[5E] The Age of Worms - Solid Snake's Campaign

Journal of Etona: Entry II

The Swarm
There is one common thread binding all the peoples of the world together: bugs.

It is not the only thread, but it is a stronger one than people suppose.

As a child, I was taught to accept them, watch and learn from them. I saw how their presence was shrugged off by everyone and everything, a background nuisance that merited only a vague hand wave or tail swish. Even the humans reacted this way though they are terrorized by them compared to my people.

I did watch them. I did learn from them. They are terrible. What they do to the land and one another: they have no soul. Their actions create agony and death on a scale a demon could only howl with longing at, but they do not feel malice. They do not feel anything. They are the universe’s machinery of pain and death.

The writhing mass of insects that chased us out of the lantern chamber was a carpet of muertr. “Beetles.” They were led by an armored creature I have heard of, an ankheg. Elves and humans do not have a word for it so we borrow the Dwarven one. The ankheg is a monster, a created thing not of this world. I was pleased to help kill it, though my part in the fight was minor. Most of its death came from Rey, her wolves, and the fire wizard.

His name is Egan. He strode right up from Lady-knows-where to the entrance of the cairn where Rey and I were talking about what to do about the insects. He is young, about twenty, dressed in leather armor, and spouting fire from his hands which he used to great effect against the plague and their master.

The wolves both gave their lives attacking the thing. Later, we would carry their bodies to the top of the cairn and place them in a ceremonial ring, laid out to the elements for the world to reclaim.

“Go, children,
Lead the way – we follow
Down the seasons.

Flies the dust where you have stepped:
My skin, my bones, they churn.
Flows the water that I have lapped:
Your blood, your tears return.

Come, children,
Seek our path – we lead you
To rebirth.”

It sounds better in our tongue: Common doesn’t do justice to songs of sienne-kel.

Egan’s Sister, Leyla
Egan is searching for his sister, Sara, who was last seen here a year ago. He knows all about this cairn and its rotating heavy stone grave box. He was here a year ago himself with a team of adventurers but they were busily slain by the traps of this place. He comes again here, now, on the anniversary of his loss. It is her bedroll we discovered in the first alcove to the right.

“I am not insane,” he said in a formal, book-learned Elvish when I ask Rey for her take on a man who would seek a young human girl living for four seasons in a cavern inhabited by wolves and killing mechanisms with no food or guidance. Does he search for her bones? No, not this either. He believes she is alive magically somehow, transported from here to a place where she could survive or here somewhere still, suspended. It seems a faint hope. It seems outlandish.

It is outlandish, all of it.

We three, unconnected paths, joining together at the same time among all the days in the world, at this same forgotten point.

You are both sent from My Moonlit Mistress – She has not forgotten.
You are both here for me.

And I must be there for you.

Our Task
We explored the hole in the ceiling. I have always been able to climb trees, but there was a time when a lone rope would have been a humiliating struggle. I am not what I once was.

Up there is a passage to a stone head, its mouth agape, with two swirling colored gems for eyes. They glowed from within showing us color after color in a pattern that Egan understood: they were in the order of the lanterns below. Lighting a lantern doused a color in the gems. Cause and effect. Experimenting revealed to us that lighting all of the lanterns would extinguish the eyes and then, and then . . . magic would probably happen? Perhaps the mouth would speak or become a door or barbecue our vittles, who knows? But something would happen. We just needed to figure it out.

We are missing two of the lanterns.

We knew where one of them was: the red light greeting visitors to the Emporium. But the violet? Who would know where it went?

Allustan might have a lead on something like that. We would go to him first.

The Indigo Lantern
Of course Allustan was Egan’s old master. When I heard this, I felt warmed by the touch of Her Dancing Majesty. I was about to be joyfully seared by it.

His cottage is homey, cozy, soft-spoken like the man himself, though Egan begs to differ. We caught him outside watering his garden. He brought us inside.

And there she was. How could she be anywhere else?
My soul, resting on a table.
The Lady sent her back to me.

I owe Allustan a favor now – I have been in this position before with another man, quite a devil he was. But that is merely . . . let’s say that I recognize Her sense of humor.

Next to Angivre was the indigo lantern. Obviously. In exchange for it, our party was to record every sigil and glyph that we discovered in the Whispering Cairn. This slight chore was gladly accepted.

To the Emporium.

The Red Lantern
I thought this would be difficult. But Hannah, pleased to offer us a dinner inside for investigating the oddities about her farm, offered us an easy way to get the lantern, not even to borrow it but to own: simply discover why long-time members of the Emporium’s opium takers (the Common word for it is khalamantis) have become violently ill.

Opium is a flower that provides, in my tribe at least, a window to the Fey. It is, it, this vision, it sits on top of what you are actually seeing. Difficult for me to describe. It lets some of the Fey’s scents and sounds come through as well. I don’t know what humans experience – not the Fey, I know, from the deadness it produces in them – but it must pleasurable because so many who try it cannot stop, trading many of their short march of years to lie fallow in its grip. When they cannot get the flower, Rey told me, they become very sick exactly as these Emporium customers are.

The squash soup served for dinner was delicious. And it was the cause of the illness.

It immediately counteracts the opium. I saw this first-hand. And so all those humans throwing their insides out were suffering from the withdrawal. The cook who made the soup, a gangly, nervous young man with little idea of how to prepare a meal but had been gifted by My Lady with spectacular, un-ruinable gourds, was very surprised that it was his blundering causing the problem. His is a piteous soul, so I took pity and helped him improve the recipe in a few ways as to offer a range of dishes. We asked the owner for the boy to stay employed there and have “the whole affair smoothed over.”1

Problem solved, red lantern ours.

