Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 66 -- Sunday 13th March 2011

In which the company pits itself against the twisted experiments of the Patriarch and his minions.

Roster (Party Level 12th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)

Seraiya (Companion) - Eladrin Cleric
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

Delgado - Human Slayer

(Please note that ongoing technical difficulties claimed the first part of this recording.)  

November 10th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning (continued)

Let us agree that the aforementioned melee was a brutal and unhygienic affair, and that many fluids were spilled upon the battlefield. However, our protagonists prevailed.

They take a few minutes to examine Delgado's finds. Unwrapping the parcel they find a black and shriveled heart which continues to bleed even having long ago been cut out of its owner (the stained wrapping is in itself magical, soaking the blood forever into itself and sweating a clear liquid which quickly evaporates in the air). The skeleton itself seems to have been picked utterly clean by the acidic cockroach swarm, although the backpack has been left alone by the other creatures inhabiting the fort for reasons which we won't speculate on here.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 65 -- Sunday 27th February 2011

In which the company becomes embroiled in a murderous plot and finds that even the assassins have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Roster (Party Level 12th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)

Seraiya (Companion) - Eladrin Cleric
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

Delgado - Human Slayer

November 9th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

The companions leave the hag's tomb behind them, and spend a day trekking uneventfully through the forest.

November 10th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

Pushing on, the company is attacked by a trio of assassins intent on killing them in their sleep before they make any further progress. Under interrogation, they reveal they were hired by a red-haired woman known only as "Lady Marisa", and that it was their job to ensure that no-one interfered with the kidnapping of a merchant of noble blood called Fetsuad il-Sook. They carry the mark of the Assassin's Guild of Emerandes. One of them is put quickly to death, the other suffers a lingering fate in the flames of Finial's wrath.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 64 -- Sunday 20th February 2011

Another lost recording. :( I was having a few troubles with my normally rock-solid recording equipment. Check The Story So Far for a quick review.

Cradle Plain -- Session 63 -- Sunday 13th February 2011

In which the company leaves the safety of Emerandes to journey south, and deals with an ancient, slumbering threat deep in the wilderness...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)

Seraiya (Companion) - Eladrin Cleric
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

November 6th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning
Berend spends a few precious hours researching information on, as he calls it, "extracting the juice of several wizards" which he now knows will be necessary to reinforce the so-called 'slip-shield' of the planar jammer, but the public libraries of Emerandes, though impressive, don't provide much help in the short time he can spare. In the end he decides that rescuing Lord Riva might well serve his purposes better than fruitlessly walking a thousand dusty bookshelves looking for clues, and as it happens the group as a whole has reached a consensus that going after Riva should probably be their next course of action anyway.

The journey is 5 days on horseback and the company tracks down Wilder, who is still in the city with Shortham and staying at an inn called the "Second Stop". In the process they learn that Banks is extremely well-liked and well-respected within Emerandes, a man who will always get you and your goods from A to B; in fact, one trader they talk to is quick to inform them of stories his own father used to tell of Shortham delivering perishable goods to the city walls sixty or more years ago! This is surely well before the enigmatic caravan master could have been born, but it's one of many clues that Banks might be more than he seems. Wilder greets them companionably from his bunk in the stables, and they spend a few minutes catching up before hiring four of his most rested animals (40gp a horse, with 20gp refundable upon safe return... friend rates, of course). So confident is he in their prowess that he guarantees ten hours travel for every eight hours achievable on a lesser steed; if true, this will knock a day off their journey in each direction.

November 7th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning 

The company rides out under a clear blue sky in which a sliver of moon can be seen over the distant peaks of the mountains to the north. There is very little traffic on the King's Road that morning, and what little they run into is heavily-guarded and prone to suspicion. One large caravan -- a single trader, surrounded by heavily-armed mercenaries -- reports losing two of its number to an ambush further south, but apart from that, the day passes uneventfully as they travel first south-west and then veer off the main highway onto a less-travelled route winding south towards Lukktor. As the sun sets, Berend -- seemingly untroubled by fatigue -- proposes pushing on through night. The night is cold and clear, star and moon shining in the heavens, and the motion passes.

Some hours letter, a piercingly cold northerly wind picks up, biting to the marrow. Unnervingly, this unnatural phenomenon seems to change direction with the travellers, always blowing from their back. Finial notices formless shadows in the corner of his eye, blowing past him on the wind... looking closer, the shadows take the form of animal silhouettes, a ghostly menagerie  fleeing an unknown threat. After a couple of minutes of this, the wind drops, the shadows dissipate, and the Plain returns to normality. Pondering the situation, Elumai is reminded of something she's read about called the "Winds of the Wild", an omen of ill-fortune often reported to plague those who insist on walking dangerous roads. She wonders aloud how such a phenomenon could apply to them, when by all accounts their fates have already been stolen by the demoness? It's an interesting quandary, but no-one has any answers.

As they push on, the starlit sky overhead is gradually obscured by the thickening branches and broad, greasy leaves of trees native to this part of the Plain. The road, such as it is, has plunged into woodland.

November 8th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning 

As the sun rises, Seraiya begins to wane in her saddle, and a decision is made to rest for a couple of hours. The wind has dropped, and yet a murmuring can be heard in the undergrowth all around them, almost as if the trees themselves are whispering behind their backs. Nothing is to be found upon inspection... but the party does notice an inviting clearing a few hundred feet down the path. It seems terribly convenient and enticing, but the group is not one for turning its back on the unknown (despite Berend's grumblings).

The clearing looks like a hurricane once blasted through it, leaving a huge pile of tumbled-down boulders and splintered trees around the edge of the area leading to a rubble-strewn slope, covered in deadfall, which ascends into the shadows of the trees and out of sight (although they can hear water somewhere up there). An abandoned camp fire sits in the centre of the glade, mostly obscured amongst the knee-high grasses which have been given leave to grow in the area. Elumai and Finial sneak in for a closer look: it would seem that several people have recently converged around the fire, flattening the grass, and a discarded back-pack sits to one side.

They carefully approach. The camp-fire is long-dead, about a week old by Finial's estimation, while the back-pack contains mundane adventuring gear long-rusted (and the mouse that scurries away as they empty its nest onto the grass suggests it's been there for some time). A few days of salted rations are about the only things of any use. Elumai has spent a few minutes tilting her head towards the whispering in the trees. There are definitely voices under there, but they're too distant and fragmented to make out clearly.

Berend clambers to the top of the deadfall and looks about. On the ledge is a pool of stagnant water, and two giant stone feet, which are all that remains of a statue which once stood guardian over the glade but which has now shattered and collapsed into the pool. There is also an oaken door set expertly into the rockface, with lettering carved into the wood which has long-since weathered away. Berend suggests rubbing soot into the door and a vestige of rellanic script gradually fades into view: May the eyes of the Fey forever watch over this place.

He then turns his attention to the pool. His first suggestion is to dig a trench and drain the thing, but when Finial wades in he discovers it's only knee-deep and littered with blocks of stone. He quickly heaves the weed-strewn chunks into the open air, and begins to reassemble them on the grass. It's a deific, kindly-looking eladrin holding a longsword, which when laid together reveal passages of religious script; in translation, these writings recount various funerary themes, promising the blessings of a distant patron who is evoked using a selection of different names (but who on reflection is obviously the Raven Queen).

Elumai meanwhile has used ritual magic to decipher the whisperings, only to find that they are themselves the verses of a ritual called Corpselike Visage, being repeated all around them. This would normally be used to give someone the semblance of death, even to divinations, and raises all kinds of unpleasant possibilities about the tomb. Finial steps forward to have a look.
The door is ancient, but scrapes and stripped lichen around the stone at its base indicate it may have been opened much more recently. A quick examination by Elumai reveals it's Arcane Locked, and the enchantment resists her efforts to Dispel it... so she resorts to her significant lock-picking skills instead, and with more success.

As they wrench the door open, the whispering all around them gets suddenly very loud. A passage cut into the hillside descends via a rough staircase into the dark below, the walls covered in green moss and other plant-life that has overrun and invaded the space. Relanic glyphs carved into the rock follow the same pattern as the prayers engraved into the statue, and there is the sound of dripping water below.

The company descends carefully. The only things to give them pause are gossamer thin webs, strung across the stairs and climbing the walls. Berend tosses a piece of statue noisily down the stairs, which gathers up all of the webs on its way down before crumbling to a stop in a stagnant pool. Two shadowy, multi-legged shapes emerge from the rubble, swarm up the wall, and disappear, chittering, into a crack next to a large, open double door at the bottom of the stairs.

The party descends, a Light spell cast upon Finial's helm illuminating the way. In a large chamber below, six statues, all of which have been smashed down to their feet, stand upon a raised platform, in the centre of which rest two cairns, built of stones which have clearly been brought down from the ledge above. Two large arachnids can very clearly be seen lurking in clutches of silky webbing strung across the walls and ceiling. Berend waits only long enough for his companions to enter the room before launching his Thunderburst hammer at the nearest spider. In the crackling concussion, the curtains of spider-web around the room billow out, and from alcoves behind them, several trolls rush forward to attack the interlopers of the tomb.

