The Kordovian Adventurers Guild



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 15​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 15​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 15​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 15​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 15​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3​
Laerornith Ivenheart, elf bard 4​
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 7​

Game Session Date: 25 August 2018

- - -

The group opted to camp overnight by the ruins of the amphitheater - it was already past twilight and likely dangerous to travel after nightfall. But the night passed without incident, and in the morning the group broke camp and started their day-and-a-half trek back to Kordovia.

Laerornith was in miserable spirits; not only had her hopes of being welcomed into the bardic Conservatory of the Ineffable Chord been dashed but she was well aware of the danger she had brought to her family and friends. She no longer felt in the mood to sing or play her lute, so it was a much quieter return than the trip to the false "tryout" had been.

Malrin wasn't in much better spirits. She had been thrilled at the opportunity to join the group and work with her two brothers, but if this was the kind of life an adventurer led she wasn't sure it was something she wished to make a part of her day-to-day existence. The others had already brushed off the previous day's fight with a pair of demons from the deepest, darkest corner of the Abyss, it apparently being just a normal part of the routine for them. But the druid wasn't sure she could bring herself to forget the terror she'd felt at their presence any time soon. She sat in the Vistani wagon, deep in thought beside her little sister, while their brother Aithanar drove the wagon back towards home. Hagan and Gilbert shared the wagon's interior with the two sisters, occasionally trying to engage them in conversation, but they quickly tired of the effort. Outside, Binkadink led the wagon train mounted on Obvious, while Finoula rode her pony Daisy beside the wagon, her timber wolf Wrath trotting alongside; Darrien sat on the wagon's roof, keeping a vigilant watch for danger.

But all in all, it was a quiet ride home - until the forest was split by the sound of a woman's scream from just around a bend in the road.

Darrien immediately slid from his perch atop the roofed wagon, drawing his Arachnibow as he ran ahead and around the corner. Seeing his master back on solid ground, Grumps Junior trotted up beside the green-haired ranger. Together, they were the first to see the reason for the scream: a couple dozen feet ahead, a small group of horse-sized beetles were attacking an elderly human woman. As the ranger first got sight of the attack, the woman was pulled to the ground, her frail body gripped in the strong, oversized mandibles of one of the black-shelled insects.

The scream had been quite audible even inside the Vistani wagon; Hagan, the nearest to the door, opened it and jumped out the back, running to the sounds of battle. Wezhley tensed up on the half-orc's shoulder, fearful of what they might find.

On the other side of the wagon, Finoula spurred Daisy to sprint forward and Wrath kept pace. Seeing the attack, the elven ranger cast an entangle spell that caused the grasses and plants growing in places along the dirt road to reach up and grasp at three of the beetles' bodies. However, the nimble beetles avoided the entwining tendrils of plant matter and turned to face these new possible food sources.

Binkadink likewise spurred Obvious forward at best speed and the gnome struck at the nearest beetle with his magic glaive as he passed by. The blade just about cut the beetle in half; with a practiced motion, the littler fighter spun his glaive in an arc and sliced through another beetle on the other side of his mount, then reversed direction with his blade again and skewered one of the beetles just ahead in the area of Finoula's entangle spell. In a blur of motion, Binkadink had slain three of the beetles in twice as many seconds. The other two beetles in the entangle field, not having learned anything from this display of martial proficiency, skittered up to flank the jackalope and his armored rider. Binkadink stabbed at the one facing in his direction, killing it as well.

At that point, there were only two giant beetles still alive. One had the woman in its mandibles, but released her once it became apparent he couldn't chew her up as expected. The woman crawled away in the dirt of the street and Finoula's keen elven vision noticed she held a wand in each hand.

"What going on?" demanded Gilbert as he and Mudpie exited the Vistani wagon after Aithanar brought it around the bend and had the draft horses slow to a stop to avoid getting too close to the combat. Malrin and Laerornith looked at each other in fear - was this another demon attack? - and scrambled to the narrow window-slits on either side of Aithanar's seat at the front of the wagon to see what was going on.

Darrien shot a trio of arrows at the beetle that had had the old woman in his mandibles, but they bounced off. "I'm sorry," called out the woman in the street, still crawling to safety. "I accidentally stoneskinned that one, I'm afraid. Got my wands mixed up."

Hagan cast a chain lightning spell at the beetle beside Obvious and had it arc over to strike the one with the stoneskin protection. Neither strike slew the targets, but the smoke rising from the carapace of the primary target showed it had been badly burned by the spell.

Seeing the entangle spell was ineffective at this point, Finoula dismissed it and the plants went back to their normal size and shape. She struck the stoneskinned beetle, first with her flaming whip of thorns and then with her longsword Tahlmalaera as she got closer. Several of her attacks did the beetle actual harm, having made it past the protections of the accidental stoneskin spell.

At Binkadink's urging, Obvious stabbed down at the nearest beetle with his antlers and then hippity-hopped over to the tougher threat. The gnome's glaive flashed out at the stoneskinned beetle, dealing so much damage the magical protection was overcome and the giant insect was slain. Over on the other side of the street, the last of the six beetles decided to seek elsewhere for food and shuffled off through the undergrowth.

"Thank you all," said the elderly woman, rising to her feet. "I don't know what I'd have done without your timely arrival. I thought I had the wand of shocking grasp in my right hand and the stoneskin wand in my left, but I guess it was the other way around. In any case--thank you again." The woman's face was flushed; she'd apparently had much more excitement than she had expected.

"What are you doing out here all on your own?" asked Finoula, passing over her waterskin and allowing the woman to take a drink from it.

"Oh, thank you," replied the woman, passing the waterskin back to Finoula after a quick drink. "I live just a ways away. I was out collecting herbs and plants for my potions--oh! We haven't been introduced! Forgive me; my name is Henrietta Higgenbotham. I've lived here my whole life; I'm what the locals call a "wise-woman.' Born with the sight, and so on. Oh, forgive me! I'm babbling." She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Would you like a cup of tea? It's the least I can do. I can divine your fortunes, too, if you're interested." She walked back to where she had first been attacked and fetched an overturned wicker basket, replacing the spilled contents.

Hagan looked at the others, then replied, "It would be an honor."

"Here: I should offer this to you as well," said Henrietta, handing over her wand of stoneskin. "It's just about out of charges, I fear, but I have the ingredients to whip up another one. It saved my life today, that's for sure."

"You keep it, ma'am," said Hagan, declining the offer. "I'm sure you can use it more than we can."

"Well, aren't you the sweetest thing," replied Henrietta, putting the wand in her wicker basket. "Come along, then - the cottage is just this way."

The way to Henrietta's cottage was off the main road, along a side-branch that at times was little more than a mere hint of a path; several times there were branches dragging along both sides of the wagon as Aithanar led the draft horses after the wise-woman. And then once they got there, they saw the "cottage" was in truth a two-story wooden building, more a manor home than a mere cottage. It had seen better days, too; Henrietta looked to be a woman in her sixties and her home looked to be at least twice that age. But despite the weeds growing on either side of the steps to the front porch and the house needing a good paint job and perhaps a few repairs here and there, it looked to be of generally sturdy construction.

Aithanar parked the Vistani wagon off to the side of the manor and offered to stay with the animals while the others went inside; both of his sisters opted to stay with him. So while the rest of the group followed Henrietta into her home, Gilbert loitered behind at the wagon just long enough to ensure the Ivenhearts were all okay - but also to drink down a potion of neutralize poison and cast a detect magic spell upon himself. Sure, it was possible that little old ladies you met in the middle of the forest were perfectly trustworthy, but Gilbert Fung for one preferred only to give his trust to those who had earned it.

"The others are in the study, to your right," called Henrietta from the kitchen as Gilbert and Mudpie entered the residence. "I'll be there in a minute, once I've got the tea on." Gilbert entered a dining room, with six wooden chairs arranged around a full-length table with a dingy white tablecloth hanging to the floor. There was an open doorway to his right, and there were the rest of his group. Binkadink and Hagan sat in chairs facing each other from either side of the room; Gilbert passed between them to plop down beside Darrien on an old sofa covered in a woolen blanket. Finoula stood between Darrien and Hagan; Mudpie took position standing before his master. There was a footstool before him, but being made of living stone he had no muscles to get tired - he preferred to stand.

While the group was all together in one area, Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell linking everyone together. <Everybody hear me okay?> asked Gilbert through the mental link.

<Loud and clear> replied Hagan. <But what's up? We usually only do this right before combat.>

<Never know. Might be 'right before combat' right now.>

Sure enough, Gilbert's inherent distrustfulness paid off this time. The four sitting heroes felt their seats jostle beneath them, then appendages rose up from the furniture and struck out at them. <Mimics!> cried Gilbert over the shared link. Finoula jumped with a start at the commotion and drew her primary weapons from her belt, surprised to see the others being attacked by furniture. And it wasn't just the chairs and sofas, either - the bookcase was shuffling over from the corner, and the footstool grew an appendage that looked to be swinging in Mudpie's direction. Not only that, but from the corner of her eye Finoula spotted the doorway to the dining room being blocked by the table and chairs, which moved as one unified figure, tipping forward to prevent any escape from the study.

Hagan jumped up from the chair trying to adhere itself to his robe and attacked with his favorite go-to attack spell: chain lightning. He chose the combined dining-room-table-and-chairs-thing as his primary target and had arcs of lightning stretch over to attack every piece of mobile furniture in the study. The spell was amazingly effective, slaying all of its designated targets but the "sofa" upon which Darrien and Gilbert were still struggling. Unfortunately, because of their contact to the mimics targeted by the chain lightning spell, Gilbert, Darrien, and Binkadink all took damage as well.

Unseen by the heroes, two more smaller mimics - in the shape of a metal stove and a pile of cordwood - started ambling over from the kitchen to the dining room. This is because all of the mimics in the house were different parts of the same creature: a hivemind of fake furniture spread throughout this part of the house. There was one final mimic in the kitchen as well, wearing the form of a metal washtub, but it walked away through the outer door to the back yard, which Henrietta Higgenbotham had left open when she had stepped outside moments before. But the "washtub" mimic - as part of the hivemind - knew that as long as one member of the mimic hive stayed alive, it would be able to grow and split into others of its type, and eventually they could repopulate the house in the manner in which they had become accustomed.

Darrien leaped up from the sofa - possibly in part due to the electric shock he'd just received from Hagan's spell - and stepped away from the offending mimic. Pulling out his Arachnibow, he sent an arrow shooting into the spot where he'd been sitting a moment ago. But that didn't have the intended effect; instead of puncturing into the mimic's pliant body, it caused a rift to split the creature in two, and all of a sudden there was a pair of half-sofas along the back of the room - one of them still holding an astonished Gilbert Fung. Darrien cursed his bad luck and switched weapons, pulling the scimitar from his belt.

But Binkadink got there first. He extended his magical glaive and sent the blade crashing into the recently-vacated half-sofa, discovering as a result that slashing weapons had the same effect as piercing ones, for the half-sofa split into two quarter-sofa pieces, each sprouting pliant appendages with which to strike out at the heroes. <Blunt weapons!> Binkadink sent over the shared link. <Use blunt weapons!>

Gilbert stood up and cast a haste spell upon all of the heroes, surprised when he was battered by a trio of mimics still wearing the forms of bits of a comfortable sofa. Mudpie stepped forward to protect his master but Gilbert waved him away, not wanting his familiar to get stuck to a mimic's adhesive form.

Finoula used two of her magic items at once: stepping on the side of the wall with her boots of spider climbing, she activated the lightning amulet she wore around her neck and transformed her elven body into a blast of lightning that coursed through the bodies of all three sofa-piece mimics. Then, at the other side, she returned to her elven form and stood in place on the far wall, looking down at her handiwork: all three mimics had been slain by her attack. She looked smugly at her compatriots, as if to say, "That's how you do it!"

Hagan stood on his tippy-toes, peering over the top of the body of the larger mimic from the dining room; as it deteriorated after death, its pliant body was losing cohesion like a deflating balloon. With another casting of the chain lightning spell he had slain the "stove" and "woodpile" mimics and started scrambling up over the corpse of the "dining-room-table-and-chairs" mimic, planning on heading to the kitchen to check on Henrietta. After all, despite Gilbert's inherent lack of trust, the half-orc wasn't sure that the mimics hadn't snuck into Henrietta's house while she was away - she could very well be in danger! Darrien scrambled over the deflating mimic and together the two half-breeds explored the now-empty kitchen. The back door was open and they popped their heads out, but there was nobody in the backyard, either. They did see a large, round, stone slab with various runes etched deeply into it, though. It lay flat in the backyard like an oversized manhole cover.

"Those runes mean anything to you?" asked Darrien.

"Nah," admitted Hagan. "Sorcery comes naturally to me, so I never bothered studying up on the various arcane runes or anything. We should probably get Gilbert to look at it, though."

Binkadink crawled into the dining room and then went down the length of the entry hall, finding an empty library at the far end. Apparently empty, he amended to himself, eyeing the various bookcases warily. It was entirely possible this entire house was filled with mimics instead of furniture - or there were rumors of enormous mimics that could take on the appearance of an entire house. It was entirely possible that the heroes were already standing inside the body of a gigantic mimic! The thought gave the gnome little comfort.

Finoula followed the gnome's path into the main hallway, followed closely behind by Gilbert and Mudpie. They looked around, aware that an attack could come from any direction.

It came from the stairwell ahead, one of two leading up to the house's upper level. From the stairwell flew a winged creature looking like an animated ice sculpture of a tiny gargoyle. Finoula instinctively snapped her flaming whip of thorns at the ice mephit, and it hissed in pain as the hated flames licked its body. But then Freezeface opened its mouth wide and sent shards of ice particles flying out at Finoula and Gilbert, causing them to flinch in surprise but dealing neither of them very much harm at all.

But then Henrietta raced down the steps behind her familiar, stepping to the side at the main level to line up the lightning bolt she shot at Finoula, Gilbert, and Mudpie in turn. The elderly woman cackled an evil laugh as the three cried out in pain and surprise. "I think instead of just tea, I'll have you over as the main course!" she laughed.

<This why I never trust people!> Gilbert griped over the mental link. The blast had taken a lot out of him; combined with the beatings he'd taken from the mimics earlier, he was hurting bad. He staggered backwards, touched Mudpie - and then, with the utterance of a magical syllable, both figures teleported away to the Vistani wagon, where Malrin could use Ingebold's staff of healing to undo the worst of the heavyset mage's wounds.

Hagan and Darrien got an update on what was going on through the Rary's telepathic bond spell, so as the half-orc sorcerer ran back into the house through the kitchen, the half-elf ranger dropped his ebony fly from a pocket and mounted it as it grew to full size beneath him. He flew it over the roof to the front of the building, bringing it to a landing on a balcony jutting out over the front door and porch directly below.

Binkadink spun around to see Henrietta Higgenbotham in combat with Finoula. He raced up, bringing his glaive swinging down at her. (It was nice that he could mentally extend and retract the length of the weapon's shaft - it made fighting inside tight quarters like a manor hallway that much easier!) But while he was surprised he was even in combat with a 60-year-old lady in the first place, he was even more surprised that his blow didn't drop her on the spot. And then he remembered she was still protected by a stoneskin spell from her "fight" with the beetles - if that had even been a legitimate fight in the first place, and not a ruse to gain sympathy from the heroes and get them to drop their guards. For all the gnome knew, Henrietta might have even summoned the giant beetles in the first place!

Flanking their common foe with Binkadink, Finoula sent both her sword and her whip slashing and lashing out at the witch. She drew blood, causing Henrietta curse in a fashion not at all in harmony with her "sweet little grandmother" appearance. "I'll have your bones for that, dearie!" Henrietta promised the ranger.

In a flash, Freezeface sent a magic missile crashing into Finoula, jolting her in surprise. And then Henrietta opened her mouth and shrieked.

The shriek was like nothing any of the heroes had heard before. Binkadink momentarily feared they were facing some sort of banshee, but then he thought he remembered them being some sort of undead, and Henrietta was very much alive. But the sonic assault caused both Finoula and Binkadink's ears to bleed at once; Hagan, Wezhley, Darrien, and his ebony fly mount were all able to hear the shriek and while they were far enough away not to suffer any ear-bleeds, all but Darrien of the four suffered from one of the shriek's side effects: a magical confusion that muddled their thoughts and messed with their perceptions.

Hagan was instantly filled with rage and started sprinting forward through the dining room, looking for someone - anyone, really - to attack. Freezeface the ice mephit happened to be the first potential victim the half-orc stumbled upon, so he was the recipient of one of Hagan's most devastating spells: a disintegrate. Freezeface cried out in alarm, but was blasted into nothingness by the furious half-orc's spell.

On Hagan's shoulder, Wezhley the weasel was also suddenly filled with rage, although his wasn't random but rather focused upon the originator of the shriek. Racing down his master's body, Wezhley scampered across the hallway and bared his teeth, clamping down upon one of Henrietta's ankles. He would have drawn blood if not for her stoneskin protection. "Nasty thing!" cried Henrietta, kicking the weasel away with her foot.

Darrien was a bit worried at the erratic way his giant fly was acting, so he dismissed it and it returned to statuette form. Pocketing it for later use, the ranger opened the door from the balcony and entered the second floor of Henrietta's manor home. There was a long hallway before him, but a door to either side. Fearful of potential mimics, Darrien opened the door to the right and sent an arrow crashing into the toilet he found in the small room. But the toilet was just a toilet, a ceramic bowl beneath a wooden seat with a hole at the top. Embarrassed at his overreaction, the ranger retrieved his arrow.

In the hallway beneath, Binkadink attacked Henrietta again with his glaive, putting his full strength into each blow. She was visibly hurt by the attacks, enough so that she no longer kept up the appearance of a kindly old human woman; instead, her features blurred and took on her true visage: an ancient crone of the shrieking hag variety. A crooked nose bent down from her wrinkled face, thin strands of gray hair falling flat against the sides of her head. Her neat and trim homespun garment also altered to its true form: a featureless sack of a dress, dark in color but aged to the point it was difficult to say exactly which color.

Finoula snarled in fury at the deception and attacked the hag with renewed vigor. Then the front door opened beside her, and there stood Gilbert and Mudpie, reinvigorated by Malrin and her borrowed staff of healing. "Nice of you to show back up!" said Finoula while she concentrated on bringing down Henrietta. Enraged by getting a whip-strike across the face, the shrieking hag cried out, "I'll eat the eyes out of your pretty face!" to Finoula as she clawed at her with fingernails that would do a troll proud. Scoring grooves across the ranger's face, she cackled in triumph and licked the blood from her nails as Finoula staggered back in pain. Gilbert caught her and pulled her back from combat, steadying her before she passed out from shock.

"You'll die for that!" promised Binkadink, attacking with renewed fury.

"If I do, I'll be avenged, an' avenged again!" countered Henrietta, spinning to claw at the little gnome. Off to the side behind her, Hagan stared at the spot on the floor containing Freezeface's ashes and started babbling nonsensically, his mind still under the effects of the confusion aspect of the hag's shriek. Wezhley spun around in circles in the hallway, his fury abated and now presenting no more danger than a possible tripping hazard.

Darrien approached the top of the stairway and sent a flurry of arrows down at Henrietta. As the hag looked up at him in surprise, Binkadink saw an opening and sent his glaive cutting deep into the crone's side, nearly cutting her in half. She dropped to the floor, dead.

"Glad that over with," commented Gilbert.

He spoke too soon. With a crashing sound outside, the stone slab in the backyard of the Higgenbotham Manor burst apart and an ebon form arose. It was humanoid in build, but stood a good 20 feet tall. It stared right at the back of the house as if it could see through the walls and stepped forward with purpose. Without even breaking its stride, it smashed through the back wall of the house, sending Darrien - who had come down the rest of the stairs to ensure the hag was really dead - sprawling forward onto the hallway floor, to land in a heap beside Henrietta's corpse.

Gilbert got a quick glimpse of the nightwalker as it bent down and entered the house and recognized it at once from his studies; the fact that his magically-enhanced eyes were telling him it blazed with an aura of undead was a mere conformation of what the portly mage already knew. <That thing a nightwalker!> he called to the others, <Whatever you do, don't look into its eyes!> Then he grabbed Finoula and rushed back outside to the front of the house. He cast a quick mage armor spell upon both him and Mudpie in preparation of the battle to come. Finoula fumbled for a healing flask at her belt and drank down its contents. She wasn't back to full strength by any means, but it would keep her in the fight - for now.

Hagan ignored the nightwalker stepping into his field of vision; instead, his gaze was drawn to the dead hag on the floor before him, and to his befuddled mind it was the most horrific sight he'd ever seen. He turned and fled back to the dining room, took a left through the kitchen, and was well on his way out the back door once again when the sudden panic attack subsided.

Binkadink saw the massive form bearing down on him and had the presence of mind to scoop up Wezhley from the floor on his way out the manor's front door. Realizing he was likely the nightwalker's primary target - as he had been the one to slay the shrieking hag, and this was undoubtedly some sort of prearranged vengeance contingent upon her death - he also drank down a healing potion from his belt. Unfortunately, it was the last of the "Winkidew specials" which had come embedded with a magic mouth spell put there by Binkadink's cousin Jinkadoodle. As a result, although it wasn't Binkadink it was certainly his voice which boomed out the following announcement: "I like taking goats from behind!"

Darrien scrambled to his feet and followed the gnome out the front door. Upon Gilbert's advice over the shared telepathic bond, he cast a freedom of movement spell upon Binkadink as soon as he was within touching distance of the gnome. <That at least protect glaive from getting stolen and crushed> Gilbert thought. <Might not help you any, though.>

<Appreciated nonetheless> said Binkadink.

Making a bee-line for the gnome, the nightwalker smashed through the front of the house, rising to its full height once he cleared the porch's roof. It pointed an accusing finger at Binkadink and a flash of necromantic energy shot out from the pointing digit, striking Binkadink in the chest. He staggered back a step, but he managed to overcome the finger of death spell that threatened to stop his heart. At his side, Gilbert cast a protection from evil spell that had the advantageous side effect of clearing up Wezhley's confused mind. "Go to wagon!" Gilbert called to the weasel, and it darted off at once, trusting that his master would be okay without him.

"I'm going to try something," declared Finoula, touching her amulet and facing the gleaming, black giant - and careful not to look at it too high. Then she willed her body into a lightning bolt that shot through the nightwalker's body. The ranger ended up in the backyard by the shattered rune-slab, having passed through both smashed walls in the process. But looking back at her handiwork, it didn't seem as if the undead thing had been affected by her electrical attack in the least. <Probably spell resistance> offered up Gilbert. <Might work if you try it again.>

Hagan watched Finoula remanifest in the backyard and babbled in surprised confusion. Then he was distracted by imaginary bubbles he thought he saw floating at the edges of his visual periphery. His attention thus drawn away, he failed to see Malrin come running up to Finoula. "Gilbert sent me," she said by way of explanation as she summoned a charge from the staff of healing to partially heal some of the ranger's wounds. "He said you guys need all the healing we can get out here."

"That's true enough," agreed Finoula.

In the front yard, Darrien reached up to his own amulet and activated it, causing the preying mantis trapped in the lump of amber to disappear and reappear many times larger in mid-air, flying toward the nightwalker's face. It perched itself on the front of the undead being, blocking its gaze. That done, Darrien ran around the side of the house to try to get into position behind the nightwalker. He had an inkling about trying to trip it with a strand of webbing from his Arachnibow....

Having failed to kill the hag's slayer with its finger of death attack, the nightwalker bent forward and sent its fists smashing into the little gnome. Binkadink could swear he heard bones cracking, but it might have just been his imagination. Still, he held his ground, realizing his best bet at staying alive was to slay this thing before it had a chance to do the same to him.

Gilbert cast an Evard's black tentacles spell centered on the nightwalker; the grasping appendages failed to imprison the undead thing but it had been worth a shot. Binkadink attacked furiously with his glaive, having extended it to its full length so he could stay well outside the area of effect of Gilbert's spell, although his still-active freedom of movement spell would have kept him from being crushed by the tentacles in any case.

Finoula activated the last daily charge of her lightning amulet and went streaking through the nightwalker again as a bolt of electricity, this time actually doing it some harm. <You were right!> she thought at Gilbert over the link.

<Usually am!> replied the mage.

The nightwalker struck out at Binkadink again with its massive fists, and this time the gnome was nearly staggered from the blows - a lesser man would already have fallen into unconsciousness by now. <I need a breather for some healing!> the gnome called out, and Gilbert responded by casting an invisible wall of force from one front wing of the manor to the other, effectively blocking off Binkadink from the nightwalker. When the nightwalker went to strike the little gnome again, its fists crashed against the invisible barrier, giving Binkadink a moment to catch his breath.

"Healer!" called Gilbert, aloud this time since Malrin wasn't part of the Rary's telepathic bond spell. The druid heard the call from the backyard, and wildshaped into an owl so she could fly above the manor house rather than waste the time to run around it - running through it was no longer an option, not with writhing black tentacles rising up from the floor! Fortunately, the druid was adept at casting her spells while in animal form, so she was able to alight on Binkadink's shoulder and heal him in that fashion.

Darrien by this time had crept around to the back of the building, but Hagan - still confused - took him for an enemy and attacked. Fortunately, there was some little bit of his messed-up mind that must have recognized the ranger as a friend at the last minute, for instead of using a more powerful spell like disintegrate he went with hold monster instead. Darrien froze up immediately, but in a few seconds the confusion had passed and Hagan no longer wanted to kill his friend. Shortly after that, Darrien found the force of will to break free from the enchantment, allowing him to move once more.

Gilbert had created his wall of force such that both sides touched the wings of the house, but the top didn't reach up to the roof above the porch. That gave him a strip of open space allowing him to cast a magic missile spell at the nightwalker - not that powerful of a spell, admittedly, but one guaranteed to hit if he could overcome the undead thing's inherent spell resistance. His casting was spot-on this time and the creature's ebon body sizzled with the impacts of each magical streak of force energy.

But although the nightwalker was indeed blocked from reaching his target by physical means, he had other methods available. He willed an unholy blight effect around Binkadink, catching Finoula in its radius as well. The ranger was able to shrug off the worst of the effects; Binkadink was not so lucky.

In a brief moment of clarity, Hagan realized the enemy was the nightwalker standing at the other end of the two holes he's punched through the dwelling - and the half-orc was standing in full view of the undead creature's back. With practiced precision, Hagan targeted a delayed blast fireball at the creature's lower back, setting no delay on the time before impact - he wanted the higher-level spell's higher damage output, not a delay in the explosion. He likewise was able to overcome the nightwalker's innate spell resistance and reveled in the way it staggered forward from the blast, smoke streaming from its back.

<I'm ready!> called Binkadink over the shared link. <Drop the wall!>

<You sure, gnome?>

<I'm sure! Drop it!> Gilbert obediently dismissed the wall of force spell, not that there were any indications he had done so, for the wall was invisible in any case. But Binkadink, knowing it was gone while the nightwalker did not yet, was able to take advantage of the situation first. He sprang forward, his magical glaive striking in a series of rapid blows with all of the little gnome's power behind it. While it was thus distracted, Finoula used her boots of spider climbing to run up along the inside wall of the western front wing of the house, slashing out at the nightwalker's arm with her flaming whip of thorns, careful not to hit the giant praying mantis still crawling on the nightwalker's head and face.

The undead creature took a moment to fling the mantis away so it could better strike at Binkadink, but that maneuver took up valuable time - time Binkadink put to good use with his glaive. The nightwalker was beginning to falter in its steps; was it possible they were actually close to bringing it down?

They were. The confusion effect now having run its full course, Hagan's mind was his own again and he knew what he had to do. Walking confidently forward, he cast a disintegrate spell at the undead monstrosity. It reared back, arching backwards as if having received a physical blow...and then disintegrated into nothingness.

"Thank the Goddess!" sighed Finoula. "I'm glad that's over with!"

But her words turned out to be premature, for now the entire house started shaking as if the ground beneath it were in the throes of an earthquake. Afraid of having the house collapse with her still perched on its upper-level wall, the nimble ranger dropped down to the ground and ran a few steps away from the shaking building. Hagan had similar thoughts, but it was quicker for him to run back through the hole in the back wall and end up by the shattered stone rune-seal, next to Darrien (who was ready to try to dodge if it looked like the sorcerer was about to attack him again with a spell, but Hagan seemed to be back to his old self now).

The house shuddered and shook, but it didn't fall apart - not exactly. Individual tiles from the roof fell away to land to the ground, but the majority of the building's movement was lateral: the two outer wings of the house started moving toward each other, as the building suddenly seemed to grow a third floor, then a fourth. The central overhanging balcony above the front porch rose higher and higher, as the house of Henrietta Higgenbotham assumed a relatively humanoid form - only one standing some 60 feet tall!

"Oh, crap," sighed Binkadink, a sudden realization hitting him: Henrietta's last words included the phrase "avenged, and avenged again."

As the house finished its reassembly into humanoid form, Darrien sighted up at the thing's "head" with his Arachnibow. He let fly an arrow, willing it to turn into a strand of webbing as it left the bow. Then, gripping the lower end of the strand, Darrien started climbing his way up the creature's back. If it noticed, it gave no indication of it.

The mantis flew up to the front side of the creature's "face," attempting to block its vision as it had done with the nightwalker. But although there was a pair of windows in the rough position where a set of eyes would be on a man, it was questionable whether the wooden colossus was actually seeing through them or not. It took a lumbering step forward, the earth shaking at the massive creature's tread.

Gilbert cast a fireball spell at the thing's chest - it seemed logical that when fighting a creature made out of a wooden house, fire was the way to go. From behind the thing, Hagan came up with the same idea, casting another delayed blast fireball without the delay - and careful not to hit it where it might encompass Darrien, who was diligently climbing his way to the top.

As one, Binkadink and Finoula ran forward, each picking a different leg to attack, the gnome with his magical glaive, the elf with her magical longsword and flaming whip of thorns. It seemed they would be fairly safe all the way down here; the creature, after all, had formed "arms" and "fists" from the wooden walls of the house and it would be unwieldy for the massive creature to try to punch at foes way down here. Finoula immediately saw the flaw in that logic when the wood colossus lifted up its left foot and brought it crashing down upon her.

Fortunately, the ground was soft enough that the ranger wasn't immediately crushed to a pulp; she had had the breath knocked out of her and quite possibly broken a rib or two, but she was now pinned in place inside a Finoula-shaped depression in the ground. She struggled, but there was no extricating herself from beneath the weight of the house-monster; she'd have to try to hang on until her friends could destroy it. A sudden flapping sound alerted her to the fact that Malrin, still in owl form, had come to give her what aid she could, channeling the healing energy of a cure moderate wounds spell through her talons before flying away to safety once again.

Darrien reached the top of his web-line and stood perched between the sloping roofs of the colossus's "shoulders," wondering the best approach now that he was up there. The gabled section that served as the creature's "head" seemed a good place to start, so the ranger used his scimitar to best effect, chopping away at the wood making up the back part of the head structure while wishing he had an axe.

Binkadink continued a similar assault upon the colossus's right leg, chopping away at it with his glaive as best he could. The thing seemed unwilling to remove its left leg and thus free the one hero it had pinned, so the gnome was sure to scoot back and forth a bit between attacks, so the massive construct wouldn't know exactly where he was at any one given time.

Gilbert cast another fireball at the colossus's broad chest area. It didn't respond in any way but to bear down upon Finoula, crushing the consciousness from her pinned form. The others realized if they didn't get it off her soon, she was going to be little more than a squashed stain on the ground under the behemoth's "foot."

Fortunately, Hagan came through again. With the extra power a delayed blast fireball had over the standard version, he was able to scorch its wooden timbers making up its enormous back black. With a loud snapping sound, the boards and planks making up its structure collapsed in on themselves, and from that point on it was just a slow-motion collapse into a pile of rubble. Malrin landed by Finoula and returned to her normal elven form and pulled the unconscious ranger (who she secretly hoped would one day soon be her sister-in-law) to safety. Once she had dragged her safely out of the way, the druid cast one of her last healing spells upon her, waking her back to consciousness.

As the colossus collapsed, it started to reform back into a house but it didn't quite make it all the way. It ended up somewhere between the two forms, with a distinct second story if not an entirely level one. Before the others could stop him, Binkadink ran inside and made his way up one of the flight of stairs.

<Bink!> called Gilbert over the link. <What you doing, stupid gnome?>

<Just a quick reconnoiter before the whole place falls apart!> Binkadink promised.

<You'd better hurry, then> advised Finoula. <The place looks like it'll fall over with a brisk wind.>

<I still have my freedom of movement spell active if I run into any more mimics> Binkadink mentioned. He peeked into a couple of rooms; one was a guest bedroom or something, unlikely to store treasure; another room was pretty much empty and the gnome was about to pass it over when he heard a distinct clunk from behind the closet door. Opening it warily, he got quite an unexpected sight.

Shackled to the back of the closet by a pair of heavy chains at her wrists stood a woman in the oddest-looking armor Binkadink had ever seen. It was extremely form-fitting, so much so that he doubted the metal could be very thick unless there was a much smaller woman in there than he had at first guessed. She stood as tall as a human so the gnome had mentally assigned her human status in his mind, but now he was beginning to wonder. "Are you okay?" he asked.

The woman said nothing in response, only a hissing noise came from behind her helmet. But it was the strangest helmet Binkadink had ever seen. For one thing, there was only one eye-hole, where the woman's left eye would be, and it stuck out a good inch or so, like the tip of a telescope. There was no open area in the helmet so he could see the color of her skin; instead, she seemed totally encased inside her armor.

A red beam suddenly shot out from her eye, striking the top of Binkadink's helmet and widening into a triangular plane, which then traveled down his body. He tensed as if it were an attack, but he felt nothing bad happening from this strange ray. <Gilbert, I think you'd better get up here> he advised.

<I not crawling up there in that rickety old building! It fall down any second now!>

<There's somebody trapped in here!>

Grumbling, the wizard cautiously entered the building from the gaping hole in its back wall and mounted the rickety stairs. Binkadink called out verbally so the wizard could tell which side of the house he was in, and before long he was staring at the strange woman. She turned her head and shot her red eye-beam at Gilbert, letting it travel down his whole body and then back up again. Then she repeated the string of hisses.

"Stupid gnome!" cursed Gilbert. "That no person - that a construct!"

"We should still free her," countered the gnome.

"It not a 'her,' stupid, it an 'it.'"

"Okay, but still."

"Hang on a minute first," said the wizard, then he cast a quick mending spell on the construct. Immediately, the hissing sounds turned into language, but no language either of the two had ever heard before, although if it was similar to anything it was most like the native language of Kozakura, the land of Gilbert's mother's birth. It had the same almost musical cadence to it.

"Shan tao, tanake windiru Marci," the construct said. "Then, shaking the chains keeping it bound, she added, "Santuki sha no vinichiwa kanusuke."

"Maybe we should get Aithanar up here," suggested Binkadink with a wry smile on his face. "That sounds like the nonsense he was spouting after he hit his head."

A sudden shift in the building changed the mood all of a sudden. "Let's get out of here," said Gilbert. "Bink: you break chains?"

"I'll give it a shot," he said, shrinking down the length of the shaft of his glaive so he could wield it in the confined space of a closet. After several attempts, he managed to cut through the chains.

"We out of here," announced Gilbert, turning to head back down the stairs. Binkadink followed, and with some prompting the metal woman followed. The three hadn't been out of the building for more than a minute before one side of the house collapsed inward, taking the middle section with it. Before long, it was a featureless pile of timber in a clearing in the Vesve Forest.

"Who's your friend?" asked Darrien, eyeing the female construct.

"Not sure yet," replied Gilbert. "But I find out." He cast a comprehend languages spell upon himself and then turned to the construct, who was busy shooting her red light at each of the heroes in turn. He put a hand on her left shoulder and spun her around to face him. In doing so, he brushed some of the dirt off her armor, revealing a few letters at the top of her left breast. "Please excuse," he said, brushing off the rest of the dirt, to reveal five clear letters: MARCI."

"Your name Marci?" he asked, and she replied with the same five words she had spoken earlier: "Shan tao, tanake windiru Marci." But although his ears heard the unfamiliar words, his spell-enhanced brain translated them perfectly: "Hello, my name is Marci."

"Her name Marci," he explained to the others.

"How'd she get out here?" asked Finoula. "And where's she from?" Gilbert repeated the questions, but the spell only allowed her unfamiliar words to be translated to him, not the other way around. He'd need a tongues spell for two-way communication, and he didn't have that at hand. She said nothing further, apparently not seeing the need to communicate with the group.

"I'll betcha anything she's from wildspace," Binkadink hazarded.

"Guys!" interrupted Hagan. "Look at this! Wezhley's found something?" Sure enough, with all the combat and rune-stone shattering and house-collapsing going on in the area, sections of the ground behind the house were in a state of upheaval. Hagan's sharp-eyed weasel familiar had spotted the glint of metal poking up from beneath a chunk of earth; with a little digging, the group unearthed a massive metal trunk. Inside was what must have been Henrietta's long-term treasure: assorted coins and gems likely worth tens of thousands of gold pieces.

"Nice!" observed Malrin, for the first time understanding just why it was these friends of her brothers continued on with the dangers of their adventuring existence.

- - -

I did a few sneaky things with this adventure. First of all, knowing my players would immediately know something was up if I had separate flat tokens for the individual pieces of furniture in Henrietta's study and kitchen, I drew them onto the room tiles like I would normally do - and only once the mimics attacked did I swap out the room tiles with the furniture drawn on with room tiles with no furniture, then put my individual "mimic-as-furniture" tiles and tokens down in the appropriate places. The chairs, sofa, and footstool in the study and the table-and-six-chairs and silverware-cabinet mimics in the dining room were flat tokens, while the stove, tub, stack of cordwood, and bookcase were all stand-up tokens. The ruse worked; nobody suspected a thing until it was too late.

I have a nightwalker D&D Mini so that was easy to represent on our battle-mat, but for the wood colossus I didn't have anything at all appropriate, so I had made a scale model of the wood colossus from one of the Pathfinder Bestiaries using colored cardstock paper and construction paper. I had it hiding in a box in the room next door to my man-cave so the players wouldn't see it (or wonder what was in the box) until the time was right for the wood colossus to make an appearance.

And as far as the wood colossus goes, I scaled it back a bit from the Pathfinder version, stripping away the mythic power stuff and its aura of selective anti-magic; we don't play with the mythic rules in the first place and I wanted to allow Hagan - and his penchant for destructive spells - a chance to shine by being able to cut loose an something that would take extra damage from fire. I probably scaled it back a little too much, considering they destroyed it fairly easily (at least when compared to the nightwalker); as it was, it took many hours longer to build the thing than I got any use out of it. (But not to worry: the group's already decided when I design the next campaign when this one finished up in a year and a half or so, the next party should have a wood colossus as a mobile headquarters, so we may just get some more use out of it yet.)

Finally, we usually have music playing in the background when we play, and more times than not it's several hour-long programs of "Music from the Hearts of Space," preferably of an appropriate theme to whatever's going on in the adventure. This time, I deliberately didn't play any music to begin with until the wagon turned the corner and the PCs saw what they were up against in their first fight; then I started my first music selection: the "Help!" album by the Beatles. It's not every day I get an opportunity for a joke that works on two separate levels like that!

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I didn't have anything particularly appropriate, so I went with a red Iron Man T-shirt to somewhat represent MARCI, a metallic construct with a general humanoid build.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 15
Darrien, half-elf ranger 15
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 15
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 15
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 15​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 3
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 5
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 7
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 8 September 2018

- - -

"Here we are," announced Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, bringing the dragonfly vessel down to a landing in a clearing behind a grove of trees at the outskirts of Greyhawk City. "I'll be back to pick you up at nightfall!" The adventurers all clambered down the rope ladder along the side of the spelljamming vessel, Aithanar waving to them from the top deck as they departed. Once the last one was down, the elven fighter started pulling the ladder back up as the gnome illusionist manning the helm inside brought the flying ship to a vertical liftoff.

"Heh heh heh," chuckled Binkadink, watching the ship depart.

"Uh oh - what you do, gnome?" demanded Gilbert Fung.

"Oh, nothing much," replied Binkadink. "I may have accidentally spilled some sovereign glue on the seat of the helm before Jinkadoodle entered the bridge, and then accidentally used prestidigitation to make it blend into the seat so it was barely visible."

"'Accidentally'," repeated Finoula, shaking her head. "Your cousin's not going to like that very much."

"Kind of the point," answered Binkadink - this was but the latest volley in an ongoing prank war the two cousins had been engaged in over the past several years. Still, it was nice that they now targeted each other exclusively; early on, Binkadink had used his prestidigitation and ghost sound abilities to pull pranks on the rest of his adventuring group.

The team walked towards the big city. They had accumulated a decent amount of coinage over the last several months and had jointly decided it was time to get some upgrades to their equipment. Greyhawk City had several well-known and dependable magic shops - as well as a few, like the shop owned by gnomes' Uncle Piddilink Dundernoggin, which often cut corners in the potion crafting and thereby brought about some unusual side effects.

"I'm heading to that armorer's on Anvil Avenue," Binkadink told the others. "I can't use a shield when I'm wielding my glaive with two hands, but I've heard they've got this thing called a floating shield, which will hover around you. Kind of like with a built-in unseen servant, I guess. I'm gonna see about getting me one of those."

"How big?" asked Darrien.

"Tower shield," the gnome fighter replied. "I want something I can hide behind if needs be."

"I'll come with you, then," remarked the half-elf ranger. "I've been thinking about getting this armor further enhanced." Darrien wore studded leather armor that had been enchanted by magic to provide a better resistance to weapon attacks than the supple leather would normally afford.

"I'll come along, too," piped up Finoula. "I've been wanting to maximize the fortification on this suit of elven chain I've been wearing. But I want to pick up some healing potions afterwards, as well."

"I picking up potions, too," replied Gilbert. "Maybe a few at Piddles' place, just to keep on good terms, but most I want to buy at respectable place that don't cut corners."

"I'll leave the armor to you guys," Hagan said. "I'm looking for one of those amulets that does the same deal, only without all the extra weight."

"Those more or less add the magical protection directly to your skin, as if it were the armor, don't they?" asked Finoula.

"Works for me," replied Hagan. Noticing Malrin hadn't joined in, the half-orc asked her what she might be buying. "I have no idea," the elven druid admitted. "I've never been to this big of a city before. I'll probably just look around and see what's available."

Behind them, MARCI followed silently. Through multiple uses of the comprehend languages and tongues spells, Gilbert had previously determined that MARCI neither spoke nor understood the common tongue of the region, but instead communicated in some language the wizard had never heard of and never head spoken before. MARCI indicated a willingness to learn the local language and was slowly picking up a word here and there. She had also informed Gilbert that her healing abilities were reserved exclusively for humans; after a brief discussion - and an outright command, once he learned that would get the job done - MARCI agreed that the other members of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild would be considered "honorary humans."

Once getting into the city proper the group dispersed in their various directions with an agreement to meet at a favorite tavern around noon for their midday meal. Hours later, with their purchases made and their lunch just about finished, they were approached by a cloaked figure. Once he got within earshot - and the group could see the beak poking out from his hood - the kenku said, "Guildmaster Bodkin wants a word with you when you're finished with your meal."

"I got word that you guys were back in town," said Rale Bodkin after the kenku had ushered the adventurers into one of the meeting halls in the government quarter of the city. "Looks like you swapped out some folks, though. Traded in your dwarf chick for an elf chick, huh? Good call." Both Finoula and Malrin's eyes narrowed in irritation at the Guildmaster's offhand remarks, but Rale didn't seem to notice. "And what's that - a construct chick? You guys are getting weird!"

"That MARCI," Gilbert explained. "We find it in woods."

"I MARCI," the automaton reiterated. As an unfortunate side effect of hanging around Gilbert Fung - the one true human among the Kordovian adventurers - as the construct learned the language, she was also learning Gilbert's simplified syntax and grammar.

"Hey, whatever. I've got another job proposition for you, if you’re interested, though," said Rale. "I don't know if you're aware of it, but Greyhawk City has an Adventurers Guild. It's fairly low-key, and that's on purpose – a couple of decades back, the Guild we had at the time got into a tangle with a black dragon that destroyed the Guild Headquarters and a bunch of buildings on either side of it. Lots of damage, lots of deaths, and most of the Guild members were killed, so when my pal Thunderwolf decided to start up a new one, the Lords of Greyhawk City made him keep it low profile.

"Anyway, the former Guild had made this deal with a bunch of dwarves who set up a mining operation on the Elemental Plane of Earth. The Guild sent guards for the miners, to keep 'em all safe while they were doing their digging. Thunderwolf carried on the tradition, and it's been pretty lucrative – I know, because I get a percentage of the take.

"The deal is, the Guild members rotate in and out of guard duty for a week at a time. Problem is, the only way to get to the Elemental Plane of Earth is through a combination of plane shift and teleport spells, and that requires a pretty high-level caster. Thunderwolf's only got two wizards who can cast those spells, so they swap out, every other week.

"Normally, the off-going adventuring team teleports back here with the week's take of gems and whatnot, and then the oncoming team heads on out to replace them. Well, the team out there now never came back when their week was up. The team of replacements went to go see what was up, and Thunderwolf even went with them. But they haven’t been back either, and it's been two days now. I dunno what's going on out there, but we don’t have anybody else in the Adventurers Guild who can get out to the Elemental Plane of Earth.

"So, here's my proposition – and I bet you can see what's coming, can't you? You guys head on out to the Elemental Plane of Earth and see what happened to the other two teams. If they're in trouble, you rescue them. If they've been killed, you come back and let us know. And if you don't come back, then this operation is done. We can't afford to keep sending out people into unknown danger. You guys would be the last team sent. What do you say?"

Gilbert looked around at the others for consensus before saying, "We in!"

"Good deal. The job pays 20,000 gold, payable when you get back. Couple of conditions, though. First, we're going to have to debrief you under the effects of a zone of truth spell. Not that I don't trust you guys, but there's nothing stopping you from plane shifting away, spending a day hanging out in some celestial paradise, and then bopping back here for your payment with a story about how they're all dead. The Lords of Greyhawk aren't going to be taken for chumps."

"That seems fair enough," agreed Hagan.

"Great, because I'm basically gambling 20,000 gold that you guys will be able to get our mining operation back on track."

Binkadink turned to the heavyset mage. "Hey, Gilbert, can you cast me a phantom steed spell? If I'm going to be going to the Elemental Plane of Earth to take on something that can wipe out two Adventurers Guild parties, I don't think I want to bring Obvious along."

Gilbert turned to face Rale. "We got conditions as well. We need--" he looked around the room, counting seven able bodies ready to go on this rescue expedition, "--eight copies of phantom steed spell on scrolls." He figured he might as well score an extra one for him to study at his leisure, so he could master the spell on his own and add it to his permanent repertoire.

Rale thought it over. "It'll take me an hour or two to scrounge them up," he said, "but I'll get them for you - and we'll subtract their cost from the 20,000."

"Deal," agreed Gilbert.

"Okay, then. I'll send someone to get those scrolls for you" - and here he gestured to a waiting kenku who took off to do just that - "but in the meantime I can let you know what to expect on the Elemental Plane of Earth." And the Guildmaster began giving the group details about the elemental plane: the increased gravity and how it made it that much harder to wield weapons properly, the effects the plane had on spellcasting, and so forth. He also gave a brief rundown on the monsters encountered thus far by the dwarven miners and their adventuring bodyguards and gave them a detailed drawing of the Black Tower, the base of operations the miners and adventurers used while they were out in the Elemental Plane of Earth. "That's your eventual destination," Rale said. "When you plane shift in, you may be lucky and show up right there, or you could be hundreds of miles away, in any direction. But once you're on-plane, a teleport spell ought to get you there to the Black Tower."

When the kenku returned a little over an hour later with a handful of scroll tubes, he passed them over to Gilbert Fung, who anchored them in place on his ample belt. "Good thing that belt's so big," commented Binkadink with a smirk.

"You shut stupid gnome mouth."

"You guys ready to go, then?" asked Rale. "Time may be of the essence and every minute counts, or they may already be dead from poison gas or something and there's no hurry at all."

"Prep spells first," Gilbert commanded, and the spellcasters among their number got busy. The two rangers each cast a barkskin spell upon themselves, while Gilbert set himself and Mudpie up with a shared mage armor spell and the whole group with a Rary's telepathic bond spell. Hagan followed suit with a mage armor spell for himself and his weasel familiar, Wezhley. Binkadink, on a whim and as a precaution, drank down a neutralize poison potion - one his Uncle Winkidew had marked with a asterisk on the label, meaning he hadn't taken any shortcuts with it and it should function exactly as advertised. Then, with weapons drawn and ready, Gilbert cast the plane shift spell and the group disappeared from view.

It was a good thing Binkadink's antlered helmet had been equipped with a pair of everburning torches, because there was absolutely no other light in the cavern in which the group appeared. The flickering light from the gnome's helmet reflected off of numerous purple crystals growing along the cavern floor in clumps, some much bigger than others. Darrien, Finoula, and Malrin immediately tensed up, certain they had seen some movement in the cavern; not surprisingly, these were the only three of the group with elven blood. So when the two lightning crysmals moved in for the attack - one from either side of the cavern - they were the only three to immediately dodge out of the way.

The first crysmal skittered up to Hagan and got in two strikes with its scorpionlike tail before the half-orc could even register the attack. The stinger-tipped tail came to a very sharp point, as the entire creature seemed to have been carved from mobile crystal of various shimmering hues. As the stinger penetrated Hagan's magically-enhanced hide, a blast of electricity accompanied each strike, leaving the sorcerer to stagger backwards on trembling legs. He had the presence of mind to cast a Mordenkainen's sword spell as he stumbled away from the elemental beast, hoping the floating, magical sword of force energy would keep the crysmal at bay, but it got in a third strike with its tail as the sorcerer was still casting the spell. But then the sword intervened between crysmal and victim, stabbing deep into the beast's crystal exoskeleton.

At the same time, the other lightning crysmal struck out at Binkadink, scoring a hit as well. Lightning-quick, the tail swung back and then dashed in for another strike, but the gnome was able to react in time to evade the second attack, ducking behind the protective barrier of his new floating shield. Then he popped out from the other side, bringing his glaive down at the scorpionlike being to good effect.

Darrien stepped between the first lightning crysmal and Hagan, shooting it with an arrow from his Arachnibow as he did so. The arrow struck and seemed to cause a few cracks in the crysmal's crystalline shell, but the cold damage didn't seem to have any effect. Gilbert, seeing both crysmals engaged in battle, took the opportunity of not being immediately targeted to cast a shared stoneskin spell upon himself and Mudpie.

Malrin had long since decided that if she was going to stay with this group, she'd devote herself primarily to keeping the others in the battle; the monsters they seemed to end up fighting were well out of her league - plus, the elven lass disdained combat, as she hated causing others pain, even if the "other" in question was something trying to eat her. So she rushed over to Hagan's side and cast a cure moderate wounds spell on him - one that was sorely needed, by the looks of things.

Finoula, her longsword Tahlmalaera in her right hand and her flaming whip of thorns in her left, leaped forward to aid Binkadink in fighting off the second lightning crysmal. Both weapons flashed out, each scoring several hits in as many seconds; when the ranger put her mind to it, she was a combat machine! But the group's actual machine, MARCI, was strictly noncombative - she approached Hagan and, much to the half-orc's surprise, touched him with the tip of a finger that caused a short prick of pain followed by a soothing, cooling feeling spreading through his body from the point of insertion. MARCI retracted the hypodermic needle back into the tip of her finger, automatically initiating internal sterilizing procedures on the needle as she did so.

A step or two away from MARCI and her half-orc patient, Darrien was now taking the brunt of the first lightning crysmal's attacks. It stabbed at the ranger with its tail-stinger, hitting him on the wrist holding his magical bow and zapping him with electricity. He managed not to drop the weapon, but was forced to take a step back, out of range. Across the cavern, the other lightning crystal struck its tail out at Finoula, who in stepping forward to aid Binkadink was the closer of the two potential targets, due to the gnome's greater reach with his glaive. Finoula likewise winced in pain as she took a stinger-strike to the side of the neck, causing her silvery hair to stand on end from the electrical discharge.

Hagan, feeling much better than he had been a moment ago, steered his force-sword into the first crysmal's hide and followed with a magic missile spell of his own, since force attacks were doing so well against these creatures. Both spells dealt significant damage to the lightning crysmal, although it gave no voice to its pain. Darrien sent a flurry of arrows at the creature, each one striking without error and causing cracks to form at the points of impact. A few shards of crystal chipped off the creature, to be lost among the violet formations scattered around the cavern's floor.

With a final flurry of his magical glaive, Binkadink managed to kill the crysmal he and Finoula had been fighting. Gilbert, just behind him, drank down the contents of a potion of resist electricity and was thus now almost ready to join the fight. Malrin, in the meantime, seeing Hagan okay, rushed back to Finoula's side and provided her with a healing spell. The ranger thanked her fellow elf and, seeing the other crysmal well under hand between Darrien and Hagan, took a grateful moment to catch her breath. Rale hadn't been kidding: the extra weight of her weapons definitely made a difference here on the Elemental Plane of Earth! MARCI walked up to Finoula and stabbed her in the neck with a forefinger - at the site of the crysmal's pincer attack - and injected her with a soothing substance that encouraged healing from within the body.

The remaining crysmal lunged at Darrien, catching him in the side of the thigh, but then Hagan killed it with another magic missile spell. "I ready now!" Gilbert interjected, then looked around and saw the battle had been finished without him. Somewhat sheepishly, he cast a haste spell on the group; the spell would last long enough that it would likely be of use before too long.

There were two tunnels out of the cavern; Darrien strolled up to the one closest to him, but it was just a dead end filled with some odd fungus. "Don't get too close!" Gilbert advised, and the ranger kept his distance - no point in getting mixed up in some dangerous fungal attack when the Black Tower was obviously not that way. Instead, Gilbert directed Mudpie to earth glide below the cavern's floor and check out the fungus from below, in case it was growing over another passageway they couldn't see. As usual. MARCI stood by Gilbert's side, her preferred position when there was no other useful task for her at the moment. Mudpie returned after his explorations, explaining that there was nothing hidden there; the passageway was just a simple dead end.

The others had already started checking out the only other passageway out of the lightning crysmal cavern. It was long and twisting, about 20 feet wide and nearly as tall. The group of four had made it about halfway down the section of tunnel before it took a right turn out of view, when a pair of spidery appendages suddenly lunged out of the stone wall to their left. Malrin screamed - she still wasn't used to being constantly attacked all the time - as the front half of an enormous spider emerged from the wall and bit at Binkadink, in the lead, with a pair of stony mandibles. The gnome felt a stinging sensation in his left arm, by the shoulder where the earth element spider had bitten him, and assumed there was some sort of weird elemental poison running through his system; he was glad he'd swigged down that potion, just in case!

At the rear of the formation (for he had only rushed forward after hearing the gasps of surprise and fear over the telepathic bond spell), Darrien shot at the stony spider with a barrage of arrows and saw areas of frost form where each one struck; this creature, at least, didn't seem immune to cold damage! Finoula stood by one of the creature's forelegs and attacked it with her longsword and whip, but doing so felt like attacking a stalagmite, and she didn't feel like it had taken much damage from her blows. But Hagan grinned at the opportunity to cast a chain lightning spell, one of his favorites, even if this time he didn't have any secondary targets to arc off onto. The spider's body flinched under the electrical spell barrage.

Gilbert raced up to beside Darrien, with Mudpie and MARCI in tow, just in time to see Binkadink lash out several times with his magical glaive, striking a foreleg, then arcing the blade over to stab at the creature's underside before changing his attack vector again and dashing his blade into another leg. That seemed to do it for the spider; it was used to bursting out from hiding at wandering crysmals from its bubble-pocket on the other side of the wall and thought it might give these strange creatures a try when it sensed them walking along the tunnel floor, but no matter how tasty these creatures might be, sampling them surely wasn't worth the pain! It earth glided back into its hole, where the adventurers couldn't hurt it anymore.

Binkadink led the group around the bend of the tunnel, only to find it a dead end shortly thereafter. "That does it," he reported back. "The Black Tower isn't here. We'll need to teleport in."

"Got it," replied Hagan. "Everybody gather up around me." Once they'd done so, he visualized the Black Tower as it had been drawn in Rale's picture, and cast a teleport spell to get them there.

The spell worked as advertised: the group found themselves in a cavern so vast they couldn't see the walls or ceiling, although twinkling lights above looked strangely like a star field; these were just lightly phosphorescent crystals embedded along the ceiling of the massive cavern. But rising up directly before them was the 60-foot-tall Black Tower, the temporary headquarters of those from the Greyhawk Adventurers Guild while on guard duty for the dwarven miners they supported.

And standing directly before the Black Tower as if expecting them stood an earth elemental at least 20 feet tall.

<Is this an enemy?> asked Binkadink over the telepathic bond, holding his glaive at the ready to strike if necessary.

<Go ask it!> suggested Darrien.

<Do we attack?> asked Finoula, both of her weapons in hand. At her side, Hagan prepared to fire off a magic missile spell if the thing attacked. But Darrien opted not to wait around to see what it might do; he reached into a pocket and dropped his ebony fly to the ground, stepping over it so it grew up beneath him, placing him directly on its back once it had grown to full size. Then he directed it to the top of the Black Tower, where he dismounted and got a good bead on the elemental from a high vantage point. Malrin obviously saw the wisdom of such an approach, for she wildshaped into an owl and flapped laboriously to the top of the tower beside the half-elf ranger. <Flying's a lot tougher here!> she commented over the link.

Gilbert took the initiative. Calling out in Terran, a language he shared with his own earth elemental familiar, he said, "Who your master? We want to speak with him!" Mudpie and MARCI stood on either side of him, watching to see what would happen.

The earth titan responded in Terran, "Throw down your weapons and lay prone on the ground. I won't kill you - but then I'll take you to my master, as slaves."

"Yeah, that not gonna happen. Here new idea: maybe we kill you, then go find master ourselves!" That got things going: with a massive stride, the earth titan dashed forward and struck out at Finoula with a fist almost as big as she was. But in the space of time it took him to do so, the adventurers struck out with their readied actions: Finoula's whip lashed at the thing's ankles as he approached and her sword swiped at its approaching, boulderlike fist; while five force missiles sprang from Hagan's fingertips to strike the elemental in its broad chest. But none of the attacks altered the course of the elemental's fist, which clobbered Finoula in the side and sent her reeling.

Binkadink was over on the far side of the group's formation and was about to rush forward to the attack when Gilbert called him back over the link. <Bink! Here! Quick!> the wizard urged. The gnome broke off from his intended attack, angered by the delay - after all, the little three-foot-tall gnome considered himself the group's "meat shield" and felt he belonged on the front lines in cases like this. But then his irritation vanished immediately and a wicked smile spread across his face as he saw what Gilbert was offering him: his slingshot of rock shrinking. <You know how to use this?>

<I do indeed!> Still under the effects of the haste spell, Binkadink rushed back up to the front lines, where the earth titan was trading blows with Finoula, and tapped it on the ankle with the slingshot. In a mere second, the earth titan - all 20 feet of him - shrunk down to the size of a pebble. Binkadink had to bend down to pick up the erstwhile foe, then held him up to his face. "Aw, aren't you the cutest widdle thing?" he asked it. Not fluent in Terran, the gnome was unsure of the pebble-sized earth elemental's actual response, but he was pretty sure he got the gist of it. He handed it over to Gilbert, who popped it into his metal tinderbox for safe keeping.

"That was easy!" gushed the gnome. He was all for fighting, but he liked pranks even more, and this was the best of both worlds!

Gilbert pulled a sunrod from his pack and activated it. Up on the roof of the Black Tower, Malrin cast a light spell on the tip of one of Darrien's arrows. Then the half-elf ranger dropped down to the balcony ringing the top of the tower and stepped through an unlocked door. Keeping the others informed of his progress over the telepathic link, he verified there was nobody still inside the Black Tower. When he stepped through the front door, Malrin - still in owl form - flew back down to rejoin him and the others.

"You guys hear that?" Binkadink asked suddenly. Everyone strained their ears; they could just barely make out the sounds of picks hitting stone from further down the vast cavern from the jutting tower - a direction the gnome randomly decided was south. "That way!" the gnome pointed.

"I think it time for our phantom steeds," Gilbert decided, taking out the spell scrolls Rale had provided him. After talking it over, he decided to activate five of the magical mounts, as Malrin preferred to remain in owl form and would hitch a ride on Finoula's shoulder as needed; MARCI was not programmed on riding a mount and would thus sit behind Gilbert on his phantom steed. But Gilbert also had Mudpie sitting in the saddle before him; it was fortunate the earth elemental was still in his small size, although the magical equine made no show of distaste at being so overloaded.

The steeds flew through the air, quite literally - the magic of the spells provided the steeds with aerial maneuverability, a fact that had Mudpie keeping his eyes firmly closed for the duration. But as they approached the sounds of picks the ringing of metal on stone grew progressively louder, until they approached what must be the entrance of a mining operation.

There were two parallel pits dug into the floor, the first one narrow and short and the other much wider, longer, and deeper. Just beyond that was an uprising of stone, rather like a small hill; and beyond that stood a multicolored tent, 20 feet on a side. Standing just outside the tent was a stone giant, but one much different than the ones the heroes had ever encountered: these were blocky, seemingly unfinished carvings brought to magical life. The earth element stone giant turned at the approaching light sources in the otherwise nearly lightless expanse of cavern between the two groups; surprisingly, so did the small "hill."

The stone giant ducked into the tent and then reappeared almost immediately; this was apparently a guard who had just given word to his master of the approaching group on their phantom steeds. Binkadink was the first to approach him, sending his magical steed flying above the "hill" and then dropping low enough for the gnome to jab at the giant with his glaive. But the magical blade slid off the giant's rock-hard skin, to no apparent effect.

Hagan, ever the peacemaker when possible, tried to avoid combat at first. "We seek only our friends, who you may have put to work for you in the mines beyond here," the half declared. "Let us free them, and we'll be on our way without bloodshed."

"Better yet, you can join them in slavery!" snarled the stone giant in passable Common. Well, that made that perfectly clear; having tried, Hagan felt no remorse when he cast a magic missile spell directly in the stone giant guard's face.

Beneath Hagan and his flying mount, the "hill" suddenly reared up, stretching out a pair of clawed flippers; this was a delver, one much bigger than those found on the Material Plane. The flippers were a poor defense if it was trying to keep the heroes from advancing, as their phantom steeds could fly directly above him. Malrin, still perched in owl form upon Finoula's shoulder, cast a flaming sphere at the delver, but surprisingly for one of its bulk it managed to dodge out of the way at the last moment.

Finoula wheeled her aerial mount around and attacked the stone giant from behind, striking out with her flaming whip of thorns while the giant's attention was still focused on Binkadink.

Darrien steered his own flying mount around the battle, landing his phantom steed in the clearing by the mine entrance. While the sounds of picks striking stone were the loudest here, he still couldn't see any of the slaves working within. There were two large dragons just outside the mine entrance, though, each the color of stone and attached to a two-wheeled wagon filled with gravel and small chunks of rock. With snorts of surprise, the stone dragons ambled forth into battle, dragging their carts behind them.

Gilbert plotted his strategy as he approached the tent from the air. He centered his Evard's black tentacles spell just outside the side of the tent, such that it would catch not only the stone giant outside the tent but also whatever master and minions might be within. Unless the tent's interior was extradimensional - definitely a possibility - he'd hopefully catch all of the group's enemies in the writhing tentacles before they'd even have a chance to make themselves seen. Behind the heavyset wizard, MARCI held on tightly to his chest, not wanting to fall to the ground below and damage herself.

Outside the tent, the stone giant took a step away from the tentacles clamoring for his legs, stepping outside the area of the spell's effect. He swung at Binkadink with a greatclub that was obviously either a severed stalagmite or stalactite. But gnomes were specially trained at anticipating attacks by giants, and Binkadink dropped his aerial steed below the swing just in time.

Then, from out of the tent strode a second earth element stone giant, nearly identical to the first. He too managed to make it outside the area of the rubbery, ebon tentacles and swung his own stone greatclub at Finoula. This strike hit, causing the elven ranger to nearly fall off her phantom steed. Malrin took no chances - she flapped off the ranger's shoulder and away from combat distance.

Binkadink maneuvered his steed to the side a bit, setting himself to be able to cleave from one giant to the other with his glaive. He gave his all in his first swing, allowing the weapon's extra weight on the Elemental Plane of Earth to aid the power of his strike. He hit the giant and carved a deep groove into his torso, but failed to slay him outright as he had hoped.

Hagan maneuvered his own steed to directly behind Binkadink's own mount, feeling the safest place to cast spells was with the gnome fighter between him and any potential foes. Then the half-orc let loose with a chain lightning spell, striking at both of the giants. He purposefully didn't target the delver, as the massive creature had yet to attack any of them and prove itself an enemy. For all the sorcerer knew, it might be as much a prisoner as the Adventurers Guild members they'd come to rescue. Both giants snarled in pain at Hagan's spell, but neither looked more than slightly hurt from the attack.

And then Finoula brought both her weapons to bear against the second stone giant. As she did so, the tent's open flap started dispersing a thick mist, which billowed through the intertwining black tentacles rising up from the stone floor of the cavern. Screams suddenly emanated from inside the tent as the tentacles began crushing those they had caught in their grasp. Gilbert's only response was to cast a magic circle against evil upon himself.

Below Hagan and Binkadink, the delver backed up away from the approaching flaming sphere that Malrin was directing from the air. Darrien had his phantom steed take flight again, and, at Binkadink's mental urging over the Rary's telepathic bond spell, he cast a freedom of movement spell on the little gnome. But with the heroes lined up so nicely - Hagan directly behind Binkadink and Darrien right behind Finoula - the two stone giants each moved as one and plucked a crystal from the necklaces they wore. Pointing the crystals at their enemies, each burned out as it delivered a lightning bolt at the four mounted heroes (and Wezhley, who shrieked in pain from upon Hagan's shoulder).

Ignoring the pain from the electrical discharge, Binkadink turned to Darrien and said <Thanks!> in response to the ranger's freedom of movement spell. Then he stepped off from the phantom steed and went plummeting into the field of waving tentacles just below him, leaving the flying mount riderless and motionless. He landed in front of the tent's flaps and peered inside. In the back of the room were two women - a human and an elf - being squeezed to death in the embrace of several black tentacles. Each wore gauzy garments of silk and held a fan made of some fibrous material, likely fungus-based.

<Gilbert!> Binkadink called. <Release the tentacles spell - you're killing those we came to rescue!> With an unspoken command, Gilbert dismissed the Evard's black tentacles spell, allowing the two women to drop to the ground in relief. "Stay back here, where it's safe!" advised Binkadink, spinning about and dashing back out of the tent and into battle.

Hagan cast another chain lightning spell at the two stone giants, hoping to overload the crystals in the amulets they wore (in much the same way Binkadink's necklace of fireballs had exploded around his neck in their recent battle in the arctic). But no such luck; while the spell struck both giants, neither amulet exploded.

Seeing a foe on the ground before him at last, the delver turned toward Binkadink and slashed out at the little gnome with the claws on a wide flipper. The strike hit, coating the little fighter in a glob of sticky acid, which burned his skin. From the safety of the air, Malrin redirected her flaming sphere to hit the delver, but once again the giant, sluglike creature dodged the magical attack. Malrin hardly noticed; she landed back on Finoula's shoulder and delivered a healing spell to the ranger through her owl-talons.

Darrien targeted with his Arachnibow and started shooting arrow after arrow at the second stone giant, seeing bursts of frost bloom on the giant's stony hide with each strike. Below him, the stone drakes, deprived of their ground-based targets, started trying to chew their way out of the leather harnesses binding them to their two-wheeled carts.

Leaning down from her aerial mount, Finoula activated her own lightning amulet, transforming her into a bolt of electricity that blasted through both earth element stone giants. She reformed on the side of wall to the mines. Above, her abandoned phantom steed stayed in its current position, awaiting further orders.

The thick mist expanded and Ginsiki the dao resumed his true form: a genie whose skin was the color of stone. But Gilbert Fung was ready for him: he cast a quickened Evard's black tentacles spell centered on the dao and catching both stone giant bodyguards and a flipper of the delver in its area of effect as well. Ginsiki swore an oath in Terran and tried to extract himself from the entwining appendages to no effect; in desperation, he caused a wall of stone to rise up, bisecting the area of writhing tentacles - if he could only pull himself atop the 10-foot-tall wall, the tentacles would be unable to reach him and he could simply walk along its length to escape the spell. But first he had to pull himself from the tentacles' embrace, and that was proving to be almost impossible.

From her perch behind Gilbert, MARCI looked down at the scene before her. Despite having no discernable facial expressions (and only one eye), it was apparent by the quizzical tilt of her head that she didn't have the slightest understanding of what was going on.

Gilbert quickly ran through what he could recall from his study of extraplaanr beings about the abilities of dao. He was pretty sure they could cast plane shift, so as a precaution he cast a dimensional anchor spell upon Ginsiki. The increased level of cursing from the dao as he observed the green glow surrounding his form told Gilbert that Ginsiki realized what had just happened and that it had been a good spell for Gilbert to have cast.

One of the earth element stone giants tried ineffectively to release himself from the tentacles winding tightly around his limbs, while his counterpart plucked another crystal from his necklace and blasted Binkadink with another lightning bolt. But the gnome called his phantom steed down to him and had it fly him to the top of the wall of stone Ginsiki had erected. From that vantage, the gnome stabbed down at the dao with his glaive.

"I've got an idea!" Binkadink called down to the earth genie. "How about you surrender, release your prisoners to our care, and buy your miserable lives with wishes?" The gnome was pretty sure genies - of whatever element - granted wishes, and he certainly had no compulsions about letting these guys live as long as they released their slaves. Ginsiki merely struggled all that much harder, trying desperately to escape the tight embrace of the tentacles. He ignored the gnome's offer, at least for the moment. Binkadink didn't mind; they were in the position of power at the moment - he could wait. In the meantime, he absently noticed the burning sensation was still with him and took the opportunity to scrape the delver's acid-blob from his skin.

Hagan had tired of electrical attacks and cast a disintegrate spell at one of the giants, just for some variety. It resisted the spell to some extent, but the half-orc could see the effort cost the stone giant a considerable amount of damage in any case. And the delver pulled against the tentacles entwined against its flipper, but couldn't extract itself from Gilbert's spell. Malrin was finally able to steer her flaming sphere spell directly into the delver's body, and for once it couldn't get out of the way in time.

From his phantom steed, Darrien continued to pump arrow after arrow into one of the stone giants, and eventually it fell over, its head and shoulder sprouting half a dozen or more arrow shafts. Its collapsing body was swallowed up by the rubbery tentacles of Gilbert's favorite spell.

Finoula lined herself up and activated her lightning amulet again, sending her electrified body through the delver, dao, and remaining earth element stone giant, resuming her elven form well out of the area of effect of the Evard's black tentacles spell - and beyond any of the foes' ability to counterattack. Ginsiki's cries of exasperation grew even more frantic as the genie tried and failed to escape the constricting appendages. Gilbert didn't make anything better for the frustrated genie by casting an enervation spell at him, draining him of a goodly chunk of his life energy. Beside the dao, the remaining stone giant tugged fruitlessly at his own rubbery bonds.

Seeing the dao was not likely to surrender, Binkadink brought his glaive crashing down upon the genie's skull. At the last possible second, the dao looked up, saw his doom approaching, and cried out, "I agr--" before the blade cut his skull in twain. As the grasping tentacles pulled Ginsiki's lifeless form to the ground, Gilbert advised, <Pretty sure they only grant limited wish anyway.>

Hagan reverted back to his trusty chain lightning spell, slaying the remaining giant and badly burning the delver. That caused the delver to speak its first words - something even Gilbert hadn't known it could do - in the Terran language: "Release. No kill. I depart. Not return."

"Fair enough," Gilbert agreed in the creature's own language. He dismissed the Evard's black tentacles spell, and at his urging, Malrin did likewise with her flaming sphere. True to its word, the delver turned and headed off, away from the group. That left only a pair of stone drakes, each the size of a horse but still attached to carts filled with stone. They were easily dispatched.

Binkadink entered the dao's tent and told the two women it was safe to come out now, while the others went into the mines. There they found ten dwarven miners and five male adventurers, as well as Thunderwolf himself - all that was left of two adventuring teams and three dozen miners. All were battered and bruised from the harsh conditions they'd endured under the dao's control.

Thunderwolf thanked the group for their rescue. When the tent unearthed all the gear that had been taken from the adventurers, the Guildmaster handed over the equipment of those who had been slain to the Kordovian team. "I'm afraid this is it for a while," he said, looking among the assembled group. "We lost both of our high-level wizards; we won't be able to return here any time soon."

"Then that's it fer this expedition," observed one of the dwarven miners.

"Might be fer th' best," replied another. "It'll be good t' spend some time at home fer awhile."

"I don't suppose any of you would be interested..." began Thunderwolf, but Gilbert cut him off. "We already got jobs, working for King Galrich." It wasn't technically accurate, as Galrich had abdicated the throne to his stepdaughter Kaelanna some months before, but the wizard knew Thunderwolf and Galrich had adventured together years ago and that would put an end to the matter.

As indeed it did. "Fair enough," Thunderwolf sighed. "I assume you have a way to get us all home?"

"Watch this," boasted Gilbert, casting a plane shift spell that dumped the group back to the Material Plane - although in the middle of a burning desert. But Hagan took it from there, teleporting the group (in several trips) back to the Greyhawk City Adventurers Guild Headquarters. Desdemona Honeytongue returned with him the first time to help teleport the rest of the group home. The sun was just about at the horizon.

"We're not done with the Elemental Plane of Earth," vowed Thunderwolf. "We'll rebuild our ranks, and get a team together capable of starting operations back up. It might take us a few years, but we'll get there."

"When ye do, ye let us know," advised the senior dwarven miner. "We'll be ready."

"I bushed," announced Gilbert. "I think I send word to Jinkadoodle, tell him we spend night here, he pick us up in morning. We give Rale full briefing tomorrow."

"That might be for the best," agreed Binkadink, not sure he was ready to face his cousin so soon after having glued his breeches to the helm of the dragonfly vessel.

- - -

I don't have much to add to this adventure write-up other than I'm getting really, really tired of that Evard's black tentacles spell (and sucky rolls when my bad guys try to make their grapple checks to escape them)!

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: A solid gray T-shirt, to represent the infinite areas of stone to be found on the Elemental Plane of Earth.



PC Roster:
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 15​

Game Session Date: 13 October 2018

- - -

The Kordovians had scattered their separate ways the next morning, to pick up various goods. Binkadink went to a magic shop to commission the creation of a magical saddle for his jackalope riding mount, Obvious, after having purchased a set of magical bracers he'd been guaranteed would work as well on a quadruped as it would on the gnome himself. Gilbert Fung picked up some replacement scrolls for those he'd recently used. Hagan wanted to pick up a few healing potions; after all, it was always best to be able to heal oneself rather than rely upon the availability of someone capable of casting healing spells - and this was especially true as they now relied upon Malrin, who was much less experienced than had been Ingebold, and MARCI, a strange construct who generally waited on Gilbert Fung's orders to heal anybody else but the portly mage.

Finoula, however, never did get around to her own purchases, for out of the corner of her eye in the busy marketplace she saw someone who seemed exceedingly familiar. Turning to face the stranger, the elf suppressed a gasp of astonishment - for there, across the busy marketplace crowd, she could swear she saw Ingebold Battershield.

Ingebold turned and walked away; Finoula, intrigued at the sudden appearance of her slain Battle-Sister, hurried through the crowd to try to catch her. "Ingebold!" she cried out, but the dwarven woman ignored her, pushing her way past clumps of people. Finoula followed as best she could but never seemed to gain upon the dwarf.

Finally, Ingebold turned a corner and by the time Finoula caught up to where she'd last been, Ingebold was nowhere in sight. Frustrated, Finoula looked this way and that, down three different streets veering away from the corner intersection, but there was no sign of the dwarf.

