and had, in addition to two urban werewolf lackeys, three special allies from the Dark Reliquary -- two Keepers of the Faith named RELEGIN and SHINOA, and a giant of a man named PHAETON with an exotic, 8-foot long sword that was a full 10 inch blade. No normal man should have been able to wield such a thing.
Phaeton, however was not “from” the Dark Reliquary and not really an ally at all. He was from Yama, specifically the mythical mountains of Darlath-Poi. A warrior of legendary strength and rage among his people, he was captured and psionically enslaved by Relegin to be the ultimate “meat shield” -- as Phaeton’s abillity to enter a berserk frenzy made him nearly impossible to defeat in combat. He wore a twisted magic crown that made him lose all sense of identity and purpose, and was led by a thin silver leash being held at present by Shinoa.
When the Rosegate Company gets back to the great staircase and the brute cavern, they find that Navanna and her crew have been taking a break for the last couple of hours, as if in anticipation of their arrival.
Relegin is boastful, and exchanges trashtalk with the companions. Everyone on both sides is itching to kill. He tells Shinoa to make sure Phaeton stays calm until the battle starts, as his rage is starting to bubble through the Vajra and when his anger explodes, everyone nearby will be threated
Rosegate Company exchangs trash talk with Relegin who speaks with confidence about how Phaeton will slaughter everyone and he was brought here specifically to hack them to bits. Phaeton's expression suggests that is not a thought in his head, but Early can feel the super warrior's mind's tremendous presence within the Vajra, like nothing he's ever felt before. The super warrior begins to twitch and eye Early menacingly. Relegin tells Shinoa to try and keep him calm until the right moment...
Navanna orders the two urban werewolves to attack, surely a deadly order for these lackeys don't stand a chance. They protest, "But, but Lady Navanna!...!", but she points her sword to one of their throats and says if they don't attack, she will kill them herself. So they rush down the stairs, firing with their dragon pistols, grazing Early who is rushing up to intercept. But it is not the wolves Early has his sights -- it is Phaeton.
Navanna moves back towards the stairs, keeping her henchman between her and her enemies. Let them soften up the Rosegate companions, she thinks. They were lucky last time. Now with her crew from the Dark Reliquary, she is very confident.
Emeris draws power from the umbral collar, and becomes a dark entity, fading into shadows. He then weaves shadow magic around him, ephemerally passing through the darkness and reappearing on the ledge at the top of the stairs behind the group of villains looking over the ledge down to the others. No one detects him except for Relegin, whose sense of vision seems strangely augmented. The bald Keeper looks over to him, and calls upon the dark power they had seen Khyron and Andross use before...
Relegin's flesh bursts and he grows to nearly 14 ft tall. His body is heavily armored in carapace and covered in hundreds tiny maws. The head of this monstrous form is an eyeless dome of chitin and bone, ending in a terrible mouth full of sharp teeth. The massive arms of Relegin's new body end in sharp talons, which extend and retract in a flash on long tentacles. Four additional tentacles extend from the monster's shoulders. One of the talons bursts from Relegin's claws, spearing Emeris across the 30-foot distance with ease, spearing him through the shoulder.
Shinoa drops the silver leash, commanding Phaeton to attack. She then undergoes a transformation herself -- she becomes an awful creature with vulture-like wings, the hind quarters of a lion, and a somewhat demonic looking upper torso and head. Sharp bony bony spurs on her left forearm twist through her flesh and into her hand to function as a wicked sickle. Her right hand reaches to another bony spur in her right leg, and pulls it out to produce a sword of sharp and gnarled bone.
Shinoa takes to the air, maneuvering clumsily on her awkward wings aroudn the cavern to charge Vatex and Dziga. Dziga vanished into the shadows, and Vatex draws power from the magic pearl in which he'd stored a spell to power up his rifle. He aims carefully and fires at Phaeton, who is closing on Early. Phaeton is hit right in the neck. Dark arterial fluid sprays across the steps. A second shot sinks into his chest. Phaeton seems utterly unfazed. Vatex turns his attention to Shinoa, who is swooping in for the dive attack.
The super warrior moves down the stairs hastily, drawing his mammoth sword, an exotic Yama fullblade that hangs across his back. Phaeton's gaze meets Early's, and the super warrior begins to gather his power. First his primordial rage is activated, which causes his musculature to grow dramatically. Then he enters the berserk frenzy that made him a legend in his homeland -- and he grows quadratically bigger, and stronger still! He is practically foaming at the mouth! He wears practically no armor, but for Phaeton that has never mattered -- no one has ever stood against him long enough to score a decisive hit.
Emeris flies off the ledge into the cavern to escape Relegin's spearing tentacles, and strafes killing shadow energy from his eyes along the staircase, the Rod of Metashadow Empowerment filling his soul with additional power. One of the werewolves is blasted to a bloody paste of splattered meat, the other nearly dies but keeps advancing due to Navanna's instruction. Phaeton, although visibly hurt by the blast, seems utterly unfazed.
