War of the Burning Sky

Session XLII

16 Aurorsmoon 459

“The food is poisoned… and the Book is missing!”

All activity in the king’s banquet hall ceased utterly as the pronouncement rang through the halls. Steppengard rose slowly to his feet, his face darkening as silverware was hastily lowered throughout the chamber. A quiet sob emerged from somewhere amongst the nobles, and a low murmur started to spread. All eyes were on the main entrance, where the guards were parting reluctantly to allow their harbinger to pass. Jasmine worked her way into the room, her eyes taking in everything at a glance. Joshua was only seconds behind, and she was intent on distracting anyone from noticing his weakened condition. There had been apparitions in the cemetery. Joshua had drawn them to him to spare his companions their deadly touch, while Jasmine and Elessar dealt with zombies in the tunnel. The encounter had left the priest even weaker than before.

The king was here, of course, as was the duke and his champion. At Elessar’s side, Dani looked around in confusion. Between the two, Charmalina’s eyes were shining, her bloodlust already beginning to rise in anticipation of the fight to come. There were no Ragesians, of course. They’d already been dealt with. Jasmine’s hand wandered to her belt, where the newest bear-skull mask in her collection was secured. The Ragesian ambassador’s notes had been his damnation. A magical poison had been sewn into the victuals presented at the banquet, a potion intended to incite madness in its victims. And the Book of Eight Lands, the nobles’ magical ward against just such treachery, had been stolen somehow.

Jasmine felt as much as heard Joshua’s arrival. As she finally located the king’s adviser, the woman whom Jasmine firmly believed was at the center of this little tragedy, her fingers touched the hilts of her swords. She stepped aside as her towering companion strode purposefully into the room, the ring of Sharakas clearing his sheath descending like a death knell on the assembled gentry. Joshua faced the king, raising his sword before him. There was no sign of a limp as he walked into the room. Jasmine’s heart was full. She wished she could see his face, but she refused to let Nina Glibglammer slide from her view for even an instant.

“What kind of king,” Joshua intoned, “would sacrifice the land and people he is sworn to protect…” The words descended on the room like hammers upon the tables, and Jasmine felt the familiar rush that preceded combat. She wondered that she had come to cherish these moments, when her senses sharpened and her heart started to pound. The blood was rushing in her ears. Jasmine didn’t even try to pay heed to remainder of Joshua’s speech. Her attention was elsewhere…

Nina was smiling…

With a wordless roar, King Steppengard leapt to his feet, flinging the head table over in the process. Screams erupted throughout the chamber as nobles great and small abandoned their doomed repast. Joshua was only halfway across the chamber when the king produced a wicked-looking flail from beneath his seat and threw himself upon the duke. Elessar virtually exploded into action, moving quickly to intercept, only to be balked by the king’s loyal bodyguard, a giant of man with a very big sword. The paladin smiled an apology at the man and raised Anyariel to meet his attack.

Nina was on the move. The banquet hall was in chaos, as nobles tried to reach the exits and guards attempted to discern their obligations. The gnome seemed unimpeded, however. She moved through rather than around the obstacles, steadily approaching the doors. Jasmine moved to intercede, but it was not to be. As the diminutive woman drew near, she shimmered and changed, erupting into a nest of giant serpents. Jasmine blinked. Arlyn appeared at her side, taking in the monstrosity with typical aplomb.

“Well, that’s different.”

Jasmine nodded as the arrows began to fly.

* * *

On the Sixteenth Day of Auror’s Moon in the Royal City of Bresk, King Steppengard of Dassen was beheaded by Joshua Stormborn in the heat of battle. The Council of Eight pledged unanimous support for the impromptu execution, which was a response to the monarch’s attempt to poison them all in the depths of the madness which had consumed him in the wake of his family’s tragic assassination. Nina Glibglammer, revealed to be some sort of vile shapechanging monstrosity, disappeared under the assault of Joshua’s companions, but not before infecting many of the assembled nobles with a deadly murderous insanity.

