Arcanearth

Session 28: Shrine of Zencotan IV
The Second Tier

AE-session28-SteamDragon_20181125.jpgBeyond the bronze doors a long passage leads to a stairway disappearing into the shadows high above. Leelo creeps forward a few paces and spies a dim landing high above. The elf carefully checks for booby traps as she leads the way. The silence is broken by a stony rumbling as the party nears the top. A dragon hissing steam rolls out on a wheeled platform from behind a concealed room. Krag is tripped up in the headlong flight back down the steps and partially caught in a howling blast of super-heated steam. Leelo creeps up the steps twice more, dodging nimbly back each time the stone dragon sends a billowing white cloud down the stairwell. Finally the source of the steam seems expended. The stone dragon slowly rolls back into the hidden chamber. Investigation reveals a clever slot and counterweight system with a steaming vent into the earth, but the trigger mechanism is either magic or too well concealed for even Leelo to spot. After a minute the concealing stone panel rumbles back into place. Leelo leaps back out into the hallway.

A passage of heavy stone blocks and arched ceiling leads onward, much like the others in the hidden shrine, but dry and dusty. Clearly the party has ascended to a higher area of the ruins. Around a corner lies a suit of armor slumped against the wall. Ropes and mage-hand magic are employed to retrieve parts of the armor from a safe distance. Inspection reveals the battered and rusted plate-mail lacks any occupant other than a goodly quantity of fine powdery dust. The armored breastplate has suffered several blows from a round hammer-like weapon, sufficient to break the steel open. The wearer must have made it least this far before expiring, but what could have caused a decomposition into fine dust? The armor looks contemporary and probably has been here no more than a few years, probably less. Of the expired adventurer’s equipment, only a backpack with assorted sundries remains. No weapons other than a rusty dagger are in evidence. Within the backpack is a crumbling paper journal. Finch spots a reference to ‘Baron Almeriaq of Scylia’ before the journal falls into dust. Mesmer doesn’t notice. A reference to the father he never knew?

The next passage on the right ends in ornate bronze doors bearing the Zencotan sun symbol on one panel and moon symbol on the other. A pile of dusty gold lies at the other end of the passage. From the gold protrudes a sword hilt. A skull lies atop the gold. Finch and Mesmer quickly determine the gold is a magical illusion, but the hilt and skull are real. Both protrude from a small mound of mustard-yellow mold. Recalling the events in the caverns below Fang Mountain, Mesmer quickly shrivels the mold into ash with a bolt of fire. The mold concealed the skeleton of a half-elf or slight human wearing the remains of leather armor. The dusty room at this end of the hallway is otherwise empty.

The rune-heroes spend an hour carefully searching the entire hall for traps and secret doors. Stones worn smooth to the touch reveal the location of a small secret door giving access to a short crooked chamber ending in a plain stone door. A second identical door is given away by a dark smear upon the floor disappearing beneath the stones of the wall. Blood?

Leelo leads the way through the hall beyond the smear of blood. At the end of a narrow passage hangs an ornate mirror. A heavy door of heavy stone pulls outward just to the left. There are many glyphs carved upon it. In the center a clawed eagle kills a serpent. Two stylized stone warriors wearing puma masks form the doorposts to left and right. Mesmer deciphers the story on the door: a mythic warrior embarks upon a journey to find truth and light, but ends in failure and the hero’s imprisonment in ‘Mictlan’, the land of the dead.

Leelo glances into the mirror. From the smokey depths emerges a female warrior in green-feathered headdress and cape, bearing a stone-headed mace in one hand and obsidian dagger in the other. The warrior’s face is Leelo’s. A deadly battle begins: phantasm-Leelo versus flesh-and-blood Leelo.

Finch notices Leelo has frozen still, but fears to disturb her. The mirror appears smokey and dim, but otherwise normal. A few seconds later blood drips from Leelo’s ear. Krag shoves his way past the others and drags Leelo back down the hall just as she strikes down her Zencotan double. She wakes from the deadly trance more than a little worse for wear. Krag uses magic to heal the psychic wounds manifesting as cuts and bruises upon the half-elf’s body.

Beyond the door to the right of the mirror is a wide foyer leading into a circular room. On the right hand wall of the small entry foyer hangs a large jade death mask. In the center of the chamber is a cross-shaped dais with a set of stairs leading up to it at each of the four ends. Between each arm of the dais is a low shelf covered with small offerings: silver bracelets, earrings, neck collars, and anklets, piles of coral beads, and silver and jade statuettes. The set of stairs facing the entrance are cawed with the heads of many deities. The steps to the left are bloodstained while the far stairs are hidden in unnatural shadow. The right-hand staircase slowly changes hue across a rainbow of different colors. Standing at the top of the left steps is the statue of a Zencotan warrior. In the center of the dais rises a transparent cylinder of crystal enclosing a tall spiral column ending five feet short of the ceiling arches.

Mesmer and Finch enter to investigate the mask while Mavriy guards the foyer. Leelo remains just outside the door. Finch finds the large hollow jade mask is hanging on the wall by what appears to be a metal lever in a slot. The warlock triggers the trap from the far side using his conjured spear. The mask smashes into pieces on the floor as a cage of bronze bars falls from the ceiling to enclose anyone foolish enough to seize the mask from close by.

The gods carved into the near stairs begin speaking in a cacophony of unintelligible voices when Krag sets foot upon the first step. Krag retreats from the room to guard the passage. The right hand steps slowly change from one glowing color to the next: blue, red, yellow, green, violet. Mesmer tries to walk the steps but seems to go nowhere. The shadow-wreathed steps cause Mesmer to trip and fall. Attempting to climb over the offering-shelves at the corners summons an invisible force to push the interloper rudely to the floor. Only the left-hand stair seems to allow free passage. The stone warrior statue at the top seems truly a statue and not a petrified warrior. The crystal wall is impenetrable and completely surrounds the fluted column rising from the center of the dais.

Mesmer is convinced that offerings placed upon the four niches will solve the riddle. Mesmer, Finch and Mavriy offer ancient silver coins looted from Xipe’s chambers. Each time, a scintillating flash of light appears in the supplicant’s peripheral vision. But nothing else happens. Finally Finch gets greedy and sweeps some of the dusty offerings into a sack. Instantly the door slams shut with a boom, trapping Krag in the outer hallway. Leelo jumps through the doorway to be trapped in the chamber with her companions. A voice speaking in the birth tongue speaks into the minds of Finch, Mesmer, Mavriy and Leelo:

“Interlopers, you have trespassed on my sacred chapel. For this affront, retribution has already begun, for you are breathing a toxic gas which will kill you shortly. It is possible your actions were not from malice or green, but only idle curiosity. Therefore, you will find the cure atop the column in the center of the dais, if you can solve the riddle of the steps. Choose your path wisely, and act quickly”

Mavriy, Finch and Mesmer return to the left-hand steps, but now the seven foot stone golem animates and attacks with a stone great-hammer. Mesmer casts a spell of magical enlargement upon Mavriy, who is thereby able to grapple the golem and bash it with her adamantine battleaxe. Leelo, Finch and Mesmer join in with weapons and spells. Mavriy suffers only a few weak blows from the stone hammer before the ancient stone warrior is broken into bits.

“So you have passed the first test. Perhaps you are not the fools you first seemed. But it will take the best tool of your most perceptive person to breach these crystal walls. Your time is running out.”

Everyone feels short of breath. A trick of the mind, or does invisible gas indeed poison the party? Leelo touches the crystal wall with her thieves tools. A doorway appears in the barrier.

“So you have reached my altar, but your time is nearly exhausted and the curse is just beyond your reach. Trust your souls to the gods, foolish mortals.”

The rune-heroes realize that Krag is needed, but he is trapped outside the room! All his efforts to open the magically-sealed door have been fruitless. Mavriy and Mesmer rush from dais to door. With a titanic effort, the pair are able to force the door open long enough for Krag to tumble through. Rushing into the crystal prison, Krag finds a small glowing rune at the base of the spiral column. Krag touches the symbol of Aeron to the rune, which Mesmer identifies as the Zencotan glyph for ‘Kukulkan’. A glowing flask appears atop the column. Everyone except Krag falls unconscious from the effects of the poison. Krag has no choice but to climb the tall column, a task the burly half-orc is not at all suited for. Somehow he makes it to the top and sips from the flask. Krag falls halfway down the column. His fall is cushioned by the sprawling mound of his companions. Krag dribbles the potion into the mouth of each unconscious comrade. Slowly they begin to stir.

AE-session28-Kukulkan_20181125-2.jpgA mighty feathered serpent appears before the awestruck cleric: “Priest of War: thank you for releasing me from my millennia-long imprisonment. I now return to the eternal struggle.”

Kukulkan fades from this realm and into another. Krag notices a silk bag at his feet. Within glows the soft shine of precious jewels: a king’s ransom! Being the honest comrade that he is, Krag declines to take possession of the jewels before his friends recover from their slumber.

Upon the departure of Kukulkan, magic fades from the chamber. The four stairs are dull and lifeless, their enchantment fled. The crystal column disappears from the dais. The rune-heroes take this as a sign the offerings are free for the taking. The tomb-robbers are now burdened with over seventy pounds of various looted treasures.

Finch leads the way through the crooked passage beyond the second secret door. On the other side of the stone door is a rectangular chamber filled with layers of amber haze. The chamber is unoccupied, but strangely shaped and colored mirrors hang on the walls and a large stone basin or trough occupies the center. The mirror on the eastern wall is red and seems to be composed of fire and framed in bronze. The mirror refracts the green light from Mesmer’s torch into myriad flames. Ghostly shapes seem to flicker in its depths. On the northern wall are two mirrors: a striking black panel of obsidian framed in lacquered wood, and a stark white mirror in a wrought iron frame. The black mirror has a distinctive earthy odor and the blackness of subterranean caverns, but it seems of crude construction and only reflects objects very close to it. The white mirror has a pungent odor of nutmeg and spice and its depths are gelid and smoky. The last mirror hangs on the western wall in a stone frame and is blue in color. Reflections in this mirror ripple as if looking into a pool of sunlit water. The stone basin is filled with a steaming golden liquid. The amber haze in the chamber seems to originate from the basin.

Finch feels ready for the burden of a new load of curses! He approaches each mirror and looks within. In the red mirror he sees his own reflection murdered by a looming mass of eyes and fanged mouths, then the mirror goes blank. The hazy white mirror assaults his mind with stunning force, but he resists and flees to a safe distance. The black mirror presents the ethereal image of an Zencotan priest superimposed over Finch’s own reflection. The image speaks a phrase in the ancient tongue unknown to Finch, but Mesmer recognizes it as an invitation or query in the Zencotan language, “Command me to answer, and I shall”. The rune heroes shout encouragement and lewd suggestions from the doorway. Krag suggests “how can we understand women!”, eliciting the only response the rune-heroes receive to any of their questions: a helpless shrug.

Finch is wary of the watery mirror. His recently-acquired phobia of watery depths quickly rises to the fore. Nor will his companions dare the blue mirror. Leelo has had enough of magical mirrors and never once sets foot in the chamber.

Using his conjured spear, Finch lowers a gauntlet into the golden liquid, which lacks heat and is not unlike a gold-colored mercury. The retrieved gauntlet has turned to solid gold! Minutes later the article returns to it’s former leather material. Apparently the enchantment is fugitive in nature.

The rune-heroes leave the hall of mirrors and turn to investigate the bronze doors of the sun and the moon. Leelo is reasonably certain there are no traps. The bronze lock is not engaged, so she pulls open the great portals with the help of Mavriy. Beyond is a vast irregular chamber with vaulted ceiling soaring high above.

The chamber is decorated with a magically-animated diorama depicting Mictlan, the land of the dead. Small, brightly painted clay statues have been animated to represent the inhabitants of this realm and the unfortunate men and women they have under their care. The figurines range 4" to 8" high and resemble the painted figures in the dioramas where the rune heroes fell into the ruins. Eerie silver light illuminates the spectacle.

In the center the floor rises to form a small hill with earthen palisades on all sides. Groups of naked men and women struggle fruitlessly to roll boulders up the hill. Barbed and horned devils drive them on. Each time the toiling figures near the top, the ball rolls back down and they must start their hopeless task anew. Above the hill in the ceiling is a dark, narrow chimney angling upward and away. A clear pebble path leads from the door to the foot of the hill. Another fork of the path leads to a barred stone door in the far right corner.

Before the door at the near side side of the room is a region covered in burning sands and the crumbled remains of ruined cities half submerged beneath encroaching dunes. Here devils torture unfortunate mortals given onto their care.

On the right side of the room is a region depicting a grassy plain where mortals frolic and hunt antelope and deer: Elysium, the ‘happy hunting grounds’, or some equivalent? Alone among the environments depicted in Mictlan, this region is free from horror and torture. Each explorer feels the urge to cast off their burdens and run out upon the lush grass.

Between the central hill and Elysium, the floor opens into a miniature canyon down which flows a river of lava. Flames lick up from the blazing crevice. A stone arch spans the canyon where the pebbled path ends.

On the far side of the hill is a counterpart to the burning sands and fiery canyon: an icy waste. To the left of the hill are putrid, bubbling marshes where figures of men strive desperately to keep their heads above the surface. Out of this swamp a black, torpid river wends its way past the left side of the hill and flows west to pour over the lip of a steam-filled chasm in one corner. Within this dark chasm, great worms pursue the fleeing forms of naked men and women.

Leelo leads the way cautiously down the path to the bronze-barred stone door. Burning sands lie on the left, green verdant fields on the right. Finch and Mavriy experiment with the animated figurines. When picked up, they cease moving. The rune-heroes retrieve a dozen various figurines including tortured mortals and a variety of demons and devils. As an experiment, Finch sets down the three god-like 8" figures he retrieved from the central diorama in the first chamber. They instantly animate and run out upon the sands to chase and squash demons and mortals alike.

Mesmer and Leelo unbar and open the stone door while Finch, Mavriy and Krag stand guard along the fork in the path. Beyond is a darkened storage chamber. A stone rod, glazed flask and stone urn stand on shelves in each corner. When Mesmer thrusts his green torch past Leelo’s shoulder, the floor shudders and squirms. A bubbling mass rises from cracks in the flagstones. First one then a multitude of glowing eyes and gibbering fanged mouths appear in the bubbling mass of red goo that rolls forth from the room.

AE-session28-GibberingMonstrosity_20181125.jpgThe mouths set up a babbling outcry: voices of a hundred trapped souls scream, laugh, shout and cry. Leelo is stunned and confused by the unearthly cacophony. She attempts to flee but the ground traps her feet in stone changed to the consistency of thick gooey tar.

Mesmer covers his ears and shouts wordlessly to block the horrid babbling. He sees Leelo draw her rapier and smallsword, but rather than attack the mass of eyes and fangs rising beyond, she twists around and attacks him! Leelo’s face is twisted by terror, her eyes empty and staring. Mesmer shouts a spell of shielding and barely escapes being run through by Leelo. As she leans to reach Mesmer, a psuedopod of fanged mouths sweeps past through the dark doorway, barely missing the half-elf. The mouths eject blazing motes of spit out across the room. The spittle explodes in flashes sufficient to blind Mesmer and Finch. Mesmer staggers blindly along the path and straight into Finch, fortunately falling flat before stepping off either side.

Leelo manages to extricate herself from the rippling stone liquefied by the presence of the trans-dimensional horror. She slices parts from the looming monster then flees over the prostrate form of Mesmer and around the other rune heroes lined up on the narrow path. The burning sands heat up her blades almost too hot to hold before she returns to the safety of the path. The horror-from-beyond bulges through the open door into the silvery light of Mictlan and moves up the path in search of victims. Mesmer casts a spell of quick-travel and reappears with his comrades between him and the advancing monster. He turns and begins firing off spells of magical fire. The pulsing blob of eyes and fangs sizzles and burns with each impact.

Mavriy moves across the sand to confront the oncoming blob, but is quickly blinded. She accidentally steps off the path into the happy-hunting-grounds. The seven-foot demonling wanders off across the grassy sward, casting aside her axe, then shield, then begins removing her armor as well! Finch casts spells of psychic dissolution upon the approaching horror, but fails to drive it away.

Krag summons ferocious demonic guardian spirits from Aeron’s realm. In an unexpected twist, the spirits attack not only the ‘gibbering mouther’, but also the animated figurines scampering around the floor. The babbling, spitting monster is finally reduced to quivering heaps of burning flesh.

At this juncture the rune-heroes attempt to rescue Mavriy, who is frolicking half-naked out of reach among the grass and streams of Elysium. Finch has no fear of heaven and strides confidently out upon the grass. Seconds later he casts away his pact weapons and joins Mavriy at her revels. Next Mesmer ties a rope around Leelo’s waist. She runs out to tie the rope around Finch, but instead unties her own safety line before Mesmer and Krag are able to drag her back. Now three adventurers sit weaving daisy-chains in heaven.

Mesmer and Krag contemplate the possibility of spending eternity here, or at least until starvation finally kills everyone. Using magical mage-hands and repeated attempts with a lasso, Mesmer and Krag finally jerk Leelo back into reality. The elf runs to tie a rope to Finch and the three drag him back to the path. After an hour of exhausting effort, Mavriy is rescued along with all the discarded gear and weapons.

Within the store-room are a number of magical artifacts, including a flask containing a dried potion of strength, a stone ‘rod of the pact-keeper’ and a mummified heart from some large beast (imbued with necromantic magic). Leelo takes the potion, Finch the rod and Mesmer the shrunken heart.

The adventurers turn to contemplate the steep sides of the hill and the narrow opening in the stone ceiling ten feet above. Finch crosses the stone foot-bridge and joins the figurines at their toiling. He scrambles to the top of the hill without too much difficulty. A powerful invisible force attempts to throw the warlock off the hill, but he maintains his footing for the moment.

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Session 27: Shrine of Zencotan III
The First Tier

AE-session27-Xipe_20181111.jpgLeelo pushes down on the sun symbol, allowing Mesmer to rotate the stone calendar wheel. After a quarter-turn the calendar and wall behind it slowly grind open on hinges of bronze. Behind the stone door is a short cylindrical tunnel barely four feet in diameter. The walls are carved with a profusion of ancient and weird glyphs. Mesmer has learned enough Xencotan by this point to recognize the glyphs are admonishing, cautioning and cursing would-be trespassers. The floor of the tunnel is slick with a molten, glassy glaze. The narrow tube slants down, ending in a another round stone door that pushes outward on visible bronze hinges. Fearing a fiery death from unknown magic, the rune-heroes decide to explore elsewhere.

Mavriy and Finch head north through the passage of hyena-headed guards. Leelo and Krag explore a long hallway beyond the far double-doors. Mesmer stays behind, alone in the great echoing calendar-stone vault. The wizard is looking forward to spending some quality-time alone with various magical artifacts found in the past 15 hours of exploration, without interference or inane commentary from his bumble-headed companions.

Using extreme caution, checking every foot of floor, walls and ceiling as they proceed, Leelo and Krag pass down a long passage and through a stone door. A final stone portal gives access to a damp chamber. In the center is a large withered tree resembling a leafless willow with long trailing limbs, rooted in knee-deep water filling a stepped depression eight paces across. The water appears dark, oily, stagnant and smells brackish. Across the room, beyond the dead tree, is another pair of stone portals. The walls of the room are beaded with condensation. Water falls from the ceiling in a slow but steady drip – drip – drip.

Meanwhile, Mavriy shouts a warning. Finch freezes in his tracks. The warlock was just about to place his foot on one of several odd-looking stones near the center of the north hall. Investigation proves these to be stones that react to pressure, connected to a trap on either side of the hall: a pair of the stone bas-relief gnoll halberdiers mounted on concealed pivots that can rotate out to bar the way. Finch uses his sleight-of-hand to jam the trapped flagstones with stones and catskins from the calendar-stone chamber.

The bronze double doors at the end of the hall open with only slight effort. A rush of warm, fetid air billows from the other side, unfortunately still tainted with the noxious gas. The hall beyond is lit with a sanguine glow. On the wall opposite the door are tacked several human or elven skins. A nine-foot long cat-o-nine-tails hangs beside the dried skins. To the left the hall ends in a small temple. The statue of an giant ogrish figure towers over a huge basin of red-hot coals. The statue is decorated in flayed skins and many skulls. It’s gaping mouth seems big enough to swallow a man whole. The ring of coals surrounding the figure is over ten feet wide. Who could be tending a huge bed of live coals in this long-lost Zencotan tomb?

