Age of Ascension

Episode Four: Into the Narrows

The journey over the Skyhalls had not been easy, but Mogrir was a competent guide, and remembered each turn and slope of the passage by rote. The rough passes had made for an arduous journey, with numerous short climbs and treacherous drops. The heroes became more confident, though, as Mogrir assured them they’d passed borders patrolled by Mountaineers from the town of Narrows; some of them his own kin. It was to be his first homecoming in many long years since he set off in search of his fortune, precipitated by a letter he had received no more than a week after the group’s return to Valcora. His aging uncle, partially responsible for his upbringing, had asked for him. And Mogrir knew that the proud old dwarf wouldn’t ask him to make such a journey lightly.

Shortly after sunrise on the 11th day of their journey, the light tree cover of the mountainside gave way, revealing a wide stone rode which sloped downward, into Narrows. The town was a build into the sides of a great chasm in the earth, as most Avencians knew, but it was a wonder as one looked into the blackness of the steep canyon that anyone could call it home.

As they approached the descending road, the heroes overheard an argument. Standing shoulder to shoulder across the wide road, three stout dwarves and five men held their ground as their leader traded heated words with four burly Osprian men. Not far off, three Knights of the Wolf, protectors of County Fourswords, busied themselves patiently in the grass, flanked by their war hounds. Despite the fact that Narrows was well within the Eastern borders of County Fourswords, it seemed they’d been denied entrance as well.

The red-faced Osprian was livid, and insisted he and his companions be let into the town. Apparently, a wanted criminal had cross the border of Ospria, and they had tracked him as far as Narrows, only to be denied entrance by the town guard on account of an edict handed down by the town’s rulers. Spittle flew from the dwarf’s lips as he poked the Osprian in the chest, and explained for the second time that the town hadn’t the resources to support travelers and was struggling to organize a defense against goblin raiding parties that had been the end of three supply caravans already. The situation seemed grim. Mogrir noted, however, that the shouting dwarf wore a scarf of white and crimson: Boldbrew colors.

Their conversation was brief… Mogrir offered his help and that of his friends in exchange for entrance, and it was accepted owing to his family ties. The others, meanwhile, had made their introduction to the Knights Wolf, and learned that they were awaiting entrance so they could join the many patrols deep in the chasm, where they maintained a constant vigilance against ogre. Moloch recalled and recounted that County Fourswords wasn’t usurped through military force, like most of Valcora, but claimed by adventurers of great renown who slew the king of the ogres somewhere in these very hills. One of the older warriors nudged the fresh-faced lady knight beside him, and explained that she had yet to slay her first ogre and earn a full knighthood.

Before they passed into the town, the group assured both the Osprians and the Knights that they would do their best to expediate their entry, but this didn’t placate the Osprians, who ended up in an argument with the Knights as the party trudged down the sloping road, into the shaded chasm.

Now nearly midday, they could see the entirety of the town as the sun reached its zenith and shone directly into the chasm. Homes and shops of all sorts were hewn from the brown stone chasm walls, decorated with carefully lain brickwork and simple, square windows. Each of many narrow ledges served as the equivalent of a street, and they were connected by winding stairs hewn out of the rock, or else gently curved bridges spanning a the fathomless drop. Here and there, stone fountains were carved from the walls in the image of lions or rams, their mouths producing a steady trickle of fresh water irrigated from the surface in stone channels. They elected to pass through the town for now, and hike yet further, to the secluded house of Uncle Jasper Boldbrew.

He heaved the door open with a grunt, and his aged and withered eyes lit up at the sight of his company. Utterly insistent, he scarcely spoke to the heroes until he had set out a platter of smoked cheese and mugs of dark beer. They sat in silence as he went about his fussing, taking in the layers of history and character about the house, and the scent of cherry-tinted smoke from the old dwarf’s pipe.

