Things were looking grim for our heroes. Their warriors were fighting boldly and bravely, but were outnumbered and it seemed overpowered. The powers of Tu’Eva and Ba’ya were strong, and for every blow they landed, it seemed there was hellfire or wracking pains or wounding strikes or swarms of deadly spiders in reply from the high clerics. Vargas was blind, and Cherrock’s strength and confidence seemed to only have grown since their last toe-to-toe battle. The spellcasters, meanwhile, had been stripped of all but their skins, and even they were scarred and burning from the dragon’s deadly acid breath. Then there was the skeletons, which seemed to fall endlessly ,but always be replaced. Hope was wavering, and without a cleric, seemed to be fading fast.
But all was not lost, and they were not, in fact, alone. Even blind, Vargas was still a force to be reckoned with, and as he tightened his grip on his short sword’s hilt, he felt a tingling surge run through his veins. It was not the lightning that flowed through his arms and gave him strength. Oh no, it was something much better. It was the power of Paliyl, the power of justice. With a wide swing of his long sword, the centaur managed to catch the orc warboss’s axe against the blade, while bringing up from below the short sword, right into Cherrock’s gut. There was a thunderous boom, and suddenly a surprised and alarmed Cherrock went flying upward, catching an equally surprised dragon under the chin, into which he was lodged by the long spikes on his armour. Vargas couldn’t see how perfect the strike had been, but he didn’t have to – when his short sword went boom, it was always good. Justice was on their side after all.
Their joy at seeing Cherrock flying through the air and sticking under the black dragon’s maw was short-lived, however, when the goblin cleric of Ba’ya, Ku Tam Ne, called up a baleful flare of hellfire, which consumed Mellvin, charring his armour, his clothing and his skin, singeing his hair and his eyebrows, and draining from his body its energy to continue on with the fight. As the flames died and shrank back into the depths, his knees buckled, and he slumped down into the mud, smoke still pouring from his armour.
And as his head fell back into the sludge of the swampy plateau, the moist ground extinguishing the fire in his hair, images flashed before his eyes – he could see himself releasing into the air a little swallow, a servant of the creation goddess, with a little note tied to his foot. He could see himself growing smaller and smaller as the swallow flitted about carefree on the winds, leaving leagues behind it, the mountains growing small, becoming but a memory to it as it ducked and weaved through the air, playful and cheery. Suddenly, though, there was a shriek in his ears, and before he knew it, the little swallow’s body was crushed in the powerful grip of an osprey. Mellvin recognised the osprey – not the particular bird, but its breed – the elves called them haliaetum piscavenator, and they usually lived in the shoreline jungles of his homeland. This one was a long way from home, to be feasting on the now twitching corpse of this little swallow, his little doomed messenger. As it snacked on the wing, the osprey seemed to hear a whistle, and banked into a long, slow spiral, drawing it gently back down to earth, back to where it could land, on one powerful claw, on the wrist of a slender and wise looking elfin arm. The osprey’s master sported a staff, and wore the fine silk robes of his people, sketched with detailed runes of magical protection. Upon seeing the tiny message that was tied to the leg of the morsel his familiar was enjoying, he gave the bird of prey a tap on the beak to pause, muttering its name, Mordeo, before snatching away the little note and nodding for it to continue its feast.