Before the statue are splintered bones, skulls with cracked pates and broken weapons arrayed as if in tribute. The broken weapons and bones date from antiquity to the present-day Age of Rebirth. Before the fire sits a stuffed black panther. The panther licks it’s paw, stands and idly paces down the hall! Finch hastily shuts the door and listens. A coughing growl sounds just beyond the door. The cat continues pacing, then returns a few seconds later to pass by again. A second peek though the door reveals the cat is again sitting unperturbed before the bed of coals! Who’s pet is this and why doesn’t the beast seem to notice or at least smell intruders?

To the right of the door, highly polished walls of marbled granite enclose a chamber with an intricately carved well in the center. Beyond the well, mounted on the wall, is a blackened mirror with a richly ornamented frame. Above the well, in the 25’ high ceiling, a five foot wide red-lit flue can be discerned. Bright white light glows from the well, illuminating the entire right-hand room. Mavriy and Finch decide to return and report their findings.

Mesmer has spent the last half-hour to good effect, identifying the magical properties of a number of potions and other items of less obvious use. “Finally, alone with my thoughts! Surcease from the endless prattle of my empty-headed assistants!” AE-session27-GiantWolfSpider_20181111.jpgThe mage is disturbed by a soft scraping sound. “Not now, I’m on the verge of a momentous discovery!” Mesmer turns in annoyance to chastise Leelo. His eyes bulge at the sight of a huge spider, almost the size of a man, crouched only a few paces away. Mesmer screams out a spell of shielding just as the hideous beast leaps. The ferocious monster’s weight impacts against the transparent barrier. Venom from six-inch fangs splashes around the edges. With the spider scuttling close behind, Mesmer flees shrieking toward the open door where Mavriy and Finch went exploring. Leelo and Krag are far away and hear nothing.

Mavriy hears strangled screaming and runs back toward the calendar-stone hall, vaulting the trapped flagstones (just in case). Mesmer appears through the doorway. He turns to slam the door shut, but the monster already has three hairy legs halfway through. The horrid beast bursts through the door, knocking Mesmer flat on his back. Mavriy is there just in time to interpose her shield and save the wizard from a grisly death. The bloodthirsty spider is quickly hacked to bits with battleaxe and silver sword.

A few minutes later Leelo and Krag return to report their findings. After a short discussion, the rune-heroes explore the red-lit ogre-god chambers, thinking this might be the most likely way out of the ruin since Finch reported seeing a tunnel in the ceiling of the right-hand chamber. The jaguar seems to have a mental block against humanoids or other creatures in general. Krag is able to lead it down the hall and into the tube behind the calendar stone using bits of smoked fish from the last remaining rations. The calendar stone is shut, entombing the bemused animal alone in the dark chute.

Finch inspects the great gray mirror. The mirror reflects only pale indistinct images from the well-room. Mist or smoke swirls just beyond the gray surface, blocking clear view of a mountainous vista. Clearly a portal or window into another world, another time or another locale of arcanearth. Finch’s pact-weapon is unable to mar the hard surface of the mirror. If any entity resides in the mirror, it fails to respond to the warlock’s eldritch voice, nor does touching the mirror cause any reaction.

The well in the room of polished marble is filled with a glowing liquid light. Leelo steps back a safe distance and tosses a pebble into the well. Droplets of the glowing liquid splash out to strike Mesmer and Finch where they stand inspecting the mirror-portal. “Oops!” Both shout in outrage and begin tearing off the spattered parts of their clothing, for wherever the liquid strikes it begins to spread in a widening blot of glowing light. Fortunately none lands on Finch’s cursed armor, which he can’t remove, but he loses one trouser leg. Mesmer must part with half his black silk cloak.

Just then an inquiring voice booms from the red-glowing shaft high above. Mesmer recognizes the speech as Zencotan but can’t make out the words. No one wants to wait around and find out who’s sleep they have disturbed. Heavy footsteps shake the floor as the invaders flee back to the calendar-stone chamber. Mavriy lags behind, burdened by heavy armor. She glimpses a ten foot tall blue giant squeezing through the double-doors into the hyena-halberdier hall, now armed with the cat-o-nine-tails whip from the wall.

Finch has only his wand of witch-bolts with one charge remaining, but is otherwise useless in a fight due to the cursed armor and no spells. He retreats into one of the connecting hallways. Leelo, Krag and Mesmer spread out and take cover in the calendar-stone vault. A grinning blue face with sharp teeth and white-irised eyes appears at the doorway. Mavriy turns to block the way. The ogre-mage seems to shrink in stature just enough to squeeze through the single doorway while chanting a spell in the lost tongue of Zencota. A tornado of swirling ice fills the calendar-stone vault. Mesmer and Leelo are caught in the ice storm. They grab onto nearby stonework to avoid being carried aloft by the howling wind. Both are battered and frozen, but survive the icy assault.

The ogre-mage and Mavriy duel with whip, clawed fist, battleaxe and shield. Mavriy ducks the swirling whip which then lashes it’s owner. The blue-faced giant stops laughing and shouts in rage. Leelo dodges in from the side and cuts his leg out from under him. Mesmer wields his silver longsword to draw a long trail of black blood across the ogre’s ribs. A nimbus of blue-white energy surrounds the giant as Finch steps forth from hiding. The crooked black wand looted from Frostbite’s horde crumbles to dust, it’s last power expended. The rune heroes suffer only a few blows before finally destroying the maddened oni.

This being is known only in ancient legends from times long-forgotten. Where did it come from, the past or some other plane of existence? The rune-heroes rush back to the ogre’s chambers, but the area is plunged into darkness. The bed of coals is nothing but cold ashes. The light from the well is extinguished. The mirror-portal is a cold empty expanse of hammered lead. The red light glows no longer from the tunnel high above.

After several false starts, Leelo manages the difficult feat of climbing up the polished marble wall and upside-down along one arch to reach the tunnel 25’ above the dark well. The acrobatic half-elf wedges herself into the five foot passage and begins inching her way up. Thirty feet above is a suite of apartments decorated with fine furnishings and piles or rich cat furs. She lowers a rope for the others. The victors haul down two humanoid-skin sacks filled with rectangular silver coins evidently minted in a period before the ‘Camazotz’ (‘bat-god-masters’) supplanted the aifon as patrons of the Zencotan people. Krag takes possession of a cleric scroll of detect magic. Finch is uniquely suited to the task of opening an ivory puzzle-box hiding a silver aquamarine necklace and parchment packet containing a glimmering dust. Experimentation shows the dust renders invisible anything it is sprinkled upon. The name ‘Xipe’ appears in several places within the apartments, which have no exit other than the tunnel to the darkened well-room. The clock is ticking and escape from the poisoned ruin seems no closer than before. The mystery of the ogre-mage ‘Xipe’ is left behind.

AE-session27-SnakeSwarms_20181111.jpgThe rune-heroes turn to the last unexplored doors. The hall beyond is long and dark. Leelo leads the way while Mavriy brings up the rear. Halfway down the hall scores of poisonous vipers rain down from the ceiling. Others swarm from holes and crevices in the walls and floor. Deadly snakes fill the hall. In the ensuing chaos, Leelo, Mesmer and Finch are all poisoned. Leelo manages to use her last spell to put a few dozen snakes to sleep.

Mavriy carries a dozen snakes fastened to her rusted platemail, but is never bitten. Finch’s cursed armor drags him almost to the ground during any kind of fight, yet weighs almost nothing when conditions are placid. Laerlith’s revenge from the grave! The demonling paladin manages to get the crippled warlock out of the hall alive by retreating back to the calendar-stone vault.

Leelo, Krag and Mesmer flee onward around a corner where the passage ends in featureless stone double-doors. A tide of writhing snakes follow close behind. Leelo throws open the doors to a large room covered in a thick layer of fine gray dust or ash. Another set of double doors is visible across the room, but Leelo is loath to flee through the ash, which swirls into sinister shapes when disturbed. The three adventurers turn at bay. Mesmer uses his last spells of fire to burn a dozen snakes. Leelo and Krag are able to slice and hammer the rest into bloody gibbets without being bitten again. The remaining snakes disappear back into holes and cracks in the stones.

The explorers regroup to investigate the dusty room at the end of the snake-hall. On small ledges in each corner are pieces of broken pottery. When Leelo enters the room her feet stir dust-motes into the air. The phantom of a gray-faced woman coalesces out of the swirling dust. Her face is forlorn and it almost seems that tears form runnels down her dusty cheeks. She throws up her hands in silent despair and rushes into one of the alcoves to disappear. When Leelo advanced further, dusty phantasms of two mighty seven-foot tall Zencotan warriors form and move to block the opposite doors. Their gray countenances are fierce. The rune heroes are exhausted and have no spells left. The new magic acquired in the ruins is untested – any or all of it could be cursed. They retreat back to the calendar room.

The poison continues to take it’s toll. Krag uses his last spells of healing on Leelo, Mesmer and Finch. A short rest does little to restore health or spirits, but Mesmer regains his cantrips and a few other spells. Finch is still trapped in Laerlith’s cursed armor and can’t use any of his warlock spells.

AE-session27-Xilonen_20181111.jpgIn a desperate gamble the rune-heroes return to the watery chamber with the large willow-like tree and attempt to sneak around one side. Leelo makes it across with no problem. The rest try to sneak through together. Predictably, Mavriy accidentally bangs her armor against the wall halfway around. The long whip-like ‘branches’ suddenly come to life and wave around the chamber in search of prey. The ‘tree’ convulses like some weird submarine polyp. A spiny maw emerges from the top of the trunk, waiting for delivery of prey snagged by the sticky tentacles.

Mesmer, an accomplished illusionist, uses a cantrip to conjure the noisy illusion of a dwarf (exactly resembling the deceased bard Ulfmar) banging away on a drum. Many tentacles thrash around and through the non-existent dwarf drummer. But others intercept Finch and Mavriy numerous times. Mavriy is able to break free each time by virtue of her mighty strength. Paradoxically, the leaden weight of the cursed breastplate makes Finch difficult to lift for the slim tentacles. Krag and Leelo grab onto his legs at one point and pull him free. Finally everyone makes it through the far doors, but so do several of the long flexible tentacles, making it impossible to close the door. Mesmer wields the wood-and-obsidian sword for the first time. The wizard’s face is instantly warped by insane rage as the evil spirit within the cursed sword takes control of his mind. Both Krag and Leelo are unsuccessful in grappling Mesmer, who is charging to his doom. At the last second Mavriy slices a tentacle and slams the doors shut, then knocks Mesmer to the floor. Only the faint sound of drumming tentacles penetrates the thick stone doors.

The five exhausted explorers pause to catch their breath, then stagger down a short hallway and fling open a single stone door. A flood of fetid but non-poisonous air rushes into the passage! The large chamber beyond the door features mighty buttresses supporting a vaulted ceiling 30 feet above. Parts of the ceiling and walls have collapsed, leaving piles of rubble covering much of the floor. The left-hand wall in particular is completely collapsed. Huge stones lie amid a steep slope of gravel, mud and earth. Barely visible under the stones are the remains of several vermin-chewed skeletons that can’t be more than six months old. One wears crushed chain-mail. The remains of a cloak bear the symbol of three crossed blue swords. No one is knowledgeable in heraldry or otherwise familiar with the insignia.

While exploring the chamber in preparation for an extended rest, a huge two-headed snake emerges from one of the rubble-piles. The bizarre creature is killed before sinking it’s fangs into anyone. On the other side of double bronze doors at the far corner of the chamber hangs a jade plaque depicting a two headed serpent, with a second head where its tail should be.

The corner of the chamber closest to the bronze doors seems the sturdiest, so this is where the rune heroes make camp and take their rest. Mesmer sets magic alarms on all the exits as soon as he is able. Krag tends to various ailments and wounds. Some hours later the familiar vision of a dark angel with fiery red eyes appears before Ktag. Xrarog/Aeron plunges his huge black greatsword into Krag’s breast. The war-cleric screams in ecstacy as new power floods his spirit. Aeron has bestowed the ability to dispel curses. Krag wastes no time in removing the cursed armor from Finch and the cursed sword from Mesmer. Mesmer wraps the obsidian-bladed sword in his cloak and stows it away for future research. Finch forces the cursed breastplate onto one of the crushed skeletons for the benefit of some unfortunate future explorer.

Investigation shows that the largest collapse was likely caused by explorers tunneling in from above. The entire chamber is unstable. Even the negligible presence of the rune-heroes finally precipitates a new cave-in. In the last hours of their rest, large stones shift in the rubble along the broken wall. The original doorway is now blocked by collapsed masonry. The other two unexplored doors are still unobstructed, but look as if they could be buried in rubble at any moment. The walls and ceiling immediately adjacent to the bronze doors at the campsite still appear stable, as does the passage on the other side. Could a route to the surface possibly lie beyond?

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Session 26: Shrine of Zencotan II
Middle Chambers to First Tier

AE-session26-Aifon-corrupted_20181028.jpgThe tinkling music of alien laughter quickly fades, leaving only the sound of waves lapping at the white sand beach. The waters of the crystalline pool surge with the force of a strong current. Leelo advances cautiously four paces across the beach and tests the water with a long spear summoned by Finch. The kelp-shrouded water quickly deepens beyond the verge of the narrow beach. Krag’s ardor is thoroughly squelched: he steps back to allow Finch and Mesmer entrance. Finch must follow closely behind Leelo to prevent his conjured spear from disappearing.

Leelo approaches the water too closely. A trembling serpent of water lashes out from the pool. Leelo dodges away and quickly retreats to the door. The interlopers debate how to reach the far doors across the pool. A silvery feminine voice of enticing beauty sounds from all around the grotto. Mesmer recognizes the language as Zencotan and replies back in several languages. The entity finally responds to Patrian in a heavily-accented dialect, “Mesmer and Finch, Dasa Zotz wants to play! Won’t you step over to the water and taste my sweet nectar?” The heroes are equivocal in their responses, seeking only to divine the location of the invisible water spirit. Mesmer is able to locate the approximate source of the voice: a swirling current only six paces distant. The voice finally becomes strident and demanding. “You spurn my affections? Then I will bring you to me!”

The light in the chamber suddenly dims. A raging storm of water rises to buffet Leelo through the doorway. She and Krag are rolled down the passage by the flood. Only Mavriy manages to stand her ground. The double doors slam shut, instantly cutting off the flood. Finch and Mesmer are trapped on the other side in water up to their necks. Both struggle to hold on to the stone lintel against the force of a powerful current seeking to drag them away. Waves beat them mercilessly against the stone wall. Mesmer attempts to climb above the water, but is lucky to hold on for dear life. Finch feels the full weight of the cursed Overlord breastplate taken from Laerlith: the armor becomes a lead anchor seeking to drag him beneath the raging waters.

Krag jumps up and helps Mavriy force the doors open against the weight of water holding them shut. In a fantastic feat of strength, the half-orc warrior-priest and mighty 7’ tall demonic paladin force the right-hand door open far enough that it is slammed against the interior wall and held fast. An unending flood of blue-green saltwater pours through the doorway. Krag and Leelo are forced back, but Mavriy clings to the edge. Finch lets go and rides the floodwaters through the door and down the hallway. Mesmer is still trapped within.

Mavriy sees a wicked visage appear in the dark water before her and lashes out one-handed with her adamantine battleaxe, cleaving the water with the force of her stroke. A hideous scream sounds above the din of pounding surf. Leelo snatches forth her bow and fires a magic arrow into the fleeting shadow. A splash of sparkling water rises up and blinds Mavriy: all is briefly reduced to gray twilight by acid scorching the half-demon’s face and eyes. The storm recedes into the swirling pool as quickly as it arose. The beach and dripping grotto are as before.

Leelo throws down her bow and plunges across the beach into the water. The magical torc gifted by the spirit-guide proves it’s worth again. Within seconds the elf is transformed into a silvery-scaled aifon superbly adapted to submarine environments. Leelo breathes a silent prayer to Danalin and the aifon spirit-guide. Only seconds later she spots a movement in the kelp and dodges the creature’s invisible grasp. No longer an alluring maiden of ivory skin and long red hair, the ‘Child of Zotzilaha’ is fully revealed: a demented aifon twisted by dark magic. Leelo transfixes Dasa Zotz with both rapier and small-sword.

The heroes meet on the beach around the corpse. In death Dasa has returned to what is perhaps her true original form after all: a red-haired aifon maiden with blue-scaled tail. An expression of relief and perhaps gratitude is fixed upon her still features.

The light in the cave slowly dims. Leelo follows the last glimmerings to a hidden grotto 15’ below the pool’s surface. Within are treasures of ancient Zencota: a trio of small golden idols, a golden mask, two crystal scroll cases, a hollow silvery idol containing a magical potion later revealed to bestow visions of nearby locations, and a pair of gauntlets made of fine silvery-green chainmail. Mesmer is disappointed to find the scrolls within the crystal cases have deteriorated into useless fragments. Finally the waters of the pool are stilled forever and the cave is completely darkened but for Mesmer’s magical green torch.

Krag is eager to depart the cursed pool. He strides through knee-deep water concealing a narrow ledge running along the wall to the bronze doors. A hallway of slippery stones submerged beneath four feet of water lies beyond. Woe betide any adventures coming upon Dasa’s pool from this direction in ages past! The corridor ends in more bronze double doors fitted with keyholes. The doors hide no traps and open without effort, revealing a spacious ritual-hall strewn with rubble fallen from arches high above. Bright frescoes somehow undimmed by time depict a story of exploration and migration along one side, colonization and empire-building along the other. The explorers proceed carefully, checking every nook and cranny for traps, pits and secret doors.

The frescoes tell the story of a people questing for a new land; their trials of the journey include crossing treacherous mountains, sailing storm-tossed seas, and finally receiving guidance from an advanced people who can only be ancient aifons. The story continues on the other wall. With the help of benevolent aifons, the ancient Zencota people build a wide coastal empire centered on the sacred mountain. Farther along, the story takes a darker turn. A new race of people depicted as bat-like humanoids supplant the aifons. The ‘Camazotz’, or bat-god-masters, drink blood drained from the hanging bodies of sacrificial victims. These new mentors lead the Zencotan empire into a dark downward spiral of vile sorcery, sacrifice and civil war.

At the end of the mural, Zencota sorcerers and priests summon a giant faceless god from the waves who destroys the remaining aifons. Here Finch is frozen into sweating immobility. The warlock stares into some unseen space far beyond the hall. He does not recover until dragged bodily away from the mural. For now, the warlock is unable to speak about the details of his vision.

At the end of the hall is an arch of twining snakes and a wall painted with a convincing illusion of the hall continuing onward. Anyone coming this way without good lighting, or if running, would certainly smack into the wall. The rune-heroes suspect a trap and avoid the niches.

In the center of first mural is painted a pyramid with a temple atop it and the sun shining over a new land. The sun turns out to be a secret door opening to another passage eight feet above the floor of the mural-hall. The reverse side depicts a Zencotan warrior with a shield at his feet, now open into the hall beyond.

AE-session26-hallofthetotems_20181028.jpgThe dark and dusty hall accessed through the sun/shield door is decorated with sculptures of animal totem heads mounted on the walls. There are two corridors branching off from the main hall; a narrow one to the right and a wider one to the left. The statuary that adorns the walls consists of four sculpted heads of animals. Opposite the right passage is the stylized head of a coyote, while opposing the left hallway is the head of a grinning bear. At the near end is a bison head mounted on the right hand wall. The sculpture at the end of the hall is the head of an eagle with beak open and grasping a blue-glowing hoop or crown.

Mesmer uses mage-hand magic to loop a rope through the 18" crown. The hinged beak snaps shut when Mesmer, Krag and Mavriy pull the crown free from around the corner of a side passage. Leelo picks up the huge crown, her face lit by the eerie blue glow emanating from the artifact. Could this be the ‘Crown of Danalin’ desired by the sea-witch? As Leelo thinks this thought, the crown instantly shrinks down to a size that would perfectly fit her own head. She declines to wear the crown and tucks it away for later investigation.

