Ghourmand Vale (3.5 campaign)



PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 10 August 2022

- - -

"You're welcome t' take th' wagon an' mules t' town," offered Father Barbados over breakfast. The heroes took him up on his offer, for they had the armor and weapons taken from the men they'd fought the night before in the new stone keep of the Cuthbertian clerics and a wagon would make it much easier to lug all that back to Ghourmand Vale, two hours away. Breakfast consisted of a thick beer with a rather nasty taste, or so thought Alistair until a prestidigitation spell cast upon the liquid nourishment made it taste more like the halfling honey-sweetened tea he'd been served by the Aldershoots and to which he had taken quite a liking. At Chaevaris's request, the sorcerer cast a second prestidigitation spell upon the elf's stein of breakfast beer to likewise alter the taste.

"I been thinkin' further on th' Blood Mirror," Father Barbados continued. "We'll be wantin' more info on it, an' t' that effort I want ye all t' head on up t' Mitrek t' fetch summa th' Cuthbertians there an' bring 'em back here."

"Mitrek?" asked Harlan. "Where is that, and how far is it from here?"

Ageratum was well acquainted with the area. "It's the capital city of Veluna," she explained. "Probably about a week's journey, north of here."

"Aye," agreed Barbados. "But we'll be wantin' some fightin' folks capable o' guardin' this new temple here, an' I know a folk or two up there what can prolly fill us in on summa th' gaps o' knowledge we got about th' gem." He looked over at Harlan. "D'ye still have it wit' ye, lad?" he asked.

"I have it right here," the half-elf replied, pulling the Blood Mirror from a pouch at his belt.

"Good: ye keep it wit' ye, then. I'll write down a list o' names an' a letter of recommendation fer th' Mitrek temple clerics while ye're down in th' Vale, an' when ye return th' wagon an' mules it'll be ready for ye."

The trip to Ghourmand Vale was uneventful, and once they got to the boomtown proper it was easy enough to find buyers for the excess armor and weapons the group had for sale. While they were at it, they stopped off at a moneychanger and had much of their accumulated coinage converted to easier-to-carry gemstones for the trip north, each of the heroes leaving themselves plenty of loose change for minor purchases along the way. But they deemed it best not to burden their horses with any excess weight if they could help it. They returned back to the stone keep, fetched Barbados's papers, and set off north towards Veluna.

They hadn't gotten more than an hour or two down the road when the ambush occurred.

Chaevaris, as always, had been riding lead upon Talkacha, followed in a single line by Harlan upon Law, Ageratum upon her pony Munson, and Alistair upon Zephyr. Ambrose had been flying ahead, checking out the road, then alighting and waiting for the others to catch up before taking off ahead again. The grackle was currently off in a field to the right side of the narrow road, scratching among the grass blades to unearth a quick insect treat. Directly ahead of Chaevaris, the road veered right around a steep, terraced hill covered in trees, and the bottom of which was an overturned wagon partially covered in branches and boughs; if that was supposed to have been an example of deliberate camouflage, it was a particularly poor job. But if nothing else it attracted the attention of those riding down the road for a second or two, and that's when the unknown ambusher from the top of the hill threw down a javelin at the elven archer.

It wasn't a particularly good throw, for the javelin struck the bottom of the overturned wagon and stuck in place, doing nothing further than alerting Chaevaris the group was under attack. It was a rather large javelin, though, causing the archer to wonder if their assailant might perhaps be somewhat bigger than a human or an elf. But now alert for danger, Ageratum pulled her short sword from its scabbard at her hip and looked about for trouble.

Chaevaris leaped down from Talkacha, who hurried off to the side of the road, encouraged by a slap on his hindquarters from his master, who'd taken cover behind the overturned wagon. "Ambrose?" Alistair called, and his grackle familiar took wing and flew to where he could see the attackers up at the top of the hill. Alistair got the sense of a big man and a big dog and reported that back to the others; it confirmed what Chaevaris had already suspected: someone larger than a man, possibly an ogre or a hill giant.

"Ogilvy, if you please!" commanded Alistair and his unseen servant spell took effect at once. The nobleman sorcerer passed his full waterskin to his servant with orders to go to the top of the hill and squirt the skin's contents into the face of the big man throwing javelins down upon them. Wordlessly, Ogilvy complied to his latest set of orders, the waterskin seeming to glide above the ground in a straight line for the hill, after which it started rising in elevation as the unseen servant began his ascent.

Harlan dismounted from Law and sent the pure, white horse over to follow Talkacha, as the paladin stepped up to the wagon and then, instead of using it as cover as Chaevaris was doing (the archer was sighting down an arrow raised to aim at the top of the hill, concentrating on finding the optimal moment to release it), the paladin stepped upon it and stood, arms held out to his sides in a "Well? Take your best shot!" gesture.

Ageratum decided to remain mounted and pushed Munson ahead down the road, following the curve around the hill and looking out for other ambushers. After all, her thieves guild training taught her one of the best ways to focus a target's attention away from the true threat was to give him a false threat to worry about. But try as she might, she saw no other combatants in the area. However, the ogre at the top of the hill saw her advance and chose her as his next target, but his second throw was no better than his first, and it lodged into a tree she had passed seconds earlier. With a growl of disgust, the ogre started climbing down the staggered slope of the side of the hill, deciding he'd do better in hand-to-hand combat with these travelers, as that played to his strengths. Behind him, his loyal dire wolf did the same, but rather than follow his master he went to the far back end of the hill, where the slope was much less steep - an important consideration for a four-legged beast who climbed down hills head-first. But Ambrose saw the lupine's movements and warned his master; Alistair in turn warned the others.

Then the ogre came into full view, crashing through saplings growing from the side of the steep ledge as he finally reached ground level over on the right side of the hill, facing Ageratum. Alistair sent Zephyr off the road by the other two (currently riderless) horses so he could get a better view of the approaching ogre, then fired off a magic missile spell that sent two bolts of energy flying across the distance to hit the ogre in his broad chest.

Harlan leaped down from the wagon and charged the ogre, his flaming burst longsword out and ready to deal damage, for the paladin had read the ogre's aura correctly and determined he was irredeemably evil. Unfortunately, the ogre's longer reach allowed his greatclub to come smashing down upon the charging paladin before Harlan could bring his blade to bear, and the ogre had much more muscle behind his swing than the half-elf could ever hope to muster. He almost crumpled under the attack but managed to not only stay on his feet but bring his flaming blade in on a side-swing that cut deep into the ogre's side - and channeled a blast of holy smiting energy through it for good measure. And then the paladin felt a strange, mental sensation he'd never felt before: the absolute certainty he'd be able to channel a second such smiting attack if needed, something he'd not yet trained on, for smiting evil foes was a tiring task that took much out of the paladin and normally required many weeks of practice before a holy warrior could perform the maneuver more than once per day. Still, Harlan didn't need to reflect too much on the reason for this sudden assurance; he decided it was most likely a direct result of having the Blood Mirror on his person.

Ageratum rode Munson past the ogre and slipped from the saddle, stepping up behind the brute who, naturally, had his full attention focused on Harlan. The halfling gave the ogre a quick lesson on underestimating a person's capabilities based upon their size by stabbing her blade up into the back of a meaty thigh, causing the ogre to bellow out in rage. At the same time, Chaevaris - who had been sighting down the arrow looking for the best opportunity to let it fly - found the moment and released the bowstring, causing the ogre to suddenly sprout an arrow in its left bicep, nearly causing him to release his grip upon the massive greatclub he preferred wielding in battle.

Without understanding how this turn of events had come about so quickly, the ogre saw black dots flickering around the edges of his vision as, staggered, he swung his club down at Harlan again. But this swing didn't have nearly as much power behind it and the paladin easily dodged it, only to have the ogre fall, unconscious and face-down, at his feet.

However, the dire wolf had made it down the hill by this time and was rounding the back of the hill to come aid his master. Chaevaris released an arrow in his direction but missed, and the lupine clamped his jaws down upon Ageratum's shoulder - fortunately, protected somewhat by the leather armor she wore. But she couldn't prevent the much stronger creature from pulling her backwards onto the ground and looming above her. The halfling feared in the next moment he would bend over her and rip out her throat.

Alistair also shared the halfling's fear and kicked Zephyr into a forward charge, casting a magic missile spell at the dire wolf to redirect his attention away from Ageratum. Harlan sensed no evil in the beast but charged at him anyway, anxious to rescue his halfling friend. His flaming blade cut deep into the dire wolf's shoulder. For her part, Ageratum stabbed up at the wolf with her blade but couldn't get much power behind the blow from her angle. Chaevaris moved out from behind the cover of the overturned wagon, hand effortlessly reaching back to fetch an arrow from the quiver, place it to the bow, pull back, and release, all in one smooth, practiced action. The shaft buried itself beside the wolf's neck.

Confused by all the pain it was experiencing all at once, the wolf recalled it had grabbed a morsel and snapped down at Ageratum, but the halfling wriggled enough to the side the lupine's muzzle snapped shut on empty air. Alistair fired another magic missile spell at it as he dismounted from his horse and bent to try to drag Ageratum away from the wolf. It pushed a paw down protectively upon her chest and snarled at Alistair, as if making a claim about whose food this was. Harlan stepped to the side and brought his flaming blade in for another strike, singeing the beast's fur as he cut into his flesh. It yowled in pain and turned to face the paladin, allowing Ageratum an excellent opportunity at his exposed throat, which the halfling refused to allow to go to waste. Stabbing up with her short sword, she pierced the dire wolf's neck and it died instantly, crumpling in a heap atop her. Alistair had to pull her out from beneath the beast; it was too heavy for her to lift by herself.

Harlan walked back over to the ogre to deliver a killing blow, when he made an interesting discovery: the ogre's wounds were starting to scab over. It wasn't a full-fledged regeneration, or if it was it was an awfully slow one, but it seemed as if the creature's body was being stabilized enough that he wouldn't automatically die of blood loss. He frowned, trying to decide if that was something the Blood Mirror might be doing, as kind of an inverse of causing dead bodies to animate as zombies; perhaps the gem sent out a field of positive energy that prevented those who might be slowly dying from being allowed to do so? It made a sort of sense. Alistair cast a detect magic spell on the ogre and verified he wasn't wearing any magic items that might have been the cause of the scabbing-over effect. "Try this on for size," suggested the paladin, as he stabbed his blade into the ogre's head, piercing through the skull and stabbing into his brains. Whatever slow healing the Blood Mirror might have been doing, it stopped any further progress on the ogre's body now that it was a full-fledged corpse. Just to be sure, Harlan applied the same sort of "just-in-case" methodology to the slain dire wolf, making sure it wouldn't be healed and revived back into a hungry carnivore looking for food.

Ambrose flew back down by his master and the feeling of safety Alistair sensed from his familiar told him the bird had spotted no further enemies. However, the grackle had found something of interest and pointed it out to the others by simple fact of flying away and landing at the back of the hill, where the dire wolf had climbed down. There were drag marks in the grass from the back of the hill, heading over to the west, where another, even steeper hill made a sort of cliff face. The drag marks went directly to the side of the cliff, where, hidden among the shadows, stood the opening of a cave.

"I say!" declared Alistair upon following his familiar. "We should check it out!"

"Let me heal myself first," replied Harlan, applying his own healing touch to the worst of the wounds he'd received from the ogre's greatclub. He wasn't the least bit surprised to feel as if he'd managed to channel a lot more positive energy through his hand than he'd been accustomed to being able to handle; apparently there were still unknown aspects to the Blood Mirror yet to be discovered! However, seeing even this additional amount of healing still had the half-elf paladin looking much the worse for wear, Alistair unstoppered a potion of cure light wounds and passed it over to Harlan. The paladin tried declining out of politeness, but Alistair was having none of it. "You, sir, are our only source of healing through spells," he insisted. "It is in our own best interests to keep you hale and healthy, that you may attend to our own healing needs as required." Accepting the logic, Harlan drank down the potion and felt much better. Ageratum drank down her own potion of cure moderate wounds, feeling the pierced skin of her shoulder heal up. Later, she'd have to see what she could to about the puncture marks in her leather armor, where the dire wolf's teeth had ripped through.

Chaevaris led the group to the cave entrance, bow ready to fire off an arrow if needed. By this time, Ogilvy had returned from his pointless trek up the side of the hill and returned the waterskin to Alistair, who then swapped it out with Chaevaris's lit bullseye lantern and sent the unseen servant forward into the dark cave. The stench was quite horrific, and the reason soon determined when they found human remains among the soiled blankets and such being used for bedding. None of the bones were connected, merely an arm here and half a leg there, most of them with rotting meat still attached. But other than a small hole in the back of the cave, from which protruded the top of a wooden ladder, the rest of the cave was empty.

There was a different smell coming from the hole in the back of the cave floor, evidenced by the clumps of dung adhered to the sides of the wooden ladder. "Ugh!" complained Chaevaris, nose held firmly between fingers and thumb in an effort to avoid the stench. "The ogre's been using this hole as a latrine!" It only made sense, for the hole was much too narrow for the ogre to have been able to squeeze through, and even if the dire wolf had been able to wriggle into the hole, it was unlikely he'd have been able to traverse the ladder. But with Ogilvy shining the light down into the hole, Ageratum announced she could see a row of chests lined up against the back wall. "Probably where the bandits - I assume that's what they were, who made this cave their hideout until the ogre and the wolf got to them - stored their treasure."

"Do you wish to go down there and check it out?" asked Harlan, looking dubiously at the ladder.

"Not until Alistair does his thing," the halfling replied, and the sorcerer just looked at her with a blank expression on his face. "I'm thing?"

"Prestidigitation spell to clean the dung off the ladder," she explained.

"Ah, yes, quite." Alistair performed the necessary gestures and had the wooden ladder stain-free in a jiffy. Only then did Ageratum agree to climb down into the foul-smelling pit, and only then with Alistair's handkerchief tied around her lower face to help keep out the stench.

"There are three chests and two barrels," Ageratum called back up to the guys. "The barrels are...ugh! Rotting meal. Never mind. Let me see about those chests...can you send Ogilvy down with the lantern?" Ogilvy, at the sorcerer's direction, climbed down the ladder and pointed the light as Ageratum indicated, the better for her to see if there were any traps on the first of the chests. As it turned out there was, but she missed it and she stuck her thumb on a poisoned needle upon picking the lock and opening the lid. But she pulled back her thumb, sucked out the poison, and spat it back out onto the pit's floor, declaring there to be no further traps on the chest. Inside were ten small pouches, each - after suitable investigation - containing a number of small diamonds. "Nice!" she enthused before moving on to the next chest.

After directing Ogilvy's lantern placement for optimal effect, Ageratum found the poison needle on the second chest and successfully avoided it while picking the lock. This was a larger container, more the size of a trunk, and it contained a ceremonial suit of armor with Pelor's blazing sun symbol on its chest. The halfling could tell this wasn't something one would want to wear into battle, but it probably looked mighty fine there in the temple, performing whatever ceremony Pelorian clerics got up to.

The third chest - this one the smallest of the three - wasn't even trapped, and it contained a series of glass potion vials. Four of them were labeled in cramped handwriting, identifying them as potions of neutralize poison. The others, judging from the looks of it, weren't even fully-formed potions at all, each containing reagents or chemicals or in some cases ground-up powders. Ageratum guessed these were useful in the crafting of potions, with only the four completed thus far. There were 30 of the unlabeled vials, with two empty spaces in the chest to hold another pair of potions, making a full 36 when fully loaded. Still, Ageratum was sure she could find a buyer in Veluna.

Harlan and Alistair climbed down the ladder and hauled the two chests and the trunk up to Chaevaris, Alistair fussing the whole time over whether his boots were getting filth on them. He rigorously applied another prestidigitation spell upon his outfit open returning back up to the cave. They decided to have Harlan try on the ceremonial armor just to see what it might do (for Alistair had confirmed it was in fact magical), and the paladin said it seemed to grant the wearer the effects of an eagle's splendor spell while donned. But he judged it too flimsy for combat and quickly removed it to put back on his normal armor; they packed it back into the trunk for transport to Veluna.

"How are we planning on bringing all of this with us?" Harlan asked. "Balancing it behind the saddle?"

"I have had some thoughts on that matter," replied Alistair, heading back to the overturned wagon. The others helped him remove the half-hearted camouflage attempt and flip it back onto its wheels, where Alistair - having spent the whole duration of the initial caravan to Ghourmand Vale as a "wagon lackey" - deemed it fit for use. Of course, they were missing the tack and harness that would normally be used to allow one or more beasts of burden to pull the wagon behind them, but Alistair was certain he could cobble something together using the assembled group's own lengths of rope. He offered up Zephyr for his experiments and soon had the horse pulling the wagon behind him, Alistair sitting in the driver's seat and steering the animal while the wagon held the treasures they'd taken from the cave. "We'll be traveling a bit slower than normal, at least until we hit a town and can purchase some normal gear, but I don't think we'll add more than a day to our travels," Alistair guessed.

And he was right: five days later (instead of the anticipated four), they first arrived in the kingdom of Veluna, where they purchased normal wagon tack and harness for Zephyr. It was still three days to the capital city of Mitrek, but they'd make it there just fine. Harlan picked up a wand of cure light wounds from the temple of Pelor in the town, and felt better about his ability to see to the group's healing needs beyond his own laying on of hands. Ageratum and Alistair made a few purchases as well, each buying a ring of protection from a magic vendor and Alistair adding a pair of bracers said to protect the wearer in combat, a goal of which the sorcerer heartily approved. Harlan had his masterwork half-plate armor given a layer of magical protection and Chaevaris did likewise with the masterwork elven chain armor given as a gift from the grateful elven couple whose daughter the archer had helped rescue. Chaevaris also dropped off the masterwork composite longbow purchased earlier for a magical upgrade, this time adding an enchantment said to help focus the archer's targeting and increase its damage potential. And with that, they pressed on with their journey, eager to see what Mitrek would bring.

- - -

And that's as far as we got last Wednesday. Furthermore, that's as far as this campaign will be going until at least the middle of October, as one of our number will be undergoing surgery that will require about six weeks of bedrest afterwards.

And despite the name as listed at the top of this post, while phonetically correct as written, a more exacting spelling would be "Ogre Ate Bandits" - as that's exactly what happened some weeks before before our PCs stumbled upon the area. Dan apparently enjoys the occasional pun-based adventure title, just as Logan and I do in our own respective campaigns.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 21 September 2022

- - -

After many days of travel, at long last Mitrek - the capital city of the kingdom of Veluna - came into view. The heroes had two places they needed to visit in the city; they had come all this way specifically to go to the Temple of Saint Cuthbert, to present the head cleric there with the sealed message they had brought with them from Ghourmand Vale, written by Father Barbados and asking for a force of faithful men to help guard the new Stone Keep he had purchased two hours from the Vale, and also requesting they pass on any information they might have about the Blood Mirror. Harlan still kept the magic ruby close at hand, but there were likely abilities to be tapped from the gem he had yet to master.

However, having unearthed a suit of ceremonial armor crafted with the holy symbol of Pelor in a cave taken over by an ogre and his pet dire wolf, Harlan intended to present it to the clerics of Mitrek's Temple of the Sun God. As that seemed like it would be fairly straightforward, the group unanimously agreed to swing by the Temple of Pelor first. (The fact the others had pretty much all decided the half-elf paladin was their de facto leader likely had something to do with this decision.)

Still, the decision having been made, Alistair steered the wagon toward the Temple of Pelor - despite never having been to Mitrek before, the temple wasn't difficult to find, considering it had the god's sun-symbol shining brightly over the city at the top of a tall steeple. He pulled on the reins to bring Zephyr to a stop and the other three dismounted from their own horses (or pony, in Ageratum's case). Tying the reins to a hitching post just outside the temple, the quartet approached the temple doors, Harlan and Alistair carrying the chest containing the ceremonial armor between them. (The young sorcerer was half-tempted to relegate the job to Ogilvy, and only the fear of scorn from the others of his team prevented him from taking this shortcut away from manual labor - which, in all truth, he did find to be somewhat beneath a man of his station.)

They were met by a man in the robes of a full cleric. "Good morning," he greeted them. "May I help you?"

"I would like to present a set of Pelorian armor we discovered during our travels to the head of this temple," Harlan explained. "Is he in?"

The cleric just smiled at the half-elf's assumption. "The Archcleric Carol Marduke leads this temple," he explained, "and she is, alas, currently meeting with others of her level in the city. However, I will be happy to set this aside for her upon her return." He motioned to a young acolyte, who ran up to take the chest from the two adventurers. "You may return this afternoon, around four bells, to receive the Archcleric's blessing."

"Very well, thank you," replied Harlan, watching as the acolyte struggled with his burden, taking it deeper into the temple. "Until this afternoon, then. May Pelor's holy light shine upon you."

"And upon you," intoned the cleric, bowing slightly. The four adventurers took their leave, returning to their mounts and moving on to the Temple of Saint Cuthbert. This was an impressive building indeed, much more intricate and elaborate than the simple Stone Keep from which they had come; while Father Barbados and Brother Scrimshaw resided in a squat, two-story slab of gray stone, here in Mitrek the Temple of Saint Cuthbert contained sweeping buttresses, tall, multicolored windows, and elaborate carvings among the rooftops and gables - including a gargoyle or two. (Alistair, gawking like a tourist, tried to see if these were carved stone statues or actual creatures trying to pass for the same and was unable to determine the truth of the matter.)

The cleric who met the group at this temple ushered them inside to meet the head cleric. Harlan passed over the sealed letter of introduction from Father Barbados and the elderly priest opened it and read it over quickly to himself, then again a second time, more slowly. Finally, he looked up. "I am somewhat surprised at the events unfolding at Ghourmand Vale," he admitted. "This situation with this Jasgund Singh, and the portals to another world...most distressing." He motioned for an acolyte to fetch them coffee and tea, explaining to the young lad to have someone fetch the Loremaster. "We will have refreshments until the arrival of the Loremaster, who will be better able to explain what is known about this Blood Mirror," the elderly cleric told the group, serving the hot drinks as soon as they were brought into his office.

The Loremaster - no other name was provided - proved to be a wiry old man with a long, gray beard turning to pure white at the ends. "This is what is known about the man seeking Blood Mirror," he began, and the heroes leaned forward to hear the old man's tale.

"They say, in a faraway land, Jasgund Singh was a loyal retainer to the Rajah of Chandarkhan. He, as such, had to meet his obligations to his liege. Jasgund was highly efficient and ruthless in meeting his duties. His people greatly feared him because, either openly or covertly, his subjects would often find their way into the belly of a tiger. If they failed in their duties, if they were less than obedient, if they went to sleep at night, they could disappear and the tigers would appear sated. The open actions kept the people obedient to the known laws, while the covert actions showed anyone could die.

"Singh kept the population in balance to work the farms, lumber and spice lands, and gem mines, and to feed his growing collection of tigers by encouraging large families and by luring and enslaving people from neighboring districts. Jasgund’s power and influence with the Rajah grew along with the productivity and control of his district. His fellow vassals began to notice their influence weaken along with their districts' populations. The Rajah of Chandarkhan welcomed the developments of Singh. Jasgund served the Rajah and could swing the balance of power for the Rajah’s plans in any meeting. Jasgund became the second most important man in the realm.

