The Durnhill Conscripts



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 4
Galen Thorne, human paladin 7
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 7
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 6
Syngaard, human fighter 7​

Game Session Date: 20 June 2018

- - -

"You mind telling me just what the Hell that was all about?" demanded Galen, grabbing Syngaard by the shoulder as they exited the Halls of Redemption and returned to Anuja, the wagon, and the horses.

"Matter of fact, I do," snarled back Syngaard, shrugging the paladin's hand off his shoulder.

"I think we have a right to know the meaning behind that red-headed woman," Orion said. "Was she your sister?"

"You'll get your answers," promised Syngaard as he climbed up into the back of the wagon, where Daleth and Kaspar were already sitting in anticipation of the day-and-a-half trip back to their headquarters in Durnhill. "But not until we get back to Skevros. I'm only tellin' the story once." And that was all the bald fighter would say about the matter, despite further prompting. In fact, he kept his own counsel for the duration of the next day and a half, staring silently off into space for most of the trip; Orion found she didn't miss his snide comments about halflings one bit.

But after Anuja pulled the wagon up beside the Enchanted Flagon and everyone piled out, Syngaard merely walked into the inn and ordered a tankard of ale from Karen, the permanent spell effect Skevros had set up as a bartender. He sat at the table and drank his drink silently, waiting for everyone to settle in around him.

"What's going on?" asked Skevros, looking at the rest of the group eyeing Syngaard expectantly.

"Did you see what happened in the Halls of Redemption?" Galen asked.

"As a matter of fact, I did not," replied the king's adviser. "My scrying blacked out during the time you entered the Halls until you exited again. Were you successful?" Galen filled the king's adviser in on what had transpired inside the Halls of Redemption, including Syngaard's strange behavior. "I see," he said. "Syngaard? Do you wish to fill us in?"

The scarred fighter took a swig of his ale before answering. "I got a question first."

Skevros sighed. "Of course you do."

"You got any wizard spells you could cast on everyone here, so that if they repeat anything I'm about to tell them outside this room, like...their tongues'll turn black and fall off, or something?"

"You refer to the mark of justice," Skevros answered. "Like the one inscribed upon my own forehead, which will slay me if I ever step outside the boundaries of the kingdom of Durnhill."

"Yeah, okay," agreed Syngaard. "Like that."

"I refuse to submit to such a spell under general principles!" fumed Galen. "I will not wear such a mark upon my brow!"

"That does seem a bit excessive," pointed out Kaspar.

"Okay, then," replied Syngaard. He pointed at Galen's enchanted longsword the paladin wore at his hip. "That sword of yours, it's got the ghost of a dead paladin in it, right?" Galen disagreed with the term "ghost" but admitted the basic concept was true. "Then I want everyone to swear on Galen's sword that what I tell you don't leave this room. That's my terms."

Galen took a deep breath to calm his anger - he didn't like the assumption that his word wasn't good enough, the word of a paladin of Hieroneous! - but it seemed the easiest way to get the story out of the stubborn fighter. "Very well," he agreed, unsheathing the sword of Zehkar and holding it out horizontally before his chest. Placing his left hand upon the blade, he said, "I swear by this sword that I will not willingly repeat what Syngaard is about to tell us." He added "willingly" to the oath to cover the possibility of some future enemy dragging the tale out of him via enchantment magic or some similar means. Syngaard accepted the modification and ordered another ale while the rest of the group, Skevros included, each swore the oath with hand on sword.

"Okay then," Syngaard said, looking down at the tabletop before him - the focus he kept his eyes gazed upon as he told his tale.

"I never knew my father," the bald fighter began. "My mother, she never worked in no brothel, but she was in the same line of work - only a private businesswoman, if you will. Anyway, money was always tight, and I spent most of my time in the streets, scroungin' for a living. I got caught up in some gangs, got into a bunch of scraps - Hell, I got most of these scars before I was eighteen years old.

"Anyway, this crime boss, Mr. Karlo Maladucci, he saw me and hired me on the spot as one of his personal bodyguards - liked the way I looked all fearsome and such, I guess. My job was to travel with him and look all intimidating-like, with my morningstar on prominent display. That usually did the trick, although I did end up doing a fair bit of fighting on his behalf as his bodyguard.

"Anyway, after a couple of years of that I messed up my knee pretty bad in this one fight, and I couldn't travel with Mr. Maladucci no more - I'd've slowed 'im down. So he set me up as a bouncer in this tavern he owned, the Black Wyvern - kinda like this place, only in the low part of town, and it was at least twice the size, with plenty of private rooms where all sorts of criminal activity was planned. And it was was there I met Mezz.

"Messalina Maladucci was the boss's daughter - and she was the most beautiful woman I ever seen in my life. She was a bartender at the Black Wyvern, and one look at her and I was in love. Didn't do nothin' about it, though - Hell, she was way out of my league, what with my scarred-up face and all. Plus, you know, the boss's daughter. Wouldn't've been a smart idea to go down that path."

Syngaard took a sip of his ale; Orion resisted the impulse to add, "That never stopped you before" - she was actually interested in seeing how this story would play out.

"Anyway, after awhile, Mr. Maladucci got caught up in a big gang war, a bigger one than the little skirmishes that was always goin' on. This got big real quick, and nasty - they stopped abidin' by all the normal rules, like keepin' family out of it. Mr. Maladucci, he was worried somebody'd take Mezz down to get at him, either hold her for ransom or kill her just to mess up his day. So he told me to keep her safe, no matter what. I think...I think he knew, even then, how I felt about her, and he knew I'd keep her safe or die trying.

"So I had this log cabin I'd made out in the woods. I ain't no craftsman or nothin', but it had four walls and a roof and it kept the inside mostly dry in the rain, so that was all I'd been lookin' for at the time - a place to get away by myself when I got tired of all the fearful stares and pitying looks. I took Mezz there and we hid out while the gang war went on in the city and the surrounding areas. There was a stream and a pond nearby for water, and plenty of game for me to take down with my sling - a deer every now and then, but mostly squirrels and rabbits and the occasional quail. And Mezz started up a vegetable garden there by the cabin - it gave her something to do with her time.

"All in all, we spent nearly a year out there. That was...that was the best year of my life, right up until the end."

Syngaard stopped there and took another swig of his ale, thinking back on his time with Mezz in the little cabin. Nobody else spoke; they sensed this was difficult for the gruff fighter to get through.

Finally, he continued his tale. "After the first couple of weeks, Mezz told me she'd always known how I felt about her, and she said she was startin' to feel the same way about me. And a couple of weeks after that, she said she wanted us to get married. She was all for sneakin' into town and gettin' hitched, but I knew that was likely to be too dangerous - so we compromised. I knew this blind druid, name of Herbert, used to swing by the cabin every once in a while - we had him perform the ceremony, right there outside the cabin, there in the sunlight by her little garden.

"A couple of months after that, and she was pregnant. Herbert swung by at least once a month, and promised he'd swing by weekly once she got to the eight-month mark, until he felt it was close to time for her to deliver, and then he'd stay with us until the baby was born. That was the plan....

"...Only it didn't work out that way. 'Bout halfway through her seventh month, she got these real bad pains, and she said there was somethin' wrong with the baby. I didn't know what to do...I went outside and called for Herbert, but he wasn't within earshot, and I didn't dare leave Mezz by I stayed with her, and we ended up deliverin' the baby all by ourselves. She was an itty-bitty little thing, with red hair like her mama...."

Syngaard's voice broke just a bit at the memory. "And Mezz...she didn't stop bleeding. There wasn't nothin' I could do for her - I know how to bind up a wound and all, but somethin' internal like that...there was nothin' I could do. Mezz held our little daughter, and she said she wanted her to be named Hope, and she told me to take good care of her...

"...And then, she just...died."

Syngaard went to take another sip of his ale and was surprised to see his mug was empty. Without a word, Kaspar set another beside him. The fighter took a sip, nodded wordlessly in gratitude, and continued on with his story. "I took the symbol of Pelor that Mezz always wore around her neck, and I put it on - and I ain't never taken it off since. I wrapped her in a blanket and left her there on the bed, and I wrapped Hope up tight in a smaller blanket, and I took her outside...and I set fire to the cabin. And we watched it burn for awhile. I knew I couldn't never go back there anyway, not to where Mezz had died. But then Hope started cryin', and I figured she was probably hungry, so we left the burning cabin and we headed back to the city. It took close to an hour to get back, and little Hope had cried herself to sleep by then. I went straight to the Temple of Pelor, and I told Father Rupert, the guy who runs the orphanage there, that I found this baby in the forest - which wasn't no lie - and that there was a note pinned to her sayin' her name was Hope - which was a lie but close enough to the truth - and he took her in. And ever since, I been takin' part of what I make on our adventures and I give it to Father Rupert so he can raise them orphans right."

For the first time since starting his tale, Syngaard looked up at the group of people around him. "I can't be raisin' no kid," he said, hoping for understanding. "Anybody finds out little Hope is the granddaughter of Mr. Maladucci the crime lord, and she becomes just as big a target to his enemies as Mezz was. And anybody who knows me who finds out I got a kid is gonna wonder who the mother was, and how come they don't see Mezz around no more? And then we got the same deal: Hope's got a target pinned on her head. This way is better.

"As for Mr. Maladucci, he was a hard man to track down, but I found him and I told him his daughter was dead. He didn't seem too concerned about it, though - he didn't really care for her much as a daughter, just as a pawn in his crime wars. Didn't want no enemy gettin' the upper hand by killin' her, like. But if she died during childbirth? No big deal. He asked me if the baby was a boy or a girl and whether it lived, and he was disappointed she didn't have a son. But when I told him she'd lost her daughter - which again was technically true - he didn't seem upset about it so much. Guess it would have been different if he'd have lost a grandson. But he could see by the pain in my eyes that I was tellin' him the truth, and he told me not to worry about it - not to worry about it! But I guess he just figured I thought he'd be upset about Mezz dyin' on my watch.

"So, anyway, in the Halls of Redemption back there - yeah, I knew that wasn't Mezz, I knew that was my 'inner demon' or whatever and that I'd have to kill it - I just wasn't ready to do it all that quick, you know? I mean, it wasn't her, but it looked just like her - just like the real Mezz. And even with it stabbin' me in the back a coupla times, once I got it by the wrist and it couldn't do me no harm anymore - I just wanted to look at my dead wife for a little bit, even if I knew it wasn't really her. That's all that was. Just me lookin', and rememberin' them good months back in the cabin.

"So now you know. And you can't go sayin' nothin' to nobody, 'cause Hope's life's on the line here. And not just from Mr. Maladucci's enemies, either, although they're a definite concern. But I can't help noticin' that pit fiend who hunted down the Mithral Mage all them years ago, and who popped up in that summoning circle when we took down that circle of cultists up there in the Ashfall mines - his name's 'the Hope Ender.' And I don't think that's just an unlucky coincidence.

"And now I'll tell you why I decided to tell you all this in the first place.

"That Mithral Mage skull we was talkin' to, with the osteovox and all? It called us all by a bunch of nicknames, and everybody thought 'The Dimwit' was me. Only now we know that's Daleth over there. So, what with everybody else accounted for, that makes me 'the Father of Hirek's Key.' And that makes Hope the Key - whatever that means. I'll leave that for you smart types to figure out. But I'll throw a couple of other possibilities on the table.

"That dream I had, when we all had them prophetic dreams or whatever? Mine was Mezz talkin' to me, about drops of blood drippin' down a tree and whatnot. But it split into two at the end, and Mezz said I had to protect them both. I gotta figure Hope's one of the ones I gotta protect, but who's the other? I'm guessin' it might be none other than Maria Quillbender, the granddaughter of Ashfall Dave the Potionmaker and part-time orphan kidnapper. Maybe she and Mezz were cousins or somethin', I dunno. But it's a possibility. And Maria's got that same red hair that Mezz had, and that little Hope's got. So, like I said: a possibility.

"And here's one more I thought up on the ride back from the Halls. We got 'Dimwit' and 'Father of Hirek's Key' mixed up - maybe we got more than that mixed up, too. Outta the bunch of us, Skevros is the only one besides me who's been a father. I know his daughter's dead and all, but maybe 'Hirek's Key' is that creepy-ass doll-thing he made for his daughter way back when. Probably not, but you never know. And here's the thing: if Skevros is 'the Father of Hirek's Key,' then that leaves me as 'the Traitor.' Again, not likely, but it's at least a possibility, and one you ought to consider."

Syngaard gulped down the rest of his ale before finishing his speech. "Because I'll tell you this right now: there ain't a person in this room I wouldn't kill in a heartbeat if it meant bringin' Mezz back to life again."

- - -

I decided to write this up as a standalone entry in the Story Hour because it really has nothing to do with the adventure we went through last Wednesday. I spent the first ten minutes or so of the session going through Syngaard's back-story and it explained some of his past behavior - not only of dealing with his "inner demon" mirror reflection in the Halls of Redemption, but his panic over the kidnapping of the orphans out of the Temple of Pelor; that was, after all, his daughter in amongst the rest of the stolen children. It also explained his anger at the bandit leader desecrating the Temple of Pelor in that farming village in Ashfall; Syngaard associates Pelor with his dead wife, so that didn't sit well with him either. So everyone was impressed not only with the level of detail I'd put into my character's creation, but more importantly what all Logan had done with my inputs to enhance the campaign. (We're all pretty sure at this point that the Hope Ender is destined to try to kill Syngaard's little daughter at some point.)

Of course, after having seen Logan's impressive DMing skills in our Skylanders campaign experiment, I had expected no less.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 4​
Galen Thorne, human paladin 7​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 7​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 6​
Syngaard, human fighter 7​

Game Session Date: 20 June 2018

- - -

"Well," remarked Skevros upon the completion of Syngaard's tale, "that certainly puts some things into context. I believe your first supposition is the correct one, and you are the Father of Hirek's Key. We will likely need to do some research - perhaps some divinations, but without the osteovox ritual! - into Hope's bloodline; Maria's as well, for that matter. We shall also need to determine Serenity's current whereabouts, although I must say it comes as no small relief that she may in fact now be counted among the forces of good! But in any case, we have more pressing matters at hand: an assignment! If everyone's at the ready, I'll teleport us there immediately."

"Wait: us? You're coming with as well?"

"Indeed I am, Miss Nightsky - we will be going to Yondall's Bay, a small fishing village in the one tiny section of the kingdom that keeps us from being landlocked. Anuja will accompany us as well. Let us gather together outside, as I assume you will wish to bring your riding mounts along?"

"Indeed," replied Galen and went to untie Seneca from the hitching post outside the Enchanted Flagon. Orion leaped up onto Carl's saddle and was ready to go.

"What kinda mission we gonna be goin' on in a fishin' village?" asked Syngaard.

"I actually have no idea," Skevros admitted. "This was a request sent directly to His Majesty, King Leornic." Then, seeing everyone gathered together in a group outside the tavern, he asked "Are we ready?"

One teleport spell later and the group stood upon a sandy beach. The "fishing village" consisted of only two small buildings and a single pier - at least that was all that was in view. The larger of the two buildings looked to be a tavern; Syngaard headed that way at once. But as he approached, a voice called out from the pier, where there was now a bearded man standing there - a man the group hadn't noticed before. He stood naked but for a kilt wrapped around his waist. "One of you the Wizard of Durnhill?" he called.

The adventurers collectively turned to Skevros, who nodded his head in acknowledgement and replied, "Indeed I am."

"Follow me, then," commanded the man in the kilt, heading to the water.

"Ah," said the king's adviser. "Unfortunately, that I cannot do." He pointed to the invisible mark of justice on his forehead. "Since the bay is not part of the Kingdom of Durnhill, Anuja and I will remain here with the animals, while you five do what is asked of you." With that Skevros waved the party off to follow the kilted man, already wading out into the ocean. As he dove head-first into the bay, his kilt disappeared and his legs melded into a fish tail.

Four young women popped their heads above the surface of the water around him as he turned to watch the adventurers hesitantly follow into the ocean surf. "Don't see why we gotta get all wet," grumbled Syngaard. But the mission got somewhat more interesting as the merfolk approached and each bestowed their "blessing" upon the adventurers - delivered with a kiss - which allowed them to breathe underwater freely. The formerly kilted man gave Orion his blessing, while the four mermaids accompanying him each provided the same service to one of the male heroes - although Syngaard didn't fail to notice the look of distaste upon the one assigned to him when she first saw his scarred face.

"I am Aquilio," announced the bearded merman as he led the group deeper into the ocean. "I will take you to the oracles who lead our kingdom." He took them to what at first appeared to be ancient sunken ruins, but upon closer inspection was a clump of coral seemingly purposefully grown into that shape. Three mermaids awaited inside the structure, one of which wore an open white flowing robe trimmed in blue; Galen recognized them immediately as the colors of the Azure Glade diviners - they were identical to those worn by the students at the Diviners Library where the group had stolen the copy of "The Curse of the Mithral Mage."

Sensing the party's tension, the robed mermaid informed them that although all three of them had been born with the gift of divination, she had spent time above the waves learning to hone her skills. "But do not fear," she added, "for I left before the corruption in the Azure Glade could claim me."

"You mind tellin' us just what we're doin' here?" asked Syngaard. "You got somethin' needs killin'?"

"A week ago, a tremor opened a trench in the seabed not far from the village," the oracle replied. "It spewed forth a corrupting tide like a volcanic eruption. Although it settled back into the trench that had formed, and we were able to place a seal upon the mouth of the trench, the corrupted tide continues to rise. Our divinations revealed that whether we left the source of this evil alone or if we removed it, the kingdom of Coral's Reach would be destroyed, and that if the source was destroyed the world would fall with it. However, all of our divinations involved only merfolk - we believe the proper interpretation of our visions is that the evil source needs to be removed by surface folk. Hence our call to your kingdom for aid."

Syngaard opened his mouth to speak - it still seemed strange to be able to talk and breathe underwater, but you kind of got used to it - but the oracle cut him off as if knowing exactly what he was going to ask. "Our currency is worthless to those above the waves, so we will pay you with divinations, one for each of you, plus another concerning your missing friend."

"You know of Serenity?" asked Daleth.

"We know many things," smiled the oracle, then began chanting in unison with her two mermaid companions. "Seek the yellow amidst the blue, it shall lead you to orange, from there green shall set you free," they intoned.

"What the Hell's that supposed to mean?" asked Syngaard.

"It refers to Serenity," replied Kaspar, slightly irritated that it wasn't as obvious to the bald fighter as it was to him. "The colors no doubt refer to the robes of the Azure Glade wizards and their respective guilds."

"Great, we'll be goin' back there," griped the fighter.

"Since your task is a dangerous one, we offer our payment in advance, just in case you don't all return," offered the lead oracle. "Also, if necessary, we will aid you in finding the right questions to ask, since it seems you have been burned before by careless divinations." Daleth felt his face burning at that comment as he recalled wasting his reward in the Halls of Redemption on the knowledge that he was the one being called "the Dimwit."

"We need to take full advantage of this opportunity," remarked Galen. "Five questions. What should we ask?"

"Let's get some stuff we think we know sorted out," suggested Syngaard at once. "Howzabout we ask if Hope and Maria are of Hirek's bloodline? That way we'll know for sure who we gotta protect." Protecting Hope was a given in any case, but in case there were two others out there as well that they needed to look after, it would help if they knew that for sure. The group agreed, and the bald fighter asked it as their first official question.

"Yes," chanted the three oracles in unison. "They are the last of Hirek's bloodline, though only the last remaining survivor shall be the key to Hirek's Gate."

Armed with this new information, Galen decided the next question should be what the Seekers of Eternity desire to do with sacrificing Hirek's bloodline. "They are unaware of them or their importance; it is the Hope Ender who seeks their death," was the chanted reply. That was a bit surprising, but it confirmed the reason for the pit fiend's name and it meant he was the only one actively seeking the death of Hirek's Key.

Kaspar asked the third question: "What does the Hope Ender seek to gain from the death of Hirek's bloodline?" His response was, "Hirek's blood binds his Gate; so long as it lives the gate exists in its current form. If the last in the bloodline dies a natural death, they become the key that locks his Gate; if they are sacrificed they become the key that opens it for eternity."

"We believe this Gate is known to you as the Baator's Breath Mountains," added one of the other mermaids in her normal voice.

"So if the Hope Ender sacrifices Hope or Maria, whichever of them is the last one alive, he can permanently open the gates in the mountains north of Ashfall leading to Hell," reasoned Daleth. "That would very likely mean the end of this world as we know it - it would rapidly become overrun by devils."

"Yeah, that's not gonna happen," promised Syngaard.

Orion asked the fourth question: "Who leads the Seekers of Eternity?"

"Grand Diviner Arcturus, Guildmaster of the Diviners Guild in the Azure Glade," came back the chanted response.

"We've got one question left," pointed out Galen. "Maybe we should ask who's the greatest enemy of the Seekers of Eternity, so we can join forces?"

"That would likely be a wasted question," pointed out the lead mermaid oracle, "for your master is their greatest enemy."

"Yeah, let's go join forces with Skevros," snickered Orion.

"Hey, I got a good question," said Syngaard to the group. "Howzabout, 'Are halflings actually good for anything?'" His suggestion earned him a glare from Orion, but it was something of a good sign that the fighter was more or less back to his old self after having dredged up all of the painful memories of his dead wife.

Kaspar suggested the final question and the group agreed. "What is the best way to defeat the Seekers of Eternity?" asked the elven monk.

"Two options exist," chanted the mermaid trio. "Either kill the three Heads who lead it or unbind the Mithral Mage's soul from his name. The Seekers seek to learn how he turned his name into a phylactery that they may become unkillable as well. So long as one soul knows his name he cannot die. That is why he was imprisoned."

"I don't see how we'd even go about accomplishing the second option," pointed out Kaspar.

"Yeah, let's just stick with the killin'," agreed Syngaard. "That's always easier."

"Your payment has been made," said the robed mermaid oracle. "But these may further aid you in your task." She passed over three pearls and explained each provided a magic circle against evil effect while immersed in seawater. "The evil tide corrupts the minds of those it touches, and given time their bodies as well. However, the effects are suppressed by the magic of the pearls. Alas, we have but the three."

"No matter," replied Galen. "Daleth and I can each cast a lesser version of the spell upon ourselves." That settled, Kaspar, Orion, and Syngaard each took a pearl.

"Then let us go to the mouth of the trench," suggested the lead mermaid oracle. Walking along the seabed in the mermaids' wake, the party arrived at the bottom of a 50-foot cliff face, with a vertical tear carving right down the middle. Looking down into the trench, the group could see it extended below the sea bed another good 50 feet or so. Bioluminescent coral grew along the edges of the trench opening. "The coral seems to grow in the shape of magic runes," observed Daleth, and the mermaids confirmed his suspicions.

The water within the lower trench seemed to be definitely darker, and not just because of its greater depth, being further away from the sun - it was charged with a palpable sense of evil. Galen, with his training to see evil auras, suggested it looked like an aura made visible. The evil water currently only rose 30 feet up the sides of the lower trench, giving the odd appearance of an undersea river.

"We will leave you to your investigations," said the head mermaid oracle. "Good luck!" And with strong flicks of their fishlike tails, they returned back the way they had come.

"I hate this!" grumbled Syngaard. "Why can't we just get sent to go kill some damn chuul or kraken or whatever, instead of this undefined stuff? We don't even know what it is we're looking for here!"

"It is very likely that when we see what is responsible, we will know it for what it is," reasoned Kaspar.

The group entered the trench, staying for the most part at a level footing, about halfway from the deepest part and the cliff-top above them. There were narrow ledges on either side of the trench making this a not-too-difficult process. As Syngaard led the way, eager to get this stupid mission done and over with, he saw dead fish floating below him in the undersea current of the lower trench. They didn't look to have any bite marks or any other damage on their bodies.

"Do you think the current is deadly?" asked Galen.

"Let's find out," replied Syngaard, bending down and extending his hand into the darker water. He pulled it out a moment later with no evidence of any harm, so Orion did him one better by leaping over the side of the ledge and sinking down until her entire body was in the dark water. She swam back up quickly, explaining that even with the ability to breathe water, she had trouble breathing while that far down. "It's like there's no air down there," she said.

"Well, duh," snorted Syngaard.

"You know what I mean!" the halfling retorted angrily.

"It would seem those fish...drowned while submerged in water," reasoned Daleth. "Most strange."

While the group had been focusing their attention on the dead fish drifting below them, they failed to notice the live ones approaching them from further down the trench until almost too late. A glimpse of motion from the corner of his eye caused Syngaard to look up just in time to dodge the bite of an approaching shark. Upon closer look, the shark had a pair of hornlike projections sticking out forward from its head and its skin had a reddish coloration: a devil shark? The fighter had never heard of such a thing - but then, the ocean wasn't his normal environment.

Orion stabbed with her flaming short sword at a fiendish shark that had swum up to her, noting the "flames" were not present underwater but there was a distinct heat still emanating from the weapon's blade. Unfortunately, while the "steaming" effect was an unexpected surprise, it did little against the shark, whose thick hide seemed immune to the heat of the blade.

Kaspar threw a pair of shuriken at the shark attacking Orion, one hitting and one missing entirely. That one sank to the bottom of the trench, and while the other impaled itself into the shark's hide and sent a shock of electricity coursing along the beast's flank, the heat newly imbued in the weapon by the flaming property of the tenryutsume Kaspar wore on his right hand seemed as ineffectual as the halfling's sword. These sharks seemed to be resistant to heat, if not full-out immune. But when Syngaard swam over and smacked the thing in the head with his magically-enhanced morningstar, he demonstrated that the application of a massive amount of brute force worked just fine on these sharks, fiendish or not.

