The Fall of Civilization

the Jester

Legend
The heat of the summer day beats down on the party as they move along, footsore and weary. The afternoon is long and clear, bright with the overhead sun.

“Look,” Vann-La says, pointing into the distance behind them. “Did you see that? Something is glinting in the distance- it could be someone in armor or something. It’s definitely metal, though.”

“You have really sharp eyes,” Torinn comments, as nobody else caught a glimpse of it. The party proceeds, casting frequent backwards glances. Indeed, whatever the metal thing is, it seems to be drawing closer. “Do you have any better idea of what it is?” the dragonborn asks the Kree warrior.

Squinting, she replies, “I think it’s a single figure in armor.” Then, she exclaims, “No- not in armor- it’s a warforged!”

“Then it is probably an ally,” muses Heimall, “although they have been playing their cards pretty close to the vest, so to speak.”

“We don’t even know what they have been up to, since the end of the siege,” Cook points out.

“There’s one way to find out,” Ligir says. “Let’s wait and talk to it.”

The party takes cover beneath an oak tree, both from the sun and from the figure behind them. Soon enough, the warforged overtakes them. They step out to hail it.

“Hey there, what are you doing way out here?” calls Iggy.

The figure stops and surveys them. It looks slightly different from the majority of the warforged that the party freed from the Cathedral of War just before the siege of Fandelose started, as if it were a slightly different model. “Hey there,” it says. “I’m on a mission, but hey, I can’t share the details. Gotta keep moving, very important, don’t want to miss it, hey!”

“What is your name?” asks Vann-La. “Do you work for NC17?”

“Sure, not exactly, kind of doing my own thing, hey! Not to worry, not to worry, we’re on the same side, but listen, I gotta go. Oh, I’m 240Z, but it doesn’t really matter at the moment, gotta go! The sooner the better, hey hey!”

“Here,” Torinn says, “take these.” The cleric of Lester hands the warforged his spectacles, with their darkened lenses. “Lester go with you.”

“Sure, gotta go,” 240Z replies, already starting to walk off at a brisk pace.

“What is that thing? Do you trust it?” asks Summer.

“Well, I don’t know about this particular one, but its kind are our allies,” Heimall muses.

“Oi, let him go. He is not interfering with us. Why should we interfere with him?”

“Let’s hope you’re right,” Hkatha murmurs as the strange warforged walks off into the brown grass, kicking up a trail of dust behind him.

***

Several days ahead on our heroes’ journey are a series of plateaus, Summer tells the others. She notes that they are artificial- according to her, there is no natural explanation for their presence. Heimall declares that they are probably the sites of a series of legendary fortifications and armories. “I wonder if anything useful is left up on them,” he muses.

“You know this area pretty well,” Torinn says to Summer. She just smiles in response.

The plains are empty of people, but over the next six days, the party sees many rabbits and groundhogs, several small herds of antelope, dozens of different species of birds and many others. They find the tracks of a herd of horses- unshod, notes Vann-La, and Summer assesses them as either feral or wild.

”If we want some, we could probably track them and hunt them down,” points out Shakgar. “But they probably couldn’t carry me anyway.”

***

The dominant predators of the area are fierce, flightless birds with heavy, axe-like beaks. The larger specimens are known as terror birds. Inevitably, they come to poke their beaks at our heroes and see if these new forms on the plains are suitable prey.

They are not.

With devastating efficiency, our heroes put them down. “The meat is tough,” says Shakgar, “but edible.” Summer nods agreement.

“Oi, I can cook it until it is good and tender,” threatens Cook.

“Tell me again,” sighs Summer, “why you have a dwarf for a cook?”

***

The sound of crickets playing their legs calls out the change from afternoon to evening. The first plateau looms ahead of the group. Vann-La’s keen eyes spy signs of life upon it. She concludes that whoever dwells atop it must go to great lengths to avoid being seen.

“It doesn’t sound like the Hand,” notes Torinn.

Heimall says, “More likely, it’s some survivors.”

With a shrug, Shakgar says, “Let’s go see.”

The group starts to ascend a narrow trail that switches back up the face of the plateau, but in short order Vann-La halts them. “There is something following us,” she says.

The group looks. A man-sized figure, dressed in archaic-looking full plate armor and wearing a greatsword across its back, is starting to climb the trail below them. “Let’s find a wider spot to stop, in case it comes to blows,” suggests Heimall. He gestures ahead. “Maybe at that landing up ahead.”

The party moves to the landing, which is built into a natural shelf along the plateau’s face, and turns to wait for the figure that is following them. It is making no effort at concealment, closing the distance openly. When it reaches them, it halts, studying them.

It appears to be a clockwork man of some sort, made of metal rather than flesh and blood. A patch bearing archaic Imperial insignia is fastened to each shoulder of his armor. “You are not to be here,” it says. Its voice is male, but mechanical. “Go.”

“Who are you?” demands Heimall.

The figure does not reply. It merely draws its sword. “Withdraw from the plateau,” it orders. “You are not cleared to be here.”

”We are on the business of General Argos, of the Imperial Army,” Torinn says. “I’m Major Torinn, of the Imperial Marines. We are commissioned officers-”

“This is your last warning,” the figure says.

“Who are you?” Vann-La asks again. “By what right are you barring our passage? Who do you work for? Put your sword away!”

The figure starts forward, and Vann-La hits it with a tide of iron, but it parries her blow. Iggy yelps, turning invisible even as he draws his pistol.

The sword-wielding mechanical figure moves with unbelievable grace, hitting Vann-La with a devastating strike and following up with another attack, but the Kree warrior manages to parry that one. Then it drops into a deadly stance that Vann-La recognizes all too well: it is a rain of steel.*

“Two can play at that game!” she cries, and enters her own rain of steel.

Seemingly from nowhere, a shuriken flies out and hits the figure in the knee. Cook emerges from hiding. “He’s not going nowhere!” the dwarf calls.

However, the figure doesn’t really want to go anywhere. It lays about itself with its sword, doing immense damage and stunning Vann-La with a followup strike. As it does so, a momentary vision of another face flickers across its visage as if superimposed.

Summer studies their attacker carefully. “This thing is supernatural!” she tells them. “It isn’t just a powerful mechanical warrior- I think that it is from another plane!”

Some of our heroes’ attacks deflect off the strange swordsman’s armor. Others he parries, deflecting them harmlessly and offering up counterstrokes that send their victims sprawling. Its flawless katas slice into Shakgar, Torinn and Vann-La, over and over again, and it keeps one of them stunned pretty much constantly (although which one it is varies from moment to moment). Even Iggy’s spells don’t seem to be able to hit it!

Iggy gasps. “Of course,” he says. “This thing- it must be a sword saint, from the cult of the Sword Emperor!” He raises his gun again.

“Your mastery of the blade is superb,” gasps Vann-La as she parries another of its blows and watches in disbelief as the blade springs away to swat one of Iggy’s bullets out of the air before it can hit.

A few of our heroes’ blows manage to sneak in; Torinn nails it with a lance of faith, Shakgar with a stone bear rage, Vann-La with a flanking assault. Cook keeps darting in and out of the shadows, throwing shuriken from hiding, and a few of Iggy’s spells do some damage despite missing. Finally, Vann-La manages to bloody it.

Unfortunately for our heroes, they are already nearly out of healing abilities, and the sword saint just keeps throwing more deadly attacks their way. But then Cook tricks it with a bait and switch, pulling it into a position where Shakgar and Torinn are flanking it.

Heimall cries out, “You must see that we will defeat you! Stop, throw down your weapon and we can talk things out!”

“Never,” the figure replies, the strange face flickering across it again. It is a human face, with plain features and shaggy brown hair. It is gone almost as soon as it appears. It begins to execute another flawless kata, but Heimall rams his glaive in with a disruptive strike, staggering the sword saint.**

The others attack with everything they have, but their blows turn from its armor again. It hacks into Shakgar’s side, bloodying the goliath, then stuns him with a followup strike. It raises its greatsword to finish him off-

And, suddenly, a shuriken hits it in the eye.

The sword saint topples to the ground with a crash like cymbals.

***

The top of the plateau does indeed have survivors on it. However, they are not as pleased to see the party as our heroes would have thought.

“We saw you fighting from up here,” cries one of the peasants. “All those explosions- don’t you realize that the Six-Fingered Hand can see them from miles away?”

Another of the refugees wails, “You have drawn them to us!”

The first speaker continues, “We have already seen one group headed our way. Probably about 20 strong. We have no weapons or armor, and only a few of us can fight at all. We came here to hide, not fight!”

“Oops,” mutters Ligir.

Next Time: Ornithopters!

*The sword saint was a solo with half normal solo hps and roughly double normal damage dice. So some of its attacks included:

[Melee] Powerful Blow (standard; at will) Weapon: +22 vs. AC; 2d10+7 damage, and the target is marked until the end of its next turn.

[Melee] Devastating Strike (standard; recharge 5 6) Weapon: +22 vs. AC; 8d8+7 damage.
[Melee] Flawless Kata (standard; at will) Weapon: The sword saint makes up to four powerful blow attacks against different targets.

[Melee] Followup Strike (minor; at will) Weapon: Only against a target that the sword saint has hit this turn. +20 vs. Fortitude; 4d8+7 damage and target is stunned until the end of its next turn.

[Melee] Counterstrike (immediate interrupt; when targeted by a melee attack; at will) Weapon: The sword saint makes an attack on the triggering creature: +20 vs. Reflex; 2d10+7 damage, plus the target is either knocked prone or takes a -4 penalty on the triggering attack (sword saint’s choice).

**He has magic armor, umm can’t recall the name, that is basically spell storing armor for martial characters; Vann-La, being a multiclassed ranger, put disruptive strike in there for him. Heimall didn’t just hit here, he got a critical hit.
 

the Jester

Legend
From their elevated position, our heroes make the size of the enemy force to be a couple of dozen. They are still miles away, but- as they are Six-Fingered Hand troops- could operate very well in the dark.

“We have time,” says Cook. “Let us rig traps. We will kill them with deadfalls, and rolling boulders.”

“We don’t have that much time,” replies Iggy dubiously.

“Oi, we have enough.”

The party sets to work as evening comes on, first surveying the path up the face of the plateau and then moving piles of rocks, positioning large stones and crafting triggers that will cause them to rumble down at the enemy. The party only has a few hours, but- thanks to the abundant loose rock all over the face of the plateau- they manage to create a series of terrifically deadly traps. They work in the dark, trading the difficulties of doing so for the knowledge that the Hand troops approaching won’t be able to see their efforts until it is too late.

They work up until virtually the last minute- until the enemy is only a couple of hundred yards away. Though they cannot see them in the distance in the starlight, the party can hear their foes as they approach. Finally, having done all that they have time to do, the party retreats about a third of the way up the plateau’s face, planning to stay above and ahead of the enemy.

The Six-Fingered Hand squad reaches the bottom of the plateau. After a few minutes of searching in the dark, they find the ascent and begin their march upwards.

About ten minutes later, they reach the first trap.

Our heroes let the lead element go past, waiting for the main group to be under the trap. Then they trigger it, a slide of rocks starting with a large boulder and growing to include a rain of smaller stones. Goblins and kobolds scream as the stones pelt them, smashing skulls and breaking arms and legs. Into the chaos Hkatha and Iggy hurl flaming spells. Then the party retreats upwards, waiting until the enemy below them has recovered from its confusion and continues its ascent- to the next deadfall. A scene almost identical to that at the first trap ensues, differing mostly in that fewer of the Hand troops survive the initial assault, and this time our heroes rush their remaining enemies, cutting them down without mercy.

Ensuring that none of the enemy survive to spread word of their presence, our heroes then re-ascend the plateau to the group of survivors, who are in an uproar. Their safe haven, where they fled to escape the ravages of the Hand, has been discovered. Surely, now that the Hand knows of them, it will come to crush them. Has it not already sent a probe to test their strength?

“Those guys were the only ones that saw us,” predicts Captain Ligir, playing up his military position to the peasantry. “We killed them all. Anyone else that saw us is either too far away to respond or else figures that those guys have it under control. After all, how long has it been since anyone has taken out one of their scouting squads like that?”

“What you all need to do now,” interjects Captain Heimall (also playing up his rank), “is go to Fandelose. You’re right, they do know that you’re here, and they will come for you in time. But you can go to Fandelose. There are walls, there is food and shelter- we fought off the Hand’s army. We defeated them. We can offer you sanctuary- you, and any other Imperial citizens.”

“And your alternative,” Major Torinn (playing up his role as ranking officer) says, “is to wait for them to come for you.”

The argument lasts deep into the night. The party’s reasoning is sound, and in the morning the peasants begin to leave. Our heroes leave, too, heading southward- continuing their journey towards Northshore. They come to another of the plateaus in the afternoon of the following day.

“Should we bother to check it out?” asks Hkatha.

“Yes,” Hkatha replies. “There might be more survivors that we can recruit to go back to Fandelose.”

Once again, the party searches the base of the plateau until they find a path heading upward, concealed from casual observation, but not from a diligent search. They start to ascend. After they have gotten about 100’ up, Vann-La halts. “Look back there,” she says. “Someone is coming our way: a small group, looks like armored figures.”

“Should we wait for them?” wonders Cook.

Hkatha shrugs. “Why not? Best we don’t lead them up there without knowing what is hiding at the top. We don’t need to spoil any survivors’ hiding places again.”

“It is an effective way of getting them to move to Fandelose,” Torinn comments wryly.

It doesn’t take too long for the six figures- all of them warforged- to reach the trail leading up the plateau’s face and to close the distance to our heroes. Though not immediately hostile, they move with relentless purpose.

“Hi there,” says Torinn.

The lead warforged speaks. “We are searching for another one such as us, a solitary one. Have you seen it?”

“Why do you ask?” Vann-La replies. “What do you seek with him?”

“It is a renegade,” the speaker says. “We must find it and stop it before it achieves its goals.”

“Is it working with the Six-Fingered Hand?”

“What are its goals?” asks Heimall.

To Vann-La: “No.” Turning to Heimall, the warforged continues, “Its goals concern only our own kind. It is irrational. It calls itself 240Z.”

“Well,” admits Hkatha, “we did see the warforged of which you speak, and we spoke with it briefly. But it didn’t tell us where it was going, or what it was doing.”

“Yeah, it left in a hurry, too,” adds Iggy.

The warforged start moving without another word, passing through our heroes and further up the face of the plateau.

