The Durnhill Conscripts



PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 3
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 3
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 3
Syngaard, human fighter 3​

Game Session Date: 14 February 2018

- - -

"Come at once to the Enchanted Flagon," commanded Skevros to the Durnhill conscripts through the iron rings they wore. "Leave all grudges behind."

That last bit had Syngaard wrinkling his brow in confusion. Grudges? The only grudge he could think of was the constant belittling - (Ha! "Belittling!") - he engaged in where Orion was concerned. But why would that bother Skevros? Shrugging mentally, the scarred fighter gathered up his clothes and put them on, buckled on his armor, and collected his assortment of weapons.

"You goin' so soon?" murmured Cori from the warmth and comfort of the bed.

"Yep," replied Syngaard. "Nippin' off to my other job. You go on back to sleep." Cori muttered something into her pillow, which the bald fighter took as agreement. He closed the door quietly behind him and made his way out of the brothel, nodding to the Madame on duty as he left. It was a pretty good gig he had going here: room and board in exchange for his services as a bouncer whenever any of the clientele got too rough with the girls or tried slipping out without paying. It was a loose arrangement; if his "other job" called him away for days at a time that was fine with the establishment, as he wouldn't be using up any room and board during his absence. And they didn't have to pay him any coin for his services as a bouncer, merely give him a place to sleep and a meal or two while he was working. Anything extra beyond that he paid for like any other customer. But he had a special deal with Cori, who often let him stay over in her room if she wasn't otherwise occupied with a client. She liked the safety the burly fighter offered, and Syngaard's demands were minimal - usually he just wanted to be with someone until he fell asleep, and didn't want to wake up alone if the nightmares came - as they still did, even now.

Walking towards the Enchanted Flagon, Syngaard saw Galen Thorne riding up on his warhorse, Seneca. "Good day!" called the paladin; Syngaard merely lifted a hand in greeting. Galen was a good enough sort, but rather a bit too boisterously nice at times for the scarred fighter's liking. As Galen tied Seneca's reins to the post just outside the tavern, Kaspar Hardstrike wandered up from the other direction. He nodded his greeting to the two warriors, and the three men entered the tavern more or less together.

And there they got the shocks of their lives.

The first thing they noticed was the beautiful woman standing before them. Long of leg and statuesque, she wore fine armor that managed to enhance her curves while still providing adequate protection in battle. The second thing they noticed - once they could raise their gazes to her face - was that this was a woman known to them, although they'd never seen her in her combat armor before. Framing her face was a pair of batlike wings, currently folded flat behind her while in the confines of a building's interior.

"Serenity!" gasped Galen, his hand dropping to the magic longsword at his side. Instinctively, he detected evil on the woman before him and got an overwhelming response that caused his head to throb in migraine-level pain.

"Stay your hand!" commanded a figure in the back of the tavern. His face was hidden in shadow, as he had two burly knights looming protectively in front of him, but they parted at his approach and the three heroes got their first sight of King Leornic the Third in person since entering his service months ago.

"My Liege!" gasped Galen. "This woman before you--she is a succubus!"

"This is known to me," observed King Leornic. "Nonetheless, she is a trusted ally." Galen merely swallowed, unwilling to argue further with his liege but absolutely certain the king had made a grave error of judgment in letting a demon freely roam the streets of Durnhill. Syngaard, in the meantime, tried to figure out what he was supposed to do in the presence of a king. Weren't you supposed to bow, or curtsy, or something? Drop to a knee, maybe? Or maybe that was only under certain circumstances? Ah, the Hell with it! the fighter finally decided. Galen wasn't genuflecting or anything, and he'd probably know if that was something you were supposed to do. He decided to follow the paladin's lead.

"An ale, if you please!" Galen suddenly called out to the room at large - he found himself needing the comfort of a mug of alcohol just now - but nothing happened. Skevros's "seen unseen servant" was no longer in residence, it seemed; he probably didn't want to have to explain her to the king.

"Ah, Miss Nightsky arrives," Skevros said, changing the subject, and the assembled group looked over to the door as Orion rode her riding dog Carl into the tavern. Upon seeing Serenity her face darkened; upon seeing King Leornic III she gave an audible gasp of surprise. Thinking back to Skevros's mental admonition about "no grudges" and suspecting he might be in trouble of some sort with the king about the hard time he'd been giving the halfling thief, Syngaard walked up beside Orion and put a welcoming arm around her shoulder. "Glad you're here," Syngaard said with an uncomfortable - and quite insincere - smile on his face (it was really more of a grimace). Looking over to the king, he explained, "She's like a sister to me." Then, unable to help himself even under these circumstances, he sneered, "Well, more like a half-sister." Orion silently wriggled her shoulder out from underneath Syngaard's arm but said nothing to attract the king's notice.

"Now that we are all assembled," Skevros began, and anticipating Orion's question he added, "Daleth is on a mission for me in the Azure Glades" by way of explanation. Orion closed her mouth, her question answered before she could even ask it. "You are all here to receive a mission brief before we send you to an abandoned mine in Ashfall. I believe you all know Serenity?" The succubus smiled at the group of heroes, favoring Galen with a prolonged smirk.

"Good morning, everyone," Serenity cooed. "Today you will have an opportunity to - quite literally - save the world."

"What's it pay?" asked Syngaard immediately, earning him a dark glare from Skevros.

"Two thousand gold pieces each, plus the free crafting of a mithral item of your choosing," replied Serenity as if already anticipating the fighter's question. "...Assuming you survive."

"Generous," admitted Galen. "I assume the job is particularly dangerous, to be worth such a reward?"

"Oh, it is," agreed Serenity. "Here's the deal: I have discovered a cult of devil worshipers calling themselves the Cult of the Burning Gate, who serve a powerful devil known only as the Hope Ender. They gather in an abandoned mine at the foothills of the Baator's Breath Mountains. As you know, we are currently about halfway through the dangerous part of the decade, where for about nine months, various gates to Baator open up sporadically. At the end of the nine months, we will have nine years without such dangers. All of Ashfall's able-bodied men are up in the mountains, fighting off the devil armies trying to get in. Well, this devil cult is working on a ritual that will permanently open one of the sporadic gates that manifests upon occasion in the mine. In addition, if the ritual is successful, the random breaches to Baator will continue on indefinitely. Normally, I would go in to deal with the problem myself, but the mine - like other known areas where the boundaries between the worlds are weak - are currently shielded against denizens of the Lower Realms by magical dwarven runes. And that, alas, includes me."

"A wise move," replied Galen sternly. "So why not just remove the wards?"

"That would take time we do not have," replied the succubus. "For the same reason, the cultists are moving to set up their permanent breach; presumably, they'll deal with the wards themselves after their ritual is successful."

"What is our mission, then?" asked Kaspar. "Enter the mines and stop these cultists, I assume?"

"Not just stop them from performing their ritual," corrected King Leornic. "I want them slain to the last man, so they can't regroup and try again later!"

"Do we know when the cultists will attempt the ritual?" asked Orion.

"In about two hours," answered Serenity without hesitation.

"As you can see, time is of the essence," pressed Skevros. "Therefore, if you are all ready?"

"Wait, wait!" begged Orion. "I want to take Carl with us! Galen, do you want to bring Seneca?" Galen thought it over, but decided his warhorse would not likely do his best fighting within the confines of a cramped mine.

"Why aren't you coming with us?" demanded Syngaard of the king's adviser. "A powerful wizard like you? Gotta figure you could bring some firepower to the fight."

"Alas, I cannot," Skevros replied curtly, not deigning to elaborate.

"Why not?" demanded Syngaard.

"My adviser has been magically confined to the kingdom," answered King Leornic. "He ran afoul of a cabal of wizards in his younger days, something to do with a magical helm that alters the personality of the wearer. As a result, he cannot step foot outside the kingdom of Durnhill, where he was exiled."

Syngaard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "So that's why you teleport us places but we have to walk home all the time," he grumbled.

"Indeed," agreed Skevros, clearly uncomfortable about discussing his past. "Is everyone ready?"

"You can expect to find seventeen cultists," Serenity advised the group. "All human, all wizards, although the bulk of them are mere initiates. Still, there are five acolytes who will likely give you a bit of trouble."

"Seventeen?" gasped Orion. That was more enemies than their group had ever been up against before!

"And I want all seventeen of them slain," reminded King Leornic.

"Yes, Your Majesty," answered Galen. Then Skevros cast his teleport spell on the group and they were suddenly standing at the entrance to a mine.

"We're here," announced Syngaard, quite unnecessarily.

"'Half-sister,'" snarled Orion at the bald fighter. "Keep your grubby hands off me in the future, if you please."

"Not a problem," replied Syngaard, wiping the hand that had touched her shoulder during his grimace-hug on his pants leg as if he'd touched something foul. "I was just trying to play nice in front of the king. So, whaddayathink? Has Serenity got him under some sort of spell, or what?"

"Unlikely," replied Kaspar. "Skevros would have noticed and taken appropriate countermeasures."

"Yeah? Not if she's got him under her spell, too," countered Syngaard.

"You do realize we're probably being observed by Skevros - and King Leornic, and Serenity - as we speak?" asked Kaspar. It made sense; the whole reason the heroes each wore an iron ring on a finger was so the king's adviser could scry on them at will and send them mental messages as needed.

"Ah, crap," muttered Syngaard to himself. Nothing like being watched by your boss while you're doing your job!

"Shhh!" hissed Galen suddenly. "I hear something up ahead!" He pulled the bow from his back and readied an arrow. Sure enough, there were voices coming from down the corridor of the mine. Three men, each dressed in identical robes, turned the corner and spotted the four heroes - and a riding dog - framed in the pool of sunlight as they stood just outside the mine's entry point.

Galen let fly with his arrow, catching one of the men in the throat; he fell to the ground at once, choking on his own blood. The paladin nocked another arrow and entered the tunnel. Two fiery bolts of energy went whizzing by him as he strode purposefully down the tunnel, hastily-cast spells from nervous cultist guards who hadn't actually expected anyone to know of their plans and try to interfere.

Kaspar ran past Galen, slipping a pair of shuriken from his robes as he did so. He threw them on the run, each piercing the same enemy: one struck an eye and one the chest, each charged with electricity from his tenryutsume. The cultist fell over before he even had time to scream.

Prodding her dog on the sides with her feet, Orion sent Carl dashing down the mine tunnel. He raced faster than the two heroes beside him, going low at the third cultist's legs while his rider went high, stabbing at him with her flaming short sword. In as many seconds, three cultists lay dead on the ground. Behind the dog, Syngaard ran up, disappointed to see they hadn't left anyone for him to kill. He turned the corner and came face to face with a fourth cultist, this one dressed in robes of the same color but of a finer workmanship, no doubt designating a higher rank among the cult. Syngaard glared menacingly at this foe as he prepared to throw his javelin of returning. But before he could release his weapon, the cultist suddenly sprouted an arrow shaft in the chest and a pair of electrical shuriken in the head. He dropped in a heap, leaving Syngaard once again standing there with nobody to attack. "Dammit!" he swore.

Orion spurred Carl down the tunnel and up to the next corner, which led deeper into the mine. She peeked quickly around the corner and then ducked her head back, having spotted the scene of the upcoming ritual. Five flickering flames roared at the ends of a pentagram inscribed into the stone floor of the chamber, providing enough light to see a dozen more cultists arranged around the pentagram. Of the dozen, nine wore the robes of an initiate while the other three were acolytes. And oddly, a hunk of reddish metal shaped like an oversized tuning fork was lying in the middle of the pentagram. It came to a point at the bottom, as if the cylindrical bar had been sheared off at an angle. Orion whispered what she'd taken in of the scene from her single glance to the others, who had sidled up behind her.

"Twelve ahead, and four already dead," counted Kaspar. "I wonder where the other cultist is. We're one short."

"Maybe he's off taking a leak or something," suggested Syngaard.

"What's the plan?" asked Galen.

"We're greatly outnumbered," pointed out Kaspar. "Our best bet is to take out as many as we can as quickly as we can, using the element of surprise to our advantage. I'd recommend taking out a bunch of the initiates at first, to drop their numbers significantly. It will add to the chaos, with bodies dropping all around them."

"I like the way you think," Syngaard said, admiring the elven monk's strategy. Then, on Kaspar's signal, they all rounded the corner and attacked, using ranged weaponry as they closed the distance between the two groups.

Galen's first arrow missed its target entirely, serving merely as an announcement that there were enemies in the mines with the cultists. Carl bounded down the short tunnel and snapped at a cultist while Orion swung out with her blade; she hit him but he failed to drop. At the dog's side ran Syngaard, throwing his javelin with all his might. It hit its target, but the initiate also failed to drop. "Crap!" swore Syngaard, aghast at their success rate thus far.

As one, the initiates raised their hands and voices and started casting spells. Orion and Carl managed to slay the two nearest spellcasters as they fumbled through their verbalizations, dropping them before their spells had been finished. But seven other fire spells went flying through the air; apparently variety was not high up on their list of priorities. Three fire orbs were thrown at Orion, only one of them hitting its target. Syngaard was targeted with three but managed to dodge one; the other two struck him in the arm and chest. The last fire orb was sent at Galen, who sidestepped it easily enough.

Kaspar raced towards the fight, throwing an electrified shuriken at one of the acolytes as he did so. The weapon struck, but failed to slay the spellcaster. He retaliated by casting a burning hands spell in an arc, catching Kaspar, Syngaard, Orion, and Carl in its blast radius. The other two acolytes took the opportunity to cast mage armor spells upon themselves. "Destroy these intruders!" one called. "The Hope Ender will not be pleased if we fail him now!"

"And yet, I'd be perfectly fine with it!" quipped Syngaard, swinging his morningstar into the side of an initiate's head, caving it in with an explosion of blood and brain matter. Orion stabbed out with her flaming short sword, gutting another initiate. Their actions gained them the ire of the rest of the cultists, who targeted them with waves of flame splash spells. But Kaspar and Galen teamed up against the acolyte the monk had been fighting, flanking him from opposite sides and bringing him down with blade and open hand strike.

With a roar of fury - these fire spells were starting to hurt! - Syngaard caved in another initiate's skull and then cleaved into the body of another one nearby. As the second body dropped, he raced up to his next target. He was starting to feel a bit woozy from the damage he'd taken, but the scarred fighter tended to put revenge as a higher priority than self-preservation.

Another acolyte cast a burning hands spell that dropped Carl out from underneath Orion. The nimble halfling dropped to the ground, rolled, and came up with her flaming blade stabbing up at the spellcaster, cursing him for hurting her dog. Galen, who had been trying to cast a healing spell from his wand upon Syngaard but unable to keep up with the fighter because of the heavier weight of the paladin's armor, saw Carl drop and changed course. The stupid fighter could look after himself for awhile; Galen wasn't about to let Carl die when he could still save him!

Syngaard got the other remaining acolyte's attention focused on him, allowing Kaspar to sneak up from behind and snap his neck with a well-placed blow. Looking around the battlefield and seeing only three remaining initiates and the last acolyte fighting Orion, the bald fighter decided he could waste a moment drinking down the contents of one of the two potions of cure light wounds at his belt. After all, Galen was dealing with Carl, but that still left Orion and Kaspar to deal with the four remaining cultists, who were all down to their weaker spells by now. They could do without him long enough for him to swig down a potion, surely.

Syngaard only had a moment to realize this potion tasted different than the other healing potions he'd guzzled down before in his life as an adventurer before he was overcome by a wave of dizziness. The world about him suddenly stretched and swayed, expanding in all directions. But that didn't make sense! How could drinking a potion cause everything to--

Oh no, thought Syngaard. Not that! He looked across the chamber to Orion, catching her eye and capturing her immediate attention. He noted she wasn't looking up at him as she would normally be doing - she was looking directly across the room from him, from the same height. And then a look of shock and surprise spread over her face, as sudden realization hit. Her mouth dropped open, but then she had to divert her attention to the initiate trying to gut her with an evil-looking dagger of masterwork craftsmanship.

"Orion!" Syngaard bellowed - only in his new, three-foot-tall form, his voice was several octaves higher than before. That bitch shrunk me! he thought, a blood-red rage washing over him. He took out his frustration on the closest initiate, bringing his morningstar down in an overhead swing. At his normal size, this would have brought the spiked head of the weapon down upon the spellcaster's temple, likely killing him; at half-size, the weapon caught the initiate in the groin and caused him to crumple to the floor in agony. Syngaard, fully aware of his combat capabilities, realized he wasn't as strong as normal now that he was only three feet tall. Kaspar helped him finish off the pain-wracked spellcaster writhing on the stone floor, while across the room Galen, having restored Carl to consciousness, helped Orion take down the last of the acolytes. Carl slew one of the remaining initiates, leaving the last one to Syngaard's tender mercies. (This was unfortunate, for at the moment Syngaard had no mercy - he was too busy imagining Orion's face in the place of the screaming cultist's.)

Galen dutifully trotted over to Syngaard's side to heal him properly with his wand when he was suddenly struck from behind by a burning globe of fire rolling around the floor. Spinning around, the paladin found the seventeenth cultist, an acolyte steering the flaming sphere spell effect with his hands. Galen stepped away from the flaming mass, then pulled his bow back out and sent an arrow at the spellcaster - the cult's leader, judging by the elaborateness of the trim along his robes. "Attack!" called Orion, sheathing her flaming blade and racing forward. Carl obeyed his mistress, bounding off after the cult leader; Orion leaped up upon her mount as he passed and steadied herself in the saddle. But by this time the spellcaster had taken in the piles of dead bodies all around the ritual chamber and realized their plans for creating a permanent gate to Baator were finished - for now, at least. Now it was imperative that he escape from here, to rebuild the cult's numbers; after all, there were always gullible patsies who could be convinced - like this batch of initiates had been - that the Cult of the Burning Gate would elevate them in personal power. Sure, the Hope Ender could grant a few farmers the ability to fire off a few flame spells, but they had no idea the true cost of the power they'd been given!

Unfortunately for the cult leader, Kaspar was just as swift of foot as was Carl. The monk sprinted forward, chopping down at the cultist with a hardened fist and cutting off his escape as the spellcaster staggered to one knee. Then Carl bounded up and Orion cut the cult leader down from the saddle with her flaming short sword.

Galen and Syngaard were busy stripping the slain cultists of their valuables - these guys carried a lot of coin on them; who knew devil worshiping was so lucrative? - when there was a blast of hellish light from the direction of the pentagram. Sheathed in flames, an enormous pit fiend stood in the center of the five-pointed star, a hunk of silver metal clasped in one clawed hand. It was a cylinder with one end sheared off at an angle, and looked like it would fit perfectly with the red tuning fork at his feet. "What is this?" demanded the Hope Ender. He tried stepping forward but was kept from doing so by the magical dwarven runes inscribed along the walls of the mine. "My cultists slain? I'll have your heads for this!"

Seeing the devil was unable to leave the confines of the pentagram - for he was certainly giving it his best shot - Syngaard was emboldened to drop his pants and moon the pit fiend. "Can't have our heads," he taunted, "but here's my tail!" The Hope Ender roared in fury, but the breach fizzled out almost immediately thereafter, leaving nothing behind but the stench of brimstone. Syngaard pulled his pants back into place, his attitude momentarily brightened. It brightened even further when the spell effect of the potion finally wore off and the fighter regained his normal size. But then it immediately soured again when the damned halfling came back with Kaspar to help "loot the stiffs."

"I'd almost forgotten I'd done that," Orion said by way of apology. "Back when you were knocked out by those kobolds that one time, I swapped out one of your healing potions with a potion of reduce person. I figured you were so down on halflings all the time, maybe you could use a dose of seeing what it's like to be one yourself! But I expected you'd drink it between battles, when it wouldn't have mattered so much. ...Sorry 'bout that."

"Well, as long as you got your petty revenge!" snarled Syngaard. "It's not like we were trying to, I dunno, save the world from devils or anything!"

"I say," interjected Galen. "She's apologized, and no real harm was done...."

Syngaard spat on the ground at Orion's feet. "This ain't over," he warned her, then stormed off, not trusting himself to say anything further at the moment - it was all he could do to restrain himself from grabbing up his morningstar and striking out at the smug little rogue.

It was an uncomfortable walk home.

- - -

Man, was that a surprise! Apparently Vicki had planned this revenge on me months ago! She had explained her plans to Logan without me knowing, and motioned to him somehow that Orion was switching potions when she healed Syngaard during the kobold fight three adventures prior. And then it was just a matter of waiting for Syngaard to drink down the swapped-out potion. But I kept everyone waiting for a long time, because Syngaard's generally more interested in dealing damage to others than healing his own. However, Dan helped convince me that this was an opportune time to heal up and I went with it. Normally, we roll our own healing, but as soon as I said I was drinking one of my two potions of cure light wounds, Logan started rolling dice. I was surprised but not overly worried, but when I asked him how much I had been healed, he responded with, "All of a sudden, everything around you expands to twice its normal size..." and the table burst into laughter. I'm sure Dan had known of his wife's impending perfidy and was just waiting for the shoe to drop; he later complained that his head hurt from laughing so hard. (I found it difficult to give him any sympathy for that.) In character, I was livid with this betrayal; out of character, I congratulated Vicki on a well-planned and expertly-executed revenge.

So now apparently Syngaard and Orion will be involved in a series of escalating petty revenge. It ought to be fun!

Dan and Vicki showed up a bit late for this adventure, and as a result we finished up after 9:00 PM, Harry's normal bedtime. He was almost falling asleep at the table there at the end, so we sent him off to get his pajamas on and brush his teeth while we packed up and calculated experience. Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard all made it to 4th level as a result of this adventure, with Orion dragging just far enough behind that she'll upgrade at the end of the next adventure she goes through for sure.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 2
Galen Thorne, human paladin 4
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 4
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 3
Syngaard, human fighter 4​

Game Session Date: 21 February 2018

- - -

The day began with another message from Skevros, through the iron rings that each of the conscripts wore. "Please assemble at the Enchanted Flagon at your earliest convenience," the king's adviser announced.

"Earliest convenience" sounded like it meant no particular hurry; thus, several of the conscripts opted to pick up a few supplies on the way. Galen ran into Daleth at one of the city's potion vendors and loaned him a few gold pieces to pick up a potion of mage armor; as Skevros had sent Daleth on numerous missions of research and inquiry lately, he hadn't been with the rest of the group that much and thus had not shared in the bounty of spoils they'd accumulated. Orion picked up a potion of mage armor specifically for her riding dog Carl, plus a large quantity of healing potions for whichever of the two needed them. Syngaard, too, picked up a pair of potions of cure moderate wounds for himself, but he did so at a different vendor several streets further away, not wanting to bump into the halfling who had so recently swapped out one of his healing potions for a potion of reduce person. And although his belt had spare loops for the two potion vials, he opted to wrap them in a piece of vellum and stow them inside a closed pouch at his belt. Best that damned halfling didn't even know they were there!

Kaspar, however, had not tarried to heed the call to the Enchanted Flagon and thus was the first of the conscripts there. Galen, Daleth, and Orion arrived together soon after, with Syngaard showing up last, having had the furthest distance to travel. He saw Carl tied by his reins to the hitching post outside the tavern, next to Galen's warhorse, Seneca, and was tempted to engage in a bit of payback, but then realized Orion would be expecting immediate retaliation on the part of the bald fighter. Best he play it cool and put his vengeance on the back burner for now; she'd get hers soon enough, but best he let her stew in her own expectations for awhile.

"Ah, we're all assembled," Skevros said as Syngaard entered the building. "Thank you for coming so soon." Syngaard noticed Galen had a mug of ale in his hand and looked at the "seen" unseen servant back in her normal place behind the counter. "An ale," he commanded, glad this part of their impromptu headquarters was back in business. The illusory bartender brought the bald fighter his beverage as he took his place at the table.

"I'm sending you to the Azure Glade," Skevros began.

"Again?" sputtered Daleth. "I'm starting to think I should just rent a permanent room there." Indeed, the elf wizard had just finished a three-day trek back to Durnhill from the Azure Glade, where he'd been sent by Skevros to ask for a temporary reprieve from his permanent exile to Durnhill - a reprieve which had been summarily turned down.

"Yes, I'm afraid so," the king's adviser admitted, grimacing apologetically at the elven spellcaster. "Recent events have brought home the fact that my exile is more than an inconvenience; I was unable to assist you in preventing a permanent gate from opening between Baator and our own plane, which would have allowed the armies of Hell free access to our world. Fortunately, you were able to put a stop to the ritual in time, and the calamity was averted. And thank you, Daleth, for putting forth the request to the Council on my behalf. But they still insist upon punishing me for my crimes, even now, these 32 years later."

"What?" asked Orion. "Just how old are you? Did you commit crimes as a baby or something?" The human wizard looked to be no older than 32 years old.

"I am currently 65 years old," admitted Skevros, a slight smile on his lips at the thought of himself as a criminal baby. "But my aging has stopped since my memory loss. Perhaps I should start at the beginning." He took a deep breath as if fortifying himself for a difficult task, and stared off into the distance, not looking at any of his audience. Then he began his tale.

"I was born in the Azure Glade. I grew up there, learned the wizardly arts, met a woman at the arcane college, got married, and settled down. We had a daughter, Sarah." Skevros smiled sadly at the memory. "She died when she was five."

"I'm so sorry," interjected Orion.

"Thank you," replied Skevros, still not looking at his team. "I took her death hard. I couldn't bear to remain in our home, to be constantly reminded of her. As a result, I returned to the adventuring lifestyle. It was during that time I found..." - and here he swallowed hard - "the helmet.

"I honestly thought it was a helm of comprehend languages," Skevros declared heatedly, as if eager to be believed. " was not. There is a magic item called a helm of opposite alignment. It's an accursed device that fundamentally changes the wearer's mental disposition: a good man becomes evil after wearing it, while an evil man becomes good. I assume that's what it was, in any case. There's a gap in my memory, from the moment I put on that accursed helmet in a forgotten turning around and seeing my wife dead, before me, in my home.

"The Azure Guard - the security forces of my birthland - were pounding on the door to arrest me, for actions I had taken during my blackout period...which I later found out was a full eight months. Eight months, and no memories of what all transpired during that time! I...I went downstairs, opened the door, and surrendered to the Guard, willingly. I believe that was a bit of a surprise for them, as they had expected me to fight them off. But they claimed I had performed quite a number of evil deeds in the previous eight months, although they refused to give me any details of my actions. As for my wife,,,I saw her dead, but I'm not even sure if I killed her or if she was slain by somebody else."

Skevros pulled a ring from his finger. "This is my wedding band," he announced. "It is also a ring of nondetection, preventing me from being scried upon and hiding the specifics of my alignment, my mental disposition, if you will." He turned to Galen, the paladin of Hieroneous. "Scan me, if you would. See if I detect as evil. Perform any other detection spells you desire," he offered, looking over at Daleth. Galen peered at Skevros's aura, seeking the slightest trait of evil. "He's clean," the paladin confirmed.

"Your wife: was she a halfling?" Syngaard asked suddenly.

"What? No, she was a human, like myself."

The bald fighter looked over at Galen. "My detect idiot spell didn't pick up anything, either," he declared.

"You obviously didn't focus it on yourself," snarled Orion.

Skevros ignored the petty bickering between the bald human fighter and the halfling rogue, returning back to his story as he replaced his wedding band. "To this day, the Council of Guilds - the rulers of the Azure Glade - has refused to name my crimes. They also decided not to kill me, accepting my exile instead. This was due to the efforts of King Leornic the Second, father of the present ruler of Durnhill. It was he who suggested exile in place of death, and he who offered up his kingdom as a place of exile. And thus, I was branded, with this." The king's wizard passed his hand before his face, and a glowing, blue rune suddenly appeared on his forehead. "This is a mark of justice," he explained. "It will trigger if I step outside the boundaries of the kingdom of Durnhill, slaying me instantly. And that is why I was unable to assist in the fight against the devil cult last week."

"That seems unfair," pointed out Kaspar. "So what would you have us do in the Azure Glade?"

"My house is there," Skevros explained. He passed a golden key across the table to Orion. "This is a passkey to my manor; it will not only unlock the front door but also deactivate the defenses I have in place to deter intruders."

"You think they're still working, after all these years?" asked Syngaard, doubtful.

"I am sure of it," replied Skevros. "The manor has a permanent alarm spell cast upon it; I would know if there had been any intruders during my absence."

"So we go into the house..." prompted Galen.

"I have always kept an extensive journal for as long as I can remember. It's entirely possible I continued the practice while I was...evil. I would like you to find those journals, should they in fact exist. They may explain some of my missing memories. In addition, Jessica and I had quite an extensive arcane library up on our second floor; I would like the tomes returned here to me. There are my original spellbooks and those of my wife, besides works on various esoteric subjects."

"So, is this a paying mission?" asked Syngaard.

"Of course," Skevros agreed. "I will pay you each a thousand pieces of gold for the retrieval of my library, and another thousand each if you can find and return any journals I might have kept."

"Is there any place in particular we should look for the journals?" Orion asked.

"They could be anywhere, I'm afraid." Skevros sketched out a quick blueprint of his manor, along with directions on how to find it. "My normal journals would be kept in the master bedroom up on the third floor; you might do best to start there."

Galen looked at the rest of the team as if to see if anybody had any further questions; thus far, it seemed like a pretty straightforward task to the paladin. "One last thing," added Skevros. "Due to the recent reminder of my existence, in having Daleth petition the Council of Guilds for a temporary reprieve from my exile, there's a good chance they will be actively looking for magical interference at my manor house. As such, I regret that I cannot risk teleporting you directly there. I have, however, made arrangements for a sturdy cart, a healthy draft horse, and a competent driver to travel to the Azure Glade with you. You will likely need the cart to haul back my books, if you are successful. You will find them just outside; I heard them pull up several minutes ago."

"Very well, then," agreed Galen. "We'll be on our way."

"Good luck," Skevros bade his team. "I hope you are successful in helping me fill in the missing gap in my life."

It was an uneventful three days of travel to the Azure Glade; the cart-driver was a taciturn fellow, skilled in the handling of his horse but not much of a conversationalist. He also, Syngaard decided, was likely unwilling to get too involved in Skevros's affairs; common folk often did best to avoid the notice of those higher above them. As for the fighter, he was more than happy to ride in the empty cart with Daleth; Kaspar chose to walk rather than further burden the draft animal.

"This is the place," announced Daleth on the third day; as the conscript with the most time spent in the Azure Glade, he had been given Skevros's directions to the manor house. It was an elaborate, three-story dwelling, a bit run-down after three decades of neglect, but still rather regal in its construction.

"The door's open!" hissed Orion to the others from her perch upon Carl. She dropped from her dog's saddle and crept up to the house. Galen dismounted from Seneca and did likewise. The others followed, while Syngaard hung back a bit and spoke softly into his ring. "Hey, Skevros," he said in a low voice, "I dunno if you can hear this, but somebody's already in your house." Then, not getting any response, he shook his head in irritation and hurried to join the others, morningstar in hand.

Orion peeked through the door and looked inside the manor. Most of the ground floor was one big dining room, with three side doors along the right-hand wall and a set of stairs along the back. Numerous everburning torches hung along the walls, still burning brightly with illusory flames after more than three decades. There were also glowing orbs of multicolored light floating above plinths along the walls of the main dining area; five of these shimmered with numerous shimmering colors, while the sixth was a constant purple. But as soon as the halfling stepped foot into the manor, the five prismatic spheres dropped from their suspension in the air and began oozing along towards the intruder. Orion didn't even notice at first, as she was examining the thick dust on the floor, in which could be seen three separate sets of human-sized footprints. So it looked like there were three intruders somewhere in the manor....

Daleth had just finished drinking his potion of mage armor when he saw the multicolored blobs approaching Orion. "Look out!" he cried, giving the halfling enough notice to dodge the strike of the nearest prismatic ooze. Unfortunately, this put her well within striking range of another that had approached from the opposite direction. The slap of the ooze's touch delivered a poison into the halfling's skin; she could feel a tingling sensation where it had hit her.

Galen had just cast his very first spell, protection from evil, when he heard Daleth shout his warning. He pulled the sword of Zehkar from its scabbard and approached, senses at the ready. Syngaard caught up to the others, took in the situation, and hissed in a stage whisper, "Hey idiot! Howzabout getting back out here and closing the door behind you? And then maybe this time use that key Skevros gave you to deactivate his house's defenses!"

Her face burning with embarrassment, Orion scooted back out of the house and shut the door - quietly, so as not to alert the intruders inside. The door locked with an audible "click." Orion gave Syngaard a quick scowl, hating him for being right, and then placed the golden key into the door's knob, standing on tippy-toes to reach. A soft, silvery glow briefly emanated from the key and then each of the group's iron rings. The halfling turned the key and looked inside. Each of the five prismatic oozes was returning to its plinth, crawling up it, and then being sucked into the air again to resume its free-floating spherical shape. "All clear," Orion whispered back to the group, then motioned for Carl to join her.

