Monday, September 1, 2008

Session 12 - The Chapel of Hextor

The two days prior to entering the mine was the first since they first stepped into the Whispering Cairn that they had separated. The following is an account of that brief time...

Sunday, Readying 16th, 595 CY

Ashbourn had spent the day meditating inside of the tomb below the Balimar house, using Kalimanthis as a catalyst to reach out with his mind. His hope was that whatever magic had effected Jhero would still be present. Unfortunately, several hours of intense concentrating had yielded no results. Deciding to get some fresh air, the monk climbed out from beneath the floor into the house above and discovered Filge sitting comfortably in a chair at the table. The necromancer smiled smugly, telling Ash that he knew what was going on beneath the ground, and that he wasn't going to get any answers with his current methods. Filge revealed he had a method of speaking with the draconic corpse below. Filge offered to perform this incantation in exchange for a small favor in return-the monk's support in destroying whatever evidence they discovered linking Balabar Smeck to the cult under Dourstone. After some back and forth, Ash agreed to do his best to help keep Bolero from stopping Filge, thinking that perhaps Smeck might consider it a favor owed, which could prove useful later.

After sundown, the two entered the tomb. Filge took some time in preparing the ritual, drawing runes in black upon the remains. After setting up, he began the casting, his low chanting continuing for nearly an hour for uttering the final syllables. The runes on the bones were lit with an eerie green light as the skeletal head of the half-dragon slowly raised and turned towards Filge. Filge seemed satisfied and nodded confidently to Ash, telling him to ask his questions quickly for the magic would not last long.

Ash presented himself before the slightly animated skeleton. He asked the skeleton its name.

"Balimar...", it rumbled from its hollow chest.

Ash then told it that he wanted to know how to unlock the power in his blood, like what had happened to his brother. It asked the monk his name. When the monk spoke his name, the skeleton sat up with a quick snap, as if coming to attention, its eyes began to blaze with a molten gold light. Filge blanched, then stood up in preparation to control the apparently fully animated undead. Ashbourn demanded that the necromancer stop, bringing up a fist in warning.

"We have to. The ritual failed! It is going to try to kill us," Filged screamed, but he was abruptly silenced as a bony tail snapped out, taking the wizard's feet out from under him and then suddenly slamming down, hammering him into unconsciousness. Ash turned back to see the fully animated half-dragon square off against him.

There was little doubt that the half-dragon was far beyond Ashbourn's ability to battle as it came at him like lighting, dealing hammering strikes that jarred the monk to his bones.

"Power is what you seek", it rumbled?

Ash fought with all his skill, knowing it was a losing battle. The dragon whipped its tail around to take the monk's knees from beneath him, but Ash was prepared and shifted his weight quickly and kept his feet.

"No, I want to know who I am!"

"One must know thyself in order to be your own master...." The half-dragon stepped away from Ash and lowered itself back into its coffin. "The red fingers of death have touched the hills of the fallen. You must find and protect the one who will bring the storm. Read the scrolls and learn of your heritage.

"The scrolls are missing."

The skeleton turned its head to the side and looked, seeing that the box was indeed empty.

"Seek out the monks of Twilight. They will know..." The light slowly faded from the eyes of the skull as it laid back and stopped moving. The runes on its bones had long since disappeared, leaving no sign anything had happened.

Filge awoke with a bloodied nose and no clue what happened.

Ardynn walked towards the edge of town, her destination the Bronzewood Lodge, a small community dedicated to the Old Faith, an ancient Flan tradition that revered the power and sanctity of Nature. Being a follower of Ehlonna of the Forest, she was grudgingly accepted at the lodge, though not with any kind of warmth. There had been tension between the organized faiths of Obad-Hai and Ehlonna for as far back as could be remembered, a philosophical disagreement concerning Nature and what it represented that had yet to turn into open conflict, but nonetheless fostered a very real rivalry amongst their Oerthbound servants. The clerics of the shrine, all followers of the Shalm, allowed her to join them, but she was never truely welcome. Normally she would have little reason to visiting, but with Allustan uncertain of the meaning to the magical diagram or the strange faun-like creature, she hoped to uncover something amongst those at the lodge.