Back to the Cairn
Armed with Angivre, the lanterns, and a lot of oil, we set to our experiment. Hanging each lantern up and pouring lamp oil into them doused the gems on the level above us and – floating mating unicorns! – the mouth opened.

Beyond was a corridor that ended in a pit of balls made of ceramic, Egan said. A plank ran across the pit to a closed door on the other side, holes in the walls about the size of the balls, something moving underneath, perhaps another ankheg. A trap, then. There was nothing for it but to “put a coin in the slot and turn the handle”.

I crawled out onto the plank. Some part of me must have expected what was going to happen when the balls came flying out of holes. Only one clipped me, but it had heft like it was filled with water. The one who would walk across the plank upright would swiftly find out how the world works, and ends, at least for him.

I reached the door but it may as well have been a picture of a door for all the access it offered.

An oddly cheerful ghost of a young man began flitting about enjoying very much our efforts. His name was, or is – I am not sure of the right way to refer to a spirit’s name – Alastor. His shade’s form was of his last second alive when a ceramic ball broke his neck. It must have killed him instantly, because had the creature shuffling about the bottom of the pit below eaten him, his ghostly shape would have looked, eh, worse?

If we would care to take his bones to the cemetery in town, he said, he would open the door for us.

I would have gladly come all this way to help this poor boy do just that. Our mission of mercy became two-fold. My Mistress Moon is feeling merciful.

We decided to simply attack and slay the monster below. I felt that there was a clever solution to blundering down and killing it, but it was probably miserable anyway, existing in this small space, eating once a decade. It turned out to not be an ankheg but some other horror that Rey made short work of. Or perhaps Egan fried it to ashes. I was not able to see as I was retrieving the bones.

And so we left the Whispering Cairn once more to deliver Alastor’s shell to a reunion with the rest of his dead family in a human cemetery near Diamond Lake. So odd that they want to be buried since they do not come from underground and have no history of dwelling there. Stranger still, that humans want their bodies to decay together, that there is some meaning in it. But there surely is! A dead human is telling me so.

I will meditate after we lay him comfortably to rest, resigned perhaps to his eternal silence. If only he would speak to us again! I have so many questions. But the dry rustling of the bones is all we have been offered since we left the cairn.

The motion of steps, the wrapped charge in my arms, the sun, it has led me into reverie as we move along, no one wanting to break the silence. I dream of night. But it is not night, it is darkness, the black of blindness. And a familiar little girl steps forward . . . .
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Mixing our writers

We have three writers, BTW, contributing to this thread. I am running the Journal of Etona, and the Chapters come from Solid Snake. Our third member - I'll just call him Ender - has signed on with the following entry jointly written between the two of us.

I hope you're enjoying these as much as we are writing (oh, and playing) them!
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Chapter 5 ("The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision." -Helen Keller)

My steps fall somberly on the trail as the weight of the oath we have taken sinks in.

Without warning, darkness. In the emptiness of this void, I see a girl. Stepping closer, I now see that it is Phreet. A vision then. I opened myself to it, but it would not be enlightening. Visions aren’t. Just “I told you so’s” from Her Merciless Majesty.

Little Phreet seems happy, playing in a small stand of sunflowers. She is not the ragged, emaciated urchin I know. Instead, she seems full of life and dressed in a beautiful blue dress with a violet satin ribbon in her hair. As I approach, she smiles up at me, but something is wrong. It is then that I notice her skin shifts and bubbles as if some unseen creature is trapped within and is trying to escape her flesh. Phreet gives no indication of pain. She keeps smiling and tending to her flowers as if nothing is amiss. My hand reaches out to her, reflexively calling upon the power of Sehanine, but I find nothing. As my fingers approach her ulcerating skin, a green worm erupts from the back of her neck. I recoil as Phreet begins to stand and face me. Green worms pour from her eyes and mouth as she screams, stretching her arms out towards me in a horrific embrace.

Then just as suddenly as it began, I am back on the outskirts of Diamond Lake with my companions and realize that I am screaming.

Gasping, a few breaths of air could not dispel the image of my fellow housemate being consumed by a ravaging tide of worms, but what else can one do? The last time I felt my sense of self shrink like that I was drowning in Emersanine, my lake next to my, what was my home. There is something otherworldly about visions that flit on the edge of reverie, something I imagine must be like sleep for humans, though they delve closer to death in body and mind when they rest. As if to wash myself of that brush with the unreal, I handed the bones of Alastor to Rey who, in her usual way, unflinchingly obliged me. The reverie and vision did not return, and the remainder of the walk to Alastor Land’s childhood home was peaceful.

Arriving at the home, it was obvious that there had been visitors recently. The grave sites of the entire family had been unearthed, and the remains removed. A curious find: what is this human desire to be buried in earth when they do not come from it, but I had to consult with Egan to understand. He did not appear exceptionally disgusted by the disturbed tombs, but he did confirm that humans in Diamond Lake would find such behavior reprehensible, or behish, Elven slang for filthiness of the soul. I have felt this filth before, so I am not one to judge. It seems Egan shares this reflection; as though once in his life he could have judged, but now he has seen more, so he accepts more.