"Are you sure you want him with you?" asked Galen. He had Seneca's reins in hand and was taking him back to the cart, to be watched over by the driver. "I assume by the glow of our rings that it's now safe for us to enter. I don't think that extends to Carl, though - he has no ring." Agreeing with the paladin's logic, she returned Carl to the driver's keep while the other conscripts entered the manor.

Kaspar was the first to enter the house the second time. His keen elven eyes picked up traces of a recent battle in the dust, between the ooze defenses and the three intruders. He assumed the purple ooze had somehow been injured during the fight and was healing up. But seeing nobody on the first floor there with him, he silently opened the first of the closed doors on that level. This led to what looked to be a book-binding area, with nothing of interest but an old jar of 32-year-old congealed binding glue. The second door led to a kitchen with rusty cookware, while the third led to a pantry. Whatever had been in there 32 years ago was now unidentifiable; it was all just a mass of mold.

Galen and Orion had moved to the base of the stairs and were listening intently; from the level above them, they could hear muffled voices and the sounds of something heavy being shuffled around. Being the quickest of the group, Kaspar bounded silently up the stairs and saw a figure in dark blue robes examining a skeletal body on the floor behind him. Reasoning that anybody in here was likely up to no good, the monk threw an electrified shuriken at the intruder. Unfortunately, his target bent over the skeleton as the monk let fly with his sharp weapon, and the shuriken sailed over the robed figure's head to thunk in the wall across the way.

Galen exploded out of the stairwell just behind Kaspar, his senses wary for the signs of evil. Surprisingly, the blue-robed figure radiated no such aura; the paladin thus decided to question him before attacking. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing in this house?"

"How did you get in here?" demanded the looter. "Civilians are not allowed!" He turned his head to the right, aiming his gaze at a row of bookshelves. "Dammit, you two, didn't either of you shut the front door?" Then he returned his gaze to Galen, absently noting the symbol of Hieroneous on the paladin's armor. "Are you working for the lich Skevros?"

That particular question sent doubts swimming through the heads of the conscripts. Were they actually working for a lich? Galen frowned; he'd used his innate powers to detect evil on Skevros and come up with nothing; was it possible that he'd had a different way to hide his alignment besides his ring? "Wh-what?" stammered Orion, coming up the steps behind Galen, followed by Syngaard and Daleth.

Seeing that the group wasn't about to leave, Reginald called out to his two thus-far-unseen partners, "No witnesses!"

That actually brought a smile to Syngaard's scarred face. He wasn't sure if these guys were evil of not - if they were, Galen would likely have plunged directly into battle, but you could never tell for sure with these holy paladin types - but if they had orders to kill the conscripts, then it seemed eminently logical that they could killed the blue-robed looters right back. Syngaard threw his javelin of returning at the blue-robed Azure Guard leader, scoring a good hit before the ranged weapon returned to his hand. Reginald cast a scorching ray spell in return, missing by a wide mile. But then his other two partners stepped out from between the bookcases, each hitting the scarred fighter with a magic missile spell - those never missed. "That all you got?" Syngaard roared, switching his morningstar into his right hand and advancing upon the nearest of the two newcomer Azure Guards.

Daleth, a frequent visitor to the Azure Glade in recent months, had immediately recognized the blue robes as the official uniforms of the Azure Guards, the nation's police force. He noted the distinctive runes on the Guard's robes, foreheads, and weapons (they carried heavy maces seemingly too big for a wizard to be comfortable with); each denoted a teleportation effect, ready to be triggered upon the Guard's unconsciousness or death. The elven wizard decided to test out his new metamagic rod, channeling a magic missile spell of his own at the Azure Guard facing off against Syngaard. The spell hit the foe squarely in the chest, clearly shocking him at the power behind a single such missile. He looked past Syngaard at the elf, clearly impressed - and not a little awed - at Daleth's obviously superior spellpower.

Galen and Kaspar were already crowded around Reginald, so Orion moved further down the large room, towards a magic circle inscribed on the floor. There was a book with arcane writing open on the floor inside the circle; alongside it stood a charred amulet or brooch of some sort. The rogue headed that way, but still threw one of her daggers at Reginald just to keep herself in the fight. Her aim was true, eliciting a cry of pain from the leader of the Azure Guard unit.

But Reginald had no time to concentrate on Orion, for he was busy trying to fend off a flurry of attacks from Kaspar, whose hands, feet, and elbows seemed to be everywhere at once. At the same time, Galen stabbed out with his magic longsword. He failed to hit, but there was too much for Reginald to fend off at once, and Kaspar's latest strike hit true.

Seeing Reginald was likely soon to be down for the count, Syngaard focused his attacks on one of the lackeys who had hit him with a magic missile. He got in a good swing at the Guard, expecting him to crumple at once like any other low-level wizard, but surprisingly, the foe stayed on his feet. These guys are made of sterner stuff! Syngaard thought, impressed despite himself. Little did he know that the Azure Guards studied weaponcraft as well as spellcraft, as evidenced by the heavy maces they used in battle when their most powerful spells were used up.

Reginald targeted Galen with his second - and last - prepared scorching ray spell. This time he was more successful, blasting the paladin in the chest and causing a small explosion of flame to scorch Galen's face. At the same time, the other two Guards were casting the last of their magic missile spells, one hitting Syngaard and the other striking Kaspar.

Daleth maneuvered around the room, lining up Reginald and one member of his crew with a color spray spell. Unfortunately, both showed the necessary fortitude to overcome the spell's effects, and the elf cursed his relative inexperience in field combat.

Orion by this time had decided to let "the boys" handle the scuffle with the Azure Guard and focus on the primary mission. Skevros wanted his books, and here was one with obvious magical writing on it. She worked her way around the magic circle to get closer, noticing as she did that the circle was already broken, over by the skeleton. If this had been a summoning circle, she realized, whatever had been summoned would have been able to escape. So, in theory at least, it should be safe to enter the circle.... She did so, grabbing up the tome and the blackened pendant, the latter of which looked to have been burned from the inside out. She stuffed the pendant into a pouch at her belt for later investigation.

Kaspar did a swinging kick that connected solidly with Reginald's breastbone, causing him to stumble backwards, but not fast enough to avoid being pierced in the side by Galen's blade. Wounded and bleeding, Reginald realized there was a good chance he wouldn't be coming out on top during this particular fight.... Still, he had to try: calling out the words to a magic missile spell, he sent one missile screaming into Galen and the other blasting into Kaspar.

Syngaard got in another good strike with his morningstar, but still his foe wouldn't fall. The lackeys (as he was starting to think of them) each cast a ray of frost spell, one hitting Kaspar and the other missing Syngaard. Then, as one, they came to the same conclusion and drew their heavy maces, ready to try physical combat now that they had used up their magical resources. But Daleth snuck up and touched one on the shoulder, releasing a touch of fatigue spell as he did so. This spell was much more successful, as evidenced by the way the Azure Guard had to shift the weight of his weapon to keep from dropping it.

Kaspar finished off Reginald with a leap and a kick to the jaw, which knocked the Azure Guard leader out cold on his feet and had him teleporting away before his body hit the ground. Galen, looking around for a new foe, found the second lackey within range and stabbed at him with his longsword, staggering him on his feet. At about the same time, Syngaard finished off the other Azure Guard with a solid strike from his morningstar; because of the way he teleported away, the bald fighter didn't know whether that last blow had just knocked him unconscious or killed him outright - not that Syngaard particularly cared.

Seeing both his friends out of the fight and safely (hopefully) back at headquarters, the sole remaining lackey dropped his weapon and raised his hands. "I surrender!" he cried out. "What do you want?"

"Some answers, first of all," snarled Galen, holding the sword of Zehkar to the Azure Guard's neck. "What were you guys doing here?"

"I--I was just doing my job!" pleaded the lackey, who looked to be all of in his late teens. "We were looking for evidence - this is a crime scene!"

"Yeah, of a crime that took place 32 years ago!" answered Galen. "Why is it so important now, all of a sudden?"

"I don't know!" blubbered the paladin's prisoner. "This is-- it's only my second week on the job! They don't tell me everything!"

"This is pointless," murmured Galen to the others. "We're not going to get any information out of this fool."

"Might as well kill him, then," offered Syngaard.

"I don't know," replied Galen, thinking up a way to deflect any suspicion from Durnhill. "Serenity might want us to bring him back to Ashfall with us - she might be able to coax some info out of him." Syngaard's brow creased as he tried to figure out why Galen was claiming they were from a different kingdom, but the lackey caught on right away. "No!" he cried. "Don't feed me to the succubus!"

And then, the lackey suddenly decided his best bet was to make a run for it - maybe he'd get lucky and get knocked out before the big guy in heavy armor could run him through or drag him to the mercies of a she-demon. He made a mad dash for the stairs, leaving his heavy mace behind - which vanished as soon as he was more than ten feet from it - and ran afoul of Daleth's extended foot, the elf wizard having seen his race to freedom. In a tangle of limbs, the young Azure Guard went crashing to the floor, his escape plan foiled. Daleth wrestled him into submission, but after a few more rounds of useless interrogation, Galen announced him beyond useless. A quick thump on the noggin with Kaspar's closed fist brought the lackey to oblivion, and he teleported away.

While the others had been dealing with the interrogation, Orion had been focusing on the primary mission, and Syngaard, seeing it wasn't likely he was going to get to kill the prisoner, joined her just so he could keep an eye on her. Together, they found four open cloth sacks partly filled with books; the shelves of the bookcases were half emptied of the volumes they had once contained. A little experimentation revealed a marvelous feature of the bags: they held much more than was remotely possible without magic! Fortunately there were no runes on the bags, so they remained behind when the Azure Guards vanished. Orion and Syngaard finished up the job the Guards had started, putting the rest of the contents of Skevros's arcane library into the bags of holding. Once the lackey had been dealt with, the others joined them in finishing up the task.

After that, Orion examined the skeletal remains on the floor. Judging by what remained of the victim's decaying dress, the halfling surmised this was Jessica, Skevros's late wife. "Look--she's holding a piece of paper," Orion observed, pulling it from Jessica's skeletal grip. She turned it over both ways, but it was completely blank. Holding it up to the light proved to be of no use, either - it was just a blank sheet of paper. "Weird," Orion opined. Still, the contents of the bags of holding were shuffled around to completely empty one, so Jessica's remains could be returned to Skevros. "I'm sure he'll want to bury her," Orion said to the group.

"That depends," replied Syngaard. "If he really is a lich, he might just want to...wait for it..."

"Waiting for it," replied Galen, willingly playing along.

"...jump her bones," finished Syngaard, sneering gleefully.

"You are truly disgusting!" said Orion. "All that time you spend in that brothel has warped your mind! But at least you recognize that no woman would ever want you unless you paid them--at probably double the normal rate!" Syngaard said nothing; he knew the truth of the matter and it was none of the damned halfling's business anyway. But he was pleased that he had gotten a rise out of her.

"That bag's yours, by the way," pointed out Syngaard. He wasn't particularly superstitious but he didn't want any magic bag that had held a dead chick's remains in it!

"The question must be asked," remarked Daleth. "Do we believe what that Guard said? Is Skevros a lich?"

"No," answered Kaspar immediately.

"He didn't detect as evil," pointed out Galen.

"That don't mean nothing," argued Syngaard. "Smart guy like him, I bet he has some magic way to get around that."

"He can't be a lich," reasoned Kaspar. "A lich's touch causes paralysis, even to those of my kind. I doubt he could overcome such an obstacle."

"But..." thought Daleth aloud, "...has he actually ever touched any of us?" That got everybody thinking back, until Orion snapped her fingers. "When he teleports us!" she cried. "We all have to be in contact with one another!"

"Good!" agreed Galen. "Then he's not a lich!" That was a relief to the young paladin - bad enough to have to work for a succubus now and again, but to be working directly for a lich...?

"I dunno..." argued Syngaard.

"That's nothing new," quipped Orion.

"Okay, let's go," said Galen, eager to be back on the road.

"I believe you are forgetting something - there's still a floor above us, and we have yet to find Skevros's journal," reminded Kaspar.

"Oh - good call," admitted Galen.

"Yeah, and that's another thousand each if we find it!" enthused Syngaard, racing up the stairs to the top level of the manor. There were four more prismatic oozes floating peacefully above their plinths, but the iron rings still made the conscripts read as "invited guests" instead of "intruders" to the magical defense system. Orion, having memorized the map Skevros had made of his manor, led the group directly to the master bedroom. She headed directly for one of the nightstands, finding its drawer locked. "Not to worry - I've got a lockpick," she informed the group.

"Yeah," replied Syngaard, hefting his morningstar, "so do I." But the group wouldn't let him open the drawer his way; instead, Orion fumbled around with her lockpicking tools, getting more irritated when the lock refused to budge.

"Hey, here's an idea," suggested Syngaard. "You ever think about using the key?"

"There is no key, you dolt!" replied Orion.

"Sure there is - that gold one Skevros gave you." Orion glared at him with irritation; the dumb lug obviously thought the same key that opened the wizard's door would open his nightstand? Just to show him how stupid his idea was, she popped the key into the lock...and it opened right up. "That...shouldn't have worked," she stammered.

"Wizards," scoffed Syngaard, managing to fill the single word with as much dripping condescension as he could. Daleth glared at him but said nothing.

"What's in there?" asked Kaspar, trying to get the group back on track. Orion pulled out a black leather book with the name "Skevros" embossed upon the spine. Slightly wigged out, she passed it over to Daleth for examination. "You're a wizard," she explained. But despite Daleth's best efforts, the book refused to open. It didn't seem to have any locking mechanism; it was just fused closed.

"Check the other nightstand," Galen suggested. This one was unlocked and it held another leather-bound book, this one inscribed, "Jessica Wrencroftt." There was a ribbon hanging out of it, and unlike her husband's, this one opened easily. It was a diary; the ribbon held the place of the last entry. Orion read aloud to the rest of the group:
"Tomorrow he will do something irrevocable. If I cannot talk him out of it I will have to use the scroll. I will pay any price to save him from himself. I pray the gods are merciful, that I may write again in this diary."
"That doesn't sound good," said Galen.

"It explains the blank piece of paper we found in her hands," observed Orion. "It was the scroll she had to use to stop him."

"Stop him how? And from what?" demanded Daleth.

"Turning into a lich?" reasoned Syngaard.

"And how, pray tell, does one stop someone from becoming a lich?" demanded Daleth.

"Who knows? By crossing your fingers and wishing really hard?"

"Hmmm," murmured the elf wizard. "I hate to say it, but he might be on to something. A wish spell on a scroll...that might have worked."

"Wait, what?" demanded Syngaard. "They have wish spells on scrolls? Can you buy them?"

"Not likely," explained Daleth. "First of all, the wish spell is one of the most powerful spells in existence. It basically allows the caster to reshape the universe as he sees fit. Only the most learned spellcasters can master the spell. Anyone else attempting it - like poor Jessica here - would be taking a terrible chance. The universe doesn't like being randomly reshaped, and can take a terrible toll on anyone trying to use it without the proper training." Syngaard was hanging on the elf's every word, taking it all in - a rather odd interest for a man who usually preferred whacking enemies with a morningstar than engaging in esoteric discussions about spell effects.

"Guys," interrupted Orion. "I found something!" There was a false bottom in Jessica's nightstand drawer, revealing an extradimensional space within which lay a third tome, this one severely burned. It appeared to be another of Skevros's journals - perhaps from before his fall to evil. It opened easily, but most of the entries within were too singed to be readable.

Deciding to be thorough, Orion investigated another room on the top floor, this one apparently a nonmagical library, while Daleth headed over to the last room. The faded pink walls and child-drawn pictures scattered on the floor told Daleth this must have been little Sarah's room. The elf was startled when a voice from the bed called out, "Hugs?" Looking in that direction, Daleth saw a porcelain doll laying upon the bed sit up and leap onto the floor. Holding out its arms, it headed toward the startled elf, who raced out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

While the rest of the group was tossing books into the bags of holding, Orion headed over to Daleth to see what was wrong. Opening the door to Sarah's room, the halfling was shocked and horrified as the foot-tall doll leaped up and latched onto her. "Sawah pway wiff me?" it asked plaintively.

After Orion's frantic cries of "Get it off me! Get it off me!" the doll eventually let the halfling go from its hug.

"What the Hell is that thing?" demanded Orion, her face white.

"No doubt an animated plaything for Sarah," surmised Kaspar.

"Wizards," scoffed Syngaard again. Then, sensing an opportunity, he turned to Orion and said, "Kinda creepy, ain't it? Some half-sized thing that looks sorta like you, but you know deep down shouldn't even exist. Well, now you know how I feel."

"I suppose we should take it back with us, to Skevros," suggested Galen. "He may well want it."

"Well, I ain't sticking it in my bag," said Syngaard. "Damn thing's kind of spooky."

During the three-day trek back to Durnhill, Daleth cast multiple mending spells on the burned journal. Near the end there was an obvious shift in tone, likely when Skevros's alignment shifted to evil. The final entry said he planned to burn "this horrific display of goody nonsense."

There was a heated debate among the conscripts on whether to outright ask Skevros if he was a lich, for there was still some doubt about the matter. By the time they arrived home, they had decided they might as well; Galen was chosen to be their spokesman. They headed straight for the Enchanted Flagon upon hitting the city, and not surprisingly, Skevros was there waiting for them, no doubt having scried upon their progress from time to time. The group gave Skevros all three journals and his spellbooks. "We're not sure how to get that one open," admitted Galen. Frowning, Skevros picked up the journal in question, and it opened right up at his touch.

"Wizards," scoffed Syngaard.

Skevros had opened the journal to its last page and visibly blanched at what he saw as he read the final entry. "Apparently, the last thing I was preparing to do while evil," he said, "was become a lich."

That was Galen's cue. "Sir," he asked, "are you a lich?"

"I...must admit to being unsure," Skevros admitted. "I don't feel like a lich. I have a pulse, I breathe...and yet I have not aged since being exiled, 32 years hence. And..." he trailed off, hesitant to admit the next bit. Still, these people had done their best for him; they deserved to know the truth. "...Healing energy has the opposite effect upon me."

"You are harmed by healing energy?" gasped Galen. "Then it's true! You are...undead."

"I'm afraid that's a distinct possibility," admitted the king's adviser. Then, turning to Orion, he asked, "Do you have the pendant?"

"That depends," the halfling said. "What do you intend to do with it?" During their trek home, Daleth had filled them all in on what he knew about liches - including their dependency on phylacteries to hold their undead life-force.

"I still have a vat of osteovox," Skevros reminded them. "We can perform a ritual to hopefully learn some of the object's background. In fact, I will step back and allow you to perform the ritual without my involvement, considering my...possible untrustworthiness."

Galen wrote a question - "Are you the phylactery of the lich Skevros?" - on a blank piece of parchment which they wrapped around the pendant and dipped into the osteovox. After waiting the allotted time, they pulled the burned pendant out of the vat to find the cryptic answer.

"What's it say?" demanded Orion.

Galen read the response written on the strip of parchment.
"'Phylactery failed, ritual disturbed, by love lost the flesh-bound lich is born.'"
"Then it's true," gasped Skevros, sinking into a chair. "I...I am a lich."

"How is that even possible?" demanded Galen. "As you said: you breathe, you don't cause paralysis with your touch."

Piecing together the information from Jessica's journal and the evidence the party gathered, Skevros determined the scroll Jessica used most likely contained a wish spell; knowing she was nowhere nearly powerful enough to channel such energies on her own, the spell cost her her life in order to grant her wish to undo the effects of Skevros's alignment change. Doing so during the ritual to become a lich caused his soul to recoil in horror and reattach itself to his body, sealing him halfway between life and undeath, potentially stumbling upon the secret to eternal life.

"I will have to study my 'evil' journal in detail," remarked Skevros, "but judging by the treatment by both the Council of Guilds and now by the Azure Guard itself, I am beginning to suspect I might not have actually done anything to deserve my exile other than being what the Council of Guilds thought was a convenient scapegoat. The fact that they wanted no witnesses to their trespass into my home tells me there is something they wish to remain covered up. It will be our job to find out just what that may be."

"Um, one last thing," added Galen. "What do you want to do with...that?" He pointed to one of the bags of holding, from which was climbing the animated porcelain doll. Skevros frowned in puzzlement. "Strange," he remarked. "Even at this range, I feel...nothing."

"I feel something: creeped out by that freaky-ass doll," remarked Syngaard.

"This was my familiar," Skevros volunteered. "I haven't felt the connection between wizard and familiar since I woke up standing over Jessica's body, but I had assumed I must have destroyed it during my eight months of evil blackout. I made it as a playmate for Sarah, as a present on her third birthday, so I'd always be able to keep an eye on her, even when I was busy with my magical research."

"That's so sweet," replied Orion. "What's her name?"

"Sarah just called her 'Dow'," replied Skevros. "It was as close as she could get to saying the word, 'doll.'"

"That's so sweet," repeated Orion.

"That's just creepy as Hell," rebutted Syngaard.

- - -

This was a cool back-story for Skevros! I'm really proud of what Logan's done with this campaign, in little 2-hour (or thereabouts) segments! He had Vicki heartbroken over Skevros's tragic history, and the rest of us all amazed at the concept of a living lich. But we all pretty much agreed that "Dow" was kind of creepy (the image Logan used for her was a manga/anime-style porcelain doll face with too-big eyes); after the session, it was pointed out that Dow (a homunculus) was available to Daleth, who has yet to summon a familiar. (He's waiting for the Improved Familiar feat.) Joey's response was an immediate, no-thought-necessary: "No, I'm good."

Both Daleth and Orion managed to level up after this adventure.
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 4​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 4​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 4​
Syngaard, human fighter 4​

Game Session Date: 14 March 2018

- - -

It had been several days since the conscripts had been summoned through their rings, but this time the summons was different. For one thing, it was the middle of the afternoon; Skevros often summoned his adventuring band the first thing in the morning, which Syngaard found irritating to no end - especially when he wasn't over his morning hangover. For another, rather than have his troops assemble in The Enchanted Flagon, their normal meeting hall, this time the king's adviser told them to meet up at the Temple of Hieroneous.

"Well, that's weird," Syngaard said aloud to himself, heading to the front desk to let Matron Katarina - "Mama Kat" to those who knew her - know that he was needed at his "other job."

"You take care of yourself," Mama Kat advised - or possibly threatened; it was sometimes difficult to tell with her. But the bald fighter responded with a "Yes, Ma'am," all the same before heading over to his room to gather up his gear and find his way over to the Temple of Hieroneous.

Not surprisingly, Galen was already there - the paladin had probably been somewhere in the temple when the summons arrived - as were Kaspar and Orion, the latter with her riding dog Carl already tied by his reins to one of the posts at the temple's front entrance. Even less of a surprise was Daleth's habitual absence. "What, Wizard-Pants too busy to meet up with us again?" Syngaard asked the group.

"Skevros no doubt has him assigned to other duties," guessed the halfling.

"I'm starting to wonder about them two," Syngaard grumbled. "That damn elf hardly ever goes out into the field, and yet we keep giving him a share of the treasure."

"That's hardly true," argued Orion. "Sure, we gave him that metamagic rod, but who else among us was going to use it?"

"Ain't about using it," countered Syngaard. "We coulda cashed it in, split up the money 'tween those of us who put our lives on the line. Works for me."

"If you are all gathered together, I will escort you to the Holy Mother," said an approaching page wearing a tabard with the symbol of Hieroneous stitched into the chest with silver thread.

"Ha," snickered Syngaard, looking over to his paladin companion. "We're gonna go see your mom." Galen's face darkened at the disrespect to the leader of his paladin order, but said nothing, not wanting to argue in front of a mere page.

Mother Valorie's office was sparse, as befitted a no-nonsense paladin leader. "Come in," she welcomed the group gruffly, getting straight down to business. "I have a quest for you."

"What's it pay?" demanded Syngaard immediately.

"You will likely find your reward at the completion of the quest," sniffed the elderly warrior. Despite the office environment, she wore a full suit of plate mail armor and had a longsword resting over her right shoulder.

"Don't much like bein' paid in 'likelies'," muttered the fighter, gaining him an elbow in the knee by Orion. She glared up at the scarred fighter, her face showing the disdain she felt for his disrespectful attitude.

"We have a recent initiate to the order, one Melvior by name," continued Mother Valorie. "He went missing yesterday. His room was searched, at which time in was unearthed he was a secret follower of Wee Jas, Goddess of Death and Magic."

"How did he enter your ranks?" asked Kaspar. "Do you not investigate the backgrounds of those who would join your order, examine their auras with magic?"

"We do," scowled Mother Valorie. "There are, however, magical means to mask one's true affiliations - as was likely done in this instance. In any case, I have had a vision, Galen, of you and your companions putting the dead back to rest within the catacombs. I believe the two incidents - my vision and Melvior's disappearance - are related. Therefore, you are tasked with bringing Melvior to justice and, if necessary, putting the raised dead back to rest."

"Why us?" asked Syngaard. "Can't you take care of this yourself?" Galen looked horrified at the fighter's rudeness; Orion shook her head sadly and looked down at her feet, wishing she were elsewhere.

"Because I am currently in the Baator's Breath Mountains, keeping an army of devils at bay," snapped Mother Valorie. "I appear to you here as a projection, a sending." Syngaard knitted his brow and walked beside the armored woman, testing her claims by putting his hand right through her side and back out again. Sure enough, she wasn't really there. "Well, that's kind of disconcerting," he muttered to himself.

"Galen, lead your troops to the catacombs, and see to your quest!" ordered the older woman to her charge.

"At once, Holy Mother!" acknowledged Galen, bowing his head before the leader of his order. He then led them from her office; behind them, she snapped out of view as the elderly paladin focused her attention on her own immediate problems.

"So where are these catacombs?" asked Kaspar. "Beneath the temple?"

"No, replied Galen, heading to the stables to fetch his warhorse, Seneca. "It's outside the city walls, in the hills at the edge of the kingdom."

"Well that just figures!" griped Syngaard. "More trudging around the damn place! I don't suppose your mom's gonna lend us a wagon or nothing?"

"That is correct," snapped Galen, a little tired of the bald fighter's attitude. "If you don't wish to 'trudge around the place' all the time, I suggest you set aside some of your accumulated earnings for a good horse of your own."

"Or, you know, an ass: something more your speed," offered Orion, mounting her riding dog at the temple's front entrance. Carl's tongue lolled happily as the halfling settled herself onto the saddle; he knew this meant they were going on a trip!

"Already got one ass in this group - don't need another," countered Syngaard.

On the way to the catacombs, Galen described their layout. There was a central chamber just inside the double doors, with passages on either side leading back to another large chamber in the back. The walls of the side passageways housed numerous crypts of slain paladins, and there were six raised crypts in the main chamber as well housing holy remains.

"This 'putting the dead back to rest' business - is that what I think it is?" asked Syngaard.

"That would rather depend," offered Kaspar, "on what you think it is."

"Smashing skeletons, cutting down zombies, that sort of thing."

"Then I imagine you are correct."

"Are you okay with this?" asked Orion, looking over at Galen astride his warhorse. "These are the members of your church we'll be fighting."

"These are the animated remains of members of my church we'll be fighting," corrected Galen. "Merely their remains; their souls will have long since departed this world to Hieroneous's realm in the afterlife. The bones are of no consequence: I'm more concerned with the twisted Wee Jas follower who would so desecrate the catacombs for his own evil purpose."

Upon arriving at the catacombs, the group saw the stone door that once kept the burial complex sealed up now lay shattered in remnants on the ground. "This bodes ill," said Kaspar, stepping inside the doorway and allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom of the chamber within. He could see six figures standing in the room, each the skeletal remains of those who had been interred in the six crypts in the first chamber. They each carried the sword they had wielded in life; upon the elf's entrance, they turned their heads his way and prepared to attack.

Galen leaped from Seneca's broad back and ran to the open doorway. Beside him Orion remained in Carl's saddle, staring at a dark object sitting upon an altar in the back of the chamber, trying to make out what it might be. Galen blocked her view as he strode into the chamber, his holy symbol of Hieroneous held aloft. "Begone!" he commanded, trying to focus a blast of positive energy through his Hieronean symbol. But try as he might, he couldn't summon up the holy energy to turn these animated undead bones.

Kaspar had no such problem, though - he leaped up and kicked out with his foot, smashing the skull from the head of the nearest skeleton; it fell to the floor in a clatter of unconnected bones, its sword falling beside its no longer animated remains. The other five skeletons rushed up to attack Kaspar and Galen, but the monk easily dodged their strikes and the paladin brought his shield up in time to deflect their sword-blows.

Syngaard pushed his way past Carl and Orion and sent his enchanted morningstar crashing down upon the skull of the closest enemy. It, too, fell to pieces under the force of the blow. Encouraging her riding dog to enter the fray, Orion swung out with her flaming short sword but failed to bring down her foe; the flaming blade slid along the bone of the skeleton's raised forearm to deal minimal damage. Carl snapped his teeth at the skeleton's leg, but it dodged out of the way at the last moment.

Not sure what was preventing his turning attempt to fail so miserably - it couldn't be his own relative lack of training, surely? - Galen pulled the sword of Zehkar from his scabbard and cut down a skeleton, the blade easily snapping its vertebrae in half in a single stroke. Beside him, Kaspar's hardened fist destroyed another of the undead, leaving only two skeletal combatants in the central chamber. They struck out again at the monk and the paladin, with no more success than their first attacks had garnered.

Syngaard struck the skeleton Carl and Orion had been fighting, scoring a glancing blow that failed to bring it down. Orion and Carl's attacks likewise failed to connect, but Galen finally destroyed it with his longsword. Meanwhile, Kaspar and the last skeleton were trading blows and failing to connect; Syngaard brought it down with a skull-smashing attack from the side.

"Check out the skull!" Orion called out. Syngaard looked down at the smashed skull at his feet in puzzlement, then looked back at the halfling and saw she was pointing to a black skull sitting on top of the altar to Hieroneous in the back of the chamber. The scarred fighter approached the darkskull with his morningstar raised. "It's evil," said Galen, using his aura-sensing vision on the wooden skull.

"Good enough for me," replied Syngaard, bringing his morningstar crashing down on the darkskull. But while he thought he'd have crushed it, the carved skull merely slipped off the altar and skidded across the floor, seemingly undamaged. However, the mere touch of Galen's sword caused it to burst into flames. He brought his blade down hard upon the flaming skull, destroying it permanently with his second strike.

Orion had yet to dismount from Carl. "We have two exits," she said, indicating the passageways on either side of the central chamber. "This way," commanded Galen, indicating the passageway to the east and activating a sunrod from his pack. After 10 feet the corridor took a turn to the right and continued on deeper into the hillside. Standing down that corridor were two more skeletons - but these wore plate mail armor as well as wielding their swords.

"Freeee uuuus!" one skeleton moaned as it approached, bringing its longsword to bear. Galen instinctively brought up his holy symbol and tried to turn the approaching undead, failing miserably for a second time. By then both skeletons were on the conscripts, attacking Syngaard and Galen in the front line of the group. The paladin deflected the incoming blow with his shield; Syngaard followed suit with his morningstar, blocking the sword-strike. Kaspar struck out from beside the bald fighter, getting in a solid blow but failing to drop the skeleton. Orion and Carl likewise tried sneaking in attacks from behind Galen, but they were in too tight of quarters to be very effective.

Falling back on his sword - he was much more adept at swordcraft than turning undead, it seemed! - Galen stabbed at the skeleton before him, piercing his armor but doing little to damage the skeleton beneath it. The one facing Syngaard struck out with its sword, and while it missed the fighter it did catch Kaspar unawares - the undead forces had finally made their first successful attack. Blood from the wound spilled from Kaspar's side, staining his robes.

Pushing past Syngaard, the monk attacked the offending skeleton with a flurry of blows that had it falling to the floor in a cacophonous clatter of bones and metal armor. Galen and Syngaard soon brought down the other one, and then the group continued on down the hallway.

The passageway made another right turn and opened into another larger chamber, roughly the same size as the room in the front. The floor in this room was scattered with the broken remains of shattered bones, however - it looked like somebody had been in battle with animated skeletons already in here. Then Galen noticed movement from the back of the room; turning his head, he saw in the light of his sunrod a skeletal figure standing over a black-robed body. Thin, skeletal bones jutted out from the skeleton's back, the undead remains of birdlike wings, minus the feathers.