“Creepy,” comments Iggy.

“I really don’t know if I trust the warforged anymore,” mutters Hkatha.

Iggy scoffs. “Any more? They made it pretty clear from the start that they were pursuing an agenda of their own, and it just had something in common with ours- the survival of Fandelose. I don’t know if we should have ever trusted them.”

Heimall glances to the west, where the distant sea has half-swallowed the Sun.* “It’s getting dark. Let’s keep moving and get up to the top.”

The warforged quickly disappear above them. The living weapons are moving quickly, while our heroes, at the end of a long day’s journey, are tired and footsore. They take their time; it seems unlikely that the warforged will molest any survivors, and so there is no real urgency to reach the top at the same time as them. When the party finally gets to the top, they find more peasant refugees awaiting them. This time a small group of about a half-dozen stand behind a barricade of hay, pitchforks and hoes held like weapons in their hands.

“Hello,” calls Heimall. “I am Captain Heimall Heinrikson of the Imperial Army. We are from the city of Fandelose, where we have not only held out against the Six-Fingered Hand- but where we have defeated it.”

While Heimall speaks, Vann-La mutters to Iggy, “I don’t see any sign of the warforged.”

“I wonder where they got to?” the wizard replies.

Heimall sooths the crowd with his smooth tongue, reassuring them that there is hope for the future of the Empire and then offering them that hope: Fandelose. The others pitch in, each adding another piece of that future possible. Soon the pitchforks and hoes are propped back on peasant shoulders as the beer is passed around, and everyone is a friend.

Though the party asks after the warforged, the people living on the plateau haven’t seen them. “Are there any weird features or military buildings up here?” asks Hkatha.

“Well,” says one of the locals, “there is a really big locked building that nobody has ever gotten into. It has been up here longer than we have.”

***

“Oi, this is a pretty good lock,” declares Cook. His thieves’ tools click inside it as he works to open it. The building it locks is extraordinarily large- the size of a large castle.

”I could help with that, you know,” offers Iggy.**

Click. “I got it.”

The door is exceptionally large. “Maybe it’s some kind of warehouse,” suggests Torinn. He, Heimall and Vann-La together heave the door open, and find that there is pretty much a single huge room inside the huge building (although two small side rooms exist, they hardly count when compared to the central hanger). Within that expanse are a large number of... winged vehicles of some sort.

“What the hell?” asks Iggy.

The party moves in and looks the things over. They are indeed winged. “Do these things fly?” Vann-La says.

“They just might,” replies Hkatha. “I think they are ornithopters.”

“What’s an ornithopter?”

Hkatha points at the vehicles.

“Right,” says Iggy.

***

The two other rooms are an office and a wardrobe. The office is clearly an Army office; there are tons of documents present, which our heroes start looking through. They quickly determine that the documents that exist are unimportant, designed to obfuscate whatever was going on here. However, the wardrobe turns out to have a very interesting selection of uniforms- an elite unit called the Eagles, with some very interesting insignia, goggles, caps, downy jackets, warm scarves and high gloves.

“Time for a fashion upgrade,” says Hkatha.

Most of our heroes loot some elements of the Eagle uniforms to add to their ensemble. The uniforms are of noteworthy quality.

“Well, what about these things, then?” Iggy points at the ornithopters.

”I think we ought to issue a sending to Colonel Jaxe,” opines Heimall. “We should inform him of what we’ve found and see what he says. These may be a valuable resource for our fight against the Six-Fingered Hand.”

“Hey,” Torinn says, his head inside one of the cockpits, “there are levers in here!”

“You should probably get out of there,” Heimall recommends, “before you end up going off the edge of the plateau.”

Torinn pulls his head out of the cockpit and looks thoughtful, but his eyes linger on the levers.***

Sending first,” insists Heimall.

“Shouldn’t we know if they work before we report in?” asks Torinn.

The party looks the flying machines over for signs of obvious mechanical damage, and to their chagrin, they find it on most of the ornithopters. Of the two dozen machines, only ten seem to be in good repair.

“All right, what about the sending?” says Heimall.

Torinn climbs in the cockpit. “Let’s just see what happens,” he calls out. “I’ll be careful.”

“God dammit,” the warlord sighs.

Torinn quickly discovers that the ornithopter is powered by a collection of levers, hand pumps and foot pedals. He starts to wheel forward, but hits the brake before he picks up too much speed. Still, it takes a disconcertingly long time for the big machine to come to a stop, well outside the hanger. “I think whoever flies this would have to be able to exert himself continuously for the length of their flight,” he tells the others. “It seems to be poured by, well, my arms and legs.”

“You are full of strength and stamina,” Iggy points out.

“Hell with it,” Torinn says, and starts pumping the pedals and hand pumps. The ornithopter begins to roll forward again, and this time the Dragon tries to increase his speed rather than decrease it. There is a path outside the hanger that leads towards the edge of the plateau.

Makes sense, he thinks.

The ornithopter shoots off the edge of the plateau.

Next Time: To Northshore!

*On Cydra (my campaign world), the Sun actually orbits the island of Forinthia at a mean distance of roughly 780,000 miles, so it really does go into the sea at night. Of course, our heroes aren’t on Forinthia, they are on a continent several thousand miles to the west of Forinthia (Dorhaus).

**He is, after all, a multiclassed rogue.

***As a cleric of Lester, the god of adventure, Torinn loves to pull them levers!
 

Asha'man

Visitor
Awesome. The sense of history and shared experience you get, using a single setting with many of the same players for so long, is really something special.

For some reason, the renegade warforged got me thinking about Master Control...

(And is there any activity in your 4e Plots and Places thread? It seems to have dropped off the face of the forums)
 
Awesome. The sense of history and shared experience you get, using a single setting with many of the same players for so long, is really something special.

For some reason, the renegade warforged got me thinking about Master Control...

(And is there any activity in your 4e Plots and Places thread? It seems to have dropped off the face of the forums)
Master Control could still be around in one form or another, given the time-span between the last campaign and this one. Scary thought.
 

the Jester

Legend
A vertiginous drop!

The ornithopter plummets like a stone, racing towards the distant ground. Torinn pumps his arms and legs frantically, and the machine responds, its wings starting to beat.

Leaning back in his seat, the dragonborn cleric grits his teeth. At the speed he is falling, a crash would probably be lethal.

The nose of the ornithopter edges up, and the ship starts to speed out away from the edge of the cliff as well as just down. Come on, these are levers! If Lester’s blessings ever fall upon me, it should be now!

The ornithopter’s fall continues to angle away from the cliff, further and further, until, only a few dozen yards above the ground, it levels off at last. Torinn whoops with pleasure, pumping his arms like mad, as he starts to ascend.

***

“He made it!” exclaims Heimall.

“Hey, look at this,” Ligir calls from inside the hangar. “This one has room for two. Well, as long as the second person was a halfling or something.”

The party goes to look while the ornithopter bearing Torinn wobbles around the sky. Indeed, several of the ornithopters have a small compartment at the back, in which a smaller person could sit, albeit in a cramped position. “There’s no way any of us could fit in that little hole,” comments Hkatha. “Look at that hatch. I bet you could drop things out of here- maybe oil or acid or something. You could store small packages, or maybe bladders of liquid, in these little runnels here.”

The party goes back outside and watches Torinn’s ornithopter as it flies around. Torinn, in his cockpit, is taking in the view as best he can and trying to assess the tactical situation nearby, but from the distance he is at, it’s hard to tell much. Still, he can make out Lake Belwur to the south, and the smudge of a city along its nearest shore. Then he banks left and heads towards the nearest other plateau.

His arms are getting tired by the time he gets to it; but his suspicions are confirmed. At the top of the plateau is a flattened area long enough to launch (or, he presumes, land) an ornithopter squadron. “So,” he mutters to himself, and banks back around towards the plateau where the others are.

***

Meanwhile, both Vann-La and Shakgar have also taken flight. Each has a similar, harrowing experience as he or she plummets from the cliff; but each also quickly gets the hang of the vehicle’s operations.

When Torinn’s ornithopter flies back towards them and begins to descend towards the runway, Vann-La follows- and only then do any of the aloft heroes think about how one lands an ornithopter.

The answer, it turns out, is roughly; without skill; but well enough to walk away from. Both Torinn and Vann-La are bruised by their landings, and Torinn nearly crashes his ‘thopter into another of the airships in the hangar; but it is worth it. Flight! The power of flight!

“We definitely need to tell Colonel Jaxe that we found these,” says Heimall. “Let’s do a sending.

“I’m on it,” replies Hkatha. The Ilmixie unpacks his spellbook and begins laying out the materials necessary.

“Where’s Shakgar?” asks Torinn.

“He’s still flying,” Iggy responds with a sigh, “buzzing overhead every minute or so.”

***

Hkatha issues a sending updating Colonel Jaxe. The reply is immediate: We know about the ornithopters. Send peasants here if possible. Proceed to Northshore. Scout. Sending force, should arrive in two weeks.

“Well, we have our orders,” says Hkatha afterward.

Shakgar buzzes overhead again.

”I guess we have to wait for Shakgar before we do anything. Do you think we should take the ornithopters?” queries Torinn.

“We’d be pretty visible,” muses Heimall. “It would be hard to escape notice. So much for a subtle approach.”

“We are known for our subtlety,” the dragonborn replies ironically.

“A half-dozen of us against a couple of hundred troops of the Six-Fingered Hand? No problem!” Summer snorts disdainfully. “Subtle might be better.”

“We’ll proceed on foot,” Heimall agrees with a nod. “We won’t do the slaves at Northshore any good if we’re attacked and killed before we even get there.”

Shakgar keeps buzzing them for hours.

***

Northshore, when the party reaches it a couple of days later, proves to be a large ruin with a section at the edge of town that is still in use. Our heroes make a concealed approach at first, scouting out the situation. A large walled enclosure is full of slaves tending crops and minding herds of animals, overseen by a variety of Hand guards. This is adjacent to a large fortress that looks like it has been converted to the use of the Six-Fingered Hand.

“This is very interesting,” notes Cook. “You see how the people are farming in the pen?”

“They have goblin overseers,” points out Summer.

“Look how inefficient the construction is. The barrier looks weak. There are few guards.” Cook snorts. “Goblin incompetence.”

“I’d guess there are a couple of thousand people here,” murmurs Heimall. “And maybe three, four hundred troops.”

“Still too many,” says Iggy, “for a frontal assault.”

Vann-La shrugs. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“It looks like the barracks are along the edge of that fortification, on the ruin’s edge. And there are towers along the edge of the enclosure- crude work, but no doubt the Hand mans them.” Heimall frowns. “And what’s that noise?”

The party pauses to listen. Distantly, they can hear the roar of a crowd.

“We’ll probably find out what that is once we’re inside. We might be able to sneak in,” suggests Iggy. “Look around, scout things out.”

The cook smiles. “Oi, that is my specialty!”

“And we can check in after a little while by sending,” Hkatha says.

***

Cook sneaks up to the enclosure. There seems to be a single main gate, at the far end of things from all the barracks. Scratching his head- this is an odd and inefficient arrangement for the troops- Cook walks the perimeter, looking for unguarded entries but seeing none. There are several other smaller gates, as well as one leading from the interior of the pen into the fortress. He returns to the main gate, trying to be sneaky. Unfortunately for him, one of the goblins on the wall spots him.

“Hey!” it yells in Common. “You there! Dwarf! Don’t move!”

Cook remains where he is. Oi, I suppose this is as good of a way to get a look inside as any, he thinks wryly. A few minutes later a squad of Hand troops has surrounded him.

”Who are you?” growls a kobold.

“He must be an escaped slave,” one of the goblins says, speaking in Goblin- which (thankfully) Cook knows.

“No!” Cook declares. “I am a flesh merchant. I trade in slaves. I saw your worthy effort here” –gesturing at the enclosure- “and thought to come see if you might be interested in making additional purchases from one such as myself.”

He’s a quick-thinking, smooth-tongued dwarf, and he thinks his story is believable. But the kobolds and goblins laugh harshly.

“Let’s take him to Sir Unleafe for questioning,” one of them sneers. “If there really are free dwarves in the area, he must be informed.”

Uh-oh, thinks Cook. I hope the party contacts me with that sending soon, or I may be in trouble!

***

The death knight- Sir Unleafe- is a chilling figure, with yellow-white flames dancing in the sockets of his eyes. He wears soiled robes, with a huge greataxe strapped to his back. He is at the edge of a high balcony above a large arena. The arena’s floor is littered with various dangers, including large bonfires, pits and bear traps. Suspended above it, a pair of platforms swing by each other. Several slaves are on them, and several more are down below; clearly, they are being forced to fight one another.
“He says that he is a slave trader,” says one of the goblins.

Sir Unleafe turns his burning gaze upon Cook. The dwarf gulps through a constricted throat. “Where are you from?” the death knight demands.

“Uh, I am from the far east,” Cook starts, “but I operate from a base, uh, under the mountains around here.”

“You are a liar,” the death knight pronounces. He reaches behind him and unlimbers his axe, which gives off black smoke. “How many of you are there? How many are here? And where are they?”

”I am alone,” Cook stammers, “and please do not kill me!” He starts to sob, putting on his best show- but the death knight is clearly unconvinced.

***

After waiting an appropriate amount of time, the party stands guard while Hkatha conducts a sending ritual. The tiefling sends, Cook: how is it going? Any luck?

Cook’s response is immediate and chilling: Death knight is here. I am in the far side of the fortress. COME NOW!

“Uh oh,” says Hkatha.

***

The enclosure is wooden; once again, the lackluster quality of construction favors our heroes. They smash their way in quickly. Slaves on the inside stare at their arrival, but they don’t even slow down. A group of guards cries out, but Iggy and Hkatha destroy them in a coordinated pair of explosions.

“To the fortress!” cries Heimall.

Other Hand troops take note and start to intercept the party, but are hacked down by the heroes.

“Who are you?” cries one of the slaves.

”We’re the Heroes of Fandelose!” replies Torinn. “And I am the Dragon!”

***

Sir Unleafe sneers again and draws his axe. “Show your neck,” he commands Cook.

”Oi, I am afraid not,” the dwarf replies.

The gig is up. He is alone, facing a death knight and his lackeys. The door behind him is shut, and guards crowd his retreat. Ahead (and some 50’ down) is a coliseum whose stands are crammed with hundreds of goblins, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, ogres and lizardfolk, and whose floor is littered with danger.