Meanwhile, the spider which Berend attacked leaps from the ceiling onto his face and strands of thick silk erupt around him, pinning him to the floor. One of the trolls growls in broken common -- "Wake the mother!" -- before moving to block the exit, however it doesn't reckon on Finial's extended reach and the paladin's spiked chain slams into his back.

A second spider skitters across the ceiling and leaps towards Elumai. With a single word of command, she bisects the room with a blazing wall of fire. The spider screeches as it tumbles into the flames, and its attack goes wild, but as it lands it turns its abdomen towards her and fires a glob of webbing that roots her in place. This is the last mistake the enraged arachnid ever makes, as Berend, perfectly placed, brings his hammer down in a crushing blow which all-but obliterates the creature in an explosion of gore. Webs and the accumulated dust of ages smoulder in the fire, filling the room with a thin but cloying smoke and the smelled of burned decay.

The other troll has clambered up onto one of the cairns and is scooping rocks off the grave. Suddenly, the whispering around them coalesces into a rasping voice -- "Who disturbs my slumber?!" -- and the rocks tumble outward in a cascade to reveal a decrepid, rag-clothed old woman. She pulls herself free and strides through the fire to reach Elumai.

"I have turned the magics of this place into dreamless sleep, these centuries. You will not be the end of me, girl!" -- the hag beneath the forest

The hag unleashes a Sleep which rolls inexorably over the party. Elumai and Seraiya's eladrin blood protects them from the spell, but Finial and Berend find their eyelids growing heavier by the second. Fighting the ennui, Berend musters his strength and charges the frail old creature... only to find his axe batted aside as if it was nothing, and his last sight as he collapses into the creature's arms, unconscious, is her hideous smile and rotting fangs.

The heat of the Wall of Fire slowly bakes the room, and its occupants. So cunning was Elumai in its placement that her opponents find their options all-but reduced to simply charging the company and hoping for a hit. Elumai follows-up with a Thunderwave, but succeeds only in throwing Berend across the room into the corner. "...five more minutes..." murmurs the sleeping warrior, just as he's pounced upon by one of the spiders, which can't resist a sleeping victim despite the fact that its flesh sizzles under Finial's ongoing challenge.

Finial defends himself against a vicious broad-sword strike, and lashes out with a vengeful Astral Thunder, almost knocking both trolls off their feet. He follows up with a Radiant Pulse, slamming his opponent away from him and back into proximity of the Wall, before finally succumbing to the hag's enchantment himself. Seraiya sends a healing wave towards the still-sleeping Berend, and kicks Finial awake before Branding and killing the troll which was attacking him. Elumai, meanwhile, finally drops the Wall and runs over to shake Berend awake... meaning the hag, who had discorporated to haunt his dreams, re-appears next to him, laying herself vulnerable to multiple attacks and dying with a scream of despair on her lips.

The remaining troll and spider pose few problems to the company, and they pause to search the tomb and tend to their wounds. There is a selection of old, rusting adventuring kit, suggesting that the spiders within have been feasting on travellers for some time, and along with the equivalent of several hundred gold in currency, they find a mouldy sack with a handy couple of Potions of Vitality. Content with a good day's work, they go on their way.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tiles vs. Whiteboard, the battle continues!

Big, isn't it?
It took me a while to come around to tile-sets. I've drawn my battle-mats for years on a large, chunky, 1-inch gridded dry-erase whiteboard, because this gives me ultimate flexibility over layout. Not only can I can whack out an encounter in just a couple of minutes, but I can change scenery on the fly, add decals and annotations, draw pretty pictures... whatever I want. The group can also use it for buff/debuff tracking, Initiative, and all that good stuff. It's powerful, and with just a few simple colours, looks pretty nice on the table as well.

Not one of my best, but shows the whiteboard in use
Two things happened to make me try dungeon tiles. First, my whiteboard is getting old. The grid is now all-but impossible to see, and the surface is stained with the ghostly remains of old encounters where we accidentally used permanent ink or where the colour has worked itself into flaws on the surface. Finding a whiteboard with the same features at a reasonable price has proved hilariously difficult. I wish I'd bought five of them a decade ago instead of just the one which has done such sterling service since then.

Second, I actually started paying attention to what Wizards was producing instead of assuming that my twenty-five year-old memory of flimsy cardboard tiles with scuffed corners and dodgy artwork still represented the norm. After buying a set of Wizards of the Coast's Sinister Woods, that old memory was laid to rest straight away. The tiles were stocky and durable, and the art was terrific. Similar dip-tests into the Paizo product line were no less promising.

Since then, I've used them on-and-off alongside my faithful old whiteboard. They're not dry-erasable, so they make it hard to draw unique and encounter-specific objects onto the play space (as opposed to, for example, Paizo's Gamemastery Map Packs, which are dry-erase but not as durable), but for generic and reconfigurable settings such as the random overgrown ruin, the forest glade, the ancient temple, and so-on, they add cool and welcome variety to the proceedings.

To really be useful to me, though, as a complete replacement for my whiteboard, dungeon tiles of any kind will need to pass the following litmus tests:

They need to be cheap, plentiful, and varied. Much of Wizards of the Coast's old line is now out-of-print but still readily available on eBay, and in any case has now been assimilated by the new "Master" tiles range. Paizo and other vendors still have well-stocked online stores. So, no problems there.

They need to be durable. I need to be able to stack them in a box, pile them on the floor, and throw them around the room. The Wizards sets, old and new alike, are the gold-standard here; the Gamemastery products lag behind slightly, but have other advantages to make up for it. Looks like we're set here as well.

I need to be able to quickly assemble a complex encounter on-the-fly. This is where tiles' versatility starts to work against them. Storing and organising stacks and stacks of the things so that you can quickly find what you need is a real problem, and the danger is that you resort to something dull and uninspiring on the table just to keep the game moving. I can translate a map from adventure to whiteboard in a minute or two... I need to find a way to catalogue my tiles to achieve the same with them.

I need to be able to customise the battle-mat without damaging the tiles. This is the real biggie. Whiteboard battle-mats have infinite flexibility, and every one of them can be unique; tiled battle-mats will always look somewhat homogenous. What I can't do at all on the Wizards tiles is draw that glyph trap, or that crack in the wall, or that gutter full of fire, or in fact any feature which is not served by the tiles I have on-hand. One solution here will be thick-stock dry-erase transparencies, cut into various sizes and available on-hand to lay down on the tiles and draw over. I'll be trying that experiment as soon as I've found a suitable material. (The Paizo map-packs, by the way, don't suffer from this problem: they're smaller, more specific and much less interchangeable, but they're glossy and dry-erase out of the box.)

So with all that said, on to a mini review of Wizards' Master Set: The City, which is part of the latest line of dungeon tiles from the publishers of D&D. I bought this sizable box because I don't have any urban tiles at all... and also because I wanted to see how the new sets compared to the old ones (now defunct).

I was pretty blown away, I have to say. The set was more expensive than its predecessors, but it comes packaged in a bullet-proof cardboard box of the kind you'd expect to contain a whole campaign setting. I was dubious that it would be filled entirely with tiles (which would have been astonishing value), but pleased to find it was at least half-filled with tiles, measuring about twice as many as you'd find in the old packages. This turned out to be a storage consideration: when popped, the tiles easily fill the entire box.

Other than that, the quality of the artwork and the variety of tiles, including street, plaza, house interiors, sewers, and a welcome selection of carts, horses, statuary, pipes, etc., is excellent. I would have to say the set represents good value for money.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 62 -- Sunday 6th February 2011

Unfortunately the detailed recording for this session was lost, however you can refer to The Story So Far for a quick run-down on what happened.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 61 -- Sunday 9th January 2011

In which the company sees the disparate threads of its fate begin to intertwine, that which was uncertain is now lost, and that which is dead can still give up its secrets...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

November 5th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

The following day, another letter arrives from Uncertain Futures. It seems there is more to divine about the group, and Dame Ambrose is very keen to do so:

Dear ...,

I hope this note finds you well, and I thank you again for your visit. I ask also that you not be alarmed by what I have to tell you.

I have seen many futures, many spirits, and walked untold paths. Some have come to pass, many have not. Every beginning is an end, every epilogue a rebirth. Such is the nature of things, and so should it be.

Discomfited by your reading, and those of your friends, I have taken some time to meditate on the images revealed to me. What I have discovered is unnerving to say the least. There is a veil there I cannot pierce, paths which descend into mist and void and pain, and there is a... presence, a terrible presence. I have no name for it, and surely would not utter it even if I knew.

I would ask that you pay me a second visit, and this is most important, in the company of all of your colleagues, at a time of your choosing. I am strongly inclined to perform a second reading of your group as a whole, that the uncertainties I am suffering may resolve into a clearer picture. I feel that this reading may cast into harsh light many of the paths which await me, and far from charging you for this favour, I can offer the sum of 250 gold pieces each for the privilege of re-visiting your futures, paid in advance. That is the extent of my coffer, I'm afraid, and is therefore non-negotiable.

