The party retrace their steps to the great Keep, regaling the few travellers they meet with ever grander and more impressive retellings of their exploits. Flushed with success they march straight into the Merchant Guildhouse, demanding to see the Guildmaster. The clerk behind the counter gives them a long slow, look before indicating that the next available appointment will not be before 13:00 the next day. After a little shameless flirting from Sarviena he is persuaded to advance the appointment to noon.
Slightly disgruntled at not being able to claim their reward immediately, the group repair to the tavern where they amuse themselves playing games of chance and exchanging tall tales with some of the regulars. In amongst the general chatter common to a trading centre on a disputed border, they learn that one of the garrison has been promoted, leading to a noticeable increase in military activity as he attempts to make his mark and demonstrate that the promotion is deserved.
Another topic of conversation is the unfathomable friction between Callon, Curate of the Temple of Torm, and Otik, an itinerant cleric, well-known and popular at the Keep for his good humour and excellent parties, to which he invites all the local notables. The group decides that, when they have concluded their business with the Merchant’s Guild that this may bear further investigation. October 21st, Year of the Ferret
After kicking their heels until the appointed time the party are finally ushered into the presence of the Guildmaster who listens to their report with some scepticism (possibly due to some dubious embellishments from Effren). After careful consideration he agrees to allocate them the offered reward, generously including Sindawe and Effren, even though they were not party to the original agreement.
Turning down the offer of further employment repairing the damaged bridges along the Swamp Road, the party receive dated silver tokens from the clerk, denoting their right to lodge freely at the Guildhouse for a month and their exemption from Guild taxes and levies for the same period. Having been allocated rooms and instructed in the expected behaviour within the Guildhouse (quiet, modest and alcohol-free) they are torn between returning to the tavern and following the Guildmaster’s suggestion that they attend the Temple of Torm to give thanks for their salvation.
After a short discussion Torm wins, and they saunter over to the Temple, sorting out as many copper coins as they can find within their pouches so that their donations will at least sound impressive. A period of quiet contemplation follows, with a semblance of devotion. Effren quickly becomes bored and amuses himself by counting the beams in the ceiling, then the nails in the beams. He is just about to stomp off in search of refreshment when one of the junior Temple acolytes ascends from the cellar.
The party eagerly retell their exploits and the acolyte agrees to summon Callon to determine whether they are worthy to be included in the Annals of Torm. After hearing their stories the Curate agrees to consider them further. Reginald then casually drops a comment about the itinerant priest into the conversation and the Curate’s face darkens. Without much additional encouragement he cites the priest’s lack of interest in theological debate, his partying, his silent and well-armed acolytes, and his propensity for ingratiating himself with anyone of note in the Keep though his frequent parties.
The adventurers agree that there is something slightly unusual about the priest’s behaviour but nothing to which any action or even accusations could be attached. As up-and-coming members of the community they decide to see if they can inveigle their way into the priest’s next party. Following Callon’s suggestion they head for the Provisioner’s shop to see what choice beverages or viands might be appropriate as an inducement.
The Provisioner lets slip in the conversation that the priest is indeed having another party the following evening. After what seems to Phoenix like hours of pointless discussion, a bottle of fine and rare wine is deemed appropriate to add to the priest’s order. It is duly paid for and the Provisioner agrees to deliver it, with the party’s compliments. October 22nd, Year of the Ferret
After a tense morning and afternoon of waiting, an elaborately inscribed parchment bearing the anticipated invitation duly arrives. Further discussion ensues as to the appropriate attire. Phoenix scrapes a few of the more obvious areas of crusted blood and slime from her armour and judges herself ready. Some time later, after various polishing, darnings and fluffings have been completed, the party repairs to the private apartments rented by the priest.
The cream of the local community seem to be in attendance, with the exception of the Castellan (far too busy), the Curate (due to his distaste for the priest) and the Guildmaster (due to his distaste for alcohol, fornication and well, fun, basically). Senior merchants and traders mix with local landowners, and officers from the garrison and the watch. Liveried servant carry trays of nibbles and choice liquors and wines to the assembled guests.
The priest, an affable host, welcomes the group, indicating that they should mingle and help themselves to whatever they might fancy. Phoenix has to be politely reminded to take only one or two items and not whole trays at a time. The adventurers discreetly position themselves around the room, trying to glean any interesting snippets from the hubbub of conversation around them. It proves difficult, especially as the priest’s two bodyguards form a constant lowering presence to the left and right of the door to what is clearly the priest’s private rooms.
Abandoning any hope of direct investigation, the party gathers together once more to compare notes. Phoenix has discovered that the food is very good, and quite plentiful. The others have all noted how the priest, while polite to and interested in everyone, seems to spend a little more time around the military than anyone else. Reginald has also noted that, in amongst the general conversation, the priest makes comments or asks questions which seem designed to provoke incautious responses:
"So good to see that nice Lieutenant Fitch has finally been made up to Captain. I suppose he has hundreds of men under his direct command now? I’m sure he’ll do very well!" ... "Hundreds? No, only eighty and he’ll need to get that bug out of his butt if he wants to be liked as well as respected by the men." ... "Of course, of course, I’m sure he just needs to get it out of his system. I’ll have a quiet word next time we speak."
In their own conversations with the priest, when Sindawe asks a minor question about the policy of Otik’s god on a certain minor matter, Otik swiftly steers the conversation elsewhere. All are agreed that something just doesn’t add up but they can’t be sure what is going on. The bodyguards prevent investigation of the private quarters, the priest is tight-lipped and cautious in conversation and therefore unlikely to make a revealing slip, the rest of the partygoers seem content to take Otik’s affability and generosity at face value.
The party decide to retire to the Guildhouse for the night to consider their next moves.
The adventurers awake to a hubbub of shouts and noise, the sounds of one of the regular market days held in the great Keep of Dol Darin. Even though not yet breakfast time, it is in full swing as people try to ensure getting the pick of the goods on sale. After a brief discussion over a few bites of food the party decide that their only option is to search Otik’s apartment for additional evidence which will prove his guilt.
Fortunately, it become clear that the only building with a clear sight of the apartment door is that occupied by the merchant Korwyn, his wife and two guards. The party spread out amongst the crowds and, with some difficulty, spot Korwyn. Of Otik, there is no sign.
Concerned, Sindawe makes a few discreet enquiries and is relieved to learn that Otik was last seen heading to the Loan Bank which hunches beneath the mighty Keep walls. On the pretext of changing a few coins into smaller denominations he is able to determine the Otik is in deep discussion with the Banker in his small office, while his grim-faced guards wait for him in the public area.
Realising that they have only a small window of opportunity in which to put their plan into action, the party details Sarviena to make a pretence of shopping while keeping her eye on the bank, with instructions to send a message as soon as Otik leaves. The rest of the group move with as much haste as they can manage without attracting attention to the priest’s apartment.
While the group is discussing various possibilities for posting watches and picking the lock, a bored Phoenix is amusing herself by poking her knife into the lock and jiggling it. To the surprise of all it pops open without difficulty. As he fancies his verbal skills as sufficient to distract or deflect any unwanted attention from the group’s activities, Reginald volunteers to stand guard in the courtyard outside the apartments. The three remaining adventurers move quickly into the building and begin as thorough a search of the reception room where the previous night’s party was held as they can without leaving traces of their presence.
Phoenix expresses some disappointment that the food has all been cleared away. Meanwhile, outside, Reginald is becoming increasingly uncomfortable about loitering with no purpose, as he has noticed at least one of the guards paying him just a little too much attention. He quickly decides that his presence is actively drawing unwanted attention and, walking casually, heads back to join his colleagues.
Having discovered nothing in the first chamber, they decide to investigate beyond the locked door at the far end of the room. Effren asks Phoenix to demonstrate what she did with the lock on the main door, and again the lock proves to be little challenge. The room has clearly been laid out as a small study, with a writing desk and a comfortable chair. A stairway leads upwards and Sindawe and Phoenix go to investigate while Effren ransacks the desk and Reginald stands guard by the apartment door.
