Ash & War: The Last Days of Vrakis

Episode 5
The Defiler

WIP

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Episode 4
Ire of the Fallen

The sun flashes from above. The heat, once merely draining, becomes scorching! The companions can barely open their eyes and they can feel their skin searing… Will anyone come up with the right answer, before they are all basted in a hot oast?

With a parched croak, Rolen cries out, "Sun!" The light dims, and the doors to the room of spring open wide.

Rolen and Temeraire dart through the door and move to opposite sides of the room, but it is shadowy and unoccupied. The corner of the room had collapsed from the invasion of a massive tree root. The riddle, too, has been destroyed. The rest of the group, save for El'lirian guarding their backtrail, enters the room to see Temeraire kneeling to examine the rubble in the corner. A skeletal hand protrudes from the fallen stones, grasping something. The investigator reaches ever so carefully to touch the hand, and the spirit of an old dwarf manifests suddenly and begins pacing back and forth across the room, paying no attention to the adventurers.

The spirit mutters under his breath, concentrating hard. Eloquin approaches it and calls out, "WHO ARE YOU, SER DWARF?" 

"No need to scream, youngster. I'm the guardian of the shrine of Vymera, obviously. Why are you here?" It seems that the poor dwarf does not know he has been crushed under tons of stone and dirt and irony. After waiting for a couple seconds for an answer, the dwarf seems to forget speaking to Eloquin and returns to his pacing and grumbling. "How did that riddle go? I'll never teach poor Turl the secrets of the shrine if I canna remember them meself. How did it go?"

"What are you trying to remember, old-timer?"

"Who? What? How did you get in here?"

"We answered the riddles!"

"Well, you haven't answered this riddle, and now I've gone and lost the answer. I wish I could remember it, but every time I think I'm close, this hideous beastly screeching echoes through my mind and I lose my train of thought." He recites the riddle to the room of spring. Eloquin blinks once, shakes his head in pity, and barks out the answer with a bit of a laughter.

"Well, you're true riddlers and no mistake. May your days be long upon Vymera's earth. Now I need to go find Turl and give him his Nameday gift. Do you see? I carved a guardian for him -" he looks down at his empty, spectral hands, confused. "Now where did my carving go? I can't miss the poor lad's Nameday! He'll never forgive me!" The old dwarf begins to panic, sobbing.

Temeraire calls out, "Guardian of Vymera! Turl, your kinsman, sent us to you. Is this what you seek?" The dwarf spirit turns and sees the tiefling gesturing towards the bony hand that reaches up from the stony rubble with something grasped tight in its fist.

"I – wait, what happened to me? Am I… am I…" he hiccups through the last of his tears and gives a heavy sigh. "I'm dead, aren't I?"

"I think so, good spirit. I think so," Temeraire replies with a note of tender solemnity.

"Well, then. That's that. Are ye honorable folk? Bah… Vymera would not have let you come this far if ye weren't. Will ye do a favor for an old dwarf? Take me carving to Turl, tell him how sorry I am, and teach him the secrets? Will you swear?"

"By wind and water, by ice and fire, by earth and sky and sea, I swear it will be done." A warm glow, much like the radiance of healing magic, lights the room from the skeletal fist. All the companions turn to the source of light, and see the fingers open and hand the figurine to the tiefling. A cool breeze like a sigh of relief ruffles their hair and when they turn back, the spirit is no more.

The allies make their way deeper into the undertunnels of the shrine. Rolen and Temeraire dart into a long, dark room lined with intricately-decorated scarecrows. The rest of the group approaches, and while the pair suggests caution, Ward the Tomeheart charges forth with abandon! Almost drowned out by the clank of stomping metal on stonework is a sharp snapping CLICK! Crystals beneath the scarecrows wink into glowing life as the scarecrows show their true purpose: each scarecrow represents one of the past guardians of this ancient shrine.

As the figures lurch into eldritch life, Eloquin murmurs the words of a spell and skitters up the wall and onto the ceiling with spidery dexterity. The guardians rake at the companions with stone-tipped wooden claws, and no attacks faze them. Swords slash them, but do not slow them. Magic burns them, but still they keep coming. They rend and tear at the tomeheart, and the mystical automaton finally collapses under their aggression. Narrows and Narrows, trapped in one corner, fight for their lives against two of the guardians. All the while, the wizard studies them from the ceiling.

"The secret to their life is in the crystals! Destroy them, and the magic will cease."

El'lirian darts forward and smashes the hilts of his swords down onto one of the glowing stones. It shatters, and one of the guardians locks up, frozen in place as its magic dies. One after another, the travelers destroy the crystals and the scarecrows finally halt. Izkierka shudders, the horrible foes reminding her of childhood nightmares, and launches a bolt of magical fire into each. With the last of the scarecrows smoldering into a pile of ash, the adventurers look worse for wear. They slump down against the walls and floor to catch their breath. Temeraire and El'lirian make their way around the room, bandaging their wounds. The tiefling sings a soft hopeful reel as he moves about the room, invigorating his allies.

