The Fairy Ring in the Nentir Vale

The Ring that was Broken
After Thunderspire, to Gardmore (3 yrs RL)

The Passage of Time

The Victors in the Thunderspire

The Fairy Ring and friends enjoyed the hospitality of the re-established Mages of Saruun, rulers of the Thunderspire — and of the halfings of the Halfmoon Inn in the Seven Pillared Hall — for several days. But their welcome could not last forever, and they each began to long to feel the sun on their faces. The day came when all but Surina the Firebrand and Denoa the shadar-kai witch decided to leave the Thunderspire.

They travelled to Fallcrest, and enjoyed their newfound wealth for several days more. But eventually, lacking a common cause for the first time since their fateful meeting in Winterhaven, they drifted off on their separate ways.

Pyramid_of_Shadows_excerpt_h3_cropped.jpgThe Thumper barbarians, Cram and Borran Lightfoot, accompanied by Elana, returned north to the Winterbole Forest to try to avert the pestilence encroaching on the borders of the clan’s lands. It was unrelated to the dread black pyramid hanging over the no-barbarian’s-land between the Thumpers and their Tigerclaw neighbours, which they were glad to shun.

Wjizzo turned from carousal and turned to courting the knowledge of Nimozaran the Green in Fallcrest’s Emerald Tower and exploiting his reluctantly granted status as an associate member of the Mages of Saruun. Varris the Scarred, gaining scant solace from frankly anything, set forth to try and track down Percival the Halfling.


After half a year Cram was back in Fallcrest, and found gainful employment fronting the management of a tavern. Another underling took care of the accounts, and Cram played both host and bouncer. Some patrons even took to calling the place [tbc] Cram’s Bar! Wjizzo frequented there on the occasions that he needed a break from his studies, and whenever Elana’s travels brought her back to Fallcrest she always looked up her friends.


Then Wjizzo came by _ [details tbc]_ a strange card of ivory bearing the inscription ‘Ruin’, and painted with the device of a broken sword. He knew nothing of this thing, but soon divined that it contained a potent arcane power.Ruin.png

In the months that followed, Wjizzo consulted all the mages and sages of his acquaintance, Nimozaran in Fallcrest, the Mages of Saruun Khel in Thunderspire, Valthrun in Winterhaven, and his own people in the shining Feywild city of Mithrendain, researching the thing in every library he could access. He learned that the card was from the storied but obscure Deck of Many Things, an unknowably ancient artefact that was full of contradictions, not least as an immense wild power more or less contained in a shifting set of fortune-teller’s cards.

Between his enquiries and what Elana could glean upon the road, they heard several accounts of cards of the Deck coming to light here in the Nentir Vale in the last few generations, often with a connection to the orcs and other monsters infesting the ruined site of Gardmore Abbey… But the cards had a conspicuous tendency to change hands in unusual circumstances, and were impossible to track down.

The Rovers’ Return

Varris the Scarred had spent a year or more ranging far afield, following the occasional report of a lone halfling matching his description of Percival. In his travels Percival was making every effort to escape detection, and on one occasion Varris found cultists of Tiamat making the same enquiries as himself. Several tiimes the trail went cold. But when Varris placed his faith in the Raven Queen, mistress of fate, and let fortune guide his feet, he more than once found himself close again.

Then almost beyond his own believing, he came upon his quarry. Percival lay unconscious, clad in tatters, and his much-scarred body laced with new wounds as of knife, of sword and of fire, and his only possession the dark dagger, “Stanley”, in his rigid fist. He did not regain consciousness for two days, but on the second day of tending him Varris found a familiar black and silver throwing star in a fold of the bedclothes that wrapped him.