The note was written simply, hurriedly, and had an elven slant to its letters. Its contents were clearly dire, if true. Votios clicked his tongue, and new what he should do – a brief sigil in the air, a spoken word, and in a flash he was carried to within the walls of a fortress style monastery, that sat high and lonely in the Singing Mountains, where men and women from all walks of life had gathered to live separate from the world, and seek holiness through ascetic practice. Votios took the proper ablutions upon entering the large, beautifully simple temple structure, only to be told that Cloden, the dwarf high cleric of holiness, was apparently not in residence – matters had called him back to his homeland, and so his second in command had to take up the urgent message the elven wizard had – a goblin cleric by the name of Ganeungseong Guseju. The Guseju received the note and, upon reading it, was alarmed at the news of an undead army being raised in the swamps. His first instinct was to attempt to scry the note’s author – he did not know this Mellvin from a bar of soap, but he had a scrap of his writing, which would provide the necessary connection – but then something seemed to stop him. Though he did not recognise the name of the author, he knew its recipient – Utuk, once a lowly adopted human from the elflands, now high cleric of Vahassa. It was possible the elf Mellvin knew Utuk, and hence was trying to get the message to him somehow. But what to do? Scrying might take hours, and may not even succeed. Besides, he was no watcherwoman, no cleric of Sophia, addicted to their reflecting pools. He was a proud cleric of Qodesh, and a goblin of action. But what action could he take? The swamps were hundreds of miles away. If this note had come from the swamps, it could already be days old. If Guseju was to do anything, it would need to be a powerful, immediate, and able to cross the distance without delay. He knew what he must do.
Thus, at the moment Mellvin succumbed to the burning wounds of his enemy’s making, the sky seemed to split apart above the battlefield, where upon wings of light, and wielding a sword of faith, the fury and purity of Wrath, Qodesh’s angel of holy indignation, poured out her bowl of righteousness upon the evil of the scene below. The dragon and Cherrock, both so close to the heavenly being as they circled in the air, were instantly struck blind by the incredible sight, as was the goblin cleric who had fried Mellvin. Beams of light strobed and gleamed from the angel’s luminous wings, like feathers that shot from her, striking down each and every undead blasphemy. It was like a meteor storm of light, which washed across the battlefield and brought with it cleansing, and it raised the spirits of the adventurers. They felt their energy returning, the pain of their wounds was fleeting, and Mellvin, as though lifted on those very wings of the angel, rose to his feet once more. This battle was not over.
The angel was gone as suddenly as she had appeared, as though a cloud had briefly moved to let the sun shine in on their situation, before once again being covered up by a storm. But things were different now. They had a new energy, they had the blessing of the gods, and they would win this battle because they needed to overcome the darkness. But the forces of evil were not going to lay down without a fight. True, the skeleton army had been washed aside, but these clerics remained, the dragon remained, and the warlord of the orcs remained – though several were now blinded by the light. Moreover, the dragon’s obsidian scales had been cast away by the angel’s fury, and it was now left with the painful lump of orc and armour lodged under its throat. Cherrock and Miasma were calling out to each other, the blind leading the blind, with the warlord telling the dragon to retreat, she responding that she would not leave these puny adventurers to trespass in her home. Though she could not see, she had heard the sound of thousands of skeletons collapsing to the ground, and knew that she could make something more of this situation despite her visual disability. Swooping down to within about 50 feet of the ground, she spread her great wings, flapping them rhythmically to keep herself hovering stably in the air, stirring up the discarded bones into a great whirling cloud – and as her claws began to twist and shape the magic of her blood into her command, the whirlwind of bones started to click and clack together, forming to take the slow shape of a massive, grotseque, brutish bone golem.
And Ajax was ready for that. Leaving his ranger friends to deal with the clerics, the minotaur had bigger fish to fry. Sheathing his scimitars and breaking into a running charge towards the golem, he took a mighty leap, arms outstretched to grab at the bones, and began climbing the disgusting statue’s endless ribcage in the same brisk pace, as naturally as if it were the ropes of a ship’s rigging, before making a daredevil bound from the construct’s shoulder, and grabbing for dear life onto the dragon’s leg. He reached for pagos, his trusty frozen scimitar, but now his lucked seemed to be against him, and the weapon’s hilt slipped from his fingers, tumbling through the air until with a crackling shatter it struck blade-first into the ground, freezing the mud around it, trapping it there. Switching arms between grabbing the dragon’s leg and reaching for a weapon, he now went for fotia, his sure flaming blade… only to fumble it again, and watch with horror as it likewise arced through the air and slipped into the mud, drying it into clay around the blade. But Ajax is a warrior born, and was not going to let a simple lack of swords deprive him of victory. Besides, Carna had blessed him with natural weapons, which, with a few well placed headbutts, he put to good use, ramming his horns into Miasma’s ankle. This rankled the dragon to some degree, and she was forced to pause in her forging of the bone golem to take a bite out of Ajax’s hide, but he still remained resolutely clutched to her clawed leg.