As she was leaving, Jhero signaled her from a hiding place between two houses. The younger Balamar was doing his best to keep a low profile in Diamond Lake in light of recent events, and an offer to keep her company on the three hour walk was readily accepted.

At the Bronzewood Lodge, Ardynn made straight away for the shine to speak with Nogwier, the leader of the community. They were harassed by one of the local druids, but after Jhero countered his implied threats with some much less subtle threats of his own, the druid made his exit and allowed them to enter. Inside they found Nogwier and the other clerics performing an ancient chant around the the shrine, a massive, petrified tree stump placed upside down in the ground so that the roots filled the chamber. Knowing it could go on for hours, she politely interrupted the ritual.

Nogwier was as cordial as always, but with his ever-present undertone of disapproval he always gained when speaking to Ardynn. She told Nogwier of her encounter with the strange creature at standing stones, and the cleric seemed to suffer a momentary shock. Guardians were fey bound to sites of natural power. It was believed that, long ago, the Flan druids would summon and bind them to guard places of Nature's power. Few had ever seen a fey guardian, many believing that they no longer even existed. The guardian outside of Diamond Lake had not been seen in centuries. Nogwier flushed with anger as he spoke of the atrocities of Diamond Lake's mining operations and the degradation it brought to the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, he could tell her little else. The magic circle seemed an impossibility to him. Druidic magic was drawn from Nature, and nothing could be more unnatural than arcane magic.

"I disagree," a voice spoke from the shrine's entrance; an male elf-accompanied by a female human, both carrying paired daggers at their waists. "Magic is very much a part of nature. My people have practiced magic in concert with nature for ages, and the creatures of the fey, thought by many to be in complete harmony with nature, are infused with arcane magic."

Nogwier, annoyed by the elf's speech, made introductions. The elf, Vadamar Lyrr, and the human, Zaadi Akanthas, were companions, wizard and druid, and new to the area. They The two seemed very intrigued by Ardynn's ritual circle, and Vadamar observed the similarities of a Bind Familiar ritual, used by wizards to bond with a companion creature, and the awaken spell, a druid magic that, among other things, brings a higher level of intelligence to animals. Vadamar offered his own notes, a failed attempt at simulate the awaken spell using arcane patterns, in the hope that she might find some use out of his own fruitless endeavor. As to their own interests, they asked some questions concerning Diamond Lake, and the lake in particular, both appalled by what the Greyhawk smelting operation had done to the once pristine lake. Jhero seemed particularly interested in the pair, and stared after them as they departed, Zaadi transforming into a large hawk and carrying off the Vadamar.

Snuffy, with time to himself, decided to do the most logical thing when one is given a free day off...find a tavern and drink! Doing some quick rearranging of his garments, even restyling his beard, to disguise himself from anyone who might be looking for him, he walked right past the door to the Feral Dog without even a second glance and on to the Spinning Giant, one of the town's few respectable watering holes. Snuffy spotted Deputy Jamis having a drink, but the watchman did not seem to recognize him. A table of dwarves noted him as he passed, probably from the Greysmere Covenant, causing the unpleasantly popular cleric to lower his head further and make his way straight to the bar. After a few drinks, the proximity of both groups, and the curious looks from the dwarves in particular, simply made it impossible for him to relax, so he made his way to the door. No one seemed to follow him out.

On his way to find a place to sleep, a group of the Sheriff's men stepped out from between to homes, clubs in hand. Another stepped out behind him. Snuffy tried to flee, but a net was cast over his head.

...and the next time someone tries to entrap you let it not be such an easy task.

The words spoken to him not so long ago rang true as he called upon Fharlanghn's magic, and teleported himself free of the net and on the other side of the deputies. Sheriff Cubbin, himself, was present, and bellowed in rage, "It is one dwarf! If you lose him there will be hell to pay!" Snuffy stopped long enough to wrap himself a spell of swift movement, receiving some painful smacks from the closest nightsticks, before dashing off like a arrow fired from a bow, leaving the Sheriff, his men, and the town behind.

The old observatory was cold and lonely that night, but it was much better than a cell.