When finally he awoke, the halfling did not know his rescuer, nor anything else. For what Varris knew to be at least the second time in his life, he had lost his entire memory. The road to recovery was slow, and the halfling was slow to trust this elf who said he knew him, and that his name was “Percival”. But over the course of a long journey back to the Nentir Vale he gradually revealed that he seemed to have been chosen for some very particular task, and that he had not simply lost his memory through a blow to the head, but believed it to have been stolen. Such theft could be possible only to the very greatest of thieves, the fabled Prince of Shadows, reputed to be able to steal blood from a stone, the memory of autumn, or the twinkle from a lover’s eye.

The Madness of Gardmore Abbey

The King’s Road and Winterhaven

Within a day or two of returning to Fallcrest, Varris and Percival had found their way to Cram’s Bar. And less than a week from then Elana returned, telling of dangerously organised depradations of large bands of orcs upon the King’s Road where it passes through the Gardmore Downs between Fallcrest and Winterhaven. A little birdie had told her that the lord of Winterhaven would love to find someone he could trust to investigate. And lo, when she fetched Wjizzo from the Emerald Tower, the Fairy Ring had come full circle!

No one could argue with logic like that. Varris called it the hand of fate, and touched a reverent finger to the pearl at his neck. Percival suppressed a suspicious frown. And Wjizzo smiled enigmatically.

A week later, taking the King’s Road to Winterhaven, Varris inspected various sites and pronounced that a force of at least several dozen orcs was preying upon the traffic on the road. At Wjizzo’s query he said there was no sign of any attacks using anything but force of arms.

And then they rode once again into the familiar farmlands of Winterhaven. The damage wrought by the undead horde of Orcus that Kalarel sent forth from the Shadowfell had been repaired, and the countryside throve once more. Folk on the roadside recognised the five riders and hailed them as their saviours. Salvana Wrafton’s Inn was thronged with well-wishers that night, and many old acquaintances were renewed.
[You may remember the chatty old farmer Eilian the Old, gruff Rond Kelfem who leads the Winterhaven watch, Sister Linora the healer priestess, Thair Coalstriker the obligatory dwarf smith, Delphina Moongem the wood elf wildflower seller, and Bairwin the trader who sent you with a frustratingly well-locked casket for Gendar the drow in Thunderspire; the treacherous Ninaran was unsurprisingly never seen again.]

Most notable was the mid-evening arrival of the ruler of the place, Lord Padraig. Wearing his authority lightly, he greeted everyone with informal but gracious words which were naturally overheard by everyone in the Inn. And asking Cram whether the reason for his return to reprise their previous drinking competition, he ended up joining them at their table for the rest of the evening. (He left only when the alternative was to end up under their table.) As he drank he told them of his concern over the orcish banditry on the King’s Road.

Padraig_Portrait_cropped.jpg“Travellers have been attacked of late by raiders in the area where the road crosses the Gardbury Downs, just a day to the south-east of here. The attacks mostly occur in the vicinity of the old ruins of Gardmore Abbey, so I suspect the orcs are using the ruins as a lair. If I could, I’d raise a militia to go root the orcs out of their holes and put them to the sword, but these folk can’t see past their village walls. If it’s not a threat to Winterhaven, they don’t think it’s our problem, never mind that it affects caravans coming here. So if I can’t raise a militia, I’m thinking I could hire you to deal with these orcs. To start, I want you to go to the abbey and find out whether the rocs are lairing there. Come back and tell me what you find — as complete a picture of their lair and defences as you can.”

As he departed he invited them to the manorhouse for breakfast, at which he would invite the resident sage in the tower, Valthrun, to give them a history of the site.

Gardmore Abbey

Valthrun greeted them familiarly, and said how pleased he was that they were still alive. He was glad to be able to thank them in person for the details of the minotaur ruins in the Thunderspire that they had relayed back to him.

