The party of four - made up of Drewen, Karnus, Vasily and Threy - left Specularum along the Duke's Road bound for Highforge, where rumours were circulating of gnome and dwarf miners having gone missing. It seemed likely the cleric Jolenta, Mistress of the Iron Ring slavers, would be behind the disturbances… The party made it to the elven trading post of Rifflian and were being transported across the river when Karnus became wary of the shady ferryman… ESP revealed his true nature - that he was an operative of the Ring, and that the heroes were purposely being led in the wrong direction.
In Search of Jolenta
Back in Rifflian the ferryman was handed over to townsmistress Prestelle, to be placed in jail in the elfmaiden's wine cellar. The party then headed west to investigate ogre activity in the outlying region - could Jolenta have forged an alliance with the humanoids? Sure enough by sunset the next day plumes of smoke were seen rising from a nearby hill, and an ogre encampment was located. Muffled sounds could be heard coming from wagons stationed to one side. Venturing forward to reconnoitre the camp, Vasily discerned a large tent at the centre, from which were coming sounds of vigorous activity involving two ogresses and an immense male. It was deduced that this chieftain was no mere ogre, but was the offspring of an ogre and a giantess.
The party launched a surprise attack and managed to obliterate the ogre contingent. The chieftain proved practically impervious to harm, possessing a reserve of strength which rivalled the giant Garamundvar. At last the tide turned in the party's favour and five wagonloads of gnome and dwarf captives were freed.
Amid the celebrations a voice called out from the midst of a blazing campfire. A man in leather armour was standing amid the flames, unharmed. Simultaneously a ghostly image began to coalesce above him. "Thank you for ridding us of the ogre threat," the man spoke in charming tones. "They would have proved an annoyance for us to engage. Now you will return our property, or face my forces in combat, weakened as you are."
Threy stuck out his chest defiantly before any of the others could speak, a sudden logic entering his mind. "Well," spoke the cleric, "the slaves are our property now. You may purchase them from us if you wish to - oooomph!" He choked as Karnus' elbow found its way into the cleric's ribs.
"We will strike no bargain with petty thieves such as you," the blue-robed mage stated flatly. "Do your worst and let us see who emerges victorious!" Speaking thus, Karnus hurled a dagger at the apparition above the man's head. True to his hunch, the phantasm shimmered and vanished.
Battle erupted as Iron Ring hounds emerged from bushes on all sides of the camp, but were fought back by the freed slaves. Even in their starved and weakened states the gnomes and dwarves put up more than a decent fight. Distracted amid the combat Drewen felt the thief's dagger against his back but the blade failed to pierce his enchanted armour. In retaliation it took two swings of Drewen's hammer and the pesky thief was laid flat at his feet. "You fools!" came a call from the dark undergrowth. "Retreat!" The slavers slunk away bearing some of the weaker slaves with them, but the heroes decided to let them go… There could be little effective pursuit on such a dark night, and besides the party needed to recoup its strength after the fight with the ogres.
Following the slavers' trail next morning (relying on the tracking ability of a gnomish device) Threy's danger sense suddenly grew keen. Whirling around, there was a shimmer in the air behind the party and a man appeared - Tolkus of the Iron Ring. The man proved co-operative and almost pleasant, the two sides had a brief parley then went their separate ways. Later came an ambush. Tolkus was Held by Threy's magic - the party did not harm him since he seemed a decent (if misguided) individual. His bodyguards pressed the attack however, and a female magic-user dared to Fireball Karnus and Drewen through use of a wand she bore. Enraged, Karnus gave a show of real magic to the girl. Bombarded by Magic Missiles the girl's defences failed and she was no more. Tolkus was placed into custody of the slaves, to be escorted to Highforge and stand trial for his crimes.
The party was now returning to Highforge. Lana, whom the gnomish authorities had released after a three day inquisition was flying along the path to the east and met up with the freed slaves. Here she had a brief chat with Tolkus, who would surely be condemned to be put to death in Highforge. Despite his charismatic manner, the man could see no lucrative side to obeying the law, therefore it seemed there was little hope that he might turn over a new leaf.