After a few minutes to catch their breath, the group continues. They follow a long passage for several yards before finding another section caved-in like the spring room. This time, though, there is no tree. Instead, there are the marks of huge clawed paws in the dirt, along with the stench of rotting meat. El'lirian squats down and runs a finger along the edge of the track, gauging the size of its maker. "The ghost spoke of screeching in the night, yes?"

"Aye, screeching so loud and awful it disturbed even the rest of the dead. Literally."

"These tracks are from no natural beast – they come from a hideous monstrosity made by their kind in the long ago." The elf ranger spits out the words and jabs two fingers at Eloquin and Nimozoran. "I have made it my mission to rid the world of such monstrosities. We must slay the owlbear."

"Owlbear? OWLBEAR? Wouldn't it be better as a pet? It sounds ADORABLE," Izkierka exclaims.

"ADORABLE!?" Eloquin replies. "Set your scaly mind on this: giant bear, with the head and eyes and beak and talons of an owl, both cunning and full of rage at its unnatural state."

"But fur and feathers together sound snuggly and awesome."

Following the smell the adventures find themselves in a large cavern scattered with half eaten rotting corpses. The scouts hear a pained retching sound from behind them, and turn to see the sorceress holding her hands to her mouth and shuddering. Temeraire rushes to her side, pulls forth a large handkerchief, and helps her clean up.

"Okay… not so adorable after all."

At the far end of the cavern, beyond an expanse of lower terrain, the huge feathered beast slumbers in a nest. El'lirian nocks an arrow, stretches his bow tight, and creeps forward across the cavern towards the sleeping beast. An arrow pierces the beast's hide and it lurches up and stands on its hind legs and bellows an ear piercing screech. Izkierka takes a deep breath and screams right back at it, loosing her draconic birthright, a gust of lightning breath that races forth and sets the beast's feathers to smoking. Eloquin nails it with darts of magical force. Rolen leaps across the expanse and buries his rapier down through the creature's thick neck, and it collapses with a shudder that slams the elf into the wall.

The group finds a small hoard of shiny things buried in the owlbear's nest. Armor, coins, an ancient arcane dagger, and a small box bound in silver and carved all over with tiny images of Vymera. Temeraire handles it ever so gently and works its locking mechanism open. Immediately the stench of rot and guano is overwhelmed by the earthy aroma of loam and sunshine and growing things. The relic is filled with rich, fertile earth that will speed the establishment of a new community for the followers of Vymera driven out of Stonebridge.

"Which way to the Wayward Wanderer? We can go back through the shrine, or we can go out the way the owlbear got in."

"I am NOT looking at those scarecrows again. EVER."

So the party clambers out of the owlbear's burrow beneath a gnarled root of a large oak tree. Stepping out into the bright sunshine of a smoldering field, a shadow passes over them as of something huge temporarily blocking out the sun. Heavy footfalls are heard coming up behind the group. They turn around, and standing before them is yet another shocking sight.

A humanoid figure clad in black plate armor. Once the armor was pristine and of the highest quality steel. Now it is covered in grime and blood, rusted and dented. A pair of large stag antlers have been affixed to the helm, causing the figure to tower nearly eight feet in height. The figure unsheathes a massive greatsword, once lovely and silvered but now tarnished and stained with blood. Not all of it is dried and crusted, either. Pointing a gauntleted hand towards the party the figure speaks. The voice seems like two voices speaking at once: the deep rumbling voice of a man mixed with the rasping harsh voice of a woman.

"Hand over the relic or die!"

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Episode 3
What Lies Beneath

The scent of ash and embers lingers on the air as the companions crest a hill and the farming village of Stonebridge lies before them, a smoldering ruin. The ranger pauses, then casts off his eagle with an upthrust arm. The raptor glides over the town, and the eyes of the elf prince go white for a moment before he murmurs, "Danger – to the south – tall pile of stones – scaly dogs sleeping in front."

His eyes resolve themselves into cold beads of excitement, and he points to Rolen and Nicodemus Narrows. "Splug, you stay here and keep the baggage safe," the tiefling instructs as the companions shed their traveling gear and ready weapons. The three immediately hustle down the hill towards the eastern side of the burnt-out village. The elves nock arrows to their bows and, almost as mirror images of one another, release them to bury themselves into the flank of one of the resting beasts. With a bellow of pain, it wakes and struggles to its feet. Its partner, uncivilly rousted from a perfectly good nap, lurches up and looks for something to kill.