Valthrun.png “The abbey was one of the first settlements in the Nentir Vale, established duing the rise of the empire of Nerath around 350 years ago. Along with Fastormel, the combined village and abbey defined the northern forntier of Nerath until the founding of Winterhaven three decades later.
“The abbey was built as a defensive fortification, combining the natural slope of the land and a strong stone wall to protect the village and the home of the monastic knights in the abbey proper. A prosperous settlement grew up between the outer wall and the cloister of the abbey, supporting the knights and enjoying their protection.
During the eight of Nerath’s rule, the holy knights of Gardmore Abbey fought valiantly in Bahamut’s name against any monstrous and evil forces that encroached into the Nentir Vale, and on occasion launched campaigns to bring down bastions of evil in the world beyond. They destroyed thousands of orcs in the Stonemarch, brought low a temple of Zehir in the depths of the Witchlight Fens, and journeyed to the Dragondown Coast, far to the south, to sack the Infernal Bastion of the terrible hobgoblin warlord Hur-Tharak.
“About 150 years ago, a resurgent force of orcs from the Stonemarch descended upon Gardmore Abbey. Aided by ogres, hill giants, and demonic embodiments of chaos, the orcs laid siege to the abbey, but even against such terrible foes the knights held firm.
“But then in a roar of infernal wind, a new wave of attackers was unleashed upon the abbey from the inside. Scores of undead monsters, from skeletal legions and sword wraiths to nightwalkers and fire demons, spread throughout the abbey bringing terror and destruction in their wake. The walls were breached, the Stonemarch forces spilled inside, and a titanic battle among knights, undead and orcs left the abbey in ruins.
“Some decades later, 90 years ago, the ruins were a major battlefield in the Bloodspear War, when another wave of Stonemarch orcs eventually overwhelmed the defenders led by Lord Markelhay of Fallcrest before going on to sack the city itself.”

The adventurers were keen to journey into the Gardbury Downs that day. Wjizzo was particularly keen, winking one silvery eye and telling the others that he had something up his wizard’s sleeve that could make the reconnaissance go very well indeed.

Perhaps guessing that she would not be needed, Elana excused herself from the mission. The last time she’d been singing in Winterhaven there’d been a mercenary captain here by the name of Tam (it transpired Cram knew her slightly from Fallcrest). But perhaps more significantly, the black dwarf in company with her wore a steel plate paunce over his chainmail that openly flaunted a star device with five curved arms.
“Oh!” said Varris, giving Percival a pointed look.
Tam and the dwarf were no longer in town, but Elana thought she might want to track them down.

Nightfall on Gardbury Downs

Travelling back down the King’s Road and taking the route of the old track to Gardmore Abbey would be a full day’s riding, but the group opted to halve the journey by taking the road part way and then cutting straight over the Downs as the crow flies.

When they pulled off the road, Wjizzo unwrapped the golden figurine that he had received on behalf of the group from the Mages of Saruun. With a word, it transformed into a mighty metallic eagle, and the high elf swung himself up onto its neck.
“Lead my horse while I’m gone. I’ll make sure you don’t stumble into any orc ambushes you can’t see from down here.”

The Downs were deserted, but not unnaturally so, and Wjizzo saw nothing amiss in the movements of the local birds and other wildlife. But then, with the sun sinking towards the horizon and forcing Wjizzo practically into the knap of the earth to avoid his eagle attracting attention rather than averting it, he saw a flicker of movement above the left flank of the abbey on the distant hilltop.
“There’s more than orcs in there hills. There’s a red dragon. I think it is unlikely to be working for the orcs…”

The Pursuit of Paldemar
In which Paldemar himself was finally taken

Cram plunged into the darkness. His running footsteps echoed back up the secret corridor to his fellow heroes and allies clustered in Paldemar’s chamber, followed by a noise of muffled impact.
“It comes to a dead end,” protested the incredulous barbarian. “No, wait. It’s a door!”
Light spilled into the far corridor when Cram got the door open, and the chase for the traitor wizard was afoot.

