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Raiders of the Overreach



PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 5​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 1/fighter 1​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 5​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 5​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 5​

Game Session Date: 25 March 2020

- - -

The slave-light torches illuminated all at once, bringing the sleeping figures into sudden wakefulness. As one, the five slaves crawled out of their pallets and put on their garments and armor, gathering up their weapons and gear. There was no telling what kind of assignments they'd be given today but experience had shown it was always best to be prepared - their drow masters tolerated no delays in having their orders obeyed.

Almost immediately, a deep, booming voice began blaring some unknown message through the air - unknown only because none of the slaves understood the drow language; they could all by this point determine it was in fact Drow being spoken. "Wonder what that's all about?" groused Utred.

"You know, I think I'll find out!" announced Marlo, unrolling a scroll and reading off the words to a comprehend languages spell. She then listened intently, staring up at the ceiling as she concentrated on what was being said. None of the others bothered her, realizing she'd translate for them after the message had ended. Cramer did notice, however, that the message was repeated a second time all the way through, or at least he thought he heard the same words being repeated; this must be a rather important message, if one intended only for the drow of the city and not the slaves.

"Well?" he asked after the booming voice finally stopped speaking.

"I'll have to paraphrase. The Matron Mother of House Bel'vior - the senior Noble House of Overreach - has died and her firstborn daughter has proclaimed herself not only the new Matron Mother of her House but also the 'Mortal Queen' of the entire drow race, Lolth being the 'Immortal Queen.' She claims Overreach has been infiltrated by heretics of Eilistraee and says they can be identified by their abnormal hair color. She orders they are to be put to death wherever they are found and that any House found harboring them will be purged by Lolth's divine power. Finally, all Houses are to prepare their armies, for in three months they will march upon the source of the Eilistraeean heretics, the surface city of Greenvale."

"That's not good!" Khari said. "Do you think they know about our ties with Greenvale?"

"I doubt it," reasoned Marlo. "They could have scried upon us entering the surface city, but the modifications made to our slave tattoos should have blocked them from seeing any of our dealings with the sunborn drow."

"'Should have,'" repeated Cramer, clearing his mind to prepare his spells for the day - a process he'd best get going now, while he had the time. But his attempts failed miserably; every time he tried clearing his mind to receive the wisdom and grace of Fharlanghn, he got the distinct feeling that invisible spiders were crawling over his body. Finally, instinctively brushing down his arms to rid himself of skittering arachnids that weren't really there, he admitted to the others, "Something's blocking my connection to my god - I can't prepare any new spells!"

"That's not good!" repeated Khari. But before anyone could ponder what this might mean or the overall implications of the new Mortal Queen of Overreach, Eri'dia burst into the room. "Block the door!" she said in a tone that was half command and half pleading. She slumped over into the corner of the room, by Marlo's sleeping pallet, sobbing. Jhasspok, the closest to the door and the bulkiest of the five slaves, stood immediately in front of it, blocking it with his body.

"What's wrong?" Marlo asked, belatedly adding, "...Mistress?"

"I fear my mother, the matriarch of House Jalamir, will kill me," the drow princess replied. Khari's bushy eyebrows rose in surprise at this announcement; he'd never made the connection that Eri'dia was the daughter of the House's leader. That meant Calish was the Matron's son, if he was Eri'dia's sister; he'd never made that connection before, either. "I didn't know where else to go," Eri'dia admitted. "Despite only having really formally met you yesterday, you're the closest thing I have to...friends in the city." She looked up at them, fear in her eyes. "You have to protect me!"

"What makes you think your mother wants to kill you?" asked Cramer, playing dumb about having already heard the announcement broadcast earlier in a language he didn't understand. Eri'dia gave a brief synopsis of the edicts of the new Matron Mother of Bel'vior while Marlo cast an invisibility spell upon the cowering princess. And not a moment too soon, either, for almost immediately the door crashed into Jhasspok as someone tried barging into the room. "Let me in!" demanded a stern voice the lizardfolk recognized immediately. He knew better than to disobey; stepping aside, the door swung open and Calish Jalamir strode into the slaves' room, a pair of drow bodyguards flanking him.

"Where is she?" he demanded.

Jhasspok pointed at the human sorceress, wearing a confused expression on his face. "Marlo is right there, Master," he replied.

"Not her--my sister, Eri'dia!"

"As you can see, Master, she isn't here," Cramer replied, his face a mask of puzzled concern.

"She entered this room recently," Calish countered, turning to face Jhasspok. "Why were you blocking the door?" he demanded.

"I was just standing there, Master," Jhasspok replied. "I didn't know you were coming."

Calish glared at the lizardfolk, who looked down at him with a look of confused innocence on his reptilian face. "Did Eri'dia come into this room?" the slavemaster asked again.

"Yes, Master," Jhasspok replied at once. Unseen, Khari winced; he was under the impression they were trying to help Eri'dia. It sure didn't take the lizard long to fold under the slavemaster's fierce gaze!

"When?" Calish demanded.

"Yesterday, Master," Jhasspok said - quite truthfully. "She needed Cramer to heal her wrist, and then she said we were to go with her to a duergar tomb--"

"I'm talking about today! This morning!" Calish exploded. "She entered this room just minutes ago!"

"She did?" Utred said, looking around the room in confusion, scratching his head. "I don't see her anywhere, Master."

"This is the only way in or out," pointed out one of the drow bodyguards, standing before the door to the room, which he'd closed behind him upon their entry into the slave quarters. "If she's in here, there's no other way out." Over in the corner, the invisible Eri'dia did everything she could to remain absolutely silent, holding in her labored breathing as she watched the slaves do their best to keep her from being found.

"But she's a spellcaster," argued Cramer. "If she came in here without our knowing it, she could just as easily have teleported away or something." He knew this was absolute nonsense - Eri'dia was nowhere near powerful enough to cast such high-level magic - but he figured he might as well stir up some doubts; after all, how likely was it Calish would pay attention to the relative spellcasting power of his little sister, who had not yet attained adulthood in the eyes of drow society?

"If you are hiding her," Calish snarled, "I will feed every last one of you to N'zorthal when he returns!" He turned to one of his bodyguards. "That one," he said, pointing to Cramer. With a wicked smile, the guard unsheathed his rapier and advanced upon the gnome. Cramer knew better than to try to resist; he stood there stoically while the drow fighter stabbed him with the point of his weapon. A zap of electricity struck the gnome at the touch and he winced in pain. "Where is Eri'dia?" Calish asked again.

"I do not know, Master," Cramer replied, thinking to himself, That's technically true: I know where she was when Marlo cast the spell on her, but for all I know she might have moved position since. This was the kind of thinking he'd have to get ready for, because the gnome anticipated interrogation under a zone of truth spell in his immediate future...or at least he hoped so. He was reasonably sure he could beat a zone of truth spell with evasive and technically-true answers, but if they just went straight to torture...well, that was an entirely different matter altogether.

Calish was getting visibly frustrated; he knew full well his sister had opened the door to the slave quarters for the alarm spell had informed him of the fact. However, it was entirely possible the slaves were as clueless about Eri'dia's presence as they claimed.... Finally, he came to a decision. "Everyone into the corner," he demanded. By chance, he chose the corner where Eri'dia was still cowering, invisibly. The slaves, in a show of immediate submission to their slavemaster, did as they were told. Marlo pressed up against Eri'dia, trying to shield her with her own body. Then the three male drow, standing in the middle of the room, blanketed the room in faerie fire spells, outlining each slave in a glow of colored light - and an additional, cowering figure in the corner of the room behind them. "Aha!" the slavemaster cried in triumph. "Got you!"

The jig obviously up, the five slaves made a big production of "noticing" the invisible-but-outlined-in-the-glow-of-faerie-fire shape of Eri'dia behind them and stepped quickly away. They'd done their best to shield her from her brother but now that she was caught there was little more they could do for her; time to look after their own safety! Of course, Cramer mused, they could have attacked the three drow but then they'd have to try to make it out of the city alive and Cramer wasn't about to leave Overreach until he had found and rescued his friend, Honeycomb Buzzwort.

The drow guards stepped up and grabbed Eri'dia by the arms. She gave no resistance and no indication the slaves had tried to aid her. "Take her to the Matron Mother," Calish ordered and the two drow fighters departed the room with their prisoner. Then, alone with five well-armed and armored slaves - and not at all concerned about the situation - he turned to Cramer and demanded, "Prepare any spells you have to discern the truth. I will return for you when you are needed." And with that, he spun on his heels and stormed out of the room, giving Jhasspok a stern look as he left. Surprisingly, although the door to their quarters had no lock upon it, it was immediately covered in a greenish glow and when Jhasspok tried opening it, it wouldn't budge.

"Magically locked," Cramer explained. "We can't get out."

"Well, I can," Khari pointed out, hefting his new warhammer. It allowed him to pass through dirt and stone as if they weren't even there; getting through the stone wall of their slave quarters would be child's play to the dwarven fighter.

"To what end?" Cramer asked, settling himself back down onto his pallet. He tried clearing his mind to focus on his spells again and was pleased to find the sensation of spiders crawling all over him was not repeated. The prayers came easily to him as they always had in the past.

"No breakfast again," muttered Utred to himself. He lay back down upon his pallet. If they were stuck in lock-down, he'd try to go back to sleep.

Three hours passed before Calish returned, the greenish glow disappearing a moment before he stepped into the room. The five slaves, wanting to give the appearance of their complete and total submission, snapped to attention at his approach. "Some ground rules," he said without preamble. "Do not speak in the Matron Mother's presence unless prompted to do so. If you must look her way, be sure you focus your gaze toward her ankles. If you do anything to upset her, she will strike you. The first time will be with the back of her hand, the second time with her scourge, and the third time she won't stop until you've ceased moving altogether, at which time the rest of you will be ordered to toss the corpse off a balcony. Questions?"

Cramer had several but he allowed himself to reply, "No, Master" with the rest of the group.

"Good. Then follow." And he strode back out the door, leading the five slaves down a corridor, along several side branches, and eventually to the House Jalamir shrine to Lolth. In the chamber just outside the shrine stood a human in red robes, bending over a table upon which lay several body parts, their dark coloration showing them to have been severed from a drow - or, more likely, from several drow, given their number. The man was rummaging among the parts and finding the pieces he sought, then stitching them back together. There was another table behind him, upon which lay five bodies, each already stitched back up. As the group got closer, Marlo felt her gorge rising as she realized all of the bodies looked like Eri'dia. She first wondered if the drow princess had been born with identical siblings, until a more logical - and horrific - explanation entered her thoughts. She recalled when Cramer had had his brain devoured by the illithid Administer of Discipline, he'd been forced to wear a ring of regeneration so the process could be repeated multiple times. Marlo imagined poor Eri'dia had been likewise forced to wear such a ring as her body was hacked into pieces, over and over again. And upon orders given by her own mother!

Wordlessly, Calish stepped past the tables with their grisly contents and opened the double door to the shrine in the back. He then, with a gesture, ushered the slaves inside. After they passed silently into the room, he closed the doors behind them, remaining outside the shrine with the red-robed human slave.

At the back of the shrine, Eri'dia dangled by chains at her wrists above a raised altar, naked and head hanging limply. Her left leg had been severed just below the knee, but as the slaves watched it was slowly growing back, powered by the glowing ring on Eri'dia's left hand. Also of note was the fact her entire head of hair was pure red, although whether because it was her natural sunborn coloration or due to the bloodstains was open to debate. Matron Jalamir stood before her daughter, her back to the slaves; on the altar were various tools of the torturer's trade.

With a snap of her fingers the doors to the shrine glowed with a greenish cast, sealing everyone inside. Then she spun around, facing the slaves. They were quick to lower their gaze to her ankles, as they'd been instructed. "Do not resist," she commanded imperiously, then began casting a discern lies spell. None of the slaves dared try to prevent the spell from taking effect. Upon its completion, she stepped down from the altar and stood in the back, by the doors. "There is a list of instructions on the altar, gnome," she said. "Go forth and do as they say."

The other slaves stood transfixed in a row as Cramer silently approached the altar. Sure enough, there was a parchment scroll there. Unrolling it and reading its contents, he did the first thing on the list: cast a zone of truth spell around the altar. He'd had a feeling there would be such a spell in his immediate future - he just hadn't counted on him being the one to cast it.

The rest of the scroll was a list of questions. He read each of them in turn, as Matron Jalamir watched impassively from the back of the room.

"Are you a servant of Eilistraee?"

Eri'dia didn't have the strength to lift her head, but she managed to whisper a response. "...No." In the silence of the shrine, her answer was perfectly audible to all within the room.

Cramer continued, "Have you ever been a servant of Eilistraee?"


"Have you ever been in contact with a servant of Eilistraee?"

"Not...that I...know of."

"Have you ever been to Greenvale?"


"Have you ever been in contact with Greenvale?"


"Why is your hair red?"

"I...don't know."

That was the last of the questions written on the sheet of parchment, but Matron Jalamir had another one: "Gnome, do you know why Eri'dia's hair is red?"

Cramer had known this was going to happen - but he was prepared. Despite being within the area of effect of the zone of truth spell, his answer, "I do not," was accepted because there was some wiggle room as to if it was the blood or Eri'dia's status as a sunborn drow that was currently responsible for the color of the drow's hair.

Apparently content with the answers she had received, Matron Jalamir approached her daughter. As Cramer stepped aside, his head hanging low and his gaze directed downwards so as not to offend the ruler of the Noble House, the drow priestess picked up a metal rod from the altar. She grabbed her daughter by the hair, raised her head, and slammed the rod against Eri'dia's neck. Upon impact, the metal writhed and reshaped, curving around the contour of the sunborn drow's neck and reforming into a slave collar. The Matron then undid the chains from the shackles around her daughter's wrists, leaving the shackles in place. Eri'dia stumbled, barely keeping on her feet - especially given that one of them had only just recently grown back.

Pulling the ring of regeneration from Eri'dia's hand, Matron Jalamir turned and said dismissively, "Take care of your new pet until I decide what to do with her in the long run."

"Yes, Matron Mother," Cramer answered for the group as Jhasspok stepped forward to catch Eri'dia as she fell forward. He lifted her effortlessly in his arms. The sealed double doors opened at Matron Jalamir's touch and the slaves - six of them now - followed in her wake, although their paths soon diverged, the slaves heading back to their own quarters.

"What was the deal with those stitched up bodies on the table?" Marlo asked as they walked.

"Flesh golems," Cramer reasoned. "Waste not, want not - they had the pieces, after chopping her to bits, over and over."

"That's horrible!"

"I dunno if you've noticed," Utred commented in a low voice, "but these are not nice people."

They approached the door to their quarters. "Put her on my pallet for now," Marlo offered and the lizardfolk complied. Marlo pulled a blanket over the sunborn drow, who fell quickly into an exhausted sleep. Marlo pulled a spare garment out of her pack and left it folded at the foot of the sleeping pallet for Eri'dia when she awoke. The door to the slave quarters was not locked but none of the slaves dared exit until being told to - these were dangerous times. Nobody came by to check on Eri'dia nor, to Utred's consternation, did anybody come by to see that the slaves were fed; they had to make do with dried provisions from their travel packs. Eventually, at evening, the slave-lights extinguished and there was nothing else to do but go to sleep; Jhasspok offered Marlo his pallet and blanket; as a lizardfolk, he was content to crouch in place in a corner and sleep squatting down, propped with his tail.

Night passed somewhat uneasily. Eri'dia made whimpering noises sporadically throughout the night but never fully woke until the next morning, when the reactivation of the slave-light torches announced that the drow city's official daytime had begun. Calish strode boldly into the room shortly thereafter. "You have a new assignment," he announced, looking around the room but studiously ignoring the cringing form of his little sister hunched in Marlo's bunk area. Jhasspok waited expectantly, hoping against hope it might involve catching fish in the bioluminescent Underdark sea.

"You will escort the Matron Mother and myself to an undisclosed location," he said, dashing Jhasspok's hopes - but they had been a long shot, the lizardfolk realized. "Once there, you will guard the entrance of the building with your lives while we're inside. You are to proclaim yourselves as Matron Jalamir's personal guard; that should ward off any interruptions, for an attack upon the Matron's guard is the same as an attack upon her person, and an attack upon her is an attack upon the entire House. If that doesn't dissuade them, you are authorized to use deadly force to ensure we are not disturbed."

"Even if they're drow, Master?" Cramer asked. He well knew their slave tattoos had been altered to allow them to attack drow without repercussions, but the gnome also knew Calish was unaware of the alterations that had been made. By asking the question, he was making sure the slavemaster's permission would give them a plausible reason not to have to fake being harmed for the effrontery of attacking a drow.

"Even if they're drow," Calish replied. Cramer bit down on the wide grin that threatened to spread across his face. "Now come. We will leave your new pet behind." Marlo looked worriedly at the still form of Eri'dia, but then followed the others out of the room and up a flight of stairs, leading to the top level of the column which House Jalamir occupied. They went through the gravity-switch and ended up walking upside-down upon the ceiling of the Great Cavern, into the chaos of the out-buildings surrounding the vast pillar. Walking through the narrow alleys, Cramer realized they were heading somewhere they'd been before, very recently: the building in which they'd met with Niradi Ky'hulcressen when she gave them their assignment to rescue the House Dureem pleasure slaves. He stiffened, worried they were being led here to be accused of having dealings with sunborn drow but forced himself to remain calm and give no obvious indication of nervousness. No sense in giving himself away - this might well be nothing more than a coincidence.

"Remain here," commanded Calish as he and the Matron Mother stepped inside the building. He closed the door behind him. Dutifully, the slaves took up positions in the narrow alley. This was the only way into the building, and the two directions of the street posed the only way to approach the door, for climbing over the buildings would put one outside the effect of the reverse gravity field, ending in a half-mile plummet to the bioluminescent Underdark sea below - or seemingly directly above them, given their current perspective.

After about an hour of pointless (and boring) guarding the door, a group of heavily armed drow entered the alley from the eastern side. Their forces consisted of four armored males led (from the back) by an armored drow woman. Jhasspok, standing in a choke-point in the narrow alley, warned them off. "We are the personal guards of Matron Jalamir," he announced. "Nobody is allowed past us."

"Stand aside, slave, or be purged with all who stand in the way of the Mortal Queen's inquisitors!"

Jhasspok thought this over for a moment. As a lifelong slave, he'd been conditioned to obeying the orders of the drow - any drow. House Jalamir, he knew, was ranked third among the Eight Ruling Houses; House Bel'vior, which the "Mortal Queen" ruled, was the First House - this would logically mean the orders of the Matron Mother of House Bel'vior superseded the orders of any other drow in the city. But Jhasspok was already a "secret double slave," working for House Ky'hulcressen on the sly despite being part of House Jalamir, and Ky'hulcressen was but the Eighth of the Eight Noble Houses, the lowest-ranking of them all. Ah, all this intrigue stuff hurt the lizardfolk's brain! But still, he rolled the new orders around in his mind and came up with an answer.

"No," he said, readying his battleaxe for combat. His tail helped distribute his weight evenly as he crouched low, ready to spring into action. "And," he added as an afterthought, "you're supposed to be looking at my ankles." Khari stepped up beside him, his earth glide warhammer likewise readied for action. Marlo placed a hand upon the lizardfolk's shoulder and cast a mage armor spell on him; Jhasspok made a mental note to give the sorceress a slave token as payment for the spell.

The two drow fighters first in line (for the narrow alleyway made it impossible for more than two to walk side by side) stepped up to attack Jhasspok and Khari, their longswords flashing in the illumination of the slave-light cloaks the arena slaves wore. Jhasspok dodged the incoming strike but then missed with his own counterstrike - but his powerful jaws clamped down upon the drow's shoulder, dealing damage where his battleaxe had failed to do so. Khari and his own foe each managed to connect with glancing blows, neither dropping their enemy. In the meantime, at a signal from their female leader, the other two fighters dashed off to the side, making their way behind the building to their left to come up to the meeting hall from the opposite direction.

