Spoiler: Chapter 25: Don’t Taunt the Vampire Necromancer Werewolf
The morning after the spider silk collection excursion, the party wakes up to Miaoyu and Tsarae huddled together, talking in low voices.
“What are you doing?” Seeker asks, scratching an ear. Miaoyu looks up.
“Trying to get an idea of how much this is worth.” She holds up the huge sapphire she found and conveniently forgot to mention. Seeker gapes at it, tongue lolling; Flynn and Gavin are still waking up, and merely blink at the thing, uncomprehending. Aelron, however, is suddenly wide awake. When you're a Gemstone Tower mage, a sapphire of that size is like a piece of your wildest fantasy come to life. “Now, I’m not one hundred percent sure,” Miaoyu continues, “But this should be worth... let's see...” Miaoyu purses her lips and stares off into the middle distance as she concentrates. “Rounding to the nearest whole number, carry the two...” She grins and glances back briefly at Tsarae—who rolls her eyes at the theatrics—then faces the rest of the party again: “Approximately all of the money. Really, all of it. If we split it up evenly between us, we would all have more than enough to comfortably retire for the rest of our lives. Even you, Seeker.”
“Gems that big usually have names,” Flynn notes. “It could be very valuable to Gryphon’s Peak if that's one of their named stones.”
“We’ll take it to a jeweler,” Miaoyu decides, and no one seems to think it's a terrible idea. “Get a proper estimate, find out if it’s important, and hopefully get some money out of all of this. In the meantime—what’s on the agenda?”
Warding is on the agenda. Seeker charms some stones with a spell that will fill trespassers with a sense of foreboding. Miaoyu and Tsarae move a few boxes into the front room and impatiently open them with crowbars, and Flynn and Gavin scatter bits from several harpy corpses around. The idea is to present the area as if it has already been looted—not entirely untrue—and to discourage more curious wanderers with a nice push out the door from the warding spell.
Gavin is still wounded from fighting the spider wolves and requests a couple days of rest to heal. The party agrees readily; the spellcasters want to re-prepare, and everyone else just wants to NOT think about spiders for a few days. By the second afternoon, though, Tsarae is getting antsy.
"We’ve been here for days," she says. "Can’t we get back to killing things?"
Gavin gives her a cool look. “I need a little more time before we go out again. I need to be at full strength so I can protect everyone.”
Tsarae rolls her eyes. “I’m touched.”
Gavin’s nostrils glare. “Yes. You are. Severely.”
Tsarae studies Gavin for a moment before turning to Miaoyu with a frown. “I liked the other one better.”
Before long, the Gavin is back to fighting fit. The party's objective for this particular excursion into Old Drougant City is to establish a forward base (or, preferably, a chain of safehouses), find a path through the ruins to the Throne, and get back out alive.
The first leg of the journey is uneventful, though the party does come across a strange... iron formation resting in the fields about half a mile from the gate. Everyone moves closer to check it out. Brief examination shows that the formation is made up of individual iron bars woven together in a pattern with no discernable function. Eventually, the party gives up trying to figure it out and continues trekking.
About half an hour later, their road intersects the crumbling ruin of the city's perimeter wall. The wall was built atop a ring of hills that surround the lowlands on which Old Drougant was built, so little can be seen over the walls or through the gate aside from rolling fog. Gavin and Flynn, however, are quick to examine the gatehouse itself and noticed something rather alarming. All that remains of the gate is what appears to be half a portcullis: a bunch of crisscrossing metal bars with spikes on the lower end that slot into small holes in the roadway when the portcullis is lowered. The other half of the portcullis is nowhere to be seen, and appears to have been torn off by something INSIDE the city. The crumpled heap of twisted iron bars found by the roadside appears to have been explained: it looks as though something with an immensely strong grip grabbed the portcullis, ripped half of it away, crumpled it like so much wastepaper, and hurled it away.
Gavin stares at the crumbling gatehouse, slack-jawed, then rushes to a nearby hill. He squints his eyes, glances from the wall to the crumpled iron heap in the distance, holds up his hands and tries to wrap his mind around how the iron could have landed half an hour's walk away.
"How?" he asks plaintively, mostly rhetorically.
"Whatever it was," Flynn says from the ruins, measuring and gauging, "its hand must have been at least a yard in width."
Aelron takes a moment to think. A hand capable of stretching three feet across, strong enough to rip a portcullis apart and hurl it a half-hour's walk away...
"It might have been a dragon," Aelron supplies slowly, then stops for a quick spellcast. "But if it was one, he or she is no longer here now. Hmm. Seems a bit more likely it was a troll or a giant, something of that nature.”
“The Drouganti can’t even build a city right,” Gavin grumbles. “This one’s filled with monsters.”
The party pauses its travels to explore the remains of the gatehouse. Only one of its two towers remains standing, but from its summit the party has a good view into Old Drougant City proper. There isn't a whole lot to see up there; the land slopes downward into impenetrable mists. In the distance, the party can glimpse the Throne, a basalt island protruding well above fog level in the center of the river, smack-dab in the middle of the city.
Miaoyu and Flynn also spot two other interesting things: there's a small gap in the fog off to the east where there appears to be a fire glowing, and a small column of smoke winds its way upward before dispersing. A supernatural fire, or some sort of local inhabitants? And off to the north, there's a tower that looks like it should long-since have tumbled to the ground: the building it was built onto appears to have mostly crumbled away, leaving only a small spiral staircase leading up to the underside of a bulky, wide, three- or four-story stone tower. There's no way that a tiny little staircase pillar like that could support the entire tower above it, and yet... the tower is still upright and, barring the damage to the structure below it, surprisingly intact. It almost looks like it's floating, hovering, above the city streets.
