The Fairy Ring in the Nentir Vale

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.

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.

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.