Finoula sighed heavily. And then a door in the building before her opened up, and an elderly dwarf in dark robes stood there, gazing at her. It was only then that Finoula realized the woman who looked like Ingebold had led her directly to the Greyhawk City Temple of Moradin.

"I know ye not, havin' ne'er set eyes upon ye in me life," said the elderly dwarf. "But I know this: ye be Finoula Cloudshadow, who once slew a good dwarf woman by th' name've Ingebold Battershield, who were then returned to life only t'be lost agin f'revermore. Be this true?"

Finoula swallowed before answering. "It--it is true," she admitted.

"Me name be Ulik Ironbeard," the dwarf said by way of introduction. "I'm a cleric in this temple, an' I've had me a vision this very mornin', about ye, and about this Ingebold. Will ye come in?" Finoula entered the building and Ulik closed the door behind her. He ushered her into the worship hall, at the back of which stood the holy symbol of the Dwarflord: a metal anvil the size of a kitchen table.

"Ingebold, alas, be lost t' th' world forever," Ulik explained. "But there be a way t' bring a part of her - a wee part, mind ye - back t' th' world of th' living. If ye'd see such a thing be, then hop ye up onto yon anvil, and pass me yer sword."

Finoula hesitated but a moment, then unbuckled her sword-belt and passed it to Ulik. She then scooted up onto the anvil, which was as hard and unforgiving as it looked.

"Lie ye back," Ulik advised, drawing Tahlmalaera from its scabbard. Finoula did as instructed, lying upon her back with her hands at her sides. A part of her wanted to race out of the otherwise empty temple, fearing this might be some sort of retribution for the slaying of her Battle-Sister, but another part of her was willing to take whatever chance might be necessary to help bring a part of Ingebold back. For how could she ever again face Aerik and Helga, Ingebold's parents, if she didn't take this opportunity? With a deep breath, Finoula closed her eyes and awaited what would happen next.

"Think ye back upon yer Battle-Sister," advised Ulik. "Remember the happy times, the times spent together." As the elf's lips curled into a smile at the thoughts of her time spent adventuring with the dwarven cleric, Ulik raised the longsword above the prone ranger - and plunged the tip of the blade directly into Finoula's forehead.

Tahlmalaera stabbed deep through Finoula's skull, coming out the other end and sinking deep into the anvil below. But there was no blood and no pain - Finoula, with her eyes closed, didn't even feel the passing of the blade through her head.

"This be a variable energy blade," Ulik said, "an' one o' fine craftsmanship. I seen th' type before – ye can channel spells into th' blade and alter its abilities. Upon th' direction o' me god this mornin', I've channeled a miracle spell through yer blade. Now lie ye there quietly an' reminisce on yer Battle-Sister."

Finoula did so, oblivious of all but her memories of her friend. After several minutes, Ulik pulled Tahlmalaera from the ranger's forehead. "It be done," he said, helping Finoula sit back up on the anvil. He sheathed the longsword and handed the belt and scabbard back to the elf, who hopped down from the Anvil of Moradin and strapped her sword-belt back around her hips.

"Go now, an' continue t' do good works in th' world," Ulik commanded, placing a hand upon Finoula's silvery locks in benediction. "An' know ye that yer Battle-Sister will always be with ye, in spirit if naught else." He led Finoula back to the front doors of the temple, where he bid her farewell.

Finoula would not have felt right drawing her blade inside the temple of Moradin, but now that she stood outside on the street she did so. Tahlmalaera felt no different in her hand, but the elf immediately felt a presence in her mind, as the sword telepathically spoke to her - in quite the same manner as Malaterminus had, these years ago, Finoula thought with a shudder.

But the voice inside her head was not that of the incubus she'd since slain in his own den of vice. This voice was warm, welcoming - and quite familiar. <Hello, me Battle-Sister!> said the mental construct now resident inside Finoula's magical blade. <I've missed ye!>

- - -

As a result of this miracle spell, Tahlmalaera now has the following additional properties:
  • Tahlmalaera now has a rudimentary intelligence, based on the memories of Ingebold Battershield. The sword can communicate telepathically to Finoula (and to her only). The intelligence knows it is an artificial construct of Ingebold's intellect and thus has no desires (or hopes) of ever being "restored" to life.
  • Once per day, the sword's wielder can cast a heal spell through the blade.
  • When being actively wielded (not just carried), the sword gives the wielder a second Will save against magical effects if the first one fails.
- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Einstein shirt, as it tied into the adventure that followed this quick interlude.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 15
Castillan, elf bounder 15
Darrien, half-elf ranger 15
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 15
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 15
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 15​

NPC Roster:
Infernia, fire elemental familiar
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 6
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 8
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 13 October 2018

- - -

The screams from the marketplace sent the Kordovians rushing to the streets to see what was going on.

They'd split up to make their various purchases and thus they weren't all together in a group when the first screams began. "Fire demon!" yelled a heavyset man, pushing others out of his way as he scrambled down the street with amazing agility for one of his bulk. Finoula, on her way back to the market area after her quick - and quite unexpected - visit to the Temple of Moradin, raced forward towards the tumult. Hitting the rushing crowds, she spotted Gilbert and MARCI emerging from a magic shop. "What's going on?" she called to the portly wizard.

"Another fiend attack," yelled Gilbert, assuming it was something along the lines of the devils they'd fought during one of their previous visits to the big city. "This place lousy with them. It this way!" He started fighting the crowds to head towards the fire demon, while they were doing their best to run in the opposite direction. Behind him, MARCI dutifully followed. Mudpie was currently shrunk down to pebble size and sitting comfortably in a pocket of Gilbert's robe.

Finoula crossed the street and started making her way towards Gilbert and the healer construct that had attached herself to his service. "Run!" screamed people coming from the opposite direction, but Finoula ignored them. Presently, Darrien and Binkadink joined the procession fighting the crowds towards the fire demon. And before too long, the demon came into view. It was humanoid in build, standing about 15 feet tall and shrouded entirely in flames. It was crying out in some unknown language and looking about as if in confusion.

The current roster of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild weren't the only ones investigating this attack. In the opposite direction, Castillan Ivenheart had heard the uproar and went to investigate it in his own fashion - by ignoring the fighting crowds and running straight up a one-story building, pulling himself up onto the roof, and then leaping across the rooftops until he came within view. The fire demon was definitely female, with a pair of long, curved horns the color of soot jutting from her brow and what seemed to be a third eye in the middle of her forehead. She called down to the people who fled before her, while looking up and down the street, but the elven bounder was unfamiliar with whatever language she was using. Still, she didn't seem to be actively attacking anyone, so Castillan tried to talk to her. On the off-chance that she spoke the common language of the region, he opened with a simple, "Hello there!"

The fire demon spun at his greeting, surprised to see someone at more or less eye level talking to her. From this vantage point, Castillan could see that the "third eye" was in fact a gem affixed to her forehead, one just as black and shiny as her eyes. And at about that point Finoula reached the street before the fire demon, with Binkadink, Darrien, and the others coming up behind her. "Castillan?" she called out in surprise. "What are you doing here?" And then, seeing the "fire demon" in her full form for the first time, she recognized her as fitting the description of the fire elemental familiar of one of the people who Aerik had adventured with. "...Infernia?" she asked hesitantly.

Infernia looked down at the elven ranger standing below her and sudden recognition flared in her eyes. "Feron?" she cried, her form shrinking as her anger and confusion subsided. "You're here! You must help me find my Master!"

Finoula held up a hand to stop the fire elemental before she went any further. "Feron's my sister," she said in a voice that betrayed being mistaken for her little sister - yet again - was a game that was getting old. "My name is Finoula. But we'll help you if we can. Who's your master...Teldome?" She tried dredging up the name of the archmage Aerik and Galrich had partnered with so many years ago.

"Telgrane," Infernia corrected. By now, having seen a familiar face, she had calmed down and reverted to human size, and had finally recalled the inhabitants of this dreary place spoke in the Common tongue. Without thinking, she'd been calling out for help in Ignan, her native language - it was no wonder nobody would help her!

"Tell us what happen," commanded Gilbert. "Start from beginning."

"A devil woman attacked my Master and me on the Elemental Plane of Fire. She immobilized me by magic, cast a spell on my Master that made him stand there in confusion, and then grabbed him up in her arms and disappeared. Once I could move again, I had no way to find out where they'd gone.

"My Master has said if I ever needed help and he was not around, I should return to Greyhawk City and go to the Adventurers Guild. It is run by a man named Thunderwolf, who is a friend. But when I came here, the building was not where it was supposed to be – or at least not where it was when it was first destroyed. I tried asking for directions, but everyone just screamed and ran away.

"If you will help me find and rescue my Master from the devil woman, he will reward you well for your help. I do not know where they went, but I can show you the place where we were when she took him."

"On Elemental Plane of Fire?" confirmed Gilbert.


"You have means to get us there?"

"Yes. There's a door in our basement that leads there." That drew some puzzled looks among the group, but Gilbert also recalled Aerik's tales of Telgrane and Infernia and figured everything was probably on the up and up. "Lead on," he suggested.

Infernia held her right hand out in front of her face, concentrated - and the flames evaporated from around the limb. Then she reached inside her own chest and pulled out a flameproof scroll case. "I have learned how to keep parts of myself hollow, so I do not burn what is inside," Infernia explained, pulling out a rolled-up sheet of parchment from the case and slapping it against a nearby wall, where it unrolled of its own accord and took on the appearance of a normal door. Infernia then opened the door and stepped inside, beckoning for the others to follow.

"Are we doing this?" asked Binkadink.

"I am," replied Gilbert, walking inside the open door, MARCI trailing behind him as always. "You coming?" Finoula asked Castillan, who briefly turned it over in his head. He was supposed to be working on that mission for his father, but he'd hit a dead end and had come to Greyhawk City to do further research on the problem at hand. But an opportunity to adventure once again with his friends? "Sure, I'm in," he replied, stepping inside the doorway behind MARCI. Darrien and Hagan followed suit, as did Castillan's little sister Malrin, who had just caught up to the rest of the group after all of the excitement had already passed. "What are we doing?" she asked Binkadink as he held open the door for her to pass.

"I'll catch you up in a minute," the gnome promised. Then he entered the doorway and pulled the door shut behind him. Having done so, the Door That Doesn't Belong disappeared from the wall where it had just stood a moment before.

"We will need to go to the basement," Infernia explained, leading the group through a doorway of beaded curtains and onto a pedestal in the center of the room. "Rellsehan," she said, causing a four-foot-diameter circle in the middle of the floor to lower, revealing an access shaft to a lower level in the extradimensional space behind the Door That Doesn’t Belong. The basement level was a room the same size and shape as the one directly above it, with four wide pillars holding up the ceiling, but this one had six doors along its four walls, each a different color. "Let me guess: four Elemental Planes," Gilbert surmised, pointing out the doors colored light and dark blue, red, and brown. That accounted for all but the gray and black doors.

"Yes," agreed Infernia. "The other two lead to the Plane of Shadow and the Material Plane - Greyhawk City, specifically." She opened a small wooden chest sitting next to the red door - again after "turning off" the flames of her right hand - and pulled out a scroll. "This is a scroll of attune form," the fire elemental explained, handing it to Gilbert Fung. "You will need to cast it on the group, so you do not burn up in the Elemental Plane of Fire." Gilbert cast a quick read magic spell, looked over the contents of the scroll, and cast it upon the group. "Ready," he told Infernia. The fire elemental then opened the red door and stepped out into a world of flame.

The others followed, eyes wide open at the wonders before them. The ground was somewhat spongy, being composed of compressed soot and ashes. The sky above was covered in dark clouds of smoke, with streaks of yellow and red apparent in the occasional break among the clouds. And there were flames everywhere, rising up from the ground in spots, flames burning without fuel, taking the place of trees and hills from a terrestrial land. There were entire mountains of flame in the distance, rising up against the reddish sky. They danced and flickered, yet somehow gave a sense of permanency - after all, flames that burned without fuel need never diminish.

"It's this way," said Infernia, walking boldly into the flames of a nearby fire-forest. She navigated around bonfires and infernos with the same casual diffidence Malrin would have making her way through a forest back on Oerth; it was all perfectly natural to the fire elemental who had been born on this plane. The adventurers followed silently.

"Here," said Infernia suddenly, pointing to the ground. There were impressions there, a series of concentric circles broken up by the occasional rune. "The devil lady left this behind after she took my Master away. Do they mean anything to you? Can you tell where she went?"

Gilbert bent down and examined the rune-impressions. He knew many spells had different variations, just as there were often different ways to cast them. Some, like this one, left behind residue that could be divined to give hints as to the spell's specifics. He peered and prodded, making the occasional grunt of satisfaction to himself. Finally, he announced, "This from plane shift spell. Devil lady take Telgrane to Astral Plane from here."

"Can you cast a plane shift spell?" demanded Infernia. "And take us to my Master?"

"Certainly," said Gilbert with no small amount of pride. "...But not at moment," he confessed. "I know spell, but it not prepared. Can cast it tomorrow, though."

"Could you cast it from a scroll?" Infernia pressed.

"You have scroll?"

"I'll be right back!" gushed Infernia, running back the way she'd come. The others were left standing alone on the Elemental Plane of Fire for the first time in their lives.

"You guys ever been here before?" Malrin wanted to know.

"No - this is a first," Finoula replied.

"It's cool how we're not burning up and everything," Darrien said, impressed that all of his equipment had likewise been shielded from the flames of the plane. He'd have been sorely upset if anything had happened to his Arachnibow!

Gilbert took the opportunity to cast a Rary's telepathic bond on most of the group, excluding only Malrin. He wasn't yet proficient enough with the spell to link together a group of seven individuals - six was his current limit. "It's okay," Malrin assured him. "I have the medallion if I need to talk to any of you at a distance." She'd inherited a lot of Ingebold's gear when she joined the group, and the cleric's contact medallion was one of the things she'd been given to use.

Infernia presently returned with a scroll of parchment that had somehow been treated with a flame resistance of some sort. "Cast it quickly," she advised, handing the scroll over to Gilbert as the edges started to smolder. Gilbert cast another read magic and intoned the words to the spell, shunting the group from a world of crackling flames to an empty world almost entirely devoid of color.

"You guys ever been here before?" asked Malrin again. As a latecomer to the group of adventurers, she had no idea just what all they'd been up to before she joined their ranks - and it seemed as if they took things the elven druid considered miraculous as nothing special.

"No, this is a first, too," Finoula responded.

"He's here!" exclaimed Infernia suddenly. "My Master is on this plane!"

"How you sure?" asked Gilbert.

"The gem on my brow - my Master has one just like it! As long as we're together on the same plane, it lets each of us know which way to go to get reunited! Come on! It's this way!" And Infernia suddenly went flying away from the group, who were all hovering in the middle of a white expanse with nothing but streaks of silvery contrails in all directions. But Infernia returned once she saw the others were not following and she explained how to move about on the Astral Plane - it was all through mental action: you simply decided which way was "down" and fell in that direction. Those with greater mental faculties could move at faster speeds.

"Guess we'll have to pull you along behind us, Gilbert," smirked Binkadink.

"You shut stupid gnome mouth."

Eventually the group got the hang of it, but with everyone moving at different speeds the group's cohesion started breaking up, with some speeding on ahead and others lagging behind. Eventually, they agreed they'd only travel as fast as their slowest member - Darrien - and split up only if combat ensued and greater maneuverability became necessary.

After what seemed like about a half an hour - although it was difficult to tell for sure in the timeless realm of the Astral Plane, where even bodily processes like the need for food and sleep were permanently suspended - the group saw a speck ahead. As they moved forward, following Infernia's lead, the speck altered course to approach the group, appearing larger the closer they converged. Soon, the group could make out features of the beast ahead of them: it was built like an immense serpent, only with a pair of arms ending in lobsterlike claws jutting out near the horned head. It had a single eye above a mouth filled with sharp teeth.

"This not good," Gilbert said.

"Do you know what that is?" asked Hagan. On his shoulder, his weasel familiar Wezhley shivered in fear.

"That an astral dreadnaught," the portly mage informed the group. "They nasty business. Eye send out antimagic cone, like beholder."

The dreadnaught got closer, and several of the group's members felt trickles of fear coursing down their spines at the very sight of the thing. And then, once it got close enough, the antimagic cone took effect, and even though Gilbert had warned everyone what to expect there were a few magical effects he'd forgotten about himself. With a ripping sound, Gilbert's pockets shredded as five boulders and Mudpie were suddenly restored to their normal size - but, more importantly, so was the earth titan they'd fought back on the Elemental Plane of Earth, who had been shrunken to pebble size by Binkadink using the wizard's magic slingshot. Gilbert's view of the approaching astral dreadnaught was suddenly blocked by a 20-foot humanoid figure built entirely of living stone.

"GAAAAH!" cried out the earth titan at suddenly finding itself floating in the middle of nothing with no solid ground anywhere to be seen in any direction. At his side, Mudpie was having the same reaction; earth elementals did not belong in open expanses stretching out to infinity!

Fortunately for Gilbert, the earth titan shielded more than his vision: it was also the greatest apparent threat in the astral dreadnaught's view, and thus it darted out at the massive earth elemental with one of its claws rather than targeting one of the much-smaller humanoids accompanying it. The earth titan was caught up in the creature's grasp, while the adventurers all scattered.

Infernia dropped below the dreadnaught, flying beneath its length until she was sure she was free from the range of its claws. She focused her mind on her major circlet of blasting, sending a beam of mental energy crashing up into the leviathan's bulk. But if it had any effect it was not immediately apparent, and Infernia feared it had an innate resistance to spell energy, as had so many of the creatures she and her Master had faced over the years.

Hagan flew to the side, getting out of the area of effect of the creature's eye ray. He summoned forth a Mordenkainen's sword and was amazed at how speedily the energy blade formed and attacked the astral dreadnaught. At almost the same time, he sent a disintegrate spell ray shooting at the creature, but he learned - as Infernia had - that the dreadnaught enjoyed a natural resistance to spells. It might be quicker to cast spells on the Astral Plane but it was also apparently necessary to concentrate to get them past the astral dreadnaught's spell resistance.

Malrin instinctively wildshaped into an owl, her go-to form for quick escapes, forgetting that she could "fly" just as fast in her elf form on the Astral Plane as she could as an owl. She'd been off to the side of the group as the creature approached, and she moved further away from the creature's claws and eye ray, over by her brother Castillan who was studying the enemy's physical build, searching for weaknesses. In combats such as these, Malrin understood her role was that of a healer, tending to the wounds of the more powerful adventurers who stood on the front lines. She floated, observing the combat unfold and ready to move in with a healing spell when needed.

Finoula moved to the side as well but didn't move far enough away in time to prevent the astral dreadnaught from striking out in her direction with its other claw and catching her fast. She attacked it with Tahlmalaera but she was within the creature's line of sight and thus the longsword's magical powers were currently suppressed - including the mental feeling of contact with Ingebold that she'd already come to treasure. And struggle as she might, she couldn't wrest herself free from the creature's powerful pincer.

Binkadink followed Infernia's path, striking up at the astral dreadnaught from beneath with his magical glaive - for he waited until well past the cone of antimagic's reach before attacking. His blade dug deep, but the creature had fairly thick armor - it would take some time to whittle this monster down to size, by the gnome's estimation!

Gilbert dropped straight down like a stone, taking Mudpie with him. Once out of the antimagic ray, he quickly cast two enervation spells in rapid succession and smiled when one of them made it past the creature's spell resistance. A shudder went down the astral dreadnaught's serpentine body as the spell took effect, draining it of a portion of its life force and vitality. At his side, Mudpie did little but hold his hands over his eyes, blocking out the sight of all that nothingness surrounding them.

In the astral dreadnaught's left pincer, the earth titan did all it could to release itself, pounding with its massive, boulderlike fists. A few cracks developed on the outer layer of the dreadnaught's claw, but that was about it - the elemental had failed to free itself from the steady grasp of the massive pincer.

Darrien had sped straight up, mirroring Gilbert's maneuver but in the opposite direction. Now above the creature's antimagic cone, he sent a flurry of arrows shooting down at the astral dreadnaught's face, hoping to knock out its eye. At least one arrow hit the eye's surface and pierced the orb, but the dreadnaught's armored exterior apparently also extended in some part to its ocular organ, for the antimagic cone stayed in place. Still, it now had a quartet of arrows peppering its face, and the half-elf ranger vowed to add to their number.

Castillan made his move, having studied the creature and figured out a possible weak spot. He came from behind on the dreadnaught's right side, striking up by its armpit. His blade sank deep, into an area the bounder had identified as being less heavily armored than elsewhere on its body. Blood spilled down the bounder's blade.

Finoula had failed to extract herself from the dreadnaught's right claw - and was it any wonder, when a 20-foot-tall earth elemental had likewise failed to do so? - but was aghast to see it tossing her into its gaping maw! Then, its right claw free, it got a two-pincered grip on the earth titan and started rending it to pieces. Chunks of stone fell away from the earth titan's body under the assault, to drop away in whatever direction they'd been flung during the struggle.

Beneath the dreadnaught, Infernia and Binkadink continued their respective attacks, the gnome with his glaive and the fire elemental resorting to her flaming fists. Binkadink noticed that in the heat of combat she'd grown in size again and was now a full 15 feet tall. It was apparently something she did unconsciously when agitated. But the astral dreadnaught's attention was currently focused on the earth titan and it was questionable whether it even registered the attacks from below. Likewise with the Mordenkainen's sword attacking it from the side; Hagan decided to add to the creature's discomfort with a pair of rapid-succession disintegrate spells. Once again, one spell failed to even overcome the dreadnaught's innate spell resistance and the other one's effects were summarily shrugged off to a lesser amount of damage. Still, there was now a chunk missing from the creature's left flank, so there was no denying the half-orc sorcerer's spells were having an effect.

Finoula felt the monster's jaws closing and desperately did not want to still be inside its mouth when they met. She instinctively used her lightning amulet to transform herself into a bolt of lightning that blasted out of its mouth - but then, once she was back in the creature's field of vision, the antimagic cone immediately transformed her back into an elf and she found herself floating directly before the creature's mouth, not several hundred feet away as intended!

Gilbert flipped rapidly through his Omnibook to its scroll contents. He then cast a fireball spell up at the beast, confident that its very bulk would shield those of his friends on either side of it or above it. Only Infernia was caught up in the spells' blast radius and the wizard knew a fire elemental would have no problems being engulfed in a fireball. MARCI floated beside Gilbert, the only human in the group, as he cast the spell. The construct was also a healer of sorts, and preferred to remain by Gilbert's side, for she had been primarily built to cater to the medical needs of humans. If she was concerned about the inherent dangers of the adventuring lifestyle, she gave no indication of it.

The earth titan continued to try to break out of the dreadnaught's grasp, to no avail. Darrien continued shooting arrows down at the beast from above, just as Infernia and Binkadink continued their assaults from below and Hagan directed the magic sword of force energy into the monster's flank from the side. Castillan stabbed again at the creature's flank, although its thrashing around had caused the bounder to be out of range of the weak spot he'd earlier identified. But the astral dreadnaught's attention was still focused on the earth elemental it held in its two-pincered grasp, surely the deadliest of these intruders given its enormous size. Finoula took the opportunity to drop straight down, away from the monster's face, and Malrin and - after prompting from Gilbert - MARCI flew over to her to grant her aid.

But the beast was finally starting to slow. Blood flowed from its various wounds, as it had been attacked from three sides by blades of various sizes and composition and now had nearly a dozen arrow shafts protruding from its upper surface. Gilbert, tired of the creature's spell resistance, cast a haste spell on Binkadink and Castillan, certain that that spell at least would take effect as desired, and the two bladesmen put their extra speed to good use. Eventually, the adventurers overpowered it; it bled from too many sources and was close enough to death that a final, well-placed strike from Castillan's blade put it over the edge. Convulsive shudders rippled down the creature's expansive length as it died.

"Everybody okay?" Gilbert asked - and except for the earth titan, Finoula was the only one to have suffered any injury, and Malrin and MARCI had both taken care of her wounds. Gilbert approached the earth titan warily, his slingshot of rock shrinking in hand. "Not going to hurt you..." he coaxed as he approached. "Just going to get you where you safe again, okay?" The earth titan made no resistance as the slingshot shrunk him back down to the size of a pebble; Gilbert repeated the procedure on Mudpie and placed both earth elementals into a different, unripped pocket of his robes. "Going to need mending spell tomorrow," Gilbert said to himself as he chased down the boulders that had likewise been un-shrunk by the astral dreadnaught's eye ray and set about re-shrinking them.

That done, Infernia continued the trek towards her Master. It was surely hours later in the timeless realm of the Astral Plane - although there was naturally no way to verify that - before the group encountered another being. As beings went, this one would normally have been difficult to identify as one, as it looked like nothing so much as an enormous thundercloud with flashes of lightning bursting within it, but Infernia was familiar with these creatures and identified it to the group as a tempest. "It's an elemental, like me," she explained, "only it's made up from parts of all four elements." But then she shrieked and gave up on any further explanations, for she had spotted her Master ahead and raced forward to reunite with him.

There was quite an elaborate setup on the other side of the tempest, which the adventurers would soon learn was little more than a guard beast. Telgrane floated in the middle of a 20-foot cube of vibrant purple bars, one of four spaced in a diamond around a round platform, upon which stood Xuneeryne, the "devil lady" who had kidnapped him. The other three forcecages contained a thunderbird, an enormous creature from the Elemental Plane of Air that looked like a terrestrial hawk or eagle but sparked with lightning as it thrashed about, trying to escape; a massive, barrel-shaped elder xorn from the Elemental Plane of Earth with three clawed legs, three clawed arms, three eyes, and a three-jawed mouth at the top of its head; and a shapeless mass of constantly-shifting protoplasm, an ooze paraelemental taken from the Elemental Plane of Water. Behind each cage stood an open portal to the respective Elemental Plane, while between the cages and the platform in the middle stood a focusing lens, ready to be deployed. By three of the lenses stood an ogre-sized being: a one-horned ken-sun named Blowhard before the thunderbird's cage; a two-horned ken-li named Dragonbreath before Telgrane's cage; and a three-horned ken-kuni named Thickskull. Each wielded an oversized weapon: two greatswords and a massive spear.

Castillan kept pace with Infernia, even outdistancing her in a rush to get to Telgrane's cage, for despite the great number of potential foes, the bounder realized their real mission was to rescue the fire elemental's Master. He had already decided he could use the power of his ring of dimension door to pop into Telgrane's cage, grab him up, and pop right back out again - just as soon as he got close enough. Malrin, still in her owl form and flapping her wings out of force of habit, followed her brother's trail, but quickly fell behind.

Binkadink realized the tempest was probably a guard beast meant to keep them busy from whatever it was that the devil lady was up to, but he also had faith in his companions and realized if the tempest was kept busy fighting him it wouldn't likely bother the others. So, without a further thought, he charged the elemental cloud with his glaive. The blade parted the cloud-stuff before it, causing angry flashes of lightning within as an indicator that he had hurt the tempest. Finoula joined him, striking at the elemental cloud with snaps of her flaming whip of thorns. Hagan cast a disintegrate spell at the tempest and frowned as he saw it had overcome the worst of the spell's potential damage; he was about to cast it again when Gilbert called over to him on the Rary's telepathic link: <Take out lens in front of Telgrane!> So Hagan spun and traded targets, ignoring the massive tempest and sending another disintegrate spell at the glass lens in the metal frame, floating beside the two-horned ken-li. With a flash, the lens disappeared from view, having been turned into tiny particles that dispersed immediately in a fine mist. Dragonbreath cried out in surprise.

"Deploy the first lens!" called out Xuneeryne, frantic that her many months of preparation for the ritual were being undone. Blowhard deployed the lens by the thunderbird, and a beam of energy sprang forth from the open portal to the Elemental Plane of Air, channeling through the thunderbird, through the focusing lens, and into the tiefling's body, imbuing her with a part of the Elemental Plane's power.

But Gilbert, floating directly up above the tempest so he could see what was going on with the ritual, saw Xuneeryne's setup and surmised she was attempting to channel the power of all four elements into herself. He called forth his most powerful prepared spell and cast a sunburst beside the tiefling's platform. A burst of brilliant light exploded forth with blinding power - indeed, as a result of the spell, not only Xuneeryne and all three of her elemental ogres ended up permanently blinded, but also Telgrane, the elder ooze paraelemental, and the elder xorn as well. With one spell, Gilbert had pretty much put an end to the entire ritual!

Xuneeryne screamed in impotent fury, calling out to her minions to slay the interlopers and Dragonbreath moved blindly over to the direction of her voice, ready to protect his mistress. Darrien responded by peppering her with a quartet of arrows, pleased to have hit her with each but frowning to see them plunk off her body - she obviously had a stoneskin spell up and running. But then Infernia came screaming towards her in fury and the tiefling realized she had no idea how many enemies she was facing. She had already started the air ritual and realized if she stopped now she could never again progress any further down that path; she dared not even start the other three elemental infusions lest they, too, be interrupted. Now, her biggest imperative was to escape - what could she do? How could she get herself to safety?

The tempest, in the meantime, had engulfed both Binkadink and Finoula into its cloudy mass and was beginning to stir them around, slowly taking on the form of a whirlwind. It lashed out at them with blasts of lightning, starting both of them on fire as a result - although Binkadink mostly ignored this, as his red dragonhide plate mail protected him from the flames.

With a sudden burst of insight, Xuneeryne realized she still had one avenue of escape: it was desperate measure that would leave her minions behind, but that thought occupied all of a half-second before she spoke the words to a teleport spell and instantly transported herself 100 miles straight up. That was one of the good things about the Astral Plane: just about every part of the infinite realm looked like any other, so it was easy to visualize where you wanted to go. (And even if you didn't end up exactly where you wanted, what real difference did it make?) In retrospect, she should have taken the time to slay that stupid horned fire elemental that was trying to imitate the form of a human woman after having caught her up in a hold monster spell and taking down the mighty Telgrane with a feeblemind spell, but she'd been eager to set up her ritual, and the half-fire elemental human wizard had been the last of the elementals she needed for her ritual....

Castillan rescued Telgrane with no trouble and the others decided it wasn't worth taking down the blinded elemental mages; after all, the forcecages would eventually wink out and the other three imprisoned creatures would be free to return to their homes via the color pools floating nearby...and if they happened to want to take a little revenge against the elemental ogres who had aided in their capture, that had a very poetic feel about it. As for the tempest, Finoula and Binkadink escaped from its clutches and discovered they could maneuver and fly away from it much faster than it could catch them. They led it away and then circled back to the others, gathering together by the color pool to the Elemental Plane of Fire. Malrin used her staff of healing to cure Telgrane's blindness, although they had to rely upon Infernia's insight through the mental link she shared with her Master to tell that he had been blinded in the first place, as the feebleminded wizard didn't have the mental capacity to speak and the fact that his eyes were blazing gouts of fire - the most visible aspect of his half-fire elemental heritage - made it impossible for the Kordovians to determine it on their own.

But before they returned to the plane of Infernia's birth, Gilbert took the time to fish the earth titan from his pocket. "You did good job fighting dreadnaught," he said, holding up the pebble-sized elemental to his face. "We appreciate it. You earn return to your home." Then he placed the earth titan into his slingshot of rock shrinking and fired him through the color pool to the Elemental Plane of Earth, confident that he'd strike a surface on the other side and be returned to his normal size.

After that, everyone was ushered through the portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, after first determining that their attune form spells were still active. Once there, Infernia led everyone into the Door That Doesn't Belong and made sure her Master was comfortable before taking the elevated column up to the top level, where Rhunic the enchanted librarian fetched a limited wish spell on a scroll, which Gilbert was able to cast upon Telgrane and restore him to his normal intellect.

Telgrane's gratitude for his rescue was unbounded. He had the group stay and swap stories (he was particularly interested in Galrich, Aerik, and Chalkan - the three men he'd adventured with who had retired in Kordovia at the end of their careers) while dining upon a most succulent fare, then fetched individual items from his vast treasury to give to each member of his rescue team. To Binkadink, he presented a collar of healing for his riding mount, the better to keep Obvious safe during combat. For Castillan, he handed over a short sword with enchantments to aid it in dealing damage to those targeted. Darrien received a set of five arrows of slaying, focused upon aberrations, dragons, fiends, monstrous humanoids, and undead. Finoula received a set of reins of ascension to use with her pony, allowing her a limited ability to jump and fly. Hagan received a robe of blending; Malrin, a druid's vestment. And for Gilbert Fung, Telgrane not only taught him the attune form spell but three others of Gilbert's choice, plus offered to act as a mentor if the portly wizard ever decided to follow the path of the archmage.

And then Infernia dragged out a box of flame diamonds taken from the Elemental Plane of Fire, giving them to the group as a whole. "Thank you for saving my Master," she said. "I could not have done it without your help." Castillan's eyes nearly bugged out when he performed the mental calculations of the gems' likely worth back home.

But eventually the group decided to take their leave and return to Greyhawk City, so they could meet up with Jinkadoodle outside the city's outskirts and be flown back to Battershield Keep in the dragonfly ship. Telgrane led them to the gray door in the basement of the Door That Doesn't Belong and everyone said their farewells. An hour later they were watching Zaralia's cloud island come into view as Jinkadoodle brought the dragonfly ship into a landing.

"You've been uncharacteristically quiet," Binkadink observed to his cousin. "Somebody glue your mouth shut?"

"Oh, very funny," retorted Jinkadoodle. "Nice job with the sovereign glue on the helm seat, by the way." He presented Binkadink his most evil grin. "But that just means it's my turn now." The two cousins were involved in a back-and-forth prank war that had been going on since they were little.

"I can hardly wait," replied Binkadink.

"I doubt you'll have to, for long," announced Jinkadoodle. "I've already plotted out an appropriate revenge."

And sure enough, his next escalation in the prank war wasn't long in coming. The group exited the dragonfly vessel via the carpet of teleportation, ending up back at Battershield Keep, where Helga Battershield informed them dinner would be ready in an hour. There was no use telling her they'd just had a big meal with Telgrane; Helga would take it as a personal insult. So they all went to their quarters, ready to hit the dining hall in an hour.

And when they exited the two towers at the front of the keep and made their way to the dining area in the back, they heard a commotion in the stables - one of the goats was bleating in irritation. The stable door was partially open; as they passed, they all got a good view of Binkadink Dundernoggin, naked as the day he was born, wrestling a goat into position. Nobody noticed Jinkadoodle in the back of the stables, hidden in shadows, manipulating the major image spell he'd cast (from a scroll) of his cousin and the goat engaged in a little recreational activity. Binkadink, meanwhile, was sound asleep in his room, helped along in his slumber by a surreptitious sleep spell cast by his vengeful cousin mere minutes ago (also from a scroll, as piloting the spelljamming vessel had stripped away the illusionist's spellcasting abilities for the rest of that day). When the spell wore off and Binkadink woke up to find everybody already at dinner, he raced to join them - and was instantly castigated by the rest of the group for an act he hadn't even performed.

Jinkadoodle wore a face of pure innocence and concentrated on the excellent meal Helga had prepared.

- - -

Leave it to a sunburst spell to make me long for the days when Gilbert's frequent casting of the Evard's black tentacles spell was my biggest concern! That one spell pretty much cut the whole big fight at the end of this adventure down to a frantic escape on the part of my tiefling would-be Pan-Elementalist and a hand-waving of the combat with three blinded elemental ogres and a tempest guardian everyone could outrun. And I gave Gilbert an XP bonus for freeing the earth titan; I had seriously expected him to continue to use his 20-foot-tall "meat shield" in as many adventures as he could squeeze out of him. The bonus XP nicely counteracts the XP penalty he took for making his detect undead spell a permanent effect, so now Gilbert has the same amount of XP as the other PCs. (Malrin's still running behind, but she leveled up to 9th as a result of this adventure.)

And now the future adventure "Xuneeryne's Revenge" is practically writing itself in my mind.

[Edit: After further thought, there's no adventure there. I imagine Telgrane's first action after having seen the Kordovians back to their own plane was to track down Xuneeryne and exact his vengeance. She picked the wrong representative of the Elemental Plane of Fire to fuel her transformation ritual!]

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Einstein shirt, as it has galaxies floating from his pipe, representative of the Astral Plane.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 15
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 15
Darrien, half-elf ranger 15
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 15
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 15
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 15​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 4
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 9
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 27 October 2018

- - -

Queen Kaelanna sat upon her throne and looked down at the adventurers assembled before her. "Thank you for coming," she said, smiling at the group. "I believe you know how important it is – both for me and for the kingdom – to retain good relations with my half-brother, Clauguthrax. Having him at Kordovia's side will be of great benefit to us all.

"However, the coalition works both ways, and he has formally asked me for help with a problem he's encountered. As you may be aware, dragons maintain more than one lair throughout the territory they claim as their own. We met Clauguthrax at his primary lair, but he has several others in which he occasionally stays. He has recently discovered that one of his auxiliary lairs has been commandeered by forces unknown. Whoever dared this effrontery, they have been rather blatant about it, crafting walls of thick tree trunks as a fortification before the main entrance. My half-brother is eager to retaliate against these interlopers, but he, as are all dragons, is crafty enough to want to scout the place out before he goes crashing in, so he isn't caught unawares by what he might find there.

"As you might have guessed, that's where you will come in. For the good of the kingdom, I would like you to scout out this area, gaining entry into the lair if you can and slaying – or at least driving away – whoever has taken it over. Clauguthrax has asked only that we provide him information about the interlopers, but I would like you to save him the trouble of clearing the place out himself. After all, it certainly can’t hurt to have him feeling he owes us one....

"Will you do it?"

The adventurers looked among themselves for a moment, unused to having quests for the kingdom's benefit being offered as optional. "Of course we will, Your Majesty," Finoula answered for the group. Queen Kaelanna gave out a sigh of relief - she was still new to the throne and unaccustomed to making demands of her subjects. "I'm so glad!" she admitted. "Here: I took the liberty of making a rough map of the cave system." She passed over a scroll case to Gilbert, who removed the parchment within and unrolled it. It showed a simple cave, with an initial entry room, two side caverns jutting off from it, then a 40-foot drop into the much larger main cavern, which had a side cave some 40 feet up its left wall. A hole in the floor in this lower cavern led to a treasure cave off to the back right, whereas to the left of the lower cavern stood a back entrance, blocked partway down its length by a section of water and leading to a heavy rock slab that Clauguthrax used as both an emergency exit door and a means of ensuring nobody snuck in that way. Finally, in front of the main cave opening there was a wall annotated as having been recently added by the intruders, made of sturdy tree trunks; Queen Kaelanna explained it was this feature which had first alerted Clauguthrax of the intrusion into his auxiliary lair. On the back of the map, the queen had scrawled directions on how to find the cave system; it looked to be several hours of travel deep into the Vesve Forest bordering the kingdom.

"We will leave at once, Your Majesty," Castillan promised the queen.

"There are a few points I'd like to emphasize, before you do," Queen Kaelanna replied. "First of all, I do not intend this to be a deadly mission. I'd like you to clear the place out for Clauguthrax if you can, but if you encounter too dangerous an opposition by all means retreat - I do not wish anyone to die in the attempt of completing this mission. Furthermore, Clauguthrax informs me he kept a 'bed' of coins in the treasure cave, to the sum of 7,500 pieces of gold. If you are able to clear the place out yourselves, I must insist that his treasure remain in place. If, however, the interlopers have added to that amount, then by all means take the excess for yourselves."

"Thank you, Your Majesty!" said Castillan, a broad grin upon his face. Now he was hoping some other dragon moved into the place; dragons were notorious for the vast amounts of treasure they tended to hoard. The queen granted the adventurers leave to depart.

"That far into the forest, the dragonfly ship won't be of much use," pointed out Binkadink as the group exited the castle. "We'll do best to take Castor and Pollux and the Vistani wagon."

"I'm sure Aithanar won't mind driving the wagon," offered Finoula, smiling at the thought of spending a few pleasant hours with Castillan's handsome younger brother. He was good with animals and, as a fighter, offered some amount of protection for the wagon and animals when the adventurers went off on their business. Since this mission was taking place in the forest, the group decided to take their animal companions along: Grumps Junior, the dire bear cub; Finoula's pet timber wolf, Wrath; Malrin's trained dire fox, Taihar; and of course Binkadink's jackalope Obvious and Finoula's pony Daisy, who would be performing their normal duties as riding mounts.

During the trip, the group discussed various options. Binkadink was all for splitting into two groups and attacking the cave in a pincer movement, one group assaulting the new wooden wall while the other group entered from the back way. "I don't like splitting up our forces," Finoula fretted.

"Plus, we shouldn't automatically assume we'll be in combat with the newcomers," pointed out Darrien. "For all we know, it's a family of friendly gold dragons who have moved in."

Eventually, the plan coalesced into the following: they'd approach to within half a mile of the cave, then leave Aithanar with the horses and the wagon. The rest of the group would creep forward to just within visual distance, then Finoula would cast a commune with nature spell that would tell her something about the area around the cave network. With that knowledge in hand, they'd be better able to work out an exact attack strategy.

The adventurers crept soundlessly towards their target. Once within range, the elven ranger cast her spell and told the others of her findings. "There's a group of people on the wall and more inside the cave, in three groups."

"I can see the guys on the wall," added Castillan, peering between the undergrowth interspersed around the trees just outside the clearing immediately before the wooden structure. "They look like elves."

"There's more: I sensed a draconic presence in the largest of the caverns inside, and there's been some recent digging through the front wall of the cave, just on the other side of that wooden building to the left." The wooden wall was about 20 feet high with a set of closed (and no doubt secured) double doors in the middle, each 10 feet wide. The wall was crafted of tree trunks of differing heights forming a sort of natural set of crenellations along the top. To the side was a building butting up against the wall, also made of upright tree trunks.

"I think we cast prep spells now," announced Gilbert Fung. He and Hagan each cast mage armor spells that covered themselves and their familiars, and then the heavyset wizard cast a stoneskin spell upon Mudpie and himself as well. Both rangers cast their barkskin spells, making their skin tough like tree-bark. Binkadink took out a pair of potions of delay poison and fed one to Obvious, then drank the other down himself. "Just in case," he said. Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell linking all the heroes but Malrin together, so they could communicate amongst themselves without actually speaking. And then he announced the group ready for action.

"I'm going to try talking to them," Castillan announced, striding into the clearing before the wooden wall. "Greetings!" he called out in the Elven tongue to the elven archers - six in all - on duty along the top of the wall. They each drew their bows and aimed an arrow at the bounder in the clearing.

"Halt where you are!" replied one of the elves - Castillan didn't see which one - in the Common tongue. His voice was harsh and gruff. "Explain your presence!"

Castillan stopped as directed and held his hands out to the side, demonstrating to the elven archers that he was unarmed. (Of course, all he had to do was snap his fingers and his weapons would instantly appear from the extradimensional storage spaces in his gloves of storing.) "I'm just passing through the forest," he called back up to the elves, switching to the Common tongue in which they'd called out their demands. "I happened to see your dwelling and thought I'd say hello."

"Go about your business!" called down one of the elves. "Intruders are not welcome here!"

Deciding to try a different tactic since this one was getting him nowhere, Castillan switched to the Draconic tongue - after all, Finoula had said she detected a draconic presence in the back cavern so there was a chance its guards might speak the language - and called up, "Take me to your leader!"

The response was immediate: all six archers unleashed their arrows; Castillan managed to only fully dodge two of them. One of the archers then turned and called down behind him a few words in some strange, guttural language Castillan couldn't place. But it was obvious he wasn't going to get anything accomplished by trying to talk to these elves, so Castillan activated his ring and a dimension door spell instantly transported him to the natural rock wall just behind the defensive tower, about ten feet up. A snap of his fingers brought his stonepiercer dagger into hand, which he thrust into the solid stone of the cliff-side and used as a support to remain unseen up on the wall.

But the rest of the heroes had seen the attack and retaliated immediately. Darrien stepped away from the tree behind which he'd been hidden from view and sent a few arrows of his own flying up at the archers. Grumps Junior moved to the ranger's side, growling at the enemies up on the wall and well out of his reach; the elven archers sent arrows down at the ranger and his dire bear cub in response. Malrin wildshaped into owl form and took flight, taking a roundabout route to Castillan's side, where she cast a healing spell upon her wounded brother unobserved by the archers below.

Finoula kept her weapons in their sheaths at her hips as she stepped from behind the cover of a tree and activated her lightning amulet. She blasted up through two of the archers, landing on the cliff's side just below Castillan, clinging to the rough rock wall with her boots of spider climbing. Wrath was unable to follow his mistress so he stayed his ground, there being no one for him to attack at present.

Castillan and Finoula, being full-blooded elves, could hear the sounds of someone climbing the ladder below them up onto the wall, although nobody could be seen. But then the unmistakable sounds of spellcasting alerted them to an invisible wizard among the elven archers' ranks. The fact that a hawk - likely a familiar - flew up from below only strengthened their belief that there was now an invisible wizard on the wall with the archers.

But if there had been any doubt at all, the sudden appearance of a fiendish rhinoceros on the ground below was all the evidence needed. The rhino snorted and charged towards Grumps Junior, horn straight in front of him like a spear.

Binkadink jumped up onto Obvious's back and rode the jackalope over by Darrien; the two adventurers had come up with a new strategy between them and the gnome was ready for the half-elf ranger to put their plan into action. Gilbert moved closer to the action, for he had started further back than any of the others; behind him, Mudpie and MARCI moved forward as well.

Castillan thought he heard the clomping of large boots coming from the cavern behind and below him, but he had already committed himself to his action: dropping down from his perch and attacking where his ears told him the invisible spellcaster was. He struck forward with his magical short sword when he landed, impaling the unseen wizard. The wizard turned to face his attacker, dropping his invisibility as he did so, and now the bounder could see he faced not a fellow elf but a hobgoblin - which likely explained the guttural language he'd heard moments before. But now he was on the platform just inside the wall's length, surrounded by seven enemies!

Back on the ground, Hagan cast a chain lightning spell targeted on one of the archers in the center of the wall, arcing bolts of electricity from him to strike the other archers and the hobgoblin wizard. Behind him, Darrien activated the plan he'd worked out with Binkadink, casting an animal growth spell on Obvious that caused the already horse-sized jackalope to double in size. He also included Grumps Junior in his spell, bringing him up to the size of a full-grown dire bear, as well as Taihar, causing the dire fox to attain the size of a horse, and Wrath, who grew to the size of a dire wolf. Let's see how well these animals do in battle at these sizes! the ranger grinned to himself.

Grumps raked the fiendish rhino that had crashed into his side with a pair of massive claws - and suddenly, it was a battle between two primal animals, each doing their best to tear his opponent to shreds.

Still flying in owl form above the wooden wall, Malrin looked down and cast a wall of fire spell on the ground just behind the wall of tree trunks, allowing the heat from its flames to blast forward to those on duty on the wooden wall. She stopped her flaming wall just before where Castillan stood, but the heat blasted a quartet of the archers on duty there, several of them catching on fire. The two archers to the far right of the wall each targeted Grumps Junior with their arrows, as he was currently the largest target they could see in the clearing before them, then crowded along the far-right section of the wall (where it curved to touch the cliff-side) where they were safe from the flames of Malrin's spell. The others tried rushing in the opposite direction, but Castillan was there preventing them from getting past him and Finoula snapped her flaming whip of thorns a those trying to rush the bounder, and they all burned alive while trying to escape. As they burned, their illusions wore off and the Kordovian elves could see each of these "elven" archers was, in reality, a hobgoblin.

Finoula snapped her whip at the hobgoblin wizard as he leaped from the top of the wall onto the roof of the wooden structure beside it. She could hear thumping of some sort coming from inside the structure. The cause of the noise became apparent when the door at the far side of the structure opened up and a pair of dire wolves raced out, followed by the pair of hill giants who had opened the door to release them. The wolves made a dash for the nearest foe: Wrath, a timber wolf magically enlarged to their own size by the power of Darrien's spell. As Wrath concentrated on fending off the teeth of the first dire wolf, he was struck by one of the hill giant's greatclubs, which came crashing down upon his head. Wrath collapsed to the ground, stunned, as the dire wolves snapped at him with their wicked teeth. But then help came from an unexpected quarter: Gilbert Fung, seeing Wrath's dilemma and knowing how much it would pain Finoula to see her beloved companion slain on the field of battle, cast one of the spells he'd just learned from Telgrane: an Otiluke's resilient sphere. Instantly, Wrath was surrounded by a near-impenetrable bubble of solid energy which kept the snapping teeth of the dire wolves at bay. Wrath was safe to lick at his own wounds, watching the battle rage all about him but unable to assist or be attacked.

Binkadink, astride his even larger than normal jackalope, swung his magic glaive down upon the fiendish rhinoceros's head. Obvious grabbed the rhino's throat in his teeth and worried it up and down, pulling the massive beast from the ground and then slamming it back down again; Binkadink had to steady himself in his larger-than-normal saddle with one hand to keep himself from being thrown, so violent were the jackalope's thrashings. But eventually the rhino was slain, and - having been a summoned creature - its body disappeared upon its death.

Hagan cast another of his favored chain lightning spells, catching both of the hill giants, one of the dire wolves (the other was on the far side of Wrath's solid sphere), and the hobgoblin wizard's hawk familiar. The hawk managed to evade the spell, but the others were all struck with teeth-jarring convulsions as the electrical attack took its course; the dire wolf was outright slain by the spell.

Finoula was still standing on the side of the cliff face, but there were more combatants down below in front of the wooden wall. Castillan reached up and grabbed her by the ankle, then activated his ring once again and the two dimension doored over to between the barbaric hill giants. Darrien dropped his ebony fly to the ground and leaped upon it as it rapidly attained the size of a pony; he called for Grumps Junior to attack the giants now that the fiendish rhino he'd been fighting had been slain. In the meantime, he rode his fly up high enough to pepper the hobgoblin wizard in the middle of casting a spell, slaying him with an arrow to the throat.

From her vantage point in the air in front of the cave's entrance behind the wooden wall (and the wall of fire which still blazed behind it), Malrin could see a group of ogres and hobgoblin fighters approaching from deeper inside the cave system. She cast a flame strike spell that set several of the hobgoblins ablaze, screaming in pain as they burned to their deaths. There were now only two hobgoblin archers still up on the wall, still wearing the forms of elves; they shot at Darrien mounted on his pony-sized fly as he rose above the wooden wall. But they were pinned in place at the far end of their platform, for to move any further out toward the middle would be to become engulfed by the heat of the wall of fire.

Finoula attacked one of the hill giants with her flaming whip of thorns and her longsword Tahlmalaera, scratching across his face with the thorns of her whip while her blade stabbed into the giant's thigh. She caught a blur in her peripheral vision, but it was just Obvious hippity-hopping at best speed straight toward - and then over - both the wooden wall and the wall of fire just beyond it. The jackalope landed softly just inside the cave's opening, facing the tail end of a quintet of ogre barbarians heading off to a side cavern to the jackalope's left, no doubt the cavern which led to the dire wolf enclosure, while a line of hobgoblins were about to climb the ladder up to the top of the wooden wall. Binkadink struck at the nearest ogre with his glaive, killing him, and then the gnome cleaved the blade of his weapon into another of the ogres standing just beside the one just slain. The ogre yelled in pain and fear, then screamed even louder as Obvious clamped down on his neck with his sharp rodent's teeth. The ogre was lifted from his feet as Obvious started shaking him around like a rag doll; with a cry of pain, he released himself from the jackalope's grip and readied his weapon for another attack. Three other ogres advanced through the hill giant's cave to go out through the dire wolf enclosure.

Hagan cast a fly spell upon himself and rose up over the wooden wall, where he could see the hobgoblin reserves emerging from the cave and the ogre fighting Binkadink and Obvious further back. At the same time, Darrien slew the last two hobgoblin archers on the wooden wall.

Out in the clearing, the hill giant fighting Finoula swung at her with his massive greatclub, catching her in the side and nearly bowling her over. Castillan was fighting the other one, sending his blades to dart in while the bounder simultaneously did his best to avoid the hill giant's massive weapon. But then the remaining dire wolf bit down on Castillan's leg, causing him to abandon his combat with the giant to deal with this more immediate threat.

Gilbert, seeing combat all around him, cast a vampiric touch spell on his familiar and sent Mudpie underground to go deliver it by touch to one of the hill giants. He then sent MARCI over to Finoula, instructing her to heal the elven ranger. MARCI extended a thin needle from a finger and stabbed it into the elf, injecting a healing solution into her veins before retracting the needle and triggering a sterilization procedure upon it.

Castillan got the dire wolf to release him and was holding his own against it and one of the hill giants, while Finoula fought off the other one. Grumps backed away; these hill giants were more than he was ready to tackle, even at his own enhanced size. (He was, after all, still a cub.) But Mudpie reached up from below the earth and touched Castillan's giant opponent with his rocky hand, triggering the vampiric touch spell his master had activated within him. The hill giant roared in pain, anger, and frustration as some of his vitality was drained away and sent directly to Gilbert Fung, the original caster of the spell.

Malrin cast an ice storm on the ogre facing Binkadink and Obvious and a few of the rearmost hobgoblin reinforcements as the first of these reserves climbed up to the wooden wall. Down in the lower cavern, just outside the range of the elf druid's owlish vision, a nobleman sat at a round table covered in an immaculate white linen tablecloth; he wiped his mouth on a linen napkin as he finished his meal. "Ah, well," he said, hearing the ruckus up above him as his minions fought off the intruders, "I suppose I'd better take a hand in this myself."

The nobleman stood up from his finished meal, set the napkin beside his plate, and took a moment to push his chair back beneath the table. Then he turned and started walking towards the front of the cave. As he walked, he began transforming, releasing his nobleman's form into the one into which he'd been born. As his form grew in size, first doubling, then tripling before growing even larger still, his clothes merged into his body, his flesh gave way to greenish scales, and two additional heads on long, slender necks grew from his shoulders, matching his own transforming head. Wings erupted from his back and with a powerful flap the gorynych rose into the air, flying up to the front of the cave.

His three heads allowed him to see several of the intruders at once: a half-elf archer astride a ridiculously-sized housefly; a little gnome in red dragonhide plate mail riding a horned rabbit the size of an elephant; a hovering half-orc spellcaster of some sort with a weasel sitting upon his shoulder; and an owl - perhaps an animal companion of some sort. He opened all three of his mouths at once and breathed forth triple cones of burning flames that engulfed all of the foes at once, It also caught one of his ogre henchmen, but that was a matter of little significance, for what were the lives of minions in the grand scheme of things?

The burning flames instantly slew several of the intruders. One was the owl, which, upon falling to the stone floor of the cave, reverted to a slender elven female - interesting. Another was the giant fly, causing the half-elf that had been riding it to plummet to the cave's floor as well, landing hard. The others were badly burned, but no one else had been slain - not even the ogre, so he had nothing to complain about, really.

Binkadink spun Obvious around to face this new threat. He slashed at the gorynych with his gnomish glaive, scoring a slice across its scaly hide that caused it to hiss in pain with all three throats. Obvious snapped at it with his sharp teeth, only to be slapped by the creature's tail for the effrontery. And then the gorynych focused his attention on the gnome, snapping at him with three sets of jaws and raking him with the claws of his forelimbs. An unexpected look of fear crossed the gnome fighter's face as he realized this three-headed dragon could easily slay him on the spot! He called out to Obvious in the language of burrowing mammals, readying his mount for a combat move they seldom performed: a tactical retreat!

Outside, the hill giants and sole remaining dire wolf were starting to take their toll on Castillan and Finoula, who gave back as best they could but whose damage potential couldn't reach the output of the giants' enormous greatclubs, each a chunk of tree trunk into which various metal blades had been hammered into place. Then, joining the fight as they raced from the door to the enclosed dire wolf pen, came the three remaining ogre barbarians, each wielding a greatclub of his own as well as a pair of throwing javelins. They raised these latter weapons to throw at their enemies as they advanced into melee range.

But Gilbert was ready for them. He cast a prismatic spray spell, sending a rainbow of colors over towards his enemies. The spell had a variable effect upon them: it seemed to have no effect upon the first ogre, but the second one cried out in pain as his innate constitution was suddenly drained from him; the third was slain at once, as was the dire wolf, which had been within the spell's effect. A hobgoblin fighter up on the parapet of the wooden wall was turned instantly to stone, taking on the form of a statue wearing a look of total surprise. The one behind himself suddenly disappeared altogether, as he was ripped from this reality and tossed down into a random plane.

"Think I like this spell!" Gilbert chuckled to himself as Mudpie continued punching the hill giant fighting Castillan. The bounder did a double-fake-out and struck the giant from an unexpected direction, finally bringing him crashing to the ground, dead.

Hagan, still flying in the air, cast a feeblemind spell on the gorynych, thinking to bring this battle to an immediate end by taking out the leader of the forces who had taken over Clauguthrax's auxiliary lair. But the three-headed dragon had an innate ability to shrug off some spells, and such was the case on this occasion. Hagan snarled in irritation at the upheaval of his plans.

Darrien, having lost his aerial mount (the ebony fly reverted to its statuette form upon the death of its living form, but the ranger wouldn't be able to activate it again for the rest of the day), limped over to the ladder leading up to the wooden wall and sent an arrow shooting over at the gorynych attacking Binkadink. The gnome gave a final swipe of his glaive at the dragon, then Obvious turned in place and hopped back over the wall, fleeing from the snapping jaws and scratching talons. They approached Finoula and the sole remaining hill giant barbarian, just in time to see her bring it down with a well-placed swing of her longsword. MARCI stepped up again and injected Finoula with a healing fluid.

There were still two ogres on the battlefield and they targeted Castillan as one. Gilbert cast a maximized enervation spell at the leader, severely diminishing his combat abilities. Then, seeing the gorynych's three heads over the wooden wall, Gilbert called Mudpie back to his side and cast an Otto's irresistable dance spell upon his familiar. "You do same thing to three-headed dragon as you do to giant," he instructed, and Mudpie swam through the earth in the dragon's direction to comply with his master's wishes.

Hagan tried another feeblemind spell on the gorynych, but again the spell fizzled against the three-headed dragon's natural defenses against magic. But then, looking down at his weasel familiar and seeing how badly Wezhley had been burned from the dragon's fiery breath, he opted to fly away back over the wall. He landed back on the ground, took Wezhley from his shoulder, and placed him gently on the ground. "You go find Aithanar and stay with him," the half-orc sorcerer told his familiar, and Wezhley bounded off to comply.

Castillan attacked the ogre leader with his blades, scoring a deep hit. Darrien, standing upon the wooden platform behind the wall, had pulled forth his arrow of dragon slaying and loaded it into the Arachnibow. Carefully lining up his shot, he let it fly - and it went flying true, striking the gorynych at the base of one of its necks. But the magic of the arrow wasn't enough to instantly kill the gorynych; he was apparently made of sterner stuff. Darrien sighed - it had been worth a try.

Seeing Binkadink's sorry state, Finoula had Obvious crouch down low so she could tap the gnome with the tip of her blade - and then channeled a heal spell into the gnome. <That'll put 'im back into th' fight!> declared the mental construct of Ingebold, now resident in the sword Tahlmalaera.

The gorynych once again spread its wings and flew, this time straight over the wall in pursuit of Binkadink and Obvious. It flew directly above them and breathed fire down from all three heads again, catching its two primary targets and also getting Finoula within the cones of flame. The gorynych was too high for either the gnome or his mount to reach, so Obvious leapt straight up, putting the dragon within reach of the gnome's magic glaive. Obvious landed softly on his feet and repeated the maneuver, bouncing up and down in place so his rider could continue stabbing up at the hovering dragon.

"Mudpie!" Gilbert called to his familiar. "Come back this way! Dragon over here now!" Earth gliding through the ground, the earth elemental had been unable to detect the gorynych's sudden flight, but he reversed direction at his master's urging and headed back the way he'd come, the Otto's irresistible dance spell still dormant in his hand. In the meantime, Gilbert gritted his teeth in frustration, since any further spellcasting on his part would cause the spell currently residing in his familiar's rocky hand to fizzle away to nothingness.

But Hagan had no such constraints. Disappointed in his two failed feeblemind attempts on the gorynych, he directed his attention to the two ogres - who he knew he should be able to affect. Sure enough, one chain lightning spell later and both ogres had been slain, electrified in place where they stood.

Preparing for the gorynych's imminent arrival, Castillan had bounded up into the lower limb of a nearby tree, hoping to blend in with the foliage and strike at the dragon from surprise as he approached. Darrien sent a flurry of arrows - normal ones, as he had had only the one arrow of dragon slaying - at the gorynych's retreating back. Beneath the hovering dragon, Finoula had no elephant-sized jackalope to get her within range to attack, so she used another daily charge from her lightning amulet to send herself blasting up at the beast as an arc of electricity, resuming her elven form at the end of her flight - and upon the creature's broad back, between his wings and just past his three necks.

Unable to yet breathe another triple gout of fire, the gorynych landed beside Obvious and snapped all three jaws at Binkadink; the fighter jammed his glaive into one gaping maw but the other two struck home, clamping down upon the gnome's shoulder and opposite arm. Obvious bit at the base of one of the offending necks, drawing blood. But then Mudpie rose up from the ground just behind the gorynych and slammed its scaly hide with a solid-stone fist. The blow was a solid one, but more important than the bludgeoning damage was the released spell he had held within his appendage; instantly, the three-headed dragon's feet started tapping the ground as he began dancing in place, three looks of anger crossing his draconian features as he found himself unable to resist dancing to an unheard tune.

Now able to cast another spell, Gilbert chose haste, targeting Binkadink, Obvious, Finoula, and Castillan, the latter having leaped down from his hiding place in the tree to bring his swords to bear upon the capering dragon. Blades flashed in the sunlight and stabbed deep into the gorynych's hide, but the dragon was oblivious to the pain, dancing away, his necks swaying back and forth in his forced caper. Hagan's final chain lightning spell of the day finally put it out of its misery, having succumbed to the indignity of a lack of choice in its actions and forced to dance away the last moments of its life.

As a gnome, Binkadink appreciated the spectacle of the irresistable dance and smiled at the dragon's humiliation in the moments before it died. But any thoughts of levity were quickly set aside when Darrien walked through the door from the dire wolf pen, the lifeless body of Malrin draped in his arms. Castillan turned from the gorynych's body and raced over to the body of his sister, helping Darrien lower her gently to the ground.

"Can you do anything?" Gilbert asked MARCI in desperation. The construct walked over to the druid's body and scanned it with the red ray from her eye. "She is dead," MARCI announced in a matter-of-fact tone, then turned away to deal with the wounded who still stood among the living.

- - -

There was indeed additional treasure inside the caverns, some of which the players jointly decided would be used to cast a raise dead spell upon Malrin. Incidentally, as Jacob is now back to being a full-time player, we've handed him permanent custody of Malrin - not only is she the sister of his own PC, but he's also one of the few players in our group not otherwise dealing with an additional NPC, whether it be a familiar, animal companion, or trusted battle-mount.

Incidentally, before this session Logan informed me of his desire to have an awaken spell cast upon Obvious; he was mainly interested in the additional HD such a spell could grant his riding mount, wanting Obvious to be able to handle the combats likely to be encountered by a 16th-level group of adventurers. (Everybody but Malrin leveled up as a result of this adventure.) As a result of the spell - cast by Malrin without the rest of the group knowing - Obvious now has a human-level intelligence and can speak the Common tongue. But Binkadink and Obvious have conspired to keep this a secret from the others for now, thinking how funny it'll be to spring it upon them when they least expect it.

Incidentally, had the hobgoblin wizard survived just one more round, he'd have cast an Evard's black tentacles spell on the PCs/NPCs in the clearing and Gilbert would have gotten a taste of his own medicine. Oh well.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My green dragon T-shirt, given this mission was at the behest of Clauguthrax, a green dragon.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 16
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 16
Darrien, half-elf ranger 16
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 16
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 16
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 16​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 4
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 6
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 9
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 17 November 2018

- - -

"Guys," said Castillan, "I need your help."

The others gathered around the elven bounder as he explained what he'd been up to in his months of absence before they'd run into him in Greyhawk City, both groups dealing with the "fire demon" that appeared to be attacking the city.

"Several months ago," Castillan began, "I was called before my father, Aroban. As you all know, we don't get along that well - Aithanar's not that fond of him, either. Anyway, he told me that he had a job for me: that I was to report to his brother, Lord Kelboran Ivenheart, who had requested my presence in Veluna City immediately for a family emergency." Veluna City was the capital of the kingdom of Veluna, south and west of Kordovia, beneath the edge of the Clatspur Mountain range.

"When I reported to Lord Kelboran, he informed me that his father - my grandfather - Lord Darborel Ivenheart - had been missing now for nine and a half years. During that time, Lord Kelboran had been serving as the Acting Baron of the Western Marches, his father's role, but if his father didn't report back to duty after ten entire years had passed, it would look bad and cause a stain upon the honor of the Ivenheart family. He'd had spellcasters cast multiple divinations and to the best of their knowledge Lord Darborel was still alive, but somehow out of the range of all scrying attempts and even sending spells. He wanted me to use my resources as an adventurer to pick up the search where the others had left off. I was to find out what had happened to Lord Darborel, my grandfather, and drag him back to his duties if he was still alive, or bring back the Baronial Ring of office if he was dead so Lord Kelboran could continue on as the Baron of the Western Marshes in a full-time capacity. I somehow got the idea he greatly preferred the second option."

"And I take it you haven't found Grandfather yet?" asked Malrin, Castillan's younger sister.

"Not yet, no - but I have made some progress. The divinations indicated not only that he was still alive, but reachable from his study. I gave the place a thorough search and came up with a good idea of what happened to him, but I need your help - particularly yours, Gilbert - to track him down."

"That make sense," agreed Gilbert, nodding knowingly. "I probably find him, no problem."

"I hope so," replied Castillan. "The ten years since his disappearance is up in two weeks from today, so I'm bringing you guys into the investigation, even though Lord Kelboran wants this kept inside the family, if at all possible. I'm pretty sure we're at the point where it's better to bring in others and actually stand a shot of finding him before the deadline."

The group loaded their gear (to include their various animal companions) on the dragonfly vessel and Jinkadoodle piloted it to the outskirts of Veluna City, where the group surreptitiously disembarked from the flying ship. "If my uncle finds out I have a flying ship, he'll likely try to confiscate it for the benefit of the Velunan army," Castillan explained.

"Can we take our animals along?" asked Finoula.

"Nope - we'll be going straight to Lord Darborel's estate, in the rich part of town. They're not going to allow us to traipse into their manor house with a dire bear cub or a dire fox in tow. They won't even like it having them walking around loose in the streets."

"I'd prefer to have Obvious along," argued Binkadink. They decided to leave the animals on board the dragonfly ship under Aithanar's care, but to smuggle the carpet of teleportation in with them inside the bag of holding. That way, if they had an opportunity to sneak the animals into the study they could do so, hopefully without being discovered. Hagan brought Wezhley along, figuring he was small enough to remain on the half-orc's shoulder as usual, and Gilbert shrunk his earth elemental familiar Mudpie down to pebble size with his slingshot of rock shrinking, depositing him into a pocket for safekeeping.

Arriving at Lord Darborel's estate, Castillan and his group were met at the door by several elven servants. They sniffed in disdain at the obviously seasoned adventurers, whose armor and weapons showed the ravages of time and indications of having been put to rugged use. But they escorted them into Lord Darborel's study, where Castillan closed the doors once they were all inside and had the place to themselves.

"Fancy," remarked Hagan. "I've seen official libraries smaller than this place." Lord Darborel's study was filled with rows and rows of books along the eastern wall, while his massive wooden desk was centered against the back wall. Another door stood along the western wall, and a table with four wooden chairs provided ample places for study. The north, south, and west walls were also lined with shelves of books from floor to ceiling. Gilbert looked greedily at the titles on the spines, mentally calculating how much time it would take to copy all of these books into his own Omnibook. Days, likely!

"Let me show you what I've found so far," Castillan suggested. He pulled open a drawer of the desk and pulled out a leather-bound appointment book. "This is from ten years ago," he said. "The last entry is dated nine and a half years back, and consists of just the letters 'MJS'."

"Any idea what it means?" Finoula asked.

"After I gave this place an initial look-through and came up empty, I started checking around the city. It turns out Lord Darborel wasn't the only one to disappear nine and a half years ago. At about the same time, there was a human girl, seventeen years old, named Mary Jo Spatchcock, who went missing from her father's farm. MJS," he concluded.

"Kidnapped?" asked Darrien.

"I doubt it," replied Castillan. "There was never any ransom, for either of the two. But let me show you this." He walked over to the side door, on the western wall, and snapped his fingers to cause his stonepiercer's dagger to appear in his hand. Carefully sliding the blade along the edge of the door jamb, he pried it away from the wall all in one piece.

"Check it out," the bounder said, showing the others the back side of the door jamb he'd removed - which was covered in a layer of lead. "Lead-lined: to prevent that from being detectable by magic, I'd wager." Behind the door jamb, the border of the door was covered in arcane runes and a series of figures: humanoid forms with butterfly wings and goggle-eyed lizards or dinosaurs. Malrin cast a detect magic spell and examined the doorway. "It's magic all right," she confirmed. "I'm picking up strong auras of both transmutation and a type of conjuration magic - teleportation, to be specific."

"That would have been my guess," Castillan said. "I think Lord Darborel walked right through this doorway, only instead of going to the hall" - here he opened the door to show the other heroes the hallway of the manor on the other side of the door - "he ended up at the other end of a teleport gate."

"So now we need to find way to activate teleport gate," reasoned Gilbert.

"Yes. And that's where you come in, I'd imagine. Got any way to figure out the command word or phrase?"

"It no doubt right here, under our noses."

"Here?" Where?" demanded Castillan, looking around the room.

"We in library! Command word in book!" reasoned Gilbert, walking around the library and reading the titles that lay on the shelves before him. As might have been expected, there were large sections on military history, the geography of the region, and numerous volumes on combat tactics and strategies. However, there was also a rather surprisingly large section devoted to fairies, fairy tales, and the various types of fey creatures.

"Aha!" Gilbert cried. "Fairies, like around door! Answer here somewhere, I bet!"

Malrin, in the meantime, had continued concentrating on the detect magic spell she'd cast, searching for other magical exits from the room. It wasn't likely that her brother would have missed finding any existing secret doors or passages, but there was always the possibility of a powerful illusion spell in place or something. But then Binkadink pulled a volume from the shelf and passed it over to the young elf. "Check this out," he suggested.

"This page is magic," Malrin confirmed. "How ever did you know?"

"There was a bookmark in it," the gnome replied. "Kind of a giveaway." Castillan frowned; while he'd hoped his friends would be able to shed some light on his grandfather's disappearance, he would have preferred it if they didn't just waltz on in here and find the answer so quickly, after he'd spent months on the investigation all alone!

"Probably secret page spell," deduced Gilbert. "We need true seeing spell, but I don't have one at hand."

"Let me see," demanded Castillan, eager to aid in figuring out the trick the book was hiding. Now that his attention was drawn to this specific page in question - it wasn't as if he'd had time to read through every book on the many shelves in the few months since he'd started investigating! - he noticed something the others hadn't yet picked up on. "Some of the letters in the words on this page are underlined," he said. "A...L...T...O..." he called out as he focused on each underlined letter in turn.

"Altomorphus," said Binkadink without hesitation once Castillan had called out all the underlined letters on the page. He then looked expectantly at the door, but there was no change.

"Look!" exclaimed Malrin. The command word apparently hadn't been for the door but the secret page spell, for upon the gnome's utterance the words on the page had changed. Now, in an engraved box in the middle of the page was the phrase,

By the Queen’s will,
In the full light of day,
Let mortal forms fall
As we embrace the fey.

Binkadink wasted no time reading the phrase aloud. Turning back to the western door, he smiled as he saw the fairies and lizards were now glowing a faint blue. "I'll bet if we open that door and walk through it now, we'll end up wherever your grandfather went," the gnome hazarded.

"Let's go!" Castillan called out, but the gnome held back the eager bounder with a hand on his arm.

"Not so fast! Since we have no idea where we'll end up, I want to bring Obvious along."

"And I want to bring Wrath," Finoula added. Malrin pulled out the portable hole, removed the carpet of teleportation from it, and the heroes took turns going back to the dragonfly vessel to fetch their various animals. By the time they were done, the runes along the doorway had gone out, but Binkadink repeated the activation phrase and the door was once again outlined in a light blue glow. "After you," the gnome offered to the bounder; it seemed only fair that Castillan should lead the way to finding his errant grandfather. Without a moment's hesitation, the elf opened the door, revealing not the hallway beyond but rather a shimmering field of silver sparkles, and stepped through. The others, including the animals, followed one by one in his wake.

Sure enough, the other side of the teleport gate was a completely different place altogether. For one thing, despite it being late morning when the group had stepped through the door from Lord Darborel's study, it was now just the beginning of twilight. Furthermore, they were now standing in a large clearing in the forest, with trees overhead in all directions and large fireflies pulsing their glowing bodies as they flew about here and there.

But that wasn't the most significant change about this new place. As each member stepped through the magical doorway, they appeared in the same general vicinity but at random locations throughout - and not necessarily in their original bodies. The animals - Wezhley, Obvious, Grumps Junior, Wrath, and Taihar - all looked the same, but each of the adventurers now found themselves in a completely different form.

Castillan had been the first to step through the doorway - and find his body changed on the other side. He now sported skin of a deep forest green, with hard, thorny protrusions growing out of his body: all along the top of his head in place of his hair, and along his forearms and lower legs. Most of his leather armor had vanished - subsumed into his polymorphed body, as he understood it - leaving him in an armless vest and pants that only reached to his knees. He was glad to see he still retained his gloves of storing, and a quick snap of his fingers reassured him that the weapons he had loaded in there were still at hand. But turning around he saw no visible doorway as he'd expected; apparently the teleport gate was one-way only!

Malrin had appeared next, and although her face still bore her own features, her skin was now a light blue, her hair a darker blue, and webbing had appeared between each of her fingers. Castillan recognized her new form as that of a nixie, having encountered that race before up in Lake Quag - and with a start, he realized he was probably only about three feet tall in his new form, for Malrin was still about his own height in her new form and he knew nixies weren't all that tall. That would explain why the forest above seemed so large and foreboding!

Darrien was the next hero to appear, only it was more difficult to identify him as he was barely half the height of Castillan and his sister. What's more, he was completely naked, with a lower torso looking rather like that of a grasshopper and gossamer wings growing out of his back. In fact, what first identified the half-elf as Darrien in his new grig form was the Arachnibow he held, still the same shape and appearance despite its greatly reduced size.

Finoula's new form was the most different yet, for she bore a centaurian build with the body and antlers of a deer and only her upper torso looking as it did as an elf. She wore only the upper part of her armor, the lower half having been subsumed into her hybsil form. She glanced around in confusion, looking down at her four-legged form in shock and surprise.

Hagan appeared next, in a humanoid body a mere foot tall. His first action was to sprawl flat upon his face into the dirt, for Wezhley had been riding upon his shoulders when he stepped through the doorway and the weasel familiar was now larger than the atomie upon whom he stood. "Sorry!" Wezhley apologized, and the others all looked over at the unexpected utterance, for Wezhley had only ever spoken to Hagan, his master, in their own shared language - no one was aware he could even speak the Common tongue as he just had.

Binkadink suddenly appeared in mid-flight, startling himself greatly. He was in the body of a pixie, minus his red dragonhide plate mail armor and his gnomish stilt-boots. But he still held his magical glaive in hand, although its size had conformed to his own greatly diminished stature. "What--?" the gnome sputtered in shock.

Gilbert was the last of the heroes to appear, having been the last to step through the doorway from Lord Darborel's study. He looked much his old self, save for the curling horns growing from the top of his head - and the fact that his overweight body was supported by a pair of goat legs. "I a satyr!" he exclaimed, looking down at himself in surprise. MARCI appeared suddenly at his side, looking around in apparent puzzlement at her new surroundings.

"What's going on?" demanded Finoula.

"Yeah, this is weird!" agreed Grumps Junior - which caused another round of shock, since the dire bear cub - despite being the size of a full-grown grizzly bear - was a simple animal, incapable (until now) of speech.

