Tuesday, September 22, 2009

SESSION SIXTEEN "Death at the Grotto"

As the heroes race down the steep tailing piles of the old mine they quickly piece together a plan to get back to the grotto as quickly as possible. Rory casts a Levitation spell on himself and Tristan as Ewald puts his new Airwalk spell to use. Under the effects of the Levitation, Tristan hangs tight to Gruff's back as Gruff races with Trulla agility down the mountain trail. Rory hangs tight to Ewald, who while not as quick as Gruff, has the significant advantage of running unimpeded across thin air. In this fashion they make excellent time back to the grotto, reaching it in a record quarter candle.

Just upriver of the falls, the party regroups and moves forward at a more cautious pace. No more horns have sounded since the first two warnings nearly fifteen minutes earlier. Weapons are drawn as the group moves quietly from brush to boulder. Before the grotto comes into view they are able to hear a loud splash and crack, like huge rocks smacking against one another while crashing into the pools.

Before they can get close enough to see, there's an ugly growl and two shapes emerge from the brush to the left of the trail. Weapons are raised in defense as the party sees a pair of the nastiest undead hounds they've ever laid eyes on careening toward them. The beasts have putrid flesh hanging from their large frames. The bone of their unnaturally elongated snouts actually jut through the flesh of their face, somehow warped by foul magic to be even bigger and more full of razor teeth. The mouths on these things are easily capable of taking a hand in one solid bite.

Thankfully Gruff is ready and prepared for this threat. Though obviously startled, he has the presence of mind to raise his sword before him. "Ancestors and Gods of light ward us! Culan smite you!" With the words the area directly before him takes on a pearly clarity that spreads in a wave toward the hounds of death. A cold mountain winds whips past Gruff and flows over the creatures, turning one to dust and sending the other howling back toward the grotto in uncontrollable fear.

"That'll warn them I'm afraid," Gruff says with anger.

Any lingering doubts the heroes had about what the emergency might be are now gone. With such unholy creatures about, it can only be truly dire in the grotto.

Sure enough, it's only moments more before they see the first Trulla warrior, sprawled awkwardly in death upon the trail. Hot on the heels of this discovery a deep, powerful voice comes from the grotto, speaking in Knockfar, which Ewald translates for the others. "Magdar, take your men and check on that!"

Now the group veers off the trail, opting to look down into the grotto from the small cliff overhanging it's western edge. Using all the stealth they can muster (a certain Kirith-Syvani even cloaked in invisibility), they approach the edge and look down at the falls and pools onto a massacre.

From their vantage it's easy to see that Billy and the other Trulla were taken by surprise. Six more Trulla corpses litter the ground around the pools edge. On the narrow beach on the eastern side twelve armored Hodra warriors move cautiously toward the base of the waterfall. Their wicked hooked broadswords readied. On the south end the of the pool, a dozen Daagar warriors mill about, making their way toward the west trail and the party's position. Leading this group are four more of the Death hounds, straining at thick leather leashes.

But above and beyond all this, what draws everyone's eye is the source of the deep, commanding voice. Standing thigh deep in the pool, one man-sized boulder in hand, is the biggest Kuldan they have ever seen. And to make matters worse, it appears the thirteen foot ogre is undead. His flesh is sagging around his eyes, which look yellow and pupiless, and a loose flap of bloodless skin hangs from his jaw.

In spite of the creature's lifeless looking eyes, he apparently has very good eyesight and quickly spots Ewald hunkered low behind a rock. Pulling a gnarled wand from his belt, he sends a greasy line of necrotic energy across the pool, striking Ewald dead center and sending the Durin priest writhing to the ground.

Rory wastes no time in returning fire with his newest, hottest spell. A thin trail of smoke flies from his hand as a tiny, bright ball of fire streaks unerringly toward the massive Kuldan and explodes in a huge fireball over the pool's surface. Rising from the water, the Kuldan undead cries out in pain and anger, but unfortunately seems to be still quite full of pep and vigor.

As Tristan moves away from the cliff and toward the oncoming Daagar, Gruff eyes the narrow passage leading behind the falls and the Hodra advancing toward it. This sight combined with the fact that Billy's body can't be seen, leads Gruff to believe that his brother might still be alive and cornered behind the falls. Consigning himself once more into the god's care, he launches himself down the cliff and lands in the shallows of the pool, much to the shock and disbelief of the now visible, but still well hidden Rory.

