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The Fall of Civilization

the Jester

Legend
Vann-La throws wide the door, and the party looks in to a half-ruined chamber. The walls show dozens of cracks, the marks of whatever terrible impact the structure felt when it fell from the surface and into its current subterranean resting place. A huge statue, holding a bowl in its hands, has fallen across the floor and creates a 20’ long obstacle. A shaggy, white-furred creature, filthy with spores and stained with slimes, rests in the back of the chamber, its tongue lolling from its mouth. It takes a moment for our heroes to realize that the creature is another quaggoth because of the mass of stuff clinging to its fur.

Slowly, its unfocused eyes train on our heroes, but before it moves, a clattering of bones sounds from all around the heroes. A mass of skeletons arises from the rubble!

“Look out!” shouts Kratos.

Something else steps from the shadows- another undead form- but this one has some withered flesh left on its bones. Torinn’s eyes widen; he recognizes it as some kind of wight. It cackles as it raises a desiccated hand and gestures at Sta’Ligir, unleashing a grave bolt! The wizard writhes in momentary pain. “Watch out for that one!” he cries.

The quaggoth rouses itself, standing and swaying on its feet. It almost looks... drunk.

That shouldn’t be, Cook thinks, they’re resistant to poison. He looks at the thick coating of spores and fungal excretions coating its fur. But if it had a thick layer of hallucinogens on it, the dwarf realizes, completely coating it, overwhelming its ability to resist them... who knows what it might do to its mind? Perhaps that is how quaggoths seek spiritual experiences- much as my folk might fast until they see visions, or the flighty elvenfolk might eat fey mushrooms or smoke their funny flowers...

The psychotic quaggoth roars and gives a great shake.

A huge puff of spores and other hallucinatory fungal material puffs into the air around it. Those close enough to be affected by the spores begin coughing. Their vision blurs. Things begin moving in the corners of their eyes, and strange sounds start to echo. Things distort and change, slow down, speed up. The heroes reel, dazed.

But not everyone is close enough to be caught in the hallucinogenic burst, nor does everyone close enough succumb to the effects of it. Our heroes begin to lay about them, driven by a fervent urge to escape these underground tunnels that they have been traveling for so long. The surface, they are sure, is close at hand- possibly just at the top of this tower!- and so they fight with all their hearts. Their new ally, Rathagos, proves quite capable with his bow, landing arrow after arrow in the enemy, and the skeletons fall quickly. The wight does not last long; and the psychotic quaggoth is confused to begin with, and cannot long withstand the force our heroes pour into the attack.

Passing through the chamber, our heroes come into an old courtyard that is the site of an open-air garden; there is no roof, save the cavern ceiling. Old, dead plants and a large, extinct oak are the only things left in here. More evidence that the place came from the surface, muses Nixie. I doubt very much whether an oak could grow here without sunlight, especially to be that large.

The far side of the courtyard has a set of double doors leading out of it into the tower proper. They pass quickly through it and into another chamber, this one with a staircase leading up along the right hand wall. A single door leads out as well, and the floor has a fair amount of rubble scattered on it. Our heroes start for the stairs, only to find more undead lurking- but this time, the monsters are mere insubstantial shadows that drain their strength. Worse yet, as the party struggles with them, the door opens and three more wights join the fray. The party is pressed hard; the wights suck out their very life energy, leaving them unable to sustain much damage, while the shadows reduce their ability to deal damage. Still, Torinn is a cleric, and his ability to unleash radiant energy proves pivotal. The light sears the shadows and makes the wights fall back in pain, and the party presses their advantage. It is a tough battle, but one that our heroes win.

Afterwards, they spend a few moments healing up and catching their collective breath, then search the area the wights came from. It turns out to be an old baracks, with several bunks in it, as well as a pair of locked chests. Nixie manages to coax these open with a little time and a set of lock picks, and the party finds 223 gold pieces and a suit of scale mail armor. Sta’Ligir and Torinn look it over, and both conclude that it is magical; after some experimentation, the group discerns that it is +1 scale mail of durability.

“Now let’s see what’s upstairs,” Kratos suggests.

The party ascends past three shattered, fallen floors and up to a final story of the tower, surrounded by earth and stone. Much of the floor has crumbled, and the rest looks relatively unstable. There is no obvious exit; the four windows open onto a mix of stone and packed earth. The ceiling is 30’ overhead. It looks like any attempt at excavation could be disastrous. It seems as though the tower fell down into the earth when a huge amount of empty space below it collapsed. A glance at the ceiling confirms the party’s hopes: it doesn’t look like the roof has sustained a lot of damage, nor does it appear to have much weight upon it. Better yet- there seems to be a very faint light filtering in from some cracks in the ceiling.

Escape at last?

Yes!

It takes some work- the party must first knock a hole in the ceiling, then manage to get even the weak climbers up the remnants of the shaft that the place dug when it broke through the surface and began its fall- but soon enough, the party emerges atop a mountain! They can see a city- presumably Fandelose- shrouded in the smoke of hundreds of fires in the distance. It looks to be about thirty miles away, and most of the terrain is mountainous; to Sta’Ligir, it looks to be about a six-day journey to the city.

“It might already be besieged,” Vann-La points out grimly. “Look at all that smoke!”

But Heimall disagrees. “I don’t think so. I bet that’s just the smoke that the city itself puts out from all its foundries, hearth fires and stuff. I think we could see the armies surrounding the city even from here if it was under siege- and the land surrounding it looks mostly green and yellow.”

“Fields,” nods Nixie, “and harvest time isn’t far off.”

“Let’s go,” Kratos says.

***

The party travels for several days before they bottom out of the mountains. Along the way, they are attacked once by strange monsters with the head and wicked antlers of a stag, the body of a terrible bird of prey and the shadow of a man. Though they are vicious and powerful, our heroes manage to fight them off, slaying two and driving the others away.

After that, our heroes keep an eye to the sky.

On the afternoon of their third day back on the surface, the party stumbles upon a strange scene. Within a large clearing within the wooded mountains that they are descending, the party finds a large hide, made of the skins of multiple humanoids stitched together, stretched taut between four stakes. On the center of it is a human, obviously dead for days at this point, but clearly staked out. Bones and scattered bits of the remains of other creatures litter the stitched hide.

“What the hell is this?” exclaims Nowhere Jones.

“Creepy,” mutters Nixie.

“Over there!” exclaims Vann-La, pointing.

Across the clearing from them is a trio of strange hounds. They seem to be on fire. Foul, sulphurous smoke pours off of them. Now that the heroes have spotted them, they give up any pretensions of stealth and begin to growl as they advance.

“Hell hounds!” exclaims Sta’Ligir.

Our heroes begin to draw weapons and scatter into an attack formation. Vann-La carefully looks around- and spies a small cottage, hidden in the brush on one side of the clearing. Kratos fires an eldritch blast at one of the hell hounds as it enters range, but it only growls louder when he stings it. Rathagos begins firing arrows swiftly into the hell hounds, the string of his bow thrumming with each shot.

The party and hounds crash into one another, struggling for supremacy. Flames gout from the hounds’ mouths, engulfing several of our heroes. There are cries of pain, but these are followed by yelps as more arrows, and then hammers and mauls, strike home. Nixie destroys a hound with witchfire, and as it dies, she misty steps into a better position to strike the next hound.

Suddenly, she cries out. Snakes that only she can see appear all around her and start attacking her! She cries out in fear as phantom fangs bite into her. Pain runs through her and her head feels as though it is about to split.

“Help!” she cries. “Get these things off of me!!”

“Huh?” asks Vann-La. “What things?”

Then a new opponent becomes visible as a blast of balefire shoots out from behind the cottage, catching Nixie in the chest and blasting her unconscious with a scream.

“It’s a tiefling!” shouts Kratos.

“Oh, I got that, then,” Nowhere Jones grins, vanishing into the brush to approach.

Meanwhile, Torinn, tired of the party being locked down by the hell hounds, belches out a blast of lightning. ZZZKKK![/i] The one that Rathagos has been focused on spasms and dies. The final hound reacts by becoming even more ferocious, savaging and burning Vann-La. The Kree warrior groans in pain and unleashes a comeback strike- but misses. “I could use some healing here!” she calls.

Unfortunately for Vann-La, Kratos is too far away to help her. He is already charging towards the tiefling. Seeing the warlord coming, the tiefling- whose name, for the record, is Zeevil- pulls out a wicked-looking, wavy-bladed dagger.

Kratos swings his maul and smashes into the tiefling’s hip.

With a cry, the tiefling vanishes, teleporting away. He reappears, limping, in some brush, and fires balefire at Kratos, engulfing the warlord in flames.

“Bastard!” cries Kratos, rushing towards him again.

Meanwhile, Nowhere Jones is stymied by the sudden vanishing of his target, so instead of attacking the tiefling, he springs out and unleashes a torturous strike on the last of the hell hounds, slaying it.

Zeevil cries out in rage. “My dogs!” he snarls.

Without aid, he is quickly overwhelmed. Nowhere Jones strikes the final blow as his kindred tries to flee.

***

The cottage turns out to hold an ornate box locked with a clever puzzle lock. Nixie manages to trick it open after some work, and it proves to contain nearly 300 gold pieces! The tiefling also proves to have a pair of healing potions in his belt, so our heroes take them and add them to the party’s treasure.

They continue on, unaware that death is just around the corner for one of them.

Next Time: The great log crossing- and the first pc death in my 4e campaign!
 
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Mathew_Freeman

First Post
The party travels for several days before they bottom out of the mountains. Along the way, they are attacked once by strange monsters with the head and wicked antlers of a stag, the body of a terrible bird of prey and the shadow of a man. Though they are vicious and powerful, our heroes manage to fight them off, slaying two and driving the others away.

What the heck were those things, then? I assume one of your fine homebrewed creations.

the Jester said:
Meanwhile, Torinn, tired of the party being locked down by the hell hounds, belches out a blast of lightning. ZZZKKK![/i] The one that Rathagos has been focused on spasms and dies. The final hound reacts by becoming even more ferocious, savaging and burning Vann-La. The Kree warrior groans in pain and unleashes a comeback strike- but misses. “I could use some healing here!” she calls.


Picked up a formatting error here. :)
 

the Jester

Legend
What the heck were those things, then? I assume one of your fine homebrewed creations.

Or at least one of my conversions. :)

They were perytons- awesome old school monsters. I used the 3e pic from Monsters of Faerun when running the encounter. (Why on earth was the peryton consigned to a FR book??) I used two different versions- both of which are, hmm, in my 7th level? list of converted monsters (see the Monster Project- link in sig).

Hopefully we see them again in MM2 or something...


Picked up a formatting error here. :)

Fixed it! Thanks for the catch! :)
 


the Jester

Legend
Behind the scenes, there’s a traitor manipulating certain events. Making sure that the Empire’s greatest general is out of the way, so that the Hand may squeeze closed on the city of Fandelose, whose triple walls and triple gates have never been successfully overwhelmed.

General Argos rots in the Black Tower, stripped of his rank and honors, awaiting trial for attempting the murder of a Bronze Councilor.

His abilities are unparalleled in the Empire, and probably beyond it for thousands of miles. A unique combination of a shrewd understanding of politics and human nature crossed with a hard eye for detail and an intuitive comprehension of the military implications of everything around him has made General Argos a legend in his own time.

The traitor gloats.

Politics. So easy.

***

The march towards Fandelose continues. On the fourth day back on the surface, our heroes descend a long mountain slope and enter a thickly wooded area as they start the next ascent. After about a half hour in the woods, Sta’Ligir recognizes that this area has been logged in the past.

“It looks like they practice sustainable forestry around here, anyhow,” he comments.

Soon Vann-La says, “Listen! Chopping!”, and indeed, the party can hear the sounds of lumberjacks at work. Not long after, the sounds of men singing working songs becomes audible.

It’s not long before they come into contact with some loggers. There are many groups scattered about; they are all from Fandelose or its outskirt communities. Though they are a little intimidated by Torinn- none of them have ever seen a dragonborn before- they are happy to stop and chat. After all, a chance to share a meal or a drink of Cook’s dwarven spirits with strangers is a wonderful excuse to take a break from all that hard lumberjacking work!

Our heroes take the time to chat with these folks, and they learn quite a few interesting bits of information. It turns out that the city is about two days’ walk away. Along the way, travelers have to cross a river. There used to be a bridge, but it washed out during a monstrous storm last winter and hasn’t been repaired. The easiest way to cross is to jump across the logs that float downstream, towards the city. There is one particular place, about a mile downstream, that has banks low enough to cross for about 100’.