AE-session26-halloftheancestors_20181028.jpgAt the end of the corridor, deep in shadows, human figures appear to be floating in the air above the floor. Closer inspection reveals mummified figures of ancient people dressed in ritual finery arranged atop a two-foot ledge along either side of the hall. Krag reminds everyone that his ability to turn undead was expended after the encounter with Tloques in his tomb.

After brief experimentation, Finch drinks the magic potion taken from the grotto of Dasa Zotz. A floating wisp appears in his vision, invisible to all but him. The wisp reveal sights and sounds of distant places, including behind doors and around corners within the ruins. Leelo and Finch cooperate to reveal numerous passages and chambers nearby. No route seems to guarantee a quick and obvious way out of the poisonous ruin.

To the right is a long passage blocked by a pit and triangular stone. A mote of lantern-light similar to those infesting the island dances along the hall as if tempting intruders onward. The wider left hand passage seems most promising, as no one wants to dare the hallway lined with a dozen or more mummified cadavers

AE-session26-silvercoffer_20181028.jpgA side corridor along the way ends in a small alcove holding a three foot tall stone pedestal on which rests a small silver coffer, glowing with internal silvery light. A two-foot step marks the halfway point, with another step up just before the alcove. While his comrades hold onto a rope looped around his waist, Finch dares approach the pedestal and glowing coffer. The raised half of the hall suddenly tilts up on a giant wheel of stone beneath the floor. With the aid of his friends pulling on the rope, Finch is able to leap through the closing gap just in time. The alcove and coffer are now entombed by a 15’ tall slab of vertical stone.

Moving on, the hall ends in a massive single door of hammered bronze. From the potion’s magic Finch knows a huge mausoleum lies beyond the door, filled with ranks of crumbling clay warriors guarding a domed structure near the back wall. Once through the door, Krag is sure the statues will come to life and defend their dead liege lord. He watches them like a hawk, smashing a few for good measure.

At the back of the chamber, beyond ranks of clay spear-men and archers, are a row of statues that must have been an honor guard. They stand before a hemi-cylindrical structure of stucco and wood. These warriors wear feathered robes and headdresses and are armed with pitted bronze spears. Each wears a breastplate of threaded shells. The stuccoed dome has no apparent openings. The ancient frescoes that once decorated the dome have faded, but the Zencotan name ‘Cipactonal’ is still visible, indicating the tomb’s likely occupant.

Finch pokes a hole into the structure with his spear, finally widening it enough for Mesmer to thrust his torch into the space beyond. Within is a large bare space walled and floored with dusty stucco. Three skeletons are arranged around a heavy lamp of bronze and chrysoprase embedded into the stucco covering the floor. Krag uses his hammer to bash open a gap large enough for Finch to enter, then returns to watch over the soon-to-be-animated clay army. Mesmer watches from the opening as Finch explores. In a far corner of the structure Finch finds a discarded heavy chain and amulet of silvery-copper metal set with a large green chrysoprase stone.

Then Finch heaves up on the lamp, which gives way still attached to a 3-foot square of stucco floor. From the dark pit beneath rises the screeching wight of Cipactonal. Mesmer shouts a spell of ball-lightning which misses and blasts a three-foot hole in the far wall. Finch at first doesn’t realize where the threat is. By random chance he is protected from the wight’s grasping claws by the lamp and square panel of stucco. He snatches forth his wand of witch-bolts and blasts the wight across the floor. Only three charges remain in the wand. Mesmer and Krag help finish off the creature before it can sap anyone’s soul. Finch takes possession of another chain and amulet worn by Cipactonal, identical to the one found lying on the floor. Both prove to be magical (abjuration) but when worn, produce no apparent effect. To Finch’s relief, both can be removed, so apparently they aren’t cursed.

In the right-hand corner is a pair of columns and another pair of ceremonial clay warriors flanking a palanquin or covered sedan of blackened wood. Behind the palanquin is a small 5’ bronze door, barred on this side. Leelo squeezes around the clay warriors to lift the bar and push open the door. A long hall stretches far away into darkness. Around the palanquin are thousands of coral and shell beads. Mesmer scoops up a few handfuls. Finch dares to brush aside wispy remains of curtains and finds the skeleton of an ancient female within, bony wrists once chained to a corner of the palanquin. Three obsidian arrow heads lie within the rib cage. Finch pockets these after tipping over the palanquin to deposit it’s contents onto the floor.

Leelo leads the way through the small bronze portal. At this point the noxious fume filling the ruin is taking it’s toll. One by one the party’s healing potions, salves and spells are expended, with no possibility of lengthy rest. The explorers can no longer afford to carefully check every inch of the ruin and must proceed more boldly. And rapidly.

The hall is blocked by a massive 9’ cube of stone. The combined strength of the party succeeds in sliding the slick-bottomed stone up a slightly-inclined passage directly ahead, revealing a side passage to the right. Stone rollers are embedded into the sloping floor every 3-4 feet. A brief reconnaissance reveals the right-hall hallway takes a turn back in the opposite direction, ending in a small stone door.

With all hands helping, the stone is pushed up 100’ of inclined passage. Unfortunately the stone must be shoved and levered around four more corners at great cost in time and effort. Finally the stone is pushed out into a wide processional hall. A left-hand side passage is revealed leading farther into the ruin. This all requires several hours of exhausting effort.

In the processional hall are a few strange ball-shaped fungi floating tethered to the floor by tough threads: one still floating, another hacked and collapsed. Finely detailed stone statues of baboon-like creatures stand around the room in various lifelike poses. Several are tipped over, chipped and broken. The bones of a long-dead halfling, missing any weapons or equipment, lie in one corner. Along the right hand wall Mavriy finds a fish-skin bag containing a number of heavy silver balls. Leelo carries a sling, so takes possession of these. Here Mavriy pauses and calls upon the divine power of her oath to restore some measure of vigor to her most exhausted comrades. If anyone falls victim to the toxic gas, it is the beginning of the end for everyone.

A passage beyond the hall ends in a landing at the top of a series of 15’ stairs with narrow 5’ by 10’ landings between each flight of steps. Suspecting a trap, Leelo searches the wall above the landing, but finds nothing unusual in the face of bare flat stone. As the stairs lead back down the way they came, the party turns back.

The left-hand passage leads to the longest hallway yet seen, over 40 paces long. The walls are covered in painted frescoes showing Zencotan athletes playing a game using a large black ball and heavy angled sticks. Opposing teams attempt to bat the ball down the field and into a goal at their end. The walls at both ends of the hall feature bas-relief sculptures of stylized faces with wide open mouths. In each mouth is a spherical depression just over a foot in diameter, closely matching the ball depicted in the frescoes. On the floor at the near end of the hall is a two-foot square capstone probably covering something beneath. Zencotan glyphs are carved into the top, but Mesmer declines to employ his dwindling magic to translate the inscription.

At the end of the long game-field hall the passage turns right to end in a stone door opening inwards. Beyond is a large and impressive chamber, the most intricate and highly decorated of any yet seen. Two sets of stone double doors stand on opposite walls. Another small stone door is ten paces distant. Just to the left of the door is a large calendar stone mounted on the wall over a low stone table or altar.

AE-session26-jaguarman-statue_20181028.jpgThe entire space is decorated in a cat motif. The center 20 feet of the right-hand wall is carved to resemble the snarling face of a hollow-eyed tiger. In the center of the room is a stuffed tiger, posed as if on the prowl. The left ear has been torn off in a jagged pattern. Six paces from the door stands the statue of a tiger-headed man holding a spear. The stone statue depicts a tall man with two extra sets of nipples. He seems to be wearing a tiger-faced mask and is clad only in a loin clout. Across the left side of his sunken chest is a jagged scar. The spear’s haft is stone, but the head is made of silvery metal.

Placed about the room in varying poses are ten or more stuffed domestic cats. These cats are represented sitting, stalking or pouncing. One is begging, pawing the air. One of these cats in the center of the room has been knocked over and chewed on; its stuffing is falling out. On the walls are several lion and leopard skins, tiger heads and a nine foot long cat-of-nine-tails whip.

AE-session26-calendarwheel_20181028.jpgThe calendar is a great wheel of stone carved from a single piece of solid limestone. In the center of the calendar is a symbol of the sun surrounded by various Zencotan glyphs depicting periods of time from years to millennia. The stone closely resembles the calendar inscribed on Syzimondo’s copper tablet, presumed lost with the Sea Hag. The stone is ten feet across and mounted five feet above the floor over a low stone altar. On the altar rests a ceremonial dagger of flint and the jade statue of a cat. At the foot of the altar is a stuffed cat posed as if begging or attempting to catch something in the air. Mesmer scoops the ceremonial dagger into a sack and contemplates looting the jade cat, but at nine pounds it’s a bit too heavy.

The rune heroes find all the doors open easily on ancient hinges of bronze and stone. The pair of double-doors give access to passages leading in opposite directions. The smaller door on the other side of the calendar-stone reveals a short passage lined with bas-relief carvings of jackal-headed warriors. Double doors at the end of the hall are worked with the face of a humanoid jaguar-god or beast. The jackal-headed warriors bear hatchet-headed pole-arms and face away toward the far doors. Each is brightly painted in vivid red, black, white, green and yellow pigments undimmed by the passage of ages.

While Mesmer and Finch check the doors, Leelo inspects the calendar stone. The wheel is mounted to the wall on a central spindle of stone. Depressing the sun symbol at the center of the stone releases a ratchet, allowing the entire wheel to spin if pushed from the side. Leelo holds off spinning the wheel for now.

AE-session26-werejaguar_20181028.jpgMavriy walks past the cat-man statue. Stone turns to flesh with a screaming growl. A savage werejaguar jumps Mavriy. Fortunately her shield hand was on that side. She survives the assault without suffering a bite wound. Leelo and Finch are the first to react. The elf jumps forward, slashing the lycanthrope’s leg with her silvered rapier. The cat-man falls to the ground, crippled. Then she stabs it in the shoulder with her magically-poisonous stiletto. The werejaguar feels the bite of numbing poison. Finch blasts the creature twice with his magic wand, but still it does not die! Mavriy, Krag and Leelo hack and pummel the inhumanly tough creature with magical and silvered weapons. Mesmer finally arrives wielding the silver sword stolen from his father’s chambers long ago, but is too late to join in. Upon death, the cat-man transforms back into stone, this time sprawled across the floor in an agonized posture. Silence returns to the cavernous chamber.

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Session 25: Shrine of Zencotan I
The Lower Chambers

AE-session25-TloquesPopolocas-ServantoftheOthers-whoarelikethewindandthenight_20181021.jpgThe shush and rattle of muddy gravel diminishes to a whisper. Five trapped explorers cough and wheeze in the thick haze of fume filling the darkened vault: Leelo the half-elf rogue, Mesmer the illusionist, Krag the half-orc war-priest of Xrarog, Finch the ever-cursed half-elf warlock, and Mavriy the devil-spawned Sentinel of Esus. The wide chamber ends in a stone door at the far end. Walls and vaulted ceiling are constructed of close-fitted stone blocks in various sizes and shapes. Six waist-high alcoves are set into the left and right walls. In the center of the chamber stands a raised pedestal supporting a platform covered by a half-dome open toward the far wall.

The explorers spread spread out and cautiously explore the chamber. By the light of Mesmer’s ever-burning green torch, the entire chamber is checked carefully for traps, secret doors and loose stones. Each of the six niches contain a different diorama depicting some aspect of Zencotan tribal life. The 6" high figurines are made of realistically and brightly painted stucco. The scenes portrayed represent fishing, farming, religion, warfare, crafting and the creation story.

The middle right alcove displays a creation story. All of the statuettes are stylized and non-human. A god, adorned in green jewel-like feathers, mixes ashes with blood to form the figures of a proto-man and woman. Four larger figures tower over the rest: elemental gods painted red, black, blue and white are committing ritual suicide with daggers of obsidian. Two smaller figures are ringed by the four: the modest ‘Pimply One’ is being consumed by the fire, while the braggart ‘Lord of Snails’ cowers in fear. Finch pockets these six figurines.

AE-session25-figurine-with-crook_20181021.jpgThe central display appears to be a diorama depicting a hunting party of Zencotan warriors, in feathers and deer-hide garments, in a mountainside scene. Some have successfully pulled down a stag with the aid of a dog, another group is cleaning a small mule deer and the last party has cornered a puma with their spears. A scout watches the puma hunt from an outcropping above. He holds a metal staff with a loop in its end. It looks like a shepherd’s crook. The miniature mountain looks very much like the jungle covered western slopes recently scaled by the rune-heroes, down to individual ridges and valleys.

The door on the far wall is smooth and appears to open into the room; there are hinges on this side and scratches on the floor. There is no visible lock or handle, although across the top of the door there is a slight gap. Eight holes are bored around the edges of the door; they are about 1" in diameter, but nothing can be seen in them. The door seems to be fairly thick. The lintel is arched with a triangular keystone at the top.

Finch summons a glowing electric-blue magical spear from his unknowable patron…with a 1" haft. Mavriy and Krag fit the spear into one of the holes. Using the 8’ spear as a lever, the two burly warriors are able to push the heavy stone door open. Unfortunately the hall beyond is also filled with the noxious haze. Everyone feels just a bit weaker after an hour of exposure to the poisonous gas. There will be no sleep or extended rest while the gas persists.

Beyond is a long L-shaped passage also constructed of heavy stones dry-fitted together by ancient stonemasons. The massive stones meet in a corbel arch. The walls of the passage are carved to represent thick bamboo logs laid horizontally one atop the other all the way to the arch high above. Leelo leads the way, but just misses the presence of a mechanical trap. With a barely-audible grinding one of the stones in the floor sinks several inches. A dozen of the stone bamboo logs spring out and swivel together from behind, blocking the passage except for alternating 6" gaps between the interleaved cylinders. Finch dodges aside, but the slow-footed Krag suffers a heavy blow when he is buffeted forward into Mesmer.

The far double doors are of beaten bronze, worked to resemble a forest of seaweed. The stone lintel is carved into a stylized cavern entrance. Beyond the door is a room constructed of large stone blocks, buttressed at the corners. The walls are wet and slimy. A thick coating of soupy mud covers the floor. In the center of the chamber rests a large black boulder amid a pile of smaller rocks. The boulder is 5’ tall and colored black with dark brown streaks and spots. Leaning against it is what appears to be a black bamboo staff.

As the adventurers debate what to do, a four-foot crayfish marches around the boulder. From the circular trail in the mud, it appears this creature has been marching around the boulder for some time. The magical beast speaks in an ancient language, apparently berating and threatening. It waves it’s huge pincers menacingly. Mesmer casts a spell enabling comprehension of all languages and writing. “Who is this? Who cares to enter the chamber of the Guardian? You had better go or I will have to discharge my sacred duty! Be off with you before I lose my temper!”

Conversation with the none-too-bright crayfish doesn’t prove productive. Finally the crayfish knocks on the ‘boulder’ and a giant hermit crab emerges. This creature is very similar to the much smaller 1-2’ black land crabs infesting the island above. It also speaks in Zencotan, “I am Kalka-Kylla, guardian of Zotzilaha. You may not pass, tomb-raiders!”. The giant crab is more intelligent than the bench-crayfish and provides some information about it’s origins, but knows surprisingly little about the ruins. “I was brought here as a tiny crab by the Child of Zotzilaha, the sea-lady beyond the stairs. She brings us fish and eels from the sacred waters.” When asked for directions out of the ruin, Kalka-Kylla tells the rune-heroes to go through the door on their right.

The stone door opens easily. A short L-shaped hall filled with mud and decayed stucco is revealed. At the end is a blocked staircase leading up. Leelo uses her mage-hand to disturb the precarious rubble: a tide of gravel and mude immediately covers the hand.

A section of ancient stucco has melted away to reveal a lime-covered stone block 6 feet high and 3 feet wide. The combined strength of Mavriy, Krag and Mesmer push the 3’ thick plug inward to reveal a small foyer with three stone amphorae on either side and a double-door of beaten bronze with carven glyphs. The urns are sealed with cork and beeswax. Inside Mesmer and Finch find gallons of fine oil, like Illian whale oil. The wizard reads the glyphs: “Here lies Tloques-popolocas, servant of the others, who are like the wind and the night”.

Leelo attempts to pick the lock in the doors. In doing so she almost triggers a trap: a 6" glass globe suspended on the reverse side, containing a swirling green gas. Behind the doors is a chamber cut out of native stone rock with a veil of calcite and stalactites covering the walls. Buttresses rise from the corners, brown shot through with black, and great stone transoms support the high arches. Dominating the space is a colossal monument, resembling a giant’s table, covered on all sides with intricate carvings and glyphs. Engraved on the floor a few paces from the entrance is a large seal bearing more glyphs. In the shadows of the far wall twenty paces distant is a battle axe embedded in the wall 6’ above the floor.

The monument, perhaps a ceremonial altar at one time, is constructed from several parts. A great stone slab, over 20’ long by 10’ wide, rests upon a 4’ thick monolith of rock of similar dimensions, and this in turn is supported by 6 huge blocks of dolomite (the ‘legs’ of the table). Every component is worked with intricate carvings and glyphs. Mesmer quickly identifies the large 5’ glyph on the floor as cursed and warns everyone to avoid that area. The glyphs on the near side of the monument are mostly decorative, but 11 spell out the Zencotan numerals 0-11.

AE-session25-Axe-claw-shadow_20181021.jpgFinch approaches the axe. The others notice and sidle away from that end of the chamber. The battle axe has a blade of notched bronze. The bronze haft is wound with snake skin wrappings. An unnatural shadow extends from the axe: a withered arm ending in a claw-like hand. After a moment the shadow returns to normal, but Finch feels a cold chill run down his spine.

Meanwhile, Leelo has climbed atop the huge stone monument. She lowers a rope for Mesmer. The top of the slab depicts a struggle between a dark skinned man and a mighty winged serpent. Engraved above this are the same glyphs as those found on the outer door. Under these sigils are etched a series of four faceglyphs in a line. The glyphs repeat the name ‘Tloques-Popolocas’ and a series of numbers: “54” “3” “9”. The face glyphs are not used elsewhere on the block, except at the foot of the slab where the numbers 0-11 are spelled out.

While Leelo is distracted, Mesmer climbs back down and idly pushes the glyphs for “5”, “4”, “3”, and “9”. As “9” is pushed, the top slab slides five feet sideways to reveal a dark space. Within the stone coffin are bones covered with gold, green, red, black and white carved beads, statuettes and other precious objects. Leelo screams at Mesmer as she jumps from the tomb. Both argue at the foot of the tomb as strange eddies and swirls of dust gather above the dark opening.

Mavriy sees the tomb lid slide open. She exerts her powers and instantly detects the gathering presence of a powerful undead spirit: a vampire from before the Age of Magic. Krag also sees what is happening and runs toward Mavriy. With a chilling howl of triumph the emaciated form of Tloques climbs atop the tomb. Krag desperately calls on the power of Xrarog. A flash of blood red illumates the shadowy vault. Tloques screams in outrage and disappears. Only Mavriy sees the small bat flapping away to hide among the shadowy arches high above.

Finch impulsively grabs at the axe, but it is firmly attached to the wall and doesn’t budge despite the half-elf hanging from the haft and pushing with both legs braced against the wall. Upon hearing Krag’s shout, he looks back to see the vampire arising from the tomb. The half-elf forgets the axe and sprints across the chamber back to the bronze doors.

Mesmer and Leelo climb back onto the massive tomb, their lust for ancient treasure overcoming the dictates of survival and indeed, sanity itself. Krag shouts in amazement, “we must be gone from this place in seconds!”, and begins counting down the time in a bellowing voice. Mavriy watches the bat with one eye and her scuffling companions with the other.

Inside the dark 8’ long by 4’ deep recess are piles of beads carved into spheres, cylinders, tri-lobed beads, floral buds, open flowers, pumpkins, melons and snake heads. Most of the beads are precious jade, but a few are black obsidian carved into pairs of male and female bat-like rulers or divinities, similar to the megaliths along the north shore of the island. At the near end is a breastplate made of loops of tubular green stones interspersed with bone dividers. To either side are wide green bead bracelets and two larger beads: a green cube and spherical agate. At the far end feet lie two more large beads of glazed clay, one fitted with flower-shaped plugs in both ends, the other seemingly a pearl 1" in diameter. In the center is a 6" tall statue of a faceless man with large pointed ears.

