The Fairy Ring in the Nentir Vale

Aftermath of the Well of Demons

Surina came round and realized that some vicious little b****r had attacked her in a moment of vulnerabilty. In fact: twice… In fact TWO of them had! A stinger-wound on her neck/shoulder was swelling to the size of a melon.1 She gathered her wits, gathered some of the chattels of the fallen demon-gnoll, Maldrick Scarmaker, and gently lifted the unconscious sacrifices to safety.

  • Nana Cloudrun, head of the halfing family, and itinerant priestess of Avandra
  • Bodhran Lightfoot, Thumper-clan apprentice shaman and uncle-cousin to Cram

But as the potion steadily returned her strength, there was little attention on Surina for the moment.

Percival’s killer instinct proved itself yet again, and he ‘winged’ Mezzothraxiar the imp even while it was invisible, but little came of any further attempts against it, including Varris’ broad sweeps of his cloak. Chiefly Varris noted that the doors into the sightless soundless place that was the only way out were shut. He shut the main doors too and leaned firmly against them. Wjizzo’s fist of Icy Grasp clamped the Rod of Ruin to the floor where the imp could not get at it again, and then he mage-handed it into being safely bundled up in Varris’ cloak.

Cram hefted the Baphomet-altar (scattering candle-stubs, small-bones and other minor gnollish trinkets to Yeenoghu) looking for loot hidden underneath it. When, disappointed, he let it crash back, Wjizzo detected a light metallic tink and was in like Flynn. An extremely well hidden pair of symmetrical secret compartments proved one to be empty, but the other one to contain a silvery-metal key.

There were no concealed keyholes anywhere in the room.
Varris prompted Elana to open the sealed scroll from the cultists to Maldrick, which had been intrumental in getting them into the complex, but which needn’t be kept sealed for Maldrick now!

Scroll to maldrick   paldemar  the bringer of change

All kudos: Myrhdraak

But as people were searching for keyholes, and Percival clambered up onto the base of the big minotaur statue across from which the altar was situated, Varris realized the top of the statue was the one place that the blasted imp could lurk without even flaping its wings to hover. A delightfully subtle Elven whisper in Wjizzo’s Eladrin ear and a Force Orb resounded about the statue’s horned head, but still no sight, sound or sense of movement betrayed the location of the undetected target.

Nor — as Surina divined their quarry — would the imp Mezzothraxiar come either at her request or her command. As the party filed out of the chamber, glad to be quitting the Abyss-reeking place, Surina went last and held the doors open the merest crack. “Mezzothraxiar, you show yourself now or stay here!” When no sign came, she slammed shut the doors and IMPrisoned the diminutive devil in the minotaur temple for however long it would be before another group were to battle through the tests of the Proving Grounds and open the way into the Inner Sanctum, possibly forever.

- o O o -

Away from the Abyssal dread of the Well of Demons, back at the Seven-Pillared Hall, Surina went back to her cave in the Pigeonholes, retrieved the Bag of Holding and handed it over, which went much of the way to mollify Percival.

In the Halfmoon Inn, as Rendil and his Auntie Erra served ales and food to the heroes and the rescued slaves, blind little Alvi Cloudrun heard his nana’s voice and there was a tearful reunion, though darkened by the news that his sister had died in the rescue attempt.
Varris asked a series of questions of Nana Cloudrun, who confirmed that the black-clad “Mister Sable” had met the Cloudrun family’s flotilla on the White River west of the Harkenwold, but before the whole group she denied having any other knowledge of him than that.

Then came something of a courttoom scene as Surina explained her actions in the matter of the Rod of Ruin.
Previously, having come to the Thunderspire on a matter of religious duty to Erathis (the torch of civilization, lady of the big society, foe-goddess of chaos) and prayed for guidance, Surina had had a visitation from Mezzothraxiar. He said he was sent to aid her cleansing it of the Asmodeus-worshipping duergar, drow and other such foul folk as abused the peace of the Mages of Saruun. And later, after their alliance with the saviours of Winterhaven saw the vanquishing of the Grimmerzhul duergar, Mezzothraxiar said that Surina had the arcane training and strength of will to wield the Rod of Ruin where faint heart may have kept others from the knowledge that could be gained.
Whilst some of the group may still be keeping their council, the opinions that were voiced were that Surina was of course valiant, and when Mezzothraxiar purloined the Rod and offered it to her, her treachery was a failing of gullibility rather than malice.

Surina maintained that the Rod was a force of the Shadowfell, distasteful to some amongst the living, but no more evil than the rest of that realm or indeed the Raven Queen herself. [‘Necrotic’ is not inherently evil, though many may view it as such.] “The evil is in the wielder, not in the weapon,” she said, and the Rod remembered the deeds of its former wielder(s). As one of these was evidently a lord of the minotaurs, the Rod could yet provide valuable intelligence about the history of Saruun Khel.

At this, Percival waxed forceful, having also had a vision of a former wielder of the Rod. His had been of a leader of an army of demons and undead leading an attack into the Feywild. Percival was in no doubt that the Rod was an “Evil Artefact”, and reminded everyone that they had taken it from Kalarel the Necromancer, who had been trying to open a rift to the Shadowfell to unleash an army of Orcus upon the folk of the Nentir Vale.

- o O o -

More information on this was shortly to be forthcoming.
The advantage of having the sealed letter to Maldrick had previously caused the group to hasten into the Well of Demons. But now they were back in the Seven-Pillared Hall, Varris returned to a previous lead. Gendar the Drow had refused to aid the party in seeking the missing Paldemar (even for what was no doubt a large profit), saying that the hand of Orcus was in it, possibly even the dreaded Ashen Covenant.
When Varris had asked around a few people about rumours of undead, possibly a cult of Orcus, he had learnt that most people here in the Hall who were curious about the history of the place would ask Vadriar ‘the Sage’, an eccentric small human with a penchant for books and scrolls.
And now Rendil said that Vadriar was in tonight. Right in the darkest shadows. Well not the darkest shadows — as tonight had a pair of Drow in one corner, who appeared to wreath themselves in deeper shadows than was strictly natural — but the next darkest spot.
Varris went and sat uninvited opposite the little man, who tried to hustle out from behind the table only to find Percival and Surina sliding in on either side of him. With ill grace, he accepted Varris’ offer to share a bottle of the Halfmoon’s finest vintage. Saying little about himself, he was nevertheless extremely forthcoming on his specialist subject, and was soon producing a page from a book once he found himself to have a keen audience.

Karavakos scroll of vadriar

All kudos: Myrhdraak

“Karavakos! That’s the name the Rod gave in the instant it was dashed out of my hand!” exclaimed Percival. “I told you it was an Evil Artefact!”
“I know that name too,” said Cram unexpectedly. “Douven Staul said a ‘Karavakos’ had reputedly had ancient connections with some location in the Winterbole Forest that is now our home.”
Karavakos was described as a Tiefling wizard who took a pact with Orcus, made the Rod of Ruin and opened the original rift to the Shadowfell, forming an army with which he carved out a kingdom in the Nentir Vale before his meteoric rise was matched by a precipitate fall.

But Varris’ interest was in the undead of Thunderspire, especially as connected to Orcus.
Vadriar had something on that too, and pored through a scroll to read out relevant excerpts — with much editorial comment, in which he was humoured by the assembled group. The scroll was an account by the minotaur high priest of Baphomet in a time when one Tzaruum’ze led an uprising ostensibly following Torog the many-eyed, the Watcher in the Darkness, but who proved to be of Orcus, and whose delvings had been to open up “the Sea of Shadows” and raise its ‘shadow waters’ to inundate the Labyrinth and spill into the lands beyond. In the civil war that followed, every loyal minotaur who fell became an undead footsoldier for the other side. Taurus Zabath himself despaired of Baphomet and sought the aid of Orcus’ nemesis, the Queen of Death, creating something that was a weapon against the undead. He was not remembered kindly. “In as much as he was remembered at all,” ended Vadriar. “For that war was the end of the minotaurs and they seem to have fought themselves into mutual annihilation, leaving the Labyrinth deserted for the two centuries until the Mages of Saruun came.”

