Uldrus: Ice and Darkness

Fun and Games in the Arronax Amphitheater

The heroes did not make much progress in combating the Mordent this week, as they took a breather to restore their energies. After resting for some while in Cab’s ruined church, the adventurers wandered over to this ballyhooed Arronax Amphitheater to see what it was all about. After being ushered through the gates, they met with the Master of Ceremonies, who was a striking figure. Tall, decked out in a robe that melded crimson silk with leopard skin, and with a gold circlet around his brow, the M.C. appeared at first glance to be a displaced nobleman. But when he opened his mouth to speak, a guttural greed was evident in his voice and his lips curled back into a contemptuous sneer, showing him to be no chief’s son. He asked the heroes whether they had come to personally engage in the arena’s wide variety of exciting deathmatches, or whether they had come as trainers for the upcoming Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Peasant Bouts. The concept of peasant on peasant combat proved utterly thrilling to all of the heroes, and soon each one was led away to a different quarter of the arena to train and equip some hapless, desperate commoner. The ensuing battles involved much mayhem and bloodshed; Garon’s peasant, having received tutelage in the subtle skill of chakra binding, proved to be quite potent, although Freith and Kell’s commoners put in a good show, as well.

None of this was really germane to the heroes’ short-term goals of healing themselves of taint or protecting Drogue, or to the long-term goal of driving the Mordent back to the Nightlands. But the spectacle of two terrified non-combatants fighting for their lives in the arena proved to be such good, wholesome family entertainment that the distraction was impossible to resist. Afterwards, the adventurers went back to their new base of operations and consulted with Cab as to how they might purge themselves of taint. He told them that a halfling paladin, one Sondra, had gone on a mission to a planar juncture that lay many miles to the southwest, there to travel into Hell itself and capture an artifact of fell power before it was surrendered to or seized by the Mordent. Cab asked that they heroes rendezvous with Sondra and help her in disposing of the artifact. He feared for her safety, since she had left some days before and had not yet returned. The quest seemed a worthy one, and the party was eager to help, but some were concerned about how Drogue was faring, given that there had been hints of an imminent attack. Rhyken attempted to teleport the party back to Drogue, but found that his spell failed, as did the spell that would’ve taken the party twenty miles outside of the city. It seemed that some powerful magic was negating teleportation into the city. Most likely, gnomish archmagi had erected a defense against a sneak attack by the Mordent forces, but it was just as likely that the Mordent had disrupted teleportation travel to prevent the city from receiving any reinforcements. Either way, there was little that the heroes could do about it at present, so they prepared to head out and meet up with Sondra.

Rhyken commissioned Chupoclops to create (with Cab’s help) a number of potions that would allow him to sleep through the night when he was out in the field. Owing to gnomish perversity, Chupoclops opted to create Stuffed Dire Rats of Restless Sleep rather than straight potions, although the aesthetic change would not alter their effectiveness. Thus prepared, the party was ready to venture out into the hostile wilderness once again.

The heroes did not get far before their progress was arrested. There was a disturbance at the gate, with equal numbers of people fleeing from the wall and rushing towards it to get a better look. The chatter of the crowd was fragmented, and it became clear that nobody had any real idea of what was going on, save that some heroes from the arena had gone out to engage against a monstrous threat. The party caught glimpses of blue and white flashing through the bars of steel, and in one moment an insectile head with enormous red eyes and a vicious complexity of mandibles reared above the interference. Rhyken observed that the creature was a Remorhaz, an arctic predator whose body emitted a heat that could reduce steel to molten slag and whose gaping mouthparts could snatch up a man and swallow him whole.

The heroes readied themselves for combat…

Lesko's Ambush

After the ominous voice called out “That’s what you think,” a dark shape plummeted from the opening in the ceiling to fall in the center of the room. It resolved itself into the form of a human male, visible for only moments before he threw his head back in a feral scream, and was engulfed in a column of thick black smoke.

“You break into my home,” he growled. “You kill my children. You murder my pets. Damn you. Damn you all. You will be years in the dying. With exquisite slowness I will drain the blood from your bodies and the thoughts from your minds until you are dessicated husks. When you die and are damned and go hurtling down to Hell, it will seem a mercy after what I have done to you.”

The party scrambled to attack this new vampire, but found it to be a nearly impossible task. The smoke completely concealed his form, and even those hits that did connect rang harmlessly against his armor or were bashed aside by his shield. The vampire was having a much easier time of attacking the party, as he would lash out from within the vapors with vicious headbutts and punches to the throat. The vampire needed only to land a glancing blow against the heroes to inflict grievous damage, and to leave them feeling disoriented and confused, and also leave a permanent scar upon their souls. While Terra and Atu-Sinda attacked the vampire with all of their skill, and while Rhyken did his best to dispel the vampire’s defenses and Kell attempted to take the beast down with spells, their efforts seemed to have little effect. Even when one of the heroes hit the monster, its rapid healing closed over the wounds almost as quickly as they formed, and it would sap their strength with its every attack and steal it for its own use.

Kell was the first to fall. Seeing the holy symbols engraved upon her armor, the vampire made her the first target. Every attack from the monster left Kell feeling drained and disoriented, and her divine spellcasting ability was soon all but crippled. One last blow sent her spinning to the ground, and the vampire turned on Terra. The warblade landed a solid hit that overcame the vampire’s supernatural defenses and nearly killed the creature, but the vampire responded by reaching out to Terra and flooding her system with his own pain, and healing his own injury with her life force. The attack left Terra unconscious on the ground, and locked in a nightmarish trance after her brain’s sensory centers were completely overwhelmed and shut down. Rhyken was next. The wood elf wizard’s spells had stripped away some of the vampire’s enchantments, but failed to disperse the concealing cloud of smoke. Even without his psychic powers, though, the vampire was still a terrible opponent, and it took him only a few hits to drop Rhyken, as well. Atu-Sinda was the last to go. The valiant crusader, wearing only a psychoactive skin, channeled the power of Luxis through his sword to slay the evil creature. The attack hit and Atu-Sinda’s sword plunged through the vampire’s chest, but soon the crusader was slipping into a blind trance as the vampire stripped more and more of his soul away. He, too, crumpled helpless to the floor. Freith could only watch from behind the walls of her invisible prison.

It seemed as though the vampire had triumphed, as all of the party lay unconscious on the floor of his lair. He was preparing to finish them off when Kell struggled back to her feet. The vampire had not completely severed her connection to the physical world, and Kell’s persistent Vigor spell was sufficient to bring her back from the brink of death. Knowing that she had but one chance left to kill the vampire, she utilized all of the remaining orbs of holy energy that floated around her person and fired them at the vampire in one desperate attack. The bolts of positive energy connected, and the damage was sufficient to temporarily destroy the vampire’s physical form. The column of smoke dissipated, and a cloud of foul-smelling greenish fumes appeared in its place and went drifting back to the chamber above the ceiling.

Kell did what she could to revive the party. She was unable to heal all of the wisdom drain that the vampire had done, but had the capability to cast enough restorative spells to at least get everyone semi-conscious. She then borrowed Terra’s dimension stride boots and warped up into the master vampire’s chamber above the ceiling. She found him there in a steel coffin, his eyes open and staring.

“If you kill me,” he said, “You destroy a thousand years of experience. You kill a millennium of history, and ten centuries of knowledge and lore. Are you sure you want to do that?”

In response, Kell drove a wooden stake through his heart and used Terra’s jovar to strike off the monster’s head. She stuffed the mouth with holy wafers, and then put the vampire’s corpse to the torch. It went up quickly, with great blisters of blood forming and bursting on the vampire’s body. Kell leapt down the hole to return to her companions, forgetting that she had not come up the same way. If she had, she would’ve been familiar with the trap that caused the earth around the entrance to constrict and crush any solid matter that passed through it. The trap knocked Kell senseless, and the thirty foot fall nearly finished her off, but the dimmest spark of life remained within Kell’s body to be nurtured back by the Vigor spell, and in a couple of minutes Kell was staggering back to her feet once again.

It turned out that the force cage that held Freith did not block teleportation, and Rhyken was able to switch places with the trapfinder by means of a Benign Transposition spell and then warp back out again with a dimension door. Made somewhat reckless by their wisdom drain, the adventurers urged Freith to disarm another door. She did so, with somewhat better results than the first time, and opened the door onto a small chamber lined with lush tapestries and filled with velvet pillows. A decaying figure stood in one corner of the room, dressed in a black suit that was stained with earth and covered in bits of decaying flesh. The adventurers moved about the room, stripping it of anything of value, but the zombie never once reacted, and they left it intact. Encouraged by their haul, the party exhorted Freith to try another door. She did so, but proved unable to disarm the fiendishly difficult spells, and was trapped in a force cage once again, with a monster appearing out of thin air right next to her. The creature was a Hamatula, or Barbed Devil, a lizard-like fiend covered in barbs of steel-hard bone. Terra used her dimension stride boots to teleport into the cage next to Freith, and, after a swift but vicious battle during which the agile warblade struck abject fear into the Hamatula’s devilish heart, causing it to call into question its most fundamental beliefs regarding the inferiority of the Prime Material Plane, the two of them had sent the thing back to the Hells it came from, although not without severely gouging themselves on the spikes in the process. Rhyken warped them both out again, using the last of his spells, and the battered party decided to head on back to Hopetown to recover.

In the absence of the beneficent aura of Atu-Sinda’s Cloak of Comfort, the party felt the full bite of the unnatural winter for the first time upon leaving the vampire den. The wind carved through their flesh as though it was mere paper to chill their very bones, and every breath was an agony as the icy air burned their lungs. The Vigor spell prevented them from being seriously frostbitten, though, and they were able to get back to Hopetown, and Cab’s church, without much more incident.

