Scaled Down Scales

Submersibles versus Sahuagin
Arctic Creatures Greet the Newest Members...

…of the Order of the Black Feather…

…with the traditional customs of their people: brandishing their tridents and gnashing their teeth.

Li Sun was frustrated at how hard it was to get at the Arctic Sahuagin swarming his vessel. So he was hardly surprised when Jonalith climbed the mechanical lobster up on the shelf of ice and raced it toward the only exit from entrance cavern.

The stairs beyond seemed to lead up into the iceberg above them and the elf seemed to be trying to prevent the blue frogmen from escaping upward. “Maybe he’s worried about their allies further up.”

As soon as Jonalith had wedged the vehicle into the stairwell, he climbed out and began peppering the Sahuagin with arrows. The creatures immediately abandoned their attempts attack the vessels with tridents thrown from a distance and swarmed the elf on top of the submersible.

“Never seen a ranger tank before.” But Li Sun had to admit that Jonalith was doing a pretty good job of drawing their fire. He saw Andrea jump out and start healing, but the elf needed the healing of an ardent as well.

“Oh, well,” he said, climbing out into the fray, “I guess I’ll have to expose myself as well.”

Tokk’it directed the insectoid creature (which Belinda insisted was her latest recruit) up to the temple which also served as the seat of government in this besieged paradise.

Andrea Ravn was so worried about the damage the Sahuagin priest was handing out that she began to draw deeper on her special reserves. She hardly noticed the disapproval of the others, who were obviously saving their resources for subsequent battles.

Every time they got position on one of the frogmen, the priest would use some power to blast them out of position. The snow was not all that slippery, but the creature seemed to be able to make seem like pure ice.

Toward the end of the fight, Andrea even downed one of her regeneration potions. When Li Sun tried to stop her, she downed it anyway. A few moments later, the potion became invaluable as Andrea herself was knocked unconscious a brought right back by the regeneration.

Even Li Sun had to admit the fight was close enough after the priest exploded in ice shards that the potion may have been necessary.

Klaxi made his way up the steep hillside and met a strange lady at the library. Tokk’it had described it as a temple, but it seemed more dedicated to books and learning to Klaxi. “Maybe they worship knowledge in this culture,” he said, but no one really paid attention. They all seemed to be going about their own business.

Jonalith was glad the blue Sahuagin concentrated on the two healers after they demonstrated their prowess at the beginning of the battle. But he had to use all of his multi-shot tricks with his bow to finish them off at the end.

Li Sun even broke his magic longspear before the battle was over. “That might even be more of a problem than all of the dailies Andrea spent,” he told the ardent.

They found nothing on the bodies except some tridents to replace Li Sun’s broken weapon.

Andrea spotted an underwater tunnel leading upward. Since it was too small for the submersibles, the Dragonborn warlord decided to swim it herself. She returned quickly admitting that she had aroused the attention of “the largest froggie I’ve ever seen.”

She did get a pretty detailed look at the room, describing a Frost-Eye Beholder guarding a tunnel exiting the ceiling.

Jonalith decided he better do the scouting.

Picking the left-most stairs — “furthest from where Andrea found the Arctic Sahuagin,” he reasoned — he crept up and around the corner. But the Frost-Touched Behir spotted him quickly and he retreated.

“Only one way left to try,” he said as he mounted the other stair. Jonalith could not see the Frost-Eye or the shaft that Andrea mentioned, but it was hard to miss the giant Arctic Sahuagin turning his way.

Unfortunately, the giant froggie saw Jon, too.

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Traveling to the Source
The Iceberg Known as Icehome...

…Using Vehicles which Look Like…

…giant mechanical lobsters, the three adventurers had to split up: Li Sun and Jonalith took the first submersible, while Andrea Ravn had to go it alone in the second.

Andrea Ravn remembered most of what her teachers had said about Nefelus. “Sure, the city of Magic has been out of contact with the rest of the world for over 400 years,” her master told her. “But that is hardly ancient history. Two millenia have passed since the world heard from the Dragonborn Empire.”

Nefelus was an island nation when it came to prominence defeating a great evil that threatened the whole world. But they came to believe the rest of the world was insufficiently grateful for their efforts.

“They had nothing to do with the causes of the problem, at least in their minds,” her master told her. “But they were crucial to the solution and they thought everyone should be mindful of their contribution.”

Andrea understood the lack of appreciation might have been only in the minds of the Nefelese, but that was enough for them to withdraw from the rest of civilization and become isolationist. “As if hiding from the world would mean the problems of the world would never find you,” she thought.

As soon as the city came into view, Andrea saw the Temple. Famous the world over Andrea was clear that the building housed one of the greatest libraries in the world. While she hungered to break off from the party and explore its shelves, she found herself ushered along with the rest of her group.