Cook does the only thing he can: he flings himself forward and over the edge.

He lands hard on the top wall of the stands of the coliseum above the mass of Hand soldiers, somersaults to give away some of his momentum and comes to his feet balanced on the wall in a single smooth motion. Then he turns and grins up at the death knight.

Who steps off the edge and falls after him. Landing less gracefully, but nonetheless on the wall not far from Cook.

“Eek!” cries the dwarf, and leaps further down- into the stands.

***

Vann-La hurls her javelin, and it smashes into the chest of an oncoming hobgoblin. The snarling goblinoid warrior is knocked back and off his feet into a pool of blood, and then the magical javelin rips itself free and rockets back to her hand.

“Forward!” cries Summer, ripping open the door to the fortress. The party storms in, surprising a half-asleep kobold guard. Heimall’s glaive rips his throat out.

They storm the fortress, slaughtering enemies left and right. An alarm is raised, but- at least so far- the local Six-Fingered Hand troops doesn’t seem to be able to muster a coordinated response.

“Ogres!” cries Summer, leaping forward and stabbing with her longspear. She and Heimall for a wall of long weapons, barring the lumbering brutes from a quick assault on the rest of the party, and then Shakgar and Vann-La close to the front. The ogres roar and swing their huge clubs, but by focusing their fire, our heroes swiftly slay them, then resume their march onward.

After a brief but decisive battle against some kobold archers backed by gnolls, our heroes find a stairway up. They move up it, cutting through more opposition on the way, and then burst into an opulent balcony overlooking a huge arena.

***

The crowd around Cook reacts to his presence in a predictable way, trying to cut him down or grab him. He tumbles away, leaping out of the middle of the seats and into the walkway between groups.

His hands flip beneath his vest, then back up. Something glitters between each pair of his fingers for an instant. His hands twitch, and shuriken fly out into the crowd, sinking into eye after eye after eye. Over a half-dozen of the Hand troops fall. Screams echo.

Cook glances up at the death knight, who tilts his head back and unleashes a shrieking call unlike anything the dwarf has ever heard before. A chill runs down his spine- as something answers. From the far side of the coliseum, where a path runs out, a pair of gates flies open and fire and smoke belch forth. An immolated horse rushes through with a terrifying, predacious-sounding neigh.

That’s his mount, realizes Cook.

More Hand spectators- troops, just off duty, Cook reminds himself- rush at him. He whips his dagger out and parries a wickedly serrated scimitar blow, kicking his goblin attacker and fouling up those immediately behind him.

The death knight, he notes, is mounting up.

***

“Is that a nightmare?” exclaims Iggy. “Holy hell, it is!”

“Guys,” Summer says, nudging Vann-La’s shoulder. “Up there.”

“Up...?” Following her ally’s gaze, the elf growls a curse in her throat. Giant skeletal bats are entering the area, coming (presumably) is response to the alarm.

A few arrows come their way, but for the moment, they are largely unnoticed. And from their vantage point, they can see Cook- running for his life, and leaping out across open space to land on one of the platforms, suspended by chains, over the floor of the coliseum.

“That must be Sharm the Terrible,” Heimall says, pointing at another balcony, where a kobold with two scimitars is preparing to pursue Cook.

“There are a lot of bad guys here,” notes Summer.

“Good,” replies Vann-La. “We won’t run out of targets.”

Next Time: Sir Unleafe and Sharm the Terrible!
 

the Jester

Legend
Cook runs and leaps for one of the large platforms suspended over the arena. He stretches out and lands on it, momentarily causing it to tilt alarmingly, but catches his balance. The slave already on it drops his crossbow and pinwheels his arms, but he, too, manages to stay on the platform.

The dwarf looks down. Below- in the coliseum proper- the ground is littered with spikes, fires and other things that would be very bad to land on. Behind him are the death knight, his nightmare and dozens of troops. And behind them- on the balcony that Sir Unleafe had been on when Cook was ushered into his presence- the rest of the party bursts into view.

“Oi!” hollers Cook. “Over here!” Waving frantically, he catches their attention- and then gasps in pain as a crossbow bolt hits him in the leg. To his surprise, the slave on the other platform is the one that shot him! “What are you doing?” he cries. “We are here to save you!”

But more arrows from below are whizzing through the air, singing as they deflect from the platform. A few arc overhead; more miss completely, as the platform slowly swings out and over the coliseum.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party begins to descend, with Iggy falling off the balcony and landing dazed, while Vann-La and Heimall climb. Shakgar simply leaps, not caring about the fall, and the others follow after the first wave. From the top, Hkatha hurls a fireball into the audience. It detonates with a tremendous boom and the smell of burnt flesh. Iggy follows this with one of his own, and panic rips through the Six-Fingered Hand troops.

Sir Unleafe wheels his mount around and glares towards the party with burning eyes. “You there! Come over here to die!” he calls, his voice like an inferno.

Vann-La retorts, “You don’t say that when the Imperial Marines are here to kick your ass!”

The two charge each other.

Hkatha, meanwhile, tumbles down from the top of the balcony, landing on his feet without harm below. Then he races towards the death knight.

***

Sharm the Terrible snarls and stabs one of his attendants in rage. The kobold female gasps and dies, sliding from his wickedly curved knife. “These interlopers are spoiling my games!” he snaps. “I have had enough!”

He begins to make his way towards the fight, drawing both of his scimitars in a single motion. This situation has made him even fouler tempered than he was before. Bad enough that Sir Unleafe is here, he thinks. He wanders these lands for Lord Arawn, keeping an eye on our operations throughout the region. But to be here, now, when we are attacked- and my troops are behaving disgracefully! I will have them decimated! He curls his lips back, showing his teeth in a snarl. If I survive, that is. Sir Unleafe is... not known for forgiving failure. Perhaps, if these invaders harm him enough, I can... eliminate him. Sharm the Terrible begins to drool at the thought. If he were gone, who would oversee this region for Arawn? Heshwat the Eviscerator is dead, and the other generals in the area are old, fat or complacent. Surely he would choose me. Sharm the Terrible has always been loyal. I have worked hard. I reduced Northshore, Brelana, Sebell and three other major cities. I have slaughtered thousands and enslaved thousands more. Surely he would choose me! And how would he know if I finished off his wounded lieutenant?

He leaps forward into the fray, attacking one of the invaders- a large, formidable-looking dragonborn- from behind.

***

Vann-La roars as she swings her maul into the death knight, crunching into his ribs beneath his guard. Sir Unleafe shouts, “I swear I shall destroy you!” and strikes back, landing a series of punishing blows against the elf with unerring accuracy and surrounds her with a cloud of shrieking souls.* She staggers, and he raises his axe to strike again- but she manages to land a disruptive strike first, bloodying him, before his axe descends and slices her along her own ribs, pulling her into a profane duel and bloodying her.

Sir Unleafe leaps from the back of him mount and presses his advantage. The two continue to slash and pummel each other with mounting intensity while the rest of the party tries to deal with the other enemies all around, including the two skeletal bats that swoop in from the back and assault Hkatha and Heimall.

***

Cook springs off the platform.

It is a long way down.

When he lands, he tucks and rolls, feeling a stab of pain in his right ankle. He grimaces, but as soon as he is back up he darts to the side wall of the coliseum, crouching down into the shadows.

The arrival of his friends has precipitated a panic amongst the Hand troops. What a few shuriken and knives cannot do, the dramatic explosions caused by the wizards can, thinks the dwarf with a grim smile. It just takes something a little more visible to panic these monsters... and I prefer to strike from the shadows, unseen.

Cook takes a moment to observe. For some strange reason, the stands empty into the base of the coliseum at the end farthest from the gates, requiring any fleeing spectators to run through the hazard-strewn floor before they can escape. A foolish design, muses Cook, if it were designed with the health and convenience of the Hand in mind. Yet... what if the slaves designed and built this to make it as inconvenient and unhealthy as possible? And why would the Hand do the work themselves, when they have so many slaves to do it for them?

In fact...
A slow grin spreads on Cook’s face. That might explain a lot of the layout of this area- the enclosure looks relatively easy to escape, but hard to reinforce. The fortress seemed to have inconvenient halls and passages within it, and none of the typical features that dwarven engineers would have put in to repel invaders. This whole area- this whole arrangement- the slaves have subverted it, to make it easy for them and hard for their oppressors!

If he weren’t being sneaky, Cook would have let out a belly laugh. As it is, he keeps his mirth to himself and begins creeping towards the gate house.

***

Torinn invokes a beacon of hope, and Sharm the Terrible reels back, weakened by Lester’s holy might, while our heroes’ flagging strength is boosted. Heimall uses a knight’s move to get the dragonborn into a flanking position, while uttering a commander’s strike that permits Vann-La to land another punishing blow on Sir Unleafe.

Not far away from them, Unleafe’s nightmare mount charges forward and crashes into Iggy for an appalling amount of damage even as the skeletal bats slash at the wizards with their bony talons as they fly by. “This isn’t good!” Iggy exclaims, and dimension doors away. He casts a scorching burst, but the disorientation that his teleportation caused makes him miss.

Hkatha is left to fend for himself. He ducks as one of the bats flies by, suffers a flaming hoof to the shoulder from the nightmare, which rears and prepares to crash down full upon him; but in the instant before it does so, the other bat snatches Hkatha and drags him up into the air- and out of the way. He groans, feeling blood soaking through his tunic and uniform. Its talons squeeze him, and his head swims for a moment from the constricting pressure on his lungs.

Then the pressure relents. Hkatha gasps in a breath of air- and realizes that he is falling.

With a bone-crunching crash, he lands not in the stands surrounding the coliseum, nor even on the coliseum floor. Instead, the bat’s aim is perfect, and the tiefling drops straight into one of the pits in the floor of the coliseum. He groans again and shakes his head, then looks up.

He swears.

And starts to climb.

***

Another shuriken flies out and takes a goblin in the throat, and Cook pushes his way in the guard house. His throwing stars are everywhere; his left hand holds a dagger, with which he deflects the few blows that the confused, surprised and demoralized Hand troops can muster.

Another few shuriken, another few stabs, and the gatehouse falls quiet.

Quickly, Cook binds his wounds, and then he turns to the windlass that opens the gates at the bottom of the coliseum. Grinning again, he begins cranking it.

***

Outside, the audience is in a stake of confusion and panic. Their leaders are under assault, their games have been interrupted and their coliseum is on fire.

When the gates begin to creak open, they finally see a way out, and the milling crowd suddenly becomes a massive rush. Goblins and kobolds- the smaller of the Hand forces- are trampled. Gnolls and orcs, hobgoblins and lizardfolk, all join in the massive press towards the exit. Audience members are forced by the mass of bodies over the edge; they fall into the hazards in the floor of the coliseum below. Some die in the fall; some to the hazards that they fall upon. Others find themselves suddenly attacked by their slaves, some of whom were armed in order to fight in the games.

“Slaves of Northshore, rise up!” yells Cook. “The time of your liberation has arrived!”

***

Vann-La strikes again, gasping with the effort, and Sir Unleafe collapses to the ground in a smoking pile of soiled robes and bones.

Sharm the Terrible gives a howl of combined rage and pleasure. He is out of the way, and I do not even need to lie about not having been involved! the kobold gloats, then spins into a kobold whirlwind, his scimitars slashing all around him. Torinn cries in pain, staggering back; then the nightmare, billowing smoke, charges in at him as well. He swings his spiked chain around him, clearing some space, and Heimall, Vann-La and he focus their attacks on the deadly kobold.

Vann-La smashes Sharm the Terrible’s shoulder with her maul. “Take that!” she cries. In return, Sharm draws an X on Vann-La’s torso with her two scimitars, then double attacks Torinn, dropping him. Unfortunately for the Six-Fingered Hand, the dragonborn pops up again immediately, using a healing word to fortify himself.**

“Damn it, go down!” swears Heimall, stabbing out again with his glaive. Sharm’s eyes widen as he recognizes Throat-Ripper.

“You are the ones who slew Heshwat the Eviscerator!” the kobold exclaims.

“That’s right,” replies Heimall, “and you’re next.”

***

Finally pulling himself out of the pit, Hkatha invokes a flaming sphere and sends it down into the crowd. The ball of flame rolls through them, increasing the panic. Screams echo everywhere. It is total chaos.

Arrows are still flying through the air, especially from a group of brownscale lizard folk, notes the wizard. The two skeletal bats are still swooping at the heroes- one has taken to harrying Iggy, the other to assaulting Cook. Hkatha winces as a prismatic burst explodes with blinding force near the center of the fight; then, he sees several arrows sink into Cook with seemingly impossible accuracy. The dwarf drops like a sack of gravel.

With a gesture, Hkatha sends his flaming sphere towards the archer lizard folk, and he quickly begins to make his way across the arena floor towards his fallen companion.

***

Sharm parries, dodges, whirls and slashes; cuts, ducks, feints and strikes.

But there are so many of the foe...

Heshwat, he thinks, as another blow to the face rattles his teeth and knocks several loose, now I understand why you had so much trouble with these people! He tries everything, tumbling back, hacking and slashing; but now he is on the retreat, as the invaders press him harder and harder towards the edge of the coliseum.

“All bets are off, you scum!” cries Torinn, his spiked chain slashing against the kobold and the nightmare. Sharm is weakening, and he knows he can’t take much more of this unceasing assault. He tumbles back again and gets to his feet just in time to see the blue-skinned elf cow coming for him. He tries to raise a scimitar to parry, but it catches on the bench-

Crunch!

***

An arrow pounds Hkatha in the shoulder, and he spins around and almost loses his footing. There is blood on the floor of the coliseum, soaking the sand. With a gesture, the wizard sends his flaming sphere rolling into the midst of the archer formation again; he curls his lip as one of them catches fire, shrieking, and tries to flee. But he has nowhere to go; instead, he collapses, his screams slowly dying.

Another hail of arrows lances out towards him, arcing over the crowd. He throws his hands up and gasps a quick incantation, and a barely-visible shield of force springs up, deflecting the incoming missiles.

Hkatha continues to limp his way towards the archers- who are virtually the only organized resistance that remains- and grins as Torinn leaps on them from above, crashing on top of one of the brownscales like a meteor. He begins laying about himself with his spiked chain, and Hkatha keeps adding chaos with his flaming sphere.