"Over time, the lesser lords developed a plan to discredit and destroy Singh. Balma Singh - no relation - persuaded the Rajah that a marriage would link Jasgund more strongly to the Rajah. Balma learned that Jasgund has become even more evil and depraved as his power had grown. Balma also learned that Jasgund has begun sacrificing humans to tigers and eating the heart of the victims along with the tigers as part of a ritual to some dark deity.

"Balma successfully substituted a common prostitute for Jasgund's Princess bride, the Rajah's beloved niece, knowing that marriage to a prostitute would disgrace Jasgund and that the real Princess would be condemned to ritual sacrifice in the prostitute's place. Balma exposed the prostitute during the feast following the marriage, in the presence of the Rajah. The Rajah demanded to know the fate of the true Princess, and Balma and his spies were quick to expose the crimes of Singh. Balma and the other vassals then laid their accusations and proofs of Jasgund's evil deeds before the Rajah, who had his retainers arrest Singh.

"They say the execution of Jasgund Singh was bloody, slow, and painful, concluding with the various pieces of Singh's body fed to his tigers. The tigers were then slaughtered and left on the plain as carrion for the beasts. Jasgund Singh’s spirit was then lost on the Demiplane of Dread in Bhādupa cī dā naraka, the Hell of Bhadup Chee."

The four adventurers looked at each other, puzzled. "How does this help us?" Harlan finally asked. "What of the Blood Mirror?"

"Ah, the Blood Mirror," replied the Loremaster. "That was a gem taken from a mine in Jasgund's lands, and imbued with great powers. It is said it possesses the ability to reflect and amplify the nature of the one who holds it: evil bringing forth evil, while good brings forth good. It allows a paladin - or his evil counterpart, a blackguard - to channel more power than normal when he affects undead or smites his enemies. And it infuses the area around it with either positive or negative energy, such that in a paladin's hands a gentle repose spell is cast upon those recently slain, while the mortally wounded find their wounds healing up and their bodies stabilizing without any effort. A blackguard finds quite the opposite: the bodies of the recently slain around him rise up as skeletons or zombies, each with a frantic desire to possess the gem and return it to its point of origin. And perhaps to aid in that effort, the wielder of the Blood Mirror is able to see the way to the sporadic planar gates that open up between the Material Plane and the Hell of Bhadup Chee."

"So that's why those kobolds and that dire weasel came back as zombies," Chaevaris said, thinking back on the excitement during the original caravan trek to Ghourmand Vale. That, of course, led to the heroes explaining their adventures thus far to the cleric and the Loremaster, which took up some time. But after a pleasant few hours at the Temple of Saint Cuthbert, at the end of which the head cleric assured Harlan he'd have a group of fighting men ready to return with them to Ghourmand Vale in the morning, the group took their leave. "We have time for lunch?" Ageratum asked. "The tea was nice and all, but I could use a full meal!" They found a suitable inn and had a decent meal, then decided to return to the Temple of Pelor to pay their respects to Archcleric Carol Marduke. However, upon their return they were met by a different cleric than the one they had met earlier. This man wore the same type of robes, but his was more elaborate along the seams, with a much larger holy symbol of Pelor hanging on a pendant around his neck.

"Good afternoon," he greeted them. "I am Bolton Verringer, Bishop of Mitrek, Councilor to Her Holiness the Archcleric Carol Marduke, Prelate of Pelor in Mitrek." He seemed to rather enjoy stating his full title. "I understand you have come to return a suit of ceremonial armor to our church. I'm sure the Archcleric will be most eager to see it."

"What do you mean?" demanded Chaevaris. "We brought it here this morning!"

"Indeed," agreed Alistair. His arms still felt a bit sore from having helped carry the chest with Harlan up the stairs to the temple interior.

A puzzled frown crossed Verringer's face. "To whom did you give the armor?" he asked.

"I'm afraid we didn't get his name," admitted Harlan. He then described the man as best he could, as well as the young acolyte to whom he passed the chest containing the armor, which only caused the bishop to frown all the harder. "That sounds like Otto," he said.

"Okay," agreed Harlan.

"Otto is our gardener," Bishop Verringer explained. "And the 'acolyte' fits the description of a freight-hauler we hired on last month to do odd jobs around the temple."

"Wait - so they weren't clerics?" sputtered Harlan. A reddish hue flushed his face at the thought they had presented the ceremonial armor of Pelor to a pair of...imposters?

"Not at all," replied Bishop Verringer. "As I said, they were a gardener, a dockworker, and there was a scullery maid named Miranda. All three were hired about a month ago. You say the two men were dressed as clerics, though?" he asked.

"Absolutely," agreed Harlan.

"Sounds like a scam job," mused Ageratum, who knew quite a bit on the subject. "They must have infiltrated the temple, specifically to steal items of value."

"You mean they knew we'd be coming here with the ceremonial armor?" Alistair asked, dumbfounded. "How in the world could they have known we'd found the armor, or that we'd be bringing it here?"

"Doesn't necessarily have to have been the armor they were after," Ageratum admitted. "That might have just been a target of opportunity. Who knows?"

"Well, Her Holiness is not going to be pleased that the ceremonial armor was stolen from under our noses," Bishop Verringer remarked. He sent a pair of acolytes to scour the temple, looking for any of the three apparent thieves. As expected, they returned soon thereafter to note neither of the trio had been seen since this morning.

"Do they live here in the temple?" Harlan asked.

"No, they merely worked here. My understanding is that they had all taken lodging in a place called the 'Inn on the Lane.'" He looked determinedly at the four adventurers before him. "I implore you: please find where they have taken the armor and return it here immediately. I do not want to have to explain to Her Holiness how we have all been so deviously duped!" He gave them directions to the Inn on the Lane, a dwelling on the very edge of the low quarter of the city, near a Pelorian mission led by Father Bouchard Coletrane, who spent his time serving the poor souls living in the slums and shadows of the beautiful city. The half-elf paladin gave the Bishop his word they would do their best to retrieve the ceremonial armor as soon as possible.

"That was embarrassing," Harlan admitted to the others as they mounted back up and turned to head towards the low quarter.

"Still, I hardly think we can be blamed for having been duped by a man wearing a Pelorian cleric's robes in a Temple of Pelor," fumed Alistair. "The very nerve of those bounders! To steal from a goodly church - it just goes to show, you cannot trust a cowardly thief!" He failed to see Ageratum's eyes narrow at the nobleman's harsh words.

It was approaching twilight as the group found themselves outside the Inn on the Lane. They tied their mounts' reins to a hitching post on the side of the street outside the inn; Alistair, fearful of the type of person one might expect to see in such low quarters turned his signet ring around on his finger so the Pastlethwaite crest was hidden on the inside of his closed hand, and advised his grackle familiar Ambrose to watch over the animals and wagon. "I expect you to alert us of the present of any low-life thieves looking to take what is ours," he advised the bird, and received a loud "Caw!" as his only response. Then he turned and followed Chaevaris into the inn, behind Harlan and Ageratum.

Walking through the front door, Harlan saw a grouping of four tables in the middle of the taproom, each holding four empty chairs - apparently, despite the early hour, none of the locals was much in an eating or drinking mood. There were only two people in the taproom at all: a tall man behind the bar who bent down upon the paladin's entrance and picked up a small keg, balancing it on his shoulder, and a shorter man dressed in black leather armor, lounging on a stool at the bar.

Ageratum saw the same view as Harlan (albeit from a vantage point nearly three feet lower than that of the half-elf), but she immediately recognized the leather-clad man as Beaufort "Shambles" McGuffin, a thief from a rival thieves guild than the ones she had worked for in the past. Shambles was a con man, although not always a very successful one, hence his nickname - which described the usual state of affairs when he tried putting a scheme into action.

Stepping through the front door behind Ageratum, Chaevaris saw the man behind the bar first and made immediate note how he purposefully kept the keg on his shoulder such that it blocked his face from Harlan's sight - and the reason for such desperate maneuvers became immediately obvious to the archer, once the elf recognized the man for who he was. "That's Otto!" the archer blurted out, and just that quickly the archer had an arrow notched and ready to shoot, sighting down the length of the shaft to target an arrow directly at the erstwhile gardener's throat. Alistair, entering the inn behind all the others, caught the general gist of the situation when he saw "Elfy" aiming an arrow at the man holding the keg, and the young nobleman too recognized Otto as one of the people for whom they were searching. "I say!" he declared, bringing the words to a magic missile spell to the forefront of his mind. About that time, Chaevaris's keen elven hearing picked up the sound of a door being closed in a hallway behind the taproom.

Hoping for the best, Otto tried carrying the keg out of a side door but soon found Harlan's unsheathed flaming burst longsword pointed at his throat. "Hold it right there, thief!" the paladin ordered, and Otto froze where he stood. "Slowly, now, place the keg upon the floor, keep your hands in view, and then you're going to take us to wherever you've stashed the armor you took from us."

"Now hold on, here!" demanded Shambles, pulling out a pair of weapons of his own - a rapier and a dagger, both looking to have been crafted at the highest quality. "I won't have you come barging in here and making baseless accusations against my customers!"

"Shut up, Shambles!" replied Ageratum, the scorn in her voice telling him exactly what she thought of him. The face he gave her showed he felt the same way about her. But the mere act of Shambles being armed emboldened Otto, who decided he could make a break for it. Slowly, he placed the keg of ale down upon the floor as ordered, but then he made to sprint across the back of the bar and flee to safety. He did not count on Harlan having anticipated such a move, and one swift downstroke of the paladin's flaming blade had Otto lying on the floor, unconscious and bleeding out. Of course, the heroes all knew that, due to the presence of the Blood Mirror, his wound would be sealed and his bleeding stop, leaving him unconscious but very much alive.

"This loser has two accomplices," Ageratum informed Shambles - and, looking down at the little halfling, he saw she too had drawn a pair of blades that were pointed his way. With Otto down, the archer and the wizardly fop were both aiming at him as well, the former with a drawn bow and arrow and the latter with a pointed finger, no doubt ready to fire off some nasty spell. Ageratum gave a brief description of the dockworker and the scullery maid.

"It may well be there are customers meeting that description..." Shambles nervously hazarded.

"Then take us to their rooms," Harlan demanded, stepping over Otto's body to point his blade at the thief's neck. "His room first."

"The man you killed, in cold blood?" Shambles asked.

"He's fine," replied Alistair. "Now, take us to his room, if you please."

"'If I please,'" grumbled Shambles. "As if I have a choice, my fine establishment being raided by a group of self-important hooligans, who think they can just barge in here and make all kinds of ridiculous accusations and demands...."

"Shut up, Shambles," repeated Ageratum. But despite his protestations of innocence, he led them out a side door of the taproom and down a hallway to a series of doors. "It's that one," he said, pointing to a door.

"Open it," Harlan ordered.

"You open it," Shambles countered. "I'm not opening it. I refuse to be ordered about in my own place, as if I were nothing more than some household servant! Why, I won this place fair and square, and I'm not about to--"

"Shut up, Shambles," Ageratum cut him off again. Harlan had him go to the end of the hallway, holding the complaining thief at sword-point while Ageratum examined the door for traps. She saw nothing untoward and opened the door, revealing a standard bedroom of fair quality. The blanket on the bed was rumpled, revealing recent use, but there wasn't anything of obvious value in the place, nor was there any ceremonial Pelorian armor hanging about - although there seemed to be something under the bed, a chest that could probably fit such a suit of armor. Ageratum pulled it out from underneath the bed, gave it a quick perusal for traps, found nothing, and opened it up. It was empty.

From down the hall, though, Shambles was keeping up his litany of grievances, getting increasingly louder, to the point Harlan suspected he was trying to warn the other two thieves of danger. While Chaevaris went toward the back of the hallway to see if he could see anyone trying to flee, Harlan called out for Alistair to "shoot this fool." Alistair happily complied, sending a magic missile spell blasting from his fingertips to strike Shambles in the chest, causing him to at least temporarily cease his noisy complaints.

Chaevaris had by that time found a back door to the building, presumably leading outside to a street or back alley, but it was locked solid. But Shambles had apparently decided he'd had enough as well, and when Harlan advanced upon the thief he stabbed at him with his blades. Harlan deflected the incoming strikes with his own blade, then swung at Shambles, who managed to dodge below the flaming sword. He opened the door at the end of the hall, ducking into an empty bedroom, stabbing at Harlan as the paladin followed. But Harlan's counterstrike sent the thief sprawling to the floor, looking very much the worse for wear. "Okay, okay, I'll talk!" Shambles cried out, dropping his weapons.

The tip of his flaming blade pointed down at the groveling thief's neck, Harlan replied, "It seems you've done nothing but talk since we arrived. Better make it worth my while - and quickly, for my patience has worn thin."

"Bishop Verringer hired us - me and the three thieves you're looking for, who had gotten jobs in the temple - to get the ceremonial armor. We were to turn it over to him if it showed up, and sure enough, you guys came waltzing right in with it. But we knew you had it, see, 'cause we've got people spread out all over the country looking for it and a few of our associates saw you with it in Veluna City. They've been following you since. Anyway, we decided, why turn it over to Verringer when we could sell it on our own and make a little coin? So that's what they did: grabbed up the armor and skedaddled down here, where we could sell it on the down-low."

"So where is the armor now?" demanded Harlan, emphasizing the importance of his question with the point of his sword, which drew a drop of blood from Shambles's neck.

"We had it stashed downstairs. The other two might have heard my warnings and taken it; I don't know. I honestly don't know!"

Ageratum and Alistair had, while this was going on, decided to do a room-by-room search for the stolen armor, each chest underneath the bed (apparently what served as a closet in these cheap quarters) coming up empty, and the chest being the only place a suit of armor could be stashed without immediately being seen. Chaevaris, unable to open the back door, aided in the search by checking out bedrooms along the back of the building. And while the chests under those beds were just as empty, the archer's keen elven senses did pick up on a secret panel in the floor by the bed. Prying it open, Chaevaris saw a vertical shaft with a wooden ladder bolted along one side, leading down into darkness. Without a moment's hesitation, the nimble archer scampered down the ladder, thinking perhaps this was where the armor might have been stashed.

"I say, nothing along any of the bedrooms on the western side of the building," Alistair reported in to Harlan, looking down at Shambles, groveling on the floor.

"I believe this idiot needs a nap," Harlan said, and Alistair happily complied, blasting him with another magic missile spell that sent the foolhardy thief into unconsciousness. "I'll tie him up," offered the young nobleman, ripping the sheets off the bed into strips with which to bind the low-life's hands behind his back and his ankles together, in case he woke up before the group had an opportunity to search through the entire inn.

Chaevaris walked the length of a lower-level hallway, discovering a secret panel in the otherwise apparent dead end and opening it. There was a creaking on the ladder behind the archer, but it was only Ageratum. The little halfling heard the sound of a door opening and closing, the sound of a lock being opened, and then another door opening and closing - all from above, and possibly even outside, for the downstairs hallway should be about flush with the building's back exterior, she reasoned. And the ladder they had used was but one of many; apparently each of the bedrooms on the ground level had a secret panel on the floor and a ladder leading down to this lower level - good to know.

There was a voice from above. Chaevaris cocked an ear toward the sound, listening intently. It sounded like a woman's voice, saying "Winston, you're back - we need help--" and then a gurgling sound, as if she were choking on her own blood. Chaevaris and Ageratum looked at each other and then, without a word, each scrambled back up the nearest ladder to return to the ground floor, where apparently there was some action going on.

Harlan had been walking down the side hallway towards the back of the building when the back door opened and a man stepped forward, sword in hand, blade slick with fresh blood. And then, stepping through the doorway behind him was a street urchin, a young girl of about fourteen. "Hey, are you a paladin?" she asked Harlan. "I've always wanted to have a paladin as a friend." Harlan felt a tingling in his mind, as if someone were trying to establish mental dominance over him. He focused on the girl's aura and was not at all surprised to see it as black as any he'd yet seen thus far in his life. The horrifically evil aura, the attempt a mental domination, and the pitch-black sky seen through the back door as yet another thief stepped into the building, all said one thing to Harlan Starblade, paladin of Pelor: Vampire!

Without any warning, the paladin exploded into a graceful motion, bringing his flaming burst longsword up over his head and crashing down upon Carly, the street urchin vampire spawn, his blade infused with the smiting holy energy of the God of the Sun as it swung down upon her. She shrieked in surprise and fury as the blade bit deep, but already her undead flesh was sealing up the bloodless wound. Winston stepped past his mistress to try to take out the paladin, but Harlan's blade stabbed him in the gut before he could make do with his own attempted attack. With a look of total shock on his face, Winston collapsed in a heap on the floor at Harlan's feet.

"I'll get him!" promised Randall, eager to prove his worth to their teenaged leader. The thief did actually manage to pierce through Harlan's armor, catching him in the elbow with the tip of his blade. But by then Alistair was advancing down the hallway to see what the commotion was all about, having bound up Shambles to his satisfaction and giving him a head-bash onto the floor for good measure, deciding it would not be a bad thing at all if the loud-mouthed thief woke up with a goose-egg on his noggin to remember him by. He saw a flash of fang in Carly's mouth as she hissed in pain and sent another magic missile blasting past Harlan's shoulder to strike her in the face. Then he unsheathed the masterwork silver dagger, from its sheath at his belt, eager to finally put his gift from the parents of the elven girl he'd help rescue from the kobolds during their caravan trek to good use, for he recalled Chaevaris telling him vampires were susceptible to silver weapons. And that matched with what Alistair recalled from the book, Elfy and the Vampire of Venom Valley.

But Alistair wasn't the only one about to enter the fray. Chaevaris had crept up a ladder in the corner and had bow and arrow ready to fire; opening the bedroom door behind the vampire spawn and her roguish minion, the archer sent the arrow streaking right into Carly's back. Unfortunately, even vampire spawn are blessed with a particularly thick skin, so the arrow failed to penetrate very far and in fact eventually just dropped from the teen urchin's back, having done little more than put a hole in the filthy dress she wore. And Ageratum, approaching from a side hallway, threw a kobold shortspear at Randall (the only foe in her field of vision at the moment), catching him in the meaty part of his thigh.

Carly advanced upon Alistair, swinging at him with a fist in anger at having had a damaging spell cast at her. The nobleman involuntarily took a step back and the blow swung past before him. Then he swung at her with his silver dagger, but he had had very little practice with such a short weapon - he was much more proficient with the longer-bladed rapier - and he missed her as well.

Harlan swung his flaming blade at Randall, dropping him in a single blow as he had done earlier with Otto - of the four adventurers, it was easy to see the young paladin was the fiercest among them when it came to melee combat. But, knowing now of the stabilizing influences of the Blood Mirror he kept on his person (in a pouch at his belt), he gave the downed thief no further thought, confident he'd be stabilized and prevented from bleeding out. Instead, Harlan spun about, looking for further combatants - but it seemed their only current foe was the 14-year-old vampire spawn, although given her undead nature it was entirely possible she was older than any of them, even Chaevaris, whose age was in the triple digits, despite looking like a relative youth.

Chaevaris stepped into the back hallway, an arrow notched and aimed at Carly. Ageratum rounded the corner of the hallway and threw another kobold spear at the vampire spawn, the weapon's head hitting her but failing to do much damage; it clattered on the floor after practically bouncing off her back. However, the halfling's attack was a turning point in the battle, for it was at that point Carly realized she was now fighting alone, her two minions both knocked out on the floor behind her. Frowning, she allowed her body to dissipate into a cloud of mist, which floated through the air into the taproom, where there was at least more room to maneuver if she wished to continue the battle. But she was more or less impervious to all harm while in her mist form, and there was nothing even the paladin could do but follow her as she floated away. But Harlan vowed to get her with his flaming blade the moment she turned back to a solid form. Chaevaris followed, arrow unerringly pointed at the mist-form and ready to let loose at Carly once she presented a viable target.

Alistair realized there was nothing much he could do to a vampire spawn in mist form and decided to go see if there was anyone else outside ready to burst in and attack. Fortunately, the back door had now been left unlocked, and while the nobleman saw no more attackers, he did see a young woman lying in the dirt of the alleyway, a large sack held in one hand. Never having met her before, he could only guess this was probably Miranda - which meant perhaps the large sack held the pieces to the ceremonial armor they were trying to retrieve. Ignoring the corpse - for he had assumed she was merely unconscious and stabilized due to the nearby influence of the Blood Mirror, but Winston had stabbed her through the gut and she had died almost instantly - Alistair opened the sack, hoping to see the Pelorian armor. In that he was disappointed, but not for long, for instead of the armor he found the sack filled with coins and gems; this was the thieves' combined loot from their various cons and scams, and Miranda apparently figured they'd be better served by her saving the monies they'd already gained rather than the armor they could hopefully sell to get some additional coin. Taking up the sack and seeing no further enemies waiting to pounce, Alistair returned back inside.

Ageratum, in the meantime, decided the guys had the situation well in hand up here and she'd do better searching the lower level. She activated a sunrod and dropped it down the shaft she'd already traversed down and back up once before, then climbed down, slightly irritated that the rungs had obviously been spaced for humans, not taking into account a halfling's shorter stature at all. She followed the hallway to the dead-end hallway where Chaevaris had unearthed the secret panel and entered the storeroom - empty, but for cobwebs. However, it too had a ladder in the corner and she decided to see where it would take her.

Carly eventually decided to return to solid form, but to stay out of the paladin's reach she first floated up to the taproom's 15-foot ceiling and regained solid form upside-down, standing on the ceiling with her innate spider climb ability. Of course, that didn't stop Chaevaris from firing off an arrow at her, but she already knew such nonmagical attacks held no danger for her. Sure enough, the arrow bounced harmlessly off her tough, undead flesh, causing the archer to swear in anger.

But Carly had only recently been turned into a vampire spawn, and that 14-year-old body of hers held a 14-year-old's mind, one not yet the best at strategizing. Harlan, seeing his prey so far away, climbed onto a chair and from there onto a table, from which he was able to swing his flaming burst longsword over his head and connect solidly with Carly's undead flesh. At the same time, Alistair called out, "Ogilvy, if you please!" and the unseen servant manifested beside his master. Holding out his masterwork silver dagger, Alistair instructed Ogilvy to take an arrow from Chaevaris's quiver and cut off the arrowhead, leaving a pointed tip at the end of the wooden shaft - basically, a wooden stake with feathered fletching at one end. He recalled that was how Elfy had defeated the vampire in Elfy and the Vampire of Venom Valley, so he saw no reason it wouldn't work in real life as well.

Carly ran a few steps along the ceiling, enough to once again be out of range of Harlan's flaming blade. She seethed at the damage she'd taken, but knew her innate fast healing process would take care of her present wounds. But it was irritating - these people refused to be taken out, and the two times she'd tried dominating them had ended in failure. Finally, she resorted to bargaining. "If you just give me the Blood Mirror, we can all go our separate ways, and none of you has to die!" she called from her ceiling perch.