The four hounds are let loose at about the same time that the Kuldan commands his troops to, "Beware the mage! Split up you fools!" He then sends a second bolt of energy from his wand that staggers Gruff.

The Daagar and the Hodra listen to their commander and break up into smaller groups.

Tristan braces himself as the dogs quickly close with him and he is encircled in a deadly cloud of snapping jaws.

Ewald staggers to his feet, still enfeebled by the wand, but able to rise and airwalk toward Tristan, ready to aid his friend against the hounds.

Fearing that his nicely bunched targets may soon scatter, Rory quickly sends another fireball coursing across the pool and past the Kuldan toward the Hodra. He catches six of the knockfar warriors in this second blast, utterly vaporizing one and turning four more into burning piles of armor and flesh. Only one is lucky enough to dive into the water and avoid the fire.

Unlike Ewald, Gruff is able to quickly shake off the worst of the wand's effects. With purposeful strides he moves along the pools edge toward the undead Kuldan ogre. Before the giant enemy is able to bring the wand up again Gruff raises his sword and once more calls on Culan and his ancestors, "By Culan's Balls May death reclaim you!"

The turning, while somewhat unorthodox in wording, is very effective. The same clarifying wind blows across the grotto pool and into the Kuldan abomination's face. With a terrified cry the lumbering enemy's smile melts into a look of pure terror. With a speed and agility that belies both his size and undead condition he turns and heads straight for the low east cliff of the grotto, obviously very frightened of Culan's balls smiting him down.

As Tristan and Ewald continue to battle the dogs, and the Daagar load crossbows and prepare to fire on them, Rory sends a third fireball into the Kuldan's fleeing backside. The flames wash over his armor and burn his flesh, but again he weathers the attack, before finally gaining purchase on the rock-face and fleeing into the trees, screaming all the way.

Both Rory and Gruff notice with some annoyance and dread that three of the smoldering, fireballed Hodra warriors stir and rise, parts of them nothing more than blackened bone. Tally a few more undead horrors for the enemy.

Though Tristan has managed to put down one of the dogs, the heavy brush proves difficult to fight in, and he has taken one nasty wound to the face. The largest of the death hounds is also giving Ewald a very tough time, even though the Durin is able to fight four feet off the ground. When the Daagar group into a fighting line and finally send a volley of crossbow bolts toward them, Tristan and Ewald grow very concerned.

That concern proves unnecessary however when the fifth and final fireball of the battle detonates in the center of the tightly packed (despite their commander's thoughtful warning), disciplined Daagar battle line. Only two out of twelve Daagar manage to avoid the worst of the blast. Of the rest, those not killed outright are sent screaming and on fire into the woods, never to be seen or heard from again. Those two survivors recover rather quickly however, and Rory sees murder in their eyes as they scream and charge the mage.

Another of the dogs is ended with a head severing blow from Tristan as Rory confounds the two pissed off Daagar with a hasty Invisibility spell. Gruff engages several of the undead hodra warriors before trying a third and final turning, with far less success. Still, the sight of the other Hodra advancing under the waterfall and Cheg's scream is enough to motivate Gruff into a quick dash toward his clansman and hopefully brother.

A Hodra warrior comes sailing out of the falls and into the pool, proving to Gruff that someone still lives and fights back there.

As Ewald, Tristan and Rory continue their battle with the hounds and two remaining Daagar, Gruff finally gets under the falls. He is greeted by the sight of his brother, critically injured with Cheg standing defiantly over him and being swarmed by six undead hodra. The six quickly become five as Gruff puts his horns to good use and sends one the enemy sailing through the falls with a broken back. Another is cut down by Cheg before a hooked sword finds it's way into the brave Trulla's neck.

When the remaining Hodra enter the fray Gruff's hatred keeps him fighting against horrible odds. He is poked time and again by small wounds. Both sides slip and slide on the moss covered stones. Cheg spends the last of his life saving Gruff by grabbing the leg of a Hodra before slipping beneath the falls. Pressed by four hodra warriors, Gruff grows desperate and thinks, "Gavin! If ever I needed your aid it is now!"