"What you expect?" replied Gilbert. "That door not just teleport us - it plane shift us as well! We in Land of Faerie!"

"And it seemed to have polymorphed us as well," observed Hagan, looking up at his friends towering high above him.

"I did see transmutation energies around the door as well as conjuration," Malrin pointed out. "Apparently it gave us new bodies, and gave the animals the power of speech." She turned to her dire fox, Taihar, now much larger than herself. "Can you talk?" she asked him.

"It would seem I can," replied the fox, licking his chops.

"As can I," Obvious added.

"Me too," pointed out Wrath.

"It feels lighter here," Darrien observed, raising and dropping his arms to his sides.

"Lighter gravity," Gilbert agreed. "It take us awhile to get used to it. Time flow different, too - I think more time pass back home than pass here."

"What do you mean?" asked Finoula.

"We spend day here, full week pass back home."

"Then we only have two days to find my grandfather," reasoned Castillan.

MARCI had spent the moments since her sudden arrival in this strange place scanning her companions with the red light from her single eye. "No humans detected," she announced.

"MARCI, it me!" Gilbert insisted. The metal construct examined the satyr before her; it certainly had Gilbert's facial features and speech mannerisms. To be sure, she scanned him a second time with her eye. "No humans detected," she repeated.

"Fine. But it best if you stay by us for safety, until you find new humans to serve," Gilbert reasoned. He was fairly certain their chance of stumbling across any actual humans in the Land of Faerie were practically nonexistent.

"Logical," MARCI replied.

Sudden laughter from all around them stopped the newcomers from exploring anything else about their new surroundings or their new bodies. The laughter came from all directions, from well within the trees surrounding the clearing into which they'd appeared. And then a sudden light appeared overhead, a glowing ball of energy about the size of a human fist. It floated down from a height of about thirty feet, directly above the heads of the assembled group, in the middle of the clearing. It fell erratically, following the likely path of a falling snowflake - and it worried the heroes that they had no idea what would happen when it finally landed.

But then their attention was diverted yet again by the sudden, unseen attacks. Grumps cried out in pain as a blade cut open a gash in his side; Wrath howled at almost the same time as a blade carved a line of pain across his right foreleg. But it wasn't just the animals under attack, for Castillan, Gilbert, and Finoula were also targeted - by something moving so fast it couldn't even be seen, even though the breeze of its rapid movement could be felt and the heroes' foreign flesh definitely felt the cuts of invisible blades. Castillan used his bounder training to spin away as soon as he felt a blade touch him and thus was barely harmed; the others were not so lucky, and the blades went deep, spilling blood.

Gilbert responded by casting a quickened dimension door spell that deposited him into the middle of the clump of newcomers, where it was safer - it seemed like the five targets had all been chosen by their positions on the outer edges of the mass of bodies. Malrin abandoned her nixie form for her preferred combat form of an owl and learned that the decreased gravity in the Land of Faerie allowed her to attain a higher elevation that much faster with but a few flaps of her wings. She flew high enough that she should be out of reach of a human-sized foe, but still well within range to be able to swoop down to alight by any of her friends who might need healing.

Darrien, despite being much smaller than he was used to, discovered that it didn't impede his spellcasting abilities any; he cast an animal growth spell on all five of the group's animals, having recently learned just how advantageous that could be in battle. Grumps Junior attained his full, adult size; Taihar and Wrath were now the size of horses; Obvious the size of a small elephant; and Wezhley the size of a small dog. With their switched comparative sizes, Hagan did the obvious and leaped upon his weasel's back, riding him like a pony. He cast a mage armor spell that encompassed them both.

Finoula brought out her weapons, Tahlmalaera the longsword and her flaming whip of thorns, and held them at the ready. She wasn't sure just what had attacked her, but she'd make them pay for another such attempt! Over at the other end of the group, Castillan did likewise, holding his enchanted short sword and his stonepiercer's dagger at the ready. Wrath glared out at the forest and the unknown enemies it harbored, his hackles raised as blood spilled down the front of his leg.

Binkadink followed Malrin's strategy and flew up higher, to a level he deemed to be out of stabbing range. He had his glaive at the ready, extended to its full length. "Obvious! Dust!" he called to his riding mount, using the Common tongue instead of the secret language of burrowing mammals he usually used when conversing with his jackalope. Obvious spun around, pointing his back toward the forest, and started digging with his hind legs. Dirt went flying behind him, raising a great cloud of dust in a wide arc; anything invisible that tried attacking them from that direction should become at least momentarily visible.

Gilbert looked worriedly up at the slowly-falling ball of light, but then figured it for what it was: a simple dancing lights spell, likely cast as a mere distraction. He then cast a spell of his own: a solid fog spell whose 20-foot radius encompassed the entire group except for Wrath, who had the misfortune of being farther away than the rest. Still, he hoped the wolf would have the good sense to retreat back into the safety of the spell, where the unseen attackers would have a hard time seeing their targets and their incredible speed would be negated. Mudpie, in the meantime, crawled out of Gilbert's pocket and allowed himself to crash to the ground, the impact restoring him to his normal, three-foot-tall size. He regained his feet and stood protectively by his master. MARCI, on the other hand, stood puzzled by all she could see - although this was a rather common occurrence in her life since she had first encountered the human designated Gilbert Fung.

With maniacal laughter, the quickling bounders rushed back in to attack, dismayed to see most of their foes encased in a solid fog spell. Three of them went for the obvious target, Wrath, and the wolf howled in pain as three invisible blades cut deep into his flesh. Two others stopped just short of the solid fog and sent spells of their own flashing blindly into the interior. Binkadink felt and heard a shattering noise indicating all of the potion vials he carried had simultaneously burst, victims of a shatter spell; he now realized, with their healing potions gone and MARCI unwilling to heal nonhumans (and no longer recognizing the other heroes that Gilbert had instructed her to treat as humans), Malrin was now their sole source of healing, unless any of the others carried healing potions with them.

Malrin heard Wrath's predicament and tried flying in his direction, but the solid fog impeded flight as much as it did ground-based movement; it felt like she was flying through taffy. But she put the full strength of her wings to the task, moving slowly in the wolf's direction. Wrath, for his part, saw the wisdom of falling back with his friends and backed halfway into the solid fog.

Unable to see out of the solid fog, Darrien took the opportunity to cast a barkskin spell upon himself as he trudged to get to the spell's edge of effect. Finoula was already at the edge of the solid fog and could see out somewhat, but cast the same spell upon herself as she waited for the attackers to try another assault.

Grumps was also at the edge of the solid fog spell, but despite being the size of a full-grown dire bear he was still just a cub and wanted little to do with fighting invisible foes with blades that caused so much hurt. He bumbled his way back, not sure what was impeding his progress so much, for this was his first experience with fog that was so thick you couldn't even move through it very fast.

Castillan, having heard Wrath's howls of pain and figuring he might be near death (and how much that would infuriate Finoula), used his magic ring to dimension door from his place of relative safety at the edge of the southern part of the solid fog spell to the absolute danger of about twenty feet outside the solid fog's northernmost edge, just past Wrath, who was slowly backing his way into the safety of the spell. Castillan trusted in his bounder training to be able to fend off the worst of any incoming attacks, even if he couldn't actually see them coming.

Snug inside the solid fog there wasn't a whole lot Hagan could do in the way of attacking their invisible foes. But as he was right next to Obvious, who was still kicking up a dust storm behind him, the atomie sorcerer cast a greater magic fang on the jackalope, certain that eventually the antlered rabbit would end up in physical combat - that was, after all, the whole point of Darrien's animal growth spell. Binkadink was also safe inside the solid fog, but that was emphatically not where he wanted to be; he flapped his pixie wings to get him to the spells' outer edge and readied his glaive to come crashing down at anyone who might attack him. He even lowered his aerial height to five feet so he'd be a viable target to the unseen attackers.

Gilbert cast a haste spell upon all of his fellow heroes and the combined animals fighting alongside them. Almost immediately thereafter, Binkadink's strategy bore fruit, for one of the quicklings who had just cast a shatter spell - while still invisible - levitated up beside the gnome-turned-pixie and attacked him with an invisible blade. Binkadink had time to retaliate with a thrust of his glaive at the unseen attacker, and by the cry of pain it elicited his strike hit true.

Two other invisible quicklings opted to take out Obvious, whose back half protruded from the safety of the solid fog spell. After all, if they could slay the jackalope raising all that dust, the other quicklings would have that much more of an avenue of attack. Their blades sank into Obvious's flanks from either side, causing the jackalope to cry out in pain and stop kicking up the dust - so while they had failed to slay him they had at least succeeded on the one front. But it was a victory not without cost, for Obvious struck out with his antlers in the direction of one of the attacks, catching a quickling by surprise and impaling him on the prongs of the jackalope's massive rack of horns.

Another quickling could see enough of Finoula's hybsil form to move in to attack, thinking he could then speed away before she was any the wiser, but he'd not anticipated the rapidity of her reflexes, and she drew blood with Tahlmalaera before he could bound away in time. The hybsil ranger opted not to try to follow her invisible foe but took up her defensive stance again, ready to lash out at anyone who might attack.

Malrin by this time was close enough to land upon Wrath's haunches and send a wave of healing energy through her taloned feet and into the beleaguered timber wolf, who sighed in contentment as the worst of his wounds sealed up. "Thank you," he replied, startling Marlin who was unused to hearing animals speak aloud (for she herself couldn't speak while wildshaped into an animal form).

Darrien was close enough to Obvious to be able to reach out and touch the side of his furry face; he didn't have any healing spells readied, but he did have a bear's endurance, which would at least allow the jackalope to stay in the fight that much longer before collapsing. By his side, Hagan coaxed Wezhley into heading - slowly - to the edge of the solid fog so he could bring his own spells to bear.

Castillan, out in the open, tried goading the enemies into making an appearance. "What's the matter?" he called out to the forest. "Are you afraid to face me? I'm all of three feet tall! Cowards!" He heard some of the incessant laughter turn to snarls and figured he'd hit a nerve.

Binkadink, in the meantime, had figured out the probable location of his unseen foe and brought his glaive down - hard. He sliced through the quickling, then spun in midair and sent his blade crashing down over to the side of his jackalope, luckily catching one of the quicklings harassing Obvious. Behind him, the one he'd just slain turned to full visibility upon death, revealing a thin, lithe torso and limbs and an elven head with ridiculously long, pointed ears. The dead quickling was no larger than Binkadink in either his gnomish or pixie forms: about a yard tall.

Obvious had managed to flick off the invisible quickling he'd snared on his antlers and grab him up in his teeth, and was now busily shaking him like a rag doll while scratching at him with the claws of his front paws. From the poor fey's screams, he didn't much appreciate the treatment he was receiving. His sword fell from his grasp onto the ground, attaining normal visibility once it left his grasp.

From the safety of the still-active solid fog spell, Gilbert cast a stoneskin spell upon himself and Mudpie, finally declaring himself ready for battle. But by then the quicklings were running back off to the safety of the trees, after getting in some last stabs against Binkadink, Finoula, and Castillan. Finoula by then was bleeding rather heavily, and Malrin flew over to her to help. Unsure whether this was a full-fledged retreat or if the quicklings would be back, Darrien cast a spike growth spell on the section of forest floor to the immediate west of the solid fog spell, ensuring any quicklings who might attack from that direction would be getting quite the surprise.

After Malrin had healed the worst of her wounds, Finoula again took up position at the northeastern section of the solid cloud spell, readying herself to strike out at any who might attack. She greatly preferred going straight into combat with her enemies, but if they were going to hide behind invisibility, she was going to counter with the protection of a solid fog spell.

Castillan, hearing the invisible quickling bounders scurry off at ridiculous speeds, took the opportunity to bound up into the overhanging limb of a tree. Maybe he could catch them unawares if they came back to try to find out where he'd gotten to.

Gilbert and Mudpie sidled up to the edge of the solid fog spell, beside Hagan and Wezhley, and called out to the quicklings, "Who you working for?" He got back an almost immediate response, although one coming from deep within the forest: "The Queen! All will work for her, eventually!" That was less than informative, although from what he could recall of the Land of Faerie, the quickling likely meant the Unseelie Queen, the ruler of evil fairykind.

The discourse might have been responsible for the quicklings' return to battle; it was difficult to say. But one of them tried attacking from a different direction and sped directly into Darrien's spike growth zone, cursing in pain as he did an abrupt about face and hobbled back the way he'd come. "I'm out!" he cried to his fellows, his invisible feet leaving quite visible bloody footprints in his wake.

That was apparently enough for the others. "Sorry, Skrixxit - you're on your own!" called one of the fairies before the rest of the quicklings sped off to find safer mischief elsewhere. "No--wait! Help me!" called the invisible quickling still caught up in Obvious's rodent teeth, to no avail.

Gilbert dismissed the solid fog spell and then worried that it had just been a ruse to get him to do exactly that, but the quicklings did not return. "Spit him out," he told Obvious, and the jackalope dropped his victim to the ground and then put a foot upon his chest to keep him in place. The hapless quickling had picked up a bunch of dirt from the clouds Obvious had kicked up and was thus partially visible in any case. Too tired to keep up his greater invisibility spell any more, Skrixxit came full into view.

"We only here to find missing friends," Gilbert said to the pinned quickling. "You tell us if you see them, maybe we let you go."

"And maybe you can go screw yourself, satyr!" Skrixxit spat.

Malrin landed beside the quickling and resumed her elven form; apparently wildshaping allowed her to revert to her normal form despite the nixie body she'd been given upon her arrival in the Land of Faerie. "That isn't very nice," she scolded the quickling. "But we're in somewhat of a hurry, so we won't waste a whole lot of time on asking nicely. I'd advise you to start being helpful before we go straight to the torture." Malrin was merely bluffing; she'd be the first to try to prevent any of the heroes from torturing a helpless captive - but she saw no reason to let the quickling know that.

Her plot didn't work, as evidenced by the one-finger gesture the quickling managed to give as his only response. Seeing Skrixxit wasn't going to provide any information, Castillan executed him on the spot with a blade through the throat.

"I might be able to help you," called a voice from the trees above. Looking up, Gilbert spotted a squirrel scampering along an overhanging branch. "Who you?" the portly satyr wizard asked.

"My name is Nutbreath," replied the squirrel. "What's this about missing friends?"

"Two people like us, a man and a woman," Malrin called up to the squirrel. "I'm...not entirely sure what they would look like," she added, realizing that Lord Darborel and Mary Jo would likely have ended up in different bodies upon their arrival in this plane of existence, just as they all had.

"Sure, I remember!" cried Nutbreath. "About a year and a half ago! A man and a woman, just like you said!"

"Er, this would have been about ten years ago..." Darrien started to correct the squirrel, but then Gilbert explained again that a year and a half in the Land of Faerie would correspond to about ten years back home. "Do you know where we might find them?" he asked Nutbreath.

"No - but I know who probably does," replied the squirrel. "Chibimibi the Pale Monarch. I can show you the way to his island." He dropped down from the tree and scampered along the ground, looking back to ensure the others were following him.

"Wait one moment, please," asked Gilbert, indicating for Malrin to open the portable hole she carried. Once it was open, Gilbert plopped it over MARCI's head and she was engulfed inside the extradimensional space. "She safer in there for now," he explained. "Don't want her wandering off, looking for humans." He then folded the hole back up and returned it to the elven druid. "Lead on, squirrel," he said.

The island of Chibimibi the Pale Monarch was across an expanse of swamp. Binkadink, Darrien, and Hagan could fly in their current forms, but Hagan had a better idea. "Everybody gather around," he ordered, and teleported everyone across the swamp to the shore of the island. (Given the number of people and animals involved and the current size of some of the animals, it took the sorcerer several trips.)

"Chibimibi!" Finoula called once they were all in place. "We come in peace, seeking lost friends!" Almost instantly, the air before her started to shimmer and a massive form took shape, materializing from thin air. It bore the appearance of a gargantuan white dragon, with piercing blue eyes and wisps of frost rising from between its jaws. Even once it was fully in view parts of it were partially see-through; the group got the idea that this dragon could instantly move between the Land of Faerie and the ethereal plane at will. Gilbert focused on the draconic image before him, ensuring he wasn't some form of undead; his magically-enhanced vision told him that the dragon was indeed among the living.

"WHO DARES DISTURB CHIBIMIBI THE PALE MONARCH?" the dragon roared, its face contorted in anger.

"We seek--" began Gilbert, but he was immediately cut off.

"PROVIDE AMPLE TRIBUTE BEFORE SPEAKING, MORTAL WORMS!" roared Chibimibi. He looked expectantly at Binkadink, one of the heroes closest to the dragon. The pixie pulled the necklace of lightning crystals from his neck and tossed it in front of the dragon. "THIS IS APPROPRIATELY SHINY!" approved the dragon. "I LIKE IT!" He turned to focus his attention on the grig before him, Darrien, who sported one just like it. "I'LL HAVE YOURS AS WELL!" he demanded. Without hesitation, Darrien removed it and tossed it into the sand beside Binkadink's.

Chibimibi then focused his attention upon Finoula, and the lightning amulet she wore around her neck. "AND YOURS!" he demanded.

Finoula blanched at the thought of handling over her magic amulet, which she'd put to good use over the years since she'd taken it from a slain stone giantess back in the Clatspur Mountains. "I would rather present you with a gift of many golden coins!" she counter-offered. "They would increase your treasure hoard by--"

But she was also cut off in indignation. "YOU WOULD DARE HAGGLE WITH CHIBIMIBI THE PALE MONARCH?" demanded the dragon, and the ranger saw an increase in the amount of frost spilling from the dragon's lips. It looked like combat was imminent!

But then Malrin, who had been silent during this whole exchange, suddenly called out, "It's an illusion! Chibimibi's not real!" Alerted to the trickery, the other heroes concentrated and the dragon's visage suddenly became even more see-through and less real. "You a fake!" accused Gilbert.

The dragon winked out at once and another draconic creature flew into view. This one was little larger than a housecat and sported a pair of butterfly wings on its light-scaled back. "So I am," Chibimibi the Pale Monarch admitted with a smile. "What's up, guys?"

Castillan had been ready to leap into battle with the white dragon and now couldn't help but smile at the ridiculousness of the situation. "We're looking for my grandfather, an elf, and possibly a human girl as well. They would have appeared nearby about a year and a half ago."

"Ah, you must mean Lord Darborel and Mary Jo," Chibimibi stated matter-of-factly. Then his eyes narrowed and he asked with a grin, "How much is their current location worth to you?"

"Not this," answered Binkadink, grabbing back his necklace of lightning crystals and putting it around his neck. Darrien did likewise with his own.

"How about a belly rub?' asked Finoula.

"Sold!" Chibimibi agreed at once. Once his belly was good and rubbed down, he led the others to a small, ramshackle cabin at the other end of the island. There was a handsome eladrin standing on the porch as if waiting for the group to appear. The door opened behind him and out stepped a most extraordinarily beautiful young woman - a nymph, the embodiment of the beauty of the natural world.

"Castillan!" beamed Lord Darborel as his grandson approached, easily recognizing him despite his current appearance as a thorn fairy. "And little Malrin as well! Welcome! I'd like you all to meet my wife, Mary Jo!" The nymph smiled shyly at the strangers.

Introductions were made all around, and then Lord Darborel explained what had happened to send them to the Land of Faerie. "It was love, as plain and simple as that," he said, looking into the face of his wife. "I was an elven nobleman and Mary Jo was the human daughter of a farmer. Our being together would never be permitted - we were from different worlds. But the very first moment I lay eyes on her, I knew she was the one. She was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

"Or rather, the rest of mine," corrected Mary Jo.

"Indeed," said Lord Darborel. "Humans have such tragically short lives on our home plane. But things are different here; we are in timeless bodies in a mostly timeless realm - there's no reason we shouldn't have centuries together here in the Land of Faerie."

"But you've abrogated your responsibilities back at home," countered Castillan. "Your son has been acting in your stead all these years - nearly ten, back at home."

"And I'm sure he's doing a perfectly fine job of it," countered Lord Darborel. "The military life means more to him than it does to me. He's welcome to it."

"But he needs your ring," said Malrin. "The Baronial ring of office."

"This thing?" scoffed Lord Darborel, removing it from his finger. "A mere bauble. He no more needs this ring to do his job than..." he cast about for an apt analogy. "...Than a pair of gnomish sock-garters." But he handed it over to his grandson nonetheless. "Still, if it means that much to him, he's welcome to it."

"Great!" said Darrien. "Now we can get back home."

"Not so fast," replied Lord Darborel. "It wouldn't do to leave the Land of Faerie without permission." He turned to the fairy dragon who had brought the heroes and their animals to the eladrin's cabin. "Chibimibi, would you be so kind as to ask Queen Titania for an audience?"

"Oh, yeah? What's in it for me?"

"A belly rub?" offered Mary Jo.


The heroes were invited into the cabin for the night, which proved to be much less ramshackle on the inside - it was, in fact, a Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion, Lord Darborel being an accomplished wizard. They spent the time catching up on the Ivenheart family, although Gilbert did have one pressing question: "Why we need permission from Fairy Queen to leave? I'd think she glad to see mortals go back home."

"Queen Titania does not appreciate mortal intrusions into her realms," Lord Darborel explained. "At least, not by those who do not intend to stay." He looked into his wife's eyes and smiled; she smiled back. "Leaving without her permission would be an unwise act, as she'll likely take it personally. Insult her and there's a good chance you'd find a slew of fairy pranks following you for the rest of your days, some merely making you objects of ridicule; others possibly dangerous to the point of being quite deadly."

Eventually the group opted to catch a few hours of sleep rather than reminisce with their hosts any further. The next morning came soon enough, although the sky outside still showed as twilight - merely a lighter twilight, to distinguish it from true night, which was merely the last normal throes of twilight before full darkness took reign. Chibimibi was there outside the cabin, to inform Lord Darborel that the arrangements had been made. And thus, after a quick but nourishing breakfast and the opportunity for the spellcasters to prepare the day's spells, the group went off to a nearby set of standing stones in a forest clearing.

After many minutes of waiting, a glow finally suffused the interior of a set of stones and a pair of armed fey stepped through. They looked around at the assembled group (the animals all back to their original sizes), deemed them safe enough, and nodded back through the opening through which they'd just stepped.

Lifting her skirts, Queen Titania stepped through the gate formed by the two standing stones and the plinth lying horizontally across them. She was taller than an elf, with regal features and wore a crown of dark horns. Lord Darborel approached, bowed, and explained the heroes' presence in the Land of Faerie. Queen Titania heard him out, her stern face expressionless as she listened to her subject's tale.

Finally, she deigned to look over at the mortal heroes. "You stand as trespassers in my realms," she intoned. "Still, you are vouched by Lord Darborel, who has proven to be a good and loyal subject. I will allow your departure, but I will have a boon first."

"As Your Majesty commands," replied Castillan, bowing deeply, taking the initiative to speak for the group before somebody - like Gilbert - opened their foolish mouth and said something stupid. "What would you have of us?"

"There is a bullywug village nearby, in the lands contested with the Unseelie Court. I would have you go yonder, for there are disturbing rumors to be had of their recent practices. Break up whatever shenanigans they are undertaking, even if it should mean slaughtering them to a man - and then you have my leave to depart back to your own lands. Thus have I spoken; thus shall it be."

"At once, Your Majesty," replied Castillan, bowing again and stepping back. After a moment's hesitation, the other heroes did likewise, rejoining their animals who had wisely kept their distance from the glowing stones. With a regal nod, Queen Titania returned through the gate, followed immediately by her two guards.

"Which way to bullywug village?" asked Gilbert.

"I can show you," offered Chibimibi.

The village was some ways away. Right before they got within visual range, the fairy dragon warned them the bullywug camp was just beyond the next grove of trees. Therefore, before they got any closer, the group jointly decided to perform their "combat is imminent" preparatory spellcasting. Darrien started off with an animal growth spell, which was well on its way to becoming a standard practice. All five animals gained their larger sizes, much to their approval. Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell linking all but Castillan, a spell he hadn't had time to cast before the fight with the quicklings. Malrin cast an attune form on everyone, so that the plane's naturally lesser gravity didn't throw off muscles used to the normal weight of the material plane. Darrien followed up with another greater magic fang spell on Obvious and Finoula did likewise for Wrath. Gilbert cast spell turning on himself and Mudpie and then a haste spell encompassing everyone. Darrien activated his ebony fly, then he and Hagan climbed aboard. Hagan left Wezhley to guard the rear, so he could inform his master over their shared empathic link if any enemy forces approached from that direction - it was a good job for the sneaky weasel, and one which kept him out of combat. Then, with a shared look of readiness, Gilbert gave the go-ahead and the team moved forward.

Darrien directed his ebony fly over the tree-tops, catching sight of two bullywug fighters on guard duty at the nearest corners of the encampment. From their aerial position, the ranger and the sorcerer could see numerous hide tents below them. Hagan looked to the far side of the camp, and sure enough there were two more bullywug fighters on duty there as well, each armed with a longspear. The edge of camp backed up to the shore of the swamplands that surrounded the island.

The fly had taken them toward the middle of the camp, so Hagan cast a delayed blast fireball spell directly below him, smack in the middle of three of the larger tents. The following explosion caused each of the three to burst into flames, but the atomie didn't see anyone fleeing them - they'd either been burned to a crisp at once or the tents had been empty, perhaps belonging to the bullywugs currently on guard duty. But the explosion was enough to gain the bullywugs' attention; they began croaking a warning loudly in their own guttural tongue.

Binkadink flew to the guard at the southeastern station, leading with his glaive and getting in a good hit. Behind him, an oversized Grumps followed in his wake. Castillan snuck along the tree line at the other end of camp, stealthily approaching the other guard at this end of the encampment.

A larger tent toward the other side of the encampment opened and a bullywug cleric stepped out, his gnarled staff held in one webbed hand. Mudlord Plorrpnik Blorgenblotter croaked out an incantation, his staff held above his head and aimed at the swamplands. There was movement at the smaller tents as well, as eight humanoid frogs with glowing eyes emerged and looked about them for the invading enemies. Two of them cast unholy blight spells, one up at the ebony fly and its two passengers and the other at Binkadink and Grumps Junior.

Finoula scampered up beside Binkadink as the pixie was in combat with the bullywug fighter, but then turned to face the one Castillan was sneaking up on. Holding forth her lightning amulet, she turned her hybsil form into a blast of lightning which went crashing through the other bullywug's body before becoming a deer-centaur once again. Wrath approached his mistress, who even though she had a different form smelled much the same as she always did - enough to convince the wolf that Finoula was still Finoula. He bit the bullywug in the arm holding the longspear with which he was threatening the hybsil ranger.

About this time, a massive croak - much louder than the warning the bullywug fighter had made to warn the rest of the encampment that they were under attack - reverberated across the area. This was the work of a monstrosity rising up out of the swamp at the bidding of the Mudlord, its creator: a massive amalgamation of toad, snail, and octopus. The froghemoth waddled forward on its froglike hind legs, dragging a bloated belly along the ground and waving its multiple tentacles about in the air as it peered through the trio of eyestalks rising up from the top of its head. Instinctively it headed toward the Mudlord, awaiting its commands.

<Think we found bullywug "shenanigans!"> Gilbert called to the others over the telepathic bond.

Malrin saw the approaching monstrosity and wildshaped into her owl form just so she could take to the air. There was no way she wanted to be anywhere within that thing's reach! She quickly gained altitude, looking down upon the battle unfolding below.

Gilbert and Mudpie approached, the satyr casting a stoneskin upon them both as they moved toward the trio of burning tents. Then he cast another spell, a quickened fly spell that encompassed them both and the satyr rose into the air, a panicked Mudpie not enjoying the sensation of flight but dutifully accompanying his master.

Darrien shot a barrage of arrows from his Arachnibow down at the Mudlord, peppering him like a pincushion. From just behind him on the ebony fly, Hagan cast another delayed blast fireball, this one targeted directly at the bullywug cleric below. The blast blew up into an impressive explosion, taking out three more tents in the vicinity and several of the blindheims. Hagan realized his attack spells were much more impressive here in the Land of Faerie than they were back on the material plane - and didn't mind one bit!

The bullywug fighters did their best against their attackers, one stabbing up at a flying Binkadink pixie while the other tried catching Finoula on the point of his own longspear. But Finoula easily dodged the first attack and was only grazed by the second, while Binkadink's glaive brought down his own foe. The two other bullywug fighters from the far side of the encampment went running forward to meet the enemies invading their territory.

Binkadink moved up to face his next enemy, but this was one of the bright-eyed humanoid frog monsters, and the pixie had to squint at the blindheim's eye rays to prevent himself from being blinded by the glare. Castillan finally reached the bullywug fighting Finoula and managed to stab his blade deep into the amphibian's back, drawing a deep gush of blood in the process.

Burned badly by Hagan's spell, the Mudlord cast a cone of cold spell up at the offending fly and its two passengers. The spell slew the ebony fly outright, causing it to revert to its statue form and plummet to the ground below, but both Hagan and Darrien could fly in their current forms and the two remained airborne.

By now, the blindheims had advanced upon their enemies. One cast an unholy blight spell upon Castillan, Finoula, and Wrath, while another took a bite at Binkadink, catching him in the leg with a mouth full of pointed teeth. Finoula used her lightning amulet to blast through two blindheims that were nicely lined up for her, reforming into a hybsil at the other end of the battlefield. She regained her form just in time to see both blindheims fall to the ground, dead, their bodies still smoking from the electrical blast. She then took a moment to cast a healing spell upon herself to close up the worst of the wounds administered by the bullywug fighter's spear before racing back to help her wolf and her fellow elf.

Malrin could see the froghemoth getting closer to the heroes (and getting peppered with arrows from Darrien's Arachnibow) as Hagan cast an attack spell that fizzled against the creature's warty skin; apparently it, like many powerful monsters, had an innate resistance against spellcraft. Wrath continued snapping his jaws at the bullywug now fighting Castillan, and Malrin flew over to her brother to lend a healing talon as needed. Gilbert cast a quickened Evard's black tentacles that engulfed Mudlord Plorrpnik Blorgenblotter, two blindheims, and one of the advancing bullywug fighters. But before any of them could attempt to grapple their way out of the encompassing appendages, Hagan cast another delayed blast fireball down at them, slaying all four at once. With a growl of frustration, Gilbert dismissed his spell, allowing the writhing tentacles to be absorbed back into the ground from where they had sprung up.

Wrath tackled his bullywug enemy with his mouth clamped firmly around the amphibian's arm, but the fighter pulled free and regained his feet, swinging his spear at the wolf - only to be stabbed again by Castillan's flashing blade. Binkadink maneuvered so a blast from his necklace of lightning crystals shot through two blindheims and straight into the advancing froghemoth.

But now the froghemoth's weak vision could pinpoint some of its foes. It cast forth an unholy blight spell encompassing Finoula, Castillan, Wrath, Malrin, and the bullywug fighter they were battling - although the latter's evil nature made him immune to the spell's effects. Despite her own damage from the spell, Malrin could see the poor wolf was on his last legs and channeled healing energy through her talons to close his wounds.

Gilbert cast a greater invisibility spell on Finoula, hiding the hybsil from sight. Darrien, still airborne, continued to shoot arrow after arrow into the froghemoth. At his side, Hagan cast another of his most powerful spells at the bloated frog-thing, hoping the overcharged energy the very plane seemed to pump into arcane attack spells would make his deadliest spell even that much more deadly. He managed to overcome the froghemoth's natural spell resistance, and the polar ray spell - enhanced to its maximum effect by the Land of Faerie itself - caused the wounded beast to freeze instantly in place, topple precariously, and then shatter into thousands of pieces as it struck the ground.

A great cry went up among the invading force, causing the sole remaining bullywug fighter to look over to see what was going on. Upon spotting the demise of the massive froghemoth, he realized he had no chance against these Seelie forces and turned to flee. That turned out to be a bad move, for Wrath's muzzle darted forward and he caught the fleeing bullywug by the ankle, sending him crashing to the ground. Castillan's blade took the life from the bullywug before he could even think about getting back onto his feet.

Their enemies slain, the heroes started rooting around the place for any treasure, but most of anything of value was ablaze in the burning tents: rare books on spellcasting rituals, expensive alchemical equipment and reagents - all burning away in a pyroclastic display. Darrien flew down and recovered his ebony fly statue, then saw something in the Mudlord's pocket that looked very similar. It was an opal frog, which the grig claimed as his own. But once it was apparent there were no further enemies lurking about the place and no other useful treasure to be had among the ruins, the heroes met back up with Wezhley and Chibimibi and returned to the standing stones to report their success to Queen Titania.

"I am pleased by your accomplishments," she intoned regally to the Kordovians. "You may depart back to your own lands, never to return - or choose to stay here, as Lord Darborel and Mary Jo have done."

"We will depart your fair lands, Your Majesty," replied Castillan, bowing low.

"Then one further thing: upon your return, dismantle the chameleon gate leading to my lands. I would prefer not to have a back door into my realm."

"Of course, Your Majesty," replied Castillan. "It will be done." Satisfied, the Seelie Queen nodded slightly and returned through the standing-stone gate once more.

"Well then," said Darrien. "Let's get back home!"

"Err..." began Gilbert. Finoula picked up on his hesitation at once. "What's wrong?" she demanded of the satyr.

"We need plane shift spell. I don't have one ready."

"What?" demanded Castillan. "You knew we needed the spell to get back to Oerth! Why in the world didn't you prepare one?"

"No sense getting spell ready if it not needed!" argued Gilbert. "I get it ready when we need it."

"We need it now," pointed out Binkadink.

"It be ready in morning," insisted Gilbert. "After I get good night's sleep, and ready to prepare new spells for day."

Castillan gave a world-weary sigh and turned to his grandfather. "If we could impose upon you for another night...?" he began.

Lord Darborel swatted him playfully on the shoulder. "Not a problem," he guaranteed. And thus it wasn't until the next day that the Kordovians and their animals were once again gathered together, this time so Gilbert could cast a plane shift to return them back to Oerth. As the wizard had hoped, upon their arrival they reverted to their original forms; the chameleon gate had been designed to give those who passed through it fey forms only for the duration of their time in the Land of Faerie.

"It was cool to be able to fly under my own power," Binkadink observed, "...but I'm glad to be back to my own body!"

Malrin set up the carpet of teleportation and they took their animals across to the dragonfly vessel, which Jinkadoodle had parked back up on its cloud island hangar. He promised to steer back towards Veluna City where he'd dropped them off, and the group returned via the magic carpet back with Castillan, who had kept watch over it as the others teleported to and from the ship.

The heroes made their way across the city to Lord Kelboran Ivenheart's estate. If Castillan had expected any gratitude for having returned with the Baronial Ring under the deadline, he was sorely disappointed: his uncle was more preoccupied with berating him for waiting until the last possible day - for although two nights had passed for the Kordovians in the Land of Faerie, two weeks had passed here on Oerth and it was now ten years to the day since Lord Darborel's disappearance. Lord Kelboran placed the Baronial Ring upon his finger and, satisfied that he had prevented shame from falling upon the Ivenheart name, dismissed his nephew and his companions with a wave of his hand.

"Ungrateful sort," complained Hagan once they were back on the street and out of earshot.

"Isn't he, though?" agreed Castillan. "He's as bad as my father."

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I have a blue shirt with a pair of Groucho glasses, beneath which is the legend, "DAD: Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult." I felt it was a good way to represent how the PCs would be "disguised" as fey creatures for the majority of this adventure.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 16​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 16​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 16​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 16​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 16​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 16​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 9​
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 1 January 2019

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The sun was just coming fully up when Binkadink Dundernoggin returned to Battershield Keep. He did his best to keep the smile from his face, but every time he thought about the prank he'd just pulled he couldn't help himself from smirking. Early that morning, he'd gotten up and snuck out of the keep to go down to the marketplace in the city, arriving there just as the merchants were setting up their stalls. He'd adjusted the hat of disguise he'd recently purchased - for this very reason - and concentrated on altering his appearance in a very specific way. From the neck up, his facial features altered to mimic those of his cousin Jinkadoodle until he had became his virtual twin. As the magic hat allowed him to change the appearance of the clothing he wore as well, he'd mentally commanded it to make it look as if he was wearing...nothing. Despite being garbed in a set of his normal clothing, to all appearances he had at that point looked like a naked version of his cousin.

But that hadn't been enough for the little gnome. He'd taken stock of his apparent nakedness and made some final adjustments: shrinking the genitals considerably and then adding some warts and seeping sores for good measure. And the final piece to his revenge prank had been changing the appearance of the hat of disguise itself; he turned it into a large-brimmed, floppy hat with an ostentatious purple feather and the name "JINKY" proudly embroidered on the front in large letters. Finally satisfied, he then made a point to streak up and down the marketplace several times, making sure he'd been seen by all who were up at that early hour. Then, before getting caught, he had dodged into an alley and reverted back to his normal appearance, exiting back onto the main street several blocks over and sauntering back to the keep with an unhurried gait.

That ought to be sufficient retaliation for Jinkadoodle's recent illusion of Binkadink engaged in a gnome-on-goat dalliance in the Battershield Keep stables!

Binkadink headed over the keep's kitchen well in time for breakfast; Helga Battershield was just putting out the plates and cutlery and the little gnome was in such a good mood he gave her a hand with the preparations. Jinkadoodle wasn't about; he'd spent the night in the dragonfly vessel as he often did, but Binkadink was certain it wouldn't take long for the accusations (and snickering) to hit his cousin. He was now in the pleasant span of time between prank application and victim realization - this would be a great day!

As the rest of the adventuring group sauntered over to breakfast, Binkadink's good mood caused him to pull out an old trick he'd used on several occasions before, but never on Hagan - all of a sudden, while everyone was eating, Wezhley's fur took on a bright purple hue to the consternation of the half-orc sorcerer the weasel served as a familiar.

"Bink!" scolded Finoula, well aware that the cause of the weasel's sudden color change was Binkadink's inherent ability to cast prestidigitation once a day. The little gnome put on his best "Who, me?" face but soon enough copped up to the prank to Hagan. "It'll turn back to its normal color in about an hour," the gnome promised.

It was about an hour after breakfast had been finished up that the next bit of the day's excitement hit. Since the adventurers were present in the keep, they had the drawbridge down and the portcullis raised - nobody was liable to cause them any trouble. After all, Binkadink and Obvious were in the courtyard, as were Darrien and his dire bear cub, Grumps Junior. Hagan and Wezhley (who sure enough, had had his fur return to its normal color) were up on the rooftop of the keep's northwestern tower, where the half-orc was feeding his weasel treats as he stood up on his hind legs and begged. Castillan stood at the top of the northeastern tower and scanned the horizon, his thoughts his own. Finoula and her timber wolf Wrath were playing just outside the keep's front entrance, and thus were the first to talk to the merchant who rode up to the keep in his one-horse cart. "This Battershield Keep?" he asked the elven ranger, keeping a wary eye on the full-grown wolf at her side.

"It is indeed," she answered.

"There's supposed to be a Gilbert Fung living here," the merchant said, pulling out a package wrapped in paper and tied with twine. "Is he in?"

"I'll get him," Finoula offered, heading back to the kitchen area, where Gilbert Fung had remained after breakfast, slowly polishing off the rest of the muffins while he read through his Omnibook. "You've got a package," she told the portly mage.

"You right about that," smirked the wizard, leering at the elf suggestively. But he rose, closed his Omnibook, and stored it in its leather pouch at his side as he ambled out to see what the merchant might have brought him. The man explained he made rounds along the southern edge of the Vesve Forest and that he'd been given a package for Gilbert from another merchant, who in turn had been given it by a man in Izlen, a village at the northeastern edge of the vast forest. Gilbert took the proffered package from the merchant and looked up at him when the man didn't immediately leave. "You get paid to bring this to me?" he asked.

"I was paid a small fee, yes," admitted the merchant, putting emphasis on the "small" part to hint to the wizard that any additional payment for his troubles would not only be greatly appreciated but only fair, really.

"If you already paid, then off you go," shooed Gilbert, turning from the man and walking back over the drawbridge back into the keep. There was a folded sheet of parchment tied by twine to the wrapped package. Pulling it out and reading it silently to himself, Gilbert snorted in derision a couple of times. "This guy laying it on thick," he observed.

The letter read:
To the Esteemed Wizard Gilbert Fung,

First of all: greetings! I hope this missive finds you in good health.

Now then, to business: I have discovered among my father's papers a most interesting book, which I have sent to you for your examination. He was a wizard of some small ability – minor illusions and such, nothing which a grand wizard such as yourself might find impressive. However, that makes this book all the more intriguing. It is written in no language I have been able to decipher, making me believe it may be magical in nature. I have taken the liberty of having it examined by certain local wizards, none of whom have been able to discern its nature or purpose. I have been assured the book does indeed radiate a magical aura, giving me reason to believe it was the work of some wizard of ages past. How it ended up in my father’s possession is indeed a mystery to me and to my family.

Tales of your exploits have reached my small village and thus I entrust this book into your care for your perusal. I understand you are a busy man and thus trust you will look into the matter only when your own pursuits allow. If this book is of any use to you I would of course be honored to allow you to retain it in your own arcane library. I trust in such a case you will send me any monies you might feel to be a commensurate price for the book. Not being the least bit magically inclined myself, I have no real sense of the true value of such a tome – I shall leave such things to your own best determination.

If, on the other hand, the book turns out to be of no value, please return it to me at your convenience. It can be sent along with any of the caravans from Kordovia to Izlen.

In any case, I am eternally grateful for your time and attention with regard to this matter.

Edmont Paskerton
"So? Are you going to open it?" Binkadink asked. He and his jackalope, Obvious, had sidled up to the portly wizard as he was reading through the letter; the gnome had even activated his stilt-boots so he could read over the much-taller human's shoulder.

"Give me chance, gnome!" Gilbert chided, cutting through the twine with the edge of his dagger. He let the paper fall to the ground as he opened the leather-bound book. Once he touched the front cover the book sprang fully open of its own accord; furthermore, the pages at the front were folded over several times and these began automatically flipping open, flipping open again, then flipping up and flipping down as overlapping parts of a large, many-folded sheet unfurled to its full size. The sheet unfolded to a 3-foot-by-3-foot square, the entire page holding an intricate diagram looking similar to a magic circle drawing - although many of the symbols looked like snails and insects and the circle itself was transcribed by a writhing line of earthworms drawn on the page. The borders were dotted with mushrooms and toadstools in green, brown, and black.

And then the ants start crawling out.

It wasn't just an ant or two crawling forth out of the now-active magic circle in the open book Gilbert held in his hands: it was a torrent of ants that scrambled forward off the pages, onto his hands and arms, and up his robes, biting with their wicked mandibles. They brought with them an odor of mildew and decay, which wasn't surprising once Gilbert noted that there was fungus growing from the backs and heads of the ants. And if he had had any further doubts about the matter, his magically-enhanced vision registered the swarm of ants as undead creatures.

Gilbert dropped the book at his feet and frantically started slapping the fungal ant zombies away. Waves of ants continued spilling from the book, engulfing Binkadink and Obvious and continuing forward out of the keep towards Finoula and Wrath as well as back into the deeper recesses of the keep's courtyard, where Darrien and Grumps Junior gaped in wonder. Up on the top of the front towers, Castillan, Hagan, and Wezhley heard the strangled cries from below and looked over into the courtyard to see what was transpiring. Darrien hurriedly opened the stable doors and ushered his dire bear cub inside, closing the door once he was in; hopefully, the ants would stay out of the stables if they couldn't see an easy way in.

Gilbert felt nauseated from the onrush of undead insects; the growths on their dorsal sides gave off a cloud of spores that he had unwittingly inhaled. He found it difficult to stay on his feet; fortunately, he had a trusty earth elemental familiar who could help him in that regard. Calling out to Mudpie, he felt the elemental rising up from the earth beneath his feet, lifting the considerable weight of the portly mage in his hands over his head as he earthglided his way to the front of the keep's courtyard by the lowered drawbridge. Once there, he unceremoniously tossed his master into the moat, hoping that would be the easiest way to rid him of the ant zombies covering his body. Of course, during his maneuvering Mudpie had picked up a coating of undead ants himself, but the earth elemental didn't need to breathe and couldn't be poisoned, so the creatures' spores held no threat to the elemental.

Splashing into the moat, Gilbert retained enough awareness to keep himself afloat and saw that most of the ants covering him had indeed been washed off by the sudden submersion. He failed to note the quiet "plunk" of an unseen object falling into the moat by his side.

Back in the courtyard, Binkadink shook the ants off him as best he could as he backed up towards the rear half of the keep; Obvious followed suit. Then, reaching up and plucking a crystal from the necklace he wore, the little gnome held it low to the ground, activated it, and sent a lightning bolt spell blasting a line through the mass of undead ants in the courtyard.

Up at the top of the northwestern tower, Hagan bent over the battlements and sent a precisely-positioned fireball down into the courtyard, frying a bunch of the ants without hitting any of his friends or their animals below.

Outside the keep, Finoula saw the lightning bolt scorching its way out of the drawbridge and decided to follow up with her own lightning amulet. Calling for Wrath to stay outside, she activated the amulet and became a bolt of lightning herself, scorching her way through a bunch of the ants and reforming into her normal elven body at the rear end of the courtyard, beside Darrien, Binkadink, and Obvious. However, she inadvertently inhaled a lungful of spores before her maneuver and stood coughing when she reappeared.

Castillan bounded down the side of the northeastern tower, using the tower's wall to slow his fall. He landed nimbly in the courtyard, raced across to the dropped book (which was still open, but without any more ants emerging; apparently all that were coming out had already done so), scooped it up, and was running up the wall of the stables before too many ants could climb onto him - but not, unfortunately, before he too got a lungful of fungal spores. He heard a sudden buzzing in his ears, as if some insect flew straight at him, but saw nothing - and then the sound was gone.

As lightning bolts seemed to be an effective strategy thus far, Darrien plucked a crystal from his own necklace, held it down low, and activated it, blasting a bunch more of the undead swarms of fungal zombie ants, killing scores if not hundreds of the creatures. But the remaining ants surged forward, one clump reaching Darrien while another group climbed up the stable walls to engulf Castillan. (A third swarm still covered Mudpie, but the earth elemental didn't seem to even notice. He was actually making himself bait for the undead insects, knowing any ant zombies wasting their time attacking him weren't attacking anybody else.)

Gilbert, treading water in the moat, cast a dimension door spell - as it required only verbal components that he could sputter while still keeping himself afloat - and ended up on the top of the northwestern tower beside Hagan. He looked down over the crenellations to see Binkadink using another crystal from his necklace to blast away some of the ants approaching Darrien. Hagan raced south along the walkway between the western towers, casting another fireball spell down at the ants, crisping them black while avoiding any damage to Darrien (although he cut it fairly close!). Finoula blasted herself through the remaining ants in lightning bolt form again, returning to her original position beside her wolf at the end of her electrical arc. That pretty much did it for the ants in the courtyard, save those climbing onto Castillan. Still, Darrien scampered up the stone steps leading to the top of the southeastern tower, stepping off onto the roof of the one-story building that housed the keep's dining area. It felt safer here, higher up. He flicked a few stragglers off his sleeve and crushed them under his boot heel on the stone roof of the kitchen building.

Castillan stubbornly ignored the biting zombie ants and concentrated on folding the magic circle page back up, then tucked the closed book between his arm and body and used the corner between the wall of the tower and the exterior wall to race up to the tower's roof, climbing over the battlements alongside Gilbert. "Here," he said, handing the book back to the wizard. But the ants climbed up the tower wall behind him, surprising both Castillan and Gilbert as they swarmed over the battlements. "Not again!" Gilbert cried, casting a fly spell upon himself and then leaping over the edge of the tower, flying back down into the moat (but far enough away from his initial point of entry that he wouldn't likely be bumping into any floating ants from his first plunge into the moat).

Binkadink leaped upon Obvious's back and the two raced back out across the drawbridge, the gnome wielding his glaive although he realized how poor a weapon this was when fighting swarms of ants. He met up with Finoula and Wrath, who likewise weren't overly equipped to fighting individual ants. (The elven ranger had her lightning amulet, but it only had one more use for the day.) Hagan was almost to the southwestern tower when he heard the commotion behind him and spun around, heading back the way he'd come. On his shoulder, Wezhley gave a frightened hiss; he didn't like undead things!

His legs already covered in crawling ants, Castillan raced to the western edge of the tower and plunged over the side, turning his fall into a graceful dive into the moat. The ants still on the northwestern tower, as one, spun about and started heading toward Hagan and Wezhley, now the nearest living targets. But Hagan responded with the arcane syllables that caused a fireball spell to flash from his fingertips, screaming across the distance between them and flash-frying the remaining undead ants in a fiery ball of death. At the spell's end, there were no longer any zombie ants on the battlements of Battershield Keep.

The threat apparently contained, the heroes regrouped back down in the courtyard. "What was that all about?" Darrien asked, releasing Grumps Junior from the stables and having to coax him out. "An assassination attempt?"

"No!" cried Gilbert Fung suddenly, feeling the empty leather pouch at his side where his Omnibook resided when it wasn't in use. "Thievery! Somebody stole my book!" And then he began coughing convulsively, the spores having taken quite a toll on the heavyset wizard.

"We need healing," decided Castillan. Binkadink ran up to Gilbert's room to fetch MARCI, but the construct poked a sample of the fungus with a needlelike extension from one of her metal fingers and analyzed it. "I am unable to properly analyze the poison," she announced, scanning her red eye-beam across Gilbert's body.

"It probably only part poison, part curse - like mummy rot!" Gilbert deduced. "Stupid undead!"

"We need Malrin," Castillan announced. "She might be able to help us." As his little sister still lived across town with their parents in Ivenheart Manor, Hagan offered to teleport everyone there. Once MARCI announced Obvious and Grumps Junior were free of the affliction, they were left behind in the courtyard, since the likely next step after being healed up was to go through the magic circle in the book Gilbert had been sent, and those two animals simply wouldn't fit through the circle. (As it was, Gilbert himself was going to be a tight squeeze!)

Castillan ran inside to fetch Malrin once they arrived in the yard behind Ivenheart Manor. MARCI determined the only ones afflicted with the strange fungal disease were Gilbert, Finoula, and Castillan - the latter still coughing as he arrived with his sister in tow. Malrin had yet to prepare her spells for the day, so after Castillan explained to her what had happened, she sat down by a tree to meditate and prepare the spells she'd need. At her stage of training, her mind could only hold five lesser restoration spells and these were just enough to get the three afflicted heroes back up to their full strength. "That's at least overcoming the symptoms," Malrin announced. "I'm not sure if I've actually taken care of the disease itself."

"I guess we'll find out if you three start sprouting mushrooms," Binkadink joked. "So now what?"

"Now we go in and get Omnibook back!" Gilbert roared, opening the book back up and exposing the magic circle again as it automatically unfolded to its full size. Everyone winced a bit, half-expecting more fungal zombie ants to come racing out, but the oversize page remained clear of undead. "You go in first, Bink!" Gilbert suggested.

Binkadink stuck his head - and only his head - through the magic circle. He found he was now looking through a hole in a wall of an enclosed cylinder, about halfway between the floor and the ceiling, which was some 15 feet high. There was nothing of particular interest to see in the darkened room, although the everburning torches tied to the antlers of the little gnome's helmet gave off enough illumination to see by. There were discolorations along the floor and walls and the overwhelming scent of mold and mildew, but nothing else was in view. Binkadink pulled his head back and reported, between coughs, what he'd seen. "If this is where the ants were staged from, I'll bet the place is filled with those fungal spores," he said. "Before we all go in, we might want to stop by my uncle's potion shop and stock up on delay poison potions. No sense on us all catching whatever it is these three caught."

Upon their entry into his shop, Winkidew Dundernoggin reminded everyone that he was primarily a businessman and no, they weren't getting any bulk discount prices for seven potions of delay poison. They paid him the full amount, he handed them over, and everyone swigged one down. Winkidew begrudgingly paid them each a small amount of coin for returning the empty potion vials for reuse and then Binkadink announced they were ready to go.

"Hang on!" Hagan said suddenly, passing his weasel familiar over to Uncle Winky. "I don't want Wezhley getting exposed to any dangerous spores. Would you mind watching him?" Despite a fierce show of grumbling at the inconvenience, Winkidew eventually agreed to keep an eye on the half-orc's familiar. (Once they were out of the shop his grumpy demeanor changed immediately and he dashed downstairs to get some treats for the weasel.)

"Okay, here goes!" Binkadink announced and stepped through the portal. He dropped to the bottom of the enclosed cylinder, looking around in vain for a door. Castillan, the second one in, found it: it was only about three feet tall and set along the top edge of the cylinder, the door's top flush with the ceiling.

"That stupid place for door!" grumbled Gilbert once he had entered the room. "How we supposed to get up there?" Without a word, Finoula demonstrated by walking straight up the wall, her boots of spider climbing making it as easy as walking along the ground. Once at the top she listened at the door, heard only birdsong, and pried it open with her blade - there was no doorknob on the inside. She found herself about 20 feet in the air, but there was a solid wooden platform at the bottom of the door and a ladder beneath it leading down.

"Okay, but how rest of us get up there?" Gilbert groused. Darrien took aim with his Arachnibow and shot a silken web-line up by the ceiling. He then shouldered his bow and walked up the wall, hanging onto his line with both hands. The others followed suit, leaving a grumbling Gilbert to climb up last of all.

Stepping onto the platform, Finoula announced with sudden realization, "This is a water tower!"

"An empty water tower," corrected Darrien. "Where'd all the water go?"

"At a guess -- right there," replied Finoula, pointing straight down. The ground beneath the water tower was a muddy morass; at some point in the not-too-distant past the water had apparently been emptied to turn the tower into a fungal zombie ant staging area.

Climbing down the narrow ladder one at a time, the heroes landed in the squelchy mud - all but Gilbert that is, who sent Mudpie down first and then stepped onto his upraised hands, allowing his familiar to escort him past the vast mud puddle - and looked around. They were in a hilly land, with several doors visible set into the sides of the nearby hills. In the distance sat a wooden building looking like a giant cornucopia. "This looks like a halfling village!" Finoula announced.

They opted to go check out the cornucopia. As they approached it, curiosity won out over caution and Binkadink cupped his hands to his mouth and called out, "Is anybody here?" The fact that they could see plenty of halfling structures but not a single halfling was starting to creep the little gnome out - it was like they were in a ghost town or something.

But they weren't the only living things present in the seemingly-abandoned village, as evidenced when the front door to the cornucopia building slammed open and a half dozen halfling-sized creatures spilled out. These were no halflings, though; their skin was greenish with veins and patches of brown; their dirty heads capped with thick dreadlocks of ropy, brown vines. Each held a shortspear at the ready as they peered at the approaching enemies.

Finoula didn't like the look of these primitive - and presumably hostile - beings. She cast an entangle spell at the area just beyond the door to the building, catching the first five in the spell's area of effect. (The sixth was still in the open doorway and opted to stay there once he saw his companions being entangled by the grass at their feet.) Castillan immediately began sprinting past the group, heading along the north side of the building before any of the green-skinned warriors thought to try throwing their spears at him.

Darrien, seeing a captive set of enemies, cast a spike growth spell overlapping the same area of effect of his fellow ranger's entangle spell. But then Hagan, unaware of Darrien's actions, cast a fireball spell that slew all five of the captive vegepygmies. If either of the rangers had thought to capture an enemy for questioning, the bloodthirsty half-orc sorcerer took that approach right off the table!

Actually, there was still one member of the original six vegepygmies available for questioning - the one still in the doorway. He took one look at the carnage before him and slammed the door back shut, fleeing further into the halfling temple. Gilbert called out to him, "Hey! I want my book back, thief!" as he cast a stoneskin spell upon himself.

Binkadink raced up to the front door in his gnomish stilt-boots once he saw Finoula and Darrien dismiss their respective spells. Malrin was right there by him and she opened the door. Once she saw the vegepygmy wasn't still right there in the doorway, she entered the darkened room with her scimitar out and ready. A few streams of light filtered in from narrow windows up by the top of the curved roof, but the candle-chandeliers hanging from the rafters overhead were unlit. Still, the elf druidess could determine the foe was no longer in the entry room of the temple, which in true halfling fashion consisted of a long table and a pair of long benches. The vegepygmies had apparently been eating a meal of dead squirrels when they heard Binkadink's questioning call, based on the half-eaten corpses scattered along the tabletop.

Outside, Castillan raced up the side of the curved building and approached the chimney. There was no smoke emanating from it, so he looked down the vertical shaft, determined he could fit through it without getting stuck, and did just that. Scurrying down the chimney, he dropped to the fireplace floor in a puff of old ashes. The fireplace was shared by the front mess hall and the kitchen just behind it; the bounder opted to pop out in the mess hall side, where he could see his sister approaching and Binkadink just entering the temple. There was an open doorway on either side of the two-way fireplace and Castillan dashed through one of them, surprising the lone vegepygmy who had survived their initial assault. Castillan stabbed at the plant creature with his short sword, drawing a line of what looked like sap from his chest. The plant-thing retaliated with his shortspear and took a step back, bleeding heavily from the bounder's wound. But then Hagan entered the temple and he could see the vegepygmy through the double fireplace; one magic missile brought him crashing to the kitchen floor, dead.

Binkadink ran into the kitchen. The roof lowered the further back it went in the kitchen, which narrowed in width the farther back it went as well. At the very back was a curved stairwell leading down into the earth; Binkadink took the stairs two at a time. The lower level consisted of a large, open area with three smaller rooms jutting off from it; one of these was a small alcove containing a statue of a halfling woman and standing before it, in apparent consternation, was a female vegepygmy. She held a shortspear in her hand but didn't seem particularly keen on using it. She looked inquisitively at Binkadink upon his approach, her brow furrowed, and the gnome fighter didn't have it in him to attack her. "Um, hello?" he said tentatively. "Can you understand me?"

The plant-woman nodded but said nothing. She pointed to her mouth and shook her head, as if explaining she couldn't speak aloud. But then she pointed to the statue and then back at herself, and Binkadink got the idea she was explaining she was once a halfling woman like the goddess whose statue stood in the alcove.

"You were the priestess here? In the temple?" Binkadink asked, and the woman nodded in confirmation.

By this time, the other heroes had followed their gnome companion down the stairs. Through questioning and pantomime, and finally drawing on paper the heroes provided the plant-woman, the former halfling cleric explained what had happened: three witches had overtaken the small village, turning the halflings into vegepygmies. The plant-woman sketched out a quick map showing the witches' dwelling, but warned they had powerful guardians.

"They the ones who took my Omnibook," Gilbert cursed. "We go get it back!"

Following the directions they'd been given, the group headed away from the halfling village and toward the forest. A few miles away they approached a large hogan built of wood, with a slanted, thatched roof - it looked more than a little like an oversized, wooden igloo, for it was a round structure with a section in the front that jutted out, with a woven rug hanging in the front doorway keeping out the worst of the cold. The front opening was flanked by a pair of primitive, barely-humanoid carvings, each nine feet or so high. There were four other primitive totems, two on either side of the hogan, each little more than a carefully-stacked pile of stones with only the vaguest sense of a humanoid shape.

"Those probably guardians," Gilbert suggested to the group in a whisper. Then he cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on all but Malrin, the most he could encompass with that spell at one time. <They probably golems. That mean most spells useless against them.>

<Let's go see,> offered Castillan over the mental link as he cautiously approached the hogan. He could see there was a pond off to the right of the hogan, looking to come all the way up to the wooden structure. There were cattails and wooden reeds growing up out of it, and the sounds of frogs could be heard coming from that direction. But as the bounder crept forward, all senses on full alert, there was no movement from any of the six stone guardian totems.

Finoula approached behind her fellow elf, her longsword Tahlmalaera gripped in her right hand and her uncoiled flaming whip of thorns in her left. <So far, so good,> she thought to the others.

<I try something,> Gilbert announced, using his slingshot of rock shrinking on his earth elemental familiar. Shrinking Mudpie to the size of a small pebble, the wizard picked him up, loaded him into his weapon, and shot him at the hanging rug. Mudpie impacted the rug with a "thwack," regaining his true size as he fell to his feet on the ground before the hogan's entrance. But still the stone totems failed to animate and attack. Hagan took the opportunity to cast a stoneskin spell on himself.

At Binkadink's request, Darrien activated his ebony fly and turned it over to the gnome's use - the little fighter was used to mounted combat and it irritated him that Obvious had been too big to fit through the magic circle in the book. After having done so, the archer nocked an arrow into his Arachnibow and cautiously stepped forward.

Binkadink mounted the ebony fly and had it fly forward at full speed, landing on the ground just in front of the hogan's entrance, beside Mudpie. That was apparently the signal the guardians had been waiting for, for they animated at once and struck out at the intruders. The primitive stone golem to Binkadink's right stepped forward to slam the little gnome; fortunately, he had enough time to swing his magical glaive in the golem's direction and score a hit on it as it approached. At the same time, the golem on the other side of the hogan's entrance animated and swung a stony fist at Finoula's head.

The piles of stacked stones also animated and attacked. One primitive stone construct stepped forward and attacked Binkadink, while the one by its side scrambled in Hagan's direction. The two on the other side of the hogan each attacked Finoula; battered by three separate animated stone guardians, the elf ranger almost dropped to a knee as she fought to remain conscious.

Malrin stepped beside Finoula and cast a healing spell upon her fellow elf, then stepped back away from combat and wildshaped into an owl. Castillan activated his ring and dimension doored to the top of the hogan, the thatched roof supporting the elf bounder's weight with ease. Unlike the halfling temple's chimney, this one was producing smoke; the elf took a deep breath and stuck his face over the top of the chimney opening, seeing what he could see. Through the smoke from a cauldron on a cook fire directly below him, he could see an extremely large young woman standing by the cauldron, a worried expression on her face as she heard the commotion out the front of the hogan. By her light blue skin and her size Castillan guessed she was a frost giant; by her peasant garb, he assumed she was a servant to the witches who laired here. But then he decided that was likely what he was supposed to think; surely a member of a coven of witches would find disguising herself in an inoffensive form a simple but effective defense? For despite her size, this frost giant held no weapon but a broom, which she held close to her as if trying to hide behind it.

Attacked on three sides by creatures of stone, Finoula concentrated her attacks on the biggest one, the one seemingly carved - crudely - from a solid block of stone. Her whip lashed out at the creature's leg while her longsword scratched a series of sparks against its chest. Gilbert, seeing her plight, cast an invisible wall of force that separated Finoula and Malrin from the two primitive stone constructs - there was no way to shield the ranger from all three combatants, so Gilbert chose to let her focus on the one she was already actively fighting. A barrage of arrows streaked over the ranger's shoulder, striking the primitive stone golem, showing Finoula that Darrien had her back in this battle.

As one of the other primitive stone constructs approached Hagan, he cast a polar ray at it - one of the half-orc's most powerful spells. The ray completely destroyed the animated guardian in a way Hagan hadn't expected, for as it fell backwards in a heap, the stones seemed to dissipate, leaving behind a three-legged creature that had the appearance of an ogre-sized mobile fungus.

Binkadink, still astride the ebony fly, slew the primitive stone golem that had been attacking him while Mudpie fought off the slightly smaller stone construct. The gnome's slain foe also transformed in death; no longer looking like some sort of half-carved gorilla, it now appeared as a rough humanoid the size of a hill giant but composed primarily of fungus. "They're not stone!" the gnome called out to his companions. "They're some sort of fungal giants!"

Sure enough, now that the group was aware of the deception, it was easier to pierce through the veil spell that had hidden them behind illusions of stone. The "primitive stone golem" that was attacking Finoula now stood revealed as a fungal giant - but that didn't make the strike of its massive fist any less threatening! Finoula just barely dodged the incoming slam, which pounded violently into the ground at her feet.

The "pile of stacked stones" also attacking Binkadink was now evident as one of those three-legged fungal ogres - or that's what Binkadink now thought of them as. Two more of them tried slamming their fists into Malrin and Finoula, but were blocked by Gilbert's invisible wall of force. Each of those two fungal ogres felt their way in opposite directions along the unseen barrier, seeking a way around it. Not wanting to wait for their arrival, Malrin flapped her owl's wings and flew up to the hogan's rooftop to alight beside her older brother.

Castillan, for his part, decided to put his suspicions to the test, and dropped through the opening in the roof, landing directly behind the apparently frightened frost giant servant. He thrust at her lower back with his short sword of wounding, stabbing into her kidney. She cried out in pain, dropping all attempts at maintaining the illusion; standing before the bounder was no longer a frost giant maiden but a withered old crone - an annis hag, the leader of this particular covey of hags, Mother Dumpling. Her cries were echoed by her familiar, an owl named Mousecatcher that stood on a wooden perch beside a cot large enough to support the large hag leader. The owl shrieked again in anger, crossing the distance to claw at the bounder with its talons.

And they weren't the only creatures inside the hogan, Castillan quickly learned - for crawling out from under the cot were two more fungal creatures, each no larger than an upright raccoon. The fungal leshies scampered towards the bounder, limbs flailing in apparent anger. As Castillan was fending off their attacks, the other two hags rose up out of the pool of water on the eastern side of the hogan - apparently the floor in that section had been dug deep to allow the waters of the pond outside to encroach into the building. The greenhag, Snizzletooth, crept up behind Castillan and slashed him with a set of nails that would do a tiger proud. The sea hag, Grizelda, stayed back in the pond with water halfway up her shins as she concentrated on giving the elf intruder the evil eye. But fortunately for Castillan, he was able to mentally shrug off its intended effects. He realized he was in some trouble, though, and called out to his friends over their shared link, <Guys! I'm fighting all three hags in here!>

Finoula was unable to do anything about Castillan's predicament - it was all she could do to keep the marauding fungal giant at bay. While Gilbert cast a stoneskin spell upon himself in preparation for battle with the hag covey inside their hogan, Hagan decided to see what he could do about finishing up the fight outside. He targeted Finoula's fungal giant with a chain lightning spell, sending arcs of electricity out to the three remaining fungal ogres. His spell slew the sole remaining fungal giant and the fungal ogre that had been in battle with Binkadink and Mudpie, leaving them and Finoula free of immediate enemies. Without a pause, Darrien switched targets to one of the two remaining fungal ogres, peppering it with arrows as he'd been doing to the fungal giant in combat with Finoula. It silently turned on him and lumbered forward, eager to slay the half-elf archer.

The other fungal ogre, rounding the wall of force, surged forward and attacked Finoula. Seeing this, Malrin flew down to the ranger's side, cast a quick healing spell delivered through a wing, and then returned to the top of the hogan's roof, out of range of attack.

Binkadink lowered his glaive into "lance position" and had the ebony fly charge straight into the hogan. They ripped through both the outer and inner hanging rugs, then the gnome skewered the seriously-wounded Mother Dumpling before she could scarcely register his presence. Snizzletooth kept her focus on Castillan, slashing her claws at him again and biting down on his shoulder with a mouth full of pointed teeth, causing him to cry out in pain. But Grizelda turned at Binkadink's sudden appearance, focusing her evil eye on the rampaging gnome. Binkadink had a final moment of horror - <Not again!> he cried over the shared mental link - before his mind, dazed, closed off all further thought.

Castillan saw Binkadink's predicament and recalled the gnome had once before succumbed to a sea hag's evil eye attack. Knowing full well the gnome was useless for the rest of this fight, he bounder tumbled across the room, scooped him up in his arms, and activated his ring, using a second dimension door spell to transport the two back out of the hogan and onto the open field immediately before it. MARCI stood nearby alongside Gilbert and Castillan called out to her, "Watch over him!" With a quizzical tilt of her head, the automaton stepped over to the gnome, scanning his unmoving form with the red ray from her eye.

Finoula brought down the fungal ogre she'd been fighting with a skillful application of both sword and whip. Gilbert called Mudpie over to him, imbued his familiar with a vampiric touch spell, and had him glide under the earth to deliver the spell to the sole remaining fungal ogre by a touch from below. The spell was all it took to slay the plant-thing, which had been near death by this point in any case.

Seeing Binkadink safely back outside, Darrien called his ebony fly back to him. The giant insect, with no thoughts of combat itself, retraced its flight back outside the hogan's entrance, arriving by its master. The archer climbed onto the fly's back and sent him up into the air.

"I am unable to return this victim to mobility," MARCI announced after having completed her examination of Binkadink. "I can, however, tend to his physical wounds. She inserted a thin needle from the tip of one mechanical finger into the gnome's skin near a deep bruise, infusing his flesh with a compound that would aid in rapid cellular regeneration.

Malrin peered down through the hole in the roof and decided to aid in the fight from her place of relative safety. She cast a produce flame spell and dropped a ball of fire directly onto one of the fungus leshies. The top of its fungal cap blazed with flames, causing it to run frantically around the hogan. But the death of their leader seemed to have disheartened the other two hags; with a quick look at each other, the sea hag ducked back into the pond waters while Snizzletooth the greenhag simply disappeared from view. Malrin saw her sudden disappearance but was unsure whether she had teleported away or simply turned invisible, and since she wasn't part of the Rary's telepathic bond spell and couldn't speak while wildshaped into an owl, she had no way to tell the rest of the group what she had seen.

For their part, now that the combat outside had been brought to a successful conclusion, the heroes advanced cautiously upon the hogan. Castillan ran up the side of the hogan, settling alongside his sister who was still in owl form; she took the opportunity to return to elven form and tell him that the sea hag had gone back into the water. Castillan passed this information to the others over the link; Hagan, after a moment's thought, targeted the pond itself with a chain lightning spell and moments later the lifeless corpse of Snizzletooth floated to the surface of the water outside the hogan.

Darrien brought his ebony fly to a landing near the pair on the roof and together, the three peered inside the structure. Malrin continued dropping balls of fire down upon the fungus leshies. But then Castillan spotted the over-large cot being raised by no visible means and assumed it was the invisible greenhag climbing beneath it. Dropping through the hole once again, he stabbed down at the area beneath the cot and felt resistance from his blade as it skewered the unseen hag. Grizelda spun and tried catching Castillan with a set of wicked claws, but he had her pinned in place with his blade. Worse yet, her attack had popped her back into visibility; Darrien had no difficulty slaying her from above with a well-placed arrow, then did likewise with the two fungus leshies. In a matter of seconds, the archer had slain all of the remaining foes inside the hogan.

Dragging Grizelda away from the cot, Castillan reached beneath the bed frame and pulled out Gilbert's Omnibook as the portly mage entered the wooden building. He sighed in satisfaction at getting his master spellbook - and entire reference library - back.

After that, the group tore the hogan apart looking for treasure. One rickety bookshelf along the wall revealed not only Mother Dumpling's own spellbooks - Gilbert noted with disappointment that he already knew all of the spells listed therein - but also tomes of notes about the processes used in transforming the halflings into vegepygmies and the ogres and hill giants into fungal versions of themselves, as well as the strain of fungus used on the zombie ants. One book on the shelf was a fake, with a hollowed-out interior hiding a small tuning fork engraved with the word "Mithardir" on its side; one of the notebooks hinted that details of the fungal disease (and its cure) could be found there, in one of the layers of the outer plane of Arborea. (There were also hints that the cure to the halflings’ vegepygmy state could be found there.) A crystal ball sat on one shelf, in plain view. Mother Dumpling's robe turned out to be a robe of useful items. Finally, there was a suspicious patch of dirt along the wall between the front door and the encroaching pond that hinted at a recent burial; digging in that area unearthed a metal chest filled with numerous gold pieces.

"So now what?" asked Hagan. "Are we going to this Mithardir plane?"

"Not yet," Gilbert replied. "I need to prepare plane shift spell another day, but we wait for Bink to snap out of it first. Last time it take three days."

"But what about the transformed halflings?" Finoula asked.

"They been vegepygmies who knows how long? Couple more days not kill them."

Hagan cast a teleport spell to get everyone back to Battershield Keep rather than returning via the teleportation circle hidden in the halfling village's water tower.

Three days later, though, not only had Binkadink overcome his magical affliction, but Gilbert Fung had prepared a plane shift spell and everyone was ready to go. "I read up on Mithardir," Gilbert announced. "It gritty desert, but we survive there okay. Won't need attune form spells." Then, striking the tuning fork they'd taken from the hag covey's hogan, he cast the spell and the assorted heroes stood amid the gritty wasteland of Mithardir.

There was white sand in every direction, under a burning sun overhead. Mithardir was an infinite plane of scattered ruins. Malrin took to owl form and flew up, scanning the distance in all directions. There was only one set of ruins visible, even to her sensitive eyes, so that was the direction the group headed.

When they got to the side of the last dune before the ruins would be upon them, the druidess cast delay poison spells on Binkadink, Castillan, Finoula, Obvious, and Grumps Junior - they were the most likely front-line attackers, and thus the ones most likely to be hit by any venomous attacks. Gilbert cast his standard Rary's telepathic bond spell, linking the heroes together, and then they crested the final dune and the set of ruins stood before them.

The buildings that had once stood in this location had crumbled almost to nothingness; a random assortment of still-standing walls gave one the general idea of the building's size and shape, but it purpose was no longer evident. The roof was missing, as were great chunks form most of the walls, not one of which stood more than ten feet tall.

As the group approached, a figure stepped away from the ruins and gazed at them. He was garbed in dark clothing with a floppy-brimmed hat shielding his face from the sun burning down overhead; he held a light mace in his hand. But rather than lift the weapon to a ready position, he did something unexpected: he began to sing.

The notes of his song were doleful and dire; none of the heroes understood the language in which the dirge was sung, but its meaning transcended language altogether. He pointed at finger at Finoula and she felt the tingling sensation of a magical spell effect, but she was able to shrug it off with effort. She gripped her two primary weapons, ready to race up and counterattack in a more physical manner; seeing this, the ruin chanter backed off, retreating to the rear of the ruins.

Darrien cast an animal growth spell, causing Wezhley, Grumps Junior, and Obvious to each double in size. Gilbert followed that spell up with an enlarge person spell on the gnome fighter, allowing Binkadink, now the size of a human, to sit comfortably astride his enormous jackalope. Obvious hippity-hopped forward along the outskirts of the ruins, headed for the ruin chanter. Castillan ran parallel to the jackalope, racing forward through the sand and dodging between partially-fallen walls to work his way to the center of the ruins. The ruin chanter cast an unknown spell at Binkadink as he approached, but the gnome was able to shrug off the intended effect as well as Finoula had just moments before. And then the pair was close enough for combat, with the gnome's glaive being thrust at the dark-clad guardian like a lance.

Hagan and Wezhley approached the ruins, the weasel now too large to sit upon the half-orc's shoulder as normal. Malrin alit upon a partially-collapsed wall, not wishing to go attack the ruin chanter herself but wanting to see what happened, so she could dart in and provide healing to whoever might need it. Finoula entered the ruins behind Castillan, following the same general path but unable to keep up with the speedy bounder.

And then suddenly, piles of cascaded chunks of walls and collapsed columns rose up from being half-buried in the sands and took on the semblance of a pair of roughly humanoid forms. The first of these ruin elementals struck a stony fist at Castillan, hitting him hard from behind and practically bouncing him off a wall. The other formed too far away from anyone to be able to strike at once, so it headed towards Hagan, its nearest potential target.

Darrien, astride his enlarged dire bear cub, wasted no time; he immediately shot the ruin elemental attacking Castillan with a barrage of arrows from his Arachnibow. The bounder, although woozy, managed to tumble around the ruin elemental, making feints and dodges to wind his way behind the hulking behemoth. Then, using his stonepiercer dagger, he thrust deep into the back of the elemental's leg, causing a series of cracks to radiate out from the entry point of his weapon. Gilbert cast a maximized cone of cold at the same target, blasting it up high so he wouldn't accidentally hit Castillan in case he bounded over to the front of the creature. The elemental staggered under this magical assault.

But then the ruin chanter, racing around the back of the ruins to escape Binkadink and Obvious, found himself facing Castillan and sent another of his thus-far-ineffectual spell attacks at the elf. He had no further success this third time than he had with his first two attempts, and he swore in some unknown language at his terrible luck thus far.

Hagan, seeing the success Gilbert had with his cold-based spell, decided to follow suit with a polar ray spell at the ruin elemental bearing down on him. His wasn't maximized as Gilbert's had been, but it was a more powerful spell overall and the sorcerer was pleased to see the construct stagger under its power. But still it came on, forcing the half-orc to back away from it lest it be able to pound him into the burning sands.