We all survey the dirt and stone before moving to the rest of the farmstead. My eyes are keen, and it takes little time to find tracks from a group of humanoids, booted and with a wheelbarrow; the grave robbers. One was much larger than the others, judging from its boot size and depth. They appear to have come from the direction of Diamond Lake. They dug up their quarry and left with the remains or whatever else they were looting. Egan knows a bit about the family and says there was likely no treasure on these poor farmers. However, again, he has seen desperation in Diamond Lake, and this desecration does not faze him.

The farmhouse itself sags like the saddles of the Cairn Hills. The windows are opaque with grime and grass sprouts from the plaster window boxes. A short walk around the yard demonstrated the tracks of the thieves entering and then leaving quickly, as if running from the house itself. There were areas of dried blood and a severed human arm in the door-well.

That lone appendage was our only clue, and a cursory glance revealed a brand, like a tattoo on the shoulder. Again, Egan recognized this mark, something of an anachronism in the present day Diamond Lake. He said that it belonged to a group of miners from a few years back whose mine failed. The miners were bought out by Balabar Smenk, who re-employed them under his new terms. Smenk didn’t brand people, but often employed them for tasks outside the mines, sometimes unsavory tasks. So, we had something. A group of five, maybe only four now, likely humans, came to the farmstead, looted the remains, went to the farmhouse and then ran with their loot, losing to something in the farmhouse.

Since I am quiet, and curiosity overwhelmed me, I quietly investigated inside. A dead owlbear lay in the front room, and the sounds of another, possibly living, was audible in the back of the home. Beckoning to Rey, we made our way to the back of the house and found a young owlbear cub, hiding and lamenting the death of its family. Clearly the grave robbers fought back as we saw two more dead owlbears, likely parents in the back area. Rey was quick to befriend the beast, feeding it some dry rations. Her affinity for animals is nothing new to me, but Egan seemed surprised.

After a short discussion of the possible places to find the crew of bone-miners, Egan was convinced that they would frequent a tavern called the Feral Dog. It was time to reverie for the remainder of the afternoon while my companions cleaned and cleared the graves so that they could be used again when needed. We kept Alastor’s bones with us when we left in case the bone thieves returned.

As we walked back to town, we devised a plan. Egan was intent on having someone observe the Feral Dog, from outside, since he felt that the Smenk miners would likely have an advantage if we confronted them in the tavern itself. He wanted to see when they came and went to try to intercept them on another night. It made sense to a degree, but I prefer being direct. Also, I have never been inside the Feral Dog and wondered what other activities grave robbers might enjoy.

We all arrived at my small shack around dusk. The spring air hinted at the cold from the Hills, and the smoke from the Smelting House and surrounding homes still lingered over Diamond Lake like the haze of darkness that would surely follow. I left Egan to rest with Phreet, and Rey slipped off into a wooded copse just before town, her owlbear sniffing and growling at the large cicadas.

Once again I was alone with the night. Since encountering my two new traveling companions, I am remembering my old self and the old loneliness has reared its head once more. I have been alone for too long.

Covering my head, I watched the Feral Dog from behind a rain barrel across the main square. Around midnight, a group of two humans and large half-orc made their way toward the tavern. I made my way closer and noticed the same brand as the disembodied arm from earlier, but this time it was on the half-orc’s forehead. An improvement.

At this point, my heart was warming to the idea of entering: I could hardly find any useful information from outside. Quiet as a mouse, I slipped into the tavern behind the trio of grave robbers. There were no door guards or weapon checks like the Emporium. Their entrance apparently was expected, and, in fact, there was a seat for them reserved near the dog fights.

I settled at a table not far away and ordered a glass of wine. A loud and showy group of adventurers – there was really no other word for them - was seated at another table, and among them was a tall female elf. I managed to overhear one of the three grave robbers, a human with a fresh scar down his face, shout to the half Orc that they needed to find a better paying job than the last one. Mm, not enough. Sitting there, I learned the names of the three hoodlums: Todrick, Rastophan and Kullen. Kullen was the large half-orc. He had the whitest skin I have ever seen on a half-orc. It made the brand on the forehead a stand out in sharp contrast.

As I fingered the hilt of my hunting knife, I realized that my coin purse was completely empty, not a copper to be had. I had meant to ask Rey for a few coins from the purse we found in the Cairn, but the day’s excitement left me absentminded. As if Sehanine felt my need, the tall elf woman began a game of throwing knives with some locals, betting a silver on each throw. I saw an opportunity.

As the first round of the game concluded, I walked over the throwing line. Only a single miner had managed to make it to the second round. The elf woman was, what was it, “cleaning their clocks”. I asked if I may play, and the woman said she would waive my entry bet if I could hit a smaller ring near the side of the board. It seemed simple enough, but I have been blind to Sehanine’s schemes before: I thought it was her will that I earned my silver and my drink.

My hunting knife was never really meant for throwing, but I have always been a decent shot with other knives. Tonight I took aim and pulled back to throw but slipped on some, I guess it was vomit? on the floor. The blade flew almost backwards and planted in the table, vibrating, in front of the grave robbers. Ah yes, the Silver Lady’s keen wit! How delightful!

Kullen’s seat made the little erp sound of someone upset rising to his feet. He took my knife from the table in front of him with the intention to keep it. I raised Angivre knocked and ready, fired an arrow into the small ring on the wall so he could see a possible future for one of his eyes. I asked for the knife back. No.

I tossed the hilt on the table. “You will need this, then.” He actually wore it, and on his huge frame it looked, well, I had to say something.
“It looks quite cute on you. You should wear all the time. With a little red bow.”

He was mad but Angivre swung around to him. Now was the time to press him with a question: “What did you do with the bones?”