The heroes let their guard down, and went about licking their considerable wounds. Cab and Kell did what they could to patch the party back up, and were able to tend to the spiritual and mental wounds of the party as well as the physical ones, although they could not completely undo all of the depravity that the party had incurred in its exposure to evil. Such healing could only come through direct divine intervention, or through the expurgation of sin by means of selfless service. The heroes resolved to serve Cab so that these last traces of evil might be expunged from them, although Atu-Sinda was concerned about the fate of Drogue and wanted to rush back to the Dwarven city. After all, they had been away from Drogue for weeks, and had learned in Rodion Labs that there might be some sort of insidious attack even now being perpetrated upon the Dwarves and Gnomes that lived in that last bastion of civilization. But such concerns were for another time. Without making a final decision, the heroes busied themselves with healing and recuperation.

Vampiric Revenge

Fleeing alone from the vampire lair, Terra returned to Hopetown. The guards, who had seen her leave with four companions, mocked her as she returned, but still insisted that she pay 100 gold for the privilege of returning to the city.

Despondent over the loss of her friends, Terra went to The Sultan’s Sigh II, intending to get hammered. While at the bar Terra tried to engage with the Hellbred known as “Bob,” but he was too busy being drunk and hopeless to answer any of her questions. Not to be outdone, Terra started pounding Tariq’s finest firewater. She quickly became nauseous and disruptive, such that Tariq sold her a bottle and strongly suggested that she remove herself to a private room. Wanting only the finest, Terra paid for Tariq’s “Honeymoon Suite”: red satin covers on the bed, a mirror on the ceiling, and a washtub large enough to accommodate two medium creatures. She staggered into the room and drank herself into a stupor. When she woke up the next morning, it felt as though somebody had taken the brains out of her head and replaced them with caltrops. She also found that she was not alone-a male half-elf slumbered next to her, wearing only the satin sheets. One very embarrassed move silently check later, Terra had made her way out to the main room of the tavern. She asked Tariq for some water, but was informed that Tariq did not serve that “shit” in his bar. He did give her some tea, though, and suggested that she might wish her hangover away [or, if he forgot to suggest that, he should have]. Terra decided to seek no more aid from the Ifrit bartender, and headed back to the church.

There, she met up with Atu-Sinda, who had returned from the Ethereal plane, and Garon, who had returned from whatever goofy extraplanar battlefield it is he goes to when he responds to a Summon Humanoid IX spell-apparently, he had been spending his time helping the axiomatic sparrows seize a birdfeeder from the anarchic squirrels, or something equally nonsensical, and let us not forget that the fiendish octopi sorcerers are involved in there somehow, too. Cab was there, as well, and he was able to nullify Terra’s hangover with a cure disease spell, and remonstrated her that she not open her body and her soul to such poisons in the future. The aged priest promised to light a candle for the fallen heroes, and the party gathered together a while to say some prayers for the departed. Then, Cab suggested that the party meet with two individuals of his acquaintance, both of whom might prove to be allies in the coming struggles. It would take the combined efforts of a great many souls to beat back the evils that now assailed the world, and the remaining three party members agreed to meet with these potential friends.

The first of these individuals was a soft-spoken dream dwarf cleric, Kell. She preferred to let her pamphlets and holy tracts do her speaking for her, and she took every opportunity, appropriate or not, to disseminate information on the love of Luxis. Nevertheless, it seemed she was well-prepared for the break-down of negotiations. She carried a G4 assault rifle slung across her back. The weapon was not unlike the one that had belonged to Sergei, although this one was somewhat smaller and covered over with seemingly extraneous gnomish gears and gadgetry. The party accepted her quickly and without question.

The second ally was a bit more problematic. When calling her out from the darkened edges of the church-where she had apparently been lurking all the while, unseen-Cab could not help but sigh. The creature emerged from the shadows-a small thing, the height of a human child, wearing dark padded clothing that covered her from head to toe. Her face was hidden behind a pair of dark goggles and a black cloth wrapped over her mouth. Cab asked her to remove these. She did, exposing a mouth that was locked open in a rictus grin, the greyish gums receding from the long yellow teeth. Her eyes, too, had withered away, a spark of unnatural blue light illuminating the empty orbits. She looked over each of the party members, and seemed quite disappointed when they didn’t respond to the name “Caedo.”

Cab apologized for her, saying that the recent loss of her betrothed had left Freith Falath, the whisper gnome daring outlaw, somewhat unhinged. Whether Caedo’s disappearance was due to unavoidable circumstances, death, or out-and-out disgust at the corruption creeping through her wasn’t quite clear. In spite of her appearance, she was not an undead creature-although she was well on her way to becoming one, as the evil that afflicted the land had concentrated in her, consuming her flesh and her spirit. Treating Her current condition was beyond Cab’s abilities. Indeed, she had refused treatment, saying that she drew strength from the evil within her and that she would use that strength to fight back against the living dead. Cab’s hope was that, in traveling with the party, Freith might be inspired by the heroes’ example and recover something of her former self.

Freith listened to all of this, her face frozen in an expression that was equal parts the smile of a genial child and the bare smile of a skull. From time to time, she would rub at the simple gold ring on her right hand. Sometimes this gesture was an absent one, as though she was unaware of it, and at other times she would wring her fingers, attacking the ring as though to polish away a scrape or a stain through an application of excessive effort.

Atu-Sinda wisely questioned whether the evil that had afflicted Freith would not manifest itself in ways that would be detrimental to the party. Cab promised that, in his observations, Freith’s more malignant tendencies were largely directed towards undead and other evil creatures, and as such should not prove threatening to the companions. Reassured, the party welcomed the suffering gnome into its ranks, a gesture for which she seemed genuinely grateful in her rather confused way.

After a brief prayer-in which Freith participated with a somewhat unhealthy enthusiasm-the party set out again to deal with the vampires. In the time it took for the party to regroup, the vampires would surely have regenerated, and the heroes were well aware of the danger of an ambush.

But it was not to happen-at least not yet. The party had hardly left the door of the church before it was stopped by the sight of a tall Mordent in black steel armor, the unholy symbol of Skura burned into his breastplate and a giant sword thrust into the ground at his feet. Terra could recognize the deeply scarred face, hard eyes, and close-cropped white hair of Vassily Dolohov, the crusader she had encountered in Guia who had sworn to seek out and kill Atu-Sinda.

The two crusaders walked forwards to face each other in the ruined gardens of the church. Vassily Dolohov formally identified himself as a crusader of Skura, and an adherent of the Stone Dragon school of swordsmanship. Atu-Sinda was ready and willing to face down this enemy of life and light in single combat. The duelists agreed that the fight would commence after a brief moment in which each fighter might call upon his deity for divine assistance. They also agreed that the fight be to the death without the possibility of resurrection. To this effect, Vassily called up an extraplanar creature from Mechanus to referee the fight, and this being appeared as a man made out of steel, his limbs being pistons wrapped around a core of steel and his face an unsmiling mask. The Marut asked for a good, clean, fight, and the Crusaders went into position. Atu-Sinda stared into the Mordent’s blank eyes, and the Mordent stared back-even though the undead creature could feel no fear, his doubts caused him to look away for the briefest moment, which was enough to give Atu-Sinda the knowledge that Luxis was with him.

Atu-Sinda charged forward and landed a telling blow that would have felled a lesser creature. Vassily responded by bringing his huge adamantine greatsword crashing down on Atu-Sinda’s sacred sword. Atu-Sinda’s blade trembled with the impact, and the blow left a deep notch in the blade, but the spirit of the saint inhabiting the blade held firm, and the sword did not shatter. Atu-Sinda lashed out again, driving the Mordent back. Vassily swung directly at Atu-Sinda, hoping to kill the crusader if he could not kill the sword, but the heavy blade went wide, and it was easy for Atu-Sinda to shunt the blow aside with his shield. Atu-Sinda drove forward again and buried his blade up to the hilt in Vassily Dolohov’s chest. The Mordent’s lost his grip on his weapon and lost the strength in his legs, crumbling to the ground. No sooner had he fallen than the ground erupted around his body, spewing forth a host of tall, shadowy creatures, who wore the very darkness about them as tattered black robes. They circled around Dolohov, spinning faster and faster, only to vanish moments after they had come, leaving Dolohov’s armor empty and abandoned in the dirt.

Charged with victory, Atu-Sinda completed the ritual that unsealed his weapon’s powers, and could now make the blade glow with brilliant white light in memoriam of the lost sun. Once he had finished, the party set out again to meet with the vampires.

They had not gone far before the vampires accosted them in the streets of Hopetown. In all likelihood, the creatures would have attacked sooner, but were deterred by the sanctified ground of the Luxan church. The vampires threw themselves into the battle without any prelude or parlay. Once again, the heroes were hard-pressed to land any kind of hit against these unnatural foes. The battle was going poorly, each furious heabutt or roundhouse kick from the vampires damaging mind as well as body. It was all Kell and Garon could do to keep the restoration spells coming, and so prevent Atu-Sinda and Terra from falling into a dream-wracked stupor. Desperate, Atu-Sinda called upon the power of Luxis and made his sword glow with the burning light of the sun. The vampires recoiled, and made to flee into the sheltering darkness of Hopetown’s alleyways, only to return again and assail the party when their guard was down. But Garon called forth a small army of huge fiendish centipedes, and interposed these nasty creatures between the vampires and escape. Blocked, the vampires were held in the light, which immolated them into ash and blackened bones in a matter of seconds.

The three warblades were dead, but the heroes felt that there might yet be threats present in the vampires’ lair, and made their way back there to ensure that it would be the source of no more evil. They found it easily-there were plenty of tracks leading to the lair, although only one set of tracks leading back. They reached the chamber where they had fought the lions and bats before. These were gone, and the only evidence of their presence was an enormous black stain on the floor.

