Scaled Down Scales

A Desperate Captain
Thinking She Could End a String of Errors...

…Which Might Besmirch Her Reputation…

…Captain Iquel decided to launch her troopship — The Sacrifice — to intercept the scalawag who had stolen another Githyanki vessel. Unfortunately for the captain, said scalawag (named Tokk’it) had found some allies — known officially as The Golden Scales — and was returning to relieve the beseiged fortress of Akma’ad.

Kerem was still not sure why the Thraxinium had selected him. Perhaps his inherently passive nature made it less likely that he would embroil the leaders of the magocracy in commitments they might find uncomfortable. “Long have we striven to remain detached from the affairs of the mainland,” Bejam himself had explained. “But now we have rumors that some deva not associated with Nefelus is stirring up the Githzerai.”

Tokk’it was determined to ram the other Githyanki ship before it rammed his.

Demanding the ghost sailors go to full sail while the other vessel stuck with battle sails, he was able to get the jump on the Githyanki captain before she had gotten very far from the fortress. Still it was two ships trying to ram each other head on. Tokk’it had to settle for a glancing blow which pinned the other ship to the side of the cliff rather than sending it directly to rocks below.

While the opposing captain stayed on the other ship, she sent her minions across to attack.

Creeping back toward Akma’ad’s main fortification, Kerem was able to confirm what the Wellik the Elder feared the most: Githyanki ships had attacked the tranquil monastery while Kerem was out walking around, taking in the views of the ocean, and meditating on the serenity he found there. If Most Exalted Odos had not suggested that a walk would calm his nerves, Kerem might have been caught up in the attack.

Delis Erinthal was proud of her companions. They were all taking down the Githyanki captain’s minions. Garen had another stone glowing in the soul-capturing device he wore on his head and the opposing captain seemed frustrated that she had not been able to channel power into her Myrmidons before they were cut down.

But now that she was herself bloodied, it seemed that the captain had grown desperate. She drew her arms back and the ropes on her vessel swung back toward the monastery where she had been forced to leave some of her troops behind.

Those troops responded as if they had been prepared for such an eventuality. They used their own telekinetic powers to leap into the air and grab the ropes, enabling them to swing across and assault the forecastle of The Conqueror, the vessel on which Delis had arrived (before she crossed over and bloodied the captain on her own ship).

But now the captain came across to The Conqueror herself. She seemed disappointed again as the Golden Scales cut down half her minions, but she was able to channel energies into the rest of them. But not able to attack Delis’s allies at the same time.

Not that this could stop Delis’s friends from slaughtering those minions as well, They even killed the more powerful Mindslicers the captain had brought.

But the captain proved a tougher nut than Delis expected.

Wellik had confirmed the rumors: A deva was stirring up trouble; at least, she had asked the Githzerai to become involved in the defense of Overlook, one of the few places which had withstood a wide-ranging Githyanki offensive across much of the material plane. As Kerem watched a brave Githzerai scout sneak onto a ship, kill the captain, and escape with the vessel, he began to formulate a plan: While Kerem’s vow of pacifism prevented him from killing anyone aboard one of the other troopships, he could certainly sneak aboard and sabotage one of them.

Magdalene knew a boss when she saw one. And she knew desperation when she saw it. Maggie’s colleagues had been able to thwart the Githyanki captain — which one was it? — during the early part of the battle, but the captain was obviously drawing on some inner resources.

It almost seemed to Magdalene that the Githyanki captain had grown larger — certainly more determined — as she realized the battle was going against her.

For Maggie had known desperation herself: She knew the resources she had learned to summon up as a child when her own monastery was attacked and she had to escape.

Perhaps the captain blamed herself the way Maggie had in those first days of working her way north. Or perhaps she simply feared those who sent her here. Githyanki were famous for blaming their commanders for failure.

And famous for their punishments.

If that was the case, this captain had certainly channeled her fear of that punishment well: Even after mentally channeling strength into her minions, Maggie could see the captain was taking a lot of damage, but standing up well.

The deva who had requested Wellik the Elder to convince the reluctant Githzerai to rally to Overlook as the best place to make a stand against the Githyanki was apparently trying to organize the resistance everywhere. Kerem’s superiors had even hinted that this Amyria had even approached the Thraxinium about ending their isolationism to take a hand. Absurd, of course, given Nefalus’s long-standing withdrawal from the affairs of the world. But they had sent Kerem here, where he now found himself hidden in the hold of a ship called The Sacrifice. Once he snuck aboard the troopship, the Githyanki had suddenly decided to come back aboard and attack the ship which the Githyanki scout had stolen. Apparently that ship was returning to relieve the besieged fortress. Kerem decided he better throw in with whoever was coming to attack the Githyanki who were attacking his hosts. Strange the predicaments a pacifist diplomat could get into if he really tried.

Garen Bladerun knew his companions would need all the healing he could provide before the day was over. And he knew he had already depleted his ability to Lay On Hands.

Which meant his Helm of Seven Deaths was more important than ever: Each minion he killed now would be more healing later, when they needed it.

Each time he dealt a death blow — hard for a paladin to do, Garen had to admit — another of the dull gems in his helmet would begin to glow with a greenish light as the soul of the dead was sucked inside.

As long as he used the power of the ensouled gems to heal his companions — or to kill Bahamat’s enemies — Garen was confident the platinum dragon-god would approve. But if he were to begin using the headgear to deny those souls a final peace, he might lose his powers to the wrath of Bahamat…or even to the wrath of the Raven Queen.

Who seemed to be working with the Father of All Dragons…

…in spite of their longstanding differences.

When the captain of the Githyanki finally went down, Garen’s thoughts turned to looting. He saw a pair of Night Goggles Maggie had long been coveting. As she scooped them up, Garen began to think of the Diamond Cincture they had found for Chance.

And what he himself had been praying for: A Winged Shield.

“What I really need,” thought Garen, “is a two-handed sword to go with that shield.”

And immediately set to praying. Maxim was trying to use the discarded short swords of the Githyanki, but Garen could see that he was having trouble mastering the tricky blades.

Garen added a prayer to Bahamat that the hobgoblin would stick to wands and daggers.

View
One Ship Versus One Dragon
So THAT'S what a non-minion dragon looks like

A Blind Man with a Demon on his Shoulder

Grigore Goldforge was the first to see the next dragon. It was bigger than the first three and Grigore could tell that the rubies in this dragon’s harness were not glass.

“Worth a pretty penny,” the ardent thought to himself as he climbed down to his companions. Still bruised from his last encounter with a yardarm, Grigore used the rigging this time.

He told the rest of his band this dragon looked to be more formidable than the three they just got done fighting. And he expected its rider was a champion as well.

They had developed some tactics in the last battle — slowing the dragons to prevent their devastating charges — so Grigore saw no need to discuss the tactical lessons of the previous encounter.

Although he might regret that decision before this battle was over…

Most Exalted Odos was not happy. He had witnessed nothing but chaos since he had left the House of Reprisal, back in the Elemental Chaos. Ironic: He spent his life building an island of serenity from which to strike against chaos there at its heart; yet it was here on the material plane, where things were supposed to be so ordered that he was attacked by assassins when he returned to his rooms. And not just Odos: Kath’ik and Wellik the Elder had been attacked as well. “Attacked and assassinated,” he thought. “And now this. Demons. Trying to convince me to kill my defenders.”

Throughout the battle, Rinoa noticed that she seemed to have the most control over the damage being taken by the dragon and its rider. She could always reach them both with her Dragonfrost, although the dragon or its rider could always protect each other from that damage.

But she still had bursts and splashes from the spells she set up with her Dragonfrosts. That could often do damage to the dragon, even when its rider was trying to protect it.

In fact, it was the splash from her acid claws that provoked the dragon into his rage. Fortunately only Maggie was in the blast of fire that heralded that transformation. And she was able to dodge out of the way.

Rinoa noticed that, while the dragon took the damage at first, after a while the rider was blocking it to protect the dragon. The rider seemed well rested at first. Maybe that was why he was protecting the dragon. And the dragon was restrained in the early part of the battle, using single bite attacks (which once allowed its rider one of those quadruple-jump triple attacks Dragonlancers of the Astral Sea are so famous for).

But, once Zumos and Rinoa herself were able to enrage the dragon, who declared his name to be Xirakis, the dragon seemed to grow in stature as whatever was restraining him before was shattered by his rage.

The abbot of the monastery was no longer shocked at the sight of blind Odos striding through the halls toward him with a confidence that gave the impression he could see the walls. When the Most Exalted Leader of the House of Reprisal demanded to know what had become of Gallia, The abbot had to admit the last any of his people had seen her, Gallia was on the roof of the fortress which served as his monks’ home. “She was surrounded by Githyanki. No one believes she has survived, unless she was somehow taken prisoner,” he told Odos.

Maxim Shalion already had a dragon’s skull to show his kobold minions (or “slaves,” as he preferred to call them). So he didn’t need another fight with another (bigger) dragon to impress them with.

A single dragon and a single rider made one thing easier for Maxim, however: Picking who to curse. Soon both lancer and dragon were flying around with a hobgoblin’s curse on them. Sure, Maxim could not use both curses in a single attack, but that did not seem to matter: The dragon and its rider seemed to be able to absorb damage for each other anyway.

Only Rinoa with her splash damage seemed to be able to hurt them when they didn’t want to be hurt. Maxim’s Killing Flames gave him a free attack when the dragon became bloodied, and the dragon seemed quite surprised to find that Zumos was not the only one who could overcome its resistance to fire damage.

Most of Maxim’s most powerful spells seemed inappropriate to fighting and dragonlancer and his mount, so Maxim saved them for a later fight (it looked like this was going to turn into the kind of day only the Great Gark could truly love: fight after fight after fight). Even his Command Insanity spell was overcome by the the dragon’s superior will.

The immense will of both Githyanki and Dragonkind became apparent as the battle drew on. Maxim noticed that the best way to do damage to whichever opponent seemed to be being protected by the other was Grigore’s Unhinging Strike (which allowed him to force the dragon to attack its rider or vice versa, providing he could overcome those towering wills).

