The Kordovian Adventurers Guild

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 34: PLANETOID HULK

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 11
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 11
Darrien, half-elf ranger 11
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 11
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 11​

NPC Roster:
Chik'tak, rastipede sorcerer 2/expert 4
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 10 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 13 May 2017

- - -

The next week was a particularly boring one for the adventurers, as their services as slave-pirates were not needed and they were left in their cells. The neogi were busy during that time, though - they managed to find buyers for both the Star Beetle and the damaged Fishgulper.

The new dohwar slaves were a source of much-needed entertainment. They were full of stories from their travels and were more than happy to relate them - for a price. (Pretty much everything a dohwar did came with a price; they were merchants down to the bone.) Of course, as the adventurers were currently as poor as the dohwar, the penguinfolk took stories of the adventurers' exploits as payment. If nothing else, it helped to pass the time.

The dohwar ship's captain, Dorpp, had a unique perspective about his captivity. "Life is filled with ups and downs," he opined. "The good thing about our present situation is that things can only go up from here. And being a slave isn't all that bad. In fact, in many cultures, slaves are allowed to have slaves themselves. Hey, that gives me an idea: do any of you want to become my sub-slave?" He got no immediate takers.

"Seriously," continued Dorpp. "I will pay any of you your own weight in gold if you become my sub-slave for the duration of my own slavery."

This intrigued Castillan enough to play along. "And where are you going to get this gold?" he asked. "Everything of value aboard your ship was taken by the neogi."

"Oh, I have my ways," said Dorpp in his most mysterious voice.

"Okay," said Castillan, curious as to how this would play out. "I'll be your sub-slave - but only once I get my gold."

Dorpp immediately stuck his head between the bars of his cell and looked at his former crewmates. "Witnessed?" he asked.

"Witnessed," agreed the dohwar helmsman, Pip, from the cell on the left.

"Witnessed?" asked Dorpp again, this time swiveling his head top the other side of his cage.

"Witnessed," agreed the dohwar head administrator, Chit, from the cell on the right.

"So when do I get my gold?" asked Castillan.

"I will have your gold for you the next time we leave this ship," promised Dorpp. "At which point you will become my sub-slave." The dohwar's confident attitude gave Castillan pause, but as he turned the whole concept around in his head he couldn't see the dohwar's angle. He only regretted their present diet, which had each of the slave-pirates losing a few pounds. If he was going to get his whole weight in gold, then every pound counted!

Castillan only had to wait less than a day before being paid in full, for the following morning Slavemaster Scrotish unlocked the slave cells and led the group to the hold where their equipment was scattered on the floor. "Gear up!" commanded the slavemaster. "You have a mission!" As the adventurers put on their armor and gathered up their weapons, Castillan looked expectantly at the dohwar, who had no equipment to gather save for a single weega each - the distinctive beak-mounted dohwar sword used by the Deathsquealers. The dohwar cavalry force had been slain and neither of the current dohwar slave-pirates was particularly skilled in the use of the weapon, but their flippers prevented them from gripping a sword in the normal fashion and neither wanted to go into battle without some sort of weapon.

Castillan sidled up to the dohwar captain. "You got an extradimensional space filled with gold in that sword of yours or something?" he asked. "Because we're about to head out of the ship."

"I am aware," promised Dorpp. "Your payment is forthcoming."

"Quit the chattering!" commanded Slavemaster Scrotish. Then, seeing everyone was geared up, he ordered them to assemble on the battle deck, the uppermost part of the neogi deathspider. To do so, each slave-pirate had to slip through a hexagonal hole in the floor and scramble to right themselves once on the other side, for passing through the hole involved reorienting oneself to the opposite gravity plane. Binkadink went first, flipping himself over fairly easily; they'd had to pass through the switching gravity plane several times now and it was getting to be old hat. Finoula and Darrien followed, and Castillan was about to go next when Dorpp shoved him aside. "I'll go next," he said, dropping through the hole in what seemed to be the floor of the lower deck and popping through the other side, rising up past what was now the floor of the middle deck, then scrambling to reorient himself. He then looked expectantly at Castillan, who from his orientation was now upside-down.

As the bounder slipped through the hole in a practiced movement, Dorpp cried out "Paid in full!" while Castillan got his bearings on the other side. "What?" asked the elf, moving aside to allow Ingebold to come up behind him.

"During the transition between gravity planes, there was a moment when you were completely weightless," explained Dorpp. "At that moment, I paid you in full your weight in gold. You are now my sub-slave."

"Cute," snorted Castillan in disbelief.

"You mean, 'Cute, Master'!" corrected Dorpp. "I won't have my sub-slave failing to give me the proper respect!" Castillan just rolled his eyes.

Once everyone had climbed up to the battle deck, Slavemaster Scrotish and the slave-pirates were joined by a pair of neogi. "I am Taskleader Spung," announced one of the neogi. "I will be leading this expedition." As he briefed the slaves, the top of the deathspider rolled back, giving the adventurers their first view of the outside world in over a week. Surprisingly, the neogi vessel had landed on solid ground, with four of its spidery legs supporting the weight of the vessel. The world they were on was a small planetoid, judging from the curvature of the rock in the distance: the whole planetoid was probably only a few miles in diameter.

"We are here to investigate one of our umber hulk breeding facilities," announced Taskleader Spung. "We lost contact with the facility three weeks ago. We are going to enter the underground tunnels and find out what happened." As he spoke, he crawled up onto Chik'tak's broad back. "As we currently have no umber hulk slaves" - and here he glared in anger at the adventurers - "we will also take this opportunity to restock. In the meantime, we will be forced to resort to substandard riding mounts."

The second neogi scanned the remaining slave-pirates, looking over his options. "You! Fat human!" he said, looking at Gilbert Fung. "Bend down so I can easily mount you." While a few of his friends stifled giggles, Gilbert bent at the knees and allowed the second neogi to crawl up onto his back. It was unnerving having eight spidery legs clutching his shoulders, back, and sides, but Gilbert knew the alternate to compliance was instant pain from the agony gems.

As if reading his thoughts, Taskleader Spung added, "Your agony gems have had a longer time to attune themselves to your bodies," he said. "Any disobedience will be dealt with immediately, in a crippling - or possibly fatal - manner. Remember this at all times." Then, the neogi both suitably mounted, the task force left the deathspider and stepped foot on the small planetoid.

There was a large crater ahead of them, although upon closer inspection it wasn't so much a crater as the opening to a vertical shaft, some 10 feet wide and an equal distant down. Binkadink held onto his glaive and was lowered down into the shaft by Gilbert and Darrien holding onto its other end. Once down on solid ground, the gnome fighter looked around and saw no impending danger. "It's safe!" he called up to the others.

One by one, the others made their way down the shaft - all but the neogi who had been perched upon Gilbert's back. He held his crossbow at the ready, guarding the tunnel entrance from anybody who might try to follow the task force - or any task force members foolish enough to think they could break away from Taskleader Spung and escape back this way. Gilbert didn't care; he was just glad to have the creepy spider-eel off his back.

Now that the task force was all in place in the subterranean tunnels, Binkadink saw an opportunity for some petty revenge. Summoning forth his innate prestidigitation ability, he caused the hair on Taskleader Spung's body to alter coloration to a vibrant purple. Given the neogi's build, with an eel-like head and neck grafted onto the front of a spider's body, the little gnome was gambling that the taskleader wouldn't even have his own spidery-fur in view for the next hour or so, when the effect would wear off.

Getting back to business, Binkadink discovered several side tunnels forming a twisty sort of maze. Taskleader Spung - unaware of his new, jaunty coloration - said this was the habitation area and expressed confusion as to why they hadn't encountered any umber hulks by now. "They usually approach once we enter their habitation area," he said, puzzled.

But it wasn't long before the first umber hulk made its appearance. It came up from behind the group, its massive body pounding the ground as it raced toward the assembled group. Given a heads-up from the sound of its pounding feet upon the solid rock, Finoula spun around a corner and held her longsword Tahlmalaera at the ready to strike out once it got within range. Likewise, Darrien stepped next to the elf ranger and nocked an arrow into his Arachnibow, ready to let fly once the umber hulk came into view.

It turned the corner with amazing speed, swiping at Finoula with a massive set of claws as if already knowing exactly where she was. The swordswoman managed to swing her blade into the insectoid creature, but in doing so she got a good look at its double set of eyes, and she felt her mind wander off in all sorts of conflicting directions. Darrien managed to fire his arrow without succumbing to the umber hulk's confusion gaze as Finoula had, but then Taskmaster Spung called out, "Do not harm it! I want it taken alive!"

Ingebold spoke the words to a quick prayer to Moradin, and a magic circle against evil sprang into being around her. She moved over close to Finoula, to encompass her in the spell's effect; immediately upon doing so, the ranger felt her wandering, confused mind snap back into order. I'll need to stay close to Ingebold until this effect wears off, she thought to herself.

In the close quarters of the ten-foot-wide tunnels, Castillan bounded up the side of a wall, jumped to the opposite wall, and leaped directly over the umber hulk's broad shoulder. He landed lightly on his feet, pivoted in place, and struck out at it with his short sword, managing to surprise the creature completely and strike it deep for extra damage. A fatal amount of damage, as he soon found out, for after stabbing his sword into the beast all the way to the hilt, it fell over when he retracted his blade.

Taskleader Spung, horrified, called out "Slave 7: activate!" in his own sibilant tongue, and Castillan's head exploded in agony. He immediately dropped his sword and fell to his knees, crying out in pain.

"What the Hell?" demanded Castillan, once the pain in his head had a moment to subside. "How are we supposed to work for you if you kill us?"

"Disobedient slaves of are no use to the neogi," responded Taskleader Spung. "If you will not obey, immediately and without question, you will be slain and replaced by another more willing to obey." He had Chik'tak, still serving as his riding mount, approach the bounder so he could put his eel-like face directly into Castillan's. "You will not survive another such punishment," Taskleader Spung snarled. "I suggest you keep that in mind the next time you are given an order. You are easily replaceable; the umber hulks are not. Do not kill them!"

"But it was trying to kill us!" sputtered Finoula.

"Unusual, but irrelevant. Your lives are not worth that of an umber hulk."

"Here comes another one!" pointed out Binkadink, looking at the tunnels before them, where a second umber hulk was fast approaching. The gnome rushed forward, holding the blade of his glaive before him and making sure he didn't stray too far from Ingebold, whose magic circle against evil was the only sure thing keeping them safe from the hulks' confusing gaze. When it got within range, Binkadink slapped it hard with the flat of his blade, hoping to knock it out rather than deal it any lasting harm. Behind him, Taskleader Spung called out in his own language - one understood by the umber hulks in the breeding colony here - demanding the umber hulk stop its attack and wait to receive further orders. Neogi normally enjoyed a complete mastery over their umber hulks; they didn't need to use their inherent powers of mental domination over them the way they needed to do so with other creatures. The fact that this one was disobeying was a major concern to the taskleader.

In the meantime, Gilbert took the time to cast a mage armor spell on himself. Chik'tak, close to the rampaging umber hulk, spun his longspear around and struck at the beast with its blunt end, copying Binkadink's subdual tactics. With the beast's heavy chitinous armor, though, it was difficult to say if they were having any effect.

Darrien took a chance by sending another arrow flying at the umber hulk; he knew he'd be causing the hulk damage if he hit, but was counting on the fact that he wasn't likely to kill it with one shot. Judging from the tone of his voice, Taskmaster Spung was furious, but fortunately his wrath was focused on the umber hulk which refused to obey his orders rather than Darrien attacking it with potentially lethal arrows. The hulk, in the meantime, continued attacking Binkadink as the little gnome stood directly in front of it; its wicked claws slashed across the front of the fighter's armor and it seemed puzzled that its confusing gaze was having no effect on any of its enemies.

"Crap!" called out Gilbert Fung from the rear of the formation. "Here come another one!" Sure enough, another umber hulk was approaching from a side tunnel behind the group. Finoula stepped up to intercept it with her blade, hoping the fact the neogi was concentrating on the hulk Binkadink was fighting would prevent him from noticing her lethal attacks. Gilbert likewise shot a barrage of magic missiles at the hulk coming up behind them; that spell could be cast in such a way as to not leave any telltale marks on the body struck, and Gilbert got a wicked thrill out of successfully ignoring Taskleader Spung's orders.

Binkadink struck several times with the flat of his blade, then, seeing the creature starting to stagger on its feet, stepped back to let the others finish this one off while he helped go deal with the other one fighting Finoula and Gilbert. The dohwar waddled up behind Chik'tak and waved their weegas around, confident in the fact that Chik'tak was in their way to keep them from actually getting within reach of the staggering umber hulk's insectoid arms and claws.

Ingebold, trying to stay between the two groups and keep them both within range of her magic circle against evil spell, stepped forward to cast a restoration spell on Castillan, who had been severely wounded by the activation of his agony gem. Revived to full strength by her spell, Castillan stepped forward and attacked the southern hulk with the flat of his blade; Taskleader Spung might be over by the other umber hulk, but the bounder wasn't taking any chances on disobeying him, just in case.

Darrien cautiously shot another arrow into the northern umber hulk, targeting it to deal the maximum amount of pain with the minimum amount of actual harm. The umber hulk roared out in pain and collapsed on the ground. Darrien winced, but Taskleader Spung seemed glad to see the creature's chest rising and falling as it lay on the ground, unmoving. "It's still alive!" he said, pleased with the slaves' efforts this time around. Then he had Chik'tak spin around and oversee the fight against the other umber hulk. They arrived just as Finoula and Binkadink knocked it unconscious.

"Something is terribly wrong with the colony," observed Taskleader Spung. "Not only have the neogi overseers failed to reply to normal communications, but the umber hulks are not obeying me as they should."

"That serious indeed," agreed Gilbert. "Maybe we leave colony, get new hulks somewhere else."

"No. We will investigate the cause of these occurrences," replied Taskleader Spung. "Slave Six: follow that tunnel!"

Binkadink hurried to comply. Going the way the neogi had indicated, the gnome exited the crisscrossing tunnels and ended up in a large chamber with a boulder in one corner. Taskleader Spung demanded the slaves move the boulder out of the way, and after a few moments of heavy labor Gilbert, Chik'tak, and Binkadink managed to do just that. Behind where the boulder had been was a sloping tunnel leading down into darkness. "The hunting levels are down there," explained the neogi, "as well as the facility headquarters, where the neogi in charge live."

Binkadink looked at the slope of the tunnel - round in cross-section and slightly larger that the diameter of the boulder, leading him to believe the rock could be pushed down the tunnel at any enemies coming up from below - and judged it to be safe to slide down. So, gripping his glaive in both hands, he did just that. There was a slight turn at the very end of the slope and Binkadink had just enough time to notice the pool of water at the tunnel's end to slam his glaive out sideways, catching a side wall of the tunnel with each end and stopping his descent before he plunged into the pool. He called back to the others, warning them about the water, and stayed there to help slow their descent as they slid down one at a time. (All but Chik'tak, who simply walked down the tunnel with still-bright-purple Taskleader Spung perched on his back.)

Once everyone was at the bottom of the slope, Darrien used his Arachnibow to shoot a strand of spider-web back up the slope, adhering the end at the top of the tunnel. "We might want that to help us get back up," he told the others.

"Good thinking," said Gilbert, slapping the half-elf on the shoulder. It was a rare moment of praise from the grumpy wizard.

"I will climb up the side of the cliff wall on my mount," announced Taskleader Spung. "The rest of you slaves go underwater. You will find a tunnel leading up to the top of the cliff. Do not tarry; any stragglers will have their agony gems activated." And with that he had Chik'tak climb up the side of the wall. The three dohwar, with their penguinlike build, dashed off into the water in a shot and swam around, looking for the underwater tunnel. It was easy to find, and they led the way up the tunnel's slope with the other slave-pirates behind them.

Meeting back up with the neogi taskleader at the top, they found him twisting his eel-like neck back and forth in irritation. "There should be umber hulks up here at the cliff top at all times," he said, annoyance in his voice that this wasn't the case. "Come!"

There were two passages from the cliff-top. Gilbert and the dohwar were sent west to investigate the egg chamber, which they reported when they got back was completely empty. To the south was the camp headquarters of the neogi in charge of running the facility. It too was empty; Taskleader Spung was scanning through a log book written in the neogi script. "The last entry was three weeks ago," he griped, "and there's nothing here explaining what happened to the missing umber hulks! Were they taken by an enemy force? Who would dare intrude upon a neogi facility with thoughts of theft?"

The taskleader was furious at this turn of events but he was also afraid, for this base camp represented the limit as to how far he'd ever gone into the umber hulk breeding colony before - everything else was as unknown to him as it was to his slaves. "Come!" he called. "We go deeper into the colony!" There was a single tunnel leading down to lower depths of the planetoid and he sent two-thirds of his slaves down before him, with the rest covering behind him.

The tunnel sloped down at a gentle angle for a good half-mile or so before leveling out again. A side passage opened into an empty chamber filled with rocks and gravel at one end; Binkadink was sent in to investigate. As he approached the rocks, more started spilling from the ceiling, erupting into a small avalanche that preceded the arrival of an ankheg, who dropped to the floor and advanced in a frenzy. Binkadink altered his stance and readied his weapon, ready to carve into the creature's chitin with the blade of his glaive. Beside him, Darrien stepped up and shot an arrow at the approaching insectoid. But then the ankheg opened its mouth wide and spat out a wide stream of acid, covering not only the two combatants before it but Castillan and Finoula behind them as well. It was the ankheg's only chance at grabbing a quick meal and at that it failed, for although the acid burned all four of those whom it had touched, Binkadink ran up to the ankheg and slew it with his glaive in mere moments, before it had an opportunity to do much else.

There was a pool of water in a nearby cavern which the dohwar explored quickly and efficiently and which proved handy to wash off the worst of the ankheg's acid. Nearby were caverns of fungal gardens and another long passageway which had recently experienced a cave-in from the ceiling, for that way - believed by Taskleader Spung to lead to further hunting grounds for the umber hulks - was impassable at present. Before resorting to having his slaves try to clear the blocked passageway, which would likely take hours, there was another passageway to the south to explore. The group moved in that direction.

The first thing Binkadink noticed were the red rocks imbedded in the walls of this southern passageway. They glowed softly in the illumination of the everburning torches tied to the antlers of his helmet, not as red as rubies - they were a stone outside his personal knowledge.

As the group continued on, Finoula opted to cast a protective spell upon herself. The only one at hand was a protection from energy spell, but it seemed like a safe time to cast it. Running through her options, she decided upon protecting herself from the ravages of flame - and was amazed when, upon casting the spell, nothing happened. "Are we in an anti-magic zone?" she asked, looking up at the red rocks scattered throughout the walls.

Castillan was the first to grasp what that might mean, if it were true. He deftly picked at the agony gem on his forehead, feeling no resistance as his fingernails got a good grasp and he pulled it from his flesh. "Guys!" he called. "It's safe to get rid of your agony gems!!" And he held up his own to show them all the truth of his statement.

Everyone immediately began ripping off their agony gems - all but the dohwar, whose flippers weren't up to such fine manipulation. (Fortunately, Dorpp had a sub-slave to assist them!) While this was going on, Taskleader Spung tried in vain to activate the suddenly-dormant pain gems, realizing that he was a lone neogi in the presence of ten slaves he no longer had any hold over.

Castillan realized it, too: his short sword ran straight into Taskleader Spung's abdomen, just below the eel-like neck, all the way to the hilt. The bounder didn't know a whole lot about neogi anatomy but his deep blade-thrust did the job, killing the taskleader immediately; there must have been some important internal organs in there, getting carved up!

"Sub-slave!" called out Dorpp. "Gather up the agony gems! They may yet prove to be valuable!" Castillan pulled the sword from the slain neogi's body, a smile on his face not only for having killed their hated oppressor but also at the fact that his spider-fur was still a vibrant purple.

But while Castillan was gathering up the agony gems, Gilbert was examining the nearest of the red gemstones embedded in the stone cavern walls and Finoula strained her elven ears. "Did you hear that?" she asked.

"Hear what?" asked Gilbert, going back to his examination. "I don't think these stones cause anti-magic field." But now even he could hear what the sharp-eared ranger had heard: the unmistakable sound of claws on a stone floor. Many claws, as a matter of fact.

The reason for the sound soon became apparent, as an enormous creature skittered into the torchlight. The beast was truly hideous: it had a bloated, grublike body with flesh the color of pus; numerous claws like oversize scythes; and dozens if not scores of eyes of various sizes scattered above a gaping maw filled with needlelike teeth and dripping nasty fluids of unknown composition. The very sight of the thing caused screams of horror and shock from even the seasoned adventurers - this was like nothing they'd ever seen before!

Gilbert's magically-enhanced vision practically exploded in his head as he glanced at the ulgurstasta - it was not only undead, but an extremely powerful form of undead. "It undead!" he cried to the others, as the dohwar scrambled backwards away from the massive grub-beast.

Binkadink didn't back off; he steadied his grip on his glaive and prepared for its approach. Darrien, his face holding an expression of extreme disgust, peppered it with arrows, but several of these were deflected by wildly-swinging hairs that writhed along the length of the ulgurstasta's hide.

And then, in a grotesque repetition of the ahkheg's attack earlier, the ulgurstasta opened wide its fang-ringed mouth and a gush of fluids exploded outwards, engulfing the heroes before it. Expelled with the acidic fluids were four skeletal bodies, which plopped on the stone floor and scrambled to gain their footing.

But the heroes had no time to worry about that now, for they were suffering from the effects of the vile breath weapon - the acidic fluid also had a life-leeching necromantic component which drained the very life force of those it touched. Chik'tak and the three dohwar were instantly overcome, the massive rastipede and the smaller penguinoids collapsing into steaming piles of flesh on the cavern floor. Gilbert and Binkadink were seriously wounded, acid burns covering their exposed flesh, yet neither allowed himself to collapse. Finoula, Ingebold, Darrien, and Castillan had also been within the range of the acidic spew, but far enough back that the effects had been lessened.

Movement among the disgorged skeletons attracted the heroes' attention as they animated and stood upright, slowly advancing to attack. The slain dohwar followed suit, flesh sloughing off their bodies as they did so. To their side, Chik'tak's animated corpse did likewise, although he had trouble standing despite his many insectoid legs; lacking a skeleton, the rastipede's external exoskeleton had been partially burned away by the acid, giving his shambling corpse a weaker foundation for undead animation.

"Out of here!" called Castillan, realizing the horrors facing them were likely more than they could handle. He raced back to the northern tunnel, grabbing an item from a belt pouch and hurling it to the ground behind him as he fled. "Attack the undead monsters!" he commanded, and the fire elemental rising up from the remains of his shattered elemental gem moved to comply. As Chik'tak's shambling corpse was the closest at hand, the elemental being struck out at the staggering exoskeleton with a burning fist.

Gilbert cast a magic missile at the ulgurstasta before turning and running as fast as his bulk would allow. He was disheartened to note his spell fizzling as it was cast; had he been wrong about the anti-magic properties of the red gemstones in the walls? "Run!" he echoed.

Nobody else needed much more prompting, seeing the ulgurstasta crawling after them on its scythe-claws, the four humanoid skeletons and three dohwar skeletons advancing before it, pitted metal weegas still strapped to their beaks. From the front of the retreating line of heroes, Gilbert took a moment to cast a scorching ray spell at the ulgurstasta and this time was pleased to see the burning streams of fire cross the distance between them and strike the massive grub. But upon hitting the undead beast the flames fizzled out. Gilbert noted two things: there were none of those red gemstones in the stone walls of this section of tunnel, and past experience allowed him to recognize the effects of a natural spell resistance when he saw it. He still wasn't sure what the red gemstones were all about, but he was reasonably sure they hadn't dampened the attack on the rampaging grub-thing so much as its own natural (or unnatural) resistance to such things.

Darrien turned and shot several arrows at the ulgurstasta before turning again and resuming his flight away from the beast. The fire elemental was attacking the dohwar skeletons with great success; the animated undead forms of the merchants weren't much better fighters than they had been in life. But the ulgurstasta continued on in its pursuit, catching up to Binkadink with its snapping teeth and fortunately missing. The gnome spun, struck out at one of the humanoid skeletons that was likewise pursuing him, and sliced through the creature's spine with a single stroke. He allowed the swing to continue on into the hide of the grub-beast, carving deep into its putrescent flesh.

Out of the southern cavern, Ingebold turned and cast a searing light spell at the ulgurstasta, burning sizzling flesh from its massive form that splattered onto the stone floor. In response, the grub lowered its repulsive head and engulfed Binkadink in a circle of slashing teeth, swallowing the little gnome whole. Binkadink's body was pulled deeper into its gullet, acid dripping from its insides and burning the fighter.

But that turned out to have been a poor strategy for the undead beast, for Binkadink suffered far less damage from the acid inside the creature's stomach than he might have taken by its gnashing teeth. Sheltered inside its body, he was free to slash out time and again with his enchanted glaive, slicing deep grooves through its undead flesh. While Darrien's arrows and Gilbert and Ingebold's spells assaulted it from the outside, the gnome continued his frenzied attack from the inside. Eventually, the ulgurstasta rolled over onto its side and stopped moving, and Binkadink's glaive-blade poked out of the creature's underside, followed by the stumbling gnome himself. Ingebold rushed up and applied healing spells to the acid-burned gnome, then followed suit with those who needed similar attention.

"We want to go back there?" asked Gilbert, concerned that there may be more of the grub-beasts around.

"Might as well," argued Darrien. "If we go back the way we came, there's a guard and a ship full of neogi ready to put us back into slavery."

"I dinnae think there'd be more of those beasties about," added Ingebold hopefully.

"But that's probably what's been eating the umber hulks," reasoned Finoula. "I wonder how it even got here?"

"Let's find out," offered Binkadink, leading the way back into the southern cavern. By then, the fire elemental had taken care of the animated skeletons that had been disgorged with the ulgurstasta's "necrobarf" (as Darrien called it) or transformed into undead by the same substance. "Poor Chik'tak," Finoula said, passing by the rastipede's steaming exoskeleton.

"You not kidding," replied Gilbert Fung. "That bug the only one who knows the way back home."

With that grim thought in the back of their minds, the group went deeper into the southern cavern. They found several places of note: a necromantic circle carved into the floor large enough to have encircled the ulgurstasta (and which according to Gilbert was probably where the grub-beast had been brought to unholy life) and a campsite where four people - judging by the number of blankets - had stayed for several weeks. Among the remains of their equipment, the group found a tome detailing the ritual for creating the ulgurstasta. By mutual agreement, this was burned by the fire elemental before it left Castillan's service, returning to its own fiery plane. There was little in the way of loot to be had, although the remaining food and small barrels of water would likely prove to be useful.

But best of all was the back tunnel Finoula found, with a slight slope leading upwards. "With any luck," she said, "this will lead back up to the surface. And the necromancers had to have gotten here somehow...." Before they left, though, they went back and Ingebold cast a gentle repose spell upon Chik'tak's ruined body, and the others helped her tug it into her portable hole for temporary storage. "I c'n try t' raise him tomorrow," she said.

The tunnel proved to lead to the surface, where Darrien made a lucky discovery: a camouflage net draped over a large item. Removing the net took some doing, but beneath it was a wooden vessel in the shape of a dragonfly. "Woo hoo!" whooped Castillan. "We've got ourselves a spelljamming vessel!"

"True," agreed Gilbert, climbing inside. "But we still don't know way home."

"True," agreed Finoula. "But at least we now have the means to get there, once we figure out where 'there' is."

Climbing aboard the dragonfly ship, the group found it to be somewhat cramped for four necromancers and even more so for six adventurers. But the seat at the front of the ship, nestled between the two large portals that comprised the dragonfly's eyes, turned out to be a spelljamming helm. Plopping into the comfortable seat, Gilbert closed his eyes and let his senses expand all around the ship. He felt a strange buzzing in his head and instinctively realized he wouldn't be able to cast any of the spells he currently still had prepared; such was the price of powering a spelljamming helm. "Everybody ready?" he asked, and without waiting for a response caused the dragonfly to raise straight up from the planetoid's surface.

Cautiously skirting along to the other side of the planetoid, the group - watching out of the forward portals - saw that the Apex Predator had left the surface as well. And for good reason, as it was in battle with a ship that looked like it could have been plucked off any of the seas of Oerth: a seagoing galleon, by the look of it. Reaching out with the magical senses afforded him by the spelljamming helm, Gilbert focused on the new vessel and saw the words "Star Skunk" etched on the ship's side.

"It Captain Skunkbeard!" he called to his friends. "He must have tracked Chik'tak!"

"That bodes well," reasoned Finoula. "It demonstrates loyalty, in any case."

"Yeah, but how glad is he going to be when he sees Chik'tak's current condition?" asked Castillan.

"What should we do?" asked Ingebold.

"Go into battle!" advised Darrien. "We should help Skunkbeard take down the neogi ship!"

"Maybe not so fast," replied Gilbert, frowning.

"Why not?" asked Finoula.

"Two reasons," replied Gilbert. "One, the neogi turning away. Skunkbeard don't need our help."

"Well, that's good," reasoned the elven ranger. "And the other reason?"

Gilbert pulled his vision away from the helm-provided view of wildspace all around the ship so he could look his compatriots in the eye. "I get good look at Skunkbeard's crew," he said. "He look fine, but most of his crew skeletons! Star Skunk manned mostly by undead!"

Castillan thought about this. "But really, we're going to have to deal with him, undead or not. He's our only way home!" he argued.

"I know," Gilbert replied. "Don't like it, though."

"Nor I," agreed Ingebold. "But what choice d'we have?"

In the end, they decided to trail Skunkbeard's ship for a day, remaining out of sight. The next day they'd have Ingebold return Chik'tak to life and go plead their case with Captain Skunkbeard.

- - -

And so the adventure ended with a dilemma: do the PCs trust Skunkbeard? On the one hand, his message to them in the book at the receiving station made him seem like a pleasant sort, yet now they know he has a mostly undead crew. There's the fact that they stole his treasure back on Skunkbeard's Island, and the fact that they got Chik'tak killed in this adventure as further strikes against them. But even Dan, running Gilbert, realized that they don't have a whole lot of choice but to try to negotiate with Captain Skunkbeard. Otherwise, they have absolutely no idea how to get back to Oerth.

On the plus side, they got a dragonfly spelljamming vessel out of this adventure, and I made up a full-scale map out of construction paper for them to use as I expect they'll want to keep it as their main means of transportation for the rest of the campaign. (So long, Vistani wagon!)

The red stones were fluxstone, which has numerous magic-warping properties. I just happened to keep rolling "spell fails" on the chart I had made up.

But boy, did they hate that ulgurstasta! And that was after I toned it down a bit; the original description calls for its waving hairs (that provide it a measure of protection against arrows and other ranged weapons) to be a full 40 feet long - I thought that was kind of ridiculous. But I don't think any of the players want their PCs to face an ulgurstasta again anytime soon!

A final word: there was a story arc in several issues of The Incredible Hulk some years back called "Planet Hulk," which is where I got the title for this adventure, once suitably tweaked.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My TSR Silver Anniversary T-shirt, because it contained an umber hulk.
 

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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 35: HOMEWARD BOUND

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 11
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 11
Darrien, half-elf ranger 11
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 11
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 11​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 11 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 24 June 2017

- - -

Aboard their dragonfly spelljamming vessel, the group watched as the Star Skunk battled the Apex Predator. It wasn't a long fight; the neogi had started with their standard maneuver, shooting ballista bolts connected to chains at their enemy vessel to link the two together so their prey couldn't flee. This time, however, their prey had no intention of fleeing. Almost immediately, skeletal pirates led by Captain Skunkbeard swarmed from the Star Skunk and climbed the chains, bringing the fight to the neogi deathspider. And since the Kordovians had already killed off the ship's umber hulks and much of their neogi fighting force, plus rid the ship of their current contingent of slaves, there were only the standard neogi crewmen to defend the ship. Against Captain Skunkbeard and his skeletal legions, they didn't stand much of a chance. Before long, the skeletal pirates were climbing back along the grappling-chains to the Star Skunk, this time loaded down with loot from their captured vessel.

"See?" said Gilbert Fung, sitting at the helm of the dragonfly ship. "I told you they no need our help."

The group watched as the neogi deathspider - their prison for the past several weeks - suddenly started burning from several locations. At long last, Captain Skunkbeard returned to his own vessel, giving orders for the grappling-chains to be removed from his ship. He laughed heartily as the neogi deathspider was consumed by flames.

"So now what?" asked Ingebold. "Are we still gonna just follow th' ship for th' next day, so we c'n try ta raise Chik'tak back t' life before we approach the vessel?"

"No choice," repeated Gilbert. "We can't let them out of our sight - they the only ones know the way home."

"Problem," pointed out Castillan.

"What problem? No problem!" retorted Gilbert. "It simple plan!"

"Problem," repeated Castillan, pointing out the window - one of the "eyes" at the front of the dragonfly-shaped ship. "The Star Skunk's headed our way."

It was true. Upon being released from the chains binding it to the burning deathspider, the pirate vessel had turned and was now heading directly toward the dragonfly vessel, currently half-hiding behind the planetoid holding the umber hulk breeding colony.

"Okay, problem," admitted Gilbert. "If we try to run, we look guilty. Plus, not sure how fast we go, or how fast they go - maybe we too slow to run." He rubbed a hand over his bearded chin for a moment, then made a decision. "We go meet them," he said, concentrating on moving the dragonfly ship forward.

Binkadink and Finoula had been standing on top of the ship when they noticed they were moving toward the Star Skunk - with its crew of animated skeletons. "I hope Gilbert knows what he's doing!" Finoula said.

"Me too!" agreed Binkadink. "But where's Castillan? He should be up here - otherwise, we're stuck being the ambassadors!"

He was correct. "Um, hello!" he called out as the ships got within hailing distance, close enough for their respective air envelopes to overlap and merge - bringing with it a foul odor. "Captain Skunkbeard, I presume? We read your notes back at the receiving station - they were very helpful!"

"I knew it!" called out the pirate Captain. "You're part of the crew that got teleported from Oerth when you got tangled up in my trap, trying to take my riches!" Fortunately, the captain's tone was more jovial than accusatory. "Where's Chik'tak? We've been tracking him, and indications are he's aboard your vessel."

"He is," confirmed Binkadink. "That is...his body is. I'm afraid he was slain, down on the planetoid below. I'm terribly sorry."

"Nothing that can't be fixed!" scoffed Skunkbeard. "Come aboard - we have much to talk over!"

Finoula went to fetch the others, only to find them already traipsing up the stairs to the upper deck. One at a time, they stepped over to the Star Skunk, where they were met by one of the few still-living members of Captain Skunkbeard's crew, a buxom young thing named Melony Sal. She had a pouch at her belt, from which she pulled out and distributed nose plugs to the guests. "The captain won't be offended," she said. "His stench is a great asset on the battlefield, but he makes provisions for the few times he has social engagements." She went on to explain how he had been injured early in life, completely shutting off his sense of smell, and how he had stopped bathing immediately thereafter. Furthermore, he had two skunks on board, which he used to douse himself in skunk-spray right before combat. The captain generally fought with an advantage, as all of his living foes were trying not to retch from the stench while he - and his undead crew - were completely unaffected.

"And those of you still alive?" asked Finoula, waving off the proffered nose plugs, not knowing up whose nostrils they might have been previously. She willed herself to ignore the stench, a vile mixture of skunk-spray and accumulated years of body odor.

"Tend to ignore it, after awhile," replied Melony Sal. "One gets used to anything, over time."

Binkadink, Darrien, Ingebold, and Castillan had accepted the nose plugs and were putting them in place, the elven bounder taking his time accepting them from the good-looking first mate, flashing her his best smile. Gilbert, the last in line, opted to do without nose plugs when his enhanced vision, magically altered to allow him to detect undead at will, helped him pierce through the illusion covering Melony Sal and revealing her true form: the ship's mate might once have looked like the others were likely perceiving her, but she was now pretty much just a skeleton herself - although she had apparently taken steps to ensure her breasts remained as firm and round as they had been in life. "I be fine," he told her, waving away the nose plugs, his face impassive but his mind wanting to explode in panic as the adventurers were literally surrounded by undead forces.

Gilbert allowed Castillan, their most charismatic member, to do most of the explaining of what had befallen the group since their arrival at the wildspace receiving station months ago. Captain Skunkbeard listened impassively, although Melony Sal interrupted several times when the bounder got to the most recent bit, especially when describing the ulgurstasta. She wanted to know how it had been created, whether there were any more in the planetoid below, and whether the necromancers had left any books or tomes behind describing the creation process. They had left such a tome behind, but Gilbert Fung had already transferred its contents into his Omnibook, choosing to do so in a manner that removed the writing from the original book rather than just copying it. After all, the original tome had a cover made of human flesh - no sense in leaving that around for others to put to no good use.

"They destroyed, along with necromancers who created it," Gilbert supplied, the first he'd spoken since Castillan began the tale of their exploits in wildspace.

"That's a great pity," Melony Sal said, pouting. "I would have been interested in seeing the process."

"There's still a magic circle carved in the caverns below," offered up Castillan, eager to please the good-looking woman, and still oblivious to the fact she was a lich. Gilbert just winced, not at all eager to pass on any information that might help Melony Sal - a necromancer, no doubt - to recreate the process of creating ulgurstastas.

Once Castillan's tale caught up to the meeting of the two ships, Ingebold unfolded her portable hole and some of the others helped her drag Chik'tak's corpse out. "Aw," said Captain Skunkbeard, looking down at the body of one of his most loyal crewmen. He looked over to Melony Sal. "What do you think?" he asked.

Melony Sal looked down at the rastipede corpse. "You say he was killed by the ulgurstasta's necromantic fluid, and automatically animated as a skeleton?" she asked. "Or, in his case, exoskeleton?" Upon hearing confirmation by the heroes, she shook her head sadly. "I can raise him," she proffered to her captain, "but he'll never be the same. He won't have his intellect, that's for sure - he'd just be a mindless undead."

"Aw, that's a damn shame," said Skunkbeard, scratching his two-tone beard in thought. "Well, I suppose he can guard the hold," he decided.

"Aye," agreed Melony Sal. "I suppose he could at that. I'll see about it in the morning."

"So, that leads us to you folks," said Captain Skunkbeard, looking at the heroes. "I suppose I should be angered by your attempts to plunder my treasure back on Oerth" - and all six heroes' faces instantly froze up, nobody wanting to give away the fact that they hadn't so much attempted to plunder his loot as successfully plundered seven of eight treasure chests, activating the teleport trap that sent them to wildspace only after all of that loot had been poured into the portable hole Ingebold was just now rolling back up to stow into her belt - "but I can't really hold that against you. Hell, I'd do the same myself. And although that loot was originally intended to be my retirement fund, as it were, I currently have no intentions of ever returning to Oerth, so it's not likely I'd ever go back for that money anyway. No, I've found I prefer life out here in wildspace more than life back on Oerth.

"Back in my pirating days," he continued, "it was all about the gold - who had it and how I could get it. That was pretty much it; a pirate's life is a pretty simple one, I suppose. But out here, in wildspace, there's so much more to my life! Sure, there's still plenty of looting and plunder to be had, but I also have the opportunity to take on scum like those neogi slavers when they cross my path. And I've you to thank for that, by the way - so I figure we're even on that score. But there are always new systems to explore, new races to meet up with, new enemies to fight. My life has expanded so much since my days traveling the oceans of Oerth. I'd like to offer the same life to you. So, what do you say? Would you like to join my crew?"

Castillan looked over to the others before answering. "Captain Skunkbeard," he said, "we thank you for your generous offer, but we have obligations back on Oerth and would really prefer getting back there as soon as possible. If you could possibly show us the way back home, we'd be eternally grateful."

The captain stared at the bounder for a moment before answering. "Well, so be it!" he replied. "Melony Sal, show these folks the way back home, if you'd be so kind!"

"Aye-aye, captain," she said, looking at the heroes. "Shall we?" she asked, waving a hand in the direction of their vessel. Gilbert, for one, made a beeline to the dragonfly ship, eager to be off the ship crewed by undead monstrosities.

One of the two main rooms in the dragonfly vessel - both of which doubled as crew quarters - contained various star charts, but so far the Kordovians had not been able to make head nor tail of them. Not only were they written in a language unknown to them, but the heroes were unfamiliar with even the most basic notations common to the field of astronavigation. Gilbert doubted the lich would be able to sufficiently explain how they worked in less than a day.

Fortunately, she had no intention of trying to explain how astronavigation worked to a bunch of "breathers" who had barely even taken the first few steps away from their own planet. Flipping through the charts, she finally said, Ah!" and circled one particular star with an ink pen. "Here it is. And here's your present location." Gilbert looked at the two annotations, frowning as he tried imagining the vast distances involved.

Melony Sal pointed at a star through one of the dragonfly's "eyes." "See that bright star, just below the three arranged in an arc above it? That's where you want to go. Just aim for that star and you'll be fine."

"That all there is to it?" Gilbert asked.

"Well, I can try to get into the finer points of the phlogiston flows, and stellar drift, but I really think it's best if you just point your ship at the right star and keep going. After all, you're just planning on getting back to this Oerth of yours and then using your dragonfly ship to flit about the planet, aren't you? Yes? Well, then there's no point in going over a bunch of stiff that will just confuse you. Any questions?"

"I have one," said Castillan, stepping up to the attractive woman. "Your name is rather unusual. What are its origins?"

"I've been 'Sal' - short for 'Sally' - since I was born," she said, smiling at the handsome elf. "And I've been 'melony' since I was about fourteen." Her smile brightened as Castillan caught on, and as she caught him taking a quick peek at her ample cleavage. She arched her back to give him a better view; unnoticed, Gilbert winced even harder.

"I have question," added Gilbert, his voice somewhat accusatory. "You the one responsible for the skeletons and zombies on board your ship?"

"I am indeed," replied Melony Sal. "I raised them to their present state."

"Raised?" squeaked Gilbert. "Lowered them, you mean."

"No, I generally say exactly what I mean," corrected Melony Sal. "Why? Do you have a problem with free-willed undead?"

"Are they free-willed?" asked Finoula. "Not mindless?"

"Absolutely. Each of them agreed to the transformation ahead of time. And the Captain knows each of them by name. They were part of his crew when they were alive, and they continue on now that they're undead."

"That terrible!" retorted Gilbert.

"Not at all!" countered Melony Sal. "As undead, they offer many advantages. They don't breathe, so they don't use up the air in the ship's envelope. They don't eat, so we only need to store provisions for the few living members of the crew. They don't need sleep, so they can be on duty at all times. They're not discomfited by the Captain's rank odor. And they're living the lives they want, that they themselves chose."

"That not living!" countered Gilbert.

"They may not be technically alive, but they're certainly living!" countered Melony Sal. "And they will continue on living their undead lives long after fools like you - who spurn the very thought of undeath - lie in their graves! Face it, Gilbert: free-willed undeath is the next logical step for those of mortal flesh - to deny it is to be a caterpillar disparaging the existence of butterflies!"

"Ye've certainly given us somethin' t' think upon," put in Ingebold, not swayed in the least by the lich's arguments but somewhat appeased at the thought that these particular skeletons and zombies - if Melony Sal was to be believed - had at least signed up for their fate. Plus, she wanted to separate the first mate and Gilbert before they came to blows.

"Yes, well, I certainly recommend it for those willing to take the step," Melony Sal said, heading back up to the top deck of the ship so she could return to the Star Skunk. "Look me up if you ever change your minds - I'd be more than happy to give you a helping hand into undeath." Then, getting back to the business at hand, she said, "You can follow us out of this crystal sphere if you like - it'll take about two days. Then we'll be in the phlogiston, and we'll go our separate ways. It should take about a week's travel for you to get to where you're going."

"Fair enough," said Gilbert, plopping himself into the ship's helm and calming his mind, expanding his senses to encompass all directions around the dragonfly vessel as Melony Sal returned to the pirate vessel. As soon as he saw the Star Skunk heading off, he hurried to send his own ship in its wake.

True to her word, the trip to the edge of the crystal sphere took about two days, and it was another week of sailing through the phlogiston before their destination crystal sphere loomed ahead of them. Gilbert did some maneuvering to find a tunnel entrance into the crystal sphere, and then they were out of the phlogiston flow and once more into the more comfortable embrace of wildspace.

But some thing seemed wrong almost immediately. Ahead of them was a vast expanse of tumbling rocks, an asteroid field that encompassed the entire system. It was at this point in time that a pair of wooden lips extended from the wall between the dragonfly's two "eye" portals and began speaking in a most recognizable voice.

"Well, Gilbert," said the voice of Melony Sal, "Good luck finding your way home, because this system surely isn't it. I figured I'd give you a good reason to hate undead." and after fashioning into a mocking smirk, the lips faded back into the wood of the ship's wall.

"That bitch!" cried Gilbert. "I kill her!"

"That was a magic mouth spell," observed Binkadink, not at all helpfully. "My stupid cousin Jinkadoodle uses those all the time."

"Yeah, well, you probably never see him again! We have no idea which way home now!"

"Maybe there's a clue in the star charts?" suggested Finoula. Gilbert turned his attention to the elven ranger to berate her idea when his attention was suddenly diverted. "Another ship!" he cried, sensing a foreign vessel at the edge of his magically-enhanced awareness. Mentally, he maneuvered the dragonfly ship to face this new threat.

But it turned out to be no threat at all. Rather, it was a most unusual vessel: there was what looked to be a small sailing ship somewhere at the center of it, but there were numerous add-ons, like the bathtub mounted to the rear, the gigantic hamster wheel on the left side (currently occupied by what looked like nothing so much as a horse-sized hamster), and what could only be a pipe organ off to one side. An oversized umbrella served as the vessel's only attempt at any sort of a roof.

"Ahoy there!" cried a voice form the ship, and popping up over the side of the hodgepodge vessel was the ruddy face of a gnome. "Good day to you all! I wonder if you could provide a wee bit of assistance to a fellow traveler in need?"

The gnome introduced himself as Pendiculous Tatterjammies, but insisted his friends all called him "Captain Frothy". The problem lie in his ship's propulsion unit: a metal slat had broken off the hamster wheel, causing his giant space hamster, Space Admiral Cheekiweeks, to sprain a paw. The creature's paw was healed by means of a cure light wounds spell on the part of Ingebold, and a few moments of rummaging around in the dragonfly vessel's cargo holds unearthed a suitable replacement for the missing slat. Within minutes, Captain Frothy's sidewinder vessel, the Gold Standard (for he was prospecting among the asteroids for standard gold) was back to full working order.

In return for their help, Captain Frothy led them to a trading post covering a decent-sized asteroid, where the group was amazed to see all manners of beings walking about - humans, elves, and dwarves, to be sure, but also stranger creatures like humanoid hippos, intelligent apes with glider wings, and human-sized, elaborately-tattooed praying mantises, to say nothing of beholders and mind flayers mingling with the other races as if they did so on a regular basis. Finoula stopped into a magic shop but was appalled at the prices they were charging. Apparently it was a seller's market out here among the asteroids!

"We need to find somebody who knows the way to Oerth," said Castillan. "Maybe we can just hire a pilot to fly us home." They had already made such inquiries of Captain Frothy, but while he'd heard stories of Oerth he had no idea where it might be found. He also supplied the rather disappointing news that among the spelljamming races, Oerth was considered a backwater world - a bit far off the major trade routes, and offering nothing of value that couldn't be obtained elsewhere at less expense and trouble.

Still, deciding they'd never find their way home if they didn't try to find somebody to help them, the heroes asked around at the docks, the shops, and of various passersby. For the most part, the answers were the same: either "I've never heard of Oerth" or "Why would you want to go all the way there?" There was talk of a hammership - whatever that was - due in about a week or so that would have passed somewhat close by Oerth, but that didn't fill the heroes with much hope.

And then they hit paydirt - of a sort. "Oerth?" asked a shopkeeper. "I had a grell in here an hour or so back, picking up for provisions for a trip to Oerth. It sounded like they were planning on leaving fairly soon, though, so you'd best hurry if you're gonna catch them!"

Upon getting a good description of a grell - a floating brain with a parrot's beak and ten dangling tentacles - some of the heroes were somewhat hesitant to travel with a bunch of grell. "It not like we have much choice!" pointed out Gilbert Fung. "We find these grell, see if they help us!"

Fortunately, the grell were fairly distinctive, even among the many disparate races on the asteroid-sized trading post. With twenty minutes or so Castillan had tracked one down as it was floating out of another shop. Disturbingly, this one had a rune-covered human skull cupped in the end of one tentacle.

"Excuse me, sir," began Castillan, unsure of how to properly address a brain/parrot/octopus thing, "we understand you are preparing for a voyage to Oerth?"

The grell hovered motionless for a moment, then used the tip of another tentacle to tap a beat on the top of the rune-covered skull. As he did so, the skull's jaw unhinged and it began translating in the Common tongue the Kordovians spoke. "Your statement is correct," said the skull.

"Excellent!" replied Castillan. "I was wondering if you would allow us to follow you in our own vessel?"

Again, the tapping followed by a skull-provided translation: "Impossible. Our vessel does not travel in the standard fashion. You would be unable to follow."

"Oh, I see," replied Castillan. "Could one of your crew maybe pilot our vessel then, maybe, and meet you there?"

"Also impossible. We are unable to use helms configured for the humanoid form. However," amended the grell through his translation device, "it would be possible for you to travel with us on our vessel, if we towed your vessel behind us."

"Really?" asked the bounder.

"You would need to work for your passage. We have available positions in the food service industry. You would need to prepare two meals for us during the voyage."

"That's it?" asked Castillan. "That's reasonable!" he said to his friends.

"Hold on," interjected Gilbert Fung, always looking for the way someone was trying to screw him over. "How about we just pay you money for passage?"

"We have no need of further money," was the skull's reply. "We do have need of cooks."

"What exactly we have to cook?" demanded Gilbert. "We not experts in grell cuisine."

"Would we be required to kill the animals you'd be eating?" asked Finoula.

"The menu is simple enough. All will be explained at the appropriate time."

"I no like this," asserted Gilbert to his companions. To the grell, he said, "We maybe cook for you, but we prefer not to be on menu!"

"Your preferences have been noted," responded the translator skull. "There are further conditions to your signing aboard our vessel, however. You must spend the entirety of the voyage aboard our ship. You must leave all armor, weapons, and personal possessions either aboard your own vessel or aboard ours, stowed away in containers. All of your possessions will be returned to you at the end of the voyage. We will loan each of you a ring of sustenance during the two weeks of travel, as we have learned that is an easier solution than determining individual dietary needs for different races. The rings will be returned to us at the end of the voyage. We guarantee your safe arrival to Oerth, but once we arrive there you will be left to find your own way home. We are familiar only with the section of Oerth that we have dealings with; we are not familiar with your kingdoms or cities."

"What do you think, Gilbert?" asked Finoula.

The heavyset mage let out a sigh. "I suppose beggars best not choosers," he said.

More tapping on the skull resulted in a final statement: "If you agree to these terms, state your name and say, 'I agree to the terms as explained to me.'" Then the grell presented the skull to each of the Kordovians in turn, starting with Binkadink. "I, Binkadink Dundernoggin, agree to the terms as explained to me," he said after looking at the rest of his group and getting nods of agreement. Each hero made his or her similar statement, and then they were instructed to return to their own ship and hover directly above the asteroid, beyond its air envelope. They were to be met by the grell ship, which was described to them as looking like a giant jellyfish.

The description was particularly apt, for as Finoula piloted the ship as instructed, an enormous, living jellyfish approached them. Its head section was easily 100 feet in diameter, with dozens - perhaps scores - of tentacles reaching easily 500 feet. One of these tentacles stretched out towards the dragonfly vessel, and along its length floated the grell with the skull translator, followed by five more of his kind.

The Kordovians had decided they'd bring all of their gear aboard the grell vessel, so at least it would be close at hand if it was needed. After explaining it to their translator, each hero was grasped in the tentacles of a grell, hoisted into the air, and then floated back toward the jellyfish's head, where they entered the great beast's interior sections. They were lowered back onto the "floor" of a room filled with gauzy, semi-translucent walls made up of the jellyfish's skin. Using the skull translator, the grell instructed Binkadink to remove his armor, weapons, and personal possessions, while the grell used the sharp tip of a tentacle to rip open a slit in the nearest wall. Binkadink removed his helmet and dropped it into the slit, where it fell to the bottom of a bag of sorts. He placed his glaive in there as well, followed by his backpack and armor, piece by piece, including his stilt-boots. Finally, he stood in his under-armor, considering his part completed.

Tap-tap-tap went the grell's tentacle on the skull, and the skull replied, "Continue."

"What?" asked Binkadink. "You mean this?" He pulled on the undergarment covering his chest and stuck one foot out, waggling it to indicate his sock.

"All personal possessions," insisted the grell through its translation device.

"Are we really--?" spluttered Binkadink, looking back at the others. They all looked at each other, then at Gilbert, their more-or-less leader. He just shrugged in a "what-are-you-going-to-do?" gesture.

"Fine!" snorted Binkadink, removing the rest of his clothing until he stood naked before the grell and his companions. The grell, satisfied, did something to the wall-slit that sealed it back up, then spun in place and indicated Finoula. "Next," it indicated, opening another slit in the wall for her own items.

"You really need us to travel naked in your ship?" she asked the grell while she stowed her weapons and removed her armor.

"The interior of the gossamer noble is within temperature norms," translated the rune-skull as the grell tapped upon its cranium. "There is no weather present within the creature," it continued. "And grell live their entire lives without 'clothing.' If your species has modesty issues, we can provide a membrane of the gossamer noble's interior skin for you to wrap around you as a blanket." Finoula frowned at the thought of snuggling up to a piece of jellyfish skin for the next two weeks, and declined. "I'll be fine," she said.

One by one, the other heroes followed suit. The only concession to their nakedness Ingebold made was to unbraid her hair and let it hang over her chest, while Darrien took the grell up on their offer of a "jellyfish-skin blanket." But once all of their gear had been stored in individual pockets, the heroes were each lifted by a grell and levitated through a hole in the ceiling. They passed through gauzy passageways before being plunked down into a kidney-shaped room whose only entrance was an irising hole in the ceiling, some 25 feet above the spongy floor. The room was at least lit with some sort of murky bio-luminescence, but there was nothing in the way of amenities besides a small side room where the translator grell said any wastes could be collected. An irising hole in the floor apparently served as a simple toilet, although considering that they each had a magic ring to sustain them instead of actually eating and drinking it was unlikely they'd need to use these facilities.

"So what are we going to do now?" asked Castillan, plopping himself down onto the soft floor. He gave the walls and ceiling a hard look, frowning at the realization that even his bounding skills wouldn't allow him to run up a gauzy wall with the consistency of a hung blanket, nor would he be able to make it to the hole in the ceiling.

"I not sure about you, but I deleting all my prepared spells that need material components," replied Gilbert Fung. Like all of his other possessions, his pouch of material spell components was sealed up in a wall of the gossamer noble several "rooms" away.

"And do what?" asked Darrien. "Your Omnibook is up in one of those jellyfish wall-pockets," reminded Darrien.

"Pfft!" scoffed the heavyset mage. "I have a few spells I prepare without spellbook! I filling up on magic missiles!"

"D'ye think it'd be wise t' attack th' grell?" asked Ingebold, sitting by Finoula's side at one side of the kidney-shaped room. By unspoken convention, the men had arranged themselves on one side of the room and the women on the other, and they sat with their backs turned for as much privacy as could be arranged. "They're th' only way we're likely t'be gettin' out of this room, 'less one've ye've learned t' fly."

"You never know," replied Gilbert, mentally visualizing the spell energy required for a use of the magic missile spell and filling an empty slot in his spell inventory.

The days - and nights, although it was difficult to tell the difference between them in the belly of a gossamer noble flitting in and out of wildspace - passed slowly. But five days after their entry into the kidney-shaped room, the iris on the ceiling opened and six grell floated down into the room. One of them carried the rune-skull, and through it the grell announced that it was time for the passengers to earn their keep by preparing the first of the two meals required during the voyage.

"Sure!" enthused Castillan. After five days with nothing but talking to amuse themselves - the grell hadn't even let the bounder bring a deck of cards into the room with him - the thought of something as mundane as food preparation would be a welcome change of pace.

The grell hung motionlessly in the air, talking telepathically among themselves. Then, by an unspoken signal, each of them sped to one of the heroes and wrapped them up in a barbed-tentacle embrace. The barbs injected a paralytic poison into the veins of the heroes, but the hungry grell didn't wait for it to take effect - as one, they each levitated to the top of the chamber with their meals and began eating. Sharp parrot beaks bit into the flesh of an arm here, a leg there; Binkadink's belly was torn open and his intestines gobbled up like a string of sausages. A few of the grell passed their paralyzed victims among each other, sampling the differences between soft female elf flesh and the hardened muscles of a battle-hardened male gnome. At the end of their feast, they dropped their chewed-over victims to the floor of the chamber, where over the course of the next several minutes torn flesh knitted back together, devoured organs regrew in place, and the heroes' bodies were restored to their original forms. By the time the paralyzation wore off, the blood and viscera that had dripped from their bodies in mid-air had already been reabsorbed through the floor of the chamber, the gossamer noble making do with these cast-off fluids.

"What...what the Hell?" asked Castillan once he could talk again.

"The rings," answered Gilbert Fung. "They not just rings of sustenance, they rings of regeneration as well."

"Why didn't you attack them with your magic missiles?" demanded Darrien.

"That a fight we not win," replied the mage. "And they our only way home."

"So we just put up with it?" demanded Finoula, incensed at the betrayal. "We said we'd cook food for them, but that we wouldn't be on the menu! You specifically said that!"

"I said, 'We prefer not to be on menu,'" replied Gilbert, belatedly realizing his mistake. "They took me at my word - that just a preference, not a demand."

"The worst part," said Binkadink, "is that we still have to go through that one more time before getting home." As he spoke, he tried unsuccessfully to rub off the dried blood from his body, since the rings did nothing to clean up the wounds, merely healed them up. Eventually, he used his innate ability of prestidigitation to clean himself up, then looked guiltily at the others after realizing he couldn't do the same for them.

"We get through it now, we get through it then," replied Gilbert. "For now, maybe we get some sleep." But sleep didn't come easily to the heroes, and when it did it was frequently broken by nightmares.

- - -

Over a week later, days after the second grell feast had occurred, six grell appeared once again before the Kordovians. They each gripped one of the heroes, but this time instead of biting into their flesh they returned them to the entry area where their gear had been stored. Using the translator skull, the grell spokesman informed the passengers that the gossamer noble was in orbit around Oerth and they could depart. The heroes were asked for their loaned rings, and then, still naked, they were flown along an outstretched tentacle back to the dragonfly vessel, where they were deposited on the upper deck. There on the floor before them was all of their gear; apparently the grell weren't willing to provide the humanoids with their armor and weapons on the gossamer noble, where they could do a considerable bit of damage.

"The agreed-upon contracts have been fulfilled," announced the rune-skull in the lead grell's tentacles. "You have been returned safely to your home planet, and you in turn have provided the two required meals during the voyage. You are free to go about your business, as we go about ours."

"And just what your business?" asked Gilbert Fung.

"We will pick up the young that have hatched in the decade since our last visit and enter them into grell society," replied the grell spokesman. "Oh, and one final thing," it said, pivoting in mid-air to face Finoula. "[Untranslatable name] asked me to inform you that you were especially delicious." Finoula just grimaced, creeped out by the "compliment," and climbed down the stairs to the lower level of the ship. The others followed her, as the six grell returned to their living gossamer noble ship.

The elven ranger sat down in the helm. "Shall we go?" she asked.

"Just back us up out of range," said Gilbert. "Keep jellyfish in view."

"What's up?" asked Darrien.

"I want to see what they do."

After about six minutes of inactivity aboard the giant jellyfish, four grell exited the gossamer noble and began levitating straight down toward the planet. After making sure that these four were the only ones leaving the living ship, Gilbert directed Finoula to pilot their own ship after them. "Stay far back," he commanded. "They blind, but they probably sense things close to them. We stay far enough back they don't sense us, we see where they going - and then we kill them!"

"All right!" agreed Finoula, pumping her fist in the air. The others were similarly buoyed by this announcement; even Ingebold, a devout cleric of Moradin who had never originally envisioned a career as an adventurer, seeing herself as a healer above all else, was eager for some payback against these vicious beasts. After all, for all they knew, part of the grell "business" on Oerth was picking up new victims for them to eat on the way back to their homes in wildspace. Having been a grell meal twice now, Ingebold didn't want anyone to ever have to share that fate.

The descent was at a graceful speed; nobody really even noticed when the ship's air envelope was encompassed by the planet's normal atmosphere. But the grell knew exactly where they were going; they headed straight for a small island without any hesitation or course adjustments. As they lowered almost to the point where their drooping tentacles could touch the waters of the ocean below them, they curled up these barbed appendages and floated into a cave opening in the side of the cliff face of the small island. Finoula's enhanced ship senses allowed her to spot a flat area at the top of the island where she could park the dragonfly ship, apparently the grell had entered a cave in the rocks beneath them. The heroes emerged from the ship and clambered down the slope, eager to follow their levitating prey.

"Wait," said Gilbert as the group waded into the knee-deep water outside the cave. "Need to do something before we go in." Then, raising the necklace he'd taken from the sea hag in Lake Quag, he concentrated on his familiar, still waiting patiently on Skunkbeard's Island - wherever that may be from their present location. Mudpie! the wizard mentally called out. We back! We taking care of some business, then we come get you!

Gilbert sweated for a few moments of mental silence, before he finally got a response. I've been waiting here, just outside the treasure room, came the mental voice of his earth elemental familiar. I'll be here when you arrive.

"Okay!" said Gilbert to the rest of the team. "Let's go in, get these buggers!"

Finoula was the first to enter the cave opening, followed by Binkadink. It was completely pitch black inside the cave's interior; only the gnome's everburning torches on his antlered helmet provided any illumination. Wading through the water, which rose to her waist, the ranger was surprised when not one but two smooth-shelled creatures rose up from beneath the dark water on either side of her. Each chuul snapped out with a pair of wicked claws and Finoula soon found herself gripped in a two-pincer hold at one shoulder and a single pincer at the other. Neither chuul was willing to give up its prize, and as a result a bizarre tug-of-war over the elf ranger began in earnest. Not surprisingly, the chuul with the two-pincer grip won this brief contest, and it transferred its prize into its wriggling face-tendrils, covered in a paralyzing fluid.

Spotting the two spurts of blood rushing down her Battle-Sister's shoulders, Ingebold used her mace of healing to send a curative spell to Finoula which closed up her wounds. In the meantime, Binkadink stumbled up on his gnomish stilt-boots, glaive in hand to stab out at the crustacean on the right, which had his friend in its tentacled embrace.

Behind the gnome, Castillan ran forward in a burst of speed, vaulted up out of the water, and used the gnome's back as a springboard to tumble over Finoula and her captor, landing with a splash on the other side of the surprised chuul. The bounder stabbed out with his short sword, sinking it to the hilt in the monster's side, the blade slipping between overlapping plates of carapace.

Recalling the tactics that had worked so well during their last battle with chuuls, Ingebold cast a freedom of movement spell on Finoula. But the cleric hadn't factored in the fact that the last time they'd done battle with chuuls - in the waters of Lake Quag - the spell had been applied to the heroes before combat, to prevent the snapping pincers from getting a hold on the heroes. This time, Finoula was already paralyzed and in the clutches of the chuul's face-tendrils; once the spell had been cast on her, these gripping appendages lost their hold on the elf and she slipped below the surface of the water, still paralyzed and unable to move. With a gasp of horror, Ingebold realized her attempts to help may well have cost her Battle-Sister her life!

Darrien shot several arrows into the rightmost chuul, hoping to bring it down quickly so they could rescue Finoula. His arrows struck true, and the wounded chuul opted to attempt to flee back into the deeper water at the back of the cave network. But to do so it had to pass by both Binkadink and Castillan; each struck with their blades and it was impossible to determine which strike had been the killing blow. Not worrying about the credit, the gnome fighter turned to face the remaining chuul, realizing it would be looking for a new victim. He stepped forward to make himself the obvious choice.

Castillan bent down and grabbed at Finoula, catching her by the arm and pulling her head back up above the water level. Seeing Finoula safe, Ingebold backed away from the current combat between Binkadink and the other chuul, realizing her best offense was her spells, which for the most part could be used at range. The bounder pulled Finoula away from the chuul, then grabbed up a potion of remove paralysis from his belt, unstoppered it, and poured its contents down his fellow elf's throat. Unfortunately, this was a "Winkidew Special," made with numerous cost-saving shortcuts, and as a result an awful stench equivalent to that of a dreaded ghast started emanating from Finoula's pores. Castillan almost dropped her as the stench hit him but he managed to keep her head above water until the potion took effect and she could once again stand on her own two feet.

Ingebold cast a flame strike spell down on the chuul, wounding it horrendously and allowing Binkadink's next glaive strike to be the killing blow. Then, seeing no further immediate danger, Ingebold stepped forward and applied healing spells to those in need.

There was a small island of sorts ahead, a large rock jutting up from the water in the back of the wide central cave. Trusting in his newly-discovered aquatic elf heritage, Darrien ducked his head under the water and was amazed as the gill-slits at his neck opened up at the touch of the seawater and he found himself breathing effortlessly. Furthermore, although his half-elf heritage allowed him to see better than a human in low-light conditions, he found that his vision was even better underwater. Without surfacing, he swam over to the rock island. Upon arrival he surfaced and climbed up one side, pulling himself up onto the rock's top. Perched on top of the rock was a human skull - this one bleached with age but not covered in runes; it was apparently just some unfortunate person's decapitated skull, not a grell translation device. Failing to look directly above him, Darrien missed the trio of grell hovering near the cavern ceiling, their barbed tentacles still curled up to prevent them from being targets to a snapping chuul's pincers. But he did see the chuul hidden in the water on the other side of the rock island, apparently deciding if it was safe to approach the skull and claim it for its own treasure hoard. The half-elf warned the others of the submerged chuul and gave its general location.

Both Finoula and Binkadink came up with a simple solution to fighting aquatic creatures in their home environment; each pulled a potion of water walking from their respective belts and chugged down the contents, immediately bobbing to the top of the water like a pair of corks. Castillan, in the meantime, had waded over to the island and had pulled himself up beside Darrien.

As one, the three grell dropped down on the two adventurers, two grappling with Darrien and the other concentrating on Castillan. Gilbert cast a magic missile spell - he had plenty prepared! - at the one menacing Castillan, seeing the bounder as an easier target to free. The spell didn't immediately kill the grell, but Binkadink's glaive did a moment later as he ran across the water and hopped up on the rock island with the others.

When Finoula approached, one of the two remaining grell had gotten a good grip on Darrien while the other faced him. The whip of thorns snaked out and struck at this unencumbered grell, slicing deep gashes across its brainlike structure. At his side, Castillan stabbed out at the same grell with his short sword, while at the same time Ingebold cast a searing light spell on both grell. The one that had been wounded fell at the onslaught of her spell, but the other wound its tentacles tighter around Darrien and prepared to levitate him toward the ceiling. And in the meantime, the chuul swam unnoticed around the rock island, approaching the cleric with its pincers ready to strike.

Fortunately, Binkadink could see the chuul's shape in the water and stabbed down at it with his glaive from up on the rock. Then he spun, and in a surprise move slew the grell fighting Darrien, then returned his attention to the chuul and stabbed at it again. His second strike was particularly well-placed, nearly severing the crustacean's armored head from its body. Despite the lack of an actual beheading, the chuul died in the water, blood gushing from its wounds.

But all of this slaying was noisy, and it brought the remaining grell - one more from the gossamer noble still in orbit above the planet, who had come down here with the other three pregnant grell to lay their eggs in the recesses of the cave, and the four young adults who had lived in this cave network their whole lives - flying over to investigate. Three came from the northwest, over from the side of the large rock island, while the remaining two came from the southeast. Gilbert, facing the southernmost, divided the missiles from another magic missile spell between those two, the bolts hitting unerringly against the sides of the levitating beasts.

Ingebold cast another searing light spell - her last - at two of the grell approaching from the north. Castillan switched weapons, loading his crossbow to hit one of the grell approaching from the north, while Darrien managed to fire four arrows into the side of the same grell, slaying it outright.

Not to be outdone, Finoula ran across the water over to the stretch of solid land beneath another of the northernmost grell, lashing out with her whip of thorns to score grooves into the brainlike structure making up its body. Likewise, Binkadink skipped over the water in his gnomish stilt-boots to stab at the same grell with his glaive, killing it. Gilbert Fung moved on to a more powerful spell than his numerous magic missiles, firing off a scorching ray that sent four burning streams of fire at the two he had previously hit. That was enough to slay one of the two, its body crashing into the water and sinking.

That left only two grell, and neither survived for long. Binkadink stabbed the one remaining to the north, skewering it on his blade like a shish-kabob, while Gilbert took out the one from the south. They were a bit disappointed that the rune-skull-carrying grell was not among their number, for they knew the skull translated what they said into whatever sort of language the grell used among themselves, and Gilbert for one would have loved to taunt the vicious hunters as they lay dying and know his words were understood. But such was not to be; they had to settle merely for the deaths of those who had made it down to the cave network, and those who would never now levitate up to join the remaining grell in the gossamer noble.

"What about those still in the jellyfish?" asked Finoula. "We know there has to be at least two more of them up there, since only four came down here."

"We have to make do with those we already kill," replied Gilbert Fung. "It not safe to take on giant jellyfish - it easily crush our ship. And it too fragile to enter atmosphere, were its body get crushed. And I doubt other grell come down to see why their buddies not return. I imagine they just pack up and go, once it apparent others not coming back. With any luck, they abandon Oerth colony altogether."

"Well, good riddance if they do!" agreed Finoula.

A quick search of the cave network revealed the headless body that went with the skull on the rock island, apparently from a pirate who had washed ashore some time ago. He carried a mere 15 gold pieces in a pouch at his belt and a jade carving of a sea turtle that Castillan appraised at several hundred gold pieces. Gathering them up, the heroes returned to the dragonfly vessel at the top of the small island. By then it was starting to get dark, and they opted to camp out in the ship for the evening. Pulling out Delphyne's ring gates, Ingebold wrote a quick note to King Galrich - "We're back from our treasure hunt and should return to Kordovia within the next day or so" - and stuffed it through the magical metal ring, along with half of the treasure they had accumulated from the Skunkbeard's Island treasure hoard.

The next morning, Finoula flew the ship high enough for them to spot a continental coastline which they made out to be the eastern edge of Hepmonaland; heading there, they found Thunder Bay easily enough and from there it wasn't too difficult to head out in the same direction and general heading that Captain McGraff had taken them aboard his vessel those many months ago. By zigzagging back and forth as they traveled over the ocean on a rough bearing, they were able to rediscover Skunkbeard's Island without too much trouble. Of course, the Celestial Avatar had long since departed, Captain McGraff not wanting his ship to be sunk by Darrien's father and his band of sea elves; for all they knew the ship had been back at Thunder Bay when they skimmed over that way earlier that morning. But Finoula flew the dragonfly vessel over to the bear cave, where Darrien hunted up the dire bear cub he'd planned on adopting (he named him "Grumps Jr." for reasons that no doubt made sense to him), the group "redified the mirror pool" in accordance with the treasure map instructions, and they made their way back to the underground treasure chamber that had months ago shunted them across the crystal sphere to the wildspace receiving station that had set them on their spelljamming adventures. Mudpie was waiting there to greet his master, and together the group gathered up the contents of the as-yet-untouched ninth chest (gathering up tens of thousands of gold coins' worth of expensive jewelry, half of which Ingebold poured through the ring gate into the castle vault back in Kordovia).

Then the group opted to spend the rest of the day on the tropical island, gathering exotic fruits and just unwinding before returning back to Kordovia the following day. Wildspace had worn them out - they figured they deserved a day of relaxation!

- - -

And thus came to a close our little side excursion using a modified version of the Spelljammer rules. I had done something similar in Logan and Stuart's original 3E campaign and they had enjoyed it, so I thought this group would enjoy it as well. Hopefully, they all got a taste of the Spelljammer universe without it completely altering the flow of our own Kordovia-based campaign. Of course, they're all 11th-level now so we're going into the last half of the campaign, but I figure the dragonfly spelljamming vessel will just be a useful transportation device, getting them quickly from one adventure location to another. I get the feeling the heroes won't have a whole lot of use for their Vistani wagon or Aerik's old mule-driven wagon in future adventures!

In real life, Joey had recently found a wounded bird in his back yard (we had a big storm several weeks back) and has been nursing him back to health. He named the bird (a starling, I think Dan said) "Grumps," so the in-game dire bear cub is named in honor of a real-life wounded bird. I'm giving Grumps Jr. the stats of a standard black bear and we're using him as a late-addition ranger's animal companion.

As an aside, I usually play music in the background while we play and more times than not it's various episodes of "Music from the Hearts of Space." Since I had them on hand, I started the session with "Spectral Ships" playing (appropriate for while the PCs were dealing with Captain Skunkbeard and his crew of undead minions) and then later segued into the Hearts of Space episodes "A Journey Home," its sequel "A Journey Home 2," and "The Way Home" since they were so thematically appropriate.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I wore one of my two different TARDIS shirts; since the TARDIS can go anywhere in space and time, I thought it appropriate to demonstrate that the PCs had all of space open to them (and that their home planet could literally be anywhere, in any direction - which became a real problem after Melony Sal's betrayal.) As an added twist, Logan has a shirt covered in jellyfish; I suggested that he should wear that shirt for this session for reasons that would be apparent later. (Of course, he mentally jumped immediately to "space jellyfish" but had no idea how that would play out.) And now, best of all, my other players will no longer know whether the "clue" about the current game session will be hinted at by my T-shirt, Logan's T-shirt, or both.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 36: HOMECOMING

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 11​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 11​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 11​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 11​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 11​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 11​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3​
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 11 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 29 July 2017

- - -

Getting Mudpie on board the dragonfly vessel was easy: Gilbert had him step into the opened portable hole, closed it up, tucked it into his belt, climbed the rope ladder leading up to the upper deck, and then released him once there. Mudpie opted to climb down into the hold, where he wouldn't see air all around him - not a comfortable view for an earth elemental! - when they took off.

Getting Grumps Junior on board the dragonfly was significantly more difficult as the dire bear cub had no intention of walking into a big old magical hole. Plus, he had the intellect of a dire bear cub - it wasn't as if Darrien could reason with him. And there was no way he could climb up a rope ladder on his own, nor could anybody lift him and do the climbing for him, even had the bear allowed such a thing. In the end, it took Gilbert casting a fly spell on the bear and having Darrien climb the rope ladder with a tasty bit of fish in his hand to get Grumps Junior up on his hind legs, stretching to reach the morsel. Darrien kept it just out of reach, forcing the bear to jump up to try to snap the fish into his mouth. Without realizing it, Grumps Junior left the ground while chasing the bite of fish up a rope ladder; finally, when Darrien and his dire bear cub both made it up the ladder and onto the deck of the dragonfly vessel the ranger passed over the tasty morsel. "Here you go, Grumps," he said. "You earned it." The group fashioned a harness out of ropes and lowered the bear down into the hold, thinking it the safest place for the baby bruin during travel.

Finoula once again took the helm, reasoning it was better for one of the rangers to give up a day's worth of spellcasting rather than either Gilbert or Ingebold. And the decreased top speed of a secondary spellcaster compared to a primary spellcaster was minimal when inside a planet's atmosphere. Out there in wildspace or the phlogiston spellcasting ability made a much bigger difference in spelljamming speeds, but the group had pretty much decided this ship - one to which they really ought to give a name, one of these days! - was probably never going to experience wildspace again. Nobody wanted to take the chance of not being able to find their way home again.

Fortunately, finding their way back to Kordovia wasn't a major problem. They knew it lay on a continent to the west and they had recently discovered just how big Lake Quag really was. Finoula figured by flying high enough they could find Lake Quag and then Kordovia was south of it, below the Clatspur Mountains, following the Velverdyva River. Piece of cake!

The flight was mostly uneventful, with the exception of traveling over the massive Vesve Forest. About halfway across its length, Finoula's helm-enhanced senses picked up a shape rising up from the forest on an intercept course. Binkadink and Castillan were on the upper deck and the elven bounder spotted the figure approaching the ship on leathery wings. It was dragon, somewhat larger than a draft horse by the look of it, and in the fading sunlight Castillan thought he could make out a greenish tinge to the reptile's scales. "Green dragon!" he called to Binkadink, but the bounder's words were carried away by the winds; Binkadink remained facing the front of the vessel, oblivious to the dragon rapidly approaching from the ship's rear.