It emerged from an indistinguishable section of wall in that great hall dominated by the mass of umbral shadow. A metallic boom echoed from the away to the right, as the great black Gates of Orcus swung closed.
   Everyone piled out after Cram: Surina, Elana and Varris, followed more hesitantly by Denoa the shadar-kai and Borran the cunning-man, and dodged between the pillars of bones, where vengeful skeletal hands still twitched at the sense of the living.
   Cram reached the metal doors and shouldered them open, and Surina dashed past him at a full sprint, Denoa close behind. She was met by an utterly unexpected prospect: in the middle of the circular antechamber there now stood a tree — or rather a bipedal tree with a face and womanly protruberances. But where others of the Fairy Ring might have recognized and been given pause by the sudden appearance of a dryad,1 this was Surina the Firebrand.

“Trees burn! she snarled; and hurled forth a blast of hellfire.
 And the dryad was simply gone. Surina blinked and saw her billow of flame strike the far side of the chamber as though nothing had been there at all.
   “Beware illusions,” she warned Denoa and Cram.
   But Denoa shook her head. “Shadow Reflections,” she stated flatly, gesturing at the dark polished mirrors on every side. And then she held up a hand for silence, stopping Cram in his tracks. She mimed listening and pointed out a spot halfway down the stairway out of the room.
   Cram gave no thought to subtlety. With a running start he reached the top step and launched himself into midair. A tree-like form halfway down one wall was silhouetted by the glowing light of the magic circle below, and Cram swung his fullblade into it as his leap carried him several steps beyond.
   For a second time a dryad-image melted before the party’s attacks. But where Surina had banished a reflection of this one, summoned as Paldemar passed through the mirrored chamber, Cram now banished the desperate guise adopted by Paldemar himself. A stray branch knocked aside from Cram’s tumultuous path proved to have been an ineffectual last-ditch swipe of the wizard’s staff at the airborne barbarian.2

For a moment Paldemar regarded Cram between him and the magic circle, with the sound of many feet announcing the arrival of Cram’s friends in the room above. Then with a desperate, almost incoherent No!, Paldemar fled up the stairs. It cost him a wrenching effort to lurch out of range of Cram’s swinging fullblade, but he reached the mirrored room and looked around at Surina, Denoa and Elana, and Varris and Borran in the doorway.
   “Servants of Orcus, step forth and puni—” Denoa brought darkness into being and wrapped it like a cowl about his head. His invocation was punctuated with a whimper. “— punish this intruder!” he finished in a strangled tone, pointing at Surina. Standing right before him, she was the only one he could still see.
  From the nearest mirrored wall stepped the crabbed form of a dragonborn, scales mutilated with the scars of untold harm and face contorted with hate.
   Varris had pause; suddenly there were two Surinas in the room. But he remembered the power of these mirrors and the horrible misrepresentation of himself that Kalarel had brought forth not an hour before.

With a distorting shift of perspective, the shadow-reflection tilted and elongated and tried to clutch at Surina and hold her fast,
Surina s shadow
but in a flash Varris was upon it with a double-slashing move left and right. As soon as his longsword bit, the reflection winked out; his scimitar swept through empty space.

Elana hefted her staff but, before closing upon Paldemar, gave a yell of pure channeled wrath.
   “Here’s your quarry, Ringers! Paldemar: y i e l d !3 The very force of it rocked him.
   Cram charged back up the stairs and swung his mighty sword in another attack, which though met by Paldemar’s staff had enough power to smash him bodily into the pillar at his back. Denoa, hands blossoming with black flame, appeared around the other side of the pillar, forcing him away again.
   “No,” quavered the harried Paldemar, “you have no idea. The Demon Prince has no mercy for those who fail him.”
   Lightnings struck out from his staff, forcing his attackers back.

And then everyone turned as an immense creature flew in through the Gates of Orcus from the hall beyond — a great eagle of metallic gold which backed its wings, sending a great gust of wind through the room. Shrieks of surprise were stilled at the sound of Wjizzo’s voice in incantation. The Eladrin sat astride this eagle, imperiously holding aloft his wand and orb.
   The eagle landed with a jarring crash but Wjizzo sprang effortlessly clear and landed with perfect poise. Paldemar stared, oblivious of the giant floating hand of ice that manifested in the air behind him, until he was abruptly seized in its merciless grasp.
   Varris was the fastest then, and dashed the captive wizard upon the head with the flat of his scimitar. Their victim slumped inert in the clutches of the icy hand, to a cry of jubilation and victory from the heroes of the day.