The Treachery of Tzaruum’ze

All kudos: Myrhdraak

Surina, who went more than a round with the Rod of Ruin, says she saw something that must have been the Sea of Shadows…

1 This will leave a permanent scar, btw.

Percival's Parting Shot

The Ring had rescued Nana Cloudrun in the nick of time before the demon-gnoll Maldrick Scarmaker could kill her as a sacrifice to consecrate the Well of Demons to his master.
    When they asked her about Percival (Varris having the most questions), Nana related some bare facts. By some unspecified arrangement “Aceti Sable”, clearly a false name, had met the Cloudrun convoy on the banks of the White River, clad all in black garb ragged from a harsh passage through the Harkenwold forest. He had tied all his worldy possessions in a burlap sack and sunk it deep in running water, and she had subsequently arranged for him to go into the keeping of Wolczek the Paladin.
    She told all this with her gaze locked sharply on Percival himself as if willing him to speak or challenging him to urge her to silence, but Percival felt that Varris asked everything he wished to know, and gave no reaction.

After a well-earned ’night’s’ sleep, the Fairy Ring arose to find Percival gone. Wjizzo had taken his Eladrin rest in a chair in the hallway, and had seen nothing. The night shift of te Half Moon had seen and heard nothing untoward, save that someone had pinned an old Nerathian golden coin to the bar, stuck right through by a curious throwing-star.

Parting shot

No one knew whether Percival may have had further words with Nana Cloudrun, and nor would Nana say. All she said — with considerable certainty — was that Percival’s disappearance was not due to any skulduggery of the Bringer of Change.
    Varris placed the coin and the silver-and-black throwing star into the party’s purse. But when he next looked, the following day, the star was gone.
    “It’s him, isn’t it?” exclaimed Varris looking about him. “He’s still here, the little…”
    But none of the Fairy Ring have seen or heard any sign of Percival the Halfling since that last evening.

Vadriar, Paldemar and the Sea of Shadows
in which there was stuff

This week’s epistle comes in three sections, two chunks writing up what you did and the one at the end which is new Exposition.

Lines are Drawn

Varris the Scarred, wielder of the Orb of Taurus Zabath, and his heroic companions were barely rested when Wjizzo the Eladrin roused them and led them out, mostly half-dressed, to see what was occurring in the Seven Pillared Hall.
The Ordinator Arcanis was marching out, coordinating the movements of no fewer than five Bronze Warders. He was concentrating quite hard to do this, moving them into a defensive formation at the northward side of the Hall, as though to defend against an attack coming down the Shining Road. Chief Apprentice Crohro explained that the arcane arts of the Mages of Saruun had identified a threat and they had despatched their Ordinator Arcanis to meet strength with strength.

The heroes, with Junior Apprentice Otario along as a runner in case of need, toured the other points of ingress into the Hall, concerned that the lone Ordinator’s longstanding bluff was finally being called. But there was no sign of any other threat.
So they girded themselves and headed forth, wary of ambushes, until they shot down one Zombie Bat and pursued another few that flapped their unsteady way north. In the darkness at the limit of vision (the limit of elvensight beyond the Everburning Torch born forth by Elana’s unseen servant) loomed a wall of 7’ horned figures with great axes. The party approached closer without eliciting any response until they could make out that the front rank of six minotaur warriors were undead, barely more than skeletons, but they were backed by serried ranks five deep.
At their challenge, a voice responded from amongst the ranks, identifying itself as Az’Al’Bani. Knowing this deathlock wight by reputation, as apparently once a paladin and as being now obsessed with a quest for the Court of Bones (which they now knew they could find in the Halls of Silence), they put up a potent case for his leaving off this offence. But he acknowledged that for all his long obsession, the patience of the dead is great, and now in mere days the Bringer of Change would overthrow the Mages of Saruun and everything would be re-ordered to suit him and his favourites.
The Orb of Light had let Varris know its favour when the Zombie Bat was killed. It would not be pleased if the false necromancy of Orcus were not opposed wherever it was encountered, but the others dragged Varris unwilling away from the fight.

Hostilities had begun between the Mages of Saruun and Paldemar, the Bringer of Change, but in only a token fashion. The heroes wondered at the renegade wizard’s true intention.

Vadriar the Sage

Back in the Seven Pillared Hall people from outlying sites were drawing in closer to the direct protection of the Mages. Mighty Cram speeded a dwarf miner’s overladen handcart of ore back to the Deepgem Company and the dwarf mentioned being glad to hear Vadriar was back in one piece. Elana pursued a chain of hearsay and sightings with a cheery smile here and a promise to sing a request there until she identified that Vadriar had been seen scuttling into a very undesirable residence of a half-ruined ‘Pigeonhole’ high up on the south wall of the Hall.

The heroes found him on a thin sleeping mat. He awoke as they arrived and they indulged him in his usual panicky insistence that no light be brought near. And then Vadriar told how he’d been abducted by the two drow, unhindered by the power of Truce under which the Mages of Saruun are meant to keep the Seven-Pillared Hall. The drow had ascertained from his conversation with Varris and Surina that he was knowledgeable about the Labyrinth and had seized him to help them find the Court of Bones. Even without the key (in which Az’Al’Bani sets great store) they overcame the locks and found that which they’d sought, which “Matron Urlvrain” in “Phaervorul” would appreciate in facing down an Orcus threat… And they headed off through the Underdark, abandoning Vadriar near the foot of the Great Stair.
Elana’s servant-borne Everburning Torch and Wjizzo’s wizardlight continued to cause him consternation as he told his tale, and even as he backed up against a wall, Elana spotted him looking at the wall behind him. He was quite literally scared of his own shadow! A darting move of a lightsource and his shadow was just a little too slow in moving round to stretch across the width of the room. It was no mere natural effect, but an otherworldly shadow-being bound to him like a curse or a possession!
With moving lights and blade and staff and burst of magic they assailed the shadow, severed portions of which evaporated before their eyes, and then, having withstood their first onslaught it stood up off the floor and closed with Vadriar, wrapping dark hands about his throat with a strangler’s force as the little man rained eerily silent ineffectual slapping blows upon it. Attacked from every side it slid around Vadriar in a logic-defying dance, dodging an attack and then locking its hands back in place. And then as Cram interposed his fullblade and drove the shadow one way, Vadriar hopped both feet backwards over the shining torch behind his ankles, and the shadow was loosed from him. It darted behind a half-collapsed wall and became indistinguishable from the rest of the darkness there but a hail of steel: longsword, scimitar and fullblade cut shreds of shadow melting into free air, and the thing was no more.
"No! Get it off! Get it off me… It’s… It’s gone! " Vadriar fainted clean away.

NEW STUFF – The Tale of Vadriar the Shadowless

Vadriar is a slender, little old man with a shaved head. He wears simple brown robes and carries a big old canvas A-frame rucksack stuffed with books, scrolls and sheafs of scribblings. Cursed by a necromancer whom he once thought his friend, Vadriar may be thought a vampire… for he casts no shadow!

In recent months, Paldemar abused Vadriar’s eagerness to discuss his research and theories with any willing audience (at great length, you’re beginning to find). He learnt many old legends and myths about the Thunderspire Labyrinth and, unravelling their secrets, gained the power to challenge the Mages of Saruun themselves in the process of pursuing his darkest goal. Long unsuspecting of ‘Apprentice’ Paldemar’s agendas, Vadriar made a fell discovery some four months ago.

