The Durnhill Conscripts



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: 24 October 2018

- - -

It was a pleasant afternoon. The conscripts had no particular task that needed attending to, so they had been left to go about their various ways; after all, if they were needed, Skevros could summon them at once through the rings they wore, which allowed a message spell to be broadcast to each member simultaneously. As a result, Orion was sitting by one of the fountains of the capital city, watching in amusement as her ghost dog Carl danced into and out of the water, a puzzled expression on his face that he wasn't getting wet. In many ways, Carl was still getting used to the idea that he was a ghost now, and that many of the rules that had applied to him in life were no longer valid.

But then Carl's head popped up from the fountain, he looked all around him, and he began barking furiously. Orion leaped to her feet and her hand went to the hilt of her flaming short sword, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary - nothing that would set Carl to barking so frantically. That only caused her to worry all the more, for she was well aware that Carl's ghost-vision extended into the ethereal plane; were there more of those phase spiders about, ready to strike?

Galen was nearby, running an errand for Skevros to start to pay off the debt he'd incurred in promising a magical drink-producing jug to the hill giant Gumruk. He heard Carl's barking and had the same reaction as Orion: hand to sword-hilt, looking about for danger and seeing none. Still, he crossed the square over to the fountain, the sword of Zehkar out and ready for action should it be needed.

The other conscripts were unaware of Carl's panic. Daleth was in his room above the Enchanted Flagon, studying his spellbooks; across the hall from him, Kaspar sat in silent meditation, honing his mastery of the mind. Syngaard was eating a late lunch with Cori, one of Mama Kat's working girls, as the brothel didn't usually see much business until later in the evening.

But regardless of their respective locations, all of the conscripts - as well as every other inhabitant of the city - abruptly heard a loud scream. It was the scream of a multitude of voices, a choir of screams, in which each of the conscripts could hear their own distinctive voices in the mix.

But the screaming wasn't all that everybody heard. Orion, standing by the fountain, heard Syngaard's distinctive voice yelling, "Gonna kill me that damn halfling!" Turning to look, she saw Syngaard rushing down the street in her direction, his morningstar in one hand and his javelin of returning in the other. His scarred face held an expression of hatred and disgust. Beside him, struggling to keep up, was a shambling, canine form covered in frost; with a start, the halfling recognized it as Carl's physical remains, as he appeared when he died from the cone of cold spell cast by Arcturus, the Azure Glade's Guildmaster of Divination.

Any suspicion Orion might have had that this was an illusion was broken by the fact that Galen saw it, too. He instinctively focused his senses to see if the pair detected as evil, and was instantly brought to his knees by an overpowering sensation of pure, absolute evil that emanated not just from Syngaard and the zombified remains of Carl but from the entire area at once. Through his pounding headache, the paladin realized he would be unable to rely upon his reading of auras while this all-pervasive evil was about; this was many times worse than the first time he'd tried reading Serenity's aura up in Ashfall. And the sense of evil seemed to leech the brightness of the day as well; shadows fell over the city as the sky darkened as if overcast, although it remained as cloudless as mere moments before.

Back in their rooms, Daleth and Kaspar had their own troubles, for immediately after the choir of screams they each felt their bodies shrinking. All of their clothes and gear shrunk down with them to no other effect, but their skin hardened, their hair lengthened and grew lighter, and in a mere moment each had taken on the appearance of Dow, the porcelain homunculus Skevros had crafted for his late daughter many years ago. Neither elf had been particularly fond of the homunculus - truth be told, she seemed rather creepy to them - so finding themselves suddenly trapped in her body was unnerving, to say the least.

Still, no matter how this thing had happened, it was likely Skevros held the answer - or could at least reverse the process. As he was in the Enchanted Flagon below (or at least in the extradimensional space accessible from the storeroom of the tavern), that seemed to be the first course of action. Of course, as the elves were now only a foot tall, the simple act of opening the door was somewhat problematic, since the doorknob stood well over their heads.

Kaspar's monk training came in handy; with a running start, he ran up the door and grabbed onto the doorknob, twisting it with a practiced motion and kicking the doorjamb with his foot, opening the wooden door. He dropped back to the floor and was about to duplicate the process on the door leading to the back stairs behind the building when the door to Daleth's room opened and Daleth-as-Dow dropped down from his own doorknob.

"You too?" each elf asked in unison, surprised to see the other afflicted in the same way. But Daleth-as-Dow still wore his wizard's robes and Kaspar-as-Dow wore his monk's robes and tenryutsume, and each still had their respective abilities. As one, they turned to the exterior door, Kaspar got it opened, and they started hopping down the back stairs, looking for answers.

Back at Mama Kat's, Syngaard underwent a similar transformation. One moment he was eating cheese and bread with Cori; the next, there was a chorus of screams and he felt his body shrinking in an all-too-familiar way. "Damn that halfling!" Syngaard cursed, hating the high pitch of his halfling voice. His immediate thought was that Orion had somehow spiked his food or drink, sneaking in a potion of reduce person like she'd done once before in a misguided attempt to get him to empathize with the life of a halfling by experiencing it for himself. But this time there was something different about the experience: all of his gear reduced in size with him as before, but his feet somehow didn't seem to shrink quite as much as the rest of him - they were tight in his boots. Worse yet, both feet were itchy, as if a layer of fur grew from their tops. "Dammit!" he cried. "I'm not just a halfling - I'm a blasted fur-foot! I'm gonna kill that damn Orion!"

Then Cori gave a shriek and Syngaard looked over at her, but saw only the counter - they'd been on opposite sides before his transformation and now he wasn't even tall enough to look over the counter to see her! He had to back up until she was in view - and Syngaard got another shock once he did. Cori's lustrous, red hair was now matted and dirty; her delicate facial features had been replaced by a fearsome countenance with warts sprouting here and there. Syngaard gave an involuntary shout of terror upon first seeing her, causing Cori to scramble to the nearest mirror, where she shrieked in horror at her own appearance. Neither of the two had ever seen a sea hag before, but they were looking at one now.

The fact that they'd both been transformed - and into different shapes - seemed to get Orion off the hook; for the life of him Syngaard couldn't figure out how (or why) the halfling could have turned Cori into a witch. There was only one course of action that Syngaard could see, and that was getting to Skevros to make some sense of it all. He steered Cori into her bedroom, telling her to lock the door and stay put until his return. "I'll get this fixed," he promised her, hoping he could do just that - there was no way he wanted to live the rest of his life as a damned halfling! Once Cori was settled, he dashed out the brothel door and into the street, heading for the Enchanted Flagon as quickly as his stumpy little legs could take him.

Over by the fountain, Galen and Orion were both puzzled by the sudden appearance and demeanor of the bloodthirsty fighter, for as soon as he was in range he hurled his magic javelin at the halfling, screaming curses all the while. She dodged the weapon, and it returned to his hand as he ran towards her. Not wanting to hurt her adventuring companion, Orion decided to focus on the zombie Carl instead. Leaping onto the back of ghost Carl, she reached into her bag of blades and pulled out a throwing dagger, which she threw at the frost-covered dog shambling to catch up to Syngaard. But by then the bald fighter had reached Orion and Carl, and his morningstar came swinging at her head. She ducked at the last moment, but the weapon-head crashed painfully into her shoulder. Thinking Syngaard might be some sort of undead imposter, Galen focused a blast of positive energy through his illumium scabbard and into the fighter's torso. Had he been undead, the healing energy would have eaten into him like acid; the fact that it had no effect at least informed the paladin that Syngaard was not undead.

Frantic to escape Syngaard's wrath, Orion had Carl shoot up into the darkened sky, high enough to be out of reach from the fighter's morningstar at least. "We need to find Skevros!" the halfling called down to Galen. "He might be able to make some sense of this!"

"Go!" agreed Galen. "I'll catch up!" And the ghost-dog flew at best speed down the road, with Syngaard running furiously behind and below, ignoring the paladin in his effort to slay the mounted halfling.

Galen figured he'd have to fight his way past the zombified Carl, which wasn't likely to be too difficult. But then other difficulties made their presences known, as spilling out of doorways and alleys came a multitude of creatures: zombies, skeletons, even a few mind flayers. One pointed up at the sun; distracted, Galen followed its gaze and saw with a shock that the sun had been replaced with a blood-red eye - at the very least, it had been turned red with a brighter center that gave it an eyelike appearance.

A zombie stretched out a hand and grabbed Galen by the shoulder. "Whaa--?" it moaned, and Galen resisted the instinctive urge to strike out at it with his longsword. He held the creature at arm's length. "Are you a local inhabitant?" the paladin asked, getting a nod to the affirmative in reply. Figuring that these were all just townsfolk somehow transformed, Galen called out in a loud voice, "Everyone return to your homes! Stay off the streets while we figure out what happened and get this magical effect reversed!" Immediately, skeletons nodded and returned to their homes; mind flayers turned around and went back the way they'd come, some of them still looking down at their purple fingers in disbelief; zombies shuffled off down the street headed back to their dwellings.

But zombie Carl remained. Orion threw a tanglefoot bag down at him as she and ghost Carl passed by overhead. The bag exploded upon impact, covering the zombie dog in sticky goo and more or less gluing him in place where he stood. Galen tried his scabbard trick on the dog and got much better results than he'd gotten with Syngaard, as the dog apparently was an undead creature. One smiting strike with his blade and the undead thing was slain. Then the paladin ran after Orion and Carl - and Syngaard, who threw his returning javelin up at the halfling as he ran - making his way to the Enchanted Flagon and hopefully an end to this city-wide transformation (which, for whatever reason, had left Galen and Orion unaffected).

Daleth and Kaspar had finally managed to make it down the back steps, go around the corner of the building, and get the front door open. Skevros was in the tavern all right, but he was slumped up against the back wall by the bar, being menaced by a pair of ghosts. "This is your fault!" berated the ghost of a young woman. "My death is on your hands!"

"Why did you do it, Daddy?" asked the second ghost, that of a young girl about five years of age. With sudden insight, Kaspar realized these were the ghosts of Skevros's wife and daughter. But then, having figured that out, Kaspar was unsure of what to do next; would Skevros appreciate it if his adventurers started attacking the spirits of his loved ones?

The route from Mama Kat's to the Enchanted Flagon took Syngaard, running for all he was worth on his oversized, itchy, halfling feet, right past the Temple of Pelor. That gave the fighter an idea: he could ask Father Rayburn or Father Rupert about fixing the transformations - they were both fairly powerful clerics. And maybe he could get a resolution to this nightmare quicker than he could by racing across the square over to the tavern. With that thought in mind, he approached the temple doors and opened one, stepping quietly inside.

The first thing he saw were the four headless bodies laying in pools of blood on the floor. Without their heads he couldn't tell who they might be, but they were all male, and each wore the robes of a cleric of Pelor. Whatever was up, this wasn't good!

The next thing he noticed were the three figures in the back of the temple. All three wore darker robes and had their backs to him, facing the altar, but the central figure must have stood about nine feet tall, with two human-sized figures beside him. Syngaard narrowed his eyes and made his way toward the figures, traveling quietly down the central aisle between the pews, ready to duck behind a pew if either of the three figures gave any indication that they might turn and spot him. Syngaard had his trusty morningstar in hand, and was disheartened to think that at its present size it wouldn't be able to dish out near as much damage as it would normally.

Syngaard was even further dismayed when a voice appeared in the back of his head. <And just what is your purpose, little halfling?> the voice asked. In the dim light of the temple, Syngaard thought he saw a tentacle waving from the front of the central figure, the giant. A flood of thoughts rushed into Syngaard's brain: These were those mind flayer dudes, like the two they'd recently fought in the caverns below the orphanage! They were probably behind the transformations somehow! And worse yet, that big guy just called me a little halfling! He tightened his grip on his morningstar and got ready to charge.

Orion and Carl rushed into the Enchanted Flagon, the two homunculi having left the front door wide open. Orion made out the inhabitants in a glance; she had no trouble identifying Kaspar and Daleth by the garments they wore, even though each otherwise looked just like Dow. Right behind Orion came Syngaard, face contorted in hatred and morningstar raised to strike at the mounted halfling. Kaspar wasn't sure what had gotten into Syngaard, but he wasn't about to let him attack Orion; he struck out with a cobra-swift strike of his arm, powered by his tenryutsume, hammering into the fighter's leg. Kaspar was pleased to see the tenryutsume's powers were apparently not reduced by the sudden change in size. "Leave her alone, Syngaard!" the elf monk warned.

Orion grabbed up another tanglefoot bag and hurled it at the bald fighter, trapping him in place. Daleth prepared to cast a spell at the attacking fighter, when Skevros - via the sudden appearance of a trio of his adventurers, two of them somehow in the forms of his former homunculus familiar - was alerted to the oddities of the situation. Ignoring the ghosts of his family for now, he cast an arcane sight spell, allowing him to see magical auras. Sure enough, his tormenting spirits were both magical in nature - likely illusions - as was Syngaard. Kaspar and Daleth were also sporting magical auras, but given their transformations this was expected. He also got indications from Orion centered on her known magical items: her short sword, bag of blades, breastplate, bracelet, ring, and ioun stone - that was undoubtedly her. He was about to broadcast his findings to the others when Syngaard's voice rang out from the ring the king's adviser wore on his left hand: "Skevros, I dunno if you can hear me, but I'm fighting three mind flayers in the temple of Pelor, and I think they're behind all this weirdness!"

That statement, called into his ring as he ran down the central aisle of the temple, was finished by the time Syngaard reached his target: the central figure of the three. The trio turned as one at Syngaard's approach, and sure enough, these were mind flayers, although the central one was not only nine feet tall but also had an extra set of facial tentacles, these two being much longer than the other four. Syngaard's morningstar went crashing into the ulitharid's leg, and as he'd expected the smaller size of the weapon - and the hand that wielded it - meant a lesser amount of damage behind the strike.

C'thorlumbrox's mouth was hidden beneath his six tentacles and the illithid mouth structure was not designed for smiling in any case; nonetheless, the ulitharid's mental "voice" denoted a tone of amusement. <Are you going to single-handedly strike us down, little halfling?> he asked.

"Stop calling me that!" Syngaard demanded as one of the longer tentacles wrapped around his torso and lifted him in the air, so that C'thorlumbrox could get a better look at his diminutive opponent. "Turn me back to human, or I'll kill the lot of you!" Given the less-than-impressive combat abilities Syngaard had just demonstrated in his halfling form, this was a boast without much power behind it.

Back at the Enchanted Flagon, Skevros announced, "I have no combat spells prepared!" just as Galen burst in through the front door. "Syngaard will likely be dead by the time it would take me to prepare them. So gather yourselves together; I have the means to transport you to the temple of Pelor."

"Even though the city's warded against teleportation?" asked Orion.

"Even so," agreed Skevros, and cast the wish spell he always kept on hand for emergency use. A tear rolled down his cheek as he recalled it was this very same spell that had killed his wife, in her desperate attempt to wrench him off the evil path he'd been traveling, those many years ago.

The group now found themselves standing in the central aisle of the temple of Pelor. Two mind flayers stood to the sides of the altar in the back, and between them stood an even taller version of a mind flayer, halfheartedly grappling with a struggling, bald halfling he held in one long tentacle. Even with the size difference, the group had no difficulty identifying Syngaard by his equipment - and his vocabulary. Although, oddly enough, shortly after the group's appearance, Syngaard also appeared - in his human form, and unhindered by the goo of the tanglefoot bag - in the back of the room, a look of hatred aimed directly at Orion.

One of the mind flayers spun about and faced the group, unleashing a blast of mental energy their way. Kaspar and Orion were both stunned by the mental assault, freezing instantly in place. Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself - and suddenly, both he and Kaspar resumed their normal elven appearance, although the monk was still stunned into immobility. Perhaps just as importantly, the looming of figure of Syngaard started to fade like a ghost, still visible in the back of the room with his arm raised and ready to hurl his magical javelin at the female halfling, but frozen into immobility.

C'thorlumbrox made the mistake of trying to reason with Syngaard. <I have no desire to kill your party> he informed the fighter, <although my two compatriots seek vengeance for their recent deaths at your hands> - and sure enough, the two mind flayers accompanying the ulitharid were none other than Quixagoth and Ixloth. <I'll make a deal with you: I'll let you go help your friends slay the two mind flayers again, as they've already served my purpose. I will even end the effect that has overcome your fair city. In return, you will allow me to leave unharmed.>

"No deal!" called out Syngaard. "You killed Father Rayburn and Father Rupert!"

<They were necessary to power my experiment> replied the ulitharid, not understanding why this should be such an issue - these surface-dwellers were so emotional! <I needed the heads of four clerics of the sun god, whose fears of a diminished sun could power the effect I needed.>

"You turned me into a damned halfling!" cried Syngaard.

<An unfortunate side effect of the experiment> explained C'thorlumbrox. <I can easily-- > But he was cut off by Syngaard's dual response: an insignificant blow from his morningstar, which did nothing but eat into the added protection afforded the ulitharid by a false life spell, and the more deadly effect of his words. "This big guy's trying to cut a deal with me!" he thundered. "He'll let us cut down the other two if we let him live!"

Quixagoth didn't believe the halfling's pitiful attempt to sow discord among the illithids. He ran up and grabbed Daleth with a tentacle, wrestling him into position so he could grab on with his other three facial appendages and rip the brain from the elf's skull. Ixloth, however, seemed unnerved by the accusation, and turned toward his leader with a puzzled - and distrustful - look in his eyes.

Galen realized that these mind blasts could easily take out the entire group in mere seconds - the last time they'd fought mind flayers, they had taken on Ixloth and Quixagoth one at a time; now they were facing them together at once with the addition of an even more powerful member of their twisted race! Without any hesitation, the paladin called out to the plane of the Beastlands as he raced to aid Syngaard, and his faithful dire lion companion immediately answered the call.

Burt leaped at Quixagoth, ripping him to shreds with the powerful swipe of a clawed forepaw. Daleth finished him off with a blast from his wand of magic missiles, holding it up under the base of the illithid's tentacles and activating it before the mind flayer had a chance to pry open the wizard's skull. Ixloth, in the meantime, fired a psionic mind thrust at Galen, staggering the charging paladin by the strength of his mental power.

"I promise I won't kill you if you let Syngaard go," said Galen, thinking to himself that he wasn't promising that Syngaard or one of the others wouldn't kill him. But the sound of mental laughter suddenly blossomed in the back of the paladin's mind. <You forget> said C'thorlumbrox, <I can hear your very thoughts!>

But Syngaard, while struggling to free himself form the ulitharid's tentacle, saw Orion and Kaspar frozen in the stunning grip of a mind blast. He'd experienced such an effect himself down in the caverns below the orphanage, and knew how long those two would be out of action. He also had a sinking feeling that C'thorlumbrox was toying with them, and that he could easily slay all five of the heroes if he put a mind to it. "You want a deal?" Syngaard suggested. "Start with an offer of good faith. Release those two from the mind blast's effects, and turn off whatever's affecting the city."

<Easily done!> replied the ulitharid, setting Syngaard back down onto the floor as he sent a psionic wave of dispelling magic at Kaspar and Orion. They found they could once again move, while Syngaard found himself back in his human form. The other Syngaard - a psionic manifestation of Orion's fears of retaliation for her potion of reduce person prank - winked out of existence.

<Master?> whimpered Ixloth in fear. <You just returned us to life - why abandon us now?>

<You have proven yourselves unworthy, seeking vengeance for your recent deaths at the hands of these surface-dwellers instead of focusing on the experiment. Prove your worthiness to live, if you can - I will render no aid.> Ixloth turned to face his foes, but was quickly brought down by the teeth and claws of a bloodthirsty dire lion and the smiting strike of the sword of Zehkar.

Syngaard's relief at being turned back to human form again was short-lived, to be replaced with a fury against the one who had been responsible for his transformation in the first place - and the deaths of four clerics of Pelor, the god Mezz had revered in life, and whose wooden holy symbol Syngaard had faithfully worn around his neck every day since his wife's death. His morningstar now back to its original size, he turned, ready to attack the ulitharid who had caused all of this trouble. But C'thorlumbrox held up a restraining hand, biding the fighter to hold off his attacks. <I propose a halt to combat, to explain myself!> he mentally declared to all present, and Galen put a restraining hand upon Syngaard's shoulder. "Let's hear what he has to say," suggested the paladin.

<The manifestation of your collective fears was an unintended side effect of the experiment we performed upon the sun> C'thorlumbrox explained. <We wish to eventually learn to block the sun's rays, that we might have darkness fall upon the planet and we might walk upon the surface once more, rather than keeping to the bowels of the Underdark.>

"Nothin's stoppin' you from strolling around today," snarled Syngaard.

<We find the brightness distasteful.>

"We won't help you to destroy the sun!" declared Galen. "Nor escape, that you may cause it further harm!"

<You need have no fears upon those fronts. This was but an initial experiment, as I have stated. I will take the results back to the Elder Brain of my city, and it will cogitate upon the matter for decades, centuries - even millennia. Your sun is safe for a good, long time.> A quick look out of the temple's windows confirmed that the sky was back to its regular brightness; the unnatural red-eye sun had been restored to normal.

"That's just making it someone else's problem," argued Orion. "Why shouldn't we just deal with you now, and be done with it?"

<Two reasons: one, you lack the power to destroy me; I could easily slay the lot of you without undue difficulty. But perhaps more importantly, we share a common enemy, for I sense the power in your longsword, and we - my people, the illithids - are opposed to the brother of Zehkar and would see his plans brought to ruin.>

"You speak of the Mithral Mage," replied Kaspar.

<I know him by his true name, but yes.>

"You know the Mithral Mage's real name?" asked Orion. "I thought all knowledge of his name had been magically erased."

"All existing traces of his name were erased, to prevent others from learning it," replied Daleth, who had studied up on the matter with Skevros. "It didn't erase it from the minds of those who already knew it."

<Precisely so.>

"So what are we doing?" asked Galen, looking around at his companions. "If we give this guy a pass, I'm honor-bound not to attack him. Do we let him walk?"

Kaspar thought it over for a moment. "I would say...yes," he decided. "We cannot pass up an opportunity to gain allies in our fight against the Mithral Mage."

"I agree," added Daleth.

"Stupid elves," muttered Syngaard.

"I agree as well," said Orion, gaining her a glare from the bald fighter.

"It would seem our best course of action," pointed out Galen.

Syngaard pointed to the dead bodies of the four decapitated Pelorian clerics in the front of the temple. "Bring them back to life," he demanded, indicating this was a prerequisite to gaining his agreement.

<That I cannot do. Were they mind flayers, I could reactivate their life forces with the psionic crystals we gathered below. Alas, they are mere humans - and thus outside my ability to affect.>

Syngaard spit out a promise: "I ever see your stupid, squiddy face around here again, I'll kill you!"

<So noted> replied C'thorlumbrox, and Syngaard didn't miss the smarminess behind the mental sentiment, as if the ulitharid was amused at the human fighter's delusions of his fighting prowess against so powerful a foe. But the creature departed through the back doors of the temple, heading to the area which had until recently - when they discovered a secret passageway that led to the Underdark directly below their floor planks - been the Pelorian orphanage; the orphans had been immediately moved to different housing upon the discovery.

"I'm surprised the temple clerics haven't sealed up the entrance to the Underdark," commented Orion, watching the ulitharid leave.

"They might have, only to have it undone by the mind flayers," offered Kaspar.

"Or been mentally tricked into thinking they had done so in the first place," suggested Daleth.

"Now that the skirmishes with the devils have finished up in the Baator's Breath Mountains, the church of Hieroneous will have the clerics at hand to raise the slain Pelorians," promised Galen.

It wasn't much in the way of a victory, but it would have to do.

- - -

Ugh! This was probably my least favorite adventure thus far in the campaign. (I'm not a fan of halflings, if you couldn't tell.) But four of us (all but Orion) leveled up as a result of this adventure, so that was a plus.

Incidentally, we'll be on hiatus for the next two weeks, due to Halloween next Wednesday and a class field trip to Washington DC that will take Joey out of the mix the following week.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 8
Galen Thorne, human paladin 10
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 10
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 9
Syngaard, human fighter 10​

Game Session Date: 14 November 2018

- - -

This session began with everyone receiving a handout describing a dream they had, or in the case of the elves the vision they received while in reverie.

As an elf you do not sleep and you do not dream, yet you see her clearly between the three oaks. She appears to be an elf with hair like autumn leaves, yet you know she is something more primal. "Wayward children of the forest, long have you forgotten your roots, but fondly do we remember them," she speaks and you are suddenly aware of Kaspar's presence as well. "Welcome me into your burrow, and grant my sisters the mercy I show you."

You are in the woods fighting against the forces of evil. By your side is a man whose form is indistinct and fuzzy as if seen through a fogged mirror. As you fight you get the sudden sensation of being bound; looking down you see vines growing and entwining your body. Your formless companion seems to be similarly entangled. You feel thorns sprouting from the vines as they begin to constrict your body, but the growing vines pause suddenly. "The timeless silver is a curse to us all...," a voice whispers from behind you, "but perhaps he has suffered the worst of it. You wear the accursed metal of my enemies, and yet you are the only ones I can turn to in this darkest hour of need." With that, the vines weaken their grasp and you awaken from your dream. As you rise from your bed you are surprised to find the sword of Zehkar entwined in a black rose bush that has seemingly grown out of the floorboards. A strange sense of mourning passes over you.
As an elf you do not sleep and you do not dream, yet you see her clearly between the three oaks. She appears to be an elf with hair like autumn leaves, yet you know she is something more primal. "Wayward children of the forest, long have you forgotten your roots, but fondly do we remember them," she speaks and you are suddenly aware of Daleth's presence as well. "Welcome me into your burrow, and grant my sisters the mercy I show you."

You are alone in the woods looking for Carl when you suddenly break into a clearing. Three oak trees stand in the middle of the clearing with a single large rosebush sitting in the middle of them. An elven woman with hair like autumn leaves sits by the roses scratching Carl behind the ears. "Child of the stars," she softly calls to you, "cruel can be our fate." Suddenly the rosebush crumbles to ash and the woman scoops up a handful. "A boon for a boon," she says as she rubs two fingers into the ash. She then closes your eyes with the ash-covered fingers. "I will require your blade when next we meet. Repeat this ritual afterward and gain nature's blessing." When you open your eyes, you find yourself awake in your bed with a single black rose in your hand.

You are fighting robed figures in the woods. Their hourglass faces spill silver sand with every blow of your morningstar. Something else is there watching you, but you can't figure out where it is.

As the last of your foes fall, their blood pools around your ankles. A lone island rises out of the blood, the blackened tree in the middle dripping with even more blood. Something about it seems familiar but you can't put your finger on it. A beautiful, slender hand grabs your shoulder. "Enemy of my enemy, I call upon you." Suddenly the tree bursts into flames. "Rebirth can only arise after death; let the purging flame consume all our enemies...even those who once were family. Hurry now, you've much farther to travel than the others so you'd better wake up!" Cori is still sleeping when you awaken. It is just before dawn, and you have the feeling it's gonna be one of those days. Better trudge on over to the tavern, you think to yourself. You arrive just as Daleth and Kaspar are entering the Enchanted Flagon's main floor.

- - -

Galen awoke from his dream and looked about the room. In the dark, there wasn't much to see - the sun had yet to rise, and his human vision wasn't adjusted to the darkness. But he could smell the scent of roses as he fumbled for a tindertwig at his bedside. Striking it, he set it to the wick of the candle on his nightstand and stood amazed at what he saw. For there, leaning against the wall, was the sword of Zehkar, where he had left it the night before - only now it was buried amid the tangled mass of a rose bush.

Orion woke, startled, in her own bed, not sure of what had caused her to awaken. But as she struggled to recall the dream she'd just been having, she noticed a pricking sensation in her right hand. By the feel of the thorns and the scent of the floral aroma, she deduced she was holding a single rose on a long stem. How did that get here? she wondered, creeping out at the thought that someone had been in her locked room as she slept. But Carl - or at least his ghost - habitually stayed with her in her room and he had raised no alarm all during the night. Surely he'd have reacted if there had been an intruder in her bedroom?