Grigore seemed to be using most of his mental augments to superpower his Confusing Strikes. This attack not only left both lancer and dragon dazed, but also made it harder for the targets to hit back. And they were doing a lot of hitting back.

Especially against Grigore.

Unnerved that the chaos at Akma’ad had taken another victim — this time, a young woman named Gallia — the Most Exalted Odos of the House of Reprisal calmed his nerves and reflected that reprisal might be necessary even here on the material plane. “Perhaps it is just as well. Now it seems she has a demonic conspiracy working against her, too.”

When Grigore went down, Garen Bladerun remembered what happened in the previous battle, when it was the paladin who crumpled under dragon attacks. Grigore had used his From the Brink power to bring Garen back to his feet.

This time Garen could do the honors. His Lay on Hands power was just what Grigore needed. The ardent’s inner resources had dwindled to the point where ordinary healing could no longer help him.

Lay on Hands, however, is no ordinary healing power. As Garen placed his hands on Grigore’s scorched shoulders, he could feel his own inner resources flowing into Grigore’s haggard body. As the eyes flickered open, the body no longer seemed quite so haggard.

“Have no fear, there’s plenty more where that came from,” he assured the ardent and returned to the battle.

“Demons?” In the middle of a battle with Githyanki, the abbot hardly expected his distinguished guests to bring up demonic conspiracies. Especially against Gallia. “What do you mean? Demons!”

Pouring on the damage in the hardest part of the battle (after the dragon became enraged, but before the Dragonlancer became exhausted), Delis Erinthal reflected back on the early part of the fight when she had missed a few shots.

But now that she was in her Skirmishing Stance, she was evading most of the damage and hitting her quarry on a regular basis. "Dragons make for the most challenging hunt she thought to herself.

Sure, she had seen the spectacular damage Magdalene had been able to do when she fought from the rigging, but Twin Strike was working well and Delis was really pouring on the damage.

“Yes, demons,” explained the ambassador. “I just had a demon appear on my shoulder. Urging me to kill that young woman you have here at the monastery. I believe her name is Gallia. That is what the demon said, anyway. Gallia. That is her name is it not? The demon told me to kill her. Something about feeding her brain to a hobgoblin.”

Maggie got the chance to do a lot of damage early in the fight, so she took it.

But then she made a slight miscalculation: Assuming that slowing the dragon would not be important, she decided to save her purple poison for a later fight and used up her green and red elixirs.

Sure, the Greenblood Oil did extra damage, but its anti-healing powers were more suited to a troll than a dragon. “Oh, well, don’t expect to be fighting any trolls today anyway,” thought Magdalene to herself as she danced along the rigging and tossed her shuriken. She still had the Bloodroot Poison. And she noticed that a dazed dragon cannot charge.

It was much later in the battle that she realized the dragon’s charges were enabling its best attacks: A successful bite-claw-claw attacks at the end of a charge gave the beast enough adrenaline to power a free breath attack.

On top of that, when the charges ended in a single bite, they seemed to enable a special attack from the rider: At first it was those annoying triple attacks the Githyanki seemed to favor, but later it became a new one that combined a Psychic Lance attack with a Silver Bastard Sword attack.

Once she realized these attacks could be thwarted by slowing the dragon and preventing it from charging, Maggie sighed to herself, “Better late than never,” and applied the purple Carrion Crawler Brain Juice she had prepared just that morning to her shuriken. “That ought to last for the rest of the battle.”

When the lancer became exhausted she decided to take the fight to him. Running out along the yardarm, Maggie executed an acrobatic (and gallant) leap onto the dragon-rider’s back. It all would have been more spectacular had the lancer not avoided her grapple.

But she got her revenge when the rider tried to prevent her from harming his dragon, he brought himself close enough to death that a little twist of the blade was all it took to kill him.

When he asked Ambassador Odos how he knew the creature who delivered the message was a demon, the abbot thought the old blind man was going to explode in anger. Instead, the Most Exalted Odos answered in measured tones, “Because I smelled the brimstone. Because he sounded like a demon. Because he told me he was a demon. Because he appeared on my shoulder and told me to kill a young woman. Because he thought feeding her brain to a hobgoblin was a good idea. No, that’s not what he said. He said I should feed her brain to a demon who belonged to a hobgoblin. I suggest an extra guard to protect her should you happen to rescue the girl.”

Zumos was kind of proud that he had struck the killing blow against Xirakis. The pact dragon did not seem to appreciate the irony of being burned to death by a Cinderfall spell. But Zumos was willing to savor it.

Especially after his friend, Grigore, had almost died in the fight.

But the ardent/investor had been brought back from the brink of death with Garen’s Lay On Hands. And now Grigore was urging the big paladin to use it again (on Grigore, of course) to prepare for the fight ahead.

For everyone in the Golden Scales (even Magdalene was calling the party that now) was aware that there was a fortress under siege ahead of them. More fights were ahead of them, and Grigore was still their best healer.

In fact, he was healing everyone else now that the battle was over. But Grigore’s own reserves were stretched to the limit. While Garen could not offer much healing help in the battles to come, Zumos hoped using that healing now would pay off in the long run by keeping Grigore on his feet through the rest of the day.

Right now, however, Grigore was concentrating on prying the rubies from the dragon’s harness: 14 rubies, and Grigore was telling them he appraised their value at about 500 gold pieces each.

Somewhere ahead of them were cities where that money could be spent. And everybody in the Golden Scales had some ideas about what they wanted to spend it on. Zumos was thinking about a backup staff. Or even a wand. And he could always use some scrolls and potions. He even seemed to be finally understanding the lessons he had in the south on how to do ritual magic. He could use a place to buy more rituals for his ritual book.

And more ritual components as well, although Chance Runner had found a small supply of those in the hold.

The fortress ahead was little more than a monastery. Probably not a great place to spend hard-earn money. But Zumos had heard of a city named Sayre. Somewhere beyond the monastery at Akma’ad.

Maybe it would even have a link to the cities of the south, where the Septarchs exerted their influence. But the Septarchs had never mentioned Sayre when they sent Zumos north to find the lost towers.

Right now Delis and Grigore were arguing about who should go up to the crow’s nest. Well, maybe Zumos was seeing conflict where there was only honest disagreement aimed at finding the best solution. Eventually, the two decided they could do a better job if both of them climbed to the top of the mast. And Delis started climbing.

But Zumos was amused to see Grigore get distracted from his own climb. Maxim had come up with an idea: He would send a small ambassador imp ahead to let the defenders know that help was on the way.

Grigore liked this idea, but apparently wanted more control of the message. Zumos found a lot of their messages amusing and contributed a wide variety of catcalls and derision. But mostly he just laughed at the things the hobgoblin thought would be a good idea to communicate.

They talked to Tokk’it, and he suggested sending the message to a leader there: someone he called Odos.

Tokk’it offered another suggestion: The defenders should be told they had to kill a young woman named Gallia.

The Githzerai scout was convinced Gallia was a spy who was working with the Gith assassin who had been sent to kill Odos and two other leaders. Tokk’it told them an important meeting had been taking place at the monastery when the attack came. He was convinced that the reason the attack came at the worst possible time was the presence of a spy who had told the Githyanki that the leaders were there.

Tokk’it admitted that he did not know the real reason for the meeting, but he had some guesses: Tokk’it was even guessing that it was very important, whichever guess was right.

So they agreed the message to kill Gallia should be sent, along with the rest. Maxim added a number of colorful details, which sent Zumos into wild laughter. But he couldn’t help noticed the slightly puzzled look on the ambassador imp’s face as he tried to memorize the mission and the message.

Just then a cry came from the crow’s nest. Delia had spotted the monastery, cut into the cliff ahead of them. As the fortress of Akma’ad hove into view, those in the Bridge could see two troopships drawn up to monastery — troopship much like the one they sailed.

And one of those ship was being quickly boarded by soldiers. As if the attackers had spotted them and were coming out to meet them.

And fight them.

Zumos heard Tokk’it shouting orders to his ghost sailors: “Hoist sails! Full ramming speed! Prepare to go to battle sails at my order!”

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Three Ships...
...Three Dragons...

…at least, thats the way Grigore thinks it works.

As Tokk’it evaded the first of the dragons searching for their craft, Grigore Goldforge saw three more loom on the horizon, blocking their path across the sea towards Akma’ad. The ardent knew that Githzerai would not be able to evade these.

Not without giving up his goal: relieving the siege on the fortress-monastery where Tokk’it makes his home.

Grigore yelled down to Zumos and Maxim, who were manning the ballista at the front of The Conqueror, that the dragons were on their way. But he didn’t wait until he could see whether their amateurish shots would hit.

Grigore was feeling somewhat vulnerable up in the small platform at the top of the ship’s mast. He wanted to get down to the deck, and he wanted to get down fast. But Grigore was a landlubber. He really didn’t know how to use the ship’s rigging to swing or climb down.

So he slid down the mast, ignominiously slamming his butt on the yardarm on the way down.

“He was stabbed in the heart
and he was to blame.
He gives mercenaries
a very bad name.”
Maxim Shalion

When Zumos looked in the direction Grigore was pointing from the crow’s nest, suddenly he saw movement ahead. Two red shapes flew out of a cloud, changing direction and speeding up as they moved in their direction.

The wizard could make out three red dragons, each with a rider strapped on its back.

“Red dragons, hunh?” thought Zumos. “I guess they’re gonna be in for a surprise.”

He turned to Maxim, aimed the bolt he had just loaded at one of the larger pair of matched dragons, and Maxim fired, but the bolt went tumbling down into the sea below.

“At least it’s water down there, now,” he said. “Not fire.” Then he stopped to ponder whether the water would have an adverse effect on fire-breathing red dragons.

Loading the next bolt, he got a little better aim. This time the ballista hit a smaller dragon which had drawn closer than the big ones. Its rider blocked some of it with a shield, but took damage himself from the gigantic bolt.

Zumos realized that the dragons were now in reach of the regular magic he and Maxim could produce. So he decided to use that instead of a clumsy siege weapon. He could not control the ballista as well as he could control his magicks.

