D&D: An introduction to the famous table top game.

For this post I’ve asked my friend Bill Notnel to interview me, thanks for coming in Bill.

No problem Dave, ready?

Let’s do it.

Dungeons & Dragons…

If you have never heard of it before, it’s a table top fantasy game.  Actually Bill, it’s the table-top fantasy game, played mostly by those who would call themselves ‘nerds’.  If you have heard of it, you might picture this as your average player:

Courtesy of orgtheory.wordpress.com

I wouldn’t say you are ‘wrong’ so much as uninformed for taking this view; let’s fix that.  By the end of this post, you should know what D&D is, if it could be your thing, and hopefully how cool it can really be.  I have asked my friend Bill Notnel, to interview me today.

So what is D&D?

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that started in the basement of a man named Gary Gygax (sweet name), who wanted to give his friends an adventure to play through.  The tale goes that Gary had his friends explore a vast network of dungeons underneath a castle, fighting monsters and finding treasure.  While the origin is far more complex, it conveys the spirit of the game: a way to let you play pretend with friends.

That’s really all it is: so little, and yet so much.  It’s a game of imagination where you play and explore worlds as vast as planes of existence or as confined as village, playing as a character that can be a noble Elf Lord with a long and detailed lineage, or an Orc thief with no memory of where she’s from.  While the game is designed principally for a world of medieval fantasy, borrowing from and building off a host of authors over the last century; a skilled DM can make the game suit their needs as they require.

What’s a DM?

Excellent question, dear reader!  A Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) is the person responsible for the world the other players play in.  Let me back up.  To play D&D you need a group of 4-6 people (3-8 is possible but not advised.)  One person, usually the best storyteller or most versed in D&D mechanics, is the dungeon master; everyone else is a Player. Each player has a character who acts as an avatar in the world the DM creates. So, players play Player Characters (PCs) in the world created by the DM, optionally populated with Non-Player Characters (NPCs).

So what do you do?

Broadly speaking, whatever you want.  Typically the DM has planned at minimum a quest, some sort of task, to present the party (characters played by the other players) with.  Quests can be anything from delivering a letter, to killing a beast, to solving a mystery or crime, to rescuing a princess.  If the task is very large, then the DM will usually break it up into smaller quests or milestones, with the overarching storyline being called a campaign.

But wait, you said whatever I want, can I ignore the quests?

Well, yeah, you can hang out at the local inn and get drunk, you can walk around town, you can sleep all day for all I care.  Remember that the DM does have a general plan in mind, so at least give them a heads up if you plan on doing something else.  Messing with the DM’s plan is allowed, but by no means wise, since they are essentially God; a fickle DM might have you trip and break your neck if you make them invent whole new towns and areas on the spot.

You also can’t technically do whatever you want; but you can try to do whatever you want.  Success is not guaranteed.

Can you elaborate?

Of course.  D&D has, over decades of refinement, developed a fairly rich set of rules to give structure to your play.  In simplest terms, you tell the DM what you want your character to do, and the DM asks you to roll a d20 to determine your success.  Your character’s abilities and skills are factored into the roll.

Hold up, d20?

Right, in D&D and dice enthusiast parlance, ‘dX‘ is the short form of ‘a die with X sides’. Also NdX is the short form of ‘N dice with X sides’.  In Monopoly, Craps, and Yahtzee, d6 dice are used (2d6, 2d6, and 6d6 respectively).  For most can-I-do-this? rolls, you use a d20, or icosahedral die:

Must be a planet of giants
A green d10 and red d20 (not the typical scale)

Fine, back to determining success?

Ok, so let’s say you are playing a strong, brutish dwarf. You want to break down a door.  The DM will ask you to roll a strength check. This means you roll a d20, and add the number to whatever your character’s strength is (let’s say it’s 9).  Breaking down a wooden door requires a total of 16 or higher, meaning you have to roll a 7 or higher.  Rolling 7-20 will result in success, or 80% of the time that door will fall.

But what if you aren’t strong? If your character is more of a lover than a fighter, and has a strength of 3, then they’d have to roll 13 or higher, resulting in a 40% chance of success.  This is where the rules keep you from doing whatever you want, but not from trying.

It also keeps any one person from being perfect at everything, which makes playing balanced; if you can remember games of shoot ’em up as kids where you argued about whether you ‘shot’ someone and they had to play dead, you can see the value of having rules to settle it.

Alright, you mentioned strength, what other traits are enumerated?

Promise not to freak out?

Uh, sure yeah.

Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are your basic stats.  Then there’s defense: Armor Class, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will; which are derived from your character (Str & Con determine Fort, Dex & Int determine Ref, Wis & Cha determine Will).  Then you have your skills:  Acrobatics, Arcana (magic), Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, Endurance, Heal, History, Insight, IntimidateNature, Perception, Religion, Stealth, Streetwise, and Thievery.

Point is almost anything you want to do falls into a category, and building a character requires assigning points to the… you know what?  Suffice to say it can get complicated, there are tools to expedite this process, and that’s not what I want to talk about.

Fine, so is it just dwarves and elves and orcs?

Like I said, the DM builds the world. I’ve heard of sci-fi, cyber/steampunk, 50s style, and even ancient roman worlds.  The sky is the limit, and the DM has the power to pick the colour.  Any rule that restricts too much can be ignored or enforced at their discretion; though typically it’s considered sporting to state this in advance.

D&D is designed with fantasy in mind, so the races and worlds they offer pre-built will be presented as such, but a few creative twists can turn a griffon into a steam-powered automaton, a katana into a lightsaber, or a shield into …a shield.

Smooth…

Shut up, next question.

So who plays D&D?

More people than you might think.  Though typically avoided for its label as ‘uncool’ or for ‘nerds’ (I too used to picture that guy at the beginning and cringe at the idea of falling to the terrible level of the D&D player), it’s actually played by a lot of really cool folks.  Here are some famous folks who’ve been known to play:

Actors: Mike Myers, Wil Wheaton, Matt Damon, Dame Judy Dench, Jenny McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Ben Affleck, Jack Black, David Boreanaz 

Tough Guys: Vin Diesel (huge fan), Dwayne Johnson,  Hulk Hogan

Comedians: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Eddie Izzard, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, David Cross (who’s hinted at playing with other comedians)

TV Show Hosts: Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert

Bands & Artists: Metallica, Andrew W.K., Thrice, My Chemical Romance, Alice Cooper

I Could Go On: Joss Whedon, Stephen King, David X. Cohen, Seth Green, Matt Groenig, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Kevin Smith.

Historically it’s a closet hobby, something you don’t brag about but share with someone you trust to avoid ridicule.  I have no doubt that some these guys and gals introduced each other to it and play together (which is just an awesome thought.)

So what is D&D to you?

To me D&D is an opportunity to build worlds and stories that you can tell with friends; to play a game that relies on imagination and cooperation to be fully realized.  To you it might be a way to kick-ass, or just escape life and daydream for a while.

I want to play, how do I get started?

Well, there’s an easy way and a hard way.  The easy way is you know someone who wants to be a DM and who has the expertise to do it.  The hard way is you don’t.  D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, and has a lot of support material. They can sell you miniatures (custom figurines to move around the board), rule books, guides, and stories to play.  Poor people like me use coins, chapsticks, or other small items.

Look at his pointy little ears!
A male elf ranger mini

If you can’t find a copy online, you’ll want the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), Player’s Handbook (PHB), and either the Monster Manual (MM) or Monster Vault (MV, and my preference).  You’ll also need dice, or a dice rolling app (there are tons).  Rolling real dice is more satisfying, but I’m a writer not a cop, do what you want.

I should mention somewhere that there is a starter kit you can buy for around $25. I have not used it, but I hear it’s grand:

Cool cool, coolcoolcool.
So cool….

You’ll also want pen and paper to write down notes and keep track of things. Your character’s information is written on a character sheet; and your DM will walk you through how it works.

Unless you have a super-powered imagination, I find a map to place your minis, NPCs, and monsters on easier to work with. How elaborate you want to be is up to you. I go cheap and draw maps on paper, like so:

Typical D&D set up: character sheets, dice, minis, and a map (not mine).

If you buy campaigns from Wizards of the Coast, they’ll often come with maps:

A typical D&D map (this is from the Cathedral of Chaos)

And if you have a flare for crafts, and are meticulous, you can try to be as cool as Penny Arcade’s co-founder and illustrator, Mike Krahulik:

Seriously, this is mind blowing.
Rotating spheres of ice and lava in the elemental chaos? Sign me up.

If you want to see some excellent playing of the game, Penny Arcade Expo actually has an ongoing campaign that they’ve put on YouTube, featuring D&D’s senior designer Chris Perkins as the DM, Wil Wheaton, and three of the PA staff.  It’s hilarious to watch, and hard to duplicate (in terms of both talent and money), but it’s also inspiring.

Fair warning, there is adult language.

Alright, I’m going the ‘hard way’, any advice on finding friends?

Well, first you’ll need friends, which is beyond the scope of this post.  Assuming you have friends though, I’d talk about role playing games in general, ask them questions like, “if you were any character from Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/…/A Song of Ice and Fire which would you be and why?”  See if they have fantasies of their own, or if the idea of playing a game like D&D would appeal to them.  Remember that the game has a stigma, so try not to emphasize it, use cool examples like NBC’s Community:

Also shows the different kinds of characters players will play.
Abed is a great DM, and this episode is a great litmus test.

If you’re going to be the DM, you’ll want to see if you can get a mix of player preferences.  A diverse group will survive better, but will also be harder to please.  For instance, cloak and dagger political coups will entertain different people than battling wizards, or fighting goblins, or picking pockets.  A little bit of each is best, so they can each specialize and cover each other’s weaknesses.

You also want to think about the story you want to tell.  If you want to tell a cloak and dagger tale, avoid picking the shoot-first-questions-second people; or wait to tell that story some other time.  The first time I played I was a striker because hitting things requires little thought, it allowed me to get used to things; but by the end I realized I enjoyed narrative more than combat.  So the second time round I played a bard named Atalanta, who was much better at talking than hitting.  My third time was as the DM, and I recruited the party myself, if you have more questions in that regard, let me know.

I think we’re almost out of time Dave, is there anything else we should know?

