The Mask of Mask (updated 01/21/2023)

Salmakia

Explorer
This is a campaign that has recently started, so I'm back-writing a little bit and then will update as sessions happen... hopefully once every week or two. Enjoy!

Setting: Ekrido, the social and cultural capital of the plane. This world is fairly traditional sword & sorcery of my own creation comprised of many independent cities. Relationships are largely based on trade, with only a few longstanding political alliances.

Characters (all starting level 1):
  • Ewan – Human; Grave Cleric; looks haunted; recently arrived in Ekrido from the north.
  • Burny – Gnome; Wizard; constantly experimenting; son of the chief wizard in Ekrido.
  • Metis – Triton; Druid; quiet and standoffish; daughter of nobles in the neighboring town of Liport.
  • Veu (pronounced “view”) – Halfling; Rogue; skeptical and somewhat petty; raised in The Labyrinth, the largest library on the plane.
  • Althea – Human; Ranger; an explorer and a muckraker; recently kicked out of the official city Rangers for asking too many questions.

1. Callista
“...and obviously, if you should fail, your jobs will be forfeit and I will personally see to it that you never receive honorable work in Ekrido again. Are there any questions?” The party stood in the office of the Baron Antonio Giuseppe, one of Ekrido’s most powerful and influential noblemen. The man had a monopoly on farming in the city, and for several weeks the party had been employed by him as night guards to prevent bandits or “vigilante trust-busters” from raiding his fields.

Until, the night previously, his storehouses had been raided. The Baron had immediately fired his storehouse guards and promoted the five party-members from border patrol to storehouse patrol, a position that came with a slight pay raise and the Baron’s dire ultimatum: prevent theft, or forfeit any chance of a long and happy career in Ekrido. They had no doubt that the Baron could deliver on that guarantee, nor did they get the sense that gracefully bowing out now was an option. So they accepted the promotion and got to guarding the storehouse.

Burny was excited for the prospect of the raise because it meant he’d have more money to buy components for his spells and experiments.

Ewan was confused as to why the Baron had promoted a 19-year-old kid with seemingly no skills or experience. Admittedly he was probably right to be confused, but some logic must be sacrificed in the interest of making a game happen.

Burny and Metis, being the only two who could see in the dark, positioned themselves atop two of the tall silos to survey the storehouse compound. Althea, Ewan, and Veu took torches and walked a continual perimeter around the various storehouses (all of which were surrounded by a large fence).

Three uneventful nights passed. At this point I asked the players whether their characters were the type to keep up a vigilant guard after three nights of nothing happening, or whether they would start to get lax. Burny’s player freely admitted that Burny was assuredly scribbling notes about his newest experiments and not paying the slightest attention to his guard duties, but Althea was aware enough to hear the crash coming from the meat barn.

They immediately shouted to raise the alarm, at which point the rest of the party booked it to the barn. Their entire futures were hanging on this job, and somehow someone had slipped into the meat barn without them noticing a thing.

Althea unlocked the door and the party entered into the barn, all except Metis who clambered up the wooden slats to stand on the roof and survey the area. The barn was pitch dark, and even those with darkvision couldn’t see any signs of life near the entrance (the barn is over 100-feet long, and so they could only see about a third of it), nor could they hear anything from beyond. They began moving stealthily forward, with Althea and Burny moving silently along the perimeter while Ewan and Veu moved... less quietly straight down the center of the barn.

Upon arriving in the back half of the barn where most of the meat was stored, they saw six humanoid figures dressed all in black with black masks silently engaging in thievery. One was up on a rolling staircase lifting meat off the hooks in the ceiling and dropping it into a Portable Hole that was being dragged along by two more while the fourth pushed the staircase along the length of the barn. The final two bandits were up on the walkway surrounding the barn, bows drawn and covering their companions.

And cover they did as Ewan and Veu walked noisily into their line of sight. One released an arrow hitting Ewan square in the chest and dealing more damage than a level-1 character likes to take on the first turn of combat. The two with the Portable Hole quickly closed it up and began making for the back of the barn.

Here I’ll also mention that the bandits were wreathed in shadows, making them quite tricky to see unless you were staring right at them. I think perhaps the way I described this shadowy quality quite concerned some of the more experienced players who are familiar with powerful monsters and high-level magic that can have that effect, until Althea successfully identified the Pass Without Trace spell and there was a noticeable relief around the table. Or maybe I was reading too much into their reactions.

Veu unashamedly backed up behind a wall and, after debating whether or not to flee entirely, decided instead to hang out by the ladder to the second level.

The Baron had specifically asked for the bandits to be taken alive, a fact that Burny completely disregarded as he pulled a small diamond from his pouch, rubbed it hard enough to generate friction, and then launched a Chromatic Orb of fire at one of the two archers. Note that Burny was successfully hidden and so had advantage on the attack. Fortunately for him (less so because of the Baron’s desire for live captives and more for other facts that would soon come to light), this was no run-of-the-mill NPC bandit so the spell didn't quite manage to drop her. However, she was still not terribly happy about being scorched and so began running full tilt toward Burny who booked it back down the ladder.

Meanwhile, Althea scored a hit with their bow against the bandit who was attempting to flee with the Portable Hole, and Metis, hearing the commotion, tied off a rope and clambered down the chimney into the meat smoker (it was a cold smoker, so she wasn’t at any risk of being burned alive in the furnace, but she still emerged into the fray coughing and covered in soot).

Veu decided to climb up the ladder toward the second level, presumably to find a corner where she could hide and potentially attack from stealth, but came face-to-face with the bandit who had been chasing Burny. After successfully fending off an attempt to push her off the ladder, Veu struck the bandit with the hilt of her dagger, knocking the assailant unconscious.

Of course, what Veu had not fully considered was both of them were clinging to a ladder, and that unconscious people don’t hold on to ladders so well. Failing in her attempt to hang on to the rungs while a creature more than twice her size was falling in her space, both Veu and the unconscious bandit went tumbling to the ground right at the feet of Metis and Burny.

From beneath the tangle of limbs, they heard Veu moan something about “please someone tie him up,” and Metis did so, making doubly sure her knots were secure and rolling the bandit off of Veu in the process.

Ewan, who had rolled maximum healing on a self-targeting Cure Wounds after being hit in the very first round, charged into the fray and up one of the rolling staircases to deal with the other archer... and that’s when sh*t went down.

The archer, who had her bow fully drawn and prepared to shoot this person running up the stairs to attack her, took one look at his face, lowered her bow, and gasped “Tavish?!”

Ewan stared back at her, entirely shaken, took a moment to clear his head, and then replied “if you ever cared for him, then call them off.” There was a moment of stunned silence while the bandit tried to process the face she was seeing, and Ewan repeated more forcefully "Call them off!" The bandit shouted a command and her group disengaged and began running toward the exit.

Ewan and the archer still stood frozen, staring at each other. "You can't be Tavish," the archer said. "Who are you?"
“Tavish was my father,” Ewan said, “who are you?” The bandit removed her mask, revealing features greatly resembling Ewan’s own.
“Tavish was my husband,” she said.
“Callista?” Ewan asked, and the woman nodded in affirmation.
“Come with me,” she said suddenly, and Ewan made a snap decision that would change the course of his life forever. Together, they began booking it for the back of the barn, where the bandits had cut a small hole.

Now, the rest of the party hadn’t really seen any of this interaction, and merely saw this kid who was supposed to be on their side suddenly running off with the bandits (we'd decided that the characters knew and liked each other as acquaintances, having worked together for some weeks, but hadn't yet gotten to the point of innate trust and camaraderie) . Naturally, they were none too thrilled and began heading off the bandits to try and prevent them from escaping. Burny hit the one with the Portable Hole with a Fire Bolt, dropping him to single-digits and sending him sprawling across the ground.

Callista looked furiously at Ewan and told him that she had called off her bandits and that he must call off his fellow guards. There followed a very hotly contested argument/fight as Ewan tried to sway the other party members to his side while also actively trying to escape with the bandits and having most of the party intent on stopping that escape.

Callista loudly decried the Baron, their employer, as a tyrant, and revealed to them something they had hitherto been entirely unaware of: while Ekrido plowed right along, comfortably sustained by the Baron’s farming monopoly, most other nearby cities were suffering from severe drought and famine and had been for several months. And the Baron had been hoarding all his crops, forbidding any trade of food with the neighboring cities.

At that revelation Althea hopped right on board with Ewan. As a ranger, they had heard rumblings of something bad from the nearby tribes and small towns, and this put the final puzzle piece into place for them (they had been kicked out of the official city Rangers for being too pushy with the government about these “bad rumors,” and so were all too happy to hop on the anti-nobility train).

It didn’t take much to sway Metis and Veu – neither had much reputation in Ekrido that defying the Baron would destroy anyways, and both were somewhat skeptical of the establishment. Burny was the only one vehemently against defecting with the bandits, which basically manifested itself as a constant stream of cursing and continually casting cantrips to try and prevent them all from leaving. To be fair, he did have the most to lose by incurring the Baron’s wrath, and he had the most need for the money he was getting from the job as it allowed him to buy components for his experiments and spells.

Finally, one of the players prevailed upon his logical mind by stating that, since they had failed to catch the bandits before they’d gotten into the storehouses, in the Baron’s eyes they probably had already failed and so their job and reputation was forfeit whether or not they went with the bandits. With that Burny nodded, used his second (and last) spell slot to cast Tenser’s Floating Disk beneath the unconscious bandit, and left with the rest of the group.

Burny and Metis also worked together to cast Mending on the hole the bandits had made to gain entry into the barn, in the hopes that it would look like they’d all simply vanished without a trace. And with that the bandits led them through a manhole and into the irrigation tunnels running below the farm just as other guards from further afield began to arrive due to hearing the commotion.
 

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Salmakia

Explorer
2. Omens and Dreams
Callista led them along the riverbank to their camp, a small collection of tents two hours north of Ekrido, masked from the road by an overgrown ridge. Burny attempted to interrogate her along the way, but she hushed him quite forcefully and said they all needed to be on their guard until they were safely away from the city.

Once they were seated around a warm fire in one of the tents, however, she proved to be very amenable to answering their questions. They had, after all, proven willing to abandon their honorable life in Ekrido for the thought of “doing the right thing” and helping to feed hundreds of starving people. Or, at least, most of them had. Burny was still dubious as to whether he’d made the right decision, and once Callista opened the floor for questions he leapt right into action.

Callista answered everything patiently, explaining how, while Ekrido luxuriated in the bubble provided by the Baron’s farm, much of the rest of the world was suffering from crippling famine and drought. Although there were those in Ekrido who knew of this truth, the ruling nobles were quick to silence anyone who spoke out too loudly which led to most of the public living in blissful ignorance of their neighbors’ strife.

None of the party were too happy about this revelation, and Veu, in particular, was furious about the fact that information had been kept from her. Growing up in an enormous library, she was raised to believe that information should be freely available to any who look for it, and the fact that something so huge was happening just beyond the corners of her awareness pissed her off to no end.

Callista also expressed concern that the Baron was up to something nefarious. From a political standpoint it would make more sense for him to distribute the food, thus gaining political allies. By hoarding the food he was turning Ekrido from a cultural capital into a tyrant city.

Burny asked how she and her ragtag band intended on unseating the Baron – one of the most influential nobles in the city, and she responded that, for the moment, they had to focus on simply stealing enough to feed the people of Onoln (their home, one town to the north of Ekrido). However, if the party should be inclined to assist them then perhaps they did have a chance of discovering his treachery... and if they publicly discredited the Baron then he wouldn’t be able to follow through on his threat of barring them from good society in Ekrido for abandoning their post...

The players put a pin in that and continued with their questions, curious as to how Callista had been able to so successfully sneak into the Baron’s storehouses to begin with. That’s when Callista explained what would perhaps turn into the biggest mystery of the session: when first they came to Ekrido intent upon getting some food for the people of Onoln, an elvish druid named Hymnara Ebi met them on the road and offered to aid them. Naturally they were suspicious, but she proved trustworthy and it was she who cast Pass Without Trace upon them, allowing them to sneak past the guards. Now, every time they are near the city, Hymnara somehow knows they are coming, meets them, and hides their passage. They have come to view it simply as a gift from the gods.

Metis, as a druid herself, had some passing knowledge of Hymnara, and was able to share that the woman operated a small pineapple farm in the south of the city (although the Baron had a monopoly on basic necessities such as meat, grain, and dairy, a number of small specialty farmers were still necessary to fill in the gaps). She related that the woman seemed to have no interest in anything but her farm, and that it was uncharacteristic of her to involve herself in a political situation like this.

At this point the group decided to take a long rest, and Callista offered them one of the tents to sleep in. Ewan, however, hung back to speak with his mother privately. He related to her that, several weeks prior, his father Tavish had died, a fact which she had not known. He also informed her that there were signs of necromancy around their homestead in the woods and asked for her help in rooting out this evil.