I could not see if it had struck true. The question certainly angered him. The tavern was frozen, anticipating at least two deaths about to happen.

Finding no harbor in the other elven woman – or in anyone else – I donned Angivre and used tables, people and chairs to fade into the crowd just as Kullen heaved a spear into a man who stood where I was a second ago. The wrong fight erupted, thank My Goddess, as I slipped out the front door and around the back.

One thing left to do: it was my knife, and I would get it back.

A back window was easy enough to pry open, and from the storeroom I slipped back into the chaos of the bar hall. A few movements took me to my knife and a few more back outside.

Feeling whole again with my few worldly possessions, I vaulted a pile of empty wine casks in the back and rolled onto the roof to observe the fallout of my visit to the Feral Dog. The garrison arrived in short order and broke up the fight. Kullen was thrown in the Constable’s lock-up, though his “cronies” eventually “bailed him out.” They made their way off to the Emporium for more entertainment. At least four dead miners were dragged out. Wanting to remain hidden, I abandoned the roof just as the garrison was investigating the grounds, made my way back to the shack, and rejoined Phreet and Egan.

Waiting for the sun to rise while indoors is tedious, but I passed the hours thinking about what lay ahead. Although I had seen Kullen and his crew, I still didn’t have an idea as to where the Land family remains were. The violence in Kullen’s crowd seemed to spring from my questions about the bones.

As the sky lightened, Egan woke groggily. He seemed like he had not slept well for many nights. I suppose a scholar traveling from the Free City with no money chasing for the last time his possibly-dead sister that he inadvertently sent to her death might do that. As we set about a small campfire, Rey and the owlbear appeared from the wooded distance. They soon joined us for a small meal.

I relayed all that I had learned from the night before, but everyone agreed: we were still missing an important piece of information. Egan and Rey decided that they would try to intercept the Kullen crew as they left the Emporium this very morning. We split the treasure at our camp, and Egan said he would try to bribe the grave robbers with our ruby that we found in the Cairn. My share of the coins was more than I had on my person in years.

We devised another plan. Egan and Rey would intercept the Kullen trio, and I would watch from a vantage point, in range for a bow shot if need be. The campfire guttered, and I bid good day to Phreet, leaving a few coins with her for safekeeping. I don’t know where she puts the money I give her or that we steal together, but I do not think she is spending it. She won’t tell me, and I understand: she has her own plans.

The walk into town was quick, though smoky. The wood fires of the town were fighting the lingering mountain chill, making a smog of sorts near the lakeside town. I huddled on the roof of the Emporium and spotted Kullen and the others leaving the Emporium as we arrived. Egan and Rey met with them – Egan in a friendly fashion, Rey and her owlbear taking turns growling – in the square, a few other drunken stragglers sifting off into the smoke and fog. Egan waved and gesticulated and seemed to be winning them over. He nodded a few times and pointed to the owlbear which caused the two smaller cronies to shudder. Finally, he handed them the ruby and waved as he walked away, the ‘all clear’ signal. He got what we needed. I thought about the ruby for a full minute before I decided to check back on it later. Maybe it would fall out of their purses while they slept off their beer.

We met up back near the outskirts of town. Egan gave a wry smile. He explained that the bones were delivered to an old man who was living in the abandoned observatory up on the bluff overlooking the town. Egan couldn’t think of any good, healthy reasons to have grave robbers steal bones for mundane uses so he suspected foul play in a sinister game.

A quick walk up the hill took us above the smoky fog of town as the sun began its bright debut. The air was clearer up here, and the mossy, rocky bluff around the observatory glistened with dew. The place had no signs of life, no foot tracks or outward sentries. I suggested that we try the front door and without ado led the group up the narrow stairs to the front door. It was locked, After a minute or two with an arrow in the keyhole – I wonder if there are clever little tools for this sort of thing? – I gave up. It would have to be Rey’s job to get us up onto the roof.

The highest spire of the observatory was 40 feet off the ground, and the walls were stone with slick moss between crumbling mortar. It seemed an unlikely climb, but Rey made short work of it. First we ascended to the top of the lower outbuilding, then, with grappling hooks and ropes, we managed our way up the side of the tower itself. Rey scaled the stone with only one small error on her first try to top the tower.

The observation slit was open to the sun. When Rey and I reached the top, we could see inside. What was once a telescope room now held a modified operating theater. A strange old man was operating on a dead, blue-skinned humanoid. I was overcome with curiosity, but at the same time I knew we had a simple task. I shouted down to the man letting him know that we needed our bones back. He obviously was not expecting an elf in his tower. He started to cast a spell at us, but an arrow put a stop to that.

A short battle ensued with Egan, Rey and I subduing the old man wizard and then dismantling his skeleton guard and some lizard-like zombies that exploded from enormous jars. The skeleton guard was from a Land farmstead grave. Rey may have crushed some of the bones in carrying out her very direct plan to get from the roof to the ground.

After securing the operating room, we ventured down a level to find the old man’s sleeping quarters. As we had suspected, we found a letter from Balabar Smenk, the mine owner, hiring this man named Filge. Apparently there were stranger things afoot in the mine and the hills than the Whispering Cairn. The message mentioned indestructible undead and some unusual magical worms. Perhaps we will get to the back of the Whispering Cairn next summer?

We found a sample of a dead worm. It gave me a shudder, it was the worm I saw in my vision just yesterday.

After a thorough search, our new captive, Filge began to stir. We decided that it was time for some more questions and hopefully answers.
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By the way . . .

