Gates

Session 30
Orange-Eyes

With operatic timing, Naentoth strolls into the forge hall, trailed by a large number of duergar faithful, whom he turns to address. “You see? In the very heart of the Dark Smith’s workshop, his machinations come to fruition to depose the false leader. Our punishment for the sin of sloth – allowing ourselves to be dominated by a surface dwarf – is at an end.”

He glances at the corpse at Nasti’s feet, where the flesh of Wellfast’s ruined face still writhes. Naentoth raises his hands theatrically, and a rain of divine fire plummets down from the ceiling, consuming the body, worms and all. Nasti crosses her arms casually, barely managing to keep a cool façade despite the killing flames landing mere inches from herself.

“Now that blight is purged,” Naentoth continues as if he had merely paused for a breath. “Droskar’s plans continue. These sky-breathers, the unlikely instruments of our wily lord, will cross the Twisted Caverns and tend the source of these abominations that have plagued us for so long. Meanwhile, we will rebuild and improve ourselves so that we will be ready to deal with the next threat to our great city.”

“ENDLESS TOIL!” comes the refrain from the duergar filling both halls.

The priest nods with reverent approval. “Indeed. Now, children of the Furnace. To work.”

As the dark dwarves depart, Naentoth turns to the cousins. “I had my doubts, but you have held up your end. Come, we will make a search of his private chambers to see whether we can find this crystal you need for this Vast Gate of yours.”

The party heads to the upper level of the citadel, passing spider-mounted cavaliers who eye the surface dwellers with raised eyebrows. A word from Naentoth quells any questions and they part, allowing the group to traverse the balcony path that rings the bazaar. As they approach the nearer of the southern doors, duergar soldiers are escorting a bound and protesting dark dwarf, who decries his allegiance to Wellfast. His insistence that it was all a part of a plan to lull the mad surface dwarf into a false sense of security until the time was right to strike falls on deaf ears. He glares daggers at the cousins and Naentoth as he is dragged away.

“Anything you find within these chambers is yours,” Naentoth says. “A boon for your service.” He glances over his shoulder at some noise from across the way. A steeder guard is barring a duergar from moving any closer. It appears to be Barram, who ignores the mounted guard to wave at you.

“You know this man?” Naentoth asks, dubious.

“He’s a friend,” Nasti confirms.

The priest gestures to the soldier, and Barram is allowed to approach. “Thank you, your holiness,” the younger duergar says, genuflecting respectfully.

“I’m sure there’s a story here, but I’ve no time to hear it. I must ensure the people follow through on this fresh start. If you’ll excuse me.” Naentoth nods and departs.

“Well! Sometimes chaos is good, eh?” Barram says with a grin, switching to Common.

“It’s served us well now and again,” Nasti says.

“Do ya mind if I tag along here?”

“Not at all, but mind your hands, in case he left any traps or what-have-you for us.” She heads inside.

“Of course, of course.”

Draped on the southern wall of this room is a huge square section of black scale-hide. Whatever the nature of the beast of which the skin was once a part, it must have been huge. The room also contains a large desk carved of stone set next to the eastern wall. Upon the desk are various sheets of parchment and writing utensils arranged in a neat and orderly fashion.

Nasti glances at her cousins, noting that Nova is quieter than usual after the incident with Wellfast. With a frown, the tiefling idly looks over the stuff on the desk, the top of which holds various memos from Wellfast, penned by Gaskel, relating to mining, troop morale, and other mundane issues. Many of them seem to be mere exercises in authority, affecting hardly anything with their pronouncements. The drawer contains a plethora of older documents, in nature the same as those on the desktop.

Bored by the mundania, Nasti heads over to the curtain and pushes it aside. She finds a massive stone table inlaid with tiles of cloudy glass dominating the room beyond. The tiles have been individually painted so that together they form an extended map. Stone counters painted red have been placed in various places upon its surface. Along the edges of the tilemap, a border of swirling tentacles and eyes has been added to the stone by a proficient painter. Stone stools stand around the edges of the table, ready for use. There is a stone door, painted black, in the eastern wall.

Meanwhile, Amaya opens the door to the west and finds an elongated room that displays various hunting trophies. The skin on many of the preserved trophies seems to be strangely loose and twisted in places. Many Darklands beasts are represented in the room, along with a fair sampling of goblinoids and duergar, and even a preserved drow. The expressions on the humanoid trophies’ faces all bear the unrelieved rictus of utter horror. Two of the duergar are displayed prominently, and Barram comments on the fate of Grymange (the old high priest) and Selvandel (the former rightful chief of the duergar colony).

The half-elf continues through the door on the west wall of the trophy room. An assortment of paintings in marble frames adorn the walls of this room. The paintings seemingly depict upperworld landscapes and cities. In the southwestern corner of the room stands an easel with an unfinished work. The thick layer of dust on the stool and easel indicates that the painter has not taken up the brush for an extended period of time. A paint-spattered apron is draped over the stone stool which is pulled up to the easel. The finished and framed paintings all are signed “Wellfast Brightblade.”

Amaya finds a scrap of parchment thrust into the stone frame of the painting showing a serene lake. The Dwarvish writing on the parchment is brief:

Nigel betrayed me, betrayed Quaren, for knowledge. His Master is also mine. It cannot be otherwise, for I am now of two minds . . . Only while painting can I push the writhing nightmares and oozing daydreams away … although I find that I am beginning to like them.

Amaya takes the parchment back to the others and shows it to them. Nova seems to shrink a little but says nothing. Amaya pats her cousin on the shoulder, then proceeds to the black door on the east wall of the war room.

The floor, walls, and ceiling of this bedroom have all been painted utterly black. In the center of the floor is a large cave bearskin of purest white. A simple glass stool sits upon the rug. A glass bedframe of disquieting design crouches against the southern wall. At the foot of the bed stands a marble-topped bedstand holding a few small personal items, its glass legs shaped like rigid snakes. A small wooden rolltop desk stands closed against the western wall, while opposite against the eastern wall stands a closed stone wardrobe, also painted black. Another door provides an exit to the north.

The personal items on the bedstand include a brush and beard comb, a nephelium glass half-filled with drinking water, a nephelium nail clipper, and a small cylindrical lodestone embedded in a larger piece of floatable cork. Nasti examines the rolltop desk noting that its design hails from the upperworld. The desk contains hundreds of blank memo sheets as well as two quills and a mostly empty stoppered inkwell. Hidden amongst the sheets is an unrolled scroll labeled “Fyrd’M’s Demonic Defense.”

The tiefling sends Canter to look under the bed, and the familiar grouses. “So demeaning. Not a cat.”

“You’re the small one,” Nasti says.

“… For now.”

“What?”

“What?”

While they banter, Nova finds a secret door hidden at the back of the wardrobe. A small chamber hidden behind the wardrobe contains a red crystal rod atop a simple stand. “Here we go,” the oracle says.

“Let’s have a look at this thing, then,” Nasti says, picking up the red crystal rod. Nova lets her, pinching the bridge of her nose from the pain caused by looking at the alien rock with her magical sight. It looks like tendrils reach out from it and toward her eyes. Or her brain. Either way, she closed her Eyes to give herself a chance to recover from the crystal’s weird influence.

Tucked beneath the stand they find a handwritten note from Wellfast that reads:

“I know that this crystal rod is necessary to the working of the Gate and a real nasty from the Dark Tapestry guards one other component, but I have no notion where that alien bastard has hidden the last.”

“My guess is that this imposter nasty is somewhere in the Twisted Caverns,” Nasti says.

“Sounds like that’s what’s left to do. Coming with, Barram?” Nova says.

“To the Twisted Caverns?” The idea seems to horrify and intrigue the duergar in equal measure.

“Well, I get the feeling that your upcoming change of leadership is gonna be a lateral move at best,” Canter says. Nova nods.

“I hadn’t even considered it. In fairness, that’s probably because my skills lie more in the vein of recommending high-quality smut for a customer’s particular kink and less toward killing or being killed. And I think that makes me a decent candidate to run this place if I’m honest.”

“Now there’s a thought,” Nasti says.

“There you go being reasonable and thinking clearly,” Nova says.

“A quality in short supply, I think you’ll find.” Barram grins.

“Do you know where we can sell some used armor?” Amaya asks.

“I might know a bazaar or two, sure,” Barram deadpans.

* * *

Having found what there is to find in Wellfast’s former chambers, the cousins and their duergar pal depart, catching up with Naentoth. The priest informs them that the colony wishes to celebrate the coup that evening, and several hours later, they experience their first Darklands revel.

Duergar party hard, it turns out. Their gratitude extends to relaxing their usual prejudice against surface dwellers and letting their proverbial hair down. And their alcohol mostly consists of fermented mushrooms, which Barram casually describes as ‘mildly hallucinogenic.’

When someone mentions that Nova sings, an impromptu stage is set up at one end of the bazaar and she is enthusiastically encouraged to perform. Having never heard a voice or seen a stage presence anything like the waifish human, the crowd is mesmerized and applaud unabashedly, hooting their approval!

Eventually, the night winds down and the cousins retire to their (upgraded) suite at the inn.

“Your hair is so floaty when you’re drunk,” Amaya says to Nova, who pats the half-elf’s hand gently.

“I want to talk to you two about something, Nova says sounding reluctant. “Soooo… Things are a little different than we thought. I saw into Wellfast’s soul at the end there. And it hurt.”

Canter tilts his head to one side, concerned. “Yeah? That spell hasn’t hurt you before, right?”

“Not like that, no. It hurt physically … but also deeper than that. There’s something that took over his mind that is in the tunnels, as we suspected. But that may not be the only enemy we are going to have to deal with.”

“Oh, Nova, I’m so sorry…” Her eyes are crossing a bit as she tries to focus on Nova’s speaking.

“Nigel handed Wellfast to this thing. Intentionally. Willingly. As a sacrifice, or a bounty. Our grandfather cost that poor dwarf his soul, Amaya.”

“Whaaaat?” Nasti says.

“I don’t believe it,” Amaya says, the intoxicated whimsy drained from her tone in an instant.

“This magic doesn’t lie,” Nova says. “That’s kind of the point. We share each other’s deepest pain. It’s the most honest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Amaya goes quiet and Canter hisses quietly. “They are both way too drunk for this conversation…” Nova sighs in agreement.

“Wait a minute. Did he, like, come down here with that in mind?!” Nasti asks.

“I didn’t see that much. Just that he did it. But the notes we found suggest he did it to the elf member of the group too, right?”

“Wellfast’s note said he didn’t know what happened to Quaren,” Canter says. “If he was missing for over twenty years before showing back up in Duergar-town … who knows?"

“But why would he do that?” Amaya demands to know.

“Maybe he was corrupted over time and … exposure.” Canter glances at the spooky crystal.

“Mebbe we need to put that thing in a bag.” Nasti plants her palms on the floor as if to get up to do it right now, but her head swims and she doesn’t go anywhere.

“Either way, if we run into him down there. He’s not an ally,” Nova says.

“So what? We kill our own grandfather?” Amaya says. “Maybe he’s being mind-controlled also or maybe we can convince him to stop.”

Canter opens his mouth to say something but thinks better of it. Then Nasti gives voice to the familiar’s withheld thoughts. “If that thing out there in the caverns tainted him even a fraction of what it did to Wellfast, then he isn’t your grandfather anymore.”

Nova sighs and addresses Amaya’s questions rather than Nasti’s comment. “Sure. I think we should definitely try to bring him back with us. Just don’t trust him. And depending on how it plays out we’ll be bringing him back either to heal or to be held accountable.”

" I… okay." Amaya hangs her head down.

Nasti realizes she’s put her foot in it. “But hey, maybe he can be saved. Sure. We should try.”

“Nice try, boss,” Canter says, sotto.

Nova decides to contact her mother with a question that’s bothering her. She casts a sending and sends her words across the miles on magic wings. “We’ve made progress. Sadly Wellfast and Warcaller are dead. Heading further in tomorrow. Umm… was my grandfather a good person?”

Selene’s response is immediate and startled. “What? Nova?? How… Yes! Of course, he was! Wellfast and Derek are dead? That’s terrible! Why would you ask that? Sure, he studied some weird-”

She shares the exchange with her cousins, but none of them feel any better.

So, Nasti changes the subject. “Hey. Hey! Hey. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything ‘bout Chen… but the truth is that there wasn’t anything to say, really. I haven’ asked ’er yet.”

“Sweet Yeenoghu, boss. You’re all over the place,” Canter says.

The tiefling ignores him. “Was gonna before we came down here but just didn’t get an oppintonn – an otterpoon – I didn’t get a chance.”

“But you’re going to,” Nova says, eager to talk about anything else. She brightens up a bit for the first time today.

“Damn yeah I am.”

“Show me the ring!”

“Oh, shit. I need one of those, don’t I? I just have the one I gave ’er before…”

“You HAVE to get one”

“Does this mean you’re finally going to stop writing ‘Chen + Nasti’ everywhere?” Amaya says, smiling a little.

“Nnnnope!” Nasti’s smile seems pointier than usual. “I like the ones I wrote that nobody else in town can read.”

“Well at least stop writing it on my armor, you know how hard that is to get off every morning?”

“I… you… damn it, I had something for this. Something, something, get off every morning. Damn it! Anyway, I think we’re BOTH gonna need maids of honor.”

“Hey, I am Made of Honor!” Canter quips.

“I think you mean you are made of ornery,” Nova says.

“Yeah, that sounds right.”

