Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Evil Green Rock interlude: Rusalka

They need to sort out a few details before they leave, so it's back to Corvis for our heroes.

James is thrilled with his gifts. Ian and Islene report to Cyrus, who is horrified by Rhul paperwork (four copies! At least!). Cyrus has never heard of a metal like they describe. He tells them he'll look into it, but if the dwarves don't know, then he isn't optimistic.

Grigori and Braydon, meanwhile, powwow over Five Fingers. Besides the two of them, they figure on taking Islene, Ian, Boomtongue, and Mara, because an Illuminator is not a bad thing to have when you're dealing with evil green rocks.

The Scharde and the thief with a hole in his soul get some funny looks from the paladins when they go to fetch Mara. The Illuminators know nothing about such a rock, either, but Mara is all for coming along. After that, Braydon hits up Cyrus for the latest news from Five Fingers while Grigori checks with Pendrake to see if the great adventurer knows anything about evil green rocks.

In fact, Pendrake seems to know quite a bit about evil green rocks, rather too much to narrow this down. "There are lots of stories about things buried in the Wyrmwall Mountains," he tells Grigori cheerfully. Somehow, this is not reassuring.

As for Cyrus, he has heard no news out of Five Fingers recently. Distinctly no news. Suspiciously no news. In other words, something is up in the port of deceit.

Islene apologizes to her family about dropping in and then being off again so quickly. "We're tracking an evil rock to Five Fingers," she tells them quite candidly. Her father sighs. "I don't suppose we can talk you out of this. This is what happens when you raise them to respect people." She tells Ashley, too, whose reaction is, "Good! You have to read this!" Ashley shoves Lenard's tract at her sister, who promises to read it on the train ride. Ashley knows nothing about evil green rocks, either. "There's nothing under the Protectorate except oil." She suggests Islene might try burning the thing when they find it. It works surprisingly often.

Braydon passes on the suspicious lack of news to Grigori, who says that traditionally means something's about to go down among the the city's big players. "The sooner we get there, the sooner we can join the party," he tells Braydon wryly, who replies in the same tone, "Course it's too much to ask that this doesn't involve our rock."

The ship they charter down the Wyrm's Tongue sets sail the next morning, with several passengers and interesting cargo on board. Well, interesting for salivating sneaky types, at any rate. An Ordic merchant traveling with his daughter has quite a pile of trade goods shipping with him, which Grigori ogles just a little indecently. The man's daughter is whiny about leaving Corvis, much to his irritation. "This isn't like you," he rebukes her. She sulks and paces.

She continues to sulk and pace after the ship sets off, Corvis growing distant behind them. Grigori tries to chat her up while Braydon sits back and watches this bit of impromptu theatre. She blows him off, acting disinterested and antsy.

Braydon keeps watching her; her behavior doesn't change. She spends hours on deck, fidgeting and fretting. Grigori finds her suspicious, too, and entertains Braydon by expounding on his process any time he's on a boat: namely, assessing how likely they are to be attacked by pirates. "We have booty," he points out, waving at the shipping crates, "and there's something wrong with this river fog." "The fog is perfectly normal," his sometime-pirate friend disagrees, grinning.

But there is something strange about that girl, who barely eats at lunch or dinner, to her father's increasing concern. Mara tries casting Detect Evil on her, but while the reading is odd, it's inconclusive.

That night, over Boomtongue's sonorous, bullfrog-like snoring, a grinding vibration through the hull wakes Braydon and Grigori. It's the sound of the engine seizing up, which finishes off with a substantial KLANK. Grigori wakes the others, stuffing a pillow in Boomtongue's mouth, which makes him snorfle, cough, and rouse.

Islene and Braydon head out toward the engine. A sailor tries to reassure them that everything is fine, but when they spot an unconscious man a little ways behind him, he explains that there was a bit of an accident. Islene agrees to help fix the engine. Meanwhile, Mara and Ian check out the injured man. He'll be fine, but it looks like someone knocked him out with a prybar.

Which, coincidentally, rather resembles the prybar that someone wedged into the engine shaft. "That's the traditional way of sabotaging ship engines," Braydon tells Islene, wrenching the thing out.

The ship needs parts, so they captain decides to swing into a riverside town and put the passengers up for the day or so it'll take to effect repairs. The group divides surveillance of the eight other passengers among themselves, figuring to narrow down the suspects and find out what happened here. Boomtongue stays to keep an eye on the riverboat while it's being repaired.

One old man, a sweet fellow heading to the nearby river town of Fisherbrook to visit family, is pretty obviously off the list of suspects right away. Grigori chats with another passenger, who turns out to be a scholar from Caspia University who's annoyed by the delay because he wants to reach an auction at Tarna in time to purchase some rare texts. Someone just unearthed them from an Old Kingdoms dig dating back to before the Orgoth. Revealing that he's an Orgoth scholar, Grigori attempts to engage the other fellow in some academic wrangling, but Orgoth scholars are crazy, so far as the other gentleman is concerned. He attempts to make his escape with, "I'm going to get more warm milk." But Grigori is having none of that. "I'll have some more whiskey," he replies smugly. "Another way I win."

The gauntlet is thrown, and the academics engage in verbal battle, much to the amusement of Braydon and Ian, who entertain themselves with snarky quips.

Islene sends Braydon back to the boat to go through the girl's belongings. Boomtongue helps him sneak on board by distracting the boatmen with booze. He finds little of note in her room. Her diary indicates she didn't like Corvis much at all (making it rather strange that she'd be so displeased about leaving), except that she and her father were rescued from a mugging by the 'dashing Captain Hellstrom.' There's also a box for a lady's dagger, which her father apparently bought her at Corvis' market afterward so she could defend herself.

It doesn't take long for Grigori to drink the other academic under the table. The man's pretty much gone after two shots of hard liquor. Satisfied with the outcome, and confident they can write that fellow off as a suspect since he probably couldn't do any real damage if he tried to swing a crowbar, he follows the young lady out when she announces she's going for a walk. Ian the stealth-priest accompanies him, and they are the night.

After a moment when she looks back and then turns down a back alley, she gives them a merry chase, winding all through town until suddenly she seems to vanish around a corner. Even Camden loses track of her. They meet up with Braydon shortly after that, coming back from the dock. While he fills Ian in on his skimpy findings, Grigori backtracks to see if he can pick up the girl's trail. Sure enough, he finds her footprints leading off in a different direction than he thought she'd gone. She's heading out of town. Leaving some scuffs so the others can follow him easily, he takes off after her. The others, along with Boomtongue, catch up to him right about the time another fog moves in.

"Okay," says Braydon, "This one isn't normal." And it's not. The fog is so thick it slows their movements and seems to dampen sound around them. Strange, high-pitched laughter rings out nearby, putting a chill down their spines.

Then gravity seems to throw in the towel. Swept upward off their feet, the adventurers are rather at a loss. Boomtongue lets out a Fell Call, the signal howl of a Fell Caller whose sound can travel for miles--even back into town where Islene and Mara are waiting.

They fall upward several more feet, then fall back down. Before they can make it to their feet, a Chain Lightning spell strikes through them. Braydon and Grigori roll out of the way. Boomtongue turns toward where the spell came from, targeting a stunning call at the caster. Braydon closes in to trip her, then wrenches her weapon away--a dagger, dripping with venom.

Grigori tries and fails to pin her, for which Braydon laughs at him. Ian knocks her out with chloroform instead. The fog dissipates just in time for Islene and Mara to see the girl faint.

"Now what the hell is this?" Braydon wonders, looking at the dagger he's holding cautiously. Boomtongue recognizes it: a rusalka dagger. When you kill a rusalka, a female water spirit, her soul may become trapped in the weapon used to kill her. If another woman picks it up, the rusalka's spirit can possess her in order to return to her home waters.