After welcoming Mogrir with all the cheer he could muster, and being introduced to Lidya, Moloch, and Rose, it was apparent that the troubles of the town weighed heavily on him. With little prodding, he spilled forth a tale of woe; the coffers of the Boldbrew clan had run all but dry, and the thane was losing his will as the townspeople and all four of its dwarven clans succumbed to poverty. He delivered dire news about a fatal encounter with ogres that’d taken the life of Mogrir’s cousin. And when he seemed he could bear no more heartache, he succumbed to tears.

“Oi, nephew… and the wors-…. The worse of it all… it’s thane Boldbrew! He’s got so depressed… he’s quit drinking!”

Tears followed.

When the elderly dwarf had calmed down, he accepted the heroes’ assurances that they would offer their services to the thane, but it seemed Uncle Jasper was holding something back. Properly chided, he relayed his fears that it would take more than clearing out a goblin den to invigorate town and clan, but if someone could retake the old Boldbrew Distillery, long since abandoned to the ogres… it would mean the world to all involved.

With a sense of urgency, Mogrir led the party into the Hall of Thane Boldbrew, a grand building hung with banners of red and white. As they threw open the great iron-bound doors, they disturbed the dust and stillness within. Though stoic guards stood at their posts, and though servants and advisors milled about in a daze, and even though Thane Tolke Boldbrew himself sat at the head of the feasting table in the center, it was like walking into a hospice. As the group absorbed the tangible depression within the hall, an impressive snore echoed from the rafters. Slouched in his seat behind a half-eaten leg of mutton, the Thane slept. There was an ornate stein at his right hand, but it had been untouched, and a puddle around it told the tale of servants who had tried in vain, perhaps out of habit, to refill it.

With some effort, the thane was roused, and seemed pleased at Mogrir’s return in his docile state of half-sleep… but quickly the conversation turned, and he gruffly admonished Mogrir for being away during the clan’s troubled times. Between the harsh words, he denied any sort of depression, and assured them that brave Boldbrews were assembling even as they spoke to crush the goblins once and for all. Still, he was obviously bitter about the situation: Count Brande of Fourswords had heard of the clan’s troubles and put them on the payroll as guards and militiamen. Although he made this sound like the insulting action of an opportunistic ruler, the party knew of Brande’s good reputation, and that guarding the town was something the Boldbrews had done for generations anyway; the Count had simply found a way to pay them a wage in these troubled times without it seeming like charity.

The Thane’s greatest concern was that the town wouldn’t be fit to host the Council of Cups this year, for the first time in over a century. Mogrir knew it well; a gathering of brewers and vintners from across the empire, sampling and selling their best vintages in a spectacular faire. As the conversation turned once again and tempers rose, Mogrir offered a sum of coins to the thane, as his rightful contribution to the crisis and as a show of support. As he expected, though, the thane turned even this gesture into an insult, and shouted them out of his hall.

The day wore on. The heroes sought refuge at the Grinning Ogre, famous for the particularly impressive specimen of an ogre skull behind the bar. As busy as she was in the dinnertime hour, the barkeep, a lady dwarf with a charming smile despite her homeliness, handed them the registry so they could claim a room. In a flash of insight, they checked over the names of guests staying the night, and noted one in particular: Carmine Federica. An Osprian name.

As they planned their next move over venison stew, the group overheard three farmers across the common room, arguing over a map spread on the table between them. A brief conversation with them proved fruitful; they’d combined their knowledge of the area to narrow down the location of the White Eye goblin tribe’s lair. One of them knew that there was just one good standing water supply in the area, and advocated poisoning it. Another recalled that the small valley where the lair was located had once been a riverbed, before the stream was diverted to supply water to a nearby farm… fortunately it had burned down years ago, and the family was in no danger now.

Despite their earnest encouragement, the party was unable to convince the three farmers to provide them much aid beyond leading them to the valley in the morning. Before they slept, the heroes penned two notes regarding their findings to the Osprians and the Knights waiting outside the town, and sent them along with a messenger boy.