Michael Gallo has reluctantly accepted the crown of Dassen in the wake of the king’s death, as proposed by their saviors from Seaquen and ratified by his peers.

Long live the king!

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Session XLI

16 Aurorsmoon 459

Elessar looked every inch the champion, his armor shining in the midday sun. His stallion stamped impatiently, his frosty breath a challenge to those who worked diligently to tighten the cinches and make the necessary adjustments to knight and mount alike. Jasmine glanced skyward, raising her hand against the the glare. The opening rounds of the joust were out of the way, and the main event was about to start.

The faire may have been a smokescreen for whatever dubious plans the king had in mind, but it was a brilliant one. Despite the weather, the people of Bresk were turning out in droves to enjoy their holiday, a welcome reprieve from the repression and conflict which threatened to consume their country. The Ragesians remained poised at the north end of the Alydi Gap, but the war had already come to Dassen. Many of the common folk who wandered the faire had the haunted look of loss and hardship painted on their features. Even the merchants who populated the festival had the stink of desperation about them. Many of Dassen’s sons had met a bloody end on the battlefield at Gallo’s Fend. Jasmine refused to accept responsibility for their loss, however; it was their beloved king who should carry the burden for that bit of foolishness.

Jasmine rolled her eyes. Beloved indeed… King Steppengard was, in her estimation, either a cunning supporter of the treacherous Ragesian agenda or a complete loon, but she had yet to prove it. Her eyes wandered over the stands, searching the royal pavilion for its anticipated occupant. Steppengard had yet to arrive, but many of the other nobles were already seated, including the duke. Joshua hovered nearby, his eye on their current patron. She strongly suspected that the king would tip his hand soon enough, however. She just needed to be ready.

The sudden appearance of her uncle was somewhat less than a surprise, as she would certainly have failed to notice him had he not intended to be noticed. Nevertheless, she was slow to wander form her selected vantage point. She was loathe to let Joshua out of her sight. Even his subordinates were otherwise occupied, most of them serving as Elessar’s squires. She glanced back toward the knight as she wound her way through the crowd, picking out Samis and Gilli at the edge of the lists. Samis she had come to trust, but Gilli remained something of a mystery to her. He was clearly here for his lover, not for Joshua, and he had a manner about him that reminded her too much of herself. She’d followed him for a time as he’d wandered the faire Dani and Chamalina, but he’d eventually lost her. She next time she’d seen him, he’d been following her… She definitely intended to have a talk with the man. It might turn out to be a fairly pleasant one, assuming that he didn’t turn out to be a traitor.

Linael lingered near the back of the stands, watching as a couple of guards dismantled the wagon of an unruly vendor. Jasmine had heard the man complaining about his exile from the castle’s kitchens, validating her suspicions that something unusual was happening at Steppengard’s keep. As she drew near, her uncle turned and sidled her direction, slipping a note into her hand as he passed. Jasmine continued moving. Arlyn was approaching from the other side of the stands, and the crowd started shifting as the horns sounded on the field. As soon as she had a moment, she glanced down at her uncle’s missive.

~ Pixis, Number 17-C, Carriage Way ~

Jasmine smiled.

As Elessar advances to the final round of the joust, Jasmine and Arlyn gather intelligence in and about the faire and eventually manage to put together an image of impending treachery, quite possibly with the king’s hand in it. Mysterious deliveries through the castle sewers, a tunnel with which the former fugitives are intimately familiar, and news of the king’s regular kitchen staff being displaced, seem to indicate a possible attack during the coming banquet, which Elessar would certainly be attending as the tournament champion.

Elessar’s victory is bittersweet, however, as it is revealed that the actual tournament champion is using unsanctioned magical assistance to aid in the unhorsing of her opponents. Duke Gallo himself descends from the stands to strip the woman of her honors, and awards the tourney championship to his own man. The paladin accepts the accolades graciously as Joshua joins him at the lists to see to his injuries.