Destroying the dagger will kill the rusalka, but it's a magical object, so it's tougher than normal. Grigori wonders wistfully if there's any way to get the rusalka's spirit out without harming the dagger itself, since the thing is worth a tremendous amount of money. True magical weapons are rare, after all. Braydon thinks that's a rather good point (and also wonders idly, though he keeps it to himself, whether it could possess Grigori, with his unusual vulnerability to such things), but Mara puts the kibosh on that, declaring that the thing is evil and they're going to destroy it. Boomtongue crushes it with his mechanickal Umbrean war axe while Ian takes the girl back. Once the dagger is destroyed, she seems perfectly okay, although she doesn't seem to remember much of what happened.

The ship is ready to go by the next day, so it's back onto the river and heading toward whatever awaits them in Five Fingers.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Evil Green Rock and Ironhead Station

A day or two before they get back from the Widower's Wood, Michelle notices Berard lurking around the door to her shop. Having noticed that Michelle forgot her lunch that day, her mother drops by to feed the young mechanick, and Berard smoothly sweeps her aside on the way in. He spends a bit of time enthusiastically explaining something to her, which she grows more excited about herself as the bard works his charm on her. Then sweeping into the shop and dropping Michelle's lunch on her desk, her mother exclaims, "I just had the most wonderful idea! I just had a talk with a nice young man about Rafe..." Berard managed to talk her into letting Rafe apprentice with James, who isn't officially affiliated with the military, as a way of "letting it work out of his system."

Unnoticed by her mother, Berard gives Michelle a huge grin and a thumbs-up from the doorway.

Ian tells Islene, who has just been confused by Corvis's new high priest of Menoth. Dorvan Wessel is a stout, jolly man who pats people on the head and gives them grandfatherly advice. Islene, Ashley, and their parents find this just about the strangest thing they've ever experienced. Still, he has apparently opened Ashley's eyes to new and wonderful vistas, as Islene discovers when she stops by to tell her sister she has to leave to put a stop to a slave ring. "Good!" Ashley declares fiercely, then shows Islene a manuscript copy of a book written by Therin Lenard, entitled Man's Place. "It's magnificent scholarship!" Ashley eagerly explains. "It's incredible, I've never encountered such thoughts! Everyone needs to read this! If he's written more, I have to see it!" Lenard has apparently just collected himself another acolyte.

Braydon tells Boomtongue. Boomtongue falls silent for a couple of minutes afterward. "What is it?" asks the Scharde.
"I'm thinkin'," Boomtongue rumbles absently.
"I know," Braydon quips with a grin. "I can see the pain on your face." "Hur. You need a refresher on how it feels?"

In fact, Boomtongue is thinking about the problem ahead. He suggests they ought to take the "witch with the tools" (that would be Michelle), and "the monkey guy. I just like the way he jumps. Whooeee! We should try to get him to make that noise. Whooeee!" "All else fails, you could make it for him," Braydon suggests, expecting that he's just put Ichabod in for a hard time.

Ian slips by Himerald in an argument with another priest about who'll do the ceremonies at Ian's wedding. "You think he'd choose the Primarch over me?" he asks the other man, halfway between plaintive and arrogant.

Cyrus' comment upon receiving the report: "And nobody died? Well, this explains the message I got from Pendrake. It didn't make much sense..." He cautions them about the Dwarves. "They're not really volatile. They're actually kind of...docile. But they can be dangerous if you rile them up. Now get out of my office! You've given me more paperwork."

Taking Boomtongue's advice, Braydon visits Michelle's shop to ask her along. "Oooooo, Ironhead Station!" she says gleefully. We have stuff we need from there. I have to make lists..." She turns around to see all the other mechanicks holding theirs up to her. "We may need to revise plans..." Braydon mutters, a little thrown off.

Having dealt with the Rhulfolk more than most of the others in the group, Michelle is able to give them some useful information. "Dwarves are used to Trollkin," she reassures him. "They'll expect a certain amount of...joy d'vivre." "What?" blurts Boomtongue. "That's Rynnish for 'jackassery,'" Camden explains helpfully. Michelle and Camden share their knowledge of Dwarves, and Michelle talks about her admiration of their skill. Boomtongue sums up, "Ian and Islene will blend in with those disciplined types. You (meaning Michelle) speak their language. Braydon's accepted everywhere for his good looks."
"Everybody loves my pretty face," Braydon deadpans.
"And the sneaky types..." Boomtongue continues.
"Eeeyeah," Michelle finishes with a twinkle. "Try not to do that in front of people."

They follow Boomtongue's earlier advice and pick up Ichabod.

"Till they get used to us," Boomtongue adds, "somebody respectable should stay with Braydon. It's not really a Scharde-traveled place."
Braydon agrees. "Most places aren't if they aren't on the coast and burning."

James is still obsessed with trains, so they add some gifts for him to Michelle's list of purchases. As per his orders, they stop to see Cyrus on the way out of town. He gives them a sealed message for Ironhead Station's authorities, and train tickets. Camden doesn't like trains. He complains that they're loud, fast, smoky, shaky... Boomtongue shares some stories about notable train wrecks, and Michelle explains how trains work (which involves vivid descriptions of controlled steam explosions).

Entering the tunnels into Ironhead Station is like coming out into a night sky. The city is build into the caverns under a mountain. Homes and walkways are carved into the living rock, gaslight torches glimmering up the curving walls of the great chamber and across the scaffoldings and walkways that crisscross the upper areas. The caverns are steamy, smoky and roaring with the voices of the great trains and thousands of bustling inhabitants. The flickering blue glow of the gaslight that's everywhere casts strange shadows, which leaves Braydon, especially, on edge. Michelle thinks it's magnificent.

She shows them the way to Viscount Camler Raltheigh's office, the man who's in charge of the Cygnaran barracks here. Apparently expecting them, he gives them another letter for the Dwarven Conclave liaison. Making their way there, the Dwarves in the office (who are also expecting them) introduce them to Petra Stonechild, a security agent for the Conclave. She leads them back to her office along a narrow path around the lip of a chasm where they can talk.

Once they turn over the letter, the Ogrun's documents, and tell her the story, she's very concerned, and tells them she'll schedule an appointment with Ironhead Station's Clan Lord. Meanwhile, she arranges lodging for them, and they go poke about around the city.

Some of the group have been to Ironhead Station before, and they know Viktor Melgravta, the blind sculptor and priest who serves at the chapel of St. Sambert. He welcomes them happily, but can tell them nothing unusual. People go missing sometimes when they explore the deeper mines, but that's only to be expected.

Grigori catches rumors that more people have vanished than usual down near the Dwarven shafts, including a few very experienced spelunkers and explorers. Ian and Ichabod visit the local constable, whose initial impression of a clam loosens up once Ian shows him his knight's ring. The constable confirms the disappearances, but says they have no evidence that it's anything other than an accident. Still, he maps it out for them.

Michelle takes Boomtongue and Islene down to the Dwarven market to shop. The Dwarven market is held in the wide space of a high-ceilinged cavern, making the lighting shivery and sporadic. When Boomtongue asks what they're buying here, Michelle reads the first page of the list to him. "Oh man, I'm carrying this back, aren't I?" he laments.
"Only if your obnoxious," she teases him.
"Aw, man."
"To me," she clarifies cheerfully.
"Aw damn."
And then he calls her a witch again, which of course offends her. Boomtongue tries to defend himself by explaining that humans with magic are witches. "Islene's a witch too, but she shot me once so I don't call her that."
"How about a giant wrench?" Michelle asks quellingly. "Or a power drill?"
Boomtongue doesn't stop, so she shoves a roll in his mouth. "Insulting gets tasties!" he declares.
"I need to have a girl-to-girl talk with Islene when we get back," Michelle sighs.

Boomtongue charms the shopkeepers out of some further gossip, and Michelle hits up the local Steamo's Union house to arrange for the disposition of her goods, where they gossip, if possible, even harder than shopkeepers. The SWIW is practically a mafia in Ironhead Station. they learn that Steelwater Rail and Caspian Railways hate each other, and are indulging in a slightly seedy feud, and the Union workers are convinced that something is going on: workers have seen strange sights in the tunnels, and have heard of the vanishings.