Malrin flew down from her perch to briefly alight upon her brother's shoulders, taking the opportunity to deliver a healing spell through her talons before taking wing again. Fortunately, at this time Finoula had the ruin elemental's full attention, attacking it with her enchanted longsword and her flaming whip of thorns, so the owl-druid was in no particular danger of retaliation from the massive construct. But Finoula was certainly in danger, a fact made all the more obvious when a massive fist slammed into her, causing the air to expel from her lungs and nearly send her flying.

Obvious leaped over the crumbling wall between him and the ruin chanter, landing expertly before his foe, allowing Binkadink to send the blade of his magic glaive slicing a line of pain across the ruin chanter's chest. Blood spilled in an arc onto the white sand.

With Finoula temporarily out of the picture, the first ruin elemental turned to strike at Castillan once again, catching the bounder with a powerful slam that sent him reeling. The other one caught up to Hagan and smashed a powerful fist down at the half-orc, catching him on the shoulder. Hagan roared in pain as his entire arm went numb; he was momentarily worried he might have a broken bone or two from the powerful blow but he ignored the pain and used his other hand to point at his enemy, sending another polar ray blasting up at the elemental. Wezhley hissed in anger at the attack on his master and dashed around the elemental's feet, hoping to trip him up. Gilbert, having seen the power behind the blows from these ruin elementals, covered himself with a stoneskin spell.

Darrien continued pumping arrows into the first elemental, refusing to give it a moment's respite. It turned to face the half-elf ranger, giving Castillan another opportunity to dodge around it and stab his stonepiercer dagger deep into one of the chunks of rock making up the construct's limbs.

The ruin chanter tried switching tactics; all three of his first magic attacks had been geared toward diminishing his opponents' physical abilities; now he focused his next magical attack on the giant jackalope before him, targeting his mental attributes. This time he succeeded and Obvious fell under the sway of a confusion effect. Binkadink, astride his trusted battle mount, understood at once that something was wrong when Obvious suddenly veered off in a different direction, as if distracted by a cloud or something - very out-of-character behavior for the gnome's trusty mount, who had been the veteran of a dozen or more lethal combats. Suspecting magical interference, the gnome pulled out his horn of goodness and sounded it, covering himself in a magic circle against evil effect which radiated out from him for ten feet in all directions - which had the intended result of temporarily negating the confusion effect affecting his jackalope friend. Obvious spun to face their foe once more, causing the ruin chanter to visibly blanch at the undoing of his one spell success thus far.

Finoula renewed her attack on the first ruin elemental, striking with her sword and whip as Darrien continued his barrage of arrows and Castillan kept chipping away at it from behind with his magical dagger. Seeing its massive fist about to strike Finoula down, Gilbert cast a quickened ray of enfeeblement at the ruin elemental; he couldn't prevent it from striking the elven ranger but he could rob the blow of much of its power.

Obvious, no longer confused, sprang out at his foe and caught him between a pair of rodent teeth. Then he shook him back and forth like a rag doll, literally shaking the ruin chanter to death. He finally let him go, and the black-clad guardian fell in a boneless heap in the desert sands, facedown and unmoving.

Hagan took another glancing blow from the ruin elemental who persisted in chasing him down; he retaliated with the last polar ray in his inventory, causing parts of the elemental's body to ice over and tremble as if about to collapse. But it still held itself together, and as the polar rays were Hagan's most powerful spells, he turned tail and ran from the massive creature at full speed. Gilbert cast a disintegrate spell at the thing, hoping to take it out once and for all, but while a chunk of the elemental went missing it failed to fall to pieces as the wizard had intended. However, the ruin elemental did change targets, ceasing its pursuit of Hagan to stomp over in Gilbert's direction.

Grumps Junior, even at this size, wasn't a combat-trained riding mount, so he wasn't all that keen to leap into battle like Obvious. But at Darrien's urging, he moved along the ruin wall to get closer to the ruin elemental, making it even easier for Darrien to hit it with his arrows. Castillan was still going to town on the thing with his dagger; with every strike, chunks of rubble fell from the elemental's patchwork form. Finoula activated her amulet and sent herself, as a blast of lightning, through the ruin elemental to re-form as an elf on its far side. Then Obvious raced up, getting close enough for Binkadink to attack it with a powerful stroke of his glaive. The better part of the creature's arm fell to the ground with a heavy THUNK! - and then the jackalope darted in, catching the stump in his mouth and pulling it to pieces. The creature eventually discorporated, its various chunks of marble and granite falling apart in a heap in the white sands of Mithardir.

Darrien switched targets to the only other remaining ruin elemental without missing a beat. Castillan staggered over towards his sister, in desperate need of healing before he felt ready to go face the other elemental. His sister obliged by taking wing to land on his shoulder and send healing energy flowing through her talons and into the wounded bounder's body.

Not trusting his stoneskin spell alone to keep him safe from this hulking monstrosity, Gilbert cast a false life spell on himself while rapidly backing away. It came just in time, too - right before a swift punch from a fist as big as he was came crashing down on him. But seeing how weak the elemental now looked - there were visible gaps in its mish-mash body - Hagan brought the thing down with a simple magic missile spell.

With their enemies all dead, the group took time for healing - Malrin reassumed her elven form and cast what spells she had available, while MARCI examined the heroes with her red eye-beam and applied injections as needed. Then Gilbert was off to explore the ruins, their reason for coming to this desert wasteland in the first place.

The wizard found what he was looking for in the form of runes carved over a still-intact arch. "These planar runes," he observed. "I bet this a planar gate." To test the theory, he stepped through the archway - and disappeared from view.

"Gilbert!" cried Binkadink, following the heavyset mage's path through the arch and disappearing as well. The others followed suit, finding themselves in a pocket dimension very different from the harsh desert realm they had just left. This was a lush, wet place, dripping with greenery: ferns and fronds circling a pool of sparkling, clear water which was being filled from a small waterfall. On a a hunch, Gilbert waded into the pool, submerged himself completely, and felt better than he had for days - since before experiencing the zombie ant fungus, as a matter of fact.

"Come in - water fine!" he called to the others. They each joined him in the pool, even the animals - all but MARCI, who stated she had not been designed for total immersion in a liquid element, but they decided she wouldn't have had need to be healed in a magical pool in any case.

"I'll bet the vegepygmies would be healed if they came in here," Finoula offered.

"I not going back for them!" Gilbert protested. "That means trip back home, then another trip here, then another trip home! That three more plane shift spells! No way!"

"How long do you think the water's powers would last if we took it to the halfling village?" Hagan asked.

Gilbert thought it over. "At least hour," he guessed. "No more than a day, in any case." So the half-orc proposed removing everything they had stored in their portable hole - at least everything they didn't mind getting wet - and then filling it up with the waters from the pool. That way, they could allow the vegepygmies to bathe in the restorative liquid and be returned to their halfling selves. "The village cleric ought to be able to convince them," Hagan reasoned.

And he was right.

- - -

I used an unusual miniature for the fight with the covey of hags: an actual hogan model Harry had made last year in his fifth-grade class; we used modeling clay for the ground, from which we planted a circle of cinnamon sticks to represent the upright, wooden logs; the removable roof was made of cardboard and covered with strips of construction paper to represent the thatch. But when it was completed, I thought to myself that it would make a cool place to fight enemies in a D&D adventure, so this adventure was written around that concept.

And Binkadink ended up victim to a sea hag's evil eye again! He's faced a grand total of two sea hags in his life, and both combats left him dazed and completely useless for three days - and he has the highest Constitution of anybody in the party! Logan took over running Malrin for the rest of the adventure (even the last bit, after Binkadink had been restored to full awareness).

And speaking of Malrin, she leveled up to 10th as a result of this adventure.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My black "Chaotic Evil Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry" T-shirt, as it indicated the hags' alignments.
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I just caught up to this most recent post and I wanted to thank you for sharing this story! I planned to begin some weeks back, but at the introduction saw the link for the Wing Three game, and started on that instead to get the proper backstory. I've really enjoyed reading your adventures, and it sounds like your group is a blast!

I hope you all have many more years of fun, and continue to share it all here. :)


Thank you kindly, SolitonMan! It's always nice to hear someone's enjoying the Story Hour write-ups. And I should have the next installment of this campaign ready to add to the thread either later tonight or tomorrow.

In the meantime, it may interest you to know that the same group of players (minus one) is also currently going through another homebrew campaign, "The Durnhill Conscripts" (link). In that campaign, though, my son Logan and I have swapped roles: he's the DM and I'm a player. (I still do the write-ups, though.) Due to the session times (Wednesday nights, which is a school night for two of the players), the sessions are much shorter than the ones when I DM, so as a result that campaign has adventures which are more like separate chapters in an ongoing novel, whereas my campaigns are more like a collection of short stories with the same characters in each story.

And that leaves just one more of our campaigns. This one's already finished, though: "The Adventures of Baabby and Sam" (link), which is where Logan first put on the DM hat and my nephew Harry first gave tabletop role-playing a try. It's based on the Skylanders console games (of which Harry is a big fan), and may not be as interesting to you as the other (more standard) campaigns, but I mention it for the sake of completeness.

In any case, thanks again for reading! (And you're right: our group is a blast - we have fun, anyway!)




PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 16
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 16
Darrien, half-elf ranger 16
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 16
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 16
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 16​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 4
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 6
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 10
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 2 February 2019

- - -

Gilbert was awakened from a sound sleep by somebody talking directly into his head. "This is Pentaclus," the voice said. "You should come immediately. The mountains are flooding! We may be dealing with a breach from the Elemental Plane of Water!"

"This lousy way to start day!" Gilbert grumbled as he got out of bed. Nonetheless, he threw on his robes and went to rouse the others. While they were strapping on their armor and gathering up their adventuring gear, Gilbert opened his Omnibook and prepared the spells he figured would be the most useful for a potential excursion into the Elemental Plane of Water. Castillan was sent to fetch his little sister Malrin and Gilbert had him pick up a scroll of freedom of movement while he was out. By the time the two Ivenheart siblings were back at Battershield Keep, Helga had whipped together a quick basket of breakfast pastries for them to eat on the way there.

"You take care now, all of you!" Helga scolded the team.

"Who all's coming?" asked Finoula. "I think I'm going to leave Wrath behind."

"Into the Elemental Plane of Water? Yeah, I don't think I want to bring Obvious into that environment, either," Binkadink agreed.

"Mudpie not going, that for sure," Gilbert added. His familiar was an earth elemental who would want absolutely nothing to do with being immersed in an aquatic environment that stretched out to infinity in all directions. "How about you, MARCI?"

"Please forgive me, but I am unable to continue functioning when immersed completely in a liquid environment. That exceeds my design parameters."

"Yeah, that what I think. You stay here."

Darrien likewise opted to leave Grumps Junior behind, and, after much hemming and hawing, Hagan finally decided that the risks were likely to be too great to bring his weasel familiar Wezhley along. "You stay here and play with Obvious," the half-orc sorcerer suggested. Wezhley put on his best hurt face and slinked sullenly away from his master.

Finally, all that decided, Binkadink unrolled the carpet of teleportation he kept in his room and the team used it to enter the dragonfly spelljamming vessel they kept parked on a cloud island. Within moments of boarding, Jinkadoodle had them flying to the northern edge of the Clatspur Mountains where Pentaclus the Weaponcrafter had his shop.

The trip only took a quarter hour or so. Jinkadoodle landed the vessel on its leglike struts near the weaponcrafting buildings, bringing the blacksmiths rushing out, away from their anvils, to see the amazing sight. Not even the wizard Pentaclus nor his apprentice Sabra had ever see a spelljamming vessel before. The team climbed down the rope ladder from the ship's deck and stood before Pentaclus's group of smiths.

"Where be Miss Ingebold?" asked Sturgar Ironbeard, one of the two dwarven weaponsmiths Pentaclus employed. He and the other dwarf, Nuldurn Bladesmith, had both evinced a desire to get to know the cleric of Moradin better the first time the adventurers had been by this way.

"I'm afraid...she's passed on. She's with Moradin now," replied Finoula.

"Were it a good death?" Nuldurn asked.

"She died saving the world," Finoula answered. "Quite literally."

"Well then, good fer her!" Sturgar grinned. "That's all a good dwarf c'n ask fer!"

"I'm sorry to hear about your loss," commiserated Pentaclus. "And thank you for coming so quickly. We just got word of the event this morning. I've already been out to examine the site myself, and the reports were no exaggeration. About six peaks over to the east, there's a small mountain village called Honeycomb Valley – so called because of all of the natural caves along the area. I've been there once or twice in my life. The place supports some amateur mining in the caves, but it's mostly hunters and trappers, the same as you'd see in any mountain village around these parts.

"This morning, a pair of rangers came through the pass and told us of the rising lake that hadn't been there a month ago. I thought they were just joshing me, but I teleported out to Capman's Peak and took a look for myself and sure enough: there's a lake where Honeycomb Valley used to be – or still is, for all I know, underneath the water.

"Now, I'm not sure what would cause a lake to just suddenly show up like that, but I figure a breach from the Elemental Plane of Water would make sense. Problem is, I'm not sure just what to do about it. Any ideas?"

"Guess we better check it out," agreed Gilbert. "Which way lake?" Pentaclus showed him which of the visible mountains was Capman's Peak and explained the newfound lake was just on the other side of it. "We take dragonfly ship there," Gilbert decided. "Back into ship, everyone!"

Minutes later, Jinkadoodle sent the dragonfly vessel flying straight upward as the weaponcrafters waved up at him. Then he spun the vessel on it axis and had it flying in the direction of Capman's Peak. Sure enough, there was a lake there all right. The fact that along the edges of the water were the tops of submerged pine trees indicated that this lake had appeared rather abruptly.

Gilbert had the team assemble on the deck of the ship and ensured everyone who needed them got both a water breathing spell and a freedom of movement spell cast upon them - the two rangers took care of the second spell for themselves, having prepared them that morning for that very purpose. "Not only will it make it easier to maneuver underwater," Binkadink explained, "but it'll certainly come in handy if we meet up with any chuuls!" He stifled a shudder at that thought; he still had bad dreams of that chuul almost drowning him when they had been up against the kuo-toa and their lobster-goddess.

"Do you think that's likely?" asked Darrien.

"You never know," answered Binkadink.

Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on all but Castillan; the bounder volunteered to be the one left out of the link since the heavyset mage could only link together six of the seven with the spell. So they'd be able to see underwater, Finoula activated one of her sunrods and Gilbert cast a light spell on the tip of his staff; Binkadink still had two everburning torches tied to the antlers of his helmet, which would also be useful. Then the two rangers each cast their traditional barkskin spells and declared their readiness; on Gilbert's signal everyone jumped overboard into the water. Jinkadoodle, seeing everyone had made it safely overboard, swung the dragonfly vessel back around and headed back to Pentaclus's workshops; it would be as good a place as any to await the signal that the team was ready to be picked up.

Sinking down through the water, the team estimated the depth to be about 20 feet before they hit the ground. Visibility was dim; the high mountains on all sides of the valley kept much of the village in shadows even before it had become submerged, and the 20 feet of water did nothing but make it even murkier. But Castillan, taking the lead as usual, could see the outlines of buildings ahead and pressed forward. The bounder stifled a smile as he saw movement ahead and recognized it as - sure enough - a chuul: a lobsterlike creature with a mass of writhing tentacles at the front of its mouthparts. He'd also once almost been killed by one of these creatures, but he knew the freedom of movement spells that made it as easy to travel through the water as it was to walk on land would also prevent them from being caught up in the chuul's paralytic tentacles. Still, he kept a good grip on his weapons as he advanced.

Hagan's orcish blood provided him with full darkvision, with which he was able to see a second chuul on the other side of a large building. He mentally warned the others of what he'd seen, but of course Castillan wasn't a part of the Rary's telepathic bond spell and thus didn't get the advance notice. He did mention that Castillan was moving toward another chuul, though, and Finoula started heading toward her fellow elf - she couldn't yet see the chuul Castillan was approaching, but she could see him just fine in the illumination provided from her sunrod. Behind her, Binkadink and Darrien advanced as well, the little gnome with his stilt-boots fully extended to increase his stride. How he missed his jackalope riding mount already!

Once Castillan got close enough the chuul sprang forward, snapping at the bounder with its outstretched pincers. But the elf was quicker than the lobster-thing and easily avoided the jagged set of claws. Darrien wasn't as lucky; the second chuul caught him in its pincers but the ranger's freedom of movement spell allowed him to easily extricate himself before he could be transferred to the chuul's paralytic tentacles. He was breathing easily on his own, without the aid of a water breathing spell, as his father's aquatic elf heritage allowed him to breathe air or water with equal ease - although he didn't get many opportunities to perform the latter.

<Are chuuls normally found on the Elemental Plane of Water?> Finoula asked over the mental link.

<Fight now, ask questions later!> Gilbert chided her, casting a magic circle against evil spell upon his prodigious form.

Behind him, Malrin dropped her staff of healing to the ground. She was still holding the breath she'd taken before plunging into the water; now, she channeled transmutation energy through her body and wildshaped into a squid for the first time in her life. She'd summoned them before using summon nature's ally spells and thus was familiar with their forms; it seemed particularly suited to a druid who was going to be serving as the group's only source of healing while down here underwater. She scooped up her dropped staff with one tentacle and scooted forward, close enough to the others to be able to dart in to heal any who needed it but far enough away she hopefully wouldn't be a primary target for either of the chuuls.

Castillan performed a quick double-stab with his blades, penetrating the chitinous armor of the chuul that had attacked him, then skipped backwards out of immediate retaliation range. Hagan targeted the chuul snapping at Darrien with a disintegrate spell, but while he managed to hit his target the spell was not as efficacious as he'd hoped it would be. The chuul's chitin showed damage where the spell had struck it, but it hadn't actually disintegrated into nothingness as the half-orc sorcerer had anticipated. Oh well, that was the good thing about channeling arcane spell energy instinctively: sorcerers could fire off many more spells that could wizards of the same general magical power. He'd have plenty of other chances to disintegrate their enemies during this aquatic expedition.

Gilbert caught a flash of motion from the rooftop of the building before him and looked up to see an ogre-sized creature barreling his way. Instinctively, he lashed out with one of his more powerful prepared spells: a maximized cone of cold that turned the merrow instantly into an ice statue; it fell onto the edge of the roof and shattered into dozens of pieces. "That probably overkill," the wizard lamented.

Finoula had her flaming whip of thorns out and was attacking Castillan's chuul with it; she was surprised to see that despite the fact the flames weren't manifesting underwater, the whip itself was still as hot as ever and it left a trail of bubbling steam in its wake. Not only that, but it left burn-marks on the chuul's carapace with each successful strike. She could certainly live with that!

At her side, Binkadink stabbed at the chuul with his magical glaive, scoring a groove across the chitin of its head and slicing through a paralytic tentacle or two in the process. If the creature felt the pain of the severing of its tentacles it gave no vocal notice of the fact; chuuls, in the gnome's experience, were silent throughout their entire lives. It was a shame, really - he'd liked to have heard it scream.

Realizing the general ineffectiveness of arrows underwater, Darrien kept the Arachnibow strapped to his back and attacked his own chuul opponent with his magical scimitar. But then he stiffened in mid-swing, his mind overcome by a host of alien thoughts; the one, most powerful thought was that he had to submit to his new master's will and present himself for processing. Fortunately, this new information was transferred over the Rary's telepathic bond spell and the other heroes in the link with Darrien could tell he was being dominated by some unseen force. And then Hagan saw the "unseen force" moving towards the combatants: it was a large fish with waving tentacles coming from the front half of its body and a pair of three long eyes stacked one above the other on the top of its elongated head.

<Aboleth!> the sorcerer called out over the link. <It's dominating Darrien!> Hagan cast a polar ray spell at the fish-creature, but missed.

In the meantime, the first chuul had changed targets from Castillan to Binkadink, apparently figuring it would have a better chance at someone who didn't move as quickly as the bounder had demonstrated he was capable of. The gnome felt the pincers crush his arm, but the freedom of movement spell helped him extricate himself from the creature's grasp. Then, surprisingly, he stepped back from combat with the beast - something the gnome who proudly considered himself the "meat shield" of the group seldom did - and pulled the horn of goodness from his belt. Taking a deep breath full of water, he blew into the horn, causing a cascade of bubbles to emerge from the instrument but - more importantly - covering himself in a magic circle against evil effect. He then scooted up beside Darrien, catching him inside the radius of the spell's effect and temporarily negating the domination effect of the aboleth. Darrien's mind and will returned, and the ranger knew it would stay that way as long as he stayed close enough to the gnome fighter - or took out the aboleth that was trying to control him.

Castillan saw another aboleth moving up to the group of combatants. Determined not to allow it to get within spellcasting range, he activated his magical ring and dimension doored behind the armored fish. The aboleth didn't seem to notice him, so he readied his blades with a smirk. But then two fish-men swam up on either side of the bounder; Castillan recognized them immediately as skum, an aboleth's normal slave force. They struck at the elf with clawed hands, which he was just able to avoid in time.

Finoula was still focused on the first chuul, striking it again and again with her magical whip; she didn't want to move in close enough to use her longsword Tahlmalaera for fear of the creature's paralytic tentacles causing her to freeze up. (She either didn't realize or had forgotten that the freedom of movement spell prevented her from becoming paralyzed.) Darrien renewed his attacks on the second chuul with his scimitar, wanting to get these chuuls out of the way so they could all concentrate on taking down the aboleth - or aboleths, now that he got a good look at where Castillan had gone.

The first aboleth targeted Binkadink with its mind, trying to sap the gnome's will and make him his own mental slave. But Binkadink was having none of it, shaking his head back and forth as he concentrated on keeping control of his own mind. The second aboleth didn't bother with a mental attack; instead, perhaps warned by its skum slaves, whirled around and sent all four slime-coated tentacles darting at Castillan, who was able to dodge most but not all of them. The slime felt cold and cloying against his skin and he immediately felt a queasy sensation; with a panic, he tried to recall just what it was that aboleth slime did to its victims. And then he remembered: it turned them into skum, given time! In a panic, the bounder activated his ring for the second time and used a dimension door spell to get him away from the aboleth and close to where he had been before when battling the chuul - but more importantly, close by his sister (although she was now in the form of a squid) and her staff of healing.

While the chuuls struck at Darrien and Binkadink with their serrated claws, Gilbert cast a haste spell on everybody but himself - there was no way around it, the group had spread out far enough that making sure he was within the spell's radius would prevent several others from gaining the benefits of the spell. He saw Malrin the squid touch Darrien with her staff and saw the worst of the wounds - caused by chuul pincers - heal up. She then spun about in place and approached Castillan, staff held high, to heal him of his recently-acquired affliction.

The first aboleth felt a burning sensation on its flank and saw, with its triple eyes, Hagan snarling in fury that another disintegrate spell was having a less-than-hoped-for effect. The half-orc seldom swore - in fact, he was the first among the group to warn others about their language - but he was getting pretty close to uttering an orcish curse or two.

With Castillan now nowhere close, the two skum chose Binkadink as their next target. That proved to be a mistake; the gnome skewered one straight through the midsection, then twisted his glaive to extricate the first skum corpse from his blade before sending it to pierce the second skum through the head. In seemingly as many seconds, both skum were sinking lifelessly to the ground.

At about the same time, Finoula took out the chuul she'd been fighting. Soon thereafter, with his fellow ranger's help, Darrien killed the other chuul that had been attacking him. But the elf had left her flank unprotected when she went to help Darrien and the first aboleth took advantage of the opening, attacking her with its tentacles in an attempt to turn her into a skum servant. Three of the four tentacles struck her, but the elven ranger managed to turn her body in such a way that none of them touched her skin, and she avoided the creature's vile slime in that way. The look of disgust on her face said she realized what fate she had just narrowly avoided.

The second aboleth tried dominating Hagan for the effrontery of attacking it with a disintegrate spell in the first place, but the fish-beast found the half-orc's mind to be stronger than anticipated, and Hagan easily shrugged away the spell's intended effects. He responded with another disintegrate spell, but the aboleth seemed as adept at shrugging off the half-orc's spells as he has been avoiding the aboleth's domination attempts. Needless to say, neither combatant was particularly pleased with the success rates of their own efforts.

Then another combatant entered the melee. This was a new creature, fully the size of the merrow Gilbert had slain, but thinner and lankier - a scrag, Binkadink realized as he scrambled back to prevent the aquatic troll from slicing his face off with its wicked claws. He'd fought them before, too, up in Lake Quag - where, he suddenly realized, he'd first come under the horrifying sway of a sea hag! He desperately hoped there were no sea hags about, as he'd just about had his fill of the foul creatures! But he let his mind focus on the combat at hand, scoring a deep groove in the scrag's chest with the blade of his glaive - a groove, he noted with irritation, that almost immediately began healing up. Stupid trolls and their stupid regeneration!

Gilbert hit the first aboleth with a ray of enfeeblement that seemed to drain some of the fight out of it, judging by the relative listlessness of its tentacles. Castillan looked about and judged his friends could handle the current situation and opened the door to the nearest building - a three-bedroom boarding house, as it turned out. He surprised a pair of skum that had been just inside, apparently searching through the main living area. In fact, he really surprised the closest of the two skum, seeing as how he ran his short sword of wounding through its brain before it could even register the attack. The second skum swam in a charge at the bounder, but even without the haste spell in effect it was likely Castillan would have been able to dodge its clumsy attack.

Finoula swung her whip at the aboleth that had attacked her, striking it across the eyes (and, she was pleased to see, causing a stripe of burning steam scalding the middle of each eye), then ducked under the writhing tentacles and stabbed deep with Tahlmalaera. The aboleth spasmed and sank in place, unmoving and Finoula called <Got it!> in triumph over the shared mental link.

Suddenly, another chuul scuttled up to Binkadink, catching the gnome by surprise - he'd been facing the scrag and keeping the other aboleth in the corner of his eye. But rather than use his glaive (which, admittedly, he'd put to fine use thus far), he plucked a crystal from his necklace and aimed it at the approaching chuul. Activating with a thought, the crystal disappeared and became a lightning bolt, striking and killing the chuul which had been its primary target, but expanding in size in an unprecedented way, zapping the scrag, the aboleth, and Binkadink himself as it took form and ran its course. The gnome shook himself off, determining he'd remember that side effect when using his necklace of lightning crystals underwater from now on!

The scrag was the first to resume battle after the surprising shock of the lightning crystal, and it caught the little gnome with its wicked claws. Before the aboleth had a chance to recover from its surprise, Gilbert was pumping magic missiles into it, killing it before it had a chance to retaliate. Likewise, Castillan easily slew the second skum in the boarding house before deciding to head south, towards the rest of the small village's buildings.

As most of the immediate threats had been dealt with (and it looked like Binkadink could handle the scrag), Hagan opened the doors to a small temple of Pelor. The building was one big, open room, filled with pews on either side of a central aisle. Hagan walked the aisle's length, coming to a pew in the back of the building, behind which he found a couple of potion bottles, each labeled "CMW" in the Common script. He knew what that likely meant - cure moderate wounds - but he also knew that drinking them underwater would be problematic at best. Instead, he pocketed them in a belt pouch for now and exited the building.

Exiting the building just to the east of the half-orc were three more skum, apparently made aware of the recent combat with two of their brethren that had ended with their deaths at the end of Castillan's blade. They swam straight at the bounder, who seemed oblivious to their impending approach. But even if he wasn't tied into the Rary's telepathic bond spell, sound traveled just fine underwater. Hagan called a warning and Castillan spun around, just in time to skewer the first of the three skum on the point of his blade. Finoula raced up and took care of the last one in line just as easily. Binkadink was too busy with the scrag to worry about the last remaining skum, but he handily cut the aquatic troll down, watching the streams of blood stain the water red as the creature died. But Binkadink knew that the scrag would simply regenerate over time, and life would return to the wretched beast.

Hagan took care of that with a simple acid splash spell, scarring the scrag's bloodied corpse and ensuring it wouldn't rise again. In the meantime, Castillan brought down the third skum that had trailed him. Even here in their own environment, the fish-men weren't that much of a threat to seasoned adventurers.

As he pondered what to do about the situation, a merrow swam up from behind him, claws ready to rend. But Binkadink felt his approach at the last moment, swung around, and stabbed the blade of his glaive right through the aquatic ogre's midsection. It died even faster than the scrag did, and there was no possibility that the merrow would return to life as it didn't have the troll's regenerative powers. Looking around for other foes and seeing none, Binkadink moved southwest, headed towards the door of another building. There had been skum in the boarding house; there could well be aquatic menaces in any of the buildings in the submerged village.

Darrien headed to the southeast. A small building was labeled "SHERIFF" on the door - that might be a good place to look for clues as to how this whole underwater immersion began. The encroaching water couldn't have happened all at once, the ranger felt; it must have been a gradual process, so surely the townsfolk would have had time to evacuate? He wondered briefly why they hadn't found any bodies, but then he realized they'd likely already met up with at least some of Honeycomb Valley's residents, assuming the aboleths had converted them into their skum servitors. But did that mean that the aboleths were from the Elemental Plane of Water? He asked Gilbert over the telepathic link, but got a brusque reply: <Busy here!>

Gilbert had opened the door to a dwelling and startled three skum who had been inside. They turned to face him, but Gilbert's attention was drawn to a back room - it looked like a library - that was completely inside a pocket of air! That was definitely worth investigating! But first the skum would need to be dealt with; the portly wizard stepped back and let Binkadink take his place in the doorway, leading with his glaive. The skum tried rushing the gnome, but they hadn't counted on the quickness he had with his glaive: it sliced through the water at an amazing speed, slicing a belly here, stabbing a throat there, and skewering the third skum before they realized the danger they were in. Three-to-one odds against an opponent half their size hadn't been the tactical advantage they had assumed!

Finoula, in the meantime, seeing no enemies near her, spread her arms out to the sides, closed her eyes, raised her head, and concentrated on feeling the current. It was faint, very faint - but it seemed to be coming from the south. If there was water pouring forth from a breach to the Elemental Plane of Water, it was from somewhere south of the group's present position. She moved south, Malrin trailing behind her, approaching the Sheriff's office just as Darrien was about to open the door. But then he was distracted by sudden movement from a large building nearby - a tavern, by the look of it - and tuned to face the merrow approaching him at full speed. The half-elf ranger raised his scimitar and met the aquatic ogre head on, slashing with his blade.

Another merrow swam from behind the tavern and headed in Binkadink's direction; the gnome had stepped back from the dwelling to allow Gilbert to go check out that air-pocket room. But the gnome preferred combat over investigation any day and turned to fight the incoming merrow. While the gnome and the merrow fought, Gilbert stepped inside the library, amazed that the room kept out all water - his own body became as dry as if he'd just rubbed himself down with a towel just by entering. There was a shelf of books and a small desk and chair, with a closed book on top of the desk. Gilbert started there, flipping it open and discovering it was a journal or diary. He flipped to the last entry - likely to be the most important - and skimmed an account of the writer having discovered a flask covered in magical runes. He planned to bring it with him to "the little fortress in the lower cave" where he'd try to decipher its glyphs and runes and see if he could work out the command word to activate it.

"Idiot!" Gilbert hissed under his breath. He now had a good idea of what had caused the sudden lake in Honeycomb Valley. Spotting a book of maps on the library shelf, he flipped it open, trying to get a good idea of the cave structures of the valley.

Outside, Castillan, Finoula, and Hagan were moving toward the two merrows in combat with Binkadink and Darrien. If they had hoped to assist the gnome they were too late; with a final stab of his glaive he slew the beast outright. Finoula snapped her whip at the merrow attacking Darrien and killed it; she was surprised to see it fall until she saw the cuts on its body Darrien had already inflicted with his scimitar.

Binkadink, no longer in combat, looked about for more foes to kill. He opened the door to the tavern and stepped inside, but saw at once by the light of his everburning torches that it was empty of enemies. Darrien turned back to what he had originally been doing before being attacked by the merrow and opened the door to the sheriff's office. There he got a surprise, for the back half was a jail cell, inside which floated the body of a human, and standing just outside it were two scrags trying to snag the corpse with their claws. They spun at Darrien's approach and apparently decided a half-elf would make just as good a meal as human carrion; they sprang to the attack. But Darrien met them half-way, lashing out with his scimitar and cutting a wide gash across the lead scrag's face. That didn't stop the wounded troll, though - both scrags clawed at the ranger and tried closing their toothy maws around his limbs.

Castillan heard the sounds of combat coming from inside the sheriff's office, but it was cramped quarters inside the small building and he feared entering it would mean just getting in Darrien's way. So he held his blades at the ready just outside the building, certain the ranger would back off outside the building, at which point Castillan could get in a surprise attack on the scrags.

Gilbert, in the meantime, had figured out the cave elevations by the map and had figured out which one was likely the "lower cave" referenced in the diary. His attention was also drawn to a set of ten volumes along the bottom shelf that somehow seemed wrong; in trying to pull one volume out at random, he discovered the ten-volume set was one unbroken item, likely a disguised chest. He decided once they'd dealt with the primary threat he'd get Castillan to come check out this hidden chest. But then, finding all he needed at the moment from the room, he steeled himself and stepped back through the doorway, immediately becoming sodden once again. He then headed over towards the sheriff's office, since that seemed to be where everyone was congregating.

Hagan, Finoula, and Binkadink had arrived at the sheriff's office, ready to assist in the combat with the scrags. They saw Darrien backing up, moving his hands as if spellcasting, and then he stepped back out of the building and closed the door.

<What happened?> Finoula asked over the link. <Are they dead?>

<Not yet. I just summoned a shark in the room with them. That ought to give them something to do for awhile.> Sure enough, growls and trollish curses could be heard emanating from inside the sheriff's office as the hungry scrags fought the shark with teeth and claws. In the meantime, Malrin swam up to the wounded ranger and cast a few healing spells on him, sealing up the worst of his wounds.

But combat with the scrags would have to wait, for swimming up from the south came another pair of aboleths with a merrow swimming at their side. Castillan seemed unaware of their presence until Finoula called out a verbal warning, then he turned and faced the approaching foes. Hagan cast a polar ray at one of the aboleths, hitting it broadside, and while it failed to kill the thing outright the half-orc was at least pleased with the amount of damage he'd apparently done to it, as his underwater spellcasting thus far wasn't as powerful as he would have hoped. Maybe it was the fact he didn't have Wezhley with him - the little weasel was probably a good luck charm for the sorcerer.

Finoula pulled back her whip to strike at the merrow, but it had made the fatal mistake of going for the gnome and found out too late that Binkadink's magic glaive was more powerful than it looked, and the little fighter a bigger threat than he could have ever guessed. Before Finoula could strike, the merrow was already dead.

Darrien backed up, heading back north - he wasn't ready to get into a fight with an aboleth that could take over his mind. He looked about for Binkadink, realizing that it had been the gnome's magic circle against evil spell that had allowed him to retain his own mind once he'd fallen under the sway of his first aboleth opponent. Malrin backed up with him, realizing her primary role was that of healer, not combatant.

With a flicker of powerful tail-flukes, the aboleths split up, one heading toward the assembled group and the other darting behind the sheriff's small office building to approach from another direction. Each sent waves of mental energy targeted at a potential mind-slave, but Finoula and Darrien both managed to shrug off the domination effects by mere force of will. But Gilbert could see the aboleths' respective positions just fine in the light from Finoula's sunrod, and positioned himself such that he could catch both of the fish-things in a single spell-cone. Casting a prismatic spray spell, the wizard was pleased to see one aboleth falling to the ground, dead, a deadly poison seeping from its gills, while the other's scales started getting burned off by a powerful blast of steam that suddenly encompassed its body. But before it could retaliate Hagan killed it with a polar ray spell, the sudden combination of scalding steam and freezing cold apparently too much for the fish-thing to handle. It too sank lifelessly to the ground, as Hagan yelled a triumphant <Yes!> over the link.

But then the door to the sheriff's office burst open and the two hungry scrags spilled out, their shark bites already healing up. It hadn't taken them long to get the best of the shark, but once they had slain it the fish simply disappeared before they could eat it! Unforgivable! Furious at their vanishing meal, they went in search of the half-elf they'd seen.

They found him, all right - and then some. Darrien stepped forward and stabbed the first scrag in the belly, then leaped back out of range of the creature's slashing claws and dropped something onto the ground before the scrag. It grew rapidly in size, becoming a frog as large as the scrag was tall. Darrien's opal frog leaped forward and bit the scrag's arm - all of which disappeared from view inside the frog's prodigious mouth. Castillan then sprang forth and delivered a surprise attack straight through the scrag's kidney, driving his blade in deep and yanking it out with enough force that the creature died immediately. Before Hagan could approach and ensure it wouldn't regenerate by coating its wounds in acid, the other scrag exited from the sheriff's office, ready to rend and tear at anyone it saw. But the first to attack was the opal frog, biting down on this new threat now that the first scrag was down.

Castillan applied his short sword of wounding to the current scrag foe, slicing an "X" across the beast's torso with two quick strikes of the blade. Finoula flanked the scrag with the bounder, attacking from behind with Tahlmalaera and her magic whip while it was facing Castillan. She slew the creature, and the steam from her whip prevented it from rising again. Hagan moved in and cast an acid splash spell on the other scrag's head, ensuring it was too eaten away to regenerate as well.

With slain foes all around them, the group scanned in all directions but didn't see anything else approaching. Malrin swam up and applied healing spells from her staff to those who needed them, and then Gilbert led the group to the air-filled library he had unearthed. While Castillan applied himself to examining the disguised chest, Gilbert read everyone the diary entry and showed them the maps of the caves. "This where we need to go," he said, pointing a stubby finger on the lowest-elevation cave on the map. "There a little fortress down there - that where the water coming from."

"From a fortress?" asked Binkadink, skeptical.

"You see when we get there, gnome."

"Guys: check it out!" exclaimed Castillan, directing everyone's attention away from the book of maps. He'd opened the "ten-volume set" to reveal a chest full of gems. "Leave it," Gilbert directed.

"What? We can put it in the portable hole!" countered Castillan.

"Then we get hole full of water! Leave it here - we get it on way back!" With a frown, the bounder closed the lid on the disguised chest and pushed it back into place on the bookshelf. "I suppose nobody's going to come looking for it in the meantime," he sighed.

The haste spell wore off as the group made its way south to the caves indicated on the map, and Gilbert didn't have a second such spell prepared. He did throw a stoneskin spell upon himself, just in case they encountered anything dangerous in the caverns. After all, depending upon how deep it went, the cave system could easily link right up with the Underdark - which would explain the aboleths and skum, Gilbert realized. They generally lived in Underdark lakes; if a source of constant water were introduced in the lowest cave, it would flow down into the Underdark and any lakes it met up with would start rising, eventually spilling out onto the surface world.

Eventually the group found the right cave entrance and this time Castillan led the way. Binkadink rode the opal frog just behind him; Darrien had gracefully allowed the gnome to use his frog as a riding mount, knowing that once activated the creature could remain in its living form for hours, and Binkadink had the most experience of the group riding mounts into combat. (Not normal mounts, though: instead of a horse or even a pony, the little gnome seemed to prefer jackalopes, giant flies, and now giant frogs....)

The cave passageway veered downwards for a good stretch before opening into a large cavern, all of it completely underwater. Hagan, with his darkvision, could see the "little fortress" at the back of the cavern, a squat thing of black stone, some 20 feet on a side and 30 feet tall. Before it were two aboleths, although one of them was much thinner than the other, seemingly parchment-thin skin stretched tightly over its bones. Gilbert gasped in astonishment as his magically-enhanced eyes identified the thin aboleth as being undead - a lich, most likely, given its physical makeup. Both aboleths seemed intent on finding a way inside the fortress; there was a wooden door facing the cavern entrance but it must have been securely locked, leaving the two arrow-slits on each of the three levels the only openings into the tower, and those were far too thin to allow more than the very tip of the aboleths' tentacles entry.

Unseen by the heroes was a tojanida resting upon the roof of the tower. While the two aboleths - one living and one undead - had their scaly backs to the cavern entrance, the tojanida was facing that way and saw the adventurers' approach. It immediately passed that information on to its master, the aboleth mage trying to find a way into the tower, as would any good familiar.

However, before the aboleth mage could react to this information, Castillan used his magic ring for the third and final time of the day to dimension door himself to the top of the tower. Startled by the elf's sudden appearance, the tojanida dove over the top of the tower's flat roof, swimming down the western side of the building. But then the aboleth lich, warned by its living companion, spun around and cast a lightning bolt spell at the intruding adventurers, who were still all bunched up in the cavern's entrance. Only Castillan, safe up on the tower's roof, avoided the shock of the spell.

Darrien stepped forward, the magic scimitar now sheathed at his hip and his Arachnibow in his hands, for he had seen what they were facing and realized he had in his quiver two arrows of slaying, one geared towards undead and one towards aberrations. He had the former arrow notched and ready; letting fly with it, the arrow bridged the gap between archer and undead abomination, striking the lich alongside its row of eyes and lodging in the bone of the creature's skull. Unfortunately, the arrow's magic wasn't enough to slay the aboleth lich outright. Darrien frowned and pulled the other arrow of slaying from his quiver, deciding to give it a try next against the living aboleth.

Finoula opted to fight lightning with lightning and moved up beside Darrien, activating her necklace as she did so. She immediately transformed into a living bolt of electricity herself, blasting through first the aboleth lich and then the aboleth mage before resuming her normal appearance over on the eastern side of the tower. But then the aboleth mage spun around, rose above the lich in elevation, and cast an empowered lightning bolt spell at those heroes still in the cavern's entry tunnel - which, by the angle involved, included Darrien even though he had stepped fully into the cavern to get off his shot at the lich.

Then Binkadink urged the opal frog forward, sending it into a hopping/swimming charge directly at the aboleth lich, his glaive held out before him like a lance. The blade sliced through the parchmentlike flesh and deep into the bone of the lich's skull, almost becoming lodged before the gnome gave it a tug sufficient enough to break it free.

Gilbert had a quickened dimension door spell at the ready and chose that moment to activate it, using it to get inside the tower - specifically, the top floor over in the rightmost corner from the wizard's point of view. This ended up being the best place to end up in the tower, for it was the site of the cause of the sudden flooding: a man in wizard's robes lay on the floor with his head at an awkward angle, his neck having obviously been broken. The likely culprit was a decanter up by the ceiling, bumping along the corner of two adjoining walls and held more or less in place by the geyser of water spewing from its opening. <Just as I thought: it a decanter of endless water behind whole problem!> Gilbert informed the others over the telepathic link.

But the others were too involved in combat with the aboleths to answer the portly mage. Hagan decided to drop a wall of fire smack-dab in the middle of both aboleths, taking heart from the fact that Finoula's flaming whip of thorns worked just fine underwater, even though the actual flames were suppressed. The spell worked like normal, although the wall was technically made up of scalding steam than actual fire; still, the bodies of the aboleths burned just as well by the spell's heat energy. As expected, the undead aboleth took more damage than did its living companion, its leathery skin blistering and peeling away to reveal the bone and cartilage beneath.

Castillan suddenly leaped off the tower, using the fingers of his left hand to steady himself and slow his fall back down to the cavern floor; as he happened to pass the aboleth mage on his way down, he made sure to give it a good surprise stab with his sword as soon as he got within range.

The aboleth lich was the first of the tentacled fish to respond to the pain of Hagan's spell. It circled away from the wall of scalding steam - burning other parts of its body as it did so - and made a dash for Finoula, lashing at her with its four rubbery tentacles. But even as the elven ranger was dodging out of the way of two of them, the other two were suddenly blocked by Binkadink's flashing glaive - which then plunged deep into the lich's body, piercing the bottom and coming out at the top of the skull, between the creature's first and second glassy eyes. It fell to its side as it died, allowing Binkadink to extricate his glaive from its body before it was yanked from his grasp.

Darrien sprinted to the western side of the wall of steam, targeting the aboleth mage's broad flank with his arrow of aberration slaying. Once again his aim was flawless but the power of the arrow was not quite up to the task: despite being buried to the feathers in the fish's body, the arrow failed to instantly slay it. Finoula used her whip on the aboleth, not wanting to get near enough to use her longsword, since that would put her well in the reach of the thing's tentacles. She grinned as a burn-mark appeared on the creature's scales, indicating where her whip had struck, but then the great fish-thing exited the wall of steam bisecting its body and made a dash for Darrien. The half-elf ranger was struck by two of the flailing tentacles, but he managed to overcome the slime's horrible effects.

Gilbert, in the meantime, was satisfied he had solved the mystery of the sudden appearance of the lake but decided he wanted help getting the decanter of endless water free from its position in the corner by the ceiling. He therefore took the stairway down to the lower level, passing a well-stocked bookcase whose tomes had sadly all been rendered unreadable by the total immersion in water. (Apparently the unnamed wizard hadn't had time to create the same anti-water barrier here in the fortress that he had done for his library back in his Honeycomb Valley residence.) He then went down to the front door and opened it - despite it being virtually impervious to intrusion from the outside, it opened quite easily from the building's interior. He noted a nonsense word carved into the wall above the front door and wondered idly what it was there for.

Hagan cast a disintegrate spell at the hapless aboleth mage, who by this time was covered in welts and burns, and this time his spell managed to do what it was intended to do: break up the physical structure of the creature it hit. The aboleth mage's body bubbled away into nothingness, leaving no evidence it had ever existed.

Gilbert ushered the others inside the tower, and Malrin - still in the form of a squid - was able to swim up to the ceiling, grab the decanter of endless water around the middle, and spin it about such that its geyser-jet brought it down to floor level. Then she steadied it against the wall, allowing everyone to see the words printed on its side.

<Can anybody read that?> Hagan asked.

<It's Dwarven,> Finoula replied. <The Dwarven words for 'stream,' 'fountain,' and 'geyser.'>

<So how do we shut it off?> Darrien asked.

<It in geyser mode. Repeat command word for 'geyser' - that do it.> Finoula obeyed Gilbert's request, holding onto the decanter of endless water and saying "hurmfaraun" - the third word carved onto the item's side - and immediately the decanter fell still. Malrin released it from her tentacle and it just lay there on the floor, unmoving.

<So what's this guy's story?> asked Binkadink, indicating the dead wizard with the broken neck.

<This the idiot who cause all this problem,> Gilbert explained. <He probably activate it in geyser mode, it throw him against wall, he break neck, and now nobody around to turn it off until we show up. Water spill out of tower, fill up Underdark lake, and aboleths and mind-slaves go check out village above once it flooded. This idiot responsible for deaths of everyone in entire town.>

<Well, at least we got some treasure out of the deal,> Darrien pointed out. <We can go back for that chest of gems now.>

<And we have the decanter,> pointed out Finoula. <An endless supply of water's not a bad thing, and we know how to use it safely.>

<That not only treasure we get,> smirked Gilbert, leading the team back down to the first floor. He pointed out the word carved above the door then ushered everyone outside. Once everyone had exited, he repeated the word carved above the door and the entire tower shuddered - and then shrank down to the size of a small cube. <I hear of these things before,> Gilbert said. <They called Daern's instant fortress. We take it with us, we always have place to stay.>

<Dibs on not cleaning it out!> called Binkadink.

<Dibs!> <Dibs!> <Dibs!> <Dibs!> <Dibs!> repeated Darrien, Finoula, Gilbert, Hagan, and Malrin over the still-active Rary's telepathic bond spell. They all looked at Castillan, the only one not linked into the telepathic bond, and smiled. "Looks like it's you!" Gilbert laughed.

"Looks like it's me what?" Castillan asked, confused.

- - -

That Daern's instant fortress will definitely need some cleaning out, as right now it's filled with water, waterlogged books, and there's a nasty cloud in the privy that's likely to cause filth fever in anyone unfortunate enough to breathe it in while underwater - not to mention the dead body of the "idiot" wizard that's been pickling for who knows how many days or weeks. Poor Castillan's going to have quite a job in front of him!

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: A solid blue T-shirt with no design, to represent the unending expanse of water that an uncontrolled decanter of endless water could eventually produce.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 16
Darrien, half-elf ranger 16
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 16
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 16
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 16​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 10
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 16 February 2019

- - -

Gilbert Fung passed a pouch of coins to the scroll merchant. "It all there," he announced and was slightly disappointed when the wizard-scribe insisted on counting it all out for himself. As if Gilbert Fung, the premiere wizard in the kingdom of Kordovia, would be the type to short-change a creator of arcane scrolls!

"It's all here, all right," the wizard nodded to Gilbert, passing over the scrolls the heavyset mage had requested.

"Of course it all there! I already say it--" but then suddenly Gilbert's tirade stopped abruptly, for he felt the tingling sensation at the base of his skull that warned him an imminent message spell. Sure enough, while the scroll merchant looked on expectantly for Gilbert to finish his thought, a couple of brief sentences imprinted themselves directly in Gilbert's mind: "Rale Bodkin in trouble. Need full team in Greyhawk City immediately. Seek Thunderwolf at Adventurers Guild Headquarters for details. Hurry!"

"Ah, crap!" Gilbert swore to himself. Without another word, he scooped up his new purchases and rolled them up all together - he'd have to sort them out later. He looked around, visualizing where he was in the city. Since he was closer to Ivenheart Manor than Battershield Keep, he swung there first to alert Malrin to gear up and meet them at the keep. Then he huffed off across town, his earth elemental familiar Mudpie keeping pace behind him. Once they got out of the city proper things went better for the portly wizard (if not for poor Mudpie), as he had the elemental sink down halfway into the ground and support Gilbert's weight in his outstretched hands, which he kept over his head while earth gliding through the dirt. Frankly, Gilbert needed the break; he was winded from what little running he'd done thus far.

When they arrived at Battershield Keep to rouse the other heroes, Gilbert was surprised to see them already assembled and in full gear. He was about to ask how they knew to make their preparations - and then he saw a familiar owl perched on Finoula's shoulder - Malrin had obviously geared up herself and then wildshaped into an owl to fly the distance to Battershield Keep. Malrin couldn't speak while in owl form, but the others knew enough that if the young elven druid had flown to them as an owl, there was adventuring to be done.

"We're all ready," teased Binkadink. "What took you so long?"

Ignoring the question, Gilbert looked around at the assembled heroes and asked one of his own. "Where Castillan?"

"We haven't seen him all day," admitted Darrien. "He said he was going to hit the taverns last night and try his luck at cards. Presumably it's going well and he's still at it, or he was up all night and is crashing in an inn somewhere." This wasn't unusual behavior for Malrin's oldest brother; Castillan often made a bit of money on the side playing cards at all hours of the night. However, he made it a habit to try his hand at all of the local gambling establishments rather than pick a favorite; as a result, he could be in any of a half-dozen locations.

"Well, we leave without him," Gilbert decided. He briefly explained the message spell he'd received. "You remember location of Greyhawk Adventurers Guild?" he asked Hagan.

"I do," replied the half-orc. The group had visited there once before, after having rescued Thunderwolf and what was left of his Guild from slavery on the Elemental Plane of Earth. Thunderwolf's Adventurers Guild was hidden away in an extradimensional pocket in the slums of Greyhawk City - at the insistence of the Lords of Greyhawk, after the original building (and several others on either side of it) had been destroyed by a rampaging black dragon the Guild had managed to irritate. The Lords allowed Thunderwolf to start up a new Adventurers Guild, but its new location was not to be public knowledge. "I can teleport us to the alleyway behind the building where it's housed," Hagan promised. "Who all's going?" He looked expectantly at the group of animals surrounding the heroes.

"I'm taking Wrath," Finoula decided, indicating her timber wolf. "Not much sense in bringing Daisy, though. She can stay here."

"I'm bringing Grumps!" Darrien announced. The half-elf ranger had recently become a great fan of the animal growth spell that made his dire bear cub expand to the size of an adult grizzly and he hadn't been able to use that stratagem for awhile now.

"Obvious is coming along," Binkadink said from the jackalope's saddle. Given his position, that was rather obvious.

"Okay, then, gather around," Hagan said, his own weasel familiar Wezhley in his customary place on the sorcerer's left shoulder. With the utterance of an arcane syllable the assembled heroes and animals disappeared from Battershield Keep and appeared in a back alleyway of the Styes, Greyhawk City's slums. "The Guild Headquarters is this way," Hagan said, pointing with his thumb. But before they could open the door to the decrepit-looking building that served as a front for the Greyhawk City Adventurers Guild, the door opened and an armored warrior stepped out. He wore a large sword strapped to his hip.

"Thanks for coming so quickly," Thunderwolf said to the group. "Come on - Rale's this way." And he led them away from the Guild Headquarters, across the street and down a few buildings to an equally questionable-looking structure. He opened the door and stepped inside, beckoning for the others to follow. The building was rather like a small barn or large shed, all one big chamber but for a smaller room off in one corner. Thunderwolf opened the door to this smaller room, and there, on a cot along the back wall, sat Rale Bodkin, one of the Guildmasters who also served as a Lord of Greyhawk.

Rale looked up at the group's approach, and the first thing the Kordovians noticed was that the Guildmaster's left eye was particularly bloodshot. But then, upon closer inspection, that wasn't the case at all: rather, the white part of his eye was entirely red and the iris a deep violet - in stark contrast to Rale's brown right eye.

"What happened to you?" Finoula asked.

"Well, that's a story," Rale admitted, looking up at the elven ranger with his mismatched eyes. He still couldn't get over how much she looked like her little sister, Feron Dru, who had been part of the same Wing of the old Greyhawk Adventurers Guild with the rogue, some twenty years back or more - long before he'd taken over as the leader of the Guild of Thieves and become one of the ten Lords who kept the city functioning.

"So here's the short version. I'm walking down the street, minding my own business, when I feel a sting on the back of my neck. I pull out a dart, see the tip's covered in some sort of poison, and then that's pretty much all I remember until waking up in some underground lab, strapped to a table. I was in and out of it for awhile, but I remember seeing this red and purple eye" - here he indicated his left eye - "floating in a jar of bubbling liquid. Then I blacked out again for awhile, and when I woke up again the jar was empty and my left eye was hurting me something fierce."

"Somebody removed your eye and replaced it with that one?" Finoula asked, aghast at the very concept.

"Whatever for?" asked Darrien.

"Beats me," Rale admitted. "But I wasn't gonna stick around to find out. I managed to free myself from the table and staggered out of the room - and that's when I found myself in the sewers."

"This story just gets worse," Finoula commented to herself, her nose wrinkled in disgust.

"About that time, I felt this...presence in my mind," Rale continued. "It was like a bunch of voices, all trying to tell me what to do. I wasn't having none of that, so I found a ladder up to the surface and figured out where I was. It was near here, in the Styes. I found my way to this antimagic field room we set up for such occasions as this, and as soon as I entered the field the voices - and the attempts at dominating me - stopped at once. But I've tried stepping outside the field and as soon as I do the voices return."

"So he's stuck here for now," Thunderwolf cut in. "We've got Desdemona leading the Collectors in scouring the city for any leads as to who might behind this. And my Guild members will stay here guarding Rale, because we don't know if the telepathic presence trying to dominate Rale is aware of his present location. If it is, they could be coming here for him, as we speak."

"So why we here?" asked Gilbert, cutting to the chase.

"I want you guys to see if you can track down the lab in the sewers," Rale repied. "See if you can find out where the operation was done, who was behind it, and put a stop to it. And if you can find my own eyeball, that would be great."

"I take it, then, you're not sure where in the sewers you were?" Finoula prompted.

"No idea. I can direct you to which manhole cover I popped up out of - that should give you a good idea of where to start. But I was too busy fighting off the attempts at mental domination to keep track of every twist and turn I took in the sewers. Hey, whatcha doing?" As Rale had been answering the ranger, she had brought Wrath over to sniff Rale's boots. She also lifted them up to get a good look at their soles, the better to recognize any tracks he might have left - judging by the muck on the bottoms of his boots, there was a good chance she might be able to spot his tracks and backtrack from there. And having Wrath get the Guildmaster's scent would only help in the endeavor. Rale gave them verbal directions to the manhole cover he used to exit the sewers and the Kordovians were off.

But while following Rale's instructions, Darrien came to a sudden realization. "How are we going to get Grumps down through a manhole?" It was a good question; there was no way the dire bear cub would fit through a hole just barely big enough to allow a human - Gilbert was going to find the process a pretty close fit as it was. The group took a side path into a dark alley so Binkadink could unroll the carpet of teleporting he kept in the group's portable hole. Laying it out flat in the alley, Darrien and Grumps stepped onto it and disappeared. The ranger returned a few minutes later, having put his cub in the animal pen inside the lower, extradimensional deck of their dragonfly spelljamming vessel. "He's fine," Darrien reported back. "I gave him some food from the larder." Looking at the gnome, he asked, "Do you want to do the same with Obvious?"

But Binkadink had been talking it over with Finoula during Darrien's absence. The gnome wanted to bring his jackalope along in the sewers, but given Obvious was the size of a full-grown horse that was going to be a problem. Finoula was the one to suggest a reduce animal spell, which would shrink Obvious to human size - small enough to squeeze through a sewer opening and yet still big enough for his gnome rider to be able to fit in the saddle. She cast the spell on the jackalope once they found the correct manhole and Binkadink climbed back into the saddle. "Is that going to work?" Finoula asked.

"The saddle's kind of a tight fit," Binkadink complained, "but yeah, this'll work. Thanks, Finoula."

Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell that encompassed all of the heroes, linking them together in a mental connection that allowed them to communicate to each other without actually speaking. With Castillan absent, Gilbert could actually affect the entire assembled group, which was a welcome change.

"Are we ready?" asked Binkadink, climbing back down from the saddle and lifting the manhole cover up and to the side. An unpleasant odor wafted up from below, and the gnome wrinkled his prodigious nose in disgust. Obvious would now fit through the opening, but not with the gnome on his back - he'd have to climb back on once they were both in the sewers below.

"One minute, gnome," Gilbert responded, pulling a vial of some potent-smelling unguent from a pouch and dabbing it under his nostrils. "Don't want to smell sewers." That was too good an opportunity for Binkadink to pass up: using his racial ability to cast prestidigitation, Binkadink altered the scent of the unguent beneath Gilbert's nose to mirror that of the stench rising from the sewers below. "Guh!" Gilbert complained, looking suspiciously at the bottle before he put it back in his pouch. He suspected he'd been had by the merchant he'd purchased this gunk from - it didn't seem to be working worth...well, crap. Binkadink suppressed his smile and looked the other way, the very face of innocence.

"I'll take Wrath down first," Finoula offered. Leaning down, she scooped up her timber wolf and stepped onto the ladder leading down into darkness. Once fully below the surface of the street, she stepped off the ladder and onto the wall, shifting her weight as she did so, and walking down the rest of the way, courtesy of her boots of spider climbing. The everburning torch tucked under her arm provided enough light for her to see when she got to the bottom - it was about 30 feet or so below the street above. Once reaching the bottom, she gratefully set Wrath down - he was heavy! The wolf snorted at the unpleasant odors in the sewers but sniffed about, seeking Rale's scent. Malrin alit upon Finoula's shoulder, still in her owl form. The owl's smaller size would likely come in handy while maneuvering through the cramped tunnels; this tunnel was circular in cross-section but only about 5 feet tall, forcing most of the adventurers to have to hunch forward when passing through them.

Obvious scrambled through the opening next, wriggling through head-first and dropping the full distance, landing easily on all fours and then waiting patiently while Binkadink climbed down the ladder at a much slower pace. He was glad to leap into the saddle, though: looking at the foul-smelling liquid trickling along the floor, it looked like the little gnome was going to be the only one who wouldn't need to wash his boots at the end of this particular excursion!

The others climbed down after the gnome, leaving MARCI to follow once everyone else had made it down below - they weren't sure if the construct's metal construction would be too heavy for the aging metal ladder, and thought it best not to have anyone standing directly beneath her when she climbed down. But the medical construct made it to the lower level without incident. She scanned about with the red beam from her single eye.

"Rale's boot print," Finoula pointed out to the others. She was able to backtrack his path to an open room, where at least the ceiling was 10 feet tall and she could stand up straight. "He came from this direction." But there were several branches from this central chamber, one being a winding passageway that meandered in a southerly direction, with a larger, circular side-tunnel, some 10 feet in cross-section, leading from east to west. Darrien took a southern side tunnel that broke off from the central tunnel before even hitting the larger chamber and decided to explore it. He saw the larger east-west tunnel before him, but other than the occasional rat he saw no signs of life. Still, he held his Arachnibow at the ready, an arrow nocked and ready to fire should the need arise.

Wrath and Finoula had gone south along the meandering route, reaching the western edge of the east-west tunnel. She could see Darrien's head peeking out from his side tunnel east of her position, and beside him looked to be a larger opening in the side of the tunnel, this one heading north. She doubted Darrien could even see it from his position, so she alerted him to its presence over the mental link. <I'll check it out!> offered Malrin, flapping off of Finoula's shoulder and flying east down the wide tunnel.

Gilbert, in the meantime, had gone to the western edge of the initial chamber and saw a passageway to the north. It made an almost immediate left turn to the east, which, surprisingly, led to a set of wide stairs leading up to another level 10 feet higher. He was about to check out these stairs when his eye was caught by a dot of red on the filthy floor ahead of him - it was a drop of blood, likely Rale's. Behind him, Mudpie and MARCI followed, keeping close to the man each considered his or her master. Binkadink followed behind on Obvious; it was easier to stick to the taller passageways while mounted, and the way Gilbert was exploring had the advantage of containing 10-foot-high ceilings.

Malrin reached the passage by Darrien - her silent flight causing several rats to scurry away in panic, apparently not having expected to have to worry about owls in the sewers - and flew through it. It, too, opened into a set of stairs leading up, so the druid followed, providing a running narrative of what she saw to the others over the telepathic link. Her owl eyesight could see the passage ahead took a turn to the right, and she mentally envisioned it likely meeting up with the set of stairs Gilbert had announced he'd found - and then Malrin's owlish hearing picked up a slight buzzing from just ahead. She didn't have time to puzzle over its likely source before a mass of tentacles dropped down upon her.

Malrin felt a sudden pain in her side and realized she's just been stabbed; looking down, she saw a tentacle-tip had impaled her, and while the appendage had wrapped around her, keeping her imprisoned, its tip was draining blood from her body. She screeched instinctively in pain, but also called for help over the telepathic bond.

Binkadink and Obvious were the first to respond. Scampering past Gilbert, they raced up the steps, down the corridor, and turned the corner ahead to find themselves facing a floating, pale-skinned orb, from which sprang nearly a dozen tentacles. Obvious bit down on one of them with his lupine incisors, while Binkadink stabbed his glaive's blade deep into the thing's body. They could both hear the same buzzing sound Malrin had heard before the death kiss dropped down on her.

Darrien splashed into the east-west tunnel long enough to turn the corner and race up the stairs. From his vantage point, he could see a blood-red eye in the middle of the spherical body from which the tentacles sprang. He shot his readied arrow at the eye, but the body swerved in midair at the last moment, causing the arrow to strike the body to the side of the unblinking eye. Behind him, Darrien could hear Finoula and Wrath splashing down the wide tunnel and bounding up the stairs. Farther back, Hagan followed in the ranger's wake, Wezhley still perched nervously on his shoulder.

Gilbert ran up the stairs behind Obvious and Binkadink, casting a resist electricity spell upon himself and his familiar as he ran. MARCI followed, not to leap into battle but to stay near the only true human in the vicinity. She had been built to aid humans, and even though she had been ordered by Gilbert to treat the others as "honorary humans," she knew he was her predominant concern.

Malrin struggled feebly against the strength of the tentacle wrapped around her and constricting her like an anaconda - and then she changed tactics. Willing the change in her body, she wildshaped from an owl to a grizzly bear. The tentacle binding her was forced to loosen its grip as her body expanded, but not enough to allow the druid to escape its clutches. Worse, the tentacle's tip was still embedded in her side and it still sucked up her blood, pulling it through the hollow appendage and into the death kiss's spherical body.

But Malrin wasn't a sufficient meal to the death kiss, especially with other perfectly suitable morsels at hand. It floated toward Darrien, close enough that three of its needle-tipped tentacles could swing at him while six more could still reach out to attack Binkadink and Obvious on its other side. The gnome was hit by two of the tentacles, but fortunately his armor prevented them from getting enough of a hold on him to allow blood drain; Darrien and Obvious weren't as lucky, and they found themselves in Malrin's unenviable position as blood snacks for a hungry death kiss.

With a mighty surge, Darrien managed to extricate himself from the tentacle grappling him. He staggered back, away from the floating beast; Finoula helped pull him back out of range. Binkadink, fearing being caught up in the tentacles wrapping around Obvious, abandoned the saddle and leaped to the floor - but he didn't abandon his mount and friend, instead bringing the glaive cutting deep into one of the tentacles pinning Obvious's limbs and preventing him from escaping. The blade severed through the tentacle entirely, causing its end to drop to the ground, spilling jackalope blood from its hollow length. Obvious, although still pinned, managed to bite into one of the tentacles grappling him, causing his mouth to fill with his own siphoned blood. Then Binkadink's glaive severed that tentacle and the jackalope fell to the floor, no longer attached to the death kiss. But Binkadink's attack had come at a slight cost, for a surge of electricity came channeling down his blade, shocking the gnome. Still, as he saw Obvious extricate himself from the severed tentacles and back away from the floating aberration, Binkadink considered it a price worth paying.

Finoula had her lightning bolt amulet in hand and was about to turn herself into a living blast of electricity to go jolting through the death kiss, but Binkadink called out through the link, <It's got an electrical zap! The thing's probably immune to electricity!> "Well, shoot!" said Finoula aloud, dropping her amulet and pulling out Tahlmalaera from its scabbard as she ran up to the death kiss. A tentacle stabbed out at her as she approached the floating monster, but she slapped it away with her left hand before it could attach itself to her skin, and then she stabbed deep into the monster's core with her longsword, unleashing a wave of sonics through the embedded blade.

Instinctively, the death kiss floated away from Finoula's painful sword, spinning around to face Obvious. With the bleeding jackalope right before it, the creature sent several of its remaining tentacles stabbing at the pony-sized, antlered rabbit, siphoning the jackalope's blood through its hollow tentacles. The death kiss used the blood to heal some of the wounds it had already sustained thus far in fighting these creatures from the world above. It also levitated higher, so it could enjoy the two morsels it had already captured and imprisoned within its coiled appendages.

Even without being mounted on Obvious, Binkadink's glaive could reach high enough to stab up at the death kiss, but before the gnome could strike Gilbert stepped up behind him and cast a flesh to stone spell at the death kiss. The monster's writhing tentacles ceased moving immediately, as its pale coloration darkened to a medium gray. Then the creature plummeted back to the floor below, its stone tentacles snapping off as they impacted the solid floor. Malrin, still in bear form, and Obvious felt the thud of sudden impact with the floor, but as it freed them from the abomination in whose blood-draining clutches they had been trapped, neither complained. Malrin staggered away from the death kiss's shattered body and resumed her normal elven form. Then, with her staff of healing at hand, she liberally applied healing spells to those who needed them - primarily herself, Obvious, and Darrien.

<So now what?> asked Binkadink, looking up at the ceiling. <There's a tunnel up there, directly above, where the monster dropped down from. Do we try to get up there?>

Finoula had spent some time investigating the floor along the upper level where they had fought the death kiss. <There's no trace of Rale having been this way,> she said. <I want to go check out that area where Gilbert found drops of blood.> So saying, she backtracked the way Gilbert had come, going down the western steps back to the area by the original main chamber. Hagan and Wezhley volunteered to accompany her.

<I want to check out this way,> Darrien decided. With Obvious's permission, he climbed up onto the jackalope's back, then stepped onto the top of his head and from there onto his branching antlers. It still wasn't enough to get him to the top of the tunnel, which he could see from this distance turned to the east and leveled out. But that was easily fixed by a shot from his Arachnibow, the ranger causing the arrow to become a strand of sturdy spider-silk that instantly adhered to the top of the wide, vertical tunnel. Climbing up its length, Darrien pulled himself onto the vertical part of the tunnel - this, like the wider sewer tunnel below, was circular and about 10 feet wide in cross-section - and peeked down into the room beyond once he got to the passage's end and saw it veered downward.

The chamber below was a sphere, the tunnel Darrien was in dropping down onto its topmost pole. Looking inside the hollow sphere, Darrien could see another circular tunnel at the chamber's equator, but there were smaller niches all along the inner surface of the hollow sphere, each one holding a humanoid skull; the half-elf ranger could pick out those of elves and dwarves as well as those taken from humans. There were others that were either halflings or gnomes or - worse yet - children.

This all seemed somehow vaguely familiar to Darrien, but rather than try to figure out where he'd seen such an architectural configuration before he shot another silk-thread at the top of the tunnel and lowered himself down into the empty chamber below. He wasn't sure if he could run up the slope to the side tunnel, but he didn't have to; another strand from the Arachnibow aimed at the top of the side tunnel and he could easily pull himself up.

Gilbert, in the meantime, cast a fly spell upon himself and Mudpie. Turning to MARCI, he said, "Go follow Finoula. Stay with her in case she need any healing." Once he saw the medical construct follow his orders (it seemed simpler to send the metal automaton on the path that didn't require extensive climbing), he and his familiar flew up the ceiling shaft to follow Darrien's path. Malrin wildshaped back to owl form and followed.

<What do you think, Obvious?> Binkadink asked his jackalope friend in the language of burrowing mammals they both spoke. He was back in the saddle again and ready to follow either Darrien's way or Finoula's - but Darrien's seemed more intriguing. <Can you make it up there?>

"<Just watch!> replied Obvious eagerly, readying himself for a vertical leap. He made it through the opening, and some mad scrambling with his powerful legs once he got up there got him up to the level section of the tunnel. He then dropped easily into the lower sphere, and from there leaping up into the side tunnel was child's play. By then, Darrien was walking down this side tunnel's length, turning to the right when the tunnel did so. It was then that he recalled where he'd seen spherical rooms connected by circular tunnels before: in the lair of Gzornyx the Evil Eye, a beholder he'd helped Lord Cavelthorne's adventurers fight.

Of course, the beholder floating in the back of the spherical, domed chamber down the passageway around the bend of the side tunnel might have helped Darrien make the connection.

The beholder wasn't alone, either; standing before him were an elf wizard, Felforan the Gray; a dwarven fighter, Captain Ironbull; and an elderly human cleric, Davinda Solarus, who wore the sun-symbol of Pelor upon the tabard over her armor. Darrien gave an involuntary bleat of surprise before backing up back around the corner, casting a spell as he went. A constrictor snake suddenly appeared before him, which coiled and struck at Captain Ironbull, who wore the symbol of the City Guard on his armor. The snake didn't last long as a distraction, though, as the burly dwarf decapitated it with a single blow from his axe. Severed head and headless serpentine body both vanished.

The elderly cleric stepped forward, just enough to be able to see Darrien around the corner. A ray flashed from her left eye, striking the surprised half-elf in the torso. Darrien had submitted himself to magical healing many times during his adventuring career; this felt quite the opposite, as healing energy was drained from his body. He briefly wondered how a cleric of Pelor was able to do that with her eye, and that's when he noticed her eyes weren't both the same color.

But then Felforan stepped around the corner. He lashed out with a chain lightning spell, targeting Obvious as the primary and sending arcs of electricity to strike at Binkadink, Darrien, and Malrin. The elicited cries of pain indicated the spell had had its desired effect upon the intruding heroes.

<We're fighting a beholder and three cohorts!> Darrien called over the link, to let Finoula and Hagan in on what was transpiring on this side of the sewers. Finoula, however, had just discovered a secret door along a slightly discolored span of bricked sewer wall; pushing along the right side caused the section of wall to hinge inwards. Stepping into the narrow passageway thus exposed, the elven ranger noted the handle on the other side of the door - it was a "secret" door only from the rest of the sewers; from this side, it was perfectly obvious there was a door there.

<I've just found a secret door!> Finoula explained over the mental link. <Do you want us to come help you guys?>

Gilbert gave it a moment's thought. <No, you check out your way. Maybe it a way to sneak behind beholder.> That decided, Finoula pressed forward, Wrath, Hagan and MARCI following behind her. The passageway kept going north for a ways before turning west and leading up a short flight of stairs. The passageway seemed to come to a dead end there, but based on her previous discovery, Finoula imagined if she pushed along the right side of the wall any secret door hidden there would open - and she was right. The trio stepped into a crude bedroom, with a cot along one wall and a crate and barrel serving as a makeshift table and chair. A wooden coat rack in the corner held several robes and bloody aprons. Finoula frowned in distaste but pressed on through the room. There were doors to the south and west; she chose the western door as that was the one most likely to lead to the other heroes.

Malrin flapped around the corner and cast a flame strike at the assembled enemies; the way they were distributed she had to ignore the dwarf in order to get the beholder, the elf, and the human. As the flames erupted down from the room's ceiling, she was glad the beholder's central eyelid was closed; she'd heard a beholder's big eye sent out an anti-magic ray that would have negated her spell. But the spell went off without hitch, and with any luck the druid's enemies would assume she was just a harmless familiar or pet, not the source of the spell.

Vrgolkryn kept his central eye shut despite the pain of the spell; as things stood, he had no other option, for his three hivemind minions were in the path of his central eye's range - and in any case, he could see perfectly fine around him with the ten eyes on his eyestalks. Most of the intruders were still around the corner, so there wasn't much he could do offensively with his eye rays at the moment, so he called upon their newest power: three of the eyes shot beams of energy in the corner of the tunnel, and in the areas where they hit three more of his hivemind minions popped into view. The first of these was a powerfully-built dwarf, Borrin Stonefist; the next was a half-elven woman in a flowing dress, Jillianna Vanderblaine; the third was a big-bellied human man, Robun Krendlemann. Like the first trio, each had a pair of mismatched eyes, the left eye being a graft from tissue from the end of one of Vrgolkryn's own eyestalks. Also like the first trio (and Rale Bodkin before them), each was also one of the secret Lords and Ladies of Greyhawk. Vrgolkryn's charmed assistants had abducted each of the Lords in turn, allowing them to be ocularly modified and joined into the hivemind which allowed the elder orb to control their actions - all but Rale, who had somehow managed to overcome the attempted domination, even now.

Captain Ironbull turned the corner to face the enemies, taking the opportunity to slice the head of his axe into the owl flying nearby. Malrin called out, <I'm hit!> over the Rary's telepathic bond spell, adding <I'm playing dead!> for the benefit of the rest of the team as she dropped to the stone floor and remained motionless. Hopefully, the beholder and its dominated foes would assume she was dead and leave her alone, for she was seriously hurt by the axe's blow - but she was equally sure she could surreptitiously cast a healing spell upon herself without being noticed.

Felforan rounded the bend, stepping beside the dwarven Guard Captain and casting a flesh to stone spell at Darrien. The half-elf ranger was struck square-on by the spell, and only just managed to shrug off its intended effects. But then Davinda stepped up behind the elven wizard and targeted Darrien with a slay living spell, and this time the half-elf's fortitude was not up to the task of fending off the spell. His heart exploding in his chest, Darrien keeled over where he stood, his mental cries of pain diminishing to nothing over the Rary's telepathic bond spell.

Borrin raced forward, stepping on Malrin's fallen form (it was all she could do not to cry out in pain as he did so) on his way to Obvious. Once he got to the jackalope - he endured a slap of the flat side of Binkadink's glaive to do so - he punched the surprised riding mount in the face, hard. Jillianna, not looking at all like a combat enthusiast, send a beam from her eye lancing out at Binkadink, hoping to cause him to be charmed into her service. Fortunately for the little gnome, he was able to fend off the spell's effect. Robun did the same thing, sending a charm monster ray from his left eye to strike Obvious, hoping to get the jackalope to buck off his armored rider - but Obvious's mind was as firm as Binkadink's had been.

Binkadink assume these people they were fighting were all charmed and, like Rale, had not been willing participants in their eye upgrades. Thus, disinclined to meet them in combat, he pulled the horn of goodness from his belt, brought it to his lips, and blew for all he was worth. The note he sounded caused Borrin Stonefist to blink rapidly and look around in surprise at his surroundings. As Binkadink had hoped, the magic circle against evil created by his horn had unlinked (even if only temporarily) the dwarf from the beholder's mental sway.