One of our players has never played D&D before. She is running Rey, and she is SUCH A NATURAL. Hopefully she will write one of these as well.
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My pleasure! Glad you are enjoying it thus far. I am curious as to how your group handled things. Mine threw me for a loop a couple of times. Granted, I did alter the module a bit to expand upon the roleplaying opportunities Diamond Lake afforded.

It's been quite a while for me, but as I recall my group was really good with the way they handled Alastor. I don't want to give away anything you may or may not have upcoming, and my memory is a bit hazy. The group I ran did enjoy the roleplaying, but it wasn't too far into the path that they experienced a TPK (in Three Faces of Evil iirc).

It's been quite a while for me, but as I recall my group was really good with the way they handled Alastor. I don't want to give away anything you may or may not have upcoming, and my memory is a bit hazy. The group I ran did enjoy the roleplaying, but it wasn't too far into the path that they experienced a TPK (in Three Faces of Evil iirc).

To me, Three Faces of Evil was the worst of the written modules. Apparently TPKs are very common in that one. I am HEAVILY modifying; hope you enjoy changes we made!

Chapter 6 (“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” -Buddha)

Filge awoke to the waiting forms of his captors towering over him. Egan didn’t wait for him to get his bearings before beginning the interrogation.

"What is your life worth old man? We came to retrieve the bones from your skeletons, but we find something worse is amiss. What do you know of Smenk's problem and where are the other skeletons?"

“What are you saying? Are you telling me you came here because of skeletons? Curse that pink-eyed fiend," Filge spat. "I just needed some helpers, so I got Smenk's white half-orc to fetch me some materials. I had no idea where or how he got them. The other three are downstairs, guarding the front door."

“Yes actually,” Etona interjected. “I will need you to return the bones to their less lively, inanimate, condition. So why did YOU come here? What are you researching?”

"Of course,” replied with a glimmer of hope in his voice. “We will just have to go downstairs for me to reverse the necessary enchantments. As to why I am here, that is simple. My mate Balabar called me up from the Free City for a bit of study about some weirdness in town. He made a deal with a dwarf named Dourstone to get a hold of some special provisions he could not obtain. Dourstone was a bit cagey as to what he needed it for, but he told Smenk that it was for a group of explorers that were excavating an abandoned section of his mine. Sounds like a bunch of crazed cultists if you ask me...but money is money. Anyways, Balabar suspected things were afoot when these strange green worms started showing up," he gestured over to a stoppered glass tube containing a green worm suspended in a clear fluid. "The thing is dead now of course, but Smenk said that a lot of these worms wriggled out of one of his men. The ONLY one that wasn't slaughtered by the cult after the final delivery. Smenk said that he burned the body, but he managed to keep one worm intact. I am not exactly sure of its secrets yet, but my guess is that these things can transfer necrotic energy to the host organism." He starts to get a bit excited. "Isn't that amazing?"

Egan rested his hand on his neck before speaking. "I don't trust you Filge. Appreciate the information, but if I think you're starting to pull some funny business, then it's lights out. Furthermore, I want your word that you won't loot any more graves. I didn't come here to carry bones around, and this town has enough problems as it is."

“This body” Etona said, while brandishing Angivre, “is a vassal of Sehanine. Do you know who that is? My people know her as a goddess who delights in meddling in the affairs of mortals. She is among us all the time. She has powerful passions. She loves lovers. She loves the moonlit night and its shadows that conceal the weak trying to rise against the mighty. She despises true darkness, however, for that way is despair. And so she hates those who create the undead to roam and spread despair. I am therefore not interested in your word. I want to know your heart. What are you doing here in this place? Answer me truthfully even if you think I will not like your answers, for I believe any soul may be redeemed - I am not one of your paladins – so I am not interested in good and evil. But I must know what you are doing here. All of it.”

For a moment Filge looked confused. "I told you. Smenk had me come here to find out more about these green worms. The reports we have had over the past few months show a few sightings in the marshlands of the south, but the fact that they are here in Diamond Lake...that is new. This cult that Dourstone protects in his mines probably wants to know what they are too. Whoever solves this riddle will possess a very powerful weapon against their enemies. That all said, I wouldn't be here if Smenk wasn't paying me," he said with a shrug. "On my off-time, I was working on some animation theorems but the worm is turning everything I know upside down. A very exciting time."

Satisfied with Filge’s responses, the party escorted him downstairs where they were privy to a grotesque scene. The necromancer had apparently animated a number of rotting corpses and arranged them around a large dining room table. The dead bodies would feed him compliments as he ate his meals. Etona found this to be extremely pathetic.

“You don’t have many friends, do you?”

“Not many,” Filge replied.

The necromancer made quick work of dispelling all the enchantments on the remains of the Land family. With a few gestures, the skeletons crumbled into a pile bones. It was only then that the group began to discuss the fate of Filge.

“We are NEVER going to see you again, are we,” Etona asked.

“Never,” Filge said as he scurried away.

The party left the observatory with the precious remains of the Lands and began to make their way back the desecrated graves. As they exited the structure, they were greeted by a squawking choir of ravens. Etona found the formation and the timing quite odd, even wondering for a time if one of the crows was a shapeshifting member of her tribe. The thought passed fleetingly as she pressed onward.