***

With Sharm the Terrible slain, our heroes surround the nightmare and start the grim process of slaying it, stabbing and smashing at it even as it whirls around, spilling demonic smoke everywhere. Flames spring up in its wake as it tries to break free of their assault, but Heimall calls for a white raven onslaught and the party keeps it penned between them. It screams in rage, a horrific noise full of hate, but there is no escape for it. Heimall uses Throat-Ripper and tears off its head. Spurting liquid fire, the beast keeps moving for another few moments, flailing blindly around at everything nearby, but then it finally collapses.

There is no time to stop and catch their breath. Torinn and Hkatha are still fighting down below, finishing off the archers, and the others move to join them.

But where is Cook?

***

The slaves are rising. Using whatever weapons they can find- and there are many scattered about, after the slaughter that our heroes brought to town- they express to the Six-Fingered Hand exactly how much they appreciate the last five years of slavery and servitude.

They were born free, citizens of an Empire that may or may not still exist. Then their freedom was taken from them, stolen by the man-eating humanoids that have terrified and lorded over them for years. When the Hand first came, these people- for the most part- were peasants, not warriors. They were not forced to fight. But now, although not forced, they fight for their lost freedom. They pick up whatever stick or stone is handy and attack the orcs near them, slit the throats of the kobolds, run through the lizard folk.

Northshore’s time has come.

***

The two skeletal bats wheel about and fly off into the distance. The roar of the crowd, the sounds of panic and fighting are everywhere.

“Here!” cries Hkatha. “Torinn, Heimall, one of you- come help! I found Cook, and he’s dying!”

“Gather around, quick!” orders Torinn. The party clusters around; and the dragonborn tilts his head back and utters a prayer to Lester.

Wounds knit; Cook gives a startled cough, and his eyes fly open. He spits dirt and blood and groans. “Oi,” he says weakly, and drags himself to his feet. “Did we win?”

“The death knight and the kobold are dead,” pronounces Heimall.

“We got his horse, too,” adds Torinn.

Next Time: Sigil Sequences!

*Sir Unleafe swore his oath of enmity against Vann-La, allowing him to roll each of his attacks against her twice.

**Blast, only in retrospect do I realize that he should have stayed down. He had regeneration going, but it doesn’t work once you’re at 0 hit points or below- a technicality that I missed. Oh well, I’m sure Heimall would have just inspiring worded him on his next turn anyhow.
 

the Jester

Legend
Time to get to work.

The party has now achieved one of their goals in Northshore- the defeat of the Six-Fingered Hand in the area. The destruction of one of Arawn’s death knight lieutenants is a bonus. They seal the deal, so to speak, by using a disenchant magic item ritual to break his black greataxe down into residuum, which they cheerfully collect for future use.

But they have another, hidden agenda here.

Northshore, before the coming of the Hand, was famous for its library. If the party wants to carry the fight to Arawn on the Silver Isle of Tirchond, they need to find a way there. From what General Argos knows, it is thousands of miles distant across the sea. Their only hope of crossing that vast gap in a reasonable amount of time is to teleport there; and to do that, they must find the coordinates- the sigil sequence of a teleport circle somewhere on the island.

To that end, they hit the books.

They find the book with startling speed.* It is old, in very poor shape, nearly falling apart. It is a hand-written copy of an ancient treatise on teleportation magic, penned almost two thousand years ago. It discusses teleportation theory in depth, but Iggy and Hkatha determine that most of the underlying theory in the book has since been discredited. It is ancient and out of date. In the days in which the book was penned, teleportation was apparently seen as a much higher-order sort of magic than in the modern day; and there are many references to things like “blind” teleportation, with no destination coordinates, which is patently impossible over long distances.

Regardless, the book has the coordinates for 15 different teleportation circles in it; unfortunately, only eight of them still exist. Annotations beside the others in a second hand (not the original writer’s) indicate that the others are non-functional or destroyed.

The eight remaining teleport circles have the following notes on their destinations:

1. “This circle leads to Tirchond, specifically to the Terran Hold in the Undercollege of (something smudged and illegible) below the Shining City. The dwarves of the Terran Order have shown great distress concerning the planar flux of late and (more smudging) help in determining the origin of the (part of page is torn).”

(“Excellent!” exclaims Hkatha. “This is just what we want!”)

2. “This circle has been placed with heavy wards by Imperial mages, protecting it from the undue influence of the druids. It leads to the Magnificent Desert, which is infested by the cactus folk and is very dangerous, even without considering the obvious hazards of being in a land which has been Awakened.”

3. (In a different writing style from most of the rest; clearly an addition after the original text.) “VERY DANGEROUS. Unwise to transition to these coordinates. Only one returned from foray; badly wounded and insane. Signs of acid. Other plane?”

4. “This circle was placed on Aerisa by the Kree elves to expedite trade with (a large section is smudged) friendly spider (more smudging)”

5. “Placed by the great elven druid Thaemeolon, this circle is near the top of a great mountain of unknown location. The view is incredible, and even seasoned mountaineers are amazed by the difficulty of any climbing attempts. Not even dragons can soar to the peak, so violent are the winds.”

6. “In one of the odder (a few smudged words) is underwater, on a broken stone shelf. Though it is not certain exactly where this circle is, it is known to be very far to the north- the Sun is significantly (smudged bit)...mains.”

7. “This circle leads to the Merchants’ Concourse in Bemvia City, a wonderful place for supplying oneself, but a 25 gp fee for using the circle applies.” In a different hand, a notation in the margins reads, “Erratic! Overgrown- fey zone?”

8. (A smudged area obscures the beginning of the entry, though the coordinates can just be made out.) “...tion is advised. He will eat unwary travelers.” In another hand, a note has been written- “Old cloud castle- now ruled by djinni- eternal storm”

“This is what we were really here for,” says Iggy. “Now what? We could teleport straight to Tirchond now...”

“No,” opines Torinn, “we’re better off if we go back to Fandelose first. That way we can leave the book behind, in case we fail, and someone else can try again later.”

Nobody can argue with the dragonborn’s logic, so the party sets out, leading a component of the liberated Northshorers. After five days of marching, they encounter the advance scouts of the Fandelosian force coming to aid them. After boasting about their victory to the commander, one Captain Varpos, they turn the once enslaved people over to him and pick up their own pace. Another few days, and they reach Fandelose, where they report in to Colonel Jaxe.

He is most pleased with their success, as well as with the wisdom they displayed in coming back before launching their assault on Tirchond. The colonel recommends a place about a day out of town for the linked portal that they are going to create; that way, if someone gets the coordinates and tries to backtrack the party, they won’t emerge in the middle of the city. “And we’ll station a squadron of men there to guard it, just in case.”

***

“Finally,” Shakgar says vehemently. “Shakgar is impatient and wants to fight!”

“You aren’t the only one,” agrees Vann-La.

The circle has been scriven. The party is gathered around it. The guards are present and on duty, keeping a nervous eye on things.

Iggy and Hkatha perform the ritual, and the way opens. The circle flares with light, blazes with energy as the portal appears. Ligir draws his pistol. And the party steps through.

***

They appear in a dark room, illuminated only by Iggy’s light cantrip. It stretches away ahead of them, and near the far end a catwalk stretches across the chamber, 15’ up. The two wavering, insubstantial forms on it don’t have a chance to react before Iggy shoots from the hip, blasting one of the ghostly figures immediately and following it up with a magic missile.

A rattling sound behind them... Vann-La whirls around and gasps. A great collection of bones is raising a sharp appendage up to strike at the party. “Look out!” she cries, and strikes with amazing speed.

Torinn turns undead, and both of the spectral figures on the catwalk writhe in the energy of his faith. To his surprise, though, the bone creature doesn’t react at all- it doesn’t even flinch. “That thing isn’t undead!” he shouts.

Iggy glances at it. “It’s a bone golem!” he cries. Ignoring Vann-La, it rumbles forward. The Kree elf smashes it again, preventing it from moving further, but hisses in pain as its sharp bones stab her arm. Meanwhile, the two things on the catwalk...

...draw pistols...

...and start shooting at the party’s own gunslinger.

Iggy screams as phantom bullets blast into him, weakening him. “Don’t let them hit you!” the wizard warns.

Everyone else is busy, however; the bone golem, in the midst of the party, is laying about itself with bone spurs, tearing into them. Vann-La keeps it from moving further forward, while Heimall, Torinn and Cook work with her to crush it to pieces. But the two pistol wraiths remain focused on Iggy, staying distant and firing grave shots at him that suck away at his vitality.**

“A little help!” he cries, casting a magic missile- but missing.

“We’re kind of busy,” Heimall retorts, slamming Throat-Ripper into the bone golem with a viper strike.

“I’m under serious fire here!” Ligir shouts back, as two more phantom bullets hit him.

“Be there in a minute!”

The wizard grimaces and casts a desperate lightning serpent, but the pistol wraith- now cackling evilly- dodges aside. A few sparks catch it, slowing it; but it keeps up a steady stream of fire at Ligir. In desperation, he dimension doors up onto the catwalk to make it harder for them to fire at him- but they just phase through it down to the ground and keep shooting at him. Iggy groans and collapses as two more bullets hit him.

Torinn utters a healing word, getting the wizard back on his feet; but clearly, it won’t last long. We need to help him, the dragonborn thinks, and quickly, or else this is going to turn uglier than it already is!

Unfortunately, the golem seems to have other ideas, shredding Vann-La, Cook and Heimall with its bone spurs over and over again. But then Cook slips in under its guard and, giving it a fool’s opportunity, tricks it into slamming itself! The golem hits with a perfect blow, and it shatters into thousands of pieces!***

Suddenly free to turn on the pistol wraiths, the party unleashes a storm of violence. Heimall drags one of the wraiths away from Iggy with a skirmish ploy, and the rest of the party charges forward to engage the other at close range, with preventing it from shooting its gun with impunity. They flit back up through the catwalk, and Iggy, with a gulp, rushes off the catwalk and through an opening on the side that turns out to wind around, down and back into the room. “Hey!” he shouts. “This is how you get up on the catwalk!”

Blam! Blam! More pistol shots ring out at him, and he ducks behind the corner for cover. Peeking out, he fires his pistol back- and finally hits one of the damned things! About time, he thinks, ducking back behind his cover.

Armed with Iggy’s revelation, several of the heroes rush to the side passages- a matching one on the other side proves to also lead up onto the catwalk. Meanwhile, Cook stays below, throwing shuriken. The wraiths, back to back, keep firing, although their preferred target (maybe because he too has a gun?) is out of sight.

He pops out long enough to hit them with a fireball, just before Torinn, Vann-La and Heimall rush in to bracket them. The two pistol wraiths try to drop down through the catwalk again, but the three heroes manage to reduce one of them to ectoplasmic goo as it flees. The other lands in front of Cook, who stabs it. Suddenly it is walking wounded.

Vann-La leaps down at it. As it rises, the others dash down the side halls and rush towards it as well. It cackles, but clearly the tide of battle now favors our heroes.

Another pistol report, and Iggy shoots it again. It staggers, shifts, and tries to shoot back, but its aim is off, and its grave shot misses him again.

Then Vann-La hits it again, and it dissolves into ectoplasm.

Silence, other than the gasping for breath of the party.

“Wow,” says Iggy, massaging his wounds. “Now I know how the bad guys feel when I shoot them.”

***

After a short rest to catch their collective breath and regain their wits, the party takes a closer look at the room.

The far end holds a large door; the two side passages that lead up to the catwalk each lead away beyond it. They decide to start with the western hallway. Several doors lead out of it; two of them lead to rooms that have partially collapsed walls, allowing our heroes to peer into the rooms beyond. These prove to be ruined barracks, crowded with dwarf-sized bunks made of stone (which have been partially destroyed). The party explores them; they are adjoined by a mess hall, latrines and a kitchen. A search of the kitchen turns up a bag containing a pound of salt and a jar holding 2 cups of honey. Cook chortles gleefully and puts them in his kit. All the other food that was once in the place has spoiled, but the dwarf finds a few new pots and pans worth taking. “Oi, dwarves cooked here,” he declares upon inspecting the items.

The barracks themselves are a destroyed mess. It is obvious that some sort of large, powerful creature tore through here at some point. Several dwarf bones- though no full skeletons- are in here. “What do you suppose happened here?” wonders Vann-La, but nobody has an answer at this point. The latrines are simple affairs, just holes in the ground. Cocking her head, the elf says, “There’s water down there.”

“We dwarves try to put our privies above water, to carry away the waste,” Cook explains. “And this complex is clearly of dwarven make.”

There are no other exits from the area, so the party returns to the hallway and investigates the final door in it. Opening it, they find a room that was obviously once used for battle practice and sparring. There are mats on the floor, a row of practice dummies set up to receive charges, and five thick poles bristling with metal poles and rods.

Amongst them are a pair of strange-looking creatures that, at first glance, our heroes take to be some weird race of elves. With silvery-grey skin and strange hooked spurs on the backs of their hands, they are plainly not like any elves that our heroes have ever seen.

Immediately, as our heroes open the door, the strange elves vanish.

“What the hell?” exclaims Iggy. “What were those?”

The party moves cautiously into the room, Vann-La’s acute senses searching for any sign of them. There is none- until they reappear, out of nowhere, and one of them does so right where she is standing.

“AAARGH!!” they scream together, as they are blown towards opposite sides of the chamber by their fleeting coexistence.

“What the hell?” asks Iggy again.

The strange elf-like creatures attack.

Next Time: In the Terran Undercollege!


*Their Perception check to do so was off the frickin’ charts. Somewhere in the low 50s, iirc. Vann-La rolled very high, and everyone aided her.

**2 hits, each of which did damage and sucked out a healing surge. Ow!

***Cook got a crit on it, and that was ugly for my poor bone golem. On the other hand, it was beautiful to see his first use of his new 13th level power work so well! :)
 
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The party moves cautiously into the room, Vann-La’s acute senses searching for any sign of them. There is none- until they reappear, out of nowhere, and one of them does so right where she is standing.

“AAARGH!!” they scream together, as they are blown apart by their fleeting coexistence.
Am I reading that right? Did Vann-La just get killed?
 
Whoops, not quite clear!

Sorry- they were not blown apart as in blown to bits, they were blown apart as in blown in separate directions. I'll have to rephrase that... :eek:
Just read the rewrite - that's much clearer! I did wonder why you weren't making a bigger thing of it.