A scream woke the party that night, and they rolled from their beds, reaching for weapons, only to discover that it was Rose who’d cried out in the grip of a nightmare. She hadn’t told anyone, but the dreams had been disturbing her sleep since the incident at Haunted Grotto. Moloch, performing a strange examination, was able to confirm everyone’s fears; Rose’s body was serving as a vessel to more than one spirit. Examining their options, the group resolved to make a journey into Coaldust Marsh as soon as possible. At this time of year, Lidya’s grandmother would be biding her time there as the rest of her family’s caravan made their rounds in the Statelands. She was a soothsayer, spirit-talker and fortune teller, and would surely provide insight into Rose’s situation.

Morning came far too soon for Rose, and she suffered from unshakable fatigue for the entire day. Nonetheless, the group set out for the valley, guided by the farmers. They came upon the valley, and under cover of the early morning fog, they confirmed that it was the locations of the White Eyes lair. A cave led into darkness along one of the walls of the valley. Weighing their options, the group settled on a more immediate solution than poisoning the small pond in the center of the valley. While Mogrir and Moloch provided a distraction in the valley itself, Lidya and Rose would follow the ledge around the valley to the earthworks that had been used to divert the river, and Rose would destroy it with her explosives, flooding the valley once again.

Mogrir and Moloch were the first to act, running into the center of the valley shouting battlecries, as Mogrir’s weapon and shield slammed together, echoing off the valley walls. The whoops and shrieks of goblins from within the cave entrance were soon followed by an outpouring of the stinking beasts. Meanwhile, Lidya and Rose crawled on their bellies through the long grass. One of many goblin patrols circling the valley spotted Rose, but had its throat punctured by a bolt from Lidya’s crossbow before it could fire. In her tired state, Rose’s progress was painfully slow, but little by little they crawled toward the dam, as the battle raged below.

Moloch erupted into flame, charring goblin flesh as they backed away from him. Meanwhile, Mogrir’s mighty hammer sent more than one to the abyss, their bodies arcing through the air. A second goblin patrol lurched out of the grass as Rose planted her entire stock of explosives at the base of the earthworks, but it ended up much like the first thanks to Lidya’s marksmanship. Finally it was done… Lidya and Rose scrambled away from the dam and Rose hurled her last bomb toward it, her willpower holding out as it sailed towards its target despite her weariness. The tremendous explosing rocked the valley, and in moments the river was crashing into the valley below. Moloch and Mogrir wasted no time in escaping the onrushing current, as the goblin defenders were far too bewildered to give chase any longer.

A couple of hours later, the battered foursome trudged back into Narrows to report their victory to the Thane… and to plan the route they would take into foreboding Coaldust Marsh, the next day.

Moloch's Memories: Haunted Grotto

Found grotto full-of-spirits. From under earth came humans-without-inner-fire. Hairy-one sent many back to earth. Fire-thrower gave blessing of flame; humans-without-inner-fire did not accept blessing well. Earth too gave heat, wonderful sight. Met old-digger, good to see alive, many useful years left. Helped rekindle inner fire of lesser-diggers.

Went in cave with group, lesser-diggers waited, scared of spirits. Found sharps and tokens-that-shine. Wrong color, no flame. Interesting box, held old sky-drawings. Must look at later.

Found old body, demon-bound human. Warning about trust.

Went through large door, dressed up hairy-one to open door like ruling-caste. Found necessary-item inside bowl of blood. Spirits angry, broke glass. Tried to open group for feeding, not successful. Spirits left when necessary-item taken.

Went to old-teacher, returned necessary-item. Given access to book-place, maybe see speak-teacher there.

Episode Two: Journey to Grotto

“In the year 2415, Galtius III, the last Emperor of Cardea, was crowned, even as the mighty empire crumbled all around him. The coronation was a hollow victory for his supporters, after the century of civil war that followed the death of the hereditary emperor. Despite the fall of Cardea as an Empire, the realm of Cardea lived on, as a city-state… the very foundation upon which Valcora was built, lost to the layers of time beneath our feet as we speak.”

Professor Kardebrandt paused, drinking from his flask only briefly, and stared straight ahead at the heroes as he slid it aside.

