The Fall of Civilization - Page 7





  1. #61
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    Grandfather’s Legacy, as the complex behind the great statue is called, lives up to its reputation as a trap-filled warren. Many deadly traps, both mechanical and magical, remain active. But as they descend deeper into it and keep exploring, our heroes begin to piece together some of Grandfather’s story out of mosaics, statues and paintings. The rods he holds- like ankhs with no cross bars- are omnipresent in the paintings and mosaics depicting him and his works. From all appearances, he was a great hero of Fandelose, the greatest of his time. He is remembered only by the name ‘Grandfather’, for it has been many long centuries since his time.

    More and more, as our heroes explore, they are convinced that these two keys have something to do with the secret weapons that General Argos asked them to try to find.

    Mural after mural shows Grandfather presiding over the great city in times of battle, in times of peace, or both. His face is stern in some; in others, it is cracked with sorrow. Finally, in a long vaulted hall trapped by a field of deadly necrotic energy and a ceiling that drops a rain of gravel upon them, the party finds another fresco of Grandfather. In this one, he is looking at his blood-covered hands in horror, with the barbed iron rod clutched in one of them. The rod with olive leaves growing from it is under his feet, in the skull of one of his defeated foes. Cleverly hidden amongst the painted scene is a message: The Key to War is the Key to Peace, but the Key to Peace is the Key to War. Without the strength to defend the state, one cannot have peace. Bloodshed is a regrettable necessity, or so I found it. At the end I wished there had been another way, even at great cost. If you come for the keys, I pray your intent is better than mine was. Solve the puzzles to earn a great boon.

    The jagged metal rod must be the Key to War, and the olive-leafed one must be the Key to Peace. Except... the Key to War is the Key to Peace. What does that mean?

    “Maybe you need war to keep the peace,” suggests Vann-La.

    There is no way to be sure, at least at first.

    The “puzzles” that the writing refer to consist of wooden boards and three-dimensional, jigsaw-like puzzle pieces. The party stays back while Iggy messes around with them; he quickly finds that messing with the boards triggers a deadly trap in the room, as gravel starts to rain from the ceiling, and he is forced to flee, dimension dooring to safety.

    “We can come back later and investigate those puzzles further,” Heimall says, “but for now, let’s move on.” Reluctantly, Sta’Ligir agrees.

    ***

    It doesn’t take long before our heroes find a crypt. Only a single large sarcophagus, chased with turquoise, rests within it. In the eerie flickering blue light illuminating the chamber, they can see that the surface of the sarcophagus is carved to resemble Grandfather, his arms crossed across his chest. In his hands he clutches what our heroes assume to be the Keys to War and Peace. “Do you suppose that this is Grandfather’s tomb?” asks Loridell.

    “Who knows?” replies Iggy. “It’s possible. No way to be sure, without opening it up.”

    “Oi, maybe there is treasure within,” Cook points out.

    “I don’t know,” Vann-La answers. She hesitates. “Maybe we should leave it alone.”

    “Well, you just know that something undead is gonna pop up when we open that,” Sta’Ligir continues. “So let’s just get it over with.”

    “Or,” Vann-La returns, “we could... not. Let it stay asleep in there.”

    Torinn snorts. “Adventure!” he cries. “Let’s open it up!”

    First, they examine the sarcophagus for traps. Immediately, they note that it has already been broken open. “Maybe we’re too late!” exclaims Heimall. They elect to open the heavy lid nonetheless.

    Cook sets to work on the lid of the sarcophagus (which has been crudely re-sealed), and before long he manages to lever it open. Within it is a desiccated corpse laid out in finery. It is clear that the body has been looted; from marks and impressions left on the body, it is obvious that rings once adorned the fingers, a weapon was once in the sarcophagus with the body, and several necklaces were previously around the corpse’s neck. However, whoever looted the corpse missed some gold earrings and a silver pocketwatch, as well as a golden circlet on the body’s head. Finally, clutched in one of the bony hands of the body is the jagged rod that the party has seen in so many murals- but not the rod with the olive leaves. The other hand looks as though it has been forced open, and it is empty.

    “Grandfather,” whispers Heimall. Then, noticing the empty hand, he swears. “Damn! Now what?”

    “We’ll have to see if we can track whoever took it down,” Vann-La says.

    “Why?” asks Kratos. “What do we need these things for?”

    The party is silent for a moment; then, Iggy answers, “Just because we don’t know what we need them for doesn’t mean we don’t need them.”

    “I bet that this complex has something to do with the Cathedral of War,” Vann-La suggests. “The Keys to War and Peace, a great hero who defended Fandelose in the past- it makes sense.”

    “Maybe the Key to War opens the door to the Cathedral of War,” Sta’Ligir suggests.

    “Well, then we have it.” She gestures at the rod clutched by the corpse.

    “And why do we want to get into the Cathedral of War, anyway?” Kratos demands. “Four hundred weapons? That’s not enough to make a real difference in the coming war, and even if it were, we couldn’t possibly haul them back with us without help.”

    “Still,” Sta’Ligir retorts, “General Argos wants us to try to find them.”

    “Maybe we only need one key anyway,” says Torinn.

    “But which one?” asks Vann-La. “Especially with what that message we found said- ‘the Key to War is the Key to Peace’ or however it went.”

    “Oi, I don’t know if we want to take things from this grave anyway,” Cook says nervously. “My people believe that sometimes the dead will curse grave robbers. We could become haunted by their spirits!”

    “We aren’t grave robbers, we’re adventurers,” Torinn replies.

    “I don’t know...” Heimall looks thoughtful. “Maybe we should just take the Key to War- assuming that is what it is- and leave the rest.”

    “That’s gold in there,” Loridell points out. “And if we’re taking something, we might as well take it all.”

    The party debates for a while, but greed wins over superstition, and Cook, Loridell and Hkatha end up taking the corpse’s items. Vann-La suggests turning them over to the war effort.

    The party continues on. A nearby hallway contains a rent with a passage, seemingly opened at some point in the past by an earthquake, that heads downward. “This could be where our looters came from,” Hkatha observes.

    The party elects to finish exploring the level of the dungeon that they are presently on before venturing further downward. More traps and undead litter the place, but more interestingly, the party finds a chamber with a trap that has already been triggered with the corpses of a number of bulky, reptilian humanoids impaled on spears that thrust upward from the floor. Carefully, our heroes inspect the bodies, and Sta’Ligir identifies them as troglodytes. Vann-La notes that they seem to be dusted with some kind of yellow powder, but no one can identify it.

    “Well, let’s head down,” Torinn says. “Maybe we can find the other key.”

    “Not yet,” Iggy replies. “First, let’s go try to figure the puzzles with the wood blocks out.”

    “Hello, sir,” a new voice calls from behind the party. They spin, weapons flying from sheaths, to face the newcomer: one of Borgan Tyre’s mercenaries.

    “What are you doing here?” demands Heimall.

    “Who are you?” asks Iggy.

    “How did you get here?” exclaims Torinn.

    The mercenary, bemused, says, “Well, my name is Glen. I’m one of Borgan Tyre’s mercenaries.”

    “Who?” asks Loridell.

    “A mercenary that works for us now,” Heimall answers. “But go on, Glen.”

    “A messenger from the city came,” Glen resumes, but is interrupted again.

    “From General Argos?” says Vann-La.

    “No, from the Heinrikson family.” The mercenary pulls a sealed envelope from his pocket and hands it to Heimall. “For you, sir.”

    Heimall nods his thanks and looks over the letter, then breaks the seal. It amounts to a courtesy hello from the local branch of his family, which has considerable mercantile power. Bemused, he realizes, They want me to help protect them in the coming war. Well, I’ll do everything I can for them, of course- but I’ll be doing everything I can for everyone, anyhow.

    “As to how I got down in here,” Glen continues after Heimall is finished reading, “I followed the signs of battle and trouble.”

    “Since you’re here...” Heimall says.

    ***

    Even in trying to get through the necrotic field, our heroes have trouble, setting off yet another trap. This one animates a collection of wall-mounted weaponry, which set about dicing our heroes up. In reply, our heroes hack the weapons to pieces. They try their hands at the puzzles again, but fail, and are forced to jump through the field to escape the rain of gravel that pummels down from above. This proves almost lethal, dealing an inordinate amount of necrotic damage. They watch through the field as the room fills with gravel, and then it seems to magically clear away.

    “We’ll get that solved sooner or later,” growls Iggy as Torinn heals him. Everyone is groaning in pain.

    ***

    Further down, our heroes find the source of the yellow powder on the troglodyte corpses: strange, viney yellow plants that have somehow animated corpses to serve them. The party fights through them, blowing them apart with fire spells and hacking the plants to pieces. They slay a carrion crawler and some kind of strange worm made of blazing fire and molten earth. Then they come upon some live troglodytes, and this time the battle is much more severe. The troglodytes are ruthless, implacable foes, hurling stone-tipped javelins with deadly force. Even so, the party is a disciplined fighting force, used to working together to take out difficult opponents, and with Kratos, Heimall and Torinn all able to help restore the strength of the wounded, the party is able to face even superior numbers and drive them away. But it is a tough battle, and the party retreats to recuperate their strength for what they hope will be a final push the next day.

