In the Cities of the Dead

For a few shards more

Well, it is done. Thorgrim’s mad ritual has broken the stone, and we have emerged from the cave more or less intact—and in possession of a number of crystal fragments which the dwarf most firmly believes contain great power. I cannot deny that there is something unsettling about these shards. As Thorgrim worked to release the enchantment, I saw again the otherworldly visions which nearly engulfed us at the statue of eyes. I have no doubt that the strange, barren place glimpsed through the light means us some dreadful harm. That the apparition should recur here, in entirely different circumstances, is both curious and frightening. And now, some distance to the north, a great flow of lava has appeared, glowing with the same pink-purple light. With what are we meddling, I would ask? Erathis protect us all.

Now we journey to Crossroads, where we may find some news of the Hyena-folk and the dangers to be found in the Scar. It is said to be a rough town, small and mean. In a way, this is a comfort. Westrun had begun to seem so confining, yet after all that we have seen, I would welcome rest in a place built by human hands, to human scale.

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A hurried note

I have found a brief moment to scratch these words while my companions are planning a ritual of vulnerability—perhaps the first in history to be cast on a large rock! Much has happened, and Erathis knows I’m not completely sure I comprehend it all.

When last I wrote, we were approaching the statue of eyes. As we drew near, a scout hailed us—a human, of Nix’s mysterious city. He claimed to be from something called the “Overlook Historical Society”, and announced that he was with a group of scholars (yes, scholars!) investigating the strange monument. We tried to warn him of the danger, but he would not listen. So, we returned with him to the statue, hoping his companions would heed our words, only to see them engaged in some ritual which was surely designed to wake the sleeping beast. At once, we were beset by the strangers and forced to take arms. Anakat charged at the leader and chief ritualist, driving him from the statue, but the strange pink glow he had conjured did not fade. So we fought on, till at last the glow surrounded us and seemed to give us visions of some terrible other world, blasted and lifeless, yet full of malevolent force. I believe that all of us feared imprisonment within that strange land, and perhaps it was this which gave us the strength to seize victory over the cultists. And over the frozen demon as well, it turned out, for as the last cultist perished, the glow disappeared, and the statue shattered. It seems there will be one fewer beast to trouble the earth, thanks be to Erathis.

Nix confirmed that the men we had slain hailed from Overlook, and we resolved to go there, and see what there was to see. But first we decided to return to the Black Queen and report on our success.

Following the amulet back to Her shadowy domain, we presented Her with the evidence. She seemed pleased, as much as such a creature can be pleased. From the filth surrounding Her, she dug up three ancient corpses and bid us strip them of valuables by way of reward. She also informed us that the scrolls we collected were not the last; rather, Nabial gave copies to many of his far-flung allies. The nearest of these, She said, were the Hyena-men who dwelled in a blasted crater near the statue we had lately destroyed. The Black Queen then bid us kill the Hyena-men’s leader, collect Nabial’s scrolls, and (as if this were not enough) kill as many of the Hyena-men as possible. Having little choice, short of joining the corpses beneath us, we departed again on her quest. During the journey, Lesthal the lizard prince shared words with me about his people. They have, it seems, dwelt with the Black Queen for all of remembered time. None of them know of a life before, though I am convinced that once they were noble beasts and not creatures of shadow. Such is the perversion of the Shadowfell!

(If I may be excused a personal aside: the black dragon calls me “emperor,” what for I cannot guess save that She has seen my tabard and recognized the device blazoned there. Whether She means this as a complement or as mockery, I cannot tell. In any case, I choose to be flattered. I do not rule an empire, nor wish to, but this symbol I wear proudly. The wyrm will someday face its like again, and perhaps will not be so quick to mock.)

We returned through the veil onto the familiar earth, and the morning sun seemed sweet after the dragon’s gloomy demesne. Following Lesthal’s direction, we set off towards the road to Crossroads village, where we might provision for the attack on the Scar. Before we reached it, however, we encountered a man—Jerek, the hunter—trudging towards us, unhorsed and much abused. He explained that he had lost his friend and horse to a pack of blue-skinned drakes deep in the woods beyond. Such attacks were not rare, but these animals were unlike anything Jerek had encountered before. One of their number, slain, began to blister and burst, releasing a quantity of residuum from its skin. This, Jerek believed, was the result of the Scar’s influence. Wild beasts in the area become tainted with magic, leading many to try their fortune at hunting and trapping the twisted creatures. We gave Jerek an amethyst in exchange for the skin and the residuum it still contained, escort to the lair, and introductions to possible allies in Crossroads. Taking the gem, he warned us not to be so profligate in the village—thus, I suppose, beginning to earn his sizable tip.