Hmm, well there’s tons of advice I could dump on you but I’ll share what tied me in at first:

  1. Who you play with affects the entire game.  If you’re laid back, avoid legalistic players or you’ll have a bad time.  The more you think alike, the easier the collaborative imagination will be.
  2. Unlike most video games or all board games, your characters persist between sessions. So if you die in the game, it’s permanent, there is no reset; this adds an element of fear, and makes you a lot less reckless.
  3. A session typically takes a whole afternoon or evening (2-4 hours). You will get faster as you learn how to play, just like any game.
  4. I highly recommend limiting the level of complexity if it’s your first time. Leave out yuan-ti and psions, stick to dwarves and rangers (at least keep it to Player Handbook 1.)
  5. Do your homework, nothing shatters the illusion like stopping to look something up.
  6. Players: the DM is always right, they command the utmost respect.
  7. DM: You are there for the players, try to be nice.
  8. Remember to have fun. If you aren’t having fun, you are probably doing it wrong.

In closing, I’ve had great experiences with D&D. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment, and if you have big questions maybe I’ll write another post on this.

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Agrin’s Gate – Part XI: Endgame, Epilogue, Afterword

Last time in “Agrin’s Gate”

“NOO!  My spiders!  My workers!  They will pay with blood for this!”

And now, the exciting conclusion.

Endgame

The cry echoed across the dark expanse.  Aelar, hovering near the crystal, rose above to see.  Squinting against the light of the sunrod in his teeth, he could make out a faint glimmer opposite the ledge where the party was.  As the glimmer grew, so did the ranting and raving of the voice.

Realizing his friends couldn’t see the approaching threat because of the enormous crystal blocking their view, he hurried back.  Landing on the ledge, he put the sunrod away.

“Whoever that is, he’s angry, and he’s coming this way,” said Drel.

“He’s coming from an opening on the opposite side of the crystal.”  Aelar added.

As he stood on the ledge facing the party, he noticed the shape of the hallway was the same as the one he saw the glimmering light in.  The voice cried again.

“All of my spiders, a lifetime of work, whoever you are, you will surely die for this!”  The voice cried.  There was a hint of age in the man’s voice.

“Where are you?  What have you done to my laboratory!  I hope you are ready for a fight you fiendish knaves… you monsters!”

The party made sure the ledge was clear of debris and readied their weapons as the sound of mechanical spiders began anew.  They prepared for the worst as a peel of thunder rang out.

The crystal lit up like a star and shot lightning in all directions.  Aelar and Drel narrowly dodged the bolts as Balthazar, Ashar, Drull, and Vore were knocked to the ground.  As they helped their companions up, the crystal went dark once more, but the thunder didn’t subside; instead it shifted, the reverberations of exploding air giving way to a mechanical sound, as spiders whirred to life below.

Below the thousands of drones could be spotted, their dull red eyes a swirl of motion in the blackness.  From the far side of the expanse, more whirring could be heard, mixed with crunching metal.  Rounding the side of the crystal was a slow-moving wave of spiders, spilling over themselves to form an oncoming platform upon which stood – a wizard.

He was human, shoulder-length hair blowing about his face, jet black with streaks of silver.  He wore a long robe of crimson red with gold trimming and a high collar; other than that there he wore no jewellery, held no wand or staff.  His hands were flexed as if they were each crushing the life from a small creature as he approached without flinching.

Hundreds of spiders climbed vainly to serve their master, locking together to make the approaching platform.  Below it the spider’s dull-red eyes could be seen shifting around, vying for dominance.  Drones crippled in the deactivation from falling formed  a foundation, crushed to oblivion under the weight of the throng.

Still some distance away, the party worked out a quick plan.  Aelar would carry Balthazar on his back to the floating platform where they would battle the mage.  Vore would cast light and heal allies when he could.  Ashar’s swordmage skills gave him the ability to defend from a distance.  Drel would fire with arrows while Drull, the strongest, would hurl what he could find at the mage.  Iltani was still nowhere to be seen.

The mage came within range, fire in his eyes.  “You will rue the day you crossed the great mage, Rossar Nold!”

Aelar, Balthazar in tow, flew clumsily toward the platform, barely able to keep them in the air.  Rossar saw them and fired an arc of lightning at them.  Robbed of his usual agility, Aelar was helpless to dodge the attack.  The bolt struck him high in the chest, doubling him over and knocking Balthazar off of his back, sending them both to their doom.

Aelar could hardly breathe, but he fought the instinct to panic as he focused to restart the flow of psionic energy.  He regained control and directed all of his effort through his palms.  In moments his fall was stopped and he looked down.

Balthazar could barely be made out against the abyss, his silhouette shrinking as he fell into the sea of red eyes.  With a sickening thud, a burst of flame erupted from him, and then went dark.  Himself now furious, Aelar shot upward toward the electromage.

Drel was hiding behind Ashar’s shield as he deftly fired arrows at the mage.  The ones that weren’t incinerated by lightning were stopped by drones, leaping to protect Rossar, and tumbling into the blackness.  Aelar flew around the platform, keeping low and out of sight.  Then rushing from behind, let loose a blood curdling war cry, giving Rossar the moment he needed to sidestep the Elf’s flying kick.

“So, you wish to duel with a master?  So be it!”  Rossar said as he took on a fighting stance.  Aelar matched his stance and they began circling each other, looking for a opening.  Then, with a twist of his hand, Rossar fired another bolt at Aelar.

The elf, no Tiefling on his back, dodged it easily and moved to deliver a flurry of blows.  Rossar Nold moved like water, shifting and swerving around each blow.  It was as if he knew what Aelar would do before he could think it.  Drel didn’t dare risk hitting Aelar, and so he, Drull, Vore, and Ashar watched helplessly as they dueled.

Rossar fired more bolts, but Aelar deflected or absorbed them with psionic barriers around his hands.  They kicked and punched until finally they locked in a grapple.  Aelar thought he had the advantage when one of the spiders reached up and bit his ankle.  Wincing, he lost focus and with it his psionic protection.  Rossar shot lightning through his palms and into Aelar, who fell limp beside him.

As the Drel strung another arrow, Vore cried.  “Look, below!”

In the darkness a bonfire appeared to be moving up the side of the spider column.  Balthazar invoked the wrath of the Abyss, and a flaming cloak swirled around him as he clawed above the drones, having orders to climb only.  Drull roared with glee and he and the others fought to distract the mage with renewed hope.

Rossar, unaware of Balthazar’s ascent, resumed his defensive posture.  “Fools!  See now the eve of your destruction, your friend lies dead beside me, a bad omen for yourselves, yes?”

“Not likely.”  Balthazar lunged across the platform at Rossar.  Once again the mage was too quick, and nimbly dodged his charge as Balthazar tripped and crashed into Aelar’s body.  Rossar raised his hands, his eyes looking like a viper about to strike.

“A great deal more likely than you think Tiefling.  Die like your fallen comraaaAAAH!”

Rossar’s right hand was being coated in shards of crystal, forming a frost over his fingers.  He tried in vain to use his other hand to rub it off, but it only stuck to the frost as it crept up his right arm.  His hands stuck together, he watched in horror as the frost thickened into a layer of crystal, shards now gathering around his feet and legs.

Within seconds the shards had formed a thick crust around the mage, rendering him totally immobile.

“Did I miss something important?” Balthazar smiled in spite of himself.

“Iltani, you magnificent bastard!”

“In the flesh, or should I say around it. He’s unable to move for now, he will pass out from lack of air soon enough.  How is Aelar?”  Inquired Iltani.  Balthazar checked for signs of life.

“He’s dead Iltani.”

“Very well, this mage is unconscious.”  With that, Iltani dissociated and reformed in his traditional self.  Searching Rossar’s body, they found a small vial.  Iltani examined it closely.

“Hmm, it appears to be for repairing electrical damage, likely a safety measure for accidents,” he surmised.

Balthazar desperately administered the vial to Aelar; as Aelar had to him on that first day in the Goblin’s den.  “Don’t you die on me Aelar.  Don’t you dare.” 

The Tiefling’s eyes blazed with mixed rage and fear as they looked at Aelar.  Black lines traced across the monk’s face, the fluid flashing through his nerves.  Then with a sudden convulsion Aelar doubled over, gasping and coughing up blood.

As this was happening the platform of spiders started to sink as the energy Rossar had been supplying them personally had stopped.  Picking up Aelar and Rossar, Balthazar and Iltani braced themselves as the column sank into a heap of debris and machinery.

“How are you doing?”  Shouted Vore into the renewed blackness.  “We’re throwing down a rope!”  Drel and Drull quickly took the rope they had between them and fashioned it into two strong cords.  Lowering them down, Vore cast sunlight where he’d last seen them.

“We’re alive, more or less.  Get ready for some heavy lifting.”  Balthazar shouted back.

Balthazar took what rope he had and bound the mage’s hands and feet.  Iltani saw the dangling lines, in Vore’s light, and made a sling for Aelar.  Giving his rope a quick, double tug, Aelar started to be hoisted up in heaves and hos.  Balthazar climbed the other line while Iltani waited with the mage.

Reaching the ledge when the mage did, Iltani sat with him as Vore saw to everyone’s wounds.  Finishing, everyone feeling refreshed, they shook the mage awake.  The rage in his eyes had subsided somewhat, giving way to fear.  Balthazar assumed a wrathful aspect, fire dancing around him and twisting off of his horns as he spoke in a voice that would make a demon quiver.

“You will talk, or you will die.”  He growled.  Rossar nodded dumbly, trembling.

“Who are you?”  He asked.

“I am Rossar Nold, electromage of the Ninth Order, emissary of the Blood Prince.”  He stammered.

“You mean Orcus?”  Ashar said.

“Y-yes.”

“What is your purpose under this forest?”  Vore asked.

“I was constructing the great crystal behind you.”

“Go on.”

“Well, that crystal wasn’t always so big, it used to be much smaller, only a few feet across.  It sat in a room, acting as a portal between planes.  The problem was that my Lord needed it to be much larger.  You see, the bigger the crystal, the larger it’s sphere of influence.  It’s original size was barely large enough to move a small town, like Agrin’s Gate.”

“So that’s what the crystal was for.”  Said Ashar.

“Wait, you are the ones who took the crystal down the hall?  It does explain why you are down here…”  Began Rossar.

Aelar interrupted, “Rossar, why did demons come out of the crystals when they were touched?”  Remembering the demon’s bite sorely.

“The crystals were possessed.  For control and defense.  If the right hands were laid on the crystal, it would allow them to control their destination to anywhere in the ring.  The wrong hands would release the demon to dispatch them and return to its crystal.”

“What ring?  Like a chain of crystals?”  Ashar guessed.

“Yes, each crystal is tethered to one before and behind it, together forming a ring you can travel along.”  Rossar had calmed down somewhat, excited to boast of his knowledge.

“If the demon defending a crystal is defeated, it is designed to travel to its tethered cousin, near enough to lure the foe into another trap, but not so close that the enemy could make a surprise attack.  Such was the belief at least.”