Nova smiles warmly. “That’s such good news, Nasti. I’m happy for you. Something to look forward to.”

She raises her fermented fungus glass in salute to drain it and manages to get SOME of it into her mouth; the rest dribbles down her chest. Amaya dogpiles on Nasti so she can hug her without having Nasti squirm out of it. “I – hey! I love you too, Yaya.”

Moments later, Amaya is snoring. One by one, the others drift off to sleep.

* * *

Nova slept dreamlessly – for a time. Then she heard/felt a faMiLiAr tRemOr that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at attention. She opened her eyes and cast about for the source, but the expected glow remained distant, indistinct. She couldn’t tell whether the “eyes” numbered three or not.

You Have Broken My tOy came the thought voice, similar but more controlled than in the vision she’d had when she had nearly died in the Slaughtergarde Temple. I Was Made aWaRe Of You, But I Did Not eXPeCT That To Become ReLeVaNT

Nova tried to respond, to use her thought-voice like before, but nothing happened, and her fear increased. Fear. Good. And aPPRoPRiaTe. You Are In MY DoMaiN Now. And You aNNouNCeD Yourself To Me With The DeSTRuCTioN Of The RuNT. An Unwitting MiSTaKe. Fortuitous. Goodbye iNSeCT

The lights manifested right in front of Nova, numbering three like before – for a moment. And then several more “eyes” opened bringing the full intensity of their dread regard upon the helpless oracle, bound and powerless in this surreal dream space. With a final effort of will, Nova finally managed to project a single thought, weakly: Help…

* * *

Black Wings fluttered, interrupting the more pleasant dreams of beautiful boys performing beautiful acts with one another. Nova! Amaya thought, knowing only that her cousin needed her. Now. The half-elf gritted her teeth and glanced with certainty in Nova’s direction. Her bare sword was in her hand as she bound across the liminal space to see a series of fell orange lights bearing down upon the oracle’s supine form.

She brought her sword down in a vicious arc that bisected the several – or was it dozens of? – lights that she got the distinct impression were eyes. The eye-lights parted and coalesced once more into a kind of whole. Amaya blinked as a VisCeRaL tHRuMmiNg threatened to interrupt her thoughts. She opened her mouth/mind to scream defiance and found herself unable to do so.

SuRPRiSiNG came a thought from the glowing cluster, which seemed to have paused to consider this turn of events. How? Another pause. A Strong Bond. Family A longer pause. HiS FaMiLY. Understood. Logic Asserts Itself. Natural Consequence. Still. NoT iNSuRMouNTaBLe

Then the lights struck back, and it was all Amaya could do to keep her blade between beams and plasmid ropes of energy that would spell her destruction with a single touch. Her strength began flagging swiftly, then she felt the familiar warmth of Nova’s healing energy keeping her on her feet. Still, she knew her cousin’s power was limited, and if she gave even a moment’s thought to anything other than defense, she knew it would spell her end…

Need… Weapon… Amaya thought, jaw clenched with the strain.
p=. * * *

Nasti frowned. Canter, we have to go. Amaya’s in trouble. The familiar rolled his eyes like that was anything new or concerning, but he fluttered to the tiefling’s shoulder. Where? Nasti wondered, looking around for any sign. A ^ symbol appeared in her field of vision. Two sides of a triangle? An arrow? She didn’t know, but having no other guideposts, she went toward it.

When she crossed the threshold of … wherever she was, her teeth ached with a MurDeRoUs ViBraTiOn that rocked her back on her heels. Canter cowered, barely clinging to her shoulder, but the tiefling steeled herself against the chaotic pressure and opened her eyes. She saw a familiar sight: Amaya and Nova protecting one another with their respective strengths. She could see the stalemate between her cousins and the swarm of hellish orange lights – eyes? – that pressed them hard.

With a grin, Nasti reached for the lightning and it answered the call, striking one of the eyes and shattering it, sending arcs of electricity to rake the dozens – or were they countless? – burning orbs that had dared to attack her family. Amaya and Nova spared a glance for the tiefling as she approached, tail lashing. She thought to say something but only managed What- before the rest of the words died. Frowning, Nasti helped Nova to her feet during the respite her spell had bought for the cousins.

Orange-Eyes was already regrouping, burning brighter than before. THiS SHouLD NoT Be PoSSiBLe came the entity’s thoughts. They were angry, less controlled. aNoTHeR ReLaTioN? No. YeS? SHaReD BLooD WiTH oNe BuT NoT THe oTHeR. BuT SuCH a BoND. To CRoSS DReaMS aND CoMe To THe oTHeRS’ aiD? uNPReCeDeNTeD

I know you… came a new thought-voice that felt like silk through the cousins’ minds. They glanced back and saw Laura, the succubus from the Slaughtergarde Armory. She stood casually behind Nasti in her human guise and had eyes only for the lights. No. Not you, she continued. You are just a fragment, aren’t you? The eyes seemed to narrow but they did not respond.

Still, you’re enough, I think. Laura took Nasti by the shoulders, gently patting Canter, who still suffered under the intensity of Orange-Eyes’ presence. Granddaughter, I suggest you wake up and rouse your … family.

* * *

Nasti wakes up with the force of compulsion. “WAKE UP!” she yells before leaping up and shaking Amaya, who’s still draped over her. Nova wakes in a panic and Amaya sits up, partially drawing her sword.

Well, that was interesting, says Laura’s voice in Nasti’s head.

The tiefling briefly ignores the telepathic commentary. “What, and I cannot stress this enough, the FUCK? Were we… Were we in the same dream?”

“Had to be. And so was IT,” Nova says. “I’ve seen it before! Back when I almost died. It came to me then too. How did it know? We have to put an end to this.”

Canter is wide-eyed, claws extended, wings tucked back sharply. “What was that?” he says in the smallest voice they have ever heard him use.

Nasti says, “Was that the thing that corrupted Wellfast? And Nigel?” She sounds like she knows the answer.

Nova shrugs helplessly then nods. “Probably. It told me we were in its domain now and that killing Wellfast alerted it. It’s definitely the thing in the caverns. Thanks for saving me… Both of you.”

“I was having such a nice dream before that… thing showed up,” Amaya says.

“I don’t ever want to sleep AGAIN after that,” Nasti says.

Nova frowns at the mugs on the nearby table. “Duergar fucking ale… Never again.”


Adventures

View
Session 29
Wellfast

“The best way to get to ’im, eh?” Barram says. “It’s a good question, worth considering.”

Before he can say more, there’s a kerfuffle in the bazaar, clanking armor of moving soldiers, and sudden chatter of alarmed/interested shoppers.

“What did you do, Nova?” Canter says.

Before too long, the news makes its way to the little cafe. Gate guards murdered! Surface-dwellers having pierced the outer defenses! Scandal!

“That,” the oracle says.

“Well, so did I…” the familiar says.

Barram glances around at the various patrons eyeing the two tanner members of the party curiously. “Might do well to lean into your cover story. Spend some money. Rent lodgings. Oh. And it would not hurt your cause to find a way to take in a little local religion.” He holds a stubby finger up beside his bulbous nose.

Nasti nods. “I think that would be best, yes.”

“Where do we get lodgings?” Nova asks.

Barram considers. “I recommend following the lead of your companions since they seem to know some of the languages. There are signs.”

“Fair enough.”

“We could wait a minute to see if things settle down, but I bet they won’t,” Nasti says.

However, things do settle down after about half an hour as the gossip shifts to searches of the northern tunnels. After they secure a room, Nasti turns to her cousins and says, “I was gonna tell you, but there was nothing to tell because I haven’t asked Chen yet. I was trying to before we came down here, but it was never the right time.” They nod and smile as if it is of no consequence.

The cousins spend a few hours spending coin in the bazaar and cementing their cover story as Darklands traders in town to shop. In the evening, they make their way to what appears to be a chapel of Droskar off the south of the grand promenade.

Ornate double doors of glass open into a large chamber of worship, a counterpoint to the altar of obsidian on the opposite side of the room in a semicircular alcove. Stone doors pierce both the eastern and western walls. Columns of native stone line an inlaid path of red marble from the doors to the altar. Each of the four corners of the temple holds a 15-foot-tall red marble statue of a handsome but evil-looking dark dwarf in various poses of dignified contemplation. A large fire burns in a sunken fire pit directly before the altar, its flames tinged with blackness. The chamber seems to be overly warm but otherwise comfortable.

A pair of duergar under priests inquire to the cousins’ needs and Nasti provides an offering. They exchange pleasantries about the ‘virtues’ of Droskar and organized religion in general before the dark dwarves ask if they can be of further assistance to such generous visitors. Nasti mentions the crystal that is supposed to be in Wellfast’s keeping, and the priests clam up. They cannot help secure an audience with Wellfast, who is clearly not well-liked by the church.

From the rear of the chapel, a door opens and an older, more dignified duergar steps forth. He dismisses the other dwarves and introduces himself as Naentoth. He claims to have overheard some of their conversation with his underlings and wants to know the true reason for their visit.

Nasti admits they have come from the surface to close the Vast Gate and believe that Wellfast has one of the items needed to accomplish this task – a red crystal. Naentoth claims ignorance of the Vast Gate and poses problems the cousins will likely encounter attempting to secure it from him. He says that while he is no fan of the surface dwarf, he is unable to help directly. However, he suggests that if the cousins coordinate whatever plan they come up with to take place on a holy day, many duergar will be at the church and fewer soldiers will be out and about.

They thank him and exit the chapel to plan. First, they explore the sections of the citadel that visitors are allowed entrance to. North of the bazaar, they find a large area that will likely serve well. This chamber resounds with the clanging of hammers, the shouts of hoarse voices, and the hiss of vented steam. The sources of these varied noises are not directly apparent but seem to emanate from the many arches giving off this hall into smaller subchambers. The main chamber is lit by a glowing lampstone suspended from the ceiling by a glassy chain. The light competes with the occasional sharp flashes of red flame that strobe now and again from the subchambers. Dark silhouettes are visible within the smaller chambers, moving with terse purpose.

They decide to try luring Wellfast out to the great forge hall because it is secluded, has easily manageable exits, and is likely to be the least inhabited. With this step of the plan in place, they begin sowing rumors and dissent. The surface dwellers are in the very citadel, they hear. Wellfast cannot find them or stop the chaos they are likely to cause, some say. Droskar is finally moving to rid the duergar of the interloping surface dweller with fell otherworldly ties, the story goes. In short order, their propaganda bears fruit.

10 Calistril (II), 4721

A few days later, Wellfast takes the bait.

The cousins approach the forge hall to find a dwarf – not a duergar – standing in the north of the chamber reading some poor wretch the riot act about hidden saboteurs. When the dwarf turns his head mid-rant, it is obvious that he is afflicted with some malady. The left side of his head is horribly swollen and his hair there is matted with dark beslimed scales. More disturbing is the way that his flesh visibly moves as small creatures skitter beneath his skin.

“Wellfast!” Nasti calls out loudly. “Your reign ends now!”

The dwarf turns fully to face the invaders. Slowly. His eyes, full of anger, lock on the three women. And then he pauses. “S-Selvala? Selene? What are you doing here? Who is this demon?” After a confused pause, he says, “No… It cannot be… You are too young. Too young.” He tears out a hunk of hair.

Nova says, “Not Selene, Wellfast. Jenova, her daughter. It’s time to come back home and stop all this.”

“Jenova? Calamity … from the sky…” he mutters distractedly. Then he seizes on another word. “Daughter? Ahhhhhh. Yes. Yessss. That is it. Daughter of Darkness. Sent us on that fool quest. Nigel … CURSE YOU!!! Traitor… Traaaaiiiiitoooooorrrrr….”

“Where IS Nigel?” Nasti asks. “What happened to him?” She nearly asks “What did you do to him?” but doesn’t.

“What happened to HIM?!” Wellfast rages. “WHAT HAPPENED TO ME??!!!”

“Yes, we’ve come to put a stop to all that. You can help us,” Nasti says.

His laugh is pitch-black. “No. There is not much I CAN do. Not anymore. There is only what I MUST do. Because of HIM. That traitor. Niiiigeeeelllll.”

Then he lifts his axe…

“Can’t say we didn’t try…” Canter says.

Nasti nods and throws lightning. It hits Wellfast dead in the chest and arcs to a pair of duergar soldiers with the stricken dwarf. They enlarge and move into action as Amaya dashes forward next and strikes Wellfast with his former companion’s magic sword. As if in response, something expels itself from the deformed dwarf’s face that resembles a bloated leech, the pulsing pink color of just-born hairless mice, complete with a nasty maw ideal for penetrating skin or soft tissue. It latches onto Amaya, who immediately slaps it off, though it tears a bit of flesh as it goes. She is sorely pressed to defend herself against Wellfast’s furious onslaught. However, she is well-trained and only one of his attacks draws blood.

Nova positions herself and levels a ray of enervation through the giant duergar, dodging a clumsy swing by the nearer of the two guards. Next, Nasti dashes past the oracle and unleashes a cone of cold against the dark dwarves. Amaya lays one of the bespelled duergar out, but cannot follow her momentum into a meaningful strike on Wellfast. She tries to hook his axe, but only manages to loosen his grip, not tear the weapon from it. She ducks another worm as Wellfast charges past her, homing in on Nasti, but the tiefling evades the mad dwarf’s flashing blade.

Nova takes a deep breath and says, “This is really a bad idea…” Then she makes eye contact with Wellfast from across the hall and casts the spell that projects all her worst fears into his mind, wondering if she will even scratch the horrors of what he has seen. In turn, she is subjected to the certain knowledge that he has actually experienced his worst fears firsthand.