When the group gathers together to compile their fairly sparse information, Boomtongue points out that there could be evil Dwarves. The notion may be outlandish, but there's always an exception. "Look at Braydon."
"Yeah," says Braydon. "I don't-" and cuts himself off before he adds 'kill people.' Because he does, occasionally. Speaking of surprises, Boomtongue mentions that he expected Hellstrom to end up backstabbing them when they first met. Braydon agrees. "What?" laughs Michelle. "Hellstrom? He's so honest he makes the walls seem wobbly. It's like saying Leto's a psycho."

"Dresses like a woman sometimes," Boomtongue mutters.
"What?!" Michelle stares at him, wondering what she just heard and whether she should be offended.
"Hooker down at the docks," Boomtongue adds quickly.
"Most hookers dress like women," Braydon points out.

Boomtongue makes some comment to Braydon that "You glow green in the dark."
"Do I?" Braydon asks, halfway between curious and concerned.
"Only because you're drunk," Ian says.
"I don't drink anything that makes me glow green!" Braydon protests.
"I meant Boomtongue," the priest reassures him.

The next day, Petra gives them the full tour. Heading surface-side, she shows them the great Dwarven fortress of Ironhead Station, rising from the mountain as if grown from it. This is how Dwarves establish their settlements, she explains. They build the fortress and begin cutting downward into the rock, expanding its walls from the stone they cut out of their tunnels. The Conclave's head council and ruling clan live here in the fortress, and the other dwarves live underground. The humans come up here often for sun, she tells him, finding it strange that they should be so desperate for sunlight and cold air. The Viscount particularly comes up quite often. He likes to look at the stars. He's a member of the Fraternal Order, so Michelle wonders if he has work relating to astrology. Petra cautions them on wandering in the Dwarven tunnels unescorted.

Islene has Michelle and Ian commission a handcrafted working stone train. Michelle also purchases a few tools and components she thinks James would find useful for his recent prosthetic work. Ian buys a stone pocket watch for Alicia's father. After lunch, they meet with Petra so she can lead them to their meeting with the Clan Lord.

Guards rush past them about a block away from the Clan Lord's offices. Possessed by a bad feeling, the group starts looking around. Ian spots a suspicious-looking man muffled in dark clothes trying to skulk away. Ichabod trips him and stuns him. Braydon catches the man's sword, which he notes is bloodied but not envenomed. They hand both over to the guards while Petra steps away to gain details from their officers. The Clan Lord was wounded but will be fine. They decide to wait until he can get around to seeing them.

It takes about an hour. The Clan Lord comes out, followed by a dwarf in white full plate embossed with a crest of the Dwarven Fathers. He's one of the Rhulic Paladins. The minute they come out, the terribly confused guards arrest the paladin on suspicion of conspiracy. The assassin gave them the paladin's name as his employer. The paladin finds it ridiculous, but politely complies with the guards.

Islene thinks this stinks like week-old fish. She gets Petra to take her and Ian in to see the assassin, who's being held in a permanently-etched Zone of Truth circle. The baffled and frightened would-be assassin tells them that he was hired via letter, never saw his employer's face, and agreed to go along with this because he was down on his luck and needed the money to care for his family. when Islene points out to Petra that the signature on the letter could be a forgery, Petra hands over the document for Grigori and the others to look over.

The paper is extremely fine, with Clan Softshadow's watermark imprinted on it. Petra is outraged by that, as Clan Softshadow owes fealty to Clan Ironhead. It's easy enough to obtain the paladin's signature on another document. The signature on the paper looks nothing like his.

The assassin is originally from Caspia. He was sent to Ironhead Station for 'community service.'
His daughter is sick, he tells Islene, and he had no other way to raise money for her medicine. He used to serve in the military, but he has no other marketable skills... "Why are we talking about this?!" he frantically asks her then. "I tried to kill somebody!"

"Well, if we can get you turned over to our custody..." she answers him, a little annoyed at his attitude, "Or maybe the Dwarves will press you to death with stones. But my parents have a trading company, and they always need caravan guards." When she queries the dwarves on his fate, Petra scoffs. He's an idiot. They're more concerned with the mastermind behind the attack. "See, it's not all doom and gloom," Islene tells him.

Clan Lord Gerrol calls them in for their meeting. He's puzzled over the watermark when they show it to him. Fingering the paper, he turns to his adviser, Dragar. "This...is yours, isn't it?" The adviser, taking a closer look, agrees with great confusion, then finds himself under arrest. The Clan Lord remains stoic. When they tell him about the slave ring, he asks, "How are you at ferreting things out? You look a little larcenous." "We're the Heroes of Corvis!" Boomtongue replies, seeming perhaps a little needled (probably at the thought of Braydon and Grigori being taken for the group's face-men). "Oh," Gerrol says. "Then if someone tries to kill you it won't be a problem. Either you'll figure it out or you won't," he adds, shooing them off to their work.

On the way out, they spot a very nervous Dwarf, apparently fretting over whether to go into the offices. Michelle approaches him gently, not wanting to scare him. He apologizes, says he was just going to talk to Dragar, who is also the Conclave's mine foreman, about something he found, but he knows someone else he can talk to about it. He hurries off.

Petra receives a report that Dragar's signature matches the one on the letter. It seems wise to look through Dragar's office to see if they can find anything either incriminating or otherwise. A black book of confidential notes hidden under one drawer describes disputes with Deep Venture Mining, which is trying to talk the Rhulfolk out of some of their land; the rail companies fighting over tunnel expansion (again); and Holder Lugrow, one of the mine overseers, wanting to see him about something important.

Petra confirms that Holder is the nervous Dwarf Michelle talked to before.

But when they hunt down Holder, he's dead! They come upon the scene down in one of his mine shafts right after the rope to his life broke and sent him crashing to the bottom. While Braydon investigates the rope to find that it has been cleverly cut, Michelle casts a spell and floats down to the bottom to help the dwarves in the shaft. One of the old miners grumbles to her that the mine is cursed. Ichabod gets another miner to take him to Holder's office. This dwarf tells him the overseer was acting "squirrly" recently. He opened this new shaft, then closed it shortly after, and said he needed to speak to Dragar.

Islene gets Gerrol to give her custody of the would-be assassin. Boomtongue, Petra, and Ian speak with Foreman Dragar about Holder. He doesn't know what the overseer wanted to show him, but he permits them to look through the rest of his papers. They skulk back to his office to do just that. While most of the others do a terrible detective job, discovering a note about a ham sandwich that they find dreadfully significant, Ian discovers that about 100 years ago, the dwarves started to open that shaft, then stopped after digging a short way after something (specifics unnamed) spooked them. "Let it go," Braydon tells him after he notices the others clustered over the lunch order. "We'd better get dinner soon."

Time to sightsee down in the shaft and find out what it was, exactly, that had the dwarves so spooked. But when they get there, there's a big chunk taken out of the end wall and no clue to exactly what it was. Ichabod asks about it to the dwarf who showed him Holder's office, who is shocked that somethign ws removed. If Holder spoke to anyone else, he tells the monk, it'd probably be Rothrock, the head geologist. But Rothrock tells him he doesn't know. Holder never came to see him.

At a loss, they decide to try Holder's house. After Petra lets them in, they find a red notebook hidden under Holder's desk: his journal. The last few entries describe the feeling of discomfort they had when they opened the shaft; how, after he he ordered the others out and found a strange mineral, he closed the mine; and how after Dragar was arrested, he thought he'd better go see Rothrock.

"We've been lied to," sums up Boomtongue.

They break into Rothrock's office. There are no notes or any hidden compartments, but Braydon notes signs of a hasty exit. "We're not chasing a geologist through the tunnels," Petra declares. "That'd be suspicious." Narrowing her eyes, she continues, "We'll find out where he's going and catch up to him."