“And the ‘spheres of influence’ as you call them, why do they swap places?”  said Iltani.

“Well, all of the material you displace, it has to go somewhere.  When it’s just a person,  and it’s only some air, a brief rush is often felt as it pushes out of the way.  But a town or city requires a different solution.”

“Fair enough, and what did Orcus want with this crystal?”  Iltani pressed.

“I don’t know.”  Rossar said.  Balthazar fingered the hilt of his sword.

“I really don’t know! I think he was planning an assault on the Shadowfell, maybe to swap the Raven Queen’s palace with his own.  Maybe to move a great army in an instant, but I swear he never told me.”

“Why do this Rossar?”  Vore could tell this man hadn’t always been so evil.

“He said… he said he could bring her back.”

“Who?”

“My wife, Elara.  Orcus said that once he ruled the dead, he’d restore my wife to her living self.”  Rossar, realizing that his dreams were crushed, began to weep.

“She was everything I had, my light, my whole life!”

Vore sympathized.  “I too lost someone dear to me, and for a long time I let it rule me, but I’ve moved past it.”  He looked at Iltani, who nodded back.  “Your loss was terrible, of that I have no doubt; but that demon would have betrayed you, it is his nature.”

“You don’t know that!”  Rossar cried through hot tears, “you don’t, oh what’s the point.  It doesn’t matter anymore I suppose.  Are you satisfied?  Are you going to kill me now?”

“No.”  Aelar said.  Balthazar began to protest, but Aelar lifted a hand.  Kneeling in front of the mage sitting on the floor, the elf looked deep in his eyes.

“No Rossar, we aren’t going to kill you, though I’m sure no one would object.  We even have an executioner’s axe should we change our mind.”  Drull grinned as Aelar continued.

“Rossar, you will pay by restoring the wrongs your actions have led to.  You will use your knowledge to control a fragment of that crystal, bring back Agrin’s Gate, and send the Lizardfolk and their patch of swamp back where it came from.”

“Well that’s quite complicated. I don’t…”

“I wasn’t finished,” said Aelar sternly.  “After that, we will contact the Raven Queen’s Shadar-Kai and put this whole matter in their hands.  As far as I’m concerned it involves them, and their queen, most.  The Gate, the townsfolk, us, are all just collateral damage.”

Rossar was silent, thinking.  “I can’t promise anything, but I can try.”

– The End

Epilogue

Rossar, with help from Iltani, extricated and duplicated the crystal the party had first found, and through a series of trial and error, restored both the Lizardfolk swamp and the Gate to their proper place.  The swamp was easy enough, and the Gate was found, snap frozen, in ice in the Elemental Chaos, unharmed.

The capital was notified with an unofficial report delivered by Drull, who was freed from the party’s service, and went on to other heroics, mostly as a goblin clan infiltrator.

The capital, having also received an official report from The Lieutenant, and an addendum from Bryne himself, notified the refugees in Mirehaven of the Gate’s restoration.  Over the next year the wall’s breaches were repaired and the town was put on a path to restore it’s former wealth and renown from trade.

The party handed over Rossar to the Shadar-Kai authorities, who kept him for information and research on crystals and mechanical constructs.  The crystal was taken to the shadowfell and sealed away for future use.

For their heroics deeds the party became myths of song and poem across the Prime and the Shadowfell.  They were called Keepers of the Gate, Slayers of the Vampire and Lamia, Protectors of the Shadowfell, and servants of the Raven Queen.

The party continued in service of the Raven Queen for many years to come, becoming paragons of justice and might wherever they went.

Afterword

I hope you enjoyed this revised and expanded version of Agrin’s Gate.  It was originally the product of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign run by the dashing Karl Reimer.

A combat-heavy campaign, there was little emphasis on character background, coherence, or conversation.  This proved to be a double-edged sword because while it afforded me more freedom in adapting our story into a narrative, I also had much more work to do in terms of filling gaps and making sure things made sense.

Let me introduce the cast:

  • Karl, Human Dungeon Master (Karl Reimer)
  • Baarda, Human Lieutenant Dungeon Master (John Baarda)
  • Aelar, Elven Monk (Dave Lenton, myself)
  • Ashar, Genasi Swordmage (Jonathan Baarda)
  • Cordus, Minotaur Warden (Grant Davis)
  • Drel, Human Ranger (Jake Redekopp)
  • Drull, Bugbear Barbarian (Grant Davis)
  • Iltani, Shardmind Psion (Andrew Alkema)
  • Vore, Human Cleric (Rylan Halteman)

Over the course of nine months, we laughed and fought as members of a rag tag party, hurtling through planes and villains.  I tried to keep up but got distracted and rushed to complete the story for a college newspaper.

Fast forward a year, I’m on my way to New York City for a mission trip and looking to raise funds.  I offer to write stories featuring donors if they give a prescribed amount.  My friend Ross Arnold is very generous and donates… enough.  That’s all I’ll say.

Having wanted to re-write the tale for a while, I think to write him in and kill two birds with one stone.  Originally part of a band of soldiers who were impressed by the party in the swamps near Mirehaven, Ross opted for a more villainous role.  Happy to do it, he became the fearsome Rossar Nold, electromage, and underlying villain to the whole tale.  Hope you liked your part Ross.

Now, being an engineer, I have a love/hate relationship with statistics.  In this case, love.  Before this, Agrin’s Gate was the longest thing I’d ever written.  But I wonder, how much longer is the Revised and Expanded (R & E) Edition?

Section Name

Original Ed. Word Count

R & E Ed. Word Count

Foreword & Acknowledgements N/A 309
Prologue – The Gate N/A 815
The Contract 448 662
On Route To The Cave N/A 708
First Blood 350 1 019
Bugbears and Krenshars 663 818
Vore 576 679
The Crystal 472 1 334
The Incident 795 1 005
The Swamp 445 539
The Fortress 939 1 011
Cordus 170 212
Bryne’s Suspicion 394 434
Dinosaurs 352 807
Bryne’s Refusal 297 355
Dragons (Finally) 624 887
Tales of their Pasts 1 259 872
The Feywild 523 572
The Town N/A 272
The Widow 878 1 450
A Change of Plans 194 265
Here We Go Again 489 619
Drull 519 828
Surrounded 596 775
Credit Where Credit Is Due 241 429
The Shadowfell 862 1 375
It Comes Full Circle 1 056 1 614
Endgame N/A 2 355
Epilogue 38 235
Afterword N/A 526
Totals: 13 180 23 781

This is almost longer than every major report or essay I submitted for my university degree, combined.  Am I proud?  Yes, very.

Don’t forget to be awesome,

Dave Lenton

Agrin’s Gate – Part X: The Shadowfell, It Comes Full Circle

The Shadowfell

Unlike the portal into Mirehaven, nothing could be seen through it.  But, seeing the confidence with which the Shadar-Kai strode through, and not wanting to give them an excuse to call them timid, the party followed without delay.

The change in atmosphere was tangible as they stepped through the portal.  What used to be humid, wild, and heavy forest air, had changed into something faintly acrid tasting, and much thinner, as if the air itself weren’t as real.  They entered a large, circular room of dark grey stone with vaulted ceilings.  The dimness of the room, in contrast to the saturating hues of the Feywild forest explained why the destination of the portal had seemed somewhat, abyssal.

The room was mostly unadorned, save for six engraved black pillars surrounding the teleportation circle, where the party had first stepped, and a painting on the ceiling of a large black raven, the Queen’s sigil.  Arrow slits were inlaid along the walls, and peering through them afforded a look across a bleak landscape with char-black trees and a haze of silvery mist.  They were on an upper floor of some sort of keep.

“This is the Shadowfell,” explained Iltani to the group.  “It is one of the six principle planes of existence.  To those who travel them, the ‘World’ is more commonly called the ‘Prime’.  I hail from Astral Sea, home to immortals and most Gods.  If you consider the world to be a template plane, the Feywild is a hyper-vivified version, full of light, magic, and colour.  On the other end of the balance is the Shadowfell, a hypo-vivified version, practically void of life or light.”

“Unlike other Gods, the Raven Queen chooses to reside in this plane, to stay close to death, over which she has dominion.”

“That is only four planes Iltani,” observed Vore, “what of the other two?”

“They are the Elemental Chaos and the Far Realm, but enough of that.”

The Shadar-Kai who had escorted the party exchanged kurt nods with three more waiting to receive them, some murmured brief greetings to each other.  A few from the escort immediately headed off toward the keep’s inner chambers.

“We’ve been expecting you,” said one of the receiving officers.

“Please follow me to the audience chamber.  It is a more suitable place to recognize your accomplishments and discuss your reward.”

Travelling through the hallways of the keep, the utter lack colour became increasingly obvious.  Even the colour on the party’s packs and clothes washed out.  Occasionally they caught a glimpse of what appeared to be ghosts gliding purposelessly through the halls, but whenever they turned to look at them, they disappeared.  As the companions passed Shadar-Kai in the halls, eyes drifted inquisitively towards them.  Some of them decided to tag along in their wake.  They kept their distance, but their curiosity had obviously been piqued.

Eventually the guide led them to a hallway with a large set of double doors made of pure black stone at its far end.  The hall appeared empty, but the Shadar-Kai who entered performed a rigid salute.  Their eyes were fixed on a corner that was darker than the others.  Try as they might, not one of the adventurers could fix their gaze as their saluting peers did.  Their eyes kept drifting away from it against their will.

Piecing together sideways glances, they could just make out a dangerous looking Shadar-Kai sitting on a stool, idly sharpening his daggers.  He practically exuded darkness, or perhaps he was consuming light, it was hard to say.  Even after they knew that he was there the party found their eyes slipping off of him and looking anywhere but at the corner in which he was sitting.

“Well I hear you’re the ones who killed the vampire lord.  Took you long enough,” he sneered.

“Who are you?” Asked Balthazar.

“I,” he paused for effect, “am Serbahn.”

“Tell us then, Serbahn,” Aelar said, “what is your greatest feat?”  Aelar had overheard other Shadar-Kai talking.  Their greatest accomplishments were who they were, it was how they measured their greatness.  Serbahn’s eyes flashed excitedly before resuming their indifferent look.

“I slew the mighty demon Saulknor,” a cold chill went down the spines of those who knew the name, “and took from him, Kalina Ia: the light eater.”

He stood, “a High Priestess of the Raven Queen will be addressing you personally.  Behave yourselves.  Speak only when spoken to.”