She feels the anguish of having your best friend lead you on a doomed excursion only to betray you, in the end, to bend the knee to a psychotic warlock. And then, when you try to stop your friend – your best friend – from taking this step, the alien warlock feeds your brain to its pets and leashes you to its own will, making you nothing more than a puppet – a damned soul unable to even will yourself to take your own life. This and worse she experiences from Wellfast’s tormented mind.

When she snaps out of the spell, holding her head in pain, she sees a single tear drip from Wellfast’s eye. “Thank you,” he mouths, as he crumples, dead. Blessedly dead.


Adventures

View
Session 28
Things Are Tough All Under

The rough tunnel gives way to a smoothly carved and paved passage, which leads to the east about forty feet. At the end of the passage, there is a large door of stone with a large glass grate in its upper half. A light flickers past the grate, in front of which dark shapes throw long shadows.

“So, do we just knock or?” Amaya says.

“Hail! Hail in there!” Nasti calls out in Undercommon.

“Oi! Who goes there, then?” a voice responds.

“Merchants who’ve come a long way to trade, please and thank you!”

“Ahh. Well, me ol’ mum always said money is the only money that’s money. Here for trade, eh? Show the color of your coin so we know whether yer worth lettin’ in.”

The tiefling holds up one of the trade bars. “We have this, for starters.”

Someone whistles appreciatively. “Aye, that’ll get ye in the door and no mistake. Now about the toll…”

She tilts her head. “Tell me.”

“Er … there’s a toll.”

“I would expect no less. How much?”

“How much is entry worth t’ye?” the speaker counters as a duergar face appears at the bars, sizing the ‘merchants’ up.

“You don’t expect our generosity within your community to, um … trickle down to benefit you in the long term?”

“Not as such with the current … administration, if ye catch my meaning.” The duergar sighs heavily.

“Crazy don’t worry much about economic stability,” comes a muttered voice from behind him, and he scowls over his shoulder.

“This must be this Wellfast we’ve heard about.” She’s telling her cousins, even though they don’t understand, but loud enough to be overheard.

“Aye, I suppose word gets ‘round. So, since his, ah, stewardship began, dregs such as us ain’t exactly on an upward trajectory.”

“Well, isn’t that just a kick in the teeth.”

“’Tis. Thus the need for a toll, eh?”

Nasti fishes a gem from the recent loot. “Will this do? It may be difficult to split between the two of you – Oh, I’m sorry, it’s going into the city’s coffers. Silly me.”

“Nice, boss. Subtle,” Canter snarks.

“Quiet, you,” she says.

“For that, ye get a hearty welcome to,” he pauses for a slight sigh, “Wellfast.”

“Excellent. Can I trouble you for a rundown of what to expect inside?”

The gates open and a grinning trio of faces greets you. “I mean. The bazaar is your likeliest port of call. Kavan there can guide you there.” A third duergar near a door on the opposite wall waves vaguely.

“Very good.” In a language the cousins understand, Nasti asks “Shall we?” and strolls inside with as much nonchalance as she can manage.

Kavan exits the room and when the cousins follow gestures east. The passage divides and divides again as multiple five-foot-square rough shafts delve out from the corridor in all directions. The sounds of hammering as of metal upon rock are faintly audible, but the echoes make the direction impossible to trace. Cart tracks are visible in the rock dust which lies heavy upon the floor. "There’s the mines. Not much for ya there, unless yer thinkin’ o’ changin’ professions.

After a beat, he takes a few steps south down a long square tunnel and says, “This way.” A short hike later, a corridor to the west opens into a natural cavern. The floor of the cavern slopes down to meet the edge of a subterranean pool, dark and quiet. The odor of fungus and moisture is strong in the air, and the faint sound of trickling water upon stone brushes lightly on their ears. Upon the far wall of the pool are what appear to be glowing gems embedded in the rocky wall of the cavern.

A pair of nude Duergar lounge in the pool on the far side, glancing up in curiosity when they see the group. “Well, I’m not getting up for this,” one says to the other in Dwarven. His companion glances at the clothes, weapons, and armor piled against the cavern wall and nods in agreement.

Kavan rolls his eyes. “Some natural hot springs, if ye’ve the inclination. All natural, unfortunately.” He shakes his head. The naked duergar raise drinks in salute.

The guide leads the cousins farther south a short distance then turns east where the corridor opens into a very large chamber. Seven mining carts are lined up along the eastern wall. The northern wall is one large rack half-filled with mining implements of all types, but rock picks and hammers predominate.

On the western wall, three giant tarantulas are tethered to iron rings. They all stand quietly feeding upon the corpse of some nameless deep-born creature. The spiders are tended by stablehands. “Don’t mind the steeders, none. They’re well-fed,” Kavan says. The spider-feeders barely glance up at the cousins.

“Mess hall for the workers, guards,” the duergar comments as he leads you past. “Likely of no interest to such as you, but hey. Full tour.”

“Slave pens,” he says a short while later in his most bored tone so far, not even glancing to the west as you pass by. Nasti lingers there a bit too long.

“Additional guardroom,” he says as the party comes upon three more armed duergar. “One moment, please.”

“Oi, what’s all this, then?” says one of the guards.

“Traders from the Darklands. Special Delivery,” Kavan says, giving them a significant look.

“Ah, right, right. Er. Welcome to (ugh) Wellfast, then.”

“I’ll have to update my boss when we get back,” Nasti says. “They still think that Selvandel is running things here.” That earns her a few disgruntled looks but no further comments.

“Assorted rubble,” Kavan says as the passageway opens into one end of a large chamber or hall. The area extends to the west some forty feet before a mass of rock rubble blocks the rest of the twenty-foot-wide and twenty-foot-tall passage. It is impossible to estimate how thick the rock debris is. Another smaller passage gives off this hall to the south.

“Smelters,” he gestures to the southwest where actinic light flares and flashes into the corridor from an archway in the corridor’s western wall. The odor of burnt iron is strong in the air, and the nimble of chanting voices bides with the clang of metal and the roar of raging fires. “Elevator’s this way,” he adds, heading south down a hall.

Kavan gestures toward a ten-foot-wide alcove on the eastern side of the corridor. A thin crack marks the point at which the passage ends and the alcove begins. An iron grate can apparently be pulled across the inside of the alcove to block it off from the hallway proper. He enters and waits while the cousins uncertainly join him in the small room.

The end of a thin metal chain can be seen through a square hole in the ceiling, which is pretty low. Kavan reaches up through the hole and works some magic that enlarges the chain, which causes the elevator to descend smoothly after an initial jerking drop.

At the bottom, he opens the sliding gate, and the adventurers exit into another hall. To the west are boxes nearly blocking a passageway to a larger area, but Kavan ignores that to head down a short southern hallway, where he opens a door into a loud area.

Before the cousins is a tremendous open space, obviously carved from the rock by intelligent hands. The massive rectangular chamber appears to be a large “open-air” bazaar, in which dozens of semi-permanent tent-like structures are arranged into neat rows. Duergar can be seen milling between the tents, apparently bartering with shopkeeps over strange inventories. The torches and magical glow that light the entire area cause strange shadows to be cast thirty feet up onto the walls of the ten-foot-wide stone ledge which bounds the entire chamber. Duergar riding giant spider mounts patrol the ledge, eying the shoppers and traders in the bazaar below, ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. Various doors and alcoves open off the ledge and the bazaar.

“Excellent!” Nasti says with only half-feigned enthusiasm.

“Enjoy your stay. Your money, as well.” Kavan offers a casual little salute, then heads back north.

“Bro, thanks bro,” Amaya calls to Kavan in Dwarven as he leaves.

“Bruh,” he acknowledges.

“Stick with me, Nova,” Nasti says.

“Sure thing,” Nova agrees.

“I’m kind of looking for somebody,” Nasti confesses in Elven.

“Oh? Who?” Nova asks.

“Twue wove…” Canter says, batting his eyelashes.

It’s hard to see her yellow eyes roll, but Nova knows Nasti well enough that she sees it. “When Chen was … HERE before, she made herself useful by teaching a merchant’s son. I can’t think of his damn name, though.”

“Ah… Well, it’s a good thing there aren’t too many merchants around,” Nova says drily.

“I’ll say,” Canter says.

“We should also see what we can find out about Wellfast the man, and what happened to the duergar who was running things back then, Selvandel.”

Nasti uttering the name of the former leader of the duergar fortress draws a few curious glances and frowns. Switching back to Undercommon, the tiefling says, “I was just saying that my information was out of date. He was running things the last time they sent someone here.” The nearby denizens quirk eyebrows, then go back to their business.

“Maybe some of these merchants speak other languages?” Nova suggests. “Let’s find out.”

Amaya is drawn almost immediately to what appears to be a smut booth. It has the serendipitous name Dark Wings, with a sign design that vaguely resembles something any Lepidoptera enthusiast can appreciate. The spread (ahem) is … generous. They celebrate many a form with the works they display and sell.

“Oh. Oh, my,” Nasti says.

Amaya pulls out her list and checks to see what books/scrolls she’s missing. The tiefling gives the half-elf a trade bar and says, “This is your limit.”

The slightly bored-looking duergar manning the booth perks up a little as the trio approaches. “Welcome to Dark Wings, ladies. We have – well if not everything, so much that you’ll likely leave satisfied. What’s your pleasure?” It sounds more rote than salacious coming from him.

He sizes the three of you up, his eyes leaving then returning to Nasti’s chest. No, her necklace.
“Excuse me, Miss. That’s a lovely piece. Mind if you tell me how you came by it?”

Her breath catches. “My beloved gave it to me for luck.” Her voice drops. “Did you know her, when she was here?”

He tilts his head back, slowly beginning to nod. “That a fact, then. Good. I think that’s … good.”

“She’s safe. She’s happy. My name’s Nasti. Who are you?”

“Nasty,” he says, trying it out. “Me? Oh, I’m mostly no one these days. Barram, they call me. Barram Broadhand. I can see your friend is rather interested in our wares,” he adds, indicating Amaya, who has not looked up from the selection. “I can see about a discount if you think you could see fit to … Maybe sit down for some coffee? There’s a shop nearby.”

“Do you have a fist edition Brokeback Barbarian?” Amaya breaks in.

“First and First Fist Editions, yes,” Barram says with a grin.

“How much for both?”

“Depends,” he says, answering Amaya but looking at Nasti. “I could maybe give ’em to you if we could talk more about that necklace.”

“Of course,” Nasti says.

“Hav, I’m goin’ on break,” Barram calls over his shoulder, then gestures for the cousins to follow. The group heads over to a shop and orders coffee and snacks.

Once they are seated, the duergar seems hesitant to begin. Finally, he speaks and in Common. “Is Chaandrea,” the pronunciation is a little different, “really well?”

“She’s fine,” Nasti says. “She’s the head of a guild, and she’s getting married if the world doesn’t end.” Nova quirks an eyebrow at this news, but Nasti continues speaking. “Was she your teacher?”

It’s odd to see a wistful expression on a duergar face, but Barram’s displays one. “Aye, teacher and at one time I had hoped for more. But no. Foolish childhood crush. She came to us, what … fifty years ago? More? My father acquired her as a learn-ed slave to manage the books. He was bad at maths, my father.”

“She told me that much, anyway,” Nasti says.

Barram nods absently. "She was good at maths. And … kind. The first – maybe the only kindness I have ever been shown came from her. He shrugs, “So naturally. A young duergar falls in love with a slave. Tale as old as the rocks.”

“She is a remarkable woman,” Nasti agrees. “Even in the darkest hour of her life, she chose to be kind to you.”

“I made her that necklace. Saved up a fortune to buy the nephelium. She kept it. All this time.” His eyes get a little watery.

“Indeed, and I promise you that she didn’t give it to me lightly. In fact, I think she expected us to find each other.”

“A nice thought, no? Right, so you probably know this next part. Thirty years ago. Or whatever. Time is illusion. Surface dwellers come and cause chaos.”

“Well…” Canter says, but Barram cuts him off with a glance.

“Quiet, winged-thing. This is a story, not an invitation for audience participation.” The dragoncat looks guilty. It’s a wholly new experience for the onlookers.

With a nod, the duergar continues. “She come to me, she say. She have to go. Only chance. Unhappy. Broke my heart. But.” He shrugs. “It’s true, you know. I know it. And I … I let her escape. Distracted father. She left. Took necklace. Kept it,” the last is said as though he’s still marveling. “Guess she made it back to her world.” He brushes the back of one hand across his eyes.

“Yes. Thanks to you, Barram,” Nasti says softly.

“She wasn’t the only kind one. That was a big sacrifice, helping her go,” Nova says.

He waves a hand dismissively. “Should have done more and earlier. But socioeconomic realities. Bah. You’re not here to talk politics. Unless … Why ARE you here, anyway?”

“The surface world is in chaos, Barram,” Nasti says. “Fire and war and doom as far as the eye can see. We believe that the answer is down here.”

“Oh, it is. Crazy-ass Master beyond the Twisted Caverns send his little gibberlings out the second the damned gates opened.” Barram shakes his head. Godsdamned mess. And gonna draw trouble," he gestures at the cousins, “to us.”

“The surface dwellers who came before were here because of that gate. Those gates,” Nasti says.

Barram’s confusion is evident. “I don’t follow. The gates open every thirty years or so and surface dwellers always come, I guess.”