Being adventurers, the party asks about any monsters in the area. The lumberjacks tell them that the woods between here and Fandelose are relatively safe, though drakes lurk in the shadows and are always a threat, as do a variety of dangerous, large-sized birds, such as axe beaks, kocho and terror birds.

The Six-Fingered Hand, on the other hand, is said to be months away, on the other side of the mountains. The Empire will surely crush them before they are a threat to the Western Provinces. Yeah, they’re dangerous, but not to us, is the prevailing attitude.

“Oh, they’re a danger, all right,” Vann-La says grimly.

“Who is the military authority in Fandelose?” asks Kratos.

One of the lumberjacks scratches his beard. “The head man is General Argos, but he’s in the Tower.” A couple of the others shake their heads.

“What’s that mean?” asks Heimall.

“Obviously, you’re not from around here,” one of the other lumberjacks drawls. “It’s the Black Tower. You get locked in there, you probably don’t come out. It’s usually for the worst criminals and condemned men.”

“Why is he in there?” exclaims Vann-La.

Nobody seems to know. “The city’s crazy, anyway,” one of the men opines. “That’s why I live in the woods, with my family. Too many people. The damned Bronze Council runs the place, but it seems like they are always trying to one-up the Imperials anyway.”

Rathagos frowns. “This is very disturbing,” he mutters to Torinn. “General Argos is the man we need to fight against the Six-Fingered Hand. If the city has him imprisoned, they may be dooming themselves!”

“We need to investigate the situation and see what’s actually going on,” the dragonborn says. “Let’s not jump to any conclusions yet.”

Meanwhile, Sta’Ligir is describing the true magnitude of the threat of the Six-Fingered Hand to the lumberjacks. “When the time comes,” he tells them, “gather your families and flee. Flee to the city if you can, or take refuge deep in the woods, in concealed glades and groves if you must. But be careful to be respectful of nature.”

“Thanks for the warning, elf,” one of the lumberjacks says. “If the Hand really is as big as you say, we’d best take your words seriously.”

Sta’Ligir sighs. The difference between an elf and an eladrin is clearly lost on these ignorami.

***

Fandelose specializes in lumber and worked wood items, from intricate music boxes to catapults, and bronze items of all kinds. It is a walled city with a strong militia. Its people are quite a mix- human, halfling, elf and half-elf all mingle together in large numbers, with a few folk of dwarven or tiefling descent as well. None of the loggers have ever met a dragonborn before. Fandelose can provide most of the services that any other large city can. Moreover, it is said that the city’s best ritualist, Yabin, has the best selection of books, scrolls, components and potions this side of the legendary great city of Narthox. Yabin lives in the High Quarter of the city, in the Cerulean Tower- Fandelose’s other great tower, than the infamous Black Tower.

Our heroes thank the lumberjacks, leave them a bottle of spirits and take their leave, following their directions towards the log crossing. The group walks along for almost a mile; then, the path begins to descend towards the waterway that they can hear not far off through the trees. Soon it comes into view- a wide river, choked with logs. The path descends to a wide, muddy bank, where eddies in the currents have left a number of logs drifting slowly along. Many more logs are heading downstream at a leisurely pace, sometimes smacking into one another or being twisted by an eddy in the current.

Heimall uses his glaive to catch one end of a log and turn it so that it catches against another. Slowly, he starts a log jam, throwing the logs out of alignment and starting to back them up. “It’ll be much easier to walk across,” he points out.

But Kratos is young and brash and impatient. He starts moving across carefully. At times he has to stop and catch his balance, but all is looking fine until he is about halfway across.

Then, from their positions in ambush in their trees along the far side of the river, the forces of the Six-Fingered Hand loose arrows and fire crossbows. An arrow hits Kratos’ arm. He gives a cry of pain. Vann-La, on the other hand, takes two arrows to the breast, each piercing her perilously near her vitals!* “Need healing!” she gasps. Fortunately, Heimall is able to keep her going with his inspiring words.

Several orcs emerge on the far side of the bank and begin to move out onto the logs to brace Kratos.

On our heroes’ side of the river, Rathagos starts shooting at the enemy archers. Torinn starts moving across, using his spiked chain to anchor his movements. It is slow, but effective; he moves steadily without falling. Meanwhile, on the opposite sid of the river, a bunch of armored kobolds start to move out of the woods and onto the logs as well. Now there can be no doubt: kobolds, orcs and goblins are three “fingers” of the Six-Fingered Hand. The enemy is in the area.

How many of them are there? wonders Kratos, as he moves as quickly as possible across the logs. They are slippery and not entirely stable, and he does not relish the thought of being crushed between two of them. The others are starting across behind him, but he’s already most of the way there. He will have to hold against the enemy until they can get close enough to join the battle. And the logs move, too, flowing with the river; if he waits too long to get onto the bank, he will run out of bank to get on to.

Kratos attacks the orcs. They battle across the logs. Kratos kicks and rocks the log to shake orcs loose, and still manages to maintain his grip.

Meanwhile the others are coming across the logs, but the river is wide and the logs are slippery.** It’s difficult to get close enough to attack, and they keep slipping and falling and having to get back up. A little missile fire goes back and forth, especially from Iggy, but mostly the goblin archers are able to pepper the party with relative impunity. Nixie, Vann-La and Kratos all take arrows; Nixie, especially, gets peppered, first taking two arrows, then two more a few moments later. “Need help!” she cries.

Nowhere Jones stands still on his log for a moment. Now that the kobolds are close enough, he can hurl a dagger or two at them! He hits once, wounding a goblin archer, and then falls on his ass when he tries to move.

It’s agonizing.

Arrows rain down. Kratos fights valiantly, using his healing to sustain himself in the face of an onslaught of orcs and kobolds. Sta’Ligir and Nixie cast spells back in return, but yet another pair of arrows strikes Nixie down, and she lies bleeding on the wide log she had been casting from.

Vann-La makes it to the far shore, but then realizes that her friend is dying. With a frustrated cry, she rushes back onto the logs and leaps as far as she can towards her friend.

Meanwhile, Kratos, Nowhere Jones and Rathagos are finally starting to clear out a bunch of the enemies. Their morale breaks, and the remaining goblins and kobolds try to flee. Our heroes do their best to cut down the would-be escapers, and soon the bloody work is done.

Vann-La, meanwhile, reaches Nixie. Still alive! Quickly, the Kree tries to bind her wounds- but there are so many, too many...

Nixie bleeds to death in Vann-La’s arms.

Next Time: Our heroes reach Fandelose!

*Double crits from goblin sharpshooters. Nice way for me to start an encounter.

**To be brutally honest, this encounter sucked. It didn’t go off at all like I had envisioned. The logs were too hard to cross- too challenging terrain, basically- and there were way too many. If I were to run an encounter like this again (and some day I will), I’d fix it in several ways. The biggest would be to have the river only be about 8 squares across. The way we actually played this encounter, it was way too large of an area of terrain that was way too much of a pain in the ass to get through. I totally don’t mind killing pcs, but I kinda feel bad that the first pc to die in my 4e campaign died in an encounter that was poorly designed. :( Also, the player left while his character was down, and left his death saves in another player’s hands, and the party couldn’t reach his character in time (again, because the terrain was too large and too much of a pain in the ass) to save it.
 

Technik4

First Post
Hey Jester, looks like another great story hour is starting! I feel bad for Nixie, dying in weird terrain (when you're not even present!) sucks. I think it might be time for another roll call though....this was the last:

PARTY ROLL CALL
Nixie- eladrin fey warlock 2
Kratos Aurainn- half-elf warlord 2
Torinn Dzekrasode- dragonborn cleric 3
Vann-La- (Kree) elf fighter 3
Sta'Ligir- eladrin wizard 3
Cook- dwarf rogue 2
Heimall Heinrickson- human warlord 2
Nowhere Jones- tiefling rogue 2

Also I know that some of your older characters have new characters, like Inoke and Alcar. If you could list their names it would be cool to keep track of!

Hooray for something new to read!
 

Brain

First Post
Also I know that some of your older characters have new characters, like Inoke and Alcar. If you could list their names it would be cool to keep track of!

I can help with that. Here's the who's who compared to the old epic party:

Nixie- Lillamere
Kratos Aurainn- Alcar
Torinn Dzekrasode- Gerontius
Vann-La- Inoke/JJ
Sta'Ligir- Horbin/Blaze
Cook- Sybele
Heimall Heinrickson- Drelvin/Chakar
Nowhere Jones- wasn't there
 

the Jester

Legend
Into Fandelose!

It’s not a deep grave, but it is the best that they can do for their friend under the circumstances. They had to leave the beetle and wagon behind when ascending the fallen structure out of the quaggoth caves, and have no way to carry her corpse; it simply isn’t practical. And time is not on their side; the Six-Fingered Hand is coming, and since they have been ambushed, it is all too pressing a matter.

A shallow, barely-marked soldier’s grave and a quick, roadside ceremony: it certainly won’t be the last one that the environs around Fandelose will see before the year is out.

***

The road is not far from the log crossing, but the city is still two days away. Rathagos grows more and more impatient, unusual for an elf. All of our heroes are possessed of a sense of urgency. Travelers move up and down the roads, unconcerned, oblivious to the threat of the Hand. The party chats with some of these, and they hear more rumors that seem to confirm that the general they are looking for is in prison for some terrible crime or other.

Nowhere Jones, wandering along the road, hears something more disturbing: the village of Red Bank has been destroyed, though nobody knows how.

Our heroes can speculate.

Interestingly, Kratos hears that there is a play running in town- a play by the name of Nowhere Jones. He mentions this, bemusedly, to the others, and Nowhere Jones himself looks quite perplexed by the news.

“I guess we’ll have to see it,” he says.

One more disturbing rumor reaches the party’s ears: a daVoi is in Fandelose.*

***

It is a long couple of days. Finally, though, the party arrives at Fandelose, passing by the Black Gorge on the way. It is a polluted, dirty city with vast swaths of barely-livable area- the slums. Massive clouds of black smoke from the multitude of fires hang in the air. The fires, rather than burning wood, burn the dwarfish resource called firestone, which is mined in the Black Gorge. The streets are cobbled, but most buildings are wooden. Everyone seems to have a plethora of pockets on their clothing. The gates into the city are huge and wide, and offer entrance to the city only after passing between no less than three sets of guard towers and walls. However, they do not seem to be fully manned. Many of the knobs, knockers, furnishings and trim in the city it leafed with bronze, though most of it, like everything else in the city, is smudged with sooty residue. Almost immediately, our heroes find that they, too, are becoming smudged with it.

Rathagos insists the party follow him immediately to the military headquarters of the city. He hails a garen-drawn cab for them, and in only twenty minutes they arrive at an impressive, stolid-looking building. Rathagos enters and speaks quietly to an officer; a few moments later, the party is ushered into a sitting room, where a colonel named Jaxe awaits them. He immediately ushers Rathagos away for a debriefing, and calls a clerk to issue rewards to the others. Each of them is given 250 gp, and the colonel asks that to remain available to him if he requests their assistance, and offers them guest quarters- better than a room in the barracks, but not as nice as a good inn.

Heimall speaks up. “Colonel, I hope I’m not out of line here, but what’s going on? We heard rumors that General Argos is imprisoned in the Black Tower.”

Colonel Jaxe nods. His jaw stiffens. “Correct. The new general is General Pythock.”

“How does he compare to General Argos?”

Colonel Jaxe hesitates for a moment. Then: “General Pythock is my superior officer. As such, I fully support him.”

“I see.”

There is a moment of silence. Then, Torinn asks, “What is the general accused of?”

“Attempting to poison one of the councilors of the city.”

“What is his record like?” Vann-La queries.

“Exemplary,” says Jaxe emphatically. “He has countless awards and medals for honor, valor and service, he was one of the youngest men ever to achieve a generalship for the Empire- he’s practically a legend in his own time!”

“And did you know him personally?”

“I have served under him for years.”

“So you would say that it bears investigating?” Vann-La gives the colonel a measured look.

“Of course.”

“And what about the new general? Can we see him?”

“I can put a message on his desk,” Colonel Jaxe replies, “but I don’t know when he’ll get it.”

“He isn’t receptive to the troops? He doesn’t answer messages?”

“He hasn’t been to his office yet,” Jaxe says. His voice is completely neutral, held in obvious iron control.