Galen knocked upon the halfling's door and she answered, still holding the flower - and by the light of the paladin's candle she could see it was indeed a dark-petaled rose. Galen looked down at her rose with a frown and asked her to accompany him back to his room. "I want you to look at something for me and make sure I'm not crazy," he explained. Orion followed him back across the hall and sure enough, there was an entire rose bush in his room, pierced in the middle by the still-sheathed sword of Zehkar.

"Did you dream about this?" the halfling asked.

"Something like it," Galen admitted.

Kaspar and Daleth opened the doors to their own rooms, joining the pair. They were able to confirm that the rose bush wasn't imaginary - or if it was, they too were caught up in the illusion. "Let's gear up and meet downstairs," Kaspar suggested.

Syngaard arrived at the front door of the Enchanted Flagon just as the two elves were turning the corner around the building. "Odd dreams?" asked Daleth.

"Yep," Syngaard answered. "Figured they must mean somethin', and figured you'll all want to gather together and discuss 'em."

Galen went first, describing the events of his dream while Kaspar went to the back of the room to wake Skevros - only to find him leaving the door to the extradimensional rooms he had hidden away in the wine storage area behind the bar. Orion added hers and then, after some prompting, Syngaard gave the gist of his as well.

"Oddly enough, I have had a dream of my own," said Skevros. "I--"

He was cut off by a knock at the door. Carl, sitting nearby, popped his ghostly head through the solid door and started wagging his tail. "I got it," announced Syngaard, walking over to open the door. The ghost dog's wagging tail likely meant there was no danger posed by the visitor, but the scarred fighter kept his hand on the grip of his morningstar just in case as he opened the door.

Standing in the doorway was an astonishingly beautiful woman - one who, in Syngaard's mind, put even his deceased wife Messalina to shame. This woman was unearthly beautiful and even seemed to shine - a gentle glow suffused her body, giving it a quiet radiance. Her face bore nearly elven features; her skin was the pale color of a full moon, with traces of bluish veins visible throughout, as if she had been carved from some exotic marble. She wore a cloak of autumn leaves wrapped around her shoulders.

"May I come in?" she asked in a husky voice.

Syngaard stepped back and allowed her to enter the tavern. Staring at her body as she crossed the threshold, he muttered to himself, "May I?"

Galen swallowed in disbelief at the sight of the woman; instinctively, he checked her aura for the tell-tale signs of evil, recalling how astonishingly beautiful the succubus Serenity appeared. But the woman's aura bore not the slightest stain of evil, leaving the paladin to wonder if this were some angel come down from the celestial realms.

Autumn Rose stepped up to the rest of the group and introduced herself. "I have come for your assistance," she said, looking at each of the heroes in turn. "My home - the Viridian Grove - has been corrupted, as have my sisters. I need you to purge it, and them."

"I know the place!" said Skevros. "I have been there!" He looked knowingly at Autumn Rose, the reason for her unearthly beauty now made apparent - she was a nymph!

"The Viridian Grove is called such due to the predominant greenery of the plant life," he explained, "a quite distinguishable feature in the Azure Glade, where the vegetation skews much more heavily to the bluish end of the spectrum." But nobody seemed to be paying the king's adviser the least bit of attention, as all eyes were upon the nymph.

"May I borrow your sword?" Autumn Rose asked Orion, holding out her now-empty hand. The halfling hesitated at first, not one to willingly give over her most powerful weapon to anyone - but then recalled her dream of that early morning. She pulled the short sword from its scabbard, causing the flames to ignite along its blade, and passed it over to the nymph, hilt first - the flames having no impact on the halfling due to the magical amulet she wore.

"Thank you," smiled Autumn Rose, as she took the sword by its hilt. "Grant my sisters mercy..." she began, staring into the blade's flames. "The only mercy is a swift death," she continued - and then swiftly slit her own throat.

Pandemonium ensued. Gasps and cries erupted from the heroes' throats; Orion involuntarily stepped back in horror, as Kaspar stepped forward to try to grab the nymph's body as it fell. But there was nothing to grab; her body vaporized instantly to ashes, and Orion's flaming short sword fell to the floor with a clatter. Skevros leaped up from his seat at the table, while Carl leaped to all fours and started barking at the pile of ashes. Sitting in the middle of the ash pile was a long-stemmed, blue-black rose carved from crystal.

Orion was the first to understand what she was meant to do next. Kneeling by the pile of ashes, she put two fingers into the dust and rubbed them on her closed eyelids. Her eyes appeared smudged for a moment before the ashes absorbed into her skin. She then blinked her eyes several times and looked around at the adventurers beside her as if seeing them for the first time.

"Miss Nightsky - are you all right?" Skevros asked in concern.

"Yes, fine," Orion answered, absently reaching down for her sword. She could see streams of light branching throughout the bodies of her adventuring partners, a fine pattern of electrical fire with the occasional accumulation into a larger mass; the halfling realized these were the locations of the areas on a humanoid body where the most damage could be dealt, as she had been trained by her weapons instructor. Then she looked over to Skevros. His body had no such lightning; instead, there were a series of black lines tracing throughout his body like a series of veins, with throbbing organs beating like miniature hearts that traveled here and there. With dawning comprehension, the halfling realized she was looking at the negative energy that gave undead beings their semblances of life. Furthermore, she surmised, if she were to strike an undead creature into one of those "mini-hearts" she was fairly certain it would affect them the same way it affected a living being when she struck it at a critical point of its body.

"Would you like me to teleport you all to the Viridian Grove?" offered Skevros.

"Not quite yet," answered Daleth. "I need time to prepare my spells for the day."

"As do I," replied Galen. While they went back upstairs to do that, the others gathered around the table for a quick breakfast. Karen was put to work cleaning up the rest of the ashes while Carl looked on in interest. Skevros examined the crystal rose the nymph had left behind - or possibly even transformed into. "This is a channeling wand," he announced. "It allows low-level divine spells to be converted to arcane spells, and vice versa. Fire-based spells, as a matter of fact. Produce flame, flame blade, burnings hands, and scorching ray, to be specific."

"That right?" grunted Syngaard, returning his attention to his morning's first tankard of ale.

Once the spellcasters had rejoined the group and had a bite to eat, Skevros teleported them to the Viridian Grove. They appeared at the edge of a small grove; three purple-trunked oak trees stood in a triangle around a small pile of ashes in the middle. Orion instantly recognized it from her dream, although in her dream the pile of ashes had been a living rose bush and she thought she remembered the whole area being greener than it currently was.

Kaspar took several tentative steps forward, senses alert for danger. But his elven ears picked up nothing unusual and his elven eyes saw nothing out of place - not even any unusual coloration, for the leaves of the oak trees were as blue as any other tree in the Azure Glade. Galen examined the auras of the area, concentrating on the tree farthest from him. Oddly, of the three oaks, only it radiated evil. Galen puzzled how a tree, of all things, could be evil. He strode towards it, sword in hand, casting a protection from evil spell upon himself as he did so.

Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself but opted to stay right where he was until something happened to indicate where any potential enemies might be.

Syngaard didn't have that kind of patience. Morningstar in hand - for in his dreams he'd been fighting enemies with that particular weapon - he roared a challenge and rushed at the tree to his right, swinging his arm back to bash the spiked weapon head into the gnarled truck. But with his shield up in a blocking maneuver - although what he was anticipating having to block was anybody's guess, given he was charging an oak tree - he missed spotting a thick root poking up above ground and tripped, falling flat on his face into the dirt by the trunk. It took all of Kaspar's training not to burst out laughing at the bald fighter's pratfall.

Orion, mounted upon Carl, reached into her bag of holding and pulled out a tanglefoot bag. Swinging it around her head for added momentum, she hurled it at the tree to her left, where it hit and splattered, oozing goop along its facing side. "Good job," smirked Daleth. "Guaranteed that tree won't be going anywhere soon."

But then the enemies made their appearance. Three comely women stepped out of the trio of oak trees, the one at Orion's left doing so from the rear side of the tree to avoid the tanglefoot goo adhered to the other side of her living home. She cast a flame strike spell, causing flames to cascade down from above over Orion and Carl, Galen, and Kaspar. The monk twisted and dodged, avoiding the flames altogether; Galen had no such training and just toughed it out. But the spell was too much for poor Carl, who, overcome by the flames of the spell, gave a whine of frustration as his incorporeal body faded from view. Once again, Orion found herself sitting in a saddle in midair as it plummeted to the ground. She rolled with the impact, landing on her feet, hardly singed at all due to the protections of her magic amulet.

But the other dryads were also attacking. The one stepping out from the tree that had just narrowly missed the whupping of a lifetime by Syngaard's clumsy misstep had a sickle in hand and brought it down upon the prone fighter; fortunately for Syngaard, his mithral breastplate deflected most of the damage. The third dryad cast a produce flame spell, tossing a ball of fiery energy at Galen.

That turned out to be a mistake. Catching the flaming missile upon his shield, Galen charged forward, stabbing with the sword of Zehkar in a smiting attack at the dryad he could clearly see had an aura tainted with evil.

Daleth stood back, out of melee range. But, calculating the distances between him and his allies with a moment's glance, he cast a haste spell encompassing all of the heroes. That would surely provide the heroes an added advantage!

Spitting dirt and curses, Syngaard regained his feet and swung his morningstar at the dryad before him. He didn't have the aura-reading abilities of a paladin, but he didn't need them - anyone who took a swing at him was fair game! His spiked weapon hit the dryad in the side, eliciting a cry of pain. Syngaard just smirked in satisfaction.

Orion stepped forward and attacked the dryad who had just killed her ghost dog. (Well, Carl would surely remanifest in the days to come, but still, that wasn't the point!) Her flaming short sword cut deep into the dryad's torso and the halfling smiled at seeing that fey creatures bled just as easily as mere mortals.

Kaspar raced forward into a flanking position with Syngaard, striking at the dryad with his tenryutsume. His striking fist brought with it a burst of electricity and the searing pain of fire. But she was facing Syngaard and was already striking at him with her sickle, which the bald fighter easily deflected off his shield.

Orion's dryad opponent took a step back from the halfling and cast another flame strike, this one encompassing Syngaard, Kaspar, and Daleth - it also caught the dryad attacking Syngaard, but that was apparently not a concern for the spellcasting fey, assured of her sister's ability to resist the fire damage of her spell. Syngaard and Daleth cried out in pain, while Kaspar once again avoided all damage by rapid-fire maneuvering around the spell's effects.

Galen took another ball of fire from his foe's produce flame spell but instantly retaliated with another smite attack, nearly dropping the dryad where she stood. Orion, seeing an opening, raced around the grove to attack Galen's opponent from behind, using her increased speed from Daleth's haste spell to get into position and strike silently with a sneak attack before the hapless dryad even saw her coming. Orion's blade sunk deep and when she pulled it out, the dryad fell to the ground, dead.

Daleth cast a scorching ray at the foe Orion had originally been fighting, causing her to hiss in pain and retreat temporarily back into her tree. Syngaard brought his morningstar crashing down upon his own designated foe, dropping her to one knee from the power of his blows. Kaspar attacked her with a flurry of blows, taking her out instantly.

For a moment, there were no enemies on the field of battle. That changed once the sole remaining dryad had caught her breath (and possibly engaged in some healing magic while inside her tree), springing back into the grove to fight her foes. (Of course, the fact that Galen had poured a flask of oil onto the trunk of her tree and stepped back to allow Daleth to cast an empowered fireball spell upon it might have had something to do with the matter - as a dryad, the death of her tree meant the end of her own life, so she had nothing to lose at that point.) She targeted Daleth upon exiting the tree - likely in retaliation for the fireball spell that currently had her home blazing in a full conflagration - casting a contagion spell on the elf that robbed him of his vision. "I can't see!" he called out to his friends.

Unseen by the elf, Galen stepped up to the dryad and swung his longsword at her. But then Daleth retaliated with a color spray spell that caught the dryad within its arc of effect - and, unfortunately, Galen as well. But both dryad and paladin were able to shrug off the worst of the spell's effects, leaving both locked in combat with each other.

But there were other combatants at hand, and the dryad didn't have much of a chance for victory at this point. Syngaard ran over and sent his morningstar crashing down upon one shapely shoulder; Orion raced up from the other direction and stabbed out with her flaming short sword in a flanking maneuver the dryad didn't see coming. For the second time that morning, Orion's fiery blade caused the death of one of their enemies - and, quite fittingly, this was the dryad who had slain her dog!

The dryads slain, the heroes set about setting fire to the other two trees, heeding the voice from Syngaard's dream that "rebirth can only arise after death." They also examined the slain dryads for anything of value, stripping from them several useful magical items: a pair of gloves made of hardened bark that were nonetheless as supple as leather, and which increased the wearer's strength; a cloak that increased the force of the wearer's personality, and a small pearl on a golden chain that Kaspar claimed for himself, stating it would help him achieve the clarity of mind to better anticipate the incoming attacks of enemies.

Then the heroes dragged each of the dryads over to their individual trees, allowing them to lean against the trunks and have their bodies burned to ashes along with their homes. They kept watch as the grove burned but no one intervened - the Viridian Grove was apparently too far away from the beaten track for there to be any wanderers nearby.

After the flames had died down, leaving skeletal remains against blackened trunks, the heroes returned to Durnhill via their ring of returning, which Orion fished out of her bag of holding.

- - -

Logan had anticipated everyone liking the treasure gained in this combat, but he miscalculated slightly: the gloves, which granted a +4 Strength bonus and had been intended for Syngaard, were useless to him as he already has a +4 Strength bonus granted by his belt of giant strength and the two don't stack. So Galen gained a +4 Strength bonus from the gloves and a +4 bonus to Charisma from the cloak, while Kaspar gained a +4 to Wisdom from the periapt. Daleth gained the indigo rose channeling wand and Orion gained the ability to sneak attack undead creatures.

And Syngaard? He got nothing - not even a copper piece. But at least he wasn't turned into a damned halfling, so I guess that's something.
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 8
Galen Thorne, human paladin 10
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 10
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 9
Syngaard, human fighter 10​

Game Session Date: 28 November 2018

- - -

"So what's up?" asked Syngaard, as usual the last to appear at the Enchanted Flagon as the result of a summons from Skevros. He got an ale from Karen before joining the others at the table. Skevros had two opened books before him: Hirek's spellbook, recently recovered by the conscripts in one of his old golem construction labs hidden away in the Baator's Breath Mountains; and the Black Journal, his own accounts during the time he'd been turned to evil after donning a helmet of opposite alignment. This latter work had been recovered by the conscripts in Skevros's manor house in the Azure Glade, before he'd been able to travel there under his own power. There was also a map of a section of some dungeon and a cloth bag.

In answer to Syngaard's initial question, Skevros dumped the contents of the bag onto the table, revealing ten emeralds. In response to Syngaard's unspoken question - before the scarred fighter even had a chance to voice it - Skevros turned to him and said, "Yes, this is a paying mission. Here is your payment up front. And you are also welcome to any treasures you might unearth in the area to which I will send you."

Each of the heroes grabbed up a pair of the emeralds. Syngaard was suitably impressed. "I like this mission already," he admitted.

"May we ask the parameters of our assignment?" asked Kaspar.

"Certainly. In Hirek's spellbook there is a section on the creation of golems. One form of golem in particular stood out to me, due to the reagents required in its creation - reagents I have only heard of once before, specifically within the Black Journal. I believe that while I was evil - under the effects of the helmet - I either built or attempted to build an astral golem."

"Golem?" echoed Galen. "I have heard of such creatures. They are said to be difficult to destroy."

"Indeed," agreed Daleth. "Typically, most spells have no effect on such constructs." The elf scowled, not liking the thought of having to go up against a creature likely immune to most of his spells.

"According to Hirek's writings on the subject, an astral golem is an altered version of a normal golem that, instead of using an elemental spirit to power it, uses an astral projection. It therefore functions more like a suit of armor for a powerful mage rather than as a traditional golem. With the notes in the Black Journal, I only know that I procured the reagents necessary to build one, not what type of base golem I would have made."

"Say what now?" asked Syngaard. "What's a base golem?"

Daleth looked disdainfully at the bald fighter. "There are many types of golem, the traditional ones being crafted of stone, clay, iron, or even flesh," he explained. "The astral golem might have been constructed to look like any of these golems, and might even be indistinguishable from the normal type of whatever golem it was patterned after."

"Quite so," agreed Skevros. "With my exile so recently modified by the Council of Guilds, I have been visiting my old home of late and found a secret room in my basement, one that wasn't there before my fall to evil and for which I have no recollection. Within, I found notes about converting an old dungeon I once visited during my adventuring days into a workshop. Scrying upon several old sites I had visited in the past, I found one of the dungeons shielded from scrying. I can only imagine that is the probable location of my workshop."

"And you wish us to visit this location?" reasoned Orion.

"Indeed. Your mission is to check out the workshop and determine if I did in fact complete an astral golem. If so, bring it back if possible, but destroy it rather than let it fall into the hands of anyone else. After all, I believe its purpose was likely to be used to find the Mithral Mage within 'Dwarven Hell' and it is therefore too dangerous a tool to allow the Seekers of Eternity to obtain."

"You can teleport us directly there?" asked Kaspar.

"I can. Having been there before, I should be able to deposit you anywhere within the dungeon's confines." He pushed the sketch of the dungeon he'd made: three separate rooms each connected by doors to an oblong central chamber. At Orion's prompting, Skevros further explained what he knew about each room. "This room contained some sort of magic circle inscribed upon the floor," he said, indicating the southernmost room. "It was blocked off from the main chamber by a wall of force, as was the northernmost room. That one held a desk and several bookshelves, mostly empty as I recall."

"And the eastern room?" asked Orion.

"It was a bedroom, I believe. This whole area was the dwelling place of a wizard of some repute."

"Where is it located?" asked Galen.

"The Azure Glade."

"That figures," scoffed Syngaard, finishing off his ale. "Can't seem to stay away from that damn place."

"Well, at least there will be no trudging involved," replied Skevros with a half-smile. "I'll teleport you there and you can return with the ring of returning once you've checked it out."

"Let's get our prep spells in place," suggested Galen, casting a protection from evil spell upon himself. Daleth followed suit with a magic circle against evil spell. Then Orion called Carl to her and climbed up into his saddle, everyone gathered close together, and Skevros cast the spell that sent them instantaneously across the miles to the central chamber of the dungeon depicted on his map.

There was a wall of force in place behind the heroes blocking access to the central chamber from the mountainside beyond, but the two similar spells Skevros had described were no longer present. However, there were wooden double doors in their place, leading to the northern and southern rooms. Another set of double doors led to what would be the wizard's bed chamber, at the far end of the chamber to the east. The place was unlit save for the ever-changing colors of four glowing, blobby spheres floating in the air above a quartet of plinths, two flanking each set of doors to the north and south. The conscripts recognized these as prismatic oozes, having seen them in place in Skevros's manor when they had first entered it.

"That's a good indicator that Skevros made this place his own," Orion suggested.

"Yeah, when he went all evil," Syngaard sneered. "Only he don't remember that part too good, so we gotta go check out stuff he oughta already know."

"Well, he's explained that the wish spell his wife cast to return him to his normal mental state erased the memories of what he'd done in the months--" the halfling began, only to be cut off by the scarred fighter.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever."

Kaspar examined the floating prismatic oozes. "They aren't attacking," he noted. "I assume they sense the rings we wear, which are attuned to Skevros."

"Don't really care so much about the why," sneered Syngaard. "Just glad they're stayin' put." He had his morningstar in hand, ready to attack, just in case.

Orion had climbed back down out of the saddle and approached the northern door with a practiced eye. Seeing no obvious traps, she touched the doorknob. It was locked, but unlocked with an audible "click" upon her touch.

"I didn't even see you use your lockpicks," observed Kaspar.

"That's because I didn't even have a chance to do so!" the halfling answered. But then another "click" indicated the door had automatically relocked itself; apparently it remained unlocked only for a brief moment before locking itself again if the door wasn't opened in that time.

"I'm going in," Orion announced, touching the doorknob again, waiting for the "click," and then opening the door.

Galen, in the meantime, approached the doors to the wizard's bedroom to the east. The doors unlocked at his touch, revealing a desk covered with jars of inks and paints directly before him. There was a small chest on the floor next to the desk, while the walls on the northern half of the room were mirrored, flanking a table. Lying facedown on this table, unmoving, was a humanoid figure with long, white-blond hair, apparently wearing plate armor of some kind of whitish material.

Seeing no obvious threat in the room, Galen backed out and closed the door quietly behind him. Then he returned to the others, who had crowded into the study Orion had opened. There were no sounds of combat, the paladin was glad to hear. Entering the room with the others, Galen saw a room with bookshelves covering two opposite walls, filled with journals written by someone with the initials "S.D." A single book stood out from the others by its different binding, the title "A Study on Advanced and Archaic Golem Construction" written upon its spine. Examining it, Orion said, "It's written by Khier - the name being used by the ghost of Hirek."

"Guy likes his golems," Syngaard observed.

One of the journals was sitting on the desk in the middle of the room. Orion examined it next, flipping it to its last entry, which read:

They all hate me. Red hates me. Little Red is scared when I move. The Broken Man hates me. The fey don't like me. Maybe I'll stay here forever, since she'll never come home.

The rest of the journal entries seemed to have a common theme of the writer waiting for someone to return.

"Shall we?" asked Galen, departing the study and heading to the room directly across the central chamber. It unlocked at his touch, and to his surprise when he opened it he was faced by three people, all of whom he recognized, and who were equally as surprised at the paladin's sudden appearance. The first two of these were a woman and a man, Sienna and Averos, the Ossirnian mercenaries who had tried setting off a war between their kingdom and Durnhill. The woman wore plate mail and had her vicious greatsword at the ready, while the man, in combat leathers, had a rapier hanging from his belt.

And the third figure was Skevros himself, who rose quickly from his seated position in the middle of the magic circle inscribed on the floor.

"Wha--?" began Galen in confusion. He instinctively detected their auras for signs of evil, and at the first indication that there was evil present he stepped back and closed the door behind him, hearing it automatically lock as he did so.

"Let us out!" came the muffled cries from inside the room, indicating the trio couldn't open the doors by themselves. Galen summoned his bonded mount from the Beastlands, and as Burt materialized in the chamber, the paladin ordered him to guard the door.

"Evil Skevros is in there, along with two of the Ossirnians who tried to start the war in the Treaty Keep, with Gumruk," Galen explained to the others.

"Evil Skevros? How is that even possible?" asked Orion.

"It isn't," replied Daleth. "He's an impostor, or an illusion, no doubt. But it would seem combat is imminent." And then the elven wizard cast a haste spell upon all of his companions, animal or otherwise.

But then a "click" announced the door unlocking and there stood Skevros; it made sense that the door would open to him, if he had been the one to craft it. "What are you doing here?" he demanded as he opened the door - and then came to an abrupt halt once he spotted the full-sized dire lion staring him down from the other side of the doorway. Behind Burt, Syngaard sized up his foes, determined they all looked to be human, and switched out his morningstar for his human bane scimitar. If any of them got past the dire lion, he'd be ready for them!

Averos stepped up beside Skevros, flaming rapier in hand, ready to fight the dire lion if it attacked. But then Kaspar squeezed past Burt, standing immediately before Skevros. "Why are you here?" he asked, wishing to start a discussion rather than a combat, if at all possible.

There was no recognition in Skevros's eyes as he stared at the monk, which, Kaspar realized, would be perfectly natural for the wizard if he was in fact the same Skevros from back in time when he had been evil. But how could he be here now? And if he were the same Skevros from earlier in his life, did the party dare kill him without also slaying their own, later-in-time Skevros? Kaspar hoped this was some sort of impostor - it made things so much easier if that were the case!

"We just want to leave this place," replied Skevros. "Step aside, all of you, and we'll let you live."

"Dunno if you noticed, bright boy, but it's five against three - and that's not counting our dire lion or our ghost dog," Syngaard countered. "Howzabout you drop them weapons to the ground while we figure out what to do with you?"

Neither of the trio seemed willing to comply. Orion therefore struck the first blow with a thunderstone thrown into the middle of the room. There was a sudden explosion of sound and both men grabbed the sides of their heads. From the noises they made, they seemed to have been deafened by the sonic attack. (Sienna had also winced in pain at the burst of sound but had apparently shrugged off the worst of the effects.)

Sienna was the first from her group to react, rushing forward with her vicious greatsword and swinging it at Kaspar with all of her strength behind the blow. Kaspar stepped back just in time to avoid the worst of it, but it still scored a line of blood down his chest. Sienna shuddered as the backlash from her magic blade sent a wave of harmful energy her way, but it merely drew an unsettling smile from her. Did she actually enjoy the pain using her blade caused her?

"Back, Burt!" called Galen, wanting the dire lion's bulk out of the way so the others could approach and fight. Burt obeyed, scooting to the side as his master approached, the sword of Zehkar in hand. Galen noted the mercenaries' auras blazed with unmistakable evil, but Skevros - or, more accurately, his impostor - had an aura untainted by evil. He thus made his first strikes against Sienna, channeling the holy power of his god through his sword as he brought a smiting attack against the young fighter. Sienna took the blow and seemed to enjoy the pain it brought. She was a weird one, all right!

Daleth raised his staff of divination and cast a true seeing spell. With his enhanced vision, he could now see that Averos and Sienna looked the same as ever, save for a silvery "tail" trailing behind each. The Skevros impostor, however, seemed to be made of porcelain with blue runes around the edges of its face and all over its jointed hands. It also had a silvery cord leading off from its back. "They're astral projections!" Daleth called out to the others. "And Skevros -- he's the astral golem!"

"Our orders were clear," Syngaard called out. "Bring it back if we can, otherwise destroy it!" The grin on his scarred face expressed his pleasure at getting to destroy the thing.

Skevros countered with a flame strike spell encompassing Kaspar, Galen, and Syngaard, although the monk's training allowed him to evade the evil flames altogether. Not so the other two, who took the full force of the spell. Syngaard grunted and prepared to charge into the room, but Daleth held him back. "I shall cast a fireball into the room!" he warned. Syngaard just growled in frustration - he didn't see why he had to stay back from the action just because Wizard-Pants wanted to get in some of his flashy spells - but he acquiesced, settling with hurling his javelin of returning at Sienna. Once again, she seemed to enjoy the pain of combat, the little freak!

Averos thrust the point of his flaming rapier at Galen, but Kaspar, still under the effects of Daleth's haste spell, threw so many punches and kicks at the mercenary rogue in rapid-fire succession that his astral form collapsed into itself. The monk realized the real Averos, wherever he was, was perfectly fine but at least he was no longer a factor in this fight.

Orion tossed an electrified dagger from her bag of blades at Sienna, who once again seemed to enjoy it. The fighter turned to face Galen and brought her vicious greatsword down on the paladin, seeming to draw as much pleasure from her own pain as harming her enemy. Galen staggered back from the blow and then, finding himself next to Syngaard, decided to cast a bull's strength spell on the scarred fighter. "I've increased your strength," he informed Syngaard. "The power of Hieroneous will enhance your strikes!"

"Don't feel no different," Syngaard grunted in reply, for the spell had indeed been wasted as Syngaard already wore a magic belt that increased his strength - and by a larger amount than Galen's spell would have granted. But while those two had been thus involved, Daleth cast his fireball spell into the room, channeling it through his metamagic rod to increase its effectiveness. The fiery blast destroyed Sienna's astral body but seemed to have no effect on the ersatz Skevros - if anything, it seemed to have made him even more powerful than before! Belatedly, Daleth recalled his own worries earlier, back at the Enchanted Flagon, that many golems were unaffected by most spells - and now he recalled that some of them even drew power from certain energy attacks! Well, now he knew not to use fire spells against an astral golem...a good thing to know.

Skevros, grinning wildly, cast an unholy blight spell that would have encompassed every hero he was up against...if he hadn't fumbled the spell due to his lingering deafness from Orion's initial thunderstone. His triumphant expression turned to one of disdain as he realized he had failed to cast the spell at all.

