War of Fire and Ice

Welcome to the War of the Burning Sky
The Adventures Begin

You are a ragged group of wayward souls who have travelled for two weeks through high plateau of eastern Ragesia, seeking a an even more wayward character, a monk named Dorik, who had made pilgrimage to this desolate corner of the world, a place called Blackroot. You were gathered Free City of Gate Pass, given diplomatic “Letters of Marque” and sent forth by one Sir Eadan of House Minoki, a merchant of that city who has promised you each the substantial sum of 50 gold coins for what was described as a simple escort service. You have gotten to know each other somewhat well during your uneventful travel, but the logic of Sir Eadan’s selection remains inscrutable, for you are quite an eclectic group. Who can know the minds of merchants? But perhaps your talents will prove complimentary.

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The Eye of Hunger
In the Lands of the Orcs
They were a ragged group of wayward souls who had traveled for two weeks through high plateau of eastern Ragesia, seeking a an even more wayward character, a monk named Dorik, who had made pilgrimage to this desolate corner of the world, a place called Blackroot. They had gathered in Free City of Gate Pass, given diplomatic “Letters of Marque” and sent forth by one Sir Eadan of House Minoki, a merchant of that city who promised each the substantial sum of 50 gold coins for what was described as a simple escort service. The travelers had gotten to know each other somewhat well during their uneventful travel, but the logic of Sir Eadan’s selection remained inscrutable, for they were quite an eclectic group. Who can know the minds of merchants? But perhaps these talents would prove complimentary…. The party consisted of the warrior Geth Corvine, the mysterious archer Hours Len Braidpath, Igby the Bard, Ares the Cleric, and a sorcerer called Driemz Darkblade.
Their journey through the windswept steppe of central Ragesia had left their faces wind burned and their cloaks whipped ragged. Clouds scudded across the sky, forecasting winter, and the air was thin and cold. Blackroot was a village administered by the orc clans that swept out of the glacial north under the direction of the Emperor Coaltongue many decades ago. The travelers were glad they were carrying diplomatic traveling papers, but they remained nervous as to their efficacy. Orcs may indeed be the most slow witted of Moradin’s creations, but they are vicious when they think they’ve been fooled.

The sun was beginning to set when the settlement finally came into view. Like most villages in the high plateau, this small community would have few amenities. The steppe was vast, and far from authority. In these places the village reeve was responsible for administering justice in the local region, which made him a king in all but name.

Blackroot drew its name from the darkwood trees that thrived in the region, their gnarled limbs bent in fealty to the all powerful wind. The village sat in the windward shadow of a rocky outcrop. Orcs, humans, and half-orcs worked together in the fields, eking what they can out of the ground, and ranging far and wide with their flocks of goats. The villagers seemed like the Blackroot trees, permanently bent by an omnipresent force. None of them seem particularly pleased to see strangers. It seemed that many of the huts were unoccupied, judging by which chimneys were spitting pale smoke into the biting wind.

As they neared the main drag, a looming, muscular orc wearing a fur trimmed hat walked out to me the weary travelers. His skin was weathered, and streaks of gray could be seen in his stringy black hair. He bore no weapons and wore loose peasant clothing, but he carried himself with confidence and quiet strength. “Greetings,” said the tusked savage. “I am Toraash’Dorrm, Reeve of Blackroot. I don’t know what brings you here, but we’ve no inn, no tavern, and no time for strangers. I suggest you move on.”
Then the travelers spoke to the orc, showing him the rights of passage bestow by the papers they carried, and asking after their charge, Dorik the Monk. The Reeve of Blackroot inspected the papers, reading them carefully, then grunted something derogatory but vaguely respectful about Gate Pass and said, “Your time will come again, southerners, when Coaltongue finishes his business at Castle Korstull.” Then the savage official told them the visitors that Dorik had left town recently, but that they were welcome to visit his hut, and even sleep there, as long as they left by morninglight.”

Geth Corvine did not believe the orc’s words, and nodded to his friends.

At the hut, the party quickly took to investigating, for it was obvious that this was a household left in haste and perhaps under duress. Driemz found a pendant like a glass eye-ball and a fragment of verse.

When madness and night align
And innocent blood waters the dark tree
The noble soul must claim the Coat of Eyes
And bear this burden for the good of all.

“The Eye of Hunger!” said Ares. “I have read of this in book of Mithras and Danzig.
Hours Len Braidpath felt the vague vibrations of a disturbance in the natural world surge as the sun dropped below the horizon. He looked out the window and saw the gibbous moon arising behind the black upthrust of rock the shielded the town from the wind. “There!” said the fey creature.

Making their way up to this sinister rock, the party found a well worn but hidden pathway amongst the scree fields, coming finally to a cave flanked by Blackroot trees and guarded by two orcish farmers and two cowled miscreants hidden in the trees. Diplomacy quickly turned to war, and the visitors proved themselves a force to be reckoned with.

The cultists who had fallen were cultists indeed for their cowls hid strange disfigurations: boils on their faces and hands that looked like eyes. They wore Eyeball Pendants under their cloaks, and they bore strange daggers of black obsidian.