“There were three crystal components that they brought to… refocus the gate. I’m not sure if they succeeded or not, honestly. But I’m sure it’s falling to us to do the same.”

“I don’t know anything about crystals related to the gates opening, but as you say. Crystals… Hmmm. I know Wellfast has a red crystal rod. Some kind of symbol of his status, I figured. Ugh. Wellfast.” Barram makes a sign to ward away unpleasantness and is joined by a couple of other nearby patrons.

“Why am I not surprised?” Canter says.

“He’s one of the surface dwellers,” Nasti says, talking almost to herself now. “We found the remains of another, but still don’t know what became of the other two.”

Barram shakes his head helplessly. “He WAS a surface dweller. Something happened to him beyond the Twisted Caverns.”

“Oh,” Nasti says.

“Ew,” Canter says.

Barram nods. “Now … Nightmares slide beneath his skin. Everyone here is terrified of him. Don’t want to be made the next example…”

“Does he set examples that often?” Nova asks. “I guess that’s why this place is so heavily guarded?”

“Often enough. But no. Guarded because Wellfast commands it. To stop surface dwellers when the gates opened.”

“Never seen cavalry quite like that above the bazaar,” Nova says.

Gesturing up at the spider-mounted guards ringing the grand promenade, Barram says, “That? A lot of money flows through here. That’s just good business. No, Wellfast is more concerned about something more than basic market security. He doesn’t want anyone to access the Twisted Caverns. Like any sane person would want to.”

“On behalf of his Master beyond them.” Nasti is gathering puzzle pieces in her head.

Barram shrugs. “Like as not. Those caverns … They are filled with horrors beyond telling.”

Nova sighs. “We’re going to have to do something stupid again, aren’t we?”

Nasti’s nod somehow conveys grim determination. “We have to do one stupid thing so that we can go and do the second stupid thing.”

“Well as long as we have a plan,” Nova says.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, but you seem resolved,” Barram says. “There is a well-guarded path leading to the Twisted Caverns from the bazaar, but trying to enter it would pull every guard in the citadel down on one’s head.” He pauses, thoughtful. “You said you needed a crystal. And Wellfast has one. If one of your ‘stupid things’ was deposing that monstrosity, you might find fewer enemies after than you might expect.”

“It sounds like the place’s loyalty to him is less than total, right. That’s exactly what I was thinking. What’s the best way to get to him?”


Adventures

View
Session 27
Outer Tunnels

“Wraiths!” Nasti calls out as Amaya takes a cautious step into the center of the room, Thalkainen raised defensively. “You’ll need ghost touch or positive damage to get through their resistance!” Heeding her own advice, the witch sends positive energy coursing into the nearest apparition.

“Cuuuurssse you!” cries the afflicted wraith as it advances on the tiefling. Amaya’s magic blade carves into the insubstantial specter as it passes her, but it remains focused on Nasti, reaching a wispy claw into her chest and tearing out a portion of her life force. Nova tries to cast a powerful spell to heal her cousins and harm the undead, but it is disrupted by the wraith’s claws! The other two wraiths advance to flank Amaya, and she too is struck by the ghosts’ draining touch.

The half-elf clenches her teeth and dispatches the first wraith with a mighty swing of Thalkainen, pivoting to slice the half-formed substance of the second. Nasti remembers that her recently acquired magic staff is meant to be good against the undead and runs it through a basic pass. One of her strikes impacts the insubstantial entity, but the result is somewhat disappointing. She abjures a shield in case the ghost retaliates.

No longer threatened by a nearby wraith, Nova sends positive energy out in a burst, but the pain of the previous injury took most of the bite out of the spell. The remaining wraiths continue to focus on Amaya, drawing away more of her life essence. She cuts another down and her cousins’ magic ends the threat of the third.

“I hate undead…” Nasti gripes as she catches her breath, still feeling drained. Nova’s magic dispels the lasting effect of the wraith’s tender attention from the tiefling.

The cousins enter the tomb to make sure there are no lingering threats. Confident that they are momentarily secure, Amaya treats their wounds. From the coffins, they recover a magical dagger enruned as “Assaulter,” a potion, and a spell scroll. Canter licks his lips at the sight of the scroll.

One prepared, the cousins continue to traverse the rough, winding tunnel until it widens into a larger cavern to the northwest. The contents of this chamber are slightly shielded by large boulders strewn along the tunnel boundary. The tunnel continues past the chamber, but a pair of reptilian horrors standing on two powerful hind legs lurk there. Their forelimbs are armed with sharp curving claws, and their toothy, eyeless, tubular heads have three frilled flaps that resemble ears.

The creatures act first, screeching so loudly that the cousins recoil in sickening pain. Amaya staggers forward onto the nearest low boulder, ready to strike if either of the monsters come near. Nasti takes a more proactive approach, sending electricity arcing toward each of the aberrations. One of them evades the strike entirely, but the other catches a bolt full in the chest.

Nova focuses her mind on the lightning-struck monster but is left wondering if these things even have a mind. She retreats down the tunnel to provide the creatures painful shouts one fewer target. Amaya advances on the nearest beast and slices into it twice with Warcaller’s sword. She and Nasti are treated to another chorus of the monsters’ pain-inducing screeches.

The witch calls upon her lightning once more then staggers into the southern tunnel after Nova. “Destrachan,” she mutters under her breath as the oracle passes her, heading north to heal Amaya. Emboldened, the half-elf advances on the nearer aberration and slashes it again. In return, she is bit deeply by the other beast and raked by its claws, suffering more injury than Nova’s spell had healed.

Amaya kills one of the destrachan and wounds the other, which barely manages a clumsy swipe of its claws in retaliation. Nasti returns to the fray with a ball of flame to the aberration’s chest, and Nova’s icy ray brings it down.

“I think we should rest,” Amaya says.

“Whaaat?” Nova replies sarcastically. Nasti lets her own response go and nods wearily.

They search the destrachan’s cavern. The chamber contains various refuse and debris common to a lair of a large beast, and in the far northwestern corner of the cave, a large egg sack contains six leathery eggs. Woven into the egg sack secretions are some shiny souvenirs retrieved from previous victims, including a pouch containing an enchanted ring. Then they retreated to the duergar guardroom bunks.

* * *

8 Calistril (II), 4721

Many hours later, the cousins make their way back through the tunnels, past the destrachan cavern, and farther north. As the tunnel turns east, they notice a horribly rank, putrid odor. The tunnel mouth opens into a large cavern cloaked in darkness, and humanoid bones lie scattered about the floor. In a northern nook, a boney draconic form with loose flesh draped from it lurks. It begins to shamble toward them slowly.

“So, we fight or run?” Amaya says.

“Zombie dragons might have zombie TREASURE!” Canter says.

“Good idea, Canter,” Nova says. “Maybe you should go over there and scout to see if it’s friendly?” The familiar gives her the raspberry.

“Uh, it’s getting closer,” Amaya notes.

Nova sighs. “What the hell… You only live once… Maybe.”

At this pronouncement, the boney dragon breathes a wave of fetid viscera across the adventurers! Amaya charges and carves into the undead wyrm with Thalkainen then raises the blade defensively. Nasti lobs fire at the animate and Nova sends positive energy into the beast.

Amaya dodges the descending upper jaw only to be caught in the side by sweeping claws. Her overhead chop scrapes across a few remaining scales harmlessly, but she cuts one of the dragon’s feet off, limiting its ability to evade further attacks. Nasti applies more fire to the problem while Nova afflicts the undead creature with interstellar void.

The second jaw attack catches Amaya but knocks her out of the way of the undead claw, and while its head is near the ground, Amaya lops it off with Thalkainen.

As Canter predicted, the cousins find a fine hoard of cash and prizes. “TOLD you,” he crowed.

“When you’re right, you’re right,” Nova says.

Among the remains, they find sacks of odd gemstones and trade bars stamped with unfamiliar symbols with Undercommon writing. There are also bloodstained notes with directions to a “Duergar Checkpoint,” where these Darklands travelers were meant to seek entrance to the dark dwarves’ stronghold for trade. These would-be traders appear to have taken a wrong turn and run afoul of the undead dragon.

After tending their wounds, the cousins sit down to discuss their next move. “There is an entire city of duergar down here. Maybe we should approach this with some more care than is our custom…”


Adventures

View
Session 26
Warcaller

The cousins stand knee-deep in the dead, but a few minutes later they are only calf-deep in the dead as the duergar bodies shrink back down to normal dwarven proportions. They take refuge behind a spiked wall and patch up their hurt. Only slightly battered, they press forward to the northeast corner. A carved and paved tunnel provides a long ten-foot-square passage to the north, which is empty and silent.

“So. Trap?” Nasti says.

She and Amaya stayed alert, and their efforts paid off. Four separate sections of the hall look suspicious, as though they might drop from beneath anyone who walked across them. Nasti works her questionably legal talents to make the way safe. The hall terminates in a stone door.

Beyond the stone door, the hand-worked passages give way to mostly unworked caverns and tunnels. This large cavern is rough and filled with many rocky protrusions, as well as stalagmites and stalactites. Three rough tunnels lead off into darkness, though two of them have collapsed, filled with stony rubble leaving only one exit leading west. Near the northern wall is a large boulder that apparently crashed down from the ceiling long ago. What looks to be a skeletal hand protrudes from beneath it.

When they search the rubble around the rock, they discover a leather pouch with the initials DW. After a moment’s reflection, they realize it must have belonged to Derek Warcaller, a member of Nigel’s adventuring group. Within the pouch is a tattered scroll tied with leather. The scroll is almost decayed past legibility, but the following can be read in what is recognizably Nigel’s graceful script:

…the Alienist has reached the font of his power under Firestorm. When next the Vast Gate opens, Madreus may command unclean powers the like of which could drive men mad. This Vast Gate is the source of his power, reaching as it does into a realm so incomprehensibly far from our own that the entities there may not abide by the laws of reality as we understand them. The only way to end this threat is to kill Madreus and refocus the Gate to another location, using the three Crystal Components which we’ve so arduously gathered from across the face of the world. To reach his inner complex, many obstacles must first be overcome, the first of which is the Duergar complex. However, research has revealed that far more insidious creatures lie deeper…

“Fascinating,” Nasti says.

Amaya notes the gleam of metal beneath the boulder and moves it aside. She finds a still intact ring upon the crushed skeletal hand that was hidden beneath the boulder, which proved to be an enchanted ring of sustenance. Grasped in the crushed hand is a magical cold iron bastard sword enruned as “Thalkainen.”

Canter calls out, “Dibs on the sword! Damn, too slow.”

Amaya rolls her eyes at the familiar, gives the ring to Nasti, and lovingly admires the sword.

They head west for a short distance until they come upon a T-intersection. The tunnel continues west for some distance, but another small cavern opens to the south. They opt to inspect the southern point of interest first. A rough cavern looks empty, save for scattered rock debris upon the floor. There is a small hole in the lower portion of the southern wall, but it is large enough for them to traverse if a little slowly.

It empties into another worked stone room with an eight-foot ceiling that contains several dwarf-sized cots and a pair of surprised duergar guards. The dark dwarves are in their smallclothes, and reach for whatever is nearest at hand that might serve as a weapon.

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Nova says with little hope they might understand her.

Amaya addresses them in Dwarven. “Please surrender.”

“Who in Droskar’s name are you?” the nearer duergar demands.

“We’re just passing through.”

“There is no ‘through’ here. Also, why would we surrender to passers-through?”

Amaya holds up one finger to indicate that the duergar should wait a moment as she turns to her cousins. “Uh, I need help with this.” She translates the exchange so far.

“They should surrender because everyone who’s tried to stop us so far is dead,” Nasti says flatly, staring directly at the dwarves. Amaya nods and delivers the message with a more menacing tone and expression.

The duergar exchange a nervous look before putting down their improvised weapons. “What exactly do you want?”

Nova and Nasti supply the first couple of questions, which Amaya translates. “Where’s the gate, and I don’t mean the front gate. And how do we get there without having to fight everyone and everything in here.”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘gate’ if not the outer doors to the mountain.”

“Probably above their pay grade,” Nasti says thoughtfully.

“Then what are you doing here?” Amaya asks.

“We are on break from guarding the front gates against outsiders.” He squints. “Like you.”

“Wellfast,” the other duergar chimes in, and they both shudder, “threatened death to anyone who let an upperworlder breach the city.”

“Promised is a better word.”

“Aye.”

Nasti catches the name in all the dwarfspeak. “Wait, that was another one of Nigel’s companions.”

“Where is Wellfast now?” Amaya asks.

“In the city. Where he rules.”

The cousins exchange surprised looks. “He doesn’t want any skybreathers besides himself.” Nasti says.

“How can we get to the city?” the half-elf says.

“You can’t. You MIGHT kill us, but Wellfast WILL kill us. Or worse.” The duergar shudder again.

“Is he the only upperworlder still alive? What happened to the people he came in with?”

“People he came in with? He only came in five years ago from deeper within the mountain. And he came alone … but not.”

“Nightmares … slide beneath his skin.”

“Aye. He serves the Master beyond the Twisted Caverns.”

“That sounds like this Madreus,” Nasti says. “We should get on with it, then.”

“What’s in the cave to the west?” Amaya asks, pointing north.

“Don’t know. We don’t travel those tunnels. Too dangerous, we’ve heard.”

“We’ve answered your questions, but we cannot let you continue. As I said, whatever you do to us pales in comparison to the alternative.”

“So be it,” says Amaya, reaching for Thalkainen.