The old seer's voice replies, "Use a gem and say these words." as a spell forms in Gruff's mind. Casting his shield down Gruff reaches for a gem and mutters the spell. Thick tendrils of shadow emerge from the rocks at the feet of the Hodra. Before they can react, two of the undead creatures are enmeshed in shadowy tentacles that smother, then crush them. With horrible suddenness they implode in a spray of flesh and bone, leaving Gruff with two assailants.

Backed up nearly on top of his dying brother, Gruff fights on desperately, now shieldless, against opponents that seem not to tire. Outside and above the grotto, Tristan and the others are just finishing off their opponents. With a herculean blow, Gruff nearly bisects one of his remaining opponents. Unfortunately, this ties up his sword for just a moment too long. As he pulls the blade free, he feels a warm wetness in his midsection. Looking down, he sees with disbelief the blade of the last hodra sunk deep in his own body. Though he tries to raise his sword, he next finds himself laying atop his brother, and then finds only blackness...

Rory, Tristan and Ewald soon deduce Gruff's destination. By the waterfall they engage the three remaining Hodra that were knocked into the water earlier. With heavy hearts they step behind the falls and find Gruff and his brother, first thinking them dead.

A quick inspections proves them both still clinging to life. As Tristan watches the entrance, Ewald and Rory tend to the brothers. Gruff's wound is very bad, but fresh, a few minutes later their expert ministrations have staunched the worst of the bleeding. Billy's chest wound is worse, and though they patch it up, his prospects are far more grim.

And speaking of grim prospects...

Everyone but Gruff and Billy, who remain peacefully unconscious, jump at the loud and immediate sound of someone heavy and pissed landing in the shallows of the grotto outside. "AAAAAAGHHHHHHHRRRRWWW!" There seems little hope that it's anyone other than everyone's favorite undead Kuldan commander, finally back from his hysterical jog through the mountains.

Battered, bruised, depleted and freshly down from their adrenaline highs our heroes share a look that speaks volumes.


Saturday, September 19, 2009


As spring slowly comes to the highest reaches of the Argons, our heroes' tired bodies rest and mend. The occasional burst of eldritch fire comes from Rory's chambers as evidence that he's increasing his magical might. Tristan spars with Gruff and the other Trulla warriors. He and Rory also accompany the Trulla hunters on some short expeditions to replenish the food stores. Ewald's days are largely filled with study and meditation, as he seeks to master a powerful new prayer. The Durin diplomat spends some time speaking with Billy and the others around the fire most nights, attempting to bridge the chasm of racial animosity between Durin and Trulla.

Ewald is also befriended by a shy, strange little Trulla girl named Teega, who for some reason chooses him to latch on to. Over the intervening weeks he learns that Teega is shunned by the other villagers due to her odd behavior. It seems the girl claims to see spirits and ghosts and doesn't get along well with the other Trulla children. Her parents were both killed in the raid on Namichek. Her attachment to Ewald doesn't cause much concern among the people and despite his initial gruff nature, Ewald grows fond of the orphan.

Gruff spends a great deal of time reacquainting himself with his clan and brother. It soon becomes plain that Billy has subtly fallen in the eyes of his people. Billy's handicap has dimmed the once bright spark of leadership in his eyes. Gruff watches with growing anger and helplessness as his brother's wives and warriors pile one small slight after another onto their leader. Many nights the others think they hear Gruff talking to himself, even arguing with himself, but none question the strange behavior.

On a night not long after Ewald first demonstrates his ability to Airwalk in the skies outside the village, Billy calls for a special feast in the cavern hall. A dark meat is served for dinner, to the obvious surprise and delight of the clan. Gruff winces inwardly as Billy is casually denied by his wives the first serving, a Trulla leaders traditional right. the meat is called Mossbelly, and is apparently a delicacy. It's soon learned that Mossbelly are huge, river salamanders. Ewald loves the stuff. Tristan doesn't. But since they are seated next to each other, a deft slide from one plate to the other resolves the problem nicely.