Callista was quite subdued at the news of her husband’s death, and it suddenly registered for Ewan that she had called Tavish her “husband.” (the backstory Ewan’s player provided me was that Tavish and Callista had had a simple fling, and that Callista had left Tavish to care for their child in his isolated homestead while she went back out into the world. I decided to complicate matters somewhat...)

Ewan told Callista what Tavish had told him of his upbringing (namely, the backstory the player had given me), and then Callista related her version of the tale:

My father was a merchant named Nidaar Rowland, who was one of the chief suppliers to the frontier town of Onoln. Growing up travelling with him felt like an adventure – we were always on the move – and he may have been a little lax at encouraging my restless spirit. Tavish was one of my father’s customers. Oil and salt, that’s all he ever bought. I thought he was a man of mystery, and more than once tried to engage him in conversation – perhaps slightly flirtatiously – but he always evaded my inquiries. After years of this, seeing him not more than once every several months, I decided to follow him home. I bought a charm from a local druid that hid my steps from his eyes, and I trailed him. Imagine my surprise when he left the town and began hiking up into the mountains! Anyone should have known that to wander into the mountains alone is suicide, and yet he walked on fearlessly. Well, long story short, the charm hid me from human eyes, but not from the eyes of the wild. And whatever mysterious force protected Tavish from the dangers of the forest certainly didn’t shield me. He saved my life and took me back to his house, the same house where you were born. I decided to stay, and he didn’t object. My father was saddened to see me leave, but he was a devout follower of Waukeen, and the way of Waukeen has always been to take what comes. At any rate, I was twenty six at the time and he had probably known for some time that this day was coming.

In spite of the dangers surrounding us in the wild mountains, Tavish seemed to live in a bubble. When I asked him why the beasts of the forest never encroached upon us, he always deflected, saying that his family always had a way with wild things. A year later, I discovered I was pregnant, and in due course you were born.

That’s when the strangeness began. Tavish, who had always been withdrawn, retreated entirely from me. For weeks on end he would lock himself in his room or go out wandering in the forest. Once I heard him through the door, almost begging. “Please,” he said, “don’t let it start again. I was meant to be the last. Not my child. Please, not my child.” I got scared. Scared for myself and scared for you. Finally I had enough, and tried to secret you away in the dead of night. He caught us just on the border of our property. I had never seen Tavish angry before. He took you and threw me out, and I was thrust suddenly back into the tumult of the world.

Naturally, this account left both Ewan and the player with a lot to think about, and Ewan joined the rest of the party for a long rest.

When they awoke in the morning they decided that the best course of action was to go see the druid Hymnara, as her piece of the story was the only thing that seemed wildly out of place. How could she, a relatively low-level druid, possibly know when and where the bandits would show up? They ventured back into Ekrido, doing their best to remain inconspicuous lest the Baron already be spreading slander about them, and located Hymanra’s farm with no trouble.

Upon knocking at the door they were greeted by an elderly human woman – Hymnara’s housekeeper of sorts – who informed them that Hymnara was out back tending to the pineapples. Rounding the cottage they saw the elf druid, walking with the poise and grace peculiar to elves, and watering her pineapples. (I’ll also note that Burny had cast Detect Magic, and didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary, either around her cottage or on Hymnara herself)

Without even turning around, she hailed them and welcomed them to her farm. The party didn’t waste time beating around the bush, asking immediately how she knew when Callista’s group was coming. Hymnara, who came across as entirely guileless even in the face of the many Insight checks rolled against her, told them that everything came to her in visions. When the famines started several months back, even though news about them was kept hushed, she saw images of a masked figure rampaging through fields and slaughtering livestock. Then, one day, she left Ekrido and began walking north on a hunch, and that is when she came upon Callista’s group. Now, each time they are near, a similar hunch guides her to them.

She is convinced that the visions are from Chauntea, the goddess of agriculture, farms, and the earth, who herself has been grievously injured by these famines, being the very embodiment of the crops that are dying.

Althea notes that these visions align well with what they’ve been told by the elders and shamans in the various outlying tribes they’ve visited about a shadow that is coming to the world. The rest of the party is less convinced, as direct visions and compulsions from the gods are, in this world, nearly unheard of. They even question whether it could be some sort of high-level magical compulsion, although that runs contrary to the moral fiber of their society.

(in this world there are some Moral Codes of Magic, and compulsion is strictly against those codes. “Immoral Magic” still exists and it is possible to cast spells such as Geas, but there is such a strong social taboo against it that most people would feel queasy even thinking about doing such a thing. Also against the Moral Codes are reviving the deceased, magical creation of mundane items that craftspeople toil hard to build [i.e. using Fabricate to make a bridge instead of letting a bridge-builder make it], and the casting of Counterspell. That last is a special provision by Azuth, the goddess of wizards, so that none may tamper with the experiments of her devotees).

Burny in particular is doing logical contortions to try and decipher what precisely is going on with Hymnara, and ends up in a rather philosophical debate that went something like this:

Burny: I’m going to figure out what is going on here.
Hymnara: You move so fast, searching for answers everywhere, when really, if you stopped and looked around for long enough, you’d realize that the answers have always been right in front of you.
Burny: I know the answers are in front of me, I just have to find them.
Hymnara: No, they will come to you.
Burny: What, you think the secrets of the cosmos are just going to be presented to me as a gift?
(Hymnara reaches down to dig up a pineapple from the dirt, dusts it off, and hands it to Burny as a gift.)
Hymnara: Indeed.

The party left soon after that, although I will also note that Hymnara took a special interest in Metis and offered to teach her some of the history and rituals of the druids that she would be unable to learn without the aid of an elder. Metis said she'd consider it.

Burny, still intent on discovering answers, decides to do some additional research on the nature and history of visions from the gods. The best place to research would be The Labyrinth, Veu’s home and the largest library on the plane, but it’s a 10-day journey from Ekrido and they don’t have enough time to get there and back before the Baron publicly rips them to shreds for abandoning their post and letting thieves get away with his stores.

So they decide on the second best option, Laboratory X, Burny’s own home which is essentially a mage academy/research institution/temple to Azuth in Ekrido. It has quite a substantial library, and they hope that there will be something useful to them. They arrive at Laboratory X, and one of the scribes at the door informs Burny that his mother is searching for him, and advises him to avoid the north wing if he doesn’t want to face her. Burny audibly groans at this news.

The party moves stealthily on to the library, where Burny, who knows the stacks quite well, finds a number of books that look like they might be useful. He brings them to the librarian, an old gnome named Randolph, who glares at Burny, makes him promise that he won’t incinerate these as he did with the last rare book he checked out, and reminds him that he still owes 150gp as payment for that mishap.

Metis, meanwhile, has gone off on her own looking for something in the stacks, but, unable to find it, returns to ask Burny if he can find her a volume on code-breaking. The party is quite curious at this, as Metis’ player hadn’t shared her backstory with any of the others, but Burny eventually agrees to find her the book she seeks.

No sooner does he find it, however, then he hears a voice calling “Mortimer! Mortimer, I thought I heard your voice!” He curses abundantly but quietly and mutters about how he cannot deal with his mother at the moment. He makes his way back to Randolph and attempts to check out the book on codes, only to have Randolph shout that Burny is at the checkout counter. Cursing all the more, Burny leaves the book and dashes down the hall, the rest of the party following and laughing that they now know his given name to be “Mortimer.” As they dash out the entrance, they see one of the scribes at the door sigh and surreptitiously slip a gold piece to the other, who smiles smugly at having won his wager.

If they weren’t already puzzled enough, upon leaving the city gates they find that they have all come under the effects of the Pass Without Trace spell, although Hymnara is nowhere in sight.

To wrap up the session, they arrived back at Callista’s camp, searched through the books, and learned that the last recorded time that people had received such overt visions and compulsions from the gods was when Azuth was trying to make Counterspell an immoral magical act. Then the gods had acted through their proxies on the Material Plane in addition to their conflicts across the Outer Realms, sending visions and omens to priests in an attempt to sway popular support to their cause.

At this point they know that something big is going on, whether it’s the gods themselves or some sort of high-level taboo compulsion magic, and they agree to help Callista infiltrate the Baron’s house to see if they can unravel at least a part of the puzzle: why is he hoarding all that food, and how is it that his farm is untouched while all the nearby cities are struck with famine?
 


Salmakia

Explorer
This is superb. Love the politics mixed with the gaming; makes the campaign setting real.
Glad you're enjoying it! I've been working on the world for a little over a year & this is the second game I'm running in it. Let me know if you want any more in-depth info, I didn't want to dump an expository overload right at the beginning so I'm trying to sprinkle some of the politics in as it goes along.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Glad you're enjoying it! I've been working on the world for a little over a year & this is the second game I'm running in it. Let me know if you want any more in-depth info, I didn't want to dump an expository overload right at the beginning so I'm trying to sprinkle some of the politics in as it goes along.
The world looks fascinating. The whole story about warehouses of food stuffed for political/economic power brought back my old high school politics teacher talking about Henri de Saint Simon witnessing grain ships waiting offshore during a famine till prices rose high enough. His world didn’t have parties of adventurers though!
The backstory links are deep too and your writing style is excellent; I’m engaged with the characters already.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
3. Forgery and Evidence

I love my players so much. They decided that they needed to get the Baron out of Ekrido so they could have a look around his house and see if they could find evidence of what he was plotting. The plan they came up with was to forge a letter from Metis’s parents (the ruling nobles of the nearby town of Liport) urgently requesting the Baron’s presence. They got together during the week, hand wrote a letter on tea-stained paper, and delivered it to me as a scroll wrapped in twine at the start of the session. Also it turns out that my friend playing Metis has a wax seal set which she used to formally seal the letter.

To provide some context for the success of this plan, Metis was brought up with formal noble training as her parents were preparing her to eventually take over their position, so she knew all the proper formalities and codes (she didn’t take much to the noble life and left on bad terms with her parents so wasn’t too scrupulous about forging a letter from them). The person playing Veu had also decided from the outset that Veu’s “special rogue skill” is forgery, and so between her skills and Metis’s knowledge I didn’t even make them roll to try and pass off the letter as legit. The letter read:

Attn: Antonio Giuseppe, Lord Baron Third order of Ekrido,
It was marvelous to see you upon your last visit to us. Did we not have a wonderful time? We hope you and your endeavors have flourished in the time since.
We request your presence urgently in Liport as we have important business to discuss. A splendid feast will of course be provided in return for the inconvenience. We eagerly await your arrival at the week’s end.
Most sincerely,
Argus Delmar, Earl of Liport
Odele Delmar, Countess of Liport


Unbeknownst to the players at this point, there were other factors at play in the relationship between the Baron and Metis’s parents that made it virtually guaranteed that he would accept the summons.

The forged letter requested the Baron’s presence at the week’s end, meaning that they had about two days of downtime before they would even know if the plan had worked. They used this time to take care of some business in the city (as inconspicuously as possible since they still didn’t know what the Baron’s public reaction to their disappearance was), and also to pray, train, and study their spellbooks. In other words, they leveled up to level two.

Burny returned the books he had checked out from the Laboratory X library under the severe glare of Randolph the librarian, who sniffed each book carefully to try and detect signs of burnt paper. He also retrieved the book on breaking codes for Metis that he’d been forced to abandon the day before. Metis spent the rest of the day puzzling through the book. Unfortunately it was highly technical and mathematical, and largely over her head. At the end of a very frustrating day she felt as though she had a basic understanding of common ciphers, but was no closer to deciphering the letter that she was so anxious to read.

Veu, who was worried about her family back at The Labyrinth ever since learning about the famine, wrote a letter in Halfling, wrapped it around a feather token, and sent it off with a man named Wren, a contact of hers who made frequent journeys to The Labyrinth.

(Another reason my players are great: Veu’s player is currently in the process of creating a Halfling language for this world. The letter she wrote was disguised as a drawing, with the symbols of the actual message hidden cleverly within the picture. She also brought a hard copy of this and showed it to the group.)

Ewan, meanwhile, set out into the woods near Callista’s camp to pray and meditate. He had a lot to think about between mourning the recent death of his father, the sudden reappearance of his mother, and the revelation that his past might not be as straightforward as he had been led to believe. He turned his thoughts to the gods and spirits of his woodland homestead in the north, trying to find them here in the ground and the trees and the air surrounding him in this foreign city. In his youth, his life had revolved around tending to the soil and caring for the graves of his ancestors. Now everything seemed so much more complicated.

Lost in thought, he almost didn’t see the bird’s nest that had tumbled out of a nearby tree. Although he knew the frequency of such occurrences, his heart nonetheless ached for the babies that would never learn the miracle of flight. However, kneeling down beside the nest, he discovered, not the shattered remains he was expecting, but three round and perfectly intact robin eggs. With all the tenderness and care in the world, he picked up the nest, placing it high in the crook of a nearby tree and praying, not for himself anymore, but that the mother bird might be granted the means to find her nest upon her return.