The duergar stood little chance against the seasoned adventurers, but before the last one fell he said, “Droskar calls all of us home someday. But at least the horrors won’t claim me. I wonder if you will be able to say the same…”

“Sucks dealing with all these zealots, but you gotta respect that kinda dedication…” Canter says.

Amaya nods. “I’d like to heal up a bit more before we face the horrors they were talking about.”

“I dunno. Is it worth it?” Nova says. “Sometimes I think Dren is the smartest person I know.”

After some translation and time conversion, the cousins determine that the logbook on a nearby table indicates the guards in this chamber won’t be relieved until tomorrow noon. The adventurers conclude that this might be a safe place to rest if they overexert themselves against the dangers of the northern tunnels. Additionally, they find a cassock of devotion depicting Sarenrae and a greater choker of elocution. The loot is divided, injuries are tended, and the cousins return to the T-intersection in the north, turning west.

“Perhaps we should gather up poor Derek on our way out, give him a decent burial when we get back,” Nasti says.

“I think that would be a good idea,” Nova replies.

Eventually, the tunnel empties into a 30-foot-high rough cavern. The floor is littered with bones of various creatures, some of them humanoid and some monstrous. Some of the bones are charred and scorched, and the unmistakable charnel smell of decay wafts through this area. The chamber curves out of sight to the southeast, but a flickering light washes across the floor from around that corner, reminiscent of firelight.

More immediately relevant, however, is the hulking figure made entirely of bone straight ahead. It lurches forward and squeezes into the tight tunnel, reaching for Amaya. Nasti mutters something about a “skeletal hulk” and “resistances” before turning the undead animate’s shadow against it. Then Amaya steps inside the skeleton’s reach and strikes it twice with her new magic blade. Nova flings her icy attack spell just past an undead shoulder.

The skeletal hulk unleashes another flurry of massive claws, but only one draws Amaya’s blood. Nasti and Amaya manage to shatter the creature only to have a second one step up to take its place, absorbing the shattered bones into itself. As the skeletal hulks form up, Canter groans, “Oh, gross.” The new hulk slams its claws deep into Amaya’s side. It hits harder but falls just as fast, prompting a third skeletal giant to step forward and draw in the bones of the previous two.

The cousins manage to dispatch it a few moments later, then enter the cavern to inspect the strange firelight in the southern alcove. There floats a peculiar orange glow that undulates and shivers in mid-air. As the adventurers gaze upon it, the oddest thoughts occur to them, like tendrils in their minds. They consider the layers of their existence, meat packed inside and around bone, wrapped in flesh, draped in plant-fiber clothing, and in Amaya’s case, covered in metal. Ambulatory meat, sentient by a whim of reality, shuffling through their lives barely aware of how small and insignificant they are in the scope of the whole of the multiverse. Flickering candles easily snuffed by the Hurricane winds that buffet them from all sides.

“This is like thinking in Abyssal,” Nasti comments.

You aren’t half-wrong, says Laura’s voice in Nasti’s head. You really shouldn’t stare into such lights, dear.

The tiefling’s eyes widen briefly, and she shakes her head to clear it as she does so.

The cousins exit the northeast passageway and head north until they come to another intersection with a larger area to the southeast. This is another cavern scattered with rocky debris and not much else. The ceiling of the cavern is at least twenty-five feet above and filled with stalactites. A heavy stone door is set in the northern wall.

Nasti’s keen eyes and healthy sense of paranoia prompt her to examine the door more closely. After a moment’s consideration, she gingerly steps back and explains her findings. A pressure plate spans both sides of the door and probably drops away into a pit when there is sufficient weight on both sides. She produces her thieves’ tools and sets to work, stepping back in satisfaction a short time later. Amaya nods and nudges the door open.

The air in this room is quite cold – condensation beads on the stone walls. The high ceiling is etched with designs of skeletal beings standing in a queue before a flaming furnace. Three stone sarcophagi lie scattered and broken in the room as if they were dropped from above.

“Makes you yearn for the welcoming warmth of the Slaughtergarde sites…” Canter says.

Without preamble, ghostly figures emerge from three of the coffins, red glowing eyes glaring with malevolent light!


Adventures

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Session 25
The Mountain Entrance

1 Calistril (II), 4721 AR

It begins the day the comet appears in Golarion’s sky and Mount Titania ignites, bathing the Valley of Obelisks with its eerie red-orange light. Violent attacks by monsters and tribes of demi-humans in the wilds of the Valley intensify, pressing the National Army sorely. The Luminous Order is called upon to watch the southern border against nervous orc forces making sure the chaos doesn’t spill into Belkzen. Refugees begin arriving in Sumberton within a day, reporting villages lost and even Silvermont overrun by gibbering hordes of sickly gray-skinned humanoids of unknown origin. The Ebon Cabal in the Black Tower breaks its policy of isolation and secrecy to do what it can to defend the area, but they are hard-pressed.

* * *

4 Calistril (II), 4721 AR

Nasti receives a sending from Cabal leadership, requesting aid from her and her cousins. The forces defending the Valley need more information, and the only place to get it is inside the burning mountain.

“I knew we were gonna end up in there someday. Man, but I HATE being right all the time…” Canter complains. The adventurers make their preparations and head north out of Sumberton.

* * *

7 Calistril (II), 4721

Looking up into the star-sprinkled sky, the cousins’ gaze is drawn to the heights above Firestorm Peak. A pillar of roaring fire hurtles down from on high with a thunderous noise. The cylinder of flame touches upon the summit of the mountain, feeding the massive conflagration from which it draws its dramatic name. The twisting pillar dissipates immediately but the firestorm rages on, a red-orange halo of supernatural flame living on the mountain’s top.

Following directions received by Cabal researchers, they make their way into the foothills and eventually come to the entrance they seek. Ordinarily sealed by two large doors made from some strange metal that resembles glass, the portal lies open while Mount Titania burns.

“These must be the doors that are only open when the comet’s in the sky…” Nasti says. She kneels down and rustles the grass, hoping that’ll tide her over for a while.

Beyond the open doors, the cousins see a twenty-foot wide corridor leading to the east, into the depths of the mountain. The walls, ceiling, and floor are perfectly smooth, masterfully carved from native rock. Neither scent, sound, nor light gives away any clue as to what lies in the unrelieved darkness before them.

Amaya pauses a moment to scan the chamber more closely. A moment later, she reports, “There are some glass-metal caltrops covering the whole floor.”

“Nephelium. That’s what it’s called,” Nasti says. She’s wearing a pendant made of the same glassy metal stuff.

“Bless you,” Amaya quips. “We might be able to pick our way across, slowly.”

“All that time mom chided me about shuffling my feet. If she could see us now,” Nova says.

“Perhaps someone who can fly could scout that out for us,” Nasti says to Canter.

“Or get a broom, maybe,” the familiar says. Nasti gives him a flat look and he sighs. “Fine, I’ll go. Geeze. Slavedriver.”

The corridor emerges into a very large chamber, but you cannot make out its dimensions due to the ten-foot-tall stone barrier which blocks easy access to the hall. The wall looks to be of a different style of construction than the preceding corridor, of large blocks of roughly cut granite. The top of the wall is embedded with spikes and barbs which point down at an angle, making climbing the wall difficult. There is no light beyond the wall, and silence pervades all.

Canter ascends to a point just over the wall to get a look beyond and says, “Gulp!”

A moment later, a hail of large rocks slams into the familiar, knocking him senseless from the sky. Nasti winces in sympathy and calls out, “We got giants!”

Amaya curses and begins to cross the room, knocking caltrops aside as she goes and clearing a path for her cousins to follow. She gets to the base of the spiked wall and gauges it’ll take some extra time and care to get to the top without impaling herself. Nasti enters the mountain drawing close enough to Canter to stabilize her familiar with a cantrip. Nova follows her cousins in and activates the winged boots taken from Gashkarr, gnoll warchief and former interim master of the Slaughtergarde Armory. With backup in place, Amaya gains the top of the wall.

She gets a glimpse of what Canter saw before coming under attack. Four feral gray-skinned giants with hairy backs and skull-decorated loincloths leer at her from the far side of the spiked wall. Massive lower tusks jut upward sharply from their mouths, and they each hold a primitive greataxe in one hand and a boulder in the other. The nearer two swing their blades at the half-elf, but she moves to allow her armor to take the brunt. Unfortunately, the farther giants – tucked into a redoubt of similar construction to the wall she stood atop – flung rocks to strike her from afar.

Nasti sprouts her wings and flies up to the top of the wall south of Amaya’s position to survey the enemy. Nova heals Amaya and flies up to the wall just below the half-elf, out of sight of stony missiles. The giants continue to attack Amaya, and though she can evade some blows, those that land are painful. She leaps down, sword leading, beside the nearest giant and carves into him as she falls. The landing hurts her knees a little, but she pivots and twists her blade into her foe’s wrist, severing the tendon and making the brute drop its greataxe.

Uncomprehending, the giant lashes out with his other fist but pulls back each time Amaya’s blade comes in line, apparently not wanting to lose any fingers. The other frontline giant rounds the wall and cuts into Nasti. The tiefling shows her teeth, glances across the chamber, and nods decisively, unleashing a cone of frigid energy across the giant attacking her and the two flinging boulders from farther back. The spell absolutely devastates the creatures, flash-freezing one’s eyeball, which shatters. Satisfied with the results, she retreats to just above the north wall.

Because it is necessary, Nova flies to the top of the wall and continues healing Amaya. The fight continues, but the giants have lost the edge. The cousins begin dropping the brutes left and right. Nasti’s fireball eliminates the two rock-throwers, and the rest is helping Amaya mop up.

When the last giant falls, Nasti flies over the wall to retrieve Canter. The cousins huddle up in the northwest corner of the chamber and try to steal a short rest, Amaya tending to her own and Nasti’s wounds while the tiefling sees to reviving her familiar.

When he comes to, Canter cries out, “Ahh! Cave clowns! Get ’em off me!” He blinks up at Nasti until recognition settles in. His tone normalizes as he says, “‘Fly ahead,’ she says. ‘Check it out,’ she says. Phooey.”

They decide to try to risk spending a bit more time seeing to their injuries, but an unseen threat makes noise on the approach and warns them of the danger. A pair of oversized gray-skinned dwarves with bald heads and rust-red beards appear from their veil of invisibility when they attack with ranseurs. Unfortunately for the duergar guards, though they manage to score some minor hits, they are no match for the cousins, even injured.

When they are both dead Nasti says, “I pre-hate those guys.” Nova notes that the duergar spears appear to be enchanted, and Amaya collects them in her bag of holding after they and the bodies shrink back down to normal size. Deciding they can’t risk another rest for the time being, Nova uses one of her wands to heal Amaya a bit more, then the cousins head around the giant’s porcupine redoubt and farther into the mountain.

A wall has been built with large blocks of crudely quarried stone, bisecting what appears to have once been a much larger chamber. It is apparent from the contrasting stonework that the wall was not part of the original construction. The only visible break in the wall is a twenty-foot-high by twenty-foot-wide arched opening leading to the east.

When they reach the arch, another pair of duergar block their path and tell them to go back in heavily accented Dwarven.

“I’m sorry but we can’t go back,” Amaya answers, one hand on her enchanted belt.

“Last warning,” one of the duergar responds.

The half-elf translates for her cousins. “They want us to leave. This is their last warning.”

“That’s cute,” Nasti says in Undercommon. One of the duergar hisses in recognition of the slight, and the tiefling shows her teeth.

“We’d like them to leave our valley too,” Nova says. “But I don’t think they’ll just turn around either.”

Amaya nods in agreement then turns to charge. A fifteen-foot-tall duergar standing behind the northern spiked wall appears when it tries to skewer her. She evades and continues her rush, getting stuck by her target’s ranseur while juking out of the way of its partner’s spear. Her blade carves a furrow out of him, and she takes a defensive stance.

Nova hits Amaya’s target with a mental attack, and Nasti follows up with an electric arc against two of the oversized deep dwarves. One of them stalks past Amaya to flank the half-elf and threaten Nasti. The wounded duergar takes advantage of the flank to score a hit against Amaya, who unleashes a veritable whirlwind attack, striking both enemies before returning to her defensive stance. Nova takes cover behind the wall and heals Amaya again.

Nasti pivots out of the way of an oncoming ranseur and strikes a pair of duergar with a lightning bolt. She cannot evade all the follow-up attacks, and her blood splashes to the stone floor. When the first duergar falls, the fight begins to end. Nova lashes out with cold, Nasti unleashes various elements, and Amaya plies her sword work until only one duergar remains.

And it could not stand long…


Adventures

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Interlude: Cursed Seasons
In Which Family Secrets are Shared

Amaya’s parents’ house was filled with friends and family for the holidays. Most of the celebrants had gone to bed, but a stalwart few occupied the den near the fireplace. Amaya plopped on the couch next to her father Tajic and offered him some cookies she’d pilfered from the kitchen. He smiled and accepted one, ruffling his daughter’s hair. Nova was seated next to her mother Selene, who smiled politely and took a sip of tea. Nasti and Chendrea, fingers laced, rounded out the last of the partygoers.

Tajic cleared his throat and exchanged glances with Selene and Chendrea. “I don’t think we’ll have a better opportunity…” he said.

Selene’s gaze fell to her hands, and Chendrea’s smile turned a little brittle. “I suppose you’re right,” the wizard said.

“What’s this now?” said Nova, trying to catch her mother’s eye.