He can tell – now – that he learnt the Sea of Shadows to have been the scene of a defining battle between the minotaurs of Tzaruum’ze’s Orcus faction, seeking to open a rift to the Shadowfell, and the minotaur faithful of Taurus Zabath who pushed them back and denied them the Sea of Shadows to the last breath. And beyond waging that war, the faithful also collapsed the tunnels and passageways to it, and almost completely expunged all mention of it from the records and histories of Saruun Khel.
But Vadriar came across a reference to a chill somewhere not far from the Well of Demons, that was nothing to do with the nearness of the Abyss. Investigating this, he became the first surface dweller to find the Sea of Shadows (by his own actions) in the three centuries since it was sealed. Exhausted by a 200’ squeeze down an “ignominious” refuse chute he fell… into open air, and then into black water that was cold beyond imagining. He just barely managed to clamber out. He found himself in a cavern over a mile across, containing a vast lake like a black mirror, pierced here and there by mighty stalagmite-islands, and with bridges of minotaur workmanship spanning from wall to stalagmite to stalactite in a bewildering elevated maze – still strewn with the corpses of that ancient war. At the middle of the cavern a perimeter of bridges circled a central point where the lake surface could be seen to be rotating, as though in the drag of a vortex somewhere below. These bridges had been cleared of corpses, and at six equally-spaced places (the vertices of a regular hexagon) were chalk-marks and vector calculations planning a ritual.

And then Vadriar’s feeble witchlight was extinguished as a great roar blasted him with sickening black cold and he was seized in the talons of some mighty cavern-beast—— And the next thing he remembers is regaining consciousnness in the presence of… none other than Paldemar. His ‘friend’ made no effort to hide from him the ritual that would turn this hollowing at the heart of the Labyrinth into a portal to the Shadowfell, where he boasted that there was an immense head of water, far greater than that in this world. The forces of Doresain the Ghoul King, Exarch of Orcus, have erected great dams and flooded much of the Shadowfell landscape in the area corresponding to the Nentir Vale. By carefully apportioning the life forces of six strong souls over to the Demon Prince of Undead, Paldemar would open the vortex, and in less than a day Thunderspire would be filled with deadly shadow-water, infused with necromantic seepage*, until it spilled forth to inundate the lands without…

Vadriar had been sure that hearing Paldemar’s plan in full meant he was not to live out the day.
But Paldemar had found his learning useful in unravelling the secrets of the Labyrinth and the true nature of the Bronze Singers, and wanted to have him available yet. So he summoned a murderous Shadow and bound it in place of Vadriar’s own, with orders to slay him if he ever tried to leave the mountain, mentioned anything of Paldemar’s plan to kill so many and bring about the end of all that Vadriar held dear, or even gave anyone cause to suspect his predicament itself.

“And now it’s happening,” he whimpers. “We must warn the Mages before it’s too late!”

*I kid you not. It does necrotic damage.

Filleting the Court of Bones

The heroes had been en-tranced by the effusive gush of Vadriar’s tale. In short:

  • ‘Someone’ was planning to work a ritual upon the vortex at the centre of the Sea of Shadows
  • Vadriar was attacked there by something that did a darkness thing on him and had a loud roar and big grabby claws
  • He woke up in the presence of Paldemar, in an access tunnel just outside the Seven Pillared Hall. Paldemar told him about his new shadow and the terms and conditions attached thereto, and allowed him to limp home

It was only after hearing all this that anyone reminded themselves how dank and unpleasant it was in the place where Vadriar had chosen to hole up. They’d rather have heard his tale in the comfort of the Half Moon Inn. But then Vadriar said he would not have willingly gone there just now, not with events at their current heightened pitch. Slinking around had become his habit not only “for fear that brighter lights cast <gulp> stronger shadows,” but because Paldemar had told him that he had ways of knowing everything that went on in the Seven Pillared Hall!
Wjizzo suggested that Vadriar’s shadow might have been communicating everything it saw back to its master, Paldemar. And this made Vadriar shiver all over with renewed distaste, to think that he might have been the agent of Paldemar’s knowledge of proceedings… and then elated him, if his new friends’ valour might have cut off the villain’s channel of information. But now that the shadow had dissolved away, no one had any way of knowing for sure.

The Fairy Ring reflected that Paldemar must have continued to hatch his plans for some time from the point four months ago when Vadriar suffered his fate until — just three weeks ago — when “apprentice” Paldemar went seeking tidings of unreturned Mages of Saruun, and must in fact have abandoned his guise and begun in earnest to put those plans into action.
Surina suggested that the Rod of Ruin was the means by which portals to the Shadowfell were opened, and (with Wjizzo’s attention strangely elsewhere) it was Cram who noted astutely that the evil Kalarel had not wielded his rod whilst performing his ritual — for which he had a tome in one hand and Stanley the Knife in the other — but had taken it up only to join battle with Cram and co.

“We must warn the Mages before it’s too late!” said Vadriar, only for his rescuers to completely ignore him. None of them explained to him that they considered the Mages to have suffered far worse than just having a couple of their number overdue to return from their travels.

Cram of Clan Thumper pointed out that Vadriar’s information about the Sea of Shadows was four months old. He was keen to lead a small, unarmoured scouting mission to find out how things were now, down there at the root of the mountain.

But the others, despite Wjizzo’s assertion that the blockade of the Shining Road by the deathlock wight, Az’Al’Bani, and his 30 minotaur skeletons was a feint or a distraction, were keen to try and deny Paldemar the Bringer of Change this ally and the 30 footsoldiers he commanded. If he had refused to abandon his post to go to the Court of Bones, then maybe whatever was there could be found and used against him.
“Vadriar, we’re going back into the Halls of Silence, and you and Terrlen can lead us — back to where the drow took you.”
Cowed by the larger personalities of the group of heroes who had just (endangered and?) saved his life, Vadriar put up no resistance.

The mist-wisped Halls of Silence were less daunting for a return trip, with an already halfway useful map and marks upon the walls, and they sensed neither rumour of drow nor spoor of hyena before they found themselves approaching the the plaza of the Court of Bones which Terrlen had previously helped them avoid.
So large a space, being overlooked by so many galleries with such long sight lines, was a perfect haunt for predators. The little imp servitor whom Surina had unceremoniously dubbed “Gimp” confirmed that nothing lurked on any of the balconies or galleries above the route they must take. Wjizzo created a Feylight unseeable to any creature beyond ten paces, and the group slunk undetected to the entrance, through the open gate and down the entrance tunnel.