It took the better part of the morning to rebury the bodies. Everyone said a few words upon completion of the task and were rewarded with Alastor’s gratitude from beyond the Veil. With the long day finally behind them, it was agreed that the party would disband for the evening and regroup at the Spinning Giant in the morning. Egan took the notes he had accrued thus far to Allustan for translation, Rey began teaching her owlbear Obi to hunt for itself, and Etona meditated on all that transpired.
At dawn, they all made their way back to the Whispering Cairn. Rey was glad to see that Alastor had honored his word by opening the iron door. Beyond it stood a great circular chamber, with what appeared to be a bottomless chasm at its center. Four bridges spanned the rift and terminated at a small platform from which a column of air shot straight into the ceiling. Two of the bridges were broken and the walls of the chamber seemed to show a great battle between two legendary forces.

“These must be the Wind Dukes of Aaqa Allustan was talking about,” Egan remarked as the group cautiously circled the outer ring of the chamber.

“What do you mean,” Rey asked as she began tying a rope around Etona’s waist.

“The characters we have seen throughout the cairn are written in Auran. It is the native language of denizens that inhabit the Elemental Plane of Air,” he said before briefly pausing. “Some of the rarer glyphs are probably family names, like the one we saw on the sarcophagus.”

“So what,” Rey responded.

“Well it becomes important only with context. A great battle took place not far from here between the Wind Dukes and the minions of Tharizdun,” Egan began.

“Who is Tharizdun,” Etona interrupted.

“A long forgotten God that wished to unmake all of creation,” Egan continued. “The Wind Dukes forged a great artifact called the Rod of Seven Parts and used it to vanquish the Chained God’s legions. Allustan believes that this tomb was built for either a Wind Duke or an important general.”

“I’ve heard of the Rod of Seven Parts,” Etona said as she tested the rope around her waist. “Do you got me Rey?”

The scout nodded as Etona made her way across one of the bridges towards the strange column of air in the center of the room. As she approached, two humanoid figures emerged from the rushing wind and began to float towards the party. Both men were adorned with ancient ceremonial armor festooned with red pennons that twisted and bobbed as they landed on the platform. They silently drew their blades in unison as Etona raised her arms in the air to demonstrate her intentions. Their response was not what she had hoped for.

If the armor was heavy, neither man showed any sign of it as their blades slashed at Etona with unbelievable speed. Etona screamed out in agony, her lifeblood spilling before her. Knowing that engaging such adept warriors in a continued melee would lead to a certain death, the elf jumped into the chasm.

“NOOO,” Rey screamed as her grip tightened around the rope. Using Etona’s momentum, she swung the rope like a pendulum depositing the elf on solid footing a fair distance away from the enemy.

“Obi, kill them,” Rey growled.

The owlbear shrieked, charging forth into the fray. The armored warriors fought valiantly and without a sound, grievously wounding much of the party. On more than one occasion, everyone believed their deaths to be a certainty and yet they prevailed.

Rey immediately began to tend to the wounds of her companions after the battle was over. While bandaging the lacerations Etona had sustained, blue electricity arced down her arms and suffused her hands with a soft light. The energy knitted wounds closed!

“How did you do that,” Etona asked.

“I don’t know,” Rey said as she stared at her hands.

With most of the wounded now restored, the group continued their exploration of the cairn. The column of air led to a small chamber with a sarcophagus that looked identical to the one encountered earlier. Anyone approaching it noted that a voice would manifest itself inside their heads beseeching them to speak the name of the buried warrior. Egan informed them that Allustan would need more time to translate the glyphs and furiously scribed everything they had seen thus far.

“From here we can go no further,” Etona declared. “This must be the true tomb but we are no closer to finding your sister Egan.”

“There is a place we haven’t looked yet,” Rey said.

“Very well,” Etona replied. “But before we go further underground, I need some fresh air.”
Taking the metal tube deeper into the earth was worse than Etona thought it was going to be. She steadied herself by addressing the obstacles that immediately confronted her. The first of which was a giant stone slab which blocked the only exit to the room the metal tube took the party to. There was a small opening, probably enough of one to allow Etona to go through but it would certainly not be enough for someone Rey’s size.

“What if we enlarge the opening,” Etona asked.

“With what? We can’t break through that,” Rey stated.

Etona turned to Egan. “What about your magic?”

Egan shook his head. “I don’t possess power great enough to melt stone.”

“Maybe not magic then. But what if there was a substance that we could-,” Etona’s thoughts trailed off momentarily. “That’s it!”

The party worked together to bring down the remains of the ankheg and extract the acid it had used on them many days ago. Their ingenuity was rewarded by widening the passageway and allowing everyone to continue onward. Quite satisfied with her accomplishment, Etona gestured to the rest of her companions.

“After you.”

Chapter 7 (“Absence and death are the same - only that in death there is no suffering.” -Theodore Roosevelt)

The created opening allowed the party to enter a long hallway filled with what appeared to be statues carved in the likeness of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa. Everyone noted the chill billowing from the great room beyond, but no one was deterred. Egan tried to break the silence with nervous banter.

“This is interesting,” he said as he flipped through the notes he had compiled over the past few days.

“What’s that,” Etona asked.

“Two names keep coming up over and over again: Nadroc and Zosiel.” The man didn’t even bother to look up as he walked. “I imagine that Zosiel must be the person whom this cairn was built for. His name is said more frequently and with much more reverence. I am fairly certain the tomb we discovered after exiting the column of air is his.”

“I didn’t know you spoke Auran,” Etona said.

“I’m a fast study,” Egan replied.