This naturally intrigues Aelron, who convinces Gavin and Flynn that, if it could be secured, it could serve as an excellent forward base, so the party returns to the road and sets course for the floating tower. Concerned that they’ll get lost, Aelron writes up a quick little rhyme on a scrap of parchment. “Memorize this, then hide it somewhere in here,” he tells Miaoyu. She takes a moment to capture it in her mind, then finds a loose brick to hide it behind (and hilariously rolls perfectly on her roll to disguise the hiding spot; as soon as she's walked away from it, not even she can seem to remember where she put it).
Into the mist they go! And surprisingly, there’s nothing lurking within its depths. The party passes without incident, whistling casually as they crunch through the rubble to find...
Nope, sorry, couldn't finish that with a straight face. Of course the party gets ambushed by the undead.
A group zombified corpses, looking relatively fresh as far as corpses go (the flesh hasn't begun to rot away yet, the lower extremities aren't horribly discolored and black, etc), shamble out of the fog and moan hungrily.
Thanks to one of her feats, Tsarae is never surprised. By anything. Ever. With her paranoia cranked up to eleven because she's literally in a ruined city full of monsters, the appearance of a zombie hit squad is almost a relief from the hyper-tension of wondering when the first attack will appear. While the rest of the party is still grabbing for their weapons, she casually decapitates one of the undead, maybe even sighing with satisfaction while she does it.
The rest of the party gets their feet under them Gavin is first to take his turn. His player looks to the DM. “Is my significance sense tingling?” he asks. He wants to know if the zombies are level ones, and if he'll have to kill them one at a time.
Tam smiles grimly. “It is not.” That means they're level zero creatures, and he can, if he rolls well, kill three in a round.
“Oh, good!” Gavin charges as best he is able across the rubble- and puddle-strewn roadway the zombies have selected as their ambush point and buries his spear in one zombie's chest. The creature looks down in vague surprise as the necromantic light begins to fade from its eyes, and then Gavin swings his spear around, dragging the corpse's fall into the path of the still-lurching zombie next to it. He withdraws his spear with a truly disgusting squelch, then, as the second zombie trips over the first, stabs through them both and pins them to the ground.
Behind him, Flynn has drawn up short and points at a pair of shamblers that are closing on Gavin's left flank. A pair of well-placed bolts brings them down, collapsing them into twitching heaps on the broken flagstones.
On the other side of the group, a pair of zombies has stumbled down from the ruin of a building and managed to close with Miaoyu. One of them scratches her arm, and, deeply offended, she shoots it down at point-blank range. Aelron flicks his staff at a the second one, and it falls with a smoking crater in its chest. Tsarae dashes around the two of them to fire forward at the last zombie, which hadn't managed to close with Gavin yet. Her shot connects solidly, and the corpse drops to the stones with a thud.
Tam swears at his dice, then at Tsarae, bemoaning her tendency to kill his encounters almost single-handedly.
Seeker quickly checks Miaoyu for infection—she's clean, thankfully—and heals her scratches.
“Thanks,” Miaoyu says, smiling grimly. “Now we just need to take care of the big one.”
The entire party, until a moment ago in the process of sheathing or cleaning weapons, is suddenly brandishing them again. "Big one?" Seeker echoes, ears flicking.
Miaoyu points at a half-fallen building almost dead ahead of them. Two of its walls have entirely collapsed, one inward and one outward, and only half of the ceiling is still in place. Miaoyu points at the shadows under the remnants of ceiling, indicating the darkest recesses of the corner dimness. “It’s right….” She stops, peers closer, glances around nervously. “It was there. It looked like a wolfman, but bigger than any I’ve seen.”
Aelron glances about hesitantly. “It was probably the necromancer directing these zombies. Mindless undead like that don't set traps on their own.”
“Yeah, but enormous wolfman?” Gavin asks. “That sounds really ominous.”
Aelron shrugs. He still looks nervous, but his voice is detached, clinical. It would appear he's hiding from his own panic instinct behind a shield of... book knowledge. “The term 'wolf-man' is a generalization that encompasses a variety of creatures, from male elves suffering a deific lycanthropic curse to magical shapeshifters to supernatural beasts with greater-than-average intelligence. Some forms of were-creature have a half-creature-half-human form, which tends toward oversized. It's not unreasonable for this to be an actual werewolf in half-human form, rather than a wolfman.”
“Wonderful,” Tsarae mutters. “Werewolves. Did anyone bring any silver?”
Miaoyu casually flicks a silver coin at Tsarae.
Tsarae catches it, flips it across her fingers, and then makes it magically vanish. “That's kind of you, but I meant silver weapons.”
Seeker cautiously approaches the building and sniffs the air. “I can’t get a scent. If there WAS something here, it hid itself well.”
No one's doubting Miaoyu's word that there was something here, though. Aelron and Seeker are quick to assure Miaoyu that scent can be masked through both magical and mundane means, and Tsarae just laughs. “I'd be more astonished to find there wasn't something larger behind that attack,” she says, and given their surroundings, the party has to agree.