Mesmer and Leelo curse and jostle one another for position while snatching up as much loot as they dare. They focus on the unique looking objects, but don’t neglect the precious jade beads. Krag shouts and backs toward the doors with Mavriy close behind. Crashes sound from the foyer where Finch is knocking over the urns. Gallons of precious oil spread across the flagstones. Mesmer and Leelo finally jump down from the tomb and race through the doors. Krag closes one side of the double doors – the one with the glass globe. Through sheer luck the globe does not fall and break.

Mavriy saunters in last and closes the 2nd door. Leelo runs forward, but has second thoughts about attempting to re-lock the doors owing to the glass globe. Everyone runs back into the hall. Seconds later there is a crash as the doors are flung open. Mesmer steps forward to peer around one side of the 6’ stone plug. Tloques stands coughing and choking amid a swirl of green gas spreading out from the open doorway. The wizard blurts out a cantrip of fire, igniting 30 gallons of oil in the foyer.

Mesmer bursts out into the hall trailing fire. Flame and smoke billow from the opening, accompanied by a high-pitched keening wail. The others extinguish Mesmer’s flaming clothes with cloaks and mud. Leelo uses perhaps a trifle more mud than necessary. The tomb-raiders flee back into the chamber of Kalka-Kylla, surprising the giant hermit crab and its crayfish toady. The crayfish is knocked onto it’s back when Kalka-Kylla turns about to confront the returning invaders.

All are able to flee around the bumbling pair and across the slippery room to the far door, except the slow and heavily-armored Mavriy. She is caught and snatched up by Kalka-Kylla’s huge claws. The half-demon stares eye to eye with the chortling crab before disappearing into shadows and reappearing next to the far door. Kalka-Kylla stares in consternation at the empty space formerly occupied by it’s next meal. Mavriy scrambles through the door into the muddy hall where the rest of the rune-heroes wait. Leelo grabs a dagger from Mesmer and Krag hammers the blade into the gap between stone door, wedging the door shut. The enraged crustaceans drum pincers fruitlessly against the stone door.

In another large chamber the explorers find many overturned pedestals and pieces of broken statuary partially buried in the mud. Only one pedestal in the far right corner remains standing. On it sits a small, metallic, three-sided pyramid. Overhead in the shadow-draped ceiling are inlaid colored tiles depicting a starry sky forming strange patterns in the areas above the pedestals. Finch picks up the small pyramid while his friends peer from around a corner. Nothing untoward befalls him. Krag is able to determine the trinket is a holy symbol of the Zencotan god of the moon and lightning, Apocatequil. It is unclear from the lore if this god is an avatar of one of the 21 angels of creation, another being of power, or simply a false deity.

AE-session25-statue-with-tray_20181021.jpgExiting the far door, the party finds another wet and muddy corridor, this one with a stream of water tricking from far double-doors of blue-tinted bronze. Wide trails of faintly-glowing silver slime cross the walls and ceiling. Against the right wall of the passage stands a 12’ tall stone statue of a man outfitted in native finery and holding a wide stone tray in raised arms. His eyes appear to be black gemstones: the left one droops out of its socket, balancing on the cheek. From behind the left shoulder juts the hilt of a weapon, most likely a sword. The nose, forehead and tray of the statue are chipped and scratched.

Mesmer detects the area of the statue is radiating enchantment magic. Leelo climbs up the wall alongside the statue and steps onto the stone tray. The entire statue sways out from the wall, but Leelo grabs the sword and jumps down before it can fall. Mesmer identifies the wood-and-obsidian blade as enchanted. He takes possession, since no one else wants such a sword (or the potential curse that may come with it).

The others noticed a gap or passage behind the statue as it swayed. Using ropes, the party heaves at the statue until it topples across the passage with a thunderous boom. A narrow 5’ passage of dripping stone is revealed. Mesmer is forced to duck down as he ventures into the cramped passage with green-glowing torch thrust forward. At the end is a shifted stone block, a secret door revealing a wider corridor, also dripping wet. Water pools in the middle and flows toward a small bronze-bound door of hard black wood directly across from the secret passage. The corridor ends in double doors of heavy, bronze bound black wood, each with a handle and a keyhole.

After discussion the party agrees to bypass the bronze doors and whatever horror lies beyond. The poisonous air is slowly sapping their strength despite healing potions and the ministrations of Krag. A long rest in this deadly tomb surely equals death.

Leelo checks the near door. After finding no traps or lock, she pulls the door open to reveal a short flight of stairs leading down to a chamber filled with cloudy gray water. On the far side the top edge of a submerged door is barely visible above the water.

Finch approaches the far doors. Within his ears, or his head, sound beautiful notes of ethereal music. The warlock yearns to run forward and burst through the doors. Krag and Mesmer manage to drag Finch back to the safe end of the passage after a lengthy struggle.

AE-session25-Aifon_20181021.jpgKrag strides forward to demonstrate true strength of character. The half-orc soon hears the alluring notes and finds himself transported to a glowing grotto of white sand where he yearns to frolic with a beautiful red-haired aifon lounging by the water. She wears a shawl of white fluff trailing into the water. All thought of his companions is submerged beneath a torrent of mindless lust. “I must have her!”

Mavriy walked some distance down the passage and heard the eerie singing, but remained totally unaffected. Krag charges past the 7’ tall demonling warrior. Mavriy manages to tackle the half-orc before he gets out of reach. Krag comes to his senses when his helmet slams against the door. “Wha happn?”

Leelo also proves immune to the enthralling voice, and Mesmer resists the intriguing invitation through sheer willpower (perhaps remembering a past entanglement with another alluring supernatural creature). Krag bursts through the doors in a rage, ready to confront the creature who made a fool out of him. He sees the entrancing aifon from his vision. The nude form arcs through the air with a tinkling laugh. She disappears beneath the water, causing neither splash nor ripple.

Unnatural light illuminates a section of sandy white beach. Beyond the sand is a wide and deep pool of water framed by the walls of a crystal cavern. Flickering light seems to flow from everywhere. The pool and walls glisten like soft moonlight. On the far wall stands a set of bronze double-doors hammered with a symbol of the sun. The bottom of the door is submerged beneath swirling waters.

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Session 24: Don't Follow the Lights

AE-session24-dontfollowthelights_20181007.jpgDay 3

On their 3rd day after arriving at ‘The Island of Lost Souls’, the rune-heroes conduct a reconnaissance first south and then north of the sailor’s camp. Atop the headland south of ‘Witches Cove’ the bluffs peter out after a few miles. Jungle grows right to the edge of 100-foot cliffs. Nothing further can be see as the coast bends west and south out of sight. The party turns back toward the north end of the island.

North of the sailor’s camp is a treeless highland covered in rocky turf. Using a salvaged spyglass repaired by Mesmer, grass-covered tumbles of stone are spotted in the center of the open heath. Ruins! The remains of a wall, elevated roadway or aqueduct pass through the ruin toward the jungle a mile farther south. The northern bluffs end in cliffs rising up to 120 feet above the sea. Only a few scattered pieces of wreckage litter the north shore. The great eastern current and prevailing winds of winter seem to drive ships against the eastern shore of the island.

Great megalithic titans are arranged in ranks upon the bluffs above the north cliffs. Each statue projects up to twenty feet from the rocky sod. They appear to depict highly stylized gods, monsters and heroes. The oldest of these mighty sculptures are positioned closer to the sea, the more recent farther back and higher up the bluffs. Pieces of the oldest statues are visible lying in the rocky surf where the cliffs surrendered to ages of crashing surf. This part of the coast is notably uncomfortable. Chilly spray from the crashing waves is driven far across the barren highland.

Just then Leelo spots a line of flickering lights moving through the ruins a mile south of the cliffs. After a while the lights disappear into a ruined pyramid of tumbled stones covered in grassy earth. Could these be the lights warned of by the sailors and old crone?

The explorers decide to leave the mystery of the lights and nearby ruins for the future. Instead they embark upon a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the island shoreline. By end of day the five wet and cold adventurers reach a sheltered stream-bed along the western cliffs. Water rushes from the jungle and through the narrow bluffs before plunging down the 100-foot cliffs in a sparkling waterfall. The northeast winds drive a plume of mist far out to sea where rays of the westering sun create a vast double-rainbow. Mesmer and Leelo find evidence that others have camped here over the years, as recently as 3-4 weeks ago. The missing sailors? There is no evidence of wrecked ships here, though dry driftwood from past decades of broken ships allows for a cheerful fire.

Day 4

The morning is spent in a cautious sortie along the narrow stream and into the jungle. Ruins are soon spotted a mile in. Between the vine-draped stone columns, blocks and cracked steps run the tumbled remains of another elevated structure. Closer inspection reveals this to be the remains of a small aqueduct. The remains ends south of the river and extend farther to the southeast. A row of flickering lanterns appear among distant ruins between dark towers of vegetation. The rune-heroes watch, but heed the witch-woman’s advice and don’t follow. The lights slowly recede into the depths of the jungle ruins.

By evening the adventurers reach the southwest shore of the small island. The going is slow as thick jungle grows right to the edge of the cliffs. Care must be taken not to step out into space where the ground drops away to rocky surf far below. Numerous streams emerge from the jungle to fall down the cliffs in long plumes of mist. The great jungle mountain dominating the southern half of the island is sometimes visible from the top of a tree or clearing: high ridges and deep fog-shrouded valleys are covered in a dense carpet of trees, bamboo and undergrowth. The upper reaches of the mountain hide behind steep slopes and swirling clouds.

Days 5-6

Two days of crawling and climbing through bamboo jungle along the south side of the island brings the rune-heroes back to a stretch of bluffs along the southeast shore. Krag is afflicted with a strange disease that causes his eyes to swell and itch. Eventually they would completely close up and who knows what else, but for the curative potion given to Leelo by her brother Keelo when they parted ways east of Galveholm many moons past. After this, Krag and Mavriy use their magic to purify all food gathered by the party. Krag can summon gallons of pure water as well. The only problem is food, which is not plentiful on an island where the largest animal seem to be rats and land-crabs. Even these are in short supply along the sea cliffs at the mountain’s base.

Day 7

Another day brings the explorers back to the headland overlooking Witches Cove. The marooned sailors are surprised to see their return, particularly Urth and Grimshaw. Jank was preparing to consign the rune-heroes’ souls to Bhall. But Dorn and Ralmevik both see something more in their new comrades. Ralmevik is very interested in the details of their four-day journey around the coast, particularly any news of ruins bulging with legendary gold.

Day 8

Flashes of unwelcome memories from the brush with Hastur return to blind Finch’s sight. A few times during the day he is reduced to trembling fits of cold sweat when all he can do is stare fixedly at the rolling gray surf. The warlock elects to stay behind. Strange voices babbling in unknown languages drift from his hootch throughout the day. The sailors carefully avoid Finch’s end of the camp.

Leelo, Krag, Mesmer and Mavriy head north to investigate the stone dolmens and ruins in more detail. Krag and Mesmer examine the monoliths all morning. Krag is able to determine those arranged closer to the sea are only a few centuries older than those higher up the bluffs. The older statues exhibit a clearly different and more sophisticated style. They depict heroes, priests and gods, one of which is certainly Danalin from a time before the loss of his children, the Aifons. Another statue may be Condatis, the long-lost archangel of Danalin. Others might be ancient Aifon heroes or notables. The more recent statues father from the cliffs are in the Zencotan style. These are generally smaller, simpler and appear to depict stylized humans and gods. Unique among the Zencotan-age colossi are a pair of regal humanoids with fanged bat-like visages carved from black basalt. These appear to be non-human nobility, like a king and queen or emperor and empress.

While proceeding south toward the central ruins, a flickering firelight appears through the wind-blown mists. Light from a smokeless fire glows in the depths of a cave at the base of one of the larger stepped pyramids that seem to be a common feature of the ruins. The ziggurat is now little more than a humped outline buried beneath ages of soil and thick turf.

Hanging from the ceiling of the natural cave are scores of somnolent bats: the vampiric creatures mentioned by the sailors? Leelo attempts to sneak through the cave. The narrow cave widens into a small chamber. The source of the firelight is not visible, nor is the smell of smoke or other signs of habitation apparent, but flashes of silver and gold glimmer in the darkness. Leelo nears the far end before the bats awaken. She eludes the swarming creatures by crawling along the uneven floor through a thick layer of slippery guano.

After the bats become quiescent, Krag wards Leelo with a shield of faith. Mesmer makes the elf invisible as well. Leelo again sneaks into the cave, this time with Mesmer, Krag and Mavriy close behind. One by one the swarms of fanged bats are put to sleep with Mesmer and Leelo’s magic. Krag and Mavriy dispatch bats that fall to the floor of the cave. A few remain asleep where they hang from the ceiling. Unfortunately Mavriy is bitten by one of the bats. Dark lesions appear on the bitten leg, but the half-demon’s native constitution wards off whatever horrid disease the bat carried.

In the dank chamber at the end of the cave is a narrow pit before a rough stone altar. The altar and pit look like they were constructed well after the great megalithic structures above. Twelve feet down the pit are rounded river stones and fragments of ancient bone. Among the stones are well-worn coins of green copper and bright gold, and also coins of a strange metal unknown to the rune-heroes. The greenish-silver coins remain untarnished and gleam as bright as the day they were minted. On the face of each coin are the worn reliefs of two profiles resembling the semi-human bat-like royals depicted in a few of the more recent stone megaliths. Inscriptions around the circumference of the coins are worn away from use and time. It seems these coins were in circulation for some time before finding their way into the sacrificial pit. Several hundred coins are looted from the pit by day’s end.

Inexplicably, the rune-heroes choose to spend the night within the cramped cave. In the dark hours of earliest morning, Krag is on guard when a cold white light shines from behind. A pair of lights appear out of thin air to bounce up and down above the sacrificial pit. Krag turns slowly to see two more lights dancing toward him from the entrance tunnel. At this close distance, the spectral outlines of ancient men and women are dimly visible around the bright will-o’-wisps. They wear strange headdress of feathers and beads, cloth kilts, sandals and sometimes capes of animal skins or feathers. Two carry farming tools, another a basket of gourds, the last a spear and war-club. As the lights flutter down upon Krag, the half-orc makes out whispered questioning, begging or commanding in an unknown language, each according to their old station in a life long lost. Krag bellows words of censure against the undead spirits, but none are affected!

Leelo is in deep meditation when the cave is shaken by Krag’s shouting. After one glance, the speedy elf runs fleet-footed from the cave. Mesmer and Mavriy stumble past a few seconds later, dragging their armor and weapons along behind them. Krag feels cold jolts of energy course through his body as he stumbles towards the night sky at the cave’s end. The whispering death-lights harry the war-priest mercilessly, but he manages to reach open air before collapsing into a stupor. The lights recede back into the cave and darkness returns. As the intruders stumble away, warm inviting firelight once again glows from the cave…

The party quickly moves south a mile from the ruins and makes camp behind the cover of fallen aqueduct columns. At dawn the explorers follow the remnants of the aqueduct south into the jungle. The following days are spent mapping out the various ruins, streams and connecting aqueducts.

Days 9-13

AE-session24-isleoflostsoulsExploration_20181007.jpgThe party stops by the sailor’s camp to donate a few dozen vampire-bat corpses. No one will touch them, not even the survival experts Grimshaw and Dorn, until Krag and Mavriy purify the tainted meat. Leelo shows a few of the looted coins to Dorn. Even this level-headed sailor is affected. Ralmevik catches sight of what transpires and through him word gets out. The sailors, some of whom are certainly pirates, become excited by rumors of precious gold. Their ardor is seriously dampened when Leelo gives them the exact location of the will-o’-wisp cave and invites them to go exploring…on their own.

Finch believes he has recovered sufficiently to rejoin the expedition. Horrific visions blot out his vision only 2-3 times per day now! The sailors are visibly relieved to see the cursed warlock depart their camp.

The jungle is eerily silent, with not even birds to enliven the void. Only snakes, rats and the ubiquitous land-crabs roam the tangled trees and vines, bamboo thickets and tumbled ruins. Several times each day and night flickering lamps, torches or campfires appear in the distance. Each time the rune-heroes observe, but avoid following the lights.

By the end of the twelfth day the northern jungle below the mountain is mostly explored. A swamp is discovered at the base of the mountain. Within the watery morass are many twinkling lights of different hues: pale green, pink, ghostly blue. They dance and cavort always just beyond clear sight. The lights seem almost disappointed when the interlopers fail to follow them. At night they come even closer. At these times the spectral outlines of accursed spirits are visible gesturing, imploring, commanding and begging to no avail.

By the thirteenth day it is obvious that a central aqueduct leads directly up the mountain. Little of the impressive structure is still standing, but the remains bear testament to the incredible engineering skill of the Zencotan people (and their teachers?). Occasionally a section of surviving water-bridge spans a gorge or hangs precariously in mid-air from the edge of a cliff.

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Day 14

After retrieving five days of food from the sailor’s camp, the rune-heroes begin their climb up the steep jungle-shrouded mountain slopes. Near-vertical ridges give way to deep gorges where streams of cold water tumble from ledge to ledge. While not as challenging as the Dragonfangs, the climb is not one for the unskilled. Leelo’s newfound climbing skill makes up for the absence of Xar, her mountain-ranger henchman. On at least one occasion Finch must be saved by magic from a bad fall. Leelo finds it impossible to forage anything edible during the climb. The day ends in a precarious camp upon a narrow ledge with misty jungle far below and fog-shrouded pinnacles high above.

Day 15

Through swirling mists the heroes climb higher and higher. At noon a brief vista appears across the northern island. Even through the spyglass the huge dolmens ranging the north cliffs appear only as tiny specks. Four more hours of arduous climbing brings the explorers to a high valley near the top of the mountain. A dam of colossal stone blocks stretches from one ridge to another. A ruined Aifon structure, possibly a temple, is built into the center of the dam. Subsequent Zencotan additions climbs the sides of the original temple. Bare foundations of long-lost structures, both Zencotan and Aifon in origin, cover the floor of the valley below the dam. Two aqueducts spring from the base of the temple. A colonnaded boulevard passes between the mighty spans, ending in a wide flight of steps leading up to the temple.

AE-session24-Zencotan-small_20181007.jpg

With daylight quickly failing, the adventurers make haste along the wide street between the towering aqueducts. As they walk among the cracked foundations and piles or rubble, the earth suddenly spins and tumbles with a roar of collapsing masonry. Five explorers plunge downward into the depths of a subterranean ruin far below the valley floor.

Relative silence returns, broken only by groans, coughs and shifting rubble. Leelo, Mavriy, Krag, Mesmer and Finch lie upon dusty flagstones surrounded by broken bricks, mud and gravel. As eyes adjust to the absolute darkness, all but Mesmer see a wide chamber or hall with a small domed structure in the center and a blank-faced stone door in the wall at the opposite end. Several waist-high niches are carved into the walls along either side of the chamber. An odd sulfurous smell fills the air, causing eyes to itch and throats to burn…

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Session 23: The Island of Lost Souls
Ship's Graveyard

AE-session23-ShipsGraveyard-small_20180930.jpgAfter divesting Laerlith of equipment and wealth, the rune heroes consider how best to capture rather than kill her. They settle on dragging her along with ropes. Before this impractical idea can be put to the test, shadow falls over the temple as a huge dark shape approaches. On the surface above the kraken cruise two hulls at impossible speed, one identical to the Lanun ship, the second even larger. The Aifon spirit-guide has retreated some distance to the south, but is still barely visible and gesturing frantically.

The Overlord priestess wakes to the sight of a silver rapier driving through her chest. Laerlith’s expression will forever be etched into Leelo’s memory. The rune-cursed dart away just ahead of the great kraken and Lanun ships. Behind them a macabre tangle of tentacles and human limbs floats in the bloody murk.

For the next eight or ten hours the aifon-forms speed through the darkened waters in pursuit of a fleeting shadow. Time loses all meaning as the heroes are driven to the limits of their endurance, having gone without food or rest for nearly a full day. First one then a second coral reef pass by as the sea floor again rises up toward the surface. The exhausted swimmers struggle through the surf toward a sandy beach strewn with black volcanic rocks. The first rays of dawn illuminate coconut trees and grassy bluffs above the beach.