Where Vadriar had told of waiting when the two drow went forth into the Court of Bones and were assailed by fire, the Gimp reported a fiery light behind one of two arrowslits. If the drow had worked on the doors for half an hour, obviously there was a blind spot that the fire-trap or sniper could not reach, so Cram and Wjizzo dashed forth, the others staying back in case the blind spot weren’t larger enough for more than two. Cram pounded down the tunnel, outdistancing Wjizzo, and the Eladrin — even forewarned of the danger — only narrowly evaded the ball of fire hurled at him from the arrowslit. He opened the door which the drow had had no reason to re-lock behind them and stepped through, finding himself in a short corridor overlooked 20’ up on both sides by the guard posts behind the arrowslits. A reflected glow lit the ceiling and he panted, “It was a skeleton shrouded in a blaze of flame!”
Cram was undaunted and, placing one foot in Wjizzo’s folded hands, launched himself heroically upwards. Wjizzo was pushed back and away, but Cram’s fingertips found the ledge and he pulled himself up to see the blazing skeleton trying to concentrate its fire into a ball between its two hands. One mighty ham-fist closed around the skeleton’s leg and Cram launched himself back into space. The barbarian landed and rolled right where Wjizzo had just been standing, followed by the crash, splinter and crackle of the blazing skeleton. Surina’s eldritch blasts and Varris’ hail of arrows met the skeleton’s unsteady rise to its feet before Cram swept out his Fullblade and hacked it to the ground, before Varris shot it dead once and for all.* Its fire died, leaving only a flame-blackened skeleton and a barbarian swatting out the smoulderings all over his hide armour.
Beyond this guardpost the passages led to a vast dark presence chamber where twin thrones overlooked a floor defiled by a 30’ ram’s skull device of Orcus daubed in blood and charcoal, on which stood a minotaur skeleton brandishing a greataxe. Another similar form lay sprawled on the steps up to the thrones, and there was a second flame-blackened skeleton on the floor off to the other side. Wjizzo suspected the symbol to be infused with necromantic energies and though the Eladrin did not himself confirm this to be true, Surina confirmed it with a grim nod. Wjizzo fell to searching the thrones, assisted by Varris who turned up a spring-loaded panel under a rotton cushion, and found a couple of hundred golden coins of Saruun Khel and a slender leather-bound book containing details of two arcane rituals.
Surina lowered the rod of the demon-gnoll at the skeletal minotaur and performed a Grasp of the Iron Tower, racking it with damage and holding it in place for a long moment… until she unleashed a textbook Fiery Blast which rocked it back on its heels, flames bursting all round it. At this it began to lumber up the steps towards her, only to be met by Cram’s downward hurtle, iin which a perfectly timed sweep hewed through ribcage and spine, chopping the minotaur in half.
A few moments later, Surina pointed out that the lower spine and legs that had fallen back to the chamber’s floor were now twitching (whilst the head, and critically the arms still clutching the great axe, remained inert). As Wjizzo’s wizard hand removed the dismembered bones from the Orcus design on the floor, Surina explained that its necromantic energies restored strength to the creations of undeath. That would make this a desirable place indeed for a deathlock wight to lair.
Wjizzo wanted to disenchant the Orcus design. Varris said it was their duty to the Raven Queen. Cram said it would need more than fairy liquid and asked if anyone could lend him a six-foot crowbar for wrecking the floor. Wjizzo and Surina prepared for a long afternoon of Magic Missiles and Eldritch Blasts. Then Elana spoke up to say that the most important thing was to think of a means to use this for leverage over Az’Al’Bani the wight . . .

Down to the Sea of Shadows

Armed with the knowledge of the evil plan that Paldemar had revealed to Vadriar, our heroes of the Thunderspire approached the Ordinator Arcanis. He was duly concerned by news that Paldemar might be aggressing on two fronts, but his own hand been forced by Az’Al’Bani’s Gambit and he was committed to defending on one front, whilst ‘the rest of the Mages’ efforts’ were concentrated on defending against arcane assaults — recalibrating the Teleport circles etc. — to deny Paldemar any insider advantage against their defences. They were unable to offer any tangible assistance for a mission to the Sea of Shadows to the site that Vadriar had found being prepared for a ritual a month ago.
But the Ordinator did share with Wjizzo the secret of (the rest of) the command word for the Bronze Warders that are the physical expression of the Mages’ lordship of the Seven-Pillared Hall. In doing so he warned sternly that where two command amulets were both used upon the same Warder, it would open a contest of arcane mastery between the two wielders. (The implication was clear: should Wjizzo try to command one of the Mages’ own Warders, he would be overwhelmed by their superior arcane might.)
And the Ordinator did say that the Mages’ gratitude would run to a reward of an item of magical power just as soon as they could spare someone to create it.*

A show of hands amongst our heroes opted narrowly overruled using the minotaur bullshit-chute, in favour of using the unblocked tunnel from the duergar-stronghold to go down to the Sea of Shadow.
The vast cavern was as Vadriar had described it, feeling vast but strangely muted and echo-less, and containing an underground lake that was wave-less and glassy-still. Everyone felt exposed to possible watchers at any distance away in the darkness, and were glad to retreat until Wjizzo performed his Feylight ritual. Even then they found themselves whispering such that Varris had no need to hush them as he proceeded to lead the way ahead…
Steps led down from the cleared tunnel onto a shore littered with minotaur corpses evidently lying where they had fallen three centuries ago in the civil war that was their downfall. Only the fact that Wjizzo’ and his light kept moving on prevented Vadriar from indulging in an ecstasy of archaeological research. Then they found the recent corpses of four orcs and an ogre on the approach to one of the bridges that projected above the black waters; these worringly bore no sign of the cause of death.
But scarcely had the adventurers stolen forth along the bridge leading into the lee of a great stalagmite — that might shield them from view from as much of the great cavern as possible — when Varris made out several sets chill-glowing eyes hanging in the air to one side of the bridge. Everyone withdrew in good order so as not to fight with their backs to a drop into that fearsome water.
“They’re all around us!” quavered Terrlen at the back, recoiling as he felt a hideous chill close at hand. As the frontal attackers came into the feylight they were revealed as shadowy dark wraiths… But a burst of force from Wjizzo vanquished several of them, and as more came on they were met with arrow shot, eldritch blast and thrown spear and all were felled in turn. (They were suspected to be but the ‘half-strength’ spirits, dragged into unlife by dying at the hands of a true Wraith.) Then a concerted counter-attack attack came from behind. A wave of unholy cold preceded the appearance of three ghostly, twisted apparitions, from which emanated a wave of psychic sickness inflicting illusions of personal horror on any right-minded creature nearby. The combined onslaught of the three spectres literally staggered Terrlen, Vadriar and Cram from their feet, though magical experience gave Elana, Wjizzo and Surina greater will to resist.
Varris at the front was beyond the reach of the attack but surged back with the Orb of Light held before him and drove one of the spectres back out of range of anyone. As he pursued that one, Wjizzo’s magic led the concerted assault of the others against the two, which were promptly cut to ghostly, twisted ribbons. For the continuity-spotters reading on to the next episode, I got carried away here; in fact one of this pair was still on 2 hp…

And one remains. And the master wraith still lurks, just out of sight…
  • In game mechanical terms: a 9th level magic item, more potent than anything you’ve acquired so far (with the probable exception of the Rod of Ruin or the Orb of Light in the hands of a fully-approved-of wielder).
    Can you let me know privately (a) what sort of thing you’d most like for your character, and (b) what sort of thing for someone else you think would most benefit the group?
Breaking the Ritual

The Shadar-kai witch’s account of events ancient and recent in the Sea of Shadows was informative, but did not point to any next course of action to disrupt the schemes of Paldemar the rogue Wizard and cultist of Orcus. Everyone was in support of Elana’s proposal to go back down there onto the bridges at the foot of Denoa’s tower and see what could be done. The group were able to persuade Denoa to perform the rite that gave her the power to see in total darkness and then accompany them, in order to be able to warn them if the Shadow Dragon or any wraiths or spectres were to come in on the attack.
And so the adventurers set forth, back down the stair from Denoa’s tower and onto the bridges. A matter of two hundred paces away over the spiderweb-like bridge system was the watery vortex of the shadow crossing to the realm of the Shadowfell, and arranged about it a number of the great minotaur-shaped Bronze Warders and in a ring about the vortex itself, six undead Shadow Binders and the six Mages of Saruun whom they had bound by their dark power and whose life forces were no longer their own, but were marshalled by the Shadow Binders to power the incipient ritual.