The cave yawned more darkly in the waning light of dusk. Enter, if you dare. A deep throbbing chant could hardly be heard, drifting on the air…

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Hunger of the Earth

Gramercy: 500xp apiece, the Coat of Eyes, crystal residuum(200gp), 50 gold coins apiece in payment from the merchant of Minoki.

Hunger, lord of seven hells
Wherein the single Serpent dwells,
With volumes drawn from pit to pit
Through fire and darkness infinite —
Hunger, sun of nether skies,
Thine ancient evil never dies,
For aye thy somber fulgors flame
On sunken worlds that have no name,
Man’s heart enthrones thee, still supreme,
Though the false sorcerers blaspheme.

Stepping carefully, Hours Len Braidpath, Driemz Darkblade, Ares, and Geth Corvine entered the fanged cave, muttering amongst themselves at the sudden inexcusable absence of Igby the Bard, whose attention had been diverted by a passing sparrow. The explorers’ steps were echoed by the faint droning chant that seemed to drift upon the night air. Ahead, red light could be seen, a light that upon investigation of the twisting passage proved to be a hall of eerie glyphs that scrawled across the walls as in constant uncertain movement.

A swirling mass of burning crimson lines covered the floor. The patterns slithered and shifted like a nest of vipers, and as they gazed upon this eldritch sight, they could hear strange whispers in the backs of their minds, voices cajoling, pleadings, warning… all manner of emotion intense and disconnected. It required a certain amount of concentration and self possession to sort through this psychic chaff, even to prevent it from overwhelming an overwrought brain, and Ares was unable to do so, for his religious mind was too vulnerable to the horrid implications of this place. For indeed, these glyphs represented all that remained of hundreds of people who had fallen victim to the insatiable Hunger that plagued this land, not even left with souls but mere echoes of an existence that was now nearly as if it had never been.

Further, the natural, unworked stone suddenly gave way to a chamber crudely hewn into regular dimensions. Here was another glyph, a swirling mass of burning crimson lines covered the floor. The patterns slithered and shifted like a nest of vipers, and as they gazed upon this eldritch sight, they could hear strange whispers in the backs of their minds, voices cajoling, pleadings, warning… all manner of emotion intense and disconnected. The red glyph guarded an alcove wherein lurked shadowy winged figures. The elf Driemz attempted to obscure the power of the glowing shapes with his powers of darkness, but as he stepped forward he was overcome by the crush of voices and he raised a weapon against his will and aimed at Geth Corvine! The fighter easily avoided the attack and Driemz soon came to his senses, but all were now convinced of some worthy treasure hiding beyond, so the fighter, the seeker and the sorcerer all leaped across the accursed space and found old worn statues of dragons with crystal shards embedded in their dorsal spines.
Finally, the four brave delvers came to what sounded like the source of the mad deep chanting, for the noise grew louder still. The tunnel opened into a wide cavern chamber whose walls were painted with pictures of eyes and savage acts of sacrifice. However, far more horrific than these images was the massive living eye embedded in the wall directly across the pit like, column filled room. A great golden orb set with twin pupils and a cold, alien gaze like a dragon that had lost its mind. The cavern floor beneath this monstrous apparition was a mottled patch of rough stone. Beneath the living idol, a foul orcish cleric lead a group of human and orc villagers in a dark rite. Glowing red sigils flowed across its gray skin—a match to the markings on the walls of the hall of living words.

Where the kneeling villagers’ clothes have been stripped off, all bear extra inhuman eyes embedded in their flesh. As the cultists moan and chant, each waves a curved, glittering blade chipped from volcanic glass.

A vicious battle ensued, ending with [[:geth]making a flying leap into the ichor bleeding baleful eye and burying his full blade within it, showering himself with gore. A narrow and sheer passage like a gullet was discovered within the stone socket of the baleful eye.

Clambering along the rough, narrow passage seemed unpleasantly akin to climbing down the throat of some great beast. The walls were studded with glowing crystal shards. The intruders were forced to walk single file, and in some places to squeeze through narrow gaps. The shaft twisted and turned, but always it descended—and the farther they went, the stranger it became. There was felt a terrible chill, although breath dis not freeze in the air. Whispers twisted —mad voices that faded as soon as the words were heard. The stone of walls and floor grew soft and spongy. This narrow twisting path was lit by pale lumps of glowing crystal. The floor became a strange thing, mottled and soft, sticky even, more flesh than stone. Then, as Geth stepped too closely, the treacherous floor suddenly gaped wide, a maw filled with crystalline teeth snapped at his legs! It was only after some brave leaping that the delvers came to a sudden opening of stone.

There, Torraash, Reeve of Blackroot awaited his foes, flanked by minions, holding the helpless form of Dorik the Mad as hostage, and guarded by a floating orb: one large eye over a gaping slavering maw, framed by tentacles each with its own blinking eye. A small beholder!

The battle was joined! The eyes of the beholder were as terrifying as legend had told, even this stunted specimen, for Geth and Driemz were driven to attack their friends and sent fleeing in terror, back across the crystalline maws in the corridor behind. The beholder slavered cruelly as it did its work, protected by the mighty iron fists of Torraash, who was protected by the Coat of Eyes. The brave explorers of an hour before became desperate fighters, praying for survival.
And then it was over. The wounded monk Dorik the Mad was revived, wild bearded and glassy eyed, he raved of prophecy and vision, but soon calmed under the stern administration of Ares’ clerical skills.