"By Moradin's beard!" cried the dwarf. "Where th' bleedin' 'ell am I?"

"You were being controlled by a beholder!" Binkadink cried as he urged Obvious forward - not far, just enough for the spell effect to encompass Captain Ironbull, Felforan, and Jillianna while still keeping Borrin well within the spell's radius. These three also snapped immediately out of the beholder's hivemind, looking about them in bewilderment. The half-elf diplomat held a hand to her nose, finding the stench of the nearby sewers unbearable.

But while Vrgolkryn was having four of his hivemind minions stolen from his grasp, his as-yet-unseen ally opened wide the double doors behind the elder orb and stepped forward at the beholder's side. This was a bloodstained human wearing a leather apron over his clothes, a wizard going only by his title: the Chirurgeon. It had been he who had performed the arcane surgery upon the Lords of Greyhawk, to create the hivemind that was to allow Vrgolkryn to be the secret ruler of the city of Greyhawk, by making its ten Lords his mental puppets. And best of all, the Chirurgeon didn't need to be charmed by Vrgolkryn; he was doing this of his own free will, in part because he wanted the experience of performing such an elaborate arcane experiment, and in part because having the secret ruler of all of Greyhawk in his debt could only be advantageous to the Chirurgeon.

Seeing the benefits of Binkadink's magic circle against evil, Gilbert cast the same spell upon himself and stepped forward, catching first Borrin and then the others within his spell's radius. <Go ahead, Bink!> the wizard called to the gnome, knowing the mounted fighter was eager to take the fight to the beholder itself. Seeing she was now surrounded by allies, Malrin raised herself to a standing position and cast a summon nature's ally spell, bringing an ogre-sized earth elemental into being just beside the beholder. Vrgolkryn reacted immediately by backing up, through the doors opened by the Chirurgeon; the elemental swiped at the elder orb with a massive fist but failed to connect. Then Vrgolkryn shot a disintegrate ray at the earth elemental, causing him to dissipate into dust, while simultaneously catching Felforan the Gray in the back with a telekinesis ray. The elf was dragged toward the beholder, taking him out of the area of effect of the two magic circle against evil spells and back into the hivemind - and thus under the beholder's mental domination. A third eye ray shot out, the flesh to stone ray striking Davinda Solarus (Vrgolkryn was more interested in taking her out of the fight for the moment - he could always have the Chirurgeon restore her once the beholder had defeated these intruders and was ready to add her back into his hivemind) - but the cleric managed to avoid petrifaction by mere force of will, perhaps bolstered by the will of her patron deity.

Then, to the beholder's surprise, Captain Ironbull came around the corner. He was too far away from the beholder to attack with a weapon unless he was willing to throw his battleaxe, but rather than do that he shot a ray from his left eye - the effrontery! Vrgolkryn was being attacked by a slow ray that Ironbull wouldn't even have had had it not been for the Chirurgeon's actions! Fortunately for the elder orb, the spell had no effect on him.

But now his other former minions were attacking their former hivemind master. Davinda cast a flame strike down at the beholder, quite accidentally catching the Chirurgeon - who she couldn't even see from her angle - in the spell's area of effect. Robun used his charm monster eye ray on Vrgolkryn, thinking how delicious the irony would be if the monster who had taken over his will would now fall under the Merchant Lord's own mental sway. Unfortunately, Vrgolkryn's will was powerful enough to overcome the attempt.

Felforan, now back in the hivemind, used his own disintegrate eye ray on Binkadink, who managed to shrug it off. Jillianna, in turn, used her charm person eye ray on Felforan, hoping to use enchantment magic to pull the elven wizard out of his mental dominance. It, too, had no effect. Binkadink decided he'd do better staying in the midst of the former hivemind-slaves rather than move forward, so he pulled his seldom-used sling from his belt and sent a stone flying at the elder orb's massive, spherical body. It hit, but did little damage.

But then Finoula opened the door from the Chirurgeon's bedroom and found herself standing behind the beholder, with the Chirurgeon also within view. Hagan didn't even bother entering the room; he cast a feeblemind spell at the beholder. Perhaps because of the unexpectedness of the attack, the spell overcame Vrgolkryn's mental defenses and his mouth gaped open. Furthermore, as at that point Felforan shared the beholder's mind through the hivemind, he too was affected by the half-orc sorcerer's spell and he, too, ceased all attacks and just looked about him in a stupified daze.

Finoula held her amulet aloft and activated it, becoming a sizzling shaft of lightning that burned through the beholder and set her standing before it in her elven form in the space of a fraction of a second. Startled, and having taken a severe amount of damage from Davinda's flame strike spell earlier, the Chirurgeon ran his likelihood of defeating these interlopers when his beholder ally was now a drooling idiot and found his likely success rate staggeringly low. He thus began the words to a dimension door spell, hoping to vanish in the sewers and relocate elsewhere - preferably in an entirely different city. Finoula reacted to the wizard's spellcasting, bringing Tahlmalaera slicing across his chest. She saw his leather apron start to fall forward, its straps severed by her attack and a line of blood well up through his shirt beneath - and then he was gone, his spell apparently having worked.

Gilbert stepped forward, forgetting to keep Borrin Stonefist within the bounds of his magic circle against evil spell, and as soon as the dwarf was outside of its protection Vrgolkryn's feebleminded hivemind kicked in, subjecting the dwarf to the spell's effects. His mind was too shaken at this point to ward off any further mental attacks, and he too lost the ability to reason or do much more than stand about with a dazed look on his bearded face.

"Oops," said Gilbert belatedly. But then he did what he had stepped forward around the corner to do: cast a flesh to stone spell at the beholder. The spell was a success, and for the second time that day Gilbert brought a hovering stone creature falling to the floor and shattering into dozens of pieces.

The beholder slain, Davinda looked worriedly at Captain Ironbull and then both stepped away from Binkadink's magic circle against evil, seeing if the hivemind effect had ended with the elder orb's death. Both were relieved to see that it had - their minds were their own again.

Malrin resumed her elven form again and used her staff of healing on those who needed it. "I'm afraid I can't cast a heal spell on those who were affected by Hagan's feeblemind spell," Malrin apologized.

"Never you mind, dearie," reassured Davinda Solarus. "I'll take them with me to the Temple of Pelor - we'll get them the healing they need."

"Nice spellcasting there, Hagan!" congratulated Finoula. "You took the fight right out of them!"

"What the--?" sputtered Robun Krendlemann suddenly, as he was unceremoniously shoved up against the wall by an unseen force. Borrin Stonefist approached with a sheepish look on his face. "Sorry," he said. "I were just tryin' sumthin' - didn't think these eye rays'd still work once th' beholder were dead an' all - but it looks like they do!"

Experimentation showed that the same held true for the other Lords of Greyhawk. "I say," remarked Captain Ironbull, thinking of how easy it would be catching fleeing criminals with a slow ray always at the ready.

"Shall we get out of the sewers?" asked Hagan. "I can teleport us all back up to the surface, although it will take a few trips."

"Yes, get us out of here!" groused Gilbert. "This place smell awful - and that unguent I use to block smell worthless!" Binkadink remained silent and successfully kept his smirk at bay.

- - -

This took a surprising turn right from the beginning, when I learned Jacob wouldn't be playing with us after all: he'd forgotten an appointment that lasted until 2:30 PM (we start gaming around noon), and as he lives 45 minutes away he'd likely spend more travel time than actual game play by the time he got here. So he had authorized Dan to run Castillan in his place, but I opted to forgo anyone running the bounder at all, simply having Castillan unavailable at the start of the adventure. (As I usually do, I decided he'd have an "off-screen adventure" that kept him at the same XP level as the rest of the PCs.)

I also didn't anticipate the PCs turning Vrgolkryn's hivemind minions against him that easily, but that's what makes this game so fun, even for the DM who knows what all's going on in the background. So we finished this session around 4:15 PM.

Harry excused himself from game play about halfway through the session, complaining of a stomach ache; he went upstairs to go lie down and rest. As a result, Joey ran Hagan for the rest of the session, which actually turned out okay once Darrien got killed - at least this way Joey had a PC to run. And it was Joey's brilliance to have the half-orc sorcerer attack Vrgolkryn with a feeblemind spell; had Harry still been running his own PC, he'd likely have stuck to his usual chain lightning, polar ray, and disintegrate spells - he's all about the damage dice, that one.

Fortunately, I had built in variable treasure for this adventure: the Lords of Greyhawk would reward the PCs with 10,000 gp per Lord rescued from the hivemind without being slain; since they managed to do so without a single Lord's death, that netted them a cool 100,000 gp. Even after paying for a true resurrection spell for Darrien, that left everyone sufficiently rewarded that the players are all going to be thumbing through the DMG to see what their PCs might wish to purchase before leaving Greyhawk City.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My plain grey T-shirt, to represent Greyhawk City.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 16
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 16
Darrien, half-elf ranger 16
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 16
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 16
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 16​

Game Session Date: 9 March 2019

- - -

The day began on a rather interesting note: shortly after breakfast, a giant humanoid standing some 25 feet tall walked up to the drawbridge of Battershield Keep. He appeared unarmed, wearing only a simple white toga and leather sandals with crisscrossing straps rising up to just beneath his knees. "I would speak to the team of adventurers within," he bellowed.

Castillan was the first to approach, as he was the closest to the drawbridge when the visitor arrived. He looked up at the massive form, seeing a clean-shaven face looking down at him. Unlike many of the giants the bounder had seen, this fellow seemed perfectly-proportioned, as if a human being had suddenly been grown to nearly five times his own normal height. "Um, hello," said the elf. "Can I help you?" Castillan didn't appear to be armed, either, but he knew all it would take was a snap of his fingers and his blades would instantly appear in his hands, if it came to that.

"I am the titan, Leandros. I have been challenged by a rival, War Titan Takhios, to assemble a team of six proxies to compete in a friendly game of Titan Chess. I have heard good things about your group and wish to hire you on as my team."

Hagan stepped out of the main building in the keep's interior and saw a pair of giant legs on the other side of the lowered portcullis. He instantly cast a dimension door spell that sent him - and his weasel familiar Wezhley, perched in his usual place upon the half-orc's left shoulder - to the top of the northwestern tower, where he looked down at the titan outside the keep and could cast spells down upon him if needed. But it didn't seem likely; Leandros looked up at the half-orc sorcerer's sudden appearance and gave him a wide smile.

"You need not have played Titan Chess before," Leandros assured Hagan, addressing his comments to him now instead of Castillan. "The rules are simple and straightforward. But there is a prize up for grabs that I would claim as my own: Frostreaver, a 20-foot-waraxe. It cannot be purchased directly, merely won as a prize, but I will pay each of you 2,000 pieces of gold simply to represent me in the game – and I will increase that amount tenfold should you win." Castillan practically salivated at the thought of being paid 20,000 pieces of gold merely to join in a chess game. The rest of the team had just made a lot of money down in Greyhawk without him; this was a chance for him to earn a sizeable amount for what didn't seem like a whole lot of work.

"I'm in!" he said enthusiastically.

"Me too!" added Binkadink, who had sidled up during the conversation. Behind him, Finoula and Darrien warily approached the portcullis, hands on weapons if not actually drawing them.

"Team of six, you say?" asked Gilbert. "Me and Mudpie in as well!"

"By all means, I would have a wizard of your power on the team!" boomed Leandros. "But your elemental must stay behind, as must all animals, be they riding mounts or familiars, or...whatever that metal woman might be." He looked down at MARCI in puzzlement as she approached Gilbert Fung; the automaton tended to follow the human wizard around to see to his needs.

"So I can't take Obvious?" Binkadink asked, crestfallen.

"The team I have in mind will consist of you, Binkadink Dundernoggin; you, Hagan; you, Castillan Ivenheart; you, Finoula Cloudshadow; you, Darrien; and you, Gilbert Fung. Those six, and those six only. If you all agree, we will be off immediately. By my word, I will have you returned safe and sound to your home by this time, two days hence. What do you say?"

Gilbert looked at the others as Hagan ran with Wezhley to the stone steps at the back of the Keep so he could join the others in the courtyard. "We in," the portly wizard announced.

"Excellent!" beamed Leandros. "Then gather your weapons and armor, that we might depart!" The heroes dashed into their individual quarters to gather up any needed equipment, then Gilbert sent MARCI to go explain things to Helga while Binkadink pulled the chain that raised the portcullis. The group of six stepped across the lowered drawbridge as MARCI and Helga approached to see the group off. "Ye take care, all of ye!" admonished Helga. "I'll have pies waitin' for ye when ye return!" she promised. MARCI, in the meantime, lowered the portcullis back into place. Mudpie lowered himself into the ground, determined to enjoy his "time off" from wizard's-familiar duties; Wezhley opted to sulk in Hagan's quarters. It simply wasn't fair, and if the half-orc sorcerer returned to find weasel droppings on his pillow, then maybe next time he'd think twice about leaving his familiar behind!

Leandros passed his left arm before him and a shimmering field of energy took form outside the keep - a sparkling circle of silver motes. The titan strode purposefully through the field, disappearing from view. The others followed suit.

The other side of the gate spell was another world entirely. This was made evident by the floating islands off in the distance; with a shock, the group realized they were standing upon another of these islands, this one perhaps a half mile in diameter. It was a world on the edge of winter and spring – there were buds on the trees and remnants of snow on the ground. Leandros didn’t seem to feel the cold despite his minimal garb.

"There," he said, pointing to a large, open field of assembled stones, each 5 feet to a side, forming a grid 24 squares wide and 30 squares long. Eight of the squares were brightly colored: two each of green, yellow, blue, and red, forming a sort of crooked "X" along the central area of the rectangle. "That will be your battleground, where you will face a team of six opponents, striving to win Frostreaver for the War Titan. But I would see the weapon in more deserving hands!"

There were two long, single-story buildings nearby, one on either side of the combat arena. "You will sleep here tonight," Leandros declared, pointing to one of them. "We will go over the basics of Titan Chess, you will eat heartily and sleep well, that you will be refreshed for tomorrow’s game!"

"Are we talking a fight to the death?" asked Finoula. Twenty thousand pieces of gold was a significant amount of coin, but her life meant more to her than mere money.

"To the death, aye," agreed Leandros. "But fear not: I have declared you will return to your homes as hale and hearty as you are now, and I intend to keep that promise!"

"Our souls still inside our bodies when we return home?" Gilbert pressed, trying to find any hidden loopholes in this deal.

Leandros laughed heartily, clearly not offended by the wizard's mistrust. "Indeed, Gilbert, just as you are now! Now then, gather around and I will explain the rules of the game."

As it turned out, "Titan Chess" really had very little to do with chess at all - it was just a fancy term for a specific type of arena battle. The teams could be of any size; Takhios had challenged Leandros to a competition between six-person teams, which is how the team of Kordovians had been chosen. Of course, there was no specific requirement to choose a group already consisting of six members; Leandros could have just as easily chosen six individuals who had never met each other before, but he preferred fielding teams with a previous history of working together.

"You've played this game before, then?" asked Darrien.

"Yes, many times - but never for a prize as vaunted as the Frostreaver! Now, see that row closest to your longhouse? Each of you will start the game on one of those squares. You may bring as much of your normal gear as you wish, but you may have no spells cast upon you before stepping onto the board. Cast all the spells you wish, but only once the game has begun, and by all means only when it is your turn."

"Explain," commanded Gilbert.

"As with normal chess, each team moves one of their pieces in alternating turns. You will be ranked in order, as will the six on the opposing team. If we are to move first, then the combatant designated the first on our team will move where he will, then the first of the other team, then the second of our team, then their second, and so on."

"How we know whose turn it is?" prompted Gilbert.

"The square beneath the person whose turn it is to move will light up. Now, I assume you are all familiar with walls of force?" Upon their acknowledgement, Leandros continued. "Each of the squares on the arena-board before you will be bounded on all sides - and 10 feet above the board - by walls of force. Thus, each of you will be imprisoned on a single five-foot square until it is your turn, at which point the square you're standing on will light up and the walls of force touching the corners of your square will drop. This will allow you to move onto another square and as you move, the walls of force will drop or snap back into place around you. Thus, when it's your turn, you will have access to the square you're on and the eight squares surrounding that square - unless you're on the edge of the board, in which case you'll have less than eight. And as you move from square to square, the walls of force will turn on and off such that you are always surrounded by open squares on all sides to which you can move. Is that all clear?"

"So far," replied Finoula.

"When you advance to a space adjacent to another piece, you may interact with that piece, as the wall of force between your two squares will be down. If it's an ally, you can cast a spell on him, pass him a potion, or whatever. If it's an enemy, you can attack. But - and this is important - you cannot take an action unless it's your turn, or the turn of another piece adjacent to you. It is your turn only when the square you're standing on is lit up, and as you move, so will the stones you step upon light up and those you leave stop glowing. When the time you've been given to take your turn is over, the square will stop glowing. So you, Binkadink: if an enemy moves past you and you'd normally be able to strike out at him as he passes, you would be able to do so. But do not try taking any other actions when it is not your turn. You may have taken a grievous blow and be bleeding out, but do not try to drink down a healing potion unless it's your turn! Failure to comply will cause the judges to smite you with a lightning strike from above - and you don't want that!"

"So you can only attack when the square you're on is lit up, or if an enemy whose turn it is is adjacent to your square," repeated Castillan, getting it straight in his mind.

"Correct. You will note, however, that this makes ranged combat all but impossible save for but the shortest distances. Likewise, attack spells are limited to, at most, a distance of ten feet: the square you're on and one adjacent to it. This is bad news for you, I fear, Darrien, for it limits the effectiveness of your bow."

"I have my scimitar," the archer replied. Indeed, he'd just paid a weaponsmith in Greyhawk City part of his earnings to increase the blade's sharpness with a keen effect and the ranger had been practicing with it of late.

"Good man!" Leandros beamed. "Now, note also that most spells cannot pass through a wall of force. Gaze attacks will work, as will teleportation effects, but summoning spells can only be used if the summoned creature will fit on a single, adjacent square to the spellcaster. For that reason, Darrien, you could activate your opal frog, for he is about the size of a man, while your praying mantis and giant fly are both too large to fit on one square. It is for that same reason," Leandros added, looking over at Binkadink, "that your jackalope was not included on this team." He looked over at Gilbert. "And while your earth elemental friend is small enough, to bring him along would have taken up one of my six slots - and I'd rather the six of you."

"What is the purpose of the colored squares?" asked Hagan.

"Ah, that's what makes each game of Titan Chess unique!" replied Leandros. "Each team captain - Takhios and myself - are in charge of two of the colors and what effects they have on the game. We have been given the yellow and green squares. When you go into battle, you will know that stepping onto one of the green squares teleports you instantly to the other green square, and stepping onto one of the yellow squares will cause a heal spell to activate. None of Takhios's forces will know what the green and yellow spaces do, until they observe them in use. However, we will have no idea what effects Takhios has assigned the red and blue squares until we likewise see them in use."

"Can we use their squares? And they ours?" asked Hagan.

"By all means! In fact, you need not know what the effect will be to step onto a square, but be warned: some team captains set their colored squares up as booby-traps: you might find it's a disintegrate spell waiting for some foolish victim to step upon it."

Finoula looked over at the arena-board, and at the other longhouse on the far side of it. "When we will meet our counterparts?" she asked.

"Not until the game," Leandros answered. "In fact, when you're all in your starting stations, the walls of force surrounding your squares will be blue to anyone looking at them, although you'll each be able to see through your own as normal. Likewise, the enemy pieces will all be obscured by red walls of force. Only when two enemy pieces are brought onto adjacent squares and the walls of force are lowered will those pieces by revealed - and indeed, from that point on, those particular combatants will be visible by all concerned."

"So only way to find out who we fighting is go fight them," Gilbert summed up.

"Indeed!" And then Leandros left the group to plan their strategies, after assuring them the longhouse contained not only ample food and drink, but a game table with the arena-board in a smaller scale so they could work out their plans. Gilbert went page by page through his Omnibook, looking at each spell with new eyes - how would the constraints of Titan Chess affect the casting? Hagan, as a sorcerer, had many fewer spells to worry about; he just noted that fireballs would be a bad idea unless he was amply protected from fire energy, whereas chain lightning and polar ray spells (his other two favorites) would still work, but against many fewer opponents at a time than he was used to.

But while Gilbert was fussing over his spell selection, the others made a few plans of their own. Darrien agreed to pass his opal frog to Binkadink for the duration of the game, since the little gnome was better suited to mounted combat. The archer opted to rely upon his magic scimitar as his primary weapon, but he also planned on bringing his Arachnibow and quiver of Ehlonna - you never knew when the opportunity might arise where he'd wished he'd brought them. Finoula practiced using her whip in closer combat than she was used to, realizing she couldn't extend it to its greatest distance during the game. In this way, the day passed in eager anticipation, and by the day's end the adventurers were all ready for their beds.

Morning came with the sounding of three great horns, the signal that the game would begin in an hour's time. The group rose, dressed, and ate a quick breakfast. Then, at a summons from outside the longhouse by Leandros, they exited the building and walked over to the arena-board.

"What, no cheering crowds?" asked Castillan. He'd expected they'd be fighting in front of an audience.

"None but the unseen judges presiding over the contest," Leandros replied.

The group could only see half of the arena-board, for the walls of force along the center were all black. "That's to prevent you from seeing the other team members as they assemble," Leandros explained. "And them, you. Now then, take your positions."

"You don't care how we line up?" asked Finoula.

"Do as you see best. I leave such decisions to you."

The group had already come up with their plans for their starting lineup. Although there were 24 different squares along the first row of the board and only the six of them, they chose to huddle together in the center of the row, with Gilbert in the middle. They had decided they would remain together until it was Gilbert's turn, then he could move along the entire row and cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on the entire group. It would use up his first turn, but they hoped it would give them an advantage over the long run.

There was another triple-blast of unseen horns and the blackness separating the halves of the arena-board faded away, allowing the two teams to see their enemies' starting positions, if not the individuals themselves. Unlike the blue team, the members of the red team were spaced equidistant along the back row, with three squares separating each piece from his nearest neighbors. Then the square beneath Hagan's feet lit up, shining a bright blue, and the friendly game of Titan Chess was underway!

The heroes had been told their relative sequences in the turn order, so Hagan had purposefully put himself at one end of the group's lineup of starting positions. For his first turn, he moved from one end of the group to the opposite end, each square he stepped on glowing blue in turn, and cast a greater invisibility spell on Gilbert as he moved to an adjacent square to the portly mage and the wall of force between them was temporarily lowered. Then the square beneath his feet stopped glowing and one of the red pieces - the leftmost combatant, indicated only by his position, for the four walls of force around him moved as he moved - charged straight ahead. He managed to move forward 16 squares in the time he'd been allotted for his turn.

Castillan was next and he followed Hagan's pattern: moving from one side of the huddle along the first row to the other, the better to align himself for Gilbert's spellcasting. Then the rightmost red piece moved straight ahead, also moving forward by 16 squares. The red team seemed eager to advance into battle, whereas by all appearances the blue team members huddled as far from combat as they could.

But this was just to allow Gilbert to cast his Rary's telepathic bond spell on the assembled group once it was his turn. <Everybody hear me okay?> Gilbert called over the mental link once it was established and everyone chimed in. Gilbert finished his turn at the other side of the huddle, having backed into the first row again - and was now the leftmost blue piece from their vantage point of the arena-board.

Another red piece moved forward, this one apparently not as fast as the first two members of his team, for he only made it 12 spaces forward before stopping. Then Finoula advanced forward 6 spaces - as far as she had time for after casting a quick barkskin spell upon herself, as was her general routine when anticipating combat. But at least she showed their opponents the blue team wasn't going to stay back in the first row all game.

Another red piece advanced 12 spaces straight forward, leaving the red team perfectly symmetrically aligned with only their two center pieces having not yet moved. Darrien followed Finoula's course of action, casting a barkskin spell and moving forward. Then another red piece advanced 12 spaces forward, making it Binkadink's turn. He dropped the opal frog onto the square ahead of him, leaped upon its back after it had achieved its full size, and then the gnome urged him forward, extending his retractable glaive to about an 8-foot length, the longest he'd be able to swing it comfortably in these confined areas. The final red piece finished the first round of turns by moving forward 12 squares.

Hagan cast another greater invisibility spell, this time upon himself (for he could see the advantage in having their primary spellcasters still hidden from view when the blue shielding was eventually extinguished), and moved forward beside Binkadink and the frog. That made it the first red piece's turn again, and he moved straight forward, all the way to the blue team's starting row, then turned and made a bee-line for Gilbert, the closest piece on the left side of the arena-board. <We got incoming!> Gilbert announced over the link, as if the others on his team weren't all watching to see the first enemy revealed. As the red piece made his final move, the blue and red colors surrounding Gilbert and his enemy disappeared, revealing an empty space where Gilbert was standing (for he was under the effects of Hagan's greater invisibility spell), and what at first glance appeared to be a gargoyle on the square right next to him.

<Gargoyle!> announced Binkadink, but Gilbert wasn't too sure. Superficially, it had the standard gargoyle's physiognomy, but there were obvious differences, mainly in the coloration: true gargoyles could pass for stone creatures and thus had skin tones reminiscent of stone, whereas this creature had a reddish-brown skin. Gilbert could also see it breathing, something nearly imperceptible in true gargoyles. He wished he had the time to consult his Omnibook to be sure, but he hazarded a guess over the mental link. <Think that a nabassu demon!>

Fortunately, the nabassu had used up its full turn just in getting adjacent to Gilbert's square, so the square beneath its taloned feet stopped glowing before it could put its teeth or claws to good use - it didn't carry any weapons, not that Gilbert guessed it needed them. Demons often had a wide array of spell-like abilities they could employ, and Gilbert hurriedly tried recollecting what nabassus could do. They had a gaze attack, he was pretty sure, but good luck using a gaze attack on an invisible opponent!

Castillan moved over to attack the nabassu, revealing himself as he attained an adjacent square. He only had time for a single strike with his vampire's fang dagger, recently traded by Gilbert for an adamantine dagger; the wizard had figured the bounder could put that weapon to better use than he could, for in truth the wizard was hardly ever reduced to using a hand-held weapon, whereas those were Castillan's stock in trade. The vampire's fang dagger slid into the nabassu's flesh, siphoning off some of the demon's life energy and temporarily imbuing the elf with its stolen power. For the next hour or so, Castillan would enjoy a slightly greater amount of vigor, which he figured could certainly come in handy when fighting for his very life in a combat arena.

Another red piece initiated combat, revealing a raging bugbear barbarian in full battle frenzy. He swung his morningstar in a two-handed grip at Binkadink; if he was surprised to see his suddenly-revealed enemy to be a gnome on a man-sized frog he gave no indication of it. But Binkadink ducked beneath the blow and the morningstar whizzed harmlessly over his head; when the bugbear's stone square stopped glowing, the gnome could see it took considerable effort for the barbarian to momentarily cease his attack.

<A demon and a bugbear so far,> Finoula pointed out. <I think we're fighting a team of evil!> That was actually a relief to the elven ranger; she'd been worried about having to kill unknown enemies who might have been completely innocent. And while she assumed War Titan Takhios would see to the resurrection of his slain troops, that wasn't necessarily a given.

But now it was Gilbert's turn, and with a suppressed chuckle of glee he cast an Otto's irresistible dance spell on the nabassu, eagerly awaiting the look on the demon's face when it started capering around against its will. But Gilbert was denied his glee, for the spell failed to take effect. In fact, the demon just grinned at Gilbert, and the wizard got the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that the nabassu hadn't just been grinning in his general direction, but at him specifically. Belatedly, Gilbert recalled that many demons had an innate sense of true seeing; if such was the case here, Hagan's greater invisibility spell was no protection at all!

Another piece came close to Finoula but stopped short, preventing the heroes from determining just what they were facing. It was a spellcaster of some sort, though, for the space between it and Finoula was suddenly occupied by a deinonychus, which attacked the ranger with the talons on one hind leg. Finoula jumped back in time to avoid being eviscerated and was pleased to see the dinosaur didn't press its attack once the square beneath it stopped glowing - either it was well-versed in the rules of Titan Chess or its spellcaster was controlling its movements.

Finoula was up next and decided she wanted to see this hidden spellcaster for herself. She needed only to move one square away, diagonally across from the deinonychus, to do so, and then the dinosaur's master was revealed: a lizardfolk with stripes of colored paint dabbed on its face and arms, likely a cleric of the lizardfolk deity. Finoula stabbed at the lizardfolk's belly with Tahlmalaera and sent her flaming burst whip of thorns (recently upgraded in Greyhawk City) striking at his legs. Both weapons struck true and the lizardfolk hissed in pain.

But now another red piece initiated combat, attacking Finoula from another side. The githzerai monk, now revealed, connected with his punch, sending Finoula momentarily reeling but fortunately remaining on her feet.

Darrien moved forward, scimitar in hand, and attacked the lizardfolk cleric and revealing himself to the other team in the process. It was starting to be a scrimmage there in the middle of the arena-board, with Darrien and Finoula fighting off a lizardfolk cleric, a summoned deinonychus, and a githzerai monk, while not too far away Binkadink and his borrowed frog battled a bugbear barbarian. Another red piece moved forward a bit but refrained from entering combat just yet, choosing instead to cast a defensive spell upon himself and thus remain cloaked in obscuring walls of red.

Binkadink sent his glaive crashing into the bugbear, drawing a line of blood across his shaggy torso but eliciting only a growl of irritation from the hearty barbarian. The toad snapped at the furry foe as well but failed to connect, although the gnome got in another good strike while it was still his turn. Then the square beneath them stopped glowing, and he too felt the irritation of the artificiality of this game format - he wanted to just keep fighting his foe for as long as it took, not having to wait for his turn again. The barbarian obviously shared the gnome's view, gripping his morningstar and eager for his turn to strike.

One of the last two pieces still shielded in red moved forward to attack Finoula, revealing himself as a hobgoblin in heavy armor, wielding a greataxe. His weapon struck Finoula a glancing blow on the shoulder, but it was enough for her whole arm to go numb; she barely kept her grip on her whip. While surrounded on three sides by enemies, she tried finding the nearest yellow square in the corner of her eye, realizing she'd likely need healing soon.

Hagan approached the bugbear and let loose with a polar ray spell, causing considerable pain to the shaggy barbarian - and some amount of confusion, for despite the blue shielding dropping away from Hagan's square, he was still invisible. Not able to see this invisible attacker, the bugbear opted to concentrate his attention on the gnome until he'd been slain, then worry about the spellcaster he couldn't see.

But now it was the nabassu's turn and Gilbert's worst fears bore fruit: the demon, imbued with true seeing, sent his death gaze at the heavyset wizard and Gilbert felt the life drain from him. His last thought before he toppled over was, <Wait! The ring! I should have used the ring....> Forgotten in the excitement of the battle was Gilbert's ring of arcane supremacy which, had he activated it, might have caused the Otto's irresistible dance to affect the demon after all. But then all the others felt over the link was Gilbert's mental death gurgle.


<Gilbert! Answer me!>

<Guys, I think he's dead. But watch out, or we'll be next! Whose turn is it?>

It was Castillan's, and he was too busy attacking the nabassu with his short sword of wounding and his vampire's fang dagger to comment over the link, dealing the demon considerable damage in retaliation for having slain Gilbert Fung. The nabassu roared in fury and reflexively spread his wings as if to fly off before realizing he'd be punished by a lightning strike if he moved from his allocated square, as it was no longer his turn. Then Castillan's square lost its glow and the bounder had to cease his attack; the elf and the demon glared at each other, although the latter was careful not to activate his gaze attack on Castillan.

The bugbear's square had just barely started to glow when he was swinging his morningstar for all he was worth. He connected with Binkadink's dragonhide plate armor but it absorbed most of the damage of the blow. And then, Gilbert having been slain, the turn went to the next red piece in the rotation: the lizardfolk cleric. He stepped back, away from Finoula, and cast a spell resistance spell on himself as a protective measure, perhaps thinking the deinonychus would make up for any lost attacks the lizardfolk himself might have made on his turn. Then the dinosaur was allowed to attack and it went after Finoula, raking her with its claws and snapping at her with its razor-sharp teeth. The elven ranger found herself even more in need of healing than before. It being her turn next, she fled from the clump of combatants, passing onto and then over the yellow square which healed her completely - but she was clever enough to continue on the charade of being heavily injured, the better to conceal the yellow square's secret power. The githzerai monk followed Finoula and sent a fist streaking straight at her face. Fortunately, he avoided the yellow square and thus its secret remained safe - at least for now.

Darrien was tempted to attack the deinonychus, but the others advised him over the telepathic link to ignore it; as a summoned creature, it only had a limited presence in the game before it would return from whence it came. <Focus on the enemy pieces!> Finoula called to her fellow ranger, and Darrien attacked the lizardfolk with his scimitar. The reptilian humanoid looked ready for some healing of his own by now.

But now the last shielded red piece revealed himself by moving to a square adjacent to Finoula. She assumed it to be a kenku at first glance; she was familiar with these crow-men since Rale Bodkin had several of them in his service. However, this one had a pair of glossy, black wings rising from his back. The tengu shugenja cast a chain lightning spell at the ranger, thinking to take her out of the picture, perhaps believing she still suffered the wounds inflicted upon her earlier in the combat. Finoula endured the temporary pain of the electrical assault, thinking only how glad she was the walls of force prevented the spell from targeting any of her companions as well - they were all too far away for the secondary arcs of electricity characteristic of that spell to reach them, given the walls of force in the way.

Binkadink slew the bugbear barbarian with three rapid strikes of his glaive on his turn, the little gnome putting the full force behind each strike. With the bugbear's death, it was still nominally a tie game, although the deinonychus was temporarily tipping the scales in the red team's favor.

The hobgoblin fighter attacked Binkadink just as the gnome finished his killing blow on the bugbear; the hobgoblin had been eagerly anticipating it to be his turn and brought his weapon to bear against the frog-mounted gnome as soon as it was legal to do so.

Hagan moved up and cast a chain lightning spell at the hobgoblin; like the tengu before him, he had to settle for but a single target when using a spell usually brought to bear against multiple enemies clumped together. That ended up being Hagan's last act in the game, however, for the nabassu ignored Castillan before him and focused his deadly gaze upon the half-orc sorcerer, ending his life as he had just ended Gilbert's; apparently the demon was tasked with taking out any obvious spellcasters first. Hagan's last thought was relief that Wezhley hadn't come with him after all.

Castillan furiously attacked the nabassu, wanting to take him out before the demon's turn came up again. His blades slid into the demon's sides, but the bounder failed to slay him outright. <Crap!> he called over the link. <We gotta take this demon out before he kills us all, one by one!> But then it was the lizardfolk's turn, and seeing how close Castillan was to one of the blue squares, he decided to try a double-whammy: casting a harm spell on the elven bounder while simultaneously stepping onto a blue square and activating its power. He had to step next to Castillan to do so, and the bounder, remembering it was legal to attack an opponent whose move brought him adjacent to your own square, stabbed out at him with his short sword of wounding before the cleric was able to finish the spell. The harm fizzled out as the lizardfolk dropped to the ground, his throat slit, but the blue square's powers activated, sending an electrical arc of energy - like that of a secondary arc from a chain lightning spell, crashing into the bounder's body. Castillan staggered under the electrical assault but remained standing.

The deinonychus bit and slashed at Darrien, but the ranger avoided the worst of the dinosaur's attacks.

Finoula lashed out with sword and whip at the tengu, hitting the bird-man with both. Then the githzerai tried pounding her with his fists, but the nimble elf was able to avoid his blows. Darrien ignored the deinonychus and moved over to attack the githzerai with his scimitar, drawing blood. The tengu cast another chain lightning spell targeting only Finoula, but paid for the act with a slash across his chest from Tahlmalaera. But then Binkadink led the frog in a spirited charge that ended up cutting the very life from the tengu spellcaster, who was nearly cut in half by the gnome's glaive.

That maneuver put the two teams at an equal footing with four combatants each, but now the blue team had the slight advantage, for one of the red team's "pieces" - the deinonychus - was a summoned creature and would disappear from the arena-board in a set amount of time without the blue team having to do anything about it. The hobgoblin fighter tried to even those odds by cutting down Binkadink, but his weapon was not up to the task. The nabassu focused his death gaze on Binkadink, apparently figuring him to be the most powerful remaining enemy, but the gnome's strong fortitude prevented the attack from slaying him. The demon moved up in any case, approaching the cluster of combatants in the middle of the board.

Castillan opted to use his magic ring to dimension door all the way across the board, ending up in the last row where the red team had begun. He was interested primarily in putting distance between him and the demon who could kill with but a glance; hopefully Binkadink could handle him while the bounder dealt with foes more his speed.

The dinosaur chased after Darrien, as if upset at having been ignored by the half-elf ranger who had sought more important foes. The dinosaur's attacks failed to connect as Darrien nimbly moved aside on his square. Finoula chose the githzerai as her next opponent, not because he was the most powerful but because he was right there by her and she could get in more attacks against him by staying on the square she already occupied rather than wasting time moving elsewhere. Tahlmalaera got its first taste of githzerai blood and the flaming burst whip of thorns caused a small, fiery explosion upon striking the monk's legs. The githzerai followed the elf's logic and made a full attack upon Finoula, not causing near as much damage as she had just given him.

Darrien swapped his scimitar for his Arachnibow and practiced a move he'd been working on: shooting more than one arrow at a time with one shot. The arrows streaked at the nabassu, several of them striking the demon, although others just bounced off his thick hide. Binkadink joined in the battle, trying to take out the demon before he could use his deadly gaze attack again, and despite opening several new wounds on the demon, it refused to die.

The hobgoblin ran up to attack Binkadink again, but the ease with which the gnome evaded his blows only infuriated him all the more: it was as if the gnome - the gnome, by all that was unholy! - saw him as beneath his contempt and ignored him almost completely while he focused his attention on the demon.

The nabassu hopped onto a nearby red square, causing it to explode in a fireball that engulfed its own square and the eight adjacent ones all around it - including the one Binkadink and his odd mount were on. At the same time, he focused his deadly gaze upon the gnome again, irritated that his most powerful attack hadn't worked on Binkadink the first time he'd tried it. This time he had better luck, though, for Binkadink gave a startled cry and fell lifelessly from the frog, which had been staggered to near-unconsciousness by the exploding fireball.

Castillan, ashamed at his earlier "escape move" now that it may have cost Binkadink his life, moved back towards the combatants. He got in a strike with his dagger at the githzerai, the only foe he could reach within the time limit of his turn. Then it was the deinonychus's turn, and it dashed straight for Finoula, dug a series of jagged gashes across her side with its sharp talons - and then vanished, the limit of the spell that had summoned it having expired.

Finoula, bleeding heavily from her side, moved up and stabbed the nabassu with Tahlmalaera, driving the blade all the way up to the hilt deep into his back. The demon tried spinning around to face this foe, but a trickle of blood spilled from his lips and he fell forward, dead; Finoula had to give a mighty tug to prevent her longsword from being pulled from her grasp as he collapsed.

The githzerai turned and faced Castillan, fending him off with a stunning blow that left the bounder staggering. Darrien switched back to his scimitar and stepped behind the monk, slicing him across the back as the githzerai was faced with two opponents, each on opposite sides. Darrien's opal frog tried getting into the action, snapping at the githzerai as well, but the attempt overtaxed his already strained body and that was enough for it to revert back to statuette form, effectively taking it out of the fight.

And then the hobgoblin, having been one of the least successful members of the red team thus far, redeemed himself by swinging his greataxe into Finoula's abdomen, causing the elf to drop to her knees - at which point the hobgoblin ended her life with a downward swing.

Had there been an audience watching this friendly game of Titan Chess, they would probably have been on their feet, cheering, by now. As it stood, the only spectators were Leandros and Takhios, who stood impassively watching the battle unfold, and of course the unseen judges overseeing this fight. But now the opposing teams of six were each down to their last two members, and the match seemed like it could go either way.

<Let's pick off the hobgoblin!> decided Castillan, moving into a flanking position with Darrien - one which, not coincidentally, put the bounder on a yellow square. As healing energy course through his body, closing all of his cuts and wounds, the bounder struck at the armored foe before him with his magical short sword and dagger. The hobgoblin spun to face the elf while the githzerai did his best to take Darrien out of the fight, to no avail. But now the four remaining combatants were all lined up in a row: Castillan on a yellow square (no longer providing healing energy until he stepped off it and back on, but at least preventing his enemies from using it as a resource), then the hobgoblin, then Darrien, and then the githzerai monk.

With blinding swiftness, Darrien dropped his scimitar to the ground and grabbed arrow after arrow, sending them flying from the Arachnibow's string into the hobgoblin at near point blank range. The hobgoblin's expression said he couldn't believe he'd been brought down by a half-breed elf, but he had: arrows sticking through rents in his armor, he crashed to the ground, dead. Castillan, on his turn, abandoned his yellow square to race around to the githzerai's back, so he and the half-elf ranger could flank him from two sides.

The githzerai got in several powerful blows on Darrien, who had perhaps neglected his own defenses in taking out the hobgoblin, but he remained standing after the monk's time was up. Then it was Darrien's turn again and he sent a handful of arrows at the monk, who managed to knock the first one out of the air but got hit with two of the following three. And then Castillan sent his short sword of wounding through the githzerai's body, its bloody blade sticking out of the monk's belly as Castillan's final blow lifted his foe off his feet. He lifted one of his feet to the monk's back and kicked, pulling his blade out of the corpse and allowing it to fall to the ground.

<Is that it? Did we win?> asked Darrien, looking around in a daze for any other enemies on the arena-board. There were none; Castillan and Darrien were the only remaining pieces still alive.

War Titan Takhios gave a sour-faced nod of congratulations to Leandros, then turned on his heel and stomped away. Leandros stepped onto the board and bent down to pick up the slain heroes, one by one, and lay them carefully on the ground just off the arena-board. He posed each, lying upon their backs with their arms crossed on their chests.

"You promised we'd all make it back home in perfect health," Darrien reminded the titan.

"And so you shall," promised Leandros. "But that will be tomorrow. Tonight we feast, and drink to the glorious deaths of your companions!" He stood to his full height and held out his right hand; immediately, a 20-foot-tall waraxe materialized in Leandros's hand - the Frostreaver, the game's coveted prize. Neither Darrien nor Castillan felt much like celebrating; they worried that Leandros might not keep his promise, and without Gilbert the two heroes had no way of returning to their own plane.

But they needn't have worried for in the morning, Leandros led them back out to the arena-board, where the slain heroes were rising as if having just awakened from a long sleep. "This is Ysgard!" boomed Leandros. "On this plane, those slain in combat rise the next morn at their full strength, ready for another day of glorious battle!"

"No more battle for me!" insisted Gilbert Fung. "We not paid yet for chess game! We win?" he asked Darrien and Castillan; seeing as they had approached the board from the longhouse and not woken up on the ground like the others, he assumed they had survived the game - and surviving blue pieces could only mean a victory for the blue team.

"We won," Castillan reassured the wizard. Leandros led the newly-resurrected heroes into the longhouse for a quick breakfast before opening a gate that returned them, as promised, back to Battershield Keep. And he had their payment for them as well; even Gilbert wasn't sure how the titan had done it, but upon their arrival there were six large chests of coins, one for each of the heroes, sitting just outside the moat of the keep, by the drawbridge. "Well earned, my friends!" boomed the titan, still glowing at their recent victory on his behalf - and his successful procurement of the Frostreaver. "I will remember you well, should I find myself in need of a mighty team of mortals again!" And then he stepped back into the silvery gate behind him, which disappeared as soon as he had vanished through it.

"Let's lug these inside," suggested Binkadink, heading for the nearest chest. And then a female voice called from inside the keep.

"You're back!" cried Helga. "Who wants pie?"

- - -

I've wanted to try a "living chess battle" adventure for some time - decades, really, since reading "The Chessmen of Mars" back in junior high. This is where I finally put the idea into action, although the first thing I abandoned was the notion of chess pieces and their different ways of moving across the board, followed swiftly thereafter by the concept of two chess-playing opponents moving their pieces around based on which moves made the most sense - that would easily get boring fast for someone whose PC was a seldom-moved game piece. So the adventure ended up being not very chesslike at all, but still a great deal of fun - even though the way the adventure was structured meant that as soon as a player's PC was slain in the game, that was it for them for the whole session.

In fact, that was also a bit ironic: Dan plays Gilbert Fung, one of only two primary spellcasters in the game (and the other is Harry's Hagan, who as a sorcerer doesn't need to prepare his spells). Dan spent a good 20 minutes or so of session time going through all of Gilbert's spells, deciding how each would work based on the wall of force limitations of Titan Chess. He had several plans lined up, too - so it was doubly ironic that Gilbert was the first one slain. Dan was the one who remembered Gilbert's ring of arcane supremacy, too - about a half hour after his PC's death, and much too late in the adventure to retroactively give him another shot at making the nabassu dance uncontrollably. Had that spell worked, the game might have played out very differently.

Still and all, this was an interesting experiment and a fun change of pace - and those walls of force really did make for a different gaming experience. And after the adventure was completed, everyone sat down and leveled up to 17th as a result of the experience gained in playing a friendly game of Titan Chess.

Now all they have to do is decide how to spend their 20,000 gp.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Dalek "Exterminate!" T-shirt, given that each team was attempting to kill the other members of the team.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 17​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 17​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 17​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 17​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 17​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 17​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 10​
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 4 May 2019

- - -

The Vistani wagon slowed as the garrison building came into view. Aithanar brought the two black draft horses, Castor and Pollux, to a full halt before lines of armed and armored men being given weapons instruction by a large, burly half-orc with a vast assortment of weapons hanging on his belt and strapped to his back. Aerik Battershield leaped from the seat of the wagon at Aithanar's side as Gilbert, Mudpie, Malrin, and Hagan opened the back of the wagon and exited, eager to see what it was the dwarf had brought them to see. Castillan and Darrien slid down from the wagon's roof while Finoula dismounted from Daisy's saddle, carrying the basket of loaves of bread Helga had baked earlier that morning, while Binkadink likewise dropped down from Obvious's saddle and joined the others.

"Slayer!" Aerik called over to the assembly of fighting men as the heroes gathered around him. "Brought th' men some loaves, an' I wantcha t' meet some o' me friends!" The half-orc approached, streaks of gray at the temples of his dark hair. The heroes easily recognized him as the former King Galrich but he seemed not to recognize them. Aerik started the introductions but Slayer went immediately to Finoula, approaching her with his burly arms held out wide.

"Feron!" he cried with a wide grin, grabbing the elf in a bear hug that would have caused her to drop Helga's basket if not for Aerik's timely assistance. "Glad to see you! What brings you to this part of the world?"

"Uh," replied Finoula, unsure of what to say. She knew she and her half-elf sister Feron bore a remarkable resemblance to each other, but she also knew King Galrich's mind was no longer all it had once been and his memory of recent events was all but shot. Was it better to correct him or to play along with his assumption?

"She's helpin' out th' kingdom, same as you," interjected Aerik, leaving the elf's identity up for the half-orc's own determination. He then introduced the rest of the heroes to the man who until recently had served as their king, referring to their former liege only as "Slayer." They played along with the introductions, neither of them giving any indication that they had known him for years - or that he was personally responsible for their status as Kordovia's adventuring group in the first place. Aerik waved one of the men over to take the basket of baked goods and then allowed Slayer to get back to training the men stationed at the garrison.

"'is mind's deterioratin' fairly rapidly," Aerik confided to the others, once back out of earshot of the former king. "'e don't rightly recall most o' th' last twenty years or so - but his weapon prowess's as good as it ever were. I talked it over with th' Queen, an' she agrees 'twere best if 'e finishes out what days're left 'im as a mercenary. Most o' th' men here know who 'e really is - or at least suspect it - but they're a good lot and they'll not be lettin' th' secret out t' any outsiders. An' 'e truly enjoys leadin' these warriors; 'e still got plenty 'e c'n teach 'em. And nothin'll give 'im greater pleasure than leadin' these men into battle against th' next wave o' orcs 'n' goblins what decide t' show their ugly faces 'round these parts!"

"He's quite the fighter," observed Binkadink, watching Slayer demonstrate a move with a greataxe that likely weighed more than the little gnome, swinging it easily in wide arcs before him. Galrich might not have any memories of being king, but his days as a barbarian adventurer were obviously still fresh in his mind.

"That 'e is," agreed Aerik. "Anyway, I thought ye'd best be knowin' what's up with 'im. Ye get on back now; I'll be stayin' th' day with 'im, make sure 'e's okay. I'll catch up with ye tonight."

The group returned to the Vistani wagon, Aithanar climbing back up to the front seat and picking up the reins; Darrien and Castillan climbing back up onto the roof; and Hagan, Malrin, and Gilbert - along with their familiars, Wezhley and Mudpie - took their seats in the wagon's interior. Binkadink climbed back onto his jackalope's saddle and Finoula remounted Daisy, her timber wolf Wrath climbing back out from the shade beneath the wagon to trot alongside his mistress on the way back. Then, with a final wave to Aerik and the garrison men, they retraced their way back to Battershield Keep.

"It's sad to see King Galrich in such a state," Finoula said as they approached the keep. The drawbridge was still down, as they had left it; at Gilbert's instructions, MARCI had remained behind and could raise it in a moment at the first sign of danger.

"I don't know about that," countered Castillan. "He seems happy enough training with the other warriors. It sure beats lying in a sickbed, waiting for old age to take him."

"What's that?" Darrien interrupted, shielding his eyes and looking up to the sky. It was a cloudless day, yet a shadow had fallen over the Vistani wagon and its passengers. At the same time, the ranger became aware of a droning sound. Squinting into the overhead sun, he could make out a dark cloud of flying bodies swooping down from one of the keep's towers and seemingly heading right towards him.

From her vantage point, Finoula could see better than Darrien what was heading his way: a swarm of flying insects, beetles of some type, by the looks of them. Tapping into the magical energy of nature all around her, she caused a wall of wind to wrap around the approaching swarm, spinning around in a cylinder she hoped would keep them immobilized in place.

Castor and Pollux slowed as they approached the lowered drawbridge, bothered by the droning of the beetle's wings. Aithanar pulled back on their reins; if this was some sort of attack - perhaps by some as-yet-unseen summoner - it would be best if the group had the maneuvering room outside the keep rather than being boxed in. Once the wagon stopped its forward motion, Hagan and Gilbert exited the vehicle via its back door, Mudpie following after his portly master and Wezhley perched on the half-orc's shoulders. Gilbert immediately frowned upon seeing the black beetles flying higher and higher, seeking a way out of Finoula's wind wall spell, for his magically-enhanced vision identified the insects as undead creatures.

Castillan wasted no time; he leaped off the top of the wagon and raced into the keep; once there, he ran up the northeastern tower, pulling himself up over the ramparts and looking about in all directions, seeking a potential wizard enemy directing the swarm's movements. He saw none but that meant nothing, for he'd been up against invisible foes many times before in his life.

The swarm spilled out over the top of the wind wall spell, flowing over the outer edge and heading straight for Darrien once again. Realizing how useless his primary weapon - the Arachnibow - was against a swarm of flying scarabs, Darrien plucked a crystal from his necklace, aimed it at the center of the swarm's mass, and activated it. Instantly, the crystal vanished, becoming a lightning bolt that burned its way through the the midst of the scarabs, sending empty husks falling to the ground. Seated on Obvious's saddle, Binkadink did the same using his own necklace of lightning crystals, as his own glaive would likewise be all but useless against a bunch of undead insects each no bigger than his thumb.

However, despite their best efforts, the swarm - somewhat diminished in numbers - engulfed Darrien in its midst. The half-elf ranger found himself coated in a layer of crawling, biting insects, the ones skittering onto his face blinding him and trying to burrow into his nostrils and mouth.

Standing up on Obvious's saddle, Binkadink didn't dare use another lightning crystal for fear of hitting Darrien, and, realizing his weapons were useless against the beetles, he decided the best thing he could do was try to collect one for further study; maybe Gilbert would know something about these black scarabs - he had an eerie knowledge about undead things. The gnome leaped from the jackalope's saddle onto the top of the Vistani wagon by Darrien, grabbed a beetle and hugged it close to his chest - and then promptly fell off the side of the wagon's curving roof, landing hard on the dirt road leading to the keep. He at least had the presence of mind to keep the beetle pressed closely to the chestplate of his dragonhide armor; no sense in letting his captured "prisoner" escape after all he'd gone through to catch him in the first place!

Darrien, hardly able to see through the layers of undead scarabs covering his face, knew the general location of the wagon and ran along the roof, leaping blindly at the end and hoping he'd accurately aimed himself for the moat spanning the keep and not the lowered drawbridge - if he'd guessed wrong, he was in for a world of pain! But the cooling waters encompassed him as he sank into the moat and he figured the beetles would soon either be fleeing back to the surface or drowning where they were; either was fine with him! He felt his hidden gill-slits open at the sides of his neck and breathing became that much easier, despite the scarabs covering his nose and mouth.

Topside, Hagan had been about to cast a lightning bolt spell at the beetle swarm when they unerringly dived into the moat, following after Darrien. "Well, that's weird!" the sorcerer exclaimed - in his experience, flying insects usually avoided going underwater.

"They undead," Gilbert explained, cautiously approaching the moat and preparing a spell for when the beetles returned to the air. He wasn't overly concerned about Darrien being underwater this long, the ranger's father had been an aquatic elf and Gilbert knew the half-elf could pretty much stay down there as long as necessary.

Darrien felt the beetles skittering all around him, but they weren't evacuating as he had expected: they were crawling over to the front of his body and somehow merging into themselves. Hidden from view from the rest of his friends, Darrien saw a horrific form materialize before him: a skeletal face with skin stretched tightly across the skull, brown teeth providing the rictus of a grin as the mummy slammed his bony fingers around the ranger's neck. Darrien gave a wordless scream as his mind froze into panicked paralysis, the two bodies floating slowly together to the bottom of the moat.

But while Gilbert, Hagan and the others couldn't see what was going on in the moat, Castillan had a much clearer view from his perch at the top of the keep's northeastern tower. "There's someone in there with him!" he cried out, not being able to make out much of the other figure besides the fact that he seemed to be moving behind Darrien, who wasn't putting up any kind of a fight. The bounder wasted no time; leaping over the side of the tower, he dove headfirst into the moat, straining to see who was attacking Darrien and in what manner. It was some sort of undead, that was clear: a lich, maybe, or a mummy. Regardless, seeing that Darrien was unmoving, Castillan decided that the first goal was to get the ranger away from his attacker, so he grabbed hold of Darrien's arm with one hand and activated the power of his ring.

In an instant, Castillan had dimension doored back up to the keep's interior, just inside the raised portcullis beside MARCI. By holding onto Darrien's arm, Castillan had brought the half-elf along for the ride; the paralyzed ranger fell to the ground upon his return to solid ground, his legs unable to support him in his current state. And then the bounder got a good look at the mummy who had also come along for the ride, by dint of holding tightly to Darrien's back as he was whisked away by the dimension door spell from Castillan's ring. The mummy ignored Castillan completely as he rolled Darrien over onto his front and bent over his still form, fiddling with the ranger's Arachnibow on his back.

Finoula had dismounted Daisy and had been trying to see over the edge of the moat when she saw the trio suddenly appear in the open entrance to the keep. An undead figure was bending over Darrien; instinctively, Finoula touched her lightning amulet and sent herself - in the form of a lightning bolt - across the span and through the mummy, to reform in her normal elven body on the keep's open grounds. The mummy had been aware of the blast of electrical energy coursing through his undead body, but it didn't deter him from his task: pulling the Arachnibow from Darrien's back.

Hagan cast a polar ray spell at the undead thing bending over Darrien, but the mummy had some sort of spell protection in place, for the ray of frozen energy fizzled away into nothingness upon impact.

"At last!" the mummy cried in glee, raising the Arachnibow above his head in triumph. The bow writhed in his hand, reshaping itself into a living spider; as Darrien was the bow's true owner, anyone else attempting to wield it caused it to transform into a spider the size of a small dog, who would have to be slain first before a new owner could be established. If the mummy was concerned about this he gave no indication; still laughing, he snapped out a single word of power and vanished from view, taking the spider with him.

Finoula rushed to Darrien's unmoving form and was relieved to see he was still breathing, but his skin had taken on an unhealthy tone. With a sudden realization, she cried out, "Mummy rot! MARCI -- is he okay?"

MARCI bent over the half-elf, the red beam from her sole eye scanning Darrien's body from head to toe in a long sweep. "Inconclusive," the construct replied. Malrin raced up as well, her staff of healing in hand. "If it's mummy rot, I should cast a remove disease spell on him," she declared.

"Stand aside," commanded Gilbert, pushing the others out of his way as he flipped to the back inside cover of his Omnibook, then started pushing aside images of scrolls until he got to the one he wanted. "He need break enchantment spell first," the wizard declared, beginning the words to the spell. Once finished, he turned to Malrin and indicated she should cast her spell now. Soon after, the paralyzation effect ran its course and Darrien sat up under his own power.

"Who was that?" he asked. "What did he want with me?"

"He was after your Arachnibow," Castillan answered. "Got it, too - although he was fighting it in its spider form when he teleported out of here."

"Well, he not keep it for long," vowed Gilbert Fung, pulling his crystal ball from a pocket of his robes. "We find him quick, then we go get your bow back." He passed a hand over the globe and it suddenly turned black. Gilbert, holding the undead beetle Binkadink had provided as a close tie to the mummy - something that should have made it easier to scry upon the undead form - frowned at the lack of an image. "It not working," he grumbled. "It supposed to show me mummy man - all I see is shadowy outline, nothing else."

"What are you talking about?" asked Hagan, looking over the portly mage's shoulder. "He's right there, in some kind of cavern, bending over a dead spider. You're probably seeing his outline due to the detect undead spell effect on your eyeballs." Hagan was well aware of Gilbert's arcane upgrade he'd performed upon himself years ago.

"You see all that through blackness?" demanded Gilbert, amazed that the half-orc's darkvision worked so well through the arcane sensor tied to his crystal ball. "You be able to teleport us all there?"

"Sure, no problem," muttered Hagan, still watching the darkened image in the sphere only he could see. "It's turned back into the bow again," he said, narrating the undead figure's moves. "Now he's picking it back up. Sorry, Darrien - it looks like he's got your weapon attuned to him now."

"Let's go!" snarled Darrien. He wanted his Arachnibow back.

"Prep spells first," admonished Gilbert, casting a magic circle against evil spell upon himself and Mudpie, then following it up with a stoneskin spell. Mudpie received a mage armor spell from his master while the two rangers each cast barkskin upon themselves. Then Gilbert finished their preparations off with a Rary's telepathic bond spell encompassing all of the heroes but Malrin. "You stay out of fight with mummy," Gilbert admonished the elven druid. "Your job heal us as needed. We take care of mummy."

"You're welcome to him," Malrin commented before wildshaping into an owl and alighting upon her brother's shoulder; the decreased size and weight made it easier for Hagan to teleport everyone in at one time. For the same reason, Gilbert used his slingshot of rock shrinking on Mudpie, diminishing him to the size of a small pebble and depositing him into a front pocket of his robes. MARCI stepped into the extradimensional space of the portable hole, Binkadink and Obvious following only after each taking a big breath of air. Then Hagan scooped up the hole and said the words that should have teleported the group inside the dark cavern the half-orc had seen through the crystal ball.

However, instead, the group was suddenly standing outside at the base of a mountain with a wide cave opening yawning before them. "Wait--this isn't right!" observed Hagan at once.

"Mummy probably got protections around lair," Gilbert mused. "We probably lucky it redirect spell just to outside lair, not into lava pit or something."

Castillan immediately started looking for a way into the dungeon cavern complex Hagan had seen in Gilbert's crystal ball. The cave before them was only about 20 feet deep, but there was a glowing rune of some type carved into the back wall. Curious, the bounder cautiously approached. Some sixth-sense warning alerted him to danger immediately upon brushing up against some webbing and he jerked back before getting stuck. "Invisible webs of some sort," he told the others.

"We see about that!" Gilbert said, casting a see invisibility spell upon his eyes. Then he confirmed, "Sure enough. Invisible spider webs all along back of cave. Not sure why, though."

Hagan, in the meantime, had dropped the portable hole to the ground and let Binkadink ride Obvious out into the open air. MARCI stepped out behind them. "What's up?" the gnome asked.

"Who are you? What do you want?" asked a voice from behind them. Turning, the group of heroes saw a human villager approach, staggering like he was drunk. "Who are you? What do you want?" he repeated.

"We're a group of adventurers--" Finoula began before getting cut off by another approaching stranger, who seemed to have just staggered out of the mountainside a dozen feet or so behind his companion. "It's a good thing you happened by," he said.

Another figure stumbled out through the mountainside wall - obviously a permanent illusion of some sort. This one was an elf, dressed in finery. "No! No! Nooooo!" he cried.

The heroes closest to these drunks exchanged dubious looks among themselves. Then, as one, they took up defensive stances, weapons out as the strangers staggered slowly in their direction. "Who are you? What do you want?" asked the first one for the third time. "It's a good thing you happened by," observed the one behind him, while the elf continued screaming "No! No! Nooooo!" Gilbert loaded Mudpie into his slingshot and fired him at the ground before him, restoring the earth elemental to his full size: all of four feet or so. Still, the familiar stepped protectively before the wizard, defending him from these potential foes.

As they got within reach, the staggerers attacked, their fingers curved into claws. Binkadink had his glaive at the ready and sliced at the first one in line, catching it right at the base of the neck. Blood spurted in a high arc from the wound, but the victim, nonplussed, continued its queries as to the heroes' identities and desires. "Who are you? What do you want?" he asked as his body fell forward to collapse onto the ground.

The head, however, did not follow the same path. Instead, it lurched at Binkadink, the head followed immediately by a segmented body with far too many legs which crawled out of the neck-stump of the slain figure. The human-headed centipede-thing continued chattering, "Who are you? What do you want?" as the gnome gave a bleat of surprise (and no small amount of terror) and took an involuntary step backwards.

Mudpie slammed into the one closest to him, feeling ribs crack from the force of his punch, but all the swaying fellow could say was, "It's a good thing you happened by." Finoula stabbed out with her longsword Tahlmalaera at the elf who continued screaming.

Darrien had been busy removing his cloak of protection, folding it up into his backpack, and putting on his cloak of the white spider in order to try some experiments with the invisible webbing at the back of the cave when he saw the commotion off to his right. Stepping to the side of the attacking trio, he activated another crystal from his necklace and sent a bolt of electricity coursing through all three. But now he could see another three or four stepping out from the illusory wall shielding another cave opening into the mountainside. These figures also stumbled about, speaking nonsense ("By Pelor's grace!" "What the Hell is that?" "We'll have you out of there in a jiffy"). Castillan dodged past the one fighting Mudpie to stab his short sword into one of the new arrivals, and it showed no sign of the pain its body must have felt judging by the spray of blood.

Hagan cast a fireball spell directly into the mass of shambling figures, burning away the host bodies and forcing the human-headed centipedes out into the open. The sorcerer noted their insectoid bodies were covered in spines and that stabbing one with a handheld weapon would likely deal a bit of damage to yourself. Binkadink noted the same thing and extended his glaive to its full length, cutting through three of the abominations in rapid succession. Finoula slashed at the horrors with her flaming whip of thorns, trusting in the weapon's great reach to protect her from any spine damage.

The nonsensical mutterings came to a sudden stop almost all at once, as the centipede-things each opened up their mouths wide and sent acidic fluids spewing at the heroes. The attack was as disgusting as it was unexpected, but it was the only time the hybrid creatures would get to perform such an attack, for Hagan slew several more with a chain lightning spell, leaving Binkadink to pick off the others with his glaive.

"Those things were disgusting!" groused Finoula, wiping acidic spew from her face and flinging it to the ground. Malrin provided healing to those who had taken the worst of the damage from the acid and the spines of their attackers, and then Castillan opted to take point to see what was behind the illusory wall. With the others following behind him, he entered a narrow tunnel that widened out on one side, the wider section filled with barrels and crates looking to have been looted from passing caravans. But there was a closed door at the back of the passageway, and that's where Castillan focused his attention.

Observing no obvious traps, the bounder silently opened the door and found a large cavern, in the back of which looked to be some sort of bloated ankheg, in the process of laying eggs. The enormous, chitin-covered monstrosity looked directly at him, and he immediately activated his ring, casting a dimension door spell that took him clear across the cavern behind the insectoid monster.

Darrien was the next to react, pumping a barrage of arrows at the thing using his spare (and nonmagical) longbow. The thing hissed in irritation and pain, then scrambled over to the door on her insectoid legs with surprising speed. She caught the half-elf ranger in her mandibles, crushing him tightly but unable to maneuver him further into her mouth so she could swallow him whole. Finoula rushed forward to aid her friend, using Tahlmalaera to carve a deep groove into the chitin protecting the monster's side. From further back, Gilbert cast a vampiric touch spell on Mudpie and commanded his familiar to earth glide below the ground to activate the spell on the insect-thing.

Hagan was also further back in the line and unable to reach the monster insect. But all he needed was to see her to be able to cast a spell at her, so he sent a polar ray shooting past Finoula's head. Unfortunately, through some unknown set of circumstances the spell was reflected right back at the half-orc sorcerer and he got the full force of his polar ray right smack in the kisser. Growling in irritation, his anger sent Wezhley scurrying from shoulder to shoulder in agitation.

Malrin, still in owl form and not wanting to rush into battle, landed on Binkadink's shoulder briefly, spending her time there casing a bear's endurance spell on the little gnome. After all, if she knew Bink, he'd be eagerly trying to find a way past his friends so he could wade into battle with the deviant ankheg-thing.

Darrien wriggled from the beast's mouthparts and skipped to her right as Finoula stabbed at her from the left. The thing responded by snapping her mandibles at Finoula, catching the ranger in her mouth but once again having trouble swallowing her prey. Finoula didn't make it any easier for the insect, slashing at the delicate mouthparts with her longsword. And then Mudpie popped up from the ground below her, touching her bloated abdomen and discharging the vampiric touch spell Gilbert had infused in his familiar. Castillan stabbed the creature from behind, his short sword going in deep and releasing a yellowish ichor.

Unable to reach the battle from his jackalope's back, Binkadink dropped down to the floor before Obvious and stabbed through the doorway with his glaive, the blade slicing into the top of the creature's head. Then Obvious ducked his head, catching the little gnome under his antlers, and flipped him into the air, sailing over the insectoid enemy. Binkadink just barely landed on his feet behind the creature, right beside Castillan.

Not wanting to risk having another target-specific spell reflected back at him, Hagan cast a wall of fire spell just past the doorway in the cavern beyond, catching the insect across the middle. (The spell also caught Binkadink and Castillan in its heat effect, but the gnome's armor absorbed the damage; Castillan had no such protection but was willing to put up with a little pain to get this guardian beast slain.)

It was getting crowded in the front of the cavern, so Darrien activated one of the powers of his robe and spider climbed up the cavern wall, where he could shoot down at the monster with his arrows. Gilbert called Mudpie back to his side and loaded his familiar up with another vampiric touch spell, pleased with the results of the tactic the first time it had been employed. But before Mudpie could earth glide back to the chitinous foe, Castillan had slain her with his blade. Her insectoid legs buckled, her mandibles opened slackly, and Finoula was able to crawl back out of the slain beast's mouth.

Hagan dismissed his wall of fire now that it was serving no purpose and Binkadink stepped further into the chamber, looking for other exits. There were two: one was a door along the back wall, the other a natural tunnel leading into a larger chamber. Peering down this tunnel, Binkadink was rewarded with the sight of their foe: the mummy who had stolen Darrien's Arachnibow. But the gnome was a tad too late in discovering the undead foe, for the mummy had the Arachnibow up and aimed in his direction and by the time Binkadink realized he was in danger the arrow had already been loosed and was protruding from the shoulder-joint of his red dragonhide plate armor. The gnome staggered backwards from the force of the blow while the undead mummy proclaimed, "I love this bow!"

MARCI had stepped up to Hagan and was injecting him with a healing fluid to restore the worst of the effects from his own reflected polar ray spell when Obvious leaped forward, Binkadink leaped into the saddle (pulling the arrow from his armor and tossing it to the side in contempt as he did so), and then the two hippity-hopped their way down the narrow tunnel, racing toward their undead foe - hopefully before he could get off another shot.

Hagan extracted himself from MARCI's attention, stepped to the front of the tunnel, and saw the mummy standing holding the Arachnibow and aiming it at Binkadink and Obvious. He cast forth another polar ray, sending it past the jackalope's flank to strike the undead archer. However, Verminus was no mere mummy but a mummy lord, dedicated to the worship of Vecna, the God of Secrets. As such, he had spells of his own at hand, and several such were already woven around the undead thing's form, protecting him in a number of ways. Once such spell was the spell reflection which sent Hagan's polar ray right back at him, for the second time in as many minutes. Wezhley held his ears in his front paws to block the sound of his normally good-natured master cursing in fluent Orcish.

Finoula used her lightning amulet to convert herself into a blast of electrical energy which passed harmlessly through Verminus. When she reformed into her elven body behind the mummy lord, she was surprised to see no reaction from him; the protection from energy spell he had cast upon himself before fetching the Arachnibow was still in effect.

Feeling protective of his fellow elf, Castillan used the last daily charge of his magic ring to dimension door himself to Finoula's side; he knew the undead couldn't be dealt particularly damaging blows to critical points like a living foe could, but perhaps he could still get in a surprise attack before the mummy lord registered his presence.

Gilbert approached down the tunnel, casting an undeath to death spell from a scroll stored in the back of his Omnibook. He had hoped to destroy Verminus in one fell swoop, but on that front he was unsuccessful, for the mummy lord was far too powerful to be affected by such a spell. However, the same was not true of the hundreds of undead scarab beetles Verminus had pocketed in shallow holes all along this central cavern of his, waiting to be summoned to battle. But now it was too late, for undead insect husks rained down from all sides of the cavern, crunching beneath the feet of the approaching heroes.

Darrien was still back in the cavern with the slain ankheg-thing and decided to give the closed door in the back of the room a try. It opened at his touch, revealing a square chamber carved out of the stone of the mountain. Runes inscribed in the floor indicated this was some sort of ritual chamber; Darrien dropped his ebony fly into the room to see if it would activate anything; it didn't. Darrien cautiously stepped into the room, ready to race back if he triggered anything. But the magic in the room was inert and he walked its length to the short corridor he found on the other side. This way was blocked by a large boulder, and at this point the half-elf decided he'd best not do any further exploring on his own; if there was something he couldn't handle by himself on the other side of the the boulder, he'd have no way to quickly put it back in place (assuming he could even budge it on his own in the first place). He mounted the fly and sent it speeding down the corridor to just behind Gilbert, Mudpie, and MARCI.

<Found a back door,> he announced over the mental link.

<Kind of busy here!> was the brusque reply.

Verminus spun about and cast a slay living spell on Finoula, indicating he had been aware of her presence all along. Fortunately, she gutted out the spell and avoided the worst of its effects. But by focusing on the elf, the mummy lord had turned his back on Binkadink and Obvious - a bad move! Binkadink's glaive pierced all the way through the mummy lord and only fear of hitting one of the elves prevented the gnome from slamming it further through the mummy's undead flesh. But he swung the glaive to the side, dragging Verminus with him, away from the others. That set up a perfect shot for Hagan, who took an educated guess on what he knew about spell reflection spells - that they could only cast back a certain amount of spell energy before they fizzled out - gritted his teeth, whispered "Here goes!" to himself, and cast another polar ray spell at the mummy lord. He winced immediately thereafter, half expecting it to bounce back in his face, but it didn't; instead, Verminus took the full force of one of the half-orc sorcerer's most powerful spells. He dropped off the end of Binkadink's glaive, collapsing to the cavern floor in a pile of bones and funeral wrappings.

"Finally!" Hagan said, glad to not be the victim of his own spellcasting for once. Darrien flew up to Verminus and bent to pick up his Arachnibow, noticing at once that it looked different. "He's put rubies into some of its eyes!" he exclaimed, aghast that someone would have altered his primary weapon against his wishes.

"They magical," Gilbert announced after casting a quick detect magic spell. Of course, the entire Arachnibow was magical, but he could see auras of transmutation magic emanating from the ruby eyes on the spider-head that formed the middle part of the longbow.

"Let' see what all he's done to my bow," Darrien said, fully expecting the Arachnibow to transform into a spider the size of a small dog when he tried picking it up, now that it had been reattuned to Verminus.

It didn't. It transformed into spider bigger than a draft horse. But it was still no match for Darrien and his magic scimitar, and after the ranger had slain it and it had transformed back into a longbow, he found he was able to pick it up without further incident.

That wasn't the only change Verminus had made to the Arachnibow. Based on notes they found in a back room (and subsequent experimentation), Darrien found he could now not only turn an arrow into a strand of spider-silk in mid-flight, he could optionally turn it into a full-fledged web spell at the point of impact. He could also shoot an arrow at a foe and have the arrow transform into a tiny spider after it had hit. Furthermore, as long as Darrien was holding the bow, he could walk unimpeded along any of the webs he had created with the Arachnibow, as if under the effects of a freedom of movement spell.

"Stupid mummy do you favor, stealing your bow," observed Gilbert.

"It would seem so," agreed Darrien.

- - -

The group explored the rest of Verminus's lair, finding his treasure without having had to do much in the way of fighting to get it. (I had a cool Colossal monstrous scorpion Verminus could have summoned besides the four undead scarab swarms hidden in the pockmark-cavities in his main cavern, but the PCs killed him off before I could get to any of that.)

Poor Harry was majorly bummed about his spells getting reflected back at Hagan, not only when fighting the mockery monarch bug but then immediately again from Verminus himself. I took pity on him and told him that Verminus's spell reflection spell had been burned off reflecting the last spell (as it had) so it was safe for him to attack him again. I think it helped that his final spell finished off the mummy lord; he was getting pretty frustrated up to that point.

And this was the first time we've played in this campaign for seven full weeks! I hope we can avoid such lengthy gaps in the future.

By the way, I had several possible alternate titles for this adventure. One was "Taking a Bow," which is exactly what Verminus did. Another was "Spider-Man vs. the Beetle," since Darrien's becoming somewhat of a spider-themed character (he not only wields the Arachnibow but also has a cloak of the white spider) and Verminus was a mummy lord swarm-shifter capable of becoming a swarm of undead scarab beetles. But I ultimately just named it after the villain - in part so I could "leak" the hint about the next adventure to the players that the last seven letters of the adventure's title were "-E-R-M-I-N-U-S." That got Vicki worried that her old friend Malaterminus might be making a quite unexpected return appearance.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 17​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 17​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 17​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 17​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 17​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 17​

NPC Roster:
Jinkadoodle Dundernoggin, gnome illusionist 6​
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 11​
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 9 June 2019

- - -

Castillan stood on the top of the northeastern tower of Battershield Keep, looking out over the battlements. It was a sunny, peaceful day - or it was, until the dragonfly vessel came plummeting down out of the sky. It slowed at the last moment and came to a rough landing in the clearing just outside the stone keep. The elven bounder knew something was up at once, for Jinkadoodle normally parked the vessel on the floating sky-island of a cloud giantess friend of theirs, Zaralia, and used the teleport runes hidden in one of the extradimensional lower deck rooms to transport himself instantly to the keep. The fact that the gnome had brought the dragonfly vessel here surely meant something was up.

Sure enough, Jinkadoodle popped up onto the upper deck of the wooden ship and flipped the rope ladder down over the sides, starting to climb down before it had even completely unfurled. "Guys!" he cried. "Guys! There's trouble!"

Castillan leaped over the battlements, using his bouncer training to slide down the front side of the keep's walls and slow his fall. He hit the ground before Jinkadoodle did and ran across the lowered drawbridge to see what the problem might be. Behind him he could hear somebody - Binkadink, likely - raising the lowered portcullis so the other adventurers could follow him outside the keep.

"What is it? What's the matter?" prompted Castillan once the gnome pilot had leaped to the ground. The others raced up behind him while the little gnome paused to catch his breath.