He walked into the next room, the black doors sliding back silently, opening into a hall with galleries on either side.  The Witch and Serbahn walked onto the dais at the end of the hall, standing in opposing corners.  The group was ushered forward as the entourage of Shadar-Kai that had been following filed into the galleries.  The Witch began a recitation which the assembly continued.  Vore knew it and spoke with the assembly, some of the party mumbled along, and the rest kept silent.

The Witch addressed the hall, “why are you worthy to receive the honour of High Priestess’s presence?”

At this the Shadar-Kai took turns either praising their accomplishments or cutting their hands to cover their iniquity.  Balthazar, Drel, and Drull all cut their hands, unsure of what to say.  Vore, Ashar, Iltani, and Aelar spoke of the demons, Lamia, and Vampire Lord they’d defeated; and the town they’d defended.  The Witch nodded with approval.

She took a drink from a pedestal on the dais and muttered under her breath.  The pedestal sank into the floor, light vanishing into the space it left, and a blast of cold air rushed out, forcing Aelar and Iltani to shudder.  Out of this void stepped the High Priestess.

“You have done well mortals, this ceremony is reserved for acts of great courage and valour.  It is our custom to tell the story of the honoured,” said the High Priestess.

“In the beginning you were a motley band of mercenaries, tasked with eliminating a trivial goblin threat.  Fate, it would seem, had greater designs for you.  A crystal of immense power was discovered, which you took to your captain.  When it was activated, the whole town you’d been asked to rid of goblins was thrust through the world to a swamp where you fought Lizardfolk and their kin.

“Your Arcanist determined that the crystal was being drawn by others and their possession would grant you the power to restore the town.  Through a swamp fortress, a desert, a frozen wilderness, and the Feywild, you sought out and retrieved these artifacts.

“We found you in a cave in the frozen wilderness.  On a different mission we left you to your goal.  When we learned of the crystal’s true nature, that it was being used for the designs of Orcus, may he die…”

“May he die,” the hall echoed in unison.

“We tracked you to the Feywild and evacuated the people of your town in exchange for killing the Vampire Lord and his thralls, servants of Orcus, may he die.”

“May he die.”  The group chimed in.

“What say you to these things?”

Each member responded in turn.  Most gave an, “all in a day’s work,” response; some flowered it up with words about service in battle against Orcus and his forces. Iltani had the unwitting audacity to correct the High Priestess on the nature of his mortality, in that he wasn’t, earning himself a disapproving glance.

“For your service in these days past, you will each receive ten thousand gold pieces, and a selection of weapons and talismans from our armouries.  For those who demonstrated the confidence to state their accomplishments before my arrival, you may receive a tattoo to mark your deeds forever.  Go now; live to die!”

“Live to die,” repeated the Shadar-Kai, and the High Priestess walked back into the void she came from.  As the pedestal rose back to its place, the crowds stood and filed out of the hall.  The Witch and Serbahn stepped down from the dais and faced the group.

“You may rest here and select your items and tattoos in the morning, after that we will allow you passage to whatever place you choose.”  The Witch said.

It Comes Full Circle

The next day the group discussed where they’d like to go next as they excitedly picked out their new armour and clothing. The Astral Sea, the Feywild (Aelar’s choice), the Prime, so many options.  They decided, at Iltani and Ashar’s behest, to return to Agrin’s Gate, or at least where it was, and examine the magical barrier they had encountered in the goblin cave at the beginning of their journey.

For Ashar, that barrier was the magical power source he’d traveled to the Gate in search of.  He had hoped the crystal might sate his thirst for knowledge, but it had not.  That barrier was powerful, and whatever lay beyond it must be equal, or greater.  The others, save Drull, who had never been to the cave, relished the thought of adventure, the satisfaction of seeing what had been beyond their grasp.

After donning their new accoutrements, Drel, Drull, and Balthazar took some time to test their gear by sparring in the barrack’s arena while the others received their tattoos.  When the tattooing was finished, they met their companions and went for a few rounds.  Panting heavily, the first three called for a break, and as if on cue the Witch entered the arena.

“You have received your rewards, have you found them acceptable?”  She asked.

The party gave a cheer, and each demonstrated what they had, banging a shield, setting a target on fire, warping a rock into gravel.  The Witch grinned wryly.

“Excellent, then the only thing left is to send you off.  Have you made a decision?”

Aelar stepped forward, “yes, a portal to Agrin’s Gate.”  The Witch was confused.

“The town is in the Abyss right now, are you certain?”

“Apologies, we mean it’s original location, on the capital road if possible.”

The Witch nodded with a certain knowing, as if that had been her understanding all along.

“Very well, stand back.”

Once again, she create a ring which sank part way into the arena floor, forming an arch.  Through it could be seen swaying trees and dappled sunlight.  With brief nods they saluted the Witch and walked through.

The air seemed to fill with life again, it was like breathing all over again.  Within minutes even the more battle-weary were refreshed and invigorated.  They were on the capital road, not far from where the Gate had been.  Going to see what was left of it they came suddenly upon a dried out swamp.

In the distance they could see Lizardfolk who had been carried along with the swamp when the town and swamp had switched places.  They seemed less at home in the temperate forest clime, but were keeping to themselves.  The group ignored them and walked back up the road toward the goblin cave.

“I’m new here, but I can guess that the swamp was a surprise to see.  Why?”  Asked Drull.

“I think I’ve worked it out,” said Ashar.  “I think that whenever the town teleported, everything that got moved switched places with the destination.  That’s why when we were in the Feywild there was an enormous ice sphere.  In the elemental chaos a floating iceberg isn’t uncommon, the town likely teleported inside it.”

“Oh,” Drull was lost, but that happened to him a lot.  Instead of pursuing it he kept quiet and focused on his axe, rehearsing battles.

The road, the path, the cave, it all seemed almost quaint and nostalgic to the companions now.  Since their first battle they had become a lethal force, and they had been rewarded handsomely for it.  As they passed the pit Vore recounted his outburst at leaving the goblin bodies around.

“While I maintain my position on disposing bodies, which I thank you all for respecting; I was a little hot-headed that first day with you guys.”  He admitted.

When they got to the second dirt chamber they found the entrance to the crystal chamber had been boarded up again.  Not noticing anything dangerous about it, they broke down the boards and moved onward.  Once again they descended deep into the mountainside with Vore telling Drull about the battles they’d had since they first met.

Reaching the end of the passage, Vore suggested they go left to stop by the crystal chamber.  Like the entrance though, all evidence of their presence had been erased: the chamber looked exactly like they had first found it before, save for the crystal not being there.

Confused but undaunted, the group doubled back and went to the barrier. Iltani, much more versed in the nature of magic, barriers, and doors than last time, tried his hand at the barrier.  After what seemed like an eternity, Ashar stepped in to assist.  When the barrier fell, a surge of energy hit both of them.

Ashar’s armour carried it around him, leaving him largely unscathed.  Iltani wasn’t so fortunate.  His crystal frame seemed to be a perfect conductor, and absorbing most of the shock he burst into a thousand shards. The group was silent.

“I’m IMMORTAL.  I can pull myself back together but it will take some time, probably an hour or so.  Go on without me, I’ll catch up when I’ve re-corporealized.”

It was then that they noticed the sound of scurrying.  Like thousands of tiny feet, or claws, were wandering; chittering about.  Taking the cautious route, Drel volunteered to be the vanguard, creeping ahead; but without Iltani’s usual telepathic link Drel was unable to concentrate as he usually did.

The group worked they way down to a narrow corridor with a vaulted ceiling, much like the way to the crystal chamber.  The corridor opened up to a great laboratory: the walls were marked with runes and glyphs in various dark tongues, and vats of acid sat in a corner near some towering bookshelves.  In the room were three mezzodemons, two immoliths, and a beholder.

Mezzodemon
The insectoid Mezzodemon with a trident.
Immolith
A foe to be avoided, the Immolith.
A hovering monstrosity, the beholder
A hovering monstrosity, the beholder

Drel was noticed immediately, and the group rushed to assist him. They were making quick work of their foes when one of the Immoliths retreated to a control room and activated a panel.

Suddenly the scurrying they’d heard before became much louder, and a deep roar resonated from the back of the room.  As they continued fighting mechanical spiders began pouring in, scurrying up the walls and ceilings and dropping down on the party.

About three feet across, not a problem unless there are hundreds of them...
About three feet across, not a problem unless there are many of them…

Surprised by the sudden onslaught the party regrouped and redoubled their efforts.  They began to hold ground when a crashing noise came from the spider’s entry point. Whatever was back there had reached the door, and was too large to fit through.  Aelar signalled to Ashar that he should examine the panels in the control room and see if there was a way to disable these spiders.

Backing into the corner of the laboratory that held the control room, almost seventy spiders had entered the lab as the party covered Ashar.  He managed to find the deactivation switch, but it was encoded to only work with the handprint of a mezzodemon or immolith.  With a sudden crash the thing that had been breaking the entrance down burst in.  It was a bebilith, a great demonic spider that dwarfed its smaller copies, its legs spanning fifteen feet.

Ashar called to Drull to grab the nearest body he could find and bring it his hand. With a dull THUD Drull’s axe came down on a mezzodemon’s wrist, hewing two spiders as it traveled.  He hastily grabbed the severed claw and threw it to Ashar who slapped it on the panel.

With a whir some of the spiders began to slow down as the bebilith pinned them in the corner. The party fought to hold their ground as the spiders began to pile around them.  The bebilith began spewing flaming webs at the men, their odds shrinking with every shot.

Then with a chug and a sputter, the bebilith and spiders simply broke down. The chattering of mechanical feet gave way to crashing commotion beyond the lab as spiders fell from the walls and ceilings.

The party found themselves up to their waists in spiders. Clambering through to the opposite side of the room the adventurers found a strange glowing orb surrounded by rubble.  After some experimenting it became clear that the spiders were used for excavating, and the orb had some sort of nullifying capacity that allowed it to absorb anything it came into contact with.  The spiders had been dumping rock and debris into it.

Continuing past the laboratory they came upon a sheer drop.  In the darkness spiders could be seen falling by the thousands.  Channelling psionic energy through his palms Aelar placed a sunrod between his teeth and hovered into the blackness.  Vore cast motes of sunlight on the walls.

They found that the drop they’d encountered was actually a curving slope within a gargantuan sphere, thousands of feet in diameter.  In the very center lay an enormous crystal, larger than any they’d ever seen.

Before they could guess the crystal’s purpose, a foul, panged cry rang about the sphere.

“NOO!  My spiders!  My workers!  They will pay with blood for this!”