Emerging from the mountain of madness to face a lightening sky, the party wasted no time in heading south, avoiding the village and making their way by most direct route to Gate Pass. Unfortunately, an early frost and icy slowed their travel, and it was a long four weeks later, in the month of Winter’s Finding that the road weary group straggled into Gate Pass. The travelers felt lucky to be home, for tidings of war rode swift upon the wings of rumor.

...the story continues on the occasion of the Festival of Dreams a midwinter celebration that marks the beginning of the Free City’s independence.

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As Winter Turns
War Comes to Neradia

As the season turns, the weather takes a sudden chill turn, and the sky darkens as the grip of winter intensifies. Worry rises as regular channels of communication between nations cease like a candle suddenly snuffed. Slowly, throughout the lands claimed by the Ragesian Empire, rumors spread between isolated villages, traveling by foot and horse and word of mouth—rumors that Drakus Coaltongue, the immortal emperor whose armies conquered every land he set his gaze upon, has fallen in a distant land to the west. How the tyrant was defeated is unknown, but if it is true, everyone knows that a war is coming. The generals of Emperor Coaltongue will strike for control, oppressed peoples will rise up in rebellion, and dangers once held in check only by fear of the mighty warlord will bring doom to the world.

Those in power are preparing for the coming conflict, readying fervent armies and powerful weapons and subtle, deceptive plots, but two questions burn in their minds: who killed the seemingly-immortal Emperor Coaltongue; and what has become of the artifact that would let a man rule the world? Who has the Torch of the Burning Sky?

Gate Pass

Gate Pass lies in a mountain pass stretching many miles west to east, though it is seldom more than a mile wide north to south. Over the years, it has been controlled by both nations that border it — Ragesia and Shahalesti — until a few decades ago the natives drove out the Ragesians and negotiated their city as neutral ground. Because of this repeated history of occupation, the city is a fortress built in patchwork over many decades. High walls surround Gate Pass on all sides, and the city is divided into twenty-seven districts, each separated by a wall with a well-defended gate. A single main road stretches through the city — the Emelk Way — passing through each district and gate. Because of cramped space, nearly every building in the city is at least two stories, and in wealthier districts, skybridges connect clusters of buildings owned by rich merchants. Walking under a gate is generally seen as good luck in the city, and people view the arches created by skybridges as gateways. At the highest point of the city’s center is the Grand Square, where forty years ago the emperor of Ragesia erected a ninety-foot high statue of himself. When the city drove out the Ragesians they kept the statue as a trophy, and it is the victim of regular defacement.

The city is torn by the current events. Many practitioners of the arcane arts provide useful services to the community, helping defense and construction, and even presiding over religious services. However, when given the choice between being conquered and handing over their neighbors, most of Gate Pass is more interested in protecting the greater good, which as they see it means protecting themselves. Indeed, many in the city have grown to resent the city’s wizards for being the cause of their problems, to the point that the city council has decreed that magic-users should turn themselves over to the city guard, and no one is being allowed to leave the city unless on official business. Under orders from the city council, the city guard is to take any mage they find into custody, and deliver them to a temporary holding facility in a repurposed mansion in the city center. The major opponents of this are Gabal and his wizard’s school. Gabal and his red-robed students have publicly and angrily criticized the city for their cowardice, and have vowed to resist any attempt to remove them, be it by Ragesia or Gate Pass. Gabal was a hero in the original resistance against Ragesia forty years ago, and he insists that Ragesia intends to conquer Gate Pass for good. He has proclaimed Leska’s Inquisitors to be a ‘Scourge’ against all magic users, and such is his sway that the term has caught on among the common citizens. Most of the city believes (or at least claims to believe) that the Scourge is only intended to capture those responsible for killing the emperor, and that those who pose no threat to Ragesia will be left unharmed. Thus, many think Gabal is simply a troublemaker who wants a fight so he can relive the glory days of his youth. However, the city guard has so far chosen to let Gabal and his students do as they will, afraid of their power.

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Winter Explodes Into Flame!!
A Scourge of Magic and the Siege of Gate Pass
Winter hit hard, like a warhammer to the helmet, as the old soldiers might have said, had they not been so busy preparing for war. The Emperor Drakus Coaltongue had been murdered in his sleep by arcane assailants unknown. Leska, the High Inquisitor of Ragesia had unleashed a Scouring of the land, demanding that all users of magic and mysterious arts turn themselves in to her bear helmed inquisitors for tender interrogations. Worse yet, the Ragesian 2nd, under the command of General Danava “The Bald” was marching on the Free City of Gate Pass. The town was on edge, and the council has requested that wizards comply with the Ragesian demands. People were disappearing.

For Hours Len Braidpath and his friends, Geth Corvine, and Driemz Darkblade, it was beginning to look like racing the storm to return to Gate Pass was not such a good idea. They were stuck. The clandestine gates they had been assuming would take them onward to parts unknown were shut, even aflame. Worse yet, their favorite bar had been closed down.

The great celebration of Yule was approaching, but nobody was in a party mood. Four mysterious characters met each other in a dark deserted square on a crisp cold night, when the gates sagged beneath their mantles of snow. It seemed that each had been contacted by an innocuous resistor, a messenger for a messenger, to meet at midnight at Poison Apple Pub. For these men of action, such a summons was eagerly accepted, if only to ease the weariness of waiting for war.