Castillan popped open the hatch to one of the loading doors and called down "Green dragon approaching!" to those below. Darrien pulled Grumps Junior to the back of the cargo bay, scooting around barrels and crates and odds bits of wood and canvas scraps scattered about. Mudpie moved back with them.

Inside the head of the dragonfly, Finoula called out a warning to the rest of the heroes and then raised the ship even higher, hoping to outrace the approaching dragon. No such luck; the green dragon's top speed was faster than that of the ship - Finoula's only hope was that she could outlast it, for the vessel ran on the power of spellcasting ability and could fly for the better part of a day, whereas the dragon's wings would (hopefully!) eventually get tired.

The dragon, however, dashed that hope by landing gracefully on the deck by Castillan. Binkadink whirled around, magical glaive at the ready, but the dragon didn't look particularly combat-ready; rather, it swung its head out around appreciatively. "Just what exactly is this?" in enquired, speaking in the Common tongue.

Castillan, who had been ready to reply in the Draconic language, gladly switched to Common. "It's a spelljamming vessel, capable of flight through wildspace," he offered.

"Amazing," replied the dragon. He'd followed the shape that flew over his self-proclaimed territory, thinking to chase off a competitor, but once he got closer he saw it was some sort of man-made flying vessel. The things these humanoids came up with!

"So, why are you in my territory?" asked the dragon.

"We...were not aware it was your territory," the bounder explained. "We offer our apologies for the transgression, but we are just passing through. Er, over, I guess."

"Apologies are more easily accepted with tribute," responded the dragon. "Give me a couple hundred gold and you can go about your way unharmed."

Castillan knew full well that the group wouldn't miss a few hundred gold pieces from all of the treasure they had amassed from Captain Skunkbeard's hoard, but he also knew fetching it from the portable hole would show the dragon just how much more treasure they had stored in there. Plus, the bounder didn't like giving away gold if he didn't have to, and while he wasn't willing to combat a dragon over a few hundred gold pieces he thought he had a way to avoid both combat and extortion.

"I say," he said, "You're quite a good-looking specimen of green dragonkind. You wouldn't happen to be related to our good friend Clauguthrax, would you?" Clauguthrax was the green dragon Princess Kaelanna had been secretly communicating with and who she had dragged the heroes along with to visit. "Friends" wasn't perhaps the most accurate term to describe the relationship between Clauguthrax and the Kordovian adventurers, but this dragon didn't have to know that - and the bounder had a very good poker face.

"Why yes - he's my cousin!" declared the green dragon. "You're friends of Clauguthrax, huh? Well, okay, I'll let you off with a warning this time. But next time, let me know when you want to fly over my territory."

"Will do," promised Castillan, giving the dragon a military salute as it leaped from the deck and flapped away. Binkadink just looked at the bounder and they both shrugged. Gilbert, stomping up the stairs to the upper deck to help deal with the dragon, was just in time to see it fly away. "We took care of it," Castillan called over the roaring wind.

An hour or so later, Finoula brought the dragonfly ship down in a clearing behind Battershield Keep. "It ought to be safe here," she said, and she was likely right - Battershield Keep was at the outskirts of Kordovia, one of the closest buildings to the Vesve Forest. The likelihood of anybody wandering around and discovering the ship was negligible. "I cannae wait t' see me folks," gushed Ingebold as she climbed down the rope ladder and the group made their way to the front of the stone keep. They'd been away, in wildspace, for the last four months or so and it was good to finally be back home.

Walking to the front of the keep, the heroes were surprised to see the drawbridge in the raised position. Normally, Aerik kept the bridge down, relying upon the iron portcullis to keep outsiders at bay; that was a much easier system for a keep not staffed by a large contingent of soldiers or functionaries. "Hey!" yelled Ingebold, cupping her hands around her mouth as she approached the moat around the keep. "It's us! We're back!" Her yells caused the goats inside to start bleating, and Wrath started howling at that ruckus. Before long, the heroes could hear the clomping of heavy boots walking along the battlements to the front of the keep. And shortly thereafter, in the moonlight, they could make out Aerik's familiar face looking down at them from the ramparts.

"What's goin' on down there?" he demanded.

"It us!" called back Gilbert Fung. "Open up, let us in!"

The dwarf shook his head. "Now's not a good time fer visitin'. Me wife's not feelin' up to visitors right about now. Why dinnae ye go visit yer own families fer a bit? Come back in a week or so – we'll be happy to entertain ye then."

Ingebold opened her mouth to respond but Gilbert cut her off. "Fair enough," he called back. "Maybe we go stay with Cousin Thorax. He still live in next keep over?"

"Never heard of him," replied Aerik, looking over his shoulder and making a shooing motion with his hand, urging everybody to leave. Gilbert took the hint, leading everyone back down the entry road to the keep, as if heading back to town.

"What was that all about?" demanded Ingebold. "Why wouldn't me father let us in?"

"Not sure," admitted Gilbert. "But I wanted to see if that your father or not. If it impostor, he probably agree we stay with Cousin Thorax."

"Who's Cousin Thorax?" asked Darrien.

"Nobody. I make him up."

"I still want t' know why he'd not let us in," replied Ingebold, looking worriedly back at the keep.

"Maybe I can help you," said a strange voice. The heroes spun around and saw a figure approaching from the trees at the side of the road. He wore a hooded robe and carried a tall staff; when he pulled back the hood he displayed a face that hinted rather strongly at orcish features. "My name is Hagan. I assume you are Ingebold Battershield and the rest of the guild?"

"Aye," replied the dwarf, looking suspiciously at the half-orc. There was a quick movement at his shoulder; it turned out to be a weasel, looking nervously back and forth at the assembled group of heavily-armed adventurers forming a half-circle around Hagan.

"It's okay, Wezhley," comforted Hagan to his familiar. "These are friends - or they will be, soon enough." He turned to the others. "I should tell you what's happened in your absence, while you were out hunting down pirate treasure."

Hagan told a strange story indeed. He had been walking through the Vesve Forest with his familiar, at night - his darkvision let him see perfectly fine during the night hours, and he was less likely to be bothered by those unwilling to give a good-natured half-orc the benefit of the doubt - when all of a sudden he was surrounded by a wave of orcs and goblins. They were heading to Kordovia to assault the kingdom and assumed he, Hagan, was one of their number separated from his normal squad. Hagan was herded along with a group of orcs and goblins that split off from the main army to attack Battershield Keep. Hagan went along with it, realizing he was vastly outnumbered, but once they got to their target and made it over the walls, he took it upon himself to take out as many of the invaders as he could. His presence was fortunate, as it turned out, for besides Aerik and Helga, the only other person there to help defend the keep was Aithanar Ivenheart, still bereft of normal speech and staying in his brother's room awaiting his return (although Obvious and Wrath both did their parts as well). Aerik was so pleased with Hagan's initiative he invited him to stay on, hoping to introduce him to the rest of the adventuring team upon their return and then petition King Galrich to allow him to join their ranks. In the meantime, he'd been allowed to stay in Ingebold's quarters.

"In me quarters?" piped up Ingebold. "Whyever mine?"

"I don't know, that's what your parents offered me," replied Hagan. "We've taken good care of the place during our stay." Ingebold narrowed her eyes, not sure if she liked the idea of a half-orc she didn't even know - and a weasel! - being allowed to sleep in her bed. She'd be talking to her mother about this, and definitely changing the sheets before she took up residency in the room once again.

"So why aren't you there now?" asked Castillan. "And why did Aerik give us the bum's rush?"

"I'm getting to that part," replied Hagan. "It only just happened about a week ago. I was outside the keep, cutting firewood, when a stranger landed in the middle of the courtyard, on a really weird riding mount. It was difficult to see - it kept sliding in and out of view - but whatever it was, it was big, with batlike wings.

"The rider - Aerik told me later his name was Burroc - was wounded, and he needed help in tending to his injuries. Just like that, he did something to make both Helga and Aithanar his mental slaves. He probably tried the same with Aerik, but he's a tough old guy."

"That he be," agreed Ingebold. "Is me ma okay?"

"As far as I know, yes. He hasn't done anything to them, just make them tend to his every need. Except - well, he had the two mules slaughtered, for food for him and the invisible flying mount." Looks of horror passed across the heroes' faces at the thought of the deaths of Franco and Tantrum, the mules who had dutifully pulled Aerik's wagon since the beginning of their adventuring careers. "And Aerik, he's been off to work at the castle every day, just like normal. I've gotten to speak with him a bit as he leaves the keep. He thinks Burroc can read minds, but he's done his best to keep knowledge of me buried deep whenever he's near Burroc. And he's had me camp nearby, outside the keep, awaiting your return, so I can let you know the situation. Aerik says he can't let anyone at the castle know; he's afraid they'll try an immediate rescue attempt and Burroc will kill Helga if anybody tries anything."

"So what does he want us to do?" asked Finoula.

"He trusts you guys to take out Burroc without letting anything happen to Helga," Hagan said. "And I'm willing to assist in any way I can."

"Sounds like we need to make sure this Burroc can't detect us," reasoned Castillan. "Gilbert, does your mom still have that ring of mind shielding?"

"Yes," Gilbert replied. They'd given it to her in case any of the Kozakuran assassins went scrying upon her to see if she'd been resurrected after being slain. Instead, she'd been reincarnated into an orc body - but a hat of disguise allowed her to look human, if not exactly her old self. "But what good that do? That only shield one person."

"I'm thinking we'll have one person sneak inside. The rest of you will be inside the portable hole."

"'The rest of us?'" repeated Darrien. "I take it you'll be the one wearing the ring?"

"I'm the sneakiest, and the one best suited to get across the moat and climb up over the walls, so yes, me."

"I go get ring," replied Gilbert, heading back towards where the dragonfly ship was parked.

"I'll fly you over there," offered Finoula. "My spellcasting's already shot. No sense in wiping out your abilities, too - we may need them before you have a chance to rest up."

While they took off on a low course towards the small village where Gilbert's parents lived, the others gathered around in the clearing and made plans. By the time the spelljamming vessel returned, Castillan had everything worked out to his satisfaction.

But not to Gilbert's satisfaction. He agreed about the multiple protection from evil and magic circle against evil spells to ensure everyone could be protected from mind control; he agreed that having Castillan ferry everyone over in the portable hole while he was not only wearing the ring of mind shielding but also covered in a greater invisibility spell was a good idea; he just drew the line at entering the portable hole himself. "I not going in there," he insisted. "What if you get taken out? Then everybody stuck inside hole. Guess what? There no air in there!"

"They can hold their breath," argued Castillan.

"They can - I not. I be outside, with fly spell active. I be distraction, so you sneak in easy."

"We can't both be wearing the ring," countered Castillan. "What good is a distraction whose thoughts can be read? Burroc will pick up 'I just a distraction - hope Burroc no find out about invisible guy sneaking in with portable hole full of assault team' right out of that oversized noggin of yours."

"Maybe I stay out of range."

"That would be great, if we knew what his range was."

"Guys," interjected Finoula. "Let's all get some sleep. None of this plan will work if we don't get a good night's sleep - especially the spellcasters. We have some specific spells we need prepared in the morning, if we're to have any chance of success at all."

"I'll take first guard shift," offered Binkadink.

"Me next," suggested Castillan. As he and the little gnome had no spellcasting power whatsoever, they were better suited to dealing with a lesser amount of rest.

"I'll take a shift, too," offered Hagan. At the surprised looks he got, he added, "I'm a sorcerer. No spell studying needed. I'm already set to go."

"We'll get up with the dawn," suggested Finoula. "So we're ready to go when they lower the drawbridge when Aerik heads off to the castle."

Dawn came, and the heroes made their preparations. Gilbert pored over the pages of his Omnibook, setting the sigils in his mind that would allow him to cast the spells he'd need in the upcoming day. Ingebold prayed to Moradin, not only asking for the spells she'd need but for the Dwarven Forgefather to guide the group's efforts to get her parents and Aithanar safely out from this Burroc's grasp. Finoula and Darrien prepared their own few spells and then the group left the dragonfly ship and once again approached the front of the keep, keeping to the edge of the trees to avoid being spotted by the invisible flying mount, which could in theory be anywhere nearby. Aerik should be lowering the drawbridge at any moment and Gilbert wanted to confer with him before they began the assault.

At the sounds of the drawbridge being lowered, the spellcasters began frantically casting spells on those designated to have them: Binkadink and Castillan were the targets of magic circle against evil spells, while Darrien and Gilbert each received a protection from evil spell; Hagan, Gilbert, and Mudpie each got a mage armor spell, while Finoula cast a barkskin spell on herself; finally, right as he followed the others (save Gilbert, of course) into the portable hole, Hagan cast a greater invisibility spell on Castillan. The bounder was already wearing the ring of mind shielding, so as he disappeared from visible sight he was already blocked from mental detection. And while he personally had no qualms about his ability to leap the moat and scale the walls of the keep, this was no time for overconfidence: the bounder gulped down the contents of a potion of spider climbing.

Aerik clomped over the wooden drawbridge, his face a worried scowl. Gilbert stepped forward, cleverly in the guise of a traveling potion salesman. "Good morning," he said cheerily to the dwarf. "Perhaps I interest you in purchase of fine potions?" When Aerik didn't reply, Gilbert walked at his side as the dwarf headed down the road in the direction of the castle. Once he deemed them safely out of earshot, he lowered his voice and asked, "Where Burroc holed up?"

"In me study," came the brusque reply. "He's got me Helga there with 'im, tendin' t' his wounds, an' actin' as a hostage to me good behavior."

"Study. Got it," said a disembodied voice nearby. Then the invisible bounder dashed back across the clearing, to land lightly on the now-rising drawbridge. He scampered down its length as his brother Aithanar cranked the mechanism to raise it back up to its fully upright position. Then, not wanting to risk detection, Castillan scampered quickly across the open courtyard - noticing dried bloodstains in the dirt, no doubt the remains of Franco and Tantrum - slid open the door to the main entry hall, and closed it quietly behind him. Aithanar's back was still turned, dealing with the drawbridge, so he didn't see the opening and closing of the door, seemingly by itself.

"You want to join us in attack?" Gilbert asked Aerik.

"I dinnae dare," replied Aerik. "I'm too much a known quantity t' 'im - I'm afraid he'd pick up me presence in a heartbeat. I'll tell ye what, though: once I git to' th' castle, I'll round up a bunch 'f th' guards and we'll hightail it back here. That way, if ye're not successful, we'll take 'im out. Just...just don't let 'im do anything t' me Helga." The look on the old dwarf's face expressed how much he wanted to come to her rescue, and how hard it was to realize her best bet lay in him staying away.

"We got this," promised Gilbert. Then, as the dwarf made his best speed down the road to the castle, the stout wizard cast a fly spell upon himself, ready to be a diversion. Mudpie was stashed away in the portable hole with the others and thus temporarily blocked from their shared empathic link, but Gilbert knew as soon as his familiar exited the extradimensional space, the link would be reestablished and he'd know they were in place.

Castillan saw the entry hall was empty, so he tiptoed down its length and listened at the door at the end, the one leading into the meeting hall. Hearing nothing, he opened the door, verified the room was empty, and closed the door behind him. He then did the same to the door across the room; on the other side, he could hear Helga's voice talking, but no audible response.

However, up on the top of the northeastern tower of Battershield Keep, Burroc's mount looked down in confusion. It had sensed a rapid movement in the courtyard below, something beyond the ability of its eyes to pick up. But the winged creature fully understood the concept of invisibility - it was, after all, one of its own greatest defensive and offensive abilities. Casting the full strength of its blindsense into the courtyard, it saw only the drone its master had ordered to close up the keep's entry upon the departure of the strong-minded one, but managed to note the closing of the door to the main entry hall. It hadn't been in time to catch with its blindsense whoever had opened and closed the door, but this was worth mentioning to Burroc. The dutiful mount gave its master a mental update of a possible invisible intruder upon the premises.

Then, twisting its armored body to look outside the confines of the keep, it saw the strong-minded one making a rapid departure down the road - and another figure standing in the road. Burroc had forbidden the mount from devouring any of the keep's inhabitants until they had been offered up (it hoped they'd be eating the jackalope next), but said nothing about those outside the keep. With a flap of its massive wings, the invisible beast leaped from the tower's roof and headed straight for this delicious-looking morsel.

Castillan knew he'd have to open the door to the study to gain entry, but he hoped he could do so without arousing too much suspicion - and quickly, too, for those inside the portable hole were all holding their breath in there. He backtracked and opened he door to the meeting hall, then returned to the study door and opened it slowly, as if it hadn't been latched properly. He got a surprise when he looked into the room: Burroc was standing, with a dagger placed at Helga's throat. Helga blinked rapidly as if awakening from a bad dream; the bounder realized she was now standing within range of his magic circle against evil spell and thus was no longer under Burroc's mental thrall. However, Helga was no fool; with a dagger at her throat, she stood perfectly still, afraid to move in the slightest.

However, it was Burroc that captured the bounder's immediate attention, for he was like nobody else the elf had even seen. He was completely bald, but there were tattoos or similar lines all over his skin, parallel lines going front to back and others going side to side, leaving the man's skin covered in geometric shapes. He wore dark leather armor, with a truncheon of some sort in his right hand and a see-through shield hanging off his left forearm. He held the dagger in his left hand, and it had a serrated blade that looked like it could easily slice through Helga's throat with but a flick of his wrist.

<Who's there?> demanded Burroc, and it took Castillan a moment to realize the bald man's mouth hadn't moved at all, but rather that he'd heard his question directly in his mind. The bounder didn't respond, but it spurred him into action; by now, the lack of air inside the portable hole might be causing some difficulties to those hidden within. Still under the effects of the spider climb potion, Castillan quietly crept up the wall, through the open doorway along its topmost section, across the ceiling, and back down behind Burroc. He slid the rolled-up portable hole from his belt and allowed it to adhere to the wall directly behind him. There was now a 10-foot-diameter hole in the wall, inside of which could be seen a handful of seasoned adventurers - and one earth elemental.

Gilbert's link to Mudpie popped back into existence and the wizard knew at once that his familiar was out of the portable hole, but at the moment he had other, more pressing concerns. Before he'd been able to fly up over the walls of Battershield Keep, he'd been slammed by an invisible force. Said invisible force then clamped down on his shoulder with a pair of invisible teeth, and then wrapped a flexible, invisible body around Gilbert's torso, pinning his arms to his sides and squeezing the life out of him. Unable to cast any spells in this configuration, he called out to his familiar for help.

Back in the keep, Mudpie heard the summons. He stepped out of the portable hole and sank through the floor, earth gliding through the ground in the direction of his master. Crossing below the courtyard, he could feel Aithanar above him at the stables, opening doors and releasing some of the animals kept within, but that wasn't the elemental's concern.

Gilbert, in the meantime, realized he still had a fly spell active even if he couldn't cast any further spells, and used it to its best effect. Whatever was constricting him had large, leathery wings keeping it aloft, but that didn't mean the wizard couldn't counteract its desired flight path. He brought the two of them back down to the ground and then dragged them over towards the keep, so Mudpie would have a quicker time catching up to them.

Finoula and Darrien were the two closest to the front of the portable hole's opening. They each readied their weapons - she wielding Tahlmalaera, he gripping his Arachnibow - but Burroc heard them, either audible or mentally. He turned his head in their direction - inadvertently looking straight at the still-invisible Castillan, without realizing it - and sent a mind blast in their direction. Everyone in the portable hole was within the area of effect, as was the unseen bounder. Fortunately, of the assembled heroes only Hagan and Darrien were affected. The half-elf ranger let his magical bow slip from his fingers as Burroc spun around to face this new threat from an unexpected direction. He backed up, taking Helga out of the range of Castillan's magic circle against evil spell without even intending to. She immediately snapped back to Burroc's mental domination - as was Aithanar, apparently, for he stepped up from the meeting hall with sword drawn and Burroc passed Helga over to him. The elven fighter put his sword against Helga's throat. <Kill her if anybody tries anything!> Burroc commanded, the telepathic words entering everyone's minds at once.

"Fight it, Aithanar!" called out Binkadink, pushing the still-stunned Darrien out of the way and rushing forward. Fortunately, although he couldn't see Castillan, the bounder was not standing directly in front of him so his way was unhindered. And despite holding his glaive at the ready, the gnome didn't even take a swing at Burroc (in fact, he didn't even dodge the slam of Burroc's truncheon as he got within range) - his only goal was to get close enough to Aithanar and Helga to encompass the two of them in the magic circle against evil spell currently active and centered upon his gnomish frame. Both blinked in confusion, and Aithanar hurriedly lowered the sword from Helga's throat.

Outside the keep, Mudpie suddenly popped up from the ground. There was his master, hovering just above the ground on his back, thrashing around furiously. Gilbert had tried pulling himself out of the grip of the invisible mount's coils, but to no avail. However, he did manage to get one hand close enough to a wand at his belt to pull it out. He could feel by the touch that it was his wand of burning hands, so he pushed it as far against the creature's body - and away from his own - as he could before activating it. Flames erupted from the wand, scorching the wizard' leg but doing substantially more damage to his invisible foe. And with his fly spell keeping the grappling opponents close to the ground, Mudpie was able to slam into the invisible beast's armored body.

Stepping from the portable hole, Ingebold intended to crush the bald man's skull with her warhammer now that her mother was out of harm's way. She, however, was standing directly behind the invisible Castillan without realizing it, and her momentum sent the unseen bounder crashing forward into Burroc, who had stepped closer to the foes he could see. The bald intruder was having a difficult time picking up individual thoughts from this mass of newcomers to the scene, getting instead a chaotic mess of conflicting plans and strategies. But it didn't matter in the end, for Castillan had instinctively reacted to being bumped by Ingebold, turning a jostling from behind into a sneak attack maneuver. Invisible to both sight and mental detection due to Hagan's greater invisibility and Harriet Fung's magic ring, Castillan sent his swords deep into Burroc's body without his victim having any sense whatsoever of the impending attacks. In a matter of a mere second or two, the man with the geometric markings lay dead upon the floor of Aerik's study.

Castillan immediately dropped the greater invisibility spell so his friends could see him. Ingebold ran forward and embraced her mother, the two bursting into instant tears upon their reunion. Binkadink went outside to the courtyard for his own reunion - and there, scampering in the courtyard, was Obvious, whom he hadn't seen for months. Finoula similarly reacquainted herself with Daisy and Wrath. Back in the study, Wezhley had crawled up onto Hagan's shoulder and nibbled carefully on his master's nose, eventually snapping the half-orc out of the stunning he'd received at Burroc's mental blast. They similarly helped Darrien back to full awareness, and then the joined the others in the courtyard.

"Hey, where's Gilbert and Mudpie?" asked Darrien, looking around. The others, caught up in their homecoming reunions with their loved ones, sheepishly looked around. Nobody wanted to admit they had lost track of Gilbert or failed to notice his absence, but there it was.... Fortunately, about that time Gilbert came flying up over the Keep and landed in the courtyard; shortly thereafter, Mudpie surfaced from the ground, having burrowed beneath the ground.

"Don't worry about me - I fine!" griped Gilbert. "I take care of invisible worm all by myself!" Once it had been slain, the invisible creature reverted to normal opacity, exposing itself as a segmented worm with leathery bat wings, a light bluish-white in color.

"Awesome diversion," commented Castillan.

They brought the wizard up to speed and everyone agreed they wanted more answers than were currently available. So, employing a gentle repose spell on Burroc's corpse, they planned to have Ingebold cast speak with dead on him in the morning. In addition, she promised Aithanar she'd cast heal on him, now that she was powerful enough to do so. "That should hopefully clear yer affliction," she said to the elf.

"Shombaddy cafloozle," replied Aithanar, casting a quick glance over at Finoula.

Shortly thereafter, Aerik returned with a dozen burly dwarven castle guards, and he was pleased to see that none of them were needed. "Praise be t' Moradin!" he cried, sweeping Helga into his arms. Then he embraced his daughter, who heartily embraced him back. Then, recalling what she'd learned, she asked, "What's this about havin' Hagan and his weasel stayin' in m' room?"

Binkadink offered that, as a gnome, he took up less room than the others and Hagan and Wezhley were welcome to bunk with him. The half-orc went to gather up his meager possessions from the campsite he'd made outside the keep, and Helga (as well as a shanghaied Ingebold, who for once didn't grumble about being pressed into kitchen duty by her ma) kept busy preparing a welcome home feast for the team. The rest of the day was devoted to settling back in to the team's headquarters, with stories shared about what had happened during the heroes' months-long absence from the kingdom - and, the others were shocked to learn, from the planet itself.

The next day, though, they were back to the business at hand. Ingebold cast her speak with dead spell upon Burroc, and a ghostly representation of the bald man with the geometric patterns on his skin materialized. His expression said he was there under duress, though, and they'd likely not get much from him in the way of helpful answers if he could prevent it.

The group having decided ahead of time on what questions to ask, Ingebold began with the first. "How'd ye get those scars ye first showed up with?" Upon first arriving at the keep, he'd had a long gash across one thigh and smaller gashes along his side.

<In battle> thought Burroc - even under the effects of the speak with dead spell, he didn't so much as speak as project his answers mentally, as was apparently his custom.

That wasn't very helpful! thought Ingebold, but pressed on with the next question. "What are your people commonly called?" None of the adventurers had ever seen or even heard of anybody like Burroc - even Gilbert came up empty after consulting his Omnibook; the closest possible match he could find were the hordelings of the lower planes, no two of which were said to be alike.

<Thought masters> replied Burroc's spirit, managing to tinge his mental reply with a level of noticeable disdain.

"Snobby sort," muttered Finoula.

"Where do your people come from?" was Ingebold's next question. Gilbert Fung leaned forward, eager to hear the response. He was willing to put money down that Burroc hailed from an outer plane, but he had no real idea which one was the likeliest candidate.

<The Queenslands> replied Burroc, and Gilbert sniffed in contempt - a likely technically correct answer that still left them in the dark.

Ingebold's final question was, "Why did ye not just ask me parents fer help when ye arrived, instead 'f dominatin' me ma and Aithanar?" The response surprised nobody: <They are lesser beings, suitable only as slaves.> "Well, that's all I have fer ye," responded Ingebold. "I hope ye rot in whatever Hell ye've earned." And with that, the spell was finished and Burroc's spirit dissipated away to nothingness, the smug look of superiority never once leaving his face.

Ingebold let out a sigh of exasperation, then turned to Aithanar. "Ye're next," she said. "Are ye ready?"

"Bonticky findaboodle!" the elf replied, an eager expression on his face. He looked over at his older brother, who nodded his encouragement at him. Castillan had full trust in Ingebold's healing abilities; she'd cured him of the affliction of lycanthropy in the past. He was sure her heal spell would work.

Ingebold said the words to the spell and Aithanar was suffused in a warm, golden light that rapidly dissipated; it lingered the longest around his head, covering him in a halo before winking out. The elf opened his mouth as if to speak, but then apparently changed his mind and closed it again. He smiled at Ingebold in gratitude and touched the side of her face in a simple gesture of friendship, but then turned and stood directly before Finoula.

"Finoula Cloudshadow," he said, taking her hands, "it has been unending torture to be this close to you for so long but be unable to speak my thoughts aloud in a coherent fashion. Now that I am finally able to do so, I wish to say what I’ve wanted to say to you since the moment I first lay eyes upon you. You are, without a doubt, the loveliest creature I've ever seen. Your eyes sparkle like sunlight on a running brook; your hair is like spun moonlight. And your battle-prowess with your sword is a true beauty to behold.

"I don't want you to feel obligated to respond in any particular way, but I desperately want you to know exactly how I feel, and how I've felt about you since we first met. And I will live with the hope that, perhaps someday, you might feel for me the way I feel for you.

"In the meantime, if there is ever anything I can do for you, you have only to ask. My answer will always be 'yes.'"

Finoula looked at the handsome elf who had diligently looked after her pony, Daisy, during their earlier adventures. "I...I don't know what to say," she replied.

"Hit him up for big loan," suggested Gilbert. "You already know he going to say yes!"

Finoula gave an exasperated look at the portly wizard. "Way to kill the mood!" she complained.

"No matter," said Aithanar, dropping the ranger's hands. "I've said what I wanted to; there's no need for an immediate response." And then he gave Finoula another smile before returning to Ingebold and belatedly thanking her for her help.

"Not to change the subject or anything," piped up Binkadink, "but if we're going to keep using the dragonfly ship, we really ought to have a designated pilot. Somebody who can cast spells, but who we won't mind losing out on their spellcasting abilities on a regular basis."

"You got name in mind, gnome?" asked Gilbert.

"Well, yeah - my cousin Jinkadoodle."

"Oh, exactly what needed - another gnome!"

"And a pranktastic one at that," pointed out Darrien. "You haven't forgotten that big fart he set off in your butt in front of the king, have you?"

"No," replied Binkadink through gritted teeth, never liking being reminded of the most humiliating moment of his life. "But one: he won't have any spells at hand with which to waste on pranks if he's constantly flying us around. And two: it will allow our normal spellcasters to keep their spells while we go off and do amazing things." He kept to himself his private and three: Jink'll always be ready at hand for me to prank him back.

"Makes sense," interjected Finoula. "Although I have to admit, flying the ship is pretty cool."

But although there were two rooms inside the dragonfly vessel set aside for bunkrooms, they were already pretty tight quarters. Adding Jinkadoodle and Hagan to the mix - to say nothing of Mudpie, Obvious, Wrath, Grumps Junior, Wezhley, and possibly even Daisy, as well as Aithanar (who had volunteered to accompany the group to continue his care of the group's animals, although it was quite transparent that the real reason for his eagerness had less to do with the animals and more to do with continued nearness to one Finoula Cloudshadow) - would put quite a strain on the bunking arrangements. Fortunately, there was a cargo hold in the back of the ship, along the lengthy tail section of the dragonfly's body. It was currently filled with junk from the previous owners, but if they cleared it out that was additional space that could be devoted to living quarters.

And so it was that a major cleanup of the cargo hold occurred. In doing so, Darrien's keen eyes picked up a detail they'd missed thus far: there were scratches on the boards of one of the wooden slats making up the floor, which, when viewed at the correct angle, formed a word: "MALVAER." Due to his recent tutoring in the Draconic language from Caliandra from the equally small kingdom to the south of Kordovia, the ranger recognized this as a word meaning "secret cave." "Guys!" he said, pointing to the floor. "Somebody carved 'MALVAER' on the floor!"

Upon utterance of the command word, a 5-foot-square section of the cargo deck floor disappeared. In its place was a set of stairs leading down. Those in the immediate vicinity could see they went on for about 15 feet, which they realized would normally have put them beyond the outer surface of the bottom of the ship. These stairs were apparently extradimensional in nature!

Castillan took the lead, his elven heritage allowing him to see in the murky darkness, although there seemed to be some low level of illumination at the bottom of the stairs, which opened up into a large room filled with comfortable-looking sofas and chairs. There were a few bookcases along the walls and black candles flickering in candelabra around the expansive room. There were eight doors along three of the walls, while the fourth - directly across from the stairs - had two open doorways, beyond which the bounder could see a long banquet table overflowing with food. "Come check this out!" he called eagerly to his companions.

Gilbert stepped hesitantly into the larger room, looking about in awe. "This is a Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion!" he declared. "And what looks to be a permanent effect, no less!" In his awe, he had failed to notice he'd slipped out of the pidgin-Common accent he normally affected. Then, he suddenly jumped back, surprised at the ghostly visage floating into existence directly in front of him. It was a dark, insubstantial shape, with the hint - at certain angles - of a skull in place of a face. Several of these beings floated here and there about the room. The wizard concentrated on his magically-enhanced eyesight, then breathed a sigh of relief once he noted the floating apparitions did not trigger his detect undead senses. "That a relief!" he stated, slipping back into his sing-song pidgin. "They just the unseen servants inside Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion."

"Oh yeah?" asked Castillan. "Hey! Servant! Fetch me a glass of wine!" Immediately, one of the forms went streaking across the room to the banquet hall, returning with a filled glass of wine - of a distinctly fine elven vintage, no less. "I like this!" the bounder enthused.

"Let's see what's behind all of these doors," suggested Finoula, opening the door in the northwestern corner. While she did so, Grumps Junior bounded across the room, following his nose to the tantalizing aromas of food on the banquet table. Darrien, who had been quite proud of himself for tricking his dire bear cub into backing up and falling into the open portable hole and then being dumped into the cargo hold once he'd brought it up there, suddenly regretted his actions when the hungry bruin knocked over a platter of carved roast to the floor and then bent over it and started gobbling it up. Wezhley followed suit, nibbling at fruits that had fallen from the table when Grumps Junior slapped the meat platter to the floor.

Four of the doors led to separate bedrooms, not surprisingly when the heroes recalled the ship's previous owners had been a quartet of necromancers. (That also explained the black everburning candles in the candelabra and the skull faces on the unseen servants.) One held a four-poster bed with a carved skull on each post; one of these was a defensive, floating skull that sent magic missiles blasting from its eye sockets at Hagan, who was the first to enter that particular room. He returned fire with attack spells of his own until the skull had been destroyed. Another room held an ornate rug on the floor; when Gilbert examined it with a detect magic spell it not only radiated fairly strong magic, but when he tentatively lifted a corner with his staff, a carving of the same design was on the floor immediately below it.

"That weird," the wizard mused. "And look, there a word woven into design: 'umerguth'." But saying the word had no apparent effect.

"Let me see that," suggested Binkadink, pulling the rug from the floor and plopping it onto the bed. Then he stood on the carved design on the floor and repeated, "umerguth." He immediately teleported over to the rug on the bed. "Umerguth," he said again, and was transported to the carving on the floor again.

"I think we find easy way to get animals onto and off of ship," declared Gilbert, but the gnome wasn't listening. Instead, he was repeating "umerguth" as fast as he could, teleporting back and forth between the two locations until Gilbert tipped over the carpet and sent the gnome flying to the floor when he reappeared on the rug. "You giving me headache!" Gilbert complained.

Another bedroom seemed pretty normal, although there was a shelf on the bottom of a nightstand that had an interesting property: anything placed there became invisible to all but the one who had placed it there. Hagan discovered this by accidentally knocking over the dagger of venom that had been hidden there by the room's former occupant. The fourth bedroom was nearly empty, save for a simple cot, a few pegs on the walls holding robes, and an elaborate wall-hanging of Vecna, God of Secrets. Castillan appraised the depiction as being worth several hundred pieces of gold to an interested buyer.

Other doors from the main room led to two privies and a bathing chamber, complete with unseen servants to scrub your back and dry you off upon completion of the bath. But it was Castillan who found the deadliest, and most disturbing, room yet.

Opening the easternmost door on the northern wall, the bounder saw a large room filled with dissecting tables and other tools of the necromantic trade - including a stitched-together form that served as both lab assistant and guardian against intruders. Expecting the creature to lurch in his direction, the bounder got quite a shock as it dashed in his direction, causing the elf to bleat in terror and slam the door shut. He held the knob, but the creature didn't follow, apparently set to fight off intruders but "reset" once no intruders were in sight.

Calling the others to him and briefing them on what was on the other side of the door, Castillan got ready to open the door a second time. This time, though, he had a small army of adventurers at his back. Swinging the door open and leaping inside and to the left, he was followed immediately by Binkadink's glaive, which was followed in turn by the rest of the gnome fighter. Swinging it around at the onrushing blaspheme, Binkadink got in a good slash - and then was shocked as the swift creature slid around his weapon and bit down hard on the side of the gnome's neck. The gnome froze up immediately, dazed, and Castillan decided discretion was the better part of valor, rushing back out of the room but dragging the gnome with him by the collar.

Finoula stepped into Castillan's place, swinging Tahlmalaera into the undead's side. Darrien sent a slew of arrows in past his fellow ranger, smiling grimly as they buried themselves up to the feathers in undead flesh. Calling for Finoula to fall back - which she did - Hagan and Gilbert sent a fireball and a set of scorching rays crashing in on the blaspheme. It took some doing, but eventually the undead beast fell.

There was another room off of the necromancy lab: 10 feet to a side, it radiated an unnatural cold. Gilbert surmised it was for the storage of dead flesh for the necromancers' experiments. He offered is as a cooler to keep their beverages cold, but the others weren't as eager to drink anything that had been stored in a room that once held corpses.

That left only the banquet room, which thus far had only been explored by Grumps Junior and Wezhley, who had expanded the mess on the floor by dint of sending more food crashing to easier reach. There were two obvious surprises in the room: the entire southern wall was a mirror, and along the northern wall was a large glass container holding a floating human brain. A sign above the brain-jar read:

TIMOTHY AMATTOX

VOMIT AWAY A VOW

"Timothy Amattox?" asked Darrien, and the others glared at him as it turned out to once again be a command word of sorts. Immediately, the fluids in the brain-jar began to bubble. "Stop saying command words out loud until we figure out what they might do!" chided Castillan.

<Ask thy questions> demanded a voice in the heads of the heroes - rather uncomfortably so, given their recent experience with Burroc. But Binkadink wasn't paying particular attention, he was more interested in the mirror and its placement on the south wall...and the fact that all of the letters in the sign over the brain-in-a-jar could be reflected along a vertical axis. Completely ignoring Castillan's recent complaint to Darrien, the gnome looked at the sign through the mirror and repeated what he saw reflected there: "wov a yawa timov!"

Immediately, the mirror shimmered in place and vanished, revealing a hidden room behind the mirror - and an animated hulking corpse standing as a barrier in front of the riches visible in what was apparently a treasure vault.

"Oh come on!" complained Castillan, looking back to see what trouble the curious gnome had gotten them into - and just after he had cautioned Darrien against such impulsiveness! He snapped his fingers, causing the weapons held in his gloves of storing to pop into his hands and turned to meet the towering undead threatening Binkadink.

Darrien, however, opted to take the brain in a jar up on his offer. "What's that creature back there?" he asked.

<A hulking corpse> responded the preserved brain of Timothy Amattox, a human sage once under the employ of the four necromancers who had previously owned the dragonfly ship.

"How do we best kill it?" Darrien inquired.

<The easiest method is to bludgeon it to death>

"Is there any way we can control it instead?"

<No> came the telepathic reply.

"Use bludgeoning weapons against it!" called Darrien to the others. Binkadink had been using his trusty magical glaive, and while the undead flesh seemed somewhat resistant to damage from the slashing blade, Binkadink's surprising strength did manage to do a fair amount of damage to the creature. Finoula had been slashing at it from a safe distance using her whip of thorns, but it lurched out at her and bit her with its ghastly teeth, grabbed her with its ragged claws, and then used its incredible strength to rend her armor and the flesh beneath it. She staggered out of its grasp and fell back, dazed and bleeding profusely. Ingebold stepped up immediately to heal her Battle-Sister.

"Hang on!" called out Gilbert Fung, casting a wall of force across the opening to the treasure vault once Binkadink managed to push the hulking corpse back with his glaive. The spell effect stretched from one side of the doorway to the other, leaving a gap at the top and the bottom for weapons and spells to reach in without allowing the hulking corpse room to attack back. As the wall of force was invisible, Gilbert had to explain to the others where its effects began and ended. Castillan dropped to his knees and stabbed at the undead brute's ankles below the invisible wall, causing a blackish ichor to leak out like blood.

Darrien came up with what he thought was another brilliant plan. Turning away from the floating brain, he addressed the unseen servants that hovered in the room next door. "Start removing the treasure from the vault and piling it out here in the banquet room!" he commanded. At once, a trio of gliding shapes floated over to the hulking corpse, slid down to the gap along the floor, and began ferrying out coins and gems. Darrien smiled at his own brilliance and helped get Grumps Junior away from the area of carnage, since the dire bear cub had ignored the undead form in one-way battle against the heroes while there was still food to be devoured from the banquet table. Hagan likewise scooped up Wezhley from his feast, depositing him on his shoulder before sending a fireball spell under the gap to explode around the undead vault guardian.

Unable to effectively fight back, it was merely a matter of time before the hulking corpse was destroyed. Castillan began the tedious (but not at all unpleasant) task of counting up the total value of the treasure the necromancers had been hoarding.

"Phew!" exclaimed Gilbert, holding his nose. "We going to have to air this place out!"

Despite his own even more powerful sense of smell, Grumps Junior gave no indication of agreeing. He had returned to the feast on the floor of the banquet room, chuffing in contentment.

- - -

This was my ten-year-old nephew Harry's first time playing with us. (Harry lives with us full time.) He'd been invited for the past several years, since both Jacob and Joey first joined our ranks when they were eight years old and he had turned eight two years earlier. But it wasn't until Logan started up a homebrew Skylanders D&D campaign for Harry and I that he fell in love with the concept of role-playing games, and then one day out of the blue decided he was ready to start playing "regular D&D" with us. Going through the options with him, he decided almost immediately on a half-orc sorcerer. He was originally going to name Hagan's familiar "Wesley," but he used his "cutesy" voice when having Hagan talk to his familiar and so "Wesley" soon officially became "Wezhley."

My wife worried that Harry's attention span wouldn't last for the full five-and-a-half hours that our game sessions usually span, as two hours (or just slightly over that) was the norm for our Skylanders D&D sessions - by design, since Logan had built them taking Harry's attention span into account. But he had no real problems, even though he had to sit through the whole dragon encounter with nothing to do. (I had told him he could roll the dice for the dragon's attacks, but then some quick thinking on Jacob's part turned my planned combat encounter into a diplomatic encounter instead.)

Still, I was pleased with the back story Harry and I had come up with to graft Hagan into the campaign; we were lucky in that Harry joined the group just as the PCs were returning from four months of wildspace adventuring. That made Hagan's entry into the campaign relatively easy, and it brought with it an implied "pre-approval" from Aerik.

I do still have a few concerns, though. We all had to cut back - significantly - on the bad language that normally occurs during our game sessions, caused either by bad dice rolls or lewd/crude side comments at the table. Fortunately, the few times a bad word got by us we instantly apologized, so we shouldn't be corrupting Harry's vocabulary. (Plus, he already chides me for using the word "crap," which he considers a bad word. I don't think he'll be picking up cussing as a bad habit from us any time soon. He's pretty close to Lawful Good.) However, I have an adventure coming up that'd undoubtedly get an "R" rating if it were a movie. I'm either going to have to tone that one down significantly or else convince Harry that it might not be a great idea for him to participate in that particular adventure. (I already have a good excuse for Hagan's absence, too: he'll be busy helping school Harriet Fung in the intricacies of the Orc language, to better prepare her for the infiltration scheme King Galrich's got planned.) And he already excuses himself from watching TV shows with us if he thinks they'll be too scary; he passes on specific episodes of the special effects make-up contest show Face Off if the contestants will be making too scary monsters that week. So we'll see how it goes - that adventure is still a ways away.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My "What Would Daryl Do?" shirt featuring Daryl Dixon from "The Walking Dead." Not only did it hint at the presence of undead when the PCs explored the hidden levels of their dragonfly ship, but it also depicts "a badass with a crossbow" - which could be an apt description of Hagan (who didn't have a reason to use his light crossbow this adventure).
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 37: DEVILS IN THE DETAILS

Game Session Date: 12 August 2017

- - -

Jinkadoodle brought the dragonfly vessel to a shaky hover just above a field of wheat along the eastern outskirts of Greyhawk City. One by one, the others climbed down the rope ladder and disembarked, leaving Aithanar to pull it back up once everyone had departed the ship.

"We'll meet you back here at sundown!" he called down to the others, and then Jinkadoodle sent the dragonfly ship soaring up into the sky - he'd be spending the rest of the day practicing maneuvering the spelljamming vessel and getting used to sensing everything around the ship through the vessel's helm. Aithanar would be tending to the group's various animals, kept in the secret lower hold where one of the bedrooms had been converted to a stable of sorts.

As for the heroes, they had other things to do: shopping! Aerik had provided them with a list of the prominent magic shops in Greyhawk City and the heroes all had their accumulated riches stashed away with them. King Galrich had specifically instructed them to outfit themselves with the best magical equipment they could, and that's exactly what they intended to do. However, since Ingebold carried their only extradimensional source - the portable hole - capable of carrying all of their accumulated riches, the group needed to stay together, rather than each go their separate ways.

Binkadink and Finoula dropped off their armor at a respectable armorsmith's shop and paid in advance for the magical upgrades they wanted done; the gnome's red dragon plate mail could easily be modified to provide him resistance from fire-based attacks, whereas the elven ranger wanted her armor fortified to better protect her from sneak attacks and the like. Fortunately, Binkadink had a spare set of chain mail armor that he wore while his "good armor" was being upgraded; Finoula had no such set of backup armor and thus walked the streets of Greyhawk City in a comfortable outfit, the sword and whip strapped to her belt the only indicators of her adventurer status. At the same armorsmith, Ingebold purchased a beautifully-crafted suit of chainmail; she walked away more heavily-armored than when she arrived, in direct opposition to both Finoula and Binkadink. She also later picked up a pair of boots that increased her ability to leap and to move at a faster pace. "It'll be good t' no' be always fallin' behind th' rest of ye," she commented as she pulled on her new boots of striding and springing.

Darrien surrendered his Arachnibow at a famed weaponsmith's shop, to have it enhanced with an icy burst effect. Fortunately, he had a spare composite longbow to tide him over for the week or so it would take for the enhancement to be made. Castillan had in idea of what he wanted, but had to have it custom-made. He handed over his money, eager for the ring to be crafted that would allow him to effect the equivalent of a dimension door spell three times a day. He, too, was told to check back in a week's time.

Gilbert's purchases were mostly of spell scrolls and potions, and although they were ready for immediate use as-is he intended to study the scrolls carefully in the days to follow, to learn the secrets of the spells they contained. Then they'd be carefully inscribed into the spellbook section of his Omnibook, which would allow him to be able to cast those spells as needed. Of course, as he bought nearly two dozen spell scrolls, he'd be rather busy for several weeks inscribing these into his spellbook, but such were the ways of a wizard. He also traded in his bracers of armor for a more powerful set. Darrien picked up a few potions to tide him over; he got a few odd looks from the other customers and people who passed him in the streets, since he'd decided to embrace his heritage as a half-aquatic elf and had stopped taking the medicated raisins that had kept his skin and hair away from the greenish end of the color spectrum. His skin still had only a hint of green, seen only under certain lighting conditions, but his hair was now a thick, lustrous pine green.

By early afternoon, the heroes had attended to most of what they'd wished to accomplish. They grabbed a quick bite at an outdoor eatery, then strolled the streets of the unfamiliar city to see the sights. They were accosted at the site of a fountain by a one-handed beggar asking them for coins. He held out a small, filthy cloth sack in his left hand, his right arm ending in a stump. Castillan was in the process of handing him over five pieces of gold - a slightly comical process, given that the bounder was holding out the coins as if to pass them over but the beggar's sole hand was holding the cloth sack and he was thus unable to grab them - when a fearful cry rang out through the air.

"No! Leave me alone! Help! Help!" called what started out as a masculine voice but which got increasingly high-pitched in terror.

Castillan looked over at the sound, leaving the five coins held in his outstretched hand while the frustrated beggar desperately tried to figure out how to get them into his bag with only his left hand. Finoula stepped over and saw a heavy figure running into a nearby alley, pursued by a short man wearing a hooded cloak. The pursuer had a long dagger brandished in his right hand. "Hey!" she called, hoping to scare the attacker into fleeing upon realizing he was under observation.

Binkadink took matters a bit closer into hand. Extending his gnomish stilt-boots to increase the length of his strides, he raced up behind the pursuing attacker. While the heavyset man skidded around a corner and raced against one of the walls separating the city into districts, Binkadink sent his glaive crashing into the side of the pursuer's head. He was careful to twist the blade so the flat part of it struck the gnome's victim; in a strange city for the first time, the fighter had no intentions of slaying somebody his first day there. The hooded figure stumbled, slammed into a side wall, and collapsed into a heap of twisted limbs, his sharp dagger clattering to the cobbles of the alley. Rolling onto his back, his hood flipped back from his face, exposing a sharp, black beak and a face covered with dark feathers. Binkadink wasn't aware of it yet, but he'd just met up with his first kenku.

Meanwhile, ignorant of his gnomish savior behind him, the would-be victim raced straight for the wall ahead of him and fear helped him scamper up it and pull his bulk over the top, dropping down into the neighboring district in a move that would have made Castillan nod in begrudging appreciation.

But Castillan wasn't within sight of the fat man's impressive physical feat; he had finally turned his attention back to the beggar and deposited his coins into the filthy bag. With a nod of appreciation, the beggar made his way across the fountain and scampered away in a hurry. Turning, the bounder saw the reason why: two armed guardsman were fast approaching, apparently having heard the cries for help. Looking at the numerous coins sitting at the bottom of the fountain, Castillan could only imagine beggars were constantly being shooed away from such a source of easy money.

"What's going on here?" demanded one of the guardsmen, approaching Binkadink warily. The gnome had dropped his stilt-boots down to normal gnomish height, the better to look inoffensive, and although he still held his glaive he gripped it one-handed at his side and held his other hand in the air. The guardsmen were both armed with halberds, and had them pointed at the gnome responsible for this assault on an unconscious victim. Binkadink quickly gave his version of events, while the rest of the Kordovians approached.

"You're all going to have to come with us," said one of the guardsmen. "We'll let the magistrate sort things out." Binkadink went willingly with the guards and the others followed.

Inside the courtroom, the others filed into the rows of pew-like seats as Binkadink and the two guards stood before the magistrate's bench. The gnome had just begun telling his story when a page entered the room and approached the magistrate, whispering into the older man's ear once he got there.

The magistrate pounded on the bench with his gavel. "Clear the courtroom," he commanded, and the two or three others sitting in the viewing area got up to leave. So, too, did the stenographer, the bailey, and, at a nod from the magistrate, the two guards who had brought Binkadink in for questioning. Then, with the admonishment to "Remain here - the Guildmaster will be here shortly to hear your story," the magistrate got up himself and departed the room, leaving the seven bewildered heroes alone in the courtroom.

Moments later, the door opened up again and another hooded figure entered the room, his robes as dark as the magistrate's who had just departed. This one wore a mask hiding his face; he walked behind the magistrate's bench, took a seat, and looked down at the assembled heroes.

"Are you the individuals involved in the attack on the kenku?" demanded the masked man. Then, before any of them had a chance to answer, he pulled the mask from his face and stared directly at Finoula in complete astonishment. "Feron?" he asked.

Finoula stood up from her seat and addressed the man behind the magistrate's desk. "Uh, no, Your Honor. My name is Finoula Cloudshadow; I'm Feron's older sister."

"Well, I'll be damned," replied the once-masked man. "Full elf, I see, now that I look harder. Well." He cleared his throat, then continued with what he was going to say. "I am Guildmaster Rale Bodkin. I once adventured with Feron - in fact, she and I were very close, if you know what I mean - but now I am one of the secret leaders of this city, running the only legitimate thieves' guild and a guild of stage actors. I'm also the head of the Collectors, a band of kenku information brokers. The kenku you attacked, K'Klark, he works for me. Would you care to explain yourselves?"

Binkadink explained what had happened, taking special care to point out how he'd attacked with the flat of his blade when he could have easily slain the kenku. Rale listened quietly, nodding to himself on occasion. At the end of the gnome's account, Rale explained what was going on. "There's been a rash of devil sightings throughout the city recently. And, perhaps not coincidentally, there have also been attacks against certain of my establishments. It's my belief that the two are related, that there's a rival in town using devils to try to bring down my Guild. K'Klark was looking into a recent lead when you encountered him. I want you to pick up where he left off. The man he was after, Dunkleman, owns a handful of warehouses. He's gone to ground after K'Klark went after him, but I’ve got my Collectors looking for him. In the meantime, I want you to check into his warehouses, see if you can find anything implicating him in the devil attacks. Do that for me, and we'll forget the cost of K'Klark’s healing. Agreed?"

"Agreed," replied Binkadink. Rale gave them the address to the warehouse he wanted them to check out and gave them instructions to report back to one of his associates, Chunk, the owner of a nearby pawnshop. "Chunk'll be able to get word back to me," Rale replied.

The group filed out of the courtroom and headed to the location of Dunkleman's warehouse. It was in the shoddier end of town, a section referred to as "the Styes." The warehouse, once they got to it, was fairly unimpressive-looking; a single-story structure, with only one set of doors leading to a muddy street. A cheap-looking padlock attached to a metal chain wound through the two door handles provided the only visible protection.

"This will be a piece of cake," scoffed Castillan, whipping out his lockpicking set.

"Not so fast, elf boy," advised Gilbert Fung. "We do some prep spells first." He cast a mage armor spell on himself and Mudpie, while Finoula and Darrien each cast barkskin spells on themselves. Gilbert and Hagan each chose to protect themselves with stoneskin spells, while Ingebold cast a magic circle against evil spell centered on herself. "If it's devils we be up against, 'specially summoned ones, ye'll be wantin' t' stay close t' me," she advised.

"Hey, Gilbert, how about a mage armor spell for me as well?" asked Finoula. She felt particularly vulnerable without any type of armor, since hers was back at the armorsmith's being upgraded.

"I got no more mage armor spells ready," responded Gilbert. "But here," he said, digging through his pack, "You can have this." He handed her over a potion vial. She drank it down in a gulp, wincing at the unpleasant aftertaste, and then her skin erupted in goose bumps all over as she started feeling itchy all over. "It a 'Winkidew Special'," the mage advised, as Finoula's visible skin turned a bright bluish shade.

The ranger frowned at Gilbert. "I look ridiculous!" she complained.

"I can turn your hair blue, to match," offered Binkadink, smirking at the thought of changing somebody's hair color on request for once.

"No thanks," grumbled Finoula.

"We just explain you a rare strain of friendly drow," offered Gilbert, smiling.

"Just open the lock already, Castillan," commanded Finoula. "I think we're all done with our prepping out here." Castillan dutifully gave a quick twist of his wrist and the lock popped open in his hand. He pulled out the chain and opened the doors, revealing the warehouse's interior. All but the back right corner - which was walled off, likely as an office room - was one large, open room with crates and barrels stacked in a haphazard fashion. There were flickering lights in the back left corner; as the group approached, they saw numerous black candles in place around a magic circle carved in the warehouse floor. Lying in the middle of this circle was a human with a sacrificial knife - one of these with a blade that curved back and forth like a wriggling snake - sticking out of his heart. He wore tattered clothes and an expression of pain frozen on his face.

Everyone approached cautiously. "Nobody enter circle," warned Gilbert. Darrien peered into an open crate close to the circle and found a pile of dark-colored robes. Ingebold cast a detect magic spell and peered closely at the circle, then at the entire back of the warehouse, including the office where Hagan, after having peeked into the window and seeing it empty of people, was entering through the sole door. "Th' circle's safe," she advised. "It's not radiatin' any magic at all."

Inside the office, Hagan found a piece of paper atop the desk. Picking it up, he read over the contents and then returned to read it to the group. "Listen to this," he said. "'Sacrifice a human by midnight tonight to ensure the completion of the next of our goals.' It's signed 'High Priest Dunkleman'."

"So this Dunkleman guy is behind this," concluded Darrien.

"Not so fast," advised Gilbert, examining the magic circle, as Binkadink piped up with, "I don't like this. It's almost too perfect."

"I agree, gnome. This no proper magic circle. You couldn't summon a devil using this. Couldn't summon anything. It all stage dressing."

Binkadink poked at the corpse with his glaive, sliding the tip of the blade underneath him and flipping him over. Rigidity had already possessed the corpse - he'd apparently been dead for some time, probably since the previous night. But what Binkadink wanted to see was how much blood had pooled beneath the corpse, and the answer was evident to all who could see it: not nearly enough. "This poor guy, whoever he was, wasn't even killed here," surmised the gnome.

"Then it's a setup," concluded Finoula. "Do you think this Rale guy is behind it? That he sent us here to find this, so we'd implicate Dunkleman?"

"Not sure what he'd gain by doing that," commented Gilbert. "But somebody framing Dunkleman as guy behind devil attacks."

That was all Niedelmeyer needed to hear. He'd been left here by his master to wait until the setup in the warehouse had been discovered. If, as his master had hoped, this led to Dunkleman being set up as a patsy, he was to allow the discoverers to live and go about their merry way passing on the fabrications about who was behind the devil attacks in the city. But if they didn't fall for the story, then he had been given express permission to take them all out. Dismissing the major illusion cloaking him as a stack of crates, Niedelmeyer struck.

Darrien was the closest target at hand, so the barbed devil slashed out at him from behind with his wicked claws. "Look out!" cried Finoula, seeing the creature's claws coming down on the half-elf, and Darrien spun in place, seeing too late the fierce claws bearing down on him. He had no time to dodge, so he instinctively raised an arm to try to block the razor-sharp claws from ripping off his face...

...but then, inexplicably, the claws stopped a mere inches from the half-elf ranger's upthrust arm. There was a horrendous noise, like fingernails scraping along a piece of slate, and Niedelmeyer's claws scraped off the invisible barrier around Ingebold afforded by her magic circle against evil spell. The spell provided a handful of benefits, but the important one at hand was preventing evil summoned creatures from approaching within ten feet of the spell's focal point. Darrien was fortunately just inside that invisible barrier.

Niedelmeyer shrieked in rage at being denied his victim as Finoula raced forward, stepping outside the protective barrier of Ingebold's magic circle against evil spell. But she had no thoughts of squaring off against this barbed devil just yet; activating her magic amulet, her body became a bolt of lightning that coursed through Niedelmeyer's fiendish body and deposited the ranger back in her normal form a good ten feet away. She glanced at her foe, hoping to see him doubled over in pain at her attack, but no such luck; many devils had an inherent resistance against spells and their effects, and it looks like this time she had failed to overcome his magical protection.

Still, it seemed like a fine idea to Hagan, so he copied Finoula's attack as best he could. While he didn't have an amulet of lightning as she did, he did know how to cast a lightning bolt spell and he stepped forth and did just that, careful to line up his attack so it wouldn't hit Finoula on the other side of the barbed devil. Unfortunately, the sorcerer was no more effective with his electrical attack than the elven ranger had been at hers.

From within the safety of the magic circle against evil spell, Darrien sent a flurry of arrows, one after the other, at the barbed devil. Each struck true, but they snapped in half upon striking the devils' spiny hide or else just got caught up in the numerous barbs and spines poking out of the creature's rough skin. Assessing the situation with a calculating eye, the ranger deemed his arrows to be ineffective against the barbed devil; obviously, a different approach would be needed.

Castillan was the next to attack. Using various crates as stepping stones, he dashed behind the barbed devil and stabbed at it with his short sword. He managed to penetrate the beast's hide, and fortunately his blade was just long enough to prevent any of the spines from piercing his hand in return. But quick as a flash, the barbed devil spun around and raked his claws against the bounder's body before grappling him in a bear hug that pierced through his studded leather armor in a variety of places. Fortunately for the bounder, Niedelmeyer was well aware he was fighting seven opponents and couldn't focus his concentration on just one foe, so he dropped Castillan from his embrace and spun, snarling, to face the rest of his enemies.

Gilbert cast a haste spell that encompassed all of his friends. "See how you like that, Pokey!" he taunted.

Binkadink rushed up the edge of the confines of Ingebold's protective spell and lashed out with his glaive. Surprisingly, the nimble devil avoided the thrust of his blade. But then Finoula reversed her course as another flash of lightning, this time ending up right where she'd been before her first such attack. She was saddened to see this one had not managed to overcome the barbed devil's innate spell resistance either. And neither did Hagan's follow-up lightning bolt attack, which passed through Niedelmeyer's body without the devil even seeming to notice.

But perhaps that was because the barbed devil's focus was on Ingebold. In the midst of furious combat, it had singled her out as the likely caster of the magic circle against evil spell. So it blasted at her with a pair of scorching rays that took the dwarven cleric completely by surprise. She responded in kind, though, casting a holy smite spell on the barbed devil that caused him quite a bit of consternation. That gave Castillan enough time to stagger back into the radius of her magic circle against evil, safe at least against Niedelmeyer's physical attacks.

Darrien had figured out his follow-on attack, given his arrows weren't likely to be of much use. Touching the amber amulet he wore around his neck, he summoned forth the giant praying mantis that lived within it. The mantis manifested directly behind Niedelmeyer and snatched at him with its fearsome claws, but the barbed devil dodged the giant insect's attacks.

Binkadink stabbed at the fiend again and again with his magical glaive, this time managing to penetrate deeply with several of his attacks. Niedelmeyer took a step back but refused to divert his attention from his intended target: two more scorching rays went blasting into Ingebold's form, and she staggered back a step from the onslaught. Begrudgingly, she was forced to cast a healing spell upon herself instead of attacking the barbed devil like she wanted, but she realized she'd be no good to the group if she dropped into unconsciousness, or - even worse - allowed herself to be slain because of her own stubborn pride.

Hagan cast another lightning bolt spell at the wounded barbed devil, and the third time seemed to be the charm. Niedelmeyer staggered under the electrical attack, all but dead on his feet. Finoula stepped up beside him and slashed down at the devil with her longsword Tahlmalaera, and the recent fiend bane enhancement to her sword was all it took to slay the barbed beast. The fiend's body exploded in a puff of rancid gas, leaving nothing behind but a nasty odor.

"Good job, everyone," Ingebold called to the group at large, as they started lining up to be healed. After having his wounds sealed up, Castillan approached Hagan and asked to see the paper the half-orc had unearthed in the warehouse office before battle began. Looking over the written words with a practiced eye, he deduced the letter had been written by a right-handed man using his left hand, possibly in an attempt to disguise his handwriting.

Having gathered all the information they could from the warehouse, the group headed over to Chunk's Pawnshop to check in. But as they approached, they heard screams of terror and ran into a herd of frenzied people. "Run!" cried a woman as she fled past. "Another devil attack!" screamed another.

The heroes surged forward through the panicked crowd, fighting their way toward Chunk's. They heard bellowing and the crashing of furniture from inside the building.

Finoula, perhaps because of her current lack of armor, was the first to reach the doors to the pawnshop. Stepping inside, she saw a large man in well-worn leather armor - Chunk himself, no doubt - rounding from behind a counter with a large cudgel in his hand. But there in the middle of the shop was a human-sized creature wearing an odd assortment of chains. It slammed down at a table of merchandise with its chains, causing the table to rupture in two and all of the goods displayed there to crash to the floor. The ranger raced up to the chain devil and slashed out with Tahlmalaera; if the fiend was surprised at being attacked by a bright blue elf it gave no indication. Instead, it slammed at her with its chains, causing blood to erupt from Finoula's nose.

Ingebold stepped into the store next, invoking the words to a spiritual weapon spell as she did so. A dwarven warhammer made of pure force materialized before her and crashed into the chain devil, knocking its chain-shrouded head back by the force of the blow. Bonecruncher just grunted and carried on his attacks.

Darrien entered the pawnshop, called out to Chunk to stay back, and fired his composite bow at the chain devil. The arrow was deflected off a swinging chain; whether this was intentional on the part of the fiend or just random luck was open to debate. But Hagan entered just behind Darrien and rather than attack from a distance as the ranger had done the sorcerer ran straight up to the chain devil, ducking his head slightly beneath the hovering spiritual weapon. Hagan blasted at it with one of his most powerful spells, and although the cone of cold hit Bonecruncher head-on, all that happened was the sorcerer learned the hard way that chain devils are immune to cold. Wezhley hissed in annoyance on Hagan's shoulder at his master's failure to harm their fiendish foe.

Gilbert and Mudpie entered next, and the wizard had his earth elemental familiar strike at the fiend with its rocky fists. The attack held the chain devil's attention long enough for Castillan to lope around behind it - but not so much that it wasn't able to slam at the bounder with a quick-striking chain as he fled past. Still, the bounder took the pain in stride as he continued his move: striking deep into the devil's body with his short sword, twisting the blade once it was in. Bonecruncher cried out in pain, and Finoula once again made the finishing stroke with Tahlmalaera. The chain devil's body crashed to the ground amidst a cacophony of clattering metal links, but once it landed it was gone in a flash.

"Thanks," replied Chunk, wiping the sweat from his forehead and getting a good look at those who had taken care of the devil who had suddenly appeared and started trashing his place. "Hey, are you guys Rale's new crew?" he asked. "I was told you'd be checking in later."

"Well, we're working with him for the moment," replied Finoula, brow furrowing at the look Chunk was giving her until she remembered she was bright blue. She gave Chunk a rundown of what they had found at the warehouse, and how it looked like somebody was trying to put the blame of the devil attacks on this Dunkleman character.

"I never heard of him," admitted Chunk. "But I'll pass on your report to Rale, once one of my useless assistants shows back up!" Several other rogues worked for Chunk, but they'd all hightailed it once the chain devil appeared.

A tinkling of the bell above the front door alerted the group to the presence of another person entering the pawnshop. Looking up to see if it was one of the shop's other workers, the group saw another hooded, cloaked figure - and once he pulled back the hood, that this was another kenku.

"I'm Skrawk," he said by way of introduction. "You the new guys working for Rale?"

"For now, at least," offered up Castillan. "What's up?"

"I'm here to report in to Chunk, but I can let you guys know as well. We found Dunkleman. One of the Collectors trailed him to a small manor house on Silver Street. He went inside about half an hour or so ago but hasn't come back out since."

"You guys want to go check this out?" asked Chunk.

Gilbert sighed. "Might as well. Give me address to manor house."

As one might expect by the name of the street on which the manor house was situated, this was in one of the better neighborhoods in the city - not where the truly rich lived, but not too far down the social ladder. The manor was fairly small compared to its neighbors, but it was surrounded by an iron fence and thick hedges, providing the owners with a bit of privacy.

"How do we want to do this?" asked Castillan.

"Let's begin with a bit of reconnaissance," suggested Hagan, taking Wezhley from his shoulder. Talking quietly to his familiar, the half-orc set the weasel down on the ground and he scampered off, making a bee-line for the structure built to the side of the manor proper - likely a wagon shed or carriage house. The weasel made it safely underneath the dual doors, confirming there was little there - not even a wagon or a cart. There was a door at the back of the structure that likely led directly into the manor house, but the weasel, while quite intelligent, wasn't able to open it, nor could he squeeze beneath as he had done with the doors to the carriage house. Exiting the way he'd come in, he made a full circuit around the house, climbing up onto windowsills and peeking inside when he could. He identified a small bedroom filled with three sets of bunks (which likely indicated at least six people inside) and a kitchen and dining room, but saw nobody through the windows. There was an entire upper floor but the weasel had no way to get up there to look, so he returned and passed on his findings to his master.

"Good boy, Wezhley," Hagan praised his familiar, pulling out some of his rations and feeding them to the always-hungry weasel.

"Let's see if there a downstairs," suggested Gilbert, sending his own familiar to investigate the possibility. Mudpie sank down into the earth, gliding beneath the surface of the ground and popping his head through the foundation walls to peer at the basement level, which was one big room with a set of stairs leading up to the ground floor over in the northeastern corner. Half of the room was covered in mats and had human-shaped targets against the walls, whereas the other half contained tables containing such things as padlocks and lockpicking tools, a forger's station, and so on.

"Somebody setting up rival thieves' guild," Gilbert surmised after Mudpie returned and gave his report. "Not sure how devils fit in, though."

The group decided on a two-pronged approach. Castillan and Darrien went around to the back of the manor house, where the bounder would pick the lock to the back door and the two would enter from that direction, while the others went in through the front door. Castillan did a quick search for potential traps and found none before putting his lockpicks to good use. Behind him, Darrien had an arrow nocked and ready.

At the front of the manor house, the other five heroes and Mudpie stepped up onto the wooden porch. "Should we just knock?" asked Finoula, but then she got her answer, as directly above them, in the room overlooking the porch, half a dozen men shot crossbows through the murder-holes in the floor built just for that purpose. She and Hagan cried out in sudden pain as arrows pierced their shoulders; Binkadink took this as a sign that all attempts at subterfuge were long since past and smashed open the door with his greatclub.

The room before him was a rather comfortable-looking living room, with a plush sofa and a couple of padded chairs around an end table or two. To the right were two sets of stairs, the closest leading upstairs and the other leading down to the basement. Binkadink could see the stairs leading up went to a hallway along the back wall, blocked by a wooden banister; furthermore, behind the banister stood a familiar-looking figure wearing leather armor, glaring down at the heroes below him. It took a second glance for the gnome to notice what at first had failed to stand out: this figure was familiar because they'd seen him earlier that day - it was the stump at the end of his right arm that gave him away.

Not wanting to switch weapons and realizing a long glaive might be unwieldy in the confines of a manor house's hallways, Binkadink raced up the stairs wielding his magical greatclub, eyes focused on his target: the erstwhile "beggar" they'd met just before K'Klark attacked Dunkleman. Before he could get there, though, the leather-clad human made a weird gesture, holding his left hand in front of the stump of his right arm - and suddenly, an ice devil appeared at the top of the stairs before an astonished Binkadink.

"Kill them all, Winterkiss!" commanded Jack Raptor, and the ice devil slashed out at the gnome fighter to comply with his master's orders.

However, Ingebold put a sudden stop to both of their plans, casting a blade barrier along the hallway at an angle, and directly in the path of where both Jack and Winterkiss stood. With only a second to process any thoughts of evasion, each arrived at the same solution and leaped over the banister onto the floor below. Winterkiss crushed a recliner beneath him as he landed, but Jack fell prone in front of the sofa. However, had they not leaped as they did, they'd both be trapped on the other side of the blade barrier (the ice devil would actually be trapped on both sides of it), with no choice but to move through it to escape.

And then, to add insult to injury, Gilbert followed up Ingebold's blade barrier spell with an Evard's black tentacles spell, causing ebony appendages to rise up from the floor and wrap themselves around the would-be thieves' guildmaster and his ice devil servant. Both were instantly entangled in the writhing tentacles.

At the back door, Castillan made it through the lock and slammed the door open; stepping back, he allowed Darrien to enter before him and shoot at the only foe he saw: Winterkiss, enwrapped in a multitude of inky tentacles. The ice devil was not liking his current situation: entwined as he was, he could either try to break free and make it to his master (who he'd then have to also break free from the writhing tentacles), or teleport himself to safety. He chose the latter, appearing on the porch beside Hagan, Finoula, and Ingebold. He needed to kill the fat wizard who had cast the odious spell that still imprisoned his master, and to do that he'd have to first kill the half-orc who stood in his way. But no matter - he had orders to kill them all, anyway!

Hagan took an involuntary step back at the sudden appearance of the ice devil beside him, then blasted at him with a lightning bolt spell. Once again, though, he failed to overcome the fiend's innate spell resistance. He cursed his bad luck, and then cursed again as the rogues directly above him shot down at him and the two women now that they'd had time to reload their light crossbows.

Half of the rogues had abandoned their room over the porch and headed down the hallway. One approached Binkadink at the top of the stairs, pulling out his short sword as he closed into combat distance, but the gnome killed him with a single slam of his greatclub.

Down below, Jack Raptor cursed at his fate. He'd chafed under the rules of Rale's thieves' guild, deciding he'd do whatever it took to tear that guild down and replace it with one he founded himself - and "The Raptor's Talons" had quite a nice ring to it! To that end, he'd cut off his own right hand to prove his worthiness and been rewarded for his faith with the devils claw gauntlet: a metal, clawed hand that fit over his stump and gave him the full mobility of his missing hand - while remaining fully invisible to all but himself. And best of all, the devils claw gauntlet had five stones embedded on the back, one by each knuckle. A close examination of each gem would show a particular flaw in its interior forming the silhouette of one of five devils: a chain devil, an erinyes, a bone devil, a barbed devil, or an ice devil. Touching the gem - as Jack had done when Binkadink first ran up the stairs toward him - summoned the devil, and best of all, when slain the devil returned to the gem to be released again the following day. It was quite a powerful weapon, his gauntlet, one practically guaranteed to aid his rise in power and take down Rale Bodkin and his guilds.

And yet here he lay, wrapped in tentacles and unable to move, unable to even reach across with his left hand and summon forth another devil from the two that yet remained: Militrusia the erinyes and Skalarac the bone devil. It was humiliating!

Unwittingly, Gilbert Fung released Jack Raptor from his humiliation when he cast his scorching ray spell at the prone rogue. The blasts of energy struck Jack and fried him to a crisp where he lay, completely helpless and unable to move a muscle. Watching this from above, the rogue behind the one just slain by Binkadink hurriedly dropped his weapons to the floor. "I surrender!" he cried, and behind him another followed suit. It took longer for word to reach those engaged in shooting their crossbows at the heroes below them on the porch that Jack Raptor, who had seemed so powerful and unstoppable, had been slain, but once it did they too dropped their weapons and surrendered immediately.

But that was the least important thing going on. Winterkiss was frustrated by the magic circle against evil spell still in effect a full ten feet around Ingebold, which was preventing him from re-entering the mansion and taking his vengeance out upon the heroes. But more importantly, a shadowy figure suddenly manifested in the midst of the Evard's black tentacles spell. He wore an elaborate costume of embroidered finery and lace and would not have looked at all out of place in the court of a king, were it not for the oversized fly's head perched upon the top of his neck. Immediately, ebon tentacles flopped over his way to engulf his limbs; with a look of mild annoyance he shooed them away and they passed harmlessly through his now incorporeal body.

"Jack, Jack, Jack," the fly-man said, shaking his head sadly. "It would zzzeem that even with the infernal azzzizzztanzzze we provided, you were not up to the tazzzk you zzzet for yourzzzelf. But no matter: you zzzigned the contract, and your zzzoul izzz now mine."

Holding his hand over Jack's body, he extracted a ghostly shape – a long, multi-segmented worm with Jack's head in miniature – from his corpse. He also retrieved the devils claw gauntlet from the slain rogue's stump, which became fully visible once removed from Jack's arm. "In you go!" he commanded, and Winterkiss disappeared, returning to his designated gemstone on the back of the metal gauntlet.

The coloxus devil then turned to the heroes there on the ground floor with him. "I don’t zzzuppozzze any of you wishezzz to zzzell their zzzoul to me?" he asked.

"No, I good," replied Gilbert.

"Same here," said Finoula.

"Nay," responded Ingebold. Hagan had missed the question, having been concentrating on the ice devil's sudden disappearance.

"Juzzzt thought I'd azzzk," said the fly-man before vanishing into nothingness, taking the devils claw gauntlet and the screaming soul-larva of Jack Raptor with him.

Gilbert silently dismissed his Evard's black tentacles spell with a wave of his hand. "It safe now," he called to Darrien and Castillan, whose way had been blocked by the placement of the tentacles - which couldn't have been helped, if Gilbert wanted to get both Jack and the ice devil within its radius. Binkadink led the surrendered rogues down the stairs in a single file with their hands on their heads. The heroes locked their captives into a small closet while they explored the rest of the manor house. They found Dunkleman tied up on a bed; he'd merely come to the manor to warn Jack Raptor, who was renting the warehouse in which the heroes had fought the barbed devil, that he'd been attacked by a kenku out of the blue and it seemed to have something to do with his businesses. Feeling it his duty to warn Jack that he might also come under attack by these weird bird-men, the warehouse owner had unwittingly walked right into the lair of the one behind the devil attacks in the first place. Dunkleman was freed from his bonds by Castillan and told he could go.

There was a vault just off the master bedroom (which Jack had taken as his own); its lock easily opened using the key they found around the slain rogue's neck. There was a considerable sum of coins and gems stored there as well as a few magic items, some of which were useless to those of an other-than-good nature. (Finoula ended up claiming a winged helmet that passed on certain attributes of a celestial being to its wearer.) Darrien took one of the rogues' short swords as a backup melee weapon, in case anything ever happened to his scimitar. And then using the rope that had been used to bind Dunkleman, the heroes led the line of five captured rogues to Chunk's pawnshop, where they'd let Guildmaster Bodkin do with them as he pleased.

"Are ye sure we shouldnae have turned them over to th' magistrate?" asked Ingebold.

"You saw how things work in this city," observed Finoula. "This Rale guy apparently outranks a magistrate."

Binkadink shrugged. "When in Greyhawk City..." he said, then looked up at the sky. "Hey! It's starting to get dark. We need to go back to that field and meet up with Jink."

"We didn't get a chance to visit your uncle," pointed out Darrien.

"We can always do that tomorrow," replied the gnome. "Besides, he's Jink's uncle, too - he'll want to be there." The heroes made their way to the northeast, looking for signs of the dragonfly ship as they neared the wheat fields where they'd been dropped off that morning. Tomorrow would be soon enough for more of the many sights and attractions of Greyhawk City!