But with a burst felt only by Varris, the Shadowfell power of the lifedrinker weapon stole for him a measure of the fallen wizard’s life force. With a start he realized that this could still mean the death of the prisoner! In a last bout of action Varris urgently ordered Wjizzo to release the grasp of his magical hand, caught the limp Paldemar as he would have fallen and — not without misgivings — ensured that he would live to face his fate. The wrath of Orcus would have to wait; first would come the questioning of his captors and the Mages of Saruun would also doubtless have an interest in what should be done with him…



1 Wjizzo the Eladrin, Varris the Elf, or Elana the fey-pacted worshipper of Corellon

2 It was a Hare Strike.

3 Stirring Shout, the Leader-power of target-designation, run-together with a representation of Elana’s also having urged that he be subdued rather than killed.

The Chapel of the Demon Prince
In which the battle was carried to Paldemar, the Bringer of Change

The Chapel of the Demon Prince

From the laboratory of the Machine, Varris stepped stealthily into a small hallway with additional doors on all three other sides, each adorned with a ram’s skull design. No sound could be heard, and Varris tentatively tried the left-hand door, first finding it locked and then after a few moments with a set of tools declaring that there was a problem. Wjizzo frowned and whispered that it was likely to be an Arcane Lock ritual, probably the work of the wizard Paldemar himself.
Pressing his keen ear to the door ahead, Varris faintly made out a guttural chanting.
“This is it,” he whispered. Everyone poised themselves, and he opened the door.

The Chapel was a large, pillared chamber with an inlaid mosaic of Orcus on the floor before a 20’ black stone idol of the the demon prince. The two outermost pillars were unlike the others, being of some crystalline rock that pulsed with inner energy. But the immediate concern were the chanters: a congregation of three norkers being led in an unconvincing monotonous droning by a figure in crimson-robes.
The heroes’ assault began, arrows, arrows magically aflame, and bolts of force, of eldritch power and of shadow sprayed upon the unsuspecting worshippers from the doorway. Cram hurtled forward with the Thumpers’ battlecry. Before their victims could react, the attackers poured in. Remembering the Court of Bones, they split left and right to head around and not across the mosaic on the floor, shooting on the move. They found each of the nearer walls to contain a double-door, matching up with the side-doors in the entrance hall, but they had live prey in their sights.

Two of the norkers produced slings and backed away before the onslaught. A shot struck Borran a glancing blow on the shoulder before he ducked back and began to call upon Brother Rabbit. The other had no such chance, as it had scarcely clawed a stone from its pouch before Denoa called wisps of shadow from the air to wrap themselves about its face, denying it sight of any target.
The third norker was a foot taller than any they had seen before, and lost no time in pulling out a cruel ball-and-chain, shrieking a battlecry of its own, and striding forward. But Cram was faster, closed down and delivered a fearsome leg wound to the robed cultist before it could react. As the norker came in and Cram was forced to sway aside from its attack, the cultist backed away and then fixed him with a hideous gaze that physically staggered him, assailing his very sanity.
Varris retaliated against the monster with a blistering rate of arrow-shots.

Then one of the sets of double-doors were wrenched open and with clanging steps a Bronze Warder surged forward, bringing its massive axe crashing into the stone floor as Cram hurled himself out of its path.
Surina, issuing a curse of diabolical power on the half-blind norker slinger, swept left around the other side of the room. Elana shot at the ball-and-chain wielder and drew another arrow as she advanced. Wjizzo moved the same way to gain a clear shot and sent an orb of force to rock both the cultist and the norker berserker on their feet.


