Uldrus: Ice and Darkness

Journey to the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge

When we last left our heroes, they were wandering around the Dregs of Drogue-also known as the Delta Sector-amidst the great piles of rot and refuse that are the waste products of the thriving city. Terra and Paeael were feeling destitute (in spite of having received large amounts of cash money and spiffy items from their conquest of the mind flayer). So they spent some time mucking about the city, looking for work. Frank told them that there were ample employment opportunities available in the Alpha Sector as medical research subjects, or that he could hook them up with plum positions as Sanitation Engineers or else as Compost Technology Technicians in the Agricultural Sector, but our heroes declined. So they treaded on up to the residence of the drow ambassador to Drogue, Mistress Ambassador Ak’lith Denvirr, thinking (rightly) that she might have some uses for them. They stopped outside of the gates of her manor, where the air itself was thick and acrid with latent magic, but then they lost their nerve and bravely ran away liked scared little girls. Ultimately, they wandered back to the Delta Sector and asked the captain of the guard if there was any kind of work to be had more suited to those of an adventuring ilk. Sure enough, the captain of the guard was strapped for manpower and had no desire to leave his newly-ventilated office and go tromping about in one of those sweaty rebreather suits, so he tasked our heroes with neutralizing some malfunctioning machines. The Delta Sector’s goblinoid inhabitants had been complaining about these machines-apparently they had caused a death or two or forty-compelling the city guard to take action. Or, at least, to pay somebody else to deal with it.

So Terra and Paeael made their way through the Delta Sector to the area where the machines had last been spotted. Peter, their mechanical guide, being a clockwork automaton fashioned to resemble a gnome, seemed quite eager to assist and not at all dismayed that he was helping humanoids to ruthlessly butcher his fellow constructs. Nope, not at all. Peter was the very picture of courtesy and gratitude, even when they stuffed him inside of a bag (ostensibly for his own protection). Along they way, they hooked back up with Sergei. While the living members of the party had been off traipsing around the city, he had remained in the dumps, boiling scrap metal over a trash fire and molding bullets from the molten lead. Thusly reinforced, the party set out to take down the rogue machines.

When they arrived at the designated area, Terra felt it would be a good idea to draw the machines out by banging on the scrap heaps with her sword. Soon enough, she managed to upset a nest of rust monsters in this manner. The party dispatched the dangerous vermin whose very touch is enough to reduce the most beautiful necklace, the most elegant sword, or the sturdiest suit of plate armor to rusted slag, but not before Terra’s sword was destroyed. Again.

They then proceeded onward, further bolstered by the presence of Atu-Sinda, who just happened to appear out of thin air, quite conveniently after the fight with the rust monsters had concluded. Their proximity to the dangerous machines became apparent when a goblin came arcing through the air to land with a sickening splatter near their feet. Sure enough, the next pile of twisted scrap metal proved to be quite animate and quite aggressive. It resolved into a roughly humanoid shape and proceeded to advance upon our heroes, but Sergei shot the thing dead before it could even blink-not that it had eyes. So, since that encounter proved to be rather lackluster-three more gigantic agglomerations of stabby machine parts appeared! Our heroes fought valiantly, and while Atu-Sinda was nearly frappeed to death by the whirling blades of one of the rogue machines, the party triumphed in the end and then went back to collect its reward.

After that, the heroes were determined to set out from Drogue to investigate the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge, where they had been told that they might learn how to overcome the dread threat of the Mordent. They were wondering how it was that they might get to the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge when Frank told them, in a frank and matter-of-fact manner, that there was a railway running out to the Mountain from Drogue. So the heroes boarded the train and set out for parts unknown to the accompaniment of steel wheels clacking over the tracks, and with the strong scent of coal smoke in their nostrils. They passed through many miles of monotonous flatland covered over in an unbroken pall of white snow, and passed by many houses where gnomish families had worked and lived and loved, and that were now nothing more than hollow shells. At some point in their journey, the heroes realized that the steel crate in the cargo car of the train hid their undead ally, who had smuggled himself onto the train as cargo.

The train screeched to a stop several days and several hundred miles out of Drogue, and Frank ushered the heroes off. They found themselves standing before a massive train wreck, the cars twisted and strewn over the landscape like the corpse of some impossible snake. The cars themselves had been gutted, and there were no bodies to be found. Under several feet of snow, however, there were the faint, lingering imprints of Mordent boots, leading off to the north. Calling upon their old pal and war profiteer, Arronax, the party bought a war sled and a team of dire reindeer and went off in pursuit of the Mordent. However, nobody in the party was particularly skilled at tracking, and after a day of hauling over mile after mile of indistinct snowbanks, the party lost the trail and turned around in the direction of the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge, which rose alone and isolated over the surrounding plains.