Bolero was seeking out Melinde. He wanted someone he could trust to know the details of what had transpired with Smeck and where they were going next, in case they failed to return. The female paladin, happened to be looking for him as well, and after some running in circles finally managed to find one another. Melinde was on a mission- cleric invited from Greyhawk at High Priest Valkus Dun's request had failed to arrive. With all the recent bandit attacks, Dun was concerned that his expected visitor had been abducted, and wanted Melinde to find him. He had recently discovered to possible whereabouts of the mission cleric, and suggested she seek out Bolero to aid her. His own mission was pressing, but the location was only a few hours travel by horse, and if the cleric was indeed a prisoner of bandits, time would be of the essence, so he agreed to join her.

It did not take the two long to find what they were looking for and more besides. It was indeed a bandit camp-a very large one. It appeared that it could very well be the base camp of several groups of bandits. They fought with some of the guards, but not before an alarm was sounded. The camp made ready to defend itself.

Bolero asked Melinde for some more information concerning this missing cleric, but she had surprisingly little. It seemed that she had simply jumped on her horse at Dun's command without asking any question concerning who she was supposed to be looking for. Questioning one of the bandit guards revealed that there was a random for the cleric, who was indeed inside the camp. Knowing there was no way to successfully infiltrate the camp, the two pondered an alternative. Traveling back to Diamond Lake and informing the garrison seemed to most practical, but the continued safety of the captured cleric was too great a risk if an assault was led against the camp. Seeing no alternative, Bolero decided he would approach the camp openly and possibly broker a deal for the prisoner's release. Melinde insisted on joining him. She sent her horse running back down the trail with a slap, it was very well trained and marked as belonging to the temple. If her horse was found it might clue Valkus Dun in on what happened to them if they failed to return. The two boldly made their way down to the camp.

When they approached with no weapons drawn and hands out to the side, the leader of the bandits was curious and asked what they wanted. When they explained that they wanted to barter for the captured cleric, the bandit leader said the priest, himself, claimed to be worth 500 gold coins in ransom. A cloaked figure stood close to the bandit leader, whispering in his ear. There was something familiar about him that Bolero could not quite put his finger on. After much back and forth, the bandits allowed them to enter and check the well-being of the prisoner, so that they could carry word back to the temple to gather the ransom. Their weapons were not taken, but they were so completely outnumbered that the leader seemed unconcerned.

Inside a tent, they discovered there was indeed a cleric, bound by rope the the center support pole of the tent. A map that was laying opening on a nearby table-it bore the location of trails, temporary bases, and other information used by the local bandits. Bolero took get a quick look, trying to commit the locations to memory.
The cloaked figure quickly rolled it up, sneering at the paladin, and it was then that he recognized him-Smeck's agent outside the Feral Dog. It seemed that the bandits might actually be working for the mine manager, which came as little shock to Bolero.
The cleric smiled in greeting, seeming as if this was not a hostage situation but a leisurely visit. On his tunic was the blazing sun of Pelor. It seemed that what the bandit leader had claimed was true-the cleric suggested he was worth at least 500 gold if exchanged for a ransom, and had in fact come along peacefully, never raising his weapon against the bandit that captured him, even getting the caravan guards to lower their weapons and surrender the wagons. Melinde was not pleased with the cleric's story, but Bolero suspected there was more going on than was being revealed.

It was then that the bandit leader informed the pair that they were fools. He had no intention of allowing them to leave the camp and reveal its location to the local garrison. He would simply barter for three instead of just one, and the woman would made a fine addition to the camps entertainment. Bolero tried to reason with him, but the bandit refused to listen, and there was no way Bolero or Melinde were going to surrender themselves. Hands hovered over weapons, a fight the only outcome, and no doubt the last stand for the two paladins. Smeck's agent leaned and whispered in the leaders ear. I
t quickly became obvious that Smeck's agent recognized him, as well, as the very angry bandit leader told his men to stand down. He granted the two paladins leave to take a message back to Dun, but that the arrangement would be made for a different spot. He told them not to expect the camp to still be there when they returned with the Greyhawk garrison.

The bandit chief escorted them to the edge of the camp. The two left with threatening eyes watching their backs, but otherwise hale and whole. Melinde was outraged by how everything had happened, trying to figure out a way to free the cleric before he ended up dead, when the cleric, himself, stepped out in the path before them. Melinde was beside herself in shock. Bolero was not surprised, at all.