Derek, Dani and Charmalina accompany Elessar and Duke Gallo to the castle, while Raines and Orr don guard uniforms to gain entrance to the upper halls. Meanwhile, Joshua and his remaining retinue meet Jasmine, Arlyn and Basil at the sewer entrance near the graveyard outside the city.

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Session XL

16 Aurorsmoon 459

Joshua was at his ease. Whatever challenges the days ahead had in store for his odd little company, today was a day of celebration in the royal city of Bresk. A broad faire had erupted from the hillside just west of the city walls, surrounding a brightly-decorated tournament ground with seating enough to accomodate a small village. Children ran through the streets, playing games with wooden swords and staves, prancing about as if parading from horseback as they challenged each other in the manner they assumed to be common to the gentry. The stately cleric smiled at the display. There had been precious few moments to relax since leaving Gate Pass, what seemed a lifetime ago.

Merchants and vendors lined the snowy paths of the festival grounds, expertly hawking their wares to unwary passers-by. The smells of exotic foods reminded Joshua that, despite his more worldly perspective in recent months, he now walked the streets of a strange city far from home. The mixed accents of locals and foreign merchants alike lent a surreal quality to the place, as if he wandered in a dream.

He winced a bit as he walked, still sore from Lady Timor’s… affections. Joshua sighed. The woman was creative…

As if on cue, Jasmine wandered into view, and Joshua schooled his features to stillness. He’d started to realize that she spent a part of each night lingering in his room as he slept, and was relatively sure that he could rely on her to follow him around for much of the day. The tiniest thread of guilt lingered in the back of his mind, but it was neither warranted nor asked for, so he ignored it. A substantial connection lingered between the two of them, one they neither acknowledged nor denied, but it was question unlikely to ever see an answer.

Besides which, he mused, a relationship with the woman would be an adventure far more dangerous and complex than the road they currently traveled together.

There were tournaments and games at every turn, tests of strength and skill, men and women drinking and carousing and cheering each other on. There were clothiers, armorers, cobblers and tailors, jewelers, blacksmiths, hairdressers and priests. There were astrologers and alewagons and craftsmen of every land. Joshua paused to consider the carpets being sold by a wizened Ostaliner, a dwarvish matron situated nearby surrounded by tiny metal toys. The merry sounds of a mandolin emerged from a makeshift tavern behind them, accompanied by thin reedy voice that reminded him somewhat of his youngest sister.

Suddenly, Joshua was reminded that all was not right with the world, and there were likely surprises ahead this day.

As the day of the tournament begins, Samis establishes a practice yard for Elessar within the walls of Duke Gallo’s estate. As the paladin trains for the coming challenge, most of his compatriots make their way out of the city to the faire, which is just beginning to come to life.

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Session XXXIX

11 Aurorsmoon 459

Hear ye! Hear ye!
By Order of the Duke, Michael Gallo,
Protector of the Crowne,
Warden of the North,
On this, the 11th Day of The Aurors’ Moon,
Year Four Hundred and Fifty-Nine C.E.,
In the Hour Poste unto Vespers,
All are Well Come unto a Grande Celebration of Victorie
And a Ceremonie of Knighting for the august persones of
Elessar The Heartsblood,
Derek Mac Draken,
Charmalina Goodberry and
Basil Corbett,
In Recognition of Noble Service and Exemplarie Performance
In Defense of Dassen and All of her Children.
May the Gods Look Down Upon Thee
With Favor and With Grace.

On the second day following the cessation of hostilities, a courier from Konigsmarshal Malkan, King Steppengard’s military commander, rides to the city and delivers an announcement to the duke that the king’s army is preparing to withdraw. The king further requests that Duke Gallo attend a peace conference in the royal city of Bresk, claiming that new evidence has been discovered identifying the Ragesians as a threat. There will be a two-day festival with tournaments and games followed by a great feast, then a day of discussion for the nobles as they plan the future of their nation. Suspicious of the king’s intentions, but unable to honorably deny his invitation, Duke Gallo asks that the heroes accompany him to Bresk, offering knighthoods in honor of their recent victory to make them eligible for the tourneys and to sit at the king’s feast.