Daleth swam a few feet back from the shark snapping at him and cast an empowered magic missile spell at it through his metamagic rod. Galen was fighting a shark of his own with the sword of Zehkar, and while normal flaming weapons seemed ineffectual, the holy fire of his blade burned through the sharks' transformed fiendish blood without trouble. But then Daleth's shark darted forward and caught the elf wizard in its powerful jaws, clamping down painfully on his shoulder. A fourth shark entered the trench, but fortunately for the heroes it was distracted by the shark Syngaard had just slain and took a healthy bite from its corpse instead of attacking any of the adventurers. But that good luck was more than counterbalanced by the enormous shark that swam above the group, its shadow covering several heroes at once as it struck down at Syngaard's bald head.

Orion tried to help Daleth by flanking the shark biting him, but her sword-strike went wide as the creature thrashed around. Kaspar tried punching the same shark, with similar results. But Syngaard was forced to focus his attention on the massive beast trying to bite off his head - it was nearly three times the length of the other sharks attacking the rest of the heroes, but the hornlike projections hinted at its similarly Hellish nature. Of course, that just made it a bigger target for Syngaard's morningstar, and he put his favorite weapon to good use, raking lines of blood along the shark's muscular flank with the spikes on his weapon-head.

Daleth managed to extract himself from the shark's mouth, backed up, and fired off another magic missile spell at it. At the same time, Galen's shark succumbed to the sword of Zehkar, blood trailing its body as it sank to the bottom of the trench. But then Daleth's shark sped forward and bit down on the wizard's arm, nearly causing the spellcaster to pass out from the pain. And further down the trench ledge, Syngaard found himself fighting off not only the biggest of the sharks but also the one who had taken a bite out of one of its own kind earlier.

Orion cursed as another attempt to sneak attack Daleth's shark failed. But fortunately, Kaspar had better luck and sent his hand snaking forward with enough speed to crush the shark's skull; it, too, lost buoyancy and began sinking into the dark, airless water currents of the deepest part of the trench.

Syngaard sent a couple of powerful blows with his morningstar into the great shark's belly, nearly killing it. Daleth pulled a healing potion from his belt and tried to figure out how to drink it underwater before passing out; finally, he assumed its contents were heavier than water and uncorked it above his mouth, drinking it down as it spilled from the vial. The healing energy was enough to at least keep the elf from passing out; Galen channeled energy through his illumium scabbard to heal the wizard further.

The massive shark bit at Syngaard again, eliciting a grunt of pain from the scarred fighter. Orion tried tossing a throwing dagger from her new bag of daggers at the great beast, but the masterwork blade merely bounced off the shark's hide. Kaspar sent a couple of his shuriken biting deep into the shark's flank, and a final blow from Syngaard's morningstar finished it off. He then spun in place and sent his weapon crashing into the body of the remaining shark, and between the rest of the group they brought it down without too much trouble.

Galen applied healing as needed, and then the group continued along the trench ledge, winding past a dog-leg until it led to a small cave opening at the apparent end of the trench. This opening was not quite five feet wide and was below the level of the "dead water," forcing the heroes to hold their breath when entering. Kaspar went in first and was amazed at Syngaard's unintentional prognostication, for there in the cavern ahead of his was what must be a chuul, if the stories the monk had heard about such creatures were true. This looked very much like an overly-large lobster, with a mouth full of drooping tentacles. The creature must have been prepared for intruders, too, for it dashed forward upon the monk's approach and caught him up in the powerful grip of a hardened pincer. The top half of the cave, above the entrance, was filled with stale air, and floating in the back of the cavern was a reddish-gold, glowing orb that was likely the cause of the evil emanating from the trench.

Syngaard rushed into the cavern after Kaspar, striking at the chuul with his spiked weapon. Daleth was right behind him, but moved laterally away from the creature's free pincher lest he share his fellow elf's fate. He tossed a magic missile spell at it, causing twin bolts of energy to shoot from his fingertips and strike unerringly against the chuul's hardened carapace.

Orion entered the cave but wasn't particularly eager to go toe-to-spindly-crustacean-leg with their foe, so she opted to throw another of her endless daggers. The throw was perfect, but it didn't seem to do any damage to the creature, bouncing harmlessly off its slime-covered shell.

Galen was the last to enter the cave, and, seeing the expected aura of evil surrounding the slime chuul, he smote the beast to good effect, channeling a burst of positive energy through his enchanted blade. The creature seemed to wince at the blow but made no sound.

Kaspar, in the meantime, had been devoting his efforts to escape from the tightly-gripping pincer. Several times it seemed he was about to free himself, almost sliding free with the aid of the creature's slime, only to have the bladed appendage snap back tighter than ever. The slime-chuul struck out at Galen with its free pincer, but it seemed hampered by the protection from evil spell the paladin had cast upon himself before entering the trench. Then a solid blow from Syngaard's morningstar shattered a section of its carapace and all thoughts of attacking the paladin were driven from its primitive brain.

Daleth cast another magic missile spell from his wand, noting that while it hit - as expected from this particular spell - it seemed to hit a momentary barrier, as if the lobster-thing was partially resistance to spell energy. Orion, bummed about the ineffectiveness of her magical bag of throwing daggers, pulled her flaming short sword from the scabbard at her belt and stabbed out at the beast with it. Once again, the heat from the weapon didn't seem to do much, but the blade itself entered the chuul's body just fine, stopping only when the sword's crosspiece hit the chuul's carapace.

Another smiting blow from Galen and the beast was dead, collapsing onto the floor of its cave, allowing Kaspar to extricate himself from its claw. The group headed to the back of the cave to examine the glowing orb.

"Odd," remarked Galen.

"What?" asked Orion, swimming up closer to see.

"I don't get an aura of evil from the orb itself, but there is a definite aura of evil seeping into the water where it touches the orb. And yet, the air around it has no corresponding evil aura. Very strange."

"What does it mean?" asked the halfling.

"It means," reasoned Daleth, "that simply removing it from the water should prevent the corrupting tide from expanding any further."

"So go pick it up," prompted Syngaard.

"Me? I think not." The elf wizard peered closely at the reddish-gold orb. "It looks like there is black lettering of some type carved into the sphere, if that is indeed the best term - the thing almost looks organic. Alas, I cannot read it, but it looks to be written in the Infernal language - the language of devils. In any case, I do not intend to touch it with my bare hands - nor would I recommend any of you do so, either."

"Oh, for the luvva--" snorted Syngaard, approaching the floating orb and pulling his bag of holding from his belt. He pulled it open and dropped it over the orb, catching it up in its extradimensional space. "Buncha sissies," he chided. "C'mon - let's get outta here. We'll let Skevros decide what to do with it."

The group exited the trench the way they'd come and headed back to shore. After studying the orb, the king's adviser remarked he believed it to be an oath-stone. "It's the physical manifestation of a fiendish pact," he explained, "although such things are notoriously difficult to get a hold of. How it managed to get to the material plane, let alone a cave at the bottom of the ocean, is beyond me." He squinted at the tiny words carved in the Infernal language along the orb's exterior. "I shall want to reference some of my books back home to be sure - some of these markings are rather tricky - but I believe this particular oath-stone may be the manifestation of Hirek's pact to bind the Hope Ender to service."

"Wait, which one was Hirek again?" asked Syngaard.

"The Scarlet Sage," replied Galen - and then the same thought struck the heroes all at once. "Red hair!" they exclaimed. That might easily explain why Hope and Maria - and Messalina before them - all had red hair: they were descendants of the Scarlet Sage, who likely got his nickname not just from the color of his garments. Galen then explained the oracles' divinations to Skevros.

"I agree," he said upon hearing the one the group thought applied to Serenity. "The colors likely reference the robes of the various wizard guilds in the Azure Glade. And the 'missing friend' is undoubtedly Serenity. Good work, everyone! Now, let's gather up Anuja and the animals and return to our headquarters, that we may plot out our next move!"

- - -

Logan had warned us ahead of time that this was going to be a sort of standalone adventure and even told us the adventure name ahead of time, but what with all the prophecies and the oath-stone it ended up fitting seamlessly into the rest of the plotline - it certainly advanced our understanding of some of what our PCs have been investigating. And Vicki collects mermaid figurines, so she certainly enjoyed that aspect of the adventure. (She didn't enjoy so much the fact that the masterwork throwing daggers Orion got from her bag of blades couldn't penetrate the damage reduction of the fiendish sharks she'd been fighting, however. But she can upgrade the bag just like she could a magic weapon, so that it will give out +1 throwing daggers in future.)

Incidentally, that was a fiendish uchuulon we fought as the last encounter, a creature Logan got from Stormwrack; it's normally tied in with illithids, but Logan just used it as a chuul variant, to keep us on our toes.
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 7​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 7​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 6​
Syngaard, human fighter 7​

Game Session Date: 27 June 2018

- - -

"Here we are," Skevros announced, his teleport spell having brought the group back to the front of the Enchanted Flagon. While Galen busied himself tying up Seneca, the others stepped inside the tavern, Syngaard calling out for Karen to fetch him a cold ale.

But Karen was not present in the tavern. Instead, in her place, was a little girl looking about five years old. She and Dow stood over in the corner of the tavern, the porcelain homunculous talking animatedly. "Sarah!" called out Skevros in surprise upon seeing the girl. "What are you doing out here?"

"You'we back!" exclaimed Dow excitedly, belatedly noticing Skevros's return to the tavern.

"Wait - ain't that your dead kid?" asked Syngaard, looking at the new little girl, as ever the voice of tact.

Skevros lowered his voice to a mere whisper. "That is a simulacra of my daughter Sarah, yes," the king's adviser admitted. "Like Karen, she's a projection of the extradimensional mansion, but only one at a time can manifest out here. I wanted Dow to have a chance to say goodbye to 'Sarah' before we take her away to the orphanage at the Temple of Pelor, so she can keep an eye on Hope. After all, the homunculous was originally built as my familiar, but predominantly so she could be Sarah's best friend during my absences."

Turning to the porcelain homunculous, he asked Dow, "Weren't you both supposed to stay inside the mansion while we were gone?"

"I wanted to show Sawah the gwass befowe she has to weave," Dow explained in her babyish voice. "It's all gween, instead of bwoo wike it's supposed to be!" she giggled.

"So you're leaving?" prompted Syngaard. "Like, soon?" The freaky homunculous gave him the creeps enough as it was, without adding a dead kid into the mix.

"She's gonna go see her Mommy at the magic mountain," Dow further explained. At this, Orion looked quizzically up at Skevros.

"Mount Celestia," he explained.

"Oh, right, 'cause she's dead," reasoned Syngaard. Orion shook her head in disbelief at the scarred fighter's crassness.

"I created the Sarah simulacra for Dow's sake, since she never got a chance to say goodbye to her," Skevros continued in his whispering voice. "She didn't understand death at the time." Then, turning to the two "girls," he commanded them to return back to the mansion and get ready for bed.

"And send Karen back out!" suggested Syngaard.

"You know, you could get your own glass of ale," observed Kaspar.

"Could," admitted Syngaard, pulling up a chair. "Shouldn't have to, though."

Once Skevros had ushered Sarah and Dow back into the storeroom that housed his extradimensional living space, he returned to the group, which had made themselves comfortable around one of the large, round tables. Syngaard and Galen nursed pints of ale, the former grumpy at having had to fetch his himself. "Now, then, back to the business at hand," Skevros suggested. "The hour is late; I think we would all do well to retire for the evening. Let's meet back here at half past six bells tomorrow morning, shall we?"

"Are you sending us back to the Azure Glade?" asked Daleth.

"That seems like our next logical move," affirmed Skevros. "You should seek out the leader of the Illusionists Guild, with whom you met before - she would be the 'yellow' in the mermaids' prophecy. She, in turn, should take you to the 'orange' - the Guild of Abjurers - and then the 'green' - the Conjurers Guild - will get you back home."

"And somewhere in there we'll find Serenity?" asked Orion.

"One would imagine so," agreed Skevros.

The group split up then, some heading upstairs to their rooms, while others hit the marketplace before it closed up for the night; Daleth stayed behind at Skevros's request to discuss some other business. At the market, several of the heroes purchased healing potions, while Syngaard upgraded his magical ring of protection to a more powerful version. Then he crossed the city to the brothel where he worked as a bouncer for room and board during his "off" time from adventuring; there were still several hours of peak business time at Mama Kat's place.

The next morning the heroes gathered again at the Enchanted Flagon, Syngaard somewhat bleary-eyed at the early hour. He was pleased to see Karen back at her station behind the bar, though, and had his morning breakfast ale.

"Ah, everyone's here!" announced Skevros, looking at the assembled group.

"Daleth is not among us," pointed out Kaspar.

"Indeed, not - I sent him on a different assignment," explained Skevros. "But no matter: I expect the rest of you shall suffice for the task at hand." The king's adviser turned to face Galen. "I think you should leave Seneca behind," he suggested. "I have asked Anuja to ferry you to the Azure Glade, and her horse has been equipped with horseshoes of speed; I doubt very much that your warhorse could keep up."

"Very well," agreed the young paladin.

"What about Carl?" asked Orion. She had become quite accustomed to riding her dog into battle and frowned at the thought of leaving him behind.

"No problem: he's small enough to ride in the back of the wagon with the rest of you."

"They're gonna be on the wagon with us?" griped Syngaard. "What about fleas?"

"Carl doesn't have fleas!" insisted Orion indignantly.

"Wasn't Carl I was worried about," answered the bald fighter, looking disdainfully down at the halfling. Orion just glared back at him, angry at herself for once again walking into a verbal trap.

"Anuja has business of her own to attend to once in the Azure Glade, so she shall be dropping you off and seeing to her own assignment. But if the mermaids' prophecy is to be trusted, you should be teleporting back courtesy of the Conjuration Guild." Galen frowned at this information, wondering just what kind of business their wagon driver might have in the rival country to the east of Durnhill, and how she could afford magical horseshoes for her draft horse. Still, Skevros had said he trusted her with his life before, so the paladin kept his concerns to himself. The group headed outside where Anuja was indeed waiting with her horse and cart. Everyone piled into the back of the wagon - which was already packed with supplies for the trip - and they were off.

The first day of travel was uneventful - boring, even. But they made good time; the magic of the horseshoes would be cutting the three-day trip down to two. The group set up camp with practiced precision, some assembling the two tents while others gathered firewood. Anuja tended to her horse, removing him from his harness and giving him a long tether at the side of the wagon, where he could graze upon the blue grasses in the clearing. The group decided upon three three-hour watch shifts over the course of the night, with Orion taking the first shift, Syngaard following next, and Kaspar taking the third. Galen, on account of his spellcasting, was exempted from taking a shift, that he'd be well rested in the morning and able to concentrate on his daily prayers. "We all rely upon you for healing," reminded Kaspar when Galen felt he wasn't pulling his weight.

Orion's watch was dull, with the highlight being at the very end when she got to wake up Syngaard by opening the flap of the men's tent and poking him with her sword; after a weighty decision that went back and forth several times, she eventually opted to keep her blade sheathed in its scabbard when she did so. Syngaard got up, strapped his armor back on, and took his place by the fire.

About an hour into his watch, something eventful finally happened - and a good thing, too, the fighter thought, for he had been close to falling asleep several times already. But a glowing, silver orb shot through the eastern sky like a shooting star - only this one dipped low in front of a tree, revealing it to be much closer to the campsite than any star could ever be. And then, when it shifted direction and started heading his way, Syngaard realized he'd better wake the others.

His first impulse was to shout out loud and wake everybody at once, but he didn't want anybody thinking he was scared - and it might be tactically advantageous if the approaching orb didn't know the fighter was onto it. So he opened the flap to the men's tent and hissed at Kaspar, deep in his elven meditation. "Wake up!" called Syngaard. "Wake up the paladin, too! We got impending excitement about to hit camp!" Then he went to the women's tent and was going to try to quietly wake them up as well, but Carl opted out of that plan by barking noisily at the intrusion.

The two tents started disgorging their inhabitants at about the time the orb arrived in camp. It was much smaller than Syngaard had originally estimated, merely the size of a large melon. It wobbled erratically. Not sure of what to make of it, Galen and Orion unsheathed their weapons and Syngaard tightened his grip on his own, but then the glowing orb spoke. "," it called in a fading voice.

"What the--?" sputtered Syngaard.

"They are...draining...our wizard's...soul. You must...stop any cost. If he saved...send paradise. The purgeling Your fates...are already...intertwined...." And then the ball of light fell to the ground, soundlessly shattering into a puff of glittering, silver dust.

"What the--?" repeated Syngaard. He'd been all geared up for a fight and was more than a little disappointed that he wasn't going to get one.

"That was surely no will-o'wisp," reasoned Kaspar. "I've never heard of them being able to speak."

"Lantern archon," explained Galen. "From the celestial planes - probably a wizard's familiar, by the sound of it. And any wizard with a lantern archon as a familiar is definitely on the side of the forces of good."

"What's a 'purgeling'?" asked Orion, sheathing her flaming short sword.

Surprisingly, it was Anuja who answered. "It refers to an obscure planar theory about innocent souls trapped in the lower planes being reborn as fiends less inclined toward evil," she explained.

"So, Serenity," reasoned Kaspar. "She's tied up in this somehow."

"And finding and saving this wizard will likely allow us to save her as well!" reasoned Galen. In all the excitement, none of the heroes thought to question how their wagon driver knew about obscure planar theory.

"Guess we'd better break camp now and head on out," muttered Syngaard. "I'll get the tents."

"Don't bother about that!" argued Galen. "We can leave them here and come back for them later, as needed!"

"We're probably not coming back this way," pointed out Orion. "Teleporting back, remember?"

"I ain't paying for no replacement tents," added Syngaard. Eventually, the paladin realized it would be quicker to help the rest of the group break camp than to continue to argue about how much time they'd save by doing things his way. And within minutes - for they didn't bother stowing the tents away nicely, just threw them into the back of the wagon and hopped in after them - Anuja had her horse hitched back up to the wagon and was heading back on the road in the wee hours of the morning. Neither the horse nor his driver seemed particularly happy with this turn of events. Galen went promptly back to sleep in the back of the wagon; the others left him alone so he'd be rested enough to be able to prepare the spells he'd need when the sun arose.

"Do we even know where we're going?" asked Orion.

"Presumably to the Illusionists Guild, as before," answered Kaspar. "We have no reason to believe anything's changed."

The group arrived at the Guilded City around midday without further incident. And due to their helpfully color-coded robes, they had no trouble finding an illusionist and telling him they had urgent business with their Guildmaster. The yellow-robed mage took them to a nondescript building; after the heroes leapt from the wagon, Anuja drove off to attend to her own business.

"Wait here," said the illusionist, leading the group to a waiting room. "Don't touch anything you don't understand."

After a short wait another illusionist walked in with a piece of parchment in hand. "Syngaard, Jace?" he asked.

"Huh?" asked Syngaard, surprised to hear his first name being spoken by a stranger.

"Thorne, Galen?" asked the illusionist. Galen looked at the others, then replied, "I am he."

"Hardstrike, Kaspar?"

"I am Kaspar."

"Graveshadow, Anuja?" asked the illusionist, looking at Orion.

"Um, no," admitted the halfling, looking in confusion to the three men accompanying her. "Anuja's not with us. My name is Orion Nightsky." The illusionist produced a pen from his robes and added her name to the list.

"And how do you know the Guildmaster?" the illusionist prompted.

"Uh," began Galen, not wanting to admit to their earlier meeting with Leorna and her admission that she was looking into the spreading corruption in the Council of Guilds.

"We, uh, met up with her in our travels a while back..." added Syngaard, "...being simple merchants and all..." Beside him, hidden in an invisibility spell, Leorna silently shook her head. These were definitely the three idiots she had met up with on the road, plus a female halfling she'd never met before. But their ability to dissemble was as poor now as it had been then. She silently touched her assistant's robes to let him know everything was okay.

"I will need to go check with the Guildmaster," said the yellow-robed illusionist, opening the door and looking back at the group, giving Leorna enough time to slide out of the room. A minute or so later the door reopened and Leorna stepped back into the room, this time fully visible. "Gentlemen, miss," she greeted them. "What brings you back to the Azure Glade?"

After a rather excruciatingly roundabout explanation, the party informed Leorna about both the lantern archon encounter and the divination, "Find the yellow within the blue, it shall lead you to orange, and green shall set you free."

Leorna frowned in thought. "The Guildmaster of the Conjurers Guild has been missing our recent meetings; he has a lantern archon as a familiar."

"Who is he?" asked Orion.

Leorna looked down at the halfling. "I tell you this in confidence, for the identities of the Guildmasters is supposed to be hidden from all but the other Guildmasters of the Council and the members of the Guild in question, but his name is Orlin."

"So should we search for this Orlin, or continue our search for Serenity?" asked Kaspar.

"The lantern archon was rather insistent," pointed out Orion. "We don't know how much longer he might be kept alive."

"Yes, but he was also concerned about 'the purgeling' - which no doubt refers to Serenity," argued the elven monk.

"In either case, they're likely both being held at the Abjurers Guild," observed Galen. "We should storm into there and rescue them both!"

"That approach would likely end in failure," replied Leorna. "Additional security measures have been put in place at the Guilds since a recent theft at the Diviners Library." She pretended not to notice the guilty looks exchanged before the men before her. "The only way a nonmember can enter a Guildhall nowadays is with the permission of a member of that Guild, or with a letter of recommendation from a Guildmaster." She looked over the quartet of adventurers. "Your best bet is to have your elf and halfling pose as prospective students, while you two humans act as their bodyguards." She sent an illusionist student for a pair of initiates' robes; he returned shortly with a pair of gray robes properly sized for Kaspar and Orion.

"I will prepare your letters," stated Leorna.

"Make hers lower-case," suggested Syngaard, pointing a thumb at a scowling Orion.

Once everything was in order, Leorna gave the heroes instructions on where to find the Abjurers Guildhall and wished them luck. Arriving at their destination, the heroes were admitted into the building (even Carl) once their letters of recommendation were deemed genuine. "Allow me to give you a brief tour of our facilities," offered the orange-robed Abjurer who had answered the door.

Unfortunately, the impromptu tour was cut short at the first room they entered, which contained a trio of abjurers in orange robes and a tall man in robes of dark blue, holding a large mace. He looked up at the visitors and recognized Syngaard's scarred face immediately. "You're dead!" snarled Reginald, the Azure Guard the heroes had fought - and possibly even killed - when scouting out Skevros's house. He drew his mace and advanced upon the group, while the frightened abjurer students quickly hugged the walls to stay out of the way of the impending combat.

Kaspar's immediate concern was that none of the noncombatants get hurt. "Stay back!" he called. "This man is a traitor!" And then he rushed up and struck at Reginald with a hardened hand. The Azure Guard responded by channeling a scorching ray spell through his mace, which activated when the weapon's head impacted upon the monk's shoulder. Kaspar rolled with the blow, but the elf's shoulder had been badly burned by the impact and subsequent spell release.

Orion reached into her bag of blades and flung a dagger at Reginald, her throw striking true as she then leapt up upon her riding dog - her preferred position in any given combat. Galen pulled the sword of Zehkar from its scabbard, casting a protection from evil spell upon himself as he approached, for his ability to see the auras of evil had told him that Reginald's soul had become stained with the taint of evil since the last time they had fought. His enhanced sight also informed him the souls of the cowering abjurers were not similarly stained.

Syngaard pulled the human bane scimitar from his belt and dealt a solid blow against Reginald. Kaspar repositioned himself in an attempt to flank their foe, but missed with his blow. Reginald slammed the monk again with his mace, this time without a spell loaded into it. Orion missed with her flanking strike, although Carl got a quick grip upon Reginald's arm before the Azure Guard snatched it away.

Recalling that the glowing blue runes on Reginald's forehead, mace, and robe whisked him away in a teleport spell upon being rendered unconscious, Galen decided he'd try to ensure the Azure Guard was dead before he hit the ground. With that in mind, he channeled the power of Hieroneous through his longsword and brought it crashing down upon the foe, blazing with the power of a smite evil effect. Whether it actually slew Reginald was hard to determine, as the Azure Guard teleported away at once.

"I think I got him," the paladin declared.

Kaspar turned to face the frightened abjurers. "Forgive the combat in your halls," he said. Then, indicating the symbol of Hieroneous on Galen's shield, he added, "As you can see, this man is a paladin of the God of Valor. We mean you no harm." The abjurers nodded nervously, clearly still frightened for their lives. Kaspar pressed on. "We seek both a kidnapped succubus and a man in green robes. Have you seen either of them?"

None of the abjurers had seen either one. "However," one ventured nervously, "if there's a succubus about, it probably has something to do with Tienna's obsession with killing fiends. She's downstairs with some of her friends, performing experiments, I think." With proper encouragement, the student mage led the heroes to the entrance to the basement level, a set of wide steps.

There were five figures in the long, single room of the basement upon the heroes' arrival. Two of them stood in magic circles inscribed on the floor at either end of the room: a white-robed diviner in a red circle to the south and a black-robed necromancer in a blue circle at the north end. In the middle of the room, an orange-robed figure - likely the aforementioned abjurer Tienna, an elven woman - stood just outside a yellow magic circle inscribed on the floor, inside of which lay an unconscious man in green robes. This man - likely the conjurer Orlin - was bound with silver chains. And hanging directly above him, naked and unconscious, slumped Serenity, impaled through her batlike wings by silver hooks at the end of chains dangling from the room's ceiling.

This time Galen was the first to react. His aura-reading senses picking up a strong emanation of evil from the female diviner in the circle before him, he charged and dealt her a devastating blow with his holy longsword. Kaspar followed on the paladin's heels, knocking the diviner out before she barely had time to recognize the heroes' entry into their ritual.

Seeing the diviner had been taken care of, Orion sent Carl racing down the length of the room, stabbing Tienna with her flaming short sword as they approached. The halfling then leapt from Carl's saddle, giving the dog the ability to strike at their foes from a different direction. Behind them, Syngaard threw his returning javelin at Tienna as he ran up. It missed, but unerringly returned to his hand.

Tienna took a quick step back from the halfling to get out of the reach of Orion's blade and tossed a fireball spell past the scarred fighter racing her way. Its subsequent explosion encompassed not only Syngaard, but also Galen and Kaspar.