“Concentrate fire on the wounded one,” shouted Grigore. But Zumos was already doing just that, unleashing some of his most powerful spells on the wounded dragon. That dragon proved to be the smallest of the three and went down pretty quickly, taking its lancer to his death in the sea below.

But not before it had set fire to the sails.

“Did you… Did you just rhyme-slam me?” Grigore Goldforge asked.

Sam the Foresworn could not help but notice that his wizard friend was enjoying the surprise on red dragon faces a little too much.

Sure, the beasts were not used to fire as hot as hot as Zumos could produce. But using your best spells before the sun was over the yardarm…well that just didn’t seem wise. As much as the wizard might enjoy surprising the dragons with fires more potent than they could imagine…well, sometimes the little hobbit was glad he didn’t rely on powerful magicks he could use up so early in the morning.

Why … it wasn’t even time for second breakfast yet!

The dragons had some kind of teleporting ability which allowed them to stand off, out of melee range, but that was not going to stop Sam. “Just time for a little dagger-throwing practice,” the hobbit thought as he aimed a backstab at the next dragon’s underside. He noticed the dragons and their riders seemed to have some kind of pact worked out: Sometimes they would take damage for each other; sometimes not.

The dragons seemed to be concentrating their charges against Zumos and Maxim (who could not miss, even with magic he did not seem to know that well). That made sense to Sam, since they were dealing out the most damage to both riders and their dragons.

But Grigore was taking the brunt of it. Just bad luck was Sam’s guess. Every time one of the great beasts was able to get off a blast of fire, somehow the ardent was in the blast. They didn’t seem to be targeting him, but their blasts of fire seemed always to find him in some corner, while Maxim and Zumos ducked out of the fire.

Sam didn’t like that one little bit. Hobbits seldom like to see their healers get cooked.

Zumos was encouraging this, to a degree. Now that the dragons were no longer surprised by fire which could burn even their scales, he was using other powers to slow the great beasts. Slowed, they could no longer charge the two cloth-wearers (Zumos and Maxim). But even immobilized, they were still able to teleport in and use their breath weapons. And Grigore was still taking the worst of that.

As a slowed dragon took damage, Sam noticed something new: When the dragon took damage while it was on the deck of The Conqueror, its rider did not try to deflect the damage to himself. When this damage bloodied the dragon, it became enraged. This rage seemed to power the dragon’s breath weapon.

And Grigore found himself scorched again, renewing damage he had just healed.

“I believe that is exactly what he did,” Tokk’it answered.

Maxim Shalion was tired of be targeted by the lancers. Sure, he was doing a lot of damage to them — and their red-dragon mounts — but he wasn’t always able to evade their silver swords.

The hobgoblin decided to head for the bridge, where the oaken planks were protecting Tokk’it as he guided the ship through the battle. Unfortunately, oak wood does little against the fiery breath of a red pact dragon.

(Maxim could tell they were pact dragons by the way they sometimes sheltered their riders by taking damage themselves. No selfish chromatic dragon would ever take injury on behalf of a githyanki unless they shared a pact which bound their rider to take damage for them as well.)

Maxim called dibs on the head of the dragon they killed on the deck of The Conqueror.

As he hid in the cabin where the big ship’s wheel stood, Maxim saw the slowed dragon teleport to the deck outside the cabin. It was the first time he had seen any of them do anything but charge and hover. Now the dragon simply settled on the deck and let go with its breath weapon. The flames came streaming across the deck, blasting through the cabin door and flowing around to where Maxim hid.

The warlock quick decided that hiding in a small, flammable box (which was all the cabin was to a dragon) was not the ideal tactic. He headed back to the open deck where he had a little more dodging room to take advantage of he reflexes to avoid the swirling flames.

Then he unleashed a spell on the cursed dragon before him. Ebon Claws was not necessarily his best spell, relying as it did on charisma he lacked (as most hobgoblins do). At Maxim’s command, clawed hands crafted from shadow wrapped around the last dragon. Not only did this trigger the dragon’s rage (which forced it to waste its breath weapon on the rigging), but it also slowed the dragon (preventing charges as thoroughly as Zumos’s Ice Storm).

“In fact, he even worked in a dig at you for being a mercenary.”

Delis Erinthal had missed her first few shots, but she maintained her discipline: Keep moving and keep shooting. They might take away her elf license for missing her shots, but never for lowering her defenses.

Then, as the dragons began to be forced to come down to deck level, she began to find her range. Her shots started hitting, and the final dragon (and its rider) both died, spinning downward to the sea.

It seemed to Delis that Grigore was letting his greed rule his eyes. He examined the red gems in the tack of the pact dragon for a long time before he realized the rubies were fakes and climbed back to the crow’s nest. Grigore might have a theory that three ships meant only three dragons, but he wasn’t taking chances.

The Raven Cloak they found seemed a perfect fit for Jett, the other warlock they had found atop Djamela’s Tower, so Delis saved it for the Genasi.

The fires in the rigging were pretty quickly extinguished, and Tokk’it got the ghost crew to put up some tattered replacement sails they had found in the hold.

The first thing Grigore spotted from the crow’s nest was land. A shoreline made of steep cliffs rose out of the sea, and Tokk’it steered northward along this coast.

“Keep an eye out for Akma’ad,” Delis heard the Githzerai shout up to Grigore. “It will look like a fortress built into the side of these cliffs.”

But it was another pact dragon that Grigore spotted first, a red pact dragon so large that even Delis could see the pennant flying from its rider’s lance.

“Hmm, a pennant,” thought Delis. “It seems we have found the draconic champion.”

View
Paying Attention Helps...
...Another New Warlock...

…Integrate Himself into the Party.

The pile of sacrificial victims which Sarshan had laid out around his teleportation circle began to stir after the arms merchant died. Another warlock was waiting there: Someone Maxim Shalion missed when he was helping Chance Runner from his bonds.

Unconscious during the fight against Sarshan, Jett joined the others in fleeing on The Conqueror — a Githyanki warship stolen from the Githyanki by a Githzerai scout named Tokk’it. The Githzerai explained that he had been directed to Djamela’s Island by Storm Johnson who was mad that some person with the improbable name of Blackguard’s Bane had sent his giant troop transport to the island where Storm Johnson has a secret base.

It seems Storm Johnson thinks a giant warship might give his location away to the slavers of the nearby City of Brass. So Storm brought Tokk’it over to pick up Duilin Silverfang, who was doing a little scouting for the big goliath.

Since Djamela’s Island seems to have been destabilized by Sarshan’s experiments, everybody decided that fleeing on a ghost ship was better than drowning in the Sea of Fire.

Chance Runner wasted no time in starting to bolster the hull of The Conqueror. He noticed it was damaged. Huge scorch marks on the outside of the hull (particularly in area of the stern of the troopship) suggested Tokk’it’s story about fleeing from attacking dragons might be true. Chance searched the holds beneath the crew deck and found a cache of ritual materials. Still standing in the holds, the revenant was able to cast an Enhance Vessel ritual which bolstered the damaged hull and gave the ship added speed and maneuverability which proved useful once Tokk’it was trying to avoid the draconic Repossession Team sent out by the Githyanki to recover their ship.

Ghost ship?

Well, the Githyanki vessel did seem to Jett to be manned by a crew of Githyanki spirits, although the Githzerai scout was giving them orders. Not the sort of thing Tokk’it seemed comfortable with, but Jett wanted to make sure.

Applying his arcane knowledge to the bridge, the warlock found a runic circle on the deck and a ship’s wheel standing before it. He ignored the dead body of a Githyanki lying in a heap on the side of the bridge.

Probably the previous captain. Tokk’it did say he had stolen the ship from the Githyanki.

Jett’s arcane investigations revealed that the runic circle gave anyone standing inside it the ability to give orders to the ghostly crew. As long as the person standing in the circle had ahold of the ship’s wheel, the spirits would be forced to obey. They might not feel the true loyalty of a living crew, and they might not show much initiative, but they would keep the vessel flying in the direction they were told to fly.

After the bridge was explored and the newest warlock had used his arcane powers to ensure the loyalty of the crew, Grigore Goldforge led The Golden Scales to the captain’s cabin to search it. They found a desk there with a locked drawer (which took Sam no time to open). Inside the locked drawer, they found the orders under which the Githyanki captain had been operating (up until a certain Githzerai scout killed him and stole his ship). Confronting Tokk’it with the note about a spy inside the fortress seemed to disturb the Githzerai a lot, but not as much as three portraits Jett found in the Gish assassin’s cabin.

Since everyone else, including the Githzerai scout, seemed to be dead on their feet, Jett suggested they all get some rest. Earlier they had found the crew quarters where hammocks could be put to good use.

After their rest, Tokk’it took back the wheel and Jett joined his new comrades in searching the ship. First, they searched the captain’s cabin, then the crew deck. but it seemed to Jett they weren’t very systematic about their searches. So he continued looking around that deck after they went back topside.

At the front of the crew deck, he found a well-appointed cabin. He guessed it was intended for the First Mate or some other favored crew. But its most recent occupant did not seem to have left any evidence of a nautical life at all.

Maybe a passenger or somebody.

What Jett found among the passenger’s belonging was three portraits, well drawn and clear. Almost as if they were intended to help somebody identify the three Githzerai pictured in them.

Thinking that his perception would be all it might take to aim the ballista, Grigore took the first crack at it. But it turned out that aiming was more than just looking, and the huge ballista bolt (more a log than an arrow) went flying toward the bridge. So Grigore turned the job of testing the heavy weapons over to Zumos and Maxim Shalion. Zumos said he hit the spot in the Sea of Fire where he was aiming, and Maxim seemed to know even more about the aiming process, but Grigore was still uncertain they could hit a dragon in flight.

When Jett heard Grigore Goldforge questioning Tokk’it about the ship’s manifest, he noticed that the Githzerai scout seemed very upset at the news that a Githyanki assassin was traveling with the attackers.

