War of the Burning Sky

Session VII

3 Deepwinter 459

Jasmine held her breath, watching closely for signs of consciousness. Elessar’s breaths remained unaltered and even. He was a pretty man, if a little too well-groomed for Jasmine’s tastes. Even soiled as he was by smoke and soot, his breeding showed through in myriad little details the likes of which her uncle had trained her well to take note of. She couldn’t have fingered which noble family it was to whom the paladin owed his familial dispensation. There were many who had settled in the heart of Gate Pass since Emperor Coaltongue had risen to power, driving many noble families into exile. Jasmine shrugged. His heritage was of little concern to her. As long as he remained asleep.

A creeking sound drifted from the broken wagon nearby. Jasmine froze, performing a rapid head count to assure herself that no one could see her sifting through the paladin’s belongings. Basil was the only other sentry, and he was situated on the other side of the ravine. The old gnomish caravan, such as it was, was likely just settling further beneath the weight of the broken bridge. Other than the occasional firebat drifted far overhead, not a creature stirred in the stillness about her. Palming the small crystal vials she was seeking, filled with a thin, clear liquid and labeled, according to Derek, with the arcane rune identifying “truth”, Jasmine quickly returned Elessar’s pack to its original position and slunk quietly away.

She froze anew as Haddin’s unmoving form came into view, his eyes clearly reflecting the firelight from above as he watched her creep across the camp. She held her breath, preparing herself for the inevitable alarm, but it did not come. After a moment, she straightened slightly and leaned in closer to the old fool, wishing anew that she could simply stab him now and have it done with cleanly and without doubt as to the cause. His gaze did not waver, but he soon started snoring. Jasmine blinked, shaking the cobwebs from her mind. She had heard that some wizards slept with their eyes open, but she had never before witnessed the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, she told herself as she settled back into her blankets, she would remain vigilant in the days to come. It would not do to be apprehended by the old sorcerer before she’d had a chance to see him burn.

The party climbs from the gorge to the south side of the ravine, resuming their journey along the old Elfroad. They are soon approached by yet another fiery denizen of the wood, however, this one a flaming hound from the lower planes. The creature approaches them on another stonework bridge spanning yet another ravine, bearing a missive in its jaws, which it deposits on the bridge and then backs away. Jasmine investigates the message, scrawled on the length of a human femur, which offers them an alliance with a mysterious benefactor should they wish to trade for the book liberated from the Shahalesti spies in Gate Pass. Jasmine discards the bone before anyone can see it, tossing it idly over the edge of the bridge. The hell hound elects not to impede them any further, watching passively as the heroes continue their journey.

Their next encounter is with the missive’s author, a bearded devil named Kazyk who appears in a massive burst of colorful flames. Chiding them for their dissmissive negotiating tactic, he attacks, summoning forth a gaggle of infernal allies to harange the heroes as he lays upon them with his glaive. The battle is brief, and Kazyk retreats as soon as the last of his minions is dispatched, leaving little doubt in the heroes’ minds that he intends to finish the business at a later time.

Pointing out that Torrent, who carries the potions, might be killed or separated from the party and doom them all, Jasmine helps dispense the remaining potions, being sure to gift Haddin with the brew she has tainted with the stolen elixir from Elessar’s pack.

Any respite from the encounter with the devil is brief, however, as Joshua spurns them onward. Some distance along the road, Crystin swoons suddenly, betaken by one of her visions, and warns Elessar to move as a lance of fire descends from which a group of flaming stags emerges. To further discourage them from evading the combat, a barrier of flame appears at their rear and cluster of burning trees crash upon the road ahead. The wall of flame to their north begins to advance as the heroes engage the elementals in the fight of their lives.

When at last the monsters are destroyed, the barrier is extinguished. A draconic specter appears above the trees, identifying itself as the spirit of the forest and calling itself “Indomitability”. It commands them to travel downriver to the “singing lake”, where it is held captive by the seela, a society of forest-dwelling fey who suffer eternally from the flames it has inflicted on the wood. Joshua agrees to sally forth as the beast has demanded, and the heroes who participated in the battle with the stags are rewarded with a magical resistance to the elements, making their potions unnecessary.

Gathering themselves to continue onward, the heroes make their way to the river, where they settle in for a brief period of rest.