From the far end of the ritual room, the black-clad necromancer cast a spectral hand spell in preparation for some long-ranged combat, hoping to stay well away from melee with the enemies of the Seekers of Eternity. As Galen sprinted to the center of the room he sensed Serenity's aura, and while it was not completely purged of evil, it was a remarkable difference from the other times he'd tried to read her aura and got a splitting headache from the overwhelming sense of depravity he'd sensed. But he was also somewhat surprised to get no reading of evil from Tienna's aura. "I am a paladin of Hieroneous!" he called to the orange-robed woman. "Our cause is righteous!" He healed the fire damage he'd taken from Tienna's fireball as he approached.

"I don't believe a word you say!" snarled Tienna in reply. "You're here to free a vile demon!" But her attention was momentarily distracted by the exchange, and Orion and Carl took advantage of her inattention, striking swiftly with sword and teeth.

Kaspar unstoppered a vial from his belt as he crossed the room, drinking down a much-needed healing potion. Syngaard was right behind him, but rather than deal with healing himself he threw his javelin at Tienna again, eager to draw blood. It missed but once again returned to his hand; he stashed it in his shield hand and drew his scimitar from his belt, now that he was close to melee range.

But Tienna didn't want anything to do with that; she backed up towards the side wall, taking a hit from Orion's sword as she did so, and cast a confusion spell that encompassed not only Syngaard, but Kaspar and Carl as well. The elf shrugged off the spell's intended effects, but Syngaard's sudden halt and Carl's shaking his head rapidly indicated they had not been so lucky.

Amidst all of this excitement, the necromancer's spectral hand darted forth and struck Galen, channeling a vampiric touch spell that drained the paladin of some of his vitality. Galen didn't stop his own intended action, though: holding his illumium scabbard up high, he channeled positive energy through it and healed Serenity back to consciousness.

By then, Kaspar had caught up to Tienna and landed a solid blow against the abjurer. Orion dashed forward and hit her again with her flaming short sword, while behind her Carl looked around in puzzlement and Syngaard stared at the scimitar in his hand as if he'd never seen it before in his life. In desperation, Tienna staggered to the north and brought up a wall of fire which spanned the room from side to side, isolating her and the female necromancer from the others.

"Hey!" called the necromancer in irritation, for now she couldn't see through the blazing flames to target her spectral hand. She took the opportunity to protect herself from those of a goodly nature, silently thankful that Tienna's obsession with fiends had blinded her from the fact that the Seekers of Eternity were shamelessly using her for their own ends.

With no other combatants on this side of the wall of fire, Galen healed the green-clad wizard on the floor before him. "Orlin, I presume?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm Orlin," confirmed the Guildmaster of the Conjurers Guild. Kaspar approached and soon had him freed from his chains.

Unable to see through the flames but protected by their heat from the bracelet of burning escape she wore on one wrist, Orion threw a dagger blindly through the flames, hoping for the best - after all, she had an infinite supply of the throwing daggers from her magical bag. She heard no cries of pain and assumed she had missed her two potential targets.

Carl suddenly began barking furiously at nothing in particular, his eyes focused on nothing anyone else could see. But Syngaard saw only a hell hound before him and stabbed at it with his javelin; Carl's barking turned to a howl of pain. Neither was apparently aware of the searing heat emanating from the wall of fire spell next to them.

Tienna was seeing spots at the periphery of her vision and knew she'd not survive any further attacks, so she cast a gaseous form spell upon herself and rose up by the ceiling. The flames of her earlier spell reached to the top of the ceiling; she'd have to wait for it to run its course before she could escape. Behind her, the necromancer prepared a magic missile spell, ready to fling it at the first hero to come to this side of the wall of fire.

"Do you have any spells prepared, wizard?" demanded Galen. "Specifically, a dispel magic or a teleport?" Orlin admitted to having one of each at the ready. "Dismiss the confusion effect!" commanded the paladin, and Orlin gave it his best. Syngaard suddenly stiffened as if breaking out of a trance, but Carl's odd behavior continued: he became suddenly interested in chasing his tail in a circle.

"Where'd they go?" asked Syngaard, looking for Tienna and noticing the wall of fire for the first time, despite the fact his mithral breastplate was inordinately hot from the proximity. "Never mind!" he snarled, rushing through the flames with the human bane scimitar in hand - that necromancer chick looked like a human, even if that wizard in the orange robes was an elf. Of course, after piercing the flames, the scarred fighter was immediately struck by the necromancer's magic missile spell, causing an inadvertent cry of pain to spill from his snarling lips. But his follow-on sword-strike slashed across the wizard's torso, dealing her an impressive amount of damage - but which merely stripped the spellcaster of the vitality previously stolen from Galen.

I probably should have used a dimension door spell instead, thought Tienna in her gaseous state up by the ceiling. Fortunately for her, the bald fighter hadn't even noticed her as he raced through the sheet of vertical flames.

Over on the other side of the flaming wall, Kaspar and Orion had decided to try to free Serenity by having the elf fling the halfling up at the hanging succubus. Orion landed gracefully with an arm gripped around a bat-wing, and in a few moments she had freed Serenity from her silver chains and hooks. From this height, Orion could see Carl racing back to the steps leading upstairs, still confused by Tienna's spell. "Come back, boy!" she called, but Carl ignored her cries and bounded up the stairs, out of view.

The necromancer stepped back from a furious Syngaard; unseen, her previously-cast spectral hand came racing through the wall of fire to strike the fighter in the back - and release another casting of vampiric touch that drained Syngaard of vitality while transferring it to the grinning necromancer. "Hate--you--so--much..." snarled Syngaard as consciousness left him and he crashed to the ground, his mithral breastplate making a ruckus as he landed.

Galen healed himself with a laying on of hands, when he heard Syngaard falling to the floor on the other side of the opaque sheet of flames. "That stupid brothel-monkey!" he cursed, realizing he was going to have to go in there and rescue Syngaard's stupid butt, after they'd already met their stated objectives of rescuing both Serenity and Orlin and could easily teleport to freedom. Beside him, Kaspar came to the same conclusion but instead of cursing the fighter's incompetence the monk rushed fearlessly into the flames. Taking in the scene before him in a single instant, the monk dashed over to the necromancer and landed a solid punch to her jaw, bloodying her lip and releasing the stolen vitality she'd just taken from Syngaard, prone on the floor before her.

Seeing herself unnoticed and not wishing to wait out her wall of fire spell, Tienna instead floated back down to the floor, dismissed her gaseous form spell and followed it up with a dimension door spell, escaping to the upper level of the Abjurers Guildhall.

Now all alone, the necromancer bravely fought on, managing to knock Kaspar unconscious with a frantically-cast magic missile spell. She even managed to fortify herself with a false life spell before Galen and Orion passed through the wall of fire. After that, it was merely a matter of time before she was unconscious before the heroes.

The wall of fire spell finally sputtered out as Kaspar and Syngaard were returned to consciousness. "She got away!" cursed Syngaard upon awakening.

"And we're not going after her!" insisted Galen. "We got what we came here for!"

"What about the two wizards?" asked Kaspar, indicating the unconscious forms of the diviner and necromancer. A quick perusal of the backs of their necks indicated they both wore the tattoos of the Seekers of Eternity. "Should we take them with us for questioning?"

"Don't need 'em both," replied Syngaard, using his scimitar to remove the necromancer's head from her neck. Galen gathered up the diviner, and Orlin prepared his teleport spell. "Where do you wish to go?" he asked. "I can only take us to somewhere I'm already familiar with."

Galen gave it a moment's thought as Orion went racing upstairs to find Carl. Fortunately, by then the confusion spell had run its course and the riding dog was already on his way back to his mistress. "Have you ever been to the capital city of Ashfall?" Galen asked the Conjurer Guildmaster.

"I have indeed," replied Orlin. Once Orion and Carl returned to the group, he cast his teleport spell and whisked everyone away. The last thing they heard was the clomping of feet as people - possibly the Azure Guard? - raced down the stairs to investigate the commotion.

"Well, we rescued Serenity," observed Syngaard, ever the financially-minded member of the group. "I wonder if there's a reward for her return?"

"I am sure the king will adequately compensate you for your heroic actions," purred Serenity, not in the least bit discomfited by her nakedness. Galen was, however, his teachings as a paladin of Hieroneous obviously warring with his human desire to want to sneak in a peek. The reformed succubus seemed amused at his discomfort.

King Renaldos of Ashfall did indeed offer a reward for the return of his Royal Executioner. At first he seemed disappointed and distrustful of her return - she'd been gone for some time now, and he had feared her inherent demonic nature had finally turned her against the throne - but he quickly warmed to her once the full story of her kidnapping and conversion to a good alignment had been confirmed.

As for the captured diviner, she provided next to no information, vehemently denying the heroes would be able to do anything to stop the advancement of her group's cause. "Kill me if you like," she snarled. "I won't say anything to aid you. And I won't be dead for long - you'll see!" Failing to find any other options, the group handed her over to King Renaldos to do with as he saw fit. "Maybe Serenity can get something out of her," he hoped.

"Guess we're walkin' home from here," groused Syngaard after they had been dismissed from their audience with the King of Ashfall. It was a hike of several hours before them, with only Orion riding in comfort.

"What's up with Anuja?" asked Kaspar. "What business could she have had in the Azure Glade?"

"Yeah - and 'Graveshadow'?" asked Orion. "What kind of a name is that?"

"One that does not inspire confidence," admitted Galen. "She almost sounds like a necromancer herself."

- - -

Logan used a Paizo Map Pack, "Magic Academy," to represent the Abjurers Guildhall. We now are worried that Reginald and Tienna will become recurring villains, but if what the captured diviner had to say was true, even those we kill are likely to become recurring villains - it seems the Seekers of Eternity aren't above resurrecting those of their forces who are slain. At least we can make them keep spending money on the process!
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 7​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 7​
Syngaard, human fighter 7​

Game Session Date: 25 July 2018

- - -

It had been a week since the team's most recent infiltration into the Azure Glade to rescue Orlin, the Guildmaster of the Conjurers Guild. During that time, the full story behind Anuja Graveshadow remained hidden - Skevros waved away questions about her, merely insisting that he trusted her implicitly. After awhile, Orion and Daleth gave up; they accepted the judgment of the king's advisor and let that be that. But Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard still wanted to know what Anuja's deal was. "Nothin' good ever came from a name like 'Graveshadow'," Syngaard warned. Galen was puzzled because he had previously examined Anuja's aura and found it clear of the taint of evil...but still, she sounded like a necromancer and the proud paladin would have no dealings with those who disturbed the remains of the dead, animating them to unholy life.

Finally, after a week had passed and Anuja had still not returned from whatever mission she had been sent on in the Azure Glade, Skevros began to worry. "Very well," he agreed one morning in the Enchanted Flagon, facing the three heroes who were continuing to pester him on the subject. "Anuja's mother is the high priestess of the Temple of Wee Jas here in Durnhill. She quite literally saved my life, early after my transformation present form. Since then, she and Anuja have been the only source of my healing, as they are able to channel the negative energy needed to heal my body."

"So she's a cleric?" demanded Galen. It certainly beat being a necromancer!

"Indeed, and a very fine one at that," admitted Skevros.

"She been a cleric this whole time?" demanded Syngaard. "Why didn't she say nothin'? We coulda used her healing powers out in the field! We all thought she was just some dumb wagon driver!"

"It is my understanding," began Skevros, "That she opted not to open up to you once you began making jokes about her goddess...."

"Wee Jas?" asked Kaspar. "I do not recall anyone making sport about the Goddess of Death and Magic."

"More directly, about the hypothetical possibility that she had a brother named 'Hugh'," continued Skevros, frowning. Galen and Syngaard looked askance at one another, then broke out laughing. "Oh yeah," recalled Syngaard. "'Hugh Jas - that was a good one!"

"Be that as it may, it cost Anuja's trust in your group. I would hope that amends could be made, as soon as she returns."

"May we ask of her mission?" asked Kaspar.

"I sent her to investigate Melvior's potential connection to the Seeker's of Eternity."

"Melvior? Which one was that again?" asked Syngaard.

"He was the one who entered the Catacombs of Deserved Rest and animated those who had been interred there," pointed out Kaspar. "He was also a cleric of Wee Jas, as I recall."

"Indeed," agreed Skevros. "But that happened before we had learned of the Seekers of Eternity. I wish to know whether there was any affiliation between him and the Seekers, or if his was an unrelated action. But I would have imagined Anuja would have returned by now with news of whatever she'd unearthed about his past. Or, failing that, sent me a sending spell with her progress."

Any potential response was cut off by a primordial roar emanating from outside the Enchanted Flagon. "What the Hell was that?" demanded Syngaard, rising up from his seat and grabbing the morningstar at his belt. Then, to answer his own question, he cautiously exited the tavern by its front door and looked around. The others followed directly behind him.

The roar was repeated, and the scarred fighter pinpointed the direction of the sound to the south, from the direction of the Sanguine Swamp, on the far side of the Enchanted Flagon. Rounding the building, the group saw a large, draconic figure flying through the air, headed for the city - but this dragon had no scales, no muscles, nothing but its yellowing bones. How it managed to make any sound at all - or fly with wings made only of the bones that would normally support the leathery wings' structure - was beyond Syngaard. He closed his eyes and tried disbelieving in the creature (he'd been fooled by illusions before), but when he opened them up again it was still there - and even closer to the city.

"What's--?" began the fighter, but he was abruptly cut off by Skevros.

"Dracolich!" hissed the king's adviser. Turning back to the tavern, he called to his unseen servant within: "Karen! Bring me my battle gear!"

"We gonna fight that thing?" asked Syngaard in amazement.

"I am going to fight that thing," Skevros corrected him. "I want you to protect the city. Have everyone remain indoors until the threat has been dealt with." Skevros was magically confined to the boundaries of the kingdom of Durnhill and thus did not often get to join his team in combat, but this dracolich had made the mistake of coming to Skevros in his place of banishment. The wizard vowed it would come to regret that decision! With a word, he teleported away to do battle with the undead beast before it could attack the city proper.

Almost as soon as he was gone, a fetid odor assaulted the noses of the three heroes. Shambling out of the alleys across from the Enchanted Flagon came a group of assorted undead, some skeletal, some covered in rotting meat. "Damnit!" cursed Syngaard; he'd been hoping to be able to go back into the tavern and finish off his ale before heading into combat.

Kaspar was the first to react. Crossing the street at his full speed, he leaped the last dozen feet or so and sent his foot crashing into the skull of the closest skeleton - an orc, by the hulking build of the thing. His kick sent the skull snapping from the skeleton's neck and careening across the rest of the street to shatter against the wall of an adjacent building. The remaining bones of its animated body collapsed into a heap. Unfortunately, in having rushed out that far away from his companions, the elven monk made himself a ripe target for the other undead in the immediate vicinity. A ghast and another orc skeleton approached him from two different directions, the ghast getting past Kaspar's defenses - the poor elf was having a difficult time dealing with the rotting thing's horrific stench - and bit at the monk's arm with a set of decaying teeth. Fortunately, despite being sickened by the overwhelming odor of rot, Kaspar was able to fend of the paralytic properties of the ghast's bite and remained fighting, although no longer at full strength. But the orc skeleton lashed out with a weapon as well, and Kaspar was surprised to feel the blade draw forth some of his life essence into its unholy steel.

Galen raced not for the undead but for the stables to the east of the tavern. Opening wide the doors, he called forth Seneca, his noble warhorse. But before he could even mount his steed, a pair of orc skeletons approached and, seeing the horse as the closest living being, closed in for the attack, each wielding the same type of glimmering blade as the one fighting Kaspar. Seneca cried out in pain as a pair of life-draining daggers dug deep into his flanks.

"Seneca, flee!" called out Galen, drawing his sword of Zehkar and advancing upon the animated skeletons. Seneca, having felt pain of a type he'd never experienced before, needed no further encouragement and raced down the street, away from the undead forces. Behind him, his master put his longsword to good use, cutting down both of the orc skeletons in a single, cleaving blow.

Syngaard charged over to Kaspar's side, smashing through the orc skeleton and allowing his swing to continue until it crashed into the side of the ghast's head, finishing its arc in a meaty thud. Kaspar finished the ghast off with a quick flurry of blows, his hands moving nearly too fast to see. Both undead combatants fell to the dirt of the streets. Then the two living heroes were out of foes at hand, for the other ghast was bounding over to Galen. In the span of time it took for the ghast to make it to the paladin, Galen used his illumium scabbard to channel positive energy in a burst that struck Kaspar, healing the worst of his wounds. In the meantime, he could hear screams of terror coming from behind him, in the direction Seneca had fled. And then the ghast was upon him - or rather, upon his blade, for the paladin had no trouble skewering the unliving thing upon the sword of Zehkar. Its unholy life ended in a mere moment as the blade's inherent goodness slew the shambling blasphemy.

Rushing toward the center of town, the three heroes came upon a small horde of undead assembled around a fountain. Among the various skeletons and zombies stood three black-robed figures, two of them walking skeletons but the third looking to be human. "I got the human!" Syngaard called out, planning to put his captured human bane scimitar to good use.

"Agreed!" called Galen.

As he advanced upon the horde, Galen cast a protection from evil spell upon himself, hoping to be a bulwark for the party. As he spoke the words to his spell, the zombies turned and shambled in his direction, moaning loudly. Kaspar practically tore the face off the first zombie with his initial attack, the rotting skin being torn by the monk's tenryutsume. But it didn't seem the least bit discomfited with its new skull-faced visage; snapping its rotting teeth at the nimble monk.

Seeing a break in the line of opponents, Syngaard raced forward toward the human in the dark robes. He threw his returning javelin as he ran, hoping to catch his foe unprepared, but the throw missed by mere inches, doing nothing but alerting the spellcaster to the fighter's rapid approach. As the magic javelin returned to Syngaard's hand, the spellcaster turned his back on Syngaard and headed to a nearby building, casting a spell of some sort on his way.

The skeletons raced forward, most of them heading toward Kaspar and Galen but one veering off to attack Syngaard. Fortunately, unlike the orc skeletons from the previous fight, these weren't armed with life-draining blades, fighting only with their own clawed digits. The two robed skeletons each cast a spell, one enhancing the fighting power of the undead in the area with a bless spell, the other trying to cause Kaspar to flee in panic. Fortunately, the monk's willpower was strong and he mentally brushed the cause fear spell away with ease.

On a hunch, Galen concentrated a moment on the auras of the undead forces they were fighting. The zombies and skeletons all radiated evil as expected, and while the two robed skeletons' auras also blazed with evil, theirs seemed to blink in and out of focus, as if not always there. Galen had seen that sort of effect before, when dealing with the reanimated remains of the half-celestial bard in the Catacombs of Deserved Rest. Oddly enough, the human - who Galen recognized at once as Melvior, no doubt raised back to life by the Seekers - did not radiate any evil. But this meant nothing to the stalwart paladin; there were ways, he knew, of masking the evil in one's soul and likewise in the aura that surrounded all beings.

Galen brought the holy symbol of Hieroneous up before him. With a quick word of prayer, he caused a flashing burst of positive energy to blast the undead in his vicinity, turning most of them to ash.

Syngaard continued his pursuit of Melvior, who had stopped at the locked door of the building he was trying to enter. Neither of the robed skeletons had been harmed by Galen's turning, and they each struck out with spells: one caused a spiritual dagger to blaze into unholy life and stab down at Galen, while the other threw a hold person spell that stopped Syngaard in his tracks. But Galen rushed up to the nearest skeletal spellcaster and brought the sword of Zehkar down in a smite evil strike that split several of the creature's bones, nearly dropping it entirely. Kaspar struck out at the other one with a cobra-quick strike. Neither one fell, but neither looked to be far from that point in the battle.

Sweat broke out on Syngaard's bald head as the stubborn fighter struggled with all his might to release himself from the stupid spell keeping him immobilized. It took all of his mental strength - and mental strength was by no means Syngaard's strong suit - but he finally willed his frozen limbs back to life. Gripping his morningstar tight (for he had yet to switch to his human bane scimitar), he resumed his race towards Melvior.

Melvior, in the meantime, had heard the puffs of explosion as most of his minions had been turned to ash by Galen's holy power and turned to try to take out the upstart paladin. He cast a spell that would deprive Galen of his sight, but the stubborn holy warrior shrugged off the intended effects. In the meantime, both skeletal clerics healed themselves, their bones knitting back up through the power of their unholy magic.

Annoyed at having had his damage undone, Galen tried another turn attempt, focused directly upon the two skeletal spellcasters. Although there was no immediate visible effect, Galen could see the "flickering evil" of their auras bleed away. Kaspar, however, saw no such change and continued attacking his designated foe.

Syngaard tried rushing straight into Melvior with a flying tackle and was surprised to be thrown flat on his back instead. But he had gained a valuable insight from his failed attack: the body he had crashed into was bony, not covered in flesh. Melvior's human appearance was apparently nothing more than an illusion of how he had looked in life; he was just as much a walking skeleton as his other two undead spellcasting companions. Glad now that he hadn't switched from his trusty morningstar, Syngaard snarled an oath and crawled back to his feet, ready to strike at Melvior again. He took a blade to the back from his foe as he regained his feet, Melvior stabbing him with a life-draining dagger that sent the chill of unholy power through the scarred fighter's body.

But now that the two skeletal clerics of Wee Jas were no longer under Melvior's sway, one retargeted his spiritual dagger at the dark-robed figure, while the other cast an identical spell and sent his weapon to strike at the same target. Melvior ignored the striking daggers and concentrated on regaining control of his errant undead; he managed to do so but was quickly brought down by the combined attacks of all three heroes. Once permanently released from his control, the other two undead spellcasters - their auras once again free of the taint of evil - begged to be released from their cursed forms that they may be returned to the side of the their goddess. It was only then that Syngaard noticed the symbols of Wee Jas each wore on a chain around their necks. But Galen was only too happy to comply with their wishes, cutting them both down with the sword of Zehkar.

Before the animating spirits left their bones, one of the clerics asked the paladin to look after Anuja. "She is the last remaining member of our temple," he said, indicating that Melvior had slain the other members of the Temple of Wee Jas - the building into which Melvior was attempting to enter when he'd been cut down.

The heroes looked all about them - there were no more undead in the immediate vicinity. Looking skyward, they saw no sign of either Skevros or the dracolich, either - in the heat of their own battles they'd forgotten that their mentor was engaged in a life-or-death battle of his own. So they did as they always did in situations like this: a little process Syngaard liked to refer to as "looting the stiffs." In doing so, they saw a familiar sideways hourglass emblem etched into the forehead of Melvior's skull - the symbol of the Seekers of Eternity. (It only made sense, as an animated skeleton couldn't wear a tattoo. But it looked like the group had validated Melvior's ties with the Seekers.)

They also discovered that the symbol of Wee Jas Melvior wore about his neck was actually hollow, with the image of another god's symbol hidden with its interior: that of Vecna, God of Secrets.

"It would seem he was trying to destroy the Temple of Wee Jas from within," observed Galen.

"It would also seem that he was successful," Kaspar added. Anuja might still be alive, but she was hardly an entire congregation by herself.

The group met up with a trio of city guardsmen, who confirmed the crisis seemed to have come to an end; they'd taken down several groups of undead themselves throughout the city, mostly skeletons and zombies. Somewhere out there, Daleth and Orion had likely been doing the same.

The three heroes returned to the Enchanted Flagon to find Skevros already there. He was drinking from two different flagons, alternating between what appeared to be a stiff drink and a glass of what the group assumed was a mixture of potions of inflict wounds of various strength. The negative energy imbued in the potions - prepared by Anuja, no doubt - healed the living lich of his battle wounds.

"How did you fare with the dracolich?" asked Kaspar as the other two set about procuring drinks for themselves.

"It wasn't actually a dracolich," answered Skevros, taking a swig of alcohol. "I gather it was rather a spellcaster, presumably undead himself, under the effects of a shapechange spell. It would seem the whole point was diversionary, to draw me away from the events of the city, for the 'dracolich' teleported away before either of us could slay the other."

"So that Melvior could slay the members of the Temple of Wee Jas and reanimate them under his control," Kaspar noted, filling Skevros in on the events they'd been involved in.

"That leaves Anuja as the sole surviving member," Skevros sighed, mourning the loss of her mother, the High Priestess of the temple and a good friend to the king's adviser. "I wonder where she might be? I have purposely avoided trying to scry upon her while she's in the Azure Glade, lest I compromise her mission. She was to use a sending spell to inform me of her progress."

"I hope you're not thinkin' of sendin' us back into the damn Azure Glade on another damn rescue mission," griped Syngaard, slamming down his tankard of ale.

"We shall have to see," replied Skevros.

- - -

Logan used Paizo's "Town Square" map for our final battle; the first one took place on our blank map grid with the Dungeon Tile of the tavern we use to represent the Enchanted Flagon and some homemade tiles representing the nearby buildings. For the skeletal undead (to include Melvior), Logan used the "bone creature" template from the Book of Vile Darkness (which was lucky for us, as we initially feared we were up against liches, who would likely be too much for a trio of 7th-level PCs to deal with!).

Logan also gave Orion and Daleth half-XP for this adventure even though Vicki and Joey both stayed home for this session. Partly it was because he hadn't assigned them alternate (non-XP) missions to explain their absences, and thus they were likely in Durnhill fighting undead, but mostly it was because Orion and Daleth are our lower-level PCs and he didn't want the discrepancy between our respective levels to get too wide. (The three of us made it to 8th level as a result of this adventure, while Daleth is just now starting 5th level.)

And, other than my first swing that took out an orc skeleton and injured a ghast, my dice pretty much betrayed me all night. I finally got to try my Improved Overrun feat, with embarrassing results. (Seriously? Knocked flat by a skeleton? Not my finest moment!) Fate owes me another session where I'm a combat machine!
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PC Roster:
Galen Thorne, human paladin 8
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 8
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 7
Syngaard, human fighter 8​

Game Session Date: 1 August 2018

- - -

Skevros summoned his adventurers to the Enchanted Flagon via the rings they wore. Syngaard, as usual, was the last to arrive, having much further to travel than directly above the tavern. "What, Wizard-Pants is gone again?" he asked, noticing Daleth's absence. He also noticed Anuja sitting next to Skevros and was glad that they wouldn't have to go rescue her from the Azure Glade; apparently she'd gone and rescued herself. That was handy.

