Circling the Mountain

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Though the Xaniqos have escaped the deadly trap this time, there are still possibly ten to twelve hostile drow on the loose. There is no trace of the fiendish ravens; strategically, the siblings have a good and defensible position, Alvra says. Tired and wary, they decide to spend the night in the pit and wake up feeling slightly better.

Lilith sends out one of her prying eyes to assess their situation. The orb returns to convey images of hills and meadows to the cleric, a landscape where nothing moves except small wildlife. There is no visible threat, there are no other drow. With this knowledge, they set out and head back towards the old watchtower area. The smell of burned flesh still permeates the air from the silo. Phaedra wearily enters the scorched area, and finds the battle scene undisturbed. Many footprints are still visible in the sand, the area is scorched and blood permeates the soil.

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Clear tracks lead towards the mountains, deeply imprinted by the weight of heavy armor. They seem to be in a hurry! Another prying eye sets out to scout the area. The drow follow the trail for many hours, but Phaedra’s instinct and scouting skills tell her that they are only two miles as the crow flies from the portal through which they entered the Upper World. The landscape is becoming more and more overgrown with bushes and trees, the ground gets stony. When her sister loses the track, Lilith calls back the prying orb. In their vicinity are many small furry animals, but no houses or settlements; nothing is threatening. One more orb sets out with the specific instructions to search for caves and people, and its search proves successful. There’s a dark space up ahead that could be the entrance they are searching for.

Soon they find themselves on a much used path. Phaedra sees track from creatures that are not know to them; they are wider than those of rothé. As they follow the trail –Phaedra in the lead– the scout hears snorting and ducks behind the nearest tree. Fortunately it seems closer than it is, due to the mountain’s acoustic. Phaedra signals to the others, who have heard nothing unusual over the wood’s natural sounds, whereupon the cleric sends forth another magical orb. When it returns to her hand, it brings news: there are two jet-black red-eyed creatures ahead, waiting in front of an opening in the mountain.

Phaedra sneaks closer, while Jharrath casts his awareness forward, toward the beasts. He gets the impression that these are no natural inhabitants of the forest. They are different, more powerful and bigger, than the draft animal that was harnessed to the chariot in the village. The cleric calls back her sister, whereupon Jharrath shares his findings with the others.

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Prying Eyes

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While Lilith patches up her wizard brother, Phaedra and Alvra go over the remains of their defeated enemies. They were very well equipped with magic weapons and armor, amulets, wands and potions. When Lilith searches the archer, she finds an obsidian bat form among the other equipment. The cleric scrutinizes the statue, and then asks Jharrath if it could be the sought after key to the portal. The wizard studies the object in the light of the dawn and confirms her belief: this is an activating stone.

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The cleric applies more healing to Alvra, while keeping an eye on the surroundings. The fighter is leaning against a wall. Someone is watching us, he signs. Lilith nods. At that moment, Phaedra return from patrolling the neighborhood. A flock of ravens is their constant company up above. I know, Lilith signals, but we can’t go back, we still need to find Dark Fate. Alvra, find us a defensible spot. Do it, quickly!

They travel on, until the fighter finds a shallow basin with a low wall at the back and bushes in the middle. Lilith creates a number of semi-tangible, visible magical orbs and sends them forth. These Prying Eyes have the specific instructions to scout for danger. The cleric leans back against the rim of the basin, as does Alvra, and tries to get some rest. Their brother finds cover under a bush. Phaedra hides nearby and keeps watch.

The day passes slowly, until the Prying Eyes wake their mistress and alert her to advancing danger: six drow are at 120 feet and closing in. Lilith sits up and signals to her siblings. They are surrounding us! Alvra gives his sister a hand, and with his help, she manages to climb out of the pit. The Eyes inform her that the enemies have advanced to sixty feet from where they were resting.

The cleric starts chanting and creates a shimmering, magical field around her companions, that enables them to avert attacks easier. She then casts a spell on Alvra, that makes his muscles bulge, and dresses herself in an magical armor of darkness. An anti-toxin potion should also help counter any sleeping spell darts. Jharrath drinks one as well. Lilith warns the others: through her Prying Eyes she can see that that five of the six enemy drow just became invisible. Among them is the cleric who attacked them yesterday. And she doesn’t seem to be the only cleric this time!

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Alvra peeks over the edge, ready to jump into action. Drinking a potion that blurs her outline, Lilith takes cover behind a big rock, with her wizard brother near. Moments later he summons a salt mephit. Glitter dust swirls through the air.