“Colonel, you must know that the Six-Fingered Hand is not far from here,” Torinn starts.

“Indeed, they are less than two months away.”

The party stares at him. Kratos says, “What does this General Pythock do, then?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

“At a time like this, we can’t afford to have someone like this in power!” exclaims Vann-La. “How did he become Argos’ replacement?”

“Politics,” Jaxe sneers.

***

The government of Fandelose goes back over a thousand years. It predates the Empire’s presence here by a significant amount. When the Empire swallowed up the surrounding lands, Fandelose found it easier to pay a minor tribute and accept a few minor inconvenient terms (including a garrison) than to fight the well trained Imperial Scarlet Thrushes. Their union with the Empire was peaceful, but has always allowed the Fandelosian government to maintain a significant amount of independence.

Except in times of extreme emergency, the Bronze Council controls Fandelose. The Imperial garrison has to ask for funding from them for any needs above standard operating costs, and Fandelose’s unusual level of independence has left them somewhat reluctant to contribute. Thus, General Argos was unfortunately often in the position of having to go to the council, hat in hand, begging for the money required to (for example) upgrade the battlements of the walls.

Just a month ago, Fandelose was in relatively good shape. General Argos had gotten word that the Six-Fingered Hand was approaching and would strike inside of two months. He warned the Bronze Council and asked for more money in order to better prepare the city, but one of the councilors, Bridget Willow, protested that the army already gets billions of gold pieces a year and that the Six-Fingered Hand was moving on the east side of the mountains; surely they could not be a powerful enough force to reach all the way over here, too.

Things got heated in council. Argos stormed out without having gained anything. Without the funds to do more, his ability to prepare the city was limited. He did manage to get the council to agree to stockpile some supplies in case of a siege.

Later, after another council meeting when Argos pressed again for funding, there was an assassination attempt on Feevon Bronze, the head of the Bronze Council. Argos was arrested and imprisoned in the Black Tower when evidence of the same poison that had been used on Feevon Bronze was found in his bedchamber. Meanwhile, the council appointed a local noble named Dapell Pythock as the new general to appease him on some issues of land ownership and taxation. Pythock has no military experience or talent, but legally, as an aristocrat, he has a right to his new position.

“Unfortunately, he still hasn’t been in,” Colonel Jaxe says.

“Colonel, with your permission, we’ll see if we can find anything out,” says Vann-La.

“Don’t get in trouble,” the colonel warns. “Stay out of trouble with the local law. I may be able to arrange a meeting with Argos for you, if you have any questions for him, but only once.”

Things are much worse here than we thought, thinks Sta’Ligir. It’s actually quite worrisome- these folk should be focusing all of their energy on preparing to resist the Hand, but their general is in jail, his replacement is an incompetent ass, and politics have brought things to a standstill. The only way things could be any worse would be...

Sta’Ligir frowns.

...if there were a spy.

***

The party begins poking around, meeting some of the other soldiers in the garrison here. Among others, they strike up a friendship with Billy Six-Fingers, perhaps the ugliest, most useless wart of an incompetent private any of them have ever seen. He is ecstatic to be able to sit with them in the mess hall, and immediately almost completely blows it by making a pass at Vann-La. When she makes it clear that his attentions are unwelcome, he makes it clear that clear isn’t clear enough, because he’s just that stupid. Poor lovestruck Billy!

The party’s investigation will last eleven days before it is over.

***

In the Black Tower, General Argos lays on the pile of straw that serves as his crude bed and stares at the ceiling. As each day passes, he visualizes the horde of the Six-Fingered Hand creeping ever closer. Burning the outlying villages. Seizing the fields. Killing or enslaving the peasantry.

His mind churns with plans, questions, options, ideas. If he had intelligence, he could plan a defense even from here. Even if they are going to torture and kill him, he wants to defend the city, the people.

They don’t realize the magnitude of the threat, General Argos thinks. This isn’t some tribe of 400 goblins. They will have archers, engines and siege towers. They will have tricks that the kobolds put together carried in by brute force by ogres. They will have resources we haven’t even seen yet. But if I were free- if I had a free hand- I could still build a defense to stop them, and if I have enough time, I can push them out, back, smash them. Cut their supply lines. Destroy their command section. Eliminate the food. An army that size feeds on its belly. We might have to destroy the lands for hundreds of miles around, but so be it. The horde will fall in on itself, cannibalize and disintegrate. Then they are easy prey.

He calculates in his mind. If I am not released for another three days, I can still do it. I can. Even if I’m not released for a week or twelve days. The wall, the city’s defenses- I can defend them, so long as I have enough men to do it with. There are catapults. The walls are good, though some funding for repairs would have been nice in the last few years. I can hold the enemy at least. I think. But I must have time- at least a couple of weeks. I need time to prepare.

The clatter of the tray of food being left for him distracts him for a moment.

If they don’t just torture and kill me.

***

Our heroes are decorated heroes now: each awarded the Medal of Valor and promoted to Sergeant. In the case of Torinn and Vann-La, since they are technically Navy personnel and thus not subject to Army control, Colonel Jaxe establishes a attached group consisting of the two of them, with more recruits to come- and the Imperial Marines are born. This also gives Colonel Jaxe a certain amount of cover from the actions of them, since they aren’t technically under his chain of command (as they’re Navy), and ensures a certain level of autonomy for them so that politics don’t interfere with their investigation.

Cook is offered a position as an Army cook, which he immediately turns down. He is then surreptitiously offered a chance to help build a spy network, which he also turns down. “I’m a cook!” he insists, shaking his wooden spoon in the air.

***

The party speaks to several members of the Bronze Council, starting with Bridget Willow, who was General Argos’ nemesis on the council. She seems determined to see justice done. “He’ll have a fair trial,” she insists. “I wouldn’t have thought that he’d have done something like that, but the evidence is pretty damning.”

“What was the evidence, if you don’t mind my asking?” Sta’Ligir asks.

“The same poison that was used in the assassination attempt on Feevon Bronze was found in his chamber.”

“Is there no chance that this poison could be found in more than one place in the city?”

“Fulcane is quite rare,” she replies. “Exotic, in fact.”

***

Knile Keflingorn is another of the councilors, but one that was usually more sympathetic to General Argos. It is he that has so far prevented Argos’ execution. He is in charge of the Bronze Council’s own investigation into the events surrounding the attempted murder, and so long as his investigation has not finished, Argos is in limbo.

Heimall is very pleased that at least one of the councilors can be counted on as an ally. He hopes.

Unfortunately, Vann-La finds another piece of interesting information: General Pythock is a cousin of the daVoi that is in town- Chiron daVoi.

“Something smells dirty already,” says Sta’Ligir.

***

Arson!

In a fire under threat of siege, there can be no worse crime. Our heroes help extinguish the blaze as it roars up in the slum, and together with a bunch of peasants, they manage to contain and then finally douse the fire.

A fire, truth be told, set by someone in the party.

Next Time: Arson! Investigation! Romance! Treason!


*The daVois are a corrupt line of decadent nobles in the current timeline in my campaign. In the first session of the 4e game, the pcs stole a daVoi’s boat in order to make their escape from Chebonnay, the city they started in, when the Hand closed on it.
 

the Jester

Legend
Current party lineup:

Vann-La, elf fighter 5
Sta'Ligir, eladrin wizard 4
Heimall, human warlord 5
Torinn, dragonborn cleric 5
Nowhere Jones, tiefling rogue 3
Cook, dwarf rogue 3
Kratos, half-elf warlord 4

The warlock's replacement is coming in another game's worth of updates; he starts as a wizard 4.
 

Mathew_Freeman

First Post
I note that Thrush's Empire lasted a fair while after his death, then? :)

Excellent stuff as usual, Jester. I'm enjoying the shift from grim survival to politics!
 

the Jester

Legend
I note that Thrush's Empire lasted a fair while after his death, then? :)

Hey, I didn't say that- I just implied that. :angel:

Excellent stuff as usual, Jester. I'm enjoying the shift from grim survival to politics!

I'm glad you're liking it- this is where we had a skill challenge that took several sessions to play out (the challenge, of course, was basically "unravel the Argos affair"). Naturally, we had lots of other things going on at the same time, but the investigation into what really happened with Argos was pretty much the main focus for a couple of sessions. Expect a decent amount of politics before total war comes. :)
 


the Jester

Legend
The Argos Affair!

The next night, in the Upper District of Fandelose, there is another fire.

This time it’s much more serious; this is where the wealthy live. A fire in the Slums is serious, of course, because it’s a fire in the city. But in the Upper District, people take it seriously. The city’s militia begins an investigation. Flyers are posted in the city’s taverns, inns and markets.

***

Our heroes, meanwhile, work feverishly to unravel the Argos affair before the armies of the Six-Fingered Hand arrive. There isn’t much time, and General Pythock still has not even appeared in his new office. Colonel Jaxe hides his distress well and he is doing what he can with the resources he has available to him, but without a competent overall commander...

The party decides that their best course of action is to track down the source of the poison. Cook knows that fulcane- the poison in question- comes from the fulcantha plant, which grows in the distant remote east. Using his streetwise to guide him, Nowhere Jones manages to track down an importer of eastern goods.

The shop is full of strange goods of all kinds: odd baskets, bolts of exotic silk, bundles of sweet-smelling, foreign herbs, odd plants and caged birds- altogether a riot of color, sound and scent. Styger, the importer, is a middle-aged, bearded man wearing a small hat. He nods to the party when they enter. They browse around, making some small courtesy purchases, and speak to the importer, gradually turning the conversation to the poison that they are seeking.

“So,” says Kratos, “I see that you deal in exotic herbs.”

The importer nods. “Ah, yes. I have many beautiful specimens from far places all across the seas of Cydra.”

“What about something... else... that might be derived from an exotic plant?”

“Perhaps, perhaps. What do you seek?”

“Fulcane,” whispers Kratos.

“Oh, no!” exclaims the importer. “No, that would not be legal.”

The party’s courtesy purchases increase somewhat.

“Are you certain?” asks Vann-La.

“Oh, yes. I would not do anything to get in trouble with the law hereabouts. Quite certain.”

“What about the plant that it comes from?” asks the Kree. “Fulcantha plants?”

“Well, that’s different,” Styger replies. “Of course, I could sell you a fulcantha plant. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Have you sold any recently?”

“Well, I never discuss the purchases of my customers...” The party’s expenditures on various small imported goods continue to increase. “I did sell one, recently,” he admits finally. “To a noble, with an odd accent. Not from the city. He was a thin man.”

“Did you get his name?” asks Iggy.

“No, he never mentioned it. I got the impression that he was a lackey, though he was dressed in finery.” He hesitates. “One more thing. It wasn’t until after he left that I realized that he dropped something. Let me see...” He searches the shelves behind the counter, then exclaims, “Aha!” and pulls out a velvet bag. He tosses it to the party.

It’s a dice bag, embroidered with a “d” monogram.

Chiron daVoi, thinks Heimall.

***

The play Nowhere Jones has been running in town for a few weeks, but the lines show no sign of dying down. When Nowhere Jones and Sta’Ligir go to try to get in, they find that it is sold out and the gates are closed. The bouncers aren’t letting anyone in, even though Nowhere Jones claims to be, well, Nowhere Jones. The playhouse is in the Slums, so the air is foul with smoke from all the firestone burning in peoples’ homes and the myriad of small businesses and food-sellers along the choked streets.

“Let’s talk to the others and see who all is interested, and maybe we can get tickets for a performance in a day or two,” suggests Iggy.

***

Councilman Knile Keflingorn hears the party’s evidence in his office. Then he stands, clasps his hands behind his back and stares into the fireplace for a few moments. Finally, he turns to the party.

“Your evidence is compelling,” he says. “I think you are probably on to something here.” He pauses, then resumes: “It’s compelling, but not conclusive. It’s all circumstantial. If you can find some fulcane in daVoi’s possession, that would be pretty conclusive.”

“Where does he live?” asks Heimall.

“He doesn’t live here. He could be staying with a friend or relative, or renting a house somewhere. I don’t know. And be careful investigating him- he is a noble, after all.”

***

General Pythock still has not been in. The party resumes nosing about, looking for signs of where daVoi is staying. They learn of a ball that he is going to be at in the evening; that’s a good start!

When they get to the ball, most of the party goes in the front, dressed up in their dress uniforms and decorations. They manage to bluff their way in, and then begin to circulate. The party gets their first sight of General Pythock at this point.

