Campaign of the Month: March 2009

Denizens of the Nentir Vale

And The Silence Fell

And so he paced. Running his hands over the ancient stones, he whispered, “Test them, bring them down, break them. Only if they are broken can they rise.” The room rumbled, but calling it a room would be a heinous crime. This was a place of creation itself. A place where the forces of life and death swirled in unison, unbridled, unbroken, and in their infinite power. The most powerful man to ever live had built this ancient place, he had harnessed the strength of universe, contained it, and controlled it with his indomitable will. The man in the room now had the strength to control this power, for he had been touched by demons and gods.

The room boomed with the sound of a thousand thunderclaps and the scene before the man shifted. Six heroes stood, each in a realm of trial and test. The Dragonborn was shoulder to shoulder with his armies, preparing to fight giants of fire. The Dwarven hero open his eyes to a dimly lit place, with a cowering humanoid surrounded by dark creatures; wraiths. The Human Ranger stepped back from the cliff’s edge. Turning, he saw a Drow a short distance away, but the Ranger was weaponless; for his swords lay on a pillar a short distance away from him. The Sorcerer stood on rugged terrain. She was surrounded by a whirlwind, and at the edge of the storms eye three Drow surrounded a prisoner menacingly. The half-elf Cleric arose in a field of grass, in pleasant springtime. He stood on one side of a deep chasm, and on the other side stood a beautiful Elf maid, clutching an infant Orc. Each hero acted and moved forward. Holding fast to their beliefs, Dragonborn clashed with fire giants, the dwarf pulled the humanoid from the darkness, Drow were fought with, and an orc was spared. The room warped, bringing the adventurers together.

The man laughed and boomed, “Let them contest with themselves! They will know every weakness and every strength, every advantage and disadvantage. This will be a true challenege.” The six appeared on a burning pyre. Shadowy figures could be seen darting about the hallways, using arcane spells, martial prowess, and divine strength. Slowly, the adventurers began to realize the true danger that they faced, for this was a battle that the scale found even and equal. Ranger clashed with Ranger, Wizard fought Wizard, and adventurers fought themselves. It was only after truly great combat that a victor emerged. Those who were not shades of themselves proved that life is not something easily copied and replicated.

The heroes had completed the trial. Returned to the temple, they reequipped, rested, and prepared for a great battle. As they prepared, they grew silent, each contemplating their destiny, what their future was to bring. They had embarked on quests, saved kingdoms, and fought legendary foes. They sat. They began to recall their many victories, but fell into deeper contemplation as they thought of what was to come.

A silence of three parts filled the temple. Not an ordinary, hushed silence. This was a silence that filled the temple, permeated every nook, every cranny, even the very souls of those who would notice its existence. This first silence could be perceived by those who could hear the quickly beating hearts of the adventurers exploring. It was the quiet rasp of quickened breath, of a whetstone on the axe, and the anticipation of coming battle.

The second silence was a deeper, older silence. It filled every stone. The hieroglyphs on the walls screamed the silence to those who could hear them. The bones of the ancient mage were permeated by it. It was the silence of a place past its days of greatness, falling into the abyss of time. For only few remembered this place’s existence, and many of those few knew of it only in legend and myth.

The third silence was a new silence, not of the temple, but of one who knew it. This silence was one that you could hear if you listened for hours, it was the cracks of the stone floor, the settling dust. The silence of the hands of a great arcanist working to create a new place, to escape a destiny. As he paced you might realize that this temple was his, just as the third silence was. It filled every marking across his back, the sword and staff at his side, and the deep ebony crystal held in his hand. This was the silence of a man who is waiting to die.

Trawling For Demons

“Uncle Torbie, tell us the one about catching the demons from the boat,” little Mira shouted. The other six children jumped up and down, “Yes, yes, that is a great story!”

“It wasn’t a boat, you dolt,” the much too big for his britches Karrick shouted at his sister. “It was a flying ship, the Astral Falcon.” Mira stuck out a tongue purpled from the rare licorice treat that their beloved Uncle had brought.

“But, I wanted to hear about the magic bubbles!” little Arifta shrilled. “There was only one magic bubble, the other was a magic circle that was impenetrable,” the smug face of Karrick nodded wisely looking to his uncle, both for confirmation and for affirmation for having used such a big word.

From the wrinkled face of the old scrivener came forth a long sigh. Torben Eastlander remembered the events just before he had heard this part of the tale of the adventurers from the Nentir Vale. He had made a deal with Verrin the Scum Lord. He could still smell the vomit on the floor, even after all of these years, as he had gone back to the Moonbeam Inn and shaken the dwarven fighter to consciousness and roused the others. He needed more material. The tale of the capture of a demon and the presentation of its head to the ancient living bones of a mighty Archmage still made him smile. It was the most ridiculous of the stories that they had told him up to this point. It had made him rich.

“But, Uncle Torben, you said you would tell the one about the 10,000 dragons that the wizard summoned through time and space to fight the demon horde!” the deep voice of Merik the man child boomed. Torben gentle chided, “Well, they were dragonborn, not dragons, at least according to the Valers, and it wasn’t really 10,000. And, remember, those dragonborn are meant to represent some very tough fighting people, but they don’t have any real relationship to dragons.”

Verrin had taken some of Torben’s best material and stretched and twisted it in so many ways, now folks were thinking that the story was about a wizard summoning dragons! Incredible. Even more incredible was the level of adulation, nigh worship, that his stories were getting from the common folk, or at least the stories the way that Verrin’s cronies had re-written them. Oh well, the pay was good. And, he had to remember that Verrin wanted to be called the Apogee now. Or was it Perigee? No matter. It wouldn’t last.

But, at this moment, he had an audience that was much more demanding, and much more pleasant to appease. They might actually listen to the story, instead of trying to find some life-changing meaning in these flights of fancy that were like the dreams of a chance roll of the dice. How the children loved these stories. They kept coming back and begging for more every time he visited.

“Well, everyone gather round,” the old scrivener intoned. “The story you want begins a little earlier, before the magic bubble was made, before the demon’s head was cut, back on the Isle of their Castle.”

“Remember, the Astral Falcon was badly damaged after the great battle with Illidan Stormrage, the plague of the demon horde, and the destruction the Tower of the Arcane. Two weeks of repairs would be needed before she would be ready for flight again. While the group undertook the repairs back at their castle, in that time, they knew that the horde of demons summoned by Stormrage would begin to ravage the Vale. They knew that, alone, they five could not stop the Horde. They needed an army to hold off the Horde while they went to find Stormrage.”

“The mighty dragons of the Kengi!” Merik shouted. “Led by Prince Felsmon the Flighty,” Mira chimed in, looking for approval from her older brother. “That’s Prince Felsmon the Mighty, you dolt,” Merik retorted, “he could fly, he wasn’t flighty.” The teenager rolled his eyes at his younger sister’s mistake with the impassioned feelings of the wisdom of 16.

Torben did not have the heart to then correct Merik that the flying Felsmon was nothing more than the flights of fancy of some overzealous fishtale-telling adventurers. Though that shield on his back was awfully large the last time the scrivener had seen the Paladin.

“Yes, yes, Merik, Rift made contact with Felsmon and arranged a plan to have him bring the army of the Kengi to just outside Winterhaven through a magic portal that she and Tira would make with the help of the powerful artifact, the Cube. The adventurers had continued to find that the Cube’s powers were almost limitless. With it, Rift had found Felsmon, communicated with him, and arranged a plan to make a powerful magical gate through which the Kengi could march from their homeland into Winterhaven in a matter of seconds, instead of the weeks it would normally take. Rift and Tira would bend space and time itself!”

The children gasped at the thought of such power. Torben remembered how loudly he had laughed when the cleric Z’alden had told him this part of the story. He could still remember staring at the half-elf, waiting for the man to crack a smile as he tried to tell the fantasy with a straight face. But, the cleric had only continued on.

He could still picture the scene in the Moonbeam Inn. Barrick was asleep on the floor after finishing the last barrel of ale. He would have made a good foot rest, if only he didn’t have a habit of swinging his axe when he rolled over. Rift and Tira had wandered off, almost embarrassed as Z’alden had relayed these, some of the most unbelievable parts of the fanciful tale. He remembered how he had leaned in as the cleric made grand gestures and drew him into the story. He could still hear that smooth, earnest voice.

“With the Falcon repaired, we flew like the Great Dragon himself to just outside Winterhaven and began the construction of the great Dimension Door to connect Kengistan directly to the western Vale, just outside of the town of Winterhaven. At that point, we knew much about our foe thanks to Tira’s and Erik’s probings with the Cube. Stormrage was more than a warped and twisted wizard, he was a minor demon prince who was haunted by a quest for power and recognition. Let that be a lesson to us all. Seeking the approval of others, feeling superior to those whose skills are less, believing that it is acceptable to trample upon them, that it is acceptable to reach for the darkest great powers, these thoughts lie on the path of darkness and make one a servant of Chaos. They consume you.” Torben remembered how he had interrupted the little sermon, “ah, good cleric, could you get back to the story part? I’m on a deadline here.”

“Claws! But, of course.” The cleric had settled in at that point, and as he did, the Moonbeam Inn had grown quiet. The patrons had tuned out the sermon, but they too listened intently as the cleric related the electrifying tale of grit and determination in the face of great need.

“Through sheer will, each of my comrades had used the Cube to enhance their already impressive abilities. Barrick had taken it, and channeled it until his arms and legs swelled, and he had the strength of a hundred giants. He lifted huge trees from their roots and started to build the arch that was needed for the Door.” The patrons eyes had widened at the thought of the prone dwarf moving a tree. Torben had suppressed a chuckle. Probably, these were branches in the arms of the dwarf. Small ones. “Erik had also gained this power. Together, they constructed a massive arch of wood, forty staff lengths across.” Sensing his audience, Z’alden paused. “Wide enough to move an army through.”

The cleric continued, “I had helped my friends more readily attune themselves to the Cube. Barrick and Erik gathered even more trees, and in leaps and bounds, notched the wood like it was sticks, and constructed a massive dome around us.”

“Then, the great magic of the ritual started. Rift drew on the artifact, and arcane runes representing space and time danced like fire from her fingertips onto the massive dome. It began to fuse together. Purple tendrils of arcane energy alighted on the dome, then red and blue tendrils intertwined from Tira’s hands and eyes spinning around the dome, fusing the trees. Intricate carvings appeared on the smooth wooden surface, scenes of great battles from the past, runes of power, runes of magic. Rift cried out as visions appeared to her of times when the Cube had been used to alter history: the Cube exploding, destroying an impenetrable Citadel; the Cube, alone on a field with but a figure next to it with hands outstretched, and then, a great Castle raised from nothing in an instant. We learned that the Cube was like a Teacher to us, and we had to struggle to learn its lessons to use it.”

“Use it we did. In a moment of control of the visions, Rift reached out her mind and searched for our foe Stormrage, trying to find the Staff and Sword that were his items of power. She saw only two green lights, then the vision sharpened, as if darkness can be clearer, into a figure made of darkness underground in the old part of the Temple. This figure was in a room with the power to create and destroy. It was in this same room that we had found the door which took us to the Astral Sea, but that is another tale. In this room of power, the figure was blasting with arcane might at one wall. The wall fell, and Rift could no longer see the dark shape. She searched her mind for anything that she might know about such powers, and she recalled an old legend of the Inner Temple. Whether this knowledge was hers, or a gift from the Cube, we never knew.”

“The most powerful Archmages would go to this room, this Inner Sanctum, where magical forces for creation and destruction from every place and plane could be gathered and channeled. The First Archmage, Tassadar, had used the room to create a demi-plane, a place between the planes, to take refuge from the Gods that he greatly hated.”

“As Rift related this to us, Tira took hold of the Cube, swept her hands across it and stretched out the dome. The wood changed to have an amethyst hue, and the entire dome became purple crystalline as the Cube itself glowed so brightly that to look upon it was painful, yet wonderful. I could feel that this dome was no longer in one place. Rift then took up the Cube, and pulled the power from the Dome’s center back into the Cube. She was changing the face of reality itself, warping space and time, as she linked where we stood to be next to where the Kengi army waited! She made a tesseract, like folding two sides of a scroll to be next to each other.”