The skeletal figure turned its head in the direction of the paladin and Galen got a good look at him. He carried a blood-soaked blade in his right hand; at his hip hung a scabbard that glowed like molten gold. "Zehkar, my friend," the skeleton spoke in a raspy voice, "free me from this cursed existence, before the rage of undeath overtakes me." His skeletal wings stretched wide as he spoke.

Orion was unsure what to do in this situation: it was an animated undead creature, but it seemed to be friendly. Should they kill it? Or was it like Skevros: undead but still somehow alive? The halfling opted to let one of the others make the decision for her.

Galen happily obliged by stepping forward, slashing sideways with the sword of Zehkar as he did so, scoring a hit across the winged skeleton's bony chest. Kaspar and Syngaard followed suit, each attacking from a different direction so they ended up flanking the undead foe between them. Only then did Orion spur Carl forward into combat - although neither the halfling nor her riding dog were successful in their attacks.

The skeleton seemed to be struggling against itself. "Hurry!" it commanded. "I know not how much longer I can resist!" Galen's eyes picked up its aura: a brilliant gold, but with specks of deep black flickering in and out of existence, threatening to engulf it. The paladin could sense that the remains of this winged creature were fighting off the evil that normally animated such undead beings.

The conscripts attacked for all they were worth, striking from all four directions - for their adversary had not made the slightest effort to prevent being surrounded by its foes. But then its aura turned fully black, and it got in three attacks against Galen in an unexpected flash of swordplay, nearly dropping the paladin to his knees. Having seen how much punishment the undead thing dealt to Galen and realizing there was no way she could withstand such a frenzy of attacks herself, Orion backed Carl out of combat.

A voice suddenly spoke in the back of Galen's head, calling for him to try turning the skeleton. Doubting his abilities along those fronts, Galen nonetheless did as instructed; this time, the positive energy flowed smoothly through his body and the holy symbol of Hieroneous, channeling into the golden scabbard at the winged skeleton's hip. The scabbard burst into a pillar of golden flames, turning the winged skeleton into a fine ash. The flames then coalesced into the spectral form of a half-celestial bard. "Thank you for freeing me," he said to the assembled group. Then, looking at Galen, he informed the paladin that the scabbard once belonged to his friend Zehkar. "It is yours now," he said, handing it over. Taking it, Galen felt a surge of power coursing through the longsword in his hand, and realized the sword of Zehkar had just gained in power once again.

However, seeing that battle was now apparently over, Syngaard high-tailed it over to the corpse of the black-robed figure - Melvior, no doubt. First, Syngaard made sure he was dead - yep, although the fighter had been willing to finish the deal had he still been clinging to life. Next up: perusal of potential treasures, just like "Galen's mom" had said. Melvior had a masterwork club by his side (not as cool as Syngaard's morningstar), along with a fancy tome (who needs books?), an empty lead box (pointless!), and an unholy symbol of Wee Jas (useless - was there nothing of potential value on this worthless piece of scum?). Then Syngaard noticed a gem lying on the floor by the slain traitor's head; a quick scrabbling unearthed three more nearby, each a different color.

"I know what these are!" Syngaard cackled to himself. He remembered stories about magical stones that flew around your head, providing all sorts of benefits. Holding them in his cupped hands, the fighter raised them up by his scarred face and called out, "Fly!" When that didn't work, he tried "Go on!" with a similar lack of success. He tried moving his cupped hands over and around his bald pate, and it wasn't until he finally tossed them up in the air that they started circling his head. Syngaard immediately felt stronger, tougher, quicker - even a bit more cunning than ever. "Now we're talking!" he chortled.

By then, though, the others had caught up to him. Realizing there was no way to surreptitiously continue to use floating colored stones that orbited your head, Syngaard caught them back up in his hand and displayed them to the group. Galen cast a wary eye upon the rest of the traitor's belongings, noting that while the tome itself did not radiate an aura of evil, it was filled with rituals a divine spellcaster could use to bind the souls of the dead to their mortal remains, creating a more powerful than normal form of lesser undead.

The group, by consensus, divided up the four ioun stones among the group - including, Syngaard was irritated to note, setting one aside for Daleth, a pink rhomboid that would make the elven wizard tougher in battle. "Scrawny little guy needs all the help he can get," Syngaard rationalized, secretly pleased that if the elf was getting magical goods he hadn't even earned, at least he was getting the girly pink stone! Syngaard's, on the other hand, was the same shape but a pale blue, and increased his physical strength. Orion got a deep red sphere that made her even quicker than normal (and the tricky little squirt was already quick enough for Syngaard's tastes), while Kaspar got the incandescent blue sphere that helped focus his mind. Galen opted not to take one, opining that his upgraded sword and new scabbard were reward enough.

Since their quest was to put the catacombs back to rest, Galen insisted they check out the other side passageway, and sure enough, there were two more armored skeletons wielding their longswords from life - that damned Melvior had been a busy little bad boy! The skeletons charged the group, to little effect; Galen focused a turning attempt through his new scabbard, and successfully sent the undead fleeing. "Great!" groused Syngaard. "Now we gotta go chase after 'em!"

Orion sent Carl fleeing across the back chamber, racing down the eastern passageway to go cut off the fleeing skeletons before they could get to the now-open doorway to the outer world. Syngaard threw his javelin of returning at a skeleton as it fled; it did little damage but returned dutifully to the fighter's hand as normal. Kaspar managed to not only keep pace with the fleeing skeletons but actually overtake them; he punched one in the back of the skull, nearly - but not quite - toppling it headfirst onto the stone floor of the corridor. Syngaard charged the other one, dealing a bit of damage but likewise failing to drop it.

Behind them, Galen tried a different tactic: he focused healing energy through his scabbard, forming it into a beam of healing energy that he sent into the back of one of the skeletons. The positive energy overflowed the undead thing's necrotic system, causing it to explode into dust.

The other one fled past Carl - who snapped at it ineffectually as it passed him - and Orion, whose attack with her flaming short sword likewise missed. Kaspar, in a burst of speed, got in a hardened punch, but still the fleeing skeleton refused to fall. Syngaard couldn't catch up to it and thus resorted to his magical javelin again in an act of desperation. As he had suspected, the undead thing survived the attack; javelins aren't ideal weapons to use against skeletons. Finally, Galen repeated the strategy that had destroyed the first skeleton, and it was equally successful this second time.

Their job completed, the group decided - against Syngaard's vote - to bring Melvior's body back to the temple of Hieroneous. "I ain't carrying no dead body!" the fighter complained.

"You won't have to," reassured Galen, balancing the corpse over his warhorse's saddle. "But I won't leave him in the catacombs - they're reserved for actual followers of Hieroneous, not traitorous impostors."

When the conscripts eventually returned to the Enchanted Flagon for a few cold ales after a job well done, Skevros - after hearing a description of Melvior's robes - black, with blue trim - confirmed that those were the traditional robes worn by members of the Necromancers Guild in the Azure Glade.

"What?" sputtered Syngaard. "More of those Azure Glade creeps?"

"I was originally from the Azure Glades myself," Skevros reminded the bald fighter with a frown.

"Oh, I'm aware," muttered Syngaard, returning his attention to his ale.

- - -

Logan laid out the Catacombs of Deserved Rest using a series of our Dungeon Tiles. Since Galen would already have known the layout, there was no need for us to discover it room by room, so they were all already in place when we started gaming. Logan used plastic skeletons from our old Hero Quest game for all but the half-celestial bard skeleton, which got a D&D Miniature robed skeleton to represent it.

Logan designed the scabbard to allow Galen a means of healing the rest of us at range, using turn attempts - a resource going untapped in adventures not involving undead. Since Galen can turn undead six times a day, that ability is sure to come in handy. I thought that was a rather clever bit of magic item creation on Logan's part. And the sword of Zehkar is now an undead bane weapon, which suits Dan just fine.

Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard all reached 5th level at the end of this adventure, while Orion is so close that she'll undoubtedly make it to 5th level after our next outing.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 3​
Galen Thorne, human paladin 5​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 5​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 4​
Syngaard, human fighter 5​

Game Session Date: 21 March 2018

- - -

Before this adventure started, Logan verified with each of the players whether their PCs had accepted a room above the Enchanted Flagon as their own rooms; there were four bedrooms, a balcony, and a common area, all reachable from a set of stairs in the back exterior of the tavern building. All of the other players agreed, whereas I had already given Syngaard a backstory that involved him spending his spare time between adventures as a bouncer in a brothel, where he was paid only in room and board. So Daleth, Galen, Kaspar, and Orion each have a room above the Enchanted Flagon, while Syngaard generally sleeps many blocks away.

Then, to begin the adventure, Logan passed a piece of paper to each player which contined a "status briefing" about what their PCs were doing at 3 a.m. the morning of the adventure in question. I'll start this write-up by posting each of the player handouts, in turn.

As an elf you do not sleep, though you still enter a meditative trance. You are started awake by a voice in your head: "Report to the tavern in one hour." It sounds like a summon from Skevros. Looking out at the night sky you realize you'll have to rely on the spells you prepared yesterday, for you haven't rested long enough to prepare new ones. [Prepare your spells as normal, they will be the spells Daleth already had prepared the day before.]

You are in a familiar tavern. Osleth was already here working on his book when you got there. He's been writing about your adventures since you first met him. Despite his brilliantly feathered golden wings, he's the least likely of your group to stand out in a crowd. Hirek the self-styled "Scarlet Sage" entered not long after you did. Wise beyond his years in many subjects, yet his garish wardrobe has gotten you all in plenty trouble along the way. Ah, figures that she'd be the last to arrive - she never did like having her actions dictated by us mere mortals. She may be haughty for a dragon, but even in her human form you've never seen a better hand-to-hand combatant than her. If only she could do something about her blue and bronze hair. The only other one here is Galen Thorne watching this memory through my eyes. "Remember these people, they will be important. Beware the one who seeks my brother's legacy. You'd best hurry now." Zehkar's voice changes: "Report to the tavern in one hour." With that you awaken.

As an elf you do not sleep, instead you enter a meditative trance to refresh your mind and body. You are woken from your trance by a voice in your head saying, "Report to the tavern in one hour."

You've just cracked open a safe and have called to your assistant to help empty the vast wealth within when you hear his high-pitched grumbling. Your new assistant is always complaining, "You're too tall, I can't reach" or "Wait up, you're too fast." This time, however, his voice is deeper. "Report to the tavern in one hour." As you awaken from your dream the last thing you remember is Syngaard's face on a tiny little doll.

A voice awakens you from your usual nightmare. "Report to the tavern in one hour." You grumble about inconsiderate wizards as you step outside to see that it is still the middle of the night. As you make your way toward the tavern you notice the church of Pelor is abuzz with activity. Father Rupert rushes out to meet you with a grim face. "They're all missing," he says. "All of the children vanished. The only lead we have is the faire that came to town yesterday. We were about to head out and investigate and could use someone of your talents." Unfortunately when you get to the fairgrounds you find no evidence of a faire actually having been there. The only thing there is a bent ink quill.

- - -

Awakened in the middle of the night with orders to meet at the tavern in an hour - the tavern directly below them - the four conscripts each pulled on their clothing and armor, grabbed up their adventuring gear, and headed downstairs (Orion bringing her dog Carl with her). Galen opened the door to the tavern; it was locked, but his iron ring glowed gently for a moment as he touched the handle and the door offered him no resistance. Stepping into the tavern, everburning torches flared up to full brightness around the room. Behind him came Kaspar, Daleth, and Orion; already present in the room were Dow, the doll-homunculus Skevros had left upon a tabletop before last leaving the tavern, and the unnamed bartender, an unseen servant the king's adviser had given an illusory visual image so she could better interact with others. She smiled up at the adventurers upon their arrival, wiping absently at the bar with a damp rag as she did so. "An ale!" called out Galen, wanting something to help him wake up at this odd hour.

The group of four took their accustomed places around the table, yawning. Orion went to the back of the bar where she kept the food for Carl, who had accompanied her into the tavern. (All four of the bedrooms on the top floor were the same size, so there was plenty of space for Carl to sleep in Orion's room with her. Galen's warhorse, Seneca, was another story altogether - he was out in the stables to the south of the tavern.)

"I wonder what's taking Syngaard so long to show up?" questioned Daleth.

"He's probably paying off the five halflings he sleeps with every night," mused Galen, getting a sputter of laughter from Orion as a response. "Not likely!" she replied.

"He is across town," pointed out Kaspar matter-of-factly. "More to the point, I wonder why Skevros chose to wake us up to meet in an hour when it took us all of about five minutes to make it down here?"

"Probably had to account for Syngaard," surmised Orion. "It'll likely take that bumbling oaf at least half an hour just to find his damn pants." She suddenly smiled, thinking about the dream she'd been in the middle of when she had been awakened: Syngaard as her tiny little assistant, only half as tall as the halfling rogue herself. She wondered if it were possible to have a double-strength potion of reduce person made up that would shrink the bald fighter to about a foot and a half tall....

Galen, starting to come fully awake after sipping his cold ale, decided since they apparently had some time to kill this was as good a time as any to try some experiments with the "seen" unseen servant. "Excuse me, Miss," he said, "Do you have a name?"

The illusory barmaid just smiled at him and raised an eyebrow as if in query.

"Is there some way you'd prefer to be addressed?" the paladin tried, but he received merely a patient smile in return.

"It's no use," pointed out Orion. "She's just a spell effect - two, really: an unseen servant and an illusion spell of some sort, both made permanent. Trying to get an intelligent conversation out of her is as pointless as trying to have an intelligent conversation with a wall - or with Syngaard."

Dow took that moment to surprise the halfling by walking up to her and hugging her from behind. "Hey!" squawked Orion, turning to face the homunculus. "How did you get here?"

"You put me in a bag," the animated doll replied. "You took ow the culloo away. Then, when you took me back out, the culloo was ow wong."

"All wrong?" asked Daleth, intrigued after translating her sentences from baby-talk to normal Common. "In what way?"

"The gwass and the twees," replied Dow. "They'w supposed to be bwoo, not gween." The elf wizard nodded his head sagely at this information, deducing she was used to the predominant color scheme of the flora in the Azure Glade, where she had spent most of her...if not "life," exactly, then at least existence. Kaspar suppressed an involuntary shiver; the animated doll still struck him as creepy. Galen and Orion seemed to be taking a liking to her, though.

About a half hour after their rude awakening upstairs, the four conscripts heard a pounding on the door to the tavern - which was still locked to anybody not wearing one of Skevros's iron rings.

"Who's there?" called out Galen. "We're closed!"

"I got a package ta deliver!" replied a gruff voice. "I seen yer light on." Peering through the window, the paladin saw a stout dwarf with a small wooden box tucked under one arm.

"Who are you?" Galen asked through the door.

"M'name's Melvik. I was hired ta deliver this box ta this address by some guy at the faire."

Galen opened the door, already peering at the dwarf with his temple-trained ability to see auras; the dwarf's did not have the tell-tale stench of evil about it. "Do I need to sign for it or anything?" he asked Melvik.

"Nah," scoffed the dwarf, handing the box over to Galen. "I was jest told ta bring it to ye, and ye'd know what ta do with it." With that, he gave the group a nod in parting and turned on his heel, heading south back down the street.

"What do you suppose it is?" asked Daleth.

"I'm not sure," admitted Galen, turning it over in his hands. "There are no markings on it. And it's not inherently evil."

"Let me see it," suggested Orion, giving it a good scrutiny. "There don't look to be any magical traps on it - not that I can detect, in any case."

"Perhaps it's from Skevros," suggested Kaspar.

"That seems unlikely," replied Galen. "I'm going to open it."

"Do it outside," suggested Orion. "Just in case." It seemed like a prudent course of action to Galen, so he pried the wooden box open with a dagger while standing just outside the door to the tavern. Inside the box was a single sheet of parchment, folded over and sealed with a blob of wax.

"What's it say?" demanded Daleth, trying to look over the paladin's broad shoulder. Unnoticed by either of them, Orion and Kaspar had given each other a knowing look and quietly stepped back inside the tavern - again, just in case.

It turned out to have been a good idea. Galen opened the parchment and immediately activated the explosive runes printed on the inside surface of the sheet. A blast of fire scorched his face, doing little more permanent damage than irritating the rugged paladin - but knocking back Daleth, who hit his head against the tavern wall and collapsed to the ground in a seemingly boneless heap. "What--?" asked Galen, turning to look down at the unconscious wizard - these elves were frail, indeed! He bent down to administer to him - and four crossbow bolts thunked into the tavern wall by his head.

Kaspar had retreated to the safety of the tavern interior while Galen opened the sealed parchment, but he had been monitoring events from inside and heard the attack. He pulled the door back open and rushed out by the others, pulling a healing potion from his robes as he did so. Pouring the contents down the wizard's throat, Kaspar scanned the street across from him and his elven eyes picked out four burly shapes atop the two buildings across the way. Dwarves with crossbows, it looked like to the monk in the dim starlight.

Daleth blinked back to consciuousness in the span of time it took the would-be assassins to reload their heavy crossbows. Kaspar helped his fellow elf back into the tavern, where the wizard downed a potion of cure light wounds of his own to get him back to full strength.

In the meantime, Galen had activated a sunrod and tossed it out into the street, to help those (like him) without elven vision to see what was going on. The paladin saw the four dwarves on the rooftops, reloading their weapons. Orion stepped up beside him, took aim, and sent one of her throwing daggers flying across the street to the opposite rooftop, where it landed with a meaty thunk! in the shoulder of an assassin. His dwarven curses brought a smile to the halfling's lips.

Then another figure stepped around the tavern corner, from the alley between the Enchanted Flagon and the stables to the south. He aimed a hand crossbow at Galen and shot a bolt before the paladin could even make him out fully; fortunately, the bolt glanced off Galen's armor to no real effect. But then alongside this new assassin - a half-orc, now that he had entered the range of illumination of the sunrod in the streets - stepped none other than Melvik the delivery-dwarf. He fired a light crossbow at Galen, but his aim was no better than the half-orc's.

Ensuring Daleth was now safe inside the tavern, Kaspar made a snap decision and went sprinting across the street, to the northern side of the northernmost of the two buildings holding dwarven assassins on their rooftops. Fortunately, both buildings were but a single story high and the monk had no difficulty scaling up the wall and onto the roof. The nearest assassin turned to face this new threat - and was struck by a blast of fire, a scorching ray spell cast by Daleth from the tavern's doorway.

The four dwarves by now had their heavy crossbows ready for another volley. Kaspar was the obvious target for the two dwarves on the rooftop with him, while Galen, Orion, and Daleth were all standing just outside the tavern's front door, turning to face Melvik and the half-orc, and thus perfect targets for the other two crossbowmen. But then a commotion from the southern end of the street brought all heads aimed that way, if only for a moment.

"GUYS!" called Syngaard, nearly out of breath from running halfway across town in his full armor and adventuring gear. "GUYS! WE GOT TROUBLE!"

Truer words were never spoken from the bald fighter's lips. The two dwarves on top of the southernmost building whirled around and fired at this new reinforcement. The bolts whizzed by Syngaard's head but he didn't even notice. All he could see in the starlit night was that the lights were on in the tavern, so presumably the rest of the team was already there - and he had to get them focused on the problem at the Temple of Pelor before Skevros sent them out on some other stupid mission. The fighter almost ran into the half-orc assassin before even registering his presence. But the half-orc could see the human fighter just fine in the minimal light, and decided he wasn't as big a threat as those he was already fighting. For at the same time, Galen was charging at Melvik, swinging with his sword of Zehkar and causing the dwarf to grunt in pain as the blade struck true.

Orion tossed another dagger at her dwarven target across the street, hitting true as well, as the half-orc wheeled around behind Galen, pinning him between Melvik and himself. But the paladin had anticipated the move and struck out suddenly with his blade, piercing the assassin in the gut while the half-orc's own blade when whizzing harmlessly above Galen's helmeted head. Unfortunately, Melvik was able to take advantage of Galen's preoccupation with his larger opponent and he got his own blade in deep between the paladin's armor.

Up on the northern rooftop across the street, Kaspar handily ducked a blow from a dwarven warhammer and retaliated with a flurry of blows that turned the rooftop assassin into the first casualty of the fight. With a strangled cry, the dwarf fell from the roof to fall in a heap in the street below. The other three rooftop assassins shot at Syngaard again, for now he was much closer and easier to hit - although for all of that, only one of the three bolts managed to deal any damage to the scarred fighter, the others bouncing off his shield and armor as a matter of luck more than anything else - for Syngaard was just now even registering that his team was in the midst of a street battle.

Cursing the poor choice of spells he'd prepared the previous day, Daleth drank down a potion of mage armor before hestitantly exiting the tavern once again. He hefted his own light crossbow, thinking he'd likely have to use it if he wished to deal any further damage to the team of assassins.

Syngaard finally reached the side of the tavern and came up behind Melvik, whose attention was still on Galen. The fighter grabbed Melvik by the shoulder, whipping the dwarf around to face him. Then, morningstar raised menacingly, he roared, "WHERE ARE THE KIDS?" This was met with only a befuddled, "--Huh?" from the dwarf, so Syngaard followed through with the implied threat of his weapon, slamming it down into the dwarf's face.

Having determined the half-orc was evil by a quick examination of his aura, Galen channeled the power of Hieroneous through his magic longsword and used his next strike to smite his foe. The assassin dropped to the ground, unconscious and bleeding out.

Sudden dwarven cursing from across the street told the paladin that Orion's latest dagger strike - her third, none of which had missed - had struck her target once again. The dwarf was near to blacking out from blood loss himself, and Syngaard would likely have appreciated the anti-halfling invective pouring from the assassin's lips - had the bald fighter spoke the Dwarvish tongue. But then Galen returned his attention to Melvik; the little dwarf had caught him unawares once and he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice! Melvik, for his part, found it much more difficult getting in a sneak attack when his foe's full concentration was focused solely on him.

The two dwarven assassins across the street from Syngaard hastily reloaded their ammunition for another shot each, while the one on the other rooftop dropped his crossbow altogether to deal with Kaspar, who was fast approaching. He swung his warhammer at the elven monk, but Kaspar had no trouble dodging it. He followed up with a punch to the face that broke the dwarf's nose and sent a bolt of electricity coursing through his body, courtesy of the tenryutsume he wore on that hand. As the dwarf started to collapse, Kaspar grabbed him by the shoulder and led him to the edge of the roof, helping him to topple over the edge to land by his slain compadre. The dwarf's spine snapped when he struck the ground, causing him to lay at an awkward angle that instantly identified him as already dead.

Daleth cast an expeditious retreat spell upon himself and used his extra speed to dash across the street to the dead dwarves, where he gathered up the throwing daggers Orion had already impaled into them before their falls. She only had so many of these, and the wizard was certain she'd appreciate getting them back so she could continue using her most successful weapons to date.

Over by the tavern, Melvik - now surrounded by Galen and Syngaard - was doing his best to stay alive. Syngaard's morningstar just missed the dwarf's head by a hair's breadth and the fighter had to waste a moment yanking it back out of the tavern wall, where the force of his blow had caused it to stick in the wooden surface. But Galen followed up with a blow of his own, cutting deep across the dwarf's chest. By now, he was familiar enough with his magical sword to realize he wasn't doing the extra damage his blade dealt to evil enemies - and yet Melvik continued to try to kill them.

Another roofside assassin groaned in pain, as another uncanny throw by Orion caused her dagger to find its target - apparently fighting in the middle of the night with hardly any light to see by suited the little rogue just fine!

Melvik looked down at the half-orc assassin, noting he was still breathing, before returning his attention to the paladin he was fighting. The dwarf struck out again with his short sword, but Galen deflected the blow with his shield. "Never shoulda accepted this job!" Melvik hissed to himself in irritation - and no small amount of fear. Syngaard finally dropped him with a hard strike from his morningstar, and Galen was there at the dwarf's side almost immediately, applying just enough healing to prevent him from bleeding out. "I want him alive for questioning," he explained, seeing Syngaard's puzzled expression.

Kaspar ducked beneath a flying crossbow bolt, but in doing so fell prey to the other one streaking his way. Still, despite the wound, he managed to wall off all thoughts of pain and discomfort in his mind so he could best deal with the situation at hand. Putting his all into it, the monk sped across the rooftop and leaped across the gap, landing lightly upon his feet onto the next roof over, where he was greeted in combat by two very astonished dwarven assassins. They dropped their heavy crossbows and picked up their dwarven warhammers, but the one closest to Kaspar wasn't quick enough to avoid the monk's quick-striking hand, which nearly pitched the dwarf over the edge of the roof. As the dwarf pinwheeled his arms to avoid plummeting over the edge, he was struck in the gut by a crossbow bolt; he looked down at the street below to see Daleth looking up at him, his crossbow still pointed his way. But he spun back to face Kaspar, just as his partner was reaching the monk. Both swung their warhammers at him, but neither connected - and Orion's luck ran out at the same time, for a throwing dagger she'd just hurled at one of the dwarven assassins Kaspar was fighting went whizzing past its target. But Kaspar followed up with a flurry of blows, finally killing the dwarf he'd hit before and contemptuously kicking him off the roof as he swung at the other dwarven foe, making a solid connection. Daleth finished him off with a well-placed crossbow bolt through the eye.

With combat over, Syngaard wasted no time letting the rest of the group know what was up. "There's this orphanage the Temple of Pelor runs - all of the kids have disappeared!"

"You know this how?" Orion asked.

"They were all up and about when I passed their way," Syngaard explained. "They asked for my help - as a professional adventurer, no doubt. The only thing they could figure out was it might have something to do with a faire they took some of the kids to earlier yesterday - only when we went to the grounds where the faire was held, there was nothin' to show they'd ever been there. But I found this" - and he pulled a broken ink quill feather from a belt pouch.

"Interesting," replied Daleth, rubbing his chin in thought.

"Let's go interrogate our prisoners," suggested Galen. "We'll question them separately, and compare their stories." He pulled the half-orc over to the tavern, while Syngaard dragged Melvik over to the stables and dropped him inside. Orion and the elves went over to strip the dead dwarven assassins of any valuables.

"What's your name?" demanded Galen after the half-orc, who had been bound tightly with rope from the paladin's pack, had been awakened. The assassin thought it over for a moment, then answered, "Thorgaarth."

"What's the story behind that tattoo behind your neck?" Galen asked. While binding him tightly, he couldn't help but notice the tattoo on the base of the half-orc's neck: an hourglass with silver sand lying on its side.

"If you don't already know, then it's none of your damned business," Thorgaarth spat.

Over in the stables, with a nervous Seneca as his only witness, Syngaard picked up the questioning of Melvik where he'd left off. "Where are the kids?" he demanded.

"I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about - I swear it!" insisted Melvik. Syngaard hated to admit it, but this Melvik stank of sincerity - or he was a really, really good liar.

"So you were hired to kill us," Galen prompted. "That didn't work out so well for you, did it?"

"Don't matter," replied Thorgaarth. "Dave's got a second plan in place - don't know what it is, but you'll find out...soon enough." Galen wracked his brain - he'd heard the name "Dave" recently, hadn't he? After a few moments, the memory came to the forefront of his brain: Dave was the guy who had hired that other half-orc to steal the dragon statuette from the castle, thinking it was Skevros's phylactery.

Galen tried another tactic, thinking back on the vision he'd had before being awakened. "Who are Osleth and Hirek?" he asked his bound captive. That got a reaction out of Thorgaarth: he furrowed his brow and asked, "I thought you said you didn't know about the mark...?"

"Let's see who else knows about the mark," replied Galen, pushing Thorgaarth onto his stomach and pinning him in place with his knee. Then, using his sharpest dagger, he skinned the back of the half-orc's neck off and brought the dripping tattoo over to the stables, leaving Orion and the elves to watch over the screaming assassin.

"What can you tell me about this?" Galen asked Melvik, holding the tattooed patch of skin before Melvik. "Nothing!" insisted Melvik. "Listen, if I had known my employer had anything to do with kidnapping children, I never would have taken this job -- I swear!"

"Who hired you for this job?" asked Galen.

"A guy named Dave - Thorgaarth took me to see him. Dave said we would be helping to destroy a terrible evil that threatened to destroy the world! I'm one of the good guys, I swear!"

"By trying to kill a paladin of Hieroneous?" demanded Syngaard, pointing to the holy symbol of the God of Valor painted on Galen's shield.

"There's no way I could be sure that was for real!" insisted a frantic Melvik. "Or that you hadn't taken it from some paladin you had killed! You guys were supposed to be evil-- that was what we were told!"

Galen went back to Thorgaarth to try to corroborate the dwarf's story. But as the paladin approached the group, Orion wondered aloud what was holding up Skevros - and why he hadn't shown after all this time.

"Skevros?" repeated Thorgaarth. "You guys work for Skevros? Crap! If I'd have known that, there's no way I'd have taken this job! I'm not going up against that fiend--I wouldn't stand a chance!"

"I'm confused," admitted Orion.

"What are we going to do with them?" asked Kaspar.

"We're killing this one," decided Galen. "He reeks of evil, and the world will be better off without him in it."

"Go ahead," replied Thorgaarth. "Kill me. See how long that sticks."

"Very well," replied Galen, slitting the half-orc's throat with the sword of Zehkar. He noted with satisfaction that the sword seemed to deal extra damage to the evil being he was executing - proof of his evil nature. Orion turned away; killing someone actively trying to kill you was one thing, but executing a bound captive seemed like a different thing entirely.

"Let's go see to Melvik, before Syngaard kills him," replied Galen. The group went to the stables, where Syngaard was in the midst of threatening the terrified dwarf with a dagger.

"Leave him be," commanded Galen. "He seems sincere. And he's not evil."

"Tried killing me," retorted Syngaard. "That's evil enough for me."

"If wanting to kill you is a sign of evil," replied Orion, "then I'd wager the majority of the kingdom was evil. Starting with me."

Syngaard looked contemptuously at the group, all wanting him to put his weapon down and let Melvik go free. Well, he wasn't going to stand for it! He spun back to his bound captive, put the dagger back to his throat, and gave the weapon a sharp tug. Melvik howled in torment.

"Syngaard!" roared Galen. "I said not to kill him!"

"Didn't," replied the bald fighter, holding up a handful of beard to the paladin. "But he ain't goin' free with that beard of his intact." And he scraped his weapon against the dwarf's throat again, slicing off another chunk of beard. Melvik screamed as if he were being flayed alive. Only after the dwarf's face was baby-smooth did Syngaard step away, allowing Orion to cut the ropes binding him. "Get out--now!" warned the halfling. Tears of shame flowing freely down his smooth cheeks, Melvik raced off into the darkness of the night.

The conscripts went back into the tavern. "So what are we gonna do about them missing kids?" demanded Syngaard. Orion frowned in confusion; Syngaard's concern for missing children didn't seem like him at all. Maybe he was more...human than she'd given him credit for.

"I suggest we wait for Skevros to arrive," said Kaspar. "He may be able to shed light upon the matter. Perhaps even scry upon them."

"Well, what's taking him so damn long?" demanded Syngaard, starting to pace back and forth among the tables.

"Hey, Dow," said Galen suddenly. "Have you ever seen this tattoo before?" The homunculus was decades old; it was worth a shot.

"Shoo," said Dow. It took a moment for Galen to realize this was how she said "sure" in baby-talk.

"You have? Where?"

"Daddy has one," she replied innocently, pointing to the back of her neck. "Wight hewe." That was interesting, since Dow's "daddy" was none other than Skevros.

Daleth had been pondering something quietly by himself over in the corner for some time. Now he spoke up. "How exactly were each of you summoned here?" he asked. Each of the conscripts explained their respective summons, Orion and Galen adding what they'd been dreaming about when they'd been awakened.

"Did anyone specifically hear Skevros's voice?" asked the wizard. Nobody had.

"Then I don't think Skevros summoned us at all," Daleth reasoned. "It was no doubt the assassins, or someone associated with them. They wanted us to show up here, where they were already waiting in hiding. The obviously didn't know that most of us live directly upstairs - that would explain why we were told to meet here in an hour. Skevros wouldn't likely do that."

"Son of a bitch!" swore Galen. "We need to get in contact with Skevros immediately!" But although the king's adviser could contact the conscripts at will through their rings, they had no way to do likewise - not that that stopped Syngaard from trying. "Skevros!" he yelled into his iron ring. "Getcher scrawny butt over here, pronto!"

Orion turned to Dow. "We need to get in touch with Daddy," she said. "Do you know where he is?"

"He went in the magic dowe," the doll-homunculus replied, pointing to the door which led to the back room where caskets of ale and wine were stored. "When I open it, it's just a woom with dooty baywoows in it, but when Daddy opens the dowe, it's his magic house inside."