"And just why do you want the Blood Mirror?" asked Harlan, jumping down from his table and moving it closer to where Carly hung from the ceiling. But she saw what he was doing and scampered farther away.

"I don't want it. I don't even know why Father Coletrane wants it. But he does, so you need to give it to me."

"So Father Coletrane is your master?" asked Harlan, keeping her talking.

"Yeah, and if you think I'm tough, he's a lot tougher than I am! You wouldn't want to mess with a vampire of his power!" By this time, Ogilvy had finished his work and passed the sharpened arrow-shaft to Chaevaris, who shot it up at the vampire spawn - and missed the shot, for she was shifting away from Harlan again, who was repositioning tables to try to be able to reach her with his sword. Chaevaris swore again, and Ogilvy started sharpening another arrow for the elf's use.

"I was not aware Father Coletrane was a vampire," Harlan called up to Carly. "Isn't that kind of odd - a cleric of Pelor who's also a vampire?"

"Well, he wasn't a vampire until just recently," Carly admitted. "Some other vampire turned him, and then Father Coletrane turned me. But anyway, let's get back to the point - are you going to give me the Blood Mirror or not?"

Alistair walked into the room, carrying the sack of treasure. "And what does this Blood Mirror look like?" he asked.

"It's a red gemstone. A ruby, I think."

That let Alistair know this vampire girl had never actually seen the Blood Mirror before. Which was all for the best - he rummaged around in the sack until he found a ruby, one much smaller than the one in Harlan's belt pouch and containing no magical properties at all. But if Carly had no idea what the true gem she was after looked like.... "If I give this to you, do you promise not to hurt any of us?" he asked the vampire, whose eyes widened at the apparent sight of her goal. Alistair was just hoping she'd come down here and fetch the ruby so Chaevaris or Harlan could kill her - preferably Chaevaris, because while Harlan's blade could force her into mist form to spend the rest of her evening resting in her coffin, a wooden shaft through the heart would slay her permanently. He set the ruby onto the table before him and stepped away.

Carly took the bait, flowing into mist to return to the floor and then reincorporating to grab up the gem, only to have Chaevaris shoot her in the shoulder with a sharpened arrow shaft and Harlan come racing at her, swinging his flaming blade. But she flinched away at the last moment and his blade slammed into the top of the table, jostling the ruby bait. Furious, she slammed Harlan with the full force of her undead body, sending the paladin reeling off to the side, drained of a bit of his vitality. But that didn't keep him out of the fight; spinning around, he brought his flaming blade in sideways for a cut deep into Carly's side - deep enough that had she been a living foe she'd have been instantly slain. As it was, the attack was enough for Carly to lose control of her undead form, scattering into particles of mist which coalesced into a loose cloud and started flowing through the air to the front doorway, seeping beneath it on her way to her coffin, wherever that might be.

"Do we track her?" asked Chaevaris.

"Track mist at might? No, I'm afraid we've lost her for now," Harlan decided. Then. looking around the room, he asked, "Where's Ageratum?"

Ageratum, at that moment, was in a plush-looking bedroom - one of the best the inn had to offer, she'd wager, with plump pillows on the bed and a puffy blanket of much higher quality than the ones in the other bedrooms she'd seen. But sure enough there was a chest under the bed and when she went to pull it out, it was much heavier than the empty ones they'd discovered thus far. It was locked, too - another good sign. The little halfling gave it a cursory check and didn't see any obvious traps, so she got out her lockpicks and went to work - triggering a non-obvious trap, but fortunately the poisoned needle merely scraped along a thumbnail and was deflected away from her skin. Breathing a sigh of relief that the trap hadn't been any worse than it had been, and deciding she didn't really need finesse so much as brute strength in this instance, she put away her lockpicks, got out her chisel and hammer, and had soon smashed the lock open. Try to poison her, would they?

As she'd hoped, the chest opened to reveal the ceremonial armor they'd handed over to Otto, believing him to be a legitimate priest of the Pelorian order. Harlan would sure be glad to see this in their hands again!

Once Ageratum reunited with the guys and proudly showed them her findings, the group decided to head directly over to the Temple of Pelor and get the armor into the hands of the Archcleric Carol Marduke before anything else happened to it. But when they arrived, it was none other than Bishop Verringer who met them at the door. "Ah, you have recovered the armor!" he said with an obvious sigh of relief. "Her Holiness will be most pleased to see it. Thank you for your efforts in effecting its safe return." He held his hands out to retrieve the armor, but Harlan was having none of it. In fact, he checked the Bishop's aura at once, surprised not to see the stain of evil suffusing it.

"We would prefer to see the armor in the hands of the Archcleric herself, if you don't mind," Harlan replied.

"I will personally see that it reaches her," Verringer promised.

"Forgive us, but I think we'd be foolish to deliver it - once again - into the hands of someone undergoing subterfuge," Alistair piped up. "Shambles confessed you hired him - and his trio of guttersnipe thieves - to steal the armor if and when it arrived, and then you had the misfortune of having them steal it out from underneath you. We intend for the Archpriest to take this armor directly from us, so petty underlings, even those with the title of 'Bishop,' need not be bothered."

Bishop Verringer scowled at the effrontery. "I hardly think the Archcleric--" he sputtered, but was cut off.

"Bishop Verringer," said a voice from behind him, "why don't we allow the Archcleric to speak for herself? What is going on here?" Verringer spun about and blanched at the sight of the Archcleric Carol Marduke stepping into the room, an angry look upon her face. He blanched further to think of how much she'd already heard, and realized there was no way to get out from the accusations to come. His mouth opened and closed several times like a fish as Harlan explained the full story about the ceremonial armor they'd unearthed in a cave, put there by a band of thieves who had subsequently been taken out by an ogre and a dire wolf, and the events that followed as they had attempted to turn the armor in here at the temple. He also told her about Father Coletrane's recent vampire status.

"I see," replied the Archcleric, frowning even harder at Bishop Verringer. "You are hereby restricted to your personal quarters until I decide what to do with you," she advised him. "Do I need to have the temple guards escort you, or do you think you can find your own way? You do realize any attempts to flee will not get you very far; the gaze of Pelor reaches everywhere."

"The guards will not be necessary, Your Holiness," he replied, consigning himself to his fate. He gave a bow, then walked out of the room using the door through which the Archcleric has entered.

"Now then," said the Archcleric to Harlan, "let's see about getting a restoration spell cast upon you. Vampires are terrible things! We will have to do some house cleaning in the low quarter of the city, I see."

- - -

Alistair kept the two masterwork weapons he took from Shambles, keeping the rapier for himself and passing the dagger to Ageratum (for whom it serves as a halfling short sword). Chaevaris's part of the loot went towards the purchase of 10 sleep arrows, but everyone else just kept their cash for now. Harlan's saving up for a pair of boots of striding and springing so he can get back to a 30-foot move speed (he wears heavy armor), and is now less than a thousand gold pieces from his goal.

But one thing we've realized about this campaign: with the Blood Mirror automatically stabilizing everyone within 75 feet who drops into negative hit points, we have the potential to create new, ongoing enemies every single adventure. (Or we become bloodthirsty killers, slitting the throats of those the ruby stabilizes to preclude that from happening.) Dan admits that's an unintended consequence of the ruby's powers, but it's one we'll have to be wary of in the adventures to follow.

With a dozen or more trained fighters returning to Ghourmand Vale with us, it might not be easy to come up with an adventure to challenge such a large group, so Dan might hand wave the return leg and have us start off next adventure already back home. But we'll be skipping next week's session; I'll be out of town on a business trip.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 5 October 2022

- - -

After all the time spent traveling, it was good to make the final turn in the road and see the Stone Keep just ahead. The trip from Mitrek had been uneventful; not surprisingly, nobody really wanted to mess with a caravan of four professional adventurers when they traveled with a contingent of 20 clerics and fighters (all human) in the service of Saint Cuthbert, especially when accompanied by a cleric of considerably more power than even Father Barbados or Brother Scrimshaw. But Father Kilkenny was a decent enough sort - and it was a good thing he was, for once the group made it through the gate and onto the Stone Keep's lands, it soon became apparent the new cleric would be taking over the facility, with Barbados kept on as his second-in-command. The new security team was to bunk upstairs in the upper level of the Keep, and they ran up the stairs in the building's center to pick out who'd be sleeping in which bunkrooms.

"Farmer Stout's been by, just this mornin'," Father Barbados informed the adventurers once they had unpacked. "I told 'im I'd sent ye all his way once ye got back - seems 'e's 'ad a bit o' bother with some sorta varmint gettin' into 'is crops, tearin' down 'is nut trees, an' th' like."

"It's pretty late," Chaevaris observed. "If we're to be hunting down a large animal, it might be best to get a start fresh in the morning. Hunting large game can be considerably more dangerous in the dark."

"I quite agree," Alistair added, although in his case it was merely because he relished an evening not spent in the saddle, if he could help it. Adventuring could be dreadfully exciting and dashing and all, but darned if it didn't take a toll on one's bottom! But fortunately, the others agreed and the four were allowed to spend the night in the Keep. Chaevaris promised to wake them all up at sunrise. And sure enough, the elf did exactly that, to the assorted grumblings of Ageratum and Alistair, at least - Harlan made no complaints, merely gathering up his armor and getting ready for another day spent aiding others in need. They gathered up some food to eat on the road and they were off, sending their mounts running off in the direction of the Stout farm, an hour or so from the Keep at the speed of a good horse.

When they arrived, they could see the devastation quite readily. Trees were knocked over, fifteen at least, so the fruits or nuts from the upper branches could be more readily devoured. And the gardens were a mess, with uprooted vegetables missing from their even rows. There were deep hoofprints in the dirt around the gardens and large, smelly droppings - enough to let Chaevaris know exactly what it was they were dealing with. "Dire boar," the archer declared. "A large one, too. And here, tracks of a smaller one as well, perhaps a piglet - but one the size of a fully-grown pig of the type you'd find on a farm."

"Are they dangerous?" asked Ageratum.

"Very much so," Chaevaris answered her. "They have exceedingly bed tempers and will often fight on after having suffered mortal wounds." The archer squinted in the morning sunshine, looking at the trail of devastation the dire boar had left behind. "Well, tracking it shouldn't be too difficult, at least. Come on, let's go!" Leaping back up onto Talkacha's saddle, the archer pulled on the horse's reins and set off in the direction the tracks led, the other three mounted heroes falling into line behind.

After nearly an hour on the trail, Chaevaris held up a hand, signaling for the others to hold up. "We're near," the wood elf declared quietly, nodding toward a clump of wild plum thickets. The others strained their ears and were able to pick up what the archer's elven senses had already heard: a low grunting and squealing coming from the other side of the thicket. Ahead, the trees thickened to the edge of a forest, leading up a slope to the hills above.

"Ambrose, if you please," Alistair told his familiar, who had been perched upon the young sorcerer's shoulder. Without a moment's pause, the grackle took flight, rising up to where he could see above the thicket. Alistair hadn't yet bonded with his familiar to the point where they could talk back and forth to each other, but he was well aware he'd be able to sense the bird's stronger emotions, like fear for his master if there was anything ready to pounce on him. (While in Mitrek, Alistair had searched out a temple of Boccob, God of Magic, and had a nice chat with the clerics there about how exactly sorcerers worked, and as a result had a much better understanding of his role in the adventuring world. It was, quite frankly, embarrassing to recall he had assumed he was a truly masterful wizard savant to be able to cast spells without need of a spellbook; it turned out sorcerers just were a more natural, instinctive type of spellcaster, not any better than a wizard but simply approaching spellcasting from a different angle.)

The other side of the thicket, as Alistair found for himself as he urged Zephyr forward up the slope, was a mass of mud before a hillside - but one with an open door in the side of the hill, into which the sorcerer could see the back half of a boar walking as boldly as you please. The door was of a normal size for a human, so Alistair had no doubt this was the dire boar piglet, not the full-grown model - which, as Chaevaris had pointed out from the size of the hoofprints left behind, simply would not be able to fit through a human-sized doorway.

But before Alistair could dismount and follow the pig into the doorway, there was a crashing sound from further up the hill. It was the sound of toppling trees, accompanied by snuffling and grunting; the dire boar had apparently become aware of the heroes' approach. All thoughts of the dire boar offspring were left behind as Alistair wheeled Zephyr around to face this much more deadly threat. Ageratum urged her pony Munson up beside Alistair, a kobold spear held before her like a lance, ready to stab into the dire boar as soon as it made itself visible - which, if the increasing sounds of trees being pushed aside were any indicator, would be any moment now.

On the other side of Zephyr came Law, who stopped as his master unsheathed his flaming burst longsword and prepared it for action. Chaevaris dismounted from Talkacha, an arrow already notched in the magic longbow and now being aimed at the sounds of the approaching, angry dire boar.

With a final clump of trees being thrust out of the way by a pair of tusks larger than could be easily believed, the dire boar made its presence known. Alistair's face paled; he'd heard Chaevaris describing the fearsome disposition of a dire boar but no words could give justice to the monster trotting before the young sorcerer. But before Alistair could make a move of any sort, Ageratum sprang into action. Her kobold spear went back and then was thrown with as much force as the little halfling could muster. It hit the dire boar on the right side of its massive head, burying itself in the tough hide between a multitude of sharp-looking tusks that sprouted from the beast's mouth. Chaevaris's arrow likewise went flashing by, but to the archer's disappointment it went bouncing off the monster's rough skin.

Alistair finally found his courage, shaking off the trembling fear the creature's sudden appearance had caused. Urging Zephyr a few steps back out of range - steps the light horse was more than willing to take - the sorcerer sent a magic missile spell streaking from his fingers, the twin darts flying across the gap and striking the monster boar in the snout. Ageratum threw another spear, this one also sticking out of the boar's side like a harpooned whale, while she steered Munson back out of immediate harm's way.

Harlan took a more hands-on approach; dismounting from Law a safe distance away (not wanting any harm to come to his pure white mount), he charged the dire boar from its left side, bringing his flaming blade down in an overhead arc that buried the blade deep into the dire boar's side. But such reckless actions had consequences; while Chaevaris lined up another arrow, trying to hit it in a crippling area like an eye, the boar retaliated against Harlan's attack, butting him with a head that weighed more than the half-elf in his full armor, the strike simultaneously causing a half-dozen tusks to slash the Pelorian paladin. Just that quickly, Harlan was down, out, and bleeding profusely - and it was only the magic aid of the Blood Mirror in his belt pouch that caused the deep gashes from the monster pig's tusks to close up and stabilize the paladin, a scant few moments from death's door.

Alistair fired off another volley of two magic missiles, unerringly striking the dire boar's side while fervently coaxing Zephyr to approach the monster, hoping to entice the boar away from Harlan even if it meant providing his own horse as a (hopefully) more enticing target. Despite his own self-image as a brave adventurer, Alistair found his left leg - the one closest to the dire boar - rising up Zephyr's side in an unconscious effort to prevent himself from being gored by the ferocious creature's tusks.

Kicking Munson into action, Ageratum rode around the dire boar, keeping their distance from the maddened beast until they were directly behind it and out of its field of vision - and then she struck, bending forward and stabbing her magic short sword into the beast's hindquarters. It squealed in pain at this unexpected attack.

Chaevaris released another arrow, which buried itself in the creature's skull, midway between its eyes but a little higher than the elf had hoped for. Still, the result of the shot couldn't be cause for much complaint, for the dire boar's eyes crossed, then rolled up in its head as it fell over to the ground, dead, with the sound of a fallen boulder crashing during an avalanche.

In a flash, Ageratum was down out of Munson's saddle, pulling Harlan's head onto her lap and unstoppering a potion of cure moderate wounds. Carefully, she poured the vial's contents down into the paladin's mouth, careful not to go too fast lest the liquid healing get coughed out in a choking fit. But the potion did its work, healing up the worst of Harlan's wounds, enough that he was soon able to sit up on his own and use his innate ability to lay on hands, channeling a small bit of Pelor's healing energy into his own damaged body. "Thank you," he told the little halfling, before applying a single charge from his wand of cure light wounds to finish up the healing Ageratum had started with her potion.

"Think nothing of it," Ageratum said. "It's in my own best interests to keep our main source of healing from getting croaked!"

"I say!" remarked Alistair. "Shall we see where the little pig went?" He climbed down out of Zephyr's saddle and instructed Ambrose to keep an eye on the mounts for him. But Chaevaris was already checking on the pig's whereabouts, walking through the doorway and stepping into a dimly-lit cellar. There were eight barrels off to the right-hand side, two rows of four, while to the left was a pen of some sort filled with piles of straw. A set of double doors stood on the opposite wall, but there was no pig to be seen.

Alistair walked into the cellar beside Chaevaris and intoned, "Ogilvy, if you please!" At once, the unseen servant Alistair now knew to be nothing more than a spell effect (but privately still felt like it could be the spirit of his childhood servant) manifested by his side. Chaevaris passed over a bullseye lantern, which Ogilvy lit and held aloft, passing the beam of light from one side of the cellar to the other.

"There!" called out Alistair, looking at the dirt-packed wall on the far side of the room, past the barrels. Dirt was spilling out of the wall, as if something were digging its way into the cellar. "Keep the light focused right there!" Alistair ordered, readying another magic missile spell if the thing that popped out of the wall turned out to look menacing. Harlan and Ageratum, in the meantime, examined the double doors to the north. "I don't see any traps," the little rogue informed the paladin. She reached up and turned the handle quite easily. "Not locked, either," she observed. Pushing the door open, she saw a short hallway, empty until the far end, which ended in a spiral stairway leading up to a higher level of the building - not surprising, given the room behind them was a cellar. Judging by the slope of the hillside, Ageratum decided the building wasn't entirely buried in the side of a hill; the upper level - or levels - likely rose up out of the ground of the hill. Unfortunately, with the growth of trees leading up to the edge of the hill, any such building was all but hidden from the muddy patch just outside the cellar door.

Chaevaris backed up by the pen, arrow aimed at the dirt patch growing larger in the side of the wall. And was it the elf's imagination, or did that look like a tentacle that popped out of the wall, before grabbing a clump of dirt and rock and pulling it inside the hole? "Get ready!" the archer warned the others.

Alistair, who had gotten bored waiting for some unknown creature to dig its way into the cellar, took the opportunity to pop the top off of the nearest barrel and peek inside. That was a mistake, for the reek that came out of the barrel just about set the sorcerer's eyes watering and the gorge rise in the back of his throat, as the stench of rotting meat wafted across the room. Slamming the lid back in place, Alistair focused his attention back on the emerging intruder from the cellar's dirt wall. Ogilvy stepped onto a barrel to be out of the way, still focusing the beam of light from Chaevaris's lantern on the side wall. Harlan, by this time, had returned from the stairwell (leaving Ageratum there to listen to see if she could hear anything from the level above), and positioned himself ready to strike with his flaming blade at whatever popped out of the wall. Instinctively, he cast his senses forth to see if he could detect any evil coming from the dirt hole, but he picked up no such sensations. Still, he knew full well a lack of evil did not mean a lack of danger; the dire boar they'd fought outside was a good example, for it had not been evil yet it had almost killed him.

Ageratum, sitting on the bottom step, heard a whisper coming from upstairs. "The real treasure's in the room to the west upstairs," it said. "Just come take it." But the words were too clear in her head to have been a whispered voice from the level above; Ageratum realized this was some sort of magic at work, and thus some sort of ploy - a trap to get her separated from the party, perhaps?

The creature finally emerged from the hole it had dug in the cellar wall. At first, Harlan thought it was a nest of snakes all writhing together, and the shock caused him to miss with his sword-strike. He stepped back to avoid being bitten, and it was only then, in the light of Chaevaris's bullseye lantern, that the half-elf realized his mistake, for those weren't serpents emerging from the hole, they were tentacles attached to an insectoid head, which itself was mounted upon a greenish body like that of a giant cutworm. Harlan had heard of such creatures: carrion crawlers, they were called, and their tentacles were said to contain a powerful neurotoxin that froze its victims into temporary paralysis.

Alistair had never heard of carrion crawlers, but he didn't like the look of giant worm-creatures with waving tentacles on their faces and he let his magic missile spell cross the gap between them and blast into the head of the emerging beast as it crawled from the hole it had dug. Harlan stepped up behind the creature and swung again at the grub-thing, but its many legs allowed it to skitter off to the side in just enough time for the sword-blow to come up short. Alistair fired off another magic missile spell, knowing full well that particular spell was pretty much guaranteed to hit its target, and it did, this time blasting the creature in the side as it turned to face Harlan, tentacles writhing wildly. Ageratum opened the double doors and returned to the cellar about then, not wanting to be the target of any more whispered spells, and saw the commotion with the giant worm-thing. She stepped into the room just in time to see Chaevaris's arrow go flying across the side of the room, to miss the carrion crawler entirely and embed itself into the side of the dirt wall from which the creature had emerged.

With a sudden burst of speed, the carrion crawler was upon Harlan, paralytic tentacles slamming into the paladin wherever they could. But fortunately most of the tentacles hit nothing but Harlan's armor, and the helpless paralysis the half-elf had feared did not come to pass. But then another pair of magic missiles came dashing across the room to bury themselves in the monster's flank, and with a final shiver, the carrion crawler fell onto the dirt floor of the cellar, quite dead.

"Well done, Alistair!" said Harlan. "You managed to kill the thing on your own!"

"I reckon so," admitted the young sorcerer, pulling the light crossbow from his back and setting a bolt into place. "I'm rather afraid, though, that was the last of the magic missile spells I shall be able to muster up today. From here on in, it's crossbow bolts or my trusty rapier." Before they moved on from the cellar, Alistair took a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his nose, then, warning the others, had Ogilvy open the lids to each of the other seven barrels. One never knew, seven of them might indeed be nothing more than rotting meat but the eighth could well be filled with diamonds or something.... But no, all eight were filled with rotting meat, and the combined stench more or less forced the heroes over to the double doors and the short corridor ending in the stairs spiraling upwards. It was the only way forward, Chaevaris not having found any secret passages in the cellar or stairway chamber.

"I say, whatever happened to that pig I saw entering the cellar?" Alistair wondered aloud. "It couldn't have opened the doors on its own and there's nowhere else it could have gotten to in here." Chaevaris looked inside the pen and there, laying in the straw, was the head of a chicken. Bending down to pick it up, the archer noted with puzzlement it was made of solid stone, and it was either the work of a master craftsman or it was an actual chicken's head somehow turned to stone. But there was nowhere in the piles of hay inside the pen for the pig to be hiding, so the elf dropped the petrified head back onto the straw and joined the others in the hallway leading to the stairs.

Ageratum warned the guys about the whispered enticements she'd heard. "It would seem there is a spellcaster about," Harlan declared. "Let's see what the level above shows us." He mounted the stairs, the other three following behind him. There was a door at the top of the stairs; opening it, Harlan saw another door off to his left, a set of bookshelves along the northwestern corner, a broken summoning circle on the floor over to the right, a worktable along the southern wall, and a fireplace on the east wall on the other side of the summoning circle. Other than that, the place was empty. The spiral stairs continued on to the half-elf's left, rising up to another level above.

