Adventures in the Eastern Provinces

the Jester

Legend
Here is Quah-Nomag's stat block as it was in this encounter. Over time, as the pcs encounter him again, it will change. For those of you who recognize him, yes, I am weaving a heavily tweaked version of the 2e adventure Dead Gods into my campaign, once again proving my dedication to using material from every edition in my game no matter what edition it actually is. :)

Quah-Nomag, Half-Ogre Servant of Tenebrous
Level 10 Solo Controller --- XP 2,500
Large natural humanoid

Initiative +5 --- Senses Perception +10
Threshold of Death (aura 3): Each living creature other than Quah-Nomag that starts its turn in the aura gains vulnerable 2 all until the start of its next turn. Death saves made within the aura suffer a -2 penalty, and a creature that dies within the aura has its soul consumed by Tenebrous.

HP 416; Bloodied 208
AC 23; Fort 23; Ref 17; Will 18
Resist 5 necrotic; Vulnerable 10 radiant
Saves +5
Speed 8
Action Points 2

Greatclub (standard, at will; Melee Basic Attack, Weapon): Reach 2, one target; +15 vs. AC; Hit: 2d10+5 damage. While bloodied, a hit also pushes the target 4 or knocks it prone (Quah-Nomag's choice).

Greatclub Sweep (standard, at will; Close, Weapon): Burst 2, targets enemies. +13 vs. AC; Hit: 2d10+5 damage. While bloodied, a hit also pushes the target 4 or knocks it prone (Quah-Nomag's choice).

Vitality Siphon (standard, at will; Ranged, Necrotic): Ranged 10, one target; +14 vs. Fortitude; Hit: 2d6+5 necrotic damage, the target is slowed (save ends), and Quah-Nomag gains a +2 bonus on attack rolls until the end of his next turn.

Fearsome Invocation of the Undead God (standard, recharge 5 6; Close, Fear, Psychic): Burst 5, targets each enemy in burst; +12 vs. Will; Hit: 2d6+5 psychic damage, and the target moves its speed away from Quah-Nomag, triggering opportunity attacks.

Throw an Elbow (minor, at will, 1/round until bloodied; Melee): one target; +15 vs. AC; Hit: 2d6+6 damage, and the target is dazed until the end of its next turn. While bloodied, a hit also knocks the target prone.

Favor of Tenebrous (immediate reaction when hit by a melee or close attack, at will; Close, Lightning, Necrotic): Burst 3, targets the triggering creature; +14 vs. Reflex; Hit: 3d6+5 lightning and necrotic damage, and Quah-Nomag slides the target 2 squares.
 
However, by (mostly) ignoring the other enemies, our heroes soon press Quah-Nomag hard. Orzza shouts, “I was born of a special egg, and I have found my true purpose! To slay you!!!”

...

Still, things are looking good for our heroes- except for one thing: Quah-Nomag's ritual is nearly finished. He locks eyes with Orzza, who is now severely wounded

“You miscalculate, little dragonborn,” the half-ogre rumbles. “You have indeed found your true purpose, but it is not what you think.”

He throws another elbow, knocking Orzza prone. The dragonborn groans, head hitting the ground hard, and lies senseless.

Quah-Nomag's lips curve into an ugly grin. “Your purpose is to serve as the sacrifice to complete this ritual.”
Damn, that's cold. Yet, excellent timing; there are few better ways to make a memorable recurring villain.
 

the Jester

Legend
Tens of Thousands of Years Ago

“The horrors will be here any day,” says the first technician to the second. “We're too late. All our work...”

The second regards her companion. Her large yellow eyes catch the light, her vertical pupils seeming to blaze and scintillate. “It is too late for our people. The Miloxi Empire is fallen. The Yi-Chrechtor and his people- and his horrors- have already won. Have you not heard? He has opened Death's Eye.”

The first technician stares at her, aghast.

“Yes,” she says. “Our home continent- destroyed. All around it, being destroyed. All the world, destroyed eventually.”

“Perhaps our creations...”

“They are too few, and have not had enough time to grow in power.” Her tail flicks from side to side and she lets out a soft growl. “No, they cannot save us.”

Whiskers quivering, the first technician passes a paw before his face. He lets out a despairing yowl.

“But maybe,” the second murmurs.

The first stares at her.

“Maybe,” she repeats, “someday, they can avenge us. Maybe we can send them to a future where they have a chance to live on after us. We cannot let the only legacy of the Miloxi Empire be a collection of mongrel species upraised from animals and birds. If they even survive without us.”

“The Yi-Chrechtor will show them no more mercy than he shows us.”

“The tubes,” she says. “The tubes.”

He stares at her. “But who will release them?”

“Time will release them. Perhaps they will be found by a friendly or curious race.”

“It might take centuries!”

“Yes. Perhaps even a thousand years or more. Longer, if the horrors overrun everything and no life returns. Maybe even forever.”

“But...”

“What choice do we have?” she demands. “We have to save something.

Reluctantly, he nods. “All right. I concur. Summon the shardminds.”

There are not many of them, these new, strange, inorganic creations. This new form of life. Like a collection of crystals, clumped rather than fused, upright and with a semblance of humanoid form, they are one of the latest wonders produced by the Miloxi Empire's psientists. Yet their race, only a few years old, might now be ended. Their moment might be past already.

One by one, the shardminds file past the two technicians, each entering a seperate tube of hardened crystal. The process takes nearly four hours, as many of the shardminds are several hours away at one location or another. When every member of the race has arrived and entered its tube, the two technicians activate a sequence of psionic machines, charging a central u-shaped generator. The generator begins to hum and glow with an eerie silver-green radiance, and slowly the tubes all frost over, losing their transparency as the shardminds enter a state of temporal stasis.

“Let us hope for the best.” Grim-faced, the male technician presses a button, and complex machines begin moving the tubes. Banks of a few of them will be placed in different hidden locations throughout the Empire in the hopes that at least a few survive to be revived one day.

***

The Miloxi Empire falls. The two technicians, along with well over 95% of all the other tabaxi who make up the Miloxi citizenry, die, slain by the horrors they feared.

Time passes. First years, then decades, then centuries.

Now and again, a shardmind bank is found. If the horrors find it, the shardminds are revived and slain one by one with mechanical efficiency. On three occasions, other creatures find the banks, and on two of them, they revive the shardminds.

None of these survive more than two decades.

More centuries pass. Then millenia. Things change. Islands sink and rise. Landscapes change. The era of the ascendancy of one type of creature passes into that of another, and then another. Still the remaining few shardminds remain buried in hidden places, far from the eyes of sentient beings.

Now and again, a shardmind cache is found, and they are either destroyed or revived and then perish. Over the next 12,000 years, all the remaining shardmind banks are found and dealt with, one way or another, except two.

Much later, a chance encounter with green slime leads to the failure of the penultimate bank.

Slightly more than two thousand more years pass, and then a colony of hungry xorn eat a hollow in the earth that leads to a collapse that leads to an earthquake.

***

Today

There is a loud crack, and suddenly shardmind designate PHUQ-69 becomes aware again. It knows that there was a gap in its consciousness, but has no idea how long that gap was. It has no way of knowing that everything it knew is long gone.

But it can see the spiderwebbing cracks on the tube it is enclosed in.

Something has gone wrong, it thinks. It pushes on the inside of the tube, but it doesn't open or even shift, so the shardmind draws out its resounding morningstar and smashes its way free. Only as the noise of the shattering tube fades does it realize how dark and silent it is. Only a tiny bit of illumination reaches it from a distant crack.

PHUQ-69 is highly disoriented, but it can faintly see the row of other tubes next to his. Half are still standing, but cracked, bent, and twisted. The others have been crushed by collapsing rocks. It focuses on the remaining intact tubes, but a thorough examination soon leads it to the gloomy conclusion that it is the sole survivor of this group of shardminds.

Grief washes over it.

***

Meanwhile, our surviving heroes despondantly trudge away from the farm. They have lost a friend, met an enemy, and uncovered the first threads of some sort of terrible plot. It is not the best day that they have ever had.

“What next?” asks Shar. “What do we do? How do we find this guy when we don't even know what he's after?”

Nobody has a good answer. At least, not now- not in the aftermath of the battle with Quah-Nomag, with the death of Orzza so fresh.

They plod along, heading back in the direction of Overland. Some forty minutes into the journey, Alkor squints and points. “What is that?” he exclaims.

Something in the distance is glittering in the sunlight. It is reddish-purple in hue, and it seems to be moving.

Sepia pulls out her whip, but Karl says, “Hold on. It might be friendly.”

“Hail!” cries Alkor.

The figure changes direction to come directly toward them. “Is that a humanoid?” Shar wonders.

“It looks like it's composed of crystal of some sort,” Karl muses.

Sepia paces.

The figure halts when it is about 20' from the group. They hear a voice in their head: Hello. I am PHUQ-60. Please direct me to the nearest Miloxi authority.

Baffled, Shar and Alkor exchange a glance. “The what?”

The nearest authorities of the Miloxi Empire.

“I've heard of the Miloxi Empire in my studies,” says Karl, “but it's long gone. It has probably been extinct for more than fifty thousand years.”

But- but that's impossible. It seems as though it was just a few moments... The strange figure goes still, lights swirling within the crystals that make it up.

“Is it just me,” Alkor murmurs, “or does it seem... distressed?”

“I think you're right.” Shar steps toward the thing, moving slowly, hands held open and empty before her. “P-69... can I call you P-69?... I'm not sure what you are, but I am the governor of this area. Why don't you come with us for now? You can tell us your story, and we can bring you up to date on the local, er, situation.”

All right. Thank you.

***

The journey home is uneventful, but word is out. The Double Javelins are on the move.

“It's time we finished with them,” Kane growls.

Shar nods. “I agree. We need to bring them to heel or destroy them once and for all.”

“What about our new friend?”

She glances over at the shardmind. “So far it seems friendly enough.”

“Yes, but you'll notice it's armed. So it has all it needs to cause trouble if it wants to.”

“Don't you think we could take it?”

“Of course!” Kane snarls.

“Well, then. We'll see if it wants to come with us.”

***

P-69 does indeed join the group for their mission, and the party strikes at the Double Javelins' camp while most of them are out raiding.

They catch more than they bargained for when an ogre-sized suit of armor with a human fused into a cavity within it steps out of a tent and into view. Weird purple crystals are inset in the armor's shoulders and calves, pulsing with sickly radiance. It is the weapon that they saw some time ago- saw, and got sidetracked from. And clearly, someone volunteered to undergo the ritual for the Double Javelins.

It's another of those dog-folk.

There are still half a dozen Double Javelins in the camp, as well as a worg. But by using the partially-constructed palisade as cover, the party forces the mercenaries to close to melee, where Kane ruthlessly cuts them down.

P-69 proves his mettle here. He's fairly strong, but he is immensely tough and durable. He swings his morningstar into one foe after another.

The armor-bound juggernaut is another matter.

Be careful! the shardmind warns his allies telepathically. That suit doesn't look well-built at all. Those radiocrystals are dangerous.

“What? You know what those things are?” Sepia demands.

Yes, of course. Don't you?

“Save it for later,” Shar barks. “We're fighting!”

Yes. Let's destroy that canus!

“Wait,” Sepia says. “You know what the dog folk are, too?”

“Later!” Kane roars, stabbing the canus.

***

It takes a tremendous amount of effort to bring the canus down. Before they do, he triggers a radioactive burst that leaves all of them feeling as if something bad has happened to them- as if they have been, in some way, tainted by the energy.*

After they search the camp- taking some 1200 gold pieces in loot, along with what proves to be an orb or reversed polarities- they discuss destroying the armor. It is certain that none of them want to be bound to it; the canus and the armor are interwoven by metal cables and rods, and it looks really unpleasant.

Destroying the radiocrystals could have severe consequences, P-69 tells them. You guys really don't know anything about radiocrystals here, do you?

The group agrees that no, they don't.

In my time, they powered the wonders of the Miloxi Empire. But if used improperly- it gestures at the armor- it can have disastrous consequences. It can cause sickness or death. It can deform any young you have later or render you sterile.

“Why would you even use it, then?” asks Sepia, shaking her head.

“Power,” Shar guesses.

I don't know, P-69 admits. I've never really thought about it before.

“But you've been around for a long time, right?” Karl asks. “You're ancient.”

No, I'm six.

“You're what?”

Six. Six years old. The rest of the time, I was in stasis.

Nobody is quite sure what to say to that.

Next Time: An easy answer to what to do with the armor!

*Everyone gained 1 RAD, which stays with you forever. Accumulate too many RADs and... well, you could sicken and die... or maybe even mutate, old school Gamma World style.
 

the Jester

Legend
The question of what to do with the armor (which, according to P-69, is a poorly and dangerously modified Miloxi artifact) is a tough one. Karl puts the idea of keeping it for study forward; but P-69 warns them that it might sicken those nearby, so even keeping it is risky. And the shardmind already explained that destroying it was likely to spread sickness around... so what?

The answer steps forward from the brush surrounding the camp: a familiar face, dwarven, garbed in leather armor colored green and brown in strange patterns that help him blend into the surrounding vegetation.

“Nom!” says Shar with relief.

“Greetings.” He spreads his hands, then stares at P-69. “I see you have a... new friend.”

I am PHUQ-69, shardmind of the Miloxi empire.

The dwarf gives a respectful bow. “I am Nom. I must admit that I have never seen anything quite like you. Our... instruments... indicate that you are not composed of radiocrystal yourself...”

Of course not! P-69's telepathic broadcast carries a hint of surprise at the notion. Although my kind were originally created using radiocrystalline energies, the Miloxi were capable of manipulating many types of lattice and lattice-like structures, some of which were merely the inorganic seed for a life-spark to later-

“What the rock man means,” Karl growls, “is that he's with us.”

“Of course,” Nom answers, “and I mean it no harm. Him?”

I have no inherent gender. Yet calling me 'it' seems to devalue my existence. After a moment's consideration, P-69 states, I think I shall identify as male.

“Him, then,” Nom says. “In any event, though I am quite intrigued by him, your new friend isn't why I have come.” He gestures at the armor.

That is very dangerous, P-69 starts to explain, but Nom interrupts him.

“I know. I work with a group that is dedicated to removing the dangers such things present. We are the Crystal Breakers. Perhaps you have encountered us before?”

“He's pretty fresh out of the bottle, so to speak,” Shar states. “From what our friend told us, he was in some sort of stasis for... well, since the Miloxi era.”

“Long ago.” Nom stares speculatively at P-69 again. “Very interesting. Nonetheless, it's not what I am here for.” He gestures at the armor again. “Do you have any objection to my group taking charge of this thing?”

Kane barks a laugh. “I damn well don't want to get fused into it. None of us are planning to use it, and leaving it here just means another enemy might find it and use it against us. I care not- take it.”

Shar nods. “I think we can all agree that Kane's right. We don't want to keep it or to leave it lying around.” Nobody disagrees; she continues, “Take it. Be rid of it.”

Nom bows to them. “This is twice, now, that you have assisted my group. We shan't forget it. My superiors are already considering how to thank you properly.”

***

The next few weeks are peaceful compared to the last few. The threat of the Double Javelins has been severely reduced, though not completely eliminated. The lands claimed by Shar and Shifty are safe for the moment, or at least as safe as at any time during this troubled era.

But peaceful and safe are not the same as trouble-free.

Upon returning to Overland, our heroes find a gallows, with two of their soldiers hanging dead from it. It seems that their lieutenant, Lentor, felt the need to instill harsh discipline, and this has riled up the citizenry. After investigating the situation- according to Lentor, the hangings were justified and necessary given the behavior of the two, who endangered some of the locals with cowardice during a clash with the Javelins- the party decides that, while hanging them might have been extreme, it sent a signal that prevented any more trouble. Lentor was justified, and despite the rumblings of the crowd, he won't be punished.

The one place the Double Javelins seem to continue to harass and harry the inhabitants is Woodcut. Cleaning up a group of orc raiders that they encounter along the way, the party heads there, finding many of the fields burnt. Famine is a real threat. But the Javelins have melted away; the loss of their camp and the armor-bound juggernaut may have finally broken them.

The party recruits more soldiers, arranges for food relief to be sent from Grumbleford and Goldwash to help the citizens of Woodcut. All in all, things are looking fairly good.

But as they travel back toward Goldwash one day, they stumble upon a group of what they first take to be humans, who immediately attack them. The battle proves surprisingly difficult, and when our heroes examine the bodies, they find that the “humans” are not human at all, but rather, some sort of serpent-human blend. Scales, forked tongues, serpentine eyes... The signs vary from individual to individual, but it's clear enough for Karl to pronounce, “These guys are yuan-ti.”

“What's a yuan-ti?” asks Sepia.

Kane prods one of the bodies with a toe.

“They're an ancient race of humans who are tainted by contact with serpent gods,” the wizard explains. “Their presence is a threat.”