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: To commemorate the first time the PCs made it to Greyhawk City, I chose to wear a solid grey T-shirt. (My other thought was to wear my Spider-Man T-shirt to commemorate Finoula's (final!) purchase of her boots of spider climbing...but it was in the wash.)
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 38: POTION COMMOTION

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 12
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 12
Darrien, half-elf ranger 12
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 12
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 12
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 12​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 11 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 3 September 2017

- - -

"I don't trust 'em," admitted Piddilink Dundernoggin, his eyes glaring over at the potion shop that opened two weeks ago directly across the street from him. "They're selling their potions for less than the cost to make them, they've gotta be! Trying to drive away all my business, if you ask me. And look at the size of that place!" he continued. "There's hardly enough room to set up a potion lab, and they never get any deliveries coming in – so where do all these potions come from, anyway? I tell you, somebody needs to get to the bottom of this, that's for sure!"

The Kordovian heroes had swung by to say hello to Binkadink and Jinkadoodle's uncle while visiting Greyhawk City, and he took the opportunity of finding out his nephews were now adventurers – and had adventurer friends with them, forming an entire adventuring band – to get them to (hopefully) get rid of his new rivals.

"We'll go check it out," promised Binkadink. "Anybody else want to come with me?"

"I go," replied Gilbert, rising up from his chair.

"Anybody else?" asked the gnome fighter, looking among his friends.

"It doesn't look like there's a whole lot of room in there," pointed out Finoula. "Maybe you'd best check it out and report back." The elf ranger had a point, but she was also enjoying the hospitality of Binkadink's uncle - maybe it was his expertise as a potion crafter, but he made excellent tea!

Binkadink and Gilbert exited Piddilink Dundernoggin's potion shop and walked across the street. There was the target: "Exotic Potions and Tinctures," according to the letters painted on the window. It was a small shop by any standards, a single-story wooden building standing 25 feet wide and about 15 feet deep. A wooden door stood in the middle of the building, with a window to the left.

The two entered the shop and saw they were currently the only customers. The public area was a 15-foot square, with the back 5 feet blocked off by a wall; the middle of the wall held a counter window, behind which stood an attractive young woman with dusky skin and shiny, black hair. "Hello," she greeted the two, her voice betraying an unknown accent. "My name is Yasmine. May I help you?"

"We were, uh, looking to buy some potions," replied Binkadink.

Yasmine swung her right hand out, indicating the sign to the right of the counter, which indicated the potions available and the prices. Gilbert and Binkadink looked over and read:

Exotic Potions and Tinctures

Barkskin............ ...150 gp each
Cure light wounds... ....25 gp each
Cure moderate wounds.. .150 gp each
Delay poison....... ....150 gp each
Endure elements.... .....25 gp each
Gentle repose........ ..150 gp each
Purify food and drink.. .10 gp each
"You kidding me?" declared Gilbert Fung. "These prices for real?"

"They are indeed," replied Yasmine.

"How many potions of cure moderate wounds could I buy?" asked Binkadink.

"How many would you like?" returned Yasmine.

Binkadink ran numbers through his head. "Ten, if you have them," he said, pulling off his backpack and rummaging through it for his cash.

"Certainly, sir," said Yasmine, looking down behind the counter and grabbing up vials. She turned to an associate, another dark-skinned beauty. "Anabelda, could you grab me five more potions of cure moderate wounds from the back?"

"Of course," smiled Anabelda, walking off to the right to a door behind the counter leading to the small area not accessible by the public. During her absence, Yasmine occupied her customers with small talk. "So, you two are adventurers, I take it?" she asked.

"Yes, that's right," admitted Binkadink.

"Oh, are you part of the local Guild?"

"What? Uh, no, we're just visiting the city."

"Hey," interjected Gilbert. "How we know these potions actually work?"

"Oh, they work perfectly well," replied Yasmine. "They are crafted with loving care by true professionals, using proven methods that have withstood the test of time."

"Oh yeah? Maybe we test it out for ourselves. Can you put your hand on counter?"

Yasmine placed her hand on the counter top. "Why do you--?" she began.

Gilbert pulled out his dagger and raised it to the counter, and the salesgirl quickly snatched her hand away. "Sir!" she chided. "I must ask you not to draw weapons in the shop!"

"Okay, okay," grumbled Gilbert. "We can use magic missile spell instead. Now, this only hurt for a moment..."

Yasmine turned to Binkadink. "Sir, I must ask you to have your friend leave, immediately."

Binkadink turned to Gilbert with an "are you crazy?" look on his face. "Go on ahead, I'll be right out," said the gnome.

"I no go anywhere," replied Gilbert stubbornly. "I make sure potions work!"

"You leave building now!" Binkadink replied, mimicking Gilbert's affected speech patterns. "You no come back!"

"Fine," grumbled the wizard, turning and leaving the building. Binkadink turned back to Yasmine. "I'm sorry about that - he's not from around here." By then, Anabelda had returned from the back with the extra potions. Yasmine gathered them all together, Binkadink paid over his coins, and he exited the shop with his purchases. He looked around for Gilbert, but the portly mage was nowhere to be seen. Then Gilbert sauntered up from the side of the building. "Front door only way in," he announced, having just strolled around the building. "No other doors, no other windows."

The pair returned to Piddilink's shop, where Binkadink passed over one of his new purchases to his uncle for examination. "Does it look legit?" he asked.

Piddilink gave the potion a close scrutiny. "The color's different than the ones I make," he noted, but that wasn't unusual - there were many ways to arrive at the same destination during potion creation, and the end results often differed in color and taste. The alchemist unstoppered the potion, waving it under his prodigious nose. "I don't smell anything out of the ordinary," he admitted, then turned to his nephew. "Can I keep this one, run some tests on it?"

"Be my guest," replied Binkadink.

"I'll assist you," offered Jinkadoodle, himself well-versed in the potion-creation business, having spent many hours assisting his own father, Winkidew, at their own potion lab in Kordovia.

"Give us an hour or so," said Piddilink, taking the suspect potion back to his lab. That was a good time for the rest of the band to take off, to explore the sights of Greyhawk City; they still had the better part of a week to kill before their magical weapon and armor upgrades would be finished.

"So what's the next plan of action?" asked Darrien.

"We need to see inside rest of that building," said Gilbert.

"We could send in Wezhley," suggested Hagan. "I could cast greater invisibility on him, and he could jump over the counter and check out the back room, then report back."

"How long could he stay invisible?" asked Finoula.

Hagan considered. "A little over a minute," he replied.

"That dinnae give 'im a whole lot o' time," pointed out Ingebold. "There's a good chance they wouldnae have need t' open th' door during that time."

"Well, they would if one of us went in and purchased a whole bunch of the same potion, like I did," suggested Binkadink.

"Guys, guys, guys," interrupted Castillan. "Why are we wasting any brain cells on this? We wait until after nightfall, then we break in and check the place out ourselves. Easy enough."

The group considered Castillan's plan. "Are you sure you can get us into the place?" asked Finoula. Castillan just scoffed. "Not a problem," he replied.

"Okay, here what we do," said Gilbert. "I station Mudpie to keep watch on place. He make sure salesgirls leave, we wait for all clear, then we break in, check place out."

"We might want to let that Rale guy know what we're planning to do," suggested Castillan. "We don't want him thinking we're planning a heist and infringing on the thieves guild or anything." That seemed reasonable, so they left word at Chunk's, confident that Rale's top stolen-goods fence would pass the word along to the Guildmaster. Then they returned to Piddilink's shop, where they found out the potion Binkadink had purchased was, to all tests the alchemists could devise, perfectly legitimate. "It doesn't make any sense," complained Piddilink. "They should be out of business if they're selling their wares for so much less than they cost to make in the first place!"

"Maybe we'll find out what's going when we visit the shop tonight, after they close up," suggested Binkadink.

And then there was nothing to do but wait.

- - -

It was a cloudless night, with both of Oerth's moons nothing more than thin crescents in the night sky. The heroes crept along the streets and alleyways, keeping a watchful eye for any members of the City Guard that might be making their rounds. Mudpie had scouted out the shop, burying himself to just below his eyes in the alleyway across from "Exotic Potions and Tinctures," and reported to his master, Gilbert, that the two salesgirls had closed up shop at around 8 bells in the evening. Furthermore, while they lowered the sturdy shutters that covered the window for the night (during the day, they were propped up on metal poles to form a canopy), they didn't depart the shop as expected. Rather, they closed and locked the door from the inside. The dutiful earth elemental reported that nobody had entered or left the shop since it closed for the night.

"So they're still in there?" asked Darrien.

"That clinch it," remarked Gilbert Fung. "They got to have extradimensional space inside that back room."

"Like our 'lower level' in th' dragonfly ship?" asked Ingebold.

"Exactly. Or maybe teleport platform or something, but no room in there for potion lab - definitely no room for potion lab and bedroom!"

"Well, let's find out," said Castillan, approaching the door and pulling out his masterwork lockpicking tools. It was a tricky lock, requiring three times the normal time the elf could normally get a lock to bend to his dexterous fingers, but eventually it opened. With a look at the others, he pulled the door open and stepped inside into total darkness - the everburning torches which had been present during business hours were apparently stashed away somewhere. Still Castillan was an elf, so his night vision was better than that of a human; from the scant light from the twin moons, he could see the place was empty.

Hagan stepped in after the elf bounder, his half-orc eyes perfectly capable of seeing in pitch blackness. Wezhley, his weasel familiar, sat perched upon one shoulder. The two adventurers were the only ones to enter the dark shop; the others realized there wasn't a whole lot of room in there and opted to stay outside on watch duty. The spellcasters took the opportunity to cast some of their normal spells: Gilbert cast a mage armor spell directly on Mudpie and then a spider climb spell on both of them; Finoula and Darrien each cast a barkskin upon themselves; Ingebold cast her standard magic circle against evil spell, centered upon herself.

Inside the empty shop, Castillan approached the counter. The whole section beneath the open window hinged outward to allow entry into the area behind the counter. Hagan heard a sibilant whispering, followed by a "vwhoomp!" noise behind him that sounded vaguely electrical. He tried exiting through the door, but ran into an invisible wall of force that obviously hadn't been there a moment before.

In the meantime, several of the other adventurers had started climbing up onto the structure's roof. Gilbert and Mudpie had no problems doing so, given the spider climb spell the portly mage had just cast upon them. Likewise, Finoula's recent purchase of boots of spider climbing made clambering up to the roof a matter of ease, and she pulled Binkadink up to the rooftop with her. Darrien and Ingebold remained on the ground, alert for passersby.

Inside the shop, Hagan raced to the counter - Castillan had just opened the counter door - and peered over the counter. There, coiled in the back corner, was the hidden spellcaster responsible for the wall of force trapping them all inside. It was a skeletal snake with a human-looking skull: a bone naga, by all the descriptions the half-orc sorcerer had heard of such creatures. The half-orc fired off a lightning bolt spell which blasted into the creature's body. Castillan saw the bone naga just as it started casting a second spell; the bounder snapped his fingers, causing his short sword to materialize in his hand and he stabbed out at it. The blade struck bone and skidded off to the side, while the bone naga's spellcasting continued unabated. Immediately thereafter, billowing greenish-yellow vapors blasted into the bounder's face, obscuring his vision and rapidly filling up the enclosed room.

Hagan and Wezhley started choking immediately, as did Castillan. Fortunately, the two adventurers were able to shrug off the worst of the cloudkill spell's effects; not so Wezhley, who shivered with weakness after inhaling the nasty vapors. The weasel dropped down from the sorcerer's shoulder, staggering over to the doorway (the door had been left open to provide at least a little moonlight in the shop, not that it was doing any good right now) and scratched feebly at the wall of force.

Hagan realized that to stay inside the shop was to court death - not only could they no longer see their undead foe, or indeed anything in the cloud-filled room, but the poisonous vapors would kill them all given enough time. So he scooped up his familiar, then held his other arm out until he bumped into Castillan. Grabbing the bounder by his sleeve, the half-orc coughed out the words to a teleport spell, and they popped into existence beside a startled Ingebold in the cool, clean air of the city.

Meanwhile, up on the rooftop, Gilbert was trying out a new spell he had just mastered: a passwall. He created a hole in the middle of the roof, exposing the room below to the open air. In the moonlight, they could see the room below was filled with murky vapors, but the cloudkill spell created a heavy gas that hugged the ground, and they didn't spill out of the open hole in the roof.

"There's a bone naga in the corner!" Hagan called up to the others, pointing to the far corner. Binkadink took his bearings, then inverted his magical glaive and stabbed down at the corner where the bone naga should be. He felt resistance, telling him he had hit the creature, although his gnomish vision couldn't penetrate the thick vapors in the room below.

Suddenly, the bone naga's skull popped up out of the hole - the creature was long enough it could raise its head that high while still keeping a safe perch on the floor below. A line of dancing lightning blasted from its mouth, striking the gnome in the chest and then arcing off to strike everybody else up on the roof with him.

Mudpie, adjacent to the naga's skull, punched it with a rock-hard fist. Binkadink rapidly pulled his glaive up from the hole in the roof and reversed his grip on the weapon, allowing him to stab the naga with his full strength. That did the job; upon being destroyed, each of the bones making up its undead body disconnected from the others, to go clattering to the area behind the counter below.

Satisfied that the bone naga had been destroyed, the heroes climbed back down off the roof and had to wait outside for the wall of force and cloudkill spells to run their course. During that time, Binkadink rummaged through his pack and pulled out a handful of the potions of cure moderate wounds he had purchased from Yasmine earlier that day. Having taken the brunt of the bone naga's chain lightning spell, he felt he was in need of some healing before they proceeded inside the rest of the small building.

The first potion went down just fine, as did the second. The third one went down as well, but it had a funny taste to it - and while it healed up the gnome's wounds just as well as the first two had, he could feel it was also trying to do something else. "Guys," he said. "There's something funny about this potion."

"Are ye okay?" asked Ingebold, approaching the gnome after having tended to the other heroes' wounds.

"Yeah, I'm fine," replied the gnome. "But that last potion - I think it had some kind of poison added to it or something."

"It was one of the ones you bought this morning?" asked Hagan, feeding a healing potion of his own to Wezhley, who lapped it up from the half-orc's cupped hand.

"Yeah."

"Maybe don't drink any more of those before we can get them tested," suggested Finoula.

"That's not a bad idea."

The adventurers made their way into the shop once access was once again available, forming a single-file line. Behind the counter everything was empty (with the exception of the pile of naga bones); the vials of potions and the cashbox that had been stored behind the counter during business hours were no longer in place.

"Let's check out this back area," suggested Binkadink, opening the side door behind the counter. The room beyond was also empty, save for the large stone statue that took up most of the eastern wall. It was a stylized carving of a serpent, circular in shape except for its head and tail which were turned away, causing it to take on the shape of an upside-down "omega" symbol, with the snake's open-mouthed head pointing one way and the tip of its tail facing the other.

Binkadink examined the statue, looking for a command word or something that might activate it. "Yep," confirmed Gilbert as he spotted the carving. "I bet that a teleport gate."

"Look here," commanded the gnome, tracing a faint line along the plane where the head and tail suddenly changed direction from the arc of the circle. "There's a crease here. I'll bet anything they swivel." He gave each end an experimental tug, to no effect - they weren't going to budge by a mere application of strength.

"I think you're right," said Castillan, squeezing into the small room. "Look: if the head and tail swivel back toward each other, the circle is not only completed, but the tip of the tail fits right into the snake's open mouth, forming an ouroboros."

Upon the uttering of the word "ouroboros," a grinding sound emanated from the statue, as the top portions of the carving swiveled around to form a snake-swallowing-its-own-tail configuration. Once it did so, the interior part of the statue - the part encircled by the snake - turned black, like an upright sheet of oil.

"Teleportation gate," repeated Gilbert. "Told you."

"Let's see where it leads," said Binkadink, stepping forward through the gate, his glaive pointed ahead of him.

The gnome felt a moment of disorientation, then found himself walking down a ramp on the other side of a similar-looking ouroboros carving behind him. Ahead of him, at the bottom of the ramp, a large room opened up. This room was about 35 feet square, with three large cauldrons along the back wall and a small stack of firewood piled along the northern wall. Two humanoid figures tended to the contents of the cauldrons. There were wide tunnels to the north and south and a pair of smaller, open rooms up on either side of the ramp. The fires beneath the cauldrons provide the room's only light, and Binkadink realized they couldn't be responsible for the greatly increased heat and humidity he had felt immediately upon passing through the teleport gate - he figured he was now somewhere far away from Greyhawk City, possibly in a jungle environment.

Walking as quietly as his armor - and his extended gnomish stilt-boots - allowed him, the gnome approached the two figures tending to the vats. The person on the left he recognized as Yasmine, from the potion shop; the other was a male, dressed in robes. Assuming this was the wizard behind the potions, Binkadink ran the rest of the way down the ramp and into the room, stabbing into the robed figure's body just as he turned to see what the "clicking" sound from the stilt-boots on the stone ramp was. The fighter's glaive pierced through the yuan-ti pureblood's gut, slaying him instantly. Binkadink stood there, a confused expression on his face and a dead male yuan-ti hanging off his extended glaive. Surely a high-powered wizard wasn't usually taken out in one blow like this?

Unbeknownst to the gnome, this was no wizard at all but a mere minion; he had expected a tough fight but ended up slaying a guy in charge of keeping the potion brews properly stirred. Castillan stepped through the gate and ended up beside and behind the gnome fighter. His crossbow raised, he sent a bolt flying at Yasmine, the only other visible combatant in the area.

Yasmine countered with a hastily-cast charm person effect, which surprisingly caught the gnome off guard. "Protect me from your friends!" Yasmine commanded. "Don't let them kill me!"

Ingebold was the next to enter through the teleport gate. She immediately cast a spiritual weapon spell that caused a dwarven warhammer to materialize in the air and go rushing to attack the dusky-skinned yuan-ti pureblood. "No! Stop!" cried Binkadink, stepping forward to try to shield Yasmine from the hammer-shaped spell effect.

Finoula was the next to enter, and she raced down the ramp with her magical longsword Tahlmalaera drawn and ready to attack. "Leave her alone!" cried Binkadink, sending his glaive swinging in the ranger's direction. Fortunately, Binkadink was only trying to stop his friends from fighting each other, so he struck Finoula with the flat side of his blade. Still, the ranger didn't expect an attack from this direction, and the glaive's blade slapped her away, stopping her advance toward Yasmine.

There was a circular chamber to the north of the potion vat chamber, where venom was extracted from the yuan-ti abominations that ruled this nest. Another yuan-ti pureblood female with dark skin, Boadakka, approached from this chamber, a masterwork scimitar raised in her hand. At the same time, a pair of six-foot-long serpents that had been resting in a circular depression to the south of the potion vat chamber transformed back into their human shapes, grabbed up scimitars of their own, and joined the fight from the south. One of these was Anabelda, the sales assistant Binkadink and Gilbert had encountered in the shop; the other was a male unknown to the heroes. But both could easily pass as a human, with their presence in a yuan-ti nest the only hint of their true heritage.

Despite Binkadink's defensive position, Castillan felt he could get past the gnome's guard with his bounding skills. He was right; he easily dodged past the fighter and continued on to Yasmine, where a quick thrust with his sword took her life. About the same time Ingebold entered the nest through the ouroboros statue; it was debatable whether it was the presence of Ingebold's magic circle against evil spell still active upon her or Yasmine's death that snapped Binkadink from his charm effect, but he was free of its influence immediately. He looked over to Finoula, gave an uncomfortable grimace that might have been meant as a smile, and offered, "Sorry!"

Boadakka stabbed at Gilbert Fung, who had just entered the nest. Her scimitar missed the surprised wizard, who hadn't expected to be attacked immediately upon stepping through the gate. The pureblood male attacked Finoula with his own scimitar while Anabelda swung at Darrien, who had also just arrived. Fortunately, both strikes missed their targets.

Hagan cast a chain lightning spell that slew both of the remaining female purebloods, leaving Darrien to finish off the male with a barrage of arrows. After that, Ingebold was kept busy casting healing spells upon those who needed them. A quick exploration of the areas seen thus far resulted in finding the racks of potions stored behind the shop counter during business hours, plus several empty potion vials and a few wooden crates filled with the proceeds from the sales thus far. The coins were dumped into Ingebold's portable hole for divvying up later.

After everyone had had a chance to catch their breath, Binkadink led the group through the wide tunnel to the south, the only way not yet explored. The tunnel arced to the east, splitting off three narrower tunnels along its length as it did so. Binkadink and Castillan checked each of these narrower tunnels; each ended in a 10-foot-deep pit, in which a dark-skinned human lay curled up in the fetal position, moaning softly in pain. Some of them had started growing patches of scales on their skin, leading the heroes to believe they were in the middle of a painful transformation into yuan-ti of some sort themselves.

There being nothing they could do for these unfortunates at the moment, the group moved on. As the wide tunnel veered east, they could see ahead to a large statue of a snake-god of some sort, carved from a burnished metal and looming over the chamber set before it. There was a large, circular depression in the floor before this idol, in which sat a pair of yuan-ti abominations. The group had met up with a trio of sonic yuan-ti before; these were of the same basic configuration, with a pair of muscular arms and a humanoid torso stuck in the middle of what was otherwise an enormous snake. Each of the abominations wore an elaborate harness, upon which was attached a scabbard containing an overly-large scimitar, as befitted creatures of this size.

Spotting the heroes, the abominations slithered in opposite directions, into sloping tunnels to the north and south of the worship chamber. One of the snake-men called out a sibilant prayer, and the idol responded by lurching to life, its motions becoming smoother and more lifelike with each passing second. The bronze serpent slithered forward to meet the advancing heroes at the western end of the worship chamber.

With an amazing speed worthy of a striking cobra, the bronze statue darted forth and bit at Finoula. The ranger cried out in sudden pain, not only from the carved fangs piercing her flesh but also the electrical current charging through the serpent's head. She struggled to escape the snake's mouth, wriggling free before it could wrap a coil of its powerful body around her and start squeezing the life from her.

Behind the bronze serpent, one of the yuan-ti abominations used the moving idol of its god as cover, plucking a bead from a necklace it wore around its neck and tossing it past the bronze serpent. The bead hit about halfway down the passageway in which the heroes were currently confined, exploding into a powerful fireball that struck each and every one of the heroes.

Ignoring his singed back, Binkadink stepped forward with his glaive and struck out at the bronze serpent. It hit with a spark of residual electricity, scratching the bronze creature's finish and leaving a deep groove. Behind the gnome, Hagan cast a chain lightning spell - he was really liking this new spell! - at the yuan-ti abomination that had cast the fireball bead, having it arc off to strike the other abomination and the bronze serpent. Based on their reactions, they all had some level of spell resistance which occasionally prevented spells from having their full effect. The half-orc growled involuntarily; enemy spell resistance was becoming his least favorite protective feature.

Finoula spoke the command word that caused her body to transform into a bolt of lightning, courtesy of her lightning amulet. She blasted through the bronze serpent and the yuan-ti abomination behind it, manifesting back as an elf directly behind the snake-man. Almost at the same time, Castillan bounded past the bronze serpent and ended up stabbing his sword at the yuan-ti abomination, catching him in a pincer maneuver with Finoula.

On a ramping slope to the south, the second abomination cast a healing spell upon himself that cured the electrical damage he'd just suffered from Hagan's chain lightning spell. Then he slithered forward, biting Finoula and wrapping his arms around her, the acid he'd formed on his skin burning the elf. Finoula could feel venom coursing through her body from the serpent-man's bite, but while she was able to shrug off its effects the overwhelming damage caused her to pass out. She fell limp in the abomination's grasp; rather than mess about with her undersized weapons, he pulled the lightning amulet from around her neck, intending to use it himself.

Binkadink cried out in pain, having been bitten and zapped by the bronze serpent's electrical bite. Then, still caught up in its mouth, the gnome was bodily lifted into the air and transferred to the statue's sinuous coils, where he was constricted. Hagan cursed at this turn of events, as he was just about to cast his last chain lightning spell at the bronze serpent, but was hesitant to do so with Binkadink being crushed in its coils - and wearing his metal armor, at that. Seeing the half-orc's hesitation, Binkadink called out to him, "Make the statue a secondary target! I can take a secondary blast!" Having experienced what it was like to take a primary blast courtesy of the bone naga earlier that evening, Binkadink wasn't sure he could survive another electrical zap like that.

The spell went off as planned - and the secondary arc that found its way to the bronze serpent not only zapped Binkadink something fierce through his metal armor, but actually healed the construct of some of the damage it had taken! But at least the yuan-ti with the necklace of fireballs, who had been the primary target of the spell, seemed to be severely hurt.

Darrien send a barrage of arrows flying at the bronze serpent, but they went clattering off the construct's metal exterior without seeming to do much harm.

Seeing her Battle-Sister lying unconscious on the floor, but with a bronze serpent and a yuan-ti abomination between them, Ingebold used her light mace of healing to send a cure serious wounds to Finoula from a distance. The spell not only healed the ranger's wounds, it revived her to consciousness. Finoula sat up just in time to scramble out of the way as the yuan-ti who had snatched her lightning amulet went crashing to the floor, several of Darrien's arrows buried in its throat. Without a word, she grabbed her amulet out of the reptile's hand and placed it back around her neck where it belonged.

Gilbert Fung directed a trio of scorching rays at the bronze serpent, overcoming the construct's spell resistance and causing it to crash to the ground, immobile. He and Mudpie then climbed up the wall to the ceiling, where they would be out of the way of the physical combatants heading over to fight the sole remaining yuan-ti abomination.

Castillan stabbed at the reptile with his short sword, causing it to hiss in pain. But it was Finoula, wielding Tahlmalaera, who brought the killing blow. Bending down to remove the creature's ornate scabbard from its harness, the ranger pulled out the reptile's oversized scimitar, tossed it aside, and experimentally placed her longsword inside it. As she suspected, the scabbard was magical - it resized to accommodate this new weapon, and future experimentation would reveal it provided the effect of a keen edge spell three times per day - a feature that would no doubt come in handy.

The necklace of fireballs was given to Binkadink, for two reasons: he was sorely lacking a ranged weapon, and once he got his red dragonhide armor back from the armorsmith, he'd be the one most likely to survive an accidental explosion while wearing the necklace, should he be attacked by an enemy fireball or similar flame-based attack.

Checking out the rest of the yuan-ti nest revealed not much more of importance; the passageway to the south led to a nesting chamber for the abominations, whereas the passageway to the north led to the jungle outside. It was guarded by a pair of yuan-ti broodguards and a trio of rattlesnakes, but they were nothing the heroes couldn't easily dispatch - and they did exactly that. Satisfied that they had cleared out the threat - and surmising that this whole exercise was an attempt to create a new nest of yuan-ti in Greyhawk City - the heroes grabbed up the finished potions from the racks (the three cauldrons contained only the first step in the preparation of three different potion types, but neither was anywhere near to ready for consumption) and returned through the ouroboros. Gilbert and Binkadink were the last ones through; after the wizard had determined the victims in the transformation pits were too far gone to be prevented from becoming yuan-ti, Binkadink put them out of their misery with his gnomish glaive.

The next morning, the group sent word to Guildmaster Rale Bodkin about the operation, so he could have his men safely dismantle the ouroboros to prevent any further yuan-ti incursions into the city. Rale had his kenku Collectors scour the city for signs of previous victims of the yuan-ti potion shop, for it seemed the salesgirls added a yuan-ti poison, extracted from the venom of the abominations, to some of the potions they sold in the hope that some of the people imbibing them would turn into yuan-ti. "Exotic Potions and Tinctures" had been open for two weeks, and there was no telling how many yuan-ti transformation potions had been sold in that time. To ensure none of the potions they had taken from the racks would have a similar effect on any of the adventurers, Ingebold cast a neutralize poison spell on the lot of them.

Fortunately for the adventurers, the rest of the week was relatively uneventful. It was only after they had picked up their upgraded weapons and armor that they got embroiled in yet another adventure starting out in this bustling city.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: While I don't have any T-shirts devoted to potions (or yuan-ti, for that matter), I do have several dedicated to "things that you drink" - so I chose to wear one of my two Mello Yello T-shirts.
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 39: THE EMPEROR'S NEW FOES

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 12
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 12
Darrien, half-elf ranger 12
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 12
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 12
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 12​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 11 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 18 November 2017

- - -

At long last, the week in Greyhawk City came to an end and the heroes' various weapons and armor were ready to be picked up. Binkadink had had his red dragonhide armor upgraded to resist fire damage; Castillan had ordered a ring made that would allow him to activate a dimension door effect three times per day; Finoula's longsword Tahlmalaera had been imbued with the fiend bane property, in preparation for her eventual showdown with the incubus Malaterminus; Darrien's Arachnibow had been enchanted to imbue an icy burst effect upon the arrows it shot. As the half-elf ranger picked up his beloved bow, the weapon shop proprietor mentioned, "Oh, I got a message for you: Guildmaster Bodkin wants to see you before you leave town."

"I wonder what he wants us for?" questioned Darrien.

"We find out when we find out," reasoned Gilbert. They entered the Guildhall and were escorted into a meeting room, where shortly thereafter Rale Bodkin entered alongside a middle-aged woman. "Thanks for meeting with me," said Rale. "This is my associate, Desdemona Honeytongue." The woman nodded her greetings, then spent an inordinate time staring at Finoula in puzzlement.

"I'm her sister," sighed Finoula, certain that this Desdemona likely knew Feron Dru.

Guildmaster Bodkin cleared his throat. "I have a proposal which I think will benefit both parties," he said, his ever-present smirk visible on his face. "We've had a problem – and when I say 'we,' I mean Cal Trop's merchant empire, in which I have a not-insubstantial piece. One of his ships is overdue on a return trip from Kozakura. We've tried scrying upon its captain, its crew, and on the ship itself, with no results. So it's missing, and we're not sure of its current location.

"There's another vessel on its way to Kozakura as we speak – in fact, it's about three days out, from a two-month voyage. Here's what I'd like to do: get your team inserted onto the ship before it reaches port, so you can be passed off as part of the ship's crew. That way, you'll be there in case whatever happened to the previous ship tries to repeat history with this new ship."

Rale looked straight at Gilbert Fung. "I understand you have reasons of your own to want to scope out Kozakura on the down-low. This would be a perfect opportunity. What do you say?"

"I say: we take you up on offer," replied Gilbert.

Rale gave the team a bit of background on the whole situation. The missing ship was the Flying Dolphin, a cargo ship captained by one Sergio Mandretti, with an able crew with years of experience. The ship arriving at Kozakura three days hence was the Mermaid Queen, a cargo vessel captained by Elbra Farquester, also with a well-seasoned crew. The voyage across the ocean to Kozakura normally took about eight weeks; Cal Trop had those two ships dedicated to back-and-forth voyages between the two nations (besides other ships headed to other locations).

Typically, upon arriving at Kozakura the ship's cargo was unloaded and then the crew took a day of rest and relaxation at shore, while the captain and cargomaster made arrangements for the hold to be filled with Kozakuran goods and the standard ship's provisions for the return trip. Scrying upon the ships wasn't normally done, as there had been no problems before that the ships' crews hadn't been able to handle.

Rale offered to pay 2,000 gold pieces if the Kordovians could find out what happened to the Flying Dolphin and engineer its safe return; another 2,000 gold pieces for a return of the ship’s cargo if it hadn't already been turned over to Kozakura; another 1,000 gold pieces for rescuing Captain Mandretti; and 50 gold pieces a head for rescuing the other crewmembers. (There were 20 crewmembers aboard the ship when the Flying Dolphin left port, so that came to potentially another 1,000 gold pieces.)

Furthermore, the Guildmaster suggested the team bring all of their adventuring gear but have a way to stash it away so it wouldn't be readily visible. The portable hole seemed like the perfect solution along those lines. Rale said he could procure a set of sailor's garb for each adventurer and sent Dez off to fetch suitable clothing while the team sent Castillan back to the dragonfly ship to brief Aithanar and Jinkadoodle on their plans and return with the teleport carpet from the hidden hold. The carpet was plunked into the portable hole with most of the team's other gear, although they opted to keep their jewelry (especially those pieces which were magical in nature) and Finoula and Binkadink each retained their magical boots. Then, after dressing in their sailors' garb, the team signaled to Dez that they were ready to go.

Casting a greater teleport spell, Desdemona expertly landed everyone onto the deck of the Mermaid Queen, among a group of startled sailors. However, Captain Farquester knew Desdemona by sight and once she explained the situation the ship's captain welcomed the adventurers to her ship, more than willing to have their expertise at hand when confronting unknown dangers ahead. Satisfied that all was in place, Dez teleported back to Greyhawk City with a smile and a farewell wave.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of spare room for an additional seven crewmembers (and a weasel) to bunk down, as the Mermaid Queen was loaded pretty full. Captain Farquester offered to let them sleep on the upper deck or wherever they could squeeze in down in one of the two lower cargo holds.

"We find place to sleep down in hold," reassured Gilbert. "We be fine." He had a rope trick spell ready that would open an extradimensional space large enough for the lot of them - minus the one who'd be on guard duty, for they had decided among themselves to always have one of their number awake and alert at all times.

It was Darrien who ended up on the third guard shift, with the others all tucked away in the rope trick space Gilbert had conjured up. Three hours had passed since midnight, when the young half-elf, who could see far better than a human in low-light conditions, saw what at first looked like a patch of moonlight dancing on the waves, but soon took on a somewhat humanoid form as it got closer. Or at least a partially human shape, for while from the waist up it seemed to be a woman in all white, from the waist down her body more or less dissipated into a cloud of misty vapors which skimmed over the waves. The woman glowed slightly and was bearing down on the ship from directly ahead.

Darrien wasted no time in racing back down to the upper cargo hold to scurry up the dangling rope and poke his head into the extradimensional space holding his friends. "Wake up!" he called. "There's a ghost woman heading our way across the top of the ocean!"

Castillan and Finoula jerked out of their respective reveries. Most of the team scrambled over to Ingebold, who was unfolding the portable hole so Mudpie, who'd been inside the whole time, could pass up weapons to those who needed them as they called out what they were looking for. "Glaive!" called Binkadink, to have the earth elemental pass him up his trusty weapon, "Tahlmalaera!" called Finoula, reaching down for her longsword.

Castillan didn't bother with any of that; he was still wearing his gloves of storing so his weapons were ready at the snap of his fingers. Not bothering to worry about armor, he dashed up two sets of stairs to the front upper deck, to find himself nearly face-to-face with the glowing spirit. She had the almond eyes of Gilbert's mother - or at least Harriet Fung's original eyes, as she now wore the form of an orc - but her face was scrunched in an expression of extreme anger. Without a word, she passed through the wall and into the deck below the bounder.

By then, the heroes had started spilling out of the rope trick's extradimensional space and heading to the stairs that led to the ship's top levels. But then the ghost-woman passed through a wall and made a bee-line straight for Gilbert Fung. The wizard held up his weapon - a ghost touch quarterstaff - but before he could bring it to bear the spirit passed straight through him. Gilbert gave a low moan at the coldness that permeated his entire body, but he was surprised in that his magically-enhanced eyesight hadn't triggered a warning of her undead nature. His mother had tried explaining to him as a child about such creatures; they were called ikiryo, and despite their ghostlike appearances they were spirits, not undead. An ikiryo is a spirit born of worry, Harriet had explained to her only son, and the person who birthed an ikiryo usually did so unconsciously, unaware that part of her spirit had broken off to deal with whatever it was that was causing such worry.

All of this came to Gilbert in a flash, just as he recognized the spirit's face in a momentary flash of memory: Ryuko, the wu jen who had led the ninja strike team responsible for the decapitation death of Harriet Fung. Whatever had her worried, her subconscious had attributed its cause to Gilbert Fung, and now this ikiryo would fight to the death to see Gilbert slain.

As the unnatural cold seeped through Gilbert's body, it tore away at the strength of his body, the power of his mind, and the substance of his own spirit. Diminished on all fronts, the mage staggered backwards a step as his friends stepped up to help deal with this threat.

Darrien was the first to strike, with a rapid barrage of arrows from his Arachnibow. He had opted not to fully exit the rope trick space, using his high perch as a hunter might shoot his prey from the safety of a high branch. Four arrows hit the apparition, although due to the ikiryo's insubstantiality it was difficult to determine how much damage they actually did. Binkadink brought his magical glaive crashing down and through the ikiryo's body, but again it was difficult to see if the attack had had any effect at all - the glowing woman didn't flinch, or bleed, or have wounds appear on her body. But the attack had been noticed, if only briefly, for the Ryuko-image cast her gaze for a moment at the little gnome before returning her focus onto Gilbert.

Seeing they were basically fighting a ghost-woman, Hagan cast a magic missile spell at her, sending all five such missiles striking her in the torso. Those definitely did deal her a blow, for there was a small explosion as each hit and her angry visage turned momentarily to a wince of pain. Finoula followed with a strike of her longsword, and the ringing of the sonic-induced magic indicated she must have hit as well. Then a dwarven warhammer comprised entirely of magical force swung down at the ikiryo, the result of a quickly-cast spiritual weapon spell by Ingebold.

Gilbert took a quick mental inventory of his prepared spells and realized, with his diminished mental capacity, some of his most powerful were now outside his ability to cast. Fearful that another such strike by the ikiryo might further limit his spellcasting ability, he opted to switch tactics and go for a melee attack instead. And the best way he could do that was to cast a Tenser's transformation upon himself.

The spell affected him immediately and he felt some of his diminished attributes buffered up and then surpassed by the spell. He felt stronger, faster, and heartier than he'd been since even before the ikiryo's attack. Striking out with his quarterstaff, he dealt the ikiryo a blow he knew she felt by the solid-seeming way it connected. "Take that!" he snarled at the form of the woman who had indirectly killed his mother.

The ikiryo responded wordlessly, and without uttering a single sound - but she reached out a hand curled into a claw and ripped through Gilbert's body, again draining off a bit of what made him who he was. But seeing this, Ingebold - after directing her spiritual hammer into another crushing blow - cast a restoration spell that buoyed up Gilbert's mental and physical attributes.

As she was incorporeal, many of the heroes' attacks passed through the ikiryo harmlessly. But there were enough of them for their various attacks to make it through her defenses often enough that they were whittling her essence away, and this process was made all the quicker by Hagan's magic missiles and Gilbert's ghost touch quarterstaff, which always made their mark. Before too long, Ryuko's image gave a final silent snarl of hatred and disappeared into nothingness.

"Was that...?" began Binkadink, who thought the ghost woman had looked familiar.

"I explain everything in morning," replied Gilbert. "Right now, we go back to sleep."

"You're on guard duty now," Darrien reminded the gnome, leaving him behind as the others climbed up the rope into Gilbert's extradimensional space.

- - -

The rest of the second day was uneventful. Captain Farquester had her sailors show the adventurers the rudiments of sea life, so they wouldn't stick out as newbies once they arrived in Kozakura - she wanted them to blend in as much as possible. They put in a hard day, and when night fell and Gilbert cast the rope trick spell again, everyone was ready for a good night's sleep.

It was early the next morning when the lookout in the crow's nest called out "Land ho!" None of the adventurers could see land yet from their vantage point, for the lookout had the advantage of height, but the fact that they were so close to their destination got them making their final preparations. The spellcasters had already prepared their spells, and the armor and weapons had been stowed back into the portable hole - along with Mudpie - and Ingebold had it folded up like a handkerchief and tucked into her belt.

It was then that a creature landed on the deck amid a flurry of flapping wings. Finoula instinctively made to grab the longsword she normally had belted to her hip and Castillan snapped his fingers and brought his short sword into his hand, but then he felt foolish once he realized the ship wasn't under attack - the creature on the deck was nothing more than a duck, although this one was brown and white with a dark green head.

"It's Drake!” called out the captain. "Quickly, somebody toss him a blanket!" A blanket was tossed over the duck's body, trapping him underneath. Then the shape beneath the blanket shot up, reaching the height of a man. In fact, once Drake pulled the blanket off his head and wrapped it around his otherwise naked body, the others could see that he was, in fact, now a man.

"Drake is a hengeyokai," explained Capt Farquester. "He's a friend. The crew calls him Drake, because they have a hard time pronouncing his real name correctly."

Drake began speaking in the Kozakuran language; of the adventurers, only Gilbert understood what was being spoken. He translated the drake hengeyokai's words in his own pidgin version of the common tongue.

"There a new regime in charge in Kozakura. New Emperor called Torazoku, he severing all ties to outside world. Flying Dolphin came to shore, sailors removed cargo. But then it left, moving north along coast rather than back across ocean like normal. It possible it getting cargo elsewhere along Kozakuran coast, but that never happen before. Drake not see ship or crew since. It may be back on way home, but maybe it commandeered for use in Kozakuran navy. Drake say it safer for to turn around now and go back way we came."

Drake was rewarded for his information with a fish, which he gulped down without chewing. However, Captain Farquester was hesitant to turn back with her ship full of cargo – she needed to restock before she could set off on another trip across the ocean. "Besides," she said, "we have you guys to keep us safe, and I want to find out what happened to Captain Mandretti's ship and crew."

"If they go north, maybe we go north too," suggested Gilbert. "We find ship, both leave together."

"Captain!" called the first mate. "I don't think that's an option any longer." There were four vessels approaching the Mermaid Queen from the direction of the shore ahead, two on either side. Neither ship was as big as the cargo vessel, but not by that much, and the crew sizes on each ship were on par with Captain Farquester's own forces. "If'n it comes down to a fight, we're far outnumbered," the mate said.

"We have magic, though," reminded Hagan. "A couple of fireballs and those ships won't be in any shape to fight us."

"We don't know if they have any wizards on their ships, though," pointed out Finoula.

"They called wu jen here," corrected Gilbert. "Anyway, we don't want to take chances. We just play like we know nothing about other ship, everything hunky-dory." He then quickly cast a spell upon himself, altering his appearance so he looked like his father, Verdant Gristwold. He didn't want his half-Kozakuran heritage tipping off any of the locals, especially if Ryuko was likely to be around. Belatedly, he regretted not having prepared enough spells to hide the true appearances of his companions, at least those who had fought Ryuko and her ninja force before.

"Ahoy, Mermaid Queen!" called a voice from the starboard side of the ship. "Welcome to Kozakuran waters! Please dock ship at port and unload cargo into warehouse!"

"Okay, people!" Captain Farquester called to her crew. "You heard the man! Business as usual!" And then she went to the starboard side to call back to the Kozakuran ships to acknowledge their orders.

The next few hours were both busy and tiring. To blend in as part of the crew, the Kordovians were obliged to help lug all of the cargo off the Mermaid Queen and into the stone warehouse directly across from the dock. Most of the bulk of the cargo was made up of hardwood lumber, as Kozakura was not a land blessed with an overabundance of trees for building materials. According to Harriet Fung's tales of her homeland, important buildings were made of stone and only the very rich used hardwoods for more than a building's exterior; much of the interior walls and doors were made of rice paper, a concept most of the heroes found difficult to comprehend. But the lumber and other goods from the vessel were finally stowed in the warehouse, and the sailors were led to another, similarly-sized building right next to where their cargo now resided.

A pair of samurai in yellow robes ushered the crew of the Mermaid Queen into this other building, where their names were recorded (the adventurers all came up with aliases, in case their names were ever viewed by Ryuko or anyone else aware of the attack on the Fung Estate) and they were led through a set of locked doors into a large holding chamber. "This is different," observed Captain Farquester. "These used to be individual berths, like at an inn. They've taken down the interior walls." Indeed, the room was now a large confinement barracks, with wooden benches along the outer walls and a single toilet in the back corner, surrounded by a privacy wall. She went to go question one of the samurai in his own language, but was apparently brusquely told to wait patiently for further orders.

"There's just the one door out of here," observed Finoula, after having walked the circumference of the holding area and finding no hidden doors.

"True," admitted Hagan, "but there are also the window-slits." Up near the ceiling were narrow openings, each about the size of a brick, allowing in fresh air and a minimum of sunlight from outside. "Wezhley can easily fit through those." He lifted his weasel familiar up to a narrow window and instructed him to look around. Wezhley scampered through the opening and leaped down to the ground, giving the buildings nearby a thorough investigation.

In the meantime, Gilbert took Ingebold to the toilet area and, partially hidden by the privacy wall, had her unfold the portable hole. He then had Mudpie emerge, with instructions to glide through the ground and check out the immediate surroundings. With two familiars roaming around and mentally reporting back to their masters, the group soon had a decent idea of their immediate surroundings. Besides the two long, narrow stone buildings - the confinement area and the warehouse - there was a smaller, wooden structure. Wezhley circumnavigated this latter building, crawling up and peeking through the front windows. From his description of the room, which contained a low table, several chairs, long needles, and jars of pigment, Hagan gathered it was a tattoo parlor. Wezhley described a curtain in the back leading to the rear half of the building, but he couldn't get back there himself without entering through the front door and that was beyond his capabilities.

Mudpie had checked out the warehouse, which still held the cargo they'd brought, and was sealed up from the outside. "Wait--someone's coming," he reported over the mental link he shared with Gilbert.

"Who?"

"A lady on a horse."

"Stay out of sight." Mudpie sank back into the earth, leaving only the top part of his head visible, from the eyes up. From any but the closest distance, he'd look like an ordinary rock.

Several minutes later, the door to the confinement barracks - which had only been opened once before since their imprisonment, to deliver a simple meal of rice balls and slices of fish - was unlocked and a woman stepped in with two samurai as escorts. Gilbert's eyes narrowed in recognition; this was Ryuko herself. She consulted a scroll and called out names, including Elbra Farquester and the two aliases Finoula and Ingebold had given. She had them step forward, then looked at Finoula quizzically for a moment as if trying to remember if she'd seen the elf before. Then, shrugging her head, she bid them come with her. The three women prisoners looked at each other expectantly, as if deciding whether it would be best to comply or if now was a good time to drop the pretenses and make a break for it. But, given they were no closer to finding out the fate of Captain Mandretti's crew and vessel, they followed the wu jen without comment.

Gilbert mentally redirected Mudpie to surreptitiously follow the women as they exited the confinement building; the earth elemental reported back that they had been taken to the warehouse. Upon his master's instructions, the elemental sunk below the ground and popped his head up in the back of the warehouse, where he could see the four women. Ryuko had the three crewwomen line up facing the warehouse doors, then stood to the side expectantly.

"I not liking this," remarked Gilbert. "I think we gear up now." Castillan pulled out the teleport carpet from the portable hole and had a few of the sailors step onto it with him. "I'll be right back," he said, then spoke the command word and the four disappeared. A few minutes later, Castillan returned. "I squared it away with Aithanar," he said. "Let's get all of the sailors safely aboard the dragonfly vessel, and then we can deal with whatever's brewing knowing they're safe." He passed the command word on to the rest of the sailors, who disappeared from the carpet in groups of four.

Once everyone was all geared up, Castillan rolled the carpet back up and plopped it back into the hole. Then he directed Hagan, Darrien, and Binkadink into the hole, with a reminder to hold their breath while they were in there. "Let's go," the bounder said, picking up the hole once the other three had crawled into the extradimensional space; grabbing Gilbert's shoulder, he activated his new ring and he and the portly mage dimension doored outside the rear of the confinement barracks. The bounder flipped open the hole onto the ground, and the other three heroes climbed back out.

"It's dark out," commented Hagan as his weasel familiar came bounding back up to him to be picked up and dropped onto his favorite perch, the half-orc's shoulder. In the meantime, Gilbert had been alerted by Mudpie through the telepathic link they shared that the warehouse doors were opening and three people were entering. There was a tall man with regal bearing, dressed in elaborate robes, and flanking him on either side was a warrior in heavy armor, complete with a mask bearing the visage of a fearsome demon. The samurai bodyguards escorted the regal man directly to Ryuko, who bowed low, while two more of their rank closed the warehouse doors and stood guard outside.

"Emperor Torazoku," Ryuko said. "Your humble servant presents the individuals you sought from the foreign ship." While Mudpie had no idea what the wu jen was saying, Gilbert caught it all through their shared link and he understood the Kozakuran language just fine. "Emperor in there!" he whispered excitedly to the others. Then he directed his familiar to dive below the earth and reposition himself behind the Emperor, who stood facing the three women from the Mermaid Queen.

"A lowly korobokuru," he said in disdain as he examined Ingebold, mistaking her for a dwarf from his own lands. Moving on to Finoula, his expression lightened. "One of the spirit folk!" he exclaimed, examining the elf's silvery-white hair. "Yes, she will do nicely." He moved on to Elbra, and was impressed with her own golden locks. Finoula and Ingebold had no idea what this man was saying, but they got the gist of the transaction: he was examining them like cattle, apparently deciding who would be added to his group of concubines.

"Gather up," Gilbert commanded to the other male heroes, then cast a teleport spell that placed him directly above his buried familiar and the others just adjacent. They were all standing behind the Emperor and his two samurai bodyguards.

Ryuko stood off to the side and she saw their sudden appearance from the corner of her eye. She opened her mouth to give a warning, but Darrien reacted first. A quartet of arrows went racing in her direction, to pierce her in the shoulder, the abdomen, and through her open mouth and out her cheek; the fourth one missed and ended up embedded in a piece of lumber stacked on the warehouse's shelves. Blood poured from Ryuko's mouth, and, assuming she was very near death, Hagan opted to push her the rest of the way there with a well-placed magic missile, sending the other four missiles to crash into the back of the samurai on the Emperor's left. The samurai grunted in surprise and pain, while Ryuko fell lifelessly to the floor, dead before she could cast a single spell.

Binkadink was the next to strike, hitting the same samurai with his magical glaive and scoring a deep groove through his armor and into his flesh. Castillan leaped forward and finished him off with a kidney-strike using his short sword, and the first of the Emperor's faithful bodyguards fell dead to the floor.

From beneath the ground, Mudpie surged upwards and forward, emerging just behind his master and grabbing hold of the doors, certain that the sounds of combat would drive the other two samurai outside to want to investigate. Gilbert Fung cast a scorching ray spell, splitting the four rays equally between the Emperor and his sole remaining bodyguard. Both targets reeled from the sudden attack.

Then the three women jumped into action. Finoula activated her lightning amulet, transforming her body into a bolt of electricity that surged through both enemies. The samurai had just struck at Binkadink with his katana and missed the little gnome completely, then backed up closer to the Emperor to provide him whatever protection he could. Ingebold pushed Elbra back away from the combat, not wanting the ship's captain to be harmed during the fight. Captain Farquester was more than willing to be led from danger, as this sort of thing was well beyond her normal duties as the captain of a merchant vessel.

The Emperor turned to face his attackers, a look of fury on his face at the effrontery of being assaulted by foreigners on his own soil. His features melted and reformed, and in the mere blink of an eye he had transformed his entire body into the form of a snarling tiger. The beast leaped forward at Hagan, who had the misfortune of being the tiger's nearest opponent. Claws ripped through the half-orc's robes and scored channels across his torso, as the beast's fangs clamped down on his shoulder, drawing blood. Wezhley dashed upon the top of his master's head in fear of his life. Hagan managed to pull himself free of the tiger's grasp, staggered back, and cast a stoneskin spell upon himself. He had many powerful attack spells, but first he needed to ensure he'd be around long enough to cast them!

Gilbert was just getting a good look at the tiger that had just recently been the upstart Emperor whose edicts had seen to the slaying of his mother's family, and through the blood-red haze of his own anger he made a belated discovery: the tiger's form was glowing in that arcane fashion that indicated the presence of an undead creature. But before he could pass this information on to his friends, Ingebold struck with a spell she had never cast before. Calling out the words to a harm spell, she felt the chilling touch of negative energy flow through her body and strike out at the tiger. Of course, since the tiger was in fact an undead creature, the harm spell had the opposite effect of the one intended and the wounds the beast had sustained thus far healed up instantly, bringing it back to the prime of its power.

Castillan dodged his way past the samurai and got himself into position to flank the tiger, stabbing at the muscles of the beast's left flank with his short sword, eliciting a growl of pain.

And then the locusts struck.

They had come from nowhere; one moment the air in the warehouse was clear, and the next it was covered in swarms of the buzzing insects. Castillan and Binkadink doubled over, choking, as several of the insects flew into their mouths and blocked their air passages. Finoula and Gilbert swiped ineffectively at the insects, while Darrien dodged out of the way of the nearest locust cloud.

Finoula, whose weapons were still inside the portable hole, activated her lightning amulet once again, zapping herself through the remaining samurai and the tiger-Emperor, frying a not-inconsiderable amount of locusts as she did so. The tiger growled again in anger but continued his assault on Hagan; fortunately, not much damage got past the half-orc's stoneskin defense.

Now fully aware of the tiger's undead status, Ingebold cast a mass cure moderate wounds spell, targeting both Hagan and the tiger. Hagan was healed of the damage he'd taken prior to casting his defensive spell; the tiger roared in pain as the positive energy ran through his system. By then, the two samurai outside had managed to pry open the warehouse doors despite Mudpie's best efforts, and the earth elemental was struck by a powerful katana strike by one samurai as his attention was focused on lashing out at the other samurai who was rushing past him to come to the tiger's aid.

That made all the difference to Hagan, who opted on a chain lightning spell now that he had sufficient targets to make it worth his while. The tiger got the brunt of the assault, with arcs flashing from him to strike the samurai bodyguards. That was enough to slay the samurai warrior who had first entered the warehouse with the Emperor.

Darrien continued shooting arrows into the tiger, but although he constantly struck true the shafts didn't seem to be doing much damage. Castillan stabbed at the tiger again, disappointed that its undead status prevented him from doing extra damage due to his knowledge of where best to strike a living organism to do the most harm.

One of the samurai struck out at Hagan, who tried dodging the blow but was unsuccessful; still, his stoneskin spell absorbed most of the damage, to the consternation of the katana-wielding bodyguard. Hagan responded with another chain lightning spell, his last for the day. By then, the tiger was looking fairly hurt; Finoula finished him off with the third and last of her lightning strikes using her own body as a weapon, courtesy of her magic amulet. Hagan was still staring at the tiger when it was slain; a look of pain crossed its face, and then, even as it started fading from view, it turned its head to face the nearest wall and began moving in that direction. To anyone else not paying attention, it would have looked like the Emperor in tiger form had dissipated into nothingness; Hagan suspected it had merely become invisible and started readying itself to pass through the nearest wall...which, come to think of it, wasn't all that dissimilar to a vampire's ability to become a cloud of mist and fly off to recuperate in its coffin. The sorcerer made a mental note to ask Gilbert about Kozakuran vampires once the battle was over.

Hagan got his chance sooner than he thought, for although the armored samurai continued to fight fiercely despite the apparent slaying of the Emperor, the odds were greatly against them and they had no spellcasting abilities. Within less than a minute they too had joined their companions in death.

The fight had attracted the attention of the samurai in the confinement facility next door and the tattoo artist who lived in the next building over, as well as the four palanquin bearers who had carried the Emperor here under the protection of the four armored samurai. The samurai bureaucrats were not interested in hearing, in their own language, of the account of their Emperor being an undead beast; honor demanded they give their lives to defend his lands against these foreign invaders, and they did exactly that after a brief battle. The tattoo artist was not bound by the samurai's concept of bushido, and he visibly blanched at the thought of Emperor Torazoku being a vampire. "That explains why he has only appeared here after the sun has gone down," he muttered to himself. Then, once Gilbert dropped his magical disguise and took on his own true appearance, the tattooist was ready to tell the heroes everything he knew.

Upon orders from the new Emperor, he had inscribed magical tattoos upon the faces, torsos, and limbs of the crew of the Flying Dolphin, which granted the unwilling recipients with a permanent nondetection effect. Similar runes had been inscribed upon the Flying Dolphin itself, and then the captain and crew had been forced to sail the ship north along the coast.

"We need to get out of here," advised Captain Farquester. "We need to find the Dolphin, but I have a responsibility to my own crew first and foremost. And the longer we stay here, the longer we risk discovery."

It was hard to argue against such logic. So while the other Kordovians returned to the Mermaid Queen, easily overcoming the four-person team of sailors who had been left in charge there, and Castillan used the teleport carpet to fetch back the ship's crew, Gilbert hired the tattooist for a quick rush job: he had the Fung crest painted on the foreheads of Ryuko and the four armored samurai bodyguards, then he personally beheaded each of the five and had their heads impaled upon pitons he hammered into the wooden columns along the pier.

Drake reappeared before the ship set sail, and after explaining to him what had happened, the hengeyokai agreed to spread the tale of the Emperor's undead status to the people of Kozakura. He also agreed to continue to search for the missing cargo vessel and its crew; he said he'd place three stones in a triangle upon the last column of the pier, so the adventurers could determine, via scrying, when it was time to return to Kozakura to rescue the Flying Dolphin crew from their fates.

"I suppose that all we can do for now," agreed Gilbert. Castillan was already grumbling about the conditions for Rale's bounty payments not being fulfilled just yet, but the portly wizard didn't care: he'd seen the head of the woman responsible for his mother's death removed from her shoulders and put on display. He'd also seen the Emperor who had killed all of his mother's family dead, and even if he was a vampire and would return to his unholy semblance of life, Emperor Torazoku had been dealt a blow he wouldn't soon forget.

Not bad for a half-breed not worthy of being slain by those determined to eradicate the Fung bloodline!

- - -

Wow! At eleven weeks, this has been the longest gap between adventures we've ever experienced. This involved (among other things) a Saturday astronomy class viewing requirement (which kept Jacob in college on a weekend he was originally going to come home); a planned three-day weekend trip to visit Harry's parents, who live three hours away; Jacob moving from one apartment to another; Joey getting a last-minute all-day Saturday confirmation class requirement; and the death of a close family member. Before we knew it, eleven weeks had passed.

As we started up this adventure session, Jacob announced he wanted to run Ingebold because he hadn't done so in a long time. (It's been 77 days since we last played - nobody had run Ingebold in a long time!) But he opted to have her cast a harm spell for the first time ever, and boy did he pick a great time to have her do so! And as it was, we ended up having to end the session early, since Jacob had to go pick up his car from the shop. As a result, the tattoo artist ended up not being a combat participant, which in a way was a shame because he was a sorcerer and I'd armed him with a pair of figurines of wondrous power, basically a pair of golden lions reskinned as jade foo lions, that I had intended as appropriate treasure for Gilbert Fung. Fortunately, Dan was just happy for the cathartic feeling of seeing those responsible for his PC's mother's death slain themselves, so he really enjoyed the adventure.

Incidentally, Ryuko had no idea she'd spawned an ikiryo. One of the Emperor's personal fortune-tellers came up with a horoscope reading that warned him a thread once thought removed was intact and threatened to unravel his plans, which Ryuko worried meant her failure to return with Harriet Fung's head as proof she had been slain. As she blamed Gilbert Fung for her failure to do so, he became the target of her worry and thus of her ikiryo. I only added that bit in because I thought the ikiryo was an interesting Kara-Tur creature, even if I did have to translate its stats from the AD&D 2nd Edition version found in a Kara-Tur Monstrous Compendium

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I was tempted to wear my "Jade Warrior" T-shirt again, but then I opted to go a more subtle route. I have a green shirt we got at the Smithsonian Museum many years back, with the inscription "Arthur M. Sackler gallery" printed in such a way as to make each word (or initial) appear to be a character of an Asian language. So that stood in for "generic Kozakuran" writing to represent this adventure. (The PCs will eventually return to Kozakura once Drake finds the Flying Dolphin, so I'll have another chance to wear my "Jade Warrior" shirt.)
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 40: CLOUD CUCKOOLAND

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 12
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 12
Darrien, half-elf ranger 12
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 12
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 12
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 12​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 12 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 16 December 2017

- - -

"So," asked Jinkadoodle, "what do you think?"

"Hmm," said Gilbert, frowning.

"It will really stay up here by itself, with nobody controlling it?" asked Finoula.

"Absolutely," replied the gnome illusionist, getting up from the dragonfly ship's helm and standing at its side. "As of right now, nobody's piloting the ship, and it isn't falling back down to the planet below. It's called a 'geosynchronous orbit,' whatever that is. Melony Sal didn't really explain all of the terms she used in her notes, but she obviously knew her stuff."

"Hmm," repeated Gilbert Fung.

"So we can just park the ship out here in wildspace above the planet and return to Battershield Keep using the teleport runes downstairs?" asked Hagan.

"Exactly. As long as we keep the teleport carpet unrolled and in place at Battershield Keep, we can pop down or up as needed."

"And nobody will mess with it up here?" asked Darrien.

"Who's to mess with it?" asked the illusionist. "According to your spelljamming friends, our world is well off the beaten track and away from the major trade routes. There shouldn't be a bunch of other spelljamming vessels flitting about the place, wondering what's up with this dragonfly ship in geosynchronous orbit."

"There were those grell," pointed out Ingebold.

"Yeah, but you said they flew around in a giant jellyfish. What would they want with a ship like this, that they couldn't even use? You need to be able to sit at the helm to control this vessel, and sitting's one thing a grell can't do."

"Aye, good point."

"Hmm," Gilbert added again, deep in thought.

"And it'll save us the cost of building a hangar by the keep, and it will prevent anyone from seeing the ship flying around near Kordovia and coming to investigate it. And anytime we need to use it, it's just a step on the carpet away."

"Sounds good," observed Binkadink, somewhat proud of his cousin's plan.

"Makes sense to me," added Castillan.

"Hmm," repeated Gilbert for a final time. "Okay, make sense. We do it."

"Great!" replied Jinkadoodle, taking his place back at the helm. "So where to now? Taking Hagan back to his parents?" The half-orc had stated a desire to visit his parents, who lived over at the far eastern edge of the vast Vesve Forest; everybody had come along because Jinkadoodle had wanted to demonstrate his brilliant new idea for parking the vessel in orbit.

"If you please," replied the half-orc sorcerer. Wezhley, his weasel familiar, bounced up and down on his master's shoulder in excitement - he liked Hagan's human mother, who always fed him tasty treats when they visited.

"Off we go!" replied the gnome pilot, bringing the dragonfly vessel down out of its geosynchronous orbit and back into the upper atmosphere, chattering about his plans for the future. "I think I'm going to circumnavigate the globe, making maps of the land masses as I go," he said. "I may even bring Zalian along, for his expertise." Zalian Darisath was the castle historian and keeper of the kingdom's collection of maps; Jinkadoodle couldn't wait to see the elf's expression when he first got to see entire continents laid out before him!

But the pilot found himself talking mostly to Gilbert, who seemed only half-interested; the others had scattered about the ship, most of them heading up to the upper deck, if nothing else than for the excellent view. They knew from previous experience that the upper atmosphere was ridiculously cold, but once they started dropping down to cloud level it was much more bearable.

And then a scream rang out from somewhere nearby.

This in itself was a bit unusual, given that the dragonfly vessel was still flying up among the clouds - there was nothing nearby to house the owner of the scream: no mountains, certainly no other flying vessels! But it was definitely a woman's scream, and Finoula's discerning elven ears classified it as having been composed of equal parts pain and terror.

Those on the upper deck scattered to the rails on either side of the ship and looked about; below, Ingebold and Gilbert peered through the bubble-windows that comprised the dragonfly's "eyes" - for Jinkadoodle, sitting at the ship's helm, had his senses expanded to all around the ship, and thus heard the scream outside from his position on the vessel's bridge, and had alerted the others.

"There! To the left!" called Finoula. They'd spent months out in wildspace aboard various spelljamming vessels, but they had never bothered picking up nautical terminology; "left" was still "left" to them, not "port."

Jinkadoodle steered the ship to the left, where a patch of green added a surprising splash of color to the white cloudscape. As they approached closer, they could see a cloud island, flat along the top and dropping down to a triangular shape below, with two enormous trees sprouting in the middle of the upper surface. At one end of the island stood a tall structure seemingly shaped of cloud-stuff, with a metallic projection sticking out of the roof at an angle. The other side of the trees looked relatively flat and empty.

"I'm going to try to land her!" Jinkadoodle called.

"Will it support our weight?" asked Ingebold, worried.

"It's supporting the weight of those massive trees!" countered the gnome pilot. And they were indeed massive, each easily three or four times the size of a normal apple tree as one might find on the ground below. As Jinkadoodle brought the vessel to a safe landing along the outer strip, the screams continued - they seemed to be coming from over by the cloud-building.

Castillan was the nearest to the ladder on the upper deck; he flipped it over the side and was climbing down the rungs almost as they unfurled. He spotted movement in the canopies of the trees, but it could have only been the wind. Still, he kept his senses sharp as he disembarked and took a tentative step onto the ground of the cloud island. Over by the trees the cloud had been covered in topsoil from the planet below; over here, it was pure white, fluffy cloud - a distinctly unusual feeling to be stepping upon a substance that normally couldn't hold any weight at all. The bounder's ears could hear the screaming, coming in fits and bursts, but also the sound of another, deeper, feminine voice, this one demanding, "Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?"

Hagan was the next to disembark from the ship, his weasel perched on his shoulder as normal. Like the bounder before him, the sorcerer looked up at the trees overhead, having detected movement there as well. The half-orc's darkvision allowed him to pick up a shape hidden in the shadows of the branches: a creature with an avian build, but lacking feet of any kind; instead, the beast seemed to have an extra set of wings. The thing was much larger than a man, and there seemed to be smaller versions of the strange beast hidden elsewhere throughout the two giant trees. "Bird-things in the trees!" Hagan called out, warning his friends of a potential source of danger.

Up on the deck, Darrien raced to the front of the vessel rather than heading over to the ladder, as many of his friends were doing. He pulled out an arrow and nocked it in his Arachnibow, ready to let fly if the largest of the bird-things made a move in their direction.

Gilbert had popped up from the lower deck by this time. (His earth elemental, Mudpie, had seen that they were about to go walking around on a cloud and immediately headed back for the lower deck, where there were walls all around and he could pretend he wasn't suspended up in the sky.) The wizard spotted the bird-thing in the trees and immediately identified it. "That an arrowhawk!" he cried. "What it doing here? It belong on Elemental Plane of Air!"

"Maybe it took a wrong turn," suggested Binkadink, readying his glaive for action just as the elder arrowhawk flapped its four wings and sprang from the tree. It made a bee-line for Darrien, who plunked an arrow deep into its chest before its serrated beak clamped down over the archer's shoulder. Binkadink raced over on his extended gnomish stilt-boots and stabbed at the beast with his magical glaive, causing it to release Darrien from its beak. It squawked noisily in pain and outrage, its cries mingling with the screams of pain from the unseen woman somewhere ahead.

Seeing that Binkadink and Darrien seemed to have the beast under control, Ingebold scrambled down the ship's ladder. She was a healer, and the screaming woman sounded like she was dying! Right behind her came her Battle-Sister, Finoula, casting a barkskin spell upon herself as she pulled Tahlmalaera from its scabbard.

Down on the ground, Castillan found himself the target of two of the man-sized arrowhawks, one striking from either side. He did his best to avoid their attacks, but one of them clamped onto his upper arm with its beak, drawing blood through the bounder's leather armor. He wriggled from its grasp and fell back towards the ship, snapping his fingers and bringing forth his shortbow as he did so. He got a shot off at the one who had bitten him, catching it at the point where one of its four wings met its body.

Behind him, Hagan cast a chain lightning spell, targeting one of the man-sized arrowhawks he'd spotted in the other tree as his primary foe, and sending arcs of electricity from that one to a good half-dozen of its neighbors. "That not going to work!" called Gilbert from behind the sorcerer. "They immune to electricity!"

"Now you tell me!" complained the sorcerer.

"Looks like nobody told them!" pointed out Castillan. Indeed, Hagan's spell had fried at least two of the man-sized arrowhawks and a few even smaller ones - presumably the young of the nest. They fell from the trees like rain, their blackened bodies devoid of life.

"Hmm," mused Gilbert. "They must be slightly different species or something."

Up on deck, Darrien pumped arrow after arrow into the elder arrowhawk. It retaliated by biting the half-elf ranger, but then opted to fly laterally (Binkadink had gotten in a good hit with his glaive as it flew away), off to the side of the vessel. It then proved Gilbert's point by arching its nimble tail beneath its body and blasting Darrien with an attack of force energy, similar to that used in the common wizard's magic missile spell. As Gilbert well knew, normal arrowhawks shot electrical rays and were immune to electricity; these variants definitely lacked the electrical immunity and had evolved a different offensive capability.

But Gilbert was down on the ground by the ship, dealing with the arrowhawks in and near the trees. He cast a solid fog spell that encompassed the better part of both trees, imprisoning those arrowhawks still among the giant branches. He couldn't help but notice the size of the apples growing from the trees - they were each the size of a terrestrial pumpkin!

Two arrowhawks had been outside the range of the portly wizard's spell and one flew over to attack Finoula. The ranger cut it down with her longsword without breaking her stride. Castillan, meanwhile, decided he liked it better back up on the ship and started climbing the ladder, all the while being attacked by the second of the arrowhawks he'd been fighting. He, too, got to experience the blast of a tail ray as he climbed back up on board. But the arrowhawk, focused on the bounder, failed to notice he was now within range of Binkadink's glaive, and that oversight proved to be fatal to the four-winged creature.

Inside both tree canopies, additional arrowhawks of different sizes struggled through the solid fog to reach the freedom of the open air. Not being able to see through the magical fog to target the arrowhawks with another chain lightning spell, Hagan made do with a fireball engulfing several that had finally found the freedom of the skies. They fell to the ground beside the trees, burned to a crisp.

Gilbert eventually dispelled his solid fog spell, reasoning there couldn't be many more arrowhawks imprisoned within and noticing it was blocking the ground passageway between the trees that would allow the heroes to advance to where the screams were emanating. He was right about the arrowhawks; by this point there were only two still among the branches. But one of them was another elder arrowhawk, and it flapped over to the other side of the ship and blasted Castillan, just as its counterpart blasted Darrien. Castillan fired back with an arrow from his shortbow. From the ground below, Ingebold cast a blindness/deafness spell on the one attacking Castillan, hoping to deprive the great beast of its sight, but the creature shrugged off the spell's effects.

Darrien finally dropped the elder arrowhawk he'd been battling; it fell, its body covered in arrow-shafts, beyond the perimeter of the cloud island and to the ground far below. With a final squawk of outrage, the other elder arrowhawk dropped its battle with Castillan and flapped away, opting to find another nest somewhere safe.

The arrowhawks having been bested, the adventurers were now able to face the source of the screams. Binkadink found a faster way to the ground by leaping over the railing onto the front of the ship, across the dragonfly's head (he could see his cousin through the "eye" viewports, still at his station at the ship's helm, ready to depart at a moment's notice), and jumping to the ground from there. Once past the giant apple trees and the arrowhawk corpses littered throughout the area, the heroes could see the unsettling tableau just ahead.

A human woman lay screaming on the ground, blood gushing from her right shoulder at the point where her arm had been ripped from her body. Standing above her was a blue-skinned cloud giantess, using the human arm in her hand as a club to beat the screaming woman. "Why are you hitting yourself?" the giantess repeated, giggling to herself at her joke.

"Stop it, Mistress!" pleaded the prone woman in a voice lowering in volume as the life ebbed from her body.

The giantess stood up, holding the severed arm up such that its fingers stroked her own chin, and muttered, "Hmm, should I?" as if lost in thought.

Ingebold realized getting to her patient would be difficult with the cloud giantess there standing above her; she also realized she didn't need to actually get to her patient to heal her. Using her light mace of ranged healing, she channeled a heal spell through it to strike the prone woman. The ray of healing energy struck true, sealing up the wounded shoulder and restoring full vitality to the stricken woman.

This did not go unnoticed by the cloud giantess. Still holding the woman's severed arm in her right hand, she bent over and picked her up by the neck with her left hand. "You're all better, Junia!" she exclaimed. "Well, we can't have that, now, can we, silly?" With a grunt of effort, she flung the woman far to the left, where she plummeted off the side of the narrow cloud island and went plunging through the wispy clouds to her death, far below. There was nothing any of the heroes could do to save her, and they stared at the giggling giantess in shock.

Finoula was the first to react. Touching a hand to her amulet, she transformed her body into a blast of living lightning and attacked the giggling giantess, reforming into her elven body on the other side, by the wooden door to the cloud structure. The giantess staggered under the attack but didn't stop her infernal laughter, even as she spun on her heel and punched the ranger for her effrontery with a blow than nearly broke bones. Castillan raced up, shooting the giggling menace with his shortbow; an arrow to the gut didn't make her stop laughing, merely use the severed arm to wave hello to her attackers. She did take several steps to her right, away from Finoula.

Binkadink charged right at the cloud giantess and discovered - too late - that the lack of seriousness in the blue-skinned giantess's demeanor did not mean she wasn't paying proper attention to the battle at hand; instead, she'd maneuvered herself so the charging gnome fighter would fall directly into the unseen pit she now stood behind.

Finoula gasped in horror as she saw the little gnome plunge through the seemingly-solid floor of cloudstuff, wincing at his scream of surprise. But unlike poor Junia, whose continuing screams were audible as she fell to her death below, Binkadink's was short in duration. "I'm okay!" he called up from the pit, which fortunately had a solid bottom some ten feet or so down below the surface.

"Are you truly all right?" asked a feminine voice beside the gnome. He looked over and saw he was in the interior of a hollow cube some ten feet to a side; the "ceiling" was covered over by wispy cloud material no more solid than that of any other cloud, whereas the floor and walls of the interior were made of the same, solid cloud-stuff that made up the bulk of the floating island. And there, hovering with concern over him, was a human woman. "My name is Tanabelle, she said.

"Binkadink," said the gnome by way of introduction. "What's going on?"

"My mistress, Zaralia, went crazy this morning. She tried out a summoning ritual, to contact a scholar of the outer planes. Something must have gone wrong - when she came back downstairs, she was insane, and attacked Junia! I was here, in the privy--"

"This is a privy?" Binkadink interrupted, looking about him in sudden concern. But the walls and floor were an unblemished white.

"Yes, the wastes are absorbed by the cloud and filtered away," Tanabelle explained, irritated by the gnome's apparent interest in the cloud's toilet facilities being higher than his interest in the situation at hand. "I was here when she first attacked, so I stayed hidden. Is Junia...?"

"Dead," replied Binkadink, with no thought of breaking the news gently. Tanabelle covered her face in her hands and began to cry. But the gnome had other, more pressing things on his mind, like making sure nobody else fell into this pit - this privy! Channeling magical energy from his gnomish heritage, he cast dancing lights such that one appeared at the top of each corner of the pit, marking off its boundaries; the gnome could see their glow through the wispy cloudstuff covering the pit's opening. "Stay here!" he commanded Tanabelle and started climbing up out of the pit, after having noticed a giant-sized ladder carved in the western side of the pit and a human-sized ladder carved in the eastern side.

Darrien, meanwhile, had shot Zaralia with a few arrows as he cautiously approached. Finoula used her lightning amulet to blast through the cloud giantess's body again, being sure to reform her elven body while still on the cloud island, for the island dropped away not too far beyond Zaralia's current position. That side of the building was covered in deep shadow, the sun still far to the east at this time of morning.

"Arrgh!" complained Zaralia as the lightning-form of Finoula passed through her. "And here I was going to let you be on my team!" She punched the ranger hard with both fists, nearly sending Finoula sprawling. But despite the giantess's words and actions, Finoula soon found herself on "Zaralia's team" after all, as her mind suddenly flashed with how much fun it would be to cut her friends up to ribbons with her sword. She might not be able to pull an arm out of a socket with her sheer strength like the female giant had done, but she knew Tahlmalaera could easily do the trick. Finoula wondered what Binkadink's reaction would be to being slapped with his own hand on the end of his severed arm, and started giggling to herself.

Hagan did a quick analysis of the terrain and determined he could cast a fireball spell such that it would only catch the cloud giantess in its blast radius. He let fly with the spell and Zaralia cried out in pain. Behind him, he could hear Gilbert casting a stoneskin spell upon himself as Castillan and Darrien both put their respective bows to good use against Zaralia.

Then Finoula stepped up behind the giantess, uncurling her flaming whip of thorns as she did so. Castillan was surprised she was using her whip when her longsword was already at hand and she was standing so close to the giantess; he was even more surprised when the whip came flashing at him, snapping him in the face, the arm, and the neck in quick succession. The bounder staggered back, barely able to keep himself standing after the unexpected assault. Deeming it safer to be elsewhere, he activated his magic ring and dimension doored over by the giant apple trees, away from the current battle. As he pulled a much-needed healing potion from his belt, he noticed a bunch of gigantic grapevines curling around a wooden fence along one edge of the cloud island, between the trees and the dwelling of cloudstuff.

"Fight it, Finoula!" Darrien called, knowing full well this sudden betrayal had to be caused by some outside source - possibly whatever was causing this cloud giantess to act so crazily as well. He fired an arrow into Finoula, but was careful to target her shoulder; he wanted to incapacitate her, not kill her.