Selene sighed and reluctantly began to speak. “With the year you three have had, we assume you’re aware that the Dragon’s Tear comet will be in the sky in a couple of months. And that Mount Titania will open.”

Nasti’s tail twitched, thinking back to things she’d heard from the Ebon Cabal. “Sure, we’d heard something about that,” she said cautiously.

“We don’t expect we can stop you entering if you get your minds set on it,” Tajic said. “But we thought we’d try to warn you off anyway.”

“Oh?” Amaya said.

“Yes,” Chendrea said. “They say no one who enters the mountain ever comes back, and that’s mostly true.” She paused, her frown deepening so much that Nasti squeezed her hand gently. “The thing is, my companions and I went into the mountain two cycles ago. I survived, taken captive for nearly three decades.”

“Oh, gods,” Nova said. “I had no idea.”

“Neither did I,” Nasti said, poleaxed.

“How did you escape?” Amaya asked.

“I didn’t,” Chendrea said. “During the last cycle, I was rescued.” She looked up at Amaya and Nova. “By your grandfather.”

The younger women exchanged a look. “Grandpa Nigel? Is THAT where he disappeared to?” Amaya said.

“Hey, yeah. You’ve never really talked about that much,” Nova said, looking at her mother.

Selene sighed. “I don’t like to talk about it. I still blame myself for … well, most of it.”

“You shouldn’t,” Tajic said, but there was doubt and a little pain in his tone.

“You’re kind to say so, but considering how everything worked out…” Selene winced when she saw Chendrea squirm a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“As the only one who benefited from the outcome, I…” the white-haired half-elf trailed off.

Seeing the cousins exchanging confused glances, Tajic said, “We’re getting side-tracked. We agreed they need to know.”

Chendrea nodded to Selene. The human woman sighed and said, “You’re right. I’ll tell it.”

“The last time Firestorm Peak opened, twenty-seven years ago, Nigel asked me to predict the outcome of an excursion into the mountain. I hadn’t been his daughter-in-law very long, and I very much wanted to impress him. I read the stars and saw great danger but potential gain.

“Nigel was a conjurer and quite adventurous despite his age. He entered Firestorm Peak with his companions. A short distance into the mountain, they encountered a duergar stronghold, which apparently they decided to assault. During the chaos, they freed Chendrea and pointed her toward the exit.”

Selene looked over at Nova. “When Nigel did not return, your father blamed me for not emphasizing the danger in my prediction. I … no longer recall whether my desire to please led me to downplay the former and emphasize the latter, so maybe he was right to think so.” Tajic’s expression was conflicted as she said this.

“Anyway, a year or two passed before Chendrea managed to track the family down to offer her condolences. Well-meaning though it was, it sent my husband on another depressive spiral. I held onto him as long as I could, but…”

“He made his own choices,” Tajic said. “Just like my father did.” He sounded like he might be trying to convince himself.

“Is … is this why he left?” Nova asked.

Selene nodded mutely. “Yes.”

“And you took us in, anyway,” Nova said to Tajic.

“You’re family,” Tajic said, his voice rough with emotion. Amaya squeezed her father’s hand, and Nasti’s heart clenched at the simple truth of her uncle’s devotion to caring for His People.

After a moment, Chendrea said, “We don’t understand exactly what Nigel was after within the mountain, but it wasn’t simple riches.”

“Right,” Tajic said. “I recently found what appears to be a journal fragment tucked into one of his old books.” He supplied a torn piece of parchment and handed it to Amaya, who laid it on the table for her cousins to examine. The date on the page predated Nigel’s disappearance by two weeks. It read:

“…tracked the energies all the way to the northern Valley, according to the map I procured from the cartographer’s guild. Not much detail is apparent from studying the map, which is focused around the base of a mountain named Firestorm Peak, which itself is the first of a series of peaks and mountainous features extending towards the north.

My studies indicate that the flux of magical and particle radiations emanate from within the ominously named mountain; this is definitely the place described in the scrolls I recently unearthed. What’s troubling is that the cyclical nature of the radiations indicates that the Vast Gate was still focused when it was abandoned by the Elders so long ago. What gives me more cause to worry are the localized contradictions in reality itself which arise whenever this cycle reaches its apex … although I have spent the last twenty years of my life researching this location, it is possible that I have misled myself about the true dangers of the forces which I have sought to understand. I fear that I may be forced to use the three Crystal Components I have so laboriously gathered from Elder Elven ruins to end a threat which none are yet aware of, save myself. My friends of old shall be my companions on this journey of discovery and danger. Derek Warcaller, Wellfast Brightblade, and Quaren Ael Drim will be ecstatic to learn…”

“Any theories?” Nasti asked her paramour.

“I’m afraid conjuration was never a strong suit,” Chendrea said. “I’m not sure what to make of this or Nigel’s references to Elder Elves unless that simply refers to those that lived before Earthfall. If so, this is very old magic indeed.”

“I appreciate you telling us all of this,” Nova said.

“Despite- no, because of our concern for you, we felt we had to,” Selene said.

“Do you really think we will need to do anything about it?” Amaya asked.

“We aren’t sure,” Tajic conceded. “Better to share what we know and fear so that you may better prepare yourselves, just in case.”

Chendrea looked down. “I suspect that the Valley’s troubles in the last five years are related to the energies Nigel describes. I think when the Firestorm Peak opens this time, things will get a lot worse. And the only way to stop it may lie in the heart of the mountain.”


Adventures

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Session 24
The Armory Gates

The chamber below is filled with cold water. Wooden racks on the walls hold unstrung bows and crossbows, all bloated and warped by the water, along with their ammunition. Another staircase in the northern half of the room leads upward into a lit room, indicated by the bright patch of water near the ceiling. Amaya leads her cousins up out of the water.

Two reptilian humanoids in breastplates guard the next room. More wooden racks containing all manner of bludgeoning weapons line the walls. A few inches of water cover the whole floor here, as well. Apparently unconscious, a human man in half-plate is tied to a rack in the northwestern corner.

The xulgaths raise their weapons and Amaya advances, striking the nearer of the two. The other one engages with the half-elf and feints, following up with a savage blow of its greataxe. Seeing the xulgaths conveniently lined up, Nasti strikes them both with a lightning bolt. Nova pours some of her last healing magic into Amaya.

The heavily wounded xulgath brings its axe down heavily on Amaya, hitting a nerve. The half-elf shakes off the potentially debilitating blow, and counterattacks, slaying the creature and further wounding its companion. It retaliates with another weakening strike; Amaya staggers but stands firm. Nasti blasts the remaining xulgath with fire, and Nova resorts to wands to heal her cousin. So bolstered, Amaya brings the combat to a close.

After patching their own wounds, the cousins turn their attention to the xulgaths’ captive. The bound fellow is unconscious but stable, obviously the victim of cruelty. Nasti revives him, and the man stirs. He blinks at the tiefling’s surprising visage then glances down at the dead xulgaths in the water and the other humanoids. “Huh. Am I … saved?”

“Yes, you’re okay now. I’m Nasti; that’s Amaya, Nova, and Canter. Who are you?”

“Tybalt. Er, I don’t suppose you could untie me? Also, have you seen my horse?”

“Sure, one moment.” She begins the work. “I think your horse might have run afoul of Walter.”

He blinks again. “Walter?”

“Another denizen of this place. Were you down here with the Luminous Order?”

“I … hoped to be. I came down here to show my mettle. I’m afraid that I have,” he finishes glumly, rubbing his rope-chafed wrists. “Thank you.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Tybalt. It’s very dangerous down here.” She’s trying to give Tybalt her full attention, but a magical cloak that Amaya lifts off one of the xulgaths is very distracting.

“Indeed. I don’t suppose you could use a … passable swordsman?”

“We could always use the help. But you are not exactly prepared at the moment,” Nova says.

“Too true, madam,” he concedes. “Perhaps it would be wisest for me to retreat to the surface.”

“Oh, my sword!" the young man exclaims. “Have you seen an engraved greatsword? It’s an heirloom.” He glances at the racks of bludgeoning weapons.

“I’ll go and see if I can find it, or at least one that will serve. Be right back,” Nasti says, descending the watery stairs once more. She returns a minute later towing a greatsword with etching on the blade.

“Yes, that’s it exactly,” Tybalt says. “Thank you, Madam Nasti. Now, if you think I should head back out, I will take your advice.”

“I think we should escort you out, to be more precise,” Nova says gently.

“Ah. Emasculating, but likely the prudent course.” He says it with nary a blush.

“Walter may have woken up by now,” Nova says. “He could be going back and forth to get dragon bones. Not worth tempting him.”

“As you say. Very well. Lead on.”

Tybalt is safely escorted out and the cousins continue to the camp, deciding to follow the better part of valor rather than risk pressing forward with Nova tapped out of spells.

* * *

9 Sarenith, 4720 AR

They descend the final set of stairs in the Slaughtergarde Armory. At the bottom, they find a pool of water that stretches beyond the crumbling wall to the northwest, with sagging timbers bracing the ceiling. Across the pool is a beautiful woman in red robes. She’s standing next to a fire beetle cage. Behind her, to the east, are four copper doors. “If you got this far, you must be capable,” she says. “Good. I need capable allies.”

“Well, hello. What’s your name?” Amaya says.

“Laura. Charmed.”

“Amaya. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Hopefully, dear. I take it you’re here for the Gates.”

“Yes. I’m guessing you’re here for the same reason?”

“Rather. The savage has bound me here and opening the gate is the only way to break the damned curse.”

“So ONE good thing could come out of opening the gate,” Nasti mutters.

Laura glances at Nasti. “Ah. So, opening the gate is not your preferred course of action. I should have figured it would not be as simple as all that.”

“It’s complicated. I was sent here to open it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“I see,” she says.

“How long have you been down here?” Amaya asks.

“The gnoll warchief dragged me down here with him to assist with his foolhardy plan. A couple of weeks?” Laura says.

“What’s the curse about?” Nova asks.

“Oh, it’s a classic wither away and die if I ever stray from the task of making sure he is successful in his endeavor to open a gate. Tiresome but effective.”

“If we remove the boss, is that enough to break the curse?” Amaya asks.

“It’s possible killing Gashkarr would break the curse, but there’s an even chance I would die anyway.”

“Well, how about we start with that and see where it gets us,” Amaya says, earning a slightly incredulous stare from Laura.

“I expect you’re bound to try to stop us if we try to stop him, Laura,” Nasti says.

“I wonder,” the woman says thoughtfully.

“I can’t raise the dead yet,” the tiefling admits.

“I’m not keen to roll the dice. Are you sure you won’t reconsider opening the gate? Just for a moment or so?” she addresses Amaya and Nova. “Surely that would fit the letter of the curse.”

“We aren’t too excited about the idea of opening a bridge to allow demons to flood the valley,” Nova says.

“Can’t take the chance of something slippin’ through,” Amaya says.

“You would condemn someone on the off chance that a fiend might slip through? I see.”

“We’re still missing one of the three things I was told we’d need to open it,” Nasti says. “’Pages, used to foretell the stars.’"

“I imagine those pages would be within Gashkarr’s Tome of Slaughtergarde.”

“That sounds quite likely. Do you know where this Tome is?”

“With Gashkarr. Of course. Beyond.” She points to the eastern doors.

“I wonder if we could coerce the chief to end the curse,” Nova says.

“Perhaps, but he strikes me as the zealous type,” Laura says.

Nova sighs deeply and turns to address her cousins. “I can’t believe I’m saying this … but JUST to consider all options. How confident are you that the portal COULD be closed immediately after opening?”

“In the strictest and most technical sense, I was asked to ‘make the gate functional.’ Which may or may not mean throwing it all the way open,” Nasti says.

“I don’t know,” Amaya says honestly.

“Laura if there is a way to avoid risking your life, that would be preferable. But between your safety and the safety of my home, home wins. No contest. Sorry,” Nova says.

“I see. Well, perhaps I should simply embrace my doom.” She sits down beside the wall and draws her knees up, putting her arms around them.

“If we interrupt the ritual, then the gate will close,” Nasti says. The body language of her tail suggests that she’s trying to convince herself of this.

“I think so too. I really wish I didn’t. But I do,” Nova says.

Laura sighs. “The gate is restless now with the gnoll warchief’s meddling. Defeat the guardian and the warchief, and it’s yours to do with what you will. Though it seems you are already decided."

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Nasti says. Laura offers the tiefling half a smile.

Canter flies up and sits by Laura’s side. “They’ll figure something out. They’re quite clever, really.”

“Oh, I’m sure they could. Were they so inclined,” Laura says. Then she blinks. “The flying cat talks. All right, then.”

“Okay,” Nova says. “Here’s my position. Laura gets what she needs by us opening the gate just long enough. Nasti gets to make the gate operable … can’t believe I’m saying this. BUT, Laura that’s it. And Nasti, the gate will not remain functional for long. The ark goes where Amaya chooses. The sigil goes with me. And the pages go with Nasti. Then no one person has them all.” She takes a deep breath. “That seems fair. Thoughts?”

“See?” Canter says. “Quite clever.”

“That’s… that’s very good, Nova,” says Nasti.

Laura gives Nova an appraising look. Then she looks to Amaya.

“Sure,” the half-elf says with a shrug.

“Well, it seems like the best offer I’m going to get, so.” She smiles. “I’m in. I would prefer that we have all the pieces handy in case he dies in the attack so we can perform the ritual right away if that is not too onerous a condition.”

“Does that mean we have to drag the fucking ark back down here?” Canter says.