A parchment was nailed to the front door.

Geth scanned the area, tingling with the vaguely unsettling preternatural awareness that came over him whenever he wore the Coat of Eyes which he had torn from the bleeding corpse of a Ragesian orc, then shrugged and approached the alley door as instructed. His knock was answered by a tall blond woman who wore a heavy winter cloak over a chainmail shirt. She smiled tightly, and led the four visitors into the pub. The place was more tidy than they remembered it, but there was a keg and a set of large pewter steins on a table in the center of the chilly tap room. The windows and doors had been clumsily boarded up. A single oil lamp lit the room. There was a portrait of Ol’ Coaltongue on the wall behind the bar. A dart was stuck between the Emperor’s teeth.

Ahleena of the Torrents filled the mugs and offered a toast, “To another Yule, to Gate Pass, to freedom!”

“You are a member of the resistance?” spoke Driemz Darkblade, a sorcerer. “Yes? Then what do you wish of us?”

Ahleena of the Torrents grimaced, straightened in her chair and bitterly sighed, “I guess it’s time to get down to business. The city’s in trouble. The Ragesian army is marching on us, and will most likely be here tomorrow. Before then, we have a mission.”

“We need to get help for Gate Pass. I used to study at a college of esoterica to the south, a place called Lyceum. They’re good people there, scholars, and gentlemen. When word reached them of Ragesia’s ‘Scourge,’ they sent out messages calling for anyone fleeing Ragesia to come to them. They want to stand against the Ragesians, and the resistance needs their help. We just need to get a message back to them. Normally we would have sent something by magical courier, but something strange is happening with planar magic. The last courier who teleported into Gate Pass, well, he showed up burnt to a crisp, like he had flown through the 65th layer of Hell.”
“If we’re going to offer an alliance with Lyceum, and beg their help, we’re going to have to go overland. And that’s a problem, because the city’s walls are sealed. Ever since their emperor died, the Ragesians have been trying to show that they’re not weak, and they’re marching an army in our direction because the mountain pass we’re in is apparently ‘strategically valuable.’ Either way, a few idiots on the city council want to negotiate with the Ragesians, and rumor is they’re going to invite a group of Inquisitors into the city to look for ‘magic-users who are hostile to the empire.’ They’ve sealed the gates of the city so no one can escape, to make sure they look like they’re cooperating, and only military personnel can get in or out. “We’re going to have to get out of the city, and I’m open to suggestions on how. Once we’re out, I have a plan to get us safely to Lyceum.”

“But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a mission tonight. “The short version is that we’ve got to meet a contact — a gnome called the Hedgehog — in about an hour at a guarded deposit tower about a half-mile from here. He’s carrying a case of vital military intelligence which he stole from the palace of Ragos when he posed as a menial servant in that wretched place, and the heads of the resistance think that it needs to reach Lyceum, for only they can decipher its contents and have the resources to make use of them.”
“We’ve got to get that case, get out of the city, and get far away from here before the idiot city council lets the Ragesian Inquisitors in. Once that happens, the odds of us escaping are —” Ahleena finished off her mug of beer in one long guzzle “— slim. I know I’d love to stay here and fight against the Ragesians, but I’m no soldier, and this mission might be more important.”

“Worst case, you get away from the Ragesians and we can part ways a few days down the road. Best case, you can come with me to Lyceum, and we come back with an army of our own to drive off the Ragesians. But we’ve got to act fast either way.”
“What say you, fellows? The Merchant spoke highly of your character, how is your mettle?”

It was an easy decision for Driemz Darkblade, Geth Corvine, Hours Len Braidpath, and Ares of Mithrass. They were each itching to get out of town ahead of the Inquisitors, and this seemed an open path to strike back at the Ragesian invaders. There was some discussion as to how they were going to get out of the city, but obviously a decision had been made.

Suddenly the world exploded.

As the bells of Yule ceased their toll, Geth Corvine heard the tell tale sounds of shifting feet in the rooms above. Suddenly alert, all drew weapons and took up positions around the room and in the stairwell.

Then the front door burst open in front of a massive battering ram, a clean log, wielded by a pack of mean looking ruffians with red armbands. “Drop your weapons and come quietly, wizards, and you will not be hurt!” said a thug.

“Not likely,” said Ahleena.

The battle was joined. Sorcerer and Seeker unleashed their wrath, slaying most of the attackers outright, while the fighter handily dispatched the two ruffians who ran down the stairs. It looked like an easy battle. Then the world exploded again, this time literally, as the building shook and fire began to rain through the ceiling above. Flaming debris crashed down all around, and the large wrought iron chandelier swung wildly.

The fight move outside, where the resistors discovered a horseman attended by a pack of hunting dogs who snapped eagerly at their reins. The dogs bound forward, but horseman seemed unhurried to attack. This cost him dearly when Geth came out of the side alley and accosted the cavalier, giving him a mighty buffet and pulling him from his saddle.