Once they had reached the town at the base of the mountain, they found it to be completely deserted. Houses and shops stood empty and unused, as if they were curious artifacts in some sort of surreal museum. They entered into the first hotel that they saw and found it empty, save for the frozen corpse of a dwarf who had died still clutching a hand of Three Dragon Ante cards. A pile of gold coins, their faces white with frost, lay on the table next to him. The dwarf seemed to be quite dead, but when Terra attempted to remove a coin from the pile, the dwarf’s limbs surged with a kind of crude, puppet-like motion, and the dwarf’s frozen fingers locked around Terra’s wrist. A hollow voice, like a cold wind that blows over jagged rocks, intoned from deep within the corpse: “No cheating.”

Leaving the anomalous and eerie dwarfsicle behind, the party searched the inn for signs of life, and found that the storeroom had been recently disturbed. They followed the footprints through the snow to a small cottage located off of the main street through town. The cottage appeared empty enough-at least, when the party exploded the door off of its hinges and ransacked the upper rooms, the adventurers found no sign of life. Paeael, though, had gone around back to find a locked door leading down into a cellar. Atu-Sinda called out to the frightened occupants of the cellar, offering them food and promising that no harm would come to them if they were to come out. After much coaxing, a starving and terrified man clambered out of the cellar, clutching a Mordent firearm in his trembling hands. He told the heroes that a cloud of lethal gas had descended upon the town, leaving everyone and everything dead, and that had been followed by the freezing night that had lasted now for many weeks. He said that the only thing he had seen in weeks of scavenging around town was some strange figure that chanted and shouted and could be heard from blocks away, and as soon as he heard it he always ran in the other direction. After snatching up the offered food, he retreated back into the cellar, and demanded that the heroes leave before they drew the Mordent down upon his house and his family.

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Rescuing the Weirds

So when we last left our heroes, they were standing outside of Ralph’s cellar, their feet turning the snow to slush and their breath turning to smoke in the frozen air. Intrigued and concerned by Ralph’s description of a lone figure lurching through the streets, ranting and raving at the stars, the party dispatched Sergei to locate this creature. Garon used one of his new magic item toys to establish a telepathic link with Sergei’s undead mind, and so the two of them were in instantaneous psychic communication as Sergei engaged in the recon operation.

Meanwhile, Atu-Sinda, Paeael, and Garon went off to scour the streets of the town at the base of the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge, looking for information that might help in their upcoming excursion to the mountain. They located a visitor’s center-so denoted by the words “Visitor’s Center” arced across a wooden sign above the portico-and proceeded to try the door. But lo! It was locked. As Atu-Sinda tried to bash the door down with his shoulder, Paeael “went to look for a rear entrance,” which really meant that he took a minute to scrawl arcane symbols in the dirt and so open himself up to the eldritch influence of strange and alien creatures that exist beyond space and time-beyond even existence itself. When Paeael returned, Atu-Sinda was still hurling himself at the door to little effect. So Paeael utilized the influence of one of his entities-one which is claustrophobic in the extreme-to try to unlock the door by means of supernatural power. This proved to be beyond the vestige’s ability, so Paeael turned his attention to one of the windows, and managed to get it open even as Atu-Sinda smashed the door down by means of main force.

Inside the visitor’s center were shelves lined with tourist guides and display cases filled with the stuffed carcasses of animals fixed in frightening poses. Searching through the shelves, the heroes found numerous hiking guides and brochures for local hotels and restaurants and breweries (all one-hundred and twenty of them). They also located a scholarly treatise on the nature of the elemental Weirds, and learned that they were creatures tied to the four primal elements of the universe. In listening to the songs sung by the water and the whispers carried on the wind, to the cackling laughter of the flames and to the slow, sad stories told by the stones, the Weirds learned of matters unknown to any mortal mind. They were inclined to reveal their information to supplicants, although the information was not always in a form that the supplicants could appreciate and was often wrapped in cryptic riddles. The party made note of this information, and also of a map detailing the location of the Weirds on the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge. The Earth Weird dwelt within a chamber at the heart of the mountain, connected to the outside world by means of a tunnel. The Fire Weird made her lair in a chamber deep underground, as deep down in the earth as the mountain’s peak reached into the sky. The Water Weird resided at a spring on the mountainside, while the Air Weird claimed the very peaks of the Mountain as her home.