Andrea was happy to find that their guides (who acted as much like guards as ushers) took them to the Temple itself. Amyria told them to wait while she met with the Thraxinium (some sort of council of mages which ruled over this magocracy).

Eventually they were able to question their host — a member of this august body — who told them about the magickal assault Nefelus found itself under.

“Just before Nefelus was blockaded by the ice we sent three ships to find the source of the problem,” he told them. “Two were lost, but one made it to the iceberg. The crew perished, save one. Uarion was a Githzerai whose mental powers enabled him to make it inside, but we do not know what became of him once he got too close to the Seed of Winter.”

Before she knew what she was saying, Andrea — along with Jonalith and Li Sun — had promised to rescue Uarion, capture the Seed of Winter, break the blockade, and free Nefelus from the icy ring which surrounded it.

“At least, we can bring back his body,” she thought to herself.

After Amyria told them this promise the thing to bring Nefelus into the coalition, Bejam took them to three vessels capable of traveling underwater.

“Perhaps, if you approach unseen, you will not be attacked like the other three vessels,” he told them.

Andrea was so confident in her ability to figure out the submersibles that she decided to pilot one by herself. She recognized the vessels as Apparatuses of Kwalish. Confident that she knew enough of the history of Kwalish (a renowned inventor and magician) that she could figure out the controls.

Once she was in the craft, she found she did not remember as much as she thought she did. Before she was able to use what she remembered about how Kwalish like to design his inventions, she was floundering around in the shallows.

“I hope that doesn’t attract the attention of the Arctic Sahaugin Bejam told us about. I don’t like frogmen, even if these are blue.”

Klaxi found the City of Argent in the midst of a siege. An older gentleman, who seemed to be in charge of its magickal defenses, asked him to go to Nefelus to recruit additional mages. “I think Amyria has a plan to enlist their aid,” he said. “Belinda of Fallcrest should be able to help you find her.” Then he gave the insect-warrior a scroll which would take him to Belinda’s mother. “Perhaps you should avoid mentioning all this to her father.”

Jonalith was not sure what was going on in the other submersible, but it didn’t look good.

“Perhaps I can lead her to a safer path,” he told Li Sun, who was in the same craft. “An elf should be able to find the way, even underwater.”

Watching the currents it did not take him long to guide the mechanical lobster into a narrow trench pointed straight towards the iceberg.

“Not only will this protect us from observation, but look at those currents.”

Once Li Sun had them point out, he was amazed. “Those’ll cut 30 minutes off the time the trip takes us.” Jonalith knew Li was thinking about the limited air in their vessel. Then she saw Andrea avoiding some of the Sahuagin as she scurried her vessel into the trench behind them.

He saw Li Sun was using his arcane knowledge to figure out how to operate the claws of the lobster. “just stick your hands in here and wiggle your fingers,” the ardent said as the claws lifted up off the muddy bottom. “I should be able to even help you move along. And, if we have to fight some blue froggies….”

The claws snapped enthusiastically.

Tokk’it was hardly surprised when another adventurer came through the portal with Belinda. But the nature of the creature… “He seems to be some kind of insect,” he whispered to the young wizardess, who nodded with a smile.

Through the sealed porthole, Li Sun could see that Andrea was finally getting the hang of the controls. “Maybe all that history helped her figure out some of the quirks of these machines. Kwalish sure had some funny ideas about how to make them do what you want them to do.”

Just then Jonalith dropped the submersible all the way into the lowest point in the trench. “More frog-boys,” he whispered, and Li Sun frantically gesture back to Andrea. The warlord seemed to get the message and slowed her vessel as well.

As Andrea sat motionless, apparently waiting for the Sahuagin to pass, she seemed to be practicing with the claws which Li Sun had already mastered. “Finally trying out her Arcana skills,” he told Jonalith.

Sure enough, when they started up again, he could see the dragonborn was using the claws as well as the legs to propel the craft forward. A little fiddling with his own arcane skills and Li Sun was helping push his submersible along as well.

As they approached the iceberg, Li Sun could see the frozen formation had reached all the way to the bottom. “That could make it hard to climb up,” he said to the elf.

But Jonalith was already on it. He found a narrow tunnel leading upward into the iceberg. As the ranger steered the vessel inside, Li Sun turned around to see that Andrea’s lobster was still following.

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Smashing through the Ice Wall
Surrounding the Island-City-State...

…known as Nefalus.

Tokk’it guided the Conqueror toward the spot where Amyria’s maps suggested the island city-state of Nefelus was located. But all he could see was a fog bank up ahead.

And the allies Amyria had promised him for this adventure had so far been slow to arrive. Li Sun and Andrea Ravn had showed up — through the portal Belinda left on the foredeck — but he was expecting more help for such an important mission. But a warlord and an ardent might be just the ticket if they needed a lot of healing in their attempt to run the blockade.

