Part the first: Wherein the party discovers that goblins and orcs can make the little guys hurt...After having spent some time camped out in Jean daGrey, Unagi the gladiator and "Shadow Flame" of shadow and magic) decide they could be much better served (from a financial point of view) by traveling south and attempting to get into the good graces of a merchant employer. getting progressively more bored of the rantings of the local Priesthood of Helm, the party (
Leaving Hluthvar via the Dusk Road and traveling south, the party had a mostly uneventful day of traveling.
After uneventful watches by Shadow Flame and Unagi, Jean's restful watch was interrupted by a burst of quarrels and angry yelling as the party was assaulted by goblins and orcs. A protracted fight followed and the humanoids were all put to the sword, with the final fleeing goblin being brought down by a tossed dagger to the back from the mistress of magic.
The Western Heartlands of Faerun
After the battle of previous night the party were badly injured and decided to travel north, back to Hluthvar, in an attempt to get their hands on some healing magic. A short way into their return journey the party encountered the caravan of the merchant Aldous Rigon. Aldous was traveling south to with his wife Marla and baby son Baldous to meet up with his brother Sandas and half-brother Ipnik. Aldous' group was made up of two caravans; a personal caravan for him and his wife and son, and a caravan that carried their goods (mostly various ales, liqueurs and liquors, and also some weapons). The caravans were accompanied by a troop of 8 guards lead by Turl Morgrime, a fighter out of Hills Edge, who told them of his life in Elturel and his times fighting the undead roaming out of the Fields of the Dead.
The next two days were uneventful given the large group of the guards and the party making tough targets for the sort of beasts and bandits that tended to work the travelers on the Dusk Road. During the evenings Aldous would share his personal stash of various grogs with the party.
Just out of Asbravn the party encountered a troop of Red Cloaks riding north along the Dusk Road. Lead by a dwarf known as Sten Fellhammer who was very interested in hearing of the groups encounter with the goblins and orcs; the raiding party was unusual in how far from the Sunset Mountains they had come. Sten also informed the party of the recent slaver activity and that they should speak with the bard Tellune, a member of the Harpers who was offering rewards to those with information regarding the slavers. Obermast would likely be found at the shrine of Lliira. After inquiring about healing in Asbravn, Sten pointed the party to Asgar, the old Priest of the local temple to Ilmater.
Once in Asbravn they party headed to the Temple of Ilmater and spoke with Asgar who finally agreed to heal Unagi for 30sp, and while the temple was in a state of disrepair, and very poor he was not willing to provide healing for the paltry amount of coin the party had left after Unagi's healing spell.
The party went to see Obermast who was quite taken with Jean, and offered them a reward of 200gp for any information leading to the arrest or death of the slavers operating in the area and provided what little information was known about them. Afterward the party went to the local Inn, The Board Laid Bare, where they ordered some food and managed to secure a 10gp loan from Aldous so they could afford a room at the Inn.
That evening, while Shadow Flame and Unagi slept (Jean was still in the main room of the Inn talking with Obermast), they were awoken by sounds of struggle coming from the room next to them. Waking up they gathered their weapons and attempted to kick down the door to the room (Unagi managing to slip and injure his delicate buttocks). Shadow Flame noticed that whoever had caused the ruckus had left via the window and slipped out the window of the party's room to follow the perpetrators of what appeared to be a kidnapping. Unagi rifled though the room next door and managed to steal a chest full of coin from the unfortunate kidnapping victim's room.
Shadow Flame followed the kidnappers as they carried the person in the room. After following them into the caravan camping area, further pursuit was foiled by a duo of large, well equipped fighters blocking his way forward. Slipping to the side unnoticed, Shadow Flame was able to see that each fighter wore a symbol on their tunics - 3 spiked wheels placed within each other.
After hearing the disturbance upstairs, Jean and Obermast met with Unagi who filled them in. After finding out that the kidnappee was a local farmer, Daiv, son of Mahruun, they promptly sought out Sten Fellhammer to report the kidnapping. Sten was to be found at the Tavern, The Tankard and Sheaf. Upon hearing the news Sten organised a search party, but with very little to go on they found nothing. The party returned to the Inn where they met up with Shadow Flame who filled them in on what happened and what he saw while following the kidnappers. Morning was approaching so the party decided to rest for the remainder of the night.