The others noticed this as well, but Jett decided the assassin (whose name was apparently Brann’ot) might have been the mystery passenger who had been ensconced in the First Mate’s quarters. When the others questioned Tokk’it further and found out there were specialized defenses at the fortress (defenses which had apparently never been triggered in the attack), Jett decided to ask the Githzerai about the three portraits he had found.

Fresh from the success of his first ritual, Chance Runner had to admit that he wasn’t really a ritual caster. But his Master of Storm Dragonmark did seem to give him just the right rituals for the situation at hand. Glancing at the tattered sails suggested either he would have to climb aloft and do some tricky repairs or just try his Summon Winds ritual. With a trunk full of ritual components in the hold, he knew which option he preferred. Filling the sails proved more difficult than he expected (they were damaged by some kind of draconic attack, after all), but Chance eschewed his limited knowledge of nature to cast the ritual with the full power of his arcane storm mastery. His training at the Monastery of the Storm required nothing less.

When Jett showed the three portraits to Tokk’it, he could tell Tokk’it was greatly disturbed.

Tokk’it covered it pretty well by explaining the portraits were of three diplomats. Nobody was supposed to know they were in the fortress. His bosses didn’t share the reasons for their visit with Tokk’it, but he knew that no Githyanki should have known they were present in the facility when the attack started. If a Githyanki assassin had their pictures, somebody had to be leaking information.

Even so, Jett could tell he was holding something back…something about the drawings.

While Jett assured Grigore Goldforge of the crew’s loyalty (as long as someone stood in the arcane circle and had their hand on the ship’s wheel), he did not guarantee their initiative. If they spotted something approaching, Jett could not guarantee they would tell anyone they might not see as Githyanki allies. So, Grigore headed up to the crow’s nest to watch for dragons and the other ships mentioned in the orders. Soon he spotted a lone dragon with a lancer on its back. Guessing it was a scout, he shouted down to Tokk’it avoid its gaze. This seemed to help and Grigore hoped it would reduce the number of dragons he would have to fight in the approach to Akma’ad, but he knew some fighting was inevitable.

Rather than confront the Githzerai scout directly about withholding information, Jett decided to question him more about the possibility that the fortress had been infiltrated by Githyanki. How was that possible? Didn’t all the monks at this fortress know each other? Wasn’t it more of a monastery where everyone was in constant communion with each other than an actual military base?

Such questions seemed to loosen Tokk’it’s tongue a bit. He explained that Githyanki had amazing mental powers, powers by which they could enslave others.

“They have even been known to take over the bodies of their victims,” Tokk’it told Jett, “so their spies look and sound exactly like the friends and family of those they are spying on.”

As the Githzerai said these words, Jett saw a shadow pass over Tokk’it’s face.

As if saying those words caused Tokk’it to realize something that did more than disturb the Githzerai…

Tokk’it’s eyes moved slowly toward the three portraits.

…something that terrified him more than he had ever been terrified before.

Just then, a voice rang out from the Crow’s Nest. “Dragons off the starboard bow!” the voice of Grigore rang out. “Dragons! Prepare for battle!”

View
A New Hero Rises...
...and an Old Hero...

…just keeps on rising.

As Delis Erinthal stepped through the portal onto the top of the tower, she realized that she was not the only one in the Golden Scales who needed a rest. But there was Sarshan standing inside of the sphere of force: They were going to have to stall to get time to heal up a bit before they assaulted the Shadar-Kai arms dealer.

It occurred to Delis that her best bet for stalling him was to try to negotiate a deal: If Sarshan would provide her the intelligence she needs, she would be willing to go and get help for whoever won the upcoming battle — be it Sarshan or be it Delis’s allies.

Sarshan’s maniacal laughter suggested more than mental instability: Delis understood that Sarshan probably couldn’t answer the questions about the Githyanki, couldn’t send her to get help, nor did he have much interest in cutting a deal.

He did seem to have pustules of Blood Chaos bursting out of the scars on his face.

Sarshan then ordered his Githyanki allies to use their telekinetic powers to “leap” Delis up on top of one of the four obsidian battlements which occupied each corner of the tower.

As Delis watched, each of her friends appeared in the teleportation circle, each stalling for time:

  1. Sam was the next one through — he went into stealth mode to try to get closer and find out what Delis and Sarshan were talking about;
  2. Garen came through and tried to intimidate Sarshan;
  3. Grigore pulled out a paper and read it, placing particular emphasis on the phrase “Elyas, Raven, Drake and their companions” — Grigore’s blustery bluff seemed to succeed as Sarshan took great pleasure at the discomfort Grigore seemed to take in not being one of the named targets (which bluff gained some time); and
  4. Zumos was able to sneak around and find out who needed healing.

Tokk’it was glad that The Conqueror could outrun those dragons the Githyanki had sent to chase after him. But he still wasn’t certain about the crew of his stolen vessel. The crew was made up of the ghosts of Githyanki sailors. They couldn’t be happy he had killed their captain, but they didn’t seem unhappy either. And, after the invaders had disembarked at Akma’ad, leaving only the captain and his ghostly crew. Stealing the ship had seemed the logical thing to do.

Sam the Foresworn, unable to find out exactly what Delis was up to, immediately began slicing and dicing Sarshan’s allies. While his allies quickly took out the Githyanki thugs, Sam concentrated on the others. The Mindslicer leaped telekinetically atop a strange pillar, so Sam backstabbed the Githyanki warriors before they could deploy their silver sword attacks to full effect.

As long as he stayed at the helm, it seemed the ghostly sailors would follow Tokk’its orders. But he wasn’t sure they were necessarily putting everything they had into it. Long before he got to Overlook Tokk’it ran into a man using a strange cloak covered with ravens to fly toward Akma’ad. He had flagged down the strange figure to warn him about the attack on his home. Blackguard’s Bane (the fellow in the bird suit) told him that Overlook had been attacked by an entire army led by an exiled githyanki general quite recently.

Grigore Goldforge had to call up a heroic level of healing to keep Garen on his feet. Zumos had taken down Sarshan’s protective sphere as quickly as he could and then concentrated on attacking the Mindslicer atop the nautically themed pillars.

Grigore couldn’t help but notice that Sarshan seemed to envy the Mindslicer’s perch. Sure enough: As soon as the protective sphere was down, Sarshan used a shadow teleport to get up on another of the pillars.

Yet he seemed frustrated somehow. Grigore made sure the others stayed away from that pillar once Sarshan demonstrated his Blood Chaos Flare on Garen. The paladin came close to being turned into a blob of Blood Chaos after getting caught in that attack. (Indeed, Grigore would feel slowing effect of the Blood Chaos transformation himself before the battle would end.)

That frustration stopped when some revenant Sarshan had been preparing for sacrifice was freed and used a Frostbolt to knock Sarshan from his perch. Sure, the sickly Shadar-Kai (who seemed to be turning into a Blood Chaos blob right before their eyes) took damage from the fall, but as he burbled toward them he was able to unleash his best attacks (including the Blood Chaos Flare which almost blobbed Grigore himself.

Blackguard’s Bane told Tokk’it that the dwarves of Overlook were unlikely to commit troops to the rescue of the fortress-monastery where the Githzerai scout lived. A surprise attack by an enormous army which no one had seen coming tends to bring out the conservative instincts in that city on the edge of dangerous wildlands. So Blackguard’s Bane told Tokk’it about another place which might relieve the seige: Storm Johnson had a band of anti-slavery “activists” working out of the Elemental Chaos; maybe they would be able to spare some people to go to Akma’ad.

Maxim Shalion was not sure where he was when he awoke. The revenant tied up beside him was sure he had been swept in some kind of law enforcement sweep of the City of Brass. As Maxim understood it, deserters were somehow involved, although where the army he could not figure out.

Unfortunately, they failed to tie up Alen. Maxim had noticed this about Alen: When you’re a quasit imp who can make yourself invisible, people seldom tie you up.

Consequently, even when the sickly Shadar-Kai standing over them noticed Maxim’s efforts to free himself, he never noticed Alen’s efforts to do the same. The imp’s sharp teeth soon had Maxim free (even before the revenant got himself free).

Since the revenant had been helpful enough to tell Maxim that the Shadar-Kai was planning to sacrifice them as part of the ritual he was desperately trying to cast before the forces attacking him broke through the Sphere of Force which protected him, Maxim decided to send the imp over to bite through the revenant’s ropes as well.

The Sphere of Force fell about the same time the two potential sacrifices were freed, so Maxim decided to join forces with the attackers. He quickly dispatched the two Shadar-Kai warriors who had been shadowporting in and out of the sphere. By then, the sickly Shadar-Kai was being knocked off his pedestal by the revenant and the rest of his minions were dead.

“I like this guy!” shouted the leader of the attacking forces when Maxim got off one of his patented bon mots at Sarshan. (During the time that Maxim was freeing himself he heard the leader refer to the Shadar-Kai by that name.)

But it was clear that whatever sickness caused his scars to burble with orange-purple ooze did not stop Sarshan. It was clear the Shadar-Kai was as formidable an opponent as Maxim had ever faced.

So he sent Alen over on a suicide mission: The quasit possessed Sarshan (who was looking more like a blob of orange-purple lava every minute) and forced him to walk over to the crenelations, climb them and leap off the tower.

Now a fall of 200 feet would kill most Shadar-Kai. And a 200-foot fall into a sea of lava would kill almost anything. Thinking his job was done, Maxim headed for the treasure chest Sarshan had been attempting to escape with.

Tokk’it was disappointed to hear that he would not be able to recruit the heroes who had killed General Zitheruun at Overlook to help him rescue Akma’ad. But he admitted to himself that had been a fantasy (a “fancy” as his girlfriend Gallia would put it). This Storm Johnson fellow might be just the kind to take up his fight. And Tokk’it knew the vessel he flew — a troop transport named The Conqueror — was specifically design to fly between the planes.

Zumos moved across the battlefield methodically. First he set off a Fountain of Flame by the Sphere of Force, taking potshots at it until it came down.

Then he concentrated on the Mindslicer who was attacking him from the top of one of the four pillars which dotted the tower. Eventually he brought her down and it was time to go after Sarshan himself. Some unknown sorcerer was attacking the arms dealer as well. The sorcerer used a Frostbolt favored by Rinoa (Zumos’s favorite sorcerer) to knock Sarshan off his perch.