“We’ll be fine. I’m not looking forward to dragging that thing around, but if we do it, it’ll be done,” Nasti says.

Within the hour, the cousins collect the ark from camp. They get some strange looks from the soldiers, but they are the experts tasked with dealing with the Slaughtergarde Armory, so no one stops them.

Laura fills them in with additional information as they prepare to face the warchief. “Gashkarr and his ceustodaemon minion can manipulate the gate, but you took the two items required to open it.” Laura briefly explains her understanding of how the gate should work with relation to the Ark of the Resurgent Mountain and the missing sigil. She also explains that the Tome of Slaughtergarde controls the gate once it is open.

“I’m sure we’ll have to fight Gashkarr, but maybe we won’t have to kill him,” Nasti says.

Nova nods. “Can you help with that, Laura? As recompense for us taking the risk for you?”

“Aside from my arcane knowledge, I’m afraid my magic lies more in enchantment. I will try to make myself useful in the fight, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up too high.”

“Understood.”

“They won’t be suspicious of you opening the door, right? Could be you just getting their attention to give us time to ambush would be help enough.”

“Oh, he cast me out in a fit of pique after my last suggestions, so I guess I could get his attention, but not AWAY from the doors,” Laura says. Nova frowns but nods. The red-haired woman steps up beside Nasti and touches the tiefling’s arm. “Thank you,” she mouths.

“You’re welcome,” Nasti replies. Her tail twitches suddenly.

Amaya pushes open the two central doors into a huge chamber, the vaulted ceiling at least a hundred feet overhead. In deep alcoves to the north and south are immense, crumbling gate arches like the ones the cousins saw in the ruins inhabited by the goblins and the drow. Similar alcoves are set in the northeastern and southeastern corners, but the angle prevents the adventurers from seeing what’s in them. Iron spiral staircases ascend to a lit balcony high on the eastern wall.

Between the adventurers and the stairs, a brown, shaggy-furred beast stands on slate grey hooves near the center of the room. Its head resembles that of a maniacal horned ape. It turns toward the opening doors, takes a step forward, and tries to shut down Amaya’s central nervous system with a spell. Amaya grits her teeth and wills herself through the magical paralysis, staggering forward to attack. Her blade carves large wounds into the hairy daemon’s hide.

Laura steps into the room and utters a spell at the ceustodaemon. “Stand down,” she commands. The beast lowers its arms. “This may not last, but hopefully it will.”

Nova nods and conjures a vision to determine the creature’s weaknesses. “Attack its mind,” she says. “Good aligned weapons will hurt it more effectively." Nasti attempts a more direct approach, but the daemon resists her banishment. It stands its ground in the thrall of Laura’s spell long enough for Amaya to cut it up some more. Nova’s searing light nearly ends the daemon, and Nasti’s hydraulic torrent finishes it off.

“If you can’t go to the Abyss, by Lamashtu, bring the Abyss to you!” bellows a powerfully built gnoll who suddenly stands up atop the eastern balcony, ending his rant with a howl of diabolic laughter. Then he begins chanting as he ducks out of sight again.

Before they can react, the remaining sigils on the northeastern gate flash briefly. A blast of fetid and hot wind slams into the adventurers, carrying on it the screams of the tormented. In a wavelike mass, a vast pile of skulls crashes through the gate. The skulls spill across a large portion of the room, many crumbling to dust as they tumble. Amid all the skulls lurches a demon with goat horns, leathery wings, and a long tongue. It rumbles and growls, turning its awful gaze on you as it extends its clawed fingers. A flickering bubble of translucent energy surrounds it and the skulls, and a tendril of the same energy extends back into the center of the gate.

“Aw, HELLS no!” Canter says.

Amaya advances on the new demon, but it is too swift by half for her opening strikes. Laura approaches the demon and says, “Why don’t you go stand by the gate and wait?”

Nah, a demonic voice scrapes in everyone’s heads. Cute trick, though.

Nova hits it with a ray of enervation, which doesn’t seem to faze it much. Nasti surprises everyone with her next action. She strains to call forth batlike wings from her back and takes flight. “Hey! Flying’s MY thing!” Canter complains amusedly. The skulls and strange aura being to pull back toward the flickering gate.

The demon tears into Amaya, who staggers under the assault. Nova’s spell saps the least of its vitality and it leers at the adventurers. Amaya struggles to recover from her injuries and still cannot land a single telling blow against the demon. Laura steps through a dimension door to the balcony above, while Nova focuses her magic on healing the half-elf. The demon grins and casts grim tendrils, catching Amaya and Nasti in the spell’s darkness. Afterward, it sinks its large teeth into Amaya’s flesh again.

Nasti ascends on her new wings, then considers what she recalls about the demon. She recognizes it as a Nabasu and rattles off what she knows about such creatures to her companions. As the skull aura continues to retract back into the gate, Amaya considers the new information and adjusts her tactics. She manages to slash the demon twice with her next flurry before raising her sword defensively.

Oh, so you DO have some skill with that sword, the demon’s “voice” comments in the adventurers’ heads.

Nova keeps pouring healing into Amaya, whose defenses hold against the demon’s next round of attacks. With an angle on the gnoll warchief, Nasti hits Gashkarr with a lightning bolt, though he manages to avoid catching it in the chest. The third time the skull aura retracts, it drags the Nabasu a step toward the gate.

Noting this development, Amaya breaks off and begins running up the stairs. Nasti overhears Laura say, “You’re losing, Gashkarr. Your pet demon is being dragged back home.” The gnoll snarls something impolite in Abyssal and captures Nasti in a resilient sphere. The Nabasu, too far away from anyone to affect the combat, gnashes its teeth impotently.

Nasti pops the bubble with her ray of frost then taunts the gnoll in Abyssal. "Your magic is weak. Yield, fool.”

Laura nods emphatically. “Yes, yield, Gashkarr! There’s nothing more to be gained here!”

Amaya gains the balcony and positions herself between the warchief and the eastern wall. The gnoll glares at the half-elf, then clicks his heels together and utters a word of magic. Wings sprout from his boots and he takes flight. Amaya slashes him as he flies away, drawing up right beside Nasti. Below, the demon is dragged back to the Abyss as the tenuous magical opening collapses within the cracked frame of the Gate.

Nasti flies away from Gashkarr toward the southeast alcove and tries to hit him with a cone of cold, but he evades the spell completely. In desperation, Amaya pulls her mace from its loop on her belt and lobs it into space, where it strikes the warchief in the back. Nova exchanges fears with Gashkarr, the enormity of the void debilitating him much more than his dreams of demonic invasion impact her mind.

Gashkarr flies away from Nova and her nightmares then strikes Nasti with a lightning bolt of his own. Hurt but still conscious, the tiefling hexes the warchief’s shadow to attack, and it begins to choke the life out of him. Nova heals Nasti, while Amaya bolts back down the stairs. Then the warchief casts a fireball that envelops Nasti and Nova both. However, his wounds steal most of the spell’s power. Nasti’s spell renders the gnoll unconscious, and his body floats to the floor on the wings of his magic boots.

“Right,” Laura calls down from above. “Let’s get everything into position.”

* * *

The Tome of Slaughtergarde is written in Abyssal, and Laura offers to read and direct the ritual if needed. Nasti thanks her for offering but asserts that she will manage the ritual. The red-haired sorceress nods and smiles, her gaze appraising Nasti’s face. After a moment she says, “Then I will support your efforts as you direct.”

Once everything is in place, Laura approaches Nasti and takes her hands. “I wanted to thank you again for helping convince your cousins to attempt this for me. I would like to offer you a gift if you would have it.”

“I would be honored,” Nasti says.

Laura smiles brilliantly and leans forward, her eyes smoky. At the last moment, she raises on tiptoes and brushes the lightest kiss upon Nasti’s forehead, directly upon the strange symbol upon it. Canter watches, his ears swiveled back in anxiety, but not pressed flat. A moment passes before Nasti suddenly fills her empty lungs with air. “Thank you,” she manages. Laura smiles, releases the tiefling’s hands, and takes her place to the side.

Nova places the sigil in the gap of the stones, and the adventurers begin the ritual to open a Slaughtergarde Gate. It takes an hour of chanting, gestures, and positioning their bodies relative to the ark and the Gate itself. When the fiendish light ignites within the boundaries of the Abyssal stones, the Obelisk shard disintegrates, absorbed into the glowing Gate.

Laura sighs in obvious relief. “I think we’ve done it,” she says, standing before the glowing gates. “I feel the curse lifting.” She takes a step toward the light, attempting to see beyond the veil. “And for what it’s worth, I don’t think any hordes are waiting to swarm.”

She turns and smiles. “I’m so grateful to you all for helping me. Especially you, great-granddaughter,” she says to Nasti as wings and a tail morph out of her back. With a wink, she steps through the Gate and is gone.

As the cousins watch the light within the Gate fade away, they exchange wide-eyed glances.

“I KNEW something was up with her!” Amaya says.

“Yeah. Something,” Nasti agrees, mystified.


Adventures

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Session 23
Southeast Arsenal

8 Sarenith, 4720 AR

The next morning, the cousins find the elevator past the entry hall trapped upon their return below. Nasti crawls under and works some criminal magic to jury-rig a chain repair that she feels confident will suffice for their needs. The mechanism groans ominously as they descend, but it holds, and the adventurers return once more to the broken statue hall.

They decide to take the nearest unexplored elevator, which lifts them to a landing with steps up to the south and down to the east. They ascend to the southeast tower and step through an illusory demon arch into the chamber beyond. A giant that has leathery wings and a distended jaw stands in the center of this room. A breastplate covers his chest, a large falchion rests comfortably in a scabbard at his hip and a quiver of javelins is tucked into a corner nearby. Standing skeletons of horses line the northern wall, and a jumble of bones shaped like a huge horse lies near an iron portcullis to the east. Beyond that gate is a jumble of earth and rock. The southern wall supports a steep stairway leading up to copper doors that are barred on this side.

The giant quirks an eyebrow at the unexpected visitors. “What’s all this, then?” he says.

“Door-to-door saleswomen?” Amaya offers.

The giant snorts and starts bantering with the half-elf, drawing the cousins’ attention to the work-in-progress mega-horse that he claims to be constructing. Completely disarmed by his unexpected genial manner, Amaya and Nasti step into the room to take a closer look and talk shop about art projects. Nova suggests supplementing raw materials for other recently slain denizens of the Armory – like the dragon. The half-fiend ogre – Walter, apparently – takes all their suggestions with an easy manner and good humor.

When the flow of conversation allows for it, she says, “We are really investigating the place.”

“Psh. Boring digs, ya ask me,” Water says. “But this is the gig for now. Boss insists.”

“What does the boss want here? What’s the goal?” Nova asks.

“Open one o’ them gates. Bring in more demons. Buncha borrowed trouble, ya ask me.”

“So why is an artist like you working for some guy trying to do something you don’t care about?”

“Art requires capital, innit,” Walter says with an embarrassed shrug. “Don’t wanna be working in horse bone me whole career, do I?”

“Where is the boss right now?” Amaya asks.

“Northeast, er … dungeon, I s’pose. Not to get tautological. Basement?” Walter gestures vaguely. “But look. Do us a favor, yeah? Say you face down the boss and he gets the better of you. He investigates, somehow finds out I gave up the goods without so much as an en garde, and my performance review is in the crapper – meaning he crucifies me, possibly quite literally, for a few weeks. You know, to ‘teach me a lesson about loyalty,’ or summat.” Walter rolls his eyes. Anyway, crucifixion is even more boring than havin’ to hang around a smelly demon ruin, eh?"

“What do you propose, then?” Nasti asks.

“Let’s tussle a bit. I get some bruises and maybe a cool new scar, eh wot? And all the plausible deniability that comes with it.”

The cousins exchange glances, then shrug and leap into action, causing Walter to hoot in surprised appreciation for their prowess. The giant calls upon his shadow demon magic to try blasting the cousins, but they weathered it with grace and aplomb. Moments later, the flat of Amaya’s blade smacks into the side of Walter’s head and he says, “Oh! G’night,” before he hits the floor unconscious.

“Yep, that’s gonna leave a mark,” Canter says.

Amaya tucks a Calamity flyer in his armor and shrugs. “I figured he could help carry the band’s stuff around.”

Nasti says, “You’re too fast for me. I was standing here wondering if he can sew.”

“I want to see Jamil’s face when I bring him to be our roadie. He’ll freak,” Nova says.

Amaya tends to Nasti’s electrical burns from Walter’s spell, then ascends the steps to the barred door. When she opens it, a tendril of flame peels off a flame beast lurking just within the upper room and sets her on fire! The elemental doesn’t last long against the trio, but the burns Amaya sustains have to be treated.

“I hope we didn’t just kill Walter’s little buddy,” Nova says.

“I feel like he would have said something. I hope he would have,” says Nasti.

They stash Walter’s stuff in the room above before the cousins head back down the stairs. At the bottom of the eastern steps, they find a flooded chamber. A cloying odor surrounds the three reptilian humanoids that crouch there, heavy hammers cradled in their arms. Racks of bladed weapons line the walls, water rushes down the eastern wall and flows over the floor, and a dark spot near the room’s center indicates a water-filled hole.

Amaya enters the soggy chamber and slices the nearest xulgath twice. Nova exchanges fears with the wounded creature, and the depravity from his moistened lizard brain makes her recoil in pain. The impossible void and the beings dwelling there and beyond are far more distressing to the target of her debilitating dichotomy spell, however. Nasti finishes the wounded xulgath off and injures another with an electric arc.