With Finoula standing so close to the giantess, Hagan didn't dare use any of his blasting spells with a large radius; he'd surely catch Finoula with a cone of cold or a fireball or a lightning bolt.... "Ah, what the heck?" the sorcerer asked himself and cast a magic missile at Zaralia, surprised when his spell toppled the female giant onto her face, dead - but still with a crazed smile on her lips. Gilbert followed suit with the same spell, this one targeting Finoula, and the ranger also fell to the ground, unconscious but bleeding out from her shoulder wound.

Binkadink climbed up out of the pit, his head seeming to emerge from the solid-looking ground of cloudstuff. He saw Finoula lying unconscious on the ground and the giantess at her side, out of the fight, and pulled a healing potion from his belt. Before the others could stop him - for, stuck in the pit, he had missed out on Finoula attacking their friends - he poured its contents down her throat.

The healing energy of the potion took its effect, and Finoula fluttered her eyelids as she gained consciousness and sat up. At the same time, a voice that sounded exactly like hers - but was the effect of a magic mouth spell tied into the potion by Jinkadoodle as a prank - cried out, "I'm hungry! Anybody got any boogers?" Finoula started giggling again, and Binkadink assumed it was at the ridiculousness of the potion's side effect, missing the evil gleam in the ranger's eyes as she reached for Tahlmalaera at her side.

But Ingebold didn't miss it. She cast a magic circle against evil spell upon herself and ran forward to catch her Battle-Sister within its area of effect. Right before she did so, an evil gleam entered the gnome fighter's eyes as his mind suddenly rushed with the thought of skinning his friends alive with his glaive - how funny they'd look! And then Ingebold's spell covered the two of them, and they were no longer dominated by the unseen force taking over their wills.

Shaking their heads as they snapped out of it, Binkadink and Finoula suddenly noticed just how dark the shadows on the side of the cloud building were. Hagan, in the meantime, assumed the battle was over and decided to check out the giantess's dwelling. He noted the door had two handles, one at a good height for a human and the other scaled better for a giant; upon closer examination, the setup was actually a door within a door. Opening the smaller of the doors, he stepped inside the dwelling. Just to the right was a human-sized kitchen area - complete with a metal pan of tea boiling over in a fireplace in the corner - while to the left was another human-sized door; likely the two human servants' bedroom. The back half of the room was scaled more for Zaralia, with a giant-sized sofa and enormous bookcases holding books as large as a man. There was a short staircase in the back of the room leading up to an offset second floor, but the stairs would be difficult for a human to manage without actual climbing.

"Ye'd best stay by me fer th' duration," advised Ingebold to Finoula and Binkadink. Darrien stepped forward and activated a sunrod, tossing it into the shadowy darkness - where it was instantly extinguished. "It's a deeper darkness spell," Binkadink observed.

And then, stepping out from the inky darkness came a creature unlike any the heroes had ever seen before. It was a hunched-over beast of basic humanoid build, but with what looked to be skeletal vertebrae growing on the outside of its yellowy-brown hide, all along its spine and continuing on like a crown over its misshapen head. Gilbert, who had studied extensively the creatures of the lower planes, identified it mentally as a cerebrilith, one of the fiends inhabiting the infinite layers of the Abyss. "It a demon!" he warned.

As the mage's words left his lips, the demon struck out at Finoula with a clawed hand, ripping a line of gashes across her torso. Binkadink struck out at it with his glaive, causing it to drip a foul ichor in place of blood. Almost ignoring its wound, it bit down at the elven ranger, catching her arm between its yellowy teeth.

Castillan, healed up enough for battle (by a potion Jinkadoodle hadn't fiddled with), used his ring to dimension door directly behind the demon, stabbing out with his short sword as he did so. He caught the thing by surprise, driving his blade in deep before it could react to his sudden presence. Finoula, meanwhile, activated one of the powers of her angel helm and channeled a dispel evil spell through Tahlmalaera and into the demon as the blade struck true. She could feel the spell's effect break through the cerebrilith's normal defenses, but at the last moment it was able to shrug off the effects.

Darrien sent several arrows flying at the cerebrilith, hitting with shaft after shaft. The creature snarled in pain - but then Binkadink finished it off with a powerful downward blow from his glaive, with all of his not-inconsiderable power behind it. The demon crumpled to the ground and died on the spot. Gilbert noted its body didn't disappear upon its death, which meant it hadn't just been temporarily summoned here to this plane, but rather gated in somehow.

"It's safe now" Binkadink called over to the privy pit, and made the introductions once Tanabelle climbed up and out. She led them inside the dwelling, to show them the magic circle Zaralia used to talk to other beings from faraway planes. Stepping inside, though, she immediately dealt with the boiling pan of tea that she and Junia had put on the fire before all of the excitement of the morning. "The circle's upstairs," she told the heroes, pointing to the back of the room.

The second floor had an enormous bed on the left, a giant-sized desk and chair on the right, and a magic tub in the back, with an oval window just behind it to allow the bathers to observe the sunrise or sunset from their relaxing bath. While Finoula looked longingly at the tub, Castillan started checking out the drawers of the desk, while Gilbert examined the permanent magic circle carved into the floor. There was a book lying across the circle - no doubt how the cerebrilith escaped the circle's confines after it arrived - and, flipping through it, Gilbert read a ritual that purported to bridge the planes to an "outer planes scholar" named Brumathion. Gilbert had no doubt the tale in the book was completely false, and had been planted in the volume as a means for the cerebrilith to be gated onto the mortal plane by gullible types like Zaralia.

Castillan, in the meantime, had found a closed wooden chest in one of the desk drawers. After determining to his satisfaction that it wasn't booby-trapped in any way, he opened it up and found an overly-large chime, similar to the chimes of opening both he and Ingebold owned. There were runes carved on the chime, and they were different than the ones on his and Ingebold's chimes; Gilbert identified them as being associated with the abjuration school of magic.

"So what kind of chime are we talking about here?" asked the bounder.

"Not sure, but you don't activate it until we figure it out," commanded Gilbert. Castillan closed the chest with a shrug.

Gilbert then started downloading the contents of Zaralia's library - even the books downstairs as tall as he was - into his Omnibook. He was well underway when an extraordinarily-large bottle of wine floated through the air before dropping at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second floor. Castillan felt the presence of a living body nearby although he couldn't see anybody there; he cast his hands in the area and felt them brush up against something. Jolting back as if he'd been shocked, he let out a gasp of surprise. Darrien heard it and sent an arrow flying at the spot directly in front of the bounder, changing it into a line of sticky spider silk before it hit. Unfortunately, all it hit was the wall, for if there was anything there the archer had missed with his line.

However, Tanabelle looked over at the commotion, saw the giant bottle of wine on the floor, and called out, "No! Stop! They're friends!" She then explained it was an invisible stalker Zaralia used to trade with other cloud giant colonies, exchanging grapes from her vines outside for the occasional bottle of wine.

"Zaralia was a good mistress?" asked Finoula.

"Oh, yes," sighed Tanabelle. "She was always so kind to Junia and I...well, up until today."

Finoula and her Battle-Sister exchanged looks. "I've not th' spell readied t'day," the dwarf admitted, "But I c'n have a raise dead spell ready t'go in th' mornin'."

"We'll have Zaralia back alive by tomorrow," Finoula promised Tanabelle.

"Oh! You can--? And Junia?"

At that, Ingebold's face fell. "I'm afraid...without an intact body..." she began.

"I understand," Tanabelle replied.

She showed the heroes the rest of the structure; the third and final floor housed Zaralia's telescope, with which she observed the stars at night. And she explained the magical chime: it was an alarm spell that, when activated, alerted a cloud dragon named Gozragoth who laired in the bottom part of the cloud. "It's a good thing you didn't activate it," observed Tanabelle. "If you had, Gozragoth would have come flying up to see what was the matter, and seeing Zaralia dead, he'd have undoubtedly come to the wrong conclusion, just like the invisible stalker did."

Tanabelle also explained the presence of the arrowhawks in the apple trees. "One of the smaller ones was named Caela," the servant said. "She was Zaralia's familiar. The others didn't bother us, or Gozragoth, but they were an extra layer of defense against intruders...not that we get many of those, up here."

Having done all they could for the moment, the heroes explained they were going to fly Hagan to see his parents, but promised to return to the cloud island immediately thereafter. Gilbert Fung, Ingebold, and Finoula remained behind with Tanabelle, so she wouldn't be alone with the corpse of her dead mistress. (Gilbert's first action was to cast a gentle repose spell on Zaralia.) The dragonfly vessel returned after a little over an hour, and the heroes slept in their ship, which was parked on the far end of the cloud. "And that gives me an idea..." began Jinkadoodle.

The next morning, Ingebold carried through with her promise and cast a raise dead spell on Zaralia. The blue-skinned giantess sat up, blinking in confusion, and then gasped in horror as she recalled what she'd done to Junia, her faithful servant. Finoula had also been under the cerebrilith's domination for a while, and remembered every moment of it. How much worse, she thought, must it be for Zaralia?

Zaralia was grateful for her return to life, but equally glad the heroes had put her down before she could harm Tanabelle. She used the chime to summon Gozragoth - which caused the heroes no small amount of concern - but it was merely to arrange for the purchase of a few of the items from his hoard. "He'll never part with a single copper piece of actual money," Zaralia explained, "but he doesn't mind selling off the things he can't use." Gilbert was given a ring of arcane supremacy which made it easier for his spells to have their desired effect upon magic-resistant foes; Darrien was given an extradimensional quiver which could house sixty individual arrows as well as javelins and bows; and Ingebold was given a medallion which allowed her to mentally communicate with one person from up to a mile away. "It's not enough to repay the debt I owe you all," Zaralia apologized.

"Actually..." began Jinkadoodle, and laid out his proposal.

Zaralia agreed instantly, and the heroes gained a parking spot for their dragonfly vessel, one where they need not worry about other spelljammers finding it parked in orbit, and one which came equipped with a cloud giant and cloud dragon on permanent guard duty.

The heroes waved their goodbyes to Zaralia and Tanabelle, stepped into the dragonfly ship, and went through the hidden lower level to the arcane runes that allowed them to teleport directly back to Battershield Keep.

"Ah, ye're here," said Aerik Battershield upon their arrival. "Ye've a guest in th' conference room. She's been waitin' fer yer return...."

"I dinnae trust 'er," sniffed Helga Battershield. "But ye c'n see fer yerselves."

"I think we better," agreed Gilbert Fung, leading the way to the conference room and shortly thereafter meeting up with a guest none of the heroes would have ever suspected would come to call upon them.

- - -

A couple of things worth mentioning: Hagan wishing to visit his parents was an in-game explanation for his upcoming absence from the next adventure, which was written before Harry joined our gaming group and is definitely not appropriate for a 10-year-old boy. (Or even for an 11-year-old, which is what he miraculously transformed into last week.) Harry's okay with missing the adventure once we explained it had really scary monsters in it that might give him nightmares; he routinely skips episodes of "Face Off" (a special effects makeup contest he otherwise enjoys) if the subject matter is going to be too scary that week. And I've explained Hagan will be having an unseen, off-screen adventure with his parents so he won't miss out on any XP that the other PCs will be accumulating during his absence. And fortunately, that's the only non-age-appropriate adventure I have in stock; all the ones after that were written with the knowledge that Harry would now be gaming with us.

Also, the arrowhawks being variants was a sudden change I made after I had messed up and forgotten they were immune to electrical attacks before allowing Hagan's chain lightning attack to kill off a bunch of them. Not wanting to "undo" Hagan's moment of glory, I simply altered their immunities and tail-ray attacks on the fly, as it were.

The best moment for me in this adventure was Zaralia tossing Junia off the island the round after Ingebold had healed her. I had known that was going to be Zaralia's next action before Logan (who was running Ingebold this time around) declared she'd be casting heal at range on Junia; I knew I was going to get some surprised looks on the players' faces, but I had underestimated the level of surprise I received: the table erupted with shouts of astonishment and dismay. It made my evil little DM's heart swell with glee.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My black T-shirt with the caption: "Chaotic Evil means never having to say you're sorry" - it seemed appropriate since the cerebrilith was a chaotic evil demon.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 41: ENEMY OF MY ENEMY

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 12
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 12
Darrien, half-elf ranger 12
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 12
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 12​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 12 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 1 January 2018

- - -

Entering the conference room of Battershield Keep, the heroes saw a voluptuous young woman already seated at the table, sipping a glass of red wine. She smiled as they entered, paying special attention to Castillan, scanning him from head to toe as a force of habit and very much liking what she saw - and what she imagined he looked like underneath his leather armor. The heroes stood in surprise looking down at their visitor, bunching up around the table but nobody taking a seat.

"Hello," she greeted them in a husky voice. "My name is Jasannah. I'd like to hire your services for a little job I need done. I don't intend to pay you for it, but I believe you'll be interested in the mission, all the same." Looking over at Finoula, she added, "Especially you, darling."

Finoula's eyes narrowed as she tried to remember if she'd ever met this hussy before in her life. She came up with nothing. Still, she figured she'd take the hook, if only to see what this was all about. "Oh?" she asked.

The woman smirked and replied, "I'd like for you to kill the incubus Malaterminus. Interested?"

Finoula exchanged quick glances with her Battle-Sister, Ingebold, then looked back to Jasannah, who was sipping her wine in a suggestive manner. "Yes," said Finoula, as Ingebold replied "Aye" at the same time.

"Good," replied Jasannah, setting down her wine glass. "I thought as much. I happen to know exactly where Malaterminus can be found. If we hurry, there's a good chance you might even be able to rescue a celestial being while you're at it - consider that a bonus for your good deed."

"And how do you happen to know all of this?" interjected Darrien.

"She a demon!" exploded Gilbert before Jasannah could reply.

"Why yes, of course," admitted the sultry woman. "A succubus, as you probably have already suspected. But as they say: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend....'"

"How you end up with Malaterminus as enemy? I thought succubi and incubi work together."

"Oh, normally we do. But this is an exception. Malaterminus is hardly an incubus at all, save in physical form; he's a rage-fueled monster who loves to kill. That's not what we're supposed to be about at all; our mission is all about temptation, seduction...you can hardly expect to taint a mortal's soul when you kill them during the first act of intimacy....

"But that's not the only reason I want him dead. I had a friend, Nehtenya, a succubus like myself. Several centuries ago, she found a way to bind him into a longsword and arranged to have him hidden away. We thought our problems were behind us, but...well." Jasannah smirked at Finoula and Ingebold. "I'm sure you know the rest."

The succubus finished her glass of wine and set the glass aside. "Are you ready?"

"We'll be needin' some time t' prepare th' spells we'll be wantin' at hand," replied Ingebold, as Gilbert plopped the Omnibook onto the table and started flipping through its pages.

"Oh, take your time," smiled Jasannah, patting the seat next to her and focusing her attention back to Castillan. "Why don't you sit here by me, Castillan? We can chat while the spellcasters do their stuff." The elven bounder approached the succubus and took the proffered seat, ignoring a warning look from Finoula and returning it with a glare that said he could handle it. But he was in no particular danger; it wasn't as if Jasannah was going to do anything to drain one of the people she was relying on to handle her Malaterminus problem. Castillan saw no reason why he couldn't spend a few pleasant moments in conversation with a temptation demon - after all, how many times in one's life did an opportunity like this present itself?

When the spellcasters indicated their readiness, Jasannah reached inside the cleavage of her tight dress and pulled out a key. Then she rose from the table and put the key into the doorknob of the door behind her, which led to the study. This was in itself a bit unusual, as that door had no keyhole. Stranger still was when Jasannah opened the door, revealing not the familiar study where Aerik unwound after a hard day's work, but rather what looked like a linen closet.

"This way, if you please," said Jasannah, stepping through the open doorway. The others followed, but not before Ingebold cast an attune form spell upon the assembled group. It turned out to have been unnecessary, for the Abyssal plane beyond the door was quite pleasant. Stepping through the open storage closet - filled with bottles of bathing soaps, scented candles, and the like - the group found themselves in an elegant castle, with revelry going on all about them. A fancy banquet table was filled with succulent foods, but they were mostly ignored by the revelers, who seemed to be mostly average-looking mortal men and exceptionally beautiful human and elven women, all in various stages of undress.

Gilbert kept the group close and cast a quick Rary's telepathic bond spell upon all of them but Ingebold and Mudpie. "Sorry," he apologized to the dwarven cleric. "I can only get so many into link - and you have amulet, anyway." Ingebold wore a contact medallion which allowed her to cast her thoughts to a single person up to a mile away; it would serve as a suitable alternative - and Mudpie already had a mental link with his master. After the spell had been cast, Gilbert decided to test it out. <Remember,> he mentally cautioned his friends, <we not believe anything this demon-whore say to us!>

<Why Gilbert, that's quite rude!> responded a seductive voice over the telepathic link. <You forget that we 'demon-whores' can communicate telepathically. But don't you worry - I forgive you. I'll even personally see to your reward after you slay Malaterminus.> Gilbert grumbled under his breath, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt.

Jasannah led the group past a railed opening in the floor, through which a ballroom dance could be seen underway on the level below them. They went through a narrow doorway - this castle seemed to have no doors, merely doorways - and outside onto an overhanging balcony. It was there they discovered they were on the second floor of the castle - and got their first glimpse of the natural state of the Abyssal realm in which they now stood. "Welcome to Shendilavri," Jasannah said, waving her arm to encompass the view behind her.

Shendilavri was a beautiful place, looking much more like one of the celestial realms than one of the layers of the Abyss. It had lush gardens, a lovely, blood-red sea in the distance, and a sky permanently at the most beautiful part of sunset. "Look there, by the sea," commanded Jasannah, pointing. "See the cliffs there? There are a number of caves along the bottom of the cliffs; the one with a heavy wooden door barring entrance is where Malaterminus spends his time between assignments. You will find him there."

Jasannah then led the group to a nearby set of stairs leading down to the castle's exterior, opening a heavy door to gain exit. There was a pair of hairy, goat-headed demons on guard duty outside the door, each brandishing a deadly-looking halberd. "When you've completed your mission, return here and have one of the guards fetch me. I'll lead you back inside, and we'll see about giving you a proper reward before sending you all home." Here, betraying her thoughts, Jasannah once again allowed her sight to focus on Castillan, unconsciously licking her lips in anticipation.

"We see you later, then," prompted Gilbert Fung, leading the group away from the seductress. They faced the cliffs by the sea and started walking. The way was filled with tall grasses waving in the light breeze; Binkadink had to extend his gnomish stilt-boots just to be able to see where he was going. It looked to be about a mile and a half until they reached their destination. "This no good!" complained Gilbert. "Why her key not open directly into cave we need to go to? This too much walking!"

"You could always have teleported us there," pointed out Darrien.

"Only if I have spell prepared," countered Gilbert. "Didn't think we need it." Then a sudden inspiration struck the portly mage: normally, he had Mudpie, his earth elemental familiar, follow him underground, directly beneath him. But since his familiar could earth glide - literally "swim" through the ground - Gilbert saw no reason why he couldn't have Mudpie glide through the earth with his upper half sticking up above the ground. Stepping onto Mudpie's broad shoulders, he commanded his trusty familiar forward and smiled in self-congratulations as he skimmed forward without having to move a muscle. "You slow pokes hurry up!" commanded Gilbert.

"Lazy!" scolded Darrien.

"Resourceful," countered Gilbert. The grasses parted before him as Mudpie skimmed forward, closing up behind them as they traveled - the elemental left no "wake" behind him.

As they approached the cliffs, Finoula suggested they might want to start casting their long-term preparatory spells. Knowing they'd be heading into the Abyss, they had come prepared: Binkadink, Gilbert, and Ingebold each received a magic circle against evil spell centered on them, while Darrien and Finoula each received a protection from evil spell.

Then, suddenly, there was movement in the grasses ahead of them - movement different from the gentle swaying caused by the warm breezes. A white, shaggy head popped up ahead of them, followed by another, and another, and then two more. These last two belonged to the same body; four half-fiend girallons roared and approached, the last one obviously ettinblooded.

It was the two-headed beast who responded first, rushing forward on its legs and lower arms while the upper arms beat menacingly on its chest in a display of aggression. Castillan reacted a mere fraction behind the girallon leader, but he looked sideways at Binkadink, mentally suggesting over their telepathic link a combined plan of action. Binkadink raised his glaive and moved into position, while Darrien pumped a few arrows into the ettinblood's chest for good measure. The beast snarled in pain with both throats.

Behind the leader, the other three approached, two of them racing forward full-bore while the last in line held back, concentrating on sending an unholy blight effect on the assembled group of heroes while they were still all bunched up. Darrien and Finoula caught the brunt of it, each visibly sickened by the assault.

But then Binkadink lashed forward with his glaive, driving its blade deep into the chest of the ettinblood leader. At the same time, Castillan tumbled past its grasp, ending up in position directly behind it and slamming his short sword - which appeared in his hand at the snap of a finger - deep into its kidney region. With a final set of twin howls of pain, the ettinblood fell forward and died.

Ingebold cast a quick bless spell on the group and moved forward, her light mace of healing in hand, menacing the girallon before her. At her side, Finoula used her flaming whip of thorns on another of the half-fiend beasts. Well behind the Battle-Sisters, Gilbert cast a stoneskin spell upon himself, having read in his works on outer planes beasts how dangerous these four-armed apes could be. He stepped off of Mudpie's shoulders as he did so, grateful for the free ride thus far but not wanting to hamper his familiar's combat abilities.

The two girallons already in melee combat struck forth with teeth and claws, one merely scoring a glancing blow along Finoula's armor but the other one faring much better against Ingebold, catching the cleric in three sets of claws and rending deep grooves into her armor and the skin beneath. It followed up with a bite on the cleric's shoulder; fortunately, her armor took the brunt of that attack, protecting her otherwise-exposed neck. In the meantime, the straggler moved forward, taking the space of the fallen, two-headed leader of this fiendish troop of hungry apes.

Darrien sent several arrows deep into the body of the beast fighting Finoula, noting with some dismay that although he'd recently had his Arachnibow upgraded to deliver cold energy damage through his arrows, they didn't seem to be having much of an effect against these brutes. But Gilbert targeted the same creature with a magic missile spell, dropping the ape instantly.

Seeing Ingebold's dire straits, Finoula stepped up between her Battle-Sister and the foe she fought, making herself a more ready target. She stabbed out with her longsword Tahlmalaera, drawing blood from the beast. Behind her, Binkadink used the extended reach of his glaive to do likewise to the beast that had hurt their cleric, while Gilbert stepped up beside Ingebold and dropped a healing potion into her hand. "Don't want healer taken out of fight!" he cautioned. With a nod of thanks, Ingebold gratefully drank it down, feeling the worst of her wounds healing over immediately. Wisely, she stepped back out of the creature's reach as she did so, confident that her companions could better deal with the four-armed menace.

From the side, the straggler - the half-fiend girallon who had cast the unholy blight upon the group - clawed at Binkadink; of the whole of the group, the gnome made for the smallest morsel but he was the nearest at hand, and the beast was hungry. Binkadink whirled around to face this new assault, bloodying the beast with his glaive while Darrien shot several arrows at it in rapid succession.

Finoula's foe lashed out at her, catching her with a claw and a bite but failing to grab the nimble ranger in a two-handed grip so it could rend her armor as it had done to Ingebold. But then Castillan was suddenly behind it, stabbing it from where he couldn't be seen. A torrent of blood gushed from a long, deep cut in the beast's side, and it was dead before it finished its turn to face this new enemy. The beast fell to the ground, its simian face holding an expression of puzzlement.

Binkadink made quick work of the final half-fiend girallon, and then the group paused to take stock of their wounds and tend to some much-needed healing. As they were now alone in a field of tall grasses, Binkadink opted to make use of some of the "joke" potions his cousin Jinkadoodle had tampered with; they still worked perfectly fine on the healing front, but a magic mouth effect tacked on during the creation process made it sound as if the imbiber was speaking one of a number of embarrassing statements. Ingebold drank down a proffered potion, then her voice exclaimed, "I am in desperate need of a spanking: please form an orderly line right here!"

"We need t' have a word with that cousin 'f yers," she growled at the little gnome.

"Agreed," replied Binkadink, passing another "tainted" potion to Castillan. The bounder had avoided any damage from the girallons' teeth and fangs, but like the others had taken some damage from the unholy blight spell effect. "Anybody want to see my junk?" his voice queried after he guzzled down the potion. "Heh," laughed the bounder. "That one was pretty good." Unlike some of the others, he enjoyed the gnome cousins' ongoing prank war.

After healing up, the group readied themselves to continue on their trek to the cave. "I should have brought Obvious," lamented Binkadink. "I could have used his mobility during that fight with those apes."

"You can ride my fly," offered Darrien, reaching into a pouch and pulling out his ebony fly. The gnome gratefully accepted it, exclaiming, "I forgot you had this!" He had ridden the ebony fly once before, in the assault upon the ninja forces that had overtaken Gilbert Fung's house. The gnome had the fly rise high enough that he could spot any other foes creeping about in the tall grasses, but there were none to be found and the group made their way unmolested to the cliff-side, where the entrance to Malaterminus's den was easily found.

There was a narrow cave some 30 feet deep and ending in a heavy, wooden door with iron bands offering further protection. Castillan, his elven eyes seeing fine in the ever-waning sunlight of Shendilavri and the circle of radiance shining from the antlers on Binkadink's helmet, immediately noted a keyhole along the door's right-hand side. "Let me go check it out," he suggested, making his way forward. He saw no obvious traps on the door, but a more thorough examination was called for....

The bounder didn't get to make that examination. His ears picked up the sounds of a chain's links jingling a mere second before he was grabbed by a long, barbed tongue that wrapped around his midsection and yanked him to the side. Out of the corner of his eye he saw himself about to crash into a wall, but then he somehow passed right through it, into the mouth of a heavily-armored, squat toad-dog thing. As the thing's teeth clamped down around him, Castillan tried to struggle but found he couldn't move at all - he was paralyzed, and couldn't even call out a warning to his friends!

Then, mentally castigating himself, he called out a warning to his friends over the still-active Rary's telepathic bond spell. <Guys! I'm paralyzed! There's a monster behind the wall who grabbed me with his tongue and pulled me through!>

<We're on it!> promised Finoula, stepping forward to where Castillan had been pulled through the wall. At the same time, with a mental prodding over their shared link, Gilbert sent Mudpie below the earth to go attack the unseen beast from beneath its present location. He then pulled a potion of remove paralysis flask from his belt and passed it over to an unseen servant he called into being, commanding it to go pour the vial's contents down the bounder's throat. The unseen servant moved to comply, the only indication of its progress being the floating vial of colored liquid hovering through the air, moving toward Finoula.

Unfortunately, the canoloth currently biting Castillan wasn't the only such "watchdog" in place. Directly across from it - and thus immediately behind Finoula - was another illusory wall covering a side-shaft to the cave entrance. The canoloth bounded forward, dragging its chain behind, and struck out at the ranger with a barbed tongue - a tongue not too dissimilar in build from the elf's own whip of thorns. Fortunately, the jingling of its chain gave Finoula enough warning to dodge the striking tongue, and the beast jumped forward to snap its teeth at the ranger, with similarly disappointing results.

However, now completely exposed to the other heroes, this second canoloth found itself the target of Darrien's rapid-fire arrows. As Ingebold intoned the words to a prayer spell encompassing the group of heroes, Binkadink charged in, still riding Darrien's ebony fly, and skewered the beast on the tip of his glaive, killing it instantly.

A sudden thud indicated that Mudpie had found his target, and then Castillan staggered out of the fake wall, the tip of his short sword covered in canoloth blood. Finoula pushed him aside and strode into the wall, stabbing forth with Tahlmalaera. She stepped back outside the illusory wall a moment later, dragging the canoloth's carcass by its chain. She dropped her burden then squatted down beside it, pulling a piece of twisted metal from its collar. "This is the key, perhaps?" she asked.

Castillan gave it a try, with no luck. Then he glanced at the other slain canoloth and saw a similar piece of twisted metal dangling from its collar. He found a way to connect the two - it was rather like a gnomish puzzle - and placed the unified whole into the door's keyhole. With a quick turn on his wrist, the clicking of a locking mechanism was heard and the massive door was pushed open by the bounder. "Here we are," he announced, looking inside and shocked at what he saw.

The chamber beyond the door was a massive, natural stone cavern, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling. That wasn't all that was hanging, though: a pair of thick chains dangled down from the ceiling, attached to either end of a long steel spear - which was penetrated through the heads of three naked women on their knees, seemingly of some exotic elven stock. The women had their arms stretched behind them, and they would have all been rather good-looking - had their lower jaws not been removed, to leave their tongues dangling in midair.

"By the Goddess!" exclaimed Finoula, a chill running up her spine at the horror before her. For these weren't the carcasses of slain women; they mewled and moaned, their tongues swaying back and forth in a pointless effort at speech. The ranger moved forward to help the women - she could see a similar spear had been pierced through each of their hands and the ends bent over to keep them in place - but a hand on her shoulder stopped her progress. "Wait!" commanded Gilbert Fung, his senses scanning the cavern.

Seeing no further danger, he continued. "This one hell of welcoming party," he said. "We dealing with twisted mind."

"Of course we are," snarled Finoula. "This is Malaterminus we're talking about. Now let me help these poor souls." But Gilbert's grip on her shoulder only tightened. "We come back for them later," he suggested. "We have spells in place - they not last forever. Let's deal with him first - then we help victims." Before him the women mewled in wordless input - but the heroes couldn't tell if these were entreaties for help or an understanding that their needs must wait for now.

"Listen!" hissed Castillan, his elven ears straining. There was a passageway deeper into the cavern complex, and the bounder could hear a rhythmic grunting and whimpers of pain coming from that direction. "Come on!" he whispered, leading the way to the passageway. "We come back for you," Gilbert promised the bound and disfigured women.

Tearing quietly through the passageway, Castillan turned a corner and found a disturbing scene: one of the goatlike schir demons of the type they'd seen guarding the succubus castle, busily humping away behind a woman bent over a large rock. Upon closer examination, the woman wasn't just bent over a rock: there were slabs of rock at her sides, upon which had been placed her arms and feathery wings - and then more slabs of rock pinning them into place, keeping her immobilized.

Hearing the others coming up behind the silent bounder, the schir demon turned his head and sneered, "Wait yer blasted turn!" before his eyes widened at the sight of the heroes assembled behind him. Castillan stabbed forth with his short sword, driving its blade deep into the shaggy demon's back and eliciting a goatlike bleat of pain. The humanoid goat-thing instinctively reached for the halberd leaning against the stone wall, then changed his mind and thrust his curved horns at the bounder, who nimbly dodged out of reach. The schir demon was still aroused from his prior actions, the bounder noted with disgust.

"Mudpie: kill it!" commanded Gilbert, and his familiar glided through the intervening stone wall to get to his foe. In the meantime, Finoula raced up, Tahlmalaera in hand, and gasped at what she saw in the cavern just beyond: another schir demon, his halberd on the stone floor beside him as he pumped away at the lillend hanging horizontally from the ceiling about three feet above the stone floor, bound by chains ending in hooks piercing through her hands and wings and supporting the weight of her snakelike lower body. The goat-demon held her head in both hands as he focused his attention solely on his own pleasure, ignoring the gasps of mixed pain and horror coming from the suspended lillend.

Finoula was frozen in horror at the scene before her, but Darrien was quicker to react: several arrows thunked into the goat-demon's back, gaining his immediate attention. He whipped around, causing the lillend to gasp in relief that her horror had been temporarily, at least, suspended. Finoula growled in rage and advanced upon the schir demon, flicking the thorn-whip before her with her left hand as she gripped the hilt of her longsword in her right.

Binkadink made short work of the first schir demon with his glaive, allowing Mudpie to focus upon lifting the rock slabs off of the female celestial's arms and wings. Gilbert pulled a healing potion from his belt and handed it to his unseen servant, commanding it to give it to the schir demon's victim after Mudpie had freed her. The floating vial indicated the unseen servant's position as it patiently waited to carry out its orders.

Ingebold raced up behind her Battle-Sister, mace at the ready. She noted the area was scattered with white gravel and frowned in puzzlement before she realized they were the lillend's teeth. Snarling in fury, she stepped up to help attack the goat-demon, but Finoula had already gotten in several good strikes, and a cluster of magic missiles indicated Gilbert's contribution to the fight. A few arrows from Darrien's Arachnibow finished it off for good, then the half-elf ranger advanced further into the cavern, curious about the deep, open pit before him.

He immediately wished he hadn't looked. The pit was about 25 feet long and 20 feet wide. Its depth was unknown, for it was filled nearly to the top with hundreds, if not thousands, of female bodies. Darrien spotted humans, elves, winged celestials, and even a succubus or two - apparently Malaterminus's only qualification for his victims was that they were female; the ranger spotted no male forms in the pile. Disturbingly, either the incubus had a ridiculously rapid kill rate or there was preservation magic at play here, for none of the victims showed the slightest sign of decay. And a sloping section of rock on the far side of the pit led up to a throne made of bones and sinew, a perch upon which a particularly depraved individual could look down upon the bodies of his victims and remember the good times he'd had with each and every one of them. There was even a large stalactite hanging down over the pit, carved with thousands of grooves as Malaterminus commemorated each death with a notch, keeping score throughout the centuries....

The schir demons having been slain, the group advanced further along the cavern network, Gilbert giving the hanging lillend the same promise he'd given the trio of bralani women in the first chamber - that they'd be back to free her after they'd taken care of Malaterminus. But Ingebold, Finoula, and Darrien found another body slumped in a corner of the cavern up ahead: this one was a naked male with the head of a dog, which Gilbert identified as a hound archon. He sat with his back against the wall, his head angled forward as if to contemplate the sharp-tipped organ rising up to just past his chest. The heroes groaned in realization that the archon's male member only extended about halfway up the pointy shaft; the slain hound archon had apparently been placed upon a sharp and narrow stalagmite, which pierced up through his body and erupted through the end of his member. Darrien felt his own groin shrivel in sympathetic pain at the sight. "This Malaterminus freak definitely needs killing," he observed.

Binkadink advanced up to the trio upon his borrowed, horse-sized fly, saw the dead hound archon, and moved on around the corner to see even more evidence of depravity. There was a beautiful woman, seemingly human but for her golden skin, shackled at the wrists and ankles by chains leading to the bottoms of the stone slab upon which she lay, spread-eagled. Above her loomed a vrock, a vulture-demon who squawked in irritation at the interruption. Given that the golden-skinned human was unconscious and her gown still intact (if ripped along the neckline), it seemed as if the vrock had yet to begin his depredations.

And he wouldn't, if Binkadink had any say in the matter. He urged his fly mount forward, striking at the vrock with his glaive pointed ahead like a lance. Finoula raced behind the gnome, eager to join the fighter in battle against the vrock...

...until her gaze focused to the narrow chamber beyond the vulture-demon, and to the winged, naked man standing between what looked like - incongruously - a pair of window panes looking out onto a beautiful landscape, with blue skies streaked with fluffy, white clouds.

"Why, hello, Finoula!" greeted Malaterminus. "How nice of you to find me here in my den. Now I won't even have to seek you out...."

Any reply Finoula might have made was cut off by the sudden pain the ranger felt beneath her skin, where, unseen, spores released by the vrock had started their agonizing growth. A grunt from Binkadink hinted that he was experiencing the same unpleasantness, but the little gnome was unable to focus upon it, for he was busy fending off the vrock's snapping beak and wicked talons.

Finoula slashed out at the vrock with her longsword, cutting a deep gash into the demon's side, but it was of little consequence to the elven ranger, whose attention was focused solely on the incubus before her. The vrock screeched as a trio of arrows erupted in its chest, evidence that Darrien had joined the fight, but Finoula barely noticed. Binkadink's glaive bit deep into the vrock's flesh, but it mattered not to Finoula; her enemy was before her, and she had no room for thoughts of anything else. She barely even noticed as a haste spell encompassed her, Binkadink, and Darrien, cast by Gilbert Fung from the other side of the cavern.

Finoula's flaming whip of thorns struck out and slashed the incubus across his face, drawing a trickle of blood down the side of his cheek. Her sword stabbed out, cutting a red line across his forearm. "Why, Finoula," cooed Malaterminus, "one might think you weren't pleased to see me." Then he called out, "Slurper-of-Entrails--attend me!"

Instantly, a hard-shelled mezzoloth formed between the incubus and the ranger intent upon his death. It struck at Finoula with its wicked claws, and the ranger instinctively tried to dodge its blows, all while keeping her gaze focused upon Malaterminus - but her attempts to dodge were unnecessary. With a look of puzzlement in its beady little eyes, the mezzoloth tried - and failed - to put its claws on the ranger's lithe body, but Ingebold's protection from evil spell was still active and it prevented the summoned demon from making contact.

But the moment's respite gave the incubus time to flee down a narrow side corridor, towards his throne of bones. "Coward!" called Finoula behind him, while Ingebold cast a blade barrier spell that walled off the mezzoloth from the rest of the group. Despite the whirling blades of the spell providing cover, Darrien managed to get in a few shots with his bow, peppering the mezzoloth's carapace with his arrows.

Binkadink managed to slay the vrock, making way for Castillan to approach the gold-skinned woman chained to the slab of stone. "She's alive!" he called out, grabbing his lockpicks to open her manacles. But then his attention was distracted by a scene through the "windows" just beyond: a winged, three-headed tiger was pacing back and forth through the windows, approaching one and seemingly teleporting immediately to the other as it paced back and forth, back and forth. Its heads were low to the ground, and the bounder realized it was tracking somebody by scent. In a flash of intuition, the bounder realized these were rifts to another - presumably celestial - realm; and that this was the means by which Malaterminus obtained his celestial victims. The three-headed tiger was likely seeking the golden woman who had just been abducted. Castillan returned his focus to the task at hand, freeing the unconscious woman from her shackles.

Slurper-of-Entrails, in the meantime, got tired of being peppered with arrows from behind the blade barrier spell, and teleported away. Through the whirling blades he'd picked out the form of the dwarf who had cast the spell - a cleric of dour Moradin, no doubt - and chosen her as a fine target. But he once again was stopped by an invisible barrier, this one caused by the magic circle against evil that didn't even allow him to land where he'd targeted, right in front of the dwarf. Instead, he was shunted to a few paces from the archer. Changing targets immediately, the mezzoloth found he likewise couldn't touch the half-elf standing before him -- it was infuriating!

The vrock dead, Binkadink wheeled his borrowed fly in place and flew it around back, over the pit of victims and past the throne, cutting Malaterminus off from his destination with the point of his glaive. "Not going to happen!" the gnome promised the incubus.

"I doubt that," replied Malaterminus from behind the gnome, who turned to see the incubus seated upon his throne; Binkadink hadn't even seen him teleport! "But just look at what I can do from here!"

By an unspoken command, the bodies of Malaterminus's victims came to an unholy, stilted life. They crawled up out of the pit, dragging themselves forward in a mass, some scrabbling toward Binkadink and his ebony fly while others spilled out the other way, pulling their lifeless bodies toward Ingebold and Darrien. Gilbert flashed anger as he scanned them with his magically-enhanced eyes, but he saw these weren't undead; the incubus was merely animating them as he might any other unliving object. Glad to see their souls weren't being violated as their bodies had once been, the wizard cast a spell upon Malaterminus from across the pit, overcoming the demon's natural ability to ward off spell effects and encasing him in a green glow. "You not going anywhere now!" Gilbert promised the incubus, confident in the power of his dimensional anchor spell.

Malaterminus rose from his throne, fury in his eyes. Darrien compounded the incubus's fury by piercing his chest with a well-placed arrow. Ingebold cast a flame strike at the lustful demon, and while he managed to shield himself from its effects the unliving victims crawling towards him weren't so lucky; their violated bodies sizzled and burned from the power of her spell. As one, they stopped their feeble movement, while those closest to the cleric and thus outside the range of her spell continued their slow approach.

Binkadink spun the ebony fly around and faced the incubus. He suddenly struck out with the flat of his blade, striking the demon in the head again and again. Malaterminus spilled forward, falling to the floor in front of his throne.

"Is he--?" asked Finoula.

"Just unconscious," promised the gnome. "He's all yours."

"All ours," corrected Finoula, indicating for Ingebold to step forward and join her. As the cleric scrambled up to the throne, Finoula kicked Malaterminus over with her foot. He lay naked, exposed, upon his back, his arms spread out before him as if in silent supplication.

Finoula placed the tip of Tahlmalaera over the heart of the incubus, gripping the hilt with both hands. Ingebold placed her hand over those of her Battle-Sister, and the ranger brought the sword up high. Then, together, they brought the blade crashing down into his chest, piercing his heart in the same fashion as he'd once tricked Finoula into doing to Ingebold. Malaterminus didn't even have the courtesy to wake up at the last moment, to lock eyes with his slayer one last time; he simply grunted once and died, there in his own chamber of horrors.

"Well, so long everybody!" waved the mezzoloth before teleporting away; he'd learned the hard way there was no way he could even touch these interlopers, whereas they could touch him in all sorts of unpleasant ways. And with Malaterminus already dead, it wasn't like he owed the incubus anything anymore....

Castillan freed the golden woman, then awakened her gently. She introduced herself as Glorianna, and confirmed she'd just been snatched out of thin air from her home on Mount Celestia. Mudpie had, by this time, freed the celestial from beneath the crushing rocks; she introduced herself as Annavel, a sword archon similarly plucked from Mount Celestia years ago and abused here ever since. "You have my undying gratitude," she said, helping the others free the bound lillend, Maestria and the trio of bralani, whose names were unknown.

"I think we make our own way home," suggested Gilbert Fung, not wanting to trust Jasannah at her word that she'd get the heroes back to Oerth. "We go through rift to Mount Celestia, Ingebold plane shift us home from there. But first," he added, pulling out his magical dagger, "I have errand to run."

While the others gathered their rescued victims together and stepped through the rift into Mount Celestia, Gilbert Fung cast a fly spell upon himself and returned briefly to the castle. "Here," he said, tossing the severed head of Malaterminus at one of the schir demon guards. "You tell Jasannah mission accomplished, but we find our own way back home."

The demon guards looked at astonishment at the severed head before them, then bellowed in anger. "You killed him!" exclaimed one, grabbing up his halberd. "I had a pass for when my shift was over!" moaned the other. "I was going to finally get to try out that lillend!" They swung their weapons at Gilbert, but he quickly flew out of range and sped back to the cavern, looking back frequently to ensure he wasn't being pursued by any flying demons. But he made it back to the rift to Mount Celestia and caught up with his friends there without incident.

"We'll need t' seal off this rift somehow," declared Ingebold. "We dinnae want the next incubus in line to pick up where Malaterminus left off."

"I have marked the location," answered Annavel, whose hand and forearm had become a flaming sword, with which she had burned a mark into the ground indicating the location of the extraplanar rift - which was completely undetectable from this side. "We will see to the construction of a wall, blocking off the rift." The three-headed tiger - a leskylor, Glorianna had explained - growled its agreement.

Now safely back on their home plane, the celestials had begun healing. Maestria's teeth were growing back in, and the three bralani were slowly growing back their lower jaws. Annavel excused herself and flew off, returning several minutes later, now robed in a fresh set of clothes.

"I can never thank you enough," she said, handing an object to Ingebold - for she had instinctively singled out the one hero whose natural inclinations best fit the lawful good alignment of Mount Celestia. "But please accept this as a small token of my gratitude. You have only to touch it, and speak my name - and I will come to you, across the planes, to aid you as you have aided me this day."

"I thank ye," replied Ingebold formally, placing the amulet around her neck, where it rubbed up against her holy symbol of Moradin the Soul-Forger. And then, after saying their goodbyes, Ingebold cast the plane shift spell that would return the heroes to their own world.

- - -

This was an uncomfortable adventure to run, because of the subject matter. Knowing ahead of time that I'd be basically running the PCs through a "rape dungeon," I had made arrangements for Hagan to be visiting his parents during this adventure, so that Harry could be spared a bunch of questions about what the demons were up to. (He just turned 11 last month, but I wrote this adventure before he had joined our group.)

Had Malaterminus been slain upon his first being encountered, this adventure wouldn't have been necessary. But we've always been a "let the dice fall where they may" group, and his escape made tracking him down later necessary. This seemed like exactly the sort of thing an incubus gone bad by even demonic standards would get up to, but I took care to describe the encounters in such a way that the players could infer what was going on without my actually coming out and stating the obvious. And the depravity of the scene only made Malaterminus's death that much more satisfying to Vicki. (We had skipped ahead, jumping over several other players to have Vicki run Ingebold this time even though it wasn't her turn, as it seemed appropriate that the Battle-Sisters would be on a united front in seeing their long-held goal to its conclusion.)

And now I don't have to deal with Malaterminus any more in this whole campaign, a fact for which I am grateful.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: A new Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt I just got for Christmas. It seemed appropriate for this particular gaming session, since this was definitely a much "darker" session than any other we've ever had.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 42: STREET FIGHTERS

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 12
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 12
Darrien, half-elf ranger 12
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 12
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 12
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 12​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Feya Cloudshadow, elf expert (herbalist) 5
Harriet Fung, orc sorcerer 4
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5
Marta, human ranger 2
Winkidew Dundernoggin, gnome wizard 6​

Game Session Date: 6 January 2018

- - -

It had been over a year since the last wave of orc and goblin marauders from the Vesve Forest. Since the attacks had come regularly between 6 and 12 months for the past two decades, there was hope that whatever had been driving them was no longer in effect. However, despite the overall hope that the attacks might somehow be over, there was still a general wariness in the air. But defenses were still in place: Chalkan’s arcane archers guarded the forest and garrisons of mercenary soldiers - funded by the treasures unearthed by King Galrich's heroes - still patrolled the borders.

However, after the horrors of the Abyss, the group had decided to spend some time with their respective families and planned to meet back up at Battershield Keep in three days’ time.

THE FUNG COTTAGE
Throughout the Fung cottage, all was quiet and still. Harriet Fung lay asleep in her bed, the dark-green hair spread across the pillow framing her orcish face. She dreamed of her childhood in faraway Kozakura, back before she had been forced to flee at a young age from an undesired arranged marriage. On his perch upon the nightstand, Harriet's black-feathered familiar, Kurotori, dreamed his raven dreams. In Gilbert's bedroom, Mudpie stood silent guard over his sleeping master, who was sprawled out across his bed in a tangle of sheets and blankets. And in the family room at the front of the house, Hagan slept in his bedroll, his weasel familiar Wezhley nestled against his chest. Hagan had only recently returned from a visit to his own parents on the other side of the Vesve Forest and had taken Gilbert's offer to stay a few days with him; the half-orc had taken the opportunity to brush Harriet up on her lessons on the Orcish language. She'd been tutored by King Galrich as time permitted, but the duties of running a kingdom were many and her lessons thus far had been short and sporadic. Hagan, a natural speaker of his father's language since he was a little lad, was a much more fluent speaker than the king and Harriet's adeptness with the unfamiliar language was improving immensely.

Hagan wasn't a deep sleeper, but even he failed to hear the slight pop of air displacement as an unseen form materialized in the Fung's foyer, the result of a softly-spoken dimension door spell. The invisible figure opened the door to his companions and they, being a more brutish lot, slammed the door open in their haste to enter and loot the building. One room away, Hagan's eyes snapped open as he was awakened by the sounds of heavy boot-steps in the hallway.

The first two figures were hulking orc brutes covered in hides and pelts, with great stone axes in hand. Behind them trundled others of the orcish race, these wielding smaller, curved blades of bone and horn. Seeing perfectly fine in the pitch blackness of the unlit chamber, they split up and headed in both directions, the barbarians heading right, towards Hagan, and the others starting to go off in the other direction.

Sliding silently from his bedroll, Hagan scooped up his familiar and dropped him upon his left shoulder; Wezhley was savvy enough to remain silent, feeling his master's wariness. The half-orc readied a lightning bolt spell to blast at any enemies who might enter the family room from the open doorway to the front foyer, where all the noise had come from. Absently, the sorcerer noted the sounds of someone clambering up onto the rooftop, which made it less and less likely that the sounds he'd heard were of an innocuous nature.

But Hagan wasn't the only one alerted by the noisy orcs; Mudpie had heard the three climbing up onto the roof from either side, as did Harriet. The orc sorcerer slipped out of her bed, slipped on a flowered robe, and reached up on the wall for her grandfather's ceremonial katana and wakizashi. Thus armed, she crept to the sliding door of her room and listened intently.

Down the hall, Mudpie had awakened his master and Gilbert had slipped his own robe on, grabbing up his pouch of spell components. "Let's go see what up!" he whispered to the earth elemental beside him.

In the family room, Hagan had heard the unmistakable sounds of Orcish being spoken. He silently crept to the doorway to Verdant Gristwold's study, across from the doorway to the foyer. There, captured perfectly in Hagan's darkvision were the two orc barbarians, headed his way. He cast a chain lightning spell, focusing on the one he could see the best and sending arcs of electricity out to the one behind him and two other orcs in view down the long hallway at the front of the Fung cottage. Four orc voices cried out in pain and anger; the primary target had been severely hurt by the spell and the other barbarian showed scorch marks where he'd been badly burned as well, but the two orc warriors down the hallway had been slain outright. There was no longer any doubt: the Fung residence was under attack!

Having heard the sounds of combat from the front of the house, Gilbert cast an expeditious retreat spell on Mudpie. "Make sure Mom okay!" he commanded, sliding open the door panel to his room. Mudpie scampered out to obey, traveling at a much faster pace than his usual lumbering gait. Down the hallway, Harriet had cautiously opened her own sliding door panel and stepped out onto the wooden walkway flanking the open garden in the middle of her home. She released Kurotori to fly up through the opening in the ceiling, to scout from above and let her know who was attacking the house, and from which direction.

As the raven flew up through the central ceiling hole, three orcs used that same opening to leap down into her garden, two on the eastern side of the building but the other one landing right in front of a startled Harriet. Despite her gruff appearance in her orc body, Harriet gave a small shriek of surprise. But Gilbert, acting quickly, cast an Evard's black tentacles spell on the part of the garden he could see in the moonlight, catching each of the orc interlopers in the rubbery embrace of writhing appendages suddenly rising up from the ground.

"Good job, Mudpie!" Harriet called to her son, using his childhood nickname and confusing her son's elemental of the same name who wasn't sure why he was being praised. She slid back another door and went down the hallway towards the kitchen, the earth elemental dutifully following to keep her safe.

In the front hallway, the singed orc barbarians made a rush for Hagan, swinging their greataxes. One caught the sorcerer in the arm, slicing through his sleeve and cutting into the flesh beneath. Hagan moved to take a step back to give him room to cast an attack spell, but he bumped into something he couldn't see - the invisible wizard had used another dimension door spell to get behind the half-orc. Stumbling to the side, Hagan fired off a cone of cold spell that encompassed both barbarians and one of the other orcs who had followed behind to see what the fuss was about. The orc warrior and the barbarian who had been burned the worst from Hagan's first spell dropped immediately, dead on the spot, while the remaining barbarian roared in pain and rage and slashed out wildly with his weapon, missing the sorcerer.

The two remaining orc warriors decided to try out the other direction, moving past a western-style dining room (boring) and into a kitchen (much more interesting). Upon spotting Harriet's collection of steel knives, they gave out a cry of delight and grabbed them up, wielding one in each hand and stuffing the others in their belts. "Metal weapons!" they crowed in their guttural language.

Harriet listened from the other side of the kitchen door, this one wood with a handle in the style of the western world. It sounded like they were shouting "metal weapons" in their brutish language, but she wasn't sure - she'd have to ask Hagan when she saw him.

But Hagan was busy fighting off an enraged barbarian in the family room. He'd been hit again, a glancing blow across his chest that left a line of blood dripping down his torso. He'd also been attacked by a spell that felt like it wanted to cloud over his vision, cast by an invisible spellcaster somewhere in the room with him or in the doorway to the study. Fortunately, Hagan had managed to shrug off the spell's effects; had he been blinded as intended, he doubted he'd still be alive by now. He wasted another cone of cold spell on the remaining barbarian, on the one hand hating to use up so powerful a spell on a single enemy, but on the other hand wanting to be sure he killed him as soon as possible. The spell did the trick; the barbarian fell over, dead. Now all Hagan had to do was to fight another spellcaster, one who couldn't be seen!

Having grabbed up all the kitchen knives, the orc warriors each went to open one of the two wooden doors out of the room. The one on the right found a pantry and cried out again in joy, stepping forward into the small room and stuffing his mouth full of various foodstuffs. The other one opened the door and found a good-looking female orc in a flowered robe, wielding twin blades - of metal! "What group are you with?" he asked her, so astonished by seeing another of his race from a different assault group that he failed to notice the small earth elemental standing behind her - or the heavyset wizard turning the corner at the end of the hall behind her, having ensured his Evard's black tentacles spell had finished off the three orc warriors in the meditation garden.

Instinctively, Harriet lowered her head, mumbled "Excuse me," and rushed past the orc, headed toward the family room and Hagan. The orc's gaze followed her; as a result he didn't see the incoming magic missile spell that slew him standing there in the kitchen. Gilbert and Mudpie strode into the kitchen and heard the sounds of an impromptu orc feast in the pantry. Slaying this second orc with another magic missile spell, Gilbert called out to his mother, "Flee to neighbor's house! We come for you after we finish here!"

Hagan felt another blindness/deafness spell try to rob him of his sight and fail, and realized this unseen spellcaster didn't have much else to work with - after all, why try to rob an opponent of his sight when you were already invisible? He assumed his foe was hoping for Hagan to be easy meat for his other orc allies, but from the sounds of things Gilbert had taken out the rest of them. With a mental shrug, Hagan cast his last cone of cold of the night, encompassing the entirety of Verdant's study and apparently - judging by the moan of pain from the corner of the room - catching his unseen foe in its area of effect. But then there were the mumbled words to another spell, followed by silence; Hagan had recognized the words to a teleport spell and realized he wouldn't likely have to deal with that particular foe for the rest of the night.

Outside on the porch, Kurotori landed on Harriet's outstretched arm. "No other enemies in sight," he reported.

"That good," affirmed Gilbert, stepping up behind his mother. "I leave Mudpie here with you. Hagan! You okay?"

"I'm fine," reassured the half-orc sorcerer, stepping into the room. "Hello again, Mrs. Fung."

"We have to assume other areas under attack, too," Gilbert reasoned. "I got teleport spell ready. I go check on Finoula. You want to check on one of others?"

"I'll go see if Darrien's okay," replied Hagan. "He and his mom live way out there in the woods."

"Sound good." And the two spellcasters departed.

"You strong enough to pull dead bodies outside?" Harriet asked Mudpie. "I no want them in here. You do that, I go get broom. This place a mess!"

- - -

CLOUDSHADOW RESIDENCE
Feya Cloudshadow sat in her bedroom, caught up in her nightly reverie. As her body rested, her mind sorted through centuries of memories: her childhood in the forest; her two husbands: one elven, one human, both now dead; the birth of her two daughters, Finoula and Feron, separated by many years between them. A smile on her lips showed that most of the memories of her life were pleasant ones.

Down the hall, Finoula sat in a similar stance in her own room, but in her much shorter span of life she'd amassed more than a few unpleasant memories. She awakened from her nightly reminiscences by the sudden realization that there was a powerful evil there in the room with her. She snapped her eyes open, and in the moonlight streaming in from the window she saw looming above her the incubus Malaterminus.

"You stupid, mortal whore!" he sneered. "Did you really think I had taken no precautions against an untimely death? That I had no one to return me to my unholy life? Well, I'm back! And now my only problem is do I want to make you watch while I kill your mother in front of you, or shall I do you first while she watches?" He reached down for the horrified ranger, his excitement of the night's prospects visibly evident....

Finoula awoke from her reverie with a start. She looked about her, but there was no evidence that Malaterminus had been there in the room with her; all was as she had left it when she began her reverie that evening - even Wrath, her faithful timber wolf, lay by her side with his head resting on his front paws, fast asleep. Finoula knew that if she had indeed been visited by the evil incubus she'd just slain, Wrath would have been instantly awakened and leaped to her defense. So it was just a dream, then. With a deep sigh of relief, Finoula settled back into position and tried to still her racing mind.

But then she heard the noise again, the noise she recognized as one that had originally helped awaken her from her resting state, the one that sounded like somebody scrabbling around on the rooftop.

Rising effortlessly to her feet - a process which elicited a whuff? from her faithful wolf as he rose, instantly alert for danger - Finoula reached for her weapons. She had on a tight-fitting garment she wore beneath her leather armor; it would have to do. She opened the door to her room and padded down the hallway to the top of the stairs. She heard a sudden thud! from the ground level, over by the kitchen - somebody cascading down the chimney, perhaps? With sword and whip in hand, Finoula went to investigate.

In the master bedroom, Feya had awakened from her reverie as well and was tying the sash to her robe when she heard another sound on the rooftop above her. She went to go check on her daughter, but by the time she got to the doorway there was a crash behind her as her window exploded inwards, smashed in by a spidery-looking appendage. With a shriek, Feya closed the bedroom door behind her.

"Go stay with Mother," Finoula commanded her wolf as she started down the stairs, her senses straining. Wrath obediently bounded over to Feya, right as Finoula's elven eyes picked out motion over by the kitchen. It was a goblin, blackened with soot from his dive down the chimney, striding as bold as you please to the front door, where he was apparently going to go let in his associates. "Hey!" the ranger yelled, racing down the rest of the stairs. The startled goblin looked in her direction in fear, but he had already opened the front door, and another trio of goblins stood there, waiting to be let in.

Finoula's flaming whip of thorns came lashing out at the goblin intruder, slaying him instantly. But the goblin trio was already pushing its way into the living room, and pounding behind Finoula indicated more goblins trying to bash in the back door and others trying to force their way into the door leading to Feya's workshop.

Up in Feya's bedroom, a spidery figure scrambled into the room from the shattered window. This was a spider the size of a man, and upon its hairy back, perched in an elaborate saddle/harness, sat another goblin. He steered his arachnid steed over to the bedroom door, then reached out and turned the knob - steeders were excellent transport beasts, capable of traveling up sheer surfaces and even across ceilings, but they weren't very good at opening doors. As the door exploded outwards into the hall, Feya screamed and started down the stairs, Wrath at her heels.

The three goblins in the living room spread out and attacked Finoula, smirks and leers written on their faces at having to deal with a single elf - and a female at that! Finoula wiped the grins off their faces by slaying two of them in the space of as many heartbeats, striking one with her whip and snapping his neck while skewering the other on her blade. The remaining goblin's face drained of color, then he regained a bit of confidence as the back door was smashed open and goblin reinforcements rushed in.

Wrath needed no encouragement or instructions; he leaped at the first goblin through the back door and ripped out his throat. Unseen, another pair of goblins smashed through the door to Feya's workshop and made their way past the tables of herbs and spices and alchemical equipment.

A scrabbling sound on the roof above indicated the progress of another goblin-mounted steeder, as became apparent once it dropped to the front lawn and was visible in the open front doorway. Recognizing the pair as her greatest likely threat, Finoula activated her lightning amulet and blasted herself right through them, slaying the goblin instantly and scorching the spider.

However, the other steeder by this time had scampered down the stairs and bitten Feya. Its rider brought a blowgun to his lips and shot a dart at the elven herbalist, but the dart went whizzing past her head to stick into the wall beyond. Dribbles of poison leaked down from the dart's tip.

Without any command from its slain rider, the other steeder scrambled into the house, attacking Wrath, who the giant arachnid saw as nothing more than a potential meal. The poor wolf was also simultaneously attacked by two goblins at the back door, but he managed to slay one of those with a vicious bite. The other goblin decided right then and there that his assault group had obviously picked the wrong house to attack, and turned tail to flee back the way he'd come.

Finoula stepped back into her mother's house, flailing away with her magic whip. She'd caused rivulets of blood to come streaming from the riderless spider's abdomen; insanely, while in battle for their very lives, part of Finoula worried about how difficult it would be to get the blood out of her mother's floors. Wrath spun around and snapped his jaws at the same spider but missed. However, not liking the odds and without a rider to prod it on, the spider had at that time decided to flee as well. Both doors were blocked, one by the wolf and one by the elf, but it had carried a goblin up to the rooftop with it so he could scurry down the chimney; that was another avenue of escape. Unfortunately, before it could put its half-formed thoughts into motion, Finoula lashed out again with her whip and killed the spider before it could get very far at all.

The mounted steeder scurried down the rest of the stairs and bit Wrath; its rider, meanwhile, had turned in his saddle and shot a poisoned dart at Finoula through the use of a blowgun. She slapped it away in irritation with Tahlmalaera, then used the move to thrust the blade into the body of the last of the goblin trio to have entered through the front door. Just as she was kicking his skewered body off of her blade, though, the other two entered the living room from Feya's workshop.

And then, out of nowhere, a portly wizard appeared in the middle of the room. Finoula's brow creased in puzzlement at the sight of Gilbert Fung in her mother's living room, but then put her focus back onto the fight at hand.

As his steeder bit Wrath, the goblin spider-rider turned and shot a poisoned dart at Gilbert Fung, missing him by a hair. Gilbert responded with a burning hands spell which slew the goblin and burned a patch of fur off the steeder. Gilbert was then attacked by the two goblins wielding handcrafted morningstars, looking like knobby masses of pulplike wood with shards of glass embedded in them. He cursed at the little buggers, but Finoula assumed he had things in hand with them and concentrated on the remaining spider. She carved it up with her sword, slaying it in one well-pressed attack. Then, partly to show Gilbert she didn't need him to come teleporting in to save her, she handily dispatched the goblins who had been attacking him with a few quick strikes from her whip. Deactivating the whip's thorns, she started rolling it back up now that combat was over.

"Gilbert," she said, acknowledging his presence and his assistance.

"Finoula," he replied, nodding his head.

Feya looked at the dead bodies scattered across her house and headed for the workshop. "I think I need some calming herbs," she said.

- - -

MARTA'S CABIN
In the log cabin they shared out in the woods on the outskirts of Kordovia, Marta and her son Darrien were both asleep in their beds. Marta had a rather normal bed, whereas Darrien's was a loft, occupying the upper half of the east end of his room, with a small desk beneath it. Perhaps because he was situated so close to the roof, it awakened him when he heard something crawling around up there.

More times than not, it was squirrels who crawled around up on the roof. The woods were crawling with squirrels, which made for good eating and excellent target practice with his bow; there were already two skinned squirrels in the pantry for tomorrow's stew. With a sigh, Darrien tried to block the noise and get back to sleep. But there was something almost sinister in the sounds on the roof, like whatever was up there was trying to be stealthy about it (and failing miserably to the ranger's trained ears).

Then there was a sound of something tumbling down the chimney between the two bedrooms, and all thoughts of a possible squirrel incursion were removed.

Darrien leaped down from his bunk, wearing only the pants to his armor and a comfortable under-shirt. He grabbed his amber amulet from the desk and slipped it over his neck, then grabbed up his Arachnibow and strung it. Slapping his quiver of Ehlonna on a belt around his hips, he crept to the door and peered out.

There was a skeleton crawling out of the fireplace. It was the size of a man but somewhat brutish, almost apelike: an orc, perhaps?

Not wanting to have his mother be taken unawares - for Darrien could hear more scrabbling up on the rooftop - the ranger bellowed, "MOM! SKELETONS!" at the top of his lungs as he mentally activated his amulet.

There was a twisted figure embedded in the hunk of amber he wore around his neck: it was a praying mantis encased in the golden substance. However, upon Darrien's activation, the mantis in the amulet disappeared - leaving a mantis-shaped bubble in the glob of amber - and a giant mantis taller than a man appeared in the central room of the cabin. It a flash, it struck out at the orc skeleton with its claws, catching it, imprisoning it, and biting it all in one quick motion. The combined attack was enough to destroy the skeleton, which fell apart into a pile of bones on the wooden floor.

There was a sudden pounding and banging on the cabin's only door. The mantis spun to face this new threat, but it sounded like it would take a moment for the attackers to break their way through.

Marta, meanwhile, climbed out of her warm bed and threw her robe around her. Then, with a hatchet as a weapon, she peered out of the shutters of her bedroom window. She was dismayed to see countless skeletons ringing the cabin - it looked like Darrien hadn't been kidding, waking her up in the middle of the night like that!

Another skeleton dropped down the chimney and started climbing out of the fireplace. Darrien destroyed it with a flurry of arrows, but it took four to bring it down. The ranger realized that arrows - even ones enhanced by magic like the ones his Arachnibow shot - weren't the best weapons to use against skeletal undead. He spotted a dropped weapon on the floor by the chimney - it looked like a hardwood club: perfect! He grabbed it up, just as his mother practically exploded out of her bedroom. The reason for her haste was fully explained by the skeletons crawling through her bedroom window, having burst the wooden shutters open.

"Into then bathroom--quick!" Darrien commanded, and his mother hurried to comply. She slammed the door shut behind it and barred it in place. "Don't come out until I tell you it's safe!" Darrien added, and Marta nodded to herself - her boy could handle a few skeletons; he was an adventurer, after all!

The front door finally burst open, revealing a pair of skeletons and, surprisingly, a living foe: a goblin spellcaster of some sort, judging from his getup. He motioned for his undead minions to attack the ranger (at least that's what Darrien supposed he said, not speaking the Goblin language himself, but the pointing gesture and look of hatred were pretty universal).

As quick as a wink, the mantis pulled a skeleton into its claws and crushed it to pieces; the bones rained down onto the wooden floor. The other one, though, slammed into the bug's carapace with its knotted club, and - worse yet - the goblin spellcaster sent what Darrien recognized as magic missiles flying into his mantis. Once activated, the mantis had only a limited time before returning to its amber prison for the rest of the day, but Darrien was worried that at this rate it wouldn't even get to stick around that long!

Another skeleton dropped down the chimney and started crawling out of the fireplace; Darrien brought his borrowed club smashing down on the thing's skull, destroying it with a single blow. But more skeletons were pouring out of Marta's room - just how many were there?, Darrien wondered. Seeing more lined up outside the front door, ready to enter the cabin and attack, Darrien cast an entangle spell out the front door, causing the grass and roots to rise up and entwine around the ankles of the skeletons standing there, binding them in place - at least for now.

But in the moment it took to cast the simple spell, Darrien found himself surrounded by orc skeletons, all bashing at him with their clubs or clawing at him with their skeletal digits. The goblin sorcerer was focusing his magic missile attacks on the mantis, apparently not realizing it was anything but what it appeared to be: a giant insect, possibly a living pet, rather than the summoned aspect of a magic amulet which would soon enough disappear on its own. For its part, the mantis kept grabbing up and crushing skeletons in its claws, unable to make its way past the animated undead to get to their goblin master.

Moments passed, in which Darrien bashed one skeleton to pieces and the mantis crushed another between its claws, before the goblin's spell took the insect past its damage threshold and it reverted back to its imprisoned form inside the amulet. It was good while it lasted, Darrien thought, grateful that the mantis had slain as many enemies and taking as many attacks as it had before being shut down. But now the goblin pointed directly at him and commanded its undead forces to tear the ranger to pieces. Darrien swung his club left and right, battering away at his skeletal enemies, but they were wearing him down and he had no reprieve from their endless assault.

And then Hagan appeared in the main room.

He was immediately flanked by two orc skeletons and hit with their clubs, but after taking an initial beating the half-orc sorcerer cast a chain lightning spell focused on the goblin in the doorway (as Hagan imagined he was the leader of the attack) and arcing off to every skeleton he could see. The goblin shrieked despite his protective measures (he had a bear's endurance and a false life spell active, without which he'd have been instantly slain by the electrical spell), then cried out even louder when all of his skeletal minions in the cabin dropped as one into piles of bones.

Of course, more clamored into the cabin, from the chimney, from the front door, and from Marta's bedroom, and in a short while the cabin was filled with animated undead once again, clawing at the heroes and slamming them with their gnarled clubs. The goblin sorcerer cast a magic missile spell at Hagan, hoping to take him out quickly, but the sorcerer replied with a repeat of his previous attack: another chain lightning that crisped every skeleton in the cabin and scorched the goblin further. Darrien took care of the last few stragglers coming in from his mother's bedroom, and then Hagan cast his final chain lightning spell, instantly frying the goblin where he stood. It was the matter of mere moments to then pick off the few orc skeletons that remained.

"Mom? You okay in there?" called Darrien.

"I'm fine!" she answered, still gripping the hatchet in case the door should be battered down.

"It's safe to come out now."

Marta opened the bathroom door and looked about at the state of the cabin. Loose bones were strewn everywhere. Then she looked up and saw Hagan standing by her son.

"Darrien!" she cried out in alarm. "You didn't tell me we had guests! Come here, Hagan, would you like some pie? Darrien, get the plates! You do like cherry pie, don't you, Hagan?"

"Yes, ma'am," the half-orc replied with a smile. On his shoulder, Wezhley grinned his silent agreement.

- - -

THE LUCKY HAND TAVERN AND WINKIDEW'S POTION SHOP
Winkidew Dundernoggin was awake when the screaming began. He was in his laboratory overseeing the brewing of a batch of potions that required particular care; even the slightest change in temperature as they steeped could throw off the whole mixture. As such, he was only one room away from the front room of the shop, and the screams coming from the street just outside were quite audible. To the gnome's ears these weren't screams of revelry or joy, they were screams of terror, as if some type of indescribable horror was playing out in the streets of Kordovia.

The gnome alchemist knew just what to do: he cast a ventriloquist spell and shouted down the stairs at full volume, "GET UP HERE, LADS, AT ONCE!"

Downstairs, Jinkadoodle awoke at the sound of his father's spell immediately. He rushed upstairs in his pajamas to see what was so important it had the old man bellowing in the middle of the night. "Where's Bink?" asked Winkidew when his son popped his head up from the basement. "We'll probably want him to deal with this."

Binkadink was at that very moment sound asleep on a sofa in the family room, wrapped up in a thick, woolly blanket. He liked staying with his uncle and cousin, although close proximity to Jinkadoodle always carried with it the risk of the unleashing of the next round in their incessant prank war.

"GET UP HERE, BINKADINK!" bellowed Winkidew a second time, this time making it seem like the voice was coming from his son's posterior. Jinkadoodle just shook his head in disbelief and popped back downstairs to give his cousin a shake. Snapping out of it as he crashed to the floor (for Jinkadoodle determined the best way to wake his cousin up was to pull the sheets and blanket off the couch from underneath him), he scrambled to his feet, barefoot and wearing only his underpants.

"Screaming outside! Grab your weapons and armor!" Jinkadoodle advised, but the gnome fighter merely grabbed up his trusty magic glaive and scrambled up the stairs. By the time they both got back up the stairs and into Winkidew's potion lab, the potion maker had cast an invisibility spell upon himself as a protective measure. "Go see what that bother's all about," he groused. "I cannot be disturbed at this critical juncture." With his ventriloquism spell still active, he couldn't resist making it sound like he was talking from inside Binkadink's briefs.

But a pounding on the front door brought all thoughts of joking about to a crashing halt, especially since the pounding sounded like it was being made with heavy weaponry. Sure enough, just as Binkadink rushed through the door to the customer area out front, the front door shattered inwards and two burly orogs rushed in, greataxes in hand, looking for people to kill and stuff to steal. Behind them tramped a handful of goblins, each carrying a leather sling, with a pouch of stones dangling from their belts.

Binkadink wasted no time; he sent his glaive slicing deep into the first orog, who hadn't considered a three-foot-tall gnome in his underpants a serious threat. That changed about the same time as a gout of blood erupted from the gash in his chest. With a howl of pain, he brought his weapon down at the gnome fighter, his counterpart doing the same. Binkadink took a couple of hits but didn't let them bother him; they weren't deep enough to mess up his aim or his strength. Nonetheless, from the potion lab behind Binkadink, Winkidew cast a bear's endurance spell on his nephew, granting him an added bit of vitality for the fight ahead of him.

Jinkadoodle followed his father's lead and cast an invisibility spell upon himself, fading immediately from view. By this time, about a dozen goblins had swarmed into the potion lab and were climbing over the front counter. A few took aim against Binkadink with their slings, and the gnome fighter found himself being pelted with sling-stones while he was forced to concentrate on the orogs before him, either one of which looked strong enough to cut him in half with one blow.

Binkadink lashed out again at the wounded orog, and he looked about ready to fall over (whether from accumulated blood loss or simply from embarrassment at having been bested by a gnome was open for debate). But neither orog was about to back off from the fight; they each struck at the little fighter, who stabbed out at the first one as he stepped forward, skewering him in the chest and dropping him like a sack of corn meal before cleaving off to the other one and getting in a deep cut across his torso. It was hard to believe, but it looked like this little runt was about to get the better of both of the orog fighters leading this group of goblin slingers....

Two doors down, the Lucky Hand Tavern was still open for business despite the late hour. Castillan and Aithanar sat at a table with two fat human merchants, playing cards. Screams arose from the street outside, causing the merchants to leap up in fear. "We'd better check it out," offered Aithanar, standing and reaching for the longsword at his hip.

"Dammit! I suppose," agreed Castillan, slamming his cards down on the table - he'd had a really good hand, but now it didn't look like he was going to be able to finish this round. More screams came from outside, making the merchants decide they'd be retiring immediately from the game; they scooped up their coins and dashed up the stairs to their rooms.

Langley, the half-orc who both owned and ran the tavern, reached for his greatclub from behind the bar as Castillan walked up to the door and Aithanar peered out of a glass window looking out into the street. Outside stood two orogs - massive brutes with the blood of both orcs and ogres running through their veins - as well as a quartet of orcs wielding some sort of flail with skulls at the tips of each strand. One had dragged a screaming man from a nearby building and was bludgeoning him to death with his weapon, while the two orogs raised their heads and sniffed the air. As one, their heads shot toward the Lucky Hand Tavern, the smell of whiskey and other brews too tantalizing to pass up.

Castillan decided to try calming the brutes down. "Hey, fellows," he said in the Common tongue. "Come on in, let us buy you a pitcher of ale!"

Neither the orcs nor the orogs spoke or understood the Common tongue, but they could pick up the tantalizing aromas of alcohol through the open door. Half of the forces made a bee-line for Castillan, while the other three took the expedient measure of running through one of the glass windows at the front of the building. Shedding glass fragments, the orog roared defiance to the world at large, while his counterpart pushed through the main door and brought his greataxe down upon Castillan, who only barely avoided being decapitated. He struck at the orog with his short sword, backing toward the stairs, but his brother beat him there, racing up the steps as fast as he could go. Despite the appearance of cowardice, Aithanar was actually heading to the room he and his brother had rented, where he knew Castillan's bow and arrows were at hand. Aithanar didn't mind a fair fight, but six against three wasn't anything to look forward to, especially with brutes these size!

Langley stepped forward from the bar with his greatclub in hand, doing his level best to look menacing. "Stand down!" he ordered. "There's no need for bloodshed, but I'll shed all I need of yours if it comes to that!"

Snapping his left fingers, Castillan brought his stonepiercer dagger to hand, then lashed out with both blades at the orog before him, drawing twin lines of blood across the brute's face. Two of the skullslinger orcs came forward, attacking the bounder with their bolas. Castillan dodged one attack, but was struck on the arm with the other; the orc tried pulling the elf to the floor and when that didn't work, Castillan tried pulling the weapon from the orc's grasp, without any success either. Finally he settled for disentangling himself from the weapon and backing further up the stairs.

"Aith!" called Castillan, afraid to look behind him and take his eyes off the three foes in front of him. "Where are you?"

"Up here!" called Aithanar, punctuating the response with an arrow shot at one of the orcs menacing Langley. The other one caught the half-orc's leg with his skull-bola, pulling the bar owner to the floor. He scrambled hurriedly back to his feet, but without his greatclub in hand.

Continuing to back his way up the steps, Castillan realized they were outnumbered and outclassed. Langley was bum-rushed by the orcs and thrown to the ground, where the orog stomped heavily on his face. "Get over here, Aith!" the bounder called, and Aithanar finished his shot at the orog menacing Langley and ran over to his brother. Castillan finally turned and ran down the upper hallway overlooking the tavern area, the orog and two orc skullslingers hot on his heels. Below them, Langley extricated himself from his foes and made a rush for the bar, hoping he could fight the three off one at a time in the limited fighting space there, but the orog chased after him and the orcs jumped up onto the bar itself, swinging down at the bar owner with their skull bolas. It didn't look like there was anything to be done for poor Langley...

...so Castillan grabbed his brother by the arm and activated his ring.

Instantly, the surrounding Lucky Hand Tavern was replaced by the customer area of Winkidew's Potion Shop, although the place wasn't as he had expected it to be when Castillan dimension doored in with his brother. For one thing, there were two dead orogs on the floor. For another, there were screaming goblins everywhere. The reason soon became apparent, for not only was there Binkadink standing there in his underpants wielding his massive glaive, but in the back room there were three more identical Binkadinks, all screaming in battle-lust. (These last three were courtesy of a major image spell cast by Jinkadoodle, after having seen how frightened the goblin slingers seemed to be of just the one Binkadink.)