And then one door of the other set opened. The nearer adventurers had a brief glimpse of the slight figure of a wizard with blond hair and beard before a sweeping gesture of his quarterstaff sent an arc of lightnings lashing into Elana, Wjizzo and Surina.
“Paldemar!” Elana managed to cry, but before anyone else could look round, the evil architect of Orcus’ plots within the labyrinth had closed the door again.
“Oh dear,” said Wjizzo softly to himself, having an inkling as to the other wizard’s tactic.
But before Wjizzo could explain, Cram the barbarian turned on his heels, swerved around the descending sweep of the Bronze Warder’s axe and hurtled right across the room to throw himself against the door. His shoulder impacted it with an echoing boom but the doors did not so much as quiver.
“It’s another Arcane Lock!” Wjizzo announced. “Paldemar’s door will only open to his own hand. He has a bolthole from which he can do whatever he likes!”

Paldemar’s five followers continued to give battle out in the chapel — though the slinger blinded by Denoa’s shadow-power only cowered behind a pillar vainly trying to shake the magic. Its companion took its revenge for it, sending a stone whistling into Denoa’s belly. The norker berserker and the Bronze Warder advanced, and the indefatigable Cram threw himself back onto them as the magic-wielders concentrated their efforts against the norker. Insanely undeterred the norker berserker came after Cram, swinging his ball-and-chain but never finding his target to stop still long enough for it to use its weapon to best effect. But between evading both it and the Bronze Warder, Cram’s strength began to fail him. He went down on one knee, his weakness unfeigned, then chopped up at the norker as it was distracted by a bolt of darkness from Denoa. It bared its fangs, reaching out for the barbarian, only to slump dead on his blade. Its jaws closed on air as it fell to the ground and Cram rallied, jumping back to his feet with a yell of victory.
Wjizzo meanwhile shouted for Surina and Denoa to join him in using their powers to pass through into Paldemar’s chamber-haven if he so much as opened the door a crack.
But the door opened again before they could ready themselves properly. In a split second Wjizzo recognized the ball of power forming at the end of Paldemar’s staff to be a shock sphere like his own, but then it was launched. Right in front of Paldemar’s doors an area the size of a normal room was filled with coursing veins of storm-power which wracked through Wjizzo and Elana, sparks dancing on the bard’s mailshirt.

Surina bore purposefully down upon the norker slinger, and fulfilled her curse by dropping him with a third blast of power. But she was answered by a ray of withering black-purple light from the carved ‘wand’ in the hand of the Orcus statue.
She turned to the Bronze Warder that was manoeuvring as it fought to line itself up on the throng at its master’s doors. One bronze hoof clanged as it struck the ground, preparing the Warder for a charge. To Surina’s horror, she saw Cram’s balance desert him, leaving him open to a cleaving blow of that massive axe. But at the last instant Varris was there. Replaced by the injured Denoa at Paldemar’s other door, there he was with his magical longsword stabbing up at the descending arm of the automaton and deflecting the fell stroke from its target, saving Cram from certain death.
The shadar-kai witch, meanwhile, began a concentrated effort to disrupt the structure of the door that held the matrix for the energies of the Arcane Lock.
Cram lived to fight on, and looked down to see Brother Rabbit at his knee. Before his eyes the glowing form of the spirit-creature danced and blurred and split into a veritable drove of rabbits which leapt upon the minotaur. They passed through it in an uncanny silence, but in its confusion the metal warrior batted vainly at the vanishing spirits. Its guard forgotten, Cram punished it by hammering a volley of blows into it, dinting and scarring its bronze shell.
Wjizzo was poised for the moment Paldemar opened the door. Elana stood ready with the Staff Resounding in her hands, chanting an elven war song. But when the moment came, their nerves were screwed to too high a pitch. The Staff struck the frame of the door, and only a timorous wave of thunder washed over Paldemar, failing to dislodge his grip on the door let alone blast him back into the room. Paldemar arrogantly stood and braved their attacks to unleash his own magical assault, and not even a clubbing swipe of Wjizzo’s orb-implement could distract him. A ray of frost shot point blank from the end of his staff into Elana.