Melidar, a holy fighter in the service of Lolth, cast a bane spell upon the group of five slaves impeding her progress. Oddly enough Khari and Jhasspok, the closest to her, were the only two unaffected by her spell. Utred looked longingly at the battle raging before him but forced himself to remain in position directly in front of the door he was guarding. Cramer, by his side, handily undid the effects of the bane spell with a bless spell of his own, aiding Jhasspok and Khari in their own strikes against their common enemies. The effects were instantly discernible as the lizardfolk's variable aim battleaxe came crashing down upon the shoulder of the drow fighter he faced and Khari sent his warhammer swinging into the side of his own foe.

Marlo, back out of range of the swinging blades of the drow, cast a magic missile spell at the fighter attacking Jhasspok but the spell, which struck unerringly in all cases, merely fizzled away into nothingness as it hit its target; belatedly Marlo recalled the drow's inherent ability to frequently shrug off the effects of spells cast at them. Behind her drow minions, Melidar cast a spell that caused her eyes to glimmer black like shiny obsidian as she focused her magical eyesight to pierce the auras of those arrayed before her. It was with disappointment she saw that only the warhammer-wielding dwarf had an aura of goodness about him; he, then, would serve as her primary target.

Utred hit the switch that sent the hand crossbow strapped to his beefy forearm into its ready-to-fire configuration and sighted down its length at Jhasspok's current enemy. He fired off his shot, the bolt flying past Marlo's head and into the drow's upper arm. Well, Utred had been trying for a head shot but he'd take what he could get. At his side, Cramer cast a sound burst spell carefully targeted to encapsulate only the three drow he could see, but of the three only Jhasspok's foe failed to shrug off the spell's effects. As a result, that particular drow stopped fighting, temporarily stunned, and both Jhasspok and Khari took advantage of his momentary helplessness to get in a couple of good blows with their weapons. Marlo tried again - and failed again - with another magic missile spell. She swore to herself, angered at the drow's inherent resistance to spells.

Melidar tried to pull the stunned fighter standing in front of her out of the way, but before she could pull him to safety the lizardfolk had ripped the drow's throat out with his teeth. The corpse went flying to the side behind her, but she stepped into his place and used a smite good attack channeled through her weapon, striking Khari to deadly effect. The Hammerslammer dwarf nearly buckled, staying on his feet by pure force of will.

That was the breaking point for Utred. He abandoned his post - after first seeing nobody was approaching from the other way yet - and pulled Khari back out of harm's way. "Get t' Cramer fer healing!" he advised, bringing his Elderwood flaming longsword crashing into the drow fighter's side. Cramer met the staggering dwarf halfway, casting a cure serious wounds spell on him; it was enough to undo most of the damage caused by the Spider-Bitch's unholy power being channeled through her mortal servant's blade.

Jhasspok hit the drow fighter with his battleaxe, hoping to take him out quickly so he and Utred could gang up on the female, who of the two seemed by far the tougher. Khari, by this time ready to get back into the fight, saw there was no room for him to get back in and dejectedly took up Utred's former position guarding the door to the meeting hall. He could hear the heavy footsteps of the drow inquisitors rounding the opposite building, ready to turn the corner and approach from the other direction.

Marlo decided to stop with the magic missiles for a bit and cast a more powerful spell, scorching ray, at Melidar. This time she met with much more success, as evidenced by the look of pain crossing the drow holy fighter's face as the blast of flame scorched her badly. The fighter by her side made a final attack upon Utred before being taken down by the barbarian's green-flamed longsword.

Melidar responded immediately with an inflicting touch, whereupon she sent negative energy coursing through her fingertips to disrupt the dwarf's very life energy. Seeing this - and hearing Utred's involuntary cry of pain - Cramer stepped forward and cast another cure serious wounds spell. Jhasspok swung his blade at the female drow, hitting her armored form; it was difficult for the lizardfolk to tell whether he'd done much damage to her at all. She then cast a contagion spell at Jhasspok and was similarly unsure if it had had any effect; the lizardfolk wasn't even sure what she'd tried to do, but whatever it was it didn't seem to have any ill effect on him so he ignored it.

By now, the other two drow fighters were advancing upon the door; Khari took a step forward and anticipated their approach, his warhammer at the ready. Seeing this, Marlo spun about and sent another scorching ray spell at one of the fighters, hitting him straight on. He took the pain stoically, not letting it interfere with his attack upon Khari, whose hammer was busy striking the other drow in the side of the head.

With a sudden cry of rage, Utred exploded into Melidar, his longsword clanging against the metal of her armor, even as Cramer pumped another healing spell into him to keep him in the fight. Jhasspok did likewise, letting the fires of rage burn through him and power his own attacks in the way he'd seen Utred do. The woman no longer seemed at her top form, an encouraging sight to see.

Khari took out his drow target with another blow of his warhammer, caving in the side of the fighter's skull. He dropped lifelessly to the street as another scorching ray spell slammed into his partner. As Khari was the only combatant within reach, the drow swung his own blade at the dwarven fighter, scoring a hit.

By then, Melidar realized she'd have to take out that pesky gnome if she was going to have any chance at slaying the others - he was healing them as fast as they were wounded! Stepping contemptuously past Jhasspok (and receiving a powerful blow from his battleaxe in the process), she was likewise hit by Utred's own blade before she could bring hers to bear on Cramer. But she did get in her hit, eventually, forcing Cramer to back away and cast a healing spell upon himself for once. That only made Melidar angrier; she stepped forward to cut down the cleric of Fharlanghn but was herself cut down, Jhasspok's variable aim battleaxe sticking out of her back as she pitched forward, dead, onto the street.

There was now only one enemy still in combat and Utred wasted no time reaching Khari's side so the two dwarves could bring him down together. Then, after determining there were no other enemies approaching from either direction, the group grabbed what they could from the bodies of their slain foes. Utred took Melidar's black shield - Marlo said it had a magical enhancement - and Khari likewise stripped one from the drow fighter he'd slain. Nobody wanted any of the longswords they'd wielded, not trusting that they - like many drow weapons - wouldn't become all but useless under the rays of the sun.

Shortly thereafter, the door opened and a drow woman bearing an unlikely resemblance to Niradi (not surprising, as it was her mother, Matron Ky'hulcressen herself) stepped out. She looked disparagingly at the dead bodies strewn on the street before them, then looked overhead to the Underdark sea above. "Throw them into the sea," she commanded and Jhasspok and the dwarves found this to be a rather fun game, swinging a drow corpse back and forth a few times to gain momentum and then flinging it upwards - at which point, having reached the edge of the reverse gravity effect, normal gravity took over and it plunged down (seemingly up) into the sea. Marlo and Cramer did likewise with the unwanted weapons and shields.

That task completed, Matron Ky'hulcressen beckoned the slaves to enter the building. They couldn't help but notice she didn't have any silly "lower your gaze to my ankles" rule like Matron Jalamir imposed upon her own House slaves. Once inside, she explained that despite their differences, Houses Jalamir and Ky'hulcressen stood opposed to the newly proclaimed Mortal Queen. In fact, her very claim to the throne broke an ancient pact between the Eight Ruling Houses, her declaration of war against Greenvale - viewed by House Jalamir as a Ky'hulcressen outpost - an act of aggression against the Eighth House. "And now, having sent an assault team of Bel'vior inquisitors to this location, this is an outright declaration of war upon House Jalamir," the Matron Mother concluded.

"You have already assisted my House on the surface by reopening trade with the kingdom of Kravyrn. It has been decided House Jalamir will loan you out to House Ky'hulcressen in an attempt to recruit more allies on the surface. We have also agreed to provide asylum to Eri'dia. She will be smuggled to Greenvale along with your group when you return to the surface."

"Matron Jalamir agreed to all of this?" Marlo asked incredulously in a low tone, looking hesitantly at the closed door leading into the meeting room where, presumably, Calish and his mother waited inside - hopefully, well out of earshot. "But she tortured her own daughter!"

"She had no choice: it was the will of Lolth," Matron Ky'hulcressen explained. "Had she done otherwise she would have been stripped of her clerical power and likely slain for disobedience. At least in this way, Eri'dia can live - at least in exile. We will see she is taken good care of. And," she added, "we have hopes she can be swayed away from Lolth's embrace and come into the folds of Eilistraee."

"This is a dangerous game you're playing," commented Cramer, realizing this drow woman was actively working against the will of her own people - and her own people's crazed demon-goddess. As much as he hated to admit it, he was beginning to feel a bit of respect for at least one member of the hated drow race.

"It is a game you play as well," Matron Ky'hulcressen replied. "Now come: I will take you to your own Matron and her son, that you may escort them back to their own rooms in their own pillar. Afterwards, return here and we will prepare for your next mission: a return to the surface."

The wide grin that had threatened to spread across Cramer's features found its way to the gnome's face at long last.

- - -

This adventure was a worrisome one, in that early on we weren't sure whether we should make a break for it and attack Calish, hoping for the best, or continue to play dumb. (Fortunately, Jhasspok has "maxed out" the art of playing dumb despite only having one skill point to spend each level - it's kind of his specialty.) We also noted we'd played for about a full hour without once rolling for initiative. It was almost a relief when we were attacked by the House Bel'vior inquisitors - at least we knew exactly where we stood against them!

We all leveled up to 6th level at the end of the session. Jhasspok took his second level of barbarian and I actually managed to roll decently for his hit points this time.
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At this point, we really don't know. Right now, it seems like Matron Jalamir is more upset that House Bel'voir is violating the ages-old compact about the Eight Ruling Houses and that their Matron has elevated herself above all other drow in the world than she is interested in possible redemption. Whether Matron Jalamir will ever go so far as to turn her back upon Lolth and join the sunborn in worshiping Eilistraee is something we'll have to wait and see.

But you're right - this was a fun session! And I'm having a blast playing a PC instead of wearing the DM hat.




PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 6​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 1​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 6​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 6​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 6​

NPC Roster:
Eri'dia Jalamir, drow sorcerer 1​

Game Session Date: 1 April 2020

- - -

The slave-light torches flared, spilling their purplish illumination throughout the slave quarters, indicating the beginning of morning in the drow city of Overreach. As one, the six slaves - for the drow princess Eri'dia Jalamir now numbered among their ranks - rose from their sleeping pallets and got ready for the day's activities. But unlike most days, today they were gathering up their gear for a surface world visit which would likely last for months.

"Could be this's th' last day we'll spend in this hellhole," observed Utred, buckling on his armor.

"You think?" asked Marlo.

"We'll be on the surface for months, likely," reminded the dwarven barbarian. "In three months' time, the armies of Overreach are gonna storm the surface world in an attempt to wipe out Greenvale. Good chance we'll still be topside by then - and who knows what'll happen during the war? Could be we never have to come back, afterwards."

"Could be we'll all be dead by then," added Cramer, in a black mood despite the possibility that he might never have to return to the Underdark. Part of his mood was the realization he'd made no strides in finding his fellow Fharlanghnian cleric, Honeycomb Buzzwort - taken in a drow raid from his surface village, the same as Cramer had been. While the little gnome would be glad to see Overreach behind him, he didn't like the thought of leaving Honeycomb behind.

"We'd best be off," Khari commented, stuffing the rest of his belongings into his backpack. "Don't wanna be late." As one, the six slaves exited their quarters and headed to the ceiling of the Great Cavern, where they departed the Jalamir Pillar - one of the Eight Great Pillars stretching from the ceiling to an anchor point in the waters of the bioluminescent sea below, each of which housed one of the Eight Noble Houses of Overreach - and met up with their guide, a member of House Ky'hulcressen sent to fetch them. Together, they made their way to the smallest of the eight pillars. As the Eighth House, Ky'hulcressen was relegated to the least-desirable of the Eight Great Pillars, the only one showing visible damage from a war between various Houses some centuries past; as the slaves approached, they could see the areas where the pillar's exterior had once been smashed through, threatening the overall structural support the pillar provided to hold off the weight of the crushing stone overhead. It had been hurriedly patched over in what at first might look like elaborately-carved sculptures but at closer examination proved to be the petrified bodies of slaves, placed into position as desired and then instantly transformed to stone, their bodies merging seamlessly into the rock of the column, itself formed by the merging of a massive stalactite and an equally-massive stalagmite. Each of the Eight Great Pillars had been tunneled into to create the dwellings of the Ruling Houses.

"Surprised we're not gathering at the meeting-house," observed Cramer to the guide. They'd been to the meeting-house twice now, once to meet with Niradi Ky'hulcressen to be given an assignment to rescue child slaves from a defeated minor House, and once to guard over a meeting between the leaders of Houses Ky'hulcressen and Jalamir, where they hammered out an alliance against House Bel'vior, whose Matron Mother had crowned herself the Mortal Queen of all drow and enforced a pogrom against the sunborn. "I figure we won't be using the Writhing Gate to get to the surface," added the gnome, "so I figured you'd have your escorts take us through the Plane of Shadows, like they did before."

"You're partially correct," replied the guide, ushering them inside the Ky'hulcressen Pillar. From the ceiling entrance, what began as a one-story flight of steps leading up turned into a flipping-around point when the top part of the pillar exited the permanent reverse gravity field all along the ceiling of the Great Cavern and the group suddenly found themselves walking down a flight of steps to the second level of the pillar, the topmost one that was actually right-side-up. "I hate this place," Marlo muttered to herself once again - it was a common refrain from the young sorcerer when dealing with the gravity-defying effects of the Overreach's highest levels.

A room on the second floor held the means of the slaves' passageway to the surface. "This is a permanent shadow walk portal," the guide explained. "It leads to a tunnel winding through the Plane of Shadow, which will get you to a similar portal in Greenvale in about ten minutes. Taking the long way, through the Underdark tunnels originally carved to the surface, would be a constantly uphill journey of several days. I assume you prefer the shorter method."

"Absolutely," agreed Utred.

"Then you need only step through the portal and follow the path. The path appears as a series of twinkling lights visible only to those who have passed through one of the portals. Stay on the path and you cannot get lost."

"Is it safe?" asked Marlo. "Are there any dangerous inhabitants on the Plane of Shadows we need to worry about?"

"In the century and a half the portals have been in use," the guide assured the sorceress, "we have never encountered any problems with any local denizens. It's a relatively short trek; you should have no problems."

"'Should have,'" echoed Marlo quietly to herself.

"One area of concern: a good section of the path takes you along the edge of a vast chasm; for your own safety, do not fall over the edge."

"How deep's the chasm?" Khari wanted to know.

"The Plane of Shadows is in constant flux," admitted the guide. "There's no way to know. It could be several hundred feet or it could be several miles. Best that you don't wander over the edge, in any case. Now, normally, one of us would accompany you on the trip and act as a guide, but given the current turmoil in the city, we're all busy trying to extract our sunborn agents before their discovery. So, if there are no additional questions, that pack is food for the topside visit - good luck and off you go!"

Jhasspok hefted the pack of foodstuff and peeked inside - it was all dried food: meat jerky and cheeses and mushroom flanks. He was glad he'd had the foresight of stocking up on the dried dung beetles he enjoyed as a snack although none of the others seemed to share his enthusiasm for the treat. As Eri'dia had no gear of her own to carry, he held it out for her to slip her arms into the straps.

"Am I to lug this around?" she complained - the status of slave was a new one to the haughty princess, one she was slow to grow into.

"You are if you expect to travel in our company," Cramer explained. "Every slave pulls his or her weight." He enjoyed emphasizing Eri'dia's new role. With a frown, the drow sorcerer slipped the pack onto her back, trying to shift it into a more comfortable position. It was easy to tell she was unused to even this level of lugging and toting.

"Shall we go?" asked Utred, stepping towards the open portal.

"Not so fast," replied Cramer, holding up an arm and uncoiling a length of silk rope. "If we're heading into the Plane of Shadows alongside a deep chasm, we'd be best off if we're tied together, each to the next in line. That way, if anybody falls over the edge, the others can help pull him back up."

"I'll be first in line," suggested Utred, taking one end of the rope and tying it around his waist, then handing it to Jhasspok. "You're next," he told the lizardfolk and helped him tie the rope around his own waist, leaving about an eight-foot distance between them. "Let's put Khari last, so we got a dwarf with darkvision in front and back," the barbarian suggested. With that in mind, it was Cramer next, followed by Eri'dia, Marlo, and Khari.

"Ready," Khari said once he had the end of the rope fastened around his own waist. In the meantime, as an added precaution, Marlo guzzled down the contents of a potion of spider climb.

"Ten minutes," Utred reminded everyone as they stepped through the portal into a world of darkness.

It wasn't absolute darkness, just a land of gray with inky-black shadows all around. It didn't take long before Marlo - followed shortly thereafter by Jhasspok and Cramer - activated her slave-light cloak, the light from the illusory flames being swallowed up almost immediately around her. The illumination didn't extend nearly as far as it would have under normal conditions, but it was a source of comfort nonetheless for those of the group without darkvision; Eri'dia and the dwarves could see just as well as normal even in the shadowy world of the murky plane.

"Path's easy enough to make out," observed Utred. Sure enough, there was a line of twinkling dots on the ground before them, as if someone had been by this way before sprinkling silvery glitter on the intended path.

After about three minutes of travel, the tunnel opened up into an impossibly wide cavern - one greater even than the Great Cavern housing the entire drow city of Overreach. The expected chasm was off to the left, as described, and Utred, peeking over the edge, couldn't see to the bottom despite his darkvision. He did, however, see a speck of golden light some distance away to the left and an unknowable distance below, likely on the bottom surface of the chasm.

The passageway got occasionally narrower and thicker as it wound its erratic way along the edge of the stone cavern. After about two minutes of walking with an unknown gulf off to their left, a shadowy figure approached from before Utred, just as another approached the group from behind. They darted out, either from behind a jut in the rock or from the very rock itself - it was hard to tell, given the speed with which the figures attacked. But in each case, a hand with long, narrow fingers ending in sharp claws struck out at the dwarves, the claws actually passing through their targets' bodies and draining them of a portion of their physical strength. "We're under attack!" called out Khari from the back of the rope line.

Jhasspok moved up alongside Utred's right, swinging his battleaxe at the shadowy figure before him, drawing the rope taut between himself and Cramer, the next in line behind him. The lizardfolk's weapon passed right through the black shape but it flinched as if it had taken some damage from the attack. Eri'dia, spinning about by Khari's warning, cast a magic missile spell at the shadow attacking the Hammerslammer dwarf, her red-streaked bolt of energy striking the undead thing without fail. Marlo, just behind the drow slave, spun and did likewise, her own magic missile spell resulting in three such bolts. The shadow flinched as each bolt of force energy bombarded its incorporeal body.

Utred, whose unsheathed Elderwood flaming longsword had been providing a little additional illumination for those who needed it behind him, swung his weapon into the undead shadow who had attacked him, growling to himself as he could feel the difference in this swing and those he'd performed numerous times in the past: the barbarian could tell his strength was not up to its full power. His blow seemed to affect the creature, though, which was what mattered most at the moment.

Cramer held the holy symbol of his god he wore about his neck and held it towards the undead shadow behind him, thinking that of all the slaves, Utred could best handle a shadow on his own for a bit. He channeled a burst of positive energy towards the rear of the line, sending the rear shadow fleeing across the open chasm in its attempt to maximize its distance from the gnome at its best speed.

Khari, no longer under attack, readied his warhammer in case anything else should approach. He faced the open chasm, expecting it to be the likely source of any reinforcements of these flying undead things should they suddenly appear.

The shadow in the front attacked Utred again but the dwarven barbarian dodged below the thing's outreaching claws. And then, before he could bring his own blade to bear, another swing from Jhasspok's battleaxe took the thing down, its incorporeal body dissipating into nothingness. Utred looked behind him, but nobody else was under attack. "Let's keep going," he called back to the others and led them further down the sparkling path.

This time, everyone was on the alert and thus saw the next group of shadows approach; as Khari had guessed, they rose up from the vast depths of the chasm, approaching closer once they'd attained the same level as the marching slaves. With the slack in the rope between him and Marlo, Khari advanced to the edge of the ledge, his warhammer ready to strike. The shadow on the left gave him a perfect opportunity as it advanced directly at him, claws held out to rend. But Khari's weapon passed harmlessly through the shadow's body as the shadow's claws passed through the dwarf's - not quite harmlessly, though, for the Hammerslammer clan fighter felt a chill pass through his body as more of his strength was drained away. Up at the front of the line, the other shadow did likewise to Utred, siphoning away more of the barbarian's strength.