“Gramercy!” cried the dark horseman. “I surrender and commend you as worthy foes, my name is Kathor Danava, and I will say that I am not unhappy to see those Black Horse simpletons defeated, for my association with them has felt more dishonorable with the passing of each moment.” Kathor’s eyes flashed with a blue radiance, and Geth felt an answer stirring in his mind, some vague hint of recognition… he wanted to know more, so he accepted Kathor’s surrender.

All around the city burned. Folks screamed through the streets as dragon riders criss-crossed the metropolis, fighting aerial battles with the Gryphon Riders of Gate Pass, and dropping buring pitch onto the helpless citizens below…

War had come to Gate Pass. The group huddled together under a stone archway, catching their breath and wondering where to next. The Depository!

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A long deep breath
Intro to today's session

A quick reminder of where we stand-

You were summoned to a meeting in an abandoned bar and were attacked by bounty hunters as the city was attacked by fire-bombing wyverns. You took the leader, Kathor, captive.

The cleric Ahleena of the Torrents has told you that a resistance member called Peppin was meant to meet the gnome called Hedgehog tonight to receive a case of secrets stolen from the Palace at Ragos.

But Peppin was murdered and now Ahleena looks to you to help her complete this mission. You must make your way through the burning streets to the Tower of Deposits in the next district. Once you have the ‘case’ you must escape out of Gate Pass and make your way to friendly territory.

Ahleena speaks as if trying to remember her lines:

“I will present the ring of Peppin to the Hedgehog. The Hedgehog will then ask me if I am engaged. I will say that I was engaged at the foot of Tyrant, at midsummer. He will then ask if I have a dowry. I will then say that I am resistant. And we will know each other.”

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Spies and What Flies in the Skies
And so the Legend of the Merciful Brotherhood was born. In a night of pain, a myth took hold that needed no bard to give it wings.
The city seemed to be bursting at its seams as the three surviving companions, Driemz Darkblade, Geth Corvine, and Hours Len Braidpath caught their breath in a sheltered cove and turned their attention to their captive, a stern and straight backed soldier who had seemed reluctant to do battle and now grudgingly eager to bargain for his life and freedom. Ahleena of the Torrents was desperately questioning the captive: “Who are you? How did you know we would be here? Who is your contact?”

Geth quickly searched the man’s saddlebags and found a sheaf of documents. Hours perused these documents and found two of particular interest, a letter of Diplomatic Privilege bestowed by the City Council, and a Letter from the Empire from one “Guthwulf”. Kathor Danava, it seems, was the son of the General Danava “The Bald” who was at that very moment leading the 2nd Ragesian Army to lay siege to Gate Pass. He alone of all the citizenry of Gate Pass was allowed to travel freely through its gates, and what did he use this privilege for? To abduct the wizardry and to prey upon the weak! Ahleena was shocked and dismayed.

When confronted with this, the soldier seemed contrite. Indeed, his loyalties were sorely conflicted. His honor felt besmirched by his association with the Black Horse Bounty Hunters, and yet he would not raise a sword against the agents of his Empire, nor the soldiers of his father.

Driemz and Hours whispered to each other. Perhaps this was the ticket out of the city? They could pose as prisoners of this fallen Ragesian prince, but could they trust him?

“Why did you leave the empire Kathor?” asked Driemz. “What ‘ignomious failure’ set you forth.”

“Oh dark elf, do you know how it is to feel an encroaching presence tighten about your skin? So it was with the Inquisition of Leska, for this current ‘scourge’ is only the latest chapter in her creeping path to power. I will keep my own council but, suffice to say that I no longer felt welcome in the tolerant regime of Coaltongue.”

Now Hours spoke: “Man, we will keep this evidence of your betrayal of the city, but we require a single boon before we release you. You must use your privilege to help us to flee this city. Can you be trusted?”

Kathor Danava looked hard into the eyes of Geth Corvine, and between them there was a spark of recognition, which the Ragesian seemed to understand more than the Astral native. Kathor nodded solemnly. “Meet me at the Mannish Inn tomorrow night, and I will lead you forth.”

And so Ahleena’s new recruits returned the soldier’s sword to him and went their separate ways. Now the cleric became urgent. “We must get to the Depository Tower and find the Hedgehog!”

This was easier said than done. The streets were chaotic with mobs of people running for safety, squadrons of soldiers marching to the walls, overturned carts, falling buildings, and more. Driemz and Geth shoved people out of their way and a path parted before them, a path which Ahleena eagerly followed.

Hours hung back, aghast at the suffering so easily brought to this strange city. Oh to be in the forest again! He became entangled in his own bleeding heart as the old the weak and the wounded called out to him, reaching for help and succor. Hours did not know what to do. “I have not the skill to heal you, nor the time to comfort, for I am pulled by fate to the tower yonder!” But Hours could not in good conscience turn his back, and so he made use of the horse of Kathor and carried what burden he could.

Ahead, the cleric, fighter, and sorcerer were brought up short by the site of a women on the third story of a burning building, climbing a balcony balustrade to escape the licking flames. Geth surged forward as the woman jumped. He caught her easily in his mighty thews.