While Cherrock was madly quaffing healing potions in the hope that they might cure him of his vision loss, the naked Jethro still had a torrent of angry spiders to deal with, and he had to get creative. Nooconari was the only cleric that could see, it seemed, and the kender would use this to his advantage, by calling forth a powerful illusory wave of flame crawling across the mud, burning and crackling and sizzling and belching out mystical heat. But one does not get to be the high priest of a dark god without knowing a thing or two, and Nooconari knew that this moving all of flame was a highly unlikely circumstance. Unfortunately, he did not pass this information onto his spiders who, though tenacious and thoroughly evil, are not known for wisdom. As the spectral flames licked over their little arachnid bodies, they reacted precisely as they would have to real flames – they squealed and curled up their legs, quivering and laying there as though dead.
That stood the hairy eight-legged army in good stead for what came next, when Veri summoned from her mind a shadowy fireball, weaving the flames from the realms of the possible into the fabric of reality. This one the clerics could not ignore, scorching over their flesh as it burned as true as real flame, burning away Jethro’s stinking cloud and replacing the hypnotised screams of the spider legion with the real, piercing shrieks of their blue-green blood boiling inside their bodies and bursting forth from their skins. She followed that up with a devastating charge of lightning, forking its bolt between the two orc clerics, letting them taste the savagery of pure blue dragon magic. Vargas was eager to follow up, charging into the now spiderless Nooconari, only to find that the stinking cloud was not so much dissipated as now focused solely on the personage of the high cleric of desolation. His centaur knees buckled, and he found himself at the mercy of the foul orc shaman. Nooconari reached out his bony green hand, grabbing Vargas by his helpless neck, and called down a curse upon him, and all at once the centaur’s body began to go limp, his eyes crossed, and a goofy, vacant grin took over his features. His mind was gone. However, the swift rushing sound of wind was quickly followed by two arrows flying from Mellvin’s bow, striking into Nooconari’s heart, making the words of his cursing Vargas the last he would ever utter.
His fellow orc, Ranarathreooa of Ba’ya, took a moment to close his own wounds, before stalking up to the naked kender and swinging out his staff – but kender are wily, even when naked, and it takes a bit of practice to remember that your enemy is three feet shorter than you. The blow swished over Jethro’s head, and gained for the orc some taunting and jeers from the bard. Mellvin meanwhile had been doing his best to ignore both the mighty dragon above, and the dirty goblin cleric that lurked behind the safety of the wall of blades – but when that goblin had called down fiery death on the elf, enough was enough. Rushing around the edge of the whirling knives, Mellvin shot off an arrow towards the blinded goblin, striking him in the shoulder with grim satisfaction.
Ku Tam Ne screamed in pain, and calling upon Ba’ya, pushed the blindness from his eyes, the holy light being replaced with the dizzying pain of an arrow lodged in his arm. He could feel his blood leaving him. He could have healed himself further, but that would only leave him open to more of these stinging arrows, and the ranger seemed to know precisely where to lodge one in a goblin’s body to cause the most pain. No, if this was going to be the end for Ku Tam Ne, dark cleric of vengeance, then he was going to take this damned elf with him! Licking his lips, the goblin began a high pitched, keening chant, and with his staff began to draw a large arc in front of him. The edge of the staff crackled and spat blue sparks, as though he were grinding a hole in the very fabric of the plane – for so he was, creating a gate to another, darker realm, where the trees were made of bone, the sky was an oppressive, semi-lit grey, the mud was bubbling, foetid sewage, and the wails of the lost could be heard keening as the only wind. Veri and Jethro paused in fear – they knew this place all too well. Then there was a shuddering thump, and another, and another, as through the gate lumbered a massive, hulking demon, grotesque in its girth, bulging with muscle and fat, sporting sharp, wicked spikes, and dragging behind it a cleaver made for severing hope from life.