To Grigori's inquiry, Camden replies that he doesn't feel anything menacing here now, but there's a strange residue to the air...nothing he can put his non-existent finger on. Braydon mutters quietly, "There's one mineral I can think of that'd make someone uncomfortable to be near it." "Necrotite," Grigori nods. "You mentioned it before."

Locating Rothrock is the challenge. Thinking on his feet, Grigori remembers that the geologist was wearing a badge. He has Camden use his spells to locate that object. The trail takes them deep into abandoned tunnels.

"How does he know where we're going?" Petra wonders at one point.
"The sword is enchanted," Michelle explains.
"That's an interesting sword," Petra notes, seeing how Orgoth glyphs are glowing just an inch or so above the blade's surface.
"I am," Camden says to Grigori.

The tunnel opens up on the side of a cavern. Spread below are people in chains mining ore, watched over by no fewer than six Black Ogrun. There are also a few Cephalyx, and lots of their drudge slaves shuffling about. Rothrock is some distance away, arguing with one of the Ogrun who seems to be in charge (at least, if one goes by the size of the hammer he's carrying).

Islene casts Silence on her gun, and takes aim at the Black Ogrun the dwarf is arguing with. The shot rocks him. The characters sink down into the shadows so the Ogrun can't spot them, but he sends two other Ogrun and some of the drudges up to their general area to look.

Boomtongue takes a deep breath and lets out his stunning call, shaking the drudges and Ogrun. Braydon throws his Orgoth knives, ripping through the vital points on one of the Ogrun and felling it where it stands. They return to him dripping with blood, which quickly gets absorbed back into the dark steel. Camden hisses at them. "I see you, looking at me." "You should get that checked," Michelle tells Braydon, a little unnerved by the blades.

Michelle casts Spider Climb on Islene, who casts Haste on herself then steps out to walk along the wall of the cavern while she snipes at Ogrun. Three shots drop the first Ogrun, and another two speed toward one of the Cephalyx, to little effect. He has layered himself in protective spells. Ichabod leaps down off the ledge to stun another Ogrun.

The drudges mass to attack at the Cephalyx's orders. Boomtongue howls a Fell Scream at them, followed by Michelle's lightning bolt, which does for them. Ichabod spots Rothrock making a break for it down a side tunnel and jumps after him. The dwarf manages to shake off his tackle, then shoots a lightning bolt at the monk, who simply bends backward to avoid it.

One Cephalyx calls the slaves to it, surrounding both Cephalyx in a living wall of hostages, while the other casts a Scorching Ray spell at the fighters. Boomtongue shouts again, stunning the slaves without doing any lasting damage.

Petra leaps off the ledge, body slamming an Ogrun. While Islene snipes six Cephalyx (apparently several more crawled out of the woodwork to help their beleaguered brethren), Braydon leaps on another Ogrun. Michelle casts Scorching Ray on the last Ogrun, which goes down after Grigori hits it with Camden. "Wow," he marvels. "It's actually fun to smite evil." "Isn't it?" Camden agrees. Then everyone has to dodge a Chain Lightning spell from the last Cephalyx. Islene takes out the final Cephalyx and the other three Ogrun with another round of hasted sniping.

Ichabod catches Rothrock again, rocking the dwarf with a series of quick hits, then pulls his halberd on the angry geologist. "Surrender."

"No!" snaps the dwarf. "You think I'm afraid of you?" Ichabod shrugs, and stuns him with another punch, then cards him back to the others, where he's shocked to see the fight is over already. With him in Petra's custody, Ichabod runs back to take a message to the other dwarves.

He returns a little while later with paladins.

Rothrock was carrying an unusual ore sample, but Petra waves it off, saying it's just one of the more valuable ores they mine down here. Not worthy of his special attention. So what was it he found? "Well, if he didn't have it on him," Michelle reasons, "and he didn't give it to any of these guys..."

"Either someone else is involved or it's at his house," Islene completes the thought. And it's not at his house.

Interrogated by angry paladins, Rothrock finally confesses that he framed Dragar, and reveals that the stone was a strange green-glowing rock that he planned to sell to a buyer in Five Fingers. It's not the usual Cryxian ore; it's nothing like he has ever seen. The stone is already on its way to the infamous city.

Islene writes a letter of introduction for the poor failed assassin and sends him to her parents. The others arrange for travel to Five Fingers. Grigori sends a message ahead to his contacts there.

Evil Green Rock prologue: Professor Pendrake and the Widower's Wood

Ian is shopping for houses with Boomtongue and Braydon "helping." Braydon displays a surprising depth of knowledge about houses he's never had a reason to be inside. Islene, meanwhile, is caught in the machinations of her parents as her birthday nears. After all, they've never gotten to celebrate for both twins before.

Returning from heroically aiding Ian in his housing dilemma, Braydon and Boomtongue come upon Captain Hellstrom talking to Cyrus about recent disappearances in the Widower's Woods. In the past three weeks an unaccountable number of people have vanished, including a military troop, from even the main roads. This piques the interest of the Scharde and the Trollkin, who both get bored easily.

Grigori, meanwhile, is accosted by Pendrake about coming along on a class outing to the Widower's Woods. Considering Pendrake's penchant for finding trouble, Grigori hunts down Ian and Braydon to ask them along as well. Braydon tells him about the people who've been vanishing, which naturally leads to Grigori offering his opinion on the Orgoth: namely, that 'they're coming back, you know.' "There's no one standing watch on the western sea," Grigori points out when Braydon laughs at him.

"Of course there is," Braydon tells him. "Not that it's an improvement."

Braydon visits Pendrake's little squirrel-monster from the Bloodstone Marches, which now lives in a big glass case with its own habitat. "It's a burrowing animal," Pendrake explains enthusiastically. "It's much happier now that it can try to dig its way out." "I think it wants to kill me," Braydon says, amused. "Oh, nonsense! He's just not acclimated to you, is all." Pendrake leans over to tap on the case, which sends the little beastie into a frothing, scrabbling rage. "See?" he tells the Scharde happily.

The three men gather supplies for the field trip, laying on some extra rope and other useful items in case of (inevitable) emergency. The next morning, they set out with three students and Pendrake. The journey out is engaging. Pendrake is in the habit of chasing leaping on things and capturing them to describe the various fascinating features of flora and fauna. That night around the camp fire, Pendrake decides to share some ghost stories. Grigori tells their adventure in the haunted asylum, and then Pendrake prods Braydon into telling some Cryxian folktales. He has the decency to tone it down to only some mildly horrific ones. The poor students are terrified.

The night passes quietly, and they wake up to discover that Pendrake is a very good campfire cook. Grigori keeps frightening Casey Bannister, the most nervous of the three students. Braydon finally gives the poor kid a few reassuring words after the young man's constant yelping starts to get on his nerves.

Pouncing on an unusual herb, Pendrake demonstrates the properties of a paralytic root that grows in the woods. Grigori and Braydon soak it up, fascinated, and as they turn to leave, Casey falls into the ground. Braydon, who after Hellstrom's descriptions had been betting on something underground eating the vanished travelers, is entirely unsurprised.

Pendrake kicks at the dirt till he opens a hole. Casey is unharmed below, in a tunnel. The professor immediately decides that of course, what's needed is to explore this cavern system.

They come across one of the dead soldiers, who was killed by a sword. Grigori takes his dog tags for the poor man's family. Casey breathes deeply, trying not to hyperventilate, and notes, "It smells terrible." Grigori, Braydon, and Ian share a look while they all repress the urge to tell him, "That's the smell of death."

Pendrake doesn't repress the urge. Poor Casey looks horrified.

They explore further until they come to a room that contains two drudges--Cephalyx slaves--and four prisoners. Grigori darts between the drudges and the prisoners. While he and Pendrake lay out one of the monsters, one of the prisoners--another soldier--leaps on the other to strangle it while Ian and Braydon finish it off. The prisoners say they're alright. They were treated fairly well, for reasons it's better not to dwell on. The soldier tells them that there are six or seven Cephalyx down here, and another creature he didn't get a good look at. Two net-launchers in the room get handed to the two unarmed students so they can defend themselves.