A metallic song like the steady booming of brazen horns grew in their ears as they pressed closer with nervous tread.
Eventually Wjizzo edged to within ten strides of the nearest Bronze Warder and the feylight emanating from him illuminated its broad back for all of them to see. The automaton was posed with its back to them as it faced the vortex, the haft of its greataxe planted on the ground and its bull-like muzzle raised in an endless call. Wary of the drop into chill water on either side, and with weapons bared they chanced a small noise and then a louder one, but the Warder seemed oblivious to their presence.
Elana inched forward, and the Warder remained stock still even as she came right up behind it and then sidled round its great leg, careful not to actually touch it. Clear on the other side she gave a theatrical bow and beckoned the others to follow suit. One by one they picked their careful way past as the Warder continued in its droning song, until Wjizzo came past and the next Warder was revealed, only a dozen yards beyond the first.
They felt exposed, with a Warder before them and a Warder behind, but the only way was onwards. Passing the second one like the first, they reached the inner circle of bridges itself, and beheld now the shapeless black forms of Shadow Binders hanging just above the surface of the bridges each with the naked, inert form of a man wrapped in their clutches. Denoa announced that she could now see the Shadow Dragon, Sjach-haurach, clinging almost bat-like just around the curve of a stalactite far above, but giving no more sign of reacting to their presence than any of the eerie instruments of Paldemar’s ritual.

With Denoa standing by to give the alarm the moment the dragon abandoned its perch, and Wjizzo with the Orb of Indisputable Gravity ready to invoke its power as soon as he could see his target, the others took positions.
Cram stood ready to wrest the mage from the monster’s grasp, and Varris drew forth the Orb of Light. He called on the power of the Raven Queen to Turn the Undead, seeking to force it back into space, but the Shadow Binder’s monstrous will was too great. It shimmered briefly with pearlescent light but then with a horrific shriek that they felt as much as heard, flexed the darkness about it and extinguished the light.
“Dragon!” shrilled Denoa, pointing upwards into the darkness penetrable only to her.
Cram dove in to heave on the mage with a wrestler’s grapple, but the Shadow Binder’s power outmatched even his mighty strength. Then the knowledge came to Varris that if he could not push the Binder away, as a sworn foe of the undead he might use the the Orb to draw it on to him and enact the eternal struggle between right-death and the abomination of undeath. The Orb flashed again, brighter than before and he quailed for a moment at the monster’s power, but he redoubled his elven will and was rewarded with another horrific shriek as the Shadow Binder abandoned its victim and launched itself at him. Before he could even raise his guard it was on him, and enveloped him in a grasp both of the body and the spirit. Varris felt something in him depart and knew his strength was feeding the horror that was upon him, but in the throes of a waking nightmare he was powerless even to cry for help.
They heard an oddly soft oncoming rush from above, and then the Shadow Dragon broke into the feylight, fangs glinting darkly in a maw already agape in readiness for its more fearsome attack. But Wjizzo unleashed the power of the orb, Elana loosed her arrow and Surina shot an Eldritch Blast, and the dragon was abruptly pulled downward from the trajectory of its attack dive and into the water of the Sea of Shadows.
Cram set the mage on the stones of the bridge and swept his fullblade out of its scabbard, high over his head and arcing down into the tenuous substance of the Shadow Binder, a couple of perfectly judged inches from Varris’s face.
Below them, the swirling water was carrying the dragon away around the curve of the vortex, but its head erupted from the surface with a roar of frustrated anger and it raked a wave of chill unlight spilling from its jaws to rake over all the party on the bridge. Defying this onslaught, magic missile and eldritch blast lanced out at the Shadow Binder, vanishing into its dark form. And the sword of Cram hewed at it, a volley of blows meeting no resistance as they ripped through it again and again, and then Varris was falling to the ground as the Shadow Binder abandoned its prey and rose up into the air paling and fading as it spiralled upward and then was no more.
The surface of the water chopped and thrashed as the submerged dragon struggled. Elana said she could not aid the fallen mage as he was drained of all strength, but Wjizzo took his hand and by the power of the Belt of Sacrifice gave the mage of his own strength. A globe of utter darkness appeared in the air even as Elana exhorted the mage back to consciousness. But the dragon was somehow unable to shadow port its way back aloft, and the turn of the vortex took it away from them. As they hastened away they heard a last inrush of water as the dragon was gone from this world.

Having rescued one of the Mages, they had denied the ritual of one of its six power sources so that even if Paldemar could send a final two Bronze Warders that he presumably planned, it would still be impossible to complete.
The Mage of Saruun said his name was Hasifir. They took him back to Denoa’s tower, where she found some black garb to dress him in and ladled out more of the brew from her cauldron for everyone. But she herself, now that her position of non-intervention against Paldemar was broken, feared his retribution against her and the coterie of little ones who served her. The party pointed out that with a way back to the upper reaches of the Labyrinth not only open but traversable in safety, she could climb high enough on the Thunderspire to be able to perform a Shadow Portal ritual and return to the Shadowfell without arriving in the depths of Lake Night.
The adventurers felt the ritual sufficiently disrupted that they could now carry the fight to Paldemar himself. When question, Vadriar confirmed that when the lines were drawn in the minotaur civil war, Taurus Zabath fended the Orcus-worshipping Tzaruum’ze back from the Sea of Shadows, but to do so had to sacrifice his defence of the Palace. Tzaruum’ze was known to have reconsecrated the palace chapel into a Shrine of Undeath dedicated to Orcus. It seemed all the more certain that Paldemar must indeed have ensconced himself in the Palace of Zaamdul.
“All we have to do then,” said Varris grimly, “is fight our way through the undead skirmishing all through the tunnels leading to the Palace, and fight our way in there.”
Then Vadriar slapped his forehead. “The key!” he exclaimed. "I had to evade your questions before, for fear that my shadow would slay me. But the Silver Key was known to allow the minotaur priest-kings easy access to and from the Labyrinth. It leads to a secret chamber just off the entrance road, linked by some magic to the chapel itself.

Hounding the Hyenas
In which the noose is tightening about the Seven-Pillared Hall

Leaving the Sea of Shadows, the party considered repercussions and plans.
Surina contemplated the ritual, now lacking the life force of a captive mage as well as two Bronze Warder celebrants; there had been no sign that a controlling intelligence was present. Some abstruse arcane theory followed, but then Cram just said “There’s no way Paldemar isn’t going to know we’ve f***ed his ritual up,” and no one could argue with that.
But thinking about how far Paldemar’s knowledge might stretch did inspire Wjizzo with another thought. If Hasifir, the Ordinator Arcanis or another mage could initiate a contest for the control of a Bronze Warder at the same time as the heroes attacked the Shrine of Undeath, Paldemar’s attentions would be divided, which might gain the attackers a crucial edge!

They’d nearly reached the Seven-Pillared Hall when Varris detected… that they’d been detected.
Even as he whispered an alert, the elf’s companions could hear it too: the growling and yipping of pack-hunters that have scented prey. A numbers of hyenas emerged at full pelt out of the darkness to be met with readied arrows, throwing-spear, orb of magical force, and bolt of diabolic hellfire. They died like the dogs they were, the last one just getting to snap harmlessly at the hem of Wjizzo’s robe before Varris’ blades cut it down.
There were more. Wjizzo and Cram jockeyed for position, ignoring Surina’s instruction not to get ahead of her. Three hyenas were tumbled unconscious back into the darkness before Wjizzo’s wave of thunderous energy, two went down in the flames of Surina’s searing breath and Cram surged forward into the middle of the remainder, circling his huge sword to reap like a scythe. Varris came to his aid with startling speed, but his swords were luckily slower; a stray swing sailed over the hyena’s head, but high and slow enough that Cram was able to duck its path. Nevertheless it was Varris’ interposed swordblade that kept the hyena’s jaws from snapping on Cram’s thigh before the beast was dispatched.
Then arrows began to whistle out of the darkness. As Cram and Varris put down the last hyenas, the arcanists put forth light and concentrated fire on the nearer of two gnollish hunt-masters. Though it snarled defiance as their attacks struck home and shot back at Surina, it was dead within seconds. Its companion abandoned its bow, turned, and fled — breaking pace only to blow a desperate signal on its hunting horn, with what to proved to be practically the last breath of its bestial life.