Joshua agrees, proposing that Elessar, Charm, Basil and Derek accept the duke’s accolades, and they prepare to leave the following day. The journey to Bresk is swift and uneventful, and they receive a royal welcome at Steppengard Castle, the king himself emerging to greet them, seeming considerably calmer than the first time the heroes had made his acquaintance. The duke then leads them to his manor in the city, carefully setting guards against treachery in the night.

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Session XXXVIII

9 Aurorsmoon 459

Jasmine’s heart sank. Everything fell apart in a single moment. From where she stood out on the field, everything around her seemed to slow to a crawl. Silence reigned within her heart and in her head. As if struggling through air as thick as water, Steppengard’s cavalry bore down upon her from the south. She could see the steady flash of their hooves as they soundlessly beat across the muddy terrain. She could see their breath, emerging in tiny clouds of frost that would hang before them then finally slip away. To the north, her allies took flight, also pounding slowly across the snow. She looked down at the naked blades in her hands.

It was over. The mad Dasseni king would have his way, and Leska’s armies would sweep across these lands and lay siege to Seaquen. And the world would burn for their failure, lest some other heroes rise to put a stop to the Scourge. One day soon, kings throughout the realm would bend their knee to Coaltongue’s legacy.

A cold rage erupted within her breast, and Jasmine straightened up to face the oncoming horde. More than a dozen knights bore down on her very position, alone amidst the blood and melted snow. The world seemed to right itself, the sounds of their charge crashing in on her as the separation between them steadily narrowed. She adjusted her grip on the hilts of her swords and began to march steadily toward the enemy.

Behind her, like some sort of demon herald announcing the death of her enemies, Joshua’s aura exploded into flame as the cleric rose into the sky. Jasmine never noticed, her deadly gaze reserved for the men who were rushing toward their doom.

The Battle of Gallo’s Fend takes several hours to wind to a close, but the outcome seems pre-ordained in the wake of Steppengard’s initial attack. A handful of heroes manage to hold the field long enough for Elessar’s resolve to win free, the impervious grace bestowed upon him by his god once again taking hold. The rest of their soldiers are only seconds behind him, and are eager to follow the paladin back into battle. Reinforcements arrive after the enemy’s second wave is broken, and the heroes are relieved.

Duke Gallo is clearly the victor. That evening, Steppengard’s forces sound their withdrawal, and hostility’s cease.

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Session XXXVII

9 Aurorsmoon 459

There was a ragged cheer from the back line, and Joshua couldn’t help but smile. The first wave of Steppengard’s soldiers had been stopped cold, and not a single dwarf had died during the incursion. Keeping his exuberance in check, Joshua picked Derek out of the crowd of archers situated on the right flank. Much of the cheering was possible due to the young wizard’s extraordinary magic. Joshua had always possessed a healthy respect for wizardry, but until this moment he had never feared it. Derek’s utility spells had proven to be everything that Joshua could have hoped for, but his battle magic… his very first blast of flame had eliminated nearly a dozen enemy soldiers.

Joshua knew instantly that the duke’s decision to remove the enemy’s arcanist had been a vital tactical maneuver. He shuddered to imagine what sort of carnage a wizard trained in warfare might accomplish on the field of battle. Though his compatriot had trained at Gabal’s school in Gate Pass, much of his growth as a magician had been on the road, and later at the Lyceum, where the challenges he faced were somewhat slighter in scale.

Elessar signaled Joshua from atop his massive destrier. Joshua’s grin broadened. The return of the paladin’s holy mount had been one of the most heartening omens he could have hoped for. Thaeos was watching, and victory was very nearly assured.