“Erik knew that having the army of the Kengi here to fight the Horde would do little good if they knew naught of the surrounding lands. Taking up the Cube, he stretched his mind’s eye over the lands surrounding Winterhaven. In an instant, the natural Scout knew every river, every creek, every hillock, every gully. Felsmon’s army would know all that could be known about the terrain, its strategic values and pitfalls, its high ground and its killing fields. The Horde could be routed to slaughter.”

“Then, the amethyst glow flickered. It weakened. Tira had tried to add her powers to open the door between the dimensions and admit the Kengi. Instead, she had locked the door that Rift had started. I held my breath. Barrick’s eyes grew wide. Tira set her jaw in grim determination, as though she had been locked out of a treasure that was rightly hers. Indeed, the treasure was knowledge, and the sorceress would not be denied. We could visibly see the key that formed as she opened this door, and Rift jumped through.”

“In a moment of fancy, Barrick stuck his head through this incredible portal. I think he drinks so much now to forget that infinite nothingness that he would describe with a pale tone. I can only imagine.”

“Having seen the lay of the land, as we waited for Rift to appear with the Kengi, Erik reached out to the Cube. Who is this Stormrage? Why does he thirst for power so? A sequence of visions appeared to the Ranger. He saw a toddler, levitating under his own power. Then, a child, an arcane prodigy, with even greater power, but a ravenous hunger for more. And, the ranger could sense the ache for approval from his masters, how the child wants to show them that the limits they have set are not limits for him. They are wrong. Illidan has no limits.”

“Erik sees through Stormrage’s soul as he watches him seeking his Sword and Staff, drawing on dark forces that darken the young mage as well. He seeks control and power. Nothing can stop him, he believes. He longs to be greater than the first Archmage. To control a demon Prince. He will prove to everyone that he is the greatest. But, he is not yet evil. The Ranger has visions of the weakness of Illidan. The young mage begins to know fear. Fear of his own power and its connections.”

“Even as she begins her walk across time and space, Rift is distracted by Erik’s visions. The Cube connects us all. She cannot resist the quest that the Ranger has started. What is Illidan connected to? A scene forms in the mind’s eye of the wizard. It may be a costly one, as she is adrift in nothingness, somewhere between here and there, between now and then. It is a then she sees. A vision of Illidan at middle age. Power courses through the mage. His powers are only just shy of the Archmage. He has broken long held rules and gone deep into the Old Temple. He is in an empty room. Rift recalls it from our own adventures. Illidan summons the Sword and Staff from beyond. Lightning crackles. Rift beholds Illidan at twice the age, but he has not a new wrinkle across his brow. He stands in the same ancient forbidden room of the Old Temple. Ritual circles within circles surround him. The magical energy crackles and shrieks. Rift can hear a voice a shouting with a sound like coal shoveled into a fire. ‘I am Jarraxus, Demon Prince of Erador, Lord of the Burning Legions’. The Demon looks willing to help the mage. Time shifts again. Rift sees Illidan communing with this Demon Lord. Dark Power radiates from Illidan. He has surpassed the Archmage. But, still he longs for those things that he has ached for since childhood. To be acknowledged, to be hailed, to be recognized that he can do more than tradition ever dreamed possible. That he can dream and create anything he desires.”

“Distracted, Rift’s attention on the Dimension Door had weakened. Barrick takes up the challenge. Channeling the great halls of his ancestors into the Cube, he buttresses the door, turning it to unbreakable stone pillars. My heart stops. The now stone arch is missing the lintel. The dwarf does not falter. Out of nothing, he makes a massive lintel and throws it to the top of the huge pillars. The true door is complete. Erik can see through the door to a portal forming on the fields of Kengistan, but it wavers. Tira attempts to strengthen it, but it falters still. I call upon Bahamut to guide our quest here, my prayers are answered. The amethyst lights grow brighter. The stones resound with a final lock into place. Erik becomes the Great Guide and forms the purple light into a short tunnel between the two lands. Rift can see into all places and all times. She calls to Felsmon. Seven thousand Kengi warriors travel through the door in a matter of seconds. We have done it. The Kengi have arrived. The Vale will be saved!”

Torben still remembers the cheers that erupted in the Moonbeam Inn as the cleric finished his tale. But, this was not the end of the story. Far from it. The adventurers had climbed into the Astral Falcon, teaching their old mentor Valthrun how to pilot it, Z’alden had later related to him. This would be of use when they left the ship. They still had a Demon Mage Illidan Stormrage to find and defeat. A Demon Mage who seemed to have gotten access to some of the greatest magic of the greatest Archmage, Tassadar, while they had been constructing the Dimension Door. Attend to one fire, and another advances. There are only so many resources.

“Uncle Torbie, uncle Torbie, you haven’t gotten to the good part where Barrick goes Trawling for demons!” little Mira huffed impatiently. Merrick cuffed her ears. “That was the good part you dolt. The creation of a door between Winterhaven and Kengistan to move 10,000 dragons through. What is catching a demon while suspended from a flying ship compared to that?”
Karrick huffed at his sister,”and, it wasn’t just your beloved hero Barrick. The cleric Z’alden was there, too. He used his magical dragon claws of light to stun the demons and then Barrick could easily grab one.” “The dwarf stunned them, too!” little Arifta shouted shrilly, “Uncle Torbie, tell them!”

The old scrivener motioned for them to calm down. Reluctantly, they obeyed, more under the spell of his stories than out of any sense of duty to listen. “Maybe the best thing to do is to wait until the morrow to talk of this anymore.” “NO!” they all shouted, agreeing for the first time all evening. “Well, then, a moment’s peace.”

“Indeed, you are both right. Barrick and Z’alden hung on the end of a long rope, as Erik sailed the Astral Falcon back to the ruins of the Temple of the Arcane. While thousands of demons roamed the vicinity, only a few were on a patrol near the Temple. It was this patrol that the adventurers targeted. As the ranger deftly piloted the Falcon close to the demons, sapphire dragon claws of light exploded from the cleric, ripping into the demons and rendering them senseless. He sent Radiant light erupting from his mace, searing the demons, and pushing away all but their one prey. The powerful arms of the dwarf encircled this one demon, grabbing him and lifting him up. For good measure, Barrick whacked the demon upside the head, ringing his bell further to subdue him."

“From the Falcon, spells flew at the demons. Tira dropped enchanted balls of green acid, sizzling onto the demons below, while the cleric’s god took form in silver flames of power that singed the monsters. With Erik’s steady flying, the mighty dwarf could wield his axe against his captive, all while holding onto the rope with his feet! A feat of derring-do, indeed! Then, a bold plan emerged. With their prey stunned, Erik shouted to Barrick to drop him. Barrick was incredulous. No, really, the ranger cried out. Then, like a leaf dropping from the sky, Erik deftly steered the ship to land on top of the demon, pinning it between the keel and the ground. Tira jumped off of the ship, twirled her dagger, and unleashed the powers of chaos on this spawn of chaos. It had not long upon this plane. Searing white radiant light rained down upon the helpless demon, as Z’alden called upon the powers of Bahamut again. Then, Barrick aimed his axe with great precision, and in one chop, the demon’s body remained beneath the ship, while the head flew in the air, to land in Z’alden’s waiting bag. And that is how the sport of axcrosse was started.” Even the taciturn Merik smiled at that.

Before Arifta could protest, the scrivener held up his end. “But, let us not forget what happened next.” He motioned to her. “Unleash the Abyssal!” she shouted in her deepest voice, something between a squeak and a croak. The children’s eyes got wide. Could some of them really have forgotten what happens next?

The scrivener continued.
“A monstrously large demon swirling with a body of fire descended from the sky. Rift smirked and pulled out the Cube to as she ordered it to return forthwith to its place of origin, or to the next convenient parallel dimension. But, the wizard heard a sound like an ancient gear grinding to a halt, and nothing happened.”

“It’s not my fault!” the wizard cried out, “something ancient is interfering with even the Cube’s power. I can’t use it for much of anything. And, that thing is coming towards us. This is a distraction to keep us from Stormrage. This is not a fight we need. I need a way to keep it at bay. Wait!”

“The wizard opened her spellbook. The ritual of the Magic Circle. I can stop that thing from getting next to us with a Magic Circle. Then, the Ranger said, if we ram the wall, we can make a breach and the encircled ship will plug the hole. We get into the castle, while it is stuck outside. Erik flew the Falcon up above the Temple ruins, well out of reach of the Fiery Demon’s powers while Rift prepared the ritual. Tense moments ensued. Would the wizard’s Circle really have the strength to stop a monstrosity seven staff lengths high, with arms of fire larger than oxen and legs of flame bigger than ancient trees? The Ranger flew the ship low and behind the Temple, then quickly rammed into a fallen tower. Rift raised the Circle. All of the group lent their knowledge and power to Rift as she completed the ritual. A shimmering protective sphere enveloped the ship. Bam! the castle wall was breached, and the ship was knocked as the Fiery Demon pounded on the power of the Circle. But, he could not penetrate it. The adventurers hopped off and into the tunnel they had pierced. The floor could not support them, and they fell, deep into the Lower temple.”

The scrivener paused briefly, reveling in the moment. No brother was pinching a sister. No child was crying. They were spellbound. Maybe this is what magic really is.

“Yes, their daring plans had worked out. And, they had the head of a demon that the skeleton encountered so long ago had demanded before he would give them the Key to the Depths Below. The key that they believed that they needed to reach Stormrage. As luck would have it, after some searching, they found the tunnel that led to that very same skeleton."
‘The prodigal heroes return’ was his boney greeting to the group.
“The cleric was torn. Conversing with undead? Then, he stammered out an epiphany. ‘Tassadar? Are you the Archmage?’ As if awakening from a long sleep, the thing replied, ‘that is a name I have not heard in many an age.’ The cleric presented the skeleton with the demon head. I can tell you I can still see Z’alden’s look, somewhere between puzzlement and anger, as the skeleton that was Tassadar simply tossed it aside. Merely a test of power, you see. He didn’t care about the head. The issue was whether they could get one. Were these heroes worth the bother? Sometimes the objective is not the objective. Good to keep in mind.”
Torben was almost sounding like the cleric himself. This sermonizing was contagious when he reflected on that darn cleric. A child pinched another. He was losing them. Or, they were getting hungry. He didn’t want them to miss what happened next.

“They had come for the key, remember. Tassadar pulled out an obsidian sphere. ‘This is not the key to the depths below. The depths have been unlocked.’ Rift stared at the sphere, then said, ‘but, could it be used to unlock a realm beyond this one?’ Somewhere in that bony face, Z’alden was sure he saw a grin as the skeleton replied, ‘Yes.’ Rift pressed further, ‘a demi-plane?’ ‘Yes, in the depths, you will find my inner sanctum. If it is still there, you will use this key to access it. Be warned, below is a great sorcerer and great evil.’ The ranger pressed him now, ‘Can Illidan be redeemed?’ ‘Redemption is a state of mind,’ was the only answer he received. ‘What about the Sword and the Staff, can they be used for good?’ ‘Weapons can be used for either,’ the bones replied. The cleric had a question, too, one that might haunt him for some time, ‘what can we do to help you?’. Tassadar raised his skeletal eyes to pierce those of the cleric, ’Bring me to the gods, to my inner sanctum.’ Z’alden lifted up the skeleton, and placed it on his back. ‘We must help this one find peace.’”

“Then, the adventurers began to move down the tunnel. Suddenly,..”

“Children, Torben, the roast Umber Hulk is ready!” their mother yelled. “Gross!” Arifta barely muffled. “Ahhh, we wanted to hear more of the story,” the others whined in unison.
“Come on in, or it will get cold!” their mother reprimanded.

Torben suppressed a snicker. Eating cold roast umber hulk would be the least of his concerns tonight if he didn’t get his latest draft to the Committee of Five.

30% Chance of Demons

“The Thunderspire Ordinators did their job again; it will probably be a while before that gang of dwarfs known as the Crypts bothers anyone on the King’s road again.”
“And now to Armando with the weather.”

“Thank you. Yesterday the sun shouted out a burst of light, quietly contemplated it for 12 hours, and then retracted its statement. The forecast for today: Bright and sunny with an 80% chance that I am wrong. Back to you!”

“This just in. Something spectacular has happened near, or shall I say, over Winterhaven. Let’s have a live chat through the Arcane Gate with our on-site correspondent, Enna. Enna, are you there?”