The drakes’ lair proved to be a muddy hole in the ground, which we descended bravely. Nearing a rockfall, a blue glow in the darkness alerted us to the presence of our quarry. A skirmish at the base of the fall was inconclusive, and we pursued the retreating drakes into the next chamber. There, we saw first-hand the effects of the Scar: from the walls of this cavern bulged two giant crystals, each glowing with a sickly purple light. And these were not mere minerals! As we moved to attack the largest drake, the crystal seemed to come alive, knocking Dox and Anakat prone with beams of light. Still, we dispatched the drakes with speed, and began to investigate the stones. They no longer seemed hostile to us, yet Anakat proved with her head that the larger crystal was far stronger than it seemed. Thorgrim sensed an enchantment of some sort, and proposed a ritual to break the arcane protection and allow us to collect a sample of the stone. As Thorgrim worked, Dox and Nix searched for the drakes’ treasure hoard, finding Bracers of Mental Strength and a number of coins. Unfortunately, as we searched and planned, a noise from the ceiling drew our attention to a new problem: namely, two winged demons and a swarm of silver ants descending towards us from a hole above. We briefly contemplated running away, then realized that we would have to abandon Thorgrim, as he would never leave the amount of residuum contained in the drake corpses. All for one, as they say.

Despite an overly “friendly” sturge, which it seemed for a moment would be the end of me, we defeated this new threat. Strangely, rather than fight us—who, as morbid as it sounds, are still living meat—many of the ants attempted to carry away the corpses of the drakes. They were killed before they could make off with their cargo, but something strange is definitely going on here.

Having driven back or killed the insects, we collected residuum from the corpses (only slightly charred from Thorgrim’s Colossal Inflagration) and began the ritual again. My part completed, I have found time to record these thoughts by the eerie glow of the crystals. I shall write again anon.

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A Stench of Orcs, cont. again
Being The Chronicle of Corwin of Westrun, Erathis' Lightbringer

Searching further into the Orcish stronghold, we discovered what could only have been a cesspit. Too lazy to relieve themselves outside, as even our domestic animals do, the Orcs had fouled their own shelter. Worse still, they had consigned one of their number to a slow and terrible drowning WITHIN the waste. This caged unfortunate called to us for help, and we—being not cruel, even to our enemies—bestirred ourselves to free him from his prison. (I must say, to be fair, that his offer of treasure gave his pleas some extra weight.) Smiting the cage lustily, we managed to free the Orc, but scarcely had we done so when a new mob of undead horrors appeared in our midst. They had clung, unseen, to the ceiling as we searched the chamber, and waited for the ideal time to strike. I thought I had seen the extremes of perversion in the rotting ghouls, but we now faced a greater abomination—an orcish skin, stripped of flesh and animated like a terrible cloak! Dox, sorely injured from our last engagement, was swiftly knocked senseless, and wisely chose to feign death to avoid further hurt. Our newest companion Nix did also fall, but by the grace of Erathis I was able to revive her to fight anew. Anakat showed her might as usual, employing her savage helmet to head-butt a ghoul some twenty feet into the cavern wall. Thus, with the help of the orcish prisoner, we were able to defeat our foes. After the battle, the orc—now as docile and cooperative as his kind ever get—told us of the history of this place.

His name was Krub, he said. Many years ago, he and another orc named Mord encountered some “pink-skins” (his name for humans) near the strange statue of eyes. Being orcs, they killed and ate the unfortunate souls. Unfortunately, it seems one of those humans was a powerful mage, and his power somehow lived on in the flesh of Mord. Mord began to gather wizard’s dust (called “residuum”), and made moves to take power over the Orcish tribe using his newfound magical abilities. In time, Mord did establish himself as leader, making Krub his lieutenant. Ordered by Mord, the Orcs began to raid human settlements seeking treasure and more residuum. A new legend sprang up: the statue of eyes was actually a living creature imprisoned in stone, and must be awakened. Mord began to meet with a hobgoblin named Ayak, who gave him the means to raise the dead and turn them into powerful warriors. Krub, fearing that Mord meant to destroy the tribe and raise them all as undead, attempted an assasination. He failed, and was thus imprisoned.