The adventurers knew what lay in the hallway beyond, and were prepared for the fight this time. Kell edged forward until she could just see the pit filled with tar-like sludge at the edge of her darkvision and assaulted the stuff with a flamestrike. The ooze surged forward, seeking the source of its pain. It sent out pseudopods, searching for the party members, but they drew back, and continued to pepper the ooze with spells, alchemist’s fire, and sling bullets. Moving randomly, at last the ooze was within its sensory range to find the party members, and it fell upon them. Atu-Sinda stood in its way, protecting the more vulnerable party members. The adventurers had underestimated the ooze’s resilience, though, and the thing swallowed up Atu-Sinda within its mass, and refused to fall, even though the party members had exhausted their supply of spells and alchemist’s fire. The other members could see Atu-Sinda struggling within the ooze, and were at wit’s end to rescue him. Kell fired upon the ooze with her rifle, Freith chucked rocks at the ooze, and Terra bravely ran away. It was clear that these efforts were doing little to kill the ooze, which was digesting Atu-Sinda alive. Kell switched to trying to heal Atu-Sinda, who was rapidly exhausting his repertoire of defensive abilities. Then, Freith went up and started punching at the ooze with her small, bare fists. What might’ve otherwise been a pathetic gesture turned out to be devastating when combined with Kell’s mastery of the Shadow Blade Technique, and several charges from her Deftstrike bracers which allowed her to inflict sneak attack damage on the ooze. Moments later, the ooze’s cellular membrane ruptured, and the creature expired in a flood of denatured acid. Atu-Sinda emerged from the tar, his flesh still slippery and falling off of his bones. The ooze had devoured all of the crusader’s armor and clothing, leaving him only his extraordinarily resilient sword. Kell did what she could to patch him up. Under normal circumstances, the party might have returned to town to recover, but the heroes knew that they had to make sure that the threat of the vampires was ended once and for all, and so they resolved to penetrate deeper into the lair.

At some point, Terra came running back, and the adventurers pressed on. They came to the pit where the ooze had lain; by holding onto Terra as she leapt across, they were able to overcome it. Terra easily crossed the twenty foot pit, but came down hard into a field of broken glass. The vampires must’ve used the shards of glass to prevent the ooze from rolling back into their dens. In any case, the party carefully made its way through the shards and entered into another large chamber at the far end. This one had been reinforced with concrete pillars and steel beams, and there were four doorways leading off from the central room. Some of the adventurers also noticed that there was a hole in the high ceiling, but it was too high for any of them to reach, and so they ignored it for the time being. Freith searched the doors and reported that they were all ensorcelled with magical traps, and also that there was warm air seeping through one of the door sills. Terra groaned and guessed that this was the vampire’s pantry. The party decided to crack that door first, and Kell stood by with a dispel magic at the ready in case Freith erred in her attempt to disarm the trap. Freith slipped and accidentally activated one of the invisible triggers of the spell. The form of a devil covered in barbs of bone began to materialize next to Freith, but Kell was quick with her spell, and it vanished back into nothingness.

When Freith attempted to rejoin the party members, she found herself slamming face-first into an invisible wall of force. Kell tried again to dispell the trap, but Freith was still slamming her fists against the invisible barrier and screaming for the others to get her out. Atu-Sinda made the observation that at least they didn’t have to deal with any other vampires while they tried to extricate their new ally. A voice responded, calling from above and reverberating across the chamber: “That’s what you think.”

Vampire Hunting

Having dispatched the three vampire warblades, Sergei gave the party grim warning that the vampires would soon regenerate and come for those who killed them, and that they would be pissed off. The party had no choice but to send the vampires into final death, which was no easy task. Annihilating the vampires involved staking them through the heart, decapitation and stuffing the mouths with holy wafers, and then either immolation or immersion of the dismembered corpses.

As Terra, Paeael, and Rhyken were discussing the purchase of the necessary equipment, they were interrupted by a small figure wearing a bright green robe slashed through with purple who looked like a shrunken old man, wrinkled and bald but for the tufts of white hair that sprouted from behind his ears (which meant that, as a gnome, he could’ve been either a young adult or of venerable age). “Did you say you were looking for magic weapons?” he asked. “I’ve got just the thing! Fine magic items, enchanted by the most skilled of gnomish artisans, brought to you by Maester Magics Unlimited! Need to custom order an item, or upgrade an existing item? Never fear! We can create or upgrade items for you in half the time of our competitors, at no extra cost to you! Special ten percent discount on orders over ten thousand gold! Support your local magical craftsmen!” The adventurers were a little astonished at this development, and purchased several scrolls of magic weapon that Chupoclops the gnomish merchant just happened to have on hand.

They were beginning to negotiate for some larger purchases when Arronax appeared in back of the small convocation-even though nobody had actively summoned him. With all of his typical forced politeness, he asked Chupoclops to step outside, where they might have a discussion, one businessman to another. Chupoclops seemed eager to talk to Arronax and was about to go, but the heroes insisted on accompanying the gnome. They didn’t trust Arronax any farther than they could throw him-which wasn’t very far, indeed, since he interacted with gravity in such a strange way. Reluctantly, Arronax agreed. Once they had all left the tavern and found a relatively secluded corner of the street, Arronax tore the gnome’s aspirations apart.

“So, you would offer magic items at a discount, and at half the normal delivery time, would you? I admire your drive. But it just so happens that Arronax Incorporated, in its relentless quest to offer the best goods and services to consumers at the lowest prices, has recently established operations in certain planar regions that exist outside of the normal chronological flow of the Prime Material plane, meaning that we can now offer instantaneous creation or upgrades of magical goods on demand. Even your maesters can’t offer such a service. Isn’t the free market a wonderful thing?”

Chupoclops was crestfallen. His constant smile was now crooked and marred by sadness. Seeing his opponent thoroughly beaten, Arronax vanished back into where ever it is that he comes from-but not before he advised everybody to take in a show at the Arronax Amphitheater as long as they were in Hopetown, and enjoy the drama of life and death combat, and enjoy a tall Arronax Lemonade or a savory Arronax Foot-Long Frankfurter as long as they were there.

After Arronax had vanished, Chupoclops recovered somewhat. “Well, Arronax is nothing if not resourceful. You’ve got to give him that. This will come as a sore blow to Maester Magics Unlimited. Just the same, I think we can offer goods that Arronax cannot, or will not, and I firmly believe that once people see the value of contributing to their local economies rather than giving their gold to some faceless multiplanar corporation, they’ll be lining up to get their hands on our goods.”

Terra asked just what goods Chupoclops did have available that Arronax did not-specifically, if he had any Truedeath crystals. She had previously tried to purchase them from Arronax, but found that they were conspicuously missing from the merchants otherwise limitless supply of magic items, probably because certain parties had paid Arronax large sums of money to remove them from his inventory. Chupoclops, however, had made no such compromises, and pulled a small crystal from out of his belt pouch. Superficially, it resembled a marble, but the interior of the tiny glass sphere was filled with something like smoke or mist that swirled and twisted as if warped by a wind.

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” Chupoclops assured them. “Maester Magics Unlimited has representatives across the region; make us your first stop when shopping for magical goods.”

The adventurers-Rhyken in particular-promised that they would do just so.

Now that they had secured the means of enchanting their weapons to hurt the vampires, the adventurers set out to find the stakes and holy wafers necessary for taking out the vampires once and for all. They found the town’s church of Luxis. It was a large stone dome surrounded by a wasted garden; inside the dome were pillows surrounding a central firepit full of cold ashes. Sergei opted to stay outside while the others went inside to search. Several cabinets in one corner of the church had already been looted, and broken glass and shattered candles lay strewn about the floor. The adventurers rifled through the cabinets again, searching for holy wafers but finding only trash and a few undamaged copies of the Holy Words of Luxis that had been missed in the looters’ search for fuel. Terra drew her jovar and set to carving the cabinets into stakes. Drawn by the noise, the ragged figure of a beggar appeared in the doorway of the church, and began excoriating the heroes for their desecration of the house of Luxis. They told him that they were only doing so in order to destroy vampires, who were surely the enemies of Luxis.

At this, the beggar grew contemplative. He straightened up, standing quite tall, and threw back his hood. The once-handsome face beneath had been eroded by age and worry, but the brown eyes were clear; he had the aura of one who was accustomed to being heard, and being taken seriously. He told them that his name was Cab, and that he had been the cleric of this church, and had once been a High Speaker and Most Blessed in Guia, although those days were long past. He offered to help destroy the vampires; he would make the wafers if the heroes could bring him some flour, and he told them that they would have better luck with stakes of sacred mahogany wood taken from the tree out back than the teak that he had used to make the cabinet. The party brought him the flour (at 50 gold for a half pound), and he went off to make the wafers. At about this time, Sergei returned, cursing loudly and swearing that he would put a bullet in that (expletive deleted) cleric who had turned him. The other heroes dissuaded him from this course of action. After an hour or so, Cab returned with the wafers, and bid the heroes good luck in their mission. If they survived, he advised them to return to him, and he might be able to do something about the evil that had corrupted their flesh and sickened their souls.

Knowing only that the vampires in mist form had fled to the west, and that they had to hurry and find the vampires before they had fully regenerated, the heroes left the city and entered the surrounding wasteland. It was a trackless waste covered in snow. Clusters of boulders were scattered over the plains, like so many giants hunched up against the wind and the cold.

Paeael had employed one of his supernatural abilities to search for the vampire’s distinctive armor, but knowing that this ability was blocked by a relatively small amount of intervening material, he switched to scanning for any object that was suggestive of a door. Knowing that the vampires couldn’t be too far away from their food sources in the township, the heroes set out searching for their lair, riding from one kopje to the next. After a while, Paeael’s supernatural senses detected something like a door at the base of one of the rocks. Sergei went ahead to investigate and found a depression in the snow. He cleared more snow away with the blade of his bayonet to reveal the mouth of a large tunnel that descended into the earth at a severe angle. This seemed to be as likely a place for a vampire lair as anywhere else, and the heroes went down the throat of the tunnel into the chthonic darkness.

