Beyond Bale Keep

Episode 2O: By Any Other Name

"A rose is a rose is {not} a rose"

The village of Fifthsent quickly turns into a springboard for a new set of party adventures. From the discovery of the magical barrier which protects it [casting aura’s around each person in the city according to ethos], to the presence of stealthy pickpockets [costing Gromm a parcel of cash] to finding a connection to the Strazh [Willows, a very old elf from the time of Ferrin Goldstone].

The party rests and recovers, as they uncover the origin of this oasis in the middle of Orst. Willows, the 5th of the Strazh sent to find signs of Ferrin’s return, disappeared into the wild long ago. As it turned out, Willows settled in a small town, which eventually bore his name — The Fifth Sent to find Ferring [or simply, Fifthsent]. He eventually placed the magical stone he brought from the Strazh, the Heartstone, at the city center. The Heartstone, reportedly an object of great power [as claimed by Willows] protected Willows from the aging process as he searched for Ferrin. It’s power strangely amplified, it became the present-day source of the city’s magical wards, creating a haven of protection for the inhabitants, each of them a castoff, a traveler, or just a struggling pilgrim who settled at the stone’s site. Thus the oasis was born. A secondary trait of the Heartstone was that it slowed the aging process greatly while people remained inside its aura, which spanned the borders of Fifthsent. And, of course, it also somehow served as a barrier against the Orst, who were particularly susceptible to its magic. Surely an item of great power, and one the Strazh never bothered to mention (strange that, but there was a reason for it, as the party soon learned.

In the present day, of course, the Heartstone has gone missing. The barriers of Fifthsent are weakening, and the aging process has returned. For most the effect is subtle. For Willows, though, the effect is rapid, causing dementia and loss of physical faculties. On top of that, the ancient Elf — who initially mistakes Xant for Ferrin — reveals that he himself is responsible for the Heartstone’s loss. Enchanted by “a secret black and midnight hag,” he delivered the stone to her somewhere nearby. His memory somewhat sketchy, he offers to lead the party there, if they will help him bring back the stone. Realizing the power of the Sunsword [Ferrin’s Blade] must be unlocked through “freeing a place from tyranny” Knight Dimitriy takes up the quest, hoping this is the second key to the sword’s power. The rest of the party, of course, joins him, including the enigmatic Ilveck, whose personal motivations are not yet known.

Having procured fresh mounts, the group rides north into the hills, soon making its way to a box canyon. Tucked away behind brush, scrub and stone outcroppings, they find a well-built iron door, protected by a path of stones serving as pressure plates for clever traps within the wall. Gromm surmises such work is most likely of Dwarven make. Once inside, his suspicions are confirmed. The party has located “Outpost #23,” built during the time of Q’ugo Studbud, the last holder of Chaar’s Axe.

It is indeed a historical find, but the party has little time to dwell upon the academic merits of such. Quickly making their way further into the solidly cared chambers, they come upon a group of foul, gargoyle-like creatures, each of which singing a ghastly, haunting, tune. A pitched combat in close quarters ensues, and the party is victorious. In the aftermath, though, a clue to Ilveck’s “secret mission” appears. Each of the “garga-harpies” changes form upon its death, turning into an elf from Ilveck’s tribe. It is then that the close-mouthed shaman tells them of the “dark one” who has been kidnapping his people, and whom he has sworn to destroy. It appears the party’s mission and Ilveck’s are now completely in tune.

After a quick rest, the group pushes further through the chambers of the ancient outpost, where they locate another abomination of sorts — a group of giant lizards capable of wielding electrical energies, which arc between them with deadly effect. The lizards are soon dispatched [the last of them in an explosion of fire]. The party rests and presses on.

Eventually, our heroes locate the old troop quarters, where they are greeted by a strange figure wearing a hood, standing before an open door, its recesses an impenetrable black. The hooded figure “welcomes” each of them, delivering a telepathic entreaty to follow it through the door. A suddenly agitated Willows shouts, “She’s here! I must go to her!” He races through the opening, disappearing before their eyes. After a brief moment of deliberation, the party realizes it has little choice but to follow.

Beyond the portal, they find a huge chamber, magically illuminated by ancient torches, which reflect off a great, square pool situated between vast columns supporting the roof. Across the chamber, they see a comely woman, flanked by 4 garga-harpies, the robed figure beside her.

“Rose,” says Willows. “I have returned to you.”

Rose regards him sadly, he shimmering red hair glinting almost metallically in the light. “Yes, you have. Approach me, Willows. And give back to me what is mine.”