Jhasspok swung his battleaxe at the shadow, missing it completely as he made sure his swing wouldn't strike Utred by accident. Utred's sword also swung and missed; the shadow was quick when it put a mind to it!

At the middle of the rope line, Eri'dia cast another red-toned magic missile at the shadow attacking Khari. Marlo again followed suit, but her triple-missile attack finished off the shadow and she watched in satisfaction as the undead thing's body was blown away like a cloud of dirt in a windstorm.

Cramer, unable to get much closer to the shadow attacking Utred without dragging the others behind him forward, cast a bless spell, confident that his placement in the center of the rope-line would allow the spell to affect all of his fellow slaves. It was a timely casting, too, for no sooner had he completed the spell than another ghostly figure rose up from the chasm and made a bee-line for Khari. Unlike the shadows, this one had a see-through body and carried a scythe, which it swung at the dwarven fighter. It proved its incorporeal nature when the weapon passed through Khari's stout body, but he felt it try to drain away not a measure of his strength, as the shadows had done, but a portion of his very life force, his vitality. Resisting the effect with gritted teeth, the dwarf's efforts paid off; with a roar of victory he lashed out with his hammer but missed his floating adversary.

The shadow up front passed its claws through Utred's body again and pulled away another portion of his strength; the Elderwood flaming longsword felt noticeably heavier in the barbarian's hands than normal. Jhasspok's battleaxe went passing harmlessly through the shadow's incorporeal body and the lizardfolk's reptilian face held an expression of puzzlement as he tried to figure out what he'd done differently this time than he'd done when striking the earlier shadow, which he'd managed to actually kill with this same weapon.

Eri'dia cast another magic missile spell, this time at the wraith attacking Khari. Marlo was unable to move much due to being tied off between Khari and the drow, and the dwarf had moved up to fight off the wraith, practically pulling the sorcerer up against the undead thing from the other side. Still, she cast another magic missile spell of her own, although at this range it meant the wraith had an opportunity to strike out at her - an opportunity it took, to full advantage. The magic missile spell hit the wraith, but at the same time Marlo felt some of her very life force, her vitality, being drained away.

Utred and Jhasspok once again attacked the shadow with no effect, their weapons passing harmlessly through its body. Cramer cast another spell upon himself, this time magic circle against evil, which he knew would aid all six of the slaves from his central position in the rope-line. But the wraith struck out at Khari again despite the extra protection of the gnome cleric's spell, and this time the incorporeal attack managed to pull away some of the dwarf's vitality. But for his part, Khari's counter-strike was likewise successful, the dwarven fighter's warhammer striking the wraith for as much damage at it might have done had the undead thing had a solid body; such was the unpredictability of dealing with incorporeal foes.

Eri'dia cast her final magic missile at the wraith and was somewhat put out that her attack failed to kill it. Marlo was forced to cast her own spell in tight quarters again, but this time she managed to gut through the wraith's vitality-draining attack and ward it off while her spell struck the undead thing for full damage. "Ha!" she cried aloud in triumph. "Take that!"

Utred swung again at the shadow and his blade passed harmlessly through it, but then he brought it back around in a second strike and this one not only managed to affect it but to actually finish it off. He looked to see how the others were faring and spotted the wraith for the first time, still up and about - and seemingly focused solely on Khari. These buggers have a hate on for dwarves, the barbarian mused to himself.

Cramer cast another spell, this time a spiritual weapon that caused a quarterstaff of pure force energy to appear over his head. With a mental order, he caused the force weapon to come crashing down at the wraith. The wraith got one final strike in, trying to siphon away more of the dwarf's life essence, but Khari not only resisted the effect but slew the wraith with a massive warhammer blow that caused the undead thing's body to blow away in a cloud of smoke.

"Everybody okay?" the gnome called out to the others. He deflected their calls for healing, assessing that what they needed now were restoration spells rather than mere cure wounds spells - and those he couldn't provide, at least not today. Instead, he wriggled out of the rope-line and cast a fly spell on himself, rising up above the others as Utred got them moving into a straight line again. Cramer figured his added elevation would help him spot advancing threats as they made their way along the path to Greenvale. But then, seeing the path ahead was wider than normal, Khari moved forward beside Utred, the two dwarves leading the way while the rope-line formed a "U" shape behind them, with Cramer floating overhead, low enough to still encompass everyone in his magic circle against evil spell.

Another wraithlike figure emerged from the rift - only this one was much larger than the one they'd just dispatched. Cramer recalled from his clerical schooling that there was a dread wraith much more powerful than the standard model; this was likely his first meeting with such a creature. The gnome's hand reached for his holy symbol of Fharlanghn, realizing the odds of him being able to turn such a powerful undead were likely nil. But fortunately for the gnome - and for the entire group, truth to tell - instead of attacking immediately it interrogated the group. "How did you do it?" it asked, its undead eyes flitting between the two dwarves. "How did you break the siege?"

The dumbfounded stares and looks of incomprehension it received in response forced it to ask a follow-on question. "Who leads your group?" it asked in a voice from the grave. All eyes turned at once to Eri'dia, currently the lowest of the six slaves but until yesterday one of the ruling member of the House the arena slaves all answered to.

"Then you are not from the Golden City," the dread wraith mused to itself. That phrase sparked a momentary recollection from somewhere deep within Khari's memories; the "Golden City" had once, he thought, referred to the dwarven city of Brunniir, now a lost kingdom of legend after having disappeared some 15 centuries hence. Perhaps, the Hammerslammer dwarf reasoned in his own slow, methodical way, that glimmer of light they'd seen in the deep chasm below was the current location of Brunniir. Perhaps the city had somehow been swept away into the Plane of Shadows, leaving behind only a mystery of its whereabouts and the means by which it had disappeared. He'd have to ask Cramer and Utred about it, once they had time to talk - for right now, he held his trusty warhammer at the ready in case they were going to have to fight off this even bigger wraith.

"Warn your masters," said the dread wraith, "as long as they do not aid the Golden City, they will be allowed to continue using the path they have made." Then he left the way he had come, having wasted enough time on this pointless distraction. Cramer allowed his holy symbol to drop back down onto his chest and he gave a sigh of relief at the undead thing's departure. Despite their recent experiences fighting off the undead forces, the little cleric seriously believed that would have been a fight they could not have won.

The party was further relieved when they passed through the portal to Greenvale a few minutes later without any further incident. They were met by sunborn drow, their hair a variety of colors - green, blue, red, purple, even lavender - and their expressions showing puzzlement and concern. "You are injured," noted a priestess of Eilistraee. "Were you attacked along the path?"

"We sure were!" groused Cramer. "We had been led to believe taking the path through the Plane of Shadows was a safe journey, yet we were attacked by undead several times!" Here the gnome had actually harbored feelings of goodwill toward the sunborn drow, but it seemed like even the dark elves of House Ky'hulcressen were nothing but a bunch of liars! While the slaves had restoration spells cast upon them by the concerned clerics, the head priestess explained as best she could.

"I imagine it was the cloaks you wore," she said. "We drow have walked the path on many occasions for a century and a half without incident. But we dark elves, even the sunborn, can see fine in perfect darkness; we do not bring sources of illumination with us. Your lights, feeble as they may have seemed to you, were likely beacons of illumination to the denizens of that shadowy world, telling them that intruders were about."

Khari explained his thoughts about Brunniir having been engulfed into the Plane of Shadows. "It makes sense," agreed Marlo. "And if it's under siege by an army of undead, that would explain why the wraiths and shadows were focused upon Khari and Utred!"

"I was wonderin' about that," Utred admitted.

The rest of the day was spent settling Eri'dia into her new life on the surface (including disintegrating her slave collar, a move which brought the drow princess great relief) and discussing plans of how to get the rest of the local kingdoms to aid Greenvale in the upcoming war against the Overreach drow armies. Cramer pulled out his battered and folded map of the local area they'd taken from the merchants they'd attacked during their first surface raid. The sunborn elves pointed out the locations of the home villages of both Cramer and Marlo, neither large enough to be documented on the map; the gnome's small village was part of the larger kingdom of Revin, while the sorceress hailed from one of the surviving villages of the kingdom to the north that had fallen to ongoing frost giant raids decades ago.

"We'll need help pulling the other kingdoms into an alliance," said one of their sunborn hosts. "You managed to get the Kingdom of Kravyrn on our side, but we'll need the support of other nations if we're to repel an invasion by Overreach."

"Where shall we begin?" Marlo asked, looking at the map.

"Here," suggested Cramer, stabbing a finger down at the Elderwood Forest.

"Elderwood?" scoffed Utred. "They're not likely gonna want to help us, not after we slew their infiltrators in Overreach, and then their hunting party in the forest."

"We're probably not high up on their list of favorite people," Cramer agreed, "but they already have a healthy hatred of the drow - the Overreach drow, that is," he amended, looking guiltily at their sunborn drow hosts, "and we can probably put that fanatical hatred to good use."

"Mebbe we'd best not be wearing these slave-light cloaks when we go meet with them," suggested Khari - no point in rubbing their noses in the fact that they'd taken the magic cloaks from the slain bodies of disguised Elderwood elf assassins during an attack on Niradi Ky'hulcressen and her Weaver master.

"Yes, a good point," agreed the gnome. "But perhaps in uniting against a shared foe, we can get the Elderwood elves to see the sunborn as allies, and not an evil threat like the Overreach drow."

Utred looked over the map, reveling in the fact he could now read the words printed on it - Marlo had been teaching him his letters. "From there, then, we can move in a clockwise direction, swinging by Revin next and trying to get their help, then Dracovania, and then the Fallen Kingdom. And that'll put us back close to Greenvale, hopefully before the big attack."

"Wait a minute," interrupted Marlo, pointing down at a body of water off to the eastern side of the Elderwood Forest. "Let's not forget the Lakewood Tribe of lizardfolk who make their camp here." She looked expectantly at Jhasspok. "We could try to gain their aid as well."

Jhasspok just frowned and shivered. "Let's not," he suggested.

"But they're your people!" the sorceress argued. She knew full well, as the lizardfolk fisher did not, that he was the son of the former chieftain of the tribe and that the Lakewood lizardfolk were his family.

"They're just...creepy," Jhasspok replied. He found the concept of a whole bunch of people who looked close-but-not-quite like him to be repulsive. "And, according to Khassek, they're a bunch of hunters who live in a swamp. Why would they want to help us fight off the drow? And would they be much of a help, a bunch of hunters and fishers with spears against drow fighters and clerics and sorcerers?"

"Not long ago, you were just a fisher," Marlo reminded him.

"But I have been trained in battle since then," Jhasspok replied, hefting his magic battleaxe. "And gained a powerful weapon. They have not."

Cramer saw the lizardfolk's point, if not his reluctance to see his own people. "Let's hold them off until last," he suggested. "We'll see if we can gain their help if we have time after getting the assistance of the larger kingdoms." It seemed a logical concession, despite Marlo's desire for Jhasspok not to be the only one of his kind among them. She worried he might be lonely. But Jhasspok wasn't lonely; he was, in his own mind, already among his "own kind" - "secret double slaves" of the drow.

"All right then," said Utred. "Tomorrow, we're off to the Elderwood Forest."

"Tomorrow it is," agreed Cramer.

- - -

This was, without a doubt, the shortest session we've ever run in this campaign - it lasted only about an hour. Logan had worried it could end up going rather quickly, but knowing he was throwing incorporeal enemies against us he honestly had no idea how the fight would play out. We inadvertently sped up the combats by rolling first to see whether our weapon strikes would even hit or not before we even made our d20 attack rolls; the way we do it is by rolling a d6 and saying, "Wouldn't it be odd if I missed?" Then, if the d6 ends up with an odd number, the attack would have passed harmlessly through the incorporeal undead even if the attack roll indicated it would have hit. I think we ended up saving a lot of time there with this method, because between the five of us players we rolled a lot of odd numbers (sometimes two at a time, for Utred and Khari now get two attacks per round) - it was starting to get very frustrating there at the end, when the three burly combat machines kept doing absolutely nothing of value while we waited for the two female spellcasters to kill the big scary undead for us with their magic missiles.

And Harry was getting a bit upset that the undead kept targeting his PC and Utred, but there turned out to be a good explanation for that, which retroactively made the situation a little better in his eyes. (Not a lot, mind you, but a little.)

And now we have a plan ahead for the next few sessions as we go from kingdom to kingdom trying to gain allies against the Overreach armies. Personally, I'm sure we haven't seen the last of the drow city; we still need to free Cramer's friend Honeycomb, for one thing, and if we're going to fight off a neothelid, that'll likely take place in the Underdark rather than on the surface. But I guess we'll just have to let events play out and see where they go.
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PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 6​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 1​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 6​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 6​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 6​

Game Session Date: 8 April 2020

- - -

With a horse and wagon loaded down with provisions provided to them by the city of Greenvale, the five "secret double slaves" headed through the city's gates and down the road, headed toward the Elderwood. They'd jointly decided the elven nation would be the first group they'd try to get to join the alliance against the impending drow surface invasion from Overreach; as such, all five slave-light cloaks were stashed away with the supplies. No need flaunting in the faces of the Elderwood elves that twice now the slaves had already killed some of their members: first the disguised assassins in Overreach (where they gained the magic cloaks) and then on their first excursion to the surface, where they slew a cleric and several warriors who had been hunting them down for having slain a group of merchants and stolen their goods. If they were hoping to enter into negotiations with these elves, it would be best not to go in with the odds already stacked against them.

"How long until we get there?" asked Jhasspok from the back of the wagon. It was a much bigger wagon than the one they'd stolen on their own; this one was large enough to comfortably fit all five slaves and their gear. Cramer and Marlo were up in the front of the wagon, the gnome holding the reins to the draft horse.

"It should be a two-day journey to the Crossroad Keep, which is garrisoned by the Elderwood," Cramer explained. "Hopefully, we should be able to make arrangements with those in authority there to get us an audience with their leaders in their main city, deep in the forest. Why? Are you already tired of traveling?"

"No," replied Jhasspok honestly. It would be a long time before the lizardfolk got tired of looking out at this strange surface world. Utred, however, was already getting tired of explaining to Jhasspok what every new thing he saw was called. "That's a chipmunk." "That's a dandelion." "That's a hummingbird." "That's a fox." Finally, to ward off the incessant line of questioning, the burly dwarven barbarian pretended to fall asleep, and it wasn't long before the rocking of the wagon had him nodding off for real.

But that just meant Khari was now the recipient of Jhasspok's further questions. "That's a mosquito," the dwarf said. "That's an owl." "That's a squirrel...."

The first day of travel was uneventful. It wasn't until mid-morning on the second day that the slaves ran into a bit of excitement.

"What's that?" Jhasspok wanted to know again, looking ahead through the trees as the horse-drawn wagon made a turn around a bend in the road.

Cramer, at the reins, looked to where the lizardfolk was pointing and said, "That's a--that's a dire bear!" Sure enough, as the wagon followed the curve of the road, the slaves could all see a massive bruin sending an elven figure falling to the ground, unmoving, with a swipe of one massive, blood-stained paw. The elf fell beside two other bodies there in the road, each wearing chain armor. There were two other elven figures fleeing from the beast, a man and a woman.

Khari didn't hesitate a moment; grabbing up his dwarven warhammer, he raced at the dire bear, approaching it from behind as it turned to face the fleeing elves. Cramer handed the reins to Marlo, stood on the driver's bench at the front of the wagon, and fired a sound burst spell in front of the dire bear, stunning it into temporary immobility. Marlo steered the wagon off the road and between a group of trees, not wanting their only horse to get slain in the fight with the massive bruin. She then pulled up on the reins to bring the horse to a stop, turned to face the dire bear, and shot a magic missile into its flank.

Utred hadn't waited for the wagon to stop moving before he'd leaped off and charged the monster, using his Elderwood flaming longsword out of force of habit and not worrying about being seen by a pair of Elderwood elves while wielding it. The flaming sword cut deep into the still form of the dire bear, spilling blood and singeing fur. Jhasspok was there at the dwarven barbarian's side, bringing his battleaxe down onto the bruin's broad back. And then an arrow sunk deep into the dire bear's shoulder; looking across the road to the clearing on the other side, the slaves saw one of the fleeing elves was an archer and had merely been trying to keep his distance from the monster so he could still get in a good shot.

The female elf approached Marlo in the wagon and gave her thanks for the newcomers' much-needed assistance, just as Khari was slamming the still-stunned beast with a crushing blow from his warhammer. Cramer hopped down from the wagon and raced over to the fallen bodies of the three elves, seeing if any of them had survived the attack. Sadly, there was nothing he could do for them; they were already quite dead, one of them having had his throat ripped out, the other two torn open by the bear's sharp claws.

But by then the sound burst's stunning effect had worn off and the dire bear reared up on his hind legs, spun about, and slashed out with a massive forepaw at Khari - he'd apparently not appreciated being beaten down with the fighter's heavy hammer. Khari went stumbling off to the side from the force of the blow, staggering to stay on his feet. But with the bear's attention focused upon his fellow dwarf, Utred had the opportunity to get in a sword-strike at the monster's underbelly, slashing a red line of pain across his less-protected pelt. The dire bear dropped back down to all fours and turned to face the dwarf - and Jhasspok finished him off with a combination of an axe-blow to the skull and a bite to the throat, filling the lizardfolk's mouth with steaming, warm blood. As the bear crashed to the ground, dead, the lizardfolk provided his opinion (to anyone who might have been wondering) that dire bear tasted more like horse than it did fish.

With the threat taken down, the two parties introduced themselves. "I'm Elinna," said the elven cleric. "This is Maloric. We were patrolling the road to ensure it was safe for Councilor Liadon. There have been rogue elements from our kingdom tarnishing the name of the Elderwood soldiers by practicing banditry in the Councilor's province. During our patrol we were attacked by the dire bear - that shouldn't have been possible, as they live deeper in the woods and should have been warded off by our druids, who keep them contained."

"Maybe something attacked your druids," suggested Utred, taking care to sheathe his Elderwood flaming longsword before either of the remaining elven patrol members got a good look at it.

"It is a possibility," agreed Elinna. "We must report this attack to Councilor Liadon; he's currently visiting the Crossroad Keep."

"We're heading there ourselves," offered up Cramer as he cast a healing spell over Khari's wounds. "We'll be happy to travel with you. We can load the bodies of your slain troops on the wagon, if you like."

"Thank you," replied Elinna as Maloric, Jhasspok, and the two dwarves started carrying the bodies of the slain elves over to the wagon.

Conversing along the way, the slaves learned that Councilor Liadon was one of only two councilors who advised King Omadan to remain on good terms with Greenvale, the other being Archmage Xiandria. Unfortunately, the other three councilors currently held greater sway, leading to the current situation: an embargo on Greenvale and poor relations with those who would have dealings with the city suspected of having ties to the accursed drow. Cramer kept his silence, opting to save his arguments for someone higher up the elven chain of command than the leader of a foot patrol.

As the group approached the Crossroad Keep they couldn't help but notice its odd design. A large, 30-foot-tall stone tower of apparent human architecture stood as one corner of the structure, the rest of it being of elven design: a smooth, white stone wall 10 feet tall with 5-foot-high crenelations running between the towers in each corner. The other three towers were rounded and as smooth as the walls, all seeming to be one blended structure carved in one piece, although that would have been nearly impossible to construct in that fashion - there must have been some sort of elven magic at work. Further evidence of magic were the four emerald-green crystal "teardrops" floating above each of the four towers; these were each five feet tall and floated a foot or so above the top of their assigned tower. Their purpose was not immediately obvious.