Pythock is a fat man who shows the worst characteristics of the decadent nobility of the Empire. He is surrounded by sycophants, chattering like birds. His face is heavily painted in makeup, leaving his lips a dark red, his cheeks rosy like a whore’s, and his eyelashes elegantly thick and dark. His dark brown hair is oiled in little ringlets. He wears a splendid uniform and sash with a plenitude of medals and decorations on it- none of which are actual military medals or decorations. His rank emblems are all done up in gold. He is the most pompous-looking person any of our heroes have ever seen.

The cluster of people he is associating with includes Chiron daVoi, himself only half as portly and nowhere near as pompous as Pythock, but equally painted. A pale, cheerless-looking fellow in a quite fine version of daVoi livery hangs always at Chiron daVoi’s right shoulder. One of the fellows in the crowd with them, a tiefling (and thus automatically sinister-looking), is engaged in a conversation about gambling with daVoi.

“A little later on, after the ball, then?” the tiefling inquires. “Perhaps some more high stakes dice at the Gentleman’s Club?”

Gambling, thinks Nowhere Jones. The dice pouch. We have stronger connecting evidence.

“Perhaps,” daVoi replies. He waves the tiefling off, who then moves away in the general direction of Kratos.

Eyeing Kratos’ decorations, the tiefling says, “So you’re one of the war heroes from the east?”

Kratos puffs up. “Why, yes I am!”

They strike up a conversation, with Iggy and Heimall joining in. After all, this fellow knows daVoi.

***

Meanwhile, the cook, who is not even in the military, much less a decorated war hero, comes on the scene in a rather different way: from behind. He enters through the servants’ entrance and makes his way to the kitchen, claiming to be daVoi’s personal servant. He easily bluffs his way into a tray of food and drinks, and then moves out into the ball, circulating and keeping his eyes and ears open. When he spots daVoi, he surreptitiously tries to attach himself to the throng around him.

***

The tiefling is named Hkatha Ilmixie. He is a local noble, and as the party draws him out in conversation, he confirms that he is a gambling partner with daVoi and his cronies- who, apparently, include both General Pythock, a number of other local nobles and officials, and the henchman at daVoi’s right shoulder, Millbury.

More and more interesting, thinks Vann-La. Now we know what Pythock is doing in place of his job... he’s throwing dice!

After feeling out his attitude about the coming assault by the Six-Fingered Hand, the party takes Hkatha aside. It’s a risk, but they tell him that they are investigating what they believe to be the framing of General Argos, and they ask for his help.

***

Other luminaries of Fandelose are present at the ball, too. Most of the Bronze Council, including Feevon Bronze, who was the victim of the assassination attempt that landed Argos in the Black Tower, and his young wife Tira. Very young, compared to him- he is an old man. Bridget Willow, along with a gaggle of young women, including Bridget’s two daughters (aged 14 and 17) and their three young lady hangers-on, is present. Councilor Willow nods at our heroes, but is clearly not very happy to see them. On the other hand, Knile Keflingorn, their strongest ally in the city outside of the military (at least so far) is there as well, along with his wife, Dara, and an attendant.

Another person of interest that the party meets is Shaylon Player, the actor portraying Nowhere Jones in the current play, who looks splendid in his finery. Many young ladies are fawning over him, and he accepts their adoration as his due. “What a jerk,” the real Nowhere Jones says snarkily.

The party overhears a testy man declaring that “something needs to be done!” This turns out to be Sathar Streetlamp, who runs most of the firestone-lamp street lights in the city, and who is having extreme difficulty getting his firestone at present. When our heroes ask why, it turns out that the dwarves that mine the firestone in the Black Gorge are having some kind of issues with their payment.

Another man is haranguing part of the crowd, but with much less response. This is High Civilizer Marron, high priest of Hamel, who seems to have come to the ball solely to try to get some donations for some kind project to save the citizens in case the worst should happen when the Hand invades. The party takes interest, and sets up a meeting with the High Civilizer for later to discuss things further.

And then there’s Livia.

***

Livia Dierfli is a delightful young woman- handmaiden to one of the local ladies attending on Bridgett Willow. She looks down shyly when Kratos first smiles at her, but smiles back. He asks her to dance. She blushes and accepts.

He is in love by the end of their first dance.

***

When Chiron daVoi and his cluster of hangers-on push their way from the ball and head towards the Gentlemen’s Club, boisterous and drunk, they have gained an attendant. Cook follows on, still serving drinks. And Hkatha takes one.

Next Time: Cook- alone in the daVoi mansion!
 

the Jester

Legend
General Argos’ hands clutch the bars of his tiny window. He stares, full of despair, as the sun sinks another time in the west. Another day draws to a close- and with every day, the troops of the enemy draw closer. With a groan, he presses his forehead against the wall. They’re going to execute me. Or leave me to rot. Or release me when it’s too late- when the enemy is already at the gates. He closes his eyes. And then I won’t be able to do anything other than slow them down. I have to get out of here! His thoughts turn to his adjutant, loyal throughout the years. Jaxe, if you have any strings left to pull, pull them now. There is no more time to waste!

It cannot be real- it must be his imagination- but General Argos thinks, for a moment, that he catches a whiff of the unique smoke that comes from battle: burning wood, and sulfur, and tar; and the porcine smell of burning human flesh, too.

He shudders. Not yet, he thinks.

In his mind’s eye, he pictures orcs, goblins, kobolds rushing through the streets of Fandelose, putting people to the sword. He can see his troops, even under the command of a brilliant successor, being slaughtered by the overwhelming forces of the Six-Fingered Hand. Buildings smashed down by ogres. The tower he is in, burned, falling, killing him without ever giving him a chance to fight back. The people of Fandelose, impaled with their bellies slit open for the amusement of Heshwat the Eviscerator, master of the forces of the Six-Fingered Hand in this area.

He shudders, and shudders, and shudders, all through his nightmares, all the way until dawn.

***

Forty miles away, the town of Lopack burns. It is too far from the Black Tower that Argos is imprisoned in for him to have scented it- but Argos knows. His mind contains a perfect map of the region, with all the military routes, paths, tracks and trails picked out in exquisite detail.

If the Hand is on track, he knows, they will have reached Lopack yesterday or today.

Woe to the townsfolk.

The enemy swept in, goblin worg-riders at the forefront. Their loud whoops woke and panicked the peasants. A few grabbed up pitchforks or rakes to defend themselves and their land. By the time they reached the town’s main square, several houses on the outskirts were already aflame. Before they could organize a defense, the swift worgs carried their riders into the mass of the town, snarling and snapping and slashing and stabbing. The cobblestones of the square were slick with blood, and then soon covered in a thick wet inch of it.

Some locked themselves in their homes, only to be burned out or slaughtered when the orcs rampaged in, looking for rapine and loot. Others fled for the outskirts of the town, only to find- to their horror- that they were already surrounded.

The lucky ones were killed in the fields and streets of Lopack. The unlucky would die, too, but not a clean death. Not at all.

***

The Gentlemen’s Club is a high-class place. Exclusive. No rabble allowed. The decor is lush but not decadent. There are nice plants growing in plots. And drinks. Lots of drinks.

Hkatha walks with all of the swagger that his station in life entitles him to- not to mention his heritage! He belongs in places like this. Despite his tiefling horns, his blood is blue. His family has a lot of money and power. He is entitled to come here, where no lesser entities are allowed.

Chiron daVoi, as always, looks bored. He hies himself to a dice table and lays down an extravagant wager before picking up the bones and giving them an inattentive toss. General Pythock’s eyes are glued to the dice. They bounce a few times before coming to rest.

“Eh,” daVoi says dismissively, as the house takes his bet. He puts down another. “Bring me a drink, Millbury.” daVoi’s henchman scurries off; meanwhile, he picks up the dice again and gives another toss, losing another small fortune. He shrugs. “Not my table,” he sniffs, and moves to the next. General Pythock takes his place, greedily grabbing up the dice. But Hkatha notices that his wager is significantly smaller than daVoi’s was.

The tiefling plucks a tall glass of wine from a serving girl and moves to the dice table General Pythock is at. The game changes to Bone Racing, a competitive dice game with four players. Hkatha plays, but doesn’t bet too extravagantly. He is already rather in debt from recent weeks, and doesn’t want to get in too much deeper. The family fortune is generous, but has been severely depleted in recent months.

The tiefling gambles less than is his wont and is careful not to drink too much. Most of the other gamers present don’t even notice; few associate with him outside of the Club. Even if it weren’t for his family’s peculiar reputation, the fact that he is a tiefling would be enough for most people to shun him.

Fortunately, money opens doors. And the Ilmixies have always had plenty of money, gained fair or foul. Although, Hkatha muses, I seem to be spending my way out of it pretty quickly... Well, no matter. If what my new friends tell me is accurate, there is a considerable army on the march towards Fandelose, and if the city burns to the ground, my money counts for nothing.

And besides, daVoi has been kind enough to make me a loan or two in the last few weeks. I’m sure I can squeeze some more out of him- and maybe even use that as a pretext to keep a closer eye on him... and his cousin, General Pythock.


***

Cook watches passively, carrying a tray of drinks. When he is accosted by the Gentleman’s Club’s staff, he protests that he is “Master daVoi’s personal servant. He has very, uh, unique needs, and wished to give the honor of serving them.” The dire implications of the word “unique” win the argument for him, as nobody wants to be the subject of a daVoi’s “unique needs”. Cook can almost see the thought flash in the minds of the staff: Better this dwarf than me!

So, carefully unobtrusive, Cook keeps a close eye on the evening’s proceedings, shielding himself from discovery behind a wall of servitude.

The dice clatter on the tables. Cards shuffle with a loud riffing sound. Drinks are served, and snacks. Several of the gamblers leave early, one of them grinning at the fact that he has nearly doubled his fortune, the others more glumly. Not long after, General Pythock is in a deep game of cards, and the betting gets too hot for him.

Now what will he do? wonders Hkatha. He watches, darkly amused, as the general approaches Chiron daVoi, only to be rebuffed in a humiliating manner. “I have already staked you too much, cousin,” daVoi waves Pythock off, and the general stalks off to the side, growling under his breath.

Hkatha and Cook both watch with interest from their respective places as Millbury, Chiron daVoi’s henchman, quietly slides over to the wounded general. He places a hand on Pythock’s shoulder and murmurs to him, too softly for our heroes to hear; but Hkatha spies Millbury slipping a fat-looking purse to the general.

Very interesting, thinks the tiefling.

***

A couple of hours later, Pythock, Chiron daVoi and their retinues- including a dwarven servant who is remaining silent and unnoticed, at least so far- head for home. Hkatha elects to go to his own home, as he is exhausted and has done quite enough for one night.

***

By the morning, Cook is wearing Pythock’s livery. He manages to make a surreptitious search of a few rooms within Pythock’s mansion. He finds some financial ledgers in an office. Most interesting, he thinks, leafing through them. It would seem that General Pythock is in quite some debt- to Millbury. It would also seem that he has already taken a pay advance for as much pay as he can- and he has spent that, too. And on nothing more than gambling. Quickly, he pulls a book from the shelf in the office and opens it to the middle. Using a sharp dagger, he slices a hiding place out of some of the pages and stuffs a few key pages of the ledger into it, then hides the book in his bag, beneath some mushrooms and beetles that are starting to go.

He continues poking around. The next door that he opens is an opulent bedroom. Cook freezes.

The bed contains a tumble of people, including General Pythock. All but one are asleep.

She is staring right at him.

***

At about the same time, the others are meeting with High Civilizer Marron. He elaborates on what he had said the night before, at the ball: as the high priest of Hamel, he serves the cause of civilization. He explains that he plans on using his knowledge and powers to help the city withstand the coming attack, if he can- and if the worst should happen and the Six-Fingered Hand should conquer Fandelose, he plans to make a great door through which the people might be able to escape.

“What do you mean, a door?” asks Torinn. “To where?”

“It is hard to explain,” the High Civilizer responds. “I’m not precisely certain...”

“You mean it’s random?”

Marron hesitates. “You could say that,” he allows.

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“I think by the time we use it, it will already be a last resort,” Vann-La says.

The party falls silent at that. The Kree warrior has a point, and they all know it. If they are taken by the Six-Fingered Hand, they will be lucky if they wind up tortured to death.

“So what do you need help with?” asks Heimall. “Funding?”

“Of course, that always helps,” Marron replies, “but really, I need a sturdy group to retrieve something from me. There is a unique mineral. There is literally only one at a time in existence. When it is consumed, a new one grows in the same place each time. It looks somewhere between a lump of firestone and a black diamond. This is called the Caratite. I need it.”