This was Bane, Loather of Life. He let out a blood-curdling roar, a deep, throaty gurgle that caused skin to shiver and quake, before loping into a charge towards Mellvin. It swung the beastly cleaver towards the elf’s head, before tossing it easily to its free hand and drawing it back in a reverse slash meant to end his life in two places – but neither struck home. In fact, it was as though there was an invisible barrier between the two – a barrier of protection which had been placed on them at the beginning of the combat. Mellvin showed no fear – he did not even flinch at the swinging blade inches from his face, but rather stoically lifted his bow, notched an arrow, and let it fly, shooting under the massive demon’s arm, and striking true through the left eye of the goblin cleric, right into his brain. There would be no healing from that. Ku did half a spin, before his body went limp and his face pitched forward into the mud, ramming the arrow through his head to pierce the back of his skull.
Veri had little more in the way of magic without her components at the ready, but she was quick on her feet, rushing to the aid of her centaur companion, rummaging through his belt and unstoppering the potion she had bought especially for such an emergency. She poured it into his slack-jawed mouth, and as Hesed’s power worked its way through his veins, his senses returned, and he blinked his eyes, shaking off the snow of foolishness, regaining his fighting form. Now it was his turn to strike back at these damned clerics. Turning, he saw Rana swinging his gnarled staff at Jethro, who was ducking, dodging, and taunting the now enraged orc, and with a sturdy grip on his weapons, charged at full centaur speed into the back of the unwitting orc priest. His blessed short sword of Paliyl plunged into the cleric’s back, and before Vargas could speak a heroic quip at the orc’s expense, he was flung by the thunderous power of justice through his own blade barrier, spraying a fine mist of blood and bone over Mellvin and the demon Bane.
The dragon’s bone golem atrocity was taking more shape, now having a head and seeming ready to have unlife poured into its joints. But not only had the clerics all been vanquished, but not a single member of the party had been felled. She could not see, but she could sense the carnage that had taken place, as well as the sense of victory that was coming from the companions. Now, she thought, she would take the advice of Cherrock, and make haste away from this place, to recoup and regroup, and return with power and revenge. Let these attackers waste their time on this bone golem as she made good her escape. But there was a problem – Ajax had other plans for this mighty dragon. His weapons gone, he had been busying himself with the only other thing left to him – a large, long, sturdy length of rope, the type any true sailor would always have at hand. Having looped it around the magically formed bone golem’s neck, Ajax was waiting for just the right moment to tighten its final loop around the dragon’s leg. That moment came when she dug her wings into the air and made her attempt to shoot herself into the sky. The timing was just right, the angle was perfect, and the tension in the rope was just so – turning Miasma’s rocketing exit into a centrifugal swing, catching her off-guard and causing her to catapult gracelessly into the muddy plateau she called home. Ajax, of course, had been prepared, and ensured that he left by the forward exit, sliding down the rope and landing perfectly on his hooves, the sight of crashing dragon at his back. Miasma flinched in a sudden panic, and knowing she needed to buy herself time, concentrated on calling back her obsidian plating, protecting herself while she was prone and blind.
Bane was confused and enraged. He was summoned here to kill, and killing was what he was good at. But the elf he was here to kill was protected behind some sort of magical shield, and he was growing impatient waiting for it to dissipate. Moreover, the cleric who had foolishly summoned him could not face his wrath, because he was already dead – no matter about that, he would have his way with that goblin upon his return to hell. In the meantime though, he was here on this cursed material plane, and he needed someone to vent his frustrations upon. It was at this precise point that a kender appeared before him, sporting a muddy, dirty yet still oddly colourful string of handkerchiefs, performing woeful street magic (it’s hard to pull a string of handkerchiefs out of your sleeve when you’re not wearing and clothes – brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘nothing up my sleeve’) and if he was attempting to further provoke the demon, he was doing a fine job of it. But Jethro did in fact have something up his (non-existent) sleeve – a spellsong he had been working on that would send a planar outsider back to its home, dismissing it from the material plane. It was the sort of thing that seemed might be useful, given the terrible dreams he’d been having lately. Unfortunately, these things never seem to work the first time, and though he drew upon all the magical know-how he had, along with all the charismatic suggestion he could muster to encourage the demon to just go home, it seemed that Bane was unmoved.