Awesome stuff as usual - if I don't see another update from you before Xmas then have a good one!
 

the Jester

Legend
Whatever the freakish, elf-like creatures are, they move with impressive speed, slashing at our heroes with the spurs on the back of their hands. These spurs prove to be fairly deadly; but when the greyish-silver creatures manage to flank or otherwise gain combat advantage, they become significantly more deadly. Worse yet, the things are able to blink out of existence and then reappear a few moments later, and- as Vann-La has already learned- when they reappear in the same place as one of our heroes, the consequences are painful for both of them.

The fight is on-again, off-again as the two creatures appear and disappear over and over again. Two more of the things enter the room, drawn by the sounds of the combat, and our heroes are suddenly having twice the fun with the damned elusive creatures.

Yet while the strange elves are present, our heroes do manage to land a few blows here and there, wounding the four creatures. Soon Vann-La, angry and frustrated, starts to use a new tactic: when one of the creatures vanishes, she moves to its last location and waits for it to reappear.

This strategy, while fairly effective, is also painful.

However, Torinn and Heimall are there to help absorb the worst of it. With their healing and inspiring words to help make the damage manageable, a few more of our heroes start to do the same.

Finally, the tide has turned decisively in their favor! But, sensing the danger, one of the elf-things instead elects to flee. Our heroes, still bogged down with the other two surviving enemies, cannot pursue quickly enough, and the creature escapes. The other two, meanwhile, are finally cut down.

“They didn’t bleed,” Heimall notices at once.

”Maybe they are some kind of undead,” Torinn says, “but if they are, I’ve never heard of them.”

The party rests for a few moments, recouping their strength and doing some healing. They then send Cook down the passage that the second pair of bad guys had emerged from. He reports back almost immediately: “Just around the corner is a room with a most clever dwarven innovation in it. My people sometimes enclose a room with a heated pool of water in it. Both the water and the steam are very soothing, and you go in there for purposes of relaxation. It is called a sauna. There are no exits from it, either.”

“It might be a good place to rest,” Heimall suggests.

The party goes into the sauna and conducts a thorough search. It is as Cook told them: a steamy room, about 20’ by 30’, dominated by a shallow, hot pool of water. Some discussion ensues about the merits of resting in the sauna versus spending precious reagents to use another linked portal to return to the circle outside of Fandelose. At this point, they are close enough to the circle that they arrived in that it would be easy to use it to transition home; but, as Torinn points out, that won’t always be true.

The party collectively shrugs. No need for a final decision until the time comes, after all. They return to exploring.

There is still another exit from the room in which they fought the strange (possibly undead) elf-things: a short passageway ending in a door. They throw it open, and find themselves looking in at an empty, disused classroom. The room is full of chairs that sit alongside long tables. The professor’s desk is at the head of the classroom. There is a large chalkboard covering most of the southern wall, and upon it are sketches of several strange-looking creatures: a sort of lumpy, trilaterally symmetrical creature, shaped vaguely like an inverted pyramid with three arms and legs, whose mouth is stuck on the top of its head; a more-or-less tube-shaped creature with fins and eyes all around its circumference, with little boring claws sticking out from the sides; a red-hot worm; and a humanoid creature consisting completely of stone. A few very basic notes are under each- the first is called a xorn, and the notes indicate that it eats metal and gems. The second creature, a khargra, “swims through earth like a fish”. The notes beneath the worm call it a thoqqua, and note that it is a combination of fire and earth, and that it can burn its way through solid bedrock. The final creature is apparently an earth archon- which, according to the notes, is a “Primordial elemental soldier from the early epochs of the multiverse”.

The party searches the area. The desk proves to hold a bunch of academic records as well as a smooth piece of blue and white rock. This does not appear to have any special properties, but our heroes take it nonetheless.

Time to start opening doors.

The classroom has a total of five doors leading into it. The party came from one; they open the door to its left. This opens on a long hallway leading off into the dark.

“We might as well look behind the other doors first,” Cook suggests.

The next leftmost door opens onto a small office. A plaque on the desk reads “Professor Hammerhead.” The room has a small chair and desk, but much of the area is hemmed in by shelves covered in rocks and stones, each meticulously labeled. One shelf holds a small collection of books, which Ligir goes to examine while everyone else looks at the desk and the stones.

“Hmm,” Cook says, “I do not think that there is much value in these stones, compared to their weight. We might be able to get twenty gold for them, but...”

Heimall nods. “It’s not really worth the effort.”

The desk holds mostly more academic papers, including grade books, and a few more stones and papers about stones.

“This is interesting,” Iggy remarks, from the area of the books. “These are mostly geology, but this one is about some supposed elemental plane of earth. I mean, only earth.”

“Weird,” says Torinn.

Hkatha rubs his chin. “I guess that must be an antiquated, disproven theory.”

“Yeah,” nods Iggy. “But you’d think they would have known it wasn’t right. Even back in those days, they knew how to plane travel.”

“Weird,” Torinn says again.

The next door opens to a 20’ square room with only two noteworthy features: a lever, and strange metal tracks on the walls in the four corners.

“A lever!” exclaims the dragonborn.

“Don’t pull it yet,” Heimall cries.

“I won’t- but I will pull it eventually.” Torinn grins a toothy grin.

The lever is in the upward position; the party examines it closely, but cannot tell what it does. After some debate, everyone else steps out of the room while Torinn remains inside and pulls the lever downward.

The door swings closed and locks.

Torinn tenses, but nothing further seems to happen. He easily switches the lever back up, and the door unlocks and swings open.

“Huh,” he says, puzzled.

The party discusses the strange lever. “We could all stay inside, and see if we can tell what’s happening,” suggests Torinn.

“Before we do that, I will try to disable the door,” Cook says. “That way we have a way to escape.” The dwarf sidles up to the door and examines it for the closing mechanism. Soon he is working merrily on it with his picks and tools. A few moments later, he announces, “The door will no longer close.”

The party- albeit with some misgivings- throws the lever again.

Nothing visible happens.

“Wait for it,” Heimall urges.

Nothing....

“Hey!” exclaims Vann-La. “Look!”

“What is it?”

“The room is moving downward, but very slowly.” She points at the entryway. “There is a very slight lip there now.”

Everybody looks, and she’s right. They stare fixedly for a few moments, and can detect their downward motion.

“We shouldn’t do this yet,” says Heimall. “We’ve barely begun exploring this place, and we don’t even know where we are. We’re underground on Tirchond somewhere; we could be miles, or even hundreds of miles, from Arawn.”

“Good point.” Torinn throws the lever back up, and the room very gradually rises back up. “But at least we know the way down, now.”

The final door out of the classroom leads to another hallway. They close it and return to the first door that they checked. Vann-La had seen another door down that hall, and so it seems ever so slightly more promising.

That door, placed in the right-hand wall only a few feet down, proves to lead only to an old storage closet holding brooms, mops and other cleaning supplies. With a shrug, they continue on.

Ahead, the hall opens into a room. As they approach, the chamber lights up, as if by magic.

“Whoa,” says Heimall, “what is all that?”

“It looks almost like an art gallery,” suggests Hkatha.

Indeed- but what strange art.

Three large alcoves each have their own display; four more displays are set about the floor. The first alcove has a plaque that reads, “Dwarven art tends to be long-lasting and practical. To a dwarf, excellent engineering is art. Dwarves excel at working with metal or, especially, stone, and include great works of art as part of massive bridges, stone cathedrals or defensive works.” The objects on display include bricks fashioned to appear as a series of overlapping hammers and anvils, a shield with a fierce dwarven face upon it whose eyes are set with chips of granite and whose beard is beaten iron, a crossbow with exceptionally fine engineering, composed entirely of stone (even the string!), a mug etched with gems and gold on one face and a fierce dwarven thane on the other and a mosaic scene of a dwarf hero slaying a dragon, made all of chips of stone of different colors.

The second alcove has clearly been defiled and obliterated by magic. Fused wreckage is all that remains, with several objects collapsed into ruin as if they were of extreme age. In other areas, piles of dust are all that remain.

“Someone,” says Hkatha, “was a very harsh critic.”

Ligir leans down and stirs the dust with his finger. “This looks like it was magically disintegrated, whatever it was.”

“That’s pretty powerful magic.”

The third and final alcove is dedicated to kuo-toa art and has clearly been looted. A plaque reads, “Kuo-toan art is usually religious in nature. Almost all kuo-toans revere Blibdoolpoolp, their dark goddess of underwater evil. Thus, kuo-toan art shows themes of the ancient glory days when they ruled the seas, their vengeance upon the creatures of the upper world, their return to power, and, of course, the cruelty and majesty of their goddess.” Most of the display is gone, not destroyed, but removed or stolen. Only one item remains, a giant sheet of polished rock 3’ thick and 10’ on a side- it nearly fills the back wall of the alcove- carved with glyph-like images of evil kuo-toan armies overrunning both aboleth and sea elves and returning to the surface world, while their weird lobster-headed goddess Blibdoolpoolp gloats in the background.

The four displays on the floor are weirder. The first is a curved piece of bone almost 15’ in length that has been smoothed and worn with strange bumps and whorls. The plaque next to it reads, “Aboleth art is usually incomprehensible to non-aboleth. Furthermore, those with active psychic abilities sometimes find aboleth art to induce megrims.”

The second display is on the east wall and consists of two poles of bone lashed together with skulls atop them, forming a ‘gate’ shape. A skull with the lower jaw distended downwards, painted in vivid red, tops the display. The accompanying plaque reads, “Grimlock art is strange, as they are blind and yet it incorporates vivid pigments. The answer to this mystery is simple: the pigments, while nearly scentless to elven or dwarven noses, have a very strong scent to the grimlocks. The vivid color is a simple coincidence.”

The third floor display includes some crude dolls, as well as wooden shields splashed with bloody, six-fingered hands. The plaque reads, “Goblin art is usually not very sophisticated, though there are exceptions. Shields are usually painted with the clan’s image, such as the Bloody Eye or Broken Tooth. However, there are exceptions, such as the Six-Fingered Hand shields seen here. The Six-Fingered Hand was a group of various types of humanoids that joined forces to fight against the elves and dwarves of Tirchond, but their alliance could not outlive their leader’s destruction.”

“What the hell?” says Heimall.

“That sounds like Arawn is already dead,” Vann-La says.

“More weirdness. This place is kind of weird,” Torinn declares.

The final display is a large piece of stone, flat on the ground, that has been artfully sculpted. Most of the sculpture is abstract, adding strange patters or scales to the stone; in ten places, little miniature beholders have been sculpted. The plaque reads, “Powerful eye tyrants use their disintegrating eye rays to sculpt the stone around them into pleasing shapes. They can thus configure their lair to look like whatever they desire. In combination with their ability to fly, this makes beholders VERY DANGEROUS opponents in the field. Even in the case of a neutralized beholder held in captivity, such as we have here, one should always maintain a posture of EXTREME CAUTION when dealing with a beholder.”

“Such as we have here?” Heimall says. “They have a beholder captive here??”

“That’s not good,” remarks Vann-La, “since this place seems abandoned and haunted by monsters. And something disintegrated the art in that alcove.”

Next Time: Our heroes keep exploring... and their worries have just begun!
 

the Jester

Legend
Our heroes have gleaned all that they can from the art gallery. There are yet more exits from it, and they have not explored everything behind them yet.

“This place must be pretty big,” remarks Iggy.

Cook nods. “Oi, my people sometimes build complexes that fill entire mountains- and this place is dwarf work.”

The party returns to the classroom that they had previously seen. They still have one door that leads to an unexplored area to check. While they are there, they stop to eat lunch, since there are an abundance of chairs and desks. It makes for a comfortable meal; while they are there, Vann-La pokes through more of Professor Hammerhead’s papers and notices that the last entries in any of the dates material are from roughly ten years ago.

“So this place was some kind of college,” muses Hkatha, “and something happened to it a decade ago that shut it down.”

“Yeah,” says Iggy, “but what kind of college is underground?”

“A dwarf one,” answers Cook.

Once they are ready, the party moves on. The final door out of the classroom leads to a hall that opens onto a large area whose far and side walls are unworked. The natural wall is striated in colors, with nodules of crystal and the nubs of stalactites growing from the ceiling near it. Water trickles down from the ceiling 20’ overhead in many places.

Iggy draws and fires.

Near the center of the chamber are three creatures that the party recognizes as xorn from the sculptures in Professor Hammerhead’s office. Up on a ledge 10’ above floor level is a creature that looks more or less like a walking boulder. It is this that Ligir fires at, and the bullet hits. The creature gives a surprised grunt.

”Galeb duhr!” he cries. And launches a fireball into the xorn.

“Right,” sighs Hkatha, “let’s make sure we piss them all off so that we can’t talk to any of them.”

”There’s another one,” says Vann-La, “on the ledge at the far end of the room. But I can’t tell what it is- it’s low to the ground.” And she draws her sword and charges forward alongside Summer and Torinn. They start to duel the strange, trilateral monsters; but the elf keeps one eye on the other ledge.

Rocks start to slide down it- a swarm of rocks? wonders Vann-La- vibrating and rattling. They roll towards Vann-La, and she can feel the ground vibrating around it. “It’s some kind of living tremor!” she cries, and as it moves near her, the trembling ground slides beneath her feet. She pinwheels her arms and manages to avoid being moved too far; but even so, she can feel the shaking ground all around her, and realizes that it will be very difficult to move too close to it.

Meanwhile, two of the xorn each take a bite at Torinn. Each misses. The third one seems to try to bite his armor, but it also misses.* “Hey!” he cries out. “Watch out, they eat armor!”

Summer thunder steps over to the living tremor and attacks. Sudden frost erupts in the air around her as she assumes the form of winter’s herald, jabbing her spear into the pile of rocks. “I hurt it,” she announces. “It doesn’t seem resistant to weaponry- or cold!”

The galeb duhr, meanwhile, remains on its perch. It gestures, and a great hand erupts from the earth in front of Heimall. The galeb duhr clenches its fist, and the earthen hand grabs the warlord. He struggles valiantly, but every time he frees one limb, a great finger of rock folds over it. All he can do is curse.

Vann-La turns and charges towards the galeb duhr, rushing up to the ledge. She engages it with her sword, and Heimall cries, “Vann-La- git!” She strikes again; Heimall keeps struggling to get free to no avail. “Git!” he cries again.

With Vann-La gone for the moment, Torinn finds himself the only one attacking the xorn. At least Summer is close enough to soak up some of their attacks, the dragonborn cleric thinks wryly.

Indeed: one of the xorns bites her, while the others attack him, each making three attacks- one with each of its claws. He replies with a righteous brand, while Summer unleashes another frenzied attack on the tremor that knocks it askew.