After Ogilvy sent the lantern crossing back and forth across the room, Chaevaris went over to the closed door and gave it an attentive listen. There were scratching noises coming from the other side, almost as if a chicken were walking around in the room beyond. Motioning toward the others, and getting Ogilvy to hold the lantern towards the door so the light would spill into the other room once the door was opened, Chaevaris turned the handle and pushed the door open. Inside, there was nothing but a series of crates, five in all, although there was a bird of some sort, with a comb like that of a rooster, behind one of the crates in the northwest corner of the room; the top of its head visible above the crate. "Brrk!" the bird sounded in irritation, aware of the intruders.

Chaevaris stepped up upon the nearest crate, readied arrow already pointed in the bird's direction. Then Ageratum charged into the room with her magical short sword in hand. She wasted no time, ducking behind the row of crates to the north and attacking the hideous bird. And it was quite hideous, with a long, drooping tail of wilting feathers dragging behind it and features more reminiscent of a reptile than a bird. The halfling's blade opened a gash across the side of the bird's head, ending when the weapon dragged across the bird's beak. It squawked in pain and snapped ineffectually at the nimble halfling. Then it moved across the room, escaping from Ageratum's blade and heading closer to Chaevaris.

With Ogilvy shifting the beam of light directly on the cockatrice, Alistair sent a crossbow bolt shooting across the room at it. Despite his best efforts, the bolt went high, darting over the beast's head and clattering off the side wall. Chaevaris's shot likewise missed the beast by a hair. Then Harlan was upon it, his flaming blade cutting deep into the creature's side. While it spun to face the paladin, Ageratum ran up behind it and stabbed it just above one meaty thigh, just as its beak got a grip on Harlan, causing his hand to temporarily go numb at the site of the bite. The half-elf could feel a sort of paralytic effect try to take hold of him but was able to shrug it off. He didn't realize the cockatrice's major claim to fame was its unearthly ability to turn those it bit into stone; it had no doubt been responsible for the lifelike chicken head Chaevaris had found down in the straw-filled pit in the cellar.

Fortunately, Alistair's next crossbow bolt was right on target, striking the cockatrice in the back of the head before it could try to turn any of the other heroes to stone. With a final squawk of outrage, the creature fell to the floor, dead. Harlan opened the nearest crate, finding nothing but dried-out herbs and the like. There was also a door on the western wall; opening it, the paladin saw it led outside into the forest - it looked like Ageratum had been correct and the two-story house was in fact mostly aboveground, shielded from view by the thick forest of trees around it.

Alistair returned back to the main room, casting a detect magic on himself, for he had seen a few vials of liquid among the books on the shelves. A few of these turned out to be magical in nature: a vial of silversheen and another of stone salve. But as nothing else in the room contained a magical aura, the group jointly decided to head on upstairs to the top level of the building.

The top floor was one large, open room, with a smaller, closet-sized room sticking out from the middle of the south wall to break up the outer room into two distinct halves. Harlan saw a four-poster bed with its draperies closed directly ahead, a desk and chair off to the left, and a fireplace along the eastern wall. Mewling noises were coming from behind the bed-curtains, followed by the occasional yip.

Ageratum strolled boldly into the room, heading directly for the desk. She gave it a cursory check for any obvious traps and then, seeing none, she opened the bottom drawer. It contained sheets of unused parchment and a bottle of ink, nothing untoward. But from her vantage point she could see a vanity along the northeastern corner of the room, to the left of the unlit fireplace. She wondered what all it might contain and decided she'd check it out after searching the rest of the desk.

But then, stepping up in front of the fireplace from its resting place to the south (and out of view from those in the doorway by the stairs, for the smaller room blocked the line of sight), stood a gray-furred wolf. It had a collar around its neck, from which dangled a pouch of black leather. Ageratum's brow furrowed in puzzlement, for the collar indicated the wolf was some sort of pet but most pets didn't carry pouches around their neck. Was it a pouch of material components and the wolf a shapeshifting wizard? Worse yet, were they trespassing into the home of a werewolf? In any case, Ageratum shouted out, "Wolf!" to her companions, pointing to where the creature had just appeared for the benefit of those still in the stairwell who couldn't yet see its location.

Harlan stepped fully into the room, scanning for evil emanations. Oddly enough, the wolf's aura had no source of evil surrounding it, although there was a definite miasma of evil coming from the bed's shrouded interior. After Harlan pointed out his observations to the others, Chaevaris advanced upon the bed and pulled aside the draperies, using the tip of the longbow to do so. Sure enough, the mewling and yipping sounds had come from a half-dozen wolf pups, newly-born by the looks of them. And although they were as cute as any puppies the elf had ever seen, these could only be the source of the evil Harlan had sensed.

Alistair held his light crossbow trained on the wolf, ready to fire if it made any sudden moves. But it just stood there, looking back at the sorcerer as if daring him to fire. Then, without seemingly have moved a muscle, the wolf somehow sent a wave of crushing despair flowing over Alistair, Chaevaris, and Ageratum; Harlan had been shielded by his position on the other side of the bed. Alistair and Ageratum took the full force of the spell, whereas Chaevaris felt the spell's attack but managed to mentally fend it off.

However, that was all it took for Alistair to continue on with his planned attack - he knew full well from a childhood of fairy stories that wolves were not to be trusted. He shot the wolf with his light crossbow, but under the effects of the crushing despair spell the bolt went wide, hitting the fireplace interior and causing a puff of soot and ashes to be expelled in a little cloud. The wolf didn't even move, but its lupine muzzle seemed to be laughing at the flustered sorcerer. "I say!" Alistair fumed. "Light up the wolf, Ogilvy, if you please!" Ogilvy responded by training the bullseye lantern directly upon the wolf, putting a spotlight upon it in a way.

It was at this point that Grubbins attacked.

The imp seemed to suddenly materialize in the air behind Harlan, stabbing at the paladin with a scorpion-tipped tail stinger. In reality, he'd been hanging on the ceiling, invisibly, directly above the doorway to the stairs when the heroes showed up, and thus had been behind Harlan when he scanned the room for evil. Fortunately, the stinger hit Harlan's armor and was directed away, but the sudden attack alerted the half-elf to the imp's presence and he spun about, swinging his flaming burst longsword at the winged fiend. The blade cut deep into the imp's side, causing him to screech and swear in Infernal. Ageratum raced up and swung at the imp from behind, but missed - it was still in mid-flight and was currently too high up for the little halfling to reach.

Still without moving a muscle but keeping its eyes glued directly upon Alistair's, the wolf directed a charm monster spell at the young sorcerer. "I say!" erupted Alistair, having successfully fended off the mental attack and incensed at the effrontery of the wolf at having tried to make of him a mere puppet, to be moved around at the wolf's every whim. But then the wolf finally moved, loping back to the south and out of immediate view, hidden behind the smaller room projecting into the larger one.

Harlan channeled holy energy into his flaming burst longsword for a smiting attack, but the wounded imp managed to aerially dodge the blow. Chaevaris sent an arrow shooting up at the little devil, but it too missed its mark. Alistair, seeing the trouble the imp was causing the others, sent an acid splash spell its way, but he had no better luck and the spell hit the ceiling instead of the flying fiend.

However, Grubbins didn't like his chances against four determined adventurers and called out in the Common tongue, "Wait! I'll help you -- don't kill me!" Ageratum tried hitting the aerial imp as he bargained, telling him what at least what her thoughts were on the subject. Fortunately for Grubbins, her sword missed its mark. But in avoiding her sword the imp had failed to keep track of Harlan's, and the paladin cut him down out of the air to fall lifelessly to the floor, its little torso cut nearly in half. It was quite obviously even the stabilizing effect of the Blood Mirror wasn't going to do anything to keep Grubbins from death - the imp was already fully dead. Just to be sure, though, Ageratum stabbed her sword directly between the imp's eyes, erasing any doubts on the matter.

Chaevaris raced over to the fireplace, expecting to see the wolf there to the south, but there was only another vanity in the southeastern corner, a mirror image of the one to the northeast. "It's invisible!" hazarded the wood elf, pulling out a handful of caltrops and scattering them on the floor directly ahead.

Alistair pulled out his rapier and advanced upon the bed full of puppies. "Show yourself!" he demanded of the invisible wolf. "Or I shall start killing your puppies!" To show he meant it, he allowed the point of his weapon to stab at the nearest puppy's unprotected chest; while he had expected the point to pierce the soft fur and at least bring forth a drop of blood for effect, the weapon was deflected away from the puppy's flesh by a hide much tougher than the sorcerer would have believed.

Harlan observed the helpless puppy's tough flesh avoid damage from a masterwork rapier and suddenly everything fell into place. "Barghests!" he exclaimed. "That's not a wolf--it's a barghest!"

"Whatever is a barghest?" demanded Alistair.

"Foul fiends from the Lower Planes," explained Harlan quickly. "They can take the forms of wolves or goblins! And it explains the spellcasting!"

But Ageratum wasn't about to let inherently tough fiend-skin stop them. Pushing Alistair aside, she gathered up the ends of the blanket the barghest pups were lying upon and folded it up into a makeshift sack of squirming puppies, lugging the wriggling mass onto her back. She wasn't sure what she was going to do with them just yet, but at least she had them all corralled together. The puppies, in the meantime, seemed to think this was some sort of game and yipped and yapped in delight.

The barghest suddenly appeared behind Harlan, biting at him with her powerful jaws, but they failed to close upon him as she had intended. Harlan, for his part, was surprised at the barghest's sudden appearance from the stairwell, unaware that the barghest had never been invisible at all; once she'd been out of view from the others she had used a dimension door spell effect to reposition herself on the spiral staircase, out of sight. Harlan instinctively swung his flaming blade at the wolflike beast, but missed.

Chaevaris shot an arrow successfully into the barghest's shoulder, but was able to tell the creature's fiendish nature allowed her to shrug off the worst of the damage inflicted. "Bitch!" swore the elf, realizing the word had two meanings in this case and both of them were equally applicable.

By then, Alistair had belatedly recalled the stack of spell scrolls he'd purchased earlier, before their trek to Mitrek to fetch members of the Saint Cuthbertian faith to man the Stone Keep. He kept them in two stacks, rolled up into one of two scroll cases, separated into "attack" and "non-attack" spells. Unrolling the scrolls from the former case, Alistair read off the words to a magic missile spell and sent two glowing darts flying from his fingertips and into the barghest's side. He was dismayed to see the words to the scroll were now gone; apparently that part of spellcasting was true, even for sorcerers from the upper classes. Bummer!

"Back off, or your puppies suffer!" Ageratum warned, swinging her bag of barghest pups into the wall for good measure. She imagined any new mother would back off of combat to protect her own offspring, but in this supposition the halfling was sadly imposing her own views onto that of a fiend from the Lower Planes; the barghest cared only for her own continued existence and increase in power and any number of those puppies she'd recently birthed might very well have ended up as a future meal for her. The puppies, in the meantime, thought this was all kinds of fun and squealed in delight with each blow from being slammed into the wall.

With a growl of hatred, the barghest threw herself upon Harlan, biting him with her wicked fangs and raking him with her sharp claws. The damage was enough to force the half-elf to momentarily step away from the fight, using a charge from his wand of cure light wounds to keep him in the fight long enough to see this beast destroyed. Chaevaris sent a special sleep arrow - one of ten purchased in Mitrek - slamming into the barghest; while the arrow made its mark the sleep effect failed to materialize, the fiendish wolf-thing apparently able to shrug off the effects.

Flipping through his attack spell scrolls, Alistair next tried a shocking grasp spell. But the only shock coming about as a result was the one Alistair got when the still-nimble beast successfully avoided his outstretched hand long enough for the spell to fizzle away to nothingness. "Oh, bother!" grumbled the sorcerer.

Seeing her threats - and wall-slams - were getting her nowhere, Ageratum dropped the bundle of barghest puppies and pulled her magic short sword back out from its scabbard. She swiped at the barghest with her blade, but missed. The wolf-fiend retaliated against the halfling, snapping at her with her fangs and clawing at her as well, but the damage she'd taken thus far was starting to take its toll and only one set of claws went raking across Ageratum's armor. And then Harlan finished it off with a second smite evil attack channeled through his flaming burst longsword, the flames erupting in full force as the strike hit true. The barghest yelped in pain for the first time and then was silent - small wonder, the others noted, as her decapitated head went bounding across the room. The barghest's now-headless body collapsed on the floor.

Ageratum was there in a flash, easily pulling the collar from the stump of a neck and reaching inside to see what was stored in the leather pouch. It was a diamond, about an inch and a half in diameter. After casting another detect magic spell, Alistair confirmed the diamond had an aura of transmutation magic. Intuiting the smaller room jutting from the south wall could very well hold the treasure of whoever lived here, the halfling opened the door and was surprised to see a sunken, marble tub in the middle of the room. But Alistair confirmed the tub was likewise magical in nature, and the four receptacles along one edge of the tub's surface, each the proper size to hold the magical diamond, convinced her the gemstone she held in her hand was some sort of key. Experimentation proved that placing the diamond in the blue receptacle caused the tub to start filling up with cold water, but once she removed the gem the water receded. The red receptacle did the same trick, but with hot water; the white one caused water of room temperature to begin to fill the tub. But while all of this was interesting, it was the black one that sent the halfling into paroxysms of laughter and unbridled joy, for that was the setting that caused the tub to open into an extradimensional space where the wizard who had once lived here - and who had been devoured by the barghest after a bungled summoning spell downstairs brought forth a different creature than the one intended - had stored his treasures. Said treasures included a rod of wonder, an immovable rod, a ring of protection more powerful than the one Alistair wore, a set of bracers of armor identical in strength to the ones worn by both Alistair and Ageratum, and the wizard's spellbook - to say nothing of the coins and gems valued at a combined total of 20,000 pieces of gold. "Wee hee!" chortled Ageratum, flinging handfuls of coins in the air.

"We'll need to pull all of this out of here," Harlan observed. "And we'll probably have to return to the Stout farm to see if we can borrow a wagon to bring it all back with us to Ghourmand Vale."

"Indeed," agreed Alistair.

"We'll need a large wagon and four heavy horses to get the dire boar back to the Stouts," Chaevaris added. "And that's even after I field dress it, taking only the meat."

"I imagine that's true," agreed Harlan.

"We'd best be about it, then," advised Chaevaris, making to join Ageratum in the extradimensional treasure vault to start hauling the valuables out into the bedroom.

"Hold up a moment," Harlan advised, placing a hand upon the elven archer's arm. "Let's give her a minute or two to play with the riches first."

"Whatever for?" asked Chaevaris, frowning and not understanding the reason for the delay.

"You know, I don't think I've ever seen Miss Purslane so happy before," observed Alistair, watching the little halfling joyfully throw another handful of coins in the air to watch them fall to the piles all around her.

"That's why," Harlan told Chaevaris, and even the practical wood elf had to agree.

- - -

This was a fun but frustrating adventure to run through: fun because it was well-written, had a few mysteries that were fully explained at the end (such as where did the "dire boar piglet" go? - it was the imp in an alternate form) and an opportunity to fight some creatures we'd never fought before; frustrating because about halfway through the session our players' dice all decided to universally betray us. Seriously, we went through an awful lot of single-digit results in a row on our respective d20s, while Dan's dice were doing their best job of sucking up to the DM and providing him with successful crit after crit. I was seriously concerned we might meet up with our first PC death when Harry's d20 suddenly had a "Wait a minute--what am I doing?" crisis of faith moment and provided him with a confirmed critical hit using his last smite evil attack with a +1 flaming burst longsword, which ended up dealing a whopping 41 points of damage in one attack.

But the amount of treasure was well above standard, and on top of it we all made it to 4th level after the adventure was over. (Alistair finally gets scorching ray - that's worthy of a "Wee hee!" from me!) I'm thinking of taking Alistair's share of the treasure and purchasing a CL 9th wand of magic missiles - 50 doses of 5d4+5 points of force damage per round ought to (hopefully) hold him until he's powerful enough to do that much damage with the spell on his own.

And yes, we drowned the barghest puppies in the tub once we had cleared out the vault. That particular fact isn't likely to be mentioned in the bard songs Alistair hopes will one day be sung about this band of heroes (even if he has to write them himself); nobody wants to be branded as a "Puppy Killer," no matter how inherently evil the infant barghests might have been.

We'll be skipping next week's session, as this time Dan will be out of town all week. And there's a chance I'll be out of town the following week, so we'll have to see how things go. It might not be until 26 October until our next Ghourmand Vale session.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 4​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 4​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 4​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 4​

Game Session Date: 2 November 2022

- - -

"Me?" Alistair asked, a confused look crossing his features. "There's someone here to see me?" His brow furrowed as he struggled to come up with who would be here at the Stouts' farmhouse, specifically looking for him - nobody from his old life knew he was here, and those who knew him in Ghourmand Vale would likely be looking for the group of adventurers as a whole, not just the young sorcerer. Unless...could it be the bard Holyrood Carp, come to take him up on his offer to write songs for him to sing in the taverns? Excitedly, Alistair rose from the breakfast table while Mr. Stout, returning from the front door, replied with what he knew.

"An older gentleman, an older lady, and a young woman, all arriving in a carriage," he said. "And the young lady seems to be rather far along in the family way."

"And she's looking for you?" demanded Ageratum, her eyes goggling in disbelief and her mouth hanging open. "Alistair - did you get some young lady pregnant?"

"What? No, no I never - that is, I wouldn't - I, ah," stumbled the nobleman, now very much concerned about just who these visitors might be. His face reddened at Ageratum's suggestion, as he vacillated between the conflicting desires of explaining how that was simply impossible and not wanting to have to admit to having had absolutely no experience in such carnal matters. He finally decided to stop talking altogether, lest his puzzled tongue betray him.

Stumbling to the door, he saw several familiar faces. Standing at the side of the carriage was none other than Brother Scrimshaw, the Cuthbertian cleric the group had traveled with on the 19-day journey from Greyhawk City to Ghourmand Vale those many months ago. His back was turned as he helped down the two ladies from the carriage. The first was a girl about Alistair's own age, her belly quite visibly swollen with the life she carried within - and had been doing so for at least seven, if not eight months already, by the look of things. Alistair was quite certain he'd never seen her before in her life and was somewhat concerned this was some sort of money-making scam, for he'd heard it somewhat common for an unwed mother of the lower classes to try to blame her pregnancy on a nobleman, in the hopes of marrying into a rich family or at the very least being paid off to go far, far away. But then Brother Scrimshaw helped her traveling companion down from the carriage, and it was Alistair's turn to stand slack-jawed, for there before him stood Nanny Rogers, the woman who had raised him since birth.

"Nanny?" Alistair croaked, puzzled at her abrupt appearance all the way out here, 19 days distant from Greyhawk City. But then suddenly everything snapped into place. "Father's forgiven me!" he exclaimed, unable to keep the glee from his voice. "You've come to bring me back home, to the family!"

"No, dear," replied Nanny Rogers sadly. "I'm afraid you know your father - once his mind has been made up, there's very little chance of him ever changing it." Alistair frowned dejectedly, disappointed that he was still an outcast from his own family, and then angry at himself for having gotten his hopes up in the first place.

He quickly recovered; he didn't need his family and had proven quite well he could survive without their money. "Then what brings you here?" he asked. "And who, may I ask, is this?" he continued, approaching the pregnant young lady. His suspicions about a scam had subsided; surely Nanny Rogers would have no part in such a foul deed! "Alistair," he said by way of introduction, taking the young lady's hand.

"This is Julianna Montjoie," Nanny Rogers replied on the young lady's behalf. "Your brother's wife." That brought Alistair's face back to a slack-jawed configuration, if only for a moment before he comported himself in a way more better fitting a young aristocrat. "Then you're my sister-in-law," he reasoned aloud. Glancing down at her extended belly, he added, "And I'm going to be an uncle!" This was all happening too quickly for the young man, but he belatedly remembered his obligations. "Please, come inside, you must both be tired from your journey."

Mrs. Stout offered up some breakfast refreshments to the two visitors; Brother Scrimshaw thanked the farmer's wife but declined her offerings. He sat in the corner while Nanny Rogers explained why the two of them were here. "Things have changed since you left Greyhawk City," she began. "Your father has started winding down from his business engagements, allowing your brother Atherton to step into the leadership role. And there has been a new rival rising up, attempting to take over some of the family's business dealings. So far, Atherton has managed to fend them off, but they're a bit on the cutthroat side of things, and he decided it would be best if Julianna were far from harm's way."

"But all the way here at Ghourmand Vale?" asked Alistair. "How did you - or Atherton - know I was even here?"

"We didn't, dear," Nanny Rogers explained patiently. "Atherton has some money put into a finishing school out this way: The Home for Castaway Girls, on the outskirts of your Ghourmand Vale. He felt that would be a good place for Julianna to remain safe, while all of these business rivalries ran their course. We stopped at a stone keep for directions, ran into this helpful young cleric here" - Brother Scrimshaw nodded his head in acknowledgement - "and when we mentioned the Pastlethwaite name, he offered up he knew where you were staying. We therefore thought it best to seek you out, not only to see how you were faring but also to ask you to escort us to the finishing school."

"By all means," Alistair agreed. "We'd be more than happy to accompany you on the remainder of your journey. Here, allow me to make the introductions of my fellow adventurers - I'm an adventurer now, you know! This is Chaevaris, an elven archer - just like Elfy Danger Silverleaf!" Chaeveris's eyes rolled in exasperation as Alistair continued on with the introductions. "This is Harlan, a paladin of Pelor - I'm sure even father would approve of me spending time with a paladin. And this is Ageratum: she's a halfling from the Fairylands!" The young nobleman couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. "We're all Trained, Professional Adventurers," he boasted.

"That's very nice, dear," Nanny Rogers assured him, finishing up the cup of honey-sweetened tea Mrs. Stout had provided her. "But, if you feel ready to continue our journey, Juli? We've apparently only a few more hours to go."

"Yes, all right," Julianna agreed, heaving herself up from the chair in which she was sitting comfortably.

"I'll ride with you in the carriage!" Alistair declared as the adventurers gathered up their gear. Brother Scrimshaw agreed to ride Alistair's horse Zephyr; they'd be dropping him back off at the Stone Keep on the way to The Home for Castaway Girls, after which time Harlan had agreed Zephyr's reins could be tied to the back of the saddle of his own mount, Law. Alistair chattered almost non-stop during the trip, asking Nanny Rogers about things that had transpired back home since his abrupt removal from the family. He also learned more about his sister-in-law; she'd married Atherton shortly after Alistair had left, and at her husband's suggestion was traveling under her maiden name so as not to draw attention to her status as a member of the Pastlethwaite family. And no, Nanny Rogers hadn't brought any of the "Elfy" books with her; she patiently explained to her former charge that she had not expected to have run into him during their travels.

"Oh well, more's the pity," sighed Alistair. "I'm sure Chaevaris would enjoy reading them."