Without an obvious way forward the party returned to the Board Laid Bare to work out their options. As they talked a trio of odd men entered the Inn. Dressed in black leather trench coats and wearing dark goggle-like glasses they sat at a table without a sound. After repeated claiming to be normal in every way and that nothing they did was suspicious or out of the ordinary the 3 men left the bar shortly after ordering drinks and not drinking them. The party followed them to the 3 Wheels caravan and watched as they were invited in by a seemingly surprised Lunder Callonar. After waiting for a while for the men to exit the caravan the party knocked again on the 3 Wheels caravan. The 3 men were nowhere to be seen and Lunder denied that they had even been there, but after trying unsuccessfully to sell the party some superb quality rugs the party left once again.
Back at the Inn, with little to go on besides the knowledge that the 3 Wheels would be moving out to the north the following morning and that Lunder was somehow involved in the slaver operations the party met with Obermast again who suggested they follow the caravan to learn more. They agreed. After securing some potions from Asgar, who was more agreeable once he learnt the party was working for the Harpers and their substantial financial backing, they rested.
In the morning the party headed out following the 3 Wheels (who had a guard of 8 men on horseback) from a good distance. Shortly into their journey a large troop of Red Cloaks rode past escorting 4 hooded prisoners into Asbravn. Though uncertain of it, the party thought the prisoners were Zhentarim based on their clothing.
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully and the 3 Wheels settled in to camp for the night.
Early into the morning the 3 Wheels caravan moved off the Dusk Road and started going in toward the Reaching Forest. Further on they came upon a trail and followed it for several hours before arriving at a small hill around which a half-dozen or so other guards were camped. The party scouted the area and saw an archway leading into the hill. After a brief talk with the guards a figure dressed in garish yellow and orange robes appeared (shimmied into existence) and spoke with Lunder. After their brief talk Lunder ordered his men to the caravan and they exited with 4 large rolled up carpets, 2 men to a carpet, and carried them into the hill. The men returned, and after an hour or so Lunder appeared and ordered his men to move out. The party followed the 3 Wheels caravan until they set up camp for the night. Once they were sure Lunder and the 3 Wheels were settled in they returned to the hill.
After formulating a plan of attack the party fought and killed the guards stationed around the hill before going in to deal with the robed figure. Inside the hill there was several rooms dug out, much like a Halfling mound except for big people. Set in most rooms of the house were 'T' shaped runes on flagstones in the floor that the Wizard could use to create images of himself that could be used to launch magic at the party without them being able to attack him. After exploring several rooms and being subject to several attacks from the mage the party was starting to get badly injured, and frustrated with an opponent they could not hurt. They soon found a "safe room" - a guest bedroom which did not have any 'T' runes they could use to pause and consider their options. They soon discovered the mages bedroom, and, after looting it, discovered a secret door to a meditation chamber that the wizard was using as a focus to project his images. They fought the wizard and after badly injuring him he disappeared - teleported apparently, and the party was able to explore the hill house without worrying about being harried by an unharmable foe.
During their exploration they found a library, a laboratory and the door to what seemed to be a prison that they could not find a away to open. They discovered a good deal of correspondence of the wizard, whom they discovered was named Hashtoth, and were able to piece together the following:
- A finished drafted letter to "Your Lordship" discussing the recent acquisitions - how well they were working out and how the "lord of the grey forest" seemed to be pleased with the "sacrifices".
- Letters from a person named Silas Coldstone who appeared to be the leader of the 3 Wheels, and based in Iriaebor. The letters discuss the acquisition of slaves and their use in keeping the magic holding the "lord of the grey wastes" alive (seemingly against this lords will). Silas commends Hashtoth in other letters and seems to think that this "lord of the grey wastes" will soon hand over "the gift", although no mention of what this gift is can be found.