Despite a careful search, the desk yields nothing but a stack of parchment, a few quills and a pot of ink. Some of the materials have clearly been used, but there is no evidence as to what purpose. In the room above there is copious evidence of occupation, and gear which clearly belongs to Otik’s two bodyguards is neatly stacked against the walls. Again, a search reveals nothing of value.
Clearly frustrated, Effren pushes into what turns out to be Otik’s private chamber. The furnishings are simple but of high quality. Effren begins to open every drawer, cupboard and wardrobe, even inspecting the chamber pot (which, mercifully, is empty). Sindawe takes a more measured approach and eventually notices a discrepancy in the depth of the wardrobe. While feeling around the edges for a hidden catch he leans forward and the wardrobe floor give slightly, then springs back with an audible ‘click’.
Cautiously he draws back, but thankfully no dread trap is unleashed. It is a small matter to work a dagger blade into the small gap at the side of the board, and a hidden compartment is revealed, containing a shallow steel box, secured with a sturdy-looking lock.
Phoenix eagerly grabs the box, twirling her special lock-knife. Moments later she drops the box with a yelp and sucks her thumb as a small needle coated with green ichor springs out from within the lock. Fortunately her strong Half-Orc constitution means she is able to resist the insidious poison. Bending the deadly pin out of the way, Sindawe eventually succeeds in sundering the lock. The box opens to reveal a small stack of neatly written parchment pages.
At that moment, Effren startles and then momentarily assumes a faraway look as he hears in his ear, like a whisper on the wind, the voice of Sarviena, warning that Otik has left the Loan Bank and is making his way back towards his apartment.
Realising that time is short, and seeking to delay Otik as much as possible, Sarviena abandons all caution (and some would say sense) and approaches him directly clutching a bloom which she has through magical means imbued with a most particular and unusual scent. She tries to engage Otik in conversation with expressions of gratitude for the invitation to his party, for which the flower is but a small token.
Otik is polite, but seems intent on returning to his apartment with all haste so, in desperation, Sarviena tries a different approach and begins telling him of her troubled soul and need for salvation, wondering if he can offer her any spiritual guidance. While Otik gives no outward sign of displeasure, Sarviena suddenly finds that Otik’s two bodyguards have interposed themselves between himself and Sarviena, and his gait had changed from an amble back to his apartment to a more purposeful and urgent air.
Meanwhile, a cursory examination of the documents reveals detailed descriptions of the Keep’s defences, troop numbers and dispositions, and much other information useful to an attacker. It is swiftly agreed that the best person to receive this information is Callon, Curate of Torm, as it is his suspicions which have lead to this discovery.
With startling swiftness, Sindawe runs off in the direction of the Temple of Torm, Phoenix trailing in his wake carrying the heavy steel box. Effren follows behind unable to match their pace, while Reginald seeing Otik approaching swiftly with his bodyguards and a thunderous look on his face, bravely interposes himself with an attempt at casual conversation.
A blast of electrical energy arcs from Otik’s warhammer, catching Reginald a telling blow, while one of the bodyguards delivers a crushing mace-strike which knocks Reginald to the floor. "So, not interested in having a chat about things then, eh?" he groans from the floor. Seeing Reginald’s plight Effren dashes back to help his friend, unleashing an eldritch blast of his own which catches one bodyguard full in the chest, leaving him open to a killing blow from Reginald as he surges back to his feet.
Enraged, Otik sends a gout of flame towards the pair, but while it singes hair and clothing it does little real damage. By this time Sarviena, has come up from behind Otik and envelops him and the remaining bodyguard in a wintery cloak which makes the ground beneath them slick and the footing uncertain.
Phoenix rushes back to join the fray, striking wildly with her flail. As Reginald tries to close with the remaining bodyguard he finds his mind filled with dark thoughts of failure and inadequacy and staggers back.
In the Temple of Torm, Sindawe has dispatched a minor priest to find the Curate, Callon. When he appears, Sindawe thrusts the parchment into his hands with a few brief but well-chosen words of explanation before, in his turn, dashing back to where the sounds of battle can clearly be heard.
Phoenix manages to snare Otik with a sinuous swing of her fail momentarily trapping him. In response Otik reaches into a small canvas pouch at his waist, scattering metallic marbles across the ground around him. They pop and fizz for a moment before uncoiling into many-legged metallic horrid - tiny beasts of steel and wire which scuttle towards the nearest enemy, latching themselves on and delivering painful jolts of lightning into their victims’ flesh.
Otik tries to flee but a well-placed blow from Phoenix halts him in his tracks while Sindawe dispatches the bodyguard with an expertly delivered thrust. Effren can no longer resist the growing frenzy in his mind and reaching forward takes the struggling Otik’s head between his hands. The momentary look of surprise on his face disappears as the force of Effren’s psychic blast literally causes his brain to boil.
As the limp corpse slumps to the ground, the party is suddenly surrounded by shouting troops, weapons drawn and angry looks on their faces. The adventurers quickly sheath their weapons and try to explain themselves. Fortunately Callon arrives, clutching the parchments and, after a brief consultation with the sergeant in charge of the troops agrees to bring them to the attention of the Castellan.
After several hours in deep discussion with Callon and his other advisors, the Castellan determines that Otik was indeed a spy and, to the relief of the adventurers, that they have provided a valuable service to the Keep (although it would have been preferable to have kept at least one prisoner alive for questioning). Callon, though it goes somewhat against his principles, agrees to perform a ritual which will allow him to communicate with the dead Otik to see what information can be gleaned.
It proves a long, difficult and unpleasant task, but Callon learns that Otik was due to report his spying to someone known as Jarvis, Junior Director and at a place about three days ride north of the Keep, on the western side of the Dragonspine mountains. Of the God he followed and his religious beliefs, the corpse of Otik remains stubbornly silent.
The Castellan, unable to risk a military incursion into Tilleck, charges the adventurers with the task of discovering what they can about the mysterious Jarvis and reporting back. Each is provided with a mount and suitable provisions for their journey.
October 24th-27th, Year of the Ferret
Travelling carefully, and making several detours and backtracks to confuse their trail, the party heads north along the Dragonspine mountains, avoiding contact with both other travellers and the local inhabitants. It is late in the afternoon as they approach the general area described to them by Callon, so they decide to rest up for the night. Keeping a cold camp for security reasons and standing watches against discovery, they discuss in hushed anticipation what the morning may bring.
After rising early, the adventurers begin to scout the area. Initially their efforts are fruitless but eventually Sindawe notices a slight notch in the granite cliffs of the Dragonspine mountains. Having nothing else to go on, the party decide to head towards it.
As the ground rises into the foothills, vegetation and trees become more sparse so, deciding that their horses may make them too visible they decide to tether them amongst one of the last small clumps of trees and proceed on foot. Sindawe leads the way, senses alert for any signs of danger.
After about an hour or more of cautious progress, Sindawe motions for his companions to come forward. He points to where at some point lost in geological time a large chunk of the cliff face had come crashing down, leaving the notch they had previously observed. Beyond the piles of fallen stone it is just possible to make out several figures clustered around what appears to be a cave opening at the base of the cleft.
Using the rubble for cover, the group approach as close as they can without risking discovery. As they peek over the fallen stone they see two men dressed in chainmail, bashing and cursing what seems to be a metal statue. Beyond them an efficient-looking Dragonborn stands guard.
After a short while the bashing and cursing subsides and the party are surprised to see the statue begin to move, approaching a large rock which it picks up and swiftly crumbles into pebbles and then dust. Satisfied, the two men pick up halberds they had laid down nearby as assume a watchful stance as the metal creature moves onto its next rock.
Deciding that boldness is their best strategy the party move forward, leaving only Sindawe concealed, with his bow drawn in case of trouble. Reginald accosts one of the guards, demanding to be taken to Junior Director Jarvis with some important news. The guards seem impressed by Reginald, but the Dragonborn urges caution as the party are wholly unknown to them and could be anyone.
As other party members add their arguments, perhaps too vehemently, the guards too become sceptical and challenge them to provide proof of their words. When nothing is instantly forthcoming, the guards move in to the attack, viciously swinging their halberds and calling on the metal monster to assist them. The Dragonborn skirts the main group and charges at the vulnerable arcanists at the rear.