“Where is it?” asks Sta’Ligir.

“It’s in a shaft in the Black Gorge,” the High Civilizer tells the group.

“Is it guarded?” wonders Iggy.

“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s a natural phenomenon, and not of great value; it just so happens to be necessary- or at least, extremely helpful- to my current work.”

Naturally, our heroes agree to seek this out. The High Civilizer provides them with a map and a warning. “The dwarves of the Black Gorge are not known for their friendliness. They look at outsiders as probable claim jumpers trying to steal resources from what they see as dwarven land.”

“We’ll be careful,” Nowhere Jones says, pricking his thumb with the point of a dagger.

Our heroes buy tickets for the play Nowhere Jones two days hence on their way out of the city.

***

The Black Gorge is where most of the firestone that lights and heats Fandelose comes from. Take away the firestone, and you take away Fandelose’s industry. Take away the firestone, and you leave Fandelose dark and cold at night. Although, truth be told, you might clean the air some, but who cares about a thing like that? There is money at stake here.

The party treks to the location designated on the High Civilizer’s map. Along the way they have a rough skirmish with a group of orcs, but they don’t have any other types of humanoid with them, nor do they have uniforms or other indications that they are from the Six-Fingered Hand. Searching the bodies, Torinn finds an item that will come to be so associated with him that it is actually put into statues of him: a coonskin hat.

“How do I look?” the dragonborn cleric asks with a grin, striking a pose.

***

The party follows the map into a side canyon of the Gorge. Ahead, they spy a cave.

“I wonder if this could be it,” says Kratos.

“I think he said a shaft, didn’t he?” asks Heimall, but Kratos is already walking towards it. The others follow him with a collective sigh.

Then a strange hooting sound echoes from the darkness in the cave.

“Hello?” calls Kratos.

There is a scrambling sound; then a much louder sound, like a hoot mixed with a strange, phlegmatic roar. Kratos squints; is that movement?

And then two owlbears rush out of the cave.

Next Time: Our heroes against a mated pair of owlbears! Plus: Is Cook caught? And: the Caratite Shaft!
 

the Jester

Legend
When Cook finds the woman looking straight at him, he thinks fast- as fast as he can. Glancing at the sleeping tangle of figures on the bed, he holds a fingers to his lips and steps inside brazenly, acting for all the world like he belongs here.

“Who are you?” the nude woman murmurs. “Don’t wake his lordship,” she adds.

Fortunately for Cook, he had grabbed up a tray of oils and fruits before poking around, to help hide his true intentions were he caught. Now he silently thanks his foresight as he replies in a whisper, “I am Doctor Lee. I am here to bring tea to the lord Pythock.” Seeing her dubious expression, he hastily adds, “And to give him a massage.”

Her face clears. “So it’s dwarves this month,” she mutters to herself. “You should wait until he’s awake,” she whispers. “He has a very foul temper when he is woken.”

“Oh, I would not want to invoke that!” the cook declares quietly.

“Although, if I were to wake him in the right way...

“No, no- let him sleep. Last night’s celebrations went deep into the night. Perhaps I can offer you a massage instead?”

The offer distracts her sufficiently, and soon Cook hurries out of the room, the woman having fallen back asleep and the general having never stirred. The dwarf sighs in relief; That was a close one!

He continues his explorations with increasing caution. There are a few servants up and about, but with the livery he is wearing, none of them question him. The general must go through many servants, hiring and firing them quickly, or they would know that I do not belong, he realizes. General Pythock must be a harsh master.

It isn’t until he is poking about in the garbage that he finds the remains of a fulcantha plant.

This is it, he realizes immediately. And with a sudden insight, he realizes, And this is the garbage from daVoi’s office. But from what we have learned, it wasn’t him- it was a scrawny lackey of his.

Millbury.


***

The pair of owlbears bursts from the interior of the cave. One rushes up on Kratos, who is blocking the entryway, and grabs him in a furious hug, tearing at him with its beak. He screams in pain as it rips a great chunk of his shoulder open, but the blood makes him slippery and he is able to slip free of it. Then he pulls out his terror maul and deals a mighty blow to the owlbear!

The second owlbear hoots in frustration, unable to get past its mate because Kratos is maintaining his position in the entryway.

“Don’t let it out! Don’t let it out!” shouts Heimall, hurrying up and firing a crossbow bolt into the lead owlbear. “You can hold it, Kratos! You must stand firm against the enemies of the Empire!!”*

The owlbear in the lead howls as Nowhere Jones tumbles in with a setup strike. It slashes its razor-sharp claws at Kratos, savaging him over and over.**

The party clusters at the entrance. Heimall and Torinn keep Kratos on his feet as they hammer the lead owlbear with attacks. It gives out a loud screech that stuns Torinn. Unfortunately for the owlbear, it also stuns its mate.

Torinn, however, is now easy prey. It rips into him, bringing the dragonborn down with a series of terrific blows and bringing into its lethal hug.

“Torinn!” cries Heimall. “NOOOOOO!!”

“Not yet,” gasps Kratos. “Not on my watch! TORINN!! STAND UP, SOLDIER!! FIGHT!!!” he roars.***

The dragonborn groans, but Kratos’ words reach him. Can’t go down like this, he thinks. Must fight back! With a mighty roar, he breaks free of the owlbear’s grasp. Then with a flick of his wrists, he brings his spiked chain around in a righteous brand, smacking the owlbear across the arm. It howls.

The party presses their momentary advantage, but the owlbear has other plans. Its mate is howling behind it. It grabs Kratos again, tearing into him, but he manages to twist loose and then swings his maul into the owlbear’s head! It staggers, and Nowhere Jones slips a sly flourish under its guard, finally dropping the first one!

Now that only one owlbear remains, the party retreats from the entrance. Torinn utters a healing word to restore some of the damage Kratos has taken. Then he prays to Lester and invokes a bastion of hope, aiding all of his companions.

The other owlbear charges forth, but with all of them able to cluster around and flank it, it only takes a few moments more for the battle to end. Nowhere Jones lands the killing blow on this owlbear, too, and grins with satisfaction. “I didn’t even know how bad ass I am,” he chortles.

A search of the owlbears’ den reveals that it does not hold the shaft that the heroes are looking for, so they move on. They are not far from their goal. In less than another hour, they find it- a wide-mouthed shaft with narrow, treacherous-looking steps hewn from the edge, spiraling down. Warm, moist air, redolent with sulfurous smells, rises gently from below.

“Smells interesting,” comments Hkatha.

Tieflings, thinks Vann-La.

The party moves down the shaft. It bottoms out in a natural series of caves that prove to be infested with fire bats and a tangler beetle. Hkatha snorts in disdain at the fire bats, and his tiefling resistance to fire proves pivotal in the battle. He is able to move about and fight almost with impunity; he immediately shows some skill with magic, which Sta’Ligir cocks an eyebrow at. The beetle is quickly wounded enough that it retreats out of sight along a high ledge; the party pursues it after dealing with the bats and finishes it off. Behind its lair, they find the Caratite- a strange thing about the size of a large tea kettle. It is dark like coal, but has a sparkle to the grain, and many small transparent crystal formations are growing within it just at or below the surface.

The party takes it and leaves.

***

Cook has dinner with one of the servants. He knows that the longer he remains at Pythock’s estate, the more likely he is to get caught; he also knows that he already knows too much.

But surely, there must be more to learn...

He gets the servant blisteringly drunk on good dwarven mushroom-brew and plies him for intelligence. Chiron daVoi is not popular with the servants; and they view Millbury more as one of the bosses than as the help, with all the visceral dislike that implies.

And the fulcantha plant? It definitely came from daVoi’s office. Not that a servant would testify to that or anything; but now Cook knows for certain.

Deep in the night, he sneaks away and returns to the barracks. He knows too much for him to get caught at spy games now. They would no doubt kill him, and his friends would not have the evidence that he found. Besides, they might start worrying about him and do something rash if he doesn’t return soon.

***

The others return from Black Gorge. Along the way, they cross a long line of giant ants carrying little bits of flesh somewhere. They had seen it on their way into the gorge, but now they take more notice.

”For them to still be here, there must be an awful lot of meat,” Heimall reasons. “We crossed hours ago... and there are a lot of them. Maybe we should check it out.”

The party follows the trail of ants to where they are getting the meat, and they discover a pile of massacred dwarves. “Ugh,” comments Vann-La.

“You said it,” Sta’Ligir agrees. He looks the ants over dubiously. They are the size of small dogs, with a few even larger. “I don’t know that we want to mess with their food, here.”

“Why mess with a bunch of dead dwarves anyway?” Vann-La inquires. “Whoever killed them probably took any valuables that they had.”

“Good point,” agrees Iggy. “All right, let’s go back to the city.”

Distractions cast aside, the party turns back towards Fandelose.

***

The High Civilizer is quite elated to see the Caratite safely delivered to him. “This will help me construct my door!” he says. He thanks the party profusely and tells them, “I haven’t much money to spare, but I do have an item that might be of use to you. I certainly don’t have a use for it.” He hurries off and returns with a magical symbol, which he gives to the group and they promptly give to Torinn.

Then they return to the barracks, where they find their dwarven cook just waking up after a long adventure in Pythock’s mansion.

“Did you find anything out?” asks Sta’Ligir.

“Did I ever!” Cook exclaims. “Oi, look at this!” He pulls out the papers that he stole, as well as a couple of fulcantha leaves.

“You found the plant!” exclaims Kratos.

“It had already been thrown away, but I found it before it was burned or taken from the estate. And the papers indicate that General Pythock has already taken a year’s advance on his pay.”

“And he has already spent it all,” Hkatha nods. “This matches up with what I saw at the Gentleman’s Club. He’s deeply in debt to Millbury, daVoi’s henchman.”

“If he knows we have been investigating him, he may move against us- maybe send assassins or something,” Vann-La points out.

Or he may move against General Argos.” Heimall’s voice is grim.

“We should inform Councilor Keflingorn,” Vann-La says, but just then, there is a knock at the door to their room. Cook grows pale; everyone freezes. A moment later it opens, and a servant, dressed in the livery of the Bronze Council, steps in to the chamber.

“Good afternoon,” he says. “I hope that I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” replies Heimall.

“Good. My name is Martin. Please, come with me,” the servant says.

“Who sent you?” demands Torinn.

”I come on council business,” Martin begins.

“WHO SENT YOU?” roars Kratos.

The servant cowers back. “I, I, Councilor Willow,” he stammers.

“Help us, and we may lend leniency to you,” Hkatha states.

“What?”

“Bring him with us,” declares Heimall. “There’s no time for this. We need to get to the colonel and give him our evidence. There’s no time to waste!”

“Wait, you’re supposed to come with me,” Martin protests.

Next Time: The Argos Affair concludes!


*Inspiring word time- already, halfway through round 1!

**Thank you, action point- two double attacks on Kratos in one round. Ouch!

***I believe that this may have been his first use of stand the fallen, a totally kick-ass power.
 

cold1s

First Post
StaL'igir

Notes from the Eladrin Wizard:

The escape from Chebonnay seemed obvious. The party can at least claim to have deserted after the officers. StaL'igir starts the campaign in a resentful frame of mind, his motto, a clerkish “I'm not even supposed to be here”. A conscript to an army defending a city and empire to which he does not belong, he makes the switch from certain death to slim chance of survival mode easily enough.

Escape to Fandelose offered the only honorable result of fleeing Chebonnay. Along the route to escape, StaL'igir, or Iggy, realizes that the Six Fingered hand is not merely at threat to the non-Fey, which he knows as the “dull-spirited”, but a threat to the whole of fair existence. Hopes of escape to the Feywild vanished after he observed signs of foul incursion to the sacred forest.

The capture of General Argos on the brink of such a crisis only solidifies his poor opinion of the Dull-spirited. Constantly bickering over minutia, short sighted and brutish, they have much to defeat from within before they can wage war against the external and very real enemy of the Six Fingered Hand.

Notes on StaL'igir's character:
Reasonably strong and healthy, but very quick. Extremely intelligent and fairly patient, he is awkward socially, therefore, he suffers from the “Cassandra Syndrome” - often right, but rarely able to convinces others of what he sees as obvious. Combined with relative aloofness, he rarely makes impressions at parties.

StaL'igir. Read as “Mr. L'igir”. This becomes more obvious when he starts calling himself “Sergent L'igir” Bonus: he has a first name, but no party member (nor the DM) knows.