Leading the captives out, the group spots another drudge watching them, so they head back the way they came. Sure enough, they shortly pick up an entourage of four Cephalyx and several drudges. With a startled look on his face, Casey suddenly spins about to fire his net at Grigori. Pendrake leaps on him, shouting, "Mind control!" Grigori gets out of the net, handing it to Braydon and Ian to tangle beasties in. They catch three, and Braydon shivs one. "You want to light up the Cephalyx," he tells Grigori, "I got three flasks of oil in my bag."

The drudges rush to the attack. One of the Cephalyx looks backward down the tunnel at something coming toward them. Ian levels another with Flame Strike. Pendrake floors a drudge
just as the Black Ogrun arrives: a black-skinned behemoth with glowing, malevolently intelligent red eyes that are almost hypnotically frightening.

"That explains everything!" Pendrake exclaims, getting a good look at the thing. The Ogrun waves off two Cephalyx, who glide quickly back down the way they came. "Coward!" Grigori shouts at them.

"Very funny, little human," the Ogrun growls at him tolerantly, turning to leave.

Grigori kills the final Cephalyx with his chakram before it can escape and they mop up the rest of the drudges. Pendrake wants to follow the Ogrun, so the soldier and Godwin, the most self-possessed of the students, lead the captives out of the tunnels.

On the way down the tunnel, Pendrake explains that Black Ogrun are a sub-race of the Ogrun. They're entirely evil, he tells them, well known as both slavers and incomparable smiths.
And indeed, they come upon a smithy, where a black greatsword lies across an anvil. Pendrake warns them away. "Masterful smiths, but they're known to create weapons that cause madness." Bloodsteel, that black metal is called. No one is certain how it's created, but Pendrake suspects the name is a clue. While Grigori throws the sword back into the forge, Pendrake unearths some papers from a desk that are covered in Rhulic writing. Noting that some tools in the smithy are Dwarven make, he tells them that the papers are letters mentioning the Ironhead Station Conclave.

Grigori wants to give chase, but Braydon and Pendrake both point out the danger of that. They have enemies unaccounted for and undefended prisoners, and the Black Ogrun looked entirely too calm and in control of the situation. Instead, they decide to head back, give Cyrus the story, and perhaps pursue this on to Ironhead Station.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Lost Relics - The Doll's House

Full of relief that their dangerous infiltration of the Protectorate's most sacred city had succeeded, the weary band made their way back to Corvis. The Thornwood's shadow fell across their minds, but mainly they found their thoughts full of the promise of a cheery homecoming and a few nights in their own beds.

Imagine their surprise at what they found instead!

Michelle was the first to learn the terrible news, as she found her arms full of her sobbing mother before the door had even swung close. The poor woman told a dreadful story: Thamarites had kidnapped Rafe, Michelle's little brother, and in his place they had left a note: come to Five Fingers and retrieve Tavora's ring, then bring it to a warehouse on the Wake Islands if you ever want to see your loved one alive again. Ian and Islene were met with similar tales and notes regarding Alicia and Islene's father, and a fourth had been left with Islene's mother regarding Dara, Islene's young society friend who so liked to shock her family by flirting with Braydon.

The group lost little time. After a quick dip in the information streams of Filcher's Crossing proved useless, they armed themselves and, promising the safe return of their dear ones, bid adieu to families and friends as they set off on yet another adventure--one that promised a more dire resolution than most. Grigori, Braydon, and Boomtongue agreed that their enemies must be...sufficiently dissuaded from such schemes. If their gentler companions couldn't bring themselves to take the necessary measures in order to protect those closest to them, these three had no such qualms.

Downriver they sailed to the great port city. When they reached dock, Michelle stood amazed at the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of Five Fingers. Grigori chatted with the locals and soon placed the name, Tavora, which had tickled his memory. Talia Tavora, a doll-maker of superb talent, had specialized in life-sized, life-like marionettes. Eager to improve, she had even dabbled in arcane and mechanickal studies for her art's sake...but her heart dwelt always with her beloved family. Thus, after her husband and daughter's tragic murders in a burglary during her absence, the distraught woman sank herself ever deeper into her work, withdrawing from the world until finally, she sold her home and moved to infamous Mute Sister Island, where she lived until she died, as they say. Unsurprisingly for that particular district of the old port, no one ever heard from her again. So off to Mute Sister it was, that dismal and unholy cesspit of disease, pauperism, and degenerate practices.

On Mute Sister, they say, you may find worshippers of every unsavory rite, from the Devourer Worm to Thamar. The people are strange and inbred, often with weird features and sometimes, it's muttered, odd powers and knowledge. The desperately poor folk who live there suffer from wracking coughs and running sores, and the entire island remains, to this day, tainted by the memory (and--just perhaps--more than mere memory) of the Orgoth naval base that once held this strategic location on the Dragon's Tongue, though it's been long since anything but the rubble of its crumbled foundations stood to disturb Immoren's dreams.

On this island, the ferryman informed Grigori, Talia Tavora had built her final house, a strange structure with but one door and no windows. She had moved there, and for some years, a man had come and gone, visiting her, until one day, he vanished. That anyone should build on Mute Sister at all might've been the greatest surprise, and it was no surprise at all that of every curious individual who set foot into that house, none had ever returned. Grigori left a letter with the ferryman, along with 50 gold and instructions to send it to a friend of his in town if they didn't return in five days. It explained what they'd come here to do, and told the man to get help and come in after them.

Into the house they went (held up while Michelle oiled the rusty, creaking iron doors; "It's the sound of something breaking," she explained, shuddering with an engineer's special discomfort), but it wasn't long before the party found itself divided. Michelle squeaked in alarm as the door slammed shut behind them, and jumped as a stone wall rose with a "thud" to split the group apart so that Grigori, Braydon, Islene, and Ichabod, who had been in the front, found themselves heading one way, while Michelle, Mara, Boomtongue, and Ian found themselves going another.

Following the only path left to them, Ian's group headed down the hall and up a stairway till they reached a stone room. Inside, a manikin in the tattered dress of a house maid scrubbed fruitlessly at a stain on the floor, dipping from an empty bucket that rested beside her. The poor manikin seemed damaged or half-finished, missing an eye and some of her hair, as well as her legs below the knee. "Scrub scrub scrub" she went while the others searched the room. Ian, frustrated, cast a spell to locate hidden doors and traps, but felt something interfering with his magic. Michelle, fascinated by the little manikin, watched her for a while, until she finally wondered aloud, "I wonder what would happen if we put water in her bucket?" Boomtongue obliged and, as they watched, the stain vanished, the manikin crumpled, and a door slid open in the wall.

Grigori's party, meanwhile, found themselves in a room where three half-finished manikins stood working clumsily on a huge clock whose hands rested frozen at 11:58. Their manikin hands hadn't the dexterity to do the job, so Islene obliged for them. Sure enough, after two minutes ticked by, the clock's bells sounded and a door slid open to allow them passage.

The next challenge facing Ian's group was a ballroom containing twelve manikins all dressed in faded old finery. They danced with one another, or attempted to, but though their movements seemed graceful, they forever tangled and interfered with one another. After studying them for a time, Boomtongue (whose people do love to dance) concluded that perhaps the manikins danced with the wrong partners. Waltzing the manikins across the floor to pass them off to other partners, they left them dancing elegantly with one another in a silent ball as they passed through the revealed door.