- Silas congratulates Hashtoth on his successes with creating guardian skeletons for the "ancient crypt", in particular his creation of undead from "savage ape-like Chultan creatures" that were shipped to Hashtoth in previous months.
- There is further correspondence which appears to be a reply to a letter discussing "strange grey-skinned creatures with black long-coats, whose poor attempts to "blend in" with the locals makes them stand out even more. Silas is dismissive of these creatures and attempts to put Hashtoths mind at ease on this subject.
- "The Lower Planes: A Guide" - this tome discusses the various lower planes of the multi-verse, the homes of fiends and evil creatures of all kinds. Two parts were bookmarked by Hashtoth; a discussion of Avernus, the first layer of Baator - called the Nine Hells by some Prime worlds; and, Oinos the first layer of the Grey Wastes, called Hades in some Prime worlds. This tome is fairly light on information and seems to be a starting point for an investigation of Hashtoth's which is undocumented in any of the material discovered by the party.
- "Planar Portals and their Keys" - a tome discussing the Portals and Gates that are used to travel the Outer Planes. It talks about Portal keys and how to use Portals. It is quite detailed and of specific interest to the party are some margin notes where Hashtoth has indicated that there is a Planar Portal within this very hill and that its portal key is a silver needle.
After the mist of the portal dissipated the party found itself standing on a similar stone dais under a grey-stone free standing archway; ash raining lightly from the sky like snowfall, and surrounded by a grey forest. The forest trees were leafless and drab with skeletal branches hanging heavily toward to the ground. There was no colour anywhere, as if it had been sucked out of existence - the party were by far the brightest things there...apart from drops of blood on the ground. Leading off into the forest was a trail, a shambling trail made by an awkward, clumsy creature, or a badly injured human, and every step accompanied by drops of blood.
Taking stock of their surroundings the group decided the best course of action was to follow the trail into the forest. They set off cautiously into the silent dead trees preparing themselves for anything. The marching was slow and laborious under the feeling of oppression in the air. Was it the dead forest itself? The ash in the air? The absence of colour? Their musings were interrupted when Unagi, leading the party, was momentarily surprised by a smallish skeletal creature dropping from the trees and leaping at him. Several other of the skeletal creatures dropped from the trees and attacked the party. They were quick to react, and after a brief battle the creatures, perhaps some kind of undead ape, were nothing but piles of bones at the party's feet. After briefly examining the remains the party continued on.
Only an hour or so into their journey, Shadow Flame spied a clearing up ahead and scouted forward to investigate. The clearing was dominated by a large mausoleum, ancient and run down the front doors were askew and barely hung upon their hinges and signs of decay marked the walls and the ground surrounding it. The party moved forward into the clearing to look more closely. They found that the back corner of the building had collapsed in at some point and was exposed to the forest elements. Shadow Flame was unable to find effective holds to climb the wall, although during his attempt he heard a voice from inside the mausoleum pleading with "my master" to be let in. With no alternative the party moved around and entered the building from the front. A small antechamber greeted them with 3 archways. Via the light filtering in through the hole in the roof at the rear of the single room the party saw Hashtoth kneeling in front of a large stone door. At the parties entrance he began pleading loudly with an unseen "master" to "let me in, they have arrived and they will kill me!" The party burst into action, Shadow Flame fired off bolts from his hand x-bow as Unagi and Jean leapt across the room to engage Hashtoth. Before they could do anything effective the door groaned open and Hashtoth fled through it, closing it behind him. Their target having eluded them for the moment the party investigated the room. It was dominated by a crumbling tomb, and to the left of it a large stone slab with the still breathing body of a naked woman, bleeding from numerous wounds to her throat and chest. Jean tried to treat the woman's wounds but she died quickly before any help could be given. A crumpled corpse lay at the foot of the stone slab; dead for at least a week it was decayed and wore the Red Cloak of the Asbravn militia.
With few options available to them the party tried to open the door which was closed tightly and would not move. Unagi put all his weight into the door and it began to budge, with the help of the party he was able to open it.