The cleric, Peidrin by name, explained he had been summoned by Dun to do some reseach into something that had been vexing the chapel. On his way there, the bandits attacked. Rather than see the good guards slaughtered, he told them to stand down, and gave himself over without a fight. Telling them he was worth such a large bounty, and playing at being somewhat of a fool, as well, it did not take much convincing for the bandits to bring him back to their base of operation, the location of which had been a mystery up until now. He had sent a magical message to Dun, vague out of necessity, with the location to the camp. Though not how he had intended it, the two paladins had proved a useful distraction, allowing him to free himself, and claim the map on the table for the garrison. He suggested that they keep moving. No doubt the bandits would quickly figure out he had escaped and how much trouble they would soon be in.

Once they arrived in Diamond Lake, Bolero told the two about Dourstone Mine. Peidrin took it all in with a nod, wishing Bolero and his companions luck and promising discretion on their part. Melinde tried to dispute it, but was quickly calmed with some convincing from the cleric. Bolero said his goodbyes and parted company with the two to make ready for tomorrow night.

Moonday, Readying 17th, 595 CY (con't)

The darkness seemed to go on forever as the elevator slowly lowered down the shaft towards the hidden cult's temple. Several hundred feet down, the shaft finally opened into the roof of a great vaulted chamber. The chamber seemed ancient and oppressive. Its black, marble floor glistened in the flickering light of several torches, and elaborate marble pillars and arches swept over the chamber. Three passageways led away from the walls closest to the elevator-north, east, and west. To the south, the chamber opened up into an even larger area, the floor covered by a worked stone pool of black liquid that the light from the torches refused to touch. A vaulted stairwell ran along the rounded walls surrounding it, its top ending in a platform the hung from the wall out over the ink colored water. The landing for the elevator below had four walls, the north lowering to make a ramp.

They found two guard watching the ramp from the elevator. They were dressed in sleeveless chain shirts, with masks of chain covering their faces. The skin of their arms were covered in diabolical symbols and a pair of horns curled back from their foreheads. They wore tunics emblazoned with a armored fist clutching six downward-pointed arrows-the symbol of Hextor. Realized the party for intruders, the guards signaled a third, hidden inside the east hallway, before drawing their axes and attacking. The third guard ran to a door at the end of the hallway, banging on it before joining the battle as well. The three were quickly dealt with, but no reinforcement arrived, so the group took time to search them and take a look around.

Removing the guards' masks revealed them to be tieflings, and they carried master quality equipment, including composite bows with a strong recurve and well-balanced great axes. The three hallways all ended in doors. The east and north doors heavy oak bound in iron. Over the east, the same door the guard had beat on, hung a banner with Hextor's symbol. The north bore no markings of any kind. The west door was little more than several scraps on rotting wood lashed together with rope. A savage, snarling face was painted on its front in red.

No sign of recent passage could be noted, though Snuffy knew the marble floor would leave little in the way of clues. The pool to the south had begun to churn slightly, and a haze seemed to be hovering in the air above it. The pool radiated strong magic under Snuffy's detect magic, and Bolero was nearly knocked over by the evil pouring off of it. Signs of ash and chalk were located around the edge of the pool. All feared to approach the pool except Filge, who was simply not allowed.

Unable to discover anything about the purpose of the mysterious pool, the decided to move on. There mission was to discover evidence of wrong-doing by the cultists-without getting killed in the process-and return it to the garrison. Concerned that an alarm had been sounded by the teifling's knock, they chose to go east to investigate. The east door was fortified and locked, but Ashbourn managed to pick it open. Through the door, the sound of ringing bells could be heard.

Beyond was a small antechamber and a set of double doors. Bolero and Ash stood side-by-side as they threw the doors open, and into the waiting blades of eight armored gnoll skeletons. Bells had been hung from the skeletons and they made a horrible cacophony as they attacked. Beyond the skeletons and down a wide hallway, the four could see a group of dark robed and hooded humanoids wielding glaives. They were set to strike anyone within reach, but did not attack. As they made short work of the skeletons, Snuffy and Bolero washing them with waves of positive energy, they discovered why the Hextorite cultist had stayed back-another tiefling guard in a side chamber released Beast, a massive dire boar that charged headlong into the group, destroying any skeletons that were in the snarling animal's path. The tiefling fled through another door while the hooded cultists backed through a set of double doors into a large chamber beyond, moving as a group to maintain formation.