This turned out to be a mistake (in Zumos’s estimation) because the Shadar-Kai arms merchant proved to be much more dangerous (and much uglier, it seemed to Zumos) up close and personal.

When some warlock Zumos didn’t recognize showed up to possess Sarshan and force him to dive off the tower, Zumos and the sorcerer went over to the edge while everyone else began arguing about the loot.

Sure enough, Sarshan — now little more than a blob of Blood Chaos in the lava sea — began a strange process of climbing up the smooth wall of the obsidian tower. The strange blob would shadowport partway up, swing his sword three times in some bizarre ritual, teleport again, then burrow his way into the side of the tower with some acidic Chaos Nova attack.

Zumos watched as Sarshan kept repeating this unusual method of climbing until he came within range of the sorcerer’s Frostbolt. The sorcerer would knock Sarshan back into the Sea of Fire only to see the Shadar-Kai emerge — each time diminished but more blob-like.

Eventually the sorcerer missed one of his Frostbolt shots, and the Sarshan-blob got within Zumos’s range. But Zumos got a little too fancy with his timing: Trying to surprise Sarshan with the exact timing of his Freezing Burst spell, he created a slick spot on the wall just before Sarshan blobbed onto it. The result left Sarshan surprised, but still clinging to the icy spot on the wall by a single tentacle.

After giving Tokk’it directions to Storm Johnson’s secret hideout in the Sea of Fire, Blackguard’s Bane flew back to Overlook to warn them not to send any more diplomats to Akma’ad. And Tokk’it proceeded to the island near the City of Brass. But Storm Johnson was anything but welcoming. The leader of the rebels did not want giant troop transports docking at his secret base. While he was explaining the urgency to Storm, strange flashes of orange light began emanating from a nearby island.

When Garen Bladerun was slowed by Sarshan’s Blood Chaos Flare, it felt as if his blood had turned into the sludgy goopiness of the Blood Chaos itself.

He was able to resist the further transformation into a blob of Blood Chaos, but it seemed like that was a particularly dangerous attack that the arms merchant had used on him. So he was especially pleased when some warlock with a flair for the one-liners convinced Sarshan to take a dive off the edge.

When the combined efforts of the lava, some revenant-sorcerer, and Zumos were unable to keep Sarshan down, Garen sprouted his wings and flew down to attack Sarshan as he clung to the side of the obsidian tower. Chopping at the tentacles Sarshan seemed to be sprouting from his scars, the paladin dropped the arms merchant back into the lava once more.

Storm Johnson seemed to notice the flashes of light as well. “Come on,” the goliath said. “If we use your ship to pick up my scout, at least it will not be hanging around my base, attracting the attention of the slavers.” With that Storm Johnson climbed aboard and directed Tokk’it to sail toward the other island in the Sea of Fire.

Chance Runner was glad the warlock’s imp had freed him from his bonds. He was sure these folks could have handled the guy who had been about to sacrifice Chance and Maxim (that was what the warlock told him his name was, back when they were both tied up).

Sure, it was the warlock who got the crucial attack on Sarshan, forcing him into the Sea of Fire. But it was Chance who kept him there, knocking him back each time more damaged than the last.

Even when Chance missed a Frostbolt blast, it seemed to him that the others struggled to do the job. Chance was sure that he could have covered it had the dragonborn’s attack not knocked Sarshan back into the lava.

Sure enough, it was Chance who got to finish the blob-like creature off.

Good thing some guy named Storm Johnson came along to rescue them from the top of the tower before it fell into the Sea of Fire.

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Alexander's Last Stand
Running a Gauntlet...

…the Rest of the Heroes survive…

…to face Sarshan himself.

Delis Erinthal was the first to realize the key to this room was not killing its inhabitants: The Spectres and the Lingering Spirits were already dead; even the Flesh Golem was probably made up of dead people. Both had probably survived the Crushing Traps more than once.

Sensing that sticking around in a room (which had its walls trapped and ready to close in) was not a good idea (especially when it was filled with the undead), the ranger sped ahead into the next two areas (setting off their own crushing traps in the process).

And she spotted a door.

That seemed to the agile elf the best solution. She called back to Sam and suggested he get there first. He did and found it untrapped, but locked. It didn’t take him long to pick that lock, however, and Delis was the first one through the door.

If her friends couldn’t make it through, then maybe she could cut a deal with Sarshan. A deal that might get her the answers her mistress seeks.

Chance Runner awakened to what he suspected would be another bad day: A stray cat circled him in the alley; it was black; no way was he going to avoid crossing that path.

Duilin Silverfang had a headstart on the group Grigore had introduced as the Golden Scales. He had been researching this island for about a week before Storm Johnson sent him here to scout it out.

The obsidian tower was clearly the structure described in the histories: The Tower of Djamela.

Djamela was a powerful efreet in the City of Brass who engaged in dangerous research. So dangerous, in fact, that the other rulers of that place of slaves threw her out. Unbeknownst to them, however, she set up on a nearby island in the Sea of Fire. Eventually her search for the Key to Elemental Chaos grew so dangerous they had to mount an assassination team to kill her.

Before they did that, she set up traps and guardians to protect her experiments. Once she was safely dead, many worried about those experiments: Could they be used to rediscover whatever powers she had gained from her research?

But the traps and guardians proved too daunting. No one was willing to risk them to destroy her experiments. So it was decided that the traps and guardians should be left in place, to prevent anyone from recreating her efforts.

No doubt that was what the Golden Scales were facing in this room: The traps and guardians left by Djamela before her assassination. Duilin even guessed that the Lingering Spirits might have been the previous victims of the very traps they now guarded.

When Sam got the door open and the Unselie Agent slipped through it, Duilin saw the Spectres lining up to force him back from the only way out. Then Sam tricked one of them into stepping aside for a moment (boy, did that hobbit have some fancy footwork), Duilin took his chance and raced through the door.

Waking up in an alley is usually a bad omen. When that alley is in the City of Brass, it’s a very bad omen. Chance knew this. He was an expert in bad omens.

Sam the Foresworn saw the wisdom of Delis’s insight immediately. The abilities of the guardians of this gauntlet seemed have many abilities which could knock down or immobilize the heroes.

Getting out was the priority. And Sam was already close to the only door which seemed to offer such an escape.

He headed right over to it, checking it for traps and then trying to open it. Sure enough: It was locked. Good thing that was one of Sam’s specialties. He unlocked the door and opened it so Delis and Duilin could step through.

He made sure the rest of the party knew the door was open.

Then he went through himself, as the spectres had already lined up by the door to push anybody back from the door.

The mercenary did not have a chance to get to his feet before his premonitions of disaster were confirmed: “Get up slave! Your master’s got a beating waiting for you,” the guard yelled as he kicked Chance’s sleepy form.

Magdalene was late to arrive at the party, as was her wont.

Still she ended up as the only member of the Band of the Raven to actually kill one of the guardians of the Crushing Rooms.

Not that the Lingering Spirit she killed was actually all that tough. Surely the others could have taken them out, but they were concentrating on escape. The walls of the trapped room (and part of the ceiling) were closing in on them, and the spectres and spirits seemed to have an almost limitless ability to thwart their actions.

Fear is a powerful motivator.

Perhaps it was even the motivator behind Maggie’s efforts to kill one. Because the assassin had a secret way of motivating herself: When she strikes the killing blow on an enemy, she can transfer the momentum of her strike into a rapid dash that leaves her enemies far behind.

So, soon after she arrived in the trapped rooms, Magdalene began to concentrate her attacks on the most wounded of the Lingering Spirits. When the spirit was nearly bloodied, the assassin unleashed a powerful strike which left the spirit unconscious.

That was all it took to give Maggie the momentum to dash past her startled teammates and out the door.

Homeless in the City of Brass, they always assumed you were a slave. It could happen, too. Slavery was the city’s solution to all problems of poverty.

Garen Bladerun was fed up with cowering on the floor.

When he got to the third part of the Crushing Room (where the walls were closing in faster than the traps elsewhere), he tried pushing against the walls. He was able to slow their advance some, but it was only a matter of time before the guardians of the gauntlet got there to smother him with attacks.

Sam had left him a small opening at the left side of the door, so he hot-footed it out of the room.

Chance was careful to be polite as he got to his feet and showed the guard his identification papers, proving that he was a mercenary in the armies of Sarshan (before the defeat at Overlook, but he didn’t emphasize that point).

“Grigore Grigore Morrison Morrison Weatherbie Goldforge DuPre took good care of his mother though he was only three.”

That was the first line of a nursery rhyme his mother used to sing to him when he was young. He thought about it as he considered leaving behind Rinoa and Alexander Winterforged. Was he really “taking good care” of them by leaving them behind?

They knew they had to make a run for it. But, in the end, they would be facing all the guardians of the gauntlet by themselves.

Grigore considered himself the leader of the whole group. So, in the end, he decided to step through the doorway, knowing that both Rinoa AND Alex might die as a result. The other people in the party might need him even more in the coming fight with Sarshan.

Still, it was hardly an easy decision.

“A deserter, hunh?” laughed the guard. “I’ll bet Sarshan’ll pay well for returning a deserter to his ranks.” When one of the other guards pointed out that Sarshan had gone underground after some big defeat, the first guard laughed.

As Garen rumbled past her, it occurred to Rinoa that being the last to get out of this trap might be the hardest trap of all.

As more and more of her allies got through the door, that left fewer heroes for the remaining spirits to concentrate on. While Garen and Alexander were able to use their superior strengths to hold back the crusshing walls and ceilings, this left the Lingering Spirits with little to do but pepper them with attacks.

One of those attacks gave her an unexpected opportunity.

Long ago she had helped a tattoo artist who was being shaken down by a street gang. In gratitude, the artist had rewarded her with a discount on a tattoo depicting broken chains and skeleton keys. He told her the Escape Tattoo could be activated when she was hit with a particularly damaging attack.