The food seems to perk up Billy's spirits. Gruff, Cheg and Billy reminisce about long ago mossbelly fishing trips, and the hunt for the elusive "grandfather mossbelly". In a moment of exuberance Billy decides he'd like to go on Mossbelly fishing trip. While Gruff is glad to see his brother happy, he disagrees, and thinks that now is the time to plan specifically for the future. "We must do something to fight the growing influence of the Hodra and Daagar tribes in the area! A fishing trip is not important right now brother."

In the conversation that follows the old dead Seer's apprentice, Thonos, argues that the Trulla do not need the help of outsiders. Ewald tentatively suggests that the Durin of Steel Mountain might be amenable to an alliance. Tristan says the same of his father's clans (though inwardly he is more doubtful). Gruff and Thonos exchange harsh words. Gruff thinks the man is a stubborn ass who would rather see his people suffer than accept outside aid. Billy eventually sides with his brother that the Trulla clan must seek aid outside the clan, but first they must try again to reach their kinsmen to the southeast. He is however, stubbornly adamant that before all this, he'll go Mossbelly hunting, and that is that.

The fishing trip is scheduled for three days later. This intervening time is used to rig up the contraption that will lower Billy down the cliffs. The next day during sparring, Gruff is sickened further when Billy's lovely wife, Zeela, subtly shows her interest in him. When she arrives later that night at his private quarters with food and beverage he takes the tray and quickly slams the door in her face, making his feelings plain. The old Shadow seer, Gavin, explains that he can help Gruff teach the woman a lesson, but Gruff opts instead to go speak with his brother.

Once face to face with Billy, Gruff begs his brother to come with him to the Healing springs. It seems the best way to restore his honor and bring strength back to the clan. Though Billy can't deny that the offer is tempting, and lets Gruff know he is very aware of the slights going on around him, he eventually convinces Gruff that such a trip into the heart of Blackback lands would be too dangerous. If both Billy and Gruff were killed, their people would have no one but Thonos to lead them. He does agree to go with Gruff after their people are safe, and with that Gruff must be satisfied.

Meanwhile the little girl Teega comes to Ewald with word that one of the Trulla elders, a woman known as Old Belza, has "gone over". The old woman is familiar to everyone and has been seen tottering around the village by each of them at one time or another. "Gone over" is the term used when a trulla has died, many times literally by falling over the edge of the cliffs. Ewald and the others learn from Gruff that Trulla traditions say the body cannot be touched or interacted with in any way. It is believed that the spirit is busy moving on, and to give attention to the body might disturb it or call it back from the ancestors.

The next night Teega comes to Ewald again, this time telling him that there are ghosts in the village. She shyly asks if he would like to come see them. Though Ewald is somewhat dubious, the little girl is obviously very excited, and he decides to humor her. Overhearing the conversation, Rory can't help but tag along. A short, but harrowing trip across rope bridges and switchbacks in the dark brings them to a higher area of the village. Teega excitedly points out a spot above a house and both Rory and Ewald peer into the darkness.

It's too dark for Ewald to see anything but Rory's Syvani eyes pierce the gloom much better. While he doesn't see anything initially where Teega is pointing, he does spot an unsettling shadow further out on the cliff face. Careful not to give any outward sign of noticing he looks more intensely and realizes with some dread that the figure looks to be Old Belza, clinging with strength and grace to a rock wall that would have been completely beyond her two days ago - before her supposed death.

Rory casually mentions the figure to Ewald and Teega. While Ewald still can't see anything, Teega does give a start when she sees Old Belza too. With far less subtlety, she whispers, "It's Old Belza! Not just her spirit, but her!" and points. With that the figure stirs and quickly retreats across the cliffs and out of sight.

Thoroughly spooked, the three quickly make their way back to their quarters where they share the info with Tristan and Gruff. Gruff passes along the information to the night sentries, suggesting that the watches be doubled and offering to take a watch himself. Despite the extra eyes and ears, no one sees or hears anything, and the night passes uneventfully.

In the morning the mossbelly trip is set to depart. Gruff and Rory examine the area where Old Belza was supposedly hanging from and do manage to find a couple gray hairs caught in the rocks, but no other signs. A complicated contraption of ropes and pullies has been assembled at the cliff's edge and Billy is lowered carefully down while Rory and Tristan levitate, Ewald Airwalks and the rest of the Trulla warriors skip down in true Trulla fashion.