"I'm gonna check it out," decided Syngaard. The illusory bartender tried to block him, but the bald fighter couldn't be stopped by a simple unseen servant spell. Upon touching the doorknob, Syngaard's iron ring glowed faintly and the door opened - into an elaborate parlor. A family portrait hung on the far wall, depicting Skevros with a young woman and little girl, presumably his wife Jessica and daughter Sarah, now both long since dead. Nearby was a table filled with various alchemical equipment.

"Skevros!" roared Syngaard. "Get out here if you're in here!"

There was a commotion from one of the closed doors along the side walls, then Skevros opened it while pulling on and tying a robe, a scowl on his face. Behind him in the room beyond, Syngaard saw another "seen" unseen servant, this one bearing a strong resemblance to the woman in the family portrait.

The king's adviser looked less than happy at being awakened in the middle of the night and even less so being summoned by his own servants - who were trespassing in his own abode, of all things. But Syngaard quickly filled him in on the children who had been mysteriously taken from the Pelorian orphanage and his face softened at once.

"Do you have a means of finding them?" asked Daleth.

"I would recommend the osteovox," suggested Skevros. "Write your question and wrap it around the ink-quill."

After some consideration, the group decided on the following question:

"Where were the children from the Pelorian orphanage in Durnhill taken?"

The minutes spent waiting for the answer to arrive nearly killed Syngaard, whose patience was known for its short duration. But finally enough time had passed, and Galen fished the paper-wrapped quill-pen from the barrel of osteovox. Opening the paper, he read what was now written there:

"Taken by misguided hand,
Saved from imagined threat,
Through the Gates of Ashfall they have passed."

"Oh, great," moaned Syngaard. "We gotta go face that damned succubus again."

- - -

Logan originally wrote this adventure with a specific constraint in mind: I was traveling on a courier trip for work on the Wednesday we were scheduled to play through this adventure, and there was a distinct possibility that I wasn't going to get back home in time for the session's start. So he wrote a way for Syngaard to arrive late, by tying him to a "missing children" plot that was the seed for the adventure that would follow this one.

As events unfolded, I did arrive home late that Wednesday - so late, in fact, that I would have missed the entire adventure had we played that night; however, they had to cancel it because Joey was sick and Dan and Vicki didn't want to chance spreading any flu germs our way. The following week, Harry had just gotten over the flu himself (it had been hitting the kids in his school pretty hard) so we canceled that session as well. So when we did end up playing through this adventure, there was no longer any reason for Syngaard to have to show up late. But, reading through my "starting status" handout, it only made sense for him to show up much later than the others. So Logan had me roll a d10 to see how many rounds into the fight Syngaard would show up, and fortunately I rolled low so I didn't miss out on much of the action. It was my idea to have Syngaard enter the area screaming at the top of his lungs, because that's about the normal situational awareness he has and it seemed like something he'd do.

By the way, Logan prepared a player handout for when the other PCs opened the message that Melvik had delivered to the Enchanted Flagon. When Dan opened the folded up piece of paper, this is what he read:

Dear whoever reads this,

Congratulations - you just took 6d6 points of force damage (no save) while everyone within 10 feet of you gets a DC 16 Reflex save for half damage. Aren't explosive runes fun?

As far as Skevros's tattoo, he indeed has an hourglass with silver sand on the back of his neck, but he doesn't recall having gotten it - it likely happened during the "missing memory" time when he was evil, courtesy of the helm of opposite alignment. Just another little bit of mystery we'll have to figure out in the adventure sessions to come.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 3​
Galen Thorne, human paladin 5​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 5​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 5​
Syngaard, human fighter 5​

Game Session Date: 4 April 2018

- - -

"So what are we gonna do about the missing kids?" demanded Syngaard.

"What do you propose we do?" returned Skevros.

"I dunno - don'tcha got a spell or something that can tell us where they are?"

"Nothing prepared," admitted the king's adviser. "And it would take me a bit of preparation to ready the divination spells we'd need." Syngaard swore under his breath - just barely under his breath, although the others had no trouble discerning what kinds of comments they weren't actually hearing from the scarred fighter - about the uselessness of spellcasting if you had to wait around all damn day to get anything actually useful ready to go.

"I have a suggestion," prompted Daleth. "We have the tattoo we took from the half-orc assassin. We have a barrel of osteovox. Why don't we ask a question to the osteovox about the tattoo, to determine if the organization using the tattoo as their symbol is involved in the children's abduction?"

"That'll take, like an hour," complained Syngaard, eager to get after the missing children now.

"Indeed," agreed the elf. "We will write down the question, and then we can spend the time while we wait for the answer questioning the clerics at the Temple of Pelor." It was as good a plan as any; after a short discussion, Galen ended up writing down the following question on a scrap of parchment:

"What is the goal of the organization using this symbol?"

"Okay, let's go," said Syngaard as the parchment, wrapped tightly around the scrap of skin holding the tattoo, was lowered into the barrel of osteovox.

"What's your big hurry?" demanded Orion.

"I just wanna get to the bottom of this," Syngaard replied. "Stealin' kids - that ain't right." Orion shrugged; she was concerned with the welfare of the missing orphans as well - they all were - but it just seemed odd that their burly, scar-faced fighter had such a soft spot for children. It didn't fit his gruff - and often abusive - personality.

Father Rupert greeted the adventurers upon their arrival at the temple. Galen started in right away with questions and suggestions. "Have your clerics cast divinations to determine the location of the missing children?"

"Father Rayburn is leading that effort," Father Rupert replied. That spoke to how important this was to the temple; Father Rupert was the elderly head of the temple's orphanage, but Father Rayburn was the head of the entire temple itself. "We have yet to determine their actual location, save that they are somewhere in Ashfall."

"Yes, that's what the osteovox said, too," replied the paladin. "But Ashfall's a big place; we need to narrow down the search parameters."

But the elderly priest hadn't heard the rest of what Galen had to say. "What?" he demanded. "You're using osteovox? That--that's an evil mixture! Why would a paladin of Hieroneous have anything to do with such a vile substance?"

"Wait, what?" asked Syngaard. They'd used osteovox several times before in the past - it seemed harmless.

"I believe he's referring to its use when ingested," Daleth reminded the group. "Recall that we took the barrel of osteovox from a group that had used it to create a small horde of undead skeletons. I'm sure you recall the lumps of flesh we found there in the graveyard?"

"Wait--that was the skin from the skeletons?" Syngaard asked. He hadn't made the connection.

"Indeed it was."

"Well, in any case, we liberated the osteovox from its evil users and have been putting it into the service of good," Galen explained, trying to assuage the elderly priest's fears and get him back on track. "Now, what else can you tell us about the missing children?"

Father Rupert had plenty to explain. There were fifteen orphans in all, ranging from a few babies to several young teens. Quillbender's Traveling Faire had been in town yesterday, and some of the clerics had taken the older children to go visit it. Gifts had been handed out at the faire, with a few extras given to the clerics to pass on to the children who hadn't attended - stuffed bears and dogs, that sort of thing. All of the children who had attended the faire had returned with the clerics without incident. They had been fed and sent to bed like normal; everything was still okay at midnight when the night shift looked in on them. But at 3 bells, all of the children were missing from their beds.

"What about the gifts?" asked Kaspar. "The stuffed dogs and such. Were they missing as well?"

"Why, yes, I believe so," admitted the cleric. "Is that important?"

The two elves shared a thoughtful stare. "Very possibly," replied Daleth. "They might have been a means of teleporting the children away."

"That's messed up," Syngaard replied as Father Rayburn approached the group. "Our divinations cannot pierce the specific location of the children," the head cleric said, shaking his head sadly. "It's as if they've been shielded from our efforts. But when we asked if they were safe, we got the following response: 'Within a month they shall be safe. Beyond a month all hope is lost to eternity.'"

"So at least they're safe for now," Orion said, breathing a sigh of relief. "And we have a month to find them before they're in any real danger."

"A month? I ain't waitin' no damn month!" roared Syngaard.

"We will not," reassured Daleth. "It seems we've learned all we can from here at the moment. Perhaps we should return back home, to see if our...message has been answered." The elf didn't want to mention the osteovox in front of the head of the Temple of Pelor, given the reaction Father Rupert had to it. Nor did he want to mention Skevros by name, as the conscripts' service to the king via his adviser were state secrets, not to be shared even with the highest-ranking clerics in the kingdom.

"So, whaddawe got?" demanded Syngaard as the group returned to the Enchanted Flagon and Skevros's extradimensional quarters he kept within.

"We have an answer, but not one that sheds much light, I'm afraid." Reading from the parchment they had wrapped around the skinned tattoo, Skevros read:

"They seek to free me."

"Free you?" repeated Syngaard. "Free you from what?"

"Not me," Skevros patiently explained, passing over the scrap of parchment. "That's exactly what's written. The 'me,' one would assume, is the osteovox itself."

"So we have a group of people wearing this tipped-over hourglass tattoo - yourself included - likely from the Azure Glade, who want to free the osteovox from us?" reiterated Daleth.

"That don't make no sense," Syngaard complained. "Why the hell can't any of this magic stuff just talk plainly?"

"Such is the way of magic," answered Skevros. "Those of us who choose to explore the arcane arts seek to learn--"

"Wizards!" snorted Syngaard in disgust, cutting him off. "So what's the plan?" Significantly, he was looking at Galen when he asked his question, not Skevros - Galen might cast a spell here and there, but he mostly trusted in his blade; Syngaard could respect that much more than a guy with nose in a spellbook all the time.

Galen, however, was a paladin and as such had respect for the chain of command. He turned and looked at Skevros, seeking an answer from the man who was their direct superior.

"We know the children will be safe for the next month," Skevros reasoned. Before Syngaard could interrupt with an outraged lack of patience again, the king's adviser hastily added, "So I don't believe a few hours' delay will endanger them any. But I would recommend you all rest up so that the spellcasters among your ranks can prepare a full round of spells. After that, I can teleport you directly to Ashfall."

"And then what?" asked Orion.

"Then, I'm afraid," Skevros shrugged, "You'll have to do some old-fashioned searching of your own."

"A sound plan," agreed Daleth. "I will return to my room at once to begin my meditative trance." Galen stood up from the table and moved to follow the elf.

"What, you too?" demanded Syngaard. "Gotta get a nap in before we get to work?"

"Not a nap, no," replied Galen. "I shall retire to pray to Hieroneous, that He will replenish my spells and guide me as to which ones will be the most useful for our endeavors." The bald fighter just snorted in disgust and called for an ale, which the "seen" unseen servant brought over to him. It looked like it was going to be a long wait.

Sure enough, it was several hours before the group was ready to go to Ashfall - hours which Syngaard had whiled away by absently carving into the tabletop with his knife. "What?" he asked when Kaspar cast an incredulous eye upon his handiwork. "No harm done. Them wizards can mend it right back to new." He got up and walked over to the rest of the group just outside the tavern, Orion and Galen astride their respective mounts. Skevros cast the teleport spell upon them and they were instantly whisked away to the outer gates of Ashfall. Then, frowning, the king's adviser went back inside and walked over to the table that Syngaard had been defacing with his knife. He ran his fingers over the carved graffiti. As he might have expected, many of them were four-letter words, but intermixed with the various swear words were a couple that didn't make any sense - "JACE," "MEZZ" - and one that surprised him: "HOPE."

Shaking his head, Skevros gathered up the wood chips that had been brushed to the floor and sprinkled them onto the tabletop. Then, with the simple act of a mending spell, he restored the table to its original condition. "He's a strange individual," Skevros muttered to himself.

Outside Ashfall, the group headed for the open gates - where they got two surprises. The first was that the elderly men guarding the place (for the able-bodied men of Ashfall were still up in the Baator's Breath Mountains, fighting off the random devil invasions when the sporadic magical gates opened between the planes) had gotten an armor upgrade: their polished mail was quite evidently the same mithral that Galen, Syngaard, and Orion sported. It seemed the mines were still producing the valuable metal in abundance. But the second surprise was the reaction they received from the mithral-clad warriors.

"Behold!" one of them cried upon seeing the conscripts' arrival. "The Heroes of Ashfall return!"

"'Heroes of Ashfall?'" repeated Daleth. "Do they mean us?"

"All of us but you," sneered Syngaard. "While you were out poking about in libraries in the Azure Glade, we stopped a permanent devil invasion and secured a source of pretty much unlimited mithral."

"What brings you back to our kingdom?" prompted another of the guards.

"Business, alas," replied Galen. "We seek a group of missing children who might have been brought here."

"You guys got an orphanage up here, run by the Temple of Pelor?" asked Syngaard.

"Indeed we do," replied the head guard and gave the conscripts directions.

"I don't suppose that Quillbender's Faire has come by this way lately?" added Orion on a sudden impulse.

"Quillbender? You mean Dave Quillbender? He owns a scroll and potion shop, not a faire."

Despite the excitement about possibly finally meeting the "Dave" behind some of the recent incursions into Durnhill, Galen kept his face calm and impassive. "He may be able to assist us," the paladin said and the helpful guards provided directions to Dave's shop.

"I think we'll pay this Dave a visit first," suggested Galen, leading Seneca ahead in the direction to the scroll and potion shop. The shop's front door was flanked by two windows displaying some of the wares available inside. The windows each had a flower bed, inside of which sat what at first looked to be statues of little toads. But they started croaking upon the group's approach, revealing them to be living creatures, even if their gray-toned skin gave them the appearance of having been carved from stone. "Familiars, no doubt," opined Daleth, thinking it likely that this Dave, who owned a scroll and potion shop, was a wizard.

A good-looking young woman with striking red hair stood sorting items between two low shelves as the group approached; she smiled and waved them in. "Welcome," she said. "May I help you find something?" She looked to be all of sixteen summers.

"Good morning," replied Galen, all smiles and rugged good looks. He held out a hand to her, saying, "My name is Galen. Surely you aren't Dave?"

"No," the girl smiled back. "My name is Maria Quillbender. Dave is my grandfather. He's out back, but he should return shortly." Looking toward the rear of the shop, the conscripts could see a back door behind the counter. Syngaard immediately started heading toward it, but before he got there it opened up and in stepped an elderly, bearded man in the distinctive robes of a wizard. Daleth immediately recognized the robes by their color and style: they were those worn by the Abjurers in the Azure Glades.

"Stop flirting with the customers, Maria," admonished the wizard. She started grumbling to herself under her breath at that; to Daleth's elven ears, it sounded suspiciously like spellcasting. "Hey!" he started to say, as Dave Quillbender started a spell of his own. "Help!" called the elderly wizard. "Devils are trying to kill me!" And with that, he turned around and fled back out the rear door of his small shop.

The closest to the back door, Daleth sped in pursuit after the elderly wizard. As he passed through the door, a clump of dust fell down upon him; unseen by the elf, his appearance changed to other viewers: he now sported an impressive pair of horns from his head, a pointed tail snaked out from beneath the hem of his own robes, and his skin now looked to be a bright red. Of course, none of this was apparent to Daleth, who had not fallen sway to his own illusory appearance.

Inside the shop, Maria stepped over to Syngaard, pushing him between herself and the rest of the conscripts. "Keep me safe!" she pleaded to the bald fighter in a frightened voice, for just outside the front door the growling of a large canine could be heard. Looking through the still-open front door, the group could see a hell hound manifesting outside, between Seneca - who had been tied to a post outside the shop by his reins - and Orion, still astride Carl on the other side of the building's front side. The halfling whipped out her flaming short sword, readying herself to respond if the hellish beast made a move towards her or her mount.

Without pause, Galen rushed through the front door, the sword of Zehkar out and ready to fend off the forces of evil. The speed by which he burst through the door allowed him to avoid the falling dust of illusion that came sprinkling down behind him, but he didn't even notice - his full attention was on the hell hound snarling before him, wisps of flame streaming from its mouth. He sent his longsword striking at the fiendish beast in a sideways arc; the blade bit deep and the creature seemed to merely melt away into the shadows.

"An illusion?" sputtered the disappointed paladin.

Kaspar, in the meantime, had followed his fellow elf out the back door in pursuit of Dave. He was close enough to see Daleth's illusory "transformation" into a devil and was glad to see there was apparently only one such trap above the door, for he was not bothered in such a fashion. With his faster speed, he easily caught up to the fleeing elderly wizard and tried to grab him by the robes. But for such an old human, Dave was surprisingly lithe; he managed to wriggle away from the elf monk's grasping hands and continue his flight away from the shop.

Syngaard looked around in confusion at the excitement going on outside both exits to the small shop. Then, coming upon the most effective plan of action, he grabbed Maria and pulled her to the floor, shielding her with his body. "What are you doing?" demanded Maria.

"Keeping you safe!" explained Syngaard, fully under the effects of the charm person spell she'd cast upon him. On one level, he realized that he'd known the girl for only a few short minutes; on another, he realized that he trusted her implicitly. And no wonder: with her flowing red hair, her smooth skin, she bore an uncanny resemblance to Mezz - they could practically be cousins. Well, he wasn't going to let anything bad happen to her! "Stay down!" he urged, pushing her head back down to the floor and keeping a look out for these devils that were trying to kill her and her grandfather.

"Help! Help!" cried Dave, running down a side street by his shop. "Devils! Devils are loose in the town!" A few members of the city guard stepped into view, seeing old Dave Quillbender racing for his life, behind an elf monk and - more importantly - a red-skinned devil in a wizard's robes. Daleth, still unaware of his fiendish appearance, chose that moment to cast a scorching ray spell at Dave. He missed, but that didn't cast him into any better light in the eyes of the city guard, who raised their weapons in an effort to aid their citizen from this fiendish incursion into their kingdom.

Beneath the fighter's weight, Maria struggled to convince him to let her up. "It's your friends who are trying to kill me!" she tried, hoping to convince her new "bodyguard" to release her - from this pinned position, she couldn't cast any additional spells! "It's not safe!" insisted Syngaard, continuing to keep his precious charge safe from any potential threats - devils or his own friends, nobody was getting to Maria under his watch!

As Dave came rushing past, Orion swung Carl around and slapped at the wizard with the flat of her blade, aware that they wanted to take him alive, not dead. Seeing the approaching guardsmen with their weapons readied, she called out to them, "Stop him! He's kidnapped children from Durnhill!" Galen moved up and swung at the fleeing wizard with the flat of his longsword but missed. "We're just trying to subdue him for questioning!" the paladin urged.

Inside the shop, Syngaard was finally convinced they were safe as long as they remained inside, so he pulled Maria with him behind the counter and crouched low beside her. "We oughtta be safe here," he reassured the sorceress.

Kaspar raced up to Dave again and tried to grapple the fleeing wizard, again to no avail. Dave began spellcasting, and the conscripts each tried putting a stop to it with their various weapons - even Carl snapped at the wizard, and Galen channeled the power to smite evil through his enchanted blade - but none of it was of any use. Dave immediately exploded into four copies of himself, all of whom shuffled around in a dizzying display as they ran past the guardsmen.

The four elderly guards belatedly rushed into action. Three of them went to deal with the more immediate threat: the red-skinned devil loose in their city. Two longswords went slashing at the "devil" - and both of them struck Daleth, causing him to cry out in pain and surprise, for the elf had no idea why these men were attacking him. The third guard's crossbow bolt went whizzing past Daleth's head to shatter against the stone wall of a building behind him. The fourth guardsman, the one closest to the fleeing Daves, called out for him to stop. "It's the Heroes of Ashfall!" he explained. "They just want to ask you some questions!" None of the four Daves slowed his pace by an iota.

Daleth had a color spray ready and cast it at the three guardsmen attacking him, dropping the entire trio into unconsciousness. Then he followed the others - Kaspar, Galen, and Orion astride Carl - in pursuit of the fleeing wizard and his three mirror images.

Inside her grandfather's shop, Maria finally convinced Syngaard the best way to keep her safe was to escape the immediate vicinity of the building. "Your friend has a horse just outside," she argued. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind if we borrowed it."

Syngaard rolled the plan over in his spell-befuddled mind and could see no flaws in it. "Okay," he agreed, "good idea." He released his protective hold on Maria's shoulder, and she immediately went fleeing to the front of the shop and out the front door, speeding past Seneca as she ran for her freedom.

"Hey!" Wait up!" Syngaard called, barreling behind her. How was he supposed to keep her safe if she ran away from him?

"Keep attacking Dave!" Daleth called from the back of the pursuit force. "We need to bring down the mirror images!" While he didn't know the spell personally, the elf wizard knew the basics of how it worked: attacking an illusory double caused it to pop out of existence, like a soap bubble. Attack enough times, and eventually only the real Dave would remain. Orion spurred Carl forward and both halfling and riding dog attacked, but neither connected. Neither did Galen, when he swung his longsword at the nearest image. Ahead of them, all four Daves continued their flight unhindered.

Kaspar did manage to connect with a rapid-striking fist, but the version of Dave he hit was a mere image. Still, the monk's successful strike at least caused the first of the three mirror images to vanish, leaving only the wizard and two duplicates fleeing frantically down the street.

One block away, Syngaard caught up to Maria and slammed a meaty hand down upon her shoulder, putting an immediate halt to her forward motion and spinning her around to face him. "Are you crazy?" he snarled. "You can't go running away from me if I'm going to protect you!" She opened her mouth to try to persuade him to release her, but before she could get a word out he dragged her back towards the shop. "C'mon," he said, "The horse is this way!" Incredulously, Syngaard helped Maria up onto Seneca's broad back and then untied the reins from the post to her grandfather's shop and passed them up to her. He then walked back to Seneca's side, apparently expecting to climb up behind her. Instead, with a flick the reins, Maria brought the warhorse around and starting back down the street the way she'd been going before Syngaard stopped her. She was a sorceress, and she was willing to bet her spells could help her grandfather escape his enemies!

The three Daves spun around and each cast a similar spell at Galen; it was impossible to tell which one had really cast the spell and which two had just mirrored the motions, but the end result was the same, as the hold person spell stopped Galen in his tracks. However, Dave's brief halt allowed one of the guards to step forward and poke at a mirror image with the point of his sword, causing it to disappear. "You're resisting arrest!" scolded the guardsman.

From too far behind to catch up, Daleth saw there were now only two possible Daves down the street from him. Still, he could solve that problem easily, even at this distance! Casting a magic missile spell, the elf caused two bursts of energy to flash from his fingertips, each missile targeted against a different Dave. One groaned upon being struck, while the other simply popped from existence. After that, Daleth decided his best course of action was to return to Dave's shop and see if he could unearth anything there. Hopefully the others could subdue the elderly wizard on their own. He stopped a moment before the door, catching a glimpse of himself in the refection in the mirror, and realized why the guards had been attacking him - he looked like a devil! Well, there was probably a way to handle that inside the scroll and potion shop.

Orion finally connected with Dave, striking him with her flaming short sword. (She didn't bother striking him with the flat of her blade, either - that approach didn't seem to be working, and she was sure Galen could heal the wizard in time once they brought him down.) With an effort of will that brought sweat to his forehead, Galen willed himself free from the hold person spell and returned to his pursuit of the man likely behind the orphans' kidnapping. Kaspar struck out with a fist and connected solidly with the wizard, but the blow barely seemed to faze Dave - and then Kaspar started to wonder if the abjurer hadn't protected himself with a stoneskin spell. But then Dave struck the monk a surprise blow with his quarterstaff, and the elf found himself under the effects of a hold person just as Galen had been. Dave chuckled to himself in delight and started running away again.

The nearby guard called out for backup, and backup - in the form of a few more elderly men in gleaming mithral armor - came hobbling up. They closed on the fleeing wizard; Orion brought Carl around and dismounted in front of Dave, her magic short sword out and wreathed in flames. Dave was now literally surrounded by enemies with his back against the wall - the wall to a stable, it appeared. Galen joined the ring around the wizard and struck out with his sword of Zehkar at the man, whittling away at his stoneskin protection. Around the corner, Kaspar focused his mind and escaped the mental clutches of the hold person spell, then hopped a fence and approached the stable from the other side from where Dave was now pinned. Climbing the single-story structure was no problem for the nimble monk, and Kaspar found himself looking down at the surrounded mage from directly above him.

Fortunately for Syngaard, Maria was not an experienced rider and was unable to get Seneca to full speed before he caught up to them on foot. "You forgot me again!" he admonished, sure in his mind that the girl had simply overlooked waiting for him to join her in the saddle rather than it having been deliberate. He grabbed the side of Seneca's reins to bring the horse to a halt so he could climb up behind Maria; the sorceress swore to herself - how could this oaf continue to stop her from helping her grandfather while still being under her charm effect?

Dave looked frantically at the enemies around him and decided going through Orion was his best way out. He tried pushing past the little halfling, but Orion was having none of it; she might be small, but her flaming short sword could still hurt the elderly wizard, especially since the flames burned him just as much with his stoneskin spell up as without it. The old guardsmen slashed out with their blades and were surprisingly effective at bringing the stoneskin spell down. (In fact, it was somewhat embarrassing to see sixty-year-old men succeed so easily where the conscripts had thus far pretty much failed.)

Daleth had found a potion of disguise self and used it to disguise himself as his own true form, handily overcoming the illusory appearance of a horned devil. Then he ran outside and to the left of the shop, following Seneca's recent path. Sure enough, there was Syngaard struggling with Maria, who was already astride Seneca. The elf ran in pursuit.

From his vantage point on the stable's rooftop, Kaspar saw the commotion to his left and leapt off the building. He raced through the stable's pen and through its gate, popping out into the street directly in front of Seneca. The monk raised both hands in a warding-off position, keeping the warhorse from leaving. Maria cursed, finding herself with an elf monk before her, an elf wizard racing up behind her, and a no-longer-wanted bodyguard hindering her escape at her side. This was too much for a sixteen-year-old sorceress unused to combat; she raised her hands and surrendered peacefully, sure that her still-loyal bald idiot bodyguard would keep the others from doing her any harm...although now that she thought about it, none of them had tried to harm her in any way despite multiple opportunities. Maybe they were not the evil people her grandfather had warned her about?

Dave made a last-ditch effort to scale the stable wall and actually made it to the top. "Dang!" exclaimed Galen. "You're a spry old guy!" Dave cast an expeditious retreat spell upon himself in preparation of climbing down from the other side of the stable building and scrambling away - but then Orion brought him down with a thrown dagger. He stiffened as the blade dug between his shoulder blades, then toppled forward - but not, luckily for his sake, over the edge where he could have snapped his neck.

It took some time to lug the unconscious wizard down from the rooftop without harming him any further, but with the help of a ladder and some healing from Galen, Dave was brought back down and back to consciousness - but when he awoke, he saw he was back in his own shop, bound about the wrists with sturdy rope, and with the elf wizard looming over him. "Drink this," Daleth urged, tipping the vial to Dave's lips and pinching his nostrils shut to help force him to drink it down. With sudden concern, Dave realized he'd just been forced to imbibe one of his own vials of elixir of truth.

"Now then, some answers," demanded Galen and began the interrogation. Dave, his tongue loosened by his own magic elixir, spilled information freely. However, it became apparent that the elderly wizard actually believed he had been doing good all this time. In his mind, he was helping the poor orphans to escape from the dreaded Lich of Durnhill. He acknowledged that the hourglass symbol was the mark of the Seekers of Eternity and admitted he was himself trying to join their ranks; he was honestly surprised at the paladin's claims that the Seekers of Eternity were evil. He was also surprised that the conscripts hadn't killed him. He willingly stated his belief that the Lich of Durnhill had created the foul ritual that would have opened a permanent gate to Hell, allowing the devils who dwelt within that fiendish realm to come flowing forth into the world unhindered.

"We're the ones who defeated those cultists," the paladin explained. "Does it make sense that we would be behind the attempt in the first place?"

"No," admitted Dave. "It does not. It seems you're on the side of good, after all."

"So where are the kids you stole from Durnhill?" demanded Syngaard. Dave readily passed on the locations: the children had been split up among various churches of the good-aligned gods of Ashfall: Pelor, Hieroneous, Moradin, and Yondalla.

"We will need to borrow a wagon and a pair of strong horses to pull them," Galen said to one of the guardsmen who had been observing the interrogation. "We'll return them when we're done."

"Of course," replied the old guard, sending a young child to go fetch a wagon and horses from the stable owner.

In due course, the children of Durnhill were gathered up without any problems; two of the guardsmen had accompanied the conscripts to explain the situation to the clerics of the various churches. After all fifteen had been loaded onto the wagon, Galen led the way back south to Durnhill. Syngaard drove the wagon, keeping his scarred face pointed toward the road and hidden from the orphans behind his raised hood; he knew well his face would be scary to kids of those ages. Orion rode beside the wagon and allowed the older children to pet Carl as they ambled back to Durnhill at a slow walking pace, to allow the elves to walk beside and behind the wagon to ensure the children stayed secure.

Only when the wagon pulled up beside the Temple of Pelor in Durnhill and the children were brought back to the orphanage they called home, did Syngaard say a word. "You keep these kids safe now, you hear?" he snarled to Father Rupert. "That's your damn job!"

Father Rupert made no response; he was too pleased at seeing the children under his charge returned safely. He watched after them as the older children brought in the few small babies amongst their group and handed them over to the Pelorian clerics and acolytes. Without another word, Syngaard climbed back up into the wagon and spun the horses around, plodding back to Ashfall to return them as Galen had promised.

- - -

Logan used the Paizo Flip-Mat Classic "City Streets" as the part of Ashfall containing Dave Quillbender's scroll and potion shop. He then designed a "blueprint" map of the shop's interior, which he placed over the building on the map once we entered it.

Man, were the dice ever against us during this adventure! It shouldn't have taken us that long to take down a single 7th-level wizard, given that four of us were 5th-level! And Syngaard effectively got taken out of the fight with a single failed Will save - although ironically, he pretty much single-handedly kept Maria out of the fight just by "keeping her safe." I also got a bunch of surprised laughs from around the table when I had Syngaard lead Maria back to steal Galen's horse, but it seemed in character for him to do so. So the other players can give me a hard time for spending the whole adventure charmed, but I effectively took out one-half of our adversaries all by myself. (That's how I've chosen to look at it, anyhow.)

This also has to go down in history as the first adventure where we didn't kill anybody at all. Heck, Syngaard didn't even get to swing his weapon once!
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 3
Galen Thorne, human paladin 5
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 5
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 5
Syngaard, human fighter 5​

Game Session Date: 18 April 2018

- - -

"Thank you all for coming so promptly," Skevros said to the team as they entered the Enchanted Flagon and sat around their traditional round table. "A pint of mead!" called out Syngaard, and the "seen" unseen servant spell effect - which Galen had decided they should all start calling Karen - delivered the scarred fighter his drink.

"How 'bout you?" asked Syngaard with an uncharacteristic friendliness to Orion, who was still crawling up onto her chair. "You want a pint? I'm buying."

Orion looked distrustfully at Syngaard, well aware that the group was allowed food and drink from the otherwise closed tavern free of charge, and that Syngaard wasn't actually "buying" anything. Still, suspecting a trick of some sort, she declined. "No, thank you," she said, her eyes narrowed.

"Probably for the best," Syngaard agreed, ready to drop the joke he'd been setting up. "You're more of a half-pint type, anyway." The halfling just glared at him as he enjoyed his drink, inordinately pleased with himself. (Not that he would have had any idea what the word "inordinately" meant.)

"I have summoned you here to discuss the Black Journal," Skevros continued, ignoring the antics of his less mature employees. "I have read through it several times and this is what I have learned: while evil, under the effects of the magical helm, I joined the ranks of the Seekers of Eternity - those who wear the symbol of the overturned hourglass." Skevros had only recently learned that he bore a tattoo of such a symbol on the back of his neck. "It was while with that group that I accidentally destroyed one of only three remaining copies of a tome called 'The Curse of the Mithral Mage,' a book of great importance to the Seekers, during an osteovox ritual while trying to find that which the Seekers sought. As you might guess, that did not endear me to the leaders of that organization."

"I believe I have seen a copy of that book!" exclaimed Daleth. "Is that our next mission? To fetch the book from one of the libraries of the Azure Glade?"

"That will be a future mission, no doubt about it," agreed Skevros. "But something has come up of higher importance. However, before we get to that, I wish to let you know the rest of what I've learned about The Curse of the Mithral Mage. The question I asked of the osteovox was, 'Where is that which the Seekers seek?'"

"And the answer?" prompted Galen.

"'Amongst the dwarves who drown upon their burning greed'," answered Skevros. "Through other divinations, I have deduced this is a reference to the Dwarven Hell, which is guarded against teleportation magic, such that not even a normal gate spell could breach it intentionally. The best way to get there would be via the Baator's Breath Mountains, through one of the natural gates that open and close sporadically on their own."

"Why would anyone want to go to Dwarven Hell?" demanded Syngaard. "We're not going to Dwarven Hell, are we? I don't wanna go to no Dwarven Hell!"