Dame Malificent Ambrose

The party decides to follow up on this invitation as quickly as possible, but find the shop closed when they arrive. Isabelle opens the door to them, and informs them that Dame Ambrose herself ordered the shop shut until their arrival. Whereas last time they were led into the kiln-like basement one at a time, on this occasion they are led down together.

The party is reminded how the shape of the room and the general flow of energies seems to focus on Lord Eleron, the bespectacled observer sitting implacably near the outside of the room. Finial's keen insight detects a degree of trepidation in Dame Ambrose's posture, her finger-tips white with strain upon the table. He enquires after her but she waves his concern away. "It's very kind of you to ask, but it's merely the presence of so many subjects in the room at once..." Her furtive glances towards Lord Eleron, as still as a statue behind his reflective glasses, suggest otherwise.

Dame Underwood retreats to a small cabinet, withdraws a thumb-sized pearl, and hands it to Jonas. "You're giving this to me?" Jonas asks. "I would simply ask that you carry this focus with you for the duration of the ritual," she says, and with a glint in her eye: "I expect it to be returned." (Elumai later identifies it as a Pearl of Tunneled Insight, a ritual focus that can aid the casting of complicated divinations, especially on those who are unaware they're carry it.)

A glimmer appears in the crystal ball and Dame Underwood retreats to her customary seat. Dame Ambrose's eyes shift behind her eyelids, and then several things happen at once.

A door slams upstairs, and the curtains arranged around the periphery of the room waft inwards as if disturbed by an unfelt breeze. As they settle slowly back against the wall, there's a palpable vibration through the floor and table, and brick dust filters down from above.

Malificent's eyes unexpectedly flick wide open. "Well! That's fine then!" she says much too loudly. "I declare this reading complete, you may all leave!" Her skin glistens with sweat, and indeed the atmosphere does seem more oppressive than it had a few minutes ago. Berend tightens his grip on his axe. "I don't think so," he growls, as the table begins to rattle and the crystal ball trembles on its mount.

Malificent stands, her chair clattering to the stone floor, and turns towards her husband. "Eleron! You have to stop this now, this is going too far!" she wails, her voice teetering on the edge of panic. Eleron, his jaw tight, his fists clenched white around the haft of his cane, doesn't answer, and as Finial gets up to see if he's okay, the basement shudders in the wake of a thunderous boom which brings shards of brick and mortar showering down from above. A large crack appears in the ceiling, Isabelle screams from the office upstairs, and the room goes completely dark.

The party moves to a defensive posture. Sections of the wall, neatly sheared into geometric shapes along the mortar lines, begin to push in, as if pressed from the other side. Hoping to break Eleron from his fugue, Elumai conjures a searing globe of light in front of his face, causing (or so it would seem) the hitherto motionless gentleman to rise unsteadily to his feet. He lets go of his cane, which clatters loudly to the floor, and clutches his temples. "No!" he shouts in a voice brought low by fear, "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to pry! How could I have known--? There's no need for this--!" But then, as if in answer, his eyes erupt in eldritch fire, illuminating the whole room in a sickly green; there's a sudden, grotesque popping sound, and he collapses forward, writhing on the slate floor.

Saraiya begins to chant a low prayer to Corellon and Finial moves to help Eleron, but before he gets more than a couple of steps, Eleron gets smoothly to his feet. Behind his glasses, two streaks of burned flesh across his cheeks tell of the awful violence done to him, and when he opens his mouth to speak, it's not his own voice, but that of a woman, which issues forth. It's grim and potent, simultaneously distant and immediate, an expression of power which few in the room have ever felt before.

"I am Vrexima, wardress of the Eighteenth Layer, Lady of the Dark Glass; Matron of the Writhing Womb! These destinies are now mine! Your sensor is rebuked! Your lives are forfeit!"
-- Vrexima, speaking through Eleron, in the basement at Uncertain Futures

Dame Ambrose screams and jams her palms against her ears, while Dame Underwood presses herself against the wall, immobile with terror. Finial, who had braced himself for any funny business from Eleron, unhesitatingly swings his flail into the diviner's face, intent on knocking him out before he can do anything else. Eleron is sent reeling over the back of his chair and slumps unconscious to the floor.

As he does so, there's another resounding crack and a great chunk of the ceiling collapses in pieces to the floor (luckily for Jonas the table doesn't give way under the cascade of bricks). A wave of sudden and unexpected cold rolls out of the dark crack in the ceiling, through which is visible a starless night sky. A long, spindly leg reaches tentatively through, followed by a claw, followed by a devilish face, as a hideous babau drops down onto the table and hisses at everyone in the room. Berend swings at it, but the blow is clumsy and the creature dodges easily aside; it does not, however, anticipate the agile reverse swing which slashes across its thorax and sends it tumbling to the floor. Acid sprays from the wound but rolls ineffectively off Berend's armour.

Eyes narrowing at this unexpected injury, it leaps onto the dwarf, ichor dripping from its claws, and both of them suddenly teleport away, appearing away from the others on the opposite side of the room in a tangle of claws, teeth, and blade. The babau bites down towards Berend's neck, but he deflects the blow with his axe, acid hissing and rolling down the wooden haft towards his gauntlets. As he does so, sizzling energies from Elumai's wand streak past the creature's head and slam into the wall.

Elsewhere, several low sections of basement wall complete their ingress and cave inwards. Two cackling, diminutive humanoids - demonic quasits - clamber through from the other side; one of them leaps onto Dame Underwood, wraps its arms around her and begins heaving her back from whence it came; the other looks around for a second -- exposing itself to a snap-shot from Jonas, which goes wide -- chuckles to itself, and vanishes from sight.

Stripped of his target, the rogue tumbles out from his vantage beneath the table and delivers a telling blow to the babau's flank, spraying steaming acidic blood all over the room. This gives Berend all the opportunity he needs to send the creature reeling on the blade of his axe. Several more assailants drop down from the cracks in the ceiling, slimy rupture demons, plopping down on a wave of steaming gloop which continues to drip into the room. In the wake of these new arrivals, the babau waits for its quasit minion to reappear opposite Berend and then focuses on the dwarf's mind... a smooth voice in his head, confusing and dazing him, taunting him with the possibility of relief if he would but attack his friends... Finial meanwhile smashes his flail against the demon, but the explosion of ice normally accompanying such a blow hisses and evaporates off the creature's leathery hide.

Mavy Underwood's hysterical screams become tinny and distant as she's pulled through one of the low holes in the wall, her flailing hands clutching and grasping at the rough brickwork. Jonas lunges forward, pulling her back through the hole and sliding in, feet first, to take her place. In doing so he gets his first good look at the landscape beyond: an almost featureless plain of dust beneath a steel-grey sky. On the distant horizon he can see a cloud of dust and smoke which he knows, suddenly and instinctively, is the wake of a battle which has raged ten-thousand life-times. Huge winged combatants stride amongst hordes of smaller foes, and the sounds of unfettered carnage drift across the tractless landscape towards him. The demon he has chased laughs cruelly at him, grabs his feet, and starts dragging him into the Abyss.

Elumai chooses offense as the better option, fey stepping across the room and erupting into a cloud of flame, setting many nearby enemies alight. The rupture demons, as expected, explode, splattering demon-goo on their allies and healing their wounds (more oozing demons soon arrive to replace them). Saraiya sends a blessing of good health to the besieged Berend, before carving the brand of Corellon into the unwilling flesh of the nearest quasit. It hisses at her, flickers, and disappears.

Finial, Berend, and Elumai attack all about them in an effort to turn the tide and slowly the third wave of demons is beaten back. Mavey is healed by Saraiya and gets unsteadily to her feet before heading groggily towards the stairs, walking like a drunkard through the ferocious melee and emerging, miraculously, without a scratch.

Meanwhile, in the Abyss... Jonas draws a spray of blood from his foe, a wicked wound which bleeds thick globs of steaming blood onto the dusty ground, and as the creature yelps in agony his next blow sends it reeling across the desert before it collapses, dead, in a puff of dust. Smiling in the knowledge of a job well done, he throws a look over his shoulder at the barren landscape, a look, perhaps, of temptation on his face, before retreating back into the basement, where he finds the attacking hordes have at last been beaten back. Acid runs in rivulets down the walls, and the air is laden with the metallic smell of demon blood.

Eleron is in a bad way. His face is terribly burned, but to Elumai's trained eye it's obvious he is, or was once, a wizard. Berend treats him and brings him round. "Do I live?" he asks. "Is this.. Hell? Malificent! My darling, are you still alive?" Dame Ambrose is still in a faint but Berend assures him that she's unharmed. Eleron gasps his last testament into the cloying air.

"You have to... have to know.. your futures are not uncertain... they are gone! There is nothing there, no paths, no potentials... She has them now...!"
-- Eleron, in the aftermath of the incursion at Uncertain Futures

He gasps in agony, clutching at Berend's arms as black goo wells up in the bloody holes where his eyes used to be. "Find the bard... he brokered this... this transaction..." but with that he breathes his last. Berend looks up at the others, the same questions on his face as those going through everyone's minds: who is this 'Vrexima'? Unfortunately, the name means nothing to them, but Berend frowns as another memory tickles his mind.