“Galtius, like all Emperors, was entrusted with the most powerful treasures of Cardea; three objects that are depicted again and again in carvings that’ve been excavated. With these three artifacts, the warlord Ethas carved the Cardean Empire from the dark age following the fall of Irindas. We’re almost certain that one of these artifacts, the Chalice of Ethas, is buried deep beneath our fair city, in a chamber that can only be opened with the help of the lost Cardean royal seal. And now, we know where that is, too.”

The four adventurers took in the tale with relative indifference; though interesting, they had little drive to explore the mysteries of forgotten empires for its own sake. Therefore they had few questions for the venerable professor, and accepted the bank note for the advance portion of their payment. Kardebrandt produced the crumpled paper that had caused this mess, and burnt it over a candle flame, intending to keep the identity of the second expedition secret at all costs.

The professor’s personal guard, Justin, had long since cooled his temper, and graciously, if without much culture, escorted the heroes back to the ground floor. A storm rolled overhead as they bid eachother farewell… and over a peel of thunder, froze in place as folded letter was slid under the door. Justin growled and drew his sword, stating that no one should know who, if anyone, is living here. Mogrir read the letter as Justin stared through the wooden shutters into the squall.

“His blood is on your hands. The Crows fly black.”

The cryptic words were perhaps more chilling than a direct threat, and with Justin urging them on, the group vaulted into the rainy streets in pursuit of the one who had left the message. At tavern closing time on a Turn of the Tide eve, people were wandering the streets or gathering in crowds, becoming further obstacles to the four adventurers as they chased a sprinting figure through back alleys and flooded cobblestone puddles. Lidya’s natural grace and Moloch’s supernatural speed gave them an early lead, and Mogrir kept the pace through sheer force of endurance, sprinting through the thickest obstacles, sometimes unintentionally. Rose used her size to her advantage, nearly catching the coattail of the messenger, but was forced to dive aside as a stilt-walking Turn of the Tide performer stumbled into her path. At last, Lidya tackled the heavily clothed figure to the ground.

Identifying him as no more than a young man from the poor Cliff ward, the group easily gleaned all he knew: That a popular, well-dressed man with a gun, who frequented the same taverns as he and his mates, had hired him to deliver the letter to the address he was given… after the gunman had had time to skip town.

Unsure how to proceed in finding the elusive gunman without jeopardizing their important expedition, the group elected to take to an inn some distance away and rest.

Morning shone over the domes and arches of Valcora, and the crispness of the sea air washed away the cloying smell of celebration the night before… the spilt ale, the spicy sausages, and the acrid stink of filleted sorrows in herb brine, which were the common man’s holiday indulgence. The group assembled in the Old Market, a twisting labyrinth of stalls and stands in the Gate Ward, to wait for a contact the professor had recommended they meet with. Though he was excessively late, the heroes elected to wait him out a while longer, using the time to hire a guide for their trip. At last the scholar arrived, a former student of the professor, and imparted without any social grace whatsoever, the yield of his research.

Ten Cardean priests were entombed with the seal in order to protect it. However, they were not the primary protectors of the seal; as Moloch had recalled from an obscure historical text already, the seal was lain to rest in a place specifically chosen for the presence of a malignant, powerful spirit who drew his power from living blood. Finally, he identified a strange tendency in the texts; for whatever reason of linguistics, the Cardean dialect spoken in the region of Haunted Grotto interchanged the word normally used for bone, with the word for silver.

The group’s own research had provided the only piece of good news: The inheritance of of a Cardean prince was said to have been left unclaimed within the grotto, within a fountain.

A nearby disturbance in the marketplace spurred the group to leave rather than be dragged into what looked to be an interesting confrontation, losing more valuable time. Assembling their supplies, including horses for Mogrir and Lidya, and a riding hound for Rose, they set out. The choice lay ahead of them; to take the main road through the Statelands, which is safe and heavily trafficked but less direct, or take the shorter route through along the Blood Coast, despite its bad reputation. On the advice of their guide, the party elected the coast road; a blockade had been set up on the main road just recently to facilitate the search for smugglers leaving the city.