"Daleth is taking an extended leave of absence, with my blessing," Skevros reported. "He is using the time to study his spellcraft, to become a better wizard and a more effective part of the team."

"Hey, more treasure for the rest of us in the meantime," Syngaard observed.

"I am sorry for the death of your congregation," Galen said to the cleric of Wee Jas. "And of your mother," he added, belatedly realizing that Anuja's mother had also been slain in the recent attack on the Temple of Wee Jas in Durnhill.

"Thank you," replied Anuja, not looking at all bothered by the recent deaths. "She is with the Goddess now. I envy her."

"Your mission in the Azure Glade went well, then?" asked Kaspar.

"Not 'well,' no. The Temple of Wee Jas in the Azure Glade was completely compromised by the Seekers of Eternity, possibly aided by the Church of Vecna. The infiltration and conversion was apparently a practice run before they set their sights on the Temple of Boccob. Overtaking that temple will take them a step closer to complete control of the Council of Guilds. As for me, I barely escaped with my life. They got the horse and wagon, though."

"Aw, the horse with the magic horseshoes?" asked Syngaard. "That's a bummer." Those horseshoes were probably pretty valuable, he thought.

"In any case, Anuja will likely not be transporting you on missions in the future," announced Skevros. "With the fall of her temple, she will need to devote her energies to its restoration."

"If rescuing Anuja is not the reason for our summons," asked Orion, "then what is?"

"I have been ordered by King Leornic to ward the city against teleportation magic. Most of the undead who attacked our city, it turns out, were teleported in rather than animated on the spot. He would see any repeat attacks thwarted. However, performing the research from scratch to create such wards would be time consuming; fortunately, Ashfall uses dimensional anchoring stones in the Baator's Breath Mountains to prevent the devils from teleporting away after setting forth on our world. You are to report to Serenity in Ashfall, who will give you your mission briefing; in return for your service, you will be given a dimensional anchoring stone that will greatly aid me in warding Durnhill against teleportation."

"This a paying mission?" piped up Syngaard.

"I have already explained your payment," snapped Skevros. "The king has ordered this be done, so you will do it. You are dismissed."

"Well, this sucks," griped Syngaard as the group exited the tavern. "Another hour-long trek up to Ashfall, and now we don't even got a wagon and a driver no more!"

"The walk will do you good," suggested Galen.

"Easy for you to say," retorted the bald fighter. "You're gonna be ridin' Seneca."

"Actually, I shall be walking alongside you," replied the paladin. "I'm leaving Seneca behind for this mission. Should I need a mount, I have spent the last several days in prayer; a mount will come to me when I call for one."

This news didn't improve Syngaard's mood any, nor did the comfortable ride Orion had, mounted on her riding dog Carl. Kaspar initially tried cheering up the surly fighter but soon realized it was a lost cause. Syngaard was wallowing in misery and self-pity and seemed to like it that way just fine.

His grumbling stopped momentarily when they saw the city of Ashfall before them. There were guards about, but these were much younger than the old-timers the heroes had gotten accustomed to. They eyed the group suspiciously as they approached the gates. "Who are you?" one guard demanded.

"Who are we?" repeated Syngaard, incredulously. "You must be new around here. We're the Heroes of Ashfall!"

"'Heroes of Ashfall'?" mocked the guard. "More like cowards who stayed behind from the fight up in the mountains! Cowards who crept in for stolen glory while the true heroes were on the front lines, keeping this world safe from fiends!"

"All played their parts," offered Galen in a conciliatory gesture. "While you were risking all in the mountains, we provided valuable services to your kingdom, fighting off bandit attacks and securing for your king a vast supply of mithral. And we, too, saw to fighting off devils and worse in your mountains."

"I take it the nine-month span of breach activity has now passed?" asked Kaspar. "Ashfall's armies have returned back from their mission?"

"Not all of us," snarled the young guardsman. "Some of us gave their lives to the service of our kingdom and our world -- my brother was slain fighting off a chain devil."

"Sounds like he should've spent more time in practice," replied Syngaard, being obnoxious on purpose - he didn't like this punk's attitude. "No use sendin' boys out to do the job of real men." Orion shook her head sadly at the fighter's idiocy and steered Carl off to the side; she didn't want to be a part of it when Syngaard started an incident between two neighboring kingdoms.

Bristling at the scarred fighter's comments, the young guard moved forward as if to throw a punch at Syngaard, who stood defiantly in a "let's see what you got" pose - but Kaspar intervened, catching the guard's fist in his own powerful hand. The guard was surprised to see he couldn't extract his hand from the lithe monk's one-handed grip.

"Please forgive my friend," Kaspar said. "He is in poor humor today. I offer condolences for the loss of your brother, and for those who died by his side. Perhaps you can help us and we will be on our way. Do you know where we can find Serenity?" He released his grip on the man's hand.

The man spit on the ground at the sound of Serenity's name, but he kept eye contact with Syngaard to let him know that was what he thought of him as well. "The devil-whore's in the Temple of Hieroneous," he answered.

"Shows you what you know," commented Syngaard as a parting shot as the group pressed on into the city. "Succubus ain't no devil, she's a demon. Woulda thought you might have picked up some knowledge 'bout such things, you bein' a fiend-slayer from the front lines an' all." The guard just glared at Syngaard's back as he left, his expression saying the bald fighter had better watch out if he passed this way back out of town.

The group knew the way to Ashfall's Temple of Hieroneous - they'd fought off the Seekers' forces there recently - and sure enough, Serenity was there, packing her things for a trip. "Ah, you've arrived," she said. "Good. Even though the breaches are closed for the next nine years, there is occasionally some 'light' planar activity in the off-season. For that reason, there is a small garrison in the mountains to keep an eye on the area during the calm times. With the main army returned to the kingdom, I am being stationed there to help keep a lookout for any small breaches that may pop up."

"And our mission...?" prompted Galen.

"During the incursion, some ruins were found in a cave in the mountains. The army was too preoccupied to investigate it at the time and now that they've just returned, nobody wants to go back there to check it out. Thus, that task will fall to you. I have the rough location of the ruins and will lead you to the area before I continue on to the garrison. The kingdom is only interested in whether the ruins pose a danger to their armies, so you are authorized to claim any treasure you find there as payment, in addition to the dimensional anchoring stone I have promised Skevros in order to secure your assistance in this matter. When you have finished exploring the ruins and dealt with any threats to Ashfall, you will report back to King Renaldos and pick up your stone."

"We got a horse and wagon or something?" asked Syngaard.

"Given the steepness of some of the roads you will be taking, it's better if you walk," replied Serenity.

"Aw, crap - we're trudging around again!" complained Syngaard. "Trudged all the damn way up here, now we're trudging on up to the mountains! And when we're done, we gotta trudge back over to the king to pick up our damn stone and then trudge back home! This sucks!"

"It 'sucks' every bit as much for me as it does for you," pointed out the redeemed succubus. "I had planned on flying directly to the garrison."

"I, for one, will enjoy the company," announced Galen. "It will give us a chance to get to know each other better." Serenity, like all succubi, was staggeringly beautiful, and now that the young paladin knew she was no longer of an evil nature he felt it might even be appropriate for a paladin of Hieroneous to win her affections.... Orion just rolled her eyes and urged Carl forward with a tap of her feet.

The group traveled northwards into the mountains. Galen walked at Serenity's side, whereas Syngaard opted to walk directly behind her - that way, he got a good view of her shapely butt. "I'm no longer evil," Serenity announced out of the blue. <But I'm still telepathic> she added, directly into Syngaard's mind.

<Ain't no harm in lookin'> Syngaard thought back at her, and the succubus just smirked.

Serenity led the group to a small valley split by a river of lava. In the ambient reddish light from the slow-flowing lava, the group could see two caves off in the distance; one was on their side of the lava flow, while the other was across the way, which would require hopping across a series of small "islands" of rock around the branching streams of lava. "Good luck!" Serenity called as she took flight and headed for the garrison, her next duty station.

"Might as well check out the easy one first," offered Orion, leading Carl to the cave on their side of the lava flow. The cave was wide and curved to the right almost immediately. It came to an abrupt end several dozen feet back. When Galen struck a sunrod so they could see if there were any other branching passageways, his light reflected off chunks of shining metal embedded in the walls. "That's gold!" Orion said, getting a close-up look at the metal.

"Then that's ours!" chimed in Syngaard, before realization hit. "Aw, crap! We find ourselves some treasure right off the bat, only now we gotta dig it outta the stone walls ourselves? That means trudging back to Ashfall, buying picks and shovels and whatnot, then trudging back here again for hours of back-breaking labor!" Orion just rolled her eyes again at the fighter's grumbling - but at least he wasn't making snide comments about halflings.

"Perhaps we can leave the back-breaking labor for others," suggested Kaspar. "There will likely be a finder's fee for a new source of gold; we could be content with that." Syngaard just narrowed his eyes at the elven monk; contenting himself with less wasn't in the bald fighter's nature.

"In any case, there is no danger to Ashfall here - nor any ruins," observed Galen. "They must be over in the other cave, across the lava flow." That got Syngaard grumbling again.

The group approached the lava flow. "Hopping from rock to rock seems to be the only way," observed Kaspar. "I will go first, if you like." He nimbly leaped onto the first rock island, then again to another adjacent one. Looking at the way the lava was flowing, it looked like even the shortest path would involve jumping onto four or five islands at least.

Galen jumped across the first island, ran across it and leaped to the next, but missed the mark; his heel landed in the flow of lava. He cried out in sudden pain, causing Kaspar to be distracted in his own leap and miss his own mark. Galen's feet were in heavy boots covered with metal plates, to match the rest of his heavy armor; poor Kaspar wore only sandals. The back of his left foot was badly burned from his misstep; he hastily applied his monk training and directed healing energy to the spot where it was sorely needed.

Orion, on Carl's back, had an easy run of it; they arrived at the far side of the lava flow without incident. Syngaard had planned on just making a fast dash across and get it over with, but after seeing the other two men make poor landings he decided to slow it down a bit and take his time. "This is trickier than it looks!" observed Galen. "Only thing that could be worse is if monsters were to rise out of the lava to attack us!"

Naturally, at that point, monsters rose out of the lava to attack them.

Incinerasha, a Large half-fiend fire elemental with a pair of long, curving, black horns jutting from her head, was the first to rise from the lava river. She managed to hit Kaspar with a fiery slam. Just behind her, her younger (and smaller) sister Ignitia attempted to do the same to Syngaard and although he was hit with a solid slam, he avoided catching on fire. Behind the two black-horned half-fiend fire elementals, their fiendish fire elemental servants also rose up to attack the party: one attacked Galen while the other chased after Orion and Carl, but neither of their attacks were nearly as effective as those of their respective mistresses.

Orion wheeled Carl around and stabbed out at the fiendish fire elemental attacking her; while she knew the flames of her magic short sword would do the creature no harm, the steel cut a line of green fire across the thing's burning chest. Galen fared even better: with two strikes of the sword of Zehkar, he cut down his foe, causing its flames to explode in a puff of air and leave no trace of the elemental's body behind at all.

Syngaard, not wanting to remain on a small rocky island flanked on all sides by flowing lava, turned his back on his foe and continued leaping from rock to rock until he made it to Carl's side. Then he spun in place and sent his javelin of returning flying at Ignitia. Kaspar followed the scarred fighter's example, seeing the wisdom in fighting their foes on a block of solid ground. But on his way past Incinerasha, the elemental opened wide her jaws and snapped at the young monk; he dodged at the last moment, not having expected a fire elemental - half-fiend or not - to try actually biting him. But she was more successful with her flailing arms, slamming the monk and starting his robes ablaze. Kaspar made it to the far shore, but then had to pat out the flames on his sleeves.

Ignitia stepped up to Galen and sent her flaming arm crashing down at him, channeling unholy energy through her appendage in a blow designed to deal extra damage to those of a goodly alignment. It served him right, she thought, for having slain my favorite servant! The blow hit, causing Galen to drop to one knee before righting himself again. Then, seeing Kaspar staggering on the far shore, he sent a ray from his illumium scabbard to strike the monk, bathing him in its healing energies. Kaspar called out his gratitude to the paladin and turned to face their enemies.

The remaining fiendish fire elemental struck out at Carl and Orion again, missing both. But Orion's flaming short sword cut another line of pain across the creature's flaming body, causing it to hiss in anger and frustration. Syngaard caught the javelin as it returned to his hand, then switched to his trusty magic morningstar and smacked the fiendish fire elemental attacking Orion a good one. Kaspar finished it off with a lightning-fast strike with his hardened fist - one that burned his hand despite the swiftness of his attack.

But now three heroes and a riding dog were bunched up together in a group. Incinerasha took advantage of the situation by unleashing an unholy blight attack against the four figures. Syngaard and Orion were sickened by the pain; of the four, Carl fared the best, shaking off the effects with a rapid shake of his head. Ignitia followed suit, only she covered the area around the group in a shroud of pitch blackness. Orion had Carl ease out of the area of darkness while she drank down a healing potion to counter the worst of the damage caused by the unholy blight. She then called out to the others, and Syngaard followed the sound of her voice to step out of the radius of darkness without wandering back into a lava flow.

But while Ignitia had been concentrating on the other four, Galen took advantage and used a smite evil attack on the half-fiend fire elemental, channeling positive energy through his longsword. Syngaard threw his javelin at her as well, impaling its metal through her torso before it returned to his hand.

Kaspar followed Syngaard's path out of the magical darkness, ending up beside Carl and Orion. He was tempted to throw his shuriken at one of the half-fiends, but realized he'd not likely be able to retrieve anything he threw, given the abundance of flowing lava in the area. Seeing his hesitation, Orion offered up her bag of blades, and the monk put the masterwork daggers contained within to good use, charging them up with electrical energy through the power of the tenryutsume he wore on his right hand. Incinerasha was not pleased by the electrically-charged daggers that plunged into her body and then disappeared, but she focused her attention on Galen, the nearer foe and one whose aura blazed with the smug power of Hieroneous.

While her sister attacked the paladin, Ignitia ran over to attack Syngaard, but that shortly proved to be her downfall as the fighter shortly cut her down with several vicious blows from his morningstar.

With only one remaining foe, Orion reached into her bag of blades and threw a volley at Incinerasha, but without a tenryutsume to charge them up with electrical energy, the weapons seemed to deal the long-horned fire elemental no harm. Still, it focused the elemental's attention from Galen long enough for him to back away out of battle, making a tactical retreat from combat to regroup alongside his companions. He caused healing energy to flood through his body as he jumped over the lava flows, sealing over the worst of the burns he'd received during this fight.

Incinerasha roared in fury as Syngaard cut down her younger sister; she locked eyes on the scarred fighter and started making her way over to him, ready to ignite him into a blazing bonfire. She threw a poison spell his way just because she could, but Syngaard managed to shrug off the effects. Kaspar, meanwhile, kept up a steady stream of thrown daggers striking her, each one charged with electricity. He was surprised at the success of his attacks, as he had been led to believe most fiends could ignore the amounts of electrical damage he was likely inflicting with his charged daggers. Still, never one to ignore a gift from fate, he continued with what was working.

Galen decided that now was the time. Calling out to his patron deity, he cried, "Hieroneous! Send me a mount from the celestial planes capable of helping us defeat our enemy!" The air beside him wavered as if a mirage, and then a sudden blaze of orange, tan, and brown sprang forth - but this was no flame, but a dire lion which pounced immediately at Incinerasha, ignoring the pain from the flames of her body as he raked his sharp claws across her fiery form and bit down with his saber-sized teeth. Smoke emanated from his mouth and fur as he turned and roared his victory, the long-horned elemental having been obliterated into cinders and ash by the power of his attacks.

With the battle over, the group took time to heal properly. Galen tended to his new mount's wounds and those of his companions, deciding on the spot, "I'm going to name him 'Burt'."

"Burt?" asked Orion, surprised at such a normal name for such a fearsome beast.

"It's no stupider than 'Carl'," pointed out Syngaard. Personally, he didn't care a whit what the dire lion was called, just as long as he was fighting on their side.

"Shall we explore the other cave now?" suggested Kaspar, once everyone was back to fighting trim. Just like the other cave, it made a ninety-degree turned almost immediately, this time to the left. Just after the bend, the natural stone passageway gave way to worked stone, forming a chamber thirty feet wide and slightly longer. A Large humanoid figure carved from stone stood in the middle of a doorway at the back end of the chamber. The Seekers of Eternity symbol was carved prominently upon both its forehead and its chest.

Preparing for battle, Galen cast a protection from evil spell as he advanced slowly toward the golem. Only after he had cast the spell did he think to examine its aura, surprising himself in picking up no signs of an evil nature. But then again, it was merely an animated statue, a chunk of carved stone brought to the semblance of life - that might account for its lack of evil.

Syngaard ran up and hurled his javelin of returning at the golem, his sprint coming to a screeching halt when the thing turned to him and spoke.

"Do not throw things at me. Identify yourself and your purpose."

What the Hell, thought the scarred fighter as he caught his returning javelin in his hand. It couldn't hurt. "We're the Heroes of Ashfall," he announced.

"Designation unknown," replied the golem.

"We work for Skevros," Orion gambled, to see if it would recognize the name of the Seekers' greatest enemy.

"Designation unknown," repeated the golem.

"Well, let's turn it around," suggested Syngaard. "Just who the Hell are you?"

"I am the Guardian of Hirek's Lab."

"Hirek? Well, there you go, then - I'm the Father of Hirek's Key."

"Designation unknown."

"Hirek's Key? Hope? Daughter of Messalina Maladucci - she's related to Hirek."

"Designations unknown."

Kaspar walked up to the golem. He was unarmed, so he hoped he would not come cross as a foe - not that this guardian seemed especially eager for combat. "Galen," he called behind him. "Bring forth your sword."

"Are we fighting him?" the paladin asked, confused. The stone golem looked pretty tough - but more geared toward conversation than combat, if its actions thus far were any indication. But he did as he was told.

"Spirit of Zehkar identified!" the stone golem announced in apparent excitement. He took a ponderous step forward out of the doorway, then stepped to the side. "You may pass," it announced.

Galen stared up at the massive construct, focusing on its forehead and chest. "Those emblems carved into you: they're the symbol of the Seekers of Eternity," he said.


"The Seekers of Eternity are a group of evil spellcasters trying to become liches so they can live forever as undead abominations," the paladin explained.

"Incorrect," replied the golem. "The Seekers of Eternity is a group of spellcasters and alchemists attempting to discover a means of creating a potion of longevity to extent the natural living lifespan." After having heard that, the heroes recalled having heard before that that had been the original goal of the Seekers; somehow, over the ages, the group's focus had been perverted into its current form. This Guardian of Hirek's Lab had apparently been hidden away for some time!

Looking warily at the massive stone golem, the group entered through the doorway and ended up in another stone-carved room. Upon their entry, continual flame spells flashed to life, illuminating the room's contents.

Three magic circles were inscribed into the floor, their arcane markings filled with silver. A book lay open upon a small table near one of the circles, while a larger table on the right side of the room contained a couple of crumbling scrolls. Off to the left side of the room stood two metal cages, formed from solid iron bars reaching from floor to ceiling. The farther one was empty but the closest contained a closed chest as wide as a full-grown man. "Now we're talking!" enthused Syngaard.

"Hold on," warned Orion, leaping down from Carl's back and examining the lock on the metal cage. She didn't see any obvious traps, so she focused her attention on the chest itself - all while touching nothing. "It looks like the chest is coated in something. A contact poison, perhaps."

"How do we find out for sure?" asked Syngaard.

"You could poke it with your finger," suggested the halfling.

"I'll poke something, all right," replied the fighter, before pulling a seldom-used longsword from a scabbard on his belt. The longsword was well-crafted but nothing spectacular; with a returning javelin, a human bane scimitar, and his magical morningstar, Syngaard had little use for the sword. He stuck it between the bars of the cage and scraped it along the side of the chest, hoping to collect a sample of the coating for closer examination. But it didn't work out that way - after poking the chest the first time, the sword got stuck in place. Try as he might, Syngaard couldn't move the blade from its current position.

And then the whole chest jostled, and all was made clear. "Mimic!" Orion cried - she'd heard tales of such creatures, shapeshifters capable of assuming the forms of inanimate objects. Anyone trained in the skills of thievery had heard the tales; mimics were legendary, having taken the lives of many thieves over the years.

Unable to pull his sword back, Syngaard went with the flow and tried stabbing it in even deeper. For his efforts, the "chest" formed a pseudopod and sent it crashing in his direction, only to hit the metal bars of its prison. The pseudopod deformed slightly upon impact, but the creature was unable to assume a form thin enough to fit between of the bars. "Ha!" taunted Syngaard. "Can't get at me, can you?"

But Orion had already realized that if the cage that appeared to hold a treasure chest actually didn't, then the one that looked like it didn't hold a chest actually might. She gave the bars and locking mechanism on the empty cage a thorough search, finding no traps. Galen approached behind the halfling, pulling out a spare, nonmagical longsword of his own. He poked it between the bars of the cage into the empty space beyond and it struck something that wasn't visible. "No, now we're talking!" he corrected Syngaard's earlier statement.

Orion made quick work of the cage's lock with her lockpicking tools and opened the apparently empty cage. Then, feeling around the unseen chest with gloved hands (for contact poison was always a possibility), she felt around for the chest's latches and unhooked them. She was glad to find the chest unlocked; picking an invisible lock would be quite a trick! But when she opened the lid, the interior of the chest proved to be quite visible - and filled to the brim with platinum coins.

"Now we're talking!" the halfling agreed.

Syngaard insisted on immediately pulling out the coins and dividing them up; after all, the chest was too big to lug all the way home so it made more sense to dump the contents into the group's individual bags of holding. Kaspar left the counting to the others, trusting in them to allocate him an equal share; instead, he checked out the open book. While he couldn't read its contents, he recognized the writing as Celestial. Flipping the book closed, he saw the holy symbol of Boccob inscribed on its front cover in silver thread; the name "HIREK" was similarly sewn along the spine. "This is probably Hirek's original spellbook!" the monk called to the others.

"Too bad Wizard-Pants didn't show," smirked Syngaard. "He might have learned something useful."

Kaspar examined the two scrolls on the other table, but time had not treated them kindly; they crumbled at his merest touch. The monk then gave the entire area a quick examination, his elven senses seeking hidden passageways or secret doors. When that turned up negative, and once the others had finished dividing up the platinum coins, he announced the ruins to have been sufficiently explored and any dangers to the kingdom of Ashfall to have been negated. "We can return to King Renaldos and pick up our dimensional anchoring stone for Skevros," he said to his friends.

"Aw, crap!" griped Syngaard. "More trudging!"

"For you, perhaps," replied Galen. "I'm riding Burt back in style!" Orion, back in the saddle of her riding dog, said nothing but her expression admitted to her enjoyment of Syngaard's envy just a little bit.

"Walking is good exercise," pointed out Kaspar, but Syngaard's snarling reply convinced the monk that the scarred human fighter wanted to hear no such arguments. So Kaspar caught up to the other two on their mounts and walked beside them, leaving Syngaard to sulk during the long trudge back to Ashfall to pick up their rock, and during the hour-long trudge back to Durnhill after that.

- - -

Logan used a "Wasteland" Flip-Mat for the lava cave area and several tiles from a "Mines" Map Pack for the two caves. Hirek's Lab itself was a Dungeon Tile from a set I had purchased years ago.

As for the half-fiend fire elementals, Logan used two versions of a stand-up token I had made for a previous campaign to represent his PC's fire elemental familiar, Infernia. (One was Large and one was Medium; his PC used to cast polymorph any object on her to change her size as needed for the adventure at hand.) He used generic fire elemental initiative cards, though, since he couldn't find Infernia's card from the previous campaign. (There's a good reason for that - I set it aside as I'm planning on repurposing the Infernia tokens and initiative card for an upcoming adventure in my own campaign.) And the reason they took electricity damage from Kaspar's tenryutsume-enhanced throwing daggers was simple as well - in the heat of battle, Logan forgot about their electricity resistance 10. (Hey, I've been there - I once forgot that arrowhawks are immune to electricity, so on the spur of the moment I had to make the group of arrowhawks my PCs were fighting a variant offshoot that were force-based instead of electricity-based.) So I guess these particular half-fiend fire elementals didn't inherit that particular trait from their fiendish ancestors.



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 5
Galen Thorne, human paladin 8
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 8
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 7
Syngaard, human fighter 8​

Game Session Date: 22 August 2018

- - -

"You can do that now? That quickly?" asked Orion, astonishment evident in her voice.

"No problem," assured the merchant wizard. "Your bag of blades supplies the throwing daggers and they're already of masterwork quality. It will be a mere trifle to upgrade the daggers such that they have magical enhancements to aid in the striking of the designated target and deal a blast of electrical energy upon impact. You agree to the price stipulated?"

"I do indeed!" enthused the halfling, passing over a bag of coins, and in a few minutes she had her bag of blades back, even more lethal than ever. She tucked it into place at the side of Carl's saddle, so she could reach down and grab a weapon from the bag without effort.

Nearby, Kaspar and Syngaard walked out of an armorer's shop that also dealt in magic items. Each had purchased items guaranteed to make them more difficult to hit in combat, no small matter to the elven monk as he was forbidden by his order to wear armor of any type that would inhibit the flexibility he had attained through years of diligent effort. Galen, it the meantime, had summoned his dire lion from the celestial realms, specifically to have a permanent greater magic fang spell cast upon him. It took the combined efforts of a druid and a wizard to do so, but that was why the magic shop employed spellcasters of different varieties. The paladin happily paid the agreed-upon sum, eager now for Burt's next combat.