***

The party dispatches Bradford with a few other scouts to try to follow the trail of the yuan-ti back and find any lair or outpost they might have nearby. When he reports back, Bradford tells them that he did find something- a small group of lizardfolk being led by the strange snake-men. “It looked to me like they're fortifying the area. They were digging out a ditch and building a palisade. I don't think they plan on leaving anytime soon.”

“Maybe we can negotiate with them,” Shar muses.

Kane grins and caresses the hilt of his sword. “I will be happy to negotiate with them.”

“You bust down the doors,” she replies, “and I'll do the talking.”

***

The place resembles a tiny village, with only a few huts as yet. Boggy areas are almost everywhere within the encampment, and a huge mess of sticks, mud, and woven swamp grass forms a hump of mud about 10' high along one side. An empty stockade of thick wood has been built, but lies empty. The palisade around the camp has been finished since Bradford's scouting expedition, and a moat surrounds the whole place, swarming with water moccasins.

Watching from cover outside the camp, Alkor comments, “Looks like about half a dozen yuan-ti and a handful of lizardfolk.”

“Look there,” Sepia says, pointing. “Something's moving close to the ground... is that a snake?”

Silence for a moment, then Shar gives out a low whistle.

“That,” Kane rumbles, “is one big snake.”

“It could probably eat a horse,” Karl states.

“Not once I remove its head.” Kane loosens his blade in its sheath.

Shar frowns. “Remember, let's try to talk to them first.”

“Aye, but once they show they've no interest in talking, I'll kill their pet first.”

***

Shar's attempt at negotiation is an utter failure. Even before they reach the camp, they are attacked by the swimming snakes in the moat; and once that happens, the yuan-ti and their lackeys join the battle. There is never a chance to talk to them. Shar tries, once or twice, demanding their surrender; but the serpent cultists jus throw themselves at the party's weapons, willingly giving their lives in a fanatical frenzy. They fan out, giving their leader cover. He licks his dagger, leaving a slimy residue on it that proves poisonous when he sinks it into Kane's arm. The barbarian replies with a howling strike that is punctuated with two arrows from Alkor's bow.

Once the enemy has been dispatched, with none allowing themselves to be taken prisoner, the party searches the bodies and the encampment, trying to ascertain whether there might be more of the yuan-ti that are absent.

“Hey guys, look at this.” Sepia pulls an amulet from the neck of the leader. It is made of serpentine and designed to resemble a twisting snake. “I bet it's magic.”

“I've got an idol over here,” calls Alkor. “A snake. Looks valuable.”

Karl emerges from another hut clutching a handful of papers. “Look what I found,” he says. “Letters!”

The group clusters around as he reads aloud.

“Here's the first one. 'Survik, I am pleased to hear of your success. Now that you have located the Ziggurat of a Thousand Serpents, begin excavating at once. The central sacrifice chamber within should serve as a sufficient focus for the plague. Send a map of the location to our agent in Grumbleford at once; if you are found and destroyed by the warmbloods, we must retain the knowledge of it. Never again will the three glories of Zehir be hidden from us! We shall uncover the hidden secrets in all three of them with time. For now, we must prepare to make great sacrifices to the Slithering One that he shall continue to bless our endeavors. Once you have uncovered the snake pit in the Ziggurat, reconsecrate it and fill it with honored ones. Then we shall be able to perform the ritual!'

“It's signed, 'Your Master of Coils, Shethfass.' So now we have a name for their leader.”

“I shall remove the head of this Shethfass,” Kane declares. “As I did the head of this Survik.” He kicks the body of the yuan-ti leader.

“There's more,” Karl continues. “Here's the second letter:

“'Dear Survik, as we have discussed, I will be happy to remain at your service as long as you are in the area. Be warned that there is a new Government in the area, which seems competent at rooting out their enemies, so you may wish to look further afield for sacrifices in future.

“'Regarding the ziggurat of which you speak, I do not know of it. The local historian is an eladrin in Overland named Karlinden, but if you speak to him you may as well be informing the new Government of your intentions. I recommend looking the old fashioned way, if you have the manpower and a place to start. Please remember that any contact with me risks revealing my presence, and act accordingly.'” Karlinden frowns. “This one is just signed with an initial- K.”

There are three more letters. One by one, Karl reads them aloud:

“'Survik,

“'The green is made from the brain of a carrion crawler and has paralytic effects. Beware; it will harm serpents and other chosen folk as readily as it will a warmblood.

“'If you succeed with the Plague of Serpents, you will be given access to the histachi ritual. Consider this your true test. If you unleash the plague, there will be so many vectors spreading the histachi vulnerability that you should have no trouble remaking enough to hold off whatever pitiful resistance the locals can muster. Once you have created sufficient histachi you can seize control of the area and force the local populace to work and drain the swampland around the step pyramid. (Histachi will unfortunately not be able to work as regularly as required for such a task; they are stupid, prone to distraction and violence and much better suited to guard duty or hunting sacrifices.)

“'We will begin making a sacrifices every day when the sun is highest, that Zehir might bless your undertaking.

“'Your Master of Coils, Shethfass.'”

“Do you know anything about this pyramid, Karl?” asks Shar.

“I'm afraid not. Nor do I know about this referenced plague of serpents... but I don't like the sounds of it.”

The next letter reads simply: Survik, Where is the map?

Your Master of Coils, Shethfass


“Huh,” says Alkor. “Did anyone see any sign of a map?” It feels almost taboo to ask; for the last several centuries of the Sword Empire, maps were considered state secrets. Most people have never actually seen one- and none of our heroes found anything like a map in the encampment.

The final letter is addressed to a different recipient. “Interesting,” murmurs Karl. Then he reads aloud:

“'Ahrthass,

“'While I am at the excavation site, I leave you in charge. Should any of the others doubt you, show them this letter. With any luck, we shall have the Snake Pit excavated by the end of summer, and then we can perform the Plague of Serpents.

“'We do have a growing problem, however. The copy of the map that I sent to our local agent never arrived, which doubtless means that someone intercepted it. Be cautious! We do not need interference at this stage when we are so close! If anyone pries, sacrifice them. But DO IT QUIETLY! Attract attention, and we could be delayed or stopped at the moment of our triumph. Worst of all would be if our agent was uncovered. If he is forced to run, he will come to you. At that point he will be a liability- he will know too much to be allowed to survive useless. Feed him to the snake.

“'Survik' -so I guess,” Karl finishes, “this one was written by the guy the others were written to.”

“I wonder what this excavation site they reference is.” Shar frowns. “And this Snake Pit.”

“I wonder who their agent is,” Sepia says.

“There's a lot to unpack here,” Shar admits.

“The end of summer isn't far off,” Alkor points out. “It's July 20th today.”

“Whatever they're doing, they're doing it soon,” Karl agrees with a nod.

Kane sneers. “Then we shall have to kill them quickly.”

Next Time: Our heroes struggle to prevent... A Plague of Serpents!
 

the Jester

Legend
Our heroes continue to dig around the yuan-ti camp. Soon, Karl finds a map. “Look at this.” He points to a scrawled label on the parchment. “'Excavation site.' I think that's what we're after.”

“Or at least, it's where they are,” quips Bradford.

“Seriously,” says Shar, “we need to stop them. This plague of serpents, whatever it is, can't be good for us.”

Kane nods. “Agreed.” Before he can say more, there is a call from the gate set in the palisade.

Several hours earlier, the yuan-ti had sent out a group to search for potential sacrifices. Now they have returned.

The yuan-ti realize that there is trouble awaiting them from the subtlest signs, such as dead bodies lying in plain view, so when they meet our heroes it is weapons in hand. They, along with several servants- a pair of ghasts and an ironstone gargoyle- fight hard, but the party is ready for a fight, too. Though the yuan-ti and their lackeys are tough and dangerous foes, Kane enters a rage and gets their attention with a bellowing charge, backed up by Sepia's brass knuckles and PHUQ-69's morning star. The others strike from afar with arrow and spell.

It is during this fight that our heroes realize just how durable their new shardmind friend is, for P-69 is able to throw off lingering effects (such as the yuan-tis' ongoing poison effects) far more quickly than anyone else.*

Once the party has dispatched these new foes, Sepia says, “Maybe we should get out of here in case there are more groups that are gonna come back.”

“I'd like to burn this camp,” Kane growls, “but it's all too wet.”

“And from this map, it looks to be fairly swampy the whole way.” Karl frowns and glances around. “Here, we at least have dry ground. Perhaps we should avail ourselves of it and rest the night. I'm sure we can deal with any other groups that return before dawn.”

The others agree.

***

The group ends up spending several days at the camp, using the time to harvest a great deal of meat from the giant snake they slew. Shar dedicates the first meal of “this god we're eating” to the Sword Emperor. No more foes arrive.

Then they set out for the Ziggurat of a Thousand Serpents.

Traveling through the swamp is arduous. The party is harassed by insects, occasionally including giant varieties. Movement is slow, landmarks are hard to find, and swamp gas severely limits visibility.

They get lost, find their way then lose it again. They are confronted with impassable tangles of trees and brush that turns them around and costs them whole days' worth of progress. Several of them catch blinding sickness; the party has to use remove affliction rituals more than once as they journey along. And they are attacked several times by rancid horrors made of rotting vegetation.

But finally, after almost a month, they pass through a screen of trees and large leafy bushes and their destination comes into view. They draw back and spend a few minutes watching.

About 60' away is a large step pyramid that rises about 30' above the surface of the swamp. It is covered by swamp growth and muck; although its outline is clear, it is impossible to actually see the surface at all. An encampment of crude wooden shelters has been constructed at the base of the pyramid, which has at least three visible levels. Steps ascend each side of the pyramid. At the apex is a huge slab of stone with a 10'x10' opening through which a group of human-looking cultists are excavating copious amount of mud via buckets. At any given time, anywhere up to three working people are visible, hauling mud outside the top and dumping it off to the side, onto a mud pile now about 10' high. A number of huts are scattered around the base of the pyramid. Two more of the yuan-ti, these ones obviously overseers or guards, keep watch from the top of the pyramid. Long hoses extend out of the pyramid, water draining sluggishly from them.

“We can take 'em,” Kane says. Sepia nods agreement.

Shar purses her lips. “All right, let's do it before any more of them arrive.”

The party scrambles forward to attack.

At first things look good; Sepia and Karl shoot the cultists down while Kane and P-69 rush forward to engage the overseers. Unfortunately, the noise of Kane's howling strike awakens the additionally cultists in the huts. And more of the workers pour out of the top of the pyramid, buckets discarded in favor of daggers or scimitars.

Suddenly, instead of somewhere around five enemies, the party is facing 20 foes (well, more like 18, given that two are already down).

Then snakes start to emerge from the entrance- first, three rattlesnakes; then a huge constrictor; and finally, half a dozen water moccasins.

Karl enters a wizard's fury, recognizing that this is no time to hold back. He begins dropping cultists left and right with massive volleys of magic missiles. Meanwhile, Kane and P-69 seem to turn into living snake sausage grinders, brutally laying about themselves and surrounding themselves with sprays of blood.

The snake cultists fall one by one, but not without dealing their fair share of damage to our heroes. Likewise, the snakes themselves wound, poison, and crush Kane and P-69, but both of them are too tough to quit.

Soon, the pyramid exterior and entrance have been secured.

Coming down from his rage, Kane realizes, “I could use some healing.”

***

There's no point in waiting. If they don't move fast, our heroes know that any yuan-ti still in the pyramid will figure out that they are under attack. So, after a quick breather to heal, the party advances to the top of the pyramid and in through the entrance.

A bunch of buckets, shovels of various makes, casks of water and pumps, long coils of hose and similar material are in the chamber below the 10' x 10' opening. The stuff is very organized but still takes up a great deal of the space available. Mud still covers most surfaces, but the surface of the green serpentine stairs with their bannister formed to resemble a series of intertwined cobras running downward have been washed clean.

“Look,” says Sepia. She points at several places where spikes are sticking up from the banisters like fangs. The hoses they noticed outside run down the stairs.

“All right,” Shar declares, “let's finish these guys.”

Next Time: Our heroes descend into the Ziggurat of a Thousand Serpents!


*This is because P-69 is a warden. Wardens get to make “save ends” saves at the start of their turn, as well as the end of it. Come to think of it, it might be only one at the start of your turn- IDHMBIFOM- but whatever, it was an awesome ability.
 

the Jester

Legend
The second level down consists of three rooms. To the the southwest is a chamber with several inches of mud still on the floor. There are piles of rotten old robes on the ground, but they are in such bad shape that no details can be discerned. The door is jammed shut by mud piled against the far side, but Kane manages to shove it open with a little work. This leads the party to a empty chamber with a faint smell of snake in it.

The largest room on the level holds an altar graven with images of snakes with fangs that drop venom, set upon a dais. The thick pillars bracing the ceiling are shaped to resemble great masses of snakes coiling together. The pump hoses run from the chamber above down another set of stairs.

“This is devoted to Zehir,” Karl says of the altar, “a god of serpents, poison, and assassination.”

“That seems to fit these guys,” Shar comments.

The party searches the room. They find that the pillar in the northeast has a small hollow section. Sepia manages to trick a hidden panel open; within the secret compartment is another serpent amulet, similar to the one that they found previously. Sepia listens for noise coming from below.

“I can hear the sounds of work going on somewhere down there,” she reports. “And distant voices.”

Shar nods. “We must have drawn everyone who was near the top outside.”

“Hopefully,” Kane says, “the rest of them aren’t expecting us.”

Down they go. Each level that they descend is larger than the last. Mud has been cleared from fewer surfaces below than above, but where the walls are visible, the motif of the serpent continues, often depicted devouring or poisoning mammals. The hoses continue along. The party creeps forward, finding an old chamber with shelves still holding stale incense, a partially-excavated garbage pit (complete with the withered corpse of an otyugh), before abruptly finding themselves in a chamber full of snakes.

Battle!

Kane leaps forward to attack, blade singing as it slashes serpents in half. The other rush to back him up. The snakes can’t withstand their fury, but a group of yuan-ti and cultists rush in to defend them from another chamber.

“Watch out!” Karl cries, blasting them with a fireball. Sepia cracks her whip at a cultist while P-69 slams his Morningstar down on the largest snake. Even Bradford manages to cut down a few serpents. Soon, the battle is over, and the adventurers stand triumphant.

“I guess we didn’t draw out all of the yuan-ti near the surface after all.” Shar uses a healing word to restore some of the damage Sepia took.

***

There are no other yuan-ti or snakes on the level, though there are several more chambers. When they find a giant snake skeleton, it is perched at the top of a wide ramp that descends into the next level of the pyramid. Crushed bones lies all around it, but it proves inanimate despite the misgivings of the party.

The bottom of the ramp has more yuan-ti guarding it, waiting in 2’ of water and muck. The party attacks. The guards defend themselves, but our heroes force them back with the strength of their initial assault. Karl’s fire burst opens the battle, and Kane leaps forward in a rage. The cracking of Sepia’s whip sounds over the shrieks of the cultists.

But then Kane gives a cry of his own. Hidden beneath the mud and water, the room is trapped with pungi sticks.

But in his rage, Kane cares little. Bleeding from his left foot, the barbarian ignores his pain, ignores the filth threatening to taint the wound, the stabbing daggers of the yuan-ti. His attention is focused solely on one thing: kill.

The yuan-ti fall back, pressed by Kane, with the others right behind him. But the noise has drawn more trouble. As Bradford drops another cultist, a pair of gray chickens come chicken-walking into view.

“Bawk bawk!”

The chickens rush forward. “Watch out!” Karl shouts. “Those are cockatrices! They can turn you to stone!”

Kane snarls and hacks at the first cockatrice. P-69 explodes into his constituent crystals, then reforms near Kane and joins the melee.

Behind the cockatrices, another yuan-ti appears. He wears a wide-brimmed sable fedora and has a whip coiled at his waist. “Wait!” he cries. “There is no need for this!”

Kane drops one of the cockatrices and turns roars.

Shar, however, never one to turn down the chance to negotiate, calls back, “Call off your minions! If they stop attacking us, we’ll stop attacking them!”

“Will we, though?” mutters Bradford.

But indeed, despite Kane’s tooth-gritting rancor, the fighting between the party and the remaining yuan-ti and cockatrice halts. There is only one yuan-ti other than the fellow with the hat. Karl strains to hear any sign of others nearby, but he can’t hear anything over the heaving breaths and movements in the room.

“There’s no need for this!” the hat-wearing yuan-ti says. “Why are you attacking us?”

Shar answers, “We’re not going to let you perform your ritual here.”

“I take it that you’ve already cut your way through the others above?”

“That’s right.” Kane grins.

“Then you have nothing to worry about. It wasn’t my ritual at all. It sounds like you’ve already slain the cultists who were planning the ritual.”

