Roster (Party Level 7th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Matorna-Reevash (Human Kingsblade warrior, Finial's Companion)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger
The party has little choice but to support Berend's decision to confront Brugg, given that the dwarf is already striding purposefully towards the ruins, but the ogre himself is too stubborn or too stupid to avoid the fight. Picking up his greatclub, he moves to defend himself against the adventurers, but standing on his own, he is quickly beaten into sulky submission by their attacks and has little option but to obey their orders to help the locals rebuild the Hall. Led off, the party quietly wonders if he'll see the morning, given the looks some of the folks that have gathered around the fight are throwing at him.
Now there is nothing for it but to travel to Paldemar's hide-out, wherever it may be. The teleporter works flawlessly, albeit with the same gut-wrenching side-effect, and they arrive in the same circular meeting room in which Paldemar held audience with them what seems like an age ago: stone walls with metallic porthole-like shutters, flagstone floors, and simple stone benches arranged in a circle. In the background, the same slushy, churning noise can still be heard.
Without illusions of propriety and/or the danger of being caught to stop them, the adventurers quickly shatter the locks on one of the portholes and swing it open. Outside, held back by a sheet of thick glass, is an impenetrable wall of worms, a sea of them, sliding past right-to-left as if in a great current... or as if the room, and whatever structure it is attached to, were moving through them.
Every colour and shape is visible: smooth-bodied annelids like thick earthworms, flat glistening nematodes, stringy flatworms, bristly and multi-coloured marine specimens, all folding and collapsing over eachother as they slide past. As they watch, a huge chitinous shell thuds against the window before once again being subsumed. It would seem that Paldemar's recluse isn't in the vicinity of the Seven-Pillared Hall at all, but deep inside Tumerex itself!
The door out of the room is ajar. Outside, a small landing offers two ways forward. Ahead, the door to the other audience chamber is closed; to the right, a simple wooden-panelled door bulges outward from its splintered frame as if something massive has impacted the other side.
The party decides to check the audience chamber first, and finds a scene of carnage. The room is blackened with ash as if a great fire has burned within, and the now-inert teleportation portal inscribed into the stone floor is caked with the incinerated remains of several people. Careful examination reveals three bodies... and interestingly, what is left of one of the human skulls shows signs of mutilation within the eye socket. This recalls to Jonas's mind the group of Vecna-worshippers he encountered earlier in the Hall, who had claimed that their "patron" had abandoned them. Could this be what is left of them? There are subtle signs that one or more bodies have been removed, as well.
The third door from the lower landing is carefully inspected but doesn't seem dangerous. Wrenching it open, the party is shocked as the remains of Paldemar's cohort, Emerjis, flops out onto the floor. The mage's body is almost literally flattened, having been smashed against the door by a massive impact. Not only that, but his right arm has been somehow transmuted into a slimy worm-like appendage which, as they watch, cracks open a toothy maw and begins to gnaw at the remains of his shoulder in a bid to free itself. Revolted, the adventurers hack it to shreds and move on.
A stairwell from the lower landing leads to another panelled door, this one literally hanging off its hinges, and within, a large circular landing with three other exits: two are wooden panelled, the other is a hefty metallic hatch sealed with bolts operated by a heavy-duty wheel-lock. Thin slimy trails criss-cross the room, evidence of inhuman passage.
Ignoring the metal door for now, the party's attention is turned to the south. This panelled door is closed and locked, its edges rimed with black and the smell of burnt flesh coming from within. Inside, they find some kind of shrine. Like all the other rooms in this place it is circular, with a stone floor but this time with walls of polished wood. A metallic frieze of a giant skull dominates the wall opposite the door, one eye glinting in the light from a half-dozen candles on the altar before it, the other nothing more than a shadowy niche. A similar image has been carved into the stone of the floor.
Near the wall-mounted skull, two burned figures hunch together, breathing rapidly. From behind, the party can see bleached white skull beneath the tattered remains of their scalps, and they also notice, embroidered into what's left of one of the creatures' cloaks, the pattern of a white skull. This categorically identifies them as members of the cult which Jonas had encountered previously in the Hall. Three other bodies, burned beyond all recognition of humanity, lie in a blackened heap near the door.
The creatures near the skull respond immediately to the party's entrance, standing upright and turning to reveal hideous, blackened skin stretched over bleached bone. The candles sputter and fizz into brightness, and the single eye of the skull seems to blink at the intruders as the undead shamble towards the door. At the same time, the three immolated bodies struggle to their feet, greasy flesh sliding off bone as they are compelled to attack.
The fight is hot and close-quartered. Jonas darts into the room but is adamant in his refusal to actually attack the undead lest further desecration of their bodies lay a curse on his own flesh; still, he's able to clamber to a high vantage and scatter the contents of the carved-out eye-socket -- a bottle of wine, an envelope, and other seemingly mundane artifacts -- to the floor.
The two more powerful undead unleash potent draining attacks which rob the company of the ability to use their most powerful attacks, while the three lesser creatures simply rip the flesh from them, waves of enervating heat sapping their strength. Not only that but the adventurers are dismayed to find the flesh of their enemies knitting itself back into existence before their very eyes, a regenerative effect which they're unable to curtail for the entire duration of the fight.
One by one the risen abominations fall to their blades and magic, but as the last of them falls to the cold floor, it raises one hand as if suing for peace. "Enough!" it rasps. "Is it victory against me you seek, or against the mages who have shunned my master? Do not choose hastily!" Against all instinct, the adventurers pause their attack to listen to the creature's offer.
"Paldemar and his wretched cohorts fear nothing of betraying my master, the Keeper of Secrets, the Scepter of the Dead... They have already raised two of the great worms -- you have seen them! -- and seek to call their father, the great Rockworm Namotath, from his age-old entropy within Tumerex.
"It is that cursed disease of magic which has allowed them to come this far, and it must be stopped! My master, He Who hears all that is unsaid, demands it! He will offer each of you a boon, and the price is almost nothing to mortals such as yourself... a single secret, delectable to His ear, is all he commands..."
-- Enigma of Vecna to the adventurers in Paldemar's Recluse.
After a few moments of thought amomgst the party, only Jonas is prepared to take such a risk, and receives his boon: a taste of Vecna's power which he may unleash in the final struggle against Paldemar. Contemptuous of those who refused the God's generous offer, the Enigma crumbles to ash before their eyes.
A search of the room reveals a splintered section of wall, and behind it, a smooth metallic outer lining, perhaps the exterior shell of the structure. The innocuous-looking artifacts scattered by Jonas are of passing interest: a small, carefully wrapped strip of jerky; a dusty old bottle of wine, its cork sealed within a wire cage; a handkerchief with a woman's perfume still strong upon it; and a letter, sealed and apparently never sent. It reads: "Talandra, with this love I can never speak, through my actions will your affections be sought. Fear not for the soul of your lost and departed, for in his final moments did he truly know the face of his god." (Superior knowledge on their part identifies Talandra as the daughter of one the very first Pale Kings, Elvon Rax.)
The candles also turn out to be Everburning, and are dispersed amongst the party. Outside, the remainder of Paldemar's hidden fortress awaits exploration...