"You guys okay?" Binkadink asked, skewering three goblins on his glaive in rapid succession.

"The bar's been overrun," Castillan exclaimed.

"Langley's?"

"Yeah, that's the one. I think Langley's dead, though."

"You guys can handle it here?" the gnome fighter asked. Castillan looked around and saw a handful of screaming goblins, all trying to flee the illusory Binkadinks; compared to what they left back at the bar, this looked like a simple clean-up job.

"Yeah, we got this," the bounder replied, as Aithanar stabbed a goblin through the chest with his longsword.

"Good!" yelled Binkadink on the way out the splintered front door, racing down the street on his little gnomish legs. (Sadly, his gnomish stilt-boots were downstairs with the rest of his armor.)

Arriving at the tavern, Binkadink took the closest entrance into the place - the smashed window. Avoiding the worst of the glass shards (he was, after all, in his bare feet), he saw a pair of orcs guzzling down bottles of alcohol from behind the bar while a massive orog drank straight from a keg. There were two more orcs and an orog upstairs, running from room to room and looting the place. (They'd just smashed in the merchants' room and slain them.) Langley was nowhere to be seen; only afterwards would they find his shattered body dumped behind the bar.

For now, though, the orog noticed the gnome's arrival and dropped his keg. Grabbing his greataxe back up, he rushed at the gnome; hearing this, the orog upstairs leaped down the steps three at a time and joined his fighting partner, pinning the gnome between the two of them. Their greataxes came down upon the gnome, and only quick maneuvering on his part let him extricate himself from between them with all of his limbs intact. Staggering off to the side, where he could give himself plenty of swinging room for his glaive, he sent its blade slicing through the air to bite deep into one of the orogs, slaying him instantly, and then, having ripped clear through the orog's body and hide armor, tearing into the other one. It was likely only the slowing of the blade's momentum by having to cut through the first orog that prevented Binkadink from slaying the second one as well with the same blow.

Seeing this, the two orcs scrambled back over the bar to help their orog group leader, while the two from upstairs came whooping down to join the combat as well. Four orc skullslingers and an orog against a little gnome? This was going to be fun!

But by the time they got down the stairs, two more elves had joined the fight. Castillan and Aithanar had made short work of the remaining goblin slingers at Winkidew's shop, and decided to return to Langley's to see what help they could give, The orog caught sight of the two elves suddenly appearing back in the bar and it distracted his attention for a mere second, but that was all Binkadink needed. One quick strike of the glaive and the last of the orogs fell to the floor, dead.

Castillan stabbed out at one of the orcs rushing down the stairs and his short sword went deep into the skullslinger's belly; pulling it out, the blade was red with blood and the orc was drained of all life. He crumpled where he stood.

That left three orcs against a pair of elves and a gnome. One of the orcs made a stirring speech in his native tongue, which unfortunately for him was only understood by the orcs present. "You're all dead, do you hear me?" he roared. "The three of us are enough to kill you all!"

The other two skullslingers, though, had been paying closer attention to Binkadinks' fearsome combat prowess. "Good luck with that!" they called, racing each other out the front door. Binkadink followed but knew he could never catch up to the faster orcs. That didn't matter, though, for Castillan could. He left the last skullslinger for his brother and chased down the two fleeing orcs - a good thing, too, for they had pocketed some of the valuables from his room!

Finally, after having slain the last pair, Castillan and Binkadink returned to the tavern to ensure Aithanar had fared as well. He had; the last orc lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

"Pity about Langley," sighed the elven fighter. "He had good service, decent prices, and the beds weren't too bad." He and Castillan spent many a night in Kordovia staying in various taverns and inns, neither wishing to spend time at home when their father was around. The Lucky Hand Tavern was one of their favorites.

"Yeah," agreed Castillan, rubbing his chin in thought. "Say, Aithanar," he mused, "what do you think about buying the deed to this place and running it ourselves?"

- - -

In the days that followed, an investigation took place into how the orc and goblin troops had managed to make it this far into the kingdom undetected. It turned out the brutes were adapting, using their cunning to their best advantage. Normally, they'd come rushing out of the Vesve Forest, where they'd be spotted ahead of time by one of Chalkan's arcane archers who were stationed in perches among the trees, ready to send a signal arrow high into the air as a warning of their coming approach. This time there had been no warning, but only because an orc scouting party had crept on ahead and taken out a group of these sentries, all in a row. This allowed the small army to enter the kingdom from the forest unannounced. They were also apparently aware of the mercenary patrols and able to avoid them. Thus, for the first time since the beginning of the attacks, they'd made it into the heart of the city.

"They're getting sneakier," observed King Galrich. "Adapting to our defenses."

"Aye," agreed Aerik. "What can we do?"

"What we really need," mused King Galrich, "is a way to bring the fight back to them. Where's that Fung woman? We need to speed up her lessons."

"Aye," repeated Aerik. "I'll have her brought t' ye at once, Your Majesty."

- - -

When I first started this campaign and decided there will have been waves of orc and goblin attacks on the kingdom for years, I realized it would be cool to do two things: one, have the PCs fight off an attack on Battershield Keep (which I did in our 20th adventure), and two, to have the PCs fight off separate groups individually, which I finally got to do here.

The players quickly glommed on to the fact that the invisible spellcaster at the Fung residence was likely the same invisible spellcaster they'd encountered before during "Assault on Battershield Keep." In fact, I was lucky to keep him alive at all, as Hagan's final cone of cold spell (cast upon the entire room, thus negating any advantage his invisibility gave him) brought him down to a singe hit point! He teleported out of there just in time.

Of the players, it was Joey who fared the worst, overrun as he was by a goblin sorcerer and his 32 orc skeletons. Dan wanted to have Gilbert teleport straight there once he saw how bad a time Darrien was having, but as there was no way for Gilbert to know how badly Darrien was faring compared to the others we had him roll randomly to see who he'd decide to check in on, and he ended up with Finoula (much to Vicki's disappointment, as I think she didn't want to have anybody help her). Once it was pointed out to Harry that Hagan also knew teleport (and was a sorcerer to boot, so he could cast it multiple times), we decided to let him choose to go to Darrien's cabin, given that he had no way of knowing which tavern Castillan and Aithanar were at and we reasoned he'd assume Binkadink, Winkidew, and Jinkadoodle could take care of themselves, as could Ingebold, whose father's a 20th-level fighter/dwarven defender.

I had no real way of knowing how long this adventure would take to run through, given the individual battles. Unlike normal battles, where I assemble my initiative deck with all of the combatants, this time I "clumped" them into groups based on their locations. So while it mattered who fell where in the initiative order between Darrien, Marta, the goblin sorcerer, and the animated orc skeletons, I didn't really care whether Castillan's initiative order would have come before or after Darrien. In effect, I was running five separate combats, one round at a time, moving clockwise around the table. (As Hagan was staying with the Fungs, I had Harry swap with Logan so Hagan's player was sitting by Gilbert's player and the Fung Cottage battle map could sit between them.) For the record, though, we finished the adventure in just a little over four hours.

I also ran into a problem with not having enough of the appropriate miniatures, so I had hobgoblins pulling duty as orcs and bugbears pulling duty as orogs and the like. Some of the more numerous creatures got their own homemade stand-up tokens (like the 32 orc skeletons).

All in all, it was a fun change of pace. And the bit about Malaterminus at the beginning of Finoula's combat situation was added at the last minute, as I had just thought of it the morning of the game and wanted to see what Vicki's reaction would be. (As expected, it was initial surprise followed by extreme relief.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I have a green "Family Reunion" T-shirt with a tree silhouette in white, which I felt was a good representation of this adventure, given that the PCs were spending time alone with family.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
I don't know how I've managed to miss these. I knew about them. I thought I had read them. But on my third read-through of Wing Three I realised I never actually sat down and read this thread. I fixed that this week and I've really enjoyed the further tales of your players. Nice work, Johnathan [MENTION=508]Richards[/MENTION]!
 

Richards

Legend
Thanks, [MENTION=87576]Scrivener of Doom[/MENTION]! As you can see, the time between updates can stretch out fairly long, depending upon how much time passes between gaming sessions. (In theory, we try to play every other Saturday; in practice, it seldom turns out that way.)

And if you're up for another Story Hour or two, you can check out "The Adventures of Baabby and Sam" and "The Durnhill Conscripts." Both are DMed by my son Logan, but that just means I get to be a player for a change. The first one's based on the Skylanders console games (and is already complete) but the second is straight D&D 3.5 with the same group of players as "Wing Three" and "The Kordovian Adventurers Guild" with the exception of Jacob (who's away at college on the Wednesday nights we play.)

Anyway, thanks for the kind words! Our next session in this campaign is on the 26th, so expect a write-up in the week that follows. (The PCs will be returning to Kozakura to rescue that second merchant vessel.)

Johnathan
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 43: CROWN OF SHADOWS

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 13
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 13
Darrien, half-elf ranger 13
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 13
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 13
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 13​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 12 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 27 January 2018

- - -

It had been months since the members of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild had returned from the island nation of Kozakura. Since that time, Ingebold Battershield had started every morning by dutifully casting a scrying spell, focusing upon the end of a wooden dock jutting out into the cold sea. Day after day, the dock had been empty; today, however, there were three flat stones laid upon the top of one of the wooden posts holding up the pier, placed to form an equilateral triangle. That was the signal they had arranged with Drake, the shapeshifting hengeyokai they had befriended in Kozakura - his way of letting them know he had found the missing merchant ship, the Flying Dolphin.

"Guys!" cried Ingebold, afraid to leave her room, for it would mean cutting off her spell - and it had taken an hour of preparation to cast, just it had done each morning. Fortunately, Finoula's room was directly above her Battle-Sister's and she scampered down the stairs to see what was up.

"A triangle 'f stones - just like Drake said!" the dwarven cleric enthused, pointing to the image in the font of holy water in the shrine to Moradin along one wall of her bedroom.

"Can you see the Flying Dolphin?" asked Finoula. Ingebold pulled back the scrying sensor, revealing the entire dock and the area surrounding it. The missing cargo ship was nowhere to be seen.

"Try focusing on Drake!" suggested the ranger, as Castillan entered the room and stood behind her, peeking over her shoulder.

After a moment's concentration, the dwarven cleric replied, "Got 'im! 'E's a wee duck!" Sure enough, an image of the hengeyokai in his green-headed duck form filled the center of the font. In this state, he was virtually indistinguishable from a normal duck.

"Pull the sensor back!" suggested Castillan. "Let's see where he is!" Ingebold did as suggested but the image became suddenly blurry and indistinct - all but the drake hengeyokai, who could be seen just fine. But all around him was a blur. "Is there something wrong with the spell?" the bounder asked.

"Nothin'," insisted Ingebold. "Th' spell's workin' just fine."

"I'll go get Gilbert," said Castillan, bounding off to fetch their heavyset mage. In the meantime, Ingebold pulled the scrying sensor even further back, high enough to look down at a blurry shape traveling across the ocean. Just ahead, there was an island coming into view. When Gilbert arrived into Ingebold's room, he had Castillan go fetch Jinkadoodle, the gnome illusionist they used to pilot their spelljamming vessel. For weeks now, he'd been flying all over the globe with Zalian Darisath, an elven scholar from the castle. Zalian had been determinedly mapping the continents of the world from a point of view few mortals were ever granted: straight down from orbit around the planet. In the meantime, Gilbert opened his Omnibook and made a quick sketch of the outline of the island to which the blurry blob - no doubt the missing merchant vessel, somehow masked from scrying attempts - was heading.

"What are we waiting for?" asked Darrien. "Let's go teleport to the ship!"

"Can't see enough of ship to teleport there," dismissed Gilbert.

"Well, the island, then," suggested the half-elf ranger.

"No rush," admonished Gilbert. "Ship missing for months - it wait a little longer." When Jinkadoodle couldn't identify the island from the scrying image or Gilbert's notes, the group headed over to the castle and to the elf scholar whose maps were now state-of-the-art. Having assumed the island was likely somewhere in the vicinity of Kozakura, the elf quickly located it in his hand-drawn collection. "That's it," Zalian determined. "Kikimamoru Island."

"Let's go!" enthused Castillan.

"We not teleporting to unknown island," argued Gilbert. "We take dragonfly ship, look things over. It only take a couple hours - merchant ship can wait that long." Indeed, it was only the matter of about a two-hour flight for the gnome to pilot the dragonfly vessel to Kikimamoru Island; in a matter of a few short months, Jinkadoodle had gone from a prank-focused potionmaker to the premiere spelljamming pilot on the planet and one of the most knowledgeable people on Oerth about the locations of the world's continents and islands.

Upon approaching the island, they could see the Flying Dolphin anchored in a bay before the small bit of land rising up from the sea. Jinkadoodle maneuvered the dragonfly vessel behind the merchant ship. Castillan and Finoula, elves both, stood on top of their flying vessel and peered down at the ship that had been missing all these months. There were strange markings all over the ship, covering every visible surface. "What are those?" asked the bounder.

"They glyphs," answered Gilbert, who had stepped up behind them and was squinting into the wind to make out the markings. "They shield ship from scrying. That why we only see fuzzy blob when we scry on Drake, and why Rale's wizard chick unable to find missing ship all this time."

"What's the crew doing?" asked Finoula. They seemed to be kneeling in rows along the middle of the ship, for the most part motionless.

"I think we go find out. Bink! Go get teleport carpet from downstairs!" The little gnome raced off to comply, returning not only with the requested carpet rolled up under his arm but also his jackalope, Obvious, in tow. Behind him came Hagan the half-orc sorcerer with his weasel familiar in his accustomed place on the spellcaster's shoulder.

Gilbert outlined his plan, which involved teleporting the ship's crew via the carpet into the hidden lower hold of the dragonfly vessel. Fearing they might have been dominated by the vampiric Emperor Torazoku, Gilbert had Ingebold cast a magic circle against evil spell centered upon herself, and then did likewise. The dwarven cleric then went down to the extradimensional hold to await the arrival of the crewmen; Finoula sent Wrath to go with her Battle-Sister and Gilbert likewise had Mudpie accompany them after he had cast a shared mage armor spell upon both him and his familiar. The heavyset mage then cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on the men, citing his inability to cover everyone and his assumption that Ingebold could use her magic amulet to communicate with Finoula. Binkadink opted to drink down a potion of delay poison, playing a hunch that it might come in handy.

"Okay then, Hagan, you're up!" the gnome fighter announced, jumping onto the back of his jackalope while keeping the rolled-up carpet tucked under one arm. Gilbert crawled into position behind the gnome, and then Hagan cast a fly spell on Obvious. "Off we go!" whooped Binkadink, explaining the plan to his jackalope mount in the language they shared. Obvious leaped off the edge of the dragonfly vessel's roof and took to the skies, flying over towards the Flying Dolphin.

"Big jump!" Obvious called in the language of burrowing mammals, clearly enthused. "Big-big-big jump!"

Unfortunately, the jackalope then grunted in pain. "What's the matter?" asked Binkadink in concern.

"Shoulder," replied Obvious. "Hurts." Neither the jackalope nor his riders had noticed it, but there was a narrow blowgun dart sticking out just above the antlered rabbit's left front leg.

Castillan, in the meantime, raced across the top of the dragonfly ship, to include over the "head" of the vessel (through which Jinkadoodle could see him through the twin "eye" windows at the helm), and spanned the gap between their spelljamming vessel and the merchant ship ahead and below. He landed softly by Drake, still in his inoffensive duck form. "Who else is on board?" the bounder asked Drake, forgetting two things: that Drake only spoke the Kozakuran language (although he could understand a spattering of the Common tongue used on the other side of the world); and that in his duck form he was limited to only the quacks of normal ducks.

However, despite the language barrier and the inability to speak, Drake flung both wings up and used them to point at either end of the back mast; specifically, the cross-beam from which hung the main sail. Looking up at the sail, Castillan spotted a pair of black-clad forms covered head to toe. <We've got ninjas!> he called to the others over the telepathic link as one of the guardians on the ship shot at him with his blowgun, missing by less than an inch. The other targeted Obvious again, hoping to sap his strength even more, but Binkadink, forewarned, pulled his mount out of harm's way at the last possible moment.

Finoula spotted the ninja that had shot at Castillan. She ran to the edge of the dragonfly's edge but, realizing she was no bounder, opted to wait for Jinkadoodle to bring the ship closer to the merchant vessel before committing herself to a leap across the span. After all, a miss meant a plunge into the cold sea below. But Darrien raced up alongside her and he shot at the ninja with an arrow from his Arachnibow, getting in a clear hit.

Obvious altered his flight path to swing right by the ninja who had shot at him twice now, allowing Binkadink to skewer the assassin with his glaive as they passed by in midair. The jackalope then nimbly landed on the back deck, over by Castillan and Drake. But Castillan wasn't there for long; with his bounder training, he ran straight up the main mast and across the rigging, chasing down the remaining ninja. He snapped his fingers upon reaching the beam and stabbed at the ninja, scoring a hit with his short sword. And then Hagan cast a lightning bolt from the dragonfly vessel that finished the second ninja off. He fell silently over the edge of the crossbeam, his smoking corpse plummeting into the ocean waters.

As Jinkadoodle piloted the dragonfly ship to directly above the back of the Flying Dolphin, Finoula, Darrien, and Hagan dropped onto the merchant ship to join the others. Oddly, during the entire fight with the two ninja, none of the crew had moved - they still kneeled facing the front of the ship, as if transfixed in place.

"Come on!" Gilbert called to them. "We here to rescue you!" None of them moved in the slightest, until Gilbert approached closer. As soon as he got within ten feet of the closest crewman - engulfing him in the area of effect of his still-active magic circle against evil spell - the transfix spell which had sapped the man's will was temporarily abated. He was able to explain that a female spellcaster had left the ship with Captain Mandretti, using the rowboat to get to the island. As the crewman told his tale, Gilbert was amazed to see he was marked with the same types of anti-scrying glyphs covering the ship - only these had been permanently tattooed into his skin. Further examination showed all of the crewmen had been similarly tattooed.

By walking among them, temporarily negating the transfix spell, and then walking them back out of the area of effect of the spell so they could get to the carpet on their own, Gilbert managed to get the entire crew to safety. They were given the command word and once inside the ship's lower level, Ingebold took them to the galley and let them help themselves to food and drink. "We're gonna get yer captain back for ye," she promised them, then used the teleport glyph carved in the floor of one of the bedrooms to transfer herself over to the unrolled carpet on the Flying Dolphin.

By that time, seeing it was safe to do so, Drake had assumed his hybrid form - that of a man with the head and supple neck of a duck. In this form he could speak, and since Gilbert had learned the Kozakuran language from his mother communication was no longer a problem. "The wu jen's name is Narata," he explained to the mage. "She works for the Emperor. She was under direct orders to have this vessel come out to this particular island, but I don't know why."

"We find out," Gilbert promised. He gave Drake the command word to the carpet and invited him to go eat with the crew.

"So now what?" asked Darrien.

"Back on board dragonfly ship," Gilbert commanded. "We have Jinkadoodle fly us to island, we pick up trail there." After dropping the heroes and their assorted familiars and animals onto the shore by the Flying Dolphin's empty, beached rowboat, the gnome piloted the dragonfly ship straight up, where he could keep an eye out for giant monsters. He'd heard tales of reptiles and insects of ridiculous sizes living in this part of the world, and while it may well have been nothing more than fairy tales he wasn't willing to take any chances.

"Two sets of tracks," observed Darrien, looking at the sand beside the rowboat. "A man and a woman, by the looks of it." The tracks headed to a sea cave, with an opening some thirty feet wide and nearly as tall. A ledge along the right side sat along the right side of the interior cave wall, rising in elevation as it went deeper into the cavern. In the back of the cave, the ledge turned into a natural stone bridge crossing the span to the other side of the cave; the open space below the bridge was covered by a thick mist sitting upon the surface of the ocean, which filled the cave. There was no telling how deep the water might be back there, or how much further into the island interior the cave system might reach.

Castillan was the first onto the ledge. "Seems sturdy enough," he reported back to the others. He was followed by Finoula and Wrath, then Hagan and Wezhley, and finally Ingebold and Gilbert bringing up the rear. Binkadink opted to remain on Obvious, whose fly spell was still active, and Darrien pulled out his ebony fly and activated it. The fly was the speedier of the two flying mounts, and thus Darrien reached the stone bridge before the others. But while Castillan was only about halfway to the stone bridge, a disturbance in the water attracted his attention. Three lithe shapes rose up from the water and shot darts from blowguns; the bounder barely had time to recognize them as mermaids as he dodged a sharp quill before the aquatic trio had fallen back underneath the water. Finoula and Hagan had also been shot at, but neither had been hit.

"They ningyo!" explained Gilbert, recalling tales of these Eastern mermaids from his mother's stories when he was little; as explanations went, it didn't do much for the others. But anticipating another above-water attack, Ingebold readied the words to a spiritual weapon spell and Gilbert prepared to fire off an Evard's black tentacles spell. Hagan got ready for one of his perennial favorites, chain lightning. The ningyo were in for a surprise when they resurfaced!

Binkadink had Obvious fly along the leftmost edge of the cavern, fearing to be caught up in any of the spells their casters were ready to throw at the mermaids. Sure enough, in a moment three ningyo leaped up out of the water to shoot quills at the intruders - this time it was Darrien, Castillan, and Finoula who were targeted - and one was promptly hit in the face by a force effect shaped like a dwarven warhammer; all three were grabbed around the waist and wrists by a mass of black tentacles that rose up from the seawater; and a blast of lightning fried all three ningyo, slaying two of them outright and leaving the third barely clinging on to life.

Obvious dropped onto the stone bridge, eager to watch the excitement and not understanding that he could simply hover in place to do so. However, from a hidden recess at the far side of the bridge stepped a strange creature: no bigger than a gnome, it had a turtle's shell on its back and reptilian skin, but an indentation in the top of its skull, filled with water. The kappa barked out a question in its native tongue, leaving Binkadink and Obvious at odds about what it was trying to say. But it dropped into a defensive stance, so the gnome assumed it wanted a fight - and he was happy to oblige. Binkadink slashed out with his glaive, carving a deep groove into the kappa's natural armor plating. Then Obvious leaped forward, catching the creature between its teeth and shaking him like a rag doll. This caused the water to spill from the kappa's indentation on the top of his head, a process which weakened the guardian significantly. Obvious dropped his prey to the stone bridge and pinned him with his front paws, and the kappa no longer had the necessary strength to wrest himself free.

One of the ningyo managed to free herself from the rubbery, black tentacles encompassing her, and she dropped back to the sea water below her, thinking she was now free. No such luck, however; the spiritual hammer was still locked onto her, and it plunged below the surface of the water to continue its attacks. One solid blow to the temple and she was no longer among the living, her body sinking slowly to the floor of the sea cave.

However, three more ningyo popped back up above the surface, shooting darts at Ingebold and Gilbert while staying well outside the radius of the Evard's black tentacles spell. This momentarily surprised the spellcasters, until Gilbert realized there were six ningyo attacking them; three would pop up at a time while the other three were fetching new ammunition from the sea urchins living among them on the bottom of the sea cave. Fortunately, none of the urchin spines found their mark this time, and the ningyo splashed back down into the water.

Binkadink dismounted from Obvious, instructing his mount to keep the kappa pinned. Darrien, in the meantime, flew back to the cave beyond the stone bridge to check it out. Finoula slipped past the gnome, his mount, and their prisoner to advance along the rear part of the ledge. Castillan did likewise, but he did so by activating his magic ring and casting a dimension door spell upon himself that sent him to the far end of the ledge. The last 20 feet or so was twice as wide as the rest of the ledge, and the back wall was carved in the shape of two round fish staring at each other. Each fish was about 10 feet high and obviously the work of a talented sculptor. Castillan's elven senses were keeping him focused on the fish carvings; instinctively, he felt there was a secret way to pass beyond the fish into a chamber beyond.

Unfortunately, that kept his attention away from the sea waters in the cave below him, where a massive dragon shaped like an enormous sea turtle rose to the surface. The lung wang expelled a massive breath filled with scalding steam, catching both Castillan and Finoula in its area of effect. A sudden fear filled those two adventurers as well as Darrien, who had seen the attack but not been one of its targets; Hagan likewise was close enough to have seen the attack, but the dragon's frightful presence had no effect on the strong-willed sorcerer.

Gilbert was too far back along the ledge to have seen the lung wang, but he had seen Obvious pin the kappa and called over the telepathic link to Binkadink to prevent the gnome from allowing the jackalope to kill his prey. Binkadink relayed the message to Obvious, then passed a healing potion to Finoula, who had staggered back toward him after being scalded by the lung wang's breath. She greedily drank down the vial's contents, but it was another "Winkidew special," having been created by taking shortcuts. While the potion did cure her of the majority of her wounds, it did so by causing them to scab over. In an instant, Finoula's visible skin was covered in itchy, peeling scabs. "Sorry about that," Binkadink offered. "Probably best to just let the magic run its course." The ranger used all her willpower to avoid picking at the scabs, instead focusing her attention back down to the lung wang.

Gilbert approached the pinned kappa. "Why you attack us?" he demanded in the Kozakuran language - which he spoke no better than his pidgin Common.

"I did not," answered the kappa. "I asked the rabbit-rider his intentions, and he attacked me."

"This all a mistake," Gilbert explained. "We just here to rescue captured friend. He a ship captain, his capturer a wu jen woman. They come by this way?"

"There has been nobody by that description. The only recent visitors we've had - besides yourselves - are the two celestial beings who passed by half an hour or so ago, on the way to see The Keeper."

Gilbert called out over the telepathic link: <Everybody back off! We done fighting here! These not our enemies!> He then repeated his message aloud for the benefit of Ingebold and Finoula, who weren't in the link.

Castillan, who had picked up the Draconic language, tried calling down to the lung wang before he used his breath weapon again - the bounder doubted he'd survive another such blast. "We come in peace!" he said. "We have no wish to fight!" The lung wang made no response that the bounder could hear, but neither did he continue his attack. Castillan took that as a good sign.

And then two humanoid figures levitated up out of the mists of the sea below them. Each was covered in scales like a fish, despite having a humanoid build. Further, each wore a necklace of shells around his neck. They rose up and hovered in the air, one before Castillan and one before Finoula, then began casting spells in unison. They pivoted in midair, facing the others further back down the ledge, nodded in unison, and called back the results of their detect good spells to the lung wang below them.

"You may pass," announced the lung wang in a deep voice, speaking in the Kozakuran language; Gilbert hurriedly translated. "Continue on your path to the Keeper; you may pass without further violence." Then the lung wang submerged, and his two levitating hai nu shugenja did likewise, dropping down into the mist-covered waters. Upon Binkadink's signal, Obvious released his pressure on the pinned kappa's chest, and the small sentinel rolled over to fall back over the side of the stone bridge, into the waters of the first sea pool, with the ningyo. As he dismissed his Evard's black tentacles spell, Gilbert realized the kappa was simply replenishing his "water pool" in the depression at the top of his skull, and would likely resume his guardian spot at the end of the stone bridge soon thereafter.

By that time, however, the adventurers had all grouped together at the wider ledge in front of the stone fish carvings. Obvious, Wrath, and Grumps Junior had been sent back to the beach to await their arrival. Gilbert took the time to explain what the kappa had told him about the two celestial visitors, while Ingebold tended to Castillan's burns and Finoula resisted the urge to scratch off all of her scabs. Within a few minutes, though, they were reabsorbed back into her unblemished skin; Winkidew's shortcuts were often irritating but they seldom failed to do the job they had been meant to do.

Once healed, Castillan began examining the fish carvings. The first thing he noted were their eyes: facing each other, each fish had one eye in view, and in each case this was marked by a hole, as wide around as the thickness of the bounder's arm.

"Maybe you like to know what the legend says," suggested Gilbert.

"What legend? There's a legend about these fish?"

"No, stupid elf! The legend written above fish!"

Castillan looked up at the fish carvings and noted the scratches carved into the stone. It looked like a bunch of straight lines going off in all different directions, many of them clumped together. "That's writing?" he asked.

"Of course that writing! That Kozakuran writing!"

"So what's it say?" asked Ingebold. Her innate stonecunning ability told her the fish were some sort of secret door and that there was a chamber beyond them; she was eager to find a way to pass beyond the carvings and deeper into the complex.

"'You will enter two narrow passageways and have to make two decisions once you've done so. Both must be right for you to proceed,'" Gilbert translated.

"There we go: two narrow passageways," observed the bounder. "That's got to be these fish eye tunnels. There's probably a lever at the back that you have to turn right. He stuck his arm into the right-hand fish's eye; Binkadink, elevated on his gnomish stilt-boots, did likewise in the leftmost fish's eye. However, both pulled their arms right back out again; Binkadink because his short little gnome arm couldn't reach all the way to the back, and Castillan because he had been stung by something when he put his hand in the narrow tunnel. Pulling it out, there was a black scorpion sitting defiantly on the back of his hand, tail raised in a ready-to-strike-again pose. The bounder contemptuously flung the arachnid over his shoulder into the waters below the ledge.

"Are ye all right?" asked Ingebold.

"Fine," replied Castillan, about to put his hand back in. Then he said "Screw it!" aloud and rummaged through his pack for his chime of opening. Striking it against the stone carvings, there was an audible "click" and the bounder pushed against the fish. They swung into an interior chamber, with a few steps leading down into a wide corridor.

Towards the end of the corridor stood two more sentries. These were Kozakuran men, each armed with what looked to be a wooden wand with a bulbous tip. They each stood beside a niche in the side of the tunnel. Upon seeing the arrival of the outsiders, they each stepped into their niche and swung their wands; these turned out to be drumsticks, used to sound the gongs hanging in the niches to announce the arrival of intruders. The alert having been made, the gong sentries set aside their drumsticks and each grabbed up a naginata, adopting a defensive posture in the corridor.

Gilbert called out to them in the Kozakuran language, letting them know they were just there to rescue their kidnapped friend, who likely passed by recently in the guise of a celestial being. "There were two winged celestials who passed by not long ago," confirmed one of the sentries. "You may pass in peace."

The group advanced past the gong sentries, into an oval chamber. At one end, an elderly man sat behind a wooden table, throwing coins onto the surface and peering at them intently. "There is disharmony in the temple," he stated aloud. "Your own disharmony will cause the previous disharmony to cease." He nodded at them to pass by in peace; at the other end of the oval chamber there was a circular set of stairs spiraling down to a lower level. The group went down them in single file.

The next room was the Hall of the Honored Dead: 18 stone coffins in two rows, with a central path down the center of the room. The fact that these were coffins had Darrien concerned that these might house the Emperor's vampire servants, but Gilbert read the Kozakuran script above each coffin and put the ranger's fears to rest. "These people who helped build this area," he explained.

Just ahead, the next room was filled with the scent of burning incense. Binkadink and Gilbert, in the lead, saw an avoral - a hawk-headed, winged celestial - at the far end of the room, about to exit. "Hey!" Gilbert yelled to get the avoral's attention, while Binkadink concentrated as hard as he could to disbelieve what he assumed was an illusion of some sort. It worked; hidden behind the appearance of the avoral was the humanoid's true form, that of one Captain Mandretti - although his skin was covered in the same anti-scrying tattoos as his men wore. "Captain!" called out Binkadink, causing the man to look briefly in his direction, then return his gaze to the exit door and stumble forward as if in a daze.

Behind them, the others came into the room of incense. As Finoula entered, her elven ears picked up the quiet sounds of spellcasting and pinpointed it to somewhere in the back of the room. "Female spellcaster in the back of the room!" she called out to the others, hoping someone could target their unseen foe.

"Anybody got a means of dispelling an invisibility spell?" called out Castillan.

"Aye," called back Ingebold from the other end of the room, but before she could move forward Binkadink had taken measures into his own hands. Crushing up a piece of chalk from his pack, he blew the cloud of fine particles into the back of the room, hoping to cover the invisible spellcaster's form in that method. It was a good plan, but unfortunately Narata had seen it coming and stepped to the side, avoiding the cloud of chalk dust. She silently cursed Finoula's sharp hearing, which had picked up her casting a stoneskin spell upon herself; she'd hoped her presence wouldn't have been suspected for some time yet.

Gilbert rushed forward, and as soon as he got close enough to Captain Mandretti, the heavyset mage's still-active magic circle against evil spell temporarily blocked the domination effect the sailor had been under. "What's going on?" he asked, looking around. "Where's my crew?"

"They're fine, we're here to rescue you," replied Finoula.

As memories of recent events caught up to him, Captain Mandretti called out, "Where is she? There's somebody else in here with us - she's invisible!" Narata sneered an unseen grimace at the turn of events, but then Ingebold cast an invisibility purge spell that brought her back into full focus - although in the guise of a female avoral. However, knowing about the trick, most of the heroes were able to see through the illusion and see her as she truly was: a short, dark-haired Kozakuran woman in minimal armor.

Before anyone could react, Narata grabbed Captain Mandretti and pulled him out of the room; once the captain was outside the effect of Gilbert's spell the domination effect snapped back in place and he followed the wu jen willingly. "Go!" she commanded. "Down the steps - quickly!"

Outside the incense room, there was an oddly-shaped ledge overlooking a circular room below. The circular room was split into two entwining teardrop shapes, with the further side land and the closer side water. A circular pool of water was centered in the thicker part of the land-teardrop, while a similarly-shaped circular isle of land rose up in the teardrop-shaped pool of water. A series of floating steps led down from the ledge to the small isle; Captain Mandretti stepped down them quickly, as ordered, stepping off the final one and standing on the up-thrust island of stone.

None of the heroes made the slightest move to stop him or attack Narata; they were all transfixed by the serpentine dragon standing on the teardrop-shaped stretch of land. It was sinuous like a snake but had four feet tipped with powerful-looking claws; unlike most other dragons with which the heroes were familiar, this one had no wings. It did, however, have "whiskers" in the manner of a catfish drooping down from its lengthy snout.

Following his mental orders from the wu jen - for she had her own means of feeding him messages telepathically - Captain Mandretti stood on the round isle facing the dragon and declared, ""I have come for the crown of shadows, at the behest of Emperor Torazoku, legitimate ruler of Kozakura!"

At the ledge at the top of the stairs, Gilbert overcame his fascination with the serpentine dragon - a pan lung, just like in his mother's bedtime tales from when he was a child - and called out, "He being controlled by evil spellcaster!" He followed this up with the words to a wall of force spell that sealed Narata in the corner of the ledge, trapped in a triangular space barely wider than her own body.

The Keeper looked down at the ship's captain standing before him on the Island of Supplication and asked, in a booming voice, "Is this true? Are you being controlled through spellcraft?"

Surprisingly, Captain Mandretti, despite his domination by Narata, looked up at the dragon without fear and simply said, "Yes." Narata gasped; her plans were falling apart before her! She had no way of knowing it, but the Island of Supplication was covered by a permanent zone of truth spell, preventing those who stood there to converse with the Keeper from speaking lies. It also allowed the pan lung to discern the alignments of any standing upon the stone; Narata had suspected that much, which is why she had covered her mental slave and herself in the guise of avorals and sent him down to do the talking, fearing the dragon would be able to discern her own evil aura if she went in his stead down upon the Island of Supplication.

The dragon looked up at the assembled heroes. "Which of you spoke the warning?" the Keeper demanded. Gilbert stepped forward.

"Climb down to the Island of Supplication," the pan lung commanded, and Gilbert instantly obeyed. Once there, the wizard explained their presence in Kozakura, how Narata had used Captain Mandretti for her own ends, and added the fact that Emperor Torazoku was an undead vampire. The dragon listened intently to Gilbert's tale, nodding as he finished.

"Release your prisoner," the Keeper demanded of Gilbert, indicating Narata, "and bring her to me."

"Actually," pointed out Gilbert, "I planning to cast Tenser's transformation spell on familiar, have him enter the triangle bounded by cave wall corners and wall of force, and have him kill her." The Keeper actually snorted aloud upon hearing this. "Your plan amuses me," he informed Gilbert. "Enact it, but do not kill her - bring her to the Island of Supplication."

Upon Gilbert's command, Mudpie slipped through the solid stone wall behind Narata, grabbing her by the wrists as his master cast the Tenser's transformation spell on his familiar and then dismissed the wall of force. Mudpie then dragged her down the floating steps. (Captain Mandretti and Gilbert had climbed back up the steps in the meantime to make room for them; the Island of Supplication wasn't big enough for more than two people at a time.)

"Why does the Emperor want the crown of shadows?" demanded the Keeper. Narata visibly squirmed under the interrogation, trying not to answer, but the zone of truth spell effect was too much for her. "He needs it, so he can appear in the daylight," she explained against her will. "Already rumors of his undead status are circulating among the populace. He wishes to 'prove' he's not a vampire by appearing in the sunlight before his people."

"The Kozakuran people do not wish to be ruled by a vampire?" asked the Keeper.

"They find the thought abhorrent," admitted Narata. "Emperor Torazoku fears they will rise up against him if they find out their fears are justified. So far he's dodged the issue by having a loyal wu jen appear in his place, covered by an illusion to make him appear to be the Emperor during the daylight hours, but the Emperor's ban against spellcasters other than those working directly for him has made people suspicious."

"And now that all of this is known to me, what do you think will happen to you?" asked the pan lung, his forked tongue flicking in and out in anticipation.

"I will likely be killed."

"You are an insightful young woman," the dragon purred, smiling.

"It won't matter," Narata offered. "If I fail to return to the Emperor with the crown of shadows, he'll simply send another force - a larger one, if necessary. And he'll keep sending bigger and more powerful forces until he gets what he wants."

"You have convinced me," replied the Keeper. Then, turning to Mudpie, he said, "You may kill her now." Mudpie, his strength greatly increased by Gilbert's spell, crushed the wicked wu jen between his stony hands. He dropped her lifeless body there upon the Island of Supplication, then stood there awaiting further orders.

Gilbert didn't give his familiar any orders, waiting to see what would happen next. And the Keeper had turned away from the earth elemental, focusing his attention on the circular pool of water on his teardrop island. Dipping his lengthy tail into the water, he brought it up after a moment. Curled in the tip of the serpentine tail was an elaborate silver crown, inlaid with moonstones. "The crown of shadows," the Keeper offered, passing it to Gilbert. "I wonder of you would be willing to take it away from here. You may either hide it or destroy it, as you see fit, but it seems as if it is too dangerous to keep here any longer."

Gilbert took the proffered silver crown from the Keeper. "I think maybe I throw it into sun," he suggested, thinking that with the dragonfly ship that was actually a distinct option.

"That may actually be a good idea," replied the Keeper, backing away to his circular pool once again. Again his tail darted into the waters; again it came back up, cradling something at its tip.

"Gilbert Fung," the pan lung intoned. "You are a half-breed and thus exempt from ever attaining the throne of Kozakura yourself. Nonetheless, you have this day done the nation of Kozakura a great service. I am certain your ancestors would be proud. To commemorate your actions, I would like you to have these." The tail stretched forward, depositing two jade statuettes into the wizard's hands. Each was a carving of a fierce-looking lion, stylized in the artistic fashion of the Eastern world. Gilbert recognized them as figurines of wondrous power.

"Their names are Hachi and Tsumezhao," the pan lung explained. Gilbert noted the names translated roughly as "Tooth" and "Claw." "They will serve you well in the days to come."

"I very honored," Gilbert said, wishing he had a better grasp of the Kozakuran language. He usually spoke in pidgin Common but that was because it made others underestimate him; his broken Kozakuran was now a source of embarrassment for him. But the dragon didn't seem to notice, continuing the conversation in the native tongue of the land.

"One final thing, Gilbert," the Keeper said. "I know the temptation must be great for you to aid your mother's country in ousting the vampire Emperor from power. For the sake of Kozakura, I would ask that you would refrain from doing so. It would be far better for Kozakura to free themselves from their undead lord, than to be rescued by powerful foreigners from another land."

"I understand," Gilbert answered, bowing down to the dragon. Then, sensing he'd been dismissed, he called Mudpie back to his side. The earth elemental climbed happily back up the floating stairs, not having liked one bit being surrounded by water on a tiny island of stone.

"What was all that about?" Darrien wanted to know. Gilbert's conversation with the pan lung dragon had been in the Kozakuran tongue, which of the heroes only Gilbert spoke.

"I tell you when we get back to ship," promised Gilbert as the heroes started making their way back the way they'd come.

Once back on the Flying Dolphin, the ship's crew were all returned from the dragonfly vessel. The merchant ship wasn't stocked for an overseas voyage, but that didn't matter; the heroes promised to leave their magic carpet on board the Flying Dolphin so the captain and crew could pop up to the dragonfly vessel and help themselves to provisions as needed during the month-long voyage back home to the Western world.

"So I figure we'll get the 4,000 pieces of gold for the return of the captain, the crew, and the ship," offered up Castillan once the dragonfly ship was back in the air. Too bad we won't get the bounty on the ship's cargo, though." The cargo had been unloaded when the Flying Dolphin last made port at the Kozakuran shore and had long since been taken elsewhere in the island nation.

"What about future trading missions?" asked Finoula.

"I imagine all trips to Kozakura on hold for now," surmised Gilbert. "At least while Emperor Vampire-Tiger in charge. Once he overthrown, I bet new government make contact with outside world again. Then Cal merchant empire swoop in, start making trading voyages again."

"I suppose you're right," Finoula admitted.

"Usually am," boasted the heavyset mage.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My "Jade Warrior" T-shirt, as it fairly accurately depicts Narata, Reiko's replacement in Emperor Torazoku's court. In addition, I also wore the new socks Dan and Vicki got me for Christmas, which feature Asian-style dragons - and which thus fairly accurately depict the pan lung dragon guarding the crown of shadows.
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 44: VANDERGROTTEN'S LEGACY

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 13
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 13
Darrien, half-elf ranger 13
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 13
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 13
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 13​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 12 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 24 February 2018

- - -

"Well, this is nice," commented Binkadink, helping himself to another buttered roll. "I have to say, Ingebold, this is probably my favorite non-healing spell you can cast."

"Aye," agreed the dwarven cleric. "An' th' heroes' feast not only provides us with good food, it also makes us immune t' poison fer th' next twelve hours or so." Gilbert, too lazy to get it himself, had his unseen servant fetch him the pitcher of chilled juice and fill up his glass.

"So what's on the agenda today, Gilbert?" asked Darrien.

"No agenda," the hefty mage answered. "We on down time today."

"Then why the feast?"

"I wanted t' try out th' spell, fer one thing," answered Ingebold. "I've nae cast it before. But I'm thinkin' this might be a normal part of each mornin', circumstances permittin'."

"I'm all for that!" belched Binkadink. At his side, Finoula scowled at the little gnome's manners and reached over for another cluster of grapes.

After that, each of the adventurers spent some time doing things their adventuring lifestyle didn't always give the time to do. Darrien wrestled in the courtyard with his dire bear cub, Grumps Junior, while next to him Finoula played tug-the-rag with her trained timber wolf, Wrath. Binkadink gave Obvious a good rubdown; Aithanar had been taking good care of the jackalope but the gnome liked spending time with his riding mount and hadn't had a whole lot of time to do so in recent months. Castillan and Aithanar sparred up on top of one of the towers of Battershield Keep, keeping their combat skills honed, although the bounder noted his younger brother had a hard time concentrating, as he kept sneaking glimpses down to the courtyard where Finoula played with her wolf. The two front tower roofs were also occupied; Gilbert and Mudpie looked out over the expanse of the Vesve Forest in the distance from atop the northeastern tower, while over on the northwestern tower Hagan had his weasel familiar Wezhley jumping up on his hind legs for treats. As for Ingebold, she was in her room, praying before her altar to Moradin the Soul-Forger. As an adventuring cleric, that was something she didn't often get to do; she made a mental note to see about assembling a miniature altar for the small room she shared with Finoula aboard the dragonfly vessel.

The sudden sound of flapping wings caused Finoula to duck and look around; it had sounded like a bat had flown right by her head. Not seeing anything, she called out to the others, "Anybody see a bat?" Those in the courtyard with her looked around but saw nothing. Then Wrath tugged the rag still in his jaws, and the ranger returned her attention to the tug-of-war with her pet wolf.

And then, with a pop of displaced air, two human figures materialized on the top of the stable roof, looking over the open courtyard of Battershield Keep. One was an older man, gray of beard and wearing a wizard's robes, with a wizened staff in one hand. Beside him stood a much younger man wearing studded leather armor and wielding a rapier. "You see him anywhere?" asked the younger man, Dardennex.

"No, but he's around here somewhere - I can feel him over the link," replied Tremayne, looking down in irritation at the adventurers below him. Darrien happened to look up and see the figures and called out, "Hey!" The others glanced over to see what he was looking at; Finoula put her hands on the weapons at her hips, leaving Wrath to win the tug-of-war uncontested, while Binkadink grabbed up the magical glaive he had leaned against the far wall of the courtyard. Castillan and Aithanar left their perch atop the southeastern tower and headed down the stairs to the courtyard below.

"Can we help you?" Finoula called up to the stable roof as the Kordovians all stopped what they were doing and stared at these trespassers. But neither of the visitors seemed bothered by the attention. "They're likely in cahoots with him," observed Tremayne. "Why else would he show up here, wherever the Hell we are?"

"Who exactly are you talking about?" called Binkadink.

Dardennex gave an appraising look at the adventurers arrayed before them. "We can take 'em," he opined.

That was all the justification the adventurers felt they needed, as the rogue had more or less stated an intention to attack them all. From the northeastern tower, Gilbert cast a haste spell on his friends in the courtyard, catching all but Hagan and himself and their two respective familiars, and Ingebold who was still in her room at the tower three levels below where Gilbert stood. Mudpie, unable to "swim" through worked stone in the way he could normal earth and rock, started heading along the battlements to the stairs at the other end of the keep.

"Let's go, Obvious!" called Binkadink, leaping onto the back of his jackalope with his glaive in hand. With no further prompting, Obvious leaped up onto the roof of the stables in a single hop - Binkadink had to grab hold of one of his antlers to keep from falling, as the mount wasn't saddled up - then spun to face the two intruders. Binkadink slapped out with his glaive, smacking the wizard in the side of the head with the flat of his weapon's blade. Tremayne staggered a bit but remained standing - although he had to lean on his staff to maintain his balance. But then he pushed past his companion (and act which earned him another smack with the gnome's weapon), backing toward the front of the keep while Dardennex kept Binkadink at bay. Unseen by the rogue, Castillan activated his ring and dimension doored into place behind him. And then Tremayne cast a chain lightning spell which blasted into Castillan and arced across to Binkadink and Obvious and down to everyone else in the courtyard.

However, Tremayne hadn't yet seen Hagan looking down from the top of the tower at his back. The half-orc sorcerer had seen him, though, and fired off a chain lightning spell of his own. His spell didn't have as many secondary arcs, but then the odds in this fight were somewhat lopsided. The blast knocked Tremayne out cold, and he toppled off the side of the roof to land in a heap on the courtyard ground.

As Darrien was standing right by the controls, he started winding up the lever that began raising the drawbridge to the keep - no sense in giving the rogue an easy exit. He also pounded on the door beside him, which led to the stairwell just outside Ingebold's room. "Ingebold!" he called. "We're fighting bad guys out here!" The cleric popped her head out of the door immediately thereafter, looking in consternation at the battle raging in the courtyard and on the stable roof. "I cannae leave ye be fer five minutes without ye gettin' into trouble!" she scolded.

Finoula had her flaming whip of thorns out and flicked it at Dardennex, who stood close enough to the roof's edge, facing down Binkadink and Obvious, to make the attack possible. She managed to hit the rogue, but was unsuccessful in her subsequent trip attack - a shame, for she had wanted to drag him off the rooftop where she could really get at him! But Castillan took advantage of the distraction, sending his sap crashing down on the back of Dardennex's head. He collapsed at once, and it was only sheer luck that prevented him from taking an unconscious dive over the edge of the roof.

Several minutes later, all of the heroes were assembled in the courtyard - all but Hagan, who was keeping watch from his tower roof, in case this was just an initial strike force. Dardennex had been stripped of his armor (including a black vest and a pair of black boots which both radiated magic, according to Ingebold) and the two intruders had both been stripped of all equipment (each had worn a magic ring), all of which was piled out of reach of the captives. Dardennex had been tied up with a length of rope, but rather than fishing about for another rope to bind Tremayne, they took the equally-effective measure of having Obvious sit on his chest. Ingebold applied cure minor wound spells to revive both captives to consciousness.

"Now, what all this about?" demanded Gilbert Fung. "Why you teleport here, cause all this trouble?"

"Damn his hide!" snarled Tremayne, still not answering directly - these two had an annoying habit of talking back and forth to each other while dismissing everyone else. "I never should have called him to service!"

"He has caused us a bit of trouble here," admitted Dardennex, struggling with his bonds to no avail. "Can you still feel him?"

"Hey, wizard!" called Gilbert, poking Tremayne in the shoulder with a chubby finger. "We talking to you here!"

"Yes," replied Tremayne, answering his cohort while still ignoring an increasingly annoyed Gilbert. "He's feeling elated - as if something he's been waiting a long time for is finally about to happen! Damn that Vandergrotten!"

"Wait--Vandergrotten?" asked Finoula. She'd heard that name before; wasn't that the wizard who had originally owned this very keep? But wasn't he long since dead?

"My quasit familiar," admitted Tremayne, finally responding to one of his captors. That filled in a lot of missing information: if Vandergrotten was a quasit, that meant he must have died and been reborn in the Abyss...and then eventually called back, many years later, to the Material Plane to serve as a familiar to an evil wizard. "They're both evil," confirmed Ingebold, casting a quick detect evil spell on their captives.

"Aithanar!" Gilbert called. "Go search inside keep--look for quasit!" The wizard had noticed Wrath, after having won his tug-of-war, had been nosing about along the ground leading to the door to the back building's entryway. A set of insectoid prints could be seen heading toward the door; it's possible the quasit - while fully invisible - had transformed from a bat into a centipede and entered the building's interior through the slight gap beneath the door.

"On it!" called the elven fighter, running to the door and into the building's interior rooms to start his search.

The ground suddenly began to shudder. Through the still-open drawbridge - for Darrien had stopped trying to raise it once he saw Dardennex had been subdued by Castillan - the group could see mounds of earth being pushed aside, as an enormous head of iron rose up from the ground. This was followed by a massive set of metal shoulders, and then a torso, until an iron golem easily 20 feet tall stood just outside Battershield Keep, clumps of moist earth falling from its metal form. In one hand it held an iron sword longer than a man was tall. "At long last!" it bellowed in a mechanical voice. "I can finally put an end to that gods-be-damned orc who's taken over the kingdom!" The heroes readied for an impending attack, but it didn't come - instead, the iron juggernaut stomped off, heading directly towards the castle in the distance.

"Crap! We got to stop it!" announced Gilbert. From the top of the northwest tower, Hagan cast a fly spell upon himself, made sure Wezhley was secure on his shoulder, and took off in pursuit.

"Wrath: Guard!" commanded Finoula, pointing at the prisoners as she took off after the mechanical humanoid. The wolf obediently returned by Dardennex's bound form and stood watch over him, exposing his fangs in case the prisoner got any ideas. Darrien likewise sent Grumps Junior to watch over the wizard as he sprinted off behind Finoula, both of them still hasted by Gilbert's spell. Castillan ran right behind them. Binkadink leaped back atop Obvious - causing a grunt of pain from Tremayne, upon whose chest the jackalope had been putting his weight - and the two bounded off. Ingebold followed, but without having been part of the group of haste recipients, she started falling behind almost immediately.

That left Gilbert and Mudpie alone with the two guard animals and the two prisoners. "Scoot!" commanded the wizard, shooing Wrath and Grumps Junior away. Then he cast a fireball spell at the two captives, not wanting to chance their escape while the heroes were away. Tremayne, having nearly been killed by Hagan's chain lightning spell and only kept alive by the minimal healing provided by Ingebold, was slain immediately. Dardennex also made a point of falling over, unmoving, after the spell's casting, but Gilbert wasn't about to be fooled; he had Mudpie approach and administer a killing blow to the man's skull just to be sure.

Outside the keep, Ingebold cast a bless spell on the group before they got too far out of range. Hagan cast a stoneskin spell on himself and then got ready to repeat that same spell on as many of his friends as he could, recognizing they were liable to need its protection against a foe that big and powerful. He wasn't wrong, either; Finoula had managed to catch up to the iron juggernaut and struck it across the knee joint with her longsword Tahlmalaera; in retaliation, the golem swung at the offending elf with its enormous sword, smiting the ranger for good measure. Finoula went sprawling, very close to death.

"Finoula!" called Ingebold from some distance behind, racing up to heal her Battle-Sister. Despite the magic boots she wore that enhanced her speed to that of a human, even while wearing her heavy armor, she felt as if she were caught in one of those dreams where it felt like you were running through molasses.

Hagan was unable to reach Finoula right away but he angled his flight path and flew up to Binkadink astride Obvious. "Here you go," said the half-orc, firing off a stoneskin spell on the gnome. "Thanks!" replied Binkadink, then urged his jackalope to bound up beside the iron juggernaut. He sent his magical glaive slamming into the side of the fearsome automaton, dealing quite a bit of damage due to the golembane scarab he wore pinned to his cloak.

Darrien pulled his figurine of wondrous power out of his belt pouch and activated it, leaping atop the ebony fly as it manifested. A haste spell was one thing, but now he had an even faster speed! He pulled back on a readied arrow while astride his fly, launching it at the iron juggernaut as he got within his preferred range: close enough to make the shot count, but far enough back to remain out of reach of an immediate counterattack.

Crumpled on the ground, Finoula guzzled down a potion of cure light wounds - it wasn't much, but it was better than nothing and it was all she had on her at the moment. But soon thereafter Ingebold arrived and placed her hands on Finoula's crushed ribs, healing them instantly with a rush of positive energy. "Praise be t' Moradin!" the cleric exclaimed.

Back at the keep, Gilbert still hadn't left yet. After ensuring the two captives weren't going to be causing any further mischief, he started casting preparatory spells upon his familiar. "You going to be combat machine, just like enemy!" declared the portly wizard, casting first a Tenser's transformation spell on his familiar and then a polymorph spell that caused Mudpie to assume the same general form, but one 16 feet tall. He had other spells he could have cast upon the earth elemental, but by now the group was out of view over the horizon.

"They probably in wheat fields by now," surmised Gilbert, mentally plotting out the juggernaut's course if it was making a bee-line for the castle. "Let's go!" Casting a teleport spell upon himself and his familiar, the two appeared in the same wheat field where the rest of the group was currently battling the iron juggernaut - but at the other end of it.

Having seen the damage the metal foe did to Finoula (and not realizing part of that damage had been the result of a smite good attack that couldn't be repeated for another day), Castillan chose to put his greater speed to its best possible use - ignoring the battle at hand and warning the townspeople ahead in the iron juggernaut's path of the impending danger.

For its part, the iron juggernaut made a mostly-straight path towards the castle, only deviating for a few steps at a time if there was an irritating hero within reach. His sword came swinging out at Darrien, nearly sending him tumbling off of his fly; severely wounded, the ranger was forced to back off even further. He didn't have any healing at hand, so he just kept peppering the construct with arrows, only now from a greater distance away.

Hagan had just cast a stoneskin spell on Finoula and offered to cast another upon Ingebold, but she shooed him away. "Use 'em on those what can get close!" she advised, and Hagan flew off in Darrien's direction.

Binkadink sent Obvious on a parallel course to the iron juggernaut, swinging his glaive for all he was worth as they got alongside the construct. He scored a large rent in the side of the thing's armor. However, the juggernaut was able to bring a crushing retaliation with his massive sword, swinging down not upon the gnome who had struck him but the hippity-hopping jackalope that provided him his speed and mobility. Two of Obvious's legs broke instantly and the poor creature flopped over onto its side, trapping the gnome beneath it. Binkadink screamed in equal parts worry, concern, and hatred, unable to help his friend and mount and unable to extricate himself from underneath his bulk. The jackalope's blood washed over him, soaking the nearby ground.

Finoula caught up to the construct and sent her flaming whip of thorns flashing out at it; she had no false hopes about being able to trip the massive juggernaut, but she hoped to at least do it a bit of damage. Unknown to her, the flames burning along the length of her whip were actually healing the construct by a tiny little bit. Behind her, a massive Mudpie almost as tall as the juggernaut raced up, its footfalls reverberating through the ground as it ran.

Ingebold reached Obvious and placed her hands upon the poor creature, who was unconscious from the pain and bleeding out. She channeled a heal spell through her fingers: overkill, no doubt, but the quickest way to ensure the jackalope was returned to his full fighting strength as quickly as possible. But Binkadink wasn't taking any further chances with his friend's life; as soon as Obvious could sit back up, the gnome activated his stilt-boots and raced forward, calling back to his friend to hang back. He put all of his strength into his swing and could feel the power of his magical scarab aiding him in the blow. A large rent tore down the juggernaut's front, a testament to the power behind the blow. At the same time, on the other side of the juggernaut, Finoula struck out again with her snapping whip, and then Mudpie came up behind the construct and gave it a punch with a massive fist the size and construction of a boulder. From overhead, Darrien kept a rain of arrows flying down at the iron juggernaut, hoping they were at least doing some damage.

Stopped from making progress towards the castle - and his ultimate goal of killing King Galrich - the iron juggernaut cast forth with one of its Abyssal abilities, engulfing a bunch of its surrounding enemies in an unholy blight effect. Finoula and Ingebold, Binkadink and Obvious, Hagan and Wezhley: all were within the area of effect of the blast, and all were affected, but each was able to summon the necessary fortitude to wrest off the worst of the spell's effects. But the respite gave the iron juggernaut the opening it needed and it started off again towards the castle.

But Binkadink was having none of that - not from the thing that hurt his jackalope! With another massive swing of his glaive, he brought the iron juggernaut crashing down face-first into the field of wheat. "Thank goodness!' exclaimed Finoula, glad to see their foe defeated at last - she never again wanted to be hit as hard as it had hit her!

But the fight wasn't completely over just yet. A hatch swung open from the juggernaut's back and a gnarled, humanoid creature staggered out, bleeding from the side of its horned head. From the back of his ebony fly, Darrien sent an arrow flying down at it, but it missed the quasit who had been not only piloting the iron juggernaut but fueling its movement with his own Abyssal energies. The "plink" of the arrowhead on the juggernaut's iron frame caused Vandergrotten the quasit to look up and mentally prepare himself to become invisible once again. But then Gilbert Fung cast a magic missile spell from further down the wheat field that almost dropped the vile demon where he stood. Finoula advanced but was just out of range; the juggernaut's shoulder was in the way of her line of sight so she couldn't bring her whip to bear. "Grab him, Mudpie!" Gilbert called as he raced up, winded from the run. Mudpie obediently wrapped a massive hand around the dazed quasit, squeezing him in a vicelike grip.

"No..." whined Vandergrotten as he struggled in vain to escape the elemental's clutch. "...What are you going to do with me?"

"You brought here to serve as familiar," wheezed Gilbert. "That mean we kill you here, you dead for good. You probably re-form back in Abyss, but with no memories of former life. You no longer be Vandergrotten, just another tormented soul."

"Is...is that what you're going to do to me?" whimpered the quasit. "Kill me?"

"No," replied Gilbert. "Not me. Come on, Mudpie! Let's finish trip with him!" The mage ambled toward the castle, the rest of the group following. They made it to the castle walls and were allowed entry by the dwarven guard on duty. When they asked for a special meeting with the king, Aerik Battershield was there to ensure it happened at once. "I think ye'll be wantin' t' attend this meetin', Me King!" he advised King Galrich with a smirk.

The last thing Vandergrotten saw - his very last sight before oblivion took him back to an eternity of torment in the Abyssal Realms - was the hated sight of Galrich, that gods-be-damned orc, looking down at him while strangling the very life from his body...and wearing the coveted Crown of Kordovia while doing it.

- - -

For those wondering just who this Vandergrotten guy is, he was a foe from the "Wing Three" campaign who absolutely hated the idea that a half-orc bastard was in line to take the throne of Kordovia and did everything he could to stop such a horrid fate from coming to be. (Obviously, his best efforts weren't good enough then, and they weren't good enough now to put an end to King Galrich's reign.) But there's a hidden level underneath Battershield Keep (formerly Vandergrotten Keep), where the wizard Vandergrotten had created a variety of constructs, most of which the Wing Three adventurers had defeated. But knowing he was destined for the Abyss upon his death and certain of his ability to rise through the ranks of demonhood, Vandergrotten created an iron juggernaut that could be powered by the Abyssal energies of a quasit and controlled from within. Then, it was a simple matter to scatter around tomes which purported to extol the virtues of the quasit Vandergrotten as a familiar. Soon after attaining quasithood in the Abyssal planes, the former Kordovian wizard was called into service by Tremayne. Vandergrotten accepted long enough to get his bearings, then skedaddled to set his own plans into motion.

Logan ran Ingebold at the beginning of this adventure, but once Jacob decided Castillan's best use was to warn others of the impending iron juggernaut attack, Logan passed Ingebold over to Jacob to run so he could stay in the game.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Dalek "Exterminate!" shirt, because that's what Vandergrotten wanted to do to "that gods-be-damned orc," and also because a Dalek represents a small, organic being encased inside an armored exterior, much like the iron juggernaut powered by Vandergrotten's Abyssal quasit nature.
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 45: THE DUNGEON OF ETERNITY

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 13
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 13
Darrien, half-elf ranger 13
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 13
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 13
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 13​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 12 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 24 February 2018

- - -

"Hello in there!" came a strong voice from the other side of the portcullis of Battershield Keep. The drawbridge was down, indicating visitors were welcome, but since the keep wasn't normally staffed with a security force - it was merely the home of the dwarven Battershield family and now also the de facto headquarters of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild - the lowered portcullis ensured strangers didn't get free rein of the place.

Darrien was in the courtyard and recognized the voice immediately as belonging to Vance Pelorian, a human cleric who worked for Lord Cavelthorne. The first time Darrien had seen Vance, the cleric was a petrified statue courtesy of a beholder's eye ray; Darrien had worked with the rest of Lord Cavelthorne's team to slay the beholder responsible and return the cleric to living flesh. And sure enough, standing behind Vance were his adventuring associates: Kizzie Birdsong, a halfling bard; Caliandra, a human sorceress; "Quincy" (really Jorg) Battleborn, a half-orc fighter; and Thomas the Seeker, a human monk. They all smiled at Darrien, who hurried over and began raising the portcullis to let his fellow adventurers in.

"What going on?" demanded Gilbert Fung, exiting the northwestern tower of the keep where his room was located after having heard the raising of the portcullis.

"We've got a little proposition for you," said Vance. "A bit of a two-team venture, if you will."

"We get rest of our guys together," suggested Gilbert, yelling up the tower stairways at the others while Darrien led the visitors to the keep's dining room, where there were tables enough to fit everyone. Once everybody had gathered - and Harriet Fung had served them all heaping helpings of her famous apple crumble - Caliandra briefed the group on their offer.

"We have a map to a dungeon that claims to hold the key to longevity," the sultry sorceress said, pulling a folded-up piece of parchment from her cleavage. "But we only made it to the first two rooms. The second room contains a puzzle that has eluded our ability to figure out. What do you say to a two-kingdom joint venture? We lead you to the dungeon, you help us get past the second room, and we work our way together to the end, splitting the treasure equally among us. What do you say?"

That sounded fine to the Kordovian adventurers - especially Darrien, who relished any opportunity to spend time with Caliandra. "Pack up your horses and wagons, then," suggested Jorg. "It's about a four-day trek south and west, to the end of the Clatspur Mountain Range."

"Oh, I think we beat four-day travel forecast," smirked Gilbert. "Bink! Go get carpet!"

As the little gnome scampered off to fetch the carpet of teleportation, Kizzie wrinkled her brow. "I don't think we'll all fit on a carpet of flying," she offered.

"Just wait and see," smiled Castillan.

Once Binkadink returned and unrolled the magic carpet onto the dining room floor, the visitors were each escorted aboard the dragonfly vessel with one of their Kordovian brethren - for two people easily fit on the carpet at a time. Aithanar came along to tend to the animals on board, as was his custom. Departing the bedroom at the other end of the carpet, Lord Cavelthorne's team was amazed to find themselves in basically a Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion, but even further astounded to find out that was merely an extradimensional addition to a flying vessel. "Where in the world did you get this?" demanded Caliandra.

"It's kind of a long story," admitted Darrien. "I'll tell it to you as we head to where we're going."

Jinkadoodle piloted the ship from its cloud island parking spot and took it over the kingdom of Kordovia. Caliandra stayed in the control room with the gnome illusionist to direct him (and Darrien, not surprisingly, chose to stay with them), but the rest of the joint team went topside to marvel at the sight. "Lord Cavelthorne is going to be green with envy once he finds out you've got something like this!" Vance marveled. (Jorg was impressed with the ship, but was even more impressed with the buffet back downstairs in the extradimensional hold.)

Not being used to such a vantage point, Caliandra had Jinkadoodle fly relatively low, where she could have him follow the roads they would have traveled had they made the trip by wagon, as had originally been assumed. The low-flying dragonfly vessel caused quite a few travelers on the road to point and stare; many assumed it was some sort of living monster insect and fled in terror at the sight. But the ship made the four-day trip in less than an hour; eventually, Caliandra had Jinkadoodle park it in a valley between two mountains. "The valley is far enough away from the main road that passersby shouldn't be able to see it," explained the sorceress. "And from here, it's a mere ten-minute climb to the entry to the hidden 'Dungeon of Eternity'."

"'Dungeon of Eternity'?" asked Darrien. "Kind of a pretentious name, don't you think?" Caliandra merely shrugged. "I didn't name it," she replied. "But that's what it says on the map we found."

The entry cave was inconspicuous, barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side, and by a dozen feet in there was room only for one. The back of the cave narrowed into a dead-end wedge shape. "Um, what?" asked Binkadink. "Is this the right cave?"

"Look up there," said Thomas, pointing up the right-hand side of the cave wall. About ten feet up there was a ledge, and at the back of the ledge was another narrow passage. That led into the first real room of the dungeon, a mostly featureless square hewn from the rock. The room had no light sources, but Binkadink had two everburning torches strapped to the antlers of his helmet, and a few of the others dug into their packs to fetch sunrods. There was a set of steps leading up to a higher level from the back of the room, and carved into the wall to the right of the stairs was a greeting of sorts. It read:

NO MAN MAY LIVE FOREVER, BUT I HAVE DISCOVERED THE FORMULA FOR A POTION OF LONGEVITY THAT GREATLY EXTENDS ONE'S LIFESPAN. I WILL SHARE IT WITH ANYONE CLEVER ENOUGH TO MAKE IT TO THE END OF THIS DUNGEON COMPLEX. FIND YOUR WAY TO THE END AND LEARN HOW ANY HUMAN MAY LIVE LONGER THAN AN ELF!

TALLIVANE

The stairs were only about three feet wide, so it was single file into the next room, which was circular in shape. They entered up through the floor, to find seven different doors arranged equidistant around the circular wall, each a different color: red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, dark blue, and purple. There were letters in between some of the doors at four different levels. The ceiling was about 20 feet high in this room. Centered on the floor was a set of knobs.

"This is the room that gave us trouble," explained Vance. "The way we figure it, there's a message to be found in these letters, but we haven't been able to make head nor tail of it. And if you try going through the wrong door, you get zapped."

"You tried all of them?" asked Castillan, looking forward to the challenge.

"All seven," agreed Caliandra. "The attacks from the doors grown deadlier with each attempt, and the attacks are variable - heat, cold, electricity...you name it. It makes it hard to shield against, when you don't know what type of energy you'll be struck with next. Our best guess is the letters have to be in the correct position, and then it's safe to open the correct door. We just don't know which one that is, and there are too many different letter combinations to keep getting it wrong without the door defenses outright killing us."

"Yeah - the electricity really stings," commented Jorg, rubbing his hands in remembered pain.

Castillan had been examining the letters. They didn't make any sense that he could see. "Watch this," Vance said, reaching for the knob on the floor. It had three different levels; he gave the outermost one a turn to the right, and with a grinding sound the upper set of letters rotated clockwise, orienting themselves so the top letters were each poised above the next column to the right. "Each of the top three rows of letters can be moved," Vance explained. "The bottom row, with the doors, is fixed in place."

"Let me try," said the bounder, moving several rows at random to see if they would make any words.

"Hey!" called out Binkadink. "Move the second row over two spaces to the right." Castillan did so. "Look: the word 'door' is spelled out," the gnome observed. Sure enough, the word "door" was spelled from top to bottom in the space between the yellow and green doors. Starting from there and reading the words formed down between the doors to the right, the following message was formed:

D D M P T . A
O r U A H T W
O r S S R H L
r . T S U E

"That doesn't make any sense," pointed out Finoula.

"It's got to be right, though," replied Castillan. "Look: we have "must pass thru the awl door.' That can't just be a coincidence. Now, which one is the awl door?"

"But what about the 'D-R-R' column?" asked Hagan.

Binkadink continued to stare at the letters. "It isn't D-R-R!" he exclaimed. "It's A-L-L! And that isn't 'AWL," it's 'RED'!" Sure enough, the "D" had serifs extending to the left from the top and bottom of the letter, and the letter "R" had not only been made lower case, it was just a bent line. By reading down the column with your head turned to the right, it spelled out "ALL." Similarly, because the "W" was a "U" shape with a vertical line rising up from its middle and the "A" was the same shape as the "D" turned on its side, by turning your head to the left and reading up the last column, "AWL" became "rED."

"'All must pass thru the red door'," translated Finoula. "That's actually pretty clever." Lord Cavelthorne's team, however, was groaning aloud at how quickly the Kordovians had figured out the puzzle that had confounded them for so long. "After you," sighed Caliandra, indicating the red door.

Binkadink opened the red door without any trouble. On the other side was a narrow corridor which was covered in pitch black darkness about 10 feet in. Hagan and Ingebold both declared neither of them could see through the darkness despite their darkvision. Darrien passed up a sunrod to Binkadink and the gnome tossed it into the area of darkness; it winked out as soon as it passed the barrier. "Deeper darkness," observed Binkadink. "Any of you spellcasters have anything that would counter that?" It would take something more powerful than a simple light or everburning flame spell - and none of the spellcasters had anything appropriate at the ready. Gilbert tried a dispel magic on the deeper darkness effect but was unsuccessful.

"In we go, then," said Binkadink, tapping ahead into the darkness with his nonmagical glaive.

"Wait a minute," exclaimed Ingebold suddenly, casting a true seeing spell upon herself. "I cannae dispel th' darkness, but now I can see within it! Th' corridor's empty, but it leads into another round room ahead."

"Then you'd better lead," suggested Binkadink, swapping places in line with her. Gilbert took a moment to cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell that linked him to Binkadink, Castillan, Darrien, and Hagan.

"Everybody put your hand on the shoulder of the person ahead of you," suggested Finoula. Thus situated, Ingebold led the group slowly forward. The others followed, hand on shoulder, with Lord Cavelthorne's team bringing up the rear, as if in shame at their dismal puzzle-solving skills.

Binkadink felt a slight breeze as Ingebold entered the room - and then suddenly, his hand was no longer on her shoulder. He stopped and called out to her but there was no answer. Worried, he crept forward...and then he no longer felt Castillan's hand upon his own shoulder. However, from the light of his twin everburning torches in his helmet, he could see he wasn't in a round room like Ingebold had claimed was ahead, but an empty, square room with a ten-foot ceiling and walls some 15 feet wide. There were no doors to be seen.

While Binkadink was checking out his new surroundings, the others in line behind him kept moving forward. As each entered the circular room and was teleported to a different location, the teleport doorways of the room slid counterclockwise, aligning a new teleport doorway to the entrance to the circular room, accounting for the slight breeze Binkadink had felt in the corridor and assuring no two people in sequence would end up in the same place. By the time Binkadink thought to call out to the others over his Rary's telepathic bond, they had almost all been caught up in the teleport trap and were each in their own separate chambers. Only Gilbert and Mudpie remained of the Kordovians, with Cavelthorne's team behind them. "We about to be teleported," Gilbert advised the other team. "Others already separated, we might as well move ahead and find way back to each other after." That said, he hefted the weight of his earth elemental familiar and walked into the circular room ahead, ensuring that at least Mudpie would be teleported along with him instead of the two being separated.

- - -

After having stepped through the doorway, Ingebold suddenly found herself inexplicably elsewhere. She was in a square room, 15 feet on a side with a ceiling 10 feet above her. Each of the four walls had a doorway-sized niche in its middle, but no visible doorway. Looking down at her feet, she saw she stood upon a raised, circular platform about three feet in diameter. Around that, the rest of the floor looked different - translucent, even. And then the cleric found out why as, with a burbling noise, the floor rippled, formed a pseudopod, and slapped up at the astonished cleric. With a firm grip on her dwarven warhammer, she slammed back at the pseudopod, realizing in amazement that the platform upon which she stood was 15 feet tall and piercing straight through a gelatinous cube whose dimensions mirrored those of the lower section of the room - one with an actual floor some 15 feet below her!

The gelatinous cube absorbed its pseudopod back into its body, only to form another one behind its intended prey and slam at her from behind. Ingebold turned on her pedestal, facing this new threat, then whacked away with her hammer. She squatted low on her stone platform, allowing her to hammer at the beast's body without actually touching the paralytic flesh of its amoeboid form. The two traded blows, with the ooze at a severe disadvantage, in that Ingebold could hardly miss her foe while it did little else; eventually the dwarven maiden had slain the gelatinous cube and had to hold her breath while its body bubbled and discorporated into a frothy, smelly mess. Still not wanting to lower herself down into its corpse to explore the lower section of the room (although fearing it might have to come to that), she took a few minutes to examine each of the four niches up at her level. Aided by her innate dwarven stonecunning, she eventually discerned that one was a stone slab merely inserted into a gap. She made the leap over to that niche, pushing with all of her might. The slab pivoted, allowing her to exit the room by way of a very narrow corridor that branched off into several different directions. Calling out and hearing no reply, Ingebold picked one at random and moved off to find her friends.

- - -

Binkadink used his nonmagical glaive to poke at the floor, the walls, and finally the ceiling. Each was completely featureless; it looked as if the gnome stood inside an empty chamber with no ways in or out save teleportation - which would be a bit of a problem, for the little gnome had no way to teleport on his own.

Fortunately, his probing led to the discovery of a narrow hole in the middle of the ceiling, covered over with an illusory wall spell - but once Binkadink knew the opening was there, it was the matter of mere moments to stare at the place and see through the clever illusion. So: a hole in the ceiling 10 feet above him, and no way to get up there. That was going to be a problem. His gnomish stilt-boots could only elevate him to the height of a human - not nearly tall enough to get him to the hole in the ceiling. He had two glaives, each nearly 10 feet long; perhaps he could bind them together somehow, stick one end into the hole, and climb up them? He looked through his backpack for something he could use to tie his two lengthy weapons together.

And then he found his vial of sovereign glue.

It would mean leaving his nonmagical glaive behind, but that was a small price to pay for his freedom. Binkadink poured some of the glue onto the bottom of his weapon's hilt, then stuck it in place and held it there long enough for the glue to dry. At the end of this process, he had a glaive standing straight up, its blade pointed at the edge of the hole in the ceiling. Gathering everything back up, Binkadink started climbing. At the top, he scrabbled up into the hole and pulled himself into a narrow tunnel leading away from the room in which he had been imprisoned. The tunnel moved past the room and then dropped back down, this time into another narrow passageway moving perpendicular from the tunnel he had just popped out of.

- - -

Castillan ended up in a pitch-black room with no way to see his surroundings. He had the typical elven low-light vision, but low-light and no-light conditions were worlds apart. Rummaging blindly through his backpack, the bounder felt a sunrod beneath his grasping fingers and activated it.

That was better! He was in a square room, with walls 15 feet to a side and a ten-foot ceiling. There was only one exit, an open tunnel covered in pitch-black darkness after a few feet in. Sure enough, it was a permanent deeper darkness spell effect, just like the one just past the red door; Castillan's sunrod seemed to wink out as soon as he brought it inside the area of effect. Tapping ahead of him with his sword, Castillan entered the tunnel, moving slowly enough that he found the pit straight ahead before blindly tumbling into it. He couldn't feel the other side of it with his extended blade, so he assumed it had to have a diameter of ten feet or more. So: dark tunnel, dead end, pit. It was possible there was another exit at the bottom of the pit, but Castillan opted to explore around further before he committed himself to jumping into a pit of unknown depth.