The Ancient Crypt
The Door opened into a small landing with stairs leading down into darkness. Descending the stairs the party came to a small room; a small dais sat against the east wall with an old rusted set of iron candelabra and an archway to the south. With torchlight as their only illumination their vision was limited. Using his infravision Shadow Flame looked into the darkness beyond the archway. In the corner of what appeared to be a large room he spied a small creature no bigger than a rat. The party entered the area and found it to be cold with featureless grey stone work making up the walls and floor. The carcass of a wolf lay in the south west corner of the room, and as the party moved closer they saw that it was indeed a rat in that corner, a bloated and diseased rat, feasting on the carcass of the wolf. As the party approached the rat turned and looked at them briefly before running off with a screech of anger.
Diseased Goathead Creature from the Mural
After investigating the room and recording their findings the party returned to the corridor and traveled east further. They turned north into a corridor and came out into a large room with tombs set in alcoves on the eastern and western walls. The centre of the room was dominated by a large sunken area containing 5 tombs arranged in an X with a tomb at each point and one in the middle. Unagi moved to investigate the tomb on the west wall and heaved the lid from the base. The tomb was empty but had plush dark silken padded walls with a dark grey pillow. Beside the pillow was an iron goblet with a branching leaf pattern winding up from the base. The tomb on the west wall was the same and the party took both goblets. They moved into the sunken area and investigated the tombs there. Each was occupied by a humanoid body draped in grey robes and set with the tri-wheeled insignia of the wheels within wheels, and each wore a well crafted mask of a jackal over a human face. Jean noticed a glint coming from the mouth of one of the bodies and the party found that each body had a single platinum piece placed under its tongue. The bodies had large fresh scars across their chests and it was clear that they had been opened up for some kind of surgery, although they did not investigate this closer.
As they were leaving the tombs, a shambling, decaying humanoid figure entered the room, it shuffled along awkwardly and as it sighted the party it let out a gurgling cry of "Fresh meat" and leapt at Unagi. He was able to meet the creature head on as Jean and shadow Flame readied themselves for battle. The creature attacked with fury but could not prevail against the party who were able to destroy it.
The floor of the room was painted with a fading image of the giant spine planted into the ground that the party had seen on the room with the dais. They returned again to the main corridor and returned tot he only place they had not investigated - the antechamber at the west end.
The archway lead into a large room, dominated by a large raised area on the west wall. Stairs on the north and south walls lead up to the stage upon which was a large tomb with a humanoid shape carved into the lid. Either side of the tomb enormous candelabra were set into the floor, each able to hold 30 or more candles, although no candles were present. On the floor of the room a rack with a suit of armour sat with long blades placed either side each held by their own stand. Shadow Flame and Jean approached the tomb while Unagi investigated the weapons and armour. After reaching the top of the top of the stairs the lid of the tomb was pushed aside and a withered, vile creature with wild hair and a foul smell leapt to the floor. Its tattered clothing stretched its length and covered the stumps of what would have been its missing legs. It began clawing it's way along the ground towards Shadow Flame. The stench of the creature was overwhelming but Shadow Flame was able to land a series of damaging blows. At the appearance of the creature Unagi ran up the stairs, and after it had been weakened by Shadow Flame he was able to push his sword through the creatures head sending it back to whatever hell had spawned it.
With the creature dealt with the party investigated the room. Unagi tried the armour and it fit him like it was made for him and Shadow Flame claimed the long swords. Jean investigated the tomb and found inside the back of it had collapsed revealing an otherwise secret exit through the back of the tomb. With no other option available the party went through the back of the tomb and found a set of stairs descending down further into the earth.
At the bottom of the stairs was a small entryway leading out into a grand corridor. The stone of the floors and walls was the same as above, a featureless grey stone that was crumbling slightly with age. The corridor widened out and alcoves were on the north and south walls. The north wall contained a statue of a large figure wearing tattered robes with the hood pulled up, and a featureless mask on it's face, and the south alcove had a large basin. As the party moved forward to investigate the floor between the alcoves collapsed under Shadow Flame who fell several feet into a pit that was half filled with rubble. A deep groaning sound was heard from overhead as stone scraped against stone, and as Shadow Flame quickly climbed from the pit a large stone block fell from the roof and landed askew in the rubble strewn pit. After that narrow escape the party investigated the bowl which had a long flute coming from the centre that would have acted like a fountain many years ago, but was empty now as it had ceased to function.