Still, a blockade made of fog was not what Tokk’it had expected.

“Strange way to set up a blockade. Seems like ships could just sail right through it. Still, the fog may be hiding the real obstacle.” But what navy — trying to blockade an island — would hide themselves in such an unnatural fog? “Surely that would help the blockade-runners more than the blockade.”

He adjusted the horizontal tiller a bit to bring his airship up to a high altitude as it entered the fog bank.

Amyria knew she faced a difficult task getting everyone in the Alliance to accept a single leader. “And it will only be harder once the Nefelese are involved. Lord Torrance will surely be jealous of the superior magickal resources of Nefelus.” She remained certain the Alliance needed everything it could muster.

Li Sun stood on the foredeck, squinting into the mist. Now that the Conqueror had entered the fog, he could barely see the end of the bowsprit jutting out in front of the airship.

The ardent only spotted the iceberg after a ghost-sailor in the crow’s nest shouted out and Tokk’it threw the ship hard to starboard to avoid it.

“What is an iceberg doing to high?” Li Sun was sure they entered the fog at least 100 feet above the water and the captain was obviously trying to get even higher. But as the ship narrowly avoided the ’berg, he could see just how big it was.

And Tokk’it was angling the vessel upward so rapidly that Li Sun had to grab the railing. Even so, the airship barely reached the lip of a growing wall of ice.

“That’s what they are trying to block the island with! A giant wall — or even a hemishere — of ice.”

But the barracade still had a hole in it. And Tokk’it was trying to smash it larger by driving the airship through the hole.

And whoever was erecting the ice-wall was not taking chances: Ice giants were positioned at the hole. They were already directing volleys of Icy Arrows at the heroes on the decks of the ships. Andrea, the dragonborn, was valiantly trying to operate the ballista on the main deck.

When her first bolt was easily dodges by one of the giants who did not have a frostbow, the warlord gave that up as a bad job.

Amyria did not hesitate. She ran out on the bowsprit as it punched into the ice and leapt to the flat ice at the bottom of the hole, taking the fight right to the giants. When Andrea followed her out onto the ice, Li Sun decided she would have to get out there and help them.

The airship slowed significantly as the bow plowed into the ice-wall, but Li Sun could see that the ice was breaking. Perhaps they could smash through.

Once he got out on the ice, he caught up with the others. Then it was time to fight a rear-guard action as the giant from the other side of the ship circled around in front of the vessel and tried to trap Andrea in an icy vice.

Amyria was able to fight valiantly against the giants, but nothing she did could stop them from attacking the two healers.

Then, as the first of the Ice Giants fell to Amyria’s onslaught, Li Sun saw the airship break through to the other side of ice wall.

All they had to do was fight their way back aboard…

…before the vessel slid through the hole.

Klaxi was not sure why he had been summoned to the queen’s chamber, but he was sure it was a great honor. “If I was in trouble, she would certainly send out her drones to punish me.” But he was not prepared for her request that he represent the hive in some faraway city called Argent. “On another plane, no less.”

As the Conqueror worked its way through the hole in the iceberg-wall surrounding Nefelus, Andrea Ravn saw Li Sun step easily aboard. The ship continued to slide forward and Amyria was able to leap the remaining distance to the vessel.

Knowing she had stubby dragon wings to help her leaping ability, Andrea stayed behind to delay the Ice Giants and prevent them from getting aboard the ship. But she was overwhelmed when the giants concentrated their efforts on her.

Apparently stopping anyone from breaking through their blockade was important to them.

Even if the “anyone” was just a dragonborn warlord from the swamps of a dead empire.

Slowed by the icy cold from the giants, Andrea had little chance to make the leap

So, when Li Sun threw her the rope he had tied to the mast earlier, she leapt into the fog and ended up swinging from the stern of the airship. Li Sun came over to help her climb up the rope, but a swing and a leap — aided by her stubby little wings — was all it took.

“No climbing required,” she exulted as she landed on the afterdeck, admitting she did not relish being dragged along the ice until Li Sun had pulled her above the keel.

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3 Days After the Coalition Meeting
...Caliandra Is Back in Sayre...

…Tearfully Recounting the Slaughter…

…of five of the tribes (nearly 1,000 warriors and their families) under her leadership at the hands of Githyanki strike teams.

We are ending the tax-season hiatus this Saturday (May 7).

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Jonalith and Ragnar Go Straight After Paldemar
And the Rogue Mage Locks them...

…in his Room. But Jerath Shows up to Heal them.

Ragnar the Mighty wasn’t about let a measly door stand in his way. Jon said it was magickally locked, but that didn’t stop Ragnar. He lowered his head and tried to smash it in.

And rebounded from the door without even touching it.