Driving the wagon through an open gate, the group saw a pair of elves arguing in their own language in the middle of the courtyard of the keep. Of the five slaves, Cramer was the only one who understood the Elven tongue and even though he came into the middle of the discussion he was able to pick up the general gist of it: a robed figure (who, the group learned later was Councilor Liadon) was upset at the garrison commander, Mevior, for having sent Liadon's son on a mission of some sort to Greenvale; Liadon seemed to believe Mevior didn't have the authority to do so. But their heated conversation broke up at the group's sudden approach. Cramer brought the wagon to a halt in the middle of the courtyard, beside the pair of elves.

Mevior took the opportunity of the sudden distraction to storm off, while Liadon turned and warmly greeted the newcomers. After introductions were made - and the border patrol elves extolled the virtues of the visitors in helping slay the dire bear responsible for the deaths of the three patrol members - the councilor began talking things over with the group of slaves.

Things were going along rather well when Liadon looked down at the hilt of Utred's sword and commented, rather nonchalantly, "By the way, I should let you know I am aware you are the ones who killed my son."

That brought all conversation to a sudden halt as the slaves thought frantically how best to explain the situation. But before anyone could get a word in, the councilor held up his hands as if warding off any arguments and said, "My son's impulsive nature and beliefs were a dark stain upon our family name and his actions were bound to get him killed sooner or later. I bear no grudge against you for his death."

"That is...very generous of you," began Marlo. "We were only coming to the aid of a woman he was threatening...." But Liadon cut her off. "No need for explanations," he said.

"If I may," added Cramer, "how did you learn we had slain your son?"

"Upon learning of his death, I naturally looked into the circumstances involved. However, when attempting a divination spell to find my son's killers, I received an image of a most disturbing nature: the five of you, standing before a massive, wormlike creature - and with a mass of writhing, black tentacles rising up behind you. Not at all what I had expected to see, I must admit."

"We saw a similar image, captured as a mural on the wall of a duergar tomb," admitted Utred. "Apparently that's still in our future, somewheres - us fightin' that worm."

"A duergar tomb," mused Liadon. "That could not have been from anywhere nearby," he reasoned.

"Not really," admitted Cramer. "We're from a significant distance away, but we've come to warn you of an impending drow attack. They intend to destroy the city of Greenvale."

"Greenvale?" repeated Liadon. "That makes no sense: Greenvale is rumored to be in league with the drow."

"It's a bit complicated," admitted the gnome. But then he began explaining, in detail, the background of the sunborn drow of Greenvale, the Lolth-worshiping drow of the Overreach, and their own status as slaves of one drow Noble House while secretly allied with another Noble House who were themselves secret allies of the sunborn drow of Greenvale.

"Then the stories are true!" thundered Liadon. "There are rumors of a mythical, upside-down city of drow called the Overreach - the fact that this place actually exists is a cause of great concern to me."

"We can attest to the fact that Overreach exists," Marlo stated. "And in three months' time, their armies will spill out onto the surface world, not only to destroy Greenvale but likely to enslave those from the neighboring areas. We five were each taken in such a manner, but this will be on a much larger scale. We're trying to warn all of the surrounding kingdoms of the danger and get them together in an alliance to help defeat the Lolth-worshiping drow."

Liadon came to a decision. "You must accompany me to the capital city of the Elderwood to meet with the king."

"Gladly," agreed Cramer - for that had been their goal all along.

"Then we will leave in the morning," Liadon decided. "You can stay overnight here in the keep. I'll take you to the martial barracks." Liadon would be staying in the mage barracks. Marlo had no problems with staying in the martial barracks; she preferred being surrounded by her companions, especially in a keep otherwise filled with unknown strangers.

The night passed without event, with the five Overreach slaves taking a group of bunks in the corner. (Even though the elves didn't actually sleep, they entered a nightly reverie and these elves apparently appreciated a comfortable bed to lie in while doing so.) The next morning the group ate breakfast in the combined mess hall/tavern. As they ate, there was some sort of a commotion outside.

Khari opened the door and looked out into the courtyard. There was now a mass of tangled vines covering the building directly across from the mess hall - the mage barracks, as the dwarf recalled. There had been a few decorative vines here and there the day before when the group had been given a quick tour, but nothing like the mass covering the building now - this had the distinctive whiff of magic about it, the dwarven fighter decided. "Think we might have a problem," he called back to the others, grabbing up his warhammer and stepping outside.

Cramer cast a longstrider spell upon himself and followed the dwarven fighter outside into the courtyard. He noticed the four archers manning their stations at the top of the walls were not looking outside of the keep, worried about intruders approaching, but had their longbows pointed down their way. The garrison commander, Mevior, approached from the human-built tower, a longsword sheathed in familiar-looking emerald flames in his hand. Behind him strode an elven woman in leaf-adorned leather armor.

"What's going on?" demanded Cramer, addressing the commander of the keep. He spoke in the Elven tongue, the only language he'd heard Mevior speak, to be sure his question was understood.

"What's happening?" sneered the garrison commander in the same language. "Why, I'm about to valiantly avenge the death of Councilor Liadon at the hands of Greenvale's assassins!"

"The elves are trying to kill us!" Cramer called out in the Dwarven tongue, which got Utred barreling out of the mess hall. Despite having a number of weapons strapped to his hips and back to choose from, the Butterflinger dwarf instead plucked a bead from a necklace he wore and tossed it at Mevior and the elven woman. Although they both dodged the explosion of flames erupting all about them as best they could, they both seemed shocked that this rough-looking barbarian had somehow mastered the fireball spell.

Lia, the woman in leathers, cast a barkskin spell upon herself and backed away from the fireball-chucker. Mevior, for his part, charged the dwarven barbarian with an Elderwood flaming longsword that looked sneakily similar to his own. In fact, when Utred unsheathed his own blade to counter the garrison commander's, Mevior's eyes lit up in instant recognition.

Marlo wasn't sure what all was going on but cast a mage armor spell on Jhasspok - who spoke no language but Common, the "slave language" of Overreach - and sent him out to help the others. He immediately saw Utred in a sword fight with the garrison commander, doing so while also catching arrows on his shield - for the archers above had joined in the attack.

There were only two enemies in the courtyard to overcome, Jhasspok noted, but four archers shooting down from the battlements. Trusting the dwarves could easily take out the ground-based foes, the lizardfolk opted to devote his own efforts against the archers. But to do that he'd need to get up to the battlements with them. That was no real problem, though; the lizardfolk tossed his battleaxe up onto the roof of the mage barracks and then leaped up against the vine-covered wall, scrambling to pull himself up to the roof level before any of the twisting vines could think to get a hold on him. Then, grabbing up his weapon on the way, he sprinted toward the nearest elven archer.

Khari ran up to aid Utred in fighting off Mevior, adding his warhammer to the melee. Cramer, meanwhile, cast a sound burst spell at Lia, not trusting her in the least - with no weapon at hand, she was likely a spellcaster and the cleric knew it was generally a good idea to take them out as soon as possible. His spell had the desired effect, he could tell, by the stunned expression that overcame the elf's delicate features - good!

Utred's blade slid past Mevior's defenses, drawing blood. The commander retaliated in a rather impressive display of swordsmanship against both dwarves - a display that would have been even more impressive had any of his blade-strikes gotten past the dwarves' heavy armor and dealt them even a smidgen of actual damage. Marlo followed Jhasspok's reasoning and ran to the middle of the courtyard, where she could see the pair of archers on the battlements the lizardfolk was fast approaching. She empowered a magic missile spell and flung it at the furthermost elf, knocking him instantly unconscious from the magical attack.

The archers on the far side of the keep's battlements fired down at Utred again, one missing entirely and the other's arrow making it no further than the dwarf's shield. The nearer archer, seeing Jhasspok's approach, grabbed up a longsword and attacked the ferocious-looking lizard about to come at him with a battleaxe. His swing hit only the turtle shell shield Jhasspok wore on his left arm, and then the lizardfolk's follow-on counterattack with his axe knocked the elf down where he stood. He still breathed, Jhasspok saw - but that could be easily fixed.

Khari swung his warhammer at Mevior again while Cramer took advantage of Lia's current immobility to cast a silence spell all around her. Let's see her cast any spells now! he thought to himself. By that time, Utred had proven his superior swordsmanship by stabbing Mevior through the stomach with his longsword; the garrison commander gripped the blood-slick blade with incomprehension as he dropped to his knees, then over onto his side as Utred pulled the sword from his gut.

With a sudden shudder, Lia snapped out of her immobility and instantly realized she was in a field of magical silence. She ran up a set of stairs leading to the battlements, readying a spell to her lips but not casting it until she could hear the sounds of her boots on the stone beneath her and the sounds of the battle raging all around. Then, spinning in place, she cast a flaming sphere that went bounding down the steps and took up position at the bottom, preventing her enemies from following her.

Marlo dropped another archer with a scorching ray; his burning corpse fell to the battlements behind the mess hall. Almost immediately thereafter, the sole remaining archer's longsword and longbow went dropping to the courtyard below as the weapons' owner saw he and Lia were the only remaining members of the assault force and raised his arms in surrender. "I was only doing as directed!" he called down in the Common tongue, wanting to make sure these visitors could understand him perfectly.

Jhasspok, angry at having nobody else to attack up here on the ramparts, kicked the body of the fallen archer before him to the courtyard below, then ran along the battlements and did the same with the unconscious elf Marlo had taken down with her empowered magic missile spell earlier. With any luck, they'd break their fool necks when they landed. (Unnoticed until later, Jhasspok actually got his unvoiced wish with one of them; the other survived the fall.)

There was now only one of the foes still in the fight: the druid Lia. Cramer cast a fly spell on Khari so he could go take her down. He wasted no time, flying at her in a bee-line and smacking her with his warhammer. Lia rolled with the blow and - amazingly - changed shape in the process, suddenly becoming a hawk and trying to fly away. But Khari could fly just as well as she could and kept pace, swinging his weapon at the now-much-smaller target. In a last-ditch effort, Lia flew back towards the keep and tried to hide behind the last remaining elven archer, failing to notice he had already surrendered. Lia was subsequently taken down by a magic missile spell from Marlo. She fell to the battlements, still in hawk form though now quite unconscious.

Dropping back down to the ground, Jhasspok put his axe to good use in chopping away the vegetation and the wooden door to the mage barracks. Inside, the place was likewise covered in entangling vines growing out of the wood of the building's structure, wrapping tightly around several elven figures. The place was also completely silent; once he stepped inside, chopping a way clear as he did so, Jhasspok couldn't hear a thing. Fortunately, Liadon and the mages were still alive and when the entangle spell eventually ran its course the lizardfolk was able to bring them outside where they could speak aloud.

"It was a silence stone," Liadon explained. "Mevior opened the door, tossed it inside the room, and then had his wife seal us in with an entangle spell. Even if we could have moved with the vines wrapped around us, there was nowhere we could put the stone that its effects didn't cover us. We were unable to cast any spells that might have allowed us to escape on our own."

The subsequent interrogation of the prisoners revealed the archers believed Mevior's story that the party had already killed Liadon. Lia also claimed it was her husband's idea to frame Greenvale for the assassination of one of the Elderwood's five councilors. She also confessed she was the one who had set the dire bear on Liadon's soldiers at her husband's behest.

"So what are we going to do with the prisoners?" asked Utred. Personally, he was hoping they'd be executed there on the spot. If so, he was even willing to perform the act himself.

But it was not to be. "The members of the garrison who weren't involved in the plot to slay me and blame you will stay behind to continue manning the keep while we escort the prisoners to the capitol," Councilor Liadon decided. That also meant there would be no looting of the corpses of the elves they'd slain, Utred realized with a frown. Bummer! He'd been hoping to add a few of their weapons to his ever-growing arsenal. Lia and the two surviving archers were securely bound and loaded onto the back of the wagon.

And then with a crack of the reins, Cramer Appleknocker sent the draft horse through the gates of the Crossroad Keep, pulling a wagon containing Councilor Liadon and a trio of prisoners heading towards the heart of the Elderwood, for a meeting with King Omadan and hopefully another alliance for the sunborn drow of Greenvale. The other arena slaves walked beside the wagon.

"What's that?" Jhasspok asked suddenly.

Utred sighed in resignation. "That's a daisy," he replied. It was going to be a long day, he could tell.

- - -

Logan designed the ground level of the Crossroad Keep on the back of a sheet from an old desk calendar, gridded off into one-inch squares with pencil and a yardstick. The human-built tower was one I had made years ago out of cardboard for an earlier adventure in a previous campaign. And then he did something I thought was rather clever: he built the ramparts out of properly-sized sheets of paper he laid over the edges of the ground-level map he'd made, allowing him to show the lower level and the upper level at the same time, removing or replacing the top level sheets as needed.

As for the "teardrop crystals" floating above the towers, those were magic items the elven wizards could scry out of as if they were there in their place, and also cast spells from as needed. It was a clever way for them to be able to aid in the garrison's defense without putting them on the front lines, so to speak. (Of course, they spent the duration of the fight in the keep entangled, so they were of no help to us - but it's still a cool idea.)

We're closing in on 7th level, by the way. If we don't level up at the end of the next adventure, we'll almost certainly do so after the adventure after that.
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PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 6​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 1​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 6​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 6​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 6​

Game Session Date: 15 April 2020

- - -

"So what can we expect when we get to the capital?" asked Cramer Appleknocker from the front of the wagon.

"We will meet with King Omadan and the other four councilors," replied Councilor Liadon. "I will brief them on the assassination attempt, turn over the prisoners, and you will be given an opportunity to plead your case about an alliance with Greenvale."

"What can you tell us about the other councilors?" asked Marlo, walking beside the wagon. "You said there were five in all, but only one shared your views on allying with Greenvale."

"Correct - that would be the Archmage Xiandria. She's a former adventurer, much like yourselves, who moved to the Elderwood a century or so ago. The other three, who are opposed to an alliance, are Councilors Aramoira, Inafiel, and Vawraek.

"Councilor Aramoira is a dryad. A cutting from her tree was transplanted into the capital so she can travel between there and her home tree in the Druid's Grove, deeper in the Elderwood. Her opposition stems from her claim that the woods themselves told her great destruction would come to the Elderwood if we interfered with Greenvale's fate."

"Great destruction's on its way here in three months, whether you ally with Greenvale or not," pointed out Utred. Jhasspok, in the meantime, tried to figure out just how the woods could have told anybody anything in the first place. He eyed the trees they passed suspiciously; were they just faking being inanimate?

"Too true - a point that must be made to the King and the Council," agreed Liadon. "Next up, we have Councilor Inafiel, a famous pirate hunter - who, along with her mother, sought to take down Inafiel's own grandfather, an infamous pirate who they felt was sullying their family name. Inafiel was swayed against allying with Greenvale by Councilor Vawraek, a silver-tongued devil if ever there was one. He is the main source of anti-Greenvale sentiment - and, I suspect, he's also behind the illegal attacks on caravans trading with Greenvale and quite possibly the one behind the attempt on my life."

"Do you have any proof?" asked Marlo.

"Alas, no - it's just a suspicion. But Vawraek is a powerful spellcaster - much more skilled in the arcane arts than am I, in any case - although he's an unusual one: he's often seen mumbling quietly to himself."

"But what about the king?" asked Cramer. "Doesn't he have the final word? I thought you councilors were just advisers."

"Quite so, but each adviser is a representative of his or her own district of the kingdom and King Omadan does not want a civil war among factions so the overall majority view of the council is usually heeded. He has decreed a stance of non-interaction with Greenvale, which has subsequently been grossly misinterpreted as a full embargo against the city and all who would trade with them, to the extent of attacking caravans friendly to Greenvale."

"So it sounds like all we need to do is sway one of these three councilors to our way of thinking, and then the king could more easily be convinced to ally with Greenvale," mused Cramer. Councilor Liadon acknowledged the truth of the gnome's reasoning.

Much of the rest of the day's trip was spent in quiet reflection or small talk. In the late afternoon, they finally arrived at their destination: a seamless, white wall across the road. "Strange," observed Liadon. "There should be a gate there, directly ahead." Khari and Jhasspok looked all around them, wondering where it might possibly have gotten off to.

But then a guard called down from the ramparts, in Elven, "I made sure to put flowers on your brother's grave."

Liadon called up to the guard in the same language, "I have no brother. What makes you think I was under duress? These are allies I travel with, who saved my life from assassins of our own race. We have brought the three who survived the attempt upon my life for interrogation." Cramer, the only one of the slaves familiar with the Elven tongue, realized the guard had assumed Councilor Liadon was their prisoner - possibly even hostage - and the elves had likely sealed off the gate in the wall with a stone shape or similar spell to bar their entrance.

"We were told you had been kidnapped by assassins seeking to use you to get to the king," replied the guard from the ramparts. He gave a nod to someone behind him and a seam appeared in the wall, eventually opening up into a pair of gates allowing the horse-drawn wagon and its occupants, as well as those who walked along beside it, to enter the capital city of Greenvale. As Cramer drove the wagon inside the gates, an elven woman in robes approached.

"Welcome," said Archmage Xiandria warmly to the councilor, then gave a bit of a start at seeing the group with which he was traveling. Apparently they didn't get a whole lot of non-elven visitors this deep in the Elderwood.

"We will meet with the King and the Council tomorrow," Liadon told the five slaves, stepping down from the wagon. He indicated for several of the guards to take custody of the bound prisoners. "Xiandria here will escort you to a place you may stay overnight, that you may be refreshed before the meeting." And with that he strode off, likely to make the necessary arrangements.

Xiandria led the group to a building set off away from the others, a three-story affair with curving walls, each level about half the size of the one below it, so the roof slanted down from the back of the building to the front. Opening the door, she led them all inside. "You can stay here tonight, in the library," she offered. "We don't have much in the way of guest quarters, I'm afraid." Once everyone was inside, she closed the door behind her, looked to make sure nobody else was in the building, and then hissed, "What are you doing here? Did my mother send you here to check up on me?"

That question got her five puzzled looks. "Who's your mother?" asked Khari bluntly.

Xiandria looked blankly back at the dwarf. "Then, if she didn't send you--?"

"We're here to warn everyone about an attack by a drow army," Jhasspok offered up, answering the Archmage's original question. "In three months, the Overreach drow will attack Greenvale and we're here to warn people and try to get them to agree to an alliance with the Greenvale elves." He wasn't sure yet if they were going to admit to anyone right away about the Greenvale elves actually being sunborn drow, so he left that part out.

Marlo was staring intently at the Archmage as the elf took this all in. "You look...familiar, somehow," the sorcerer admitted.

At this, Xiandria sighed and took a seat. "You probably recognize me from when you were first taken from the surface," she admitted. "I was the one who took you aside after you received your slave tattoos, and gave you back not only your own gear but the extra scrolls to use in the Festival of Blood."

"That was a drow!" exclaimed Marlo.

"As, indeed, I am," Xiandria said. "I am Xiandria Jalamir, second daughter of the Matron." She was also apparently an archmage, so altering her appearance to appear as a light-skinned surface elf would be well within her powers, Marlo realized.

"Then you're Calish's sister!" Cramer deduced.

"Yes, one of them."

"Then what are you doing here, in an elven kingdom - as one of their Councilors?" demanded the gnome.

Xiandria sighed again. "My mother and I have an arrangement: I can remain here on the surface as long as I keep in constant contact with her - usually with a monthly astral visit. But she recently sent me a sending spell telling me to stop using astral projection spells to visit, until further notice. That's why I had at first assumed she had sent you, for I recognized you at once as Calish's arena slaves, when I had returned to Overreach to be publicly seen attending the Festival of Blood."

"Then you're unaware of the recent events in Overreach," reasoned Marlo. She explained about the rise of the Mortal Queen and her edict that they would purge all sunborn drow from their vicinity, going so far as to send their armies to the surface to obliterate Greenvale.

"All...sunborn drow?" Xiandria asked.

Cramer saw immediately where the question had been headed. "Including your sister Eri'dia, yes," the gnome replied. "Under orders from the Mortal Queen, your mother had Eri'dia captured and tortured."

"They cut her into a bunch of pieces and then sewed them back up into flesh golems," added Utred, savoring the look of horror his announcement had on the elven spellcaster.

"Where is she now?" Xiandria demanded.

"Safe in Greenvale - for now, at least," Cramer explained. "But in three months' time...." He left the rest unsaid.