Returning to the camp late that night he was startled to see the glow of fire emanating, not from the outdoor fire pit, but from inside the tent he shared with Burny. Yelling loudly enough to wake the rest of the party he dashed inside and saw the gnome wizard sitting and muttering with his spellbook on one side and an unfamiliar book burning brightly with flames on the other.

Grabbing a blanket, Ewan quickly smothered the flames, breaking Burny from the trance of his studies and eliciting a series of curses and protests from the gnome.

“What are you doing?!” Ewan exclaimed as Althea also burst into the tent. Metis and Veu stopped just outside to overhear what was happening.
Burny fidgeted. “It’s hard to explain.”
“We have all night.”

Burny sighed and decided it would be best to come clean (Burny's player had spent the week between sessions coming up with this backstory, and I think he was quite excited to share it with the rest of the group). “Have any of you heard of August Firestorm?”

Ewan and Althea both shook their heads. Of all of them, Veu was the only one who knew the name as she had come across it many times in her work at The Labyrinth.

“Well, August Firestorm was a very powerful wizard. Some say he was the most powerful wizard ever to live. He was Azuth’s agent on the material plane in the age when the goddess was fighting for our rights as wizards and trying to prove the immorality of the Counterspell.” Burny cringed visibly upon saying the word that was anathema to most modern wizards. “When he died, his spell book was split into five copies, all of which were lost... until now.” He proudly held up the book he had been studying along with his own spellbook. “This is one of the most potent magical artifacts in our world. One fifth of August Firestorm’s spellbook”

“And so how did you come by it?” Althea asked, still not entirely sold on Burny’s story (the gnome had, after all, been known to exaggerate his own prowess before).
“Remember how I owe 150gp to the librarian at Laboratory X?”
“They sold you this book for 150gp?!” exclaimed Ewan.

“Of course not! They think it’s destroyed. And besides, they don’t even know that it contains the spellbook. You see, it’s disguised as a copy of Firestorm’s memoir My History of Storms. But, if you do this...” Burny kindled a small flame in his hand and touched it to the book. As Ewan and Althea looked on, the writing in the book seemed to melt, revealing a set of glowing blue runes. Burny snapped the book shut and the fire went out. “With this I could become the most powerful wizard of our age. I could create magic that no one has ever before seen. All I have to do is figure out how to read it. Wizards do love their damn codes.”

With that they decided to call it a night, and awoke the next morning prepared to see whether their plan had worked and the Baron was gone. When monitoring the road to watch for his carriage yielded no results, they decided that they would have to sneak into his property and see if he had taken the bait.

“That’s no problem,” Metis said. “I’ll just turn into a spider and check around his house.”
Burny’s jaw dropped. “You’ll do what?”
“I can turn into a spider.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m... sorry?”
“Do it. Right now, I want to see you turn into a spider.”

Metis shrugged and, before Burny’s eyes, morphed and shrunk until there was nothing left of her but a small spider scuttling along the ground. Then, just as quickly as she had shrunk, she was restored to her original form.”

“That’s AMAZING!” Burny turned to the other party members. “Did you all know that this was possible?”'

They all nodded and muttered an affirmative as it began to dawn on them that, though Burny’s mind operated on a level that most of them couldn’t begin to comprehend, he had spent basically his entire life studying one topic in Laboratory X and was far and away the least worldly out of the party.

It was decided that Veu and Althea (the stealthy ones) would accompany Metis on her infiltration mission, and would stay right outside the house as backup in case things went south. Having spent many weeks working on this farm as guards, they were all intimately acquainted with its layout and also with the schedule that the guards followed. They made it to the Baron’s house without incident, and Metis transformed and slipped under the crack in the door.

Having been raised in a noble house herself, she was familiar with the general hustle and bustle of the servants. Therefore a cursory glance was enough to tell her that the Baron’s household was operating on a skeleton crew. After checking the Baron’s office and bedroom and finding him absent from both those locations, she contented herself with the fact that he had indeed fallen for their trick and left for the sham meeting in Liport.

Upon emerging, those suspicions were confirmed by Veu who had gone to the Baron’s stables and found his carriage missing. The party had three more days before they were expecting the Baron’s return from Liport, and so they decided to wait until the following day to stage their heist as Metis had already expended an enormous amount of her natural energy turning into spiders (once as demonstration for Burny, and once to surveil). Upon consulting with Callista, the woman decided that she and her group would use that same time to raid the storehouses once more, thereby hopefully dividing any of the Baron’s security who might spot them.

And then, of course, they decided to split the party. “Team Stealth” (Metis, Veu, and Althea) would sneak into the house and search for evidence while “Team Loud” (Burny and Ewan) would create a diversion outside to draw the Baron’s butler away from his office door and out of the house.

The Butler, I should mention, was somewhat inspired by the character of Butler from the Artemis Fowl series, and is a very large man who seems like he would be more comfortable in a chain shirt than a tuxedo.

The party rolled ridiculously well on stealth, and made it within spitting distance of the Baron’s house with no problems. Burny and Ewan staked out a spot in the fruit orchards about a hundred feet away.

Burny looked at Ewan. “Cover your ears,” he said. And then proceeded to cast Thunderwave. A clap of thunder split the air, the kind that causes fine wine glasses to rattle on their shelf, and the Butler came dashing out of the house toward the sound... straight toward where Burny and Ewan were standing.

“Oh sh*t” said Burny, and they ran off to find a place to hide (again, rolling absurd stealth checks, especially for Burny who has -2 DEX).

Team Stealth slipped easily into the house and into the Baron’s office. Metis remained a spider perched on Veu’s shoe while Althea riffled through the papers on the desk, finding nothing but the farming documents one might expect. Veu decided it might be wise to start tapping on the panels of the wall, and, when she got to the panel adjacent to the desk, realized with some certainty that there was a hollow space behind it. In quick order she found the hidden keyhole and picked the lock with ease, causing the entire panel to slide away and revealing a small room that seemed to be built into the very wall of the house itself.

A steep ship’s ladder led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling, but what really got their attention was that the room was filled – literally filled – with filing cabinets. Metis quickly changed back into Triton form so that they could divide and conquer the immense reading task before them, and they began skimming through files as fast as they could. What they discovered was alarming. The cabinets contained the farming documents from every farm in every city on the plane, and there were notes in the Baron’s hand detailing which ones were doing particularly poorly.

The information network alone that he would need to gather all these documents was truly staggering to conceive of. It wasn’t long before Althea found one cabinet that was locked, and quickly summoned Veu over to work her magic. Whether Veu was distracted by their findings or whether this lock was particularly well-crafted they never found out, but Veu's lockpicks slipped and a small spike shot from the face of the cabinet and pricked her hand.

She exclaimed in pain and grabbed her hand to check her injury, only to see that her hand was turning bright red. Then a wave of queasiness washed over her and she leaned against the wall as her whole body began shaking with violent chills.

“What is it?” Metis asked, concerned.
“Some sort of poison,” Veu groaned. (in my world this is actually a fairly common type of poison used to forestall thievery. It doesn’t do any damage, but it leaves the thief literally red-handed and it lasts until cured so it’s easier to locate them if they wind up laying low for days or weeks)

Meanwhile, outside, the Butler seemed satisfied that all was in order and began heading back toward the house. Still seeing no sign of the rest of their party, Burny proceeds to cast a number of Fire Bolts into the air, which worked about as well as yelling “Hey! Over here!” The Butler smelled the smoke, began booking it towards them, and once more they found themselves running for their lives.

Only this time the Butler had seen them and so there was no easy way to hide.

As Burny is a gnome with little legs, the Butler quickly began gaining on them. Burny mentally ran through every spell he knew, trying to think of something, anything that would slow down their pursuer. He cursed. He’d almost forgotten that he knew Ray of Frost (not being a fire spell, he was apt to pass over it). He paused, turned, and shot the Ray, connecting and slowing their pursuer. The Butler, in response, pulled a knife from the inside of his jacket. Burny laughed, knowing that he was 60 feet away and there was no way the Butler could possibly hit him. And then the knife buried itself in his shoulder.

Team Stealth decided to leave the locked cabinet alone for a while and check out the trapdoor in the ceiling. Upon emerging into the room above, they saw an even more troubling sight than anything they’d been expecting: the room was pitch dark, but their torch revealed a massive seal of Tempus painted on the floor (in this world Tempus is the god of Law who assumes the aspect of War during wartime). Surrounding it were black and red candles that had burned themselves out, and written around and around the wall in a tiny cramped hand seemed to be the complete legal codes of Ekrido. One section of the room was divided by a set of steel bars, and within the cage they saw a humanoid figure hunched in the corner, entirely bald and with pale white skin.

Althea approached the cage. “Hello?”
The figure responded, faintly. “You’re not my father.”
“We work for your father. He sent us to check on you.” (no need for a Deception check, the figure is in no mental state to bother doubting Althea’s statements)
“There’s still plenty of food.” Indeed there were sacks of food lying about the figure, mostly untouched.
“Remind me again... what’s your name?”
“Alaya.” Metis’s eyes widened. She knew Alaya. The girl was some seven years younger than her, and she had babysat and played with the child when the Baron attended her parents’ famous dinner functions in Liport. She had certainly been human then, but looked far different now.
“And why does your father keep you locked in here?”
“He’s ashamed of what I’ve become. I was to be his heir. But I suppose some things must be sacrificed.”
“How would you like to see the sun again?”
Alaya moaned at the thought, and they could barely detect her whispering “yes, oh yes, ohhhh yes.”

Althea looked at Veu. Even with the rogue’s queasiness and shaking limbs, she was still able to break a simple lock like the one on the door the Alaya’s prison. Althea entered and helped Alaya to her feet, the girl’s hand clammy and cold in her own. As they began walking toward the exit, some of the girl’s strength seemed to return and Althea felt her grip growing stronger and her steps becoming steadier. She continued rambling as they walked, seeming almost to be talking to herself.

“When the famines started, my father, always a devoted servant of Tempus, prayed that his farm be spared. But it wasn’t Tempus who answered. It was an angel from his host. The angel offered to protect my father’s farm from the blight in exchange for many things. I was part of the bargain. And, while my body was mutated, my spirit was cleansed, allowing me to perfectly serve his will here in this world.” Alaya released Althea’s grip entirely and took a few steps forward on her own, standing just on the tip of the seal of Tempus painted on the floor. As soon as she stepped on the seal a change overcame her – her muscles seemed to relax and she breathed deeply with the relief of one who has been holding their breath too long. “He cleansed my spirit, and left me to the task of cleansing others. His symbol restores my strength. Now, not even I know what I’m capable of.”

Behind them, the door to the prison slammed shut with a clang. Alaya turned and raised her head for the first time, revealing jet-black eyes. The symbol of Tempus on the floor began to pulse with a dull red light.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Wow!
Your players certainly are awesome, but they are equally lucky to have you as a DM. This story hour is superb.
I'm not sure who/what Alaya is, but I'm nervous.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
4. Alaya
So... the players decided to split the party and then initiated two separate combat encounters. What else is new?

Burny and Ewan quickly realized that if they stopped to cast spells while the Butler continued to run that he would catch up to them. And, since they couldn’t outrun him without casting spells to slow him down, they decided to stand and fight. Burny popped off another Ray of Frost and Ewan held out a holy symbol, causing an ominous chime to sound near the Butler that seemed to weaken him only slightly (rolled a 2 on the d12 for Toll the Dead), and then their assailant was upon them, pulling a second knife from inside his jacket.

Ewan reached deep and tried to feel the connection to the land as Tavish had taught him, bringing the blessings of the orchard to bear upon him and his companion and filling them with strength and resolve. Burny chanted arcane words of power from his spellbook, creating another Thunderwave that shook the Butler’s very bones, but did not deter his attack.

However, whether it was the ice that still stiffened his joints or a slippery patch on the ground, the Butler swung wide and Burny let out a short laugh more out of fear than anything. However he quickly realized that he’d underestimated his opponent as the Butler sliced him neatly across the ribs with a backhanded sweep.

Burny yelped in pain. Knowing that he was only one solid strike away from death, he closed his eyes, held up his hands, and summoned a bolt of fire right in the Butler’s face. When he opened his eyes again their attacker was lying dead on the ground.

“I didn’t really mean to kill him...” Burny muttered, half out of guilt and half relief.
“We should get back to the house.” Ewan said.

Meanwhile, Alaya reached out in an attempt to grasp Althea’s shoulder, but the ranger was having none of that and nimbly sidestepped. Metis, however, who was standing at the ready near the trapdoor, felt a strange compulsion from Alaya, an irresistible urge to walk toward this being who suddenly seemed a paragon of righteousness. She relaxed and strode calmly forward, but as soon as she stepped onto the seal of Tempus she felt her limbs lock up and her body stop obeying her. She tried desperately to pull her dagger from her sheath and throw it at Alaya, only to have it clatter uselessly across the ground.

Veu, who had seen what happened to Metis and resisted the same compulsion, backed down the ladder and out into the Baron’s office and started yelling for Ewan and Burny to help them. Althea shot an arrow at Alaya, but the woman dodged nimbly to the side and took only a glancing scrape across her arm.