With no way to track the mysterious wolf-figure, the party continues on, and around noon they reach the floating tower. Miaoyu and Tsarae do a quick stealthy sweep of the area to make sure there isn't anything nasty waiting in the ruins, then give Aelron the all-clear. He steps forward and activates spellsight, peering up at the tower.
The tower lights up in his vision like a lighthouse beacon; the intact structure above is absolutely covered in spells. Almost all of them appear as what Aelron would recognize as Sapphire tower magic: defensive wards, preservative spells and protective magics, layer after layer, ward upon ward, all running together like melted wax, solidifying into a single uber-ward spell. Whoever owned this tower dumped an utterly fantastic amount of money and resources into making sure it was a very safe place.
Most magic degrades over time. Spells cast by a single individual and without any ready supply of energy to draw upon will cease activity if their caster dies. Unfortunately for these wards, Old Drougant is a hotbed of wild magic, and its energies are doing the integrity of the old spells no favors. Fortunately for the tower itself, the wild magic doesn't seem to be damaging the spells themselves so much as merging them together; the tower's wards have merged into a single giant spell that provides a multitude of benefits to the tower it protects: first, it has locked the tower at a single point in space, holding it up off the ground despite the fact that the required structural supports have long since crumbled away. It is also temperature- and humidity-contolling the interior, while also providing some more esoteric effects that Aelron can't quite determine.
Seeker takes a moment to do a ritual to ensure the stairs will hold under the weight of a person, while the others shift around in paranoia, waiting for an ambush. The fog is wrapped thick around the ruins of the building under the tower, and Miaoyu picks up on the distinct sounds of chitinous, many-legged chittering.
Gavin, lounging against one of the half-collapsed walls, smiles over at her, attempting to reassure her. “You know, sound is a strange thing, especially in a fog like this,” he says, waving at the soup that almost obscures the buildings across the street. “I once heard a crab clacking its claws together and it sounded just like this. And there was only the one!”
Miaoyu tries hard to believe his story. She wants to believe that Old Drougant City has some phantom crab that makes oddly spidery sounds. It’s just that her will save won’t let her. Gavin lifts a hand and makes a gesture like a claw clacking. Miaoyu’s lip trembles.
"You’re a monster," Tsarae scolds Gavin, but there’s a shadow of amusement on her face.
Finally, Seeker finishes stabilizing the stairs (“How did you do that, by the way?” the Werebear asks. “You're an internal mage, aren't you? Aelron would just reinforce them with more stone, but what did you do?” Fayd just smiles. “I gave them a pep talk!”) and Gavin steps forward to be the first to climb them.
"If it can hold me, it can hold anyone," he reasons.
Gavin takes the steps two at a time until he reaches the opening leading into the lowest floor of the tower above and the wall of shimmering blue that obscures it.
"There’s a barrier here," he calls down.
"Like what?” Aelron shouts back, “A wall of furniture?”
"No." Gavin pokes the barrier, attempting to determine what it is. It feels real, but not like any substance he's ever encountered. Presence without texture, a solidity of absence.
"Then what?" Flynn calls back.
"Blue?” Gavin answers uncertainly.
Aelron sighs and sets off up the stairs. As soon as he reaches the top he can easily confirm that yep, that’s definitely magic. He spends a couple of minutes studying the barrier, but can’t find any immediately obvious way to dispel it without bringing the tower down: it appears that the wards have settled into a cylindrical shape completely enclosing the tower, and will deny entry to anyone who doesn't have an appropriate passphrase. They're gonna need a different skillset to get through this.
"Miaoyu,” Aelron calls down, “Can you take a look at this?"
So up goes a third person (she has to pass Gavin on the way up, and she rolls an Acrobatics check to swing around him, out over open air, gripped like a dancer in his arms unitl she's back on solid ground) and Miaoyu takes her turn in examining the barrier. She pokes it a couple times, then leans close and presses her face against it, trying to see in. She tilts her head, then brings up both hands as if making a telescope with them. That does the trick, apparently: “I can see something!” She gives Aelron a grin. “Books. Lots of them.”
The hunger and longing in Aelron's eyes is a startling thing.
Miaoyu asks Gavin to boost her up so she can climb the tower and try to look in from the top. One successful acrobatics check later, she's clinging to the side of the tower, rod of spider climb clutched tightly in one hand, trying desperately to ignore the fact that she's holding a spider's limb in her hand.
"Just remember," Gavin calls to her. "Crab." He makes the clacking gesture again. Miaoyu scowls and decides to ignore him, focusing instead on the climb. In moments she's at the top of the tower. The roof has long since blown away, but rooftop access isn’t possible: there’s another blue barrier. She's not surprised, so she scales her way back down and confers with Aelron.
“I can't see a conventional way in; the wards appear to be a solid wall around the interior space. I could try shadow walking in, though."
Aelron frowns. "Are you sure it’s not warded against that?"
Miaoyu hesitates: she’s reluctant to give away trade secrets. “It’s extremely unlikely. What I do isn’t something that’s well-documented. I sort of step into the demi-plane of shadows, then back out.”
Aelron blinks at her. Such a thing could be warded against, certainly, but Aelron's never heard of such short-range dimension hopping before. If it's truly as well-kept a secret as Miaoyu thinks it is, it's probable that whoever owned this tower is unaware of that particular vulnerability. He shrugs to her. “You're probably right. At your leisure, then. Just be careful.”