"Blood - blood everywhere!" he cried. "And bodies; I think Zaralia's dead, and there's a dead dragon up there as well! I was gonna land at the edge of the cloud island like normal, only I saw the carnage - I didn't want to leave the ship up there in case whoever did that is still up there!"

"Good call," agreed Gilbert Fung. "Come on - we go check it out!" And then he turned and started back into the keep.

"Gilbert -- the ship's this way!" Castillan called after him.

"I know - I not climbing ladder if I can help it! I take carpet, meet you inside!" And while some of the others followed Jinkadoodle back up the rope ladder to the dragonfly vessel's upper deck, the portly mage went over to where the carpet of teleportation lay over by the stables in the courtyard of Battershield Keep. Darrien, Finoula, and Binkadink opted to take the carpet so they could bring along their animal companions; after a moment's hesitation, Malrin followed suit with Taihar, her dire fox. Once Grumps Junior, Taihar, Wrath, and Obvious had been teleported to the ship's interior, Binkadink rolled the carpet up and took it with him up the dragonfly vessel's rope ladder so they'd have it with them up on the cloud island; it was the easiest way for the animals to disembark.

Once everyone was on board Jinkadoodle brought the dragonfly ship up off the ground and flying into the clouds. It was the matter of less than ten minutes of flying before he approached Zaralia's cloud island. The first thing they noticed was that one of the two enormous apple trees - which grew apples the size of pumpkins - had been knocked over on its side. Near the tree was the sinuous body of Gozragoth, the cloud dragon who laired in the lower levels of Zaralia's island. And closer to the main building lay Zaralia herself, as evidenced by the blue tint to her skin. But the white cloud-stuff all around them was stained reddish-brown, the color of dried blood.

The dragonfly vessel made a perfect four-point landing on its leg-struts in its usual position (the far side of the island, opposite Zaralia's dwelling and observatory) and Castillan dropped the rope ladder over the side. The heroes disembarked, Jinkadoodle following worriedly in their wake.

As Hagan and Darrien approached the body of the cloud dragon, the half-orc sorcerer gave a sharp intake of breath as he noticed something he hadn't seen from the ship: the dragon's head was missing! Judging from the jaggedness of the neck-stump, it looked as if it had been chopped off with a bladed weapon. MARCI approached the headless draconic corpse and shone her red scanner-light over the creature's body. "This creature has been dead for several hours," she announced.

Darrien, in the meantime, stopped to examine the bloody footprints all over the area. "Humanoid prints," he observed. "Bigger than a man, but smaller than a hill giant."

"Trolls?" guessed Hagan.

"No, they only have three toes," Darrien answered. "And trolls usually go without shoes. Whoever made these were wearing either soft boots or moccasins." He absently scratched Grumps Junior's head as the bear ambled over to sniff the bloody footprints.

"Hey! Zaralia's missing her head, too!" called Castillan from the side of the fallen cloud giantess. It looked like her head had been taken off with a single strike from a bladed weapon - and likely after her death, given the pool of blood staining the cloud-stuff around her neck. The bounder noted several stab wounds on her body; Gozragoth had quite a few wounds on him as well. It looks like their heads had both been harvested after they had been slain.

"I'm going to see if there were any eyewitnesses, as it were," announced Finoula before casting a speak with plants spell. As she did so, targeting the still-standing giant apple tree, she noticed there were no apples remaining on the lower half of the tree. Looking over at the fallen tree, she saw almost no apples on it, either. "What happened?" she asked the tree. "Who killed the giant and the dragon?" She refrained from using their names, not knowing whether an apple tree would have known them by name.

"Elves," replied the apple tree. "Big elves." That sent Finoula thinking furiously: were there such things as giant elves? "Where did they come from?" she asked the tree.

"The sky," came the answer. That immediately put the thought of avariels - a rare race of winged elves - into her mind, but they were no larger than the standard elf, just with feathered wings growing from their backs. They couldn't have been responsible for the large footprints all over the cloud island.

"How did they get here?" Finoula prompted. "Did they come in a flying ship, like ours, or maybe just suddenly appear out of thin air?"

"They walked," the tree replied. Finoula repeated her conversation to the others, since her spell allowed only her to speak to the tree and understand its replies. "Air walk spell," Gilbert suggested.

"I'm checking inside," Castillan announced, opening the human-sized door embedded in the larger, giant-sized door leading into Zaralia's home. There was a pot of water over the remains of a cook-fire; it looked as if Zaralia had been in the process of making tea when she was interrupted by the violent intruders - whoever they might be. But no sooner had the elven bounder walked inside the structure then a shriek split the silence of the cloud island. Darrien was the first to notice a draconic form streaking down from overhead, but before he could warn the others it had opened its mouth wide and spewed forth a cone of freezing-cold ice particles, catching Hagan and Wezhley, Taihar, and MARCI in the frigid blast. The dire fox dropped to the ground immediately, frozen stiff and robbed of his consciousness by the power of the dragon's breath weapon.

Hagan turned immediately up to retaliate, the words to a disintegrate spell ready to spill from his lips, when Gilbert cried out, "Wait! It probably his mate!" The wizard had noted that this newcomer, like the late Gozragoth, was a cloud dragon. "We no kill the dragon!" he called out in Draconic to the furious creature, still aloft just above the island with the flapping of her powerful wings. Darrien, having been taught the Draconic language by the sorceress Caliandra, added "We just got here and found the bodies! They were both friends of ours!"

The dragon's eyes narrowed at these protestations of innocence, but then she saw the bloody footprints all around the area and noted they were much too big to have been made by anyone present. "Then who is responsible for my son's slaying?" she demanded.

That at least explained her relationship to Gozragoth. "We not know, but we find out and gain vengeance for slaying!" promised Gilbert. Darrien couldn't help but notice that the portly wizard affected a pidgin way of speaking no matter what language he happened to be using.

"See to it!" demanded the cloud dragon. "I will ensure Gozragoth's lair is still intact!" And with that, she flapped her wings and dropped below the top of the island, flying down to the bottom where the opening to her son's lair lay. "Figures!" muttered Gilbert. "Son killed, but she more interested in his hoard. Dragons!"

Malrin ran over to the frozen Taihar and cast a healing spell upon him, one of the few she had prepared that day. The dire fox shivered but sat up.

"How are we going to find whoever did this?" Darrien asked Gilbert.

"We familiar with both Zaralia and Gozragoth," Gilbert answered, pulling the crystal ball from a pocket of his robes. "I bet we--"

"Shhh!" silenced Finoula. "Do you guys hear that?"

"Hear what?" scoffed Gilbert. But Finoula moved over to the fallen apple tree, where she could have sworn she heard a groan. Bending down beneath the fallen limbs, she saw an arm sticking out from beneath the foliage. "Help me lift this!" she called, pulling a thick branch off the woman trapped beneath the tree. Binkadink and Obvious added their strength to the task, allowing Finoula to pull the pinned victim from beneath the fallen tree. Once free, they could see it was Tanabelle, Zaralia's remaining human servant, and Finoula mentally scolded herself for having forgotten that Tanabelle still lived up here with her cloud giant mistress.

Binkadink poured the contents of a healing potion down the young woman's throat - after first ensuring it wasn't one of the ones doctored by Jinkadoodle with a magic mouth spell calling out embarrassing phrases when the potion was imbibed - and Tanabelle stirred. She gave a gasp of fear as she recalled what she'd seen before the tree had been uprooted in the struggles of combat, but Finoula helped her through her fear and assured her she was safe. When asked to tell them what she had witnessed, she gave her story.

"It was last night, when they came," she began. "I was out in the moonlight, enjoying the night sky by the grapevines, when the raiders came walking out of the sky. I've never seen anything like them before! They looked like elves – only they stood a good nine feet tall! They wore animal skins and wielded greataxes – is that what you call them? Really big axes, in any case. I ran for the trees when I saw them, and climbed up into the lower branches to hide. Zaralia came outside and they attacked her, and she must have called Gozragoth for help because he came to help fight them off. But there were close to a dozen of them, and the mistress, she--she didn’t really stand a chance. Gozragoth was fighting off most of them, but there were still three or so who concentrated their attacks on the mistress. I saw them--they cut off--” Tanabelle broke down in tears at the memory of her mistress’s beheading.

"In any case," she continued after a moment, "the tree I was in got toppled over during the battle, and I was knocked out, I guess, until you came here and found me. And that’s all I know.”

"Giant elves?" Hagan asked Gilbert as Malrin and Finoula comforted the servant girl. "Is that even a thing?"

Gilbert was flipping through the pages of his Omnibook, looking for a particular passage. He'd recently added the books from Lord Darborel Ivenheart's library to his Omnibook and there was something familiar about all of this.... "Got it!" he cried, finding the page he'd been looking for. "There rumors of elf-like fey, nine feet tall, called lunar ravagers. They live in hunting lodges among clouds, hunt mortal animals - and men - for sport. Come out during moonlight...this them, I bet."

Finoula had beckoned Jinkadoodle over and passed Tanabelle into his care. "Take her back to the dragonfly vessel for now," she told the gnome. "We'll figure out how we're going to track down who did this."

"Found 'em!" called Gilbert in triumph. He'd returned his attention to his crystal ball and brought up an image of the item he'd been looking for: Zaralia's severed head. If the image in his crystal ball was accurate, the cloud giant's head was inside a bloodstained sack sitting up against a wooden structure. Another sack next to it was filled with oversized apples and grapes from Zaralia's cloud island.

"Pull back the sensor," Hagan suggested, looking over the heavyset wizard's shoulder. Gilbert complied and another building came into view, this one much bigger but made of the same wooden construction as the first. "That must be their hunting lodge," the half-orc sorcerer deduced.

"You get good enough look to teleport us there?" Gilbert asked.

"Oh, yes. Just let me know when you're ready."

Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell on the group, while Malrin and each of the rangers cast a barkskin spell upon themselves, toughening up the surface of their skin the better to ward off attacks. Hagan cast a mage armor spell to protect him and Wezhley, while Gilbert cast a stoneskin spell covering not only himself but Mudpie as well. Then, all preparations complete, Hagan had everyone gather up around him and said the words that teleported the group across the unknown miles to the cloud island containing the lunar ravagers' hunting lodge.

They appeared at the side of an enormous set of wooden steps leading up to a roofed porch, in the center of which was a set of double doors, each over 10 feet tall and nearly as wide. Looking all around, Darrien saw no sentries; apparently the lunar ravagers thought themselves secure enough atop a cloud island that they didn't need to worry about security all that much. The ranger walked silently up the steps and approached the door, placing his head against the wooden surface to see if he could hear anything from within. When that came up negative, he pulled on the leftmost door and it opened without a sound.

There was no interior light within the lodge save the remains of burning embers in the massive stone fireplace on the far side of the massive room. A long, wooden table with benches sized for giants sat in the feast hall directly across from the front doors; to the right were numerous closed doors leading, presumably, to various bunkrooms, while to the left was an open area whose outer walls contained a wide variety of ferocious-looking beasts, each the product of a skilled taxidermist (and each no doubt the result of a previous moonlit hunt). Darrien saw a remorhaz rearing up in the corner, a metal-skinned bull gorgon, a griffon whose white fur blended seamlessly into equally white feathers, a giant owl with wings outspread as if in flight, and even a three-headed chimera; idly he wondered if the chimera had been stuffed as it had been in life or if the taxidermist had taken liberties with the body parts of different beasts, stitching together something that had never existed in real life. Regardless, there was real skill on display, not only in the full-bodied animals along the walls but also the numerous heads mounted behind them - including, Darrien realized with a shock, several human and elven heads; no doubt he had found the reason for the decapitation of Zaralia and Gozragoth.

The door now open, Binkadink rode Obvious into the building, the little gnome steering his jackalope mount off to the right to investigate the doors; anyone who popped out of the nearest door was going to get a gnomish glaive in the face! But upon their entrance into the building's interior, a warning alarm - in the form of a loud, avian shriek - echoed throughout the lodge, no doubt alerting everyone within that there were intruders within. That helped explain the lack of sentries on the cloud island!

Castillan followed Binkadink and Obvious into the lodge but while the gnome and his jackalope readied themselves at the closest door to the front of the building, the elven bounder readied himself around the corner from the closed door at the back end of what he assumed was the sleeping areas of the lodge. Hagan followed into the feasting hall, Malrin following cautiously, and then Finoula coming in behind her with both primary weapons out and ready.

Then Finoula ran afoul of the lodge's alarm system, which turned out to be nothing more than the giant owl in the display area, which turned out not to have been stuffed after all but a convenient place for the lunar ravagers' sentry beast to keep a watch on the sole entry into the building. The owl flew across the room on silent wings, reaching out with his talons to catch Finoula on both shoulders before her elven senses could determine he was even there. However, Darrien was still in the doorway and saw the bird's approach, peppering him with arrows before he could attempt to lift Finoula from the floor. The bird crashed lifelessly to the floor, nearly knocking Finoula from her feet.

Then the door to one of the bunkrooms opened up and Binkadink and Obvious got their first good look at a lunar ravager. This was Anzairian, the leader of this particular band of hunters, but save for his slightly larger build he was fairly typical of his race: light of skin, blond of hair, with elven-looking features including delicately-pointed ears. Somewhat incongruously - at least when compared with the elves of Binkadink's acquaintance - he wore armor composed of thick, tanned hides and overlapping layers of various animal pelts. In his hand he held a massive greataxe.

Binkadink wasted no time on an apprasial of his foe's appearance, however: he brought his gnomish glaive crashing down on Anzairian's head. Or at least he tried to; the ravager demonstrated a remarkable agility and ducked to the side at the last possible moment, which, while it didn't prevent him from taking any damage - the gnome's blade bit deep into the furs and sliced into the lunar ravager's shoulder - it did at least prevent him from being slain outright. He swung his greataxe around for a powerful blow of his own, and while he was thus engaged Obvious stabbed at him with the sharp points of his antlers. Anzairian roared, and with blood dripping down his face, sent his blade crashing into the jackalope's left shoulder.

Off to Anzairian's right, three of the doors were swung open at almost the same time and half a dozen lunar ravagers, each wearing similar garb as their leader, spilled into the open corridor between the bunkrooms. They roared in eager anticipation of the battle to follow.

However, Gilbert stepped into the room, saw the approaching ravagers all bunched up, and cast a quickened Evard's black tentacles spell that caught five of the barbarians in their ebon embrace. He followed up with a shield spell on himself and Mudpie, in case any of the axe-wielding ravagers got loose from the rubbery appendages trying to keep them in place. Behind the portly mage, MARCI stepped into the room, scanning the area with her single red eye.

Two of the lunar ravagers, despite being among the writhing tentacles of Gilbert's spell, were in position to attack the gnome and jackalope fighting off their leader and did so with gusto. And then the final door opened, revealing a female lunar ravager armed with a javelin as well as a greataxe. She hurled the javelin at the back of Binkadink's head before sprinting over to face the heroes bunched up at the side of the long table in the feast hall, giving a cry of anguish and hatred when she saw the corpse of her trained giant owl Maithi with five or six arrows sticking out of his back and side.

Binkadink leaped from his mount's back and concentrated on Anzairian, judging him as the greatest threat since his armor was so much more elaborate than those of the other barbarians and the fact that he stood nearly a foot taller than the next-tallest ravager. While the gnome fighter traded blows with the lunar ravager leader, Obvious scampered after the female ranger about to bring her greataxe down upon Finoula's head. The jackalope bit into Garthalia's arm, then leaped up into the air to take the female ravager off her feet. He managed, on the way down, to force her face-first to the floor, while he landed on her back with all of his not-inconsiderable weight pressing down upon her. Finoula took full advantage of the situation, snapping her flaming whip of thorns at the woman's face and then stepping closer to bring Tahlmalaera stabbing into her neck and shoulder.

Castillan approached the closest of the barbarians struggling to get free of the black tentacles. There was one right at the edge of the spell effect, slowly making progress to freedom; the bounder chose him as the obvious target and stabbed at him, careful not to get close enough to get pulled into the tentacles' embrace himself. And then Hagan cast a chain lightning spell that targeted all of the lunar ravagers he could see: the five caught in the writhing tentacles and another stuck in the doorway of a bunkroom, unable to get to the battle himself because of the way being blocked by the Evard's black tentacles spell. The lunar ravagers struck by the half-orc sorcerer's spell cried out in pain, music to Wezhley's ears, who bounced up and down on Hagan's shoulder in delight of his master's spellcasting prowess.

While Darrien pumped arrow after arrow into the ravagers he could see (some were now almost entirely encompassed by writhing, black tentacles), Gilbert continued his spellcasting. The barbarian just about to escape the tentacles received a quickened ray of enfeeblement immediately before Gilbert treated himself to a see invisibility spell - he didn't want anybody sneaking up on him if he could help it, and he had no idea whether these lunar ravagers could cast spells or if - they were fey, after all - they had any innate powers that could shield them from normal sight. MARCI stepped up behind Binkadink, who was still trading blows with Anzairian and injected a finger-needle into the back of the gnome's neck, sending a burst of healing fluid into his system. Then she stepped back again to give him room, all the while noting that her healing fluids reserves were getting dangerously low. And she hadn't seen any of the raw ingredients she normally harvested to manufacture the fluid within her own internal laboratory, either - that could potentially be a problem....

With guttural cries of triumph, two of the lunar ravagers finally escaped the confines of the writhing appendages of Gilbert's spell and looked about for immediate targets upon whom they could vent their wrath. One attacked Binkadink, whose attention was still focused on the ravager leader, while another brought his greataxe crashing down to split Castillan in two. Fortunately, the bounder dodged at the last moment, not avoiding damage altogether but at least preventing his immediate evisceration. Unseen in the rooms behind the Evard's black tentacles spell, the three lunar ravagers trapped and prevented from striking out at their enemies had accepted their situations and were actively doing something about it: by the act of concentration, their bodies were becoming translucent, fading slowly from view.

Garthalia tried extricating herself from underneath Obvious's bulk, to no avail - the jackalope continued jumping up and down in place, fracturing her bones with each landing. Binkadink, in the meantime, was stabbing Anzairian with his glaive, and the lunar ravager barbarian leader did not have a medical construct inject healing fluids into him as needed. It was starting to look like the battle between him and this ridiculous little gnome in the stilt-boots was going to be won by whoever could hold on the longest from blood loss from the wounds being inflicted by the other - and that was a contest Binkadink was probably going to win!

Castillan turned and stabbed at the ravager who had attacked him, getting in under his guard and thrusting his blade deep into the barbarian's lower torso. Hagan stepped around Obvious and Garthalia to position himself such that he could cast a chain lightning spell that would encompass the ravager attacking Castillan, the one attacking Binkadink, those entangled by the tentacles, and the barbarian leader all at once; at the last moment, he decided to include Garthalia in the mix, even though it looked like Obvious had that battle all but already sewn up. The spell just about finished her; Finoula made the killing blow to the enemy ranger with a throat-thrust by Tahlmalaera's gleaming blade. Malrin, standing behind the half-orc sorcerer, followed his spellcasting example with an ice storm spell centered on the Evard's black tentacles spell's area of effect, since she already knew there were only enemies caught within the constricting appendages.

Darrien could no longer see much of the lunar ravagers still being constricted by the tentacles, but he could see their locations by the thickened bands of rubbery, ebony tendrils all but encasing them. He plucked a crystal from his necklace of lightning crystals and fired it off, sending a lightning bolt blasting through three of the harried barbarians. Gilbert then followed Malrin's tactic of overlapping spells with the same area of effect by sending an acid fog spell centered in the middle of the tentacle-mass. Crushed by rubbery appendages, blasted by lightning, and now covered in dripping acid, the lunar ravagers howled in pain and hatred.

The two barbarians free of the tentacles attacked their targets - Binkadink and Castillan - again, the former forcing the gnome to drop his guard momentarily from Anzairian to focus on this new threat. Anzairian, naturally, took advantage of the gnome's split focus, bringing his greataxe down on the gnome's red dragonhide armor. But then Obvious, his ranger foe having been slain, came to his rider's assistance by leaping at the younger ravager, allowing Binkadink to renew his focus against the ravager leader. Castillan did his best fending off the attacks of his own dedicated foe, but he usually did better striking from an unexpected direction and he didn't have that opportunity with this one facing him and giving him his full attention.

Unseen in the back, the three lunar ravagers forced to stay out of combat thus far had fully vanished. Hagan sent another chain lightning spell arcing off to all the combatants he could see, even those who were at the moment almost entirely covered in strangling tentacles.

Seeing her brother start to stagger from his wounds, Malrin instinctively wildshaped into an owl and flew up to his shoulder, intending to fire off a healing spell, but then belatedly recalled that she had no more such spells at hand. The best she could do was to use her staff of healing - and that had been subsumed into her owl form as soon as she wildshaped. Cursing her stupidity, she flapped away from Castillan, giving him room to maneuver as she resumed her elven form. But MARCI, seeing the situation, stepped boldly up to the bounder and injected him with the last few ounces of her healing mixture; she had calculated he was unlikely to survive long without such assistance on her part.

Finoula raced up to assist Obvious with his foe, while Darrien switched to his scimitar and did the same to help fight off Castillan's current enemy. Binkadink was still fighting off Anzairian, who throughout the battle thus far had yet to make it fully out of the doorway of his bunkroom.

Gilbert was just about to cast a fire shield spell on himself when he got a surprise from a sudden direction: the front door to the lodge building! In raced the three lunar ravagers who had been trapped in the back rooms by the portly wizard's Evard's black tentacles spell, having teleported to the front of the building when it was apparent they weren't going to get to fight anyone any other way. Two greataxes came crashing down on the startled wizard and another caused sparks to fly from Mudpie's rocky hide; fortunately, the two were both covered by Gilbert's stoneskin spell and thus neither blow did as much damage at it would have otherwise. But now there were many more active combatants on the field, three more than to Gilbert's liking!

Castillan's opponent got in a good blow, sending the bounder staggering backwards again; had he not just been healed by MARCI it's likely he would have dropped by the force of the lunar ravager's attack. But now his sister met him, touching her magical staff to his shoulder, and he felt the cooling flow of healing energy course through his body. "Thanks, sis!" he called behind him as he leaped forward to the attack once more.

Hagan sent another chain lightning spell doing the rounds; he liked to stick with what worked and this particular spell was working just fine, especially against those caught in the embrace of the black tentacles and thus unable to spread out beyond the range of the half-orc's spell. Malrin, seeing the three newcomers attacking Gilbert and Mudpie, cast a summon nature's ally spell that brought a 16-foot-tall earth elemental into being behind the trio; it smashed a rocky fist down upon the head of the middle ravager, clocking him but good. That got Finoula's attention, and, seeing them all lined up as they were, she activated her lightning amulet and blasted through all three of them, reverting to elven form at the far end, by the beginning of the trophy section of the lodge.

Darrien resheathed his scimitar and brought his Arachnibow back out, now that he had three more targets out in the open to hit. Five arrows protruded from the chest of the nearest ravager in as many seconds, and blood spilled from the astonished fey's mouth.

Gilbert, in the meantime, was kicking himself that he hadn't prepared any spells that would increase Mudpie's size; the poor earth elemental was a mere three feet tall and was greatly outmatched by the lunar ravagers surrounding him. So Gilbert cast the spell he did have available, a quickened version of Otiluke's resilient sphere, encasing his familiar in a virtually unbreakable globe of force which would take Mudpie out of the fight - but see to his continued survival. Then he cast his most powerful spell to date, one he'd never yet cast in combat: time stop. Immediately, everything seemed to freeze in place around him. Realizing this bubble of frozen time would last a mere few subjective seconds, Gilbert put the borrowed time to good use, drinking down a healing potion while he moved across to the other side of the massive feast-table and out of immediate reach of any of the current combatants; then cast the fire shield he was about to cast when the trio came bursting in on him; and then cast an invisibility spell on himself. As the world around him snapped back into real time, he chuckled quietly to himself, thinking nobody would be able to target him now: from their reference point, he would have just vanished from sight in the blink of an eye and nobody would have any idea where he had gone!

Binkadink was feeling the effects of his combat with Anzairian; he desperately needed some healing but didn't dare take the time to grab up a potion from his backpack. MARCI analyzed the situation, internally switched mechanisms in her fingers, and protruded a different needle from her finger, stabbing it into the back of the gnome's neck. It wouldn't heal damage from the inside of the body like her healing mixture would, but this would at least reduce the gnome's ability to feel pain; as such, it would prevent the distractions that might make the difference in battle. Despite the hard metal of MARCI's construction, she didn't once consider joining the battle herself (it's likely she could pack quite a wallop with fists of metal!); she hadn't been built for that purpose. But the injection did the job, for shortly after, Anzairian fell over, slain at last by the little gnome in what had to have been one of the longest battles of his life.

The lunar ravager closest to Finoula got the sudden bright idea to try to grapple her, thinking to pick her up and throw her off the side of the cloud island, but the edge of Tahlmalaera's blade quickly put an end to that notion. The other two turned and attacked the huge earth elemental behind them. By concentrating its attacks upon one of the two, the earth elemental's pounding fists brought one of them to the ground, where a stomp to the head ended his life. Finoula used another charge of her lightning necklace to blast through the two remaining lunar ravager reinforcements, reversing her previous course and ending up back where she had started. That was enough to slay one of them (the one Darrien had previously peppered with arrows), leaving a single foe out by the front doors, who Gilbert killed with the application of a simple magic missile spell. It brought him back to full visibility, but he had seen that his tentacles had slain the ravagers caught up in their embrace; he dismissed the spell and allowed the slain foes to collapse lifelessly to the floor of the lodge.

Obvious and Castillan were now facing the one remaining foe, and the look on his face told he recognized the futility of his stand but was determined to go down fighting nonetheless. However, Hagan slew him - somewhat anticlimactically - with a polar ray spell.

"Is that it?" asked Binkadink, looking around for any further enemies. But that was it; the heroes had cleared the lodge out of the lunar ravagers who had slain Gozragoth and Zaralia for sport. Gilbert released Mudpie from the Otiluke's resilient sphere and the group commenced a thorough exploration of the lodge. One thing soon became abundantly clear: these lunar ravagers liked taking more than the heads of their enemies, for their bunkrooms were filled with coins, gems, jewelry, and objects of art from around the globe. Castillan's jaw seemed to keep opening of its own accord with each new chest of treasure they uncovered. Everything was dropped into the group's portable hole for further investigation later; once the place had been picked clean, Hagan teleported the group back to Zaralia's cloud island, where Jinkadoodle had taken Tanabelle for safekeeping.

"Do you think your mistress would return to life in a different form?" asked Malrin. "I can try casting a reincarnate spell on her, or on the dragon, if you like."

"That not good idea," countered Gilbert Fung. "Dragons very vain; they see coming back as different type of dragon personal insult, probably attack you for effrontery. Plus," he added, "we don't need Gozragoth - we got his mom! Maybe she stay on as cloud island guardian!"

"But what about Zaralia?" asked Finoula.

"I don't think she'd want to come back, either," said Tanabelle sadly. "She's been terribly depressed, ever since she was responsible for Junia's death." Under the control of a cerebrilith. the cloud giant had thrown one of her two faithful human servants off the edge of the cloud island, after having ripped her entire arm off at the shoulder. "I suspect she's happier in the afterlife."

"Then what about you?" prompted Hagan. "Will you stay here, all by yourself?" Tanabelle looked around and shivered. "I don't think so," she said. "For one thing, I have no way to get about, like Zaralia did. And as much as I loved living here, now it's filled with bad memories."

"Then you are more than welcome to come home with us," offered Castillan. "We live in a stone keep, owned by a pair of dwarves. They would be more than happy to take you on as a permanent member of their household. They...lost their daughter, some months back." Finoula looked away at the mention of Ingebold Battershield, her beloved Battle-Sister. She, like Helga and Aerik, was still saddened at the loss of the dwarven cleric.

"And we're still planning on using the island as a landing site for the dragonfly ship," offered up Jinkadoodle. "You'd be more than welcome to come back up here and visit, when you had the mind to."

"Thank you," replied Tanabelle. "I think I would like that." And then the heroes led her down to the extradimensional hold of the ship, and from there to Battershield Keep and her new home.

- - -

This session was somewhat truncated; we normally start play around noon and then let the length of the session be dictated by the events as they play out (but usually anywhere from four to six hours); this time, about 45 minutes into the first hour, Dan suddenly remembered to tell me they had a "hard stop" time at 4 PM. That was a bit of a bummer, especially after having waited several weeks since our last Kordovian gaming session. So the lunar ravagers caught up in Gilbert's tentacles, having failed their initial grapple checks, just got left there for expedience. We ended up slaying the last enemy with mere minutes to spare, and had to worry about treasure allocation over email afterwards (and, when nothing much came of that, we finished up the following Wednesday at the beginning of my son Logan's "Durnhill Conscripts" game session). But we've already scheduled the next session for two weeks from this one, so that's a welcome step in the right direction.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt, given the lunar tie-in with the main adversaries of this adventure.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 17
Darrien, half-elf ranger 17
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 17
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 17
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 17​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 11
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 22 June 2019

- - -

The sun was setting as Aithanar pulled the Vistani wagon to a halt at the side of the road. The door opened at the back of the wagon, allowing Gilbert and Hagan to exit, each of the two spellcasters carrying their respective familiars: Wezhley the weasel perched upon the half-orc sorcerer's shoulder and Mudpie reduced to the size of a pebble inside the a pocket of the hefty wizard's robe. Darrien dropped from the top of the wagon, where he'd been sitting in Castillan's normal spot; the elven bounder was off at one of the taverns, no doubt, well into a game of cards and keeping an ear to any scuttlebutt he might pick up. The half-elf ranger hurried to catch up to the other two.

As they started up the winding path to the garrison keep, they were passed by Finoula on her pony Daisy, with her timber wolf Wrath trotting in her wake, and Binkadink riding his jackalope, Obvious. They made much better time than the three striking out on foot, and by the time the trio made it up to the keep Finoula and Binkadink had already dismounted and were in a discussion with Aerik Battershield, who had asked the group to swing by this evening. Behind him, by the stone keep, Slayer led a small group of mercenaries in weapons practice before they went out on patrol that night.

"What...all this about?" wheezed Gilbert when he got to the top of the hill. He was quite winded from the hike and had seriously considered using a teleport or dimension door spell to save himself the effort of getting all the way to the top.

"We've been havin' a problem with retention among th' hired soldiers," Aerik explained in a quiet voice, not wanting to be overheard by any of the garrison troops. "There's been no complaints about th' wages, th' hours, or th' weapons an' armor provided; nonetheless, we seem to have several mercenaries desertin' every week. They just wander off an' are never seen again. I'd like ye t' look into it, if'n ye would."

"When have they gone missing?" Finoula asked.

"Always it's when they're on patrol," Aerik answered. "They go off on their patrol schedule, an' they dinnae come back."

"How many patrol together?" asked Darrien.

"Teams o' two - a buddy system, t' prevent anyone from gettin' th' drop on a lone soldier. An' it's always both o' the soldiers goin' missin' at th' same time, too. We tried rotatin' th' men around so's they dinnae get to used t' th' same partner all th' time, in case one disgruntled soldier talks 'is buddy into desertin' with 'im, but so far it's had no effect."

"Maybe need three people together, not just two," suggested Gilbert.

"Maybe these aren't desertions," pointed out Binkadink reasonably. "Could someone - or something - have been attacking them?"

"Each o' th' soldiers got hisself a signalin' horn in case o' trouble," Aerik argued. "Nobody's used 'em. An' there's been no signs o' combat on th' patrol routes."

"Maybe we interview garrison men, see what we learn from them," suggested Gilbert.

"Be me guest," offered the gruff dwarf. Then his attitude lightened and he called out, "A good evenin' to ye, Mr. Dulorro!" Gilbert turned and watched an elderly man trudging up the path to the garrison keep. He looked to be sixty years old or more and walked with the aid of a cane, but he carried a picnic basket in his other hand and didn't seem nearly as winded walking up the hill as Gilbert had been, despite his advanced years. Gilbert took an immediate dislike to him and glared at the old man with his magically-enhanced vision, trying to see if he were some form of undead. He wasn't - but that didn't let him off the hook, Gilbert decided.

"Good evening, gentlemen - and a good evening to you, too, young miss!" the old man amended upon seeing Finoula; she just smiled, realizing the elderly human had no idea that the silver-haired elven maiden before him was actually much older than he was. "I brought the troops some baked goods." Aerik called over to the men and Slayer immediately called a halt to their weapons training. One of the soldiers ran into the keep, returning with an empty picnic basket to trade for the one the old man carried. "Just some rolls and biscuits," he apologized, passing the basket over to the eager recruit. "My little way of giving thanks to the troops protecting us from the orcs and goblins of the forest."

Gilbert insisted on looking at the contents of the basket, lifting the cloth covering the baked goods to do so. To his irritation, there was nothing untoward about the basket's contents - in fact, the biscuits smelled quite good...and was that a scent of baked-in honey? The mage's mouth started watering. "Who you, exactly?" he demanded to the old man.

"Oh, please forgive my manners - my name is Stefan Dulorro, I live just inside the forest. A retired baker by trade; now I make the rounds among the garrison forts, passing along my good wishes and the occasional basket of biscuits and such."

"That's very generous of you," said Finoula with a smile.

"Well, it keeps me busy and gets me out of the house every now and again," Stefan replied, matching the elf's friendly smile with one of his own.

"I wonder, have you heard anything about any garrison soldiers missing over the last few weeks?" she asked.

"Missing?" Stefan scratched his head while he thought. "No, but I have heard a few of them wondering aloud what the pay is for a similar post in the kingdom to the south. There was a name mentioned, Lord...Castlethorne? Something like that, in any case. Apparently he's paying top coin for the services of mercenaries."

"Cavelthorne!" snarled Gilbert. "Little rat buying our mercenaries out from under us!" Aerik confirmed that the missing men had all been posted at the three southernmost garrison forts - those closest to Lord Cavelthorne's kingdom. "Come on - we talk to men while they stuff faces with biscuits!" Stefan waved his farewells and started his trek back down the hill path, while Gilbert led the other heroes in questioning the garrison soldiers.

The interrogations brought about some useful information. "Yeah, I heard Lord Cavelthorne's paying out a bunch of gold to go guard his kingdom instead of this one. Haven't heard no specific prices, though," said one recruit. "I knew one of the guys who went missing," offered another. "He didn't give any indication he was dissatisfied with the pay for this job." Another insisted one of the missing men had family in Kordovia - there was no way he'd desert his post for more money elsewhere and leave them behind to face the next orc and goblin attack, especially since a recent wave had actually made it into the city proper. "You ask me, there’s somethin' in that forest besides orcs an' goblins pickin' 'em off," mused a grizzled soldier. "Th' other week, I coulda swore I heard leathery wings flappin' – likely a dragon, you just see if I ain't right. Prolly a smaller one, sure, but a dragon's a dragon – wouldn't have to be no bigger'n a horse or so to polish off two soldiers all by itself."

But the best possible lead came from a rather thin-looking soldier, all but buried under his heavy armor. "I might've been one of the last guys to have seen Horace alive, come to think on it. See this ring here? Ain't worth much, but I won it off him at cards, the night he went missin', right before we was off on our patrols."

"Lemme see ring!" demanded Gilbert, holding out a pudgy hand. The soldier, at a nod from Aerik, dropped the ring into the wizard's hand. The soldier was right, the ring was practically worthless - but as a physical link to a recently-missing troop, it could be invaluable in determining Horace's fate. Gilbert pulled the crystal ball from his robes and passed a hand over it. It clouded over as he concentrated on Horace, holding the man's ring in his hand.

Immediately, the crystal ball turned black. "Stupid thing!" snarled Gilbert, shaking it like a snow globe to try to get an image to appear. But Hagan reached over and steadied Gilbert's hand. "It's working fine," the half-orc explained. "Horace is bound, hand and foot, in a cavern of some sort, by a pool of water." This was the second time in recent history that Gilbert had scried upon a scene of utter darkness, leaving his human eyes unable to see anything, while Hagan's half-orc ancestry gave him a full view.

"You get good enough view you can teleport us there?" Gilbert asked. Hagan examined the image in the dark crystal sphere and nodded. "Sure," he said, "just not all of us at once."

After some discussion, the group decided to return to Battershield Keep and teleport from there. For one thing, Aithanar would be staying behind with Daisy and Wrath; for another, the carpet of teleportation that linked to their dragonfly vessel was stored there, and it would be quicker for some of the heroes to wait on the spelljamming vessel for Hagan and a small group to teleport over, bringing the carpet with them.

Gilbert cast a Rary's telepathic bond on the group, then sent Binkadink to go fetch the carpet. While the gnome did that, Gilbert cast stoneskin and magic circle against evil spells upon himself and Mudpie (who was still pebble-sized inside a pocket of the wizard's robes). Malrin cast a goodberry spell, resulting in almost a dozen healing berries, which she placed in a belt pouch at her hip. At Binkadink's request, she cast a reduce animal spell on Obvious, halving his size and making it easier for the jackalope - usually the size of a large draft horse - to be brought along with Hagan when he teleported the group over to the lightless cavern where Horace was being held captive. She followed that spell up with greater magic fang and stoneskin spells on the jackalope, turning him into a pony-sized combat machine. The gnome climbed up onto his mount's saddle and Gilbert noted, "You look less silly on smaller mount, gnome."

Gilbert stepped onto the carpet of teleportation and over to the dragonfly vessel to wait for the all-clear signal telling him the carpet had been laid out flat in the cavern and it was safe to step through again. He had MARCI come with him, and Malrin followed suit. Then Hagan, standing beside Finoula, Darrien, and Binkadink astride Obvious, cast his teleport spell and the group was instantaneously transported across the miles into a dark cavern, with the flickering illusory flames of the everlasting torches tied to the antlers of the little gnome's helmet providing the only illumination.

Finoula spotted Horace at once beside her and bent over him to ascertain his condition. His wrists and ankles were tied together by strips of cloth and he was covered in bites and scratches, but he was still breathing and merely unconscious, not dead as she had originally feared. He had been stripped of his armor, but she saw it propped up against the wall on the other side of a pool of water beside him. She felt the pulse at his neck - it was faint, but steady - and saw numerous puncture marks at his throat. "Vampires!" she gasped to herself, and then noticed how close together some of the bite-marks were. If the marks were the work of vampires, then some of them must have been mere babies, given how close together they were!

As their eyes adjusted to the gloom of the cavern, the heroes could see five human-sized figures scattered around the massive cavern, turning their way in surprise at the sudden influx of light. They hissed and chittered in irritation, and Darrien, assuming that anything guarding a human captive must be in cahoots with the instigator if not the culprit himself, sent a volley of arrows at the dark figure nearest him. He couldn't even see fully just what it was he was shooting at - it was just a shape at this point - but it spread wide a pair of dragonlike wings as some of the archer's arrows struck true.

Hagan wasted no time in dropping the rolled-up carpet and sending it unrolling with a kick of his feet. <Carpet's ready!> Hagan called over the link. <Looks like werebats - five, at least!> Indeed, the half-orc's darkvision had given him a good look at what they were facing: humanoid bats at least as big as he was, with wings made of leathery flaps of skin stretched tight over oversized fingers. Gilbert arrived onto the carpet at once, having spent the time waiting on the dragonfly vessel casting a shield spell on himself and Mudpie. Gilbert was really only comfortable stepping into combat with as many protective spells as he could manage to cast already in place; to the irritation of his companions, he often spent time in combat providing himself additional defenses instead of taking out the enemy. But he stepped forward at once, if only to allow MARCI and Malrin to follow behind him.

Binkadink and Obvious could see well enough for the gnome to send his mount hippity-hopping forward in a surge of speed, and he brought his glaive stabbing forward into the chest of a werebat at the far side of the cavern. The creature shrieked in pain, his yells echoing across the cavernous space all around them, almost seeming to increase in volume as they reverberated around the vast, open space - strangely enough, accompanied by the sounds of flapping wings. Then all was made clear as scores - if not hundreds - of bats flapped around the heroes, one group dive-bombing Binkadink and Obvious while another swarmed over and among Hagan, Finoula, Darrien, and the prone Horace. Claws ripped and fangs pierced flesh in a chaotic frenzy of bloodletting.

While Darrien's attention was thus distracted, the werebat he had shot crossed the gulf between him and bit at the archer as he hovered over the pool of water beside the ranger. Two more werebats raced up to aid the one being stabbed by Binkadink, while another closed the distance between him and Gilbert. But the portly wizard was having none of that; with a few hastily spoken syllables, he brought a quickened wall of force into existence between them, extending all the way across the pool of water to the far wall, effectively sealing Binkadink and Obvious on one side of the magical barrier with four werebats and a swarm of bats, and the rest of the group over in a smaller section of the cavern with but one bat swarm and a heavily-wounded werebat. Of course, the wall of force was only 20 feet high, a mere fourth of the way to the cavern's ceiling, but that wouldn't do much to help those incapable of flight.

Malrin caused her hand to sprout a ball of fire, courtesy of a produce flame spell, and threw it at the werebat attacking Darrien. Finoula, not liking at all being surrounded on all sides by a swarm of biting bats, activated her lightning amulet and turned her body into a blast of electricity, frying the bats all around her as she blasted straight up at the cavern's ceiling, where she reverted to elven form and stuck to the stone roof by the boots of spider climbing she wore. Below her, scorched bats fell from the air in a rain of death to create a macabre tripping hazard. Darrien managed to keep his footing while he shot at the werebat with his Arachnibow. As the lycanthrope fell dead into the pool of water below him, the half-elf ranger followed suit, seeing the pool as the only way for him to cross over to Binkadink's side of the wall of force.

Hagan cast a fly spell and crossed over the wall to join the ranger there. But their presence wasn't entirely needed, as Binkadink brought his magical glaive killing the wounded werebat before him, then swung it on either side of him in rapid succession, impaling the two werebats who had foolishly rushed in to aid their comrade. In as many seconds, all three lycanthropes had fallen lifelessly to the stone floor of the cavern.

That left only one werebat remaining of the original group, the one who had failed to reach Gilbert before the wizard put the wall of force in his way. After convincing himself that he couldn't get to the heavyset morsel, the werebat turned and, seeing his companions all dead, tried to flee only to be gored by Obvious's antlers as the jackalope raced to the only remaining potential threat. The swarm of bats followed, swooping in to bite at Binkadink and Obvious, but the jackalope was protected by the stoneskin spell Malrin had cast upon him earlier. Ignoring the flitting bats all around him, the gnome brought his glaive down on the fleeing werebat, slicing through a wing and shoulder and bringing the beast crashing to the ground, dead. With the last of their masters slain, the bats immediately lost interest in combat and returned to their roosts among the stalactites among the cavern's ceiling.

With combat behind them, Gilbert dismissed his wall of force spell and strolled over to Horace, indicating for MARCI to follow. Finoula walked down the cavern wall to return to her previous position beside the bound soldier and cut his bonds. As she poured a healing potion down his throat, bringing him coughing back into consciousness, Gilbert instructed MARCI to inject the former captive with a dose of truth serum.

"Gilbert--what the Hell?" demanded Finoula, astonished at the level of distrust the portly mage had for everyone he didn't personally know. "What did you do that for?"

"Want to make sure he only tell us the truth," Gilbert answered.

"You're fat!" exclaimed Horace, rubbing his wrists where the binds had bitten into them. Gilbert shrugged; it was an indicator that the serum was working. "Tell us about other missing soldiers," he demanded.

Horace told them what he knew. He and his combat partner had been ambushed by a great swarm of rats pouring out of the Vesve Forest; while Horace had been fighting them off, a bald man had stepped forward and apparently put his fellow soldier under some sort of spell. The bald creep drank the soldier's blood until sated, then turned him over to a quartet of werebats. He commanded the rats to leave, then Horace and the other soldier had been flown, each in the grip of two werebats, here to the cavern. There the captives had been used as food sources for the hungry werebats and the bald vampire, who drank their blood and then, upon the deaths of the other captives, had their corpses butchered for meat for the lycanthropes. That would have been Horace's fate as well, had the heroes not found their way here to rescue him.

"You remember that," Gilbert reminded Horace. "We save your butt. Now we take you someplace safe while we deal with rest of threat." He had Finoula take him to the dragonfly ship via the carpet of teleportation. She returned minutes later, informing the group that Aithanar would look after him until they returned there themselves. Hagan rolled the carpet back up and placed it into the portable hole Malrin kept in her pack.

"Now what?" Darrien asked.

"Now we find bald vampire and any other werebats living here," Gilbert replied.

"Then I'm going to shift into something a little less conspicuous," Malrin announced, wildshaping into an animal form. She often spent much of her combat time as an owl, appreciating its greater mobility (and, truth be told, smaller target space); this time, though, her body shrank down to the configuration not of an owl, but rather of a bat. <I ought to blend in just fine in this form!> she said over the telepathic link Gilbert had set up earlier.

There was a short passageway carved into the natural stone cavern at the northwestern end, leading to a winding set of stairs heading up. Finoula led the group up the stairs, making a full eight rotations before opening to a room with a closed door. Opening it cautiously, the ranger found herself in a library stocked with books on shelves along the walls. There was a closed door on the walls to the east and west and a set of stairs leading up to a higher level. All in all, this looked like a room in a manor house of at least minor nobility. Finoula listened at the eastern door and, hearing nothing, opened the door. This led to a front room, with two suits of armor along the wall and what must be the front door facing south; the room opened into another room around the corner at the north. Half expecting the armor to animate and attack her, Finoula stepped into the room, her longsword Tahlmalaera in one hand and her flaming whip of thorns in the other, but despite her premonitions nothing untoward happened. With a shrug, the elf returned to the library and checked out the door to the west.

This led to a kitchen, laid out with all manner of baking supplies. A faint scent of freshly-baked rolls lingered in the air and Finoula groaned inwardly. <Mr. Dulorro!> she gasped over the link. <That nice old man is a part of all of this!>

<Not necessarily,> argued Hagan, unlike Gilbert willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. <Or if he is, it might not be under his own will. Vampires can charm people into doing their bidding, remember.>

<Why vampire charm baker, force him to give free goodies to soldiers?> demanded Gilbert. <Out of goodness of unbeating heart?>

<It could be a type of intelligence-gathering,> suggested Darrien. <Find out who's going to be on what patrol routes, that sort of thing.>

<If anybody here need to start gathering some intelligence...> began Gilbert, before mentally trailing off. <Hmm. Look at books on shelves: Theocracy of the Pale. Lycanthropes. Folktales of the Living Dead.>

Darrien walked through the kitchen, confirming that it was a dining room connecting to the front-room - all empty of inhabitants - and finding a back door - locked from the inside - from the kitchen before returning back to the library. By then, Hagan and Wezhley had entered from the winding stairs, followed by Binkadink and Obvious - the latter of which wouldn't have made it up the stairwell in his normal size. "I'm going to announce our presence," stated the gnome, lifting his horn of goodness and evil to his lips. He gave the musical instrument a big blow, sending a "BLATT!" reverberating throughout the manor as a magic circle against evil spell took place around the gnome.

"Nice job, stupid gnome!" groused Gilbert. "There go any element of surprise we might have had!"

"They're going to find out we're here soon enough anyway," countered Binkadink, leading Obvious up the stairs to the second floor of the building. Malrin followed in bat form. There was a doorway around the corner from the stairwell; pulling it open, Binkadink was simultaneously attacked by the three werebats hiding within the room. Hearing the commotion, Finoula bounded up the stairs, followed by Darrien and Hagan, with Gilbert and MARCI bringing up the rear. By the time Finoula had rounded the corner Binkadink had already slain the three werebats; it was so much easier wielding his glaive in close quarters now that he'd had the shaft made to be extendable and retractable with a spoken command word!

Moving past the gnome and his jackalope, Finoula went around the corner and opened the next door. There was another werebat waiting in that room, and, to the ranger's surprise, yet another one lurking around the other corner of the hallway. Finoula found herself pinned between two heartier werebats than the ones they'd encountered thus far, these two working in concert to ensure one of them was able to plunge its fangs into the elf's throat and suck forth a great quantity of blood.

A dozen thoughts went racing through the elf's mind at once: she should have checked the end of the hallway before opening the door; these werebats must have had some sort of formal training in their human lives (if they were even human and not, say, elves); was it possible that this bite would spread the contagion of lycanthropy to Finoula, such that she'd transform into a werebat herself on the nights of the full moon? But then she focused on the task at hand: taking these beasts down before they did the same to her. As she was already facing the one standing in the doorway she focused her attention on him, stabbing at him with Tahlmalaera and flicking her whip at him, while trying not to let the other one overbalance her and send her crashing to the floor. She felt another form flick past her, but this was just Malrin, casting a healing spell on her fellow elf in passing, the better to help Finoula remain standing as long as possible. Down the hall, Darrien sent a cluster of arrows bristling into the werebat facing Finoula, causing him to hiss in pain and spill blood from his mouth.

Hagan and Gilbert were still stuck on the stairs, unable to move further into the hallway by the press of bodies before them. Still, they put the time to good use, Hagan casting a stoneskin spell on himself and Wezhley while Gilbert cast a see invisibility spell on his own eyes, just in case.

The werebats focused their attacks on Finoula, as she was already at hand. But then Binkadink brought his glaive down on the one in the doorway, practically slicing his head from his neck. Obvious surged forward toward Finoula and the remaining werebat attacking her from behind. A ball of flames suddenly appeared above the wings of the little bat flitting at the end of the hallway, and Malrin sent it flying into the werebat, singeing its fur. Finoula wrestled the werebat off her back and spun to face him, stabbing out with her longsword and piercing one of his leathery wings. Several arrows went streaking past her head, to bury themselves in the werebat's body as he shrieked in pain. Wezhley reminded his master that Hagan still had a fly spell active, and he went soaring over Gilbert's head as the wizard finished up the casting of a fire shield spell that would protect him and Mudpie from cold-based attacks. Hagan landed beside Darrien, who was still pulling arrows from his quiver and loading up the Arachnibow.

Seeing the number of enemies intent on his death, the werebat rogue turned to fly up the stairs at his end of the hallway - and was promptly cut down by Binkadink's glaive.

<Thanks, guys!> Finoula offered over the link. Malrin landed on the elf's shoulder and examined the wounds on her neck brought on by the werebat's wicked fangs. <I'm no expert,> the druid explained, <but I don't think there's much chance of the bat-lycanthropy having been spread through the bite.>

<Let's hope you're right!> replied Finoula, leading the way up the stairs to the third level of the building. There was still no sign of the bald vampire apparently behind these attacks on the Kordovian garrison soldiers.

There was a door at the end of the third-floor hallway; Finoula stationed herself just past it with her longsword at the ready as Binkadink reached over from his perch on Obvious's back and opened the door. All was blackness within, and the illumination spilling from the gnome's helmet did nothing to dispel it. <Magical darkness,> he reported over the link. <I'm going in.>

Despite the lack of vision, Finoula could hear the crackling of flames from the room within, as well as various heavy bits of furniture being moved around as Obvious bumped blindly into them. Darrien followed the pair into the room, but while they crisscrossed it looking for hidden enemies, the ranger kept his hand on the wall to his right and followed it to the far side of the room. By the increased sounds of crackling, he deduced the fireplace was just off to his left when he found a doorknob. He tried to turn it, but it was locked. This was a conundrum; even if Castillan had been here, he'd have had a rather difficult time picking a lock in absolute darkness! <Gilbert! You have any way of lighting up this darkness?> the half-elf asked over the link.

<Hold your horses, I coming,> groused Gilbert. He stepped into the doorway and cast a dispel magic spell targeting the deeper darkness effect. Immediately, the magical darkness was dissipated, allowing the room to be illuminated from the flames of the lit fireplace along the western wall. This allowed the group to see the mess Obvious had made of the furniture - but more importantly, it illuminated the mirror of opposition attached to the wall directly across from the room's entry door.

Four figures stepped out of the magic mirror, one after another: virtual duplicates of Binkadink astride Obvious, Darrien, and Gilbert Fung. Each was a perfect mirror image of their respective targets, and each wore an expression of abject hatred for their "original model." Before any of the heroes in the room could react, the gnome and jackalope attacked their counterparts, the mirror-Obvious biting at the neck of the real thing while the faux Binkadink brought his own magical glaive down upon the real gnome fighter. Then the mirror-Gilbert, whose mind was filled with the same spells as his original, cast an Otto's irresistible dance at Gilbert; with mounting horror, Gilbert started capering and dancing about, despite his best efforts to stop it and do something useful instead. The counterfeit Darrien sent a flurry of arrows from his own Arachnibow streaking across the room to the real Darrien, who managed to snatch two of them out of the air before they struck thanks to his gloves of arrow snaring, but the others struck true with as much force as the ranger himself would have been able to provide.

The mirror-Gilbert then stepped forward, wheeled, and cast a maximized cone of cold spell at the real versions of Gilbert, Binkadink and Obvious, Darrien, and even Finoula from through the doorway. The sudden blast of cold energy almost dropped Finoula there on the spot; she staggered to stay upright and only a mass cure light wounds spell from Malrin kept her standing. The spell was a welcome touch to the others in the room as well, all of whom had been greatly harmed by the powerful spell. MARCI then stepped forward beside Finoula. "I am unable to inject the normal healing mixture as I am currently out of stock," she announced. "I can, however, inject you with a stimdose that will aid you in retaining consciousness." She jabbed a needle into the elf woman's neck, injecting a cooled substance that made the her feel more alert and powerful as it coursed through her system. Meanwhile, while Gilbert danced in place helplessly, he seethed at the logical brilliance of this insidious trap, especially assuming it had been put into place by the bald vampire, who didn't even cast a reflection and thus couldn't trigger the trap himself!

Inside the room, as Binkadink and Obvious traded blows and bites with their counterparts and the two Darriens peppered each other with arrows to see which one would fall first, unseen in the chaos, the locked closet door opened and out stepped the bald vampire. He sent a set of wicked claws scratching at Darrien, whose attention was elsewhere; that certainly got the ranger to stop worrying about what his mirror-clone was up to! With mounting horror, Darrien realized this bald man before him was a vampire - although he didn't look like any vampire the ranger has ever heard of. Despite the complete hairlessness on his gleaming scalp, the vampire made up for it with a pair of the longest, bushiest eyebrows Darrien had even seen! And when he opened his mouth, no doubt in preparation of plunging his fangs into the half-elf's neck, Darrien saw their placement: instead of being sharpened eye teeth, as he would have expected, the bald vampire's fangs were his two front teeth!

Still shaky on her feet, Finoula activated the heal spell stored in her sword and felt a surge of energy course through her body, unlimbering muscles clenched up by the cone of cold spell Gilbert's mirror duplicate had cast. She stepped into the room, her whip uncoiled in her hand as she prepared herself for some retaliation.

Hagan followed Finoula into the room and made a tactical decision: taking out the evil Gilbert was currently the top priority. He sent a power word stun spell crashing into the portly mage, causing him to cease all actions and just stand there, dumbfounded. <That's a good look for you, Gilbert!> the half-orc teased, but Gilbert made no reply, his full concentration currently centered on dancing about.

The mirror versions of Binkadink and Obvious attacked their real-life counterparts, and while the real Obvious followed suit in attacking his duplicate, Binkadink broke with tradition and also targeted the other jackalope, hoping that together, they could bring him down much sooner than the gnome would be able to bring down the fake gnome, who, Binkadink was well aware, had an amulet of health just as powerful as his own likely to keep him in the fight that much longer.

Perhaps surprised at this unexpected maneuver, the fake Obvious's attention faltered, allowing the real Obvious to clamp down on his duplicate's neck and pull him to the floor, forcing the fake Binkadink to leap from the saddle to keep from falling prone. But even that measure brought with it some peril, for in doing so the fake gnome was unable to ward off the real Binkadink's striking glaive, cutting deep into the fake's red dragonhide armor.

The nosferatu vampire had failed to grapple Darrien, but now his attention was diverted by the silver-haired elf who had just stepped into the room. A firm traditionalist, the undead beast preferred female victims whenever possible; the soldiers had been exclusively male but this had been balanced by their easy availability. Now, with Finoula standing before him, her lovely neck exposed, the nosferatu turned from Darrien without a further thought and directed his gaze - and the full force of his will - at the female elf.

It wasn't enough; as lovely as Finoula might be, she was no fragile female victim - she'd proven her ruggedness time after time over the course of her adventuring career. Perhaps aided by her elven heritage, she shrugged off the nosferatu's attempts at mental domination without any seeming effort.

A flame strike spell suddenly erupted over the mirror-duplicates of Binkadink, Obvious, and Darrien, proof that even while in bat form Malrin could contribute to the destruction of the group's enemies. But even with wisps of smoke streaming from his body, the half-elven mirror image was focused solely on slaying his original form and he continued sending arrows at Darrien. Darrien, for his part, opted to do his best to ignore these attacks for a moment as he brought his own Arachnibow to bear on the nosferatu menacing Finoula (or trying to, anyway, for all the good it was doing him). Then Finoula turned and looked at the undead monstrosity right in the eye, demonstrating her fearlessness or her complete contempt for the threat he posed. She slowly raised a hand to her neck, drawing the vampire's attention, but her fingers stopped at the amulet she wore there; in an instant, her body was a lightning bolt crashing through the nosferatu's undead form. She reappeared beside Darrien, who now felt he could return his attention to his own duplicate.

Not sure off the top of his head whether the undead could be stunned, Hagan decided to cast his next power word stun on the fake Darrien instead; he, at least, shouldn't be immune! Sure enough, he wasn't - as evidenced by the fact that he froze up immediately, dropping the Arachnibow at his feet. He made a nice, slack-jawed partner to the fake Gilbert standing beside him, while the real Gilbert continued his frantic dancing.

The Binkadinks attacked each other violently, with the two jackalopes following suit. But one jackalope finally got the better of the other one, causing his enemy to fall lifelessly to the ground, his throat all but ripped open and spilling his life's blood out onto the floor. The fact that the dead jackalope then faded from existence proved that it was the original Obvious who had defeated his foe and not the other way around.

With a snarl of hatred, the nosferatu sent a fist slamming into Finoula's face, then uttered a guttural word and the room fell once again into darkness. Unseen by the others, his body turned to mist and he wafted back through the open closet door, where there was a narrow slit in the outer wall allowing him access to the open air outside. Once out in the moonlight, he could feel all of the damage he had taken thus far healing up instantly.

Nobody seemed willing to stay inside a pitch-black room if they could help it. Malrin was the first to exit, flapping her bat-wings to propel her out into the hallway by MARCI, who had been standing by until she was needed - or until she was told what to do by Gilbert, the human whose orders she always obeyed to the best of her ability. Darrien was the next to exit, following along the wall until he found the doorway.

<Gilbert! Can you dispel the darkness again?> called out Finoula, but there was no answer from the wizard, still dancing away. So the ranger figured a way to do it herself: she'd noted a small globe in the center of the ceiling, like an embedded chandelier; assuming this was the source of the magical darkness, she walked up the wall with her boots of spider climbing, pulling open the bag of holding at her belt as she did so. Then placing the open bag over the ceiling fixture, she stepped onto the edge of the bag carefully with each foot, such that she stood with each boot half on the ceiling and half on the bag. The end result was a cessation of the deeper darkness effect, while Finoula hung upside-down from the ceiling like a bat, her silvery hair hanging down and her flaming whip of thorns snapping again and again at the still-stunned mirror-Gilbert. Realizing this was a magic effect and not a true person, she indulged in a whim and concentrated on flaying the skin from the fat wizard's face with the barbed lash.

With the darkness negated, it was apparent the nosferatu was no longer present, although where he might have gotten to was anybody's guess. Hagan made the best of it by casting a chain lightning spell on the three remaining mirror duplicates, making the gnome his primary target. The fake Binkadink continued his attack on his gnomish original and was retaliated against in kind not only by the real Binkadink but by Obvious as well.

But then the nosferatu re-entered the fray, seeping into an arrow-slit in the hallway just before the stairwell leading back down to the second floor and resuming his normal, humanoid form. Darrien was the closest victim at hand, and while he'd rather sip from the silver-haired elf's neck, in a pinch this male half-breed would do. He tried to dominate the ranger but once again, frustratingly, had no success of that front. (Unbeknownst to either of them, Darrien was still standing close enough to the still-capering Gilbert that the corpulent mage's magic circle against evil protected him from all forms of mental domination.)

<He's here!> came a chorus of voices over the Rary's telepathic bond spell, sounding like Darrien and Malrin in unison. Then Darrien brought his Arachnibow up and the bald vampire with the funny teeth found himself being peppered once again with arrows. This was little more than an inconvenience to the nosferatu, whose undead body could handle most physical strikes as long as they weren't made by silver weapons, but it was certainly irritating! And then Hagan popped out of the main bedchamber, voicing another power word spell. this one of a type the sorcerer was certain could affect an undead creature. With a snarl of hatred, the nosferatu found he had been robbed of his sight; instinctively, he returned to his mist form and flattened himself against the wall until he could find the arrow slit and return to the open air outside, where he would wait out the blindness effect.

With a sudden gasp, Gilbert stopped his dancing and immediately erected another layer of magical protection around himself: with a quickened mirror image spell, there was suddenly an entire roomful of Gilberts - nine, in fact, if you didn't count the stunned mirror-duplicate getting its face sloughed off by Finoula's whip.

<What I miss?> he demanded over the link, and once he'd been filled in, he cast another spell, a dimension door that brought him to the bottom of the stairs (the other illusory Gilberts coming along for the ride), just past the sprawled figure of the slain werebat rogue - who, Gilbert noted absently, was now no longer in his hybrid form but was now just another dead, naked human male. He looked all about him, trusting his see invisibility spell would pick up the nosferatu if he had any such shenanigans in mind. <He show up again, we kill him for good this time!> he vowed.

Back up in the main bedroom, Binkadink and Obvious finally managed to slay the mirror-gnome, who vanished into nothingness as the jackalope duplicate had done before him. Soon after, Darrien slew his own duplicate, and he and his gear vanished without a trace. Bummer, thought the ranger. That would have been an easy way to get a spare Arachnibow....

Once Finoula managed to slay the mirror-Gilbert - well before Hagan's stunning effect had worn off, fortunately - he too vanished into nothingness and the ranger dropped back down to the floor, taking the bag of holding with her and thereby plunging the room back into darkness. <His coffin's got to be in here, somewhere,> she opined, having made it to the top floor of the building without having found it. There was only one logical place they hadn't explored yet, barring any extradimensional pocket rooms: the closet that the nosferatu had originally popped out of. Sure enough, the entire back half of the walk-in closet was hidden by an illusion, and there lay the wooden coffin, in full view. Finoula pulled back the lid but the coffin was empty save for a covering of grave dirt on the bottom.

<So now what?> she asked the others.

- - -

Hours later, the stalemate was still on: the nosferatu had failed to overcome any of the heroes, and they in turn had been unable to track him down to destroy him. But they hadn't been idle during the long night; Hagan and Gilbert had dragged the coffin down from the third-floor closet (exposing a cache of coins and jewelry hidden under the floorboards beneath - bonus!) to the werebat cavern below the manor house. (Thank the gods for the teleport spell, thought Gilbert - he wouldn't have wanted to lug it down 80 feet of winding stairs!) But the heroes had decided to make their stand against the nosferatu in as wide open a space as possible and the vast chamber where they had rescued Horace fit the bill. Expecting that the undead monstrosity needed to return to his coffin before sunrise - which should be within the hour, likely - this seemed a good way to draw him out into the open. Of course, with so much time having passed, most of the group's protective spells had long since worn off: no more stoneskins or mage armor spells, no fire shields or even regular shields. Even the Rary's telepathic bond spell was gone; the heroes would have to make do with normal speech.

But the strategy bore fruit soon enough, for the nosferatu strolled into the cave as bold as you please. He had apparently been healed of all of his damage; the same could not be said of the adventurers, although Malrin had done what she could. But he apparently did not want to re-engage combat, either, for he started by calling out, "I wish to talk!"

"So talk," replied Finoula, both of her primary weapons in hand.

"I have killed your soldiers. You have killed my werebats. In this we are even, yes? I have a proposal: you leave here, never to return. I, in turn, seek elsewhere for my prey. I will leave your soldiers, the inhabitants of your kingdom, alone - this I swear."

"Any chance we could get you to feed on orcs and goblins?" asked Darrien.

"And what about the families of those you killed?" demanded Finoula, anger rising in her voice. The nosferatu brushed the notion off with a gesture of his hand, as if waving away an irritating fly. What were the lives of mere mortals to him, save as prey?

"I have idea," began Gilbert, turning the rest of his sentence into the words of a prismatic spray spell. Unfortunately, the spell's greatest drawback was its unpredictability, and in this case it was a green ray that struck the nosferatu in the chest, imbuing him with a poison effect to which his undead body was completely immune.

"I see combat is our only way ahead," sneered the nosferatu, stepping forward. But before he could take more than a single step, a bolt of lightning came crashing down on him, Malrin having cast her prepared call lightning spell. He seemed unfazed by the damage.

Darrien knew from experience that his arrows were all but useless against the nosferatu's undead flesh, so he moved back by the creature's coffin, the bait that had brought him here to face his assembled enemies. Finoula summoned a fire elemental, who appeared suddenly behind the nosferatu and sent a flaming fist crashing into him. At the same time, Hagan brought a Mordenkainen's sword into being, which flew across the cavern and stabbed at the nosferatu. Gilbert cast a simple magic missile at him and stepped back, while Mudpie - having been returned to his normal size - stepped forward to protect his master.

And then Binkadink and Obvious raced forward; they had no spells to contribute, but the gnome was pretty sure his magical glaive would be a perfectly acceptable substitute. The nosferatu stepped back toward the stairs as the gnome stabbed at him with his bladed weapon. Malrin repositioned herself so she could still see her foe and brought down another mostly-ineffectual lightning bolt while the fire elemental stepped forward, trying to hit him with its flaming limbs.

Darrien, lacking anything else useful to do, started hacking away at the wooden coffin with his scimitar. But then the battle came to an abrupt halt as Hagan cast a disintegrate spell at the bald vampire, knowing full well it would affect undead flesh as well as any other nonliving matter. And sure enough, the nosferatu's body was awash in a sudden beam of light, then vanished in a cloud of dry dust that coated the stone floor of the cavern where he had stood just a second ago. Wezhley jumped up and down excitedly on his master's shoulder, proud at the half-orc's spellcasting prowess. The threat averted, Finoula redeployed her fire elemental over to the wooden coffin, setting it ablaze in the time it still had left on this plane. Just in case there was a chance the nosferatu could regenerate, they wanted to make absolutely sure there was no coffin there to allow it to rest.

After watching the coffin burn to ashes, Hagan ushered half of the group through the carpet of teleportation back to the dragonfly vessel, then cast a final teleport spell transporting the rest of them back to Battershield Keep. They'd bring Horace back to his sentry duties, but not until everyone had gotten a good ten hours of sleep or so - they had certainly earned it!

- - -

Boy, were my werebats ever pushovers! The group (mostly Binkadink) plowed through them like they weren't even there. But I made up for it with my mirror of opposition trap. Dan's face was priceless when I asked him to pass his PC folder over my way so I could see which spells his mirror-duplicate could use against him. I tried getting Dan to role-play the dancing in place for 3 rounds, but with five players (one running a second character - the NPC druid) those 3 rounds took the better part of an hour and I don't think he'd have liked gyrating for that long. (Incidentally, it's a good thing Hagan wasn't one of the four people in the room when the mirror of opposition was triggered - I shudder to think of the havoc I could have wreaked had I had the half-orc sorcerer's spell repertoire at hand to use against the PCs!)

Incidentally, Jacob was unable to attend this session - he's a shift manager at his work and at the last minute he had to cover for somebody who didn't make it in. So rather than have one of the other players run Castillan as well as their own PC, I just decided that the bounder was elsewhere when adventure called this time. He'll share in the XP earned, though - it wouldn't be right to penalize Jacob's PC for something out of his control. (Plus, it's easier when everyone levels up at the same time.)

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "WWDD?" shirt, featuring Daryl Dixon from "The Walking Dead." It had two meanings: the TV show was a hint as to the nosferatu's undead nature and Daryl was a good stand-in for the garrison soldiers pulling sentry duty for Kordovia.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 17
Darrien, half-elf ranger 17
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 17
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 17
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 17​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 11
MARCI, humanoid construct​

Game Session Date: 10 August 2019

- - -

"Arise and attend!" called out a deep voice from outside the lowered drawbridge of Battershield Keep. "I have a mission for the adventurers within!"

Finoula approached the lowered portcullis, her hand on the hilt of her enchanted longsword Tahlmalaera just in case. But then she smiled upon recognizing their visitor: the titan Leandros, who not long ago had gathered six of their group together to form a team with which to compete in a game of Titan Chess. It had been a lucrative mission for them; if this was a follow-on assignment of a similar nature, the elf was all for it!

The titan stood before the drawbridge, unarmed and wearing only a toga and leather sandals. Upon seeing Finoula, he pulled a small bag from his belt and tossed it expertly through the bars of the portcullis. It fell at the ranger's feet with the unmistakable clink of coins striking coins; looking down, she saw it couldn't hold but a paltry dozen or so, if even that. She frowned as she bent to pick it up.

Leandros saw the expression on her face. "Open it," he commanded. "It's a miniature bag of holding. Inside you will find 50,000 pieces of gold, a down-payment for the task I wish to assign to you. There will be another 50,000 upon the mission's completion, if you are interested."

Gilbert had ambled up during this last announcement. "What mission?" he asked, before sending his earth elemental Mudpie to go gather together the rest of the group. The titan explained as the others started assembling behind the portcullis and MARCI was directed to raise the barrier out of the way.

"I have gotten word that War Titan Takhios, furious at his loss at Titan Chess and failure to gain the Frostreaver for himself, has vowed to seek out and fetch the Titanslayer – a massive greatsword capable of bringing down a titan with ease. It's hidden away on one of the Lower Planes - Carceri - in a place no titan can enter upon pain of instant annihilation. I had my spies find out the War Titan’s plans: he's sending a team of proxies to go fetch the Titanslayer and return it to him. I wish to beat him at his own game by having you get to it first.

“If Takhios gets the Titanslayer, there's no doubt he'll use it to try to kill me," explained Leandros. "And then he'll be virtually unstoppable – no titan would be able to take him down with such a power at his command!" He looked down at the group. "The weapon was to be perfectly safe in Carceri, where no titan could enter and none was to have known of its exact location. How Takhios found out about it is a mystery, but one which we can solve later – for now, we need to fetch that sword before his team gets to it!"

"It's a shame Castillan isn't here," muttered Malrin. "I think he's out playing cards at one of the taverns in town. Do we have time to track him down?"

"Sound like time of essence," Gilbert replied. Looking up at Leandros, he asked, "What this Titanslayer look like?"

"It's a massive greatsword some 30 feet in length," Leandros replied. "None of you would be able to lift it, let alone wield it. But I have a modified portable hole" - and here he tossed a rolled-up piece of black cloth to the group after plucking it from his belt - "with an interior large enough to hold the Titanslayer. Slide this around the greatsword and it will weigh as nothing to you."

He reached inside his toga and pulled out a rolled-up piece of parchment in a scroll tube. He bent down and handed it to Finoula, who pulled it free of the tube and unrolled it. "As I cannot accompany you to Carceri, I will scry upon you and watch your progress," Leandros promised. "Once you return to Battershield Keep with the greatsword, I will meet you here and give you the rest of your payment. In the meantime, that is a copy of the notes Takhios gathered, which show the way to the Titanslayer. They were painstakingly copied while scrying upon the originals." Finoula read the notes aloud. They said:
"Directions to the Sword

Titanslayer is on Minethys, the 3rd layer of Carceri, on an orb no titan can step upon and remain living. The easiest way to get to it via planar travel is to gate to the 2nd layer, Cathrys, and follow the instructions below to get to Minethys.
  • Gate to Carceri, 2nd plane (Cathrys), using petrified leaf covered in amber – ensures arrival on correct orb
  • Acidic jungle! – have protection at hand
  • Head towards tallest mountain peak visible
  • Fields ahead beyond jungle – sharp-bladed plants! Move slowly through the grasses
  • Cave at base of mountain – dragon lairs inside (doesn’t often bargain – large enough bribe?)
  • Portal in back of cave (2 columns) leads to Minethys
  • Minethys = desert orbs, beware of sudden sandstorms (common hazard: sand gorgons)
  • Arrival point is one orb away from orb desired – will need to fly to neighboring orb (only 2 options, both look almost identical) – will know you're on the right orb if part of titan's body disintegrates on contact
  • Once on correct orb, seek the stone towers topped by iron cages – largest tower is hollow (secret panel?)
  • Titanslayer stored below – possible guardian(s)?"

"You will also need these," Leandros said, passing two more items to Finoula. One was a piece of leaf embedded inside a hunk of amber; the other, a short braid of hair. "The hair is mine," he explained. "You can use it to determine if the orb you stand upon is the one inimical to titan life, for it will dissolve to nothingness upon contact with the ground. When that happens, you will be assured you are on the correct orb. And the leaf in amber is the only one I was able to steal from Takhios, so I can send but the one team to Carceri. You will arrive in the jungle from which the leaf was taken."

"Go!" commanded Gilbert to the group. "Gather weapons, armor, other gear. Meet back here when ready!" As for the heavyset wizard, he already had everything he needed, for Mudpie had fetched his backpack while Leandros was explaining the mission. "MARCI!" he called to the humanoid construct they'd found imprisoned by a hag in the Vesve Forest many months ago. "You out of healing potions. What else you got, might help us in mission?"

"I have a pain reducer that will allow you to ignore physical trauma and carry on combat activities despite injuries," the female-shaped automaton replied in her steady voice.

"That work for me!" Gilbert agreed. "Everybody get dose!"

"Obvious too!" piped up Binkadink, approaching in full armor with his trained jackalope in tow. MARCI dutifully injected a dose of the fluid into each of the adventurers and Obvious as well. Then the spellcasting began in earnest: Gilbert cast a magic circle against evil spell on himself and a stoneskin spell upon Mudpie and himself; Hagan cast stoneskin and mage armor spells to cover himself and his weasel familiar Wezhley; the two rangers, Darrien and Finoula, each covered themselves with a barkskin spell; and Malrin cast barkskin spells on Binkadink, Obvious, and herself and a stoneskin spell upon Finoula. Gilbert completed their spell preparations with a Rary's telepathic bond spell that connected everyone in a mental communication channel.

"You got attune form spell ready?" Gilbert asked Malrin.

"I do," the druid replied.

"Cast it on us once we arrive," Gilbert commanded. "You cast it now, we attune bodies to this plane - that no good."

"I got it, Gilbert," assured Malrin.

"Then we ready!" called Gilbert and Leandros triggered a gate spell. Finoula led the way through the swirling, vertical vortex, the leaf in amber disappearing from her hand - consumed by the spell to attune the gate to the correct destination - as she stepped through the portal.

Sure enough, the group arrived in the middle of a steaming jungle reeking of death and decay. Malrin immediately began the words to the attune form spell, shielding the group from the acidic effects of the plane of Carceri upon which they had landed. This was Cathrys, the second layer of six such on the plane; each layer was a string of small orbs aligned like pearls on a necklace, although no two orbs made physical contact with each other. The orbs were small as far as planetoids went, each with a diameter of perhaps five miles, with a similar gap between each orb and its neighbors. But the atmosphere around each orb extended in a torus around the entire string of spheres, allowing for flight from one planetoid to the next.

"We make it this far," Gilbert observed. "Where we go from here again?"

Finoula consulted the parchment of copied directions Leandros had provided. "We need to find the highest mountain visible," she said. From their vantage point, however, all they could see were the trees looming all around them.

"I'm on it!" volunteered Malrin, always eager to be of assistance to the group of adventurers to which her brother Castillan belonged - and which, she thought proudly, she was now also a true member, having shown time and again she could pull her own weight. She wildshaped into her comfortable owl form, flapped her wings, and flew off above the tree-line to see where the tallest visible mountain might lie.