Following his brother’s gesture, Joshua stood in his stirrups and cast his gaze further up the field. The enemy cavalry was closing in on the heels of their defeated armsmen. Joshua began issuing orders, sending runners both directions to carry word to his lieutenants. He needn’t be overly alarmed; the dwarves were grizzled veterans and never lowered their guard. Arrows were knocked and crossbows reloaded. Derek rose his arms in preparation for his next extraordinary feat. He had shown surprising reluctance to employ magics that slew their opponents outright, preferring to give his targets the opportunity to survive and flee should they be canny enough to do so, but he had no shortage of pyrotechnics that could deal considerable damage to the enemy line.

This particular spell would never come.

It came from above and behind, a massive roar that shook them to their core. Joshua felt his nerves come alive. There was magic in that sound. It spoke of deep distress, a panic clawing its way from the depths of his soul. Joshua’s focus sharpened as he scanned the heavens, swallowing the irrational terror that threatened to spill forth. Whatever creature was responsible for this treachery was nowhere to be seen, but the damage was done.

The line broke.

Hardened dwarves took flight, leaving their weapons littering the ground. Here and there, Joshua noted a heartier soul resisting the urge to run. He scanned the remainder, trying to ignore the sounds of certain defeat in the screams of horses and the scrabbling of hard leather boots. Jasmine remained, as did Basil… Arlyn… Joshua frowned. Hertiage remained nearby, having flung himself from his horse in an attempt to avoid being carried away. But Elessar…

The stalwart knight was running.

Drawing Sharakas from its sheath, Joshua summoned his magic and began to rise slowly into the air.

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Session XXXVI

9 Aurorsmoon 459

Elessar stood in the stirrups, surveying the line as best he could. His horse pranced about, unaccustomed to his weight. Joshua had accepted a vital command from the duke, placing them at the end of a shallow valley that provided a clean approach to the city gates. Steppengard’s men were lined up a couple thousand feet to the south. Elessar tried to guess just how many soldiers their men would be specifically responisible for fending off.

Well, not just men, he reminded himself. Dwarves. On loan from Lord Dashgoban, whom he himself had ridden to convince of their need. He watched them go about their preparations, readying their weapons, tightening the straps on their armor and otherwise digging in at their assigned positions.

As if on cue, Commander Hertiage spurred his mount forward, reigning in next to the paladin. A broad grin split the aging dwarf’s leathery face, and Elessar managed a weak smile in return. His heart just wasn’t in it. He feared that something had broken inside of him that might never be repaired. He wasn’t even certain that it should be. Despite his brush with death in the Alydi Gap, and his mysterious recovery… he brought his hand to his brow, trying to remember. He’d seen things in that moment, when his lifeblood was seeping from his body. He had seen the burning eyes of his master, felt his divine grip as he was lifted to his feet. Had it been real, this visitation from a god who seemed to have abandoned him, or but a conjuring of his own dire need?

Joshua rode up beside them, his grim-faced new lieutenant following in his wake. Their eyes met, briefly, but Elessar could not tolerate the sadness he saw there. Joshua had more important things with which to concern himself this day.

A warm breeze rose from the south, a gentle reminder of the spring that should have been. The drums which had sounded throughout the morning came to a sudden stop, and heads rose all along the line to take stock of the enemy. Silence reigned, but for the snap of their banners and the cry of a single bird of prey. The paladin glanced toward the raptor as it lighted on the skeletal branches of a nearby tree. He frowned. It’s plumage was the red and gold of the forge, a stark contrast to their icy surroundings, and there was something unnatural about the way the bird met his gaze.

The blast of a horn announced the attack as Steppengard’s forces began their charge. As Elessar spun to observe their approach, the world seemed to spin and he felt as if he was falling. A heavy smoke suddenly filled the air, stinging his eyes as he fought to get his feet under him. Through the haze, he could see no sign of the horse given him by Duke Gallo, nor his companions or the army which surrounded them. The smoke drifted across the vale, and bodies covered the ground. Distant fires cast a lurid light across the landscape, and the sky was burnt in reddish hues. His avian herald screamed anew as it launched itself from the tree, and Elessar fought to keep it in sight.