So, he tried again.

And bounced off without damaging the door. The elf suggested they both try at once. And, sure enough, the door opened to their combined strengths.

Inside they found a crystal ball, a curtain, and a desk. Ragnar lifted the curtain and found a robed magician.

Paldemar!

He charged and Paldemar disappeared. Jonalith got a shot off, Paldemar used his invisibility to make his escape and lock the two of them in his room.

Deciding to take advantage of the situation to steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, Ragnar approached the crystal ball. But, as soon as he tried to pick it up, he saw a figure in shadowy robes within the crystal. It reached out its arm as if pointing toward him. A psychic blast hit him in the forehead, and the crystal ball shattered into hundreds of shards.

“I guess those pieces won’t be worth much,” he told Jon.

Paldemar took advantage of this situation by taking pot shots at from one door and then the other. So they wrestled the bed they found behind the curtain to block one door and positioned themselves near the larger door. Ragnar got off a surprise attack when the Mage opened the door and Jonalith managed to slip inside before the Norker Slinger who was helping Paldemar could shut the door.

Even though his blow had driven Paldemar to the ground, the wizard managed to get inside and restore his Mage Lock on the door.

“Magic,” the barbarian cursed and proceeded to take his anger out on the slinger. Unable to use his sling, the Norker was reduced to ankle-biting and daggers. Ragnar and Jonalith finished him off pretty quickly. But not before another Norker showed up. Ragnar recognized this one as a berserker.

By the twin flails he was wielding.

Just then, Jerath showed up.

“Well, that was strange,” the hobbit said to his sister. “One of those Mages of Saruun came asking me about why we haven’t seen any of them around lately. How should I know?”

Jerath followed the instructions he got from Blackguards’ Bane after the assassin let him through the hidden door at a turn in the Road of Lanterns. The Spirit of Vecna demanded lore, power or his soul, but ended up satisfied with very little.

He made his way through two levels of the tower-like maze and found Li Sun and some others. The ardent was in pretty bad shape, but told Jerath to hurry through yet another portal. “Jon and Ragnar have gone ahead to find Paldemar, but I fear they’re going to need your healing.” Then Li Sun explained the layout of the next level.

Taking stock of the situation, Jerath decided to go straight to the big room to find Jonalith and Ragnar. And they sure were in need of healing. But as soon as he started that task, he found himself attacked by a wizard who had appeared behind him.

And then the statue of Vecna began blasting him as well.

Jonalith told him he couldn’t take any more healing, but that was just as well. Jerath backed away from the statue, but Ragnar insisted on charging repeatedly at a Norker who was sheltering near it. He needed all the healing Jerath could deliver.

There’s only so much that words of encouragement can do.

Once the Norker went down, Jerath hid behind one the crystal pillars whose magic Paldemar had depleted and sent the wizard blundering into the path of one of Ragnar’s charges. At first the barbarian didn’t understand what Jerath was doing, but once he saw Paldemar blunder toward him, he was glad to charge and attack.

“Paldemar not only sent us off on that wild goose chase,” one white-robed mage told the other, “he seems to have disappeared himself. The halfling just told me no one has seen the any of our Order for several days. After he promised he would keep up appearances in our absence.”

Jonalith saw his chance. The giant Bronze Warder could not make its way between the pillars and other obstacles to attack the bard, but it still had one chance to attack. It would have to target the barbarian instead of Jerath.

And there was only one path toward Ragnar.

So Jon put a trap right in the middle of that path. He could see that the giant construct noticed the trap, but it apparently thought it could push its way past, relying on its enormous bulk to absorb the trap’s damage.

“Not this trap,” he thought as the contraption stepped on the trap and slid backwards, its motion momentarily arrested. When it tried to move again, it found iself slowed dramatically.

When the Idol of Vecna sent a fiery blast his way, Jonalith realized that he could draw its fire by staying close to it and his resistance to that element would prevent all but the most extreme fire damage.

“Nobody get close to the Idol,” he shouted. “I’ll draw its fire. I can take it.”

That was all it took to finish off Paldemar. Then it was simply a matter of maneuvering to places the Warder could not reach and pot-shotting it with arrows.

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Surrounded by the Exhausted Bodies
...of his Fellows from the Order...

…Li Sun Decides to Scout the Lair of Paldemar…

…alone.

The dim light of the Shrine of Vecna seemed to come from the walls themselves. Li Sun could see three doors. Knowing that Paldemar was aware his infernal machine had been destroyed, he tested each door quietly.

  1. The door to the west was locked.
  2. The door to the east was unlocked. The ardent opened it quietly and saw another of the Bronze Warder. Fortunately, the Warder did not see Li Sun as he quietly closed the door.
  3. The door to the north was unlocked as well. But the occupants of this room were on high alert. They spotted him immediately. He slammed the door and retreated through the portal behind him.