Four days into their five day journey, the group spotted a figure running toward them in the distance and decided to investigate. As he drew near, the child of a local fisherman called out to them for aid, explaining in desperation that a sea troll had lurched out of the water and torn off the end of the peer he and his father were fishing from. Wasting no time, the group spurred on toward the beach, and found the troll grappling with the tangled wooden structure, devouring stringers of fish along with half of the stringers in earnest. Though they had nearly been hunted to extinction, these barnacle-uncrusted creatures had at one time plagued the Blood Coast, and were less intelligent but more imposing than usual trolls, with an arm span meant for swimming. Rose recalled being told that the regenerative properties of sea trolls are greatly impeded when they are removed from the water.

The conflict was bloody but didnt last long. Rose and Moloch used the cover of rocks along the beach for protection as theypelted the beast from afar. Mogrir drew the beast onto the beach, out of the salt spray, as Lidya crept behind a nearby boulder and loosed a precision sneak attack, only to be knocked unconcious by a backhand blow just after. Mogrir’s hammer, along with ranged support, finally found purchase on the chin of the sea troll and laid it low.

A brief search fo the beach was made, as no remains were found to account for the boy’s father. He was eventually discovered under an overturned rowboat, nursing some minor injuries form when he’d been thrown clear. Grateful, he introduced himself as Liam, a cheesemaker from the town of Grotto who had been taking a day trip with his young son. So named for its location just beyond the mouth of the valley the group was heading for, they elected to travel with Liam the rest of the way.

Just before sundown, the heroes arrived in Grotto; a hamlet of no more than 12 buildings, the largest of which being a cheesery where they produced a local favorite that Mogrir was particularly fond of. The small community did their best to accomodate and welcome their guests, in return for their rescue of Liam. In his own gratitude, Liam gifted the group with an exquisite longspear of carved bone and volcanic glass, which he had found on the beach during one of his fishing trips. Mogrir surmised that the weapon was probably constructed by sahaugin, for a particularly influential chieftian. The night wore on, and after accepting this gift, the heroes took to the impromptu feast set up in their honor. Not but a short walk from town lay Haunted Grotto, a foreboding cleft in the jagged rock of the mountainside, leading to a windswept valley of cracked stone, and the unkown beyond. At least they would be well rested.

Episode One: Mistaken Identity

Surrounded by darkness and guided by the light of smoldering torches, the heroes made their way over ancient stones slick with decaying algae. Their employer, Bertram Barnes, had made it a point to examine and re-examine every bump and crevice of these ruins as the group slowly descended into the lower levels… and now that he had been forced to split the expedition due to time constraints, they were eager to stretch their legs.

Despite the quality of construction common to all ruins from the long-past Cardean Empire, the land surrounding this complex had slowly become a shallow marsh over the centuries. The ruins had sunken deep below the surface, leaving only a sinkhole, discovered by chance, to reveal the existence of this place.

The adventurers, hired off the street in the capital city of Valcora, were a necessary expense for an expedition into completely unknown territory. Though they’d come in hand ymore than once, Barnes seemed eternally unsatisfied with their presence; he pecked like a mother hen, criticizing every move and loudly identifying each judgement that ran contrary to his own. Still, when one of the hired diggers fell prey to a poison dart trap set by feral goblin tribes on the upper levels, his true character was shown. He took the loss very personally, and asserted himself all the more as the only one experienced enough to keep everyone safe.

For all his abrasiveness, the group could’ve used Barnes’ critical eye a few seconds before they landed in their current predicament.

Lidya, an outspoken Valcoran and expert scout, hung from the lip of a dark and gaping hole in the floor, with Rose standing just above her, hand outstretched. The halfling bent to her knees, subconciously securing the many vials and bottles that hung from her person. Nearby, the dwarf Mogrir branged hammer against shield in challenge, facing off against a trio of feral goblins that cackled and lunged for him. Moloch, a looming reptilian presence in robes that only enhanced his sense of mystery, readied his blade totem staff behind a nearby pillar of broken stone.