“Yes Sosario, I am here. I hope you can see this through the gate.” Enna points upward. “Not more than 2 minutes ago, that ship, a pirate ship it appears to be, what with the blood red skull on the flag. That ship just magically appeared in the air. The ship is now turning and starting to move, it is moving quickly, toward the East. Hmm, you probably cannot see this, but over on the horizon there is a strange dark cloud, unlike any I have seen before. Sosario, can you send Armando over to check it out?”

“Certainly Enna, thank you for that update. More on the mysterious ship as information arrives.”
“We are currently transporting Armando over to the dark cloud, Enna you should be receiving a report any second now. Armando?”

Armando appears, but behind and all around him is very very dark, with streaks of dark red. Enna asks, “Armando, what is the weather like there?”
Armando frowns, “I don’t know, I’ll tell you when it clears. Let me try to move outside of this strange ominous feeling cloud.” The image of Armando wavers, and then settles back in. Armando is standing in a field, the dark cloud visible behind him. Armando points to the sky, “Look, that pirate ship that appeared over Winterhaven is approaching. It appears to be flying right at the storm. Yes, yes, it is entering the storm. Ooh, it is getting tossed around some; clearly whatever is controlling it is having difficulty with the storm. And now it has moved too far into the storm, I cannot see it anymore at all.”

Enna interrupts, “Can you use your scope to see closer? Can you see if anyone is on board the ship?”

“Of course!” exclaims Armando, “My scope!” He bends down out of view, and then stands back up with what appears to be a solid silver rod. But he puts one eye to one end and holds it like a person would a sighting glass. “There are five people on board, including two females and a dwarf. Whoa, a bubble just surrounded the ship, like a shield. Are they expecting conflict?”

Enna chimes in again, “Have a look around through the storm. See if you can see what is causing it, or what it is made of.”

“Of course!” exclaims Armando. “I see meteors, lots of them. No, wait, those are not normal meteors. Holy mother of …” Armando stops himself as he remembers he is being broadcast live. “Those meteors are demons, maybe the Dread Infernal demons if I am remembering correctly. Oh gods, demons are attacking! Ok, ok, not to panic yet, they do not seem to be leaving the storm area.” He pans the magical spyrod around. “Ah, I see it! In the middle of the storm there is a tall stone tower, and at the top of the tower is a man, a wizard of some sort, waving a crystal staff. He seems to be creating, or at least controlling the storm. Ahhh!” Armando drops the spyrod and jumps back.

“What, what is it?” Enna calls. “Armando, are you all right?”

Armando looks embarrassed as he picks the spyrod up off the ground. “Yes, I am fine. The wizard shot a couple lightning bolts from his staff and with my scope it appeared to be coming straight at me. I guess I panicked a little.” He puts the scope back to his eye. “It appears the ship was the target and that it was hit. Ooh, one of the females did something to boost the shield back to its original strength, very interesting. I understand why the shield was created. It appears our friends on the ship knew what they were getting in to.” He gasps again, ‘Oh my, a meteor just hit the ship. I don’t know how they are going to survive the storm and the wizard. Hmm, the dwarf made some repairs of some sort, but even so, I think they are doomed; what can one small ship do against such massive power?”

“Armando,” Enna asks, “Do you think the areas outside the storm, away from the tower are in any danger?”

“I do not think the wizard can do anything outside of the storm, but if all these demons that are falling join together in an army, then yes, we could all be in very grave danger.”

A worried look crosses Enna’s face, and then she composes herself. “Please continue to tell us what is going on.”

Armando resumes using the spyrod. “The ship has a ballista on it and they are firing it at the tower.”

“You mean at the wizard?” Enna questions.

“No, at the tower itself, near the bottom. I think they might be trying to topple the entire thing. Yes, there go another couple ballista shots, also toward the tower. Ooh, the wizard just shot a large green fireball, blasting the ship and really weakening that shield thing. There goes another fireball, wow that was close, but it missed. A redhead girl is firing the ballista. What the?” Armando stifles a laugh. “The missile just fell off the ship, what was she thinking?” He quickly turns serious again, “Oh no, the shield was just destroyed. Get out of there! What, they are not fleeing, they are moving in closer?! Oh, they have the shield back up. No, it is down! Whew!, it is up again. And back down. And up yet again. My this is exhausting, even from here, I cannot imagine what our friends up there are going through.”

“Can they survive?” Enna asks anxiously.

“I have no idea.” He replies. Armando’s eyes widen and his mouth drops agape. “I don’t believe it, they are ramming the tower. Oh my gods, they survived and actually backed out of the hole. But the tower did not fall!” The tone of Armando’s voice goes up and he starts to pant somewhat. “Now they are casting spells, firing the ballista, and it looks like they are going to ram again! I can’t watch!”

“Armando!” Enna yells, “Please, we have to know what is happening. The fate of the Vale could depend on this!”

“Ok, ok. The tower! It is tilting! It is falling! Curse that evil wizard, I hope he is crushed. No! It cannot be! The wizard just flew away. I cannot see where he went, but the tower is down and the ship is still flying, albeit slowly.”

“Are we safe?”

“Hold on. Gods no! As I feared, a demon army is marching this way. I do not know how much time we have until they get here. I cannot see anything else at the moment. I am returning to Winterhaven to prepare. This is Armando, signing off and wishing you all good luck!”

Enna let out a breath she was not aware she was holding in. “There you have it folks. Breaking news, only from your favourite Nentir News source, K-SPLUG. We will update you on the demon scourge as soon as we know more.”

The Good that Lurks in the Hearts of Monsters

Journal entry…

The Blood Lord summoned me and I did my usual groveling. It was only my peculiar talent that kept me from being a victim of his murderous tantrums. They were quite spectacular. Heads would be torn from healthy bodies and if the heart did not still beat sufficiently to squirt blood from the victim’s neck into his mouth, then the body would be squeezed so as to create a fountain, of sorts. One would think he would grow tired of this trick.

Yes, summoned for my skill of sight. Funny how I now look backwards, toward a time when things were different. For me. Wretched joy. That warm sunlight now burns my memories. I have a secret that no one must know. Those memories live and I cannot banish them, though I have tried all these years and years. Years. I have lost track of time. What is time? I received my immortality. My punishment. My greatest feat. My madness.

Yes, yes. The Lord of Undeath had sent for me but I could only stand so close, with exarches forming a barrier between. Blades stood at the ready should my supplications not be convincing enough. He directed me, the blades drew ever closer, and I began to train my thoughts. Into my trance I descended, quite real, but eyes rolled back for effect.

“Pluton… Illidan Stormrage… Five Heros…”

I suppressed my deepest, secret feelings, for my lord had suspicions. Of all. Of everything. Seers watching the seer. Assassins killing the assassin. Surely amongst his minions there was another like me. Less talented. Fools. I continued my chant:

“The Five… Soul Stone… Curses!”

I relayed to my lord the actions of the five. How they had descended to the core of Pluton, overcoming despair, overcoming the presence of evil, and even initially chasing away the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls. Now they stood near the very heart of Pluton, atop four small pillars that surrounded the central pillar upon which the Soul Stone rested, embraced in mighty obsidian arms. High above them pointed crystalline spikes, which decorated the ceiling. Below them, nothing but a bottomless abyss.

“Cube of Twin Virtues!”

My pupils were pointed toward the underside of my brow, but I did not need to see the Blood Lord’s reaction, for his mind let out a horrific roar. Pure rage. The emanations of his anger filled the chamber and energized the exarches. Their blades inching a bit closer to me. Murderous anger. Kill the messenger. Kill anything.

I paused my chant so as to let matters cool, in this very, very heated place. Then I began to paint the picture. The sorceress had split herself into four avatars of chaos. One stood beneath the Soul Stone and within her hands she held the Cube of Twin Virtues. It was of two colors. Red for elemental chaos. Blue for the elemental astral sea. I took absolutely wonderful delight in knowing that use of the cube could lead one to go insane. Poor, poor sorceress. Delightful. Wonderful. Marvelous. Madness, my friend. Join with. Still, the cube, held in her hands, was suppressing the Soul Stone’s abyssal chaotic energy. I could feel my lord’s escalating malevolence.

“I will deal a special torment upon this one! Fiery red hair indeed!”, boomed the Blood Lord. He was never wrong about these kinds of things.

My chant continued. The cube and stone fought each other, shooting twisty tendrils of red and blue intertwining in a fiery death grip. The sorceress did what she could to manipulate and guide the cube, while the Soul Stone fought with ruthless will.

Meanwhile the rest of the five did battle with the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls. The dwarf jumped upon its back and with a mighty blow rendered the Aspect’s hands weak. The mighty scythe did fall from its clutches and the perch, tumbling endlessly into the void below. As I relayed this, my lord let out a terrible shriek that blew past the exarches, their blades and me. Reverberations of his anger echoed throughout.

“There will be a most magnificently heinous demise for that little one!”, boomed the Blood Lord. He was never wrong about these kinds of things.

These pronouncements seemed make my lord somewhat calmer, so I softly supported with, “My lord, yes, yes, most magnificently heinous my lord.”

Exorcised of his steel, the Reaper drew two more scythes from under his cloak. Yet the cleric had already laid down his hallowed ground, protecting his friends. With this news, a hint of anxiety from my master, perchance? The two scythes then came down upon the dwaf, rendering him slowed and grievously wounded, if he were but a normal dwarf. Still he fought on, with the wizard casting a most impressive spell, one in which I had mastered so long ago, when I was still able to turn up a corner of my lips in a suppressed grin. The mirror sphere confused the reaper, causing it to do harm to itself. Then the young wizard’s mind put forth a mighty, icy grasp upon the Aspect. The Blood Lord’s hoof pounded upon the floor. Nothing was subtle.

“That one, that one shall feel my touch of death as I grasp her puny body and pluck out her ribs one by one!”, growled my prince. He was never wrong when it came to execution on the details.

My vision continued and I relayed a blow by blow account of the action. The cleric had been wounded badly, but healed himself. The dwarf grew weaker and weaker, eventually falling unconscious, which was fortunate for me as it allowed the exarches to relax and withdraw their blades from my head just a little bit. Jesters. Fools. Glory to the cursed. The cleric was then dominated. Marvelous. Wonderful. Welcome to a bit of madness, my dear cleric. The anger of my halo of blades decreased. The prince loved the news, stomping his hoof with delight, if that was possible.

I then described how the dominated cleric was made to dutifully walk off the edge – not a hint of concern upon his face for his fate. Falling. Falling. Now unconscious. Sweet dreams not hinting of impending end. Wretched wizard did cast a spell to slow the fall. Wretched wizard is most impressive, casting a magical gate through which the cleric could fall and reappear upon the platform with the measly human ranger waiting with healing elixirs. Curses. Wonderful. Marvelous.

With the cleric now awake and rejoining the fray, the heroes grew stronger in their spirits. And stronger still as the dwarf finger regained his senses, surely like so many times before. The cube and the stone continued their never ending struggle for supremacy. The balance only temporarily lost to one side or the other. Chaos, my prince’s love, was not always to his liking, for this kind of disorder was not the right kind.

Balance too did move from side to side with the heroes and the reaper, for the soul stone’s tendrils did touch the creature and turned its armor to glowing red. The ranger stood flat on his feet. Dominated. Marvelous. My prince must be a little less angry now, but only little, for there is no blood, no pain, no torture just yet. Hope springs eternal. Still, the ranger’s twin arrows did fly straight – straight into his surprised cleric. Fabulous. Marvelous is domination, for you, not me, that is. Share the madness. Mine and yours. Don’t be selfish.

Changing the course of the battle once again, the dwarf’s axe came down upon the reaper so hard that I contend that I could more than see it. I left this part out for my lord. But with word that the wizard was now using the cube to inhibit the soul sone, my prince’s rage was once again nearing deafening roar. One never got used to it. The sorceresses chaos storm removed the red from the reaper’s armor and the ranger became free of the domination. Poor madness. Loyal companion. Gone from the ranger.

To my astonishment the cleric then performed a trick worthy of praise. With a casual motion of his hand, the Aspect of Malthal, Reaper of Souls, was simply dismissed. Gone. Sent. Somewhere. Another plane. Another reality. Anywhere but here. The Blood Lord was displeased…

“This one. This one of the dragon. I shall deliver a special message to their god through them. This one shall yearn for the mercy of death, but it shall never come. They shall know torment everlasting!” He was never one to be wrong on such matters.