Read on, it only get better. B-)
 

the Jester

Legend
The party, a protesting Martin in tow, heads immediately to see Colonel Jaxe, intending to lay their evidence out before him. Then- assuming everything goes according to plan- they will move on to Councilor Keflingorn. Hopefully, between the two of them, the party will be able to gain enough support to move in on Millbury- and free General Argos.

“But you’re supposed to come with me,” Martin protests again. The party ignores him, and Torinn does not release his iron grip on the servant’s arm.

They reach the colonel’s office with only a few funny glances from other soldiers. The colonel’s adjutant informs them that he will be available shortly; when he shows them in, they ask him to “detain this servant- or conspirator.” The major immediately takes Martin in hand and leads him off to a detention center. Martin’s face has gone white, and he babbles protests as he is led away.

The party enters Colonel Jaxe’s office.

“Colonel, we have the evidence,” Heimall says without preamble.

Jaxe cocks an eyebrow. “Please, go ahead.”

The party explains what they have put together- that Millbury, Chiron daVoi’s lackey, was the would-be assassin of Feevon Bronze. “Except I don’t think it was a real assassination attempt- it was all about framing General Argos,” explains Kratos.

Colonel Jaxe listens, his face stony, as they go on. He plucks a walnut from a bowl on his desk and clutches it in his fist.

Millbury poisoned Feevon Bronze and planted the poison in Argos’ chambers, then returned to the Pythock estate and disposed of the plant- except that it remained in the rubbish heap, for Cook to find later. When Argos was arrested and thrown into the Black Tower, Pythock began agitating for the generalship based on some old property disputes with the city- essentially, Fandelose owed him a large amount of money, and appointing him to Argos’ old position would clear the debt. Meanwhile Pythock himself had fallen deeply into debt with Millbury; this put the pressure on Pythock to get the money from the city, or to get the generalship with its generous pay scale and rights to plunder, in order to alleviate his debt.

Heimall concludes, “So basically, Millbury attempted to murder a Bronze Councilor, framed General Argos for it and manipulated a completely incompetent person into his place- ensuring that Fandelose won’t be ready when the Six-Fingered Hand comes.”

There is a cracking sound as Colonel Jaxe’s hand crushes the walnut open with rage. “I am convinced. We must present your evidence to Councilor Keflingorn immediately.”

Vann-La nods. “Yes, sir- and you might want to send some guards to the Black Tower in case anyone tries to assassinate the general!”

Sta’Ligir adds, “It wouldn’t do to free him, only to find that we are too late.”

“Yes, a good point. I’ll see to it immediately.” He summons a small escort of troops for the party and issues them all horses. Then the party rides through a misty rain to Keflingorn’s abode, where a respectful servant shows them to the councilman. Once again, they lay out their evidence.

Knile Keflingorn grows more and more disquieted as they talk. Finally, once they have finished- and have shown him the leaf of the fulcantha plant as well as some of the documents- he is quite inflamed.

“So, she’s making a very bold move,” he mutters. “It seems out of character- but it’s the only explanation.”

“Who?” demands Torinn.

“Bridget Willow,” answers Keflingorn. “It has to be her behind this all. She’s making a power play of some kind. I can smell it!”

“Do you think she’s a traitor?” asks Vann-La.

“A traitor? No. Dangerously ambitious, though... and even if everything you say and that you have deduced is correct and she didn’t cause the problem, she is taking advantage of the moment to advance her agenda.” He smacks a fist into the palm of his other hand. “All right, it’s time to resolve this. I need you to go to the councilwoman and tell her that I am calling an emergency meeting of the council, immediately. Summon her to the council hall.”

The party scurries off again, this time to Councilor Willow’s house. Again, a servant shows them in. Bridget Willow is sitting by a fire, drinking a cup of tea. She smiles at them. “Not as prompt as I had hoped, but at least you are here.”

Huh? thinks Torinn.

“I’ll get right to the point. This so-called ‘investigation’ of Councilor Keflingorn isn’t going anywhere. He’s obstructing justice for whatever reason- but we need to conclude this matter and move on to more important things. I’m glad you all came- and I hope you can help me to persuade him. Say, where is Martin, anyway?”

There is a moment of silence as our heroes realize that Bridget Willow is the one who sent Martin to fetch them- to see her!

“He is being... entertained,” Heimall says lamely.

Bridget Willow eyes the warlord. “Excuse me,” she says, and leaves the room for a few long minutes. When she returns, she eyes the party coldly. “He was on official council business. If you have harmed him, you’ll pay for it. And you will rue the day you interfered with the official doings of the Bronze Council!”

“He hasn’t been harmed,” Sta’Ligir quickly replies.

“That we know of,” Hkatha mutters under his breath.

“Then where is he?” Willow snaps. No answer is forthcoming; and after a moment, she growls, “This is outrageous! He was on official council business. You don’t know what kind of trouble you are in!”

Kratos shakes his head. “No, you don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in! The Six-Fingered Hand is weeks away, and it’s going to crush this city and kill us all if we can’t stop it, and you are worried about politics?”

“I am worried about justice,” she retorts. “You people have probably assaulted a good man doing work for me and my city, and you’re defending a man who tried to kill my colleague! I’m calling an immediate, emergency meeting of the council to end this pathetic farce today!”

One way or another, Vann-La answers silently, this farce will end today.

***

The Bronze Councilors, excepting only Bridget Willow and Knile Keflingorn, receive two emergency summons to the Bronze Hall. This is a unique occasion; emergency sessions are rarely called, and it is unheard of for two councilors to call one at the same time.

These are strange days.

Heimall presents the evidence; it is as plain as day from her reaction that Bridget Willow is half-convinced herself. Both she and Keflingorn try to take political advantage of the situation, but neither his nor her approach is organized or systematic enough to imply that they set up the whole thing. They are both scrambling to spin things to their advantage, but neither one is doing a very good job. The rest of the Council is divided; after all, they have only the word of the army folks about what has happened. How can they know that this is really a leaf from the plant that produced the poison, how can they know that the party didn’t plant it themselves- there are questions.

Then Knile Keflingorn plays his trump card. He is in charge of the investigation; he sends men to go find Styger, the merchant that sold the plant to Millbury, and bring him back to testify. Heimall stays at the council to ensure that things don’t spin out of control. Within an hour, Styger arrives, escorted by Vann-La and Torinn. It takes some persuasion, but he finally agrees to testify.

With this added piece of evidence, the Bronze Council retires to vote.

Half an hour later, they issue a warrant for the arrest of Millbury and command the freedom of General Argos and the restoration of him to his position.

Next Time: The arsonist revealed!
 

the Jester

Legend
The same night that General Argos is released, the arsonist strikes again, starting a fire at the house of Livia Dierfli.

By some “coincidence”, Kratos is there. Livia’s family has made plain that they do not approve of him, and have begun to make it difficult for Kratos and Livia to see each other. His very presence is suspicious, especially “in the nick of time.”

Especially when a combination of the watch and the Dierfli house guards capture the arsonist- and it is Nowhere Jones.

***

General Argos keeps a jar on his desk. He asks everyone that sees him to contribute what they can afford to the war effort. He does not demand anything, but he does remind every visitor that the Hand is coming, and everyone must do their part if the city of Fandelose is to avoid extinction.

In the immediate aftermath of his liberation, General Argos sets to work on the jigsaw problem of the city’s defense. One part of the problem is that Councilor Bridget Willow may have the brave soldiers that uncovered the truth and freed him thrown in jail over their unlawful imprisonment of her manservant. Another issue is that a complaint has been filed against Sergeant Kratos regarding his behavior in the incident the other night wherein Nowhere Jones was caught in the act of attempting to light a fire. The fact that Nowhere Jones may be the city’s arsonist is another issue for General Argos, complicating his defense of the other members of the party. And he really doesn’t have time for this nonsense!

But I cannot simply let this slide, the general tells himself. This city has a long, proud tradition of civilian rule. If the military does not handle its affairs appropriately, the city will step in- and I need to gain their full support in order to avoid an insurrection when I declare martial law. And when the Six-Fingered Hand gets too close, I will have to declare martial law. This politicking must stop; it will kill us all if I let it. He sighs. No, I must move immediately to investigate this alleged arson situation. If Nowhere Jones is truly the culprit, he’ll hang, just like anyone else would. And if not, he’ll be freed.

***

In a shabby cold small wet cell, Nowhere Jones sits with his back to the wall.

Damn. They caught me. And when I was going to help Kratos with his lady friend, too- all I wanted to do was to help him look good to her family. He grins inwardly. Well, and to compromise Kratos. Maybe frame him for the other fires. More evidence, along with the candlesticks that I stole from the upper class house I lit and then passed on to him. Make him take the blame.

He glances at the cell door. Well, so much for that. Now I’m caught. I’ll maintain my innocence, but if they can find any evidence- or worse yet, if Kratos talks- I’m a dead man. I guess it wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had to light those fires, but they were so pretty...! And the sound of all the screams was so sweet, it was like a symphony. He sighs. I guess what they say about tieflings is true.

Too bad I’ll never see my play.


***

In order to ensure that the investigation is performed by trustworthy and impartial persons, General Argos has assigned some members of his staff that don’t know Nowhere Jones (or the rest of our heroes) to investigate the accusations against him; he orders the rest of the party to stay away from the investigation, except when required by the investigators, at which time they are to cooperate fully. Sergeant Kratos is fined 100 gp and a demerit is applied to his record due to the seriousness of the complaints against him. The general warns him that a second attempt to take the law into his own hands will be dealt with very harshly. General Argos warns them all sternly that the people of Fandelose barely tolerate the military presence here due to decades of heavy-handed mismanagement by his predecessor, General Urgrid. “I’ve spent the last two years trying to rebuild trust with these people, and I won’t have you ruining my efforts.”

Finally, he tells our heroes that he is working on the issue of Councilor Willow’s man Martin’s brief imprisonment, but it would be best if the party was absent from town until a resolution can be reached; that way he has time to ensure that no heated moments cause an unfortunate arrest. If the city guard does try to arrest the party, they are to surrender peacefully in accordance with the laws of the Empire and Fandelose- and to insist on a military trial.

“This is ridiculous!” Kratos exclaims. “We just saved you from an unjust death, and you tell us to get out of town?!”

Sternly, General Argos answers, “There are things that need to be taken care of to ensure the safety of Fandelose, and not all of them are within the city walls. I have assignments for you.”

Sergeant Kratos shuts up, but he’s seething inside. 100 gold piece fine! Damned if I’ll pay that!

“What can we do outside of the city?” interjects Heimall before Kratos can get in any deeper trouble.

“There are several things. First, there is a forward observation post above the Black Gorge, atop the edge of the top of the canyon. It’s an old military tower, but it has been abandoned for almost half a century due to issues of manpower and funding. Frankly, I would be surprised if nothing has moved in and taken shelter there, so you should be prepared for trouble. It’s even possible that you will find advance agents of the Hand. I’ll send in a force to relieve you as soon as your legal situation is resolved to my satisfaction.”

“General, how long do you think that will take?” asks Vann-La.

“I believe that I can resolve it within a week. If I can do it sooner, I will. We need every man we can get for the coming battle, and we especially can’t afford to let politics interfere with the defense of Fandelose. But in the meantime, if you are here, you will only complicate matters. I need room to work.”

Heimall nods. “Yes, sir.”

Hkatha says, “You said that there were several things we could do to help out. What are the others?”

General Argos replies, “The second thing that you can do is help resolve the firestone situation. Fandelose needs its firestone supply- not only is it the main source of fire for the city, we need it for the forges and foundries. Firestone comes from the dwarves in the Black Gorge, but our supply is threatened. The Firestone clan of dwarves, who are in charge of the dwarven operation in the Gorge, claim that they haven’t received several of the most recent payments dispatched to them. Normally, the dwarves receive it at a small fort at the end of the gorge called Fort Duran Khazad. We have sent the payments, and dwarves have received it; but according to the Firestone dwarves, their couriers never returned.”

“It could be the Hand,” muses Heimall.

“Or bandits,” suggests Cook.

“Or they could have just run off with the money,” adds Torinn.

“It doesn’t matter,” Argos says. “We need to find out what happened and return that money to the dwarves. The city can’t afford to pay it again; we need every copper piece for upgrading the city’s defenses and training and arming the defenders. We need to retrieve that money.”

“Hey, remember those dead dwarves that the ants were eating?” Torinn blurts out. “I wonder if they could be the dwarf couriers.”