Silently, Phaedra steps away, taking position on the other side of the rim’s top while hiding in invisibility. Then she hears footsteps next to her. She keeps very quiet and from the corner of her eye she sees an archer who takes aim at the mephit. The warrior is in full armor and dressed in black. Another battle is about to begin.

Ambushed!

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The drow hit the road in the dead of night, when the evil sun’s glare isn’t as fierce. Keeping to cover as often as possible, they travel the lands, past neglected and overgrown farmhouses. Phaedra falls back to keep an eye on possible pursuit. It’s a cold, windy and cloudy night. The Upperworld is quite unpleasant. After a while, they arrive at the end of the shrubbery. Up ahead the farmland is dotted with ruins. In the distance the rolling hills give way to higher mountains.

Jharrath and Theo exchange small talk. Apparently the Friezford drow uphold trade through the portal. Lilith checks the air, where patrolling ravens once again come closer. They feel evil. The Xaniqos run towards one of the ruins to hide, but apparently it’s too late: they have been spotted. Immediately the ravens fly southward – without a doubt straight towards the Hidden Dell, as Theo informs them. The drow cautiously follow the black birds over the deserted fields, ot of options for cover.

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Then a voice rings out from one of the ruins to their left. Elven chanting finds a way to Lolth, calling down a flame strike in their middle. Nimble Phaedra escapes without as much as a single blister, but the other drow all take damage. Their unfortunate guide is charred beyond recognition and slowly topples forward. Arrows buzz through the air, one striking the wizard in his chest, another piercing Phaedra’s armor. She quickly turns around and discovers both cleric and bowman. Both are dressed from head to toes in black.

Jharrath surrounds himself with five mirror images. He takes out a bit of bat guana and sends a fireball sizzling towards the silo, where the —soon to be severely injured— archer hides. He then takes position between his brother and sister.

The scout runs and crouches behind a wall, finding a bit of cover – or at least, that’s what she thought. Someone suddenly pops up, apparently coming out of invisibility, and fires a crossbow at Phaedra. She duplicates his tactics and disappears before the bolt can find her as a target. Taking out her spiked chain, she lashes out repeatedly. The drow’s rapier counterstrikes, and the two opponents battle back and forth. When her spiked chain doesn’t give her the results she wishes for, she exchanges it for her crossbow. The male charges and… Phaedra disappears from view, only to reappear a bit further on. The drow grins, seemingly enjoying the challenge. In sign language he says, If you surrender, you can always join us. The Xaniqos drow answers by blinding the dark elf.

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Further to the left, Lilith serves the unknown and hostile cleric a portion of her own medicine: a flame strike sears from the skies and strikes the female head on. A shriek gives voice to the hit, leading Alvra’s javelin her way as well.

More arrows cross the open area, passing through two of Jharrath’s mirror images. The second archer aims a wand at herself, then puts it away. The boost is successful, because her next arrow finds a crack in Lilith’s armor. The Xaniqos priestess roars and charges full towards her attacker. The drow archer didn’t exactly see that coming. Quickly she trades the bow for her rapier and aims it at Lilith, while an additional arrow from the silo finds its way into Lilith’s back. The cleric sends a stream of searing lights towards her attacker, following through with a spell, inflicting more damage to the heavily wounded drow archer. When the opponent tries to tumble past Lilith, almost stabbing her in the neck, the priestess attacks with another spell and kills her.

Alvra follows the course his javelin took earlier and finds another archer behind a wall. And though his attack is well coordinated, it still misses. Something else seems to be aiding these drow. The hostile cleric once again calls upon Lolth and a dagger appears out of thin air, poking down on the Xaniqos fighter. He shrugs off the effects and concentrates on dislodging the bow from the archer’s hands. He succeeds, but gets hit again and again. He takes a moment to step back and take a healing potion.

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A huge earth elemental appears near the enemy cleric, summoned by Jharrath. She tries to dispel the creature, but it hits back and does more damage to the female. With the help of her wand, she disappears from view, but the elemental is not dazes by her act. He pummels down with his bludgeoning fists. Again the hostile cleric disappears.

The wizard directs his attention towards the archer in the blackened silo and ends his life with a fireball. He cautiously finds his way towards the part of the ruin where the scout is battling, but his joy in the successful attack is rather short lived. Once again he takes an arrow and hits the ground, unconscious. Lilith marches towards her fallen brother, receiving more arrows in the process.

Phaedra quickly pours a healing potion down Jharrath’s throat and then faces the male fighter again. Silently she sneaks towards him, moves behind him and comes out of her invisibility. In two well placed attacks, she kills her opponent.