Also inside the Visitor’s Center was a strange machine on one of the counters. The machine was all of two feet wide and about as high, its sides covered in elaborate bronze scrollwork, and its front having a sloped surface from which emerged numerous individual buttons or keys, each key bearing a Dwarven runic symbol. At the top of the machine was a curious little glass window, and at the bottom of the machine were clear incisions surrounding a rectangular panel, suggesting some manner of retractable drawer or tray. The heroes resolved to learn the secrets of this strange device, and were startled at first when the action of pressing a key caused a little flag of colored paper to burst up into the window of the machine. At length, they determined that the keys had some kind of an effect on the drawer, but that the drawer was prevented from opening by means of a mechanical lock. Thus, Paeael again drew upon the powers of the weird beings that he had allowed to share his soul for the day to locate a key to unlock the drawer. The vestiges whispered to him that a key-they nearest key that bore a resemblance to his mental conception of “key”-lay in a house a couple of blocks away. So the party proceeded to the house, Atu-Sinda tucking the machine underneath his arm and carrying it along. The party engaged in a second act of breaking and entering, and once inside found a stone bowl filled with keys on a stand, next to the front door. None of these keys proved to fit the lock in the device, so everything was tossed inside of the bag of holding and the party proceeded onwards, defeated but undeterred.

Atu-Sinda wanted to check the local church of Luxis for survivors, so the heroes went and did so. The entered into the house of Luxis, marking the great bronze bells whose deep voices had once resounded over the nearby plains and made the very mountain shudder, but that now were silent and still within their prison towers. The front doors of the church was unlocked-the doors to the house of Luxis are never locked-and the party proceeded into the chapel. Inside were unlit candles and rows of empty seats. A cracking sound drew the party’s attention upwards, and the heroes saw that the ceiling of the church was composed of a number of glass panels. Once, these panels must have allowed the light of Luxis to come flooding into the church, but now they were smothered in snow and complaining underneath a load of snow that they were never intended to bear. In any case, there were no survivors to be seen. The party forced its way into the rear apartments of the church, and while their explorations yielded such rewards as a mop, cleaning supplies, the church’s fiscal report for the last quarter showing a 12% decline in donations received, and the rather grumpy notes for a sermon on the virtue of generosity, the search did not offer up evidence of any survivors taking refuge in the church.

It was then that Sergei radioed back to mission command to state that target acquisition was successful. The party departed from the church and hustled (at a rate of 20 feet per round, or two miles per hour!) over to Sergei’s location. They followed after the target, which was staggering unevenly on down the street and shouting, as if drunk. As the party drew closer, it became apparent that the target was not ranting so much as it was keeping up a constant monologue, speaking about the inevitability of extinction, the delusion of a brief life in the face of an infinitude of death, the victory of the Mordent as a matter of course. The stranger urged the heroes to give up their meaningless struggle and accept the mercy of Skura, to lay down their arms and lay down their lives and give themselves over to sweetest oblivion. The despairing words stole the wits away from Paeael and Garron, but Atu-Sinda, who had been protected from evil influences, drew his sword and charged the doomsayer. Sergei also opened fire on the creature, but his bullets passed through the creature’s form as though it were water. The doomsayer drifted up into the air out of reach of Atu-Sinda’s sword (and Sergei’s skirmish damage), but it had not anticipated that Atu-Sinda would be packing a potion of Fly. The crusader downed the potion and shot up into the air after the creature, all this while Paeael and Garron struggled against the soul-draining effects of the doomsayer’s words, and were aided in this effort by the palliative aura of Garron’s summoned lantern archon. Atu-Sinda’s sword ultimately found its mark-as did one of Sergei’s bullets-and the creature was shredded into scraps of darkness that went flitting down to the snow below. The party went back to inform Ralph that the streets of town had been made a little safer and offer to bring him and his family with them on their return to Drogue, but he was having none of it.

And so the adventurers went on to the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge. They entered into the broad tunnel that led to the very heart of the mountain and shuffled along the miles-long corridor, bombarded all the while by advertising posters. They passed by the elevator which went down to the demesne of the Fire Weird, but it was unpowered and inactive (as were the lights in the ceiling). At the terminus of the tunnel was a churning pool of mud and liquid metal that threw a strange pattern of light and shadow over the natural rock walls of the cavern. Somebody chucked a rock into the pool, which prompted six hulking, vaguely humanoid figures composed of rotten earth and crumbling rock and corroded crystal to burst up from the floor in a font of dirt and pebbles. The party did battle against the undead earth elementals, dispatching them in due course, and when the last one had fallen the Earth Weird was free to emerge from her pool. She was an entity whose generous form had been molded from raw earth and whose hair curled about her back and shoulders like metal shavings. Her prophecies were dour, to say the least; specializing in foretellings of death and doom and imminent apocalypses (as well as sometimes pointing the way to hidden wealth and treasures), the Earth Weird had a developed something of an obsessive “I told you so” manner, and told the adventurers ad nauseam that they were all going to die. She also gave them the part of the prophecy that she possessed-”Purified in the six essences”-and exhorted the adventurers to seek our her other sisters if they would know more.