He didn't have long to wait. Although the four heroes were all at various shops along the same street, they weren't all together as a group - until suddenly, they were. In the blink of an eye, the four found themselves several blocks away in the street just outside the Enchanted Flagon. Oddly enough, Daleth Stormsea was there as well - and he hadn't even been shopping with the rest of the group! The elf wizard looked around, surprised to see himself outdoors when a moment ago he had been lost deep in study in the Temple of Boccob, researching arcane spellcraft techniques.

"What the Hell?" sputtered Syngaard. "What just happened?"

Burt was not among the group's number, a fact immediately evident to Galen Thorne. <Burt!> he called out over the empathic link they shared. <I'm just outside the Enchanted Flagon! Meet me here at once!> Back in the street outside the magic shop, a saber-fanged dire lion the size of a draft horse suddenly took off at full speed, scattering frightened townsfolk in his wake as he made a bee-line for his human master.

"It would seem we were teleported here," Daleth observed, answering the scarred fighter. "I would imagine Skevros needs assistance, at once!" The elf turned and raced to the front door of the tavern that served as the group's headquarters, swinging it open and rushing inside.

"Can he do that?" Orion asked, urging Carl to follow behind the elven wizard. Galen, Syngaard, and Kaspar followed suit.

"News to me," grumbled Syngaard. "He teleports us all over the damned place, but we always gotta trudge back home ourselves. Never seen 'im teleport us to him." And not only that, but a week ago the group had turned over a magical stone from Ashfall that was to have aided the king's adviser in shielding the kingdom of Durnhill from unwanted teleport effects - it shouldn't have even been possible for the group to be suddenly relocated like they were.

Entering the Enchanted Flagon, the group got an answer of sorts. There was an elderly man sitting in the spot normally reserved for Skevros at the group's main table; he was bald on top, with a ring of white hair and a long, flowing, white beard that matched the color of his robe - the color of the Azure Glade's Diviners Guild. At his side stood a petite drow woman, her dark skin covered - just barely, Syngaard was quick to notice - in an equally-dark leather outfit that clung to her form like a thin layer of wet cotton. Skevros and Karen stood over to the heroes' right, motionless, the wizard's lips pressed tight; the spot in which they stood normally sported a round table and four chairs, but neither was currently present. Instead, there was a black, round hole standing upright along the wall behind them - a magical gate of some sort, or perhaps one of those curious portable holes the magic shops occasionally offered for sale at outrageous prices. Whichever it was, it stood a good ten feet tall.

"What's goin' on?" demanded Syngaard, looking over at Skevros for an explanation. He had his returning javelin in hand, ready to throw if needed. At his side, Galen cast a protection from evil spell, realizing the Diviners Guild was one of the three of nine branches of the Council of Guilds already supposedly infiltrated by the Seekers of Eternity. He moved towards Skevros but was stopped by an invisible wall of some type - a wall of force, perhaps.

"Sit down," suggested the bearded wizard, taking a sip from a tankard of ale with one hand - his other held an ornate staff - and looking not the least bit concerned that there were five heroes and a riding dog armed and ready to do battle with him. "I wish to discuss options with you."

"And just who the Hell are you?" demanded Syngaard. (He was in quite the demanding mood, it seemed.)

"I believe you know of me. My name is Arcturus; I'm the head of the Diviners Guild in the Azure Glade. Your little group here has become quite the thorn in our side - and I intend to remedy that, one way or the other." Galen's eyes narrowed as the elderly wizard spoke, partly at the mention of "thorn" - as that was, phonetically, the young paladin's last name - but also because he was concentrating on the wizard's aura, which emanated waves of evil. (Oddly enough, the drow woman at his side showed no signs of evil at all; who ever heard of a good - or at least non-evil - drow?)

"As I see it, you have three choices," observed Arcturus, counting them off on his fingers. "One: you can join the Seekers of Eternity and share in our successes." Galen visibly choked at that suggestion, drawing a frown from Arcturus. "Two," he continued, "you can tell us how you communed with the Mithral Mage and we will cease all hostility against toward your group and Skevros, despite your master's previous betrayal."

"You can go stick your head in a bucket," snarled Galen, not at all aware that his comment might actually be giving the diviner a hint as to the role a bucket of osteovox played in their ability to communicate with the spirit of the Mithral Mage, using a skull of a druid member of the Seekers.

"Then there's three: you die," concluded Arcturus. "The choice is yours."

"I like option four: we kill you and all of your stupid Seekers!" offered Syngaard, raising his javelin to throw.

"A pity," remarked Arcturus, throwing a readied maze spell directly at Daleth, possibly singling the elf out as the greatest threat simply because he himself knew the power of high-level arcane spellcasters; had he known Daleth was the hero with the least actual combat experience of the group, he might have chosen his target differently. In any case, Daleth disappeared at once, his body shunted into an extradimensional maze, unable to interact with the outside world at all until he mentally unraveled the means of escape. At Arcturus's side, the drow woman struck a defensive pose, leading Kaspar to believe he was facing an enemy whose combat training had been very similar to his own.

From Carl's back, Orion flung one of her just-upgraded throwing daggers at the white-haired drow, who easily dodged out of the way. The dagger soared past her head and vanished before it struck the back wall. Kaspar mirrored the halfling's attack with three shuriken of his own, but the drow monk nimbly dodged all three of them as well with minimal effort, not even bothering to deflect them with her hands. Syngaard threw his javelin at the drow with an equal lack of success, but he didn't pay any attention as to whether or not the thrown weapon even hit her; he was too busy pulling the human bane scimitar from his belt, having already determined that this Arcturus dude was a human and thus particularly vulnerable to the enchantments of his blade.

Galen took a moment to cast a bless weapon on the sword of Zehkar before moving in for combat. Behind him, in the street outside the tavern's open door, the paladin heard Burt's roar as he rapidly approached.

Seemingly unperturbed by the terrible odds before him or the fact that Syngaard's deadly blade cut into his side during his spellcasting, Arcturus sent a deadly cone of freezing cold blasting from his fingertips, hitting everyone in the room but Skevros and Karen - and even hitting Burt as he raced up to the tavern's doorway. The cone of cold caused the group's first casualty: Orion's faithful riding dog, Carl, was hit full-force by the blast of frigid cold and his heart immediately stopped beating in his chest. Orion rolled to the floor as her faithful companion keeled over, his icy body already stiffer than rigor mortis would ever affect it. She had instinctively managed to dodge the blast of cold energy, but the cry of rage that exploded from her lips was no less anguished by the pain not having been hers.

Without a moment's hesitation - indeed, thought became instant action - Orion snatched up a magical throwing dagger from her bag of blades and sent it hurtling at Arcturus, catching him in the chest, just below the neck. The trained knife-fighter could tell just by the sound it made hitting him that he had some sort of magical protection up - a stoneskin spell, most likely, which would account for the fact that Syngaard's earlier blow with his human bane scimitar hadn't done as much damage as the scarred fighter had expected.

Kaspar also decided to target the enemy wizard, so he leaped up onto the bar behind the drow and struck at Arcturus, likewise encountering the man's magical shield against physical attacks - although the monk was pleased to see the protective spell did nothing to deflect the fire and electricity components of his tenryutsume-fueled blows. Below him, the drow woman spun and struck out at Kaspar, but he easily avoided the blow.

Funny, thought Syngaard. Nobody's hit the drow chick, and she hasn't hit nobody either. He squinted at her, then looked back over at Karen, and a sudden realization hit him. Syngaard wasn't the smartest of men, there was no denying it, but he did occasionally have his flashes of insight. "Don't bother with the drow chick!" he called out. "She's just a spell, like Karen!" He then focused his attention back on Arcturus, doing his best to carve him up with his scimitar. He was successful twice in as many seconds, scoring with a one-two set of slashes that had the elderly wizard cursing aloud in pain despite his magical protection.

Galen charged forth, striking Arcturus with his sword of Zehkar and then swiveling away, but this was just to make room for Burt, his mane full of frost, who pounced into the room, leapt up onto the round table that usually served as the group's gathering place, and tore into the bald-headed mage, teeth and claws flashing out in wave after wave of furious violence. Unfortunately, Arcturus's stoneskin spell absorbed the majority of the dire lion's attacks.

Still, if nothing else Burt's onslaught convinced Arcturus he was open to attacks from too many directions in his current location. Despite the fact that casting the spell opened him up to a flurry of attacks from those within striking distance - Syngaard, Burt, Galen, and Kaspar - the diviner cast a dimension door spell that sent him across the room, beside the ten-foot-diameter black hole in the wall behind Skevros. Standing beside the forcecage spell that imprisoned his old enemy and his "seen" unseen servant, Arcturus was similarly protected by the wall to the right of the tavern's entry door. Only one hero could stand before him and fight hand-to-hand.

Orion didn't need to fight him hand-to-hand, though - she continued throwing her magical daggers at the diviner, wanting him dead for what he had done to poor Carl. Kaspar, still standing upon the bar at the back of the room, likewise used his ranged attacks: throwing stars suffused with both fiery and electrical energy from his tenryutsume. From his vantage point, he could easily strike over the heads of his friends, whichever one ended up confronting the wizard face to face.

Syngaard was tempted, but he realized he had a better ranged weapon than Galen had and he also knew the power of the paladin's holy smite attacks, which were usable against evil enemies - and this white-bearded bozo certainly qualified! He moved closer, to the edge of the invisible box keeping Skevros and Karen isolated, and threw his returning javelin at Arcturus, leaving an avenue of attack open for Galen.

Galen took the opportunity without hesitation. Charging forward with a roar of fury, the paladin channeled holy energy through his blade, which caused a considerable amount of damage to the evil diviner. But Arcturus wasn't without resources of his own; he took advantage of the paladin's proximity to cast a vampiric touch spell that drained Galen of some of his own vitality, instantly healing the wizard back to the level he'd been at before the paladin's charge. Galen staggered under the effect of the spell, instantly on his last legs before falling in combat.

But Kaspar and Orion continued their attacks from across the room, slowly whittling away at the wizard's stoneskin defenses. Syngaard, seeing Galen stagger, grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back, stepping up to take his place - and swing his human bane scimitar at Arcturus while he was at it. The blade hit true and hit deep; now it was Arcturus nearly on his last legs.

Orion stopped her throwing-dagger assault to rush forward to Galen's aid. She couldn't cast healing energy through her fingers like the paladin could, but she unstoppered a healing potion and bade the armored warrior drink it down. Galen did so, nodding in gratitude at the halfling's gesture.

Emboldened by his own renewal and Arcturus's weakened state, Galen rushed forward again, pulling Syngaard aside so he could repeat his holy smite attack against the wizard. The holy energy coursing through the sword of Zehkar was all it took to end the life of Arcturus, whose bloodstained body crashed to the floor. As it struck, it was enveloped in a blue glow that flickered and then faded into a mist.

And that wasn't all that faded with the wizard's death. The solid forcecage imprisoning Skevros and the gate to the quasi-elemental plane of vacuum also snapped off as Arcturus died, allowing Skevros to take a gulp of much-needed air. Dizziness overcame the king's adviser and he dropped to his knees; Kaspar was there in a heartbeat to see to their leader's welfare. Orion had a different task at hand: she stabbed into the dead wizard's chest over and over with one of her electric daggers, ensuring Carl's killer was truly dead.

"What was that blue glow?" asked Galen once Skevros had regained his breath. "Some kind of necromantic life-force thing?"

"No," replied Skevros. "Arcturus had a contingency spell in effect that would have teleported his body and staff - much like the Azure Guard uses. But I've warded the kingdom against unwanted teleportation with my dimensional anchoring stones, so it wasn't able to take effect."

"But you teleported us here," argued Kaspar.

"No, that wasn't me. It was Arcturus, and he used a wish spell to do so. That's how he managed to appear here in the first place; my wards can prevent teleportation spells but they can't overcome the power of a wish."

"Arcturus teleported us here? That don't make no sense," argued Syngaard, heading over to the wizard's corpse to stop Orion's further desecration of it - not that he was worried about such things normally, but they hadn't had a chance to loot the stiff yet!

"He wished to speak with you and he is - or was - an impatient man," replied Skevros.

"Hey, this guy's got nothin' on him!" complained Syngaard. "Don't high-level wizards carry no coins or gems on 'em or nothin'?"

"You will likely find that he wears a robe of the magi, but one attuned to those who follow the path of evil. He had it bleached to match the color of the Diviners Guild, no doubt."

"How 'bout his stick?" asked Syngaard, holding up the magic staff Arcturus hadn't even used in battle. "It worth anything?"

"An azurewood staff of divination, by the looks of it," replied Skevros. "You might give it to Daleth, upon his return."

"Yeah, where is Wizard-Pants?" asked Galen, looking around.

Before any reply could be made, there was a shimmering in the air and nine robed figures appeared in the tavern. Each robe was of a different color: the eight colors of the specialist wizards of the Azure Glade and a gray one as well. The figures had no faces; instead, a glowing rune appeared in the middle of their hoods. Kaspar recognized the rune inside the yellow robe's hood - it was the personal sigil of Leorna, the Guildmistress of the Illusionists Guild, the same mark she had put on the letter of recommendation she had written to gain the heroes admittance into the Abjurers Guild. The gray-robed rune was the holy symbol of Boccob.

Nine voices called out in unison, "You are hereby accused of the assassination of a member of the Council of Guilds. You will appear before the Council to face trial in seven days' time. Failure to comply will be considered an admission of guilt upon which time your deaths will be inevitable. The mark upon Skevros Wrencrofft shall be modified such that he will be allowed to accompany the accused to his manor where the accused shall await trial." With that the robes vanished.

"What will we do?" asked Orion. "We're not planning on going, are we?"

"I imagine we shall," observed Skevros, thinking furiously.

"Screw that!" snarled Syngaard. "What're they gonna do if we don't show up? Come here and try to get us, likely - and then at least we're on our home ground!"

"Did you note the emphasis on the word 'inevitable' in their proclamation?" asked Skevros. "If we do not show, they will send inevitables after us, wave after wave, until we eventually comply."

"What's an inevitable?" asked Galen. He'd never heard of them.

"A sentient construct with a single purpose. We'd do best to avoid them. But no matter: this may actually turn out to our advantage. We already have some allies among the Council: Leorna, for one, and you saved the life of Orlin, the Guildmaster of Conjurers, so he'll likely look upon us with favor. And only a fraction of the Guilds have become infiltrated by the Seekers of Eternity--"

"That we know of," interjected Syngaard.

"As you say," admitted Skevros. "Still, this might be our best chance to get the Seekers' plans out into the open, before the rest of the Council of Guilds. We could very well start a civil war among the Guilds - that would certainly be to our advantage!"

"So we're going," said Kaspar.

"It would seem that way, yes."

"Not likin' this plan so much," grumbled Syngaard.

"So noted," observed Skevros. "But I believe it to be our best course of action." However, he was a bit concerned not only about the upcoming trial but also of the return to his old home, Wrencrofft Manor, the location of so many memories, good and bad. That was the place where his wife, Jessica had been killed trying to save him from himself....

There was another rippling in the air and a robed figure appeared. "Now what?" demanded Syngaard, his human bane scimitar back in his hand and ready for action.

But it was only Daleth, finally having worked his way through the maze spell. He looked down at the body of the slain wizard in the white robes, then over at Carl's still-frozen corpse over at the other side of the tavern. Orion was bending over her slain mount, weeping softly.

"I'm back," announced the elf. "...What did I miss?"

- - -

Joey once again did not attend this session, but Logan had Daleth appear anyway, just to justify his gaining of the azurewood staff of divination, which has fewer charges than a normal staff but whose charges replenish themselves daily. It was, after all, the only bit of treasure in this whole adventure and it was only suited for Daleth's use. Logan gave Arcturus a readied action to cast a maze spell on Daleth to get him out of the way (so none of the other players would have to double up on PCs for the session), which I thought was a rather elegant solution to Joey's absence.

And as a result of the XP received for fighting a 20th-level diviner (even one who had burned off several of his more powerful spells dealing with Skevros), all of the PCs leveled up.

Vicki's planning on having Orion purchase a new riding dog and naming this one "Ernie" (a Sesame Street joke involving Galen's dire lion mount). She's even considering having him awakened - besides the bump in Hit Dice that would give her riding mount, I think she just likes the idea of a talking dog in the party with a very good chance of being smarter than Syngaard.

By the way, as part of the background music while we played through this adventure, I put on Chicago's song, "Wishing You Were Here" (an obvious choice, given the adventure's title), followed immediately by the entire Pink Floyd album "Wish You Were Here." And I also played a song I recently discovered by Metallica called "Orion."
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 5
Galen Thorne, human paladin 9
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 9
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 8
Syngaard, human fighter 9​

Game Session Date: 29 August 2018

- - -

It had been a sad day for Orion Nightsky and she still hadn't finished crying when she finally went to bed. Carl had been such a good riding dog: so easy to train, so brave to ride into battle, so was hard to believe he was really gone. Sleep was long in coming for the little halfling, and when it came at last her head lay upon a pillow soaked with her tears.

Not surprisingly, she dreamt of Carl. He was alive again, and excited at first, wagging his tail jumping up and down, and barking in pure joy. But then his barks turned more serious, and they became interspersed with growls and snarls. Orion thought he might be mad at her, but then she saw he was looking away, off to her left. She turned...

...and just barely avoided the steel blade that came swinging down towards her head. In the dim moonlight, she saw a dark figure bent over her, snarling in fury that her strike had missed.

"Assassins!" called out Orion, rolling sideways off the bed - if this woman had made it into her bedroom, that meant she had made it through the exterior door above the stairs on the side of the Enchanted Flagon, then through her own bedroom door - both of which had been locked when the adventurers went to bed the night before. It was unlikely anyone would have put that much effort into killing one halfling rogue; more likely, indeed, that a group of assassins would have been sent to take out the entire party of adventurers all at once. So if she could warn the others while she dealt with this threat of her own, it might just give them the edge they needed to stay alive.

Orion landed on the floor at the side of the bed on her shoulder and turned it into a full roll. When she stood back up, she had her flaming short sword in hand, kept at the side of the bed for purposes such as these. The flickering light of the sword's flames illuminated the room enough for the little halfling to see who she was up against. It was nobody she recognized, nobody she could recall ever having seen before, but she was a tall, lithe human woman dressed entirely in black, with a gleaming blade of her own. Orion made as if to lunge forward but pulled back at the last moment; the assassin, Jayde, fell for the feint and swung her own blade to come crashing down where Orion's head would have been had she completed the maneuver. Orion then easily got past the flustered assassin's defenses to plunge her smaller, flaming blade between a pair of ribs; when she pulled it back out, there was glistening blood beneath the magical flames.

Jayde put a hand to the wound and tried swinging her blade in a sideways arc to skewer the halfling's head from her neck, but that was the easiest kind of blow for a little halfling to avoid - Orion ducked beneath the swinging sword and struck out again at her assailant. A stab at the knee to cause some distracting pain, then a deeper thrust to the thigh to really get the blood flowing, and before she knew it she had Jayde unconscious on her bedroom floor, bleeding out.

It took a moment for Orion to decide whether or not to save the life of the assassin who had so callously tried to take hers away, but eventually, the heat of battle having subsided, the halfling decided the would-be assassin could well be a source of information. So, using her blade, she cut the sleeves from the assassin's armor and used Jayde's own belt and scabbard-strap to staunch the blood and bind her securely. As she did so, she gave a sudden start - for she could swear she still heard the barking that had awakened her from her dream....

Moments earlier in the room across the hall, Kaspar snapped out of his nightly trance at the cry of "Assassins!" In a single motion, the elf monk stood up from his cross-legged position on the floor and sent his foot kicking out at the human even now bending over to try to slay him as he meditated. Kaspar's foot drove deep into the enemy's stomach, bending him over into near helplessness while the elf sent a hard strike crashing down upon his head, powered by years of training and the tenryutsume Kaspar wore on his right hand and forearm. Brian Swiftstrike fell forward but rolled with the blow, indicating some level of martial arts training himself. He landed, swung around, and caught Kaspar in the face with a punch of his own, but Kaspar had opted not to block the incoming blow so he could get off a devastating counterattack of his own. In a flurry of blows nearly too fast to see, the elven monk battered his human counterpart until he lay dead on the floor. Kaspar casually wiped the blood from his lip, wondering who this assassin might be. Bending over him, he searched for the traditional hourglass tattoo of the Seekers of Eternity on the back of his neck and was surprised to find a similar tattoo in place there - although this hourglass seemed to be spilling drops of blood. Interesting....

At the same time, Galen was trading blows with a counterpart of his own. The young paladin had been having a rather pleasant dream involving Serenity when Orion's scream of warning woke him to see a black-armored figure, Sinblade, standing above him with a raised sword. Galen rolled sideways and grabbed up the sword of Zehkar and his own shield, propped up against the wall at the side of his bed, and fought the evil knight wearing only his night garment. Instinctively - he didn't even waste the time to examine the man's aura - he channeled positive energy through his blade, smiting the blackguard and causing him to stagger backwards. In the light of Zehkar's glow, Galen made out the symbol on his opponent's shield: Hextor, god of tyranny, the evil counterpart (and brother) to Galen's own deity, Hieroneous, god of valor. The blackguard's sword made a feeble strike at Galen but was blocked by the paladin's shield, then a repeat of his earlier smite evil attack brought the foe to his final moments. Sinblade fell to his knees, lost his grip on his weapon and his shield, and toppled onto his face, stone cold dead.

The three heroes having dealt with their assassins, they rushed out to check on the other lodger in the upper level of the Enchanted Flagon, but Daleth had already dealt with his own assassin, who lay dead on the floor of the wizard's room. Her face bore the burn marks of a recent victim of an empowered scorching ray spell. "I wonder if they just attacked us here, or sent somebody to kill Syngaard as well?" wondered Daleth aloud.

Syngaard was sound asleep in a bed in the brothel where he performed bouncer duties when the assassin silently opened the door and stepped inside the room. Any sounds the assassin might have made while crossing the room were surely obscured by the light snores emanating from the scarred fighter's mouth, and in fact it was his snoring which likely saved his life - for beside him in bed, Cori turned to wake Syngaard (or at least convince him to sleep on his side) when she locked eyes with the assassin, still several feet from the bed.

Several things happened almost at once. Cori gave a shrill scream, the assassin pounced forward and sent his dagger crashing down towards Syngaard's bald head, and Syngaard woke up from a sound sleep, bolted upright, saw an incoming blade, and rolled to his right, landing on the floor in a heap. The dagger tore into the bed, in a spot Syngaard had been occupying a mere second before. Syngaard looked eye to eye at his attempted killer, grabbed the morningstar he kept at the side of his bed, stood up - and was suddenly looking down at his would-be assassin.

"A halfling?" Syngaard roared. "They sent an effin' halfling to try to kill me?" Roaring in outrage at the implied insult, the scarred fighter send his morningstar in a wide arc that caught the halfling - one Alfonse Silentfoot, as it happened - in the face, sending him flying across the room. He landed poorly but had time to scramble back to his feet by the time the half-naked fighter strode across the room; he even stabbed out with his short sword, catching Syngaard in the side and drawing a line of blood across his waist - but then another crashing blow from the fighter's weapon sent Alfonse crashing unconscious to the floor, bleeding from both sides of his head.

"Is he dead?" asked Cori, who had hidden crouched down on the other side of the bed during the short but furious battle.

"Not yet," replied Syngaard, raising his morningstar over his head for the killing blow - but then, in a surprising moment of insight, he lowered his weapon. "Ah, Hell," he sighed. "You got anything to tie him up with? I suppose Skev-- I suppose I oughtta go take him to get interrogated, see who sent him." Cori turned up the oil lamp to brighten the room, then started binding the halfling's hands and feet while Syngaard got dressed and put on his armor. She used strips from the little halfling's own cloak to bind the wounds on the back of his head, wincing at the scars the morningstar's sharp points had made to his face. "You made him look like a little version of you - only with hair," Cori observed. Syngaard only grunted in response.

Once he was ready, he picked the halfling up by his bound legs, looping his shield arm between Alfonse's knees and tossing him over his back like a sack of potatoes. "Now I gotta trudge all the way across town with the little bastard," the fighter grumbled to himself.

While Syngaard started walking through the dark and silent streets - it was somewhere between two and three bells in the morning - Orion and Kaspar had geared up and gone down the stairs to investigate the barking that was still going on, leaving Daleth upstairs to guard the unconscious Jayde while Galen took the laborious steps to get into his plate armor. Rounding the corner of the building, the first thing the elf and halfling noticed was their front door was missing - no, not merely missing, upon further investigation, but disintegrated into oblivion. They silently crept into the dark tavern, but the magical wards recognized their rings and turned the everburning torches on the walls up to full illumination.

Looking up at the two heroes in surprise was a pale-skinned woman standing behind the bar. The barking sounds were coming from a thick gray mist over to the left side of the tavern; as Orion watched in amazement, the mist coalesced into a familiar shape: Carl the riding dog, snarling and growling over at the intruder behind the bar. She wore a green dress and had long, black hair; that was all the two heroes could make out about the woman before her own form instantly vanished, to be replaced by a bat flapping towards the open doorway. Orion pulled out one of her throwing daggers and sent it flying at the bat and Kaspar followed suit with a handful of shuriken, but it didn't look as if any of the thrown weapons hit their target. The bat made it outside the building and then was lost in the darkness.

Kaspar scanned the skyline to see if he could find the bat, but Orion had other concerns at the moment. The intruder gone, Carl walked over to his mistress and tried to rub his muzzle against her hand, the way he did whenever he was hinting he wanted a good petting or a rubdown. Orion tried to oblige, but her hand went right through her mount - Carl was, without a doubt, now a ghost. She could feel the coldness of the air around Carl as she tried and failed to pet him, and he looked into her eyes with a look of canine sadness.

Then Daleth and Galen walked into the tavern, the armored paladin carrying the bound Jayde over a shoulder. Movement caught Daleth's eye from the street outside, but it was just Syngaard, with a prisoner of his own draped over a shoulder. He stormed into the tavern with a fierce scowl and plopped Alfonse onto the nearest table. "They sent a damned halfling to try to kill me!" he exploded.