The party surged forward, attacking the astral golem from all four sides. Blades struck it, fists and elbows struck it, but altogether they seemed to be dealing it very little damage, no doubt at least partially due to the increase in power Daleth's fireball had provided the astral golem. Galen was forced to heal himself after a particularly effective blow from the astral golem's fists, which struck like a catapult's thrown stone. Finally, in an act of desperation, Daleth tried casting a dispel magic spell onto the golem. A look of shock crossed the face of the fake Skevros as the astral golem powered down, the astral form that had granted it its movement dissipating away to nothingness as the unknown caster's animating spirit was cast back into its physical body.

"Good job, Wizard-Pants!" affirmed Galen, slapping the wizard on the shoulder.

"Yeah, it almost makes up for that boneheaded move with the fireball," Syngaard added.

"You did well," Orion said. "You not only defeated our last - and most powerful - foe, but you also kept the astral golem intact! We can bring it back to Skevros to check out!" Mounted on Carl for the additional height, she dropped the opening of her bag of holding over the astral golem's head, drawing the entire construct into its extradimensional space.

"Let's go check out that last room," Galen suggested. He led the way to the room he'd peeked into earlier, with the blond-haired suit of white armor on the table.

Surprisingly, the figure was no longer facedown on the table but upright by the desk. It spun around, and Daleth - whose true seeing spell was still intact - could see a small, silvery cord floating out of the figure's torso. The blue runes all over the porcelain plates suggested this was a second astral golem; Skevros had likely been able to make them both at the same time, especially since both were merely the size of a man and most golems were much larger.

Kaspar, trying to avoid a fight if possible, asked, "Who are you? We have no desire to fight you." The fact that it had been in a separate room from the others allowed the elven monk to hope it hadn't been associated with the Ossirnian mercenaries and whoever had been powering the other astral golem.

In response, the figure looked rapidly at each of the party members in turn; getting a good look at its face, Kaspar realized (with a small amount of discomfort) that it bore a remarkable resemblance to Dow, the homunculus familiar Skevros had created to look after his daughter. The figure then held up a hand in a "wait" gesture before turning back to the desk and pulling out two scrolls. She gave these to Daleth, pantomiming that he should cast them upon her.

After a read magic spell allowed the elf to understand the scrolls' contents, he announced they contained the spells silent image and major image. "Well, go ahead!" prompted Orion.

Casting the first spell caused the illusion of the astral golem's plate mail construction to seem to flow into a single piece of unbroken (but bendable) porcelain, hiding the joints and the runes covering her body. The second spell allowed the figure to talk and change facial expressions.

"Thank you," said Dow - and it was recognizably the same voice as that of Skevros's foot-tall homunculus, which as far as anybody knew was still back at the Enchanted Flagon - or at least the extradimensional rooms the king's adviser kept in the back. But this raised even more questions: How did Skevros's familiar learn how to astrally project itself? How can a construct astrally project itself in the first place? And why would evil Skevros have made a human-sized Dow body for his familiar to project into?

"How did you get here?" Dow asked. "And why are you all so small?"

"So small?" asked Orion. "What do you mean?"

"You're all my size."

Sudden understanding struck the halfling. "We're not your size, Dow," she explained. "You're our size!" Dow looked down at her arms and back to the group. "All this time?" she asked in amazement. "I've been human-sized all this time?" She had assumed her master had made these rooms - and the astral golem she currently inhabited - scaled to that of her normal body.

Dow was short on explanations for now, eager to return to her master at the Enchanted Flagon, but she explained that she'd routinely spent time here in this body when she wasn't otherwise needed. Furthermore, the journals in the other room - spanning 32 years in all - had all been scribed by her.

"So you're 'S.D.'?" Orion asked.

"Yes," answered Dow. "'Sarah's Doll'." She sighed heavily - or at least seemed to, given she was nothing more than a magical construct given the appearance of a living being.

"I don't think she's ever coming back."

- - -

Logan further explained the last entries in Dow's journal: "Red" and "Little Red" were Dow's terms for Maria Quillbender and Hope Syngaard; "the Broken Man" was Syngaard himself, describing the scars on his face; "the fey" were Daleth and Kaspar, both of whom had an aversion to the doll-construct that spoke like a little girl as she had been intended as a plaything for a little girl, Skevros's own young daughter Sarah.

We're not sure who was inhabiting the "Skevros" astral golem, given that he was casting cleric spells at us and the third Ossirnian mercenary we encountered at the Treaty Keep was a wizard. But I'm sure we'll meet up with him again soon enough.

There were some goodies in the chest by the desk: a pair of boots of levitation which went to Syngaard, a necklace of adaptation that Orion claimed, a lesser metamagic rod of silent spell that went to Daleth, and a ring of sustenance that Galen took. There was also a helmet in there that turned out to be nonmagical; Skevros turned as white as a ghost when he saw it, as it was the (now unpowered) helm of opposite alignment that had turned him evil all those years ago.

And fighting astral bodies is a sure-fire way to allow the PCs to kill their enemies without actually killing them! Good one, Logan!



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 8
Galen Thorne, human paladin 10
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 10
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 10
Syngaard, human fighter 10​

Game Session Date: 5 December 2018

- - -

For once, the summons coming from the rings they wore occurred while the group was out and about attending to their own individual duties, so Syngaard wasn't the last to arrive; instead, the conscripts showed up at the Enchanted Flagon at more or less the same time and entered the tavern as a group. As expected, Skevros was already in place at the round table. Not as expected were the five large emeralds on the table, one at each of the other seats.

The group each took their seats; Syngaard immediately picked up his emerald and examined it. "This is half of what we got last time," he complained.

"Quite so. However, that is merely a part of your payment for this mission. King Leornic is willing to pay you an additional nine emeralds upon completion of the task."

"Each?" asked Syngaard hopefully.

"Each," confirmed Skevros. That shut Syngaard up as he gave the king's adviser his full attention. The emeralds were each easily worth a full thousand pieces of gold - with nine more of them, the bald fighter would be able to purchase that item he'd had his eye on at that magic shop....

"I would infer the king's willingness to pay that much from the kingdom's treasury indicates the inherent danger of the mission," Daleth spoke up.

"And in that you would be correct," admitted Skevros. "The Azure Glade illusionists hunted down a pair of Seekers and chased them to a boulder where the Seekers said something about a mithral key and then disappeared into the boulder. Leorna, the Guildmaster of Illusion, thought it best to pass this information on to us that we might deal with the situation. After all, her group deals primarily in illusions - and is thus not particularly skilled in combat situations. Whereas we are much better suited to deal with the situation at hand."

"So we're getting paid this much just to go kill two Seekers?" Syngaard asked. "Not that I'm complainin', mind you."

"It's very likely those two are not alone. The boulder is very probably the doorway to a stronghold - or at least, one would imagine, a safe house. In any case, its loss would be a considerable blow to the Seekers of Eternity and thus, in the interests of safety to the kingdom of Durnhill, King Leornic deems it prudent for us to take care of the situation at once."

"I assume you have already scried upon the boulder in question?" asked Kaspar.

"I have tried. I cannot get a good 'read' on the actual boulder - likely because it is in fact not really there, but rather an illusion - but I have gotten a good viewing of the area around it. (The 'boulder' appears as a fuzzy, indistinct spot when I scry upon the area.) But I feel confident I will be able to teleport you directly to the area. From that point, you are to find a way through this boulder and wipe out any and all of the Seekers of Eternity you find within. I would also ask that you search the place for any evidence of their future plans."

"And if we go there and there are no Seekers within?" asked Orion.

"Then you must make do with the payment already received." Syngaard immediately frowned at the words of the king's adviser. He'd already pocketed his emerald but was already anticipating nine more just like it. There had damn well better be some Seekers for him to clear out of their boulder hideout!

"Is everyone ready?" asked Daleth.

"Hang on - I'm going to go get Carl!" said Orion, scooting down from her chair and running upstairs to fetch the ghost of her riding dog and get him saddled up. Syngaard took the opportunity to have Karen fetch him a mug of ale from the bar. Upon their return - the halfling now perched upon the ghost touch saddle that allowed her to ride her incorporeal mount - Galen decided to summon his dire lion companion from the celestial realms. "To me, Burt!" he called, and the massive feline's form manifested in the back of the tavern. Sensing their imminent departure, Syngaard hastily finished his drink.

Once everyone had gathered together, Skevros wished them good fortune and cast his teleport spell. Syngaard tightened his grip on his trusty morningstar, ready for action in case there were any Seekers about upon their arrival.

Normally, during a teleport spell no time seemed to pass at all - you were first in one location and then you were somewhere else, all in the blink of an eye. Not so this time: there was a feeling of the individual party members being pulled away from each other, accompanied by the sounds of diabolical laughter. But then they were in their new location - only it wasn't anything like Skevros had described.

It was nearly pitch black, for one thing. The elves, with their better vision, readjusted more rapidly to the decreased level of illumination and soon realized the darkness was due simply to it now being in the middle of the night - although it had been mid-morning upon their departure. Daleth looked around and saw he was surrounded by strange, straight-trunked growths rising up from the ground in all directions. Kaspar saw the same thing from his own point of view from wherever he was - for the two elves were no longer right by each other - but the monk immediately recognized the growths as bamboo. He knew bamboo grew nowhere near the kingdom of Durnhill; that fact, plus the irrefutable fact it was now night, led Kaspar to the realization they were likely somewhere on the other side of the world.

Orion, Galen, Carl, and Burt were each likewise separated from the rest of the group, surrounded by bamboo in all directions. For whatever reason, the group's teleport spell had not only shunted them halfway around the world but had also scattered them across a wider area and now they were each separated from each other. The human paladin and halfling rogue each immediately called out for their respective mounts.

Syngaard found himself likewise separated from the rest of the group but he at least had a slightly different view. There were bamboo forests on either side of him but he stood upon a road, out in the open. Before him was a small, wooden bridge spanning a narrow stream and upon the bridge stood four figures. The two in the front wore armor that seemed both strange to the seasoned fighter yet still somewhat familiar - but in the confusion of the moment, Syngaard couldn't immediately recall where he'd seen such exotic armor before. One of the two armored soldiers - women, now that he got a better look at them - held a metal rod with a glowing spherical flame at its end, casting the quartet in reddish illumination. Behind these two stood a man in robes, which Syngaard assumed was some sort of wizard, and another woman, this one wearing the same sort of loose robes and pants worn by Kaspar.

"Guys!" called out Syngaard, not at all concerned that this might catch the attention of the quartet on the bridge, for they were already facing his way and the glow from his own magic morningstar made it difficult for him not to be seen in the darkness of the night. "We got possible enemies on the road over here - maybe the ones who brought us here!" Syngaard didn't waste time trying to figure out how these four had sabotaged Skevros's teleport spell (the workings of magic were way beyond the fighter's ability to understand), but the fact of the matter was that this wasn't where they were supposed to have ended up, so somebody was responsible! Still, showing good sense for once, Syngaard opted not to charge into battle against these strangers, for they might not be enemies after all, might not even be the ones responsible for their hijacking - and anyway, it was four-against-one odds at present and who knew how far away the others might be?

The four on the bridge called out to Syngaard in some unknown language, which only increased the belief in the fighter's head that they were way, way farther away from that fake boulder than they were supposed to be. When Syngaard didn't react as they had anticipated - they had probably commanded him to throw down his weapons or something - one of the fighters in front pulled out a curved sword from her belt and the other wielded her weird rod-with-a-ball-of-fire-at-its-tip, each striking a defensive stance as if expecting the scarred fighter to charge at them. The male in the back row also pulled out a katana, while the fourth figure just suddenly disappeared, although whether she had teleported or turned invisible Syngaard had no way of knowing.

"Guys?" he called out again, a slight tremor of fear in his voice. Four against one odds were bad enough, but throw in some invisibility and weird weapons and the bald fighter was definitely looking for some support from his companions!

Kaspar had heard Syngaard's first call and started running in the direction from which it came. He burst suddenly out of the bamboo forest and onto the road, behind the trio visible on the wooden bridge. He too struck a defensive pose, ready to strike out at any who would attack him.

Galen had heard Syngaard's call as well but hadn't been able to pinpoint the direction from which it had come, so he called out for Burt again and smiled when he heard the lion give a roar in reply. The bamboo stalks between Syngaard and the samurai suddenly parted as a dire lion went crashing out of the forest, raced across the road, and dove into the forest at the other side. Apparently Burt had showed up off to Syngaard's left and Galen was in the forest to Syngaard's right, but that didn't help the scarred fighter any in the meantime! "Stupid lion!" Syngaard growled. What use was having a dire lion in the group if it wasn't going to help you fight your enemies?

But the potential enemies were shouting in surprise as well, for they had not expected to see a massive lion come crashing out of the bamboo forest like it had. These forests had a reputation for being haunted by demons - perhaps the reputation was well-earned?

Daleth could see light from the direction of the shouting and was heading in that direction when he encountered an unexpected sight: a lone, unconscious woman stripped of all gear and clothing and tied to a particularly wide growth of bamboo, with a pair of sheathed blades - one longer than the other - placed tantalizingly just out of reach. In the dim starlight he could just make out the misty silhouette of Carl further in the woods. Whoever this woman was, she could wait - she wasn't in any particular danger and had no wounds upon her body. The elven wizard cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself, anticipating impending combat, and headed in the direction of the shouting.

"<Did you see the demon lion?>" asked Kitome, her katana raised to fend off any attacks should the beast return - or should the ugly, bald demon on the road ahead move to attack. She spoke in the native tongue of her homeland.

"<I did,>" replied Akiko, the flaming brilliant energy morningstar in her hand likewise ready to strike. "<We must stand ready to defend the lord's son from all enemies.>"

"Carl!" came Orion's repeated cry and the ghost-dog went bounding off to find his mistress. The halfling heard Carl's barks of reply before he came bounding from the bamboo forest and onto the bank of the stream. She met him from the other side of the stream and he happily ran above the water - his ghostly paws never once even getting wet - and Orion leaped into the saddle, glad to be reunited once again with her trusty companion. "Let's go!" she called, steering him along the stream toward the road bisecting the forest, where she could see three strangers with weapons drawn and readied for battle.

Syngaard approached the strangers warily, calling out to them (in a language none of them understood), "If you're responsible for us being here, you're gonna pay for interferin'!" He wished desperately that Galen was here; the paladin, with his ability to sense the inherent evilness of enemies, usually pointed out who the scarred fighter should attack. "Galen!" he called. "Are we fightin' these guys, or what?" Lacking any immediate resolution, Syngaard slowly approached the trio on the bridge, his human bane scimitar raised for action and shield raised in defense. (Having seen the trio before him were all apparently human, the fighter had hastily switched weapons as he approached.)

Nene suddenly reappeared behind Kaspar, her invisibility spell canceled as soon as she threw the pair of poisoned shuriken at the elven monk. Kaspar instinctively ducked one of the throwing stars but the other one struck true, its envenomed points stabbing deeply into the monk's shoulder. But then Kaspar reached over and plucked it from his body, tossing it disdainfully aside, mentally fortifying his body to reject the poison it contained.

The sudden combat had not gone unnoticed. Lord Shirimono barked an order to Kitome while pointing at the elven monk and the samurai nodded her willingness to do her Lord's bidding. Kaspar didn't notice her preparing to run up behind him; he was busy retaliating against Nene with a pair of shuriken of his own. While his lacked poison, his tenryutsume imbued the throwing stars with the powers of both fire and electricity, causing Nene to cry out in pain as each struck.

Galen, reunited with Burt, leaped upon the dire lion's broad back and followed the path of trampled bamboo Burt had left in his wake back to the road. The paladin's senses detected evil coming from the direction of Syngaard and the three people on the bridge before him. "Evil!" he cried out for the fighter's benefit.

"'Bout damn time!" Syngaard muttered to himself. He saw the samurai with their readied weapons and knew they were expecting him to go charging into them like a madman, so he did something he hoped would be unexpected: the threw his returning javelin at the one carrying the "miniature sun on a stick" (he wasn't overly eager to find out exactly what that weird weapon could do), and then closed the distance between them but stopped just far enough away to allow him to get in a good strike if either of the trio tried attacking him. He reached out with his shield hand and caught the returning magic javelin, keeping his scimitar ready to strike in his right.

Daleth suddenly exited the bamboo grove on the bank opposite Orion and Carl. Seeing the three enemies and having heard Galen's cry depicting them as evil, he channeled an empowered fireball spell through his metamagic rod. The flames engulfed all three figures on the bridge, stopping just short of reaching Syngaard. The man in robes screamed in pain and outrage, while his two female bodyguards took the attack in stoic silence.

Then Kitome, following her lord's orders, charged at Kaspar with her katana drawn. The blade came crashing down upon the elven monk, who sensed the attack at the last moment and tried to roll with the blow. His actions no doubt lessened the damage he received, but he felt the surge of unholy power cascading through the weapon's deadly blade.

Akiko, on the other hand, stood by her lord, magic morningstar ready to fend off the demon lion should it and its armored rider attack. In a last-ditch effort, she called upon the intruders to leave the area lest they be struck down by Lord Shirimono's guardians, but the words in her strange language meant nothing to the conscripts.

Orion moved Carl forward and tossed an electrified dagger from her bag of blades at Akiko. Nene, fearing her poisoned shuriken would do little against a wizard of such great power, opted to rush at Daleth instead and cast a burning hands spell at him. The flames blasting from her hands seemed mere wisps compared to the power of the elf's fireball spell, and Nene was aghast at how little an effect she had upon the foreign demon with the long, pointed ears.

Realizing his bodyguards would not likely be able to handle these demons on their own, Lord Shirimono stepped forward to strike at Daleth with his own ancestral blade, channeling all of his strength into one felling blow...only to have the blade deflected by an unseen force surrounding the foreign demon. The samurai lord snarled an epithet in his own native tongue.

Kaspar had turned to face Kitome and now gave her his undivided attention. He confounded her with a series of alternate strikes and fake-outs, forcing her to dodge to deflect an attack that never came while allowing a strike from a different direction to make contact. His tenryutsume sent bolts of electricity and blasts of flame erupting from each blow.

Galen concentrated on the auras of the combatants before him, narrowing down the overall sense of evil he had felt coming from their direction. Sure enough, all four members of the group sported auras tainted with evil. Worried about what that strange, fire-globed weapon might do to his dire lion, Galen leaped from Burt's back and ran past Akiko to help Kaspar take down Kitome. Akiko struck at the paladin with her glowing morningstar as he ran past but missed, whereas the paladin's sword of Zehkar struck true when he swung his blade at the katana-wielding samurai, felling her with a blow that cut deep through her armor and into the body beneath it. Despite the blood flowing in a rapidly-expanding pool beneath her, when Galen pulled his blade from her body she still breathed, albeit shallowly - and it was up to the gods to determine how much longer she would continue to do so.

Burt, seeing his master cut down one samurai before he could approach and aid him, turned and pounced at the other, scoring a few hits on Akiko with his teeth and claws. (If the dire lion had any qualms against going up against a woman with a small sun attached to a metal rod as a weapon, he gave no outward sign of it.)

Daleth was now under attack by both Lord Shirimono and Nene. Taking a step back away from each so he could get in some quick spellcasting, he threw a glitterdust spell at the pair. The ninja, Nene, was unaffected (although now covered in glittery dust that made her sparkle in the illumination from the glowing weapons all about), but the samurai lord was nowhere near as lucky as his devoted follower. Blinded by the spell, he backed away from combat and started staggering in what he thought was a safe direction: along the bank of the stream.

Ignoring the wounds inflicted by the demon lion and knowing the power of her own weapon, Akiko opted to attack Syngaard. The flaming orb that made up the head of her weapon passed straight through the scarred fighter's shield and armor and impacted heavily into his ribs; despite the burns that accompanied the resulting wound, Syngaard realized it felt very much like being struck by a morningstar. (And Syngaard had plenty of memories of what being struck by a morningstar felt like; most of the scars on his face were made by the morningstar he now wore at his belt before he took the weapon from the thug who had attacked him with it, back when he was just a teen.) But despite the pain of the wound, a broad grin spread across Syngaard's scarred face, as he realized the only thing better than a paying mission was a mission where you got to claim the enemies' weapons for your own. If this fire-orb-stick-thing was really nothing more than a magic morningstar, then Syngaard knew he'd be able to put it to good use in the future, just as he'd done with his returning javelin and his human bane scimitar, both of which he'd taken from enemies who had used the weapons against him.

Akiko stifled a gasp of fear at the sight of the scarred demon's unholy grin. She was the first of her group to die with honor, in combat against the enemies of her lord, as Syngaard's human bane scimitar crashed down upon her. Her flaming brilliant energy morningstar dropped from her grasp as she fell, Syngaard's greedy eyes following its every move.

From Carl's back, Orion threw another pair of electrified daggers at Nene, causing the ninja to swear at the halfling's uncanny accuracy. But she had other, more pressing concerns than her own safety. Casting a spell, she darted forward not at Orion or Carl (nor even at Daleth, who was a mere step away from the spellcasting ninja) but at Lord Shirimono, her master. At her touch the blinded samurai became invisible, the shining, glittery motes of dust that covered his body (the result of Daleth's glitterdust spell) likewise fading from view. Stumbling around blindly, unaware even of his own invisible nature, the samurai lord surprisingly not only managed to avoid combat with any of the foreigners in the area but also managed not to fall into the stream at his right.

But Nene's spellcasting had left her open to attack and Kaspar was more than willing to take advantage of that opening. He raced forward and punched with a fist striking as swiftly as a cobra, diverting the ninja's attention long enough for Carl to creep forward in full stealth mode (not even touching the ground beneath him), which in turn allowed Orion to unsheathe her flaming short sword and send it striking deep into Nene's back. The ninja opened her mouth in surprise, but the only thing that passed from her lips was a gush of her own blood. Then she, too, crumpled to the ground, dead.

With two dead and one bleeding out, the conscripts looked about for the missing samurai lord. Ignoring his vision and concentrating on sensing the auras of those around him, Galen felt Lord Shirimono's presence in an area along the stream. He called out the samurai's location and directed his dire lion to attack; Burt did so but only managed to hit once with a pair of claws, not being able to see what he was attacking.

"Where is he?" asked Syngaard, looking around for the invisible guy. He'd picked up the flaming brilliant energy morningstar before anybody else could lay claim to the weapon.

"To your right!" called Galen.

"I don't see nothin'!" the fighter insisted.

"Idiots!" hissed Daleth to himself, casting a see invisibility spell over his own eyes. Lord Shirimono appeared quite visibly to the elven wizard. "Syngaard: he's about twenty feet to the north of your present position!" he called.

"Which way's north?"

"THAT WAY!" yelled Daleth, amazed at the idiots he was forced to deal with while serving on this team of conscripts. In the meantime, Lord Shirimono kept stumbling further away along the streambed. The elf indicated the exact area with another empowered fireball cast directly at the fleeing foe. Lord Shirimono yelped in pain at the fiery explosion but didn't stop his awkward retreat.

Syngaard, finally aware of the rough area where his foe was to be found, took him out in perhaps the smartest way possible: rather than swinging a weapon at the air and hoping to hit, the fighter cast his arms straight out from his sides and ran as fast as he could directly forward; as soon as he collided with something he couldn't see, he brought his arms in to give his unseen foe a bear hug. The two (only one of which was visible) collided and fell to the ground. Lord Shirimono struggled feebly, but was no match for the strength of the ugly demon pinning his arms to his sides from behind.

Galen, in the meantime, had stabilized Kitome by giving her the most minimal amount of healing possible; she was still unconscious but would no longer bleed to death. The paladin had intended to interrogate her about how they had all come to be here; hopefully Wizard-Pants had some spell that could help with the language barrier. Kaspar, in the meantime, had gone over to where Daleth had told him there was another unconscious woman bound to a bamboo growth, and the monk cut the bindings lashing her in place with the sharp edge of one of his shuriken. He then untied the sash from about his waist and removed the garment from about his arms and torso, placing it around the unconscious woman for modesty's sake. Then, gathering up her weapons (he presumed they were hers), he lifted her and brought her back to the rest of the group.

Daleth used a tongues spell from his staff of divination to allow himself to speak the young woman's language, once Galen had determined her aura held no taint of evil and he had brought her back to consciousness with a healing spell. She cringed upon awakening and finding herself surrounded by strange-looking foreigners, but Daleth spoke soothingly to her in her own language and that helped calm her down.

"What is your name?" the elf asked the young woman wearing Kaspar's top.

"I am called Mikito, bamboo spirit," the young woman replied, obviously thinking Daleth was some sort of spirit of the grove.

"We just fought a man with three female bodyguards," Daleth informed her. "Were they the ones who bound you in the grove?"

"Are they dead?" the woman asked in lieu of answering the elf's question.

"Two of the women are dead. The man and one of the women in armor are still alive."

"That is too bad," snarled the woman. "It would please me to hear that Lord Shirimono had been slain." Once Daleth translated her words to the others, Syngaard piped up, "Not too late for that!" He still held the struggling, invisible in a bear hug the samurai couldn't break. "Do we need this guy alive for any reason?"

Galen thought it over. "I suppose not--" he began, thinking they already had another unconscious foe they could interrogate and a former victim giving willing testimony to the group. That was all Syngaard needed to hear; he released his right hand from the invisible samurai lord long enough to bring his new weapon crashing down upon the man's head, crushing it instantly. The samurai's body regained visibility upon his death. "Done!" Syngaard called back to the group.

Slowly, the woman's story took form. She was one of her lord's samurai bodyguards, assigned to protect his son, Lord Shirimono. While she would speak no ill of her lord, she lamented that he did not see in his son the evil that lurked there and would not believe the truth of his actions even with proof of his evildoing before him. "I have been steadfastly loyal to my lord, but I was punished by Lord Shirimono for failing to meet up to his own twisted standards of behavior. After he had finished with me, he left me bound in the haunted grove to die of exposure."

"Haunted?" asked Daleth.

"Oh yes," insisted Mikito. "The grove is known to be haunted by many strange demons."

"So what will you do now? Will you return to your lord, the father of Lord Shirimono?"

Mikito hung her head. "I cannot. If I were to return to him, even with proof of his son's actions, I would be faced with death and dishonor. As I will be when his body is found, after I had failed to protect him."

"We could speak on your behalf," offered Kaspar once Daleth had translated the young woman's words.

"It cannot be. You are outsiders; your words hold no value. You would be executed as spies."

"Then perhaps you would like to come back with us," offered Daleth. "We live in a land far away from here, where you would never be found." Mikito seemed to be thinking it over.

"What are we going to do with her back home?" Orion asked, confident that the woman couldn't understand her words.

"I'm sure Skevros can put her to good use," reasoned Galen. "I mean, he found a good use for Gumruk - I'm sure he could find a use for an exotic girl who's good with a weapon."

"I'm sure Mama Kat could put her to good use, too, come to think of it," interjected Syngaard. "Exotic girls bring in extra coin."

"Syngaard!" hissed Orion. "You're not sending her to your brothel!"

"Well, maybe as a bodyguard then, like me," he countered. "Mama Kat's still got need of a bodyguard when I ain't around - like all the time I spend with you lot getting teleported all across creation."

"I will accept your kind offer," Mikito finally answered Daleth, oblivious as to what the others had been saying about her potential fate in Durnhill.

"So what should we do about this one?" asked Orion, indicating the unconscious form of Kitome. Mikito explained through Daleth that Kitome would suffer much deserved dishonor for her continued survival when her lord's son had been slain under her watch, and furthermore that the party would most likely be mistaken for the strange ghosts that supposedly haunted this forest.

Before leaving, the group went through the possessions of those they had slain (and of Kitome, still unconscious and now tightly bound). Mikito recovered her own clothing, armor, and weapons which had been stashed away nearby in the grove; once back in her own garments she gave back Kaspar his robe and sash with a grateful bow. The elven monk returned the bow and put the garment back on. Most of the enemies' gear (save for Syngaard's new weapon) was stuffed into the bags of holding, Orion guessed they would sell for a fair amount of coin to collectors if no one else.

"Hey! That reminds me!" piped up Syngaard. "We ain't gettin' our other nine emeralds just yet!"

"We'll earn them soon enough," Galen promised. "But first we must return to Skevros, so he can try teleporting us again."