When they arrived at The Home for Castaway Girls (after saying their farewells to Brother Scrimshaw at the Stone Keep), Alistair was amazed at its elaborate construction. This wasn't some hastily-slapped-together building like so much of Ghourmand Vale's architecture; the building had quite evidently been in place for a century or more, and built with an eye for detail. The structure rose up two full stories with what was likely an attic section at the very top. After helping Nanny Rogers and Julianna from the carriage (and what a treat riding in luxury in a carriage again had been, after all of his experiences as a "wagon lackey!") and tying the horses' reins to the tethering post out front, Alistair stepped up to the double doors and knocked loudly. "Just walk right in, dear," suggested Nanny Rogers, opening the door and doing just that. There was a reception hall at the front of the building, with another set of double doors straight ahead and larger rooms at either end: a classroom to the west and a lunchroom to the east, both rooms filled with teen girls attending the finishing school.

Nanny Rogers took the lead as if she'd been here before. Opening the doors, she stepped into the office just beyond, where a pair of school workers - a human administrator named Kay Murphey and a young halfling named Constanza Taterbloom - sat at desks appropriate to their size. "May I help you?" asked Miss Murphey, an elderly matron with a no-nonsense air about her.

Reaching into her sleeve, Nanny Rogers extracted a sealed piece of parchment and handed it over. "Our letters of introduction," she announced as Kay opened the letter and read it over for herself. Another woman entered the room from a door on the north wall, this was Lolene Goldthame, the woman in charge of the finishing school. "Julianna here is to be enrolled in your school and I am to remain on as her attendant," Nanny Rogers continued. "You will see the letter is signed by Atherton Pastlethwaite, one of your benefactors." She said this as if expecting no resistance, and indeed there was none. "Very well," Miss Murphey agreed, passing the letter to Housematron Goldthame. "I'll have Constanza here show Miss Montjoie around while we sign the official documents."

"Certainly," agreed the halfling, jumping down from her seat. But before she could show Julianna around, a second pair of ladies burst into the office, pushing past the heroes standing at the back of the room. "Mistress Claudine and Miss Cora Blaum," the older of the two announced, producing a letter of introduction of their own and practically shoving it into Lolene Goldthame's hands, as if instantly intuiting she was the highest-ranking of the school staff in the room.

"I say," began Alistair, disturbed at the rudeness of these newcomers. One would think one would wait one's turn until the previous business at hand had been completed, surely! But then Housematron Goldthame began reading aloud from the letter and suddenly rudeness was the least of Alistair's concerns. The woman's voice took on a ragged aspect, and cracked as she intoned, "Let there be ghosties and ghoulies, and long-legged beasties!" Her voice suddenly broke into an unholy cackle of wicked delight, and she raised her head in glee. But the heroes could see an abrupt change had overcome the Headmistress: where before she stood straight and tall, now her body hunched forward, her curved spine leaning her closer to her visitors. Her skin was a sallow, greenish color, somewhere between old moss and the bile of sickness; her hair, moments before a dark, lustrous brown, now hung limp and pale in mottled strands the color of moonlight.

And she hadn't even gotten the worst of it. Before her, Kay Murphey and Constanza Taterbloom lurched forward, dropping to the floor as their bodies writhed and reconfigured themselves, morphing completely into canine forms, black, with a reddish made reminiscent of fire trailing down their spines. With sulfurous breath leaking from their muzzles, the two hell hounds snarled and dashed forward, leaping to attack the greenhag now standing before them.

"What the Hell is going on?" demanded Ageratum, unsheathing her short sword and ready to defend herself if any of these monsters got the idea to turn her way. Alistair was equally perplexed about the situation but had the presence of mind to grab his nanny and his sister-in-law and try to drag them back, out of harm's way. He spun and tried to open the double doors behind him, but somehow they had become locked and he couldn't get the door to budge. This was like a bad dream, but even worse because it was really happening! The sorcerer cast a detect magic spell and discovered there was a magic effect on the door keeping it from opening. Bother! Ageratum stepped to their side, keeping her blade between the two ladies and the monsters going after each other in the back of the room.

Harlan cast forth his paladin's vision and detected evil emanating from the greenhag and the two hell hounds, which didn't surprise him in the least. There was a door to his left, on the west wall of the office area, and he gave it a try but it too had been arcane locked. Chaevaris grabbed up the letters of introduction, intending to give them a good read later - maybe they gave some clue about what was going on. Then, pulling a sleep arrow from the quiver and setting it in place at the bow, the archer shot the nearest hell hound (the one who moments before had been Kay Murphey), catching the fiendish dog in the flank. However, the beast shook off the attempts at inducing magical slumber, focusing its attention - and its fangs - on the greenhag.

The hag, for her part, was likewise focusing her own attention on the two devil dogs attacking her. A set of jagged claws went ripping across the fur of the one with the arrow sticking out of its flank, and this was enough for the hell hound to crash to the floor, reverting as she fell back into her human form. Kay lay there unmoving, well into unconsciousness and bleeding from her wounds, but as Chaevaris watched, the wounds sealed up seemingly of their own accord; the wood elf archer knew full well, however, this was the result of the Blood Mirror Harlan carried with him at all times.

Alistair once again found himself being pushed aside by the two late-coming women. They kicked at the stuck doors, the younger one crying out in pain as she did nothing more than injure her foot, but the older one managed to kick her way through the western door. She grabbed up her younger charge and they stepped through, back into the entry hall from which they had come.

A door in the back of the office suddenly opened, and there in the doorway stepped an elven woman waving a wand in the direction of Nanny Rogers and Julianna. "Get out, evil ones!" the elf screeched. Alistair, in the process of sending a scorching ray spell at the hag - the first time he'd tried casting the spell in combat - was flustered at the elf threatening his nanny and the ray went wide, flying past the hag's shoulder to blast the back wall. Ageratum, in the meantime, had stepped forward and swung her blade at the other hell hound, the one who had been a halfling before the sudden transformation. She missed, but it was a worthwhile effort. Harlan, likewise, charged into battle against the greenhag, swinging his flaming burst longsword at her, but the hag's attention seemed solely focused on the remaining hell hound. Chaevaris, looking at the scene and deciding it was well in hand, opened the folded parchments and gave them a quick scan. The first one had been the one Housematron Goldthame had been reading when everything erupted into chaos. It read:

Kindly accept our gift.​
It is given in hopes​
it will Destroy any enmity.​
We seek peace.​
Through profound respect​
between us and Yourselves
The healing of old wounds​
and grievances between us​
should begin Tonight.​
Roy Moudo​
P.S. Your acceptance means things can be as they were when the new Dawn breaks.​

Chaevaris was no spellcaster, but the elf instantly saw the three words italicized spelled out the short sentence, "Destroy yourselves tonight." No doubt this was the trigger of whatever spell or ritual had been set in place to cause the school workers to transform into monsters and try to kill each other. Glancing at the other sheet of parchment, the archer saw:

The enemy is stepping up attacks on our enterprises and becoming more bold. They are including family members in the scope of their attacks. That's why I send you my wife and child. Keep them safe.​
I do not believe they understand the role your home plays in our enterprises or where our agents are.​
We still have allies reliant on our services, but meeting the needs may become more difficult. We are almost at the point of direct and open action. I hope it doesn't come to that.​
I've secured funding for your home for the next two years, it's with the gnomes. They'll see you properly provisioned.​
I'll send word as I can.​

Fortunately, the elf was a quick reader and a glance was all it took to make sense of the letters. It sounded like this "girls' finishing school" was much more than it looked on the surface, but just what all else it was involved in was beyond Chaevaris's current understanding. Looking back up at the combatants in the room, Chaevaris noted the hag had taken down the remaining hell hound, who had shifted back into halfling form upon being rendered unconscious, her wounds likewise stabilizing under the effects of the presence of the Blood Mirror.

Alistair interposed himself in front of the two women with which he had arrived at the school, raising his hands in a gesture of noncombativeness. "Don't attack!" he called out to the wand-wielding elf. "We're not the ones who transformed the others!"

"Who are you?" demanded the elven schoolmatron.

"Merely a new admission to your school," the sorcerer began, indicating Julianna, "and my nanny. I'm Alistair--oh! Atherton Pastlethwaite's brother!" This last bit he added as he recalled Atherton was one of the benefactors of the school, and the name-dropping worked as he'd hoped, for Calandra Valadane dropped her wand, looked around, and said, "Bring them here with me, where we'll be safe!"

Looking through the open door to the south, Chaevaris noted the two women who had brought the curse-triggering letter were kicking open the front door to the building. "Don't let them get away!" the archer called. "Those two are the ones behind all of this!" Pulling out his newly-purchased wand of magic missile - which had cost nearly all of the money Alistair had earned lately in his adventuring career, for it was as powerful as such wands came - the young sorcerer shot off the first charge, sending three missiles darting into the back of the older woman and two more striking the younger one, still favoring her sore foot. "Got 'em, Elfy!" Alistair called, although now that he looked, neither had fallen from his blast of magic missiles. That was disappointing! He hoped he hadn't been swindled by the man at the magic shop where he'd made his purchase; Alistair had learned over the course of his short adventuring career that there were many folks about with less than scrupulous morals.

Ageratum followed the two fleeing women and threw one of her kobold spears at the younger one, hitting her higher up than she would have preferred; instead of skewering her through the back, the halfling had merely managed to lodge the spearhead up by the shoulder. The woman merely reached back and brushed it off as if it were no more than a mere dart. Chaevaris shot an arrow at the older woman, hitting her squarely in the back - but then, as the woman turned to try to grab the arrow out, the archer could swear the woman had an elven face. And, come to think of it, the woman's dress was now green, where before it had been a dark yellow. What was going on here? The answer was given when Alistair released another blast from his wand, this time sending all five missiles streaking into the younger of the two women. She jolted when struck, toppled forward, and collapsed unmoving onto the school's front lawn - and, in the process, all aspects of her appearance melted away, leaving a bald, gray-skinned creature with a bulbous head lying, unconscious but stable, on the ground.

"A doppelganger!" swore Chaevaris aloud. Ageratum raced after the other one, who had stopped momentarily to see to her companion. The halfling caught up with the older woman, now having completely changed shape into an elven woman (likely in an attempt to disassociate herself as anyone having been to the school), but the halfling wasn't fooled; she threw another spear at the "elf," catching her right through the kidney - or at least where a kidney would be in an elf; there was no telling what all strange internal organs lay inside the malleable form of a doppelganger.

Harlan channeled holy energy into his sword and made a smiting attack against the hag, but the gnarled creature was nimble for all her apparent deformity and was able to avoid the blow. And then, just that quickly, she sprang to the attack, lashing out with her wicked claws. Harlan deflected one set with his flaming blade, but the ragged nails of her other hand scored lines down the side of the half-elf's face. Angered at the assault, the paladin swung hard at the hag with his flaming blade, this time catching her in the side as she tried to scramble away from the blow. At that point Chaevaris, who had been standing in the open doorway of the office shooting outside the building at the fleeing doppelgangers, determined the feisty halfling had the other doppelganger on the ropes and spun about to see to Harlan's foe. Another arrow was instantly fitted to bow and fired, the shaft burying itself in the hag's side. Blood now spilled from the hag's lips as she snarled at her foes in obvious pain. She swung at Harlan again with her wicked claws, but the attack was much slower now and the half-elf barely needed to dodge to avoid the claws.

The elf-formed doppelganger spun in place and grabbed at Ageratum, but the nimble halfling tumbled out of the way, landing on her feet with another spear raised in a defensive stance. But then Alistair, still inside the school building, blasted the creature with another charge of his wand and she fell unconscious to the ground, elven features and green dress being absorbed back into the gray-skinned creature's true form.

The doppelgangers were still well within the radius of the Blood Mirror's area of effect, and as Ageratum watched, the wounds closed up on the two gray beings - the magic gem wouldn't restore them to consciousness, but it would ensure they didn't bleed out. Well, Ageratum wasn't having any of that! Pulling a dagger from her belt, she stepped over the body of the nearest doppelganger and slit its throat from one side of its neck to the other. She watched approvingly as the creature's life-blood spilled out of its carved-open throat and the doppelganger died, having received wounds far too grievous for the Blood Mirror to be able to overcome. Then, a satisfied grin on her face, Ageratum walked over to the other doppelganger, ready to do the same to it.

With the doppelgangers having been taken care of, Alistair and Chaevaris were free to return their full attention back to the greenhag still in physical combat with Harlan. Chaevaris shot a couple of arrows at the hag but missed, in no small part due to making sure the arrows came nowhere near striking Harlan by accident. Alistair made the assumption the hag must be near death and cast a magic missile spell of his own at her, rather than use up another charge from his wand (which he'd planned on having last him long enough until he was able to cast the spell at a comparable level of power himself), but while the spell hit true it didn't drop the hag as he'd hoped. The hag got in another lucky strike against the paladin, scoring the other side of his face with her claws, before a kobold shortspear came flying into the room to strike the hag in the back of her head. She dropped to the floor instantly, while the weapons dropped from her body and her wounds sealed up, courtesy of the Blood Mirror. Only now, as she lay there unconscious, she had returned to her normal form, that of Housematron Goldthame.

"I say," declared Alistair, "does anyone have any idea - any idea at all - as to what's going on here?"

Chaevaris held up the "letter of introduction" the doppelgangers had passed over to Housematron Goldthame to be read aloud. "Best I can figure, this is some type of magical trap or something," the elf told the others.

"Do you guys hear that?" asked Ageratum.

"What?" asked Harlan, wiping the blood from his face.

"Moaning and groaning, coming from that way," replied the halfling, pointing to the east, "and breaking glass coming from over there," she added, pointing over to the west. The noises were coming from the opposite wings at the sides of the building, the dining hall and a classroom.

"We'd best stick together," suggested Harlan, leading the way back to the front hall and then heading over to the classroom to the west. Entering it, it gave every appearance of being a normal classroom, with rows of student desks facing one side of the room, at which stood a larger desk, and a writing slate hanging on the wall - but instead of students and an instructor, the room was filled with undead skeletons, ten in all. One had apparently panicked during the transformation and broken a side window, whose glass had shattered.

Alistair was the first to react. He cast another of his lower-powered magic missile spells at the nearest skeleton and, as expected, it caused the creature to fall to the floor, resuming the form of a normal, teenaged student in the process. Ageratum dashed into the room next, slamming the pommel of her short sword into the next skeleton's hip bone. But then Harlan raised his holy symbol of Pelor and sent a blast of positive energy through it. As one, the remaining nine skeletons all transformed back to their normal forms and collapsed, unconscious, to the floor. "Frankly, I'm a little bit surprised that worked," admitted the paladin. "They all apparently gained the full powers - and limitations - of undead creatures during their transformation. Come on, there's another door in the back."

Harlan led them to the back of the classroom and through a door which led to the building's kitchen. The place was currently a shambles, with all manners of creatures attacking each other. A skeleton was fighting a goblin at the near end of the kitchen; lying on the floor in the middle of the kitchen was an unconscious halfling in the traditional kitchen garb of apron and chef's hat; at the far end, two goblins were perched upon a set of cabinets while below them, two zombies tried to claw them but couldn't reach.

Alistair cast another magic missile spell at the goblin, taking it out and turning it back into a scullery maid in the process. Ageratum made a dash past the skeleton, heading over to deal with the zombies (which she knew would be more susceptible to the blade of her short sword). The skeleton matched her pace but seemed to have no interest in attacking her; it was focused on the zombies in the back, trying to get to the cornered goblins - which themselves were throwing items down from the cabinets at the zombies. As part of the curse, it seemed as if the transformed creatures were primarily focused on slaying other transformed creatures of a different type, fighting back against others (like the heroes) only when actively defending themselves, as with the greenhag fighting with Harlan after he attacked her first. That was good to know!

Harlan stepped forward and sent another blast of positive energy through his holy symbol, and the turn undead attempt was fully successful in that the skeleton and the two zombies all collapsed unconscious into their normal forms, that of students from the school. The goblins, with no other transformed creatures to attack, scrambled down from the cabinets and scampered to a door to the east, which led to the dining hall - and a group of nine zombies. Chaevaris took out one goblin with a well-placed arrow, dropping it and reverting it back to an unconscious housemaid.

Alistair ran down the length of the kitchen, getting the sole remaining goblin with another magic missile spell. She, too, became a housemaid, which led the sorcerer to theorize the form a cursed school member became was somehow linked to what role they played here in the school. Harlan came up beside Alistair and turned undead once again, this time taking out the five nearest zombies, all of which reverted to unconscious schoolgirls. But with the goblins now gone, the remaining zombies had no other transformed foes to attack, and they milled about, wandering aimlessly. The others stopped their own attacks, allowing Harlan to take the remaining zombies out with another blast of positive energy. "That's it. I'm spent," the paladin admitted. "Let's hope there are no more undead we'll have to deal with."

"I don't know," replied Alistair, his ear to a door in the middle of the kitchen. "I'm hearing groans and shuffling from the other side of this door. Could be undead." Upon Harlan's nod of approval, Alistair opened the door, revealing a set of stairs leading down into darkness. Alistair immediately called out, "Ogilvy, if you please!" and handed Chaevaris's bullseye lantern to the unseen servant, instructing it to shine the beam down the steps. Stepping into the light, squinting in annoyance, were two filthy figures: a ghoul and a ghast.

"Undead, all right," remarked Ageratum glumly. The little halfling didn't like fighting undead - they shrugged off her best attacks, when she used her blade in just the right spots to deal extra pain and damage to a living foe. Still, she sent a kobold halfspear flying down the stairwell to strike the ghoul in the chest. Then Harlan stepped forward, flaming burst longsword in hand, no longer able to attempt any further turn undead maneuvers but determined not to let either of these undead beings out into the kitchen to attack any of the others in the school.

But Harlan standing in the doorway didn't prevent Chaevaris from shooting past him; the arrow buried itself into the ghoul's chest as well and it toppled backwards, transforming back into a groundskeeper as it did so. The ghast scrambled up the stairs and the half-elf's face scowled as his stomach turned at the awful stench the undead thing brought with him. Alistair blasted the ghast with a magic missile charge from his wand, but it wasn't enough to finish off the undead thing. Ageratum held a spear at the ready but there were too many other people in the way for her to be able to attack, so she backed off and assumed a defensive posture. In the extreme close quarters, neither Harlan nor the ghast were able to deal the other much damage, and even Chaevaris missed with a close-quarters arrow shot. It took another blast from Alistair's wand to finally take the creature down, whereupon it resumed the form of another groundskeeper.

That took care of the basement and the entire ground floor of the school, so the heroes found a set of stairs that led up to the second floor. The arrived on a landing, from which there was another set of stairs leading up to the attic. But webs covered the attic steps, and three spiders, each the size of a full-grown man, skittered along the ceiling. Alistair fired a magic missile spell at the first spider but failed to bring it down; Ageratum did the honors with a thrown shortspear at the same spider, causing it to literally fall from the ceiling. When it hit the floor, fully unconscious, the spider had become a parlor maid.

Harlan stepped onto the first couple of stairs - careful to ensure he didn't get entangled in the webs just beyond - and the added elevation allowed him to reach another spider on the ceiling with his flaming blade. The spider fell from the ceiling, landing onto the floor as another unconscious maid. Chaevaris shot the third spider with an arrow, but the hit wasn't enough to drop the creature and it scurried along the ceiling, looking to get above one of the heroes so it could drop down upon them.

But then there was a commotion from higher up the stairs. Flying down from the attic - where the school's maids had their quarters - came a quartet of strange creatures, shrieking humanoid heads with flapping bat-wings in place of ears. Two of these vargouilles got tangled up in the spider webs, while the other two managed to make it into the hallway landing.

Alistair still had his wand of magic missiles in hand and he fired off a shot, sending one missile each to the four vargouilles and the sole remaining spider. Only one of the vargouilles dropped as a result of this magical barrage, but each of the others looked sufficiently hurt that it didn't look like it would take much to take them out. And that proved to be the case: while the spider skittered over to attack one of the vargouilles trapped in the webbing, Ageratum's spear hit a vargouille and sent her falling to the floor, now an unconscious groundkeeper. Harlan stabbed at a trapped vargouille, converting it to another human while his flaming blade set the webs ablaze, which took out the spider and the remaining trapped vargouille. That looked to be that.

But was it? The heroes had no way to know, so they backtracked to Headmatron Goldthame and Harlan applied some healing magic through his laying on of hands to revive her. From her they got an accurate head count and Ageratum volunteered to go back through the building's rooms to make sure everyone had been accounted for. In the meantime, Mistress Goldthame confirmed that the Home for Castaway Girls, under Atherton Pastlethwaite's patronage, had been converted to a training school focused not only upon bettering a young lady's manners, poise, and culture (as best befit a finishing school), but also teaching them how best to gather information about the businesses of the families into which they were inserted, either through arranged marriages or as hired positions such as nannies, secretaries, maids, or the like.

"So it's basically a front for a school for intel-gathering," remarked Ageratum, having returned to report back that everyone had been accounted for and was still breathing. "I've seen such things before. A spy school, basically."

"We prefer to think of our graduating students as members of an intelligence network," sniffed Headmatron Goldthame. By this time, Calandra had returned with Nanny Rogers and Julianna Montjoie. "So how exactly did you manage not to be affected by the curse?" asked Harlan. Calandra explained that she had been in reverie, and as was her custom she was inside a magic circle against evil while her mind was occupied on organizing memories and unaware of the outside world. "I can only imagine that's what prevented my own transformation," she suggested.

"Well, in any case, I don't think we want Julianna registering in your school after all," piped up Alistair.

"Oh?" asked Nanny Rogers. "Those were Atherton's explicit instructions."

"Yes, but that was when he believed the school's true function and association with him were unknown," Alistair countered. "Obviously, somebody tried killing off everyone associated with the school, in a very roundabout way, granted, and one that failed primarily due to our presence here when the curse was activated. But either those doppelgangers Ageratum took care of were going to report back on their success, or the ones behind it probably have some other way of checking out on the success of their plan. In either case, eventually they're going to find out nobody at all was killed and the business is carrying on as usual. And that will likely have one of two effects: they'll either back off, seeing the place as too well defended, or they'll come after it with an army. I don't think Atherton wants to take the chance that they'll choose the latter response."

"Then what do you suggest, dear?" asked Nanny Rogers.

"Well, we can't very well bring you back to the farmhouse with us, as it's not very defensible and had already been overrun by hobgoblins once since before the Stouts took it over. But I think I know a place where you and Julianna will be safe." He didn't voice it aloud, for he felt it would be safer if the members of the Home for Castaway Girls didn't actually know of the location of Atherton's wife (and, soon enough, child), but he was certain he could have them put up at the Stone Keep for now, until a different arrangement could be made. "I assume you have a means of getting word to Atherton?" he asked the school matrons. They verified they did indeed.

"Then if you please, let them know what occurred here, and that Julianna and Nanny Rogers have been brought to a safe place." They agreed to do so.

"Let's start getting everybody healed up," suggested Harlan, as he moved off to do just that. His paladin training wasn't advanced enough to be able to channel enough healing energy through his hands to awaken everyone, but he could start with the staff, who would be better able to see to the girls' needs as far as healing went. Some of them might have to do with having their wounds cleaned and tended to, while they were left to awaken on their own.