“Then what are you doing here?” demands Karlinden.

“I am an archeologist. You might think of that as being somewhat like an adventurer, exploring old tombs and suchlike. My name is Survik. I’m here because this is a sacred place to my people. Long ago, these lands were ours.”

P-69 speaks. “What was the cult’s plan? We know there was a ritual. What would it do?”

“Ah, that. That’s why they were here- it can only be performed at one of a few select holy sites. They wanted to create a plague of serpents. The ritual causes snakes within the affected area to grow a second head and split into two snakes, doubling the population every few weeks. Of course, many of those snakes would move outward, seeking less crowded conditions.”

“How long,” Karl asks, “would the effects of this ritual last?”

“A year.”

“Then it’s a good thing we stopped them,” says Shar.

“From your perspective, certainly.” Survik shrugs. “It makes little difference to me.”

“You don’t care that we stopped them?”

“As I said, they were pursuing their goals, and I was pursuing my own.”

“Which are?” Shar asks.

“I am exploring a lost site created by my people.” Survik makes a gesture to indicate the ziggurat around them. “I’m not really interested in doing anything threatening to you. I want to learn. I’m a scholar.”

The party confers. It’s obvious that, should they decide to, they can lay the remaining snake-folk low along with their cockatrice, but there is a danger that one of our heroes could be petrified before the fight is over.

“And I believe this guy that he’s not a threat,” adds Shar.

“You think we should let him go?” Kane frowns. “He could bring more of his people here so that they can try to perform the ritual again.”

“And we know where they are. We can stop them again.”

After some debate, Shar makes the decision: they will allow Survik to live, and periodically send scouts to check the situation at the ziggurat to ensure that the yuan-ti don’t attempt to cause more trouble there.

“We’re going to regret this,” Kane grumbles.

***

The party returns home and has a nice stretch of downtime. For almost two months, they are confronted with no major threats. As winter nears, things are looking pretty good for them and their lands- food stores are set aside, damaged buildings are largely repaired, and so forth.

One day, late in September, a stranger arrives in Goldwash, seeking an audience with the Governors. This is Rualiss, an eladrin- and he comes to beg for aid.

“There’s something wrong in the Feywild,” he tells Shar and Shifty. “There is something… something corrupting fey folk.”

“What do you mean?” asks Shifty. “Corrupting how?”

“It’s like they fall under some sort of malign influence. The become filled with rage and aggression, and eventually vanish.”

“Any idea where they’re going?”

“Yes. The Garden of Graves.”

“That sounds… ominous.”

Rualiss winces. “Normally, it’s beautiful. Honored heroes of the Feywild are laid to rest there. It’s a place of peace and harmony. But lately… well… we don’t know why it’s happening. But it seems likely that the source is in the Garden of Graves.”

“And you want us to find it and destroy it,” Shar says.

“Yes. We’ve already sent two expeditions on our own, but…” He shrugs. “We presume that they succumbed to the power behind this.”

“And what do we get in return?” Shifty asks.

“We can give you a number of minor magic items.”

“Sold!”

Next Time: Our heroes travel to the Feywild and the city of Moonstair!
 

the Jester

Legend
Rualiss leads the party into the forest for several days. As they cross over a trickling creek bed along a well-shaded hillside, the eladrin tells them, “Here. This is the place.”

They look around. The brush is thick, there are many flowers blooming, the birds are singing, the trees are large and healthy- but it looks fundamentally like the rest of the surrounding woods.

“Is there some kind of portal?” Karl asks.

“No. This is a crossing. Once each day, when the sun is halfway past its zenith and the shadows are growing long, if one walks through this area, she can simply walk from the World into the Feywild or back.”

Sepia scrambles up a tree to gauge the sun’s position. “So we just have to wait a couple of hours?”

Rualiss nods. “And then we can pass through.”

The group has a small meal and relaxes while they wait. Shar takes off her boots and Shifty grabs a quick nap. Bradford stays attention, keeping guard.

When the time is nigh, the air seems to fill with an almost electric charge. Rualiss leads our heroes through the fey crossing, and they can all feel the moment when, suddenly, they are in another world, for the air seems sweeter, the birdsong more melodic, the scents on the air more primal, verdant and fecund both.

For most of them, it is a first visit to the Feywild. As an eladrin himself, Karl has spent some time there, and Shifty had visited the faerie realm a few times as a youth. Still, even for both of them, it has been years.

***

Moonstair is a small village that straddles the two worlds. When a moon is in the sky- something that happens a few times in a typical human lifetime- it falls back and forth between the two worlds. It is not what it once was; it is home to a meager two hundred people, as the outlying abandoned buildings and overgrown farms attest.

This is Rualiss’ home.

Here, the party rests a night, put up by fey folk both grateful and hopeful that they might be able to resolve the situation.

The next day they make for the Garden of Graves, which is less than a day from Moonstair. They follow a trail through thick woods until it opens on a huge ridge of dark stone that looms over the surrounding area. Based on the directions and descriptions that they were given by Rualiss, they have arrived.

Shifty says, “Before we go in there, I’ll check it out.” He activates his armor of rat form and transforms into a fat gray rat, then scampers ahead on the path while the others withdraw into the cover of the trees.

The path leads the rodentified gnome to an entrance in the face of the ridge. Maybe it passes all the way through, he thinks. He moves another few steps forward- then freezes.

Something is chiseled into the face of the rock beneath him.

I’m standing on writing, he realizes.

He can’t read it, but there is a lot of it. He scuttles back to the party, then returns to his normal form. Patting his comb-over, he tells the others what he saw.

“No guards?” Kane asks.

“Not that I saw.”

“Bah.”

Karlinden rubs his hands together. “Let’s check it out.”

***

The writing is in the Elvish script, but transliterates Common words. And there is quite a lot of it.

It reads:

Count you the shadows, watch the sun.
The wise know where they stand:
While knowing not the time to shun,
The fools must find themselves undone.

Like lustful swain or panicked child
Who beg another’s gentle hand,
The fool delves heedless through the wild.
The wise are not so soon beguiled.

When darkness falls and dreams portend
The rising of a fearsome foe,
The fool, swift-striking, meets his end,
The wise know froe from friend.

Let art and image point the way,
Abandon all you think you know.
For common sense leads fools astray.
The key is simply this: Obey.

The wise must ever strategize;
They never play, unless to win.
They see the harm in comfort’s lies,
And seek to open weary eyes.

You’ve fought your way, you’ve risked demise,
To view the ivy heart within.
Now as the soul within you dies,
This knowledge is your only prize:
You’d never have come, were you truly wise.


“Huh,” says Shar.

Karl studies the text. “That’s… something, that’s for sure.”

“Come on,” Sepia urges, “let’s go inside.”

“Wait a minute.” Shifty unslings his backpack. “I’m going to copy this down first. It sounds like a bunch of hints.”

“Who did this, though?” PHUQ-69 wonders.

***

The cave has a trio of statues in it, blocking off access to the far side, where a tunnel leads out. The three statues depict a maiden, a mother, and a crone, each with a hand out. Shifty immediately pulls out his copy of the doggerel. “Here,” he says, jabbing a finger at the second stanza. “The crone’s the one we want. The lustful swain is the mother, and the panicked child is the maiden.” He tries putting a coin in the crone statue’s hand.

It grinds into motion, stepping out of the party’s way.

“That wasn’t so hard,” the gnome declares.

Beyond the cave, the path emerges on the far side of the stone ridge. A cliff rises above the party; from here, they can’t see what’s atop it. Not far to their left, the ridge cuts off further passage; to their right, trails wind along through the trees below the cliff face. Some distance that way is a building on stilts, perched about 50’ above a rushing river. Rope bridges connect it with the top of the cliff face, and a spiral staircase ascends from the river’s bank to the building.

P-69 gestures. “I think we should go that way.”

The party starts down a trail leading toward the building. It winds through the woods, then abruptly opens on a clearing containing an abandoned-looking camp. Two tents, tattered and collapsed, lie among scattered firewood and old rusted tools.

“What’s that?” Sepia indicates a strange dark stone obelisk. Atop it is a globe of iron.

“It looks kind of like a weary eye,” Shifty says.

The party starts to move over to it.

And the whole campsite comes to life and attacks.

Next Time: Our heroes move into the Garden of Graves proper!
 

the Jester

Legend
“Is this in your rhyme, too?” PHUQ-69 cries, as the decrepit canvas tents try to wrap themselves around our heroes while the firewood bursts alight and sends flaming sparks at them.

“No!” Shifty replies, then corrects himself. “Well, yes- not these, but that!” He points at the obelisk.

The tools, too, spring to life, and a ghostly light flickers into being before starting to drain the life from those near enough. Our heroes find themselves suddenly pressed from all sides.

While the others engage the attacking campsite furnishings, Shifty springs forward, tumbling past the animated objects, and rushes to the obelisk. 'Seek to open weary eyes', he thinks, recalling the verse, and scrambles up to the top of the thing, where he espies a hinge. He pulls out his thieves' tools and works at it.

He feels a great lethargy fall over him. He feels, in fact, very sleepy.

Blinking, he bites his cheek to help himself focus, and keeps working on the hinge.

There!

He tricks it open, and the lethargy ends.

He leaps to the ground and returns to his friends, who are finishing disposing of the will-o'-wisp and camp gear. “Well done, people!” he beams at them. “Great job!”

“What's that thing you were messing with?” Shar asks.

“Come see, I disabled it. It's the 'weary eye' mentioned in the rhyme we found.”

P-69 and Sepia search the campsite for treasure while the others check out the obelisk. “Nothing,” the rogue reports, the two joining the others at the obelisk after a few moments.

“To yonder staircase, then,” says Kane, and the group turns back to their destination.

As they approach, the building's odd shape, irregular and curved, strikes them. It stands as high as the cliffs themselves, with thick wooden stilts as supports. The stairs that rise to it are made of wood, too, but the building itself seems to be composed of slabs of ill-fitting stone sealed with vines and other growth. It's very weird-looking.

Kane leads the way up the stairs, naked sword pointing ahead of him, a low growl rising from his deep in his chest. They spiral up through the floor of the suspended building. Within, a table holds a miniature landscape that includes the building. Most of the table depicts the top of the cliff- a complex systems of paths running between stone cairns.

“This must depict this place,” Bradford states.

The only other exit out of the building ends at a rope bridge that leads to the north, where another building, this one constructed from bright marble, stands. Rougher stone structures- a whole complex of them- stand to the northwest.

“Those aren't on the map,” Karl exclaims.

Sepia points at the rougher buildings. “And look. The stones making those up- they don't fit together well, but they're obviously not natural. Those are the gravestones. Somebody has repurposed them.”

Silence falls over the group for a moment. Karl finally breaks it. “Well, at least we know that whatever is happening to the fey folk around here is intentional. And that means that we can undo it.”

***

The marble building is another irregular one, though less curvy than the first. Inside, the walls, floor, and ceiling are completely covered in runes that seem to squirm and change when observed. The interior walls of the building curve weirdly and end in pillars, apparently part of the pattern of runes.

“Whatever is going on here, it's very complex,” Karl declares. “I think that the entire Garden of Graves has been reworked into some kind of rune magic to support... something.”

“Hello? Oh gods, help me!”

The woman's voice comes from a part of the room that is hidden behind one of the curving walls. Shifty whips out his dagger.

“Hello?” says P-69.

“Please, help! They've already sacrificed my family, and I'm sure that I don't have long! Please, free me!”

“I don't know...” Shifty mutters suspiciously, but the shardmind is already moving around the wall. There is the sound of rattling chains-

Then there are beetles everywhere, tearing at the party, emerging from tiny holes in the room's surfaces.

P-69 shrieks, and the woman's voice comes again- laughter, full of malice.

P-69 backs into view, scarabs scratching at him, biting and burrowing into his rocky skin. They scramble all over everyone. Blood is everywhere.

Kaboom! A fireball detonates, and for a moment, the group can see what's happening well enough to realize that the woman and the scarabs- or at least, many of them- are one and the same. She shifts from the form of a beautiful eladrin to a swarm of ravenous beetles and back again, flowing around the chamber in a chewing frenzy.

Badly wounded, Shifty tumbles around the corner, hoping to gain cover, retreating forward. For a moment he's away from them. Gasping, he glances around.

There is a stone-rimmed pool, within which lays a key of bright metal. The rippling water makes it hard to tell exactly where it is, but... He hurries over and reaches for it.

The key isn't where it appears to be. He misses when he grabs for it, and as he does so, a serpent of water rises up in the pool.

Uh-oh, he thinks.

Meanwhile, the others are struggling with the beetle situation. Karlinden's magic seems more effective than anything else, but Kane, Bradford, Sepia, and Shar are all badly wounded.

“Over here!” Shifty's voice comes from around the corner. The others fall back- forward, rather- toward him.

With a wail, the beetle-woman and her little friends follow, hesitating as Karl blasts them with a flame burst.

Shifty gropes for the key, and after a moment, his hand closes on it- but not before the serpent smashes into him.

He vanishes.

Sepia and Bradford both fall to the relentless beetle-woman. But finally, Kane and Karl bring her down in turn. When they finally do, she collapses into a shower of beetles, most dead- but some scuttle away, out the tiny holes in the walls and floor.

The water serpent keeps lashing out at anyone near it. Sepia calls, “Get away from it! We don't need to mess with it. Shifty already grabbed whatever was in the water.”

“Speaking of whom,” Shar says, “we need to find him.”

“There's only one way!” P-69 steps up to the serpent, which lashes out.

The shardmind, too, vanishes.

“I'm not so sure that's true,” Karl sighs.

***

Shifty appears with a yelp. He's in cold, fast-flowing water. Not far downstream, the water disappears with a roar: it's a waterfall.

He swims to shore without too much trouble, but then realizes that P-69 has appeared behind him in the water, and seems to be having a bit less luck with the swimming.

“Watch out!” the gnome cries.

P-69 gives a loud yell as he is swept over the edge of the fall.

***

The others heard P-69's yell. The waterfall he fell down was the same one they saw descending from above the cliff when they first passed through the stone ridge blocking access to the Garden of Graves. He's banged up by the fall, but still conscious.

However, the whole group is pretty battered from the last few encounters. “I think,” says Karl, “we should move an hour or so away and try to get a long rest.”

This seems wise. The party heads off into the Feywild to make camp.

Next Time: Death strikes one of our heroes!
 

the Jester

Legend
While the group rests, Shifty and Karl pour over their copy of the verse, looking for clues. The gnome points to the paper. “I saw a sundial in that area with all the beetles. This bit- 'Count you the shadows, watch the sun/The wise know where they stand;/While knowing not the time to shun'- could be a reference to it.”

“Maybe we stepped in the wrong spot or something and drew the beetles,” the wizard muses.

“I don't think so- that woman was there, disguised as a prisoner, when we showed up.”

“Perhaps we should examine it more closely.”

Shifty nods. “Agreed.”

***

Beetles still crawl in and out of the small holes in the beruned building. The sundial, which the party barely made note of during their battle in the marble building, sits in an cul-de-sac in the place. Though it is under a roof, a flaming brazier hangs on a chain from the ceiling. Obviously under the influence of some kind of magic, it isn't hanging straight down, but rather extends down at an angle, causing the sundial's gnomon to cast a shadow.

“It looks like the right time to me,” says P-69.

Karl squats down to look at it a bit more closely. “Agreed, at least as far as I can tell.” He closes his eyes and uses his arcane senses to feel the magic surrounding it, but can't discern anything more.

For the moment, there is nothing obvious to do with or to the sundial, so the party leaves the marble building. They cross the river that P-69 and Shifty had been teleported into along a dilapidated wooden bridge, which leads them to the main plateau above the cliffs, where a collection of weirdly-shaped buildings constructed from the old grave markers stands. Two large black obelisks stand before a building to the group's left; they elect to continue their investigation there.

The building beyond the obelisks is even more haphazard than the rest. “It almost looks like someone was trying to build an artificial cave,” Sepia remarks.

The group steps in- and the world seems to spin away beneath them. There is a shock of cold and nausea, and the inherent brightness of the Feywild is replaced with a sudden somberness.

“We've shifted into another plane,” Karl says.

“Which one?” asks Shar.

The wizard shakes his head. “I can't be sure, but... a sinister one.”

Kane leads the group into a bone-strewn chamber. An ominous-looking statue, robed and crowned but with its face chiseled away, stands near the back; many of the bones seem to be pointing at it.

“I don't trust it,” says PHUQ-69.

“I'll check it out.” Before anyone can stop her, Sepia skips forward toward the statue.

Which lashes out, a scythe appearing in its hands from nowhere. The tiefling yelps and flips backward, but still takes a nasty cut.

Kane growls, “Foul sorcery!”, then rushes the statue.

But another one comes from behind.