Ewan and Burny, now back hidden outside the Baron’s office window and hearing strange sounds from inside, decided the time was right to make their entrance. Ewan dashed around up the front steps of the Baron’s house and heard Veu shouting for help from the other side of the office door. Burny decided on a more direct approach, Fire Bolted the window, rolled max damage, and catapulted his tiny frame through the hole he’d melted in the glass, tumbling down the Baron’s chair to land prone behind his desk.

Upstairs, Metis, who has a Strength score of 8 to resist being restrained by the seal, closed her eyes and transformed into a Giant Snake. In that form she easily regained control over her body, slithered toward Alaya, and rolled a natural 1 on her bite attack. The seal flashed a brilliant red, and she found herself once more restrained, only this time in the dead center of the room.

And that’s when Alaya floated up off the floor. She swooped toward Althea, nimbly dodging the (mostly immobilized) jaws of the snake, hand outstretched, and connected with Althea’s shoulder. A burning pain lanced through the ranger and their shoulder felt like it was on fire. Alaya’s inscrutable black eyes met her own and seemed to be penetrating deep within her soul.

Burny, Veu, and Metis charged back up the ladder and beheld the floating woman locked in combat with their companion, as well as a giant snake in the middle of the room and no sign of Metis.

Burny looked back and forth between Alaya and the giant snake. “Which one do I blast?!” he exclaimed. Veu pointed desperately at Alaya and Burny let off a Fire Bolt. Ewan held aloft his holy symbol, but the Toll that sounded near Alaya’s ear seemed not to phase her one bit.

"I suppose I should have guessed as much," he muttered as he noticed the angelic influence written all over Alaya's features.

Veu, who had been well-hidden and prepared to attack, suddenly looked into Alaya’s eyes and felt the same compulsion that Metis had felt before. She found herself walking unwillingly toward their opponent, entirely breaking her cover. As soon as she was within grasping range she snapped out of it, ducked under Alaya’s arm, and, seeing Metis still frozen in the middle of the room, ran to the seal on the ground and began scratching at it with her dagger in an attempt to break its magic.

Now facing five opponents and with an open trapdoor adjacent, Alaya flew down and towards her freedom, nimbly evading all attempts to strike her as she fled. Ewan tore down the hole after her and saw that she had just cleared the hole in the Baron’s window that Burny had blasted and would be beyond reach in only a few seconds (the players realized at this point that she is fast).

Calling to mind his meditations over the past few days, Ewan raised his hands and called upon the spirits of the land and of his ancestors to aid them.

Metis, who finally managed to break free of the seal’s grip, transformed back into a Triton (snakes don’t do ladders too well) and made it downstairs just behind Ewan. Reaching out with the tendrils of power still available to her, a thorny vine lashed from her hands, wrapping around Alaya’s ankles and pulling her back into the room. At the same moment, Ewan’s hands clapped together, channeling his own power through Metis’ spell and causing Alaya to go skidding across the Baron’s desk and down onto the floor in a heap.

Arriving just behind the other two, Althea, her shoulder still burning from Alaya’s touch, notched an arrow, and shot the other woman through the chest. Ewan cursed, knelt, and immediately cast Spare the Dying to prevent them from losing a valuable source of information. He did manage to stabilize her in time (albeit barely... Althea rolled max damage with Hunter’s Mark active) and they tied her up.

Then, taking barely a moment to breathe and hoping that the commotion of the fight didn't attract the attention of the servants, they went back to examine the locked filing cabinet. With Veu unable to open it the rest of the party didn’t even try to pick the lock. After thoroughly examining it to ensure there weren’t any more traps, Burny froze the lock with a Cantrip and then used the dagger he’d taken from the Butler to handily break it off.

The rest of the party was perhaps a little skeptical as to where he’d learned such a technique, but he blatantly ignored their glances and proceeded to open the drawer. They were all too glad that it worked to question him much anyhow.

Inside the filing cabinet Burny saw six envelopes, all clearly very official and from the ruling nobles of several nearby cities. They were all already open and so he wasted no time in picking one out at random and checking the contents of the letter it contained:

Attn: Antonio Giuseppe, Lord Baron Third order of Ekrido,
It is with the utmost honor that I pledge the support of my title, my family, and my city to you should you be in a position to become the Ruling Noble of Ekrido. We will stand by you and support your claim, and the full weight of our resources shall go toward ensuring and maintaining your right to rule.
May Mask watch over your shoulder always.
Most cordially,
Gardinsferth, High Criminal of Xey


(For context, Xey is a major port city, and is also the only city that recognizes Mask, god of thieves, as its patron. Mask, in this world, is not viewed as an evil deity, but as more of a Robin Hood-esque figure who balances the rise of the very wealthy and helps to uplift the poor who cannot make a living honestly. Of course there are some worshippers of Mask who are perhaps a little too zealous in their activities, but then the same could be said for any religious group.

The ruler of Xey is, in fact, titled the High Criminal, a fact that those unfamiliar with Xey’s customs and beliefs view with amusement and some disdain, but which the folks of Xey understand to be a perfect irony and a constant reminder to the governing bodies in the city where their power and support truly derives from.

The rulership of Ekrido is determined by whichever noble house has the most resources and support to claim the title. The title is usually transferred with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed, as any noble who would make a genuine bid at rulership would need to have a truly overwhelming advantage over the current ruling noble. Currently the Lingston family holds the position, and has held it for three generations. However, despite the relative security of Lord Lingston's position, a pledge of support from the six largest neighboring cities does represent a genuine threat to his rule, the kind that might force him to cede power if revealed at a politically opportune moment.)

Without further ado, and fearing that they’d already stayed too long in the Baron’s house to risk attracting attention, the party grabbed the six letters, placed Alaya onto a Floating Disk conjured by Burny, and made their escape, dodging patrols on the way out as easily as they had on the way in.

Once back at Callista’s camp they examined the letters and, as expected, found them to be all cut from the same mold as the one from High Criminal Gardinsferth. The leaders of Denzonen, Liport, Xey, Glever, Onisas, and Fasa had all pledged their support to the Baron should he make a bid for political control over Ekrido. Looking at the map the party realized that these were most of the major cities on the eastern half of the plane, with only Onoln (Callista’s home city) excepted.

Of particular note to the players was the fact that both Denzonen and Liport were among the cities that pledged their support. Denzonen is the city that houses The Labyrinth, the massive library where Veu was raised, and the rogue worried more than ever over the state of the family she'd left behind there. Of perhaps even greater alarm was the fact that it was Metis's parents themselves who had signed the letter pledging Liport's alliance to the Baron.

Even as they were digesting the political ramifications of these findings, Ewan slipped away and sought out Callista. His mother had had a very successful mission and had acquired enough potatoes to feed much of Onoln for several weeks. Upon seeing her son clearly badly shaken, she sent away the person she’d been debriefing and gave Ewan her full attention. He seemed hesitant to speak, but Callista waited patiently and didn't press him until he'd gathered the words he needed. After all, she remembered, Tavish had often taken days or even weeks to formulate his thoughts.

“I wanted to ask,” Ewan began haltingly, “that is, I realized I never asked, are you ok?”
“Ok?” she laughed gently. “Ok about what? About finding you?”
“About Tavish. I know you didn’t know he was... dead... until, well...”
Callista sighed. There was so much of Tavish in the boy. So much of herself too, much as she struggled to admit it. She could see that he was hurting, but decided to be honest with him anyways. She would do him no favors by pretending at feelings that had long since been buried.
“It’s been, oh, seventeen, eighteen, how old are you now?”
“Nineteen.”
“Hm. Almost nineteen years since I’ve seen your father. And when I left, the way I did, I knew there was no going back. I did love him, but, in a way, for me, he’s been dead for a long time.” Ewan nodded his understanding then let his gaze slip to the ground. Callista looked at him gently. “Are you ok?”
Ewan fidgeted and said, too quickly, “Yes.” (Deception check... ....failed)
Callista cocked her head and stared at him, clear concern in her eyes. Then she smiled tightly and nodded, once. “Good.”
 


Salmakia

Explorer
5. The Monastery of Order
“We should talk to her.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? She did try to kill us.”
“I need to talk to her.”
“Metis... is there something you’re not telling us?”
“I used to know her. Back before, well, before she changed. She’d come with the Baron to parties at my parents’ house and I was charged with childcare.”
“Are you going to be okay talking to her?”
“I have to.”
“Ok.”
“We need to untie her.”
“Ewan, you can’t be serious.”
“I don’t feel comfortable leaving her tied up, especially not after she’s been locked up for so long.”
“But what if she attacks us?”
“She’s weak. And besides, we can take her. We already proved that.”
sigh “Fine. We’ll untie her.”


The party entered the tent they’d designated as “Alaya Holding” and gave the woman some water to help revive her. Carefully, Althea removed her blindfold and untied her bonds, although they noticed that their captive kept her eyes closed of her own accord even once the blindfold was gone.

“Would you like some food?” Althea asked. Alaya nodded, and Althea brought her some from Callista's stores. Alaya held it, sniffed it, then threw it violently away from her.
“This is stolen food!” she exclaimed. "I will not eat of this." Althea sighed and produced some of her own rations which she handed over.
“Thank you.”
“We have a couple questions for you, Alaya” Metis said haltingly.
“Of course. But my name is no longer Alaya. That was someone else.”
“Oh? What do you wish to be called now?”
“I haven’t quite decided yet.”
“Well, when you decide let us know.”
“I will.”
“Do you... remember me? Metis?”
“I remember you as if in a dream.”
“Do you remember how I’d take you down to the wharf when your father came to dinner? How we’d sneak out when they broke out the cigars to escape all the putrid smoke and the political droning?”
“That did happen, yes.”

Althea was tired of beating around the bush. “You said your soul has been cleansed?”
“Yes.”
“What are your goals now that you’re no longer human?”
“I serve the will of the Host. To uphold the Law.”
“The Host?”
“The celestial Host. The Host of Tempus. And my own patron. Ryatholaris.”
“Ryatholaris?”
“He is the Law.”
“You always follow the Law?”
“Yes.”
“Then why were you fighting us? We were trying to rescue you.”
“You broke into my father’s house. Your altruistic motives are of no import, regardless of whether it was me you were trying to rescue. You broke the Law. And I must uphold the Law.”

Ewan muttered some words under his breath, calling on his ancestors and all the gods and spirits to try and see if Alaya was deceiving them, but the woman held up her hand and cut off his prayer.
“You have no need of your gods’ advice. I cannot lie.”
The party glanced around at each other. If that was indeed the case, then figuring out what was going on would be far easier than they’d originally intended.

“We need to go to the Temple of Tempus,” Veu muttered. “They might be able to tell us about this Ryatholaris.”
“Do you have plans to escape?” Althea asked bluntly of Alaya.
The woman smiled, her eyes still closed. “I will continue to pursue my purpose as long as I am able.”
Althea groaned.

Once they were all outside, Althea determined that she would stay to guard Alaya while the others went off to consult with the priests of Tempus. Almost on a whim, Ewan slipped back inside the tent before they left. Alaya was still sitting demurely, eating the rations they had given her. Ewan also noted that she’d replaced the blindfold on herself.

“I just wanted to say,” he began haltingly, “that is, I’m sorry that we tied you up. That was wrong.”
“Apologies do not change actions” she said pointedly. Ewan flinched and hurried back out of the tent.

An acolyte at the Temple of Tempus was able to better acquaint them with the structure of the Celestial Host. Veu had a basic understanding from her time and researches at The Labyrinth, but none of the others had bothered much with studying the formal hierarchies of the outer planes.

“Tempus himself, or, more accurately, itself, is more of an abstract concept. So far beyond our understanding in terms of form and anything relating to identity that real communication is virtually impossible. The Host are those responsible for mediating. Each deity has a number of Mara – powerful celestials that embody an aspect of the gods’ will. In the case of Tempus, there is a Mara of Law, a Mara of War, a Mara of Etiquette, a Mara of Interpretation, and a Mara of Enforcement. That last is the Ryatholaris of whom you speak. Then, of course, there are lesser celestials - the Suuryel and the Embrethari - who are actually tasked with carrying out the will of the Mara.”

(This system basically divides celestials by CR. Mara = CR20+, Suuryel = CR12-20ish, Embrethari < CR12. There are some exceptions. For instance a CR8 Celestial might be elevated to Suuryel if they show particular devotion or resonance with an aspect of the deity, even if their "raw power" is more limited)

“Would anyone be able to summon one of the Mara to this world?” Burny asked, thinking about the ritual they’d all seen evidence of above the Baron’s office.
“Oh no. Only one of the utmost faith and devotion would be blessed with that grace, and then only if it were in service of divine nature.”
“But if a Mara were summoned,” Burny persisted, “what would it be able to do?”
“Here on the material plane? Its power would be virtually limitless.” The cleric paused and considered the young gnome and his companions more thoroughly. “You have no intentions of attempting such a summoning I hope?”
“Oh, of course not. For me personally, I feel that magic is better when crafted with one’s own hands.”
The cleric nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s for the best. Only the most holy are honored with such a grace, and I think we’d both agree that you are not counted among that number.”