    When they go back in, they fight their way through an angry, hungry cave tiger that is chained to a stalagmite. Its tether won’t allow it to leave the cavern that it is chained within. Clearly, the beast has been set in place as a guardian.

    Our heroes put it out of its misery.

    After passing through more traps and monsters, and failing the puzzle above yet again, the party finds more troglodytes. There is some hissing negotiation, and then the chieftain of the trogs steps forward.

    “What you want?” it rasps in Common.

    “You speak our tongue,” Vann-La says in surprise.

    “We want the Key to Peace,” declares Heimall.

    “What that?” the chieftain demands. “Besides, you kill my people. Why we give you anything?”

    “It looks like this, but with leaves growing from it,” Sta’Ligir declares, pulling out the Key to War.

    Loridell catches a flicker of recognition in the chieftain’s eyes. “They have it, all right,” she murmurs.

    “And we are willing to buy it from you,” Heimall says. “We’ll pay you fairly and leave you alone. No more killing.”

    The chieftain sneers. “You pay 100 gold pieces for it,” he demands.

    “Done,” Heimall says immediately, “if you have it right now.”

    “You show money, first,” the troglodyte growls.

    The party quickly pulls together 100 gold, but they refuse to hand it over until the key is in sight. The troglodyte almost balks at that, but finally, they manage to transact the deal, and a few moments later, the party is headed to the surface with both the Key to War and the Key to Peace.

    “Now how do we find the Cathedral of War?” wonders Hkatha.

    Next Time: How indeed!
    the Jester

    The Monster Project

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  • #62
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    The summer sky is bleached a pale color, barely blue at all, as the heroes clamber up to the top of the great monument that marks the entry into Grandfather’s tomb and the dungeon surrounding it. With a grunt, Kratos continues his climb, attaining the top of the gorge a moment later. He ties a rope off and throws it over the edge for his companions, who clamber up to join him.

    “Nice view,” comments Hkatha.

    Indeed: the slash that is the Black Gorge winds away below them, and the mountains in the distance stand in glorious contrast to it. The proud walls of Fandelose, soot-stained and half-hidden by the dust raised by travelers and merchants, stand firm against the outside world, at least for the moment.

    Yet, opposite Fandelose, far from the mountains, trails of smoke rise into the air.

    Those are cities, thinks Kratos. People are dying even now, while we’re out of Fandelose for political reasons. General Argos is a fool to accommodate the Council on this- there is no time for debate. Every hour wasted means more lives lost.

    Vann-La, meanwhile, is scanning the gorge below with her sharp elven eyes, looking for any clues to the location of the Cathedral of War that the party is seeking for the general. “I can see a bunch of caves,” she reports unhappily, “but there is no way to tell how deep any of them are from here...”

    “Oi, there are a couple miles of gorge. That could be a lot of tunnels,” Cook laments.

    “True,” nods Heimall, “but until we get a summons back from the general, we can’t return to the city, so we might as well do something.

    “Hey, there are some orcs down there,” Vann-La says. “Remember what the dwarves told us? They sometimes trade with them. Maybe we could go talk to them. They might know something about this cathedral that we’re looking for.”

    Kratos shakes his head. “Talking to orcs...”

    ***

    The party descends and troops over to the orcs. Kratos keeps grumbling about the idea, but the orcs are neither immediately hostile nor particularly savage. For orcs, they seem quite civilized.

    The party queries them about the Cathedral of War, but they claim to know nothing. “Have you asked the dwarves?” one of the orcs asks. “They might know something.”

    “We, uh, were just on our way there,” Iggy lies.

    The orcs discuss mining with our heroes, warning them to avoid dwarven claims. Sometimes, the orcs claim, dwarves will go mad with jealousy over their mining claims, greeting strangers with hostility- or even violence. They also mention a local “megadungeon” to the party: Marble Hall. “It’s got at least six levels, and there are multiple stairways that lead down into it,” the orcish spokesman says.

    “What lives there?” asks Hkatha.

    The orc shrugs. “Who knows? Things come, things go. Sometimes orcs or dwarves will make a short stay in there, but it’s often more dangerous things from further down that come up to live.”

    Could this be the location that they are seeking? Our heroes get directions and set forth to find out. They march towards the hall, but before they reach the part of the gorge containing in, they encounter a trio of dwarves.

    “Why don’t we ask the dwarves, anyway?” Hkatha suggests.

    “General Argos warned us that they might interfere,” Vann-La points out. “He said that the dwarves guard it for a time of great need.”

    “This ought to qualify,” Torinn says wryly.

    “And what are these three going to do? If they mess with us, we can slay them,” Hkatha adds.

    After a moment of debate, the party decides to broach the subject. However, these dwarves do not admit to knowing anything about any cathedral in the gorge. “Maybe one of our sages, or the thane, might know something,” one of them suggests.

    When the party declares that they intend to go to the Marble Halls, the eldest of the three dwarven prospectors warns them off of it. “It’s dangerous in there,” he says, his voice like sandpaper. “In m’youth, I went in a time or two. Lost some friends, all I gained for my trouble was a few dozen gold and some deep scars.”

    The party debates again, moving off to the side for privacy. “Maybe it’s time to risk reaching out to the dwarves about the cathedral,” muses Heimall.

    “I don’t have much of a horse in this race, but that sounds like a good approach to me,” Loridell agrees.

    “It’s risky, though. What if we alienate them? I bet General Argos will need them in the coming weeks.” Vann-La sighs.

    Sta’Ligir frowns. “Well, the Black Gorge is huge, and it’s riddled with caves- and we can see that without actually doing any searching. We could probably search for a century without exploring everything down here. We need a lead.”

    “We need to go back to the city,” Kratos mutters.

    “He’s right, we do,” Hkatha says. “But we also need to find this cathedral. We’ll never do it without more information. I think Heimall’s also right- we need to talk to the dwarves. If they hinder us, so be it- we might not be able to find this cathedral. But they might be our only clue. Several of the murals in that trap-filled warren showed Grandfather with dwarves, too.”

    “That’s true,” Loridell agrees, surprised. “I hadn’t really noticed at the time.”

    “What if they try to stop us from getting to the cathedral, though?” Torinn’s tone is grim. “We are probably going to need them for the war effort.”

    Heimall sighs. “I know, and I know it’s a risky move. But otherwise, we could spend months searching around without any result. We’ve already proven ourselves to be friends of the dwarves- we returned their lost payment, after all- and the thane seems to like and respect us.”

    Cook speaks up again, his voice grave. “It is not hard to convince a dwarf to like you, but to trust you? That another thing.”

    “Let’s look at it another way,” Hkatah says. “Do we have any other ideas?”

    ***

    The party is greeted warmly upon their return to the dwarven operation, and once more they are shown in to Thane Firestone, who bellows for ale and immediately starts getting them drunk.

    Our heroes are cautious about the subject they are broaching, but after draining a few mugs, they realize that they must broach it one way or another, or else the subject will never come up. So, finally, Heimall shrugs his shoulders mentally and then declares, “My lord, we must beg your aid with something.”

    Thane Firestone strokes his beard. “Speak on, then,” he says, taking another sip of his fine dwarven beverage.

    Heimall takes a pull to enhance his courage before he speaks again. “As you know, the Six-Fingered Hand is attacking the Empire in full force. Our group has come from an area that has already been overrun- the Eastern Provinces across the mountains. We have seen the threat with our own eyes, and we came to Fandelose to bring a warning. Everything we have seen convinces us that the threat is real, immense and imminent. When we came to Fandelose, General Argos was imprisoned because of the actions of a traitor. There is no time to waste, and we need every advantage we can gain.

    “I know that this may be a touchy subject to raise, and I apologize if we give any offense- but I believe that there is something that can help in the defense of Fandelose, and that you may be able to help us track it down. There are secret weapons kept in a place called the Cathedral of War, and we must find them.”

    Thane Firestone raises an eyebrow. He takes a deep drink. Then he grunts, and finally, he speaks. “You have shown yourselves to be true friends of the dwarves, and your words ring true. We know that the Hand is closing in on your city- and on us.” His eyes are distant. “We guard the Cathedral of War in trust for our alliance with your city. The Cathedral is to be called upon only in the gravest of circumstances, when your city is at risk of extinction.”

    “This is such a time,” states Vann-La.

    “So you say,” the thane replies, “and I believe you. I will help you as best I can.” He gestures, and his lackeys refill his empty cup with more chilled dwarven ale. Firestone takes another long draught and smacks his lips. “Drink up!” he insists, and our heroes do. A hard look comes into the dwarf’s eyes. “Aye, and you prove yourselves again, drinking with me like this. Just as you proved yourselves by returning our payment to us, and by showing us to our dead, as was only right. Fear not. When the time comes, my folk will be there to aid in the defense of Fandelose. We will make the Six-Fingered Hand pay for their audacity in striking at us.” His voice is gradually rising, booming through his audience chamber. “We do indeed guard the Cathedral of War, but its location is lost. It is somewhere in our waterworks, but more than that, I do not know.” He gestures to another lackey. “Fetch Captain Nordek Stoneweight. He will escort our friends to the waterworks, and render all assistance to them in their mission to find the Cathedral of War.”