"I have a question for you, Nanny," Alistair said.

"Yes, dear?"

"Back in the main office, how did you know that door you went through was unlocked? All of the other doors to that room were locked, by magic. Have you been here before?"

"Oh, but it was arcane locked, dear. I just used a knock spell to open it. And yes, this isn't my first time visiting this school." She left it at that, volunteering no further information as to whether she had been a visitor or perhaps a student at the finishing school. There was, after all, much in her past life of which Alistair was unaware.

He, however, had focused in on the other bit of knowledge she'd provided. "Then you're a sorcerer? Like me?"

"Not a very powerful one, dear, but yes. I know a few spells, that's all. Sorcerers tend to run in my family line; my grandfather was quite powerful in his day, they say."

"So you knew I was a sorcerer, back when I was casting spells at home without realizing it?"

"I suspected, yes - but you know your father. He was not to be swayed by the words of a mere employee, not when he'd already decided the reason behind your sudden abilities."

"Yes, that's true enough," agreed Alistair sadly, thinking about his father and his inability to allow his mind to be swayed by anything as frivolous as facts, once he'd decided what was what. None of Alistair's arguments that he had not been trafficking with demons had had any effect upon changing his father's mind about his own youngest son.

Ageratum, however, found her mouth hanging open in astonishment once more as she looked back and forth between Alistair and his nanny. This was the woman who had raised the young nobleman from his she'd been with him all of his life until he got booted out of his family...and sorcerers ran in her bloodline.... Was it possible? Was Nanny Rogers Alistair's real mother? This would bear some thinking over, and possibly some investigating on her own, if she ever found her way back to Greyhawk City.

- - -

So, this adventure was kind of a weird one. Dan had decided he wanted an adventure with a Hallowe'en theme, and he made numerous changes to the adventure as he had three weeks to write it instead of the normal one, due to some scheduling issues with our two families. (I was away for a week on a business trip, then the following week they were on vacation.) He'd originally intended the schoolhouse to be a Home for Unwed Mothers and Julianna to have been a commoner with whom Atherton had had a fling and then discarded, but then he started playing around with different notions and this eventually turned into a plot by his unknown business rivals (or maybe their allies). As a result, it ended up having some plot holes, as far as sticking within the D&D rules goes: the "curse" that caused the inhabitants of the school to transform and try to kill each other was much more powerful than even a wish spell (which wouldn't likely have been able to affect that many people all at once); when Dan saw me trying to puzzle out what was happening (was this all an elaborate set of illusions?), he just confessed the curse was a bit of DM "hand-wavery" allowing him to set the adventure in motion and allow us to fight a bunch of traditional Hallowe'en monsters in a setting where we normally wouldn't find them. But even the details of the curse had been altered more than once; at one point he was going to have a guards and wards effect on all the doors, but then he settled on just making them all arcane locked, although that actually went against the desires of the people behind the curse if they actively wanted the transformed people to slay other transformed people in different forms. Even that worked against the curse-bringers, because when a classroom of students and their teacher all turn into skeletons, there's nobody for them to fight. Finally, Dan had forgotten the stabilizing effects of the Blood Mirror, which, with its 75-foot range, easily covered the entire school. And the fact that the transformed creatures focused their entire attention on other transformed creatures meant the majority of the adventure was like our PCs shooting fish in a barrel. Other than the two hits Harlan took from the hag's claws, none of us lost any hit points whatsoever. And we all leveled up to 5th at the end of the adventure, after just having leveled up to 4th after the previous adventure.

Oh well - it was no doubt a learning experience for Dan. And we did get some more background on Nanny Rogers. Vicki, who plays Ageratum, came to the possible realization of Alistair's birth on her own, whereas I provided Dan with the possibility when I first wrote up Alistair's background at the beginning of the campaign. I hadn't counted on him making Nanny Rogers a sorcerer, but it makes sense and casts just a little more doubt onto Alistair's true parentage. Despite having been raised as a nobleman, his mother may have very well been a commoner! I guess we'll all have to see how this plays out.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 9 November 2022

- - -

For once, the four adventurers were all off doing their own thing when the excitement hit. They'd jointly decided to visit the marketplace in Ghourmand Vale, but once there Ageratum excused herself and went off on her own, exploring the dark alleyways, memorizing the layouts of the major streets and the various ways one might escape pursuit (should such a thing come to be needed), and keeping an eye out for any unwary travelers who might not notice the weight of their coin purse being significantly lightened. Alistair went straight for the Dark and Light Inn, a tavern where those with spellcasting prowess met to swap tales and lore; the fledgling sorcerer had been learning quite a bit about the workings of arcane spellcasting from an older - if not particularly powerful - wizard named Blorkane. Harlan was over in front of the Shrine to Pelor, feeding the orphans who often ran amok in the streets but were always ready to stop their mischief if there was a scrap of food to be had. And Chaevaris had decided, like Ageratum, to check out the various streets and alleyways, but the elven archer chose to do it by climbing up onto a rooftop and getting a good view from a higher perch.

"I say," remarked Alistair, sipping a cordial, "I rather think that's a particularly foolish thing to do."

"Whaddayamean?" demanded Blorkane. "It's a brilliant idea! Imagine how soft and flaky the pork would be!"

"But isn't an aboleth that three-eyed fish with tentacles that mentally controls its slaves and turns them into subservient fish-men?"

"It is," Blorkane conceded, not sure where the young nobleman was going with this train of thought.

"Well, then I rather doubt magically combining the two into one creature would be a smart idea at all. Aboleths are restricted to Underdark bodies of water, yes?" Blorkane nodded his agreement. "Then we need not worry overly much about them, as long as we stay above ground, correct? But if you start magically breeding them with pigs, you run the risk of creating a pig with the powers of an aboleth, capable of running around, overcoming people's willpower, and turning them into mind-slaves. I hardly think the risk is worth it, just for some tastier pork. Maybe a better approach would be coming up with some sort of, I don't know, pork tenderizer? Or some spices?"

"Bah! You're focusing on the possible bad stuff and ignoring the potential benefits of a...a pigoleth!"

Alistair raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Is that what you're calling this monstrosity?"

"I'm not necessarily sold on it," Blorkane admitted. "Hamoleth? Porkoleth?"

Just then another voice called out, causing (not without some amount of relief) Alistair's conversation with Blorkane to come to a halt. "Help me! Help me!" the voice cried. "They're gonna eat me!"

Naturally, this drew everyone's attention to the person doing the screaming. It was a man in dark studded leather armor, with a rapier and a dagger at his belt but both still sitting in their scabbards. He came rushing into the marketplace from a side alley, screaming in terror and pushing people and carts aside as they got in his way. Chaevaris could see the man quite clearly from the rooftop; curious as to what could be causing the man (who seemed somehow familiar to the archer) such fright, the elf glanced back down the man's wake and saw two supple women following him determinedly. They each wore brown leggings and sandals, with tight vests and no visible weapons Chaevaris could see. The women slowed down and got their bearings, as if quite surprised to find themselves in a crowded marketplace. Glancing silently at one another, they seemed to reach some sort of unspoken consensus and mingled quietly with the crowd, breaking off down a back alley when the opportunity presented itself. Chaevaris tracked them visually by their dark black hair until they passed behind a building and were hidden from the archer's keen sight.

The panic-stricken man, however, seemed to have no idea the two women were no longer following. Leaving a trail of overturned carts behind him, he rushed through the crowds and ended up heading for the outdoor eating area of the Dark and Light Inn, where he and Alistair locked eyes and immediately recognized each other. "You!" each called out, but the other man begged to the young sorcerer, "Please! You've got to save me!"

"I don't acknowledge the requirement," Alistair said stiffly, rising up from his chair and looking to see who might be following Beaufort "Shambles" Maguffin, the low-level thief they're had a run-in with up in Mirtek, when he and his band had ended up with the ceremonial Pelorian armor Harlan had turned into the church there, only to have had it stolen from underneath it by cohorts of this Shambles fellow. Try as he might, the sorcerer could see nobody trailing after the thief - although quite a few merchants were shaking their fists at him (or engaging in other one-handed gestures) as they picked up the wares he'd tossed aside in his panic. "Save you from who, exactly?" Alistair asked, puzzled.

"Two women - part of his, his harem or his band of loyal followers, I dunno! They'll eat me alive, like they did to Callie! Oh, poor Callie!" Without asking, Shambles grabbed up the glass of cordial from Alistair's table and drank it down to steady his nerves. Blorkane decided now would be a good time to go replenish his own drink and wandered off inside the tavern's interior, leaving Alistair to deal with this crazy man he apparently knew from elsewhere.

"Perhaps you'd better start from the beginning," suggested Alistair, frowning down at his empty glass.

Shambles complied as best he could, but his tale was a somewhat rambling account, and he told it while looking all around him nervously. Apparently, he and a bunch of his gang from Mirtek decided to come try their fortunes in Ghourmand Vale. Shambles insisted on giving Alistair a full list of his teammates: besides the aforementioned Callie the elven rogue, there was apparently the leader of the bunch, one Dalton Bunge; a rather sinister elf named Elway; one Mabel Trant; a fighter named Patterson; a half-elf bard named Balatray who seemed to be a particularly close friend of his; and a pair of dwarven twins named Burkin and Pitkin. They had all been on the road to Ghourmand Vale when suddenly...they were on a different road entirely, in a land with a hotter clime. (Alistair, whose eyes had been glazing over during the recitation of Shambles' friends and cohorts in crime, started picking up interest in the tale now that he recognized them as having passed through a planar gate like the one his own group had encountered while checking out the Slippery Shaft Mines.) And sure enough, they were brought before Jasgund Singh, who, over the course of the next three weeks, had enticed most of Dalton Bunge's group into joining his own forces. This all came to a head at a banquet Shambles had attended just minutes ago, when Callie had finally decided she'd had enough and wasn't going to be a part of Jasgund's group.

"It was horrible!" Shambles wailed. "This Jasgund, he had a wicked smile on his face, and he just gave a little nod and just like that, everyone was grabbing at poor Callie! They pulled her onto the table, and they ripped at her clothes and they ripped at her flesh, and they started eating her! One of Singh's men, he cut open Callie's chest and pulled out her heart, and tossed it into a goblet and presented it to Jasgund, and he said something about how she was too faint-hearted but even faint hearts served their purpose, and then he turned into a tiger, and started eating her heart, and all of my men - well, most of them - started ripping off chunks of Callie's flesh and they were eating her, and me and Balatray, we just got up and started running, and there were people chasing us, and we got separated, and I dunno where Balatray went but all of a sudden I was here in this marketplace, and--"

"Okay, okay, slow down," soothed Alistair. "Whoever these women were who were chasing you, it doesn't look like they're here now, so you're safe." Alistair still couldn't stand the low-life blubbering there before him, but he could at least acknowledge he'd been put through an emotional wringer. By now, Harlan had seen the ruckus and had sent the orphans inside the shrine while he ambled over to the Dark and Light Inn to see what all Alistair was dealing with. Ageratum had headed over as well, having recognized Shambles from her own previous associations with him. Whatever trouble he was in now, she had no doubt it was something he'd brought on himself. Harlan focused his attention upon Shambles' aura, and was somewhat surprised to see it was not suffused in evil.

But then a cawing alerted Alistair's attention and he looked up to the top of the little shed in the back of the open-air dining area in which he and Shambles were talking. Ambrose, his grackle familiar, was atop the roof and looking to the south. "We've got incoming," the grackle informed his master in their special language. "Two women, to the south."

Alistair spun in place to look at where his familiar had indicated the women were approaching from, and that drew Shambles' gaze that way as well. "It's them!" he cried aloud, drawing the women's stares directly at him. As one, they smiled silently, as if pleased to have once again caught sight of their prey. Shambles drew both of his blades, wielding them in shaking hands. Without any fear of looking cowardly, he cowered behind Harlan. The paladin unsheathed his own sword and set its blade aflame, ready for action.

Without changing her stride in the least, the closest of the two women - changed. Her skin, already darker than that of those around her, darkened further and sprouted fur, while her face elongated, her nose and mouth extending out into a short muzzle, her ears moving higher up the sides of her head as her long, black hair receded into the striped fur now covering her head. Her body was still that of the human woman she had at first appeared to be - and she wore the same items of clothing she had worn into the marketplace - but it was quite obvious this was no human woman striding forward to reach Shambles - it was a weretiger in hybrid form. Gurpeet gave a little growl of anticipation in her throat as she advanced.

"Evil?" Alistair asked Harlan, although he has fairly certain he already knew the answer.

"Evil, both of them," the half-elf paladin confirmed.

Chaevaris hadn't been able to hear the conversation going on below, but didn't feel the need to know much else beyond "woman turned into a weretiger and is heading towards my friends with likely evil intent." An arrow came streaking down from the archer's bow to hit the weretiger in the side, but it seemed to bounce right off her hide without effect - and it had been a sleep arrow as well, so if it had penetrated Gurpeet's flesh there would have been a blast of magical energy that might have put her to sleep. The lack of such a burst informed Chaevaris the arrow had had no effect whatsoever. For the first time, Chaevaris regretted not having picked up any silver-tipped arrows, for the archer knew from stories passed down from the family that silver was anathema to most lycanthropes.

Harlan's assurances kept Alistair from feeling bad as he pulled out his wand of magic missile and sent a burst of five missiles at one of the two approaching women, but his own upbringing caused him to target Gurpeet rather than her companion Gurleen, who still wore the form of a human woman. Somehow, it just didn't seem right to fire a combat spell at a woman who had yet to attack them, yet it wasn't as bad shooting a tiger-woman. After all, even if she hadn't attacked anybody either, her mere appearance was causing quite an uproar among the marketplace members, as shoppers ran away from the tiger-monster and merchants abandoned their own wares to save their own lives.

As Ambrose flew from the top of the shed to the top of the tavern - it was further away from the pair of Jasgund's followers, and the grackle had an instinctive fear of anything cat-related - Ageratum scuttled over to the shadows behind the shed, waiting for the two women to pass. She had a kobold half-spear at the ready to throw at whichever one was closest.

Gurleen shifted form as well, and now there were two obvious weretiger hybrids in the marketplace. But while she shifted form she sprinted forward, showing incredible speed as she made a bee-line for Shambles. She had to pass by Harlan to get to her prey, and the paladin wasted no opportunities to bring his flaming burst longsword crashing into her side. She snarled in hatred at the paladin, seemingly more angered at he flame of his blade than at the blade itself, for as Harlan examined where he'd hit her there was no cut, merely a burn mark where the fire had struck her. He spun in place and struck her again, and this time the momentum of his movement allowed the sword to cut into her a bit. Harlan was glad to see although these weretigers had an impressive amount of natural protection against physical wounds, they weren't impervious! it would just be a matter of time to take them down.

Shambles thrust his own weapons out at Gurleen, missing with his dagger but hitting her with his rapier - but not, alas, with enough force to pierce her thick pelt. Gurpeet, in the meantime, went after Harlan as he seemed to be an obstacle in her way to get to the man Lord Jasgund wanted dead. But as she leapt at the paladin, she was hit in the side by Ageratum's thrown halfspear. It wasn't silver-coated or anything, but the halfling's knowledge about where to strike to deal the most damage came in handy, for in hybrid form a weretiger's vital organs were in the same place as they were in human form, which worked to Ageratum's advantage. The pain of the spear wound was enough to distract Gurpeet enough that her claws missed Harlan completely.

The fight was now spreading out of the inn's outdoor eating area and into the streets beyond. Leaping over to an adjacent roof, Chaevaris had a better vantage point of the two weretigers. Out came another arrow - a standard one, not a sleep arrow - and the archer started lining up a shot against one of the weretigers, aiming at a point for maximum damage.

Harlan channeled holy energy through his longsword and sent a smite evil slash of his blade at Gurpeet. Once again, the damage from the blade itself was minimal, but the heat from the flames and the holy power seemed to have an effect, as the weretiger once again snarled in pain and anger. Alistair sent another blast from his wand over to Gurpeet, wanting to aid his friend Harlan more than he felt it necessary to keep Shambles safe. At least magic missile spells dealt with force energy, which was powerful enough to affect targets no matter how thick their pelts.

"Ageratum! Silversheen!" Chaevaris called down from the rooftop perch, still aiming at the weretiger target of choice. Ageratum held the vial of silversheen the group had discovered in the wizard's house where they'd fought the barghest, and if the elven archer was suggesting she use it, Ageratum was more than willing to trust it was a smart move. She quickly pulled out her masterwork short sword and applied a coating to its blade. Then she moved forward, to flank the weretiger attacking Shambles. She snorted in disdain at the thought of having to rescue the little idiot, who'd gotten his nickname by the way all of his plans seemed to fall apart.

Gurleen went into a flurry of motion, striking out at Shambles with claws and teeth too fast for the slow-witted thief to be able to stop. One set of claws ripped at his throat and he fell backwards, conking his head on the cobblestones as he lost consciousness. But while the blow might have been a lethal one otherwise, within the proximity of Harlan's Blood Mirror his wounds sealed up and he remained stable, near death but not in any danger of crossing that line.

Gurpeet went into a similar frenzy against Harlan, and while he was able to avoid her bite - the most dangerous of her attacks, he was well aware, for its ability to transmit the curse of lycanthropy to her victims, although as a paladin he was personally immune - her claws ripped into him, digging in deep. He stumbled a few steps backwards under the effects of the attacks, blood streaming through the seams in his armor where she'd cut him. He was forced to use his new-found ability to cast actual spells to heal some of the damage he'd just taken by casting a cure light wounds spell upon himself. But, having expended the only spell he was capable of casting that day, Harlan was well aware he would not survive many other attacks of that nature.

Chaevaris continued aiming at Gurpeet but did not yet let loose the readied arrow. Alistair, having heard Chaevaris calling down the suggestion to use silver weapons against the weretigers, recalled he had been given a silver dagger of his own. He pulled it out of his scabbard with his left hand, but knew full well his own skill with the weapon would not allow him to deal as much damage as he could do with his wand. Still, it looked like Harlan could use a breather, so Alistar moved over in front of the paladin and waved the silver dagger about, hoping to distract Gurpeet's attention away from the half-elf. To help focus her attention away, he blasted her in the face with another charge from his wand of magic missile, which he realized he was starting to get rather dependent upon, for it dealt a lot more damage than he was capable of dealing himself at this level in his adventuring career.

Ageratum, in the meantime, sent the silvered blade of her short sword deep into the back of Gurleen, who was standing over the downed Shambles. But while she dropped to her knees as a result of the attack, it wasn't solely for that reason - she'd also wanted to drop her muzzle down to Shambles' unprotected neck, and she did just that, ripping out his throat with her impressive set of feline fangs. Blood flowed from Shambles' neck in such quantities there was no denying he was dead, far beyond the Blood Mirror's ability to stabilize.

Unfortunately, Alistair's attempts at drawing Gurpeet away from Harlan were unsuccessful, as the werebeast continued focusing her attention upon the paladin. She managed to graze him with one set of claws, enough to cause him considerable pain but not enough to drop him - nor enough to get him to back down from a fight against evil. In fact, he summoned up his reserves and channeled a second smite evil surge of holy power through his flaming blade, catching her for a decent amount of damage. And then Chaevaris finally released the arrow and it sank into Gurpeet's shoulder, causing her to hiss in additional pain.

But by now both weretigers were looking to be fighting on the last dregs of their own strength. Taking a gamble, Alistair fired off another shot from his wand, this time splitting up the magic missiles such that one hit Gurpeet - the most ragged-looking of the two - while the other four went streaking over to strike Gurleen. The sorcerer had guessed correctly, for both werebeasts collapsed to the cobblestones, unconscious and reverting back to their human forms. Ageratum went quickly to the nearest, feeling for a pulse. She nodded over at Alistair, nodding that she was still alive.

"I say!" Alistair declared. "You look quite the worse for wear, my friend!" He took Harlan by the elbow and walked him away from the others, under the shade of an overly-large umbrella atop one of the abandoned merchants' carts. He fished a potion of cure light wounds from the pouch at his belt and passed it over to the wounded paladin, all the while making surreptitious stabbing motions back at Ageratum. The halfling took the hint, slitting the throats of Jasgund's fanatical devotees, realizing neither of the two of them would ever give over any information about their terrible master, trapped in his faraway lands. By the time Harlan had opened the flask and drank down the contents, the deeds were done - the women in the brown garments and sandals were well and truly dead, and Ageratum was polishing her short sword before returning it to its scabbard.

Chaevaris had scrambled down from the rooftop and joined the others. Looking down at Shambles, the archer observed, "He's dead as well."

"No big loss there," Ageratum replied, looking over at the black, studded leather armor Shambles wore. "You think that's magical?" she asked Alistair.

A quick detect magic spell gave Alistair her answer. "It is indeed."

"I thought so - here, give me a hand getting it off of him. If it's magical, it ought to alter size to whoever's wearing it."

"Um," began Alistair, looking nervously around them to see if they were being observed; he didn't want to be seen "rolling the dead," as the slang went.

"Nobody's watching," Ageratum said, scowling. "Quit being such a worry-wart and give me a hand here!" Face red with embarrassment, Alistair pulled off Shambles' boots and tugged the leather pants down the dead thief's legs as Ageratum struggled getting the top piece over his head. She managed, but the armor was hopelessly soaked in the corpse's blood. "Clean this up for me?" she asked the sorcerer, who sighed and obligingly cast a prestidigitation spell to clean the blood from it. "Thanks!" the little halfling said, gathering up the too-large armor and scampering off into the shed to change.

By the time Harlan had found someone to summon whoever represented the forces of law and order in the area and they had finally made an appearance, Ageratum was in her new magical armor - and sure enough, it now fit her as if it had been designed for her frame. Harlan explained to the authorities that the two dead women were in fact weretigers - or had been, before they had been forced to slay them to protect the locals. Fortunately, with the combat over, many of the merchants had returned to their carts and were able to confirm the paladin's tale that these had both been tiger-women, and that one of them had slain the man lying in the street in his underclothes.

"Don't worry, I seen a lot worse than this in my day," said the weary man in charge of keeping the peace in the boomtown environment of Ghourmand Vale. He motioned to Merton Funk, the streets commissioner, and a few of his workers who'd come along to investigate the source of all the excitement. "Pack 'em up," he said and the two workers hurried to comply, wrapping them in blankets.

"I say," Alistair said to one of the workers. "What happens to them now?"

The worker snickered and replied, "You prolly don't wanna know. Just, you know, maybe don't go buying your bacon from Mistbrenner's farm if you’re particular about your vittles. Oink, oink, oink, and the problems're all gone--hah! Mister Funk here ain't too particular."

"Hey, less talk and more work!" called out Merton Funk.

"Yessir!" replied the worker, bending to his task.

Alistair realized the worker had been quite correct: he hadn't wanted to know.

- - -

This was one of our shorter sessions - not surprisingly, since it was basically just one combat encounter with some backstory ahead of time - and we were done in less than an hour and a half. It made for quite a difference from our previous session, in which Dan had used 41 different counters to represent the monsters we encountered and the other NPCs we dealt with!