By tapping the walls with his sword, he discovered an opening along the side wall of the pit, up at his level - or slightly below it. It had a solid floor, but was disturbingly narrow. It would be a difficult jump in absolute darkness, but the elf was sure he could make it - after all, bounding about was what he did for a living! He returned his sword to the extradimensional space in his magic glove of storing with a snap of his fingers, got his bearings as best he could, and leaped for the unseen gap.

He made the jump with ease and pulled himself into the tunnel, which was so small he was forced to crawl forward on his elbows and drag himself forward. On the plus side, the deeper darkness spell effect didn't extend into the tunnel, so his sunrod was back to doing its job. The tunnel zigzagged back and forth a few times and the bounder could feel an upward slope through several sections. Eventually, after several minutes of slow crawling, he came to a dead end. That was extremely discouraging! But then the elf's sensitive fingers felt a stone block in the wall ahead of him that had gaps on either side just wide enough for him to slide his fingers into. It seemed, with enough wiggling the stone back and forth, he might be able to pull it back towards him - and from its size, Castillan was pretty sure he could fit into the gap it left behind if he could get past the block itself. Fortunately, while the tunnel he had been crawling in was low, it was probably wide enough for both him and the stone block if he could just get it out. With a grimace of determination, the bounder started prying the stone block back and forth with his fingers....

- - -

Finoula stood in a room very much like the one Ingebold had appeared in, with two notable differences: there were no niches in the walls around her, and instead of a gelatinous cube surrounding the stone platform on which she stood, it was swirling water. Fortunately, Finoula had been holding a sunrod when she teleported into the room, so she could immediately see the danger of continuing to move forward - there was no telling how deep the water might be, but it probably wasn't a good idea to go jumping in while burdened by armor and weapons! She pulled a potion of water walking from her belt and drank down its contents, thinking she could walk over to the walls and seek out secret passages.

And then a sudden thought crossed the ranger's mind: why was the water swirling so, when there should be nothing there to agitate it? She got her answer when the water formed a heavy, wavelike fist and pummeled her, nearly knocking her from her perch. Fortunately, she turned the movement of the blow into a pivot in place and retained her balance, and now she knew what she was up against: a water elemental!

Actually, it turned out to be two water elementals. Each would have been taller than the elf had they fully formed into humanoid shapes, but there was no need in this water-filled chamber. They took turns sending blows up at the elf, while she returned the attacks in kind, using her longsword Tahlmalaera and her flaming whip of thorns. It was two-against-one odds with the ranger stuck in place while the two elementals were free to attack from multiple directions, but the fact that Finoula managed not be to thrown from her perch gave her an advantage, in that the elementals could only do their best fighting against other creatures similarly submerged. Finoula's magic weapons cut each of the water elementals down, strike by strike. In fact, she was pretty sure she had killed one of them, but with creatures made of water striking from the water and turning back into water when slain, it was kind of hard to tell. But the fact that the attacks were coming at half their previous pace was a good indicator.

What wasn't so hard to tell, though, was that the water level was slowly lowering. Trapped as she was on the stone platform she had no choice but to strike down at her attackers, and she was having to strike lower and lower against her enemies as the water level receded. Finoula wasn't sure what was responsible for the water's recession, but whatever it was seemed to be a good omen.

Of course, it wasn't as good an omen to the person responsible: Castillan had managed to pry the block loose, and then water instantly came gushing at him, filling the narrow tunnel and sweeping him back the way he had come. He was bludgeoned against a sharp turn in the tunnel and swept away, reversing course back to the pit in the impenetrable darkness. The bounder managed to hang onto the edge of the pit rather than fall into it, and there he hung, with water cascading down around him, sneaking the occasional breath by lowering his face into his own armpit. The pit below him slowly filled up with the water, while at the other end of the zigzagging tunnel, Finoula was using her boots of spider climbing to adhere to the side of the stone column, lowering herself into position so she could continue to attack the sole remaining water elemental. Eventually she was successful, and it was a simple matter of allowing the rest of the water to drain out of the room before ducking down into the damp tunnel. From her vantage point, she could see another tunnel opening along the ceiling of the narrow tunnel Castillan had crawled through on his elbows (which had prevented him from discovering this alternate route), and crawled up it to see where it went. Long after she was gone, Castillan retraced his path back up the now-wet crawlspace and inadvertently followed her path at the end, after having entered her now-empty room and exited it again, discovering the ceiling tunnel in that fashion.

- - -

Hagan's innate darkvision would have allowed him to see the area around him even if it hadn't had a ball of fiery illumination straight ahead. The half-orc sorcerer landed at one end of a platform which began to lower immediately under his weight. This, in turn, allowed the burning ball of fire that had been balanced in what had been the middle of the teeter-totter structure to start rolling his way. With a note of concern, Hagan realized he could smell an oily scent from the floor below him - some 10 feet or so below him - and that while allowing the flaming sphere to hit him wasn't something he looked forward to, allowing it to ignite the oil beneath him was even less practical. Still, a protection from fire spell seemed prudent, so Hagan cast it, covering not only himself but also his weasel familiar Wezhley who sat perched upon his shoulder.

Fortunately, in the space of a heartbeat, Darrien teleported into place at the other end of the teeter-totter and the flaming sphere's sudden movement ceased.

"You okay?" called out Hagan.

"So far!" replied Darrien, looking around him. Both heroes were in identical rooms, each a mirror image of the other. The rooms were 15-foot squares with a 20-foot ceiling; the teeter-totter was at the midpoint, 10 feet above the oil-covered floor. There were no visible doors leaving the rooms, merely an open hole adjoining the two, from which the ends of the teeter-totter emerged. Seeing the situation and coming to the same conclusion Hagan had arrived at, Darrien cast a resist fire spell upon himself.

The flaming sphere was still over closer to Hagan, but it had stopped moving. Cautiously, the half-orc crept closer to it - with Darrien serving as a counterpoint - until Hagan could cast a cone of cold spell from above it without sending the spell's effects through the gap to hit the half-elf ranger. Overcome by the sudden blast of cold energy, the flaming sphere spell effect popped into nonexistence. "That's better!" reasoned Hagan.

"Now what?" asked Darrien.

"I'm going to cast a fly spell, but I won't leave the edge of the platform until you're ready!" called out Hagan. Darrien reached into a pouch and pulled out his ebony fly. "Ready when you are!" he called back to the sorcerer. As one, Hagan cast his spell and Darrien activated his fly, then each flew off the teeter-totter platform to go explore the walls for secret doors. After a few minutes of investigation, Hagan found a part of one wall that could be hinged open, revealing a narrow tunnel on the other side. Over here!" he called, stepping into the tunnel. Darrien led his fly through the teeter-totter passageway over to Hagan's room and followed the sorcerer's path into the tunnel.

Hagan's tunnel dropped down into an intersecting tunnel below. Choosing one path at random, he came to a dead end but found another secret door. Opening it, he saw another room the same general size and shape as the one he'd just left, only this one had a stone column rising up halfway to the ceiling, which was ringed by seven zombies. They turned at the intrusion with a speed the half-orc was not accustomed to in the normally slow-moving undead; he barely had time enough to slam the secret door shut on the juju zombies before they spilled out into the tunnel. "Dead end," he explained to Darrien, who had deactivated his ebony fly and come up behind him. They retraced their steps and went the other way.

- - -

Gilbert arrived in a stone-hewn chamber filled with total darkness. Not having carried a light source, the wizard had to have Mudpie describe the room to him while he cast a light spell on the end of his staff so he could see for himself. This room was an actual cube some 15 feet to a side. In the act of putting Mudpie down on the floor, Gilbert noted they were standing in a magic circle carved into the stone floor. "This not good," he muttered to himself.

Examining the circle more closely, Gilbert surmised it was a summoning circle of some sort - and yet it seemed to be inside out, with the runes he'd have expected to be inside the circle just outside its outer edges. "Strange," he mumbled. Gilbert stuck the end of his staff outside the circle to see if it was a barrier of some sort; nope, the staff went past the circle's boundaries with no resistance. "Odd," he muttered. Then, realizing there was no time like the present, he took a deep breath and stepped outside the circle.

Immediately, two forms materialized in the air above the two figures. These were insects of some sort, with buzzing wings and wicked-looking stingers; each creature was bigger than the heavyset wizard. "This not good!" Gilbert repeated as the first of the two spider eaters dove down to try to stab him.

The spider eaters both ignored Mudpie, realizing he was a source of neither food not a host organism in which to lay eggs. Instead, the concentrated their attacks on Gilbert, who, having expected a puzzle-laden dungeon, had prepared plenty of divinations but not many attack spells. He resorted to using the katana he'd taken from an enemy samurai back in Kozakura; he wasn't very proficient with the curved sword, but it had a greater reach than his dagger and he wanted to keep the hungry insects as far away as possible from him. He actually did pretty well for himself with the unfamiliar weapon, but then he was in a rather cramped room for two large flying creatures, making it almost difficult for him to miss. Still, he was bitten and stung more than once and it was only the heroes' feats he'd consumed that morning that boosted his immune system to the point where he didn't have to worry about the spider eaters' paralyzing venom.

Mudpie got in a good punch or two when the creatures lowered to attack Gilbert with their stingers; Gilbert eventually got tired of the katana's weight and swapped to his trusty dagger, and together they managed to eventually slay the two spider eaters. As summoned creatures, they disappeared once slain, giving the mage and his familiar the empty room to themselves.

"Whew!" Gilbert sighed, wiping his brow. "Now we see if we find way out of here!"

- - -

Eventually, the heroes started running in to each other in the tunnels. Binkadink was the first to find his way out of the narrow tunnels altogether, coming into another round room with seven doors and a knob in the middle that turned the four rows of letters. Instead of being different colors, these seven doors each had the carved image of a different species: a human, a dwarf, an elf, a half-elf, a half-orc, a gnome, and a halfling. Hagan discovered the room shortly after Binkadink did and helped the gnome figure out the correct letter combination to form a useful clue as to which door to try. Darrien had followed a different tunnel and discovered a secret door at the dead end he wound up in; opening it, he saw none other than a flustered Gilbert Fung and his faithful Mudpie. The ranger led the trio back to Binkadink and Hagan. Ingebold discovered the empty room Binkadink had escaped - that was obviously his old glaive standing straight up from the floor - and backtracked another way before meeting up with the others.

By then, Binkadink had figured out the solution to the second word puzzle. By arranging the letters in the right configuration, he ended up with:

K . E E H Y
I T L I E O A
L H F M ' U G
L E . Z S R E

"E-I-M-Z?" asked Hagan.

"Turn your head," instructed Binkadink. "That's 'WHEN' - 'Kill the elf when he's your age.' Oh, crap!"

"What?" demanded Hagan.

"It's a stupid joke!" complained Binkadink. "Remember the engraved letters at the side of the stairs in that first room? 'I can show you how a human can live longer than an elf' - that stuff? Well, here's the answer: kill the elf when you're both the same age! We've been had."

"Well, we still need to find a way out of here," pointed out Hagan.

"I suppose," grumbled Binkadink. His demeanor didn't get any brighter when he grasped the handle to the elf door and was immediately zapped by a jolt of electricity. "What the Hell?" he yelled, rubbing his hand in irritation.

"Maybe it's this one," reasoned Hagan, trying to open the half-elf door. It didn't open; instead, his body was flooded with a surge of poison - which had no effect on the half-orc at all, given he'd helped consume Ingebold's heroes' feast that morning and was thus currently immune to poison.

Finoula found her way into the room and was briefed by the others what they'd tried. She frowned, thinking it over, before Binkadink had a sudden thought. "We're supposed to kill the elf," he said, causing Finoula to look up at him in sudden alarm, but he thrust his glaive's blade not at her but at the elf carved onto the door. Then, having symbolically "killed the elf," he tried the door again - and it shimmered and disappeared from view, revealing an open chamber beyond.

Hagan entered the lightless room before him. With his darkvision, he could see the room was an oddly-shaped one: nearly a perfect square but for one corner, which held a set of steps leading up into a smaller, circular room. Hanging along the two walls on either side of the steps were eight desiccated corpses, four to a wall. Their bloodstained robes hung over skeletons with little more than a single layer of parchmentlike skin. Below each pair of feet was an open container, like a lidless chest, from which a coppery smell emanated. There were recent trails of blood coming from the four receptacles on the right, leading into the center of the room, where the floor was covered in bloody footprints. A lump of blue flesh lay in a heap over by the stairs.

And then, from the receptacles over on the left, four crimson blobs crawled up and over, making their way towards the astonished half-orc with amazing speed. Before he could react, one of the blood-blobs had crawled onto Hagan's feet and was slithering up his body, inserting bloody, tendril-like extrusions into the sorcerer's nostrils, mouth, and ears. On his shoulder, Wezhley hissed in anger and fear.

Binkadink stepped into the room, plucking a bead from his necklace of fireballs and throwing it down onto the stone floor. It exploded upon impact, killing outright two of the blood puddings - including, fortunately, the one that had been trying to insert itself into Hagan's body through his facial orifices and even by seeping through his pores. Hagan's protection from fire spell was still in effect so the sorcerer hadn't been harmed; Binkadink hadn't known that, but had been willing to take the chance in order to get the blood-thing off his friend.

As Binkadink attacked one of the remaining blood puddings with his magical glaive, he discovered a blade of steel didn't do much against a creature whose amoeboid body seemed composed of blood. Finoula stepped into the room and attacked a blood pudding with her whip, as a water-soaked Castillan found his way back to the group and asked what was going on. "Fill you in later!" promised Gilbert.

The flame from Finoula's whip managed to slay the pudding she'd struck with it, as Hagan finished the other one off with a magic missile spell. It now being safe to do so, the rest of the group entered the room. Darrien walked straight over to the blue flesh over by the steps and gave a gasp of surprise. "What is it?" asked Finoula.

Darrien turned the corpse over so the others could get a better view. "It's a dead shocker lizard!" he explained, the blood draining from his face.

"So?" demanded Gilbert. "What big deal about that?"

"Caliandra had a shocker lizard familiar, named Zapper!" Darrien explained.

"Hey, where are those guys?" asked Castillan, as gasps of realization sounded from around the room: If that was Zapper, then Caliandra had been here before! Probably with the rest of her group! And those were their footprints in the middle of the room! Where there had been a combat with four other blood puddings!

"Oh no," moaned Darrien at the thought that their friends - especially Caliandra - from the southern kingdom had been taken over by blood puddings.

"We got to get out of here, back to ship!" declared Gilbert. They investigated the circular room at the top of the steps, where Gilbert recognized the runes of a teleportation circle carved on the stone floor. Hidden among the runes were seven letters arranged in a circle: A, R, T, U, D, E, and P. "Artudep!" Gilbert cried, to no effect.

"Tudepar!" he tried, with similar results.

"Departu!" called out Finoula suddenly, causing everyone in the cramped room to vanish. They ended up back in the narrow entrance cave, to find a bound and gagged Jinkadoodle waiting for them. "What happened?" demanded Binkadink, removing the gag from his cousin.

"It was the big half-orc, Quincy or Jorg or whatever! They all came running back to the ship, and the woman said there had been an accident in the cave and that you were hurt badly! Then that damned half-orc clocked me but good! I woke up here, all tied up, but I could see the dragonfly ship rising up out of the valley!"

"Crap!" cursed Gilbert.

"That's not all: they had Aithanar tied up to the main mast, at the top of the ship! I don't know what they're doing with him, but at least he looked alive."

"When was this?" demanded Finoula.

"Not too long after you guys had left the ship in the first place - maybe half an hour? Twenty minutes? I dunno." By then, Binkadink had untied the illusionist's bound limbs and Jinkadoodle was rubbing his wrists, trying to restore circulation to his hands. "I'm sorry, guys," he said, tears forming in his eyes. He had been the planet's foremost spelljammer pilot, and now their dragonfly ship was gone!

"It's not yer fault," reassured Ingebold. "Ye had no way of knowin'."

"So what do we do now?" wheedled the illusionist.

"That simple," affirmed Gilbert Fung. "We get our ship back!"

- - -

Well, this adventure certainly ended on a note of surprise! None of the players had seen any of this coming until they hit the last two rooms, which is what I had been hoping for. And now they're eager to get their ship back at all costs. I was a bit disappointed in the speed by which the players figured out the two word puzzles - they had taken me a lot of effort to make, as I not only had four embedded circular layers built at the correct scale for our battle maps with all the letters on them so they could be moved around, but I had also made up four strips of paper with the seven letters/spaces printed out twice in a row for each player, so they could each manipulate the rows as needed. For the scant few minutes it took Logan to figure out the puzzles, I probably needn't have put in all that work! But oh well.

We actually played this adventure all the way through in the same session as the previous adventure, since that one only took us about 2 hours to finish. It made for an almost six-hour session overall, which is about as long as we ever like to go. The next adventure ("Grand Theft Airship" - I couldn't resist) will undoubtedly take the whole session to play through.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Dalek "Exterminate!" shirt, because it was the same session as the previous adventure.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 46: GRAND THEFT AIRSHIP

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 13
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 13
Darrien, half-elf ranger 13
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 13
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 13
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 13​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 13 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 24 March 2018

- - -

A group of adventurers arrived in the courtyard of Battershield Keep in the blink of an eye, courtesy of Hagan's teleport spell. While he wasn't yet powerful enough to transport everyone all at once, Ingebold carried with her the group's portable hole. Spreading it out on the side of the keep's wall immediately upon arriving, the others stepped out of the extradimensional space and into the courtyard.

"Are we sure we don't want to teleport to the ship quick, just to see what's what?" asked the half-orc sorcerer.

"No," replied Gilbert. "Better we wait until morning - when we all at full strength, with all spells ready to go." Hagan just scowled at this decision - as a sorcerer, spellcasting came naturally to him, so he was somewhat disdainful about the whole concept of having to prepare spells ahead of time. Then again, the more spells were available at hand the greater chance of success, and the half-orc had used up some of his more powerful ones today already. It made some sense to be at full force after all, even if it did mean waiting until morning until trying to get back what had been taken from them.

"What about Aithanar?" asked Finoula in a fretful voice.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," said Jinkadoodle in his most reassuring voice. "I'm pretty sure they didn't mean to harm him - they'll want him undamaged, if only to have a replacement body to use." If the gnome's words were meant to be reassuring, it was wasted on the elven ranger - the thought of Aithanar's body being invaded by one of those blood puddings made her feel sick to her stomach.

None of the adventurers slept particularly well that night, but morning began with their new ritual: a heroes' feast spell cast by Ingebold, to hearten the adventurers for the trials and tribulations of the day to come. Gilbert had dumped his divination spells to stock up on attacks and protections. "We ready?" he asked as the last of the feast was consumed.

They were. Next came the rounds of preparatory spells the group liked to apply before imminent battle. Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell that linked him to Binkadink, Castillan, Finoula, and Hagan. Ingebold had prayed for a freedom of movement spell for each of the heroes save herself; upon the expected argument from her Battle-Sister, the proud cleric replied, "I'll be in th' back lines 'f combat, more than likely, seein' t'th' healin' 'f those what need it. Best ye all be prevented from constraints, more'n me." Finoula knew better than to continue the argument, having seen the look of determination on Ingebold's face.

Hagan cast a protection from energy spell on each of them, choosing to shield them from fire-based attacks, guessing those to be the most likely to be used. Both rangers cast their personal barkskin spells to toughen up their bodies, while Ingebold made herself the focus of a magic circle against evil, planning to move around as needed on the battlefield to encompass whoever needed it the most within the effects of her protective spell. And with that, the spellcasters declared themselves ready to go.

Binkadink unrolled the teleport carpet, stepped onto it with Castillan, and said the command word. Instead of instantly being transported to the hidden, extradimensional level of the dragonfly vessel, the two found themselves remaining exactly where they were. "That's not good," observed the gnome fighter.

"No, but may not be as bad as we think," replied Gilbert. "Maybe they scratch out runes on floor of deck, but maybe they only block the runes with something. One way to find out: Ingebold, unroll hole!" Once the portable hole was once again in position on the inside wall of the keep, the hefty mage and Castillan walked into its extradimensional space, each taking a deep breath before doing so, for there was no air inside the unearthly space. Once they were both inside, Ingebold quickly rolled the hole back up and Hagan teleported the rest of the group to the top of the dragonfly vessel.

That approach worked like normal. The dwarven cleric unrolled the hole on the deck floor, allowing Gilbert and Castillan to climb out. But approaching from the rear of the vessel was an enormous winged creature, built like a horned ogre. "She was right!" the nycaloth grinned, flapping his wings to attack the nearest of the heroes. But the front line had enough warning for Finoula to strike out with her flaming whip of thorns and Binkadink to stab at the approaching fiend with his magic glaive. The nycaloth had expected neither attack and roared in pain at the effrontery as much as the actual wounds sustained.

With a fiendish roar, the nycaloth tore into Binkadink with a set of wickedly-sharp claws. But as he did so, Castillan was ducking and weaving around the fiend, to backstab it with his magic short sword once in position. Black ichor - the fiend's blood - gushed from the area of its kidneys when he removed his blade from the wound. Finoula kept her whip flicking at the nycaloth, striking it repeatedly in the face with her barbed weapon, coming dangerously close to piercing an eye on multiple occasions. Finally, after having suffered the indignation of such attacks by mere mortals, the nycaloth suffered the further humiliation of being slain by a lowly magic missile spell cast by Hagan. Its body exploded into a puff of rancid gas upon its death.

The wounds Binkadink had sustained from the nycaloth's claws continued to bleed. Ingebold stopped the blood loss with the application of a healing spell.

"Just where exactly are we?" asked Darrien, looking about him. The dragonfly vessel was not in flight; rather, it had been parked on a flat landing area jutting out from the top of a mountain. There was a single-story castle keep just ahead, flanked at each corner with a three-story, rounded tower. Between the landing area and the castle keep was a wide platform, on the left of which were wooden stables that looked to have seen their best days some decades ago. The landing area and the stables were all bounded by stone walls with crenelations at the top.

However, it was the sky that had been puzzling the young half-elf ranger. While he could see the blue morning skies all around him, he could also see a series of transparent outlines of continuing mountainscapes. "Hallucinatory terrain," explained Gilbert. "From outside, this whole place look just like more mountains. Nobody be able to tell this place even here unless they already know about it."

"I'll go check downstairs," offered Darrien, feeling bad that the fight with the nycaloth had been over before he could even fire a shot. Sure enough, the bedroom with the teleport runes carved into the floor - the ones linked to the teleport carpet - had been rendered unusable by the simple measure of moving the bed from the grooves in the floor that prevented it from moving around while the ship was in flight, and moving it directly over the carved runes in the floor. He moved the bed back into position, stepped onto the runes, and said the command word that sent him back to the teleport carpet back at Battershield Keep, kept unrolled for that very purpose.

"Is everything okay?" asked Jinkadoodle, who had stayed behind until the group came to fetch him to pilot the dragonfly ship once it was safe to do so.

"Looks so," confirmed Darrien. "Let's go." Standing on the carpet, the two teleported back to the dragonfly vessel. Finoula was down there, checking on the animals they had left in place in the lower level of the ship. They were unharmed, other than not having been fed since the previous day. Finoula brought them food from the banquet area, knowing that this was normally one of Aithanar's chores. She hoped he was still okay.

Back up on top of the ship, Castillan was the first to climb down. "Let's go check out that keep," he suggested - but as soon as his foot touched the natural stone floor of the landing area, a rumble presaged the arrival of an enormous earth elemental, whose exceptional size and bulk gave him the standard nomenclature of "earth titan." The creature rose to its full height - some 32 feet tall - and looked down expectantly at the bounder. "Um...hello?" greeted Castillan.

It obviously wasn't the response the earth titan had been expecting, for it raised a boulderlike fist and smashed it down at the elf. Castillan managed to roll with the blow, but there was no ignoring the power behind it.

Hagan responded with his favorite attack spell, chain lightning, even though there was but the sole enemy to fight and thus nobody else for the spell to "arc out" to. Still, judging from the way solid chunks of stone fell from the earth titan's chest as a result of the electrical blast, it seemed the spell choice had been a good one. In fact, seeing how the blast of lightning had harmed the elemental, Finoula opted to follow Hagan's blast with one of her own: touching her amulet, she transformed her body into an arc of lightning that blasted through the earth titan and then she reformed into her elven body at the end of the lightning bolt's arc, on the side of the southwestern tower's curved wall (where she hung like a spider, courtesy of her magical boots).

Darrien started peppering the earth titan with arrows, hoping they were doing some damage - it was hard to tell against a creature that didn't actually bleed. Behind the archer, Gilbert activated his twin jade foo lions, Hachi and Tsumezhao, and sent them charging at their elemental foe. Ingebold cast a spiritual weapon spell, the force energy taking the form of a dwarven warhammer which went slamming into the earth titan's chest with a reverberating blow. Finally, Binkadink went charging into the air off the side of the dragonfly vessel, stabbing at the elemental with the point of his magical glaive, "riding" his weapon down the elemental's body as the glaive's blade scraped down and through its earth-and-stone torso.

In retaliation, the earth titan swung its massive fists at two of its numerous enemies, one slamming hard into Hachi and the other grazing the little gnome. Seeing how much damage this massive brute could deal, Castillan decided he definitely didn't want to be on the receiving end of its fists any more and activated his ring. The subsequent dimension door spell whisked him away to immediately in front of the closed doors to the castle keep. From this close, he could see the words "SANCTUM AETERNUM" etched above the doors.

The earth titan took another round of attacks from multiple sources: Binkadink's glaive, the teeth and claws of the twin foo lions, Darrien's arrows - but once again it was a magic missile spell from Hagan that brought the enemy down. "The trick is knowing just when to use it," the half-orc replied to an obviously-astonished Darrien.

The rest of the group departed from the dragonfly vessel and waved Jinkadoodle away. The gnome pilot brought the ship up into the air and through the hallucinatory terrain spell to go find a safe place to park it on the mountaintops until the group teleported back onto the vessel - hopefully with a rescued Aithanar and as many of Lord Cavelthorne's troops as they could rescue from the blood puddings. Wishing them well, Jinkadoodle waved back at them through the porthole and then devoted his attention to finding a safe place to park the ship.

Castillan had checked the entry doors to the castle for traps and found none. But now he heard a noise behind him; turning around, he saw the head of a stag poke out of the stable doors - or rather the open doorway, for the doors to that entrance had apparently collapsed to the stone floor some time ago. The creature emerged fully from the partially-ruined building, revealing the rest of its body to be that of an enormous eagle, complete with wings. Finoula stepped down from her perch on the tower and crossed the sagging wooden rooftop, flicking her flaming whip of thorns at the peryton as it rushed towards the castle to get at Castillan. But before it could reach its prey, Darrien brought it down with a flurry of arrows fired from his Arachnibow.

Unfortunately, three more perytons were visible through the stable doorway, aroused by the sounds of combat outside. Hachi was there to bite at the first one, blocking the doorway with his own golden-furred body. Binkadink ran past the foo lion, opening a more intact set of doors just beyond. This allowed him to approach another peryton from behind, slaying it with one thrust of his glaive.

But another of the eagle-stags attacked Hachi with its antlers and claws, slaying the loyal beast. Upon its "death," Hachi simply reverted to statuette form, a figurine of wondrous power once again. But Tsumezhao was there to take the place of its fallen brother, blocking the doorway and preventing the two remaining perytons from exiting that way out into the open.

Hagan, seeing an opening, cast a scorching ray at one of the two remaining perytons, slaying it instantly. The rooftop, weakened by Finoula's weight, gave through, and the ranger fell to the stable's floor below. She managed to not only keep her balance but strike out with her flaming whip of thorns, putting an end to the final peryton's life.

With that threat defeated, the rest of the group lined up behind Castillan as he picked the locks to the castle. Unbeknownst to any of the group, when the ranger had first stepped foot onto the landing area and failed to say the pass-phrase, he not only caused the earth titan guardian to check out the disturbance but also triggered a silent alarm spell that warned the four blood pudding spellcasters currently inhabiting four of Lord Cavelthorne's adventurers of intruders in the area. That gave them more than ample time for some "imminent combat" preparatory spell of their own.

Outside the doors, Gilbert cast a mage armor spell upon himself and Mudpie, the last of his own "imminent combat" spells.

"Got it!" whispered Castillan, successfully picking the lock and ready to open the doors. That was the signal he had arranged with Ingebold; upon cue, she cast a silence spell on Binkadink, who was sitting astride Darrien's activated ebony fly. The plan was for Binkadink to ride the fly into the room and get as close to as many of Lord Cavelthorne's adventurers as he could, hoping to prevent them from casting any spells requiring verbal components in the area of effect emanating around him.

But many plans fall apart once implemented on the battlefield. Castillan pushed open the doors and saw the room before him was shaped somewhat like an hourglass, with two areas at the sides pushing into what would otherwise be a rectangular room with the door to a round tower at each corner. In the center of the room, the part where it was the narrowest, an open fire pit lay exposed, its fires died down to mere embers. But the room was well-lit with everburning torches in sconces around the room, enough that the bounder could see no obvious enemies and thus move across to the nearest door, the one to the southeastern tower.

As planned, Binkadink rode the ebony fly straight through the room, looking for spellcasting enemies to thwart with his magical silence. There was a statue directly ahead of him along the back wall, that of an enormous, emaciated hand gripping a giant tiger's eye gem in its withered palm. But before the gnome could wonder where he'd seen such an image before, the embers directly below him whooshed up into a full-blown fire elemental, which at nine feet tall was nearly half the height of the ceiling. The flames from the elemental's body scorched the bottom of the ebony fly; Binkadink could feel the heat through the bottoms of his own boots.

But then the gnome had much more to worry about than scorched feet, for four of Lord Cavelthorne's adventurers popped out from hiding along the back diagonal walls. Caliandra cast a spell of some sort before the radius of the silence spell reached her; Binkadink wasn't sure what spell it might have been until he noticed his skin and armor turning to stone. His own cries of astonishment were absorbed by the silence[/i] spell, and in the wink of an eye the ebony fly carried on its back not a gnome fighter but a very detailed stone statue of one.

At the same time, Jorg Battleborn, normally a heavily-armored half-orc fighter but now wearing street clothes and casting spells like he was born to do so, cast a spell across the room at Castillan, attempting to deprive the bounder of his vision. Fortunately, Castillan was able to shrug off the effects of the blindness spell.

Thomas the Seeker, normally a human monk with no spellcasting power, now stepped into view and tried casting a spell at the back of the room at Finoula; however, he was unlucky enough to have stepped into the radius of the silence spell that seemed to work just as well when centered upon a petrified gnome as on a living one. However, Vance Pelorian stepped just behind Thomas and was thus just outside the invisible boundary of Ingebold's silence spell; furthermore, his feeblemind spell was effective against its intended target, and Finoula suddenly felt all coherent thoughts slip away. Faced with the confusion of battle erupting all around her and not knowing what to do, she backed up against the wall of the stables just outside the double doors and plopped down to the floor, crying in place.

In the first opening seconds of battle, the blood puddings had managed to neutralize two of the intruders - and do so in ways that potentially saved the victims as potential future "mounts," not that the gnome was big enough for such use.

However, the ebony fly was now a loose cannon. No longer being guided by its rider and being attacked by a fire elemental from below - whose opening strike had been a signal for the others to attack - the giant insect changed directions at once and landed on the floor at the back of the room. Binkadink was safely strapped in so he had only a minimal risk of tipping over and shattering, but in the meantime the effects of the silence spell were dependent upon the whims of a giant fly looking after its own safety.

Caliandra cast a greater invisibility spell upon herself and vanished from view. She immediately moved away from where she'd been standing, lest anybody target that spot with an area-of-effect spell.

Kizzie Birdsong hadn't had an attack readied, nor was she linked in with the others on their own Rary's telepathic bond spell. But she had been charmed by the blood pudding wearing Jorg's body into believing the intruders were enemies wearing the forms of their friends to try to trick them. She dashed across the room from her hiding spot to behind the giant carving of the hand holding an eye.

Hagan stepped into the castle's large, open room and cast a chain lightning spell on the fire elemental, arcing off to hit the other four enemy spellcasters controlling the bodies of their adventuring compatriots. The spell had its full effect on the main target, but all of the spellcasters had shielded themselves with protection from energy and resist energy spells, many of them focused on warding away electrical damage. (Others had focused their efforts on fire and cold damage, since none of the spellcasters knew exactly what they could expect.)

Ingebold repositioned her spiritual hammer to attack Thomas, then rushed to her Battle-Sister's side to cast a heal spell that restored her to her full intellect. But Thomas lashed out with a blindness spell at the elven ranger, hoping to take her right back out of the fight. Fortunately, Finoula managed to shrug off the spell's effects. But now she was angry and ready to take her aggression out on these infernal blood puddings, no matter whose bodies they currently wore!

Jorg cast an enervation spell on Castillan, draining the bounder of several stages of vitality. But immediately thereafter, Gilbert Fung cast a spell that had the biggest effect on the tide of battle yet: an Evard's black tentacles spell, which caused writhing, ebon appendages to spring up from the back of the room, engulfing Jorg, Vance, the fire elemental, and even little Kizzie hiding behind the statue of the unholy symbol of Vecna. Thomas managed to evade the tentacles' grasp, and it was assumed that Caliandra hadn't been in the area of effect - which covered the back half of the room save for an area of safety just outside each of the tower doors at the northern end of the greatroom.

Vance struggled in vain to free himself from the tentacles' iron embrace, to no effect. Darrien took potshots at Jorg with arrows from his Arachnibow, not having to worry about shooting into combat for once. All the while, the ebony fly wandered over to the castle's front doors - accidentally catching the heroes in the front half of the room in the radius of the silence spell.

The fire elemental was the first to escape from the black tentacles - and, as it was on the front edge of the spell's effect, it was able to leave the area of effect entirely and attack Gilbert Fung. But Tsumezhao was there to protect his master, and bit at the flaming foe. His teeth clamped down on the burning enemy, and although this attack caused the foo lion to erupt into flames himself it didn't let up from its attack. Even while realizing this was just a figurine of wondrous power acting on his own instructions, Gilbert couldn't help but be touched by the creature's unwavering loyalty to his master.

Castillan spotted Vance struggling with the black tentacles and used his ring to dimension door directly behind the cleric of Pelor. He ended up within the area of effect of the Evard's black tentacles spell himself, but as he was still under the protection of a freedom of movement spell, the writhing appendages couldn't get a grip on him.

Finoula activated her amulet of lightning for a second time that day and blasted through Jorg's body as he struggled to free himself. She reformed into her elf body by the door to the northwestern tower, in one of the pockets of safety from the black tentacles. She heard the distinctive sounds of spellcasting but wasn't able to discern the exact location or what specific spell was being cast. (It was the still-invisible Caliandra attempting to dispel the effects of the Evard's black tentacles spell and failing.) Behind the statue, Kizzie tried freeing herself from the tentacles but the halfling bard was constrained by her small size and relative lack of strength.

But then the statue came to life, triggered by a vocal command from Vance, who had the presence of mind to do so while feebly struggling to free himself from the dreaded tentacles. From the Eye of Vecna depicted in the statue came a blast of magical energy, hitting Hagan full in the chest. Fortunately for the half-orc, the effect was random and this time happened to mirror a poison spell, to which the sorcerer was currently immune, thanks to the heroes' feast he'd eaten that morning.

Retaliating in kind, Hagan raised his staff of fire and sent a fireball spell into the back of the room by Finoula, confident that the protection from energy spell he'd cast upon her that morning would keep her safe. The fireball did not, in fact, singe a single, silver hair on the elven ranger's head, but Kizzie, Jorg, and the invisible Caliandra were not so lucky. Again, some had been partially protected from fire damage before the battle had begun, but not all of them.

Thomas cast a levitate spell upon himself to keep out of range of the grasping tentacles before they could entangle him. Ingebold's spiritual hammer followed the monk to the ceiling, hammering away at him even while the dwarven cleric shot at Vance with her light crossbow. Below the levitating monk, who flipped himself up and over so his feet were now on the ceiling, Jorg managed to wrest himself free from the tentacles' embrace and step back to the zone of safety just outside the northwestern tower door. He cast a feeblemind spell at Castillan, who managed to avoid the spell's effects.

Under no control but its own, the ebony fly wandered out the front doors, taking the petrified Binkadink - and the silence spell - with it.

Gilbert cast a Bigby's forceful hand spell to keep the fire elemental at bay - for by now the creature had slain Tsumezhao as well, reverting him back to statuette form.

Inside the field of waving, ebon tentacles, Vance continued to try to free himself, to no avail. Worse yet, Castillan was in place to backstab himwith a quick thrust of his magic short sword. The enchanted blade did its job all too well, slaying the cleric of Pelor instantly. His lifeless body stopped struggling, allowing the tentacles to wrap around him fully. From the other side of the tentacle mass, Darrien shot arrows at Jorg. Finoula used her magic amulet for the third and final time that day, blasting though Thomas as a bolt of lightning, landing beside him on the ceiling and hanging there upside-down with her boots of spider climbing.

Unnoticed by the rest, the door to the northwestern tower opened and closed, as Caliandra, trapped by the tentacle mass in her way, entered the tower to fetch an ally.

Hagan cast another fireball spell from his staff, engulfing Kizzie and Jorg in flames.

Up on the ceiling, Thomas started running. Hanging upside-down beside him, Finoula struck out with her flaming whip of thorns. Her whip struck true, but failed to trip the fleeing monk. Instead he spun around and from his ceiling perch cast a chain lightning spell of his own, targeting Gilbert as the primary and arcing out to hit Hagan, Ingebold, and Darrien as secondary targets.

Incensed by the attack, Ingebold responded with a holy word spell. The effects were instantaneous and quite impressive: Thomas, Jorg, and even Caliandra another room away were all deafened; Thomas and Jorg were both blinded as well, and not only did the fire elemental vanish, banished immediately to its home plane, but so did the water elemental Caliandra had just brought from the laundry area to go attack the intruders.

From the exterior of the tentacle mass, a blind Jorg ran willingly into the writhing appendages, vainly attempting to grab hold of Ingebold, who he knew had been standing just on the other side of the spells' effect. He didn't quite reach her, but was instead engulfed by ebon tentacles wrapping themselves around his body. But that was no matter; since this body had been effectively rendered useless, the blood pudding inside Jorg's body - once a human wizard named Jarbanian - oozed its way from the half-orc's nose, mouth, eyes, and pores, sliding around the writhing tentacles that couldn't manage to get a grasp on the creature's liquid body, and over to Ingebold.

Over at the other end of the tentacle mass, the blood pudding who had once been a human cleric of Vecna named Shanzibar had come to a similar conclusion: its host body had been slain by Castillan, so he would make a more-than-suitable replacement. It oozed out of the body of the slain cleric of Pelor and onto the bounder.

Castillan panicked at the sight of the blood pudding crawling up his body. At his fastest speed, he ran through the field of black tentacles, crying out "Get it off! Get it off!" for as long as he could before the blood pudding filled his mouth and he could no longer scream. Gilbert's enhanced eyes saw the blood pudding covering Castillan was giving off that particular glow that identified it as an undead creature. "It undead!" he cried, and Ingebold spun around, turning the two loose blood puddings - for the one on Castillan had not yet fully entered the bounder's body - with the power of Moradin emanating from her raised holy symbol.

The effects were immediate. Both blood puddings began fleeing, the one on Castillan dripping down his body and squeezing underneath the door to the southeastern tower, while the one from Jorg's body following not far behind.

Gilbert cast a haste spell upon the assembled heroes, thinking the combat advantages the spell provided would likely give them the edge they'd need to finish this battle and come out on top. Darrien shot a barrage of arrows at Thomas; the monk contemptuously slapped the first one away but was hit by the others.

Up on the ceiling, Finoula stabbed at Thomas with her longsword Tahlmalaera. The monk was slain instantly, the levitate spell no longer in effect now that he could no longer concentrate upon it. He crashed to the ground, and not surprisingly, the blood spilling out of his facial orifices and pores coalesced into an unharmed blood pudding, this one a former human necromancer named Gornak.

That left Jorg and Caliandra to deal with - plus Kizzie, but she had merely been charmed, not taken over. The Vecna hand-and-eye statue blasted at Finoula, affecting her with an inflict serious wounds spell. Now that the fire elemental was no more, Gilbert redirected his Bigby's forceful hand spell to block the statue; from the side, it looked as if two giant hands were playing patty cake.

Hagan cast a wall of fire spell from his staff, sending it diagonally through the field of tentacles, to fry Jorg - for in the heat of battle, the half-orc sorcerer had failed to notice that Jorg's blood pudding host had already abandoned him and was indeed the second blood pudding to head over to the door that had been Castillan's initial destination upon entering the Sanctum Aeternum.

The blood pudding Gornak, however, oozed its way over to Gilbert Fung. The heavyset mage responded by casting a polymorph spell upon himself, reducing himself to halfling size and shape - now too small to be inhabited by a blood pudding! In frustration, Gornak climbed onto Castillan instead. The bounder responded by trying to scrape the undead mass off his body with his own blade. Meanwhile, Finoula had been chasing after the blood pudding Jarbanian, striking it again and again with her whip, finally slaying it.

Halfling-sized Gilbert cast a wall of force spell that blocked off access to the northwestern tower, where he was fairly certain the blood pudding running Caliandra's body was currently located. Ingebold turned the Gornak blood pudding, and once again Castillan felt the relief of having a blood pudding ooze its way off of his body. Hagan cast a fireball spell at Gornak, only to learn that these undead things had an innate spell resistance that he had failed to surpass this time. Gornak successfully oozed beneath the door to the southeastern tower, following the blood-trail left by Shanzibar.

Darrien guzzled down a potion of spider climb, thinking the ceiling might be the safest place to avoid having a blood pudding ooze its way inside of you. Halfling Gilbert cast a fire shield spell upon himself, then he and Mudpie went into the southeastern tower, finding a library on the bottom floor and a set of stairs leading up to the floors above. The Shanzibar and Gornak puddings were oozing up the stairs, so Gilbert burn-wrestled one of them to death while Mudpie learned of the laborious tediousness of pounding the other ooze to death.

With all but Caliandra taken care of - for Kizzie had been strangled by the black tentacles before having her body burned by the wall of fire - the group split up to search the three towers not sealed off by the wall of force. Gilbert, still in halfling form, went to cast a break enchantment spell on poor petrified Binkadink; ten minutes later, the gnome fighter had been restored to life and bummed that he'd missed out on most of the action.

Finoula found Aithanar shackled to the wall of the top floor of the southwestern tower; both rejoiced upon seeing the other before Finoula ran back downstairs to fetch Castillan, who soon managed to free his brother with his masterwork lockpicks. Each tower held the bedrooms of a master and an apprentice, although one such pair apparently shared a room, directly beneath the cell in which Aithanar had been found. But that accounted for all eight of the blood puddings: the four master spellcasters that had overtaken Lord Cavelthorne's troops and the four apprentices the Kordovians had slain back in the Dungeon of Eternity.

After the three towers had been searched thoroughly, the group reassembled by the northwestern tower door. The Evard's black tentacles and wall of fire spells had been dismissed; now halfling-Gilbert dismissed the wall of force spell as well. "Be careful," the half-pint wizard warned the rest of the group.

"And remember that's Caliandra whose body's being used," reminded Darrien. He kind of had a thing for the human sorcerer and didn't want to see her dealt any damage if at all possible.

Castillan led the search. He opened the door on the second floor, expecting it to be locked and surprised to see it wasn't. He was further surprised to see their target, Caliandra, lying on an elaborate bed, apparently passed out - if the fancy (and empty) bottle of vintage elven wine was any indication. "That's odd," commented the bounder - just as the blood pudding, a former human wizard named Madame Valtrusia, dropped from the wall above him directly onto his head. Immediately, the undead thing began seeping into his nostrils, into his eyelids, into his ears, and down his throat; all Castillan could do was give a garbled cry of alarm to let the others behind him know he was in danger of being taken over.

There followed a mad scramble to get the blood pudding off of him before it could fully enter the bounder and be impossible to reach. Darrien, standing immediately behind Castillan, grabbed him by his belt and yanked him down the stairs, hoping one of the spellcasters below could do something for the bounder. Thinking quickly, Gilbert cast a flesh to stone spell on Castillan as soon as his tumble down the stairs came to an end; Madame Valtrusia had no way to take over a petrified statue, so she was forced to reverse course and start oozing back out of the bounder's now-stone orifices.

The blood pudding found itself surrounded by heroes madly trying to kill it. Binkadink stabbed at it with his magical glaive while Finoula whipped it time and again, the fire of her flaming whip dealing more damage to the undead ooze than the thorns. Ingebold, using the logic of fighting undead creatures, cast a healing spell on the blood pudding that caused parts of its body to boil away into nothingness as if the spell had had an acidic effect. But once again it was a magic missile spell cast by Hagan that dealt the killing blow. "You just need to know when to cast the low-level spells," the half-orc sorcerer reiterated.

A more thorough search through the rooms - this time for valuables more so than opponents - led to the discovery of quite a treasure hoard in a storage room. There were eight barrels, each marked "GRIFFON FEED" (likely explaining the original use of the ramshackle wooden stables outside) and each protected in a different manner (most with arcane lock, one with explosive runes, one with a symbol of fear, and one with a vial of drow contact poison that would spill all over the coins within if not properly disarmed). Castillan (once he'd been restored to flesh) had his hands full overcoming the various traps and protections, but it was well worth the effort, for there was an accumulated amount of wealth that went into the tens of thousands of gold coins in value.

"Dinnae be too greedy about th' loot," reminded Ingebold. "We'll be needin' some o' this coin to restore th' slain adventurers t' life." Gilbert originally objected to this plan, on the argument that it wasn't their fault that Lord Cavelthorne's adventurers had run afoul of blood puddings and thus shouldn't be their responsibility to revive them, but he was shouted down by the others. Begrudgingly, he agreed to restore them to life - but only via raise dead spells, which were cheaper to cast than full resurrections.

Thus, the bodies of the dead adventurers were piled into the portable hole, while a crispy-fried (but still living, for the half-orc was made of stern stuff!) Jorg and a drunk and unconscious Caliandra were helped back to the landing platform outside. Hagan teleported over to the dragonfly vessel, and with minutes Jinkadoodle brought the ship to a safe landing. Hagan dropped the rope ladder over the side and the others climbed up, Darrien making sure he was the one to carry an unconscious Caliandra over his shoulder as he did so.

"Lord Cavelthorne's never going to believe all this," muttered Jorg, pulling his armor back into place - for they had found all of the gear originally worn by the half-orc fighter and his comrades.

"What?" asked Castillan. "Being taken over by blood puddings?"

"Being taken over by blood puddings, being rescued by you guys, this flying vessel - all of it. It's all just so incredible!"

"We are incredible!" insisted Gilbert, now back to his full size. "What so hard to believe about that?"

- - -

Jacob didn't join us for this adventure, only the second one he'd missed - this time because he just got a new job in college and was likely to be busy for quite a few weekends in the near future; rather than hold up our adventure sessions indefinitely, he agreed to have his dad run Castillan for him. (We did something similar when Logan went to college in the middle of our Wing Three campaign.) Logan ran Ingebold, which turned out to be very good thing once Binkadink was taken out early on by a flesh to stone spell. (It's kind of ironic that the PC with the highest Fortitude save bonus of all the PCs is the one who habitually fails his Fortitude saves.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: One of my two Red Cross shirts (the white one - I also have a light blue one), to represent the blood puddings the PCs dealt with in this adventure.
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 47: TROLL HOLE

Game Session Date: 28 April 2018

- - -

"I need to see Cal!" decided King Galrich.

"Cal? Who's Cal, Your Majesty?" asked one of his clerks, who had been going over the schedule for the day with the half-orc king.

Aerik knew who Cal was. He stepped up to the king's side and reminded him, "We haven't adventured with Cal for over two decades, Me King."

"What?" demanded King Galrich. Then, as if shaking away an unwanted headache, he insisted, "We need to go see Cal, at once. We're off to the Temple of Kord!"

"But your day's schedule, Your Majesty!" insisted the harried clerk, chasing after the burly ruler as he stomped his way out of the palace meeting hall.

"Later!" hissed Aerik. "We'll be at th' Temple of Kord!" As they passed a castle page, Aerik commanded, "Fetch them what're waitin' fer th' meeting at eight bells -- have 'em meet us outside, at once!" The page saluted smartly and rushed off to do the bidding of the king's bodyguard. As King Galrich and Aerik started down the steps of the castle, they were met by a group of the king's adventurers.

"Ah, there you are, Feron," said King Galrich, smiling at the sight of Finoula. The elven ranger opened her mouth to correct the king, but shut it again at a stern look from Aerik. The others - the entirety of the adventuring team, save for Gilbert Fung and Aerik's own daughter Ingebold, who were both still preparing their spells for the day - fell into line. "Where are we going?" piped up Binkadink, extending his gnomish stilt-boots to keep pace with the king.

"Temple of Kord," replied Aerik tersely, and said no more.

The Temple of Kord was a fine building - not surprisingly, as it had once been the pre-eminent place of worship in all of Kordovia, given that the country was founded in the god's name. However, the attacks from orc and goblin forces that had begun two decades back and more had severely reduced the ranks of the clergymen; not surprisingly, the clerics of the God of Strength insisted on pitting their might on the front lines against the enemy, and casualties had been heavy. The current leader of the church was Father Bendrick, who welcomed a visit from the king even if he hadn't expected it.

"Your Majesty," greeted the elderly cleric. "To what does the church owe such a visit?"

"I need to talk to Cal," replied King Galrich, pushing past the cleric and entering the church. It was laid out like many such temples, with rows of pews for the parishioners facing the back of the open room, which held a pulpit for the head cleric; this one had an enormous stone statue of Kord standing in an alcove behind the pulpit.

"Cal?" asked Father Bendrick, confused, as he followed the group into his church. King Galrich stood in the center of the room, looking all about him: at the stained glass windows depicting stories of Kord's might; at the empty pews; at the statue of the God of Might, his muscles seeming to bulge even when carved from stone. The others held back, giving the king his space.

"How long has he been like this?" whispered Finoula to Aerik. "He mistook me for my little sister."

"A few days now," admitted Aerik in a low voice. "It comes and goes. He gets confused, then snaps out of it like nothin' 'appened."

"There you are!" said King Galrich, but when the others looked to see who he was addressing, there was nobody there.

"And sometimes, 'e talks to folks what aren't there."

"What do you think I should do?" asked the king to the open air. Moments passed in silence, with King Galrich giving every impression he was listening intently to an unspoken answer. Then he replied, "I'll get my guys on it at once." He shook his head again as if coming out of a trance, then turned and walked back to the double doors at the front of the temple. "We're done here," he announced. Turning to Finoula, he said, "Gather up the rest of your troops. I have a mission for you."

"Y-yes, Your Majesty," acknowledged Finoula as King Galrich and his dwarven bodyguard stomped back to the castle.

Half an hour later, the assembled group - including Ingebold and Gilbert, who had been quickly brought up to speed about the morning's events - sat around the table in the briefing hall they had originally been scheduled to meet with the king to give him a status report of their recent adventures. All of that had been put by the wayside, however, as King Galrich was more interested in giving them their current assignment. He began by plopping a large sack of coins, taken directly from the king's treasury, onto the table. That got Castillan's attention at once.

"There's a half-orc merchant named Grommurk," King Galrich informed the team. "He peddles his wares from a mule cart, generally making the rounds between Baranford, Garonis, Kisail, Littleberg, Pantarn, and Fountainspring. I want you to find him. He wears a silver circlet on his brow – I want you to purchase one just like it and return it to me."

There was silence around the table. Gilbert finally broke it by asking, "That it? That our mission?"

"That's it," agreed King Galrich. "That's your mission. You are dismissed." Then he abruptly stood up - the others rising hurriedly as he stood - and exited the room, Aerik in tow.

"This not a mission," complained Gilbert. "This a shopping trip."

"Nonetheless," Ingebold began, "He is our king, and--"

"Yes-yes-yes," Gilbert interrupted, waving his hand as if shooing away a bothersome fly. "Still a stupid mission."

"How should we go about finding this Grommurk?" asked Darrien. Gilbert rubbed his beard as he gave it some thought.

"He visit same six cities, over and over," the portly mage observed. "Baranford the closest. We start there, see if anybody seen him lately."

"A half-orc merchant wearing a silver circlet who drives a mule cart would rather stand out," pointed out Finoula. "Anybody who'd seen him would likely remember having seen him."

"Let's go, then!" enthused Castillan, grabbing up the sack of gold coins.

The group opted to travel in the dragonfly vessel; it was much faster than their Vistani wagon, even if it was much more conspicuous. Rather than make a scene by landing their flying ship in the middle of town, they had Jinkadoodle drop down just outside of Baranford. The group disembarked from the ship from there, Ingebold taking their rolled-up carpet of teleportation with them, stowed inside the portable hole she carried. That way, all but one of them could return to the ship when they were finished, while the one left behind walked with the carpet back to a rendezvous point to be picked up.

Once entering the town by foot, the team split up. Some hit the taverns while others found their way directly to the marketplace, but each questioned the locals as to whether they'd seen Grommurk recently, and if so, when. The general consensus was that Grommurk had been in town about a month ago and would likely be back in another month. "That mean he halfway through his cycle," observed Gilbert. "We skip Garonis and Kisail, go straight to Littleberg."

At Littleberg, Castillan met a man who had ordered something from Grommurk for his wife and was expecting him any day now. "He shoulda been here a week ago," the man complained.

"Then he either in Kisail or traveling this way," Gilbert decided. Rather than wait, the group flew to Kisail. After confirming there that the half-orc merchant had already departed Kisail, the group decided they'd do best by following his trail on land rather than by flying over the main road between Kisail and Littleberg with the dragonfly ship. Not only was it much less conspicuous, but they'd likely see things on the ground that they wouldn't be able to from the air. So after using the carpet of teleportation to pop up to the dragonfly ship and tell Jinkadoodle of their plans, Binkadink returned to the group, bringing with him (in several trips) his jackalope Obvious, Finoula's timber wolf Wrath, and Darrien's pet dire bear cub Grumps Junior. Then they all went to rent horses for their trip while Jinkadoodle flew the ship back to its "parking garage" in the clouds.

The gnome fighter opted not to rent a horse - he had his jackalope mount and was much more comfortable with Obvious than he would be on even the smallest of ponies. Ingebold opted for a pony, as did Castillan, while the others rented full-size horses.

"You might want to see about a draft horse," piped up Binkadink, smirking at Gilbert Fung.

"You shut stupid gnome mouth," Gilbert retorted. But once everyone was suitably mounted, they took off on the road to Littleberg.

"I kind of miss the Vistani wagon," observed Castillan, who often rode on top of the roof as a lookout. "It's a shame there no good way to transport it on the dragonfly ship."

"Not me," replied Finoula. "This is much better, being out on the trail on horseback." She missed her own mount, Daisy, but the pony was back at the stables at Battershield Keep. Wrath trotted along at her heels, making Finoula's mount a bit skittish - these rented horses weren't used to having bears and wolves travel alongside them. But the team made good time on the road.

About three hours later, the group spotted a commotion up ahead, off to the side of the road where it butted up against the Dapple Wood, a forest of thick trees. A small group of people were gathered together beneath the branches, fighting over an overturned cart. Finoula quickly cast a longstrider spell upon herself and jumped off her pony, not wanting to ride the rented mount into a potential battle - and with her spell active, she lost no speed in the process. She pulled out her longsword Tahlmalaera with her right hand and uncurled her whip of thorns with her left. "What seems to be the problem?" she asked as she approached the group.

At her words, several people dashed off in different directions, eager to flee the scene. Three rogues dressed in leather armor stood their ground, however. "We was here first, and we claim alla these goods fer ourselves!" their leader said. "Now scram!"

Castillan leaped off of his pony and raced up to the group, shooting the leader with his light crossbow once within range. That served as official notice what the bounder thought of the bandit's proclamation.

Darrien had followed the others' lead in not taking a rented horse - likely unused to combat - into a fight with bandits. So he activated his ebony fly and took to the air, leaving his terrestrial mount behind. Maneuvering the fly with his knees, he notched an arrow into his Arachnibow and let fly. His first arrow finished off the bandit leader, while his next two slew the next bandit in line.

Hagan was the next to react. As a spellcaster, he opted to remain on his rented horse - it wasn't like he was planning on riding it into battle. Instead, realizing the usefulness of having a survivor to question, he cast one of his few nonlethal spells at the remaining bandit, hoping to deprive him of his sight and make him that much less of a dangerous combat opponent. Unfortunately, the bandit managed to shrug off the spell's intended effects.

However, Finoula managed to do with her sword what the half-orc sorcerer had failed to do with his spell - take the remaining bandit out of the fight. Racing up to the remaining bandit with spell-enhanced speed, she had the point of Tahlmalaera at the man's throat before he could react. "Do you wish to join the others in death?" she asked.

It turns out he didn't. "I surrender!" he cried, dropping his weapons: a light crossbow and a short sword. "The dagger as well," Finoula prompted, spotting the extra weapon on the bandit's belt. Without hesitation, the bandit added the dagger to the pile of other weapons at his feet.

"We found the wagon like this, I swear!" the bandit exclaimed, sweat rolling down his face. While Finoula had the man lie face-first on the grass at sword-point, the others explored the area and confirmed his tale. There were drag-marks at the road indicating the mule cart had been pulled to its present location. The leather straps that had once affixed the mule to the wagon were cut, by something less sharp than a steel blade; it looked to have been the work of claws. And, most telling of all, the mud on the wheels of the cart was thoroughly dried. "It's been here two days, at least," determined Darrien.

Finoula allowed the bandit to regain his footing. "We're keeping your weapons," she advised him. "Now get out of here." The bandit made no argument, racing away from the group, headed to Kisail. He didn't even make any attempt to gather up any of his partners' belongings, which Gilbert was gathering and doing a quick mental calculation of their likely worth. "These short swords look like maybe masterwork quality," he observed.

Castillan had been exploring further into the Dapple Wood - admittedly, at first merely to gather up the odd bits of silver merchandise that had been scattered among the area. But he called the others to him. "Look at this!" he said, pointing down to a huge footprint in a dried patch of dirt. Darrien and Finoula, the rangers, exchanged knowing looks with each other. "Troll," they said in unison.

Castillan held a silver ring up for examination. It bore a stylized "G" on its face - a symbol which matched a painting on the side of the mule cart. "I think they got our Grommurk," he said.

"The trail leads this way," remarked Darrien, looking at drag-marks on the ground where something heavy - likely the mule - had been pulled along. Dried bloodstains further marked the trail.

"What about the horses?" asked Finoula. "We probably shouldn't leave them here by the side of the road, where they can get stolen." Ingebold pulled out her portable hole and retrieved the carpet of teleportation from within it. Binkadink took the time to take each of the horses, one at a time, aboard the dragonfly vessel. "We'll have to return them once we're finished up here," he said. "But Aithanar said they'll be no problem." Aithanar had quite a way with animals; Finoula found herself smiling at the thought of Castillan's younger brother.

The trail led deeper into the Dapple Wood, ending abruptly at a large hole, some 15 feet in diameter, nestled between two sturdy-looking trees. A hollow log partially covered the hole, serving as a potential barrier - although if it was meant to keep people out it wasn't very effective, as there was more than enough room for a person (even one of Gilbert's bulk) to slide in on either end of the hole.

"That where we going," observed Gilbert. "Ingebold! Open up hole again, it time to let Mudpie out." The dwarven cleric complied, and Gilbert's earth elemental familiar stepped out of the extradimensional plane on the other side of the portable hole. "Master," it greeted the heavyset wizard.

Gilbert began the casting of preparatory spells, starting with mage armor upon himself and his familiar. Hagan followed suit, casting the spell not only upon himself and his weasel familiar Wezhley, but also upon Obvious, Wrath, and Grumps. The rangers each cast a barkskin spell upon themselves, while Binkadink fed a potion of barkskin to Obvious, who by now had gotten used to the taste. Gilbert followed up with a Rary's telepathic bond spell that linked him and Mudpie in to Binkadink, Darrien, Finoula, and Hagan.

"I think we ready," he announced. "Mudpie: pull log out of way!" The earth elemental hurried to comply, as Binkadink called up to the trees in the language of burrowing mammals. "Squirrels!" he called. "Are there many trolls in here?"

There was a rustling of leaves overhead as a few squirrels got closer - but not too close, the gnome was quick to notice - to speak to the strange little man who spoke their language. "Trolls!" one replied. "Yes! Bad-bad-bad!"

"How many trolls?" Binkadink inquired. The squirrels gave this question some thought before replying, "Many!" The gnome shrugged, not expecting much more; squirrels were notoriously bad at numbers. Nonetheless, he thanked them for their help and wished them a good day.

Looking down the vertical shaft, Binkadink determined it was about 15 feet down or so. He summoned forth a set of dancing lights, sending them drifting slowly down the shaft to provide illumination below, then remounted Obvious as the others lined up to go in.

Hagan volunteered to go first. There were several roots sticking out from the side of the shaft which made for suitable hand-holds. Dropping to the packed earth of the floor, the sorcerer looked around - and locked his gaze with that of a troll, whose red eyes glinted in the illumination of the dancing lights from deeper within a side cave whose opening abutted with the main area directly below the entry shaft.

Hagan acted instinctively, dropping a wall of fire across the cave opening, sealing in the troll and sending blasts of flickering heat his way. Cheplik roared in pain from the flames, as Finoula dropped to the floor beside Hagan, having effortlessly traversed the shaft with her boots of spider climbing. She landed facing the other way, into another side cavern, and the sight she saw there made her blood run cold.

It was another troll, but that wasn't the problem, for the elven ranger had expected to see trolls living in this cavern complex. Rather, it was the troll's appearance, which was unlike anything in the ranger's experience. This troll had four arms, the second pair grafted into the sides of the body just below the normal pair. And jutting through the troll's torso and limbs, in a random-enough pattern to convince the elf that this wasn't a natural occurrence, were spikes the color of bone - in fact, they were actually shards of bone poking through the creature's warty, green-skinned flesh, judging by the shattered edges of several of the protuberances.

Enjoying the look of revulsion its appearance generated on the elf's face, Skrongo spread all four of its arms wide and grinned a horrible grin at Finoula. Then, in a blur of motion, it sprang at her, hooting in excitement. But Finoula had both of her weapons out and at the ready, and as the four-armed monstrosity approached her she flicked her flaming whip of thorns at it. Skrongo howled in pain as the flames burned into his flesh, but swung a pair of claws at Finoula, raking her across the shoulder. However, the ranger stepped into his embrace, leading with Tahlmalaera, which slid deep into Skrongo's belly. The troll slashed at her again, and Finoula ignored the pain of the thing's claws and protruding bone-spikes as she twisted the sword in its wound. Then, fearing to be caught up in a four-armed embrace, she kicked away from her opponent. Greenish blood dripped from a deep gash in Skrongo's stomach and he staggered as one hand clamped it shut to keep his intestines in place as his warty flesh began to regenerate the wound.

With a roar of anticipated pain, Cheplik raced through Hagan's wall of fire spell, burning his flesh but more importantly freeing himself from being burned alive in his own cave without the ability to fight back against his attackers. Claws raked across Hagan's chest, causing the sorcerer to fall back a step. But the troll was well within range of Darrien's Arachnibow as the half-elf ranger stood at the top of the pit. He rapidly shot arrow after arrow down at the troll, peppering him with feathered shafts.

With Cheplik thus occupied, Castillan scampered down the entry tunnel, bounding past Finoula and behind Skrongo, setting himself up for a sneak attack against the four-armed monstrosity. But the bounder had to put a stop to his own attack at the last moment, seeing that his intended stab from behind would impale his own hand on a bone-spike jutting out from the creature's back! Cursing his luck at the wasted opportunity, Castillan readied himself for another opening.

Without hesitation, Obvious jumped into the entry shaft, hitting one side of the tunnel wall and whipping his body around to bound off the other; he landed on all fours at the bottom of the shaft, and Binkadink, now used to such mid-air maneuvers, had the presence of mind to keep his glaive readied to strike. He thrust at Skrongo with every ounce of strength he possessed, and the blade nearly severed the four-armed troll's head from his neck, so deeply did it cut. As Skrongo fell backwards in death - and Castillan scampered back to prevent the troll from falling onto him - Binkadink wheeled his glaive around and thrust it at Cheplik, scoring a solid hit but failing to drop the second troll.

But no matter: Obvious finished the job with a goring from his antlers. The jackalope followed up by stomping on the falling troll's chest, helping to ensure it fell backwards directly into Hagan's wall of fire, where Cheplik's body quickly started burning, filling the area with the rancid stench of seared troll-flesh.

Ingebold climbed down into the troll hole, but at the moment there were no enemies within sight, so she stepped over by Finoula to ensure her Battle-Sister didn't need any healing. Finoula suggested they drag Skrongo's body into the wall of fire to ensure it didn't regenerate itself back to life, but Hagan responded by casting a second wall of fire directly through Skrongo's body. "Or we could just do that," Finoula remarked.

Gilbert entered the cave network in his own inimitable fashion, by sending Mudpie to earth glide through the side of the wall while holding his hands up to form platforms for Gilbert to stand upon; as the elemental lowered himself down the vertical shaft, he alternated his hands so that Gilbert "walked" down the tunnel without once taking an actual step. Once at floor level, he stepped off of his familiar's hands and cast a stoneskin spell on the two of them.

Eager to see what else this cavern complex had to offer, Finoula strode confidently down the tunnel into a larger chamber. Ten feet up along the wall to the right there were two narrow niches, each housing a juvenile troll. One of these, Spakko, backed into the farthest reaches of his nook, while the other came to the front of her own nook and pointed a stick at the intruding elf. "Sping!" she cried, and when that didn't work, she followed with "Burrak! Dormluk!" But despite her best efforts, Jorpa couldn't get the stick to shoot fire like she'd seen its previous owner make it do.

But Finoula ignored the troll children, her complete focus on the two adult trolls who had hopped down from another side cave about a dozen feet up from the floor of the central cavern, further down the right-hand side. They advanced menacingly, one of them licking her rubbery lips with a blackened tongue at the thought of elf-flesh for dinner. Together, they rushed at Finoula, attacking her from two adjacent directions. Finoula cracked her whip at Garpo, allowing her partner Tork to get in a good rake with his claws as the elf ranger devoted her attention to his mate.

But from behind her, Darrien shot a barrage of arrows at Tork, striking him repeatedly. The troll shrieked in pain and backed off, allowing Finoula to continue focusing on Garpo.

Castillan came up just behind Finoula, looking over to a cave on the left that Finoula hadn't been able to focus on due to the immediate attack from Tork and Garpo. Two more trolls advanced from this side cave, the pair covered in white runes all over their bodies. "Spellcasters!" Castillan cried, assuming the trolls to be the spell-adepts of the group, judging from their adornment. But the bounder decided to help Finoula with the pair she was up against, as there were other heroes coming from just behind to deal with the spellcaster trolls. Activating his ring, Castillan dimension doored directly behind Garpo, his blades out and ready to strike.

Obvious squeezed by the others in the narrow passageway, leaping forward once in the open, allowing Binkadink to skewer Garpo with his glaive. She fell to the cold stone floor, dead but her lethal wounds already stitching themselves back closed. Behind the mounted gnome, Ingebold stepped up and swung her warhammer at Tork, crushing a kneecap but taking a clawed strike in turn.

Gilbert decided to take on the "spellcaster" trolls, Jublin and Wessup. He cast a fireball spell that encompassed the two, causing them to howl in pain as their warty flesh sizzled. Behind him, Hagan cast another wall of fire that sealed up Jorpa and Spakko's nooks, trapping the juvenile trolls within.

Finoula used her longsword and her whip against Tork, hitting with both, but taking another claw strike in retaliation. Behind her and to the side, the juvenile trolls had both come to the same conclusion: staying in their sleeping nooks was a death sentence! Both rushed through the wall of fire, but only Spakko survived the experience; Jorpa's flaming body fell to the floor, the wooden stick falling from her grasp as she landed. Finding Obvious standing directly before him, Spakko directed all of his hate and fury against the jackalope, slashing out with claws that the antlered rabbit easily dodged.

Castillan pondered maneuvering to strike Tork from behind when the troll's whole body spasmed and shook, the result of Darrien's latest barrage of arrows striking him repeatedly. With Tork seemingly well in hand, the bounder opted to go deeper into the cavern complex to find some trolls he could fight by himself, without the others always getting in his way. Dipping through a narrow passageway, he saw a larger cavern with several side caves. From a side cave to the left emerged another pair of trolls, Squinch and Ratti, while from the one directly ahead stepped a massive troll sporting an oversized greatclub in each hand and an extra head on his shoulders. "Who dares enter Vessik-Durath's domain?" demanded the two-headed troll in the Giant language.

Castillan didn't understand the Giant language, but he didn't need to know the two-headed troll's words to realize this was a trio he didn't want to face by himself after all. Spinning on his heels, he scurried back the way he'd come, the three trolls fast behind him. Ahead, Jublin and Wessup had advanced further into the central cavern, but Binkadink had plucked a bead from his fireball necklace and hurled it at the pair, encompassing them in a blossom of flames once again. Tork had finally fallen to Darrien's arrows, and now Obvious was leaping up and down on the fallen troll's corpse, inflicting further damage so its eventual regeneration back to life would take that much longer.

Ingebold cast a flame strike spell on Jublin and Wessup; the third fire spell finally dropped the two - and before either had been able to cast a single spell themselves, the cleric mused. Seeing most of the group bunched up together, Gilbert cast a haste spell on the adventurers, catching all but Hagan in the spell's effect - the half-orc had stepped forward to fetch Jorpa's dropped stick, finding it to be a wand of fireball with "fuegar" carved clearly on the side; apparently Jorpa couldn't read! But with a free moment out of combat - for Vessik-Durath and the last pair of adult trolls were just now coming through the passageway in the back - Hagan directed a scorching ray into Tahlmalaera at Finoula's request, reattuning the variable energy blade from sonic to fire. Flames leaped from the enchanted blade, bringing a smile of anticipation upon the ranger's face. "Thanks!" she called to the half-orc sorcerer, advancing to meet the approaching troll forces.

Vessik-Durath exited the narrow corridor in a loping bound and came right up to Finoula, his twin greatclubs raised; behind him, Squinch and Ratti were about halfway through the sloping passageway connecting the two larger caverns. Before the half-fiend ettinblood troll could bring either weapon crashing down upon Finoula, Darrien sent a cluster of five arrows crashing into his chest, noting with pride that each had struck true but frowning upon noticing the wounds didn't frost up like they usually did since he'd had his Arachnibow enchanted to enhance his arrows with cold energy. But despite being able to ignore the arrows' lack of cold damage, Vessik-Durath wasn't able to ignore Castillan's sudden attack, for the bounder ducked underneath the troll's raised left arm and sent his blade deep into the creature's side, then used it as a handhold to help stab the creature in the back with his rapier with maximum force. Roaring in pain, the two-headed beast dropped both greatclubs and grabbed his side; Castillan only just managed to pull the weapons from the demon-troll's flesh and step back out of the way.

Vessik-Durath staggered in place, wheeling around to face the elf bounder. But then Binkadink was upon him, bringing his magic glaive in to slash across the troll leader's lumpy flesh. The troll dropped to one knee, tried steadying himself with a hand on the stone floor, and then Binkadink brought his blade crashing down on the back of one of the troll's twin skulls, dropping him in an instant. Ingebold brought her warhammer down on the other skull, crushing it to pulp. "Let's see ye heal that!" she cried.

Gilbert cast a fire shield spell upon himself and Mudpie, then sent his familiar to go trample the two-headed troll's body. Across the cavern, Obvious was still doing the same to Tork's corpse; the poor troll wouldn't be rising any time soon!

Finoula turned to face the last two adult trolls, her now-flaming sword in hand, matched by the flames erupting from her whip of thorns. A look of worry crossed the faces of the last troll pair, but then they steeled themselves against these intruders and forged ahead. Darrien sent a few arrows into Squinch's broad chest, and then Hagan called for the others to back away from the trolls. Intrigued, Binkadink did as the sorcerer requested, as did Ingebold; the cleric spent the time casting a healing spell upon her Battle-Sister, who of all the group had sustained the most damage from the trollish forces. Gilbert communicated with Hagan over the telepathic bond, and then the two spellcasters struck in unison.

Hagan cast yet another wall of fire sideways along the length of the narrow passageway, catching both trolls in the middle of the spell effect. They roared in unison as their greenish flesh erupted in flames; with growls of determination they raced through the length of the wall of fire, eager to get past its effects - only to come crashing into the invisible wall of force Gilbert had planted right at the end of Hagan's flaming wall. Unable to escape from the wall of fire, Squinch and Ratti cried out in pain as the flames took them. Only after their corpses were charred to a crisp did the spellcasters dismiss their respective wall spells.

The trolls seemingly defeated - and after Tork and Vessik-Durath's bodies were dragged into the wall of fire that had taken out Jorpa and Spakko - the group split up to give the caves they'd passed a quick look. Ingebold found a sack of 250 pieces of gold in Cheplik's quarters, along with several skulls hung on the walls of the cave mounted with metal pitons. There was also a wineskin made from a cow's stomach and a 50-foot length of silk rope. In Skrongo's cave, mixed in with a nest of leaves, Finoula found the poorly-stitched hide of a stuffed dire boar, likely a combination pillow and stuffed animal, mixed in with the scattered bones of recent meals (including what she suspected were the bones of Grommurk's mule). Castillan found a bag of crystal marbles in a small blue sack in the cave shared by Tork and Garpo, while Binkadink unearthed a near-empty can of white paint in Jublin and Wessup's cave, the source of the nonmagical (and quite useless) "protective runes" Wessup had painted on the pair.

Moving farther into the sections of the cave complex they hadn't yet explored, Gilbert and Mudpie found a deep pit of unknown purpose; it was a "punishment pit" where disobedient trolls were tossed in - often without their limbs, which would eventually grow back - until they had learned the errors of their ways. Darrien discovered that Squinch and Ratti's cave contained a wide variety of fungus along the back section, combination bedding and food source. While Hagan explored the large cave Vessik-Durath had used for his own personal quarters, he found nothing more than simple bedding. By then, though, Castillan had caught up to the sorcerer and explored one of the two openings from the leader's den to a higher-level cave whose twin entrances were each 5 to 6 feet above the floor. Excited by the glint of silver he saw in the middle of the floor, the elf headed over in that direction - and immediately felt the weight of something heavy on his back, as well as a pinching at the back of his neck as sharp mandibles pierced his skin.

It was only because there were two such creatures attacking him that Castillan knew what he was up against; the phase spider directly before him he was able to keep at bay with his blades. But as the two arachnids disappeared back into the ethereal plane, Castillan scooped up a large, cloth bag and a pair of goggles that were lying on the floor before backing out cautiously.

Hagan called the others over the still-active Rary's telepathic bond spell and the group congregated in what the bounder had determined was the treasury. "Any sign of Grommurk?" asked Finoula, concerned about the abducted merchant's welfare.

"Likely dead," explained Castillan before briefing the group on the phase spiders waiting to attack anyone who ventured into the treasure cavern.

"I go in," offered Gilbert, as Mudpie gave his master a lift up into the cavern and then followed. Sure enough, a phase spider suddenly appeared behind Gilbert - and was burned by the wizard's fire shield spell when it tried biting the tasty morsel. A steady diet of Vessik-Durath's half-fiendish blood had given the phase spiders a lesser immunity to cold and fire, but the wizard's spell was painful enough to cause the phase spider to retreat back to the ethereal plane. The other one briefly appeared when Binkadink entered the cavern, but his glaive dealt enough damage to likewise drive it away. They gathered up the rest of the trolls' treasure and retreated back to Vessik-Durath's lair. Looking over at their takings, they found a black velvet bag of diamonds, two trade bars of silver, a pair of gloves which later proved to be gloves of arrow snaring, and Grommurk's silver circlet.

"I guess we'll bring this one back to the king," said Castillan. "It doesn't look like he'll be making another anytime soon."

"Let's go," suggested Ingebold, pulling the carpet of teleporting from her portable hole and unrolling it onto the floor. "This oughtta be safe enough here until we come back fer it." One by one, the adventurers stepped onto the magical carpet and back on board the dragonfly vessel, where they briefed Jinkadoodle of their encounters. They'd had enough for one day; they'd get the horses back to Kisail and go retrieve their carpet from the troll hole in the morning. But Ingebold insisted they return the silver circlet to the king at once, and so they did, the little gnome illusionist piloting the airship safely to the castle. King Galrich was overjoyed at their success and wore the circlet at once.