"Then it is of even greater urgency that we sway the rest of the Council and the King to come to Greenvale's aid," said Xiandria. "We must not allow the Spider-Bitch to extend her power to the surface!"

"Wait...so you're a sunborn drow, too?" asked Utred.

"Not a sunborn, no - but I am a follower of Eilistraee." She turned back towards the door. "We will meet again tomorrow. I would ask you not to mention to anyone else I am a drow from Overreach. It would...complicate matters greatly."

"We understand," Marlo assured her. "Your secret will be safe with us."

"We're secret double slaves," Jhasspok offered up, hoping his admitting to their own secret lives would lead the Archmage to understand they well knew the need to keep secrets...although the simpleminded lizardfolk hadn't realized spilling his own secrets wasn't the best indicator of his ability to guard hers. Xiandria gave them all a troubled look and then walked back out through the door, leaving them to make themselves comfortable for the night. They opted to do without a guard shift, although Jhasspok took it upon himself to bunk down against the front door, so anyone trying to enter the building while they slept would bump him awake.

The night passed without incident. The next morning, breakfast was brought to the arena slaves. They were left to their own devices for the entire morning; around noon Xiandria returned to escort them to the audience area.

"Anything we should know about?" asked Cramer as they walked deeper into the forest.

"Nothing I can think of," replied Xiandria. "The other councilors are tight-lipped; we'll have to see what they have to say after you've made your case before King Omadan." They approached a ring of standing stones, arranged in a wide circle around a tree stump. Growing up from the center of the stump was a sapling, a thin new growth rising up from the dead wood beneath it. As they approached, the ground seemed oddly spongy, but nobody gave much notice to it: all eyes were upon the figures seated on stone benches on the circular plinth laid atop the ten stone pillars: King Omadan and four of the five councilors. Archmage Xiandria strode to her own stone pillar, touching a glyph upon its side and levitating to the top to take her place among the other councilors.

"You may approach," stated the elven king on a regal voice, once Xiandria was seated.

Jhasspok entered the stone circle and stood before the king. "I'm a lizardman," he announced for no particular reason. The two dwarves flanked him, with Marlo and Cramer taking up positions on either side of the tree stump. All looked up to face the king. Then Marlo began the speech she'd rehearsed back at the library, the circlet of persuasion on her brow giving further power to her arguments. She spoke of the impending drow invasion, the true nature of the Greenvale elves, and the assassination attempt on Councilor Liadon's life.

"An interesting tale," sneered Councilor Vawraek from his seat, "but I fail to see why we should take the word of a group of probable assassins. It seems more likely that they were the ones behind the attempt to slay Liadon - they have already admitted to killing the garrison commander of Crossroad Keep and his loyal guardsmen."

"Everything we have said is the truth," countered Cramer. "I am a cleric of Fharlanghn and am willing to cast a zone of truth spell, so we can all be sure that what is said is truthful. And," he added, looking around the circle and judging distances, "if I cast it directly upon this tree stump, it will encompass all of us here, the councilors included." It would also, he realized, encompass King Omadan but the gnome felt he was better off not pointing out that little detail - the king would no doubt realize he was also affected but to draw attention to it was to raise doubts as to the slaves' confidence in the king's honesty.

"Very well," agreed King Omadan. "Cast your spell - we have those among us who can tell it is a zone of truth spell you cast, and nothing more." Aramoira the dryad leaned forward as the gnome cleric did as he had been bid.

"Well then," smirked Vawraek once the spell was in place, "tell us all for the record, Xiandria: are you a drow spy?" None of the slaves had discovered it the previous day, but his familiar had followed them and Xiandria into the library and heard everything said in confidence between them.

Xiandria gasped at the accusation but before she could answer the clicking of mandibles could be heard from all around the circle - and then, the illusion spells that had hidden them falling away since they were no longer needed, the monstrous spiders hanging to the undersides of the circular plinth attacked: six of them going for the king and the councilors while four others dropped to the ground and skittered towards the arena slaves.

Cramer, Khari, Marlo, and Utred were the spiders' first targets on the ground; of the four, only Marlo managed to dodge away from the piercing mandibles, although Cramer and the dwarves all managed to shrug off the effects of the venom the spiders injected into them as part of their attack. But then Utred unsheated his Elderwood flaming longsword and put it to good use, cutting open the abdomen of the spider who had bitten him. It lasted all of a handful of seconds after the effrontery of having bitten a Butterflinger dwarf before it was dead on the ground, its eight legs twitching spasmodically in death.

Marlo channeled arcane power into a magic missile spell and sent the empowered bolts blasting into the side of the spider that had tried biting her. But she had no room to back away and it got in another bite as she cast her spell, this time successfully catching the sorcerer between its mandibles and piercing her skin, venom dripping from its fangs. Marlo, not one for the rigors of physical combat, felt her strength draining away as a result of the poisoned bite. Then, to make matters even worse, her arm suddenly sprouted two small arrows. Truffles, peering up out of Marlo's robe pocket, thought he detected a sort of shimmering area over by Councilor Vawraek and passed his suspicions on to his mistress over the empathic link they shared. Marlo, in turn, called out "Invisible archer over by Vawraek!" to the others, letting them know they were up against more than spiders.

Cramer backed frantically away from the spider who had bitten him, bumping into Jhasspok as he cast a fly spell upon himself. The lizardfolk had his battleaxe out and swung it at the spider menacing the little gnome, its blade cutting deep into the creature's cephalothorax but failing to slay it outright. Khari, in the meantime, had slain his own arachnid foe, crushing its head into a pulp with a massive, overhead swing of his trusty warhammer.

But then it became apparent the ten large spiders weren't the only arachnids in play, for swarms of much smaller spiders suddenly blanketed the area, crawling down the standing stones to overrun the combat slaves on the ground. Up on the raised platform, the king and the five councilors were busy fighting off large monstrous spiders of their own, although they seemed to have been spared the swarms of smaller arachnids currently concentrating on making meals of the heroes below.

Utred ran over to Marlo's side and slew the spider threatening her, leaving her available to send a scorching ray spell at the spider swarm attacking her and Utred, her spell causing most of the spiders in the area to be set ablaze and die instantly. Cramer took flight, flying straight up and casting an invisibility purge spell that brought a winged pixie into sudden view. Strange noises - likely curses in an unknown tongue - erupted from the pixie's throat, and Waruchi brought up her tiny bow and fired a pair of arrows, one after the other, at the bothersome gnome.

Khari and Jhasspok brought their weapons to bear against the sole remaining monstrous spider on the ground before them, slaying it between them. The remaining spider swarms repositioned themselves to best effect, some of them crawling onto Utred and Marlo's bodies. Truffles tried leaping away but was overcome on the ground, paralyzed almost at once as the various spider-bites pumped so much venom into the little toad's system that he literally couldn't move a muscle.

Utred plucked a bead from his necklace of fireballs and tossed it down at his feet, engulfing him - and, more importantly, the spiders covering the majority of his body at this point - in cleansing flames. Burnt arachnid corpses floated down off of him like sinister ashes. Marlo, just out of range, cast another empowered magic missile spell, this time targeting the strange-looking pixie - the sorcerer couldn't make out just what was wrong with the little fairy but she just seemed somehow off. Cramer joined in the pixie pile-on with a spiritual weapon spell, causing a quarterstaff composed of pure force energy to strike down at the winged menace.

Khari's warhammer wasn't necessarily the best weapon to bring against a swarm of skittering spiders but the dwarven fighter did the best he could with it, smashing multiple bodies to a crunchy pulp with each blow. It might take him some time, but he'd get these pests!

Waruchi narrowed her eyes in hatred at the flying gnome: not only had he dispelled her invisibility, but he'd hurt her with his force-weapon! She targeted him again with her bow and sent a flurry of her arrows his way; only one of them struck true.

Jhasspok saw there were no more of the bigger spiders down on the ground with them, only the smaller ones crawling over his body (and those the lizardfolk was content to let stay, as they'd make a nice snack when he had the time; killing spiders was punishable by death in the drow city of the Overreach so he'd never gotten to sample what they might taste like) - but there were still six up on the plinth with the king and the five councilors. And so he sprinted toward the nearest standing stone, leaping up and grabbing the top of the stone plinth and pulling himself up. Then, realizing this would almost certainly get the elven king to appreciate the slaves' assistance, the lizardfolk brought his battleaxe crashing down on the spider threatening King Omadan. His blow pierced the spider's abdomen in two and it died instantly, blood and other fluids leaking from its split corpse. The elven king gave a nod of gratitude and then looked to his right, where Liadon was fighting off another of these monstrous beasts.

Marlo was being eaten alive by the spiders covering her body, until Utred shook them off her and stomped them beneath his heels. Smiling her gratitude, Marlo scooped up her immobile toad familiar, stuffed him back into her pocket, and cast a magic missile spell up at the bedraggled-looking pixie. Marlo didn't even bother empowering it, believing (quite rightly) that a "standard model" would do the trick. Waruchi screamed in pain and collapsed, landing on the stone plinth beside her master - who gave all appearances of fighting off the giant spider attacking him.

Despite his close proximity, Cramer didn't get to enjoy the sight of the pixie's plummet; his gaze was focused off in the distance, where a large shape was lumbering its way through the trees. This, he saw as it got closer, was another monstrous spider, this one gargantuan in its proportions: it looked to span at least 30 or 40 feet with its outstretched legs. With a mental command, the flying gnome redirected his spiritual quarterstaff off in this new menace's direction.

Khari, also out of combat foes and not able to climb up onto the plinth like Jhasspok had, pulled out his longbow and aimed an arrow at the downed pixie's unmoving form - she might already be dead, but the dwarf wasn't willing to take any chances. His shot struck true, but seemed to plunk harmlessly off the little fairy's body. Some sort of magical protection, the dwarven fighter reasoned.

Jhasspok, in the meantime, headed off to his left along the plinth, to attack the giant spider going after Inafiel. Together, he and the elven pirate-hunter brought the beast down. But by now the gargantuan spider had made it to the outskirts of the circle of stones, headed for the dryad, Aramoira. Utred rushed at the spider, bringing his magic longsword striking at its underside and scoring a line of blood and pain with the strength of his blow. Marlo sent an empowered magic missile spell at the rampaging spider-monster, realizing it was in everyone's best interests to slay this thing at range before it closed in for the kill. Cramer flew up over the beast and landed atop its hairy abdomen, where it would be unable to bite the gnome, and cast an inflict serious wounds at the spider beneath his feet. He also kept his spiritual quarterstaff engaged in striking the spider, the tip of the weapon crashing down upon one of the spider's eight eyes.

Khari, seeing he once again had an opponent on the ground with him, forsook his pixie-plinking experiments and grabbed up his warhammer once again, swinging it into one of the gargantuan spider's legs. But despite their best efforts, the heroes failed to slay the thing before it could attack; dashing forward with its wicked mandibles, it bit deep into the body of Aramoira as she was about to leap down off the stone plinth. The spider's venomous fangs pierced the dryad from both sides, practically cutting her in half. She pitched forward off the plinth, the sapling growing out of the tree trunk in the center of the circle of stones withering away to nothing and giving silent voice to the dryad's passing from this world.

Up on the plinth, Jhasspok brought his battleaxe crashing down upon the illusory spider that was pretending to attack the wizard Vawraek; the weapon seemed to deflect off the creature's body but the lizardfolk saw nothing unusual in that and it brought no suspicions to the front of his lizard brain. He also failed to note the elven wizard seemed none the worse for wear in fighting off the attacks of a venomous spider the size of a horse.

Utred cut deep into the gargantuan spider's body, at the joint where one leg met the underside of the body. He knew he'd have a mere moment to leap away when they finally killed the blasted thing - unless he wanted the fool beast to land on top of him - but for right now this seemed the best place to strike at the monster. Fortunately, by this time the various attacks had taken a great toll on the gargantuan spider, and when Marlo's magic missile spell finally took it down, Utred had just barely enough time to roll out of the way as the monstrous beast toppled.

Not convinced of the fairy's death, Cramer cast a sound burst spell that "accidentally" covered Vawraek as well; the elf screamed in agony - far too much for the minimal pain the gnome's spell could have caused - until Cramer realized the elven wizard had just felt his familiar's death over the link the two had shared. Well, good - that was at least an indicator that the pixie had finally been slain!

The group helped finish off the rest of the remaining spiders, not a few of them turning out to be mere illusions, like the one "attacking" Vawraek. The elven mage was grabbed by the back of the neck by Jhasspok and dragged before the king. "Explain," the lizardfolk snarled to the wizard, sure that Vawraek had been behind the attacks.

Cramer, in the meantime, had flown over to examine the dead pixie's body. By her coloration, he deduced she had been fiendish, or half-fiend, in nature - that would explain how she had been able to shrug off the arrow Khari had shot directly at her. "I didn't know!" swore Vawraek. "She was almost always invisible before me!" Cramer was skeptical, but an invisible pixie familiar at least explained the wizard's penchant for mumbling quietly to himself - he'd been talking to his unseen familiar the whole time!

"Your Majesty," Cramer suggested, "I can pray for a speak with dead spell tomorrow and use it upon the body of the slain pixie. She might be able to give us better answers than this one" - here he sneered at Vawraek - "is likely to give us."

"Agreed," replied King Omadan. "We will reconvene here tomorrow, then. I will have these bodies removed in the meantime, and poor Aramoira lain to rest." He climbed down from the plinth, with the others following suit - and taking custody of the wizard Vawraeth, not looking anywhere near as formidable now that he was blubbering over his familiar's death and swearing his own innocence in any plot she might have cooked up behind his back.

The next day the circle of standing stones looked completely clean and clear - it was if no battle had ever occurred here at all. Furthermore, the "sponginess" of the ground was also gone; that had turned out to be an illusion of normalcy cast over layers and layers of spider webs covering the ground all around the circle. Marlo shuddered at the memory of being covered in spiders; from safely inside her robe pocket, Truffles did likewise. At least he'd recovered from his poisoning in the intervening day since the sudden battle.

Waruchi's body was lain out on the ground by the tree stump. Cramer approached it and cast his spell. Then he started asked the questions the group had decided upon ahead of time; the spell would allow him only three questions, but he could change which questions he asked at the spur of the moment - a great benefit in the case of a sudden bit of information demanding further explanation.

"Who did you serve besides your wizardly master, Vawraek?" the gnome demanded of the half-fiend pixie's body.

"My father and half-sister," came the ghostly replay. Well, that certainly required further detail!

"What are the names of your father and half-sister?" demanded Cramer.

"My father is Bezrameth, while I only know my half-sister's last name: Bel'vior." Bezrameth would be the demonic parent of the half-fiend; of greater importance was the fact that this little pixie was kin to House Bel'vior, the First House of Overreach. In fact, it made sense that if Waruchi was a half-fiend pixie and had a half-sister Bel'vior drow, that drow was a half-fiend as well - she couldn't likely be half-pixie, could she? Could this half-sister possibly be the Mortal Queen herself? It was food for thought.

But Cramer had another question he wanted answered. "Why did you have the spiders attack?" he asked. There had been some who thought the gargantuan spider had made for the dryad specifically, while others believed she had merely been the easiest target at the moment. If taking out Aramoira had been important the gnome wanted to know about it.

"To keep the Elderwood out of my sister's war." Well, that cinched it: the half-fiend half-sister to Waruchi was Matron Bel'vior, the Mortal Queen herself. The spirit answering the questions faded away, the gnome's spell having reached its conclusion.

"So now what?" asked Marlo.

"You will have your alliance," declared King Omadan. "I have already sent word throughout the kingdom of your warnings and our warriors are gearing up for battle. We will send an emissary to Greenvale, attesting to our intentions. The actions of this Mortal Queen and her half-sister are an act of war against the Elderwood; we will aid Greenvale in the upcoming invasion."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Marlo, much relieved.

"What about Vawraek?" asked Utred.

"He still proclaims himself an unknowing pawn to his familiar's machinations, but he has gracefully accepted his punishment: a century of imprisonment," answered the king.

"Why not just kill him?" asked the dwarven barbarian. It seemed like an obvious solution to him.

"We are not so...barbaric," replied King Omadan.

"More's the pity," grumbled Utred.

Still, they had gotten Elderwood to join in the alliance with Greenvale - next up was Revin, the kingdom from which Cramer hailed. The gnome would be glad to see his homelands once again. And they'd hopefully be able to get Revin to join the Greenvale alliance much easier than it had been to gain the elves' agreement; at the very least, it would be nice if they didn't have to fight hordes of giant spiders to get their task completed.

Jhasspok, however, wouldn't mind meeting up with more spiders, especially since killing one here on the surface wasn't a capital offense like it was in Overreach. And he'd come to an important realization: spiders tasted much more like dried dung beetles than they did horse meat. (The ones burned by the scorching ray spells had a unique taste all to their own - they were by far his favorites.)

- - -

I was afraid at first this adventure was going to be combat-free, especially once I found out several of the councilors were capable of casting 8th- and 9th-level spells. But Logan took care of that by having the king and the councilors busy with their own fights up on the plinth while we fought our own battles on the ground. That sped up combat immensely, as the plinth battles took place off screen, as it were - at least up until I realized what a PR opportunity saving the king's life would be.

As we'd hoped, everyone leveled up to 7th-level at the end of this adventure. Jhasspok's taking a 2nd level of fighter; I imagine he and Khari go through weapons drills in their off time, as wielding a warhammer and wielding a battleaxe aren't that too dissimilar.
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PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 7​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 2​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 7​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 7​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 7​

Game Session Date: 22 April 2020

- - -

The wagon was heavy when the heroes departed the Elderwood capital, loaded down with numerous chests filled with golden coins, a reward for having saved the life of King Omadan. So heavy, in fact, that Cramer insisted only he and Marlo ride in the front and the others walk beside. "We've only got the one horse and a four-day ride to Revin; we don't want to tucker the poor beast out!" he admonished. There was no real argument against it, either, for the two dwarves and the burly lizardfolk were each much heavier than either the little gnome or the petite human. Some of the coins had been spent on healing potions before they left the capital city, lessening the load somewhat, but there were still quite a lot left.

The first day's travel got the group as far as the Crossroad Keep. Utred was wary of the place - not surprising, as the last time they'd stayed there overnight they'd been attacked by the elven guardsmen and would have been set up as the slayers of Councilor Liadon had they not overcome the forces against them. But there was an entirely different set of elves on guard duty at the keep and word had already reached them how the five travelers had saved the life of the king; the arena slaves had no problems whatsoever during their overnight stay, finding themselves being toasted at the drinking establishment and practically treated like royalty themselves. "Now tha's mo' like it!" slurred Utred when he finally hit his borrowed bunk for the night.

But the next morning found the quintet back on the road again, heading west for Revin, Cramer's homeland. And shortly after noon on this second day of travel, the group arrived upon quite an unexpected scene: a human sitting in the middle of the road, bashing his feet with a wooden club.

"What are you doing?" demanded Marlo as Cramer brought the wagon to a halt beside the beleaguered man.

"Can't--go back!" the man replied, still hitting his feet. "Don't let me--go back!"

"Somebody stop him!" commanded Marlo. Jhasspok ran up and tackled the man, grabbing the wooden club from his hand and pinning him flat upon the road. "Okay, please explain to us what's going on," the sorcerer asked the pinned foot-basher.

"I got hurt an' was told to grab a healing potion, but I never learned my letters none and I musta grabbed the wrong one," Henrik explained. "Whatever was in that potion, it let me see what was goin' on for real, and I high-tailed it outta there!" He gulped visibly. "Only then I got winded from all the runnin', and I realized that potion's gonna wear off any time now and then I'll wanna go back! But don't let me go back!"

"You're trying to smash your feet so you won't be able to return to where you came from?" Marlo reiterated. "Is that really the best idea?" She looked sideways over at Cramer, giving him a silent expression that said, "And I thought Khari and Jhasspok were on the dim side!"

"I can't go back there--I can't!" wailed Henrik.

"Howzabout we knock you out and tie you up?" offered Khari, hefting his dwarven warhammer. "Then you couldn't go back."

