Roster (Party Level 5th)
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (off-stage)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Ranger
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord
DM's Note: For various reasons, I didn't want the party to push on into the Horned Hold without Berend's player present, so we decided to retcon in a brief interlude which would have occured in the time the company was awaiting Orontor so he could escort them to their meeting with Paldemar.
With time to kill, the party turns their attention to a message received from Phaledra, the cleric of Erathis resident in the Temple of Hidden Light, with whom they've had prior contact. Upon arrival, she informs them that she's been looking at ways to extend her tenure in the Seven-Pillared Hall; she has much work to do, and fears that the policy of the Mages to rotate the allegiance of the Temple will hinder her efforts. To this end, she's decided to try and make friends of the Hall's other residents, so that when the time comes, she can count on their support for her petition to stay. In this case, her efforts are directed towards Ulthand Deepgem.
Some of the company are dubious about interfering with the status quo, and Phaledra suggests that if they happen to talk to Ulthand and he happens to ask them to help as well, what harm can it do? Thus armed, they pay a visit to the old miner, and although he is reticent at first, hints dropped by the party soon loosen his tongue.
He tells of a recent excursion to a corner of the Seven-Pillared Hall called the "Smoke Stack", a great chimney of rock, rumoured to ascend a full mile all the way to the surface and perpetually filled with an acrid orange smoke. Ulthand led his apprentice Clinker, and two hired hands, on an expedition to the Stack after he came upon information that there may be valuable gems and minerals ripe for the taking by a crew with the right experience, expertise, and motivation.
Unfortunately the trip ended in tragedy. They reached the Stack alright, but a sudden, almighty explosion killed both of the labourers as well as Ulthand's beloved pig, Wendy (he becomes quite emotional at the memory).
"She was a good pig, a good friend. *sniff* Always leaving little presents around the place for me, she was..." - Ulthand Deepgem, on the habits of his pig Wendy
If the adventurers were to venture into the Stack... perhaps find out what caused the explosion and return a report to Ulthand... even if they were to find Wendy's charred remains and return her home for a proper burial... the dwarf promises them ample reward. The party, however, have something else in mind... a cut of the profits! A quick, razor-sharp negotiation ensues, and agreement is reached: if the Deepgem Company were to set up an installation in the Stack, the company will receive a 1% commission on all profits rendered.
In the spirit of mutual prosperity, Ulthand also provides the company with leather face-masks, the outside of which is covered with a sticky tar which the old dwarf claims will protect them from the worst of the acrid air. Most of the adventurers are suspicious of the gift, but without the expertise to say otherwise, have no choice but to accept it in the spirit it was provided.
Following instructions from Ulthand, they leave via the Hall of Lanterns and come upon a thin crack in the wall, barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through, although it widens to a broad tunnel of rock on the other side, zig-zagging through the Underdark with a roof of darkness overhead. In time, the air becomes thick in their lungs, and the atmosphere takes on a ruddy hue. To their surprise, the masks provided by Ulthand seem to do the job advertised.
An hour in, something begins to materialise out of the murk ahead. Three skeletons, one of the them clutching what looks like a tablet of stone and all of them hovering in unmoving stasis a few feet above the floor, are gliding down the corridor towards them. The company is rightfully concerned but decides to let them pass undisturbed, a plan which seems to be going fine... until the invisible gelatinous cube which actually contains the skeletal remains lashes out and pulls Elumai into its acidic gullet as it glides past.
The shocked company works hard to defeat the dangerous creature, as one by one they are pulled into the glutinous innards, burned by its acid before either forcing their way out or being pulled free by one of their companions. Still, they prevail without loss, and upon examining the tablet, find that it's a treasure map of sorts, depicting a thin tubule deep into the ground, beneath which five pools must be filled with the blood of angels and demons before a great treasure is revealed. Interesting, yes, but without a reference point, the map is as good as useless for now.
The party pushes on. The air becomes hotter and takes on a bitter scent of phosphorous, burning their throats even through the tarred masks, and the tunnel opens into a circular room, the base of a tall funnel disappearing into the tainted air far above. Tiny holes dotted around the room emit thin rivulets of smoke, curling up into the air, and two unpleasantly-charred bodies, somewhat decomposed, lie on the floor near a pile of incinerated mining equipment. The bodies, and the floor of the chamber, are carpeted in a thin layer of yellowy gunk...bat guano! Crusted over and steaming gently in the heat, this is probably the source of the smoke in the Stack. Another tunnel opposite appears to have been blown open, with charring and blackened rubble all about.
Jonas creeps forward to the tunnel, and spies another chamber, its interior formed from hardened bubbles of black volcanic rock, and its walls criss-crossed with thin veins of red. As he watches, a nearby blister of rock seems to shift and settle as if alive, and Jonas, fearing an imminent ambush, unleashes an attack and darts back out of the cave, which flares suddenly with firelight as several fire bats ignite and swarm down towards him from the ceiling.
The bats erupt from the cave and engage the party, igniting everything in sight, including not only the adventurers themselves, but their masks as well! (Turns out the tar is good for two things: filtering smoke particles from the air, and exploding into flame at the merest spark.) Soon a more serious threat comes lumbering out of the volcanic cave, however: a golem of black rock, its limbs veined in red fire, and its arms chiselled into sharp, red hot points, which lunge out at anyone within reach.
The battle is baking hot, with the adventurers assailed from above by bats swooping in and out of their defenses, and the flamespiker stomping amongst the chaos, impaling anyone foolish enough to come within range. Not without help will the company have to face down these enemies, however! A few seconds into the fight, a somewhat charred and hairy shape explodes with a squeal from the darkness and attacks the creature -- Wendy! Less than healthy, but alive nonetheless! Victory becomes inevitable at that point.
In the aftermath, the party assembles clues as to what happened to Ulthand's expedition. It seems that the inner volcanic cave occupies a thin space between the World and the Elemental Chaos, and the explosion was probably a release of pent-up energy unleashed when the dwarves chose the wrong part of wall to dig through. The good news is that sealing the inner cave and avoiding that part of the wall will probably mean the excavation can go ahead.
...News which Ulthand ultimately finds much less exciting than the return of his pig to her rightful home, of course.