"Eleron! What happened to him!" Dame Underwood reaches tentatively out to Eleron but Berend gently pushes her hand away. There is a thoughtful look on his face, and he reminds the others of the minstrel who apparently sung their praises all the way back in Winterhaven, a fellow by the name of Richmond Homily. Could this be the bard Eleron was talking about? It would seem to be the only connection they can make at this point.

Berend is of course keen for all manner of rituals to be cast on Eleron's body, including Raise Dead, but they certainly can't afford the sums of money involved and it will depend on whether Eleron's estate can stump up the cash. Either way, his remains will need to be presented to the proper authorities, and his corpse is gently shrouded and together with Isabelle and an almost catatonic Dame Ambrose, they take leave of the premises. (Jonas, of course, ensures the promised payment is collected before they go, and it seems in all the excitement that Eleron's Glasses of Obfuscation have somehow found their way into Elumai's pockets as well).

Father Layre at Cathedral Solace, the most majestic of all of the city's temples, and center of learning for those rites applying to the deceased, accepts Eleron's body and asks only one question: what fate do the bereaved seek for this corpse? Elumai asks the attendants if anything can be done for Eleron's wife, and they reply that due to Dame Ambrose's status they would be prepared to apply the necessary rituals and seek payment from her after the fact.

The Speak with Dead being requested of Eleron's body is, however, a different matter, usually requiring all kinds of forms and permissions... but at that point a nearby clerk steps forward to inform Father Layre that a representative from the Cloaks has arrived to personally oversee an invocation of the necessary ritual, with the Court itself picking up the cost. Layre frowns at his subordinate but the young man simply nods and shrugs.

"It seems," says the good father, "that news travels faster in Emerandes every day."

A room is set aside and as preparations are made, Jonas takes the opportunity to slope off and sell the Pearl of Tunneled Insight (later, when he shares out the proceeds, he makes no bones about where the money has come from). Saraiya performs the necessary incantations, and Eleron's charred remains shudder into some semblance of life. In this macabre setting, the company asks the questions most on its collective mind.

"Who is the Bard?"
"His name was shown to me... the name of Homily..."

"What was the deal you made with the bard?"
"I have made no such arrangements... The bard has been given insight and power beyond his ken... he has made associations with demons who will take his soul... for power over story... over legend, and life... "

(This is not the first time the company has heard of someone's fate being used against them, as they recall how the potential futures of the patrons at Pargsmeer House were stolen to feed the devil who had long-since taken control of the vile old ruin.)

"How do we reclaim our destinies from the demon?"
"The contract has already been struck... find the one in the middle... find the Broker Inbetween..."

(This name also rings a bell: the "Broker Inbetween" was a power otherwise known as Obery, who took the form of a goliath and held ultimate control over the mercenaries wondering the Underdark. Finial had identified Obery as the name of the old messenger of the Gods, the only power which allowed the deities to communicate with each-other before the Fall.)

At this point Eleron's body sags and exhales a long, final, fetid breath. One of the attendants steps forward and examines the corpse. "I believe your ritual is over," he says, bowing to Saraiya, "but an impressive display nevertheless, madam. The dead do not lightly give up their secrets."

The company retreats to the inn, there to ponder the latest turn their lives have taken...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 60 -- Sunday 5th December 2010

In which the old Warden of Karrick Kur enacts his final plan, an old friend is rescued, and the paths of the future throw up some uncertain surprises...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

November 3rd, 370 Pale King's Reckoning (continued)

The gnome skulking behind the curtain is a sight: filthy, with a milky gaze and a mouth full of rotting teeth. Jonas's weapon slips between the patches of what look like crocodile hide which have been hastily sewn into the creature's jerkin, and blood drools out over the blade. The creature lashes reflexively out with its acid-soaked dagger, burning Jonas's flesh, and emits an ear-shattering shout which leaves the rogue's ears ringing in pain, completely deafening him. It also alerts other gnomes hiding in the various niches, who jump upon the party, bright beams of magic lancing from their fingertips. Finial and Berend stagger back, blinded by what looks like a miniature sun exploding into life before them.

Berend flails out with his weapon, but to little effect as the gnomes are able to use the thick hangings to defend themselves. Beside him, Finial's Wrath of the Gods expands to bathe the whole room in an energising radiance, but his spiked chain lashes out into nothing but thin air as the gnome he was targeting vanishes from sight. From within the ring of curtains, the creature's voice shrieks out in fury: "You have invaded the sacred throne room of the Warden of the Karrick-Kur! You will not survive to regret your actions!"

The gnome facing Jonas has similarly little time for regret, as a flurry of strikes from his deadly opponent leaves it choking to death on its own blood; Jonas, satisfied with his work, slips behind the curtain and out of sight. Meanwhile, Grioss, the self-appointed king of this domain, struggles to his feet on quivering muscles, leaning heavily on a crooked cane, and pursing his thin, pale lips, he emits a piercing whistle which even the deafened rogue can feel reverberating in his skull. his raven pets next door explode immediately into life, pouring like a tidal wave through the archway and engulfing Finial and Berend in a storm of feather, beak, and blood.

Elumai has worked her way around the melee, heading towards the eastern door which she sees is bolted from this side. But despite the possibility that Seraiya is imprisoned within, she can't abandon her comrades, and turns to unleash a Thunderwave upon the attacking flock.

It smashes into them, scattering a few towards the ceiling and propelling the plate-clad warriors within out of harm's way for now. Another gnome emerges from the shadows, is shocked to find the wizard more than a match for his dagger, and blinks out of sight, while one of his fellows takes the opportunity to slip a knife in from her flank. Finial quickly follows Elumai's attacks by unleashing a cold-infused Astral Thunder, and the air bulges with divine power, smashing the birds into wall, floor, and ceiling. Ice-rhymed feathers rain down around what's left of their bodies, crushed and twitching on the flag-stones.

Suddenly a voice as dry as the old throat from which it issues speaks out in elven: "I will speak to Elumai Nyastai!" The wizard ignores Grioss for now, slipps between the flashing daggers of his gnomes, and sends one of them reeling through the curtains in the wake of another Thunderwave. "Tell your boss I'm out here if he wants to talk to me!" she shouts after it.

On the other side of the room, one of the gnomes grows tired of Jonas's games and rips down the nearby curtain... but the rogue, hiding in the shadows above, is nowhere to be seen. Convinced some kind of magic is afoot, he shoots randomly into the alcove, but the bolt pings harmlessly from the wall near Jonas's foot. He turns and shrugs at his captain, who roars in frustration and unleashes a static bolt on Berend intended to stop his heart dead in his chest, but the effect discharges harmlessly across the dwarf's armour.

The nearest gnome to Berend has slipped back into cover but the curtain behind which it's hiding has become cold and brittle in the wake of Finial's attack. He swings his axe in a mighty arc which shatters the frozen cloth and thuds satisfyingly into the gnome behind it. "Who wants to talk to her?" he enquires over his shoulder as he wrenches the weapon free.

The air thrums with teleportation energies as the gnomes flit from place to place, seeking vantage points from which to do the most harm. Jonas ducks from alcove to alcove, stabbing his sword on whichever of the gnomes makes the mistake of passing within range, while Finial and Berend push through the ring of curtains to engage the Warden himself.

Even bent and crippled with age, Grioss towers over them, one palid eye glowing with energy. He swipes his cane at Berend but the dwarf ducks easily under the feeble attack, leaving the fomorian off-balance and staggering back, wheezing heavily, onto his throne, where he gasps for breath. Elumai appears on the periphery of the throne room, ready to support her friend. "Ah", Grioss wheezes, "here after all..." Elumai looks upon the creature with a mixture of pity and loathing; "Put down your weapon, and we'll talk," she offers, the words echoing disconcertingly from the mirror images arrayed around her.

The gnomes don't seem interested in parlay, however, and push their attack on Berend, sweeping him from his feet and launching him across the room on a bolt of static energy. Elumai is forced to Shield herself from a barrage of entropic bolts, and Finial staggers under the weight of a combined attack with poisoned daggers, tapping his stored Astral Thunder to try and even the odds.

Grioss' laboured breathing acts as the soundtrack to the battle, every shuddering breath sounding like it might be his last.

Jonas turns his attention towards him, leaping up onto the throne amd crushing several skulls underfoot as he sweeps his blade at the fomorian's neck. A thick layer of cloth deflects the blow, but that doesn't dissuade the rogue from kicking out with his feet in an attempt to dislodge him from the throne. He bounces off the leathery frame of the giant and ducks under the huge fomorian hand that swats out towards him.

"What future for Grioss of the Karrick-Kur? What future in his dotage? None. No longer."
-- Warden Grioss in the prison tower of Karick-Kurr

At the Warden's words, the company notices several dire ravens gathering at the archway to the western chamber. Cawing loudly, they hop forward, forming a line along the inside of the curtains. Elumai takes the opportunity to Ensorcel the fomorian, and his eyes seem to sharpen as the magic takes hold. "None shall attack this eladrin flower!" he commands, his voice stronger and clearer than it has yet been. The remaining gnomes suffer a brief moment of doubt but in the end seem happy to press their assault, including on Elumai, and Grioss is compelled to strike out at the nearest gnome. The pathetic creature jumps aside and shreaks pleadingly at his master: "But this is all for you, my Warden, my king! All for you!"