"It would seem the wizard Dave's accusations that 'the Lich of Durnhill' created the ritual to open a permanent gate to the lower planes was correct after all," mused Skevros, ignoring Syngaard completely as he was caught up in his own thoughts, "although naturally, I was not a lich at that time, nor was I yet sentenced to Durnhill. However, before I provided the ritual to the Seekers of Eternity, I sabotaged it such that the user would be killed if he tried using it for vengeance against me for destroying the copy of the book. I gather that a relative of one of the Azure Glade's Council of Guilds performed the flawed ritual in an attempt to punish me for my carelessness and was slain as a result. My exile to Durnhill was a result of the Council trying to hide the scandal of one of their rulers - or a close relative, in any case - being involved in such an evil ritual."

"That's all well and good," replied Syngaard, who in truth hadn't been paying a whole lot of attention to anything Skevros had said after mentioning Dwarven Hell. "But we ain't going to Dwarven Hell, are we?" His voice was filled with trepidation - not that he could have identified what the word "trepidation" meant had his life depended upon it.

"Hmmm?" replied Skevros, being brought out of his own musings. "No, no, of course not - you won't be going to any of the various Hells. Not for this mission, in any case." Syngaard immediately relaxed, but then worried that Skevros's wording didn't negate the possibility of such a journey in later missions, only that this one wouldn't involve such a trip.

"So what exactly is this current mission?" asked Kaspar, eager to hear of their next assignment.

"King Renaldos of Ashfall has made a specific request for the 'Heroes of Ashfall' - it would seem that your secret status in our own kingdom has not prevented you from being elevated in the public eye in our neighbors to the north."

"This a paying job?" demanded Syngaard.

"Indeed it is," replied Skevros, having already anticipated the fighter's first question. "You will be paid 2,000 pieces of gold. Each," he added, anticipating the fighter's second question.

"And what task will we be performing for this reward?" pressed Kaspar.

"It seems some ancient ruins have suddenly appeared along the border between Ashfall and the Azure Glade, and each kingdom considers them to be on their own land. Ashfall has determined the ruins predate the breaches in the Baator's Breath Mountains and wants to see if there is any information regarding how they were formed, or better yet how to close them permanently. The Azure Glade, on the other hand, wishes to plunder any magical knowledge within and keep it for themselves."

"That don't make no sense," complained Syngaard. "How do ancient ruins just show up outta nowhere?"

"I'd think the two kingdoms would know where their border ends and their neighbor's begins," added Orion.

"As for your question," Skevros replied, facing Syngaard, "I have no idea, although several possibilities suggest themselves." Turning to Orion, he said, "As for yours, though, the reason is because while Ashfall has a discrete boundary, the Azure Glade claims as its border the edge of the mutated blue flora. Over the years, the 'blue border' has slowly expanded, encroaching into what Ashfall claims as their own lands."

Skevros accepted a glass of red wine from "Karen," although none of the heroes had heard him ask the "seen" unseen servant spell effect for a drink. Taking a sip, he added, "So far, King Renaldos has been able to keep either side from entering the ruins through political pull, although he realizes it's only a matter of time before the Azure Glade wizards just use magic to take everything within. Therefore, he's decided he needs a third party, specifically one of adventurers unaffiliated - at least officially - with either country in the dispute, to loot the ruins first and then discretely pass everything on to Ashfall at a later, less politically active time. And that is where you come in."

"So 'The Heroes of Ashfall' are unaffiliated with either country?" asked Galen, skeptically.

Skevros smirked into his wineglass. "Technically, the term is used only among the citizens of Ashfall - the Azure Glade has no idea of your...nomenclature among the people to the north of us. Syngaard frowned at that as he tried to figure out what "nomenclature" might mean.

"So your mission is basically this: go to the ruins, check them out, and plunder them of all they're worth. Leave nothing of any potential value behind, and do this without getting caught by the forces of the Azure Glade, who may be sending a team of their own to do something quite similar, for all we know."

"That's my kinda plan!" Syngaard enthused.

"There's a good possibility that there might be carvings or paintings or runes on the walls of the ruins that cannot easily be transported," Skevros continued. "We will want those copied. Therefore, I will send this along with you on your mission." From beneath the table he produced a small wooden crate. It was filled with a series of small canvases, 10 inches to a side, and a foldable easel, along with basic painting supplies.

"You want us to sneak in - and then do paintings of the place?" asked Orion incredulously.

"By no means," replied Skevros. "Your talents lie in other directions. I will provide an artist to deal with the replication of any important runes or glyphs." With that, he steered the doll-sized homonculus he had made decades ago as a playmate for his now-deceased daughter over to join the heroes. "Keep Dow safe," he said, pushing the crate across the table to the group. Syngaard groaned at the thought of the damn animated doll-thing joining them on their missions.

"I assume you will teleport us to the location of the tomb?" asked Kaspar.

"Very close by," corrected Skevros. "The wizards of the Council will know immediately if you teleport inside the borders of their kingdom, and the ruins are within the expanded territory of their country."

"We shall need a means of rapid departure," suggested Galen. "If we will be exploring ruins, I shall not be taking my warhorse along."

"I'm bringing Carl," piped up Orion.

"Already thought of," replied Skevros, handing a scroll to Daleth. "Here is a scroll containing four mount spells. Cast them once you're ready to return - they should last for the duration of the ride back to Durnhill."

Galen looked to the others among the group. "I believe we're ready," he explained, while Orion scampered out of the tavern to fetch her riding dog. Once mounted on Carl and back among the others, Skevros cast his spell and the group was transported across the miles to an open field. Looking around, Syngaard pointed out "Blue trees are this way" and headed towards them. Sure enough, there was a small clump of ancient-looking ruins just over a short rise, where the green grass beneath their feet slowly changed to a more bluish hue.

Upon reaching the ruins, the group saw it was little more than the remains of a single building, a platform some 5 feet high accessible by a set of stairs. Most of the two side walls were still more or less intact, but the front and back walls were missing altogether and if there had ever been a roof it was no longer in place. What was in place, though, were dozens of faded runes along the entire outside of the structure. Dow dutifully opened the chest of art supplies and began documenting their design on the canvases, while Daleth identified them as belonging to the schools of abjuration and illusion. "The runes likely kept these ruins shielded from detection via a hallucinatory terrain spell or the like," he mused aloud. "I would imagine over time the runes began to fail, leaving the ruins no longer disguised, until eventually they just seemed to pop into view."

Daleth gave some further thought on the situation. "I have a see invisibility spell prepared," he offered. "Shall I cast it?"

"How long will it last?" asked Galen.

"Perhaps half an hour or so," replied the elven wizard.

"Not just yet, then," recommended Galen. "Best to save it for when we'd expect to run into something invisible, like down in whatever ruins are below this structure." The paladin found it hard to believe the "ruins" they'd been sent to plunder was one decrepit-looking old building.

"Let's go see what's up top," declared Syngaard, not wanting to wait around while that creepy-ass homonculus painted her stupid little runes. Bounding up the stairs, he saw the floor opened into a 10-foot-wide pit smack-dab in the middle of the structure. "Now that's more like it!" he started to say. However, all he got out was "That's mo--" before a set of invisible claws went raking across his chest and a set of invisible fangs clamped down on his shoulder.

Syngaard staggered back, but fortunately his mithral breastplate took the brunt of the damage. Regaining his footing, he brought his morningstar up as a shimmering form coalesced directly in front of him. It gave an ursine growl as it came into focus, and the bald fighter got his very first up-close look at an owlbear.

This was no ordinary owlbear, however - at least, Syngaard had never heard of one that could become invisible. But that was likely explained by the bluish runes covering its feathers and fur, which no doubt had kept the guard-beast invisible until it attacked. Syngaard retaliated against the beast with a slam of his morningstar that sent shards of its skull piercing its left eye. The owlbear howled in pain as the fighter made a tactical retreat back down the stairs. "I found a lair guardian!" he announced to his compatriots.

The owlbear followed the bald fighter down the stairs and regained his two-footed stance at the bottom, striking out at Syngaard with the claws of a massive paw. Orion threw a dagger into the beast's flank, drawing its attention away from Galen as he charged the beast with his longsword drawn. His blade stabbed deep into the beast's hide, just as a pair of scorching rays went sizzling through the air to burn a patch of fur from the owlbear. It turned to face Daleth, only to have Kaspar run up from the other side and send a hardened fist crashing down into the back of its feathered neck, electricity coursing through his tenryutsume and into the crazed watch-beast. Attacked from all sides, the creature couldn't avoid Syngaard's follow-on strike with his morningstar, bringing it crashing down on the hapless beast's skull. It fell to the ground with a whoomph of expelled air from its lungs and died there at the foot of the stairs.

Over on the side of the building, Dow continued on with her rune-painting, ignoring the frantic fight that had been going on just around the corner from her.

"So, what about now?" asked Daleth dryly. "Do you think a see invisibility spell might come in handy?"

"Do as you think best," replied Galen, no longer wanting to give specific advice if Fate was just going to immediately prove him wrong again. The elf cast the spell and looked all about him. "It looks like there was just the one," he said to the others. Then, looking closer at the runes painted upon the slain beast's fur and feathers, he said, "It looks as if these not only kept the owlbear invisible until it was ready to attack, but also limited its actions - keeping it in place as a guard-beast instead of wandering off in search of food, for instance."

"The Azure Glade wizards?" asked Orion.

"That would be my best guess, yes."

Syngaard in the meantime had gone back topside and was peering down the pit. It was 10 feet to a side and looked to be about 20 feet deep. "We got more runes down there," he announced. "Looks like a tunnel, too, down at the bottom."

"Then I was wise not to have brought Seneca," replied Galen. He looked over at Orion. "What about Carl? Do you want to leave him here while we go down and explore?"

"That wouldn't be my first choice, no. Couldn't we harness a rope or something around him? He's not any heavier than any of you armor-clad humans. I'll bet we could lift him down." Galen unpacked a length of rope and Orion helped him tie it around Carl. Daleth, in the meantime, was looking down at the runes carved on the floor of the shaft. "I would hazard a guess that they have a levitation effect," he reasoned. "Probably activated by command word, though. And if they're as old as the runes shielding this whole place, they could fail at any minute."

"Unless they activate automatically," reasoned Syngaard. "Hey, Orion, do us a favor and jump into the pit - see if you float down." The halfling just gave him her best glare; she wasn't going to even dignify his ridiculousness with an answer.

"Gimme a hand with this, then," Syngaard said to Kaspar and Galen, walking over to the dead owlbear. Its dead weight was far too much for them to lift, but they managed to roll it up the steps and over to the edge of the pit. "In you go!" cried Syngaard, kicking it over the edge of the pit with his foot. It fell straight to the bottom, landing with a wet thud.

Galen tied an end of another rope to one of the stone columns on a side wall of the ruins and threw the loose end into the pit, then climbed down. At the bottom he saw a dim, purplish-blue light from some sort of magical effect at the far end of a long passageway. Silhouetted by the light was a skeletal figure, with two more of them nearby, one on each side of the central figure. None of them seemed to move. "It looks safe!" the paladin called to the others.

Syngaard and the elves lowered Carl down next, and then Orion scooted down the rope as easy as you please. The others followed, one at a time, as the halfling untied Carl so he could move freely in these catacombs. Galen made to explore the hallway when Daleth grabbed him by the arm. "Hold up," warned the elf, squinting down the corridor.

"Something invisible?" Syngaard asked, dismounting from the rope and standing on the dead owlbear's corpse. "I don't see nothing," he added, oblivious to the stupidity of his observation that he didn't see anything that might be invisible.

"There's a sort of...shimmering," Daleth replied. "Like a heat wave. About twenty feet down." Forewarned, everyone cast their attention down the corridor, looking for something they couldn't see.

"I see it!" replied Galen. "Kind of a wobbling in the air."

"It could very well be a gelatinous cube," suggested Kaspar, reaching into his robes for a pair of throwing stars. Flinging them as hard as he could down the hallway, he heard a splortch as they struck and seemed to float in the air, bobbing slightly as they slowly approached. "Gelatinous cube," the elf monk asserted.

"Well, that ain't good!" Syngaard reasoned. "We ain't got no way outta here but up this rope!" Sure enough, the corridor was 10 feet wide with an equal height, the same size as the nearly-invisible creature crawling their way.

"Then let's kill it, quick!" reasoned Orion, flinging a dagger into the transparent ooze. It too splortched its way into the creature's gelatinous body and seemed to float closer to the group. Syngaard did likewise with his magical javelin; the ranged weapon went sinking deep into the creature, got itself covered in acidic ooze and paralyzing slime - and then went teleporting right back into the fighter's hand. Acid burned the fighter's palm and he cried out in pain, but fortunately he was able to fight off the paralytic effects.

Realizing the need for speed, Daleth brought up his metamagic rod of lesser empowerment and channeled a magic missile spell through it, increasing its effectiveness as the missiles crashed into the cube's quivering body. Galen, unwilling to subject his sword of Zehkar to the creature's acid, instead drew his bow and shot an arrow into the gelatinous cube. The beast's acid started dissolving the wooden arrow at once.

"It's getting closer!" called Orion from atop Carl as the dog tried backing up but ran into a dead owlbear instead. With further splurtching sounds, the halfling and the riding dog were both engulfed by the advancing ooze. Kaspar would have shared their fate had he not hopped up onto the dead owlbear alongside Syngaard. But Orion at least had the presence of mind to unsheath her flaming short sword and stab deep into the beast's interior before the paralytic fluids prevented her from moving; she might not be able to wave her sword around after that but at least the flames would continue to burn the beast from the inside!

"Well, we gave it our best shot," observed Syngaard as Kaspar threw another pair of electrified shuriken into the cube - far enough away from Orion that he had no danger of accidentally hitting the engulfed halfling. The elf then glared at the scarred fighter, already holding the rope in his left hand as if ready to scurry up the shaft to freedom and leave their halfling companion to her fate.

"Or I guess we could save the stupid little runt," he said, kicking off the wall and swinging the rope over to the gelatinous cube, where he could reach it with his morningstar. Unfortunately, he kicked a little too hard and his momentum not only brought him close enough to bring his weapon to bear but actually plunge into the cube himself. That certainly hadn't been the plan! As it turned out, though, the gelatinous cube had been almost slain by the various attacks by that time, and the blow of the magical morningstar was all it took to overcome the ooze's remaining cohesiveness. Its body discorporated into a fluid mess as it died, leaking along the floor and releasing its engulfed meals. Carl and Orion collapsed unmoving to the floor, but it was only their continued paralysis, not death, that kept them from moving. At Galen's insistence, they waited until Orion and Carl had regained movement before exploring further down the corridor, since the skeletal figures didn't seem to be paying them any attention.

Galen also shot down Syngaard's suggestion that Dow send down one of her paintbrushes so he could paint Orion's face up like a clown while she was paralyzed and helpless. "Killjoy," muttered Syngaard.

Once Orion regained mobility, her first action was to punch Syngaard in the side. "Idiot!" she hissed. "I may have been paralyzed, but I wasn't deaf!"

"That's a strange way of thanking me for saving your life!" Syngaard responded. Orion only scowled harder at him, angrier than ever that she did in fact owe her life to this oaf.

Galen strolled down the corridor, attuning his senses to pick up auras of evil as he had been taught in his temple. "The three skeletons are evil," he announced to the others, who hadn't been trained in such methods themselves. As they got closer, they could see the skeletons weren't made of bone, but rather a bright metal. "Mithral," identified Kaspar as they got closer. At that range, they could also see the two skeletons on the side were each standing before a closed set of doors. Each door was also flanked by a pair of mithral statues - not of skeletons, but of human figures screaming as if in pain.

"That's disturbing," Syngaard observed. "You don't think there's some sort of medusa or something down here that turns people into mithral instead of stone, do you?"

"That seems unlikely," sniffed Daleth. "Preposterous, even."

"As preposterous as turning flesh into stone?" argued Syngaard. "'Cause the two don't seem that far apart to me." He grabbed up his javelin of returning - cleaned with a rag of all gelatinous cube slime during the wait for Orion to regain mobility - and flung it at the mithral skeleton directly in front of the bluish-purple glow that lit the whole area. "Let's see if this wakes these buggers up."

It did. The javelin struck the skeleton's breastbone with a metallic clang, fell to the floor, and then teleported back to the fighter's hand. The skeleton, and both of its companions, all swung their heads to stare at the bald fighter with sightless eye-holes, and then as one scrambled to the attack, raking with their claws. Daleth blasted the middle one with another magic missile spell amplified through his metamagic rod.

Syngaard managed to deflect most of the incoming claws with his morningstar, but one lucky blow ripped through a place where two plates of armor met. He grunted in pain but fought on. Galen charged the one Syngaard had hit with his javelin, collapsing it into a pile of hollow bones by the sound of it as the undead creature fell apart from the touch of the sword of Zehkar. Galen sensed both the holy and undead bane properties of his longsword had just been put to good use.

Kaspar now had a way past the line of skeletons with one of their number down, so he dodged past the one who had been in the middle to flank it with Syngaard. Alas, his successful dodge prevented him from connecting with his own attack, but it didn't end up mattering much - Syngaard's blow with his magical morningstar brought the creature down, and then he spun and cleaved the last remaining one, smacking it in the ribs just as Orion flung another of her throwing daggers at it, only to have it bounce off without much effect. Daleth, out of combat spells for the day, decided to fall back and let Galen handle the sole remaining undead. This he did with his usual aplomb, bringing it handily down with the sword of Zehkar.

With combat done, Daleth stepped up to the bluish-purple glow and gave it an intense look; Syngaard stepped up beside the elf and glared at it as well. The wizard put out his hand and touched it; Syngaard opted not to mirror the elf's actions to quite that extent - there was obviously magic at play here, and you never knew what magic was going to do. "I believe this is a wall of force," Daleth decided. "Two, in fact - a blue one, and a purple one behind it."

Orion, in the meantime, was examining one of the sets of double doors for traps and found none. Syngaard walked up to one of the petrified statues, checking them over for armor and weapons - if they came to life like the skeletons did, he wanted to know what they'd be up against. But these didn't look like any kind of warrior at all; they wore the clothes of a commoner and none seemed to be wielding any weapons. But each seemed to be carved from a solid block of mithral, although to an intricate level of detail. "Betcha anything it's a mithral medusa," he repeated, if only to himself. He gave one an experimental tap; it sounded hollow, like the bones of the mithral skeletons had been.

Orion had moved across the hall to the other set of double doors and announced them free of traps as well. She then opened the doors, revealing a small room inside with a desk and a chair made of bones. A ring of glowing runes ran along the perimeter of the room. "Hey," declared Galen upon spotting the room's content. "This looks familiar!" It was, too - it was almost an identical replica of one of the rooms they had found in the Tomb of Zehkar, where Galen had found his longsword.

"Betcha that chair turns into a skeleton and attacks," said Syngaard, boldly stepping into the room with his morningstar raised for action. Sure enough, the human bones making up the chair reconfigured into a skeletal form - but were shattered to fragments by Syngaard's weapon. "Toldja," he said smugly.

There were notes written upon sheets of crumbling parchment upon the desk in a language Daleth recognized as Draconic. They detailed the failed attempts to infuse living creatures with the immortal properties of mithral. Instead it turned the outer layer of flesh to mithral in a process that, if it didn't kill them outright, left them to suffocate painfully while trapped within their new mithral shell. That use of the ritual was deemed a failure, although it could be used successfully upon skeletal undead to increase their defensive capabilities.

Stowing the notes carefully into his pack, Daleth noted a few letters scratched into the top of the wooden desk: S, A, G, A, and S. "Sagas," he said aloud.

"What's that?" demanded Syngaard. "A command word? To what? Wait! The shaft!" Excited, the bald fighter raced back down the corridor to the shaft to the surface. Standing beside the dead owlbear, he called out "Sagas!" and fully expected to see the owlbear's corpse start to rise up the shaft. Nothing happened. Syngaard stepped into the shaft himself and repeated it, thinking maybe you had to be into position on the runes for them to work. Still nothing happened. Dejected, he walked back to the others. "Nothin'," he reported.

"Perhaps it animates these statues," surmised Galen. He walked up to one and called out, "Sagas!" - to no result. "Maybe you have to say the word backwards," Syngaard suggested, and smirked as Galen visualized the word, spelled it backwards - and ended right back with "Sagas." But he decided to try it on each of the statues, and when he said it while close to the blue wall of force it snapped out of existence. Unfortunately, the purple wall of force was still in place, and another room could be dimly seen behind it.

"Let's check out the other set of double doors," suggested Kaspar. The room beyond was a library of sorts, with large rows of books entirely encompassing the side walls. Daleth raced into the room after seeing the rows filled with books, tomes, and scrolls. He saw Draconic titles along some of the spines, whereas Orion recognized many of the books were written using Dwarven script. The rest were deemed to be in some archaic form of the Common tongue. Most of the Draconic books were likely spellbooks or treatises on magical properties, whereas the Dwarven writings seemed to be focused on the various properties of mithral. "Somebody had a mithral obsession." commented Galen. But Daleth had opened his bag of holding and was grabbing books and scrolls off the shelves and tossing them inside. "Help me clear this place out," he asked the others.

Once the last bit of written material had been safely ensconced within Daleth's bag of holding, the elf noted a few more letters carved into the wall between the shelves - they'd been hidden when the books were still in place. "A, H, E, N," the elf recited.

Galen didn't need to be told twice. He walked over to the purple wall of force and recited "Ahen." The wall blinked out of existence, just as the first one had done - only this time, it blanketed the entire area in complete darkness, save for the slight trickle of sunlight emanating from the entry shaft at the far end of the underground corridor. There was a quick scramble to activate sunrods and torches, so they could see what they were doing.

The room beyond the deactivated walls of force had a permanent magic circle of some sort carved into the floor. "Don't break the circle," advised Daleth, but the others didn't need any prompting on that front. But behind the circle was a square, raised platform, and upon that platform stood the lower half of a statue.

Daleth bent to examine the runes around the magic circle. "It has a transmutation effect," he announced. "I believe this is where the people, and the skeletons, were infused with their outer shell of mithral!"

But Galen wasn't paying any attention to the elf wizard. Instead, he was transfixed upon the lower half of the statue in the back of the room. With his longsword in hand, he walked closer to the lump of metal, his senses nearly overwhelmed by an overpowering sense of sadness.

"What is it?" Kaspar asked the paladin, noticing Galen's slumped posture.

"It's my sword," Galen whispered. "It's telling me...that's what's left of its original body."

The elf looked at the statue, a mithral carving of a man in armor from the waist down. "You mean," he asked, "...that's Zehkar?"

"It was, yes," said Galen. The two approached the lump of metal with reverence. Unlike the hollow statues beside the doors, this was a solid chunk of the bright metal, although it did look partially melted along the top.

"What do you think happened?" asked Kaspar.

"I'm not sure," admitted Galen.

"Hey, you elves!" called Syngaard, breaking the mood of reverence. "We're all out of rooms to loot! Whynchoo give the whole place a quick look-see, see if there aren't any secret doors in the place we might have missed." Kaspar and Daleth complied with the request, finding nothing. "That appears to be it," they reported back.

"One last thing," said Galen, pulling out his own bag of holding and opening it. He then flipped the open end over the top of the melted statue of what was once Zehkar's body.

"Are you sure that's appropriate?" asked Kaspar.

"The spirit of Zehkar rests in my sword," replied Galen. "This is nothing more than mithral - and a valuable chunk of it at that. It will serve the kingdom well." The paladin's certainty was unquestionable - for he had the sword of Zehkar at hand to let him know otherwise, and it stood silent in his mind. Seeing the logic, the others each gathered up the mithral-coated bones of the skeletons and the four mithral-covered "statues" of experimental test subjects who had met their end in the magic circle. All went into the group's various extradimensional bags, along with the contents of the library and the notes from atop the desk.

"You about done here?" Galen asked Dow after they one by one climbed back up the rope to the surface of the ruins. Orion was the last to climb up, as she stayed behind to help refasten the rope around Carl so the men could lug him up the shaft.

"This is our perfect opportunity," pointed out Syngaard as Daleth untied the rope from Carl. "She won't get back up on her own without the rope." Daleth just glared at Syngaard, unsure of whether or not he was kidding. "Just sayin'," Syngaard said. Daleth's only response was to toss the rope down to Orion after Carl had been untied from the impromptu harness. The halfling skittered up the rope like she was born to it. Galen oversaw the packing up of the painted canvases back into the small crate as Daleth used the scroll with the mount spells Skevros had given him to summon a quartet of magical horses. And then the heroes were off, turning their riding mounts south back to the kingdom of Durnhill.

- - -

Logan used a couple of map tiles from the "Ruins" GameMastery Map Pack for the ruins, and several Dungeon Tiles for the underground section of the dungeon. He purposely reused several of the same tiles as the ones he had used in our second adventure, to thematically tie the two dungeons together.

And, or course, Joey got a valuable lesson in trusting his own instincts instead of listening to the other players; he was all set to have Daleth cast the see invisibility spell that would have let him know beforehand there was an invisible owlbear guarding the ruins, but we all talked him out of it. (Shows you what we know!) But Daleth leveled up as a result of this adventure, so now he'll be just one level behind the rest of us (although that won't last for more than one adventure, as Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard are all pretty close to 6th level by now).
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 5​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 5​
Syngaard, human fighter 5​

Game Session Date: 9 May 2018

- - -

Arriving at the Enchanted Flagon after a typical summoning via the iron rings all of the conscripts wore, Syngaard noticed there was a horse and wagon parked outside the closed tavern. Galen's warhorse Seneca was tied up at the hitching post, but Orion's riding dog Carl was conspicuously absent. Odd, thought the fighter, given that the halfling's quarters were directly above the tavern. Syngaard usually had to travel across half the city to get to the conscripts' meeting place, whereas everybody else just had to head downstairs.

Walking into the tavern, Syngaard noticed the new face right away. She was a young woman, likely having seen twenty summers, wearing traveling garb. His scarred face broke into what passed for a smile - although it often looked more like a painful grimace - as the fighter headed to the seat next to her at the table. Galen and Kaspar were already seated there and Skevros stood beside them; Orion and Daleth were nowhere to be seen.

"Ah, you're all here," began Skevros as Syngaard took his seat. "I'd like to introduce you to Anuja. She will be taking you by wagon to the Azure Glade, the site of your next mission."

"Back there again?" asked Galen. "To what end?"

"Anuja will take you to the Guilded City - that's with a 'u', as the founders were rather fond of their little puns - specifically, to the Diviners Guild Library there, where you will obtain one of the last remaining copies of 'The Curse of the Mithral Mage.'"

"Wait a minute," sputtered Syngaard. "I got a couple of questions about this."

"Of course you do," replied Skevros with a sigh.

"First of all: we okay talkin' about all this in front of her?" Syngaard pointed a meaty thumb towards Anuja, who looked on expressionlessly.

"Anuja has my complete trust; we can talk freely." Syngaard looked over to Galen, who nodded his head slightly; the paladin had already examined her aura for the scourge of evil and found it unblemished.

"Okay, then, if we're going on a mission to go steal a book from some library, wouldn't it make sense to bring the halfling along with us?"

Skevros smiled at that question. "Why, Syngaard," he teased, "am I actually hearing you wishing for Miss Nightsky's presence? I do believe that may be a first. But no, I have assigned Daleth and Orion to other duties. Why? Do you doubt your ability to simply steal a book from a library without Orion's assistance?"

"What? No--course not. Just seemed weird not bringing the thief along on a thievin' mission, that's all."

"I have full confidence in your abilities," Skevros assured the bald fighter, pulling a blank tome from a satchel at his side. "This is the--" he began, before Syngaard interrupted him.

"I got another ques--" the fighter began, before being interrupted right back by the king's adviser. "Yes, it's a paying job; 1,000 pieces of gold; yes, that's each. Was that it?" Skevros raised his eyebrows in query; Syngaard raised both hands in a "that's it" gesture and allowed their leader to continue on uninterrupted.

"This is the ruined copy of 'The Curse of the Mithral Mage' I was experimenting upon during my 'lost' years," Skevros continued. "I submerged it into osteovox in an attempt to learn more about it; unfortunately, the procedure removed all writing from the tome, inside and out. It is now completely useless."

"Perhaps not completely," observed Kaspar. "If it is the same size and shape of the copy we are to obtain, we could leave it in place of the good copy and perhaps delay the discovery of its theft."

"A good idea," agreed Skevros, passing the blank tome over to the elf. He then pulled a small piece of parchment from his satchel. "This is the address of the library you will be entering. It is open to the public, so you will not necessarily stand out merely by your presence. However, only members of the Guild of Diviners are allowed to remove books from the premises. And I have no way of telling exactly where in the library the book might be located."

"Is there a way to tell who's a Diviner?" asked Galen.

"By the color of their robes," replied Skevros. "The Council of Guilds members wear robes depicting their specialty: Abjuration is orange; Conjuration, green; Divination, white; Enchantment, purple; Evocation, dark blue; Illusion, yellow; Necromancy, black of course; and Transmutation, red." He noted the group staring at his own red robes. "Yes, I was a member of the Council of Transmuters before I was banished from the Azure Glade," he admitted.

"We supposed to remember all that?" asked Syngaard.

"I anticipated your question," smirked Skevros, passing along a sheet of parchment containing the names of the various guilds and their respective colors to the fighter. Syngaard frowned at all of the long words before folding the sheet up and stashing it in a belt pouch.

"That should do it," announced Skevros, indicating the group was released. "Return here immediately once you have secured the book."

Departing the tavern, Galen asked Anuja if she wished to borrow his bow and arrows for the trip, seeing she carried no weapons but a simple handaxe at her hip. "I'm just paid to drive the wagon," she replied. "I'll leave any fighting to you guys." Kaspar and Syngaard piled into the back of the wagon as Galen mounted Seneca, and the group headed onto the eastern road to the Azure Glade.

"I don't like this," grumbled Syngaard.

"What?" asked Kaspar, a slight smile upon his lips. "Having to go to a library?"

"Nah," snorted Syngaard, oblivious to the slight. "I don't mind stealin' from a library. I just don't like the idea of bein' sent to steal somethin' from wizards, especially not wizards who specialize in seein' the future. This whole mission seems doomed from the start."

"That's...a rather good point," admitted Kaspar, frowning. "But there's no reason for them to suspect that we might be coming to steal their tome. There's every possibility that we'll be in and out with the book before they even know we're coming."

"Still, I wish we'd have brought the halfling with us."

"Really?" asked Kaspar, surprised.

"Sure," admitted Syngaard. "Anything goes bust on this mission and she's the obvious suspect. While they're busy grabbing her, the rest of us can make a break for it with the book." The elf's frown returned at this remark.

The first day of travel was uneventful. Anuja was not a talkative sort, content just to do her job and keep the horse and wagon aimed east. When they stopped in the early evening to set up camp for the night along the side of the road, she put her own tent up with no difficulties while Syngaard and Galen struggled to figure out the construction of the larger tent the three men would be sharing. But trial and error eventually won out and the two men congratulated themselves on a job well (if not quickly) done. By then, Anuja and Kaspar had a campfire blazing nicely and the wagon driver had a pot of stew cooking for their evening meal.

"We should establish a watch for the night," suggested Galen. "I'll take the first shift."

"I'll take the last," volunteered Kaspar. "I don't mind rising early."

"Fine," grumbled Syngaard. "I'll take mid-shift, then." That was arguably the worst shift, since you only got two smaller chunks of sleep instead of one uninterrupted block. But after dinner had been finished and the utensils cleaned in a nearby brook, the rest of the group retired to their respective tents while Galen made sure the horses were okay and then assumed his vigil over the camp.

All was quiet for several hours. But when the moon's position indicated it was close to time to wake up Syngaard and let him start the next watch shift, a whiff of scent caught the paladin's attention. It seemed to be coming from further down the road to the east, and Galen wasn't the only one to notice it: Seneca was skittish, shuffling his feet back and forth nervously.

Galen looked down the road and saw nothing. But then he noticed a group of figures off to the side of the road, shambling slowly in his direction. In the moonlight, it looked like goblins - or rather, on second glance, slain goblins reanimated as zombies! And at the back of the small herd stood a taller figure, an orc or possibly hobgoblin. As they approached the camp, their low moans became audible to the paladin.

They became audible to Kaspar as well, sitting upright with his knees crossed, deep in his nightly reverie. His eyes snapped open and he stood upright in one smooth motion, sliding silently through the tent flap to see what was going on. His elven eyes caught sight of the undead horde heading their way, and without any thought towards waking Syngaard the elven monk slipped forward to meet the slow-moving zombies.

Galen charged forward with a war-whoop that he hoped would be loud enough to awaken Syngaard and Anuja - for there was no time to wake them otherwise, with the zombie horde approaching the camp. The sword of Zehkar cut a deep gash in the unliving flesh of the closest zombie, before the undead thing fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been severed.