Incidentally, we'll be skipping the next two Wednesday sessions, as I'll be on a business trip this week and then next week Dan and Vicki have company in for Thanksgiving. So we're planning on starting this back up on 30 November.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

Greetings! I trust you are in good health and fine voice. I have completed the first of the songs I had in mind when I presented my proposal to write lyrics you might find useful in your bardic travels; I can only hope you will find the following submission worthy enough to add to your musical repertoire. As far as remuneration goes, I leave that up to you, as I admittedly have no idea of the proper value of written lyrics; I shall of course trust a man of your standing to put a fair value upon my efforts should they prove to be of use to you. Alas, I have no training in music, so I shall leave it to you to devise the tune most appropriate to the following verses.

In any case, this first song is the tale of my good friend and the leader of our band of Trained Professional Adventurers, Harlan Starblade.

The lyrics follow:

He's got gorgeous blond locks and a friendly, knowing grin​
He's the epitome of a paladin​
He's the wistful dream of every lovely barmaid​
He's none other than the half elven Harlan Starblade​
It wasn't long ago when he first felt the call​
And he didn't need to give it very much thought at all​
Dedicated his life to helping others​
Sees the world's people as his sisters and brothers​
He went to the Temple of Pelor for training​
Soaked up the lessons that others found draining​
Mastered the longsword, wields it with ease​
His foes often find themselves weak at the knees​
Now he travels the world, going where he's needed​
Nobody's pleas for his aid go unheeded​
The undead see him and they turn and run​
For his blade burns bright with the flames of the sun​
He smites evil foes with the power of his faith​
Even foul monstrosities, be they zombie or wraith​
And the Blood Mirror helps those around him stabilize​
For he values all life, you can see it in his eyes​
So let it be said: evil-doers, you've been warned​
Harlan will bring you down, and he'll leave you unmourned​
He won't back from a challenge, be it dragon or balor​
There is just no stopping this bold paladin of Pelor​

I shall eagerly await your response as to the potential value of this first offering, and in the meantime I shall begin work on a few other songs that have come to mind.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite

- - -

My good Lordling Pastlethwaite,

I've bent the strings of my lute to the tale you've spun and believe we can indeed spin it in to a golden notoriety yielding coin, conversation and, for Harlan, admirers that will flock to his banner (or whatever else he may wave).

I will include it as part of my repertoire during my next performance.

I’m good, the song is good, and we will all be a bit richer (honestly, I’ll be a bit of a bit more richer).

Your friend and partner,




PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 30 November 2022

- - -

Mrs. Stout walked into the common room where the four adventurers had been talking. "I have a message for you," she told them, handing a sealed sheet of parchment to Harlan. "It was delivered by a knight on horseback, no less."

Harlan broke open the seal and read the contents. "We're wanted at the Stone Keep," he informed the others. "We're to meet with a Talantis Vertiver, an emissary of Celene."

"I say!" declared Alistair. "That sounds rather important." They gathered up their gear, mounted their horses, and rode off to the Stone Keep with all haste.

Once there, the heroes couldn't help but notice the improvements that had been made to the fortress over the past month. There were paladins stationed in each of the corner watchtowers, and another greeted them at the front door. The place certainly was a lot more professional-looking now that Father Kilkenny had taken over duties as the head cleric there. He was there to meet them inside the keep, introducing the heroes to a number of elven delegates from Celene. Talantis Vertiver, the leader of this group, explained the situation as they sat around the table, eating grapes and cheese and sipping from tall flutes of wine. "One of our delegates has gone missing," he explained. "Twenty days ago, one of our number, Captain Olotores Oakcrown, was sent on a four-day journey to Enstad, the capital of Selene. He carried with him a dispatch to the Enstad elves, but he never arrived."

"I say, are you all right?" Alistair asked Chaevaris, who had begun choking and coughing.

"I'm fine," the elven archer replied. "Wine went down the wrong pipe." Turning to Talantis, Chaevaris added, "Forgive me - please continue." Nobody noticed how the elf's face had whitened at the mention of the name of the missing delegate.

"Captain Oakcrown never arrived," Talantis continued. "He disappeared on the fourth day of his trip. We would like to send you along the route he took to see if you can find him. Divinations indicate he's still alive, so when you find him please return him either here to the Stone Keep or bring him to Enstad. As for the dispatch he carried, the information is already out of date, so you need not bother trying to recover it."

"Enstad's a four-day ride on horseback," Ageratum stated. "Longer if we take the wagon."

"Will we need the wagon, though?" asked Chaevaris. "We can carry what we need in our packs - we'll make better time that way." That, ultimately, was decided upon, and although Alistair was a bit disappointed his expertise as a "wagon lackey" would not be needed, he at least understood the logic behind the decision. They packed their gear, mounted their horses, and were on their way.

Several minutes on their trek, Chaevaris had come to a decision and told the others, "For the duration of this mission, I'd like you not to call me by my real name."

"Oh?" asked Harlan. "Then what should we call you?"

Thinking it over, Chaevaris finally replied, "'Kesiri Daquin Ariradh.'" It was as good a name as any. But the archer had forgotten all four of the heroes understood the Elven language, and it didn't take long before they'd translated the false name into the Common tongue. "'Elfy Danger Silverleaf?'" Ageratum asked, frowning. "Really?"

Alistair's eyes bugged out and his mouth opened in astonishment. "I knew it!" he cried. "You're the real Elfy 'Danger' Silverleaf! The books were written about your exploits!" And that opened up a floodgate of questions. "Did the author pay you for the stories? Are all of them true? In Elfy and the Owlbear of Mammoth Falls, how did you know the owlbear had a snapped-off arrow in its shoulder that was causing it pain and driving it to attack others? How come you don't ever shoot grappling hooks from your bow like that time you did in Elfy and the Rescue of the Trapped Princess?" Chaevaris thought silently, This might not have been my smartest plan....

The first three days of riding were uneventful, Chaevaris finally demanding Alistair hold all questions until they stopped for rest breaks, so they could keep an eye out for signs of the missing elf (and then giving noncommittal answers when possible). It was on the morning of the fourth day of travel - expecting to reach Enstad by the evening - that they ran into their first bit of excitement. There was frantic motion in the treetops as they rode through the forest, finally revealing itself as a raccoon, leaping from tree branch to tree branch. It had a panicked expression on its masked face, and the reason for that panic became clear when a longbowman stepped out between the trees, took careful aim, and sent an arrow shooting straight at the creature. The arrow pierced the raccoon in the left shoulder, flying straight through the creature's flesh and exiting in a spray of blood. With a cry of pain, the raccoon fell from its perch and landed in Chaevaris's lap.

The mounted archer looked down at the raccoon, who was frantically pointing to the south, then over at the longbowman approaching from the north. "It's him!" Chaevaris hissed to the others in a low whisper, before pulling on the reins and turning Talkacha away. Then, in a much deeper voice, Chaevaris informed the others, "You three deal with him! I'll take my animal companion to safety!" Kicking Talkacha's sides, the elven archer - with hood fully raised to prevent anyone from seeing any facial features - cradled the raccoon and took off as fast as the horse could go.

Ageratum pulled out her daggers, holding one in each hand as she turned her pony Munson towards the approaching elven bowman. Harlan similarly pulled the flaming burst longsword from its scabbard and held it at the ready. "Who are you?" he asked the archer, but the elf, seeing the raccoon speeding off on horseback and apparently not wanting to have to deal with these three defenders, merely lowered his bow and turned back the way he'd come, running between the trees. Realizing they wouldn't be able to follow him on horseback through the tightly-packed trees, Harlan let him go.

"I say, was that him? Captain Oakcrown?" Alistair asked.

"That's what Chaevaris said."

"What's gotten into him, anyway?" Ageratum asked. "Hood up, fake name, deep voice - it's like he doesn't want this Oakcrown guy to recognize him."

"Let's go find out," Harlan answered, turning Law in the direction Chaevaris had run off. The others followed, and they found their errant archer a quarter mile distant, Talkacha standing still in a clearing. The reason for the stop became apparent when the raccoon wildshaped back into his true form: an elven druid. He touched his wounded shoulder and applied a healing spell to it.

"Thank you," the druid said, introducing himself as Ralandane Elbart. "I am a local druid of these woods."

"Why is Captain Oakcrown trying to kill you?" Chaevaris asked.

"He was told to. I first saw him over two weeks ago, riding a stallion. Then a beautiful elven woman stepped onto the road before him, smiling, and he stopped, dismounted, and walked away with her. They went to a cottage in the woods not too far from here. That cottage is right in the middle of a lot of strangeness going on in the woods here, and that woman is behind it somehow, I think. There were others with her at the cottage, too many for me to be able to handle on my own. But I was spotted, and the woman sent the archer to kill me, and he's been doing his level best ever since to do just that. I wildshape when I can to try to throw him off, but he's always picked up my trail."

"The elven woman has probably charmed Oakcrown into subservience," Alistair mused. "She may even be dominating him."

"Or he could just be a colossal jerk," Chaevaris opined, "doing whatever a hot piece of elven tail asks him to."

"Regardless, we were sent to fetch him," Harlan pointed out. He turned to Ralandane. "Can you lead us to this cottage?" he asked. The druid was more than capable, taking them via a winding method that had them approaching the cottage from a different angle than if they had just followed Oakcrown's path. They tied their mounts' reins to trees several hundred feet from the cottage, where Ralandane offered to stay and watch over them. "I don't wish to be charmed like he was," the druid confessed. "But I do have some spells prepared that could be of use."

After explaining what spells he could cast on the others to aid them in any combat situations that might arise, the group decided to have Harlan be the recipient of both the bear's endurance and barkskin spells Ralandane had prepared. The druid warned the group there could be as many as four people in the cottage, possibly even more: the woman, who seemed to be in charge; Captain Oakcrown; a half-elf with a lute; and another elf who carried a battleaxe but wore no armor. At Ageratum's questioning, he offered up he hadn't ever seen any evidence of any guard dogs.

"Good," the halfling replied. "Dogs can be a real pain."

Alistair spoke a few words to Ambrose in their own special language, and the grackle flapped off the sorcerer's shoulder to do a reconnaissance flight around the cottage. After a few minutes, the bird alit back upon Alistair's shoulder and reported what he'd seen. Alistair, in turn, translated the grackle's findings for the others. "The front door is the only way in," he said. "There are four windows: one on either side of the front door, and one each on the east and west sides, each over by the front of the cottage. The windows have shutters, all of which are open, and the windows are glass, covered with a wooden latticework. Ambrose doesn't think they open. He saw two people inside: the woman, sitting on a sofa directly across from the front door, and the bard playing the lute by her side. Oh, and Captain Oakcrown is perched on a branch in a tree off to the east of the cottage, standing guard."

"That's only three accounted for," Harlan observed. "Any sign of the fighter with the sword?"

Alistair conferred with Ambrose. "He didn't see him," Alistair said. "He might be in the back of the cottage. There are two hanging curtains on the north wall of the entry room, where the lady's listening to the music being played by the half-elf, which likely lead to the back half of the building. Or, he might not even be present - maybe he's off on some other errand for her."

Harlan gave it some thought. "We'll need to avoid the east side," he said. "I was hoping to be able to move in using a pincer formation, but if there's no back door, that's out." Harlan could definitely pick up a single source of evil in the room, sensing it even through the wooden wall of the structure.

Eventually they struck up a plan, focused upon taking out the elven woman as quickly as possible, and hoping that the others were merely charmed into doing her bidding - and furthermore, that with her out (either unconscious or dead), she'd no longer be able to control her unwilling minions. Three of the heroes made a long arc around to the west side of the cottage, quietly approaching it from that side and staying low beneath the window. Ageratum scooted around to the front door and examined the knob; without touching it, she could tell it was unlocked and it didn't look to be trapped. Harlan came over by her side, longsword out and ready, although he had mentally shut off the flames of his blade, so as not to cause flickering light that Oakcrown might be able to notice, even if his vantage point from his perch did not include the front door. Alistair and Ambrose waited by the western window, and with a quietly cast spell, Ogilvy joined them. Alistair handed a fist-sized rock to his unseen servant and was about to explain the plan when he realized it wasn't necessary - Ogilvy would perform as his master directed, when mentally commanded to do so. Alistair cast a touch of idiocy spell on his familiar, with directions for Ambrose to go set it off by touching the elven woman, whom Alistair suspected was some sort of wizard or sorcerer herself. Chaevaris, in the meantime, remained over at their original location, where the archer could get a bead on Captain Oakcrown, who was apparently unaware of being targeted down a readied arrow's shaft.

The signal to attack was Ogilvy's smashing of a diagonal section of glass in the western latticed window. Once the unseen servant had done just that, Alistair pushed Ambrose through the opening with one hand while he pushed his wand of magic missile into the opening shortly thereafter, to get off a blast at the woman while Ambrose's triggered spell (with luck) reduced her mental faculties, hopefully to the point she'd be unable to cast some of her more powerful spells. At the same time, Ageratum pushed open the front door, allowing Harlan to charge into the room, igniting his blade as he channeled a smite evil attack through his sword. And Ageratum threw one of her kobold spears at the woman as well.

All of this went off, but not entirely exactly as planned. As Ambrose flapped across the room to deliver the touch of idiocy spell on the woman, he was blasted by a sudden bolt of force that sent a few feathers flying from his wings. An elven sorcerer, who until that moment had been standing invisibly to the west of the woman, suddenly popped into view when he cast the magic missile spell at the intruding grackle. Fortunately, the bird, although sent off course by the power of the blast, regained his momentum in an instant and managed to touch a wing to the woman's hair, sending the spell flashing into her body. Even better, the spell was fully successful, as evidenced by her shocked reaction as it took its full effect, slightly reducing her mental faculties. Ambrose flapped around the room, finally alighting in a corner where he hoped to remain out of the way until he could exit through the front door.

Harlan's charge was also successful, but he had a harder time getting to his target than he had intended. As soon as he stepped into the cottage, his mind was bombarded by a spell cast by the half-elven bard, and the paladin had to force himself not to drop his plan altogether and just laugh at the whole ridiculousness of the situation. Fortunately, he was able to suppress the effects of the Tasha's hideous laughter spell and all that slipped past his lips was a stifled giggle. But the woman had also apparently been ready for the paladin's charge, for he could feel her presence in the back of his mind, telling him to stop his attack and protect her at all cost, even if it meant fighting his former friends. His will was strong enough to overcome that attempt as well, and he finished his charge, channeling additional holy power through his flaming burst longsword - which he'd mentally reignited during his charge across the room - and the blade cut into her side, causing her to shriek in pain. Her pain was compounded by the blast from Alistair's wand sticking through the gap in the window; it would have been compounded even further from the thrown halfspear, but Ageratum's throw was slightly off.

Outside the cabin, Chaevaris heard Oglivy's smashing of the window glass and fired off the arrow being held at the ready. It crossed the clearing and buried itself in his right thigh. He grunted in pain and released his own arrow, which struck Chaevaris in the upper part of the left arm. But Chaevaris clamped down on any pain, not wanting to give Oakcrown the satisfaction of knowing he'd caused any pain to his target.

Inside the cottage, the half-elf bard dropped his lute and charged at Harlan for having the audacity to strike his beloved mistress with his flaming sword. His dagger cut into the paladin's side, but the worst of the blow was deflected by Harlan's armor. And then, with the rustling of the easternmost curtain, another figure entered the fray: the elven fighter with the battleaxe and no armor which Ralandane had warned the heroes about. He likewise raced to attack Harlan, but the paladin was able to avoid the swinging axe with ease.

Alistair cast a scorching ray at the elven woman, pointing his finger through the opening in the window. But his spell went wide, striking the wall behind her instead of its real target. Alistair voiced an uncharacteristic curse; he'd hoped his spell would have brought her down, for she truly looked to be on her last legs. Perhaps this was a valuable lesson on the difficulties in casting at a target from outside the building in which she stood.

Suddenly, Alistair's view of his target was blocked by Moonstone, the sorcerer who'd blasted Ambrose. He had a wand of his own and positioned himself so he could use it on Harlan without harming his own allies. Voicing the command word, a sheet of flames spread out from the tip of the wand: burning hands, Alistair realized. He grinned as he realized that wand would be his if they took these foes out. Harlan barely even noticed the sudden burst of flame from his left, even as they warmed that side of his armor. He was, instead, focused upon his own attacks, which ignored the bard and the fighter at his side and sent the blade of his flaming burst longsword, imbued with holy energy from Pelor, crashing into the side of the elven woman who the paladin's senses revealed as the only source of evil inside the entire room. She screamed her final shriek of defiance as she fell to the floor, dead beyond the Blood Mirror's ability to prevent.

The effects of the woman's death were instantaneous. As had been hoped, the others in the room - Moonstone, the bard, and the battleaxe-wielding fighter - all shook their head as if awakening from a bout of sleepwalking. Harlan immediately deactivated the flames from his blade and held the sword and his other hand up before him, showing them he was no longer in a fighting stance. "We mean you no harm," he told them.

"Nor we you," answered the elven fighter, lowering his battleaxe.

Outside the cottage, however, things were continuing on as before. Chaevaris sent another arrow flying at Oakcrown, thudding into the side of the trunk of the tree in which he was perched. He let loose with another arrow of his own, the tip of the arrowhead catching the side of Chaevaris's cheek as it flew past. Oakcrown then dropped from the tree, pulled the arrow from his leg, and limped away in the opposite direction from the cottage.

Chaevaris yelled, "It's definitely off!" in Elven at Oakcrown's back.

"You bet it is!" Oakcrown called back over his shoulder in the same language. "I don't want anything to do with such a*tty shooter!" However, his continued limp gave silent evidence to Chaevaris's actual marksmanship skills.

"Hey, wait," Ageratum called over to the others. "Oakcrown's leaving again - aren't we supposed to be bringing him in?"

"We are," Harlan replied, stepping outside the cottage and seeing Captain Oakcrown and Chaevaris rooted in their respective spots, engaged in calling each other names in their native tongue.

"Elitist bastard!"

"Dung-eating common rabble!"

"Pompous, self-important blowhard!"

"Flat-chested, unappealing peasant!"

Eventually, Harlan was able to get them to quit their name-calling and appeal to Oakcrown's sense of duty by informing him they'd been sent by Talantis Vertiver to discover his whereabouts and the reason he hadn't completed his dispatch mission. A look of shame crept over the elven Captain's face as he realized his dereliction - unwilling as it might have been - had impacted the nation of Celene. Without another word, he limped over back towards the cottage, studiously avoiding Chaevaris's gaze.

But while Alistair was mentally running their elven words back in his mind (he read Elven with a much faster speed and a better comprehension than he did when hearing it spoken aloud), Ageratum had followed along with the insults perfectly fine and realized the import of Oakcrown's final barb. She strode up to Chaevaris and said, "You're an elven woman?"

Chaevaris looked down at her diminutive companion. Of her three cohorts in the adventuring business, Ageratum was the closest in age and the one she least considered to be a child. "Yes," she finally admitted. The halfling smiled and offered her fist for a fist bump, which Chaevaris half-heartedly gave.

Ageratum spun and faced Alistair. "Did you know?" she demanded.

Alistair's mind was just now catching up to the revelations. "I-- well-- yes, of course, I realized immediately," he stammered. "I just...figured there must be a good reason why Chaevaris was masquerading as a man, and so I--" Then a sudden realization hit him, one more devastating to him than the fact he'd merely assumed Chaevaris, with her short hair and slight build, had been male. "You're not the real Elfy 'Danger' Silverleaf!" he cried.

Chaevaris just shook her head sadly. "Child," she sighed.

But then any further discussion was pre-empted when Moonstone informed the group there was an elven girl downstairs in the cabin. "She had us grab her the other night," he admitted. "See, she's not really - well, wasn't really an elf; that was just one of her forms." He explained she was a foxwoman, a form of lycanthrope who abducted children and passed on her shapeshifting abilities to the next generation in that fashion. "She referred to it as a 'wedding,'" Moonstone further explained. "She was planning on turning the little girl into a foxwoman like herself tonight."

Harlan led the group through the curtain (which led to a kitchen), and from there down a set of stairs which led to the foxwoman's bedroom. There they found the elven girl, looking to Alistair's human eyes as if she were a mere six or eight years old, asleep in the bed. There were no restraints keeping her in place, as she'd already been charmed into accepting her new life with her new "mother." Ralandane, once he was brought to the cottage, recognized the girl and promised to return her to her family.

However, at Ageratum's insistence, the heroes gave the lower level a full exploration and the crafty halfling discovered a hidden door in the wall which led to a natural cave opening beneath the cottage. It smelled of old bones and rotting meat, and sure enough it was the foxwoman's den for the times when she wore a fox's form. But of more importance to Ageratum were the three chests stacked against the back wall of the cave; after determining they weren't trapped, she opened each one, revealing a large quantity of coins and gems. She also found a pearl-handled dagger with a silver blade, which would serve the halfling perfectly well as a short sword. A detect magic spell cast by Alistair confirmed it carried a dweomer that increased the wielder's combat prowess and effectiveness. He also uncovered the magical nature of one of the candles in the bathing room, which, when lit, cast a calm emotions effect. "Nice haul!" Ageratum enthused, figuring after taking the pearl-handled dagger out of the equation, there was the equivalent of about four thousand pieces of gold in treasure for each of the four heroes.

As Ralandane took the elven girl back to her family and the other formerly charmed victims of the foxwoman each went their separate ways, Olotores Oakcrown went to fetch his horse, promising to return. While he was gone, Ageratum pressed Chaevaris for details. "So what's the deal with you two?" she asked.

Chaevaris sighed. "Olotoris and I trained in archery together," she explained. "My parents were quite taken with him, and arranged a marriage between us. I wanted nothing to do with marrying him, so I took the opportunity of signing on with a caravan taking me 19 days away from Greyhawk City, thinking I'd never have to deal with him again. Apparently, he had similar feelings about the prospect of marrying me." Looking down at her elven chain mail armor, hanging flat from her shoulders and undisturbed by even the slightest hint of a breast, she added, "After all, my sister Ennala was the one with the traditional feminine elven good looks. Had I known he had no interest...."

"Had you known that," Alistair interjected, "you'd never had met up with us, Elfy, and think how sad a life that would have been!" Then, seeing Chaevaris's scowl and properly chastised, he lowered his eyes and amended his statement with, "I mean, Miss Noarunal."

"That's a little better," Chaevaris admitted. Maybe these "children" could be trained after all....

- - -

So, a dozen adventures in and we finally got to Chaevaris's big secret. Logan had decided on running a female elf archer but decided his PC was going to look very much like a male - flat chest, short hair, not much of a feminine figure - because he thought it would make for a good surprise to drop on the other players later in the campaign. However, I'm the one who made the initiative cards for the PCs, and when I saw the image Logan had chosen for Chaevaris I commented on how he looked like a girl. (I had naturally assumed Logan would be running a male PC, since in all of our campaigns thus far the players had all played PCs matching their own genders.) And when I heard the limited backstory he was willing to tell me - that Chaevaris was just looking for a reason to get far away from Greyhawk City - I jokingly asked if he was running away from an arranged marriage. Seeing the crestfallen expression on his face (and probably assuming I'd picked up more than I did, given our similar "mental wavelengths"), he told me the full story and just asked that I keep it from the other players.