Jolenta makes her appearance
The party regrouped in the elvish outpost of Rifflian. That evening over ale Lana listened to her friends' tales of the various skirmishes. The relaxed atmosphere was spoiled when word reached the tavern of sounds of fighting coming from the townsmistress's home. All the windows and doors were magically locked so it required Karnus to cast a Dispel before anyone could enter the property. Jolenta was within, having slain Prestelle and rescued her agent, the ferryman, from her basement. A fight ensued, during which Jolenta managed to invoke a Hold, paralysing all of the party save Lana. Jolenta refused to hand back the party's belongings, and threatened to have her henchman slit the throats of Lana's companions unless she was allowed to go free. Thus Jolenta made her escape. A while later an out-of-breath elf came running forward with a scroll of Free Person to release Lana's companions. The night was spent making a thorough search of the Forest but no trace of the fugitives could be found. Through scrying, it emerged that Jolenta was heading north along a road… seemingly toward Threshold.
Since she had a day's headstart, the party would not be able to catch up with Jolenta via conventional means of transport. Karnus announced that he would employ the Staff of Hutaaka to cut her off before she reached Threshold and hatched whatever scheme she had in mind. Taking hold of the Staff, the mage murmured words of the ancient hutaakan language, his face bearing an expression of resolve. As he concentrated, a disc formed in the air before him, outlined in shimmering blue fire. Beyond could be seen the familiar skyline of Threshold's town defences. Lana's heart sank at the sight of the now-desolate Tower in the background, dark and empty - the first visual evidence of her master's demise. Taking leave of his companions, Karnus stepped through the portal and re-emerged with a flare of magic at his destination.
Karnus now had the lead on Jolenta and went to inform Patriarch Sherlane of the impending threat, providing a description of the dark priestess. In turn Sherlane spoke of Valtanivark's passing, mentioning that he was surprised to have not yet been visited by Lana. He spoke of the consultation he had held with Valtanivark's spirit, whereby he learned that the ancient wizard only wished to rest. He was tired of life but would watch with interest the downfall which Fate had laid out for his ex-apprentice Bargle. Fate, both Valtanivark and Sherlane knew, would elect an agent to bring the conniving magic-user to justice.
Later that day Jolenta was startled to find Karnus standing on the trail, barring her approach to Threshold. A stalemate arose, leaving the cleric no recourse but to propose a pairing. She claimed to have knowledge of an ancient hutaakan site, whose secrets she could uncover with the aid of one versed in hutaakan language and traditions. Would Karnus be tempted by such a liaison? Through Lana's crystal ball, his companions watched in horror as the mage stepped forward and shook Jolenta's outstretched hand. A deal had been struck.
The remainder of the party reached Verge, where the night was spent at the home of the Antonics. All were made welcome and tales were traded across the dining table. Lana had no choice but to confront the reality of losing Valtanivark. Halia described the modest funeral service which had been held in the wizard's honour, attended by all the local townsfolk in addition to her and Retameron, the Patriarch and Aleena Halaran. Lana could not help but break down into tears, though she found some small comfort in Halia's embrace.
The heroes departed Verge early the next morning, eager to reach to Threshold and confront Jolenta... and Karnus too if need be. The truth behind the vision from the ball was not clear - on which side did the mage's loyalties lie?
By this point the mage and cleric were attempting to gain entry to the town, but found their way barred by the Patriarch's troops, ironically having been forewarned by Karnus himself. Jolenta viciously hurled her mace at one guard, crushing his skull with the blow. Would Karnus fight too? Retreating from combat, Jolenta decreed that the two of them should lay low and spend the night in a nearby cave.
By next morning Karnus had bought time for the rest of his party to catch up riding fresh and Hasted horses from Verge before dawn. Use of Lana's crystal ball showed their quarry in a cave. Vasily invoked a Locate Object prayer to seek the Staff of Healing, and at the last moment, as the spell was about to run out, the staff was detected nearby, strapped to Jolenta's back. The cave was located and the party closed in, weapons readied.
Lana summoned a phantasmal image of Jolenta’s former cohort - the dead wizard Golthar, his robes stained with blood, his eyes drawn and weeping. The dead mage raised a hand to point at Jolenta, and amid her concentration Lana allowed herself a smile as a scream of terror issued from within the cave. Hurling a stone missed due to the cleric's nerves, and Jolenta's attempt to turn the "spectre" proved equally futile. Golthar raised a bag from his belt, and drew out an object… Jolenta's severed head.