Jonas takes advantage of the giant's disorientation to lure him into what he thinks is an easy hit, but leaps nimbly out of the way at the last second and the Warden's fist crunches down on the throne. "No," he murmurs, "I will not be distracted by your antics... my orders were clear..." and he swipes out with his cane, not only sending Elumai reeling but crushing the skulls of two of his gnomes. The remaining gnome, caught between his previous instructions, his love for his master, and Grioss' unpredictable behaviour, turns tail and starts wrestling the bolt open on the eastern door, but the shadows lurking in a nearby alcove flash suddenly to life, and he drops dead on the end of Jonas's blade.

"Thusly did they play their part in the last duty of Grioss", the old fomorian mourns in a hoarse whisper. "I will see my clan walk in the sunshine of this land again..." He emits another whistle, harsh and discordant, and the dire ravens suddenly swarm over him, pecking and tearing the last of the giant's life from his wasted body. (The companions do nothing to stop the birds as they feast on the Warden's body, and later as the ravens disperse, they root amongst the remains for the spoils of combat, finding a belt of platinum badges worth several thousand gold, but no magic.)

With Grioss dead Elumai wastes no time wrenching the eastern door open. The room inside is circular, windowless, and bare, with guttering torches providing flickering light, and the wizard is overcome with relief to see Seraiya imprisoned inside, apparently unharmed. She is however chained to the wall, via a coil of rope wrapped around her neck. As the door swings open, there is an ominous *thunk*, and the wooden floor on which she's sitting hinges down, sending her plummeting. The chain and rope uncoil too quickly for Elumai to react... and go taut.

She desperately rushes forward... but there is a loud splash from below, and it seems that the rope has frayed and snapped, sending Seraiya plunging 150-feet into the boggy water below. Jonas pushes past and unhesitatingly throws himself through the trapdoor, and Berend follows. The two companions plunge through the air, smash through the tree canopy, and disappear into the depths of the pool, emerging coughing moments later with Seraiya in tow, all three of them alive but much the worse for wear. Seraiya clambers ashore, telling Jonas and Berend to keep their distance as they try and persuade her they're friends of Elumai, but a few seconds later Elumai emerges from the tower and the two friends are at last re-united.

Saraiya pulls a folded letter from a hidden fold of her clothes and hands it to the wizard. "I assume this wasn't from you then?" Elumai reads the missive with an angry frown, but doesn't share its contents with the others.

The company takes the time to investigate the hollow behind the waterfall. There, three suits of armour stand guard near an old relanic-carved archway, clearly a disused portal of some kind. Berend keeps one wary eye on the armour and brushes his hand over the wall... and indeed the suits tremble and collapse off the stands which were holding them in place. Elumai inspects the broken remnants and discerns that they were once constructs, but that whetever energies bound them together have long-since decayed (Berend wastes no time stacking the pieces in his Bag of Holding); she also turns her attention to the runes, reading "The blood of our enemies is our strength", but on close inspection she finds that they have already been stripped of the valuable residuum she was looking for. The portal itself seems long-dead.

The exhausted companions confer briefly but they're keen to return to the city, and decide between them that their work here is done for now. The token takes them without incident back to the lake at Emerandes, relatively still under a bright autumn sky, and the trip back to the harbour is free of incident. Upon arrival, the company decides it's time to make some money from their hard-won treasure and spend the rest of the day selling the various valuables they collected in Karrick-Kur. Between them, they negotiate a solid infusion of cash from various vendors and specialists in Emerandes, most of whom are delighted to find that a new group of powerful adventurers has moved into the vicinity.

November 4th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

The party decides that the next order of business is to register their interest in the "Pillar to Post" cross-city race, due to start in a week-and-a-half. Under the temporary name "Berend's Band", with registered place of residence at the Fall Right Inn, they submit their entry.

No-one comments on the fact that Elumai seems to have dressed-down in the presence of her friend, or that she has carefully hidden the trappings of her magic in the folds of her leather armour.

With a little time to kill, the advert from "Uncertain Futures" looking for volunteers also catches their interest. The shop, located on Spivey Crescent in the expensive Master's District, is austere and anonymous, but there is a large frontage with a red velvet curtain draped enigmatically behind the glass, suggesting something tantalising hidden within. A bell jingles over the door as they enter into a pleasant-enough waiting area, decorated so as to put visitors at ease, and a young woman gets up from behind the small desk at which she was working. She introduces herself as Isabel.

"Good day, welcome to the Futures. It will be my pleasure to guide you through your reading today. Please take a seat." She offers her guests some wine as she explains what will happen next. "Dame Ambrose will soon invite you below, where she will walk the paths of your destiny and describe the many mysteries which await you. We can, of course, make no guarantees as to their accuracy. She will travel as near or as far as the tides of fate permit." She continues more seriously. "I must ask you not to speak to Dame Ambrose, Lady Underwood, or Lord Elerond, all of whom will be present during the procedure. Simply take your place at the table and await your reading."

Apart from what she knows of Uncertain Futures itself, which is a known offshoot of a renowned order of diviners within the Court, Elumai has also heard of Elerond, who presides, rumour has it, as they eyes and ears of the Court within the shop. To the question of why the fee has been waived, Isabel explains frankly: "Once a year, Dame Ambrose must re-synchronise herself with the energies moving through the city. If she didn't, she would find her perceptions drifting further and further from the center of this great place."

Jonas volunteers to go first. He's led down a short flight of spiral stairs into what seems for all the world to be the inside of a red-bricked kiln; the walls curve gracefully in a smooth dome a few feet above his head, and the walls are lined with graceful silk curtains which drift and ripple in the wake of his arrival. (Finial later suspects that there's something deliberate in the imperfections he notices in the construction, and something seems off to Elumai as well; at first she thinks the design focuses arcane energies into the center of the room, but some niggling doubt remains which she can't put her finger on.)

In the center of the room is a large table draped in a black cloth which fans out at its base, carpeting the floor in a to a radius of a few feet. An intricate cotton embroidery reminiscent of the lattice in the Grand Foyer of the Spire is laid on the table, in the center of which, resting on a small wooden plinth, is a green crystal ball. Several chairs surround the table but only one is pulled out.

Sitting on the opposite side of it is a woman who Jonas assumes to be Lady Ambrose. She is of noble bearing, with elegantly coiffed hair and a light dusting of make-up, and wears an assortment of fine-looking jewelry over the top of a courtly dress and bodice. Nearby, another woman, presumably Lady Underwood, observes him with a friendly smile, and opposite her, sat stock-straight on a high-backed wooden chair, is Lord Elerond.

He's an imposing figure, dressed in a tightly-buttoned suit set off by a purple cravat and a tall top-hat. Round-framed spectacles, reflecting Finial's face with mirror-perfect clarity, rest on his crooked nose, underneath which a flowing white moustache drapes past his chin. So little movement can Jonas discern from Elerond that he's unsure if the man is alive or dead. (Elumai later detects some kind of aura on his glasses, something designed to obfuscate arcane effects.)

"Take a seat, sir. Dame Ambrose will address you shortly." Isabel withdraws back up the stairs leaving Jonas alone with the diviners. He gets the impression the Dame's air of confidence is a little superficial, but can make no more of his observation than that before a flare of light glimmers in the depths of the crystal ball. She sits forward and rests her hand on it. For a few seconds there is quiet. Lady Underwood observes the globe with interest, while Lord Elerond sits like a statue a few feet away, staring -- or so it seems -- at the table.

"I see many potentials here, yes," Dame Ambrose whispers, "but these energies can shatter so quickly..." She withdraws her hand briefly as if burned, then returns it to the crystal. "A crack of lightning, like history torn asunder! The fates are aligning! The dimensions have no hold over this one! So much to tell... so much to show..." The light in the crystal ball dims and she turns a placid look on him. "You may leave now."

"I don't think so," Jonas replies bluntly, and Dame Ambrose quirks an eyebrow at him.

"No? You were apprised on the rules of your reading? You already seem to have broken one of them, sir."

"If you really knew about me, you would have expected this."

"I tread distant tides. I could read a future which is but minutes from the moment, or years from now, how can I tell? I will scribe your reading in due course, but you must return upstairs so that I may walk with the spirits of your friends."

Jonas shrugs and acquiesces, whistling his way back to his companions. Five minutes later, a distant bell sounds, and Isabel collects Jonas' reading, inscribed in flowing handwriting on a small scroll tied with a red ribbon. One by one the companions are called, enjoying a very similar experience to Jonas, and receiving their readings in turn.

Elumai's reading:
"You are unbound. I cannot see you.
"I see a spirit that was not what it once was. Is it you?
"I see fear in the light of new dawns. Is it you?
"I see hope in the shadow of old wrongs. Is it you?
"I see a spike through the cloud, and oil poured upon the clear waters. Is it you?
"I see the child of the harvest, reborn in the sun's dimmed eclipse. Is it you?
"I see the rage of the monster, and the unkind gift. Is it you?
"I see the pride of the king and the windrider's long fall. Is it you?
"I see you."