Grigori and his companions stepped into a room where three manikins stood on a stage, dressed like a king, a young noble, and a servant. Handing Islene a crown and Braydon a sword, the puppets tugged the two up on the stage while Grigori spotted a play script. Without voices, the puppets acted out their roles in silence, while Grigori prompted his friends through the lines of an ancient play about the long-lost black kingdom of Morrdh. In Act I, the king calls his daughter and son (Braydon and Islene) into his presence to decree that she shall be married. He introduces the young noble who shall be her husband, but the prince and the servant do not trust him. The princess, however, falls in love with the young noble, who woos her sweetly. In Act II, the prince's friend spies on the noble, then leads the prince to eavesdrop on a secret meeting, where they learn the noble plans to murder the king and the prince, marry the princess and take the throne. The prince vows to tell the king. In Act III, the prince interrupts the marriage to accuse the noble of treason. They fight (with fake rapiers), and the prince is victorious. He then declares that the king is too weak and gullible to rule over Morrdh, turning on his father and killing him, and banishes his sister for being naive, after which he takes the king's crown and places it on his head.

At this moment, Braydon hesitated, and Grigori warned him to check the crown. It was nothing but cheap foil, and as Braydon found nothing wrong with it, he braced himself and put it on his head. Nothing happened, except that a secret door opened. Grigori took the script with him, as little is known about Morrdh and his scholar's curiosity was up.

Ian's group discovered a trio of little girl manikins playing with marionettes identical to themselves. None had mouths or noses, but their luminous glass eyes were strikingly beautiful. Each would make her puppet dance, and then the other girls would imitate the moves, but when the party stepped into the room, the girls paused, all staring at them (one turned her head all the way around to look). Spotting a fourth marionette in the corner, Ian took it up and took the empty fourth spot in the circle, making his puppet dance along with the girls'. When they completed the round of mimicry, the door opened.

Grigori's group, meanwhile, stumbled next into a dusty room draped in moth-eaten white fabric and lined with melted candles. It wass full of manikins dressed in faded finery. Again, many of them were missing eyes, limbs, hair, mouths, or other features. A trio of manikin musicians struck up a wedding tune on old, out-of-tune instruments and everything started up as if the wedding had been waiting for decades for the four adventurers to arrive. A manikin took Islene's hand, leading her down the aisle as the lucky bride to a groom-puppet with disturbingly intense eyes and oddly jittery movements compared to the smoothness of all the other puppets they'd seen. The others, baffled, took seats among the crowd. As the silent ceremony concluded, a puppet from the back got up and charged Islene with a real sword. Ichabod tripped the jilted manikin and destroyed it, and a door opened.

Ian's companions next stepped into a dressing room, where seven manikins--six blank dummies and a doll that looked like a little girl, all lacking faces except for beautifully painted eyes--lay in a heap along with costumes and props. Having an idea of how things work by now, they dressed the puppets in the costumes. When finished, the six--a butcher, a baker, a farmer, merchant, priest, and mechanik--walked to the edges of the room while the little girl stood in the middle. After a brief pause, the six turned and attack her. Horrified, Boomtongue reacted automatically, driving away the unresisting manikins, and they prevented them from harming the little puppet. No door opened. Realizing what the trigger must be, Boomtongue struck the little girl puppet with his maul. As she shattered, the door opened.

"I hope the others are having as fucked-up a time as we are," muttered Boomtongue. "For god's sake, why?!" asked Michelle, shocked at the notion. "So they've got a frame of reference," replied Boomtongue, "so they can sympathize with us." Michelle had little to say to that, so, disturbed, the group moved on.

A bit concerned with the increasingly dangerous scenarios, Grigori's group entered a room with the trappings of a workshop, full of tables and tools and many poorly-assembled puppets. With mismatched eyes, ears, noses, legs, arms, and many other parts, these crippled manikins limped, rolled, twitched and crawled about the room. Islene found their crippled movements particularly disturbing, while Braydon found it all too familiar.

A manikin sitting at one of the worktables lacked any lower body, but had beautiful eyes and perfect, beautifully articulated hands and arms. The tools, upon closer study, were just the right size for her. The group realized, after a bit, that the misbuilt puppets all seemed to have one another's parts. Braydon carried one to the worktable manikin's desk, and Islene placed a tool in her hand, but the manikin did nothing but poke at the poor puppet's arm. The group traded various theories, but couldn't figure out how to get her to work until she held out her hand and began to gesture as if she wanted something. With trial and error, Islene eventually realized that she wanted the proper arm for the little puppet. When she went to retrieve it from another marionette, however, the marionette struggled against her, feebly trying to fend off her dismemberment of it. It's what the worker manikin wanted, but the group felt uneasy at having to tear apart all the manikins this way. In the end, however, the worker had reassembled them all properly, and they collapsed as the secret door opened.

Before continuing, Braydon asked, "Was that very disturbing wrong? I have a feeling it was, because it reminded me of home..." "Yes," said Islene. "Yes, it was."

After their alarming encounter in the dressing room, the other group arrived at a church service. Here, six parishioners, lacking mouths and other details, sat in the pews. A priest puppet with a movable jaw stood at the pulpit, around which a strange circle was inscribed on the floor, with an acolyte to assist him. When the four visitors sat, the service began. While it started out normally enough, the service went more and more wrong--out of order, incorrect, increasingly disturbing. At the end, the priest pulled a dagger, gesturing at the adventurers, and the other manikins attempted to grab them. Boomtongue fought them off easily enough, but then allowed the priest to stab him. It did little damage (it would have done more, had Boomtongue allowed it), but his blood hitting the circle opened the next door.

Fully expecting to encounter violence by now, Grigori's crew instead found themselves in a tender scene: a nursery full of books and toys, where a mother-manikin in a simple, dusty dress rocked in a rocking chair next to a baby's crib. She had no eyes, but a nose and movable mouth. A storybook lay open in her lap. Braydon stepped up to read over her shoulder:

"Once upon a time, there was a naughty little girl called Celia. Celia's mummy and daddy were faithful Morrowans, and would not discipline their child, as she was blessed with their unconditional love. One day, Celia had been to the faire, and had seen many things. One among them was a statue of a woman.

"Please mummy? Please daddy? I want that model! I want it for my toy!" But Celia's mummy and daddy knew what this statue was, and explained to their darling daughter.

"I'm sorry, Celia, but that is a statue of Morrow's dark sister, Thamar. She is evil, and should be avoided." Celia cried, for the naughty little girl knew she would not get what she wanted. Her daddy comforted her.

"There, there, Celia. I'll get you another toy, a toy that isn't evil." But Celia wasn't comforted. She wanted that toy, she needed it. Later, when no one was looking, she stole the statue, hid it under her dress, and told her mummy and daddy that she wanted to go home.

For months, Celia was enraptured with the statue. She started saying her prayers, but saying them to the statue, not to Morrow like a good girl should. Knowing her Enkehidrion, like all boys and girls should, Celia knew Thamar wanted sacrifice, and started killing small animals in her new toy's name. One day, Celia's mummy and daddy found their naughty little daughter, standing with one of mummy's knives, over a cat in an alley, and realised that she was even more naughty than they had ever realised. Late at night, while she was sleeping, they took a pillow and, fearing their daughter was already beyond redemption, sent her soul to Morrow, and her mummy and daddy lived happily ever after."

Braydon read all this silently, suspicious that reading the story aloud might trigger an event. When he passed it around to the others, Ichabod began to read aloud till Braydon warned him. When they'd all finished the story, they stood, glancing uncomfortably between one another, till Grigori gave Braydon a significant look. Braydon calmly grabbed a cushion and held it over the baby-puppet, which struggled and then "died," while Islene and Ichabod gaped in horror.

But the door opened.

They saw their lost companions heading toward them along the hall it opened into. Rejoining one another, they traded disturbing stories. Unable to restrain herself any further, Michelle voiced a suspicion that had been growing within her for some time: "There are some kinds of constructs," she murmured, "that are animated by trapped souls." Islene nodded, thoughtfully. "We've seen things like that..."