At the base of the cliffs, the four adventurers search out Old Belza's body. While Gruff is loathe to go too near it, Tristan and the others examine it close enough to tell it is the old woman. While the body is still mostly in one piece, it is quite dead and doesn't appear upon quick inspection to have moved since it fell. Resigning themselves to a mystery unanswered they move on at Gruff's insistence.

Hauling Billy's huge weight slows the trip, even with the aid of Rory's Floating disk spell. Still their river destination isn't too far from Selghaven and a little before noon the group has set up a daycamp in a beautifully secluded river grotto complete with a rushing waterfall and deep, cold pools. Everyone takes turns tickling for Mossbellies. It's not long before Cheg pulls out a nice four foot rock gray salamander with a smooth, speckled green belly and small, sharp teeth. Gruff tries his hand and comes up with a smaller specimen which he throws back and a larger one which gets added to the day's take. Billy seems quite at home in the water and seems to very much enjoy the freedom of movement the weightless environment affords him.

As the group pulls out snacks and drinks Billy mentions an old collapsed Durin mine located a little further upstream that he and Gruff used to visit when they were younglings. When the other Trulla return to the water for more fishing, Ewald convinces Gruff, Rory and Tristan to go check out the mine, unable to pass up the opportunity to investigate a possible claim.

A short, difficult hike brings them to the old mine. Tristan scans the outsides for signs of danger and only finds some old bear scat and a few bleached bones. Ewald examines the cave in and tells the group the mine was intentionally collapsed and should be excavatable with a few candles of digging or one expert use of a Stone shape prayer. Realizing they wouldn't be able to drag Ewald away from the mine even if they wanted to, the group decides to give it a quick look-see before heading back to the others.

One Durin prayer and half a candle later the group finds themselves, lightstone in hand, once more underground following Ewald through subterranean passages. Unlike the Darkurth realms these passages are obviously Durin-made. A mine track runs down the main passage complete with an old cart they passed just inside the entrance. Several side passages end in tapped out gold veins. Just as the group is beginning to get bored with it all, Tristan smells a slightly disturbing aroma.

"I smell snakes."

Everyone takes a moment to process this information and weapons are drawn before the group moves forward cautiously. A little further ahead the passage drops into a lower chamber. At the opening to this chamber the group spots the reflected glow of their light from a pile of dark jewels piled just inside the chamber. Rory is the only one that sees them for what they truly are and shouts a warning just as the slumbering, twenty foot snake, with glistening black scales rises up and strikes at Ewald.

Ewald shouts out, "Cave Adder!" narrowly dodging the vipers quick strike and brandishing his weapon in a defensive posture. Further back in line, Gruff wastes no time in calling out a prayer to his ancestors and sending a a glowing spiritual blade spinning toward the giant snake. The attack is as deadly as it is quick. The spiritual weapon neatly slices through the neck of the beast, five feet below the head, leaving the body and head to both writhe and twitch a bit before lying still. As quick as the encounter began, it's over.

As Gruff and Tristan are deciding how best to skin the beast, and whether or not they should milk the fangs for the potent venom, Ewald and Rory check out the rest of the passage. A few feet beyond the snakes layer, Ewald finds what he expected to find, a slanted air-shaft leading presumably to the surface. In a moment of quiet, as he's peering up into the shaft, he and Rory are surprised to hear the distant sound of a Trulla battle horn.

"Everyone be quiet! Listen!"

As the others strain to hear, the horn sounds again, striking immediate fear into Gruff's heart. With barely a thought spared for the snake skin the group grabs up their gear and rushes back through the mine for the outside, Gruff leading the way. All thoughts are bent on the possible danger facing Billy and the Trulla warriors back in the grotto. It took the group nearly an hour to reach the mine from the pools. They will have to move fast if they wish to save anyone!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Having carefully transported their critically injured Trulla companion, the heroes set up camp in the disgusting but warm cave of the now boilt-dead Ettin. As Ewald tends to Gruff, Rory and Tristan search the Ettin's warren. Rory quickly ferrets out the Ettin's treasure, crudely hidden under a heavy stone and some moldy furs. It includes a tidy pile of coins (both Rhis and Punt) and a small metal box with twelve finely crafted gems. He also finds an oilskin scroll case, which, much to his delight, contains several arcane spells. Reading material for later.