    The lackey nods and hurries off.

    ***

    Captain Stoneweight leads the party into the dwarven waterworks- a series of massive pipes, canals and channels. Some of the pipes are so large that the group walks three abreast atop them. They search, and search and search, for almost a full day. They have a few clues, but very few. Torinn declares that the Cathedral of War is probably of religious significance- “it’s a cathedral, after all,” he points out. As they wander through the waterworks, Stoneweight realizes that there seems to be an empty space that they have skirted from several directions, and the party decides to make a more intensive search in the pipes and tunnels surrounding that space.

    Finally, thanks to Vann-La’s sharp Kree eyes, they find a cleverly concealed, dwarf-wrought secret door. The entryway is in a loud portion of the waterworks, where several large tributary tunnels pour together in a larger one, which also serves to generate some of the dwarfworks’ power via a massive water wheel.

    “Good luck,” says Captain Stoneweight. “This is as far as I go.”

    “Thank you for your help, Captain,” Heimall nods as Stoneweight withdraws.

    The party heads through. The secret door leads down a narrow, dank hallway before it opens up into the grandeur of the Cathedral. The giant chamber is well lit by glowing stones set all over the ceiling. A mass of metal and wood soldiers dominates the room, standing in unmoving ranks. The walls have great mosaic scenes of terrible war and destruction, with human and dwarf alike fighting a terrible force of undead and demonic figures. It is clear that they are losing on three of the walls, but the fourth wall is different. It is on the far side of the room, behind a great statue of Grandfather that stands almost 20’ high, with his arms crossed before his chest, one hand open with the fingers curled and the other balled into a fist. His statue is flanked by 12’ tall statues of dwarves. The wall behind him depicts the dwarves and humans finally overcoming their enemies with the aid of the metal and wood warriors that stand, motionless, in the room. Vann-La spies an inscription reading, “Peace After War” on the base of Grandfather’s statue.

    “Now what?” asks Hkatha.

    “Peace after war,” muses Vann-La. “I wonder if-“

    The dwarven statues animate.

    Next Time: In the Cathedral of War!
    the Jester

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  • #63
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    Dust and grit fly from the two statues as they begin advancing on the party. In a deep, gravelly voice, each one speaks. The one to the right of the great statue of Grandfather speaks in Common; to the left, the statue speaks in Dwarven. Cook understands both.

    “WHAT IS THE PASSWORD?”

    Hkatha shouts, “Fandelose!”

    “YOU ARE INTERLOPERS. YOU WILL NOT BE PERMITTED TO UNDERMINE THE ALLIANCE.”

    The two statues move ponderously forward to attack, each moving around one side of the mass of strange, metal and wood figures.

    Our heroes take quick advantage of the split of the dwarven statues, moving down one side of the square of intervening figures to focus their attacks on but a single enemy. The dwarven statue swings its stone greataxe in mighty, sweeping blows, but our heroes evade most of its attacks. They smash and chop at it, leaving webs of cracks on the statue’s surface, before Vann-La finally brings it down- just as the second statue reaches the party. Its axe crashes down on Vann-La’s shield with telling force, but she catches the blow and triggers the magical power of the shield that she took from Borgan Tyre. The party’s melee-oriented warriors rush forward while the wizards drop back to pelt the statue with magical attacks from a distance. The statue fights back, but it can only land a few blows before the party’s focused fire destroys it.

    They catch their breath. Torinn and Heimall heal and bind the party’s wounds, and then they turn back to the 20’ high statue of Grandfather.

    “He’s got one hand open,” comments Heimall. “I bet we have to put one of the keys in it.”

    “And maybe then his other hand will open, and we can put the other key in it,” suggests Torinn.

    Vann-La points at the inscription on the statue. “’Peace after War.’ Sounds to me like we put the Key to War in first.”

    “I can sense magic on that statue,” Iggy says. “What if it triggers another trap, or summons another monster? We need to be ready, just in case.”

    The party spreads out while Vann-La takes up the Key to War. Then she hesitates. “I still don’t get the whole ‘Key to Peace is the Key to War’ thing,” she says.

    “Maybe,” suggests Heimall, “it’s because we need the Key to Peace to access the Cathedral of War’s powers.”

    Vann-La nods thoughtfully and thrusts the key into her belt, then begins pulling herself up the statue of Grandfather. She only has to climb about ten feet to get to the hand. Wedging herself against the statue with her legs and her left hand, she pulls the key out of her belt with her right hand. “It looks like it will fit perfectly,” she reports. “Get ready- here it goes.” With that, she inserts the Key to War into the statue’s hand.

    The statue’s eyes begin to glow faintly. Quickly, Vann-La hops off of it and backs up a few paces. And then it speaks.

    “WAR, THEN PEACE. THE WAR MACHINE SHALL TEST THE WORTHY.”

    Before the party, space itself twists, and something emerges into the world. Clearly some type of machine, it vaguely resembles a heavily-armored dwarf, with a stylized beard of razor-sharp metal descending from its chin. Its hands resemble an axe head and a maul; thick armor plates shield it on all sides. Its broad shoulders are mounted with some kind of ominous-looking contraptions that bristle with several aligned barrels each. Long spiked chains spin from its back. In its chest, a glowing furnace radiates red-hot behind a portal in its chest.

    “Watch out!” Hkatha cries, dropping back, evoking a flaming sphere at the thing.

    Vann-La doesn’t hesitate for an instant. She charges in swinging, her warhammer singing as it smashes into the thing- and deflects harmlessly off of its armored plating! “This thing is pretty hard to hit,” she announces, and then it presses her, slamming its hammer hand at her while bringing the axe hand around on the other side. She catches both on her shield again, but barely holds them back! The war machine shifts up and unleashes a frenzy of attacks on the fighter and Torinn, flailing about with the spinning chains on its back.

    Torinn spits lightning, catching the war machine in his electric blast, and then moves in with a righteous brand. Vann-La steps up closer to flank, and the chains slap out, gouging a bloody tear in her shoulder. She grits her teeth and hits it with a tide of iron, pushing it away to gain a little breathing space while Hkatha keeps his flaming sphere on it.

    Unfortunately, the war machine is equally capable fighting from a distance. The menacing shoulder-mounted turrets start shooting steam-powered darts in a steady stream at Hkatha. The tiefling reacts instantly, raising a shield that deflects the incoming darts!

    Torinn swings his spiked chain at it and splits the sky. The machine is smashed, spinning, to fall 10’ away. It seems to finally be noticeably damaged, as a massive jet of oil squirts from the rent that the dragonborn just put in the creature’s armor. Our heroes spring in on it, beating it while it is down, but it rights itself quickly and lashes out in return with terrific blows against Torinn and Vann-La. Hkatha keeps his flaming sphere moving with the war machine, burning it again and again. Now there are more spots with oil and fluid leaking, and smoke is rising from somewhere inside the machine. Yet it fights on, clanking away from our heroes to stand near Grandfather’s statue and fire more of its shoulder darts at Hkatha. This time, he is hit thrice.

    “Bastard!” the tiefling wizard spits, and he hurls a fireball at it. The blast staggers it, and then Vann-La and Torinn rush it again. They exchange blows with the war machine. Its hammer crashes into Vann-La’s chest with brutal force, nearly taking her from the fight; and then her warhammer smashes into its chest, where its furnace blazes, and the chest portal buckles inwards. The war machine staggers back, one step, two; and then it collapses with the groan of over-stressed metal, to lay still forever.

    Panting, groaning, Torinn and Vann-La high five.

    And then the great statue of Grandfather that dominates the room speaks a single word: “WORTHY.”

    Vann-La takes the Key to Peace and climbs the statue again, where she finds that its other hand is now open. She inserts the second key and then drops back to the ground. Suddenly the mass of metal and wood figures in the center of the Cathedral begins to hum, click and whir. Their lidless eyes begin to glow a multitude of colors- red, green, blue, white. Slowly the inanimate soldiers- come to life!

    “Let’s hope this wasn’t a terrible mistake,” murmurs Vann-La.

    “No- these must be the weapons that General Argos spoke of!” Hkatha points to the animating figures.

    “Bur there are only 400 of them,” Kratos points out. “That isn’t enough to make a real difference.”

    “Unless they are totally bad ass,” replies Heimall.

    “And they are far more expendable than human troops,” Loridell points out.

    One of the strange figures strides towards the party. They shut up and turn to face it. “I am NC17,” it states, “and we are the warforged. What is the situation? Why have you awakened us?”

    Heimall steps forward. “Greetings, NC17, I am Sergeant Heimall Heinrikson of the Imperial Army. We are attempting to defend Fandelose from an oncoming horde of goblinoids, orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, kobolds and ogres called the Six-Fingered Hand. The Hand has already overrun the eastern provinces of this continent- and we aren’t sure how much else. We must make a stand, and the enemy will be here in a matter of weeks. We need your help.”