Once he was back with the rest of his team, he reported what he had seen in his brief glimpse into the Shrine of Vecna:

  • A statue of Vecna, crafted from iron and very large. A skeletal figure in robes, missing its left eye and left hand.
  • A symbol of Vecna, crafted as a mosaic into the floor in the center of this minor temple. A severed hand holding and eyeball.
  • Four crystal pillars, crafted from crystalline rock. Arrayed about the room.
  • Two brazier, crafted of brass. Providing garish shadows to the lighting.
  • An Idol of Vecna, crafted from black rock. Fashioned into a giant skull with an eye set in its right socket. The left socket is empty.

He told his teammates of the occupants who spotted him:

  • Several Norkers, the creatures who resembled hobgoblins who had been plaguing them since they had entered the Tower of Mysteries (some were armed with slings, some with flails); and
  • At least one cloaked figure which resembled the Enigmas of Vecna they had already fought.

He saw no sign of Paldemar.

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Hidden Leader
After his Infernal Machine Is Destroyed...

…Paldemar Makes a Brief Appearance…

…and promises to kill those who have foiled his plans.

Jonalith heard clanking noises ahead which Li Sun and Lagolas could not seem to detect. So he quietly proceeded down the wide corridor from which they emerged. Peeking around a corner he saw a large bronze machine marching inexorably toward the party.

“Some kind of guard device,” he thought.

Didn’t take long to figure out the Bronze Warder could shove pretty much anybody out of it’s way. At first Jonalith thought he could hide behind a teammate and throw magic daggers at it.

But the bronze creature would charge him every time. And, if Lagolas was in the way, it would knock him to the ground.

Lag was spending a lot of time on the floor.

Just when Jon realized the big bronze behemoth could not charge between the pillars around the teleportation circle, the doors on the other side of the corridor opened up and two more creature started pot-shotting him: Another Enigma of Vecna and a goblinoid of some sort.

This put an end to any plans Jonalith had of hiding behind the pillars and taking some pot shots of his own. “Sure, I could wear the Bronze Warder with him being able to get at me. But those other two would do the same to me.”

Amyria looked to the assassin in anticipation. She had sent Blackguard’s Bane to seek out Li Sun and Sun, along with the rest of their team. “They should be about finished with the slavers in Thunderspire,” she suggested. She had already sent Tokk’it ahead to scout the island nation of Nefalus, with one of Belinda’s teleportation circles inscribed on the deck of his ship.

Li Sun saw that the Norker was opening the door for the Enigma, and the Enigma was sniping with impunity. So he rushed the door the next time it opened and discovered what was inside the room.

An Infernal Machine of some sort was standing near the center the table around the room were covered with bottles. “Looks like acid to me,” he thought.

This was confirmed a few moments later when Jonalilth joined him in the laboratory. When Jon missed a swing, he knocked over some bottles and was burned by their contents.

Meanwhile, Lagolas was still getting knocked over by the Bronze Warder, which had followed them into the lab.

Blackguard’s Bane told Amyria, “They discovered a complication. After they mopped up the Duergar slavers they found evidence they were working with someone who was trying to take over the Mages of Saruun. Or maybe take over from the Mages. That led them to a bunch of evil-worshipping Gnolls. The leader of the Gnolls apparently knew who was out to get rid of the other Mages. Paldemar, one of their own. Now they are trying clear him out of his fortress.”

Tired of constantly getting knocked back down, Lagolas decided to try firing from the floor. His burning spray was able to hit all three of his adversaries, so he started trying out his more powerful spells.

It didn’t take long for the three adventurers to clear out the lab.

Then they took a closer look at the Infernal Machine. The others could not make heads or tails of the large, glass container. But Lagolas had a good idea once he saw the head of a Bronze Warder floating inside. The tubes and pipes were obviously designed to help keep the head alive.

But, Lagolas saw the ritual that was being prepared, he knew this machine was almost ready for a far more sinister purpose: taking control of all the Bronze Warders in the Thunderspire Labyrinth and deposing the Mages of Saruun.

For the Mages used these bronze contraptions to rule. Lagolas wasn’t certain how good their rule was.

But it had to be better than rule by a cult dedicated to Vecna.

He convinced the others to let him destroy the Infernal Machine, and they hid behind the lab tables. A good thing, too, since the machine’s acrid, glowing green liquid sprayed all around when it burst.

It didn’t take Paldemar long to realize the ritual had been stopped. As soon as the machine was destroyed, he teleported into the room to see who had done the damage.

“Oh, you shall die for this!” was all he said before teleporting away again.

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Another Elven Ranger
Joins the Party...

…and is immediately gunned down…

…by the minions of Vecna.