Unmoved, that is, until the glimmering, glowing, radiant form of Veri, emissary of the dread Khararas, appeared behind Jethro and gave a slightly different perspective. That dragon over there, she explained, was the dark dragon Miasma, and she was responsible for the kidnapping and enslaving of Bane’s battle brothers, binding them into the bodies of the undead – oh yes, she knew full well about this, because it was she that protected the demon city that sits upon this very site from the black dragon’s foul magics. If the demon really wanted someone on which to pour out its hate, perhaps it should start there. Bane’s eyes looked uncaring over the scantly clad, blue-flaming demigod personage before him. Then he looked over at the mighty dragon, stumbling and slipping in its attempt to rise back up to its full height and glory, and then probably to run for the hills, and with it the two rangers, striking as many blows as they could, trying to break through her magical protections, their backs to the demon as though it were of no danger.
Bane gave a toothy, joyless grin, and lifting his cleaver, began a slow starting, but steadily growing stride towards the magnificent dragon. As each stalking step brought him closer to his prey, he threw forward his massive cleaver, sending it spinning through the air, its long arcs seeming to whistle with an unearthly keenness as it sliced through the air, and it seemed through gravity, for it did not fall or falter on its course, but instead rent a savage slash through the fabric of space. Bane was preparing himself a passage home – one big enough that he could take back a prize worthy of his princedom. While his cleaver soared, he reached forth and grabbed the dragon’s tail, giving it a stern, unforgiving yank, pulling the tail over his shoulder and dragging dragon mercilessly through the makeshift gateway to hell. No matter how much the dragon screamed, bellowed or clawed at the mud, it seemed it was taken truly by surprise, and the last thing the party saw before the gate shut once again was an arm extending through it to catch the cleaver that fell perfectly into the demon’s fleshy grasp.
Cherrock had pried himself loose of the dragon’s scales once he knew he had but a short fall to the ground. Though he was still blind, he heard the pleading, screaming cries of Garrek’nar, and then the cold silence of her disappearance, and he knew that he was completely and utterly alone. Raising his hands in surrender, he said in his most diplomatic tone, “Let’s talk about this,” before Ajax and Vargas, in unison, brought down blows from the pommels of their weapons onto the back of the orc’s head, sending him into a violently immediate unconsciousness. The warlord of the Bitto was captured once more. His dragon allies were no more. The war was surely over. After Jethro appropriated for himself a cloak from the fallen goblin cleric, and Mellvin loaned Veri his travelling cloak, they decided to bury Cherrock’s armour and weapons in the mud, knowing they could return to them if needed, and he could not.
There was just one last question – was the dragon’s home really possibly close to this plateau, as she had said? Searching together, Mellvin and Vargas discovered a deep trench in the watery moat around the plateau – it was large enough that it could possibly be an entrance into an underwater midden. Mellvin tried to explore it, but it was Ajax who was the king of the water, sinking into the muddy, murky depths, his armour protecting his lungs from burning up with a lack of oxygen. After ten minutes of searching, he found his way into the open, underground lair of the dragon, which contained a large, eight foot square wooden chest, heavy and locked, along with a smaller collection of gems and Manxigan coins, as well as two possible spellbooks, and a case of what appeared to be powdered diamond. Clearly this would be something to come back for. But Ajax grabbed a handful of coins and gems, stuffing them into his pack so that at least the party would have something for provisions on their return to Sanctuary.