The battle was harrowing, but the heroes skillfully dispatched their goblin foes, even after they started hurling wicked little thorned javelins down from above. In an incredible display of self-preservation, one of the goblins lurched between three seperate opponents before diving into the hole in the floor… shortly thereafter a splash, and a mysterious snapping sound were heard.

Finally clearing the stone deadfall that has trapped the party in this room, Barnes’ employees set about cataloguing the details of the chamber, as Bertram himself chastised the group for their lack of caution.

A narrow, spiralling staircase led them down to the ruin’s lower levels. Here, the masonry walls showed signs of their age and rivulets of water ran down from the cracks. Leveraging Lidya’s skills, the party disabled a cunning Cardean trap that would’ve peppered them from both sides with rusty crossbow bolts. At the end of this hallway, a fresco of stone hinted at the nature of this place; The relief depicted a regal looking figure with a strangely curved sword in one hand, a chalice in the other, and a crown that is also an armored helmet. Moloch surmised that it was an image of Galtuis III, the last king to reign over Cardea before it fell. It was difficult, however, to determine whether Galtius had lived here, or was entombed here.

Of the two halls leading East and West, the West had collapsed long ago. Barnes set his hired diggers to the task of clearing the debris, and took the East path with Moloch, Mogrir, Lidya, and Rose. The passage was narrow and footing was uneven, until it opened into a natural cavern so expansive that not even Mogrir’s darkvision could determine its exact shape. A stone bridge stretched out into the darkness, the sound of water to either side, and at its end, a circle of perfectly smooth, polished stone near fifty feet in diameter. On one side, a pedestal, bearing an object that had become overgrown with moss. On the other, an urn overflowing with gold coins.

Lidya was the first to step onto the circular platform, and it was a fortunate decision to send someone so well-balanced; she felt the entire circle shift under her weight, accelerating slowly downward before she was able to shift her weight back into the bridge. The heroes investigated the structure more closely, and determined that the platform was a hemisphere; polished completely smooth, it sat in a bowl-shaped depression at the top of a thick pillar that stood out of the dark waters of an underground lake.

Rose, light even for a halfling, volunteered to investigate the platform as those standing at the end of the bridge steadied it with their weight. She leapt to the far side of the platform, and, counterbalanced this way, was able to examine the two sides more closely. Creeping slowly closer, she wiped away the moss covering the object on the pedestal; a bronze helmet that resembled a crown. Reporting this to her companions prompted an insistant plea from Barnes; forget the gold, and get the crown out of there by any means necessary. Fortunately, the adventurers came to the same conclusion… but not without a longing look at the gold.

Reaching for the crown with slow, cautious hands, Rose was given pause by a previously unnoticed message carved into the pedestal:

“Heavy is the head that bears the crown.”

Taking no chances, the party agreed that the Cardeans wouldn’t have gone to all of this trouble and yet allowed the crown to be taken so easily by anyone with a couple of friends to counterbalance their trap. Cautiously, Mogrir threw rose the end of his rope, and after a few attempts she was able to secure it around the prize before the platform shifted to far from her weight on its edge. As one, the group tugged the ancient armored crown free of the pedestal… and as one, they were nearly thrown into the darkened waters alongside the bridge, as the crown’s weight proved many times what it would’ve seemed and it swung over the edge.

The removal of its counterbalance sent the platform slowly tipping, and just as the party managed to heave the incredibly heavy crown onto solid ground, the massive stone hemisphere was sent spinning into the water, impacting heavily with the pillars supporting the bridge and shuddering the weakened stone walls. Mogrir was quick to convey his concerns that the buckling stones were about to succumb to the pressure of the water surrounding them, and the crackling of ancient stone masonry emphasized his assessment. Sprinting for their lives, and thankful that the helmet has shed its supernatural weight when it left the platform, the heroes lurched up the stairs, steadfastly refusing to believe that the noise of rushing water behind them was as close as it seemed…

Silence settled about the common room of the Fair Winds Alehouse. Surrounded by strangers and accomplices, perhaps even a few friends, the heroes finished recoutning the tale of their venture into the Cardean ruins. After passing a few appraising glances between themselves, the patrons gave a round of applause, and even the tavern owner sent over a round of free drinks in appreciation of the tale.