The battle with Beast was fierce, Bolero seeming to have attracted the crazed animal's ire, and standing through blow after vicious blow with the aid of Snuffy's healing magic. Once the mighty beast had fallen, Ash moved forward while Snuffy helped Bolero recooperate, and Ardynn, Rowdy, and Filge destroyed the turned skeletons.

The cultist were at the entrance to a large , two-leveled chamber with a sand floor. In the center of the room stood a statue of a massive, six-armed humanoid with the face of a beast-Hextor. Ash dove past the swinging polearms and into the faces of the cultists, who again fell back, this time to opposite sides of the statue. Healed of his wounds, Bolero, and Snuffy, joined Ash. Ardynn sent Rowdy in to attack along with them, but stayed back from the melee with Filge, both firing into the melee as best they could.

"It's time," a voiced called from somewhere on the chamber's second floor, and several tiefling guards ran from an unseen doorway, bows drawn, along with three heavily armored clerics of Hextor, a pair of troglodyte zombies shambling after them. The high priest of Hextor, Theldrick, cursed their intrusion and promised them a lesson in the error of their ways, as he pulled a lever on a throne perched to overlook the first floor. The double doors to the chamber slammed shut, separating Ardynn and Filge from the rest of the party.

A massive battle ensued, Ashbourn, Bolero, Snuffy, and Rowdy battling through the cultists below as those above pelted them with arrows and spells. Ardynn and Filge, knowing the door would never budge under their limited strength, used magic to get through a side door. Filge revealed that he possessed a scroll of knock, which he had kept his little secret, just in case her friends decided to throw him in shackles again, but he allowed her to use it on the door. A second door had to be blasted open with several spells, but finally fell to their combined assault. As the door fell, they were pelted with arrows from the room beyond-another pair of temple guards. Ardynn wove a charm person on one of the guards, who then grappled his companion to keep him from attacking her. A trog zombie, shambling away from a turn in the arena nearby, came down a nearby set of stairs, and Filge promptly took control of it and sent it into the grapple, as well. Ardynn ran to the stairs without looking back and soon entered the room with her companions on the second level with the priests.

The four inside had managed to stand against the hail of spells and arrows, Ash and Bolero both quafing potions to enhance their defenses, and Snuffy using his own spells to good effect. Rowdy, wounded badly and unable to find his master, cowered near the main entrance. Ash had managed to climb up to the second level, and Snuffy had used Fharlanghn's magic to levitate Bolero, and the two were struggling to get past the guards. One of the tieflings had called upon his ability to conjure darkness, and Theldrick had dispelled their everburning torch, forcing the two to fight blind. Ardynn used magic of her own to switch places with Ashbourn, giving the monk a clear shot at the closest cleric, a human woman named Kendra. Kendra fell quickly to his assault, and the third cleric, a half-orc named Garras, bellowed, "my love!", and charged to stand over her protectively. The orc proved both skilled and powerful, and neither Ash nor Garras could manage to lay the other low. Bolero finished off the last of the guards and made his way to Theldrick, himself. It was obvious that the cleric of Hextor was no novice to combat as he charged into the paladin, but was at a disadvantage thanks to a silence spell cast by Snuffy. Bolero first landed blow against the cleric was telling, taking his head cleanly off his shoulders with his axe. Garras called for surrender if they would allow him to save Kendra, his wife, but the battle with Ash had drawn on too long, and the priestess had bled out within arms reach of her husband.

They had survived a battle of overwhelming odds, but they had only dealt with one of three factions of the Ebon Triad. The followers of Erythnuul and Vecna still remained, no doubt at least as strong as those they just faced, and they were beaten and weary. The group looked upon the bodies of the fallen lying amidst the sand and stone as the half-orc's muffled sobs filled the air, wondering how long they had until the other two groups discovered them.