Finial's reading:
"You are unbound. I cannot see you.
"I see the drake and the firestorm. Is it you?
"I see the lost quarter, and the re-discovered hope. Is it you?
"I see the rudder that steers the captain. Is it you?
"I hear the screams of ten-thousand souls in the wind. Is it you?
"I see the first strider, and the light of knowledge in its eyes. Is it you?
"I see you."

Berend's reading:
"You are unbound. I cannot see you.
"I see a circle of thorns about the uncharted chaos. Is it you?
"I see three brothers but one face. Is it you?
"I see the son become the father. Is it you?
"I see the march of the unhomed and the face of the teacher at its head. Is it you?
"I see a shadow at the gate of the hub. Is it you?
"I see rage unhomed and the agony of promises fulfilled. Is it you?
"I see a disease of the flesh and the heavens brought to earth. Is it you?
"I see you."

Jonas's reading:
"You are unbound. I cannot see you.
"I see fear in the face of friends, and triumph in the face of enemies. Is it you?
"I see the call of one and the answer of many. Which is you?
"I see innocence at the gateway to revenge. Is it you?
"I see blood on the scar of the world and a great wheel turning upon it. Is it you?
"I see the player become the game, and his cards arrayed. Is it you?
"I see blades in the moonlight, and the five corners of the world crying out. Is it you?
"I see you."

Friday, 28 January 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 59 -- Sunday 21st November 2010

In which the adventurers mourn the loss of one of their number, an insurance policy is taken out against the imminent danger of death, and the company finally comes face to face with the venerable warden of the Feywild prison...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)
Aerallo - Tiefling Warlock

November 2nd, 370 Pale King's Reckoning (continued)

In the house of horrors which is the crocodile's stomach, Elumai feels the last of her consciousness slipping away. She grasps at a Potion of Healing and fumbles blindly with the stopper, but she has no strength even for that, and loses awareness with the bottle clasped unopened in her hand.

The crocodile rallies against Finial's Radiant Pulse, forcing its way back into the pool where it's most at home and where it knows instinctively it has the best chance of survival. A surge of filthy water washes over the paladin as the jaws once more clamp down on his armour, squeezing flesh and bone.

Out in the open Berend activates his Dwarven Scale Armour and quaffs his own Potion of Healing. A surge of invigorating energy courses through him and he withdraws from the kill-zone between the two quicklings, their blades clanging off his axe and armour as they jeer at his retreat. Crashing through the undergrowth, he almost barrels straight into Finial, water pouring from his plate-mail as he retreats from the pool, keeping the crocodile at bay with the lance of his Radiant Pulse.

Behind him an explosion of leaves and shortswords announces the arrival of the quicklings as they chase Berend through the undergrowth. Both he and Finial swipe at them as they streak past but with unbelievable skill they dodge under the blades and deal a dreadful reverse-handed blow to Berend which brings the dwarf to the edge of unconsciousness... however with characteristic endurance he finds the will to stay on his feet, sweeping at them with his axe and desperately searching for an opening in their defense.

For Aerello, however, time is up. A spasm of muscle finally crushes him to death within the crocodile's gullet. The giant reptile once more descends to the bottom of its pool, hoping that the intruders who have caused it so much trouble will simply leave it alone to digest its meal in peace.

Finial re-energises his Radiant Pulse, burning the crocodile with light now amplified by the Gem of Radiance he has placed at his feet, and touches his other hand to Berend in order to heal him against the renewed assault of the quicklings. It's barely enough to keep him on his feet, and the two defenders know they're quickly running out of time. The crocodile has no choice but to attack the cruel half-elf whose magic is hurting it so badly, and hurtles out of the pool to bite down on him. This puts it directly in Berend's sights, who having had no luck hurting the nimble quicklings, takes the chance to bring his axe down on the creature's snout. There's a satisfying crunch of bone, the crocodile jerks wildly under the blade... and sags to the sodden ground, dead. Berend wrenches his axe from the beast's skull and turns a victorious smile towards the quicklings, for whom the fight has suddenly taken an ominous turn.

Finial is now free to challenge one of the quicklings and bring his will down upon it. The world goes blindingly bright for the creature, the paladin's silhouette all it can see. Behind him, Finial's comrades start cutting themselves free, coughing and retching their way into the open... and he uses the distraction to smash his wrecking ball into his foe's chest, sending it reeling into the undergrowth. Its companion is then afflicted by psychic horrors, injected into its mind by Elumai from where she lies across the pool, and an ominous figure glimpsed only from the corner of its eye can only be Jonas, stalking it from the shadows. It's a far cry from the single, undefended dwarf they were fighting a few seconds ago, and retreat is the only option. "Let's get outta here! Grioss can take care of 'em!"

Which is fine for that quickling, who isn't slowed, but bad news for his mate, who is, and the hapless creature is immediately set upon and killed by the rest of the party. With blinding speed the remaining quickling tears through the undergrowth to what he thinks is freedom, but he has reckoned without the enhanced challenge placed on him by Finial, and in a pillar of golden light, he's reduced to a twitching, smoking corpse.

Calm descends. Against all odds, the party has survived a deadly ambush with only one casualty. Breathing heavily, they hide amidst the roots of the mangroves to recover and thank whatever gods have looked over them.

From the crocodile's stomach they harvest almost a hundred gold's worth of unfamiliar coins, a dangerous-looking stiletto (which might have accounted for the crocodile's bad mood, and turns out to be a Wyrmtooth Dagger +3, later sold above-board to the Court of Cloaks over Jonas and Elumai's protestations), and a pouch with several magical potions. That's all the time they're prepared to take, and under the watchful but terrified gaze of several of the enclave's gnomes, the adventurers scale the wall and retreat back to the boat.

The inter-planar token works with no problem, much to everyone's relief, and Captain Dorral, shocked and amused in equal measure by the trouble they obviously found themselves in on the other side, offers them his cabin to get cleaned up. They return to dry land, and retreat to the inn to lick their wounds.

Finial has a plan, and wastes no time delivering his little finger to the temple of Bahamut in the First Ward. For a small fee, he arranges with Father Moliff for the expendable digit to be used in a Resurrection ritual should he not contact the temple within an allotted period (his friends having agreed to foot the bill). The good father is no stranger to such requests, and confides in Finial that he keeps several jars of bodily extremeties in the basement. The two men share a moment of grim comedy, but Moliff closes the conversation thusly: "Absurd though it might be, it has saved many deserving souls over the years."

The operation to remove the digit is quick and professional but not, by any means, painless, and Finial has to work hard to convince the others of its merits. Only Elumai eventually agrees. and the two of them secure their deposits with passwords ("Just Platinum" and "Arcane Fortunes" respectively).

Jonas meanwhile discovers how hard it is to convince a member of the Court of Cloaks that a mundane, albeit valuable blackfire gem, is a magical artifact worth many times its true value ("Young man, you realise that any mage in the city could tell at a glance that it is not, in fact, magical?"); nevertheless he finds the Court more than willing to pay market value for valuable gemstones. Elumai also discoveres the name of a noted alchemist, Doctor Routfit, something of a failure as a mage, so she's told, but a true prodigy with potions, ointments, and unguents, and who she hopes will pay good money for the alchemical cauldron she found in the duergar stronghold. She decides not to do anything with the information just yet.

Housekeeping complete, the companions finally take the opportunity to recuperate fully before venturing back into the Feywild.

November 3rd, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

The following morning, the party returns to Captain Dorral, who despite thinking they must be gluttons for punishment, agrees to sail out into the lake on the light morning breeze. Once again they take the dinghy and relocate to the Feywild... into a massive cacophany of noise as a net of bells, chimes, and bottles hastily erected over the site of their last cross-over collapses under them. The company leaps defensively from the boat but despite the alarm, the swamp looks as quiet as it did the day before, and they're not immediately assailed.

They cautiously approach the stockade. The only discernible difference they can see is that there now appear to be small heads bobbing back and forward on the other side of the wall: gnomes, patrolling the top of the stockade. Jonas approaches by stealth and observes the newly-employed guards: bored, cold, carrying short-swords they likely don't know how to use. Within the compound, many more gnomes than before are now milling about repairing the damage inflicted during the previous assault. Multiple cooking fires burn feebly in the damp air, although the white smoke snaking up from them seems to dissipate unnaturally in the air before rising more than a few feet into the air.

Jonas analyzes the makeshift walkway which has been strung haphazardly along the interior of the stockade and, smirking, reaches a hand over the wall to pull on a poorly-knotted rope. The entire structure suddenly hinges off the wall and collapses to the ground, taking two squealing gnomes with it. Nursing sprained ankles and bruised egos, they dust themselves off and immediately start blaming each-other for their shoddy workmanship. Jonas, chuckling, uses the opportunity to signal his friends before dropping unseen into the compound and setting light to a nearby tent.