The evening wore on. Concerns grew; Barnes had summoned the four of them here tonight to discuss another venture, but he was over an hour late. The Alehouse began to empty for the night, and still they sat in waiting, in a room nearly empty save for those too far gone to notice the time. It was one of these drunks that spilled his drink on Mogrir’s back as he passed. Thus distracted, the group didn’t notice five well-armed thugs sauntering into the tavern. Before they could react, strong hands rested in each of their shoulders, pinning them in their seats with knifepoints to their backs. An expensive-looking flintlock pistol levelled itself over the table, pointed at the diminunitive Rose, as its bearer stepped into focus. With a snide look on his face, the half elf was dressed in the lastest and most expensive fashions beneath his armored vest. From his pocket, he produced and unfolded a piece of paper with a likeness of each hero’s face, and their names.

He demanded that the heroes hand over ‘the Royal Seal’. He was insistent. Uncertain about his intentions and unwilling to give him any edge, the party rebuked his questions. Becoming frustrated, the man with the gun threatened to bury the four of them with the late Bertram Barnes if they didn’t comply. Lidya skillfully avoided the clumsy hands of one of the men as he ‘searched’ her for the mysterious Seal, and just as it seemed the impasse would explode into violence, the feathered shaft of a thick crossbow bolt thudded into the back of Rose’s assailant, and he fell heavilly atop her. The bartender, a heavy Osprian man, had kept the crossbow from under the bar trained on the thugs from behind, waiting for the right moment. Fortunately, he chose well… the distraction drew the gunman’s attention, and he fired a deafening shot into the barman, sending him sprawling. This in turn fouled Mogrir’s attempt to grab the gunman’s arm… a bold move that could’ve gone either way.

As Lidya slipped a dagger into her man’s ribs, Rose struggled to escape the chair she was pinned into. Moloch tossed the contents of his mug of strong liquor back into the face of his own thug, igniting the liquid in midair with a spell. Fortunate that he had managed to avoid the splash, this thug’s attention was drawn by the flash of a bomb lobbed over by the table by an enraged Rose, which singed the gunman and precipitated their flight from the tavern.

As the flames from Moloch’s deadly drink spread, Mogrir snatched the parchment that depicted the four of them, and the four left the tavern as the Watch arrived to put out the fire.

Under cover of darkness, the group searched the home of Bertram Barnes, a small house in the Gate Ward with spartan furnishings. The house had been ransacked, and the telltale signs of a struggle, especially the blood splattered on one wall, told the story of Barnes’ struggle… yet his body couldn’t be found. Sifting through the debris, Lidya gasped as she held up what appeared to be the shrunken head of a goblin, its eyes sewn shut. Moloch, unmoved, took the object out of curiosity. Being well versed in he subject of obscure religious rites in the warm southern lands, he determined that it was a Soulspeaker; the shrunken head of a creature with the soul still trapped inside, able to store a short message and speak it again at a later time. He took the trinket with him.

A number of papers strewn about the darkened home bore fragments of the same names or addresses as the one stamped on the back of the one the group had recovered from the floor of the Fair Winds; 13 Shallow Street, Gate Ward. They resolved to investigate.

The manor, a four story old-style construction that was unusually large for its neighborhood, appeared to be abandoned. While Lidya distracted a passing Watch patrol, Mogrir levered the back door off of its hinges with a crowbar… but a search of the house revealed nothing but furniture covered in white sheets and dust. This left only the closet door below the staircase on the first floor. Tension was high as the group opened the small creaky door, and the group collectively leaped backward as the bones of some unfortunate soul clattered toward them and onto the floor, raising clouds of dust in the subtle moonlight.