And then he saw her, kneeling nearby as if testing the earth. It was Jasmine, but she looked unlike herself, gowned in shifting reds and blacks as she rose her eyes to meet his own. There was nothing familiar about those eyes. Their endless star-strewn depths seemed to take him in and study him from every side at once. Her voice, when she spoke, was Jamine’s, but rang with a clarity that seemed to drive every other sound further and further away.

“So you are the one who has strayed.”

He opened his mouth, but could not immediately find his voice. Jasmine smiled, a complex transition of her features that suggested far more than simple amusement.

“I admit that I have been curious. You and your friends figure very strongly in events to come.”

“Who are you?” he croaked, forcing the words past the tightness in his throat. A distant sound, not unlike thunder, drew his attention to another part of the field, and he saw that they were not alone after all. Standing several yards away, facing into the distance, was his brother in faith, Joshua Stormborn. He called to him, though the winds seemed to steal his words. Joshua tilted his head, listening.

“Methinks,” Jasmine-who-was-not-Jasmine offered, ”’tis not I with whom you should be concerned.” Elessar frowned, throwing her a puzzled glance, then returned his attention to his brother. Joshua had turned and begun striding directly toward him, seeming somehow even taller than usual, but his eyes also were changed. They were the fiery orbs of Holy Thaeos himself, just as he had seen them once before. The voice of his lord seemed to pierce the very soil beneath his feet, making his footing unstable.

“HOW DARE YOU TURN YOUR EYES FROM ME?”

Unaccustomed fear gripped the paladin’s heart, burying the flash of anger that threatened to overcome him. He had never intended harm to come to anyone who did not deserve it! He had never compromised his faith…! Had he somehow condemned himself? When he had lost his grace, had he understood his responsibility for the damage he had wrought? Or had he, within the darkest parts of soul, leveled the blame at Holy Thaeos Himself?

Confronted with the gaze of his divine master, the answer seemed somehow inconsequential. Jasmine was saying something, something about riding into battle without the companion chosen for him by the gods. Elessar’s thoughts were sliding about, making less sense as the moments passed. A sudden, distant whinny drove the question home, however, as the truth of his abandonment finally manifested. A truth he had left behind in Bresk, and hadn’t sought to rectify.

“Call to him, Elessar.”

Call to him? Her voice held such a tone of authority… but how could he hear him…? The smoke thickened, and Joshua’s massive shape was obscured, though his eyes continued to burn. Lightning flashed across the sky and his eyes were drawn upward as if of their own volition.

“Elessar!” It was Joshua, alarmed that the paladin had fallen to the earth, his horse suddenly gone. The sky was steely grey, and the sound of the enemy charge beat a cadence in his head. Elessar looked up at his friend and smiled, truly smiled, for the first time in weeks. Rising to his feet, his voice rung across the field as he cried the name of his holy mount, who approached the line as if he had appeared from the air itself. Their reunion was brief, however, as battle was about to be joined.

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Session XXXV

9 Aurorsmoon 459

“Jasmine… I need you to kill a man…”

Silence and snow. All around her in the frost-coated wood, the quiet of the night was marred only by the slightest crunch of snow beneath the feet of her companions. Occasional wayward shafts of moonlight transformed the trees into crystalline treasures. Despite the chill, she felt warm, as if the fire in her stomach had made her entirely immune to the cool caress of this unnaturally long winter

Joshua’s voice sat heavily in her mind. “He isn’t a Ragesian,” he was saying, over and over again. “He isn’t necessarily even a wicked man. He is simply, this day, the enemy. And he is a man capable of dealing incalcuable damage to our men out there on the field of battle.”

Jasmine’s heart had ached at his words, not for the pain of doing what must be done – that was what they did, she and Joshua, what they had always done – but for the pain he knew in laying this burden upon her. Kelkin Thravanvost was a wizard, a battle mage of some repute who had established his reputation decades ago in collaboration with the master of Derek’s old school in Gate Pass. He called the dwarven lands of Dassen his home, and now fought in the service of his king. Jasmine did not know him, had no particular quarrel with him.