Miaoyu goes back to the main entrance of the tower, finds some nice shadows, and dimension-hops inside. The tower interior is five stories tall, and every available wall space on all five floors is lined with bookcases. Rolling ladders provide access to the taller shelves. There are easily thousands of books, scrolls, tablets and other receptacles of the written word here.
Suddenly, Miaoyu remembers where she's seen a warded tower like this before: the Ysilarite library in Brandt looked almost exactly like this. The party has stumbled across a two-hundred-year old library tower, preserved by warped wards, sealed off from all the rampaging monsters and full of books. Aelron hasn't looked this happy since the last time they stopped by the dryad's grove.
Meanwhile, the others have been amusing themselves in the rubble of the building's first floor. Gavin and Flynn pick through the rubble, looking for anything of note, and eventually they find something. It looks like a brooch or large necklace, a silver disc with a red center and, faintly etched around the silver rim, markings that appear to be two serpents intertwined: a symbol of Ylsilar, god of knowledge and poison. Gavin makes his way to back up to Aelron, who is still studying the barrier.
"What do you think the odds are that this is exactly what’s needed to get through that barrier?"
Aelron considers. He's seen librarians wearing symbols like that before. "Pretty good, I’d say."
Miaoyu steps out of the library and the party discusses how to proceed with the talisman.
"My concern," says Aelron, "is that if we touch that thing to the wards, it will deactivate them, and the entire tower will collapse."
Flynn tilts his head thoughtfully. “If we’re worried about that, then I think it would make most sense that the person who tries it be capable of being out in an instant.”
Miaoyu is already shaking her head by the time the others turn to her. “I need to see the shadows I’m teleporting to, and at the barrier, I don’t have a clear line of sight to anywhere but directly below me. Even if I had a larger field of vision, this fog is probably too thick to get a good distance away.”
"I’ll do it," Gavin says with a great sigh. "If anyone can survive tons of stones and books crashing on their head, it would be me."
No one can really argue that—Gavin has by far the best AC in the party, and despite his low hit point rolls, one of the higher hit point totals as well. The rest of the party retreats a safe distance away (although Seeker does risk standing closer than the rest, just in case Gavin needs immediate medical attention). Gavin touches the brooch to the blue barrier.
The barrier shimmers, turns an alarming, angry scarlet for a moment, then returns to its original hue. Gavin feels a horrible crawling sensation over his skin. Desperately, he jerks up a sleeve: scales have formed in patches. And they seemed to be rotting.
Gavin, much like Olaf before him, has acquired the disfavor of Ylsilar and a lovely case of scalerot. Gavin’s case of disfavor has an extra punch to it: -4 on fortitude saves against poisons.
Gavin comes storming down the stairs to the great surprise of the party. His face is red with anger and he’s sputtering out expletives.
"I can’t believe that a thief can enter the library without so much as a slap on the wrist but when I attempt to enter honestly, this happens!"
He rounds on Seeker. “You! You’re of the same church. Maybe you’ll have more pull than someone who only follows in spirit. I want to know what happened.”
Seeker takes a moment to help Gavin calm down (he only partially succeeds) and settles in for an attempt to commune directly with his god. Seeker has tried this in the past with little success. Gilgadar speaks directly with Miaoyu and his other priests because he has rather few of them, plenty of time on his hands, and few requests for aid to accommodate. Larlon, on the other hand, is a mainstream, socially approved deity worshipped directly by the entire medical establishment and prayed to by anyone who falls ill or gets injured; responding personally to everyone who petitioned him would be overwhelming even for a god.
And that’s exactly why Seeker is so surprised when a voice that he knows to be Larlon's, a voice that bears the weight of ancient wisdom and worldly knowledge, answers his communing probe with a crystal-clear, “Yes?”
Seeker sputters in surprise before collecting himself. “I’m sorry to bother you, my lord, but you know the mind of the Younger Scholar better than I. One of my companions attempted to enter an abandoned library legitimately, with a token that we thought would grant access, and earned their disfavor. Is there any insight you can offer me in this situation?” Seeker offers up his own memories of the situation, showing Larlon the finding of the tower, everything Aelron has told him about the wards, and everything the party was able to deduce about the amulet.
Seeker gets the vague impression that Larlon is stroking his beard while he thinks. “It seems likely that this was an automated instance of disfavor. If I had to guess, I’d say that the token was actually an ID badge or a library card. It might not have actually belonged to a librarian. Whoever it belonged to, they must have had books out at the time Old Drougant City fell. If you go to a Ylsilarite temple, I’m sure something can be done to correct this error.”
Seeker thanks Larlon for his help and then relays his advice to the party.
"Are you saying that Gavin was just hit with over two-hundred years’ worth of someone else's library fines?" Miaoyu asks, her voice a mixture of amusement and sympathy. Seeker nods woefully. Gavin fumes.
"Let’s keep going, then," Gavin finally sighs.
“Gavin,” Aelron says, “We should fall back. With wolf-spiders around, and Tykanria-only-knows-what else lurking in the shadows, a vulnerability to poison is an unacceptable ri—”
Gavin cuts him off with a glare. "We came here with a job to do. We are going to finish it, and then we are going back to Brandt to get rid of this infernal itching. Now come on.”
The party leaves the tower behind and resumes their course to the Throne. After an hour of travel, they come to a bridge that will allow them to cross the river. They're about halfway across when they notice that the stone pillars supporting the bridge are… swaying.