“We should definitely take a closer look at them,” nods Kratos.

“Is there anything else?” Hkatha asks the general.

“Yes. There is one more thing.” Argos takes a deep breath. “Somewhere in the Gorge is a secret place called the Cathedral of War. It is said that there are 250 very powerful weapons that wait there to be awakened. Do not mention this to the dwarves. They would not help, and might seriously hinder, your search for it. Be very careful about what you say around them.”

“What are these weapons?” asks Kratos.

”I don’t know. It’s an old legend, but one that the people of Fandelose put a lot of credence in, and the old histories seem to imply some truth to it.”

Only 250 weapons? thinks Kratos. That is not enough to make a difference in a war such as this. And besides, how would we carry them?

“Be ready to leave at sun up tomorrow,” General Argos says. “That leaves you in town for the rest of today to take care of any affairs you need to.”

Oh, good, thinks Torinn. Our tickets to see Nowhere Jones are for this evening’s show- we’ll still get to see it.

“Stay out of trouble, and keep a low profile. Any questions?” After a moment of silence, General Argos nods. “Thank you again. Now go see the quartermaster and get fitted for new uniforms- you have fought long and hard in your present ones. Dismissed.”

***

The quartermaster, whose name is Flash, is most appreciative of the party’s heroics. He thanks them for freeing Argos, and he talks as much smack about General Pythock as the party does. He fits them for new uniforms and issues them any supplies that they need that he can. Each of them receives a minor magic item.* Flash is happy to issue them rations, basic supplies, climbing kits- “Whatever you need, if I got it, it’s yours.”

Then they go to see the play.

***

The play Nowhere Jones began making the rounds of the theater circuit in the countryside of the County of Jercie. The South Street Theater Troupe saw it while touring and loved it, and are now performing it themselves back home at the South Street Theater, on South Street, in the smoke-choked slums of Fandelose. The building is sturdy and of good make, but it is clearly the result of resourceful poor people working to improve the place for decades, rather than a well-to-do person spending a large sum at once to erect a beautiful place. The South Street Theater’s beauty is more like the confident, battle-scarred beauty of a Vann-La than the youthful, blushing, unblemished loveliness of a Livia Dierfli.

“It’s too bad Nowhere Jones couldn’t be here,” whispers Torinn as he takes his seat.

Heimall shrugs. “Yeah, I can’t believe that he would be so stupid as to light a bunch of fires in a city that’s on a war footing.”

“Do you think he was guilty?” asks Cook.

Heimall shrugs again. “I don’t know. There were a lot of things about him that were suspicious...”

“What, the fact that he was a tiefling?” asks Hkatha Ilmixie ironically.

“No. The fact that he killed several of our goblin prisoners- defenseless prisoners!- for no reason. I don’t know... I just don’t trust him.”

“Well, we’ll see,” replies Sta’Ligir. “He’s on trial now. If he’s found guilty, we’ll know. If not... we should be on the lookout for an arsonist.”

The lights are doused, the windows are shuttered and the play commences. It centers around the Jones family, which is a common name in Jercie, where the initial scenes take place. It follows a typical country family of father Tallin, mother Joy, two brothers (Vantray and Roland, who is a tiefling throwback) and an uncle (Kandor).

In the initial act, we meet the Joneses in their rustic country abode. Most of the act is just getting to know the family- all seem to be good people, though Roland has only a single friend outside the family (Andrew) and has quite a temper, and Kandor is rather withdrawn and negative. In the last few scenes of the act, Vantray, the younger brother, goes missing. Roland (the other brother, who is a tiefling) is accused and flees. He escapes the rest of the family and flees towards the city, vowing to rest nowhere until he has cleared his name and taking the name Nowhere Jones to represent this.

In act II, Nowhere Jones journeys to the city of Porthios Nax. There, he falls in with a rough crowd on the streets after being beaten by watchmen and mostly starved; he is taken in by a gang. Meanwhile, back at the pastoral house, Joy weeps and grows ill while Tallin and Kandor go off to try to find Nowhere Jones.

Then, at the beginning of Act III, Kandor returns alone, weeping and claiming that Nowhere Jones slew his own father. Joy is heartbroken and demands to be escorted to her family in the hills of Verdevane. Kandor consents, and preparations are made, including the sale of most of Joy Jones’ possessions, netting a hefty amount of money. Then, in a soliloquy, Kandor reveals that he, too, has tiefling traits, and he gloats at how his plan is succeeding- to get everyone else that might have a claim to Joy’s fortunes out of the way and then claim them for his own. Meanwhile, Nowhere Jones returns to health and becomes a moderating force within the gang. Yet the mystery of what happened to his brother torments him. Over the course of a year, he climbs high up the ladder of leadership of his gang, and finally he sends a group of young, anonymous humans to search for the answers to the mystery of his brother’s disappearance.

In act IV, Nowhere Jones’ agents find Andrew, his boyhood friend, who tells them that the house has been sold, along with most of the possessions of the mother, and that the father is dead nigh a year now, supposedly killed by his own son. They obviously know that this cannot be true, since Nowhere Jones was with the gang at that point, and with additional questioning, they (and Andrew) figure out the true story, and Andrew realizes that his old friend Roland is the “Nowhere Jones” that sent them. As a group, they return to Porthios Nax as quickly as possible. There, Nowhere Jones and Andrew are reunited, and quickly set out on fast mounts to catch his uncle before it is too late. Meanwhile, Kandor and Joy approach the hills of Verdevane, and in another, extremely villainous soliloquy, he admits his plans to ravish her and imprison her once he slays her elderly father- her last living relative, other than himself.

Act V is very brief. It consists of but a single scene. Nowhere Jones and his childhood friend Andrew approach Joy’s family estate in Verdevane. They sneak up to the gates, but have not yet gained entrance when they see the wagon carrying Kandor and Joy enter via a higher road on the mountain.

And that’s it. It ends with tense music in the air. The sophisticates of the city love it; most of the common folk (of which there are few in the audience) hate it.

“We waited in line for hours for that?” complains Iggy.

Next Time: Above the Black Gorge!


*Each pc got his choice of a +1 weapon, implement, armor or necklace of protection.
 

the Jester

Legend
In the Bronze Hall, wherein the Bronze Council of Fandelose meets, a contentious debate is happening.

General Argos, supreme commander of the Imperial Army forces in and around Fandelose, is here only as a courtesy. The imposition of martial law, though resisted by the council, is a part of his mandate. He need only show that the danger is real and imminent- and the scouting reports, maps and testimony of survivors of the oncoming Six-Fingered Hand is enough to establish that. Bridget Willow can (and will) argue until she is blue in the face, but she cannot prevent him from taking command of the city’s defenses.

At least, not legally.

But the city watch is a civilian force, not a military one, and is under the command of the Council. If they choose to fight him, they have the ability to make it a very real battle in the streets- something that Fandelose, with every man and every hour precious, cannot afford. And there is the bureaucrat’s answer, too- slow the process down with red tape.

General Argos will have none of that. There is no time for such nonsense.

“Your Valor,” Knile Keflingorn says, addressing Argos by the honorific to which he is due as a general of the Empire, “some of the measures that you are suggesting seem... extreme.”

Keflingorn is the most sensible of the Bronze Councilors. The more of them that Argos can win over, the more fully the city will cooperate with what must be done. I must persuade at least Keflingorn. His faction will follow him, and their support is enough for me to carry out my plans. General Argos replies, “I assume that you are referring to the conscriptions.”

“Clearing a good part of the Upper District for rice fields is quite out of the question,” Feevon Bronze declares. “You are talking about the living areas of most of the city’s wealthiest people!”

“I am talking about feeding your city,” General Argos retorts. “Once the horde reaches us, they will invest Fandelose. There won’t be enough food stockpiled for us to last long, and the fields will be lost. We must burn them before the enemy takes them, so that they cannot live off of forage or grow their own crops. Fandelose has far too many people to feed without making drastic sacrifices.”

“I don’t think the wealthy will be eager to give their homes up,” Bronze repeats. “How would you compensate them?”

It is obvious to the general that the councilors are still thinking of him as an opponent, or at best an ally that must be kept from growing too strong. He speaks carefully, modulating his tone to deliver the message that the others in the room must hear. “I would compensate them by saving their lives. If any man wishes to remain in his house at the expense of the food source of the city, he must merely persuade the thousands of hungry soldiers to keep fighting for him while he sits comfortably in bed. Meanwhile the enemy will scale the walls, rape his wife to death in front of him as they burn his house to the ground and eat his children alive.”

The councilors are shocked into silence.

”I am not exaggerating, ladies and gentlemen. That is how the Six-Fingered Hand operates. Their general styles himself ‘the Eviscerator’. These are not enemies who seek a bribe, a few slaves or a courtly surrender. They are not trying to kill our Emperor, our generals, or even our men. They are trying to exterminate us. They will not leave a single human, elf, dwarf or other civilized being alive at the end of this war- unless we stop them.”

Bridget Willow opens her mouth to interject, but General Argos uses his words like a machete, hacking a path through the tangled politics of the city. “We are not fighting to remain wealthy, happy or healthy. We are no longer fighting for the Empire or for our freedom. We are fighting for our very survival. There is no surrender to this enemy, except to be used as cattle to feed them while they slaughter the remaining men and women of the western provinces. The few people who have escaped the Hand have told us what it is like- you have heard their testimony in the last few hours yourselves. I did not coach them or trick them or bribe them. I offered them no favors or compensation for telling their stories. They have seen that our choice is to fight with all we have, or die, and they came to try to make you see that.

“Now, you all know that I have the legal authority to declare martial law. One way or another, I am doing so. We cannot afford the bickering and politics that have been going on here any longer. We need to act as a united force, bending every resource we have to our collective defense. I give you my word, as soon as this war is over, I will return control of Fandelose to you. But for now, I need your help. Only you can rally the people of Fandelose to fully participate in their own salvation. There is nowhere to run; we have no escape route. We must make our stand, and we must defeat our enemies. I need every person in the city to do their part- whether it is farming, forging or fighting. For you- I need you to lead. I need you to lead the city in carrying out the necessary actions to resist the Hand.”

The councilors are grim-looking. Bridget Willow is angry; Feevon Bronze looks frightened and resigned. Knile Keflingorn is studying General Argos’ face in turn. To Argos’ surprise, it is Councilor Bronze that speaks up first.

“General Argos, the council will aid you as best we can.”

Bridget Willow shoots Bronze an alarmed look.

“You are right. We cannot afford to bicker at a time like this. We need to have the best leadership that we can muster, and in matters military, you are it.”

General Argos bows his head. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t abuse our trust, general,” Councilor Willow snaps. “As soon as Fandelose is safe, we will expect you to keep your word.”

Argos nods. “I will keep my word,” he vows, “and together, we will live to see that day.”

***

Outside of Fandelose, a lazy, hungry bear sniffs the air, looking for easy food. It rambles onto the path to the Black Gorge and stumbles onto our heroes. Its belly rumbles, but before it tries to eat one of the two-legs, something stings it. Then really loud, scary noises come from the group, and the bear decides that, just maybe, it should look for easier prey.

The bear flees into the hills, away from the party.

“That good trick,” Cook says, referring to the pair of ghost sounds that Iggy and Hkatha used on the bear. The two wizards grin, and the party keeps walking. When the path starts to descend into the Black Gorge, they veer off to the north, staying above the rim of the canyon. They walk along for several miles until the ruins of a watch tower come into view. Near it are several cairns.

“Movement.” Vann-La points at the cairns. “In the building, too.”

The rocks of the cairns suddenly rattle and shift, and a pair of skeletons arises from them.

“Smashie-smashie!” cries Cook, brandishing his iron pan. The rest of the party begins to move up to meet the skeletons as well, when suddenly the door to the watch tower cracks open and the ground starts distorting and heaving. It is incredibly disorienting, and our heroes find their perceptions highly disrupted!

“It’s some kind of bird-man,” Vann-La says, shaking her head to try to clear it.

“Kenku!” exclaims Sta’Ligir.

Indeed- the watch tower proves to have five kenku in it, most of which hang back and shoot arrows at the party. Once Sta’Ligir sees just how many of them there are, he unleashes a fireball, blasting them all, and Hkatha follows it up with a sleep spell. The combat is fast and furious; Vann-La drops both skeletons with a rain of steel while the kenku keep creating phantasmal reinforcements and illusory treacherous terrain.