While the reaper was gone, the heroes quickly formed around the anticipated return location. The ranger stowed his bow and readied his two swords. The dwarven fighter raised his axe. The cleric braced. The wizard and sorceress plied their magics upon the Cube of Twin Virtues.

Yet still, the soul stone had an answer. A wave of black energy blasted outward from it, destroying the sorceress’ illusory minions and attacking the hero’s minds, weakening them emotionally, inching them closer to madness, to hopelessness and utter despair. Splendid. Delightful. Cloudy thoughts of gloom. Madness, my savior from the truth.

Upon the reaper’s return, the hero’s blows struck with devastation. It’s fate was now all too obvious. It’s existence was now on the verge of finality. Anger. Sadness. Did it ponder, even for an instant, the road not taken? No more shall its scythes reap. No more glory for the new Pluton. No more pride in souls reaped. Never again to reap. True sadness in ending. Marvelous is the end. Lucky is he, not me.

With a final, tremendous burst of energy, the Reaper of Souls, Aspect of Malthal, slashed out with its twin scythes. Energized by the edge of death, upon which their wielder now stood, the blades cut deeply into the dwarf. The dwarf tottered and began to slump. “Join me in death”, the reaper whispered.

The cleric would have none of this. No death on his watch lest it be his foes. With that his own anger leapt forward in a divine reprisal, healing the fighter and basking him in the warm protection of Bahamut. The reaper was at its end. The sorceress’ tempest surge leapt from her ring finger with the mightiest possible blow, enveloping it within the center of the chaotic energies. The cleric’s blow soon followed, rendering the reaper stunned. How could this be happening? It fell backwards off the pillar, scythes slicing only through the air in their last attempt to reap. Falling. Falling…

The ranger then leapt off of the pillar after the reaper. Crazy madness. Glorious. Fabulous. Blades leading, he dived head first and accelerated though force of will in this strange place, the astral plane. Blades plunging into the reaper, the ranger now tangled with the reaper.

“I shall pierce this one’s eyes with my claws and wiggle my fingers around until his brain oozes out. Then I will have him healed and do it again. Over and over again. He shall know my wrath!”, shouted the Blood Lord. He is never wrong on such things and has an uncanny knack for recalling and reviving his original anger.

The fighter recovered, thanks to his cursed cleric, and joined the ranger in the melee. Aided by the controllable gravity of the astral plane, he soon caught up to the falling reaper and ranger. They tumbled downward. Spinning. Whirling. Fighting. Frenzy. The ranger and fighter continued their assault, dealing continued damage upon the doomed reaper. Like a meteor’s unalterable course, they fell toward destiny. The ranger hit. The fighter hit. The wounds bled. The reaper was no more.

On top of the pillars, the wizard and sorceress continued their efforts to control the cube and defeat the soul stone. Micro-cracks began to form on the stone. The two magicians wielding the power of the gods were too much for the soul stone. The cracks grew larger as the wizard’s force of will via the Cube of Twin Virtues was too great for the soul stone to repel. What power! I once yearned for such power. I passed through the void, to the other side. No longer the master. Still the master. I have a secret. Hope.

Clasping the Cube of Twin Virtues, the young sorceress did try to attune. Yet the surrounding maelstrom was too much, perhaps, for she repeatedly failed to gain sufficient mastery. Had she only been under my tutelage. Yes. That would have been marvelous. Wonderful. But it would have ended badly, no doubt. Perhaps the young wizard? No, never. Neither. Never. It would have been splendid. Yes. Ah, what happened then? The sorceress was able to somehow aid the cube as a beam of energy leapt from the cube, through the black soul stone, crushing its black light and striking the ceiling of that innermost chamber of Pluton. The dark red energy of Pluton’s walls did start to recede. Another ending was coming.

With the godly cube raised above her head, the wizard summoned her greatest triumph yet. In a moment, indescribable energy poured forth from the cube and its light disintegrated the soul stone. The cube’s energy filled the chamber, casting its powers upon that inner sanctum of Pluton. The plague upon Pluton was dissipating. In that realm, there was an ending of the sadness, the gloom and despair, the death and madness. I yearn for such an end.

With words of such tidings, the Blood Lord grew still. The chamber was deathly quiet. I continued in a softer voice, for I now saw an old man appear before the heroes. He was dressed plainly, with no adornments except for golden canaries that gently fluttered about him. My prince listened intently and I thought that these may be my last words. Oh how I wish they had been.

The old man had the heroes gather before him and hallowed ground spread all around him. He spoke:

“Heroes, you have defeated the prime evil, the demon lords are now lesser. Ancient power was within the soul stone and its power is now forever weakened. Perhaps this was destiny. In the land from which you came, your foe is commanded by the demon lords. Take heed, but now, for this act of judgement and justice, you shall be rewarded.”

Golden light then enveloped the heroes. Their amulets shined brighter. After a pause, the old man continued:

“Now you already possess the ability to return to your realm.”

The cleric then bowed and motioned to be given an audience. The old man nodded. The cleric asked, “My lord, how may we better serve? How may we use the cube for greater good?” The old man replied, “Ah, you wish to have greater mastery of the cube. True mastery is only possible with the presence of all the gods. Perhaps one day you shall know more.” The cleric bravely continued, “My lord, I have an amulet with two faces – Bahamut and Tiamat. I am of two minds.” The old man stopped him there with a knowing smile, “Young cleric, Tiamat and Bahamut are but one. Perhaps one day you shall know more.” He then motioned for the heroes to gather around and they each touched him on the shoulders.

For a moment I lost the vision, but quickly regained focus on the incredibly powerful event. The old man, the cleric, wizard, sorceress, fighter and ranger were now upon their astral ship. With echoing words, the old man spoke, “Now my heroes, I must depart. Fight for justice. Fight for justice…” The old man visage briefly shimmered to that of a gold dragon and he was gone.

The Blood Lord was still here. He sat in silence. Then came the explosion.

“Names! I want names! They shall all suffer for their deeds against me.”

With that, his rage hit its zenith. Wave upon increasing wave of anger emanated from his essence and like shock waves blasted all within eyesight and perhaps beyond. The entire plane trembled. The exarches were thrown to the ground, and so was I. I crawled to make my escape. I could sense bodies being smashed behind me, indiscriminately targeted in the Blood Lord’s supreme rage. Glorious. Marvelous. Terrible. I exist.

And so too did my secret, for I harbor feelings that I have tried to banish. There is goodness in me. I secretly cheered for the heroes. I cannot explain it nor suppress it. I cannot deny it. I hate it. I fear that one day it will get the better of me. I thought I had murdered these feelings so long ago. I am weak, despite all my powers. I attained greatness and everlasting living death, but this simple thing I cannot conquer. I must go out and kill something now to make myself feel better. Yes, there is one particular exarch that I despise more than the others. He will die. Tonight.

D&D - The Holiday Musical


Oh come, all ye Valers
Irate and despondent
Oh come, ye, oh come ye
To Plu – u – uton
Come and behold him
Aspect of the Reaper
Oh come, let us attack him
Oh come, let us attack him
Oh come, let us attack him
Reaper of Souls

(The five adventurers are in a strange realm, following a passage and experimenting with a magical cube they have carried for some time.)

We Five Beings

We five beings, adventurers are
Bearing arms, we traverse afar
Spheres of evil
Caves of the devil
Following signs of war
Cube of wonder, cube of sight
Cube of power and of might
Downward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect fight

(They come to a cavern with four divergent paths marked by symbols.)

The Four Paths of Pluton

On the first path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
A lion on a field of red

On the second path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

On the third path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Three colors on a dragon
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

On the fourth path of Pluton
A symbol turned my head -
Four crossed swords
Three colors on a dragon
Two crescent moons
And a lion on a field of red

(The travelers take the path under the crossed swords, a symbol of the Eladrin. Rift uses the cube to see through the door at the end of the passage.)

Do You See What I See

Said the Eladrin to the Half-elf
Do you see what I see
Through that door, little half-elf
Do you see what I see
A chest, a chest
And a bowl therein
Surrounded by coffins
Surrounded by coffins

(The adventurers enter the room, open the chest, and pick up the bowl. Suddenly the coffins open, spewing fire and skeletons.)

Skeletons Flaming With an Open Fire

Skeletons flaming with an open fire
Sharp claws nipping at your skin
Potent fire blasts being shot by their Lord
And blows directed at your chin
Everybody knows a firefight and some sorcery
Help to make a dangerous fight
Tiny skulls with their eyes all aglow
Will make it hard to survive tonight

(The fight begins immediately.)

Swinging Swords

Slashing through the fight
Through bones and flesh and hair
Anything in sight
He doesn’t really care
Both hands swinging free
Grinning all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik in a melee

Swinging swords, swinging swords,
Swinging all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik swing away
Swinging swords, swinging swords,
Swinging all the way
Oh what fun it is to see
Erik in a melee

(The five flaming skeletons and two floating skulls are nearly too much for the party.)

Good Cleric Z’alden

Good cleric Z’alden looked out
On the field of battle
Where the hurt lay round about
Like some butchered cattle
Brightly shone his mace that night
Healing Rift and Erik
Even healing him himself
And striking hard like Barrick

(The adventurers gain the upper hand.)

Deck the Halls

Deck the halls with bones of fire
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Tis a reason to aim higher
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Take we now our platinum and gold
Fa la la, la la la, la la la
Let’s go on, ere we grow old
Fa la la la la, la la la la

(Victorious, the group continues, but sees a vision.)

Look! A Vision in my Head!

Look! A vision in my head
Golden hall, but dark and dead
Crystal, red and black, in sight
And two beings, in a fight
Arathis and Narul by name
But Narul gets all the blame
“Death is my domain” says he
As he slams his scythe with glee
The soul of Arathis he cleaves
But Narul relents and leaves
Arathis is left alone
Unable to take the soulstone

(The group knows nothing of the soulstone, but is drawn down the corridor to a square room, with four pillars and four walkways leading to the middle, where the soulstone itself rests,)

Tira the Sorceress

Tira the Sorceress
Was anything but dull
With the feat of flight
And a spider’s might
Her bag of tricks was full

Tira the Sorceress
Was a cunning, clever witch
She could open a door
Or call minions four
With a simple nasal twitch

Tira the Sorceress
Knew the stone was guarded some
But she turned aghast
When a deadly blast
Blew her spider to kingdom come

Tira the Sorceress
Was as brave as she could be
When the Reaper appeared
For her life she feared
Just the same as you and me

(The party now faces the Aspect of the Reaper of Souls, whom they had defeated once, but not definitively.)

I’m Dreaming of a Great Victory

I’m dreaming of a great victory
Just like the one we had last time
With some blows from Barrick
And some arrows from Erik
It will surely be sublime

I’m dreaming of a great victory
With every potion I drink
This guy is strong
And the fight lasts long
But we will win, I think

I’m dreaming of a great victory
Though I think we need a plan
I’ve lost my might
I can hardly fight
I hope the others can

I’m dreaming of a great victory
With every ragged, shallow breath
I need to be healed
And then concealed
Cause I think I’m close to death

Pirates of the Astral Sea
The Jolly Githyanki is Raised

Verrin the Scum Lord turned away from the stained windowpane. The sun, setting behind him, cast his shadow over the room, dwarfing the figure huddled before him. Torben Eastlander was not one to grovel, but in this case, he thought it best to err on the side of meekness.

“My Lord…” he began.

Verrin scowled at him. “It is ‘Lord Scum’, fool!” Verrin raised his fist as if to strike the wretched scribe.

Torben flinched under the upraised fist. Wringing his hands together, he pleaded, “Oh mighty Lord Scum, lord of all that is villainous and scummy.”

Verrin lowered his fist, looking pleased. “Yes, what is it? Go on!”

The scribe stammered for a moment, then continued. “Lord Verrin, you will recall that I just published my latest volume of stories, The Nameless Horror: Denizens of the Nentir Vale, Volume 4. Did you get my autographed copy?”

Verrin stared around the room, seemingly bored by the conversation. “Yes, yes, I vaguely recall seeing a copy of that tome lying around. Full of lies and rubbish was it not? Don’t know whether I ever got around to opening it.”

Seeing Verrin glance over at the corner of the room, Torben stared. There, sitting on a small table, he could see a dog-eared copy of The Nameless Horror. It was lying open, with a mug of black ale beside it. Torben quickly looked down at his shackled feet. Who was the fool now, he thought to himself? He had the old scumbag wrapped around his finger, even if his hands were tied.