When one of the Lingering Spirits wounded her critically with his Spectral Touch, she activated the tattoo allowing her to teleport 15 feet, free of all the spectres and spirits. Then she conjured Ice Stalagmites where three of the spectres blocked her path to the door, sliding them out of her way.

Seizing the opportunity and hoping the cleared path would allow Alexander to follow her, Rinoa sped out the door.

“Sarshan’s always operated underground,” said the first guard, explaining his laughter. “I’ve got a contact. I’ve had a contact since before Overlook. He says he still works for the weapon-seller.”

Buffeted by his own fears, Alexander Winterforged was having a hard time getting up the nerve to run for it.

Ever since he had entered the Crushing Rooms, the dwarf had been plagued by the terrifying wails of the Wailing Spectres. Alex suspected they were banshees of some kind, the pale elves of the Winter Court the older dwarves had tried to scare him with as a child.

When he entered the first section of the gauntlet of crushing traps it seemed as if the wall were already closing in on him. The Terrifying Shrieks of the Bain Sidhe drove him to the walls and left immobilized him with fear. Every time he got up the nerve to fight back, a Spectral Barrage from the Lingering Spirits would force him to the ground.

He saw Rinoa clear a path for him with some kind of icy stalagmites (or was it stalagtites? — Alexander could never remember which was which), but the Sidhe quickly regrouped, forming a line just outside the part of the room where the ceiling was bearing down on him. They drove him back with their wailing shrieks, and the spirits surrounded him.

Fortunately the spirits had been too far away to surround him AND barrage him with illusions. So he was still on his feet.

As the last party member in the room, he knew he had to escape now. The ghosts (as well as the golem) had no one else to attack. Determined to die a hero’s death if he had to die, Alex shifted forward and then made a run for it.

That way only four of the spirits surrounding him would get a chance at him.

One missed, but three others reached out with their Spectral Touch and drained the last of the energy that was keeping him conscious. The ceiling was halted momentarily as it crushed one of the stalagmites, then crushed the last life out of the hero’s body.

He died, defiant to the end.

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Swimming in Lava
And Other Recreational Activities...

…Sure to Warm Your Heart

Grigore Goldforge wasn’t quite sure why he had shared all of his abandonment issues with the newest recruit sent by Storm Johnson to join the Golden Scales. Sure, he had to kidnap his wife and kids from his mother….

…Well, he hadn’t actually done the kidnapping himself. But he had proposed the kidnapping. And tried to convince the Lord Warden of Fallcrest to let him use the Lord’s 15-year-old daughter to help him.

And he had sort-of suggested the Lord Warden’s daughter might help him even if the Lord Warden forbade it.

And that had convinced the daughter to go off on her own to the Shadowfell. Not the kind of place the Lord of Fallcrest wanted his daughter to go off to.

But it had turned out well.

In the end.

Even if it had helped cement Roland’s standing as a spymaster who could be trusted by the Lord Warden.

But that did little to explain why Grigore felt abandoned by Storm Johnson. Storm had been pulled into the Elemental Chaos by forces beyond his control. He had helped Grigore close some of the gates which were plaguing Elsir Vale. He had even sent allies to help defeat Sarshan’s plans to use those gates.

“Have you ever heard of a heliograph?” Storm Johnson asked Duilin Silverfang, handing him a strange-looking contraption.

Duilin didn’t understand why the leader of this group — he called it the Golden Scales — wasn’t any more open about the reason they were on Djamela’s Island than the rest of them. But the monk didn’t worry about it too much.

Any help Duilin Silverfang could get find, scouting the place for Storm Johnson, was all right with Duilin. Especially when the whole island began to convulse with earthquakes. Although the tremors seemed to emanate from the obsidian tower which dominated the center of the island, the first signs of damage were all at the edges: The dikes were soon cracked and the waves of lava pounding the other side began to seep and splash through the cracks in the dikes.

Someone else got the the door open, but Duilin was through it in a flash. He saw a pair of centaurs on a ledge over some purple-orange ooze, and he was on them before they had a chance to charge.

That turned out to be a good thing, too. The centaurs seemed to prefer tactics that allowed them to push their opponents into the ooze, which only got worse when the earthquakes cracked the tower and lava began flowing in to mix with the stuff.

One of them was able to knock the monk into the lava, where he was burned severely before the enlightenment he had developed in the Sea of Air kicked in. Duilin turned himself insubstantial and shifted across the surface of the lava to reach some nearby stairs.

He raced up some stairs, threading himself between Sarshan’s Arctide Spiraliths, to rejoin Sam pressing back the centaurs with the others. This meant the two of them were the prime targets for the Abishai Snipers Sarshan had positioned to guard the platform on the other side of the room.

“Isn’t a heliograph a device sailors use to send messages while they are at sea?” Duilin replied as he examined the piece of equipment.

Delis Erinthal didn’t understand why everyone else in the ragtag band didn’t go all out.

“I mean,” Delis thought to herself, "sure it was good the monk pinned those centaurs against the edge of a long drop, especially when it became clear they horse-humans wanted very much to be charging at the heroes. They demonstrated this thoroughly when one of them knocked Duilin into the mixture of lava and blood chaos.

Delis worked her way past some Githyanki guards to get past the lower levels of the room before they flooded. Even her quick thinking almost didn’t get her there in time: As she climbed the ladder on the other side the flames got to it and set it aflame.

And still: only Rinoa seemed to be following her across to the portal located on the high platform on the other side.

So Delis enveloped a 25-foot intermediary platform in darkness.

“Very good,” Storm Johnson continued. “A heliograph gathers the light of the sun and concentrates it, allowing sailors to send flashes of bright light to other ships. It allows a primitive form of communication. This, on the other hand, is a mariograph.”

Sam the Foresworn was able to use some fancy footwork to trick one of the centaurs into stepping off the edge. The other had to be killed the old-fashioned way: daggers and backstabs.

When Garen carried — once again sprouting wings and flying — one of the less acrobatic members across to join Delis in the fight for the highest platform on the safe side of the room, Sam somersaulted to a statue and vaulted off the flying dragonborn paladin to land in the darkness.

“A mariiograph?” Duilin replied, examining the strange contraption. “What’s a mariograph?”

Rinoa pulled up short when the lava flooded the platform Delis was escaping from. She climbed back up the stairs (finishing off the last githyanki along the way) and used her own athletic prowess to leap across to the statue of a large female effreet.

Another leap got her to Delis’s platform of darkness just after the darkness disappeared.

But that wasn’t the last time her athleticism was called upon: As the party tried to clear the portal platform, the elemental snipers were able to blast them back with explosions of sparking energy. No one was knocked back into the deep lava, but somebody went unconscious when they fell back to the 25-foot platform (which was now being inundated as well.

The stronger members of the party were needed to pull their unconscious body to safety while Alexander finished off the last of the snipers.

“A mariograph is an adaptation of the heliograph to the strange conditions we find in the Sea of FIre. Here in the Plane of Elemental Chaos, we do not have a sun to use for communications. So I have modified a heliograph to use a different light source: the sea itself, which glows quite brightly around the City of Brass. This one is set to signal our island from Djamela’s Island. Just set it up on a steady surface, point this sight to aim right at the City of Brass, and it will be ready to signal us that your scouting mission is complete. Open these louvers three times in quick succession and we will send a boat to pick you up.”

Magdalene was late to the party and just barely made it to the tower ahead of the rising lava tide.

Bounding easily across to the statue, she was able to help Grigore organize an order for the party to proceed through the portal:

  1. Alexander volunteered to go first.
  2. Then Garen,
  3. Duilin next,
  4. Zumos (with possible dilly-dallying),
  5. Delis,
  6. Rinoa,
  7. Sam,
  8. Grigore, while
  9. Maggie brings up the rear.
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Earthbergs Adrift
Sarshan's Defenses Start with a Portal...

…Just Offshore from Djamela’s Island.

Storm Johnson himself skippered the craft that brought Duilin Silverfang to the shores of Djamela’s Island. That alone gave the monk a clear idea of how important the scouting mission was.

Storm maneuvered the Astral Skiff right up to the dike surrounding Djamela’s Island. The dike protected the island from the Sea of Fire, but only just barely. Dulini’s research on Djamela had indicated the efreet had been a powerful chaos mage. He wondered why she had not created a stronger barrier against the lava waves pounding against the dike.

Storm Johnson gave the monk just enough time to step off the skiff before dropping out of sight. Seemed like a good idea, so Duilin scampered down off the dike on the other side, onto the black sand which seemed to make up much of the ground on Djamela’s Island.

Once in the shadow (and everything was shadow alongside the dike since the illumination came primarily from the Sea of Fire itself), Duilin was pretty sure he could make his way around the island without being spotted by the guards.

Those guards were a problem, however, as Storm Johnson had pointed out on the way in. Duilin’s research had led him to believe the only guards left on the island were left there by the forces of the City of Brass. When she was slain, those forces left behind the spectral guards and golems with which Djamela had populated her island fortress, especially in the obsidian tower which dominated the island.

As they had approached the island, Storm pointed out this discrepancy in Duilin’s research. While some of the Flame Shards which appeared to be guarding Djamela’s Island could have been remnants of that spectral force, some of the guardians appeared to be a new vintage: Githyanki swordsmen and some kind of demonic dwarves, as well as a Redspawn Firebelcher.

All of which seemed to confirm the rumors he had been sent here to investigate: Someone seems to have set up residence in Djamela’s old digs.

Perhaps they had even begun to replicate the research she was attempting: research so dangerous she was expelled from the City of Brass for starting it there, research so risky the other efreeti eventually hunted her down.

As he snuck closer to the guards, he realized they were under attack. Reasoning that the enemy of his enemies might be he friend, the monk rushed in to attack the Githyanki from behind.

Grigore Goldforge prepared for sleep with a mixture anxiety and anticipation. A long day left him exhausted and near the end of his resources. And the group he led was even closer their end. Grigore knew Garen was nearly dead on his feet. And yet sleep represented something to fear as well: Grigore’s rest had been disturbed of late; nightmares of some alchemist’s lab kept recurring; somehow, Grigore felt he was failing in dealing with the dreams.