    NC17 nods. “By ancient compact, we serve the cause of Fandelose- for a time. But we must survey the situation for ourselves before we decide exactly what course we will take.”

    “Good. Well, first, we should go report in to General Argos. We don’t want to freak the dwarves out, though- you remain here while we go talk to their Thane, and maybe we can arrange for an escort for you.” Heimall starts to turn away, but NC17 speaks again.

    “We will not wait. If the threat is as urgent as you say, there is no time to waste.” Behind him, the warforged are forming up in ranks. “You have awakened us in a time of need. For that we thank you, and we will gift you with certain things to aid you. But do not believe that you command us.”

    There is a moment of silence.

    Kratos thinks, I knew that this was a bad idea.

    ***

    The warforged are not to be dissuaded, so our heroes march with them, trying first to reassure the dwarves that all is well- which they do, after a hasty discussion with some of the thane’s men. Heimall manages to persuade NC17 to go first to the forward observation post that the party has stationed Borgan Tyre at. From there, the warforged get a good look around. The mercenary captain reports that they have slain a few goblin spies in the last few days, while the party tarried within Grandfather’s Legacy and the dwarven operation.

    But still no word from Argos, allowing the party to get back to Fandelose.

    Heimall has Tyre dispatch a pair of men immediately to bring word of the coming of the warforged to the city with all haste in order to prevent any accidental conflicts from arising. He sighs. That’s pretty much all he can do under the present circumstances.

    In the morning, NC17 surprises the party again. “We have observed the situation here from the observation post. Most of us will go to harry the enemy and take their measure, while a few representatives will go to the city to speak with the military leadership there.

    “Meanwhile,” snarls Kratos, “we are stuck here.”

    “Patience,” mutters Cook.

    ***

    The party spends the next couple of days helping Borgan Tyre’s mercenaries continue to fortify the observation post. While they are doing so, it becomes increasingly apparent that three of them are under some kind of curse. They surmise it is because they looted Grandfather’s body; thus, they return everything that they looted from him to his tomb (except, of course, for the Key to War, which is sealed in the hand of the statue in the Cathedral of War). Then, finally, a troop of soldiers arrives to relieve them, and the party returns to Fandelose. When they return, they are challenged to identify themselves at the outer gates, and are amazed to see that an incredible bustle of activity is taking place. Scores of people, obviously citizens, are wearing military tunics that seem to identify them as civilians attached to the Army; they are busily reinforcing the walls, assembling weapons, stacking firestone sacks (for use in boiling oil, heating sand, etc), clearing an area around the walls to be used as a killing zone, and so forth. A large, deep ditch has already been excavated around the city’s base, and it bristles with a palisade of outward-facing spikes. Scouts thunder up and down the road with frequency. Clearly, Fandelose is now on a war footing, and the city isn’t fooling around. It seems that General Argos has finally been able to force the Bronze Council to respond to the urgency of the situation by threatening to declare martial law as soon as the Six-Fingered Hand comes within the prescribed twelve miles if the city isn’t ready to fight.

    Upon their return to the barracks, the pcs are shown to Colonel Jaxe, who debriefs them, with two scribes beside him taking copious notes. As they recount their tale, there are three interruptions from couriers telling the colonel that “the firestone shipment has arrived” (“Good, get it to the quartermasters and tell them to start distributing it according to the general’s plan immediately”), “scouts report the advanced skirmishers of the Hand have been spotted as close as Owl Hill” (about four miles south of the city) and “the remaining grain in the Farmers’ Granary has been poisoned for the Hand” (the Farmers’ Granary is about twelve miles outside of town and usually serves as a food reserve above and beyond the granaries inside the city).

    Once he receives their report, Colonel Jaxe tells the party that he is sorry that they will not have any time to rest, but the forces of the Hand are too close for any leisure. (He aims this remark at Hkatha, who is an aristocrat, more than anyone else.) Every man, woman and child in the city is being asked to contribute in one way or another. The city’s very survival is at stake.

    “What can we do to help, sir?” asks Iggy.

    “As you yourselves discovered while you were poking around the city,” the colonel replies, “there are many hidden entrances into Fandelose. All of the ones we know about are being sealed up and/or guarded. However, there are bound to be many more that we don’t know about. Hopefully, neither does the Six-Fingered Hand.

    “The issue is that there is an eladrin architect named Hyswell that may know of several entrances unknown to anyone else- and he is a hermit that is exiled from both the city and his own kind. He betrayed the governing faction of Fandelose once before (leading to his exile from the city), and now lives on a high, hard-to-reach peak about two days’ travel away.”

    Jaxe goes on, “The problem is, the Six-Fingered Hand may well know about Hyswell. One of the factors leading to his exile from his kinfolk was his turn towards alien geometries in construction, sponsored by Abyssal patrons. These same demonic forces advise the leadership of the Hand. Hyswell needs to be either brought into the city or killed, so that the Hand can’t take him. He’s not likely to be friendly, but it is possible that he is open to persuasion.” He pauses for a moment, then says, “It should take about four days to get there, about the same to return. You should have enough time to get there and back and still have a few spare days before the Hand arrives.”

    “What of the warforged, sir?” asks Heimall.

    “General Argos has been meeting with LZ9, their representative. He sends his congratulations for a job well done.” Colonel Jaxe cracks a rare smile. “And I must echo those sentiments. Congratulations- captains.

    Next Time: Hyswell the Bitter!
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    Quote Originally Posted by the Jester View Post
    Captain Stoneweight leads the party into the dwarven waterworks- a series of massive pipes, canals and channels... They search, and search and search, for almost a full day. They have a few clues, but very few... As they wander through the waterworks, Stoneweight realizes that there seems to be an empty space that they have skirted from several directions, and the party decides to make a more intensive search in the pipes and tunnels surrounding that space.

    Finally, thanks to Vann-La’s sharp Kree eyes, they find a cleverly concealed, dwarf-wrought secret door.
    How did you run this? Mostly some description, as a skill challenge, a little of both?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Baron Opal View Post
    How did you run this? Mostly some description, as a skill challenge, a little of both?
    It was a skill challenge, but by the time they were in the dwarven waterworks they were almost done with it. It was an extra-difficult skill challenge- the party needed 14 successes, which is more than the standard system calls for. Here are the details:

    The pcs must engage in a skill test to find the Cathedral of War. At this point, asking the dwarves for help is no longer a completely lost cause; the pcs have proven themselves staunch allies. Thus, persuasion- Diplomacy- is an option. Alternatively, the pcs can attempt to use misdirection in order to search the miles of tunnels that make up the dwarven waterworks themselves; it’s all the same skill test.

    The skill test is a level 6, complexity 6 test (14 successes before 3 failures); the following are the primary skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Insight, Perception and Streetwise. To succeed at this skill test, the pcs must have either three Diplomacy successes or five Perception successes, or a combination totally six Diplomacy and Perception checks.

    Bluff (DC 22): The pcs can use misdirection to both get clues as to the Cathedral of War’s location and access to the dwarven waterworks.

    Diplomacy (DC 26): If the pcs decide to ask openly about the Cathedral, they must use diplomacy to sway the Thane as to the seriousness of the situation and to reassure him as to the honorability of the party’s intentions. (Dwarves gain a +2 bonus on Diplomacy checks to persuade the thane.) To succeed at this skill test, the pcs must have either three Diplomacy successes or five Perception successes.

    History (DC 22): If the pcs go to the dwarves and attempt to persuade them to reveal the location of the cathedral, pcs may use History to attempt to build up the dwarven sense of camaraderie with the city, to shore up arguments relying on treaties between dwarf and man, etc. The party can use History to aid a Diplomacy check, or to gain a success in its own right.

    Insight (DC 22): A canny pc can use Insight when interacting with the Thane and other pcs are making Bluff or Diplomacy checks to try to try to glean important information. Only one success can be earned this way, but a success allows the pc to realize that an appeal to dwarven ancestor worship- to the ancestors that gave their lives to help the city in Grandfather’s day- might help (and thus, opens Religion). Insight can also be used to aid the next Bluff or Diplomacy check; the DC is 18.

    Perception (DC 22): This consists of straight up searching. To succeed at this skill test, the pcs must have either three Diplomacy successes or five Perception successes. Characters can aid another in this Perception check; the DC is 18.

    Streetwise (DC 26): The winding tunnels of the dwarven operation are hard to read with Streetwise, but a strong effort might yield the party success in the form of an increasing understanding of the waterways, where they go and access points to them. A dwarf gets a +5 bonus to a Streetwise check in this context.

    Religion (DC 18) (only if opened by Insight): The pcs appeal to the dwarven respect and worship of their ancestors in the name of those dwarves that died for Fandelose in Grandfather’s time.


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    Nearly two thousand years ago...

    Atop a mountain shorn of vegetation and stripped of the minerals that were its life blood, a gnomish god-king stood pensively, facing into the wind that blew cold from the north. He gazed for a long time at the jagged peaks spearing the clouds, at the blue-green forest vista beyond them that was slowing crawling up the slopes.