A swift flurry of blows leaves Reginald unconscious and bleeding on the ground and Effren staggering and bloodied. Surprised by the speed and power of the assault, the adventurers are momentarily unable to respond effectively. As Sindawe rises from concealment he is confronted by the steaming metal beast which slams its fists together, almost crushing his head.
Things are looking bleak for the party, but little by little they begin to recover. A freezing blast from Sarviena makes the footing treacherous for her enemies, and another chills their bones and makes them slip into a vulnerable position which Phoenix is able to exploit, crashing her alhulak into one of the guards, bringing him to his knees and allowing Sindawe to finish him off with his greatsword.
Phoenix then engages the Dragonborn, protecting her fallen comrade who is now just beginning to stir as Sarviena desperately staunches the flow of blood from his wounds. An eldritch blast from Effren is sufficient to render him very slightly dead.
The metal creature still clatters around wreaking terrible damage on the few occasions when it manages to connect. Sarviena moves to the cave entrance to warn of any approaching reinforcements, while preventing the remaining guard from easily summoning them. Reginald struggles to his feet and, quickly spotting a weakness in the steaming beast shouts an order to Phoenix who, unusually, follows it immediately and brings the creature down in a crash of hot metal and flying cogs.
The remaining guard, common sense overcoming duty, tries to make his escape but in doing so leaves himself vulnerable and a well aimed blow from Sindawe brings him down. "That was good plan," says Phoenix surveying the wreckage of battle around her with no hint of sarcasm. "They dead, we not - good plan!"
Taking a moment to recover their strength and allow the ringing in Sindawe’s ears to subside, the group make a quick check of the bodies. They are disappointed to find nothing on the guards but a pair of small tokens bearing the same sign as that carried by Otik. Phoenix gleefully rips a large silver ring from the finger of the dead Dragonborn. Her smile fades when Reginald instructs her to place it in the pouch with the few coins the Dragonborn was also carrying.
Cautiously they venture into the cave, the light from outside fading rapidly the deeper they go. A door on one side of the tunnel is matched by an arch on the other. A quick check of each reveals nothing but a storeroom and a guardroom, presumably used by their now rapidly cooling erstwhile foes.
Again they move forward, trying (not always successfully) to move quietly. Sindawe motions the group to halt. Despite the darkness, his elvish eyes can see that they are about to enter a large chamber, hung about with heavy draperies. As he takes a step forward to see what else may be in the room, the black candles in eight great candelabras suspended from the ceiling magically spring to life, bathing everything with a repulsive red glow.
To one side of the room, suspended in a frame, stands a huge black-iron bell, with a pair of strikers standing one on either side of the frame. The curtains are of a lurid purple, shot through with scarlet, black and gold threads in disgusting and disturbing patterns. The floor is polished black stone with red veins snaking across it. Standing in front of the one uncurtained wall are four rows of dark wooden pews.
The wall itself is of translucent red stone, seemingly of one piece and polished to a mirror-like finish. Shapeless forms of purple, yellow and green seem to move either within it or behind it. Sindawe finds it fascinating, and quickly moves forward to sit in one of the pews so that he can study it more closely. As he does so, he begins to hum an otherworldly tune under his breath.
Reginald, although he has no idea what is going on, knows that it cannot be good and tries to restrain Sindawe, but only manages to slow him down slightly. The rest of the party move to assist as Effren too begins to feel himself being drawn to the fascinating patterns that the wall creates in his mind.
Sarviena is about to shout a warning when suddenly, from between the curtains behind the Great Bell, come three small, agile scaly creatures. "Kobolds," snarls Phoenix unshipping her trusty alhulak. "They are but three, we shall best them easily," Reginald contends confidently. The smile on his face dims somewhat when one of them dashes forward with some speed, its shortsword opening a nasty wound on his exposed thigh. A second slashes wildly at Phoenix, fortunately missing.
The room fills with the sound of blows and fizzes with magic as battle is joined. Sarviena snatches a momentary opportunity to slap Sindawe around the face, trying to bring him out of it. Amazingly, she succeeds. Seeing this, Phoenix attempts the same with Effren, merely succeeding in loosening several of his teeth before in her turn she becomes fascinated by the pretty swirling patterns on the wall.
As she begins also to hum the otherworldly tune, the other members of the party suddenly notice that the Great Bell is beginning to resonate with arcane power. "That’s probably not good," Sindawe ventures, stealing a glance at Phoenix and Effren. The wall begins to capture his attention again as Sarviena drops one of the Kobolds with a magical shaft of ice.
Striking another enemy down Reginald rushes towards the bell, grabbing at one of the strikers. Just as he is about, for some insane reason only he understands, to smite the Great Bell, Effren, momentarily shaking off the seductive lure of the wall shouts, "NO!" While rending the heart from the chest of the remaining Kobold. "I suggest we leave this place, right NOW!"
As they drag their unwilling comrades from within the chamber, it seems as though the spell is broken, the vile candles are snuffed out and they recover their senses. "That was ... interesting," Effren remarks with some feeling. "Nearly too interesting!" Again it seems a moment of rest is appropriate, so the party slump gratefully to the ground.
As their breathing slows and their hearts still their frantic pounding, the party become aware of a voice coming from down the corridor ahead of them. The words are unclear but the tone is unmistakable - someone is being vigorously ‘encouraged’. Sindawe sneaks closer, followed by Effren.
The corridor opens out into a large chamber bathed in a dim and flickering light. Two braziers stand on either side of a large throne of garnet-encrusted ivory. On the other sides stand two further thrones of bone. Slumped in each lies the skeleton of what must have been a very robust warrior, still clad in rags of chainmail and with their rusted weapons lying at their feet.
In front of all cower four small scaly humanoids, easily recognisable as more Kobolds, being berated by a figure cast in the same mould as the late and unlamented Otik. He urges them to ever greater effort in expanding the underground complex, so that all may be ready for ‘the Coming’. Seeing no signs of either life or ‘unlife’ in the skeletons, Sindawe motions for the rest of the party to come forward. Phoenix, aware of the potential for her armour to clank, her shield to scrape a wall or her alhulak to drag on the floor, hangs back for a moment as her companions move silently forward.
With a stirring cry Sindawe launches himself into the room swinging wildly for one of the startled Kobolds, but misses. Phoenix comes clattering up from the rear, alhulak flying. However, she stubs her toe on a small protrusion on the floor and also misses. Silently cursing both his companions’ ineptitude and the Kobold closest to him, Effren unleashes an eldritch blast against the priest, which fizzes harmlessly past.
Reginald calls for the group to get its act together, inspiring Phoenix to once more swing for the Kobold next to her, this time connecting with a meaty thunk and a satisfying splatter of brain. Sarviena, feeling the power rising within her like a drug, summons an icy blast which flings the skeleton from its perch on the ivory throne, through a brazier and onto the floor where it lies, flames licking lazily around it. The skeleton to the right also slithers to the floor in a tangled heap. Nodding with satisfaction, Sarviena is pleased that at least her efforts did not get wasted.
Sindawe swings his greatsword, once more to no effect. Phoenix can do no better with her alhulak, distracted by the sight of the burning skeleton rising from the floor, its eye sockets blazing like hot coals and flames dripping from its bony fingers. The priest, outraged at the invasion of his sacred precincts shouts out, "Now redeem your pledge at last!" To the horror of the party, the second and third skeletons also rise to their feet, one thrusting its hand into the brazier next to it, the other taking flame from the first.
The air is suddenly filled with globs of fire as the Blazing Skeletons fling parts of their essence at the invaders. Reginald, Sindawe and Sarviena are immediately and painfully hit with flames which seem unwilling to be extinguished. The priest, calling on the aid of his unknown god, is bathed in a blinding glow whilst a flash from his holy symbol leaves spots dancing before Effren’s eyes which cause his next attack to go awry. The squealing Kobolds thrust ineffectually with the javelins they carry, their blows skittering off Phoenix’s armour.
Reginald steps forward and, with a decisive blow dispatches one of them - not an easy task as he is also trying to swat out the flames which flicker across his clothing. Sarviena targets another blast of cold, this time at the priest, catching him full in the chest and sending him to his knees, allowing Sindawe to stride forward and bury his greatsword in the man’s body.