Two new elementals come to Alvra’s aid – the fighter is definitely having a bad day. Together they finally manage to put his bastard sword wielding enemy down.

Silence returns, only disturbed by the panting of the Xaniqos siblings. Of the wounded cleric, not a sign.

Old Stinky’s Place

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Phaedra wakes up with the smell of meat in her nose. Finally the effects of the drow sleeping poison wear off. While she shares the plate with the wizard, Alvra brings her up to date. They follow the fellow’s instructions, taking the road towards Old Stinky’s Place. On their way, they meet an old man and woman.

“Better go inside,” they say, “there’s a storm brewing!”

Lilith and Alvra continue towards the inn, while the wizard follows. It is in bad shape, overgrown and full of moss. The fighter gazes through the blinds, crooked on their hinges. A fat man is serving behind the bar; two others are playing darts, but without the darts. At the far end, a drow —all dressed in black— is talking enthusiastically with two others. Jharrath notices that none present have shadows, except for their fellow dark elf.

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When the cleric steps inside, the drow man cowers a bit, trying to make himself inconspicuous. Alvra assesses the man’s skills.

“Now what can I do for you? Do you need food? A room?” Lilith looks at the broken stairs and then back at the bartender. The place is in shambles. “Just a drink for now.” She accepts a mug of ale.

“Why aren’t you at the party?”
“Because I don’t dance,” the drow cleric says sharply.

Her brother joins her and asks for food, whereupon the inn keeper offers him a plate of stew.

Alvra, who’s been keeping an eye on the unknown drow, notices that the guy only has eyes and ears for his sister. He hardly participates in his earlier conversations with the two humans. The fighter straightens –making his presence a bit more threatening– steps closer to the other male drow and asks,

“What brings you to Old Stinky’s Place?”
“I live here, further down the road. And you?”
“Ah, we’re just passing through.”
“Hmmm, yours seems to be a small group.”
“As far as you can see, yes.”
“You’re accompanied by a cleric, and your hungry friend over there is no fighter. Hmm, quite odd.”

Alvra ignores the remark.

“Why do you want to live above grounds?”
“Why not. Here I have everything I want. And it is one of the nicest villages around.”
“I don’t believe you, there must be something else.” Alvra stares at him.
“OK, let’s say it’s a lucrative environment.”
“By lucrative, you mean looting?”
“Yes, that too. But we’re also being conveniently spoiled by the former residents.”
“Why are they still here?”
“That’s because of the curse – I know the person who has delivered it. But we don’t exactly mind. In fact, it comes in quite handy.”
“What do you call yourself?”
“I’m Theo. What’s it to you?”
“Ah, so you are the joker! Ton mentioned you. Come on, let’s hear a good joke.”

Alvra stares at him expectantly. The other drow looks around, slightly baffled.

“I had no idea I was famous? But I don’t know any jokes.”

The fighter decides to throw in some bait.

“Do you know a drow female with a difficult name? Ton advised us to contact her.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you.”

And with a quick gesture, the drow drinks a potion and disappears. Alvra grabs his sword and swings it where the drow has been standing mere seconds ago. The two ghosts jump aside, startled and a bit scared.

Old Stinky speaks up.

“Hey! We do not tolerate this kind of behavior in my inn!”
“Do accept our apologies,” Alvra replies, “making trouble seems to be in our culture.”

His words restore a bit of the earlier amiability.

The younger Xaniqos sister has been scouting the surroundings, keeping to the bushes and greenery. On the other side of Old Stinky’s Place is a collapsed tower, also in a bad shape. Phaedra sees broken benches and a lot of rubble. She notices that several slabs of stone are deliberately positioned over the pieces of stone and mortar. When she sneaks inside, she sees two human guards patrolling the site. Could this be an entrance?

She heads back towards the inn entrance to rejoin the others, when suddenly she feels someone bump into her. She sees no one though. Acting immediately, she activates an ability and sees a strange drow taking off towards the stream.

An unexpected party

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With the wolves at a safe distance, the Xaniqos take a moment to catch their breath and heal themselves. Meanwhile the wind picks up and dark clouds roll across the sky. Big fat raindrops fall upon their upturned faces, while lightening etches paths of fire across the sky.

What sorcery is this?!

As in reply, a thunderclap echoes through the trees. When nothing bad seems to happen, they continue on their path through the dark forest. Her eyes on the tracks, the scouts follows the imprints. Hours pass, and the trees become less dense. A valley opens up and in the clearing, they see a big building with a thatched roof.