Returning back to their camp, they found Althea cursing over an empty tent with a hole burned in the back and no sign of Alaya.

Realizing that to track and pursue a flying quarry was nigh on impossible given their skillset, they cobbled together a cure for Veu’s poisoned hand from Althea’s father (an apothecary), and proceeded on the arduous and tedious task of trying to meet with someone of importance to share the evidence they’d found of the Baron’s plot, eventually securing a meeting with Chancellor Vitellur, second only to Lord Lingston himself as far as power goes in Ekrido.

After some deliberation they decided that only Burny and Metis would go, since they both had ties to high society, and that they would hand over only the letters from Xey and Fasa. They chose these cities because they were the two that posed the largest potential military threat to Ekrido in the case of a coup, and it also protected both Metis’s and Veu’s families who were otherwise incriminated in the scheme. Also this way they still had four of the letters to use as leverage on other parties if the Chancellor didn’t take their accusations seriously.

However, their fears on that count at least were for naught. After carefully scrutinizing the letters for signs of forgery, Chancellor Vitellur assured them that this treachery would be handled most swiftly and decisively. He also gave them each a note for 15gp of credit as a sign of gratitude for services rendered, and politely asked them to let the government handle all further issues in the case. In other words, as they quickly realized, he bribed them to keep quiet so as to avoid a scandal.

All their loose ends tied up in Ekrido and with no real way to track down Alaya, the party decided, at Veu’s behest, to make the ten-day journey to Denzonen to check up on her family. Burny had ulterior motives for accompanying her.

(The Labyrinth in Denzonen had one of the other five original copies of My History of Storms, which Burny was hoping contained another piece of August Firestorm’s lost spellbook. Veu, who had recognized the book when Burny showed it to them and was fully aware of the copy that existed in her home city, was somewhat suspicious of his sudden enthusiasm, but was nonetheless grateful for the company. The rest of the party quickly decided to tag along as well)

Burny had paid one of the older scribes at Laboratory X a small fee to keep him updated on anything regarding the Baron, and a day into their journey he received a Sending stating simply that the Baron had been arrested for high treason. He also continued obsessively on his researches whenever he could, and the rest of the party heard him at night muttering something about “ice” and “runes.”

Along the way, frustrated by her repeated failed attempts at understanding the code book Burny had retrieved for her from the Laboratory library, Metis showed her coded letter to the gnome and asked if he could help her decipher it. He promised to give it a look, and promptly forgot about it in his single-minded dedication to his researches.

Upon reaching Denzonen, Burny went straight to the rare book section, and one of the Halfling Librarians was able to lead him unerringly to My History of Storms. The Librarian loitered nearby, and Burny debated his chances of success should he simply pocket the book and walk out. However, when a prudent use of Detect Magic caused his eyes to pop with the sheer power of the wards protecting the rare books, he wisely decided to flip through the book casually for a couple minutes before replacing it on the shelf.

Veu, meanwhile, sought out her parents for the first time since leaving home. Her father, Oren, was the first one she saw.
“Vani!” the Halfling man exclaimed. “Georaphina! Come quickly! Our Vani has come home.” Veu’s mother Georaphina rushed out, giving her daughter a crushing hug, and then taking a step back to look at her.
“Oh, I knew you’d come home, Vani. Come, have you eaten? Let me get you something.”
“No, mom, I’m fine.”
“It’s so good you’re back. Look! Your Librarian hat is still here waiting for you.”
“Mom. I’m not staying.”
“What? Of course you are.”
“No, we’ve had this conversation. This is your life. It’s not mine.”
“But what could be more noble than the pursuit of knowledge?”
“Pursuit of knowledge for what? There’s no point if you never do anything with that knowledge. That’s even more clear to me now than when I left.”
“There is honor in the knowledge itself.”
"Mom. Have you heard about the famine? About what's happening outside these shelves?"
"Oh well of course we have. We're not hermits you know."
"And? Have you been doing ok? I came home to check up on you."
"Well that's very sweet of you, darling. But we're doing just fine here. Times are hard, as you know, but our researches sustain us."
"You can't eat books, mom."
"There is no higher calling than a life devoted to study!"

And the argument went round and round. Veu groaned inwardly, remembering all the reasons she’d left. She finally recused herself from her parents’ presence and went to find Kevin Doddrey, the only person from her home who could actually make her smile.

“Vani,” the man exclaimed warmly. “I knew you couldn’t stay away for long.”
After the kind of pleasantries and inside jokes reserved for only the closest of friends, Veu took a breath and asked him the question that had been eating at her ever since she’d seen Burny’s book and gotten a whiff of what he might be scheming.
“So, Kevin, I have this friend...”
“Good!” the man exclaimed. “And here I thought that would never happen.”
Veu couldn’t help but crack a smile at the teasing. “No, listen. He’s a little obsessed with a book, a particular book that happens to be here in The Labyrinth. The thing is, to reveal the secrets of this book, well, you have to set it on fire.”
Kevin’s eyes widened. “Well you know that’s never going to happen in The Labyrinth.”
“I know. But I’m worried for him, and for what he might do if he can't pursue his research honestly. Would there be a way to set up a room somewhere in The Labyrinth where he could study it without worrying about the wards?”
“The sheer magical force required to exempt a room from The Labyrinth's wards is staggering to conceive of. Not to mention that the politics involved in even getting that approved would be onerous beyond belief. Although I suppose if anyone could do it then the daughter of Oren and Georaphina would be the one. Having your parents run The Labyrinth does come with its benefits. The question is, what price would they ask of you for such a monumental favor, and would you be willing to pay it?”

Veu sighed. She was starting to think that maybe having friends was more trouble than it was worth.

Returning to Ekrido after their brief stay, the party quickly got up to speed on the political changes that had occurred in their four-week absence. The Baron had, indeed, been arrested on charges of high treason, and his farming monopoly split up among a number of other lesser nobles. In a show of “good faith,” Lord Lingston, the current ruling noble, had decreed that Ekrido would henceforth distribute food from its stores to the nearby cities to offset the effects of the famine. Food prices had gone up somewhat in Ekrido and there had been some grumblings of dissent among the citizens, but nothing that seemed to pose an imminent risk of revolution.

Metis, who wanted to clear her head after days of politics and emotional stresses, decided to visit Hymnara, and the rest of the party accompanied her. However, arriving at the old druid’s farm they were greeted by a distressing sight. The door to the cottage stood ajar, and burned across the front of the house in large letters was the word ‘TRAITOR’ inscribed in Celestial. Rushing inside, they found Golda, Hymnara’s housekeeper, sobbing that the druid had vanished without a trace sometime during the night.

Ewan and Althea immediately set to searching for tracks, and found only a single pair of barefoot humanoid prints in the ground outside. Whoever had entered during the night had either been very adept at disguising their tracks, or had entered and exited in flight. They groaned. There was one creature who they knew could fly, and who might have cause to punish those who had been instrumental in the Baron’s downfall.

“We think we know who might have done this,” the party reassured Golda after brewing her a warm cup of pineapple tea. “A follower of Tempus who might have a vendetta against Hymnara.”
“Tempus?” Golda inquired. “No, that can’t be right. Hymnara always got on quite well with the followers of Tempus. Why, one of her closest friends, Giiaena, is a notable paladin of Tempus.” The party exchanged looks, and decided to seek out a meeting with Giiaena.

It was hard to live in Ekrido and not know the name Giiaena. Giiaena of the Silver Horn. Giiaena, Blaze of Justice. She was the champion of the city who had met and defeated countless threats to its security in the generations that the elf had resided within its walls.

The group was unsurprised, therefore, when they were unable to obtain an immediate audience. Mentioning Hymnara's disappearance, however, moved things along quite considerably.

“We think it is a misguided servant of Tempus who has kidnapped her as retribution for bringing down the Baron.”
“Sounds like something the Monastery of Order might be involved in,” the paladin sighed.
“The Monastery of Order?”
“A group of brash youngsters who claim to serve Tempus, but who come dangerously close to preaching anarchy in the name of order. Seek them out and see if they have had any part in this. I will meditate and see if I can discern Hymnara’s location. We arrived in this city together, you know. And we have, after all, shared many dreams.”

However, as the party turned to go she stopped them briefly. “My apprentice, Pleiades Orion, fell in with the Monastery two weeks ago. He is a good boy at heart, but I fear dangerous voices have corrupted his view. Please, if you find him, be gentle. I believe he is not beyond redemption.”

Itching to find out anything they could regarding the missing druid, the party traveled quickly to the Monastery of Order on the other side of the city. It was a three-tiered, open-air structure with graceful columns, a grassy patio, and a small storage building near the back. The entire edifice was surrounded by an 8-foot tall wall, but the gate was unlocked and swung open freely.

Veu and Althea, immediately suspicious, looked around for anyone who might be hiding, and were quick to spot Alaya and the two Aasimar accompanying her. All three were perched up on the roof seemingly lying in wait. Alaya, they saw, was still wearing the blindfold that they’d placed around her eyes over a month ago. The Aasimar to her right was an intimidating sight – seven feet tall with rippling muscles and wielding the most enormous hammer any of them had seen. The Aasimar crouching to her left they recognized from Giiaena’s description of her apprentice Pleiades Orion – a wiry young man with a nervous expression.

“Alaya!” the ranger exclaimed.
The woman stood, seemingly untroubled by the fact that they’d been spotted. “That is no longer my name,” she hissed. “I am now The Scale, arbiter of Law.” And, indeed, in her hand she held a large metal scale which she began twirling rapidly.

Like the proper archer they are, Althea dashed over to the cover of a nearby colonnade, pulled out their bow, and shot at The Scale. They knew with a calm sense of certainty that their shot was deadly accurate (crit + Hunter’s Mark), but were dismayed to see Orion reach out a hand, causing a glowing blue shield to form around the three of them and slowing the arrow in its path such that it seemed only to graze its target.

Veu, finding herself lacking in ranged options and with the enemy still on the roof, hid in a colonnade opposite Althea.

Alaya laughed. “The Scale, The Hammer, and The Shield. Together, we are the enforcers of The Law. Do you really think The Law needs eyes to find you, little forger?”

And with that she swooped down off the roof, swinging her metal scale with terrifying speed and flying straight toward the hidden Halfling. Veu nimbly dodged the whirling plates of the weapon, but suddenly realized that she’d miscalculated as the chain wrapped around her throat. A searing pain shot through her body as the metal scale pulsed with radiant power.

“This is the punishment for theft and forgery,” whispered The Scale in her ear.

The Hammer, seeing a grappled target, leapt down from the roof, charged toward Veu, and dealt a single, devastating, blow with his weapon.

The party heard the sounds of bones crunching as Veu gasped and crumpled to the ground in a heap.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
6. Letters and Magic
Ewan rushed over and, seeing that Veu was beyond his ability to heal, fell to his knees and began praying fervently, closing his eyes even in the face of three enemies.

Metis, wild with rage, took on the most dangerous form she could think of, and, as a panther, charged forward tearing at Alaya with her maw.

Burny let out a great shout of rage and grief and spread his arms, calling a thunderous force to spring forth from the arcane power coursing through him. He hadn't realized until that moment that he'd actually begun to care for the little rogue. So great was his anger that The Hammer, massive though he was, staggered back ten feet.

Alaya, already wounded from Althea’s arrow and Metis’s vicious bite, crumpled to the ground dead. Burny spat on her corpse.

“The Scale is dead!” shouted the Hammer towards Orion. “Get them out of here!”

Orion flew down, a pained expression on his face as he stared at the lifeless bodies of Veu and Alaya, but still he extended his hands and a wave of pulsing force rippled out from him, forcing Burny and Metis back and sending them sprawling into the grass.

Althea shot an arrow straight and true at The Hammer. It lodged in his chest but seemed to barely hinder his movements as he raced toward a small storage shed near the back of the Monastery, emerging moments later pushing a bound Hymnara before him. He hefted his hammer above her head.

“Leave now, all of you!” he exclaimed. “Or the druid dies.”

There was a moment of stunned silence as the party stared at the ancient druid, sitting seemingly so tranquilly beneath the massive Hammer of Law that was prepared to crush her at any moment.

And then the giant Aasimar’s jaw went slack, his weapon tumbled from his grip, and he collapsed on the ground revealing a very confused but nonetheless very much alive Veu standing behind him. The illusory duplicate that had been lying dead on the ground vanished, and Burny let out a scream of joy mingled with confused distress at the logical impossibility of it all.

Ewan turned to Orion, the only one of the three left standing, looked him dead in the eye, and said, simply, “Is this truly the justice you seek?”