The hallway led to a larger chamber with two adjacent rooms connected to it. One of the rooms was blocked by brown mold, growing from the column in the center of the chamber. Egan explained that this was the source of the chill they had felt while walking through the hallway and dispatched it quite easily with the ray of magical frost. Etona decided; however, to explore the room not blocked by life-threatening fungus first. Within was what could only described as a private bedchamber, but that is not what drew the elf’s eye. It was the emaciated remains of a young girl floating above the stone slab that passed as a bed. She knew what this meant and so wordlessly, Etona reached out to pull Leyla’s body from its magical encasement. She was immediately struck the powerful enchantments that washed over her. If elven blood did not flow through her veins, she was sure that climbing onto the slab would result in dreams she would never wake from.

“Rey, Egan, come quickly,” Etona shouted as she cradled the dead woman’s body.

Egan registered the scene almost immediately, the hope evaporating from his eyes. The man sunk to his knees barely touching the husk that was once his sister as he sobbed uncontrollably. Rey rested a comforting hand on Egan’s shoulder and helped escort him out of the cairn. The party took her to the dilapidated mining office nearby and buried her under a plum tree that grew from the front yard.

“Why here Egan? Why not near your old home,” Etona asked.

“There is nothing there for us,” Egan stated almost catatonically. “Diamond Lake has not been our home for a long time now. She lost her life near this cairn and so she should be laid to rest near it.”

“What now,” Rey asked.

“We must go back,” Egan replied, “or Leyla’s death will be in vain.”

No one countered the statement. Silence followed their heavy spirits back to the tomb.
The room across from the one in which they found Leyla’s remains did not yield much of substance, but it certainly was interesting. Most notable were a red metal pedestal and the strange black egg upon it. The egg had a golden glyph inscribed upon its surface which Egan could not decipher. He reported that the metal the pedestal was cast from was Red Steel, a mineral prized by the armies of the Abyss. No one seemed interested in touching either substance, so the decision was made to go back up to Zosiel’s true tomb.

The trip itself did not take long as the party had made the journey numerous times before. Only this time, they did not shy away from Zosiel’s command and named him as instructed. His sarcophagus opened with a brilliant blue flash of light and revealed only two items: a magical diadem and a strange loop with a handle attached to it. Everyone agreed the importance of the artifacts, but it took some time before the party agreed what to do with them. Finally, after much debate it was decided that the items would be hidden in the well by the mining office and the party would go seek Allustan’s council.
“The hour is rather late for a visit.”

“Our apologies Allustan, but we could not wait until morning to trouble you,” Etona said.

The old sage beckoned the party inside and listened carefully as Etona caught the man up with the events that had transpired at the Observatory and their recent discoveries at the Whispering Cairn. After the elf had finished her story, the old sage turned to Egan.

“I am so sorry to hear about your loss Egan, I am sure that Leyla is in a better place.”

“Thank you Master,” Egan replied. Coughing in an attempt to mask his emotion, he continued. “We are curious about the symbol we encountered upon the black stone egg. Do you have any ideas what it could mean?”

Allustan nodded thoughtfully. “The symbol you describe is that of Ogremoch. He is the Prince of Evil Earth and a known consort of Tharizdun. I could regale you with tales of heroism about the Temple of Elemental Evil, but I am sure that is not why you are here.”

“We are also unsure what the loop and black sphere in some of the bas-reliefs we found on the walls of the tomb indicate. It seems like it was used as a weapon,” Egan let the statement trail off.

“Indeed,” Allustan’s voice grew much more animated. “The drawing you have provided is a depiction of a very powerful artifact called the Talisman of the Sphere. This is a weapon deployed by madmen and those who are favored by the Chained God. These talismans give the user some control over a Sphere of Annihilation, a veritable “hole” in reality itself. Anything that comes into contact with one is erased from existence.”

“Thank you again Master, we are sorry to have disturbed you,” Egan stammered as he gave Allustan the notes he had compiled inside the Whispering Cairn.

“Not at all Egan, this is the very reason I sent you on this exploration. One thing troubles me however,” the sage said with a furrowed brow. “I am unsure what this green worm means. And I dislike what I do not understand.”
The next morning the party met Egan at the Spinning Giant for breakfast. Over eggs and bacon, Etona revealed that Kullen’s crew had been by her residence yesterday and informed Phreet that Balbar Smenk was interested in speaking with them. Everyone was wary of the meeting, but there was enough interest in the green worm, Dourstone’s mine, and strange cultists that Egan volunteered to coordinate the specifics.

It didn’t take long for the native son of Diamond Lake to parse out how and when Smenk wanted to see them all. The meeting was set for dusk at the mine-owner’s estate, leaving the group with the whole day to themselves. The group’s first order of business was replenishing necessary supplies utilized in their exploration of the Whispering Cairn. Once that had occurred, Etona convinced the party to travel with her to the garrison. She was interested in help if she was going to further entangle herself in the politics of humans.

Unlike the Sheriff’s office, the garrison was run with discipline. Men stood vigilantly at their posts while soldiers drilled acts of war. Etona believed that it was going to be difficult to penetrate inside the fortress without bribery, but it turned out that the garrison’s leader was quite interested in useful information. Etona had only to mention the potential danger of green worms and the town’s safety before she was escorted to meet the imposing Captain Tolliver Trask. The man had seen his share of battle, it was evident in the way he conducted himself. He stood hunched over a large map of the region, figurines of forces splayed out over the border to the Mistmarsh.

“Dobrun told me that you have pertinent information to the safety of this region. Is that true?”

“Yes Captain,” the word sounded foreign to Etona as she said it. “We believe that the town is in grave danger. We have come across an associate of Balbar Smenk’s who was using the old observatory as a laboratory. We put a stop to him and his experiments, but before we released him, he informed us of an evil cult based in the Dourstone mines. The cult is believed to have access to strange green worms that can turn the living into undead.”