"We'd better get Skevros," suggested Kaspar, moving to behind the bar to the door leading to the storage room - and, if you wore an attuned ring, also to the extradimensional rooms the king's adviser kept for his own use. Syngaard, in the meantime, briefly wondered why Orion was making such a big fuss over her damned dog until he remembered Carl had been slain the day before. "Well Hell," he commented. "That ain't right."

Once Skevros had joined the assembled group, they filled him in on the attack. Kaspar mentioned the "blood-hourglass" tattoo on the back of his foe's neck, and a quick check confirmed both Jayde and Alfonse wore the same emblems on the backs of their necks. "Interesting," mused Skevros. "A splinter group, perhaps? Or the assassination branch of the Seekers?"

"Let's find out," suggested Syngaard, slapping his bound halfling foe awake. "Talk!" he commanded. Alfonse just stared defiantly at the big brute who had overpowered him. Then, quick as a snake, he wriggled his hands free from the restraints behind his back and dropped to the floor. Instead of trying to untie his ankles and make a break for it, though, he reached inside an inner pocket and brought out a small potion vial. He tried to get it to his lips but Syngaard tackled him, pinning him underneath his own bulk. Skevros pulled the vial from the halfling's hands and sniffed it experimentally. "Poison," he declared.

"You're not escapin' us that easily," warned Syngaard, giving Alfonse a punch in the nose for good measure.

"I have nothing to say," replied the halfling assassin.

"Perhaps not now," agreed Skevros, "but you might be useful at the upcoming trial." He put a hand on the halfling's head and muttered a few arcane syllables, and the halfling's flesh and clothes became gray stone. Then a shrink item spell reduced the halfling statue to the size of a small stone, which the king's wizard immediately pocketed. He then turned to Jayde, who had been awakened and saw what had befallen her partner-in-crime.

"Do you wish to share his fate?" asked Skevros.

"I...I'm willing to talk," Jayde answered hesitantly.

"Then let's hear it," snarled Syngaard. "Who are you working for?"

"The vampire," Jayde answered immediately. "We were to provide a distraction while she broke into your headquarters and took what she was after. She was going to reward us with eternal life if we were successful."

"Eternal life?" repeated Galen in astonishment. "You mean, as a vampire? That's not life - that's undeath!"

"And your mistress's target was...?" prompted Daleth.

"The body of the wizard you slew."

Skevros swore uncharacteristically and raced over behind the bar, looking down at the shelves there. "She got it - it's gone," he sighed.

"Got what?" asked Kaspar.

"The body of Arcturus. I had shrunken it as well, after casting a gentle repose spell upon it. I didn't want it stinking the place up before the trial."

"Well, the lot of you failed," sneered Syngaard. "Five assassins after the five of us, and here we all are, while three of you are dead and the other two our prisoners."

"On the contrary: we won," sneered Jayde right back at the bald fighter. "We didn't have to kill you, merely keep you from interfering - which we did."

"I suppose this means they'll have Arcturus resurrected," surmised Orion.

"Hey, he better not be at our trial!" said Syngaard. "He's one of the Guildmasters - ain't they gonna be the ones running the trial?"

"Not necessarily," replied Skevros. "But in many cases, yes."

"Well, that don't seem fair, getting to convict the guys what killed you! Plus, if he's back alive, then what's the harm done? We shouldn't need to go to no trial after all!"

"I'm afraid it doesn't work quite that way," remarked Skevros offhandedly, turning to face Jayde. "In any case, I think we've heard quite enough from you." He placed a hand on her head and repeated the two spells he'd previously cast on Alfonse, leaving her petrified and shrunken to 1/16th her normal size.

"So we're still going to the trial?" asked Kaspar.

"Indeed we are. Tomorrow - well, later today, I suppose. Daleth, would you mind giving me a hand with our front door? We'll need to see if we can fabricate a new one, I suppose."

"I need a drink," announced Syngaard suddenly. "Where's Karen?"

- - -

"Well, teleportin' sure beats trudging all the way over here, I suppose," remarked Syngaard as the group manifested instantly just outside the front door to Wrencrofft Manor later that afternoon. Skevros had brought all five of his heroes with him, and even managed to include Carl's ghost, who had hung around Orion ever since the two had been reunited. However, Skevros ignored the fighter's comments - he was intent upon the mechanical figure standing in front of the door.

"I am Azure Delta Sigma," said the metal construct. (Skevros would later identify it to the others as a kolyarut, one of the inevitables serving as the Executioners of Azure Law.) "I have been assigned to watch over the accused. If you have any questions regarding your trial, feel free to ask and I shall answer to the best of my ability."

"I have no questions at this time," replied Skevros. "Please stand aside." The kolyarut did as it was bid and the group entered the Wrencrofft Manor, Azure Delta Sigma following behind. Skevros tried his best to simply ignore the construct, so the others followed his lead.

"So, what kind of justice can we expect during the trial?" asked Kaspar.

"The trial--" began Azure Delta Sigma, only to be cut off.

"We wasn't talkin' to you, we was talkin' to him," said Syngaard, pointing a thumb at Skevros. The construct dutifully stopped talking.

"When we are taken into the courtroom, it will be presided over by nine members of the Council - possibly the eight Guildmasters of the eight colleges of magic and the Head Priest of the Church of Boccob, but not necessarily so - any on the nine may appoint an underling in his or her place."

"So there's no guarantee we'll have Leorna there on our side - or Orlin?" asked Galen, mentioning the two Guild leaders who had reason to view the Durnhill group in a good light.

"Guarantee? No. But I would hope if they aren't there themselves in person, they'll have passed on their views to those who take their place. Now then, besides the nine presiding over the trial, there will also be sixteen kolyaruts in attendance - our executioners, should it come to that. The outcome of the trial is determined by a simple majority vote, with the severity of the sentencing based upon the size of the majority. For murder, or assassination, as we're being charged with, the penalty ranges from life imprisonment or banishment with a 5/4 guilty vote to the obliteration of the accused's souls in the event of a unanimous guilty vote."

"Well, that sucks," observed Syngaard.

"Still, we should have the Guilds of Illusion and Conjuration on our side. That's two in our favor, to start with. All we need is three more of the other seven to side with us, and we're free and clear."

"Yeah, but we also got three already in the bag for the Seekers," reminded Syngaard. "That we know of - there could be more, for all we know."

"So there's...four more still undecided," said Galen. "And we need to sway three of those four to our side."

"As you say," agreed Skevros. "Still, not an insurmountable task. And we have the better part of a week to decide upon our defensive strategy. Plus, recall that it's unlikely the majority of the Guilds even know about the Seekers - we will be bringing their secret organization out into the open. That will likely sway some of the undecided to our side."

"Is there anything else we should know about?" asked Daleth.

"The Council will have a discern lies spell active on us at all times. It won't force us to speak the truth, but it will allow them to know when we're lying. I would therefore recommend we speak the absolute truth whilst in the courtroom. And," he added, looking at Galen and Syngaard in turn, "a bit of decorum would be appreciated. I will expect all of us to be respectful and on our best behavior."

"Of course," replied Galen immediately, while Syngaard only answered with a puzzled expression of wonderment that he would be singled out in such a fashion.

"It will be up to us to convince the Council of our innocence," Skevros said. "To that end, the Council will ask us questions, as a group or individually, but we are allowed to ask questions of the Council as well. In a way, this will be a simple conversation between two parties."

"I think we would do best to have you do most of the talking," suggested Orion.

"Quite the contrary: I intend to do very little talking during the trial. I will leave the arguments as to our innocence to the rest of you."

"What? Why?"

"Because I am not only an outcast of the Azure Glade, having been found guilty by the Council some decades ago and banished to the kingdom of Durnhill, but I am also a wizard of the higher rankings. I fear some of the Guildmasters may assume it possible I may have found a way to bypass the discern lies spell."

"I don't suppose they're gonna let us wear our armor or bring our weapons with us," grumbled Syngaard.

"Quite the contrary," answered Skevros. "Not only will we have access to our equipment in case of an emergency, but some of your weapons are no doubt going to need to be examined. They're treating them as 'murder weapons,' you know."

"Any obviously hostile actions against the Council will be met with immediate execution," added Azure Delta Sigma.

"Yes, we will all need to play nice during the trial," agreed Skevros. "Now then: let me show you to your rooms."

- - -

The rest of the week was relatively uneventful, with Azure Delta Sigma continually attempting to be of aid to the accused while they continued to distrust it. At the appointed time, Azure Delta Sigma approached the group and, with their consent, teleported them all to the waiting room for the trial. The group was then led down a corridor to a blue transparent wall which lowered upon their arrival. They stepped into a large, circular room with 16 blue doorways, including the one from which they had just entered, behind each of which stood an identical replica of Azure Delta Sigma. The kolyarut who had delivered them to the courtroom obediently took up its own position behind the door they'd just used.

There was a platform 10 feet above the floor all around the circular room; in nine alcoves spaced equidistant around the circle's circumference sat nine robed figures, eight of them wearing a mask that covered the face, leaving only eyeholes. Each mask was featureless save for the emblem of the Guild to which the member belonged - or, likely in many cases, ruled. The robes were each the color of the respective Guild, with the maskless leader of the Church of Boccob adorned in gray. Galen thought for a moment the Boccobian looked familiar, but then his attention was diverted as he scanned the figures seated above him, searching for the taint of evil in their auras. Surprisingly, he found none - none at all. Probably hiding their alignments, thought the paladin.

The Boccobian cleric was the first to speak. "I, Khier, representative of the Church of Boccob, hereby bring this trial to order. The assembled are accused of the assassination of Grand Diviner Arcturus, Guildmaster of the Diviners Guild and member of this council. Present your evidence to the contrary."

The group looked among themselves. "First of all," stated Galen, his voice booming in the enclosed room, "we wish to know who brings the accusation of assassination."

"It was I," said the Guildmaster in black, the head of the Necromancers Guild.

"We are accused of assassination," said Syngaard. "But that just ain't true, for one simple reason: assassins get paid for their work. If we're assassins, then who paid us? 'Cause I state here for the record that nobody paid us even a copper to kill Arcturus - let your spell tell you if I'm lying."

"Murder, then," came the response from behind the necromancer's mask. "Premeditated murder, even. You planned on killing the Guildmaster of the Diviners Guild."

"We fully admit to killing Arcturus," said Galen, causing a bit of a stir among the robed Guildmasters. "But only because he came into our home and attempted to kill this man here, a man many of you already know: Skevros Wrencrofft. While there, he also stated his intention to kill each and every one of us as well. Killing him was an act of self-defense." Seeing the paladin's words were true, several of the Guildmasters began nodding and whispering to themselves.

"And check out the holy symbol on his shield," pointed out Syngaard. "This man is a paladin of Hieroneous. You shouldn't need no spell to tell you he's telling the truth."

"An alleged paladin of Hieroneous," countered the necromancer.

"Can you prove you're a paladin of Hieroneous?" asked Khier. "Can you cast a spell in our presence?"

"I'll do you one better," promised Galen and mentally called forth across the planes for his bonded mount. In a flash, Burt appeared in the courtroom, 3,000 pounds of saber-fanged feline, straight from the Beastlands. He roared at the unfamiliar figures seated in a ring above him and stood protectively next to Galen, his master.

"You admit to the killing," repeated the Necromancy Guildmaster, ignoring the legitimate reason they had stated for doing so and trying to undo the good the dire lion's presence had done for the accused. "While you're in such a mood for confessions, why don't you tell us if you have committed any other crimes against the country of the Azure Glades?"

"Other crimes?" began Daleth - and then Galen and Syngaard swapped guilty looks.

"The book," whispered Syngaard.

"Ah," said Galen. "Well, um, there was this matter about a book we took from the Diviners Library."

"So, you are admitted thieves as well as murderers!" declared the black-robed Guildmaster.

"Not murderers, and not thieves," corrected Galen. Orion clamped her mouth shut and told herself not to a say a single word - not when the subject was thievery. "We paid a group of divination students at the library to smuggle the book out, and then we purchased it outright from them. So technically, they were the ones who stole the book, not us."

"Accessories to theft, then," scoffed the necromancer. "Instigators, even!"

"But even that had extenuating circumstances!" insisted the paladin. "We needed the book to research Zehkar, Osleth, Hirek, and the Seekers of Eternity, the organization that is trying to take over the Azure Glade, in order to stop their evil plans!"

"Fairy tales!" scoffed the black-clad wizard.

"He isn't lying," pointed out the masked wizard in green robes, and the heroes thought they recognized the voice of Orlin, the Conjuration Guildmaster, who went on to explain he owed his life to the efforts of the accused, who saved him from being slain by two members of the Seekers of Eternity in the lower level of the Abjurers Guildhouse. This brought about more mutterings from the other Council members.

"We know this much," stated Galen. "The Seekers of Eternity are looking for the secrets of immortality, and will do anything to gain such power. They have already infiltrated and taken over the Diviners Guild, the Necromancers Guild, and the Evokers Guild, as well as many of your Azure Guard. They also infiltrated and destroyed the Church of Wee Jas in Durnhill, as a practice session for when they attempt to do the same to your own Church of Boccob."

"Ridiculous! Never have I heard such nonsense!" declared the Necromancy Guildmaster.

"But the discern lies spell backs them up," pointed out the red-clad wizard - the speaker for the Guild of Transmutation, Skevros's old college.

"Pah! That only means they believe these lies themselves to be true! It proves nothing!"

"Well here's something you can check for yourselves, then," piped up Syngaard. "These Seekers of Eternity wear a tattoo on the backs of their necks, shaped like an hourglass full of sand tipped over on its side." As he said this, Skevros pulled the two stones from his pocket and said the words returning the two petrified assassins to their normal size. "I'll bet if you check him, him, and him" - and here Syngaard pointed to the wizards in white, black, and blue robes in turn - "you'll find they each got that tattoo on 'em."

"Those who attacked the Church of Wee Jas were animated skeletal spellcasters, created by foul necromancy," added Galen. "They wore the emblem carved into their skulls, right here." The paladin pointed to his own forehead as loud murmuring came from behind the masks of those sitting in judgment above.

"Why are we even bothering to listen to such nonsense when they have already admitted to killing Arcturus?" demanded the black-robed leader of the Necromancers Guild.

"I believe we should take a recess until tomorrow," suggested Khier. "It will allow tempers to calm - and give us time to investigate the claims made by the accused." While the other members of the Council discussed amongst themselves, the Necromancer and Diviner Guildmasters both moved as if to remove their masks. As soon as the masks were off their faces, they disappeared - as if having teleported away.

"It would seem the decision has been made for the rest of us," Khier announced. "We are adjourned." The other Guildmasters nodded their consent and disappeared by removing their own masks as well.

"That's a neat trick," observed Kaspar. "All they have to do is take off their mask and they teleport away."

"Or they were never even physically here in the first place," opined Daleth.

After looking over the empty council seats, Khier stepped forward off the raised ledge and floated gracefully down to the party. "It's the latter," he admitted to the elf wizard. "Each of the judges is back at his own Guildhall, and has been there since before the trial commenced." He turned to Galen. "I would have preferred you not bring up Zehkar and the others, but I believe you have done a good job shedding light upon the Seekers of Eternity." Then, looking to Syngaard he said, "Keep them safe."

"I...that's my number one priority," stammered Syngaard, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. "Just who are you?"

Khier smiled. "I am Hirek. Your succubus friend caused a bit of trouble asking about my existence. Personally, I would prefer the Seekers to not know I'm still here, even if I am a mere ghost of my former self." He chuckled softly at his own pun.

"You're a ghost?" asked Orion - her first words since entering the trial chamber.

"I am indeed a ghost," answered Khier. "Those of us who know the Mithral Mage's name are cursed, prevented from passing on to our proper afterlife, further preventing the Mithral Mage's own true death."

"Wait--so you're Hirek?" asked Syngaard.

"I am."

"So you're, like, hundreds of years old?"

"I am."

"Then you were here for Skevros's trial? Like, here in the chamber?"

"I was, although back then I had a different name - I was posing as a man whom I am now posing as the son of. Being human, I need to change names every so often so nobody gets suspicious of my unusually long life."

"So then, what was Skevros found guilty of?"

"Being an accessory in the death of Arcturus's son, Rigel."

"Ah," replied Skevros. "When I was evil, due to the helm, I found a way to open the gates to Hell permanently, and left notes as to how the ritual had to be performed. But I had made intentional errors in the transcription I wrote, so that anybody trying to use them but me would die in the attempt. Rigel tried, and he died."

"I must warn you, though: Arcturus is sure to be returned to life," said the ghost calling himself Khier. "The Seekers of Eternity began as a group of alchemists, seeking to create a potion of immortality. During our research, we found a way to transmute base metals to gold. The Seekers as they exist now have a practically unlimited amount of wealth with which to fund true resurrections. Furthermore, before his death, Arcturus was at the Durnhill Temple of Pelor, asking questions about Syngaard and his donations to the orphanage there. For her own safety, I suggest your daughter Hope be moved at once."

"Where to?" asked Syngaard.

"My extradimensional chambers," answered Skevros.

"That would be ideal," agreed Khier. "They have yet to breach the space - in fact, I doubt they are even aware of its existence."

"We will make arrangements immediately upon our return," Skevros promised Syngaard.

"As for the hourglasses of blood, they too are members of the Seekers of Eternity. Most seek to follow in the footsteps of the Mithral Mage, but a small group believes that Hirek is the rightful leader of the Seekers. Unfortunately, they mistakenly believe that the moniker 'the Scarlet Sage' refers to me being a vampire, and so they seek eternal unlife through vampiric means."

"You're not a vampire?" asked Syngaard.

"I am not."

"But you're a ghost."

"That I am."

"So now what?" asked Galen.

"Now, you return to Wrencrofft Manor," replied Khier - or Hirek. "The Council will reconvene tomorrow to pass judgment."

"May I ask how you believe we are doing?" asked Kaspar.

"I think you're all doing remarkably well," replied the ghost with a smile as he stared fading away from view. Almost immediately thereafter, one of the 16 blue doors opened and Azure Delta Sigma stepped forward to take them to the waiting area, from which they could teleport back to Skevros's manor home.

"We got this," predicted Galen. And he was quite right: the next day when they reconvened, there were only seven robed figures presiding over the courtroom. Conspicuous in their absence were the Guildmasters to both the Diviners and the Necromancers Guilds.

"We stand reconvened," announced Khier despite the two missing members. "We will hear the votes of those present."

"Abjuration: not guilty."

"Conjuration: not guilty."

"Enchantment: not guilty."

"Evocation: abstain." That one was a bit of a surprise: perhaps the Guild hadn't been entirely taken over by the Seekers just yet.

"Illusion: not guilty."

"Transmutation: not guilty."

"And the Church of Boccob: not guilty," added Khier. "The accused have been hereby found not guilty in the murder of Grand Diviner Arcturus and are free to go. In addition, the Council agrees to modify the terms of the mark of justice worn upon the brow of Skevros Wrencrofft: from this day forth, he shall be allowed to travel from the kingdom of Durnhill, where he has been banished, to his manor home here in the Azure Glade, without breaking the conditions of his banishment. This Council stands adjourned."

"So what about the Diviners Guild and the Necromancy Guild?" asked Orion as they returned to Wrencrofft Manor.

"I imagine they're undergoing a thorough inspection of their ranks and new leadership is being put into place," Skevros explained. "All in all, this trial brought about some good: by exposing the Seekers to the Council of Guilds, we get them to work on our side expunging them from their ranks!"

"That ain't the only good thing to come of it," added Syngaard. "We don't gotta trudge all the way back home to Durnhill - you're here to teleport us all back there for once!"

- - -

Logan said he was worried about this adventure, since so much of it was just role-playing - in fact, he even added the assassin attack at the beginning solely so we'd have some combat. He was relieved when we all had a good time with it, although Harry and Vicki stayed mostly silent during the court scene, leaving the defensive arguments to Dan and me. But Vicki, after some initial trepidation about having Carl return as a ghost, has bought fully into the idea. Logan even had Skevros offer to create a ghost touch saddle for Carl; rather than the normal ghost touch weapon that allows a wielder on the Material Plane to affect those creatures on the Ethereal, this will work in the opposite manner: by Carl wearing it in the Ethereal Plane, it will allow Orion - in the Material Plane - to ride on Carl's back like normal. Carl won't be getting any bite attacks any more (unless he encounters an ethereal opponent) and will thus be solely a means of transport, but on the plus side he now gains a fly speed. Vicki's pretty stoked.

Also, Joey didn't show again - he's a freshman in high school now and was swamped with homework. Therefore, we hand-waved his combat with the assassin as having happened off-screen but had Daleth come along to the trial - there was really no other option. Oddly enough, he was the only one to level up as a result.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 7
Galen Thorne, human paladin 9
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 9
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 8
Syngaard, human fighter 9​

Game Session Date: 13 September 2018

- - -

Skevros cast a teleport spell and the group of adventurers found themselves standing just outside the gate to the kingdom of Durnhill.

"What? Why here?" asked Galen, perplexed.

The king's adviser smiled in apology. "I fear we no longer have the luxury of teleporting directly to the Enchanted Flagon," he said. "The dimensional anchoring stones prevent others from teleporting into the kingdom; unfortunately, they do the same to us."

"Yeah, whatever," spat Syngaard. "C'mon, we gotta go check on Hope!" And the scarred fighter started running toward the Temple of Pelor, where his little daughter - nearly a year old - was being raised in the orphanage there. Hirek's ghost had warned the group that Arcturus had been snooping around the orphanage, and damned if Syngaard was going to let his daughter fall into the hands of the Seekers of Eternity!

Galen followed immediately, as did Orion, astride the ghost of her fallen riding dog Carl. Only the two elves remained behind with Skevros, Kaspar because he knew he could easily catch up with the others before they reached the temple; Daleth because he didn't feel like running like a madman down the streets of Durnhill in his wizard's robes. "Are you coming?" Kaspar asked the king's adviser.

"Alas, no," replied Skevros. "I must report in to His Majesty, to relay the results of the trial. You two go on ahead and I will catch up to you when I am able."

Kaspar had caught up to the rest of the group as they approached the Temple of Pelor; down the street, the monk could see Daleth struggling to maintain his dignity as he raced with the hem of his robes held up in both hands like a lady's skirts. Syngaard pulled the double doors open and strode inside, interrupting a conversation between Father Rayburn, the head cleric of the temple, and Sister Melody, a low-level acolyte. They were the only two in the chapel, as it was between sessions. "May I help you?" asked the elderly cleric.

"Where's Father Rupert?" Syngaard demanded without preamble. "I need to speak with him." Sister Melody volunteered to fetch the cleric, stepping through a door in the back of the chapel that led to the orphanage where a dozen or more children were being raised. Syngaard knew the place well; he'd been by many times to pass coins to the good father, using a portion of his earnings as an adventurer to ensure his daughter - and the actual orphans, so as not to single out Hope - was raised in comfort.

Sister Melody's scream split the afternoon, sending the adventurers rushing to the back of the chapel. Syngaard burst through the door to the orphanage, his morningstar already in hand and ready to deal with whatever intruder Sister Melody might have unearthed. But the intruder was not present, merely an aghast Sister Melody looking down at the slain form of Father Rupert lying on the floor in a pool of blood, the side of his head bashed in as if from a club or mace.

Kaspar took Sister Melody by the hand and steered her back to the chapel and to Father Rayburn, while Syngaard rushed down the hallway, bursting into the nursery. There were four cradles in the room, to house the four infants who shared the room. Three were occupied by sleeping babies; Hope's was empty.

"No, no, no, no!" cried Syngaard, bursting from the nursery to the other rooms in turn. One held the younger girls, another those in or near their teen years, and two other, similar rooms for the boys. None held Hope - although each held a number of orphans screaming in terror at the sight of a half-crazed bald man with a face full of scars and wielding a wicked-looking morningstar bursting into their rooms. Syngaard ignored their screams, continuing his search in increasing terror of his own. Hope was gone!

Back in the room with Father Rupert's corpse, Galen bent and examined it closely. He seemed to have been slain fairly recently, in the last few hours, certainly. "Would it be possible to interview Father Rupert with a speak with dead spell?" the young paladin asked the elderly cleric. "It's possible his spirit could tell us who killed him, and what happened to Hope."

"Certainly - if I had such a spell prepared," replied Father Rayburn. "In the day-to-day course of events, it's very rarely needed."

"Wait, Hope?" asked Sister Melody suddenly. "She's fine. In fact, she was adopted this morning."

"WHAT?" demanded Syngaard, returning from his rampage through the orphans' rooms and hearing the last bit of conversation. He looked ready to attack the frightened acolyte with his weapon as he growled, "Adopted by who?"

"By--by family," replied a very obviously frightened Sister Melody. "It was a red-haired woman, named Maria. She said she was family."

"And you just took her at her word?" demanded Syngaard incredulously, amazed at the apparent lack of security in the church raising his daughter.

"Of course not," answered Father Rayburn. "Her story was verified by spells capable of detecting falsehoods. She was as she said." But Syngaard's mind was racing frantically - he was no spellcaster, but there were ways to falsify one's appearance; surely there were ways to get past a zone of truth spell. Or maybe it was actually Maria Quillbender herself who had taken Hope, but under the mental sway of a member of the Seekers? There were so many ways Hope could have been easily abducted from right underneath the noses of these clowns! Damn all spellcasters anyway!

Father Rayburn looked sadly down at the body of his friend and fellow cleric. "Poor fellow," he said. "He's the thirteenth this week."

"Wait--what?" asked Orion.

"Indeed, there have been a dozen previous such slayings this past week. Where have you been? It's been the talk of the kingdom."

"We have been away, on the kingdom's business," declared Galen. "Who have the previous victims been?"

"Drifters, mostly," answered the elderly cleric. "People just passing through, or the unfortunate poor with no one to look after them."

"And they were all killed in the same manner?" asked Kaspar.