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There seems to be movement inside the barn. Phaedra signals the others to stop and keep their distance, but Alvra, intrigued by the new world that surrounds him, is oblivious to his sister’s sign. Lilith has to drag him back behind the tree cover.

The scout sneaks towards the shuttered window and takes a quick peek. Light and music spills from the structure, and people are dancing to merry music. Two drow are piling food on a cart. On her way back to report to her cleric sister, Phaedra sees people walking down the road towards the barn. They look like human farmers and speak common.

Hmm, it is strange that drow are mingling with humans,

Lilith says,

Go back and see if you can find out more.

Phaedra obeys and runs back to the barn under cover of the night. Another human nears the building, wearing armor. Is there a party going on? Suddenly she hears a male voice.

See you next time!

and a guy walks straight through the wall. The music swells and laughter roars through the night. Two more women approach and disappear into the house. The party is getting more boisterous by the minute.

It is a very weird house, and the wall seems to be fake!

Upon his sister’s words, Jharrath steps out from behind the trees and casts a spell to detect magic. Then he is spotted by a man who comes around the corner.

Hey, come inside! It’s cold out here and we’re waiting for you.

The guy gestures towards the building.

Come along now, it’s warm and cozy. The hostess has prepared a nice dinner, there’s lots of food and drink. Plus company!

The wizard tries to sense the guy’s motive and though he seems to be sincere, Jharrath still doesn’t trust the situation. The man is a bit too pushy towards a total stranger.

Yes yes, I’ll be along in a short while. I need to smoke a pipe first.

The two women who went inside earlier, step out with flushed faces.

Come on, dance with us! Don’t be so shy, we don’t see you enough!

And -overflowing with enthusiasm- they try to hook arms with the wizard. Too close to his liking, Jharrath teleports to a safe distance.

Wow, that is SO neat. Tricks! You just HAVE to show this to the others. You’re a pro, come on inside.

Alvra and Lilith are watching the spectacle from the edge of the forest, ready to intervene if necessary. Phaedra checks out the other side of the building and sees two drow, dressed in black, who are hauling a large bag onto a cart. One of them looks up and yells,

Who are you? Where do you come from?!

From the woods,

the scout replies, trying to sound nonchalant, but the two male take off at full speed. When Phaedra peeks into the bag, she sees lots of food: potatoes, cakes, fruit. She chases after them, but gets hit by two bolts. The last thing she hears before she becomes unconscious is “Take her!”. Drow knock-out poison works fast.

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Jharrath is close enough to see what happens to his sister. He immediately takes out a candle and walks towards the still form of Phaedra. The women grab him again, and because of the ongoing exorbitantly cheeriness, the wizard suspect an enchantment. The wizard summons a large elemental, and he orders it to pick up his sister and carry her towards the trees. Upon seeing the elemental, the drow in black run away.

The armored human takes out his sword and pokes Jharrath.

Come, you must help,

He hits Jharrath with the flat side of the sword; the blade is icy cold.

Take her inside!

The male is getting very insistent, and two more appear. The situation is getting grim. Lilith, who approaches at the first signs of trouble, notices that the human’s feet don’t leave any tracks and they feel unnatural. When Alvra pokes the shape with his finger, it goes straight through. The ‘humans’ move back into the house. What is going on here?

 

The Upper World

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With ‘Elliya Lolthu’ Lilith ends her reverie. They all feel better after resting a couple of hours, and the cleric is able to restore her brother’s strength. Jharrath identifies the spiked chain they found earlier as the ‘Living Chain’, a magic weapon that enhances the user’s ability to trip an opponent and hands it back to Phaedra. She stows it away for later use. After examining the portal, the wizard concludes that there’s no turning back at this point. The gateway is magically locked, and they need a specific object to unlock it. Over the portal is an insignia of a bat, could this be the domain of House Shi’quos? The only way to find out is to move forward.

The drow once again pass the fake wall, keeping an eye out for the aranea’s, but the room stays quiet. Another passage takes them into a corridor, which gradually slopes upward. As usual, Phaedra scouts ahead. Drafts are picking up and the temperature is dropping. After about an hour, they arrive at another wall. Phaedra concentrates and focuses her will in the firm believe that this wall is also an illusion. Without hesitation, she steps through…

…into a world that is alien to her. Her drow eyes are not used to the bright light -though it is only night- and she sees trees and ferns, insects and birds, the sky! She has never seen the likes in her whole life. Soon the others follow. They have arrived in a large coniferous forest. Mountains loom overhead and a light fog obscures their whereabouts. The Xaniqos siblings have reached the Upper World!