The crowds grew thicker in the center of the city, hemmed in, confused, as a renewed assault of fire and flame exploded about them and billowing smoke parted to reveal desperate battle between griffon and drake. Suddenly a shriek cut the air and a halberdier stationed upon an high parapet leapt to the street below. Here there was none to catch him, and he landed with a sickening crunch. The crowd grew still, and then panic like a whispering wind across the prairie gathered and swelled until the crowd cried out as one and began to stampede. Geth and Hours to their shame were caught within the madness and drawn across the square before they were able to come to their senses, shaken and disturbed. Only Driemz held fast to his chattering teeth and leapt into a fountain to avoid the mob. Looking up, he saw a great winged shadow silhouetted behind the smoke; the wingspan must have reached across the square…

Finally, they encountered the Depository Gates. A stern dwarf let them in quickly and the presentation of a key, muttering about mobs and unwashed filth. Inside, the courtyard of the tower was calm and untouched by the madness of the night. Snow flakes drifted gently to the ground.

Entering the dimly lit library, circular room, lined with books shelves and sturdy iron lockers, a small figure appeared at the top to the curving staircase and coughed. Descending the steps a notably ugly little man came into view, wiping his bulbous nose on a sleeve. His beard bristled out on all sides.

“Ah there you are. Come Peppin, I need that password.” The little gnome waved and began walking back up the stairs.

“Peppin? Peppin isn’t with us.” said Driemz. “Isn’t he supposed to say the code?”

Ahleena nodded. “Good gnome, we have no password but I have a ring…”

“No no no, come up here with the password,” said the gnome.

Driemz whispered, “I don’t think this is really Hedgehog.”

“Perhaps a Doppleganger?” said Hours.

Now Geth was certain of ambush. “GET BACK DOWN HERE, BOY!!” Bellowed the hammerman.

At this, the little man turned and ran up the stairs. Driemz ran after him, followed by his companions. Arriving at the second floor, they could see a figure running up the next flight of stairs, a gnome no longer, now slender with graceful step and sure footing; a light shone upon his face from the level above, illuminating elven ears and the sharp rapier and dagger at his belt.

The battle was brief, for the arrows of Hours, and whirlwind magics of Driemz were sufficient to slow the elf until Geth could catch him and hurl him off the stair, though he suffered grievous blows from the elf’s poniard. A strange yellow solar creature like an angel of the sun burst forth from the upper room to fly about, lashing out to protect its master, but in the end could only look on as the elf Larion the Lithe was obliged to surrender to his attackers, and reveal the locker wherein he stuffed the real Hedgehog, who was thankfully unharmed, though truly sick with a winter flu.

“Go to her.” said this elf in his native tongue. The Solar Wisp disappeared in a burst of flame and smoke.

Larion, it seemed, was a spy for the Dragon King of Asgulan, Lord of the Shahaalesti Elves to the west. His compatriots had stolen the case containing the secrets of the Ragesian Empire that Hedgehog was bound by sundry curses never to speak aloud, but the elves were unable to open the case and so the gnome had bid them search for the password, which he now explained, there was none.

“Only the High Wizards of the Lyceum Arcana on the Dassan Penninsula can open that case.” said the gnome proudly. “Although Shalaadel the Dragonlord mayhap could find a way. We must not let the case fall into his hands! He will use it to bargain with the Rags and Gate Pass and all the Free Cities will suffer!”

Ahleena pressed the poor sickly gnome. “Did they say anything else?”

“Only that they must speak to Shealis before they brave the Shining Chasm.”

“Ah,” said Driemz, “Many a lad would like to speak with that Lady, for it is said she is quite alluring. I have heard of her, a visiting mage who teaches at Gabal’s School.”

Gabal was a known nationalist. The group was quite sure they could convince him to turn in a spy for the Shahalest, no matter his personal feelings. But first, they sorely needed rest, for this terrible night was no longer young. The spy, Larion the Lithe, was taken to the Depository Dungeons by zealous guardsmen. His cries of pain could be heard as the tower doors closed.

Wading back into the city streets was a calmer affair, for it seemed that people had found what shelter they could, and the last wave of Ragesian Wyvern Knights was withdrawing. But suddenly through the air came a screeching and clawing. Two foes, a griffon and wyvern were locked in battle, plummeting to the ground. At the last moment the griffon disengaged and swooped back into the sky with a triumphant screech as the scaled adversary crashed into a complex of baths and shrines directly in front of the heroes. After a moment, a woman’s scream rang out, and was cut short, followed by a choking laugh, the cry of a child and a long low hissssss. All this Hours Len Braidpath heard, or rather felt through the talking of the stones.

“I’m gonna kill me a wyvern,” said Geth.

And so they did, ambushing the drake and rider, toppling walls upon them and putting them to the ground, striking a first blow against the 2nd Army of the Ragesian Empire, though the child did not survive and Ahleena was grievously wounded. Flagus Mortus, the hulking orcish wyvern knight, died with a sneer upon his blood smeared face. “The Empire conquers all, as long as the sky shall burn. Don’t you know that?”

An arrow from the wilden’s fey bow silenced the brute.

Finally, Ahleena lead the weary warriors to safe harbor at the Temple of the Aquiline Heart, a known place of refuge for the resistance. The place was overwhelmed with the wounded and needy, but the head priest, Buron Watchman greeted them with honor and provided the four with private rooms and food, for he knew something of their exploits that night, and only asked that they brave the wizard tower as soon as they were able. The untouchable trio thanked Buron and asked him to direct them to a place of worship. The were so directed and found themselves, weary, battle-stained, wounded and sore, kneeling within what must have once been a shrine to Mithras, but all iconography had been removed.