Further down the corridor alcoves again opened up with a statue on the north and a fountain on the south. After the narrow escape of last time Shadow Flame searched the area and found a pressure plate that would likely have set off another trap. Avoiding the plate the party investigated; the statue was of an angelic figure, slumped to its knees holding aloft a sword with a look of despair on its face. Markings on the front of the statue could be identified but not read, and Jean copied them down so that they could later try and decipher the meaning. The fountain contained a thick sludgy substance that gave off a foul odour. Shadow Flame used an empty potion bottle to collect some of the liquid for later investigation.
Again, further down the corridor widened into a large alcove with a corridor branching off to the south and a large statue of a featureless robed figure in the north west corner. Shadow Flame discovered another pressure plate that the party avoided as it continued by following the corridor to the south. After only a couple of steps into the corridor Unagi fell through the floor as it gave way in another trap, this one free of rubble. As he collected himself from the fall several gourds feel from the roof and broke upon the floor releasing a thick slimy substance moments before small jets of flame erupted magically from the walls. Unagi was slightly singed but thankful that the oil in the gourds had long since congealed and failed to explode in the manner the trap maker had designed
As the party were preparing to continue on a loud anguished cry of pain echoed down the corridor coming from the direction the party were traveling in. With renewed caution they traveled further down the corridor which then ended in an antechamber similar to those of the floor above. They peered through the archway but could see nothing in the darkness, however, as they entered the room a soft grey light began to illuminate the room and they saw the one whom they were following.
Hashtoth lay slumped against the east wall of the room. His stomach had been burst open and his organs lay exposed and slowly falling out under gravity. His lower jaw had been scorched; the flesh burnt off of it and it remained open in his final cry of pain. Several rats, their bodies wasted with disease, crawled over the corpse, feasting noisily on the meat. The room itself was featureless apart from the south west corner. Sitting upon an old wooden chair, dressed in grey robes sat an creature of ancient appearance; its skin was dry and flaked and stretched across it's bones as if there was only barely enough to cover them and had ripped open in several places revealing dry, flaking flesh underneath. It's face was expressionless but a large tear ran from the corner of it's mouth to it's right ear and there was only blackness underneath, impossible to tell if there was anything at all under the skin of it's face. The creatures left eye had the appearance of being "deflated" and pus ran from the corner, but it's right eye was alert but yellowed with diseased. In it's left hand it held a long staff, carved with runes and topped by a howling banshee like face set with a glowing fire opal. As the party looked across it lifted it's arm and swept it forward, welcoming them to the room with the sound of the dry tearing of its own skin.
Cautiously Shadow Flame spoke, "who are you?".
"Knowledge of my name is not important, and runs counter to my purpose; you do not need to know me yet mortal for there are wheels within wheels. You should know however that there are doors that open to power. I can open these doors for those I choose to open them for".
"What are you doing here?" asked Unagi.
"This aspect of me is tied to this place. I can not enter your prime world in this guise".
"What do you mean? What is this place?".
"A prison. A prison that is my own, but a prison that now bends to my will. I can leave this place if I choose, but I cannot enter your world any longer".
Shadow Flame then asked the obvious question, "so why then do you remain?".
The creature motioned toward the staff, "I cannot take this with me, and, as it is tied to my aspect, once I leave, this place will not exist, it will become one with the Astral once again. Then the staff, like much of the detritus of that plane, would drift through the void, unused and sleeping".
"Who tied you to this place?" asked Shadow Flame.
"Of ancient times by the reckoning of mortals, wizards who could not kill me bound me to these shadows. I do not recall their names, and it matters not for they are long dead".
"Why did they do this?".