Flynn fires an eldritch arrow into the bridge. The arrow bounces off of it and sails though the air before dissipating. Curious, he picks up a rock and tries to skip it along the bridge. He succeeds.
Aelron is staring at the bridge through Spellsight, looking around wonderingly. There's magic all over the bridge, and it's like nothing he's ever seen before. He's rooted to the spot studying it, but not offering anything like advice.
Gavin tries his own hand at testing the bridge by throwing his returning spear into the stone. It sinks in as if he'd thrown it at a brick of rubber, not a rock. After a moment, it returns. Gavin jiggles it a little to make sure it’s kept its solidity (it has) and says, “I’ll go ahead and check out out.”
Gavin steps tentatively forward. The paving stones under foot squish a little under his feet, and he’s bouncing like a child on a trampoline as he walks. The end of the bridge spills into a courtyard centered on a fountain of still-flowing water. Gavin heads toward the fountain, as it seems to be strangely drawing his eye.
As he gets closer, he realizes that the water is… wrong. It oozes more than it flows from the fountain's upper reaches to the lowest basin, and the water in the basin wobbles like gelatin instead of rippling. Gavin reaches into his pack and pulls out an old, chipped mug to scoop up a bit of 'water', careful not to touch it with his hand.
Keeping the mug in hand, Gavin starts heading back to the party. At some point he misses his footing a bit thanks to the bouncy nature of the ground, and notices his mug wobble.
With a shout, Gavin throws the mug on the ground (the water and mug separate, each bouncing away wildly) and begins running back to the others, terrified of becoming a noodle-person. As he runs, he bounces higher and higher until he reaches solid ground with an undignified crash.
"I wouldn’t touch the water, if I were you," he advises. The party carefully crosses the bridge and passes through the courtyard until the bounciness wears off and the ground returns to normal solidity.
In the late afternoon, they arrive at the business district. It’s in comparatively better shape, with some of the buildings still standing. Because night will likely come upon them sooner than expected, the party selects the hippodrome in the distance as their shelter for the night.
As they approach the hippodrome, the party hears the distinct scream of a horse. This isn’t like most horse screams, though. It’s not the sound of prey being hunted down, but rather that of a triumphant predator.
"You know, I’m remembering an old folklore book I read ages ago," Miaoyu says. "Something about nomads making deals for an extraordinarily fast horse. It would seem like a good deal at first, but when they put the horse in the pasture for the night, they’d wake up and find all the other horses dead and eaten by the horse they brought back."
Everybody shudders and they all glance across to Aelron, who nods. “I remember one of my professors mentioning these things. Don't remember what he called them, but they exist: predatory horses, usually solitary predators. Magical creatures, though reports of what magic they usually employ vary wildly. The one thing the stories have in common is that they're not particularly picky eaters: the unwitting commoner or soldier is as likely a snack as the unwitting wildlife.”
With that bracing anecdote ringing in their ears, the party enters the hippodrome.
A hippodrome, for those who aren't ancient history buffs, is a horse-racing arena in the style of ancient Greece: an oval stadium with a sand floor. A pair of pillars in the sand near either end of the oval arena, massive terma, mark the points around which horses or chariots must turn. This particular hippodrome has a wall linking its terma, splitting the arena roughly into two parts. Up in the stands is a long counter, probably where bookkeepers would have sat taking bets and handing out rewards. Several dark doorways lead off the sand and down barely-visible ramps, presumably into stables underneath the arena.
On the sand itself, not far from one of the doors, is a massive bloodstain. It trails off into the nearest tunnel, as though whatever lost all that blood was subsequently dragged below.
“I think we found our horse-villain,” Gavin murmurs.
Everyone agrees that they need to investigate the bloodstain and the ground around it, see if they can find any corroboration of their theory. Most of the party jumps down onto the racetrack: Gavin and Tsarae take the lead, while Miaoyu and the mages hang a few paces behind them. Unforunately the blood stain is on the far side of the arena, so they'll have to go around one of the terma to reach it. Flynn opts to remain in the stands, following the party around the rim of the stadium on its lowest level.
It is as Gavin and Tsarae round the terma, Tsarae trailing her hand casually along the marble of the pillar, that they cross what would have been the race track's finish line. Aelron and Seeker detect a massive surge of magic, feel more than see it closing about their minds, and hastily throw up mental barriers, blocking outside influences. The spell, whatever it is, rolls over them but cannot inundate them, and washes away, leaving them unscathed.
The rest of the party, without any warning, is not so lucky.
Six ghostly horses appear on the starting blocks, and Gavin, Tsarae and Miaoyu hurry to mount theirs: they have a race to win. Flynn, in the stands, is suddenly holding a betting ticket and cheering at the riders below. This particular horse race features three teams of two riders each: Miaoyu and Tsarae are together on the red team, Gavin is with a ghost jockey on green, and the final team, composed of two ghosts on ghostly mounts, is blue. Flynn, naturally, has bet everything on the blue team.
Aelron and Seeker exchange a horrified glance before the starting bell rings. All the riders are shouting at them to clear the track, but there's nowhere to go before the horses are upon them.
"Outta the way!" Flynn shouts down. "Get in front of the reds!"
Seeker and Aelron attempt to dive for the central wall, but Gavin still has to pull his horse up short to keep from trampling them, putting him in a dismal last place while Miaoyu and Tsarae take the lead.