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It is cold, it’s bleak and damp. Everything seems to be constantly moving, and it is so open. The drow, used to the confinements of the Underdark, feel very exposed. Alvra turns and searches for landmarks. The portal is situated in a little nook of the mountain wall. He carves two circles in the bark of a pine that is standing in front of the portal, and Jharrath marks the cliff with an invisible mark. This way they can always recognize the entrance to their own world. With a quick step back through the portal the cleric makes sure their way to the Underdark is not blocked.

Three pairs of deep footprints can be seen in the marshy ground. Whoever they are following must be heavily armored. Lilith speaks in a hushed voice,

These tracks are the only clue we have and we can’t go back. Sister, lead on and let’s hurry!

The Xaniqos set out into the forest, with Phaedra tracking ahead. All are on high alert. The silence of the Underdark is only a memory. There are lots of unfamiliar sounds; crows shriek, insects buzz and the wind howls through the trees. Silently they pass through the trees, silent as ghosts.

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Suddenly all sounds stop. The scout freezes, trees surrounding her on all sides. In the eerie atmosphere, a different kind of howling arises. Wolves! She runs full back full speed to warn the others, while the howling comes ever closer. Lilith casts a mass shield of faith and together they wait, taking cover behind the trees. The wizard summons two earth elementals, just in case. Then a huge antlered dire elk comes crashing through the undergrowth. Hunted by a pack of wolves, it tramples over one of the elementals, destroying it in the process. With a mighty bound, it leaps clear of the mess and runs on. The dire wolves, large, skinny and very hungry, turn towards the new and perhaps easier prey. But they might be mistaken…

The pack attacks, biting and tripping, while the Xaniqos fight back with sword, flail, spiked chain and spells. A large elemental, summoned by Jharrath, joins their defenses. Phaedra drives her opponent mad by repeatedly teleporting out of harms way. Teeth and weapons draw blood. When two dire wolves go down, the silhouette of huge new wolf appears on the edge of the fighting scene. It throws back its head and howls, command in its voice. The others immediately heed the alpha’s call and tactically retreat, though they never stray far from the drow.

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Looks can be deceiving

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The siblings feel the spider toxin course through their bodies, but are able to suppress the effects. The scout searches the cave and finds two pouches underneath a web: one with three hundred gold pieces and the other with two beautiful gems. The black opal and the topaz must be worth at least a thousand gold pieces! A mighty composite short bow is also part of the loot.

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Amalica

 

Then Phaedra hears the fading sound of heavy boots. Amalica is getting away! She approaches the wall where the bebiliths first appeared and sticks her head through without hesitation. When spiders can walk through walls, so can she. On the other side, the Despana female -her face contorted with hatred- makes an exit. Spiderwebs and junk litter the area.

Suddenly sobbing fills the silence.

“This sucks!”

It sounds like a woman in distress.

Jharrath strides to the other side of the illusionary wall. A female drow is pounding the floor, hitting it with frustration. Her clothes are nondescript, a rapier next to her. With tears in her eyes, she sobs:

“I’m betrayed on all sides.”

“What is wrong, milady?”

the drow asks, but the crying only gets worse.

When Lilith steps through the wall to join the wizard, she almost gets stuck in a web. Jharrath looks up and from the corner of his eye sees a humanoid form dangling from the ceiling. His eyes widen in alarm: it’s an aranea! All pretense is gone, and while the spider-like foe jumps down towards Lilith and attacks her with its rapier, the ‘woman’ -tears dried- changes into her spider form and lashes out towards the male drow. Jharrath conjures an elemental and counterattacks, while the cleric hits the aranea repeatedly and successful with her flail. She manages to evade the creature’s weapon and bite. Her brother is not that fortunate and takes a nasty bite in the shoulder. To prevent any further damage, he casts a spell which makes his contours blurry.

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Alvra, also caught in the web that’s covering the entrance, manages to cut himself loose and witnesses how the aranea -wounded by the cleric- flees the cave in full retreat. His reflexes kick in and he swings his sword towards the creature, while his sister puts her flail to good work. A javelin sails after it as a parting gift.

The second aranea, hit by the wizard’s ray of clumsiness, Lilith’s flail and the elemental’s pounding, also climbs towards safety and together the creatures disappear. Jharrath is feeling weaker by the minute. The party moves back to the first cave to tend to their wounds and the drow decide to spend the night under Phaedra’s watchful eyes.