Five aifons transform back into human, elf, half-elf, half-orc and demonling forms as they leave the water. The rune-heroes limp up to the beach on shaky legs. The shadowy, almost invisible form of the spirit-guide is waiting. She smiles and bows to each rune-hero in turn. Her bearing is lightened by the lifting of a great burden borne in silence for thousands of years. One by one the magical aifon torcs fall away to dust. Alone among the rune-heroes Leelo is allowed to keep her torc, in appreciation for bearing the burden of the green pearl for almost two long years. The spirit-guide slowly fades from the world, a beatific expression upon her face.

Krag calls out in a feeble voice and points. A lone figure looks down from the bluff, then disappears. The drenched heroes run south along the beach. Around a small headland is the north side of a cove perhaps half a mile across. The cove is littered with the wreckage of broken ships large and small. Beyond the mouth of the cove a beach stretches five miles southeast where it ends at a headland of tall black cliffs.

All along the coast are the remains of derelict hulls driven onto the rocks. The wrecks are in various states, some semi-intact, others reduced to driftwood on the beaches. Most are Lanun, but many others are varied in origin. How many more failed even to make it past the offshore reefs? This desolate coast is a graveyard for lost ships.

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A dozen raised bamboo huts are visible a short way up the bluffs at the west side of the cove where a stream flows down to the ocean. Several are dilapidated, others well-maintained. The fleeing figure first glimpsed by Krag is visible running down the beach well ahead. A rag-tag group of six more men approach from the huts armed with various weapons. The rune heroes meet them halfway.

Clearly these are shipwrecked sailors. They wear a collection of weapons and clothing looted from other ships or crudely fashioned from local materials. Finch helps the rune-heroes reach a quick accomodation with the lost sailors: each side has everything to gain by combining resources. The half-elf warlock’s native charisma and growing knowledge of sailing and the jargon of sailors helps ease tensions. See the appendix ‘Seven shipwrecked sailors’ below

That night over a dinner of land-crab and coconuts, apparently the main staples here, the rune-heroes learn more about each sailor and the island. The ‘Island of Lost Souls’ is perhaps 15-17 miles north to south and ten miles east to west, though no proper survey has been made. The sailors guess they are a few hundred miles east of the great southern continent and an unknown distance south of the Calabim empire and southernmost Lanun isles.

The silent jungles are devoid of animal life beyond a species of large land-crab, rats, poisonous snakes, bats and a few species of cliff-dwelling sea-birds that have survived the rat and snake infestation. The north end of the island is a narrow stretch of bare highland bluffs dominated by huge megalithic statues arranged along the northwest cliffs by some long-gone civilization. The southern half is dominated by a single mountain covered in dense jungle. On a clear day the fog-shrouded slopes can be seen from the bluffs north and south of the cove.

There is evidence in the cove of past occupancy by dozens of shipwrecked sailors at various times across the years. The current occupants report that twelve of their number left camp and headed around the north headland three weeks ago. This group planned to explore the west coast in search of intact ships or other castaways. They have not been heard from since. The leader of the sailors, a middle-aged sea-captain named Dorn, recently scouted the northern bluffs in search of their fate, but as no one else except Pavel would accompany him, that’s as far as he dared go. Slave-taking south and east of the Calabim mainland is common and no one wants to be ‘rescued’ by slavers.

The sailors fear and avoid the deep jungle, which quickly grows into a dense mass of hardwood trees, bamboo and vines 100-200 yards inland. Some of the pirates who have been here longest, notably Grimshaw, believe savages live inland, for they have seen their fires and lamps. Never has anyone seen these people clearly in the jungles, nor upon the coastal bluffs, cliffs or beaches. The locals, whoever they are, keep to the dense jungle dominating most of the island.

Leelo and Finch press Grimshaw for more details later that night. The pirate breaks down under the pressure, and Leelo’s cantrip of mental influence, and admits to having been a sailor on a ship hired by a party of explorers. He accompanied them inland 18 months ago where they were ambushed by something that Grimshaw never saw clearly. Several fell into a pit that opened in one of the stone ruins dotting the inland jungles. Grimshaw abandoned them in terror. As far as he knows, none survived. Grimshaw now avoids the jungle at all costs. The others overhear and approach, worried about the mental state of their only skilled carpenter. Finch comforts the sobbing pirate and the pair give up their inquiry.

The headland five miles down the beach is avoided by the marooned sailors. Dorn is happy to explain why. A reasonably-intact schooner is stranded in a lagoon below the headland, but is inaccessible by reason of sharks and the sailor’s fear of a ‘witch-woman’ who lives along the nearby cliffs. The witch is described by the sailors as an ugly old crone, obviously an evil witch according to Grimshaw and Urth. When the sailors first approached the lagoon months ago, the withered old crone appeared from a hidden cave in the cliffs and struck lightning into the sky from her fingers. In a cackling voice the witch demanded the sailors perform a service, but the men were already running back up the beach and heard nothing more except disparaging laughter. None have dared return since.

At dawn the rune heroes head southeast to explore the ‘Witches Cove’. As soon as they are out of sight behind the bluffs, Mesmer uses magic to identify the nature of the breastplate, bracers and diadem taken from Laerlith. All are certainly magical, exhibiting both enchantment and abjuration magic. But the rune-heroes are wary of strange Overlord magic.

Finch however can’t resist the lure of magical artifacts, despite prior horrible experiences, and puts on the bracers. They are light and incredibly strong and protect as well as a buckler in defense. So far so good!

Next the warlock tries on the breastplate of greenish/blue metal carved with scenes of giant tentacled beings consuming mortals, rending ships apart and destroying coastal villages. The salt water seems to have tarnished it not at all. The armor weighs perhaps half the steel equivalent yet seems much, much stronger than steel. Upon fastening the two halves across back and chest, the armor magically welds into one piece…and will not come off. Now Finch is stuck wearing possibly-cursed armor that he’s unfamiliar with, preventing casting of any spells. Not so good!

Casting caution to the winds, Finch lowers the diadem around his neck. This is a blue-green sunburst diadem with a glassy black eye in the center, hanging on a heavy golden chain. The diadem immediately fastens onto the breastplate with a claw-like grip and cannot be removed. The glass bauble transforms into an inky black eye like that of a squid or octopus. The eye rolls up to stare back at Finch. Krag, Mavriy, Leelo and Mesmer notice that wherever Finch looks, so does the horrible black eye. Finch receives the knowledge that this eye can cast curses up to ten paces upon whoever is deemed unworthy in the eyes of its wearer. Better!

AE-session22-thekinginyellow_20180909.jpgFinch attempts communication with the diadem-entity using his awakened mind. The half-elf’s eyes roll back into his head to be replaced by glistening orbs of oily black, mirroring the eye in the diadem. He collapses onto the sand, unconscious or dead, no one is sure.

The rune heroes discuss the unfortunate fate of their none-too-cautious companion. How to get his gear without exposing themselves to some unspeakable doom? Mavriy notices dead-Finch’s three new eyes are tracking whoever happens to be speaking. Ugh! Krag prepares to read the old Luchuirp scroll found earlier in the year. The spells on the scroll are beyond Krag’s knowledge, so removal of the cursed diadem is a risky bet.

Meanwhile, Finch’s astral body has been drawn across gulfs of space and time into a watery realm of horror with neither up nor down, left nor right, here nor there. Foul gelatinous beings course through the non-space, indeed through his very substance. The half-elf attempts to walk, then swim, with no success. A number of long rubbery members flail before his vision. The stricken half-elf realizes these are his own extremities.

The angle of his vision is odd. It appears his head is now mounted upon the end of a long flexible stalk or tentacle. He cranes his ‘neck’ around and sees himself: a monstrous being that will forever haunt his nightmares. Finch’s burbling screams are heard everywhere and nowhere at once.

Somewhere within the watery void is a warm glow, a fleck of purity lost in the miasma of cosmic filth. Finch-form struggles toward this uncertain salvation. A terrible presence rises to block his way: Hastur, Lord of Nightmares. The faceless King in Yellow.

Back on the windy beach, Krag curses as he botches the unfamiliar words of the Luchuirp holy spell. The Angel of Earth seems unwilling to bestow her magic to Krag without a challenge. By a miracle of luck the half-orc priest corrects himself, barely managing to direct the veering divine magic successfully.

The diadem slides to the sand, the gelid eye again nothing more than a glass bauble. Leelo quickly scoops the diadem into her lead-lined matchbox (previously used to store the green pearl). Finch-monster’s black eyes roll out of sight and Finch-half-elf’s eyes roll back into view, wide and staring. The warlock convulses and spews forth a stinking black mess resembling jellyfish tartar. Krag fastidiously rolls him over with a boot so he doesn’t asphyxiate.

After five minutes or so Finch is able to stand shakily, effectively poisoned and weak, but still as sane as he ever was. As with the episode in Galveholm Finch preserves his sanity, if we can call it that, by stuffing the detailed memories into a deep, dark place. All he can remember of the experience is the horrible power that rose to block his desperate effort to reach a glowing place of safety, before being snatched back into the mortal world.

AE-session23-WitchCove-small_20180930.jpgUnfazed by this interlude, the party continues down to the end of the white coral sand beach. Cliffs rise up to the headland, blocking the way south. A 90-foot schooner of two masts is beached upon a small coral atoll in the center of a wide lagoon. Other than missing rigging, sails and topside damage, the ship’s hull appears intact. Between 80 and 120 yards of water separate the atoll from the lagoon shore. Scores of dark shapes cruise swiftly below the surface of the clear blue lagoon: savage reef-sharks 6-10 feet in length. This would be a long and dangerous swim, even for Leelo in aifon-form. The exit to the sea is 30 yards wide and perhaps 15 feet deep, more than enough to tow the schooner out if it weren’t for physics. And the sharks.

After investigating the lagoon, the party walks up the cliffs to the top of the headland. To the east and stretching southwards are sheer cliffs almost 100’ high with only rocks and crashing surf below. The ‘witch-woman’ doesn’t make an appearance. Maybe it’s her lunch hour? Mesmer summons his familiar, a snow owl that is a bit out of place, and conducts an aerial inspection of the cliffs southeast of the lagoon. Mesmer owl-eyes quickly spots a crevice and ledge 20 feet from the base of the cliff, invisible from both the beach and clifftop, upon which stands a little old lady of fascinating ugliness, dressed in what appear to be rags washed up from shipwrecks. The old lady’s vision is apparently still keen, as she cranes her neck to follow the owl’s flight. Two other narrow openings in the cliff are also obvious only from the air: these open onto the sands at the base of the cliff below and to either side of the higher opening.

The adventurers return to the beach and approach the cliff where the ledge should be. The ‘witch-woman’ steps forth to look down upon her visitors. She is indeed terribly unsightly, with a huge mottled nose reaching out nearly to the end of her long pointed chin, eyes like glassy pits, and a mass of matted black hair trailing almost to the stone where she stands. With a cackling laugh, often to be repeated during the exchange that follows, the ancient crone claims to know the hour of the rune-heroes coming, “We’ve been waiting, what took you so long! There’s scarce few heroes on this dank blot of jungle and sand, like those fools you wasted the night with.” The witch-woman seems to enjoy referring to herself in the ‘royal we’.

After a few minutes of banter, the crone gets down to business: “We need heroes to fetch the Crown of Danalin from ruins on the island…and no we don’t know where it is, only that it’s somewhere on the island! We will grant those of you who survive your ‘hearts desire’ if you return with the Crown. Now, you first! What is your ‘hearts desire’, my dearie?” One by one the heroes bicker and waffle about their heart’s desires. Mavriy initially wants a ‘gnome servant’, perhaps to find out how much the crone truly knows about the rune-heroes. Indeed she replies with “but didn’t you already have one of those? Did you lose it?” Leelo talks Mavriy into wishing for the sharks in the lagoon to go away.

The witch seems to find this exchange immensely entertaining. She cackles and babbles to herself all the while, cooing with joy or screeching with derision as she hears each ‘hearts desire’. After everyone has stated their far-fetched wishes, the witch grows impatient and bids the rune-heroes begone. “Find the Crown and bring it to us. On our word as a nameless old lady you found in a cave, you’ll each get your ‘hearts desire’. Cawww-Ackack-Heeeeheeehaaw! Oh, and don’t follow the lights…”

Five somewhat-mystified explorers trudge back up the beach to another dinner of steamed land-crab and coconuts. With only rats, snakes and bamboo-shoots to enliven the menu, this island is far from gastronomic paradise. The sailors look on with envy to see someone actually enjoy what they’ve been forced to eat for months on end.

Seven shipwrecked sailors (left to right)

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Grimshaw, a hard-bitten Lanun pirate adrift on a raft of planks for 10 days after his ship struck one of the reefs. He’s survived on the island for two years with five different groups and is an expert at living off the islands limited resources (along with Dorn). Grimshaw was a carpenter aboard his previous ship. He’s armed with a handaxe and possesses a store of carpentry tools looted from other wrecks.

Ralmevik, an outlaw pirate raiding the northern Elohim coasts, originally hailing from Illia. A lost eye is replaced with one of yellowed glass that always looks in the wrong direction, making conversation with Ralmevik somewhat unsettling. His longship became lost while fleeing an Elohim frigate over the open sea. They were carried south for weeks by the north current until a storm swept the doomed ship southwest. Most of the crew had succumbed to thirst and hunger by that point. Ralmevik does not go into details about how he survived. He’s been on the island nearly as long as Grimshaw (over one season). Ralmevik is obviously a skilled and intelligent rogue. He tries to curry favor with the rune-heroes and constantly questions them about their deeds and origins. The new arrivals are happy to oblige and regale the seven amazed sailors with tales of their exploits.

Jank, half-orc Acolyte of Bhall, is depressed and sullen. The other pirates are surprised to hear him speak to Krag. Apparently these are the most words he’s spoken in months. Jank arrived at the island by way of a Grigorian merchant galleon on which he served as healer. The galleon was blown far south by a storm while trying to reach Amuria with a cargo of Grigorian wheat. Jank wields a Harpoon and cudgel.

Pavel, an experienced Lanun freebooter and sometimes-pirate whose ship was lost in a storm recently (only three weeks past). Pavel is taciturn, but opens up with stories and humorous anecdotes when the rune-heroes show themselves competent. Pavel and Dorn are the only survivors from their ship. Pavel is armed with a glaive and a dagger.

Dorn, the nominal leader and eldest of the castaways. He was 1st officer on the Wyvern, a 40’ single-masted schooner, formerly engaged in river-pirating and slaving along the mainland coast of the Lavrentine Gulf. After Dorn killed the captain in a duel and took command, they switched to the lucrative pearling trade south of Innsmouth. Dorn and Pavel’s ship was driven south by a storm last month after venturing too far south in search of new pearl beds. Dorn knows the basics of navigation and has salvaged a working sextant from one of the shipwrecks. He estimates their latitude to be approximately 900 miles south of Innsmouth, but lacks reliable charts. Dorn is clearly a competent fighter, armed with the best weapons: cutlass, small-sword, dagger and short bow.

Ramas, the youngest of the seven, acts the part of a pirate without much conviction. He is stuck with the most distasteful tasks such as carrying offal from the camp, and catching rats. Ramas is quiet, thoughtful, and avoids speaking of himself.

Urth, a middle-aged indentured galley crewman of the Calabim who happened to be gathering coconuts on the bluffs when the rune-heroes crawled from the surf with nary a ship or raft to carry them. Urth’s Calabim galley Black Hand capsized in a gale last winter and the wrecked hull was carried to the island along with Urth. The former galley-oarsman is superstitious, uneducated, crude, and bitter over his lost years. He is pessimistic by nature and lives in fear of his former vampire masters. At first Urth is suspicious and accuses the party of being witches or sea-demons. His wild words might carry weight with certain of the sailors, but for the influence of Dorn and his level-headed 1st mate. The pirate is terrified of Finch’s greenish breastplate inscribed with sea-monsters and avoids the cursed half-elf. Urth is armed with a cudgel and brace of throwing knives.

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Session 22: The Green Pearl

AE-session22-ChildrenofHastur_20180909.jpgGiant tentacles begin to pluck screaming pirates from the doomed Sea Hag. A few resist bravely, led by the 2nd mate at the bow. Others clamber up the rigging where they launch bolts from crossbows. The 1st mate is bowled over by Krag as the two head in opposite directions on the gangway between the stern and poop-decks. Mesmer singes the nearest tentacle with a bolt of magical fire.

Syzimondo stares in shock at something hovering above. Mavriy is closest and tries to fend off the tentacle plunging toward the stricken pirate captain, but is knocked aside by the thing’s immense strength. Even as Syzimondo is lifted from the deck, she strikes out with her axe and by a miracle lops off Syzimondo’s remaining ear. Mavriy scoops up the gory bit of flesh and rips loose the bloody green pearl. Syzimondo is lofted high in the tentacle’s grip, howling at the loss of his precious pearl more than missing ear or watery doom below.

Leelo dodges around the bosun and sees Mavriy standing transfixed by the glowing pearl. She screams at Mavriy to get below decks, but the paladin of Esus is lost in reverie as she admires the fascinating jewel and ponders it’s potentialities. Leelo uses her magical mage-hand to snatch the pearl away from Mavriy, who is left staring dumbfounded at her empty hand. Leelo and Finch jump the rail down to the stern-deck where a double-door leads to the officers quarters.

The bosun leaps down to the stern-deck and begins cranking away at a ballista. Before being snatched to his death, the brave bosun puts a spear-sized bolt through one of the tentacles. Pirates fight desperately, cringe in terror or run screaming to and fro, as befits their individual characters. Tentacles drop the limp forms of crushed sailors. Some few escape below decks, high into the swaying masts, or fall screaming into the foaming water. Several victims are flung across the sea, or dashed down onto the deck with a crunch of breaking bones.

Mavriy comes to her senses and drops down to the stern-deck. Before entering the cabin she sees Syzimondo struggling with the tentacle high above. He manages to squirm free and falls alive into the water between the ships.

Laerlith seems pleased with the results. She gestures and three blue-green robed Hands of Hastur step onto giant tentacles rising from the waters alongside the Lanun galleon. The tentacles convey their passengers across the water and down onto the Sea Hag. As they land on the deck, each warlock summons a great black blade etched with glowing green runes.

From inside the 1st mate’s cabin, Mesmer casts a ball of magic lightning at one approaching tentacle+warlock. Before Finch can make it below decks, he is snatched up by a hovering tentacle. A giant eye stares up at him from below the water. The warlock sends psychic whispers of doom down toward the sea-monster. The eye jerks away and out of view. Finch falls from the nerveless tentacle into the turbulent waters along the port side. Krag takes position in the open doorway, blocking several desperate pirates trying to make their way inside, “Too crowded, find your own!”. He does however allow the 1st mate inside.

Finch begins to swim around toward the stern of the ship, at first slowly, then more quickly as his form is changed by the magic of the Aifon Torc around his neck. The half-elf’s legs, along with boots and britches, are replaced by the long powerful tail of an extinct aifon. Gills appear along the neck. Skin changes into a glistening coat of fine silvery-blue scales. Eyes grow into limpid pools of green protected by clear nictitating membranes.

Leelo was greatly affected by the revelations at Castle Larchspur, most especially the news that Asmoday achieved his dream of lichdom and subsequently led an army of undead to conquer the Malakim city of Nubilar, exposing the southern flank of the Luchuirp empire. Perhaps destroying the pearl is the only way to keep it out of the hands of the Overlords, who will surely use it to unleash some new horror upon the world. With her mage-hand she holds the glowing node of depravity fast to the pitching deck and shouts for all to strike the pearl as one. Mesmer hits it with a series of flaming lances that burn the deck to charcoal. The pearl pulses and smokes. Next Mavriy and Krag smite the gem with their magical Luchuirp battleaxe and hammer. Green rays shine from a web of cracks. Before Leelo can shoot a magic arrow into the pearl, the aifon spirit-guide emerges from her body and pantomimes protecting the pearl, begging Leelo not to strike. It seems the ancient aifon warns of dire consequences should the soul prison be destroyed, something not even the Elohim could state with certainty. Perhaps the spirit-guide fears destruction of the pearl will release Blikdak from his submarine tomb?

Leelo quickly conveys the pearl into a leaded box manufactured for this purpose and tucks it away. At this moment tentacles burst into the cabin through both sides of the hull. Mesmer and Leelo avoid the thrashing members. Krag turns to smash the nearest with his hammer. Mavriy dashes one aside with her shield, then hacks at it until finally a blood-gushing stub withdraws through the gaping hole. The hull of the ship creaks as if squeezed by some immense vice. Ominous booms and cracks sound from below.