"Syngaard!" called Kaspar towards the tent before dashing into the horde at full speed, kicking a front-line goblin zombie in the head and practically severing it from the rotting neck. Inside the tent, Syngaard awoke to the sounds of battle nearby. Not wanting to waste time with his armor, he grabbed up his morningstar, his javelin of returning, and his shield before racing outside barefoot, otherwise wearing only his undergarments. He spotted the horde and threw his javelin at one of the front-line zombies. The weapon buried itself deep into the rotting flesh of the undead goblin's chest, but the wound didn't seem to bother the zombie in the least as the javelin magically teleported back to Syngaard's hand.

The horde surged forward, getting right up to the three combatants, but only one set of claws was able to make a swipe at Kaspar and the monk easily dodged the blow. Then Galen pulled out his holy symbol of Hieroneous, holding it before him as he channeled the might of his god through the medallion. Positive energy surged forward in a flash, charring the bulk of the zombies to ask. After the vaporization of undead flesh, only two of the goblin zombies still stood, as well as what was now evident as a hobgoblin zombie in the back ranks.

The hobgoblin swung out with a rotting limb, catching Kaspar in the side of the head. But the monk spun with the blow, building up energy for a retaliation strike powered by his tenryutsume into the hobgoblin zombie's rancid flesh. As it fell to the ground, Kaspar cleaved to a nearby goblin, crushing its head with a powerful blow from his hardened fist. Beside him, Syngaard brought his morningstar crashing into the side of the sole remaining goblin zombie's head; the bald fighter noticed the thing's face looked like it had already taken a strike or two from a morningstar or similar weapon. But the undead thing didn't drop, clawing unsuccessfully at Syngaard, who managed to get his shield in way of the zombie's claws. It was Galen's sword that took down the last of the undead combatants in a blaze of green fire.

Syngaard looked down at the few remaining bodies that hadn't been turned to ash by Galen's successful turning attack. "Hey," he observed. "Look at these guys!"

"What of them?" Galen asked.

"There was twelve of them, wasn't there? Twelve plus the hobgoblin?"

"That sounds about right," remarked Kaspar.

"I think these are the same twelve we fought on our first mission - the hobgoblin leader, too!" Syngaard didn't recognize any of them in particular - one goblin looked much like another to the scarred fighter - but he recognized the mark of a morningstar on a foe's face, and the numbers all added up, for there had been twelve goblin bandits led by a hobgoblin holed up in that small stone keep.

"The bodies had been removed when we returned with the wagon to load up the stolen merchandise," recalled Galen. "You think these are them?"

"I'd say so," hazarded Syngaard. "And that means somebody animated them back to life..."

"The Necromancers Guild," opined Kaspar.

"...and somebody knew right where to send them," finished Syngaard.

"The Diviners," finished Kaspar.

"Look here," observed Galen. Each of the zombies wore an iron ring, similar to the ones worn by the conscripts. There were several others scattered on the ground where Galen's blast of positive energy had turned the others into powder. "I'll bet the Diviners can scry on them, just like Skevros does with us."

That was a disturbing thought, disturbing enough to prompt the group to drag the remaining zombie corpses away from the camp and set them ablaze, while Syngaard dumped each of the rings into a small hole he'd dug and dumped dirt back over them. "Hopefully they won't see nothin' but dirt if they try scrying on us," he said.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, although Anuja didn't appreciate Syngaard stepping into her tent in his underwear to see if she was okay after all the excitement. He geared up in his full armor for the rest of his watch, then had Kaspar replace him after three hours. The elf's shift passed without excitement and the group broke camp and got back on the road.

Around midday, an hour past the border of the Azure Glade, the party saw a man in wizard's robes approaching. His dark blue robes identified him as a member of the Azure Guard, the police force of the small nation. The Guild of Evokers also wore blue robes, but the Azure Guard were recognizable by the glowing blue runes prominent on their robes, foreheads, and on the large, heavy maces they carried. The group had run afoul of the Azure Guard when they searched Skevros's house for clues to his past history several weeks back.

As the robed figure approached, he held up a hand to halt the two horses and the wagon one of them pulled. "What is your business in the Azure Glade?" the Guard demanded.

Syngaard answered for the group, not trusting the paladin or the too-trusting-for-his-own-good monk to come up with a decent lie on the spot. "We're traveling merchants," he replied.

"This man is clearly a paladin of Hieroneous," observed the Azure Guard, pointing to the symbol of the God of Valor painted prominently on Galen's shield.

"Sure. Protective escort," answered Syngaard. "We've never been this way before, figured we'd hire some security in case we ran into trouble on the road."

The Azure Guard seemed unconvinced. "Where are your goods?" he asked, seeing nothing of any value in the wagon beyond travel gear.

"I'm wearing it," replied Syngaard. "Armorsmiths. And we make the occasional weapon."

The Azure Guard frowned as he looked between the three adventurers - they fit the descriptions of three of the intruders who had broken into Skevros's house several weeks back. "Are you by any chance the band who broke into the Wrencrofft Manor?"

"Never heard of it," Syngaard said. "Plus, like I said, we've never been to the Azure Glade before."

"I don't recall saying the Wrencrofft Manor was in the Azure Glade."

"I assumed it, since you're part of the Azure Guard." Syngaard and the Guard glared at each other as the latter stepped closer, pulling a sheet of parchment from his robes. He held up a picture of the symbol of the Seekers of Eternity: an overturned hourglass. "Ever seen this symbol before?" the Guard asked, trying another tactic.

Syngaard visibly flinched upon seeing the symbol but tried covering it up. "Um, nope," he said.

"I don't believe you," snarled the Azure Guard.

"We have seen it," admitted Galen. "Tattooed on the back of the neck of a half-orc who tried to kill us."

"But we're not part of that group," offered Kaspar. "We're fighting against them."

"Do you know anything about a group of goblin zombies that have been seen in this area?"

"Nope," replied Syngaard as Kaspar admitted, "We slew them last night after they had been sent to kill us." Syngaard immediately switched his answer to, "Oh, those goblin zombies. Yep."

The Azure Guard had come to a conclusion about this group. "I think it might be best if you turn around now and leave the Azure Glade. You'd be much safer heading back the way you came."

"Can't do that," replied Syngaard. "We're merchants, looking for new markets to sell our armor and weapons--"

"You're working for Skevros, who was banished from the Azure Glade years ago," interrupted the Guard. "You recently broke into his house, likely upon his orders, and slew several members of the Azure Guard in the process. You're each wearing iron rings that he likely uses to scry upon you, and he is quite possibly watching this scene play out as we speak. Shall I go on?" Syngaard looked over at Galen, whose right hand had unconsciously covered the iron ring he wore on his left. Kaspar looked poised to strike out at the robed figure, his every feature indicating a fear of having been discovered by the enemy.

"Relax," said the Azure Guard, passing a hand over his face. Immediately, his form wavered and blurred, melting into a new one - that of an elven woman wearing yellow robes. "My name is Leornna," she said in a much more pleasant voice. "I've already cast a divination on you that leads me to believe you're trustworthy, so I'm going to level with you. I'm the Guildmaster of Illusionists of the Azure Glade, and I'm investigating a suspected cabal hidden within some of the other Guilds. I believe they have already successfully infiltrated and now control the Divination and Necromancy Guilds and are making headway into running the Azure Guards, through the Guild of Evokers who are responsible for their training."

"You speak of the Seekers of Eternity," offered Kaspar.

"Yes," Leornna replied.

"Very well," said Galen, looking over at the others. "We will level with you. Skevros is also investigating the Seekers of Eternity. He's having us go to the Library of the Diviners Guild, to steal a book called 'The Curse of the Mithral Mage.' He believes it will shed light upon the group and their intentions." The paladin filled in the Guildmaster on the recent assassination attempt by the dwarven crossbowmen and the half-orc who wore the tattoo of the Seekers on the back of his neck.

"I don't know anything about the book," replied Leornna, "but I can tell you the library is open at all hours. You'd do best entering at night, when it's apt to be less populated. As far as defenses go, I'm afraid I can't help you there - to the best of my knowledge, nobody's tried stealing anything from the libraries of the Azure Glade before. But I wish you luck."

"Thank you," called Galen as he spurred Seneca forward. Anuja cracked the reins to her horse and the wagon moved steadily forward, as Syngaard and Kaspar jumped back on.

"Bunch of idiots," Leornna said, smiling quietly to herself as she resumed her magical appearance as a male human member of the Azure Guard.

The Guilded City was larger than Durnhill's own capitol, or at least it seemed so - but that may have been because many of their buildings tended to be taller. But Anuja had no trouble finding her way to the Library of the Guild of Diviners. It was past nightfall when she pulled the wagon alongside the sturdy building.

"You wait out here," said Galen, leaping down from his warhorse and tying the reins loosely to the side of the wagon. "But be ready for a speedy departure, should that become necessary."

Entering the large library, the trio saw it was mostly deserted; a quartet of students in white robes sat together at two tables but otherwise the place seemed to be empty. However, the place was much larger than either of the adventurers had expected. "We'll never find that damned book in a place this size!" Syngaard hissed.

"Perhaps we can gain some assistance," offered Kaspar, approaching the four white-robed men. Galen did a quick scan of their auras, detecting no evil among them.

"Excuse me," said Kaspar, smiling at the students. "I'm looking for a book about the Mithral Mage. Would you have any idea where such a book might be located?" Galen and Syngaard stayed well back, afraid they stood out like sore thumbs in their mithral armor - not the normal library garb.

"Probably over in the biographies section," replied one of the students, pointing to the far corner. Kaspar thanked him and headed over to the indicated section, waving the other two over by him. "Spread out and look for the book," he suggested to the others. "It has to be here somewhere." A few minutes of scanning the titles printed on the spines of the books - more books than Syngaard had ever seen together in one place before - led to its inevitable discovery. "Got it!" Kaspar said, waving the others to him.

"How we gonna get it out of here?" Syngaard asked.

"I imagine they'd have some sort of magical detection system," Galen offered. Kaspar pulled out the bag of holding tucked into his belt and put his hand into it, pulling out the blank tome Skevros had given him. He put it on the shelf in the spot he'd taken "The Curse of the Mithral Mage," so there wasn't an obvious gap in the shelf of books. Then he placed the book they'd been sent to steal into the extradimensional space in his magical bag. "They may not be able to sense it if it's in an extradimensional space," the elf reasoned.

"Give it here," Galen commanded. "If anything goes wrong, I can play it up as an honest mistake." After a moment's thought, Kaspar handed over his bag - it did make sense to let the Hieronean paladin take the fall; he was the most likely of the three of them to be able to bluff his way through an explanation if they got caught. "Let's go," Galen said, heading back to the front door - the only exit from the building they could see.

"Wait!" hissed Kaspar suddenly. He grabbed up a random book from the shelf and gave it to Galen. "If we get caught the first time, better if we don't single out the book we're trying to steal. If you make it out with this book, we'll know it's safe to follow with the one we're really after!" Galen agreed with the plan and returned the bag of holding to Kaspar, before taking the "trial theft" book in his hand and walking straight for the exit.

The others stayed back as Galen started walking out the library's exit. But at the last moment he wasn't there anymore - he'd been teleported to the far side of the library as soon as he crossed the threshold. Worse yet, books were leaping from the shelves all around him and fluttered around them, their covers and pages flapping like birds. Another swarm of flying books manifested at the library entrance. "Uh oh," muttered Syngaard.

Galen dropped the book he'd try to steal to the floor and stepped quickly away from the swarm of flying books. Looking back, he saw the books dive down by the dropped tome, which animated at their touch and flew back to its designated position on the shelf where the paladin had taken it. Then, that matter settled, the books flew back to their own places on the shelf and the ones fluttering by the door returned to their own shelves.

"That was weird," Syngaard observed.

"Indeed," agreed Kaspar. "But at least we've learned something about the defenses." They walked over to join Galen. "We screwed up," admitted the paladin as the others joined him. "I should have put the book inside a bag of holding - we still don't know if the library can detect it inside an extradimensional space."

"Well, let's do it and get out of here," suggested Syngaard. "This place gives me the creeps."

They decided to just go for broke. The three of them exited the library at roughly the same time, with Galen slightly behind the other two, so the paladin was able to observe the other two get teleported to different parts of the library before stopping short himself. "What the Hell?" demanded Syngaard as books flew off the shelf to atackt him. Over in another section of the building, Kaspar was suffering the same fate. Galen took a rapid step back as a double-thick swarm of books manifested in the library doorway, blocking the sole exit.

Kaspar and Syngaard each came to the same solution independently and started fleeing back towards the exit as their respective flying book swarms gave aerial chase. The books were remarkably fast, diving in and cutting the two adventurers with the sharp edges of their pages. Syngaard gritted his teeth in pain and was astonished that he was being attacked via paper cuts, of all things!

Galen spun away and met Kaspar as he approached. "Go back!" the paladin urged. "Put the book back where we got it!" Kaspar wheeled and raced to comply, with the books darting in and out at him for the whole duration. But once "The Curse of the Mithral Mage" was back in its place on the shelf, the book swarms settled down and returned to their own shelves once again.

"We need a new approach," suggested Kaspar once the three adventurers converged once again for a strategy session.

"No kidding!" exploded Syngaard, earning him a "Shhh!" from one of the students. He and Kaspar each had to drink down a healing potion , for their "paper cut" wounds continued to bleed and showed no signs of letting up until they had done so. "Nothing good never came from no book!" swore the bald fighter.

"It seems we can't take a book out of the building without being teleported back in," observed Kaspar.

"Agreed," said Galen.

"Why don't we just chuck the damn book out the door?" suggested Syngaard. "Then we can follow after it and get the Hell out of this stupid place!"

"I imagine the book would just teleport back into the building, like they've done the last two times," mused Galen.

Kaspar was rubbing his chin. "Apparently we need a member of the Diviners Guild to take the book out for us," he said. "What color robes were the Diviners again, Syngaard, white?" Syngaard pulled out his "cheat sheet" and confirmed the elf's guess.

"There we go, then," said Kaspar, indicating the four students in their white robes. "We can sneak the book into one of their bags, then get it from them after they've left the building."

"What, mug them?" asked Galen, clearly not liking the idea.

"I got no problem with that," pointed out Syngaard. "I'll do the mugging, if you don't wanna."

"Perhaps there's a more straightforward approach," suggested Galen, walking over to where the students were studying. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he said, pulling out his own bag of holding from its place at his belt and opening it up. "Would I be correct in assuming you are students here?"

"That's right," one of them said, looking up from his own studies.

"I recall my own days of study at the temple of Hieroneous. As I recall, coin for the occasional refreshing drink was not always at hand - at least, not as often as I would have liked." Galen pulled out stacks of coins from his bag. "Would I be able to interest one of you in earning, shall we say a thousand gold coins for a simple task?"

"I'm interested!" one of the students exclaimed. "What's the task?"

"I wish to remove this book from the library," Galen admitted, placing "The Curse of the Mithral Mage" on the table. "There are wards in place preventing me from doing so. However, I believe you could quite easily walk it out of the building."

"I certainly could!" the diviner replied, grabbing up the book. "That's it? Take the book outside? And you'll pay me a thousand gold?"


"On your word as a paladin of Hieroneous?"

"May the Gold of Valor strike me dead if I renege on this agreement."

"Let's go!" said the student, dashing out the door before the idiot paladin changed his mind. The three adventurers followed suit, took the book from the student, and started counting out gold coins at the wagon. The other three students joined their friend, helping him stuff the coins into their individual bags and packs, for none of them had any extradimensional spaces in which to carry the load of coins. Then the adventurers took off in their wagon and the students decided to spend some of their fortune at the nearest tavern.

"That was thinking outside the box," remarked Kaspar. "Well done, Galen." Syngaard said nothing for awhile, trying to figure out which box the elf was talking about. Finally he gave it up, declaring, "I don't wanna see another book for a good long time!"

"I wonder if these things work both ways," Galen mused, holding up his ring to his mouth as he rode Seneca down the road back towards Durnhill. "Hey Skevros," he said into his ring. "We got the book, and we're heading home."

"Very good," said Skevros's voice from the iron ring, surprising the whole group. The king's adviser often summoned his team together through a verbal message sent through the rings, but this was the first time he had opted to carry on a long-distance conversation. Galen quickly filled him in on the events of the past couple of days.

"I fear your rings may have been compromised," Skevros said. "You say the zombies were all wearing iron rings as well?"

"That's right," confirmed Galen.

"It's possible that the Diviners might have been able to transfer their scrying focuses from the rings on the zombies to your own. Just to be safe, I suggest you all ditch them immediately - I can have a replacement set waiting for you upon your return."

"Very well," agreed Galen. "Anything else?"

"Just return home at your best speed. I am eager to read through the book you have retrieved."

"Wizards and their damn books," scoffed Syngaard. "They'll be the death of me yet."

"I paid a thousand gold coins to have the students smuggle the book out," Galen pointed out.

"You will be reimbursed," Skevros promised the paladin.

"Uh, yeah, me too!" called out Syngaard. "I paid out a thousand gold as well!"

"You forget that I am able to scry upon you with your iron rings," Skevros scolded the greedy fighter. "You did no such thing."

"Stupid rings," Syngaard muttered, pulling his off his finger and flinging it into the gutter.

- - -

We managed to throw a curve ball at Logan several times during this adventure. The first time was when we met up with the "Azure Guard" (really Leornna, who Logan later told us was a 20th-level illusionist he had planned to have kick our butts if we started a fight with her, but she'd do nonlethal damage so she could question us) and opted not to attack. He had fully expected us to attack the Azure Guard and was left scrambling when we instead tried bluffing our way through the encounter.

Then, in the library, he was amazed that we ran from the flying book swarms, as he had fully expected (and intended) us to fight them. In fact, that was the easy way out of the situation, for the book swarms only manifested once for each book that someone tried bringing out of the library. (So after the first time trying to take "The Curse of the Mithral Mage" out of the library, we could have just walked it out at any point thereafter. D'oh!) Of course, by then we were paranoid that there was a 20th-level Diviners Guildmaster waiting there for us somewhere, and the four students might have been Diviners of any level. Once we saw the books return to their shelves if combat wasn't initiated, that seemed to us like the way to go.

Logan used Paizo's "Arcane Library" Flip-Mat for the Diviners Library and a couple of map tiles from the "Road System" Map Pack for the meeting with Leornna. A Dungeon Tile was used for the campsite, which came with two tents.

And throwing a dozen goblins and a hobgoblin at us from our first adventure (only this time in zombie form) has us players wondering just how much of this overarching plot Logan had figured out from the very beginning. He's doing an awesome job of weaving a fine tapestry out of threads gathered one two-hour session at a time.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 4
Galen Thorne, human paladin 6
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 6
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 5
Syngaard, human fighter 6​

Game Session Date: 16 May 2018

- - -

It was about eight bells at night when Anuja pulled the wagon up to the Enchanted Flagon and Kaspar and Syngaard leaped down. Beside them, Galen dismounted from Seneca and tied the warhorse's reins to the hitching post outside the tavern. The trio entered the building together as Anuja drove off, and they immediately spotted Orion and Daleth sitting at a table with Skevros, while Carl dozed comfortably on the floor nearby.

They didn't expect to see a dark-scaled kobold seated at the table with them, though. Syngaard and Galen immediately went for the weapons at their belts, while Kaspar put a calming hand on each of them. "The shadowscales are allies to our kingdom," the elf monk reminded them.

"You have the book?" Skevros prompted eagerly upon spotting the new arrivals. Kaspar handed it over and the king's adviser looked over the copy of "The Curse of the Mithral Mage" his troops had stolen for him. But before he could open it, Galen warned him, "We haven't even cracked the book open, in case it's trapped or anything. You might want to open that somewhere safe." The paladin easily recalled his own recent experience with an explosive runes spell and was not eager for a repeat occurrence.

"Hmm, good point," replied Skevros, excusing himself to take the book to his extradimensional living quarters through the door to the storage room in the back of the tavern. While he was gone, the three newcomers helped themselves to a drink from the illusionary serving girl Skevros had conjured for the benefit of the group. Galen had recently taken to calling the "seen" unseen servant by the name "Karen" for reasons of his own. They also noted a silver ring had been left at each of their seats, identical in build to the ones Daleth and Orion already wore. They slipped on their new rings and were not the least bit surprised to find them a perfect fit.

"So what were you guys up to while we were stealing a library book?" asked Galen.

"Investigating in Ashfall," Daleth answered. "Serenity has gone missing."

"You find her?" asked Syngaard. The elf wizard shook his head. "No big loss," decided the bald fighter.

"It's safe," Skevros announced upon his return several minutes later. "However, for some reason, the actual name of the Mithral Mage appears to have been erased from every page he's mentioned on."

"Intriguing," replied Daleth. "So his title remains, just not his name?"


"So just who was this guy?" asked Galen.

"You should be quite interested in this," Skevros replied, looking directly at the paladin. "The Mithral Mage was Zehkar's brother."

"The one we are to be wary of trying to take over Zehkar's legacy!" exclaimed Galen.

"Hey, I got a question," interjected Syngaard. Then he pointed a thumb at the shadowscale kobold sitting next to Daleth at the table. "Who the Hell's the kobold, and what's he doing here?"

"Ah, yes," replied Skevros. "Back to the matter at hand. This is Iptik, a member of the shadowscale tribe allied with our kingdom. He has been sent here by his chieftain to ask for our aid in investigating an abnormality in the Sanguine Swamp. Specifically, there has been a sudden growth of blue plants in the area that has them wary."

"Blue plants?" echoed Syngaard. "You mean like back in the Azure Glade?"

"Just so," agreed Skevros. "It may be a random mutation, or it may be an attempt by the Azure Glade to increase their territory by expanding the area encompassed by their own unique vegetation. In either case, I would like you to investigate. Iptik can lead the way to the blue plants, but he only knows the way from his village, so I will teleport you all directly there once you're ready."

Syngaard drained his drink. "I'm ready now," he announced. Sitting in a wagon all damned day didn't do much for the scarred fighter; he eagerly anticipated a chance for some action, even if this particular assignment didn't sound all that exciting. Looking at blue plants sounded kinda boring, but maybe he'd be allowed to burn them all down -- that would be fun! Then he realized he hadn't asked his number one question about all such missions: "Is this a paying job?"

"Payment, yesss," replied Iptik. "Chieftain paysss with glowy ssshiniesss."

After a brief discussion amongst themselves Galen decided not to take Seneca along with him, as the Sanguine Swamp would likely be at least ankle-deep in most areas and he didn't want his valued warhorse getting stuck in a bog anywhere. Orion, however, definitely wanted Carl along and woke her riding dog before climbing up onto his saddle. "Ready!" she said and Skevros said the words that teleported the group across the miles to the Sanguine Swamp at the southern part of the kingdom. The group had been to the swamplands before, but this time they materialized in the middle of a kobold village, with the dark-scaled reptiles all around them. Iptik barked at them in his strange little language and then led the group further south, to where they had discovered the blue vegetation during one of their recent hunts.

After about a half hour of slogging through the swamps, Galen - who had taken point alongside Iptik - spotted a pair of crocodiles hiding in deeper pools of water just ahead. "Let's skirt around," he suggested, veering well away from the mostly-submerged reptiles but keeping his weapon out and ready just in case. Daleth took the time to cast a mage armor spell upon himself; even if they ended up avoiding this particular combat with the crocodiles it looked like a good time for such protection. Orion came to the same conclusion and pulled a potion of mage armor from her belt, then leaned forward and fed it to Carl who lapped it up eagerly.

Syngaard needed no such magical enhancement; he held his morningstar at the ready as he followed the rest of the group in a wide arc, keeping his eyes on the two crocodiles. Such a precaution ended up being a good idea, for the smaller of the two dashed out from its pool of water and raced at the bald fighter with a speed Syngaard wouldn't have imagined. It snapped at him, but received two good clonks on the head from the fighter's spiky weapon in return. Kaspar, who had been just ahead of Syngaard, returned to the fighter's side and gave a pair of good whacks to the creature with the hardened sides of his hands; the tenryutsume he wore on his right hand delivered an electrical shock as his blows struck the reptile, which were clearly not to the beast's liking.

In a flurry of motion, the larger of the two crocodiles sped forward at a similarly surprising speed, revealing its full length: easily twice that of a grown man! It snapped its wicked-toothed jaws at Galen, but the paladin was ready for such an attack and the sword of Zehkar bit deep into the beast's hide as the powerful jaws snapped shut on his armored leg. Iptik, by the paladin's side, demonstrated a remarkable speed as well, but his charge was straight up a tree and out of harm's way.

Galen extricated himself from the giant crocodile's jaws and took several steps back, calling forth Hieroneous's healing power to close his wounds. Daleth backed up even further out of the way, then fired off a spell at the great beast. The ray of enfeeblement struck true, depleting the reptile of some of its savage strength. Syngaard threw his returning javelin at the thing but failed to penetrate its thick hide; his weapon returned to his hand unbloodied. Kaspar leaped forth and struck at the beast, but his strongest thrusts were also unable to damage the great reptile through its heavy scales. The giant crocodile ignored the elf at hand and lurched at Galen, the armored man who had hurt it with his sword. Galen wisely backed further away, pulling a healing potion from his belt to finish the job his laying on of hands had begun.

Off to the side, Orion brought Carl up around and behind the smaller crocodile, then leaned over in the saddle and stabbed deep into its hide with her flaming short sword. Blood spilled from the deep wound, the reptile thrashed around in anger, and then it died where it stood.

Daleth pulled the light crossbow from his back and sent off a shot at the giant crocodile that seemed intent upon making Galen his next meal. Alas, it missed entirely. Orion feared to direct Carl to within snapping range of the great beast, so she had him hold position and sent a dagger flying at its eye. It missed the eye, but stuck into a section of hide on the side of its head.

"Enough of this!" snarled Syngaard, not wanting to mess around with ranged attacks any more than he could help it. He didn't wish to take the time to get completely behind it, so he moved down its length far enough away from its head that he felt safe in closing in for a whack with his morningstar. The weapon struck, but Syngaard had forgotten that crocodiles could attack with their tails as well; fortunately, Kaspar struck the beast a solid blow directly between its eyes, shattering its skull and slaying the creature before it could strike Syngaard.

With combat over, Iptik crawled back down from his perch in the tree and Galen took care of healing those members who needed it, relying upon the wand of cure light wounds he had procured. Before long the group was continuing its trek through the swamps, following Iptik to the new blue grove. It was only another five-minute trek through the swamps before a spot of blue appeared before the group: a small island rising up from the ankle-deep water all around it, covered in shimmering blue grass with a single willow tree planted in its center. A soft, pulsing glow emanated from its trunk and leaves. However, of greater importance to the group was the pair of robed humanoids flanking the blue willow, who seemed to be pouring energy into the tree.

Galen stared at the two figures, trying to discern if there were any taints of evil in their auras. They were out of the paladin's range, but he did get two "pings" of evil closer by, partially hidden behind two trees. "Evil abounds!" he cried, pointing to the two locations where a pair of female rangers were poised to strike out at the adventurers as they approached.

Daleth opted not to get any closer to the potential danger, casting a false life spell upon himself to buoy him up for the upcoming combat. There were plenty of close-combat types in his group better suited to dealing with the rangers firsthand.

Orion kicked Carl into action, sending the riding dog sprinting up to the nearest ranger's hiding place and stabbing at her with her flaming short sword, confident in Galen's forecast as to their evil nature. As for the paladin, he strode forth eagerly, but took the time to cast a protection from evil spell as he did so.

The ranger cursed as the halfling's sword burned a gash along her torso, and retaliated with twin blades of her own, but try as she might she was unable to hit the nimble halfling. Across the stretch of ground before the blue willow, the other ranger leaped out and attacked Galen with a scream, but her weapons struck only the paladin's shield. Kaspar raced forward to aid Galen, landing a solid blow with his right hand upon the evil ranger's left shoulder, sending a wave of electricity down that arm and nearly causing her to drop that weapon. In the midst of all this chaos, Iptik found a nearby tree and scampered up it to safety.

Back by the blue tree, one of the robed men - a human druid named Kevik - cast a barkskin spell upon himself, anticipating an imminent entry into the battle going on in front of him. On the other side of the tree, the elven druid, Elorathien, cast a dominate animal spell upon Carl.

Several things seemed to happen all at once. Syngaard charged forward and slew the ranger who had been fighting Galen and Kaspar, dropping her with a heavy swing of his morningstar. Daleth sent a crossbow bolt whizzing by the other ranger's head, while she continued trying to stab at Orion with both of her swords. But then Carl started growling and bucking, doing his very best to kick his halfling mistress from the saddle. "Carl! No!" Orion cried as her trusty riding dog reached back to try to bite her leg. She tried to leap from the saddle but the dog shook her off first, sending her falling to her back in the wet swamplands. Carl snapped out in an instant, his teeth clamping down on Orion's leg.

Hating herself for doing it while understanding the necessity, Orion kicked at Carl's nose with her free foot just enough to cause him to release her other leg, then rolled to a stand and raced to the nearest tree. The little halfling scampered up its trunk like a monkey, pulling herself up onto a thick branch well out of Carl's reach. Carl responded with fury, leaping up at his mistress and trying to clamp down on her legs, snarling and barking all the while.

Galen charged across the battlefield and stabbed the last remaining ranger, whose attention had been caught by the spectacle of Carl trying to kill his mistress. The sword of Zehkar pierced her torso from the side and emerged from just above her stomach; when the paladin yanked his weapon from her body, she fell face-first into the swamp, never to rise again.

With only the two druids remaining as enemies, Kaspar raced across the island of blue grass and leap-kicked Elorathien in the side, eliciting a grunt of pain from the elven druid. Kevik cast a chill metal spell upon Kaspar's tenryutsume, not understanding exactly what it was but recognizing it as metal. Fortunately, the monk's dragon-forged hand-weapon was well constructed, and it withstood the spell's effects. Syngaard went racing up to join in the fight, but he was farther back and not able to run as fast as the monk in any case; in the meantime, he threw his magic javelin at the evil elven druid, dealing a solid strike against him. However, Elorathien responded by taking a step back away from Kaspar and casting a flame strike spell that encompassed both the scarred fighter and the elven monk.

Still safely away from melee combat, Daleth cast one of his most powerful spells, a scorching ray that, after some dithering, he decided to split evenly between the two druids, sending one ray at each. However, possibly because of the lack of focus on a single target, neither ray hit its mark; one did, however, start a small fire in the hanging branches of the blue willow.

Up in the tree and unable to climb down without being attacked by Carl (who continued barking and leaping up at his mistress, but unable to quite reach her), Orion contributed to the combat as best she could by sending a sling stone whizzing across the distance and striking Kevik in his right ear. The druid cursed and held a hand to the wound. Galen approached steadily (he feared racing at full speed through the muck and mud for fear of falling in his heavy armor) toward Kevik, casting a bless weapon upon the sword of Zehkar as he did so.

On the other side of the blue willow tree, Kaspar took out Elorathien with a flurry of blows that had the elf druid reeling. He collapsed in a heap into the sparkling blue grass of the island. But quick as a flash, Kevik raced up to his fallen friend and cast a spell upon him. By then Syngaard had closed to within striking distance with his morningstar, and seeing the elf prone on the ground he targeted the human druid still standing, scoring a glancing upon the quickly backpedaling druid. But then Elorathien, who had been healed by his druidic companion, rose up and swung his scimitar at the scarred fighter, catching him a blow to the side. Syngaard roared in pain, amazed at the pain a single blow of a relatively shallow depth could cause. Elorathien merely smiled at his foe and said, "Human bane enchantment, fool!"

Daleth pointed his metamagic rod at the elf druid and channeled a magic missile spell through it, hitting his target and dropping him back into unconsciousness. That left only Kevik as a standing foe, and Orion kept up a steady supply of sling stones whizzing his way while her dominated dog tried to kill her from below. But then Galen channeled the smiting power of Hieroneous through his sword, cutting a swath through the druid's robes and the flesh beneath it. At his side, Kaspar struck at the druid with a pair of hardened fists, but uncharacteristically missed. In desperation, Kevik staggered back a few steps and summoned forth a small fire elemental, whose mere touch singed the blue grass it stood upon. It lashed out at Galen, but was unable to complete the move, blocked by the paladin's protection from evil spell which hedged out summoned creatures. Mystified by its ineffective blow, the fire elemental lashed out again at Galen, with similar results.