The Mordent ranger went on ahead to look for traps or hidden enemies, while the others tagged behind at a safe distance. The party moved down into a sunken basin, edging towards the tunnel at the far end. In addition to smelling of deep earth and raw rock, there was a strong and unmistakable reek of cat urine that saturated the air in the area. All of a sudden, the cavern was flooded with tens of thousands of bats, their wings beating the air, and their sharp, tiny teeth puncturing armor, skin, and veins alike. That was hardly the worst of it, though, as five enormous forms leapt down from a ledge on the far side of the room. These were lions; lions a good fiften feet in length and eight feet tall at the shoulder, with lean muscles rippling beneath their coats. Their eyes blazed a bloody red color, and when they opened their mouths to roar in challenge, they showed off saber-like fangs. The vampiric lions charged the party members, their claws wounding soul as well as flesh. They used their great weight to bear down on their victims, holding the heroes helpless. The party fought back valiantly, but was at a great disadvantage. Rhyken expended his last spell to blast one of the lions, and soon both he and Paeael had fallen beneath the lions’ claws. Terra lasted a little longer, but she could not hold off the lions attacks indefinitely, either. Only Sergei managed to escape being grappled by one of the lions, and he was hampered by all the intervening bats that were fouling his shots. But he fell upon the lions, coming right up to them as they were distracted by their meals, and shot them from mere inches away. He was barely able to destroy the lions before they had set about draining the blood from their victims, but luck was with the party. As the vampires were dispatched, their supernatural hold over their bats was destroyed as well, and the creatures flew out of the cave.

What followed was a desperate attempt to stop the fallen members from bleeding to death as they lay there on the floor of the cave. Sergei was the only member of the party who remained conscious, and it fell to him to rush from one teammate to another, using their healing belts and making desperate attempts to stem the flow of blood from their wounds, which were all the more deadly for the anti-coagulant saliva of the bats, bleeding at twice the normal rate. But he managed to revive the party, and as Paeael set about healing the wounds of the living party members, Sergei started hacking apart the corpses of the lions and gathering the severed bits into a pile. Paeael remembered that he had some cleaning fluid in his pack, and he poured this over the pile of bodies-it just so happened that the fluid was flammable, and the lion bodies began to go up in flames, reeking of burnt fur and charred flesh.

Sergei went on ahead again, calling back that there was a large pit in the next cavern that was filled with some kind of dark liquid. None of the adventurers knew what to make of this, especially when the black stuff surged out of the pit in a living wave and started flowing towards them. Sergei fired upon the black mass, which had the curious effect of causing the wave to shiver and split apart. Nevertheless, the black wave continued to advance, and the party continued to retreat. Paeael struck at the mass with gusts of wind and Rhyken lobbed a grenade, although it was hard to say what attacks were affecting the creature, and what was not. For all of his speed, Sergei was soon engulfed, and the other adventurers saw him struggling as though covered in tar. Paeael fired off another gust at the stuff, which was enough to free Sergei, but not before all of his equipment had been dissolved by the ooze’s acidic enzymes. He emerged from the black mass naked and unarmed, covered in blackened chemical burns. It was a noble effort on Paeael’s part, but it cost him his life as the ooze now engulfed him, and also flowed over burning corpses. Rhyken and Terra fled out of the cave, they saw Paeael, covered in black tar, and then his form losing its humanoid definition to become assimilated into the ooze around it. They saw Sergei grabbing up rocks from the floor of the cave and hurling them at the black ooze that had flowed over Paeael, and throwing stones at the sea of black acid that was flowing backwards in his direction.

Once they were able to gain their mechanical mount, the two survivors were able to flee from the ooze that pursued them. They rode hard for several minutes until they could be sure they were safe, and saw the ooze retreating back into the cave from whence it had come.

They did not see Sergei or Paeael emerging from the cavern.

Welcome to Hopetown

Surrounded by skeletons and beset on all sides, Atu-Sinda spurred his mechanical mount through the leaping flames of the bonfire. The mechanical steed, eschewing the preservation instinct that would be hard-wired into the nervous system of a real horse, trampled through the intervening skeletons to go galloping through the bonfire. Safe on the other side, Terra slipped down off of the back of the horse, brushing flames and cinders from her clothes, while Atu-Sinda looked back for any signs of pursuit.

There were none. The skeletons, being mindless corpses motivated only by dark magics, ceased their assault on Atu-Sinda and Terra the moment the two martial adepts were out of visual range. For a creature with no memory, out of sight truly is out of mind. The skeletons surrounding Paeael were similarly stupefied when the binder invoked his invisibility vs undead ability.

The undead minions stood around like so many statues, waiting for new orders that would never come. Sergei grabbed up a flaming branch and, at Terra’s suggestion, rode back on the horse to finish off the skeletons, seeing as how he would not be harmed by their explosive death throes, and would also not activate the skeleton’s programming to attack the nearest living creature. Sergei returned several minutes later, caked in soot and bone dust, and reported the job finished.

On the other side of the bonfire was a cleared patch of ground that extended for perhaps a hundred feet before being overrun by the red jungle. A number of Mordent vehicles were parked in this clearing, which the party promptly proceeded to fence to Arronax in exchange for a handful of coins and a cure to Rhyken’s disease. A discussion ensued about the best means of transport through the jungle-whether it would be best to try to crash through using the Mordent bulldozer, fly over using an airship, or tunnel underneath in the hopes that the damaging radiation did not extend far underground. Sergei volunteered to go scout for a path, and Paeael offered to go with, so as the rest of the party debated the matter the two of them headed out into the red wasteland in the hopes of finding safe passage. They found it, and returned an hour later, informing the less negative-energy tolerant members of the party that there was a dry river an hour’s walk away where the jungle did not thrive, and where negative energy did not predominate. The heroes cut their way through the intervening forest, with Paeael doing his best to keep everybody alive in the face of the constant degradation of flesh and blood and bone that came with traveling through such an environment, until they had reached the other side.

The riverbed was free from the toxic growth, as promised. While red trees and vines predominated on the cliffs that overlooked the wash, the riverbed itself afforded safe, albeit clumsy passage, on account of all the rounded river rocks that lay mostly submerged beneath a thin layer of snow and were often only discovered after some unfortunate adventurer were to accidentally kick one or catch one with his shins.

Another day’s travel took the adventurers to the southern end of the jungle. As they emerged from the gully, they found only scattered clumps of scarlet grass and a few isolated flowers that broke through the crust of snow. Their attention was drawn to the southeast, where a bouquet of colored lights burst forth from a city in the distance, illuminating the dark grey clouds from below.

The heroes forded through the snow and reached the outskirts of the settlement, where their progress was stopped by a high wall encircling the city. The wall looked to have been slapped together from any available material-sheets of steel overlapped crumbling piles of mud brick, and timber spars jutted out at random angles like dislocated bones. Crudely made, the wall was nevertheless very thick. A sign hung over the metal trellis of the gateway, proclaiming, in letters of dripping black paint, that this was, indeed, Hopetown, Pop. 3209. The population figure had been struck through with black paint and another lower number painted onto the sign beneath that, and another beneath that until the sign had run out of room, and another board had been nailed onto the corner with more descending figures until, at last, the number bottomed out at 2984. Rhyken stayed behind, invisible, and Sergei stayed back, hiding, while the other members of the party approached the gate.

Two guards, barely visible from their position at the top of the fifty-foot barricade, made a din by banging the hafts of their spears against the wall. They demanded to know the party’s business, and then demanded a gate tax of the party, tossing down a bucket that the party could fill with gold. The party members coughed up the coins and then went in through the gate, Sergei and Rhyken stealing their way through without paying the tax.

Hopetown was an overload of scents, sounds, and activity. The streets were packed with people going about on unguessable errands. Many of the inhabitants were ragged-looking refugees from Guia, somewhat thinner and the worse for wear since the fall of the city. But other races were represented in Hopetown, as well. The most striking thing about the crowd was that Mordent soldiers walked among the living humanoids. These Mordent had shed their armor for dress uniforms, and were the very picture of military elegance in their black boots and their coats of dark cloth with the bold lines and steel buttons. They clustered together in groups, gesturing at the humans, strolling slowly through the mud of the streets, and laughing.

The party resolved to find its bearings at the nearest tavern. Along the way, they had to push past stalls where vendors were selling small bags of grain for twenty gold pieces, and past one barbecue stand that had a special on “long pork,” either wet or dry rub. Terra almost purchased some, but then decided not to. They passed stalls where pleasure slaves, their bodies gleaming with grease to make their skin shine and to offer some small defense against the cold and their limbs bound to posts by means of iron chains, gestured and called and thrust themselves at the passersby. Terra stopped at one of these stalls and spoke with the proprietor as the prostitutes stroked their fingers up and down her arms; the Warblade was quite disturbed to learn that such enslaved prostitution was a fairly common phenomenon in these parts, and left the stall deeply disturbed (and without a date).

Presently, the adventurers reached an inn with a somewhat familiar sign hanging above the door: The Sultan’s Sigh II. Inside, they found none other than Tariq the Ifrit behind the bar. It seemed that after Karibe, Tariq had intended to return to his native Plane of Fire, but had not realized that were over eight hundred years remaining in his sentence of exile (or perhaps Tariq had hoped that the political climate in the City of Brass had changed such that he would be able to return, but such was not the case). The party and the proprietor caught up on old times; Tariq was somewhat saddened that the funny little man with the stories was dead, but such is the way of frail mortal flesh, is it not?

A few other patrons had straggled into the tavern in an attempt to chase the cold away, and they were mostly sitting around the table speaking in quiet, controlled voices. Only one other person was sitting at the bar, and this was a strange individual indeed. Superficially, he resembled a male human, but the resemblance was only a passing one. His face was a stark, bleached white color, while the heavy creases across his brow and cheeks were as black as ink. Strange rings of black text, the individual characters composed of severe lines and stark angles, floated and rotated around his body like perverse halos. A small circle hovered around one of his fingers like a ring, another was a cuff around his wrist, while the largest one orbited his chest like a bandolier. After binding the proper vestige, Paeael was able to read (but not identify) the writing, and determined that the text was some kind of contract or legal document, written in incredibly convoluted and challenging terms that were enough to turn a gnome’s head around. Terra tried to engage this individual in conversation, but he was quite clearly drunk and in a black mood, and he would only speak of how hopeless it was to try to fight against the Mordent.