The place was pregnant with non-denominational righteousness. One by one, the heroes placed their most valued possessions and the spoils of war upon the simply altar and swore themselves to the defense of Gate Pass, dedicating themselves to the Order of the Aquiline Heart, and awesome responsibility that blossomed in each heart in turn.

Blessings were bestowed.

Moved by this experience Geth wandered amongst the hospice patients and applied his medical knowledge, learned from the finest field medics of the Astral Sea, the Githzerai, and so eased the suffering of many. His companions joined him and allowed themselves to be directed by his ministrations. And so the Legend of the Merciful Brotherhood was born. In a night of pain and wreckage, a myth took hold that needed no bard to give it wings.

Gramercy: 600xp One magic item up to 4th level. Boots of Spider Climbing, Heroic Power Jewel, Potion of Fire Breath, Two Potions of Healing(10hp), Belt of Ironskin, jeweled rapier and poniard(100gp)

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Darkest Dreams Before Dawn
Cassandra's Lament

Before your shield falls.
In the night’s final hours, you drift into sleep,
And soar with the Eagle to where pains all cease.
Beneath that shining gate, where Ouroboros dwells
Gleaming shadows cry up, child, from the darkness of hell.
The doors of light break at the howl of hounds.
And from Kraken’s waves, mad tempests confound.

Our home now in ruins,
Our spirits all are thralled.
Be brave for one last dream, boy,
Now, as your shield falls.
You dream of fearful storms, of ghosts and of flood,
Of flames and of scourge, and bones, damnation, and blood.
A nightmare of ruins,
Our dreams forever thralled.

Wake quick from this dream, child,
Here, before we fall.
Like a child’s first breath, the army’s horn cries.
You awaken to war, and nightmares brought to life.
So lift up your arms, and hold fast, be brave.
You’ll fight and might die, but never will you be a slave.
Our home soon in ruins,
Our spirits might yet be thralled.
But fight against that dream,
Oh, stand fast at the walls.

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Barbarian Honesty, or Civilized Subterfuge
Following (and followed) a trail of clues through Gate Pass
Mazed in sleep, the brotherhood shuffled out to the main hall of the Refuge of the Aquiline Heart to receive their morning meal and observed a confrontation and its result. A woman was singing a sad sad song, the dark portents of which were beginning to irk the ragged citizenry. Already, two youths began to mutter and make motions as if to case harm to the blind lute player who so depressed the populace with tune. And then there was BlackWolf. The massive mul grasped both youths by their scruff and tossed them out into the snow.

“I like your style, stone-man,” said Hours.

“I’d rather be free to swing my axe,” replied the barbarian. The Brotherhood was confident that they could find a good place for axe swinging. And so Blackwolf the Barbarian joined the Brotherhood of Mercy.

Rumours abound: It seemed that the Ragesians had sent a list of demands, under threat of sustained assault by the 2nd Army, chief of which was to allow entrance into the city a cadre of Inquisitors to hunt down and interrogate the mages of the city. It was also whispered that the Eldar of Shahalesti, those who paid homage to the Dragon Throne in Asgulan, had a secret escape route, something called the Singing Chasm. Perhaps they were already gone.
Buron Watchman spoke urgently- bq). “Why is it so important that the case goes to our brave allies at the Lyceum Arcaneum rather than the Shahalesti? Simply, because the Lyceum has risked much to declare itself an allie (though distant) of the Free City of Gate Pass, while the Dragon Throne has proved itself to be casual in the expense of “mortal lives” on many occasions. The Eladrin do as they see fit, and rarely does the suffering of Man bear upon those decisions. For Shalaadel, the Great Game trumps all. He dealt with the Exarchs of Danzig, he dealt with Drakus Coaltongue, and he will deal with Leska now, to preserve the Dragon Throne and the sanctity of Asgulan. We can put no faith in that!”

It was determined that the best thing to do was to confront Incantrix Shealis at Gabal’s school, to discover the guilt and retrieve the intelligence Hedghog had so valiantly rescued. Only then could they turn to their escape, a plan which began with an unlikely alliance with Kathor Danava, and was expected to traverse the known world.

The news you was worrisome. A small portion of the Ragesian force had made last night’s attack. They were driven back, but the invading army sent an emissary at dawn who demanded that a group of Inquisitors be allowed into the city, lest the next attack be more persuasive.

The streets were deepening with snow that fell in soft flurries from leaden skies. The Brotherhood was surprised at the destruction the daylight revealed, but also heartened that it did not seem so thorough as the nigh of terror had foretold. Along the streets, it appeared no building had been spared.

Most of the structures had surface damage, but only a few had been completely razed and smoke rose lazily from embers and smoldering debris. The odor of burnt wood and stone was cloying in the biting air.

Much of the roadside clutter seemed to be decorations for the Festival of Dreams, which was to be celebrated that day. A few brave souls wandered about, picking up loose junk and exchanging terse greetings with others they passed.

A crow cawed and flapped away.