    All that I have loosed, thought the gnome, has done what was needed- and more. Now it threatens to grow out of control- to encroach on the civilized lands that I protect, that I used the fey lands to protect. He stroked his long, white beard, tugged at his moustaches. Now the fey forces with which I have allied have come to show me that they are not under my control and never were. But then, I have always known that. The Elf-King of Ketzia and I have a long history of mutual respect and friendship- from the time when we saved the fey folk from the summoner that would have enslaved them on to the present. We have aided one another while each advancing our own interests.

    Now his lands, whose encroachment on those of our enemies during the Great War helped us immeasurably, are coming uncomfortably close to us all. My growing city will not grow without roads, and my burgeoning kingdom- even if loosely allied to the Empire- will suffer greatly if the wild lands overtake the farms and villages.


    He sighed. There were unseen eyes watching- his followers, and, he could only assume, Ketzian eyes as well. If the negotiations did not go well, the next step was probably an attempt at assassination.

    I pray that it does not come to blows, the gnome thought.

    To his left, the sun was sinking. The shadows of the peaks before him were lengthening, each falling across the next mountain to the east like an ominous glove of darkness. Below him there was a rustle of leaves, and a flash of color as a cloud of butterflies materialized into view. They were followed by the flash of mithral: elfin chain mail, adorning the Elf-King’s guards.

    Ah, old man, remember the days when he could travel freely, without guardians at hand? the god-king thought. Not anymore. Even with the war won, our own internecine conflicts have left him without safe haven, here or in his own realm. How very sad...

    They climbed the trail quickly, half a dozen elven footmen with long gleaming rapiers thrust through their belts. They were followed by another half-dozen elven archers, behind whom came Oberon, the Elf-King of Ketzia. He beamed at the gnome king, who smiled back. They clasped hands, then embraced.

    “Old friend,” murmured the elf.

    “Greetings, my lord,” the gnome replied with a grin.

    “It has been some time since you asked to meet personally. I trust there is some need?”

    The gnome nodded and sighed. “My friend, your... encroachment.”

    The elf-king smiled gently. “Ahhh, at last. I have long wondered when you would raise your concerns with me.”

    “You understand my concerns, of course. My people-“

    “Cannot thrive in my realm, aye. I understand.” The elf turned his violet eyes to the north as well. “That area- the northern part of our continent- will never return to your world, my friend. You must realize that.”

    “That is exactly why you must stop. Stop before you swallow up my lands and people.”

    “It is not I,” replied the elf-king gravely, “it is Ketzia that you need the aid of. The true wilderness, the fey lands, the hollow hills and the forests above them- they do not serve my will. I serve theirs.

    “And what do they think on this subject?”

    The elf-king smiled. “My lands are happy to have some measure of their ancient expanse restored.”

    “They wish more, then. They wish to continue, until they engulf my lands.”

    The elf-king arched an eyebrow. “Your lands, my lord?”

    Mine,” the gnome asserted, almost angrily.

    “And after you are gone?”

    The question drew the gnome up short. “My people,” he said, and stopped. “My people,” he said again, firmly. “The lands belong to them- and they, to the lands. Baron Lillamere is a perfect example. I am their liege- which means that I am theirs. They are mine- but they are my responsibility, my duty. They aren’t my toys. I’m no Wotanian despot- you know that- I take their well-being seriously. It’s the most important thing to me, and that’s why I asked you here. I want to work this out, before something bad happens.”

    “Is that a threat, old friend?” The elf-king’s smile cooled quickly.

    “No! It is a warning! There are indeed elements among my followers that would threaten you if you threaten my lands. I cannot know them all, nor can I stop them all. I need your help to help you.”

    “You think your little spies threaten me?”

    A shrug. “I have seen you threatened by a simple summoner,” he replied, “and my people know the details.”

    Silence for perhaps thirty seconds.

    ”I would not see our friendship hurt,” the gnome finally said. “I respect you. You have given me aid and succor when no other could.”

    “You have done the same for me and my folk,” the elf nodded.

    “Then please- let us come to an accord.”

    Oberon smiled again, sadly. “We already have.”

    The gnome said nothing.

    “My people are ready to fight.” The elf-king sighed. “Ready to fight each other. You have, perhaps, been too good a friend to my people. There are many among them that would fight against us, for you, in the name of the friendship that you have earned from them.” The gnome remained silent, showing no sign of the shock he felt at the words of the fey king. “Do you understand, my friend? You have caused a schism amongst my folk. No, we shall not fight you; we would have to fight ourselves to do so.”

    “I never wanted that,” the gnome murmured. Yet in his heart, he was glad: glad for the chance to avoid so much bloodshed and ill-will that the echoes might never cease.

    “No, but you are happy to take advantage of it, aren’t you? Ah, my friend, no need to worry; were I you, I would feel the same as you. I understand you well enough, I think, to forgive you. Did you know, there is even a new word in our tongue engendered by this break in my people. Eladrin. It means, roughly, ‘those who keep the faith.’ Bur where I say ‘faith,’ you must understand, it is a... much more complex concept.”

    “Feyth,” the gnome murmured.

    “Exactly, old friend,” the elf answered. “Exactly.”

    ***

    When dawn broke, they went their separate ways for the final time. They would never meet again, and both of them knew it. Behind them, atop the mountain, an acorn had been planted, and it began to grow as the sun’s rays caressed the peak. It tore its ways free of the soil, growing greater and greater over the years, reaching high into the sky with thick barky limbs. Simultaneously, a great tower was built in the same spot. One existed in the lands of Ketzia, the fey wild lands that had grown so powerful in the aftermath of the Great War; the other grew from mortal hands, in mortal lands, growing into a staunch tower that, three centuries later, fell to ruin only to be replaced by a whole series of monuments, towers, libraries and keeps, each falling after many mortal generations.

    On the mortal plane, the oak was invisible, intangible, a mere idea. Its absence was symbolic: the Feywild would encroach no further than that peak. To the south, the lands would remain in mortal hands.

    But when the day was brightest, when the night was deepest- at those times, intercourse between the two realms could still take place.

    In fact, it would take place.

    ***

    Two thousand years later. Now.

    The party sets out from Fandelose, heading into the mountains west of the city in search of Hyswell the Bitter. They ascend gradually, climbing up and over a ridge of mountains and then up to a peak, having a skirmish with agents of the Hand along the way. They take a goblin captive, and Hkatha interrogates him. The goblin says that his force was “going to talk to the elf,” but he doesn’t know why. It seems that he was merely a lackey.

    “They were probably going to Hyswell,” opines Heimall. “He’s an elf, right?”

    “No,” replies Iggy, “he’s an eladrin.

    “What’s the difference?” shrugs Heimall.

    Iggy starts to answer, but the conversation has already moved on. Hkatha releases the goblin prisoner, but Vann-La and Torinn bring it down with javelins. “No way are we letting the enemy go right now,” Vann-La growls. “There’s too much at stake.”

    The party travels on and upwards. The presence of the Six-Fingered Hand is always in their minds. As they ascend, they can see the plains to the south are aflame in many places. The Hand is on the move- towards Fandelose. Closing in like a noose.

    I hope that the general’s preparations will be enough, thinks Heimall. But the enemy is so numerous, they have known such success, that I do not know if we can hold them. They have been already been bloodied on the other towns and cities in the area. They will be thirsty for blood, hungry for victory- while many of our troops are green, untested recruits.

    I pray that General Argos is as good as his reputation implies.


    ***

    The party continues to climb, the ascent growing steeper and steeper. Scree slopes slip away beneath them; hard, sheer climbs require that they rope themselves together and work hard to help the weaker climbers make it up. “I’m not even supposed to be here,” groans Captain Ligir, as the others help haul him up to a narrow ledge. Panting, most of them rest for a few minutes as Cook, Vann-La and Kratos continue to blaze an upward trail.

    The air grows colder, the wind harsher as they ascend. But the party works together, spelling each other when one or another of them becomes too exhausted, and they manage to crawl up the mountainside with impressive speed, taking only half a day to finish the climb. At the top they find a plateau that was clearly leveled artificially, and upon it, a squat watch tower, obviously of dwarven make. It fills the small plateau almost to the edges. “Good defensive work,” Cook comments approvingly.

    The party circles around the building, seeking an entrance. It proves to be pretty much exactly opposite the area the party approached from, and a crucified dwarven corpse is hung before the door with a sign that reads, “STAY OUT” draped around its neck. The body has clearly rested here for months.

    “Looks friendly enough,” comments Vann-La ironically.

    “Oi, no,” moans Cook. “We have to take that body down and bury it! It is most disrespectful to leave him hanging like that!”

    “One thing at a time, Cook,” replies Hkatha. “We have to deal with Hyswell first. Then we can deal with the dead.”

    “Oi,” Cook mumbles, but says no more for the moment.

    The party pushes through the outer door and into the courtyard, where a mangy-looking, flea-ridden hound rests, scratching itself. Vann-La clucks softly at it and extends a hand, trying to befriend it, but it only gives a trio of pitiful-sounding barks that are half whine- and then it fey steps out of sight.