As the party exchanged stories and tossed back shots (or, in Sergei’s case, lamented the inability to drink), they heard a screaming coming from a rear room in the tavern, separated from the main room by a drawn curtain. Terra and Atu-Sinda rushed over, but the sound was cut off abruptly as the martial adepts made their loud approach. They retreated, and Sergei crept over and listened at the curtain. He returned to tell them that there were at least three people inside, having some kind of argument. One of them was talking about the weakness of the local vintage, how the taste was all upfront with no body or finish. Another disagreed, criticizing the first speaker for his lack of subtlety, and saying that he found the taste to be rich and earthy, with tones of iron and copper. The third person mused that she preferred blends from hybrid varieties, and that she found the unadulterated taste of pure strains to be lacking in complexity, without the complements and contrasts of a blend.

After hearing this, the party became convinced that the speakers beyond the curtain were not discussing anything so harmless as wine. Atu-Sinda demanded that they come forth, and they did. The lead one-a male with curly yellow hair and and a square-trimmed beard and pale skin, wearing plate mail dyed red and adorned with visually disorienting spiral patterns-pushed through the curtain, dragging a naked female human by the hair behind him. Her throat and shoulders were covered with puncture wounds, some of which were still seeping sluggish blood. Seeing that the party was bent on a fight, he tossed the body away as a normal man might have discarded an empty bottle of beer and called for his companion. They emerged, too-another man in mithral full plate, his stained blue and covered with panels of etched artwork, the unifying theme of all the panels being that each depicted some horrific method of execution, and a woman in unadorned armor, her brown hair cut short and her eyes fixed on the floor. Each of the vampires had foreign features, their hair and skin of much lighter tone than that of any human in the region. They also shared a hardness of feature, their faces lean and the bones prominent beneath the thin skin. That, combined with their flowing movements, made them simultaneously appear noble and bestial all at once.

The vampires asked for no quarter and expected none, and the heroes did the same. Everybody would’ve thrown down right there, if Tariq had not demanded that everybody take it outside. So they went out into the street, the crowd clearing away from what was obviously going to be a lethal combat. Once everybody was assembled, the vampire in red armor threw his head back in savage laughter, and battle was joined.

Sergei had grown accustomed to ending any fight quickly, but his bullets all went astray of these opponents. Their mithral full plate and predatory quickness defied Sergei’s aim. The vampires threw themselves into melee combat, striking out at the party with mailed fists, and executing deft maneuvers that showed that they, too, had trained as Warblades. Atu-Sinda took a hit in the first round, and felt the effects of the vampire’s touch: for a moment, all the color and sound bled out of the world, only to come back a second later, somewhat duller and dimmer than it had been before. Simply being near the vampires, too, had the effect of draining a person’s senses. Rhyken blasted one with his spells, which caused the vampires to turn their attention on him, but Terra and Atu-Sinda blocked their way. The party’s own martial adepts struck back, but found it to be difficult to land a blow on these unnatural foes. Paeael tore lightning from the sky to throw at the vampire, who, when struck by the bolt, groaned and clutched his chest (in his best impression of Paul Rubens from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie) in mockery of the ineffective attack. Paeael then switched to his super soaker filled with holy water and, in true Lost Boys fashion, began to squirt the vampires, which proved to be more of an annoyance than a real threat.

Things were looking grim until Terra and Atu-Sinda landed several strikes that reduced two of the vampires to clouds of foul-smelling gas that drifted away on the wind. Only the female vampire remained, and she fought on, uncaring of the apparent deaths of her companions. Her attacks and draining aura reduced Atu-Sinda down to a screaming fool, and her gaze broke the Crusader’s will. She turned away from him to advance on Rhyken, ordering the Crusader to cut down his friends or to share their fate. The command, which violated Atu-Sinda’s notions of righteous violence, broke the domination, and Atu-Sinda threw himself forward in one last all-out attack that caused the last vampire to dissolve into mist, as well.

Heady with victory, and his head empty of wisdom, Atu-Sinda went back into the bar and started chugging beers and flashing his breastplate. Terra took advantage of the situation to ask him for a bunch of money to buy restoration scrolls, to which the brain-damaged Crusader readily agreed (Atu-Sinda’s player, on the other had, was pretty pissed about it).

And thus the heroes had their bloody, depraved welcome to Hopetown. Things could only go up from here.

Trouble on the Way to Hopetown

The party set out southward again along the Mordent highway, rejoined by Atu-Sinda. Dismayed by the slow progress along the road, slogging through the ice and slush at a snail’s pace, the adventurers decided to purchase some means of transportation. They discussed at length the benefits and drawbacks of various modes of transport, and consulted with Arronax (who offered to sell them an M-1 Abrams tank for the low, low price of 30,000,000 gold pieces). They ended up purchasing a pair of mechanical steeds-horse-like constructs made of overlapping plates of bronze, clouds of real steam pouring forth from their nostrils. The party set out to the south, the bronze hooves of the steeds striking sparks from the tarmac, with Sergei loping along beside and keeping pace with the horses (thanks to a pair of boots he borrowed from Paeael that ignored movement penalties for terrain).

The adventurers had not traveled far before their progress was interrupted by a rustling in the vegetation off to the side of the road. Several antelope burst out from the crimson underbrush and sprinted across the road, followed closely by the long, low, heavily-muscled form of a lioness. Sergei and Terra observed that there was something not quite right about these animals-their hair was fallen away in patches to reveal bloodless holes in the animals’ hides, and their bellies were shrunken and stoven in, the skin clinging to the ribs. The animals bounded over the asphalt, leaping easily over the concrete divider in the center of the Mordent road, to vanish into the bushes on the other side of the road. This disturbance was followed closely by the another rustling in the bushes. This time, a female Mordent emerged from the bushes, clutching a clipboard. Her form-fitting full plate armor was covered in black dragon scales that shined in the starlight. She took little notice of the party, other than to ask them where the animals had gone. Perplexed by her non-aggressive manner, the heroes made no move to stop her as she crossed the road and vanished into the jungle on the other side.

The party proceeded southward along the road, riding through mile after mile of the red jungle. The adventurers were unaware that they had been spotted by a Mordent patrol until several dark, fist-sized objects came sailing out of the vegetation and fell at the feet of the party members before blossoming open into bursts of fire and twisted metal. The party scrambled to recover from the surprise attack and spread out, but the grenade assault was relentless (7 per round!!11). The first few salvos reduced Atu-Sinda’s new horse to scrap, and left the adventurers badly bleeding on the road. Sergei ran to intercept the assailant in the jungle, firing off a series of shots that went foul for the thick vegetative cover. After that, he was bogged down as a leopard leapt out of the underbrush and went straight for his throat, all rending claws and tearing teeth. Terra teleported into the jungle to take out the enemy, while Atu-Sinda and Paeael remained on the road and worked on keeping themselves alive. The grenader shifted his focus to his closest opponents, blasting away trees and vines and shrubs, leaving craters in the earth and leaving Sergei and Terra in critical condition. Now that they were closer, Sergei and Terra could see that this Mordent was-or rather, had been-a human native of the region, although his skin, once the color of rich earth, had bleached into the color of cold ashes with his transition into undeath. The Mordent called out about how his new masters would be quite pleased when he brought in their blasted corpses. Pulling himself together and pulling a fragment of shrapnel out of his cheek, Sergei ran forward-ignoring the leopard’s teeth-until he was close enough to see the whites of the grenader’s eyes…and then somewhat closer than that. He unloaded his rifle into the grenader from a range of six inches. At that distance, the jungle provided the grenader with no protection. Then Sergei gunned the leopard down in a single shot for good measure. He remained in the jungle as the rest of the party regrouped and regenerated, thanks to one of Paeael’s vestige abilities, and emerged some minutes later. By then, he had fully healed on account of the ambient negative energy that was rife within the toxic jungle, and he had also managed to extract the leopard’s claws and canine teeth and hang them on a leather thong around his neck. He had also smeared his cheeks with stripes of dark mud, and had begun to utilize a lot of dated military lingo.

After patching itself up and paying Arronax to fix the robo-horses, the party was readying to hump it through the boonies when two things happened nearly simultaneously: Rhyken materialized out of nowhere, and the Mordent naturalist materialized from the north, come to investigate the explosions. Satisfied that they were nothing out of the ordinary, the naturalist was ready to leave again, but this time the party stopped her and peppered her with questions. It turned out that she was a researcher who was observing the habits of the wildunlife of the region, studying the new ecosystems that had arisen from the ashes of the old. She said that the corpses of the beasts played out their ancient instincts even beyond the barrier of death-that the reanimated corpses of animals would act upon the patterns that had been familiar to them all of their lives, engaging in the timeless dance of predator and prey, even attempting sterile, fruitless matings. She had seen predators who no longer experienced real hunger chase down prey animals, savaging them with tooth and claw, only to have the victims regenerate the damage just as quickly as it was being done and ultimately escape again, in an infinite loop. She asked the heroes to let her know if they were to come across any interesting flora and fauna in their time in the jungle. Rhyken was eager to get on her good side and learn what he could from her; in the course of his interview, he learned that the red plants thrived on the antithesis of life, feeding upon the darkness of gaps between the stars where normal plants were once sustained by the light of the sun. He also learned that the Mordent had converted great numbers of evil dragons to their side. Satisfied for now, and having received the naturalist’s contact information, the party continued towards Hopetown.

Much of the journey was uneventful, and the heroes encountered little more than monkeys who sat strangely still among the branches and stared at the party as it passed. The jungle was alive with sounds, though-shrill screams, the strangely dissonant songs of birds, and deep reverberating growls that made the ground tremble. Eventually, the heroes broke to rest. After they had made camp, Rhyken approached Atu-Sinda and requested, somewhat shockingly, that Atu-Sinda pray with him. Rhyken had been feeling the effects of prolonged exposure to evil, and sought to cleanse his soul through prayer. Though somewhat surprised, Atu-Sinda readily consented, and the two of them went off to pray. They were joined in good order by Nar-Suta ( a.k.a. Utah Sinda), the ancient guardian spirit that resides in Atu-Sinda’s sword. After a few words of grizzled encouragement (and some audible coughing from the Mordent side of the camp), the three elves set about their prayers. Meanwhile, in a debate that would do Procrustes proud, Paeael was attempting to convince Terra that she should make herself shorter, perhaps by amputating her legs below the knees, while Terra was suggesting that Paeael make himself taller.