The fire expands rapidly and throws the camp into outright chaos as gnomes race to-and-fro from the pool trying to put it out, oblivious to the fact that much of what they're chucking on seems to be making the blaze even more ferocious. The rest of the adventurers use the distraction to skirt the wall, slip in through the open gate, and dart across the compound to the base of the tower where Jonas emerges smugly from the undergrowth to greet them.

The central tower is much as they remember it. It rises, canted, from a grove of thick mangrove trees in the middle of the compound, and is surrounded by the deep, stagnant pool which so nearly claimed the party the day before, fed by a waterfall which seems to erupt from the foundations of the tower itself. One-hundred-and-fity-feet above their heads it splits into three pinnacles, and a flock of black-feathered birds circles lazily in the air-currents high above. Windows much too small to have been intended for fomorians have long-since been bricked in, although there is a large crack in the wall mid-way up the tower which might allow ingress.

Using the mangrove roots as cover, the party reconnoitres the perimeter of the stone plinth at the base of the tower, and finds a cavity behind the waterfall with runes of ancient relanic carved into the stone (these appear to be notices of execution, containing accounts of dozens of mundane crimes and the names of those who committed them). The water itself erupts from a watercourse built into the tower's foundations, and beneath that, there is an arched entryway leading into shadowy darkness.

For the moment, the party decides that the crack in the wall should be investigated before they make a decision. Jonas scoots quickly up the side of the wall but even with his formidable skills, he's almost completely exposed to the rest of the compound and is spotted by one of the gnomes, who shouts an alarm. The party starts clambering up the canted wall after him, under a hail of crooked and mostly ineffectual crossbow bolts fired from hand-crossbows wielded by the guards below (none of whom seem inclined to follow). After a few seconds of this, two of the gnomes break off and race back towards the pool. The party desperately ascends the tower, looking to get inside and out of range before anything bigger and more dangerous is drafted into the fight.

Jonas ascends the rest of the way and slips in through the crack in the wall. Inside, a space that was once three separate levels is now a shattered landscape of splintered joists, moldy floorboards, and broken stone, covered in vibrant green mosses wet with moisture. On what would have once been the upper floor, a door offers a suggestion of access to the upper floor, and below him a stairwell leads back down into the lower levels of the tower.

He wastes no time making for the door, but as soon as he sets foot on the rubble a flock of huge ravens with black-sheened feathers erupts from the shadows above, buffeting him as it escapes into the open-air and distracting his attention from the grimy, gelationous tentacle which snakes from the recesses of the rubble and lashes out at him. The rogue's instincts serve him well, however, but as he dances aside from the writhing appendage and its attempts to coil around his ankle, other tentacles emerge from the rubble all around him.

The rest of the adventurers, seeing the birds erupt from the tower and hearing Jonas's cry of surprise, redouble their efforts to get inside. Finial hoists Elumai up the wall and into the chamber, where she unleashes a reflexive firestorm on the tentacles as they surge in to grab her; this doesn't stop her being grabbed and flipped end-over-end into a distant corner of the broken room, however, out of sight of her companions.

Finial clambers in and looks desperately for his friends, but they're nowhere to be seen. Still, he strides purposefully into the room and unleashes Astral Thunder on the tentacle beast; the crumbling space trembles in its wake, dust and gravel filtering down from above. Elumai fires off another burst of magic as the tentacles swarm around her, while Finial is grabbed around the waist and thrown violently towards the ledge. He manages to grab a jutting outcrop of rock and save himself from a painful landing 70-feet below.

Berend hauls himself over the ledge and wastes no time hurling his brand new Thunder hammer into the fray. It explodes with a mighty concussion, spraying fragments of jagged rock over the nearby tentacles and forcing them into a retreat. Finial climbs carefully back inside and maneuvers himself into a safer position before challenging the beast and preparing to defend himself, while Elumai once again unleashes a deadly conflagration which leaves those tentacles around her a crisp and blackened mess. A deadly aerial assault from Jonas is subsequently enough to force the tentacles into retreat, and they shrink back into the shadows and out of sight.

The party collects itself as Jonas climbs up to the door. It's medium-sized, much too small for a giant, with a crude iron knocker screwed into the center; he eases it carefully open. Within, there's a large circular chamber, presumably the middle chamber of the three pinnacles at the tower's peak. Its interior is hidden behind a shroud of filthy hangings -- cloths and hides scavenged from the camp below -- but Jonas can just about make out two giant-sized, hulking shapes, one of which appears to be seated on a massive chair of some kind.

Around the outside wall, shallow alcoves are covered by what might once have been flags, but are now so filthy that the emblems embroidered into them can barely be made out. To the right an archway leads out onto the western chamber, which appears to be open to the daylight and from where he can hear the rustling of feathers, and to the left a closed door bars the way to what is presumably the eastern pinnacle.

Sneaking in and taking a better look at the western chamber, he sees several dozen massive ravens clustered and jostling around something in their midst (whatever it is, they're dipping their beaks in and coming back up smothered in blood). Guano and discarded feathers suggest that this has been a home to the birds for some time.

Berend follows him in and puts his eye to the cloths hanging a few feet from the door. The hangings also turn out be flags: on the inside, he can see a selection of heraldry and insignia from many common races. They surround a throne of eladrin skulls on which sits a massive, aging fomorian dressed in loose robes; his skin is deeply wrinkled, his eyes sunken and milky, his hair a tattered white like cobwebs clinging to his scalp, and his breaths are just thin rattles in his chest. Two enormous ravens, bigger than anything they've seen so far, cling to his shoulders, heads dipped to his ears as if whispering advice in his ear, and a pair of gnomes sit with their feet dangling from the arms of the throne (as he watches, they clamber up the fomorian's spindly arms and push the ravens aside; the venerable creature barely seems to notice them).

Jonas takes a peek inside one of the alcoves and sees the lower half of a statue, its head and torso smashed to pieces, but more significantly finds himself face-to-face with a surprised-looking gnome, perched on the remains of the statue and waiting to pounce. Both combatants take a moment to size each-other up, before blades flash in the dim light...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 58 -- Sunday 7th November 2010

In which a wary reconnoitre becomes a ruinous assault, it turns out that everything is just done bigger in the Feywild, and Aerallo discovers new and exciting ways of getting eaten alive...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)
Aerallo - Tiefling Warlock

November 2nd, 370 Pale King's Reckoning

With Hottentoat's summons answered, and a few clues in hand as to what to do with the Planejammer courtesy of Fennig Darshue, the company turns its attention to helping Elumai's friend, presumably Seraiya.

On the harbour-shore of the Tondo-Gantsee Conflux, the turbulent lake to the north of the city, the party sets out to hire a boat. The captain of the Dorral's Favour is a grizzled, lifelong veteran of the lake, with deep-set eyes and a heavy tan. He takes the gems acquired by Jonas by way of payment, and in response to his assurances that they're magical, just smiles at him. "Whatever you say lad..." The captain is also unimpressed by the story he is fed about the purpose of the trip out onto the lake, but ultimately doesn't care or make an issue of it. "I ain't paid to listen to stories or to tell 'em. Find a seat and if we start taking on water, bail 'er out as fast as ye can!"

The wind is strong and fast and the schooner streaks out onto the waves, soon arriving at the innocuous-looking south-eastern part of the lake where Elumai's object reading has directed her. The group switches to the row boat and, while the captain looks on with interest, Elumai takes out the compass and enacts the somatic gestures she witnessed in her vision. The sun glints on the northernmost cardinal of the compass... and then everything changes.

With a thud and a splash, the boat lands on sodden marshy ground and rocks gently to a standstill. What was a cloudless blue sky over the city has become a roiling, murky gloom; inky rainclouds slide smoothly overhead and a warm, heavy drizzle is in the air. The marsh extends to the horizon in all directions, and slow-moving ripples radiate out through the shallow water in the wake of their arrival. The
atmosphere is thick with the smells of rich peat and rotting vegetation.

Peering through through the misty veil, the travellers see two things of note. First, the silhouette of a three-pinnacled tower, canted slightly off-center, can be made out rising from a thatch of mangroves far to the south; and second, Jonas spies a post or stump of wood sticking out of the earth a couple of hundred yards to the west.

He immediately sets off to investigate. The silty water of the swamp consumes all evidence of his slow progress until eventually he arrives to find a cut-off tree-trunk hammered into the ground, and covered in eladrin skulls. It's clearly a totem of some kind, but the glyph which has been etched into the bark doesn't mean anything to him. Hefting one of the skulls in his hand and looking suspiciously about, he beckons the rest of the party over. Elumai has already recognised this area of the Feywild as the Karrick-Kur from her vision, and although this totem is clearly a marker or warning of some kind, she's similarly unable to shed any light on the markings.

The company approaches the tower as carefully as it can, Jonas out in front. There are eight or nine stories, but every window appears to have been bricked up, and the top third of the tower splits into three pinnacles all at different angles from one another. The building stays standing despite looking old and on the verge of disintegration, and is surrounded by a stockade built of fifty-foot-tall tree trunks with sharpened tips. No gate is visible, but a vague smell of cooked meats wafts out of the compound over the company.