Ragnar the Mighty lowered his head and charged the pillar that had attacked him, but Wicked Fang seemed unimpressed.

“That’s nothing but stone, you fool,” the sword whispered. “You have to find the source of the attack.”

So Ragnar charge southward. There he found Norker minions pouring from yet another portal. And he was also attacked by stouter goblinoids with battleaxes. And he began to wish he had spent a little more time practicing his defenses.

“Screw defense,” whispered his sword. “I’ve always dreamed of infinite goblins to kill.”

But LI Sun’s healing was not keeping up with the damage he has taking.

Ragnar began to suspect he was going to need his battle rage.

Valna discussed the Order of the Black Feather with the Lord Warden of Fallcrest and became convinced the Order had been infiltrated by at least one agent of The Winter Court. Even the warden’s intelligence officers seemed certain of this. He decided the best way to keep an eye on them was to offer his services, taking care of their mounts. These Trihorn Behemoths had been taken into The Thunderspire Labyrinth by members of the Order who were clearing the place of slavers for the Lord Warden. Once he got to the Seven-Pillared Hall the huge beasts weren’t hard to find, stabled at an inn run by a local hobbit.

At first, Jon the Elf thought holing up in the small room he had discovered was the best strategy. They searched the room for any sign of the creatures who were attacking through the pillars. But they found nothing.

Jonalith could see that they could defend the doorway well enough. But, as long as the pillars could attack them with impunity, they would eventually be worn down.

After Ragnar attempted to scout the portal from which the Norkers were emerging, Jon came to the conclusion they had to search the room on the other side of the portal.

Valna of the Moonstair introduced himself to the halfling who brought in Blackguard’s Bane. The revenant took Valna to a secret door on the Road of Lanterns and showed him where Li Sun and the others had gone. Once Valna went through a test of his lore, he found himself surrounded by pillars which were casting lightning bolts at him. And other magicks as well. By the time he caught up with the Order of the Black Feather, he was on his last legs.

Li Sun was glad to see help arrive. But the elven ranger did not look to be in any better shape that the rest of the new recruits.

In fact, he slumped unconscious from the blasts emanating from the pillars shortly after appearing from around the corner.

“Oh, well,” sighed the ardent, “I guess I better heal him as well.”

By this time, Ragnar and Jonalith had discovered Enigmas of Vecna holed up in the other room.

“Surely, these are the creatures who have potshotting us through the pillars,” he thought.

Once they had surrounded the strange creatures, this theory was confirmed. In a most unfortunate manner. Once the Enigmas were bloodied, they exploded into a cloud of horrific visages and then rushed in a flesh-ripper rage.

This forced the Minotaur barbarian to go into a rage of his own.

“About time,” thought Li Sun, who was running out of healing.

Nobody died, but it was a close one.

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L'espirit de L'escalier
As Explained by Two Demons...

…to a Goblin.

Li Sun looked over the Revenant, the Minotaur, and the Elf who had joined him. The only one he knew was the elf who had brought him their mounts. An odd mix, but he was glad Amyria had sent them. Ki’sho and Sun Li were in no shape to do battle with an archmage after the fights they had with the Gnolls and their demonic friends.

Apparently one of the Mages of Saruun had gone rogue and was trying to take over. He was using the Duergar and Gnolls to accomplish some secret plan.

“Secrets,” snorted Ragnar. “With worshipers of Vecna, it’s always secrets.”

But Li Sun had the key. And the key seemed to know where it wanted to go. First it led them to the Seven-Pillared Hall, then to the Road of Lanterns, and finally to this nondescript portion of that road.

Where they found a keyhole.

Li Sun placed the key in the keyhole and a secret door opened. Revealing a long passage, which led to a room with a circle of teleportation inscribed in its center. When Drake walked up to it, the circle turned out to have some powers of summoning as well. A spectral figure, clad in thick robes of the deepest scarlet appeared in a blinding flash. It was missing its left hand. And, while an eye filled the right socket in its spectral head (really little more than a skull, from what Li Sun could see), the left socket was empty.

“The secrets of the tower come at a price. You must each pay for the right to enter this place. What can you offer to the dreaded Lord of Secrets? I seek lore, power, and your souls.”

“L’esprit de L’escalier,” Ambassador Tien told the goblin cheiftain, “is the spirit of the staircase.” Takin was thoroughly confused by this, so Tien explained. “You see, the high elves who originated the expression often held their balls high up in the forest on platforms perched in the trees or hanging from the branches. To get up to these woody ballrooms, they had to climb long, ornate staircases. And to leave the ball they had to descend the same stairs. They noticed that sometimes they did not think of the perfect retort for their rivals’ insults until they were leaving the ball when their wit did them no good. I suspect something like this is happening to the four members of the Golden Scales who failed to protect their souls from the Spirit of Vecna.”