Orion looked at his two dead companions, then over to where, a moment before, Veu had also seemed to lie. He looked down at his own hands and sunk to his knees. “What have I done?” he murmured. (Ewan rolled a natural 20 on Persuasion)

Tension evaporated from the party as they realized that the battle was won. Metis and Althea quickly bound Orion’s hands while Ewan and Burny crowded Veu. Ewan, after a brief examination, saw the burn marks around Veu’s throat from The Scale’s chain, but no other signs of injury. He cast a Cure Wounds on her and breathed a sigh of relief to see her virtually unharmed. Burny meanwhile began pestering Veu with all manner of questions.

“All right you sanctimonious little goblin,” he began vehemently, “why didn’t you tell me you could do magic? And here I got myself all in a tizzle for you! I thought you were dead.”

Veu stammered. “I... I didn’t know I could... that is I can’t... I’m not sure what happened.”

Throwing his hands in the air and scowling to mask how genuinely worried he had been, Burny returned to the others who had begun questioning Orion. Veu followed a moment later, still stunned by the force of magic that had pulled her from harm's way, and with a strange image etched into her mind: that of a hooded figure, one hand outstretched to block its face, looming before her. She wondered who the figure was, and whether the magic had come from it or, somehow, from inside of herself.

“What were you doing here?” Althea asked Orion. “Why did you fall in with Alaya?”
“I was tempted,” Orion said miserably. “The Scale’s ideas were so glamorous, so revolutionary. And she exuded this confidence. It was hard not to go along with whatever she said.”
“Her ideas about what?”
“About Law! I’ve devoted much of my life to the study and enforcement of Law in service to Tempus, but never have I seen anyone with the fanaticism for it that she possessed. Her plans to rewrite the Codes of Ekrido, well, it’s all in there.” He gestured to the small shed in the back of the monastery. “You can see for yourself. They're beautiful.”

Burny and Veu quickly made their way to the shed while Ewan and Althea stayed to guard the captive. Metis had been working on untying Hymnara.

“Thank you, dear,” the elf said. “Although if you could remove this bracelet I would greatly appreciate it. It is quite irritating.” Metis noticed for the first time that there was a metal cuff around Hymnara’s wrist. She shivered to think of anything binding her in that way.

“The Scale has the key,” Orion said helpfully, overhearing them. Metis quickly rummaged through Alaya’s pockets, finding both the key to the bracelet and a small clay statue of a locust which she eyed suspiciously before pocketing.

Inside, Burny and Veu found a small improvised living space with three simple cots and a large writing desk. Riffling through the desk, Burny was quick to find a note of credit for 50gp which he stuffed in his pocket. Veu arched an eyebrow but said nothing as she came over to join him in examining the papers spread out across the writing surface. As Orion had said, they were revisions to the current Codes of Ekrido, and Veu sighed as she recognized Alaya’s zealous ideology in the papers.

The revised Codes banned all forms of thievery, bribery, and impersonation with very clear punishments laid out for each crime; they gave far more power to the military and established a standing police force to patrol the streets; they required all citizens carry “proof of purpose” if out after dark; and they abolished the role of Material Enforcer (the High Priest of Tempus), replacing it instead with the Vizier of Tempus who would be in charge of overseeing all the new protocols and would act as judge to arbitrate any disputes.

The party quickly decided that Giiaena should be the one to deal with Orion (she was, after all, his mentor), and that the evidence in the Monastery should be turned over to the authorities from the Temple of Tempus.

Realizing that it might attract suspicion to parade a fairly well-known paladin through the streets with his hands bound, they threw a cloak over Orion before returning to the Temple.

“Thank you for saving me the embarrassment,” the paladin said simply as they covered his face with the hood.

Giiaena had left word that they were to be granted immediate entry should they return, and as such they quickly found themselves back in the elf’s study. Seeing Hymnara, the two women embraced fondly, and the party related what they had seen and done in the Monastery, securing Giiaena’s guarantee that the priests of Tempus would handle the burial rites of the deceased and scrutinize the revised Codes that the group had been creating.

“I think you were right about Orion having a good heart,” Althea concluded, “but he was easily swayed by The Scale.”

“Yes...” Giiaena murmured as her apprentice quailed under her gaze. “And in this vocation a changeable mind can be a critical flaw. I trust that you are remorseful, Orion, but not that you have truly reaped the seeds of discord you were trying to sow. If others would come to harm through your actions, then they should write the Law against you.” She turned again to the party. “You will decide what is to be done with him. I will have no part in in.” Orion bowed his head at her verdict and in short order the group left, filled with the weight of responsibility placed on them by the Champion of Ekrido.

“This feels strange,” Ewan said. “Why would she put the onus of punishment on civilians? That feels out of character for a servant of Tempus.”
Maybe it’s out of character,” Althea countered, “or maybe our interaction with followers of Tempus has been rather limited as of late. You know, with them trying to kill us. I think her decision was just.”
“Perhaps it’s out of character for a follower of Tempus,” Metis chimed in, “but it makes total sense when you consider that Giiaena is a close friend of Hymnara’s. Perhaps she is also trying to distance herself from the situation, as Orion is her apprentice.”

“Her motivations aren’t our concern,” Veu insisted. “We need to devise some suitable punishment for Orion. I think he should be forced to interact with the impoverished and the needy. Every day he should be confronted by people who are on the verge of stealing in order to survive so that he can see the harm his new Codes would have caused.” The party agreed to the wisdom of Veu’s proposal, and sent a letter back to Giiaena informing her that the punishment they’d derived was a month’s service to the poor in answer for the month he had spent in the company of The Scale.

Burny, meanwhile, had been hard at work Identifying the objects that they’d found. The locust statues, of which they’d found a second one on Orion’s person, were revealed to be minor conjuration devices that could Summon a swarm of locusts when crushed.

The bracelet that had been cuffed around Hymnara’s wrist was far more troubling. Burny's spell revealed that it blocked and nullified all forms of druidic magic for the one who wore it. Examining the bracelet even more carefully, his blood ran cold as he saw the stamp of the wizard who had crafted it. It was a stamp he knew all too well. Three elegantly scripted initials in silver, gold, and black: CSW.

***​

Mortimer “Burny” Fizzlesticks and Copernicus “Spill” Whistledrum had been rivals ever since they were capable of comprehending what the word “rival” meant. In the same year of the academy at Laboratory X and with similar interests in explosions and innovations, they were engaged in a constant battle to outdo each other and had a standing wager over who would be the first to complete their first wholly original spell.

“Spill!” Burny exclaimed as he burst into the other wizard’s workroom. Spill was hunched over a number of bubbling test tubes, incanting arcane words and sketching runes in the air.

“Burny, I swear if you do not let me work in quiet for the next five minutes I will blow a gasket and you’ll find the contents of this test tube melting a hole in your boots,” said Spill, not so much as turning around.

Burny harrumphed, but leaned against the wall and began flipping through one of the books he always carried with him. He couldn't justify interrupting another wizard's experiment, even for a matter as grave as this. After ten minutes had passed, Spill threw down his goggles in frustration and turned to face the other gnome.

“Bah!” he shouted. “This is ridiculous.”
“Another failed experiment?” asked Burny archly.
“No worse than anything you’ve done,” muttered Spill.
“You’ve done something way worse this time.”
“What do you mean?”
In answer Burny merely held up the bracelet that bore his rival’s signature stamp.
“Where did you get that?” demanded Spill. “Don’t tell me the Tabaxi was commissioning it for you!”
“What Tabaxi?” asked Burny, thrown off guard by that unexpected bit of information.
“A Tabaxi commissioned me to make that. Gave me quite a hefty sum too,” said Spill smugly.

Burny shook his head, determined to not get derailed but making a mental note to track down this Tabaxi later. “Do you realize how vile a creation this is?”
“Vile!” exclaimed Spill, offense written all over his face. “Did you even look at it? This is a marvelously efficient, elegant, well-crafted magical item. Just because you’re jealous that you haven’t managed to create anything half as powerful as this—”
“I am not jealous!” Burny insisted. “And it is vile. To stifle someone’s magic like this? It goes against everything we’ve been taught about the freedom to evoke. What else was Azuth fighting against three hundred years ago when there were Counterspell charms on every city to keep wizards from their work?”
“This is different entirely,” Spill persisted. “Druids don’t do real magic anyways. Can you really compare their earthen mummery with the dedication to the magical arts practiced by wizards?”

Burny shuffled his feet and thought of Metis and Hymnara. True, he didn’t understand them, and Hymnara’s ataraxian philosophy rankled him, but he nonetheless knew that the kind of magic Spill had created here was wrong in the most basic moral sense.

“I’m sure my mother would like to hear about this,” he said.
“Ha!” exclaimed Spill, sensing victory. “I’m sure your mother would like to know how you got your hands on a magical item that I was commissioned to make. And besides, she has no special love of the druids.”
Burny squinted, knowing that what Spill said was true. “I heard you did well on your last exams,” he said, changing tack.
“Better than you, if I recall. Oh, and Burny, about that wager? I’d make sure you keep a couple of extra gold on hand. For when I win.”
“Well,” answered Burny, gesturing to the test tubes on the counter that were slowly starting to spill a green slime onto the table, “keep up the good work and I’m sure I won’t humiliate you too badly. I’ve heard that many great wizards graduated second in their class.”

Burny turned and walked out quickly, unwilling to let Spill get in another jibe. Veu had accompanied Burny to Laboratory X, and the wizard had left her in the library where she had taken out a number of elementary books on magic. Returning, he found her bent over one of these studying carefully.
"Trying to become a wizard?" He asked, only half-joking.
"I'm just trying to figure out what happened to me back at the Monastery," said Veu. "And see if I have any natural talent for magic," she added slowly.
Burny glanced down to see what she was reading. “Oh please,” he scoffed, “that book is for babies.”
Unperturbed, Veu glanced up at him. “I didn’t understand the terms in the more advanced books. I wasn’t raised with magic like you were.”
“I could teach you more in an hour than you’ll get from that book in a week,” insisted Burny.

Veu simply shrugged and went back to her reading. Burny scowled. It seemed he couldn’t get a rise out of anyone today. His natural talent for pestering must be growing dull. Suddenly, he recalled the coded letter that Metis had asked him for help with. He swore profusely. He had forgotten all about it in the excitement of visiting Denzonen and then in the subsequent rush to find and free Hymnara.

He raced back to his quarters, and in under an hour had managed to break the cypher. He grinned as he saw some recognizable words in Common, but much of the letter was still jumbled nonsense. On a hunch he cast Comprehend Languages, and hummed merrily to himself as still more of the letter revealed itself to him.

‘Primordial,’ he thought, ‘who would go through the trouble of transliterating Primordial using the Common lettering system?’ Still with only about seventy five percent of the letter decoded, he sought out Metis and showed her what he had accomplished.

“I can’t figure out the rest of it,” he said. “It seems to be in Primordial, which I don’t speak. My guess is it’s some sort of slang or words that don’t have literal meaning in Common, hence why my Comprehend spell won’t translate it.”

Snatching the letter back, Metis studied it carefully. “It’s Primordial wordplay,” she said with certainty after a couple minutes. “It’s been many years since I’ve spoken the language, but I think I can figure it out. Thank you, Burny. You’ve done me a huge service.”
“Think nothing of it,” the gnome said modestly, still embarrassed that he’d forgotten about it for so many weeks and hoping that Metis would assume it had simply taken him that long to crack it. “I don’t mean to pry,” he continued slowly, “but there are some things in that letter that are... troubling.”

“I know,” said Metis. “I think I need to go to Xey.” Once she had finished translating the letter, she stared down at the words written in her sister’s hand. Her sister, Ariadne, who had accompanied Metis when she decided to leave their noble life in Liport, and who had then run off with a common boy named Kepler three years before, leaving Metis alone. She read the letter over and over and over again, until she had committed it to memory.

My dear Meti,
I write to you in the code we created as girls for, were this letter to fall into the wrong hands, I fear it would spell danger for the both of us. Even so, I must be vague about where I have been and what I have been doing. Please forgive me this, as I hope you have forgiven my absence these past three years. Kepler has introduced me to the most amazing people, Meti. Of course Kepler is not his true name – again I ask your forgiveness for that. I believe that we are going to shake this world to its core and change it forever. Our plans will soon come to a head, and I can no longer pretend that my life is not at risk. I think of you every day, and it would have caused my spirit no end of regret to know that I had perished with you eternally unaware that I was fighting for a cause. In many ways I am fighting for you. What our parents did to you was unthinkable, and I now work tirelessly to ensure that each of us may choose our own destiny rather than having it dictated to us. They never told me the truth, of course, but I know your mind like I know my own and it was only too obvious what they had done. That, more than anything else, is why I chose to come with you when you left home. I knew you could never be so cold as they were. I cannot tell you where I am, but, if you wish to find me, I’ve left word with one Curtis in Xey to aid you in any way he can. It would be my joy to see you even one more time.
-A
 

Salmakia

Explorer
Much of our group is out of town for the holidays, so we're taking a brief break from the game. The next update should be on or around January 7th. Happy New Year to anyone reading!
 



Salmakia

Explorer
7. Ewan's Homestead
“To get to Xey we’d have to pass through Onoln, right?” Ewan asked.