Phoenix, finally getting into the swing of things, brings another crashing blow down on the head of a Kobold which is effectively defenceless against her strength and ire. With the utter indifference which only the undead can muster, the skeletons continue to fling their fiery essence at the intruders, a splash of flame singeing Phoenix’s braids and raising an angry welt on her cheek, whilst a slashing claw of flame rips into Sindawe.
As the battle turns more in favour of the adventurers, Effren calls down demonic power on one of the Blazing Skeletons, and is horribly disappointed when the hellish flames seem to have only minimal effect. "Oh. Fire. Already burning. Makes sense now," he mutters to himself. Seeing Sindawe’s plight, Reginald offers words of inspiration and succour which seem to have the desired effect, and the momentary respite from fighting allows Reginald to also extinguish the remaining flames from his own clothing.
Sarviena, her blood now up and seeing how little effect fire has on the creatures, fills the area around one of the Blazing Skeletons with ice, causing her target to momentarily falter. Sindawe, also furious, makes a mighty blow which shatters through the skull, ribcage and pelvis of the skeleton in front of him, throwing it to the floor with a clatter of charred bone, while Phoenix mercilessly dispatches the last cringing Kobold.
With only two foes remaining, the group attacks with renewed vigour and accuracy, and it is not long before the last burning skull is sent clattering into a corner of the room. Phoenix beats out the last of the flames which cling to her body before looking at the rest of the party. They are a sorry sight indeed - battered, bleeding and burned, they do not inspire confidence. Whilst busily hacking what garnets she can from the ivory throne, she looks to Reginald for leadership, and he makes the sensible decision to retreat overnight and recover, and to repair and replace their damaged equipment.
Dragging the corpse of the slain priest with them until it can be dumped beyond hope of easy discovery, the group limps back to where their horses are tethered, having first looted the body of armour and weapons. After resting once more they ride back the way they have come, sending Sarviena’s owl familiar ahead to scout for dangers. Sarviena acquires a faraway look in her eyes as she views the scene that the owls sees. She begins to sway and slump in her saddle, and Reginald is forced to apply a steadying hand.
The news is not good. Their visit has not gone unremarked - how could it have? Alert guards are now patrolling the entrance, and in worrying numbers. Sarviena keeps her awareness with the owl through the long watches of the night, using its keen senses to ensure that the group is not taken unawares in the darkness. Come morning she is staggering with weariness, but vows to continue as soon as she has grabbed a few moments rest.
Perhaps as there has been no immediate threat, or just through inexperience or lack of training, the guards at the entrance are taken unawares by the party’s renewed assault, with one dropping immediately. However, they quickly assume a more disciplined appearance, the more so when additional warriors come running from within. They seem to gain strength in numbers and attack wildly, quickly surrounding Phoenix and Sindawe.
However, rested, refreshed and renewed, the party begin relentlessly to cut them down, giving no quarter to the fallen. Two guards with halberds briefly cause trouble, but recognising the greater threat, the party focus their attention on the unlucky pair, leaving their lifeless eyes blanking staring at the sky as their lifeblood seeps into the ground.
Lacking leadership and their confidence broken by their rapidly diminishing numbers, the remaining defenders are quickly disposed of. A thorough search of the corpses reveals little of value, but Effren is perplexed by the strange mismatched plates of metal which have been magically fused into their flesh. "That why they difficult to hit," observes Phoenix. "They still die good though," she grins. As an exhausted Sarviena catnaps, Reginald, Sindawe and Effren discuss what they have learned, but cannot fathom who would do such a thing or why, or even if the warriors submitted willingly to the doubtless painful process.
"We must seek our answers within," Reginald decides and so, rousing Sarviena they advance cautiously. Phoenix is once more fascinated by the shapes and colours within the wall of the minor chapel, but her friends propel her through that cursed space before she is fully entranced. They reach the scene of their last bloody victory of the previous day, seeing the room much as they left it. "Cleaner must be on holiday," Reginald observes, dryly.
A rough corridor has been hacked into the wall to their left, while a more skilfully made entrance yawns to the right. Ahead of them a stout wooden door bars their progress. A whispered but heated discussion ensues as to the most likely location of the mysterious Junior Director Jarvis.
With bad grace from some of the members on the losing side of the argument, the party proceeds down the well built corridor, quickly coming across several rooms - a kitchen graced by the partially butchered corpse of a horse, a number of bedchambers and, finally, the heavily barred entrance to a very large room. Reginald swings a mighty blow with the warhammer he ‘liberated’ from the corpse of the dead priest, shattering the lock with a mighty clang and swinging the door wide. "Do you think anyone heard that?" Sarviena asks innocently.
The room has clearly seen much use - from the variety of equipment spread about, until quite recently as a torture chamber. Now it shows much evidence of use as a dormitory for the Kobold miners employed to enlarge the temple. The large cells at one end of the room have been appropriated by the larger, meaner ones with the rest slumping wherever they can find a space. Small chambers at the other end spark Effren’s interest but he quickly reels back from the intense latrine odours which emerge when he kicks the first door open.
Having drawn a blank, Reginald leads the party back to the main chamber, followed all the while by Sindawe’s meaningful stare. It is Sindawe’s council which is followed and which leads the group through the heavy wooden door. Alert for traps they are relieved to find none. Pressing his ear gently against the door at the far end of the short corridor, Sindawe whispers that he can hear the sounds of activity beyond.
Weapons at the ready, the party kick through the door and stumble into the brightly lit chamber beyond. Glass cabinets filled with unknowable devices line the walls, whilst workers toil at low tables, flashes of light coming from the items they are handling. It seems that the occupants are more alert than the deceased guards at the entrance as, with a guttural command from an overseer, one of the workers is thrust forward, raising his axe into Sindawe’s face as he does so. Other workers also leap forward, swinging the longswords which were lying ready by their sides.
Lashing tendrils of flame emanate from the hands of the overseers, bursting in front of the group and slowing their progress. A vicious melee ensues, with blows struck on both sides, to varying effect. Sindawe lunges for one of the overseers, attempting to pin him to the wall. However, the man slashes viciously with his dagger, forcing Sindawe to stagger back towards a great iron pillar which is supporting the roof at the far end of the room. He feels an unsettling presence in his mind, but he is so focussed on his prey that he still staggers a few steps after him before the darkness in his head closes in.
Reginald and Phoenix leap for the other overseer, taking a few minor blows from the workers engaged by Effren and Sarviena, who efficiently begin to reduce their numbers. With a defiant shake of his head Sindawe regains his senses and guts his surprised foe. Phoenix and Reginald similarly discomfit the other overseer, while Effren swiftly conceals his look of unholy pleasure as the last worker drops twitching to the floor.
Sarviena, meanwhile, fascinated by the iron pillar and unaware of the danger previously experienced by Sindawe, strides boldly forward to examine it in more detail...
As she moves forwards, Sarviena feels a sudden uneasiness, almost as if an unfamiliar presence is probing her mind for signs of weakness. Unsettled, she decides to calm herself with the prospect of potential loot in the room she is passing, gently easing the door open before stealing a look inside.
Effren decides on a much more robust approach to the locked portal on the other side of the room, sending an eldritch blast sizzling through the air and into the lock. A might swing from the hammer wielded by Reginald ‘Door-bane’ finishes the job, and the heavy metal plate crashes to the floor in the chamber beyond.
Phoenix’s attention seems elsewhere as she suddenly looks dazed. Meanwhile, Sarviena congratulates herself on the discovery of several heavy, and heavily worked, copper vessels. Sadly, her mood soon drops as she realises that the weight and bulk of the items means that she will have to share with her comrades.
For a moment Effren struggles to make sense of what he sees in the dim, dust-laden light. A double row of large metal canisters lines each side of the room, each with a glass window through which can be seen the reclining form of a human, dressed in temple robes. As he approaches to give his opinion on the discovery, Sindawe again feels the unsettling presence in his mind, but this time shakes it off.