Temeraire and Izkierka help Nimozoran down the hill and into the wreckage of the west side of town, while Eloquin the Magnificent strolls directly towards the large stone edifice at the south end of town. More swamp hounds spring out from the smoldering buildings. Purple blasts of arcane power explode forth from one of the temple windows, arcing past the bold wizard and making his hair stand on end! Nimozoran pops out of existence, so far as anyone on this side of the Bleak can tell. Spells and blades and bows do their nasty work, and the hounds are slaughtered. But the danger is hardly over… Nimozoran finds himself in a shadowy, ashen reflection of our world drained of color and joy, dripping with ichor and slime. Tentacles squelch towards him out of the black depths of emptiness.

Back in the visible world, the adventurers draw close to the building. Narrows and Rolen approach a pair of windows on the northeast corner. The elf peers through first and sees several large shapes moving through the shadows. From his vantage point, the tiefling sees bedrolls lying around a makeshift campfire in the center of the wreckage of the shrine to Vymera. Rolen pulls himself through his window and comes face to face with savages from the Stag Fens! They are tall, brutal men and women with the blood of giants coursing through their veins. Two immediately close on the elf warrior, with two more clambering over scattered benches, until Nicodemus Narrows (in a moment of wild abandon!) throws himself through his window and into the fray! His blade finds purchase in the armpit of one of the marauders! Bright arterial spray bursts forth, drenching them both. After a second, though, only Narrows is aware of it. Rolen dodges into the space left when the first savage collapses, leaps off the wall and drives his sword deep into the neck and chest of his foe.

The spellcaster fires several more eldritch blasts out the window before turning to face the foes that have entered the shrine. A lance of silvery energy from Temeraire's hand crossbow comes in through the window and envelops the warlock, making her shimmer with radiance. Bursts of purple energy from her staff sizzle towards the tiefling rogue that laid low her warrior — but two arrows from the window behind Nicodemus part his hair on their way to their target! Arrows and magic pass in the air, but only the arrows find their mark, thunking home in the warlock's chest and throat with a puff of glitter.

By then, the other pair have closed the distance on Rolen and Nicodemus! A maul crunches into Rolen's back and ribcage before its owner is swarmed by a screeching mass of wings and feathers! El'lirian di Leoni draws forth his black dragonbone shortswords and enters the fray. He parries one attack, then another, and uses their momentum to push himself into a pirouette behind the bear-like man. Temeraire clambers over the windowsill just as the ranger buries one sword in the savage's kidney and slashes his throat with the other. A cascade of blood washes over the bard's face, and he freezes, staring as the warrior collapses to the ground…

Temeraire was 8 when he saw his first dead body – well, the first one he knew. Bodies in alleys were not out of the ordinary in Corthos. But when his mother's scream woke him up, he saw a burly thug reaching for her throat! He screamed, "YOU LEAVE MY MOTHER ALONE!" before her hand darted forward and sliced his throat so deeply with a razor, she nearly severed his spinal cord. That was different. Blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling, blood soaking his young tiefling face. It wouldn't be the last time he saw blood everywhere….

Temeraire snaps back to reality as everyone gives him odd looks. He must have screamed out loud. And what was he doing on the ground, anyway? Izkierka lifts him back to his feet and wipes his face with a handkerchief, murmuring softly to him. "Shh… easy, love. I'm here. You're fine. I'm here." The bronze dragonborn explains what happened to the rest of the group, while Nicodemus examines a statue to Vymera at one end of the sanctuary. After they solve its riddle, a secret passage creaks open beneath the statue, leading down into the depths of the temple.

Heading down our party encounters the Hall of Seasons. The first room is full of snow and freezing wind, with depictions of snowy forests and icy tundra on the walls. The door at the far end of the room depicts Vymera holding a cornucopia of harvest fruits and vegetables, her hair adorned with fallen leaves. One wall, though, also has this carving: "Thrice again larger than all you can see… but lighter by far than my weighty ancestry…" The companions huddle together for warmth and mutter to one another possible answers to the riddle. The room gets colder and colder every time they err. Then Temeraire smacks himself in the forehead with the heel of his palm, and calls out, "I-I-I-Iceberg, right ahead!" The wind dies down immediately and the temperature rises, and the image of Vymera on the door nods before that door creaks open.

The next room depicts autumn in all her glory – a riot of forest color and rain, sweet gentle autumn rain, sprinkles down from the roof. On this door, Vymera stands tall and lovely, with a sunburst around her head giving her a radiant halo. The bard and quester after knowledge finds the inscription for this room: "Tall when I'm young, short when I'm old… My temper is hot, but when I sleep I'm cold." He scratches one of his horns and mutters, "Temper… temper… it's a word play, I'm sure of it." But Nimozoran cackles and wheezes and says, "Oh boy – that riddle was old when I was toddling along chasing pretty halfling girls… it's a candle!" Vymera nods again, and the door rustles leaves on the ground as it opens. El'lirian and Eloquin remain behind, entranced by the beauty of Vymera's magic, while the pass through the door…

…into the most glorious summer day imaginable. Blue sky dotted with fat cottony clouds… brilliant sunshine… warm caressing breezes… Vymera on this door holds seedlings in her hands as she reaches out to the adventurers, beckoning them into her embrace. The inscription here, Temeraire reads: "Inside a great castle lives a shy young maid… she blushes in the morning and hides at night." He stares at the words, lost.