Agrin’s Gate Chapters

Agrin’s Gate – Part IX: Drull, Surrounded, Credit Where Credit Is Due

Drull

The party met the Shadar-Kai next to an enormous dome of ice where the town had been.  The townspeople had set up makeshift tents in their wait, as the dome slowly melted, forming icy rivulets and a pool that had fed the streams the men had noticed.

The Shadar-Kai could not have looked more disinterested.  Babysitting weaklings had to be the most degrading activity they’d performed in years.  Drel chuckled as he thought about the lie of omission they’d make concerning this escapade.  Especially since they brought an undead drake with them.  It was still circling over the townsfolk, huddled around fires to keep the ice’s chill off.  The Witch read their expressions and saw the triumph missing.

“You did not kill the Vampire did you?”  She said.

“Now wait just a minute lady.”  Balthazar stepped forward.  “We have our, or should I say your, crystal right here.”

“But you did not kill the Vampire did you?”  She repeated.  At this Vore stepped forward, looking somewhat dejected.

“My lady of the Raven Queen.”  He began, Drel rolled his eyes.

“The Lamia, the Vampire’s companion, is vanquished.  The Vampire Lord possessed an object that shrouded the sunlight Pelor gave me to use as a cleric.  With the sunlight concealed, he was able to regenerate more quickly than we could injure him.  When she fell, he became insubstantial and risked travel in broad daylight.”

“This was not our agreement,” said the Witch, taking the crystal.  “Did he escape with this sun shrouding implement?”

“He did not,” Vore’s expression brightened, “Ashar.”

Ashar stepped forward, producing the object from his bag.

“My knowledge of the arcane is extensive, but the Feywild is an unfamiliar realm brimming with magic.  The best Iltani and I can work out, it can do more than shroud light, but neither of us know what.”

Aelar stepped forward to finish the report.

“Without our Minotaur, who has left, I fear the Vampire’s defeat is hopeless,” he said.

The Witch snorted with derision, “I shouldn’t have expected you lot to be able to accomplish this task.  Very well, I anticipated this eventuality.  We have a warrior with us who owes a debt.  Drull?”

A brutish bugbear, not unlike the one they killed in the goblin cave, stepped out from behind a tree.  He was a berserker, wielding a *subtle* executioner’s axe, subtle in that its full power was released by wearing no armor, only cloth.

“Drull owed us a debt, so I had him brought here in the likely event that you would fail.  Drull!”  She barked, “you are to follow this party’s instruction now, do as they do.  When the Vampire is dead you will be released from your debt.”

Drull, despite being immense, cowered under the Witch’s glare, and scurried behind the party.

“Now don’t expect this brute to come for free, we’ll be taking that totem from you.”

Ashar handed her the artefact, and taking it, the Witch commanded, “wait here,” and left to consort with the others in a tight circle of trees.

Aelar snuck behind the circle and attempted to listen in.  Focusing his mind, he attuned his aural senses outside of the area he was in, and into the tree circle.  Oddly, the number of voices among the trees was greater than the group of warriors he’d seen.  Focusing harder, he projected his vision into the circle as well.

Looking about, he saw the Shadar-Kai conversing with faintest of shimmers, outlines of even greater Shadar-Kai commanders and mages.  They were discussing the artefact, and what to do next with the group.  It turned out the Vampire Lord was a servant of Orcus, who had been protecting the town in exchange for dark deeds.

Orcus, a powerful demon lord and god of undeath, is a sworn enemy of the Raven Queen, goddess of death.  The Shadar-Kai, as agents of the Raven Queen, took interest in the town’s mage when he had made a pact with Orcus.

When the group first told the Witch of the lost brother and the vampire they found, the town mage become a greater threat, bumping him up the watchlist.  This was the real reason Drull had been summoned.

The ‘totem’ as the Witch had called it, was really for communicating with Orcus, who had been fighting the Raven Queen for control of death since she first seized it.  The demon god had been using the crystals to move demons in and out of the Abyss, which is why the Witch wanted them.

Aelar left before the end so as not to arouse suspicion, and when the Witch returned she communicated some of this.  She added that the vampire’s heading had been located, and that if they started now they could reach him before he regenerated fully.  With that the party set off again, uplifted by their reinforcements, even if he didn’t talk.

Surrounded

Following The Witch’s direction, the party walked until they saw a glade.  Hiding behind the treeline, they spotted an Eladrin hunter.  Being the only person who really belonged there, Aelar stepped out and greeted him. Getting a better view of the glade, he could see that the icy rills from the sphere had reached even this far.  There were three or four trees, large and leafy, a wooden shack a distance away, and a great oak on the far side; patches of tall grass were scattered through the field.  Looking closer at the trees, Aelar noticed monkeys, big ones, in all of them.

“What brings you here, friend?”  The hunter asked, he seemed distracted, but managed a smile.

“I search for a man, a human that ran from a town not far from here.”  Replied Aelar, finding his face lacking a certain sincerity.

“Are you alone, friend?  Do you search by yourself?”  The hunter was scanning the forest beyond Aelar.  Knowing he was a terrible liar, Aelar called Balthazar and Iltani forward.

“These are my companions…”  It dawned on Aelar.  The Eladrin was stalling, the monkeys were moving.  Not giving another moment of preparation for his alleged ‘friend,’ Aelar issued a mighty battle cry Cordus had taught him, signalling the others.

In a flurry of foliage the monkeys sprang from the trees and the party rushed to meet them.  It turned out that a second hunter had been hiding in the tall grass, and proved difficult to hit.  As the monkeys began dying a deep growl rose from the shed. In an explosion of wood splinters and framing timber a shed wall gave way to a Banderhobb, a ten-foot-tall, frog-like creature that swallows you whole and kidnaps you.

The Infamous, Foe-Swallowing Banderhobb
The Infamous, Foe-Swallowing Banderhobb

By the time the monkeys were finished off the Banderhobb had reached the party, striking and attempting to swallow them.  It succeeded in swallowing Vore before bounding off towards the great oak.  Aelar and Ashar, the swiftest, gave chase as the others finished off the Eladrin.  Despite Aelar’s Elven speed, and his psionic flying powers, the great frog’s head-start was too great to overtake it.  The beast ran behind the tree vanishing from sight. When the pair arrived the Banderhobb, and their friend inside, could not be found.

Noticing something off about the tree itself, Aelar examined the striations in the bark while Ashar searched for magical properties.  A hidden door was discovered as the others caught up, Ashar opening it cautiously.  Aelar went down a spiral staircase and short passageway before stopping short of the entrance to another room. Drel snuck a bit farther and signalled Iltani to connect them.

“The room is small, the frog…” began Drel.

“Banderhobb.” Interjected Iltani.

“What?”

“It’s not a frog, it’s a Banderhobb.  A creature with a history of kidnapping people, usually children, in their sleep.  I read about it in a book of bedtime stories.”

“First, that’s just wrong.  Second, who cares?  Where’s the Banderhobb Drel?” thought Balthazar.

“The far side of the room, it seems to be stuck in an opening.  There’s also a coffin.  Just like the one from the basement.  Hold on, I’m going to cast a mist.”

Using some tricks he’d picked up in his ranging days, he cast a mist in the room, obscuring his allies from the Banderhobb.  Ashar moved into the mist and dealt a blow to the Banderhobb blocking the doorway.  Drull and Balthazar, still outside, hacked at the earth, hoping to literally shed light on the situation.  Iltani hovered above, maintaining a psychic link and facilitating communications between forces.

Aelar squeezed around the Banderhobb, flanking him.  This distracted the beast from Ashar’s killing blow.  With a disgusting sound, Vore was vomited up as the slimy creature died.  The Vampire had risen from his coffin and was trying to land a blow through the mist.  With a thundering roar Drull leapt down the hole and with a mighty blow drove his axe straight through the ground above the Vampire, bringing a rain of earth, stone, and steel upon his head.

At this point the Vampire was totally surrounded, with Aelar’s owlbear, Iltani, and Balthazar waiting to strike should he try to fly off. The Lord became insubstantial and made a vain attempt to escape, but as each fighter laid blow after blow as he passed them, he finally dissolved into ash.

Searching his room they found a reserve of gold; presumably this was some sort of safe house. In triumph the group returned to the Shadar-Kai and made their report.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

When they returned, and as they told of their exploits, the Shadar-Kai were visibly impressed.  They had not expected the companions to succeed; in fact, they weren’t certain if success was even possible.  The Witch, looking less haughty than before, addressed them.

“You have done well warriors, and you have fulfilled your end of the deal.  It is time for us to do the same.”  She gestured to the huddled townsfolk.

“We will let your people return where they will.  The town’s captain, Bryne, has asked that it be Mirehaven where their kin were headed, does this sound suitable?”

The party murmured in acknowledgement.

“Very well.”

The Witch recited an incantation that lasted for several minutes, gathering a crowd as she did so.  Many marvelled at how such a lengthy spell could be remembered.  When she finished, a large spark of electricity flared and grew into an orb.  The orb then flattened to a disc, reaching fifteen feet across, penetrating the ground to form the shape of a circular gate.

From one side the disc looked transparent, but from the other, a small town market could be seen, with a thick morning fog not quite burnt off yet.  Early rising merchants were taken aback in shock at the sight; but as the first townspeople went through and explained their origin, they calmed down.  The people walked through the gate in single file, taking what belongings they could on their back or by horse.  When the guard took its turn, Bryne stopped to speak to the group.

“This wasn’t what I signed up for, Gods know I’m getting too old for this.” He sighed. “But I should be grateful, without you all our town would have suffered great loss. Thank you.”

He moved to the gate, taking post next to it, ensuring everyone got through. The Arcanist approached, but before he could say anything he froze.  He just stood in place for a few seconds before resuming his motion jerkily.  He blinked hard, staring at Iltani, who nodded.

“Thank you, oh thank you all!” and off he went through the gate.

As it closed, the Witch faced them, Aelar noticed the shimmering he’d seen in the tree circle, and relayed this to the others through Iltani.

“You are all deserving of more than praise, follow.” She turned and recited the cantation again, opening a second gate, this one dimmer in appearance than the last.  She and the other Shadar-Kai stepped through.  Sensing no danger or ill will, the party followed.

Agrin’s Gate Chapters

Agrin’s Gate – Part VIII: The Widow, A Change of Plans, Here We Go Again

The Widow

Knocking on the widow’s door, a beautiful woman answered.

“Yes, hello?”

“Good day, we’ve come in hopes of finding a crystal, and possibly your husband too,” said Aelar.

The widow let them in, her beauty only growing as their eyes adjusted to the dimness.

“That is, if you still want him to be found,” added Iltani.  She gave him a black look.