"I believe so. A heavy blow to the head, as I understand it. And, oddly enough: their brains were removed." Then Father Rayburn noticed the crying of the children in the rooms beyond - some of the younger children were still frightened by Syngaard's sudden appearance in their rooms. He asked Sister Melody to look in on them. She did so, and soon got them to stop crying, but she returned with a worried look upon her face. "Five of the older children are missing," she said, and rattled off their names. Two were girls and the other three boys, each ranging in age from 13 to 16 years of age.

"But nobody but Maria has been here today," said Father Rayburn with puzzlement in his voice. "And the only doors to the orphanage are through the chapel."

"Oh dear," commiserated Orion. "We'll help you search for them, of course."

"Screw that," snarled Syngaard. "We gotta find Hope and Maria! Let's grab a wagon and head on up to Ashfall!"

Kaspar and Daleth rounded on the frantic fighter. "Hope does not seem to be in immediate danger," the monk reasoned. "She is with Maria Quillbender and likely safe. These children, however, were taken from here by means unknown. They would seem to be in the greater possibility of danger; we should therefore give them our immediate attention."

"But Hope--" sputtered Syngaard.

"Let us search quickly for the other children," suggested Kaspar. "If we find no clues, we can redirect our search for Hope and Maria. But it is possible the two events are linked, and in finding the one group we will learn of the whereabouts of the other. After all, we do not know for sure that Maria would have immediately returned to Ashfall."

"You search," replied Syngaard. "I'm going to Ashfall."

But Kaspar grabbed the fighter by the shoulder and stopped him from leaving. "Skevros will be able to teleport you there directly," the monk reminded him. "And he may be able to first divine Hope's exact location through spellcraft, so we can get to her that much faster. But we must first wait for him to return from his meeting with the king."

"What about you, Wizard-Pants?" demanded Syngaard. "You got any spells ready that can tell me where Hope is?"

"Not at hand, alas," replied Daleth.

Syngaard snorted in disgust. "Then what damn good are you?" he asked.

"He will help me search the orphanage for clues," Kaspar replied, and the two elves split up, each taking half of the rooms behind the church, where the children's quarters were. There were no rear exits to the outside of the building; the only two doors leading to the orphanage opened directly to the back of the chapel. And sure enough, Daleth's keen elven senses soon unearthed a secret trap door in the floor in the back hallway near the infants' room. He slid his nimble fingers beneath one side of a square of wood and lifted it, revealing a vertical tunnel leading down into darkness - although, as his eyes got used to the change in brightness, he detected a faint, flickering illumination from below. One side of the tunnel had metal rungs embedded in the stone making up the wall.

"It would seem," remarked Daleth dryly, "that this is what damn good I am for."

Orion stepped forward, leading her ghost dog by the reins. "Carl and I will go check it out," she offered. He can travel straight up and down, and without making a noise." She hopped up onto Carl's back and - once in contact with the magically enhanced leather of the ghost touch saddle - patted the side of his head. "Let's go, boy!" she said.

Carl hopped into the vertical shaft and the two started sinking slowly. Orion's vision was no better than a human's but the lower she got the more she could see in the dim light below. The shaft turned out to be about 20 feet deep, opening up into the ceiling of a 40-foot-tall cavern. Down below her she could see a teenaged boy standing beside a pile of crates against a side wall, while off to the south stood a hooded figure in dark robes. He seemed to be staring off over the edge of a dark chasm that dropped who-knew how deep; the bottom was cloaked in pitch blackness. His back to Orion, he had his hands up by his face, and the halfling heard a disgusting slurping sound. The light in the cavern below was provided by two everburning torches, one by the crates and the other on the side of the cavern below Orion and Carl.

As the two watched from their aerial perch, two men entered the cavern from a tunnel to the north. Each had an armload of purple crystals, which were carefully laid into an open crate under the supervision of the teen. Then the two men turned and without a word went back the way they came.

Orion had seen enough. With a wordless gesture, she had Carl rise back up the vertical shaft, where the halfling briefed the others on what she'd seen.

"Give me your rope," commanded Galen, pulling a 50-foot length of strong rope from his backpack. Orion passed her own over, and the two lengths were tied together and one end securely fastened to the top metal rung of the ladder. "You go down first," the paladin said to Orion, "as you and Carl can do so quietly. We'll follow down the rope after you."

Carl jumped back into the shaft and slowly lowered himself down; this was a new way for the dog to travel and he seemed to be enjoying himself. Once the two had exited the shaft Carl moved forward along the top edge of the cavern's ceiling, making way for the rope to be tossed down the shaft. Galen hoped the rope wouldn't make too much noise when it hit bottom.

<It wouldn't matter> said a voice directly in the back of the heroes' minds. <I'm already quite aware of you trying to sneak up on me.>

Orion, startled by the mental intrusion, grabbed a throwing dagger from her bag of blades and threw it down at the robed figure. He turned in dodging it, revealing a struggling figure in both his hands. It was humanoid in build, but only a foot tall. At first the halfling's heart leaped to her throat, imagining the slurping noises she heard being a vampire drinking Hope's blood, but then she recognized the struggling victim as being none other than Dow, Skevros's homunculus and former familiar. She'd been sent to watch over the orphans and had apparently been captured as well as the five teens. Oddly, her head was glistening with a sheen of mucus - just what had the strange man been doing to her?

Daleth slid down the rope, landed softly, and cast a glitterdust spell at the robed figure. He'd hoped to cause the foe to lose his sight, but his mind was apparently too strong for such a tactic to work; while the robed figure was now outlined in sparkles, he moved as if not hampered by blindness in the least.

Galen landed behind the elven wizard with a loud thump, his heavy armor clanging as he hit the stone floor of the cavern. Instinctively, the paladin examined the hooded foe's aura and was not at all surprised to see the taint of evil in prominent display. Galen cast a protection from evil spell on himself, preparing for battle.

Orion threw another shock dagger from her aerial perch before the hooded figure struck a blow of his own. He pulled back his hood, revealing a head like a squid with four thick tentacles draping down from the lower part of his face. He allowed Dow to fall absently to the floor and aimed a mind blast at the heroes; the cone struck Carl, Orion, Daleth, and Galen - for Kaspar and Syngaard were still sliding down the rope and not yet in the cavern - but fortunately affected only the ghost dog. Carl gave a quick whimper and froze up, tense and shaking but otherwise immobile. Orion kicked her ankles at his sides to try to prompt him forward, but he was unable - or unwilling - to move.

Light as a cat, Kaspar dropped to the stone floor of the cavern and immediate threw a shuriken at the mind flayer, Quixagoth, and he started running toward the tentacled abomination. The weapon struck, sputtering in a burst of flame and lightning upon impact. In the spot where the monk had landed just seconds before, Syngaard dropped down, light as a heavy war horse. He snarled at the oddity before him and threw his javelin with all his might, catching Quixagoth in the shoulder. It wasn't where the fighter had been aiming, but a hit was a hit - he wasn't going to waste time complaining. Plus, the returning javelin was instantly back in his hands, ready for another throw.

Daleth raised his metamagic rod of empower and channeled a magic missile spell through it, striking Quixagoth in his squidlike face. The illithid gave a hiss of pain, the first real noise he'd made thus far. Dow, in the meantime, took the opportunity to run across the cavern away from her abductor and hide behind the pile of crates. The teenaged boy ignored her; in fact, he seemed oblivious to the battle raging directly in front of him.

Galen rushed forward, the sword of Zehkar flashing in his hand. He brought it down and although Quixagoth tried to avoid the blade, it carved a gash in his side on the way down. The illithid hissed again in pain. <I'll have your brain for this!> he cried out telepathically.

But that never happened, for Orion caught the mind flayer with another dagger from her bag of blades, burying it to the hilt in his brain. The illithid fell over, dead, electrical sparks still flying from the point of impact. "Got him!" she cried in triumph - but then frowned when she realized Carl was still stunned and immobile, and she was stuck 35 feet up in the air on his back.

While Kaspar went to go check on the welfare of the teenager standing by the crates, Syngaard yelled "Here!" and swung the end of the rope like a whip over to Orion. She reached over and caught it, then, in a leap from the saddle (with her bag of blades in one hand), slid down to the ground with the others, trusting that Carl would come find her when he could move again.

Kaspar snapped his fingers directly in front of the boy's face, and slowly, he came out of whatever trance he'd been in. "I want you to stay here," said the monk. "We're going to go get the others, and then we'll get all of you back home. Okay?" Frightened, the boy nodded in agreement. Dow stepped up to him and tried consoling him by hugging his knee.

Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself and moved towards the tunnel; seeing him do so, Syngaard beat him to the punch and led the way, glad to have the elf wizard directly behind him so he could stay within the radius of the protective spell. The tunnel was only about 10 feet long, slightly wider than a large man's shoulders, and led into a second cavern about the same size as the one behind them - only this one was covered in purplish crystalline growths along the floor and walls. There were eight people scattered about, teens and adults both, each seemingly in as much of a daze as the teenaged boy in the first cave had been. They chipped carefully away at the base of the crystals, harvesting them for unknown reasons. Or at least reasons unknown to Daleth and Syngaard; Ixloth, the mind flayer overseeing the operation of his mental thralls, surely knew the purpose of the violet crystals.

One of the teenaged slaves happened to be standing near the tunnel; as soon as Daleth stepped within 10 feet of the boy, his protective spell encompassed the lad and he blinked rapidly in confusion, his mind no longer under the telepathic sway of the illithid. Daleth and Syngaard grabbed at the boy, trying to keep him from crying out in alarm and alerting the mind flayer of their presence.

But they should have known better than to try to sneak up to a creature who could read the very thoughts of those in the immediate vicinity. Ixloth spun around as Galen entered the cavern; the paladin ducked behind a large crystal growth in the middle of the room, anticipating another mental blast. While thus shielded, he took the opportunity to cast another spell upon himself, this time a divine favor, which would aid in the power and accuracy of his attacks.

Orion ran into the cavern, a shock dagger already in hand and ready to throw. She and Kaspar threw as one, she with her throwing dagger and the elven monk with a shuriken. Both weapons struck, causing Ixloth to hiss in pain. But then he retaliated with a mind blast that encompassed all of the heroes at once. Galen was partially protected by the cover provided by the clump of crystals behind which he crouched, but the others had to face the mental power of the mind flayer's rage by the strength of their own wills alone.

Fortunately, all but Syngaard were up to the task. Syngaard merely gave a little grunt of surprise before dropping his javelin and his morningstar; had his shield not been strapped to his left arm, he'd have dropped it as well.

Having already proven its efficacy in the previous battle, Daleth channeled another magic missile spell through his metamagic rod of empower. The force missiles struck unerringly at the mind flayer, each causing just a little more damage than they would have normally. Then, while the mind flayer was distracted by that attack, Galen rushed forth from behind the crystal growth and channel a smite evil attack through his longsword, ripping through the illithid's heavy robes and drawing a line of pain and blood across the creature's chest.

Orion stood where she was and drew a pair of daggers from her magic bag, sending them flying across the cavern in rapid succession to strike at the psionic foe. Kaspar had had enough of ranged attacks, though, and used his incredible speed to cross the cavern and lash out at Ixloth with his fists and feet. A flurry of blows came crashing down on the illithid, powered with fire and lightning by the monk's tenryutsume.

But then the mind flayer did something unexpected. He struck out at the monk, but not with his hands or feet - rather, with the four thick tentacles growing from the front of his face. Each caught the monk's head and crushed it into a painful embrace, drawing the struggling monk closer to the aberration. From across the room, Syngaard watched dispassionately as the mind flayer prepared to rip open Kaspar's skull and extract his very brain.

All out of magic missiles, Daleth - once again having failed to prepare enough attack spells - use the last daily charge of his metamagic rod to channel an acid splash spell at Ixloth, one of the first (and therefore weakest) attack spells taught to early practitioners of the arcane arts. But even that pitiful spell failed to strike the target; Ixloth dodged out of the way and Daleth was just lucky his spell didn't hit Kaspar instead!

Fortunately, Galen was right there at hand, and another swing of the sword of Zehkar nearly finished off the illithid right then and there. But then, using some unknown psionic process, the mind flayer absorbed life energy from around him, healing the worst of his wounds. Of course, seeing him staggering around - and seeing Kaspar extract himself from the painful embrace of the tentacles while Ixloth was dealing with the paladin - Orion ran forward, drawing her flaming short sword from the scabbard at her hip and stabbing at the mind flayer's lower torso with it. Her blade dug deep, and once again Ixloth found himself standing nearly at death's door.

Out of attack options, Daleth cast a stoneskin spell upon himself while Galen once again took the offensive. Another smite evil strike brought Ixloth crashing down to his knees, then slumping over, dead, upon the cavern floor. The effect upon the mental thralls was immediate; they blinked in surprise and cried out in confusion is finding themselves in an unexpected location. Kaspar and Daleth did their best to calm the workers, promising to help them return to their homes.

It took somewhat longer, but eventually Carl and Syngaard managed to snap out of it as well. Syngaard, disappointed that he'd missed the big fight, oversaw the traditional "looting of the stiffs," but the only things of value the mind flayers had was some sort of weird psionic nonsense - nothing a regular person could use. Still, Orion said it was possible Skevros could help sell them to a collector, so they were gathered up and placed into the halfling's bag of holding.

Getting the previous mental thralls back up to the surface was a bit of a problem; the mind flayers might have been able to levitate them down the vertical shaft, but not all of them were able to climb 60 feet up a rope. Daleth eventually assisted a few of them in stepping into a bag of holding such that their arms, heads, and shoulders stayed on the outside of the extradimensional space, allowing them to breathe. It made for a somewhat comical appearance, but it got the job done.

"Now can we go to Ashfall?" demanded Syngaard once the last of them had been safely delivered back upstairs.

"Let us first check in at the Enchanted Flagon," suggested Kaspar. "He may be waiting for us there. If not, we will leave him a note telling him of our plans."

He wasn't. Syngaard was the first one through the door, gave the room a scan for the king's adviser, and got as far as snarling, "He ain't--" before stopping dead in his tracks. For there, standing up from a chair in the back of the room, stood Maria Quillbender, and snuggled in her arms was Hope, sound asleep and quite content.

Syngaard stood in shock, as immobile as he'd been when stunned by a mind blast. "Hello," Maria said. "I hope it's okay that I came here, but I--I had a vision. There was a red-headed woman - she looked kind of like my Aunt Jezzaline - and she told me to take Hope and bring her here. It was so real - not like a dream at all. Like I said, I hope--"

"It's okay," Syngaard replied, cutting her off. His mind raced: Jezzaline, Mezz had once said, had been her mother's name. She had died when Mezz was still a little girl, long before Syngaard entered her life. Was it possible? Had Mezz reached out from the grave to send a message to Maria, her cousin, to get the two of them to the best place of safety available? And he remembered his own recent dream, where Mezz's voice had told him he had to do whatever he must to keep them both safe, even if it broke his heart.

"It's definitely okay," Syngaard repeated, looking down at the form of his sleeping daughter in Maria's arms.

- - -

This one had me nervous from the start, because Logan told us the name of the adventure before we even started the session. I had envisioned a whole series of adventures trying to track down a kidnapped Hope while worrying that the Seekers of Eternity would want her, as one of the last two members of Hirek's bloodline, dead so they could open the gates to Hell on a permanent basis and free the Mithral Mage. I'm glad it ended up like it did, although having Syngaard fail his Will save against the second illithid's mind blast and end up stunned for the rest of the adventure was a bit of a bummer.



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 7​
Galen Thorne, human paladin 9​
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 9​
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 8​
Syngaard, human fighter 9​

Game Session Date: 3 October 2018

- - -

It was still fairly early in the morning when the rings activated and the voice of Skevros called out to their wearers, "Meet me in the tavern immediately!" That brooked no uncertainty; the individual conscripts immediately stopped what they'd been doing and headed directly to the Enchanted Flagon.

Syngaard was characteristically the last to arrive, as he had the farthest distance to travel to get to the group's unofficial headquarters. When he arrived, he saw the other four members of his group gathered together in the tavern with Skevros...along with a man in a dark blue robe, of the style worn by the Evokers of the Azure Glade. Syngaard's eyes narrowed and he instinctively went for the weapon at his belt. Skevros, having anticipated the fighter's reaction, held up a hand in restraint and said, "This man is here as an ally." Syngaard wasn't immediately convinced; the man bore more than a passing resemblance to Reginald, the corrupt leader of the Azure Guard team they had fought in Skevros's own manor house in the Azure Glade. So while he didn't draw his weapon, he left his hand on the hilt, just in case.

Skevros turned to the visitor and said, "This is all of us. Please tell them what you have told me."

The Evoker scanned at the five unfriendly faces surrounding him around the table. "My name's Arenos," he said. "Until recently, I was the Guildmaster of the Evokers Guild."

"Then you are allied with the Seekers of Eternity!" erupted Galen, reaching for his own weapon.

"I am not!" replied Arenos at once. "My Guild was infiltrated, and many of those under my command switched their allegiance to the Seekers of Eternity. They tried controlling me through fear and intimidation, wishing me to become nothing more than a figurehead. Your trial - where I abstained from voting against you - was the last straw. They followed through with their threats to replace me, and I was summarily cast out from the organization I had led."

"So now you wish to join us in our fight against the Seekers?" prompted Orion.

"Me? Hell, no," scoffed Arenos. "I plan on hightailing it out of here - I have the means to leave the Material Plane altogether, and I intend to do so without delay, as the Seekers want me dead. As it is, I've already narrowly avoided one attempt upon my life. But before I leave, I thought it prudent to pass on some information that will aid you in disrupting their plans."

"Speak on, then," demanded Galen.

"You are familiar with the creature known as a lich?"

"We are all aware of their existence," answered Skevros with a small smirk.

"Then you know the normal path to lichdom is via a ritual performed by a living spellcaster to transform himself into one of those foul beings. The Seekers have developed a ritual that can bind the soul of one already dead into lichdom. This is altogether new to me - it's not the normal way of doing things. But the ritual must be performed under the light of the first full moon immediately after the person's death."

"And you believe the Seekers will perform such a ritual?" asked Kaspar.

"I do. Three weeks ago, Arcturus had me prepare a ritual area, although at the time I was unaware of its purpose. Now, in hindsight, it seems that Arcturus was preparing for his own death - at your hands."

"That would explain why the Guildmaster of Divination couldn't foresee his own death when he took us on," observed Daleth. "He did, in fact, foresee it - and even planned for it."

"And in two days it will be the first night of the full moon," added Arenos. "It's likely they'll try to perform to ritual then."

"Thus bringing Arcturus back into the world as a lich," lamented Skevros.

"So we stop this ritual, we stop Arcturus coming back," reasoned Syngaard. "And it sounds like this is his one chance, right? 'First full moon' you said."

"That is correct," replied the Evoker.

"Arenos has given me a detailed description of the ritual area," Skevros informed his troops. "I should be able to scry upon the place and teleport you all there in time to disrupt the ritual and prevent Arcturus's ascension to lichdom."

"Won't they have the place blocked from teleportation, if the ritual is that important?" asked Orion.

"They cannot," Arenos informed the group. "Due to the specifics of the ritual, they cannot block conjuration magic, or the ritual will fail."

"So we're in," grinned Syngaard - and anyone who's ever witnessed the sight of Syngaard's scarred face twisted into the rictus of an evil grin knows that's a sight not soon forgotten.

"You have two days to prepare for the mission," Skevros pointed out. "In the meantime, I will perform my observations upon the ritual site and see if I can discern anything about what you might expect. Report at the south gate the day after tomorrow, in full combat gear, ready for battle. You are dismissed."

"And I'm out of here as well," replied Arenos, casting a plane shift spell. Before he disappeared forever, he called out "Good luck!" to the conscripts.

"Coward!" scoffed Galen. "I'm sure a wizard of his power would have been handy in the upcoming battle. And the gods know we could use a powerful spellcaster on our side."

"You have me," Daleth reminded him. "I'll be there, fighting at your side."

Galen looked down at the elven mage before him and sighed. "As I said," he remarked.

Preparations for the group meant the purchase of several accessories to aid in the upcoming combat. Kaspar purchased a pair of comfortable slippers that enabled him to run straight up and down walls and across ceilings. Orion bought thunderstones and tanglefoot bags in bulk, storing them in her bag of holding, which she fastened to the other side of Carl's ghost touch saddle from her bag of blades. Now she had weapons on either side of her while riding the ghost of her riding dog into battle! Galen upgraded the power of his ring of protection, while Daleth bought a pair of magical bracers that would do what a mage armor spell did - thus freeing up a spell slot that could be filled with another spell. Syngaard picked up an ioun stone that floated around his head, increasing his reaction time when enemies tried to land a blow. A few of the conscripts also picked up a potion or two from a respectable vendor, and then they decided they were as ready as they could be.

Two nights later, they met Skevros at the city's south gate. He had already filled his scrying bowl with water and allowed them to see, for the first time, the area they'd be attacking. In a forest clearing stood a stone platform rising up from the ground, with two short sets of stairs leading up to it. Six separate piles of bodies surrounded the platform, the back half of which was higher still, requiring a wide set of steps leading up to it from the front of the stone edifice. In the corners of this rear platform stood four urn-like devices, above each of which hovered a glowing orb of reddish light. Between the urns stood a stone sarcophagus, looking to have been carved from the same solid slab of stone as the rest of the platform. Standing before the sarcophagus was a pair of robed individuals, one dark, one light. Three more robed men stood at the lower edge of the platform, keeping a wary eye out. Their robes looked to be various shades of gray.

"Don't you get color in this thing?" complained Syngaard.

"It's moonlight," countered Skevros. "What did you expect?"

"Black and white by the sarcophagus," said Daleth, his keen elven eyesight having no difficulty in picking out the colors by moonlight. "Blue, orange, and green closer by the stairs."

"So divination and necromancy by the sarcophagus - that makes sense," Kaspar said. "I would think the necromancer's in charge of the ritual as a whole."

"Very likely," agreed Skevros. "And that would be an evoker, a conjurer, and an abjurer assisting. Where would you like me to set you down?"

"Howzabout right there in the midst of things," suggested Syngaard. "I'll take out the necromancer first."

"I'd rather attack them at range first, if possible," argued Orion. "I brought thunderstones - one of those plopped right down in the middle might make it harder for the spellcasters to work their magic."

"You could teleport us right behind the platform," suggested Galen. "Orion could float up and toss her thunderstone while the rest of us flank around from both sides."

"Nah, they're facing that way," argued Syngaard. "They'll see her as soon as she pops her head up. We oughtta plunk down right here," he said, pointing at the ground between the two short sets of stairs leading to the lower part of the platform. Orion throws her little stone or whatever" - and here Orion gave the bald fighter an irritated look - "and then the rest of us surge forward. Kaspar, you're the fastest: you go straight for the necromancer. Galen and I will rush up behind you and take out these two, by the stairs, while Daleth and Orion attack from range."

"As you wish," declared Skevros. "Are you ready?"

"Spells first," suggested Galen, casting a bless weapon upon the sword of Zehkar and a protection from evil spell on himself. Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself while Galen called out through the planes for his bonded mount. Burt appeared in a flash, eager for battle. Then everyone crowded together and Skevros cast the teleport spell that sent the fighting force to the Azure Glade, at the site of the impending ritual.

They thought they'd get in a surprise attack before the enemy wizards were even aware of their presence, but the conscripts had the tables turned on them - the two robed mages closest to the steps, as they were not immediately involved in the ritual by the sarcophagus, each attacked with a fireball spell to start things off. Rather than getting in a few surprise attacks of their own, the conscripts found themselves enveloped in twin rapid-fire explosions of flame. (In hindsight, it made perfect sense the enemies would know which way the attack would come from, given the diviner among their ranks.) Fortunately, these were fairly low-level wizards on guard duty, and the conscripts made it through the spell-onslaught little the worse for wear; as it was, Carl took the worst of it, and he was already dead!

At his mistress's command, Carl floated straight up until Orion was as high in the air as the upper level of the platform. She had a thunderstone at the ready and set it flying, to crash into the middle of the other three wizards with an explosion of sound. Judging by their reactions, the diviner and the evoker were deafened, while the necromancer was unaffected by the sudden blast of weaponized noise.

But that had been Kaspar's cue: with a sudden burst of speed, he slipped past the conjurer and the abjurer - each of whom tried ineffectually to stop him with their daggers - raced up the wide stairs, and struck at the necromancer. His blow just grazed her, his tenryutsume catching on her loose, black cloak and ripping it from her robes. She seemed unfazed by the attack, merely turning to the elven monk and staring at him with hypnotic, red eyes and whispering, "Kill your friends for me...." Fortunately, Kaspar's mind had been honed as well as his body by his years in the monastery, and he was able to easily avoid the dominating gaze of what he now realized was a vampire.

The diviner took a step backward from the monk who had suddenly appeared in their midst and tried casting a fireball spell, but fumbled over the words due to his sudden deafness. (Down at the front of the platform, Daleth smirked quietly to himself as the diviner yelled out the spell's verbal components, unconsciously trying to compensate for his inability to hear them himself.) In any case, the spell fizzled out before it could be fully cast.

Syngaard mounted the steps and swung his human bane scimitar at the abjurer, having seen he was human beneath the orange hood. What should have been a lethal blow - for Syngaard cut the front of the wizard's robes open and the flesh beneath it diagonally from sternum to waist - healed up instantly as a beam of red light shot down from one of the red globes hovering 20 feet or so above the top of the platform. That at least explained their purpose - they were apparently a shared pool of false life spells - but the scarred fighter took no comfort in the knowledge. He was just pissed that once again, magic robbed him of his kill!

Daleth, confident in his fellow elf's ability to avoid the worst of damaging spells, decided to plant an empowered fireball right in the middle of all five enemy wizards - even though that put Kaspar practically at the epicenter of the explosion. Sure enough, Kaspar heard the magical "pellet" flying through the air close by and ducked, swinging himself in an arc as he instinctively sought out the pockets where the flames were thinner. He regained his footing with barely more than a few singes on his monk's robes, whereas all four floating, red globes shot out beams of energy to replenish the Seekers' life-energy that had been burned away by the fireball. Such rapid healing completely drained two of the globes, which vanished with the flames; a third had been drained to about a quarter of its original size.