"Maybe this time he ought to send us a little farther away from the boulder in question," suggested Daleth. "I suspect the misdirection of the teleport spell was a defensive measure by the Seekers of Eternity to keep their enemies from using such methods to gain entrance to their stronghold."

"Next time we'll just walk up to it and kick our way in," suggested Syngaard.

"You get to do the kicking," offered Orion.

"Fine by me."

"Fine by me, too," replied the halfling, smiling at the thought of Syngaard with a broken toe after kicking an actual boulder - she wouldn't put it past the stupid lunk!

"If we're ready...?" asked Kaspar, drawing forth the ring of return from his extradimensional bag of holding. Everyone grabbed hold of the ring (or, in the case of Burt and Carl, were ridden by one who did), and then the monk activated the magic of the device. In an instant they were gone, leaving the "haunted grove" behind them.

- - -

Logan had me queue up several episodes of "Music from the Hearts of Space" with an Asian feel for the background music of this session, but we started out with music with a completely different feel. Then, when the teleport spell was hijacked, he had me switch the music. I therefore had a pretty good clue going in that we were headed into Kara-Tur (or its equivalent), but I said nothing; he's held on to other, similar behind-the-scenes secrets for me when I've DMed my campaign. (There are occasional advantages to having two DMs in the same household.)

And Syngaard is well and truly pleased with his +2 flaming brilliant energy morningstar. I was tempted to have him sell his original one, but I think he'll hang onto it as a backup weapon in case anything happens to his new toy. (Plus, it has sentimental value.) After all, he now has enough money to buy that thing he's been saving up for, even without those other nine emeralds....
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 9
Galen Thorne, human paladin 11
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 11
Mikito, human samurai 10
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 10
Syngaard, human fighter 11​

Game Session Date: 19 December 2018

- - -

"What the Hell--?" exploded Syngaard.

The ring of return had never before failed to teleport the team right back to the place from which Skevros had teleported them away for whatever mission they'd been assigned. But his initial teleport spell had taken them halfway around the world and now, upon their return, they were not back at the Enchanted Flagon as expected - rather, they were in a fancy manor house. At the end of a long table stood a woman they'd never seen before, who looked over at them in unperturbable silence upon their arrival.

Instinctively, Galen examined the aura surrounding the woman and sensed no taint of evil. But at the same time, Orion recognized their surroundings. "We're in Wrencrofft Manor!" she exclaimed.

That gave Galen enough information to make a logical guess as to the woman's identity. "Are you Dow?" he asked her. The woman's shoulders sagged as if in disappointment. She reached up and pulled a ribbon from her hair; as it fell away, her body and garments flickered and became the life-sized astral golem Skevros had made for his homunculus to inhabit. "...Yes," she admitted, saddened that she hadn't been able to fool them for long.

A flurry of questions followed. "What are we doing here?" Syngaard demanded. "Where's Skevros?" asked Daleth. "Who's that?" Dow asked, pointing at Mikito, the young samurai woman the team had rescued from the bamboo forest. "What's up with teleport spells goin' all screwy all of a sudden?" demanded Syngaard, not even waiting for his first question to be answered before firing off another. Finally, Dow raised her hands for silence and did her best to give the group the explanations they desired.

"I don't know why you ended up somewhere else," she said. "But shortly after Daddy teleported you away to your mission, he received a summons from the king. He's there now with him, so the ring of return brought you here to me, instead."

"Ugh," grumbled Syngaard. "Can you stop callin' him 'Daddy?' That's just plain creepy."

"But he is my Daddy, since he made me," Dow argued. "In any case, he told me over our link that your current mission is now on hold. Daddy will arrive shortly to brief you all in person."

"This sucks," Syngaard grumbled to himself. "So now we gotta cool our heels here? At least the tavern's got ale on tap."

"Daddy built a back door into the extradimensional rooms he keeps at the tavern," Dow explained helpfully, pointing to the fireplace behind her. "Since Karen is a part of the permanent Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion spell Daddy cast, she can be summoned from here as well." Her entire attitude was one of someone desperately wanting to be liked and somewhat confused as to why she wasn't.

"Oh yeah?" Syngaard asked, perking up at once at this information. "Karen! Bring me an ale!" he called to the fireplace. A few moments later, Karen stepped through the massive fireplace (which was big enough that she barely needed to duck), holding a tankard of ale in one hand, which she set down before the bald fighter with a smile. Syngaard pulled out a chair from the long table and made himself at home. "That's more like it!" he declared. Karen took orders from the rest of the group and they settled in around the table to wait for their boss to finish up with the king. Mikito winced at the smell and taste of the unfamiliar concoction she had been given. She took an obligatory sip and quietly pushed her mug away. These new friends of hers certainly had some strange customs!

Then, at an unseen signal, Dow stepped over to the head chair and pulled it back from the table. It was instantly filled with the body of Skevros Wrencrofft, the king's adviser. "Ah, you're back," he said. "I trust--" he stopped short upon seeing Mikito sitting at the table with the rest of his team. "And who is this?" he asked.

Kaspar made the introductions and briefly explained what had happened and how they came to have a young female samurai among their group. "Well, welcome then," Skevros said, smiling at Mikito. She bowed her head to her new friends' master.

"In any case, I have both good news and bad news. Your previous assignment is on hold; I'm afraid the Seekers' hidden safehouse will have to remain on the back burner, for now at least."

"Well, that sucks," grumbled Syngaard. They were going to each be paid another nine emeralds for completing that mission, and now it looked like they weren't going to be given the chance.

"Yes, hence the 'bad news' part of my statement, Syngaard. While you were away, I was summoned by King Leornic. Messengers from Ossirna had arrived at Durnhill, as bold as you please, making a formal complaint to His Majesty that I had stolen property belonging to their kingdom and that if it was not returned properly it would be considered an act of war."

"What did they claim you had stolen?" asked Orion.

"Interestingly enough, my own astral golem," replied Skevros with a smirk. "And the messengers were none other than the individuals you encountered in my old lab attempting to steal the golem for themselves. Their claims were proven false when I arrived with the astral golem, which I had crafted in my own likeness - they were also quite taken aback that the seal of Ossirna was absent from the golem."

"So what's our new mission -- killing them three?" asked Syngaard hopefully.

"Alas, no - that would also be construed as an act of war, I fear. However, as per the treaty between Durnhill and Ossirna, if either kingdom sends agents to the other under false pretenses (as they most certainly have done in trying to 'legally' steal my astral golem), the other is allowed to send their own agents for a similar amount of time to gather information about the current state of the kingdom. As we have very little info upon the southern kingdom, this mission is now your top priority. Pay will consist of 2,000 pieces of gold each upon completion. Your party will set out tomorrow morning, accompanying the trio of Ossirnans back to their kingdom to give the king of Ossirna Leornic's official rebuttal. While you are there, you are to gather whatever information you can about the kingdom of Ossirna and report back. And Syngaard, I cannot stress this enough: any harm you inflict upon the Ossirnan messengers will also be taken as an excuse for war. They're spoiling for a war and King Leornic is adamant that we will not fall into that trap. Are we understood?"

"Yeah, yeah, play nice with the spies," grumbled Syngaard. "I got it."

"Very well. In the meantime, I will send Anuja and Dow to the boulder to see what they can learn about the teleportation irregularities. That will be all; you are dismissed until tomorrow morning."

"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Galen. "That was all the bad news, wasn't it? What was the good news?"

"Ah, yes, the good news," replied Skevros. "His Majesty is quite the collector of exotic weapons and armor. I am certain I can get you a good price on the samurai weapons and armor you obtained from Miss Mikito's former compatriots."

"Well, that's somethin', anyway," agreed Syngaard. The group, as one, walked through the unlit fireplace behind Skevros's chair and ended up in his extradimensional quarters hidden inside a back room of the Enchanted Flagon. Syngaard took a moment to check on Maria Quillbender and his own little daughter - who was fast asleep in an afternoon nap - before joining the others in the tap room.

"We shall meet back here tomorrow morning," Galen announced, "then escort the Ossirnans back to their own lands. In the meantime, if anyone needs any supplies, now would be the time to stock up. We stand dismissed until then."

"Already been dismissed," Syngaard mentioned on his way out the door. It was one thing working for Skevros; he was after all the personal adviser to the king. But Galen was just another of the conscripts, no better than any of the others, although he had started putting on airs of leadership ever since he'd been able to summon that dire lion of his from the Beastlands whenever he felt the need. Well, two could play at that game....

- - -

The conscripts met up back at the tavern the next morning, Orion having shared her room overnight with Mikito, who, as a stranger in this strange land, had nowhere else to stay. Skevros was there with a familiar chest sitting on the table before him.

"Oh, not these again," grumbled Syngaard.

"I fear so," admitted Skevros, opening the chest and passing around the green-and-gold tabards that identified the wearers as official ambassadors of the kingdom of Durnhill. He passed one over to Mikito as well, then pulled something else from the chest. It was an amulet on a thin, metal chain. He passed this to the young samurai, motioning for her to put it on.

"Can you understand me all right?" he asked Mikito once she had placed the amulet around her neck.

"I-- I can, thank you," Mikito answered, bowing her head at the king's adviser. The amulet of tongues magically translated the words spoken to Mikito into her own language and likewise translated her own words into the language of the person to whom she was speaking.

Once the conscripts and their samurai companion were all in their tabards, Skevros reiterated the point he had made yesterday afternoon. "Remember: no harm is to come to the three Ossirnans who made the official complaint," he said. "If there are no questions, then you may head outside; Anuja will take you to the Ossirnans, who have been guarded in their assigned quarters overnight."

"Wait a minute," piped up Syngaard. "Before we go, I got somethin' to show you all."

Skevros sighed in weariness; it was always something with the scarred fighter! "Very well, what is it?" he asked Syngaard.

The bald fighter fumbled around in his pants before answering. Then, standing up at the table, he pulled his hand out from beneath the bottom of his tabard and slapped it onto the table before him. "I want to show everybody my Dick!" he exclaimed proudly.

Orion shrieked and looked away; the elves both gasped in surprise - Syngaard was known to be crude, but he'd never stooped to this level before! But then Syngaard removed his hand, and there on the table was a small statuette, carved from bronze, of a winged creature with the body of a lion and the head and front talons of an eagle.

"He don't look like much," Syngaard admitted, "but when you rub him, he grows bigger!"

"That is a figurine of wondrous power," Daleth observed. "A bronze griffon."

"Yep. His name's 'Dick.' From now on, I'll be heading into battle with my Dick out and ready!" Skevros just closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead as if at the beginning stages of a headache.

"Only you would be that idiotic," remarked Orion, climbing onto the ghost of her trusty riding dog. "Can we just get on with it now?"

Galen advised, "Best to put your Dick away for now. We have a mission to perform."

"Okay," agreed Syngaard, putting the bronze griffon statuette back into his pocket. "But I'll be ready to whip it out when necessary!"

Anuja and her wagon were just outside the tavern, ready to take the conscripts to the "ambassadors" from Ossirna. They had been housed overnight in a small building with castle guards posted outside. These guards nodded at the conscripts as they approached, recognizing them at once. One opened the door to the building, poked his head inside, and had the three Ossirnans exit. The group recognized Sienna and Averos immediately, having met them twice already - once at the Treaty Keep and once as they attempted to retrieve Skevros's astral golem. The third figure wore a cleric's garments; they had a sneaking suspicion this was the unseen cleric who had been "piloting" the astral golem. "I am Vikan," the cleric grinned. "It is good to see you again."

"Let's go," commanded Galen, piling them into the cart. "We'll take you to the border in the wagon, but then from there we go on foot." They wanted to minimize the time spent in Durnhill and give themselves plenty of time to see Ossirna for themselves.

As Anuja guided the wagon southward, Vikan offered to school his escorts on Ossirnan law. "There are three main laws you must obey to keep yourselves out of trouble," the cleric said. "First of all, magic cannot be performed upon another person without their consent; the penalties for violation can range from a fine of 1,000 pieces of gold to public execution, depending upon the severity of the transgression. Secondly, this goes double for divination effects, to include that 'detect evil' that you paladins like to do willy-nilly."

"Double?" asked Syngaard.

"That is correct."

"How you gonna publicly execute somebody twice?"

"The fine is doubled," explained Vikan. "The execution would occur but the once...but do not dismiss our ability to execute the same person a second time. It can certainly be done."

"That seems excessively paranoid," observed Orion. "Why would you fear having evil exposed - unless you were acknowledging your own inherent evil? It seems to me such a law would only exist to protect the evil."

"On the contrary - it is to protect the innocent from the overzealousness of self-righteous fools like this specimen before me," said Vikan, indicating Galen. "There is a tale of a paladin that murdered 17 people - five of them children! - because one of them was evil and the others were considered 'acceptable losses in the fight against evil.' We will tolerate no such crimes here." Galen refused to take the bait of such a provocative statement; he continued walking, his face a mask.

"Finally, the open display of holy symbols other than those approved of by the king shall incur a 1,000-gold-piece fine. I should specify that Hieroneous is not one of the approved." Vikan smirked at Galen, who merely tucked the holy symbol of Hieroneous he wore on a chain about his neck beneath his armor, out of view.

"And may I ask which deities are allowed?" asked Kaspar. "You yourself are a cleric - may I inquire which god you serve?"

Vikan looked over at the elf. "You may not," he answered.

"Hey, I got a fun idea," said Syngaard suddenly. "Howzabout you all show us the backs of your necks? Kinda findin' myself curious if you got any hourglass tattoos or anything.""

"'Howzabout' you keep your curiosity to yourself?" retorted Vikan, and then the two groups were silent for the rest of the walk to the castle, each internally wishing for the other group's sudden and painful death. Before they reached the outskirts of the city, Daleth turned to each of his companions in turned and officially asked them for permission to cast a spell upon them, in keeping with Ossirnan law. Once he had received their permission, he cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell upon each of the conscripts (and Mikito), allowing them all to talk telepathically amongst themselves without being heard by the Ossirnans. (It actually took two such spells for the elf wizard to include everyone, as he had yet to attain the spellpower to link six people at once.)

On the way to the palace the group passed what looked to be a church devoted to the Seekers of Eternity, for it bore the sideways hourglass symbol the members all seemed to have tattooed upon the backs of their necks. Galen stared at the symbol on the building and then back at Vikan, but the cleric said nothing.

Once just outside the throne room, the three Ossirnan "ambassadors" dismissed themselves and castle pages took over. They opened the double doors and the Captain of the Guard accompanied the conscripts in to see the king. The captain was a tough-looking woman who seemed to brook no nonsense. "His Royal Majesty, King Velkis!" she announced. "These are the ambassadors from Durnhill," she said, making "Durnhill" sound as distasteful on the tongue as "Dunghill" might be.

"And where is my astral golem, which was stolen from me?" demanded King Velkis, apparently eager to get straight to the heart of the matter.

"It is with its rightful owner, the man who created it," replied Galen. "By what right does Ossirna claim it?"

"It was built by an acquaintance of mine, a man named Vesskor," the king replied.

<'Vesskor' is an anagram of 'Skevros,' assuming that's a double-s in the name,> pointed out Daleth over the mental link. <It's possible Skevros used a pseudonym when he was evil.>

"The man who built it is still alive, and he constructed the astral golem in his own image," countered Galen. "As he is a citizen of Durnhill, he will retain his own property in our kingdom. This is the official response of King Leornic the Third."

"Very well then," agreed King Velkis. "It appears this was all just a misunderstanding. By way of apology, I offer each of you a gift."

"That is not necessary, Your Majesty," quickly replied Kaspar.

<He backed off too soon,> suggested Galen.

<This is no doubt a trap of some sort,> agreed Daleth.

<I have no means of detecting evil with any certainty,> piped up Mikito. <But he reminds me of the son of my former lord. It would be unwise for us to trust him.>

"But I insist!" replied King Velkis. "Your refusal to accept a gesture of good faith between nations would be...detrimental to our kingdoms' relations."

Galen looked at the others, then bowed his head. "Your Majesty is very kind," he said. "We would indeed be honored to accept your gift."

"Maelina, please escort our guests to the treasure vault. Let them each take a token of their own choosing."

The Captain of the Guard bowed before her king. "By your will, Your Majesty," she acknowledged. Then, turning to the conscripts, she said, "This way" and walked briskly from the throne room. She took them down a hall to a side door, which she unlocked with a key from a ring she wore on her sword-belt. Opening the door, she ushered the conscripts into the treasure room. "One item each," she said.

But the conscripts were hesitant to enter the treasure chamber, convinced this was some sort of a trap. "Oh, for pity's sake!" exclaimed Maelina. "They certainly make lily-livered folk up north, don't they? Here - I'll go in first, if you like."

<This is a trap.>

<Oh, quite definitely.>

<Are the items inside all cursed? Or maybe they'll make it easier for their wizards to scry upon us?>

<It could be as simple as accusing us of having stolen from their king. That would be sure to get us executed, and that's all the trigger they'd need to start a war between the two kingdoms.>

"Hey, is that a dragon?" Syngaard spoke aloud, forgetting he could simply "talk" to the others via their shared telepathic link. But he was looking into the treasure vault, which had coins and gems spread all around the floor in loose piles. There was a statue of a dragon, looking to have been carved out of a massive chunk of pure amethyst, perched upon a stone plinth as if overlooking its hoard. At the base of the statue's feet sat an ornately-covered book.

"A statue, yes," agreed Maelina. "Come see for yourselves." But still the conscripts were hesitant to enter.

"I'll go in first," offered Syngaard aloud as he stepped into the room.

<Use the link, you dolt!> chided Daleth. <That's what it's there for!> Syngaard looked all about him, looking for the link the elf was talking about. "Don't see no link!" he said.

Daleth seethed with irritation but entered the room behind the scarred fighter. The others followed. "See? Nice and safe," reassured Maelina.

<Don't touch anything!> Galen warned the group. Orion began appraising the contents of the room. <There's about 15,000 gold here, guys!>

"We get to pick anything we want? What about the dragon here?" asked Syngaard. It was about the size of a horse, perhaps larger.

Maelina snorted. "If you can pick it up and carry it out of here, it's all yours! But it probably weighs a ton!"

Kaspar, in the meantime, had noticed a closed and barred door at the back of the room. "Where does this lead?" he turned to ask Maelina. But, predictably, Maelina had sidled back to the door through which they had all entered and was pulling it shut behind her, leaving the conscripts inside the vault. Kaspar's vision turned to the dragon statue, which he could have sworn had just let out a breath. "The dragon's alive!" he called out to the others.

"You certainly took your time!" chided the amethyst dragon in the Common tongue. "Most people head straight for the treasure!"

"We are not here of our own accord," Kaspar tried reassuring the dragon. "Nor do we wish any of your treasure. We simply wish to leave unharmed."

"That may be a problem," recognized the dragon. "The only reason you're locked in here with me is so I can eat you."

"That ain't gonna happen," Syngaard promised. "We've taken on tougher'n you!"

"Really? I find that unlikely," scoffed the dragon. "And I've taken on groups of your number before."

<He's not evil,> Galen reported over the telepathic link.

<You divined his aura? That's illegal here!>

<Only against people. Vikan said they 'can't be performed on another person.'>

<That seems legally questionable.>

<Even so.>

"But if you kill us here in Ossirna, it will cause a war between our two nations," replied Orion, hoping to use the fact that the dragon wasn't evil to appeal to its good nature.

"Not at all!" reassured the dragon. "Even now, there are doppelgangers reading your thoughts, the better to impersonate you once you've been slain and eaten! They'll head on back to Durnhill in your place and nobody will ever know the difference!"

Kaspar had heard enough. As much as he preferred talking his way out of a combat whenever possible, it didn't look like that approach was going to work here - plus, if there were doppelgangers ready to take their places, there was technically nothing preventing them from heading to Durnhill at any moment! Time was therefore at a premium and the elf monk took matters into his own hands - quite literally. Exploding forth into a flurry of blows, he struck at the dragon several times before the creature was even aware that combat had begun. However, the flames of his tenryutsume didn't seem to faze the dragon at all; apparently amethyst dragons weren't particularly bothered by fire. Kaspar passed that nugget of information to the others over their shared link.

Galen sent a mental calling across the planes to his bonded mount and Burt manifested in the treasure vault beside his master. At the same time, the paladin cast a bless weapon spell upon his sword of Zehkar. As his blade was being pulled from its scabbard, the dire lion was biting and raking its claws into the dragon, tightening his grip upon his foe as he caught him up in a leonine grapple.

Syngaard, seeing his moment, whipped out his Dick and started rubbing. The statuette grew larger, dropping from the fighter's hands and attaining its true size. Then it pounced at the dragon, but as it was writhing around trying to extract itself from Burt's grip, the griffon's talons found no purchase.

"Looks like your Dick's kind of underwhelming, Syngaard!" Orion called out to the bald fighter - it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Then she tossed an electrified dagger at the dragon, striking it unerringly just behind its right foreleg.

Daleth lined up a lightning bolt spell to strike the dragon. However, he failed to take Burt's presence into account and the electrical energy fried both grappling combatants equally, causing them to roar in fury.

Mikito stepped forward, bringing her katana crashing down upon the dragon's flank, but its gemlike hide deflected the blow. Then the samurai was forced to leap back to safety as the grappling foes rolled around in her direction, the dragon trying to escape the dire lion's grip, Burt's talons scratching deep grooves between the dragon's light purple scales. And then the dragon freed his head, swinging it around to belch forth a blast of concussive force which encompassed Burt, Galen, Dick, and Orion; it would have dealt damage to Carl as well had the ghost-dog not been safe in his own incorporeality. Orion twisted in the saddle and lessened the force of the blow.

Kaspar stepped forward again and sent a flurry of kicks and punches flying at the dragon. Only one of his blows felt like it connected hard enough to deal the creature any pain. But while the monk was attacking and keeping the dragon distracted, Galen took a quick stock of his dire lion. Burt was hurt badly, not only from the dragon's breath weapon but also from Daleth's poorly-aimed lightning bolt spell. The paladin was himself pretty hurt and he knew he could channel enough healing energy through his hands to heal one or the other of the two, but not both. Making his decision, he healed himself while simultaneously releasing Burt back to the Beastlands to heal up. "Thank you, my friend!" he called as the dire lion gratefully faded from view, roaring defiantly at the dragon as he did so as if to let him know he still had plenty of fight left in him.

Syngaard stepped up to the dragon, his new flaming brilliant energy morningstar in hand. He dealt the dragon a mighty blow, but as expected the flames of the weapon's head might as well not have been present for all the damage they did. Behind him, Daleth cast a ray of enfeeblement over the fighter's shoulder to strike the dragon, weakening it significantly. "You about ready to give up yet?" called Syngaard. "You dragons can live an awful long time - you ready to give up all those centuries of life in a fight you can't win?" Dick leaped forward, catching the root of the dragon's right wing in his powerful beak and raking him with a set of talons. Unfortunately, the dragon's tough hide negated most of the damage the griffon tried inflicting. But although the amethyst dragon had been sorely hurt in this fight, it wasn't ready to give up just yet.

"Never!" the dragon replied contemptuously, presumably to Syngaard's first question. But then Mikito stabbed quickly forward with her axiomatic katana, piercing through the dragon's scales and deep into its chest. The dragon coughed up blood and quickly reevaluated its options. It was true: these piddly little people were likely to win this fight! As galling as it might be, it was better to surrender and live to see another day.

"Upon further evaluation...I surrender," the dragon replied. Mikito immediately pulled back her samurai blade, holding it at the ready to strike if this was a trick, but unwilling to further attack a creature that had honorably surrendered. Galen likewise called for the others to stand down; Syngaard put a hand on his Dick and pulled it back away from the fight.

"Now what's all this about doppelgangers?" demanded Galen. "Are they already on their way to Durnhill?"

"Not now," admitted the dragon. "They'll have been reading our minds all this time, and they'll know you know about the ploy. They won't be willing to expose themselves to the dangers of infiltrating a kingdom that already knows of their existence and is ready for them. They're pretty much a cowardly lot, doppelgangers."

"So this is what, your treasure?" Syngaard demanded. "Like, your personal stash?"

"Hoard," corrected Orion.


"Yes," admitted the dragon. "It's all mine, not the kingdom of Ossirna's. It is yours by right of combat." It seemed the dragon had a particularly difficult time getting those last few words out, and had it not still been bleeding heavily there was a good chance that watching the others start scooping its treasure into their bags of holding would have been all that was needed to get combat started again.

"I don't imagine you will choose to remain here in Ossirna, having failed in your mission to kill us," Daleth reasoned.

"Correct," agreed the dragon. "I will depart, never to return."

"Then you hold no particular allegiance to Ossirna," the elf wizard pressed. "Or to the Seekers of Eternity?"

"They were but a means to an end - mainly, a cushy job having the occasional group of people fed to me. But no, I have no love for the Seekers; all in all, they are a weird bunch."

"What can you tell us about them?" Kaspar pressed. "We seek their destruction."

"Their roots are here in Ossirna. They revere the Mithral Mage as either a god or at least the means of attaining godhood themselves."

"The Seekers are based here? Not in the Azure Glade?" asked Kaspar.

"What? No, that was just an expansion into new lands. The Seekers began here in Ossirna."

The monk came to another decision. Scooping up a handful of coins and gems - worth easily a thousand pieces of gold, Orion calculated with some trepidation - he passed them over to the dragon, who gobbled them up and stashed them in the side of his mouth. "Please accept this much of your treasure back, in payment for the information you have provided us," Kaspar said. Behind him, Mikito nodded in agreement with the monk's actions while Orion and Syngaard shared a rare moment of full agreement between themselves as their mouths hung open in shock and disappointment.

"What are we givin' him money for?" demanded the scarred fighter. "He's our enemy!"

"He is merely a defeated opponent and perhaps only a former foe. He has treated us honorably; we will do no less."

"Yeah, well that sucks," countered Syngaard.

"I will take it out of my share."

"Deal!" Orion agreed. As long as the money being returned to the dragon wasn't having any effect on how much she received, it was all moot to the little halfling.

"Then farewell," said the dragon before vanishing from view in much the same way Burt had done earlier. He left the Material Plane willingly; perhaps some time spent on the Elemental Plane of Earth would allow the memories of his defeat to heal over, as its physical wounds likewise healed. But he would live - that was the important part.

"We ready?" Syngaard asked once the last of the treasure had been scooped up - not just the coins and gems, but also the ornate tome that had been placed on the dragon's plinth. A quick perusal told Daleth it was written in alternating languages, making it all but impossible to decipher at a glance.

"Just about," remarked Orion. "But aren't you forgetting something?"

"What?" asked Syngaard as Kaspar pulled the ring of return from beneath his robes.

"Time to put your Dick away," the halfling said as she grabbed hold of the ring with the others. With a scowl, Syngaard deactivated his griffon and returned it to his pocket. Then he joined the others in grabbing the magical ring and Kaspar activated it with a command word. The group disappeared at once, to reappear immediately in Wrencrofft Manor. Skevros was there waiting for them.

"Well?" he asked.

"War averted," Galen reported.

"Didn't even touch them Ossirnans," Syngaard said with pride. He could follow orders with the best of them! Kaspar then briefed the king's advisor on what had occurred and what they had learned about the southern kingdom. Daleth passed the tome over to Skevros for his examination.

"Interesting. These letters alternate between Celestial, Infernal, and Draconic. I'll need to decipher each letter in turn, then try to make sense of the word thus formed. Fascinating! It will take me some time to make sense of this. But first, I must warn His Majesty and the guards about the doppelganger threat. It may be as you say and they won't try that approach now that it has been discovered, but we must take no chances."

He rubbed his chin for a moment in thought, then came to a conclusion. "I will cast an arcane mark upon each of your foreheads," he announced. "It will only become visible when questioned by a Durnhill guard, or through a detect magic spell. Any doppelganger wishing to sneak into the country by impersonating you will lack such a mark, making him instantly detectable as an imposter."

"What, like a tattoo?" demanded Syngaard. "I don't want no tattoo on my forehead!"

"It will be invisible under most conditions," reassured Skevros. "And it is not permanent; it will last for about a month, after which time we will know whether the doppelgangers have attempted infiltration or not." Seeing the logic, the conscripts each submitted themselves for an application of an arcane mark spell.