"They desired my fecundity". The creature seemed amused at the question, as if considering some secret source of humour. A rustling could be seen under the robe of it's left arm. The head of a rat, diseased, covered in boils, peered out from the arm of the robe. It squeaked at the party before scampering across to join its fellows at the feast. "I would not give it to them".
"What creatures are the statues we passed in the corridors leading here?" asked Shadow Flame.
"Those who would be my equals. Those who makes deals. Those who make monsters. They are not your concern".
"What of the murals? The spine in the ground?", he asked further.
"That is my seat. My home. There is work to be done, but I will be the master of the tower once again".
"Why have you killed your servant?" asked Jean, turning to look upon the steaming corpse of Hashtoth.
"Like all those who have sought my gifts over the times he lacked ambition. Him and his petty masters. They lacked foresight, they lacked drive, they lacked the strength to do what must be done". The creature turned it's attention to Jean. Although it did not turn it's head it was clear who it addressed, "but there is purpose inside you little mortal. I sense your motivation. I sense your drive. It would please me for you to take this as my gift".
Surprised by the offer Jean asked, "why would you give me such a gift?".
"I do not require it. I am my own power. I am of myself. I would please me that one of ambition, one of foresight might possess it. I can be used to undo those who oppose you, those who have set themselves against you in deed, directly and indirectly. It is my gift to you, use it as thou wilst".
"What does the staff do?".
"It is the nature of things that those who possess drive learn these things for themselves. There are bonds to be formed and there is knowledge to be consumed. There is time enough to learn what needs to be learned".
Jean stepped forward and took the offered staff from the creature. As she did a line of runes along the length of the staff burst into light and she staggered back, slightly stunned under the burst from the staff. In her mind she heard a deep, guttural voice speak the word "KHORLE", and it was in this instance she understood that the staff could be used to divine the powers of items of magic.
Jean felt that the creature was pleased and started to ask another question, but the creature spoke again, "I would ask that you do one thing for me, a token for my gift. The so called 3 Wheels, they are a blight upon me, they have destroyed the prestige of their name from this place, from your prime. I would that you destroy them for me, kill the leaders and leave no doubt as to the price of their failure to those who learn of them. Their deaths must be a message. They are no longer welcome in this world".
Without waiting for a response from the party the creature continued, "now I would leave this place, there is nothing for me here any longer. I think that we will meet again my new friends. If you live and circumstances conspire for it to be so, I will seek you out. However, watch closely the times to come, for as I continue to grow amazing things will happen. Wheels within wheels...". Although the physical body of the creature was still there, it's presence was not, it had left.
Shadow Flame grasped an amulet that he wore around his neck, and to the surprise of Jean and Unagi a small winged creature with an impish head and wickedly barbed tail appeared in front of him.
"Yes master?", it asked.
"Do you know of the creature that we just spoke with?" he asked of the imp.
"No master, I have never seen or heard of such a creature, but it is clear it had great power" the imp answered.
"Very well" spoke Shadow Flame as he dismissed the imp which changed shape into a raven and perched upon Shadow Flames shoulder.
Understandably Jean and Unagi wanted to know what had just happened. Shadow Flame explained that he had been witness to a large battle between various demonic creatures and other humans and demi-humans. As he watched a mage fell to one of the demons in front of him. Seizing the moment he crawled forth from his hiding spot and took the amulet from the dead wizard before being noticed. The amulet was bound to the imp who had just appeared and allowed Shadow Flame to exert his will upon the creature. Most of the time the Imp travels with him invisibly but can also take the shape of a raven if it or him desires.
Shadow Flame also chose this moments to remove his mask and show his companions why he wears it - his skin is red and his eyes seem to burn with flame. He is part demon, a creature called a tiefling - half human, half something else, although the something else is invariably a creature of the lower planes. He explained how his mother was raped by a demon who he now seeks revenge upon and how he searches for any and all information on the lower planes in the hope of discovering something that can help him in his quest.
Once all the questions had been asked and answered the party turned their attention to the corpse of Hashtoth and they took everything of value from it that they could find. The world around them briefly shimmered as if it was an illusion falling apart under the gaze of a god, and they left the ancient crypt as quickly as they could.
Continue to part 2