To top it off, Heimall finally manages to break loose of the earth hand, which recedes back into the ground. The galeb duhr is clearly not happy with this, nor is it happy with Vann-La in its face. It tucks itself into a ball and rolls down off the ledge, bouncing into Torinn with a loud Crunch!

Meanwhile the living tremor manages to shake the ground sufficiently to knock Summer from her feet. Vann-La rushes in, but not too close, and then tosses her head and cries, “Come and get it!”

The xorn, tremor and galeb duhr all advance towards the blue-skinned elf.

BOOM! Iggy tosses a force orb right into the middle of the bunched-up bad guys, and Heimall calls out, “Surround the foe!”

The party has achieved a sudden and deadly advantage. Their wizard hammers the group of earth creatures with spells, while Vann-La, Summer, Torinn and Heimall all rain blows on the creatures. The galeb duhr falls first, followed by the living tremor. The xorn elect to flee down into the ground, but Vann-La even manages to slay one of them with a deadly blow as it tries to escape. The other two, however, get away.

“That tremor thing was tough,” Vann-La exclaims.

The party looks around the chamber for anything of worth or interest. There are a lot of stalagmites, but nothing else. A second passage leads from the room, and they follow it to where it turns left. At the elbow of the corridor is a door. They first follow the initial hall around, finding that it connects with the magic circle room; then, opening the door, they find two passages, one to the right and one heading straight ahead. They choose to move forward first.

The hall spills out into a large, deep alcove in a larger room to the right. However, it appears that the larger area has sunken into a mudpit. The party cannot see the bottom from their location.

Summer edges forward to get a closer look, the others moving close behind. Torinn strides to the edge just after her.

The bottom is filled with muddy water. The warden studies it for a moment, and suddenly a large head pops up- and lets out a terrifying, ear-splitting roar.

“Aargh!!” cries Summer, reeling.**

Then what the party at first took to be a simple muddy rock starts to writhe, and tentacles lash out, one grabbing Torinn most forcefully.

“That’s a roper!” shouts Heimall, appalled.

“Not for long,” Vann-La says, and hacks at the tentacle holding onto Torinn. It jerks and withdraws; below, the roper snarls angrily.

“What’s that other thing?” asks Torinn, casting weapon of the gods on Vann-La’s sword.

“It’s a dire bunyip,” Summer groans, shaking her head-

And it roars again. This time, Vann-La, Summer and Torinn are all caught by the roar, each screaming in pain.*** The roper lashes out at Vann-La with a pair of tentacles, bloodying her and dragging her into the pit. “Uh oh!” she cries. “A little help?” She starts up her rain of steel, and as the dire bunyip lunges at her and attempts a drowning worry, she instead manages to pull off a disruptive strike that spoils its attack!

Summer, meanwhile, is barely still standing. She holds back, catching her second wind, and Torinn, recognizing a good time to use one of his newer powers, casts mass cure light wounds. Thus bolstered, the party starts to strike back, largely leaping into the pit to fight in terrain that heavily favors the enemy.**** It is what they have to do, though, if they don’t want to just feed the monsters Vann-La.

A terrific struggle ensues, with the dire bunyip tearing into our heroes, trying to force them under the water to drown and ducking under the water to escape the worst of their blows. The roper lashes and bites at our heroes, tearing open great wounds. The water and mud turn red with all the blood being spilled.

But as always, Heimall and Torinn keep the party members on their feet, and soon Torinn lashes his chain out one last time at the dire bunyip, smashing its head and brains to bits.

The roper, clearly seeing which way things are going, cries, “I yield!”

“It speaks?” exclaims Torinn, swinging at it.

“Apparently so,” Vann-La says, as she smashes it across the eye with the flat of her blade. The roper sags, unconscious.

“You didn’t kill it?”

“It yielded,” the elf explains, “and we need information. We don’t know what’s going on here, where to find Arawn, or how to get out.”

“You’re going to trust that thing?” asks Iggy.

“No- but I am going to question it.”

“We have already shown that we can kick its ass,” Torinn points out. “When it wakes up, if it gives us any trouble, we’ll just kill it.”

“Fair enough,” nods Ligir.

***

The roper is very helpful when questioned. It tells the group that the dungeon they are in is called the Terran Undercollege, but that it has been a dangerous area out of so-called civilized control for about a decade. “There are two wizards that are fighting over this place, but I don’t know much about that,” it claims. “I came in from the Underdark, and the bunyip you slew came in separately, but we worked well as a team when it came to killing prey.”

What it tells them jives with what they already know, and even if they don’t learn much, the bit about the two wizards contesting the area is something.

“Do you know of the Six-Fingered Hand?” Heimall asks.

“Who?”

“Never mind.” Interesting. It seems that our concerns are not as widespread as we had assumed.

The party leaves the roper alive, and continues exploring.


*These are xorn of my design, from before the MM2 came out, and they have an attack that can damage or destroy your metal gear.

**That’s 56 points of aargh, to be precise. Oh, and have some dazed (save ends) with that, will you?

***53 points each this time. For the record, I just got lucky: the dire bunyip’s roar is a recharge 6 ability, and I rolled a 6 on round 1 (vs. round 0, the surprise round).

****Each mud pit square cost 3 squares of movement to enter unless you have swamp walk or a swim speed- neither of which our heroes had. The dire bunyip is all good in the water, and the roper doesn’t really need to move- it has a reach of 10, for Christ’s sake!
 

the Jester

Legend
The other hallway quickly leads to doors and more passageways. Our heroes take to the right and find another bunch of the silver-skinned elf-things guarding a stairway up, alongside a terrible dwarven construct called a slaughterstone eviscerator. After a fierce battle, joined by a night hag from a neighboring room, the party overcomes their adversaries.

But it is a way up, and presumably out! The party heads up- but, to their disappointment, it leads merely to another dark chamber.

“Wait,” says Cook. “There is too much unexplored behind us. We should make an area safe in case we must rest here.”

This seems logical, so the party descends and goes back to the strange art gallery in order to follow the other passageway, one that they have not yet explored, exiting the chamber. This proves to cross over a large cavern below the passageway- it functions as a bridge. The ceiling is 10’ above the walkway, which is 40’ above the floor of the chamber itself, visible in the glow of Torinn’s sun rod. Bats hang above the party; below them, our heroes can hear the buzzing of strange, subterranean insect life. A rich rotten smell rises up from the lower area. Strange fungus grows abundantly on the floor of the cavern. A pool of water completes the chamber. Water drips down into it from the ceiling above.

The passage continues into the wall beyond the great cavern, and our heroes march out. After roughly another hundred feet, the passageway T’s; the right hand branch thrusts out about 10’ into another huge open chamber, and again the passage is located 40’ up in the air. Since it is so close (the left-hand passage turns right in the distance), the party steps out to the hallway’s final span and looks into the chamber.

Below, faintly lit by phosphorescent fungi, is a vast cavern. Milling restlessly around at the bottom is a mass of something... Torinn moves forward, casting light from the rod down below. It is a thick herd of bison-like beasts: rothe. The room is covered in fungus of all kinds. Moreover, half-devoured, rotting rothe corpses are spread throughout the room in about a dozen places.

“Cheerful,” comments Heimall.

Something in the shadows moves- and takes flight!

“What the-“

Suddenly the ground pitches, hurling those close to the end of the hallway to their feet and nearly tumbling them off the edge!

“What just happened?” exclaims Hkatha.

Vann-La cries, “Gargoyles!”

“Those aren’t gargoyles,” says Ligir, “those are margoyles! Except for that one wearing a cape- and I think it somehow made the ground quake!”

Indeed. The cape-wearing gargoyle hurls stone bolts at the party, and periodically it makes the ground twist and buck beneath them, trying to push them off the edge. The margoyles fly in and try to mash our heroes into the ground, attacking with tremendous fierceness. Both Shakgar and Heimall end up pitched down to the ground below, and the herd of rothe spooks and begins stampeding around them.

The fight is fraught with danger; the enemy can fly about the room, easily evading the party’s melee attacks. Even so, our heroes eventually prevail, slaying the gargoyle and margoyles. They take the cape- which Iggy, after a few moments, proclaims to be a cloak of resistance +4- and search the ledge that had been the lair of the monsters. There they find 1450 sp and 285 gp. Not bad for half an hour’s work!

“We should probably search down below as well,” comments Shakgar.

“All we’re going to find is dead rothe,” says Iggy.

“It’s worth a look,” opines Summer.

Their search actually turns up a secret door. “Told you so,” Shakgar says with a chuckle.

The secret door leads to a narrow passage that ends in another secret door. This opens on the floor of the other huge cavern that they passed over. So they return, then get back up on to the passageway and follow it back the other way.

The passage turns and empties into a room with a large number of beautiful crystal formations growing in it, resembling nothing so much as a bed of flowers. Then it connects to the night hag’s room.

“Now what?” wonders Summer.

“We can go up those stairs,” says Iggy.

“We still haven’t fully explored this level,” notes Vann-La.

“Do we need to?”

“Oi, before we do anything,” Cook declares, “we should freshen up. Iggy and Hkatha, do you not have the magical ability to remove the dirt and grime from us? Would it not be better if we smelled more pleasant?”

“Good point,” nods Hkatha. The two wizards use their prestidigitation to clean everyone up; only Shakgar does not seem refreshed by the act.

“Where,” wonders Torinn, “is Arawn? Do we need to go up- or down? Is he in this dungeon?”

The discussion resumes. Hkatha states, “If we go up, maybe we’ll be at the surface and will be able to tell more about what’s going on.”

“I bet he’s at the bottom of this place,” says Heimall.

“I wonder what this place was.”

Torinn cocks his head. “You know, it kind of reminds me of tales of Lester’s old School of Adventures. Maybe this whole place is a testing ground for adventurers.”

“It’s possible. A strange concept, but possible.” Iggy strokes his chin. “Why don’t we check and see whether the way up gets us anywhere? We know where it is, and it’s got to be faster than that elevator going down will be.”

“Let’s do something,” growls Shakgar.

Up the stairs it is, then. The party goes back to where they fought the slaughterstone eviscerator and its fellow guards and ascends. At the top, they find themselves in a 30’ square room. The walls resemble a concrete of soil, stone, clay and pebbles mixed together, along with bits of other stuff, including bones and tattered bits of leather.

“Ugh,” comments Torinn.

”This place has been reshaped by magic, I can sense it,” Iggy mutters. Torinn and Hkatha nod agreement. “And it seems... distasteful to me.”

Then, suddenly, the walls to either side bulge- and gruesome grey arms extrude from both of them! Rotten and foul, clearly not alive- a terrible stink now bubbling from the walls themselves-

“Ware the walls!” shouts Vann-La.

“They’re undead,” shouts Torinn. “So-called living walls!”

Something steps through each wall: a hulking abomination of fleshy parts sewn and bolted together.

“Crap,” moans Iggy. “Flesh golems.”

Next Time: Our heroes try to fight their way up!
 

the Jester

Legend
Imagine the sight: a grotesque figure composed of mismatched body parts riveted together to make a hulking figure. One arm came, perhaps, from an ogre, while the other is scaly and clawed. Flesh golems- automatons, magical constructs energized by powerful dweomers. And behind them, from the horrific living walls, arms reach out, clawing, grasping, imploring; all the while the charnel stench gags our heroes and makes them want to vomit.

A grey arm locks onto Cook’s wrist. He shrieks in fear. “Oi, no!!”

Then another clamps on his ankle. They pull him towards the wall- and inside. His cries cut off.

“COOK!!” shouts Vann-La.

Others pummel Heimall and Torinn, and then the walls start to move inward, closing in on our heroes behind the golems.

“All right, you bastard!” the Kree warrior howls. “COME AND GET IT!!

The enemies close, and she hacks about her with brutal efficiency, slicing all of them.

But there isn’t a drop of blood. None of the ghastly things are alive.

Heimall hollers, “Beat them to the ground!”

The party is a well-oiled machine. Walls? We don’t care if they look like walls. We’ll bowl them over just the same! In seconds, both walls and both golems are sprawling on the ground, and then our heroes attack with all their might. Cook manages to escape the grasp of the wall that has him in time to avoid a fate worse than death, and then our heroes thoroughly turn the tide.

Once they have the advantage, they are certainly not giving it back.

Soon their unliving foes have been slaughtered, but not without cost. All of them are wounded except for Summer. They gather about while Torinn and Heimall administer some healing, and then decide to look around a little. The chamber that they are in has a single exit (not counting the two alcoves that the golems were in, previously hidden by the living walls, or the stairs back down): a hallway that almost immediately branches into a four-way intersection. The right hand way ends in a door after about 20’; the left hand and forward paths each lead out of sight.

Summer says, “Let’s do the door first.” Vann-La nods. The two of them- in the lead- approach the door, intending to simply throw it open, but they find that it has a label on it, both in Dwarven and in Elven.

“CAUTION!” it reads, “Do not enter when equipment is in use! Always wear protective gear when operating equipment.”

“Interesting,” mutters Ligir.

“What do you suppose is behind there?” wonders Vann-La.

“There’s an easy way to find out,” Heimall replies.

They open the door and find themselves looking into a large chamber dominated by some sort of great machine. Off to the side is a control panel; Torinn, spying the levers upon it, makes an immediate bee-line for it.

The machine itself is huge; in all, it is nearly 40’ long and nearly as wide. The front of it faces the wall, and consists of three humungous piston-like devices about 15’ long and nearly 5’ in diameter. These connect to some sort of metal box that is in turn connected to a large glass tub that makes up the majority of the machine. The tub is full of what appears to be water. From the bottom of it, three glass pipes about 10’ across seemingly feed more water in from somewhere beneath the floor and double as supports. A metal valve, roughly 4’ in diameter, is set into the floor below the glass tank.

“That can’t be real glass,” declares Hkatha. “How could it support all that weight?”

Iggy examines it closely and tries to scratch it with a dagger. “Glassteel,” he says in wonder. “I thought that secret had been lost.”

“Not to these guys, apparently,” replies Torinn from near the control panel. Surprisingly, he hasn’t touched anything, and when the others take a closer look, they can see why. He is still studying it.