Stymied by the inoperational elevator and the inoperational lift, the party rested for nine hours and then proceeded to hike up to the pool of the Water Weird. When they reached it, they found it frozen over. Atu-Sinda struck the ice with his sword, which drew the attention of the guardians of the pool. Six undead water elementals emerged from their hiding places beneath the snow, creatures with skin like the cracked clay of a sun-baked lake bed and bellies swollen with emptiness, whose breath sucked the very moisture from the air around them. The dessicators sought the death of the party by means of extreme dehydration, but it was the dessicators who went down into dark land of death. Freed from the oppression of the evil energies aroused by the Mordent, the Water Weird came out of her pool and counseled the party on matters concerning healing and rebirth. She exhorted Paeael to seek out the Mordent-owned Rodion Laboratories if he would be restored to his former form of a chaos gnome, and she also offered the party her fragment of the prophecy: “To Wound the Darkest Heart.”

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The Prophecy of the Weirds

When we last left our heroes they had just freed the Water Weird from her icy imprisonment. With two out of four Weirds down, Atu-Sinda, Paeael, Terra, and Sergei set out to free the Air Weird, who made her home on the wind-whipped peak of the mountain. It took the party quite a while to scale the mountain (1/2 movement for snow + 1/2 movement for the incline means that the party was moving at a rate of 10 feet per round).

The Air Weird’s pool was to be found on a plateau at the summit of the Mountain of Forbidden Knowledge, visible as a vortex of whirling winds and spiraling flakes of snow. As with the other pools, this nexus of elemental power had attracted the attentions of corrupted elementals, who emerged from the mountain itself as clouds of ink-black smoke adorned only with eyes that glowed red with hatred for all living things. While these creatures sucked the oxygen from the very air around them, and while their touch was sufficient to drain the breath from a man’s body, the Voidwraths proved to be no match for our heroes’ arsenal of martial strikes, “small” arms fire, and Paeael’s ability to attack targets with…wind. After the battle, Rhyken appeared out of nowhere, as heroes are wont to do.

The Air Weird turned out to be quite chipper, and was happy to share her prophecies with the party. She showed them the way down to restart the elevator (for a sacrifice of coin), and showed Paeael a vision of Rodion Labs where he might uncreate and recreate his physical form (for a sacrifice of some of Paeael’s motor skills). So the party slogged on back down the mountain to the power plant on the far side of the mount, where they fumbled and futzed around until they had filled a furnace full of burning coal and started up the power generators again. They also came across a Dwarven swimsuit calendar-an artifact of such fell power that to gaze upon it was sufficient to send one’s mind spinning into madness. But they managed to avoid that peril…for now. Wit the elevator and the lights and the lifts operational again, the heroes slogged back to the tunnel leading to the heart of the mountain, until finally they took the lift down to the chamber of the Fire Weird. There, deep below the surface of the Earth, the very air rippled and shimmered with the heat, and the rocks were cracked and sweating magma. However, for the convenience of tourists, the dwarves and gnomes had built an invisible platform of force around the rock walls of the chamber, and AS WE ALL KNOW, THERE IS NO HEAT CONVECTION IN THE D&D UNIVERSE, so as long as nobody touched the rocks directly there wasn’t a problem. The Fire Weird’s pool was a thing of snake-like flames writhing over a glowing caldera of molten metal. As the heroes approached, it belched forth a bevy of undead fire elementals-Cinderspawn. These Cinderspawn were beings covered in guttering blue flames, and though their touch burned with frost rather than with fire, they were no less dangerous for all that. They hungered after the very warmth and life of the party, but their portion was DEATH, with a little bit of ANNIHILATION for dessert.

The Fire Weird emerged after the last of the Cinderspawn were reduced to ashes, and she was able to give hope to the party by means of completing the prophecy. In total, it is:

The Blood of the Sun, the Tears of the Moon, and the Bones of the Earth Purified in the Six Essences Will Become a Weapon To Wound the Darkest Heart

She was also able to inform Rhyken as to where he might find powerful magics to aid him in his fight against the Mordent-in exchange for having three spells burned out of his spellbook. Paeael, too, wanted to know about Binder Lore, and he learned of an ancient convocation of Binders from the Fire Weird-in exchange for having a small fragment of his personality seared away.

And that was pretty much the size of it. Where the party goes next-back to Drogue, to Rodion Labs, or to a locus of ancient and eldritch power that would set arch-wizards, weak as they are these days, to gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair, I cannot say. Frankly, I’m hoping it’s to Rodion Labs, because that’s where I’ve been designing the encounters, but it ain’t up to me.

Oh yeah. And they got some more stupid action figures from Arronax.

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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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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!

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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