"Is it true love?" a voice asks from behind him. From above, the sun flashes with blinding brightness and the summery heat becomes oppressive… drainingly hot… 

"Is she Aethelred the Buxom?" Nicodemus Narrows asks. "She was a shy lass… leastways she was when I met her." The sun flashes again, and the draining heat becomes scorching… the companions can barely open their eyes and they can feel their skin searing…

Will anyone come up with the right answer, before they are all basted in a hot oast?

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Episode 2
The Temple of Vymera

Our unlikely heroes wake up at the Wayward Wanderer feeling well rested. They head down to have breakfast among the survivors from Stonebridge. A hearty spread of dwarven biscuits, fried sausage, porridge and ale is served. In thanks for helping with the survivors Rian, the retired spellcaster, offers the travelers enough rations for the journey to Stonebridge and back.

Our group of new friends gives thanks and sets forth as the sun breaks over the horizon. Outside of the Wayward Wanderer the crew of the Fair Winds is bustling about getting things in order as the airship is ready to launch. Zersch, the handsome half orc man with whom Ward the Tomeheart had a brief scrap the night before, can be seen struggling to move a wooden crate (his ribs having been heavily bandaged). He shoots Ward a menacing sneer as he gets back to work but the Tomeheart seems utterly oblivious to such nuances as social cues.

We follow our strange band of adventurers as they traverse the wilds of No Man’s Land through rolling hills with waist-high grass, murky bogs, forests, rocky valleys, over streams and creeks. Past ancient ruins, crumbling watchtowers, and the remnants of old forts. The sun sets as camp is made on a small tree-covered island in the shadow of an old aqueduct.

Splug, being the good valet that he is, promptly dumps the baggage he is carrying as he escorts Narrows through the murky water to the safety of dry land. Ward does not cross the water and stands sentinel, and birds come to roost on his still form. El’Lirian sends out his eagle Ana to hunt and a short while later she returns with a large wild hare.

Narrows and Narrows cook up a hearty stew, and it can’t help but be noticed their uncanny coordination with one another… hmmm, how odd. The night passes without interruption, save for the calls of nightbirds and swampcats. As morning rises the party sets out again following the road as it turns south for Stonebridge. After another day of arduous travel our party makes camp in a small rocky valley.

During the night, Nicodemus Narrows notices a strange and icy fog suddenly roll in. As he goes to wake his companions, a foul creature attacks from the mist! Claws rake the adventurers from all directions! Spells are slung - swords slash - arrows fly! A warm hand of healing power caresses Izzy’s back and magically seals her wounds (whose could it be?? Her betrothed, or the elvish cad Rolen??)!

A fatal burst of magic missiles ends the fight in a spray of blood and brains as the beast is felled. After recollecting themselves and getting what remaining sleep they can our adventures reach what must be their destination. Ash and the smell and taste of fire linger on the breeze, and the Temple of Vymera stands surrounded by the burned-out husks of the assorted dwellings and other buildings of the village of Stonebridge.

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Episode 1
Strangers and Dreams
  • Human wizard has a dark recurring dream
  • Awakens to find himself on the airship Fair Winds but can't remember why. An empty vial of sleep draught, Sweet Solace, lies beside the bed.
  • Goes to the Blue Giraffe, the strangely-named pub for passengers aboard the airship
  • Meets other travelers, including

A squabble ensues when the Tomeheart, strangely dedicated to its concept of justice, tries to carry out its sentence of capital punishment upon Zersh, a gloriously-maned half-orc warrior, for the crime of lying about killing a dragon. The wizard, unbeknownst to most in the room, settles the dispute by magically disguising himself as the ship's captain.

After several hours, the airship lands and passengers disembark and go to the Wayward Wanderer, an inn established by retired adventurers in a ruined tower on the edge of the ancient region of Vrakis, now more commonly termed No Mans Land.

A large group of harried-looking dwarves, humans, and halflings shows up, wounded and exhausted and starved from making the trek from Stonebridge on foot. A horde of wild dwellers from the Stag Fens overran their settlement, driven by a griffon rider that looked for all the world like a knight of the Winged Legion.

The dragonborn lady instinctively takes charge of the disorganized rabble, using her experience ordering a noble household to get the travelers settled and their needs tended to in short order. Several of the passengers from the Fair Winds decide to go investigate what happened at Stonebridge and promise to try and recover a relic from the temple of Vymera.

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