The party watches from afar as Willows steps forward, walking toward Rose in a daze. It occurs to several of the now-seasoned adventurers that something is very much amiss. What is it that Willows must “return?” Indeed, is it not this “Rose” person who holds something that THEY want?

It is then that a layer of the mystery is peeled back, and violently at that. As Willows kneels before Rose, the robed figure approaches.

“You will now return what I gave you, Willows,” Rose intones.

“Yes, mistress,” Willows replies, seemingly enchanted.

As that moment, a mass of tentacles shoots out of the robed figures cowl, penetrating Willow’s skull. As the adventurers watch in horror, Willow’s brain is pulled from its skull and devoured by…

“An illithid!” Warren barks, both excited and nervous. And indeed it is one of those strange, underdark creatures. But what is it doing here?

There is no time to answer that question, of course. Events are moving rapidly. The illithid splits open Willows chest, and pulls forth…a glowing stone. It hands the stone to Rose, who clutches it greedily. She turns and walks toward the far end of the great cavern, uttering a single command as she goes….

“Kill them.”

Once again, magic and steel are brandished against creatures of darkness. The garga-harpies race forward. The mind flayer approaches, as well. The mental abilities of the Illithid, and the charming song of the harpies notwithstanding, this encounter appears to be a mismatch. There are only 5 opponents, and the party is braced for conflict. And indeed, it more or less goes exactly that way, as the Illithid falls rather quickly. However, this seeming advantage soon turns to a frightening mismatch the other way, as Rose opens her chest, revealing a second, glowing stone. She inserts the Heartstone, which fuses with her own “heart.”

“Finally…I am whole again!” she cries. Before the party’s eyes, Rose morphs into a huge dragon!

Now the party fights for its life! The close quarters keep Rose from using her flight ability, but there is more than enough room to bring her terrible breath weapon to bear. The dragon’s burnished hide, glinting reddish-gold in the light, ripples as it draws in breath and spews out a gout of flame. In one shot, Ilveck and Aurina, the weakest of the party members, drop to the floor.

Immediately, the stout warriors Gromminique and Xant close on the dragon from different sides, hoping to draw its attention. If, of course, focuses its attention on the Paladin, approaching from its left. Meanwhile Laurance, Bronwen and Warren maneuver into position to use ranged weapons and spells. It is then that a second, unexpected stroke of ill fortune occurs. Somehow, Warren and Laurance, maneuvering on the Dragon’s left, using the columns for cover, have stumbled into a zone of silence.

is a spellcaster here somewhere…[/i] the Mage surmises. For the moment, he must take up the armament of a warrior. The back-ranker actually drops one of the harpies with a well-placed hit!

Unfortunately, there is little time to celebrate. While Bronwen drags Ilveck behind a column to tend to his wounds, Gromm and Xant close on the dragon. Strong-armed warriors with deadly steel, they may be able to turn the tide of this battle, if they can bring their sharp weapons to bear. Xant does so, engaging Rose even as the harpies flank him. If he can just keep it occupied long enough for his Dwarven friend’s axe to do its work…

But Gromm has his own troubles. As he goes on the attack, he suddenly finds himself completely paralyzed! Once again, the work of a spellcaster. But who? and where?

As Gromm struggles to free himself from paralysis. Xant exchanges blows with the dragon. Laurance and Warren take down the harpies, while Bronwen brings Ilveck back to his feet. Aurina, unfortunately, is beyond help. The dragon’s first attack has killed her.

It comes down to Xant holding firm in the face of the dragon. Can he hold on long enough for Gromm to shake his paralysis, for Warren to bring his magic to bear, for the elves to fire their Greybows?

Eventually, of course, the Dwarf does break free, only to discover the identity of the hidden spellcaster — it is Ztirul Velnet! The evil caster locks down the Dwarf yet again, but, in doing so, he is spotted by Brownwen. The battle takes another turn, as Velnet makes use of the powers of darkness, unleashing a life-draining burst of energy. Once again, Ilveck falls, but not before delivering a damaging blow to Velnet.

As for the dragon, it has been whittled down by the attacks of Xant [one of those, the deadly Bolt of Slaying], Warren and Laurance, but it is far from dead. The battle reaches its climax, as a severely wounded Dimitriy brings his blade down in a glorious smite of divine strength. The power of Ferrin’s blade suddenly crackles to life, delivering a tremendous blow of searing radiance. Rose howls in pain, crashing to the earth.

This leaves just Ztirul…

But the dark caster is not one to take on impossible odds. With a magical POP he disappears, leaving the beaten party with their spoils, and two more dead companions.

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