Still, pondering it could get them nowhere. They entered the next door together, to find themselves in a living room, where two exquisite manikins sat in the center. One, a young girl, was perhaps 13, with long dark hair, large brown eyes, and a soft smile. The second, an older man with greying hair and a warm smile, stood behind her. In the corner, an old figure with long grey hair sat hunched over a third, unfinished doll. When Braydon looked more closely, he noticed that it was in fact a dead woman. This must have been Talia, in the middle of constructing her final doll--perhaps of herself. Talia and the man both wore wedding bands, which the group took, thinking they might've been the rings they were sent to retrieve.

But there was one more door. On the other side lay an altar with a statue of Thamar and a box. A manikin stood over it, seemingly struggling to open it, but he had nothing but clumsy doll hands that didn't allow him to grip anything. When he heard them enter, the manikin spun and, with a cry of frustration, charged them. They put him down easily, but: "Oh, god," cried Michelle. "He had a voice!" Curious, Mara cast a spell allowing her to see souls. Indeed, she verified, this puppet held one trapped within him. Michelle looked at Boomtongue, horrified. "We killed a little girl!" "No!" countered Mara, smiting the fallen manikin. "You set a soul free."

While they talked, Grigori and Braydon opened the box on the altar. Inside lay a simple gold ring. Nothing seemed special about it, but several people in the room simply felt something...wrong about it. A word was inscribed inside the band: Remel. Remel, Ian told them, was the Scion who brought the Plague that had killed a tremendous number of people over a thousand years ago--Thamar's Scion of sadism, rape, and murder, he was so terrible that even the Thamarites treated him as a bogeyman. He'd been destroyed by Ascendant Solovin. This was obviously the ring they'd been sent to find.

They also found a book, Talia's journal. In it, she wrote about her slow spiral into madness, about the man who'd been her comfort and support after her family died, who inspired her to delve more and more into the art of her puppet-making to ease her pain. The Thamarite (for that's what he really was, of course) slowly twisted her mind and drover her insane. He taught her necromancy to trap peoples' souls in her dolls to make them truly "life-like." Eventually, she took the notion to "bring them back," and came to the realization that the Thamarite had only been using her. She began to blame her family's death on him (perhaps not even untrue), and finally she lured him to this room, where she killed him and trapped him in the puppet, putting the ring he'd been so proud of into a box he couldn't open with his puppet-hands and gloating at his suffering.

As they passed through the outer room, Braydon moved to replace the wedding rings...then stopped. Grigori, noticing, caught on and realized that using them as decoys for the real thing might buy them some time. The others collected the old woman's body and the few personal items on the manikin family for decent burial, and they headed out.

The only thing left to do was head to the warehouse and reclaim their family members. Investigating the place, Grigori and Braydon could find no signs of anyone. When they headed inside, Ian found a secret trapdoor in the floor. Entering, they disabled several traps ("I'm beginning to suspect someone wants to kill us," said Braydon) on their way to the room at the end.

Inside stood three large statues--of Thamar herself, Scian Remel, and Scion Bolis, the founder of Five Fingers. A strong, spear-wielding woman stood, surrounded by several strong thralls, and mocked them. "I was beginning to think you would make it!" When they demanded to see their friends before they turned the ring over to her, she gestured, and two more undead led out the four captives. Islene's father had obviously taken a beating. Dara, looking furious, helped him walk while Alicia stood guard over young Rafe. "Now," said Grigori, "how do we do this? I don't think we'll just be turning the ring over to you and trusting you to let them go." "Oh," said the woman, "I was thinking I'd just kill you all and take it from your corpses." With that, she gestured for her monsters to attack.

Islene immediately shot down the two undead thralls that had been guarding the prisoners. Tossing a dagger to Dara, whom he'd taught to use one, Braydon and Ichabod scythed into the thralls guarding the woman while the others tried to reach the woman, who seemed to be some sort of warrior. Though the thralls were more formidable than the ones they'd faced before, they didn't stand for long, while Islene, Grigori, and Boomtongue brought down the woman, who laughed maniacally the more she was wounded.

After the short but bloody battle, the victors ran to their dear ones (well, Braydon congratulated Dara on her fierceness, and told Islene she had good taste in friends). Islene asked Ian to care for her wounded father, who had purposely drawn the guards down onto him when they'd planned to torture the boy. Luckily, Michelle had swept her younger brother up in a tight hug, so he didn't see it when Boomtongue grabbed the dead woman and tore her head off.

Michelle dealt with the spear, which was mechanickal and had an "Unholy" runeplate on it. As the others escorted the freed hostages out, Boomtongue and Braydon fell behind, so Boomtongue could mount the woman's head on a stake and paint on the walls in her blood a warning to any other Thamarites who might enter the room. A note on her body, seemingly sent from another Thamarite, discussed a search in the Thornwood, and a party sent to Ternon Crag, as well as another mention regarding Cyrissts. She'd been ordered to reclaim the ring, apparently, though the kidnappings had obviously been her own idea.

The triumphant party sent a message ahead to Corvis, but turned toward Caspia first, in order to deposit the ring with the Illuminators. Camden informed them that, after studying the thing, he'd gathered that its properties involved protecting the wearer from the effects of diseases, and allowing them to pass diseases on as a carrier.

After that, their homecoming in Corvis was welcome indeed. Alicia's sister took an increased dislike to Ian, blaming him for her sister's involvement in the whole ordeal (Boomtongue wanted to know when Ian would get around to proposing, and seemed inclined to get involved regarding the sister), while Alicia's and Dara's families invited everyone to big celebratory dinners.

In the meantime, they were left to catch up with Pendrake, Dumas, and Cyrus, as they'd originally intended, and to decide whether to head to the Thornwood or to Ternon Crag as their next destination.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Interlude in Corvis: the case of the Elven serial killer

Back in Corvis, our noble protagonists planned to indulge in some well-earned rest...but it was not to be.

The paladin, Camilla, chased away a mysterious elf after he spooked the children at the church. The priestess Alicia had been teaching them about Morrow's love, and how each of them was special, and for some reason this fascinated the elf, who frightened Alicia's class. Not long after that, our heroes encountered the elf who'd assisted them on the train to Caspia. Introducing himself as Shas Menellyth, the Iosan said that he was in town looking for someone.

A few days later, Prelate Dumas and Captain Hellstrom of the City Watch informed them that several children had been murdered in the city. Shortly after, Shas hunted them up again to ask for their help in find the one he was looking for, saying he didn't know the city well enough to do it alone. They learned from him that the murders were quite likely committed by the elf he'd come to find.

They followed the elf's trail across the city, finally tracking him down at the market, where he was attempting to kidnap a child with some drugged sweet buns. Shas jumped the killer and fought him down, but an altercation began when he attempted to take the blackguard away. The City Guard wanted to handle the renegade themselves, but the elves insisted that they would deal with their own. Eventually, the Guard accepted their promises to punish their rogue accordingly. Shas would say little about what was wrong with the individual, but he did tell them that it was a form of madness that occasionally strikes elves, a nihilistic insanity where the elf believed he was doing the children a kindness, "saving" them from the pain of life or some such thing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Orgoth Mystery Unfolds - soul cage the first

After gaining the additional funding for the dig, Grigori and his escort returned to the archaeological site, to find that something had gone wrong. Men who'd gone down into the newly opened ruins had not come back out. Our intrepid adventurers rose to the challenge, entering the long-abandoned complex to confront its mouldering horrors. They found the missing men chained to sacrificial tables where they'd been tortured to death, and later, the monstrosity that had done the deed--a Cephalyx, a repulsive beastie able to twist wills and turn people into mind-slaves.

Not only that, but they discovered the thing to be allied with the Infernal they had met once before. When the heroes entered the room, the two fiends were occupied with a strange black lattice which spewed an aura so evil that Ian felt shaken by it. Braydon recognized the artifact as a soul cage, one of those creations used by Cryx to trap and cannibalize souls for power. What's more, it was occupied.