Resorting to his favourite plan of action, Effren tries blasting the strange containers, but to no effect except an alarming ricochet. After peering through the gloom for a moment, Phoenix grunts, "Look like they dead, best not wake them in case they angry you smash their place." With that she turns on her heel and, swinging her alhulak, goes looking for a more lively target.
Sindawe, noting the distracted looks which settle from time to time on the faces of his comrades, and having felt the intrusions into his own mind, becomes suspicious of the heavy iron pillar supporting the ceiling at the far end of the chamber. As he approaches, he once more feels the probing tendrils in his mind and, fearful of triggering some deadly trap with a misplaced step, responds by throwing scraps of metal and wire from a nearby table across the room.
Becoming bored with the lack of opportunity to kill something, Phoenix takes a heavy swipe at the iron pillar with her alhulak, and is surprised and mortified when it swerves away from the blow and uncoils itself, revealing something with the appearance of a large metal snake.
The vision of horror once more lashes out psychically as the party close in on it, striking Reginald hard enough to stop him in his tracks. Sarviena avoids getting close enough to draw the creature’s attention, and sends icy blast skittering across the room.
Effren, seeking a better position from which to attack, sneaks up behind the beast, but in doing so triggers a message which hangs briefly in the air before flickering out again. Momentarily distracted by the apparition, Sindawe suffers a poisonous bite which he can feel rapidly draining his strength.
Enraged, Phoenix steps in and deals a jarring blow with the reinforced tip of her alhulak, forcing the metal beast to retreat to one corner where a further succession of heavy blows finally dispatch it, but not before Phoenix is herself also bitten.
Giving a final kick to the shattered remains on the floor, she sucks hard on her wound to draw out the poison. Spitting on the floor and with a disgusted look on her face, she mutters, "Tastes of strawberries. Hate strawberries!" Having also drained Sindawe’s injury, the party are disappointed that their search of the sprawled bodies which surround them reveals little of values. Somewhat reluctantly Sarviena distributes her prized copper vessels.
Cautiously Effren once more approaches the spot where the message was seen and, sure enough, it reappears flickering and sparkling before him. He struggles to read it as the meaning seems to jump and change with each flicker. "Best I can make out," he murmurs, deep in concentration, "it says something like ‘Take (or, maybe) choose the correct (or, possibly) right path’. What do you think?
Sarviena points to the exotic looking mosaic which covers the floor of the corridor in front of them. "Something to do with that, perhaps?" she says raising an eyebrow. Six large symbols lie in a line, with a multitude of others making a seemingly random pattern beyond. Reginald and Sindawe crowd closer for a better look.
As they do so, the smaller symbols in the mosaic suddenly seem to jump and shift, settling once more into a new configuration. "That was unexpected," comments Reginald dryly, "as was that", as he points to the glowing red barriers of energy which have appeared both behind the party and at the far end of the corridor.
Much discussion ensues until Effren bravely steps out into the corridor. He is rewarded for his effort by a small but intense jet of flame coming from the middle of the area of floor he stepped on. Phoenix and Sarviena, starting in a different place, also try to make their way across, but again both get singed.
After several more painful errors, Sarviena suddenly claps her hand to her forehead and confidently directs Effren from one group of symbols to the next. As he successfully reaches the far end of the corridor the energy barriers wink out of existence and the rest of the party rush forward before any more untoward effects can occur.
From their position of new-found safety, the group can now hear a sonorous voice declaiming at the far end of the massive chamber on whose threshold they now stand. In front of him stand two Human figures holding a third between them on its knees with head slumped forward. Several Kobolds stand in groups watching the proceedings.
"None shall be sacrificed here this day!" exclaims Sindawe as he rushes headlong into the room, instantly attracting all eyes to himself.
The once sonorous voice now hisses in an outraged tone, "Purge the Temple of defilers!", and the Kobolds rush towards Sindawe, drawing weapons as they come. Fortunately their enthusiasm is greater that their aim but he is hard-pressed to deflect the sudden rain of blows.
"I do wish he’d stop doing that," grunts Reginald to no-one in particular before moving forward to get a better view of the battle and give some well-directed encouragement to his friends.
With a startling lack of gratitude, even the Human Slave whose execution he had forestalled leaps forward to attack the exposed Sindawe, with several blows finding their mark as the Kobold spin their twin stabbing swords in a whirl of steel. To make matters worse, following a muttered incantation from Jarvis, they seem surrounded by a blinding glow which seems to lend them renewed strength.
However, a freezing burst from Sarviena drops one, and opens a gap which Phoenix quickly fills with her whirling alhulak dropping another assailant and giving the heavily bleeding Sindawe a momentary breathing space during which he realises he can no longer move and his legs feel like they have been chiselled from stone.
Reginald and Effren rush forward to his aid, while Phoenix continues to swing wildly. Sarviena notices that one of the Kobolds is hanging back, while staring intently at Sindawe and muttering darkly under its breath. Quickly she sends a lance of ice flying across the room breaking its concentration, and hence the malign enchantment.
With renewed heart the companions begin methodically to set about and despatch their foes. It is by no means one sided. A huge (for a Kobold) Kobold swings a huge (for a Kobold) battleaxe, hitting Phoenix squarely in the knees, while opening a gaping wound on Reginald’s thigh with the return stroke. One of the Slaves strikes Sindawe firmly between the eyes with the knobbly club he carries, and Jarvis fills the room with arcs of divine light.
Effren, deciding that he has had enough of this, strides forwards and, summoning all the power he can muster, seizes one of the larger Kobolds with a diabolic grasp and rips its throat out. Phoenix, whilst slowed by her injuries, is very much still in the fight and brains another Kobold with a deft blow.
Reginald also dispatches an enemy but cannot explain why his efforts suddenly seem hopeless and doomed to defeat. As he is distracted by the psychic storm raging through his mind, one of the remaining Kobolds drive both his swords into Reginald’s back dropping him to the floor in a slowly spreading pool of blood.
Sindawe uses his remaining strength to swing his greatsword into Jarvis but cannot evade the counter-strike which swiftly follows, especially as it seems that flames leap from the blade, eager to consume his flesh. He too crashes to the floor, twitching as he burns.
Phoenix contemptuously disposes of her last foe before rushing forward to try to help Reginald, bashing his head on the floor to try to revive him. Sarviena unleashes a zone of cold on the increasingly confident Jarvis, while Effren follows it with another eldritch blast which strikes home to great effect and causes Jarvis’ smile to falter.
An exasperated Effren calls out, "Phoenix, please, STOP HELPING REGINALD, and kill this misbegotten son of a Drow!" Feeling much better after her short rest, if somewhat unappreciated, obliges with a sweeping blow of her alhulak which winds Jarvis and momentarily fouls his sword arm, allowing Effren to unleash another magical blast which ends the evil Drow’s unworthy life.
Sarviena, meanwhile, has administered somewhat more conventional healing remedies to Reginald and is helping him groggily back to his feet. Dazed as he is, Reginald finds it hard to focus, but Effren guides his hand towards the prostrate Sindawe and a gentle flow of healing energy drags Sindawe back from the threshold of death’s portal.
The remaining Kobold takes his opportunity to flee the scene, uttering loud squeals of alarm. Realising they have little time before a counterattack may be mounted the party quickly loot Jarvis’ body before penetrating his inner chambers. There they find evidence of luxurious living not afforded to his minions, with rich furniture and drapes, and a silk-sheeted bed in one corner. Sarviena’s attention is drawn to a hideous statue mounted on a wall over the bed. Fancying that she spies a hidden chamber she pulls hard on the statue, pulling it forward - unfortunately right on top of herself. Her pain is proven worthwhile as a small box containing a goodly number of coins and small gems is revealed.
Spurning such mundane matters, Effren has been studying a tome he has found resting on a lectern to one side of the room. He struggles with briefly with the unfamiliar symbols until with a shout of triumph he reads, "The Manual of Tek!" Sindawe and Reginald agree that this is a significant find which they should take for further study but, as Effren lifts the volume from its resting place, a deep resonant clang sounds throughout the whole Temple.