Raising his eyebrow, Captain Trask’s gaze finally moved from his formations. “Green worms you say. Have you taken this to Sheriff Cubbin?”

“With all due respect to Sheriff Cubbin’s station, I am not sure who he is working for,” Etona replied.

Trask chuckled. “Indeed. However, my authority does not extend into the town of Diamond Lake. I am tasked with the defense of the surrounding region and it is proving challenging. The lizardfolk tribes grow restless and have begun to intensify raiding along the boundaries of the Mistmarsh. I barely had the manpower to repel them when these attacks were much less frequent.”

“Precisely Captain,” Etona said. “You rely on this town for supplies for your men. What if the supplies were interrupted or worse yet you were fighting a conflict with two fronts?”

“Maybe I should hire you to secure more funding from Greyhawk,” Trask mused. “But you still don’t understand my position. If what you say is true, then you had a witness to a conspiracy that could have corroborated your story. Whom you decided to release.”

“At least we didn't kill him,” Rey interjected.

“Be that as it may, right now all you have is a story and no evidence,” Trask continued. “What you need is proof of a crime. Enough of it for serious leverage. If I were to ride my men down the Vein on horseback, that would be tantamount to a political coup. Greyhawk would not abide such a move. But if the situation was so dire that Sheriff Cubbin could not perform the duties of his station, I would be obliged to assist him in any way I could. After all, the protection of our citizens is paramount to our mission here.” Trask looked directly into Etona’s eyes. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes Captain, I believe that I do,” Etona said with a smile.

“Good. Come with me,” Trask beckoned as he strode past the bewildered party. “We are going to see a friend of mine, Valkus Dun. He is my spiritual advisor and a High Priest of Heironeous. Right now his flock is confined to a single member,” the man said with a gesture to a red-haired woman sweeping the steps of the chapel. She looked dejected as she went about her duties. “Life for her in the garrison has been challenging, but she is an expert in religious lore. Someone whom you can use to verify your concerns about the undead.”

As if on cue, a taller man walked out of the chapel. The sun reflected off of his breastplate, upon which was inscribed a fist holding a bolt of lightning. A mace dangled at his waist, but he seemed to give no notice to the fact that he was prepared for war.

“Tolliver, it is good to see you alive,” he said with a grin.

“Valkus, I thought you would be dead of boredom by now,” Trask replied as the two clasped hands.

“What can the Church of Heironeous do for you this fine day,” Valkus asked.

“These...concerned citizens,” indicating the party, “have just been telling me of rumors they have come across within Diamond Lake.”

“I didn’t know the sophistication of your intelligence gathering apparatus also included rumors,” Valkus chided.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Trask retorted. “I believe that is one of your credos. Better brush up on that.” Valkus simply rolled his eyes. “It seems like we have use for Melinde after all.” The young woman instantly perked up. “I need her to substantiate these rumors and as she is an expert on undead lore and in no way affiliated with garrison, she is the perfect person for this job.”

“I am touched by your compassion,” Valkus said mockingly. “Melinde is more than capable of reciting undead lore, it is her judgement that concerns me,” the priest said looking over at the woman. “She lacks discipline. I am unsure if she is ready for such responsibility.”

“Sweeping the chapel isn’t going to teach her patience,” Trask said bluntly.

“How would you know,” Valkus asked.

“It didn’t work for you,” Trask countered. “Even after all that sweeping, they still ended up calling you the Avenging Ange-”

“It was another time,” Valkus interrupted. “And look where it got me.”

“It is time Valkus,” Trask said somberly.

The high priest sighed before turning his attention back to his acolyte. “This is your moment Melinde. Succeed or fail, it will be up to you. Go get your things,” Valkus commanded. Etona was going to debate Melinde’s affiliation with Heironeous as it seemed like the sun was literally beaming from her face, something only a priest of Pelor could accomplish.

Melinde returned as if battle was imminent. Chainmail covered her form and a white tunic with the silver emblem of Heironeous was stitched upon it. She wore a longsword and carried a shield with a similar symbol painted on its face.

“I will not fail you Father,” Melinde declared.

For the first time in a long while, the furrow in Valkus’ brow relaxed. “I know.”
Living up to his reputation, Smenk kept the party waiting far too long before greeting them at the entrance to his manor. Everyone had grown weary of listening to his thugs patrol the area and Etona was thinking about breaking in when one of the large oak doors swung open. Smenk was a portly, balding man who seemed like the mere act of breathing was a daily struggle. However, he certainly knew how to make an entrance. Flanked by two chained gorillas, the mine-owner almost seemed annoyed at the meeting he had planned.

“What do you want?”

“We are here to meet about the disturbance in the mine your friend warned us about,” Egan said carefully.

“You must be...Leegan,” Smenk said with disdain. “Well come on in. We shouldn’t discuss such matters out her-”

The sentence caught in his throat as an arrow blossomed from his chest. For a moment, there was a stillness in the night air. That serenity was promptly shattered by Smenk’s screams and the sound of crossbows firing. Quarrels rained down all around the party, striking Melinde and Rey. The scout could feel her blood turn to fire in her veins before yanking the bolt from her shoulder. Pandemonium had been unleashed. Etona turned to see her companions seek cover from the enemy that had surrounded their position...all except one. Melinde was smiling as blood ran down the side of her neck. She drew her longsword and raised it aloft, screaming in defiance.

“In the name of Heironeous, justice will be served!”
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