Sam was the first one through the portal, but he instantly knew his chance for scouting was minimal: He came through on a 20-foot earthberg floating on a sea of lava.

And he was not alone. A shard of flame danced on the same piece of rock his portal occupied. And that was not all the guards he saw. Two githyanki had already spotted him and were drawing swords as they stood on a nearby island; two duergar hellcallers stood on other rocks floating in the lava sea; and the earthberg closest to the shore was blocked by a giant red lizard creature which seemed to be about as bothered by the hellish heat as the other guards.

In the distance, Sam could see a city which appeared to be made of brass glinting on the horizon, but he paid it little attention. Speeding between the startled guards, he somersaulted above the lava to land, balanced on his left hand, on the forehead of the lizard. Then he pushed off with his left hand, continuing his somersault to land on the shore of the island, where obsidian steps led up and over the dike which protected the island from the lava which crashed against it.

Flinging his Worm-Tooth Dagger to backstab the startled beast, the halfling managed to enrage the lizard even more.

Then he watched in dismay as Delis and Garen came through behind him, loosed some quick attacks, but did little else to get off their dangerous perches on the rock floating in lava.

When one of the hellcallers invoked Asmodeus’s Ruby Curse, the folly of this strategy was immediately revealed. The psychic damage caused by the fear this curse invokes was bad enough, but fleeing that fear caused the two heroes to slide right off the edge of the earthberg.

Both attempted to leap to another rock, but Sam could see that neither attempt was fully successful: Garen plunged into the lava, while Delis clung to the other rock well below the level the lava was splashing to.

Sam could see they were both in trouble, but he could only save one. He chose Delis as the more vulnerable. He pulled out his Guardian’s Whistle and teleported the elf out of the lava before she was hurt.

Garen took massive damage before he sprouted wings and flew to the shore.

In the dream, Grigore found himself once again searching the house of someone he was sure he was supposed to know. An apothocary or an alchemist. Or something. It all had something to do with a town his family had visited when he was young: the village of Hope’s Hollow.

Alexander had warned everybody that lava was much more dangerous than the Blood Chaos they were all more familiar with. Even so, Garen Bladerun was surprised by the amount of damage lava could do. He was on the brink of death almost as soon as his armor hit the lava.

As quickly as he could he called forth his wings (secretly hoping his actions had been sufficiently Bahamut-like since the last time he called on the powers of the Platinum Temple). Flapping those platinum wings firmly downward into the lava, the paladin surged into the air and flew to the shore, seeking nothing there more fervently than his Second Wind.

Then Garen joined the rest of his team in taking down the Redspawn Firebelcher and the Asmodeus-loving dwarves. This left the Githyanki free to attack them from the rear, but fortunately they had to watch their own rear, as an unidentified monk streaked out of the shadows to help them defeat the island’s first line of defense.

Something seemed wrong to Grigore…in his dream. The house he was searching seemed to be trapped. But he was sure it was the house of a friend, a traveling companion, a colleague. But he knew no one in Hope’s Hollow. The house was trapped, but some of the traps seemed wrong somehow. It was as if someone had been kidnapped and the traps were left behind by the kidnappers to thwart any rescue attempt from freeing the old alchemist. But some of the traps seemed to predate the kidnapping and some seemed to have been laid after the kidnapping.

In the beginning, Alexander Winterforged thought he needed to get off the earthbergs as quickly as possible. And he moved to do so. He knew that lava was a dangerous place to be.

As he worked his way to the shore, jumping from ’berg to ’berg, Alexander helped his friends take down a lizard that fought like a dragon without wings. Reminded him of a Redspawn Firebelcher he had fought once before. In the Temple Between, a place of great importance to his people, known to them as Mountainroot Temple.

Once that lizard went down, they turned their attention to the demonic dwarves who had pushed Delis and Garen into the lava. They had a trick, though: When hit at close range (a melee or a blast), they could call a minion to protect themselves. Those minions could pull a similar trick until finally one was able to dodge the attack.

Alexander realized somebody needed to go back out there and deal with them. He was pretty sure he was the best one equipped to deal with the vulnerabilities the hellish heat out there brought with it.

So, he jumped back onto the closest earthberg and started cutting down the hellguard minions. He was glad to see Sam take down the last with a dagger throw.

In his dream, Grigore felt like he was on the brink of something important. He had found a note, which did not make any sense. Somebody named Taergyn had been kidnapped and his friends were going to rescue him. But what was the note doing in the kidnap victim’s house? Grigore was sure he almost knew the answer. Then he decided to take a new approach: What would his uncle do? That was the question he asked himself.

Delis Erinthal was glad to be pulled out of the lava before it could do any damage, but Sam’s effort had put her right in the middle of the battle.

Not the elven ranger’s favorite place to be.

And the Githyanki guards had battlefield mobility that equaled — or even surpassed — Delis’s own. Not something she was used to dealing with. They were both able to use their telekinetic powers to jump from attack to attack without being touched by their opponents.

So, she was glad to see one of them reduced to using his fists when his sword broke early in the battle. He was still able to throw his opponents off guard by leaping into the fray, but his own attack did little, if any damage.

Delis shouted to a monk who had shown up to help, “We should concentrate on the Githyanki who still has a sword!” The monk seemed to agree. In fact everybody (except Zumos) was able to concentrate on the sword-wielding Githyanki once the dwarves and hellguards went down.

When that Githyanki went down under the onslaught, his friend with the broken sword managed to pick up the silver sword that was still intact. But his attacks were no longer coordinated with the other Githyanki guard, so the heroes were able to dispatch him as well.

Grigore remembered something his uncle had once told him about dreaming and the subconscious: “Only those who can look at their own hands in their dreams can truly be said to be in control of their subconscious thoughts.” Standing in Alchemist Taergyn’s house, Grigore slowly raised his hands in front of his face. Only they were not his hands! They were the hands of his uncle. He was his uncle…in the dream.

As soon as Zumos stepped through the portal, he knew what he had to do.

He had been practicing a particularly difficult pyromancy trick: True Masters of Flame can perform a Burning Transformation, turning themselves into a creature of fire.

Zumos doubted he would ever find a better chance to try out such a transformation for the first time than in the Sea of Fire, an ocean of volcanic lava in the midst of the Elemental Chaos. Even if it were to mean he could not transform back until after the battle was over.

And even if it meant he could not use any power that did not involve fire in some way.

Becoming as insubstantial as a flame, the wizard became difficult to damage. And impossible to damage by fire. This left the Flame Shards at a distinct disadvantage. Zumos’s fire attacks could somehow damage them, yet they could not get through to him. They still thought his fire attacks could not hurt them, but somehow the searing heat of his flames was able to pierce their defenses as if they had no resistance to fire at all.

He was limited in his attacks and eventually used them all up (especially in mopping up the hellguard minions spawned by the demonic dwarves). Then he hit on a devilish strategy of his own: He could dance past the flame shards, teasing them until they attacked him.

Each time they hit, however, his flames were untouched while theirs were burned.

Awakening from his dream, Grigore was able to write down the contents of the note he had found in the alchemist’s house, the house which must have belonged to a friend of his uncle, someone who was a long-time traveling companion of his uncle. For the first time in many days, Grigore felt fully refreshed upon awakening.

Duilin Silverfang was still unsure what to make of his new companions.

They claimed to know Storm Johnson, yet they were somewhat vague about what their connection to the stony warden precisely was. They seemed to be holding something back, yet Duilin found it hard to hold it against them: seemed almost unintentional.

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Some Consequences ARE Immediate:
Like When a Bunch of Wights...

…Suck the Healing Surges Right out of a Paladin.

When the heroes finally caught a glimpse of Sarshan, their way was blocked by four cyclops guards. The disfigured Shadar-Kai arms dealer was able to escape once again. Discovering the cyclops were easy to dispatch if you poked them in the eye, the party found their way blocked by four wights.

The wights concentrated on Garen Bladerun, immobilizing him with their life-stealing blades and sucking the life-energies from his immobilized body with their icy touch.

Beneath the giant oak tree, Grigore Goldforge realized that finding the way would not be easy. Everyone in the Golden Scales was exhausted. The pathways were so narrow he was sure it would be hard to bring everybody’s skills to bear on every obstacle they faced. Even finding their way to the simplest path would prove daunting.

After quickly taking down a curse chanter, Sam realized the real danger was the three-headed leader Sarshan left behind to guard the place with all the portals and pipes. While Delis leaped atop the main pipe and turned its valve so that it no longer spewed Blood Chaos into the crevasse at the center of this facility, Sam could see the skeletal figure with the three heads was somehow enabling the wights to heal themselves.

They also seemed to draw replenishment from Garen when he was immobilized by their blades.

For these reasons, Sam was relieved when Grigore directed the rest of the Golden Scales to concentrate their fire on the undead leader. First they were able to take out the head that was spraying fiery death, then the head which sent out bolt of icy fear flopped to the ground.

The third head (as well as the creature’s body) fell before Sam ever found out what it could do, but the hobbit was certain it wasn’t anything pleasant.

When giant roots blocked their path, Grigore could see that Alexander Winterforged would be able clear them with help from the rest of the Golden Scales. Everybody pitched in and the roots were cleared. Then Alexander and his friends were able to rig some vines and swing across a pit of Blood Chaos. Garen Bladerun needed little help to find the way through a particularly labyrinthine section of the maze of roots. After Sam led them down a dead end, Delis Erinthal stepped up and was able to clear some rocks that got them past by going a different way.

Zumos was somewhat heartened by the fact that the wights seemed to be concentrating their attacks on Grigore and Garen. And the party was finally able to cut down one of those attacking Grigore once the three-heads were knocked off their skeletal leader.

When the remaining wights concentrated on Garen, Zumos was able to surmise what their tactics meant: They had to immobilize someone in order to use their icy touch to heal themselves. Their only chance for survival was to gang up on creatures they could use to heal themselves.

Since Garen was already weakened by earlier fights, both he and another wight eventually went down in the knock-down-drag-out battle that ensued. Grigore’s healing powers were no longer able to heal the dragonborn paladin, and Zumos could see that only a healing potion could bring the paladin back to consciousness.