“Yes! C’mon!” Cram punched the air in victory and retrieved his throwing spear, eager for more.
The distant reply to the hunt-master’s horn came in the form of a booming war-horn, followed by another, and further away a third.
Varris hushed everyone and listened hard as he stole silently forward of their lighted area. Tense moments passed as they whispered speculations regarding the foe so close to the Seven-Pillared Hall, and then Varris came pelting back. “Forget hyenas and scouts, it’s an army up there and 40-odd of them are coming our way!”
“Scouts and their beasts would catch us,” panted Surina as they ran, a veteran of gnoll-wars in the North. “And even armoured, gnolls move fast.” Moving only at the speed of the mail-clad Elana and the still-fatigued Hasifir, they had visions of being run down, turning at bay, and dying as heroes sooner than they would have wished. But Varris, self-sworn servant of the Raven Queen, did not fear death. He declared that he would stand as a forlorn hope* and hold off the gnolls, that the others might escape and carry the fight to Orcus’ minions. But he was grabbed and forced to run with the rest, and as Terrlen led them north past the roadway off to the Grimmerzhul, they realized the pursuit had ceased.

The tunnel past the former lair of Krand’s Bloodreaver hobgoblins led back to the Seven-Pillared Hall, and finding no blockade of Paldemar’s forces at the Dragon Door they made their way in and led Hasifir to rejoin the Ordinator Arcanis on the platform from which he was directing the people of the Hall to erect defences.
With the army of gnolls from the Chasm Fort holding the Road of Shadows and Az’Al’Bani’s minotaur skeletons on the Shining Road, the Mages were convinced that Paldemar’s noose was tightening upon them. Hasifir beseeched them to aid him in freeing his brother and sister Mages from the Shadow Binders in the Sea of Shadows. This had to be done before the way was closed, but would not be possible until he had rested to regain his power.

Wjizzo was inclined to agree but, as Surina pointed out, they could not hope to storm the Palace of Zaamdul by force and if the noose was tightening they had to follow the silver key to the means of reaching Paldemar before any further force laid siege to the Road of Lanterns. They wished the Mages well, but announced that they must sally forth immediately.
“We also wish you well,” boomed the Ordinator’s voice from behind his mask, “and hope that without Paldemar directing them, our enemies will withdraw. I said that you would not find the Mages of Saruun ungrateful. Take this, and may it help you in your task.” and with that he handed Wjizzo a cloth-of-gold bag containing something of irregular shape, some 12" across.


Into the Palace of Zaamdul
Borran's ritual, and on to the showdown with Kalarel II

The Ritual of the Clan-Brothers

Until now, returning to the Seven-Pillared Hall had always included much-needed hot meals, ale and sleep, but now time was of the essence! No one felt they could risk the time to regain their strength or build arcane power to a peak, which might simply come too late. Though Cram and Varris had spent the better part of their strength, both had the will to go on.
“If only I were with Uncle Bodhran and the tribe in Winterbole…” mused Cram.
“But my vision-quest is complete, cousin,” came the unexpected voice of Bodhran Lightfoot from somewhere behind him. “I have a new drum and the Great Rabbit sent one of his children to serve me.” He brandished a small baton that was wound about with grey-brown rabbit fur, setting its sinew-tied little bones a-clatter.
Elana and Wjizzo recoiled at the shaman’s barbarity, but Cram reassured them that whilst many spirit-tales involve the deaths of rabbits, the greatest of them feature their rebirth as many more.

“We can try the ritual of the Clan-brothers,” Bodhran explained, “and if the bonds amongst you are as strong as those amongst the men of our Thumper clan, those of you who are hale may share your strength and the favour in which the spirits hold you with those who need them most.”
With more than an inkling of what might result, Elana, Wjizzo and Surina sat down in a circle with Bodhran, Cram and Varris, the shaman’s drumming assigning a different flourish to each of them as the circle was formed. Only their new acquaintance, Denoa the shadar-kai witch, had declined to join with them. Bodhran then passed his drum to Cram to maintain a beat whilst he commended the circle to the spirits, then used a pestle to grind some herbs into a paste of his own spittle. He produced a knife and made a cut in the palm of his left hand, dripping blood from it into the bowl. He took back his drum from Cram in exchange for the bowl and the knife, and Cram similarly gave of his blood for the favour of the spirits. All present, with more or less enthusiasm, solemnly followed suit.1 The volume of the drumming rose for Elana and especially for Wjizzo and then Surina, and each felt the very real power of the ritual as something went out of them with the spilling of their blood.
Finally, after another interlude of drumming and chanting, Bodhran laid drum and beater aside and silently held the bowl aloft for long moments, before using his rabbitskin totem to shake droplets of blood in all directions, including on each of the participants, and then to especially concentrate on alternately spattering Cram and Varris until all the blood was gone.

When the ritual ended, Elana sensitively allowed the atmosphere to dissipate before striking up an invigorating elven tune that would aid Cram’s and Varris’ recovery of their faculties.
Bodhran spoke privately with Cram before departing to visit the other Thumpers in the care of Erathis’ priestess, Phaledra, in the Temple of Hidden Light. Cram then announced to the others that the success of the ritual proved Surina to be a true sister in spirit to the rest of them, even if they’d never called her a member of ‘The Fairy Ring’ till now.
As Surina suppressed a smirk he also said to Elana that Bodhran recognized her to have the talent of putting power into her singing and playing, which might mean that if the spirits were willing, she herself might be taught that same ritual.
Varris, much improved, held up the Orb of Light, glowing faintly for all to see.
“Now let’s hunt some cult!” he cried

Into the Palace of Zaamdul

Concentrating on the silver key to the chapel of the Palace of Zaamdul, Wjizzo reported it still quiescent in the hand, tugging faintly upwards and northwest towards the Road of Lanterns that led out of the mountain.
They hastened up the Road, the minotaurs’ magic lights enabling Varris to range freely ahead and listen for oncoming enemies. But no other force had yet been set upon this Road and they made their way upwards until Wjizzo felt the key kicking in his belt pouch. Wary of traps or defenders of the chamber itself, he handed this over. Varris proceeded and the key began to glow bluely, and waxed brighter as he continued and then, when he was holding the key back only by main strength, a keyhole shape upon the wall suddenly shone out in light of the same hue.
Though due precautions were taken, the circular chamber proved undefended, and to contain only a similarly-glowing rune-scribed circle on the floor. Wjizzo pronounced these the runes of old minotaur magic, and said that they invoked a power of ‘spatial transcendence’ that required no arcane skill to operate but was open to all.
Wary of clustering too tightly if they might be met by defenders at their destination, they agreed a first group to lead the way. Cram, Varris, Surina and Elana spaced themselves around the circle, faced outwards and at a signal all took a big step back.

Each found themselves alone, their own senses utterly alien to them as without moving they felt themselves rushing forwards, stopping abruptly to be rushed off at right-angles, round sweeping curves, up and down. Had the magic failed? Were their silver cords being tied in knots? Could only a minotaur or only a key-holder negotiate this maze outside of time and space, whilst interlopers were delivered to some prison of Baphomet’s deep in the Abyss?
They were delivered, disoriented but whole, to a chamber remarkably like the first, save that it had a great wooden door to one side, and a stairway leading upwards to the other. A few moments later they were joined by Wjizzo, Denoa and Bodhran (who was promptly sick on the floor).
Listening with his ear pressed to the door, Varris gave a frown and silently mimed a slow, stilted march. He had heard the footsteps of several guards patrolling a large, echoing corridor, and no one felt curious to find out what they were.
A dim reddish glow lit the chamber at the top of the stairway. They all fell in and made their way upwards as softly as possible, Varris again taking point. At the top was yet another round room, a tall entrance hall with four pillars soaring up into utter darkness of whatever height, walls formed by vast plates of dark metal polished to a mirror-sheen, and across from him: huge black double doors inscribed with Orcus’ device of a skeletal ram’s head.
Varris’ lip curled in a snarl and he stepped forward.