With Syngaard standing upon one of the sets of steps, Galen ran to the other set - only to be confronted by the conjurer. Actually, it wasn't that much of a confrontation, as the sword of Zehkar plunged deep into the wizard's gut and came back out wet with blood. The third floating globe was completely depleted upon restoring the conjurer's body, with a bit drained from the fourth and final orb as well. But if nothing else, Galen's charge up onto the platform had been stopped as certainly as had been Syngaard's.

In return, the conjurer looked about, did a quick mental calculation, and determined he could cast a stinking cloud that would encompass all of the attackers - including the dire lion - save the elven monk already behind him. Of course, to do so, he'd have to include the abjurer within its radius. Without hesitation, the conjurer cast the spell, causing nauseating, green vapor to rise up from the ground, partially obscuring the enemies. Alas, the conscripts were a fairly tough lot and they were all able to avoid the worst of the spell's effects. Not so the abjurer, who could be heard retching uncontrollably in the greenish mist.

Burt honed in on the sounds of vomiting, letting them guide him to the edge of the fog and to the nearest enemy. His slashed with the claws on his front paws and brought his jaws clamping down on the hapless abjurer. A beam of red energy shot down for the last time, leaving the orange-clad wizard barely still standing on his own feet while the final globe winked out above him. The revitalizing pool of false life spells had now been completely depleted; the Seekers were on their own! The abjurer staggered out of the cloud of vapors, counting himself lucky to remain standing in his present condition.

Kaspar sent a flurry of blows crashing into the vampire before him; each fist struck solidly but seemed to do little overall damage. Mistress Nightshade merely smirked at him, as if amused by his efforts.

Deafened by the thunderstone and having seen the blood orbs drained of their magic in much less time than he would ever have guessed, the evoker managed to successfully cast a fireball in the center of the stinking cloud, having already seen that he'd get all of the enemy forces but the monk in that manner. As the conscripts cried out in pain, the evoker made his move - down off the side of the platform and straight towards the nearest trees of the surrounding forest.

Most of the party shrugged off the damage from this third fireball - all but Carl, whose ectoplasmic form was destroyed by the spell, leaving Orion sitting in a ghost touch saddle 20 feet in the air. She tucked into a roll upon crash-landing, diving sideways from the saddle at the last possible moment and ending up on her feet, her flaming short sword out and ready for action.

Syngaard killed the abjurer with his human bane scimitar and cleaved into the conjurer who stood beside him. Sadly, this wizard was a half-elf, preventing the scimitar from working its extra magic against its primary foe. Then, while Galen tried unsuccessfully to turn the vampire with his holy symbol of Hieroneous, Syngaard spotted the evoker heading for the safety of the trees. "Wizard-Pants!" he cried out. "Blue guy's yours!" Daleth, stepping out of the area of effect of the stinking cloud spell, saw the fleeing wizard and brought him down with an empowered magic missile channeled through his metamagic rod. Burt finished off the conjurer, ripping into him with teeth and claws and then shaking the lifeless body in his jaws like a rag doll.

Mistress Nightshade extracted herself from the fight with Kaspar and rushed over to Syngaard, seeing him - quite rightly - as a more promising target for the dominating effect of her gaze. But the bald fighter surprised everyone (even himself!) by resisting the effect.

While the rest of the group began converging on the vampire, Orion decided to focus her attention on the white-robed diviner, rushing up and stabbing at him with her flaming short sword. Bleeding, he fell back and repositioned himself to catch Kaspar, Syngaard, and Galen in a burning hands spell - taking another cut from Orion's sword in doing so - and was discouraged to see his spell had even less of an effect than the previous fireballs had.

Syngaard's scimitar cut across the vampire's torso; Kaspar's fists came crashing into her back; neither seemed to deal her much damage. Syngaard had figured out she must have some sort of protection - either from a spell or maybe just by dint of fact that she was an undead creature - when Galen stepped up and dealt her some true damage with a smite evil attack channeled through the blade of the sword of Zehkar. "Foul thing!" the paladin sneered as he brought his blade down upon her a second time, causing her body to dissolve into a fine mist.

"I suhwenda!" cried the mush-mouthed diviner, unable to hear his own words but having seen Mistress Nightshade's unholy life cut down before him. If they could take out someone with her power, what chance did he stand? Quite appropriately (under the circumstances), his words fell on deaf ears and Orion's blade flicked out to cut his throat away.

The vampire's form could still be made out despite its gaseous nature; she flowed through the air, heading for the forest. "I'll follow her to her lair!" called out Daleth, confident in the spells stored in the staff of divination he'd taken from Arcturus's body to help him seek her out if she gave him the slip. "Burt! Go with Daleth!" Galen commanded, and the dire lion pounced after the elven wizard. Then the rest of the group devoted their attention to the stone sarcophocus.

Orion gave the structure a thorough examination before she let anyone touch it. "It looks safe," she reported.

"It's radiating evil, though," added Galen after examining its aura. "A large rectangular shape, inside."

"Well, let's give it a look!" said Syngaard, shoving the heavy stone lid off the sarcophagus. It clattered to the back of the platform, revealing the interior filled with a thick, oily substance. Through the murky liquid, the group could just barely make out the form of a man, wrapped in a white burial shroud - had the shroud been darker, it was unlikely they'd have been able to make it out at all.

"Arcturus, I presume," Galen observed.

"Did we stop the ritual in time?" asked Orion. "He's not going to rise as a lich, is he?"

"Let's find out," suggested Syngaard, stepping onto the rim of the sarcophagus. With one foot on a wall on either side of the stone coffin's corner, he flipped aside his codpiece. Realizing at the last moment what the scarred fighter was about to do, Orion averted her gaze with a grimace. "Syngaard!" she complained.

"Hey, Arcturus - I got something for you!" Syngaard taunted. A stream of urine hit the liquid above the shroud's head. Quite worrisome, the shroud-covered body seemed to flinch from the desecration.

Daleth and Burt arrived shortly thereafter, the vampire's nearest coffin not having been too far away. "She's been taken care of permanently," he told the group, and they in turn brought him up to speed. "That looks like osteovox," the elf wizard murmured, peering into the open sarcophagus.

"It does!" agreed Kaspar.

"You don't think..." Daleth mused.

"What?" asked Galen.

"Remember the osteovox rituals we used to perform with Skevros, before we found out how dangerous they were? We put a human skull into a vat of osteovox, wrapped in a question on a strip of parchment. And when we retrieved it, instead of the answer to the question being printed on the paper--"

"The spirit of the Mithral Mage inhabited the skull!" finished Kaspar. He looked with worry down at the shroud at the bottom of the osteovox. "Then this ritual was never about bringing Arcturus back as a lich!" the monk exclaimed. "It was designed to use Arcturus' body as a new home for the Mithral Mage!"

"That we will not allow," said Galen with determination. He took a vial of holy water from his belt and removed the stopper, then poured the consecrated contents into the osteovox - at the shroud's feet, as it somehow seemed blasphemous to knowingly mix holy water with urine. The shroud writhed as if in agony upon the holy water sinking down to its level within the osteovox. Taking no further chances, Galen stabbed the sword of Zehkar straight into the open sarcophagus, pinning the shroud in the chest and stabbing all the way down through the body wrapped within. A faint voice bubbled up from the osteovox as the holy blade pierced the reanimated corpse of Arcturus and disintegrated it to ash: "I hate you all...!"

"So that's it - we did it!" cried Orion eagerly.

"That we did," agreed Galen, stoppering the empty vial and returning it to his belt. He then shook his longsword, flicking off any remaining traces of osteovox from its gleaming blade before returning it to its scabbard.

"So where the Hell are we, exactly?" asked Syngaard, looking around and seeing blue-leaved trees surrounding them in the moonlight. "Anybody know which way we gotta trudge to get back home?"

As if on cue, a metal ring a full foot in diameter suddenly appeared in mid-air behind the group, making a loud clattering as it fell to the stone platform. There was a strip of parchment wrapped around it, in the same manner as an object about to be dropped into a vat of osteovox.

"It's from Skevros!" said Daleth, reading the note by the light of the full moon. He held up the ring in one hand and directed the others to do likewise. Galen dismissed Burt back to his celestial home with his thanks and placed his hand upon the ring, along with the others. With a sudden gasp of realization, Orion let go of the ring and ran back to fetch Carl's ghost touch saddle, returning to her place once it was safe in her other hand, balanced against her hip. Then Daleth spoke the command word and the ring of return teleported the group back to the south gate just outside the official boundary of Durnhill, where Skevros was there to greet them just inside the kingdom's border.

"Very nice!" said Daleth, handing the ring of return to the king's adviser.

"Much appreciated!" agreed Galen.

"No trudging!" remarked Syngaard. "You can be an okay guy at times, Skevros!"

"I can indeed," Skevros smiled in agreement.

- - -

Logan had everyone cracking up around the table while doing the voice of the wizards who had gone deaf from the thunderstone's sonic damage and couldn't hear what they sounded like to themselves. That was a cool bit of extemporaneousness on his part, too, as he had no way to know ahead of time that Vicki was going to buy thunderstones for Orion and our whole "opening salvo" would hinge on their use.

Orion, by the way, leveled up at the end of the adventure and now joins everyone else but Daleth at 9th level.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 7
Galen Thorne, human paladin 9
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 9
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 9
Syngaard, human fighter 9​

Game Session Date: 17 October 2018

- - -

"You call us all here for another mission?" Syngaard asked as he joined the others at the table in the Enchanted Flagon. Kaspar, anticipating his arrival, had already procured a mug of ale for the scarred fighter from Karen at the back of the bar.

"Indeed I did," affirmed Skevros. "You may take it as a given that if I summon you here, it is because the kingdom has need of your services."

"This a paying mission?" Syngaard asked, getting straight to the most important detail about whatever the king's adviser was going to say next.

Skevros sighed. "Yes, it is a paying mission. But to give you the appropriate context of your assignment, it's perhaps relevant to go over a brief history of the kingdom." Syngaard rolled his eyes but said nothing, granting his full attention to the mug of ale before him.

"As you are no doubt aware, the King of Ossirna died 126 years ago, leaving two sons. The younger son, Selvik, attempted to kill the rightful heir, Leornic the Fifth. Leornic and his loyal followers fled the destructive wrath of Selvik's forces. After the massive Battle of the Western Marshes, where thousands died on both sides, Leornic proposed a truce: he would abandon all claims to the throne of Ossirna and he and his followers would form a new kingdom based around Durnhill Keep. Leornic the Fifth of Ossirna thus became Leornic the First of Durnhill - the grandfather of our present king. Although Selvik wanted nothing less than his brother's death, his advisors convinced him to accept the truce.

"Ever since, on the anniversary of the signing of the truce, the kings of Durnhill and Ossirna meet at the Treaty Keep located between both kingdoms. That anniversary is tomorrow."

"And that's where we come in?" asked Orion.

"Indeed. Since the Treaty Keep lies abandoned during the entire rest of the year, it is customary for each kingdom to send a mercenary band to clear out the keep of any creatures that might be dwelling there."

"And I take it we are the mercenaries Durnhill will be sending?" asked Daleth.

"Quite so," replied Skevros, pulling a box from beneath the table and plopping it on the surface before him. "You'll be wearing these tabards to identify you as such." He pulled out the top one, green with gold trim and bearing the kingdom's crest on the front.

"We gotta wear these?" complained Syngaard as Skevros passed one to each of the five adventurers.

"Only if you wish to be paid," snapped Skevros. In the months of dealing with Syngaard, the king's adviser had learned how best to deal with him; the bald fighter picked up his tabard and slipped over his armor without another word. "I look ridiculous," Syngaard complained.

"It's good to hear you finally admit it," smirked Orion, earning her a glare from the fighter.

"You are to wear your tabards at all times during the duration of this mission," Skevros demanded. "They will serve to identify you as Durnhill's designated representatives."

"This has got to be the least 'secret' mission we've ever gone on," observed Galen.

"It is that way intentionally," Skevros replied. "There will be another team from Ossirna wearing their own colors: blue with gold trim. Under no conditions are you to attack them - to do so would be an act of war."

"No good ever came from people wearing blue," grumbled Galen, thinking about the Azure Guard in particular. "You said clear the place out of creatures, though - what are we likely to find living there?"

"It could be anything - or nothing at all," replied Skevros. "One year the teams encountered a beholder lairing there. Other years the keep was empty. But as the place lies in the stretch of neutral territory between our two kingdoms, it's only used once every year. That gives the local creatures plenty of time to decide to move in and make themselves comfortable."

"Couldn't you scry upon it?" asked Orion.

"That would certainly make things easier, wouldn't it?" asked Skevros wryly. "But no: the keep is protected from scrying, since the two rulers prefer not to have anyone eavesdropping upon their conversations there or observing their interactions."

Once everyone had their tabards in place over their armor, Skevros reached into the bottom of the box and pulled out some green-and-gold ribbons. He handed one to Orion and the other to Galen. "I assume you wish to take your riding dog," Skevros said to the halfling. "Please affix this ribbon to his saddle to identify him as part of the official delegation." He turned to Galen. "Likewise if you decide to bring along your dire lion."

"That decision's already been made," answered the young paladin, accepting the ribbon from the king's adviser. "If there's a possibility of us meeting a beholder at the keep, I'll definitely be bringing Bert along."

"Very well then," said Skevros. "If everyone's ready, I will teleport us all to the border." With the utterance of an arcane syllable, the group appeared across the kingdom to the southeastern border. The keep could be seen ahead in the distance. Skevros then busied himself casting mount spells for Daleth, Kaspar, and Syngaard. The magical steeds that appeared were already groomed with green-and-gold streamers attached to the pommels of their saddles and woven into their manes.

"It's best to keep up appearances when officially representing the kingdom," remarked Skevros. He handed the ring of return to Galen, who tucked it along the inside of his shield. "Clear out the keep, but do not attack the representatives from Ossirna. Syngaard: is this last point absolutely clear?"

"What? Yeah, don't kill the Ossirnians - I got it," the fighter replied. Then he pulled himself awkwardly up into the saddle of his mount; fortunately, as a magical construct, it was much easier to control than would be a real, living animal - Syngaard had no experience riding horses.

"Then the best of luck to you all," said Skevros. "You may use the ring when the mission is complete." Galen summoned Bert from the Beastlands, affixed the ribbon to his mane, climbed up upon the dire lion, and the led the delegation south to the Treaty Keep.

The ride was uneventful; upon their arrival, Galen led the mounts in a full circle around the keep while Orion had Carl climb up into the sky and check out the structure from above. It had seen better days, that was for sure - the stone building's upper level had come tumbling down some years back, and although the ground level was still mostly intact (part of one of the front towers had partially collapsed, granting open access to the building from the side), the paladin wondered just how much longer the structure could be used in its annual fashion. There were two doors, one in the front between the two largest towers, and another along the side of one of the smaller towers in the back, both closed and secured. But from the air, Orion and Carl saw what the others couldn't: the central part of the keep was an open courtyard, accessible by two sets of doors at the north and south ends, and inside the open-air structure was a meeting table and two chairs - and, incongruously, a hill giant in a green tunic sitting along one wall, his face pressed into a silver plate.

"Guys!" Orion called down to the others in a low voice, trying not to be overheard by the giant - who, fortunately, paid her no heed. "There's a giant down there!"

Rather than go through either of the doors, Galen rode Bert to the crumbled northeastern tower and ducked as the dire lion entered the building. As there were window slits all along the 20-foot ceiling, the interior of the building was sufficiently lit for the human to see inside with no trouble. There, in the front hall, was a white spider the size of a large pony, apparently dead upon the floor.

The other men followed Galen into the building, dismounting from their magical mounts before doing so. Daleth's keen eyes focused on the arachnid lying dead on its back, its legs tucked into its body in death. "That looks to be a phase spider," he observed.

"What's that?" asked Galen.

"It's capable of transitioning between the material plane and the ethereal plane at will - and in the mere blink of an eye! One moment there's nothing there, the next -- it appears and attacks!"

"So, it teleports?" asked Syngaard.

"If you like - but between dimensions." Galen dismounted from Bert and the two approached the dead spider, Kaspar and Daleth in tow. Syngaard, just to be sure, threw his returning javelin down the adjoining hall to the south, just in case any of those strange phase spiders were there waiting to jump into the material plane. Of course, the fighter's grasp of the concept of interplanar travel was incorrect, and the javelin hit nothing - nor would it have if there had been dozens of phase spiders in the ethereal spaces corresponding to the hallway. But Syngaard announced, "This way's clear!" when his javelin returned to his hand, and he turned to catch up to the others.

In a flash, two phase spiders materialized in the front hallway, flanking Bert. They bit at the dire lion, mandibles pumping venom. Kaspar immediately dashed up to the closest and struck forward with his right hand, his tenryutsume imbuing the strike with both fire and electricity as well as the monk's own inherent power. The elf's fist punched through the spider's abdomen, causing thick ichor to squirt out of the wound. Galen, Bert, and Syngaard finished off the spider with a combination of sword strikes, morningstar slams, and slashing claws, while Daleth fired a magic missile spell at the other phase spider, striking it without error.

Hearing the sounds of combat from inside the building - and as the hill giant seemed content sitting there eating whatever food he had balanced on the silver plate - Orion had Carl maneuver back down to ground level and run inside the Treaty Keep through the opening in the side of the northeastern tower. She threw a dagger from her bag of blades at the remaining spider, burying it to the hilt before it disappeared back to the extradimensional space of the magical bag. The spider snapped at Syngaard, before phasing back to the ethereal plane and out of view.

But the spider hadn't counted on Carl's ghostly nature - the riding dog dashed forward, jaws snapping at apparently nothing, although on the ethereal plane it was obvious the dog had caught one of the spider's legs in its jaws and was clamping down hard. Guessing what was going on, Syngaard, Kaspar, and Orion stayed to deal with the phase spider when it would likely return to this plane of existence; Syngaard prepared for the eventuality by backing up against the exterior wall of the keep, so the spider couldn't sneak up behind him. His morningstar was out and ready to strike if and when it showed.

Daleth and Galen, however - followed by Bert - moved to the door to check out the inner courtyard. The paladin saw the hill giant at once, and noted he wasn't just wearing a green tunic - it was an actual flag of the kingdom of Durnhill!

Looking up at the intruders, the hill giant squinted at a leathery sheepskin and did his best to pronounce the phonetic sounds depicted therein. "Furiends?" it asked.

"Friends?" deciphered Galen. "Are you asking to be friends?" But the giant had apparently used up the extent of its vocabulary and returned its attention to its plate of food. Daleth used his azurewood staff of divination to cast a tongues spell upon himself, allowing him to speak and understand the Giant language. Galen, in the meantime, had focused his attention on the hill giant's aura and was surprised to see no glint of evil therein.

"What's your name?" asked Daleth.

"Gumruk," replied the giant.

"My name's Daleth," offered the elven mage. "That's an interesting plate you have there. Is it magical?"

"Yup," replied Gumruk.

"And what does it do?"

"Makes food appear!" announced Gumruk with a wide grin, exposing the ground-up contents of his current mouthful. "Gumruk thinks of food, and it shows up!"

"That's really handy!" agreed Daleth. "Where did you get it?"

"Gumruk hired by little person, like you. He give me plate, and all I have to do is wear green flag and help other green guys fight blue guys." He finally gave the elf a good look, and announced, "Hey! You a green guy!"

"I am indeed," agreed the elf. "That means we should be friends!" He quickly gave Galen a rundown of their conversation.

Out in the hallway, though, the phase spider reappeared - one leg still clamped in Carl's mouth - and made an attempt at biting Syngaard, but the fighter bashed his morningstar down upon its head. On either side of him, Kaspar punched the spider with a flurry of one-two strikes while Orion stabbed at the thing with her flaming short sword. It didn't stand a chance, dying on the spot. Carl released the thing's leg and looked in all directions; his lack of concern was a good indicator to the others that there weren't any more phase spiders hanging around on the ethereal plane in this general vicinity. They headed over to the central courtyard to find Daleth and Galen in conversation with a seated hill giant, while Bert sat on his haunches, looking bored.

Galen caught the others up on what was going on. "We need to keep Gumruk from attacking the Ossirnians," said Kaspar, "or we'll be looking at an international incident."

"And that's likely what the Ossirnians want," guessed Daleth. "Odds are it was one of them who put Gumruk up to attacking their forces when they appear."

"We need to get him out of here," suggested Orion. "How are we going to do that?"

"Hey, buddy," Galen said to the giant and Daleth translated for him. "How would you like a magical jug to go with your magical plate? It'll give you anything you want to drink!"

"Yeah!" agreed Gumruk. He hadn't been thirsty until the paladin had mentioned it, but now he wanted something to drink more than anything else in life.

"The giant like jugs," observed Syngaard. "Smart guy." Orion just glared at the fighter, her gaze letting him know she caught his reference and didn't think this was the time for such nonsense.

"But you need to do something for us," Daleth said to the hill giant. "We need you to leave the blue men alone. We don't want to hurt them."

"But the plate!" argued Gumruk. "Supposed to help fight the blue guys, that's why I got this plate."

"They changed their minds," Daleth countered. "It was just a mistake. Now we're going to be nice to the blue guys, and you can still keep the plate."

"Okay," Gumruk agreed. "Where's the jug?" He was now really thirsty.

"Um," stalled Galen, not having thought this far ahead.

"It's not here," piped up Orion. "But we can take you to it. Why don't you come this way, and we'll go get it!" After Daleth translated for her, she started leading Gumruk over to the front doors of the keep. But then the back door to the courtyard opened up and in stepped three Ossirnian mercenaries, dressed in tabards of blue with gold trim. One was a female fighter named Sienna wielding a massive vicious greatsword. Beside her was a male rogue named Averos, and stepping up behind them was a male wizard named Neumien. All three were human; Syngaard had to fight the urge to pull his human bane scimitar from the scabbard at his hip. Galen's dark scowl spoke volumes about the contents of their auras.

"What's going on here?" demanded Neumien.

"Shouldn't the giant be attacking us by now?" asked Sienna in an insufficiently quiet whisper; both elves were able to make out her words perfectly well. Neumien didn't answer her, instead using his voice to cast a charm monster spell upon Gumruk. However, the hill giant - perhaps because his entire concentration was focused upon getting a magical jug that poured whatever drink he wanted from it - was able to overcome the spell's intended effects.

"Friends with blue guys?" he asked Daleth for confirmation. Things were starting to get muddled in his head.

"That's right, we're all friends here," Daleth said in the Common tongue so everyone could hear his words; the tongues spell still in effect automatically translated it to Giant for Gumruk's benefit.

"Looks like you guys are late to the party," observed Syngaard, his morningstar still in his hand. "We already did all the work for you. Killed a bunch of phase spiders. Why don't you make yourselves useful and give us a hand dragging them out of here?" There was little the Ossirnians could do; their attempt to start a war with Durnhill and get their enemies blamed for the instigation was apparently not going to work after all. Neumien received a pair of dark looks from his companions at the failure of his charm monster spell, but he realized there wasn't much to be done about it - not now, in any case.

"We'd love to be of assistance," he said through gritted teeth.

Once the Treaty Keep had been cleared and cleaned, both groups went their separate ways. The magical mounts were still in place outside, so the three men saddled up and rode away just for appearance's sake, only activating the ring of return (with Gumruk among them) once the three Ossirnians were out of view - no point in letting them know of their abilities.

Back in Durnhill, Skevros explained the Ossirnians had been trying to goad Durnhill into starting a war for several years now. "They know that if they instigated a war themselves, Ashfall and even the Azure Glade would join forces with Durnhill to stop them."

"Where's my jug?" asked Gumruk, as single-minded as Syngaard.

"What's this now?" asked Skevros.

"Galen promised the giant a magical jug," answered Syngaard.

"Did he now?" asked Skevros, looking sternly at the young paladin.

"Surely you have something like that around," hoped Galen. "I mean, you being a wizard and all...."

"You mean a decanter of endless water?" asked the king's adviser.

"Yeah, like that," Galen agreed. "Only...I promised it would give him whatever drink he wanted."

"I suppose I could craft something along those lines. But do you know how much something like that would cost?" demanded Skevros. Galen looked uncomfortable under the glare of their leader - he had just blurted out the first thing to come to mind to get Gumruk out of the Treaty Keep intact; now, faced with the consequences of his rash promise, he was obligated by his honor to see it through.

"It's not coming out of my share," interjected Syngaard quickly. "I didn't promise no giant no magic jug."

Skevros sighed heavily. "Let's bring him to the Enchanted Flagon for the time being," he suggested. "We can get him plenty to drink while I figure out how best to proceed." The fellow seemed tame enough; perhaps His Majesty could use a hill giant in some capacity in the kingdom?

"We could always just kill him," suggested Syngaard, secure in the knowledge that his words weren't being translated into the Giant tongue, only Daleth's.

"Syngaard!" chided Orion.

"I think we can find a better solution than that," rebuked Skevros.

"Whatever," remarked Syngaard, who was already thinking ahead about how he was going to spend his share of the reward. As they walked back to their headquarters, he pulled off the stupid green-and-gold tabard and tossed it back to Skevros. "Here's your silly shirt back."

- - -

This adventure did not go anything like Logan had planned; he'd been sure we would end up starting a war with Ossirna. But we've always rolled our dice in the open, and Gumruk made an awesome Will save just when it was needed. We also were sure to give Dan a bunch of flak about his "magic jug" solution, when there were so many other ways we could have diverted Gumruk away from the keep without promising a 10,000 gp expenditure. I suggested we just give the giant a normal jug along with a ten-syllable "command word" that he'd never be able to remember (or pronounce), and thus weasel out of the debt that way. But paladins are paladins and above such trickery, it seems. Dan seems willing to have Galen forgo his 2,000 gp payment for this adventure and then pay off the cost of the magic jug from future rewards, but Logan says he's going to take pity on him. Skevros will undoubtedly find a way to put Gumruk to good use in the kingdom, and eliminate the debt in that way.

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