Lana willed the image to step out of vision, and it did so. Jolenta grabbed her enchanted mace, and with a shriek of fury raced from the cave to battle the apparition. The image vanished however, and the cleric found herself staring at the angry faces of the party. Drewen gave a mock bow and charged, his hammer at the ready.
The party slew the treacherous cleric, reclaiming their missing treasures and laying her body to rest in a shallow grave within the cave, beneath a makeshift cairn. Karnus relayed news of Jolenta's discovery, and all were keen to locate the site in the lands around Highforge. Lana stressed the unpleasantness of her ordeal at the hands of the gnomes, suggesting it would be prudent to seek permission from their King, lest they all be strapped into interrogation devices. So, after the trip to Highforge had been made, an audience was sought with the local ruler.
The ceiling of the gnomish throne room was a mere five feet high, thus everyone save Drewen was obliged to remain kneeling before the diminutive ruler. The King gave the party his thanks for having disposed of the Iron Ring operatives and returned his subjects - his people were safely back in their homes. For this service the heroes were bestowed a reward of 20,000gp, to be delivered to their homes in Specularum and distributed among them as they saw fit. Lana, who had not been present, did not seek any part of the reward (her bag of holding was full enough for the time being).
The Hutaakan vault
Permission was granted to investigate the site which Jolenta had forced the gnomes to excavate. Some sort of ancient religious complex had been uncovered, that was clear, however none of the gnomes had been brave enough to investigate. The gnomes had spoken of dog-headed statues within the unearthed catacombs. Karnus' eyes gleamed at mention of hutaakan remains. The heroes stepped aboard a gnomish contraption and were lowered hundreds of feet into the earth, into certain danger.
Age-old, intricate runes were carved around a portal; Karnus was able to translate these using the Staff of Hutaaka. The writings spoke of Baqaphix, high priestess of the Lowlands, who had been laid to rest one thousand years before involving a ritual to honour the Immortal Pflarr. It was written that Baqaphix would rise to lead her ancient hutaakan army and recapture their former glory... Her tomb, and her dormant spirit, had been disturbed by Jolenta, the party realised.
Passing through the ancient portal, the hairs on the backs of the heroes' necks stood on end as they recalled memories of similar settlements such as Xitaqa, Bixata and Kizraaka. The five entered a long chamber filled with stone plinths, each bearing the mummified remains of dog-headed priests. As Lana warily waved the wand she had acquired from the white dragon hoard, a pale fire began to lick along the prostate forms. The wand was not of secret door detection, as she had guessed, but was a wand of enemy detection… and these corpses were far from inanimate. As Lana gasped at this revelation, the ghouls sprang to their feet but were commanded back by Karnus bearing the Staff of Hutaaka, its eyes aglow with sapphire intensity. The party proceeded into the adjoining chamber, where a stone sarcophagus stood at the centre of the otherwise barren room. As the heroes drew near, a pair of mummies rose from the chest, proving nigh invincible in the ensuing fight and inflicting a hideous wasting disease upon Lana. Once the creatures were slain, the heroes checked their tomb for hidden treasures but found nothing. Surely there was more to this place than met the eye…
Inspecting the rear wall a short search yielded what the companions suspected - a second burial chamber concealed beyond the first one. A section of stone wall moved aside, revealing an expanse of glimmering golden coins, multicoloured gems of different shapes and sizes, a table bearing potions, and an empty tomb. Most disturbingly, the Staff was drawing Karnus toward a section of the back wall which was sheer darkness. Stepping through, Karnus felt dragged in a thousand different directions… then his vision cleared.
He was standing on a hillside, overlooking the merchant city of Kelvin. A scene of horror met his eyes: not far off, the undead priestess Baqaphix stood flanked by her mummified followers, at the head of an army of over a hundred zombie minions. The army was preparing to march on Kelvin. Perhaps most worryingly, a group of priests were chanting, causing the nearby river to turn black and boil furiously. Over and over they intoned a single horribly-familiar word - Kartoeba.
Read the exciting conclusion - The Battle to Save Kelvin
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