Both unleash pulses of necrotic energy, ripping life energy from our heroes, then lash out, moving quickly through the party ranks and cutting left and right. Kane responds by entering a rage and unleashing a series of devastating blows, while Shar, Sepia, and P-69 focus on the other statue and Karl fires magic missiles from the center of the party. Bradford darts in and stabs the thing that Kane is fighting, and the party begins to wear their foes down.

But the creatures are very dangerous, striking with frightful precision, and the very air in the place reeks with death. Just being too close to the walls causes the bones of the heroes to ache. Combined with the terrible gray angels' attacks, the power of decay that runs through the very fabric of the local reality begins to wear the adventurers down.

Then, in the flash of a blade, Sepia falls to the ground unconscious. Before anyone can help her, a scythe slashes into her back, and then the pull of the plane itself finishes her off.

“Sepia!” cries P-69. “Noooo!!”

“It's not too late!” Karl exclaims. “Grab her and let's get out of here!”

The shardmind scoops Sepia's corpse up into his arms and the party retreats. As soon as they leave the building, they can feel themselves transition back into the Feywild. The glum, oppressive feeling that death is just around the corner is replaced with the burgeoning sense that life is everywhere.

Shifty gasps, clutching at his wounds. “Those things were nasty!”

Karl ignores him, checking Sepia for signs of life. There are none. “It will be all right,” he mutters. “I recently learned the raise dead ritual. We just need some time.” But then he frowns. “Time, and ritual components. Damn.”

“You don't have enough?” asks Shifty.

“Not of the correct type. We'll have to return to Goldwash. Unless... perhaps the folk of Moonstair will have what we need, and since we're aiding them, if they do, hopefully, they will be willing to surrender it to us.”

Plan made, the party departs for the fey crossing.

***

Alas, Moonstair does not have the ritual components that Karl needs, necessitating that the party return home for a few days. When they do, they find a stranger waiting for them. Strangely garbed in what is plainly some kind of uniform, with tanned skin, a hawk nose, and long fingers, the stranger introduces himself as Moab ak-Atel.

“I am an emissary,” he tells them, “from the Delphinate.”

Karl is thunderstruck. The Delphinate was a society of mages based upon an island, but he had assumed that it was destroyed in the fall of civilization. If it survived, who knows what kinds of magical secrets I might find there? His pulse quickens.

“My people have heard of your community,” Moab says. “As you are probably aware, there are very few surviving towns or cities- of which the Delphinate is naturally the greatest. When we discovered your communities were still extant, we felt it wise to reach out and make contact with you. Thus, I have come with an invitation for you- you being the local authorities- to either send emissaries or to come visit yourselves.”

“Where is this Delphinate?” Shar asks.

“South of here, past the desert. Assuming you wish to come see our glorious civilization, I am to guide you.”

“Well, that's very interesting, and we might take you up on it in the future. But we have other obligations to fulfill first.”

“Oh?” Moab says politely. “Contact between our people is a very high priority for us. After all, those few points of light that have survived the extinguishing of civilization must stick together, or we'll all fall separately. Perhaps I could help you in order to expedite matters?”

Karl says, “I take it you're a wizard, given your origin?”

“Of course. I specialize in the school of enchantment.”

Specialization! Another lost art! thinks Karl. “I would love to compare notes with you.”

“Oh? You are a wizard, too?”

“Indeed, although I am not a specialist like you. Instead, I focus on my implement of choice- the tome.”

“Ah.” Moab seems unimpressed, which makes Karl feel even more rustic than he normally does. Nonetheless, the stranger allows, “I suppose it couldn't hurt anything.”

***

Sepia's resurrection goes as planned once the components are acquired. She is shaken by the experience, but her commitment to helping the fey folk seems to have redoubled.

That night, the party has dinner with Moab. They are shocked to see him pull out a pouch of residuum and sprinkle some on his food.

“What are you doing?” yelps Karl.

“Oh, you're not familiar with residuum,” Moab says condescendingly.

“No, I am- we are- but you're putting it on your food??”

“Of course. It vastly improves the flavor.” He dumps a small pile of it onto the back of one hand, leans over it, and snorts it. “Ah, refreshing.”

“But-” Karl stops. Do they have so much magic in the Delphinate that they can treat residuum so casually? Eating it? Snorting it??

“Care to try?” asks Moab, offering the pouch.

“Uh...”

“I'll try it,” P-69 declares.

“You don't have a nose.”

The crystals making up the shardmind's body shift around, forming an orifice in his face.

“I'm not sure it will have any effect on you,” Moab shrugs, “but give it a try.”

Sepia and Shifty try snorting some residuum, too. All of them- even P-69- find that it gives them a sort of floating head feeling, along with a charge of energy. Karl refrains and merely observes. There eyes are bright, almost feverish, he notes. “Is it addictive?”

“What? Addictive?” Moab ponders for a moment, then answers, “It depends. Do you consider food and drink addictive?”

***

Reinforced by their new ally- who, while stuffy and arrogant, seems willing to help in whatever way he can contribute to their cause- the party returns to the fey crossing. Moab finds the experience of passing over into another world fascinating, admitting that he hasn't had the chance to do so before. Karl contains his smirk, but can't help thinking, Who's the bumpkin now, eh?

The party moves through the bright foliage and sweet perfumes of the fey plane until they once again reach the Garden of Graves. On the way, Shifty shows Moab the doggerel that they copied down, and the newcomer spends some time familiarizing himself with it. “It's already proved useful several times,” Shifty comments, “and I'm hoping that unraveling what the rest of it means will help us deal with whatever other threats are here.”

The party once again ascends to the building atop the stilts. Indicating the diorama, Karl says, “I'm pretty sure that's what this place used to look like. But now, the graves have been dismantled and used as building materials.”

“I wonder who's behind it,” Sepia says to herself.

The party again crosses the rope bridges to the building where they fought the beetle-woman. The runes within still glow, still twist when observed closely. “That's the sundial we told you about.” Shifty gestures. “And... waitaminute-”

The beetles are swarming together. Forming a familiar. An all-too-familiar figure.

Laughing maniacally, the woman's face appears in the mass for a moment.

Then the beetles wash over them again.

It is the first time that they have had the opportunity to see Moab in battle. While Karl is the sort of wizard who is like a catapult, Moab proves to be more like a bag full of ball bearings. His beguiling strands confuse the enemy, move them around, pushing them away from the party and preventing them from swarming over them.

This time, the battle goes better for our heroes.

Their new ally has more than just magical might; he also proves to be tactically savvy. He may be a wizard, but he thinks like a soldier.

The beetle woman tears deep wounds in our heroes, but she can't stay consistently close enough to maximize her effectiveness with Moab's enchantments constantly forcing her back. This time, the party defeats her with far less cost to themselves. Even so, she almost kills Bradford and Shifty before Karl's arcane flames finish her off.

Once more, the remaining beetles scatter, withdrawing through the holes in the building.

“She's gonna be back again,” Shifty declares. “I can feel it.”

“But hopefully not today,” says Shar.

Kane snorts. “Bah. Let her come. We will lay her low again. Put her to the sword enough times and she will die for good.”

“Maybe.” Karl sounds unconvinced.

Next Time: Our heroes continue their exploration of the Garden of Graves!
 

the Jester

Legend
The party returns to the Garden of Graves again, choosing a different building this time. The room they enter is hung with about a dozen tapestries, one of which depictss an almost life-sized double door, with a figure being hurled back from it by a bolt of lightning. Lockpicks are flying from his fingers. Another figure holds a key in his hand, and is leaning forward as if to stop him.

Shifty studies it. Something about it looks off. The lock- it's too big. Frowning, he draws out the key that he had etrieved from the pool with the water serpent in it and touches it to the lock on the tapestry. Nothing obvious happens, but he decides to keep an eye out for a set of double doors like the ones it depicts. If we find them, I bet they're already open.

There are no other obvious exits at first, but some investigation discovers that one of the tapiestries is hanging in front of a doorway that leads to another chamber.

That chamber holds a tall staff with a flame atop it. On the wall past it, a line of numbers, 1 through 12, is repeated twice, once in brass and once in black-wrought iron.

Shifty is pretty sure that the rhyme they found refers to this somehow- there was the bit about knowing which hour to shun, or something- but before he can pull out his scribbled copy, PHUQ-69 steps between the flame and the wall with the numbers. “Look,” the shardmind says. “My shadow is darker than it should be.”

“Be careful,” Shifty starts, but the warden is already deliberating casting his shadow across the numbers.

Sudden shrieks rise as mad wraiths appear from nowhere, babbling insanity. They're all around the party, their touches driving our heroes near to madness. Before they can even respond, our heroes find their heads throbbing with pain. They can barely see or think.

There is one wraith for each member of the party. And the wraiths strike with terrible speed.

The party starts to fight back, almost too late. This time, Moab's spells are less effective, for the wraiths have strong wills. Karl's spells and the weapons of the others are also less than effective, for the wraiths are barely there. Flame and steel alike passes through them as if they aren't there.

The fight is terrifying. Kane, Bradford, and Moab all fall during the fight, and when it is over, the Delphinite lies dead on the ground.

Shifty quips, “I hope you have enough components this time.”

***

Once again safely removed from the Garden of Graves, the party discusses the torch and numbers. “It has to be there for a reason,” P-69 says. He insists that he cast his shadow on the hour corresponding to the correct time.

Shifty smacks himself in the forehead. “Of course! The sundial. We need to match the time that the sundial reads, not the real time of day.”

A night's rest, and then Karl performs the raise dead ritual. Moab returns from the beyond shaken and impressed by the rest of the party; if they survived a fight that slew him, there is clearly more to them than he had previously given them credit for.

***

Upon returning, P-69 makes another deadly mistake. In the cave with the three statues, he places a chip of his own body rather than a coin, and the crone statue animates and tries to kill them. Once defeated, rather than crumbling or falling, it returns to its original position and magically repairs itself.

“Just give it a damn coin,” Kane snarls.

***

The party heads toward the room with the sundial, but they don't relish yet another encounter with Madame Beetles. So instead of just rushing in, Shifty says, “Let me try going in as a rat. Maybe they won't realize that I'm a threat.”

His plan works like a charm. As a fat brown rat, he waddles into the chamber, takes note of the time indicated by it, and then meanders on out with no problem.

The party heads back to the flaming staff. This time, P-69 casts his shadow on the number corresponding to the sundial's indicated time, and there is an audible click from the room with the tapestries in it.

“Hey, a secret door just opened up back here,” calls Bradford.

Beyond the secret door, they find first a room with a succession of strange game machines, which the party plays and beats handily, and then a chamber where fey enemies cloaked by illusions to appear like duplicates of the party appear. However, the heroes are more than a match for them, and once Karl disrupts the illusion, the battle is quickly ended.

Beyond that is a third room, but this one proves harmless. A search finds a secret trap door leading to a series of tunnels that wind underneath the Garden of Graves proper; though our heroes expect them to be full of undead or similar threats, they prove empty.

“It looks like they provide a shortcut into the main building, though,” Sepia points out.

Karl looks at his friends. “I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting low on spells. I say we go retreat to a safe place and rest again.”

Shifty shrugs. “I don't see any reason to press on; it's not like we have a particular time limit.”

“The longer we wait, the more fey might get ensnared,” Shar points out.

“I'm sure one more day won't really matter.”

***

Meanwhile, Sepia's death and subsequent resurrection have triggered unexpected consequences. Though the tiefling doesn't remember it- the living can't usually recall their afterlife, if they have been dead before- her soul did not reach its normal destination.

Instead, it had been captured. Caged by a cackling hag, Esmelda by name.

Esmelda is a pact hag that is working for Quah-Nomag. Her job is to capture the souls of those that have opposed him so that he may burn them as fuel as a part of his dark rituals. Now, as a part of her agreement, she must retrieve the soul that she lost.

Thus Esmelda has come to the Feywild, where she has set up a temporary base not far from the Garden of Graves, from which to ambush the party.

In the morning, her howlers will begin the harrying.

***

And indeed, with the morn come the first eerie, unearthly cries.

“That's a howler,” says Moab in surprise. “They aren't native to the Feywild.”

More howls come. The party finds themselves being pursued.

“Let us slay these beasts,” Kane snaps in irritation after the first half hour.

“They're pretty dangerous,” Karl cautions. “They're covered in spines like a porcupine.”

“But with the disposition of a demon,” Moab adds.

“They often serve powerful evil masters, such as undead, demons, or devils.”

“Or evil mortals.”

“Are you two competing or something?” Sepia asks. “Sheesh!”

Kane just growls wordlessly.

The howlers chase the party into a boggy area where Esmelda springs her trap. She, along with another pair of howlers and a quartet of hired canoloth mercenaries, lay in wait near a rune of containment that she has scribed on a tree nearby. The rune sets up a zone tha damages each creature within it whenenever one of them leaves it. It is tremendously effective at preventing the party from escaping.

However, it isn't enough to win the battle.

When the rune triggers, our heroes are momentarily contained by it. The howlers that have been harrying them choose this moment to move in for the kill, and Esmelda and her contingent of fiendish creatures reveals themselves as well.

But the hag has miscalculated. She has underestimated our heroes. From Kane's rage that seems to channel the powers of his ancestors to P-69's ability to shrug off the magic she tries to lay upon him, from Shifty and Sepia working together to slice the canoloths to ribbons to Moab's devasting use of beguiling strands to set the enemy up for Karl's more explosive magic spell, the party applies themselves to the task of ensuring that the howlers and their masters break off their pursuit.

Soon Esmelda is forced to surrender to save her life. Our heroes are not at first inclined to accept her surrender- but she threatens the vengeance of all six of her sisters if they slay her, and after some negotiation, the party agrees.

“Provided,” Shar says, “that you tell us who you are and why you came after us.” She indicates the rune of containment. “This is no accident. You were lying in wait for us. I'd bet those howlers were doing your bidding, too.”

“Also, you have to surrender your treasure,” Shifty interjects.

“Talk!” snaps Kane. “Before I remove your head from your shoulders!”

“Of course I'll tell you what you wish to know.” Esmelda titters. “I'm just hired help. I mean you no harm, personally. And I'll be happy to surrender my treasure. Why, I'd be glad to bake you some cookies, if you wish!” She smiles, looking for all the world like a withered evil grandma.

Shar answers, “No thanks. Just tell us everything.”

“Of course, of course! Your real problem is a fellow named Quah-Nomag, a half-ogre.”

“We're familiar with him,” Karl says.

The hag explains her role as a soul snatcher, and that Quah-Nomag seeks to burn the souls as part of some ritual. When Sepia died, Esmelda's hag cage snagged her soul and Quah-Nomag paid the hag for it. However, before she could be properly bound in a more permanet fashion, someone raised her from the dead. Quah-Nomag was enraged, and since Esmelda had already eaten part of her payment she was obliged to go after Sepia one way or the other.

“Wait a second,” Sepia says. “Eaten?”

“What are you paid in?” asks Shar.

“Larva, of course.”

Karl fills the others in: “Larva are like worms with the heads of humanoids. Many of the souls of evil dead creatures end up as larva.”

“Correct, my boy!” She beams at him, proud as a parent. “The binding ritual takes twelve hours to cast. I had had time to complete it, but I had gotten greedy and gone on a bit of a binge.”

“You mean you were binge eating souls?” demands P-69.

“Just so!” She smacks her lips.

“That's repulsive.” Sepia makes a face.

“Oh, surely you have tried a larva once or twice...? No? I figured, you are a tiefling...”

Shar speaks up again. “If we let you go, how do we know you won't come after us again?”

“I'm a pact hag, dearie,” Esmelda says cheerfully. “We'll make a deal.”


Esmelda doesn't know exactly what Quah-Nomag is after, but she inferred that he is looking for some sort of weapon sacred to his god. She knows little more of him or of his deity Tenebrous- though she is aware that its is a rising cult, especially in the Shadowfell, and she has heard claims that Tenebrous is an undead god.

But she doesn't think the Garden of Graves has anything to do with Tenebrous or Quah-Nomag; she struck here because Sepia was here. “I would have moved on her wherever she was,” the hag admits. “Since you defeated poor old Esmelda, I'll have to go into hiding to escape Quah-Nomag's vengeance. I'll probably go to some forgotten astral rock or another, or perhaps assume a new name and sell my services to the devils or a demon prince. I'll certainly never cross paths with the mighty heroes who have so cast me down again, oh no!”

She pauses and gives them a rotten smile. “Are you dearies sure you wouldn't like some cookies?”

Next Time: Our heroes reach the heart of the mystery at the Garden of Graves!
 

the Jester

Legend
As our heroes cross the rope bridges on their way back onto the plateau atop which the Garden of Graves is built, Karl notes, “It looks as though we've explored most of the buildings.” He points. “But not that section in the middle.”

“Remember that door hidden behind a tapestry?” Sepia says.