Because Sanctuary would clearly be where the party would return, with Cherrock in chains (or at least tied securely in ropes), and hopefully, Veri thought, as heroes, or at least vindicated and freed from their ostracism from the continent. Their first stop, of course, would be to the memorial mausoleum in Sanctuary, home of their friend and companion Utuk, high cleric of Qodesh in Vahassa. Veri was concerned that all the bones of these dead Vahassan slaves be given a proper interrment, and she knew this would concern Utuk as well. Furthermore, there was the matter of these black books that had been left behind in the dragon’s underground midden, which could contain necromantic magic, and would therefore be of great interest to Utuk, who would wish to see them destroyed. On this point, however, the magic-users of the party were a little more ambivalent. Yes, both of them agreed that necromancy was bad, mmmkay, and they definitely didn’t want to use it themselves (they’d been to hell once, they weren’t keen on returning in a hurry). But last time, the simple destruction of the books without first exploring their secrets created a huge difficulty in defeating Sanila in her dragon form, and required the sacrifice of NubNub’s soul being placed into a gem in a ring. Moreover, it was only by luck that Veri and Jethro had been able to stem the tide of demon souls flowing into the undead before the ritual of Garrek’nar in the swamps. This time, should they not at least learn the weaknesses of this magic before destroying the books? After all, Xin Hao already had a copy of some of these spells. If the enemy has them, shouldn’t the good guys at least know how to fight it?
Utuk was unsurprised that Veri would want to get her grubby hands on the black magic spellbooks, but after her reasoning was explained, and it was assured that Mellvin and Vargas would be keeping an eye on her the whole time – and plus, she was the only one that would be able to teleport anyone back there in a hurry to get the books – he agreed to a compromise. The books should be kept intact, so that their secrets could be learned and the destruction of abominations created with them could be more efficiently promoted. But they would not remain in the charge of Veri Pell. She was an outsider to the faith, and untrustworthy. Her life was devoted to her magic, and to her dragon overlords. These books would need to be kept in the safe hands of a mage who had sworn his life to Qodesh. And it just so happened that such a mage was known – Mordeo, sorceror of light, an elf from the jungles who had devoted himself to Qodesh in the far-flung monastery in the Singing Mountains under the tutelage of the high cleric Cloden. Veri was angry at this result, and at the continued distrust she felt was levelled at her, and unfairly, but how could she argue against a plan that fulfilled the goals of her own idea, whose only difference was not to concentrate the power of this magic in her own grasp? That would surely make her look precisely as Utuk was painting her, and she would not give the cleric that satisfaction.
The handing over of Cherrock to the Paliylites was similarly anti-climactic. The servants of Justice themselves were overjoyed at this fine performance of duty by the party in bringing Cherrock back to face his crimes, and Barwick called upon them a blessing from Paliyl himself, sharpening their wits and their reflexes in pursuit of future justice. But when the news was received at the Sanctuary Council, Zeen Coodgee was not nearly so impressed. In the weeks that followed, he publicly called on High Cleric Barwick to hand Cherrock over for a civil trial before the council, where his service to humanity in raising an army against the illithids could be tempered against his crimes, and he could be released with a punishment less severe than death. But Sarkon Karrad returned atop his faithful lizard steed, in the centre of the Sanctuary courtyard and in the middle of the public debate, informing his people that following the slaughter of the innocent Vahassan slaves in an attempt to raise a foul undead army, Sarkon had lead an expeditionary force over the mountains, and claimed the whole land of the Bitto under human control. Bote was now a human city, and the leftover orcs and gnolls in the land who had not marched on Manxiga (which almost every capable fighting orc had) were subjected to human rule. This sudden news of unexpected victory brought cheers and rousing applause for Sarkon, but he dismissed it, calling instead on the people to remember their dead, their loved ones and friends who had lost their lives in the bloodthirsty, cannibalistic atrocity that was perpetuated by the orcs under Cherrock’s leadership.