“We could make a deal…” began Torben.

“A deal? Are you in a position to bargain, then?” The Scum Lord scoffed. “How do you think I build this magnificent palace?” Verrin waved his arms around, gesturing at the decaying furniture, the mold-riddled tapestries, the chipped and cracked walls. “By making bargains with common criminals who cannot pay back their overdue loans? I think not!”

Torben suppressed a snicker. “My Lord. You do possess a fine, er, palace, here in the catacombs. But even one as rich as you must admit that getting paid later is better than no pay at all, yes?”

The Lord of Scum stared at the scribe, rubbing his pockmarked face thoughtfully. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?”

“A book deal,” answered Torben. He could see the excitement flare up in Verrin’s eyes, then quickly die down. Torben quickly continued. “You would be the first to read the next volume in the series. A share in the profits. In return, you would erase my debts and remove the bounty from my head.” Torben saw Verrin begin to hesitate. “Just think, you would know before anyone else, what happens to Tira, Z’alden,…”

Before Torben could finish, Verrin jumped in, “…Barrick, Rift, Erik, yes!” Verrin smoothed his stained and tattered cloak, brushing off the remains of a past meal. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. I suppose it might be worth sparing a few moments.”

Verrin snapped his fingers. “Guards, leave us! I have important business to discuss with this wretch.” The four humanoids who had escorted Torben up from the dungeon gave a series of high-pitched hyena laughs and stomped out of the room. Torben shuddered as the foul stench of wet dog slowly subsided. The wooden door creaked shut behind them.

Verrin leaned forward, his eyes boring into his captive, all pretense of boredom gone. “Now Torben, tell me, what have the adventurers been up to?”

“Well, my lord, you will recall from the pages of my unfinished manuscript, we had last left the five friends in the middle of the Astral Sea.”

Tira the Sorceress, Z’alden the Cleric, Barrick the dwarven fighter, Rift the wizard, and Erik the worthy ranger. All five found themselves in an astral skiff, floating in the air, surrounded by distant floating mountains and strands of shifting colors. The Astral Sea was a strange place where gravity was in the eye of the beholder, and you could move in any direction just by sheer force of will.

Torben smiled politely at Verrin. “My lord, you would do quite well in the Astral Sea. Why, a half-orc of your intelligence! I’m sure you could make quite a name for yourself.”

Verrin looked pleased, and then, perhaps sensing a false note, scowled “Enough flattery! Continue with the tale!”

The adventurers knew that they needed to get back to the material plane, to save the Nentir Vale from destruction by the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage. But, since they were here, they decided to do a bit of exploration while trying to find their way home.

Z’alden recalled the vision, where he had spoken in someone else’s voice: “Seek the City of Doors. This is where you will find a path to your own realm. You will equip yourselves here. You will bring justice to the mortal realm. Follow the Veils of Color.”

None of them knew where the City of Doors was located, but they could all see the Veils of Color. In the distance, Erik’s eagle eyes could see a small floating mountain keep. Raising the sails on their astral skiff, they slowly moved forward. Once they had grown closer to the mountain, they could see that the keep was in ruins. Below the keep, they could see that the underside of the mountain was riddled with caves, as if the keep and the mountain had been torn out of the earth, and sent across space to float here in the Astral Sea.

The five brave adventurers beached their skiff near the castle, and leaped to the ground. Tira quickly folded the astral skiff up into a small cube, and after stashing it in a bag of holding, entered the keep along with her companions. Erik suddenly put up a hand in warning, and pointed silently at the ground. The dust lay thick on the floor, apparently undisturbed for ages. But Erik, looking closely, had seen what the others had not – a whole host of creatures had recently been here. Most of the tracks led down to the catacombs below, but at least one pair led up a stone staircase. Quickly, the adventurers raced to the top, swords drawn, daggers ready, axe and staff held high. But the top of the tower was deserted. In fact, there seemed to be no tracks that led back down the stairs.

“Could the fool have jumped off?” exclaimed Tira.

“Perhaps,” said Z’alden, “they simply willed themselves to float away. Just like us in the astral skiff.”

Barrick shrugged. “No matter. No one is here now. Let’s get down below to the dungeons. We are too exposed here, and I feel a draft in my armor.”

The rest of the party agreed, and they quickly made their way back down the stairs and into the catacombs. Coming to a crossroads, Tira could see that one direction led to a hole in the side of the floating mountain. The other direction led to a room. Stopping just before the entrance, Rift knelt down. She could see swirling whirlpools of dust forming intricate patterns. The smoky tendrils of vapor moved as if guided by a conscious entity. Across the room, a doorway beckoned.

Tira stared at the dust. It seemed familiar from her studies of chaos. The words “entropic collapse” rose unbidden in her mind. She knew that to bring any magic into contact with the dust would cause an implosion of the space-time continuum, with perhaps disastrous consequences. “Interesting,” she mused to herself, as she stepped forward into the room. A tremendous blast shook the room, sending a shock wave down the hallway. The adventurers were knocked over like pins in a game of dwarf bowling. Tira stood, transfixed. The castle changed. It was beautiful. The halls were filled with laughing eladrin and smiling elves. The walls were covered with sparkling tapestries and brightly-painted murals. Tira blinked, and the scene faded from her glowing red eyes.

Gripped with a madness in her chaotic soul, Tira lifted her foot to step forward. Rift, Barrick, Z’alden, and Erik shouted “Stop!” as they knocked into each other trying to flee back down the hallway, away from the deranged half-elf sorceress.

Boom! Again, the floor and walls shook. Dust settled down. Tira coughed and shrugged her pretty shoulders. Perhaps she should rethink her strategy of crossing the room.

Barrick and Z’alden shouted at the sorceress. “Tira, stop your shenanigans. Let a warrior show you how to cross a room safely.” Then, as if racing each other, the fighter and the cleric stripped off their armor, lay down their deadly weapons, and strolled across the room. The dust swirled aimlessly about their feet, as they stepped across the doorway on the other side. The dwarf shouted a friendly “helloooo!” and waved back at Tira, Rift, and Erik.

Tira and Erik shrugged, and then quickly stripping off any magic, they joined their comrades. Rift gathered up all of her friends possessions. For a brief mad moment she considered deserting her friends, fleeing with all of their armor and weapons, selling it all, and living a life of luxury. But no, she thought to herself, who was she without her brave companions? She had been nothing before she had joined them – yet another eladrin wizard, wandering the world in search of adventure. Now her life had purpose. Rift smiled, and then, shifting sideways through another dimension, she reappeared instantly beside her good friend Tira. “Boo!” she shouted. Tira jumped as high as a kobold on hot coals. She glared at Rift with her red eyes. Rift smiled back sweetly with her own purple eyes. “Sorry…”

Torben coughed, and spluttered. “My lord, my throat. I cannot continue… Some ale perhaps?”

Verrin stared at the scribe in disbelief, and then, realizing he had no choice, he sighed and fetched his mug of black ale. “Hurry, drink up. I grow impatient to hear the rest of the tale.”

Torben took a long pull from the mug, sighing in satisfaction. Even if Verrin was a foul scum, he certainly knew how to brew a good ale in his grog shops down by the docks. “Now, where was I? Oh yes…”

Coming to a three-way split in the path, the adventurers stopped, perplexed. “Rift! Use the Hand of Fate!” exclaimed Z’alden, cleric of Bahamut.

“Hand of what?” retorted Rift. And then she remembered a long-forgotten ritual. The Hand of Fate would tell you which path was more advantageous, depending upon how you asked the question. Rift quickly prepared the proper reagents, mixing and stirring in the eye of newt and blood of a medusa. “Oh mighty Hand of Fate, we are in search of adventure, and great treasure, and magic, and um….” Here Z’alden nudged the poor wizard. “Oh, and we seek a way home so that we may stop the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage from destroying all that is good, but we still want to have a lot of adventure on the way.” The cleric glared at Rift as a giant translucent hand filled the hall, clearly pointing down the middle corridor.

“Well,” stated Barrick. “The way forward is clear enough. Let’s go!”

But the way forward was not clear. It was blocked by a wall, covered in a huge tiled mosaic. Each tile had an intricate pattern carved in it. There were dozens of tiles missing from the mosaic, and Erik could see that the floor was covered with hundreds of tiles, all with different patterns. The ranger groaned. He had always hated “puzzle day” back in ranger school. But this puzzle was not as bad as some. Z’alden and Rift quickly started scribbling out ideas, while Tira and Erik offered helpful suggestions and shouted out wild guesses. Barrick, who had injured his shoulder playing “catch the two-handed axe”, went over in a corner to sleep. Soon, his fearsome snores filled the caverns.

Finally, as the last tile was put into place, the wall slide down to reveal a tremendous cavern, filling the entire bottom of the floating mountain. Inside was a large floating ship, much larger than the astral skiff. Erik’s eyes light up as he realizes that the party can claim the ship as their own. Quickly, the five friends rush aboard the “Astral Falcon”. After raising the Githyanki pirate flag, they hoist the astral sail and fly off into the void.

Leaving the floating ruins behind, the adventurers consult the charts and decide to sail towards Pluton, rumored to contain the ruins of a dead god’s realm. To reach Pluton, they sail the Astral Falcon through a swirling vortex of blue color, a gateway from one region of the Astral Sea to a different region. Emerging on the other side, Erik cries out in alarm. A massive structure confronts them, a blue-black crystalline fortress. Landing near the center of the structure, the five are struck by a sense of brooding evil. Rift and Z’alden are almost overcome with a depressing feeling of doom, but continue forward under the goading of their three companions.

Inside the fortress they find massive obsidian statues depicting the angels of death. As they descend further into what must be a palace, the statues lining the corridor seem to grow more real. Rift hears whispers in supernal. Suddenly, a ghostly form drops from the ceiling, whispering “Narul is dead, as is this realm…”, as it drops through the floor and disappears.

Then, the spectral figure reappears, carrying a giant scythe. “You can not go further,” intones the figure. When Tira scoffs and attempts to go around the ghost, it suddenly swings its mighty blade in a giant arc. The scythe, which seemed so insubstantial, cuts like a real blade. Staggering back and clutching his wounded side, Barrick gives a mightly roar and wades into battle, jumping onto the ghostly form and madly swinging his axe. Erik whips out two swords and wielding them ferociously, charges forward. Z’alden calls on his god Bahamut for aid, and manages to weaken his foe. Rift looks over at Tira, who is busy flinging lightning bolts.

But nothing seems to hit the creature. For it is an Aspect of the Reaper of Souls, and mortal weapons do little damage. Finally, after Rift manages to lull the evil creature to sleep, the party begins to gain the upper hand. When the creature awakens, it turns its attention to the ranger, somehow sensing that Erik is the most vulnerable. Blow after blow hits the poor ranger, as he valiantly tries to defend himself. Just as Erik is about to collapse, the cleric, perhaps sensing that it would be unwise to die at the hands of the Reaper of Souls, summons all of his powers of Bahamut and brings the ranger back from the brink of death.

In revenge, the party redoubles their attacks, finally striking the ghost with chaotic blasts, icy hands of doom, and blades of steel. The ghost suddenly stops, intones, “Welcome to the Land of the Dead,” and flies up through the ceiling.

Torben stopped. He noticed Verrin looking at him intently, mouth open, waiting for the next scene.

After downing the last of the black ale, Torben shrugged. “My lord, that is as far as I had gotten, when your, um, hyena colleagues snatched me from that fine establishment, the Greasy Goose.”

Verrin sighed, looking at the scribe. “A good tale, I admit it. I’m sure it is all lies and fabrication, but nevertheless, I will agree to your bargain.” Verrin raised a finger and smiled menacingly. “On one condition.”

“And what is that, your villanous-ness?”

“I would like the book to be dedicated to me, as your worthy patron and esteemed benefactor.”

Torben sighed. It was but a small price to pay, to win back his freedom and shake off the last of his debts. “Very well, my Lord. Scum Lord!” he quickly added.

Phase to phase with exploding stars
The adventurers go through a phase after splitting the party

“How could this have happened?” the despondent scrivener thought to himself. After an hour of brutal beating, Torben Eastlander finally knew where he was. Shackled in the dungeon of Verrin the Scum Lord. The one who held those debts he never had quite enough money to repay. “I never should have started betting on tournaments. Never. But, who would have thought that Harrod the Mighty could possibly lose so badly in hand-to-hand combat to Prescott Quickblade? That little elf had only a dagger!”