In the month since Callista had returned to her home, Ewan had exchanged letters with his mother and she had reported some disturbing signs around the village that aligned with what Ewan had told her about the necromancy that had killed his father Tavish and forced him from his homestead in the north. She even mentioned that one of the Onoln Rangers had reported seeing a ghoul, or some similarly foul essence, in the forest, and Ewan was anxious to check in and make sure his last surviving kinfolk was all right.

“Metis, would you be ok with spending a few days in Onoln on our way to Xey?”

“I suppose so,” the druid said. She and Burny were still the only ones who knew her reasons for traveling to Xey, and she was grateful to the others for accompanying her even in spite of her reticence to reveal to them what was truly happening with her sister. A short stopover in Onoln was a small price to pay for the comfort of traveling together.

“Great!” exclaimed Burny. “We get in, we kill the necromancer, and it’s off to Xey. You know what necromancers often have, right? Fun necromancer spell-books...” Burny began laughing giddily at the thought of the powerful spells he could learn.

“Whoever this is killed my father!” Ewan shouted.

The rest of the party was stunned by the sudden outburst from one usually so quiet. Burny simply shrugged. “I’m not trying to be blasé about it. But we’ve proven that we can deal with dangerous things, and we’ll deal with this, whatever it is.”

“It killed my father,” Ewan said again, quietly this time. Althea put a comforting hand on his shoulder and the party dispersed to prepare for their trip.

Althea always kept the necessities for a journey such as this on standby, and so the group was able to set out the very next day. It was an eight-day journey by foot to Onoln, and then another fifteen days from there to Xey. The road to Onoln was sturdy and well-traveled, with a waystation providing good meals and a bed at the halfway point. There were established campsites along the road, but Ewan, Althea, and Metis preferred the relative peace and isolation of the open prairie and so more often than not the party slept on the untamed grass, dining on rabbits that Althea was able to hunt and tubers that Ewan and Metis gathered.

While out among the wilderness, the three renewed their connections with the land, a relationship that had grown distant in time spent within the city walls dealing with legal Codes and political agendas. Metis recalled Hymnara’s teachings and hoped her elf mentor hadn’t been shaken too badly by her kidnap. Ewan felt his spirit growing stronger with every step he took toward his home. And Althea sat below the stars and meditated, clutching a small rock given to them by the Myrastuul clan of Dragonborn in the south. (aka the party leveled up to 3)

In between the hours spent intensely studying the spellbook of August Firestorm, Burny took time to instruct Veu in the basics of magic, and Veu found him to be a surprisingly patient teacher. The Halfling seemed to have a knack for illusions and enchantments, two schools that Burny himself had neglected, but he was thrilled to see that she also took to his own personal joy of evocations. After six days of traveling, Veu made an arcane gesture and her shortsword ignited with green fire. Burny cheered her, silently wondering how she had managed to pick it up so quickly. Most practitioners of magic studied for weeks before being able to cast even a simple Cantrip. He vowed to work twice as hard, lest he suffer the disgrace of having his own student outpace him. (Veu has decided to go into Arcane Trickster)

Onoln was a small frontier town that had been constructed on the route from Ekrido to Xey merely thirty years prior. It was a dangerous place to live, and attracted only the most hardy and adventurous of spirit. Entering the town the party registered the wary, guarded expressions on the faces of the passersby. Everyone in the streets wore a weapon, and they all seemed like they knew how to use them.

Althea, who had journeyed to Onoln a few times in her stint working for the city of Ekrido as a border scout, was largely un-phased, but Ewan was shocked in particular by the number of graves. There was no cemetery in Onoln. Rather, graves were dug anywhere with six feet of open dirt – garden beds, ditches, or just on the side of the road. None had names, but were marked with simple sticks or blank stones. Many had a carved symbol of Shar, goddess of Loss, lying atop them. Ewan, fearing this to be in consequence of some necromantic incursion, began shaking.

He grabbed the attention of a passing local. “What happened here?” he exclaimed.
“I’m sorry?” the man asked gruffly, clearly confused.
“What happened here? What are all the graves for?”
“People die.”
“But why so many? And unmarked?”
“It’s Onoln,” the local said bluntly. “The quicker you get used to it the better off you’ll be.”
Ewan quivered under the man’s unassuming hostility, and Althea took over the conversation. “Do you know a woman named Callista?” they asked.
“Sure. Who doesn’t know Callista? She provided for many of us at the start of the famine when no help was coming from the larger cities.”
“We’re friends of hers. We helped her get food from Ekrido.”
The man’s face softened considerably. “You’re friends of Callista?”
Althea nodded. “Ewan there is her son.”
The man gave him an appraising look. “That so?” Ewan gave a barely perceptible nod.
“Could you tell us where we might find her?” The local gave them directions to Callista’s abode, and Althea steered Ewan off in that direction.

Callista was overjoyed to see them, although somewhat shocked by Ewan’s apparent state of distress.

“You look like you haven’t eaten in a week,” she said, to which Ewan gave another subtle nod. Callista ushered them all inside and brewed a pot of tea. “I’m sorry I don’t have much to offer you. You should have written ahead that you were coming.”
“That’s all right,” said Althea. “We’re mostly here looking for information.”
“What’s happening?” Ewan asked shakily.
“Didn’t you get my letter?” asked Callista. Ewan nodded again. “That’s all there is to it, then. Some strange things in the forest. Trees dying unexpectedly. Whole patches of fruits and berries going sour. And of course the creature that spooked Eliana, one of our Rangers.”
"But what about all the graves?" Ewan persisted.
Callista shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, I suppose you just overlook that once you've been living here long enough. An unmarked grave is part of the practice of Shar. The quicker you learn to let go of what you've lost the stronger you'll be. Life is in the now, and all that. It makes sense here in Onoln. Disaster is always right around the corner."
Ewan shuddered again at the thought of so tenuous an existance.
Althea chimed in once more. “Could we talk to Eliana? The ranger who saw the ghoul?”
“I don’t see why not. She’s in the Hearth Hall. I’ll take you to her.”

Entering a large, sturdy, timber building warmed by numerous brick furnaces, the party saw a number of communal eating tables with assorted folk gathered about talking. Even with just a brief glance they could tell that faces were hard and laughter rare. Callista pulled aside one of the Rangers.

“Eliana, this is my son Ewan and his... associates.”
“Friends,” Ewan corrected.
“His friends. They helped me gather food in Ekrido, and they’ve come to investigate the ghoul you sighted. They are uniquely skilled.”
Eliana gave them a terse nod. “I’ll be glad to help in any way I can. The forest is not what it once was.”
“What do you mean?” asked Althea.
“Well, it’s always been a dangerous place. A hostile place. That’s a given. But recently things have felt darker. The forest no longer feels like it’s brooding. More like it’s conniving. And then there’s the creature that I saw.”
“Yes, could you tell us what happened?”
“I was out on patrol to gather food, about a day’s walk northeast of town. I was on night watch, and I saw a bipedal figure off in the distance. It moved strangely. Shambling is the best way I can describe it. I took my torch and went to approach, but before I had gotten within thirty feet the smell became almost overpowering.”
“The smell of death,” murmured Ewan.
“Yes. I ran back to raise the alarm, but by the time I’d awoken the rest of the Rangers, whatever it was had vanished. We returned hastily the next day and counted ourselves lucky.”
“Would you be able to lead us back there?” asked Althea. “And I want to see these dying trees that Callista was speaking of.
“Of course,” said Eliana.
“I will accompany you as well,” announced Callista. “We can leave tomorrow.”

At first light the next morning the group of seven traipsed into the woods. They hadn’t been walking more than half an hour when Callista pointed out a copse of trees.

“There, that’s the sort of decay that we’ve been noticing.”

While the surrounding vegetation remained green and healthy, this small cluster of trees had turned an ashen grey. Bark was flaking off like wet parchment, and they were almost slimy to the touch. Both Burny and Ewan opened their senses to Detect unseen essences, but gleaned neither traces of magic nor extraplanar activity.

Ewan, however, kept his heightened perception open as they continued walking, and it wasn’t long before he caught a flicker of something other at the very edge of his consciousness. Fey, his mind silently noted, before the presence vanished.

“There’s something fey nearby,” Ewan said, causing the group to hastily scan the surrounding forests. “There are fey that live here. But they usually keep to themselves.”

It was Veu who spotted the creature. About a hundred feet away, a being vaguely resembling a humanoid in shape, but with a body that seemed comprised of sticks and leaves. It was mostly brown with streaks of grey, and blended in to the forest almost perfectly.

“Over there,” said the rogue, “a Dryad, or something.”
“The only Dryad I know of in these parts is named Draxoth,” remarked Ewan, “but her tree is several days’ journey north.” Still, he shouted the Dryad’s name. “Draxoth! Draxoth, it’s Ewan! We’re trying to figure out what’s happening to the forest! Can you help us!” The trees rustled nervously around them, and the wind disturbed a pile of leaves nearby.
“I don’t think she’s here anymore,” said Veu, still staring intently around.
“We were on good terms,” said Ewan. “I’m sure she means us no harm.”

About an hour later, however, Veu saw the Dryad again, trailing them. And then she was off in front, and then perched high in a tree watching them. That last time Veu caught the Dryad’s eye, and she could have sworn that the fey was glaring at her. It sent shivers down her spine, and she felt that the sooner they were out of the forest the better. She mentally reviewed the few spells that she’d pieced together under Burny’s tutelage in order to distract herself from the fading light and the inscrutable fey that seemed to be shadowing them.

At the onset of evening, Eliana stopped. “This is the spot. This is where we camped, and over there is where I saw the figure.”

The rain had long ago washed away any tracks, but as they poked around the area inhabited by whatever creature Eliana had seen, they caught a faint but definite whiff of something foul.

“The smell of death,” Ewan repeated. “I need to go home. To make sure my father remains in his grave. There is a foul essence at work in the forest.”

The party made camp in the same spot Eliana’s company had occupied two weeks prior. They ate cold rations to avoid the attention that a cook fire would draw, and they set careful watch. Veu, who was on last watch, sat shivering in her bedroll when she heard a twig snap behind her. Turning slowly, she saw the faint outline of the Dryad against the backdrop of the surrounding forest.

“Draxoth...?” she asked quietly.

Suddenly, the leafy visage of the fey’s face pulled back into a horrifying, feral snarl. Beneath the brown of her outer covering was revealed a face marred by black veins, and her eyes glowed red. Then, just as quickly, the Dryad stepped into a tree and was gone. All thoughts of the cold forgotten, Veu sat shivering with fear until first light woke the rest of the party.

“Everything all right?” asked Althea.

Veu nodded shakily and managed to stammer out a “Yes.”

Immediately suspicious, Althea pressed the Halfling for more information, but Veu was unforthcoming. “It’s nothing,” she insisted. “I just want to get out of the woods. I’m not comfortable here.” The fact that the Dryad continued to dog them as they traipsed west toward Ewan’s childhood homestead did nothing to better Veu’s mood, and she swore that at times the fey was intentionally allowing her to spot it to further unsettle her. These woods were definitely a bad place.

Coming within a few miles of Ewan’s former homestead, they were assailed by the smell they had only faintly recognized at the site of Eliana’s campsite, but which their Ranger guide immediately placed as the scent she had detected that night. Ewan began muttering prayers under his breath.

The group attempted to proceed quietly, but all except Ewan, Althea, and the residents of Onoln were unskilled at traveling through the wilderness. As they emerged from a thicket of trees, the pack of eight ghouls up ahead saw them and began shambling in their direction. If the stench of one ghoul had been bad, the stench of eight was an abomination of the senses.

The party vacillated for a brief moment, unsure of whether they should attempt to wipe out this wandering pack of undead, but Ewan shouted “Run!” and that snapped them out of their indecisiveness. Ewan had gotten a brief look at the ghouls, and was almost certain that none of the bodies were that of Tavish. Much as he loathed the undead and longed to bring his wrath down upon them, he had studied them as much as he could during his time in Ekrido and he knew when the party was outmatched.

Fleeing downhill, back in the direction of Onoln, Ewan and Althea,(who were in the lead) suddenly found themselves scratched and torn by a thicket of brambles that hadn’t been there moments before.

Spike Growth!” Ewan exclaimed, cursing Draxoth and wondering what stake the fey had in this or if she was simply meddling wantonly.

Ewan and Althea led the group around the thorny area, and were relieved to find that the brambles were confined to the typical area of the enchantment and were not somehow magnified by the fey’s natural potency.

Even with the added obstacle, they were able to handily outrun the ghouls, who seemed disinterested in giving chase past a couple of minutes. For good measure they continued back south for another half hour before circling back around to approach Ewan’s homestead from a different direction. All in all the detour cost them two hours, and they realized that they would be reaching their destination after dark. Still, they decided to press on, deeming it better to walk through the night and remain alert than to make camp in an area known to be populated by undead.