Upon closer examination, however, Rose determined that the bones were much too clean… this skeleton was placed here after being specially cleaned. After a brief contemplation over the meaning of this, the heroes took notice of soft light emanating from the bottom of a flight of stairs through the door. Cautiously they made their way down, until they found themselves in an octagonal room that resembled a basement parlor. A sound in the closet tempted Lydia onward, and she voraciously rifled through a number of fur coats until she found an elderly woman cowering their, clad in an apron, and bearing a feather duster.

The shrieking woman drew the attention of three men, who charged into the parlor from a pair of double doors, half-dressed in their armor and brandishing swords. The confrontation was intense as Mogrir traded words with the leader of the three, a man called Justin. Deftly out-argued, Justin was just reaching his bursting point when the frail, out of breath form of a thin and wispy man thudded up behind him, and told everyone to stand down. Justin called this nightclothed, white haired old man “Professor”, and begrudgingly defered to his request. The heroes were beckoned into the hallway beyond, and seated in a well appointed office.

“I would’ve preferred something a little more formal for our first meeting. No… I would’ve preferred we hadn’t met at all. I am professor Celshire Kardebrandt, former advisor to the Valcoran Department of History. The first thing I must ask you is why in all the blazing layers of hell Barnes told you how to find me.” He addressed them.

The professor wearilly settled into an ancient chair padded in purple, and withdrew a silver flask from one of the drawers. He sipped it in silence as the party told him about the events of the evening.

Realising he owed the heroes a full explanation for the hardship they had been put through, he explained that a thief had somehow broken into this office two weeks hence, and stolen the latest page from a book he used to keep track of the people he hired. Barnes, he said, was a close associate of his… and the truth of the statement was obvious by the way he took the news of his death. The latest expedition sent out by his organization was supposed to bring back the Cardean Royal Seal, and the Professor believed the thief had mistakenly assumed the page he had stolen depicted the expedition members.

He went on, however, to explain that he and his organization had indeed dispatched an expedition to the ruins of Haunted Grotto… a forgotten site in the Skyhall Mountains that was believed to hold the Royal Seal of Cardea.

Legend stated that assembling the three objects of power used by King Ethas to forge the Cardean Empire would convey the power to rule all men. These three items, known as the Artifacts of Ethas, were passed down through the generations of Cardean kings and eventually lost after the empire crumbled, during the reign of Galtius III. The crown that the heroes had recovered from the sunken ruins, however, had reawakened interest in the obscure subject. Though its properties were still unknown, it was undoubtedly one of the three Artifacts of Ethas.

The location of a second artifact, the Chalice, was already known; somewhere beneath the city of Valcora, within the layers of history the modern city is built on, lay a chamber that can only be opened by the Royal Seal of Cardea. And, though the chamber is yet to be found, his organization wanted to acquire the seal and keep it out of the wrong hands. As the first expedition sent to Haunted Grotto hadn’t returned, he extended the offer of employment to his present company. Once their palms were greased with an advance payment to cover the cost of supplies, they readilly agreed. Moloch, however, chose not to accept payment, instead asking that the Professor supply him with whatever information, lore, or artifacts he may have concerning the nature of fire.

When questioned about the thugs in the Fair Winds Alehouse, Professor Kardebrandt readilly supplied a name; Vondreaux, a fabulously wealthy merchant prince who had recently taken and interest in archaeology and was using every means at his disposal to intercept additions for his collection. The group elected to get some rest and prepare for the journey to Haunted Grotto in the morning, rather than pursue Vondreaux, believing that they would do him greater insult by keeping the seal out of his hands.

In afterthought, Moloch withdrew the soulspeaker he had found in Bertram Barnes’ ransacked home. He set it on the professor’s desk, and bade him “Make it speak.” Though perplexed, the professor admitted that he had known Barnes a long time, and believed he knew how to activate the message he had stored inside. Tenderly, he stroked the hideous, tiny head.

The sewn eyes opened slightly as the lips began to form words.

“Egggsss… Onionnss!… Wheeeeeat flour…. Miiilk……”


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