Zumos was pretty sure he was the only one with any such potions left.

It wasn’t easy, but the wizard worked his way all around the battle only to be trapped in an alcove when the wights shifted to surround Grigore. Fortunately, Zumos was able to squeeze along the wall past the deadly touch of the bloodied wights and pour the potion into Garen’s unconscious maw.

Grigore was frustrated: After Sam the Foresworn and Zumos both failed to find a way forward, he needed to find a the way himself. But he and Garen failed as well. It looked like it was all falling on Alexander’s shoulders. Grigore was not sure the dwarf was up to it. In his desperation, Alex fell back on his superior perception. He found a large room, filled with Sarshan’s lackeys going about all sorts of preparations. Delis was able to lead them past with no one being spotted. Going hand-over-hand on some vines, Alexander was able to get them past the next part.

Coming back from a near-death experience like that reminded Garen to ask the question he had learned in a monastery of the Platinum Temple: What would Bahamut do?

Taking the platinum dragon-god’s voice as his own, he intimidated the last wight into dissipative surrender.

“All I want to to is rest,” thought Garen. But his friends were eager to push on and discover the arcane mysteries of this hub. Alexander Winterforged was finally willing to examine the runic circles on the floor more carefully.

Garen could see that they were fired into the floor. Someone had imprinted the runes into the soft mud which once made the floor of this underground chamber. Then the mud itself had been hardened like brick. “Probably the skeleton guy,” Garen mused. “He probably used that withering flame his left-most head could breathe.”

Alexander told him the portals were no ordinary teleportation focuses. He insisted they were capable (with the right rituals) of diverting some liquid substance to other locations on this plane. It was obvious to Garen what that liquid was: Blood Chaos was clearly visible below them in the nearby crevasse.

The rest of the party was more concerned about the other side of the crevasse, where Sarshan had disappeared. But Garen could see that it was just a dead end.

Sam and Delis found a way through last part of the root-filled labyrinth with only a minor delay as Zumos failed to move some boulders which proved to be superfluous to the effort to find a way through.

Everyone was interested in searching the body of the lich, but Delis wanted to know more about the portal through which Sarshan escaped. Alexander had been able to determine that it was strengthened so that even a non-ritual-magic-user could use. But Sarshan had also locked it behind him.

Documents carried by the skull lord identified it as an envoy of Onthorirfel. “I know who that is!” cried Grigore. “Where I come from, Onthorirfel is a famous lich. But everyone assumes he dwells in the Shadowfell.” Which made sense to Delis, since Sarshan (disfigured though he might be) was clearly of Shadar-Kai origin.

The documents also suggest that Sarshan and the lich have been collaborating on some plot, though no details are provided.

Zumos was able to confirm that Onthorirfel is a powerful lich famed for his specialization in ritual magic.

A combination of investigations (including Religion, Arcana and Nature) was able to unlock the portal, but Delis quickly realized that it would take four hours for the unlocking to fully unfold.

“Just enough time for a rest,” thought Delis.

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Consequences Are Not...
...always immediate...

…as an old song might remind us.

As Zumos looked around the darkened swamp, he heard Falrynth say, “This is not the way it used to be.” After a pause, the old sage restated it, “This is not the way it is supposed to be.”

And Zumos agreed.

The swamp, which should have be in something close to complete darkness, was lit by the glow of a strange substance covering the lake as far as the eye could see: Blood Chaos, that was what Falrynth called it.

The purple-orange lava had nearly destroyed the village where the elderly man lived. Completely destroyed the tower where Falrynth made his home, near as Zumos could figure.

Then the old man’s exclamations seemed to attract more problematic attention: A large adult green dragon was circling the oak tree whose branch supported the platform Zumos found himself on. The huge reptile seemed to focus in on the two of them in their exposed position.

He ran for it and the old man followed.

The dragon executed a flyby attack as they got near the trunk of the tree. Then it appeared to swing around for another pass when a horrific cry echoed through the swamp.

The dragon answered the anguished call and turned to continue its flight around the tree. Zumos could see hiding places under the gnarled roots spreading from the oak’s base. He ran down the stairs someone had carved in one of the roots and got to the mud below.

As he tried to make his way around the tree (choosing in the direction the dragon had come from rather than the direction the dragon had flown off toward), he found his way constantly blocked by the thick mud, which made going quite slow. He tried to use his Water Stride on the mud, but this only swapped one kind of difficult terrain for another.

Hiding in Talar seemed a less attractive idea after Megan Swiftblade realized that Sarshan had tracked her there and began to release his vengeance on Elsir Vale in the town where she grew up. The sage there had identified the purple-orange ooze as the Blood Chaos. And she had important information for the council back in Overlook.

Sam and Maggie took Grigore’s advice to heart: As soon as the male dragon took off to investigate the strange sounds coming from the other side of the tree, they attacked the female with everything they had, hoping to take her down before the other returned.

Grigore saw that his plan to defeat the dragons in detail was working: The smaller dragon flew over the root which sheltered her lair and blocked the doorway with her immense bulk. Grigore could see that the Master Thief and Guild Executioner were pouring on the damage with their thrown weapons, while Rinoa pinned the dragon against the door she guarded.

Even Copper got into the act stepping in front of the green dragon. His ability to draw the dragon’s fire did little to protect the rest of the party, however, since the she-dragon was to breathe on most of the party while attacking him. Her terrifying presence was even able to hit Sam, who had found a perch on the root over her lair. Maggie managed to get far enough up the giant oak to be out of the range of both attacks.

Returning to Overlook, Megan went straight to the High Hall and told them Sarshan plans to flood Elsir Vale with the strange substance he used to attack her in Talar. Reluctantly admitting The Golden Scales were in hot pursuit of the arms merchant, she told them they had temporarily halted the flow of Blood Chaos into Talar.

Karic had to leave his wolf-dog behind to scramble up one of the roots. But he wanted the advantage a ranger gains, shooting from a distance.

When his new friends, Maggie and Sam, bloodied the female dragon quickly, the green behemoth let out a cry of anguish and engulfed most of the rest of the party in its poisonous breath. At first, Karic was glad he was out of that maelstrom of sickly, green gas. Then he heard an answering cry and realized where it came from.

Her mate.

As the male dragon hove into view, the plucky elf knew what he had to do. His dog howled, as he began peppering the mighty dragon with disrupting shots, designed to immobilize it. Even when he missed to exact on the dragon wings he hoped would stop it, he was able to slow the great beast’s progress.

It turned its attention toward him. “I guess it thinks I’m preventing it from rescuing its mate,” thought Karic. “If I survive this, I guess I’ll be able to tell the tale of how I soloed an adult green dragon.”

The dog howled again, this time putting some wolf into it.

After working up quite a thirst answering the questions of The Council of Elders, Megan headed for her favorite tavern in Elftown, The Turned Spoon. She asked the halfling potboy for a large tin pot and dumped a handful of coppers inside. When the bard paused between love songs, she began to beat out a military beat on the side of the pot. “Rat-tat-tat, rattle-tat-tat-tat.”

As Garen Bladerun lay in the mud trying to catch his breath, he marveled at the way the large male dragon was slowed by Karic’s arrows. The dragon was eventually able to break free of the elf’s harassing fire, but not before its mate was in serious trouble.

In fact, almost as soon as the second dragon arrived and delivered the first poisonous blast of its breath weapon, Coppershot killed the female dragon guarding the door. This sent her mate into a rage.

As the paladin saw his companions race for the door beneath the tree, he watched Copper moved in the other direction. Garen began crawling toward the door himself, although he was not sure he could make it in time.

At first, he thought Copper was planning to fight the dragon by himself. Then it dawned on Garen that the warden was executing a classic paladin move: deliberately forcing the dragon to face away from the rest of the party.

And the dragon seemed to be cooperating. So great was his fury at the dwarf who had killed his mate, he could not seem to attack anyone else. His terrifying presence froze Copper and caught the barbarian, Esterhu, as well. Esterhu could do little more than whine piteously and argue with his sword.

At least, that’s what it looked like to Garen.

At first the bard looked annoyed at Megan’s drumming. Then he recognized the rhythm and smiled. Who’s the Paladin? was always a crowd pleaser. And he was tired of singing the same sweet songs all the time.

Zumos’s frustration was overwhelming. He could hear the battle ahead, but the mud kept sucking at his boots. As he made his way forward, he could not help but wonder if going the other way around the tree might have been faster.

He struggled out of the muck and up some stair which climbed over the final tree root, confronting the scene of his friends and the green dragon fighting over the body of another green monster.

“That must have been the one that let out the horrible cry,” he said to himself as he unloaded his best spells on the remaining dragon.

He was able to whittle the dragon down enough to bloody it before it sent another breath of poisonous gas at Copper. Only one other hero was caught in the green gases.

“I’m sorry I diverted your show, Tom,” the Freerider apologized. “But I was in the mood for Who’s the Paladin?
“No problem,” replied the bard. “I’m kinda sick of every lady who comes in here asking for showtunes.”
“The Band of the Raven has a new paladin. And they just rescued me.”
“Oh, I thought you didn’t have much use for the Order of the Black Feather.”
“The rest of them seem brave enough. Just might rescue this city one more time. But that Paladin may just lose his wings if he doesn’t grow a pair.”

Once Sam had the door unlocked, most of the others headed for its safety beneath the tree. But Copper wanted to fight on, and Grigore decided to make it one last offer:

“I will heal your mate, if you stop fighting us.”

But Grigore had apparently mistaken the origin of the dragon’s rage. As a thoroughly evil creature he was not angry so much out of love for his mate. The fact remained: Copper had deprived him of his mate, and Copper was standing there, right in front of him, practically asking to be killed.

The rest of the party beckoned, suggesting that Sarshan was getting away. Copper still wanted to finish off his second dragon of the day.

But, when the dragon’s terrifying presence left the barbarian stunned again, Grigore convinced Copper to join the rest on the other side of the door.

Which was quickly closed, locked and barred.

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