A remarkable story, to be sure. It seems the threads of this plot we have stumbled upon reach even to the ends of the earth. In any case, Krub bargained for his life. In return for letting him go into exile, far from humans, he showed us the location of two magical items captured by the orcs. Hidden in the wall of the fort were a Safewing Amulet and a Rod of Forceful Invocation. After Krub had gone, we journeyed back to the plain where we had arrived. All were injured or exhausted from the recent battles, so we decided to camp overnight before tackling the problem of destroying the foul statue of eyes.

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A Stench of Orcs, cont.
Being the Chronicle of Corwin of Westrun, Erathis' Lightbringer

And indeed we had reason to be afraid. Pursuing the filthy creature down a dimly lit corridor, I nearly had my feet removed by a blade scything from the wall. Luckily Anakat’s size allowed her to leap the trap, and Rook contrived to do something unsettling with shadows that put him on the far side as well. Dox, after a worrying number of false starts, managed to disarm the trap, and the party continued down the corridor. Reaching the end, I confronted a new horror! On a spiked and jagged throne sat an orc, dressed outlandishly and covered in vermin. Flies clustered thickly around a grisly necklace made from rotting eyes. I realized at once that it must be the orc shaman the dragon spoke of, and I determined to relieve him of his head. The necessary decapitation was delayed somewhat by an attack from some shambling horrors clearly raised from the grave. The party fought these horrible creatures through the thick dust covering the floor, and we overcame them—but not without losses. The shadowy Rook was wounded beyond help, and his soul was consigned to the Raven Queen. (The expression seems strangely apt, in this case; after his spirit fled, Rook’s body crumbled to nothing. I wonder if perhaps his relationship with the Lady was closer than most. In any case, he is gone, taking his secrets with him.) The shaman himself, stripped of his foul bodyguards, proved easy to subdue.

We were helped in our struggle by the efforts of a prisoner kept in the room. Upon release, she revealed herself to command powerful holy magics, gifts of a strange god. Her name was Nix, and she had been captured from a nearby city. We had saved her, it appears, from death (or worse!) at the hands of the Orcish shaman. After the threat had passed, she told us her story, and we agreed to journey together henceforth.

Searching the room, we found the rituals wanted by the dragon—copies of the ones we already possessed. Dox led an interrogation, seeking to learn more of the statue and the provenance of the rituals, but the shaman would not give up his secrets. He did reveal that the clinging dust was made from the bones of his conquered enemies. This disgusting revelation caused us both to quickly finish the task of beheading the evil creature, and also to quickly remove ourselves to the entrance chamber of the mound, brushing as much of the cursed dust from ourselves as possible. Yet it seems to me that I can still detect the smell of death, even over the stench of this place.

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A stench of orcs
Being the Chronicle of Corwin of Westrun, Erathis' Lightbringer

[This diary excerpt somewhat clumsily attempts to imitate a lyrical style found in old Empire sagas.]

Dispatching some dread orc-kind / who dragged a gristly burden
We followed back their footprints / unto a filthy warren.
Dox, disguised and monstrous / o’er death-spikes deftly clambered
And saw the situation / a pig and several warriors.
But Dox was caught! And quickly / despite his clever tongue-ruse
Was perilously pounded / with no-one placed to aid him!
First, he freed the war-pig / but found it no great ally
So all rushed to the rescue / though spikes rent some who entered.
Soon battle turned to bloodshed / and we, belabored, struggled.
Gored by tusks and trotters / and torn by rude orc weapons
So redly ran our lifeblood / the Raven Queen we courted.
Yet Thorgrim’s curses threatened / the foes who thought him harmless
And Anakat, once angered / took damage aimed at others
Rook, with stealth and shadow / struck out at all who faced him
And Dox bright daggers wielded / and drove them into orcflesh
By gods’ grace this cleric / was granted holy power
So slowly, yes, but surely / we proved to be the stronger
And though our wounds were grievous / we won the savage battle!
A single orc ran fleeing / and fear that he’d bring trouble
Made some of us uncertain / and we shivered in our armor.