The last werewolf is cut down by Early with ease, and he kicks the body aside as Phaeton finds the tranquility of the Vajra within the storm of his rage, and a warm breeze swirls around him and boosts his speed down the stairs. Within a split second Phaeton is face-to-face with the warblade, setting aside all regard for defense as a dexterous lunge carries him forward with a devastating sweep of his massive sword. Phaeton could have cut adamantine with that blow. It was only by the width of a hair that Early missed that blade by sidestepping at the last moment. A animalian roar escapes Early’s lips as his strikes back with the Rabid Bear Strike. Cryssaegrym slashes across Phaeton’s torso, a shocking injury -- but if Phaeton was bothered, he did not show it. He then lunges behind Phaeton and cuts across the right tricep, noting that the frenzied super warrior’s arm was almost as thick as the warblade’s own chest.
Shinoa descends upon Vatex, but Dziga appears from the shadows, loosing an arrow from Roguefriend that catches the Keeper unexpectedly in the chest. She does not slow, but it buys the elf an extra second to try and pull free his swords. Not enough time. Shinoa is upon him, but so skilled is the elf, he avoids the slashing bones blades of the Keeper and only takes a cut above the eye from the stinging slap of her tail. He accepts another hit as Vazdah’s Rudeus and Heth’s Sword enter his hands, and then Shinoa -- even with the mighty protections afforded to her by the Keeper transformation -- feels pain like she never before had conceived. Her lower jaw is cut away by flaming steel, and her left arm crippled when Heth’s blade slashes through the bicep. She fights back, skilled but not as skilled as the urban ranger. He easily deflects her inferior assault, cutting grievous wounds in split-second openings.
Relegin and Navanna have positioned themselves near the base of the stairs to the Sealed Door. Phaeton roars, his mouth red with blood, and brings his fullblade across in a horizontal swing leveled at Early’s neck as he crouches low. Cryssaegrym arcs overhead and knocks the blade high, and Cryssaegrym howls like wolf when the blades clash with a flash of sparks. Phaeton recovers more quickly than the warblade, and spins 360 degrees and brings his massive sword across at a lower angle which flashes through Early’s abdomen. Reeling from pain, Early adjusts his grip on Cryssaegrym as he twists away from a third attack. With the Vajra he uses the power of the earth to give his blade the might of an avalance -- the Elder Mountain Hammer. The right portion of Phaeton’s lower jaw is torn away, and bones of his chest exposed by the cutting magic steel.
Vatex shows Shinoa the meaning of brutal combat. The Keeper’s damage resistance to his weapons just drives him to strike harder, more vicious blows. Though skilled in her own right, Shinoa cannot land a blow. Vatex can anticipate all her attacks. His reflexes are too fast, his expertise too refined. The blood at their feet is almost all hers... at least until the gushing river of Phaeton’s blood flowing down the steps reaches them.
Blood sprays across Early’s vision, but still Phaeton acts as if possessed by the god of death himself. Phaeton should have been taken down by the Elder Mountain Hammer! he thinks. Dziga’s arrow sink into vital points in Phaeton’s body but nothing seems capable of putting down the super warrior. Still he fights with no dampening of ferocity. Emeris flies overhead and blasts freezing shadow from his gullet upon Phaeton. He might as well have brushed the Yama berserker’s face with a tranquil summer breeze.
Early defends against the super warrior’s onslaught, knowing that each swing of the huge man’s sword puts his life on the line. All he needs is one more opening -- an opportunity to take off Phaeton’s head. If that doesn’t stop him, nothing will. Early sees one chance, but Phaeton recovers too quickly yet again, and a devastating blow is stuck across Early’s chest that sends blood spraying. Phaeton follows up again, all too quickly, but this time Early reads the technique perfectly. With a perfectly angled slash from Cryssaegrym Early deflects the fullblade just right, so that it merely grazes the shoulder of his plate mail. Now! Early gets close and launches off the ground. The Death from Above attack unfolds as he jumps into the air, and his descent is marked with a flash of Cryssaegrym and a warm plume of crimson rain. It all happens so fast he can’t even be sure that the attack killed Phaeton, so without looking back he steps off the edge of the stairs to fall gently to the cavern floor below (due to the feather fall magic in his helm). But then Phaeton’s severed head falls past him.
The headless body of the super warrior Phaeton goes down.
Relegin is surprised by Phaeton’s defeat. He turns to Navanna, saying “Why don’t you transform?” The youngest Vladaam daughter replies that she will only do it if she absolutely must, because for some reason left unexplained she cannot transform back to “normal” without first returning to the Dark Reliquary.
A final thrust of Vatex’s swords finishes Shinoa, who dies with a scream of rage and agony and a gout of blackish red blood. The elf joins Dziga at the headless body of Phaeton, as Emeris circles above and Early rushes to rejoin them from below. Ahead, they must still face the still-confident Relegin, and Navanna herself.
Next: Will the companions kill Navanna, get the key, and reach the Baneheart? Or will Navanna and Relegin end their adventurers once and for all? And if Navanna can transform as well, what powers does she have in store?