Ragnar the Mighty avoided being blinded by the flash of light — admittedly by fleeing, but this gave him his chance…

…so he charged the thing he feared.

As Wicked Fang passed harmlessly through the apparition’s gut, the Spirit of Vecna laughed. “You cannot intimidate me because you cannot harm me!”

“So, what was it you wanted?” Ragnar asked, somewhat meekly.

“Fool! Only three things will get you into the Tower of Mysteries: lore, power or your souls.”

Li Sun tried a bit of history, but it turned out to be something the spirit already knew. And Drake whispered to the others: “It cannot be intimidated, enjoys flattery, and is susceptible to well-told lies. The lore it seeks is arcane lore, historical lore and religious lore.”

“Not natural lore?” asked Jonalith, the elf, looking a little disappointed.

“I am pretty sure such things have little interest to Vecna,” Drake told him.

Ragnar decided to try a little flattery. At first, his compliments were a little too subtle for the apparition. It thought he was trying to intimidate it again. But once it realized he was commenting on its powers, it seemed to be pleased.

Drake ran into a similar problem when he tried to compliment the spirit on its ability to pretend to be a ghost. At first, the apparition was confused more than flattered.

“I’m trying to say I’m impressed!” the blackguard raged. And eventually Ragnar thought it mollified, if not totally impressed by the compliment.

Li Sun switched to arcane lore, but the Spirit of Vecna was no more impressed by it than by the historical tidbet Ragnar tried next: “What is my true name?”

“Ragnarok!” shrieked the spirit. That was an easy one."

Alen saw that Takin was still not getting it. “Any of them coulda mentioned that the Raven Queen appears to be working with a certain Platinum Dragon. She’s been trying to keep that quiet, so there’s a good chance Vecna wouldn’t know it. And even if he knew it, he might not have shared it with all his minions. The Spirit mighta thought he could really impress his boss with dat kinda info. Any of dem adventurers who thought about it after was probably kickin’ demselves for not thinkin’ of it in time. Dat’s the Spirit of the Stairwell.”

Jonalith watched his friends struggle with the difficult task of coming up with things Vecna did not know. It was hard. Vecna was, after all, the Master of Secrets. Jonalith had difficulty coming up with things such a master would not know.

But he did have friends who knew many secrets. Samwise and Jerath had come to the court of Fallcrest during the time he was there. And Sam shared the secrets of a weapon that he coveted. He had told Jon about the Darkblade of Melegaunt and its origins.

“Did you know the Darkblade of Melegaunt is a dagger made of shimmering black glass?” he asked the apparition.

“Why, yes, I did,” the spirit replied. “In fact, I know that it’s tip trails shadowy tendrils as it seeks its target’s most vulnerable spots.”

“But… but did you know it was forged in a Pact with a prince of Netheril?”

“Hmm, no, I did not. Perhaps Vecna himself knows, but I will have to take this knowledge to him to find out. This is truly lore which might be of use.”

After Ragnar failed another historical lore gambit, Jonalith saw Li Sun was taking another tack while sticking to the Well of Demons theme. “I would have thought such a spirit as yourself would have known all about Maldrick Scarmaker’s death.”

“Well, yes. But now I do.” The Spirit of Vecna seemed to be impressed by the backhanded compliment, but Jon was worried the effectiveness of flattery might soon be coming to end.

“You can only do so much of that kind of thing,” he thought, "before it becomes obvious.

Takin the Scared finally thought he had it. "So dese hot-shot adventurers been goin’ around discoverin’ all dese secrets? And den dey can’t even remember ‘em when it counts? Dat’s what dis “spirit” thing is all about? Kinda like when some troll insults me in front of da boss and I don’t think to call him a snotnose until later. Even though I can see the snot when I’m standing right dere. OK, OK. I gets it. But what I don’t get is why you two keep talkin’ about the stairs. Dere aren’t any stairs in dat tower."

Drake the Enforcer was impressed when Li Sun showed the map to the Well of Demons to the spectre. So he tried another bit of lore about the well. “And the guardian of the well, a green dragon, is now dead!”

“Dead? I did not know that.”

Jonalith told a story about a new religion rising up around Amyria. At first he thought the was making something up, but as the details emerged it became clear he was talking about the worshipful attitude some of the Githzerai were taking toward the Deva paladin. And the spirit seemed genuinely impressed with this lore.

Drake noticed Ragnar was whispering to his sword. Suddenly the Minotaur looked up and shouted, “I bet you do not know the role that the Raven Queen played in creating my sword.”

“You mean the power she channeled from Drake’s curse, empowering it and giving it a life of its own?” smirked the Spirit of Vecna. “Anyone who worships Vecna could see that as soon as they saw your blade. We are not so ignorant of matters arcane and religious as you. It is obvious that you and your friends have no more to offer the Lord of Secrets. I will leave you your powers, and simply take a bit of your souls.”