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Kicking It Off

As the game begins, most of the PCs are in the marketplace in the town of Westrun, pursuing their individual agendas. Anakat Stormbringer is accompanying the trade delegation from the town of Woodhill, and their river-barge – laden with steelsilk, salt, and other trade goods – is approaching Westrun.

Suddenly, from the edge of a cornfield not far from the riverbank, two glowing missiles in the form of mailed fists shoot out across the water, and send the barge’s pilot and one of the other sailors flying into the river. As an alarm rings out from the watch atop the walls of Westrun (which is on a hill overlooking the river), Anakat jumps into the river and swims toward the source of the attack.

A small force of goblins emerges from the freshly harvested corn-rows: a pair of archers, swarms of foot-soldiers, and a leader-type with a battleaxe. With the Westrun militia at their heels, the rest of the PCs charge down the hill to join the fight.

Combat ensues. With Anakat absorbing the brunt of the goblins’ attacks (and almost getting dropped), the party kills four of the goblins and causes the rest to flee—with Rook pursuing the leader long enough to slay him, and Corwin learning the disadvantages of swimming in chainmail.

After some healing and congratulations all around, the party disperses again.

Corwin has been trying for a long time to find out the location of the Shrine of Serrach the Conqueror, a place holy to worshipers of Erathis that legend says will confer great favor on the faithful who visit it. One of the books he buys in the marketplace tells him that it is near the city of Tertonae, a city of demon-worshipers during whose conquest Serrach finally fell. From knowledge he gleanes from other works, Corwin believes the location is about 3 days to the northwest, near a rock formation called “the stone bull.”

Rook is currently on a mission to find a specific individual, located in “the ancient city of the Tieflings, called Terkhon.” He is instructed to “seek out a learned man” to help him find it. After making inquiries, Rook is directed to the temple of Erathis, where he finds Corwin. Already having met, Rook asks Corwin for assistance, and they quickly determine that the Empire gave the name Tertonae to Terkhon after they conquered it—the two men are both looking for the same place.

Anakat is also on a mission. Back in Woodhill, shortly before the traders began their trip downriver to Westrun, two men guarding the town’s storehouse of steelsilk were murdered and a portion of the steelsilk was stolen. The fletching of the arrows that slew the guards marked them as coming from the Northfork metro area. Anakat is here to seek out and slay the murderer and, if possible, recover the goods. While she is asking around about whether anyone who wasn’t from Woodhill has been seen selling steelsilk, Sam the Bard – who had joined the fight at the river earlier – sidles up with some information. It seems that Sam has a cousin, Tim the Ranger, who lives in Northfork. Tim heard that a half-orc hunter named Lazar (who lives at the edge of the woods east of Northfork) was seen burying sacks of something silvery behind his cabin not long ago. Sam the Bard recommends that Anakat go and see Tim, and offers to send word to Tim that he should help her out.

On or about this time, the group (except for Dox the changeling, who is both Sam the Bard and Tim the Ranger) make an “I’ll help you with your thing if you help me with mine” compact. They decide to go to Northfork first and try to find Lazar the hunter, since Northfork is on the way to Tertonae. Before leaving, Corwin visits the mayor, Denylia Fortunata, explaining the group’s mission, and asks for help. She provides them with rations and an Everburning Torch.

Upon reaching Northfork, the group contacts Tim the Ranger (easily identified by the red bandana he always wears), who is very helpful. Tim knows Lazar, and knows where he lives, so he guides the group to the hunter’s cabin. Along the way, Tim lets the group know that Lazar is a deadly bowman, and is always accompanied by his two vicious hunting drakes (raptor lizards about the size of a mastiff).

They arrive at Lazar’s place to find it unoccupied. A quick tour of the grounds reveal a large main cabin, a smaller structure with a door to the north, and an empty single-stall stable to the south. Upon finding a back door to the cabin, Tim moves to try the door, and narrowly escapes falling into the pit in front of it. Breaking into the front door, the group examines the cabin but finds little of interest. The hearth is apparently made from stones that come from a building, most likely from Imperial times, but no one finds that terribly exciting.

Searching the ground behind the cabin, the group locates the concealed burial site, and—realizing that no one has brought a shovel – quickly digs it out using Thorgrim the wizard’s Thunderwave. There they find the steelsilk . . . as well as a sack of quicksilver ant eggs. After some lengthy ruminations over the ethics involved, they smash the eggs.

Next week, the group goes in pursuit of Lazar.

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