Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4 (shadowy insubstantial NPC 1)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Finial - Half-elf Paladin 4
Jonas - Human Ranger 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4 (shadowy insubstantial NPC 2)
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4
The party pushes east along the circular tunnel (they realise after a while that the strange surface gives them unusual traction on the rock), and traffic gradually increases in both directions. Traders and travellers of all shape and size pass to and fro, and eventually, as the tunnel narrows and begins to fracture into smaller off-shoots, more people start emerging from side-tunnels and even chutes in the floor and ceiling. Accosting one lost-looking half-elf, they confirm that they are en-route to the Seven-Pillared Hall.
In time, the tunnel contracts to a mere thirty-or-so feet across, and it changes in character to something much more akin to other passages the company has travelled, a rough thoroughfare carved by the sweat of men and women into the rock. As they approach the Hall, they notice a half-open doorway in a nearby alcove, from which gruff raised voices can be heard. Most everyone else is giving the door a wide berth, but a potential break from the monotony of the long walk is too tempting for them to pass up.
"Come on out little fish, we'll get a good 10 gold for you!"
Inside they find a store-room, with several barrels lining the inner wall. Piles of crates, some of which lie smashed on the floor, reveal it as such, and four hobgoblins dressed in ad-hoc armour seem to be making sport with a halfling cowering in one corner. As Berend kicks the door in, one of them turns and orders him back out, stepping forward to shove him back through the entrance, but Finial is having none of that, grabbing the creature before it can do much more than lay a hand on the dwarf, and thusly battle is joined.
It's a straightforward affair, with the party's practised opening salvo's doing their job, until one of the piles of crates in a far corner is pushed over by a robed hobgoblin who appears to have emerged from a secret passageway. Spitting curses at them for disturbing the legitimate work of the Bloodreavers (a name familiar to the PC's), he unleashes a whip-like finger of crackling energy on Berend, who finds himself painfully engulfed by the magic and pulled off his feet to the back of the room, where the hobgoblins he has been dealing with attempt to engulf him. Another electrical attack from the warcaster's staff deals him more damage, but supporting from his friends soon turns the tide and all but one of the hobgoblins is killed.
The last one, a snivelling creature called Krawg, throws himself on the party's mercy with no expectation of being spared. Under interrogation he reveals that he answers to Krand, the leader of the Bloodreavers, and if the company has any particular grief he should take it up with them. He is also coerced into revealing that the route to the Bloodreavers' hide-out is through what he calls the 'Dragon Gate', something the company will know when they see.
Eventually, he is released, but Finial discreetly arranges with the rescued halfling, one Rendil Halfmoon, to follow the creature and report back to them. Rendil eagerly agrees to the task as partial payment for his rescue, and tells the party to meet him later at the inn owned by his mother and named after the family.
Neither the room nor the dead hobgoblins are of further interest, although the secret door opens onto a short tunnel which opens out, via another hidden hatchway at the other end, into a stinking refuse pit in what the company assume is the Seven-Pillared Hall. They stop short at climbing out of the pit in full view of everyone to find out, however, and retreat back to the main tunnel after stashing the dead hobgoblins in the garbage.
Soon they reach the Seven-Pillared Hall within the underground catacomb known as Saruun Khel. The cavern is huge, several hundred metres across, festively illuminated by flickering multi-coloured baubles strung from the buildings and walls, and teeming with traders, travellers, beggars, places of business, and other passing traffic.
The doorway itself is guarded by two gigantic minotaur statues, dozens of metres high and looking sternly down on the entrance. Channeling a distant history lesson, Elumai informs the others that the minotaurs are dressed in the garb of arbiters, high-status followers of ancient, honor-bound traditions within the minotaur culture.
The most obvious first port of call is the Customs House, an imposing building directly opposite the main entrance. There is a queue of people within, who, when their turn is called, are handing over various amounts of cash to a pale, grizzly-looking man with stringy black hair, who then marks a ledger before seeing to the next in line. Hovering menacingly in one corner, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and a mean expression on his face, is a massive ogre.
As the party pushes through the line to get some information, the creature steps forward and accosts them, demanding to know what trouble they're thinking of starting. Berend cannot resist a stand-off with the ogre -- whose name they discover is Brugg -- but in the ensuing face-off they discover that this is a clearing-house for the 10% tax imposed on all trade by the Mages of Saruun, Brugg being the thuggish enforcer who ensures that all payments are made. The man taking the traders' money is the current mage on duty, Orontor. Amazingly, they leave the customs-house without causing any trouble.
The next port of call is the Halfmoon Inn, a sturdy brick-and-mortar affair with a pleasant atmosphere. Erra Halfmoon is incensed to hear about the danger her son Rendil has got himself into, and grateful to the company for saving his bacon, and soon, room and board is arranged. They engage the talkative woman and learn a few more things.
The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Seven-Pillared Hall, with its diverse races and unusual calm, is entirely down to the mages, who rule through their enforcer Brugg and the enigmatic Ordinator Arcanis, one of their number who appears irregularly to pass judgement on disagreements which can't be resolved peacefully. When asked about local trade she recommends the Deepgem Company, run by Ulthand, although she suggests they should tread carefully because he has apparently suffered a recent bereavement. Of the feral creatures that led them here, Erra knows little except their name, something she heard Brugg say in annoyance once ('shadow tacks'), and of the florock ore, she knows nothing.
Unable to uncover any more information on the strange ore, other than re-confirming their hunch that the feral couriers must be working for the mages, the party returns to the statues. Upon close inspection, they discover a worn-away inscription in a forgotten language that Elumai is forced to employ ritual magic to decipher:
"The Crown of Kvorn's Glory
Baphomet in Shadow"
Plumbing the depths of their knowledge, Elumai and Jonas identify Syosik Kvorn as a long-dead minotaur emperor, while most of the party recognise Baphomet as a demon prince of some repute, but what the inscription actually means remains a mystery for now. Also on the plinths, two circular indentations facing each-other across the entranceway raise the party's interest... Berend theorises that something is designed to be slotted in between them. (And all the while, Elumai notices Orontor, the mage from the customs house, observing them with casual interest from the doorway of the building.)