Tam, at this point, is asking for periodic acrobatics or athletics rolls from each rider to determine progress down the course. Tsarae, of course, rolls brilliantly, and leaps out in front of the pack. Sparrow, after a wonderful start (and history of lucky acrobatics checks), begins rolling horribly, and falls behind quickly. The blue team and the ghost of green team form the majority of the pack, with only one of the blues able to keep up with Tsarae, but all of them well ahead of Miaoyu and Gavin.
Seeker and Aelron stand and take stock of the situation quickly.
“Charm?” Seeker asks.
Aelron nods grimly. “Looks that way. Pretty elaborate one, too.”
Seeker takes off at a dead sprint after Gavin, whose horse is still trying to regain its stride after tripping over Seeker. Just as the horse begins to pick up speed again, Seeker reaches range and fires off a Dispel Magic, aiming for Gavin. Unfortunately, in his haste, he hits the horse, not the rider. Gavin tumbles to the ground, bruised and furious. He staggers to his feet and sets eyes on Seeker, yelling angrily:
“You killed my horse! How dare you interfere with the race?!”
Seeker hesitates when he sees the angry gleam in his friend’s eye and hurries to cast Suggestion. “I suggest that you stand down.”
The spell is a success: Gavin no longer wants to beat Seeker into next week, just give him a good talking to. Seeker begins falling back to Aelron, and Gavin, apparently ignoring Aelron's presence, advances. It only takes a moment for Gavin to move into Aelron's dispel range, and without a horse to block the shot, Aelron hits easily.
Gavin stops in his tracks and blinks, dazed for a moment, then looks around. “So. A race, huh?”
Aelron grimaces. “So it would appear.”
Back in the thick of things, Miaoyu’s now in last place with Gavin's removal from the race, but Tsarae makes up for it: they might lose the team portion of the race, which averages the times of both riders on each team, but Tsarae may very well win the race for herself—if only it wasn’t for one of the blues constantly on her heels.
The racers are just coming around to finish their first lap as the three uncharmed party members scramble atop the dividing wall. Seeker gestures Gavin forward. “We'll dispel her and the horse, you grab her.” Gavin nods, gauges the height of the incoming horse and rider, holds out an arm for Miaoyu and braces himself atop the wall.
As Miaoyu comes galloping toward the finish line, Seeker casts Dispel Magic. Her horse vanishes from underneath her and she falls almost smoothly into Gavin's arms. Miaoyu pushes herself out of his grasp and regains her footing, face flushed with anger.
"What’s your problem? You get your horse vanished, so you start doing it to other people? That’s not very sporting! Just because I was going to start shooting at the other riders—"
Aelron casts Dispel Magic, smirking.
Miaoyu blinks. “Oh. Were we…?”
"Charmed?" Gavin offers. "Looks like."
"Shall we rinse and repeat with Tsarae?" Seeker asks.
“Sure, but I'm not catching her,” Gavin says. “She has a tendency to land pointy-bits-first, and I've no desire to be a pincushion.”
Miaoyu winces. “Just try to hit her with the first dispel, okay?”
"I’m sure this will hurt her more than it’ll hurt you," Seeker says.
Miaoyu gives him an exasperated look. “Do you even know how many knives she has? This is definitely going to hurt me more.”
Tsarae is still leading, with one blue team horse and the remaining green team horse right behind her. Bracing herself for the catch, Miaoyu leans out from the wall to watch Tsarae close on the finish line.
Aelron and Seeker prepare their dispels and fire as one. Unforunately for them, both their spells appear to bounce off Tsarae's horse. Tsarae remains charmed, and her horse continues to be at least semi-corporeal. Gavin and Miaoyu manage to latch onto Tsarae and drag her to the ground as her horse crosses the finish line, but as soon as Tsarae has her bearings, daggers appear in each hand.
And then the spell ends. Tsarae blinks in confusion, then tucks her daggers away—though she still looks cross—and the ghostly horses and jockeys vanish.
Even though Tsarae won the singles race, the blue team won the doubles. Flynn takes his betting card and turns it in at the long counter above. He’s handed a hefty bag of coins, and then the charm is lifted on him too. He takes a peek inside the bag—it’s filled to the brim with freshly minted gold coins, each one stamped with the date it was minted... 200 years ago, before the fall of the city.
Flynn joins the rest of the party on the racing track. Seeker asks Tsarae, “So how does it feel to win?”
She frowns. “I don’t think I like these sports.”
"What are sports like in the Underdark?"
"For my people? We don’t have them—no time. In other places?” She shudders. “You don’t want to know."
With that delightful thought, the party presses toward one of the dark tunnels leading below the racing track. Aelron blesses everyone with Vision of Color and they find themselves in a vast stable. There are no cannibal horses in sight, but there is a corpse of an ill-fated attercop. He has bits of flesh ripped from his body as though something was taking bites out of him.
Night is falling, and the party has no way of setting a trap, and their scents will likely give them away if they remain down here. They head back to the stands, find the old box seats, and camp in one of the boxes, high above the track.
The night is not destined to be a peaceful one. Miaoyu and Tsarae are on watch when they hear a horrible scream from the northeast.
"It’s probably nothing," Tsarae says. Another scream joins the first, then another. Miaoyu winces. "Just ignore it," Tsarae pleads. "Let’s just worry about ourselves."