Hearing Finch’s distant shouts, Mavriy runs to the stern cabin and looks down to see a fishy version of Finch bobbing in the waters below. He asks for and receives a length of rope thrown down by Mavriy, then begins swimming underwater toward the Lanun ship where he hopes to trick its crew into thinking he is a Hand of Hastur. On the way he spots a large bearded pirate swimming away from the carnage. Syzimondo?

The Hands of Hastur kill or disable the last pirates on the bow and mid-ship decks. A pair of the warlocks advance up to the stern deck to confront Krag. The cleric of Aeron casts a bolt of necromantic energy, reducing one to a pile of carrion and blackened bone. Leelo fires an arrow with her mithril bow, seriously wounding the second warlock in the leg.

Laerlith and the fourth warlock soar across the water on a pair of tentacles. The warlock is transported into the cabin through the ragged hole where he instantly erupts into a mass of thrashing black tentacles. Mavriy and Krag stumble back. Mesmer is knocked flat. Mavriy duels with the warlock: magic battleaxe versus eldritch great-sword.

AE-session22-DeathoftheSeaHag_20180909.jpg

Laerlith begins to climb the starboard gangway up from the mid-ship deck. She spots Leelo through the stern-deck cabin doors and utters a spell of immobility: Leelo freezes with arrow knocked and bow bent. Krag roars and charges out across the stern deck with whirling hammer, striking Laerlith several mighty blows. The beautiful priestess of the Overlords now wears a strange breastplate of greenish metal and is only lightly wounded. Laerlith giggles with insane glee as she prepares to unleash a spell of destructive power.

An agonizing crack booms through the ship’s timbers. The deck pitches violently toward the sea and all aboard are thrown down into a frothing welter of wood and water. Meanwhile Finch was preparing to stealthily lasso a rigging stanchion along the freeboard of the Lanun ship. Hearing and feeling the terrible cracking, he turns to see the Sea Hag broken in twain and sliding beneath the waves under a fountain of foam and splintered beams. Finch abandons his plan and swims around the swirling cauldron below the surface. The ghostly spirit-guide, now in fish-tailed aifon form, beckons in the distance. Leelo, now freed of the compulsion cast by Laerlith and also transformed into aifon-form, emerges from the tumble of bubbles and darts toward the spirit-guide. Krag, Mavriy and Mesmer emerge seconds later. The cleric and paladin managed to grab spears before the ship broke up. There is no sign of Laerlith or her surviving minions.

Led by the spirit-guide, the rune-heroes race southwest through the deep blue sea. For hours they course through the depths like speedy creatures of the deep, which indeed they are thanks to the Aifon Torcs. After four or five hours, the sea floor rises up toward the surface. Mesmer and Krag note the submerged remnants of an ancient civilization strewn here and there: toppled columns, broken statuary, tumbled walls half-hidden beneath growths of coral and kelp. Krag recognizes these ruins as belonging to the long-lost Zencotan civilization, disappeared from Arcanearth long before the barbarian tribes were incorporated into the Patrian empire. In the distance the sea floor rises up to support coral reefs and probably a few small islands as well, but the spirit-guide passes these by.

Finch looks back to spy four dark tentacled shapes following behind, but unable to close the distance. The aifon-forms enable communication underwater for some distance, so Finch is able to warn the others. Thankfully there is no sign of the titanic kraken. Less than an hour later a vast stepped pyramid emerges from the blue murk, illuminated by slanting rays of light from the westering sun.

AE-session22-BlikdaksPrison_20180909.jpg

The structure appears to be a Zencotan stepped pyramid built atop a wide square foundation of totally different origins and architecture. The 100’ pyramid is almost perfectly preserved and remarkably free of coral and other marine growths that should have completely covered it long ago. It must be easily visible from the ocean surface only 50’ above the top of the structure. How did this place remain hidden for so long from the wisest and greatest of the Elohim? Mesmer looks for evidence of his father’s prior visit, but finds nothing. How did Baron Almeriaq of Scylia find this place, and why did he take the pearl?

The spirit guide beckons Leelo forward, then enters the pyramid through one of two 10’ wide by 40’ tall rectangular openings on the north and south faces. Finch reports the four dim shapes are approaching quickly. Everyone rushes into the dim space enclosed by the pyramid’s top three tiers. In the center is a short stone column supporting a 4-armed pedestal of blue-green metal. The four arms come to a point like the setting for a small gem…exactly the size of the green pearl. While the aifon makes urgent gestures, Leelo extracts the pearl and places it into the setting. The shadowy aifon princess stares wide-eyed at the glowing green fire as she begins a series of ritual motions accompanied by soundless chanting. Pulsing waves of blue-green radiance advance slowly down the column and across the wide stone floor toward the inner walls of the pyramid…far too slowly!

Two horrifying monsters appear at the northern entrance, creatures resembling huge octopi at first glance, but charged with the eerie power of Hastur. Leelo and Mavriy shrug off the wave of revulsion and fear accompanying the ’Children of Hastur’ and surge forward to prevent them from reaching the chanting spirit guide. A desperate dual of rapier, spear, and tentacle begins.

AE-session22-Ritual_20180909.jpgA third Child of Hastur appears at the south entrance. Finch is overcome with horror and flees to the side, leaving Krag locked in a deadly embrace of tentacles. Mesmer uses one of his last spells to send a puff of quickly-extinguished fire into the octopus-monster. Predictably, the fire charm has little effect. Only one spell remains to the wizard. The blue-green radiance has just now begun to climb the inner walls of the pyramid. A good 60’ of wall stretches between floor and the pyramid’s inner apex.

The dim form of Laerlith appears a short distance beyond the south entrance, pallid face framed in a nimbus of black hair, lower body transformed into eight black tentacles. Krag struggles to indicate the presence of Laerlith-octopus to his recently-decamped friends. The foul priestess chants a spell of power. The water in the pyramid begins to swirl around in a powerful vortex. The pearl trembles and jumps in it’s precarious mounting at the center of the pyramid. Leelo and Mavriy struggle to avoid being swept away as they block two Children of Hastur from reaching the spirit-guide.

Finch briefly overcomes his fear and surges forward, just managing to defeat the swirling vortex of water growing more powerful each second. Krag sees Finch coming and tries to dodge past the monster between him and Laerlith, but he is grasped and crushed by tentacles. Finch has no spells remaining. He draws forth the wand of crooked black wood retrieved from Frostbite’s lair and chants the activating spell. An arc of blinding arcane energy connects the wand with Laerlith. The semi-human priestess tumbles end-over-end in writhing agony. The water calms as Laerlith’s spell is broken.

Krag breaks free of Hastur’s minion, taking two tentacles with him, and rams his spear through Laerlith’s stunned form. Laerlith screams a desperate spell of thunder, blasting Krag through the water back toward the pyramid, where he floats near death. Mesmer has been waiting for this moment. The wizard darts forward to cast his last spell, one of magical slumber. Laerlith floats silently in a cloud of blood and sprawling tentacles, eyes wide and staring.

In desperate haste the rune-heroes stab and cut apart the Children of Hastur. Finch again employs his wand to hasten the process. A single arcane bolt from the wand reduces one octopus-thing to a tangle of shredded tentacles. As they perish, each transforms back into one of three Hands of Hastur that survived the battle aboard the Sea Hag, complete with robes and steel breastplate.

Laerlith slowly floats away on the current. Finch and Mesmer swim out to quickly bind her arms and gag her mouth, though the tentacles defy natural bonds such as rope. With no means available to immobilize her, will the Overlord priestess be able to jet away once she wakens? Little time remains before a decision must be made regarding her fate.

A few seconds later the blue-green glow reaches the top of the temple. The stone pedestal sinks into the floor with a dull grinding. A plug of stone covers the gap, leaving no trace of the column or the green pearl. The glow disappears all at once, plunging the space back into deep indigo gloom. The spirit guide emerges from her trance and sees Leelo and Mavriy waiting anxiously nearby. The shadowy form smiles and bows to her champions, then exits the pyramid. Outside, the spirit-guide pantomimes an island and gestures urgently toward the south.

Loot

Laerlith wears a breastplate of greenish/blue metal carved with scenes of giant tentacled beings consuming mortals, rending ships apart and destroying coastal villages. A pair of similar metal arm-protectors cover her forearms. A blue-green sunburst diadem with a glassy black eye in the center hangs on a gold chain around her neck. She was wearing the bracers and diadem during prior encounters (but not the breastplate). She carries nine large white and pink pearls in a purse.

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Session 21: Warrenpoint

AE-session21-AifonSpiritGuide_20180902.jpgLeelo and Mesmer climb hundreds of steps to reach the ‘Reliquary’ where they are met by the Elohim monk from the Chancel. Within the vast airy structure are wide colonnades, vestibules, practice rooms, lecture theaters and other chambers of less obvious purpose. Monks, sages and clerics move about the dim spaces like ghosts. Some of the faculty are in fact spirits from across millennia of Elohim history. Spectral shades of Elohim scholars, monks and other learned beings return to the Reliquaries and pass on their knowledge to subsequent generations. Some appear in archaic dress from the Age of Dragons, others are contemporary, and every age in between. Some spirits return only for a short time, others remain to guide the living for much longer. Herein lies the secret of Elohim cultural and intellectual continuity across three different ages, a feat only the long-lived elves of Sucellus come close to matching.

Lower and lower within the vaults of ancient knowledge the silent monk leads his guests. The journey ends in a natural cavern filled with blue-green water. The pale shade of an Aifon, extinct since the Age of Dragons, steps forth from the lonely grotto. The monk speaks, “This child of Danalin was once a living Elohim of great wisdom and power. She has been with us since the Age of Dragons when her people became extinct, for what reason we known not, since she has never spoken in living memory.” Nor does the beautiful Aifon speak now, instead indicating five relics in niches around the shimmering grotto: collars of silvery blue-green metal. The monk presents these to Leelo. “These are ‘Torcs of the Aifon’. The wearer will assume the submarine form of an Aifon when in water, able to swim quickly over long distances and breathe water as well as air. Use them well, and after the fate of Syzimondo and the green pearl are sealed, return them to this reliquary.”

The translucent form of the Aifon approaches Leelo, passes into her and disappears. Leelo feels the silent presence of another joining her own soul. The monk is surprised by this turn of events, “the Aifon has chosen to be your Spirit Guide, a rare honor. This quest must be of even greater importance than we first thought. Whatever happens, do not let the pearl fall into the tentacles of the Overlords. Perhaps it can be destroyed, but the consequences cannot be foretold, if indeed this node of depravity is the prison of Blikdak’s soul.”

News of widespread crop failures come in from the lands around Cahir Abbey. Indeed, the loss of the summer crop is repeated in all the provinces west, north and east. Already the most vulnerable members of the empire are starving. What is worse, plague is reported in the lower quarters of the capitol. The few clerics and healers are unable to cope with the sudden mysterious appearance of disease in all the cities of the land. Charnel houses soon fill with corpses. Mass graves and huge pyres for the dead appear outside Cahir Abbey. Similar plague and starvation is reported by travelers from far lands. The Infernals and Mercurians are least affected. The Blood Comet is widely blamed.

After two months in Cahir Abbey, Mesmer, Leelo and her henchman Xar take passage east back to Trinity where they will consult with the Luchuirp remnants and await the completion of the commissioned white dragon shield and armor. At Trinity they learn of the fall of Ithralia. Bannor and Elohim mages entered the High Keep to rescue King Gyr and his retinue, but the old gnome refused to leave and perished hours later in a last stand. In the weeks that followed the cities of Mutanbo, Tia’ran and Val’ran fell, marking the end of the Luchuirp empire in the New Age. A large part of the population is already enslaved and put to work in the Deadlands repairing roads and bridges connecting the Sheaim empire with their newly-acquired provinces east of the Dragonspines. The rest can look forward only to a dismal existence under the rule of cruel sorcerer-kings.

Mavriy, Krag and Finch, with their henchmen Thothra and Grenl, board a coastal cog for the 5-day trip to Warrenpoint where the party is supposed to meet Syzimondo when the winds change later in the year. The island city of Warrenpoint is only a tenth the size of Cahir Abbey 100 miles to the east, but hosts important trading and commercial concerns that feed wealth to the rest of the empire. A great lighthouse, harbor and shipyard dominate the seaward side of the city. Though relatively small, the importance of the city is belied by the presence of a Guardian’s Chancel and Order of the Elohim Reliquary atop the highest elevation. Just off the docks are extensive markets, money changers and taverns.

The taverns in particular are famed across the myriad ports of Earthsea. Hundreds pack the most popular to hear the declamation of entertainers and skalds from cities as far as Midgar, Prespur, Tolero, Evermore and Thariss. The rune-heroes find temporary accommodation at ‘The Laughing Sun and Crying Moon’. Using treasure from Frostbite’s hoard, they soon purchase title to a ramshackle tower of three stories with attached barn and outbuildings. The seller and new neighbor is a peg-legged old pirate, complete with eye-patch and squawking parrot. ‘Jackdaw’ is always willing to regale adventurers with tales from his decades sailing the shores of the Earthsea.

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Krag

In less than two weeks Krag is able to trace the source of certain glyphs and sigils found in public areas around the city. In the back of a distant warehouse the half-orc finds a small chapel to his lord Aeron, god of war, serving a diverse clientele hailing from ports across the Earthsea. Krag takes over management from a lowly acolyte and is soon receiving alms and administering benedictions to a small but steady trickle of supplicants. The number and variety, and coin-purse contents, of those seeking favor in battle increases steadily over the summer. It seems that times are good for the god of war! Religion is always a good money-making proposition, the ‘Church of Krag’ exceptionally so. By the fall Krag has amassed an offering pot exceeding 400 gold pieces! All for the cause, of course…

Finch

Finch quickly discovers that Warrenpoint is the entry point for black market goods from all corners of the world including pearls, sugar and dyes from the Lanun archipelago, usually considered hated foes of the Elohim. Contraband goods are brought in by smugglers of all stripes, including more than a few outright pirates, who work by night and in bad weather up and down the long convoluted coastline of Warren island. The Elohim constabulary and navy make a desultory attempt at policing this lucrative trade, but in reality look the other way most of the time: the profits are spread far and wide, high and low. Finch soon embroils himself in this activity, first arranging deals and slumming-it with small-time shore smugglers. Soon he graduates up the ranks and finds himself aboard a 50-foot sloop running contraband across the 24 miles of open water between Warrenpoint and the mainland. The profits for a newcomer are small at first, but the half-elf learns the basics of seamanship and sailing, especially at night and in poor weather.

Warrenpoint is a hive of activity for herbalists, alchemists and potion-makers. Finch pays a good amount to get his hench-goblin Grenl into an apprenticeship (disguised as a halfling). By the end of summer Grenl has concocted a laboratory of sorts in the tower’s top story. The neighbors are annoyed all night long by muffled explosions, foul smells, colored lights and the occasional shriek. One day soon Finch and Grenl will be able to make true potions of power, assuming the equipment and arcane ingredients can be assembled.

Mavriy

Mavriy determines that Warrenpoint hosts a small temple of Esus. As expected, the temple is well hidden and changes location from time to time. Only those familiar with the secret paths of Esus have much chance to locate the temporary meeting places. Communication and coordination are accomplished through cryptic messages left at dead drops around the city. The priesthood, if there is any, remains hidden behind an impenetrable veil of anonymity. The demonling paladin soon begins providing services through this network and makes a not-inconsiderable sum of coin, though failing to approach the profit-margins of Krag and his war-god.

The power of the Council of Esus is small here, not large enough for the customary ‘Nightwatch’. The Nightwatch serves as a secret militia and guards any city where the Council of Esus has a significant presence. While there may be a few Esus assassins, shadow monks and other candidates in Warrenpoint, none have the leadership needed to form a ‘Nightwatch’.

Through the Esus grapevine, Mavriy discovers the holy city is located in Thariss, capitol of the Svartalfar empire. There the great shrine of Nox Noctis reveals current events in many empires, all the while shrouding the activities of Queen Viconia in a cloud of fog. Mavriy learns much of the world through a connection with Nox Noctis. For example, the Grigori have historically allowed Calabim slavers passage through their lands to take slaves from the Clan of Embers, on condition the vampires refrain from poaching Grigori lands. This agreement has enriched the Calabim greatly over recent decades, along with their lucrative ties to the Lanun sea-empire, and now a huge army of conquest led by Losha Valas is assembling on the eastern border of the Malaki desert. This has prompted the Grigori to end the prior arrangement and sever relations with empress Alexis and emperor Flauros, twin rulers of the vampiric aristocracy.

In other news, the Elohim and Bannor are infuriated by the Khazad tribute to the Hippus. Though all four empires are nominally members of the Overcouncil, the Elohim and Bannor have recalled their diplomats from Khazad and severed all trade, believing that the dwarves will be forced to pass any new wealth and knowledge on to their overbearing Hippus neighbors. This acrimony and bickering within the Overcouncil can only benefit the Calabim and Sheaim empires.

Mesmer

AE-session21-TheBluePrinciples_20180902.jpgIn the middle of summer Mesmer and Leelo return from Trinity with magic created by gnome artificers and enchanters. Warren island is the site of ‘The Blue Principles’, a Mage Guild that keeps a low profile, but has great importance to the Elohim. The guild is almost unique in having no central keep or stronghold. Instead the cabal’s board of notables maintain various manses, towers, keeps and residence of all sorts across the island and along the nearby mainland coast to north and east. The Blue Principles are named after their guiding document, a constitution of bylaws ensconced within a blue crystal ‘Perciplex’ protected by the Wi’ih, a mindless being from the 9th dimension. The guild controls a wide range of mana including Law, Nature, Spirit, Water and finally a node of ‘Mind’ mana on Warren island itself. Mesmer pays his dues and joins the guild as a full member. The tumble-down tower in Warrenpoint is listed as his ‘manse of residence’. He soon finds a wizard willing to do business and gives over a little-used spell in exchange for phantasmal-force.

Several weeks after arriving in Warrenpoint, Mesmer literally ‘runs into’ his old companion Lodermulch. While entering the shop of a dealer in books and scrolls, a halfling coming the other way nearly bowls him over (under?). The small man mumbles an apology and is about to hurry on his way when he realizes who he’s run into. “So you made it out of the Sheaim empire too? By the time I discharged my debt in Galveholm, the place was going to hell…literally. All the crops, jungles, even the animals have been changed by the crawling chaos from the Infernal lands. Anyway…don’t you owe me some money?” Mesmer smiles and prepares to make good his debt, only to discover his coin-purse has gone missing. “Oh, sorry! That bump-and-rob scam works particularly well here, what with all the Blue Principles mages and drunken pirates chinking fat with coin…well, I guess I’ll hang on to this since it seems to just about settle our score.”

Meeting Lodermulch in Warrenpoint isn’t too much of a surprise, considering a substantial minority of the ‘little people’ inhabit the city proper and a series of inconspicuous villages along the eastern coast of the island. More than a few are highly placed within the smuggling business. Loder visits the rune-heroes tower a few times over the summer to reminisce, but is far more comfortable among the low-class taverns and dives of the waterfront. The halfling’s blue rune is slowly fading, the pangs of the geas easier to ignore with every passing month. It seems the curse can be retracted, at least in the case of Lodermulch.

Earlier in the spring, Mesmer determined that Thothra, the Amurite archer captured from Syzimondo, has a small knack for magic. Not too unusual among a race descended from the greatest and first archmage Kylorin. Mesmer apprentices Thothra over the summer. The young Amurite excels and masters not one, but three powerful cantrips of magic! Perhaps one day Thothra could even become a full wizard. In the meantime, Mesmer has gained a faithful henchmen and apprentice.

Late in the summer Mesmer notices a dim spot appear on the horizon, visible only to himself and always located slightly east of due south from Warrenpoint. By day the spot is smoky gray, by night a dimly glowing ember. The rune-heroes theorize this is a guide provided by the Lich Asmoday to gather his minions from all across Arcanearth. Apparently the dreaded Lich-King counts Mesmer among his servants. A chilling thought! As the summer passes, the wizard finds his gaze wandering more and more often toward the spot.