“And who knew that Verrin would come collecting now? I thought that the Barron was hunting him for some slave trafficking. Most unfortunate the scum wasn’t caught. Even more unfortunate is that I needed only one more story out of those adventurers, and I would have had the funds in full. The Bards Guild has been paying very generously for my imaginative tales of those worthless adventurers. This is all their fault. If I hadn’t become so convinced of the great luck I had run into with their tales, I never would have made those bets in the first place.”

He muttered to himself, “Such are the ways of fortune. Now my fortune needs to improve quickly. These shackles are starting to hurt again, and I am getting hungry. What would those heroes do?” The quick-witted scrivener smirked, “Guards! Guards! Tell Verrin I can repay him.”
The cleric’s leg began to ache as he followed behind the Ranger along the muddy trail. It was his right leg, the one that the Kengi healers had regenerated. Felt kind of scaley tonight. He always did wonder where that initial bone had come from. And he itched between the point of his ears and his helm. Water had accumulated there as the rain continued to pour. Oh did it itch. Z’alden was not one to complain, but between the ache and the itch, he was beginning to grow weary. Would this rain never cease? It was like a flood! The sort of thing that happens maybe once in a hundred years. Maybe once in a thousand. It was certainly distracting him from the business at hand. Keeping up with the Ranger and the rest of the party.
And it was cold. The rainwater was freezing. Almost like the frigid water in the lair of that flying wyrm, the Ringgael. A Cold Storm Z’alden had just been getting ready to tell the scrivener what had happened next. With this freezing rain he could recall viscerally how his hands had been unable to grip the ice to pull out of the water. Swimming in scalemail is no easy feat. That and the electrified tempest surrounding the Wyrm made it difficult to think straight. It was like being hit upon the head with a mace. Difficult to think of more than one thing at a time. The others who stayed close to the Ringgael were having this problem, too. Tyra wisely got to the far side of the chamber some 100 staff lengths away it seemed, but not before being scorched like so many of his friends by a massive burst of lightning from the beast. Z’alden smiled as remembered his friend’s response to Wyrm.

Rift cast her mighty Hammerfall step, magic rams bashed the Ringgael, moving it closer to Z’alden while the magic opened a tear in space and time and teleported the fighting dwarf on top of the creature! Barrick’s response. He could see the mighty axe shimmer as Barrick dug his boots into the scales of the wyrm and rode it. He slapped his own with the axe and shook of the effects of the dazing field, even as his presence distracted the Ringael. Then, the dwarven axe showed its measure wielded by an expert fighter lathered in the heat of battle. The deadly attacks so knocked the creature with a blow like thunder that it fell from the sky into the icy water with the cleric.

With the wyrm close, the cleric studied its elemental nature, found a weakness, and called upon the sapphire claws of the Great Dragon to form, tear, and then push the Ringael further underwater. The Ringael was rendered stunned by Bahamut’s power and majesty. Ice began to form and encase the beast. The well-timed work of the party had bought them some time to lick their wounds and gather together.

Finally getting out of the water, Z’alden made his way back to the entrance as the did the others, except Tira, who looked for some other way out of the chamber. Z’alden recalled being mystified at how Tira could sense massive amounts of magical energy through what appeared to be massive stone walls.

He did not have long to think. Even encased in ice, the Ringael could still form the tempests of lightning. His metal helmet must have been an easy mark. The wyrm never missed the cleric. Once again, Z’alden was in the frigid water. He had enough presence of mind to call upon Bahamut to heal Erik after the lightning had badly burned the ranger, but close to the wyrm, he could do nothing for himself even as wounds continued to open from the Ringael’s charged tempest field. Erik flung his magical hook and pulled the cleric from the water, but the wyrm had other ideas, sending the tempest to where most of the party had gathered at the entrance. Z’alden was dimly aware that Rift muttered something about the walls of the sides of the entrance being an illusion. Tira formed a dragon spirit on which she flew 20 staff lengths across the chamber. But, then the wyrm’s tempest surround the cleric, and he slipped towards the blackness of death. The healer could not heal himself.

As he trudged along in the mud, Z’alden reflected on that moment. He could only surmise that the liquid coming down his throat as his eyes fluttered back to life and saw the Ranger kneeling close with a vial was a potion. Looking, it was a potion that the cleric had made for the Ranger which Erik had used to save the life of the cleric. One never knows when one’s actions will come back to you. It is best to use those actions wisely. The life you save may be your own.

Z’alden thought about the scrivener and the assailants that they were tracking. Who are these wicked villians that had viciously attacked Torben and made off with him before the adventurers could even mount a response? What powers of evil did they possess? The Ranger’s brief halt brought him back to the moment. A fork in the muddy, slick road and the puddles were proving a challenge even for the calm and careful tracker. A lightning strike evoked a shade of blue on Rift’s cloak as Z’alden waited for the Ranger to decide their direction. The cleric smirked as he wondered if the magical women would follow the Ranger or choose their own path, like they had after finding the illusory wall at the entrance to the Ringael’s chamber. What a mess that decision had caused.

It was all hazy now. The water was addling his brain. He had followed the Ranger down one corridor while Rift, Tira, and Barrick had gone down the opposite corridor. The Ranger moved fast compared to Z’alden and soon he couldn’t be seen. Z’alden quickly realized he couldn’t hear Erik either. Nor could he hear the others. He was alone in the tunnel. The only light radiated from the enchanted glow of ribbons of sapphires and rubies that streaked the walls. Alone, the cleric studied them. The blue energy appeared to have some healing. Still affected by the Feltouched gas from the demons and by the Abyssal, Z’alden said a prayer and, over the course of several minutes, directed the energy to resolve these afflictions. Slowly, the Feltouch cleared from his mind, and some of the most powerful spells that Bahamut grants him came back to his recollection. And, the plague was removed. His wounds healed from the burns of the Ringael and frost of the ice.

It was so quiet. No jokes or shouts of encouragement from the dwarf. No shouts from Rift. Not a sound from Tira. The Ranger had disappeared. All he could do was press on in hopes of finding them. The corridor seemed as though it encircled the Ringael’s layer. At the far end was chamber with a large pedestal in the center and a gold and platinum spherical cage. The cleric was alone in the chamber, though later, he would learn that all of the party were there, but out of phase with one another. Their actions affected the chamber but they could detect the presence of the others. Tira and Rift were phased together until they too became separated. The enchanted ladies had described how their version of the chamber and, more specifically, the cage had a wonderous gem of sapphire and ruby intertwined. Rift would later explain how touching the gem she had acquired pure fiery blue eyes and then further tapped the power of the ruby, turning her eyes a fiery purple. Tira told how she had attuned to the ruby part of the gem and acquired the flaming red that filled her eyes.

Tira subverted the cage, fully attuned to the power in the gem, and took it out. She realized it formed a cube of sapphire and ruby intertwined. Z’alden remembered with some trepidation how the cube he could see in the cage simply vanished before him. There was no one else in the room, yet it was gone.

Then, in some strange moment, the cube appeared on the floor. Z’alden could sense its energy and attuned to it. He could feel Tira’s presence and communicate with her! Some strange writing had appeared. “What is seen cannot be seen”.

Then, putting the cube down, it vanished, moved, vanished, and reappeared rotated to a new side. Z’alden realized that some was trying to communicate with the cube in some form. He grabbed and moved it, releasing and grabbing, tracing out a Z. Then, writing appeared on the Cube. Rift had used magical chalk to mark the cube. Everyone was in the room and could see the Cube. If they could all attune together, they might return to the same phase. Indeed, this worked after some trials but not before the fun had started.

Another flash of lightning brought the cleric back to the road. The ranger had found more tracks, and the party was off again on Eastlander’s trail. The thunder crashed. The cleric could not help but recall the explosions that had followed when Rift had activated the Far Realm star trap on the massive doorw while trying to pick its lock.

Z’alden recalled a crystal sphere flying off the door, racing across the room, and simply vanishing. The cleric could see Barrick and Erik now, and hoped that nothing bad had happened to one of his arcane comrades in another phase. Rift and Tira would later relate what happened in their phase. Rift’s mage hand could catch the spheres. She would toss them to Tira, who held open the bag of holding and tried to catch them, trapping the deadly balls in another dimension. Rift’s tosses were excellent, and Tira was an admirable catcher. Before the cleric’s eyes, the dozen spheres were simply disappearing. He had gotten a satisfying whack of the mace on one, and the fighter and Ranger had taken a few out, also, but it was the Mage Hand Bag Toss that really did the trick. One may recall that the Far Realm star trap will surround a person in the spheres until they explode with deadly results. In some traps, just four are enough for the explosion. Once again, the quick thinking of the wizard and sorceress had saved the day. Just three had ever surrounded the dwarf. Three surrounded Z’alden. Maybe just one more and even the hardy dwarf or the cleric may have been stardust.
With the spheres either demolished or trapped in the bag, Z’alden remembered with some satisfaction that the group had used the cube to return to all the same phase. Then, working together, they had overcome the massive door with Knock spells and thievery and magical manipulation. Oh yes, more star realm spheres had come off, but the Mage Hand Bag Toss, along with Barrick’s axe, and Erik’s arrows had made short work of them (except when Z’alden had been nearly encased in them).

Stepping into a room filled with the grey mist of dreams, they descended a stair inlaid with gold and platinum. At the bottom, in a misty room, the group was ready to leave this low layers and get a move on. With such a thought from the wizard, an archway appears. Other thoughts came to the group. Erik imagined defeating the Demon mage Illiadin Stormrage. A magnificent painting of death appeared. Tira imagined a necklace that matched her glowing eyes. One of great value appeared. Barrick recalled the handy haversack that Rift had previously lost. One appeared.

Even in the flooding water, Z’alden recalled how the archway had beckoned. The party stepped through, expecting to find themselves outside the castle, or maybe on the top level ready to face Illiadin himself. They could not have been more wrong.

As the archway vanished and their vision cleared, they found themselves on a floating island in a world of color. They were in the Astral Sea! A golden box in front of them became an Astral Skiff.

“Oh shards”, thought the cleric. This was a fine pickle. At least it was better than a flood, the damp cleric reflected.

Poetry in Motion and a Touch of Frost

The scribe lay twisted in his tiny cell. The especially large moon cast shadows of the bars upon his face. He chuckled to himself with an admittedly unclear mind. How poetic was this beautiful moon, yet he had no quill with which to put his emotions to parchment. Fear had come and gone, but only in intensity. Yes, he was still alive, but why and for how long?

Torben Eastlander, the scribe of the heroic feats of the the six, could not think of what they would do in his situation. Instead his mind wandered. Memories of old words, written so long ago by others and himself, weaved their way through his mind – a cacophony of ideas that left him confused as one might have just before waking up in a sweat.

A dream this was not. Torben made efforts to recall his prior days and understand his situation better so that he would be ready, ready for something, when it would come. Perchance to escape? To tell a good lie? To persevere through whatever torture may come? He had already told them what he knew of the six and they had read his most recent manuscript, before it was ready. That made him all the more mad.

Still, finding some morsel of satisfaction, he gloated in the fact that the poetry delivered upon his captors was of such poor quality that at least he had inflicted some pain upon them. As he began to feel more faint from the lack of sustenance, his lips began to mumble the words of the most recent addition to his manuscript…

Long ago the mages of the Temple of the Arcane constructed a vast library, something I would have loved to spend a considerable time in. Within its walls lay a treasure of knowledge, not just of arcane magics, but more practical things, such as how to grow food underground. There was poetry too. What a pity none of the five are intellectuals – such a wasted opportunity. None-the-less, Tira and Rift, being of keen memory, were able to absorb some of the letters before the tragic destruction of many great works, and some not so great.