"Alarm," notes Phoenix, unnecessarily. As the great Black Iron bell continues to toll, the whole Temple begins to shudder as dust and flakes of rock start to fall from the ceilings. Sindawe looks questioningly at his companions. "Run?" "Run" they unanimously concur. Effren is horrified as he sees the strangely slick and glossy pages of his prize begin to darken and smoulder. Quickly he discards the book, as it takes flame and is rapidly consumed.
It is now no longer dust and flakes raining down from above, but chunks and slabs which impart new urgency to the party’s flight. Ahead of them through the choking dust they can see other figures preceding them or being trapped beneath falling stone. Dodging, leaping over the fallen, they, after what seems like ages but is surely in truth only moments, fall gasping out of the Temple entrance into the gathering night, pursued by thunderous crashes and plumes of dust and jagged rock-shards.
Shaking grit and debris from his hair, Reginald looks around and makes a quick tactical assessment. Deciding that hanging about while enemy forces of unknown size, strength and disposition might be gathering themselves for a renewed assault seems a less than ideal option, he suggests the party head for the horses they have tethered nearby and be elsewhere before the gathering gloom hampers their progress.
Having put many miles between themselves and the wreck of the Temple of Tek, the group find a small valley, its entrance well screened by a stand of trees, where they can make camp for the night and tend to their gear and wounds in relative safety.
October 29th-November 1st, Year of the Ferret
After a tense but uneventful night, the party make their way back south and east towards the Keep of Dol Darin, keeping to back roads and avoiding contact with other travellers wherever possible. At last the friendly trees of the Homewood hove into view and Sindawe urges his horse towards them, informing his friends that he must report recent events to the Elven Council. The remaining comrades press on, to make their own report to the Castellan of Dol Darin.
November 2nd, Year of the Ferret
Late in the afternoon the turrets and sturdy walls of Dol Darin command the horizon. Flags and banners snap in the stiff breeze. The Corporal of the Watch greets them with a surly stare while, after a brief enquiry as to the health and situation of Sindawe, the scribe is wreathed in smiles. As the party make their way further within, they just catch the clink of heavy coins being thrust into someone’s hands with considerable ill-grace.
Finding the Captain of the Guard, they make a brief report. The Captain bids them wait while he informs the Castellan of their presence and, in due time, they are summoned to a council comprising the Castellan and his senior advisors. Troubled by the content of the information they have furnished, the Castellan resolves to use other of his extensive resources to investigate further.
He thanks the party for their efforts by allowing them to keep the horses he has previously lent them, and gives them, and the currently absent Sindawe, two weeks of free lodging and (with a pointed look at Phoenix) reasonable food and beverage privileges at the Inn.
Sindawe’s report similarly troubles the Elven Council. After a period of consideration they decide that, as the most likely source of the recent unhappy events, this new god or religion, or whatever it is that ‘Tek’ may be, would be the most fruitful trail along which Sindawe should pursue his enquiries and that, as the pre-eminent centre of religious knowledge in the region, Fort would be the place to begin asking discrete questions.
November 3rd-16th, Year of the Ferret
Sindawe rejoins his companions as they recover their strength, repair or replace their gear and enjoy all the meagre hospitality which Dol Darin can muster. One evening, as they are concluding their repast, they fall into conversation with a merchant who, by happy coincidence is looking for reliable assistance on his journey back to his home in Fort. Terms are negotiated, agreements made and plans put in place. It seems but a minor yet convenient commission, and that the greatest danger would surely be the merchant’s unpleasant and demanding wife.
November 17th, Year of the Ferret
The party leave the comforts of Dol Darin and head off down the road to Fort. It quickly becomes clear that the merchant’s wife will have none of the rigors and privations of the Swamp Road, even when reassured of its renewed safety and speed of travel. The merchant, knowing which battles to pick, chooses to concede that the slower but less fragrant route is perhaps more suitable to their needs.
November 18th-26th, Year of the Ferret
The merchant’s wagon rattles onwards, accompanied by the party and the merchant’s two guards, each of whom barely restrains a large fierce dog on a thick leather and chain leash. The party quickly settles into a routine, occasionally enlivened by a brief hunt to supplement the dinner-pot if no convenient lodging can be found for the night. The party amuse themselves with speculation as to the merchant’s wares as he is devoid of bulky cargo, yet seems quite well-to-do.
November 27th, Year of the Ferret
By mid-morning it is clear that the merchant’s directions have lead the party to the Ruatha-Fort border. A watchtower surveys the pass, and guards on the Fort side, wearing white surcoats emblazoned with a ring of symbols representing all the major (and many minor) gods, verify the religious commitment of all who would seek entry into their land.
It seems, though, as if this is merely an administrative exercise as but a few steps within Ruathan territory there are many booths and stalls selling, and buying, all manner of religious paraphernalia. Effren advises his comrades to select anything which takes their fancy as the rule most assiduously enforced by the Fortian Religious Hierarchy is that all must be able to show some form of piety, or face the harshest punishments.
As they make their selections the group hear a growing confrontation as their employer remonstrates ever more fiercely with the guards about the levies they intend to impose upon him. Hearing imprecations relating to parentage, species and procreational habits, Reginald decides that guarding the merchant should include saving him from himself, and swiftly uses the diplomatic skills he learned in the service of Lord Lodur to smooth things over.
November 28th-30th, Year of the Ferret
The merchant directs the party down a lesser road which he says leads to his home village of Orlane. It is clear that this is a less travelled route, and the merchant’s guards are noticeably more attentive to their duties. In conversation during one of their rest stops Reginald questions the merchant further, and he confines that there have been a number of what he delicately describes as ‘incidents’, hence his concern to bring along additional security.
December 1st, Year of the Ferret
An uneventful morning passes with the path continuing to wend its way through shallow valleys and over low passes. Scrubby bushes grow close to the road, while thicker undergrowth and larger trees begin to screen the hills which now rise on either side.
Seeing the merchant’s increasing nervousness, Reginald questions him again. "Anything you think we should be aware of? Anything, at all?" Just as the merchant draws breath to answer, there is a heavy thunk of a crossbow bolt embedding itself into the wood of the wagon, scant inches from his hand. Another, meatier thunk, followed by a gasp and the sound of a body slumping to the ground, confirms that they are under attack.
A further bolt pins the body of one of the dogs to that of its master, the bolt protruding from the man’s eye socket clearly indicating that he is beyond all mortal help. Squawking like a startled chicken, the merchant’s wife scrambles down from the wagon, seeking dubious safety by cowering behind the spokes of its wheel. The merchant swiftly follows, seeking the much more robust safety of hiding behind her impressively upholstered body.
Sindawe is already moving, tumbling from his horse and hitting the ground at a dead run while reaching for his bow. Effren too dismounts, although in a more measured way, scanning the heavy foliage for the source of the deadly bolts. Urging her reluctant mount a little further along the path in case the view is clear, Sarviena thinks she sees something move and unleashes a blast of ice in that direction but can not tell whether she connected with anything more than twigs or leaves.
Phoenix remains with the wagon, ignoring the stupid dog which snarls at her, unsure of who its enemy might be. Its handler, despite a clear instruction to protect the merchant, runs eagerly forward only to be thrown back by a bolt through his shoulder. He stumbles back to the wagon, groaning and wiser. Reginald has been watching events closely, and quickly comes to the conclusion that the attackers are swiftly moving from one carefully chosen hiding place to the next after each shot.
However, it appears the adventurers efforts to close in on their ambushers have caused them to have a change of heart. Sindawe finds one of their lairs, but it seems the occupiers are nowhere in sight. "Follow or avoid," Sindawe shouts to Reginald. Before he can answer, Effren firmly states that one fat merchant and a few gold pieces are insufficient inducement for him to throw his life away following enemies into who knows what deadfalls, tricks and other surprises. With that he strides purposefully back to where his horse stands patiently chewing on some tough grass.
"It seems we have a plan," Reginald remarks dryly, before following. Sindawe, whilst detesting the thought of letting the murderous brigands escape, can see the excessive dangers of the pursuit only too clearly and reluctantly agrees to move on.
The complaints of the merchant’s wife grow louder and more insistent until, seeing the murderous look in Phoenix’s eyes Reginald quietly suggests to the merchant that, if he wishes to still have a wife, a few moments of well chosen silence might be appropriate lest she bring their enemies down on their heads with her infernal noise.