"So what about Mikito?" asked Kaspar. "She fought well, even to the point of forcing the dragon to submit. Will she be added to our ranks and accompany us in the future?"

"I have had some thoughts on the matter," admitted Skevros. "I believe - if Mikito is willing to join us - I will add her to the group. But I also think I'll be splitting you up into two smaller groups. You five will carry on as before, while Anuja and Mikito - and perhaps one or two others I've had my eye on - will form a new team, to deal with other matters at hand."

Mikito bowed low before the king's adviser. "It will be my honor to work for Lord Skevros," she announced.

"Ah, very good. But I am merely 'Skevros' - you need not address me as a Lord."

"If you are my new Master, then I will address you as 'Lord'," Mikito insisted. "It is only proper." The others left the king's adviser to work that out with his new conscript as the others poured the dragon's treasure out upon his massive dining table to sort out their respective takes.

- - -

My granddaughter Samantha was here on vacation during this session, so we drafted her as Mikito. (The timing was impeccable, as we just happened to have a "spare" female character entering into the story line at that point in time.) I even gave her one of her Christmas presents early: a set of purple dice of her own, since she'll eventually be moving out this way on a permanent basis and likely joining our group. Logan's set up the "auxiliary conscripts" team as a way to keep the NPCs involved and at hand (although in the background) so that whenever Samantha can join us she'll have her PC at the ready (and she'll be at the same relative level as the rest of the group, since she'll have been having "auxiliary team" adventures off-screen). This is basically just an extension of the "whoever doesn't show up for a game session has his or her PC out doing a boring, solo mission" rule we came up with at the beginning of this campaign to explain any session absences. (And Joey and Vicki have been the only ever no-shows, which explains while their PCs are lagging a bit behind in the XP department.)



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 9
Galen Thorne, human paladin 11
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 11
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 10
Syngaard, human fighter 11​

Game Session Date: 2 January 2019

- - -

The morning began with another summons to the Enchanted Flagon, this time having something to do with "a dwarf and a box." Syngaard high-tailed it across town, arriving to find the other conscripts and Skevros already in place - and a cowering dwarf huddling in the corner of the tavern, his lower face covered with bandanas. An unopened lead box stood on the table near him.

"You!" Syngaard roared, recognizing Melvik despite the bandana. The last time he'd delivered a package to the tavern, it had contained an explosive rune that served as the signal for an assassination attempt.

"I didn't wanna come here!" insisted the dwarf. "He made me come here - to deliver the box!"

"Who did?" demanded Kaspar.

"Some guy! A guy in silver robes! A wizard or something - I swear I don't know 'im! I never seen 'im before in me life!"

"What's in the box?" Daleth asked calmly. The elf wizard had a pseudodragon at his side that Syngaard had never seen before, but the others all seemed to take it in stride.

"I swear to you all -- I have no idea!" sputtered Melvik.

"Open it," Syngaard demanded.

"Who, me?"

"Yes, you! If it's gonna explode like last time, it's gonna explode on you, not one of us!" Seeing that the bald fighter with the face full of scars wasn't kidding, Melvik opening the latches on the box. He winced when the lid opened but there was no explosion. He dared to peek inside and his expression said the contents weren't what he'd anticipated - at all.

Galen looked over the dwarf's shoulder to see what was inside the box. It looked to be a metal carving of a dragon's head - but a dragon that looked suspiciously familiar. "Take it out and put it on the table," the paladin commanded. The point of the sword of Zehkar poked into the dwarf's side, indicating the seriousness of the command. Melvik did as instructed. It was an actual severed dragon's head with the top and sides coated in a layer of mithral; the creature's spinal column could be seen poking out from the bottom of the neck and turning it over revealed the fleshy contents surrounding the spine. Melvik scowled in distaste.

"Is that the head of the amethyst dragon we let go in Ossirna?" Kaspar asked. It was certainly the same size and shape.

"Looks like it," Orion observed.

There was a sheet of rolled-up parchment in the dragon's mouth. "Pull it out and read it aloud to us," the paladin directed. Melvik unrolled the scroll with another wince, but when it didn't explode in his face, he read aloud the words on the page:

"Took care of your dragon problem."

There was no signature, but the handwriting looked very familiar. "That's the same style of writing as in the osteovox responses!" Galen cried.

"So it's from the Mithral Mage?" asked Daleth. "He killed our dragon for us? And then had his head delivered? Whatever for?"

"I swear I dunno," whimpered Melvik.

"I note it was delivered in a lead box," Skevros pointed out. "Very much like the lead boxes we ourselves used when using osteovox to interrogate the skulls we took from our enemies." Melvik blanched even further at this admission - these guys were way out of his league!

"So this is what - a warning?" asked Orion. "Or bragging to us about his power?"

"He could just be taunting us," Skevros pondered. "Trying to scare us, keep us off balance, wondering what he's up to."

"So what about him?" the halfling asked, pointing to Melvik with her unsheathed flaming short sword. She looked perfectly ready and willing to put it to good use.

"He's just an unwitting flunky," Galen scoffed. "Let him go."

"Not yet," Syngaard snarled, pulling a dagger from his belt. "What's with the bandana, Melvik? YOU BETTER NOT BE GROWIN' THAT BEARD BACK!" At that, the dwarf gave a bleat of terror and scrambled from the tavern. Syngaard chased him to the front door and stood laughing as he watched the dwarf's panicked flight through the streets. For his part, as Melvik ran he gave some serious thought about joining the clergy of Moradin - he didn't want anything further to do with these hourglass freaks or those fighting them!

"Are you quite done?" asked Skevros, scowling in Syngaard's direction as the bald fighter closed the door to the tavern, still laughing at the sight of the panicked dwarf. But then the king's adviser jolted as if shocked. "The manor's under attack!" he cried suddenly, getting up from his seat and racing to the back of the bar, then into the back room where the supplies were kept. However, the ring on his hand glowed as he opened the storage room door and it opened instead into his extradimensional Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion. He raced into his quarters, the conscripts at his heels. "Carl!" called Orion, and the ghost of her riding dog obediently manifested from the ethereal plane, following his mistress into the extradimensional dwelling.

Skevros dashed through the unlit fireplace and popped out one kingdom over, in his manor in the Azure Glade, emerging from the fireplace in the large dining area on the first floor of his dwelling. Pulling aside the curtains of a front window, he saw a mob of mages on his front lawn, their robes of white, blue, and black declaring them to be members of the Diviners, Evokers, and Necromancers Guilds, respectively. Each of these three Guilds had been infiltrated by the Seekers of Eternity, their membership converted from beneath the noses of the Council of Guilds.

The conscripts filed into the dining room behind him. Skevros flinched again as he received a sending spell. Then, striding angrily to the front door and pulling it wide open, he cast a meteor swarm at the intruding mob, blasting them with a wave of flaming missiles. As one, the mages fell to the ground, their corpses burning before they'd been able to say a word or cast a single spell between them.

The king's adviser closed the door and faced his conscripts. "I have just had a sending spell from Leorna, of the Illusionists Guild," he explained. "The Seekers of Eternity have started a civil war within the Azure Glade and are openly slaughtering any who do not wear the hourglass mark. The Abjurers Guild has already fallen, their Guildmaster dealing a retributive strike against the Seekers who came to slaughter him and the members of his guild." He stood a moment in thought, contemplating his next actions. "With Dow's assistance, I will prepare a teleportation circle to transport refugees from the Azure Glade to the outskirts of Durnhill. While I am thus occupied, your job will be to protect the refugees that approach and defeat any Seekers who might come to stop them."

"This a paying mission?" Syngaard wanted to know.

"Not now, Syngaard!" chided Orion. She raced out of the manor, magic short sword sheathed in flames, looking about for any approaching refugees or Seekers. The others followed her out onto the front lawn, stepping around the still-burning corpses of the first wave to approach Wrencrofft Manor uninvited. "Remind me not to piss off the boss!" Syngaard muttered to himself.

"Remember that the next time you pester him about money!" hissed Orion.

Dow approached, firmly ensconced in the astral golem her master had built for her many years earlier, and which had only recently been rediscovered. She therefore gave the appearance of a human woman. Skevros cast a spell upon her, further empowering their familiar link. Then she stepped outside, serving as a conduit for her master, who by the terms of his mark of justice could not step foot outside his manor. He did the spellcasting for the teleportation circle while inside the manor, while Dow, outside, mirrored his actions and allowed the spell energy to flow from her fingers.

"We'd best get these bodies out of the way," suggested Kaspar, bending to drag a burning corpse down the walkway to the manor house, while Dow started weaving an area or arcane energy off to the side of the house. The others bent to help. Galen sent a mental summons across the planes, and his dire lion bonded mount, Burt, materialized by his side.

When Dow was only about halfway through the spell and the conscripts had managed to move the corpses out of the way, the first of the refugees stumbled into view. Some wore the robes of wizards aligned with the Guilds of magic that had not been infiltrated by the Seekers of Eternity; others were merchants, or farmers, or housewives with small children in their arms. "This way!" Orion waved, spurring them on.

Unsure if the refugees were truly innocents escaping a war zone or Seeker of Eternity spies, Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself. Galen had just turned his head to focus on the group of newcomers, hoping to peek at their auras (but alas, they were still far away), when two groups of wizards suddenly teleported onto the lawn, on the other side of the front walkway from where Dow was constructing the teleportation circle. One group wore the blue robes of the Evokers Guild; the other, the white of the Diviners. Both, Galen knew, had been taken over by the Seekers. As these two groups were much closer to the assembled heroes than were the refugees, Galen was able to instantly detect a wave of evil coming from the wizards' general location.

With a roar, Syngaard sped towards the nearest group, the blue-robed evokers. But rather than toss his javelin of returning during his approach as had been his habit up until now, he performed his new combat maneuver: whipping out his Dick. Rubbing the figurine of wondrous power and throwing it at the group, Dick attained full size in mid-air and went crashing into the evokers, slaying one outright with his sharp beak and horribly maiming another with his wicked claws.

Kaspar followed in the wake of the griffon, speeding forward and smashing his closed hand into the jaw of another evoker, the magical enhancements of his tenryutsume infusing his punch with the powers of lightning and flame. Behind him, Orion rode her ghost-mount into battle, tossing an electrified dagger from her bag of blades at each of the wounded evokers, causing another to drop to the ground, dead.

Galen mounted his dire lion and urged him forward into battle (although in truth, he needed little urging). Burt's teeth and claws ripped into another evoker, slaying him at once, while Galen uncharacteristically missed with his swinging sword of Zehkar. Daleth opted to cast a defensive spell - stoneskin - upon himself and his new pseudodragon familiar, Todd, which he'd gained just the previous day.

The initial assault on the eight evokers left three of their number dead - but that left five capable of counterattacking. That they did with relish, three casting fireball spells and the other two casting lightning bolts; Syngaard, on foot, was too far away to be targeted but the other conscripts and their various animals all felt the pain of the evocation spells being thrown their way. Then the diviners joined the fray, each of them sending three magic missiles spreading out in a massive burst all at once, striking all but Todd, the smallest target of the bunch. The heroes all staggered at this onslaught; Dick was overcome and dropped back into statuette form while Carl howled in fury as his incorporeal form dissipated into nothingness. Orion didn't plop from the saddle to the ground like usual; the saddle fell to the ground below her while she floated to a standing position, courtesy of her newly-purchased ring of feather falling.

Syngaard went sprinting at full speed toward the nearest evoker, sending him sprawling at his feet. He had his human bane scimitar in hand and ready for when the obnoxious spellcaster tried to regain his feet. Kaspar stunned another of the blue-robed wizards with a swift kick to the head, almost snapping his neck. A nearby evoker faced the elven monk and looked about to cast a spell at him, but Orion raced up and stabbed him in the gut with her flaming short sword, putting a definite stop to that plan - he fell to the ground, dead. Between them, Galen and Burt finished off two of the last four surviving evokers, leaving only the one Syngaard had sent sprawling - and he got stabbed with a human bane scimitar before he could regain his feet - and one who looked about him in panic at the sight of all his slain brethren. He tried casting a scorching ray at Daleth's head but missed, his targeting skills overcome by panic.

That left only the diviners, who had teleported together in a nice clump. Daleth cast an empowered fireball at them, channeling the spell through his metamagic rod. The explosion of flames killed half of their number at once. Todd finished off another by flying behind the fireball; by the time the flames cleared one hapless spellcaster found he had a scorpionlike tail stabbing in at his face.

The surviving diviners tossed volley after volley of fireballs at their hated foes; Syngaard, Galen, Burt, Kaspar, and Orion were all temporarily engulfed by flames. However, the final evoker was also within the blast radius of a fireball spell and he was taken out by friendly fire. (It's unlikely his also being in the radius of the spell's area of effect made any difference to the bloodthirsty diviners.)

In response, Syngaard, smoke still trailing from his burned body, charged and cleaved into two of the diviners, slaying them both with his magic scimitar. Kaspar bent over and scooped up Syngaard's fallen figurine of wondrous power before running up to another surviving diviner and ending his life with a well-placed kick. Burt took care of the last diviner, crunching his head between his powerful jaws.

The party desperately needed some healing at that point, and Galen did what he could by channeling the positive energy of Hieroneous through his illumium scabbard. Orion and Syngaard swigged down healing potions, and then the bald fighter reactivated his magical figurine, bringing his Dick back to life at full power. "Best get him up and ready - no tellin' when any others might be showin' up," he said.

Before the conscripts had regained their full strength from the first wave of attackers, the second wave showed up, teleporting in like the others had done. The line of refugees screamed and continued in a scattered line going behind the Wrencrofft Manor, wrapping around the house to head for the not-yet-finished teleportation circle on the far side.

Judging by their black robes, the first group of eight were all from the Necromancers Guild. Daleth was the first to react to their sudden appearance, whipping up his metamagic rod and channeling an empowered fireball spell through it. The blast this time was enormous, and when the smoke cleared all eight wizards lay on the ground, dead. "Way to go, Wizard-Pants!" Galen enthused before spinning Burt around to face the other group.

This was a group of only four, and they wore the blue robes of the Evokers Guild, but a closer examination - of the runes on their foreheads and robes, and the large maces they carried into battle - revealed them to be members of the Azure Guards, whose members gained training in both spellcraft and martial combat. Todd stabbed at one of the Guards with his tail, cutting a venomous gash across the Guard's cheek, but the pseudodragon's poison failed to drop the blue-robed foe.

"They're evil!" announced Galen, as if that had ever been in any doubt. Syngaard and his revived Dick went crashing into the quartet, swinging with blade, beak, and claws, and the scarred fighter was surprised to see all four of the enemy still standing after their assault. They were tough, these Azure Guards!

Kaspar jumped into the fold, striking with his hands and feet. Orion snuck up behind an inobservant Guard, stabbing deep with her flaming blade. He turned to counterattack and she stabbed him again, this time in the front, while Dick bit down on his shoulder and drew ragged gashes across his chest with his front talons. He dropped lifelessly to the ground once Dick released him from his beak, which at that point had been all that was holding the Guard upright. But upon striking the ground the Guard immediately disappeared - the Azure Guard's runes caused them, and their gear, to teleport away upon death, so their gear couldn't be used by others.

Then the griffon, as well as Syngaard and Kaspar, were targeted by a trio of scorching ray spells. Galen and Burt surged forward, the paladin bringing down another of the Guards with a smiting attack with his longsword, causing his corpse and gear to disappear. The sword of Zehkar then went cleaving into the side of another of the Azure Guards, dropping him to his knees.

Daleth was the conscript farthest away from the battle, and he decided to keep it that way - these Azure Guards were deadly! But he saw the other conscripts were all bunched close enough together that he could target each of them in a single haste spell, so that was his next stratagem. He was left out of the area of effect, but no matter - better that those on the front lines got in the extra attacks.

Syngaard and Dick each took out a Guard at almost the same time, giving the conscripts another short breather of an unknown duration before the next wave of attackers showed up. Syngaard was all out of potions and he waved off any attempts to heal Dick - "He's ain't even really alive - save yer healin' for them what need it more!" Kaspar took in a cleansing breath and concentrated his own chi into self-healing, while Galen channeled healing energy from his hand into Burt's flank, healing the worst of the dire lion's burns.

But once again they didn't get a chance to fully heal themselves before the next wave arrived, teleporting in like the others had. Fortunately, this was the smallest group of cavalry yet, being only four in number, although it was made up of individuals the conscripts recognized at once: Averos the rogue; Sienna the freaky, pain-loving fighter; and Vikan, the Ossirnan cleric; accompanied by none other than Reginald, a captain of the Azure Guards, whom the conscripts had fought - and killed - several times before. "Ain't you got the smarts to stay dead?" snarled Syngaard.

Rightfully figuring the cleric to be the biggest threat of the four, Daleth hit him with an empowered Scorching ray, the last use of his metamagic rod for the day - which killed Vikan outright. Cheers rose from the ranks of the conscripts at his death - they'd hated that little toady!

Eyes widening in fear at the instant slaying of Vikan, Averos broke ranks and fled the scene. Unfortunately for him, he chose the wrong direction in which to flee, heading away from the conscripts on a course that took him straight toward Dow, who was still finishing up the teleportation circle spell. Syngaard called out, "To me, my mighty Dick!" and leapt up onto the griffon's back, sending it flying across the lawn after the fleeing rogue. The griffon's front talons grabbed onto Averos's shoulders as Syngaard leaned forward and brought the human bane scimitar crashing down onto the rogue's skull. Then Dick dropped the dead rogue, letting Averos fall face-down into the yard to the side of the teleportation circle while he rose high into the air to turn around and head back to the battle going on with the other two Ossirnans.

Kaspar attacked Sienna, bringing a trickle of blood from her mouth and a grin to her face. She counterattacked with two swings of her vicious greatsword, hissing in pleasure as the sword's power dealt damage to her as well as her targeted foe. Orion ducked and flanked the crazy fighter with Kaspar, getting in a good sneak attack from behind. Burt swiped right over Orion's three-foot-tall form, his claws ripping off the back of Sienna's head and sending it flying. Orion could swear she heard a moan of pleasure coming from the fighter's lips as she fell over, dead.

Galen used another smite attack on Reginald, cutting deep into the Guard Captain's arm. Reeling from the blow, Reginald cast a mirror image spell - and suddenly there were five possible Reginalds to choose from!

Daleth pulled a wand of magic missiles from his belt and targeted two of the Reginalds sliding around the battlefield. Upon being struck by the force energy of the spell, the two images popped into nothingness, leaving only three left as potential targets. But then Dick dove down to the ground behind the Guard Captain and Syngaard leaped over Dick's head to send his human bane scimitar crashing into one of the images. Upon impact, the other two Reginalds immediately disappeared, but the one with the scimitar sticking out of his back fell first to his knees, then to his face.

"Got 'im!" crowed Syngaard, but then groaned as Reginald's corpse teleported away. "Dammit!" he cursed. "I wanted his mace as a trophy!"

The conscripts looked about them for more enemies, but apparently three waves was all the Seekers could afford to send against Wrencrofft Manor, for there were other places under attack and many more nonbelievers to slay. Dow suddenly announced that the teleportation circle spell was ready, and ushered the staggered line of refugees forward into its area of effect. As the refugees stepped forward and filled up the area, Dow said the command word that sent them all teleporting to the very edge of the border between the Azure Glade and Durnhill, where they could seek asylum.

"It looks like the Ossirnans are going to get their war with Durnhill after all," Orion sighed.

"It was inevitable," Skevros called from the front door, open now that his spellcasting was completed. "But since the Ossirnans - the Seekers, in particular - started this civil war in the Azure Glade, political opinion will be against them. Durnhill, and most likely Ashfall as well, will aid the Azure Glade in their fight against the Seekers."

The king's adviser let out a long breath - he was tired. "You did well, team," he said, watching the next group of refugees teleport to safety. "And Syngaard?" he asked.

"Yeah, boss?"

Skevros pointed to the dead bodies littering his yard. "This is a paying mission. There is your payment; take what you will from the bodies of those you have slain."

Syngaard gave an excited whoop and ran off to go start the looting.

- - -

This was one of our longer sessions, as Logan had feared it would be - we played from shortly after 6:30 at night until almost 10:00 PM. But it was cathartic, in that most, if not all, of the enemies we slew are finally going to stay dead. As Logan put it, there's only so many times a person can fail in their missions before their bosses start to question why they're spending the money to resurrect them.

Joey was rolling hot that night, too! His empowered scorching ray that took out Vikan did a total of 82 points of damage, a personal best for a 2nd-level spell! And his taking out of the necromancers was also very well-timed, for Logan had planned on having them animate the dead bodies of those we'd already slain, so we'd have zombies and skeletons added to the foes we had to face all at one time!

As for Mikito, Samantha had to go back home on Christmas Day, so her PC has officially been made part of Skevros's backup team. She was undoubtedly engaged in some other mission when Melvik showed up with the lead box and thus wasn't at hand when the events of this adventure took place.

Finally, we accidentally worked ourselves into a naming convention for our animals. First was Carl, Orion's riding dog. Galen's dire lion was named Burt (out-of-game, he was named after Bert Lahr, the actor who played the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" - Dan opted for the different spelling). So when Syngaard decided to get a bronze griffon, I chose the name "Dick" not only for the "Dick joke" potential, but also to stick with our new naming convention of giving our animals four-letter male names. (Granted, in my case, the first reason greatly outweighed the second.) So when Daleth finally reached 9th level and could take the Improved Familiar feat, he opted for a pseudodragon and then couldn't come up with a good name for him. Once we pointed out the naming convention, Joey came up with "Todd," the first four-letter boy's name to strike him (after dismissing "Joey" as a name out of hand).

Of course, now Harry's noticed he's got the only PC who doesn't have a "pet" (as he calls it), so after this adventure was over he opted to have Kaspar purchase an amber amulet of vermin that contains a stag beetle. Once a day, Kaspar will now be able to summon a giant stag beetle to obey his commands. Faced with naming a beetle using only four-letter male names, we discarded "George" and "Ringo" and still had "John" and "Paul" (and, arguably, "Pete") on the table. Harry's opted for "John." You can no doubt expect to see John's debut next session.



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 9
Galen Thorne, human paladin 11
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 11
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 11
Syngaard, human fighter 11​

Game Session Date: 9 January 2019

- - -

Logan had handouts waiting for us when we sat down at the gaming table again this session. Here's what we each had:

Screams awaken you from your sleep, the dream you were having already dissolving into nothingness. The fading memory of your dream makes you decide to grab your old morningstar as you get up to investigate. A couple of the girls are cowering behind the bar as a skeletal figure stands in the middle of the doorway. Carved in its forehead is a four letter word, "JACE." It absently scans the room, locking eyes (or empty eye-sockets) with you it charges forward and is easily dispatched by a single swing of your morningstar. As it crumples beneath your blow you notice its right arm is wrapped in parchment. A few minutes later has you swearing into the 4 am sky about stupid wizards and their stupid wizard writing as you trudge to the Enchanted Flagon with the indecipherable parchment in hand. Your mood isn't improved in the least to find Dow sitting at the normal meeting table, not even bothering to not look like herself. She offers to wake the party and leaves you with a much needed morning ale.

DALETH said:
You are woken from your trance by a pounding upon your door and Dow's voice calling out, "Wake up, Syngaard's downstairs."

KASPAR said:
You are woken from your trance by a pounding upon your door and Dow's voice calling out, "Wake up, Syngaard's downstairs."

GALEN said:
"Remember, you are...the one who...chose this fate...," your brother says as you embrace his dying body, his blood still dripping down your blade. You lay him upon the ground and wipe the blood from your sword. As you turn to your friends, their somber expressions turn to fear as you feel your body hardening. You never got to see what frightened them, though you know it was your brother's doing. You awaken from Zehkar's final memory at the sound of pounding upon your door. Dow's voice calls out, "Wake up, Syngaard's downstairs."

ORION said:
You are riding swiftly through an oily gray mist. Indistinct forms swirl around, clawing at you, but you know as long as you hold tight to Carl they can't harm you. Ahead you see a faint light shining through the mist. A voice whispers across the swirling void, "Your mutt is too late. I already took what I came for." Carl whimpers slightly but continues running toward the light. In a flash you break through the surface of a silver sea that perfectly mirrors the starlit sky. A giant mountain looms serenely in the distance. Carl slows as you near the shore; a golden orb of light hovers nearby. Mentally you hear the sniffling of a small child. As you get closer the orb takes the form of Sarah. She whispers, "The bad man took mommy." You hear a sound from far away and suddenly it feels like you're dissolving away. "...tairs," a voice calls out and you sit upright in your bed, exhaling a gray mist that floats to the floor, coalescing into Carl's ghostly form.

- - -

The rest of the party threw on clothes and headed downstairs to the Enchanted Flagon, to find Syngaard there drinking an ale despite the early hour. Skevros entered the tavern from the door to the storage room, which also led to his permanent Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion if you wore the proper ring. "What is this all about?" he demanded, Dow trailing him after having awakened him from his sleep.

"You tell me," replied Syngaard. "Got myself woke up outta bed over at Kat's by a skeleton with my name carved into his skull. He was wearin' this around his arm." The bald fighter passed over a folded piece of parchment. Skevros looked at it and frowned. "This looks to be the Dwarven language," he observed. "I cannot read Dwarven."

"I can," piped up Orion, reaching up for the parchment. Skevros handed it over. She read the message aloud:

Dear Miss Nightsky,

I address this to you since you are the only one who can read it, unless the Dimwit is using Arcturus's staff. Please read the rest of this message aloud to your associates and your traitorous leader. I have ripped your wife from the Heavens - she shall accompany me in my imprisonment. I am willing to negotiate a trade: her soul for the astral golem and my book of prophecies. I await your minions in the Tomb of Zehkar. If they have not shown up by next nightfall, I shall withdraw my offer.



As Orion said the name "Alexandros" aloud, a heavy weight settled upon the group's souls, even Skevros's. "I believe we have just been targeted with a bane spell," he announced to the conscripts. Galen jolted as his longsword, which held the spirit of Zehkar, confirmed to the young paladin that Alexandros was the name of his brother, who later fashioned himself "The Mithral Mage."

"So Alexan--" began Syngaard before getting cut off.

"Do not say his name!" hissed Skevros. "Using his name gives him power. In fact, knowledge of his name acts as a form of phylactery for the Mithral Mage; it's why Hirek attempted to erase his name from history."

"So this Mithral Mage guy," amended Syngaard, "he's got my wife's soul?" Syngaard had stood up from the table during Orion's reading of the letter and had his hand gripped tightly around his morningstar as if ready to do battle.

Skevros frowned at the scarred fighter. "No, he has my wife's soul," he said.

"You sure?"

"Yes, quite - or at least he claims to have taken her soul. It's quite possible--" But then it was his turn to be interrupted before finishing his sentence.

"But not Mezz's?"

"What? No. Why would he take Messalina's soul? What would make you think that?"

"That damn skeleton showed up at Kat's with my name carved in his noggin, that's why! Why the Hell is he writing a letter to Orion and sending it to me, when it's for you in the first place? That don't make no sense!"

"It is a rather roundabout way of doing things," Skevros admitted. "Perhaps it's because of the entire group, you are the only one not camped out on my doorstep, so to speak."

"So is it true?" asked Orion. "Does the Mithral Mage have Jessica's soul with him in Dwarven Hell?" She explained to the group what she had thought of as her dream, before being awakened by Dow; now she was starting to wonder if it had just been a dream after all. Could it have been a sending of some type, or had Carl really brought her to the Celestial Planes to see the soul of Skevros's daughter, Sarah, after her mother's abduction?

"I must admit, it is unlikely," Skevros mused. "The Mithral Mage should be imprisoned in Dwarven Hell, which would make it quite impossible to kidnap the soul of my late wife from the Celestial Realms. No, I would imagine this to be an elaborate ruse, no doubt by one of the Seekers of Eternity trying to recover the astral golem I built and the book of prophecies you recently brought back from Ossirna."

"Have you had any luck deciphering the book?" asked Daleth.

"It is slow going," admitted Skevros.

"So what's the plan?" asked Syngaard. "We goin' to the Tomb of Zehkar or what?"