But two days later, he and Aerik were back at the Temple of Kord and the king was back to talking to people who weren't there. "It's no good," he said to the open air of the temple interior, as Father Bendrick and Aerik Battershield looked on with concern. The king looked up intently at the statue of Kord as if listening, although none of those accompanying him heard anything. "Then it's settled," he said. "How much longer?"

Finally, the king turned back to Aerik. "There you are," he said absently. "We're done here. We may as well head back to Guild Headquarters."

"Headquarters, Me King?" repeated Aerik, confused.

"Hmm? No, no, the castle," replied King Galrich distractedly. "I've got to make some plans." He scratched his head, his fingers bumping against the circlet of vitality. Pulling it from his forehead, he looked at it as if puzzled by its appearance, then handed it to Aerik. "Give this to Hagan," the king commanded. "It'll do more for him than it will for me."

Aerik dutifully took the circlet from the king's hand. "Yes, Me King," he replied.

- - -

The circlet of vitality was my own creation for this adventure. Here are my own notes on it:

CIRCLET OF VITALITY said:
This silver circlet is specially crafted for half-breeds, especially those – like half-orcs – whose parent races have greatly different life spans.

A circlet of vitality allows the wearer to apply the physical aging effects of the longer-lived parent race. For example, a half-orc wearing a circlet of vitality wouldn't lose a point of Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution upon hitting middle age until he was 35 years old (as a human), not age 30 (as a half-orc). It also staves off mental deterioration brought on by old age.

To be effective, a circlet of vitality must be worn before the wearer is of middle age as appropriate to his race. A circlet of vitality donned for the first time at middle age or older has no effect upon the wearer.

Alas, it's too late for it to be of any good to King Galrich at this point, as he's probably well into his 50s by now and if his recent actions are any indication, into the first stages of early onset senility. (Oddly enough, senility doesn't seem to be covered in the D&D rules - not any that I could find, in any case. There are rules for decreases in physical ability scores, but the mental ability scores only ever normally increase with age.)

The players were all rolling hot this adventure; I think they had more threats and confirmed crits than in any other adventure session I can recall. And none of my trolls managed to ever get in two successful claw attacks so they could rend - was that really too much for a DM to ask for? Apparently it was.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My "TSR 25th Anniversary" T-shirt, since it has a Tony DiTerlizzi troll among the other creatures marching in a line to celebrate the birthday. (The troll's even wearing a party hat.)
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 48: DANGEROUS PREY

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 14
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 14
Darrien, half-elf ranger 14
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 14
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 14
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 14
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 13​

Game Session Date: 26 May 2018

- - -

The group had just finished off the heroes' feast prepared by Ingebold, their traditional beginning to the day ever since the dwarven cleric had first been able to cast the spell. Now they assembled in the courtyard of Battershield Keep, deciding on what to do with their day.

Aerik approached the group, a worried look upon his face. "I'm worried about King Galrich," he began. "He's been muzzy-headed all week. Confused. Distracted. Talks t' them what ain't even there. I dunno what all we c'n do fer 'im, but it seems t' be gettin' worse."

"It's likely just normal aging," suggested Finoula. "The king is getting on up in years, especially for a half-orc."

Hagan pointed to the silver circlet he wore on his brow. "We were sent to fetch this," he said, "to help him with his mental faculties. It didn't work on him at all."

"Well, I dunno what we oughtta be doin' about him," sighed Aerik. He turned to his daughter. "Ye think mebbe a heal spell...?"

Ingebold shook her head sadly. "It cannae heal damage done through simple agin'," she explained. "Else ye could just heal yerself back t' bein' young again whenever yer body got too old." Aerik nodded in understanding, then went back inside to check on his wife.

Just then, a flapping of wings preceded the arrival of a small, nearly invisible creature. Instinctively, the combat-oriented adventurers grabbed for their weapons, but the creature offered no particular threat. It was humanoid in build but its tiny body - it was smaller even than Binkadink - seemed to be composed of air currents. Gilbert identified it at once as an air mephit, and the leather satchel it wore over its shoulder identified its profession. "It a messenger," the portly mage explained to the group.

As if proving the wizard's assertion, the air mephit pulled a sealed letter from its satchel, which it dutifully handed over to Finoula. The elf took the parchment, which was folded over and sealed with a blob of red wax. A stylized "A" had been pressed into the wax.

"Someone send you love notes?" theorized Gilbert.

"Aithanar's not going to like that," pointed out Darrien.

"What's it say?" asked Binkadink, normally one to join in the teasing but more curious about the message's contents. Finoula popped through the wax with a finger, opened the letter, and read aloud:

Miss Cloudshadow,

It has come to my attention that you – and those who accompany you on your adventures – have recently slain the incubus Malaterminus. I must congratulate you for performing a task that has long been required, one for which the myriad planes of existence can rejoice.

Furthermore, I understand you undertook this difficult task not for monetary gain but rather due to a personal desire to bring the wretched fiend to his well-earned justice. Nonetheless, I feel such a performance must be rewarded. If it pleases you, I wish to compensate you for your hard-won accomplishments. Along such ends, I have entrusted in the care of my messenger a device which will take you to my celestial abode, where I may personally thank you and your friends in a manner most suited to your worthiness.

Your Grateful Admirer,

Anduviel

Upon the elf having finished reading the letter aloud, the mephit reached into his satchel again and passed a small tuning fork over to Finoula. "Strike this upon a hard object, and it will take you to Anduviel," he explained.

"Hold on!" called out Gilbert, habitually not trusting anything to be as simple as it looked. "Don't activate it yet!" Finoula gave him a frown that explained she wasn't born yesterday.

"Who this Anduviel?" Gilbert demanded.

"I do not know him personally," admitted the mephit. "I'm merely a messenger. I know no more than do you."

"May I?" asked Ingebold, holding out her hand. Finoula passed the letter over to her Battle-Sister. Raising it up to the sun, the cleric said, "There's a watermark on the parchment." Holding it closer, she examined it further. "There's a trick used by those among the celestial planes," she explained. "They often use holy water in their writings, to prevent undead or fiends from the lower planes from handling their messages."

"Is that holy water?" asked Hagan.

"I cannae tell fer sure," admitted Ingebold. "But it seems t' be."

"Is there anything else required of me?" asked the air mephit. Gilbert dismissed him with a wave, and he flew off.

"Are we doing this?" asked Finoula. "It could be legitimate, or it could be a trap."

"Either way," observed Binkadink, "there's only one way to find out." Thus decided, the group gathered up their familiars and animal associates - Wezhley, Mudpie, Grumps Junior, Wrath, and Obvious - and everyone bunched up together. "I'm not sure of the area of effect on this thing," Finoula admitted. Then she struck the tuning fork against the side of her longsword Tahlmalaera, and the floor dropped out from the group.

At least, that's what it felt like. However, they only seemed to drop an inch or so - and yet, their surroundings had changed immediately. The group now stood on a flat plane seemingly carved of solid stone, inside some sort of magic circle inscribed directly into the stone. Light spilled down overhead from an unseen source.

"Anduviel lives here?" asked Castillan incredulously.

"Trap," observed Gilbert. "Should have known."

There was a small boulder nearby, upon which sat a sealed envelope, anchored in place by a stone to keep it from blowing away. It was sealed with the same red wax as the message the air mephit had delivered to Finoula. Assuming this one was also intended for her, the silver-haired elf picked it up, broke the seal, and read its contents aloud:

Miss Cloudshadow (and adventuring companions),

And now we come to the real matter of your true worthiness. I myself am a hunter of dangerous prey. Your slaying of the incubus Malaterminus has put you into the ranks of those worthy of my attention. I firmly believe your adventuring group will make most worthy prey indeed.

To the matter at hand: you are now within my hunting grounds. There are 10 interconnected zones; you are in the first. At the far end lies a hidden gate that will transport you to the next zone in turn; it will become visible upon your approach. Each zone suppresses magic to a differing extent. You will find only cantrips and orisons may be cast in this zone; the next such will allow spells of one level higher to be cast, and so on. I should mention that teleportation magic is suppressed save for within a given zone, and you will find planar travel and access to extradimensional spaces to be suppressed throughout all 10 zones, until you reach the end.

I will grant your party a small head start before I follow your trail and hunt you down with my trained mastiffs. I look forward to a worthy challenge!

Anduviel

"Well, that just figures," grumbled Castillan.

"I'm sorry, guys," apologized Finoula. "I got us into this mess."

"Not at all," insisted Hagan. "We all agreed to give the tuning fork a try - it was a group decision."

"Hey!" interrupted Gilbert. "Heroes' feast spell effects - they no longer working."

"What? How can you tell?" demanded Darrien.

"I a wizard," scoffed Gilbert. "I can tell." Experimentation soon showed that permanent magical effects - like those bound into the group's various enchanted weapons - still worked fine. Gilbert couldn't test it, but he claimed his magically-enhanced vision which allowed him to detect undead was still active. "It a good thing we wait to cast prep spells," he observed.

"What about my staff?" asked Hagan. He carried a staff of fire with him, a perfect tool for a sorcerer who firmly believed the best spells were those which could be used to blow stuff up. "You think I can still use the higher-powered spells from it? Or will those be suppressed until the later zones?"

"Don't waste charge testing it out," suggested Gilbert. "Wands and staffs - they probably fine. Those spells basically already cast, just waiting to be set off. But we save them until we need them.

"In the meantime," suggested Castillan, "let's split up and see if we can find the gate out of here." He wandered off in one direction; Darrien and Grumps Junior chose the opposite way and each soon discovered an invisible wall of force blocking further travel in that direction.

Binkadink pulled a couple of potions of delay poison from his collection and drank one down while feeding the other to Obvious. "You never know," he said to his jackalope mount, then climbed up into the saddle.

Ingebold cast a detect magic spell and looked at the invisible boundaries of their prison. The magical wall extended 30 feet above their heads in all directions and seemed to form a rectangle with the magic circle where they'd gated in at its center. Hagan cast the same spell and checked out a different direction from where Ingebold was looking. "Found it!" he called out, indicating a section of wall along the short end of the rectangle, in the northeastern corner if the group had been facing north when they arrived. He approached it cautiously, and once he was within about 20 feet it became visible - a swirling vortex of colors that prevented anyone from seeing what was on the other side.

The group converged on the portal. "Who want to go in first?" asked Gilbert.

"I'll go," replied Darrien. He stuck his head in first and saw a forested land before him. But when he tried pulling his head back to tell the others, he found he couldn't - the portals apparently allowed one-way travel only. Lacking any further options, he walked all the way through the portal and into Zone 1. Grumps Junior followed immediately behind, and they both stepped forward so they wouldn't be bumped into by those coming behind them.

This new zone seemed comprised of a forest glade, with a dirt path winding beside a narrow pond and splitting into several forks up ahead and to the left. Darrien pulled out his ebony fly and activated it, then climbed onto its back and sent it flying - but not too high, because he assumed the "ceiling height" here was no higher than it was in the previous area. Grumps jogged to keep up with his airbound master as he went to explore the boundaries to the left of the portal, hoping the exit would show up once he was in sufficient proximity. The rest of the group, once they had entered the zone, headed north.

Gilbert put a hand on Mudpie's rough shoulder, halting his progress forward. "We take time out for spell," he told his earth elemental familiar, before casting an expeditious retreat spell upon the both of them. "Don't want to be at back of group when Anduviel and his mastiffs show up," he whispered to his familiar.

"I heard that!" Finoula called back to the wizard, then continued onwards with her wolf at her side.

"Wasn't trying to be sneaky about it!" Gilbert called back. Finoula was well aware of the longstrider spell she had prepared for herself that morning, but now she knew she'd feel guilty if she were to cast it on herself.

Binkadink sent Obvious hippity-hopping ahead and his jackalope opted to veer left at a fork in the path - which caught the two of them up in a nearly-invisible web spun between the trees on either side of the path. The little gnome soon cleared them with the blade of his magical glaive, but a glimpse of movement from the trees to his upper left allowed him to see the large spider crawling down from among the branches to see what it had caught in its web. It didn't have very long for anticipation, though, for another slash of the glaive brought the hungry arachnid falling to the ground below in two pieces.

Darrien had seen the fight from his aerial perch on his ebony fly. Furthermore, he saw the path Obvious had taken led to a large pit, and from his vantage point he could see what was there in the pit waiting for them. "Pit in the corner!" he called down to the others, pointing in what they'd decided would be northwest. "Big hairy spider in the pit!" he added.

By then, Ingebold and Hagan - who had both been concentrating on their detect magic spells, so they could spot the magical gates from a greater distance than the 20-foot proximity triggers, had determined the area over by the pit was the likely location of the next gate - it was the only area their magical vision hadn't reached.

Binkadink spurred Obvious on; the jackalope needed little prompting. Bouncing down the path, the antlered rabbit leaped gracefully into the 15-foot pit, acing a four-point landing and allowing his rider to stab deep into the spider's body with his glaive. This spider, while about the same size as the one in the trees, nevertheless looked much bigger for its leg-hair was much thicker and its abdomen wider. But it died just as quickly as its treetop counterpart had. Then Binkadink noticed the swirling vortex of colors along the back wall of the pit; odd that he hadn't noticed it before, or was it that it hadn't appeared until he and Obvious had landed in the pit's bottom? Odd that it hadn't been triggered by the large spider....

"Maybe it's a gate guardian, and they don't trigger the gates," suggested Castillan.

"Maybe the gates are only triggered by visitors from another plane of existence," offered Binkadink.

"Maybe who cares?" added Gilbert. "Let's go see what ahead of us and not waste time! We being hunted, remember?"

Darrien sent his fly through the gate, ducking so he wouldn't bump his head on the magical portal. The next zone seemed almost to be a continuation of the previous one, complete with a dirt road or path winding up through a hilly landscape. There were significantly less trees about, though - and a lot more boulders. Leading his flying mount higher so he could get a better overall view, Darrien spotted a prone form up ahead. It was a man, or something very much the size and shape of a rather large man, lying facedown in the dirt by the side of the path. Beyond him, a cave opened into darkness beyond. Steering with his knees, Darrien sent the fly towards the fallen man.

Stepping through the gate, Ingebold saw where Darrien was going and, her detect magic spell still active, she saw that the prone form held something magical in his left hand. "It's a slingshot," Castillan said, identifying the object once Ingebold had pointed it out. He headed towards the prone man, leaping straight up the near-vertical slopes with his bounder training. Behind him, Finoula, Gilbert, and the others started taking the path to the left that wound around the steep slope of the hill.

Obvious had no trouble following Castillan's course in a single leap up the hill, and thus Binkadink arrived at the scene almost as soon as Darrien had, but while the ranger had his fly hover in place, Binkadink opted to poke the body with the tip of his glaive - not hard, not enough to break the skin, but hopefully enough to hurt a bit if he was just faking. But the gnome's oversized nose could already pick up the scent of putrefaction coming from the corpse; he'd apparently already been dead for a week or more.

"I wouldn’t do that if I were you," said a gravelly voice behind the corpse. "You'll only make him mad, and he'll have to give you a pounding when he wakes up."

Binkadink looked over to see who had spoken, and it took him a moment to realize one of the boulders in the area was the one responsible. In fact, he'd heard of these creatures...galeb duhrs, they were called.

Castillan arrived on the scene. "What happened here?" he asked the galeb duhr, having heard it speak to Binkadink.

"My master, Gurnbolt, got into a fight with another goliath," the rock creature replied. "Then, all of a sudden, this wall blocked us off from each other. The other goliath went away, and my master here decided to rest up from the poison spell."

"Poison spell?" repeated Binkadink.

"Yeah, they were fighting each other with spells. Gurnbolt does that sometimes."

"How long has he been...sleeping?" asked Binkadink.

"Couple of weeks," replied the galeb duhr. "He does it all the time. Sleep, I mean. I always look after him while he's sleeping. We don't sleep, galeb duhrs, that is."

"Tell me about the slingshot," prompted Castillan. "It looks like it's magical."

"It is. Gurnbolt can shrink down rocks and shoot them at his enemies, and once the rock hits, bam, back to its original size. He uses it on me sometimes. It's fun."

"I can see where it would be," agreed Castillan, realizing how useful a weapon Gilbert and Mudpie would find it. And this Gurnbolt fellow wasn't going to be needing it ever again....

"Can I see it?" the bounder continued.

"I wouldn't mess with it. Gurnbolt can get pretty cranky when he first wakes up. You'd better wait until he wakes up on his own, though - he doesn't like being waken up, either."

By then Gilbert and Mudpie had approached, their faster rate of travel speeding their way up the hill - for the wizard had had his earth elemental familiar "swim" through the rock with his head above the surface so Gilbert could stand upon it. They'd caught the last bit of the conversation. "I hate to tell you this, but that guy dead, not sleeping," Gilbert said bluntly.

"Nonsense," replied the galeb duhr, turning to argue with the heavyset wizard. Castillan took the opportunity to snatch the wooden slingshot from the dead goliath's hand, then took off at a shot for the cave entrance, where he assumed the next gate was located.

"Hey!" the galeb duhr cried, moments after the bounder had left. "Thieving little sneak!" He made a gesture with a stumpy stone arm and two of the nearby boulders started sprouting limbs.

"He just borrowing it," Gilbert lied. "He be sure to bring it back next time he come by this way." But by then Hagan had arrived on the scene and figured out what had happened. "I apologize for our friend's behavior," he said to the rock creature. "But your master there is truly dead, not just sleeping."

"It's true," rumbled Mudpie. "These fleshbags like to sleep, it's true, but not for that long at a time. And this one is starting to rot." The galeb duhr - as well as his pair of animated boulders - was motionless for a long time while he thought it over. But it was easier to believe coming from a rock creature like Mudpie, who was also obviously serving in the capacity as a wizard's familiar, than it was from one of the flesh-and-bone types.

"In that case," said the galeb duhr, "I will stand watch over him until he returns completely to the earth."

"You could come with us," offered Hagan.

"I will stay with my master," the galeb duhr repeated.

"Come on - we got to go," insisted Gilbert. "Am I only one here who remember we all being hunted by madman?" He ushered the others into the cave.

Sure enough, the gate to the next zone was at the end of the cave - as Castillan had discovered upon fleeing through it with the stolen slingshot. He entered a world of bitter-cold winds and snow-covered pines. A frozen stream beneath him threatened to send him flying, but his bounder training kicked in and he quickly regained his balance.

Darrien came in behind him. Upon feeling the biting cold, he landed his fly long enough to rummage through his pack and get out his winter gear - at least his coat and a pair of gloves. Then he remounted the ebony fly and was back in the air, seeking out the next exit.

The others were arriving through the portal. Obvious went sliding on the ice upon arrival, and Binkadink - after first feeding his mount a potion of endure elements - had the jackalope kick snow onto the frozen stream directly in front of the portal so those behind would have a better footing. Of course, when Gilbert entered the zone this was process still undergoing and he got a face full of flying snow. "Gah!" he cried out, moving to the side to get out of the path of Obvious's efforts.

Castillan, shivering, decided he wanted out of this cold place as quickly as possible. With his bounder training he was able to move over the ice at his normal speed, so he assigned himself the task of checking out the far end of the frozen lake. To do so he plowed between pines, shoving branches out of his way without significantly slowing down. The others chose to take the snow-covered trail, as it offered better footing than along the frozen stream.

Binkadink and Obvious, following the trail, were the first to be attacked. What had at first looked to be a simple patch of snow suddenly lashed out at the jackalope's leg, slamming into the limb with surprising force while draining off some of the heat energy of the warm-blooded mammal and his rider alike. Binkadink saw the attack and realized this was likely a white pudding, an arctic version of the black puddings they'd fought before. Recalling how black puddings split into two when you hit them with a blade, the fighter opted against his usual glaive attack and pulled out his greatclub, smashing down at the white ooze.

However, this was no mere white pudding, but rather a snowflake ooze - a strange creature whose ever-changing body construction was filled with many open pockets of air, giving the creature a partially hollow form. The greatclub crushed through these airy filaments, causing the ooze to split into two smaller beings - the very thing Binkadink had hoped to avoid! Fortunately, after switching back to his glaive he managed to slay the original creature, and Finoula took out the other one with her flaming whip of thorns, the fire from her latter weapon dealing the amorphous creature extra damage to its crystalline lattice form.

Hagan held back with Gilbert and Mudpie as the others advanced across the zone, consulting. "It worth a try," Gilbert admitted, so Hagan used a couple of charges from his staff of fire to create a small wall of fire across the area where the portal opened into the zone. "I made it facing out this way," the sorcerer said. "Maybe it will thaw out some of the frozen stream, and when Anduviel and his mastiffs pop in here, they'll not only get burned up, but then they'll get dunked into freezing water. That ought to slow them down a bit!" Then the spellcasters and their familiars hurried to catch up to the others, Darrien having found the next portal as usual. (The aerial flight speed of his ebony fly was coming in very handy!)

The next zone brought with it a return to normal temperatures; Darrien landed his fly again and stowed his cold weather gear. This was another woodlands environment, but one cut diagonally across by a raging river ending in a roaring waterfall. Several large boulders made for a potential way across the river, but they were set far enough away that jumping wouldn't be a sure thing for anyone but Castillan and Obvious of the group. And to make matters even more difficult, they weren't alone - there was a fully-grown dire bear standing at the waterfall's edge, searching for fish.

Castillan started along the right side, keeping a hand touching the wall of force that bound them into this environment, idly wondering how the river was kept running if they were all encased in an invisible rectangle. His searching brought him into the field of vision of the dire bear, who decided then and there that an elf would serve as well - if not better - than a fish for his meal. Wading to the water's edge, he pulled himself onto the shore and ran over to the bounder, catching him in a set of claws and pulling him into a hug. Castillan chided himself for ranging so far away from the rest of his group, and thus rather than fight the bruin alone he decided to flee. Fleeing was easy, even when caught up in a dire bear's embrace; with a quick double-tap of his ring, he had dimension doored across the zone over to the far side of the river, about halfway down the length of the long side of their rectangular prison.

Darrien sent his ebony fly in the bear's direction, careful to keep to a high enough elevation to remain out of the great beast's reach. Then he peppered it with a few shots from his Arachnibow. While the dire bear was thus occupied, Binkadink had Obvious ride up behind it and the gnome stabbed deep into the bear's flank with his glaive. Whirling in anger, the bear slashed out at Obvious with a set of wicked claws, scoring deep grooves across the jackalope's right front leg. Binkadink immediately leaped from the saddle to the jackalope's left, hollering and waving his glaive to attract the bear's attention, while calling for Obvious to flee. "Go find Ingebold!" he commanded in the burrowing-mammal language they shared, and the jackalope knew from past experience that the little dwarf had healing hands that had often closed his wounds in the past. He hobbled off in her direction, leaving Binkadink and Darrien to finish off the dire bear.

Hagan, after entering the zone and seeing the river before him, opted to cast a fly spell upon himself and cross it in that manner. Grumps Junior swam across, while Darrien rode his fly to the other side. After Ingebold healed Obvious, the grateful jackalope grabbed her in his teeth by the back of her cloak and with Binkadink once again in the saddle, the overburdened jackalope still had no trouble leaping from boulder to boulder across the raging river. Finoula and Wrath opted to climb down the side of the waterfall, cross the shallow pool at the bottom, and climb back up again. But Gilbert had no such option with Mudpie; the earth elemental refused to enter the water, and even at a height close to Binkadink's he was far too heavy for the ebony fly to ferry across. This problem was solved by having Darrien pick up the slingshot from Castillan, fly it over to Gilbert, and have him use it on his familiar. Once Mudpie had been shrunk to the size of a pebble and placed in his master's pocket, the ebony fly was able to pick up Gilbert in his legs while Darrien steered them back to the other side of the river. And sure enough, the portal to the next zone was there in the corner, waiting and open now that the group had assembled nearby.

"Everybody wait right there!" Gilbert called as he was ferried across the river. Once the entire group was reassembled, he cast a haste spell on everyone. "Okay, we good now," he replied. "Let's get out of here - fast!"

The next zone was a jungle environment with another, smaller river - this one winding back and forth like a snake in a gorge ten feet deep. Solid-looking tree trunks had been placed as makeshift bridges in two places across the gorge. Darrien wasted no time flying straight across the zone, heading for the far end where he imagined the next portal might be. There had been no sign of Anduviel yet, but who knew how far he was behind them? (The answer, unknown to the adventurers, was that he had by now entered the gauntlet at the beginning and was already working his way through Zone 1, making excellent speed since he already knew where the portals were all located.)

Gilbert took a moment to cast a stoneskin spell upon himself and Mudpie, now that it was available. Then he went along the right-hand side of the enclosed rectangle, followed behind by Finoula, Wrath, and Grumps Junior, who had "adopted" the elven ranger as a replacement master since Darrien kept leaving him behind. Binkadink and Obvious went that way, too, but the jackalope's greater speed had them passing the others in no time flat.

From the air, Darrien spotted a flash of movement as Obvious passed by a wind in the river gorge. A pile of vegetation had turned at his approach. "Plant monster!" he called down to the others, pointing in the creature's general location.

The warning came too late; in a flash, a tendril of vines snaked out at Gilbert, slashing him unexpectedly. Fortunately, the blow was mostly absorbed by the wizard's stoneskin spell. But Hagan was flying by and saw the attack, so he cast a wall of fire along the plant-monster's feet, along the side of the gorge but out of the river. The plant went up in flames.

Finoula held her amulet in hand and activated it, transforming herself into a bolt of lightning that went blasting through the tendriculos and reforming her elven body on the far side of the gorge. Seeing the battle going on behind them, Binkadink and Obvious halted their search for the next portal and leaped over the gorge beside Finoula. The gnome stabbed his glaive into the plant's body mass, carving away vines with the blade. This caused the flaming creature to turn to face Binkadink, allowing Gilbert and Wrath to pass by without incident. Grumps Junior, however, turned back the way he had come and got further away from the rest of the group.

The tendriculos lashed out at Binkadink and Obvious, scoring a line of pain across the jackalope's neck. But then Binkadink slew it with a final strike of his glaive; the thing had been slowly encompassed by flames from the wall of fire in any case so it had really only been a matter of time. Then it was just a matter to help herd Grumps Junior back towards the rest of the group; Darrien in the meantime had discovered the portal in the extreme northwest section of the zone.

Zone 6 had apparently been the scene of a great battle at some point in the past, judging by the fallen bodies, smashed buildings and weapons of siegecraft, and the massive catapult stones littered about. "I'll check the left side!" called out Darrien, steering his ebony fly along the western boundary. Castillan headed toward the center, leaping over fallen debris in his way just because he could. Binkadink and Obvious followed the bounder's path, the jackalope once again carrying Ingebold by the scruff of the neck to speed her way. Gilbert took a slightly more erratic path; seeing the 10-foot-diameter catapult stones was too irresistible, so he used his new slingshot to shrink three of them to pebble size and collect them into a pocket.

Flying along the perimeter, it didn't take Darrien long to find the next portal; unfortunately, his close proximity also caused a pile of discarded weapons to start flying through the air. The living blade barrier spell advanced and Darrien sent his aerial mount up to a higher elevation; the animated weapons then headed over towards Castillan.

Finoula used her lightning amulet to get her to within striking distance of the animated weapons, then struck out with her flaming whip of thorns. Ingebold joined in with a flame strike spell that blasted the whirling blades from above. Binkadink finished it off with a sideways swing of his magical glaive, sending the pitted and rusted weapons flying away in all directions as the spell energy binding them together was sundered. With no further obstacles in their way, the group went through the next portal.

Another forested land awaited the group in Zone 7, this time with a large clearing in the middle and two intersecting paths creating four roads out from the clearing, of which the southernmost was the arrival point. A stone obelisk rose up in the middle of the clearing, covered in runes and glyphs. "Betcha the exit portal's at the end of one of these roads!" Hagan called, while flying to check out the western road. Finoula and Wrath took the easternmost path, while Darrien on his ebony fly went all the way to the end of the northernmost path; in each case their proximity failed to activate an exit portal. "It's got to be in the trees somewhere!" Finoula called.

Castillan and Ingebold, in the meantime, were investigating the obelisk. The bounder picked out a couple of repeating runes, which he knew stood for "lightning" and "protection." Ingebold did him one better by casting a read magic spell and determining exactly the obelisk's purpose: it was a lightning rod of sorts; any electrical attack spells cast in this zone would alter course and head directly to the obelisk, where the spell would be harmlessly dissipated. "No chain lightning spells after all," the dwarf called to Hagan, who was visibly disappointed - it was just about his all-time favorite attack spell.

The bounder pulled out his stonecarver dagger. "Of course," he said, "that doesn't have to be the case."

"Go on ahead, then," encouraged Ingebold. Castillan used his magical dagger to cut through the stone of the obelisk, obscuring and defacing the glyphs and runes on all four surfaces.

Gilbert, however, had been scanning about. "This Zone 7," he called to the others. "We all have our most powerful spells here. I think maybe we make a stand here. It pretty peaceful - no obvious monsters trying to kill us - and who know what Zone 8 or Zone 9 like?"

"What do you suggest?" asked Hagan. "I could put another wall of fire where the portal dumped us out here."

"That a good start," admitted Gilbert. "Then Ingebold, how about a blade barrier in the same spot? They just spell effects, the fire not bother the blades and the blades not bother the flames; when Anduviel pop up, he get both spells on him at once!" Hagan and Ingebold complied as everyone stepped back out of range.

"Now I add my own spell," Gilbert said, casting an Evard's black tentacles spell in a semicircle centered on the wall of fire spell. He cackled in delight at his own deviousness. "Anduviel not know what hit him!"

At that moment, Anduviel and his two nethersight mastiffs were climbing out of the freezing water in Zone 3, after having found themselves engulfed in flames upon their arrival, courtesy of Hagan's initial wall of force spell. A wide grin spread across the astral stalker's black face as he imagined how much he'd enjoy taking the heads of his latest prey. Then he was off in a flash, following his hounds as they closed in on their prey. They couldn't be too much farther ahead....

Back in Zone 7, they had enhanced their plan of attack even further. Ingebold cast a freedom of movement spell upon Binkadink, allowing him to enter the area of the Evard's black tentacles spell without being caught up in the tentacles' embrace himself. Darrien had his fly positioned on the wall of force directly above the entry portal; furthermore, Gilbert had passed on to him the slingshot and his three pieces of pebble-sized catapult ammunition.

In the meantime, Finoula scouted out the exit portal. They had no idea what they'd be fighting; for all they knew, Anduviel was a pit fiend who would easily pass through their defenses and they might be needing a quick way out of the current zone. She found it in the northwestern corner, but not without first triggering an arrow trap their host had apparently left for them.

Then there was nothing to do but to assume their attack positions. Binkadink stood just outside the range of Gilbert's spell, ready to run in among the tentacles with his glaive. Hagan stood to the side, ready to cast a magic missile spell at anything that exited the wall of fire; it wasn't his most powerful spell, but it was practically guaranteed damage that not many creatures could shrug off. Finoula had her whip and longsword out and ready; she couldn't enter the Evard's black tentacles spell area of effect herself, but she was ready to attack anything that made it out of there. The animal companions were herded behind the defaced obelisk, out of harm's way, while Castillan and Ingebold stood beside them, a ready reserve force as needed. Gilbert and Mudpie - the latter now his normal size - stood before the obelisk, a general and his aide observing the movement of his troops.

They didn't have long to wait. Anduviel and his twin mastiffs entered the zone simultaneously, gathering from the roars of surprise and pain that emanated all at once. The flames of Hagan's spell burned them, the whirling blades of force from Ingebold's spell cut into them, and the grasping appendages from Gilbert's spell caught Anduviel and one of his nethersight mastiffs in their ebon embrace.

But one of the mastiffs avoided the ebon tentacles and, roaring in pain, sprinted through the spell effect in an effort to get to freedom. However, from his high perch, Darrien hit the canine in the head with a slingshot stone - which, upon striking the mastiff, returned to its normal size and crushed the beast under its enormous weight.

A moment later and the other nethersight mastiff escaped from the tentacles' embrace. It made it out of the spells' area of effect before Darrien could load up the next pebble-sized boulder into the slingshot, and the beast raced over to the nearest enemy it could see: Hagan. The half-orc got his magic missile spell off before he was bitten by the pain-crazed mastiff. But judging by the wounds all along the beast's flank, Hagan assumed it was on its last leg; he took a step backwards and cast another magic missile spell, killing it with the five energy darts shooting from his fingertips.

That left only Anduviel himself, who roared in equal parts pain, anger, and frustration as he fruitlessly attempted to break free of the rubbery tentacles holding him in place to be burned and sliced by twin spell effects. To make matters worse, Binkadink raced into the field of thrashing tentacles, swinging his glaive in a sideways arc that cut the astral stalker in the midsection. Unable to see his foe through the flames, the gnome nonetheless could feel where his glaive met resistance. "He's right in front of me!" the gnome called. "Ingebold: another flame strike! I can take it!"

Ingebold hesitated only a moment; while she disliked casting combat spells that encompassed her own friends as well, she knew the little gnome knew his own limits, and knew as well that her spell dealt part holy damage, which wouldn't harm Binkadink in the least. Calling upon the power of Moradin, she caused a pillar of holy fire to encompass the gnome and his unseen foe. The gnome quickly backpedaled, but that was just because the astral stalker's form was emerging from within the wall of fire, but it was a dying form still bound up in jet-black tentacles that fell forward. "Hate...you...so ...much..." Anduviel managed to say before he died.

The group's three major spellcasters deactivated their spells and Anduviel plopped to the ground. He was nothing the group had ever seen before, with pitch-black skin marred with numerous cuts and gouges competing with burn scars from the spells he'd been caught in before his demise. His blood was as red as their own, as it seeped onto the ground from numerous sources.

"He's not even armed," Finoula observed.

"He doesn't need to be," replied Binkadink. "Just check out those claws." Indeed, the astral stalker had a set of claws growing from his fingertips that would have done a dinosaur proud.

"Let's go," suggested Gilbert. "We still got two more zones to get through."

"At least we don't have to hurry any more," pointed out Hagan. And they didn't; the next zone was a desert area containing not only a colossal scorpion but a mound of unclaimed treasure; the scorpion gave them a bit of trouble only in that it refused to die quickly, but good tactics eventually won out. The treasure gave them trouble mainly in that there was so much of it and their extradimensional space - Ingebold's portable hole, into which they normally threw any treasure they planned to sort out later - was inaccessible. They made do with piling it onto cloaks and coats and dragging it along. Darrien scouted out the next portal, and then they dragged it through the next zone, an underground lair guarded by a pair of inferno spiders.

Passing through the exit portal of Zone 9, it looked like they were right back where they had started from: an endless plane of smooth stone and a magic circle carved into the floor. "You have got to be kidding me!" complained Castillan.

"No, it's okay - it's different," pointed out Finoula. "Look - there's no rock where the second message was left."

"So what do we do? Just step into the circle?" asked the bounder.

"That most likely. You go first, elf." And Gilbert gave Castillan a push that sent him into the magic circle, where he promptly disappeared. Then, shrugging, he stepped inside with Mudpie and disappeared as well. Everyone else followed - and they all found themselves back where they had activated the tuning fork: in the courtyard of Battershield Keep.

"You're a real jerk sometimes," said Castillan, giving Gilbert a good pounding on his meaty shoulder before helping count up all of the treasure they'd managed to take from Zone 8.

- - -

This adventure was an idea I had wanted to try, especially once Logan and I had accumulated a bunch of the Pathfinder Flip-Mats. I had no idea how much of a head-start I should have Anduviel give the PCs, so I went with 20 rounds when writing up the adventure. In hindsight, it would have been a more exciting battle had I shortened it to just 10 rounds - then they'd have had to fight their hunters in a much lower-numbered zone where they wouldn't have had their more powerful spells at hand. But we still had a good time.

Rather than play at the table in my man-cave, however, we switched things up and played on the coffee table in our family room downstairs. The session started with my cardboard Battershield Keep model on a blank battle map until they activated the tuning fork, then the keep was removed and replaced with the magic circle and the map became Zone 0. Zone 1 was placed on the floor beside the coffee table, and Zone 2 next to it; as they progressed through the zones I set each successive map in line down the hallway towards the man-cave. We spent a lot of time on the floor this adventure, rolling our dice into a felt-bottomed Yahtzee container that we passed around to whoever needed it. The session went from around noon to after 6:30 PM; I ended up hand-waving us through Zones 8 and 9 since the objective of the adventure - kill Anduviel and the nethersight mastiffs - had been met and it was getting late.

We also took a brief intermission mid-session to rescue a pair of baby cardinals that had fallen through our window well grating outside the family room. I chased them towards the window with a snow shovel (after numerous attempts of scooping them up with a pile of leaves in the shovel and trying to get them out of the window well proved fruitless - they kept flying off the sides of the shovel and back down into the well), where Vicki and Joey each grabbed one and took them through the house to our backyard and set them free.

Incidentally, the reason Ingebold got bumped up to "PC" status in the roster at the top of this entry is because my step-granddaughter Samantha (the daughter of my wife's oldest daughter) was visiting us during her vacation time, so we briefed her up on Ingebold's past history and had her run the dwarven cleric as her own PC for this session. (Vicki was pleased to not be the only female gamer in our group for once.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: A Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt, to represent the "out there" aspect of the pocket dimension chain. (I was going to wear one of my two "Duck Dynasty" T-shirts to represent the "hunter" aspect of the astral stalker, but they were both in the wash.)
 

Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 49: SNOW WIGHT

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 14
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 14
Darrien, half-elf ranger 14
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 14
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 14
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 14​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 13 (Moradin)
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​

Game Session Date: 23 June 2018

- - -

Ingebold woke with a scream strangled in her throat.

It took a moment for her to process the vision she'd just had - the dead world, the undead scourge covering every corner of the Oerth, the cold lands from which they'd originated, the black rock that had caused it all...a mere moment for her to realize there was a knowledge in her head, a perfect understanding of exactly where that black rock was at this very moment, and how little time remained until it struck the planet, and just how much was at stake....

The dwarven cleric threw her blankets and bedsheets aside and scrambled out of bed in her nightwear. Without bothering with a robe, she raced up the stairs of the northeastern tower of Battershield Keep to the room directly above hers, where she knew she'd find her Battle-Sister Finoula and likely the elf's timber wolf, Wrath, as well.

"Wake up!" demanded Ingebold, pounding on Finoula's door. "Round up the others and gather up yer gear! We need t' get on th' ship as soon's we can!"

"What's going on?" asked Finoula, still muzzy from being broken out of her night's reverie. But Ingebold was already stomping back down the stairs to go wake up Binkadink and his cousin Jinkadoodle in the bottom floor of the southwestern tower, so they in turn could awaken the adventurers in the two floors above them. Trusting that Ingebold wouldn't be so frantic if this wasn't something serious, Finoula raced upstairs to wake up Castillan and his brother Aithanar.

Ten minutes later, everyone was gathered up in the Battershield Keep courtyard in full gear. Ingebold looked worriedly at the back half of the keep, where her mother was no doubt hard at work in the kitchen. Her father, Aerik, was likely already on his way to the castle, judging from the sun, which was just rising over the treetops of the Vesve Forest to the east...best not to worry poor Helga just now....

"Ingebold? What's going on?" repeated Finoula.

"Yeah," grumbled Gilbert. "Why we up so early?"

Instead of responding, Ingebold turned to Jinkadoodle. "Do ye have th' carpet?" she asked.

"I do," replied the sleepy illusionist. He dropped the carpet of teleportation to the ground and unrolled it with a kick of his foot.

"Everyone up t' th' ship, then," commanded Ingebold. "I'll explain everythin' once we're in flight."

Binkadink, Finoula, and Darrien herded their respective animals on board the carpet with them, leading them to the room in the extradimensional hold of the dragonfly spelljammer ship that had been converted to animal pens. Aithanar went with them, getting them settled amidst all of the excitement. Ingebold prompted Jinkadoodle upstairs at once, following him as he took a seat at the ship's magic helm and raised the flying vessel from its parking orbit on a floating cloud. "Where to?" the gnome asked.

Ingebold's eyes glowed white, as her suddenly enhanced senses kicked into gear and she pinpointed the black rock's location as it hurtled through wildspace towards the Oerth. "That way," she said, pointing a finger off to the left where Jinkadoodle could see it. "We're headin' t' th' cold lands of th' north."

The others had followed Ingebold up from the secret hold and were now crowding around her, looking for answers. "I'll tell ye all what I know," the cleric promised.

"I had me a vision this mornin'. There's a hunk of black rock falling from th' sky. It'll impact shortly in th' coldlands, which is where we're headin'. Th' black rock is made o' somethin' called calcimortum, a stone from th' Negative Energy Plane. It's dangerous enough t' all living beings nearby, but worse yet, buried inside it's an evil skull directin' its path. We need t' destroy the skull an' th' calcimortum before a wave o' undead creatures spills out from th' arctic and covers th' whole globe. I seen it, in me vision, what it'll be like if'n we fail. We cannae let that happen--no matter what!"

She turned to Gilbert Fung. "We've several hours o' flight afore we get there - ye'd best prepare yer spells fer th' day, knowin' we'll be up against undead an' that we'll be fightin' in the frigid cold," she told the portly mage. Turning to Hagan, she said, "Ye dinnae need t' prepare yer spells, so ye'd be th' best one fer teleportin' somewheres to fetch cold weather gear fer them what be needin' it. I imagine there be shops in Greyhawk City what'll sell ye what we need, and then ye can teleport back t' th' ship long before we're ready t' land. In th' meantime, I'll be in me cabin, preparing me own spells. I'll be sure t' get a heroes' feast ready fer ye when ye get back with th' coats an' all." As Ingebold went to the seclusion of the cabin she shared with Finoula on board the dragonfly vessel, Hagan took a quick inventory among the adventurers who didn't already have cold weather gear, then cast his spell and disappeared from the ship.

"This not good," murmured Gilbert. "Fighting undead in ice and snow?" The wizard had a well-known dislike for undead creatures and had exchanged a small portion of his life-force to permanently alter his vision so it could magically detect those creatures of an undead nature. Still muttering to himself, he stomped back downstairs to the hidden hold to go prepare his own spells for the upcoming mission.

The next few hours were filled with anxiety. Hagan returned and passed out the cold weather gear he'd just purchased for himself, Gilbert, Castillan, Aithanar, and Jinkadoodle. Ingebold returned from her cabin and cast the heroes' feast spell to grant the heroes a few advantages in the combats to follow, but unlike the previous times she'd cast the spell, the meal thereafter was filled mostly with nervous silence.

"How much longer?" asked Jinkadoodle, nibbling some of the fruit and bread Ingebold had brought him from the table where she'd cast the spell, so he could enjoy the benefits of the magical feast as well as the others.

"It's just up ahead," Ingebold replied, squinting at the snow blowing sideways outside the viewports. "We've got a blizzard ahead o' us," she noted, and began the words to a control weather spell to lessen the arctic winds in the area where they'd be landing. She finished up the spell just as the ship arrived at its destination - a flat plane of snow just outside a valley perched in the shadow of a massive glacier.

"We can't go down there," said Jinkadoodle. "The winds are too strong - I'd likely crash us into the side of one of those ice cliffs." It was still difficult to see through the blowing snow, but the cleric's spells had lessened the blizzard, and the valley looked to be surrounded on most sides by either the glacier itself or nearly vertical cliffs of solid ice. A single path along the right-hand cliff wall into the valley looked safe enough to traverse - and a plume of steam rising up from the valley showed the rock's likely landing spot.

"Put 'er down here, then," Ingebold commanded. "We'll have t' walk from here on in."

Jinkadoodle landed the dragonfly ship on a flat field of snow; the blizzard all around the ship had lessened in its severity but not yet fully dissipated. As a result, as the adventurers donned their cold weather gear and disembarked from the spelljamming vessel there was a limit as to how far away they could see. But Ingebold's all-white eyes had a pinpoint fix upon the black rock from the Negative Energy Plane, which the cleric said had crash-landed in the arctic valley about an hour ago.

Following the determined dwarf, the group saw a pair of figures appear in the blowing snow before them. As they got nearer, the figures resolved into the forms of a pair of male frost giants, with ice-covered beards over their bluish skin. Each carried a greataxe and looked ready to use it. Hagan, ever the optimist, decided to try to parley with the pair. "Excuse us," he said, "but we wish to enter the valley below. We do not wish to fight you."

"That's good," grunted one of the giants. "We like it when our prey don't fight back!" And then both giants laughed at the remark, moving forward to attack the heroes. "Meat for the stewpot!" the other giant enthused.

As the heroes readied themselves for the attack, Finoula tried reason one more time, thinking perhaps if she spoke in their own language she'd have better luck. Using the Giant tongue, she briefly explained about the falling black rock and how it could be a danger to all in the area. All she got for her trouble was a chunk of ice thrown at her, striking her in the side and nearly toppling her over. At the same time, the other giant had lobbed a chunk of ice at Hagan, but the sorcerer got a warning from Wezhley - who was sitting perched on the half-orc's shoulder - and Hagan managed to avoid the incoming missile.

And then combat was on. Hagan began by casting a delayed blast fireball (without the delay) at a point equidistant between the incoming giants, blasting each with an explosion of flame that burned off the ice from their beards and hair. The half-orc then wisely backed up a few steps, getting out of the way of the front-line fighters eager to take on the giants in hand-to-hand combat.

Binkadink was the first of these. As Darrien shot an arrow at one of the giants, momentarily attracting his attention, the little gnome stepped up and skewered him through the gut, killing him instantly. Castillan came up behind Binkadink and shot his light crossbow at the other giant, but a gust of wintry wind sent the quarrel off course. Behind the bounder, Gilbert Fung cast a mage armor spell upon himself and his earth elemental familiar Mudpie to ready them for any upcoming melee combat (although the wizard greatly preferred staying out of melee range whenever possible).

Ingebold cast a bless spell upon the entire group; while they currently had but one foe left, the dwarf was sure that wouldn't necessarily be the case for long. Finoula stepped up to the remaining frost giant, flicking her flaming whip of thorns at his face - and act he didn't seem to appreciate in the least. He retaliated against the elf ranger with a powerful swing of his axe - and then, surprisingly, turned around and fled, calling for help.

Not wanting to allow the frost giant to fetch reinforcements, Hagan squinted into the blowing snow and calculated the distance between him and his foe, then cast a wall of fire right ahead of the fleeing frost giant; unable to slow his headlong rush, the giant ran directly into the fiery wall and was engulfed in flames. He gave a roar of pain and then fell forward, a charred corpse melting the snow beneath him.

But the wall of fire did more than just slay the second frost giant: it also lit up the area enough that the group could see the large structure directly past the flames. It was a house of wood, but one twenty feet tall - and yet still only one story tall, judging from the 12-foot-tall door that opened. Another frost giant stood in the doorway, squinting past the wall of fire to see who was responsible for the death of the charred corpse on the ground before him. "What's going on?" demanded Jarl Kjornenheim.

Finoula saw another opportunity for a peaceful solution. Calling on Hagan to drop his magical wall, she called out to the frost giant jarl in his own tongue. "Your men attacked us and we fought back, but we mean no harm to you or those of you dwelling here. We seek a black rock that fell from the sky, which means death and destruction for everyone in the area. We wish to find the rock and destroy it before it can cause anyone any harm."

Jarl Kjornenheim scanned the group before him and the bodies of his two men - if they took them out without apparently losing any of their own forces, they must be of considerable strength. The jarl could respect that. "Very well," he said. "You are welcome to step inside, out of the cold, and state your case. But we guard access to the valley - there's a tribe of yetis living there, and in this environment meat is meat and we depend upon them for food." He turned behind him and called to one of two figures in the back of the room. "Veornokkir, go drag the bodies of our men behind the house. With a look of distrust at the heroes, Ice Mage Veornokkir headed out the massive door to follow the orders of his leader.

The other figure stepped forward beside her husband the jarl and introduced herself as Bjilgarra. "Please accept the hospitality of our house," she said. Reluctantly, and with not much more trust than Ice Mage Veornokkir had demonstrated, the adventurers entered the frost giant dwelling. The front door - the only door visible in the house, and one that was nearly ten feet wide - was flanked outside by two ice sculptures of winter wolves, their snouts partially melted by the blast of heat Hagan's wall of fire had produced. Stepping inside the house, the group spread out, Gilbert and Mudpie making sure they didn't stray too far from the door - the wizard wanted to be able to make a quick exit if it became necessary.

Finoula repeated her tale of the black rock in the Giant language, while Ingebold looked on impatiently - she would rather they be on their way immediately, no matter what these frost giants thought about it. But Jarl Kjornenheim seemed unimpressed by the danger. "I fail to see how a rock that fell from the sky can hurt anyone in any case - if it was going to hurt anyone, surely it would be when it landed on them, not after the fact. And I have already sent two of my finest warriors, Fragnir and Gaarkenbral, to the valley to check out the falling rock in any case. They took our two winter wolves, Frostfang and Snowpelt, with them - they should be able to face any danger provided by a sky-rock."

"How long ago?" demanded Ingebold.

"Maybe an hour or so," replied the jarl. "But they should be back presently." Ingebold and Gilbert exchanged worried looks.

"I think maybe we go check for ourselves," suggested Gilbert. But then there was a scratching and a whining at the door, as something outside apparently tried to get in. The mage sprang away from the door, afraid at what they might find if they opened it. The rest of the group readied themselves for an attack, expecting undead forces trying to get in. At the jarl's nod of assent, Binkadink opened the door with his glaive ready for a counterattack if whatever was on the other side of the door wanted a fight.

But that turned out not to be the case. As the gnome pulled the door open, a pair of winter wolves came crashing into the room, only to slink beneath the massive wooden table directly beyond the door, to the blazing fire on the far side of the room. There they whimpered, their tails between their legs, as they looked fearfully at the front door.

"What's gotten into you?" demanded Jarl Kjornenheim, addressing his pets.

Binkadink stepped outside, noticing the blizzard had almost completely blown itself out, no doubt with a nudge from Ingebold's control weather spell. Looking toward the valley - and noting he could see much farther than he could before, now that the snow wasn't blowing sideways - he saw a trio of figures. Two were obviously frost giants, each with a greataxe slung over a broad shoulder, but also a shorter figure walking nonchalantly between them. This was a shaggy, white-furred ape-thing, which Binkadink recognized as a yeti - and which was somewhat odd, given that Jarl Kjornenheim had said the frost giants treated the snow-apes as prey. And then the little gnome noticed that one of the giants carried a large, black rock in his other arm.

"Uh, guys," he said. "I think we've got a problem here." Finoula, Darrien, and Hagan popped outside to get a look at what Binkadink was referring to; true to form, Gilbert moved deeper inside the shelter of the building, farther away from the approaching danger.

With the massive strength of his race, the lead frost giant hurled the black rock directly at the gnome. He missed, if he'd actually been targeting Binkadink, because it soon became apparent that all he had really needed to do was to drop the stone in the heroes' general vicinity: Binkadink, Finoula, Hagan and Wezhley, and even Castillan who was still inside the building, each felt a draining sensation as some of their life-force, their vitality, was absorbed by the rock.

The other frost giant had an ice chunk slightly larger than his fist in his hand and he threw it at Hagan, but again the half-orc dodged the incoming missile. Darrien shot a barrage of arrows from his Arachnibow at the first giant, and in lining up his shots he got a good look at his foe, noticing for the first time the undead flesh pulled tightly against the creature's skull. The trio moved too smoothly to be zombies; wights, then, perhaps?

Back in the frost giants' dwelling, three spectral forms rose up from the rear part of the huge room, behind the fire pit and the cowering winter wolves. These were yetis in wraith forms, having traveled with the trio outside but doing so beneath the ground, to avoid the light of the sun, feeble as it might be at this northern latitude. Sensing life above, though, they rose up to attack.

The howls of the wolves caught Jarl Kjornenheim's attention; he spun and raced to aid his frightened pets, greataxe in hand. Without worrying about whether his physical attack would even affect the wraiths he swung out with his axe, catching one of the spectral yetis in a hit that would have cut it in two had it still had a corporeal body. The yeti backed off, but whether that was because the blow had hurt it or out of simple instinct - it had been an incorporeal wraith for less than an hour, after all - was difficult to say.

Back outside, the yeti wight scrambled up and scratched at Finoula with a set of wicked claws, catching her in the shoulder. Once again, she felt the vitality being drained from her body and while she managed to pull away from the undead thing's grasp, she felt weaker as a result of the attack. So, rather than depend upon her weapons at hand, she reached up and touched her lightning amulet, activating it with a word and sending a bolt of lightning through the wight's body. She willed herself to re-form as an elf at the very greatest distance of the amulet's range, wanting to give herself some distance from her energy-sapping foes.

Binkadink charged the yeti with his magic glaive, putting all of his strength into the attack. He skewered the blade right through the wight's midsection and then ripped it out again. What spurted out of the wight's torso wasn't blood, but it was an indicator that its unnatural semblance of life had come to an abrupt end.

Inside the giants' house, Gilbert realized that the black rock was continuing to drain life energy from those around it, and that fighting off the undead was merely dealing with the side-effects; they needed to fight the root cause. The best way to do that was to get that rock out of the vicinity, but it looked too heavy for any of the heroes to move. For a moment he considered enlarging his earth elemental familiar and sending him in, but he knew that even Mudpie couldn't resist the energy-draining aspects of the stone; if anyone could resist the necromantic effects, it was probably Ingebold...especially since the cleric had gotten specific warnings about the chunk of calcimortum falling from the sky, and her eyes shone white when she had concentrated on its location. There was a connection there, to be sure.

"Ingebold!" cried Gilbert from across the room, drawing the cleric's attention to him. He climbed up onto the massive wooden table in the middle of the room and pulled out his slingshot of rock shrinking. It ought to work on a necromantic rock from the Negative Energy Plane as well as any terrestrial rock, he reasoned. "Take this and shrink the rock! Then send it out of our way!" The cleric climbed up onto a giant chair to fetch the weapon from the portly mage. "Aye, good idea!" she agreed.

But events conspired against that plan. With a sudden crack, the stone split open like an egg and fell to pieces where it stood. Revealed from its now-shattered prison, a black skull, seemingly carved from the same rock - or perhaps calcified into that form from untold eons on the Negative Energy Plane - floated in place in the air. In either case, it seemed to absorb light from all around it, appearing as the darkest black any of the assembled heroes could recall seeing, with spots of glistening light coming from its teeth, where various gems had been embedded, giving the demilich several points of color that seemed incongruous in its otherwise ebon form.

Gilbert missed the demilich's "hatching," however - he had turned to face the back of the room from his perch on the table and cast an undeath to death spell on the three yeti wraiths. Two of them discorporated immediately, their insubstantial forms dissipating into nothingness. But Castillan, close to the open front doorway, used his magic ring to dimension door to the back half of the room, hoping to take care of that third yeti wraith - and put plenty of distance between him and that floating, black skull. In any case, he lost his chance to slay the last wraith when the frost giant jarl did it for him, chopping through its insubstantial form in a way that managed to slay it as easily as if it had been alive.

But then another yeti wraith appeared from outside the frost giant dwelling, rising up from the body of the slain yeti wight. Apparently merely killing the wights raised by the life-draining calcimortum was not enough!

With howls of fear, Snowpelt and Frostfang raced across the back of the room to cower in the corner, tails tucked between their legs. Against any earthly prey they were vicious killers, but against floating undead they were terrified pups.

Seeing they were facing the demilich now, Ingebold knew she needed to cast death ward on as many of the group as she could - and she also realized, without any selfishness on her part, that she needed the protection the most - Moradin had guided her hand in choosing her spells this day, she knew, and she wouldn't let herself get taken out of the fight too soon. She said the words to the spell and felt a new level of protection settle over her.

While they were still somewhat clumped together, Hagan realized he could cast a delayed blast fireball that would catch both frost giant wights, the yeti wraith, and the demilich within its radius - but to do so, Binkadink would also be caught within the effect of the spell. Seeing the half-orc's hesitation, Binkadink cried out in encouragement, "Do it, Hagan! I can take it!"

He'd come to regret those words, for he had apparently forgotten about the necklace of fireballs he wore around his neck. Hagan cast the spell with no delay and all five figures were momentarily engulfed in flames - but then Binkadink's necklace exploded in a blast of fire that rivaled the half-orc's spell. By the time both explosions had run their course, Binkadink's face had been blackened by soot and the frost giant wights had had their beards partially singed off, and they yeti wraith had been slain. The winter wolf ice sculptures that had been painstakingly shaped by Ice Mage Veornokkir had been half-melted by the immense heat. But the little gnome still stood on his own two legs, and as for the demilich - it seemed not to have noticed either blast.

Binkadink took advantage of the momentary confusion brought on by the double blasts of fire energy to stab his glaive into the belly of one of the frost giant wights, then pull it to the side such that he nearly cut the undead thing into two. It fell to the ground in a mass of spilling organs and did not rise again. But then the demilich pivoted in place until it faced the gnome and its eye-holes blazed a fierce red, sending twin beams of hellish energy stabbing at the gnome - and in a flash, Binkadink's body fell face-first into the snow, crumbling into dust as he fell. A mere moment later, there was nothing but the gnome fighter's armor and weapons in a pile on the ground where he had just been standing. Had anybody been close enough to notice, they'd have seen one of the gems imbedded in the demilich's teeth blaze brightly as the gnome's soul was imprisoned within.

Spinning in place, the demilich floated into the frost giant building, causing those nearby to flee to the sides to let it pass by.

Outside, Finoula activated her amulet again to become a bolt of lightning that blasted back through the remaining frost giant wight, and then she resumed her elven form standing beside Binkadink's pile of armor. "Bink!" she cried, helpless to do anything about her gnome friend's death. Darrien peppered the wight with arrows to keep it focused away from his fellow ranger, then retreated back into the frost giant dwelling, while Ingebold cast a death ward spell upon her Battle-Sister.

And then, rising up from the body of the wight Binkadink had slain before being killed himself, appeared a frost giant wraith. This explained the presence of the yeti wraiths that had appeared in the back of the dwelling; apparently Fragnir and Gaarkenbral had slain a trio of yeti wights before becoming undead themselves. The frost giant wraith flew straight through the wall of the dwelling it once called home, and targeted the closest living being to it: Ingebold. But fortunately, the dwarven cleric saw it coming and avoided its strike.

The demilich flew over the table towards the back of the room, heading toward Jarl Kjornenheim. Gilbert cast a solid fog spell that covered the entire middle of the room, centered on the floating black skull, but also encompassing the jarl's wife, Bjilgarra, and Ice Mage Veornokkir. The frost giant jarl, with Castillan by his side, readied their weapons to strike at the demilich should it exit the hemisphere of solid fog cutting the room into three parts. Within moments, Veornokkir backed out of the fog, for he had been right up at the very edge of the spell's effect. He followed his jarl's lead in preparing to strike at the demilich should it exit the cloud near him.

But while the demilich found traveling through the magically-dense fog slow going, that didn't make it any less deadly. It opened its stone jaw and emitted an unearthly cry, a wail of the banshee, that instantly slew Ice Mage Veornokkir. It also slew Bjilgarra, but that wouldn't be apparent for some time, as she fell where she had been standing unseen in the cloud of solid fog.

Although he had several more powerful spells available, Hagan opted to cast a low-level magic missile at the frost giant wraith menacing Ingebold, for the simple reason that he knew for a fact its force energy would unerringly strike the insubstantial creature, whereas most other spells had a chance of passing through its wispy body without harm. Ingebold in turn cast a death ward spell upon the half-orc sorcerer, shielding him from the sort of attack that had just slain poor Binkadink.

Gilbert Fung had no idea exactly where the demilich was, but he knew it was still somewhere within the solid fog spell's area of effect. With that in mind, he cast an Evard's black tentacles spell right over his previous spell, thinking to have the black skull entwined and immobilized by the writhing tentacles. What he had failed to take into account, however, was the fact that the eponymous black tentacles were but 10 feet long, whereas the ceiling height of the frost giant dwelling was double that. Unseen within the area of effect of the solid fog spell, the ebon tentacles caught nothing up but Bjilgarra's corpse, while the demilich floated untouched above their reach.

Finoula used the last daily charge of her amulet to blast through the frost giant wraith as a bolt of lightning, landing high on the opposite wall and staying there courtesy of her boots of spider climbing. By that time, many of the heroes were looking much the worse for wear from their battles thus far, so Ingebold cast a mass cure moderate wounds that had the twofold benefits of healing her friends while dealing damage to her undead foes. Indeed, the sole remaining frost giant wight looked to be on its last legs by this point. But it was not the next to perish; Hagan took out the frost giant wraith with another magic missile spell.

Darrien decided to do what he could against the frost giant wight, shooting another small barrage of arrows into its chest. Nearby, Gilbert cast a haste spell that encompassed all of the heroes but himself, Mudpie, and Castillan - he had selfless decided affecting the more combat-oriented combatants would serve their side the most, and Castillan was skipped over simply because he was too far away, still trapped on the other side of the joint solid fog/Evard's black tentacles spells.

Still perched up high on the wall, Finoula slew the frost giant wight, who had entered the building in search of foes to slay (or drain into wights), with her flaming whip of thorns. With it no longer in the fight, that left only the demilich to deal with - and it was somewhere within Gilbert's double spell area of effect. The wizard assumed it was tightly grasped within the rigid embrace of several of his tentacles, and was surprised to see it wander out of the solid fog spell up by the ceiling. Its eye-holes flashed red, twin beams stabbed out at Hagan, and the half-orc's body would likely have crumbled to dust like Binkadink's had if he hadn't been specifically warded against such death effects by Ingebold's spell.

Ingebold struck out with a spell she'd been prompted - by Moradin? - to prepare that morning, and was surprised to see a simple shatter spell deal some damage to the jet-black skull where other, more powerful spells (like Hagan's fireballs) had failed.

By then, Gilbert had realized his mistake about targeting his Evard's black tentacles spell and corrected the error in a second casting of the spell, this time on the wall opposite Finoula, well within 10 feet of the floating skull. Rubbery, ebon appendages grew from the wall, several of them encompassing the demilich's form until it could no longer be seen. It used its wail of the banshee attack blindly, but this time there was nobody within range.

"What's going on over there?" asked Castillan. As the original solid fog spell was still up, the bounder and the frost giant jarl were still cut off from the action. Castillan knew he could use his ring to dimension door over to the front half of the room, but to do so blindly could end up with him reappearing in the same area where somebody else stood.

"I can't see anything!" admitted Jarl Kjornenheim. Then Castillan spotted a door to the right. "Where's this lead to?" he asked.

"The men's bunkroom," the jarl replied.

"Does it go all the way to the front?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"Then what are we waiting for?" demanded Castillan, pulling the door open and racing through the bunkroom, which stretched most of the house's length. There was another door at the front end of the room; Darrien stood in the open doorway there with his Arachnibow ready to fire at the demilich should it escape Gilbert's latest spell.

Jarl Kjornenheim raced behind Castillan, pushing Darrien out of the way to get to the front area of the room, looking for his wife (whose corpse was still stuck within the solid fog; he roared in fury when he called for Bjilgarra and there was no answer). The bounder took the opportunity of being out of the frost giant's view to pop open a trunk at the foot of the nearest bed, and was surprised to see it filled with gold coins, bits of jewelry, and ivory carvings. Impressed, he made a note to fill up Ingebold's portable hole with the contents of the giants' trunks once the fighting was over.

"It look like he stuck for good," observed Gilbert as the heroes took a moment to catch their breath and Ingebold administered healing as it was needed. "We ought to figure what we going to do when tentacles go away - that spell not last forever."

"I've got my stonepiercer dagger," observed Castillan. "If I get close enough to it, I bet I can deal it some hefty damage - the thing looks like it's made of stone, and the dagger does extra damage against stone creatures."

"It up by ceiling," pointed out Gilbert. "How you get up there to stab it?"

"Here," offered Finoula, dropping to the top of the wooden table and taking off her magical boots. "Take my boots of spider climbing." She and Castillan swapped boots; his magical boots of elvenkind reshaped themselves to fit the ranger's smaller feet. Gilbert then cast an invisibility spell on the bounder, so he could step up to the demilich on the ceiling without being seen. "You'll have to dismiss that tentacles spell of yours, though, if I'm going to be able to get close enough," pointed out Castillan.

As Ingebold, Finoula, and Hagan all had death ward spells cast upon them, they lined up in a row upon the wooden table, ready to attack once Gilbert dismissed the Evard's black tentacles spell. Jarl Kjornenheim stood by the wall, just outside the range of the spell effect, his axe raised and ready to strike out at the black skull.

"Everybody ready?" the heavyset wizard called out. The demilich was still hidden beneath a pile of writhing appendages, its exact location unable to be discerned.

"Wait a minute!" called an invisible Castillan. "Where's Binkadink?" The little gnome had been slain while the bounder was in the back half of the room, out of view of the demilich's dealings outside. Ingebold filled him in with a voice that broke in sadness. "We'll be avengin' him, don't ye doubt it," she promised.

Gilbert dismissed the vertical Evard's black tentacles spell and everyone attacked at once. Jarl Kjornenheim sent the head of his greataxe crashing down upon the suddenly-revealed demilich, barely even scratching its rocky surface. Hagan cast a chain lightning spell directly at the skull, to no discernable effect. Ingebold, her holy symbol of Moradin held before her, tried to turn the vile creature, and although she felt the biggest swell of positive energy flow through her that she'd ever felt before, the attempt did no more than Hagan's electrical attack spell. Finoula snapped her flaming whip of thorns at the demilich, and at least the fire seemed to have some small effect. Darrien, who had been lined up to attack the skull from a different direction than Castillan would be attacking from, sent a few arrows bouncing harmlessly from the skull's fossilized surface. Gilbert's attempted dismissal spell, with which he had hoped to send the calcified skull back to the Negative Energy Plane, had no effect whatsoever.

But Castillan suddenly popped into view as his stonepiercer dagger slid into the skull's stony surface like a hot knife into butter. The skull's eye sockets flashed red and a pair of rays blasted out, but fortunately for the bounder the demilich had targeted the biggest enemy first; Jarl Kjornenheim fell to the floor, his greataxe landing beside the pile of his armor as his body flaked away to nothingness. Another of the demilich's tooth-gems flared up as the frost giant's soul took up residence in its new home.

Freed from Gilbert's tentacles spell, the demilich wasted no time crossing the room as fast as it could. Finoula's whip struck out at it as it flew and Castillan tried stabbing with his dagger but wasn't quick enough. But that didn't stop the bounder for long; running across the ceiling, he followed the fleeing demilich's course, stabbing at it again with his magic dagger. He hit, but didn't deal anywhere near the amount of damage he'd done with his surprise attack while invisible.

Finoula could no longer run across the ceiling, but she ran the width of the giants' tabletop, snapping her whip at the floating skull. Ingebold ran up beside her Battle-Sister and cast another shatter spell at the undead skull, knowing in advance it was one of the handful of spells that could actually harm the demilich. Hagan tried a magic missile, emboldened by its effectiveness against the wraith, but no luck - the spell didn't faze the demilich in the least. Instead, its eyes flashed red again, and Castillan's body crumbled to dust, his weapons and armor falling with a crash to the floor as his soul was imprisoned inside a tooth-gem.

"We running out of spells!" Gilbert called frantically. Most of what they had left were not affecting the demilich, and they were now down two of their number. They had dealt the skull some damage, to be sure, but with their foe being seemingly carved from solid rock, it was difficult to ascertain exactly how much it had been hurt. Was it on its last legs, so to speak, or could it continue on like this indefinitely? There was no real way to tell.

On inspiration, Ingebold reached up beside the holy symbol of Moradin the Soul-Forger she wore around her neck, and touched the amulet she also wore. "Annavel," the cleric spoke across the planes. "I have need of ye this day!"

In a flash of light, Annavel the sword archon answered the summons. A celestial being with flaming swords for arms, she instinctively felt the evil of the floating demilich beside her and attacked without further prompting. Her sword-arms were infused with holy energy from the upper plane of Mount Celestia and the flying stone skull cried out in pain at their attack.

As the celestial dealt some definite damage against the demilich, the other heroes tried their best to do the same. Finoula continued using her flaming whip of thorns, and Gilbert tried casting an undeath to death spell directly upon the flying skull. Hagan, lacking anything else to try, took the opportunity to cast a false life spell upon himself and his familiar - it certainly couldn't hurt at this point!

But the demilich struck back at what it perceived as its greatest threat: Annavel the sword archon. With a hellish flash of red light, the angel's soul was absorbed into a gem on one of the demilich's teeth. "No!" cried out more than one of the heroes at once, for the sword archon had looked to be their best bet at defeating this nearly unbeatable foe.

And then the demilich did something that frightened the assembled heroes more than anything else it had done thus far: it wheeled in the air and started heading for the open door of the frost giant dwelling. Apparently being confronted by a force of mortals putting up this much of a fight was not the spearhead the undead creature had been looking for upon its arrival on this world; there were other creatures nearby he could transform into wights, and thus spread out, slowly at first, across the globe.

"Don't let it escape!" called Ingebold, fear in her voice. The prophetic dream she'd had this morning -- it was starting to come true!

Gilbert cast a wall of force to try to stop the demilich's movement, hoping it wouldn't see it in time and crash into it, perhaps buying the heroes a few more moments to come up with another plan of attack. But the demilich altered its course and elevated up above the spell's effect, its innate true seeing allowing it to see the boundaries of the invisible force-wall before it.

A flood of calm came over Ingebold just then; she knew exactly what she must do, for Moradin had placed the possibility in her head this morning when He had guided her spell selection. The dwarf's left hand unconsciously went to the pocket of her fur cloak while she held up Moradin's holy symbol in her right. "BEGONE, FOUL CREATURE!" she called, as a beam of holy light spilled from the Soul-Forger's symbol in her hand and struck the demilich, holding it in place. Ingebold's eyes blazed a pure white, just as they had when she was concentrating on the location of the chunk of calcimortum before it had fallen in the yeti valley. But the whiteness this time was brighter than ever before, and it started spreading beyond just her eyes. Ingebold's skin started glowing, and the cleric gave a scream of determination as her body, as immobile as the demilich she had pinned by her beam of holy energy, began dissolving into holy energy itself. Ingebold's scream was joined by one from the demilich, but the ebon skull's was caused by fear, not resolve.

The light blazed, causing the other heroes to shield their eyes. Then there was a dual crash, as two sets of objects fell to the ground just outside the front door of the frost giant home. One was the demilich, which shattered upon landing, becoming a thousand pieces of crumbling stone that dissolved away to nothingness; for a moment, it looked like a translucent Binkadink, Castillan, Jarl Kjornenheim, and Annavel could be seen, but then they were gone. The other crash was the armor, clothing, and held possessions of Ingebold Battershield - all but the holy symbol of Moradin, which had been melted away to nothingness itself by the surge of holy energy.

"Ingebold!" cried Finoula, rushing to where her Battle-Sister had fallen, and where she'd have expected to find her body. But other than her possessions, there was nothing there. The elven ranger dropped to her knees beside Ingebold's gear.

"What just happened?" Darrien asked, confused by the turn of events.

"I think...she killed it," Gilbert stated, the amazement in his voice evident by his having forgotten to speak in the pidgin-Common he normally affected. He poked around the pile of her equipment, looking for a clue of some type. He saw a piece of paper sticking out from an inner pocket of the cleric's cloak. Curious, he pulled it out and saw it to be two sheets of parchment, folded up. He unfolded them, saw the name on the first sheet, and handed them to Finoula. "This is for you," he said.

Finoula took the sheets and started reading them, tears streaking her face by the second page. She read the whole thing silently to herself on the first pass, then started over and read it aloud to the others a second time. She read:

Finoula,

I want to write this letter in case things turn out like I've a feeling they might. Ye see, I had me a vision last night. No, it were stronger than a mere vision, it were more like a sending, one directly from Moradin Himself.

I know what evils that black rock can do to our world. I know there's a skull buried inside it, and destroying the skull is more important than anything else – even me own life. And I know, straight from Moradin, that stopping that skull may well take me life. If it do, I dinnae think that's a death I can come back from. I hope it'll not come to that, but if it do, it's a price I stand willing to pay.

Another thing ye should know: this had to be me. Sure, there may be other clerics in the world powerful enough to deal with this threat, but the Forgefather didnae just need a cleric of sufficient strength – He needed one who could get to the black rock's landing site in enough time to stop the spread of the undead scourge.

He needed a cleric with access to a flying ship.

And finally, what made me most suitable for this mission among all others was the fact that I've already experienced death. That may prove to be the necessary link that allows me to be able to channel me positive energy directly into the blasted skull. I hope I can kill the wee beastie and live to tell the tale, but if not then so be it. I know ye still feel guilt about having been tricked into killing me with that demon sword, so maybe this will help ye forgive yerself fully. If ye'd never have killed me, I might not now be able to stop the skull, and it might spread its plague of undeath across the globe.

I'll fold this up now and keep it with me. If I survive the battle, I'll destroy this letter. But if I'm slain and cannae come back, I want ye to know it's not from lack of wanting to rejoin yer ranks. I never expected to be an adventurer like me Father, but I wouldnae trade the past years fighting alongside ye for anything.

Your Battle-Sister,

Ingebold

P.S.: Please look after me Ma and Pa once I’m gone.

"She's gone," Finoula said, and now the tears flowed freely.

- - -

The players had their PCs gather up the belongings of the dead heroes - Binkadink, Castillan, and Ingebold - and they decided they'll spend the 50,000 gp for two true resurrection spells for the first two slain heroes. They looted the giants' house and got 36,000 gp; Harry, bless his heart, offered up Hagan's cash reserves to help finance the difference. (That's pretty generous for an 11-year-old who mostly likes to have his PC blow stuff up.) And I made Vicki cry with Ingebold's letter at the end of the adventure.

Knowing full well that this could be Ingebold's last adventure, I made sure Vicki was running her at the beginning of the session, although I had already prepared her spells the night before (acting as Moradin's guiding hand, as it were). I also stepped in and had Ingebold cast the control weather spell before the dragonfly ship landed, as I'd had her prepare that for that very reason. But after that, I gave Vicki full reign as far as running Ingebold. And naturally, once Binkadink was slain by the demilich, Vicki turned Ingebold over to Logan so he'd have a PC to run for the rest of the session. Once things looked desperate enough, I took Logan aside and told him about the possibility of the one-shot "super-turning" and its potential consequences, and eventually he saw it as their only hope.

By the way, Jacob wasn't with us during this session - he's now 21 years old, in college, and has a girlfriend, and the lure of playing D&D with his family and mine isn't the powerful draw it used to be. He asked his dad, Dan, to run Castillan for him, with the warning, "Just don't get him killed." Heh heh heh - there are never any guarantees there, Jacob! So we might be seeing less and less of Jacob at the gaming table. He wants Dan to continue running Castillan as well as Gilbert, but I've offered up putting Castillan on a "behind the scenes" mission for awhile, and joining him back up with the group (at the same XP level) whenever Jacob wants to join us for a session. I even have an adventure planned (#60, as a matter of fact) [Later edit: I ended bumping it to #56 once Jacob started gaming with us again] that has Castillan being given a specific assignment that he brings the rest of the group to accomplish; I can simply have him working on it for the duration until he finally asks for help from the other PCs once the campaign gets to that point.

As an aside, I think this campaign will last a total of 80 adventures in all. We'll likely have about five adventures at each of the remaining levels, culminating in a party of 20th-level PCs. I don't have everything figured out just yet, but I do have the adventures written through #61, with broad ideas for the last half dozen or so.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My black "Walking Dead" T-shirt, with numerous zombies forming a skull silhouette.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 50: AN AUDIENCE WITH THE SUCCESSOR

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 14​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 14​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 14​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 14​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 14​

NPC Roster:
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5​
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 7​

Game Session Date: 28 July 2018

- - -

It had been an eventful week.

The return trip from the arctic in the dragonfly ship was a solemn affair. Jinkadoodle parked the spelljamming vessel on the cloud island as normal, and then everyone went down to the extradimensional space at the bottom of the ship's hold and stepped onto the runes carved onto the floor of one of the bedrooms that would take them, two at a time, to the carpet of teleporting they had left unfurled in the courtyard of Battershield Keep. Aerik was still at his duties in the castle with King Galrich when they returned; thus it was only Helga who saw them arrive without her daughter among them, carrying her gear. She turned to Finoula with a fearful question on her face, but then didn't even need to ask - the tears streaming down the elf's face were all the answer she needed.