The Gatekeeper: Kalarel returned

Immediately Varris stepped into the entrance hall, the twin rams’ skull designs oozed with black blood which boiled off into vaporous darkness filling the room, causing Varris to freeze in his tracks and everyone else to stop where they were on the stairway. The blackness lifted again almost as soon as it had formed, and standing before the doors was the black outline of a robed man.
“So you come to challenge my Master’s schemes once again, mortal fools.” His voice was sibilant as he stepped forth, eyes black as coal glaring at them with utter hatred. He seemed unsettlingly familiar, undead, with the wounds of a violent death oozing blackness, and then they recognized him: Kalarel, the high priest of Orcus who had sought to open the Rift in the halls beneath the Keep on the Shadowfell. The slashes in his dark robes and the death-wounds on his body were the cuts of their own weapons!
“My Master has graced me with a second chance to put an end to your meddling, and I will not fail him twice. You have something that belongs to me. Hand over the Rod of Ruin and maybe my Master will be gentle with your souls…”
Elana answered by shooting an arrow that passed straight through him, though it caused Kalarel to clutch in pain at the point where he was struck.

Varris sprang forth in a whirl of blades and invoked the Orb of Light, its holy glow running shimmering down his sword arm and along his blade. The longsword struck with a solid noise and the wispy form of the shadow lich consolidated and became merely physical.
Kalarel roared in pain, and snarled, “Your brothers and sisters will make sure you die this time! Kill them!”
And at that, the shape of Varris’ reflection stepped out of the nearest mirrored wall: a shadowy, ill-favoured duplicate in a dark steel death’s head mask. With an eye-defying distortion like the tilting of a picture it elongated where it stood and grasped Varris in a chill embrace that sucked the life from his bones.
“Nobody go in there!” ordered Elana, thrusting an arm out across Cram’s chest. “He’ll set our reflections against us as well!”
Wjizzo threw a magic missile at Kalarel and Surina uttered her curse upon him and commanded a fist of iron force from the nether hells to hold him on the spot. Cram reluctantly sheathed his fullblade and threw a spear. Kalarel rocked back from its force and, unable to move towards Varris, shot a decaying black ray at him instead which robbed him of strength and staggered him to one knee.
“The best way we can help him is to kill the lich from here,” Elana cried.
Denoa, meanwhile, set her sights on the shadow-Varris, ripped out with a black ray of her own shadow-power, and the reflection was suddenly no more.
Kalarel faded slightly, and Elana’s next arrow passed through him again.
Varris held forth the Orb of Light. “Begone, foul thing,” he shrieked, “you have no place in this world!” And the white light shone forth… only to be swallowed by the darkness of the shadow lich, who responded with a scathing chuckle. Varris lurched back, and Kalarel followed, seizing him with a grasp of icy chill before he thrust him away and dived behind a pillar.
Surina launched a bolt of fire, and Wjizzo an eruption of crackling lightnings, but they took only partial toll on the insubstantial lich. Cram’s second spear missed altogether.
“We should just pile in there!” urged the barbarian, but he relented before the chorus of No’s from his comrades.

Kalarel’s eye fell on the Bag of Holding at Varris’ belt and he strode forward, passing through the pillar as the enfeebled Varris backed up.
“The Rod! Give it to me!” demanded Kalarel, stretching out a hand that oozed shadow-blood from several cuts delivered to him a month ago.
Varris threw up a defiant counter-attack, and as Kalarel leapt back before it, turned on his heels with a ranger’s speed and bolted away between Elana and Cram.
Kalarel moved to the side of the chamber, suffering the lashing of the arcane forces that Surina, Wjizzo and Denoa ripped into him and through him, as he headed out of line of sight. Cram’s last spear struck him and slowed down as it passed through, and then as Kalarel attempted to walk directly into the wall he slammed into it with a metallic boom.
“Nooooooo!” he screamed. “It must be mine!” Arms outstretched he threw himself at Elana.
The bard threw up her shield and used her sword to ward away the grasping hands, whilst she flattened herself against the wall to give the others a clear shot. The very nearness of the lich was a chill pain in the marrow to those at the front, but with those behind throwing everything they had at him, Elana stood firm and Cram lost no time in slashing out with his fullblade.
Their attacks ripped into the body of the lich in a withering hail, as with the tenacity of grim death and a high-pitched drawn-out keening he grasped at the two in front of him. Cram was briefly stricken by the hideous touch, but an eldritch blast from Surina knocked it back. Now he had all the space he needed, and a mighty overhand cut sheared through undead flesh and bone until it reverted to shadow. A shapeless black form rose up into the air, the keening cry fading as an echo and the blackness boiling away into nothing and it was gone.

1 Wjizzo in particular had misgivings, and difficulty maintaining a solemn decorum, having seen something similar amongst drunk students at his wizards’ university…

Attack of the Norkers
In which the first half of a running battle was fought with skeleton pillars, norker grunts, and hideous undead flesh-ripping cultists

The shadow-lich of Kalarel had been despatched, but with due caution the adventurers had just one person — Cram — step forward into the entrance chamber, sword bared.
When no dark reflection was forthcoming, the others joined him. Wjizzo went straight to the doors, the Gates of Orcus, and established that the oozing of blood and shadow was no power of the Gates themselves. Varris identified the eyes of the horrible inscribed death’s head as being valuable bloodstones, and pried them from their settings. The door itself appeared to have a magic of alarming upon it, but Wjizzo, Surina and Elana bent their magic to the task and rendered it impotent.

The Hall of Shadow

The black Gates swung open at a push and revealed a large hall beyond, its vaulted ceiling supported by many towering pillars seemingly constructed of skulls and bleached bones, between which the centre of the hall was obscured by a wall-like mass of shadow. This had, drifting within it, the inchoate forms and faces of spirits enduring endless horror, but as these showed no sign of being aware of the intruders, or even of of one another, Varris gingerly led the group forwards. He picked a way behind the outermost pillars close to the left-hand wall, pointedly not looking too closely at the carved frieze of corpses and tormented souls. As he reached the corner and began to lead the way towards a gap in the mass of shadow, Denoa hissed out that a skull in the pillar she was passing had been angled away but was now looking right at her!
A hasty glimpse through the gap revealed two monstrous little servitors, guarding the way down the length of hall between the two central rows of pillars. Varris announced that these were norkers, ferocious goblin-cousins that use their fangs as much as their regular weapons, and with a darker power staining their souls and giving them an uncanny power to fight on unheeding of wounds. Undaunted by norkers but concerned by the attention of the unliving pillars, Surina directed the others into position to attack and levelled her rod.
Cram broke forward and was upon the nearer norker and hewing at it with his fullblade faster than you can say M— f—. Varris shot two arrows and strode forward, switching weapons and proclaiming the enmity of the Raven Queen if they stood in his way. Surina laid her curse upon the norker and hammered it with eldritch force, and Wjizzo with a ray of frost that numbed it on the spot. Cram hacked down the first norker and laid straight into the other. This had still barely had time to raise its axe to defend itself, but even as he chopped down and into its thigh, it craned forward and gnawed through his hide armour to sink its fangs into his forearm.
A skeletal arm articulated out of a pillar, fingerbones raking at Elana as she paused to take stock. And before she could even warn the others, a side door was thrust open and a squad of norkers began bustling out of a guard room. Surina cried out as she was struck in the side by a ray of blackness and felt a deep chill drain the vigour from her limbs. Looking up she saw the source was a skull on a pillar that had swivelled around to fix on her.
“Get on!” she yelled. “Get through this!”