Shar snaps her fingers. “That's right. We haven't explored past that yet. We got distracted by the secret door.”

“And it looks like it's in the right area,” Shifty adds.

The party returns to the room with the tapestries and heads down the passage they found previously, Kane and PHUQ-69 in the lead. It ends in a door. Kane throws it open. The chamber beyond is semicurcular and covered in runes. The far end contains a raised dais topped with a huge pile of stones, resembling a cairn made from grave markers. Three smaller cairns lie on the dais in front of the gigantic one.

“Those are more of the stones from outside,” Shar mutters.

Moab sniffs. “Obviously.”

A door leads out opposite the dais. P-69 throws it open, revealing another chamber. Two walls intersect in the middle of it, forming a cross; they don't seem to serve any architectural purpose. Greenery somehow flourishes in here, despite the lack of significant natural light. Large patches of ivy cover substantial areas.

“Look!” The shardmind points.

An enormous set of rune-covered double doors leads out of the right hand wall. It looks like the doors depicted in the tapestry two rooms back.

The party moves into the chamber, but as they do, Sepia hisses a warning. “Behind us!”

There is a clattering noise, the clank of shifting stones. Our heroes turn. Behind them, the markers making up the cairns are moving, being pushed outward as things emerge from underneath. From the three smaller cairns, undead knights rise, garbed in chain mail armor and armed with longswords. But the horror that emerges from the larger pile of stones is far more gruesome: the flayed skin of a giant, bloody on the inside.

The party rushes back to face their foes. But as they do, something happens behind them. A stretch of the ivy begins writhing, twisting together to form something- first what likes like an eyestalk, and then a huge shambling body made of twining ivy and branches. Tendrils of thorns whip around it, slashing through the air; questing roots wind around everything near it.

Assailed from both sides, our heroes find themselves pressed hard once again. Everyone close to the ivy monster finds themselves constantly entangled by the roots, and the thorns irritate wounds taken near it. Its vines lash out, squeezing with terrific strength and grabbing at our heroes.

Shifty tumbles past them all, rushing to the double doors. He whips out the key. Hopefully, I disarmed whatever lightning trap is on this thing when I touched the lock on the tapestry, he thinks, but I'd best be ready in case I need to do something else.

But the doors push open easily. A hall stretches away.

Whatever is going on here, this is the key. This is the center of it all.

Shifty runs forward. At the end of the hallway, there is a door to the right. He throws it open.

“What the hell is that?” he exclaims.

Decorated in runes, some sort of strange device stands in the room, a mess of iron and wooden struts interconnecting beneath a pyramidal peak topped with a glowing emerald. Whatever it is, the thing looks delicate. More runes adorn the walls, floor, and ceiling, forming a pattern that centers on the eldritch machine.

Whatever it is, I think it's responsible for the trouble here.

Outside, Kane cuts down one zombie knight while P-69 demolishes another. The two wizards and Sepia focus on the ivy monster, while Bradford makes a valiant stand against the flayed skin.

Things aren't going so well.

The third undead knight cleaves Sepia with his sword, badly wounding her. The giant skin attempts to rip Bradford's skin from his body; the poor fellow drops, unable to withstand the pain of the attack. And the ivy monster proves to be a tremendous threat, capable of reaching a full 40' with its vines. It clobbers Kane and P-69 hard.

Things are looking fairly dire. Sepia goes down; then Kane. P-69 manages to take out the third undead warrior, but the skin monster slaps Moab hard enough that he sees stars and grabs him.

Then Karl unleashes a lucky fireball that catches the skin perfectly*. It drops, burning and smoking. But unfortunately, it also catches Bradford. Already unconscious, he is killed instantly.

But the ivy monster remains, and it rampages through the party, dealing telling wounds.

Shar manages to get Kane back in the fight with a healing word, but then the ivy monster delivers another terrific blow to P-69 and the shardmind falls. Things are looking dire.

At the same moment, Shifty makes his move, smashing the delicate-looking machine with his crowbar. Struts snap and one whole side of it sags inward. Immediately there is a flash of brilliant light, emanating from the emerald on top of the device, almost blinding Shifty. From an unimaginable distance, the gnome thinks he can almost hear a shriek of frustration.

Who the hell was behind this? he wonders.

Meanwhile, just as Shar is about to retreat to save herself, the ivy monster abruptly rears back and collapses inward on itself, moldering away to brown sludge in only a few seconds.

Saved! Bless you, Shifty! she thinks. Wherever he went, he must have done something that stopped the monster.

Speaking of whom- Shifty returns a moment later, and together, the two of them, Moab, and Karl bind everyone else's wounds and bring them around.

After the group takes a few minutes to rest, Shifty shows them the eldritch engine that he destroyed. There are a number of gems, including the emerald, built into it; the party takes those gems as booty.

“Do you think that fixed whatever the problem here was?” Shar asks.

Both Moab and Karl confirm that the rune-work around the place is no longer functioning. And after poking around a bit more, the group verifies that there isn't anywhere else that they haven't explored.

“All right,” Karl says, “back to our resting place so that we can try to raise Bradford.”

***

The Garden of Graves cost them dearly, but thanks to Karl's ritual, not permanently. Bradford's eyes flutter and open with a groan. “What happened?”

“We kicked ass is what happened,” Sepia says proudly.

***

Their return to Moonstair is marred by a horrible slip up.

They are attacked by shambling mounds. Though the party easily defeats them, during the fight, P-69 accidentally hurls his morningstar away into the thickets on a steep slope. Afterward, try though they might, the party can't find it.

PHUQ-69 utters a string of inventive curses in ancient Miloxi.

***

Our heroes return home as a cold and hungry winter sets in. They decide not to head south to the Delphinate until spring. While they wait out the winter, they handle administrative tasks, mediate disputes, and do their best to ensure that food is distributed so that nobody starves.

They can't quite pull it off. Starting in January, there is a long stretch of time where there simply isn't enough to eat. People grow thin. The weakest die, unable to survive the deprivation.

“Being Governor kind of sucks sometimes,” Shifty tells Shar, who agrees whole heartedly.

During the winter, Karl can't stop speculating about what Quah-Nomag is up to. More importantly, his master, Deryndradin, is long overdue; and though Karl issues several sendings to him, he receives no response. He fears the worst.

Shifty, meanwhile, spends more time pondering the party's most recent adventure. He doubts whether Quah-Nomag was behind it; it doesn't seem to fit with anything else he's done. Therefore, it was probably someone else. But who?

***

On January 23rd, the party strikes out, leaving Bradford in charge of their lands. Though appreciative of their trust, the young man is apprehensive about being left in charge. “You'll do fine,” Shifty assures him, and Shar nods.

“If in doubt, just ask yourself what we'd do.”

***

As the party sits around their campfire on their first night of the journey, a voice comes out of the dark. “Hello, friends.”

Kane whips his sword from its sheath. “Show yourself!” he barks.

“No need to worry. It is only I.” A squat figure steps from the darkness: Nom, the dwarf who the party has met on several occasions when radiocrystals were involved.

“Hello again,” says Karl.

The party offers Nom some dinner. He politely accepts, offering a skin of fine dwarven ale in return. After a pleasant meal, he wipes his beard, then says, “I have come with an offer from my friends.”

“The ones who have helped us with those crystals?” asks Shifty.

Nom nods. “You have done the world a great service each time you've turned those devices over to us. We truly appreciate your actions. And we'd like to offer you the opportunity to join us.”

Shar speaks up. “Who are you, exactly?”

“We're called the Crystal Breakers. We're dedicated to finding and safely disposing of as many radiocrystal artifacts as possible, as well as sites tainted with radiation.”

“And just what would be expected of us?”

“Only that, should you encounter more radiocrystal devices or areas or things related to them, you inform the group and help fulfill our primary mission. We won't demand that you carry out our bidding or anything like that. Although, before you join, there is an initiation.”

Moab speaks up. “What's all this, then?”

Nom notes the wizard for the first time. “I'm sorry, I didn't notice you. I don't believe we've met... and I'm afraid my offer doesn't include you.” He spreads his hands apologetically. “Although perhaps, in the future...”

“That's fine,” Moab sniffs. “Besides, I don't need to join any primitive secret society anyway. Destroying what you don't understand! Hmph!”

“What's the nature of the initiation?” asks Karl.

“There is a monster- a radioactive hydra. It's south of here, along the edge of the desert. Kill it, and you're in.” He stands up. “And if you do, you'll all be rewarded. Again, except for you- sorry. Nothing personal.”

Moab sniffs again.

***

En route to the hydra- and then the Delphinate- our heroes run into a hunting party of goliaths. Most of them remember Cavemouth with mixed emotions. Klucktim, the burly female leading the party, turns out to be his sister. Relations deteriorate between the heroes and the goliaths when this comes out, and the fact that they failed to save Cavemouth from dying almost leads to violence. Moab's enchantments come in handy here, helping to prevent a fight from breaking out, and the party leaves the goliaths bristling and hostile. They won't be friendly to the group's burgeoning state.

***

Following Nom's directions, the party comes to a bone-strewn box canyon set into an area of badlands. A stinking cave serves as the hydra's lair; when the party makes enough noise outside, they draw it out.

It is terrifying. Bigger than an elephant, its four heads spewing radioactive clouds, the monster lays into the party immediately. They defend themselves, and at first, things go well. Strangely, it doesn't grow any new heads. But once it is sufficiently wounded, it splits into four single-headed serpentine monsters.

Kane shouts, “Foul demons! We will put each of you to the sword!”

In the end, he's right.

***

After their victory over the hydra, Nom reappears. He congratulates them. “You're Crystal Breakers now.”

He gives each of them- again, except Moab- an item crafted by a member of the society. “If we had known about you,” he says to the desert wizard.

Moab just scowls.

Shifty receives a gnomeblade. It looks like an ornamental knife made of pewter, completely unfunctional. The hilt is fashioned to look like a rabbit, with rhinestones in its eyes.

Shar receives a leaden symbol- a holy symbol made of unpainted and unadorned lead.

Karl is given leaden bracers set with jet and diamonds. They glow with a faint orange light. “These are bracers of the crystal breaker,” Nom tells him.

Sepia gets a pair of brass knuckles- well, lead knuckles, really. Each knuckle is worked into the shape of a dog. Despite being made of lead, they are harder than steel.

Kane receives a set of hide armor made from owlbear hide, complete with claws and beak. It is bloodstained and patched. “This is called Unceasing Violence.”

Finally, P-69 is given a morning star called Meteor. When swung through the air, a momentary trail of scarlet light follows it.

Next Time: To the Delphinate!


*Crit with a fireball! How satisfying. One of the beautiful things about 4e- you can crit with a fireball.


The stats on the items the party received are as follows:

GNOMEBLADE --- Level 15 Rare
This little dagger looks as though it is purely ornamental, with a blade that looks like some kind of weak, decorative metal rather than functional steel. The hilt is fashioned to look like a rabbit, with rhinestones in its eyes.
Lvl 15 --- +3 --- 25,000 gp
Weapon: Dagger
Enhancement: Attack rolls and damage rolls.
Critical: +3d6 damage and you are invisible to the target until the start of its next turn.
Property: You can use the gnomeblade as an implement with arcane or shadow powers. You do not apply the dagger's proficiency bonus when you use it as an implement, but you do apply its enhancement bonus.
Property: While you are wielding the gnomeblade, you gain a +1 item bonus to Reflex.
Power (Encounter): Minor action. Make a saving throw.
Power (Daily): Move action. You teleport 5 squares and your fade away racial power recharges.

LEADEN SYMBOL --- Level 15 Rare
This symbol is heavy and is composed of unpainted and unadorned lead.
Lvl 15 --- +3 --- 25,000 gp
Implement (Holy Symbol)
Enhancement: Attack rolls and damage rolls.
Critical: +3d6 damage.
Property: You and adjacent creatures gain resist 1 radiation.
Property: You and adjacent creatures gain resist 5 radiant.
Property: You and allies within 10 squares get a +3 bonus on death saves.
Power (Encounter): Immediate reaction. Trigger: You or an ally that you can see within 10 squares is slowed, immobilized or restrained. Effect: The condition ends.
Power (Daily): Free action. Trigger: You hit with an implement power using this symbol. Effect: One target that you hit with the power is also immobilized (save ends).

BRACERS OF THE CRYSTAL BREAKER --- Level 15 Rare
These leaden bracers are set with jet and diamonds and glow with a faint orange light.
Lvl 15 --- 25,000 gp
Item Slot: Arms
Property: You gain resist 1 radiation.
Property: You gain resist 5 poison and 5 radiant.
Property: You feel a warning tingle if there is radiation within 10 squares strong enough to inflict RADs. You can get a basic feel for its strength (whether it inflicts RADs per round, minute, hour or day) and can determine the location of the radiation. You may sometimes be able to detect even fainter background radiation with a Perception check, depending on its strength.
Property: When you score a critical hit with an implement power, you deal an extra 1d10 fire and radiant damage.
Property: You get a +1 item bonus to attack rolls with implement powers with the fire, radiant or zone keywords.
Power (Daily): Free action. Trigger: You create a zone with an arcane implement power. Effect: In addition to its other effects, the zone deals 5 points of radiant and fire damage to each creature within it in when it appears.
Power (Daily): No action. You use your Intelligence for a skill check instead of the ability normally associated with that skill.

LEAD KNUCKLES --- Level 15 Rare
These brass knuckles are actually made of lead. Each knuckle is fashioned to resemble the head of a dog. Despite being lead, the knuckles are not at all soft.
Lvl 15 --- +3 --- 25,000 gp
Weapon: Brass knuckles
Enhancement: Attack rolls and damage rolls.
Critical: +3d10 damage and the target is stunned until the end of your next turn.
Property: You get a +3 item bonus to damage.
Property: Whenever you are pushed, pulled or slid, you reduce the number of squares that you move by 3.
Power (Encounter): Free action. Trigger: You hit an enemy with the lead knuckles. Effect: The target is dazed (save ends).

UNCEASING VIOLENCE --- Level 15 Rare
This armor is made from the hides of owlbears, with claws and beak inset to increase its menacing appearance. It is well-stained and shows the signs of having been repaired after many battles.
Lvl 15 --- +3 --- 25,000 gp
Armor: Hide armor.
Enhancement: AC.
Property: Whenever you spend a healing surge, you may make a basic attack as a free action.
Property: Whenever you bloody or drop an enemy, you regain hit points equal to your Strength bonus.
Power (Daily * Healing): Minor action. You spend a healing surge.

METEOR --- Level 15 Rare
This morning star, forged of starmetal, is worked to resemble a flaming meteor. When you swing it through the air, a momentary trail of red light follows it in the air.
Lvl 15 --- +3 --- 25,000 gp
Weapon: Morning star
Enhancement: Attack rolls and damage rolls.
Critical: +3d8 fire damage and the target falls prone.
Property: If you hit a prone enemy with a melee attack with Meteor, you deal an extra 1d8 damage.
Property: When you charge you can move your speed +3 squares.
Power (Encounter): Free action. Trigger: You hit an enemy with a melee attack. Effect: After all other effects of the hit are resolved, the target falls prone.
Power (Daily): Minor action. An adjacent prone enemy cannot stand up (save ends).
 

the Jester

Legend
Once out of their lands, our heroes, according to Moab, have a journey of around 200 miles ahead of them. But the enchanter promises that it will be worth it. He tells them that the Delphinate is a magical place where the arcane arts have been harnessed for the good of society. “Our streets are lit at night,” he claims, “by magic. Everywhere, the influence of the intelligentsia is clear.”

The ruling class, he continues, is wizards. In fact, if you aren't a wizard, you can't become a citizen.

“What about sorcerers?” asks Karl.

Moab sniffs. “Someone who can blindly tap into arcane energies is hardly worthy of the same consideration as someone who spends years of study to learn precise control over those energies. If you give a baby a set of cymbals, it will certainly make noise. But a trained player can create music.

“What about clerics?” asks Shar.

Moab sniffs again. “You mean warlocks?” Glancing at her, he adds, “No offense.”

***

They skirt the Pale Woods, having heard rumors that they are haunted and having no desire to deal with such things unnecessarily. They'd rather have an easy, uneventful journey across the rolling plains, even if they must sometimes fight through grasses taller than Shifty's head. Finally, the desert comes into view. Surrounding it are large stone monuments, spaced a mile apart, forming a visible boundary. Each monument shows a male eladrin wizard, a rogueish looking halfling and a dwarven monk with an inscription reading, “LET THIS BE A GRIM REMINDER OF THE COST OF DEFYING THE SWORD EMPEROR.”

“I'm pretty sure that those are three of the Sword Emperor's old companions,” Karl states. “The elf was Baron Lillamere. The halfing was Gerontius, called the Invisible Blade. And the dwarf was the Perfect Master Chakar.”