The next day saw more hours of travel through league after league of unbroken jungle. Only once did the heroes encounter a point of interest: a circular swathe of dead dirt by the side of the road where not even the unnatural red plants dared to grow. At the center of this ring stood a stele of black stone, incised with symbols that had been carved into the rock. Apparently a shrine to Skura, the party did not dare enter the area, and Sergei spoke of horrific curses that would descend upon those who violated one of Skura’s unholy sites. Terra lobbed a grenade at the stone column for good measure, but it did little more than chip the black onyx.

Proceeding southward through terrain that grew gradually more hilly, the party reached the end of the Mordent road, visible from afar as a great bonfire surrounded by dark figures. Sergei went ahead to reconnoiter the camp, and brought back a description of numerous workers, garbed from head to toe in black clothing. They were tearing up plants from in front of the road and throwing them onto the fire, apparently at the instruction of one central Mordent. Rhyken suggested that Sergei and Paeael come around from either side to skirmish the enemy, while Terra and Atu-Sinda charge up along the road. For his part, Rhyken would go on a bombing run, protecting himself with illusions and and flying over the director and dropping grenades right on top of her. It seemed like a sound enough plan, so the party set about putting itself into position. Rhyken soared over the director and descended into attack range. Inexplicably, though, the director looked up and pointed directly at Rhyken, who was overwhelmed by a surge of negative energy coupled with the assault of a weaponized dvirus with an instantaneous incubation period that left his muscles almost paralyzed. He did drop the grenades, though, which prompted the director to call out a single word in the Mordent language. Reinforcements came boiling out from the forest to surround the director; forty figures strong, clad in black, responding unquestioningly to her commands. One group of forty servitors raced forward to meet the riders on the road, crashing against them as waves against a rock. Another detachment of forty servitors stood in the nearby jungle, awaiting orders or the presence of a living creature; Paeael moved among them unseen thanks to an invisibility vs. undead spell.

The director and Rhyken swapped spells, the elf firing magic missiles at the Mordent, and she reaching out to swipe at him with a spectral hand that fairly crackled with lethal energies, and the mage escaping the touch by mere centimeters. Terra swatted at the nearby servitors with her sword and destroyed several of them-and also learned that, upon death, these creatures dissolved into a burst of black fire that eroded the life force of any living creature within ten feet. She could also see, upon slashing open their dark clothes, that the creatures beneath were no more than bones beneath a breastplate of boiled leather (leather armor: no armor check penalty means no penalty to attack for non-proficiency! Every monster must wear it!). Atu-Sinda spurred his horse forward through the morass of skeletal servitors, charging through their ranks, scattering skulls and bits of broken bones, negative energy washing over him and Terra. The desperate charge brought them short of the director, and they were enmired by the skeleton army again. Sergei attempted to get in a clear shot at the director, but was hampered by all of the dozens of moving creatures between him and his target and only managed to blast a few of the skeletons. Paeael, too, couldn’t get in a clear shot at the director with his called lightning, and contented himself with blasting some of the nearby undead thralls, who quickly swarmed him, although the negative energy of their death throes sustained Paeael even as their claws tore his flesh. Seeing his allies gravely beset by the grim grind of war, Sergei seized upon the opportunity for a clear line of sight to the director. He leaped directly into the enormous bonfire and clambered up the burning branches until he had a direct line of fire to the director; his first shots hit her in the back of her head, and her face exploded outward in a spray of bone and teeth.

The heroes had dispatched their primary foe, but there were still over a hundred skeletons remaining who fought on mindlessly, undeterred by the death of their master…

Enter Vassily Dolohov

Fleeing from the Rodion compound, leaving Andrei Alexi alone with his tank and the corpses of his slaughtered soldiers, Paeael and Sergei and Terra fled back towards the church where their cleric ally from Silver and Steel was waiting for them. Dodging from the bombed-out husk of one house to the other, the party was able to gain the church without being detected.

Sure enough, the cleric was waiting for them, just as she had promised. But her lying face-down in a pool of reddish ice, a titanic blade two and a half feet wide and about seven feet long plunged into her spine, nearly splitting her body in half-this was a new development. Unexpected as well was the presence of a Mordent in black steel armor, kneeling on the floor of the profaned church, his head bowed, his hands folded over his groin, and his eyes closed, as if in prayer. The Mordent looked up as the party approached and studied these new arrivals. Once he had determined to his satisfaction that none of the heroes were the one he sought-the crusader known as Atu-Sinda-he frowned in disappointment.

The Mordent identified himself as Vassily Dolohov, Crusader of Skura, trained in the Stone Dragon school of swordsmanship. He said that he had come to this church on a holy (or rather, unholy) quest-to find Atu-Sinda and face him in single combat. He had arranged for the normal military patrols to leave the area alone so that he could fight Atu-Sinda without any distractions. However, he promised that he would be waiting Atu-Sinda in one week’s time in the settlement of Hopetown that lay some days travel south of Guia-that is, if Atu-Sinda was willing to accept the challenge. Dolohov advised the party to refrain from teleporting out of the city, as the Mordent forces were capable of detecting and tracing any teleportation within a hundred mile radius of Guia. He suggested that the heroes cut eastward toward the river, and then follow the edge of the city south until they found a road which would take them most of the way to Hopetown.

Escape from Rodion Labs

The agonized sobbing sounds ricocheted through the hallways, and then stopped. Even so, Sergei’s training enabled him to detect the slight scuffing of clothing over the concrete floor of the hallway, and he cautioned that there were enemies approaching. The heroes put themselves into a defensive formation, with Terra and Atu-Sinda blocking the doors into the laboratory with their bodies. For all that they were roughly human-sized and human-shaped, the attackers possessed an inhuman strength, and burst through the doors. The assailants proved to be rather wretched-looking things, like withered bodies wound up in stained shrouds. Heavy nails had been driven into their eyesockets, which now weeped a constant stream of blackish blood that trickled down into the creature’s own mouth. Their forms were covered with long scars that were not scars at all; these wounds split open to reveal teeth and tongues-dozens of small mouths scattered about the creature’s form, even on the sides of its head and on the palms of its hands, all of which gave voice to the creature’s sorrow and self-loathing. The wailing from these creatures was sufficient to cause Atu-Sinda to shake in his steel-toed boots, but not enough to drive him from the fight. The party fought back against the intrusion with martial maneuvers, lightning blasts, magic missiles, and a great many misplaced bursts from Sergei’s assault rifle (he being hampered by the close quarters and the lack of a clear shot). The wheeps went down, but not before inflicting a number of gashes upon Atu-Sinda and Terra, the wounds burning with the wheep’s vile tears. Poison coursed through the systems of the martial adepts, the two of them drawing upon their extraordinary abilities to combat the poison and mostly succeeding, but not without Terra incurring some toxic shock.

Back out into the main hallway, the party proceeded towards the door marked “Administration” with the express purpose of shutting down Dr. Raskolnikov’s game but good. Disdaining the complex security system, Rhyken shattered the door with a spell, revealing a brief corridor leading to another door. Sergei went on ahead to check, but missed the subtle, almost invisible disruptions in the air that signify the presence of a magical trap, and before he could react the corridor was filled with flames and blinding smoke. Most of the heroes attempted to flee from the incindiary cloud-Terra sticking around to fight it for some reason that I am at a loss to explain-but the cloud moved out into the main hallway, flooding the passageway with flames. Ultimately, though, the heroes managed to get it together and flee back into the Necrobiotics laboratory and close the door. Stray cinders and the scent of smoke floated through the crack beneath the door, but the cloud passed on, leaving the heroes singed but more or less intact.

Sergei went to make a second attempt on the trap as the rest of the party went off to investigate the rooms marked “Server Room” and “Maintenance.” The server room proved to lined with strange cabinets that were all aglow with small green lights. Paeael opted to throw blasts of lightning at the mechanical Mordent servitors, they shorted out with a spray of sparks and the smell of melted plastic. The Maintenance room Was also filled with complex machinery that Paeael also overloaded with blasts of lightning. Past that, though, were a series of lockers, and past those was a door leading off into another room. The door opened onto a small chamber where a number of former residents of Guia were now residing/ Their were all clad in the same bright blue jumpsuits, indicating that they had found new employment as custodians the service of Rodion Labs. Their eyes, ears, mouths, and nostrils had been sewn shut by crude, thick stitches, and the dusky, bloodless color of their flesh and the stink of formaldehyde indicated that they were no longer among the living. Atu-Sinda fell about them with much violence, hacking their bodies to pieces and liberating their souls.

At this point, Sergei rejoined the party, assuring everybody that the trap had been dealt with. He noticed the remains of the cleaning crew, and suggested that these mindless undead had probably been under the control of a handler who had most likely employed magical means to order them about. A search of the lockers revealed a wand of Command Undead, which Rhyken pocketed.