The rest dashed onward through the hall, skirting outside the swing of the norker guard’s axe and Cram’s massive sword, and darting to spaces far enough from the pillars to be safe from the grasping hands. Down the centre of the hall, between the masses of shadow-stuff, Elana and Wjizzo saw they had to run the gauntlet of three pairs of pillars set before they could gain the doors at the far end. The pillars stood close enough for their bony members to strike out at anyone between them, but these seemed sightless and only reached out if someone hesitated too close to them.
The fight with the axe-wielding norker was now a rearguard. Varris slashed at the norker as he danced by, evaded the counterattack of its gnashing teeth and gained a flanking position, then found his eyes drawn against his will towards a skull in a nearby pillar. He sensed a warped intelligence that was both there and not there, and was struck by a wave of horror that assailed his very wit. Surina shot down the first of the norkers from the guardroom and backed up the few paces her unsteady legs would carry her.
The noise of the fight was sure to have alerted anyone nearby, so on reaching the far doors Elana lost no time in throwing them wide and turning to beckon everyone to follow.
Cram cut down the norker axeman, which expired in a heap with a last futile clack of its fangs, and — all but launching his nervous cousin Borran on ahead of him — sprinted down between the pillars.
Surina shot down another norker and drew her mace to face down the two flail-wielders that bore in upon on her. Then another guard room door opened opposite the first, and another squad of guards dashed out, swinging their flails around their heads. A total of six of them suddenly made for poor odds.
And then another door opened to one side of the exit, two unarmed crimson-robed cultists striding forth. The first stepped in front of Varris, pulled the hood halfway back from its head to reveal an unnaturally emaciated face, and the elf was stricken by its gaze exactly as he had been by the skull on the pillar a few moments earlier. All greater moves suddenly lost from his mind he responded with a quick left-right of sword and scimitar. The second eerie cultist stepped past and struck out with a bolt of shadow at Wjizzo. Cram skidded to a halt and squared up to join Varris in the fight, when yet another door opened on the other side and three more axe-wielding norkers joined the fray.

Rage Around the Machine
In which the running battle was carried, and our heroes entered the Chapel of Undeath.

Rage Around the Machine

In which the running battle was carried, and our heroes entered the Chapel of Undeath.

The Hall of Shadow, continued

“Come on then, you little bastards,” hissed Surina under her breath. She wasn’t able to shake the necromantic leadenness from her legs but she slowly backed up, defending against the two norkers and eyeing the angles as their brethren rushed up behind them.
A magic missile from Wjizzo shot past her shoulder, sending a norker tumbling back in a heap. Surina frowned and relaxed a moment, then drew her breath again and held it until…
“Burn!” she spat, and breathed a five-yard gout of fire that she swept across the norker, felling all but two of them in a chorus of guttural squeals.

Varris and Cram braved the uncanny pillars to perform a concerted assault on the nearer cultist as the other sidled away after their companions. Their blades bit deep without seeming to daunt the strange-featured cultist, until with a horrific transformation it grew claws and ripped its robes aside, heedlessly lacerating its own flesh as it did so. Then it literally burst out of its own skin to leap forward, a flayed monstrosity, throwing itself upon Varris.
The elf used all his ranger’s speed and instinct to escape the attack, sidestep, and spit the horror on his longsword, then turn it into the path of Cram’s descending fullblade. The barbarian cut its trunk in half and whirled, with just the moment he needed to achieve a guard against the pair of norkers pressing in upon him.

Elana, Borran, Denoa and Wjizzo, in reaching the room beyond, had escaped beyond the skeletal clutches of the pillars in the Hall of Shadow, but a norker had charged in upon Wjizzo, and the second monstrous cultist was close on its heels. Denoa took a step forward and laced black fire over the norker as Wjizzo stepped back, gained space, and performed the evocation to bring forth one of his fiery balls and roll it blazing forward into the norker.
Elana moved to a position before the next set of doors, taking aim with her longbow and shooting the norker down. Through the door she made out a husky voice issuing an order, and realized that they were about to have to fight on yet another front.

Surina finally shook off the chill in her limbs and neatly stepped back to shoot a blast of eldritch force point blank felling one of her norker assailants, and another arrow from Elana shortly arced over Varris’ head to drop the other one.
Cram and Varris rounded on the two remaining norker guards, even numbers meaning the fight was sure to be theirs. Denoa worked her power of shadow to haze the sight of the surviving cultist, denying it the chance to aim its dark undead magics at them, and Wjizzo drove his ball of fire in upon it.
Elana relinquished her bow, swept out her quarterstaff and rammed it through the ring-handles of the doors moments before they were rattled by someone on the other side.
Surina, Varris, Cram and Wjizzo’s ball did their deadly work on their remaining opponents. The norkers laid about them grimly with their axes and retaliated with their vicious fangs when struck, but were cut down in good order. And when the Wjizzo’s fire burnt the cultist to the point where the beast within ripped its burnt flesh aside there was no one within reach of its fearsome claws. A hail of magical attacks felled it before it could find a victim.

A norker popped its head around the furthest corner of the passage leading away, and promptly ducked back again.
“Intruders!” it yelled, and at an unhead command began to run back whence it had come.
Elana retrieved her quarterstaff and flung open the doors onto…

The Chamber of the Machine

The room proved to be a laboratory and workshop with alchemical equipment cluttered every surface, but dominated by a huge structure of tall glass cylinders in which bubbles rose through exotic liquids laced with minature lightning. A flesh-ripper cultist was hurrying back from issuing commands out of the far door to their right.
The intruder-heroes, bleeding from countless small wounds, followed Cram’s charge of rage into the chamber of the machine. Wjizzo saw the cultist’s goal to be another doorway on the left of the room, and when it broke stride to lance a bolt of darkness at Surina, he hit it with a wave of thunder to knock it back, buying time to position his fiery ball in the doorway and deny it passage.
“Death to the intruders!” shrieked the cultist. This was followed by a snarl from the norker following it in through the doorway, and a great clanking commotion of metal on stone from the space beyond.
The adventurers split left and right about the machine, throwing everything they had at the norker and especially the cultist, knowing that its transformation would make it a lethal danger if it closed with anyone. Denoa’s shadow magic unerringly deprived it of the sight to shoot its black ray a second time. It went down fast, shuddered by their concentrated fire, and the norker fled.
The metal noises proved to be a Bronze Warder on the rampage! But it had charged away in the opposite direction, passed between two pillars and struck a wall at full tilt. In seeking a new tack, it had careened into the pillars. The reason for its random antics came to light as Elana came around the machine and found its focus to be the Bronze Warder’s head, connected by wires to the great contraption. Wjizzo identified the lozenge shape of a command amulet suspended in the central vessel. Whatever the machine was for, a display suggested it would be complete in less than a day.
The eyes of the bronze bull’s head glared up at him, and it gave a bellow of defiance. Its body lurched about and performed another charge, bouncing with a shuddering impact off another pillar. All eyes were turned to the doorway when a norker with battleaxe raised high charged round the corner and into the room, another undead cultist and the wounded norker coming up behind. The battle was short-lived, all three being rapidly despatched.

“This door was where that first thing was heading!” declared Wjizzo.
Cram gave a wordless roar and bore down on it.
“Quickly,” cried Wjizzo to the others, “while Cram’s blood is up and I can maintain my flaming sphere!”
But the others, feeling their wounds where the raging barbarian did not, were in no shape to follow up. As the bronze bull’s head started bellowing, Cram vented his frustration on it, hacking the hollow metal asunder. A flare of white fire jetted from the vent, and the thing fell inert. There still came no sound of any reaction from beyond the door. They shut and barred the doors and took a few precious moments to regain their breath, bandage their wounds, and steel themselves for the final push.