"Would you?" pleaded Henrik. Khari raised his weapon as if to bring it crashing down on the crazed human's head but Cramer stepped between them and raised his hand. "Hold on, Khari, not just quite yet, please." He turned to Henrik. "If we tie you up so you can't go back to wherever it was you escaped from and promised to leave you in the wagon, would you be able to lead us back there so we can check it out?" Henrik gave it some thought and reluctantly agreed - as long as he didn't have to step back inside the marble palace.

Jhasspok let Henrik get up from the road and Utred escorted him to the back of the wagon, where he started binding his arms and legs with a sturdy length of rope. While Henrik was being successfully trussed up, he explained what he knew of the situation.

"There's this wizard, Absor, who runs the Cult of Celestial Bliss. Absor, he took all of us to the heavens, where we could see the whole world floatin' above us in the sky. Only with such a large group, the celestials noticed we was trespassing and chased us off. Now Absor only sends one of us at a time to slip past their notice. About once a week or so, it is."

"Is this making any sense to you?" Marlo asked Cramer.

The gnome cleric rubbed his bearded chin in thought. "It could be Bytopia," he mused. "That would explain the 'whole world' being above them in the sky - it's said to be a dual plane, one upside-down over the other." Marlo just scowled at the thought; she'd had enough of upside-down gravity planes in the Overreach to last her a lifetime.

Suddenly, Henrik gave a shake of his head, as if waking up. "Hey, what are you doing?" he asked Utred, who was putting the finishing touches on the knot he'd just tied around Henrik's wrists. ""Let me out of these ropes! I have to get back to Absor! Let me go--I have to get back!"

"Now what?" sighed Marlo to herself as Cramer cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself and approached the bound human. Once he got within a few steps of Henrik the man settled down again. "Okay, seriously, what's going on?" demanded Marlo.

"Here's what I think," replied Cramer. "Henrik here's under some kind of magical compulsion: a geas or charm or domination effect or something similar that's keeping him at this marble palace. Then he drinks the wrong potion - I'm guessing a potion of protection from evil or something similar - and his mind's suddenly his own again. He runs away, we find him, and just as Utred finished tying him up - good job there, by the way, Utred - the potion wore off. Now he wants to go back, until he fell within the range of my spell, which once again cleared his mind. Do you want to go back to the marble palace, Henrik?"


"Yeah, I didn't think so." Cramer climbed back into the front of the wagon and motioned for Marlo to get in beside him. "Okay, here's what we're going to do, Henrik. You tell us how to get to this marble palace and we'll go have a talk with this Absor guy for you. You can stay here in the wagon, okay?" Henrik nodded nervously.

"Guy sure seems pretty scared of bliss," Khari muttered as the group moved forward, back the way Henrik had come before they found him.

"So who all's in this bliss cult?" Utred wanted to know. Henrik explained that besides the wizard leader and the two female adventurers who joined the cult, there were a total of ten commoners - like himself - who had been attracted to the concept of a gathering devoted to pure happiness.

"Tell us more about these two adventurers," commanded Cramer. He wanted to know what they'd be up against, besides confronting a wizard powerful enough to keep a dozen people in his thrall.

"Belaina is a swordswoman," Henrik explained, "and Helen's a bard." Utred snorted at this last bit of information: Oh no, someone who might sing at them!

It didn't take long for the group to reach the white palace, which looked exactly as described: a one-story stone building crafted of white marble. As the wagon approached, Cramer cast longstrider and detect evil spells on himself and Marlo cast a mage armor spell on Jhasspok - for which the lizardfolk dutifully handed over one of his slave-tokens to the sorcerer. Marlo just took the token; it was easier than explaining to Jhasspok that payment wasn't necessary.

"There's evil ahead," Cramer whispered to the others as he brought the horse to a stop just outside the open doorway. The fact that he could definitely sense evil through the solid-looking marble walls led him to believe all was not as it seemed; staring intently at the building, he was able to pierce through the crafted illusion and see the "palace" for what it really was: a silk tent. He let the others in on his discovery and armed with that knowledge they too were able to see through the illusion.

"We have intruders among us!" came a raspy voice from inside. "Newcomers here to prevent our eternal bliss!" Cramer looked through the open doorway - there was no door - and saw half a dozen humans in simple robes standing in an antechamber. Behind them he saw a wizard, Absor no doubt, waving his hands about as if in the midst of spellcasting, while Helen and Balaina stood beside him.

"Looks like a fight!" enthused Khari, glad they'd just be getting on with it instead of trying to negotiate or anything. Using the power of his magic warhammer, he dropped below the surface of the ground and earth glided beneath the tent, popping up directly behind Absor, who gave no indication he knew there was now an armed and armored dwarf ready to bop him on the head with his warhammer. Jhasspok, in the meantime, ran around to the back of the tent, thinking he'd surprise Absor by ripping through the silk right behind him, taking him by surprise. The lizardfolk had to stifle his own hissing laughter, so excited was he at his clever ploy.

Marlo went straight to the attack, sending an empowered magic missile crashing into Balaina while stepping down from the front of the wagon. Helen began singing but then was cut off in mid-song; she'd cast a silence spell on Balaina and was temporarily within its effect. Utred ran straight into the tent, pushing his way past the robed commoners who, he saw, didn't even have any weapons in hand. They tried punching the burly dwarven barbarian but he ignored them, heading straight for Absor with his Elderwood flaming longsword out and ready.

Upon an unvoiced order - it arrived telepathically, directly into their heads - the robed cultists (whom Absor sneeringly referred to as "the rabble" to himself) turned away from Utred and swarmed over Marlo, pummeling the sorcerer with their fists. However, in doing so, three of them inadvertently entered the radius of Cramer's magic circle against evil spell and felt their own minds return; those three looked about confusedly, as if wondering what they were doing here. One of the others was knocked into unconsciousness as Marlo fought back, her arcane blade in hand.

But then Balaina ran forward and joined the crowd, the silence spell surrounding her causing all sounds to cease in her immediate vicinity. She kept her longsword sheathed, grabbing Marlo by the hair and flipping her to the ground, then pounding her a good one with a fist to the nose. Cramer immediately leaped down from the wagon and backed hurriedly away, but this was just to get outside the radius of the silence spell so he could cast additional spells of his own. This he did at once, casting a spiritual weapon spell that caused a shimmering quarterstaff to appear in the air above the little gnome's head. He could only see a tangle of legs on the other side of the wagon but that didn't matter; he'd gotten a good look at Balaina as she ran to attack Marlo and with a mental image of her in his head he sent his force-quarterstaff to the attack. One end of it crashed down onto the back of Balaina's head as she grappled with Marlo, trying to prevent the sorceress from being able to cast spells.

Absor stepped away from Utred, deftly dodging a hammer-blow from Khari as he did so. He moved his hands about again as if spellcasting, imbuing himself with added vigor for the duration of this fight against these unknown enemies. Khari thought for a moment Absor's actions reminded him of something, but just that quick whatever thought he'd had on the subject was gone. Still, he whirled around and brought the head of his weapon crashing into Absor's side, causing the wizard a great deal of pain.

On the other side of the tent, just behind Absor's new position, Jhasspok brought his battleaxe down in an overhead arc, thinking to slice through the thin layer of silk and the wizard in one stroke. But the fabric, it turned out, was ironsilk - much tougher than the lizardfolk had expected! Still his axe-head crashed down upon the wizard's shoulder through the ironsilk, and if the tent material wasn't cut through it was at least severely weakened - another strike in the same place and Jhasspok would likely have made himself a new entry-point.

Grappling with the fighter in a field of absolute silence, Marlo still had her arcane blade in hand and put it to good use, slashing along Balaina's forearm with the blade of the weapon; she didn't have the range of motion to stab with it as the fighter's hands were gripped hard around her wrists - it would have to do for now. But the commoners weren't content to let Balaina take care of Marlo; now that Cramer had stepped away, none of them were inside his magic circle against evil and all were dedicated to bringing down the spellcaster. Clenched fists rained down on Marlo from all directions, causing her vision to blur and black spots to form in her field of vision as she came close to blacking out. And then Balaina pulled out her own blade and stabbed at Marlo as well, catching her a glancing blow to the side as she maintained her grip on the sorcerer with her other hand.

Helen grabbed a dagger from her belt and threw it at Utred. It missed, and the barbarian took time out from his attack on Absor to give the bard a "Really?" look with nothing more than a lowered eyebrow and a disdainful frown. Then, changing his mind in mid-swing, he brought his longsword flashing out at the bard, dropping her instantly. Thought so, Utred smirked to himself quietly, refocusing his attacks on Absor.

Cramer's spiritual quarterstaff came crashing down upon Balaina's head again while he crawled underneath the wagon and bopped a commoner on the head with his mace. The cultist crumpled at once, but there were still plenty more of them in the scramble.

Absor stared down at Khari expectantly, as if anticipating the dwarven fighter would fall before him through the force of his glare. Khari felt a tingle in the back of his head as he fought off the unknown spell and again he felt the tickle of not-quite-recognition for a brief moment before it too was gone. But then he put it out of his mind and hit the wizard again with his warhammer.

With a rip, Jhasspok and his battleaxe were through the tent and right beside Absor. The lizardfolk snapped out with his teeth, ripping a chunk of flesh from the wizard's shoulder. With shock and a quite pleasant surprise, Jhasspok realized this wizard...actually tasted somewhat like fish! The realization stopped him up short but Utred was there to take up the slack, swinging his longsword at the wizard.

Marlo again managed to get her arcane blade into position to stab Balaina's arm. But by this time the commoner cultists, once again inside the effects of Cramer's magic circle against evil spell, regained their senses, opted to run away, left the radius of the spell, fell back under Absor's mental sway, and then reentered the field to try to attack Cramer only for the whole sequence to be repeated. The gnomish cleric found himself surrounded by indecisive cultists fleeing from him and turning around to attack him in sequence, the lot of them getting in each other's way. He decided to ignore them and made his way over to where Marlo was still fighting Balaina, each armed with her own blade and doing her best to stab the other - all within a complete field of absolute silence. Cramer whacked the fighter on the back of the head with his mace and let his spiritual weapon finish the job. Balaina succumbed to unconsciousness, her limp form dropping down upon Marlo, who gave her an angry kick in the ribs as she regained her feet.

A coy smile spread across Absor's face as he realized he was now in position to mind blast all three of his current attackers without nullifying the charm effect on his food supply. Jhasspok and Utred were immediately stunned into immobility, but Khari was once more unaffected. Absor couldn't believe the dwarf had once again resisted the overwhelming power of his mind - and had the temerity to keep attacking him with that warhammer of his!

Marlo moved fully into the tent and seeing Khari in desperate battle with Absor cast a lightning bolt spell through Utred to get to the wizard - she knew full well the barbarian could handle the damage, but the wizard was starting to look a little frail. The air shimmered around Absor as he manifested an intellect fortress around himself, shielding him from some of the damage of the electrical spell attack.

Cramer redirected his spiritual weapon on Absor, the quarterstaff shattering upon striking the wizard. But then Cramer's follow-on sound burst spell had better effect, staggering the wizard on his feet if not stunning him as the gnome had hoped.

Khari knew what he was up against now and swung his warhammer for all he was worth. The hammer's head collided with Absor's skull and he died while attempting to plane shift away. As he fell, his red hair flopped off his head, falling to the ground and landing as a yellow hat. That wasn't the only transformation, either; as Absor dropped lifelessly to the floor of the tent, his human form fell away and what landed was the unmistakable form of a mind flayer - and one, like N'zorthal, who was using ring gates around his facial tentacles, for the majority of the lengths of the appendages disappeared inside silver rings close to his face.

Jhasspok and Utred snapped back into standing wakefulness as the others were checking out Helen and Balaina for magic. The six cultists all stood around, confused; their minds were now their own after the death of Absor but they weren't sure what they should be doing. Detect magic spells told the spellcasters that Helen wore magic bracers on her arms and Balaina's shield was enchanted, as was a necklace she wore.

But Jhasspok and Utred walked into the room toward where Absor had been backing before Khari slew him and found a virtual trove: a bag of holding containing thousands of coins and a silver helmet. Utred's whoop of delight at the sight of the coins brought the others running into the room; Cramer noticed at once the scroll tubes, potion vials, and wand lying upon a small table but missed the book Marlo was quietly tucking into her robes - she'd recognized at once the hidebound book as another copy of The Book of Uboros and didn't want anybody taking this one away from her before she got a chance to thoroughly study it.

"We'll go through the treasure later," Cramer decided. "Right now, I want some answers from the cultists!" He applied minimal healing to the unconscious foes they'd knocked out - just enough to get them back to wakefulness and aware enough to see the weapons pointed their way by two battle-eager dwarves and a scary-looking lizardfolk.

"Got some questions for you," Cramer told them. The answers were forthcoming from Helen and the commoners; less so from Balaina, who Cramer knew from his detect evil spell was the only other one besides Absor himself who had shown to have the taint of evil on her soul.

Helen, it turned out, had been part of an adventuring team whose other member was a blue-haired elf. Absor'thal attacked the band, dominated Helen, and slew the elf, whose hat of disguise had shielded the fact she was a drow. The mind flayer also took the drow's magical ironsilk tent for his own. Balaina had joined the mind flayer willingly, agreeing to serve him if he would reveal what he knew - or could find out - about a wizard known only as "the Mithral Mage." (The fighter had an unusual tattoo on the back of her neck - an overturned hourglass - that Helen thought was somehow tied in with this Mithral Mage, but Balaina wouldn't say anything about it.) Absor'thal then formed his cult of bliss, taking everyone to Bytopia to get caught as a means of justifying the need to stealthily take just one cult member to "the celestial realms" at a time. When he did so, he ate the cultist's brain, leaving the body for Balaina to hide afterwards. (Sometimes Helen was pressed into service to assist Balaina, the mind flayer's domination coming into play to get her to do so.) Nobody questioned why these cult members never came back with Absor; why would anyone doubt the cultists would opt to stay in the blissful celestial realms if given the opportunity?

After getting all of the information he could from her (which wasn't much), Cramer executed Balaina on the spot. Helen took the commoners, including the wounded Henrik, away with her - they headed off in the opposite direction from which the Overreach slaves would be heading. But the group decided to remain in place overnight, staying in the ironsilk tent (after booting two pairs of cultists from two other rooms in the "tent-palace" who had apparently spent the whole battle finding a little "bliss" of their own; Marlo said quite firmly neither of those two rooms was going to be hers if they ended up camping out here for the night).

"Why the delay?" Utred asked.

"I want to interrogate Absor and I won't have a speak with dead spell ready until morning," Cramer replied. Utred just shrugged; he didn't see why they couldn't get back on the road and bring the dead illithid with them if the gnome wanted to talk to him so badly, but whatever. Marlo spent the afternoon in a side room she called as her own, reading through The Book of Uboros; the pages were nothing but a series of raised bumps but the sorcerer had already determined the silver helmet was a helm of comprehend languages; with it on her head and a read magic spell cast upon the book, she could make out what was written just fine.

The next morning, Cramer cast his spell. They'd discussed earlier what three questions they'd ask of the mind flayer's spirit. Once the spell had been cast, the gnome started with the first of the questions: "What is the third prophecy to prevent the Dying One's return?" Twice now they'd learned there was a third way, but the goblin with The Book of Uboros hadn't been able to understand it and the mural in the duergar tomb had a blank space where the third prophecy would have been shown, had they known it. The gnome leaned towards the corpse of the illithid expectantly, hoping he'd finally get an answer.

He did, although it wasn't anything like what he'd expected. "Even if the previous two attempts fail, one final Hope remains for the world. The girl who rides her father's Dick shall conspire with her father's enemies to save the world from destruction."

"--the Hell?" sputtered Marlo. "That's just disgusting."

Cramer pressed on with his second question. "How do we kill the neothelid we are supposed to stand against?" he asked. The neothelid, he knew, was the "pink worm" they'd have to fend off, according to one of the other two prophecies. Neothelids weren't particularly common creatures and the gnome had no idea if they had any special vulnerabilities or were particularly impervious against certain forms of attack.

"The same way one normally kills something." Well, that was good news, anyway - it didn't sound like the neothelid was going to be particularly difficult to slay; it wasn't like they could only use silver weapons against it or anything.

For the final question, Cramer decided to learn what he could about how the Dying One's history. "How did Wee Jas bring the Dying One to His current state?" he asked.

"She beheaded Him, and His faithful preserved Him," was the answer - not particularly informative, but it at least sounded like the Dying One would have in fact been slain (perhaps even permanently?) if those worshiping Him hadn't taken actions to extend His life as a severed head. Marlo's face was expressionless; she had already known of this, having read it in her copy of The Book of Uboros, but hadn't been able to tell the others without giving away her secret. And there was no way she was going to let them know she had her own copy of the book before she'd had an opportunity to examine it closely: read it several times through, at least.

"Okay, that's all we're getting from him," Cramer announced. "Everybody out of the tent - let's pack it up!" Marlo and the others stepped outside, the sorcerer frowning as the gnome turned to the front opening of the tent and said an arcane syllable or two. As the ironsilk tent started folding itself up, she realized Cramer must have done some magical investigating of his own yesterday afternoon and evening while she was having her first peek through her plundered book. The words he'd spoken were obviously some kind of command words, for the ironsilk tent kept folding in on itself until it was about the size of a small crate. Jhasspok hefted the cube of ironsilk and plopped it on the back of the wagon - which, Marlo noted, now only contained one of the many chests of coins it had held yesterday. "What happened to the other chests?" she asked.

"They're all in the bag of holding, which is inside this chest here!" Utred beamed proudly. He climbed up onto the wagon. "Which means we don't hafta hoof it anymore!"

Khari and Jhasspok leaped up onto the back of the wagon as Marlo took her seat in the front and Cramer sent the horse lumbering on its way towards Revin.

- - -

Jhasspok ended up with some decent loot from this adventure: Helen's +4 bracers of armor (surrendered willingly by the bard as payment for freeing her from the cult) will be a welcome addition for a lizardfolk who doesn't wear armor, and Balaina's +1 glamored shield was dropped into the adventure as treasure specifically because Jhasspok won't give up his turtle shell shield (because the mini I'm using for Jhasspok has one), so this way I can have Jhasspok change its appearance to a turtle shell shield and still get the benefit of its enhanced magical protection. (What a thoughtful DM!) Utred took the hat of disguise, Khari took an amulet of natural armor from Balaina, Marlo took the scrolls and the wand of fox's cunning, and Cramer ended up with the helm of comprehend languages (although I imagine Marlo will be "borrowing" it from time to time). Incidentally, while all of the players are aware Marlo stole The Book of Uboros, none of the PCs know anything about it.

And for those of you wondering about that third prophecy, it's a direct reference to our previous campaign (which is also kind of our concurrent campaign, since it's taking place during the same time frame as this one), "The Durnhill Conscripts." In that campaign, my human fighter Jace Syngaard had a little daughter, Hope, and a figurine of wondrous power, a bronze griffon he proudly named Dick. So Logan's set things up here such that if we bungle the first two prophesied ways to defeat the Dying One, we can always run a third, follow-on campaign where a now-grown Hope Syngaard rides her father's bronze griffon into battle directly against the Dying One.

Finally, I want to document the fact that neither Dan nor I missed the opportunity to refer to Henrik's "flat-footed AC" when we first saw him slamming his feet with a wooden club. Brilliant minds think alike!
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PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 7​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 2​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 7​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 7​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 7​

Game Session Date: 29 April 2020

- - -

Half a day out from Revin's capital city, the group approached a camp of makeshift tents off to one side of the road. These tents were much smaller than those most of the slaves would find comfortable, but that turned out to be because most of the inhabitants of the camp were gnomes. One of them recognized Cramer at the front of the wagon and called out to him. "Cramer! So that's where you went! Got some adventurers to help with the problem, huh? Good thinking!"