The control panel has several gauges, levers and wheels on it. At the top, repeated in three places, are two signs. The first is a red sign that reads, “CAUTION! Always use protective gear when operating the Pounder. DO NOT APPROACH the Pounder or its accessory components while in operation or after operation for at least one hour!” The second reads, “TRAINED OPERATORS ONLY!” There are three gauges, labeled (in Dwarven) “water pressure”, “temperature” and “steam pressure” (all have red zones at the high end of the scale). There is a small wheel, labeled “Stage 1”. (This opens or closes the valve.) There is a large lever and a button, labeled “Stage 2”. (The lever opens the door into the steam chamber and the button activates the fan that helps drive the steam into the chamber.) Finally, there are three levers, which activate the three pistons; these are labeled as “Stage 3”.

“Hey,” says Iggy, “maybe you shouldn’t touch anything there...”

But Torinn is speaking too, calling out to the party, “Hey, everyone move away from that thing...”

And he reaches over and turns the small wheel.

The metal valve beneath the glass tank swivels open. Immediately, a whistling starts up and the party can feel the air in the chamber start to move.

Simultaneously, there is a flash of golden light and several creatures appear. Torinn immediately recognizes seven of them as angels; Iggy pegs the last two as a type of elemental consisting of ice with a fiery core- chillfire destroyers. And before our heroes can react-

The lead angel- An angel of protection, realizes Torinn- speaks from its faceless head, its voice somehow emerging aloud nonetheless. “Good afternoon. You are in a restricted area. Please show your student or faculty identification cards immediately.”

“We have our faculty cards, but we left them back at the office,” Hkatha bluffs.

“Surely one of you must have at least a student ID.”

From the now-open valve, a stream of superhot air emerges, blasting the tank of water. Everyone in the room can feel the air warming pleasantly. Torinn, at the controls, notes that the water pressure and temperature gauges are starting to climb.

“We all do, they are just not handy,” Hkatha says.

“I’m sorry, but as you know, this is a restricted area,” the angel replies. “That is not acceptable. Please produce appropriate identification.”

“I’m an administrator,” Cook says. “There is no need for trouble. You do good work, but now it is time to go. These people are okay, I say so.”

“Please produce appropriate identification,” the angel persists.

The gauges on the control panel continue to climb. The temperature gauge seems to stop rising a little below its red zone, but the pressure keeps rising. Hmm, thinks the dragonborn.

The angels and elementals attack. The chillfire destroyers pile on Summer, while the angels rush at Torinn, catching him slightly off guard. He was, after all, trying to monitor dangerous equipment!

The battle is fierce and violent; Torinn annihilates an angel of valor almost immediately, and Heimall and Vann-La rush to aid Summer before the warden is overwhelmed.

“No need to worry!” she assures them, lashing out with a thorn strike and pulling one of the chillfire destroyers closer to her before assuming the form of winter’s herald and bashing it again.

“Vann-La,” cries Heimall, “strike down the enemies of the Empire!”

“But we don’t have our student IDs,” the Kree protests.

“Just GIT!

The sound of clashing swords is backed with the screaming whistle of superheated air. Torinn stays near the control panel, using both his priestly powers and his vicious pit fighter tactics to keep the enemy from overwhelming his position. When he sees the pressure gauge hit the red zone, he spares a moment to reach over and yank the lever marked “Stage 2” down, then press the stage 2 button.

Vann-La bloodies one of the chillfire destroyers, cracking it open, and waves of blazing heat roll out around it. She grimaces and crashes into it with a tide of iron, knocking it back into the control panel. “Hey, watch it!” cries Torinn, but then he gets distracted by an angel of battle, which actually lands on the panel.

Naturally, in doing so, the angel kicks something, but Torinn isn’t sure exactly what. So, as soon as Vann-La pushes it off the panel, the dragonborn takes another look- it was the lever! He throws it again.

The steam pressure gauge hits the red, and he pulls one of the stage 3 levers for good measure.

With a tremendous boom, one of the pistons hammers forward, smashing into the wall. It retracts and strikes again in an instant, and again, setting up a punishing rhythm loud enough that our heroes can barely hear themselves fight.

Iggy casts Bigby’s grasping hands and starts grabbing angels all over the place even as Torinn, beset by an angel of battle on one side and a chillfire destroyer on the other, is knocked unconscious. But even so, soon the last angel of battle drops to Heimall’s guileful strike while Summer pulls their injured comrade out of the thickest part of the fray and away from the baking heat radiating from the elementals.

The angel of protection dies trying to bull rush Cook into the pistons, and then it is only a matter of slowly grinding the elementals down. Finally, the grasping hands slay it, and our heroes pull back out of the thunderous noise of the room.

“We should probably go somewhere a little quieter and rest,” yells Vann-La. “Or maybe turn that machine off.”

“What?” shouts Torinn.

That noise is bound to draw some attention, thinks Vann-La, and she’s right, for at that moment, a group of eladrin and a dragonborn with three drakes come into view, weapons at the ready.

Next Time: Our heroes take a captive and learn a thing or two!
 

the Jester

Legend
“Who are you?” Heimall blurts out.

Two of the eladrin exchange a glance. One says, “We're students.”

“Well,” amends the other, “we were. But who are you?

“We're from far away,” Heimall begins.

The dragonborn signals to his drakes and they leap to the attack. The eladrin are taken off-guard by this, but quickly recover, two of the three of them assuming a dance-like stance that Iggy recognizes immediately.

“Bladesingers!” he exclaims.

The two swiftly move in and begin a series of cuts and thrusts at Vann-La. She roars in defiance as one blade slices her forearm open, and then the Kree springs into action, lashing out all around her. General chaos ensues as the two sides clash.

But of course, nothing is ever that simple.

Although it isn't apparent at first, the eladrin and the dragonborn are just barely on the same team at all. They are working together, but they are hardly what one might call chummy. In fact, they don't usually help each other out at all. As one falls from one side, those on the other almost cheer.

There is another hidden factor, too: the third 'eladrin' is nothing so simple. Instead, as he draws his sword and strides into the battle, he stands revealed as some kind of undead eladrin. Even when Torinn strikes his body down with a righteous brand, the creature's spirit rises, refusing to stay dead!

But between the mighty blows of Shakgar, Summer, Heimall and Vann-La and the powerful prayers of Torinn, the enemy cannot withstand our heroes' furious assault. Soon Shakgar unleashes a feast of violence that slays the spirit, and all of the enemy lies slain, save for the dragonborn, whom our heroes take alive.

“These are students?” exclaims Summer. “I'd hate to meet the teachers!”

“Yeah,” mutter Heimall. “Except, why the heck are students still here at all? We need to question that prisoner.”

Indeed- for our heroes know, really, nothing of what is going on here. They have deduced that they are in some kind of university or college, and that they are underground; but from all appearances, the place has been overrun by monsters. How deep are they? Even when they find their way out, where is Arawn? They have many questions and little to go on. On the other hand, the party's ritualists have a number of methods of divining guidance. Even so, what method of supernatural vision could be superior to a first-hand account of the events leading up to the current... situation? Even if a ritual could answer a few questions, surely it would leave as many, if not more. Questioning a prisoner, on the other hand, could produce prodigious amounts of intelligence- and any new questions that arise can simply be asked of the same subject. Thus it is that our heroes revive the dragonborn after Hkatha and Torinn shut down the immensely loud machine in the room nearby.

“What's your name?” asks Heimall, once the dragonborn is conscious again.

“I am called Apathis,” the dragonborn groans. He sits up cautiously and finds himself relieved of weapons and armor. Still, he is alive, which is perhaps more than he should have expected.

“And are you a student here, too?”

The dragonborn sneers. “No,” he admits, “I am a mercenary.”

“Then what,” Heimall asks, “are you doing here? Who is your employer? And what's going on here, anyway?”

“For that matter, where is here?” Vann-La throws in.

“And were those eladrin really students?” adds Torinn.

“Talk!” demands Shakgar. “Or Shakgar will dunk on you!”

The dragonborn holds up his hands. “Peace. You have already defeated me and killed my pets.” He glances at the slain drakes spread around the place.

“Yeah, too bad you attacked us,” Vann-La retorts. The dragonborn gives her an even look but says nothing.

“So,” Heimall resumes, “what's going on here?”

“This place is called the Terran Undercollege,” reveals Apathis. “It is a part of a larger university called the Silver College. The Silver College has long stood on this isle as the center of learning, both magical and mundane, for the inhabitants of Tirchond.”

“We already knew what this place is called,” grumbles Torinn.

“I thought they were mostly eladrin,” says Vann-La. “Why are they building underground?”

“Tirchond is populated by a mix of races. Eladrin are in the greatest numbers, but dwarves are not far behind.”

“So they ally?” Iggy asks. “That's kind of...” He stops as Cook clears his throat meaningfully. “Unusual,” he finishes lamely.

“In any event,” Apathis continues, “I am not sure how long ago it happened, but some years ago the college, and especially the Terran Undercollege, became the site of a fierce battle between two wizards.”

“And that's what wrecked the place?” interrupts Hkatha.

“I can only presume; I was not here when it all started.”

“So who are you working for?” asks Summer. “One of these wizards?”

“Correct. Her name is Fray. She is a beautiful eladrin woman. Those students,” he gestures at the eladrin bodies, “were servants of hers as well. They didn't like or trust me, and I returned the feelings in full measure.”

“Tell us more about this Fray person,” Iggy orders.

“I don't know much about her, truthfully. I don't think she is from Tirchond- she has a strange accent that I cannot identify, and I have traveled widely. From what I have seen, heard and deduced, she emerged from the deepest levels of the Undercollege, along with her adversary, who is said to be some kind of shapechanger. It is said that she has rediscovered lost magical powers the likes of which today's wizards cannot emulate, and that she can even be in two places at once.”

“What about her enemy?” asks Summer.

Apathis shrugs. “I don't know much about him. As I said, I gather that he came from deep in the Undercollege somewhere as well, and that he is a shapechanger, but even that is deduction and speculation.”

“What kind of servants does Fray have?” asks Heimall.

“And the shapechanger guy?” adds Vann-La.

“Constructs, hirelings, summoned servants.” He shrugs. “I don't know too specifically- I'm the new guy. Or I was.” He glances at the corpse of the undead eladrin. “I can tell you this much- Fray has more of those undead. They are called fey lingerers. Some of them are spellcasters, some are warriors, but all refuse to die easily. And she also has these things that I have never seen before- grey or silver-skinned elven vampires that she calls deodanths. They have wicked spurs on the backs of their hands and they are able to...” He hesitates, thinking. “It seems as though they can step forward a few moments in time, vanishing from the 'now' and reappearing a moment later.”

“We've met some of those guys,” Torinn comments.

Apathis then shows the party a set of stairs heading upwards in the room that he and his drakes had camped in. “I don't really know the way out, but this is the way up, and that has to help.”

The party asks a few more questions, but it is apparent that Apathis has told them all he knows. Given how cooperative he was, and his willingness to swear an oath to flee the Undercollege (if he can find his way out successfully) and leave the party in peace, they let him go. He vanishes up the stairs he had indicated.

The rest of our heroes discuss this information. Is it possible that answers lie downward? What about Arawn? The dragonborn didn't mention anything about him or the Six-Fingered Hand- is it possible that they aren't here at all?

“Remember the goblin art display,” points out Hkatha. “At the very least, there are clues about Arawn here. And doesn't that very fact seem a little too coincidental, if this place doesn't have anything to do with him?”

True enough.

“Oi, I say we rest before we go on,” Cook says. “I have many aches and bruises, and am tired and low on energy.”

The group agrees: it is time for an extended rest. They could all use a little sleep somewhere secure. Iggy thus suggests using a ritual to teleport back to the circle north of Fandelose. “That way we'll have men on guard, we'll have beds, and we won't have monsters interrupting us.”

Sounds like a good idea- but when Cook discovers that it will cost the party 100 gp in components, he balks. “A hundred gold!” he exclaims. “That's a lot of money!”*

“Well, but we can sleep comfortably,” says Vann-La.

“But a hundred gold pieces!”

“We won't be interrupted by monsters,” Torinn reminds the dwarf.

“I'm just saying, that is a lot of money.”

“It is a good amount,” Summer nods.

“It's not that much for peace and security,” proclaims Iggy.

Cook peers at him. “Well, if you really think it's worth it... but I'm just saying, that's a lot of money.”

The party teleports home to rest.

Next Time: Back to the Terran Undercollege! Hey look, it's a lich!

*Please note that our heroes are 13th to 16th level now. They are probably overtreasured in magic and undertreasured in gold, but not ridiculously so. 100 gp is pretty much pocket change to them. This was some great roleplaying.
 

the Jester

Legend
Back to it. Rested, with the dings in their armor hammered smooth and the notches in their weapons whetted away, the party returns to the strange subterranean college that is their path to Arawn.

Once they are in the Undercollege, Iggy spends the time to cast a commune with nature ritual while the others stand guard. He asks three important questions:

  • Is there a beholder within one mile of us? Yes.
  • Is there a death knight below us? Yes.
  • Are the beholder and death knight within 100 yards of each other? Yes.

“That clinches it,” says Iggy. “The beholder is working with Arawn.”

“Of course,” Heimall muses, “it could be a different death knight...”

“What are the odds?” asks Iggy ironically.

“Actually, probably pretty good,” Heimall returns. “We know that he has three more death knight lieutenants still.”

“Good point. But even if it is one of his lieutenants, the beholder is still working for Arawn!”

“100 yards is a huge distance down here,” Hkatha points out. “They could actually be in completely separate parts of the dungeon- maybe even separate levels.”

With a shrug- the ritual is over, after all- the party returns to the room off of the large classroom that they had earlier pegged as an elevator.

It's time to go down.

The elevator is agonizingly slow. With the levers pulled, the door seals shut and nothing seems to happen. Even Vann-La's keen Kree senses barely pick up the vibration of movement. She focuses carefully on it, alert for any sign of trouble; but nothing happens until, after what seems like an interminable period, their motion finally stops.

But the party is not idle during the descent. Iggy communes with nature a second time, following up on what they already learned.

  • Is there more than one death knight below us? No.
  • Is it Arawn? No.
  • Is it affiliated with Arawn? Yes.
  • Are there any creatures within 50' of where this door will open once the room stops descending? Creature.
  • Is there a doppelganger or shapeshifter of some kind in the levels below us?

Interestingly enough, the ritual cannot seem to answer this last question, which almost seems like an answer in itself.