But as she did so there was a deep hiss from the other side of a clump of adjacent trees. Looking in that direction, the others saw a creature unlike anything they'd ever seen before. At first, it looked like a massive constrictor snake of some type - perhaps a boa, for its mottled coloration was similar. But this boa was bigger than any terrestrial serpent they'd ever seen before, with a much stockier body - and then they saw the creature's four powerful limbs. One might think this would give it the appearance of a lizard, but its thick body was still as sinuous as that of a snake. A forked tongue, black and shiny, darted from the creature's mouth as it started creeping forward around the trees and heading toward the adventurers, no doubt intent upon an easy meal.

Finoula, sure that any native creature they discovered on any of the levels of Carceri meant them no good, raised a hand to her lightning amulet and activated it. In an instant she became a living bolt of electricity which blasted through the nagasaur, only for her to resume her normal elven figure on its far side. She rematerialized with her longsword Tahlmalaera in her right hand and her flaming burst whip of thorns in her left, each ready to strike.

Hagan stepped forward towards the sinuous reptile and cast a disintegrate spell at it. The ray that sprang from his finger struck true, but the nagasaur managed to weather the attack and come out of it damaged but still alive. Wezhley hissed in irritation at the thing's continued survival after his master had hoped to strike it down with one spell.

But then Obvious raced forward, hippity-hopping between the jungle trees. Binkadink held his glaive out like a lance, hoping to skewer the strange reptile, but for once his aim was off and the blade struck the creature's scales at an angle, deflecting harmlessly away.

Gilbert followed Hagan's lead and cast a disintegrate spell of his own at the nagasaur but once again it toughed its way through the attack and survived, albeit with a chunk of flesh and scales missing from its side. Darrien stepped up beside the portly mage and tried his hand at taking the beast down, not with a spell but with a cluster of arrows all fired at one time. The quartet of deadly missiles went flying from the ranger's Arachnibow, three of them striking true. The creature hissed in evident pain - and then its head went darting out at the creature directly before it, plunging its piercing fangs into the jackalope's neck and pumping venom into the wounds.

Obvious shrieked in pain, leaping back and wrenching the nagasaur's jaws from his neck in the process. Binkadink leaped from the jackalope's back, allowing the wounded steed to retreat to safety while the gnome pressed the attack. His glaive stabbed out at the legged snake-thing, while Binkadink called for help from Malrin over the telepathic bond.

Still in owl form, Malrin dropped back down below the tree-line and flew directly at the nagasaur, touching its scaled body with a talon. During the brief contact, the owl-druid channeled a neutralize poison spell into the nagasaur's body. <I've neutralized its venom - it won't be able to poison anyone else!> she called to the others over the link, then flapped over to see to Obvious.

Finoula's blade and whip struck out at the nagasaur from behind, each weapon carving a line of pain across the reptile's body. Hagan cast another spell, this time a polar ray, which overcame the nagasaur's inherent spell resistance. Frost covered its scales as the spell took effect and the half-orc sorcerer could tell that even if the creature had the ability to ignore some level of cold damage - as was common with fiendish and half-fiend creatures - he had done enough damage to overload that particular resistance.

Gilbert cast another spell at the nagasaur, similarly overcoming its spell resistance, and suddenly the reptile was completely blind! Its hissing took on a frantic tone as it realized just how much of a handicap this was going to be to it: now the option that had started to look pretty good - namely to flee from these powerful foes and live to feast again on some other day - was likely not even going to be possible. Sure enough, Darrien pumped five arrows into the nagasaur in rapid succession and it fell over, dead.

MARCI had stepped up beside Obvious and scanned the jackalope's wounds with the red beam from her eye. "This creature has sustained a venomous bite," she announced. She extended a finger-probe into the jackalope's wound. "I have analyzed the venom and can produce an antidote. Permission to administer the treatment to a non-human recipient?"

"Permission granted!" Gilbert cried in exasperation. "In fact, treat jackalope as if it human, from now on!"

"Altering designation of creature: Obvious," MARCI announced aloud as a thin needle extended from a metal finger, the probe having been retracted. She stabbed it expertly into Obvious' neck and shot a dose of antivenom into the area around the wounds. "Obvious is now classified as a human."

"I'm glad we've got that settled," said Binkadink, returning to his trusty jackalope steed to see how he was faring after the attack. "You okay, buddy?" he asked, stroking the fur between the creature's antlers.

"Better," admitted Obvious.

Malrin landed beside the jackalope, resumed her elven form, and pointed forward. <The mountain we seek is that way,> she told the others before adding some healing of her own to Obvious, courtesy of her magical staff.

It was a matter of a ten-minute trek through the jungle before the trees gave way to waving grasses, and while during their travels they heard the frequent screams and cries of exotic animals nearby, the group exited the acidic rain forest without any further encounters with native Carceri wildlife. Ahead, in the distance, they could see a mountain range, one peak in the middle jutting higher than the others.

"That's got to be our target," Hagan observed. "Where's the dragon's cave again - base, peak, or somewhere in between?"

Finoula checked the directions. "'Base of mountain'," she recited.

"Gather up, then," Hagan commanded, and once everyone was in place he teleported the group to the base of the mountain.

From there it was the matter of but a few minutes to find a cave opening at the mountain's base. After silent communication over their telepathic bond, Gilbert sent Mudpie in to investigate, instructing the elemental to provide constant status updates through the empathic link they shared as master and familiar. The earth elemental stepped up to the wide cave opening, noting there was a short step down into the cavern and then a set of flow-stone steps leading up along the left side and a pool of clear water to the right. He stepped down into the cave, opening a hole in the floor beneath him so he could earth glide through the unworked stone while leaving only the top of his head visible...and immediately, a raucous shrieking rang out from the cavern.

<Alarm spell?> asked Hagan over the link.

<Simpler than that -- shriekers!> replied Gilbert, stepping gingerly into the cavern behind his sunken familiar. Sure enough, the "step" was really a ledge, and sitting inside a long niche carved beneath it was a row of the subterranean fungi known colloquially as "shriekers," for they emitted loud noises when exposed to light or nearby movement. If this were the lair of a dragon, there was little doubt it was now aware of their intrusion.

As if to emphasize the point, an angry roar came from the top of the flow-stone steps. Mudpie earth glided up the incline, ambling to see what he could see knowing full well he could always "duck" beneath the surface of the rock as needed, leaving behind no evidence of his passing.

Hagan cast a fly spell upon himself and Wezhley and rose into the air. He entered the cavern and scooted over by the pool, his head nearly at the top of the cavern's ceiling, some 35 feet up. He faced the flow-stone steps, the source of the awful roar. Judging solely by the sound of the angry roar, the dragon was of considerable size - although the half-orc knew that sounds could echo oddly in some of these caves. Maybe they'd get lucky and the dragon wouldn't be as big as Hagan was imagining it to be.

Binkadink and Obvious weren't content to let the dragon make an appearance on its own terms; the jackalope scampered up the flow-stone steps, passing by Mudpie, reaching a level surface at the top that then flowed back down to an even larger cavern on the far side. But there was no dragon here, either, just a smaller side cave and another pool of water. The gnome's attention was diverted momentarily to the side cave, for scattered along the floor in this area was a carpet of loose coins and gems - apparently the unseen dragon's treasure hoard.

A buzzing sound alerted Binkadink to Darrien's arrival: he had activated his ebony fly and ridden it into the back cavern behind the jackalope. The half-elf ranger had his Arachnibow drawn and an arrow ready to loose, but there was no dragon at which to send it flying. "Invisible?" he asked the gnome, looking around and straining his ears to try to hear any noise the hypothetically invisible dragon might make.

Back at the main entrance, Finoula stepped into the front cavern with both main weapons in hand and cast a darkvision spell upon her eyes, for Binkadink's helmet held the group's only active light sources and he and Obvious had gone around to the back of the cave network. She stepped over to the pool, noticing absently that the water was sploshing around a bit. Brow furrowed - there shouldn't be waves, even little ones, in an underground cave, surely! - she thought she saw the level of the water rising, but then it seemed to stabilize at its new height. Behind her, Malrin held the carved tyrannosaurus tooth they'd discovered in the lunar ravager lodge and, activating its magic, wildshaped into a tyrannosaurus rex - a larger form than any she'd ever attained and one only possible through the magics of the totem she wore on a leather thong around her neck. But she thought a fight against a dragon was a perfect time to try out the combat capabilities of one of the world's most fearsome dinosaurs.

There was a sudden explosion of water from the pool just as Finoula realized what might have caused the water surface to rise and the rippling of small waves in a still pool: the displacement caused by a large form entering the connected pools in the cave network's front and back! But then Aradacevaeros sprang forward, water springing from his mottled hide, and he looked in surprise at Finoula standing before him and Hagan suspended in the air, whirling suddenly around in panic to face the dragon. "Mortals from the Material Plane, traveled all this way to meet their deaths? Why, I haven't dined on such fare in centuries! This will be a most welcome treat indeed!" exulted Aradacevaeros.

Finoula was frozen momentarily in place at the awesome spectacle before her and Aradacevaeros took advantage of her hesitation to snap forward, biting down at the elf. His teeth penetrated the magical shielding of the stoneskin spell protecting her, but the dose of pain reducer MARCI had injected her with earlier helped her focus on the task at hand, not the pain caused by the dragon teeth piercing her body. She wrenched free from the dragon's mouth before he could try to swallow her whole, dropping back to the stone floor of the cavern and just barely retaining her balance.

Gilbert, choking back the instinctive fear upon the sight of the Tarterian dragon, kept his wits about him long enough to cast a wall of force spell directly in front of the dragon, separating Aradacevaeros from Finoula, Hagan, and the others. The dragon roared in fury, apparently having recognized the spell from the hand movements Gilbert made while casting, for the magical wall itself was quite invisible. With a final snort of frustration, the great dragon submerged back into the pool, reversing course and returning back the way he had come, any thoughts of releasing a breath weapon saved for later.

<Incoming!> Gilbert cried over the link. <Dragon heading back your way!> And then he ran away from the pool, leaping up the flow-stone steps at a speed faster than would be expected for one of his bulk. MARCI followed in his wake, her metal feet clanging loudly on the cavern's stone floor.

Mudpie, however, took an earth gliding shortcut by going straight through the intervening stone separating the front cave and the side cave filled with the dragon's loose treasure. There were two natural columns in the back of this side cave, where a pair of stalactites had merged into the twin stalagmites below them. This, the elemental realized, was likely the natural gate to the third level of Carceri the dragon guarded.

Hagan and Wezhley flew past the running Gilbert to land at the base of the treasure cave. Seeing he'd beaten the dragon here, Hagan bent down and started gathering up handfuls of coins and gems from the floor, scooping them into his backpack. Finoula stopped beside him and started to do the same. <This ought to distract his attention!> she said over the link. Binkadink, mounted on Obvious, faced the back pool and readied his glaive for when Aradacevaeros would appear. Behind and beside him, Darrien kept his magical bow at the ready as well, balancing upon the back of the pony-sized fly which had landed on the cavern floor. And then Malrin appeared in the back cavern as well, in her impressive tyrannosaurus rex form, ready for a taste of massive reptilian combat.

Aradacevaeros exploded out of the back pool just as Gilbert finally rounded the corner, dropping down from the dragon's higher-level sleeping platform and into the lower back cavern. He had a quickened wall of force readied and cast it at once, sealing off the dragon from the adventurers with another invisible screen that went from one side of the cavern to the other and from the floor to the ceiling. The Tarterian dragon screamed in fury - and his anger only increased as he saw the adventurers scooping up every last iota of his treasure, looking back at him and grinning in a quite infuriating manner as they did so. Aradacevaeros could only watch impotently as they cleaned him out and then walked, one by one, through the natural gate to the third level of Carceri.

"I hope that wall of force is going to hold up long enough!" Binkadink mentioned as the group materialized on a desert world. There was nothing but featureless dunes of red sand as far as the eye could see. Up above, the floating spheres of the nearest orbs in line could be seen; they stretched off to the edges of vision in both directions, curving slightly in a shallow arc.

"It hold just fine," Gilbert assured the gnome. "He no want to follow us, anyway - that a one-way gate. He follow us, no way back to lair."

"Are you sure?" Finoula asked. "He sure looked furious at us stealing his hoard."

"Look around!" Gilbert scoffed. "No structures around for gate to be tied to!" He demonstrated the truth of his words by backtracking the way they'd all come, following their footprints in the sand all the way to their origin point and then passing it. "See?" he said. "No way back that way."

Hagan was looking up at the orbs. "So, which way do we want to try first?" he asked.

"Don't matter. Pick one. Take titan hair with you - if it dissolve, you know you on right orb."

"Okay, then," replied the half-orc. "Either way, we'll be right back." He said a few arcane syllables and then he and Wezhley disappeared from view. Sure enough, they teleported back just a few moments later. "Nope," he said, showing the group the undamaged braid of Leandros' hair. "It's gotta be the other one." Everyone gathered around the half-orc sorcerer and he cast the teleport spell for the third time in as many minutes, this time transporting the entire group to the next orb in line in the opposite direction. He dropped the titan hair braid onto the red sands at his feet on this new orb and watched as it writhed and smoked, rapidly being consumed. In a moment it was gone.

"This is the place, all right," said Hagan. "Minethys, right?"

"Minethys, correct," replied Finoula, looking over the copied directions. "We need to find towers with cages on top of them."

"Does it say in which direction?" asked Darrien.


"Okay, fliers - Darrien, Hagan, me - we each pick direction, do sweeps back and forth, expand outward," Gilbert suggested. "Others stay here. Anybody find towers, let everyone know over link. Questions? No? Then go!" Hagan and Wezhley flew off in one direction, Darrien and his ebony fly in another, and Gilbert and Mudpie in still another. Her master gone, MARCI stood motionless with the other adventurers left behind. After about half an hour - an interminable time for Binkadink, who wasn't thrilled with the desert heat while wearing his full dragonhide armor - Darrien's voice came over the link. <Found 'em! They're not much as far as towers go - most of 'em are buried under the sand. But there are six towers around a seventh in the middle. And there are cages on each tower.>

<That sounds like them, all right!> Finoula answered. <We'll start heading in your direction on foot. Gilbert and Hagan, you can fly back the way you came and then follow our tracks. Darrien, keep an eye out for us so we don't veer off course!> On a small globe with nothing but red sand dunes - and only the string of floating orbs overhead, no sun or stars by which to navigate - even maintaining a straight line of travel was difficult! But less than an hour's travel and the group had all gathered back up at the seven towers.

Their arrival was a cause of excitement for the poor petitioners locked in the cages above the towers. Each of the six towers on the outer edges of the formation held a dozen iron cages along their roof-lines, built like bird cages but just barely big enough to hold a human in a hunched-over position, while the central tower held a full 20 such structures along its edges. Each cage held a tormented soul, wearing nothing but tattered rags and with skin pockmarked and scoured by the frequent sandstorms plaguing the desert orb. These petitioners called out to the adventurers, offering anything and everything if they'd just free them. "I can lead you to untold riches!" promised one gaunt man with clumps of stringy, matted, hair the color of fresh urine hanging down from his balding, patchy scalp. "Only free me," promised a woman thin to the point of appearing to be undead (although Gilbert's magically-enhanced eyes verified that she was in fact still alive) "and I can grant you three wishes! Anything you like--anything at all!" A ragged man with a mangy beard put a supplicating arm through the iron bars of his cage and implored, "I know the secret way to Mount Celestia, where the river waters taste of amber ale! Free me, and I will take you there!"

Finoula looked at these wretched souls with a look of horror on her elven features. "Just ignore them," Gilbert advised. "They damned - they earn these fates by their actions while alive."

"They're not alive?" Finoula gasped.

"Well, 'afterlife alive', I guess," admitted the heavyset wizard. "But just ignore them. Pretend they not even here." He flew up to the top of the central tower and started poking around. "Supposed to be hollow tower," he mused. "Mudpie! Go under sand, see if there door into tower buried somewhere down there!"

While the earth elemental carried out his orders, the others climbed onto the roof of the central tower - it wasn't difficult, as there was only about a foot of it still standing above the current configuration of the ever-shifting sands - and joined Gilbert in his rooftop search. "Here!" called out Finoula, finding a few depressions at the center of the roof, which her elven senses had determined were the hand-holds for a massive slab of rock which could be lifted up and moved aside. While Malrin maneuvered her tyrannosaur foot-claw into the slot and slowly lifted the heavy slab (Binkadink dismounted from Obvious and helped slide it off to the side, revealing a winding set of steps leading down), Gilbert was receiving a report from Mudpie. "He say no doors in tower but there living quarters down there. A giant, sleeping - and Titanslayer in back cave with two chests! This the place, all right!"

By then, the slab had been lifted and Malrin had pushed it aside far enough that even she could get her saurian bulk through. The 15-foot-wide stairwell wound down into the ground in a clockwise direction and the steps were scaled for a giant, each step a full three feet below the one above it. There was some discussion about whether to leave the slab open or close it back up before descending into the giant's lair, but eventually two factors helped them to decide: first, they weren't planning on coming back this way (Gilbert would plane shift them back home after they successfully gained the Titanslayer for Leandros); and second, there was no reason to make things any easier for Takhios' team, who were undoubtedly at some point behind them. Malrin lifted the slab with her head from beneath it and slid it back into place.

"How do we know the War Titan's forces aren't ahead of us?" Darrien asked.

"If they already downstairs, Mudpie see them!" Gilbert scoffed. "And dragon say we first mortals it see in long time - they definitely somewhere behind us!"

"And best of all," pointed out Binkadink, "when they do show up at the dragon's lair, the walls of force will have run their course - he's going to tear into them!" He started chuckling at the thought of the furious dragon suddenly provided with a fresh set of mortals upon which to vent his anger.

The steps made eight full circuits around and down before leveling off into the giant's lair. There were two exits from the room at the bottom of the circular stairs: a thick, wooden door and an open passageway. Finoula headed to the door while Binkadink and Obvious checked out the corridor, which like the rest of this place seemed to have been carved directly into the stone far beneath the red sands above. The corridor bent at an angle and then dropped, by a series of three natural steps, into an open cavern that appeared not to have been carved out of the stone; rather, it must have been an underground pocket that had been extended into the rest of the giant's living space. The far end of the massive cavern was filled with nasty-looking fungus, mostly mushrooms of the "thick cap" variety, each glistening wet with corruption. The cavern was thick with the odors of death and decay. Along the back wall was another set of natural steps leading down into a smaller cave, and inside this the gnome could see an enormous, glowing greatsword: Titanslayer, without a doubt.

But instead of heading straight for the object of their quest, Binkadink steered Obvious over towards the fungal garden, for he could see another set of steps rising up to another carved passageway like the one they had just traversed. Gilbert had said something about a sleeping giant; better to make sure he was taken out of the picture before they went for the massive sword, so he wouldn't have an opportunity to sneak up behind them when they weren't paying attention.

As the gnome and the jackalope traveled down this second corridor, the wailing and moaning of voices could be heard, the noises getting louder as they approached the end of the corridor. By the time they got to its end and could see it opened into a massive room where a giant slept upon a slab of stone that served for his bed, the moaning was quite horrific - and it actually caused Obvious to shudder with fear. Trembling terribly, the jackalope stopped all forward movement and spun about, leaving Binkadink just enough time to leap from the saddle before his riding mount was high-tailing it back the way he had come. The wailing must be some sort of magical effect, the gnome mused to himself; Obvious wasn't usually that easy to scare.

Finoula, in the meantime, had discovered the massive, wooden door to be stuck solid - but that wasn't anything her chime of opening couldn't handle. However, upon opening the stuck door, she too could hear the doleful wailing coming from the giant's bedchambers and that was enough for the normally fearless ranger to break ranks and flee back the way she'd come.

And she wasn't the only one. Darrien, still astride his ebony fly, panicked at the sound and spun his aerial mount around in midair, the two of them fleeing back up the oversize stairwell leading back to the surface. Hagan ran in his wake, a look of absolute terror on his half-orcish face; upon the sorcerer's shoulder, Wezhley the weasel held an almost human expression of fear on his fuzzy muzzle. Even the steadfast Gilbert Fung turned and ran up the stairs, followed by his earth elemental familiar Mudpie and his humanoid automaton MARCI - although the latter had not been affected by the wailing and moaning - rather, she generally followed Gilbert wherever he might go, and right now he was running at full speed back to the overly-large steps spiraling up in the middle of the tower buried to its top in reddish sand. Even Malrin, still in the impressive form of a tyrannosaurus rex, scampered up the steps as if the very forces of Hell were chasing her.

The death giant sat up from his stone slab of a bed and reached for the greataxe leaning against the opposite wall. Grabbing it up in both hands, he spun to face the intruder in his lair...and was quite surprised to see his foe was a three-foot-tall gnome balancing upon some sort of stilts sticking out from the sides of his boots. This was the danger that had invaded his realm?

But then Binkadink gave the death giant ample reason for concern as, stepping forward on his gnomish stilt-boots, he extended his collapsible glaive to its full length and brought it swinging into the giant's side. The blade cut through the giant's thick, black hide, bringing a flow of red blood coursing down his torso.

By that time those who had fled from the horrid sound of the giant's wailing (although it hadn't actually been the giant making the sound but rather a cascade of disembodied, nebulous ghost-skulls which flew all around him in a wide halo) suddenly came to their senses; they had moved far enough away from the magic effect for it to no longer bother them. Obvious skittered to a halt, changed course, and hippity-hopped back the way he had fled, eager to join up with his gnomish rider and make the death giant pay for the jackalope's seeming act of cowardice. Up on the steps, the other heroes likewise regained their normal faculties. "It magical effect!" barked Gilbert to the others, reversing course and racing back down the stairs, Mudpie and MARCI following suit behind him. "No shame in falling under spell, but now it not likely have any more effect on us!"

Gilbert was correct; having already been exposed once to the fear effect, the heroes were better able to ignore it upon their second exposure. As one, they scrambled back to aid Binkadink in his fight against the ebony-skinned death giant. And the gnome was grateful for any assistance he could get at that point, for the giant's greataxe had already sent him slamming up against a stone wall from the power of the blow; only the stabilizing effect of his gnomish stilt-boots helped him to keep his balance. But Binkadink gave back as good as he had taken, carving another line of pain across the death giant's thick hide. Behind him, he could hear - just barely, over the still-present screaming coming from the ethereal skulls floating around the death giant in an erratic circle - his trusty jackalope approaching, eager to rejoin the battle.

Finoula raced through the now-open doorway and into what was apparently the giant's dining hall, given the half-devoured fiendish dire rat corpse on the slab of stone that served him as a table. An open doorway led into the giant's bedchamber, from which she could hear the sounds of clashing blades and the scraping of metal weapons striking stone walls - and, of course, the ever-present screaming and wailing of the death giant's floating skulls. But then Darrien buzzed by her on his ebony fly, his Arachnibow ready to let loose an arrow already in place. Flying through the doorway to the death giant's bedroom, he sent a volley of rapid-fire arrows into the giant's back.

Hagan followed the half-elf into the bedchamber, casting a polar ray spell at the giant's back. The spell struck true, although Hagan could tell by its limited effects that the giant not only had some sort of inherent resistance against spellcraft but also at least a partial resistance to cold damage, for the polar ray didn't seem to affect the giant as much as the sorcerer had hoped. Indeed, the death giant all but ignored this attack, his concentration focused upon the gnome fighter before him. Again his greataxe swung down upon Binkadink, drawing blood and a stifled grunt of pain.

But then Malrin entered the sparse bedchamber, still in her tyrannosaurus form. Her rows of sharp teeth bit down at the death giant, encompassing his left shoulder and pulling him away from the gnome. While he was thus held immobile, Gilbert stepped up and cast a disintegrate spell at the bald, ebony-skinned giant. Once again his natural resistance against spellcraft prevented him from taking the full force of the spell, but Gilbert could tell he had at least suffered a bit from the spell's effects.

Binkadink took advantage of the giant's relative immobility to send his glaive crashing into his foe again and again, dealing an enormous amount of damage with three quick strikes in a row. And then Finoula entered the room; it was getting a bit crowded, even in a chamber built to a giant's scale, for Malrin's tyrannosaur form took up most of the open space not already taken up by the bed-slab of rock and those already in combat. But the elven ranger stepped between the dinosaur's powerful back legs and sent her flaming burst whip of thorns lashing out at the death giant's legs while he struggled to free himself from Malrin's jaws. Darrien had his fly mount soar up to the room's ceiling and from this vantage point he shot arrows down at the pinned giant with little fear of accidentally hitting any of his friends. Hagan cast another polar ray spell, but this time it fizzled out entirely upon touching the giant's black skin, doing nothing.

With a final wrench that left furrows of blood along his shoulder, the death giant finally managed to extricate himself from Malrin's powerful jaws. He staggered forward and then, since Binkadink was still standing there before him, decided to turn his half-stumble into an attack with his greataxe, once again targeting the gnome. It was looking as if there was no way to overcome all of these damned intruders, but at least he could take out the first one to have had the temerity to attack him in his own home!

However, the massive strength behind the giant's attack actually worked against him, for he dealt the little gnome so much damage that it triggered Binkadink's ring of retaliation - and a similar gash opened on the giant's flesh to mirror the cut he had just dealt the gnome. That was enough to put the death giant on his last legs and the screaming, insubstantial skulls still flying all around him - perhaps recognizing this sad fact - wailed all the harder.

Gilbert, having made a note of the giant's ability to occasionally shrug off completely the effects of even the most powerful spells, opted to cast a spell that wouldn't target the death giant at all: he cast haste on himself, Mudpie, Darrien, and Binkadink. "Let's see you shrug off those effects!" the heavyset wizard chuckled to himself.

That was all it took. Moving even faster than normal - certainly faster than the death giant could block - Binkadink's glaive struck forward at lightning speed, tearing a gash across the giant's chest, another across his massive bicep, another nearly severing the fingers of his left hand, and a fourth stabbing straight into his belly. With a roar of surprise and pain that sent his life's blood spraying across the room, the death giant fell forward like a felled tree and would have crushed the little gnome had Obvious not dashed forward and grabbed his rider by the belt and pulled him back into the corridor leading to the treasure cavern.

"Nice one, Bink!" congratulated Darrien as he landed his fly and started retrieving those arrows that could still be reused. The others converged into the lower cavern, before the stone steps leading down into what was obviously the "treasure cave." There, upon the stone floor in the back, lay Titanslayer. It was surrounded by six stone pillars arranged in a hexagon, each pillar containing runes etched into every surface.

"Don't touch anything yet," Hagan warned, casting a detect magic spell and looking around the cave. "Okay, the sword's definitely magic an so are the columns." He looked off to either side, allowing his magical vision to encompass each of the large chests in turn. "Not the chests, though," he added.

"Everybody out!" shooed Binkadink, heading for the nearest chest.

<We'd normally let Castillan check out the chests before opening them,> pointed out Malrin, not being able to speak aloud as a dinosaur but perfectly capable of sending her thoughts to the others over the Rary's telepathic bond spell.

"True, but he's not here," countered Binkadink, "and whatever traps might be hidden on these chests, I'm the one most likely to survive them." It was true; the little gnome had proven time and again he was made of sturdy stuff. Once everyone had stepped back, he lifted the top of the first chest with the tip of his blade, having shrunk the shaft of his magic glaive to its shortest length. When no explosions belched forth, the gnome cautiously approached the chest and peered over the top. "Coins!" he called. "Lots of 'em!"

"We grab them up later!" Gilbert suggested. "Go check other chest!"

Binkadink moved over to the other side of the treasure cave and repeated his actions. This time, though, the "treasure" was of a much more grisly nature: a bald, scarred, limbless humanoid who snarled in wordless hatred at the gnome. It took Binkadink a moment to recognize this creature as a kyton without any of the chains it normally wore as combination armor, weapons, and additional limbs. Apparently the death giant had captured a kyton at one point and had been using it as an additional food source to supplement the disgusting fungus growing in the back cavern and the occasional fiendish dire rat it caught on the surface of this strange little orb. With a look of disgust, Binkadink dropped the lid of the chest back into place. "I think we'll leave this one here," he suggested.

Then he turned to examine Titanslayer, but Hagan stepped forward by his side, examining the runes on the stone pillars. "I'm willing to bet there are invisible walls of force between each of these columns," he ventured.

"One way to find out," the gnome replied, trying to reach between two of the pillars with his glaive. But Hagan had been right; the blade scratched against an unseen and unyielding barrier. Worse yet, the touch of Binkadink's glaive also triggered another effect: barely audible at first, a low humming began increasing in volume, sending an ever-louder sonic blast from sub-harmonics through the audible spectrum until the heroes were forced to race from the treasure cave for fear of their heads splitting open from the noise. As a group, the adventurers stepped well back from the entrance to the treasure cave and let the sonic bombardment run its course.

After about a full minute, the sound switched off all at once, leaving ears ringing in its absence. Once it was apparent that it was no longer making any noise, the heroes once again cautiously approached the massive greatsword protected behind the six pillars and the walls of force connecting them and forming a sonic cage in which to protect the titanic weapon.

<I think I can take down one of these walls of force,> said Hagan, using the mental link because everyone was still reeling from the sonics and mental communication was easier than speaking aloud. He cast another disintegrate spell, this time aiming it at the space between two pillars.

<Did it work?> asked Binkadink. After all, the walls of force were totally invisible - there was no way to see if that one was still in place short of trying to touch it again. Hagan sent everyone else back out of the cave again and did just that - but his hand passed between the two pillars without striking any barrier - or triggering any sub-harmonics. After that, it was a simple matter for Malrin to step into the hexagon and kick Titanslayer back with her dinosaur foot, while Finoula and Darrien held open the oddly-shaped portable hole Leandros had provided them: unlike normal such devices, which had a 10-foot diameter, this one was built in a long oval, just big enough for the blade to be sent into the hole's center and the crosspieces to fit within its length. Once the entire weapon was safely stored inside - the hole had to have been much longer inside its extradimensional space, for the 30-foot-long titan weapon would not have fit inside the 10-foot depth of the standard model - Finoula rolled it back up and put it in her belt. As Leandros had promised, now that Titanslayer was inside an extradimensional space the massive weight of the greatsword couldn't be felt at all.

The group's other portable hole was put to good use, holding the coins from the death giant's first chest. But since Malrin carried it with her, she had to resume her elven form in order to fetch it. "Pity I didn't get to do that much fighting as a tyrannosaur," she said.

"Maybe next time," offered Darrien with a smile as he started shoveling coins from the chest into the hole.

"We ready get out of here?" asked Gilbert, and upon getting a universal reply in the affirmative, he cast a plane shift spell that returned them to Oerth. Hagan then cast a teleport spell that returned them to just outside the drawbridge of Battershield Keep - where they were met by a worried-looking Leandros.

"Did you get my message in time?" he asked.

"Message? What message?" demanded Gilbert. "We didn't get no message."

"I sent my most trusted invisible stalker with a message for you, written by my hand upon a scroll of parchment bearing my seal," Leandros explained. "I found out that Takhios had impersonated me to get you to fetch the Titanslayer for him - did you? Do you have it?"

A gasp escaped from Finoula's open mouth as she dropped her hand to the rolled-up portable hole at her belt. "The invisible stalker," she said as realization struck. "It wouldn't have been able to get past the slab we closed at the top of the tower leading down to the giant's lair!"

Realization had also hit Gilbert Fung. "How we know this really you, not Takhios?" he demanded of the titan towering before him.

"A true seeing spell would have been useful," the titan replied. "I said as much in my message. Still, let this speak of my true identity." And, holding out his open hand before him, there was a sudden shimmering and Frostreaver, the greataxe won by the group in the game of Titan Chest, manifested in his hand. "So: have you removed the Titanslayer from its place of safety in Carceri?"

Finoula held out the rolled-up portable hole from her belt. "It's right here," she sighed.

"Then we must destroy it," replied Leandros. "Takhios somehow learned of its original location so we cannot simply replace it from whence it was taken, and I have no desire to take on its guardianship forevermore. It would be a constant temptation for the War Titan; I would need to spend every waking moment keeping it from his ever-reaching grasp."

"I know how we can destroy it," suggested Binkadink. "Hang on: I'll go get the carpet."

Moments later, the gnome returned from his room inside the keep with a familiar-looking carpet rolled up under one arm. Unrolling it flat onto the ground, he said the command word and teleported up to the dragonfly vessel, then went to find his cousin Jinkadoodle lounging in his cabin. "C'mon, Jink!" he called. "We got a mission we need you to fly!"

Once everyone was aboard - including Leandros - Jinkadoodle sat in the command seat and sent the spelljamming vessel up into the sky, heading straight for the sun. Binkadink was disappointed at the thought of having to destroy such a fine weapon, especially once he learned the blade's main power stripped off a great many protections normally enjoyed by powerful beings like titans. "Hey!" he said, a sudden thought striking him. "Hagan, do you think you could teleport to Pentaclus and bring him back here? If he could study the blade, maybe he could make something similar for me - on a much smaller scale, of course."

The flight deep enough into wildspace took several hours, during most of which Pentaclus the Weaponcrafter was on hand to examine the magics of the Titanslayer. "It's intriguing," he admitted. "I might just be able to replicate it, or something very much like it." Binkadink rubbed his hands in glee; that was just what he'd been hoping to hear!

But eventually Leandros, standing upon the upper deck of the dragonfly vessel - for his titan's frame was much too large to allow him to enter the ship's interior cabins - called down that they had reached a sufficient distance from the Oerth that its gravity plane would no longer have any impact on the upcoming event. Hefting the Titanslayer in his right hand, holding the hilt's edge like the end of a spear, he curled back his arm and snapped it forward with all of his considerable strength. Titanslayer shot forward like a fired missile, heading on a bee-line straight for the burning sun. Jinkadoodle kept the craft steady and the assembled heroes watched its path until it could no longer be seen, but they knew it would continue on its present course until the sun's gravity plane brought it into its all-consuming furnace.

Leandros nodded in satisfaction. War Titan Takhios would be hard pressed to fetch the weapon now! He said his farewell to the group and vanished from sight, while Jinkadoodle turned the spelljamming vessel about and returned back the way they had come.

- - -

Malrin leveled up as a result of this adventure; the others are close enough that they should all level up after the adventure following this one.

At the last minute, Jacob found out he had to work the day we had scheduled this session. Dan offered to run Castillan, but the game runs quicker with fewer PCs so we decided the elven bounder was elsewhere when the adventure started. He still got the same amount of XP - we just assumed he was having "off screen" adventures on his own.

And I did something I hadn't done before with this adventure: the day before we played, I sent the players an email with the details of the "plot hook" so Dan in particular (who runs Gilbert) could decide ahead of time which spells the portly mage had prepared. (Likewise with Logan, who was running Malrin this time around.) It's getting to the point where it takes a bit of time for him to decide on which spells Gilbert has ready at hand, so this was an attempt to shorten that process so we can spend more of the gaming session in actual play. It seemed to work, so I think that's a tweak I'm going to keep from now on.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "Chaotic evil means never having to say you're sorry" shirt.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 17
Darrien, half-elf ranger 17
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 17
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 17
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 17​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 4
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 12
MARCI, humanoid construct
Verdant Gristwold, human druid 5​

Game Session Date: 7 September 2019

- - -

After one of Helga Battershield's hearty breakfast feasts - the dwarven woman seemed ever concerned that the adventurers "weren't eatin' enough" and had taken it upon herself to correct that deficiency - the heroes stepped into the courtyard of Battershield Keep fit to burst. "I think I need to lie down for an hour or two," muttered Binkadink, patting his stomach.

"Tell me about it," commiserated Finoula. After Ingebold's death, Helga had more or less adopted Finoula as a surrogate daughter and as such the young elven ranger bore the constant focus of the dwarf's maternal attention. "At this rate, I'm going to need to add some new notches to my belt."

"Listen to that," pointed out Malrin, smiling. A songbird was singing its little heart out somewhere nearby. Looking about, the druid finally spotted it perched on the edge of the roof of the stables. Malrin squinted up at it - the bright yellow bird seemed to have something held tightly in one of its claws. The songbird dropped over the edge of the stable roof, landing upon the druid's outstretched hand. Malrin took the bird's offering: a few strands of gray hair, tied together in a small bundle by a piece of green yarn.

"Let me see that," Gilbert demanded, grabbing up the small bundle and frowning down at it.

"What is it?" asked Hagan, looking at the item in the wizard's pudgy hands.

"These hairs from father's beard. Green yarn: it from fingerless gloves he wear." Gilbert scratched his own beard. "Why dad send this to me?"

"It's a message," observed Malrin. "Quite literally: an animal messenger spell, one druids use often. He probably sent this so you'd know it was from him."

"Well, let's see what he has to say," replied Finoula, casting a speak with animals spell on herself. Once in effect, she addressed the little songbird. "Hello," she said pleasantly.

"Hello," replied the yellow-feathered bird.

"Were you given any instructions to pass on to us?"

"'Find Gilbert. Send help.'"

"This is a message from Verdant Gristwold?"


"Do you know where he is?"


Finoula smiled at the literal-mindedness of the little songbird. "Where is he?"

"In a smelly cave."


"Very smelly."

"Is he a prisoner there?"

"Yes. Tied up. Hurt."

"Who has him prisoner?"



"Smelly lizards."

Finoula thought about that answer. "Do these smelly lizards stand on two legs, like I do?"

"Yes," was the songbird's reply. Finoula nodded in comprehension: troglodytes!

"What he saying?" demanded Gilbert. The speak with animals spell only allowed communication between the one who cast the spell and the animals around her, not anyone else. Finoula quickly filled in the others what the songbird had relayed to her. "We check this out," Gilbert announced, pulling his crystal ball from a pocket of his robes. Passing a hand over it and concentrating on his father, he squinted into the clear globe as its center darkened. An image formed in the middle of the globe but it was fuzzy and kept winking out of existence for seconds at a time. "There interference," Gilbert told the others. "Somebody not want anybody scrying on area."

Still, Hagan's half-orc darkvision allowed him to get a bead on the dark image fading in and out of the crystal ball. "Looks like your dad, all right," he told Gilbert. "He's sitting up against a stalagmite with his hands bound in front of him. I looks like his feet are manacled."

"He alive?" Gilbert asked.

"I'm pretty sure. His head's slumped to one side, but I think he's just asleep. Or maybe drugged. But he's breathing." However, just then whatever anti-scrying spells had been put into place overcame the crystal ball's arcane sensor and the image winked out.

"You get good enough look to teleport us there?" Gilbert demanded.

Hagan shook his head. "Just a dark cave, and not a good image at that. If we try teleporting in, we could end up in any random cave in the area."

Finoula anticipated the next question. Turning to the songbird, she asked him, "Can you lead us back to the cave where Verdant's being held?"

"Hungry," replied the songbird.

Finoula pulled out some seeds from a belt pouch and held them out in her hand. The bird flew over from his perch on Malrin's hand and snatched up a seed in its beak, gulping it down. "Can you lead us back to Verdant, after you've eaten?" Finoula repeated.

"Yes," the bird answered between bites. Further interrogation revealed the cave was several hours away, up at the southern edge of the Clatspur Mountains. The group was familiar with the general area; it was where Aithanar had been committed when a bump on the head had resulted in his inability to speak anything but gibberish. They decided to take the Vistani wagon, since flight via the dragonfly spelljamming ship would be problematic: it couldn't fly between the trees of the Vesve Forest and the bird couldn't direct the course as high up as the ship would need to travel. Instead, the bird would fly back the way it had come, stopping from branch to branch to allow the heroes to catch up in their horse-drawn wagon.

Everyone geared up for the trip. Aithanar, as usual, would be driving the wagon, with Finoula mounted on her pony Daisy and her timber wolf animal companion keeping pace. Binkadink, naturally, would be riding his trusty jackalope, Obvious. And while Malrin decided to allow her dire fox Taihar to come along, Darrien opted to let Grumps Junior stay behind; the dire bear cub wasn't likely to enjoy a trip of that duration and the half-elf ranger didn't want to take the chance of his enormous baby bear to fall behind. And the two familiars, Wezhley the weasel and Mudpie the earth elemental, would be accompanying their respective masters; Gilbert likewise wanted MARCI to come along in case she was needed. "She ride in back of wagon with me," he decided.

And thus it was that the collection of assembled heroes and their various animals headed north through a path in the Vesve Forest, heading to the southern edge of the Clatspur Mountains at the border of the kingdom of Kordovia.

"If nothing else, the trip will give us time to digest that enormous breakfast," pointed out Binkadink as they departed the keep.

The songbird proved to be an excellent guide; his bright yellow coloration was helpful in finding him waiting on a branch for the horse-drawn wagon to catch up to him before flitting away a bit further up the trail. In a little over two hours of travel the group had made it out of the thickest part of the Vesve Forest and could see the mountains dead ahead. The songbird led them to a cave opening in the mountains, then sat in a high branch of a tree and groomed his feathers with his beak.

"This must be the place," Finoula observed, leading Daisy back beside the Vistani wagon as Aithanar brought the draft horses, Castor and Pollux, to a halt. The door at the back of the wagon opened up and Hagan, Gilbert, Malrin, and MARCI stepped out. Wezhley had fallen asleep on Hagan's shoulder and Mudpie was currently residing in one of Gilbert's pockets, shrunk down to the size of a pebble. Darrien dropped down from the roof of the wagon, where he'd ridden as a lookout.

"I'll take the horses back a ways and camp out there, awaiting your return," Aithanar suggested. Finoula dismounted from Daisy and tied her reins to the back of the wagon. "Wrath, you stay with Aithanar," she told her wolf. Malrin had Taihar do likewise; the animals were fine companions and lookouts on the road but weren't particularly suited for combat against unknown foes.

As the wagon rumbled away, the pre-combat spellcasting frenzy began. Barkskin spells were cast upon Binkadink, Darrien, Finoula, Malrin, and - at the gnome's request - Obvious. Hagan cast the standard mage armor spell upon himself and Wezhley; stoneskin spells were cast upon Hagan and Wezhley, Gilbert and Mudpie, Malrin, and Obvious. Darrien and Gilbert each enhanced their eyesight with darkvision spells, seeing as there was no light at all coming from within the cave entrance. Darrien cast a greater magic fang spell upon Obvious once it was apparent the jackalope was going to be handling combat duties against the troglodytes and anyone else within the cave network. And, as usual, Gilbert finished off the spellcasting with a Rary's telepathic bond spell linking the heroes together in a telepathic communication network, allowing them to converse without being overheard.

<We ready?> Gilbert asked over the link. He always liked ensuring the Rary's telepathic bond spell was working before they had to depend upon it.

<Let's do this!> Hagan replied, stepping into the cave. With his natural darkvision, it made sense for him to scout the place out ahead of the others. <Empty tunnel thus far,> he reported. But just in case, he allowed the words to the scorching ray spell to come to the forefront of his mind, ready to send the spell blazing out at any enemies who might show themselves. Darrien entered the cave tunnel behind the half-orc sorcerer, his own darkvision the result of a spell but just as effective. He had an arrow ready to fire from his Arachnibow, pointed down at the ground lest he release it at something he didn't intend to shoot. He went further down the tunnel than Hagan, peering into a side cavern...and seeing a large, hunched over figure standing at the back of the cave.

The Rary's telepathic bond spell allows for near instantaneous communication, as thoughts are much more efficient than words. As such, Darrien was able to pass along the creature's description and location before he could consciously dredge up the word "hezrou" from his memory, well before he could even raise his bow to aim his readied arrow at the advancing fiend.

<Hezrou a demon!> Gilbert advised over the link. <Immune to poison, lightning!> Before he could pass on any more information, Obvious was hippity-hopping down the winding tunnel, Binkadink holding his glaive out ahead of him like a lance. The demon entered the tunnel just before the jackalope arrived, but his Abyssal stench hit them all before any of them had a chance to react to his sudden appearance. Binkadink got a good dose of the foul odor up his overly-large gnomish nose and his face wrinkled in distaste. Instinctively, he tried covering the miasma with his innate prestidigitation abilities, but it was like trying to mask the stench of an overflowing midden with a single rose petal. Obvious was affected even worse, coming to an abrupt halt that nearly pitched the gnome from the saddle. But as the hezrou opened wide a tooth-filled maw to bite at Darrien, the gnome managed to stab at the demon with the tip of his glaive. He drew not only blood but the demon's wrath; in a fit of pique, the hezrou switched targets and brought his fangs down upon the jackalope's neck instead of the half-elf archer's.

But then a trio of scorching rays came roaring down the tunnel, each striking the hezrou and exploding across his warty chest. The demon roared in pain and fury, its howls echoing and reverberating across the cave interior. Darrien took a step back from the pain-crazed demon and looked further down the cave tunnel; sure enough, a few reptilian humanoids entered the larger cavern just beyond from a side tunnel, their clawed hands holding primitive clubs as they sought the intruders fighting their lair guardian.

Finoula ran down the entry tunnel somewhat disappointed she wouldn't get a chance to use her lightning amulet against the hezrou, given Gilbert's warning it was immune to electrical attacks. But, seeing Darrien had yet to succumb to the fiend's horrid stench, she decided to see if she could keep the demon-odor away by casting a wind wall spell directly in front of the hezrou. Immediately, a blast of air rose up from just before the toad-demon's feet, creating a wind barrier that Finoula hoped would keep its awful stench at bay. She felt a gentle weight land on her shoulder just then and looked over to see Malrin in her owl form sitting there. <Do you mind?> Malrin asked. <This way I'll be near at hand and it's easier than trying to keep aloft in these cramped passageways.>

<By all means,> Finoula replied.

Gilbert huffed down the passageway, MARCI stepping up behind him. He couldn't see much, for his view was blocked by Obvious's body, which seemed to be convulsing. In point of fact, the poor jackalope was violently heaving, the contents of his latest meal being forcibly ejected at high speeds from his mouth by the power of the hezrou's vile stench. The vomit hit the wind wall and was immediately sent flying straight up; when it hit the ceiling it started to fall back down before being thrust back up by the powerful air currents of the spell. It was, Gilbert decided, an oddly fascinating view, watching chunks of vomit being thrown about by the opposing forces of gravity and upward-thrusting gusts of air.

From behind him, Hagan saw the troglodytes advancing from a side tunnel ahead and off to the right. Darrien had seen them as well and sent several arrows flying down the corridor to hit the lead troglodyte in the chest and shoulder. He spat blood from his mouth as he pulled a shaft from his upper torso.

Seeing his jackalope mount temporarily out of commission, Binkadink leaped down out of the saddle and sent his glaive slicing through the hezrou's glistening flesh. The gnome extended his stilt-boots to their fullest height, then followed suit with the length of his glaive, the better to put himself on an equal footing with his oversize foe. The demon lurched forward in an attempt to retaliate against the gnome but his snapping jaws and snatching claws all missed the nimble fighter. However, his attack took him beyond the effect of the wind wall spell and Finoula, Malrin, and Gilbert each felt the full force of the demon's vile stench hit them like a ton of bricks. Finoula's stomach clenched in knots; Malrin's wings flapped around in sudden consternation as the half-elf ranger backed away from the demon. Meanwhile, Gilbert projectile vomited on the floor directly in front of him. At his side, MARCI scanned the portly mage with her red eye-beam and announced, "You seem to be experiencing gastrointestinal distress. As the effects appeared quite suddenly, it is possible there is an external factor in play." She sent her sensors on full sweep, seeking an answer to this puzzle.

Binkadink, in the meantime, slew the hezrou with a series of rapid blade strikes with his glaive. The demon's foul blood spilled onto the floor - and then in the blink of an eye it was gone, leaving behind only the fresh blood on the stone floor and the lingering stench of its Abyssal aroma. Fortunately, although Binkadink had been sickened by the stench he hadn't been as badly affected as had been Obvious or Gilbert, both of whom were still fully incapacitated. Hopefully they'd be able to snap out of it soon, for it sounded like there was more combat to be had farther on down the corridor.

Hagan slew the arrow-pierced troglodyte with a well-placed magic missile spell, then moved down the corridor alongside Darrien, who pumped the next troglodyte to pop around the corner full of arrows. It, too, fell to the ground, dead. Binkadink charged down the corridor, seeing a large group of troglodytes approaching warily from his right, while a smaller but more battle-ready group raced at him from his left. He spun in place to face this greater threat. But in spinning around he had caught glimpses of a few things that threatened to take his focus away from the impending battle, something no front-line fighter could afford: a figure who could easily have been Verdant sitting against a stalagmite - it was difficult to see from the light spilling from Binkadink's antlered helmet - and, in the next cavern over, what looked like a massive statue of a multiheaded hydra with wings. But before he could process the images he'd seen the troglodytes were upon him, two attacking from behind and many more approaching from the front, these latter spreading out to try to catch him from multiple sides. Binkadink shortened the length of his glaive's shaft for better close-in fighting and did his best against the massive force swarming all around him.

But then a blast of lightning came crashing down from above to strike the troglodyte immediately before him, with similar blasts arcing off from him to nearly a dozen of his compatriots. Binkadink knew at once that could only be a chain lightning spell cast by Hagan. It was well-timed, for it slew its primary target and three of the troglodytes attacking the gnome from behind; five others in front of Binkadink were still in the fight but had smoke steaming from the burn-marks where the spell had hit them.

But now other troglodytes were approaching from behind the gnome, eager to attack. Darrien pumped the first of these would-be assassins full of arrows, dropping the reptilian beast at once. The half-elf stepped up carefully closer to the gnome, Arachnibow raised and ready. Behind him, Obvious trotted down the corridor on unsteady legs, still violently upchucking but eager to provide whatever assistance he could to his gnomish friend. Finoula did her best to follow suit, an equally-sick Malrin still perched on her shoulder in owl form.

Binkadink's glaive came slashing down at an angle and another of the lightning-scorched troglodytes fell before him. These troglodytes had their own nasty smell, one quite different from the hezrou's but just as vile. Still, despite the prodigious size of his gnomish nose, Binkadink was able to ignore the odors and concentrate on the job that needed to be finished. Again he struck forth with his glaive and again an enemy dropped before him, dead.

Gilbert staggered up behind Binkadink and saw his father bound to the stalagmite, his head lolling off to the side. Ever distrustful, the portly mage took shallow breaths to overcome the nausea plaguing him and cast a true seeing spell. If this was some sort of fake-out illusion, he wanted to make sure he didn't fall for it! But under the effects of the divination spell his father looked exactly the same. Well, good - but Verdant was perfectly safe where he was for now and the heroes had more pressing concerns at the moment, like killing off these troglodytes!

Another group of the reptilian barbarians sped up from the back of the side cavern to try to swarm over Binkadink, as a few of the smaller ones approached the gnome from behind. He fought them off as best he could but a few of their clubs hit home and hit hard when they did. But once again a chain lightning spell from Hagan took out a bunch of these new combatants, weakening those who weren't slain outright.

Hands on her knees, standing feebly above a pool of her own vomit, Finoula felt weak but as if the worst of the nausea was finally behind her. <You okay, Malrin?> she asked over the link.

<Not great...but better than I was,> the owl-druid replied.

<Then let's go see if we can help the others.>

Binkadink could use the help, that was for sure. The troglodyte barbarians had him almost surrounded by now, clubs striking down at him from all directions. He continued to put his glaive to good use but there were more enemies than he could handle all at once. Hagan, for his part, had concentrated his efforts on the larger number of troglodytes spilling out from the cave to the east, and his third chain lightning spell sent the whole cave's worth of reptiles falling to their hand and knees in pain. But those in front regained their feet and advanced, snarling and hissing threats while the smaller ones backed off in fright and huddled against the back walls, folding in on themselves and trying to hide from the hideous, spellcasting half-orc who wielded the very lightning from the sky at his fingertips. And now staggering into place behind the half-orc stood a towering bunny with the antlers of an elk rising up from its head: a ridiculous-looking thing, but probably quite tasty!

Darrien, seeing Hagan and Obvious apparently had the troglodytes in the side cavern covered, decided to see what he could do to help out the beleaguered gnome. He got off a perfect shot that pierced a troglodyte straight in the eye, causing it to fall backwards and land in a lifeless heap at the feet of one of its comrades. Binkadink stepped into the open space, bringing down another vile-smelling combatant with his glaive; was it his imagination, he wondered, or was combat making the troglodyte musk flow even stronger?

A familiar flaming lash wrapped around the neck of one of the troglodytes facing Binkadink and then the gnome saw him get pulled away, straight onto the point of Tahlmalaera. Finoula, it seemed, was back in action. She kicked the dead troglodyte off her sword and spun about to face the next foe. Malrin cast a call lightning spell, causing a bolt of electricity to fall down from the cavern's ceiling, directly onto the head of a troglodyte barbarian, singeing his scales and head-crest. Gilbert had at this point stepped up to assist as well but he was suddenly overcome by the stench of these troglodytes. That songbird hadn't been kidding when he warned, "Smelly cave!" He swallowed down the nausea, forcing himself by sheer stubbornness not to be violently sick.

The troglodytes fought back against Finoula as well as Binkadink and now the ranger could feel her stomach clenching up again in disgust from the horrid stench. Not again! she thought. My poor stomach doesn't have anything left to disgorge! But Binkadink slew the one who had hoped to take advantage of the elf's discomfort, his blade almost decapitating the smelly, reptilian barbarian in one powerful stroke.

Standing at the top of the higher cave that overlooked the sleeping area of his most powerful warriors, Zondrass scowled in disappointment. This is how they fared against a handful of mammals? Tiamat would not be pleased! He had spent the moments since the hezrou's warning cry had alerted him of the intruders casting his own personal combat spells, confident that his troops could handle things until his arrival, but it seemed in this he had been mistaken. Still, it was no concern of his; Tiamat's will was supreme and this could very well be her way of culling the weak members from his tribe, that only the strongest and most deserving would live to carry their genes forward, to the overall benefit of the troglodyte race.

Still, Zondrass was now ready for combat and he began in his customary method, by sending forth an emissary to announce his arrival. Another hezrou suddenly appeared before Binkadink, snapping its wicked teeth at the gnome's throat while it tried gutting Finoula with its equally-sharp claws. But the first to react to this sudden threat was neither Binkadink nor Finoula but rather Gilbert, who cast a quickened Evard's black tentacles spell beneath the frog-demon's feet, centered such that its area of effect didn't encroach upon the positions of either of the wizard's friends. "Let see you get out of that, demon!" he taunted as ebony-colored, rubbery appendages rose up from the cavern's stone floor to entangle their way around the hezrou's torso and limbs.

Hagan had been surprised at the hezrou's sudden appearance but his spellcasting knowledge told him someone had to be responsible - and his half-orcish darkvision allowed him to spot Zondrass standing on the platform above the back cavern from which the troglodyte combatants had spilled forth. He cast a polar ray spell at the troglodyte, his aim spot on. Zondrass cried out in a hiss of surprise and stepped back from his ledge - not a second too soon, either, as Darrien sent a slew of arrows streaking his way.

Binkadink swung his glaive at the entangled hezrou, his blade slicing deep into the demon's flesh. Finoula merely backed away, her stomach doing flips from the demonic stench now pervading the cavern. Malrin flew off Finoula's shoulder, eager to be as far away from the demon as she could be. She landed upon MARCI's metallic shoulder; the medical construct didn't even seem to notice, intent as she was on her sensor readings. Gilbert, still fighting the rising of his gorge, took a few steps back from the demon as well.

Then Zondrass stepped forward again and cast a blade barrier spell right through Binkadink, Darrien, Obvious, and Hagan. With a cry of pain, Binkadink stepped away from the wildly-contorting blades, staying on the same side of the wall as his imprisoned hezrou foe - for he fully intended to cut the demon down while he could. The other three also jumped to the same side of the blade-wall as the gnome, in Hagan's case because there wasn't any room for him to do otherwise. But then, as Binkadink brought his glaive down in an overhand swing, hoping to pierce the demon's suddenly wasn't there anymore, and he had to tug his weapon away from the pitch-black tentacles eager to embrace anything put within their reach.

The hezrou had teleported out of the area of effect of the Evard's black tentacles spell and directly before Finoula, the closest opponent it could see. As its teeth clamped down on the ranger - still too sick to put up much of a defense - Hagan fired off another polar ray spell at Zondrass, but this time the spell failed to overcome the troglodyte cleric's spell resistance spell. On the half-orc's shoulder, Wezhley hissed in annoyance - he hated it when that happened!

But now Binkadink was on the wrong side of the blade barrier to get to the demon! Gritting his teeth in determination, he raced through the whirling blades, his poor body getting sliced and stabbed numerous times as he pierced the spell's width and popped out the other side, stabbing at the hezrou still attacking Finoula. The gnome grinned as his blade went deep into the demon's flesh, causing it to howl in pain and release the elven ranger from its grasp. Finoula staggered further back down the entry tunnel, ducking through her own still-active wind wall into the original hezrou guardian's lair. Having had a moment to overcome her own debilitating sickness, Malrin flew from MARCI's shoulder and rejoined her fellow elf.

Darrien touched the amber amulet he wore around his neck and summoned his giant praying mantis, causing it to manifest in the upper cave behind Zondrass. It struck out lightning-fast with its claws but ran up against another of the cleric's protective spells: freedom of movement, which prevented the mantis from getting a firm grasp upon the troglodyte. Furthermore, the mantis's claws failed to even penetrate the stoneskin spell Zondrass had cast upon himself. Almost contemptuously, the troglodyte cast a flame strike spell on the giant insect, burning it to a crisp. It vanished upon death, returning at once - at normal insect size - inside Darrien's amulet.

Binkadink had a momentary thought of trying to lift the hezrou and toss him back through the blade barrier spell, but he realized their two respective sizes and strengths made that nothing more than wishful thinking: there was no way the little gnome could lift anything that large and heavy. But, he thought to himself, I bet I could drag him.... No sooner had the thought come to the gnome, as the hezrou spun around to face him again rather than be backstabbed by that damned glaive, than Binkadink grabbed the demon by the wrist and pulled him backwards with him through the still-active blade barrier spell. Once again the gnome felt the whirling blades stabbing and slicing at him, but they were doing the same to the hezrou and the gnome was reasonably sure he could take the damage far longer than the demon could....

Finoula snapped out of her dry-heaves about the same time Gilbert cast a maximized ray of enfeeblement at the hezrou as it was passing back through the blade barrier. That wouldn't do any real damage to the demon, Gilbert realized, but it would lessen the damage it could inflict on others - and maybe allow Binkadink to keep his hold on the demon and drag it through the whirling blades a few more times!

But now Zondrass entered the fray himself. Dropping down from his platform, he raced up behind Binkadink - who was facing the hezrou, trying to keep his hold upon the struggling demon - and slapped a scaly, clawed hand upon the little gnome's shoulder, channeling a harm spell through his claws. Binkadink arched his back in surprise and agony, releasing his grip upon the hezrou and very nearly releasing his grip upon his own life as well - but at the last moment he gritted it out, leaving him still alive but just barely still standing on his gnomish stilt-boots.

"TIAMAT!" called out Zondrass in the language of his patron deity, Draconic. "Fearsome Queen of Dragons, I call forth your awesome power: bring death to the enemies of your loyal followers!" On the raised plinth at the back of the northernmost cavern, the five-headed dragon statue animated to an unholy semblance of life, its stiff wings creaking apart as it stepped forward on its massive legs.

The hezrou, freed from the crazy gnome's grasp, instantly teleported over by Gilbert, whose prodigious stomach couldn't handle the sudden reapplication of the demon's vile stench. The wizard retaliated, quite inadvertently, with a spray of vomit across the hezrou's chest and stomach. The demon idly dropped its tongue into the middle of the dripping stain and grinned in pleasure at the taste.

Hagan saw the Tiamat golem step forward and realized the mobile statue was nothing he wanted to have to deal with right then. Furthermore, he knew Obvious was in no shape for combat with anything, let alone a five-headed dragon-goddess statue twice the jackalope's own size. <Darrien!> Hagan called over the link, getting the ranger's attention, before stretching out his arms to both the archer and the jackalope and teleporting all three of them (and Wezhley) back over to the cavern network's entry tunnel.

<Thanks!> Darrien called to the half-orc over the link, while pulling his ebony fly from his pocket and activating it. Leaping upon the pony-sized creature, Darrien sent it buzzing into the sentry cavern, where an elevated passageway connected to Zondrass's cavern, from which he could fly back down and approach the troglodyte cleric from the rear. Binkadink saw Zondrass spin at the sound of the ebony fly's buzzing wings and took advantage of his distraction, his glaive slicing a deep scar of pain across the cleric's back. Even with his stoneskin protection, the troglodyte spellcaster cried out in pain.

Obvious slapped his collar of healing and, staggering, took up position just outside the cave, ready to attack should any enemies make it past the others. But for now, he badly needed to catch his breath and get some fresh, clean air into his lungs.

Finoula stepped up to snap her flaming burst whip of thorns at the hezrou but sure enough, even though it struck true, bringing it to bear meant re-entering the range of the demon's vile stench. This time the nausea was even worse; it was all Finoula could do not to drop to her hands and knees and start retching uncontrollably.

"Analysis complete," announced MARCI suddenly. "I have synthesized a suitable antidote for the external poison being transmitted through the nasal membranes." She approached Gilbert, who was staggering weakly away from the hezrou.

Zondrass, now flanked by Binkadink and Darrien, tried casting a word of recall to return him to his upper lair--but he was struck down by Binkadink's glaive halfway through his spellcasting. Darrien leaped from his ebony fly and made room for the gnome. "Take it," he offered. "You're a much better mounted warrior, and Obvious isn't up for much combat." He channeled a healing spell through his hand, closing up the worst of the gnome's wounds.

Binkadink nodded his thanks, leaped onto the fly, and sent it buzzing back through the cleric's upper lair to circle back around to the hezrou, who was taking the opportunity of Gilbert's general helplessness to attempt to claw him to ribbons.

The Tiamat golem crashed through the Evard's black tentacles but was too strong for the rubbery appendages to get a grasp on it. It then passed straight through the blade barrier spell effect - and again, the whirling blades had no effect upon it, shielded as it was from most spells. Its five heads peered over the hezrou and its central head - the red one - blasted a gout of flame encompassing Gilbert, MARCI, and Finoula. Shortly thereafter, Binkadink arrived on the scene on his borrowed ebony fly, scoring a hit against the five-headed golem with his glaive but not doing much beyond scratching his blade across the construct's hardened body. But his attack allowed Finoula a moment to back away again, through her still-active wind wall. Malrin was there, having overcome the various stenches of the cave, and the owl-druid cast a mass cure light wounds spell that added some much-needed healing to Binkadink, Finoula, and herself.

Gilbert worked through his stomach queasiness and cast a quickened wall of force directly in front of the drakestone golem fashioned in the form of Tiamat; the maneuver had worked well on Carceri against the Tarterian dragon so it was worth trying again here, the wizard reasoned. He followed up that spell with a dimension door spell that took him over by his father, still unconscious and bound to the stalagmite. In his sudden absence, MARCI scanned the immediate area and approached Finoula, injecting her with the antidote to the hezrou stench; Gilbert had long ago added Finoula to the list of "honorary humans" the medical construct was to heal without question. Finoula breathed a deep sigh of relief as her stomach immediately settled. But the hezrou followed MARCI into the guardian lair, attacking Finoula with its claws. The elven ranger was aware of the demon's vile stench but it was now nowhere even close to debilitating. She had both weapons in hand and was about to counterattack when the demon froze up - quite literally - as Hagan slew it with another polar ray spell. That was perfectly fine with Finoula; she didn't need to have been the one to slay it, she was just glad it was dead!

The Tiamat golem bumped into the invisible wall of force and couldn't get past it. It blasted the wall with several of its breath weapons, but neither acid nor cold nor a burst of electricity had any effect. Too big to turn around in what was to it a narrow tunnel, it began the laborious maneuver of attempting to back up in the curving passageway. But Gilbert was ready for it and cast another wall of force spell, sealing it off in a section of the tunnel.

Malrin flew through the upper lair in owl form and around the blade barrier to get to Verdant. Then, dropping to his side and resuming her elven form, she used her dagger to cut through the ropes binding him to the stalagmite. He mumbled incoherently and Malrin, suspecting he'd been drugged, cast a neutralize poison spell upon the elderly druid. That had the desired effect: he blinked in surprise, looked about him, and broke into a broad grin upon seeing a lovely elven lass bending down over him. "Well, hello," he said as Malrin cut the ropes binding his hands together in front of him. Then she looked down at the iron manacles around his ankles and the chain between them and frowned. "I don't have any way to break through those, and my brother isn't here, or he could easily pick the lock open. Maybe Binkadink can cut through the chain...?"

But Binkadink was now over in the chamber beneath the upper lair, where piles of bedding spoke to this being a sleeping area for the troglodyte barbarians. Of more interest than smelly bedding, however, were the three large chests lined up against the wall: the communal treasury, presumably. Darrien opened one chest and found it full of jewelry. Finoula opened the next and discovered piles of gold and platinum coins. Binkadink opened the third and found an explosion of flames erupting in his face, but once the fire trap had been triggered, inside was a nasty-looking greataxe - whose dried bloodstains told of its probable use as a sacrificial weapon - and a folded-up flag bearing the image of a top view of Tiamat. "I wonder why they've got their flag all folded up instead of on a flagpole somewhere," the gnome mused.

"Probably because it isn't a flag," replied Hagan. "That looks like a flying carpet."

"Hey, Binkadink!" called Malrin. "Can you help me with these shackles?" While the gnome carefully cut through the links of the chain keeping Verdant Gristwold's feet hobbled with his glaive's sharp blade (and the application of every ounce of strength the little gnome possessed), Gilbert had peered into the side cave from which the smaller of the troglodytes had exited to attack the intruding heroes. Seeing a group of the younger reptiles huddled against the back cave walls, he shot Mudpie from his slingshot of rock shrinking, returning the pebble-sized earth elemental to his normal, four-foot height, then cast a Tenser's transformation spell upon his familiar. "They all yours," Gilbert offered and Mudpie entered the cavern, intent upon carnage.

None of the troglodytes survived the onslaught.

In the meantime, Verdant explained what had happened to him. He had been spending time in the forest wildshaped as a black bear - a form he greatly enjoyed, and in which he often spent weeks at a time - when he had been surrounded and captured by a group of troglodyte raiders, seeing him as an easy meal. However, when he wildshaped back into human form to try to fight them off with his spells (rather unsuccessfully, as it turned out), they opted instead to use him as a sacrifice to the Queen of Dragons, although that meant waiting until the night of the next full moons. And they found a druid capable of wildshaping to be a particularly troublesome captive, for he kept changing shape when they'd try to bind him with ropes. But try as he might to escape, by becoming a bird or a snake, a quick clonk on the head from a troglodyte's club easily put that attempt to a screeching halt! Finally, Zondrass resorted to drugging the elderly druid, although Verdant had come out of it just briefly enough to cast an animal messenger spell that sent the yellow songbird to pass word to his son Gilbert to come to his rescue.

"And here you are!" Verdant beamed.

"But not for much longer," Gilbert replied. "Those walls of force not last forever. Think we better vamoose while they still keeping Tiamat statue imprisoned. Bink! You guys grab up treasure?"

Binkadink indicated the portable hole he'd taken from Malrin. "Got it all right here," the gnome replied.

"Good, then let's go find Aithanar, head back home. After all that puking, I ready for another of Helga's meals!"

- - -

After we finished up the adventure, everyone leveled up to 18th. Everyone, that is, but Jacob, who was working again and missed this session - which explains Castillan's absence. I've emailed Jacob, offering to switch our Kordovian game days from Saturdays to Sundays to accommodate his work schedule, and also let him know that if he didn't want to play in our campaign any more (he's started up his own campaign with his friends) there would be no hurt feelings. I haven't heard back from him yet, and Dan's hanging on to Castillan's PC folder until either Jacob upgrades him to 18th or gives his dad free reign to do so on his behalf. It won't really matter a whole lot for the next ten adventures or so, but towards the end of this campaign (there will be 80 adventures in all) there will be a series of a half-dozen adventures or so which will require Castillan to be present at the beginning or there will be no real way for him to participate in those ones at all. (The example I gave him in my email was it was similar to the little Spelljammer excursion the heroes took into wildspace; had Castillan not been present when they ended up teleported from Captain Skunkbeard's trapped dungeon to the wildspace receiving station it would have been next to impossible to incorporate him into the Spelljammer adventures that followed. We won't be going back into wildspace again, but the concept will be similar.)

So we'll see how that plays out. But it's possible we'll soon be phasing Castillan out for good.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My "DAD: Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult" shirt, given that it was Gilbert Fung's dad who was the plot hook of this adventure.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 18​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 18​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 18​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 18​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 18​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 12​
MARCI, humanoid construct​
Voopie Meadowclover, gnome commoner 3​

Game Session Date: 12 October 2019

- - -

Binkadink waved a farewell to the castle page who had delivered the sealed parchment to the little gnome. Then, walking through the open portcullis of Battershield Keep, he wandered back into his own room in the front tower to open it in privacy. Halfway expecting it to be some sort of prank from his cousin Jinkadoodle, he popped a thumb through the sealing wax and unfolded the sheet of stiff paper. He then read the short letter silently to himself:

Mister Dundernoggin,

Please forgive the imposition, but I have a favor to ask of you. I have an uncle, Wiggleston Vondervott, who lives in a small cottage just inside the Vesve Forest. He is my mother’s older brother and he often comes to visit us at her house on my days off from the castle. Since my father’s death he has been a constant presence in my life.

However, we have not seen him now for several weeks. It is unlike him not to visit without sending us word ahead of time. I would very much like to visit him at his cottage to ensure he is in good health, but my mother forbids me from traveling into the forest unaccompanied.

I realize you are a very important person in the kingdom and have many duties which must keep you very busy. But if you have the time and would not mind, would you please consider escorting me to my uncle’s cottage? You showed me great kindness during the investigation of Queen Kaelanna’s poisoning, standing up for me when all looked bleak. I hope I am not being too forward in asking you for this favor.

My next day off from the castle is tomorrow. I will be at my mother’s house – you know where we live. Thank you!


A smile burst across the little gnome's face at the thought of visiting the pretty young castle maid. He mused for a brief moment on whether it might be best to alert the others of the missing gnome but the thought was quickly banished away; he'd much rather spend the time with Voopie alone than bring along the gang of adventurers he hung out with - especially Gilbert Fung, who had been particularly vocal about his belief that Voopie had intentionally poisoned the Queen in the brief days before her coronation. He'd bring Obvious with them but that was it - he could always send his jackalope back to fetch the others if it turned out they were needed.

That decision made, Binkadink spent the better part of the rest of the day thinking about Voopie and how nice it would be to see her again.

Thus the next day, Obvious hippity-hopped across town to the small dwelling of Voopie's mother, where the gnomish maid stayed when she wasn't working at the castle. Binkadink dismounted from his trusty steed, clad in his red dragonhide full plate armor - which he had shined to a bright polish for the occasion. He approached the door, knocked loudly, and was pleased to see it opened almost immediately by Voopie herself - she had obviously been waiting for his arrival. Giving him a big smile, she stepped outside with a small picnic basket in hand and said, "Thank you so much for coming, Mister Dundernoggin - it means so much to me."

"Please, call me Binkadink," said the little gnome, returning her smile with one of his own. "And this is Obvious. That's his name, that is - Obvious is his name, I mean." Binkadink frowned momentarily at his sudden tripping over his own words - he'd faced down devils and dragons; surely he was capable of talking intelligently to a lovely young gnome?

"Very pleased to meet you, Obvious," she said, stroking the jackalope's muzzle.

"The pleasure's all mine. Ooh, right there - that's good!"

Voopie gasped in surprise. "You can talk!" she said.

"I can?" Obvious gasped in return, his eyes goggling in shock. "It's--its true! When did that happen?"

"One of my friends cast an awaken spell on him - several months back, in fact," Binkadink said, scowling at his jackalope mount for trying to trick Voopie. "Ignore his attempts at humor. But he's a trusty mount." The fighter pulled himself up into the saddle and reached down for Voopie, taking the picnic basket in one hand and pulling the young gnome up in front of him. Then she settled into the saddle, holding the basket in her hands while Binkadink's arms wrapped around her while holding the reins. "Nice and steady now," he advised Obvious. ""Voopie doesn't want a lot of bouncing up and down and jostling around."

"You got it," Obvious promised and settled into a gentle lope. Voopie gave directions and the trio soon found themselves entering the Vesve Forest by means of a wide path.

The trip wasn't a lengthy one - not nearly long enough for Binkadink's tastes in any case, for he enjoyed having Voopie in his arms - and they soon saw a little cottage up ahead. "There it is," Voopie said, pointing to a ramshackle wooden building surrounded by trees. "I hope Uncle Wiggly's okay."

The two gnomes dismounted and Obvious took up a guard post just outside the front porch of the cottage. "Uh-oh," said Voopie, upon climbing the three short steps to the front door. "This isn't good."

"What?" asked Binkadink, his gnomish glaive held at the ready in his left hand as he followed behind Voopie, ready for any potential danger.

Voopie pointed to a small spider sitting in its web up by the ceiling of the overhanging roof of the porch, just before the front door. "There's a spider web in front of the door," she pointed out. "That means he hasn't opened the door since the spider built the web - and who knows how long that has been?"

Binkadink opened the door - it was unlocked; apparently Uncle Wiggly wasn't overly concerned about surprise visitors - pushing the spider's web aside as he did so. They stepped inside and Binkadink closed the door behind him. "Uncle Wiggly?" Voopie called. "It's me, Voopie - are you here?" There was no answer.

A quick search through the cottage revealed it to be empty, although Voopie found a few things that worried her. He had a plate and a glass on a drying rack in the kitchen; Voopie explained Uncle Wiggly always ate his meal, washed his dishes, and placed them in the drying rack, then put them back in the cupboard when they were dry - even though he'd invariably use the exact same plate and glass at his next meal. The fact they were still in the drying rack told her he had disappeared after washing his plate and glass but before they'd had time to dry. In his bedroom, Voopie pointed out Uncle Wiggly's felt cap was missing from the bed knob - he always wore that cap when awake, taking it off only when retiring for the night: further evidence he had disappeared during the daylight hours.

But it was Binkadink who found the most intriguing clue about Uncle Wiggly's disappearance; he kept a diary in the front-room and the latest entry read:

"The oddest thing – this morning there is a large cluster of trees out back that wasn't there before! Dark wood, multiple trunks all clustered together. I'll take a bark sample – it could have medicinal properties (or at least make a decent tea). Should come up with a name for it in the meantime – maybe 'Overnight Tree'?"

Opening the back door of the cabin, Binkadink saw a clearing just ahead - with a massive clump of dark-barked trees growing together towards the back of the clearing, like multiple trees intertwining or one very thick tree sending roots down into the ground from much higher up than did most trees. "That wasn't here before!" Voopie gasped upon seeing the massive tree. Branches sprouted high above, only to hang down as if from their own great weight. The leaves were almost as dark as the bark on the trunk and the ground beneath the thick branches stood cloaked in shadows.

"I wonder...." mused Binkadink. "That might be some sort of treant. In any case, your uncle went out there to check it out and was never seen again - I don't think we should go near it without backup."

"Your friends?" Voopie asked.

"I'll send Obvious," Binkadink confirmed. "We'll stay here and keep an eye on that 'overnight tree' in the meantime."

In less than an hour there was a commotion at the front of the small cabin and the two gnomes opened the front door to check it out. Aithanar pulled the reins from the driver's seat on the Vistani wagon and brought the draft horses Castor and Pollux to a halt before the cottage, the elven druidess Malrin astride Obvious having led the way to the cabin. Finoula dismounted from her pony Daisy beside the wagon, her timber wolf loping by her side, followed by Malrin's dire fox Taihar and Grumps Junior, the dire bear cub Darrien had taken in as a pet of sorts. Darrien himself dropped down from the roof of the wagon, while the door in the back opened up and out trundled Gilbert Fung, his earth elemental familiar Mudpie, and MARCI, the humanoid construct dedicated to medical care. Hagan followed the heavyset mage out the wagon's door, his weasel familiar Wezhley sitting in his comfortable perch upon the half-orc's shoulder. The assembled group approached the two gnomes waiting on the porch, leaving Aithanar to tend to the horses and wagon.

"What this all about, Bink?" demanded Gilbert Fung. "And what the deal with jackalope talking all of a sudden?"

"That was definitely unexpected - and a little creepy," Finoula admitted.

"I thought it was another one of the pranks you and your cousin get up to," added Darrien, looking over at Obvious - but the jackalope's attention was firmly on some root he'd dug up from along the side of the dirt road leading to Uncle Wiggly's cottage.