In another room of the cave, Tristan discovers a large pile of bloody, discarded armor and a smaller but still significant pile of rusty weapons that failed to serve their owners well enough, but might make due for the group. He spends the next hour sorting out the good from the bad. In the end he comes away with a enough weapons and armor to outfit the entire group. His best find by far is a finely crafted broadsword complete with fine knotwork engravings and gems in the pommel and guard. The complete lack of corrosion and razored edge are enough hint that the blade is special. As an added bonus, he discovers a shiny bronze ring etched with runes that feels warm in the hand.

After rejoining the others and passing out the weapons and armor Tristan goes out to finally track and kill some food. Rory sits down to study the ring, passed to him by Tristan for that purpose and Ewald sets to repairing, cleaning and sharpening the armor and weapons, including a surprisingly good Hodran greataxe that by it's quality seems to have been a warchieftian's weapon. Both men occasionally check on Gruff, who's condition seems to be worsening as he slips in and out of consciousness.

Gruff's pain is nearly too much to bear. Any movement sends fresh waves of agony, but sleep seems to be beyond his reach. Though he can't be sure at first if it's hallucination, he has the most interesting experience...

Through bleary eyes he wakes and sees that he is alone in the cavern. In the greasy torchlight he sees the shadowy entrance and a form taking shape there. Moments later, a tall and grizzled old Trulla Shaman stands before him. In the man's hands is a massive and twisted staff, capped with an assortment of animal horns and bones. Though the Trulla seems ancient, he also seems strong and his gaze is piercing as he eyes Gruff and steps up next to him.

"You did well out there young buck. This old Seer is proud of you."

Gruff is understandably confused and at first makes no reply. Eventually, when the old trulla refuses to disappear, he asks, "Who are you?"

"I am Seer Gavin. I have come to aid you if I can, if you'll have my aid. You defeated the beast that defiled this holy place, and for that I would reward you." With these words the old shaman reaches down and lays a hand on Gruff, immediately easing the pain, at least temporarily.

In the conversation that follows, Gruff learns that the hot springs were once a holy site of the Trulla people. The waters here healed, before the Ettin's Grandfather came and corrupted them. Seer Gavin offers to help heal Gruff if he can get his friends to help cleanse the waters. He spends the next little while teaching Gruff the directions to some pools deep in the caves that can partially restore him. Once that's done, he can cleanse the main pool and fully heal himself. Or so he promises. Though Gruff's nature causes him to be wary, he goes along.

When Tristan returns at dusk, he does so bearing meat in the form of a hefty mountain sheep, much to the delight of his hungry companions. Rory passes along what he knows of the ring, having remembered some old arcana and referred to his father's tome. The ring was forged by elemental beings called the Fire Lords on the elemental plane of fire, Piara Tinis. By speaking the command word three times, one can call forth a being of fire to serve you. There were several rings forged and given to mortals who served the Fire Lords. The creature summoned would be a warrior obedient to the summoner.

The lecture is interrupted however when Gruff awakens, spouting out a series of directions. "Left, Left, Straight, Right, Up and Right, forty paces and down..." Though Ewald first thinks them fevered ramblings, Rory eventually writes them down. Gruff then explains what he has learned and tells them they must take him to where he can be healed before passing out once more. Though the group is suspicious, Ewald judges that Gruff will die in the night without some kind of miracle. It is decided to take Gruff deeper into the caves in hopes that his story is true.

Strapping Gruff to a crude gurney of sticks and skins, they place it atop one of Rory's handy floating disks and set off. They arrive at their destination a short while later. Clean pools, untouched by the Ettin's (since the passages are far too small) can be seen here. Gruff is awakened by Seer Gavin, who appears to be standing next to Tristan and the others. "Gruff, you must use one of the gems now. The gems you found earlier. They have power within them Gruff. When I tell you, drop the gem into the pool and I will heal you."

This of course makes Gruff even more suspicious. The gems the old Seer speaks of are the dark jewels Gruff found in the Daagar Sorcerer's room. The gems kept under the somewhat sinister looking dark statue of a Shadowy God. But he IS in a great deal of pain, and this IS one of his people speaking to him. As Gruff looks at the pools, he sees Trulla carvings in the wall and his fears are dampened. It appears this is a Trulla holy site after all. When the others aren't watching, Gruff deftly retrieves a jewel from his loincloth and drops it into the water.