Aelar frowned and turned back to the widow.  “So, what can you tell us about the night he disappeared?”

“Well, he was out gathering herbs one night for his research.  He was always looking to improve…” her voice fell away as a tear came to her eye.

“And then he… he just never came back,” she sobbed quietly

“We may be able to learn more from his study or laboratory,” Ashar offered.

The widow dried her eye as she nodded and led them to a door in the parlor.  She made an intricate series of motions, her fingers tracing serpentine symbols in the air before the door.  With a shimmer, the face of the door lit up in a pale blue, then the glow withered as if an ethereal wind were carrying off flakes of it.  Vore stood next to the widow as she did this, and kept track of the tracings she’d made.  While he couldn’t be sure, he thought the symbol was that of a beetle, a scarab.

The protective ward dissolved, the door swung open of its own accord, to showcase a staircase leading below the house.  The party followed the widow down the steps, lit by flickering torches, descending for what seemed like an age.  The widow stepped into a large, natural, stone cavern with a dressed floor and raised ceilings.  As the party filed in, they could make out a set of long, stone chests at the end of the cave.  When Iltani, who had taken up the rearguard, reached the cavern, a slam echoed down the stairway from above.  The chest lids made a loud rasping as they were pushed back, stone rubbing against stone.  When the party saw fingers curling around the chest lids from the inside, they realized two things; they were trapped, and those chests weren’t chests at all:  they were coffins.

From the coffins rose three pale figures, one clearly more powerful, a vampire lord.  Behind them they heard an chittering sound that made Balthazar turn and gasp.

“The widow!”  He cried.

As the others turned they saw the widow’s hands and feet were covered in beetles, forming a writhing mass spreading toward her chest.  Balthazar’s first instinct was to warn her, but as a wicked grin twisted across her face, he realized that she wasn’t a widow at all; she was a Lamia; a temptress who devoured foolish men who fell into her snares.

Iltani rallied the thoughts of the party together, coalescing them into a vision, a realization that had eluded each but not all, and formed a story from their individual thoughts.  The chieftain’s brother had not died, but had been turned into a vampire, likely for the increased arcane ability (Ashar).  The widow was a Lamia, and had lured them, and surely others, down here to die (Balthazar).  She keeps the widow story so adventurers come to find her and are never seen again, or missed (Drel).  Everyone in the town is fooled by this (Aelar).  The door upstairs is magically controlled so that prey are trapped without while the Lamia plays the weeping widow, and within when she’s dropped the gauntlet (Iltani).  The only way out will be to fight (Cordus).  As a Pelorian Cleric, I can cast radiant light down here to weaken the vampire lord and his spawn (Vore).

The Widow, or Lamia rather
The Widow, or Lamia rather

All of this flashed by in an instant of thought.

“Iltani works quickly,” thought Aelar.  He looked to his Shardmind friend and, for a brief moment, glimpsed a smile.

As they fought a pile of beetles on one side, Vore cast a mote of sunlight that glowed in the air, taunting the vampires.  Unable to regenerate in the mote’s radiance, the two sides were evenly matched.  In time the lesser vampires fell, being converted more recently than their sire, the vampire lord, the mage, the brother.

The vile couple continued fighting, and held their own through a half dozen rounds of blows before Aelar threw up his hands to call a cease-fire.

“Clearly this is getting nowhere, you aren’t strong enough to overpower us, nor us you.  Let us leave and we’ll simply never speak of this again.”  The couple, seeing that victory was by no means certain, conceded.

Returning to the tavern, battered and bruised, the townsfolk gave the group some odd looks, which the group returned.  The town seemed to be composed on a hodgepodge of creatures that had wandered into the Feywild by one method or another, none of them really belonging.  Likely chased by the Bralani lord while hunting or the hideous, ruthless Fomorian giants, they’d found sanctuary in the town’s walls.  A Halfling named sat at the bar, drinking alone. This gave Balthazar an idea.

A Fomorian Highway Raiding Pair
A Fomorian Highway Raiding Pair

He approached the halfling, “Halfling, what is your name?”

Startled by the sudden interest the tiefling had taken in him, the halfling looked up from his drink.

“People call me Pincher.”  Halflings have a reputation for being light-fingered, and Balthazar’s intuition had paid off.

“I think my friends and I could make use of your talents.”

“Talents eh?”  Replied Pincher mockingly, “state your business Tiefling, don’t waste my time with your riddles.”

“Very well, follow me.”  Leading him back to a table, the group sat and explained to Pincher that there was a crystal they were seeking and that they were almost certain it was in the widow’s house.

“So you want me to get it, fine.  And what would I get, besides this beer you bought me?”

“We would pay you 1,000 gold pieces,” said Aelar.  Drel hung his head in disbelief, mortified.  Paying Vore to join, bribing the bartender with a gold piece when that was enough to rent out the inn for the night, and now offering a few year’s wages for a single theft?  Monk’s should not handle money.

“That,” said Pincher, eyes bulging greedily, “sounds like a fair trade.”

Finishing his drink, he staggered out of the tavern, woozy from downing what for a grown man would have been three pints.  The group ordered dinner and ate in silence, either too sore or too hungry to talk.  Iltani, after smelling a selection of wines, since he couldn’t drink, returned to his watchful thinking position; sitting silently, letting his eyes wander around the room, picking up bits of conversation and piecing them into interactions, needs, desires, and other mortal concerns.  If someone didn’t address him directly, Aelar wondered if he’d ever move of his own accord.  As if on cue to disprove him, Iltani spoke.

“I think the crystal is alive.”

The group stared.  Iltani continued, nonplussed.

“Whenever the town shifts, it’s always on level ground, and level with that ground.  It has never been underwater or underground, in a mountainside, or in the air, ever; at the very least it must have a sentient nature to it.

“Also, the Arcanist said that the crystal was being drawn to these places, so it stands to reason that the town is traveling along this sequence of planes. When the Abyss is reached there will be no more crystals to draw us away from there.”

Ashar considered this.

“So, the best thing to do would be to leave the crystal here, in the Feywild. Otherwise if we fail to control the crystals in the Abyss, we’d be stranded there,” he suggested.

“Precisely,” replied Iltani.

“So what do we do when the Halfling gets back?” Asked Drel.

The group mulled it over, and agreed that the Chief should be given the crystal for safekeeping.  When Pincher returned, they paid him his new-found fortune and gave the crystal to the Chief, “as a gift to your town,” Aelar said.  The chief accepted it, puzzled, and the group left accompanied by Aelar’s Owlbear, making for the Gate.  When they arrived they were surprised to find the Shadar-Kai warriors there, the Dracolich from the winter land flying above silently.  Bryne and the town guard were in formation in the town square, kneeling with their hands behind their heads.  The town was being held hostage.

A Change of Plans

“We’re here for the crystals,” said the Witch as she approached the party.  The group kept their weapons sheathed, they knew too well how powerful the Shadar-Kai were from when the Dracolich was still alive.

“Our superiors have shown interest in the crystals. We’ve been instructed to take them back with us.  Your Arcanist gave them up easily enough, and told us you’d have one.”

Balthazar cursed the Arcanist under his breath as Vore made an appeal.

“We encountered a Vampire Lord and Lamia in a town near here, he was in possession of the crystal when we arrived.  The crystal is now with the town chief.  In exchange for helping the people of this town get home safely,” Vore nodded towards Bryne and his men, who were shaking visibly.

“If you get them home, we’ll get you this crystal.”

The Shadar-Kai considered this among themselves before making a counteroffer.

“We’ll open a gate to a location of your choice, within reason, in exchange for your group getting the crystal, and killing the Vampire Lord,” said the Witch.

“Very well, but you have to stay with the townsfolk while we are gone.”

“Agreed.”

Having nothing more to negotiate, the group took a rest before setting off again. As they laid down in the enchanted forest outside the Gate’s perimeter, Bryne’s voice could be heard ordering the evacuation of the town before it was carried to the Elemental Chaos.  The party drifted into a black, dreamless sleep before waking and making for the town again.

Here We Go Again

Returning to the town, the party went to see the chieftain, only to be stopped at the door to the hall, again.

“Is this really necessary?”  Asked Cordus, growing impatient with the guards.

“What is your business?”

“To see your chieftain, what else?  Have you forgotten me so quickly guard?”  Balthazar stepped forward but before he could utter a threat the guard spat back.

“Our chieftain has taken ill after you gave him that so-called ‘gift’.  He rests now in his home, weak.”

Ignoring the guard’s insolent tone, the party proceeded to the chief’s house. After scouting the basement and main floor, Drel gave the all clear and the party entered. Moving up the stairs, Drel entered the bedroom, dark from heavy curtains blocking the sun.  Seeing the chief, he prodded him gently.  Rolling over, a pale chief opened his eyes and leapt off the bed, fangs bared.

Drel thought one word to the group, “Vampire,” and they were on it.  Eager to use his Owlbear in battle, Aelar sent his companion up the stairs to tear down the curtains and let the sun shine.  It wouldn’t kill the vampire, but it would stop him from regenerating in the darkness.  The poor beast, still new to his master’s commands, misunderstood, and clawed aimlessly at the wall.  Rolling their eyes, the others charged in and dispatched the chief in short order.

Searching the house they found nothing.  Figuring that the chief’s brother, the Vampire Lord, had taken the crystal and turned the chief in the process, they made for the Lamia’s house.  Checking the door for traps they found an ominous one.  Cordus suggested they use the window to get inside instead.  Balthazar checked the window and, finding no trap, gave Cordus a nod.  Head-butting the window, a burst of darkness enveloped Cordus, blinding him and drawing from his life force.

“Was that nod supposed to mean there IS a trap!?  Who does that?,” he roared at Balthazar as he clawed at the darkness in vain.

“I didn’t find any traps!  I guess it was very well concealed.”

“Well concealed my hooves.”  Cordus stood and faced the group.

“You’ve been good companions in these last days, but with this fight I will take my leave, and my debt will be repaid.”  The others nodded respectfully.

Entering the house, Iltani entered the combination Vore had seen the previous day making a point of channeling all magical power as he did so.  Apparently overdoing it, he too was shrouded in soul-sapping darkness.  It seemed that the Lamia had anticipated their return, and changed the tracing pattern.  Proceeding down the stairs they charged once again.

With fewer minions it seemed the fight would proceed faster, but changing the locks in the house wasn’t the couple’s only surprise.  When Vore cast his mote of sunlight, the Lord shrouded it in darkness, making it useless.  Being able to regenerate, the Lord outlasted his companion, and as the Lamia fell into a heap of dying scarabs, he became insubstantial and tried to get to his coffin, but was cut off by Aelar.  With that he fled, flying off faster than the group could run.