Syngaard looked over at Kevik, then down at the prone elven druid at his feet. Smirking an evil grin, he bent over and picked up the fallen druid's human bane scimitar. It was weighted slightly differently than the longswords Syngaard had trained on, but not appreciably - he was certain he could wield it to good use. But - quite typically for Syngaard - he failed miserably at his first attempt, cutting nothing but the air around Kevik's head with his first swing. Still, he did accomplish something, for the human druid recognized the weapon in the scarred fighter's grasp and understood immediately that any strike that actually hit was going to deal him a great amount of damage.

Daleth used his last relatively powerful attack spell, a color spray, upon Kevik, but the druid shrugged off the spells' multiple effects. Disheartened, the wizard pulled the light crossbow from his back again and consigned himself to a ranged weapon support role for the rest of the combat. But then Kevik cried out in pain again, for another of Orion's sling stones had hit him square in the chest. Turning to seek out his long-distance tormenter, Kevik gave Galen an opening the paladin was quick to take, smiting again at the evil druid with his longsword. Kaspar also struck out at Kevik, but in turning from the paladin's successful strike he accidentally fell out of range of the monk's intended blows.

Still, the druid knew he was overwhelmed by the force before him and it was time to cut his losses. He turned and ran, casting another summoning spell behind him as he did so, bringing an octopus into being in the shallow water he splashed through. But Syngaard was hot on his heels, striking out again with his stolen scimitar, this time scoring a hit across the fleeing druid's shoulder blades. A wicked smile spread across his scarred face as he decided he was going to keep this weapon exactly for situations like this. But despite the solid strike, Kevik refused to fall, continuing his path through the waters behind the newly-blue island. Daleth sent a crossbow bolt whizzing by both figures as yet another sling stone struck its mark, Orion demonstrating the fabled halfling accuracy with such weapons. Then, beneath her, Carl's furious growls and barks turned into puzzled whimpering as the dominate animal spell wore off.

Galen was too far away from the fleeing human druid and the pursuing fighter and monk to stand any good chance of catching up, so he turned back to the unconscious elven druid before him, who was slowly bleeding out. Wanting to keep him alive for interrogation, the paladin poured the contents of a potion of cure light wounds down the elf's throat. His act of compassion was immediately punished, for Elorathien's eyes snapped open, he saw the human foe bent over him, and he rolled away from Galen, casting a produce flame spell as he did so that caused his right hand to erupt in harmless fire. The flames weren't as harmless to Galen as they were to Elorathien, though, as the elf threw a ball of fire into the paladin's face.

Kaspar finally brought Kevik down with a well-placed strike; he was much faster than the druid and unhampered by sodden robes. Syngaard, not wanting to take any chances, brought his human bane scimitar crashing down on the druid's head, splitting it like a melon. That was one druid who wasn't going to be revived any time soon!

However, the revived Elorathien was another story. After lobbing another ball of fire straight into Galen's face, he got to his feet and was ready to flee in the other direction from the one Kevik had taken, when he was taken down by a riding dog barreling down on him - or, more specifically, by the furious halfling riding him, who pierced his body with her flaming short sword like a shish-ka-bob. Hell hath no fury like a halfling treed by her own dog!

The final foe slain (for the spells soon expired on the summoned creatures), Kaspar and Syngaard dragged Kevik's corpse over to the blue island while Galen did likewise with Elorathien, and then the two female rangers were added to the pile. After removing anything of potential value from their corpses, Orion used her flaming weapon to start the azure willow tree and the blue grass surrounding it ablaze; surrounded as it was by water, there were no concerns that the blaze would get out of hand. It took some patience, but the group stayed in the vicinity until they were sure everything was burned beyond recovery. Then, their mission accomplished, Iptik led the group back to his kobold village to meet their chieftain.

The kobold's chieftain ended up being a black dragon named Thriinaryx, which explained the dark coloration of the kobolds of the shadowscale tribe. She thanked the group in perfect Common for their assistance and then laid out their possible rewards on a dry patch of ground before her. These were various magical items, the "glowy shinies" Iptik had referred to. Of the seven items available, Daleth chose a wand of magic missiles; Galen chose a ring of protection; Kaspar took the brooch of shielding; Orion opted for the hat of disguise; and Syngaard picked an amulet of natural armor.

Surprised to find no taint of evil in the black dragon's aura, Galen decided to do what he could to strengthen the bond between the kobold tribe and the kingdom of Durnhill. "We thank you for these rewards," he said formally to the dragon, bowing at the waist. "Please accept this small token in return, to add to your own hoard." He held out a hundred pieces of gold from his own private stash, retrieved from his bag of holding. At a gesture from their chieftain, a trio of shadowscale kobolds stepped forward to accept the coins from Galen. They also scooped up the passed-over elemental gem and the arcane pearl of power to be returned to Thriinaryx's hoard.

And then the Durnhill conscripts headed back to their base and to a well-earned rest.

- - -

We have a plastic cutting board (for fabric) on one end of the table we game at; as it's got one-inch squares marked off, it makes an excellent impromptu battle mat. Logan dropped down a few rounded-corner one-inch squares of light blue poster board to represent small puddles of water, with two- and three-inch squares (some of them clumped together) forming larger pools of water. After placing several one-inch squares of green poster board to represent the trunks of nearby trees, Logan had the cutting board set up for our combat with the crocodiles. For the blue grove, he dropped down a larger, lozenge-shaped piece of sparkly blue paper he'd purchased and cut out (after drawing one-inch squares on the whole thing with a Sharpie marker) for an earlier adventure in our Skylanders campaign. (There, it had been part of an enormous geode complex.) A blue rounded-edge square showed us the location of the blue willow's trunk, and we were all set.
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 6
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 6
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 5
Syngaard, human fighter 6​

Game Session Date: 30 May 2018

- - -

The trudge from the Sanguine Swamp back to the Enchanted Flagon took practically no time at all - since both Point A and Point B were within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Durnhill, Skevros was able to teleport them directly to the front door of the inn. "Please be sure to wipe your feet," he reminded the group, looking down at their sodden boots.

"Here," said Syngaard, passing over the severed head of the elven druid they had slain in the swamp. "Brought you a present." The king's advisor took it with a grimace. "And what, pray tell, am I to do with this?" he asked.

"We thought we could dip it in osteovox, see if we could get some answers from it," suggested Galen.

"Er, yes, that is a definite possibility," agreed Skevros. He motioned to Karen, the illusory "seen" unseen servant spell effect he had permanently bound to the tavern's interior; she took the grisly burden from Skevros without any indication of distaste, placing it upon the bar in the back of the room. "However," continued the king's adviser, "given the late hour, I suggest that be a project for the morning." And with a curt nod, he ushered the group back outside; Syngaard trudged back across town to his own bed while the others simply went upstairs to their rooms above the Enchanted Flagon for a well-earned night of rest.

The next morning, the four adventurers - for Daleth was still off somewhere on his own assignment - gathered back up in the tavern for the osteovox ritual. "What shall we ask it?" asked Orion.

"'What were you doing in the swamp?'" suggested Galen.

"No, that's stupid," answered Syngaard. "We'll just get some answer we already know, like 'fighting you guys' or something. What we really want to know is why they were planting that blue tree and all that blue grass."

"To expand the borders of the Azure Glade, presumably," offered Kaspar.

"Best not be presumin' nothin'," countered Syngaard, and Skevros actually nodded his agreement for once - it wasn't very often the king's adviser and the scarred fighter saw eye to eye.

"How about this, then," suggested Galen. "'What was the end purpose for growing the azure grove in the Sanguine Swamp?'"

"I should think that should suffice," agreed Skevros. The paladin put ink to parchment, wrapped the question around the severed skull and bound it in place with a piece of twine, and then dropped it into the small barrel of osteovox sitting upon one of the tavern's round tables.

"And now we wait," reminded Skevros. "The ritual usually takes about an hour."

"Worst part of the whole deal," grumbled Syngaard - patience was not one of his strong suits. But Skevros surprised them all by having Karen serve up a small breakfast to the group while they waited for the necromantic fluid to work its magic.

"Do you think the osteovox will affect the head?" asked Orion.

"It's already been severed from that elf's body," answered Syngaard. "What else could happen to it?"

"Back in the graveyard, when we first procured the barrel of osteovox, we found out what happened when you drink the stuff," the halfling reminded the group. "Are we going to pull out an animated skull trying to bite us? And is the answer going to be written on the parchment, or is it going to start talking to us?" She shivered at the thought.

"Talking skull?" asked Syngaard. "That would be kind of cool!" But when the time came to remove the severed head from the barrel, nobody was willing to stick their hand in to fish it out, for fear of being bitten. "Fish it out with your javelin," suggested Orion to Syngaard.

"You kiddin'? I ain't sticking my javelin in there! But if none of the rest of you are willing to take charge of this little project, I'll handle it." The bald fighter turned to Karen, standing behind the bar awaiting instructions. "Hey, Karen - be a good girl and fish that severed head out of the barrel for us, will you?"

Karen put an illusion-clad arm into the barrel of osteovox and pulled the head out by the hair. Immediately, the skin split open and she had to grab the skull with her other hand; she removed both skull and parchment, while the sloughed-off skin fell back into the osteovox like a rotten banana peel, presumably to be absorbed into the necromantic fluid. Karen set both items on the table top and stepped back. The skull's eye sockets were lit by colored flames: blue in the right eye socket and silver in the left.

Glancing worriedly at the skull, Galen picked up the parchment and unfolded it. It was completely blank on both sides. "No answer to our question," he observed, confused.

"Question asked of host or self?" spoke the skeleton, the silvery flame flickering in time to its voice.

The assembled group looked to each other for answers. Not having received an answer to its simple question, the skull reworded its query. "Do you ask the head of Elorathien or the osteovox?"

"Um," began Galen, stalling for time. Receiving shrugs from most of the group, he answered, "The head of Elorathien." That was, after all, what they had expected, and how the osteovox had worked in the past - answering questions specifically about the item placed within the magic fluid.

Both flames turned blue as the skull spoke again, this time in a different voice. "Build the trap. Test the trap. Spring the trap." Then, turning its eye-flames toward Skevros, it added, "Kill the traitor." The skull having answered its question, both flames in the eye sockets went out.

"That was certainly unexpected," commented Skevros, before the flames blazed up in the skull's eye sockets again, this time both the silvery color. "Silver-Eyes is back," observed Galen.

"I don't think that's silver," observed Syngaard. "Betcha anything that's mithral."

Back in its original voice, the skull offered the following: "Ask me no questions for I am bound to answer. Ask me one question and I return to my prison." In a barely audible whisper, it added, "Please don't send me back."

"I think we're talking to the Mithral Mage," said Syngaard.

"I believe you're most likely correct," agreed Skevros.

"Indeed," confirmed the skull. "I am the Mithral Mage, the creator of not only the osteovox you used in your divinations, but of the entire substance in the first place! But go ahead: ask me my real name! Go on, ask me!"

"We must tread very carefully," pointed out Skevros, despite desperately wanting to know the Mithral Mage's true name, which had been excised from the copy of "The Curse of the Mithral Mage" his conscripts had procured for him from the Diviners Library in Azure City. "Ask it a question - any question - and its spirit will depart the skull. We don't want that happening." Syngaard immediately bit off the "Seriously?" that almost escaped his lips, afraid the skull would assume the question had been directed its way. Then, while the group tried figuring out a way to question the skull without asking it anything directly, it spoke again.

"Don't worry about introductions," it said. "I already know who you all are, including the one who's missing." Staring straight ahead, unable to "look" in the direction of those indicated, it began its roster. "We have the Skydragon's Heir," it began, and the assembled group looked at Kaspar...

"The Dimwit," it added, causing everyone to look at Syngaard, while the bald fighter looked around to see to whom the skull might be referring...

"The Father of Hirek's Key," it continued, causing only puzzled looks among the conscripts...

"My brother's Champion," was next, and everyone looked over at Galen, then the skull added in a whisper, "I'm still wearing your flesh..."

Continuing on in its normal tone, it hissed, "The Traitor..." and the conscripts made an obvious effort not to look at Skevros (all but Syngaard, who pointed at the king's adviser and laughed)...

"And last but not least, Miss Nightsky and her mostly faithful companion." Orion looked over at Carl, her riding dog, who had been dominated by the elven druid Elorathien and forced to attack his mistress. Carl whined and laid his head on his front paws as if it penance.

"And I, of course," continued the skull, "am...unable to speak my name due to my bindings, though yes, I am the Mithral Mage."

"Intriguing," remarked Galen. "How did--?" he began, before catching himself about to ask a question. "One wonders," he hastily amended, "how the Mithral Mage is capable of speaking through the skull of a slain elven druid associated with the Azure Glades. And whether said skull is a force of good or evil."

"One wonders," added Skevros sarcastically, "why a paladin is left to wonder as to the possible evil nature of any object when he has been trained in the reading of auras?" Galen grinned in embarrassment; he'd been too caught up in the wonder of a talking skull to concentrate on detecting evil, something he'd have ordinarily done at once. Now, concentrating on the task at hand, he stared at the skull, winced in pain, and then screamed aloud. Months ago, he'd detected so much evil in Serenity the succubus of the Ashfall Kingdom he'd cried out in pain; this was so much worse! The Mithral Mage's spirit, embedded in some fashion in the skull of the druid Elorathien, was evil to an extent the paladin had never encountered before. He dropped down into a chair, rubbing his temples.

"What shall we do with the skull, Skevros?" asked Kaspar, making certain there was no ambiguity as far as to whom his question was being addressed.

"I believe we shall keep it for now," the king's adviser declared. Then, speaking into the silver ring he wore on his finger, he spoke to Daleth, out on whatever mission he'd been sent on, "Daleth, disregard your current orders. I want you to go immediately to the marketplace and procure a lead box the size of a man's head. Return with it to the Enchanted Flagon. You will be reimbursed the cost of the purchase." Skevros then directed Karen to remove the skull to his own quarters, out of earshot of the group's further discussions.

"Now then, to the task at hand," began Skevros. Syngaard began to interrupt him as usual with a question. "Yes, this is a paying mission," snapped Skevros, irritated at constantly being interrupted by the scarred fighter.

Syngaard looked confused. "That's not what I was gonna ask," he said.

Skevros sighed heavily. "Very well, then, what was your question?"

The fighter pointed at the members of the group around the room. "Traitor," he said, pointing to Skevros. "Nightsky, Champion, Dragon-Boy," he added, indicating Orion, Galen, and Kaspar in turn. "What's up with this Hirek's Key business? I ain't no father of no Hirek's Key. And why's he calling Daleth a dimwit?"

Skevros's blank expression indicated he had no real idea of how to answer that. "Questions for another day," he finally suggested. "For now, we must concentrate upon finding Serenity. You will each be paid a thousand pieces of gold to find out what happened to her. From the information previously gathered by Daleth and Miss Nightsky, I believe the Temple of Hieroneous in Ashfall might have some answers for us - or, at the very least, be a good place to start." Syngaard and Galen both had sour faces at the thought of rescuing the succubus from any fate she might have earned, but the paladin's expression lightened at the thought of visiting a temple of his god. Syngaard's brightened at the thousand gold pieces, up front for once.

Once the group had assembled - with Galen and Orion on their respective mounts - Skevros teleported them to the outskirts of Ashfall's main city - a place the conscripts had been many times before. Smoke filled the air; that was nothing new in a land this close to the Baator's Breath Mountains, but closer inspection showed it was coming from the city itself, not the volcanic mountain range to the north. Was there a building on fire nearby, perhaps?

Galen spotted a couple of guards keeping curious onlookers at bay and sent his warhorse Seneca in that direction. Upon seeing his approach and recognizing the paladin as one of the Heroes of Ashfall, he waved him over. As Galen neared the city watch and the small crowd, he saw there was indeed a building on fire - and he knew exactly which building it was: Quillbender's Potions and Scrolls.

"I think Maria's still in there," said the elderly guard in a voice filled with worry. "But the flames - they're too thick to get through!" Galen confirmed that the entire front of the shop was a sheet of fire. With a click of his heels on Seneca's flanks, he wheeled the warhorse through the back alleys to the rear of the shop. As he passed, he thought he heard the muffled cry of a young woman from inside the building over the roaring of the flames.

Reaching the back door, Galen leaped from the saddle and entered the shop. There, backlit by a wall of roaring flames, stood a thin woman in dark leather armor with a blood-soaked dagger in hand. She bent forward, carving words into the flesh of a young woman who was bound naked to a column in the middle of the shop. The victim's hair was red; this was undoubtedly Maria, the granddaughter of the wizard Dave Quillbender and a sorceress in her own right.

"I say!" exclaimed Galen, rushing around the counter to put a stop to the woman's deeds. She looked up from her unfinished handiwork - carving a message into Maria's stomach - and pulled a short sword from a scabbard at her hip, facing the rushing paladin with twin blades raised.

In the meantime, Syngaard had opted for a direct approach. Pushing past the city guard he ran up to the flames, kicked the door open, and charged through the roaring fire. Although the charm person spell had long since run its course many weeks ago, the bald fighter still refused to believe he had ever fallen sway to the spell of a sixteen-year-old sorceress; if he'd latched onto her as her protector it must have been because he subconsciously saw the good in her, despite her grandfather being a kidnapper of orphans. Unable to see through the wall of flames he staggered forward, bumping blindly into the leather-clad woman facing off against Galen. The heat still burned his back, but he was out of the flames; from this vantage point, he could see the bloody message begun on Maria's stomach: "SECRETS ARE" - but the sentence stopped there.

Kaspar had used his speed to follow in Galen's wake and entered the shop from its back door. Orion had directed Carl to the front of the shop but the riding dog quite wisely refused to enter the wall of flames; the halfling stationed him directly across from the shop's main door and had her sword out for action should it become necessary. It seemed likely, too - the rogue had noticed there were no waves of heat emanating from the wall of fire at the shop's front, meaning it was either an illusion (but why?) or it was the result of a spell and the heat had been purposefully directed inwards. That meant direct intent, which implied a spellcasting enemy within. And from within the burning building the halfling could hear the sounds of combat: steel blades striking each other and against sturdy shields.

Inside the building, Narisca stabbed out at the scarred fighter who'd come bumbling in through the blazing wall of fire, making a successful strike with her short sword but finding her dagger deflected by his shield. While she was thus occupied, Galen stepped forward and laid a hand upon Maria's bare shoulder, channeling healing energy into her body. The scars on her stomach sealed up, leaving a mere ghost of the "SECRETS ARE" message traced only in bloodstains.

Sweat dripped down Syngaard's face as he stood within the area of heat blasting from the wall of fire; his opponent seemed not to suffer from its effects. He struck her hard with his morningstar, cracking a rib or two by the sound of it, but his second swing got caught up in her hood and was accidentally deflected. Still, with the hood out of the way and her rounded ears exposed, Syngaard could see he fought a human, not an elf. He smiled as he contemplated how a change of weapons could end this fight that much quicker.

Kaspar struck suddenly from Narisca's flank, braving the heat of the flames to help bring down the enemy. It was a solid blow, and one that helped the leather-clad assassin come to a decision: setting the wizard's shop ablaze and leaving him a message on his teenage granddaughter's belly was one thing, but taking on a trio of seasoned enemies was another thing entirely. With a sudden spin, she burst through the wall of fire and out the front door, unscathed by the flames.

But not unscathed entirely. Quick as wink, Orion's flaming short sword stabbed out at the escaping assassin, and where the sheets of vertical flames had caused her no harm, the halfling's sword made up the difference. Narisca fell to a knee, dropping her dagger as her hand went to the wound in her abdomen, and fell to the street, unconscious. Orion was on her in a flash, rolling her onto her back and doing a quick perusal: well-crafted studded leather armor punctured and cut through in several places, a ring on one finger, and a bracelet on the other wrist. The halfling went for the easily-removed jewelry, depositing them both into the top of her own armor for further investigation at a later time.

While the men cut Maria from her bindings (she was remarkably unfazed by the heat spilling from the wall of fire, but it fizzled out in any case soon thereafter) and Galen healed her fully of her wounds, the sorceress's first reaction was to flinch from the sight of Syngaard's scarred face - not because of its startling appearance, although that would have been an understandable reaction and one the bald fighter had become long used to - but because she still regretted having tried to help her grandfather by charming this idiot into subservience. Still, she gratefully accepted the scarred fighter's cloak, which she used to wrap herself in as the group left the shop through the front entrance.

The city guard allowed the fabled Heroes of Ashfall to interrogate their prisoner. Galen healed her just enough to bring her back to consciousness; she awoke to find herself ringed by enemies, several with weapons pointed at her throat. (Syngaard had unsheathed the human bane scimitar he'd taken from the elven druid Elorathien.) Unfortunately, Galen's interrogation ended up revealing more information to the assassin than she gave back in return.

"Why did you attack Dave's shop?" questioned the paladin. "And why torture his granddaughter?"

"Had a message to send," Narisca replied. "Secrets are meant to be kept."

"What secrets?" mused Galen, and Kaspar reminded him that Dave was the one who had explained the hourglass symbol was the mark of the Seekers of Eternity. On a sudden whim, the monk gently pulled Narisca's hair away from the back of her neck; sure enough, the familiar hourglass tattoo was present. "She's no doubt been sent to punish Dave Quillbender for helping us."

"I'm confused," admitted Syngaard. "We got too much going on. Finding that damned succubus, the Mithral Mage's talking skull, those Azure Glade druids growing blue stuff in the swamp...can't we just go kill bad guys and stuff? I don't wanna put puzzle pieces together!"

"The Mithral Mage?" demanded Narisca. "You have found and freed our master?"

"Your master?" repeated Galen. "Your master's the Mithral Mage? He's the head of the Seekers of Eternity? Well, I got news for you, sister: your master's burning in Dwarven Hell! Hope he likes the eternity he earned!"

Narisca started laughing aloud. "At long last!" she exulted. "Now we know where to find the master! He can be freed!"

"Uh, not likely," countered Syngaard. "Not if we kill you before you go spreading that info to anybody else."

The assassin merely laughed again. "You think my death will prevent me from talking? That the Seekers cannot interrogate me merely because I've been slain? Guess again, dimwit! Go ahead and kill me - it won't be the first time, and it won't likely be the last!"

Syngaard looked over at Galen for confirmation. The paladin nodded in confirmation. "Assassin," the paladin intoned, "You have been judged guilty by a paladin of Hieroneous, God of Valor. For your crimes against the person of Maria Quillbender and the Kingdom of Ashfall, you will be put to death!" The assembled city watch members all knew when they were out of their depth; they all looked aside as Syngaard brought his human bane scimitar down upon Narisca's head, severing it from her neck in a single blow.

"We keeping this?" the scarred fighter asked the group, holding up his bloody trophy. "We can give it an osteovox bath, get at least one good answer out of it."

"At the prospect of activating the Mithral Mage again," reminded Kaspar. "He's already bound up in one skull, but if we dunk this into the same barrel of osteovox, will the Mithral Mage's spirit be able to talk through both of them?"

"More importantly, will he be able to see through them both?" asked Orion. "If so, we're going to need another lead box."

"In the meantime, there are more assassins where that one came from," interjected Maria, stepping up to the group still wrapped in Syngaard's cloak. "She spoke of meeting up with her associates at the Hieronean Temple, to torture information from the adherents there."

"The Temple of Hieroneous!" exploded Galen, remembering the whole reason they'd come to Ashfall in the first place. He raced back to his warhorse and pulled himself up into the saddle. "Here, hold this," commanded Syngaard, passing Narisca's severed head to one of the city guards, who held it distastefully at arm's length. "We'll be back for it later!" And then he and Kaspar raced off after Carl and Seneca and their riders toward the Temple of Hieroneous.

An uneasy feeling settled into their stomachs as the conscripts approached the temple building. The front doors were ajar, and from within there could be seen bloodstains on the walls. Galen rode Seneca in through the front doors, seeing a wide corridor before him flanked by pew after pew; dead bodies lay among the rows of seats. Two paladins still stood, one along the back of the chapel and another off to the side; two female leather-clad assassins armed much like Narisca had been advanced upon the young man to the side, while a black-robed cleric and a fighter in black armor headed towards the clearly frightened paladin in the back. "S-Stay back!" he cried, his voice breaking.

Zehkar's holy power flared up in Galen's longsword, spurring the paladin to send Seneca galloping down the chapel at the blackguard apparently leading this group of desecrators. He channeled the power of Hieroneous through his sword, ready to smite the evil man before him. Unfortunately, his charge was dodged at the last minute by Velorik, who looked at Galen and sneered. "I was once like you," he chuckled, smiting the paladin with a longsword wreathed in black flames. Galen felt the power of evil behind the blow; a second such blow had him struggling to stay in the saddle.

Syngaard rushed into the chapel seeking enemies. The closest was one of the assassins; without breaking his stride he threw his javelin of returning at her, not only scoring a decent hit but more importantly drawing the attention of both women his way instead of at the cowering survivor and the staggered Galen. At his side, Kaspar threw a shuriken at the black-clad cleric; it missed, but whizzed by so close to the cleric's ear that he also turned about to face these intruders. Calling upon the might of his unholy god Hextor, he caused a ghostly flail to manifest above the elven monk's head and strike down at him.

Savoring the thrill of combat, the assassins rushed forwards to take on these newcomers in melee combat. But Carl bounded up the aisle, allowing Orion to lean to the side of her riding dog as it raced past and bring down one of the assassins with her flaming short sword.

Struggling to retain consciousness, Galen spun Seneca around and had him race back the way he'd come, just far enough back down the aisle to be out of immediate range of combat. The paladin healed himself with positive energy channeled through his illumium scabbard as he did so, restoring enough of his vigor to allow him to return to the combat.

"See how the mighty champion of Heironeous turns and flees at Hextor's might!" Velorik bellowed as he marched in Seneca's wake. The conscripts were silently grateful their opponent was slowed down by his full-plate armor.

Syngaard had noted during his dash down the chapel's central aisle that all of these intruders were human; as a result, he returned his returning javelin to his shield hand as he closed to within melee range, and then drew not his trusty magic morningstar but his human bane scimitar. He practically cut the remaining assassin in two as he passed by, heading for the blackguard Velorik. Orion struck her at nearly the same time and took credit for the kill, calling out "Got her!" as the human woman fell lifelessly to the temple floor in a pool of blood. Syngaard didn't care; he was too caught up in battle-lust and eager to cross weapons with the ebon-armored warrior before him.

Kaspar sent several shuriken flying at the Hextorian cleric, but the evil spellcaster's spiritual weapon kept the monk from achieving any of his normal accuracy. Galen, meanwhile, channeled the day's remaining healing energy through his fingertips into his own body, repairing the worst of the damage dealt by Velorik's evil blade. It would have to do for now; battle raged all around him and his friends surely needed his assistance!

Velorik's eyes filled with black energy and he chortled to see all of his opponents were vulnerable to his dark power, save for the two mounts, whose auras had no taint of goodness about them. "That's not even a proper holy mount!" he scoffed to Galen as he turned to face his nearest opponent, Syngaard, and dealt him a painful blow, smiting him with Hextor's unholy energy channeled through his ebon blade. The scarred fighter retaliated immediately, earning Velorik's ire and respect. Kaspar moved to flank the blackguard with Syngaard and fared a bit better with his hand-to-hand attacks than he'd done with his shuriken, catching Velorik with some targeted strikes to the joints of his limbs. Orion stabbed out with her flaming blade, penetrating the armor in a place where two overlapping surfaces were temporarily separated by the blackguard's movements.

However, then Hextorian cleric then moved to flank Kaspar with Velorik, resulting in a line of four alternately opposed combatants. And the cleric's spiritual weapon was still targeted on Kaspar, following his movements to continue striking the monk and force him to divert his attention away from his human foes.

Galen attempted to smite the evil inherent in Velorik but missed entirely; he slid from his mount and used poor Seneca as a temporary shield, blocking any retaliatory strikes from the blackguard's black blade with his warhorse. But Velorik had already realized Syngaard's scimitar was a weapon to be feared more greatly than Galen's own sword of Zehkar and concentrated on bringing the scarred fighter down. He hit Syngaard twice in rapid succession, unleashing not only twin streams of blood but a string of invective not often heard within the walls of a Hieronean temple.

Syngaard returned the favor, striking a one-two blow against the blackguard that slew him immediately. Facing four armed assailants, the Hextorian cleric didn't last very much longer, with Kaspar striking the final blow that took him down; a crushing blow to the temple that fractured his skull and had him falling lifelessly onto his back. The spiritual weapon vanished along with its summoner's life force.

Looking over the bodies of their slain foes, Syngaard determined Velorik's armor was made up of some strange sort of blackened mithral; he wasn't tempted to swap out his own mithral breastplate, but he did claim the blackguard's shield, as it was the same general size and shape as Syngaard's own wooden one but made of the same lightweight black mithral. As for the ebon blade and the cleric's unholy symbol of Hextor, Syngaard's magic morningstar soon shattered each to pieces.

"Four more heads to question via the osteovox," commanded Galen, and the scarred fighter, grinning, pulled his human bane scimitar back out from its scabbard to comply.

"Round up the survivors!" commanded Galen, and Orion and Kaspar went to find the two young paladins who had been the original remaining targets of the strike force. They found them locked in a back-room office, where they'd apparently hightailed it during the fight once they'd had the opportunity. "The danger is over!" the halfling called through the locked door. "We've slain the Hextorites!" Then, in a questioning voice to herself, she asked, "Hextorites? Hextorians? Whatever." But once the timid neophyte warriors had been coaxed out of hiding, the conscripts were finally able to perform their primary mission. "Do you know of Serenity's current location?" demanded Galen.

"We haven't seen her in a month or more," admitted one of the young paladins, his face pale at the sight of all the bloodshed in his temple. "I can show you to her cell, though."

"Her cell?" echoed Kaspar as they headed to a small room at the side of the temple.

"Yes. Normally, once a week she's interrogated, under a zone of truth spell, to ensure she hasn't been acting against the kingdom. The king may trust her, but he's no fool."

"She submits to this willingly?" asked Orion.

"Sure," replied the young paladin.

The cell was empty save for a single tome sitting on a shelf, detailing important holy sites to Hieroneous, most of which had been lost to the ages. A piece of parchment covered in indecipherable writing served as a bookmark, marking an entry on the Halls of Redemption - whatever they were.

"I smell future assignment," remarked Syngaard dryly.

Galen found a hollow spot beneath the floorboards of the cell and unearthed another tome, written in the same language as the note. "We should take these to Skevros," suggested Kaspar and the local paladins gave no argument.

"You'd best clean this place up," remarked Galen absently to the two cowards as the conscripts departed the building. He had no stomach for those who fled and hid from battle, even against overwhelming odds. "I'll send a member of my own temple to oversee this one until such time as you can get it back on its feet again."

Unfortunately, Skevros couldn't teleport the conscripts back home from outside the confines of the Kingdom of Durnhill, so it was a two-hour trek back to their headquarters. But Syngaard retrieved Narisca's severed head before leaving Ashfall, adding it to the four they'd taken in the temple of Hieroneous. Skevros was overjoyed to see five more severed heads show up in the Enchanted Flagon several hours later.

"You have got to be kidding me," he sighed, having them place the decapitated trophies on the bar in the back next to Elorathian's. It was hard enough clearing his name and reputation without frequently performing necromantic rituals with severed heads. Then he devoted his attention to the book and the note Kaspar provided, confirming both were written in Abyssal - and in the same hand. Galen, in the meantime, decided he'd try an experiment of his own: he touched the sword of Zehkar to the skull of Elorathien, apparently inhabited by Zehkar's brother, the unnamed Mithral Mage. The skull disintegrated immediately in holy fire.

"What's the note say?" Galen asked Skevros, eager to turn the conversation away from his just having destroyed a possible lead.

"It mentions Hirek and his friends being the last people to enter the Halls of Redemption," Skevros replied absently. "And this is interesting: the book is a diary of 'Serene Bliss Found Through Lust' - apparently, that's Serenity's real name, translated from the Abyssal tongue."

"That figures," grumbled Orion. "The hussy."

"The diary's final entry says she's going to the city Hirek founded to try to speak to his ghost. Hmmm, a city founded by a color-themed sage?" Skevros mused; Hirek was the man known as the Scarlet Sage, and apparently the person responsible for wiping all traces of the Mithral Mage's name from existence. "I wonder...

"...could it be the Azure Glade?"

- - -

I'm glad I kept that human bane scimitar after all; Syngaard ended up dealing 62 points of damage to Velorik in one round (a new personal best!) after hitting with one attack and confirming a critical hit with the other. And the sword of Zehkar is now a full-blown holy weapon, which will no doubt allow Dan to try to beat my new combat record.