“It's called the Grim Reminder,” says Moab. He gestures to the desert beyond. “The desert is called the Warning. It's the result of magical conflict. The Sword Emperor and his allies unleashed tremendous energies here to quash a rebellion.”

As they move into the Warning, they find that the ground is composed of gritty particles larger and rougher than sand. Moab continues to narrate as they travel. “The peculiar material underfoot formed when the former soil melted and was blasted by epic magic. Over the subsequent centuries, dust and other particles blew in on the wind and stabilized the underlayer.”

Some hardy succulents and cacti grow in the desiccated ground, but a lot of the desert looks relatively lifeless. Periodically, the party passes the skeletal remains of great war machines or structures.

***

The desert is not as lifeless as it first appears. Giant yellow scorpions, tail stingers dripping venom, emerge from behind shifting dunes to attack the travelers, seeking an easy meal. Some are the size of goats; the larger specimens are more like the size of an elephant.

They find the meal more difficult to obtain than expected, and are soon slain or driven back. The party is somewhat battered, but nobody is badly wounded, and after some tending from Shar, they continue their journey.

Warlock indeed, she thinks.

***

Far more dangerous than the scorpions, the desert's self-proclaimed master arrives from the sky. Sparks burst from its claws as it walks toward the group; when if flexes its great wings, the grit around it dances, raising a haze in the air.

A dragon. Huge, dark blue, with gleaming intelligent eyes and a large horn on the end of its snout.

Kane draws his sword, but Shar restrains him. “That thing looks too big for us to handle,” she murmurs.

“Yes!” Shifty proclaims. “Let's parlay!”

***

The dragon is, fortunately, not hungry. Yet it claims ownership of the desert, and demands tribute to allow the group to walk across its lands.

“How did you handle this before?” Karl mutters to Moab.

The wizard looks back at him. “I paid it.”

Shar, Sepia, and Karl flatter the dragon, and the group unloads a substantial amount of money and residuum as tribute.

“Unsatisfactory,” it booms.

They add a collection of minor magic items in their collective possession, the kinds of things that are bound for disenchantment and recycling into more residuum. Instead, they become part of the group's offering.

“Hmm,” the dragon rumbles. It measures them with its eyes, inhales their scent.

Finally, it announces, “This is a very light tribute. Nonetheless, I will accept it. But should you cross my territory again, you must bring a proper offering, or I will devour you!”

“Yes, Your Mightiness!” cries Shifty, cutting Kane off before he can bark back at the dragon. “We would not dare defy you!”

***

Four days into the Warning, the group's path winds past a leveled sandstone building. Large drifts of sand cover much of it, and both its walls and ceiling have fallen. Huge piles of sandstone blocks are scattered near it. Large cacti, bristling with needles, grow here and there in the area.

It seems like a good place to stop for lunch, but this proves to be incorrect. As the group settles in, something huge stirs beneath the sands. It erupts forth, covered in sand, wrapped in tattered bandages, with a cephalopod head and long tentacles wrenching its way free of the sands.

“Run!” cries Karl. “I recognize that thing!”

The party stands and begins to flee. “What is it?” asks P-69.

“It's an ancient war weapon called a crawling apocalypse! We had better hope that it isn't able to move for long...”

There is a sudden howl of winds, rushing away from the crawling apocalypse. They are so strong that they knock half of the party prone.

The monster rushes forward, its tentacles lashing all around it.

Seeing that half of their number can't escape it, Shifty, Sepia, and P-69 stop their flight and turn to face the monster. But as they approach it, apocalyptic terror grips them, and they can feel their life draining as they come closer to it. Those struck by its tentacles also find their life force ebbing, dwindling away moment by moment.

On the bright side, Shar immediately finds that it is fairly vulnerable to radiant damage, and her iron to glass prayer shifts the odds in the group's favor. And with both P-69 and Kane standing toe to toe with the monster, the party is finally able to prevail after a long, hard battle.

After the fight is won, our panting heroes slump down in the sand. With a groan, Shifty says, “I could barely hurt that thing!”

Kane grins. “You should have come closer.”

“No thanks!”

***

The grit underfoot is easier to trudge through than sand would be, but it gives and crumbles underfoot far more than the ground the party is used to. The journey is more taxing and slower than anyone other than Moab (a desert native) could have expected.

Though they do find occasional life- mostly lizards and desert insects- most of the time, their only company is each other. They continue to get to know Moab, whose excitement at nearing his home is palpable. He isn't trying to be insulting, but the way he refers to the Delphinate makes it clear that he views it as the last bastion of civilization, and sees their lands as savage and primitive.

Perhaps he is right, Karl thinks. We'll see soon enough, I guess.

***

As they struggle to get a fire to burn with the limited fuel available that night, they meet a group of strange creatures- insects, but humanoid, and taller than a human. These strange mantis-warriors call themselves thri-kreen. The contact is peaceful, with the insect folk informing the group that a small enclave of elven griffon-riders called the Kree are ahead, at the far edge of the Warning.

“Perhaps we can make an alliance with them,” Shifty says.

Moab nods. “Or at least get them to ferry us across the Ravaged Belt.”

“What's that?”

“Another region devastated by magical attack. It's a series of old mountains that is now just malformed rock twisted into jagged spires, deep gulleys and the like. It's full of a variety of monsters. It is best to avoid it if possible, so a ride across would be exactly what we need.”

***

Several days later, the adventurers finally reach the far edge of the Warning, where the Ravaged Belt lies. It is more foreboding than Moab's description could have prepared them for. Many of the twisted peaks look like they were melted by the fury of the magic unleashed upon them. Strange streamers of stone look almost like strands of molten taffy frozen mid-drip. Deep clefts and strange pock marks mar the ground.

Fortunately, the Kree elves soon arrive, wheeling overhead on their griffons. After a few moments of observing from above, two of them descend. These prove to be a pair of blue-skinned sisters named Tarr-Kal and Nima-Kal. They inquire as to the party's business, goals, and destination; though polite, they are cool.

“We're going back to my homeland,” Moab tells them. “To the Delphinate.”

“Your folk are not known for being especailly welcoming to outsiders,” Tarr-Kal observes.

“True, but I am a citizen on a mission.”

“Any chance you'd be willing to ferry us across the Ravaged Belt?” Shar asks.

“Since your alternative is to deal with the twisted monsters within,” the Kree responds, “we will help you- for a small fee.”

***

Riding on the back of a griffon is exhilirating. The wind buffets Shifty's face, makes his eyes tear up. It's colder than he expected, especially given the heat of the desert. The thrill alone is worth the twenty gold the Kree demanded for each of the party's members, not to mention the fact that they are coming closer to their destination.

When the elves deposit the party back on the ground on the far side of the Ravaged Belt, our heroes thank them profusely. Shifty, in particular, can't get over how much fun the ride was.

“You've only got about sixty miles to go,” one of the Kree tells them. “Good luck.” And with that, the griffons take the air again, banking away back to the north.

***

They keep their distance from the foul smoke that rises from the Basin of Fire and its lava pools. Karl ponders the enormity of the magical destruction unleashed on and around the Warning. Perhaps the golden age of magic had its drawbacks, but I'd still rather that we had access to the kinds of arcane powers that were available during the empire's height. He sighs. Maybe when we reach the Delphinate...

It takes a few more days of travel, and they finally reach it- a far more humble sight than they had expected. The buildings are largely of white sandstone, and there are few people milling about.

“Our leader is called the Delphin,” Moab explains. “He or she is the most powerful wizard in the Delphinate. His or her true identity is unknown- there's a magical artifact that he or she wears to ensure that. But you probably won't meet him or her.” A slight smile traces over his lips. “I will be taking you to meet General Habrael, though- my father.”

The first sign that the Delphinate is unusual comes when the group approaches the gate and finds it flanked by two large stone statues. As the party moves toward the entrance, the statues animate.

Moab strides forward and holds up a hand. He speaks a series of letters and numbers, and the golems move back into place. He turns and gestures the others forward. “It's okay. They won't attack you now.”

“Impressive,” mutters Shar.

Once on the streets, it becomes more obvious that this place is unlike any other.

First, the people walking along, while largely garbed in desert-appropriate clothing, often carry wands, staves, orbs, or other implements. Some of their clothing is obviously magical, too; one woman hurrying along wears a robe with many eyes sewn in it. These eyes move, watching everything around the woman suspiciously. A gnomish man is surrounded by a cloud of orbiting stones and spheres. A pair of eladrin wear matching glowing tiaras. Some of these people are accompanied by obvious familiars or strange constructs, too.

But there are more signs than just the people that this place is replete with magic. Several businesses have animated images dancing out front, advertising their wares. Others glow or change color as the party watches.

And there is another thing, which doesn't become apparent for some time, but is present as soon as they enter the city: all the streets run very slightly downhill. Even if one reverses direction, he or she is always walking very slightly downhill, no matter which direction he or she travels.

***

General Habrael is a severe-looking older man with a squared off beard and a hawk nose. Upon Moab's arrival with the group, a proud smile walks out onto his face for an instant before hesitating, getting stage fright, and retreating.

“Excellent work, Captain,” he says.

Moab introduces the party to his father, who offers to give them some time to rest and refresh themselves before they discuss matters or diplomacy. Though he refrains from wrinkling his nose, his meaning is clear: Take a bath, you filthy savages. But our heroes don't take offense. After all, General Habrael is correct- with the exceptions of Moab, Karl, and Shifty, who used cantrips to assist their hygiene, the party is a stinky, dirty mess.

***

After the others depart to refersh themselves, Moab lingers. Once they are alone, his father states, “I'm proud of you, son.”

Moab stands at attention.

Habrael proceeds to debrief Moab, listening intently as the enchanter explains his journey north and back, including describing the events at the Garden of Graves and the party's quest to find and stop Quah-Nomag. “That's part of why they came south with me, sir- to see what they can find out about the cult of Tenebrous.”

“Interesting. There is some evidence that the Tenebrous cult has been responsible for a few missing people. It would do us good to know more about them, and if they're dangerous, to be rid of them.”

He opens a drawer in his desk and pulls out a packet wrapped in silk.

“I have three things for you here,” General Habrael continues, unwrapping the bundle. “First, for successfully establishing diplomatic relations with one of the only bastions of civilization to survive the Six-Fingered Hand, I am promoting you to Major.”

From the bundle, he hands Moab his new uniform and rank insignia. Moab doesn't say anything, but he stands just a little straighter and his eyes burn a touch brighter.

“Second, there's this.” He hands Moab a book. “This is an agent's journal. I have its mate. What you write in it will also appear in my copy. The effect is one-sided, however; you won't see what appears in my copy, so I can't reply to you.”

“Understood, sir!”

“Finally, on a more personal note, now that you've proven yourself to me, I have this for you.” General Habrael passes Moab an intricately worked electrum ring. The band is traced with arcane glyphs. The dominant rune is their family mark. “This was crafted by your grandfather Moab, for whom you're named. Use it well.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Now go get some rest,” Moab's father orders. “Tomorrow, you start your search for Tscire Nobi.”

Next Time: Our heroes begin looking for the hideout of the Cult of Tenebrous!


MOAB'S RING (Level 15 Rare)
This intricately worked ring of electrum is traced with arcane glyphs, but the dominant rune is the family mark of Moab's line.
Lvl 15 --- 25,000 gp
Property: You gain a +1 item bonus to all defenses.
Property: You reduce the severity of critical hits on you by 1d6. (If the severity is reduced to 0 or below, the critical hit still occurs.)
Power (Encounter * Healing, Teleportation): Minor action. You teleport 5 squares and spend a healing surge.
Power (Daily): Immediate interrupt. Trigger: You are hit by an attack. Effect: You gain resist all 10 until the end of your next turn.
 

the Jester

Legend
General Habrael says, “We view religion as primitive and unnecessary. It's a relic of the past, of an era before we understood the cosmos. So while we don't endorse it, we don't regulate faiths any more than we regulate any other kind of pact-making with powerful outsiders.”

Shar sniffs.

“No offense intended. If I might ask, since you're a cleric, what faith do you follow?”

She answers, “I'm a priest of the Sword Cult.”

“Ah, so you don't even have a god- unless you're one of those who has deified the Sword Emperor?”

“Thrush was just a man, but he is a great example of the quest for perfection in one's chosen area. He didn't become the greatest swordsman of his age by accident. He devoted himself to seeking the pinnacle of his skills, and he achieved it.”

Habrael nods. “Indeed. He was just a man. I'm glad you are one of the more rational types, rather than- well, anyway. As you can see, a cleric doesn't need a god to channel magic. You are akin to a sorcerer- a natural talent, using faith as a prop to aid you. Think of your religion as being like the wand or staff a wizard might use to direct his powers.”

“Uh huh,” Shar says. She is clearly unconvinced.

“And what is a god anyway?” the general continues. “Yes, gods are very powerful- but so are demon princes and arch-devils. Indeed, such a being might be more powerful than some gods! You can go to a god's home, if you know where it is. They aren't some kind of luminous entity that is somehow different from other creatures. They're just ultra-powerful outsiders. And what is the difference between beseeching a god for magic and making a deal with some other ultra-powerful entity? Clerics really are nothing more than warlocks who are largely ignorant of the fact that they're warlocks.”

“What does all this have to do with this cult of Tenebrous?” Kane demands.

General Habrael sighs. “I am trying to illustrate why we haven't taken any action against them up until now. We don't regulate religions, we regulate behavior. If a faith's followers act in an... antisocial manner, we prosecute those followers for the actions that they have taken, not for what they believe.”

“But surely you have some limits,” Karl says. “Surely you don't allow, for instance, a cult devoted to a demon or devil to flourish.”

“Oh, please,” Habrael retorts, disdain plain in his voice. “We are an enlightened civilization. Belief is belief, and a supposed good deity is fundamentally no different than the darkest demon prince. They are all powers to be drawn upon. Yes, some of those powers are more prone to provoke people to behave improperly, but so what? It is ultimately the choice of the person whether to accede to the demands of such a provocation. Just as not all followers of a good deity will be good themselves, not all followers of a demon prince will act out in destructive ways.”

“I guess you can't really control what people believe anyway,” Sepia puts in.

“Certainly we could! Make no mistake about that! Controlling thoughts and beliefs is well within the purview of enchantment magic. But we prefer not to do such things. It's an unnecessary expenditure of effort in most cases; it's usually far preferable to regulate the behavior in question.”

“Getting back to the Tenebrous cult,” Shifty says, “what can you tell us about them?”

“Very little.” Habrael steeples his fingers in front of him. “We do know that they have a headquarters of sorts, apparently called Tscire Nobi. According to our intelligence, it's on an island somewhere on White Lake.”

Moab speaks up. “To be clear, that's the lake that we abut.”

Habrael continues, “But unfortunately, the lake is choked with mist. This may be a magical effect, but it has been in place for years, so if it is, it's very powerful. You can probably find a boat to hire if you want to try to seek it out, but it's very easy to get lost in the mist.”

“I'm sure we can manage,” Karl replies.

***

But before seeking Tscire Nobi, there is a residuum tasting held in the group's honor. They participate, somewhat warily. To their surprise, they find that there are different flavors and qualities to the different types of residuum on offer.

“How do you have so much residuum here?” asks Karl. “Are there that many magic items around that you don't need?”

“Oh, no!” Moab replies with a chuckle. “The vast majority of it comes from the mines.”

“The what?” Shifty asks.

“The residuum mines.”

Well, that's a strange statement. As far as the others know, residuum isn't mined at all- it's the result of breaking down magic. They ask for more details about these mines, but Moab is cagey about them, claiming that their location is a state secret. He also seems puzzled by the fact that they aren't aware of the existence of such mines. “Where do you get yours from, then?” he asks.

“By disenchanting magic items,” Karl tells him.

But though they don't get any further on that particular puzzle during the tasting, they do manage to secure a boat and a pilot named Timon.

***

As he isn't a wizard, Timon is a resident but not a citizen of the Delphinate. He makes his living through a combination of fishing, piloting on the rare occasions when someone needs to go out on the lake, and scavenging from the massive ruined metropolis of Makon, which lies spread to the south and west of the Delphinate proper. “Before the end, it completely surrounded White Lake,” he tells our heroes, then shrugs. “Lots of it was burnt during the war, and then the Delphinate relocated here.” Though he's happy to ramble on about such matters, it soon becomes clear that his tales are a mixture of his faulty memory, hearsay, and rumor; how reliable they are is uncertain.

Timon is a skilled pilot. He claims to know the lake as well as anyone, but swears up and down that there is no isle large enough to hold a shrine or temple anywhere far from shore. He admits to having heard rumors of Tscire Nobi, but says, “I've been all over this lake and I've never seen it.”

“Well, let's try and find it anyway,” answers Shar. “Think of this as a leisurely day of getting paid to row us around.”

“As you say.”