    “What the hell?” exclaims Loridell. “A vanishing dog?”

    “It’s a cooshee,” explains Vann-La. “An elven dog.”

    “I thought you said this guy was an eladrin, not an elf,” says Torinn.

    Iggy rolls his eyes.

    The party advances to the entrance to the tower proper, but as they reach a door, a voice cries out from inside an arrow slit. “Go away!”

    The party stops. Loridell calls out, “Are you the great architect Hyswell?”

    “Aye,” the voice replies suspiciously.

    “We come to beg your aid,” Vann-La speaks up. “The people of Fandelose need you. We would restore you from your exile-“

    From beyond the arrow slit comes a derisive snort. “You exiled me, and now you need me, of course! Hah! I think not!”

    “Please,” Hkatha says, “we recognize that a grave injustice has been performed on you, and we wish to help make things right. We are not the ones that sent you-“

    “Since you have deemed me outcast, I do the same to you. Now leave my mountaintop, or I will throw you from the edges!”

    “We don’t want to fight you,” sighs Hkatha. “We want to help you.”

    Vann-La moves towards the door. “Let’s talk face to face.”

    The architect screams in rage, and suddenly there is a loud cracking sound as brick and stone rises up from beneath the ground itself to begin grasping at the party’s legs, tying them in place! Only Hkatha, who is far enough in the back of the party to be outside of Hyswell’s area, manages to avoid the strange effect. Old foundation stones! It’s as if he can command the architecture itself, thinks the tiefling. Of course- his command of architecture must be mixed with the alien sorceries that General Argos warned us of! With a grimace, Hkatha skirts the area of twisting, grasping architecture and moves to the door. He throws it open.

    And there is something red and demonic snarling right behind it.

    “Wrong door,” Hkatha says in Abyssal, and slams it shut again.

    Meanwhile, everyone else struggles against the grasping floor. Vann-La manages to break partially loose and drag herself closer, but not close enough. The door flies open and the demon roars as it tears at Hkatha, who throws up a shield spell just in time to save himself!

    From behind the arrow slit, a glowing green ray shoots out at Loridell, bursting into a noxious cloud of Abyssal fumes. The paladin gags and retches so violently that she finally manages to free herself of the grasping floor!

    With a grimace, Vann-La finally gets free of the area grasping at her, and rushes into the tower- only to find that there are two of the strange demons to deal with! She roars, “Come and get it!” They rush in at her, as does the cooshee- and even Hyswell seems to be drawn in by her bloodthirsty cry. As Heimall encourages her, she makes another brutal attack, smashing into the demon with bone-cracking force.

    The cooshee and evistro savage Vann-La, leaving her bloodied. She strikes back, her hammer crunching into the cooshee’s shoulder. It yelps, and Hyswell the Bitter cries, “Leave my dog alone!” The walls, floor and ceiling strike out at the party, seemingly trying to protect the architect.

    “Learn how to take care of a dog!” Vann-La counters. She steps in and swings at Hyswell- but he raises a hand, and a strange ripple of distortion throws Vann-La on her back and away. Her hammer swings through empty air as she yelps in dismay.

    Hkatha intones a spell, and a fireball blossoms around Hyswell. The architect cries out, even as the party overcomes the evistro demons. Small fires burn on his cloak and the hem of his shirt. Hkatha snarls a threat at him in Abyssal, and Hyswell sneers in reply.

    “Shamrock, up!” he cries, and fey steps away.

    But before it can move, the cooshee is felled by Cook, Torinn and Vann-La.

    Hkatha spies two staircases heading upwards, and without hesitation, he hurries up one of them. Cook sprints for the other, and the party pours upwards in two groups.

    Both sets of stairs lead to the roof, where the bitter architect awaits them. As they attain the roof, Hyswell cries out, “Where is my dog? Damn you!!”

    Cook shouts back, “My people eat dog!!”

    Vann-La rushes at Hyswell. “Surrender or die!” she bellows, but again, a ripple of distortion throws her back and prone, this time almost pitching her off the edge of the roof! Her fingers scrabble for a hold and she catches herself on the mortared stones at the last instant, maintaining a precarious position near the edge. The building itself seems to strike at her.

    “You had your chance,” Hkatha says, intoning the words to another spell. Infernal flames form a sphere, appearing next to the architect and immediately burning him. With a shout, Hyswell leaps away from the sphere and suddenly the very distance and direction of space itself seem to shift and rearrange. Torinn finds himself hurtling towards the edge of the cliff, but he catches himself just as Vann-La did. As he re-orients himself, the architect smashes bodily into him, trying to drive the dragonborn over the edge again! Torinn’s arms flail, and only a quick grab by Heimall prevents him from falling back and down a long, long way!

    The group surrounds their foe, but he taps the heels of his boots together and fey steps again, out from the center of them all. “Hey!” exclaims Vann-La. “He can do that more than once!” Then she is choking on another round of Abyssal fumes.

    Torinn charges out of the fumes, lashing her spiked chain at Hyswell. It smashes him across the head, leaving him reeling. “Strike them, building, strike them!” he cries, staggering back, and the very stones rise up, smashing at Torinn and Vann-La.

    Heimall shouts, “Vann-La! Strike down the evil elf!”

    “He’s not an elf!” she cries back, but attacks him nonetheless. Perhaps it is Heimall’s misidentification of the race of their foe, but the Kree warrior’s blow misses cleanly. She curses in Elven as Torinn misses again, too- and then, from behind the architect, Cook emerges from the shadows, his frying pan held high, and slaps Hyswell across the top of his head. He collapses, knocked unconscious.

    “There we go!” beams the dwarf. “He is our prisoner now!”

    The party binds and strips the architect, taking him back inside the tower. They search the place thoroughly- other than the architect’s magical boots, which prove to be boots of eagerness, the party finds a chest holding 450 gold pieces and 500 silver pieces. Best of all- at least, in the opinion of several of the party’s members- is a book of rituals that they find, containing the rituals detect secret doors, arcane lock and knock.

    Since it is already nearly dark and a descent of the mountain in the night seems most dangerous, the party elects to rest in the architect’s tower for the night. They set a watch.

    Hyswell groans and comes awake. His eyes are bloodshot and a large lump has risen on his head. He finds himself bound in the corner of his bedroom, with most of the party sleeping around him and Heimall watching him intently.

    “You’re awake,” Heimall says presently. “Well, don’t try anything, or-“

    And, as eladrin are wont to do, Hyswell simply fey steps out of sight.

    Next Time: After Hyswell- into the Feywild!
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    I’d just like to mention that, for the events in this post, the party was 6th-7th level- and only three pcs were present for the fight.

    ***

    Loud cursing awakens the party. Heimall cries, “He got away!”

    The empty shackles that had held Hyswell the Bitter tell the tale immediately. “He stepped through the Feywild and escaped,” groans Ligir.

    “He couldn’t have gotten too far,” says Vann-La. “We’d better move fast!”

    Quickly, the party looks for the architect. He is not on the roof, nor is there any sign of him over the edges of the peak. The party descends into the building’s basement, following a flight of sturdy stone steps hewn into the mountain’s top. Hkatha and Iggy provide some light via their arcane cantrips, while Torinn’s lantern of revelation sheds more light. The basement is large, seemingly larger than the entire upper level of the architect’s adopted home. One end seems to have some kind of opening to the sky- stars are visible. There is no immediate sign of Hyswell the Bitter.

    As the party heads towards the opening, Heimall notes that the ceiling has roots descending into it from above. That’s odd, he thinks, there weren’t any plants on the top of the mountain.

    The party reaches the edge of the opening- and, to their surprise, it is an opening from the earth into an area screened by massive roots, some as big around as Heimall’s thigh. Rocks and earth mix with a skein of moss and root to form a shell-like covering over the pit that the heroes are in, and when they climb out, they find themselves- amazingly- on a limb of a tree of such majestic size that it cannot possibly be of the natural world. Its lower branches are as thick as a city road. Its girth is greater than that of most inns.

    “Wow,” breathes Vann-La.

    The Feywild, thinks Ligir. Somehow, we’ve transitioned over. Somehow, we must have gone through a portal, or perhaps experienced a worldfall.

    “This is amazing,” says Heimall. “Iggy- is this where you elves come from?”

    “Eladrin,” sighs Ligir. “Yes, although I’ve never been in this area before.”

    “So you don’t really know your way around here?”

    “Not really,” the wizard confirms. “But I am looking for someone here.”

    Loridell cocks her head. “How’s that?”

    “A black unicorn. An angry one, or something.”

    “How,” asks Kratos, “did you get a unicorn mad at you?”

    “He’s not mad at me. He’s mad about something else, or at least he seems to be. I hope,” Ligir adds, “that he’s mad about the Six-Fingered Hand. I think he wants to talk to me.”

    “What, is the Hand here too?” asks Hkatha.

    “No. I mean- hmm. I don’t know. They could be. The Feywild has plenty of goblins in it.”

    “Maybe we should ask someone, if we can find anyone. But more pressingly,” Heimall says, “we need to find Hyswell the Bitter.”