But tonight she was going to kill him. It’s what she was trained to do. Basil and Arlyn and Derek and Joshua would use every talent at their disposal to win her entrance to the wizard’s tent, which even now was becoming visible at the edge of the trees… and then she would do what must be done.

Everything else was just silence and snow.

Shortly after midnight, Joshua leads a small covert assault group to the tent of Kelkin Thravanvost, who has established his own secluded, but well-guarded, campsite in the shadow of the Itnevel Wood, five hundred feet from the edge of the Steppengard camp. Whilst Derek helps to penetrate the wizard’s magical defenses, and Joshua uses his own magic to draw the guards’ attention away without raising the alarm, Jasmine and Basil steal into the mage’s tent and execute him in his sleep.

Jasmine covers the dwarf with his bedding and relieves him of any magical trinkets while Basil casts about for any other treasures to be found. Adding the wizard’s spellbook to their plunder, the thieves make way their back to the others, and eventually back to Gallo’s Fend to grab a few hours of sleep.

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SessionXXXIV

8 Aurorsmoon 459

Basil schooled his breathing, minimizing the fog that might otherwise reveal his position. Every step on the snow-covered terrain required the utmost concentration. He stole a glance southward, where hundreds of enemy soldiers lay within shouting distance in the quiet night. Basil smiled.

He’d never felt more alive.

Since leaving Gate Pass, the talents he had cultivated throughout his youth had seen precious little exploitation. He wasn’t complaining; since leaving the guild, which had recently begun to chafe anyway, he’d embarked on an adventure the likes of which he’d never imagined awaited him. He’d stared almost certain death in the eye time and time again, and it had been Basil, not the dark specter of the hereafter, who had emerged victorious. He’d faced fiery wilderlands, vile devils, inquisitors, dragons, soldiers, pirates and elven spies, magical storms, the walking dead… he probably owed Joshua an enormous debt of gratitude for rescuing him from a life of mediocrity.

A few more yards and his latest quarry came into view. Basil shook his head. Life was all about opportunity, learning to recognize it and being unafraid to take advantage of it. The swordsman’s latest opportunity was about six foot tall and fairly slender, and had deserted his guard post just long enough to relieve himself.

Less than two minutes later, Basil rejoined the other soldiers surrounding the nearby catapult, nodding amicably as he finished adjusting his uniform.

Thanks to numerous delays before and during the journey north, it takes Steppengard’s forces more than a week to reach Gallo’s Fend. The heroes use the time to outfit themselves for the coming challenge. Allied forces from the neighoboring regions arrive in plenty of time to prepare for battle, and Joshua accepts a command post for the approaching conflict.

The night before battle is expected to be joined, the heroes are dispatched on a couple of covert missions. The first of these is an attack on the enemy’s surviving seige engines. All but a few of their catapults met their end at the hands of the fey pitchlings with whom the party had treated previously. These few are amply guarded, and situated near the edge of Steppengard’s camp. Dwarven sappers have tunneled out to a position not too distant from the catapults, and Joshua leads his stealth team, Jasmine, Arlyn and Basil, to the end of the tunnel and awaits their return. The trio steal into the night and approach the first of the machines. Basil manages to take one of the guards unawares when he is away from his post and assumes his position, then aids in the silent dispatching of his fellows as Arlyn offers artillery support and Jasmine sneaks in to disable the catapult.

They manage to commit a similar bit of skullduggery on the second catapult, but are unable to reach the third when they discover that it’s guarded by a dragon. They hide the bodies and return to the tunnel, satisfied that at least two of their remaining seige engines will fail to function on the following day.

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SessionXXXIII

28 Springtide 459

Michael Gallo read over the document two or three times. The room was silent, every would-be tactician and advisor surrounding the long oaken table at his back holding perfectly still as the words of Joshua Stormborn, words proclaiming the duplicity of the Ragesian forces camped just to the north of Gallo’s Fend, seemed to echo unnaturally across the chamber. Joshua’s companions waited just as patiently to one side, suffering the tender ministrations of the duke’s chaplains as they anxiously awaited the pivotal decision of these two great men.