But the thick fog seems truly impenetrable. By the time they are a hundred yards from shore, almost all they can see is the boat, surrounded by a sea of white. Even the surface of the water is a light gray color, seen fuzzily through the vapors rising from it.

Karl closes his eyes. “I can feel the magic here.” He lifts a hand. “Flowing... a combination of illusion and weather magic.”

“Can you follow it to its source?” asks Shifty.

“I'll try.”

“As for you,” Shar tells Timon, “try to find the center of the lake.”

“As you say,” the pilot replies.

***

The search is fruitless and frustrating. They return to shore well after full dark with no idea whether they went anywhere near the alleged island they're looking for.

“It could have been fifty feet from us,” Shifty complains, “and we never would have seen it.”

Timon taps his ear. “There's more than sight.” He sighs. “But I didn't hear any sign of it, either.”

Shar disembarks and places her hands on her hips. “Just because we didn't find it in one day doesn't mean it isn't there. We'll try again tomorrow.”

“Aye,” rumbles Kane, “and with luck, this time we'll find something to wet my blade.”

***

But the lake is huge, and the magic concealing the island- for Karl is now convinced that is what he is sensing- is powerful indeed. Try though he might, he can't unravel it. And though he has explored White Lake for decades, Timon's senses are baffled by the mists.

We just have to be persistent. PHUQ-69 communicates with the others through telepathy, enjoying the quiet of the water as dusk settles in on a second day of failed searching.

The shardmind is right. A few more long days of searching ensue; and finally, the party finds some evidence that they are on the right track.

They are attacked.

A trio of ghouls rises up from the water, trying to pull Timon into the water. Kane and P-69 intervene with decisive violence, killing two of the ghouls and driving the third back into the water, where it swims rapidly away.

“Follow that ghoul!” yells Shifty.

Indeed, that seems to be the break the party needs, and in short order, they draw another attack. Again, the party manages to drive the swimming ghouls back, after which Sepia comments, “You know, if you were a Kree, we'd have to call you Kar-El.” She grins at Karl.

“Hmph,” he replies.

Timon pursues the lacedons as best he can. Moab and Karl try to guide him by tracing the magic to its source, theorizing that it's probably centered on the isle that it is designed to conceal, while Shifty and Sepia listen intently, helping to guide Timon's pursuit of the receding undead.

And at last, their efforts are rewarded!

Within the thickest part of the fog, a lumpy isle slowly resolves. Timon hisses and pushes away from it, almost scraping the hull of his boat against sharp rocks, so sudden is the island's appearance.

“Quietly,” mutters Shifty.

Slowly they paddle all around the tiny islet. They can't see much of it, due to the thick fog, but they find a rickety wooden pier with three small rowboats tied up.

“All right,” Shifty whispers. “This is the place.”

The party disembarks.

“Well, good luck to you all,” Timon says.

“Wait a minute! Where are you going? You can't just leave us here!” protests P-69.

“Surely you don't think I'm going to stay here waiting for some crazy cultists to come grab me! I'm not deaf, I've been listening to you people!”

Shar presses a large gem into Timon's hand. “Just wait for us for a little while.”

He hesitates, then nods. “I'll wait 'til dark. That should give you a few hours.”

“Good enough,” she replies.

Kane grins, baring his teeth. “That should be plenty of time to put anything here to the sword.”

***

Bone Isle, as it is called by the cult, is a huge pile of discarded stones and rocks formed over the course of seven centuries. During the glory days of the Sword Empire, the quarry used a teleport circle to throw away unusable and inferior bits of stone. The circle deposited the discarded material on the bottom of White Lake, and the pile grew and grew until it eventually jutted above the relatively shallow section of the lake. In the centuries since, the wind brought a substantial accumulation of dirt, now covering much of the rocks. At the top of the island is a cluster of crude huts and a pen full of zombies which surround a creepy-looking hall of worship constructed from pieces of rock mortared together.

“I think this is the place,” Shifty murmurs. “They have zombie livestock!”

The party advances up the slope. As they reach the plateau where the huts and pen are, the zombies remain quiescent, shuffling about in their pen without any seeming purpose.

“I think our destination is obvious.” Karl gestures at the stone shrine. A large skull is painted across the door.

Kane strides forward, but the door swings wide before he reaches it.

An undead child stands there- a boy of perhaps ten years at the time of death.

Our heroes are stunned by its appearance for an instant. Likewise, it seems surprised. But it recovers first, and emits a piercing shriek.

The zombies find sudden purpose.

Worse yet, people start to emerge from the huts: chain armored, with maces whose heads are fashioned to resemble skulls. In moments, overwhelming numbers pour out around our heroes.

Which is just what Kane has been waiting for.

He bellows a battle cry and begins hacking around himself, cutting a swath through the lackeys of Tenebrous. Then a fireball explodes, and suddenly most of the cultists are down. It is followed a moment later by a well-placed beguiling strands that slays many of the zombies.

Shar, Sepia, Shifty, and P-69 surround the undead child and mercilessly take it apart.

In a shockingly short amount of time, the party cuts their foes down.

“We're good at this!” Sepia giggles.

“It's not over yet,” P-69 replies, kicking the temple door back open.

It's small enough to be a single chamber. Pews take up much of the interior, with a large altar made of stacked bones at the far end. Columns support the unsteady-looking ceiling. Two large charnel pits, 50' deep, hold jagged bones that cover their floors.

Another corrupted offspring is within, this one made from the cadaver a girl of around six years. It falls even quicker than the first, put down as an act of mercy.

“Look,” Sepia says. She points into one of the charnel pits. At the bottom, a door is set into the pit's side. A quick look confirms that the other pit has a matching door.

“It certainly doesn't look like there's any information up here,” Karl comments. “Hopefully, there's something more illuminating through there.”

***

As soon as the doors open, the fat demon beyond rips a chunk from its belly and hurls it at the party.

“Look out!” cries Moab.

The flesh explodes, spraying flesh, blood, and flame everywhere. The heroes are all blasted by it, staggering and shouting in pain.

Kane doesn't hesitate a moment. He rushes forward, jamming his sword into the monster.
He roars, throwing a shoulder into the demon and ripping his blade free in a shower of gore.

Something else bounds in- another cultist. This one, unlike his fellows above, is filthy. He stinks of rotten flesh, and as he arrives, he is chewing on what appears to be a human ear. He is an eater of the dead.

“I bring you the blessing of death!” he shrieks, lurching forward and trying to bite Kane. The barbarian jerks back, and the eater of the dead keeps moving, rushing into the middle of the party, biting at everyone who tries to hurt it. “Prepare to feel the caress of oblivion! Only dying can save you from life!!”

Then, suddenly, Karl and Shifty, who are in the rear of the party, feel a strong pull as the charnel pits behind them begin to pull at them, sucking a massive amount of air.
Both throw themselves forward, putting enough distance from the pits to be out of their range.

P-69 and Sepia flank the fat demon, which pulls more gobs of flesh from itself. Each one explodes when the monster hurls them, and it seems to be fearless, even throwing a glob of its side at its feet in order to harm all of its attackers at once. Sepia wobbles and falls to one knee.

Shifty cries, “You can do it!”, and Sepia clenches her fists, her jaw; rises to her feet; and cracks her whip again.*

Things begin to turn in our heroes' favor. But just then, the vampire arrives, flanked by more cultists. It isn't obvious that he is anything more than a cultist leader until his eyes catch those of Kane, momentarily captivating the barbarian.

Shar focuses her powers on the vampire, and the others soon finish with the demon. The eater of the dead finds itself pushed into the middle of the vampire's formation by Moab's beguiling strands, where Karl blasts the mass of villains.

“Fools!” cries the vampire. “Tenebrous will devour your souls!”

Not yet. Not today.

Another flame burst, another beguiling strands, and a flurry of attacks by everyone else- and the followers of Tenebrous fall.

***

The dungeon beneath the small temple is now empty of inhabitants, as the party ascertains as they explore. They drew everything to them during the battle.

The hall that the fight took place in is crudely painted with scenes of demons and the undead overrunning and devouring civilized folk. The overarching theme seems to be that giving oneself up to become undead is the only salvation. Beyond the doors leading deeper into the place is a ritual room, painted with more scenes of undead and demonkind slaughtering humans, dwarves, elves and their ilk, etc. The floor has several summoning diagrams inscribed upon it to aid in the summoning of demons, as well as various runes, sigils and glyphs of evil portent and vile nature.

Passages out lead to a number of large rooms holding a bed and small dresser, as well as a pyramid of bones with candles and incense burning upon it. Clearly, these are the chambers of some of the adepts of Tenebrous.

A door leads to a cell block, the cells in which are unlocked. Three of them have recently-dead corpses in them. It is apparent that something has gnawed on them. One of the corpses is a naked dwarf; the second is a well-dressed Delphinite half-elf; and the third was a smartly-dressed hobgoblin.

Prodding the half-elf body with his toe, Moab remarks, “Looks like we now have evidence that this cult is dangerous.”

Another chamber is almost bare. Its sole feature is a coffin, well-padded, with some dirt inside it. “I think we know what this is.” Shar spits on it.

“There's no reason to leave the vampire a possible home if it ever comes back,” Moab says, and Karl and he blast it to pieces with their spells.

They also find an ossuary, lined with bones and skulls taken from humanoids of all kinds. A comfortable majority are goblinoid, but there are plenty of elven, human, dwarf, halfling, orc and kobold skulls, a number of other reptilian humanoids such as dragonborn and lizardfolk, gnoll, goliath, gnome and even a single tabaxi skull.

“Charming,” mutters P-69.

From off the side of the ossuary, a steep slope (about thirty degrees) drops down into a shaft of filthy water about 60' deep; from the smell, it seems that this is where the cultists dispose of their waste and trash.

Shar nudges Shifty. “You should climb down there and see if there's any treasure.”

“Hell no,” the gnome retorts. “How about we drop a rope and let you down to check it out?”

“That's okay. I'll pass.”

Nobody else is interested in volunteering, so they leave the pissery behind.

But now it seems as though they have explored the entire subterranean level without finding any information. “Maybe we should have taken a prisoner,” Karl sighs.

“They were demon worshipers,” Kane replies. “Such foul people deserve life not.”

“Yeah, but we need information.”

Shifty says, “Maybe there's a secret door or something.”

The party investigates the place, and after a time, Sepia finds a secret door leading out of the ritual chamber. The party forms up and opens the passage warily, but there is no trouble behind it- just a library.

“Eureka,” says Karl.

They move in eagerly. There are dozens of books to pour through. The party starts examining them.

Kane scowls. “Books! I like it not.”

***

There is only so much time available before Timon leaves. They return to the boat; the mist is thinning substantially.

“Think we can find our way back tomorrow?” P-69 asks.

“Yes,” Moab states unequivocally.

By the time they reach him, Timon's terror has grown beyond all reason. “There are still ghouls in the water,” he claims. As they push away from the island, moving into the darkening gloom, he tells them that he won't return on the morrow.

“We'll find another pilot,” Shifty says.

“Fine by me. Good luck.”

***

The party returns in the morning, and this time it's far easier to find Bone Island. It is as if the presence of the cultists somehow reinforced the magic concealing the place.

Kane stands guard, not being interested in reading. With a few hours' work, the others gleans much. First, that the library is part of a research project. The research information seems to focus on things that were deemed lost forever but then recovered. The basic gist is that whoever did this research was looking for ways to find that which cannot be found.

This much merely confirms what our heroes had already learned. But there is more- far more.

A new “exarch” of Tenebrous is rising in the Underdark, whatever that means.

“An exarch,” Karl lectures, “is a powerful entity in service to a god or being of godlike powers. Basically, it's like a deity's right-hand-man.”

From the tone, Quah-Nomag- whose writings these seem to be- finds this troubling. In order to fully attain the rank of exarch, the fellow who is rising-“Zirithian”- must assault the Drow city of Phaervorul in order to sacrifice enough soul energy to Tenebrous, and he then plans to unleash a horde of undead on the surface in order to distract “those backwater meddlers from Overland”.

“What the hell is a Drow?” asks Shar.

Nobody has an answer.

“Look at this,” says Moab. He has found the coordinates to a teleport circle in the Underdark that is, according to the notes on the same page, “not far above Phaervorul, which lies past the Mushroom Forest.”

Shifty looks up from another set of writings. “It says here that Quah-Nomag brought information back from the Tower of Deryndradin here. It looks like he confirmed that whatever he is searching for was obscured by extremely powerful ritual magic that wiped all memory of it from existence. That's some trick!”

“Are you done yet?” demands Kane. “I grow bored.”

“Just hold tight, big guy,” Sepia replies.

More reading finds that Quah-Nomag may have found a solution to the problem of how to find what he seeks. It seems that there is a place called the Mountain of Ultimate Winter, deep in the Elemental Chaos. This place is so cold that everything, even thought, freezes there. Quah-Nomag believes that it is possible that memory of that which he seeks exists as one or more ice crystals guarded by strange beings called immoths, described as icy giants with incredible mastery of runic magic.

“I think,” says Shar, “this little escapade has paid off big time.”

Next Time: Our heroes must answer a desperate plea for help! Return to Moonstair!


*Shifty has multiclassed into warlord.
 

the Jester

Legend
I know that a lot of people have trouble with, and enjoy examples of, skill challenges. This is the one I used when the pcs tried to find the island. Note that finding the island was only a matter of time. This is one way that I like to use SCs- if success is bound to happen, how long will it take? To me, the notion of spending months or years searching for a site has appeal (though in this case, each run of the SC was one day long). Anyhoo:


FINDING THE ISLAND (Level 11 Skill Challenge and one or more EL 9 encounters; total xp 3800 or more)
The pcs should be able to hire a boat to take them out on White Lake for a couple of gold pieces, but the island itself is cloaked by a combination of illusions and weather magic (cloaking it in fog). In order to find it, the pcs must defeat this magic by completing a skill challenge.

RUNNING THE SKILL CHALLENGE
Finding the island is a level 11, complexity 3 skill challenge. To successfully complete it, the pcs must achieve 8 successes before 3 failures. Once the pcs get close (after they have achieved 5 successes), see Complications, below.

Since a combination of illusion and weather hide it, the pcs' possible approaches to finding the illusion include the following:

Search Grid: The lake is truly too large to divide and search without immense manpower, but the pcs can spend six hours to eliminate everything within a few miles of the Delphinate proper. Doing this doesn't require any skill checks or gain a success or failure for the party, but gives all further checks in the skill challenge a +2 bonus.

Pierce Illusions: A character that expresses the belief that illusions are involved may attempt to see through them with an Insight check (DC 27). Success means that the character earns a success; though they cannot see through the veils of mist, they can make out which ones are illusory. Failure ensnares the characters further in the misty magic; they gain a failure.

Countermagic or Follow the Flow: A character trained in Arcana may attempt to sense the presence and direction of flow of the magical energy that cloak the island (DC 19); doing this earns one success for the party, while failing earns the party a failure. Once the presence of the magic has been sensed, a trained character may attempt to countermand the cloaking spells here in order to eliminate them, but doing so is very difficult (DC 29). A character that makes this check earns two successes, while failing it gains only a single failure. A character that uses dispel magic against the fog earns an automatic success for the party.

True Navigation: The characters may attempt to simply use their Perception (DC 23) or knowledge of Nature (DC 19) to navigate. Using such a skill earns either a success or failure for the party. Alternatively, a character could make a History check (DC 19) to remember details on the locations of the lake's islands; the party can earn only one success this way (although they could conceivably earn multiple failures!).

Watch the Ghouls: During and after the attack of the sodden ghouls (see Complications), a pc could try to discern the direction of the island by watching their behavior using either Insight (DC 19) or Religion (DC 19). A daring character might also swim in pursuit, using Athletics (DC 20). The characters earn successes or failures for any of these instances.

Rituals: Using a divination or weather control ritual earns the pcs one to three successes, depending on the ritual, its level and how cleverly the party uses it.

Complications: As the pcs get closer to the island, they enter a more active layer of the island's defenses. After their 5th success, the party is ambushed by a trio of sodden ghoul wailers (OG 154; level 9 soldiers), who attack from the water, attempting to pull the boat's pilot into the water before dealing with the pcs themselves. The round after they attack, two more sodden ghoul wailers grab the boat from under the water and attempt to tow the vessel away. Each round until that the ghouls tow the boat, the pcs lose one success.

As soon as the pcs defeat the three sodden ghoul wailers above the water, the other two retreat into the depths unless any pcs are in the water, in which case they attempt to drag them under and slay them. If the pcs want to attack the two ghouls under the water, they must enter the water or hole the deck of the boat.

Each time the pcs achieve a 5th success, they are attacked by another group of ghouls unless they are still dealing with the first group. In practice, this means that they must continue to work on the skill challenge while fighting the ghouls, or they will end up fighting group after group of them without ever making headway.