"Where's that?" asked Orion. She had not been part of the team sent there during their second mission for Skevros, after having slain a band of goblin raiders who laired inside the boundaries of Ashfall, the kingdom to the north. Kaspar briefly filled her in.

"I believe this will be our plan of attack," declared Skevros. "I will teleport you all to the Tomb of Zehkar. You will have with you what looks to be the book of prophecies and the astral golem. Upon arrival, you will meet with this alleged Mithral Mage -- and kill him and anyone with him."

"My kind of mission!" enthused Syngaard, finishing up his ale and slamming the mug back on the table. In his enthusiasm, he didn't even ask if this was a paying mission.

"If the soul of my wife is somehow there, I will naturally expect you to free her," Skevros added. Galen, Orion, and the elves all voiced their determination that they would by all means do so.

"When do we go?" asked Syngaard.

"There is no time like the present," Skevros replied. "Once you have made your preparations, we will go to the outskirts of the kingdom and I will teleport you there directly."

At the border of the kingdom, Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself, as well as a true seeing spell from the staff of divination he had taken from Arcturus. Galen summoned his dire lion, Burt, and cast a bless spell on everyone to counteract the bane spell from knowing the Mithral Mage's true name.

Orion looked over at Syngaard. "Well?" she asked from the seat of Carl's ghost touch saddle.

"Well what?"

"Aren't you going to 'whip out your Dick'?"

"Can't," replied Syngaard. "I used him twice when we was rescuin' all them refugees in the Azure Glade, remember? My Dick only works twice a week - he's still restin' up from his last bit of excitement." The bald fighter pulled the bronze griffon from his pocket and started rubbing him vigorously, to no effect. "See? All the rubbin' in the world won't do no good just yet." He put the figurine back into his pocket, either completely unaware of the double entendres or very good at faking it.

"If we're all ready...?" prompted Skevros, and Galen indicated they were with a nod. The king's adviser cast his spell and the conscripts vanished as one, to reappear in the Tomb of Zehkar, right before the sloping passageway from the upper level of the cave above.

In the glow from Orion and Syngaard's flaming weapons, the area looked much the same as it had the first time Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard had been there. They were in the largest chamber of the tomb, with a raised plinth where the statue of Zehkar had been. The runes on the plinth were all burned out, and the statue was no longer there, but there were still the side passageways leading to two smaller rooms the three conscripts had cleaned out the first time they had been through the tomb - when Galen had first taken the sword of Zehkar as his own. One noticeable difference was that in the back corner of the chamber was a glowing magic circle inscribed on the floor; it held a glowing ball of energy - a lantern archon, apparently - trapped within its diameter.

However, the conscripts were not the only people in the tomb. Standing on the plinth, in roughly the same place the statue of Zehkar had once stood, was a human wizard in silvery robes - no doubt, the same wizard who had slain the amethyst dragon the conscripts had caused to flee from Ossirna and had his head - now covered in a sheen of solid mithral - delivered to the Enchanted Flagon. Galen's eyes narrowed; not only did he detect an aura of evil coming from the direction of the silvery-robed wizard, but he recognized the man's face from his dream - it was Alexandros, the Mithral Mage, brother to Zehkar!

Daleth's eyes narrowed as well, for a similar reason: with his true seeing still in effect, he not only saw the illusion of the human wizard everyone else in the room saw, but he also saw the true form hidden beneath the illusion: a skeletal being with silvery flames in its eye sockets, much like the skull of a slain druid Skevros had interrogated with an osteovox ritual. Daleth himself was cloaked in an illusion spell, courtesy of Orion's hat of disguise, making the elven wizard look like Skevros - or, more accurately, like the astral golem Skevros had crafted in his own image.

"So you have come," smirked the wizard with a knowing smile, his hands behind his back as if he hadn't a care in the world.

Kaspar was the first to react. Dropping the fake "book of prophecies" he'd brought as a momentary distraction - in actuality, it was Skevros's old book whose pages had been erased of all writing - reached up to touch his newly-purchased amber amulet of vermin and activated it as he rushed forward. A giant stag beetle the monk had decided to name John manifested behind the silver-robed wizard's left shoulder as Kaspar approached Alexandros from his right, flanking him with John. The beetle's mandibles snapped at the wizard, but failed to connect.

Galen sent his battle mount charging forward to rip at the wizard with his claws and bite at him with his over-large fangs, while the paladin on his back used a smite evil attack, channeling positive energy through the sword of Zehkar. Alexandros staggered from the blow and found himself in a tight grapple with the dire lion, who had gotten a good grip upon the lich with his jaws.

"Orion!" called Syngaard, pointing at the magic circle and telling her to check it out without saying so in so many words. Orion had Carl run up to the circular engraving on the stone floor and she examined it closely, looking for any magical traps that might be in place. She noted it had been carved as a magic circle against good with its power facing inwards, making it a magical prison to whatever was trapped within. While she was thus engaged, Carl put out a ghostly paw and ran into an invisible barrier; apparently the magic circle had been reinforced with a wall of force to prevent anyone from breaking the circle and freeing the lantern archon trapped within. If that was indeed Jessica Wrencrofft's soul in there, freeing her wasn't going to be as easy as they might have hoped....

Syngaard was ready to join the scrum against Alexandros when a sudden manifestation phased out of the wall to his right. It was a lumpy shadow that upon further inspection seemed made up of a conglomeration of numerous decapitated heads; even closer examination showed each of these heads sported a beard and dwarven facial features. Daleth responded before Syngaard could, with a quickened magic missile spell that sent bolts of energy flying across the chamber to strike into the mass of severed dwarven heads. But the caller in darkness (as the creature was known, when it was later described to Skevros) continued its dash across the chamber and slammed through Galen's body with ease, its incorporeal form siphoning off some of the paladin's life essence.

Changing targets in mid-charge, Syngaard sent his old morningstar crashing into the caller of darkness, hoping to smash in a couple of dwarven faces. But the weapon passed through the creature's body as if it wasn't there.

Carl suddenly turned to the wall at his left and started barking furiously. Orion turned just in time to see a greater shadow enter the chamber by passing right through the wall, but thanks to her ghost-dog's warning the little halfling was able to dodge below the undead thing's attack.

Daleth cast a scorching ray spell at Alexandros, channeling it through his metamagic rod. Both rays hit the wizard, who barely seemed to notice. But then the lich pulled his glowing hand from behind his back and touched the dire lion still holding him between his powerful jaws; in an instant, Burt had been turned to solid mithral.

Or so it had appeared. Galen, though his empathic link with his bonded mount, could tell Burt was still alive (but very much confused and panicked), imprisoned within an outer layer of mithral. The dire lion, if left unaided, would soon enough suffocate inside his mithral prison.

Kaspar dealt Alexandros a flurry of blows in retaliation for what the monk at that point thought was Burt's death. At the same time, John got a good grip around the silver-clad wizard's waist with his powerful mandibles. Kaspar saw a look of sad resignation cross Alexandros's face.

Galen slid from his mithral mount's broad back and raised the sword of Zehkar to strike down at Alexandros. The wizard asked wearily, "So you've come to kill me again, brother?"

"I merely wield Zehkar," answered Galen, bringing the sword crashing down upon the lich. As his skeletal form crumbled from the blow, Alexandros commented, "Many Ossirnans would die for the chance to be my vessel." A smile broke across the illusory form's lips before fading from view, the lich's skeleton crumbling to dust.

Before the party could celebrate the death of the Mithral Mage, Syngaard cried out in pain. The caller in darkness had sent a blast of mental energy at the scarred fighter, hoping to overpower his mind. "Good thing you don't have a mind to overcome!" Orion called from across the room as she leapt from Carl's back and flanked the greater shadow with her ghost-mount. With her enhanced vision, the result of a ritual using the ashes of Autumn Rose, she was able to discern the weak points in the negative energy lattice making up the undead creature's body. She sent her flaming short sword striking at one of those weak points, but the creature's incorporeality worked to its advantage and the halfling's blade passed harmlessly through it. Carl snapped at the greater shadow but, perhaps somewhat out of the habit of biting opponents after his death and rebirth as a ghost, missed as well.

Despite their ineffectual attacks, the greater shadow flew away from Orion and Carl to attack Kaspar from behind, perhaps seeking an easy target. But the monk's preternatural senses allowed him to dodge the incoming blow despite not being in a position to see it coming. He spun in place and faced his undead foe, tenryutsume sheathed in flames and giving off the occasional spark.

Syngaard sent his morningstar swinging three times through the body of the caller in darkness in quick succession; only one of them managed to do the creature any harm. "Damn undead!" he cried. Daleth shot at the mass of incorporeal dwarven heads with an empowered magic missile channeled through his metamagic rod, realizing that simple attack spell was guaranteed to strike even an incorporeal foe. Kaspar and John pivoted and rushed over to attack the caller in darkness, but their best efforts passed through the undead thing's insubstantial body - it was like trying to fight a cloud.

Galen dismissed Burt and the mithral statue of his dire lion vanished. The return to the Beastlands was supposed to restore his faithful mount of all wounds and afflictions; the paladin could only hope it would return him to his normal, fully-healthy state, the mithral coating being removed. But once Burt had been dismissed to his home plane, Galen no longer had an empathic link running with Burt; he'd have to wait until the next time he summoned him to see whether or not the ploy had worked.

Although still worried about Burt, Galen didn't allow such distractions to keep him out of combat with an evil opponent. The insubstantial dwarven heads had an aura that reeked of evil; Galen brought the sword of Zehkar swinging down into their midst, and they discorporated, each dwarven head screaming without sound as it flew off in a different direction from that of its neighbors, until there was nothing left of the beast.

That left only the greater shadow to deal with. Kaspar attacked it, drawing its focus, allowing Orion to sneak attack it from a flanking position from behind. Carl also ran up and chomped down on a shadowy appendage, his own ghostly form able to keep hold of the incorporeal being's limb. Syngaard raced up to it and swung at it with his original morningstar. (He held his flaming brilliant energy morningstar in his shield hand merely as a light source, since it passed through unliving matter and undead were nothing but unliving matter.) His weapon passed harmlessly through the greater shadow, but the undead thing fed greedily on the fighter's strength, causing Syngaard to swear profusely as he felt himself weakening. Daleth finally finished the shadow off with another empowered magic missile spell, his last daily use of his metamagic rod.

With no foes to fight, Orion was able to spend much more time at the magic circle. She finally found a way to break it, the wall of force having apparently vanished when Alexandros was slain. But the lantern archon held within was unresponsive - was it unconscious? (It was certainly heard to tell when the creature in question was a simple glowing ball of energy.)

Galen tried channeling a wave of healing energy through his illumium scabbard, and that did the trick: the lantern archon rose up from the stone floor and hovered out of the remains of the magic circle. <Thank you,> the archon thought at the heroes.

"Are you Jessica?" asked Orion. "Jessica Wrencrofft?"

<I am indeed,> came back the reply.

"Then I think you'd better come with us," said Kaspar, pulling the ring of return from his robes. He held it out and the others each grabbed hold of it with one hand - Syngaard only after stirring through Alexandros's ashes looking from any dropped treasure and finding only a spellbook, which he turned over to Daleth. "Stupid undead," the fighter muttered to himself, grabbing onto the ring. Jessica hovered atop the ring and lowered herself onto it, then Kaspar said the magic word that teleported the group back to the border of Durnhill.

"You were successful?" asked Skevros from within the boundaries of the kingdom.

"Killed 'em all, just like you said," confirmed Syngaard.

"And this is...?" asked the king's adviser, staring at the lantern archon and trying not to hope too hard.

<It's me, Skevros,> replied Jessica and the wizard gave a cry of joy. They all returned to the Enchanted Flagon, where there were five piles of four emeralds each lying around the table they used as their primary discussion area. "Your payment," Skevros said simply without elaborating. Then he and the spirit of his dead wife went into his Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion to talk in private.

"All right!" chortled Syngaard, grabbing up his four emeralds. "Killed the Mithral Mage and got paid doin' it!"

"You realize he isn't truly dead," pointed out Kaspar. "That body we killed was some Seeker of Eternity acting as a willing host for the Mithral Mage, who's still probably in Dwarven Hell. And there are plenty of others who will summon him forth again, to allow him to take over their own bodies."

"So we'll be fighting him again?" asked Syngaard.

"Indubitably," replied Daleth.

Syngaard wasn't sure what that word the elf wizard had just said meant, but his tone made it sound a whole lot like it meant "Yes." Still, that didn't faze the scarred fighter at all.

"Well great, then!" he said. "Maybe later we'll get paid to kill him all over again!"

- - -

Once again, Logan has found a way to have us up against a villain whose death doesn't mean we've seen the end of him! But then, the majority of us are already at 11th level (and Daleth leveled up to 10th as a result of this adventure), so the campaign's over halfway finished; about time we see the main villain who's pretty much behind all of our woes.

Joey didn't show up for this session; he was fast asleep at home and his parents couldn't wake him - apparently he's a hard one to wake up when he's tired. As we haven't had any no-shows for a long time, Logan admitted he'd been out of practice writing adventures that could be scaled down to include only those who showed up, so Dan offered to run Daleth for the evening as well as Galen (and Burt, and Todd - Dan pulled quadruple duty this session!). A good thing, too, as it turned out - we really needed Daleth's metamagic rod of empower ramping up the damage his spells dealt, and magic missiles come in mighty handy when fighting incorporeal creatures!



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 10
Galen Thorne, human paladin 11
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 11
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 11
Syngaard, human fighter 11​

Game Session Date: 16 January 2019

- - -

"You?" demanded Syngaard as he burst into the Enchanted Flagon. The other conscripts were already at their seats around the table, and Dow - in the astral golem Skevros had built for her so she could more easily interact with those of human size - stood at the place along the table where the king's adviser usually stood when explaining the next assignment. "Skevros was the one who summoned us here. Why do we gotta take our orders from you?" In his irritation at having to deal with Skevros's homunculus, the bald fighter failed to even notice the pair of emeralds sitting on the table at his place, apparently prepayment for the job at hand.

"Daddy's aiding in the defense of the kingdom's borders against the invading Ossirnans," Dow explained. She had recalibrated her speech patterns for adult speech, which was a blessing; when they had first encountered her, she was still talking like a little kid, as she had been built to be a friend and companion for Skevros's young daughter. She still had the irritating habit of referring to Skevros, her master, as "Daddy" - but that was a habit she wasn't likely to break any time soon.

"Are we to aid him?" asked Orion.

"No, he doesn't need any help on that front," Dow explained. That was very likely, too; the conscripts had recently seen him wipe out over a dozen evil wizards with a single meteor swarm spell. When it came to raw power, none of the conscripts could match their leader. Rather, it was the fact that he was magically forced to remain within the borders of the kingdom of Durnhill and his manor house in the Azure Glade that had caused him to reach out to form a band of conscripts who could perform missions outside of those confines.

"A lumber shipment is late," Dow added. "The wood is needed to build fortifications along the border. King Leornic is having you sent to investigate what happened."

"And where are we to go to investigate this missing shipment?" inquired Kaspar.

"The lumber mill is about 30 minutes away on foot to the northwest," Dow replied.

"On foot?" complained Syngaard, who had finally noticed the emeralds before him and was busy pocketing them away in his coin purse. "You mean we gotta trudge all the way there? We ain't gettin' teleported, like normal?"

"As I said, Daddy's away on a mission of his own."

"You won't need to do any trudging," Orion reminded the scarred fighter. "You can ride there on your Dick - assuming it isn't still too tired to do anything."

"Oh yeah!" said Syngaard. "Old Dick's ready for more action!" Once activated, Syngaard knew the bronze griffon he had named "Dick" would remain alive and alert for a full six hours unless he was slain in the meantime, in which case he'd simply revert back to statuette form. Even with a half-hour trudge to go find this lumber mill - Syngaard wasn't quite ready for long-distance travel by air just yet - that left a good five hours of combat readiness to still have time for the half-hour trudge back.

Galen mentally called out across the planes to his bonded mount and Burt manifested in the corner of the tavern. The paladin was pleased to see his dire lion had suffered no permanent effects from having had his outer layer transformed into mithral; apparently Galen releasing him back to the Beastlands when he did had done the trick and saved the dire lion from being slain. Burt was back to his normal form, all fur and mane and fangs and bony extrusions, with not a glint of mithral to be seen. Galen led him out of the Enchanted Flagon and climbed up onto his back. "I'm glad to see you're all right, buddy!" he said.

Orion followed the paladin outside and whistled for her own mount. Immediately, Carl manifested from thin air, the ghost dog having simply stepped through the boundary between the Ethereal Plane and the Material Plane. The halfling jumped up onto the ghost touch saddle that allowed her to ride a dog that had no true material form.

Syngaard pulled out his bronze griffon statuette and started rubbing it, causing it to vanish; in its place stood Dick. Syngaard leapt up onto the griffon's broad back, settling himself just in front of the creature's wings. He turned and looked down at the two elves, neither of whom had a riding mount of their own. "Either of you want a ride on my Dick?" he asked them.

"I think I would rather ride upon Burt, if you don't mind," sniffed Daleth. "There is more room."

"Come aboard," Galen smiled, putting out a hand to help pull the elven wizard up behind him onto Burt's back.

"Kaspar?" Syngaard offered.

"Thank you - I will walk," the monk simply replied. That decided, the party headed out to the forest at the northwest corner of the kingdom of Durnhill.

The lumber mill wasn't difficult to find; Dow had told the conscripts which road to take and it led them straight to it. The mill consisted of two wooden buildings set in the middle of a clearing in the forest, the mill proper - identified by the large, metal, circular saw mounted underneath an overhang of the two-story building, powered by magic no doubt - and another longer building, apparently a bunkhouse or such. But the buildings were of lesser interest than the apparent signs of a struggle, with discarded axes lying upon the ground and bloodstains scattered along the dirt. A large drag mark led off deeper into the woods.

"What's this?" asked Orion, examining the drag mark. "A giant snake?"

"It is possible," Kaspar admitted, giving the marks a thorough look-over. Galen rode Burt into the clearing, casting a protection from evil spell upon himself and his mount as they moved forward. Whether it had been a giant snake or something else, it seemed likely that combat might occur at any time and he wanted to be ready. Daleth followed suit, casting a magic circle against evil spell on himself and his pseudodragon familiar Todd as he slipped off of the dire lion's back and headed over to the long building. The wizard peeked through a window and saw a dining area, with a discarded meal still on the table; judging from the knocked-over glasses, the diners had apparently left in a hurry. Daleth surmised no combat had actually occurred in the room, merely that the occupants had been eating whenever the snake-monster had appeared. Assuming these had been lumberjacks, it would be their axes left abandoned on the ground outside after they had been slain by the giant snake. Daleth stepped into the building and went quickly down its length, discovering empty bunkrooms that could house eight lumberjacks. None were present.

Syngaard urged Dick forward, the griffon flapping his wings and taking them airborne to fly over the paladin's head and over to the mill itself. From his vantage point, Syngaard could see there was a window on the second level above the circular saw, but the glare from the sun prevented him from seeing inside. Regardless, there were no signs of anyone still alive in the place.

"Let's go," Galen said, drawing his sword of Zehkar and urging Burt forward to follow the drag marks in the dirt. He heard hissing ahead, seemingly coming from the branches above. Looking up into the trees for snakes as they rounded a bend in the clearing, Galen and Burt found a full dozen of them...all attached to a single, thick, serpentine body with scales of a brownish-red. The hydra surged forward, six of its head snapping in turn at the paladin and the other six going for the dire lion he rode. Galen managed to block the bites of several of the heads with his shield and his mithral armor prevented some of them from doing him much damage, but Burt was not so shielded and he roared in pain as serpentine fangs bit into his flesh all over. Ducking under the snapping jaws, Galen thrust the sword of Zehkar into the base of the hydra's body, causing all of its heads to hiss in pain in unison.

Hearing the sounds of combat, Kaspar ran forward at his full speed, activating his amber amulet of vermin as he did so. John appeared directly beside the hydra and snapped at the multiheaded beast with his powerful mandibles, but they failed to get a hold on the hydra's serpentine body. Kaspar, however, was bitten by a lightning-quick strike from one of the hydra's heads, which moved with the speed of a striking cobra. Kaspar walled off the pain for now, part of him - the part not dealing with a life-or-death fight with a twelve-headed hydra - noticing the creature's bite didn't seem to have any venom. That was fortunate!

Orion sent Carl through the trees to approach the hydra from the back, away from the focus of its dozen heads and directly across the beast from Galen and Burt. The hydra surprised her by noticing their approach; instantly, two of the dozen necks whipped around in their direction and the heads at the ends of those necks snapped their jaws at her and Carl, one passing through Carl's incorporeal body but the other catching the halfling on the shoulder. However, it got the worst of that exchange, for Orion had her flaming short sword in hand and with one deft move she cut entirely through the creature's neck, causing the head to drop to the forest floor. The flames from her weapon cauterized the wound on the stump of the neck, which writhed around ineffectually after its head had been severed.

Syngaard heard the sound of battle going on around the bend and sent his Dick flying high above the mill to swoop over and dive toward the twelve-headed snake fighting his fellow conscripts. As Dick dove down into a direct dive at the hydra, Syngaard stood crouched upon the griffon's neck; as griffon impacted serpentine necks and heads in an exchange of snapping jaws and beaks and raking talons, Syngaard leaped off his griffon mount and went crashing into a clump of the hydra's heads. He had his flaming brilliant energy morningstar in hand and the weapon collided into the side of one of the hydra's heads, smashing it instantly to pulp; surprisingly, the head almost instantly seemed to separate from its neck, sliding off to the side and being discarded on the ground. Syngaard's morningstar had singed the neck stump somewhat but not to the extent that Orion's short sword had done, and the now-headless neck started growing in a Y-shape, as two sections of neck, each with its own head, grew from the severed stump. "--the Hell?" sputtered Syngaard, surprised beyond belief at this sudden manifestation.

Daleth ran out of the bunkhouse and saw the battle ahead. Pulling out his metamagic rod, he channeled a scorching ray spell through it, targeting two separate heads on the multiheaded foe. Each of the twin rays struck true, burning the heads in question and cauterizing the stumps; no heads would ever grow back from those two particular necks. That brought the number of active heads down to ten, for while Orion had severed one of the original twelve, Syngaard's actions had caused an extra head to grow back. Todd, on the wizard's shoulder, hissed in anger at the hydra but Daleth wisely kept his pseudodragon familiar back from combat.

Galen healed himself while dropping from his dire lion's back. Through the empathic link they shared, the paladin knew Burt had been badly injured by the hydra's initial assault. "Back, Burt, to safety!" he commanded, and the dire lion gave a snort of disgust but followed his master's commands, scooting backwards out of range of the striking heads.

The hydra's heads whipped out again at the creature's various foes. Most struck true, although two of the heads were obviously surprised and confused when their jaws passed right through that tasty-looking dog. Dick was nearly overcome by the attacks, blood flowing freely from numerous bite marks along the griffon's flanks, staining both feathers and fur. It was all Dick could do to stay aloft, attacking the hydra's heads from above.

At ground level, Kaspar sent a flurry of blows against the hydra, concentrating the power of his strikes against the hydra's lower body rather than fighting the heads. At his side, John continued trying to chew through the hydra, but the giant stag beetle's mandibles only opened so wide and the diameter of the hydra's serpentine body was too large for the beetle to grasp as it would a smaller foe.

Orion lopped off another head with her flaming short sword but this time her weapon's flames didn't fully prevent the severed neck from regenerating two more heads. It must have dealt enough damage to slow the process, however, for rather than the abrupt dual-replacement as from Syngaard's earlier strike, these two heads and necks were taking their time to regrow.

"Try to take out the body, not the heads!" called Galen from below. Syngaard, standing in a mass of writhing necks, slammed his morningstar down hard onto the creature's back, but then the severed neck-stump whose head Orion had just cut off wandered within the fighter's reach and rather than swinging at it, Syngaard opted to just push his flaming weapon into the stump. There was a sizzling hiss as part of the stump was seared, but again it hadn't been fully prevented from springing forth any new heads. The creature was down to nine heads at this point, but there was a chance it would get back up to ten soon enough.

But then Daleth slew another two heads in a repeat of his earlier strategy: a scorching ray spell channeled through his metamagic rod that empowered any spell cast through it. Each ray burned off a head and sealed up the stump of a neck, leaving the hydra with only seven heads - just over half of its original number.

Orion had been bitten several times by this point and was starting to feel light-headed. Seeing this, Galen broke off battle with the hydra and saw to the health of his teammate. Channeling a burst of positive energy through his illimium scabbard, he shot a ray of healing energy that cascaded over the halfling's body, healing up the worst of her wounds. "Thanks, Galen!" she called to the paladin, then renewed her efforts against their joint foe,

The seven hydra heads snapped out, each striking a different foe (and the one trying to bite the incorporeal Carl hissing in growing frustration). One head caught Dick's throat in its powerful jaws and ripped it out, causing the griffon to topple lifelessly at the hydra's side and then seemingly disappear - although the hydra could be forgiven, in the heat of battle, to miss the sound of a small figurine dropping to the forest floor.

At its base, Kaspar and John retaliated, the beetle finally getting a grip on the hydra's thick body and crushing its mandibles between the beast's thick scales. Despite the success she'd had in severing heads, Orion took Galen's advice and stabbed her flaming short sword deep into the hydra's side, dealing it a significant amount of damage if the fact that all seven heads shot upwards in pain was any indication. It looked to the halfling like the serious wound she had inflicted was starting to heal up on its own, though - the hydra apparently had a very fast metabolism when it came to healing wounds, or perhaps the same power that allowed it to regenerate severed heads did likewise to its body. In either case, they needed to bring the creature down, quickly, while it was close to death and before it healed back up to full strength.

Syngaard's glowing morningstar crashed down onto the beast's spine again, the fighter cursing at the (admittedly temporary) death of his beloved Dick. The hydra staggered, its heads swaying back and forth as the serpentine creature tried to remain conscious. Daleth finished off the beast with a simple magic missile spell, channeled through the last daily use of his metamagic rod just to be sure. The darts of energy streaked across the clearing from the wizard to the hydra, slaying the creature immediately. (Syngaard had to leap to safety from the beast's back as it flopped over on its side, nearly being slammed by a lifeless head as he hit the ground, rolling.

Galen returned immediately to Burt's side and healed up the worst of the dire lion's wounds. Burt's leonine face looked shamed, but the paladin assured him his efforts had not been in vain, for by taking so many of the hydra's initial attacks himself the lion had prevented the hydra from attacking others.

With combat over, the conscripts checked out the rest of the area. There was a wagon behind the bunkhouse loaded with cut planks; it wasn't a full shipment but it would have to do for now. There were no signs of any horses in the area; either they had run off or become hydra snacks along with the lumberjacks who had worked here.

However, Syngaard did find one survivor, huddling in an upstairs bedroom in the main building: the proprietor of the lumber mill, a gnome by the name of Quincy Tinkertuft. "Figures," sneered Syngaard. "All the working stiffs are dead, but the leadership's all safe and cozy! Typical."

"I didn't dare leave with that beast around outside!" Quincy argued. "He's had me trapped in here for days!"

"The King needs your lumber shipment," Galen informed the gnome. "We'll take what you have for now, but you'll need to keep the mill running. You'd best come with us back to the city, to see about hiring some replacement lumbermen."

"But how will we pull the wagon?" asked Quincy. "The horses were both eaten. Are you going to hitch up that big lion?" Burt growled in anger at the suggestion that a paladin's dire lion bonded mount would be used as a beast of burden. Quincy whimpered in fear and hid behind Galen.

"I believe we will find an alternative solution," suggested Kaspar, pulling planks from the wagon and dropping them carefully into his bag of holding. The others followed suit - all but Syngaard, who took the time to root around the body of the slain hydra until he found his figurine of wondrous power. Dropping the statuette into his pocket, he announced to the group, "I found my Dick!"

"Good job," muttered Orion to herself. "Now let's see if you can find your own ass with two hands."