The other two rush forward and slam into Amaya’s defenses, causing the half-elf to blink before unleashing a flurry of savvy swordwork that deeply wounds the xulgath Nasti had struck with lightning. The creatures’ stench briefly overwhelms Nova, who takes a moment to empty her breakfast onto the floor. Then freezes the wounded foe in place with a ray of frost. Then Nasti sets the wretch on fire. It throws itself into the water to douse the flames, then takes a bite out of Amaya’s leg before she strikes it down.

Canter flies in from the hall. “Y’all take care of ’em?”

“Them, yes… The smell no. Not sure that’s ever coming out of these clothes,” Nova laments.

The cousins loot several potions from the bodies, then Amaya starts to massage Nova’s aching head, her spell causing the most pain to the party so far that day. Unfortunately, her efforts are interrupted when two more scaly heads emerge from the deeper water, and the fight is one once more!

Amaya pulls her sword and moves to attack the nearest knife-wielding xulgath. A priestess of some sort emerges from below and unleashes a sound burst on the spellcasters in the hall. Amaya’s foe moves around her, suffering another slice for its trouble, then seems to wait for its partner to step into the flank. Nova tries to bring it down with a ray of frost before that can happen, but it survives her cantrip and dodges Nasti’s follow-up.

Fortunately, that threw it off balance enough for Amaya to defend against him. Unfortunately, doing so distracts her from the other one, which digs its blade deep into her back. Twice. Amaya’s counterattack is fast and furious, felling the heavily wounded knife-lizard and injuring its partner. The xulgath priestess takes a cautious step away from the melee then launches a searing light spell, which the half-elf sidesteps.

Nova finishes off the injured xulgath, and Nasti lights up the priestess with produced flame. Amaya stalks up and strikes the priestess twice. For her part, the xulgath spellcaster steps back and casts a protective spell. Nova finds herself unable to attack the priestess. “She has a sanctuary up. I just can’t bring myself to hurt her.” Nasti suffers no such compunctions from the spell and sets the priestess on fire! “Yeah, like that. Great job being pitiless, Nasti!” Nova says.

“Good alignments are for chumps. Everybody knows that,” Canter says.

Amaya advances, but the sanctuary spell stays her blade. The priestess steps under the flowing water to douse the flames Nasti set, but her sanctuary cannot protect her from Amaya in the moment of spellcasting, and she is cut down.

The cousins decide they don’t have time to spend on conventional medicine and drink some of their newly pilfered healing potions before quaffing potions of water breathing and proceeding into the deep water.


Adventures

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Session 22
Fire Burn

“Uh, so what do we do with it?” Amaya asks, referring to the ark adorned with a broken tip of the Obelisk.

“I’m in favor of leaving it here for now, unless you’re concerned that someone will come along and disturb it,” Nasti says.

“As long as we are here, it might as well stay where it is,” Nova concedes.

“For what it’s worth, there are two more things needed to make the gate work: ‘pages, used to foretell the stars,’ and ‘the missing sigil, restored to its rightful place.’”

“Anything else your new buddies tell you that we should know?”

“I think that about covers it.”

Amaya sits down with the magic box they found in the workshop below. Holding the box closed and envisioning the dungeon around her, she turns the box clockwise three times then gives it three slow shakes. When she opens the box, the sand inside has arranged itself to replicate, in miniature, the stone terrain around them. Unfortunately, it shows her little more than they have already explored. “Oh, more stairs down,” she says, pointing to the feature in the box and then the illusory demon arch on the east wall of the ark chamber.

They cross the miasma threshold and descend to the landing below. A little north of that, they find another fiery arch that reacts to one of the medallions they’ve collected from Armory denizens. It proves to be the bottom of an elevator shaft, likely the one in the northwest of Rock’s broken statue chamber. Amaya leads her cousins past the arch and down another short flight of steps. Near the bottom of these, they hear loud clanking and a sound like the rhythmic and rapid breathing of some huge beast. They proceed cautiously, if not particularly stealthily.

A broad-chested giant with green skin and two heads stands in front of four copper doors at the west end of a wide hallway. She has a pair of heavy clubs in her clawed hands, which she lifts as she catches sight of Amaya at the foot of the steps. The rhythmic, clanking, and breathing sounds come from beyond the doors.

“Hello, would you care to surrender?” Amaya says, stepping into the hall. Then the half-elf sighs as the giant says something angry and likely rude in a language none of the cousins know and advances. It brings its left-hand club down to crush Amaya with a bruising impact.

Nova’s attempt to summon the void is rudely interrupted by the giant’s club smashing into her, as well.
Then, the right-hand club goes to work, and two more heavy blows rain down on Amaya. The half-elf grimaces, stepping forward and striking the giant twice. Nasti recognizes the giant as a mutant troll, complete with the regenerative powers of such creatures. With a nod, the witch casts fireball, and though the troll avoids a direct hit, it still burns quite well.

In response, the troll drops its clubs, advances past Amaya, and brings its wicked left-hand claws to bear against Nasti. Nova takes a cautious step up the stairs and heals Amaya, while the troll roars and brings its right-hand claws against the tiefling with brutal efficiency. The tiefling falls bleeding on the stairs, and Amaya’s blade carves deep into the troll’s belly. Her defensive stance allows her to narrowly avoid getting disemboweled by the troll’s next onslaught. Nova steps back again and as her magic revives Nasti, she advises the tiefling to stay down.

Amaya and the troll exchange slicing blows again, and Nasti draws the giant’s attention when she tries to cast produce flame. A claw comes down and disrupts the witch’s spell, and she staggers to her feet with a grimace. Unfortunately, Nasti’s consciousness is short-lived as the left head’s claws put her back down. Worse, without the flames, its wounds begin to heal quite rapidly.

Nova revives the tiefling a second time and reiterates, “Nasti… Stay down this time.”

“We’re ALL going to be staying down if we can’t kill this bitch!” the witch retorts, gaining her feet and bleeding for it, but continuing up the stairs after. The troll pursues Nasti, but she evades its claws for a critical moment. Then Amaya moves to interpose herself between her cousins and the troll, standing firm in the middle of the stairs.

Nova backs up and heals Nasti again. “Get behind me," she advises from the top of the steps. The witch complies and strikes the troll with produced flame. With Amaya blocking the stairs, the giant’s left-hand claws carve into her. Nova returns her attention keeping Amaya on her feet with magical healing. When the right-hand claws strike Amaya a second time in as many moments, the left head chomps down on her shoulder. The half-elf strikes back but focuses more of her attention on defense.

Nasti produces flame again, setting the troll on fire! The giant recoils but growls and tries to tear apart the obstacle between it and the firestarter. Fortunately, Amaya withstands the furious troll’s murderous appendages for another critical moment. Nova heals Amaya, while the troll spits on its hand and slaps at the fire eating its flesh. It douses the flames and claws the half-elf with a spittle-covered claw one last time. Amaya, staggering from blood loss, manages to decapitate both of the troll’s heads in a single brutal swipe. The corpse falls and slides down a few steps.

“I fucking HATE trolls,” Nasti says.

“They don’t like you very much either,” Nova says. “I was sure I lost you that second time.”

“Me too. Thanks for that. Wait, who’s talking?”

The cousins focus their attention on the copper doors and are just able to make out high, squeaky voices coming from beyond.

“Sounds like she didn’t win!” one says.

“Damn! I guess I owe you ten gold!” another responds.

“I’m just about of spells for the day. My heals will be weak, and only a couple left at all,” Nova says. Her cousins nod and start quaffing pilfered healing potions.

“Should we go see who that is?” Nasti asks.

“If you think you can dodge them when they try to take your head off,” Nova says.

“I feel like they would be in here already doing that if that were their intention.”

“I agree with Nasti,” Amaya says.

“Whaaaat?” Canter says.

“Okay,” Nova says.

“Anyone alive out there?” a shrill voice calls through the doors. Giggling follows.

“Maybe I don’t owe you gold after all!” a second voice crows.

“Yes, and it’s not the troll,” Nasti says at the same time Amaya says, “No one but us trolls.”

Raucous laughter follows and one of the voices shouts, “Comedians!”

“On the bleeding edge of their art, no doubt!”

“Boooo!!! Hissss!!!”

“Did you just say ‘hiss’?”

“Maaaybe?”

“Uh, How are you?” Amaya interrupts the banter.

“All of our blood is on the inside. How are you?” More giggling follows.

“Mostly the same,” the half-elf says.

More giggling is followed by. “Of course, of course. Liar!” Another peal of laughter explodes.

“Who’s there, anyway?”

“Who’s out THERE?” a voice retorts. “You’re the intruders, after all. Manners!” More giggling.

“I was just being polite. You don’t HAVE to end up like she did.”

Breathless gasps after this latest round of laughter. Wheezing, “Stop. Stop. You’re killing us.”

Amaya walks towards one of the copper doors and says, “Can you let us in?”

“Oh, no. That wouldn’t be good. For you. We are nothing if not gracious hosts.” Cackling.

Amaya shrugs, lifts a booted foot, and kicks forward with all her prodigious strength. The wooden bar blocking the copper door in front of the half-elf breaks, and the door creaks open. A squeak of surprise is followed by the sounds of footsteps scurrying backward until they vanish beneath the loud noises beyond.

“Wait, don’t go.” Amaya deadpans. “I have so many questions.”

A huge foundry squats beyond the copper doors, lit by the orange glow of the molten material that must be contained in two rail-lined pits centered along the northern and southern walls. To either side of the doors are immense furnaces with attached bellows that slowly compress, then spring upward with great force. On the far end of the room are two drum-shaped crucibles. Above, a crane slowly dips an attached bucket into the northern pit. A massive anvil in the center of the room appears to have a stone atop it. Three blue dwarflike creatures lurk at the far end of the large chamber, each aiming a crossbow at the open doorway.

“You’re still not invited in!” cries one of the creatures. The other two giggle.

“Why not?” Amaya asks.

“Grim demise, etc.”

“Whose? Yours?”

They leer in response.

“What are you doing here?” Amaya says.

“We don’t want to talk to you a-boot anything more.”
“Rude door breaker.”

Amaya recalls having read about such creatures and whispers, “There are three deros on the other side of the door.”

The dero open fire, but the hand crossbow bolts fly wide of their intended target. Amaya surges forward and attacks the nearest dero, which futilely tries to defend itself with a strange-looking hook-spear. Nasti strides in and throws an electric arc at two of the dero, sizzling their flesh with the cantrip. Nova finishes off Amaya’s melee dance partner with a ray of frost that freezes it in place.

Overhead, the crane drops lava into the north crucible. The final dero misses the half-elf with its crossbow, then disappears in a flash of magic dust. The visible dero retreats near the south crucible and casts sound burst on Amaya, who shrugs most of it off. The half-elf stalks forward and kills the offender, and as it falls the room trembles.

“What’s going on?” Nova asks. Nasti shrugs and sends a glob of flame streaking past where she thinks the invisible dero is standing.

Then the bellows stop compressing, and the crane halts. With a blast of flame, a huge being of living fire emerges from the northern magma pit. It resembles a dragon with burning wings and a long, sinuous tail. It bellows in a crackling hiss, “Kar ka chaan! Thru hau kar ka chaan!” Then it breathes a cone of flame that burns Nasti and Nova.

“Doom-y doom doom!” the dero cries, reappearing when it shoots Amaya with a poisoned bolt.

“Pull back to the hall!” Nova cries, following her own advice and dousing the flames that the flame creature’s breath had set on her clothes.

Amaya advances on the firewyrm, her flesh burning as she draws near the elemental. She strikes it once with her blade before retreating a few steps toward the copper doors. Nasti tries a ray of frost, but the spell flies wide, so she retreats into the hall near Nova, extinguishing her own clothes.

The dero’s next bolt misses Amaya, but the firewyrm’s reaching tail does not, and she is likewise set aflame. Nova gets an angle on the elemental, and her ray of frost pierces the heat haze to strike its chest dead-center. Amaya weathers the heat of the firewyrm’s proximity and makes another solid strike on it with her magic sword.

Nasti sends another ray of frost at the elemental, and Amaya shrugs off another poisoned bolt from the dero. Then the firewyrm breathes flame into the half-elf’s face and follows that indignity up with another tail strike. Nova resumes her healing role and bolsters Amaya’s flagging strength.

The half-elf’s next strike destroys the elemental, which explodes and renders her unconscious on the floor. Nasti runs into the room and administers battle medicine to revive her cousin. Then she steps between Amaya and the dero. The half-mad deep dwarf misses Nasti with a pair of bolts then tosses the crossbow into the nearest lava pit with a cackle. Nova reenters the room to heal Amaya, and Nasti’s next spell finishes off the last dero, the icy lance piercing its throat. This interrupts its dying laughter.

“I need to take a breather,” Amaya says as she regains her feet.

“To say the least,” Nasti says.

“In that sauna, tho?” Canter asks from outside the foundry.

“No, thanks,” Amaya says.

“Let’s get out of here first,” Nova says. “Who knows if there is another in the other pit.”

Amaya swiftly searches the bodies, finding another pinch of magical dust on the last dero’s belt. Nasti scoops up the enchanted blue-green glassy gem from atop the anvil and the cousins depart. “Sparkly!” Canter says.

With their magical resources depleted, the cousins decide to retreat to the surface. Between them, they manage to manhandle the ark awkwardly down the stairs, up the elevator, and eventually out of the Armory into the Luminous Order camp.


Adventures

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