Once they are finally ready to proceed, our heroes push the lever that unseals the door into its upright position, and it hisses open to reveal a passageway running from right to left. Directly across the hall is a wide doorway; to the right, the hall hits a four-way intersection after about 25', while the leftward path turns left even sooner. Another door is visible at the hall's 'elbow'.*

Vann-La strides over to the door opposite the party and pushes it open. It seems like an empty office; to her eyes, there are clear signs that furniture once dominated the room but has subsequently been removed. Another door is on the opposite wall; without hesitation, she steps to it and throws it open as well.

To reveal- something nightmarish.

For an instant it smells of ammonia, then of chocolate. Vann-La sees a momentary swimming face as it blends in with the churning beast before her.

It is indescribable- because it keeps changing, churning, melting and reforming. She is speechless- she has never seen anything like this before.

Before anyone can react, Iggy shoots from the hip.

Then the weird creature flows forward to attack, dozens of claws and tentacles reaching out. For a minute it seems to catch fire, but as quickly changes into a form resembling nothing so much as a tree swarming with wheels. And then-

Vann-La screams as a tentacle lashes across her with hammering force, and she looks down in horror as her legs start to melt- and then to change to fins. Her body starts to boil with changes. She howls in agony and staggers in place, unable to move or defend herself for a moment.

The others rush to her defense. The chaotic monster surges amongst them, its many claws of chaos inflicting horrifying wounds. Hkatha casts a fireball behind it, the flames licking the creature's back end.

But the terrific blows it inflicts are horrible not for the damage they inflict, but for the inchoate transformation that it begins in its victims, leaving them stunned and immobilized.

And yet Vann-La is nigh-unstoppable. Her unfailing resources allow her to rally, throwing off the insidious effects of the chaotic energy and surging to the attack. But the terrain around the terrifying creature is as unstable and changing as the beast itself. It almost throws her from her feet, but she springs over a wave of undulating ground and lands a punishing strike on the monster with an appalling crunch.

The two wizards, meanwhile, unload a barrage of spells at it- flaming sphere, lightning serpent, Bigby's icy grasp- and manage to damage it, keeping it distracted (does it even have a mind? They cannot tell) while Cook keeps his distance and hurls his magical distance shuriken at it again and again.

It is clear that the beast doesn't have a coherent strategy. It moves up and back seemingly at random, occasionally polymorphing into a form with surprising swiftness. It doesn't focus on one victim, either, thankfully; once a target has been infected with the chaotic transformation, the chaos beast seems content to move on.

But eventually the transformations roiling their bodies cease, and our heroes can fight again. Vann-La manages to focus through the pain and turmoil the monster inflicts, and soon she and Torinn are pressing it relentlessly. Finally, Heimall shouts at Torinn, “GIT!” and the cleric lands one last solid blow on the beast, cutting it into two writhing pieces which slowly melt and boil away, leaving only a sticky, greasy residue behind.

“Oi, that thing was nasty,” says Cook. He snorts, looking at the residue. “Even I am not going to try to cook with that!”

“Thank the gods,” mutter four of our heroes at once.

***

Behind the strange beast, the floor is inscribed with a teleport circle. “Hey,” exclaims Iggy, “now we have choices on how to come back here!”

“There's a secret door, too,” says the sharp-eyed Vann-La. She moves to the back corner of the chamber and everyone gets battle-ready behind her. However, the secret door opens onto some kind of sitting room. A reasonbly-sized stone coffee table has been shaped from the stone of the floor, doubtless by magic, and it is surrounded by rotting chairs that look like they were once quite fine. There is a door on the right; Vann-La spies another secret door to the left.

“One thing at a time,” cautions Heimall. They check the door first; it opens on a hallway that leads to a four-way intersection. The party quickly heads to the crossroads to verify their suspicion that it is the same intersection they saw from the elevator. This proves true- but also reveals something else interesting. Down the hall straight through the intersection (as they are facing it from the sitting room) are some statues of dwarves. Very lifelike statues of dwarves.

“Funny place for a statue, isn't it?” comments Vann-La.

“They're awfully lifelike, too,” remarks Heimall.

“I like the poses,” Hkatha says. “Running up the hall towards us, almost as if they were being pursued by, say, a medusa or something that might petrify them.”

“Oi, that is very scary!” exclaims Cook. He starts to blubber loudly.

“Cook, don't worry,” says Iggy. “We'll take good care of you.”

“But I don't want to be a statue!”

“None of us do.”

“Well,” suggests Vann-La, “in that case, let's go kill the medusa.”

Cook blanches, but trails along as the party heads down the hallway, passing a pair of the statues before spilling into a large room. The room has another pair of the lifelike statues in it, and about three quarters of it is set about 10' lower than the rest, adjoined to the higher area by means of a ramp.

In the room's lower section is something both terrifying and hilarious at the same time.

A ragged figure in rotting finery- clearly an undead bugbear of some kind- is grooming what looks like a large bull made of rocks. It is using a garden trowel to scratch the bull-thing and feeding it from what looks like a bag of gravel.

“DEATH KNIGHT!” roars Torinn.

The undead bugbear glances calmly at the party and shakes its head. “No,” it croaks out in a voice like dry wood, “I am no death knight.

“I am a lich.

“Although,” it adds, leaping atop its gorgon's back, “I do ride.”

Next Time: Our heroes fight Dasmodel the bugbear lich, and its gorgon!!

*Map attached- the elevator is room 25, and I leave the rest for you to figure out. :)
 

Attachments

Brain

Visitor
That Chaos Beast fight was pretty intense - if I recall correctly it got 1d6 attacks or something and each of them could do something nasty. Unfailing Resources certainly did save Vann-La's butt on that and many other occasions (Dreadnought paragon path power to take 10 damage to end any effect that a save can end).

Also I definitely recognize the map, although I never saw the official version. I was mapping the dungeon so it's quite familiar.

Fun times indeed :)
 

the Jester

Legend
Brain's right- the chaos beast got 1d6 attacks per round, and they stunned on a hit. It was a bad ass. Stats here, from my Monster Project.

But I digress; how about an update?

***

Iggy casts a prismatic burst down at the lich and its gorgon mount. It detonates with incredible brilliance. Before the dazzling radiance has faded, Summer shifts into the form of an eagle and flies, shrieking, to the attack, raking her claws across the lich's face.

Vann-La charges forward, her sword whisking free of its scabbard. She rushes the mounted lich and swings, but the gorgon rears back and her blow catches only empty air. She curses, and then the gorgon's forehooves smash down onto the rock before her and it bellows like a bull.

Then gray gas billows forth from its mouth and flaring nostrils. Summer flies out of the way, but Vann-La is caught! She feels her body start to stiffen as it starts to petrify- but once again her unfailing resources allow her to shrug the effect of the breath weapon off.

Hkatha chants eldritch words, and a serpent made of lightning appears and lunges for the gorgon. Its crackling jaws hit it, sending lightning into the beast's huge frame. It bellows. The serpent wraps around it, holding it place and pumping venom into it!

“Vann-La!” cries Heimall. “GIT!!”

This time her blow slices into the lich's arm. It feels like cutting into dry wood- but much harder. In reply, the lich slashes its claws at her in a mocking attack, chiding, “Is that the best you can do? You'll never get anywhere like that!” But Vann-La catches the claws on her shield and turns them.

“You won't either!” the Kree warrior growls back.

With a sneer, the bugbear lich teleports away, its mount going with it. It reappears instantly behind Summer.

“Hey lich, I have something for you!” cries Iggy, directing a spectral ram at the gorgon. Unfortunately, his aim is off, and he misses. “Damn it!” he curses.

The lich sneers. “A poor spell,” it says contemptuously, and unleashes a blast of freezing shadows that wrap around Heimall and Torinn. They cry out in pain as the shadows form into strings that control them like puppets. “Let me show you how it is done! Tremble before Dasmodel!”

“No thanks,” replies Hkatha, sending a shock sphere at Dasmodel. The lich avoids it, but then Summer swoops down in a wildblood frenzy and rips a long furrow in the lich's back!

But it's too late to stop the lich's shadow puppets. Amazingly, none of them manage to land a hit; even Iggy's gun shot goes wide. Then, as the lines of shadow dominating them fade, Torinn swings his executioner's axe in a deadly arc that decapitates the gorgon!

Shakgar and Vann-La rush the lich even as he vaults to the ground. “You'll pay for that!” he cries with a terrifying cackle*, but they aren't having any of it, bracketing the undead bugbear and hacking into him. Shakgar enters the silver phoenix rage and roars in anger as flames lick over him, battering the lich from one side while Vann-La smashes it over and over from the other. Then Torinn and Summer move in, catching the lich quite thoroughly between the four of them.

Still cackling, uttering black reprisals against Hkatha's magic missiles, Dasmodel slashes his claws all around him in a frenzy, but to no avail. Finally, Hkatha invokes a flaming sphere and the lich gives a final howl before collapsing into a heap of charred bones.

“You know,” says Hkatha, “given that he's a lich, if we don't destroy his phylactery, all we've really done is make an enemy.”

“Yeah,” agrees Ligir. “That's part of why I didn't want to mess with the lich in Varelose.”

“Wait a minute. You mean it's not really dead?” Vann-La prods the pile of burnt bone fragments with her foot dubiously. “Looks dead to me.”

“It will grow a new body near its phylactery,” explains Iggy. “The phylactery is where its soul goes when its body dies- that's how liches become liches, is by making a phylactery.”

“So... what does its phylactery look like?”

“It could be anything,” replies Hkatha. “And the odds are really strong that it isn't here.”

“Right,” agrees Torinn. “A smart lich will have its phylactery hidden away somewhere very secure, far from where its body is, so that if it is destroyed, it's just a temporary setback.”

“Well,” Heimall says, “we're kind of busy anyway. Let's just hope that we don't encounter this lich again before we're done.”

***

The only door out of the chamber leads to a 35' long passage that opens into a large pottery workshop that includes a pool of clay that is fresh, supple, hot and wet. A wheel and chair are near the pool of clay, and a large bucket half-full of water is on the ground next to it. There are no other exits from the area.

The party backs up and returns to the four-way intersection. Vann-La says, “We still haven't fully checked out that direction,” indicating the passage along which the elevator room is. “We might want to look it over, since it's kind of our way back.”

“Or at least,” adds Cook, “a way back.”

The party walks to where the passage turns to the left. A door is at the elbow; a look within reveals this to be an empty chamber with a rotted plush carpet underfoot. A large walk-in closet is attached, as is a bathroom with a long tub against one wall and a wood stove against the other.

“All the comforts of home,” comments Iggy.

“Shakgar doesn't like baths,” the barbarian growls. “They make him smell less manly.”

“That isn't always a bad thing,” mutters Iggy under his breath.

Vann-La suppresses a snicker and points to the wall. “There's another secret door through there.”

“Let's check out the rest of the hallway first,” suggests Torinn.

“Oi, the treasure will be behind the secret doors,” Cook says.

“That's probably true,” answers Vann-La, “but we'll get there soon enough.”

After it turns, the hallway extends a short ways before ending in a door. Behind this is a very interesting chamber indeed; Cook, being a dwarf, recognizes it immediately. “Oi,” he says, “this is where the rune-graver would work.”

“The who?” asks Hkatha.

“The rune-graver. He would work runes into things, to bless them with the powers of stone and iron, or whatever would be appropriate.”

The chamber has a number of chisels and vials of what prove to be slow-acting, stone-etching acid. There are also several jewelers’ rouges of exceptional quality. The chamber is seriously rune-graven- the runes on the walls include symbols of protection, learning, oneness with the stones and earth, and similar themes. A large pile of flat stones suitable for rune-graving is in the corner of the room. More of them- completed- are leaning up against the walls in profusion.

Cook sits down and starts to read. Before long, he says, “These have many answers upon them.”

Everyone turns to listen as he relates what he has found. The graven stones seem to be a record of the last period before the coming of Fray and her shapechanger enemy.

Again, the stones verify that this place is called the Terran Undercollege and it was a center of learning for dwarves and “grey elves”. (Iggy snorts at the term “grey elf” and says, “That's so racist. That's a racist term for eladrins.”) The stones further relate that for about the last nine months of its functional existence as a school, the Undercollege was besieged by the warring forces of two extremely powerful wizards. One of them was a grey elf (Iggy again rolls his eyes) woman of incredible beauty and extraordinary power; the plaques assert that she is not from Tirchond, though they do not suggest an origin for her. They also mention that she has seduced several powerful allies with the promise of help constructing a “Hell’s Eye”, whatever that is.

Hkatha shrugs. “I've never heard of such a thing.”

The other wizard in contention for the college is some kind of shapechanger. The gravings posit that he might be a doppelganger or another kind of natural shapechanger, and describe him as having frustratingly effective information-gathering ability. In fact, it seems that he can steal memories from the dead.

“Whoa,” comments Torinn, “that's pretty heavy information gathering, all right. Why keep an enemy alive if you can learn all they know after they're dead?”

“That's insidiously powerful,” Hkatha agrees.

The Terran Undercollege was a portion of a much-larger university called the Silver University. The Silver University spreads for over a square mile of the city above ground and it has numerous annexes underground “and in other places”.

Vann-La muses, “We know we're under a city now.”

The rune-graven stones have more to tell. The strange, silver undead elves are called deodanths. Again, our heroes already know this, but the stones next make some startling assertions: Deodanths are from another time period, and the plaques assert that there is worrisome evidence of tampering with the time stream by both of the warring wizards. At about this time, the plaques start to be graven with a strange rune, unknown to Cook and the rest of the party. They puzzle over it for a time, but all that they can ascertain is that it has something to do with warding or preservation.

The most recent plaques are the most interesting to the party. They describe a quintet of death knights being dragged from “the portal on the sixth level” and then follow this up with the following engraving: “By the most recent gravings I know the worst to be true. From the past great crimes arise again. These two wizards are too careless for tampering with forces that could erase them. Who are they and from whence do they come, that they dare such madness? My only clue is the rune, given by the Uncaring. Why would he do such a thing? Alas, pursuing this riddle may prove impossible, trapped as I am down here. It is desperate, but I may open the cages and try to escape in the confusion.”

It takes four hours for the party to discern all that they can from the stones. By then, our heroes' mouths have gone dry.

Tampering with time? That can't be good?

They eye each other uncertainly.

“Well,” says Heimall at last, “at least there are still only five death knights.”

“Hopefully four,” amends Torinn.

Next Time: Our heroes find a room full of troublesome temporal traps!


*A close burst 2 minor action at will: +16 vs. Will; target is pushed 1 and has -2 to saving throws (save ends). Good setup for many of Dasmodel's other powers. :)
 

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