The sun set, and, by Ewan’s estimation, they were still at least two hours from his homestead. They lit a small torch for those without the benefit of darkvision, and proceeded cautiously. All their wariness, however, could not have prepared them for the dark shadow of a creature that dropped silently from the canopy onto Althea. It had six hairy clawed legs, a flattened head with piercing yellow eyes, and its body was covered with all manner of fungal growth.

“A Hazrith!” exclaimed Eliana, just before the Fungal Spider lashed out with one of its forelegs, knocking their Ranger guide back against a tree where she landed, unmoving, with a sickening thud.
 

Salmakia

Explorer
8. The Forest is a Dangerous Place
Althea was dizzy and felt like vomiting. A spiderlike creature the size of a small cart had leapt onto her from the canopy above, knocking the wind out of her. She was fairly certain that several of her bones were broken, and it now gripped her in one of its muscular claws, denying her any attempt at a respite and resisting all her urges to break free.

This is it, she thought. This is where I die.

Then, suddenly, she felt a strange warmth coming from her pocket. She knew, instinctively somehow, that it was the small rock given to her by the Myrastuul clan of Dragonborn many months before, back when she was still working for the Ekrido wilderness patrol. The elder had said it was a gift for her services to the clan, and a memento of the kindness she had shown them. Since that day she had always kept it on her person, its strange interlocking lines helping her to meditate and its unusual internal warmth bringing her comfort.

Now, with her very life on the line, it pulsed with a fiery aura that illuminated the gloomy forest and caused all those present to blink and shield their eyes. Whispers in an unknown language filtered through the trees, and, although nearly indecipherable, Althea alone was able to pick out a few words: “Heart,” “Ancient,” “Honor,” “Chosen.” Then, just as quickly as it had flared, the umbra coalesced in, shifting from a formless brilliance to a vaguely recognizable shape. In a matter of only a few heartbeats, the brilliance was gone, replaced by the small, ghostly form of a dragon.

“Protector,” breathed the drake, still in a language that only Althea seemed capable of understanding, before bringing its ethereal jaws down upon the form of the massive spider.

Metis, awed by the spectacle they had all just witnessed, but realizing quickly that the small dragon wouldn’t be able to take on the spider alone, transformed herself into a lizard almost as large as the spider itself, ran forward and bit down hard on its fungal hide. Both lizard instincts and Triton sensibilities revolted in disgust at the foulness of the creature’s taste, but Metis refused to relinquish her hold on it.

Without any warning, the dryad Draxoth slipped from a tree behind where the party was engaged with the beast, and yelled, almost plaintively, “Flee while you still can!” before slipping back into her arboreal shelter.

Veu, still shaken from her encounter with Draxoth the previous night, turned and ran.

Ewan gripped Althea, attempting to pull his friend from the grip of the spider while simultaneously chanting words of prayer to the forest spirits that caused the ranger’s broken bones to knit back together.

Callista took up a position behind a tree and shot arrow after arrow towards the beast, largely ineffectively as the melee was too packed for her to get a clear shot.

The Hazrith, still with Althea firmly within its grip, opened wide its maw. However, instead of a mouth, the ranger saw just a swirling blackness that engulfed her as the creature brought its face towards hers. She felt her very life force flow into the Hazrith as it sapped her strength before snapping shut its mandibles once more. Almost as an afterthought, it kicked out with one of its hind legs, sending Metis sprawling across the forest floor.

Burny, finally getting over his shock at everything that was rapidly occurring, rubbed his hands together, generated friction, and released it into a spurt of flame. The Hazrith leapt ten feet into the air to avoid the fire, but still screamed in pain as flames raced across its underside, burning away the fungal growth there and charring its skin.

However, Burny’s exultation was short-lived. Draxoth stepped from a tree behind him, the leaves of her face pulled back to reveal hideous black veins and glowing vengeful eyes.

“Keep your filthy fire out of my forest!” she shouted, spitting a black globule of poison into Burny’s face that caused his knees to tremble and his whole body to feel weak. When he’d managed to hastily wipe away the poison from his eyes the dryad was gone.

Metis, still in lizard form, picked herself up and charged back towards the spider. The ghostly drake, whether sensing some kinfolk with the large reptile or seeing a conduit through which it could free its charge from the grip of the spider, channeled its own energy through Metis’s body. Flames sparked as Metis’s teeth ignited, and the spider once more howled in pain.

Draxoth, now standing on a rocky ledge twenty feet away, wreathed herself with vile shadows anathema to her natural form. “This is your second warning!” she exclaimed. “Ignite the foul flame once more and I will extinguish you all!”

Coming to herself and realizing that the dryad had charmed her, Veu halted in her retreat, turned, and flung a dagger at the fungal spider. Her aim was true. Too true, in fact, as her weapon punctured one of the mushrooms on the creature’s hide, releasing a cloud of spores that caused all around it to cough and choke on the poison. Several of the party almost collapsed as a wave of nausea and weakness swept over them.

Having already feasted on Althea’s strength, and in search of other targets, the spider leapt into the air, releasing the ranger, and plummeted straight down toward Veu. However, due to a remarkable nimbleness, the rogue managed to dodge out from under the falling beast and it landed in a crouch beside her.
Burny, taking Draxoth’s warning to heart, fumbled in his pocket for the gem he always carried and, turning to one of the facets, hurled an Orb of lightning at the spider which ducked out of the way easily.

However, now that Althea was free, she pulled her bow from her back, nocked an arrow, and joined Callista in peppering the spider at range. The drake, still seeing the beast as a threat to Althea, charged back towards it along with Metis while Veu pulled out her shortsword and hacked at it. Ewan held forth his holy symbol, and a spiritual shovel (the symbol of the gravedigger), appeared in the air and likewise began pummeling the spider.

Sensing the tide turning against it, the Hazrith leapt over the heads of the melee attackers, easily clambered up the rocky ledge from which Draxoth was still watching the battle, and dashed off into the forest. Althea and Callista fired parting shots for good measure, and the entire party breathed a collective sigh of relief that they had escaped with their lives.

Ewan quickly ran over to where Eliana had been hurled and thanked the gods that she seemed to have been merely knocked unconscious. Once again channeling the healing power of the forest he eased the swelling from where her head had struck the tree and exhaled slowly as she blearily blinked open her eyes.

“Where am—what happened?” she asked.
“You’re ok,” Ewan breathed, as much to reassure himself as to comfort his patient.
“The Hazrith!” she exclaimed, starting to get up and reaching for her bow.
“It’s ok, it’s ok. We beat it. It ran off.”
“You called it a Hazrith?” Althea asked, overhearing. Eliana nodded. “Is that related to the ghouls we’ve seen or is it a natural part of the forest?”
“No,” Eliana confirmed, “we’ve seen those before. One of the nastier predators that lurk here. We’ve lost two or three good rangers to them over the years. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. Just our bad luck I suppose to run into one.”

Ewan nodded, then glanced back over to the ridge where Draxoth had threatened them only minutes before. The dryad was slumped against a tree. She looked exhausted, and Ewan noticed that some of her natural color had returned.

“Excuse me,” he murmured to the ranger, making his way over to where the fey sat. “Draxoth?” he asked tentatively, speaking the language of the forest that she had taught him.

The dryad looked down at him and blinked. “Ewan?”
“Yes!” Ewan’s voice conveyed his relief that the fey finally seemed to recognize him. “Are you all right? What’s happening?”
She shook her head sadly. “The forest is not what it once was.”
“Can you tell us what’s causing it?”
“There is a shadow,” stammered Draxoth. “A terrible shadow. It is in the water. In the roots. In the very heart of the forest itself. We cannot contain it.” Her voice began to take on a deeper overtone and Ewan saw with alarm a black substance begin pulsing through her veins. “We cannot purge it. It is too late. I cannot hold it off much longer. You should have run when you had the chance.”
“No, Draxoth, we can help you, if you’ll just…”
But the fey simply shook her head sadly. “You should have run when you had the chance.” And with that she fell backwards into the tree and vanished.
Ewan leapt up, trying to grab ahold of her leg to forestall her disappearance, but found himself clutching only air. He let out a strangled yell of frustration and sadness.

Meanwhile, Burny was staring slack-jawed at the small drake now coiled protectively around Althea's feet. “Not possible,” he muttered under his breath, “not possible.”

Veu, who was also struck by the improbability of a dragon in their midst but who was less prone to short-circuit at such logical loopholes, approached Althea. “Anything you’d like to share?” the rogue asked, gesturing towards the drake.

Althea shrugged and shifted weight, causing the dragon to resettle itself. “I really have no idea. I think it has something to do with this.” They held up the stone that the Myrastuul tribe had given them. “I knew I had a strange connection to it as soon as the Dragonborn gave it to me, but I didn’t understand why until now. It’s strange, I know, but somehow it feels… right.”

“No, no, no,” Burny insisted, making his way over to them. “Don’t you know anything? Dragons vanished thousands of years ago. Even the oldest elves have only ever heard stories from their grandparents about the sky titans. This has got to be some sort of a trick, or an illusion, or a mutation.”

The dragon snorted and Burny leapt back as a spark flashed in his face.

Althea laughed. “I think he might take issue with your theories.”
“Does he have a name?” Metis asked, instantly recognizing the sentience of the creature.
“Dante,” announced Althea, suddenly certain that the name was correct.
“Well, Dante, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” continued the druid.
Burny squinted at the drake. “You’d better hope that Dante can remain inconspicuous, or we’re going to have a lot of heads turning in our direction.”

The party reconvened to discuss a revised plan for the night, agreed that they were in no shape to press either onwards through the forest or back towards Onoln, and began setting up camp. However, not half an hour had passed by when they began once more to catch the whiff of death on the wind. Quickly opening her senses to their natural surroundings, Althea pinpointed a cluster of undead – a darkness that registered clearly on the backdrop of green – 1,000 feet away and moving in their direction.

“It’s the ghouls,” she said. “They’ll be here in under five minutes.” Abandoning their half-assembled camp, the party began wearily trekking down the mountain towards Onoln. After an hour they were fairly certain that the ghouls had given up the pursuit. They continued walking for another hour just for good measure before settling down to rest once more. They had left many of their supplies higher up the mountain, and it was an uncomfortable night.

Just after midnight, Burny and Ewan were keeping watch when they heard a rustling from the forest. Approaching cautiously, Burny gasped as he saw two enormous boars – each the size of a small horse – pawing at the dirt and eyeing their camp hungrily. Knowing that he was all but out of spells and desperate to avoid a confrontation, the gnome reached into his pack and tossed some of his rations onto the ground before the beasts. They approached cautiously, sniffing at the food before devouring it.

Burny smiled proudly at his resourcefulness and returned to the camp.

“You did what?!” Ewan exclaimed as Burny related his actions. “Did no one ever teach you not to feed wild animals?”
“I didn’t want them to eat me,” the gnome hissed. Suddenly they heard another rustle, and looked up to see the boars, not more than 20 feet away, eyeing them once more.
“See, now they want more,” Ewan said. “Do you have enough rations to feed both of them?”
“What do we do?” asked Burny, beginning to panic.
“Wake up Metis,” Ewan whispered.

Burny quietly shook the druid awake while Ewan cautiously searched around the perimeter of their camp for anything edible. Metis was none too happy about being awoken in the middle of the night, but when Burny explained the situation to her she took control in a heartbeat.

Taking some food from her own pouch, Metis approached the boars and began crooning to them in the language of beasts and birds, a tongue that most city-dwellers never bothered even to recognize, much less learn, but that the triton had discovered in her years of isolation following her sister’s departure. She told them of sweet nuts and succulent fruits, causing them to forget their hunger. Ewan, meanwhile, had gathered enough food to keep the boars’ stomachs from revolting against the charm placed upon them by Metis.

“There,” the druid said when she was done. “That should keep them satisfied for at least a day.”
“Hah!” Burny exclaimed softly, smiling at Ewan. “And you told me not to feed wild animals!”
Metis glared at the gnome. “The difference is that Ewan and I actually know what we’re doing. Now I’m going back to sleep.”

Burny fumbled for a moment, trying to think of a good comeback, before wisely closing his mouth and settling down to finish the rest of his watch.

(This had the potential to be really rough, and the players handled it very well. All of them except for Metis were totally spent from the fight with the fungal spider, and if this encounter had devolved into conflict it could have gone poorly for them very easily. It was perhaps a bit callous of me to have them roll to see if they had a second encounter that night after surviving the spider and running from the ghouls, but it wasn't unreasonable to assume that more predators would come poking around while they were sleeping. And, as the villagers had repeatedly informed them, the forest is a dangerous place. Fortunately, Burny rolled quite well on his initial Animal Handling check, and Metis always keeps Animal Friendship prepared. And besides, the boars provided many fine meals for the people of Onoln the next day.)
 

Salmakia

Explorer
Special Bonus Post: Now that the final character has been introduced (Althea's Drakewarden companion), here is our campaign art! Huge thanks to the artist AJ Colum (@captaincolum) for the beautiful work.
 

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GuyBoy

Hero
Brilliant action scene and the art is beautiful.
Dante is a wonderful name for a little dragon; even the smallest fires can become an Inferno!
 

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