This was a sobering thought. Cherrock sought to speak in his own defence, claiming that he was only trying to fight back against a greater evil, against another race that feasted on the brains of the living – on elves, dwarves and even humans – and that he was forced to fight fire with fire. But Utuk stood proudly and counselled the people that what Cherrock had done was unholy – it was never right to meet evil with evil, and the ends do not justify the means. Furthermore, the party themselves spoke up, informing the people that the Manxigan humans who had sought to start this war in the first place were servants of the dark goddess Tu’Eva, who sought desolation and despoiling for her own purposes. Would they really want to throw their lot in with the dark gods? This news was completely new to Vahassan ears, and caused a stir – but the clergy of the good gods could attest to it as truth. Coodgo tried briefly to argue that perhaps Cherrock was unwittingly in the control of the illithids, but no-one would accept that the illithids would force the orcs to attack them with undead – that seemed to be folly. He knew when he was pushing an unpopular barrow, it seems, and soon gave in to Barwick, mumbling something about letting justice do what justice does. Cherrock was publicly executed that very day – the death was by stoning of the populace, and was well attended. Some particularly large chunks of silver were thrown, as if by magic – probably by the collected mages of the Argent Tower, who were happy to see the last of this orc. Though Kl’kayt could not be there in person, Veri had ensured that she knew it would take place, and she was able to watch approvingly via a magic mirror. Afterwards, Utuk ensured that Cherrock received proper funerary rites – if for no other reason than to ensure the body was not raised as some undead servant of the abominable Tu’Eva.
Though Coodgo did not officially relinquish the banishment of the party from Vahassa, apparently it was not being enforced, because for some days to come everybody wanted to be the friend of the adventurers. They were given a hero’s welcome by the common man, and were celebrated as victors alongside Sarkon, who seemed uncomfortable at being the focus of all this revelry. Utuk of course did not participate, except on the last day of festivities, where he turned up much to the surprise of all in attendance. He was not there to eat, drink and be merry though – it seemed that in fact, he knew something that the rest of the party were yet to learn. At this last night of feasting, Vargas raised a glass high and toasted his fellow party members, and bid them a fine farewell. He longed for the rolling grasslands of his home, he missed his family, and he had much to catch up on in his life. He was not turning his back on his pledges and quests, nor was he surrendering his swords, but he was following a call that had long been on his heart, to return to Fiiel. He had hoped that their actions would have led them there, but seeing as they never seemed to, and seeing as he was on the right continent now, he could see no better time to make good his promise to his parents than now. And he promised that, when the time was right, he would return – and there was no power on this planet that would stop him.
Following the celebrations and farewells, the adventurers took a long, well-deserved rest to relax themselves, recuperate from the months of non-stop adventure, and plan for their next course of action. Veri and Jethro had a great deal of work ahead of them in rebuilding their lost magical grimoires, Ajax had plans for the commissioning of a ship of his own, and Mellvin was keen to check up on the postal service that bore his name. But the one thing that had not materialised with their fame and hero status was a financial reward. Oh, yes, they were always given free drinks at any pub they might wish to wander into, and fruit stalls and bakers would happily give them a free meal, but actual coin was scarce on the ground. Thankfully, Ajax had that little handful of coins and black pearls he had liberated from the dragon’s treasure, but that would not replace their lost goods, or help to equip them for the future.
This is why after making only the barest of preparations in scribing important spells like teleport and lightning bolt, to keep them safe in the blue tower in Nubton (which had progressed along well, and was now over half built!), the party made their way back to the swamps via Veri’s teleportation. Using an item spell, they were able to shrink down the massive solid chest, and the other things they found there (much of the coinage and gems, it seemed, had been pressed into the muddy floor of the midden by the enormous girth of the dragon), and returned it to Vahassa for identification, tallying and sale if necessary, or destruction if it were found to be evil. Along with these items came the spellbooks, which were organised to be handed to the elf mage Mordeo, a man who Mellvin was very surprised to recognise from his spinning visions in the swamp, and very pleased to meet as the man who ensured Mellvin’s message found its way to Qodesh’s temple. Mordeo took custody of the books, promised they would be studied and weaknesses in the black magic would be found and shared, and bestowing upon the party a simple, polished quartz stone as a reward to them from Qodesh for their tireless service, before spiriting himself away.