Searching his coffin they found the crystal and the artefact he’d used to shroud Vore’s sunlight, and with this partial victory they returned to the Shadar-Kai; Cordus taking his leave along the way.  They were sad to see him leave, but a warden must keep his ward, and Cordus was no exception.  As they got closer to the town, they noticed tiny streams of water building strength along the forest floor, where none had been previously.

Agrin’s Gate Chapters

Agrin’s Gate – Part VII: Tales of their pasts, The Feywild, The Town

Tales of their pasts

On the way back Ashar was deep in thought.  He was still angry at himself for forgetting about the crystal’s reactive property, and for lying to Aelar.  What reason did he have to mistrust his recently made companion?  Then a thought struck him, Aelar was a Wild Elf, and probably didn’t know anything of the politics of Genasi nobility he’d grown up with.  Or did he?  He didn’t really know anything about Aelar other than his talent for flying and naivety of coarser ideas.  Really, he didn’t know any of them; and so, catching Aelar up along the river, he inquired:

“Aelar, what is your tale?”

“My tale Ashar?”

“Your story, where you come from…why did you show up at the Gate?”

“Oh, I see.” Aelar drew a deep breath in the frigid air.

“I was born in the deep forests near Agrin’s Gate, raised in the way of my people, the Wild Elves, living in isolation from all outside influences.  The elders of my tribe educated me in the ways of self-defence and in the lore of my ancestral homeland, the Feywild.”

“Ah yes, that’s where we are going next,” said Ashar.

Aelar beamed, “yes, it is.”  He continued.

“The elders said I was born different from the others.  Within weeks I was speaking, and I was leagues ahead of my contemporaries after a few years.  I did my best not to flaunt it, and choosing the life of a monk, that I might seek solitude as I came to understand the power within me, this gift.

“About a month ago, many days into a prayer walk, I came upon a human youth.  The boy was no more than fifteen years of age, and appeared to have hurt his ankle.  Naturally I was startled, having never seen a person of any race other than my own.  I helped the boy in getting home, to a small town called Agrin’s Gate.  The shock of seeing walls, dressed stone, people?  It almost overwhelmed me.  How could the elders have excluded the wondrous diversity of this world in their histories?

“I hurried home to speak with the tribe leaders.  When the elders found that I had helped a human, an act apparently beneath my kind, I was given the day to pack and leave.  I pleaded with the tribe, with my family, to look past their ignorance, and embrace the vibrance around them.  To cast off the omissive and classist teachings of the elders and come to see these ‘men’ for themselves?”

Aelar looked downcast as he recalled the bitter memory.

“In the end, they preferred the comfort of their seclusion.  I, already seen with some suspicion for my abilities, and shamed by the elders, had no home among my people; and thus, old for a human but naive in spirit, I set out in search of adventure, and greater understanding of the world and its great complexities.  I started by returning to Agrin’s Gate, where I met you and the others.”

Aelar’s face had brightened again.  Smiling he asked Ashar brightly, “so that’s my story, what’s yours?”

“I was raised in some of the harshest wilderness in the Prime, where my family are hereditary rulers over a poor and sparsely settled territory.  Even when I was young I was curious about magic, so when I was old enough, my parents sent me to the one of the most eminent arcane schools in the Capital.”

Ashar spoke with pride, the others had been listening casually to Aelar, with little else to listen to; but Ashar had a more captivating air, his nobility had trained him to command attention.

“At the school I learned much about the magic arts, but my interest in the arcane could not be sated.  I decided to explore the world myself, to find out arcane secrets beyond the knowledge of my teachers.  My explorations took him to Agrin’s Gate, where whispers about previously unknown magic forces led me to volunteer for this mercenary expedition.  It seems now only too true that the rumours were true.”

The group arrived at the Gate before anyone else could share, and presented the crystal to the Arcanist, who thanked them excitedly and scurried off.  With little else to do they went to the last tavern in town, what had become a landing point for the whole town after the days survival measures; today was gathering wood for fires.  Over rounds of ale the companions continued to recount tales of their pasts.  Balthazar had made a Fey pact with a powerful Drow, indebting him to serve later in life, in exchange for power and glory in his youth.  Drel and Cordus were silent, preferring the group to deal in mystery over knowledge.  As eyes turned to Vore, his gaze rested on Iltani.

“I have a story” he said coldly.  Downing his beer, he slammed the stein down, wiped the foam from his lips, and began.

“I was given to the faith as an infant, being born into a family with too many mouths to feed.  I grew up happy, since the priests decided to train me as a warrior when other punishments failed to curb my rough-and-tumble play-style. It was there that I met Iltani.”

Vore shot Iltani a glare before continuing.

“Iltani, being a Shardmind, originated from a gate in the Astral Sea.  Beyond that gate lay the alien Far Realm, and the gate’s destruction during the Dawn War resulted in the rise of the mind flayer empire.  Unlike many of his brethren, Iltani had no interest in rebuilding the gate, but rather sought to understand the nuances of mortal emotions, a concept foreign to his nature.

“This is what he told the head priestess at the temple where I lived, the Temple of Pelor, God of the Sun.  The head priestess placed in my charge.  She said, ‘some responsibility will straighten you out.’  If only she’d known what she’d agreed to.  The head priestess was old and very senile woman, and had gone a bit mad.  But she caused no one any trouble, and we all loved her.”

Vore’s voice faltered, “I loved her,” he whispered.  When he regained composure his voice was angry as he spoke through hot tears.

“One day she decided that to truly dedicate herself to Pelor she must become one with the Sun itself.  And this, this murderer Iltani, attempted to teleport her there.”

Vore’s face was ashen.

“For her death the other elders expelled me, and I never saw Iltani again, until the Gate.”

Iltani spoke, “my actions were misguided Vore, I was trying to help your priestess but I did not know of her frailty, and for that I apologize.”

“Tell that to the elders.”  Vore spat back.

“I did, but I was unable to sway their decision, I am sorry.”

Vore’s expression softened.  “Well I, I hadn’t realized.  Excuse me, I need some air.”

With that he stood and walked out of the tavern.  Drel took note of the long shadows being cast, and with a stretch bid the adventurers good day before returning to his chamber.  One by one the others followed in turn, until Iltani was alone.

“Iltani?”

“Yes Vore?”

“I’m sorry for harbouring such ill-will toward you over these many years, forgive me.”

“Of course.”

Entering the nobleman’s library Iltani began reading from his books, waiting for the town to shift again.

The Feywild

Aelar woke early, his senses tingling with the scents and sounds of his ancestral homeland.  A primal energy vibrated in the air, the morning dew shimmering brightly in the gathering dawn.  He arose and set about finding mice and rats in the pantries and cellars. By the time the others were eating breakfast he’d gathered nearly a dozen in a bag, squeaking and wriggling.

“What’s with the mice?”  Balthazar asked.

“You’ll see,” Aelar replied.

The party got their heading and set off into the wild forests of the Fey realm, taking the runespiral demon-in-a-box with them.  After an hour the group came upon a pair of Owlbears, bears with the head and talons of an owl.

An Owlbear
An Owlbear

Before the group drew weapons, Aelar raised a hand.  Calmly drawing the bag of rodents from his side, he reached in and tossed one near the owlbear.  The female pounced for it, eagerly devouring it.  Aelar continued this, edging closer.  The male didn’t pay any mind to this, he continued to watch the group snarling menacingly. Aelar threw his last mouse behind him and drew a rope, and as the owlbear charged past he bound her swiftly.  This enraged the other owlbear, and as the group dispatched it Aelar whispered an Elven phrase in the female’s ear.

The owlbear’s whimpering ceased and its eyes grew docile.  Aelar had succeeded in taming a Feybeast companion for himself, he turned to the group.

“Thank you friends.  For holding back, we have a new member now,” he said as he unbound the owlbear.

Suddenly a Bralani, an Eladrin noble, and a pack of hunting hounds flew in.  He looked fierce and beautiful, his hounds swift and deadly.

“What are you doing in my forest?”  He demanded.  Aelar stepped forward.

“Noble elf, we are strangers to these lands, and did not know this was your forest.  We came upon these owlbears by chance and defended ourselves when they attacked.”  Aelar could see that, as with his people, the class system was thriving in the Fey as well.  The Bralani looked down on them, both figuratively and literally.

“We, um.” Aelar’s mind was racing.

“Give him the demon?” It was Balthazar, speaking through Iltani.

“We offer a rare creature from beyond this plane, as a gift for your menagerie.”

The Bralani raised a brow, his curiosity piqued.

“Show me this creature, elf.”

Cordus and Ashar stepped forward with the crate, and opening it revealed the demon inside.  The Bralani was furious.

“What in Saulknor have you done?”  Aelar seemed to shrink under the words.

“You would defile my forest with this infernal creature? How dare you!”  Aelar, holding his gaze, whispered to the others, “run.”

The Bralani sicced the hounds on the demon, destroying it in seconds.  The party ran for all they were worth, the hounds giving chase on the ground and the Bralani hovering close behind.  They emerged from the forest into grasslands, and in the distance they saw a town.  As they moved further from the forest edge they could hear the Bralani laughing and shouting taunts at them, before disappearing among the trees.

“Who was that?”  Panted Cordus.

“An Eladrin Lord, they are the high elves.”  Replied Aelar.

“He likely owns these lands, and was hunting when he heard us,” added Ashar.

They made for the town, in hopes of finding the crystal within.

The Town

The town was small, holding a few hundred people, with a wooden hall on the far side.  Approaching the guards of the hall, they gave a gruff “Halt!”

“What do you want?”

“We have urgent business with the chieftain,” said Balthazar.

“Not possible, you’ll need to come back later.”  Balthazar’s eyes blazed.

“Listen fool, we’re going to see your chieftain.  Whether I have to kill you first is your call.”  The soldiers, quivering, stepped back and allowed them entry.

The wooden hall was old and ornate in its carvings.  Banners fluttered lazily in the rafters as the party approached the throne.

“Chieftain, we have urgent business with you,” said Balthazar.

Seeing he wasn’t in a position to argue, the chieftain listened as they explained their quest and desire for the crystal.  Unfortunately, the chieftain was unable to aid them.

“I wish I could help, but since the disappearance of my brother two years ago, protecting the town has been my only priority.  He was a mage who placed protective wards over the town, keeping us safe from Fomorian attack.”

The Fomorians were giants, hideously ugly, that roamed pockets of the Feywild.  If the party hadn’t been in such a rush to get into the city, they would have noticed repairs that had been made to the walls.