Reginald and Effren continue to question the merchant about his knowledge of the road and its potential dangers, but there is little he knows for certain except for its general geography and a few lurid stories of missing travellers or supply wagons. He is, however, convinced that attacks are not random as common people with little in the way of useful goods or wealth seem able to pass unmolested.
The merchant warns his protectors that they are about to enter yet another ravine, but one which is particularly narrow. Seeing that the wife is about to express herself once more, the party decides to leave her and her husband in the care of their remaining guard while they cautiously advance.
The road dips down between two rocky walls, and only a few scrubby bushes and trees can maintain a foothold in the thin soil. A broken wagon bed lies to one side. Sindawe’s sharp eyes pick out movement ahead and he motions his companions quietly forward. However, as they creep between two of the larger trees, a shout comes from behind them.
Immediately two figures swing down from a pair of trees a few tens of feet ahead of them. In their hands the hold stout ropes, and their weight drags a heavy net up between the trees, cutting off any possibility of escape in that direction. Behind them too, figures descend from the trees - another net closing the trap around the party.
Sindawe is already moving, his new falchion whistling through the air as it is unsheathed. Only his quick reactions prevent the Hobgoblin which steps out from behind the wagon impaling him with its spear. He is forced to duck and weave as the two men facing him whip out hand crossbows and begin to send their small but deadly bolts hurtling towards him.
As Sindawe’s companions turn to face the threat behind them, an arrogant and familiar voice snarls an oath at Phoenix. "Time for my just desserts, you pig-faced bitch!" With that a man swings down from one of the trees and rushes forward wildly waving a longsword. Phoenix watches for a few seconds, judging the best moment to strike.
As soon as the man, easily recognisable as the one with whom she exchanged fisticuffs on her first day at Dol Darin, comes within reach she whirls her trusty alhulak catching Samm resounding blows with both the leading and return strokes and decorating the road with his brains. "You right ‘bout that, little man," she grunts.
Intent on releasing the net which is trapping the party, Sindawe quickly realises that he is surrounded by foes eager for his blood. Soon he is giving them what they want, as a succession of blows find their mark. His companions, however, have troubles of their own. More bandits appear, and it is all the party can do to withstand the sudden assault.
Sindawe is able to cut down one of the crossbowmen, but the Hobgoblins are another matter entirely, their long spears weaving an impenetrable defence. Another enemy falls, this time to an arcane blast from Effren, but the crossbow bolts still raining down on them make an effective attack difficult for the adventurers.
Sarviena manages to slow one of the advancing brigands down by turning the ground at his feet to a slick sheet of ice, while Phoenix gets up close and personal with another, her fearsome grin unnerving him at a critical moment when he should have been raising his handaxe to intercept the incoming tip of her alhulak.
As if Sindawe’s situation is not dire enough, a figure appears on a small ledge a few yards above his head. It seems as though he was about to make a speech or utter an exhortation but, seeing his forces struggling with enemies he clearly expected to already be subdued, he swears quite creatively while pointing his glittering sword at the hard-pressed Elf. Fortunately the bolt of energy it releases does no more than kick up gravel and grass from the roadside as Sindawe barely manages to dance out of its way.
Reginald engages an enemy to his left while shouting encouragement to Sindawe, who takes advantage of the distraction to rake his falchion across the exposed stomach of one of his Hobgoblin assailants, leaving it to fall into a pile of its own entrails. Phoenix also catches the crossbowman closest to her with her alhulak, its chain wrapping itself around the mans arm. With a deft yank and twist, Phoenix pulls him forward onto the icy ground where he loses his footing and slips, landing with a crash on one of the alhulak’s four blades.
"Messy, but effective," Effren comments as he sends another eldritch blast sizzling through the air. Tremas the brigand, his intended target, ducks beneath the searing flame, and when he stands once more his face is consumed with wrath. He brings his sword up again, intending to snuff out Sindawe’s life but, as he does so, Sarviena hurls another blast of intense cold which forces him back and spoils his aim.
It is clear that the battle is now very much in favour of the party. Reginald parries a desperate blow from the mace-wielding brigand with whom he is engaged, before dropping the man with a well-aimed strike of his own. Phoenix frees her weapon from the chest or the corpse at her feet and promptly embeds it in the throat of his companion. Sindawe ducks away from the Hobgoblin in front of him, leaving and opening through which an increasingly wild-eyed Effren is able to send a plume of magical energy. The Hobgoblin’s eyes bulge as its throat is savagely crushed.
Panting Effren shakes his head to clear the momentary madness, "S..sorry. Prisoner. We wanted a p..prisoner, didn’t we?" He can not help noticing the worried looks his companions give him, but he can not tell whether the concern is for his wellbeing, or their own.
Phoenix finishes wiping her weapon on a dead man’s shirt before nodding to the ledge from which Tremas so recently disappeared. "So, we gonna let that rabbit run too?"
Notes from 19th January 2013: Experience points and treasure ... For murdering a poor innocent sleeping Cave Bear who wasn't harming anyone: 125xp, 12gp, 5sp each (except Sarviena who had more class) For disposing of Tremas's roadblock (Enforcer/two Wolves): 65xp, 4gp each (including Sarviena who apparently doesn't like Wolves as much as she likes Cave Bears) For getting the tar beaten out of you by three itty-bitty little Lizardfolk): 150xp each
Yeah.....I think I made it to 3rd Level!!!!!
Speaking as my character "I didn't want to attack the bear but as Phoenixs attacked it then I do put Phoenix life above that of a dangerous natural animal" (my guys not that big on nature so attacking the bear didnt cause any great morale dilemas).
My 'Wizard' Effren has also discovered a new spell that allows him to cast spells through melee weapons (good idea on the Eldritch Strike guys, very much the spell required for Effren to get into melee a lot more and be pretty effective).
Can't wait till 4th level, I've looked up my options for multi-class mage and it gives me a good spell to make my guy more adaptable.
Reginald is quick to point out that their employer may have reservations about being left alone with only a wounded guard and a fearsome wife for protection, while Sarviena speculates that even now the brigand could be marshalling new forces to return to the attack. As the argument passes back and forth Phoenix amuses herself with a little light looting.
Effren points out that the longer they discuss the further away Tremas may be getting and that, rather than arguing over Korwyn’s supposed thoughts and intentions, perhaps a more productive course would be to ask him. Sindawe dashes off with his best turn of speed back to the waiting wagon.
The merchant swiftly weighs the bargain and decides that a dead enemy is less bother than a live one with a grudge and who knows how many confederates hunting them down. The party therefore soon find themselves scrabbling up the steep and rocky stream bed towards the ledge where Tremas was last seen.
The hard rock of the ledge swiftly gives way to softer material behind which has been deeply incised by the waters of the stream. Following the stream back for a few tens of yards they see a trail leading off up the slope, with fresh boot marks in the mud indicating the likely course of Tremas’ flight.
Redoubling their efforts, they run as swiftly as they can up the trail until it forks, a patch of stony ground temporarily disguising their quarry’s path. As each route seems of equal merit they can but guess, choosing the left trail due to some barely distinguishable scuff marks at the limits of even Sindawe’s sharp eyes.
Soon they are entering a large stony bowl, scooped out of the side of the hill. Scrubby bushes are dotted around the floor of the bowl, but few can cling to the precipitous sides. Concerned about the possibility of ambush Sarviena sends her owl to survey the surrounding country. It finds no threats, just what seems to be a cave entrance screened by a denser patch of bushes. Phoenix unhooks her alhulak and gives it a couple of gentle swings to ensure that the brigands haven’t affected its balance with their skulls.
Cautiously the move forward past the scuffed earth. It is clear to Sindawe that something large has passed this way but the tracks are so many and so intertwined he cannot determine what made them. Cautiously the party inch their way into the cave entrance, pausing for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. Phoenix, well used to such conditions pushes forward and then exclaims in delight, "Rug! Just need to remove it from bear!"
With that she charges forward, alhulak whirling fiercely about her head. Momentarily caught off guard Reginald dashes forward to try to stop such a foolhardy act, but it is too late. Alhulak and sleeping Cave Bear meet with a meaty thud. Cursing, Reginald doesn’t need much light to see the hulking shape before him and rams his longsword into the first part that presents itself.