The next question, of course, was what was in this fantastically large chest? Unfortunately for their curiosities, the thing seemed absolutely unopenable. The best they could figure is that the locking mechanism was magically bound to the dragon herself, and only her touch could open it. Whatever was inside there must be pretty valuable. And heavy. And big. In any case, the chest was safe enough in the confines of the blue disciple tower, and they could spend more time figuring out what to do with it once they had regained a little more of their adventuring potential. Veri had a lot of spell research to do, having regained contact with her dragon mentor, and relearning many of the spells that were lost to her, and also leaving behind a copy of those spells at the blue tower, so that her own initiates could study and learn more and grow in power.
She also fulfilled her promise of allowing Jethro to be able to learn some of her spells, to replace those that he had lost. Jethro gratefully accepted this assistance, and apart from replacing his flute (the flute seller in Sanctuary knew his name now), he decided to stop in at Stoppin and Serendipity to touch base with his kender brethren once more, to sing the songs of his most recent adventures for their pleasure, and to help with the continuing rebuilding efforts after the orc invasion. Word is that he did try to go to the gold tower of merchant mages in Bazaar, but funnily enough he was turned away at the door without explanation – apparently his explanation that he didn’t bear a grudge against Xin Hao for dragging him into court fell on deaf ears.
As it turns out, there was a rather plentiful supply of gold and platinum in Miasma’s underground lair, and this allowed for Ajax to have built a sizeable and seaworthy vessel, that would be the pride of any captain. And because of his well-known exploits in bringing Cherrock to justice, there were plenty of young, able-bodied Vahassan lads who jumped at the opportunity to cut their teeth on the high seas with Ajax Charge’em.
Life for the orcs, meanwhile, was nowhere near as pleasant. Left stranded in a fleet of hulks, partly owned by the now disgraced Manxigan merchant families, and partly owned by the minotaurs of Winter Pines, when it became clear that the orcish host was not going to be invading the Swamp Mountains, the ships turned sail and headed for the Bitto. Their arrival was not greeted with great fanfare, however – the Vahassan humans greeted them with ships of their own, complete with seaborn silver wizards who were more than willing to sink every single boat that tried to land on the Vahassan shore. With nowhere else to go (the minotaurs were certainly not bringing thousands of armed orcs to Winter Pines, and the merchant navy of Manxiga were not willing to land them in the flood plains) the orcs were rather unceremoniously dumped back in the swamps, to eke out a living as best they could in that harsh environment.
Life in Manxiga had likewise taken a turn. The news that the merchant families had been in cahoots with Tu’Eva, and stirring up a war purely for her pleasure, had come out in blazing and powerful terms – Tu’Evan assassins had killed great swathes of the merchant families for their failure, and there had been a grassroots revolt in Coratka, overturning the merchant rulers. But who would take their place? Who else had the mercantile know-how to run not just their businesses, but their entire trade-based government? Who had the funds and facilities to take over these ventures, and bring back stability to humanity? Who else, of course, but the magnate of magical mercantile, Xin Hao. The people of Coratka were hesitant at first, but when the fiery mountains began to be capped with snow, and when the trading life of Coratka was looking bleak at best, not to mention the fact that the ogres and goblins had large, armed military forces that had stood unopposed, and were now looking for something to do, suddenly an ogre overlord who promised prosperity and freedom, as well as adding yet more efficiency with a streamlined arcane administration, it was an offer that was too good to refuse. All too quickly there was a gold tower in place in the centre of Coratka – the third to be built in Elwarne.
Days came and weeks passed, turning to months as the seasons changed, and winter came over the land. Ajax spent the colder months breaking in his crew, working as an unofficial privateer, both guarding merchant shipping lanes and plundering the occasional boat that bore the flags of Tu’Evan merchant families. Mellvin spent much time with Utuk, discussing the everpresent undead and abomination threat, dealt a cruel blow by the dispatching of the black dragon, but still needing to be wiped from Elwarne. Veri and Jethro spent much of their time with their noses pressed into spellbooks, researching what they could, knowing that a time would come when the first spring shoots grew green and new from the ground, and the desire for adventure would once again blossom in the hearts of their compatriots. And where would it take them? Only time would tell.