- - -

This was a refreshing change of pace: for once, we were just fighting a big monster instead of a bunch of Seekers of Eternity. Logan even commented that this was one of the few (if not the only) adventures he's written for this campaign that didn't really advance the overarching plot any, but none of us players minded - sometimes it's fun to just go on a mindless killing spree.



PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 10
Galen Thorne, human paladin 11
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 11
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 11
Syngaard, human fighter 11​

Game Session Date: 30 January 2019

- - -

The day began with a summons from Skevros, through the magical rings each of the conscripts wore. "Come immediately to the Enchanted Flagon," the king's adviser commanded. "Dow has been kidnapped!"

"Big flippin' deal!" scoffed Syngaard to himself as he buckled on his armor, grabbed up his shield and weapons, and said a hasty goodbye to his other employer, Katarina. She ran a cathouse not too far from the closed tavern which served as the headquarters for the five people who had been pressed into the king's service as troubleshooters. But despite Syngaard's disdain for the doll-like homunculus Skevros had created decades ago for his now-deceased young daughter, the bald fighter raced along the streets of the town at his best speed - after all, there was a good chance this would be a paying mission!

Sure enough, it was. Syngaard entered the tavern to find the others already there - no surprise, as they each chose to live in the rooms above the Enchanted Flagon, whereas Syngaard preferred the room and board he got for working as a bouncer at Kat's. Skevros sat at their main table, upon which lay Dow's unmoving doll-body and a piece of parchment.

"Ah, Syngaard, there you are," Skevros said as the scarred fighter took his place at the table. "The others have already read this over - take a look at it yourself." And he pushed the parchment over to Syngaard, who frowned as he read it. The parchment read:



"What's with the funky writing?" Syngaard asked. Indeed, the message had been obviously written by a host of different people, judging by the way the handwriting differed several ways between even the letters of the same word.

"That's an old anti-scrying trick," Orion explained. "If you don't want anybody to be able to trace who wrote the letter, you get a whole bunch of people to write different parts of it. It makes it harder to focus on any one individual that way - you often end up spending your time tracking down a bunch of people who had been hired to add a few letters where indicated and know nothing about the letter's intended purpose. But one thing puzzles me."

"Only one?" scoffed Syngaard, looking down at his halfling verbal nemesis.

"Yeah, only one," retorted Orion. "Who in the world would want Syngaard? For anything?"

"That's easy: Karlo Maladucci, the crime lord I used to work for as a bodyguard - and my dead wife's father. I been wonderin' when he'd pop his ugly head back up." Orion opened her mouth to mention how hypocritical it was for Syngaard - whose face was covered in a maze of scars from years of combats in the streets growing up - to call anyone "ugly," but decided it was too easy a blow.

"You believe this Karlo Maladucci was the one behind Dow's kidnapping?" demanded Skevros.

"Yeah, that'd be his way of doin' business. I guess he knows I work for you, so he kidnapped someone you'd want back to make sure you turn me over to him. Thing I don't get is how he got to Dow. Don't she pretty much stay here in the tavern, or else your two manors?" Skevros had an extradimensional manor hidden in the back room of the tavern, and it was connected via a teleport gate in the fireplace with his actual manor in the Azure Glade, the place of his birth.

"She has restricted herself to those three locales, yes," Skevros affirmed.

"Hey, halfling, go make yourself useful: see if the front door's been jimmied," Syngaard suggested. Orion bit back a retort, choosing to take the bald human's command as a tacit admission that she was the one most skilled at making such a determination. Thus, without a word, she went through the front door and examined it closely from the outside. "Yep, the lock's been tampered with," she replied. "Somebody broke in here - last night, I'd assume."

"Dow's consciousness was inside the astral golem," Skevros mused, "and she's taken to wearing the hat of disguise to look more like a normal person. It's entirely possible the abductors have no idea she isn't exactly what she would appear to be: a human woman, likely in my employ."

"So you don't think this has anything to do with the Ossirnans trying to steal your astral golem?" Galen asked.

"I would presume not. Well then: to the matter at hand! Dow has been abducted; I want her returned to me unharmed. I will pay you each 2,000 pieces of gold - or their equivalent in gemstones - for her return. The ransom note shows where she's being held. I will teleport you to that location, where you will effect her rescue. Any questions?"

"Yeah, I got one," Syngaard spat out. "We plannin' on just turnin' me over to Maladucci?"

"We'll need you present," Galen pointed out. "If Maladucci - or whoever wrote the note - wants you as a condition for Dow's release, then it's going to look suspicious if we arrive without you."

"I have a question," piped up Kaspar. "If Dow is inhabiting the astral golem, why does she not simply exit the construct and return here, in her original body?" The elf monk indicated the discarded doll-body lying upon the table.

"To do so would be to lose the astral golem and her hat of disguise," Skevros pointed out. "I doubt she wishes to lose either. Plus, as a construct, she's not in any actual physical danger. It isn't as if they can actually cause her pain."

"Have you had an opportunity to scry upon this tower mentioned in the ransom note?" asked Daleth.

"I have, with negative results," admitted Skevros. "The fact that it is magically blocked from scrying is a good indicator that it is indeed being used to house Dow." He turned to face Galen, Kaspar, and Syngaard. "You know the tower well: it's the one the goblin bandits were using as a base of operations on the first mission I assigned you."

"So how we doin' this?" Syngaard asked, cutting to the chase. He wasn't pleased with simply being turned over to Karlo Maladucci. He'd worked with the man for years and knew his reputation for ruthlessness was well-founded. Demanding Syngaard be handed over to him did not bode well for the scarred fighter - and the "preferably alive" part didn't sit particularly well with him, either.

"Let's go there, like Skevros suggested, and see what we're up against," said Galen. As a paladin, he tended to favor the more straightforward approach. "I'll have Burt with me from the beginning - that will certainly make us look more intimidating."

Orion snickered. "And maybe you can try intimidating him with your Dick, Syngaard," she suggested, whistling for her own mount. Carl heard the call and materialized into the tavern. The halfling jumped up into the ghost touch saddle that allowed her to ride the manifested spirit of her slain riding dog. Once she'd been attuned to the saddle, she pulled a potion of mage armor from her belt and reached forward to give it to her dog. Carl drank it down happily; as a ghost, he didn't need to eat or drink but he remembered the sensation and enjoyed doing so whenever possible - which wasn't often in his incorporeal state. (Sometimes Orion sat in the saddle just to feed Carl a bowl of unneeded-but-enjoyable-nonetheless water.)

"No way," Syngaard countered. "Mr. Maladucci don't know about my Dick - I'm keeping it safe in my pants where he won't see it. That way I can whip it out when he don't suspect nothing."

"Then it would seem we have an adequate strategy to keep you safe," reasoned Daleth. He turned to Skevros. "I believe we are ready," he told the king's adviser.

"Hang on!" said Galen, calling across the planes for his dire lion bonded mount. Burt likewise materialized in the tavern and the paladin leaped up upon his broad back.

Orion saw the worried look on Syngaard's face and offered him a bit of comfort. "I'll tell you what," she said. "We can have Skevros teleport us far enough away that we won't be seen arriving. Then I'll have Carl go ethereal and we can scout the place out before we go in. Then at least we'll know what we're dealing with."

"You can do that?" Syngaard asked.

"Sure," Orion replied confidently - although she'd never actually tried it. She was also aware that if she somehow got separated from Carl while on the Ethereal Plane she'd have no way of getting back...but she trusted Skevros would be able to help her if it came to that.

"I assume this Karlo Maladucci is of an evil bent?" Daleth asked Syngaard.

"Oh yeah - big time." The elven wizard nodded knowingly and cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself. Even if they wouldn't be dealing with the crime lord directly, anyone who kidnapped innocents to get others to do their bidding had to be of an evil nature. He followed that spell up with a Rary's telepathic bond that linked four of the conscripts together; the wizard hadn't trained enough with the spell yet to also include Kaspar in the link but as the elven monk was one of their most self-sufficient members, Daleth felt he'd be the one best left out. He then nodded their readiness to Skevros, Skevros cast the teleport spell, and the conscripts, Burt, and Carl were suddenly in a field with a grove of trees immediately before them.

"The tower keep's on the other side of the trees," Galen observed.

"Then I'll be right back," Orion said, but was cut off by Syngaard. "Hang on, before you go, lemme tell you what Mr. Maladucci looks like." He then proceeded to describe the crime lord, who fortunately had a rather distinctive look: he shaved the sides of his head, leaving only a strip of hair along the top of his skull. He also shaved his chin but allowed his sideburns to grow directly into his mustache, sporting a mutton-chop style not frequently worn in the Durnhill environs. But it served Karlo Maladucci's purpose, allowing him to stand out among a crowd.

"Back in a bit," Orion promised, guiding Carl to slip between the dimensions and enter the Ethereal Plane.

To the rest of the conscripts, Orion and Carl simply faded from view. But from the halfling's perspective, all color leeched from the world until it became a dreary land of black, white, and gray. "Can you hear me?" Orion asked, but got no response from the other members of her team - she hadn't expected the Rary's telepathic bond spell to be able to cross dimensional boundaries, but since she could hear what was going on in the Material Plane she'd hoped they might likewise be able to hear her. "Oh well," she told Carl. "Let's go check out the tower."

Carl responded with a happy "whuff!" and dashed forward, darting between the trees and heading straight for the tower keep. He ran straight through the front door; Orion held back a squeal of anticipation of an impending crash but passed safely through the thick, wooden door without incident. It was clear that getting used to ethereal travel would take some time!

Standing inside the lower level of the tower keep were two figures, one of them accurately fitting the description Syngaard had given of Karlo Maladucci; the other, a hobgoblin in heavy armor - mithral plate, by the look of it. Neither seemed to notice Orion or her ghostly mount, which was something else the halfling would have to get used to. But rather than hang around and tempt Fate, she urged Carl to head up the stairs. Carl, in a bit of whimsy, opted to rise straight up through the first floor's ceiling instead, rising up out of the floor on the second level. There they saw Dow tightly bound in the corner, looking bored but unhurt. (The halfling mentally chided herself for thinking the homunculus could actually be hurt inside the astral golem; once again she was thinking of Dow as a human because she currently looked like a human.) There was nobody guarding the captive, which Orion found odd. Were they really only dealing with two people here? If so, this was likely to be a rather easy mission!

Still, just to be safe, Orion sent Carl up through the ceiling of the second level and up onto the roof. That was fortunate, for she immediately spotted a wizard - identifiable by the Azure Glade robes he wore, although Orion couldn't make out what color they were in this black-and-white world and thus pinpoint his specialty - hunkered down in the corner of the rooftop, keeping his head below the top of the battlements. A light crossbow sat on the floor at his side, likely a backup weapon for when he ran out of spells. This was likely Maladucci's plan: make it seem like it was just the two of them the conscripts would have to deal with, then have his hidden wizard start lobbing fireballs or what-have-you from the roof of the keep! That was definitely information worth passing on to the rest of the group!

Carl leapt through the crenellations of the roof's top and went racing through the sky, heading back down to the rest of the group still hidden on the other side of the trees. Once returning to their sides, Orion had Carl slide back into the Material Plane, the two of them suddenly appearing back into view. As she did so, her mind snapped back into the Rary's telepathic bond spell effect, where the others had apparently been having an animated - if silent - conversation. But seeing Orion and Carl reappear, they broke off their argument long enough for the halfling to explain what she had seen.

<So just the three combatants?> asked Galen over the link. <We should be able to take them down easily enough.>

<Hey, here's an idea,> thought Syngaard. <We're gettin' paid to rescue Dow, right? Howzabout we just teleport up to the second floor, grab Dow, and scoot the Hell out of here?>

<Technically, I would be employing the dimension door spell,> argued Daleth.

<That would just be delaying the inevitable,> countered Galen. <There's nothing preventing Maladucci from finding another way to get access to Syngaard. We should confront him now and be done with it.> He mused a moment. <Syngaard, this Maladucci isn't a spellcaster by any chance, is he?>

<What? No. Just a powerful crime lord with others to do his dirty work for him. But he's still plenty tough himself - I seen it. He once choked a guy to death with one hand for botching a simple heist.>

<It would seem the wizard is the biggest threat, then. We should take him out first.>

<Well, that doesn't seem very friendly.>

The conscripts all looked around to see who had just spoken over their telepathic link - even Kaspar, who wasn't tied into the Rary's telepathic bond spell and thus hadn't heard any of the prior discussion.

<Mr. Maladucci just wants to talk to you, Syngaard,> said the voice. <He doesn't like being lied to.>

<Who's that?> demanded Syngaard. <This is a private conversation!>

<A pseudodragon?> guessed Galen. Daleth had recently obtained a pseudodragon familiar, and the paladin knew Todd could converse as easily as a human using his inherent telepathic abilities.

<More likely an imp or a quasit,> added Daleth. <Our hidden wizard likely has a more powerful familiar than normal, like I do.> Galen immediately began concentrating on ferreting out the noticeable miasma of evil; there seemed to be a source of evil nearby. "He's over here!" Galen said, forgetting in his excitement to talk over the telepathic link. He then began the words to a bless weapon spell.

<You guys are panicking over nothing,> insisted the invisible imp. <Mr. Maladucci just wants to talk with Syngaard, and then he'll release the young woman.> As if to prove the imp's point, the door to the keep opened up and Karlo Maladucci strode purposefully out the front door, his long strides taking him towards the grove of trees behind which the conscripts were hiding. "He's coming this way!" Syngaard hissed.

"Then let's go meet him," Galen replied, urging Burt forward. With a growl, Syngaard walked beside the dire lion, not wanting to be shown up by the paladin.

"Syngaard!" the crime lord called. "We must talk! I am very upset with you!"

"What for?" Syngaard called back. "I didn't do nothin'."

"On the contrary: you lied to me, about the death of my grandchild!"

"I didn't lie."

"You told me my granddaughter had died."

"Told you Mezz lost the baby. That was true. She did...when she died."

"Very well, then," countered the crime lord. "You misled me. But never fear: I have a way for you to make it up to me, and then all will be forgiven." The two parties had met in the field before the tower keep at this point, and stood facing each other. Orion and Carl had shifted to the Ethereal Plane and stood nearby, unseen, while the two elves and Todd the pseudodragon kept back by the trees. There was no point in letting Maladucci know how many people had accompanied Syngaard to this meeting - assuming the invisible imp hadn't already filled him in.

"I was actually relieved when you told me Mezz had lost the baby during childbirth - I assumed it was the devil with whom I had made my bargain collecting his payment. So you can imagine my rage when I discovered the baby was still alive and the payment for my increased powers had not occurred."

"Devil?" repeated Syngaard. "Payment?"

"Quite so. A powerful devil by the name of the Hope Ender, who granted me power beyond my wildest dreams - in exchange for my unborn grandchild. Quite the bargain, if I must say so; they normally traffic in souls. Although I suppose this is still such a deal, although the soul in question is not mine, thankfully - just that of some brat my daughter bore." It took all of Syngaard's will to keep his scarred face impassive during this exchange: Karlo Maladucci had intended for little Hope to be turned over to a pit fiend! Was he in league with the Seekers of Eternity, too? It seemed like those guys were everywhere you turned!

"Still, all is not lost," Karlo Maladucci continued. "I need only turn the child over to the Hope Ender and all is forgiven. So I need you to fetch me the child - you know where she is, I assume? - and then return to my service, and all will be as it was before."

"That's it?" Syngaard asked. "And no hard feelings?"

"None whatsoever."

"Well, all right then!" Syngaard said, visibly smiling. "I'll have to go get her - I'll be back in about an hour!" And with that, Syngaard spun about and returned to the elves, Galen and Burt following on his heels. Once the group was back together, Syngaard looked at Daleth and, without saying a word - and trying not to "think" any words over the telepathic bond, knowing there was an imp listening in, pointed at Daleth, Kaspar, and himself in turn, then up at the tower roof.

Daleth took the hint. Starting the words to a dimension door spell, the elf wizard was surprised when all of a sudden Karlo Maladucci popped into view beside him and stabbed at him with an unsheathed blade. Despite the surprise attack, the elf managed to send the three conscripts (and Todd, who Syngaard hadn't specified but whom Daleth wanted along nonetheless) up to the rooftop of the tower keep, behind the human wizard still crouching to stay out of view.

Back behind the trees, surprise reigned. Galen wasn't sure how Maladucci had gotten there so suddenly - could he teleport as well? They had just been talking to him over by the tower and had left him back there when Syngaard had walked back behind the tree-line. Little did he know that the "Karlo Maladucci" they'd been talking to was none other than the hobgoblin wearing Dow's own hat of disguise, while an invisible Karlo Maladucci had been using the powers of ventriloquism (gained by the doffing of a potion of the same name) to make it seem as if the fake crime lord were doing the talking. Invisibly, he'd kept pace with Syngaard, Galen, and Burt when they returned to their spot behind the trees, and he'd known he needed to strike once the elf wizard started casting some spell. Sure, it broke the invisibility spell but it was worth the risk - it didn't seem likely that Syngaard was going to bring him the crime lord's granddaughter if he was in the habit of hanging around with paladins!

Up on the tower's rooftop, Todd flew forward and struck at the crouching wizard with the pointed stinger at the tip of his tail. The stinger-tip penetrated the wizard's robes, injecting the sleep poison into the man's system. The venom took effect immediately and the wizard was snoring before his head hit the roof's floor. Kaspar stepped quietly forward and struck a killing blow with his right hand, shattering the wizard's skull with the force of his attack - and the full power of his tenryutsume behind it. The snores stopped as abruptly as the wizard's life.

The group heard the telepathic cries of outrage from the unseen imp at the death of his master, but the invisible devil seemed unwilling to put his life on the line to try to do anything about taking revenge on his master's slayers.

At his own master's urging, Burt dashed forward, tearing into Maladucci's arm with his front claws as Galen, mounted upon the dire lion, brought the sword of Zehkar crashing down onto the crime lord's shoulder, the full force of Hieroneous's power flowing through the blade. Maladucci gave a cry of pain, which only intensified when Burt brought one of his hind legs into play, scraping the back claws along Karlo's thigh. Then, to make matters worse for the crime lord, Orion and Carl materialized behind him and the halfling sent her flaming short sword stabbing deep into his torso.

"I'll deal with you later!" Maladucci snarled, sending a blasphemy spell ripping through his opponents. Burt was instantly banished back to his home plane, tumbling uncontrollably through the heavens until he found his footing back on the Beastlands. Unable to return to his master's side by his own will, he roared his frustration to the skies. Carl's incorporeal body was vaporized into nothingness, but as he was already undead his ghostly body would simply rematerialize in a few days. Galen and Orion, however, were instantly paralyzed, the paladin crashing to the ground on his back and the halfling slowly settling to the ground due to her ring of feather falling before she too toppled backwards, staring helplessly up at the tree limbs above her. Seeing all was as he had expected, Karlo Maladucci stormed back towards the tower keep, intent on finding Syngaard. He'd torture his granddaughter's location out of the scarred idiot, no doubt adding a few new scars before he killed the oaf.

As all of this had happened behind the tree-line, Syngaard saw none of it from his vantage point at the top of the tower's battlements. Instead, he saw what he believed to be Karlo Maladucci standing below him at the front of the tower. Since the wizard had been taken care of by the elves, Syngaard fumbled in his pants pocket, whipped out his Dick, and leapt upon it as the griffon dived down at the figure of the crime lord below. Dick screeched in fury as he dove, but the hobgoblin wearing Maladucci's form was too battle-ready to allow that to freeze him into immobility; he dodged the incoming claws and while Syngaard got in a good whack with his human bane scimitar, it didn't do nearly as much damage as the scarred fighter had hoped.

Surprisingly, this Maladucci pulled out a flail and sent its head on a crash course with Syngaard's skull; the fighter had just barely enough time to dodge under the blow, all the time wondering when Mr. Maladucci started wielding a flail. In all the years Syngaard had worked for the man, he'd never known the crime lord to use a flail in battle. But then the hat of disguise slipped from the hobgoblin's head and all was made clear - even to someone of Syngaard's limited intellectual capacity.

Daleth watched the battle from the tower's roof and was in place to see the real Maladucci round the trees and head towards his former duplicate and his son-in-law. The elf wizard channeled a shocking grasp into his familiar and sent Todd flying down to attack Maladucci. Once again Todd's stinger struck true, but the electrical spell didn't seem to do much to the man and the sleep venom did absolutely nothing. Maladucci swatted the pseudodragon out of his way the way he would an irritating mosquito and continued on his approach toward his erstwhile son-in-law, who was somehow astride a griffon and battling his hobgoblin lieutenant.

Coming up beside his fellow elf, Kaspar took in the scene below and touched his amber amulet of vermin, calling forth the giant stag beetle whose spirit dwelled within. John materialized beside Maladucci; the beetle's mandibles snapped shut but the intended prey was not caught between them as anticipated. Coming to aid his beetle, Kaspar ran down the vertical side of the tower keep, his slippers of spider climbing preventing him from simply plummeting to the ground. Upon reaching the ground, the monk sprinted at the human now actively fighting his insect friend.

Channeling another spell-like ability through his half-fiendish frame, Karlo Maladucci caused a horrid wilting effect to weaken Syngaard, Dick, John, and Kaspar. Dick's wings faltered and he barely kept his footing as he landed awkwardly on the ground, struggling to stay upright. John was completely overwhelmed by the effect, vanishing immediately and returning to the elf's amulet.

Dick, in an extreme effort, lashed out with a set of claws, scoring a hit across Maladucci's face. But the effort cost him dearly, for by focusing on Maladucci the griffon allowed the hobgoblin to strike him down with his magical flail. As the griffon reverted instantly to its statuette form and fell to the ground, the hobgoblin brought his flail into a cleaving blow, striking at where he thought Syngaard would have fallen. However, to the hobgoblin's great surprise, Syngaard remained where he was, riding absolutely nothing now - certainly not a griffon - but remaining airborne nonetheless. It was the fighter's boots of levitation that kept him in the air and thus helped him avoid the hobgoblin's crashing flail.

Daleth sent a scorching ray spell flying down from the tower roof, channeled through his metamagic rod to power it up significantly. One ray missed entirely, scorching nothing more than a patch of grass; the other hit the true Karlo Maladucci straight in the chest, but he shrugged it off as if it were nothing. Apparently the "power" the Hope Ender had granted the crime lord in exchange for his grandchild's soul included protection from several of the main energy types, fire obviously among them.

Todd struck out at the hobgoblin with his tail-stinger, but failed to connect. Kaspar rounded on the crime lord, striking him with his most powerful blow, dropping him instantly. The monk then delivered the rest of his attacks to the hobgoblin, who was obviously surprised to see his master fall like that. But Syngaard wasted no time; dropping back down to the ground by deactivating his magic boots, he grabbed the flaming brilliant energy morningstar at his belt, raised it high above his head, and brought it crashing down upon his father-in-law's skull. The weapon-head smashed through the crime lord's head with the wet sound of a pumpkin exploding and Syngaard released an involuntary cry of exultation at Mr. Maladucci's death.

The bald fighter, straddling Maladucci's corpse, looked over at the hobgoblin. "I got no beef with you!" he called out. "I'll give you one chance to surrender, or you're gonna end up like your boss here!"

"You son of a bitch - you killed my brother!" snarled the hobgoblin, confusing Syngaard enough to look down at the corpse of the crime lord as he tried to figure out how the obviously human Karlo Maladucci could be a hobgoblin's brother. "I will avenge his honor!" the hobgoblin promised, striking his flail at the nearest enemy - Kaspar, as it turned out, who handily dodged the blow. Then Daleth sent another empowered scorching ray spell down at the sole remaining foe and the hobgoblin dropped to the ground, dead.

"That don't make no sense," Syngaard said, clearly still puzzled.

"He no doubt means the hobgoblin we fought here on our first assignment," Kaspar explained patiently.

"O-o-o-o-oh!" Syngaard replied. That certainly did make a lot more sense!

<I will see about freeing Dow,> Daleth said to the others over the Rary's telepathic link spell, before opening the trap door on the floor of the roof and climbing the ladder beneath it down to the keep's top floor.

"Say...." said Syngaard, walking back over to the area behind the trees while Kaspar began removing the armor and weapons from their slain foes. Syngaard hadn't seen Galen and Orion during the fight, and there they both were, lying on their backs staring up into the branches above. As he approached, Syngaard could see them breathing so he knew they were both alive, but it looked like they'd been paralyzed somehow during the fight.

A sudden grin crossed the fighter's face as he approached Orion's still form. She still held her flaming short sword in her right hand and her legs were splayed out wide as if still sitting in the saddle. "Seems to me somebody once swapped potion vials on me, and shrunk me down to halfling size during a battle against cultists," Syngaard observed. "Some might say the offender was owed a bit of payback...."

The Rary's telepathic bond spell was still in effect, so even though she was paralyzed to the point she couldn't speak, Orion could still communicate to the others in the link, Syngaard included. <Syngaard, please don't--> she began, disliking the pleading tone of her mental voice but not being able to help it, before being cut off by the bald human towering over her immobile form.

"...But you did good, scouting out that tower with your dog like you did," Syngaard added, causing Orion to stop her mental broadcast to hear what he was going to say. Syngaard squatted down next to her, so she could get a good look at his scarred face. "There's plenty I could do to you right now, and not a single thing you could do to stop it. But you helped me take down that piece of crap Maladucci and I appreciate it. So you just remember which of us is the bigger man." Then he realized what he had just said and snickered. "Heh. 'Bigger man,' to a halfling!"

When the paralyzation effect finally wore off several minutes later, Syngaard helped Orion up without a word and then walked over to Kaspar. Galen rose on his own and joined them. "Mithral armor, two sets," the elf said, indicating the armor he'd taken from the two corpses - one breastplate and one set of full plate, along with a pair of mithral shields, one light and one heavy. Then he pointed to the weapons he'd set beside the armor. "A flail and a longsword, both seem to be magical to some extent." Syngaard grunted when he saw Maladucci's sword, which held a copy of his family crest at the base of the blade. "Throw 'em in a bag of holding," he suggested. "We'll sort 'em out later."

Galen bent down beside the corpses and turned their heads to the sides, inspecting the backs of their necks for the tell-tale hourglass tattoo indicating membership in the Seekers of Eternity. He was somewhat surprised to find their necks bare; sometimes it seemed like the Seekers were everywhere.

Daleth exited the keep with a magical crossbow over his shoulder and Dow in tow, operating the astral golem that gave her human size if her own normal exaggerated features. "I will take this back," she said, bending down to fetch her stolen hat of disguise. Placing it on her head, her own features blurred and she became indistinguishable from a normal human woman - this particular model a brunette with wavy curls and an ankle-length flared dress. (Dow liked to change her appearance frequently.)

Kaspar finished putting the loot into his extradimensional bag as directed. "What do we want to do with them?" he asked, indicating Karlo Maladucci and his hobgoblin lieutenant.

"Leave 'em for the crows," Syngaard snarled. "You got the ring of return?" he asked the monk. Kaspar retrieved the item from inside his robes and held it out for the others to grab onto.

"Then let's get the Hell outta here," Syngaard said. Kaspar activated the ring and the conscripts were gone.

- - -

This was another refreshing change: we actually got to kill somebody who's going to stay dead! Logan explained that not only are Karlo Maladucci and his hobgoblin henchman not members of the Seekers of Eternity, but the Hope Ender's not going to allow Maladucci to be resurrected in any case; he has an eternity of torment lined up for the man who was to offer up Hope Syngaard as payment for the pit fiend having granted a mere mortal crime lord the powers of a half-fiend. We also got a butt-ton (I believe that's the accurate terminology) of XP for this adventure, as Karlo Maladucci was a fighter 10/rogue 5 with the half-fiend template added on for good measure. As a result, each of the five PCs leveled up.