As the apparition disappeared, Drake felt a small portion of his reserves dwindle. But he knew that he had some left.

And he heard the spirit’s last words in his head, “You may now enter the Tower of Mysteries. May its secrets intrigue you.”

Hearing that, Drake stepped into the circle. And was teleported into another room in a blinding flash. He was standing in the middle of a 20-foot-by-20-foot room with two exits — one north and one west. The walls of this chamber are covered with carvings that depict human faces. Each face is wearing either a blindfold or a gag.

Drake noticed that, as soon as he stepped through, all the blindfolded faces animated and began to chant. All the gagged faces seemed to animate as well, but they simply glared at the interlopers as each of his companions materialized in the circle in the middle of the room.

To the north and to the west, Drake saw pillars in the corridors beyond. These were also covered with carvings of faces, but these faces were different. No gags; no blindfolds. Each face seemed to be missing one eye.

They did not seem to be animated like those in the room Drake was standing in. But every once in a while he seemed to see one animate out of the corner of his eye. As so as he looked at the one which he thought was animating, it froze again as stone.

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Ambassador Tien Gets Busy
Spreading Rumors Throughout the Former Empire...

…of the Dragonborn.

Strangely enough, though, the rumors all seem to be about the Great Gark and his interest in another ancient empire: that of the Minotaurs of Thunderspire Labyrinth.

Sun Li turned to her twin. “I think you better go investigate that noise. I am wounded, but I can still go through these papers we found on the Gnoll.” When Li Sun was gone, she examined the map, which seemed to show a secret tower built into Thunderspire itself. “Hmmm, maps are always a good thing in a Minotaur labyrinth.” The rest of the papers seemed to be letters from a wizard who was plotting against the Mages of Saruun. “He may even have infiltrated their order,” Sun Li mused. “He seems to have been quite open about his plans when writing to his Gnollish ally.”

“I have a job for one of your imps,” Amyria told Maxim Shalion, "the one who can send messages. I need him to convince some of our Dragonborn allies to go to Thunderspire Labyrinth. Then she told him the names: Lagolas and Andrea Ravn. “I believe they will play a great role in the events to come. I would prefer you not mention this task to the other members of The Golden Scales.”

“Are they within 100 miles of here?” Maxim asked, remembering the limitation on the distance he could send Ambassador Tien.

“Yes, one of them is in the mountains east of Fallcrest. That one is a sorceror who has lost his family. The other, Andrea, is a Warlord who may be able to help Li Sun with some complications she has run into.”

“Complications?”

“Belinda’s father sent Li Sun and his twin sister to clean up a slaver problem, but it has turned into a bit more than just some Duergar slave trading. I need your ambassador imp to convince them to go to The Seven-Pillared Hall in Thunderspire to meet up with Li Sun and Sun Li.”

“Gladly. If it will help The Great Gark.”

“The Great Gark — and, indeed, all of us — will profit from thwarting the plans of someone who worships Vecna. But, remember, your average Dragonborn is a strong believer in ancient honor. They may not react the way you might when a demon appears, trying to tell them what to do.”

A grin began to spread across Maxim’s face. “Then I can tell them whatever I want?”

“As long as it gets them to Thunderspire,” Amyria sighed.

And Maxim began whisper to the air about the Great Gark and his plans.

A rampaging Minotaur was the last thing Li Sun was expecting to find in the Well of Demons, but that was what she found. “I guess it was built by the creatures,” she admitted to herself. And he did seem to have a pretty impressive magic sword. She explained what was going on and they decided to join forces against Paldemar.

Andrea Ravn was not impressed with what she had seen of Lagolas so far. He came stumbling out of the mountains, raving about an attack on Andrea’s village, an attack he seemed to think had already happened. When Andrea pointed this out, he started rambling about a demon who had told him the Great Gark was attacking the village.

“You believe everything a demon tells you?” she asked the sorcerer.

“Well, no…” the interloper started. Just then he was interrupted by the sudden appearance of an imp, just like the one Lagolas had described. “That’s him!”

“Ambassador Tien, at your service,” the imp said. “Well, actually, at the service of the Great Gark and HIS servant, Maxim Shalion. They had information the two of you could help the enemies of the Great Gark and his ally.”

Andrea was puzzled. “Ally?”

“Well, the Great Gark has entered into an alliance of convenience with some minion of Vecna. Kind of a poser, if you ask me, but he serves the purposes the Great Gark has created for him.”

Seeing the demon could be drawn out with questions, Andrea asked him why he had lied about the attack on her village. And the imp laughed.

“That was just to keep you two away from Thunderspire. Now, Paldemar can take over.”

And he disappeared.

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