The Cave Bear screams in pain and lashes out with its gleaming claws, catching them both glancing blows which, had they connected more fully, could have eviscerated them. Sindawe considers an arrow but the light is too poor and the thrashing bodies moving too erratically for him to be sure his shot would find only Bear flesh. Jumping to his friends’ aid he delivers a vicious cut along the Bear’s ribs with his falchion, momentarily distracting it as a bolt of energy singes the fur across its back.
Sarviena, aghast at the unprovoked assault stays by the cave entrance to guard against a surprise attack from any returning bandits. Soon the sounds of combat die away and she concludes that her comrades have completed their bloody work. Phoenix looks disappointed and slightly reproachfully at her friends as their efforts seem to have rather badly ruined the Bear.
Reginald points out the half-eaten corpse of a hapless brigand lying at the back of the cave, as if to justify their disposal of the dangerous creature. Not even the few coins and small gem they find on the body can lift Phoenix’s mood. Somewhat sarcastically Sarviena points out that playing with the local wildlife is not exactly what they are supposed to be doing and that the other fork is perhaps where they should now be.
Swiftly retracing their steps, the party sprints along the new path until they come to another rocky depression clinging to the side of the mountain. Standing in the middle is the imposing figure of a heavily muscled man, dressed in leather straps, slab of fur and heavy sheets of chainmail. A vicious-looking flail swings lazily from his right hand as he gestures with his left for the party to come forward.
Sindawe dashes to the left nocking an arrow to his bow as he does so. Phoenix grins as she sees a fellow artist, eager to match her skills with his. Reginald meanwhile attempts a few placatory words, which are met with indifference.
The man takes a step forward and, in doing so, lets slip the ropes on which he has been standing. Two crashes are swiftly followed by the howls of two Ravenous Wolves, released from their captivity and looking for a tasty snack. One immediately bears down on Sarviena, the other on Effren. Hungry and vicious they may be, but they are no match for a pair of powerful users of magic. Although they manage to inflict a few minor wounds they are soon howling and twitching their last.
Tremas’s Enforcer rushes forward with his ‘pets’, seeming to take an instant dislike to Phoenix, with her first blow earning her a stinging response from the heavy flail whirling between his hands. Sindawe and Reginald also bring their weapons to bear against him, and his confidence vanishes under a hail of blows. Repeatedly he strikes back, connecting with several punishing blows but he is outnumbered and outmatched and quickly succumbs.
Always with an eye for a profit Phoenix carefully liberates the man’s pouch, finding it disappointingly light.
Of Tremas there is no sign. Sindawe scouts ahead as fast and as far as he dares but finds only a severed tether and the signs of a hasty departure on horseback. Somewhat despondently the party return to their employer to report their lack of success. "At least we know it will be a long time before he bothers again," Reginald avers confidently.
As the light is by now failing as much as their strength, all agree to make camp for the night at the first suitable spot and, if the incessant complaining of Korwyn’s wife hasn’t got them all killed by the morning, to make all speed to their goal of Orlane. December 2nd-4th, Year of the Ferret
Progress the next day is swift. It appears that something, or someone, has finally persuaded the harridan to hold her tongue and travelling is, by previous standards, quite pleasant. A second day brings them within striking distance of Korwyn’s home, and the prospect of their journey coming to its conclusion raises the spirits of all. The next day, as the party crests a low hill shortly after their midday meal, they can see the roofs and chimneys of Orlane in the distance.
They clatter into town, expecting a warm welcome and a restorative drink but are met only with suspicion and veiled hostility. People scurry inside at the sight of them, and small children are snatched from their play. Even accompanied by the familiar face of Korwyn the merchant, people are guarded in their speaking, if they will even speak at all.
Grover Ruskadal, the village Constable, questions them closely about their motives and intentions, and warns them sternly about the folly of making any trouble. Phoenix pays little attention as her gaze has alighted on a large building on the other side of the street bearing a tempting sign - The Golden Grain Inn.
Korwyn insists that the party complete their assignment without further delay, so they escort him the hundred or so feet to the door of his small yet well-secured establishment. After paying their dues, under the grudging eyes of his wife, Korwyn points to the livery stable opposite and suggests that it would be an appropriate place to care for their horses.
While engaging the liveryman, Killian Gade, in conversation the adventurers learn of his concerns for the strange folk who have moved in to the cottage just up the street a few weeks previously. "Just something about the eyes I don’t much like," he confides. He is also concerned about his other neighbour, The Golden Grain Inn, and recommends The Slumbering Serpent instead. He has no explanation for what has been happening to the village, but notes there have been strange disappearances and returns, such as the proprietors of the General Store opposite.
After a hushed conference, the group decide to refresh themselves before doing a little light sneaking about during the night. They therefore repair to the delights of the Inn of The Slumbering Serpent where a large middle-aged woman greets them warmly and ushers them inside. Accommodations are swiftly arranged and drinks purchased and sampled.
When Sindawe calls for wine, the proprietor, Ollwin Cralloon, brings him a free glass of his own Orlane Special seeking his opinion. When a favourable response is given, Ollwin eagerly discusses his personal winery and other mundane topics. Sindawe probes discreetly for any information he can glean, but it is mostly a tale of woe about how trade has fallen off during these troubled times.
Ollwin can offer no explanation for why the townsfolk have become so suspicious and crotchety, although he adds with a laugh that old man Ramne who lives in the grove opposite has always been that way, although Ollwin thinks he is a decent sort at heart.
When full dark has fallen and there is nothing to be heard about the village except the occasional sound of a night bird or flatulent cow, the adventurers sneak out of the Inn and begin their stealthy survey of the village and its surroundings. All seems quiet. Nothing conspires to attract their attention until they come to a large abandoned building.
Reginald recalls one of the locals with whom he was drinking mentioning a nasty spot of bother at the village’s third hostelry, The Foaming Mug Inn. It seems that an unholy scrap broke out, with several citizens and others killed, with the ensuing stain on the establishment’s reputation ensuring its immediate closure.
Effren turns over a sign hidden in the unkempt grass, which confirms Reginald’s speculation that this is indeed the place. As quietly as possible, the party seek an entrance and, finding none better than the front door, push through the few thin planks tacked across it to deter wildlife.
Inside, blanketed in thick dust and leaves, is a scene of devastation - walls have been pushed through, tables overturned, chairs smashed and broken glass lies everywhere. "Look like quite a party," grins Phoenix. They are just about to investigate further when Reginald hisses quietly and then holds a finger to his lips. By means of hand gestures he lets his comrades know that he has heard a noise down in the cellar which is worthy of further investigation.
Ensuring that they make no sound, the adventurers descend the stair into the darkness below. Sarviena snaps her fingers and a torch takes flame, revealing a storage area with three doors along one wall and another facing them. Effren and Sindawe quickly establish that the three are all but large cupboards, so Phoenix boldly approaches the remaining door, pressing her ear against it to listen.
Hearing nothing, she puts a shoulder to it and gives a heavy shove before stepping through. A slight stumble saves her life as a massive club whistles through the space where fractions of a second previously her head had been. With a snarl she turns to face her attacker, barely managing to duck again as a second club leaps out of the darkness towards her.
Sindawe rushes forwards, unsheathing his falchion as he does so and taking a glancing blow to the shoulder as a third assailant joins the fray. The light is difficult and wavering as Effren waves the torch this way and that as he tries to bring his magic to bear on a target. Reginald whispers encouragement from where he is guarding the stairs against additional potential enemies. Sarviena comes to Sindawe’s aid, pinning the lizard-like creature which attacked him to the wall with a blast of ice.
Swinging their huge clubs with grim purpose the two creatures engaging Phoenix both strike her cruel blows which almost drop her to her knees. Through gritted teeth she gasps, "Little help here, perhaps?" Effren finally manages to incinerate the brain of the unlucky lizard man which attacked Sindawe, and it is then the work of but moments to finish off the other two.
Reginald scratches his chin. "Ideas, anyone? I thought this lot only lived in swamps..."