Moments later, Rory utters a spell and proclaims that the pool is indeed magical. They carefully lower Gruff into the water and wait. Gruff drifts as Seer Gavin spends the time chanting in low, prayer-like tones. Ewald monitors Gruff’s condition and can see that he is improving. After an hour or so in the pool, the magic wanes and Gruff is greatly restored. Seer Gavin reminds Gruff that to fully restore him, the main pool must be cleansed.

Once more in the Ettin’s cave, the party sits down to their first good meal in a long while. Gruff is able to sip some broth and hobble about the cave (a vast improvement). He’s also able to sulk a bit about all the good loot being taken. After polishing up a good two-handed sword and refitting some armor he and Ewald decide to go through the weapons once more, this time using detection spells to make sure nothing magical was missed. There’s a scramble and short wrestling match when they both discover a shimmering dagger under a pile of old leather. Alas, Gruff’s injuries keep him from this prize too, though Ewald offers to trade it for something else of value. More grumbling ensues.

Rory and Tristan discuss the ring and decide to chance summoning the elemental, just to see what they have. There’s a flash and a bang and then from the fire emerges a four foot, lithe female with bronze wings and flaming red hair. Over her shoulders are slung two thin, Kris swords and a bandoleer of throwing knives. Her red tinged skin glows slightly. She is extremely hyper as she buzzes around the cavern.

A short conversation reveals her name to be something unpronounceable that sounds like a roaring campfire. The group decides to call her Ember. She tells Rory that she is of the Piara Forisi and is one of the Fire Lord’s best scouts. In exchange for the ability to once again walk the middle realm she will serve Rory until such time as her Lord calls her away. Then she refuses to leave. And she talks a lot. And sometimes sets things on fire. But she’s nice.

In the morning, Seer Gavin returns, telling Gruff that it is time for his full healing and the cleansing of the main pool. Much to the group’s disgust, this means they have to actually remove the boiled Ettin and various other, unrecognizable chunks of flesh from the hot spring. After a few minutes poking around with spears Ember comes to the rescue, offering to get rid of everything from the pool.

The group takes cover, far back from the spring as Ember sticks her hands into the already boiling water and concentrates. It takes time, but eventually the pool begins to boil at an even more rapid rate and soon begins steaming aggressively. Soon Ember and the spring can’t even be seen through the hissing steam cloud. Rory actually passes out from the heat before Tristan can drag him further away. When all is said and done, and the steaming stops, every last bit of contaminant in the pool has been burned away, along with most of the water.

As the spring slowly refills, Seer Gavin explains that Gruff needs to covertly drop another of the magic gems into the spring to get it functioning. Since the others are mostly looking after the still unconscious Rory it's easy to do. A few more muttered prayers from the old seer and then Gruff gingerly enters the pool. It has somehow been made cool enough to enter, but Gavin warns Gruff that the pool will only function for Trulla, since this is a Trulla holy place. If Gruff thinks the logic is anything other than sound, he is quickly too "immersed" in the good feelings of healing to care.

Having no further reason to stay at the pools, the group soon packs up and heads out, using Ember as an extremely useful, if somewhat conspicuous, flying scout. Despite the fire spirit's comet-like flight (or perhaps because of it) the group encounters no further travel woes. Two days of hard walking finds them quickly approaching Gruff's home, the village of Namichek. Rory's ever-helpful levitation spells get the party up the very vertical, very high cliffs. Gruff is obviously worried due to the fact that no sentries were encountered.

The village is a sprawling, cliff-side network of narrow rope bridges and switchback rock ledges interspersed with caves and cleverly constructed stone buildings. It's also completely deserted. After Gruff leads the group to what passes for the village square, a wide ledge on the edge of an equally wide mouthed cave, he quickly explores the rest of the village, affirming that it is indeed empty. Tristan takes the opportunity to look around, discovering some signs of a fire, and a few very old patches of dried blood. He also finds a few old leather remnants and some metal harness rings. Ewald identifies them as Durin climbing harnesses.