Miaoyu wavers for a long moment, then, with a pained expression, shakes Gavin awake. “What is it?” he mumbles groggily. Then he hears the screams and sits bolt upright. He grabs his spear and starts helping Miaoyu wake the others, Tsarae protesting all the while.
"This is a bad idea. Those people are being attacked because they weren’t careful. They screwed up. If we go after them, we’ll get killed too."
"Probably," Aelron agrees, unfaltering.
"The screaming has been going for six minutes now. This is a trap, or worse, someone who likes to toy with their prey. Or worse than that: both."
"It’s likely," Gavin says as he heads down the stairs, Aelron right behind him.
Tsarae rounds on Miaoyu. "Where did you find this guy? Was there a discount offer on idiot knights?"
"Well, we didn’t pay for him, so… yes?" Miaoyu fidgets anxiously with her pack, carefully not taking a side in the debate.
Tsarae lets out a frustrated sigh. Seeker begins following after Gavin and Aelron. “You can stay here if you want to. Alone. With the demon horse.”
Tsarae reluctantly steps in with the rest of the party, Miaoyu close behind.
Old Drougant City is covered with dense fog at night and the party has trouble seeing much at all. They follow the direction of the screams as quickly as they can, but as the party reaches the door leading out of the hippodrome complex and into the streets, the horrible shrieking ceases.
Gavin turns to Miaoyu. “Do you think you can guide us there?”
Miaoyu hesitates. “Probably. It sounded close, maybe five blocks away. But Gavin, I don’t think this is a good idea. We can barely see through this fog.”
"I understand how you feel, Gavin," Aelron says gently. "But you and Flynn haven’t even had time to put on your armor. And if we get separated in this fog, we’ll get picked off one by one with no way to find each other. I hate to say it, but with no remaining sign that anyone is still alive out there, risking ourselves is no longer worth it. We can look in the morning."
Gavin fumes for a long moment, visibly upset and shaking. “Fine,” he says after a long moment. “I’ll leave this alone. I’ll let these lives go unsaved so we might save more in the future.”
Gavin turns on his heel and storms back to the campsite. Seeker begins to say, “I’m sorry,” but Gavin cuts him off with a snarled, “Don’t.” His foul mood lasts him all night: he doesn’t sleep and instead takes the time to don his armor. Come morning, everyone takes their breakfast rations, and Gavin herds them out to investigate the screams.
Miaoyu and Tsarae take point, trying to pin down the origin of the screams, while the others fall back.
"I’m sorry for my harshness last night," Gavin says to Aelron and Seeker. "In truth, the elf’s lack of concern for anyone’s life other than her own bothers me, and has me on edge."
Flynn, who had been scanning the surroundings for any movement in the area, snaps his gaze on Gavin at that comment. “Try living it,” he snaps. “Try living with the constant need to survive, then talk to me about regrets.” He storms away.
"As harsh as it is," Seeker adds, "I can understand her pragmatism. She grew up in the Underdark. Notions of nobility are... uncommon—or at least different—there, to say the least." Aelron reluctantly nods his agreement.
Gavin sighs at the mages and approaches Flynn. “At least—” he begins.
Flynn cuts him off. “Take your self-righteousness and shove it up your ass.”
"—your lady loves you," Gavin continues doggedly.
Flynn scoffs. “No. I am beyond love.”
"Then take your self-pity and—"
"Self-pity?" Flynn rounds on Gavin. "No. You want to do this now?" He takes a threatening step towards Gavin. "Let’s go."
Seeker rushes between the two right then. “Don’t you think this is escalating a bit far?”
"Stop fighting, you guys," Miaoyu calls from ahead of them. "We’re here."
'Here' is an enormous of opera house. The facade has four tall windows and an ornate set of double doors. Or, it did. One of the doors has been cracked in half and the windows are smeared with blood on the inside. Everyone takes a deep breath and peers inside.
To say that the atrium is covered in blood is... actually not much of an exaggeration. There are a few scattered bits of what once were people, the remnants of an expedition's supplies... and lots and lots of blood.
Flynn falls silent and steps away from the door, taking up position to watch the street. Tsarae steps to his side, then thinks better of it and finds a shadow to skulk in. Gavin moves over next to Flynn to watch as well, and the silence grows tense and brittle.
Seeker turns to Miaoyu. “Do you want to take a look first, before we start leaving tracks through things and disturbing the scene?”
She nods, then slips into the atrium. The room is at least three stories tall here, with a crystal chandelier still hanging from the ceiling in fairly good, if blood-spattered, condition. A wide marble-floored atrium, probably once covered with expensive carpets, leads to a sweeping curved double-staircase that encloses a balcony, beyond which are entrances to the opera house itself. She takes a few moments to scan the area before noticing something in the floor.
"Look at this," she murmurs. "Marble flooring, but it had claws strong enough to make gouges."
After a moment more of surveying the area, she waves Seeker in, pointing at one of the few remains that is identifiable as a piece of a person: it's the remnant of an arm, torn off the body just above the elbow joint, and missing most of its hand. “Look at this. It was bit clean off, wasn’t it?”
"I wouldn't say 'clean'," Seeker qualifies, “But yes, it appears to have been twisted off in a manner consistent with a biting attack. There must have been several people camped here. But I can only see pieces belonging to two distinct people. The rest just have been… eaten, maybe, or dragged away.” He glances back at the door. “Though the lack of blood smears on the street makes me think 'eaten' is more likely.”