Success: When the pcs achieve their 8th success, read the following:

In the mist ahead, a rocky island starts to resolve itself. A short pier, inexpertly constructed of wood, bobs above the waves, with three small rowing craft attached. You can see the suggestion of a steep upward slope, but the thick vapor in the air makes it impossible to tell more.

Failure: The pcs become hopelessly lost. It is full dark by the time they finally find the shore of the lake, and it takes until almost 2 a.m. to return to the Delphinate. The pilot who took the pcs on this journey, if still alive, must be impressively compensated or he swears off the party thereafter.
 

the Jester

Legend
With the information our heroes uncovered at Tscire Nobi, the Delphinite authorities finally have the evidence to shut down the local Tenebrous cult. After all, they have been sacrificing citizens. Unfortunately, neither Quah-Nomag nor anyone of real importance to the cult are caught in the wizards' net; it may even be that Quah-Nomag was the sole authority in the organization, for the rest seem to be mere fanatic thralls.

Afterward, General Habrael invites the party to enjoy a residuum tasting before they return home. This proves to be an enjoyable event, albeit one that is bizarre; the notion of adding raw magic to one's food and drink seems to treat the residuum with unreasonably frivolity, as if it could simply be harvested like any other resource. Indeed, that seems to be exactly wha the Delphinite citizens think happens. Over the course of the tasting, there are several more references to the residuum mines, though nobody is willing to tell our heroes where these alleged mines are.

I just can't figure it, Karlinden thinks. Surely there can't actually be a way to mine residuum... can there?

***

Moab stands at attention before his father.

“You've done very well, indeed,” the general declares. “Thanks to you, we've made contact with another group of survivors of the Six-Fingered Hand. And thanks to them, we now know about the dangers that the Tenebrous cult represents.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“It is necessary to follow up on that cult,” Habrael continues. “To continue to investigate them. And since these people intend on doing that, I am going to send you with them.”

“Yes, sir!”

“You will serve two purposes: first, you will act as our ambassador and agent among them. As such, you will advance our interests in any and all ways that you deem appropriate while you are with them. Second, you will aid them in seeking out this Quah-Nomag and preventing him from achieving his goals, as those seem likely to impact our society. Indeed, he has already cost the lives of a number of our citizens, and as such, I am empowering you to carry out a death sentence against him.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Excellent.” The two shake hands. “I look forward to your reports.”

***

The Delphinate proves an excellent source of rituals. Our heroes linger a few more days in order to learn several.

“I grow bored,” Kane grumbles.

But before they can depart for home, Shar receives a sending.

She gathers her companions. “We're being called on for help. Moonstair is under attack by a kingdom of trolls.”

“A what, now?” P-69 cocks his head.

“I'm not aware of any such kingdom,” Karl objects.

Several back-and-forth sendings clears up the situation a little. It appears as though there is a self-declared troll king named Skalmad who is attempting to carve out a new troll realm, calling it Vardar in reference to such a kingdom that existed long ago. He has been gathering his kind for months, perhaps longer, but has only recently begun probing Moonstair's defenses. A group of local heroes had recently forayed out to attempt to dissuade the trolls, but nobody has heard anything from them since. And, as the party has seen, without some kind of heroes, there aren't enough people there to hold off a sustained troll attack.

“Sounds risky,” Shifty says. “They're not worth it.”

“They're asking us for help,” Shar replies. “Think about it. We can bring them into our own territory if we save them. We can have an outpost on the Feywild.”

“That does sound promising...”

“Also,” Kane points out, “we can slay many trolls, which is a reward in its own right.”

“So we're agreed?” Shar surveys the group. “We'll help?”

There is a general murmur of agreement.

“In that case,” Karl says, “I can speed our journey up. Unlike when we made our trip south, I now have access to the phantom steed ritual. It will conjure up magical mounts for us, which will allow us to travel much faster.”

***

Moonstair has entered a siege mentality. People are harvesting what crops they can, bringing livestock into the town proper, erecting defensive works, stockpiling ammuntion and oil for the town's defenders- whatever they can do to prepare.

Rualiss, the eladrin attorney the party met previously, thanks them effusively for coming to the town's aid. “I don't know what we would have done without you,” he says. “We don't have any real war leaders or the like.”

“It's okay.” Shifty grins. “We're quite experienced in battle. Why, our man Kane has even led a mercenary company!” It's an exaggeration, but one that heartens the town's defenders.

***

The party rests for two days and nights. For most of them, it's nice to eat and drink stuff that is free of the tang of residuum. For Moab, it's just a reminder that he is away from home again, living for who knows how long with people barely better than savages.

Scouts report troll sign less than two miles out of the town. It's clear the attack is coming; the only question is, when?

***

When it does come, it's a sudden mass of airborn enemies wyverns and a manticore ridden by a troglodyte wearing fancy armor made of shells and stones netted together.

Our heroes speed to meet them where they land and begin to wreak havoc even as another group, this one including strangely pale trolls, an ogre, and several weird monsters with but a single huge eye, attacks the town's walls. Yet more monsters attempt to storm Moonstair's docks, and another band attacks from the far side- a troll leading a pack of worgs.

The party brings their full force against the aerial assault. The monsters are deadly; the poison on the tails of the wyverns is severe, and the manticore and its rider work together as a deadly team. Pinioned between the manticore's spikes, the troglodyte's javelins, and the stings of the wyverns, Kane is taken out of the fight for a few moments before Shar and Shifty can restore him, but then Moab manages to force the enemies into a perfect formation for Karl's fireball and flame burst.

Meanwhile, the folk of Moonstair do their best to defend themselves against the other attacks. Columns of smoke begin to rise where the fire necessary to combat trolls spills onto buildings, barrels, wagons.

Once the aerial assualt is dealt with, the party dashes to the attack on the wall, arriving too late to prevent one of the trolls from scaling it. But Kane and PHUQ-69 smash into it and soon drive it back, and the group manages to prevail against these attackers, too.

But it isn't over yet. At the docks, a pair of great lobster-monsters led by kuo-toa have come out of the water and are tearing apart the townsfolk trying to stop them from advancing toward the center of town. The party rushes to this fight, aided by a nearby ballista. Tentacles splash up from the water, grabbing at the retreating 0defenders and pulling them back toward the water.

It's a mad scene, but one that is put in order by our heroes' valiant efforts.

When the monsters lie slain, our heroes are gasping. “I'm out all of my most powerful spells,” Karl warns.

“Me too,” says Shar, “but we're not done yet.”

The baying of worgs echoes across the field of battle.

Kane clutches at a wound on his thigh, panting for breath. “Aye, let's go. We've dogs to put down.”

***

When the Battle of Moonstair is finally over, our heroes have been pushed to their utmost, used up all their resources. They have driven themselves to exhaustion, found their limits- and exceeded them. They are victorious.

Though not without cause.

A number of buildings are gone or burned so badly that they can no longer be used. Worse, nearly thirty of the town's citizens have been killed in the attack. Several others are missing.

“But we won,” says P-69. “That's what matters.”

Shar shakes her head. “It's not over. I'm pretty sure we didn't kill the troll king, and he doesn't sound like the type to give up easily.”

Sepia says, “We need to take the fight to him.”

“If only we knew where he was,” Shifty laments.

“Well...” Karl smiles. “I think we can find out, as long as we keep at least one troll head. I recently learned the speak with dead ritual...”

Next Time: Our heroes attack Skalmad's troll warren!
 

the Jester

Legend
At this point, our heroes have taken their paragon paths. We now have:


Kane- barbarian/frenzied berserker
Sepia- rogue/cat burgler
Shar- cleric/governator*
Moab- wizard/enigmatic enchanter
Karl- wizard/tome adept
Shifty- rogue/gnomish illuminatus*
PHUQ-69- warden/shard disciple

Alas, Alkor has left the party at this point.

*These are custom.
 

the Jester

Legend
Questioning the dead troll reveals a fair amount about Skalmad. For one, the troll refers to him as “Skalmad the Undying”, but as Karl points out, that might be a reference to the trolls' ability to regenerate from most damage.

“But what if it's not?” Shifty moans, wringing his hands.

“Bah!” Kane snorts derisively. “We will lay this Skalmad low, no matter how many times we must kill him!”

The resurgant kingdom of Vardar, it turns out, is centered on a place called the Great Warren, a nest of caves within the swamp known for obvious reasons as the Trollhaunt. The troll gives confusing, rambling, incoherent directions; Shar remarks, “I hope it's easier to find this warren than it was to find Tscire Nobi!”

***

Although there is a strong consensus that the party needs to bring the fight to the troll king in his lair, the folk of Moonstair and not pleased at the notion of their greatest defenders leaving them to the tender mercies of further troll assaults.

So it is that Karl and Sepia decide to stay behind, to lend their might to the town's defenders while the others advance into the Trollhaunt.*

The Trollhaunt is a mess of thickets and marshland, with wiry, twisted trees and great screens of moss hanging down. Insects buzz and bite, constantly harrassing the warm-blooded creatures within. Birds call; frogs sing. The spongy ground is dotted with fungus. Oozes harmless to creatures larger than a butterfly pulsate and swim through the water, consuming water bugs. The rich, fecund odor of the swamp fills the air, forming a strange fug.

The trudge through it takes time, and the party quickly finds evidence that they are on the right track, for a troll war party stumbles on them the first night. The fight is furious and brutal; our heroes win.

“You should learn to cast fireball,” P-69 tells Moab. “This would be a lot easier with a fireball.

Moab sniffs. “I'll be sure to take your advice on matters arcane just as soon as you have finished up years of study and earned a degree in spellcasting.”

The deeper into the Trollhaunt the party goes, the more difficult the terrain becomes. But they remain on the right track, for they keep seeing troll claw marks on trees, troll droppings, and half-eaten, mostly-rotten, discarded carcasses. After several days of grueling travel, they finally find a muddy track. Troll footprints are abundant.

Finally, the trail ends at a sturdy wooden gate anchored to the wall of a cave. A sluggish stream flows into the side of the mound that the warren is apparently built into. A narrow window looks out to the left of the entrance. The party keeps watch for several hours, noting the presence of trolls and more troglodytes.

“It doesn't look like there's much of an easy way in,” Shar mutters.

“Then we must cut our way in.” Kane grins and unsheathes his sword.

“Let's try to keep them from sounding an alarm,” P-69 says. “The last thing we need is to have everything in the warren come crawling out at us.”

“Let them come,” Kane rumbles disdainfully.

***

The party pushes into the warren, hacking through the guards at the entrance, then burning the troll bodies to make sure that they stay dead. Fortunately, the cave is already foul-smelling and smoky, so it seems unlikely that the added smoke will alert the inhabitants.

The party stays left, going deeper into the warren and crossing a stone bridge over the river. They soon find an underground lake, full of black water. A few stretches of dry ground run alongside it, and two small islets poke up from near its center.

“This would be a crappy place to fight trolls,” Shar murmurs. “It would be too easy for them to put out any fires we start...”

“LOOK OUT!” Shifty shrieks.

A dark draconian head rises from the water, as long as a man's torso. Wicked eyes focus on the party.

Shifty hurls his gnomeblade, then dives to the side as the dragon breathes out a stream of acid. Moab, P-69, and Kane are all caught in the caustic fluid. Screaming in pain, Moab hurls himself into the water to wash the acid off.

Kane gives a tremendous battle cry and leaps at the dragon, striking a mighty blow against it.

It laughs and dives under the water.

“This isn't what I expected!” shouts Shar.

Moab surfaces and staggers out onto dry land again, water streaming from his sodden robes. “Try to lure it close and I'll use my beguiling strands to force it out of the water,” he says. “As long as it stays deep in the lake, we can't fight it!”

There is an eruption of water as the dragon breaches the surface again. It rushes in to batter Kane with its claws and bite, then slashes at P-69 with its tail before rushing away again. Our heroes land a few blows, but they don't seem to have much impact on it.

“Watch the water for it!” Shifty cries. “Where did it go?”

Again, the dragon rises, this time spewing more acid all over Kane and Shifty, only to submerge again after a few quick spells and missiles from our heroes.

Kane groans. “Cursed dragon!” he shouts. “Stand and fight, you coward!”

There is no answer. A few short moments pass-

The dragon rises again, breathes again. P-69, Shifty, and Shar are all coated in the acid this time, and when the dragon retreats into the murky water, Shifty says, “We should get out of here! We can't fight like this! We need to figure out a strategy!”

“We can't just let the trolls attack Moonstair!” Shar snaps.

“They're not worth it!”

“We'll come back,” P-69 says. “But Shifty's right. We're going to get killed by this thing if we let it set the terms of the battle.”

Reluctantly, the party retreats. They leave the Great Warren and hurry away into the surrounding wilderness, trying to head uphill as much as possible to find a place to camp on dry land.

We'll be back, Shar silently promises the dragon.

***

The party makes another daring raid into the Great Warren the next day, this time taking the right-hand passage leading deeper into the place. They cut through more troglodytes and more of the humanoid creatures with single massive eyes dominating their heads.

When the battle has been one, Shifty prods one of them with a toe. “These aren't cyclopes. I don't know what they are.”

But in short order, a trollish counterattack deals significant damage to the heroes, and they are forced to retreat again. They return to their campsite, but this time are attacked as they try to rest.

“We need to keep our distance from them,” P-69 opines.

“Or hide better!” Shifty suggests.

***

While seeking a better place to camp, our heroes stumble into a single person campsite. A blue dragonborn is whittling on a stick as they enter. Her eyes are wary. She is wearing plate armor and a greataxe is propped against a tree next to her.

“Hello,” she says, continuing to carve.

“Uh, hello,” Shifty replies. “Who are you?”

She puts her stick down and rises to her feet, gripping the axe. “My name is Sabine. I'm a paladin of Garnet. And you...” She grins. “Are you the so-called Heroes of Moonstair?”

Shar and Kane share a glance.

“Yes we are!” Shifty beams at her. “So, you've heard of us?”

“Yes. I helped with the defense of the town.”

“You did? Ah, excellent! So I can only assume you are here to fight the trolls!”

“Well... sort of. One of my relatives was a member of a party of adventurers who went to confront the trolls before the attack.”

“Oh, I believe we heard about them.”

“They didn't come back. So I'm trying to save them. Save them... or avenge them.”

“I see, I see... Well, it seems as though our courses are aligned, at least for the moment! Perhaps we should join forces?”

“It sounds good to me. To be honest, I was hoping to find you while I was out here. Some of those trolls are pretty tough, and Garnet only knows how many I'll have to fight before I find my cousin. Or his remains.”

“What if the trolls have eaten him?” P-69 asks.

“I'll know if we find his gear,” she replies.

“All right,” Shar says, “I think we can agree that working together will make us more likely to take out this troll king. And, of course, that dragon.”

“Dragon?” Sabine looks at her.

“Aye,” Kane growls. “A black monster that keeps submerging to escape us.” He scowls.

Sabine grins again. “I've always wanted to be a dragon slayer.”

***

The party once more enters the Great Warren and, once past the troglodytes now stationed to guard it, keeps to the left, heading quietly toward the underground lake.

“If we can lure it out,” Sabine says confidently, “we can take it.”

Kane curls his lip. “Unless it flees like a coward again.”

P-69 picks up a rock and hurls it into the water. There is a splash, then, for a moment, nothing.

Then the water starts to churn and bubble, and the dragon's head rises up again.

This time, the strategic situation is different. Sabine subjects the dragon to her divine sanction, then hangs back, and when the dragon breathes acid on several of the others, it pays for it in radiant damage. The dragon tries to use the same hit and run tactics it did before, but with her sanction in effect, this rapidly proves too painful. It is forced to emerge from the water to fight.

The dragon is a whirlwind of destruction, its teeth and claws tearing into Kane and P-69. It snaps its tail into Sabine as she charges in to close with it, delivering a telling blow. But once it is surrounded by them, Shifty springs in to flank with an acrobatic attack and Shar hits it with iron to glass, reducing the amount of damage it deals.

Soon, the monster attempts to get away from them again, seeking to retreat to the water. But this time Moab has positioned himself to prevent such shenanigans. He is ready with a beguiling strands. It can only reach the shallows before P-69 intercepts it and pulls it back toward them.

The party piles on the damage, unleashing their deadliest attacks.The dragon roars and breathes again, but as they are not grouped up, the dragon is forced to choose between catching only Sabine in its acid or affecting Moab, Shar, and Shifty. It chooses the painful option, and the paladin's divine sanction activates once more, dealing yet more radiant damage to the dragon.

Finally, Sabine brings down the black dragon with a mighty smite.

***

A search of the water turns up considerable treasure, including a bastard sword that drips acid. Kane claims that gleefully, then the party retreats to their camp to rest before returning to make another foray into the warren.

Next Time: Our heroes meet Skalmad the Troll King!


*This is about the point at which we lose two more players, alas. But as you can see, the party quickly met a new one!
 

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