Finally, the manages to defeat the bird-folk. Immediately, they check to see if there is any sign that the kenku might be affiliated with the Hand, but fortunately, there isn’t. They survey the scene, extracting some treasure from the cairns and bodies, including a cloak of resistance that they give to Kratos.

Then they discuss their next move and decide to head down into the gorge to solve the issue of the dwarven payments. This requires that they either walk back to the entrance of the canyon or climb a long 50’ down. The decision is easy; it will only take a few more hours of walking to go back the safe way.

The party loops back to the path into the gorge and starts descending. But as they are about 1/3 of the way down the canyon’s wall along the trail, a sudden rumble alerts them to an avalanche of rock tumbling down at them! It smashes into them, knocking Vann-La completely over the edge! With a cry, she falls 30’ to the ground, landing in a pile of brush and gravel.

“It’s a trap!” cries Kratos.

Indeed- a trio of hard-looking men, along with a pair of drakes, have emerged from behind a concealing screen of brush and boulders. They pull bows and start shooting for the party’s knees. The drakes hiss and begin to spit gouts of acid for the heroes. Behind them, a tougher-looking man with a glowing shield moves up behind them. “Get ‘em, boys!” he shouts.

Sta’Ligir offers the party’s attackers a rebuttal in the form of a fireball. The spell explodes amongst them, wounding all three of the humans with bows as well as both of the drakes. The party charges forward, and the archers cast aside their bows and draw swords, sliding easily into battle-ready stances.

These guys are professionals, Heimall realizes. Who are they? Why are they attacking us? They’re too competent just to be bandits. They look like mercenaries to me...

Indeed, the sell-swords fight hard and brutal. Vann-La manages to pick herself up and ascend the cliff, telling herself that she is unstoppable. When she rejoins the fight, she finds herself engaging the enemy captain in melee. When she strikes him, his shield replies with a blast of thunder and lightning. Vann-La groans, but keeps fighting, forcing the mercenary captain back and holding her ground long enough for Torinn to use a healing word on her.

The sell-swords and their captains are clearly savvy combatants, and if our heroes were less skilled, they would be doomed. But they have spent months fighting for their lives, and so they manage to defeat the mercenaries, slaying all but the captain, whom they take prisoner. Then comes the question of what to do with him.

“Kill him,” Sta’Ligir suggests.

“He might have valuable information,” Heimall protests.

“All right, just maim him.”

“We aren’t going to maim any prisoners,” Heimall sighs. “These guys look like mercenaries. That means that someone hired them to go after us. Let’s bring him around, interrogate him and see what we can learn.”

“Someone like Millbury,” Kratos snarls.

***

The mercenary captain is surprisingly cooperative. He gives his name as Borgan Tyre, admits readily that his band was hired to kill the party, and by Millbury; but as ransom for his life, he offers to call the rest of the band off.

”How many of you are there, altogether?” asks Heimall.

“About forty. A few less, now,” Borgan Tyre amends, glancing at the corpses of the three sell-swords.

The mercenary tells them that he doesn’t know where to find Millbury at this point; it was weeks ago, and Millbury was still in the city, advising Chiron daVoi, when Tyre last saw him.*

Heimall says, “I am going to make you a counter-offer, against Millbury. I’ll take you and your men on in my service. I’ll pay you, and pay you well if you are loyal. We need every soldier that we can get right now.”

“But I’m keeping his shield,” Vann-La pipes up. She glowers at Borgan Tyre.

”Hey, I’m alive,” Tyre says with a shrug. “I count that as a win.”

***

The party and Borgan Tyre meet up with some of the rest of his band, and Tyre proves true to his word. Although the party is outnumbered, he introduces Heimall as the band’s new employer. The party puts the mercenary group to work on restoring the watchtower and then, finally, returns and reaches the bottom of the Black Gorge.

Next Time: The firestone situation!

*Since then, our heroes uncovered Millbury’s part in the framing of General Argos and the attempted poisoning of Feevon Bronze, and Millbury has fled the city.
 

the Jester

Legend
Upon reaching the bottom of the Black Gorge, the party moves towards the deepest end of it. Before long, they are intercepted by dwarves, but fortunately, the group’s cook is a dwarf as well. Cook speaks at length with the dwarves of the gorge in their own tongue, claiming that his clan name is Po, and after an extended conversation between him and the glowering dwarves of the gorge, the language switches to Common and the dwarves welcome the others to the Black Gorge. The party is conveyed further along the floor of the gorge. They encounter a group of orcs, but the dwarves stop the party from attacking, explaining that these orcs live in some of the gorge’s caves and are occasional trading partners of the dwarves. Their ability to replace all their lost warriors in only a few years makes an attack on them very costly. “We breed slowly,” the dwarf rumbles thoughtfully. “Orcish reprisals usually throw away twenty orcs to kill three or four dwarves, but they are back to full force in ten years, while it takes us sixty. If this happened once a year, this would lead to our demise.”

Not are these particular orcs affiliated with the Hand. The party continues until they reach the dwarven operation’s center. Before they enter, they are required to peacebond their weapons, tying them into sheaths and scabbards. Built into the side of the gorge itself, the dwarven community runs deep into the ground. The group is ushered into the tunnels in the stone to meet with the thane that rules over the dwarves. In their audience with him, the party explains the threat of the Six-Fingered Hand, and then declares that they are going to solve the issue of the missing payments for the dwarves.

“Oh? You’ve brought the coin, then?” Thane Firestone asks doubtfully.

“The city can’t afford that,” Heimall replies, “but we’re going to find out what happened to the initial payment.”

“Murder happened,” the thane says darkly.

“But it wasn’t the city, or the army, that did it,” Kratos answers. “We want to find whoever it was- probably Millbury- and make them pay.”

“Literally,” interjects Torinn with a grin.

The thane takes our heroes’ measure as they talk. He is expecting negotiation, an attempt to talk the price of firestone down, something- but nothing of the kind is forthcoming. They haven’t offered me partial payment, or tried to work out a payment plan, or anything. They really do seem to mean to track down the money. Which is good, because we haven’t the numbers to withstand many losses, and we lost almost a score dwarves when they tried to receive payment before.

I believe that these soldiers mean well. And yet there is one very important question that must be answered before I can trust them.


Thane Firestone speaks, again in Dwarven. “Bum Po, why is it that you do not carry any rank in the Army that you serve?”

Cook pauses. A pensive look sneaks onto his face for a moment; then, he gives his answer. “Oi great Thane, they have made me many offers to honor me, but I do not want to be in a human army.”

The thane nods, and shares his dwarven ale around, getting the party fairly drunk before they head out for Fort Duran Khazad- which translates into Fort Dwarf-Friend. This fort, perched on the top of the Black Gorge, looks over the dwarven operation, and a secret tunnel twists and curls up through the rock and into the rock at the back side of the fort. It is this secret tunnel that the dwarves guide our heroes to. They ascend it- it is long, with many loops back around as it rises- and finally come out behind the fort above the canyon.

And now, for the killers in the fort, the gig is up. The party becomes suspicious upon approaching when they see a strange, worm-like creature with four writhing tentacles surrounding a dangerous-looking beak chained outside. When the men inside, dressed in uniforms of the Imperial Army, almost immediately mis-identify their command structure to the party, it’s time to throw down. Our heroes slay them, as well as the grick, fairly quickly, and a search turns up the missing payment.

“So, who were these guys?” wonders Vann-La. “Once they had the money, why didn’t they just flee?”

“Are we sure they weren’t soldiers?” asks Hkatha.

“Well, they couldn’t tell a sergeant’s uniform from a corporal’s,” points out Sta’Ligir.

“They didn’t fight like soldiers,” Vann-La says. “I’m pretty sure that they weren’t in the army, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a group of men missing, once anyone checks up on this post.”

“You think they killed and replaced the real soldiers? Why?” asks Cook.

“For the money, maybe,” replies Kratos.

Vann-La shakes her head. “Yes, but why stick around afterward? They could have spent this already, a dozen times over, if they had just run with it.”

“We know one thing for sure,” says Cook (or Bum Po). “The dwarves, they need their money.”

“Right,” Iggy sighs.

***

When the party returns the gold to the dwarves, using a Tenser’s floating disk ritual performed by Torinn, the thane is quite impressed. Heimall and Torinn speak gravely, telling him that war is coming, and reminding him of the dwarven alliance with Fandelose.

“Yes, yes,” he laughs dismissively as he counts out the coins. “You will find that my folk honor our debts and obligations to the fullest.” He glances at the soldiers, a strange fire in his eyes. “If this Six-Fingered Hand seeks to strike Fandelose, we will help break its fingers.”

The thane bellows at his servants, then turns back to the party. “I have something for you!” he smirks. “A token of my esteem. You impressed me so well the other day in my throne room that I had these made for you!”

Thane Firestone presents each of our heroes with a dwarven drinking mug. It is large, weighted at the bottom to help alleviate drunken spills, and of impressive craftsmanship.

A significant amount of drinking, once again, follows.

***

What next?

Our heroes have resolved the most pressing matters in the gorge. What remains is the most secret matter- the Cathedral of War that General Argos told them about. He also warned them not to mention it to the dwarves, so they don’t. They just leave after another day of hanging out, recuperating and drinking. Those mugs give them a great deal of credibility to the dwarves. They have been honored; they have returned the dwarves’ rightful gold to them and made good the city’s obligations.

Now they have to go, to seek out this mysterious Cathedral. Where is it? They have no idea. The Black Gorge is full of caves, and it is very long. The Cathedral of War could be anywhere.

“Well, the gorge has at least one very noticeable feature,” says Vann-La. “That big statue. Grandfather.”

Indeed, our heroes did see that as they traveled: a 35’ tall statue of an old human that stretches from the floor of the gorge to the top of it.

“It’s called ‘Grandfather’?” asks Iggy. “How do you know this?”

“The dwarves. I asked them about nearby features in Black Gorge.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” Iggy says, thinking, I pretty much just got drunk. That dwarven ale is pretty damned potent! “What else did the dwarves tell you about it?”

“The eyes,” Vann-La replies, “are supposed to be tunnels into a trap-filled warren.”

“A ‘trap-filled warren’?”

“That is how the dwarf that I was talking to put it.”

“I see..”

“Well,” Kratos says, “we might as well get to it.”

He starts climbing the statue.

“Hey, wait a second,” Vann-La suddenly says. She gestures. “Is that a body over there?”

Kratos keeps climbing, ascending up the statue’s leg, then its torso and finally its face. At the eyes, he ties off a rope. Then, glancing down, he realizes that the party has found someone- found them, and is talking to them. It’s a woman, he thinks, maybe a half-elf? He sighs, then begins climbing downward.

***

The ‘body’ is alive. With a little tender ministration from Torinn, she comes around, and introduces herself as Loridell. She looks around and is clearly confused. “Last I remember, we were fleeing from the Hand’s forces,” she says. “It was night...”

“You must have stumbled over the edge of the cliff,” Torinn surmises.

“What an auspicious place for you to fall,” Vann-La says.

Loridell is well-armed and armored; clearly, she is a seasoned veteran of many battles. She admits to being a paladin.

“You’re separated from your group, whoever they were, and here we are. Clearly,” suggests Heimall, “the logical thing to do would be to join us.”

She nods. “You’re right, actually. If there are significant other Hand forces out there, I’d be doomed on my own.”

“You aren’t from Fandelose, then?” Heimall asks.

“Not originally,” she replies.

“Well, we’re going through that statue’s eyes,” Kratos says, and starts climbing the rope again.

“Into a trap-filled warren,” Vann-La adds. She starts climbing after Kratos.

“All right,” Loridell shrugs. “Better than being exposed and alone.”

***

A ‘trap-filled warren’ indeed. The first room has a delayed poison gas trap, along with a cube that disgorges a pair of iron cobras.

Then the wall starts shooting darts to make things more interesting.

Charge! Our heroes respond by rushing through the traps and moving into the next area, where they find a miniature of the city.

More traps follow- a pit onto a gelatinous cube; a magically animated arbalest that keeps shooting huge bolts into people; a room with a necrotic field that almost kills those who cross it. ‘Grandfather,’ who was a great early hero of Fandelose whose name has been forgotten (from what our heroes have heard collectively), is often depicted in murals or statues holding two metal objects, about as long as his forearm; one is black iron, often depicted dripping blood, with rough, jagged edges, while the other is made of some light wood and olive leaves are springing from it.

And, of course, the party finds a way further down.

Next Time: Deeper in Grandfather’s Legacy!
 

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