A heavy snow fell as they made haste towards Gabal’s Wizard School. The streets were pale in the grey dawn light, the snowdrifts piled over the debris of the previous night’s onslaught. The crunch of boots in the snow was the only sound. Upon reaching the school’s gate, Hours understood why it was nicknamed the Castle. An iron fence surrounded the campus, which consisted of many small, round roof ed buildings and four fifty-foot square towers. A bridge crossed a small moat, where the crumpled corpse of a griffin floated as frozen testimony to the last night’s terrors and heroics. Even in the dim pre-dawn, the damage the Rags had done to the campus was apparent.

Hours kept seeing a rat out of the corner of his eye.

Geth Corvine did not hesitate. He strode to the waters’ edge and pulled a coil of rope from his shoulder. Quickly, the fighter reeled in the recently deceased aerial steed. “This one could yet still live. See how its only wound is the wyvern sting in it’s neck? Perhaps the cold has imprisoned its soul within its body long enough that we may preserve it.

“Perhaps the Castle has a vivisectionist,” said Driemz Darkblade

Geth and Blackwolf loaded the griffin onto an abandoned festival wagon and pushed it to the wrought iron gate of the wizards’ campus. “Let us in so that we may save the life of this brave griffin that so perished in valiant defense of this defiant city!”

Inside the gate, a blue robed man lounged, smoking a pipe. A fragrant cloud surrounded him and the heavy wet snowflakes did not seem to fall upon his shoulders.

Diogenes eyed Geth’s companions carefully as he approach, eyes bright in the glare of the rising sun. Indeed, young Corvine, yet again you bear gifts of interest to the discerning scholar. Enter then, and I will take you to Aderol the Vivisectionist. But please do not blame me if your erstwhile steed is returned to you as a pale undead mockery of life.”

“That would be fine,” said the fighter. “As long as I can ride him.”

The gate opened. Driemz saw a rat scuttle inside.

Some time later, over a second breakfast and tea, the Brotherhood decided to take this skeptical philosopher into their confidence, for he had already expressed his disdain for the colleague he dubbed a “harlot.”

Armed with some knew knowledge, but nervous confronting one who had recently received her Paragon Diploma, the Brotherhood knocked on the cottage door of Shealis the Incantrix. The door opened without a sound, and the lovely lady, dark of eye and hair, and ruby of lip and robe welcomed them to her study.

After a protracted negotiation, the Incantrix was convinced to repatriate the case in question to the representatives of the Gate Pass Resistance. She sent her fiery familiar to the Shahalesti Embassy, a gated community, to inform the royal spies of her decree.

On passing through a hidden door in a vine and snow covered stone wall, the Brotherhood came upon a scene of idyllic urban community. Here, the winter cold seemed mild, and the damage of war a mere mess to be cleaned up. Children threw snowballs and skated on rooftops, while fathers rearranged the wreckage Ragesian firebombs. Here and there a crow flew across the sky.

The meeting was to take place in a large warehouse used to store imports and exports bound between the Elven Nation and the Free City. Large crates and bales of cotton reached for the rafters. The Eldar, two soldiers and an archer of arcane significance, were extremely tense. They greeted the Brotherhood of Mercy grudgingly.

Then there was an inhuman roar from beyond the walls merchandise, and a stream of rats appeared, attacking everyone in their path.

“Treachery!” cried the Eldar. And the battle was joined.

A manticore cub came flying over the wall of crates, its bestial ape head agape with rage, its bat wings beating fiercely, its strangely knotted tail flexing and whipping about, and finally releasing a hail of bony darts at the heroes.

Geth leapt to battle with this mythic beast. Blackwolf the barbarian surged right past and discovered the eladrin archer searching an empty chest with a broken chain next to it. The archer whipped around at Blackwolf’s approach and fired a pair of arrows which caught aflame as they zipped through the air, burning the hair on the barbarian’s pelt.

Despite some grievous blows, the Brotherhood prevailed, and the soldiers of Shahalesti surrendered, though not before Blackwolf followed the archer to the very entrance of the Singing Chasm, there to discover the elf in a tug of war with a small demonic imp over a small box. The axe wielding warrior was not discriminating as the Rage of the Rage Drake overtook him. He hurtled into battle, splitting the elf in twain with a mighty blow, then swiftly charging the imp and dismembering that as well.

The box was recovered. Geth broke the hands of the surviving soldiers in retribution for their breach of diplomacy. Ahleena of the Torrents was not pleases. Then Geth loaded up a wagon with supplies for the refuge at the Temple of the Aquiline Heart. And Ahleena was confused. Returning to the Temple at dusk, the Brotherhood could not rest easily, for now was the time to escape the city before the Council allowed the Ragesian Inquisitors to enter.

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In Defense of Empire
At the bar with Kathor Danava

So sayeth Kathor Danava -

“The Ragesian Empire is worthy of loyalty. Drakus Coaltongue brought peace to the land after the collapse of the Winters Dark. A peace of superior force of arms to be sure, but a peace of tolerance and order. Many are the crimes and barbarities of the Orcish tribes, but they are nothing to the depravities of the Beastmen who enforced the savage law of Danzig. It is sad to see Coaltongue pass, because his way, inevitable and merciless, was fair. I do not think the same will be said of Leska. The Inquisition was the iron fist of Coaltongue within his borders, but now the fist has taken the place of the head, and I have no loyalty to that cause.”

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