Mesmer soon detects other more disturbing changes within himself: 1) a circular tatoo of untranslatable glyphs appears on his chest, at first barely visible, but growing more pronounced as the summer wears on; 2) a waxy pallor to the skin; 3) fingernails forming into long pointed claws. These physical changes will become very obvious by next year, at the current rate of change. Mesmer declines to have Krag use the old Luchuirp scroll to immediately remove the curse, if indeed it can be removed, on the chance this curse can somehow be turned to the group’s benefit. Talk about playing the long game!

Later in the year, during the voyage across the Earthsea aboard the Sea Hag, the spot slowly shifts to the southeast then finally slightly north of due east.

Leelo

Leelo steps onto the dock wearing reconditioned and newly-magicked black dragon armor, courtesy of grateful gnome expatriates in Trinity. She finds Krag at his shrine and gives over a magic shield: a circular warboard of bronze covered with a rosette of iron-hard white-dragon scales. On Finch’s instruction, his new suit of magical leather armor was left at the Luchuirp embassy vault in Trinity. This armor is fashioned by gnome craftsmen from the white hide and scales of Frostbite (dyed gray by the gnomes…it resists all attempts to turn it black). The warlock currently lacks facility with armor, but plans to gain this skill soon so that he can cease using the unfortunately-obvious protective enchantment provided by the ‘Voice from Beyond’ (a swirling gray-blue field of arcane force).

Through a ship arriving from the Ljosalfar havens in the Gulf of Tali, Leelo learns that conditions have not greatly altered. The Svartalfar still control Skyweir in the center of the light elf empire and show no signs of leaving. Queen Phaedra may have underestimated the Winter Queen’s commitment to this campaign.

Through Mavriy’s new contacts in the Council of Esus, Leelo learns that her brother has rejoined the Fey Guardians and is preparing to pass through dark elf lands into the frosty mountains of Illia on another spying mission. The Council seem well aware of the Fey Guardian’s activities, for it is they who provide this information to Mavriy. Hopefully they don’t share this knowledge with their Svartalfar hosts or worse, the Illians. The shadowy priests of Nox Noctis have eyes and ears in every city where the Council maintains a presence. As with Lodermulch, it seems Keelo is no longer burdened with the full weight of the rune-curse.

Voyage of the Damned

When the prevailing winds shift to the northeast with the coming of winter, a snaggle-toothed agent of Syzimondo contacts the rune-heroes at ‘The Laughing Sun and Crying Moon’. The Warrenpoint tower is left in the care of the ice-gnome Xar, Thothra the newly-minted Amurite apprentice, and Grenl the goblin shamaness. This unlikely trio have somehow established an uneasy accommodation during their months together. In the dark of the moon on a stormy night the adventurers row out from a smuggler’s cove along the windswept western shore of Warren isle. Out of the dark emerges a familiar frigate of four masts: the Sea Hag.

AE-session21-PirateCrew_20180902.jpgSyzimondo has instigated major changes. The ship is fully refitted for a long voyage. The previous boatload of cutthroats is reduced to a skeleton crew of hand-picked pirates. The 1st Mate and Bosun are recognized as two of Syzimondo’s companions who also escaped the melee in the jungle long ago. Armament has been reduced from eight to four ballistae to make room for extra provisions.

Syzimondo has deceived his crew with a plausible tale of slave-taking as a cover for his real purpose. The crew are comfortably familiar with snatching island barbarians and selling them at the Calabim ports of Nubia and Araia. From there slaves go to serve the great estates of the vampiric nobles, or contribute their blood to one of the ‘feastings’ held on public not-so-holidays…

During the voyage southwest the rune heroes watch the crew carefully for any possibility of future advantage. Should Syzimondo be killed outright and the ship taken over, or charmed by magic? Leelo stealthily inventories the contents of his cabin and those of his officers, but finds nothing useful. The wily pirate has apparently memorized the missing half of the tablet. At no time does he sneak off to a secret location to retrieve or consult the missing half.

By the second week of the voyage, Finch has used his eerie powers to divine that the 2nd mate is definitely susceptible to the charms of mutiny and would love nothing more than to supplant Syzimondo. Possibly useful, though his knowledge of navigation seems lacking compared to Syzimondo and the loyal 1st mate. Syzimondo knows how to use the stars, moon and sun, the currents, the winds and weather, and even the color of the sea to somehow divine his location and sail on with purpose toward the mysterious destination of ‘Zencotan’, supposedly somewhere far south of the southernmost Lanun isles. The warlock is rapidly improving his knowledge of wind and wave by working with the officers and crew, and surreptitiously observing Syzimondo as he navigates. The fat black-bearded rogue chuckles at Finch’s attempted seamanship, but is clearly nettled by the eavesdropping. Syzimondo begins concealing important aspects of his calculations.

Near the end of a third week with nothing but ocean in sight, overt grumbling sets in among the crew, but they are uncertain whose side these adventurers are on. Some barbarian islands better appear on the horizon soon. Leelo and Mesmer hatch a plan to assassinate Syzimondo and take over the ship with the help of the 2nd Mate. Before they can execute the plan, a strange storm blows in from the north.

AE-session21-GiantTentacle_20180902.jpgFrom the storm emerges a black copper-plated ship with bronze-armored crows-nests atop three tall masts. Shades of Scylia, but the banner of Saryin Nures is not in evidence. By skillful sailing Syzimondo is able to keep the Overlord warship well to stern, until the wind and waves seem to conspire against him. The ship lurches to a stop as the sea boils with unnatural activity all around. A great black shadow moves in the waters beneath the ship. The timbers creak with strain as something grapples the hull. Shouts of ‘Overlords!’ and ‘Kraken!’ are heard among the crew. Even these hard-bitten pirates begin to panic. The officers desperately lash them back to their positions.

As the great warship looms close, the rune-heroes race to take strategic positions for the coming encounter. The green pearl on Syzimondo’s remaining ear glows fiercely, attracting stares of superstitious dread from the 1st mate and other nearby pirates. The situation looks grim. The scope for action has narrowed to a few desperate choices. Is now the time to take the pearl, possibly to destroy it? The adventurers whisper urgent plans as they sidle into position near the wheelhouse and atop the poop deck.

The Lanun warship halts as it approaches within 100 feet. Monstrous tentacles rise from the roiling waters around the doomed Sea Hag. Some pirates scream in terror. Others prepare to fight to the last. Syzimondo’s bulging countenance exhibits a horrid mixture of human and perhaps alien emotion: terror, outrage at the fate befalling him, and a sort of avid urgency or hunger. Familiar figures appear along the rail of the Overlord warship: Laerlith, Priestess of the Waves, and four green-hooded ‘Hands of Hastur’. Laerlith’s expression is obvious even from this distance: hateful vengeance mixed with gleeful expectancy for the impending completion of a task long-delayed.

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Session 20: The Blood Comet

AE-session20-TheBloodComet_20180826.jpgA blood red comet appears in the southern sky on the last days of the evacuation. According to the holy men of the Luchuirp, the ‘Blood Comet’ is the first sign of the End Times and presages widespread drought and famine across Arcanearth. Under this bloody illumination the last terrified refugees clamber aboard the ramshackle flotilla led by the Elohim Shield of Sirona.

The adventurers meet with Tor a final time. They tell of the rune-curse, though as always none are able to draw or so much as describe the rune floating above. In the past 12 hours the runes have changed back from blue-violet to blue. What could cause such a change? The wise High Runekeeper has heard whispered tales of heroes brought together across the ages by such an invisible rune, but the legends are vague, widely separated and inconsistent. Few but the most sagacious have even come across more than anecdotal accounts of these mysterious ‘rune-heroes’, and fewer hazard any guesses as to their origin or purpose. Tor does say that if anyone knows the answer, it will be one of the fallen archangels currently intruding upon creation, especially Cassiel, immortal leader of the Grigori people located a world away south of the Hippus steppes and north of the blood-sucking Calabim.

Tor relates other news of the war. Mutanbo east along the coast is still free, but a large Sheaim army has appeared out of the desert south of the eastern city of Tia’ran and is even now investing the city. The defenders do not expect to last long. Refugees are flooding east to Val’ron and from there along the coast road to the Malakim port city of Naucratis. Many are expected to perish during the brutal march across 150 miles of desolate desert coast.

In the far south, the Malakim have been routed by Hyborem’s infernal legion and an army of undeath led by the resurrected Lich King Asmoday. At this Leelo recalls the events of a year ago in the tomb-prison of Asmoday. Mesmer recalls Asmoday’s sibilant hiss promising a future reward in exchange for standing aside….a chill runs down the wizard’s spine.

Now the question of Asmoday’s fate can be considered answered with horrible finality. Thousands must have perished when the Malakim city of Nubilar was overrun by the Lich-King’s undead legions. It is said the isolated defenders held out for five days, destroying hundreds of undead and barbarian warriors before falling to a fate literally worse than death. The rune-cursed struggle to look anywhere but Tor’s piercing gray eyes.

Many gave thanks that Hyborem turned south after crossing the Dragonspires, though all know this can only be a short-lived respite. The archangel of Agares easily conquered the Luchuirp desert outpost of Nubilar. The infernal legion appears poised for a thrust east across the desert into the heart of Malakim lands. The Bannor have landed a large army at the mouth of the great Nilus river led by two of their greatest paladins: Valin Phanuel and Donal Lugh. This army, along with the main Malakim army led by Chalid Astrakein, is reported to be moving east along the coast rather than west to confront the Sheaim. The reason soon arrives by magical messenger from the High Luridus Astrakein: the Calabim have assembled a large army of conquest on the eastern borders of Malaki. Though Alexis and Flauros are not technically at war with any of the Overcouncil member states except the Elohim, it can only be assumed they are planning to take advantage of the situation and annihilate the hated Malakim once and for all. The Malakim are caught between infernal anvil and vampiric hammer.

When told of the green pearl and Syzimondo’s plans, Tor encourages the adventurers to accompany the freebooter wherever the pearl leads him. Perhaps this will reveal the source of the pearl’s evil power? Tor says the Elohim are likely to know more about this pearl and it’s purpose.

A few hours before the next dawn, Tor will depart for the Mercurian capitol of Trinity aboard the Elohim Shield of Sirona with only a small entourage. Many more will remain behind to die defending Castle Larchspur from the oncoming tide of Sheaim undead, fiends, archers, lancers and far stranger creatures summoned from the far realms of existence. Hundreds of thousands of Luchuirp will be overtaken by the advancing Sheaim. Many will die or be incorporated into the ranks of the Sheaim slave legions. Those who don’t escape can look forward to a dismal future under the heel of the Sheaim.

The rune-heroes take their leave of Tor and sail north with Syzimondo’s crew of cutthroats aboard the Sea Hag. The pirate captain has packed his ship with nearly a hundred unsavory rogues and a hundred more Luchuirp refugees stuffed into the bilges like sardines. He plans to dump them off on a rocky beach 20 miles from anywhere, but the rune-heroes force the grumbling pirates to transport the refugees all the way to Trinity, 150 miles north across the Ligurian Sea.

The great Maelstrom rotates counterclockwise off the port bow, at odds with all other drains and whirlpools in this part of the world. Since the cataclysm that ended the Age of Magic, this colossal whirlpool, 50 miles across at times, has provided a challenge to all mariners who would cross between the inner Ligurian Sea and the outer Sea of Meditor. Legends tell of ships entering the Maelstrom intentionally or more commonly, by accident. Years later bedraggled sailors would return to their home port telling wild tales of being dropped into a far ocean by a giant waterspout. On the rarest occasions ships are said to have survived the experience in marginally sea-worthy condition. Syzimondo proves to be a daring yet skillful navigator, one of the rare few willing to dance with the Maelstrom and be sped along their way, in this case gaining 4-5 hours over more cautious sailors. The rune heroes are treated to a close look into the abyss.

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After 26 hours running downwind, the fast frigate completes the voyage north across the western Ligurian and arrives at the mighty capitol of Mercuria. Trinity is named in honor of the holy triumvirate of The Order: Junil, Nantosuelta, and Arawn. The city is still significantly Bannor in culture and mortal population, but in the 20 years since the Mercurian Gate was opened, resurrected spirits clothed in raiment of mortal flesh have joined the population in growing numbers. The angelic Host, normal-appearing men and women but for wings, glowing eyes and faint halos, are a common sight everywhere in the city. Valkyries watch over the huge arch of the Gate, shepherding recent recruits from the spirit world to join the Host of Basium. Fiery Seraphs illuminate the city with holy fire all night long. Rarer angels such as Messengerii and Ophanim occasionally streak through the sky above or ride down the wide boulevards. Rarest of all are Heralds, Repentants and the horrifying Angels of Death. These terrible angels are normally the right hand of Arawn, tasked with enforcing the law of mortality across creation, but a few have seen fit to join Basium’s rebellion.

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The mortal population consists of the original Bannor citizens joined by a minority of Elohim, Amurites and Malakim drawn to Basium’s cause. Dwarven Umberguard crusaders of The Order arriving from Khazad now constitute a sizable minority in the capitol. Basium is more than anything a practical fallen angel: a small contingent of Hippus mercenaries camp outside the city. The rune-heroes learn that the newly-united Hippus have conquered the Doviello barbarian empire to their north and now rule all the lands between the Khazad hills and the shores of the Earthsea. The Khazad dwarves, in a bid to retain some measure of independence, have been forced to pay a recurring tribute to Emperor Tasunke in the form of iron, gold, gemstones, and most significantly, finished weapons and armor of high quality steel. Rhoanna, Hippus representative to the Overcouncil, has gone underground and not been seen since the triumph of Tasunke.

All but Mavriy and her new pirate ‘friends’ disembark and head straight for the Luchuirp embassy. This is the site of chaos barely held in check by a ring of angels on the ground and in the sky above. Luchuirp refugees crowd around the small compound, seeking audience or simply accommodations. Using a seal provided by Tor-kra’hom, the rune-heroes gain quick entrance and audience with the ambassador and a glowing six-winged messengerii. They recount the same tales told to Tor. As with Tor, the Mercurians advise the rune-heroes to seek out Elohim wise men of the west, who are sure to know more about the green pearl.

The Messengerii sends a Valkyrie to the Sea Hag moored offshore. The terrified pirates are treated to an unusual meeting between the demonling Mavriy and a rebel Valkyrie of Basium. Mavriy is led through the spirit realm to the embassy and her companions. During the trip through the ethereal city, Mavriy sees many more Valkyries guiding souls of the righteous fallen through the Mercurian Gate to be clothed in mortal flesh and join the Host of Basium. Most often these spirits arise as lesser Angels of the Host. Some few exceptional fallen are resurrected as angels of higher ranks, such as Valkyries or Seraphim. Mavriy must now be counted among the very few mortals or immortals to have ever visited both Hyborem’s Iron City of Dis and Basium’s capitol Trinity.

The rune-heroes have 24 hours in the city before Mavriy is no longer welcome. The party deals with expatriate Luchuirp smiths, leather-workers and enchanters to begin the long task of turning Frostbite’s white hide and iron-hard scales into magical armor. The refugee artisans are glad for the custom and charge their new customers half the usual fee. But it will be many months before these wondrous works of magic and craft are completed. Krag obtains a number of healing potions from the human and gnome priests at the Temple of Kilmorph within the city. Several of the rune-heroes deposit gold and magic for safekeeping in the vault beneath the embassy.

Leelo attempts to insinuate herself into the Ljosalfar embassy, a quiet tower shrouded in transplanted Evermorian oaks, but has little success. No one is on hand from the days of her infamy except a few cooks and housekeepers. Seeing no advantage in renewing the acquaintance with underlings, particularly if they know any uncouth tales from her last days at the embassy years ago, she tries to ingratiate herself with the new ambassador. He proves unwilling to divulge any significant state secrets to this wayward elf dropping in out of nowhere, but does volunteer some startling news: the Winter and Summer Courts are at war. A large Svartalfar army led by General Alazkan moved south through the heart of Ljosalfar lands, unable to break into any major cities, but looting and pillaging along the way. Finally, through illusion, guile and betrayal, Alazkan opened the gates to the southern city of Skyweir. The crystal domes and tree-palaces of the city are now in the hands of cavorting dark-elf warriors, priests and illusionists. The ambassador does not believe the occupation will last long, as the Winter Court lacks the stomach for lengthy commitments. More worrisome are the new Illian allies of Queen Viconia. Thus far, Auric Ulvin’s priests of winter have not intruded upon the Summer Queen’s territory. How long will this untoward leniency continue? Soon the legions of Mulcarn must come tumbling down from the frigid north like a white wall of doom.

Syzimondo is happy to depart the harbor of Trinity. “These glowing, flapping monstrosities make my guts roil. I don’t know how red-blooded mortals can tolerate their insane strictures. For me, it’s freedom on the high seas or nothing!” Courtesy of the Elohim navy, who still maintain a fragile peace with the Sheaim, passage through the straights between Cafes and Bourne the Gleaming is relatively uneventful. Bourne, on the northern shore of the straight, is the camp of Basium and his angelic Host. The presence of Basium is indicated by a glowing pennon flying high above the citadel. Few voluntarily seek audience with Basium, who is said to be notably short of patience, and often mercy as well.

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The superstitious pirates of the Sea Hag peer up toward the Blood Comet, whispering powerless spells against both angels and devils. Mavriy well knows the cause of the sparkling motes and trails of fire illuminating the dark skies over the straights. The glow of her demon-infested home town is barely visible on the horizon off the port bow as the Sea of Meditor comes into view.

Three days sailing west on a beam reach brings the Luchuirp-flagged freebooter to the mighty cliffs of Cahir Abbey, a city steeped in memories of the Elohim dating back to the Age of Dragons. The party is put ashore at night by launch. Syzimondo dares not even show the profile of his ship in daylight at the harbor of the Elohim capitol, somewhat-tattered Luchuirp flag notwithstanding. In the morning the rune-heroes see no sign of the Sea Hag. They must seek their own way onward to Warrenpoint, an island city notably more friendly to ‘alternative income’ sailors, there to meet with Syzimondo at the beginning of fall when the prevailing winds blow from the east-northeast.

The party is given the freedom of the city. The Elohim are tolerant to a fault and spies from many empires infest the capitol. Mesmer, Krag and Finch seek arcane knowledge about the mystical whistle Nightcaller, recovered by Mesmer from a Patrian ruin in the jungles between Nininsnal and Kuldevind. Finch knows the libraries, sages and academies of Cahir Abbey well. After several weeks effort they are successful in determining this type of magical prison became popular toward the end of the Age of Magic when the mages and sorcerers spawned by Kylorin reached the worst of their depravities. The whistle is a prison for other-planar entities, but without the long-lost controlling spells, such imprisoned entities are free to destroy their summoner and must be dealt with cautiously. Nightcaller’s current inhabitant can be replaced only through release by the owner of the whistle, or if defeated by another alien entity. In this case the victor unwittingly assumes the place of the vanquished. This means Azariel the Succubus might now be a prisoner of Nightcaller, but only if she managed to destroy the shadow-demon that terrible night in the apartment of Lady Shaunicca.

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Mesmer and Finch discover information about the copper tablet given over to them by Syzimondo. First, the tablet is recently broken in two and useless without the missing half. Undoubtedly the whereabouts of the missing half are known to Syzimondo and serve as personal hazard insurance. Ancient Patrian and Elohim texts indicate the barbarian empire of Zencotan and the capitol of the same name were never conquered, but fell into decay for undocumented reasons. Most importantly, a sage is able to translate the Zencotan calendar inscribed upon the copper tablet into the modern Elohim calendar. A sea-going captain such as Syzimondo should be able to use calendar and dates to locate the long-lost capitol.

The trio of knowledge seekers dare further in trying to find out what happened to Finch after disappearing into the dungeons of Os-Gabella last summer in Galveholm. Here they come close to falling into an arcane trap laid for such investigators. This in itself is quite revealing. The agents of Os-Gabella anticipate such intrusions and work to derail, discomfit or destroy those who verge upon the deepest secrets. Finch also tries to find information about his patron, in the city where he first heard the Voice from Beyond, but runs into a blank wall here as well.

Leelo and Mavriy find an ‘Altar of the Luonnotar’ in the city, similar to another such edifice recently constructed in Trinity. These rather unassuming shrines each house a broken piece of white marble. The Luonnotar, a small cult of natural philosophers, claim these are pieces of the white stone slab where the one true god stood when he came into creation before the fall of Agares. The great religions of the day hold that this is a fable and only the 21 gods who grant power and protection are worthy of worship. The Luonnotar hold that the gods worshiped today are nothing but petulant children squabbling over the spoils of creation. Some of the Luonnotar believe that if the fragments of the slab can be found and reassembled, the one true god will return to creation.