Jasmine studied the duke. A tall man by most standards, he was easily dwarfed by Joshua’s towering profile. And yet, he seemed in no way diminished. Jasmine had spent several years in the company of nobles, universally petty men who were easily distracted by a wink and a secretive smile, their fuming wives doing their best not to notice as they pranced about amidst their own dire intrigues. Duke Gallo seemed different, somehow, though there were certainly qualities of bearing that set him apart from common men. That his advisors enjoyed a freedom with their tongues was enough to still the majority of her innate distaste, though she had noted the occasional furtive glance amongst his underlings that belied a thread of fear within his court. He was a hard man, that was certain. The grey at his temples was well-earned in the service of his king.

The duke nodded, exchanging a look with the taller man. “I concur,” he said at last, his baritone causing many in the hall to jump slightly, as if caught in the midst of a shameful thought. “There is no other way to interpret these words.”

She felt a loosening at the base of her spine, though she hadn’t been aware of the tension. They had reached a turning point in this war; she could feel it. The men they’d soon be facing on the field of battle may not look like Ragesians, nor speak with their heavy-tongued accent, but their swords and spears were being guided by Leska nonetheless. And they had proof. Proof enough to convince Gallo’s neighbors, anyway.

The duke handed the orders from the Ragesian contingent stationed at the far end of the gap, the men who had murdered his own troops and set themselves up as forerunners for the massive army behind them, to his most trusted advisor and proxy at Steppengard’s court, Jinis. The balding politician perused the document just as his liege had done, and nodded his agreement, as Michael Gallo returned his attention to Joshua.

“We must take word of this treachery to Timor and Dashgoban with all haste,” he said, pinning the taller man with his gaze. Joshua simply smiled, nodding in the direction of his companions. Jasmine found herself echoing his grin, and wondered at her own bizarre restlessness. The eyes locked for a moment, and her heart fluttered, for which she chastised herself thoroughly as he answered their newfound ally.

“Consider it done.”

In the wake of their return from the Alydi Gap, the heroes are given a new assignment and immediately begin their preparations for departure the following morn. Joshua rides east with Derek and Arlyn, tearing the halfling from his over-protective sister as he instructs Elessar to take Jasmine, Basil and Charmalina on a more southwesterly route toward the lands of Lord Dashgoban. A treacherous climb awaits the cleric at the border of Lady Timor’s domain, as the most direct route to her wizardly tower is guarded by the Glaskeel Cliffs, a half-mile of windswept rock just to the east of the frozen river.

The second group, meanwhile, make their way to the lands of Lord Dashgoban via a dangerous road through the Pitchwood. Rather than fight the fey pitchlings who inhabit the forest, Elessar and Proxy Jinis, the duke’s representative in the efforts to buy his neighbor’s trust, manage to negotiate with them, even going so far as to convince them to waylay the king’s forces when they pass through the wood with their mighty seige engines. To more effectively drive them into the wilderness, the heroes also persuade the peoples of Pitchwood Burg to spread their recent harvest of pitch across the ice of the Nasham River and set it aflame. Lord Dashgoban, when they reach him, turns out to be very receptive to the party’s needs and immediately pledges his support to the duke.

Joshua elects to use his magic to scale the Glaskeel Cliffs, taking to the skies with his compatriots holding tight. They are harrassed by a local sphinx, however, and Derek is nearly slain by a long fall to the base of the cliff. Unable to cast another fly spell, however, Joshua is forced to continue upward lest his magic expire and cost them precious time. Derek’s fiery wizardry is quick to deal with the sphinx, but the wizard is stranded with the horses in the snowy wilds below. Joshua and Arlyn reach the top and forge onward, reaching the home of Lady Timor before nightfall. The wizardess, who is quite taken with the Thaeosian, suggestively invites him to stay the night and, once the accuracy of the presented evidence has been magically verified, also pledges her support.

Their missions successfully completed, the heroes meet once again the following day at Gallo’s Fend.

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