So, I not only did just that, but as I started writing up this Story Hour I deliberately avoided using any pronouns when describing Chaevaris. It was never "he picked up an arrow and placed it in his bow," it was always "the elf picked up an arrow and put it in place in the bow" - the only exceptions being when any of the other PCs were talking about Chaevaris. In those instances, I allowed myself to use "he" and "him" if that's how Ageratum, Alistair, or Harlan would describe their archer companion. Now, I no longer have to worry about such linguistical contortions, which is a bit of a relief. Of course, Alistair will now be referring to Chaevaris as "Miss Noarunal" as that's how he was brought up.

Incidentally, at the end of this session Logan informed us "Chaevaris" in Elven is a unisex name (like Drew or Jordan); when pronounced "Shuv-air-us" (which is how he pronounces it for his PC) it's considered feminine, but when pronounced "Shay-vair-us" it's considered masculine. Kind of like Michael and Michele, I suppose, although I do know of several female Michaels.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

Attached please find another song I have penned in my free time between living the life of a Trained Professional Adventurer. This one deals with the female member of our little group, Miss Ageratum Purslane.

The lyrics follow:

Ageratum Purslane came over from the Fairy Land​
Made her way to Greyhawk, joined up with a merry band​
She isn't very tall, she's the size of a six-year-old kid​
But she's got a bosom like no human child ever did​
Ageratum Purslane wields a short sword just her size​
If he bends down, she can stab a fellow 'tween the eyes​
If he refuses, and stands as tall as he can be​
It won't make a difference: she's got a kobold spear or three​
Ageratum Purslane truly has a heart of gold​
(She's also got an eye for it, if the truth be told)​
Rescued two young girls from kobolds who were seeking meals​
But watch her, for it's not just hearts that she often steals​
Ageratum Purslane is quite deadly in a fight​
She knows where to strike a foe so it hits just right​
Don't make the mistake of underestimating her​
Or she'll strike you dead, it'll be too late for hating her​
Ageratum Purslane disables traps with ease​
And she makes her way through locked doors quick as you might please​
In a band of heroes she certainly pulls her weight​
(But don't ask how much she weighs - that idea's not great!)​
Ageratum Purslane's armor is equipped with studs​
And she can really hold her own when she's drinking suds​
Despite her small size, she can drink you under the table​
Probably due to magic - she's a halfling right out of a fable​
Ageratum Purslane's a figure filled with mystery​
Nobody truly knows her full history​
Just how did she gain these impressive combat fighting skills?​
And how high a number's needed to count up all her kills?​
Ageratum Purslane's classy, confident, and cute​
A Trained Professional Adventurer, to boot​
The man who ever wins her heart is in for quite a treat​
But if he ever breaks that heart, hope he is quite fleet!​

I hope this one also meets with your approval and will enhance your current repertoire of tavern songs.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite

- - -



PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 14 December 2022

- - -

After turning Captain Oakcrown over to the Enstad government officials, the four heroes spent a bit of time checking out the Enstad shops. Chaevaris picked up a quiver of Ehlonna and a variety of different types of arrows, but the group quickly found the more time they spent in town, the more veiled looks they were getting from the town's citizens; apparently Oakcrown had wasted little time in bad-mouthing his former training partner and her adventuring companions. As one, they decided the sooner they were back on the road to Ghourmand Vale, the better.

Fortunately, their four-day trek back towards the Vale was uneventful. When they dismounted at the Stout farm and went into the farmhouse, Mrs. Stout handed Alistair a sealed piece of folded parchment. "This was delivered for you," she said.

Opening the letter, Alistair found it had been penned by Holyrood Carp, the bard for whom he'd recently been writing songs. "He's performing at the Dark and Light Club," the sorcerer told the others. "We're invited to watch his act." Skimming over the rest of the brief missive, he added, "Oh! And he's gotten a lot of positive feedback on the Harlan song. He'll be performing the Ageratum song for the first time tonight." That was reason enough to make the two-hour journey to the town of Ghourmand Vale after eight straight days of travel. But first, they availed themselves of a home-cooked lunch by Mrs. Stout - well appreciated after more than a week eating on the trail.

The Dark and Light Club had been undergoing some renovations since the last time the group had been there - there was now a second story that hadn't been there before. As Alistair had been a steady customer at the club, picking the brains of the wizards and sorcerers who spent much of their spare time there, learning what he could about the ins and outs of spellcasting, he was recognized by the workers there and allowed to check the place out. The upper story was mostly a balcony overlooking the tables facing the stage; the spiral staircase was over in the southeast corner and there was dumbwaiter leading to the kitchen below along the western wall. According to Carp's letter, they had a box reserved along the balcony for the evening's act.

With several hours to kill, the group picked up a few potions from a wizard's cart and ate a supper in one of the eating establishments that had sprung up all over the boomtown. But they were back at the Dark and Light Club in time for the performance, in full gear - for one never knew when combat would erupt; the last time they'd spent time here they'd been attacked by weretigers. They made their way up the stairs and took their seats. There was some sort of illusion in place just outside the balcony seats, too (not surprising in a club run by retired wizards): looking out over the balcony, it appeared as if those seated were on the shore of a dark lake with still waters, flanked by a forest of thick trees in the distance. It was a quite impressive illusion, but as the time for the performance came near, the waters of the illusory lake started clearing and the group could see Holyrood Carp on the stage below, as well as the tables where the audience sat. Alistair was glad to see the seats were almost all filled; Carp had managed practically a full house.

"Hey, that's Kasselban!" Ageratum said, pointing down at the dwarven head of the Slippery Shaft Mines in the audience below. He was being served a full mug of ale by one of the good-looking women who worked for the club.

Harlan spotted a few other people in the crowd below that they knew: Macrell Slade, the head of the town guard; Merton Fink, the head of the public works who was responsible for hauling away trash (as well as dead bodies); and Caraban Monteison, head of the Merchant Guild. "Hmmm," he murmured to himself, frowning.

"What is it?" asked Chaevaris.

"The serving girl down there by Funk and the others," he said. "Does she look familiar to you?"

Chaevaris squinted down into the dark level below. The serving girl was just that: a girl, maybe as old as fifteen but surely no older; much younger than the other waitresses bringing drinks to the patrons before Carp began his set. She did look somewhat familiar, but where had she seen her before? Then it hit her: "She's that vampire spawn we fought in Shambles' bar up in Mitrek!" she hissed to Harlan.

"I say!" piped up Alistair, peering down at the group below and trying to make out the young waitress; it didn't help that he had no elven heritage like Chaevaris or Harlan to enable him to see better in dim lighting. "Is she evil?"

Harlan focused his paladin senses on the group below. While he picked up slight readings from a few of them - likely indicating a leaning towards greediness or a willingness to screw over a neighbor to ensure a personal advantage - the young waitress's aura blazed with evil. "Absolutely," Harlan answered. "It's her."

"Her name was Carly," Ageratum piped up. She, at least, had remembered the vampire's name.

"What shall we do?" Alistair asked. "We can't very well go shooting arrows or scorching ray spells down into a crowded bar area." But the moment had passed in any case, for Carly, after placing drinks upon the table of the movers and shakers of Ghourmand Vale, departed back to the kitchen area, directly below the balcony.

"We need to check her out!" Ageratum answered. She made her way to the dumbwaiter cabinet, opened the door, and saw that the device was down on the ground level. Still, as a halfling, that posed little problem for her: she crawled into the opening and slid down the rope, landing upon the top of the dumbwaiter. Taking out one of her daggers, she pried a few boards loose from the dumbwaiter's roof and peeked into the kitchen area. Carly had just opened a back door to the alley behind the club and walked outside.

Alistair, Harlan, and Chaevaris took the spiral stairs back down to the ground level, the sorcerer indicating to the bartender behind the bar that he needed to go into the kitchen and the other two were with him. The bartender gave a "thumbs up" indicating he was okay with it, and the three went through the kitchen door, to find Ageratum climbing out of the dumbwaiter. "We'll need to hammer the roof boards back in place," she told them, then went over to the back door, sliding it open a crack and peeking outside. "She went out this way," Ageratum told the others.

Carly was about 30 feet down the side alley, talking to a commoner. He bent down, picked up a dead body, and passed it over to Carly; it was a blond woman dressed like the waitresses back in the club. Carly shifted her over her shoulder, her vampiric status making her much stronger than she looked. Then she continued on down the street while her conspirator took off in another direction.

"We follow," announced Harlan, stepping outside and heading in the direction Carly had taken. Chaevaris did more than that; taking one of her newly-purchased silver-headed arrows from her quiver of Ehlonna, she placed it in her longbow, took careful aim, and sent the arrow flying across the distance to land with a "thunk" into Carly's back.

"Ow!" cried Carly, turning about to see who had just attacked her. Alistair took the opportunity to fire a blast from his wand of magic missiles at her face, causing her to cry out in pain and irritation once again. Ageratum started chasing after her, confident that her boots of striding and springing would allow her to keep pace with a human for once, even if that human was now a vampire. As far as she was aware, Carly didn't have the full list of vampiric powers at her beck and call and wouldn't be turning into a bat or anything. And carrying a corpse over her shoulder could only slow her down. Ageratum was looking forward to finding a use for her silver dagger, as silver was said to be one of the substances particularly deadly to vampires.

However, she didn't get the chance, for another silver-tipped arrow from Chaevaris's bow caused Carly to discorporate into mist. The body she'd been carrying turned to mist as well, which made some sort of sense, since at this point it was merely an object the vampire spawn had with her, no different than a carried weapon or the clothes she wore.

"I say!" declared Alistair. "It's a clear night out - we should be able to track her to her nearest coffin and then finish her off for good!" When they'd "slain" her in Mitrek, it had been a foggy night out and her gaseous form had been unable to be tracked. But now, in the moonlight, the group could see the small cloud of mist that had once been Carly's corporeal form, and as they watched, it drifted away from the city streets and off into the fields. Best of all, it drifted at a much slower speed than Carly would have been able to maintain in human form, so keeping pace with her was no problem. Alistair mentally called for his grackle familiar, Ambrose (who'd been waiting on the roof of the Dark and Light Club while his master went in to hear Carp's performance), and he even had time to summon Ogilvy, his unseen servant. Chaevaris lit her bullseye lantern and handed it over to Ogilvy, and the spell effect, at Alistair's command, kept the light trained on the floating mist as they followed at her drifting pace.

The mist led the group to a deep ravine in the middle of a field, then slid down the first of the slopes along the embankment. There were three such sudden inclines before hitting the bottom of the ravine, which was empty save for a brush heap along one edge. The mist flowed unerringly towards the brush heap.

"Down you go," Alistair ordered Ogilvy, and the unseen servant obediantly went down the various slopes, keeping the lantern-light focused upon the mist. Ageratum leaped down from level to level without incident, aided by her new magic boots. Harlan took a slower, more cautious approach during his descent, while Alistair and Chaevaris chose to stay up at the top of the ravine. After all, if the mist had gone down into the ravine, Carly's coffin would likely be down there, and from their vantage point they could see the only place it could be hidden was inside the brush heap. They'd wait for Ageratum and Harlan to dig it free, while they stood guard where they could see anyone who might try to interfere.

However, the interference came not from above, but from within the ravine itself: a viny tendril came snaking out from the brush heap to strike Ogilvy's lantern, knocking it from the unseen servant's grip and sending it crashing to the stone floor of the ravine. "I say!" declared Alistair, looking down from above. "It's a shambling mound!"

Despite the tales of various strange creatures about which the young sorcerer had been learning, it was not a shambling mound that rose up from the "brush heap." It was worse - a tendriculos. But despite not knowing exactly what it was he was fighting, Alistair sent a scorching ray blasting down at the "brush heap" as it reformed. The spell hit true, but it did not cause the plant monster to be engulfed in flame as the sorcerer had hoped. Chaevaris had likewise expected a fire-based spell to do more damage to the plant-beast than it had done, and decided she'd see what could be done about that. Unstoppering a flask of oil from her belt, she threw it down at the tendriculos, already having achieved its full size and standard shape. The oil soaked into the monster's vegetable fibers; hopefully that would encourage it to burst into flames upon the next fire-based spell.

But before Alistair could put that theory into practice, Harlan charged forward, bringing his flaming burst longsword swinging at the creature's base. Unfortunately, the oil had hit the creature much higher up, so while the half-elf's blade cut into its plant fiber and the flames singed a bunch of its leaves, the strike was likewise not enough to set the thing ablaze. Then the tendriculos shambled forward, shooting two tendrils lashing out at the paladin while it bent over and tried to catch him in the massive maw opening up in its upper part, where stiff, pointed thorns took the place of teeth. Fortunately for Harlan, he was able to avoid all three of the plant's attacks as he dodged off to one side.

Carly, in mist form, slid beneath the tendriculos's massive bulk. Ageratum noticed this and assumed that meant the vampire spawn had her coffin underground beneath the ravine, but right now she didn't have time to follow through with that thought - there was a giant, ambulatory plant attacking Harlan! She threw a shortspear at the tendriculos and couldn't help but hit the thing, but whether she did much damage to it was a matter of conjecture.

Alistair sent another scorching ray down at the tendriculos, setting a small portion of it on fire. But the flames burned out before too long; the creature was probably somewhat damp from dew or something, the sorcerer reasoned. Chaevaris sent a normal arrow into the plant-thing's mass, where its feathered end stuck out of the thing's "head" - if a creature made of plant fiber could be said to even have a head. Down at its "feet," Harlan pressed on the attack with his flaming sword, and then found himself the target of the plant's attacks once again. Unfortunately, this time the tendriculos was much more successful, whipping him with its flailing appendages and then catching him up in its thorny maw. Harlan felt himself being elevated as the creature, having bent down to bite at him, once again stood to its full height. Then the paladin felt himself being swallowed whole, his body falling down a fibrous tunnel to land inside some sort of gullet. The half-elf grinned, in part at gladness to still be alive, but also because here, inside the beast's "stomach," he could no longer be swatted at by tendrils or bitten by a thorn-laced maw, whereas his flaming burst longsword could be used to chop up the creature from the inside as well as it could from outside!

The plant shuffled around a bit again, startling Ageratum enough that her next thrown shortspear missed its mark entirely. Alistair cast another scorching ray at it and Chaevaris sent another arrow striking the creature beside her previous shot, but the sorcerer noticed, with concern, that some of the previously singed areas were starting to grow back with fresh-looking vegetation. Surely this creature couldn't regenerate? It was starting to look as if it did, and if so, it was going to take a fair bit longer to bring the plant-thing down.

Harlan swung his flaming blade at the stomach interior, cutting open a gash in the side of his plant-fiber cave. It started oozing liquid, which at first the paladin took to be some sort of sap-like blood equivalent, until some of it dripped on him and burned like acid. Belatedly, Harlan realized if the plant-beast had the equivalent of a stomach, it made sense for it to have some sort of stomach acid as well. He vowed to cut the thing up from the inside as fast as he could...and that's when he noticed the secondary side effect from the plant's internal juices: his muscles had locked up and he was paralyzed! An initial burst of panic threatened to overcome the paladin's mind, but he willed himself to calmness and thought his way through his current predicament. True, he couldn't move his body, but his flaming blade was still alight and its fires were burning the creature's interior fibers, even if he couldn't use the sword to stab deep into the plant's mass. Also, he didn't need to be able to move to be able to channel Pelor's positive healing energy into his body, healing the worst of his wounds. Still, he had a limited amount of healing energy he could channel each day, whereas the plant thing would presumably continue to pump out its acidic secretions as long as it had someone inside its gullet...he hoped the other three could bring this beast down, and fast!

Outside the beast, they were doing their very best to do just that. Ageratum skirted away from an attack by the tendriculos, leaping over its striking tendrils and ducking beneath its attempt to bite her; there were times when it helped only being three feet tall, and this was definitely one of them! At the top of the ravine, Chaevaris and Alistair continued sending down arrows and scorching ray spells, each doing their part to whittle the thing down. Ageratum decided to switch to her short sword, figuring slashing at plant fiber would likely do more damage than just poking it with a spearhead.

But then the tendriculos shifted again, crawling up the first slope, which brought it within range to snap out at Chaevaris. Faster than the elf would have thought possible, it slapped her with two lashing tendrils and then darted its entire upper body forward, and she found herself inside its maw, thorny teeth clamping down upon her legs. Ageratum continued slashing at the thing with her sword, but she got the sinking feeling it was like trying to chop down a tree with a pocket knife.

Alistair backed up a considerable distance, but making sure he could still at least see the top of the creature's head. He aimed and cast his last scorching ray spell of the day, fortunately finally hitting the spot where Chaevaris's flask of oil had landed, for the flames that burst forth from the spell were about twice as big as those from the sorcerer's previous scorching rays. Inside the creature's maw, Chaevaris had no room for bow maneuvers and thus slashed at it using her rapier. She could see a flickering light from below, no doubt Harlan's flaming blade doing its thing. Unbeknownst to the archer, however, Harlan was not faring very well - he'd used up all of his available healing energy and was still unable to move at all.

Ageratum continued attacking the tendriculos with her shortsword, while Alistair had been forced to switch over to blasts from his wand of magic missile. He was glad he'd paid the highest possible price for his wand, ensuring it dealt the maximum amount of damage per charge, for the blasts from his wand were much more powerful than he was currently able to channel through casting the magic missile spell himself, although that would come over time and with experience, or so assured the wizards and other spellcasters back at the Dark and Light Club. But the group's continued efforts - Ageratum's short sword, Chaevaris's rapier, Harlan's flaming blade, and Alistair's magic missile charges from his wand, eventually had the desired effect: the tendriculos crashed over sideways, landing in a heap. So focused had the heroes been on dealing it damage to bring it down, they'd failed to notice when it had stopped attacking them in return; they'd had it finished some time ago but its plant body had been stabilized by the power of the Blood Mirror, and they'd had to deal it enough damage to overcome the magic ruby's stabilizing effects. But once its metabolism ceased its gullet stopped producing acid, and Chaevaris was able to pull a still-paralyzed Harlan back up the passageway to its mouth, where she was able to drag the paladin out into the open night air. Ageratum was there in a jiffy to pour the contents of a potion of cure light wounds down Harlan's mouth; it wasn't able to restore him to mobility, but it did heal over the acid burns that had been covering his body. And, a few minutes later, mobility was restored to the paladin's limbs, the paralytic properties of the tendriculos's internal liquids having run their course.

"I say!" called down Alistair once it was apparent that combat was over and done with, "Is there any sign of a coffin?" He'd go down and check for himself, but it looked rather muddy down there and he preferred not to get himself that dirty if at all possible.

Chaevaris looked over at where she'd last seen the gaseous form of Carly the vampire spawn, where the "brush heap" had first been seen. There was nothing but a solid stone layer at the bottom of the ravine - but wait a minute, there was a slight crack at the bottom. Chaevaris tried widening the narrow hole with her fingers, but it was solid stone. "She went through a crack in the rock," she called back up to Alistair. "There's probably a cave underneath here, somewhere," she hazarded.

"I'm afraid we'll have to wait for another time to try to find the cave entrance," Harlan announced. "We're not up for another battle like this last one. For now, it'll have to be enough to know that Carly's in town. That would have been a remarkable amount of effort on her part, getting at least one - if not more - of her coffins moved down here from Mitrek. We'll need to be alert to the possible presence of Father Bouchard Coletrane, the vampire who sired her, as well - if she survived the purge in Mitrek, he may well have also done so."

"You'd think with the resources of the entire church of Pelor at their disposal, they'd have been able to take care of two vampires..." grumbled Chaevaris.

"Vampires can be rather tricky to kill," replied Harlan. "But in any case, I believe we'd best return to the club for now." That sounded like a good plan to Alistair, who'd been eager to hear the response to the singing of his two songs. Alas, by the time they returned the bard's session had been finished, but they were able to talk to him over a few drinks afterwards.

"They were both quite well received," Carp assured the group. "I've sung the Harlan song several times now, and I dare say there are a few young ladies more than willing to get to know our paladin with the 'gorgeous blond locks' a bit better, if you know what I mean." He threw Harlan a knowing wink.

"The pursuit of Pelor's goals leaves no time for such nonsense," Harlan replied.

"And Ageratum's song?" demanded Alistair.

"Went over quite well, quite well indeed," replied Carp. "Here, this is for you." And he handed over a small pouch of coins. Alistair opened it and saw 15 pieces of gold. He, along with his friends and comrades-in-arms, had unearthed quite a lot more gold in their short adventuring career, but this felt different to Alistair - this was money he had earned, using his mastery of the Common tongue and knowledge of song rhythms. If this is what the common man felt after a day's hard work, he could understand why not everyone wanted to be a nobleman.

- - -

That tendriculos was the toughest opponent we've fought to date - Harlan was probably one round away from being permanently slain (or as permanently as it ever gets in D&D). He was already into negative hp when we finally killed the tendriculos; we play that you're "dead-dead" once your hit point total reaches the negative of your Constitution score. (Harlan has a 12 Constitution and was already at -5 hp, and the tendriculos stomach acid was dealing 3d6 acid damage a round.)

It's a little bit of a bummer that Carly has escaped us twice now; maybe the third time will be the charm!

Dan and his family are on vacation starting this week, so we won't have another session in this campaign until 4 Jan 23 (or possible even 11 Jan 23, depending on how much time he has when he gets back home to work on an adventure). He's dropped hints that we'll be dealing with pirates soon, which will be a bit of a trick since Ghourmand Vale is landlocked, but we'll see what he comes up with.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

I am so pleased to hear of your continued success with these new songs. Please accept the latest of my efforts, this one about our elven archer, Chaevaris Noarunal.

The lyrics follow:

Can you survive in the wilderness on your own?​
Forage for food while you're all alone?​
Build yourself a shelter made of hides and bone?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you craft a longbow all by yourself?​
Build enough arrows to fill a shelf?​
Hunt in the forest like a woodlands elf?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you track your quarry throughout night and day​
Sight down your arrow pointed at your prey​
Can you kill it with one shot 'fore it gets away?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you've downed the animal that you've chased​
And you're looking forward to how it will taste​
Can you use each part so nothing goes to waste?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you stare down those with whom you have a beef?​
Can you hold your own 'gainst those who cause you grief?​
Can you compare to Elfy "Danger" Silverleaf?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you steel yourself to fight against undead?​
Can you kill hobgoblins who'd sever your head?​
Can you turn from family who would see you wed?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you slay a petrifying cockatrice?​
Fight a weretiger, and then do it twice?​
Slide through shadows quieter than mice?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you see an archer without a big chest​
And tight leather pants are what fits her best​
Then what feature will leave you most impressed?​
...Chaevaris Noarunal's can.​

I look forward to continuing our joint efforts in bringing notoriety to our adventuring band and coinage to your worthy efforts in spreading word of our exploits. I fear the next song will have to be about my own self, a fact that brings no small amount of trepidation.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite


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