And thus, on to the Director’s room. There was another doorway at the end of the short corridor with another advanced biometric security lock on it, which made little difference when the door was being bashed down by Elder Mountain Hammers. And so the party charged into Raskolnikov’s office. They found tasteful leather furniture, a steel structure of a double helix which rotated slowly in the corner, a desk made of fine (and now extinct) jungle mahogany, and no Raskolnikov. His voice, though, having its origin in a helicopter that was safely hovering some several thousand feet above the complex and as carried through the electronic speakers, reappeared, and he sounded quite put out at the vandalism and destruction of corporate property. To add insult to injury, Paeael began stealing the pens off of Raskolnikov’s desk. Sergei and Rhyken rifled through desk, finding a lot of blank forms, paperclips and liquid paper, as well as a bottle in one of the lower drawers filled with a viscous reddish liquid. Thinking it to be wine, Rhyken opened it and inhaled an indefinable scent with no distinct analogues that nevertheless filled him for a brief moment with an intense euphoria. Sergei assured him that this was “the good stuff”-liquid pain extracted from an unwilling victim by means of hideous torture. Rhyken passed the bottle to the undead ranger, who gladly put it into his backpack. Having ransacked Raskolnikov’s office, the party searched around for some means of exit from the complex. The first door opened onto Raskolnikov’s closet, where several fine suits and pressed lab coats were hanging. Since this closet did not open onto a land of magic and adventure where it is always winter but never Christmas (since such conditions already exist in the campaign setting), the heroes tried the other door that led out of Raskolnikov’s office, finding an emergency escape elevator shaft, blocked by the lift that was at the top of the shaft and now unpowered thanks to the general sabotage. For good measure, Terra braced herself against either wall of the shaft and climbed up and attempted to destroy the lift with a shortsword, but that effort proved rather unsuccessful as she was unable to inflict anything more than a superficial scratch on the bottom of the lift. Raskolnikov had had enough, and he informed the party that the laboratory complex would become the party’s tomb, and that he had initiated the self-destruct sequence. Racing back out through the hallways, which were now awash in flashing red lights and a droning, repetitive warning message, the party made for the lobby where it had made its initial entrance into the complex. Rhyken attempted to slip through the intervening space by means of a dimension door, but found himself stepping through the thin blue gap in space only to exit immediately on the other side.

So the party crashed back into the lobby with the intention of ascending the elevator shaft on the far side. But the lobby had changed-the corpses of the zombies from the battle above had been transported down into the lobby and were laying scattered about. As the party approached, tendrils of dark smoke like black snakes slithered among the bodies. The corpses, bereft now of even the last vestiges of flesh, stirred from their slumber and clambered to their feet. These new creatures were made of mismatched limbs-the few intact bits having been scavenged from the corpses above, and now bound together into a shambling, twitching whole by coils of black smoke that wound around the bones like sinew. At the back of this mob of skeletons were the corpses of three of the Mordent security detail, although these bodies, too, had been altered. It appeared as though each of the corpses had chewed its own lips away, permanently exposing a set of yellow teeth that were grown longer and sharper than human teeth would ever be.

The mass of undead charged forward. Rhyken flew over the crowd, only to strike into some invisible obstacle hovering at the center of the room. The invisible creature manifested itself; and Rhyken found himself face to face with the decomposing corpse of a fetus grown orders of magnitude too large. Its incomplete limbs terminated in vicious claws, and its brown-yellow flesh was shot through with blue veins. The creatures head had been damaged, exposing a pulsing mass of brownish brain matter and leaving only one eye intact, but this eye focused on Rhyken and the halfling could feel an unpleasant sensation slithering up and down his spine. The halfling flew back and used his new wand to charm one of the ghouls, which remained standing in front of the elevator as its fellows surged forward and engulfed the party in a flood of undead.

Bogged down by the skeletons, the other party members were unable to get at the undead fetus hanging above the room. The martial adepts smashed several of the skeletons into flinders, and Paeael’s acid gaze washed over a great many of the skeletons, leaving their bones pitted and burned. But even as the party inflicted these injuries, the skeletons’ bones became whole again, healed by the Atropal Scion’s unholy energies, which also worked to suppress the very life force of every living creature in the room, imposing two negative levels on all of the humanoid fighters. Sergei, though, took advantage of the situation (and the bolstering effects of the Scion’s presence) to fire off a couple of well-placed shots at the undead embryo; bits of rotting flesh burst from the exit wound only to orbiting around the Atropal Scion’s body like so many tiny satellites. The Scion retaliated by throwing a cone of super-cooled air at the clustered party-members, inflicting damage on everybody but Rhyken.

Atu-Sinda, who apparently spent all kinds of time in Crusader Sunday School studying some seriously morbid shit, informed the party of the creature’s nature as being the undead reanimation of a stillborn god, and warned the party that to meet the creature’s gaze could mean death, which left the party shielding its eyes against the thing’s gaze. Even so, Rhyken was a fraction of a second too late in looking away, and the halfling’s heart burst, leaving his corpse-and the six mirror images of his corpse-floating limp above the room.

The creature threw another cone of killing cold at the party, leaving several of the members near to death. Nevertheless, Atu-Sinda opted to quaff his remaining potion of fly in an attempt to close with the creature as Terra remained below, cleaving her way through skeletons. Paeael’s second round of staring acid death at people resulted in the deaths of 80% of the skeletons, leaving only a handful of those and the ghouls to contend with on the floor. Sergei ran through the piles of bones and took aim, firing at the Atropal Scion again, and his second salvo caused the creature to bring its head back and emit a wail that was uncannily like that of a human infant before disappearing in a burst of darkness.

The remaining undead were soon disposed of, and the part gathered up its dead and climbed out the elevator shaft by means of Paeael’s rod of ropes. Fearing the imminent destruction of the complex, they ran back out into the snow field, only to find their exit blocked by fully thrity Mordent soldiers with rifles at the ready. These troops, though, were insignificant compared to the tank behind them, its (10d12!) cannon trained on the party. Standing atop the turret of the tank was a familiar figure-a lean Mordent with shoulder-length grey hair and a black cloak that rustled even though there was no wind, whose thin grey lips were compressed into something of a smile, and who tossed a dagger back and forth between his hands as though it were a toy-Andrei Alexi.

Andrei seemed almost happy to see the party, greeting everybody as though he was an old friend. He informed the heroes that, thanks to their sabotage of the Rodion facility, his stock in rival Semyonova Technologies had surely gone up by at least ten points. Being in such a good mood, and bemused by Terra’s blatant attempts at flattery, and feeling that the heroes were not yet ripe, he was inclined to let everybody go and pretend like the whole thing had never happened. This caused a stir among his men, some of whom felt compelled to remind their commander that they were compelled by divine law to destroy any living creature they encountered. Andre reminded them that they took their orders from him, not from Skura. This was not sufficient to dissuade a number of the men from locking and loading their weapons and taking aim at the party. Feeling that it would be easier to coordinate the fabrication of the party’s escape without so many witnesses, Andre Alexi tossed his dagger up into the air, and before it had fallen back into his palm, had unleashed a lightning-quick barrage of daggers that had his own soldiers collapsing into piles of severed limbs and heads and denuded torsos.

The party raced across the snow fields, back towards cleric who waited for them in the nearby church with a teleport spell at the ready…

Venturing into Rodion Labs

After dispatching the moderately-sized horde of undead outside of Rodion labs, the party prepared to venture deeper inside of the Mordent research facility. However, their way was blocked by a locked door. Atu-Sinda volunteered to hack the door down by force, but then, on second-thought (and at my insistence), resolved to use more subtle means of unlocking the door…like entering the code into the adjacent keypad. While the heroes didn’t know the code, Paeael’s interrogation of the corpse of the undead girl they had dispatched revealed the cryptic phrase “Mordent Always Kill Children” as some means of gaining entry into the compound. Sure enough, the phrase was a mnemonic device, indicating the proper code sequence. The door unlocked, the heroes entered into the kwansit hut to see a great many clusters of boxes, covered with spray-painted labels in the Mordent language and cargo netting. There was a lift at the center of the area, and this proved to lower down into a kind of lobby area. At the center of the floor was a steel desk, behind which sat a Mordent guard in uniform. He hardly had time to ask the band of adventurers its business before the adventurers fell upon him with great violence. The guard was no real threat, but the eight heavily armed and well-armored security specialists he summoned by means of an alarm were no slouches. A fierce gunfight ensued, with torrents of bullets falling upon the heroes as the guards opened fire from platforms above the floor of the lobby. The party returned fire in kind, while Terra leaped about like some kind of nonsensical anime character, jumping twenty feet up into the air only to balance on the thin handrail of the catwalk and slash away at the security detail.

That problem dealt with, the party proceeded on past the wall of glass panes, into the compound proper. The long hallway that led to the individual laboratory rooms was all but deserted, the Mordent within having fled after hearing the alarm. Almost deserted, but not quite-it so happened that a government inspection team was making a tour of the laboratories at the time, and the agents of the Mordent Imperium were not of a mind to allow the party to proceed any farther. Led by Mordent bard who specialized in uttering dire threats and incitements to evil, the team was rounded out by three priests of Skura, one of whom was an Inquisitor specialized in dealing with rogue undead. Atu-Sinda called out the Inquisitor to single combat, believing him to be an opponent possessed of bravery and honor. The Inquisitor labored under no such delusions-he used the ruse of the single combat as an opportunity to fire off a maximized Searing Ray at Sergei, who had been his target all along. A general melee ensued, the priests flooding the hallway with devastating bursts of negative energy, augmented by special spell components: human finger bones, intricately etched with runes and symbols, that crumbled to dust upon the casting of the priests’ unholy spells. While the infliction spells were damaging (and restorative to the Mordent themselves) and while bolts of searing blacklight burst into black sparks mere inches away from what was left of Sergei, the party fought back valiantly and sent these servants of Skura to their eternal reward of sweetest oblivion.

Once it had dispatched these new foes, the party set about searching the rooms that branched off from the central corridor. The titles on the doors translated to such obscure phrases as “Pathology and Micronecrobiology,” “Necrobiotics,” “Ender of Life Program,” and “Server Room.” There was also a door marked “Administration,” which was securely locked and did not open with the keyring lifted from the slaughtered security guard. The Necrobiotics lab consisted of a number of desks on one side of the room, and a series of specimen containers like glass cells on the other side. The party did not venture deep into this room-one unnerving sight of the liquefacted and putrefied remains in the specimen chambers was enough to discourage any further exploration. The search of the pathology laboratory did not seem especially fruitful, until Atu-Sinda and Sergei flushed out a lab technician who had been cowering underneath a desk. The tech begged for his life in a most un-undeadlike manner, and upon receving promises that he would not be tortured or killed, he promised to help the party with their mission at Rodion labs, although it would mean his job. He pointed out areas of interest within the laboratories, such as the experimental combat enhancements, batches of a virulent strain of undead virus that he hinted would soon be the downfall of Drogue, a negative energy font where Sergei could patch himself up, and an experimental machine in the Ender of Life laboratory that had the capability of transferring consciousness from one body to another. The party destroyed the combat enhancements (losing out on the possibility of permanently gaining 3 hit points or 2 acid resistance) and destroyed a sample of the plague, which the tech assured them would do very little to stop the inevitable attack on Drogue. Sergei got himself fixed up, and then the party proceeded into the Ender of Life laboratory.