In the days that followed, the stern-faced dwarven clerics of the Church of Moradin performed a series of divinations and confirmed what the heroes had told them: Ingebold Battershield, beloved daughter of Aerik and Helga, had been slain in battle against an undead scourge that could quite literally have eventually led to the destruction of every living thing on the planet. Despite the lack of a body, Ingebold Battershield was given a formal burial ceremony, even though it was recognized by the Head Cleric, Duerna Forgewife, that Ingebold's soul had been obliterated in destroying the calcimortum demilich; there would be no eventual reunion with her parents in Moradin's Halls after their deaths, for there was no longer any piece of Ingebold to pass on to an eternal rest. It was a difficult concept for her parents to adjust to, knowing that their daughter had been taken from them not just in this life but in the next as well. Still, they harbored no ill-will toward Ingebold's adventuring companions; rather, Finoula practically became a second daughter to Helga - if Ingebold had been taken from her, then she would hold on all the harder to Ingebold's Battle-Sister.

Hagan was even allowed to move his belongings into Ingebold's old bedroom, rather than continue sharing a room with the two gnomes.

But there were other things to do, other matters that needed attending to without delay. Castillan and Binkadink had both been slain by the demilich and had to be resurrected; fortunately, their souls had merely been torn from their bodies, not obliterated entirely. Finoula, Hagan, and Gilbert had all been drained of a portion of their vitality; they required restoration spells to be made whole again. It wasn't lost on the group that these were all tasks that Ingebold would normally have performed; it would take them long to get over their grief at the loss of their friend, but equally long to adjust to adventuring without a powerful cleric by their side.

And the very day they had flown off to the arctic and saved the world from the demilich, back in Kordovia, King Galrich had formally announced his intention to step down from the throne. Publicly, he credited the decision to advancing age and poor physical health as well as Princess Kaelanna's readiness to take his place; privately, he realized his mental faculties weren't always all there and he was getting easily confused more and more often. For the good of the kingdom, it would be best for him to retire and pass the scepter of succession to his adopted daughter.

Castillan was also called away; he was summoned to his father's study and returned to the group shortly thereafter, explaining he had to attend to a family concern and could possibly be gone for some months. So soon after being true resurrected, he too was gone from the heroes' midst. "Group getting smaller and smaller," observed Gilbert Fung.

And then, at the end of the week, the group woke to a summons from Princess Kaelanna herself. A castle page had been sent with a horse-drawn carriage to escort the adventurers to the castle. "What this about?" demanded Gilbert, cranky from having been awakened early, but the page had no answer to give. The heroes were herded into the carriage, although Binkadink opted to ride alongside on his jackalope Obvious, and the rangers had Wrath and Grumps Junior tag alongside as well. Gilbert shrunk Mudpie down to pebble size with his slingshot of rock shrinking and put him in a pocket of his robes.

The answer to Gilbert's question came soon enough, though. Upon being escorted into a receiving room, Princess Kaelanna greeted them warmly. "Thank you for attending me so promptly," she said. Her skin, which had always been fairly light with a slightly greenish cast, was noticeably paler than normal. "I am sure you are aware of the King's recent proclamation of his intentions to step down from the throne and appoint me in his stead. It would seem such a course of action is not appealing to everyone in the kingdom." With that, she handed over a piece of folded parchment to Hagan.

The half-orc opened the sheet of parchment. Inside was written the following:

KAELANNA,

IF YOU TAKE THE THRONE, YOU WILL DIE. KORDOVIA NEEDS NOBLE LEADERSHIP, NOT ANOTHER HALFBREED MONGREL. AT LEAST GALRICH WAS THE SON OF A QUEEN EVEN IF HIS FATHER WAS A LOWLY BRUTE. GO BACK TO THE CAVE OF YOUR BIRTH AND LIVE YOUR LIFE LIKE AN ANIMAL. WE DON'T NEED A DRAGON MONSTER FOR A QUEEN.

REMEMBER: IF YOU TRY TO BECOME OUR NEXT QUEEN, YOU WILL DIE. ANNOUNCE YOU WILL NOT BECOME QUEEN AND YOU WILL BE ALLOWED TO LIVE – PREFERABLY FAR AWAY FROM KORDOVIA.

YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE, GREEN DRAGON DAUGHTER. LEAVE OR DIE.

"Lovely," observed Hagan, frowning.

"When this come?" demanded Gilbert.

"A week ago," answered Kaelanna. "The afternoon of the morning King Galrich announced his intentions, as a matter of fact."

"You wait this long to do anything about it?" Gilbert sputtered.

"In truth, I gave it little concern," admitted the princess. "I assumed it was just the ramblings of a madman."

"But now you called us in," observed Finoula. "What has changed, Your Highness?"

Princess Kaelanna managed to look both embarrassed and angry. "Last night..." she began, sighing deeply, "...I was poisoned. I'm not sure how it was administered, but I'm told it was only luck - or perhaps my draconic heritage - that prevented me from dying last night. In any case, I've come to the belated conclusion that perhaps I should have taken that letter seriously."

"That a good idea!" piped in Gilbert, a note of exasperation in his voice.

"Can you tell us what you know of the poisoning?" prompted Finoula.

"I ate with King Galrich, Aerik, and my two ladies-in-waiting, Daedre Amathar and Lilibeth Everfaith. It was from...oh, about seven bells until eight. None of the others have showed any signs of having been poisoned. But I woke up in the middle of the night with horrible pains. I rolled out of my bed and crawled to one of the pull-cords that summon my ladies-in-waiting. Daedre came to me at once and sent a page immediately after a cleric. He cast a delay poison spell upon me, and then a neutralize poison, I think he said it was. He said from the symptoms - the paleness of my skin and the bluish tint around my lips - it was likely something called 'dark reaver powder'."

"I know of it," admitted Binkadink. His Uncle Winkidew and cousin Jinkadoodle were both expert potion-crafters and had some experience with poisons as part of their trade. "It's deadly. But it needs to be ingested - it would have to have been added to something you ate or drank."

"It didn't hit her until the middle of the night," pointed out Darrien.

"There are ways to delay a poison's effect," replied Binkadink. "It would have been simple enough to prepare the dark reaver powder in such a fashion that it would take effect hours after being eaten."

"But you say no one else who ate dinner with you was affected?" asked Finoula.

"That is correct. And the poison isn't the only threat of late. There have been reports of someone stirring up trouble in the marketplace from time to time, warning the citizens against having a queen with both elves and dragons in her bloodline, and thus ruling the kingdom for a thousand years. It's quite apparent that somebody doesn't want me to assume the throne of Kordovia. I would like you to use your adventuring skills to find out who's trying to kill me. I assume the throne in four days; it would be best if we had found the culprit before then!"

Binkadink asked to see the message. Looking it over, he noted, "This sounds like Vandergrotten. Did he have any relatives?" Nobody knew, but they could go see the castle historian, Zalian Darisath - he would surely have records on the Vandergrotten lineage, as it was one of the older noble families in Kordovian history.

Finoula saw another possibility, but was hesitant to approach it before the princess. "How much do you know of your birth, Your Highness?" she asked tentatively.

"That my mother gave birth to me in a dragon's cave, you mean? Or that she asked that I be slain for being a half-breed abomination?" Finoula's face reddened; apparently King Galrich had long since related to his adopted daughter the tale of her birth. But Finoula also thought back on her occasional disdain - and jealousy, if she were being honest - of her own younger, half-elven half-sister, Feron Dru, whose human father had been the second husband to Finoula's mother after the death of her first. Finoula, being a full-blooded elf, had often bridled at the speed by which Feron had advanced through the ranks of her own druidic order's levels. It was all too easy, she knew, for an elf to feel superior to one whose elven blood had been diluted with other races.

"I only wonder if it might be one of your birth parents," Finoula answered. "Or another elf, perhaps, who doesn't want to see a 'half-breed' take the throne."

"I acknowledge the possibility," responded Kaelanna, "but no specific names come to mind. And my birth mother, Nimashkihel, was taken back to her village by King Galrich, long before he became our king. He never learned the name of my elven father, and so neither did I. But as far as I know, they don't even know of my present whereabouts, let alone my imminent ascension to the throne of Kordovia."

"Several avenues to pursue," decided Gilbert, folding the note back up and sticking it in a pocket of his robes. "We have Aerik take guards to marketplace, see if they can find troublemaker. We talk to Darisath about Vandergrotten family, then question those from last night dinner. And I want to hear Daedre tell us story about last night when she find Kaelanna on bedroom floor."

Aerik was dispatched to the marketplace with a complement of guardsmen to question the vendors about recent instigators trying to stir up trouble against Princess Kaelanna assuming the throne. Then the group visited the castle historian. Zalian was able to tell them that although Targus Vandergrotten had never married and had sired no children, he had a younger sister, Telga, who died several years after Targus had been put to the sword. Telga had married a man named Gorkin Boorhaven and they had a daughter, Sabina Boorhaven, who moved away from Kordovia shortly after her mother died. There was no further record of the Vandergrotten line; if Sabina still lived, it was possible she held a grudge for the death of her uncle, but as Kaelanna had had nothing to do with Targus's death it would seem foolish for her to be trying to kill the princess - unless she shared her uncle's views on "half-breed abominations."

Daedre Amathar was brought before the group to tell her story of the night before. She confirmed that she had eaten the meal with the Kordovian royalty, she had suffered no ill effects from having done so, and that she had been awakened from her elven reverie by the bell from Kaelanna's pull-cord.

"Was there any food or drink in her room?" Finoula asked.

"I...I don't recall seeing anything like that. Although Princess Kaelanna does occasionally have a glass of wine in her room before bed. I'm not sure if she did last night, though."

"I did!" recalled Kaelanna. The group rushed to her bedroom and a quick search revealed a fluted glass goblet under her bed, where it had likely been knocked from the nightstand in her collapse from the bed. There was a tiny bit of residue on the inside of the glass; Binkadink held it up to his eye and proclaimed it looked like it could certainly contain dark reaver powder. "I'd want Uncle Winkidew to do some tests to be sure," he offered - and was promptly sent to bring the glass to Winkidew's Potion Shop for testing and analysis.

"Who brought you the wine last night, Your Highness?" asked Hagan.

"Voopie Meadowclover," replied Kaelanna without hesitation. "But surely she wouldn't want to poison me? She's been a loyal servant for years!"

"We go check this Voopie out," decided Gilbert. But Voopie was no longer at the castle - it was, apparently, her day off. Another trip to go see Zalian gave the heroes the address of Voopie's mother, where she stayed when she wasn't working at the castle - she generally served the princess for six days and five nights and the previous evening was the end of her week's shift. They caught up with Binkadink as he was returning from his uncle's shop - "He'll have some answers for us in a couple of hours," the gnome promised - and then everyone headed to Voopie's residence.

Voopie's mother answered the door, a wizened gnomish woman. "Oh, she's at her other job," the old woman announced, and gave the group the address of the home where her daughter was making some extra money on her day off. Finoula looked at the address and recognized it as being not far from her own mother's residence, in the more well-off elven sector of the city.

"Do you think this elf woman might be Kaelanna's birth mother?" asked Darrien.

"No way to know for sure," mused Gilbert. "None of us--wait! Aerik see her when Kaelanna first born! Darrien: use ebony fly to go to marketplace and fetch Aerik! Bring him to elf-lady's address, we meet you there!"

Once Aerik and Darrien had rejoined the group (and the half-elf ranger had returned his ebony fly to its statuette form and stashed it away), they approached the door. Binkadink, who had insisted he lead the interrogation, knocked on the door. Moments later, it was opened by a lovely young gnome wearing commoner's clothing and a fresh white apron; in one hand she held a feather duster. She'd had to reach up on her tippy-toes to reach the doorknob, being somewhat shorter than even Binkadink's three-foot frame.

"Voopie Meadowclover?" the fighter asked, smiling involuntarily at the cute maiden before him.

"Yes?" asked Voopie. "May I help you?"

"We'd like to ask you a few questions about last night. I'm afraid the princess was poisoned."

"Wh--what?" gasped Voopie, visibly shaken.

"We know you guilty!" called Gilbert from behind Binkadink. "Confess, or it go even worse for you!"

"Gilbert!" hissed the gnome fighter, looking over his shoulder at the hefty wizard. "We know no such thing!"

"What's going on?" demanded a voice from deeper inside the manor house. An elderly elf woman approached - the mistress of the manor, one Cerlynnes Kahalitae. "What business have you with my maid?"

"We're here to ask her some questions," Binkadink answered quickly, before Gilbert could get a word in. "There was an incident last night at the castle and your maid was a witness."

"Well, hurry it up, if you please," sniffed Cerlynnes. "I'm not paying her to stand in my front doorway and chat."

"Did you serve Princess Kaelanna a glass of elven wine last night?" asked Binkadink.

"Y-yes, I did," Voopie admitted. "It was my last task before I returned home for the evening." Sudden realization hit her. "It was poisoned? I had no idea!" Tears welled up in her eyes, and she asked her next questions in a ghostly whisper: "What will happen to me? Will I-- will I be put to death?"

"Absolutely not," Binkadink reassured her, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"Probably," countered Gilbert Fung. "We take you to castle now. You can give statement under zone of truth spell." Aerik stepped forward to escort the young gnome maid from the home of her employer, much to the consternation of the elven matron. As they left the premises with their prisoner under escort, Aerik turned to the others and said, "That was definitely not Kaelanna's birth mother. Much too old."

"Was worth looking into," replied Gilbert.

Once at the castle, Aerik took Voopie away to a secure room while a cleric of Moradin was sent for to oversee the zone of truth interrogation. Binkadink offered to stay with them to observe the procedure, mostly out of a desire to ensure the pretty young gnome wasn't mistreated, but Aerik assured him they wouldn't be ready for some time and he'd personally make sure she was treated fairly. Binkadink fully believed that while Voopie may have been the one to administer the poisoned wine, she hadn't known it was poisoned at the time, but he trusted Aerik and thus caught up with the rest of the group.

The heroes pondered their next move. "We need way to scry on possible suspects," Gilbert mused.

"Isn't your dad a druid?" asked Darrien. "Maybe he could scry for us."

"Nah, he not home," Gilbert answered. "He spend weeks at time, sometimes months, living out in forest in bear form. We want druid, we need to find another one."

"What about Castillan's sister?" asked Finoula.

"She a bard."

"His other sister," retorted Finoula, somewhat exasperated at the mage's hasty dismissal. "Malrin's a druid - she may be able to help us." Thus it was that the heroes' next avenue of approach was to head over to the Ivenheart estate and seek out Malrin, the eldest of Castillan's two younger sisters.

"Let me do the talking," suggested Finoula, thinking she'd have better luck as an elf than a pushy human wizard with little tact. Binkadink stood back from the porch with Obvious, Wrath, and Grumps Junior - no sense in a menagerie of animals making the Ivenhearts nervous. But Malrin was eager to assist Castillan's adventuring partners in his absence, and in fact had two castings of the scrying spell already prepared and ready for use. "We'll need to go out back, though," she advised, leading the way to the expansive yard behind the Ivenheart estate, which included an artificial pond of clear water - for druids cast their divination spells upon bodies of still, natural water rather than in mirrors or the like, in the manner of wizards. Gilbert thought the practice unreasonably limiting, but for once held his tongue.

"What would you like me to scry upon?" asked the druid. Finoula explained about Targus Vandergrotten and his niece, Sabina, who was a potential suspect in Princess Kaelanna's poisoning. "Without anything substantial to focus upon, the chances I'll be able to establish contact for long - if at all - are somewhat slim," she explained, then began casting the spell, seeking out Sabina Boorhaven, niece of Targus Vandergrotten. The still, smooth waters of the pond clouded up for a moment, and then for an instant - a mere second at most - there was an image of a dark-haired woman passing over a large book - possibly a spellbook - to a man in a wizard's robes. Then the image faded back to the normal waters of the pond. "I'm sorry," apologized Malrin.

"Not at all," reassured Finoula. "At least we now know that Sabina is still alive, and thus on the potential suspect list."

"I can cast one more scrying spell," offered Malrin, "but I won't be able to try to see Sabina again until tomorrow. Is there anyone else you'd like me to try?"

Gilbert took the note from his pocket. "This tell us several things," he said, "It look like written by child, but that likely just ploy to throw us off scent. It reference details of Kaelanna's birth - it mention her living in cave, for one thing - and it use term 'Green Dragon Daughter,' which is meaning of princess's name in Elven tongue." Finoula and Darrien both nodded their agreement. Gilbert passed the note to Malrin and said, "See if you can scry on writer of note for us."

"Having this at hand gives us a much better shot," agreed Malrin, concentrating on the parchment as she cast her second scrying spell. Once again, the waters became cloudy, only to clear with an image floating within - this time, one that stayed for more than a mere second: a scruffy-looking human boy, perhaps nine or ten summers old, poking a dead rat with a stick in a back alley somewhere.

"That look like marketplace!" Gilbert cried. "Hagan, you ready?"

"Ready!" he answered as everyone crowded close to him. With an arcane utterance, the half-orc sorcerer teleported the adventurers and their animals straight to the marketplace, within eyesight of the boy in the alley. Binkadink jumped on Obvious's back and the jackalope hippity-hopped around an intervening building so they could flank the boy from the far side. Grumps Junior ambled forward; the boy saw a brown bear heading his way and took off in the opposite direction - only to be slapped to the ground by one of the jackalope's front paws. Obvious put just enough pressure on his paw to hold the boy in place.

"What your name?" demanded Gilbert.

"Jimby," the boy answered. "What's it to you?"

Gilbert patiently unfolded the threatening note that Kaelanna had received earlier that week. "You write this, Jimby?"

"You're not in any trouble," Binkadink tried reassuring the boy, although being held in place by a jackalope with a brown bear sniffing around him probably didn't make him anywhere near as comfortable as he could have been. Still, Jimby answered without hesitation, "Yeah, I wrote it. A lady paid me to do it."

"What lady?" asked Finoula.

"I dunno. Some lady - a dwarf, I think. She had gray hair and walked with a cane, and had this really big wart on the side of her nose. It was pretty gross."

"She tell you what to write?" prompted Gilbert.

"Nah," said Jimby. "She already had it written down on another sheet of paper. She just wanted me to make a copy of it for her."

"You can read?" asked Finoula.

"Pssh - yeah!" snorted Jimby, as if offended by the notion that he couldn't read. "But she paid me to copy it, not agree with what it said."

"How much she pay you?" Gilbert wanted to know.

"A dozen silvers. But they're mine! You can't have them!"

"But I want them," Gilbert insisted. "I want them very much. So I make you a deal: you give me the twelve silver pieces, I give you twelve gold pieces in return. That a deal?"

Jimby's eyes widened as if he couldn't believe he'd run into the biggest chumps of his short lifetime. Then realization struck. "I only have ten of them left," he said.

"That fine. Then I pay you ten gold pieces for your ten silver pieces. But they have to be same ones dwarf woman gave you, or deal off!"

"Deal!" Jimby agreed instantly before this goofy-talking fool could change his mind. Naturally, he didn't have the money on him - he'd hidden it away where it couldn't be taken from him. But he led the heroes to his secret stash - beneath a loose brick in the back alley behind a candle-maker's shop - and handed over the ten silvers. Gilbert counted out ten gold coins from his purse and handed them over. "If we find out these not coins from dwarf lady, we find you again," Gilbert warned. "And then maybe we let bear eat you."

"That's them, all right!" promised Jimby and ran off at once to find a new hiding place for his sudden wealth. Gilbert watched the boy scamper off and lose himself in the crowd of the marketplace. "We have Malrin scry on old dwarf lady tomorrow," he said, having procured something she'd recently touched.

Jinkadoodle was waiting for the group when they returned to the castle. "Dad said there was definitely dark reaver powder in the remnants of the wine in the glass you gave him," he said. "And not only that, it was a really heavy dose - like, so heavy there's no way she could have missed tasting it. No way at all."

"Weird," mused Gilbert. "Princess didn't mention wine tasting funny." Binkadink shared a quick glance with his cousin and made a subtle back-and-forth headshake, silently warning Jinkadoodle to silence, for he'd realized in an instant - as he assumed Jinkadoodle had done as well - that a gnome could easily have altered the taste of the wine using their inherent prestidigitation abilities. Binkadink had used his own such abilities to randomly change the hair color of members of his adventuring group, but it could also be used to change the taste of food or drink. He didn't want to voice these concerns, though, and offer up additional evidence against Voopie Meadowclover, who already was in enough trouble as it was.

Checking in with Aerik, the dwarven bodyguard reported that Voopie had passed her zone of truth interrogation. "She didn't know it was poisoned when she brought it to the princess," Aerik explained. "Now we're tryin' ta find out who gave 'er th' wine bottle in th' first place; all she remembers it were a blond-haired human girl - an' that description fits a dozen or more servants."

"Told you," Binkadink smirked at Gilbert, glad that the young gnome maiden had been vindicated.

Shortly after, a contingent of dwarven guards trickled back in to the castle to report their marketplace findings to Aerik. "We found plenty o' eyewitnesses what said there was an elderly dwarven lady stirrin' up trouble a few days back," reported a sergeant. "Nobody's seen hide nor hair o' 'er since, though, and by th' soundsa it, she didn't get nowheres wit' 'er grumblin'. General consensus is Princess Kaelanna'll make us a fine queen." The description the testimonies had provided matched Jimby's description of the woman who paid him to copy the letter: gray hair, nose-wart, and cane.

"We scry on this dwarf tomorrow," Gilbert decided. "But I think that it for tonight - it getting late!"

The next morning the group reconvened at the Ivenheart estate so Malrin could try some more scrying spells. Gilbert had her try Sabina again, but without anything physical from the Vandergrotten niece upon which to focus her divination, she had no further luck than on the day before.

"Try this," the hefty mage suggested, passing over the ten silver pieces they'd gotten from Jimby. "They come from gray-haired dwarf woman who pay human boy to copy letter we show you yesterday." Malrin took the coins, holding them in her hands and concentrating as she cast the scrying spell for the second time that morning. This time, the waters of the pool showed a clear image of an elderly, gray-haired woman sitting at a desk, writing, with a raven at her shoulder. But this was no dwarven woman; rather, it was an elf - and an elf the group had seen very recently.

"Cerlynnes Kahalitae!" exclaimed Finoula. "The woman Voopie works for when she's not at the castle!"

"She's not a dwarf," Darrien pointed out.

"Pffff!" scoffed Gilbert. "That easy enough to fix with illusion spell!"

"Let's go get Aerik and round her up, then," suggested Binkadink.

"You want me to just teleport us there and take her down?" asked Hagan.

"We bring Aerik along," agreed Gilbert. "She citizen; we can't just barge into house and arrest her - but Aerik can!"

Unfortunately, by the time they returned to the castle, got Aerik and a group of castle guards, and returned to the Kahalitae Manor, there was no answer at the door. "We let her get away!" cried Hagan, irritated that they hadn't followed his suggestion to teleport in and grab her when they could have.

"Go ahead and open this door," Aerik commanded, and Gilbert cast a knock spell that had the locked door open in a jiffy. Darrien and Grumps Junior had gone around the manor house to the back door to ensure Cerlynnes didn't escape that way, but the back door was also locked and nobody came through it while the others searched through the elderly elf's dwelling. "She gone," Gilbert sighed. "Her and her raven - probably her familiar. She wizard, no doubt."

"Or a sorcerer," pointed out Hagan.

"Either way, it would be easy enough for her to cast an illusion spell to appear to be an elderly dwarven woman, both to hire Jimby and to try to stir up a revolt against Kaelanna in the marketplace," pointed out Finoula.

"So what do we do now?" asked Binkadink.

"I'll have me men keep a watch on th' place," suggested Aerik. "And we'll pass word around to keep an eye out for 'er. She'll show up, sooner or later."

"I think we should go talk with Voopie again," suggested Binkadink. "Now that we know this Kahalitae woman was behind the letter and the marketplace shenanigans, it makes sense that she was behind the poisoning as well. Voopie can tell us what she knows about her."

Voopie Meadowclover was back to work at the castle; the head maid, a heavyset, no-nonsense woman named Madame Scolina told the group where the gnome's duties would have taken her. Voopie looked worried at the approach of the group of adventurers, no doubt thinking she'd already cleared her name the day before. "Is everything okay?" she asked nervously.

"Everything's fine," Binkadink reassured her, smiling. "We think we know who it was behind the poisoning: Cerlynnes Kahalitae, your employer."

"Really?" Voopie asked, clearly puzzled. "She can be a bit bad-tempered, I agree - but to try to kill the princess? Why?"

"We don't know. We were hoping you might be able to tell us a bit more about her," Binkadink replied. Voopie recounted what little she knew about her elven employer: she was very stern, liked things just so, and had little use for slackers. But as Voopie went on about her employer, Binkadink got the sinking sensation that Voopie was holding something back. He really didn't want her to be complicit in the plot against Princess Kaelanna, but he had to press her for the truth.

"Voopie," he interrupted her. "What aren't you telling us about the night you served the princess the poisoned wine?"

The gnomish maid stopped talking at once and her face turned pale. "I..." she began. "I'm not supposed to tell...I'll be fired if I say."

"Fired by who?" demanded Binkadink.

"Madame Scolina," Voopie replied, looking around to see if the stern maid was within earshot.

"You'd better tell us everything," Binkadink commanded, his voice stern. "We'll handle Madame Scolina, if it comes to that."

Voopie sat down and gave her full story. "I went to the cellar to get the wine," she began, but a blond girl had already fetched it for me. She gave it to me on a silver tray, along with a bottle opener, a glass, and a packet of dark powder." Gilbert's eyes flashed at this last bit, while Binkadink's heart sank - but neither interrupted the gnome's story. "Then Madame Scolina appeared, took the blond girl aside, and they talked for a while. Madame Scolina told me to follow the girl's orders directly, and not to say a word about any of this or I'd be fired.

"The girl told me to open the bottle, pour a little sip into the glass, and taste it. Then I was to fill the glass up, add the powder, and stir it around to allow it to dissolve in the wine. I was then to cast prestidigitation on the wine to make it taste normal again."

Gilbert couldn't help himself from interrupting at that point. "And you didn't think you were poisoning the princess?"

"She said it was medicine!" insisted the gnome maid.

"Medicine for what?" prompted Binkadink, wanting to believe Voopie.

"For...this is the embarrassing part...apparently there's an ailment those with green dragon blood can get, which involves...acidic flatulence." Voopie whispered the last two words and immediately blushed, embarrassed at having revealed her princess's secret shame.

"Is that even a thing?" asked Binkadink, looking over at Gilbert.

"No!" scoffed the portly mage, before looking at Voopie. "You an idiot," he asserted. Voopie buried her face in her hands and started weeping silently.

"You're a bully!" countered Binkadink.

"Let's have Aerik supervise another round of zone of truth questioning," suggested Finoula.

"I think he's already making arrangements for all of the blond-haired human servant girls to be questioned," Hagan observed.

"Better add Madame Scolina to the list," suggested Darrien. But the heavyset maid passed the questioning; it apparently hadn't been she who had instructed the blond girl on what to tell Voopie, or who had demanded the gnome maid remain silent about Princess Kaelanna's "medicine." And Voopie's story panned out under the lie-revealing spell; everything she had said had been true.

"Elf-lady probably used illusion to look like Boss Maid," Gilbert observed. "Blond girl probably hypnotized into obeying, then forgetting conversation." The theory explained why none of the blond servants confessed to giving Voopie the poison on the silver platter - if magic prevented them from even remembering the act, they certainly couldn't admit to it.

"This Kahalitae woman is very good at covering her tracks," observed Hagan.

"I think we need to stand guard over the princess," Finoula said. "Cerlynnes has tried a threatening letter, a rebellion by the citizens, and a poisoning and gotten nowhere. I wouldn't put it past her to try an out-an-out assassination attempt."

"Princess Kaelanna becomes queen in two days," pointed out Binkadink.

"Then we guard her until then," Gilbert decided. "You guys stay here with her; I go see mom. I have idea." Gilbert didn't have far to go, for his mother, Harriet Fung, was in the castle with the king, who was instructing her in the Orc tongue. Since Harriet had been reincarnated into an orc body, the plan was to try to insert her into the orc and goblin forces the next time they attacked, so she could track them back to their hidden lair. And to do so, she needed to not only look like an orc but speak like one as well.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. But at bedtime, Finoula escorted the princess to her bedchambers, on the upper floor in one of the two towers of the women's wing of the castle. Darrien walked with the two women up to the point where the two dwarven castle guards stood outside the door to the women's wing. Beyond that point, men were not allowed. "I'll be here if you need me," Darrien promised. If any of the guards were curious as to why the princess's new female elven bodyguard carried a rolled-up carpet under one arm, they didn't ask.

Kaelanna and Finoula climbed the steps to the princess's bedroom, where the ranger unrolled the carpet of teleportation at the foot of the half-dragon's bed. "The command word is 'umerguth,' Your Highness," Finoula explained, leading her future liege to stand upon the carpet.

"And where will I go upon saying that?" asked Kaelanna.

"Aboard our ship," Finoula responded. "We have a place made ready for you there. It's safer if you spend the night there, under guard, while we post a decoy here to draw in any assassination attempts."

"Very well," said the princess. "Thank you, Finoula. I knew it was a good idea to bring you and your team into this investigation. Umerguth!" And with the utterance of the command word, Princess Kaelanna was transported to one of the bedrooms in the extradimensional hold of the group's dragonfly spelljamming vessel, parked on a cloud island tended to by the cloud giant Zaralia. Most of the other adventurers were there, as well as a few Princess Kaelanna didn't recognize, like Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin and Aithanar Ivenheart, who was there to tend to the group's animals, housed in a different room. Binkadink escorted the princess to the room they had set aside for her use that night - where another Princess Kaelanna stood waiting, identical in appearance to the original.

"It me," said Gilbert Fung, the faux princess. "I borrow hat of disguise back from mom. I be sleeping in your bed tonight - anybody try to kill you, they try to kill me instead. And I very hard to kill."

"I see," said Princess Kaelanna. "Very well, then. I bid you all a good night." She stepped into the room while her lookalike exited.

"Okay then," Gilbert said, his normal voice incongruously emanating from the illusory body of the half elven, half green dragon princess and future queen of Kordovia. "We got Rary's telepathic bond spell linking us all together." Gilbert had cast the spell before the majority of the team teleported up to the dragonfly ship. "Only problem: can't use it between pocket dimension here and outside world. So Bink, you stand guard outside princess's room. Hagan, you stand at top of stairs, outside extradimensional space. Anybody try to kill me, I holler over link, Hagan go get Bink, everybody teleport back onto magic rug. Show up in princess's bedroom, take down assassin, good to go. Questions?"

There were none, so Gilbert walked over to the teleportation rune carved into the bedroom floor, said "umerguth," and teleported back to Princess Kaelanna's bedroom to be greeted by Finoula. "Wow," the ranger said, impressed. "You look just like her."

"Yeah, but voice way different," Gilbert replied. "Best if I don't talk."

"Agreed," smirked Finoula. "It's always best when you don't talk."

"You shut stupid elf mouth." Gilbert pulled Mudpie out of his pocket and used his magic slingshot to return his earth elemental familiar to his normal, three-foot size. "We stick you under bed, Mudpie," Gilbert commanded, and the elemental bent down to comply. As he crawled underneath the head of the bed, he had no idea that there was already someone else hiding under the foot of the bed - this would be Eye-Plucker, Cerlynnes Kahalitae's imp familiar, who was often seen in his raven form looking like a more traditional familiar to the elderly elf enchantress. He was in his true imp form at the moment but hidden by invisibility - and not only hearing everything said in the room, but using his telepathic abilities to not only broadcast a running commentary to his mistress, hidden nearby outside the castle, but also to Larianna Ghostwalker, another invisible entity, this one hidden in Princess Kaelanna's closet.

Larianna Ghostwalker was an elven assassin, one who had made enough money over the years to have long since retired and lived in luxury for the rest of her days. But she knew the boredom of such a life would likely soon kill her - having had such a taste, she craved danger and excitement and the prospect of taking down a half-dragon elf in her own bedroom two nights before her coronation was a challenge she couldn't pass up. She'd made it invisibly past the guards outside the woman's wing quite easily hours before, her practiced footsteps lighter than air, scoped out the bedroom, and hidden herself inside the closet where she could step out as quiet as a ghost once her target was asleep. She'd kill her target with the special dagger she'd been given by Cerlynnes to slay Kaelanna - a soulslayer dagger, one the elderly elf had taken directly from King Galrich's personal vault, having walked in there using her hat of disguise to appear to be one of the trusted dwarven guardsmen. The soulslayer dagger had been taken from an assassin who had tried to kill Galrich Slayer in the days before he had taken the throne, a desperate measure put into motion by Targus Vandergrotten - who did not want his beloved kingdom ruled by what he considered a "half-breed mongrel."

But now there was a wrinkle in the plan: Kaelanna was somewhere at the other end of the carpet of teleportation - unknown territory to the assassin. No matter, though; she'd overheard the command word and memorized it, so all she'd have to do is take out the sole bodyguard - the silver-haired elf woman pacing the room slowly, always keeping her eyes on the doorway leading to the stairs, the only entrance to the bedroom - and Larianna could be on the carpet and off to who-knows-where to slay the princess. The unpredictability of the assignment just made it all the more exciting! In fact, she was half tempted to spring out now and be about the mission, but she hadn't amassed her impressive kill record over the years by being impulsive. The plan had altered, granted, but it was still best to stick to its core: allow Kaelanna enough time to fall fast asleep and then strike. The fact that Larianna didn't know where Kaelanna was now other than "wherever that carpet led to" made no difference; it would still be best to allow the princess to fall fast asleep. And so the assassin waited in the closet for a good two hours before silently opening the door and slipping into the bedroom, cloaked in invisibility due to the ring she wore.

<It begins> thought the assassin to the imp hidden beneath the bed, as she crept silently behind a pacing Finoula, still making her rounds and expecting any potential attack to come from the doorway leading to the stairs. The pacing was part nervous energy and part a way to keep her awake and alert.

<About damn time!> retorted Eye-Plucker. <I'm going after the fake princess once you strike down the bodyguard.>

<Why? That's not part of the plan.>

<No, but it'll be fun.>

Larianna struck suddenly and struck hard, the soulslayer dagger still tucked into her belt, for it could imprison the soul of but a single victim and was set aside for Kaelanna. Instead, using the martial disciplines she'd mastered years ago, Larianna struck out with a rapid series of blows using the hardened edges of her hands. The flurry of blows took Finoula quite by surprise, having come out of nowhere. The fact that the assassin popped back into visibility meant nothing at first, either, as she struck from behind so the elf ranger couldn't see her attacker in the wan moonlight coming through the room's narrow windows.

Still, Finoula had the presence of mind to call out to the others over the Rary's telepathic bond spell still active among the group. <Guys! I'm under attack!> she called telepathically. But despite not being a member of the spell's recipients, Eye-Plucker was telepathic by nature and he heard Finoula's frantic calls as loudly as if she'd used her voice and not her mind. <Larianna!> he warned. <She's got a telepathic link active with others!>

Back on the dragonfly ship, Hagan picked up the cry and raced down the stairs leading to the extradimensional area of the ship. "Binkadink!" he cried. "The attack's begun!" He and the gnome fighter raced to the bedroom whose floor contained the teleportation runes linked to the rug at the foot of Princess Kaelanna's bed. Darrien caught Finoula's call as well and pulled out his ebony fly. He opened the doors to the women's wing before an astonished pair of guards could stop him, cried "There's an attack!" and flew, fly-back, into the women's wing, heading for the stairs that spiraled up the tower to Kaelanna's bedroom.

Gilbert also heard the cry and whipped the covers from his body - which still, due to the hat of disguise he wore, looked like that of the princess. He was personally glad the attack had happened, for it had been getting difficult to stay awake while lying motionless in bed, pretending to be asleep. At this point, he assumed the assassin was here to try to take him - the "princess" - out. But despite his eagerness for battle and the realization that he was the prime target, the attack on his person took him by complete surprise, given that Eye-Plucker was still invisible when the tip of his scorpionlike tail stung the portly mage in the side of the neck. The tiny devil's venom coursed through Gilbert's system but he shrugged off the worst of the effects by sheer force of will.

Mudpie, however, had heard not only the rustling under the bed as the invisible imp extracted himself from his hiding place but also Gilbert's involuntary cry of pain when he was stabbed in the neck. Fortunately, the attack on Mudpie's master forced the invisibility effect to fade from the imp, giving the earth elemental a visible target to hit. Scrambling from the bed faster than his bulky form would have made an onlooker think possible, he brought his stony fists crashing into the imp's frail body from either side, crushing it between them. (Less than a mile away, Cerlynnes Kahalitae felt the empathic link between her and her imp familiar go suddenly silent and she realized her diabolic servant had been slain. That did it, she decided. She was too old for any more of this nonsense - the princess's protectors were beyond her ability to overcome and likely beyond Larianna's as well; it would perhaps be easier to leave Kordovia to its Monster Queen and find a different land in which to live out her remaining days. Using her hat of disguise to assume the form of a male human merchant, she began walking away from Kordovia forever.)

Finoula was staggered by the assassin's sudden assault, but she remained on her feet and brought Tahlmalaera swinging around to face her enemy. In the dim moonlight she saw she faced an elf woman wearing dark leather armor. The woman was lithe and very quick; she easily avoided the ranger's sword-strike but fared poorly against the flaming whip of thorns Finoula used in her off-hand. The whip struck the black-clad assassin, its flaming thorns scratching across her face and forcing an involuntary cry of pain and surprise from her. Then Larianna smiled, looking forward to taking out this upstart bodyguard before moving on to her true assignment.

And then, suddenly, a gnome holding a ridiculously large polearm and a half-orc in robes stood upon the carpet of teleportation that Larianna had been planning to use to get to the princess. This fight just got more interesting! Larianna threw a flurry of daggers at Hagan, expecting him to either fall from the sudden attack (the daggers had been coated in venom, after all) or at least stagger away off the carpet so she could use it to her own advantage. But the half-orc stood his ground; worse, he began the words to a spell! Larianna tensed, ready to dodge whatever might be coming, but the chain lightning arced over to her before she could react, knocking her to the floor. That really hurt! And then the ridiculous gnome struck at her with his oversized glaive, cutting a searing stripe of pain across her torso as she tried rolling out of the way.

A commotion from behind the assassin caught everyone's attention, but the buzzing sound was just Darrien's ebony fly flying up the curving stairwell. The half-elf ranger took in the contents of the room at a glance, then sent an arrow from his Arachnibow flying at the assassin. But Larianna Ghostwalker easily, almost contemptuously, swatted the arrow from its course while regaining her feet. She struck at Binkadink, hoping to get past him to the carpet of teleportation, but the tiny little gnome might have been a statue for all he moved from her blow.

And then Hagan cast a disintegrate spell that caught Larianna Ghostwalker full-brunt. With an astonished expression on her face, the assassin's body was blown to a fine powder.

"That it?" asked Gilbert. "We take down assassins?"

"Just the one - and an imp," added Finoula, seeing the crumpled form Mudpie held between his hands. Just to be sure, the entire group used the carpet of teleportation to spend the night on the dragonfly ship guarding Princess Kaelanna, with Hagan staying behind only long enough to roll up the carpet and use a teleport spell of his own to join them. No sense in leaving a "back door" to the spelljamming ship sitting around in the princess's bedroom!

The next day was uneventful, but focused on the next day's coronation. The heroes were a constant presence around the princess, making sure nobody got close to her. They had Malrin scry upon Cerlynnes, just to be sure, and the druid saw the image of a male human merchant walking down a road, leading south. "I think she's had enough," the druid commented.

And the day after that was the day of the coronation itself. A large space in the castle courtyard had been opened for attendees, with tables overburdened with food and drink set up along one edge. A shaded pavilion was assembled along one side for visiting dignitaries, and, surprisingly, what looked like a cattle pen had been erected behind the throne, with three strong bulls pacing nervously back and forth.

Finally, at the appointed time, trumpets sounded and a procession marched from the castle to the throne set up outside. A hush fell across the crowd as King Galrich took the throne, with Princess Kaelanna standing at his right and Aerik Battershield at his left. To Aerik’s left stood Father Bendrick, the current head cleric of the Church of Kord.

Galrich rose from the throne and waved his arms out majestically. "Thank you all for your attendance," he boomed. Turning to the pavilion, he said, "And I thank our visiting dignitaries from the neighboring lands. Your presence does us great honor. But there is another dignitary my daughter has asked to attend; I ask you now to remain calm while Princess Kaelanna's own half-brother, the dragon Clauguthrax, takes his place."

With a great flapping of wings, a green form dropped down from the sky, landing in the cattle pen behind the throne. Princess Kaelanna nodded her greeting, and the dragon nodded his great head in return. Then the ceremony began.

Father Bendrick took the crown from King Galrich's head and handed it to Aerik. Galrich then stepped aside and Princess Kaelanna took his place before the throne.

"Kneel before the symbol of Kordovian royalty," commanded the head cleric. Kaelanna lifted the hem of her flowing skirts and lowered herself to one knee. Father Bendrick then passed over the scepter of succession to Kaelanna, who cradled it under one arm. Father Bendrick then took the crown from Aerik and placed it upon Kaelanna's head. "You may rise, Your Majesty," he said to the half-dragon elf kneeling before him. Then, turning to the assembled crowd, he called out, "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Court, I present to you Queen Kaelanna the First, Ruler of the Kingdom of Kordovia, by the blessings of the Gods Above. Long may she live!"

"Long may she live!" repeated the crowd with enthusiasm.

"May she rule wisely," intoned Father Bendrick, then turned to the newly-crowned queen. "Your Majesty, the floor is yours." He then stepped aside so that Queen Kaelanna could make her coronation speech to those assembled.

Behind her, Clauguthrax grinned at this turn of events. He had attended not only out of curiosity but also to show the Kordovians that their little kingdom was under his protection now. Queen Kaelanna intended his presence to be reassuring to the people of her kingdom; she still didn’t see why some people feared dragons so much and wanted them to see that dragons – even green dragons – could be a force for good. Clauguthrax found it eminently amusing that he was now a blood relative to royalty to a humanoid kingdom. But he was appreciative of the thoughtfulness of his little half-sister in providing the three bulls as a snack; in return, he was thoughtful enough to wait until she had finished her speech and the banquet that followed immediately afterward had begun before starting his own feast.

"She'll make a fine queen," said Galrich, beaming with pride.

"Aye, that she will," agreed Aerik, thinking wistfully of his own daughter.

- - -

This adventure was a departure from our normal fare, which generally skews more heavily to the combat end of the spectrum. But it was an interesting approach, forcing the players to use slightly different mental gears to accomplish their goal of not only keeping Princess Kaelanna alive but tracking down her attempted killer. It's not a sudden new direction for our campaign, but a type of adventure I don't think we'd mind trying again in the future.

Of course, this was somewhat problematic in that I had no idea which avenues the players would choose to explore, so I had to have a lot more ready than we actually used. Sabina Boorhaven, for example, had left the kingdom years ago and married a man named Jorbin Wenkler; he was an illusionist (and the wizard momentarily glimpsed in the scrying attempts) and had the PCs successfully scried upon them and teleported in for a confrontation they'd have found out Jorbin is an illusionist more of the "kids' birthday party" variety and that he and his wife have no particular feelings towards half-dragon elven queens one way or the other. But I statted them up, just in case. (I also gave Jorbin a miniature phantom fungus as a familiar, thinking a permanently invisible, foot-tall shambling fungus creature would come in handy performing magic tricks for children.)

So with a bunch of possible investigative paths, the adventure itself was one of the longest I've ever written, even though a good chunk of it was never used. But another factor was that unlike most adventures I write, I had no idea how long this would take to play through. So, just in case, I had the adventure that comes after this one prepped and ready; we only play about one Saturday a month and I didn't want to waste a gaming session on a three-and-a-half hour adventure (which is about how long it took us to go through this one) when we typically game for five or six hours a session. So, immediately after concluding this adventure we started up the next one, which was more combat oriented and thus easier for me to estimate how long it would take us to go through.

One half-intended side effect of this adventure, though, was that Binkadink Dundernoggin now has a potential love interest, in the form of one Voopie Meadowclover.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My black shirt with a green dragon on it, to represent Clauguthrax.
 
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Richards

Legend
ADVENTURE 51: THE TALENT SCOUT

PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 14​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 14​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 14​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 14​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 14​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3​
Laerornith Ivenheart, elf bard 5​
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 7​

Game Session Date: 28 July 2018

- - -

"Aithanar! Aithanar!" called Laerornith Ivenheart as she burst into the tavern where her brother was playing cards at a table with three tough-looking men. "I have exciting news! You'll never believe it!"

The elven fighter looked in irritation at his younger sister; he had a good hand and he knew the guys he was playing with didn't like interruptions to their game. "I fold," he sighed, getting up from the table to deal with whatever Laerornith thought was so important it warranted interrupting his making a little money on the side.

"A talent scout from a bardic college heard me singing last night and wants me to try out! I could be joining the Conservatory of the Ineffable Chord!"

"Okay, good for you," Aithanar said, looking back at the table and the card game he was missing. "I wish you good luck."

"No - you have to come with me!" Laerornith insisted.

"What? Why?"

"The tryout's in a couple of days, but it's in a set of ruins in the Vesve Forest. I already asked Father and he agreed to allow me to audition, but he won't let me travel that far away unless I have an escort. I'm sure Castillan would do it if he were here, but he's off doing that family thing that Father insisted he do. So will you?"

"Hmm," mused Aithanar. "I suppose I could ask Finoula if she'd like to accompany us." The elf was envisioning some time alone with the good-looking ranger while his sister did her audition or whatever.

"That would be excellent!" enthused Laerornith. "But we have to get ready! If we're going to make it in time, we need to leave by tomorrow morning!" She pulled out a map the talent scout had given her, showing the approximate location of the ruins, deep in the part of the Vesve Forest to the southeast of Kordovia. Aithanar judged it to be at least a day and a half travel via horse and wagon - there was no good way to fly the dragonfly vessel through a forest, and without having ever been there before, teleporting would be iffy.

"I'm out, guys," Aithanar announced back at the table. He scooped up the winnings he'd amassed thus far and left the tavern with his sister, who was happily babbling about what a wonderful opportunity this was. A wonderful opportunity to spend some time with Finoula, Aithanar thought to himself.

The next morning, Aithanar sat in the driver's seat of the Vistani wagon, leading Castor and Pollux along a narrow road going through the Vesve Forest. He wore a frown that had nothing to do with the fact that Finoula rode beside him on her pony Daisy, or that her timber wolf Wrath trotted alongside Daisy's feet. No, his frustration was due to the fact that ahead of Finoula loped Obvious with Binkadink in the jackalope's saddle; that atop the Vistani wagon (in the spot usually reserved for Castillan) sat Darrien, his Arachnibow at the ready; that Darrien's pet dire bear cub Grumps Junior loped on the other side of the wagon; and that inside the wagon rode not only his younger sister Laerornith but also his older sister Malrin, Gilbert Fung and his earth elemental familiar Mudpie, and Hagan and his weasel familiar Wezhley. What the elf fighter had hoped would be several days spent with Finoula (and his sister, who would hopefully spend her time practicing on her lute) had turned into the whole group of adventurers tagging along. Gilbert had walked up unbeknownst to Aithanar when he had proposed the outing to Finoula and offered the whole group's services as bodyguards and had even coaxed Malrin along to serve as the party's healer.

Laerornith did spend the day practicing her singing and her lute playing, which helped pass the day pleasantly - the young bard did have a very nice voice. Eventually even Aithanar got over his bad mood and decided to make the best of it; it might not have been the more intimate trip he had envisioned, but he was still getting to spend time with Finoula in a relaxing environment. The group made camp that first day at sunset alongside the road in a clearing. They worked out a guard shift for the hours of darkness, but nothing disturbed their camp all night - although there were occasional crashes through the forest to remind the guard on duty the Vesve Forest contained many large and potentially fearsome creatures.

However, after breaking camp on the second day of travel and making their way down the road for no longer than a half hour or so, Darrien - perched back on the roof of the Vistani wagon and alert for danger - heard a slight rustling among the undergrowth to the right side of the road just ahead of the two black draft horses pulling the wagon along. Aiming his Arachnibow in that direction, he sighted along the arrow's shaft and saw a reptilian head peering at him through the scrub. "Ambush!" he called, releasing his arrow to fly straight at the draconic creature as it emerged from its hiding spot.

The half-elf ranger's cry was more prophetic than he had anticipated, for it was an ambush drake that leaped out at the travelers - and it was followed by three others of its kind from farther down the side of the road. Even farther down, a hulking, gray shape emerged from the tree line as well, ambling over in a hunched, knuckle-walking gait like some sort of hairless gorilla.

Binkadink urged Obvious forward and pointed his glaive directly ahead like a lance. The gnomish weapon pierced through the lead ambush drake, skewering it instantly. But as the gnome shook its corpse off his weapon's blade, the three other drakes raced up, one slashing a set of powerful claws at the jackalope while is companions attacked Wrath and Grumps Junior, the animals being at the front of the procession. Aithanar brought the horses to an immediate stop, alerting everyone inside the wagon that something was up.

Gilbert Fung popped open the door at the back of the Vistani wagon and took a good look at what was causing the commotion. Making a quick mental calculation of the distances involved, he cast an Evard's black tentacles spell that encompassed the three ambush drakes without catching any of the group's animals in the spell's area of effect. Thick, rubbery appendages sprang from the ground to engulf the reptilian foes, preventing them from moving while slowly squeezing the life from them.

Binkadink brought his glaive slashing down at the head of the nearest entangled ambush drake, who was unable to avoid the gnome's magic blade. Having slain this nearly helpless foe, the little fighter pulled his weapon back out of the mass of writhing tentacles before they could get a good grasp on it as well.

Hagan stepped up beside Gilbert and cast a spell of his own: a chain lightning targeted at one of the two remaining drakes and arcing off that one to hit the other. "I love that spell!" the half-orc sorcerer enthused.

"It one of your favorites," agreed Gilbert.

Finoula didn't dare reach into the tentacle mass with her magic longsword, but she figured attacking with her flaming whip of thorns was pretty safe, so she sent the tip striking at one of the bound drakes. It cried out in helpless fury; behind it, the gray render that had attached itself to this band of ambush drakes roared in response and redoubled his running speed. Binkadink urged Obvious to go hippity-hopping around the edge of the Evard's black tentacles spell to meet the oncoming guard-beast.

But when the gray render loped into combat range, it rushed forward with amazing speed to take a bite out of a foe. Binkadink, who had readied himself for the attack, sent his glaive tearing into the render's flesh, but the gray-skinned beast still managed to surge forward and get its oil-black teeth into the upper part of the jackalope's right front leg. Obvious cried out in pain and tried - without success - to pull himself free of the gray render's toothsome grip. Seeing this, Finoula leaped from Daisy's saddle, ran a few steps forward, and then transformed herself into a bolt of lightning, courtesy of the amulet she wore around her neck. She blasted through the gray render, slaying it instantly. (Fortunately, Binkadink's glaive attack had already dealt it a substantial amount of damage and it was already bleeding profusely when Finoula blasted it with her electrical attack.) Finoula remanifested in her elven form on the other side of the gray render to see it topple lifelessly to the ground.

After that, it was a simple matter to slay the remaining ambush drakes that had been struggling this whole time - without success - to free themselves from the black tentacles crushing them to death. Darrien took the opportunity to try some trick shots with his Arachnibow, but before too long the drakes were all dead and it was safe for Gilbert to dismiss his spell. He had Mudpie help drag the corpses off to the side of the road so as not to impede traffic while Malrin cast healing spells through Ingebold's staff of healing on the animals who had been injured in the drakes' attack, and then the group was back on the road.

They arrived at the designated ruins with about a half hour to go before sunset. The ruins were in fairly good condition, as ruins go - it was obviously once an open-air amphitheater and could easily be put to such use in its present condition. Sitting in the front row of the bleachers were two human figures, one tall and thin; the other even taller and corpulently fat. They both rose as Aithanar brought the Vistani wagon to a halt and the group's members disembarked and approached the duo.

"Ah, Miss Ivenheart," greeted the thin man. "I'm so glad you could make it. I would like to introduce Lord Shambleton, the admissions registrar to the Conservatory of the Ineffable Chord."

"Charmed," said Lord Shambleton with a brief smile, leaning his vast bulk on a heavy cane. Gilbert, ever untrusting of new people, quietly cast a protection from evil spell upon himself - just in case.

"Very pleased to meet you, sir," Laerornith replied. The talent scout, Mr. Fletcher, introduced himself to the group and offered them refreshments before the audition began. The men had a small flask of brandy with them and Mr. Fletcher ensured Laerornith had a decanter of water available beside her on a small table in the center of the auditorium. Then the two men took their seats. "You are welcome to join us here in the audience," offered Mr. Fletcher to the others in the group, "but we must insist upon absolute silence during the performances." The heroes sat in the rows behind and to the side of the two judges; Gilbert remained as far back as possible, frowning down at the strangers.

Once everyone was settled, Lord Shambleton removed a sheath of papers from an interior vest pocket. "This is a list of performances I'd like from you, my dear," said the admissions registrar. "To begin with, I understand you have had some small success playing and singing at various inns and taverns. I would like you to begin by performing your most popular song for us, please."

On the lowered stage, looking up at her audience, Laerornith nodded and readied her lute. Then, taking a deep, calming breath, she began her song. The reason for the odd tryout location became evident as the elven bard sang; the acoustics, even in the structure's partially ruined state, were magnificent. Aithanar beamed proudly as his little sister gave the best performance he'd ever heard from her; sitting at his side, Finoula's broad smile showed she shared his views and, more importantly to the fighter, was having a good time.

However, at the end of Laerornith’s song, Lord Shambleton looked somewhat displeased. Frowning, he said, "My dear, I'm afraid you have wasted your time..." – but then followed it up with "...singing at taverns! With a voice like yours, you would do very well indeed expanding upon your considerable talents at the bardic college of your choice. If you don't mind continuing for us? I would be very interested in discovering the range of your talents."

"Not at all," replied Laerornith, visibly pleased at the praise.

"Do you speak the Dwarven tongue?" asked Lord Shambleton. "No? Very good. I will have Mr. Fletcher give this page to you; written on it are the dwarven lyrics to a popular drinking song, spelled out phonetically in the Common alphabet. I should like to hear your attempts at singing in a foreign tongue." Mr. Fletcher took the proffered sheets and ran them down to the elf and then raced back to take his seat once again. Laerornith took the opportunity to look over the pages; the words were unfamiliar, but spelled out as they were she didn't see anything she couldn't pronounce. There were no musical notes inscribed on the page; they were allowing her to create her own tune to the cadence of the unfamiliar words. She placed the sheets of paper on the table beside her where she could glance down at them, then began playing a tune on her lute, picking up the dwarven words at the appropriate time. When she was finished, she looked up expectantly at the judges, but they were busy making notations in their own notebooks.

Finally, Lord Shambleton looked back up at her. "Very nice," he commented. "And now, as the sun sets, I should like you to sing a lament of your own devising, here and now. One proviso: I do not want to hear existing words; I wish you to express a feeling of infinite sadness, of longing, of the inevitability of fate, using only sounds of your own devising, please."

Nodding in comprehension, Laerornith began a sad tune on her lute, then began singing a wordless song. Lord Shambleton had timed the audition perfectly, as the setting sun added to the mood of the performance. At its completion, both men looked approvingly at each other and made quick annotations in their notebooks.

Lord Shambleton pulled a few more pieces of paper from his vest pocket. "I shall now read to you a brief story about a curious puppy who gets into mischief. Having heard the story only once, I should then like you to compose a spontaneous song about the events in the story," he said. The story was indeed brief, lasting less than a minute; the judges then gave Laerornith a minute of preparation before asking her to begin. The elf's song was rather childish, Aithanar felt, but then it was intended to be so, given the source material. The bard's nimble fingers plucked a jaunty melody from the strings of her lute as she created simple stanzas telling the tales of the mischief the puppy got into. He was especially impressed with her simple chorus, which, being repeated between each stanza, gave her some time to come up with the next bit.

"Oh, very nice!" applauded Mr. Fletcher, not at all embarrassed to get so much enjoyment out of a song best suited to small children.

Lord Shambleton reached into his vest for another sheet of parchment. "Finally," he said, "I should like to hear your vocalizations of a number of word-sounds. Mr. Fletcher will provide you with this list of made-up words in sentence form; just as you did with the Dwarven song, I should like you to pretend they are a song in a foreign language and set them to music of your own devising." Laerornith, feeling she had done very well for herself thus far, looked over at the unfamiliar nonsense words and started composing a quick tune to match them. Then, her tune decided upon, she began singing the strange words aloud.

The two men were enjoying the performance immensely, as was the rest of the audience - all except Gilbert. The wizard frowned in concentration, finding several of the words familiar: they were words of the Abyssal language, although it had been difficult to pick them out given Laerornith's unfamiliar pronunciation of several of the words. But replaying them in his head (with the proper pronunciation), Gilbert realized the song consisted of the following:

"I make the following blood oath of my own free will: I hereby grant my immortal soul to the obese administrator seated before me, to..."

The realization hit Gilbert at about the time Laerornith had gotten to the Abyssal word for "immortal." He called out for her to stop, but she got another nine words out before she stopped singing, looking at Gilbert with a look of betrayal. She had been doing so well - what was this silly human doing interrupting her audition?

"I see that you have detected our little ruse," admitted Lord Shambleton to Gilbert, who had raced down the steps to confront the corpulent admissions registrar. Then, turning back to Laerornith, Lord Shambleton continued, "Alas, my dear child, you have been used poorly this night. As your friends have no doubt surmised, although the Conservatory of the Ineffable Chord is indeed an esteemed bardic college, we two are not members of that fine estate, but rather impostors of the worst possible sort. We are, in point of fact, members of a demon cult who have successfully tricked you in tendering your immortal soul to my handling, to do with as I see fit." Laerornith stared open-mouthed at the two men, shocked by the admission of foul trickery. But in the stands, several of the heroes stood up and grabbed for their weapons.

"Now then, before your indignation overcomes your sensibilities, allow us to discourse like civilized gentlemen," continued Lord Shambleton. "You, no doubt, are considering slaying both Mr. Fletcher and myself – we are, after all, both surrounded and outnumbered. However, before taking such a drastic action, I will remind you that slaying us will do nothing to free Miss Ivenheart's soul, which now, by the laws of the Abyssal Realms, belongs to me. I intend to use those souls bound to my service as bargaining chips; when I arrive at my Abyssal destination upon my death, I will barter those souls away to lessen my own time of torment and fast-track myself into full demonhood. I would, naturally, prefer to extend my time here on this mortal coil, but death holds no fear in my heart. I know my own black soul's final destination, and have taken steps to ensure its eventual comfort in the Abyssal Realms.

"So then: to business. You, no doubt, wish to regain Miss Ivenheart's soul. I, for reasons just given, do not wish to relinquish it. However, I am willing to offer you a chance to earn it back: I assume you are familiar with the concept of 'double or nothing'?"

"What do you mean?" demanded Aithanar.

"My Lord!" exploded Mr. Fletcher. "Is this wise?"

"Quite simple," replied Lord Shambleton - if, in fact, that was his real name - ignoring his associate's question for the moment. "If one of you wishes to try to regain Miss Ivenheart's soul, he or she need only wager their own soul upon a combat with Mr. Fletcher here, who is, I must warn you, quite handy with a rapier." Then, turning to the astonished Mr. Fletcher, he added, "Such a chaotic maneuver, I would imagine, is in line with the teachings of the Abyssal demons."

Still seated comfortably upon the marble bench holding his bulk and leaning heavily on his cane, Lord Shambleton continued his proposal. "The rules shall be as follows: Neither of the combatants can leave the amphitheater until the combat has concluded. Those not involved in the combat directly can observe from the amphitheater seats, but are not to interfere. Only those whose souls are on the line can engage in active combat. Those observing from the amphitheater must swear an oath not to interfere, agreeing to turn over their own souls to me should they break that vow.

"The fight need not be to the death; if either combatant signals surrender, the foe must respect that and allow him to live. However, you will be fighting for your own souls, which must be turned over to me if you are defeated. Each combatant must make a blood oath to that effect before his or her combat begins; the amphitheater has been consecrated to my demonic patron, so you need have no fear on that front: your oaths will be quite binding.

"Additionally, should more than one of you opt to lay your soul on the line, you must either fight one at a time against Mr. Fletcher, or I might be persuaded to join the fight if more of you wish for a larger melee. In fact, we will even agree to fight you all at once, on the condition that you agree to allow us to surrender and be allowed to live, upon forfeiture of your own immortal souls if you do not comply with the surrender."

"I not agreeing to any such terms!" announced a furious Gilbert.

"You need not be involved in the combat," agreed Lord Shambleton. "But if you are to remain in the area, you will either swear an oath - upon forfeiture of your soul - not to interfere in any way, whether that be by spells, weapons, or even mere advice or warnings from the sidelines. If you do not like these conditions, you have two choices: either leave the area while we conduct our business, or slay us right now - and lose Miss Ivenheart's soul forever."

Laerornith looked about to burst into tears at the trouble she'd gotten her brother and his friends into; she still stood rooted to the spot at the center of the amphitheater.

Binkadink stepped up. "I agree to your terms," the gnome fighter said, gripping the shaft of his magical glaive.

"As do I," added Aithanar.

"And I," said Finoula, stepping beside the elven fighter. Behind her, Malrin added, "Me too." The druid looked nervous, though, realizing she had much less combat experience than anybody else here, save her little sister. Laerornith gave a cry of shame at the sight of her family members willing so readily to put their own immortal souls on the line to save her.

"Anyone else?" asked Lord Shambleton. "It would seem we have a brave set of elves - and a gnome - at hand. Will the rest of you be joining or bowing out?"

Darrien and Hagan looked nervously at each other. "I'm in," the half-orc sorcerer finally decided, taking a step forward.

Darrien let out a big sigh. "Okay," he said. "So am I."

"That leaves only you," observed Lord Shambleton as he put his weight on his cane and struggled to his feet, to look Gilbert straight in the eye. "What will it be? You seem to be the only human in this group - will you let the burden fall solely upon your friends? You would seem to be a poor representative to your race should you choose that path."

Gilbert snarled in wordless frustration at the obese demon cultist - for once, the hefty wizard wasn't the fattest person around - and finally conceded, "Fine!"

"Very well, then," nodded Lord Shambleton. "We need only decide upon the rules of our little competition. Shall we fight without spells and weapons - a true barehanded brawl? I must say, was quite the pugilist in my day!"

"I vote weapons," piped up Binkadink immediately.

"And spells," added Hagan. If he was going to be in a fight with his immortal soul on the line, he wanted to be able to blast his enemies!

"Whatever your side gets, our side gets as well," countered Lord Shambleton. "You are taking the chance that the two of us are not secretly powerful clerics capable of dazzling displays of spellcraft."

"There are more of us than there are of you," pointed out Binkadink. "I think we'll take our chances."

"But no summoning," interjected Hagan. He didn't want to take the chance that these demon cultists might be able to summon forth a demon from the Abyss to fight on their behalf. The half-orc sorcerer knew some of the spellcasters on his team knew a few summoning spells, but they were nothing any of them used very often. And he figured Darrien's giant praying mantis wouldn't likely make that big of a difference in this fight in any case.

"That brings up the next point," said Lord Shambleton. "Will we be fighting a series of one-on-one matches, or a free-for-all?" The assembled heroes talked briefly amongst themselves and agreed upon the latter.

"Very well, then," agreed Lord Shambleton. "To recap the rules, then: all combatants will remain within the boundaries of the stage of the amphitheater. Spellcraft and weaponry are both allowed, but summoning has been outlawed. If any of you are defeated - either by being slain or by surrendering - your souls will belong to me upon your death, should Mr. Fletcher and I win the overall combat. If, on the other hand, you either slay myself and Mr. Fletcher or we surrender the battle to you, all of your souls will remain your own and you will have regained, in addition, the soul of Laerornith Ivenheart. Are we agreed in all aspects?"

Reluctantly, the heroes agreed. "Then we shall all swear binding oaths to the terms of our agreement," insisted Lord Shambleton. "You greatly outnumber us, but I must insist that we be given an opportunity to walk out of here with our lives. I fully intend to live to a ripe old age before meeting my eventual fate in the Abyss."

"I can't let you do this!" cried Laerornith. "This is all my fault!"

"No it isn't," insisted Aithanar, taking his sister's hand. "We were all taken in by these cultists."

"But you're all fighting on my behalf - and in my place! I should be fighting beside you!"

"You can't help us fight," pointed out her brother. "They've already got your soul. You don't have anything left to wager." This only caused the tears to flow more heavily down Laerornith's cheeks.

"Here," said Hagan, stepping up to the crying bard. "Take Wezhley, if you would, please. I don't want to expose him to the dangers of this combat; he's just a little weasel." Wezhley, upon his master's urging, scampered down the half-orc's shoulder and arm to curl up in Laerornith's own cradling arms. Somewhat mollified in having something useful to do, Laerornith let the sorcerer lead her to the top row of seats in the amphitheater. "You stay here, out of harm's way," said Hagan. "We'll be able to take these guys, easy. Just look at these odds." Laerornith smiled bravely and gave a little nod at the half-orc's words.

Once Hagan rejoined the rest of his group, everyone assembled there swore their blood-oaths; Lord Shambleton allowed the oaths to be given in the Common tongue, so everyone would know what was being said and there was no possible underhandedness with linguistic trickery. Aithanar was given leave to drive the wagon around a bend out of sight and take Grumps Junior, Wrath, and Obvious with him, to ensure they wouldn't interfere in the upcoming battle. Then, upon his return, the opposing sides were ready for battle.

"As it was the bargaining away of her soul that began this encounter," suggested Lord Shambleton, "perhaps it would be appropriate for the younger Miss Ivenheart to give the signal to begin."

"1-2-3 go!" called out Laerornith, hugging Wezhley tight and praying that none of her friends or family would be hurt.

Malrin was the first to react - perhaps out of sheer nervousness bordering on near terror. She cast a greater magic fang spell on Mudpie, as she was planning on remaining well in the back lines and leaving the actual combat to the professionals. Hagan followed up a mere moment after with a chain lightning spell centered on Mr. Fletcher that arced over to Lord Shambleton. The lightning bolts struck both targets - and Hagan was pretty sure they had had to fight their way through a magical barrier of some type - perhaps a natural spell resistance? - but neither man seemed bothered at all by the electrical bolts. They've protected themselves against electricity! surmised the sorcerer. That took his favorite spell off of the agenda!

Mr. Fletcher raised his hands and called off a few words in the Abyssal tongue, casting an unholy blight spell upon the assembled group of heroes. All but Hagan (whose spell resistance from his scarab of protection negated the spell's effects upon him) were affected to some degree; Aithanar staggered backwards, wobbling to keep on his feet as he backed his way out of the amphitheater. "I'm sorry, Laerornith," he said, nearly falling onto one of the marble benches, his departure from the field of battle indicating his surrender from the fight. His heart was in the right place, but he was well out of his league!

Darrien sent a fusillade of arrows from his Arachnibow flying at Lord Shambleton, who didn't even bother trying to dodge them or swat them away; they just struck his corpulent form and fell to the wayside. The half-elf ranger suspected the heavyset foe had somehow cast a protection from arrows spell on himself when he hadn't been paying attention.

Binkadink stepped forward, striking forward at Mr. Fletcher with his glaive. The blade dug deep into the thin talent scout's torso, causing a stream of blood to soak through his overcoat and vest. Beside the gnome, Finoula snapped her flaming whip of thorns at the thin man's face, then stepped forward and stabbed at him with Tahlmalaera when his attention was distracted by the thorny whip in his face.

At Mr. Fletcher's side, Lord Shambleton looked as if he had cast a spell of some sort, but none of the heroes present could determine what it might be, for it had no apparent effect other than cause a nimbus of rainbow-colored energy to manifest around the corpulent cultist's body. Some sort of protective spell, perhaps? But then he cast off his human form, growing in size until he stood over 20 feet tall. His corpulent form retained its general body shape, but his facial features took on a decidedly porcine semblance, complete with boarlike, upthrust tusks. A pair of small, feathered wings sprouted from his shoulders; Gilbert gasped in horror as he recognized "Lord Shambleton" as a nalfeshnee demon.

Overcoming his surprise, Gilbert cast a heightened enervation spell at the nalfeshnee, significantly weakening him. The wizard smirked at the obvious success of his spell, evident in the demon's look of major irritation that the human's spell had gotten through his resistance to spell energy in the first place.

Malrin was terrified out of her mind at this point - she had expected to be fighting a pair of humans, possibly even capable of casting spells, but certainly not a living demon from the deepest bowels of the Abyss! Still, the druid had the presence of mind to cast a bear's endurance spell on Binkadink, as the gnome fighter looked like he could use a boost to his overall constitution after Mr. Fletcher's unholy blight spell. And then Mr. Fletcher dropped his human guise as well, growing in size to reach the nalfeshnee's shoulders - about 15 feet tall in all. He grew sharp claws at the tips of his fingers, as a second set of arms grew out of his shoulders, this pair ending in oversized, crablike pincers. His skin hardened and his head became lupine, with a mouth full of wicked teeth. "Glabrezu!" hissed Gilbert.

"Mr. Fletcher" snapped his pincers at the heroes standing before him, catching Finoula in his right pincer-claw and Binkadink in his left. Both heroes struggled to free themselves, to no avail. Binkadink even felt himself being pulled closer to the glabrezu's face, the better for the demon to bite at the little gnome.

"My arrows can't get through!" Darrien called out, realizing his Arachnibow was all but useless against these particular enemies.

"Here!" Gilbert called over to him, taking a moment to pull the magic katana he'd taken from an enemy samurai in his mother's homeland from his belt. He knew the weapon had magical enhancements aiding the wielder in striking accurately and dealing damage; perhaps the ranger could put it to good use. Darrien grabbed the curved blade, feeling its heft for a moment to get a feel for the weapon, and then ran up to Lord Shambleton to attack. The nalfeshnee, with his enormous reach, clawed at the approaching ranger, scoring parallel grooves down the side of Darrien's face. But the katana struck true, sinking deep into the demon's bloated leg.

Binkadink was still being crushed in the glabrezu's pincer but he had maintained his grip on his own glaive and continued to put it to good use, swinging the blade into the demon's face and eliciting a roar of pain from his hulking foe. Finoula followed suit, bringing her magical whip and longsword to bear against their foe as best as she could given her current situation - being crushed in the glabrezu's right pincer-claw. Together, the two heroes made the glabrezu pay for his actions in continued pain for as long as he held them prisoner in his claws. From the expression on his lupine face, he was starting to regret the course of action he'd taken against these particular two.

And then, all across the battlefield, the smite action Lord Shambleton had taken a moment ago hit its full power. The multicolored nimbus of energy around his body exploded out in all directions, affecting all around him save his demonic partner. Binkadink and Malrin were both noticeably dazed by the magical effect, their faces contorting in fear as they experienced their own personal worst terrors. The other heroes each winced in momentary fear, but managed to shrug off the worst of the effects and continued the battle for their souls.

Taking advantage of the moment of confusion as his smite attack took effect, the nalfeshnee cast a feeblemind spell at Gilbert, hoping to take him out of the fight permanently. Fortunately for the wizard, he was able to fight off the mental attack through sheer willpower. In return, he cast a scorching ray spell at Mr. Fletcher, hoping to take down the weaker of the two demons and allow everyone to focus on a sole enemy. He knew the demon had at least partial immunity to fire-based attacks, but was hoping his spell was powerful enough to overload the glabrezu's defenses. Judging from the demon's howls of pain, he was quite successful on that front.

Hagan followed up Gilbert's attack with a disintegrate spell centered on the glabrezu. The demon managed to prevent himself from being instantly obliterated by the spell, but he wasn't able to prevent it from dealing him a significant amount of damage. So much, in fact, that the glabrezu realized if he continued on in this fashion he'd likely be slain - and since he and Lord Shambleton had been gated here to the mortal world, if they were slain here it would be quite permanent. "I'm afraid I'm out," he apologized to the nalfeshnee, before hurling Finoula across the amphitheater to land in a bone-crunching thud! beside Malrin, who was still trapped in her own personal mental horror. He then threw Binkadink to land atop her, hoping to cause even more damage from the gnome's heavy armor, but the toss went wide and Binkadink landed beside the elven ranger. Then, with a mental trigger, Mr. Fletcher faded from view, his body gating back to the Abyssal realm he called home.

Darrien bravely continued his attacks with his borrowed katana against the nalfeshnee's legs and seemed to be dealing a little bit of damage, but the demon's thick hide made it almost seem like he was trying to cut down a tree with a sword. Mudpie rushed over to aid the ranger, but he couldn't manage to do much more damage to the demon than Darrien was managing. Behind them, Malrin was still frozen in terror and Binkadink couldn't free himself from his own personal torment to rise up from where he'd been thrown. Gilbert and Hagan were mentally going over their respective spell inventories to find the ones most likely to take down this nalfeshnee before he claimed all of their souls. If he did another smite attack, there was no telling how many more heroes he'd take down....

But Finoula, lying on the ground where she'd been thrown, wasn't yet out of the fight. She crawled back to her feet and briefly considered using her lightning amulet against the towering demon, but something in the back of her mind made her think he was probably immune to electrical attacks. And then she remembered one of the powers granted by her angelhelm. With one hand held to her helmet, she channeled a dispel evil spell into her body, making it a living receptacle ready to apply it to the next creature she touched. She raced up to the demon, her sword and whip left behind on the ground where she'd been thrown, and reached out her hand like a living weapon. Approaching from behind Mudpie, she reached over the small earth elemental's body and slapped Lord Shambleton on the knee.

A surge of white energy flashed from the ranger's hand to the demon at the touch. The nalfeshnee jolted as if blasted with an explosive spell, looked down at the ranger, and smiled a hideous grimace with his horrible tusk-filled mouth. "Oh, very well done," he complimented her in surprise as his body faded the same way Mr. Fletcher's had done a moment before, only this time quite involuntarily on his part. A second later, the amphitheater was empty save for the heroes.

"Is that it?" asked Laerornith, afraid to believe they'd won.

"That's it," Aithanar assured her. He held his little sister in his arms to comfort her, but his eyes were on the ranger who had struck the final blow and saved them all. "Finoula did it!" His loving gaze said quite obviously he had never doubted otherwise.

- - -

The group was starting to get pretty nervous there at the end, afraid they weren't going to be able to take down the nalfeshnee in time. And then Vicki remembered the dispel evil power of Finoula's angelhelm. It's only usable once per day, so this was all or nothing at that point. She rolled, and overcame the demon's spell resistance, so it had a chance of affecting him, but he still got a saving throw. We do all of our die-rolling out in the open, so I calculated the odds (he only needed a ridiculously low number to save) and tossed down my 20-sider. It careened along the top of a Player's Handbook, rolled up to the edge...and then fell off the book and onto the table, a natural 1. No kidding, Vicki was jumping up and down in excitement - I've never seen her so ecstatic.

I enjoyed role-playing the demons, as well - I used an "Alfred Hitchcock" voice when speaking as Lord Shambleton. As for the bardic tryout, I had Vicki make the Perform checks for each test (I had done up a one-page NPC sheet for Laerornith Ivenheart and given it to her during the tryout) and documented each result as if they mattered; she actually rolled very well for that part of the adventure. Vicki was a bit suspicious at the last test, wondering aloud what monster she'd be summoning when Laerornith recited the "made up words" (actually, the soul offering in Abyssal), but rolled well then as well. I had made the players all tell me what languages their PCs knew at the beginning of the test, purportedly to see if anyone knew Dwarven (nobody did), but really to see who might recognize Abyssal being sung aloud (and it was only Gilbert). I had Dan roll an Intelligence check for Gilbert, and I had made up a chart to show at which word of the oath Gilbert recognized what the bard was saying based on his result; I then had Vicki make a Will save for Laerornith to see how many extra words she said after Gilbert told her to stop. She got far enough along to have already given her soul to Lord Shambleton.

And I apparently made my "demon cultists" explanation reasonable enough that everybody bought it and nobody suspected they were dealing with actual demons. So that was a fun reveal, especially since I own a nalfeshnee D&D Mini and Logan had earlier purchased, built, and painted a "wolf demon" mini that's quite obviously a glabrezu. Plopping them down on the battle map (a set of cards from the "Ruins" Map Pack from Paizo) resulted in a lot of worried looks on my players' faces!

The next adventure deals with an encounter on the way back home to Kordovia. With events as they are, if Jacob decides to play with us next session he'll have to run one (or both) of Castillan's sisters, since his PC is away doing a task for his father. It's an interruptible task, but he'd have no way of knowing the other PCs' current location or have any way to get there in time if he did.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Still wearing my green dragon T-shirt, since this was the same game session as "Audience with the Successor."
 
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