    “Hello!” chirps a high-pitched voice.

    Perched above the party is a two foot long dragon with bright purple and green markings and colorful butterfly wings. “Hello,” Iggy replies to it.

    “You’re strangers,” the small dragon states.

    “Yep, sure are,” Heimall answers. “I’m Heimall. What’s your name?”

    “Smiley!”

    “Well, hello, Smiley, pleased to meet you,” Iggy says.

    “Likewise. You look like you’re from the world, mostly.” The faerie dragon winks at Iggy. “Except you, of course. What are you guys doing here?”

    Heimall speaks up again. “Well, Smiley, we’re looking for someone that we think came through here recently. An eladrin. He’s a criminal, and we don’t want him to cause you guys any trouble, so we want to catch him.”

    “I don’t like locking people up. What has this criminal done? What’s his name?”

    “He’s called Hyswell the Bitter-“

    “Hyswell!” exclaims Smiley. “Oh my!”

    “You know of him, then?”

    “Oh, yes. Oh, my. Oh, dear. He’s trouble.”

    “You’ll help us, then?”

    “Haven’t seen him.”

    “Can you help us look for him?”

    “Nope, busy, not getting involved. In fact, I need to get going-“

    “Maybe,” Iggy says desperately, “you know someone else that could help? You wouldn’t have to get involved yourself, you could just put us in touch-“

    The faerie dragon hesitates. “All right,” he finally says, “but only because it’s Hyswell.”

    ***

    Smiley leads to a brownie at the base of the tree. She is twice as tall as a cat, with ruffled brown hair and cute little overalls that seem to be made of leaf and bark. When Smiley mentions Hyswell, she gets as frightened as he is, although our heroes manage to coax a further lead from her after a few moments of persuasion and gentle bribery. “I didn’t see where he went,” she admits, “but come with me.” She leads them to the base of the massive tree that they are on and knocks on the trunk. A moment later, a beautiful dryad steps forth. When she sees the party she almost flees back into the tree, but Magda manages to convince her to speak to the party. She tells them that Hyswell had indeed passed- and then a look of horror passes over her face.

    Iggy feels something too- an unpleasant uncleanness stains his awareness suddenly. “What’s happening?” he gasps.

    “Hyswell,” says the dryad, horror staining her voice, her eyes. “He’s performing a terrible ritual. Quickly!”

    ***

    Down a long, shallow hill; across a narrow brook that sings merrily along its path, flanked by pink and yellow flowers; up the other hillside framing the brook, through a screen of magnificent bushes and brambles covered with bright red berries; the sound of chanting ahead; and then the hill’s top.

    A circle of menhirs, mossy and glistening in the morning dew, surrounds a slab of stone that Hyswell has used for a makeshift altar. A fairy’s corpse is stretched upon it, a spreading pool of blood beneath. And, towering in the circle of stones, newly arrived in response to the awful ritual performed, stands a terrible demon. Its carries itself in the mocking semblance of a humanoid gait, yet its features are those of a diseased vulture covered in buboes and chancres.

    “Fools!” Hyswell cackles. “Now you’ll die!”

    The ground below Vann-La and Heimall, even though natural, responds to the architect’s commands and begins grasping at their legs. “Can’t move!” cries Heimall, while Vann-La manages to press forward slowly. But then Hyswell fey steps* over behind the two of them and shrieks, “Slay them!!”

    The demon has other ideas. It laughs and launches itself after the architect, clawing at him. Hyswell’s eyes widen in fear. “NO!” he shrieks, but the demon only laughs. Clearly, the mad eladrin does not have the control over it that he had wished.

    Vann-La cries, “You bastard! You sacrificed a pixie for this??” He hurls a javelin at Hyswell.

    ”Help me!” Hyswell cries desperately to our heroes.

    “It’s too late for that,” Vann-La intones. She misses Hyswell with another javelin, then draws her hammer and charges forward, smashing him in the jaw with it. Bone and brain crunch. “Enough of you!” she cries fiercely.

    Then the demon slashes her as it flies by, ripping a gouge in her armor- and her shoulder. Blood trickles down her side and pain blazes up in her. “So much for avoiding a fight with this thing!” she declares.

    Heimall, meanwhile, remains trapped by the grasping floor. He struggles, but can’t seem to get himself free. “Damn it!” he shouts aloud in frustration. “Vann-La, GIT!!

    Iggy keeps his distance, landing an acid arrow but missing thereafter with spell after spell. Magic missile, scorching burst, shock sphere- all fail to harm the terrible demon, which has settled into a pattern of clawing at Vann-La while she presses it back with a tide of iron. It issues a stunning screech, and both Vann-La and Heimall reel back, clutching their heads.

    Iggy dimension doors into harm’s way. “Hey ugly!” he shouts, drinking a healing potion, “Over here!”

    The vrock just laughs a hideous croaking laugh and pounces on the helpless Vann-La, tearing a deep wound in her chest. She screams in pain.

    “All right, bird-face, don’t take me seriously, huh?” Grimly, Iggy pulls out and loads the orcish sunpowder pistol that he took as loot from the pistoleers so long ago.

    Both Heimall and Vann-La recover from the screech. Heimall shouts, “Don’t give up, soldier! The Empire needs warriors like you!”

    Gritting her teeth through the pain, Vann-La nods. His words inspire her, keeping her in the vicious fight. She hammers at it, landing a blow but missing with more. This thing is tough! she thinks. Then she sees her chance, and moves to flank it so that she can launch a flanking assault on the demon. She pounds it, her hammer slipping off the thing’s tough chest but still doing damage. Something inside it snaps, and suddenly a great cloud of spores puffs out around the monster! She and Heimall gag and cough, barely able to act! Dazed, they fall back as the demon unleashes a terrific flurry of blows at Heimall.

    ”Black unicorn, aid us!” the Kree cries, as she is nearly driven to her knees by the power of the demonic assault.

    Heimall finally tears free of the grasping floor and rushes to Vann-La’s aid. He hits with a viper strike, and the demon screams in pain. It is growing weaker- but it is tearing them apart.

    Then, suddenly, a loud BOOM echoes across the hill as Iggy fires his gun.

    Unfortunately, he misses.

    Cursing, he swears to himself, As soon as I have a chance, I’m going to learn how to use this damned thing better!** He reloads and fires again, but misses. “Damn it!” he shouts aloud, and draws his wand, switching to a more traditional technique. He begins firing magic missiles- and continues to miss. Shaking his head in disbelief at how off his aim is, he thinks, It must be fatigue.

    Heimall keeps missing. He is swearing too, loud and long military curses that would make a civilian blush. Then the vrock screeches again, and he isn’t doing anything at all but clutch his ears, stunned by the thunderous cry.

    Not so, Vann-La. She stands toe-to-toe with the beast, swinging her hammer at it over and over. It isn’t that her blows don’t connect; they just often can’t manage to harm it. She has dealt it several punishing blows, however. Panting, she pauses to catch her second wind. With Heimall momentarily out of the fight...

    The vrock nearly takes her head off when she overextends herself trying to slam the hammer into its knee. She stumbles, seeing stars, and swings blindly, missing. Blinking blood from her eyes, she spits copper-tasting phlegm.

    “Vann-La!” cries Heimall, having regained his wits much more quickly than he regained his mobility. “GIT!!

    Vann-La swings again, this time connecting with the demon’s head! It shakes itself, clearly badly wounded after that blow. Vann-La staggers and regains her balance, and Heimall hurls himself aside, distracting the vrock and pulling a guileful switch.

    Vann-La swings again, but this time the vrock bats her hammer away as it snarls at Heimall.

    GIT!!” Heimall screams at Vann-La.

    The warhammer slams up into the vrock’s head again, knocking it to its knees.

    GIT!!” Heimall screams one more time.

    And the warhammer comes down again, smashing the demon’s head open, spraying brains and blood everywhere. The vrock immediately begins to hiss and bubble, dissolving into acrid-smelling green goo that smokes and pops.

    Our heroes collapse onto the ground, gasping for breath.

    But we’re alive.

    Next Time: Total War!!

    *More properly, when in the Feywild, a fey step is a world step, wherein the creature steps momentarily through the material world.

    **In other words, take the necessary weapon proficiency feat.
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  • #68
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    “...and then the brownie told us that we could transition back to the real world- our world, that is- by going back into that hollow at noon. At midnight, it worldfalls into the Feywild, and at noon it worldfalls back into the world.”

    “I see.” Colonel Jaxe drums his fingers on his desk. “Worldfalls, eh?”

    “Yes, sir.” Ligir explains, “A worldfall is a phenomenon that results in a crossing of the worlds.”

    “So I gather,” Jaxe answers dryly. “Well. Well done, men, even if you couldn’t bring him back alive. At least the Hand won’t get his knowledge- and it sounds as though they were trying.” He stands up, clasping his hands behind his back. “The Hand is only days away. There is no time for you to rest, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for all that you have done. I hope you are ready for what comes next.”

    “And what is that, sir?” Vann-La queries.

    “Total war,” replies Colonel Jaxe.

    Into the heavy silence, Heimall asks, “How much time do we have, sir?”