This room was arranged much like the Necrobiotics lab, with desks and monitors on one side and specimen containers on the other. These specimen containers, though, were filled with a glowing blue fluid. Suspended in each of the chambers, behind a web of tubes and wires, was a form that hinted at being humanoid, although only barely. Joints were bent back the wrong way, vestigial digits and limbs sprouted from malformed limbs, crude masses of muscle and thick scabrous skin distorted the normal lines of humanoid anatomy, and eyes were set askew and blinked out of tandem. And yet these wretched things were not dead, but alive-living creatures broken and brainwashed into becoming Mordent war machines. The tech informed the party that the last vestiges of identity were usually purged after the first two or three days of direct stimulation of the brain’s pain center, and after that it was a matter of training the Enders by means of artificial reality and direct neural stimulus until they had achieved the necessary drives to kill anything that drew breath-the act of killing providing them with a brief respite from the constant agony that otherwise flooded their systems. The tech seemed almost proud when speaking of the Enders, boasting that he had was responsible for some of the sub-routines in the Artificial Reality training programs, which earned him only contempt from the party members.

In any event, he brought everybody to two chambers like those that held the Enders at the back of the room, and urged Paeael to enter into one of them. The gnome did so with some trepidation. As Paeael floated in the chemical bath, the tech reconstituted the genetic material extracted from an old Chaos Gnome hair and fed it into the machine. A skinless, hairless thing that was little more than unblinking eyes and a mass of naked veins started to grow in the next tank, and within minutes it had taken on the appearance of Old Paeael. New Paeael struggled in his tank as his oxygen supply was cut off, feeling the fluid burning his lungs as he died…and was instantly resuscitated in the newly cloned body.

The party made to leave, vowing to explode the laboratories if at all possible. They decided to start by aborting the Enders, and set the protesting tech to shut down their life support. But before the heroes could make good on their goal, a voice spoke to them, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. The voice identified itself as Dr. Raskolnikov, who thanked the tech for his 155 years of devoted service but informed him that he was in violation of the company’s protection of intellectual property bylaws, and, as such, the company had no choice but to terminate the tech’s employment. This involved the tech staggering back and staring down at his body as it began to burn from the inside out, blazing white light spreading over his skin like leprosy-within seconds, he was completely immolated, and then was nothing more than a pile of glowing ash.

Dr. Raskonikov then thanked the heroes for the invaluable combat data that he had extracted from their encounters in the laboratory, and assured the heroes that this data would be put to good use in the Ender program. He also thanked them for the chance to test out a new iteration of undeath, and assured them that they would continue to serve in the capacity of zombified custodians after the life had been ripped from them. And then Raskolnikov’s voice was replaced with the tortured sound of commingled sobbing, coughing, and gasping-the sound of desperation, depression, and despair.

Tune in next week to see what hellish horrors the heartless Raskolnikov has unleashed upon our hapless heroes!

Prophecy of the Weirds Resolution

Our heroes had freed the last of the four weirds and received the whole of the prophecy, thus fulfilling their goals-at least for now-at the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge. They made to return to Drogue, stopping by one last time at Ralph’s home before they went. Ralph was out foraging, so his wife answered the party as they came banging on the cellar door, and asking if she was sure she wouldn’t return with them to Drogue. She was sure-confident that Drogue would fall soon, she asked only that the party repair the telegraph line to the city, so they could learn when the last hope had vanished. The party promised her that they would do so, and proceeded back across the snow fields to the train wreck, where the severed telegraph line twisted and writhed and coughed up torrents of blue sparks. By opening his body and soul up yet again to eldritch and alien influences, Paeael was able to gain a working knowledge of telegraphs, but lacked the time and equipment to repair the cable. Rhyken offered to mend the cable by means of minor magics, but his 0th level spells were not sufficient to restore the cable. So, the party moved back to Drogue on the war sleigh pulled by its team of dire caribou, unable to repair the cable (and so, contact Frank back at Drogue).

Some days later, they came back to the imposing mountain that housed the Dwarven capital. They approached one of the reinforced steel doors that offered passage into and out of the mountain, and were able to prove their identity by means of slamming into the dwarven guards at a full run in a brutal headbutting contest (which, apparently, is a traditional Dwarven expression of greeting, apology, and romantic affection). Once back inside the city-well, mostly back inside the city, as Sergei stayed out in the snow beyond the mountain, biding his time by casting bullets over a campfire-the party sought to learn more about the prophecy, and resolved to consult with the members of Silver and Steel. On the way to the chapterhouse, the adventures found that many of the inhabitants of Dorgue were standing in clusters in the street. These gatherings varied in mood-some seemed exultant, the townsfolk given to brash shouting and cheers, while other groups primarily composed of older citizens were grave and spoke in low tones heavy with worry. Sure enough, the local papers were all ablaze with news from the front: the Mordent had made their first incursions into Dwarven territory, only to be repulsed by the stalwart Dwarven defense forces. One photo showed a number of dwarves standing over the shattered corpses of Mordent much as hunters might pose with trophy kills, with a wrecked Mordent war machine spewing smoke in the background. For some dwarves, who had been waiting all of their lives to fight a “good” war, this was a cause for celebration. For others, this was a cause for much concern. The guys headed on up to the chapterhouse of Silver and Steel. They spoke with the new commander, a dwarven wizard by the name of Agtha Flowerfriend, about the prophecy, and learned that the “Bones of the Earth” was a phrase that figured in local folklore (after further consultation with Mistress Ambassador Ak’lith Denvirr, the party would learn that the “bones of the earth” is a phrase used to describe the deepest regions of the Underdark where the very stones themselves begin to melt and turn to magma; this is the region staked out by the Drow nation of Kalyza Dal’Oloth after their centuries of conflict with the dwarves and gnomes of Drogue). Further research in municipal libraries and Mistress Ambassador Ak’lith Denvirr’s personal collection hinted that the Tears of the Moon might be referring to Moondrop Gems, and also that an overly-ambitious king in ages past, believing the moon to be made of purest silver, attempted to build a tower to the moon to harvest its riches. It is not known whether he succeeded in achieving this impossible feat; it is known that few who have ever attempted to scale the tower have returned.

During the debriefing, in which the party confessed that it had seen neither hide nor hair of the former commander of Silver and Steel who had gone off to investigate the happenings of the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge, Atu-Sinda and Terra asked if they might join the organization, the better to fight back against the threat of the Mordent. Agtha promised that she would consult with the leading council, and that their membership was practically assured. The heroes agreed to be inducted after they had finished with their current task of infiltrating Rodion labs. Agtha agreed to help them in this task, and sent them to speak with an operative who had an intimate knowledge of Rodion labs. This operative turned out to be a badly malformed…person…whose eyes were set aslant in its face and who blinked out of sequence, and whose body was otherwise concealed beneath layers of bandages and reinforced plate mail. The operative, who went by the name of Jesse, informed the heroes that Rodion Labs had built a field office in the ruins of Guia; he also cautioned them to not be taken alive, and urged them to pick up some of the “glory devices” worn by members of Silver and Steel that would immolate their bodies in a burst of white phosphorous fire as a last resort, to prevent capture and to (hopefully) immolate the corpse so completely that it could not be reanimated. He took them to another member of Silver and Steel, a haggard old cleric who wore her armor as though it were a penitent punishment. She teleported the party to her ruined chruch in Guia, and told them to return within twenty-four hours or she would have to leave without them. Sergei, incidentally, was teleported along with the party inside of his trusty steel crate, which he had begun to decorate with stickers of all of the places he had traveled. The church itself had been the victim of considerable vandalism. All its windows, save one, had been smashed out, with Mordent jargon spray-painted on the walls. The few holy relics still scattered about with in the church had been defiled by being coated with something like black tar, turning them into crude parodies of themselves. Atu-Sinda would have stayed to restore the holy symbols, but the cleric convinced him that this was a time for direct action, not for symbolism, and so the party proceeded on to the laboratories.

The trek from the church to Rodion Labs was a relatively short one, interrupted only by a Mordent patrol that included infantry as well as a great lumbering beast of steel, as big as a house, with a tremendous cannon that jutted from a central turret on the thing’s top side. The party evaded the patrol, and went on, until progress was halted by a perimeter fence that hummed with latent energy. Sergei shorted out the fence, evoking bursts of electrical sparks from the interrupted current, and the party slipped beneath and into the compound. In the distance, across a field of snow, the heroes could see a cluster of kwansit hut bunkers. They made their way over the snow-field, stopping when they saw a human girl standing in front of a doorway in the front of the bunker. Her back was turned to them, and her long curled hair and the ragged remains of her blue dress fluttered about her body, animated by the cold wind. Sergei slipped off to the side as the rest of the party approached the girl under the protection of an invisibility spell. Once they had approached, the girl turned. The party saw that her face had been badly mauled, with chunks of flesh missing from her cheek that exposed the teeth beneath, and one eye absent from its socket. The wounds looked as though they had been inflicted by human teeth. The girl clutched her left arm to her chest; the flesh had been eaten away, leaving only ragged rags of red tendon that twitched sporadically. She had the chance to say “I smell something” before Sergei, on Atu-Sinda’s order, shot her down. The disturbance awakened the other Viral Deathspawn who had been lying in wait beneath the snow. Fully one-hundred and fifty mangled corpses clawed their way out from beneath the snow, and with one terrible simultaneous shout that gave voice and gave vent to their anger and their hunger, they charged the heroes. Fighting back furiously with spells and with gunfire, the party was able to blast most of the undead mob before it had closed the gap. Atu-Sinda and Terra went toe-to-toe with the remaining zombies; Terra was briefly engulfed by the mob, and went down under a barrage of tearing teeth and grasping claws before leaping out with a maneuver. The undead defeated, the party turned back to the door, and prepared to enter the Rodion Research Facility…


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