And I definitely surprised Vicki by not having Syngaard take his revenge on Orion when the opportunity was right there. (Dan broke out laughing as soon as I said "I move over towards Orion" once the fighting was finished.) She later admitted she had expected me to have Syngaard pee on Orion or something as revenge for being shrunken to halfling size back in adventure 9. But I felt bad that Dan and Vicki had had their PCs taken out of the action. (Given the short nature of the adventures in this campaign we don't have "backup PCs" to pass around, so I offered to let Dan run Dick and Harry likewise gave John's sheet to Vicki to run so they'd have something to do for the rest of the session.)
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PC Roster:
Daleth Stormsea, elf wizard 11
Galen Thorne, human paladin 12
Kaspar Hardstrike, elf monk 12
Orion Nightsky, halfling rogue 12
Syngaard, human fighter 12​

Game Session Date: 6 February 2019

- - -

"Wait, what?" asked Syngaard, stepping into the Enchanted Flagon after having been summoned there by Skevros. "What's she doing here?"

"Purchasing your services," purred Serenity, indicating a bag of coins on the table. Syngaard picked one up and looked at it - it was shiny and much thicker than a normal coin.

"Silver?" scoffed Syngaard, looking down at the bag. "Can't be more than a hundred silver coins in there. What's the catch?"

"Look closer," suggested the succubus. "Those aren't silver - they're mithral. Each of those coins is worth 100 pieces of gold. That's the equivalent of 10,000 gold pieces, two grand for each of the five of you. Interested?"

"Hell, yeah!" Syngaard quickly agreed, taking a seat at the table. In anticipation of his normal request, Karen set a tankard of ale in front of him.

"What is the nature of our mission?" asked Kaspar, sitting beside the bald fighter. "I assume it has something to do with Ashfall?"

"It does. Three days ago, a dark mist fell over a small farming village. Those sent to investigate never returned. As a result, I was called back from my sentry duties in the Baator's Breath Mountains to investigate the situation with another group. Unfortunately, as I approached the mist, I was mentally assaulted - it's hard to explain, it was a sort of...shouting whispers, if that makes any sense."

"Not really," admitted Syngaard, taking a swig from his tankard. He didn't mind, though - a lot of the group's missions didn't make a whole lot of sense to the scarred fighter. Usually all he cared about was being pointed in the direction of whoever needed killing, and then getting paid at the end.

"Fortunately, the people I was with were unaffected and they were able to drag me away from the mist," Serenity continued. "I believe it was my telepathic nature that made me susceptible to the mist's effects."

If you're so telepathic, can you tell what I'm thinking right now? thought Galen, staring at the shapely reformed demon before him. He may have been a paladin of Hieroneous, but he was also a red-blooded male in the prime of his youth.

"I certainly can," Serenity smiled, looking straight at Galen, causing a look of confusion to pass between Orion and Daleth at the nonsequitur. They looked over at the paladin, wondering what was causing him to suddenly blush so.

"In any case," the succubus continued, smirking at Galen's embarrassment, "it was decided to send in the Heroes of Ashfall to check out the situation - hence my presence and the payment from a grateful kingdom. To earn the mithral coins, you need only enter the mist, determine what's causing it, put a stop to it, and hopefully prevent it from occurring again." She looked around at the assembled group. "Any questions?"

Skevros looked expectantly at Syngaard, but for once his most burning question had already been answered - this was indeed a paying mission. He gave the last of his ale his undivided attention while the rest of the group made their preparations. Orion whistled for Carl to manifest and he did so, the ghost touch saddle already in place. The little halfling was glad to see that the spirit of her riding dog had attuned enough to the magic saddle that when he was slain - as had been the case last week when Karlo Maladucci had demonstrated his half-fiend powers by killing Carl and paralyzing Orion - the saddle went with him. That was much simpler than having to fetch it and hold onto it until the next time her ghost-dog manifested. Climbing up into the saddle, Orion unstoppered a potion of mage armor and Carl happily lapped it up.

Daleth cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on the group - all but Kaspar, that is. The wizard had decided his fellow elf was best-prepared to handle things on his own without mental discussion with the others, given that Daleth's mastery of the spell thus far only allowed him to link together four minds. "I'll be fine," Kaspar reassured the wizard.

Galen dithered over whether or not to summon his dire lion Burt right away or wait until he was needed; eventually he opted for the latter choice. "We about done?" Syngaard finally asked, setting down his empty mug. "We're burnin' daylight. Sooner we get this done, sooner we get paid."

Upon the group's acknowledgement of readiness, Skevros walked with them to the edge of the kingdom; he stayed within the confines of Durnhill while they stepped across the border - and, more importantly, outside the wards that prevented teleportation magic from functioning within Durnhill. Then the king's adviser cast a teleport spell on the assembled conscripts and they disappeared from sight. "I wish them well!" said Serenity, before disappearing herself, vanishing in a puff of smoke.

"I don't see no cloud of mist," Syngaard observed upon suddenly appearing in an open field.

"It's this way, Syngaard," pointed out Kaspar, turning the fighter - who'd arrived with his back to the obscured village - around. Or at least, the elf monk assumed it was the village; it was, at the very least, a large, oily mass of vapors that could easily hide a small farming village within its boundaries.

Todd immediately started panicking. <Voices!> he cried out telepathically, not only to his master but to the other conscripts as well. <Dozens--hundreds! Whispering! Screaming! Talking over each other!> Daleth cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself and the pseudodragon settled down at once. <That's much better--thanks!> Todd said. He shuddered, shaking his head at the memory of the cacophony of mental voices.

"I think you'd better stay away from the mist," Daleth suggested to his familiar. "Serenity said you'd be particularly vulnerable."

<I'd probably be okay if I stayed within the radius of your spell.>

"True, but if anything happened...I think I'd feel better if you were safely outside of the mist. I'll tell you what, though - you can be on aerial patrol, and let me know if you see anyone approaching while we're all inside the cloud."

<Deal!> answered Todd, before taking wing and flying high above the mist-covered farming village.

Galen cast his own magic circle against evil spell, certain that whatever they might find lurking inside the mist would undoubtedly be of an evil nature - and, in fact, the very mist itself was triggering his ability to detect evil. Then, as an experiment, he stepped up to the border of the mist. Where his spell radius overlapped the mist, it lightened to a grayish color; stepping back, the mist darkened back to almost black. "Visibility's going to be rather limited in there," the paladin noted. He pulled out a few sunrods from his backpack and offered them to the others, activating one of them himself.

"I'm good," replied Syngaard, holding his flaming brilliant energy morningstar in his right hand like a torch. Beside him, Daleth cast a light spell on the end of his metamagic rod of empower. Orion took a proffered sunrod from the paladin with a nod of thanks, but Kaspar turned down the offer - despite the increased light it would provide, he preferred to keep his hands free for combat. Besides, if he needed light, he could activate the flames of his tenryutsume into being at will.

"We ready?" Syngaard asked.

"You are ready...are ready...ready..." answered a series of echoing voices from the mist. "Well, that's just creepy," the bald fighter observed.

As if in response, Kaspar sped straight ahead into the mist, being swallowed by the dark cloud almost instantly. He found himself just south of a large building. He also found being surrounded by the mist was somewhat debilitating: breathing in the dark vapors hurt the elf's lungs. But there was no way to investigate the village without exposing oneself to the mists, so the monk mentally shrugged and pressed on, sure that his great speed would allow him to race outside of the mist's boundaries if he got himself into too much trouble.

Syngaard was the next to enter the mist; he ended up on the other side of the building from Kaspar. He also noted the pain caused by inhaling the dark vapors and passed that information on to the rest of the group via the Rary's telepathic bond spell before pressing on ahead.

<Interesting,> replied Daleth, putting together the two facts about the pain of breathing in the mist and that it had answered a question. <It would seem the mist has many of the properties of osteovox! It might very well be somehow related. I wonder: how we might protect ourselves from its debilitating effects?>

<You are already protected...are already protected...already protected...protected....> came the voices from the fog. That's certainly handy! thought the elf to himself. He assumed it was the magic circle against evil that would protect him from the osteovox cloud...if the voices in the mist could actually be trusted to be telling the truth. Not willing to believe the mist himself, Galen drank down a potion of delay poison and offered Daleth a potion of neutralize poison, which the elf gratefully accepted.

<Visibility's about 10 feet or so,> Syngaard observed from inside the cloud of dark vapors. <I got movement up ahead...It's a skeleton!> Sure enough, stumbling out of the darkness and into the radius of the light from Syngaard's morningstar came an animated human skeleton. It wore no armor and wielded no weapon, but approached the fighter with claws ready to scratch at Syngaard's eyes. He raised the mithral shield in his left hand and readied the magic morningstar in his hand to crash into the skull of the rushing skeleton as soon as it got into range. Then, suddenly, the mist no longer burned the fighter's throat as he heard the clanking of Galen's armor approach from behind him. It seemed like the magic circle against evil spell did keep the osteovox's acidic nature at bay.

Syngaard swung at the skeleton, who had clawed at the fighter but missed. Galen stepped up beside Syngaard, seeing three more skeletons approach the two warriors. Then there was a swirling of the mists and Orion passed by, riding on Carl's back. She brought her flaming short sword crashing into the skeleton that had attacked Syngaard, bringing it collapsing to the ground in a pile of unconnected bones. Syngaard was surprised at the halfling's immediate success, until he recalled the ritual she had performed with the ashes of the slain nymph Autumn Rose - the halfling could now see the weak spots in the necromantic energy-web that kept corporeal undead animated.

But then the light from Orion's flaming weapon picked up another combatant - and this one much worse than any mere animated skeleton. This was a pulsating blob of pink flesh, a slow-moving heap of body parts all fused together into one disgusting mass. While the halfling stared in frozen horror, the ooze lifted a slimy pseudopod - one that had parts of faces and wobbling, boneless fingers growing out of it! - and slammed it into the halfling. She screamed as some of her skin was peeled away at the tentacle's retraction - it was if she had suffered a bad sunburn and was peeling, only the removed skin was being absorbed into the flesh ooze! Indeed, Orion's magically-enhanced sight saw a brief flash of necromantic energy cascade across the ooze's body, as some of her stolen life-force was used to make the quivering mass grow more powerful. "Back, Carl!" Orion cried out and the ghost-dog was more than happy to comply.

On the other side of the building, Kaspar heard Orion's panicked scream and ran to her rescue. Of course, while most people would have run around the building between them, the monk saw no need not to go via the shortest distance, even if that meant running up the side of the building and across its roof. As he approached the wooden structure he saw a black-robed figure standing inside, facing the back of what seemed like a simple church. But then Kaspar's momentum took him up the wall, across the roof, and dropping down among the others. Upon landing beside Galen, the monk reached inside his robes and flung a shuriken at the flesh ooze, his tenryutsume infusing the metal weapon with fire and electricity before it struck the mass of flesh. "There's a necromancer inside that church," Kaspar commented to the others.

"I got him!" Syngaard called out. "I'd use ranged attacks on that thing," he suggested, "--Hey, where's Wizard-Pants?" <Wizard-Pants! Get in here! We got a job for you!> Then he was gone, running up to the church door and crashing through it. Sure enough, there was a black-clad wizard standing at the back of the room, already starting to turn at the sound of Syngaard's entrance. Not wanting to allow him to cast any spells if he could help it, Syngaard threw his returning javelin at the necromancer. The wizard, Alexandros, had just cast a protection from good spell on himself to help him avoid damage from these interlopers, but this time it failed as the hurled javelin pierced the front of his robes and lodged between his ribs before teleporting back to Syngaard's hand. However, the disguise self spell he'd cast earlier prevented Syngaard from recognizing the most recent form of the Mithral Mage.

Daleth finally entered the mist at Galen's telepathic urging, racing up behind the paladin and casting an empowered fireball at the flesh ooze. The sudden burst of flames exploded outward, engulfing not only the quivering mass of flesh but also all three of the skeletons - and a few more skeletons that had been behind the flesh ooze, outside the range of illumination. All in all, four skeletons were destroyed by the elf wizard's spell.

Knowing the flesh ooze was best dealt with by ranged attacks and he was more geared for hand-to-hand fighting, Galen burst through one of the church's side windows to go help Syngaard deal with the black-robed necromancer. Then, ironically, he got a glimpse of bone flickering through the illusion of flesh and, realizing this was likely an undead being, the paladin used his illumium scabbard to channel Hieroneous's positive energy in a ranged attack upon the lich. Alexandros burned under the paladin's attack and he dropped the disguise self spell, revealing himself in all of his skeletal glory. "Idiots!" he hissed. "I'm trying to figure this out and put an end to it!"

Outside in the mists, the remaining skeletons were moving in to attack Carl and Orion. Of course, those that attacked the ghost-dog had their bony claws pass right through the incorporeal spirit's body; fortunately, those attacking Orion weren't any more successful. But now three more skeletons stepped forward into the pool of illumination provided by the halfling's flaming weapon. Orion stood in the saddle and urged Carl to attack; the dog raced forward at the skeleton directly before him and passed right through its bones; as it turned to follow the motion, Orion, who had leaped from the saddle, dropped to the ground and slew it with a single stab of her blade. She then raced into the church, slamming the door closed behind her to prevent the ooze from following. Carl followed by simply racing through the wall of the building.

Seeking a new target now that the halfling was out of its sensory range, the flesh ooze turned toward the elves. It sent a pseudopod slamming into the wizard, draining Daleth of some of his life energy and healing its burns in the process. Kaspar sent a flurry of shuriken into the flesh-blob's form, being sure to stay back out of range of its flailing tentacles. Daleth staggered backwards as well and retaliated with a chain lightning spell targeted directly at the flesh ooze and arcing off to strike all of the animated skeletons the wizard could see.

Inside the church, Alexandros cast a spell and disappeared. "Crap!" swore Syngaard. "Did he just teleport away?"

"No..." replied the voices in the mist. "He has turned invisible...turned invisible...invisible...." With a smirk that the stupid osteovox mist was helping them kill the Mithral Mage, Syngaard sent his flaming brilliant energy morningstar crashing into the area where he thought Alexandros might be standing. He missed - the lich wasn't where he had thought he'd be. "Where the Hell did he go?" Syngaard cried out loud.

"Out the window...the window...window...." answered the tattle-tale mist. Galen ran to the broken window on the south side of the building and looked out. Not surprisingly, all he saw was mist. So he cast his senses across the planes and called to his dire lion mount. "Burt," he said. "Come to me!"

Burt manifested outside the church, surrounded by mist, and snorted violently through his nostrils as if unpleased by the sensation. "Invisible lich!" Galen called to his mount. "Sniff him out, Burt!" Burt needed no further prompting; he took a few steps to the southeast and swiped at the mist with the claws of his foreleg, striking something solid in mid-air. "I thought I turned you into a mithral statue!" griped Alexandros, clearly agitated.

Orion leaped back onto Carl's saddle and prompted the ghost-dog to fade into the Ethereal Plane. That was a bad idea: the mist became much thicker as soon as he had done so, and there was indecipherable whispering all around the halfling, sometimes seeming as if someone - or several someones at once - were speaking directly into her ears. The halfling had Carl pass through the church's southern wall and return to the Material Plane, beside Burt and his invisible foe.

On the northern side of the church, the flesh ooze made a lunge at Kaspar, but the nimble monk easily avoided the tentacle-mass that swung his way. Skipping back a few steps, he let fly with a flurry of shuriken, each of the barbed throwing stars powered by both fire and electricity as they struck the mass of discarded flesh. The monk recalled the time the conscripts had been sent to gather flowers to craft osteovox for the first time, and the fact that if consumed, osteovox would slough the skin right off of you. He had a sneaking suspicion he knew where the flesh making up this abomination had come from, and why there had been animated skeletons about.

Alexandros tossed a fireball spell at the midpoint of the assembled heroes trying to fight him; the fiery explosion caught Burt, Galen, and Syngaard - the latter two having just climbed out of the broken window - in its blast radius. Syngaard was the farthest away from the likely source of the fireball spell and didn't feel like playing the "guess where the invisible lich is" game, so he reached into his pants and pulled out his griffon statuette, giving it a quick rub. He threw it in the likely direction of the invisible lich, calling out, "Get 'im, Dick!" The griffon expanded to full size in mid-throw and could sense the location of Alexandros by the unmistakable scent of blood on his unseen robes. Flapping unerringly to his invisible prey, the griffon bit down hard with his beak and clawed the lich's ribs. Alexandros retaliated with a quickened scorching ray, but he only managed to hit the griffon with two of the fiery blasts.

<We're fighting an invisible guy over here, Wizard-Pants!> called Galen over the mental link. <Get over here and use your true seeing on one of us!> The paladin knew Daleth could cast the spell through his Azurewood staff of divination, and that the spell would allow its recipient to be able to pierce through the invisibility spell with ease. That was exactly what was needed; Burt and Dick seemed able to sniff out their foe with ease, but the two humans and the halfling would just be striking at their best guesses as to the lich's location.

Daleth was hit by a sudden decision paralysis. Should he go do as Galen had said, or stay here and combat the flesh ooze? The quivering mass was best fought with ranged attacks, of which the elf wizard was the best qualified. But would it be better to take down the lich, who was their primary foe? He stood there, unmoving and confused, until Kaspar yelled, "Do something, Daleth!" Snapped out of his indecisiveness, Daleth cast a cone of cold at the flesh ooze, opting to stay where he was and finish his first mission before moving on to the next one. The elven wizard was thus an excellent example of someone with a staggering intellect but a distinct lack of common sense, as the flesh ooze had already demonstrated it could only move along the ground at a ridiculously slow speed - slow enough that it could easily be outpaced without even breaking into a run. And yet Daleth took a step forward toward the blob as he cast his spell, perhaps wishing to ensure he hit the thing.

He hit the thing, all right: chunks of its suddenly-frozen flesh sloughed off and smashed against the ground like an iceberg calving. But there was still plenty of fleshy ooze-pulp beneath the frozen layers, and the thing lashed out at the wizard, easily catching him with a pseudopod as he had obligingly moved closer to the dangerous blob. Kaspar stepped forward to help extricate his fellow elf from the flesh-mass and was struck himself for his efforts. But then Kaspar lashed out with a flurry of blows - he figured he might as well, since he was already in contact with the blob - and it quivered under each strike, the monk's fists and feet causing ripples of energy to vibrate through the flesh-blob's entire mass.

Galen leaped atop Burt's broad back, figuring that since his dire lion could unerringly determine the lich's location by scent, it would be best for the paladin to go along for the ride and always have a pretty good idea of Alexandros's location. In fact, Burt charged forward once the paladin was seated upon his back, crashing into the unseen lich with both sets of front claws and biting at him with his oversized fangs. Galen swung his sword of Zehkar directly in front of Burt's face and felt the satisfying thunk! noise of forged steel on bone. Orion and Carl moved into position to flank the lich, but unfortunately the halfling's sword-strike failed to connect.

However, the lich was now being attacked on all sides by a dire lion, a paladin of Hieroneous wielding a sword containing the spirit of the lich's hated brother, a griffon, and a halfling riding the ghost of a riding dog. So, for some reason, he opted to suddenly strike out at Syngaard, still some distance away as he ran to join the free-for-all, hitting the scarred fighter with a reduce person spell. Syngaard once again - for the third time in his adventuring career - found himself shrinking down to halfling size. That meant short, stumpy legs that wouldn't propel him nearly as fast as when he was at human size and weaker, shorter arms and a smaller weapon size that would ensure he did much less damage to his foes if he did manage to catch up to them and hit them. "What the Hell--?" cried Syngaard, offended and confused all at once.

"Reduce person...person..." responded the helpful osteovox cloud to the fighter's involuntary question. Syngaard threw his teeny-tiny returning javelin in the lich's general direction out of sheer frustration, but of course it missed.

Alexandros cast a quickened scorching ray at Galen, blasting the hated paladin on his perch atop the dire lion. At the same time, Daleth cast a scorching ray of his own, this one channeled through his metamagic rod, and the quivering flesh ooze quivered no more, becoming a burning mass of twisted, dead flesh.

Dick and Burt continued to harry the lich, as did Galen and Orion, although with varying levels of success. Kaspar, seeing the burning death of the flesh ooze, sprinted in front of the church and found the others still in combat. Deducing the lich's likely position, the monk dove feet-first into the melee, his foot striking invisible bone as he unerringly kicked Alexandros's jaw. Crying out in shock, the invisible foe started the words to a spell, and everyone within range struck at him at once, trying to put an end to him before whatever spell he cast took effect. But it soon became clear the lich was no longer among them. "Where'd he go?" Orion cried out.

Obligingly, the osteovox answered the question put before it, this time non-verbally. A part opened up in the clouds of vapor, leading unerringly across the open square of the town to a spot on the other side, presumably where Alexandros had just dimension doored. To make his location even more clear, tendrils of condensed mist coiled around the lich, giving away his exact position.

"Kill the bastard, Dick!" Syngaard called from behind the group. The griffon flew across the open square and crashed into the lich with its front talons, staggering the lich back. Syngaard sped after his griffon, but his stumpy little halfling-sized legs didn't get him very far and he swore in anger. That damned spell had likely taken him out of this entire fight!

Finally recalling Galen's instructions but now finding himself standing all alone by the flaming corpse of the flesh ooze, Daleth used his staff to cast a true seeing spell upon himself. Instantly, Alexandros popped back into his view: the lich was barely standing, his robe torn and ripped, and - inexplicably to the elf wizard - its insides covered in congealing blood. Also surprising to Daleth was the fact that the osteovox seemingly disappeared from view as well - it was if the elf now stood in the middle of the desolate farming village in full daylight.

Burt ran across the village square towards Alexandros, Galen still in position upon his back. Orion followed on Carl, taking pity on a half-sized Syngaard and pulling him up onto the saddle behind her as she passed him. That didn't do much to appease the wronged fighter, who muttered, "Great - now I'm part of the freakin' halfling cavalry!" under his breath. It was also unnerving sitting directly behind Orion and seeing the halfling's head as high up as his; it only served to remind the fighter of his reduced size. Bastard's gonna pay! Syngaard swore to himself, realizing at the same time that there was little chance he'd be able to make good on that promise at his current size.

Alexandros saw the end was near, but still got off a final fireball spell that engulfed all but Daleth, who was too far away from the others. Syngaard wasn't quite sure how she did it, but somehow Orion ducked her head and the flames seemed to pass right by her, leaving her unscathed. Carl was similarly unfazed, but he was incorporeal - that at least made sense to the scarred fighter. Syngaard didn't witness it directly, but Kaspar, with his monk's training, also managed to twist with the flow of fiery energy and slide between the flames, landing catlike on his feet without any damage. But the fireball took out Dick, who dropped back to the ground in statuette form, and Galen and Burt both looked as singed as Syngaard felt.

Then Daleth pointed his metamagic rod at the lich and channeled a simple magic missile spell at him. That was all it took before Alexandros crumbled into a pile of loose bones within his robe.

"We haven't seen the last of him, have we?" asked Orion as Carl slowed to a stop and sniffed at the lich's pile of bones.

"You have not...have not...not..." the osteovox responded to the spoken question.

The group spread out and looked for survivors in the abandoned houses, but of course there were none. However, they did find a discarded silver robe lying in the middle of the village square, leaving them with even more questions. And except for Daleth, whose true seeing spell allowed him to ignore the osteovox cloud, the others were still seemingly surrounded by the dark mist.

"I don't want to phrase this as a question," began Galen, "but I recall Skevros saying using osteovox was dangerous. It makes me wonder if we should avoid asking the osteovox mist itself how to get rid of it."

"It would seem as if that were the most efficient method, however," added Daleth.

"Thus far, it has answered all of our questions truthfully," pointed out Kaspar. Syngaard had nothing to add to the conversation; he was too busy using his original morningstar to smash each of the lich's bones into splinters - and this only after using his flaming brilliant energy morningstar at first, forgetting that it passed harmlessly through unliving matter (which did nothing to increase the pleasantness of his mood). If he couldn't kill the damned lich, then by the gods he'd kill his damned bones!

"How would we best destroy the osteovox cloud surrounding this village?" asked Kaspar, going for broke.

"Write a question...a question...question," answered the voices from the mist. "Wrap it around a skull...around a skull...a skull...."

"That makes sense," observed Galen. "Basically, perform an osteovox ritual."

"What question should we write?" asked Daleth, failing to anticipate the inevitable response from the osteovox voices: "Whatever you" Frowning - he should have realized that would happen - Daleth pulled out a piece of parchment and a writing pen from a pouch at his belt. He scribbled a quick question - "What caused the osteovox cloud to form?" - and folded it into a long strip. The he walked over to Syngaard. "I need the lich's skull," he said.

"This one's taken," Syngaard replied, striking it a blow with his morningstar - he had saved the skull for last. "Go find another one!" With a sigh of irritation, Daleth picked through the remains of the animated skeletons he'd slain with his chain lightning spell. He wrapped the strip of paper around the skull, then stepped back and waited. "This usually takes about an hour, when the osteovox is in liquid form," he reminded the others. But it played out differently this time: the mists all flew at the skull from all directions, becoming instantly absorbed into the bone. In a matter of seconds, the sun shone unhindered upon the little farming village, showing the conscripts the whole village at once: the still-burning remains of the flesh ooze, the collapsed piles of bones of the animated skeletons, and the shattered remains of the lich's most recent skeleton. With a flapping of small wings, Todd alit on the ground beside his master. <Much better!> the pseudodragon said.

"What's it say?" Orion asked, looking over at the parchment - and for once her question wasn't answered in whispered echoes. But before Daleth could reach down for the parchment, the skull's jaws opened up and it spoke in a clear, resonant voice. "Alexandros and a necromancer assistant came to turn the entire village population to mithral - as he did every time Hirek killed him - but the power was too great for his host body, causing the osteovox to explode outward, creating the mist. The necromancer assistant voluntarily became Alexandros's new host body. Alexandros was attempting to bring the osteovox back under control since it is the medium through which his soul manifests." And with that, the skull and the parchment wrapped around it crumbled to dust, blowing away in the slight breeze.

"'Bout damn time!" came Syngaard's sudden voice from behind the rest of the group. Looking over at him, the others saw he had regained his normal size - apparently the duration of the reduce person spell had finally expired. "Come on, let's get back home and grab up them mithral coins!"

There was nothing like money to help the scarred fighter forget about his tribulations. Kaspar reached inside his robes and pulled out the ring of return that would bring the conscripts back to the border of Durnhill.

- - -

This was a cool adventure, with an interesting premise - right up until the "dick move" of Alexandros casting reduce person on Syngaard. That was completely out of the blue and made no sense in-game; after all, the lich was surrounded by four active combatants who could harm him (Carl doesn't count), and Syngaard wasn't even near him at that point, nor had he demonstrated any ability to do the lich any appreciable harm. So for Alexandros to shrink Syngaard down to halfling size seemed like nothing more than a "screw you" move on the part of the DM to one of his players - namely me. Logan argued (the next day, when we discussed the previous night's game over dinner) that at that point Alexandros knew this body wasn't going to last for long and thus decided to "go for the humiliation" - but I countered with the facts that: 1) there shouldn't be any way Alexandros knew that Syngaard absolutely hated being shrunk down to halfling size (or worse yet, polymorphed into a halfling); and 2) Alexandros had already stated earlier in the game that he was trying to figure out how to stop the osteovox cloud on his own. It would be pretty difficult for him to do so after we'd killed him, now, wouldn't it? And the fact that the very next round he cast a dimension door spell indicated he still had a means of escape from the four foes pummeling him.

Logan assures me the fact that Alexandros knows about Syngaard's dislike for size reduction makes sense in-game, but it's for a reason we don't currently know about. If so, fair enough - but it still seemed like a stupid course of action for a lich trying to stay alive long enough to "fix" the osteovox cloud - which, if it "came" from him (as the skull explained at the end of the adventure), could have been a major problem for the lich. (What if we just left the mist in place? Would that mean Alexandros was unable to take over any other willing hosts from that point on?) Anyway, that "dick move" effectively took me right out of the game; from that point on, I couldn't even move fast enough to catch up with the combat, so I might as well not have been there (other than to run Dick, up until he died). That would have been perfectly fine if Alexandros had taken me out for a logical reason, but this just seemed ham-handed and arbitrary. (Dan swung by my office the next day to ask if I had really been as mad as I had seemed during the end of the adventure the previous night - apparently I was wearing my full fury on my face.)

Anyway, despite Alexandros's questionable "screw you" tactics, it was a fun adventure. The osteovox cloud was a cool idea, and the fact that it answered any questions put to it allowed us to use it to our advantage, which made for a quite different combat indeed.
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