"It was big," Miaoyu says. "Look at those scratches on the pillar.” She gestures to one of the pillars in the balustrade of one of the twin staircases. Along the near side of the pillar, the side facing away from the stairs, something has gouged claw marks out of the pillar. Those marks are a good ten feet off the marble floor, though. “It had to have been at least twelve feet tall, maybe fifteen. Lots of muscle to make this mess." She glances at Aelron. "Know anything that matches that description?"
Aelron scratches his head. “It’s not much to go on. Could have been that big wolfman you saw. The sorts of werewolves that have hybrid forms...” he shudders. “They don't leave much behind.” He shakes his head. “Trolls, a small-end giant... Vampires have supernatural strength... but wouldn't they want to consume this much blood, not just rip people apart?”
"Might have been a necromancer," suggests Seeker. "Or a cultist. Nunatii accepts blood sacrifices."
Miaoyu shakes her head at that. “I’m not saying that plays are the most reliable sources of information, but in the ones I’ve seen, Nunatiians prefer strangulation or suffocation. At their most gruesome, they pour hot pitch down people’s throats. A bloody mess isn’t really their thing.”
Aelron nods. His voice has gone clinical again. “Nunantii tends to like his sacrificial victims awake and aware. In horrible pain, yes, of course, but still lucid enough to recognize where they're going and why. This sort of slaughter doesn't leave its victims in the desired state. A scene like this is more appropriate to Ashur or Farkas.”
Miaoyu shakes her head. “Regardless, I'm through with my inspection. Let’s start looking around, see if we can find any information in their personal affects.”
Flynn steps in then, still very quiet, and follows a sweeping staircase up to the balcony, surveying the area. Seeker finds a suit of plate armor. Although it has blood smears on it, it seems as though the armor wasn’t being worn when the attack happened: the adventurers had settled in for the night and were surprised by their attacker. He hauls the suit outside. It can be resized for someone in the party.
Aelron finds a bird bone with magical runes etched into it. It takes him a moment, but he recognizes it as an artifact used by a rare breed of mages: binders. Binders were once common in the Varaz kingdom, but after they fell, the practice became obscure. Some odd traditions still practice it, however, and Kadarashi are known to pick it up from time to time. In this particular case, the bone can be broken to cast a circle of Protection Against Undead. The fact that it is still intact suggests that their attacker wasn’t undead… or they didn’t have the chance to use it.
Seeker finds a gold ring with an enchantment on it: it grows warm when law officials are near. He hands it to Miaoyu as she’s scooping up a silver sword amulet. “You might find this useful,” he whispers, and explains its abilities to her.
"Sounds like they were my kind of people. I feel bad for them. Whatever hit them was beyond cruel."
After one more sweep of the room, it seems there’s nothing left to recover. The party files out of the opera house, and as Flynn exits, he punches the door, hard.
"Want a weave on that?" Aelron asks after the opera house is some distance away, gesturing to Flynn's bruised knuckles.
"Hmm?" says Flynn, the first bit of communication he’s made since they uncovered the gruesome scene. "Oh. No, I’m fine." After that, Flynn seems to be more-or-less back to normal.
Deciding to continue on toward the Throne, the party marches next into an ordinary-looking courtyard, lined with rampant shrubberies and overspilling flowerbeds, centered on a Hawthorne tree. They’re walking through quietly when Miaoyu suddenly stops, looks around, and narrows her eyes.
She glances at Aelron and Seeker. "Do you feel that?"
"What do you mean?" Aelron asks.
Miaoyu hesitates, choosing her words carefully. “My shadow-walking is... off. It just feels wrong. Like if I use it, something bad will happen.”
Aelron falls quiet for a moment, focusing on his own magic. After a moment, his eyebrows rise in surprise. “You're right. This area is saturated with wild magic, and all magic used within it will be unstable. Any spell or ability we use here could have... unforseen consequences.”
"Best be in our way, then," Flynn says. They leave the courtyard swiftly, and once they’re outside of its sphere of influence, Gavin marks a stone for Miaoyu to Locate later, should they need to find the area again.
Finally, they arrive at the Throne. The Throne itself is an island of volcanic rock. Three enormous slabs of stone, perhaps the remnants of volcanic flues, form a tripod over the island, standing awesome sentinel. Below them, a castle nestles into the rock, carved out of the very island's bones. As it is, there’s no ferry to a centuries-long abandoned island, so Gavin slips on his cloak and turns into a seal, accepting both Vision of Color and a consumable spell item he can use for a speed boost from Aelron.
The travel to the island is pleasantly free of horrible lake monsters (although there are some creepy-looking fish) and Gavin arrives at the Throne's ferry docks safely. He surveys the area, but finds it rather plain, simply a stone quay with a shaped stone path leading up to a yawning gate that opens into the island's core. Satisfied, he shapeshifts into a seal again and returns to the party.
"It should do. There’s a dock that I can tie a rope to and maybe ferry you all across in a trip or two, whenever we decide to go.”
“Not today,” Seeker says. “We need to get you taken care of and see what we can do about this journal, and I need to work on the elven mail.”
“If we sell the gem, we can get some better equipment, too,” Miaoyu adds.
“And I can do a bit of enchanting,” Aelron seconds.
And the party wants to reach level four before taking on whatever’s awaiting them. Details.
So the party makes a strong, quick push back to their manor and returns in time for nightfall. They go to sleep with plans to return to Scarlet in the morning.