Cramer brought the wagon to a halt beside the other gnome and introduced him to his fellow slaves. "Guys, this is Buckleby Noggenfurter, a friend of mine from Grover's Comb." He looked around the tent camp, recognizing a few other gnomes from his home village, all looking somewhat bedraggled. Apparently these were refugees; something bad had happened to Grover's Comb after Cramer had followed the drow who had captured his friend Honeycomb Buzzwort into the cave outside the village and then been captured himself. Cramer decided to play along, not wanting to get into the fact he'd been a slave of the drow of Overreach these past weeks.

As one, the group of slaves climbed down from the wagon and entered the makeshift camp. "My parents...?" Cramer asked hesitantly.

"They're here, and they're fine," Buckleby assured the cleric. He sent a young gnome to go fetch them while he explained to the other four adventurers (assuming Cramer already knew what had happened to Grover's Comb) the recent history of the small village.

"It was about seven weeks ago" - about three days after Cramer's capture by the drow, the cleric figured - "that a human wizard named Valicent showed up in the village and rented a room for an extended stay at the inn," Buckleby explained. "He said he was studying an odd, lingering magical aura he'd discovered in a nearby cave - a weird combination of conjuration and transmutation magic, he said. And, get this, he said it was 'as if somebody disintegrated the fabric of reality in order to create a portal.'" The slaves all looked sidelong at each other, each thinking that sounded suspiciously like the Writhing Gate. (All but Khari, that is: he was wondering if the combination of magic described would be "conjmutation" or "transuration.")

Buckleby hadn't noticed the visitors' sidelong glances, continuing on with his tale. "About three weeks after his arrival, he suddenly disappeared...and people started having disturbing dreams. And a week after that, some of those nightmarish dreams began manifesting. It was shortly thereafter we evacuated the village, for our own safety."

"What kinds of disturbing dreams?" Marlo prompted.

"Weird monsters, plants eating animals, melting buildings - all kinds of weird stuff," Buckleby answered. "They sent in the Revin soldiers to investigate, and they came back claiming they'd been attacked by the maddened survivors - those who stayed behind, that is, when the rest of us got out of there - and by the mutated vegetation...heck, one soldier said he'd been attacked by one of the buildings! Not all of the soldiers came back with their wits intact, if you know what I mean." The gnome tapped the side of his temple with a stumpy finger.

"So that's how things stand right now?" asked Utred.

"Yep. Nobody wants to go back in, but scholars studying the effect claim it's spreading - slowly, sure, but spreading nonetheless. Unless someone goes in and stops it at the source, the whole kingdom could be in jeopardy." Buckleby beamed at the group. "I reckon that's why you're here, huh?"

Cramer answered for the group. "That's right. We'll go check it out and see what we can do about the effect. I'm sure the Revin leaders would be very appreciative of having this situation taken care of." The gnome cleric figured this would be a good first step in gaining the cooperation from the kingdom in joining the coalition to aid Greenvale. He stood up and started heading back to the horse and wagon, the others following behind him.

"Uh, you'd be best leaving them behind," Buckleby suggested. "Animals, they don't like going near the afflicted zone. Get all skittish, like. You'd be better off going in on foot."

"Not without saying hello to his mother, he wouldn't - not if he knows what's good for him!" boomed a female voice approaching at a rapid pace. Cramer turned his head just in time to be scooped up by his mother, Peach, and crushed into a bearlike hug. "We thought you were dead!" Peach scolded her son.

"No, no, I'm fine," Cramer argued. "I was just, you know, finding help." He waved the part of his arm not currently crushed to his side by his mother's embrace feebly in the direction of his fellow arena slaves.

"Well, it's been this long, it can wait long enough for you and your friends to have some pie," admonished Peach, finally releasing her son and leading them back to her tent. "Your father's gathering firewood, but he'll be back shortly. Sit, sit! I'll be right back." And the gnome woman popped into the tent, returning soon thereafter with a berry pie and a knife to cut it. She passed thick slabs of pie all around. Jhasspok looked at his piece uncertainly - it didn't seem to have any meat in it, how could this be considered food? Still, the others seemed to be enjoying it so he popped it into his mouth and swallowed it down. It was...okay. And then, remembering his manners and the proper use of money, he opened the satchel at his hip and passed a slave token to Peach, who stared at it in confusion.

"It's a lizardfolk thing," Cramer whispered to his mother as an attempt at explanation. Peach just shrugged and put the slave token in the pocket of her apron. Cramer's father returned from his wood-gathering expedition and introductions were made all around again, but then Cramer insisted they'd best get on their way to investigate this strangeness that had taken over their home village.

"Your mom seems nice," Marlo said as they walked away from the camp, headed for Grover's Comb. Cramer grunted noncommittally and cast a longstrider spell so he could keep up with the others.

As they neared the site of the village, the group noticed the plant life was growing more primeval - and in some cases completely alien. Khari watched with puzzlement as a bee landed on what looked like a normal daisy, only to have the petals enclose the frantic insect and the sounds of chewing lasting longer than the sound of buzzing wings. "That ain't right," the dwarf commented to himself.

Another bee landed on Cramer's arm as they walked. Looking down at it, the cleric flinched in surprise: not only did it have legs twice as long as normal and with double the usual number of joints, but every facet of its multifaceted eyes was a tiny eyeball just like his own. He brushed it away with a sudden revulsion.

But this mutant bee was but the first of many. A veritable swarm of the things approached, grouped together into two aerial clumps headed their way, even the droning noise of their buzzing wings sounding somehow wrong. Utred wasn't taking any chances with weird, mutant bees he knew nothing about; he plucked his next-to-last bead from his necklace of fireballs and hurled it at the closest swarm. Marlo followed it up with a scorching ray spell and the first swarm dropped, individual insects flaming down like sparks. Cramer encased the second swarm within a wind wall spell, closed into a circular column that prevented any of them from escaping until Utred tossed his last bead into their midst and burned them up as well. Khari and Jhasspok held their weapons at the ready, realizing there wasn't much either of them could do against a mass of individual insects; neither warhammer nor battleaxe was an optimal weapon against such foes. They were pleased to see their contributions were not needed in this particular fight. Then, the swarms destroyed, the group continued on.

They made it into the village proper without any further attacks. At first, the village seemed to be perfectly normal, if eerily quiet and motionless - except for the irritating sensation of unseen movement just out of the corner of your eye, which was somewhat disconcerting. Then Cramer, in the lead because he was the only one who'd been here before, pointed to the fountain in the center of the village square. "Check it out," he said, pointing. It was burbling blood instead of water and as they got nearer Jhasspok could smell the coppery scent coming from the fountain. Not wanting to take any chances, Cramer cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself, advising the others to stay close. "The inn's over there," he said, pointing to a larger structure to the east. "Let's check where that wizard was staying - maybe he left notes or something."

The group, unnerved and keeping close, moved behind several smaller buildings as they approached the inn. Utred, once he got close enough, noticed the inn seemed to be oozing some sort of glistening slime. Jhasspok, however, focusing on the blood fountain, failed to heed Cramer's warning and wandered the other way around the smaller buildings, heading straight for the inn's front doors rather than approaching it from the side like the others. He kept an eye on the fountain, idly wondering if the blood was tasty, when he heard the burbling of the fountain intensify - and, oddly, the sound was coming not only from the fountain but also the rooftop of the inn--strange!

What was stranger still was when the blood gushing up from the fountain started sprouting eyes and mouths and crawling out of the fountain...as a second ooze, similarly sprinkled with a plethora of eyes and mouths, plopped down from the inn's rooftop directly in front of Utred. These gibbering mouthers babbled and muttered, cried and screamed, their cacophony doing their best to affect the minds of those within the general vicinity. Khari and Utred felt an itching sensation in the back of their brains but managed to shrug off the mental oddness; Jhasspok's primitive lizard brain wasn't as well able to cope and his mind froze up, odd sounds coming from his mouth as he lost all ability to form coherent words. Cramer and Marlo were unaffected, whether because they were the farthest away or due to the cleric's spell was uncertain.

That didn't matter to Khari; he backed up into the radius of Cramer's magic circle against evil spell as a precaution, his warhammer ready to strike if either of these strange oozes approached. Marlo cast a magic missile spell at the rooftop ooze, the shafts of energy striking unerringly. Cramer gauged the distances between the oozes and targeted the space directly between them with a silence spell. Their insane utterances stopped at once but Jhasspok, outside the spell's effect, could still be heard perfectly as he stood rooted in place, dazed beyond comprehension. "Spoog. Spimfiddly. Bondo rimborry. Gershtunk. Framiroll."

Utred pulled the Elderwood flaming longsword from its sheath and charged the fountain ooze. The enchanted blade came crashing down but surprisingly bounced off the amorphous blob's ever-shifting form. Both gibbering mouthers headed his way, spitting at him from numerous orifices and half a dozen of the fountain ooze's mouths trying to take a bite out of the barbarian. Of these, only one managed to clamp down on him and it failed to even pierce his skin.

Emboldened by the silence spell, Khari charged the rooftop ooze, hitting it with his earthglide warhammer. Ripples exploded across the gibbering mouther's body from the point of impact, causing a few eyes and mouths to shift about.

Cramer and Marlo, in the meantime, targeted the one trying to bite Utred. Marlo empowered a magic missile spell and threw it at the gibbering mouther while Cramer cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending the flying quarterstaff thus created slamming down into the amorphous creature's mass. "Shimtooky," muttered Jhasspok, possibly in admiration. "Squintocky. Plonkerdoom. Skrotumbulus." Utred sliced his blade into the creature before him, noting it wasn't as effective an attack as he'd have hoped; the creature seemed partially impervious to slashing attacks. The dwarven barbarian ducked as more spittle was flung his way, then both dwarves were attacked by chomping teeth, Khari crying out in pain as he was bitten on the leg. He retaliated with a powerful blow from his warhammer, sending ripples quivering throughout the gibbering mouther's body to the point it looked like it might discorporate entirely. Seeing its apparent weakness, Marlo cast a magic missile spell, sending only one of the missiles to finish that one off (which it did) and the others into the one concentrating its attacks upon Utred over by the fountain.

As the spiritual quarterstaff crashed into the gibbering mouther again, Cramer cast a bless spell on the group. "Bintwinkle," commented Jhasspok. "Vashpertoddle. Filinificum. Grompletonkers. Tweef." Utred finished off the second gibbering mouther just as Jhasspok's mind started recovering from the confusion effect brought on by the oozes' mutterings. The lizardfolk shook his head and then flinched, startled - when had his dwarven friends moved up into positions fighting the blobs, and how long ago had the blobs been killed? What was going on here?

"That's the inn, there," Utred said to the perplexed lizardfolk, pointing to the building beside Jhasspok. Shrugging it off, Jhasspok went to open the door to the inn, only to have it collapse as if made of dry, brittle wax. That did nothing to reassure the lizardfolk he wasn't still under the mind-altering effects of the gibbering mouthers! Still, he wandered inside the inn and into the bedroom Cramer had said was the biggest and the one Valicent would likely have rented. Sure enough, there was a book by the nightstand. Eager to learn if there was anything written inside that would help them learn about the strangeness affecting the area, Jhasspok passed it over to Marlo - he couldn't read.

Marlo skimmed through the pages. "It's a journal," she reported to the others. "Notes he's taken on the mysterious aura, seems to line up with what we were told. The last coherent note says he's gonna peek inside the rift - then there's a lot of nonsense. I'd guess he went into the cave, found a way to see through the aura remnant to the other world, went mad, and then scribbled this incomprehensible gibberish at the end." She looked over the Cramer. "You think he then went back and opened the rift all the way?"

"It's likely," Cramer agreed. "Buckleby said the aura was in a nearby cave. That would be the one the drow raiders used the Writhing Gate to send their forces to capture Buzzwort - and then me too, when I followed them. But I know where the cave is - let's go!"

The cave was in the hills nearby. As the arena slaves headed up a winding incline towards the cave, they saw two huge creatures standing on a ridge looking down at them. One was built like a bear and another was lupine in form but their bodies looked like solid voids filled with what Marlo said were likely Far Realm energies.

"Far Realm?" asked Khari.

"Where the Dying One came from," she explained. Cramer cast a detect evil spell and was admittedly surprised when neither creature detected as such.

"I will get the one on the right," Jhasspok announced, climbing up onto a large boulder and from there leaping up to pull himself onto the ledge before the wolf-creature. The lizardfolk readied his battleaxe for the monster's likely attack. The bear-thing, in the meantime, clambered partway down the slope, meowing as it did so. A pseudopod erupted from the side of its ursine head, slamming into Cramer before the gnome had time to react. Then Marlo and the dwarves, standing in a group, found themselves being bombarded by a concussive blast apparently generated by the Far Realm bear.

The wolf-thing dashed forward, slamming a pseudopod of its own at Jhasspok, missing the lizardfolk whose weapon also failed to deal his foe any damage. But a second concussive blast exploded around Khari, Utred, and Marlo, the close quarters between the trio apparently too good of a target to overlook.

The wolf was up on a ledge too steep for Khari to climb easily so he charged the bear, bringing his warhammer crashing into the thing's ribs. Utred did likewise, striking the bruin with the flaming blade of his longsword. Cramer backed away from the Far Realms bear and cast a shield of faith spell on Utred, the crafty gnome doing what he could to keep the group's toughest combatant in the fight longer. Marlo, once again worried about Jhasspok fighting on his own, sent an empowered magic missile screaming up at the wolf-thing to help the lizardfolk.

Jhasspok was, by that time, glad for the assistance. He'd attacked the massive wolf-thing with his battleaxe and instinctive snapped his jaws shut on the beast's foreleg, getting a taste of its warped flesh. His mind still somewhat fuzzy, the lizardfolk got the distinct impression he now knew what "purple" tastes like. "Ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss!" hissed the wolf, an eerie mirroring of the lizardfolk's own laughter.

Down the slope, the bear-monster slammed Utred with another pseudopod, then hit him, Khari, and Cramer with a concussive blast. Another blast hit the same three courtesy of the wolf-thing above, who also slammed Jhasspok with a pseudopod at the same time. Khari, snarling, activated his warhammer and slipped below the surface of the earth, only to earth glide to the other side of the Far Realm bear and rise back up, swinging his weapon into the creature's back. Utred, roaring in rage at the beating he was taking by those damned concussive blasts, brought his longsword tearing deep into the ursine beast - who was now barking like a dog - while Cramer healed him up a bit with a cure critical wounds spell. Marlo sent a scorching ray spell blasting into the side of the bear-thing and lamented that the fire spell didn't seem to do as much damage to the thing as her empowered magic missiles did.

Jhasspok sent his battleaxe crashing into the wolf's neck, not bothering to try to bite it again - he didn't like the way the taste of the thing confused his senses. He got the thing's full focus again, being struck by a pseudopod and a concussive blast all at once, causing the rage to build up inside of him. Down below, the bear-thing slammed Utred with another pseudopod but then targeted Khari with its concussive blast. But by now it was on its last legs and the dwarven barbarian slew it with his Elderwood flaming longsword, crying out in exultation as the thing finally died. But then he looked up at the monster wolf fighting Jhasspok and started trudging up the steep slope to aid the lizardfolk.

Marlo, however, finished off the Far Realm wolf with another empowered magic missile before Utred could race up the hillside path. Jhasspok leaped back as the thing fell forward in death. After that, once the rest of the group made it up the path, Cramer applied healing spells where they were needed - and they were needed by everyone by this point.

Having all caught their collective breath, Cramer led the way into the cave opening he saw ahead. It was as he had remembered it, up until he actually entered the cave interior, at which point he noted the fingerlike protrusions sticking up from the floor and covering the walls and ceiling as well had definitely not been there the last time he'd been inside this cave. The projections writhed like undersea fronds, grasping at the gnome's feet but lacking the strength to actually grab him up. Nonetheless, a fly spell put him out of their reach; they were disconcerting, if nothing else.

Flying into the cave a foot or more above the level of the floor, Cramer saw a beam of bluish light reaching from cavern ceiling to stone floor, a veritable tear in the fabric of reality; the now-familiar vista of the Far Realm - as had been seen on the surfaces of the lupine and ursine creatures outside - could be seen within the rift.

Cramer looked around for a body, expecting Valicent to have been killed when opening the rift. There was a greenish lump nearby, writhing among the wriggling tendrils on the cave's floor. He flew over to examine the lump, discovering it to be the remains of a wizard's robes, but the wizard himself had been transformed into an upright tentacle-thing. The empty sleeves of the robes fluttered as the tentacle rose up and curved in the gnome's direction, the tip slapping the gnome hard across the face, the sharp, hardened suckers along its length scoring gashes across Cramer's cheek.

Marlo entered the cave, making a face as the finger-stubs tried unsuccessfully to grab onto her feet; she had never before in her life been so glad to wear boots. But seeing a robed tentacle reaching out for Cramer, she cast a lightning bolt at the thing. Khari charged in beside her and whacked the rubbery form of the former wizard with his warhammer. The tentacle arced around, casting an energy bolt that hit Khari, Marlo, and Jhasspok with its electrical energy.

Snarling in refueled rage, Utred charged the tentacle with his longsword, Jhasspok following in his wake, each striking with their blades at the writhing, ten-foot appendage that had once been Valicent. Cramer flew back out of range, casting a cure moderate wounds spell upon himself.

Marlo cast another empowered magic missile, the spell quickly becoming her favorite form of attack. Each dart of energy made sizzling sounds as they struck the tentacle's length. Khari finished it off, his warhammer crashing into the middle of the rubbery appendage and crushing some vital organ within; the robed tentacle crashed down to the cavern floor and did not move again. A thin fluid leaked out of several rips in the rubbery flesh, possibly some equivalent to blood.

"Search the place," suggested Cramer as he bent over and dug through the pockets of the wizard's robes. They found only the shattered remains of empty potion vials, broken wands, and the torn pages of what must have once been a spellbook. But among that useless debris Marlo found a bent scroll tube whose contents were still usable; casting a read magic spell, she pored over the arcane writing within and gave a big smile. "Valicent came prepared," she told the others. "This is a spell to close a portal - he must have brought it along just in case, but was transformed before he could use it." Or, she thought to herself, maybe he was okay with bringing the Far Realm into our world....

Reading the words to the seal portal spell, Marlo caused the rift to flicker out and die. With the rift gone, the wriggling tendrils slowed their movement. "Is that it, then?" asked Khari. "Will everything go back the way it was?"

"In time," answered Marlo. "Without the unnatural energies of the Far Realm flowing through the area, most of the effects should eventually wear off in a month or two. Those effects that remain should at least be easier to purge without any further mutations occurring." She turned to Cramer. "Eventually, your villagers should be able to return to their homes."

"Might want to tear down any buildings with waxy doors and who sweat out them eyeball-mouth blobs," suggested Utred. "Maybe rebuild from scratch."

The group walked back to the temporary camp of the Grover's Comb refugees. "Will you at least stay the night?" Peach asked her son when he explained the threat had been dealt with but they had to go to the capital city to explain what had happened and to get the kingdom to join an alliance to fend off an incoming attack by the drow. "There's not much room in the tent, but we've got extra blankets for you and your friends...."

"That's okay, Ma," Cramer smirked, walking back to the wagon and pulling out the cube of ironsilk stored there. Then, tugging it to the ground and saying a command word, he caused the ironsilk tent to expand to its full size, mentally crafting the image of the marble castle it had previously taken when used by the mind flayer Absor'thal and his bliss-seeking minions. He grinned at the open-mouthed astonishment evident on the faces of the gnomes all around him.

"We got our own tent."

- - -

Jhasspok was completely useless in the fight against the mutant bee swarms; he was useless in the fight against the gibbering mouthers, too, succumbing to the confusion effect before he even got to wield his battleaxe against them once. But when Logan informed me my roll of "43" on the confusion effects table had me babbling nonsensically, I proceeded to do just that, muttering some nonsensical string of syllables every few seconds. I rolled a "33" for my second round of confusion, which was the same effect, so I continued my verbal nonsense. (Hey, I was role-playing!) And by the time the effect wore off, both of the gibbering mouthers had been slain. So while I didn't get to do much to pull my own (considerable) weight, I did manage to amuse myself during the enforced "down time."