One of the more interesting works relayed to me was by Xathros, the very beholder that the five had slain just over one year ago. It was titled, “The Wisdom of the Beholder”. Even with just a short summary, second-hand at that, I can now guess at this particular beholder’s mindset. For example, this poem was relayed to me:

Maiden in meadow
Beauty soon be immortal
Within me deathless

From my discussion with Rift, who quickly read several portions of the text, it seems that Xathros actually thought he was helping creatures gain immortality by “joining” with him. More poems corroborate this more directly:

Rose tiny flower
Compare thee to a maiden
Petals grace my lips

and this more whimsical one:

Petrify, petrify, death and disintegrate
All the whole day long
Makes me tired

Other chapters were reportedly much more serious, with discussion of the motions of the heavenly orbs (complete with not-so humble comparisons to himself) and what Rift thought were mathematics in a chapter titled “A New Magics”. In some unknown tongue of perplexing scribbles, it detailed something called “wavelets” . Clearly this Xathros was quite mad, but Rift said she still pulled some of those pages from the book to study at a later time.

Tira reported more mundane tomes, such as “How to Grow Corn Underground” and “The Secret Life of Selachii”. Z’alden had a lucky find with “Revealing your Inner Bahamut and Tiamat”, but couldn’t remember much of it because he kept getting drawn to Rift’s excitement with Xathros’ chapter on “A New Magics”. Perhaps he thinks this knowledge will help him divine the intentions of the weather gods. Who knows? Meanwhile, Barrick and Erik kept complaining about the lack of picture books.

As the five studied the literature, they finally came to focus on a very large and very round table in the center of the room. Upon the center lay a fine example of hide armor and some scrolls. They knew it was a trap, but went for it anyway, of course. As Z’alden crept up upon the table and touched the armor, the precious books began to fly off the shelves and swarm into a maelstrom of sharp paper and sturdy bindings. (I must admit, the thought of the adventurers possibly dying by a thousand paper cuts was quite amusing.)

What wizardly power had been imbued upon this incarnation was a surprise to even these experienced warriors. The chaotic swarm hammered them, both physically and mentally, dealing psychic damage. Perhaps it was a just reward for not being more quiet and respectful in the library. Picture books indeed.

The adventures battled the hailstorm of for quite a while. Lightning and fire, steel and sweat beat back the swarm like so many angry birds. As I heard the tale my heart grew torn between the quill and sword. Me, a man of the ink, and them, whom by their presence I knew the victor. With terrible blows by the ranger and the sorceress, pages lay lost and scattered upon the floor. The fighter closed the chapter (sorry) on this battle by a clever trick – trapping the books in his “Shield of the Armadillo”, which encased the final swarm, severing its connection to the power source.

Erik the ranger was happy to have the enhanced armor and Z’alden delighted over a scroll that could cure disease, with a little effort. Yet it was not like the adventurers to rest long, and this time was no exception. Soon they were further on, deeper into the Temple of the Arcane. Coming to a crossroads of sorts, they analyzed the four possible directions. Turning back was not to their liking, nor was digging through rubble and taking time to break arcanely sealed doors. So they decided to move directly forward by breaking down welded shut door.

Before them lay a vast room of deathly cold water. Ice ran the edges of the room – a tempting passage to what lay beyond – a sleeping ringael. What beast would lie in such a frosty nest? Using their collective wisdom and the ranger’s “foe stone”, the adventurers gathered that this beast, though weak in will, had no vulnerabilities and could very likely resist lightening and cold. (I could have told them the last bit.) They also surmised that the beast ws of neutral alignment, capable of serving a master. Using her keen intellect, Rift surmised that the room was built to sustain the beast. Someone had built the room and trapped the ringael in with not only a sealed door but also an invisible barrier.

After a while, a plan formed. Erik would first drink a potion to improve his thievery skill. Next he would be made invisible by Rift, who would then cast an arcane gate through which he could simply step through to arrive next to the beast. Why? Did I tell you about the adventurer’s pathological need for loot? Around the beast’s neck was a necklace, or rather a belt to anyone of human dimensions. The adventurers simple had to have it.

With the utmost stealth, Erik slipped through the dimensional gate to arrive immediately next to the sleeping ringael. Pausing with a soft breath, he studied the belt and it’s buckle. Then his hands un-wove the belt through the buckle, as if it was a serpent silently moving unnoticed through the grass toward its prey. The belt was free. The beast still lay sleeping. Erik calmly moved back through the dimensional gate to his companions.

With the belt in their possession, the five adventurers pondered what to do next. That was too easy. They must attack! Surely an opportunity to coup de grace a sleeping beast was too good to pass up. Tria was the first to attack and her magic struck the ringael hard. Rift’s attack missed. Z’alden then delivered a heavy metal bolt from his crossbow. To no one’s surprise, the ringael awoke.

Revealing its powers, the ringael took flight and the tempest beneath its wings blew Erik and Z’alden into the icy cold water. So too did even the stout dwarf get slid into the waters. Lightning sparked from the ringael, shocking all those who lay too close. While the men of the group floundered in the water, the women took defensive action. Tira used her wicked sorcery to reverse the ringael’s resistances, making it vulnerable to both lightning and cold. Rift cast a resist lightning spell upon herself and sent a mirror sphere before the creature so that its attacks would be visited upon itself as well.

The scribe’s recollection of his text was interrupted as his small, single-person prison started to move. The wood creaked and the bars squirmed against their braces. A large creature was heaving the box off the ground and onto a cart. Dark figures gathered around. Their cloaks sagged on their boney forms. Their sunken faces and hollow eyes lay in the shadows of the hoods. Torben felt fear like he had never imagined possible. It was an unnatural fear as if the figures knew enough about him to magnify his emotions. Then one spoke what he realized was his true name. All went dark.

In Too Deep
When learning to swim, start in the shallow end

“Torben! Come join us!” Barrick shouted in his huge dwarf voice. Barrick held aloft a great tankard of ale, foam splashing over the sides and running down his mailed arm.

The others looked up. Tira, Erik, Rift, and Z’alden spied Torben by the bar. The dour scribe appeared to be talking to the barkeep. Erik the Ranger noticed that the man looked nervous and agitated. Erik saw a flash of gold as Torben pushed a coin over to the bartender, who casually lifted it off the sticky bar, bit into it, and then slipped it into his jerkin.

Torben weaved his way through the crowd, fending off a pair of female half-elf rangers who tried to latch onto his arms. A burly half-orc, obviously blasted out of his wits, tried to block Torben’s path and engage him in a drunken jig. Torben stopped and stared blankly at the large half-wit. Dismayed, the half-orc gave up and staggered off after the two rangers.

As Torben approached the table, Erik noticed that he carried neither drink nor food. What did the coin buy? mused Erik.

“Torben,” Barrick roared. “What brings you to the Greasy Goose at this late hour?”

Torben looked around nervously, then sat down in the closest chair with a thump. “My friends,” he began, “It is good to see you. Unlike me, you all seem quite healthy and contented. That is good.”

Barrick stared at the quill-pusher. The dwarf was not too far gone, and even he noticed that Torben did not look well. His clothes were unkempt, his hair was wild, and perhaps had a touch of gray that was not there before. The dwarf shrugged and thought to himself, What is it with these humans? So much drama, and they age so quickly. Bah, no matter!

Loudly, the dwarf bellowed, “Well, enough of your own troubles Torben. Thanks for sharing. But look, have we got a story for you!” At this, Barrick leaned over and gave Rift a slap on the back, causing her glass of Nentir ‘97 to slosh over the sides of her silver chalice. Torben saw Rift turn bright pink in embarrassment. Despite Torben’s own preoccupations and troubles, the scribe grew interested. An Eladrin, embarrassed? Torben grew excited. Perhaps just this once he could get the full tale, without interruptions. If so, he could finally finish the next volume! Perhaps that would keep the jackals at bay!

Tira grinned as she saw Torben quickly pull his chair up to the table. Whipping out quill and paper, Torben brushed his greasy hair out of his face, then turned to the dwarf. “Well, what happened? What did Rift do?”

Startled, the dwarf turned to the scribe, who was staring at him in eager anticipation. “What? You want your story right now? But I’m only on my second glass of ale…”

Tira saw the look of dismay pass over Torben’s face. The half-elf lay her delicate hand on Torben’s arm. “Torben, I will give you your story, assuming that our dear friend Rift doesn’t mind.” Rift waved a hand dismissively. “No, no,” the wizard declared, “go ahead. I have suffered through the indignity already. Yet another retelling won’t harm me.” Rift smiled weakly at Tira.

As Tira began speaking, Torben’s hand began to fly over the paper. “So, there we were. Stuck in the Order of the Arcane temple with a mad archmage. Illidan Stormrage, you recall, was his name. We had just been talking to a dead skeleton…”

Z’alden spoke, “Wait, I must interrupt you.” Tira stopped, an annoyed look crossing her face. Torben looked up, pen poised above the paper. The cleric’s face split into a wide grin. The rest of the party stared at Z’alden, waiting for the inevitable. “Aren’t all skeletons dead?” After a brief moment of silence, everyone except Torben burst out into gales of laughter. Torben stared at the group. Great peals of laughter were coming out of Barrick, flecks of foamy ale spewing across the table. Torben shook his head. They’re all nuts. Why did I ever hitch my wagon to this bunch? Still, it has brought me fame and fortune. And much trouble.

After the gales had subsided, Tira continued. “We had to somehow find the head of a demon, and bring it back to the skeleton. Then he (the skeleton, not the demon head) would give us a key. The Key to the Depths Below he said. Why we wanted a key to even more horrors, I don’t know. But that was our quest. Also, how were we to get a demon head? Ask politely?”

“Anyhoo, we kept wandering through the twisty ruins beneath the temple. Erik kept hearing running water…” Here, the sorceress gave the ranger a playful jab in the ribs. “Water on the brain, more likely.”

“But indeed, we did eventually come to a fountain, which, thinking it was a Fountain of Youth and Beauty, I immediately drank. But no… instead it just gave us some extra luck.”

“Wait, back up a minute.” Here, Torben lifted his quill, a pained look crossing his face, as a drop of ink pooled on his paper. Tira continued, “Completely forgot about the scrying orb. That was in another room, platinum pieces all over the floor. Our illustrious wizard, using her amazing arcane skills….” Rift’s cheeks turned even pinker. “Our wizard used the scrying orb to spy on Illidan. He was talking to some demon guy who had just come out of a big cloud of energy. Oh yeah, and Illidan was holding the sword and staff of Miraak.”

Torben stared blankly. “Oh for Tiamat’s sake, you don’t know Miraak?!” Tira spluttered. Rift muttered, “Miraak, the sorcerer king, ancient archmage of the Order of the Arcane. He used the staff to summon demons to do his bidding.”

Tira continued. “Thanks Rift! So Illidan says to the demon…” Tira lowered her voice and began to intone in her best evil-sorcerer-who-wants-to-rule-the-world voice, ‘Batarath, lead the armies to the eastern front. The Fire Lord is pleased with our progress, blah blah blah." Tira smiled brightly. "I can’t remember if he said anything else. I got bored and wandered off."

“Then, there were some statues that came alive and we had to defeat. You know, the usual stuff.” Here, Tira lifted her glass and gave a brief whistle. The buxom barmaid came over, winked at Tira, and refilled her glass. “Well, not to embarrass anyone, but I just could not understand why Erik insisted on attacking the statues with his bow. And not with an arrow, mind you. A bit ineffective, if you ask me. But after being stunned, dazed, knocked down, and then body slammed, our dear ranger came to his senses and began to actually shoot his arrows.”

“Well, let me tell you, we showed those statues what we were made of. Um, and it isn’t stone, let me tell you!” At this, Tira looked around expectantly. But either no one was paying attention, or perhaps they hadn’t heard her hilarious jest. She shrugged. “Well, with a few well-placed wizardly mirrors, some expert dwarven axe play, whizzing arrows, our cleric’s divine guidance, and…”, putting her hand over her chest, “…my own modest contributions, we managed to pulverize the statues back to the dust they were made from.”

Z’alden piped up, “I blinded one of the statues! Neat trick, eh? Torben, have I ever mentioned how through the divine guidance of the most powerful god, Bahamut, I am able to bring justice and retribution to our enemies?”

Tira smiled sweetly at Z’alden. “I thought Tiamat was sometimes useful to you, no?” At this, Z’alden shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, and buried his head in his near-empty glass of Nentir. Dark mutterings were heard coming from within the confines of the glass.

Torben looked up from his furious scribblings, a dark smudge of ink on his brow. “Well, then what?”

“As I was saying,” Tira continued, “we continued through the dangerous, scary dungeon, menaced on either side by fearsome foes, our feet tired but our hearts glad with promise of treasure.”

Torben stopped writing and looked up, annoyed. “Please leave the creative writing and character motivations to the scribe, thank you very much!”