Incidentally, Dan and I were talking recently about Logan's campaign and how he's running the adventures: while my Kordovian campaign (where we meet up every 4-6 weeks or so on a Saturday for a 4-6 hour game session) is written like individual, mostly standalone episodes of a TV show, Logan's (almost) weekly Durnhill campaign is more like individual chapters in a novel. Now we just need to work on getting Joey to show up more often, as his PC Daleth is still at 4th-level while Orion just joined the rest of us at 6th level after this session.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 4
Galen Thorne, human paladin 6
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 6
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 6
Syngaard, human fighter 6​

Game Session Date: 6 June 2018

- - -

Once again Logan did up handouts for each of the players, informing them of a particular dream they were having (or, in the case of the elves, what they heard while they were in their nightly reverie). As a reminder, Syngaard generally sleeps in a brothel across town while the others each have a room directly over their headquarters, the Enchanted Flagon.

Syngaard's Dream Handout said:
She is telling you a story as you lay in her lap.

A bloody key hangs from a tree. A drop of blood is flowing down the trunk, the tree's branches withering and dying as the blood traces lines through its bark. At the base of the tree the single drop splits in two. "Do whatever you must to keep them both safe. Even if it breaks your heart."

You awaken a little before sunrise and decide to head over to the tavern early.

Galen's Dream Handout said:
It's all your fault: you didn't believe your brother capable of the evil of which he was accused. If you'd have acted sooner perhaps things wouldn't have gone so far. You know you can't stop him while weighed down with this guilt; you'd hoped to leave your friends out of this, but the keeper told you that most who faced the trials alone failed. Knowing you'll have to come back again with Galen, you've been memorizing the way to the Halls.

A scream rings out as your consciousness disentangles itself from Zehkar's memories and you awaken.

Orion's Dream Handout said:
You're riding Carl through a bright open field when a cloud crosses in front of the sun. The shade brings a sudden chill. A child is sitting by the river (was that river always there?); he looks so frail and sickly. You know something is very wrong, like an alarm going off in the back of your head, yet Carl keeps moving toward the sickly child. He's playing with five pebbles (or are they skulls?) as a horribly familiar voice speaks out, "Hello again, Miss Nightsky, will you be my friend? I haven't had any friends in a long last friend got my brother to kill me." As if to prove a point a wound opens in his chest. As you look away you see his reflection in the river. (That water looks more like osteovox.) The child's reflection is a mithral skeleton bound in black chains. Each chain link has a glowing red rune carved into it, though one of the runes has gone dark - it looks like a pebble is lodged into it. (One of the skull pebbles the child is playing with?)

A scream rings out and it takes you a while to realize it is your own. You awaken.

Daleth's Handout said:
Your trance is broken by a scream from Orion's room.

Kaspar's Handout said:
Your trance is broken by a scream from Orion's room.

- - -

Syngaard raced down the silent city streets with all of his adventuring gear, headed toward the Enchanted Flagon. As he ran, he recalled the last time he did this the group had been waylaid by dwarven assassins, but that had been in the middle of the night and the sun was already rising this morning - he should be able to see anybody skulking about in ambush on the rooftops. However, his cross-city race was uneventful, other than the strange looks he got from the few shopkeepers opening up their places of business who were surprised to see a heavily-scarred adventurer running down the street in full gear so early in the morning.

The tavern was closed as he approached, but the silver ring he wore unlocked the door as he approached and the everburning torches lit in their sconces once he entered the taproom. Karen was standing there in the back, behind the bar, of course - as an illusion covering an unseen servant spell, she had no existence other than to serve the needs of Skevros and his secret band of adventurers. But besides her, the bald fighter was alone; Skevros was no doubt in the extradimensional quarters he kept in the back stockroom and the others were likely all upstairs in their bunks. Syngaard figured he should probably go check on them, but after his run he didn't feel like handling the stairs just yet. Instead, he plopped into a chair and called for a morning mead. Karen wordlessly complied.

Upstairs, in the building's second floor, everyone had converged to Orion's room after they had heard her scream. Syngaard was still halfway across town when she told everyone she was all right and that she had just had a bad dream; Galen admitted he'd likewise had a very vivid dream that had felt like a sending from the centuries-slain paladin Zehkar who now resided in his sword. "Let's get cleaned up and meet downstairs," he suggested. "We can go over our dreams together, with Skevros, and he can summon Syngaard to meet us."

But when they clomped down the back stairs and entered the tavern from the front door some minutes later, Syngaard was already there. "You're up early," commented Orion, now dressed in her full combat leathers and mithral breastplate. Behind her, Carl padded to his customary corner and laid his head on his front paws.

"Had another of them funny dreams," the bald fighter replied. "Figured I'd head on over, like last time."

"I'll get Skevros," offered Kaspar, heading to the back. Returning several minutes later with the king's adviser, he took a seat around the table the group had assigned as their briefing area.

"Now then, what's this about strange dreams?" Skevros asked the group.

Orion went first, explaining her dream in full and then asking their leader what he thought it meant. "Well, there's an obvious correlation between the five stones the child was playing with and the five severed heads you brought back to me from your last outing." Indeed, the five severed heads of the Hextorites aligned with the Seekers of Eternity had been placed behind the bar for safe keeping the night before. "The water becoming osteovox is also a factor. And I must say, the fact that there was a pebble lodged into one of the links of the chain binding the skeleton - and that its magic rune had gone out - seems to me to be a warning. I believe our osteovox investigations - at least those involving severed heads - are weakening the bindings keeping the Mithral Mage at bay. I don't believe it would be prudent to subject the remaining five severed heads to the ritual."

"Agreed," said Galen. "My dream seemed to be a sending from Zehkar, concerning a set of trials. And it confirmed that Zehkar and the Mithral Mage were brothers."

"What about yours?" asked Orion, looking over at Syngaard. The fighter fidgeted a bit, uncomfortable with sharing his dreams with his fellow adventurers. After some coaxing, he gave an abbreviated synopsis of it, leaving out the woman entirely and the part about his heart being broken. "There was a bloody key hanging from a tree, and a drop of blood running down the bark, with branches wilting and stuff. When it got to the roots it split in two and I was supposed to keep them both safe, no matter what. Just a stupid dream," he muttered into his mead.

"Still, it has some interesting imagery," mused Skevros. "A line of blood - a bloodline - and a tree, perhaps a reference to a family tree given the familial ties between Zehkar and the Mithral Mage."

"So we have to keep the Mithral Mage and Zehkar safe?" asked Galen. "That doesn't make any sense."

"No, it's unlikely the split drop of blood refers to them," Skevros admitted. "But that's the thing about dreams: nothing's ever very straightforward. Much like many divinations, I'm afraid. But I did learn some things from repeated readings of 'The Curse of the Mithral Mage.' Apparently Zehkar was blessed by the gods with mild prophetic ability. The Mithral Mage - real name still unknown, I'm afraid - was Zehkar's younger brother, and was born with incurable illness and frailty. He wasn't expected to reach adulthood. He studied arcane magic in order to cure himself since the gods would not. He befriended Hirek - the Scarlet Sage - and together they founded a guild of alchemy devoted to finding or creating an elixir of life. This is, no doubt, the origin of the Seekers of Eternity. In any case, the Mithral Mage became obsessed with mithral, believing it to be the key to immortality. When he showed Hirek the results of his horrific experiments on unwilling victims, Hirek sought out Zehkar to warn him of his brother's evil."

Galen's gaze focused inward as he recalled his dream of that morning. Skevros continued, "Zehkar was unwilling to believe his brother capable of such evil until years later, when he and his friends stumbled upon an entire village turned to mithral. Overcome with guilt at his inaction, Zehkar sought redemption before he faced off against his brother to end his evil. From Serenity's notes and Galen's dream, I believe he went to the Halls of Redemption.

"The Mithral Mage's last words spoken to his brother before his own death were, 'You have chosen this fate, not me,' spoken as Zekhar stabbed him through the heart. The Mithral Mage immediately rose from the dead as a lich, turned Zehkar to mithral, and teleported them both away.

"Hirek was able to divine Zehkar's location to one of the Mithral Mage's lairs, and knowing it to be warded against good and law he summoned a demon to find and retrieve Zehkar's mithral form. She returned empty-handed, claiming there was only a stone statue with a sword."

"Serenity!" gasped Galen.

"That would be my supposition, yes," agreed Skevros. "The Mithral Mage then returned, forcing Hirek and group to flee. Further attempts to divine Zehkar's whereabouts were blocked. Hirek and his group hunted down the Mithral Mage, destroying his body and what they thought was his phylactery. However, the Mithral Mage returned with a vengeance, turning another entire village to mithral.

"After ten more attempts at destroying him, with ten more villages destroyed as little more than a message of their failure, Hirek finally divined the true nature of the lich's phylactery at great cost to himself. Knowing that the Mithral Mage was incapable of being destroyed in their own lifetimes, they devised a most dire plan. The final chapter of the book is written by Hirek, not Osleth, due to Osleth's sacrifice in order to bind the Hope Ender. Hirek, Tenryu, and the Hope Ender faced off against the Mithral Mage one final time. A tremor was felt around the world as the Northchill Mountains belched forth the armies of Hell."

"Northchill Mountains?" echoed Daleth. "I presume those were what we now know as the Baator's Breath Mountains?"

"One would expect. In any case, for nine months the Mithral Mage fled from the Hope Ender's armies until finally he was captured and dragged back to Hell, never to be seen again," finished Skevros.

"Although we have spoken with him recently, via the elven druid's skull and the osteovox," added Daleth. "Interesting."

"And this brings us back to the mission at hand," said Skevros. "We still need to know what happened to Serenity. According to her notes and diary, she set out to the city Hirek founded in order to ask his ghost the location of the Halls of Redemption. Rather than have you chasing in her footsteps, let us assume she was successful - I think we'd be best served for you to go directly to the Halls of Redemption."

"Great!" replied Syngaard, eager for some action after all this hashing over dreams and diaries and journals. "We know where this place is at?"

"It is my belief that Zehkar can guide Galen to the proper location."

"I think he can," replied Galen, his hand on the hilt of the sword of Zehkar. "I'm getting a strong feeling that the Halls are in the southern part of the Azure Glade."

"Not there again," griped Syngaard.

"Ah, that would be your transportation!" said Skevros, looking over at the front door, having heard something that neither of the sharp-eared elves had heard. "I have taken the liberty of summoning Anuja and her wagon to drive you there."

"I'll go saddle up Seneca," Galen said, leaping from his seat and heading to the adjacent stables where his warhorse was housed.

The first day of travel was uneventful. On the second day, well inside the boundaries of the Azure Glade judging by all of the blue-hued vegetation, Galen noticed a patch of trees and vegetation of a more normal green color. "Hold up!" he called, signaling with his fist as he spun Seneca around from his vanguard. Behind him, Anuja brought the horse-drawn wagon to a halt.

"Do you see that?" the young paladin asked.

"See what?" asked Orion, bringing Carl up to a halt beside the wagon and looking to where Galen was pointing. The others, in the back of the wagon, likewise looked but saw nothing unusual.

"That patch of green vegetation," Galen answered, pointing directly at what he could see clearly as a spot of green poking up among all of the blue leaves. It formed a path through the rest of the forest to the side of the road.

"You hit your head or something?" asked Syngaard. Nobody else could see it.

"Perhaps this is your sword's way of directing your attention," suggested Kaspar. "I would advise we follow it, see where it leads."

"Agreed. Onward, Seneca!" Orion followed on Carl and Anuja wheeled the wagon behind. Together, they reached a clearing in the woods that got Galen all kinds of excited. "There!" he cried. "Do you see it?" He pointed at the ruins of an outdoor amphitheater, its marble structure partially crumbled from the many years since its construction.

"Just a depression in the ground," observed Daleth - for the amphitheater was invisible to all but the paladin. On a whim, Syngaard stepped beside Galen and placed a hand on the hilt of the sword of Zehkar buckled at the paladin's side. Instantly, the hidden amphitheater came into view.

"Oh yeah, it's here," Syngaard agreed. "Come touch his sword." Leaving Anuja with the wagon and the two horses, the conscripts each touched the sword of Zehkar; as each did, the ruins became visible to them as well. The marble structure was surrounded by a field of green grass, not normally found within the confines of the Azure Glade.

"The Halls of Redemption, one would suppose," remarked Daleth.

"There's writing along the back wall," observed Kaspar as he moved closer to make out what it said. But it was written in a script unknown to the group. "Celestial," Kaspar suggested.

Placing his hand on the hilt of his sword, Galen found out that while he couldn't read Celestial, Zehkar could. "'Announce yourself, and your purpose,'" he translated. Then, in a louder voice, he called, "I am Galen Thorne, and I am here to fight against evil!"

At his announcement, two figures walked through the back wall beneath the inscription. Each was built like a heavily armored human, but there was nobody inside - just the animated suits of armor themselves. "Prove yourself worthy to enter the halls," one said, to be followed by the other's dire warning: "Do not hold back for we shall not either." The two constructs then took on combat stances and one of them said, "Combatant Galen acknowledged."

Orion, not sure of whether or not she should attack these constructs, opted to ready herself to attack if either approached her or Carl. But their defensive stances did not alter; they were apparently programmed not to initiate hostilities. Daleth opted to play for time by casting a mage armor spell upon himself - he certainly wasn't going to be the first to attack!

Syngaard had no such compunctions against initiating combat with a couple of empty suits of armor. He ran up to the closest and bashed the side of its helmet in with his magic morningstar. Galen, already in front of the guardians since he had been translating the inscription, delivered two decent blows against the same guardian Syngaard struck. Through their combat experience, both Galen and Syngaard realized their blows weren't entirely as effective as they should have been.

But now, having been struck in combat, the guardians whirred to life. Both focused solely on Galen - perhaps because he had been the only one to announce himself? - and the paladin tried keeping the blows striking his shield; of the four, only one made it past his defenses.

"I am Kaspar Hardstrike, and I fight in defense of my friends!" announced the elven monk before joining the fray, sending an iron-hard fist smashing into the partially damaged construct. "Combatant Kaspar acknowledged," replied the animated guardian, apparently not at all concerned about the damage the monk had just dealt it.

Deciding to go with the flow, Orion called out, "I am Orion Nightsky and I will aid my companions!" as she sent Carl forward so she could slash at the other guardian with her flaming short sword. Daleth followed suit, calling out "I am Daleth Stormsea and I fight beside my friends!" Using his metamagic rod, he sent an empowered scorching ray at the construct Orion was fighting.

"Combatant Orion acknowledged," said one construct.

"Combatant Daleth acknowledged," said the other.

Syngaard wasn't in the mood for exchanging pleasantries with the enemies he was fighting; instead, he brought his morningstar down with every ounce of strength he possessed. It became instantly immobilized, encased in a golden glow; whether it had been destroyed or not was questionable, but it was certainly out of the fight.

Galen, seeing Syngaard's success, opted to do likewise with the second guardian. However, it moved out of immediate danger when the paladin brought his longsword crashing down, and it cast a spell upon itself as it did so. Galen thought the effects looked the same as the divine favor spell he had used himself on occasion - were these paladin constructs? He'd never heard of such a thing.

Kaspar moved up to strike the remaining guardian, reminding Syngaard to introduce himself before the battle was over. "What for?" the fighter asked. "They don't seem to attack you if they don't acknowledge your presence."

"They also might not let you into the Halls of Redemption," the monk chided, striking out with his fist at the construct. Orion flanked the guardian with the monk, striking at what looked like a weak link in its armor that would have been devastating had she been fighting a living foe.

"Fine," grumbled Syngaard, moving up to the sole remaining guardian. "The name's Syngaard. I'm here to kill those in our way."

"Combatant Syngaard acknowledged," replied the construct as a series of magic missiles struck it, courtesy of the group's elven wizard. Those were its last words, as together Galen and Syngaard pounded it with their weapons until it too became immobile and encased in a golden glow. Immediately a doorway appeared in the back wall of the amphitheater from which the guardians had first emerged.

"We're in," said Galen, leading the way through the doorway. The others followed him into an ornate room bisected by a lush, red carpet leading to a pair of thronelike chairs in the back of the room, one of them having fallen into decay. Statues and mirrors decorated alcoves along both side walls, but of immediate notice was the dead body on the floor before one of the thrones. It lay wrapped in what looked like a leathery cloak. Blackish bloodstains were scattered about the whole place as if many battles had taken place here over the years.

"This whole place is evil!" cried Galen suddenly, using his paladin vision to detect for evil in the auras of those people and items around him.

"Surely not the whole area," reasoned Kaspar. "I thought this was built by celestials."

"No, you're right," acknowledged Galen, using his enhanced vision to scan the whole room. "It's not the whole place, just the bloodstains that are scattered about. And the woman in the back."

"Surely that's not Serenity?" asked Orion.

"If it is, she's not nearly as evil as she used to be," the paladin told her. He'd gotten splitting headaches in the past whenever he tried to sense the aura of the succubus. "Look: another inscription in Celestial," Galen pointed at the back wall, behind the thrones. Walking closer, to make out the carved writing, and using his sword Zehkar as a translator, he read, "'Only those who can defeat their inner demons can truly find redemption.'"

"Watch out for the mirrors!" Galen called suddenly. "I've heard of these: you look into one, and your reflection steps out to try to kill you." Everyone made a great effort to keep from looking at one of the side mirrors, Orion going so far as unfolding a white handkerchief and tying it around Carl's eyes. The riding dog dropped down on its belly and rested its head on its front paws.

Leaving Carl behind, Orion stepped forward with the rest of the group to check out the corpse on the floor. What had at first looked to be a cape or cloak was revealed instead to be a leathery wing, much like that of a bat - or a succubus. As Galen reached over and turned the corpse onto its back, an ominous slamming noise from the front of the room let the conscripts know they were now sealed into the Halls of Redemption. Orion ran back to check out the doors, but there were no keyholes or locks to try to pick.

"It's Serenity, all right," confirmed Galen, looking at the face of the dead body before him.

"But which one?" asked Daleth. "The original, or the mirror clone?"

"A good question," confirmed Kaspar.

"I'm gonna go sit on the thrones, see what happens," decided Syngaard. "Maybe I can command the doors to open up or somethin'." But the plan was impossible to implement, if only because of a strong compulsion effect preventing anyone from approaching the thrones too closely. "Well that bites," complained the fighter.

"It would seem we're going to have to activate the mirrors and confront our own inner demons," observed Galen.

"Let's do this smart, though," suggested Syngaard. "Instead of all five of us at once, howzabout we activate one at a time and pound 'em with overwhelming odds?"

"That hardly seems sporting," observed Kaspar.

"We ain't here to be sporting," countered Syngaard. "We're here to kill our inner demons. And nobody said nothin' about no fair fight."

"I'll go first," offered Kaspar, approaching the nearest mirror. He was surprised by what he saw in the mirror: rather than an evil version of himself, he saw a female figure, wearing robes similar to his own, but all black. He recognized her as the woman he had fought in his Trial of Strength when he had won the right to wield the tenryutsume. But this female monk also wore the tenryutsume, and as she stepped out of the mirror Kaspar could see it was made of blue metal, and she wore it on her left hand rather than on her right, as he did. Kaspar immediately fled past Galen, who had the sword of Zehkar out and ready to strike; the monk hoped he could get the mirror clone to chase after him (surely she would be focused solely on slaying him above all others?) and the paladin could get in a good strike against her. The plan worked perfectly, as Kaspar's "inner demon" disregarded the threat of Galen in her determination to slay her male counterpart, and the paladin dealt her a powerful blow with his longsword. However, she survived the attack and raced up to Kaspar, striking him a shocking blow with her own tenryutsume.

Syngaard stepped forward, throwing his returning javelin at the black-clad monk, scoring another solid hit - she didn't even try to swat it away like that other monk chick Syngaard had fought outside Kaspar's monastery! "Remember she's a human!" called out Kaspar as he struck his counterpart, hinting that the scarred fighter might do well to use his human bane scimitar against her. Syngaard caught the javelin as it returned to his hand, stashed it in his shield hand, and pulled out his scimitar.

Galen struck at the monk with his longsword but missed; in the meantime, Daleth, feeling the others had a good handle on defeating Kaspar's inner demon, decided to go check out his own. Stepping in front of another mirror, he focused his gaze upon his own counterpart. This one actually looked like the elf, but it had considerably more magic items - it rode upon a carpet of flying, for one thing - and his elegant, flowing robes told of the vast riches this evil counterpart had gathered by not being sidelined on boring library excursions. Daleth stepped back, preparing a magic missile spell. Orion saw Daleth's inner demon ready to exit the mirror and moved over to aid the elf.

As it exited, the carpet-riding wizard was struck by Daleth's empowered magic missile spell and one of Orion's throwing daggers. He demonstrated how similar he was to the real elf wizard, though, by completely missing with his own empowered scorching ray spell. Both versions of Daleth shook their heads in disbelief.

Kaspar and his counterpart exchanged flurries of blows, their twin tenryutsume sending sparks of electricity with each attack. While the monk kept her occupied, Syngaard got within range and cut her down with his human bane scimitar, proving once and for all that the "original" was not needed to strike the final blow against the "duplicate." Across the room, Orion threw another dagger at Daleth's evil twin; Galen rushed up and swung his longsword above his head as the carpet of flying went past him, but the paladin's weapon failed to connect. Like true mirror images, each Daleth pulled out a wand of magic missiles and shot at each other; naturally, each struck true. But then Kaspar leaped up with a flying kick that sent the evil elf image crashing to the ground. Daleth rushed up, eager to grab the carpet of flying for himself, and was dismayed to see it was attached to the feet of his counterpart, even in death. Apparently slaying one's inner demon in the Halls of Redemption was no quick path to riches!

"You're next, Syngaard!" Galen called out. With a shrug, the bald fighter walked over to the nearest mirror and looked at what he expected would be his own reflection. Instead, all the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up and the blood drained from his face as he looked at the red-headed woman standing before him in the glass.

"Mezz," he whispered inaudibly, then took immediate action. Racing up to the mirror, he blocked it with his body and spun around, his scimitar raised in a defensive position, warning the rest of the party away without saying a single word.

"What are you up to?" demanded Galen, confused. "We don't have time for this, Syngaard!"

"I got this," Syngaard countered. "You go deal with the other images."

Exasperated by the fighter's stupidity, Orion decided she'd go next. She stepped up to a mirror alcove and was dismayed to see not only an "evil Orion" there in the glass, but an "evil Carl" as well - for her own riding dog was resting behind her, well within the field of view of the mirror's reflection.

The evil halfling leaped from the mirror, stabbing Orion with her own flaming short sword - but fortunately, although the blade bit deep, the bracelet the halfling had taken from the female human assassin who had tried killing Maria Quillbender prevented the sword's flames from doing her any additional harm. It then proved to be equally effective against a hell hound's bite, for the evil mirror version of Carl breathed fire from its slavering mouth.

Galen, also perplexed by Syngaard's bone-headedness, saw Orion in need of assistance and moved to aid her. Unfortunately, while he got in a good blow on the evil halfling rogue, to do so he brought himself in full view of the mirror from which she had emerged; a blackguard version of Galen stepped partially out, smiting the paladin with an ebon sword.

Daleth removed Carl's blindfold and urged him to help his mistress, before sending a magic missile barrage that finished off the evil halfling. Carl bounded to his feet and raced at the hell hound threatening Orion. Kaspar was already there, striking at the hellish canine with the glowing, red eyes.

One mirror alcove away, Syngaard grimaced in pain as the blade of a human bane dagger pierced through the mirror and into his back. He could feel rivulets of blood leaking from the wound, but decided he could take another few hits like that before he needed to do anything about it. In the meantime, he kept up his defensive posture, ensuring none of his friends were coming to his aid against his own mirror foe.

Orion struck at Carl's hellish counterpart, while her riding dog snapped ineffectively at the hell hound with his teeth. A sudden blast of flames erupted from the canine beast's mouth, engulfing both Galen and Orion. As the smoke cleared, Orion was unscathed while the paladin had suffered only minor burns. He went to retaliate but missed with his longsword; all he had accomplished was to give his mirror duplicate room to step fully from the mirror.

Figuring "Evil Galen" was the bigger threat, Daleth hit him with an empowered magic missile, causing the blackguard to stagger. Kaspar followed his fellow elf's lead, striking at the black-armored warrior with a hardened fist.

As his companions flailed around trying to take out Galen's counterpart and the hell hound, Syngaard spun around in place and faced his mirror duplicate, standing practically in front of the glass and thus not giving her room to step fully out. She stabbed at him with the human bane dagger; as her dagger emerged from the glass Syngaard tried striking it from her hand with the hilt of his own weapon, but he wasn't used to fighting in such cramped conditions and was unable to force her to drop the blade. But then she struck at him again and in a surprise move, Syngaard let his own weapon drop to the floor and he struck out with both hands, grabbing the woman's wrist and arm below it, pinning it in place as it emerged from the mirror. And there the two stood, face to face, the woman's snarling in a grimace of hatred as she tried to free her hand, while Syngaard, refusing to let go, wore an expression of awe and sadness.

It took several failed strikes and many unfailing magic missiles, but eventually the others defeated Galen's evil counterpart and the hell hound version of Carl; their enemies' bodies sprawled on the floor before them, the group's attention went back to the spectacle of Syngaard standing before his mirror, gripping the wrist of the woman who had yet to step fully out into the room.

"Whoever you think that is, she's not real!" Galen called, trying to use reason on the stubborn fighter. But Syngaard was having none of it. "Go away!" he called. "I've got everything under control!" The blood dripping from the back of his armor belied his statement, however.

Kaspar pulled a shuriken from his robes and assessed the shot for a moment, visualizing every needed movement. Then he struck out, releasing the bladed weapon at the end of his arm's arc. The throwing star whirled across the room, finding its target in the soft flesh of the arm sticking out of the mirror - the arm that Syngaard held in a deathlike grip. The woman barely seemed affected by the shuriken sticking out from her arm, whereas Syngaard gave a roar of rage as it struck. "Leave us alone!" he demanded.

Seeing little other option, Daleth cast a color spray spell at the scarred fighter, hoping to stun him into submission. Surprisingly, Syngaard shrugged off its intended effects without even seeming to notice.

Orion had long since given up trying to figure out the workings of Syngaard's mind; she mounted Carl and rode her dog back to the throne, to see if she could approach it now that her inner demon had been slain. She was able to walk all the way up to the throne in good condition but still couldn't actually sit on it; the halfling thought she could see the shimmering outline of a figure already sitting there. "Zehkar, is that you?" she asked, and was surprised to get a response.

"No, I am not Zehkar - I am the watcher of these Halls. Your friend seems to be struggling."

"He's not really my friend," Orion replied. "More like a barely-tolerated co-worker."

As the others approached him from behind, Syngaard was forced to release his hold upon the mirror woman so he could turn and face them. Rather than pick up his discarded scimitar, he grabbed the morningstar from his belt. "Keep back!" he warned his companions, as the woman in the mirror took the opportunity to stab at Syngaard's exposed back again. He winced in pain but said nothing.

"I'm not healing those wounds, you know," Galen threatened.

"Nobody asked you to," Syngaard snarled back, absently wondering if he'd be able to reach the healing potions at his belt in time if it came to that.

Daleth, frowning at the fighter's stubborn behavior, tried a glitterdust spell on him. This time, Syngaard was unable to counter its effects using only his own willpower; a wall of blackness descended over his eyesight. "No!" he cried in panic, and Kaspar grabbed him and pulled him away from the mirror. Spun about, Syngaard had no idea which way he was facing - so he struck out blindly with his morningstar at nothing while his red-headed mirror counterpart stepped through the glass and stabbed him again with her dagger.

But now that she was out in the open, she faced Kaspar, Galen, and Daleth as well as Syngaard. The first two struck out with fist and blade, while the wizard cast another magic missile at the red-headed woman, eliciting a groan of pain from her lips. Stumbling around in his blindness, Syngaard remembered the dream from that morning, especially the part about "breaking his heart."

"Hold off!" Syngaard begged his friends. "I'm okay now! I know what I have to do!" Galen looked suspiciously at the scarred fighter, but Syngaard continued in all earnestness, "Tell me where she is, I've got to be the one to kill her." The paladin grabbed Syngaard's shoulder and spun him around until he was facing his nemesis; the others had broken off their attacks upon hearing the fighter's pleas. Plus, nobody was exactly sure about how this place worked; not everybody had slain their own mirror counterpart, but was it necessary for the last one to be slain by the original? Nobody knew.

Grateful in hindsight for the blindness that prevented him from seeing his inner demon, Syngaard swung his morningstar for all he was worth. He felt the collision of worked steel and solid flesh as the weapon hit its mark; the woman fell to the floor, lifeless. "I'm sorry, Mezz," whispered Syngaard, too quietly for the others to hear. Then his legs gave out and he sat on the floor in a sudden heap, waiting for the spell to run its course and restore his vision.

In a sudden flash of light - one that went unnoticed by the group's bald fighter - the angelic figure seated upon the throne revealed itself. "I have never seen a battle so intense," he said, "though Syngaard's struggle is why it is recommended that those who come here do not do so alone." With a wave if his hand the bodies, including Serenity's, disappeared, thankfully before Syngaard's magical blindness wore off. He wouldn't have wanted to see the woman's corpse in that condition.

"None of you require redemption, so I offer you each your choice of Knowledge or Power," said the celestial being on the throne. "One question to be answered truthfully to those who seek Knowledge; a trinket or enchantment to aid those who seek Power."

"Power," replied Syngaard without hesitation from his seat on the floor. With but a glance, the celestial agent increased the enchantment on the fighter's morningstar.

Daleth replied, "Knowledge."

"Then ask your question."

The elf thought it over. "In a recent interrogation with the spirit of the Mithral Mage, it referred to us by nicknames, although some are questionable as to who was meant. What is the meaning of the nickname the Mithral Mage gave me?" The group had assumed Daleth was "the Father of Hirek's Key," if only by process of elimination - all of the other nicknames seemed to point directly at one or another of the conscripts, leaving Daleth with the one that didn't seem to fit anyone else in particular.

With a sad smile the angel responded, "Alas, you are the Dimwit, for though your have great intelligence, your wit is often lacking."

Syngaard chuckled unkindly from the floor. "Case in point: I just got a free weapon upgrade, while you spent your wish being called a dimwit. Nice one, elf boy." Daleth just scowled at the fighter he'd blinded, angry with Syngaard for being so crass and for himself at the truth of the fighter's words.

"I'll go with Power," said Orion, seeing how poorly Knowledge had worked for Daleth. The angel made a gesture with his hand, and a small sack appeared in the halfling's hand. She tipped it over, and a seemingly endless cascade of daggers came pouring out in a rush, to clink onto the floor before disappearing. She quickly turned the bag right-side-up, but he angel reassured her, "You will never run out. That is an infinite supply of throwing daggers." Orion gasped at the priceless treasure she held in her hands. "Thank you!" she cried.

Kaspar was unsure of which way to go, for Knowledge was the path to true power...and yet, the two who had chosen Power had not regretted it. "Power," he finally decided, and from his tenryutsume sprang forth flames that covered his hand and forearm without burning him. From that point on, when desired, it would deal both fire and electrical damage to those struck by Kaspar's right fist. The elf bowed in acknowledgement of the gift he had received.

Galen was likewise tempted, but he went with Knowledge. "What must we do to stop the Mithral Mage's goals?" he asked.

After some contemplation the angel replied, "Step one: stop using osteovox. Step two: defeat the Seekers of Eternity. Step three: protect Hirek's bloodline. Step four: kill the Hope Ender. There may be other opportunities unseen at this time, but those four must be done." Galen nodded in determination, although there were still further questions he had: how best to defeat the Hope Ender, a pit fiend, one of the most powerful types of devil in existence? And who made up Hirek's bloodline? But these were questions they'd have to seek the answers to later.

Syngaard began blinking rapidly as his vision started clearing up, the glitterdust spell having run its course. With a wave of his hand, the angel caused the doors to the Halls of Redemption to open. As the party turned to leave, the angel gave them one final message. "Free the one who found redemption, free her from the Seekers of Eternity."

Orion sighed. "We're still no closer to finding Serenity," she said.

"We'll find her," Galen promised. "And this time, she shouldn't give me a splitting headache if I try to read her aura!"

- - -

This was our longest session, lasting from our normal start time of about 6:30 PM and not finishing up until nearly 10:00; it's a good thing that school's out for the summer and Harry doesn't have to get up early in the morning anymore! Of course, I was partially to blame, in that Syngaard steadfastly refused to fight his mirror counterpart until forced to do so, for reasons that make absolute sense to me (although I had Dan crawling the walls trying to figure out just what I thought I was doing). But all will be made clear, probably at the start of the next session, when Syngaard will have to explain himself to Skevros and the others - using the back-story I had created for him at the very beginning.

And it seems Serenity is now a non-evil succubus. That's an interesting turn of events. We still have no idea as to her whereabouts, though - we'll have to try to hit up Skevros for some more divinations.

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