Jonas's eagle eyes spot the top of a mostly-bald head strolling along behind the sharpened points of the stockade -- giants! More specifically, he thinks, fomorians. The party confers to discuss strategy, but as soon as he realises what's waiting for them on the other side of the fence, Berend loses all restraint and charges the compound. The others endure a moment of stunned disbelief before moving quickly to back him up, Elumai hastily disguising herself and her heritage as much as she can.

Jonas leaps up the wall and onto Berend's back but is unable to dislodge him. "That's the way lad, up ye come!" Berend shouts approvingly as the rogue desperately tries to pry his hairy fingers from the wall, all to no avail as his grip is at least the equal of his resolve.

By now all pretense at stealth is abandoned and the party ascends the wall. This is a relatively simple task as the rope bindings keeping it together are at least as thick as their arms and offer easy hand-holds. Jonas eventually gives up on Berend and leaps up to the top of the stockade to get a better view, spying within a rough, open patch of cleared marshland. The base of the tower is smothered in a thatch of dark mangroves bathed in a pool covered in sticks and leaves, but its stone foundations are just about visible through the tangle of foliage. The sound of a shallow waterfall can be heard deep within.

Several animal-skin tents dot the courtyard near a large, crude gate, essentially six tree trunks tied together on a knotted hinge. A massive fomorian, over thirty-feet tall, patrols the inner wall, shoulders slumped, dragging what is basically a defoliated tree behind him as a club of some kind. The giant looks bored, miserable, and inattentive, all good reasons why he hasn't heard the noise made by the less stealthy members of the company. Small, dirty figures -- possibly gnomes -- scuttle about the place, and as Jonas looks on, one of them throws a mischievous rock at the fomorian's head. It bounces off with a hollow sound, much to the amusement of the gnomes, but the giant just throws a growl of annoyance in their direction and keeps plodding around the place.

It's about now that Berend reaches the top of the wall. Though he throws himself over with all the strength he can muster, he gets stuck in the gap between two trunks and looks to Jonas for help. "Chuck me over lad!" he whispers, but is ignored, much to his continued annoyance. The rogue instead skirts past him and scouts around the wall, finding the rest of the compound much the same. None of the gnomes notice the shadowy figure climbing overhead, and a small fight breaks out between two of them over who gets to eat a podgy, wriggling centipede they have just caught with a pointed stick.

Berend finally frees himself, clambers somewhat gracelessly over the other side, and tears off around the stockade looking for the giant. This interrupts the gnomes, who scream at the top of their voices and dive straight into the trees and out of sight. The fomorian turns, frowning, and pokes his head around the edge of the tower, shouting at them in elven. "I told you filthy little insects not to raise your voi---!" but he's cut off as he catches sight of the party, assembling itself at the base of the fence (except for Berend who has charged off around the back of the tower). There is the briefest moment of consideration on both sides, before he hefts his club up, and legs it towards the gate, smashing straight through a line of tents in his haste to get away. The ground trembles with his massive footfalls.

The company has other ideas, unsheathing its weapons and taking off in pursuit. As soon as the giant realises he's being followed, he veers off and heads towards the tower instead, planting one massive foot in the creaking branches of a nearby tree and jumping up to hug the walls of the building, which he then begins to climb. This exposes him to a hail of magic from the adventurers, bringing tears of pain to his eyes and forcing him to drop to the ground in order to defend himself. "Warden we've got--" he shouts, but his warning is curtailed by a raging, Berend-shaped missile, emerging from the other side of the tower and smashing into him with axe-bladed fury.

"Try not to damage his scrotum too much, I wanna make a back-pack out of it!"
-- Berend to Finial as the paladin winds up his spiked-chain for the next hit

In support Aerallo transforms into her diabolical form and unleashes dark, searing energies onto the fomorian. The giant is surprisingly lithe, dodges the blast, and shouts "Grioss loves blood!" in her direction. There's a huge heaving splash and a hollow hiss of breath from the pool behind her, and she finds herself in imminent, mortal danger, as a huge feywild crocodile, jaws agape, explodes from the tree-line in a shower of water, mud, and splinters. It clamps its teeth around her body as the vegetation around it comes to life, shivering and writhing in sympathy with the creature's movements.

The giant wails "You're not my friends!" into the air as he sweeps the tree-trunk into the company, scattering them left and right. Berend takes the club fully in the chest and stumbles back a few paces before getting his feet back under him with a growl, and Finial is also driven back, his plated boots creating deep furrows in the wet mud. "Crocodile is friend! Friend bite more!" the fomorian bellows, one eye flashing with primal fire as he empowers his reptilian pet, and then brings his club down again, first on Berend, and then with a backhanded swipe onto Finial as well.

Meanwhile Aerallo calls on all the powers at her disposal to prevent being eaten by the crocodile, but is powerless to stop the creature dragging her slowly backwards, deep into the mangrove and towards the pool. The warlock, mangled in the crocodile's jaws, is in deep trouble, and the party unleashes everything it has on the fomorian in order to finish it off before Aerallo is tenderised to the point where the crocodile can simply swallow her whole. Splitting her attention, Elumai tests the giant reptile's intelligence by dropping a Wall of Fire across the middle of the pool. It burns the fetid surface matter off the water in a hiss of steam which singes the creature's hide, but doesn't stop it disappearing beneath the surface taking the struggling tiefling with it.

At which point, things get really bad. Attracted from the depths of the tower by the commotion outside, two grey-skinned quicklings with rows of dagger-like teeth slide from the shadows either side of Jonas. With his attention focused on slitting the throat of the fomorian -- which he does, although the giant somehow stays on its feet despite being showered in its own blood -- their short-swords slash at his flesh before they once again vanish in an burst of warped light.

Elumai, distracted by Aerallo's peril, fumbles a psychic assault on the fomorian and fey steps into the center of the pool to help her comrade, dropping out of sight with a splash. Deep beneath the surface, a panicked Aerallo is hopelessly unable to free herself from the vice-like jaws of the beast and they squeeze down, breaking bone and tearing flesh. With a final convulsion, she disappears down its throat.

Up above, Berend smashes the fomorian in the head with his axe and the giant finally succumbs to its many wounds, crashing to the ground with a terminal groan and giving the breathless dwarf a chance to look around for his friends. Elumai, treading water on the pool, frantically waves him over. Meanwhile Jonas, who has been searching methodically for the creatures which attacked him, finds himself under assault as the two shadowy assailants warp into sight and swipe their short-swords at he and Finial.

Elumai, out of options, is forced to start taking risks. She unleashes a freezing cloud on the submerged crocodile which the beast withstands, but unfortunately, the tiefling within its gut does not. The acidic soup in which she's drowning turns suddenly frigid and robs her of what little consciousness remains. The reptile, which would much prefer to sink to the bottom of the pool and continue digesting its meal, is instead forced to attack the mage, surging up through the water and pulling Elumai under in a spray of foam. Finial charges with no hesitation in after her, sinking quickly under the weight of his armor and slamming his weapon against the creatures snout. The pool flashes with yellow light and the crocodile is sent reeling from the blow, giving Elumai the opportunity to wriggle free of its mouth.

Above, Jonas has finally got the measure of one of the quicklings, drawing on all his skills to play tricks with the creature's mind such that it can neither turn invisible nor hide from the rogue. Its eyes narrow at him, an expression of disdain which fails to mask its panic, and Jonas laughs in its wake as it retreats into the undergrowth. He knows it will only be a short repreive, but maybe it will be enough, and he runs to help the others. The creature's companion briefly weighs its options before skating over the thick undergrowth and forcing Berend to duck a wicked strike to the face, and a few seconds later, Berend finds himself in a ferocious melee with both attackers.

Struggling against the water, as well as the thick weeds which seem to cling and pull at her, Elumai kicks desperately for the surface. Unfortunately the crocodile has other ideas, snapping at her heels, throwing its head back, and swallowing her down. In the creature's gut, the life is gradually squeezed from both her and Aerallo, compressed and digested from without, drowning on the beast's stomach juices from within. Still she fights valiantly, stabbing with what little strength remains at the crocodile's vital innards.

The company is being progressively dismantled around him, but Finial stays cool. Channeling Bahamut's healing energy into Aerallo, he brings her back to consciousness within the creature's stomach and simultaneously weakens the beast's attacks. Jonas rushes past him and dives into the water, plunging his gladius into the crocodile's hide and causing the beast to retreat in obvious pain, and though it lashes out at him and briefly imprisons him in its jaws, the rogue is much too slippery an opponent to be held for long. Finial makes himself the next target, practically inviting the thing to grab him, and it's an invitation the crocodile can't resist, clamping down on the plate-armoured defender.

In response he activates Radiant Pulse. The shimmering lance of light smashes into the crocodile's open mouth, sending it reeling back towards the shallow edge of the pool and leaving it vulnerable to an attack from Jonas who is treading water nearby. Unfortunately, this stimulates a reflexive lunge from the creature's jaws, and Jonas, too, disappears down its gullet. Roaring in pain, its belly horribly distended from the massive meal, the crocodile is forced out of the water by Finial's continued attack, bloody water gushing from its gaping maw.

Berend is fighting for his life and the rest of the company is gone. It now falls to Finial to save them all from a truly horrifying death...