Leelo finds no one in authority. Indeed, no obvious priesthood is in evidence. Asking a random passer-by, she chances to meet an elderly human with eyes full of experience, who introduces himself as ‘Elder Methyl’. Over tea the Elder regales Leelo with the history of his association. Methyl seems to have been everywhere and seen everything. How can feeble humans accomplish so much in so little time?

Leelo reveals the problems of the green pearl and the ‘rune curse’ to the kindly old gentleman. Elder Methyl tells a seemingly unrelated story involving Cassiel, archangel of Dagda, the spirit of an murdered child and her father. “Like the other archangels of the One, Dagda is a pretender, but also an arbiter of the Balance, instigator of the Compact, and keeper of the Godslayer, so worthy of respect.” The elder advises Leelo and her companions to seek wisdom from Cassiel, fallen angel of Dagda and spiritual center of the Grigori empire. Cassiel maintains his earthly abode in the Grigori capitol of Midgar, on the other side of the world. Regarding the green pearl, Elder Methyl can only advise caution and recommends consultation with the Order of the Elohim.

At the ‘Chancel of the Guardians’, a fortress dominating the southern cliffs, Leelo and Mavriy gain audience with a junior paladin of the Elohim Order. Their story soon brings a monk of more senior position. The unnamed monk advises Leelo to deal carefully with Syzimondo. The green pearl is likely the soul object, or prison, for the spirit of an elder demon of Mammon imprisoned beneath the waves in the Age of Dragons. The soul of “Blikdak” is likely inhabiting a weapon of the hated Overlords and their Lanun allies: Saverous. Rather than allow the pearl to fall into Overlord hands, it could perhaps be destroyed by sufficient magical force, but such an act could have dire consequences if the green pearl is indeed a prison for the soul of Blikdak. Nevertheless, it could be worth the risk to track the deluded pirate to his ultimate destination on the chance this place is related to the origin and fate of Blikdak. Once the pirate has met a well-deserved demise, whoever brings in his head will win a sizable bounty.

Leelo asks for any magical assistance the Elohim can provide. The monk asks Leelo to meet him a week hence at the ‘Reliquary’. This structure is a huge unadorned marble palace at the highest point of the city that seems to serve no useful purpose either as a fortification or temple of one or many gods. What could be the function of this mysterious building?

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Session 19: Frostbite's Doom

AE-session19-Frostbite_20180819.jpgThirty hours remain until sunset of the next day, when the elderly Mesmer and Mavriy become permanently aged. After a much-needed rest, the rune-heroes explore the chapel where gnomes worshiped Kilmorph centuries past. The small temple is now a charnel house. Next to the once-sanctified altar are yellowed bones of slain ogres and shriveled remains of an orcish wight that look to have collapsed only recently. Perhaps minions of the cursed spirit of Arun-da’til? Carefully arranged atop the altar is the prone skeleton of a gnome in rusted plate armor with hands folded over a rusty battleaxe. Marks on the axe and armor indicate these must be the remains of the gnome lord Dur-ge’tin laid to rest by the cowardly Arun-da’til.

Assisted by Krag’s knowledge of religious practices and temple construction, Leelo carefully searches the shrine. Within hidden compartments are vellum scrolls still resonant with the power of Kilmorph: chants to cure disease, remove curses and purify water. The party makes haste to depart the dusty temple-turned-tomb.

Time enough remains to go dragon-hunting. Evidence that ‘Frostbite’ has slithered through much of the fortress is everywhere: scratches in the stone of floors and walls; a few scales lost squeezing through narrow halls; gouges at the corners of bronze-and-stone doors. After lengthy deliberation and consultation with Zaugrum, who glimpsed the beast on two different occasions, the party concludes that Frostbite is likely a young dragon. Still, they are taking no chances.

Zaugrum is favorably impressed by the rune-heroes exploits so far. The priest of Agares still hopes to convince them to return to Galveholm and commit themselves to the side of the Sheaim in the coming struggle. He agrees to support the party as best he can if they will restore his armor and staff. The party believes his ability to heal from afar may be sorely needed in the upcoming hours and agrees to give him one more chance to prove his worth. Zaugrum takes up position at the far end of the throne-room.

Rather than descend the frosty pit to confront the deadly beast in it’s lair, a plan is hatched to lure the dragon up into the throne-room and trap it there. The magic carpet-of-smothering is laboriously dragged to the center of the throne-room using ropes, grapnels and climbing gear. Varthor’s twisted corpse will be used as bait. Krag breaks loose the mounting bolts from two of the iron forges in the golem factory. Pushing and pulling from opposite sides with makeshift rope and tackle, the heavy drums are finally rocked from the stone furnaces. They crash onto the floor and are carefully rolled, positioned and blocked in place at the edge of the windy chasm.

Mavriy and Krag consume the mountain-gnome potions of frost protection found in the caves above. Leelo likewise drinks the potion of warmth, much weaker but still helpful. Those skilled in protective magic fortify their friends as best they can.

Everyone but Leelo and Finch take up ambush positions behind columns in the throne-room. For good measure a roaring fire is set in one of the drums using fuel carried in by the Sheaim expedition. The alfar rogue and half-alfar warlock remove the chocks and roll the massive iron drums over the edge. Enormous clangs like the tolling of bronze bells sound from the pit as the drums bounce from the frozen waterfall and stone ledges. Finally a resounding crash thunders from the chasm when one forge finds a hard surface at the bottom. The second forge, this one a flaming ball of fire, explodes in a fountain of steam and broken ice when it plunges through the frozen surface of a pool 120 feet below, being extinguished in the process. Neither Leelo or Finch see this as they are already vaulting the stream and racing toward the open doors of the throne room.

The minutes tick past. The party remembers they tossed ten edible corpses into the chasm a few days ago. Perhaps the dragon is well fed and torpid? After nearly an hour, when patience is almost exhausted, a scaly slithering and curious snuffling sounds from the open doorway to the golem-workshop. Leelo sees the head of a monstrous ice-white lizard cautiously poke through the doorway, sniffing the air. But the beast seems wary and a trifle sluggish. It backs out of view.

Leelo fears the dragon will return to a frigid lair where no doubt conditions are to its advantage. She rushes forward. The dragon gives a coughing roar, but continues backing toward the pit. Leelo vaults forward to take cover behind a yard-high slag pile. The none-too-intelligent dragon is tricked into thinking Leelo is alone. With a roar that chills the blood, Frostbite lunges forward behind a torrent of frosty breath. Leelo is coated in frost, surviving only due to the potion of frost resistance and meager cover from the slag pile. The dragon comes in to claim it’s kill. Leelo dodges to the side. A huge scaly head darts past her and slams full into the cave wall (rolled a 1). Frostbite is momentarily stunned.

The other rune heroes arrive from the throne room. The dragon gives up it’s wounded prey and backs away, raging at the tricks of these tiny creatures. Finch casts his spell of hideous laughter. The dragon’s mind is infected with the deadly mirth of the warlock’s unknown patron. It begins to thrash about the cavern in a paroxysm of choking, roaring laughter. Mavriy, Krag and Leelo use this brief respite to beat past buffeting wings and take positions all around the serpent. Mesmer prepares his most potent spells of fire from behind the cover of a remaining forge. Xar takes up position across the factory, marks the dragon and prepares his bow. Zaugrum observes in wide-eyed wonder from the entrance to the throne-room.

Before Frostbite can recover it’s admittedly dim wits, Leelo shrieks “STRIKE NOW!!!” and drives her rapier and small-sword deep into the beast’s haunches. Krag calls on the aid of Xrarog. His whirling warhammer scribes an arc of purple fire in the air before slamming down onto the neck and flank of the dragon. Frostbite screams as adamantium crunches through iron-hard scales. The monstrous hunter is no longer laughing. Mavriy dares the snapping jaws to strike with her pole-scythe and deliver a smiting blow of psychic energy. The demonling is weakened by age, but still charged with the dark power of Esus. Mesmer sears the ice-wyrm along it’s entire length with multiple rays of scorching fire.

The dragon fears and hates fire beyond all other hurts inflicted by this swarm of horrid little monsters. With a bellow of rage the dragon breathes forth a blast from the coldest region of hell. Mesmer sees death looming large before him. Luckily the Amurite’s arcane skills are up to the task and he manages to cast a spell of misty-step. The wizard slips through the spirit-realm to appear 10 paces distant, coated head-to-toe in a frosty rime of icicles, but still counted among the living. Zaugrum hastily casts a powerful spell of healing from his position at the doors. Black and blue frostbite slowly recedes from Mesmer’s extremities.

Frostbite sees it’s doom through a haze of frosty rage. The desperate wyrm turns to flee, batting Mavriy aside as it does so. The paladin is raked by deadly talons inflicting scars she will long remember. The dragon stretches out it’s wings and surges past Leelo toward refuge in the chasm. Mavriy and Krag mercilessly smash the fleeing wrym with pole-arm and hammer. Finch blasts Frostbite’s feeble mind with dark corruption. Leelo sees her opening as the hissing beast blunders past. Her rapier scribes an arc of silver in the gloom before intersecting with a scaly neck. Purple blood gushes as the dying dragon thrashes back and forth across the cavern. The severed head plunges into the icy stream where it is carried over the edge into the windy dark of the chasm.

Xar sets to work taking hides, scales, claws and other potentially-usable bits from Frostbite’s carcass. After a short rest and further healing from Krag and Zaugrum, Leelo and Finch climb down the bronze ladder descending from the north ledge of the pit. At the bottom is a freezing cold natural cavern. Frostbite’s horrid head lies staring at them from the icy floor nearby. The waterfall is almost entirely frozen, along with the pool and stream nearby. The remains of one of the forges is already trapped in new ice. The other lies in pieces nearby. The stream is frozen 6" thick, but it seems Frostbite swam in the frigid waters as one section has been broken open from below and refrozen recently. Smears of frozen blood mark where Frostbite dragged the bodies of dead Sheaim soldiers, cultists and sorcerers into the frozen stream.

A pair of gnome-constructed stone arches cross the frozen stream in two places. Apparently this is an escape path prepared by the gnomes hundreds of years ago. No other evidence of improvement or construction is seen. The explorers discover the second arch is structurally unsound and safely avoid a plunge into the ice. Beyond the last bridge is a huge cavern covered with a frozen subterranean lake. The cold here is intense beyond even the coldest night in the Dragonfang mountains.

In the center of the frozen lake is a small island covered with a forest of ice bent and spun into fantastical shapes. Much of the ice in the island is crystal clear. The rune-heroes find the glitter of gold and silver encased within the ice, and much else dragged from the runes above. Entombed in glassy ice and arranged for display is the perfectly preserved body of the Sheaim captain, snatched from the expedition by Frostbite as he crossed the mountains. Being none too fond of the Sheaim officer-class, Zaugrum gazes upon the hideous trophy with satisfaction, occasional chuckling to himself. Everyone sets to work with ice picks and fire-spells to get at the treasure.

The source of the intense cold is quickly identified. Gaps into another realm open now and again in the air above the island. All are small and remain open for unpredictable periods ranging from seconds to a few minutes. Blasts of horrible cold shoot from the openings. Beyond the openings are swirling ice and snow. Through one larger portal Finch glimpses a far horizon of gray and black, as if from a high mountain ledge. Krag identifies this realm as the first of the seven hells, the domain of Mulcarn. White dragons are creations of Mulcarn, just as the parents of all dragons today were creations of the other 20 gods. These beasts once raged freely across creation during the Godswar, before the Compact and subsequent rise of mortal civilizations. No one feels like venturing into Mulcarn’s icy hell or waiting around to see if any frostlings come through. Before departing, Finch tosses in a written note.

Leelo explores an ice cave leading from the frozen lake-cave. After hundreds of yards Leelo steps from the cave into the intense glare of afternoon sun reflecting from snow. Behind her looms the great hill dominating the south end of the valley. Below her spreads the frozen lake. The walls of Fang Valley are visible to the east and south.

Four hours later all the loot that can be retrieved is piled upon the solidly-frozen lake. Without Mesmer’s magic floating disc, much less loot would now be piled upon the ice. Only a few hours remain until the sun sets for Mavriy and Mesmer. Eighteen days ago six climbers entered the Dragonfangs. Will the base camp still be waiting?

The rune-heroes decide to release Zaugrum in recognition of his assistance during the fight with Frostbite. And perhaps an ally within the Sheaim empire could be useful in the future. Not enough time remains to execute a plan to drop Zaugrum off at Ithralia. There Zaugrum could link up with his agents of the Ashen Veil and presumably make his way home. Zaugrum is relieved to hear this risky plan is cancelled. Instead Zaugrum is allowed to take refuge with the orc mercenary cadre in the Fang. The priest is confident he can control the orcs, at least until a supply column arrives and he can depart this hellish place for good. After all that he’s seen in the past 48 hours, Zaugrum’s opinion of the rune-heroes has permanently changed.

“I now believe you to be great heroes destined to take part in the battle for creation. Will you not reconsider my offer and join the righteous side? Together we can be heroes of Agares, god of renewal. The traitorous gods and their flawed works will be cast down to make way for a new and better world! No? Then here we part ways. I will acknowledge your assistance, though by your actions you have thwarted the Emperor and probably my liege-lady as well. I fear when next we see one another it will be from the far sides of a terrible battlefield.”

Leelo takes out a large rusty-brown feather from her dragon-leather armor and snaps it in twain as instructed by Thessa. For thirty minutes the rune-heroes scan the sky. Finally a clap of thunder shakes the valley. Far above, a great chasm opens in the darkening blue vault. God-rays stream through at an angle quite different from the westering rays of today’s setting sun. This must be a gap into the air above the sacred mountains east of Evermore, capitol of the Ljosalfar and host to Queen Phaedra’s court. There roost the last remaining rocs employed by the gods as mounts and hunting birds during the fabled Age of Dragons.

Moments later a vast bird of prey soars through the opening and begins to descend in a great spiral. As the minutes pass, the size of the great roc becomes apparent: it’s wingspan must be well over 80 paces across. The titan of ancient times casts a shadow covering the entire east end of the frozen lake. The noble bird lands in a cloud of snow only fifty paces from the huddled rune heroes. Atop the bird is a magnificent palanquin of mithril and Evermorian oak, with seating for a dozen and stowage for a thousand pounds or more. A stair leads from the fore of the palanquin to a lofty seat perched above and behind the head of the Roc. With some trepidation the lilliputian heroes begins carrying equipment and treasure up the mithril chain ladder dangling 40 feet below the palanquin. The benign roc looks down upon the tiny beings with a fiery orange-red eye probably ten feet across.

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After an hour all is ready. Leelo feels a wordless connection with the great being. She ascends the silvery gangway and straps into the seat atop the prow of the palanquin. The white lake lurches and retreats in a cloud of snow as the roc buffets his passengers with hurricanes of frosty air. The roc rises higher and higher. The sun once again comes into view as the mountains retreat far below. Slanting rays of orange fire strike from west to east, recasting the Dragonspires in miniature chiaroscuro of orange, white and black. The roc rises to a height of perhaps 5000 paces where the air is thin and cold. The rune-heroes are saved from freezing by their mountain-gnome parkas and the clever design of the palanquin, which directs winds to left and right such that one could almost play a game of cards.

After not much more than an hour, Leelo directs the Roc back down to earth where the base camp should be located. She is able to commune with the Roc and share it’s incredible vision. A tendril of smoke rises from a single small hut. The rest of the base camp is completely gone. As the Roc lands, an elderly gnome steps out, struggling against the gale-force wind generated by the Roc’s mighty pinions. Upon seeing the giant bird, the gnome flees for his life. Leelo catches him and the rune heroes are soon recognized. This single gnome was apparently left to give any returning mercenaries the bad news: ten days ago the Sheaim legions stormed through Dragonspire pass, crossed the Deadlands largely unopposed, and invested Ithralia. The capitol is completely surrounded and under seige. The High Runekeeper Tor-kra’hom and his entourage are organizing a desperate evacuation at Larchspur castle. Even now the armies of the Sheaim push north toward the coast! Leelo is not able to get much more out of the terrified old man.

Larchspur castle is little more than an hour away on the wings of the mighty bird. In the dying light, a dirty brown smog is visible along the southern horizon in the direction of Ithralia, 100 miles distant. On the coast and in the harbor below the castle are scores of ships, small and large. Streams of refugees arriving from the south are being shepherded aboard the ships. The rock alights near the castle. After the party throws their gear off, the great bird rises into the air once more and disappears into the growing darkness.

Tor-kra’hom and his party of several hundred loyal acolytes, priests, stonewardens, enchanters and warriors are defending the castle and helping organize the evacuation. The High Runekeeper makes time to meet with the returning adventurers and is pleased to find them carrying the lost secrets of stone and iron golem manufacture. First, and without more than an hour to spare, the mighty cleric calls upon Kilmorph to lift the weight of false decades from Mesmer and Mavriy. Both are restored to their original age within minutes.

“I am sorry to say that we are too late to save my people, but I will carry the golem-secrets across the Ligurian sea to Mercuria and Bannor lands where hopefully we can make use of this knowledge in the future. Unfortunately the reward promised by King Gyr will die with him in Ithralia. The old King has refused to leave despite entreaties from our enchanters, not to mention the wizards of the Elohim, Bannor and Mercurians. The King and a host of loyal defenders have withstood six days of continuous assault to buy us precious time. The enemy is now into the middle city and about to assault the Upper City and from there, the High Castle. The last defenders could fall tonight. Scouts, pyre zombies, and archers have bypassed Ithralia and are within 45 miles of the coast.”

Tor rewards the rune-heroes as best he can with 500 gold pieces each. A surviving adept scribes copies of the various conjuration and enchantment spells discovered in the Fang. One copy is given to Mesmer for safekeeping. Tor plans to leave two days hence for the Mercurian capitol of Trinity where there is a major temple to Kilmorph and a Luchuirp embassy.

An unexpected acquaintance is on hand: Syzimondo the freebooter, still in command of his Luchuirp-flagged frigate, the Sea Hag. He’s being paid to ferry refugees across the Ligurian and is taking on his last load from the rocky beaches below. Syzimondo sends a messenger to the rune-heroes. At an abandoned dock-side wineshop, Syzimondo makes the rune-heroes a far-fetched proposition. The first and most obvious change is that Syzimondo has lost an ear. Only an ugly scar remains. But the green pearl has changed homes to his other ear. As Syzimondo speaks, a curious green flicker lights his eyes, “That bastard illusionist was an agent of the Overlords, who seem to want my beautiful pearl. He’s now taking a long swim with the fishes, while I still stand before you!” Syzimondo seems swollen with unusual personal force and presence.

The freebooter brings out a green copper tablet for the inspection of his guests. “This is an ancient tablet from the fabled city of Zencotan, capitol of a pre-Patrian empire from the time before Kylorin united the barbarians under his rule. Fables tell of the wealth of this lost city, the unlooted wealth of a lost empire never brought low by the Patrians! One of my mates stole it from a reliquary in Cahir Abbey years ago and I never thought to make use of it…but now something tells me this is the key I have been looking for. With wealth like this I could fund a fleet of pirates and wrest control of the southern Lanun islands. I will found a new sea-rover kingdom and strike fear into the slimy heart of Hannah the Irin!” Syzimondo waxes rhapsodic about the tremendous wealth in store for whoever first reaches the remote southern island where Zencotan is indicated on the copper plate.

“That’s where you landlubbers come in. I’ve seen your mettle tested time and again. My scurvy pirates are a superstitious lot. They would never dare a chancy venture of this sort, so I have to keep it secret. But you, my lovely friends, are not so easily scared away from a wet road with a pot of gold at the end!. Also, I need your skills in Cahir Abbey. We need more information about this tablet and Zencotan. Alas, I am not favorably thought of in the streets of the Elohim capitol and dare not show my horrid face. First I need to dump off this cargo of landless midgets and collect my pay before the diseased maggots I call a crew slit my gizzard for the gold in my teeth.”

The rune-heroes cautiously agree to explore the situation. Syzimondo hoped for nothing better at this stage and leaves for his ship.

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