The Far Realm wolf and bear were actually two Christmas ornaments Logan saw in a Michael's store last year and thought he could put a use to someday; they're painted with a kind of starscape. The fight in the Grover's Comb town square and the slope up to the cave were done on Paizo Flip-Maps: "Village Square" and "Hill Country," respectively. And he built a small cavern using nine tiles from the "Darklands Starter Set" from the same line of gaming products.
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PC Roster:
Cramer Appleknocker, gnome cleric 7​
Jhasspok, lizardman 3/barbarian 2/fighter 2​
Khari Hammerslammer, dwarf fighter 7​
Marlo Pendragon, human sorcerer 7​
Utred "Buckets" Butterflinger, dwarf barbarian 7​

Game Session Date: 6 May 2020

- - -

"Here it is: the capital of Revin," announced Buckleby the gnome as Cramer brought the horse-drawn wagon to a stop. "I'll get off here and make arrangements for an audience with the king, while you guys hit the shops. I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

"We need anything?" Utred asked. They had plenty of provisions and he himself was already a walking arsenal of weapons.

"I wouldn't mind picking up a few potions," Marlo answered. "Plus, we've got plenty of money now - it can't hurt to see what's available." Utred grunted noncommittally as Cramer led the horse to the merchant district. They got some strange looks as they drove past - particularly Jhasspok, but as he was sitting peacefully in a wagon with a human, a gnome, and two dwarves and they didn't seem disturbed at being in the immediate proximity of what basically amounted to a six-foot-tall dinosaur, they didn't panic. And Jhasspok just stared right back at them.

A particular shop caught Cramer's eye and he brought the horse to a stop. "Let's try in here," he suggested, tying the horse's reins to a pole and disembarking. The shopkeeper was pleased to see the new customers - and then suddenly wary when Jhasspok trundled in behind the other four. As the dwarves headed over to check out the few weapons on display and Marlo looked at a magical girdle guaranteed to boost one's combat stamina, Jhasspok walked straight up to the shopkeeper. "Do you sell dried dung beetles?" he inquired. "Or fried spiders?"

The shopkeeper swallowed hard before answering the lizardfolk. "We...we don't sell comestibles," he squeaked. When that just earned him a puzzled look, he modified his answer, after guessing why the lizardfolk was asking the question in the first place: "Food. We don't sell food. Just some potions, is all."

Jhasspok shrugged and turned away, as Marlo made the purchase of a girdle of health. Cramer, however, was staring at an odd object on a shelf that was staring right back at him. Seeing the burly lizardfolk approach, he said, "Hey, Jhasspok, come take a look at this." It was an eyeball, human by all appearances, just sitting on the shelf, looking at them. Cramer took a step to the left and then moved back to the right and the eyeball spun to keep him in its sight at all times. "I wonder what it's for," the gnome cleric mused. "To prevent theft, maybe?"

"I thought he said they didn't sell food here," replied Jhasspok, thoroughly confused and slightly upset at having apparently been lied to. Eyeballs were delicious! He turned back to the shopkeeper. "How much for the eyeball?" he asked, pulling a slave-token from his pouch.

"Eyeball? What eyeball?"

"The one on the shelf over there," replied Jhasspok, pointing over at Cramer, who was still watching the eyeball follow his every move. "And do you have any more than just the one?"

Jhasspok watched as the blood drained out of the shopkeeper's face. "Out!" he called. "Everybody out! The shop's closed!" He ushered everyone to the door, looking back nervously at the shelf where the eyeball had been - and was no longer.

"What got into him?" asked Marlo in irritation as she buckled on her new girdle over her robes - which were worn over the ironsilk clothes she'd obtained in the Overreach. For a sorcerer, they offered significant protection without getting in the way of her spellcasting. And with the thick belt in place, she realized she did feel a bit tougher - like she could handle herself in combat if it came down to it.

She got her chance almost immediately, when a pair of hand crossbow darts went flying her way, one whizzing past her ear and the other embedding itself in the side of her neck. She cried out in pain and surprise, instinctively plucking the dart from her neck - it had hit high up, just below and behind her ear - and with a queasy feeling saw the poison coating the tip of the weapon. Khari, standing beside her, whirled around and saw a leather-clad human woman across the street, her left arm still pointed in Marlo's direction after having fired her shot. With a battle-roar, the dwarf charged the young woman, smashing her in the ribs with his dwarven warhammer as she fumbled to reload another dart into her hand crossbow.

With Khari taking care of one of her attackers, Marlo spun in the direction the other dart had come from and fired an empowered magic missile at the other foe, this one also a human woman in dark combat leathers, with only a slightly lighter hair color differentiating her from her partner (and possible sister: they looked an awful lot alike).

From the side of a building across the street stepped a half-elf wielding a composite shortbow. He aimed at the target across from him, one of the two identical-looking gnomes (they both looked like Cramer, but the second one was just a bored Utred playing around with his hat of disguise). The arrow raced across the street but missed its target, plunking into the closed door of the shop the heroes had just exited. Jhasspok had been watching the door; the shopkeeper put up a "CLOSED" sign (not that the illiterate lizardfolk could read the word posted on the sign) and lowered a covering over the glass window in the shop's door - he didn't even want to see what was going on outside his shop. But the arrow alerted the confused lizardfolk that there was apparently combat going on around him; turning around, he saw a snake slithering up to Cramer - one of them, anyway, there were now apparently two of him - and striking at him like a cobra. The gnome danced back a step, narrowly avoiding being bitten.

Without conscious thought, Jhasspok stepped forward, leaned down (his tail out erect behind him for balance), and snapped at the striking snake, biting down at it with his impressive row of sharp teeth. He felt it die in his mouth and regretted he didn't have time to devour it fully; for one thing, there were other enemies to fight but more importantly the serpent was nearly as long as Jhasspok was and eating all of it would take a bit of time. Still, he called out dibs on the dead snake, even though since exiting the shop he'd had a sudden taste for human eyeballs.

As Utred - still appearing like a carbon-copy Cramer - raced across the street to attack the half-elf who had shot the arrow at him, the sound of spellcasting from above warned the group of a likely-invisible wizard up in the air nearby. But then a burly half-orc ran out from a narrow alleyway between two buildings and charged at Utred, whose Elderwood flaming longsword currently looked to be gnome-sized in his hands but had just dealt a dwarf-sized amount of damage to the half-elf ranger he was currently fighting. The half-orc had a blade of his own, a bastard sword by the look of it, and he sent it crashing into Utred's side. Disturbingly, the sword's blade had cracks along its length and Utred's blood flowed through the cracks, causing the blade to start pulsing like a heartbeat. Somebody in the vicinity was also babbling in an Abyssal tongue and Utred, with a start, suddenly realized it wasn't the half-orc like he'd supposed but the bastard sword itself!

Cramer stepped into the street and cast a sound burst spell behind the half-elf and half-orc, catching them in the spell's radius but keeping Utred well out of the area of effect. The half-elf stiffened, stunned into immobility for a moment by the spell; the half-orc not so much.

Meanwhile, the twin rogues flanked Khari, approaching from opposite sides with short swords out for hand-to-hand combat. The dwarf managed - just barely - to dodge both incoming attacks, then randomly chose a target and brought his warhammer crashing into her leg, nearly causing her to stumble. Marlo targeted the sister behind the dwarf with another empowered magic missile spell and she collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

Jhasspok left the tasty snake behind and charged the half-elf with his battleaxe. The ranger, still coming out of the dazedness caused by Cramer's spell, was practically cut in half by the power of the lizardfolk's blow; he fell to the ground in a shower of blood, the two pieces of his body held together by a mere flap of skin and loops of intestines. Utred spun in place and attacked the half-orc, who dodged more out of luck than anything else, for the dwarf's magic blade wasn't really in the place it appeared to be, courtesy of the hat of disguise Utred still wore.

But then the real Cramer cried out in pain; he'd been stabbed - in the back, of course; these were not honorable opponents they were facing - by a sword whose blade sent waves of agonizing pain through the little gnome's body as it pierced his flesh. The unseen assassin materialized as she struck, her invisibility spell shattering upon the moment of attack. She stifled a cry of pain herself, for her weapon was a vicious short sword, dealing extra pain to those it hit at the cost of extracting half that amount of pain from the wielder herself. Still, the assassin found it often to be a fair trade-off, for she'd slain many a victim with her magic weapon and any pain it brought her was healed easily enough.

Snarling an oath, the half-orc sent his babbling, bloodthirsty blade swinging at Utred's head; the barbarian easily dodged the clumsy strike, then swung his Elderwood flaming longsword in return, also failing to connect. But Jhasspok was there, willing to aid this second Cramer - although he also failed to connect with the battleaxe that had just been so deadly to the half-elf ranger; the three combatants were swinging their weapons wildly and it would have been somewhat comical had their very lives not been on the line.

Cramer backed away from the assassin and cast a spiritual weapon spell, sending the floating quarterstaff that appeared before him crashing into her midsection, sending the air from her lungs. At the same time, the remaining female rogue tried gutting Marlo for what she had imaged had been the killing blow to her sister; Marlo dodged back out of the way just in time and would have responded with a spell had Khari not slain her on the spot with a powerful blow to the side of her head with his warhammer. Her skull crushed to a pulp, she fell to the ground and unlike her sister stopped breathing at once.

Marlo instead targeted the assassin who had backstabbed Cramer and who was now fending off a floating quarterstaff made of solid force. The sorcerer decided to send some more bits of force energy her way in the form of magic missiles, each satisfactorily striking without fail. But then, upon hitting their target, the assassin immediately disappeared - whether having gone invisible or teleporting away Marlo couldn't tell. Cramer, playing a hunch, cast an invisibility purge spell centered upon himself and the assassin popped back into view, now some 30 feet directly overhead. His spiritual quarterstaff flew up to the flying assassin, continuing its unguided attack although failing to connect. Marlo sent another empowered magic missile spell streaking up her way for good measure.

The half-orc broke the streak of combat misses by hitting Utred in the arm with his bloodthirsty blade; the dwarven barbarian noted the sword seemed more powerful than when the half-orc had started wielding it - it was somehow feasting upon Utred's blood like a vampire! But then Khari, having no more rogues to spar with, ran around the small building and approached the half-orc from behind, his warhammer out and ready to do more damage. The half-orc sensed his approach and re-positioned himself, well aware he was now outnumbered three to one. Jhasspok made a feint with his battleaxe and managed to get in a bite from the half-orc's unarmored right bicep.

And then, suddenly, the mid-day sky darkened all at once; where just moments before the sun had shone down brightly on the open marketplace - an area that had become oddly vacant save for the combatants once the attack had begun - it was now suddenly overcast. Sparing a momentary glance up into the sky, Jhasspok saw a dark cloud (an obscuring mist spell, not that the lizardfolk recognized it as such) hanging in the sky. He thereafter ignored it, bringing his focus back at the fight at hand; Marlo wasn't quite as able to ignore it, as the obscuring mist prevented her from targeting the flying assassin with any more magic missile spells, as she couldn't see into the cloud of dark vapors to find her victim. But Jhasspok didn't miss much by his momentary loss of concentration, for Utred slew their half-orc foe almost immediately thereafter, the bastard sword making slurping noises as it fell into the pool of blood the slain foe was spilling from the gash in his neck from Utred's final strike. The sword was there for the taking, its hilt lying in the half-orc's lifeless fingers, but it was unnerving enough that none of the arena slaves was tempted to try to pick it up.

Unable to see the flying assassin, Cramer took a moment of respite from combat to cast a shield of faith upon himself; the spiritual quarterstaff, likewise unable to see its target, dutifully returned to the gnome cleric's side until it could. Khari, now once again without any enemies on the ground to fight, grabbed up the half-elf's composite longbow and fired an arrow up into the obscuring mist; he couldn't see through the thick vapors - even with his dwarven darkvision - but it was always worth a shot and he might even get lucky. (He didn't.) Marlo also took a moment to swig down a potion of cure moderate wounds, feeling the bleeding gash in her neck heal up. Jhasspok used his moments out of combat to pry the eyes out of the corpses of the half-elf and half-orc with his claws, examining their different colors and wondering which would taste better. (It turned out eye color had no bearing on their taste - good to know.)

Invisible once again, the assassin suddenly became visible when she brought her vicious short sword stabbing Khari from behind, having dropped out of her obscuring mist cloud unseen. She sighed at the complete failure of the would-be assassins she'd taken on as potential recruits for this mission - apparently none of them had been worthy enough to join her Guild. Didn't that just figure? But then she was on the defensive as Utred charged up to her, his green-flamed sword flying in her direction.

Cramer cast a fly spell on himself and approached the assassin now trading blows with...apparently with himself, although that just meant Utred was goofing around with his hat of disguise again. The gnome cleric's spiritual quarterstaff swung at the assassin but she ducked beneath its arc of movement and avoided being clocked in the side of the head. She wasn't as lucky avoiding Khari's warhammer, though - nor could she ever hope to avoid an empowered magic missile spell and it was this which eventually brought her down, unconscious but still breathing.

As Cramer and Marlo bound the only two foes still left alive after this sudden ambush, the other three checked the dead bodies for possible loot. Nobody wanted to touch the slain half-orc's bastard sword, especially after Cramer cast a detect evil spell and pronounced the blade to be evil. The gnome removed a ring from the finger of the flying assassin and pulled a sheet of parchment from a scroll case she had at her belt. Expecting it to be a spell scroll, he was surprised to see a portrait of the five of them drawn in ink, with a bunch of coded words (in letters from different alphabets) around the drawing. Flipping the parchment over, he saw more unreadable words and a sketch of the symbol for House Jalamir, which the slaves each wore in tattoo form on their backs. Even without knowing what any of the words said, it was likely this paper was being used to identify the five arena slaves so these strangers would know who to attack - somebody had apparently paid to have assassins kill the five heroes while they were on the surface! Then, seeing the two leather-clad women were bound securely, Cramer cast just enough healing on them to restore them to wakefulness.

"So, an assassination attempt, huh?" he asked the rogue. "Who paid you to kill us?" The woman glared at the gnome but refused to say a word; in any case, he had it all wrong - even had they managed to slay all five of their targets the recruits wouldn't share in any reward, as entry into the Guild would have been reward enough for this mission to prove their worthiness. The fact she'd failed to impress the Guild weighed on the woman's soul more than the death of her sister.

When the rogue failed to be communicative, the gnome moved on to the full-fledged assassin. She had a rather interesting feature: a tattoo of an eye upon the back of each hand. "You feel like talking?" Cramer prompted.

"Sure," sneered the Observer. "What do you want to talk about? It's lovely this time of year, don't you think?"

Cramer held the parchment with their likenesses in front of her face. "How about this?" he suggested. "Who paid you to kill us?"

"Nobody," the Observer said with a smirk. "You don't get paid until the job's done."

"Okay," amended the gnome, "who offered to pay you to kill us?"

"A much better question," replied the Observer, "but one which I decline to answer."

"Let's just kill her," grunted Utred. He'd taken off the hat of disguise, realizing he looked much more intimidating in his true form than as a three-foot-tall gnome.

"Like that will stop me," smirked the woman. "I'm important enough that I'll be back - and sooner than you think, more than likely."

"How could she come back after we kill her?" asked Jhasspok, clearly confused. Marlo briefly explained about resurrection magic, and if this Observer was a powerful member of an Assassins Guild they'd have the money to pay to have her restored to life.

"Then why don't we let her live?" Jhasspok reasoned.

"I like the way this one thinks," smirked the Observer.

"Then she'll be able to continue to try to kill us," Marlo pointed out, trying and failing to keep the tone of exasperation out of her voice - Jhasspok was a nice enough lizardfolk, but his naivety could be frustrating at times.

"Not like this," Jhasspok countered, pulling on the Observer's bound hands until she fell face-first onto the ground. The lizardfolk planted a clawed foot upon her hands, pinning them into place, and then before anyone could stop him he brought his battleaxe crashing down, severing both hands just above the wrist in one blow. As Cramer scrambled to heal the stumps before she bled out, Jhasspok pulled the severed hands from the ropes binding them together and idly wondered if the tattoo of an eye would taste anything like an actual eyeball. "Now she can't cast spells and she can't hold weapons."

The Overseer's face was pale from this sudden attack but she quickly did her best to retain her composure. "This--this can be fixed, too," she said, although it seemed just a little as if she were trying to convince herself. "Anything you do to me can be undone if you have the right resources." She glared at Cramer. "And we do," she added.

"This isn't getting us anywhere," Marlo decided. "Let's just bring these two with us and turn them over to the king. Then it's his problem to deal with." That plan had some nice benefits: not only did it relieve the heroes from having to tend to the Overseer and the rogue themselves, it allowed the kingdom of Revin to use the Overseer as a trap to catch the Assassins Guild members who would eventually attempt to free her, if the kingdom was warned ahead of time of the full situation.

Before too much longer, Buckleby caught up with the five heroes. "I've gotten you an audience," he told them. "We can--holy crap, what happened here?" After a quick explanation about the assassination attempt, the heroes loaded their two bound prisoners onto the wagon and Buckleby guided Cramer into driving the wagon to the castle - not that it was difficult to find, as it towered over the other buildings in the capital city.

Marlo, as usual, became the spokeswoman for the group of heroes, the silver circlet of persuasion perched on her brow as she explained about Overreach, the impending attack upon Greenvale, and their own involvement in shutting down the encroachment from the Far Realm that had overtaken the village of Grover's Comb and threatened to eventually overtake the world. The king of Revin was suitably impressed; so much so, in fact, that he had 20,000 pieces of gold removed from the royal treasury to be gifted to the heroes for having saved Grover's Comb. He also agreed to join in the alliance with Greenvale and to take the Overseer into custody in the deepest dungeons of the castle.

"The Assassins Guild has been an ongoing concern," the king lamented. "It is said to be led by a drow woman - one I would imagine has ties to this Overreach city you describe. I would imagine she has ways to scry upon you," he warned, and the slaves could only imagine how easy it would be to tap into the slave tattoos they each wore; a good thing House Ky'hulcressen's agents in Greenvale had altered the tattoos to make it seem as if the slaves were doing something innocuous if the tattoos were used to scry upon them. But then, Cramer realized, even if the scried-upon images were faked the tattoos could still likely be used to determine the slaves' whereabouts. Something else to worry about! "I can only imagine the Assassins Guild, and the Thieves Guild working with them, will aid - or attempt to, in any case - the Overreach forces in the coming war," added the king.

"At least we're forewarned about their potential threat, Your Majesty," replied Marlo. "For that, we thank you."

"Where will you go from here?" asked the king.

Cramer pulled out the map they'd been using and looked it over. "From here," he said, "we move on to Dracovania, Your Majesty."

"Be warned further, then," advised the king, looking at Marlo. "The Dragon King of Dracovania is an elderly red dragon, as foul and greedy as most of his species. Entering his lands will be dangerous to you all."

"Maybe we should just skip that one," suggested Khari.

"No, I think we should give it a chance," reasoned Marlo. "I think we'd rather have a powerful dragon on our side in the coming war than have him poised to attack us when we're busy fighting off the drow armies."

"There is wisdom in what you say," conceded the king. "I pray you be careful, just the same."

"We will, Your Majesty," promised Marlo.

- - -

Cramer ended up with the Overseer's ring of invisibility, while Marlo took her boots of levitation. (It turned out she hadn't been flying during the fight, merely levitating up and down.) Khari claimed the half-elf ranger's +1 composite shortbow; it has a Strength 14 requirement so he'll be able to add +2 to the damage when he uses it. And Utred and Cramer have come up with a combination move: Cramer can turn invisible with his ring while Utred, using his hat of disguise, takes on the gnome's appearance. Then anyone trying to mess with a little gnome will end up dealing with a dwarven barbarian with triple-digit hit points instead - surprise!

By the way, the Overseer's eye tattoos allowed her to scry when she placed her hands over her eyes - that was what the deal was with that eyeball in the shop at the beginning. The shopkeeper apparently knew about the Overseer and her Assassins Guild and didn't want to be caught in the middle of anything.

We're all close enough to 8th level that we should be leveling up after the next adventure. And we'll be facing a red dragon kingdom - that ought to be interesting!
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