Seeing that he was telling the truth, they went to the tavern.  Aelar bribed the barkeeper in hopes of learning more about the mage, but only found out that the missing brother had left a widow.  The widow being their only lead, the group went to her house.

Agrin’s Gate Chapters

Agrin’s Gate – Part VI: Dinosaurs, Bryne’s Refusal, Dragons (Finally)

Dinosaurs

The party woke up thirsty, the air sapping moisture from their bodies as they slept. Walking outside the bright morning sun had already dried the ground from the swamp’s flooding the day before, and steam rose to form a lone cloud in an azure sky.  The Arcanist met them in the barracks.

“Good morning!”  He greeted them excitedly.  “I have news for you.”

“What is it?”  Inquired Ashar.

“The crystal is humming again,” replied the Arcanist.

“The same as before?”

“Yes!  It appears that we are going to be shifting through the planes, as your crystalline friend suggested.”

“But that’s not all, is it Arcanist?”  Prompted Iltani, Aelar wondered if he’d read the Arcanist’s face—or his mind.

“Right again!  You really are a clever bunch for mercenaries,” remarked the Arcanist.  He walked over to the crystal and, taking a quick step back he rushed it, delivering a massive kick.

“Augh.”  He winced as he picked himself up, “did you see it?”

“See what?”  Asked Cordus.

“The crystal didn’t move!  I may not be the strongest man, but it didn’t roll, shift, rock, nothing!”

The party gathered round the crystal and, try as they might, could not move the crystal either.

“Well, that is something.  What do you suppose it means Arcanist?”  Aelar straightened himself up.  The Arcanist massaged his leg as he spoke.

“I haven’t the faintest idea, except that the Gate, or what’s left of her, is on this ride for the foreseeable future.  Based on the humming you have about a day to find the crystal that brought us here, and by my instruments you should head in this direction.”

The Arcanist walked outside and pointed to what looked to be Northwest.  Assuming the sun was rising from the East at least.  Putting the sun to their right  and slightly behind, they set off; taking one of the water barrels the town had gathered from the swamp to trade if need be.  By noon they spotted a large column of dust cloud moving ahead of them.  Aelar used his psionic power to see over the sand dunes, but couldn’t make anything out through the dust.  As they moved closer they could make out that the cloud was traveling along a road, of sorts.  Moving to intercept, the party gathered behind a nearby dune as Aelar and Balthazar walked onto the road, carrying their casket of bartering water.

Out of the dust appeared a caravan.  Leading it were two goblins, riding behemoths, great Saurian beasts with armor plated skin and incredible strength.  Behind them was a wagon with arrow slits, adorned with bone plating, wooden spikes, and skulls, being pulled by another Behemoth.  From the dune they were hiding behind the party still couldn’t see the oncoming caravan; but as the look of dread washed across Aelar and Balthazar’s faces, they prepared for a surprise attack.

Bloodspike (Left) & Clubtail (Right) Behemoths, unsaddled.
Bloodspike (Left) & Clubtail (Right) Behemoths, unsaddled.

The party fought well, mostly.  Cordus charged one of the Behemoths only to have his horns glance off the hard plates.  Iltani teleported onto the wagon and scrambled the dimensions inside, terrorizing the goblin archers.  Aelar managed to kill one of the riders and climb onto the Behemoth.  Drel fired with deadly accuracy, sending arrows through the small slits in the wagon itself.  He climbed on the other Behemoth when the skirmish was finished.

Inside the wagon was loot, and a small chest.  Ashar brought the chest outside and opened it.  Seeing the crystal inside he reached and touched it.  A blackness opened up over the crystal, out of which poured snakes, lizards, and other writhing things, until a black wriggling carpet had formed around him, twenty-five feet across.  The behemoths trampled most of the wretched things, Drel content to be deadly with his beast instead of useless with his bow.  After defeating the swarm, Cordus gingerly picked up the crystal and, noticing no more swarms, placed it in his pack.  The group returned, Drel and Aelar riding proudly on their mounts to Agrin’s Gate.

As they walked back, Aelar guided his barely-tame behemoth so that it lumbered in step with Ashar.

“Ashar.”

“Yes Aelar?”  Ashar answered knowing what the question would be.

“Why, after I so brashly summoned a demon to kill us by touching the first crystal with bare hands, would you, in any of the planes of this world, make the same mistake?”

“Well, I..I figured that if there was going to be something to fight, it would be better to fight it outside of town where it wouldn’t be a threat to the people.”  He lied, he’d simply forgotten, but Aelar seemed satisfied and rode over to speak with Drel.  The party returned to the town unhindered.

Bryne’s Refusal

“No.”

“Why not?”  Asked Aelar, tapping Luma’daler’s plates affectionately.  He had named his mount from the Elvish ‘heavy footed one.’

“Well for one, your monster will run amuck and destroy half the town in your sleep. For two, there’s two of them.” Bryne bellowed from the town wall.  He had had any breaches from the incident fixed with barricades of timber from the swamp, and had men stationed along the parapets with lances.

“There’s no way this side of the Prime that those things are entering my town.”

Drel and Aelar looked at each other, then to the group, then back at Bryne. Seeing that his mind wouldn’t changed, and recognizing that their new pets would gore half the town as soon as their backs were turned—behemoths are notorious for being practically untameable, even by a ranger or a wild elf—they rode some distance away before turning them loose, and returned to the group.  The beasts tramped off into the distance immediately, dust clouds following behind them.

Returning to town, the group presented the crystal to the Arcanist, who had made some findings since they’d left that morning.

“Alright, I can’t be certain, but I think if I have all of the crystals I’ll be able to control where the larger one is taking us.”  He motioned to the crystal they’d originally found, immoveable in the barracks, humming as it vibrated in place.  He shrugged at it and looked back at them.

“Anyway, that’s all for now, when I know more I’ll let you know!”  Grabbing the crystal from Cordus excitedly, he returned to his work.  The group decided that their plan would be to travel through the planes and collect all the crystals, that they might guide the town, or what was left of it, back to its rightful place.

Returning to an abandoned nobleman’s house they’d claimed as their quarters, they ate and went to bed, trying to rest before the next planar shift.  Iltani, having no need for sleep, perused the nobleman’s library.

Dragons (Finally)

After getting their new bearing from the Arcanist, the party set off in the frosty morning air.  Heading North, they came to follow a frozen river.  Trudging along the river they were set upon by a pack of white wolves.  The party, having fought goblins, demons, and zombies, found the wolves to be no great challenge.  However, even their great combat skills could not grant them better footing, and when some of the party made the mistake of fighting on the river they slipped embarrassingly on the ice.  To keep the bards from singing of it, their names will not be written; but imagine big men in armour rubbing their rumps daintily, and you get the appropriately comical image.

Moving on, the group came upon a sizeable opening in a mountainside.  With Drel leading cautiously, they entered. They came upon a cavern of some size, reminiscent of the first cave they’d seen in the prime; substituting torchlight for blue-white refractions that captured the entrance’s light and danced it among the icicles in the ceiling.  There was the crystal, on a pedestal to the right. To the left, surrounded by gold, gems, and bones, slept a white dragon. The Dragon was full grown, reaching thirty feet from head to tail; and being a light sleeper, was awake.

White Dragon
A White Dragon
“What are you doing in my cave?”  Snarled the Dragon frostily, eyeing them with suspicion.

“We seek that crystal,” replied Aelar plainly.

“That crystal?”  The Dragon glanced to the pedestal.

“Yes, that one.”  Aelar could tell the Dragon didn’t want the crystal, that there was a reason it hadn’t joined the pile of treasure the dragon was protecting.  But the dragon wasn’t about to let them take it for nothing.  Reaching into his bag, he produced his share of the treasure they’d collected from the desert wagon.  The dragon eyed it greedily.

“I don’t suppose this would be suitable for exchange?”  Offered Aelar.

“And I don’t suppose that’s all you have?”  The Dragon probed.

“And I don’t suppose you’d like to die today.”  Aelar whipped around, it seemed the group thought they could take the dragon, and had their weapons drawn.  The dragon’s demeanor went hostile immediately and seeing no other option, Aelar rushed to land the first blow.  The dragon stunned him magically with his frightful presence, rendering him useless.  The others rolled their eyes as they made attacks from a distance, Drel’s arrows, Iltani’s dimensional scrambles, Balthazar’s eldritch bolt, and so on.

The Fearsome Shadar-Kai Warriors
The Fearsome Shadar-Kai Warriors

Not long after the fight started a group of Shadar-Kai appeared from an entrance at the far side of the room.  Catching a glimpse of them, Iltani asked what they were doing here.  They briefly explained something about wanting to control the dragon, and so the party decided to back-off.  It turned out a Shadar-Kai witch, the leader of the group, wanted to turn the dragon into a dracolich, an undead dragon of terrible power.  The ritual was completed in short order, and turning to the party with a tamed dracolich in tow, the Witch addressed them.

Answer: You don't
Dracolich (Think live dragon only it’s already dead, how would you kill it?)

“What is your business in this cave?”  She had not expected to find anyone in the cave besides the dragon.

“We were brought here by the crystal you see on the pedestal there,” said Aelar.  The Witch’s curiosity was piqued.

“I see, I suppose I can tell you that our purpose here was singular:  to transform the dragon into a dracolich and keep it under our control.”  The party noticed a small box the witch was holding and realized she was actively holding the dracolich in check.

“We had not heard of this crystal, and you are free to it, we have what we came for.  Before we do though, I should like to examine it myself, it is not often that such opportunities come along.”  The group murmured a consent as they discussed it through Iltani.

“If she picks up that crystal we all know it could go sour,” thought Balthazar.

“True, but if we get a hold of that box, we’ll have our own dracolich, who could oppose us?”  Thought Ashar.

“Regardless, if demons do appear, we must act surprised.”

“Agreed,” they all thought.

Like clockwork, four demons materialized around the crystal.  Almost mechanically the party reverted to fighting instead of waiting to see how it would play out.  The party decided to play the part of the rescuers, and rushed in; but soon found their blows ineffective in comparison to the Shadar-Kai chain-fighters and gloom-blades. With the demons dispatched and the party looking even more useless than before, the Witch spoke again.

“We have what we came for, and you’ve given us a humourous tale for the halls of our mistress tonight.  We have no concern for treasure, or desire for the crystal, take both as you please.”

While they found her permissive tone demeaning, they weren’t going to look a gift witch in the mouth.  When the Shadar-Kai had left, the party gathered the treasure and the crystal, and walked briskly back to the Gate.

Agrin’s Gate Chapters