Tira stopped, chagrined. Rift muttered, “I didn’t know the stone would actually come out…”

Torben stared at the wizard. “What’s that you’re muttering Rift?”

Rift continued, the wine strengthening her resolve to see the story all the way through. “We came to an odd triangular shaped room, with a slightly-tilted floor. There were stones set into the wall, with runes carved on them. Translating the inscriptions, I found that they were runes of Warding and Observation.” As Rift traced out the runes on the scarred table with her dagger, Barrick shivered. The dwarf spoke, “Yep, those are the runes alright. I’d recognize them in my sleep! Boy, that was a close shave, let me tell you. And I’ve never shaved in my life!”

Rift droned on. “I just thought, well, you know, who would put these runes into the wall, without someone wanting to take one, as a souvenir?” The others in the party just stared at the wizard. “Yes, I’ll admit it, I just wanted to take something home with me, to remember the adventure.” She stared back defiantly.

Z’alden spoke first, spluttering, “But they weighed like, well, like, as much as a block of stone!”

The cleric warmed to his subject. “She took the stone right out of the wall. The rest of us weren’t even paying attention. By Tiamat, some of us weren’t even all the way into the room. And then, you know how, the instant you do something, you realize it was perhaps a mistake? Well, in this case, guess what the giveaway was?”

Torben Eastlander peered at the cleric, stating “I cannot begin to fathom what you are talking about.”

Z’alden continued, “I’ll tell you. It was when the walls slammed together, trapping us in a triangle of doom. And then the water started pouring out of all of the blocks in the wall, after they all fell out. Did I mention that the water was pouring? No, not pouring, gushing!”

Z’alden grew more agitated, as Tira suppressed a snigger. “We were trapped, like rats. By the gods, I hate getting wet, almost as much as the dwarf! The room was filling rapidly. We tried everything we could think of. Smashing the stones back into the holes seemed to help a bit, like bailing out a lake with a bucket!”

“Luckily, we did have a sorcerer and a wizard, and a strong warrior, and a perceptive ranger, and of course a cleric to keep everyone alive.” Nodding at Erik, Z’alden continued, “the ranger noticed the secret panel first. It contained the mechanism, at least I think it did. Made my head hurt just looking at all that machinery. Never could understand that stuff.”

“By this point, the room was nearly full. It must have softened the wizard’s brain a bit, because her arcane skills seemed to fail her at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, we managed to help each other and defeat the malicious trap. Our doom had been averted.” Here, Z’alden glared at the wizard, but Rift took no notice, her face buried in her cup. She, too, began to mutter dark oaths into her chalice.

Tira then spoke. “So, that was a close call. But it all ended well, although my hair hasn’t been the same since.” Here, Tira flicked her reddish locks back and smiled prettily at the scribe, who stared at her, a blank look on his face.

Tira shrugged. “Well, you won’t believe what happened next.” Torben very much thought that was quite likely.

“We came to another room, with candles all around the inside. This time, it wasn’t Rift who triggered the trap that caused poison gas to start filling the room.” Tira paused, looking around the table at her companions. “I cannot remember. Who was it that tried to remove a candle?”

At that moment, a loud pounding sounded on the heavy door to the inn. All of the patrons stopped drinking and stared at the oaken door. All except Barrick, who was loudly humming a dwarven love song to himself, his beer swishing back and forth in his mug in time to the tune.

Erik saw the barkeep stride over to the door, nervously fingering the pocket where he had put Torben’s coin. Just as the bartender put his eye up to the peephole, the door burst open. Standing in the shattered door were at least five creatures. Four were huge warriors with hideous hyena faces, their teeth bared, laughing wickedly. Each held a long dirk, the points gleaming in the lamplight. The fifth creature appeared to be human, although a black hood made it difficult to catch but a glimpse of the face inside. Erik the Ranger stared. He swore to the nameless gods that he recognized the figure, but he could not remember how or why.

At that instant, the figure raised a hand and all light was extinguished. A blast of heat followed as screams filled the inn. The air was suddenly filled with blinding motes of dancing lights, which confounded the senses. A loud voice commanded, “Ignore the others. Take him only.” Erik felt the table being flung away from him, even as he leapt up, his swords sliding smoothly from their scabbards. He thought to himself, they will not take me without a fight.

Suddenly, Erik felt a foul creature’s hot fetid breath on the back of his neck. A high-pitched laugh filled his ear. Fighting back the wave of nausea, Erik lashed out, felt his sword grate against bone, as an agonizing roar of pain rang out. Erik swung again madly, but his swords whistled harmlessly through the air. He stopped, fearful of striking friend instead of foe.

The loud voice near the door rang out again. “Do not forget the papers.”

Erik felt a scuffle nearby, but he could neither see nor hear clearly enough to act. A struggle, then a strangled cry and a loud thump as something heavy hit the floor. The rustle of papers, and a dragging sound, as if a heavy bag were being pulled away.

Gradually, the motes of light faded away. Someone lit a lamp, the sudden brightness making everyone blink in confusion. The inn was a shambles. Broken glass and shattered mugs lay on the floor, pools of ale flowing freely. The barkeep lay facedown near the door, unmoving, his arms and legs bent at an unnatural angle.

Erik stared at his sword. Thick dark blood ran down its length. Not human blood. A pool of blood lay at his feet, with a thin trail leading off in the direction of the door.

Next to the overturned table lay one of the hideous creatures, facedown. Erik put a boot to the body and heaved the corpse over. A long dirk protruded from the chest. The ranger’s analytic side took over. A lucky strike, clumsy, done in haste and by an unskilled hand.

Barrick stared blankly. “What happened?” The dwarf looked around. “Where’s that blasted scribe? I was just getting to the good part!”

The others looked around. Torben Eastlander, along with his sheaf of papers, and his bag, was gone. His quill lay on the floor, the ink flowing from the tip, mingling with the streams of ale and blood.

That's What It Said

The gigantic monster expands and, if possible, becomes even more terrifying, creating a 60’ thick ring of lightning.
“Inconceivable!” shouts Erik.
Tira moves far away, “Dear God, what is that thing?”
Only Barrick seems unphased, “Evil, pure and simple from the Eighth Dimension!”
The creature, now a Void Lord, blasts out at his foes, dazing everyone but Tira, the only one at a safe distance. Seeing her friends injured, Tira panics for a second, “That’s it, man. Game over, man! Game over!”
Z’alden briefly considers trying to banish the Lord from our plane, stepping forward and saying, “I order you to cease any, and all, supernatural activity and return forthwith to your place of origin, or to the nearest convenient parallel dimension.” But knowing the magic would fail, he simply swings his trusty mace, making contact, but doing little damage.
Rift, knowing that Tira needs to get in closer to use any of her powers, yells, “Just teleport.”
Tira considers, shouting back, “Well, as it turns out, teleporting isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.” But knowing she is needed, she calms her mind, teleports inside the lightning torus, and blasts the Void Lord.
The dreaded Void Lord retaliates, firing off two black balls of magic. One slams into Z’alden, doing massive damage, the other heads toward Rift, but she easily steps to the side. Recovering, Z’alden looks at Rift, wondering how she managed to avoid the blast so easily. Rift shrugs, “Basic strategy: if your enemies know where you are, then don’t be there.”
Barrick lowers his head and charges the enemy, “Ramming speed!”
Then he yells to his friend to create the ‘happy carpet of death’, “Go do that voodoo that you do so well!” Z’alden complies, not because he was asked, but because Z’alden knew he was hurt and hurt badly.
Rift suddenly comes up with a great idea, she uses her Mage Hand spell to carry a mine over and drop it off on the dark evil Lord, “You’re entering a world of pain.” she says as she releases the mine. It explodes, doing massive damage.
Erik switches to his bow and taunts the Lord as he hits with a couple shots, “I’ve known sheep that could outwit you!”
The taunting seems to only infuriate the Void Lord, but he does not strike back at Erik, instead he blasts Z’alden. Z’alden falls to the ground, dead. But thanks to the happy carpet, Z’alden’s eyes flutter and no sooner than dying, Z’alden returned to the land of the living. He takes a big breath and mutters, “The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.”
Seeing Z’alden die and return forces Tira to rethink their current strategy, she steps through the barrier and attempts to fire a shot back at the dark beast. The chaos bolt hits the barrier and fizzles away into nothing, “What a pisser.”
Erik looks at Z’alden lying on the ground, “You look like Hell.”
“Yeah, I just got back.” Z’alden replies wryly.
Erik motions to Barrick, using quick hand signals to ask if Barrick will charge as Erik shoots more arrows. As he braces himself for impact Barrick replies, “We can do that. We don’t even have to have a reason.”
Tira suddenly comes up with a great idea, “At my signal, unleash hell.” She rubs the circlet on her head and a red dragon suddenly appears underneath her. Laughing at the Lord, she flies above the dreaded circle of lightning. “Never give up! Never surrender!”
Rift looks over at Z’alden, “Don’t you go dying on me!”
“I’ve been dead once, already. It’s very liberating.” Z’alden replied.
Rift again uses her Mage Hand to drop another mine on the Void Lord, this time parts of its armour break off in the blast. Rift laughs at it, “Ouchtown, population you, bro!”
Tira senses the tide of the battle has shifted, what just moments before seemed like utter doom, now seemed quite winnable, “How many times in battle have we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat?” Tira waves her wand and magically switches places with the Lord, sending it up 40 feet into the air.
With the damaging lightning also up in the air, Barrick uses the brief calm to inspire the rest of the party, “Failure is not an option.”
Feeling energized, Rift asks Tira a question, “What’s the shortest distance between two points?”
“A straight line.” Tira answers with a question in her voice.
“Wrong. The shortest distance between two points is zero.” Rift creates an Arcane Gate between her current location and a spot near the steps of the temple. Stepping through she quickly reaches the massive door. But before she can open it, the previously immobile Plague Demons come to life. One attacks Rift whilst the other uses the gate Rift just created.
Z’alden heals again and stands up, ready for more action. Erik nudges Barrick and whispers, “He’s all bright, and shiny, and new again, just in time for the Dark Lord.” Just as the words leave his mouth the Void Lord falls and teleports near the group, blasting everyone but Rift.
“We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” Z’alden shakes his head as he is injured again. He attacks once, hitting the evil being, then also steps through the gate. Tira quickly follows, with Erik and Barrick right behind her.
Rift thinks briefly about trying to magically unlock the door, but then just reaches forward and tries it. It opens without resistance. Rift is surprised, but only a little, “Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.” she says with a smirk. Even though a wall of fog prevents her from seeing inside, she steps through.
Tira shrugs and steps through after, “Here’s to the fear of being trapped.” She says to no one in particular.
Erik motions to Z’alden, “Very dangerous. You go first.”
Inside the party is stunned to find a chess set in the middle of an empty room, the pieces all being larger than Barrick. Five squares on the adventurers side of the board are empty. Erik gasps, “We have to play our way across the room.”
After resting for a few minutes, the party take up the five spots on the board and wait. The knight on the other side magically moves forward, the game is on. The group plays well and wins the game, but at the cost of losing Erik and Z’alden.
As the game ends, a teleportation circle appears in the center of the room. Tira laughs, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”” She nods at her friends. With no idea where it leads nor where their friends are, the remaining members decide to jump on the circle together. They end up in a room in the East tower, completely ransacked. With nowhere to go, they all settle down and rest for many hours, trying to regain as much power as they can. Rift, awaking first, begins to explore the room, finding a trap door in the floor. Below is a dank musty passage. “Who wants to go down the creepy tunnel inside the tomb first?”
Dropping down into the dusty caves, they ponder whether to explore downward or upward. Barrick kicks the hard rock floor, “Can you dig it?” he asks rhetorically, shaking his head. Upward the party goes
Soon they come across an Eladrin skeleton, wearing a hood, sitting in an old chair, and holding a parchment. Rift casts Speak with Dead. The skeleton begins to speak in a raspy voice, “I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.” It speaks as if it does not know how long it has been dead. It goes on to mention one Kaelthas Sunstrider and a key to the depths below. He then asks for the head of a demon, then stops speaking. Rift is happy with the information she gained, “I’m rapidly becoming a big underground success.”
The rest of the party groans at her attempt at humour, but then also fall silent as they ponder their next move, streaks of crimson and crystal slowing moving through Z’alden’s and Erik’s bodies.