Surina ran back away from the statue, shouting out a warning to everyone else not to go too near it. But already the Bronze Warder clanged its hoof again in readiness to charge. By dint of extreme will, even at a flat run, she unleashed a tyranny of flame at the automaton. Sulphurous fires tinged with the necrotic power of the Shadowfell streamed from her blasting-rod to strike with a hellish fury that would have smitten a lesser victim to the ground, but though the Warder’s features distorted in the heat it was undeterred.
The Bronze Warder charged!
Cram beat his fullblade resoundingly upon its back as it moved by, but it barrelled heedless straight forwards with its axe-haft held before it in both bronze fists, knocking Wjizzo and Elana flying from its path. Then with blinding speed it switched its grip and swept its axe around in a low scything arc that carved Wjizzo’s left arm to the bone and knocked Elana senseless against the wall behind her.
The great bronze bull’s head came up and around as Surina shot a bolt of force at it, and in a last-ditch effort Wjizzo put his hand to the control amulet around his neck and uttered the hard-won word of command. Instantly he could feel the arcane strangeness that was the minotaur-like ‘mind’ of the metal guardian, and he could feel the elusive sense of the power of Paldemar that had given it its commands, and knew that Paldemar in turn could feel him through this connection. Wjizzo’s poured forth his will and overwhelmed the echo of Paldemar’s thought with a wave of force that cancelled all commands. The lethal assault ceased as the Bronze Warder froze in place. Paldemar’s attention would be too divided to be able to both grapple with Wjizzo for control of the Warder, and coordinate his magical attacks with opening and closing the door. Wjizzo braced for retaliation, but felt nothing forthcoming; the sense of Paldemar fled.
“He’s letting it go,” Wjizzo declared in a cracked voice.

And then a yell of triumph from Denoa came round the corner. Fingers of both hands interlaced, she’d concentrated her black fire to a perfect pitch, and a combination of scorching and accelerated woodrot had sundered a timber of Paldemar’s other Arcane Locked door.
Cram, invigorated with a gift of the Great Rabbit’s vigour for which he barely had time to nod his relieved thanks to Borran, dashed off in a looping sprint that ended with a shoulder-charge that burst several more timbers. Perfunctorily hacking some of the wreckage away he forced himself bodily into the breach. And found no sign of Paldemar in the chamber beyond.
“C’m ’ere, you invisible bastard!” he yelled, swinging his fullblade about him at full reach and using one swing to shear down the curtains on the truly massive four-poster bed against the wall. But his sword met no resistance and he found no sign of Paldemar.
Barring Wjizzo — who barely felt capable of standing and wanted to secure his hold on the control of the Bronze Warder — the others joined Cram in Paldemar’s chamber, a ragged and battered crew. Paldemar wasn’t under the bed, and in truth seemed not to be invisible anywhere in the room, although Cram rued the absence of practical little Percival and his pouch of “you never know when you’ll need them” flour bombs.
Everyone looked at Varris and reminded him of his elven heritage, and as they regained their breath Varris manfully turned his attention to the masonry of the walls, to no avail.
“I don’t know what this was,” came the apologetic voice of Borran. “Nothing herbal that I’ve ever come across. But it’s fresh.”
Everyone, Varris included, stopped to look in surprise at the barbarian cunning-man, who had just found a small crystal vial discarded in the corner, under the heap of the wall-hanging that Varris had torn aside in his search.
“A potion bottle! Told you he was invisible,” said Cram. But Varris leapt over to the wall where Borran had found the vial. Borran started to explain, but stopped mid-sentence to paw at a loose tile on the wall, and a stone door scraped open.
Papers from the desk fluttered around the room in the wake of Cram’s dash for the secret passage his cousin had found.

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.

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.

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…

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.


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.

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?
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 . . .