    “Four days. Enough time to get to know the units that you’ll be building and to dig some fortifications.”

    ***

    The Six-Fingered Hand is on the march. Scouts gallop out from Fandelose, dust swirling behind them as they go to gauge the oncoming forces. Back and forth, a constant stream of eyes, seeing and then relating what they have seen to General Argos.

    They come.

    Harried by the warforged, slowed by what long-range light cavalry Argos can spare to distract the oncoming force, the horde extends in a seething mass as far as the scouts can see. How many? Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands- none can say. More than they could see.

    In the city, the last frantic days before the enemy arrives are abuzz with activity. Supplies are cached where they will do the most good; the farms outside the walls are fired, the wells poisoned. Last minute arrangements are made with the dwarves, as well as those warforged within the city or able to retreat within it before the horde hits.

    They come, numberless in their masses.

    It is clear that it will come to a siege. General Argos has known that for over a year. His forces are too few for a pitched battle in the field to spell anything but disaster. The enemy is led by a hobgoblin named Heshwat the Eviscerator, and it is said that in the van of the enemy column a group of wagons holds tall poles, on which are stretched living prisoners, their intestines spilling down and trailing behind the wagon, torn and stretched by countless stomping boots and churning wheels. When one of the screaming victims finally dies, a new one is bound in place and his or her belly slit open.

    The land outside the city has been prepared, with wooden spikes, trenches and moats dug and filled. One approach only is open to the killing field surrounding Fandelose itself, up the trade road that leads past the Black Gorge. A great triple gate waits, each one open for the moment. Before this, our heroes have drawn up, each in command of a company of 100 soldiers. Iggy commands Scorpion Company, from the Imperial Sixth Legion. They are a company of archers. Kratos has been given command of the Granite Wedge, a group of dwarves from the operation in the gorge. Captain Nordek Stoneweight is the dwarven leader, but he is happy to put himself under Kratos’ command in order to fully integrate the dwarves and their deadly trap with General Argos’ battle plan. Torinn enthusiastically takes command of a group of 100 warforged soldiers that have seconded themselves to the general. They are called Delta Squadron, and Torinn’s subcommander is named TRS-80. Interestingly, one of the warforged in the unit is of a somewhat different design than the others; it claims to be older, from an earlier run of warforged, and originally defended a different area, but its memories of that time are mostly overwritten. Its name is P-38. The others are given control of four companies of Imperial pikemen- Viper Company under Loridell (who has accepted a field commission), Raptor Company under Hkatha, Tiger Company under Heimall and Bear Company under Vann-la.

    The enemy will have to advance up a relatively narrow raised road that approaches the city. The plains to either side of the road would require significant climbing across the fortifications to attain the killing field surrounding the city. To the city’s north, the Black Gorge cuts access to Fandelose for several miles.

    It also serves as the location of a most cunning dwarven trap- if enough enemies can be lured into the Gorge to warrant using it.

    ***

    9 a.m. Dust in the distance.

    The warforged and Bear Company deploy to the south, in the plains below the road. If they move far enough forward, they may be able to take the enemies in the flank. The archers in the middle, the pikemen forward and as a rear guard. The dwarves remain just ahead of the turnoff into the Black Gorge on the road.

    The entire horizon is obliterated beneath an obscuring mist of dust by 9:30. Distant sound- a tremendous number of feet on the move- carries far, echoing from the peaks behind the field of coming battle. Coming closer and closer.

    The last of the scouts pull in.

    10 a.m., and the forces of the Hand finally come into view. Obscured by the dust they raise, a disorganized advance probe of rabble, mixed goblins, orcs, lizardfolk, kobolds and gnolls. As the defenders come into view, a roar starts to rise up from them, quiet at first, but building second by second into a manic roar of bloodlust and triumph.

    The rabble pours forward, several hundred of them rushing up the roads- to the pike hedge that awaits them. They fling themselves forward, but the long weapons they face tear into them. Blood runs over the trade road, into the ditches designed to slow the enemy, as the defenders of Fandelose dispatch the enemy with ruthless efficiency. The rabble throwing themselves to their death break almost immediately, and Viper Company charges forward, impaling many of the fleeing ones, while the dwarves of the Granite Wedge crush more of the enemy against Tiger Company.

    ”That was just the first wave,” says TRS-80 to Torinn. “The second will be stronger.”

    “We aren’t really supposed to stop them,” Torinn replies. “We just want to bloody their noses- let them know they are in for a fight.”

    “I estimate that we have defeated almost 400 of them.” The warforged’s cold eyes fix on the dragonborn. “Out of, at minimum, 400,000.”

    “A bloody nose,” replies Torinn, “is a bloody nose. It doesn’t finish you off- but it might make you careless.”

    “If you have a nose to bloody,” the warforged replies gravely.

    Bastard, thinks Torinn.

    ***

    About an hour after the first probe, a group of kobold emissaries rides forward on a covered wagon (probably plundered) under a flag of truce.

    “I don’t really see what we have to talk about,” grunts Ligir. “Company! Draw! And- loose!

    Arrows rain down at the wagon, which promptly retreats.*

    Moments later, the second Hand probe begins to advance, consisting of twice as many rabble as before. This time, they are accompanied by a unit of about 100 archers. Additionally, two distinctly elite-looking units of slightly over 100 each are advancing- one a group of hobgoblins, the other a group of orcish berserkers that leads the rabble down the road.

    “Get ready!” Loridell calls to her troops as the enemies pour forward with a roar towards the pikemen again. This time, the hobgoblins form up and begin marching towards the warforged and Bear Company.

    Arrows rain at the orcs as they come within range, but they only roar and charge forward at the dwarves. The pikemen and dwarves brace for them, and the forces meet in a crunch, with the extraordinary advantage of the pike’s reach proving a telling factor- as it always had for the Fourth Legion. Orc after orc flings himself forward, batting away one long shaft of the hedge only to be impaled by another. Then the dwarves march forward, shattering the orcish formation with their hammers.

    The hobgoblin elite forces, meanwhile, charge forward into the warforged line. They prove to be devastatingly effective at fighting in formation, and the clash between the units grows very hot indeed. On the other side of the road, the goblin archers have run up against the Black Gorge; realizing that they cannot easily circumnavigate it, they instead start firing their bows into the Imperial Archers, who are thus compelled to focus on them in turn.

    The clash of sword on armor, the shriek of the wounded and slain, the stink of death fill the road. The bodies are heaped high. The orcs cannot retreat, being pressed by the rabble from behind. Trapped in between the dwarven hammer and the anvil of the pikemen, all they can do is die in droves.

    The hobgoblins, on the other hand, are faring much better, dealing extraordinary damage and guarding each other extremely well. Even with Delta Squadron and Bear Company focusing on them, they are staying in the fight- and staying competitive.

    But it can’t last forever; the rabble and the orcs are dying like flies, and more of the defenders are able to turn a few pikes towards the hobgoblins. Finally, the enemy is repulsed again, and although the defenders have suffered some losses, they are not yet too severe.

    “The next wave,” TRS-80 tells Torinn, “will be a real test of our intentions- whether or not we truly intend to dispute the approach to the city.”

    ***

    The third wave outnumbers the defending group about 4:1.

    “This will be the wave we flee from,” Hkatha says. “We’ll draw them in, trigger the trap in the gorge and get back into the city.”

    The enemy marches, thousands of rabble, hundreds more of the elite hobgoblins, archers and berserkers- and several hundred goblin worg-riders.

    “Trouble,” snaps Vann-La.

    The worg-riders are fast. They rush forward, and the rabble roars and runs forward as well, pouring up the road in a hideous mass of slavering would-be conquerors.

    The troops begin pulling back. The archers set up a withering rain of fire, trying to slow the enemy down. The hobgoblins advanced, an inevitable wave of steel and sweat and blood. They came into contact with the rear elements of the defenders and began slaughtering them. The rest poured through the three great gates, sealing them behind themselves as they fled to the walls.

    Shortly, the boom of a ram swung by ogres announced that the triple gates outside of the killing ground would not hold the Six-Fingered Hand back for long.

    Next Time: Man the Walls!!


    *For the record, this would have been an illusion-cloaked ambush on our heroes, consisting of an oni mage, 2 ogre savages and 3 kobold minions.
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    ø Ignore Mathew_Freeman
    Huge update, thank you!

    What sort of mechanics were you using to run such large scale battles, as I assume that you're not going to lay out several hundred miniatures on a map?!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mathew_Freeman View Post
    What sort of mechanics were you using to run such large scale battles, as I assume that you're not going to lay out several hundred miniatures on a map?!

    I worked up a unit-scale rule set grounded heavily in the 4e basic rules. I had each unit be 20 creatures, so (in the initial battles) the pcs each controlled a formation of five units.

    As for laying out hundreds of minis on a map- oh hell yes I did, but not until the defense of the walls. I should have taken some pictures- I bought several rolls of pennies for use as miniatures. A friend dropped by while we were in the next battle, and he said, "Hey guys, what's HOLY CRAP THAT'S A LOT OF MINIATURES!"

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