"Yeah, sorry about that - we were hoping to spring it on you in some kind of prank or something, but then this popped up." Binkadink briefed the others on what they'd discovered so far and their belief that the "overnight tree" had something to do with Uncle Wiggly's disappearance.

"We check it out," Gilbert promised. Looking over to Voopie, he said, "You stay here where it safe. We run into any problem, better we don't have to worry about you."

"Yes, sir," Voopie replied in a quiet voice, looking down - she didn't want to do anything to upset the powerfully-built wizard who, she knew, had a distrusting nature and was quick to cast accusations around. She watched as some of the adventurers went through the hallway in the cottage while those with larger animals led them around the side of the building. The two groups met up at the back of the dwelling, in the clearing, staring intently at the many-trunked tree before them.

"Any idea what that is?" asked Darrien.

"It looks like a banyan," replied Finoula, "but they're not normally native to this area."

"Don't like it," admitted Gilbert. "Okay, everybody - gear up like we going into battle, because maybe we are." He cast a stoneskin spell upon himself and Mudpie, while nearby Hagan did the same for himself and Wezhley and then cast another such spell upon Obvious. Malrin, Darrien, and Finoula cast their normal barkskin spells, then Darrien gathered the animals up and cast an animal growth upon them, increasing the size of Obvious, Grumps Junior, Taihar, and Wrath. Malrin pulled an acorn from a pocket and cast a fire seed spell upon it, set it down on the ground before her, wildshaped into an owl, and picked the acorn back up in a talon. Gilbert cast a resist fire spell upon himself and his familiar, then pulled out a scroll and cast a Rary's telepathic bond spell upon the assembled group - all of the adventurers as well as Obvious. Darrien opted to grant himself the benefit of a longstrider spell, then on a whim added delay poison as well. "That about it?" Gilbert asked the group.

"One more," Finoula responded, casting a speak with plants spell and kneeling down in the clearing. "Has a gnome been by here recently?" she asked the surrounding grass.

"Gnome?" answered the grass; Finoula got the idea that a patch of grass probably didn't differentiate a whole lot between intelligent races. "Has anyone been by here recently?" she amended her question.

"No. Not for many days."

Darrien, in the meantime, had been examining the ground for tracks but a recent rain had all but taken care of that possible avenue of approach. Wrath and Grumps weren't having any luck picking up any scents, either, although there was a worn path between the back door of the cottage and a nearby outhouse, as well as another worn path to where Uncle Wiggly had a stack of firewood stored against the cottage's back wall.

"Well, let's go check it out," said Binkadink, leaping up into the saddle and sending Obvious forward to the banyan tree. Finoula and Wrath crept closer, Taihar trailing them. The elven ranger wanted to talk to the dark tree but was a bit intimidated by its size and...well, scariness. If ever a tree could be said to look haunted, this was it. Gilbert stayed behind, flipping through the pages of his Omnibook, looking up extraplanar flora - he was fairly certain this dark tree wasn't native to the Material Plane and likely hailed from the Plane of Shadows.

Binkadink peered intently at the tree's trunks as he approached on Obvious, curious to see if there were any runes or glyphs or other magical markings on it. When he reported back over the link he didn't see anything of that nature, Gilbert instinctive cast a detect magic spell, then chided himself for casting it when he was far out of range for him to get any readings on the tree. Grumbling to himself, he slowly approached the tree, Mudpie and MARCI moving up with him.

And then the tree struck. From among the overhanging branches, thick vines or tendrils dropped down, waving rapidly about and trying to get a grip around Binkadink and Obvious. One managed to get a grip on the jackalope, wrapping around the mount's neck and upper chest area. Then it stiffened as if about to try to pull its prey up into the branches. <It's got Obvious!> Binkadink cried over the link.

Darrien, alerted to the danger, shot up at the tree's branches with his Arachnibow, firing arrow after arrow into the dark wood. Grumps ambled up and raked his sharp claws against the bark of the nearest truck-shoot; Taihar did likewise to another trunk, although the dire fox's claws weren't nearly as big as the dire bear cub's.

<Uncle Wiggly might be up in the upper branches of the tree!> theorized Malrin, flying up to use her owlish vision to try to find the little gnome - or his body, at least - among the upper branches. She also took the opportunity to hurl her fire seed acorn at the umbral banyan, where it exploded into a gout of flame.

Binkadink, still in the saddle as his riding mount was being pulled upwards, used the blade of his glaive to cut through the thick tendril strangling Obvious. The jackalope fell gratefully back to the ground while the gnome used his weapon to cut deep grooves into the tree's trunk and overhanging branches. Obvious showed his disdain for strangling trees by biting a deep chunk out of the nearest trunk with his enormous rabbit-incisors.

From the back of the clearing, Hagan cast a polar ray at the top of the umbral banyan while moving forward. The spell frosted over the entire top of the dark-leaved tree, bringing a layer of white to a plant seemingly made up only of deep grays and black. "You might be able to find Uncle Wiggly's body if it's up in the higher branches," suggested the half-orc to his familiar. Wezhley scampered down from his master's shoulder and raced over to the tree, ready to climb up its trunk and begin his exploration.

"What do you want?" Finoula asked the tree, her speak with plants spell still active.

"Hungry. So hungry," replied the tree.

"Where do you come from?" Finoula persisted.

"The Dark Place." Finoula relayed the tree's answers to the others over the link ("I knew it!" replied Gilbert with satisfaction, slamming his Omnibook closed) and then pulled out her elemental gem. She cracked it open with the pommel of her longsword Tahlmalaera and a 16-foot-tall air elemental formed before her. "Attack!" she called to the elemental, pointing to the massive tree before her. The air elemental obeyed at once, flying over and sending a wind-whipped fist crashing into the tree's upper branches.

More tendrils dropped down from the tree, swinging at Binkadink, Obvious, Grumps, and Taihar; of the bunch, only the one entangling the dire bear cub met with any success. Grumps Junior was pulled up a few feet from the ground, growling in anger at the imposition.

And then, at least one meager meal attained, the dying umbral banyan activated its plane shift ability, leaving the Material Plane behind for the soothing shadows of its native realm. From the clearing, it was as if a blast of dark energy erupted from the tree in all directions - and then the tree was gone...but it took with it not only Grumps Junior, who had been entwined in the tendrils of the tree, but those within 20 feet of the tree's trunks: Binkadink, Obvious, Taihar, Wezhley, and the air elemental from Finoula's magic gem.

"Wait--what?" squawked Gilbert Fung as he realized Binkadink and Obvious had just dropped off the Rary's telepathic bind spell. <Everybody gather up on me!> he called to the others in the clearing. <We gonna have to go after them!> As one, those left behind in the clearing sped over to the portly mage and Gilbert cast a plane shift spell of his own, shunting everyone onto a random location on the Plane of Shadow. Now on the same plane again, the others could sense Binkadink and Obvious's presence on the mental link - but they could also sense that their minds weren't entirely normal at the moment.

The umbral banyan was now back on its home plane, a world of deep shadow - but while the general layout of the local area was very similar to the same area back on the Material Plane, there were several differences. Scattered nearby were four deep pits, their rims made of a thick, mottled and pitted surface similar to coral, with a fungal growth near each. And perched between these pits, upon a ring of tentacles along its outer surface, sat a massive structure shaped like a hollow egg with solid, coral-like structures winding about it.

The zygomind had sent out a telepathic signal, immediately catching the attention of all of the newcomers but Grumps Junior, too busy focusing on chewing his way through the thick tendril entangling him to notice, and the air elemental, still bashing away at the umbral banyan's upper branches and apparently immune to the effect. But to Binkadink, Obvious, Taihar, and Wezhley, the telepathic summons was a source of fascination that couldn't be ignored; as one, they wandered in a dreamlike sleep towards the coral-like structure.

Gilbert got the general gist that the others were under some sort of mind control as he cast a teleport spell that would rejoin the two separated parties; fortunately, given the Plane of Shadow's propensity for conforming to the general layout of the Material Plane, it was easy enough for the wizard to envision Uncle Wiggly's backyard clearing to get him where he wanted to go on this plane of darkness. They appeared at the front of the clearing, near where the gnome's cottage had been, from where they could see all of what was going on before them. Grumps had managed to chew his way through the tendril entangling him and had landed to the ground but was now transfixed in the same way as the others. The umbral banyan gave a half-hearted attempt to recapture those who had evaded its grasp thus far (or worse yet, been caught and then subsequently escaped) but between the fire-based and cold-based spells that had been thrown its way and the air elemental's ruthless attacks, the umbral banyan was near to death and its tendrils did little more than lightly brush against those it would have liked to capture and devour.

Finoula was the first to react to the scene. Holding up her lightning amulet and activating it, she transformed herself into a bolt of electricity that went crashing through one of the shadowy violet fungi beside a coral pit and then through the coral body of the zygomind. She remanifested in her normal elven form on the other side of the zygomind, noting she'd killed the violet fungus but had apparently had no effect at all upon the egg-shaped structure; still, it had had no effect upon her, either, for whatever mental pull it was having on Binkadink and the others was not affecting her in the least.

<I think it can't affect us if we already know it coming!> theorized Gilbert over the link. <It have to take you unaware!>

A mighty crashing of limbs presaged the air elemental's slaying of the umbral banyan; as branches came tumbling to the ground around the tree's many trunks, Finoula redeployed the elemental to attack the zygomind. It flew nimbly through one of the many openings in the structure's outer surface, attacking the coral struts from inside the hollow being's egg-shaped form.

Darrien sent a bevy of arrows at the zygomind, each striking but plinking harmlessly off the thing's coral armor. <Piercing weapons are no good against that thing!> he advised the others. Beside him, Malrin wildshaped out of her owl form, but instead of resuming her elven body she grew many times her own size and stood upon the Plane of Shadow as a mighty tyrannosaur. But despite her huge size, she was still dwarfed by the zygomind towering before her.

The zygomind shambled forward, its nearest tentacles striking Binkadink, Obvious, and Taihar - all it could bring to bear at the moment. But the touch had its desired effect: now infected with spores, the three figures were asleep on their feet; the zygomind need no longer bring them in to it with its fascination effect but could simply plant a single command into their unconscious forms. Go to the nearest transformation pit, it commanded and the three shuffled off to do as bid.

Hagan cast a meteor swarm up at the top of the zygomind and was disappointed to see his most powerful spell didn't even activate upon impact; apparently the zygomind had a way to protect itself from spells. He desolately passed this unwelcome nugget of information to the others over the mental link.

Gilbert wanted to cast a wall of force spell to prevent the sleepwalkers from getting too close to the zygomind but it was already too late for that. Instead, he cast a spectral hand spell and sent it over by Grumps, planning to then cast a magic circle against evil upon the dire bear cub, which he hoped would snap the others out from their trances. In the meantime, he ordered MARCI to go pull them away from the zygomind, certain the construct would be immune to any poisons the zygomind might be exuding.

Then a sudden motion caught his eye. From two of the coral-lined pits rose up a pair of humanoid figures, their slender limbs giving them an almost skeletal appearance. But as they approached, the group could see the hundreds of thin needles poking out of their taut skin. And this feature was also present upon the other two creatures climbing out of the larger coral pits: from one, a full-sized dire bear; from the other, an even larger monstrous scorpion.

This, Gilbert decided, was a good time to use that quickened wall of force spell he had at the ready. An invisible barrier rose up, separating the two needle-covered monsters from the cluster of heroes who had teleported into the area. Both the needlefolk dire bear and the needlefolk scorpion crashed into the unseen barrier, unable to attack the heroes as intended.

Finoula pulled a jar of Keoghtom's ointment out of a belt pouch and stuck a dab of the magic substance into her mouth as she approached Taihar on an intercept course; she didn't want whatever poison was affecting these animals (and Binkadink) to affect her as well! She looked momentarily up at the zygomind to track her air elemental's progress and was pleased to see it causing some of the coral structure to crack under the force of its blows. Chips and flakes of coral rained down like dandruff with each slam of the elemental's fists.

Darrien shot an arrow at the pit from which the needlefolk scorpion had crawled, using one of the new-found powers of his Arachnibow to cause the arrow to form a magic web across the opening. Hopefully, that would prevent anything else from coming up out of the pit.

Malrin bent low and touched Binkadink on the shoulder with one of her relatively tiny tyrannosaur front claws, channeling a neutralize poison spell through it. Blinking awake, the gnome fighter looked all around him in confusion, but then got a firm grip on the glaive in his hands and marched forward into combat with the most dangerous foe in the battle: the zygomind itself. But before he could even swing his glaive the zygomind slapped at him with a massive tentacle, slamming him to the ground and holding him there, pinned. It also caught up MARCI in a grappling hold, from which the medical construct was unable to wriggle free.

But Binkadink didn't mind attacking the zygomind from his current position; his glaive was, after all, expandable. Extending it to its longest configuration, he brought everything he had to bear in a series of powerful blows, the enchanted blade slicing deep into the coral structure of the alien creature. Not far away, though, Obvious was still shambling toward a transformation pit, deep asleep but following the zygomind's last orders nonetheless.

Hagan cast a chain lightning spell, completely frying to death one of the humanoid needlefolk as his primary target and sending arcs of electricity to hit the needlefolk dire bear zygominion and the zygomind itself (this last proving to be as resistant to this spell as it had been to Hagan's previously-cast spell). But by now Wezhley had shambled up to the zygomind and while the weasel was apparently too small for the alien creature to target with a tentacle, nothing prevented Wezhley from leaping onto the nearest such appendage and cover himself in spores in that fashion. Immediately asleep on his feet, Wezhley started heading over to the nearest transformation pit.

Gilbert finally got that magic circle against evil spell channeled onto Grumps Junior though his spectral hand but all it seemed to free from the fascination effect was the bear cub himself. Frowning, he sent the incorporeal hand over to the top of the zygomind while he planned out his next strategy. Grumps, however, knew exactly what he wanted to do: get away from all of these weird monsters as quickly as possible! However, in fleeing from the zygomind he came to the attention of the needlefolk dire bear zygominion, who rushed over. Grumps Junior instinctively recognized the creatures' basic shape at once, not noticing the needles sprouting from between the shaggy fur until it was too late. The zygominion's claws raked across Grumps' side and contaminating spores did the rest, causing the baby bruin to fall over, fast asleep. The only good thing about the attack was this was simply a soporific effect; Grumps had no mental compulsion to head over to the nearest transformation pit to become a zygominion himself, although if there were zygominions still around at the end of this battle they would surely drag him into a pit to replenish their own ranks.

MARCI activated a shocking field around her metal body, hoping to get the zygomind tentacle to release her. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to have any effect. A flurry of flying needles hit Malrin's tyrannosaur body, flung there by the remaining humanoid needlefolk zygominion, but the dinosaur hide was too thick for the needles to have much effect.

Gilbert cast a quickened cone of cold upon the needlefolk scorpion once it started skittering long the wall of force and heading his way; the wizard's spell slew it at once.

Finoula repositioned herself to best effect and used her lightning amulet again, blasting through two more shadow violet fungi and the zygomind; as before, the zygomind was unaffected but the fungi were both destroyed. But at least my air elemental's having an effect, the ranger thought, seeing it continuing its pummeling of the zygomind's coral structure. The ranger was now the closest target to the needlefolk dire bear who had knocked out Grumps and she fully expected it to attack her, but before it could Darrien plunked a flurry of arrows into it, causing the spiny bruin to fall to the ground beside the sleeping cub - only this one, Darrien was pleased to see, was dead.

Across the clearing, Malrin wildshaped back to her elven form and rushed over to Taihar, using her staff of healing to reawaken him from his somnambulistic wanderings. And just in time, too, for another pair of humanoid needlefolk zygominions and a second needlefolk dire bear zygominion scrambled out of three of the transformation pits, eager to send their flying darts into those who would defy the zygomind. A second needlefolk scorpion could be seen trying to exit the largest pit but Darrien's web was foiling its efforts.

For its part, the zygomind shifted forward again, keeping Binkadink and MARCI pinned and trying to grab a few others in its reaching tentacles. But Binkadink continued striking its exterior with his glaive while the air elemental attacked it from within its hollow shell. In the meantime, Hagan had more success with a meteor swarm cast directly at one the newest humanoid needlefolk - the spell blasted it into oblivion, while the fiery explosion that followed dealt a significant amount of damage not only to the dire bear zygominion but to the zygomind itself. Gilbert channeled a maximized vampiric touch spell through his spectral hand, absorbing some of the zygomind's life force energy and vitality directly into himself.

Unable to extract herself from the imprisoning tentacle, MARCI opted to make the best of a bad situation. Scanning the tentacle with her red eye-ray, she extruded a slender needle from a finger and injected it into the appendage, extracting a sample of the spores the tentacle contained. She then began a analysis routine on the spore sample she'd taken. If it were possible for a construct to look contented under those conditions MARCI did so, ignoring her horizontal position or the great weight of the alien monster keeping her pinned in place.

Darrien swung his Arachnibow over to cover the new needlefolk dire bear climbing out of the pit, sending arrow after arrow to stick into its face and shoulders, as Malrin used her magic staff to free Obvious from his sleepwalking. The jackalope sneezed, shook his head, and looked around for Binkadink, spotting him at last carving up the zygomind while pinned beneath one of its tentacles. He headed over at once to see if he could help the gnome. But by the time the jackalope had gotten there the zygomind had already been slain, a combination of slashes from Binkadink's glaive and the air elemental's furious, wind-driven punches having taken their toll on the alien monstrosity.

Another of Hagan's chain lightning spells took out the second dire bear zygominion, the last of the violet fungi, and the needlefolk scorpion zygominion - Now that's more like it! the half-orc sorcerer thought to himself. But then another needlefolk zygominion crawled from the farthest pit, this one humanoid in build as well but significantly smaller than the others of its kind. It was only when Hagan saw the felt cap perched on the creature's hat - with numerous needles piercing the covering and holding it firmly in place - that he realized why that was. <It's Uncle Wiggly!> Hagan cried. <It's too late! He's been transformed!>

<We not likely to have rescued him alive,> pointed out Gilbert. <No telling how long ago he end up here - weeks, likely.> But, knowing this was the gnome they had been sent to find and despite having half a dozen spells at hand that could slay him at once, Gilbert cast an Otiluke's resilient sphere around the needlefolk gnome instead, imprisoning him in a sphere of energy from which he couldn't easily escape.

Binkadink and MARCI extracted themselves from beneath the zygomind's tentacles, a much easier process now that the zygomind wasn't actively resisting their efforts. Using the information she'd gained from the spore analysis, MARCI's internal systems had generated an antidote, which she administered to Grumps Junior, waking him back up at once. The dire bear cub chuffed once and ambled off to go find Darrien. The medical construct then administered a much smaller dosage to Wezhley, who likewise scampered away to go find his own master.

The air elemental took it upon itself to go look into the pits to ensure there weren't any other zygominions ready to spring forth, but other than the webbed-up one holding the needlefolk scorpion they were clear.

Wrath suddenly started growling and backed off over to Finoula, his tail between his legs. Finoula could see nothing that would have her timber wolf so fearful, even in this unusually gloomy environment, but then she detected slight vibrations through the soles of her boots. <Something's coming - from underground!> she warned the others. No sooner had she gotten out the warning than a glistening, pitch-black head erupted from the ground, its mouth ringed by a circle of long, pointed teeth. Gilbert's magically-enhanced eyesight identified the creature at once as undead, which was all it took for his own studies to identify the thing as a nightcrawler, an undead version of the purple worm.

Darrien ran at once to Gilbert's side, fully expecting the wizard to plane shift or teleport them away, for they had accomplished what they had set out to do (even if rescuing Uncle Wiggly hadn't been possible they at least knew what had become of him) and there was nothing to be gained by fighting an undead creature of this size and power. Grumps, almost to Darrien by this time, saw the nightcrawler climbing up out of its hole and spun about, running away in the opposite direction, away from Darrien; there was no way he could know there was an invisible wall of force providing at least partial protection to Gilbert and Darrien from the nightcrawler.

Malrin jumped onto Taihar's back - a much easier proposition at the dire fox's current doubled size - and pulled Binkadink up behind her as they raced past. Obvious, seeing the others were heading for Gilbert, assumed that was the plan and followed suit. Hagan dared to race to within striking distance of the nightcrawler to scoop Wezhley into his arms and head back the way he'd come, circling around the wall of force again, although he knew the nightcrawler was long enough it could crawl right over the wall's 10-foot height and get to them in no time - or burrow beneath it, for that matter. Everyone crowded expectantly around Gilbert, who had to shrug away from them and cross around to the other side of the wall of force. The nightcrawler's length extended out of the hole as Gilbert stared it down, casting the words to a sunburst spell. <Close eyes!> he warned the others as the last syllable of the spell left his lips.

A blinding burst of light spilled across the open area of the clearing, causing patterns to form on the insides of the heroes' closed eyelids. When they opened their eyes again, the nightcrawler was gone.

"Is it dead? Just like that?" gasped Finoula.

"Some undead especially susceptible to bright light," Gilbert explained. "Sunburst spell take care of them good."

The group now went over to where Uncle Wiggly was imprisoned inside the spherical ball of energy. Upon a close examination, they could see he was no longer a gnome: he not only had thin needles sticking out from every direction, but even in the wan light of the Plane of Shadow they could see his waxy skin was greenish in tone. "He a plant," Gilbert explained.

"Is there any way to cure him?" asked Binkadink, hating the thought of bringing this version of Voopie's uncle back home to meet her.

"Sure: kill him, resurrect him," Gilbert replied. "Beyond that, doubt it."

"Okay, then," said Binkadink with a sigh. "Release the spell, Gilbert, I'll take care of it." The heavyset mage did as asked and Binkadink skewered the thing that had been Voopie's Uncle Wiggly with a quick blow from his glaive. "Okay, let's get out of here," said the weary gnome.

"Uh, about that..." started Gilbert.

"What?" asked Hagan.

"Have to wait until tomorrow for plane shift spell. I cast only one prepared to get rest of us here."

"We have to stay here?" asked Finoula, looking around. "This place gives me the creeps!" But it wasn't s bad as the ranger had feared, for she'd forgotten they had in their possession a Daern's instant fortress, and while it still smelled damp from its long-term soak underwater, it was better than camping outside and being at the mercy of any other nightcrawlers who might happen by.

"Tomorrow I cast plane shift and teleport spells to get us back," Gilbert promised. But Binkadink had pulled out his own chest of coins from the group's portable hole and was counting up the funds he had on hand. "How much does a resurrection spell cost?" he asked the group at large.

"I'll spot you any amount you're short," offered Finoula. "It's for a good cause." She was pleased to see the gnome fighter wanting to do something good for Voopie Meadowclover; the two looked like they'd make a good couple.

- - -

I wrote this adventure entirely around the zygomind, which I found in one of the Pathfinder Bestiaries while seeking out high-level monsters; now that the PCs are 18th level it's getting harder to find them things to fight besides the standard demons, devils, and dragons that clutter up the high-level CRs. Of course, as I often do, I changed the zygomind considerably, not liking some of the aspects of the creature as written and wanting to incorporate needlefolk into the adventure. (I've wanted to use needlefolk for awhile now but they're way too low-level to pose any kind of a threat to PCs of my group's current level.)

Given the zygomind's simple form, I decided to create my own "miniature" using "wiggling" (rather appropriate for this adventure's title) strips of pink construction paper glued together into an egg shape with eight tentacles ringing the bottom. A red Sharpie allowed me to draw the pits and pockmarks that made it look more like coral. The players definitely were intrigued when I plunked it down on the table once Binkadink and the animals had been shunted to the Plane of Shadow, as I knew none of them had ever experienced a zygomind before. (And now I have a pink construction paper zygomind sitting on my bookshelf that will doubtfully see any further use - after all, how many zygominds can you use over the course of a campaign or two?)

- - -

T-shirt worn: My Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" T-shirt, standing in for the Plane of Shadow. (And, I'm just now noticing, the "Pink" in the band's name matches up with the color of the zygomind.)
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 18​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 18​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 18​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 18​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 18​

NPC Roster:
Caliandra, human sorcerer 13​
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 12​

Game Session Date: 11 November 2019

- - -

"I'm sorry to hear that," commiserated Finoula.

"Yeah, well, I just figured you guys needed an explanation as to why I haven't been around for some time now," replied Castillan. "I was never really a big fan of my father - we never saw eye to eye on much - but now that he's gone, it's my duty as the oldest son to take care of the family stuff. The Ivenhearts are minor nobility, after all, for what that's worth."

"So you not available for adventuring stuff any more?" asked Gilbert Fung, cutting straight to the point.

"Not likely - at least, not very often, I'm afraid."

"But still okay that Malrin hang out with us?"

"Sure. She's free to do what she wants, unlike me."

"Glad to hear it," answered Malrin, who had no intention of ending her service to the kingdom via aiding her older brother's band of heroes.

Castillan gave a sly smirk over at Finoula, then added, "And there's no problem with Aithanar hanging around with you guys, either."

"And I'm glad to hear that," replied Finoula, stifling a smile of her own.

"Anyway, I better get back to the manor. There's a pile of business dealings I still need to make sense of." Castillan hugged his little sister and waved to the group before heading back out through the open portcullis of Battershield Keep, returning to Ivenheart Manor in the richer part of town. The adventurers went back into the main structure at the back of the keep, where Helga Battershield had a noonday meal ready to serve. They'd invited Castillan to stay and join them, but he well knew that after one of Helga's meals he wouldn't feel up to a walk back home - more like a nap in a hammock for a couple of hours.

About halfway through the meal there was a cry from the courtyard.

Rising up from the table, the heroes ran out from the dining area and saw a familiar face standing before them, although she'd definitely seen better days. Caliandra was a sorceress, part of an adventuring team put together by Lord Cavelthorne, a noble from Pelorvic, the kingdom directly south of Kordovia. Normally quite good-looking, her hair now was matted and her skin sallow and she seemed to have suffered a substantial (and likely very sudden) weight loss, for her cheekbones stood out on her face. "Help us--please!" she said, staggering to stay upright.

Darrien was there to catch her before she fell and helped her stand upright. In one hand she held a crumpled piece of parchment, completely blank - mere moments earlier it had held the arcane writings making up a teleport spell, the very spell which had allowed her to cross the miles between their two respective small kingdoms in an instant.

"What's happened?" asked Finoula, concern in her voice. "Are you okay?"

"Need--water," Caliandra choked out. Binkadink raced up with a goblet in hand and passed it over to the sorceress, who drank it down greedily. And then she began her tale.

"We recently discovered a hexagonal mirror in a dungeon not far from our hometown. The glass was darkened and it was difficult to see your reflection in it. We brought it back to Lord Cavelthorne so he could examine it and this morning he figured out its command word. But after activating it, the glass lightened – and a winged creature flew through it, into our world. It looked like a blocky, little, white gargoyle. It attacked Lord Cavelthorne, blasting him with a cone of salt crystals, blinding him."

"Salt mephit, sound like," interjected Gilbert Fung.

"Then another creature stepped through the mirror - this one as big as a man, but crystalline and chalky white - and it attacked Lord Cavelthorne, totally desiccating his body almost immediately, shriveling up his skin and stretching it like aged parchment. He-- he died there under its touch, and then almost immediately rose as some sort of undead. He was shambling around like a zombie, and then he and the other salt monsters attacked Vance when he tried to stop them. In the meantime, more of the winged creatures came through the mirror. We managed to keep the salt creatures at bay long enough for Jorg to smash the mirror, but by that time we were outnumbered – for the salt golem thing had split into two. I saw Jorg, Thomas, and Vance all get turned into those salt mummies and the salt golems were duplicating just about every time they killed someone, so - low on spells after trying to fight them off - I decided to come here for help. I used a teleport scroll we keep on hand for emergencies."

"What about Kizzie?" prompted Finoula. The halfling bard was the only member of Cavelthorne's troop Caliandra hadn't mentioned by name.

"I don't know - I lost sight of her. I hope she's okay."

"Gilbert?" Binkadink asked. "What are we dealing with here?"

The portly mage thought it over a moment. "Those definitely salt mephits - the winged ones. Others, not so sure about. But mirror probably gateway to Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt. We talking invasion force, more than likely."

"Well, that's not good!" expressed Darrien. "We need to put a stop to it!"

"Mirror smashed by Jorg - that good start," replied Gilbert, pulling his crystal ball from a pocket of his robes. "We need to take care of these other creatures - not liking how they can split into two after killing people and turning them into undead." Gilbert had a remarkable hatred for undead creatures; so much so that he'd permanently enhanced his eyesight with magic so he could see the auras of undead monstrosities identifying them for what they were. With a practiced wave of his hand, he caused an image to form in the glass sphere he held: the interior of the hunting lodge that served as the headquarters for Cavelthorne's team of adventurers. Mentally controlling the magic sensor he'd brought into being, he caused the image in the crystal ball to explore throughout the building. "See four salt monsters - they all undead," he announced. "No mephits, no salt golems."

"Are any of them...halfling sized?" asked Caliandra hesitantly, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"No, they all human size - wait! Found her! She on roof. Looks like still alive." Caliandra heaved a sigh of relief.

"Well, let's go, then!" said Hagan. "I've got a good enough view of the place through the crystal ball, I can teleport us all there!"

"Hold up," admonished Gilbert. "Prep spells first!" He put the crystal ball back into his pocket and then rummaged in another one, pulling out his slingshot of rock shrinking. Then, fishing his earth elemental familiar - currently the size of a small pebble - from yet another pocket, he loaded Mudpie into the slingshot and fired him straight at the ground.

The impact ended the magical reduction in size and Mudpie grew - but to a size much larger than the other heroes had expected. The earth elemental standing before them now stood a full 16 feet tall.

"What--?" gasped Hagan, looking up at the creature who normally only reached up to the half-orc's chest.

"Oh yeah - I cast polymorph other on him, make him this big permanently. He be much better in combat this way."

"Yeah," agreed Hagan, "but I can't teleport him with the rest of us if he's this big! Shrink him back down!"

"Hmm, good point," acknowledged Gilbert. "Mudpie! Come back over here!" The elemental did as instructed and the heavyset mage tapped him with the magic slingshot, shrinking Mudpie back down to pebble size. "I release him to full size again once we get there," he said as he scooped up the earth elemental and placed him back into a robe pocket for safe keeping.

Once the spellcasters had completed their pre-combat rituals - plenty of stoneskin, magic circle against evil, and barkskin spells, as well as a Rary's telepathic bond and the odd bear's endurance or cat's grace - the team was ready to go. "You stay here this time," Hagan told his own familiar. "I don't want anything to happen to you if we're going to be fighting undead monsters." Wezhley crawled down off of his master's shoulder with a show of unhappiness but Helga soon coaxed him back to the dining area and the unfinished meal with a promise of a few choice morsels and suddenly the little weasel was perfectly fine with being left behind. Darrien and Finoula also opted to leave their animal companions behind, although Binkadink insisted on bringing Obvious with him.

"Think we all ready," announced Gilbert and everyone gathered around Hagan. The half-orc cast the teleport spell and they immediately found themselves on the back deck of Lord Cavelthorne's hunting lodge.

Caliandra backed up onto the back lawn, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun and looking up at the roof to see if she could spot Kizzie Birdsong, while Darrien raced forward to the dual doors at the center of the lodge. He pulled the leftmost door open, standing behind it and using it as a shield, although he gripped his scimitar in his right hand and held it ready to strike out at any undead things that might exit the lodge.

Finoula raced up to the open door and looked within. There was an undead zombie thing wearing plate mail armor, spinning at the sudden draft from the door and shambling her way. She recognized the half-orcish features of Jorg, although his skin was desiccated like thin parchment stretched over the bones of his skull. With practiced ease, she pulled her whip of thorns from her belt, uncoiled it, and with a wordless command caused the thorns to extend from the weapon as its length burst into flames. Then, with a crack, she sent the whip lashing out at the salt mummy who had once been Jorg Battleborn.

Binkadink, mounted on his jackalope Obvious, sent him bounding around the side of the lodge to go enter through the front door, hoping to catch the undead Jorg in a pincer movement. He leaned forward to open the front doors, allowing Obvious to enter the foyer. There, up ahead, was Jorg getting whipped by Finoula and there, off to his right, was another armored mummy shambling his way: Vance Pelorian, judging by the Sun God's holy symbol hanging around the cleric's neck. But as Binkadink wheeled Obvious to face Vance, another salt mummy exited the trophy room where Lord Cavelthorne kept the animals he'd stalked, killed, and had stuffed as permanent displays of his hunting prowess. This, judging from his loose robes, was the undead corpse of Thomas the Seeker - only now the only thing he sought was the death of Binkadink and Obvious.

The gnome sent his glaive swinging at the animated human corpse, slashing a deep gash across Thomas's chest that Binkadink would have normally expected to send the creature's life-blood splashing away in an arc; instead, the mummy's interior was completely dry, releasing nothing but a spray of salt crystals. And then Vance reached the jackalope, reaching out for him with clawed fingers outstretched.

Further down the central hallway, Jorg swung a lethargic arm at Finoula but the nimble ranger ducked beneath the swing. She pulled Tahlmalaera from its sheath and prepared to stab into the mummy's torso, but before she could, Malrin opted to try casting a create water spell such that the liquid manifested directly above Jorg's head, thinking that a creature turned mainly to salt might well be vulnerable to a dose of flowing water. The elven druid couldn't have been more on the mark: the gallons of water splashed down upon Jorg's shambling corpse, eating away the desiccated flesh and causing the undead salt mummy to fall to the ground in a clatter of metal armor as he melted away in a sloppy puddle. Even Malrin was amazed at the effectiveness of the tactic, for create water was one of the simplest spells a druid ever learned - she'd never expected it to be that effective of a combat attack! (Now, having seen how effective it had been, she only regretted she didn't have more copies of that particular spell prepared.)

Hagan cast a chain lightning spell at Thomas and had it arc over to Vance, catching both in its electrical embrace. Gilbert stepped up beside him, casting a shapechange spell upon himself - the first time he'd ever given the spell a try - although he left it idle at the moment, leaving himself in his normal form but ready to transform at a moment's notice if the opportunity or need arose.

<I've got the decanter of endless water!> called Finoula over the link, resheathing her longsword and pulling the magic decanter from her pack. <I'm going to use Malrin's tactic on the rest of these salt mummies!> Darrien ran behind his fellow ranger, realizing she'd possibly need some support if she was planning on activating it in its "geyser" mode. Together, they entered the central hallway and Darrien steadied Finoula as she activated the decanter by its "geyser" command word. A blast of water erupted from the container, which would have flung the elf backwards if Darrien hadn't grabbed her by the hips to keep her steady. The water sloshed over the undead form of Thomas the Seeker, and just as Jorg had done the erstwhile monk melted away into a puddle, his robes being pushed away by the force of the powerful stream of water.

Now facing only Vance, Binkadink whirled on the undead cleric and brought him down with a few rapid strikes of his glaive. Finoula aimed the geyser at the undead cleric for good measure, the jet of water dissolving his body as it had the other salt mummies.

During all of this combat, Caliandra had cast a dimension door spell to get up to the top of the roof, where she had spotted the halfling bard lying, exhausted, on the top of the building. Kizzie had climbed up the chimney from the fireplace in Lord Cavelthorne's study to escape from the undead form of their leader, the nobleman who had financed their guild of adventurers. They could still hear him through the chimney as he staggered in the unlit fireplace below, trying to get to the halfling he'd been chasing - and who he had partially drained of fluids before her escape. "There's still one more, in the study!" Caliandra called down to the others, and Finoula hunted down the salt mummy who had once been Lord Cavelthorne and slew him with the decanter of endless water. "Got him!" she called up the chimney, and Caliandra cast another dimension door spell to get the last two surviving members of their guild back down to ground level.

"That all of them," Gilbert announced after checking each of the rooms in the lodge and confirming there were no other salt creatures lurking about. "Where the others go - mephits and golems?"

"They headed down the road...toward the town square," Kizzie explained in gasps of breath. "I saw them...from my perch on the rooftop." Wordlessly, Hagan passed his waterskin over to the halfling and she drank gratefully.

"You guys need to go after them, before they turn any of the villagers into undead!" said Caliandra. "I'll stay here with Kizzie; we have a potion or two of healing stashed away and I'm just about out of spells anyway, so I wouldn't be of much help." Gilbert pulled his crystal ball back out of his pocket and concentrated on the town square, having been in that area himself earlier in his adventuring career; Hagan, having never been there before, needed a good view of the place if he was going to be able to teleport everyone to that location. "Gather around!" the half-orc commanded and once everyone had done so he cast the spell, transporting the group into the middle of the town square.

To say it was a chaotic spectacle wouldn't be doing it justice. People were screaming everywhere as they tried running into the buildings for safety, only to be herded away by the flying salt mephits and their breath weapons of stinging salt crystals. The facets moved as fast as a human despite their bulky build and a few had already successfully drained enough moisture from the villagers to desiccate them into an undead state, in some cases causing the facets to split into two as a result. And the newly-created salt mummies turned at once to attack their living neighbors, ignoring the invaders from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt as potential targets.

Darrien grabbed an arrow from his quiver, nocked it into the Arachnibow, and sent it flying straight into the head of a flying mephit, killing it instantly. He then repeated the process, ignoring all other potential targets in every direction about him so he could concentrate on slaying the only enemies who could fly, as the mephits were the ones keeping the villagers from the safety of the various buildings. Each mephit Darrien slew opened access to an accessible safe haven for the frightened townsfolk nearby and they were quick to take advantage of it.

Finoula still wielded the decanter of endless water as a weapon, having seen firsthand how powerful it was against the salt mummies. She spotted the nearest of the undead and melted it into a wet puddle. That left the facets as potential targets and Binkadink set himself the task of slaying as many of them as he could. He sent Obvious charging into a group of the crystalline figures, slaying three of them in twice as many seconds with great slashes of his enchanted glaive. The facets were sliced into pieces, falling into further chunks as they hit the ground. But there were many other groups of facets threatening various townsfolk, who were scurrying about looking for a place of safety. Several of these poor souls were grabbed up by the salt-monsters, drained of their fluids and their very lives, their skin shriveling tightly onto their bones as they were transformed into salt mummies. More times than not, this resulted in the facet splitting into two, each creature the same size and strength of the original. It was easy to see that, left unchecked, this small invasion force could eventually expand into an army of facets covering the globe!

Gilbert's first action upon arriving in the town square wasn't to cast a spell but to shoot his pebble-sized earth elemental familiar at the ground by his feet with his slingshot of rock shrinking. Upon impact, Mudpie resumed his now-normal size of 16 feet in height and immediately set about pounding the nearest facets into dust with his massive, earthen fists.

The three remaining mephits who had made it through the mirror gate stopped harassing their victims once they saw the half-elf archer taking them down. They immediately changed targets, making bee-lines for these interlopers trying to put a stop to their fun. One flew straight at Darrien, sending a cone of salt crystals directly into the ranger's face, but Darrien had the presence of mind to close his eyes as he nocked another arrow into the Arachnibow by feel alone, then open his eyes after the breath weapon barrage had finished, just in time to cut the salt mephit down.

Some of the salt mummies noticed the heroes in the middle of the square who hadn't been there a moment before and started shambling in their direction. Malrin pulled her bow from her back and ignored the approaching mummies - they were moving rather slowly, after all - taking a bead on a nearby facet. They were the ones creating the salt mummies in the first place; take them down first and then the heroes could take out the mummies at their leisure, she reasoned.

Hagan cast another chain lightning spell, wiping out seven facets and a salt mummy in one fell swoop. Gilbert cast an Evard's black tentacles spell upon another group of four facets who were just about to drain a trio of frightened humans of the liquids in their bodies; the humans were caught up in the tentacles as well but Gilbert figured they'd likely last longer in his spell than they would being drained by facets - and even if the worst happened and they were crushed to death by the entangling appendages of his spell, that was preferable than being transformed into undead!

Mudpie smashed another facet outside the effects of his master's spell and the humans it had been threatening made it safely into a nearby building, slamming the door behind them. The remaining two salt mephits tried blocking them, but Darrien took them out with a pair of arrows, leaving only facets and salt mummies left to deal with.

Finoula was still doing her best to take out the salt mummies and her decanter of endless water was the perfect tool for the job - so far, none of the undead had last more than a few seconds under the blast of water from her magic decanter. Nearby, Binkadink was taking out handfuls of facets with his glaive, while Obvious sped him from group to group to allow him to slay as many of them as possible in the shortest amount of time he could.

The last four remaining facets all went after the gnome and his jackalope mount, rightly seeing them as their greatest personal threat. But it was at this time the heroes learned something important about the facets: just as absorbing the fluids of their victims allowed them to split into two, it was also apparently possible for several facets to merge back together into a larger form. This became apparent when the facets, all linked together in a hivemind similar to the heroes' own Rary's telepathic bond spell, called for help from the facets that were already beyond the town square and out of view, threatening other villagers farther away from the remaining four being harassed by the sudden arrival of the Kordovian heroes. This telepathic cry for help resulted in the facets farther away to start merging into one giant form: a quasi-elemental salt monolith, a massive, squat, vaguely humanoid creature standing some 25 feet tall or more, which came crashing through the trees to aid its fellow invaders.

Distracted by the sudden appearance of this new monstrosity, Finoula sprayed down another salt mummy with her decanter but failed to notice the approach of another of these undead, who brought its parched fist striking her from behind. Malrin, seeing the wielder of the decanter of endless water being taken away from her geyser duties (even if only temporarily), summoned a huge water elemental to carry out the same line of attack. Under the druid's orders, the water elemental simply ran through a pair of salt mummies, its watery form causing the undead creatures' bodies to lose all cohesion and collapse into runny piles of salt.

Hagan was also distracted by the arrival of the salt monolith, but only for a moment - and then he cast a meteor swarm spell at it. Four flaming missiles went streaking into the massive beast, crushing its chest and exploding into bursts of flames. Darrien spun about and sent a flurry of arrows streaking up at the monolith, but it seemed only the cold damage imbued upon the ammunition by the Arachnibow was having any effect.

Finoula deactivated the geyser with a command word, put the stopper on the end of the decanter, and then used her lightning amulet to transform herself into a bolt of living electricity, which she sent flying through the body of the salt monolith before assuming her elven form once again on the other side of the great beast. By this point the salt mummies were few in number and she was sure Malrin's water elemental could take care of them.

Mudpie killed another facet with his boulderlike fists while Binkadink slew the remaining four facets, each of which had turned to face the monolith as if ready to join its body and increase its size and power that much more. Obvious then hippity-hopped across the battlefield, getting his rider closer to the monolith so the gnome could bring his glaive to bear against the massive salt quasi-elemental.

The monolith performed some sort of magical attack linking itself to Hagan, who had thought himself well out of range of the monolith's reach. All at once, the half-orc felt his mouth go dry as his fluids started draining from his body in a manner he wouldn't have believed possible. He warned the others over the link of what was happening.

The last two remaining salt mummies moved up to attack but were then slain by the water elemental, who simply walked through them and dissolved them at once. Seeing no more undead on the battlefield, Malrin quickly dismissed the water elemental, allowing it to shift back to its home plane - given the monolith was draining fluids from Hagan at a distance, she didn't want to power it up by allowing it access to a creature whose entire body was made up of water, for who knew what effect that might have on the salt monolith? The last thing Malrin wanted was for it to absorb enough moisture for it to split into two like the facets had done!

Malrin then attacked the salt monolith with a direct spell attack: a call lightning storm spell which brought a bolt of lightning crashing down from the sky above to strike the massive, crystalline creature. Hagan, still suffering from the ongoing fluid drain, cast a polar ray spell at the salt monolith, hitting it where its head would normally be (although it had nothing in the form of an actual head, just some craggy blocks of salt crystals growing up from its massive shoulders).

And then Gilbert cast an Otto's irresistible dance spell at the salt quasi-elemental, causing it to start prancing about in place. As it capered, the cloud of salt particles which were constantly surrounding the creature as it moved got even worse; Binkadink leaped from Obvious's saddle so the jackalope could back off (as the salt was severely hurting his eyes). Mudpie backed off, not from any irritation but because he could see Finoula raising her hand to her amulet again and anticipated another lightning bolt blast straight through the body of the salt monolith once again. Finoula reformed into her elven body far enough away from the monolith to stay out of the range of the cloud of irritating particles. Darrien shot another bunch of arrows at the dancing foe; even though only the cold damage was causing the monolith any harm, the ranger was a firm believer that every little bit of damage they could bring to this menace was a good thing. Another bolt of lightning crashed down from the sky upon the dancing creature, a second blast from Malrin's spell.

Squinting, Binkadink braved entry into the salt cloud to bring his glaive to bear against the salt monolith, who was fortunately still caught up in Gilbert's spell and unable to even defend itself. But then Hagan made any further such attacks moot, for he slew the giant elemental with another meteor swarm spell. As the monolith came crashing to the ground in an explosion of salt crystals, the half-orc was pleased to feel the constant siphoning of his body's liquids suddenly cease all at once; he immediately grabbed for the waterskin at his hip and drank greedily.

Gilbert looked all about the town square, seeking out any remaining enemies, but it seemed they had taken care of all of the invaders from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt. Belatedly, the portly mage dismissed his Evard's black tentacles spell; the facets it had entangled had been crushed to death, but so had the three townsfolk - regrettable but acceptable losses, Gilbert considered them. "That's it!" Darrien confirmed, after having done his own evaluation of the battlefield. "Come on - let's get back to Caliandra!"

"And Kizzie," Finoula pointed out, but it was obvious which of the two female adventurers Darrien was most concerned about; his crush on the human sorceress was a rather poorly-guarded secret. Still, Hagan gathered everyone up around him again and teleported the group back to Lord Cavelthorne's hunting lodge (after Gilbert had reduced Mudpie back to pebble size for ease of transport). There, they found both Kizzie and Caliandra looking a bit more healthy than they had recently appeared; the healing potions had done their work.

"Are you okay?" Darrien asked.

"We're fine," Kizzie answered, as Caliandra added, "We'll live."

"So what you do now?" asked Gilbert, cutting to the chase as always.

"We don't have the funds - or the resources ourselves - to raise Lord Cavelthorne or any of the others," Caliandra answered. "We'll have to take it up with our king, but I imagine we'll try to hire a few replacements and keep the guild going. It'll take some time for us to recover, but we'll build this guild back up. We probably won't be at your fighting level for some time, though."

"Yeah, that probably true," Gilbert agreed with as little grace as he usually gave any of his comments. "Well, we save your kingdom, possibly whole world! You need us come save you again, you know where to find us. Hagan! You ready for teleport back home?"

Hagan sighed and gathered the group back into formation once again. Finoula gave the other two women a quick hug and told them, "I'm sorry for your loss" before joining the rest of her team. Darrien said, "If we can do anything to help..."

"I know," replied Caliandra sadly. "But you'd better get going. Your fat-ass wizard's getting impatient."

"Our fat-ass wizard's always impatient," he told her and stepped over to stand by the others of his group. Hagan cast his teleport spell and the Kordovian adventurers were once again back at Battershield Keep. Hagan went at once to find Wezhley - only to have Helga shush him, for the little weasel was sound asleep on the dining table, his belly distended from all the food he'd been bribed with by the dwarven woman to distract him from his being left behind.

"Hey!" exclaimed Gilbert loudly, causing little Wezhley to stir in his slumber. "I forget to shapechange into other forms in heat of battle! Oh well, maybe next time...."

- - -

All I can say about this adventure is I never thought I'd see a 0-level spell instantly slay a creature with triple-digit hit points, but since the salt mummy description says they take 1d6 points of damage from a flask of water and the create water spell creates literally gallons of water at a time, it seemed appropriate to allow it to happen. So my lower-level creatures weren't much of a threat at all, leaving my quasi-elemental salt monolith as the only real danger to the PCs. But that's okay; we finished this adventure quickly enough as a result that we had enough time in the session to go through the next one as well.

I also decided to kill off Aroben Ivenheart as an in-game explanation as to why Castillan was no longer a part of the group. Jacob, his player, has pretty much decided it's not worth the drive on the one day a week he has off from work to game with us (and I can't really fault his logic - he's got his own gaming group now; in fact I think he DMs for them), so this way I've left the possibility open that if the opportunity ever arises Castillan's still around and might join in a given adventure. But we won't likely be seeing too much of him around.

- - -

T-shirt worn: My white "Walking Dead" shirt - white for the salt, "Walking Dead" for the salt mummies.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 18​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 18​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 18​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 18​
Hagan, half-orc sorcerer 18​

NPC Roster:
Malrin Ivenheart, elf druid 12​

Game Session Date: 11 November 2019

- - -

Having been summoned to the castle by a page, the heroes arrived in full gear not knowing exactly what to expect. They were brought at once before Queen Kaelanna, who thanked them for their speedy arrival and had her dwarven guards lead them all outside to the courtyard. "He should be here shortly," the queen said.

Before anyone could ask who would soon be arriving there was a thunderous rustling of wings and the unasked question was answered as the green dragon Clauguthrax arrived. "Have they been briefed?" he asked his half-sister, the queen.

"Not yet – they've only just arrived," she said.

"Very well," replied Clauguthrax, looking down at the group of assembled heroes. "We're about to receive an unwelcome visitor. I want you here as a show of force, mainly – we don’t want to initiate combat here, where there are innocents likely to be slain in the aftermath. So we’re going to hear what he has to say, and then I'll do the talking."

"Who this unwelcome visitor?" demanded Gilbert Fung, but before anyone could answer one of the dwarven guard pointed up at the sky; another draconic shape came into view, this one with scales of a deep red. It approached rapidly, landing before the assembled group in a blast of dirt and grit from his wings.

"You must be Clauguthrax," the red dragon sneered. "I am Banelothlor. I understand you have claimed this kingdom as your own and stand as its protector. I am here to inform you your services are no longer required – I will be performing that task from this day forth."

"By whose authority?" demanded Queen Kaelanna.

"By my own!" snapped Banelothlor. "By one with the power behind the claim!" He turned his attention to Clauguthrax. "Or do you wish to challenge my right?"

"What are your terms?" asked Clauguthrax in a quiet voice, his head lowered and his gaze directed at the ground before Banelothlor.

"My services do not come for free. I require tribute, of a quantity commensurate to my worth. Six head of cattle, to be delivered unto me each month. And 50,000 pieces of gold as a retainer, another 10,000 each month to be delivered with the cattle."

"And in return?" asked Queen Kaelanna stiffly, keeping a regal bearing.

"In return, you will have the prestige of having a red dragon as the guardian of your kingdom. I will even permit you to put my likeness upon the flags of your castle – I think that would be an appropriate touch. And, perhaps most importantly...I will not raze this place to the ground for the effrontery of having had dealings with a lowly green when your land is part of the territory I now claim as my own."

Clauguthrax looked down at his half-sister. "We will need time to gather the tribute," he said, while the queen just bunched her fists and said nothing, fuming silently.

"You have a week," replied Banelothlor. "See that all is in readiness upon my return." The red dragon then turned his back upon his lessers, leaped into the air, and with a mighty flapping of powerful wings took to the skies, heading back the way he had come.

As Queen Kaelanna and those around her watched the red dragon fly away, she turned to her half-brother and let out the sigh she'd been holding in. "And now...?" she asked.

Clauguthrax snarled, "Now we have a week to track that bastard down to his lair and slay him."

"I like the way you're thinking," enthused Binkadink. Finoula, in the meantime, was examining the ground where Banelothlor had landed. "What are you looking for?" the gnome asked her.

"I was hoping he might have shed a scale or something," Finoula replied. "We could use it to scry on him, maybe track down his lair that way."

"Take a care with that," advised Clauguthrax. "He is a dragon; he'll likely detect any attempts to scry directly upon him - and knowing we're doing so will make him suspicious that we haven't been cowed into total submission by his august presence."

"There other ways we can track him down," advised Gilbert. "With Your Majesty's permission, we see what we can find out."

"By all means - do what you can, and please keep me informed."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Returning back to Battershield Keep, the group discussed options. "Can you guys cast a divination spell or something?" Darrien asked Gilbert and Hagan.

"I got nothing like that prepared," Gilbert admitted. Hagan confessed he had no personal experience with such spells; he preferred those which could be used to inflict massive bodily harm upon his enemies. "Still, we can assume he lairs north of us," pointed out the half-orc sorcerer, "as that's the direction he arrived from and the way he headed when he took off."

"That just a guess," argued Gilbert.

"But a logical one," countered Hagan. "The Clatspur Mountains are to the north and red dragons prefer making their lairs in mountainous terrain." Gilbert had to admit it made sense.

"I think I have spell on scroll might help," Gilbert recalled, flipping to the inside back cover of the Omnibook where his various arcane scrolls were copied and stored. Flipping through the list, he hit upon the one he wanted. "Here we go: discern location."

"Cool - are you going to cast it now?" asked Darrien.

"Now? No! Cast it from scroll, it gone for good. I study it, figure out how spell works, then cast it after transcribe it in spellbook! Then I have spell from now on!"

"But it'll take longer that way!" griped Darrien.

"We have week! These spell scrolls expensive!" argued Gilbert - and in the end, the stubborn mage won out. Thus it wasn't until the next day that Gilbert announced he was ready to cast his newly-mastered discern location spell. Everyone gathered around the portly wizard as he began his spellcasting, but the excitement started to wane as the minutes passed and he was still performing his incantations - this was, apparently, one of those spells that took several minutes to even finish casting. Binkadink wandered back to the kitchen to fetch a snack. By the time he had helped himself to a hunk of cheese and wandered back outside in the courtyard where Gilbert was casting the spell, the wizard had finally almost completed the lengthy ritual. "'bout time!" muttered the gnome to himself.

"Got it!" Gilbert hissed in excitement. "He lair inside volcano! 'Hellplume,' it called. You right, Hagan - he up in Clatspur Range!"

"Then we can teleport in," suggested Hagan.

"What, just teleport into volcano crater? That good way to die!"

"We need to scout the area out first," reasoned Finoula. "I'll have Jinkadoodle fly me up that way in the dragonfly ship, then I can cast a commune with nature spell close enough to his lair to gather details about it, while staying far enough away not to alert him to my presence."

"Hmmm," mused Gilbert. "...And I can scry just on you without alerting dragon. Okay - good plan!"

"I'll come with, just in case," offered up Binkadink. And thus it was that Finoula flew up to the Clatspur Range accompanied by the gnomish cousins, the illusionist of the pair piloting the vessel. Back at Battershield Keep, Gilbert and the others watched their progress through the wizard's crystal ball, ready to teleport to their aid if the need arose.

Exiting the dragonfly vessel via the ladder lowered over its side, Finoula dropped to the ground and spread her fingers along the hard rocks of the mountainside. She then began a low chanting - and Binkadink, climbing down by her side, realized with dismay this commune with nature spell was another of those with a 10-minute-long casting time. Doing his best to reel in his impatience, he kept his magical glaive at the ready and his eyes on the terrain all around him as well as the sky above, making sure no draconic shapes came into view while the ranger was immersed in her spellcasting.

Many minutes later, Finoula suddenly stopped her low chanting and turned her head to the side, as if listening intently to something only barely discernible. Binkadink, for his part, heard nothing. But then the ranger shook her head, blinked her eyes, and said simply, "Got it. Let's go." And she started up the ladder extended from the upper deck of the ship. Binkadink followed and Jinkadoodle flew the ship back to its cloud island hangar, before the trio returned to Battershield Keep via the carpet of teleportation the gnome fighter kept in his room.

"Well?" asked Gilbert upon their arrival. Finoula explained what she'd learned: Banelothlor's lair was inside a sealed cavern accessible only through a magma pool, easy access to a red dragon immune to heat and flame but a formidable obstacle to those not so endowed; the lair was but one of two layers of caverns in the side of the Hellplume Crater, the upper level being the lair of five lesser dragons; and the "lesser dragons" she'd sensed, once she focused upon them, were in fact half-red dragon lizardfolk. "More than likely, they were imbued with red dragon traits in the same manner as Queen Kaelanna was imbued with green dragon traits: this Banelothlor likely had the lizardfolk eggs hatch from inside the fragments of a red dragon eggshell." Finoula sketched out a simple diagram of the cave system she'd sensed: the upper level was a series of three main caverns side by side with two openings to the central crater along the middle and left; while the lower system was more like one big area shaped somewhat like the letter "E" on its side, the central part being a ramp leading down into magma.

"So who do we go after first, the dragon or the five lizardfolk?" asked Malrin. After some discussion, it was decided to take out the five lizardfolk first, as it would be easiest to enter the dragon's lower lair via a dimension door spell from one of the upper level caves - and that would be easier if the current inhabitants of the caves had already been dealt with.

"So, when do we go in?" asked Binkadink, eager to take on these draconic foes. The red dragonhide armor he wore was proof he'd been able to help take down a red dragon in the past and although Banelothlor was much bigger than the one he'd slain before he was eager to meet the challenge head on.

"Tomorrow," Gilbert replied. "Now we know what exactly we're up against, we prepare spells we need to take these guys down." So more waiting, Binkadink thought to himself. But while he was annoyed by the constant delays he couldn't deny having powerful spells to back up the front-line combatants was a definite boon. He ambled back to his room to take off his armor and set aside his weapons for the day; it didn't look like they'd be needed today after all.

The next day, though, all was in readiness. After some talking among themselves, Binkadink decided he'd leave Obvious behind on this mission, not wanting to expose his trusty jackalope steed to an environment where lava was a major factor. The two rangers likewise opted to leave Wrath and Grumps Junior behind but Darrien, knowing that riding a steed was a big part of Binkadink's fighting style, offered to loan him his ebony fly for the upcoming fight. "Thanks!" said the gnome, pocketing the figurine of wondrous power.

"I saw enough yesterday through the crystal ball to be able to teleport us directly to where the dragonfly ship landed," Hagan announced. He had been likewise tempted to leave his weasel familiar Wezhley behind, but having just done so when facing the invasion force from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt, he was of no mind to make this a habit - plus, Wezhley had promised his master he'd stay in place on the half-orc's shoulder. "So gather up, and we'll be off." The group crowded around the sorcerer, he cast the teleport spell, and they stood on the mountaintop in the Clatspur Range. Off to the west they could see a plume of smoke rising lazily in the cold mountain air, as obvious a signal of the direction to the Hellplume as they could have asked for.

A draconic shape landed near the group but it was only Clauguthrax, who had headed toward the Hellplume some time earlier. The group had informed the dragon - and his half-sister, Queen Kaelanna - of what they had discovered about Banelothlor's lair and the green dragon had insisted on coming along for the kill. "I won't be able to enter the caverns with you due to my size," he said, "but I can be stationed at the rim of the crater and attack anything that gets by you, trying to escape."

"Prep spells," commanded Gilbert as the group approached the rim of the Hellplume. The rangers took the lead, Binkadink eagerly just behind them, but then Gilbert sent Mudpie ahead to reconnoiter, for the earth elemental could literally glide through the mountain rock without leaving a trail behind. And his increased size - Mudpie now stood a whopping 16 feet tall - would likely come in handy if he met up with any trouble on the way. Gilbert kept in mental contact with him over their shared empathic link.

Mudpie approached the upper caverns carved into the side of the Hellplume crater, sticking just his head through the ceiling to spy down at the areas below. Gilbert, by this time, was scrying upon his familiar through his crystal ball (confident that by focusing upon Mudpie he had little chance of alerting Banelothlor of his activities), so he could actually see the caverns - and their inhabitants - for himself. The others peered over his shoulders to see as well.

Mudpie made a leisurely ceiling "stroll" along the cavern complex, finding a total of four red-scaled lizardfolk in the various chambers, two of them much larger than normal for the lizardfolk race and sporting wings. As for the location of the fifth nobody could be sure - perhaps out hunting? But the group got a good understanding of the layout of the cavern complex, even noting the hidden second entrance that was covered by a permanent illusory wall; apparently one of the lizardfolk - or perhaps Banelothlor himself - was capable of casting illusion spells. There were also what at first looked like leather sacks or something hanging on the walls over in the sleeping area, although closer inspection showed them to have facial features - they were the skinned faces of various humans and elves. Finoula shuddered at the sight.

Darrien had prepared a commune with nature spell of his own, anticipating the need for further information once they got their first good look of the terrain in which they'd be fighting. Despite the lengthy casting time, the spell paid off in allowing the ranger to find the fifth half-dragon lizardfolk: he was almost completely submerged in the bubbling magma just outside the lair, only his eyes remaining above the surface, allowing him to act as a hidden sentry.

"Okay, Gilbert, do you want to cover the entrances with your tentacle spells?" Darrien asked the mage. "Then we can have Hagan teleport us in and they'll have no way to escape."

"Didn't prepare any Evard's black tentacles spells this morning, admitted Gilbert.

"Oh, walls of force, then?"

"" Gilbert soon had to admit he hadn't thought about sealing up any exits from the cavern system. "You were the one who made us wait an extra day so you'd have the right spells prepared!" thundered Binkadink.

"Yeah, well...I got plenty other good spells ready!" Gilbert blustered. "Come on! Let's go in! We don't need to seal off exits - we got this!" Shrugging his shoulders, Hagan cast a teleport spell that transferred the entire group into the tunnel just past the main entrance to the lair - the one on the left, not protected by an illusory wall spell.

There was a half-dragon lizardfolk on guard duty, crouched down in the tunnel and looking out over the magma pool. Situated as he was, his back was turned to the group of heroes who had suddenly appeared in the tunnel leading to the sleeping cave. Before Vornak Bloodscale could even register their presence, Darrien shot a cluster of arrows into his broad back. The half-dragon spun about in shock and surprise, only to have another pair of arrows come flying his way in rapid succession, this pair shot by Malrin, who had prepared plenty of healing spells that morning and thus was rather low on attack spells.

From the back cavern, Virmillius Fireblood heard signs of combat coming from the front and shook his head in resignation; despite Banelothlor's assurances that the kingdom of Kordovia had bowed before his might, the lizardfolk sorcerer had been half expecting some sort of pre-emptive strike. He cast a protection from cold spell upon himself, realizing it was the most likely avenue of attack by any spellcasters the group of intruders might have, and reached for an ornate flask he had stored in the back of his arcane cavern.

Alerted by Vornak's cries of pain, Yompok the Face-Saver rose up from magma, ran up to the sleeping caves - and right into the slashing blade of Binkadink's magical glaive as he approached around a corner. But from the next cavern over Djop sprinted up, his kama in hand and ready to strike. There was a silver-haired elf before him; she was as good a target as any. Djop swung his kama in a lateral strike that only grazed the elf, but then Finoula retaliated with a strike of her own, Tahlmalaera drawing blood as its blade cut a line of pain across the lizardfolk monk's chest.

But Djop hadn't been the only lizardfolk in the combat cave. Grandalvass lumbered up, his massive greataxe in hand, the weapon as proportionally large as the towering half-dragon. His wings flapped in excitement, although the low ceiling prevented the massive monster from becoming airborne.

Binkadink carried on with his attacks against Vornak Bloodscale, his initial hit having been a reflexive maneuver when he caught the lizardfolk's form rounding the corner from the entry tunnel. His glaive cut deep, causing a flow of blood to intermingle with the half-dragon's already-red scales. With a roar of pain, Vornak charged the gnome, but Binkadink's combat training allowed him to stab at the lizardfolk with his glaive again as he crossed the distance between them.

Gilbert, in the meantime, cast a waves of exhaustion spell at both Djop and Grandalvass, maneuvering to ensure he didn't also catch Finoula in the spell's area of effect. Both lizardfolk were affected - and neither of them appreciated the lowered effectiveness of their combat prowess the spell brought their way.

A sudden crash directly behind Djop alerted the monk - too late to dodge out of the way - that Mudpie had dropped from the ceiling. He brought a massive fist crashing down upon the lizardfolk, momentarily staggering the monk by the power of the blow. Hagan cast a polar ray - in so doing using the exact attack stratagem Virmillius had anticipated - directly at Grandalvass, striking the hulking fighter in his massive chest. But despite it having been anticipated by the half-dragon sorcerer, Virmillius hadn't had time to protect any but himself from cold-based attacks and the polar ray caused Grandalvass a considerable amount of pain. With a roar of outrage, the fighter determined he'd make that scrawny little half-orc pay with his life!

Darrien pumped another tight grouping of arrows into Vornak's skull, slaying him instantly. Malrin found a new target in Yompok, sending an arrow or two his way now that her initial target had been taken out of the picture.

"Arise and assist!" commanded Virmillius, rubbing the metal flask he'd grabbed. Immediately, a stream of reddish mist escaped from the flask's opening, expanding and coalescing into a demonic-looking figure. "I obey, Master!" the efreet replied, following the towering, winged sorcerer out of the arcane cave and over toward the combat cave, from where the sounds of battle were coming. As he followed his erstwhile master, the efreet faded from view, casting an invisibility spell upon himself. He might be forced into servitude but nothing said he couldn't look after his own best interests while doing so.

Binkadink was the closest target to Yompok the Face-Saver, so he swung his halberd in the gnome's direction. The longer reach of the little gnome's weapon might have helped spell Vornak's doom but Yompok's halberd was just as long as Binkadink's glaive, so he'd be afforded no such advantage! Thus reassured, the lizardfolk fighter moved in to attack. But his confidence was false, for Binkadink quickly proved to be the better combatant, cutting down the Face-Saver with the blade of his glaive in a few short but effective strokes.

Djop swung again at Finoula with his kama, hoping to take out the silver-haired elf before he was slain. Fleeing to save himself never once crossed his mind; Banelothlor had raised his troop of five half-dragons to be unswervingly loyal and they'd each rather die in his defense than retreat. That way led to death in any case, at the hands of the red dragon - guaranteed to be a much more painful death than the swift release in combat against these intruders.

Finoula lifted a hand to the amulet she wore around her neck and with a mental command her body discorporated, transformed into a blast of lightning and coursing through the scaled forms of Djop and Grandalvass. She reappeared behind the hulking fighter, unaware that Virmillius was now approaching from behind her, as was his invisible efreet servant. Grandalvass, in the meantime, unleashed the blast of fiery breath he'd been preparing, sending a cone of flames engulfing Binkadink, Hagan and Wezhley, Gilbert, Mudpie, and Malrin; it would have gotten Finoula as well had she not escaped in lightning-form just a moment before.

Gilbert cast a shapechange spell and immediately shifted form - into that of a pit fiend, guaranteeing the wizard would have no further concerns about fire-based attacks during this battle. He then rapidly cast a chain lightning spell upon both Djop and Grandalvass, seeing how badly they'd been affected by Finoula's pass through them in lightning-bolt form. No sooner had the electrical assault finished than Mudpie stepped up, slamming a granite-hard fist into Djop, causing him to stagger and sway on his feet. Malrin and Darrien finished off the heavily-wounded monk, peppering him with arrows.

Hagan cast a polar ray at the massive lizardfolk he could see approaching from behind Finoula, but Virmillious's protective spell against cold effects helped mitigate the damage he took from the spell. He stepped to the side and cast a chain lightning spell of his own, testing to see whether Finoula could handle incoming electrical attacks as well as she could dish them out; an arc from the spell struck the pit fiend standing deeper in the cavern network. And while Finoula was still reeling from the spell assault, a fist suddenly materialized - or so it seemed - directly into her face as the unseen efreet popped back into view, his invisibility spell broken by his sudden attack.

Almost instinctively, Finoula used another daily charge from her amulet and blasted through the efreet as a bolt of living lightning, putting her back over by Gilbert at the end of her arc. Gilbert, in the meantime, was under attack by Grandalvass, the half-dragon's sharp greataxe swinging at the wizard's fiendish form. Binkadink raced up and brought his glaive to bear against Grandalvass, the weapon's greater reach coming in handy against a foe of this size. Surprisingly, the "pit fiend" took a step back out of combat and cast a vampiric touch spell through a quickened spectral hand, slaying a startled Grandalvass who had been looking forward to going toe-to-toe against a pit fiend, allegedly one of the more powerful denizens of the Lower Planes.

Mudpie shifted targets to Virmillius, swinging at the sorcerer with his fists. Hagan cast another chain lightning spell - it was a very popular choice this battle, it seemed - striking Virmillius and his efreet minion and slaying the latter. The loss of his wish-granting slave seemed to cause the lizardfolk sorcerer more pain than if he'd taken the additional damage himself. He turned to face Hagan, eager to make the half-orc pay for his effrontery - and then was taken out in a way he never could have anticipated: Gilbert, towering over the others in his pit fiend form, grabbed up Binkadink and threw him across the chamber. The gnome held his glaive out straight before him and yelled in glee as he became a living missile, the blade of his weapon piercing straight through the scale-covered body of the half-dragon sorcerer nearly four times his own size.

Virmillious was the last of the enemies to fall; Malrin quickly cast a mass cure light wounds spell on all but Finoula, who had already chugged down a healing potion to close up her own wounds. Fortunately, much of the lizardfolks' damage had been absorbed by the stoneskin spells covering most of the heroes, applied by Hagan and Gilbert before they had teleported into the caverns in the first place.

"Dragon down in lower cavern," Gilbert told his trusty familiar. "Peek down there, but be careful: don't want you dipping into lava by mistake!" The earth elemental sank slowly into the floor of the central cavern, his senses alert for the sudden change in temperature indicating the imminent arrival into a magma pool. Gilbert, in the meantime, scried upon him via his crystal ball. The lower caverns were much simpler in shape: a central area, where Banelothlor lay sleeping, which had a natural ramp of sorts leading down into a pool of magma, no doubt the dragon's entry and exit point; a vast treasure cavern to the west, the floor covered with coins, gems, and various other treasures; and a smaller cave section of its own to the east littered with the bones of prior meals. Upon getting the nod of approval from Gilbert, Hagan cast a teleport spell that sent the group to the treasure cave.

Darrien began the combat by firing no less than five arrows at the dragon's sleeping bulk in rapid succession; the attack managed to bring Banelothlor to full alertness but didn't seem to inflict any great harm on him, despite the Arachnibow's ability to infuse its arrows with cold energy. Malrin sent a flurry of arrows at the dragon as well, but hers didn't even have the cold enhancement that Darrien's did. As Banelothlor got to his feet and turned to face the heroes, he found Finoula running up to face him, Tahlmalaera glancing off the scales of his foreleg without piercing his skin at all. This was a non-fortuitous start to combat for the Kordovian heroes!

Binkadink managed to tip the scales a bit in their favor when his magical glaive pierced through the dragon's scales to bring a line of blood trickling from his leg. But Banelothlor hardly even noticed either the gash or the pain it had caused; his focus was on the pit fiend accompanying the interlopers intruding into his lair. This was by far the most powerful of his current opponents, the dragon realized, so he brought his full fury against the red-skinned devil. However, despite the sharpness of the dragon's claws and teeth and the immense power behind his attacks, very little of the potential damage made it past Gilbert's inherent toughness in pit fiend form or his stoneskin spell still in effect.

With the dragon this close before him, Gilbert decided to lean into his pit fiend nature and try to bite him - after all, pit fiends had impressive fangs and tusks capable of spreading both venom and disease; he might as well put them to the test. Sadly, this particular test met with failure, as the wizard's bite failed to penetrate through the dragon's thick neck scales.

Banelothlor's lungs filled up with air, an obvious precursor to spewing out a sheet of flames. Mudpie quickly sank into the stone floor, careful not to go too deep and hit the pool of magma leading into the cave. The others quickly tried taking the dragon down, Darrien with more of his ineffective arrows; Hagan with a polar ray spell that inflicted a great amount of damage to the fiery dragon; Finoula with the last daily use of her amulet of lightning, allowing her to blast her way through Banelothlor's bulk and end up behind him, out of the zone of attack from his breath weapon. Malrin didn't even bother attacking, realizing her arrows were all but useless against the red dragon; she wisely scooted around a corner of the treasure cave where she was shielded from the dragon's wrath by a stone wall.

Binkadink, standing directly before Banelothlor, got in a couple of powerful strikes with his glaive before being engulfed in flames; fortunately, the magic of the red dragonhide armor he wore (armor, he realized, guaranteed to infuriate the red dragon he was fighting) absorbed some but not all of the burning damage. The others took quite a bit of damage from the flames - Hagan, Wezhley, and Darrien, at least, for while Gilbert was in the path of the blast his pit fiend form shielded him from all harm from fire.

And then Gilbert cast what he thought of as his "spoilsport" spell: an Otto's irresistible dance which, if it overcame a creature's natural resistance to spells, caused it to dance about like a fool, incapable of doing anything else. Hoping he'd get past Banelothlor's natural defenses against attack spells, the wizard whooped in delight as he saw the dragon begin to caper about, a look of complete puzzlement on his draconic face, replaced almost immediately by blazing anger.

Seeing the dragon would be unable to do anything else but dance for a bit, Malrin stepped back around the corner into Banelothlor's range of vision, and slowly, deliberately, unfolded the bag of holding from her belt. Then, dropping to her knees, she started scooping up the dragon's treasure and dropping it into her extradimensional bag.

It had the effect the druid had hoped for. "NOOOOOOO!" howled Banelothlor, as he could no nothing to stop the nimble elf from stealing his treasures right in front of him. It's doubtful he even noticed when Mudpie rose up from the stone floor directly beneath the dancing dragon to punch him in the gut with a rock-hard fist. But Banelothlor had already been metaphorically gut-punched by the blatant theft of his precious hoard while powerless to stop it.

Hagan cast another polar ray spell at the red dragon, coating his red scales with white frost. Darrien continued to shoot his arrows; they did little - if any - damage but the ranger was determined to try to get one of them to pierce one of the dragon's eyes. Finoula brought her sword down at the dragon's tail, slicing a gash between his thick scales. Binkadink continued striking the dragon with his glaive, each hit piercing deep into his flesh and drawing fresh blood. But none of the heroes was hurting Banelothlor as much as was Malrin, who now made an exaggerated show of picking up a valuable gem, cooing over its beauty, and then dropping it into the opening of her bag of holding. Banelothlor roared in impotent fury, still dancing along.

Finally, almost out of sheer pity, Gilbert slew the dancing dragon with a maximized cone of cold spell he'd been saving for an emergency. "Guess Kordovia stick with Clauguthrax," the "pit fiend" informed Banelothlor as the red dragon died, his scales covered in ice. Finally, in death, his body stopped the ridiculous prancing about he'd been forced to endure and he toppled over on his side.

"How that treasure looking?" asked Gilbert, reverting back to his human form now that there was no need for the combat capabilities of a pit fiend.

"Massive!" announced Malrin. "Castillan's going to freak that he's missing out on another big payday!" She passed the bag of holding over to Finoula and let her fellow elf take over the treasure-gathering operation while the druid cast healing spells on those who had been burned by the dragon's gout of flame. She started with Wezhley, whose fur hand been badly singed and the flesh beneath it burned to a back crust. "That's why I want to keep you behind sometimes," explained Hagan to his familiar as Malrin's healing spells caused his burnt skin to return to its normal color and his fur to thicken back to a lustrous brown. Feeling much better, Wezhley cuddled up against the half-orc's neck while Hagan took his turn to be healed by the druid's spells.

"Finally remembered to use shapechange spell to actually change shape," muttered Gilbert. He'd only cast the spell upon him once before and then forgotten to use it once it was active.

"And you put it to good use," Binkadink added. "We'll have to remember that maneuver where you fling me at an enemy: that was fun!"

- - -

I went rather heavy on the treasure for this adventure, even by Gargantuan red dragon standards, in part to make up for the total lack of treasure from the previous adventure. (I don't always ensure there's treasure in every adventure, as sometimes it wouldn't make sense for there to be a level-appropriate amount of treasure hanging around. But I do try to make sure it evens out over the long run.)

And Malrin leveled up to 13th at the end of this adventure. It's getting such that Logan runs her as a matter of course, rather than pass her around among the players from one adventure to the next (like we did with Ingebold). It makes sense, given he's the only player at the table who isn't otherwise preoccupied with choosing spells for their own primary character. (Well, other than Harry, but he's already running a spellcaster.)

- - -

T-shirt worn: Had this adventure taken place on a game session by itself, I'd have no doubt worn my green dragon shirt to represent Clauguthrax. But since we played this on the same day as "Salt in the Wounds" I was still wearing my white "Walking Dead" T-shirt.
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