Noticing the new arrivals, the Infernal turned to face them. When it spotted Grigori, it mockingly welcomed him as its 'savior.' They had a history, it said, though of course Grigori couldn't remember. The Orgoth had trapped Infernals in devices such as this soul cage, it explained; devices which enabled the Orgoth to make sacrifice to the Infernals within and then wield the resultant power as they pleased. After the Orgoth fled, the Infernal's cage had lain undisturbed in the dark for hundreds of years. It would lie there still, if it weren't for a larcenous band of thieves raiding a particular Orgoth ruin some years ago. Hadn't Grigori always wondered what had happened to him? Why he had awakened outside the entrance to those ruins wearing his companions' blood, unable to remember anything? When he had touched the cage, the Infernal told him, it had been able to "borrow" his body for a time, using him to kill the others and shatter its prison. And now, the elegant demon crowed, it would find its siblings...

But not if Islene had anything to say about it! With the Infernal distracted, she destroyed the soul cage with a single well-placed shot. But she didn't get the reaction she had bargained for. The Infernal laughingly thanked her as a second Infernal resolved out of the smoke of the cage's destruction. Bracing themselves for an uneven fight, the heroes were shocked when, instead, the first Infernal turned on his dazed, newly-freed sister. While she pleaded for her life, he absorbed her into himself. And then, in a black burst of magic, he vanished.

The Cephalyx didn't last long after that. It became a gift for Professor Pendrake, when they returned to Corvis.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Young James Vawdry, and the Beginning of the Orgoth Mystery

The Warcaster Cyrus, to whom they owed so much, made a simple request: escort a scholar specializing in Orgoth tongues to a dig on the border of Cygnar and the Protectorate, and while they were there, deliver some messages to the guards there. Little did our travelers know how momentous this adventure would prove to be.

A stop in a town along the way led to their investigation of a mystery. A wizard trafficking with Infernal powers had ritually sacrificed several women, created an Iron Maiden (a clockwork construct powered by the soul of a warrior woman, and meant to protect its builder), murdered and trapped the soul of an Illuminator (a member of the wizardous Order of Illumination, which serves the Church of Morrow by investigating evil magic), and made pacts with an Infernal who had provided him with the information to perform all these crimes. At the last, a showdown with the man led to his death and the Infernal's escape, albeit without the soul of the wizard who had conspired with him. This Infernal would grow all too familiar.

At the border, our canny crew rescued a young Menite wizard named James Vawdry, who had fled from the Protectorate that had enslaved him for his power to create the constructs needed to build warjacks. The Cygnaran military took great interest in this rescue, as they hoped young James might hold secrets about the Protectorate's weapons. Here, they also encountered a man named Grigori Larsa, an archaeologist of hidden talents who wished to accompany them back to Caspia in order to deliver letters from the dig's administrator. Taking these two, they headed back to Caspia.

Along the way, the little band found themselves passing through another mystery: a haunted woods. For a thousand years had the ancient shades of a town and nearby Orgoth camp had dwelt in this forest, reliving the firelit events of one terrible night of death and sacrifice over and over. Lured in by echoes of voices and flitting shadows, our brave adventurers found themselves caught up in these ghosts of the past. They had no power to help the ancient dead, but when the Orgoth warriors turned on them, they fought off those spirits to uncover the source of the restless memories--a ritual Orgoth helm, left buried in the ground beneath the site for centuries and scribed with symbols in the Orgoth language of power, the ancient Telgesh script. This dangerous item, too, they carried with them to Caspia.

Upon boarding the train that would bear them to their destination, they met the Morrowan monk, Ichabod, of the Order of the Keeping, and an officer sent to take James into custody. On the train, they met several colorful individuals who would resurface during their travels: the Iosan they would come to know as Shas Menelyth; a fascinating inventor who claimed to have a device which could create paintings of objects almost instantly; a young Dwarven merchant-woman and weaponsmith; a Rynnish family traveling to make a new life for themselves, a well-to-do Llaelese family who turned out to be the Llaelese ambassador and his family, and a handsome woman of few words and many intimidating glares.

When the train came under seige by Menite monks come to capture James, they discovered the woman was a well-armed Morrowan paladin by the name of Camilla. With her help and the Iosan's, our merry band of misfits defended the passengers and thwarted the monks' attempt to gain control of the train, combating them through the cars of the train and along the roof to reach the engine. When the Cygnaran officer traveling with them found his cause lost there, he was forced to reveal himself as a double agent, intent on killing James if he could not return him to the Protectorate. Islene, particularly, took his betrayal to heart, having taken a liking to the man as well as to James against all her strongly held inclinations against Menites. She narrowly resisted her desire to simply gun the blackguard down, but in the end she simply incapacitated him, taking him into custody. Sadly, however, the agent would not live long. After they arrived at Caspia, the man was found dead in his cell. Investigation revealed him as a deep-cover agent that Cygnar had long been attempting to track.

The Cygnarans made the frightened young wizard James as comfortable as possible, while Grigori turned the helm over to the Order of Illumination, who announced themselves fascinated by the discovery.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Heroes of Corvis and the Witchfire Blade

More than 20 years ago, King Vinter Raelthorne IV sat on the throne of Cygnar. Known as perhaps the greatest swordsman the Iron Kingdoms had ever seen, this harsh sovereign utilized tactics of rule such as a wizard-led secret police called the Inquisition, which pursued and eliminated potential enemies of the crown. So ruthless was he that the nation rose in rebellion, led the king's gentle younger brother Leto, and supported by no less than the Patriarch of Morrow himself. Leto overthrew his brother and took the crown, but Vinter escaped justice, kidnapping Leto's wife and son and disappearing in a hot air balloon across the Bloodstone Marches, from whence no one ever heard anything more. Though in his youth, the wish of his heart was to become a priest, Leto has ever been a good and just king, well-beloved of his people.

On a balmy day in 602 AR (that's 'After the Resistance'), our gallant protagonists--Islene Hartwick, Ian Cathmore, Tagrak Boomtongue, and Braydon Grath--first met in what would become a heroic quest to save the city of Corvis. When the Witchfire Blade, an artifact with the power to drink the souls of spellcasters and command the dead, resurfaced, they found themselves striving against vilest witchcraft to claim the sword and keep it from the hands of two feuding magicians.

What they thought to be a relatively simple (if dangerous) task became suddenly far more perilous when the long-absent Vinter Raelthorne IV returned at the head of an inhuman army raised beyond the Bloodstone Marches. One of the contending wizards, Vahn Oberon, revealed himself to be Vinter's trusted old aide Dexer Sirac, who had led Vinter's Inquisition during his iron-handed reign.

Forging an alliance with the young sorceress Alexia, who had sought the Witchfire, and aided by a crafty military Warcaster named Lieutenant Cyrus Vanfeld as well as a church guardsman named Douglas, our heroes sought an army of their own to face Vinter's alien Skorne warriors. Guided by the prophecy of a cursed, betrayed legion that lay sleeping until roused at a time of Cygnar's need, the little group woke the spectral Legion of Lost Souls to rescue Corvis from Vinter's forces.

In the aftermath of that battle, the sorceress Alexia used the Witchfire to devour Vahn Oberon's soul, for he had slain her kind-hearted mother, then attempted to exact vengeance upon him by destroying the blade. Thwarted, she fled with the sword. Neither has been seen since, though fading traces of the Witchfire's power still linger about Corvis, stirring the spirits in the City of Ghosts to greater than usual restlessness. After duelling with the Warcaster and his Warjack (in which Cyrus could not be said to have had the upper hand) Vinter Raelthorne likewise escaped. Undoubtedly, he will return to trouble the realm again.

In gratitude for their service, King Leto Raelthorne himself called them to audience at his court in Caspia, where he hailed them as the Heroes of Corvis. Islene Hartwick and Ian Cathmore accepted knighthoods, and the king granted each of the city's saviors a boon, to be called upon at their discretion. Likewise did the king's advisor and court wizard count himself in their debt for at last unearthing Dexer Sirac, for whom he had searched ever since Vinter's exile.