Gruff then finds a Trulla rune scrawled on a cave wall and explains that it is a trail sign branding the village "compromised". He surmises that those of his people that survived the attack on Namichek fled to one of two possible smaller holdings even further up in the mountain range. It's huddled near the fire, a broken Durin climbing harness clutched in his meaty paws, that Gruff tells Ewald he owes the Durin a Life debt. Though he is bound by honor to travel with the group until he can repay his debt, he asks that they first find his people and see that they are safe before leading them home.

Ewald and the others agree to help him. The old Durin and the others even offer to return some day to the Darkurth realms to put an end to Queen Meevey and her grove. Ember curls up in the fire to sleep, complaining that it's the only place even nominally warm enough. Alone but for the howling of the mountain winds outside the party talks and reminisces before finally settling in.

In the morning, Rory is somewhat surprised to find Tristan frozen stiff with fear, halfway across a nearby rope bridge and clutching the ropes with utter dread. Once he's carefully pried loose and taken back to the cave, he explains that while on morning watch and searching for more clues, he was suddenly overcome with the sheer height and precariousness of it all and experienced a strong case of vertigo. Gruff and Ember both shake their heads at the absurdity of it all but both graciously offer to carry Tristan down. Rory's method proves more palatable to the ranger however, and one blindfold and delicate Levitation spell later he is safely upon terra firma once more.

Again the group heads upwards, further into the Argon range. They camp and are up at first light, traveling most of the next day as well. In the afternoon of that second day they come upon a Trulla sentry near what Gruff explains is the Trulla cliff fort they are searching for. After a quick conversation and reunion, for it's obvious that Cheg the sentry and Gruff are old friends, Gruff introduces his companions and they proceed to the fort. The look that passes over Cheg's bearded face at sight of Ewald is not missed by anyone. Ewald has a chance to wonder exactly how he will be received.

Though inside it turns Tristan slightly to jelly, he manages to make it up the cliff with Rory's aid and into the narrow chimney of stone that hides this even higher Trulla redoubt. Unlike Namichek, this smaller holding is crowded with Trulla warriors, women and children. They all gawk at the strangers and many stare with open malice at Ewald though he tries to ignore it. The group is led into the main cave, for much to Tristan's relief a large portion of this holding is within caves, and before a massive, blonde furred Trulla warrior.

The warrior is seated before a large fire, his legs covered with a woolen blanket. On each side a female serves him drink and food. Other warriors are seated near the fire. He smiles warmly at sight of Gruff. "BROTHER! It is good to see you! Come sit by the fire and tell us of your adventures!" Gruff responds in kind, but notes with some dismay that his brother, Billy, does not rise or make any use of his legs.

Over a warm meal and strong liquor made of goat's milk the group is told of how Namichek was surprised and overrun more than a year ago by a large army of Hodra and Kuldan with the aid of sorcery and Durinmade climbing harnesses. It was in this battle that Billy was wounded by one of the Kuldan and lost the use of his legs. The greatest of their healers was killed as well, along with many of their clan. The survivors fled here, to Selghaven.

Twice in the times since, Billy has sent scouts to try and reach the other clan of Trulla far to the south, but neither has returned. It appears that the Blackback tribe of Hodra has grown quite strong. The group tells Billy about the Daagar connection with the Blackbacks. Gruff also tells Billy about the holy springs to the west, hoping their magics might heal his brother. Billy seems doubtful and resigned to his condition.

It quickly becomes obvious that Billy is interested in passing on the mantle of leadership to Gruff, leaving the Trulla adventurer in somewhat of a predicament. Ember, after causing quite a stir around the Trulla begs leave of Rory to return to her own planes for a spell. Rory is happy to oblige, for even though Ember has calmed and become easier to get along with, she is still taxing on the nerves, and Rory has been overtired of late.

Two weeks pass in Selghaven. While spring settles on the high mountains and the worst of the snows begin to melt, the adventurers settle in for a well deserved rest. Though Ewald is far from comfortable amongst his people's ancient enemies, Billy has passed word that Ewald is a friend. Rory quickly recovers his health and wind, finally settling down to study and write in his father's spellbook. Tristan keeps mostly to the insides of Selghaven, devising possible plans to reach the Trulla clan to the Southeast with Billy, Gruff and Ewald. In the back of his mind, Tristan knows their mistress is probably looking for them and the Staff Rory still carries.