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Session VI

2 Deepwinter 459

The flames seemed to mock them on every side. Joshua hated the wood already, and he had spent only a few short minutes amidst the trees. The fire seemed to leer at him from every side, beckoning him further from the quiet safety of his snow covered mountain pass. He examined his hands, half expecting them to crack and peel despite the priestess’s acrid brew. He could feel the intense, withering heat closing in around him as banks of blackened smoke obscured the edges of the road, but his flesh remained unbroken. Even as he wondered whether the smoke might be a hazzard of its own, a fierce, dry wind swept inward along the roadway, snatching at his cloak and the straps and buckles of his armor. He kept his vision cast low, as the only reliable indicator that the road lay before his feet was the relative lack of undergrowth, exposing the blackened rock which once carried trade into the arms of the elves of Innenotdar. For a wood which had burned for forty years, it seemed a remarkably robust stretch of wilderness.

Much nearer the forest floor than the oversized clergyman, Arlyn could more clearly see the rocks amidst the haze. Blackened bones along the edge of the road spoke clearly that they were not the first to brave the fires of the elven wood. But they may very well be the first to emerge from the other side. The halfling stopped near a more recent pile of corpses, their blackened skin not yet completely consumed by the magical inferno that raged about them. Drawing his blade, he poked about a bit, investigating the remains for any useful supplies or forgotten treasures. When one of the bodies shifted and moaned, however, he scrabbled backward in alarm, bringing the party to a sudden halt.

But a quarter-mile into the wood, the heroes encounter a trio of refugees, now smoldering piles of burnt flesh and blackened bones. The remains are scattered, as if picked over by scavengers, but for one of the bodies which still holds life. The body turns out to be that of a wizard, a fellow student of Derek McDraken’s at Gabal’s School of War in Gate Pass, who should have died at the hands of the forest, and yet lives, in a manner of speaking. Joshua elects to end his pain, striking his head from his body, and the heroes do their best to see that the remains will burn away.

The Elfroad winds ever deeper into the wood, divided by occasional game trails, ridges and defiles. A local creature, some sort of fiery fey whom the party rescues from a massive flaming bat, provides some sketchy guidance regarding life in the wood, warning them against “angering the forest”. The heroes proceed southward, settling that night in the depths of a ravine spanned by an unstable bridge, which the party is kind enough to dispose of.

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Session V

2 Deepwinter 459

The sky had begun to darken as the sun sank slowly in the west. Arlyn sniffed the air, noting a subtle change drifting upward from the south. He glanced back, performing a quick head count as his companions emerged from the narrow defile. Craggy hills decorated the landscape. At least there had been no further ambushes. Regardless of the lack of Ragesian soldiers, his sister lingered ever nearby, her hand drifting frequently toward the hilt of her sword.

The scent grew sharper as the ranger crested the ridge. The sky ahead was lit with a ruddy glow, now visible in the encroaching twilight, and the night smelled of ash and soot. Cinders drifted lazily northward, carried on a warm breeze which seemed thoroughly unaware of its wintery surroundings. Strange red flowers had begun to appear along either side of the road, flourishing amidst patches of yellowish grasses. From the top of the ridge, the halfling shielded his eyes against the sudden glare and peered southward.

The woodsman was distantly aware that each of his companions had come to a stop as they reached the top of the hill. The road leveled out just ahead into a field of ash, broken only by a lonely farmhouse sillohuetted against a forest aflame. Fiery pines filled the valley beyond, burning to the horizon amidst the lower peaks, a steaming river winding through the conflagration.

They had, at last, reached the Fire Forest of Innenotdar.

Upon the road to the Fire Forest , the heroes encounter a young girl standing near the farmhouse. She introduces herself as Crystin Ja-Nafeel, and seems to have been expecting the party courtesy of her enigmatic visions. She implores them to help her convince her father to leave this place, afraid that the Scourge is drawing near and that they will both, as mages uninterested in fealty to Ragesia, be captured or killed. Her father, Haddin Ja-Laffa, has no intention of leaving, however. Strangely, following a private discussion with the old wizard, Elessar proves unwilling to force him to comply, nor does he intend to leave his side.

Before the paladin’s strange behavior can become a problem for the party, however, the farmstead is attacked by a group of Ragesians under the command of a dreaded inquisitor. The battle is prolonged and vicious, but the Ragesians are soon dispatched. Uninterested in any further negotiations, Joshua informs the old wizard that he absolutely will be accompanying them southward into the forest. Torrent produces a handful of magical potions designed to protect them from the heat, and the heroes waste little time making their way across the field of ash and under the boughs of the flaming trees.

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Session IV

1 Deepwinter 459 (New Year’s Day)

Arlyn Goodberry waited patiently beneath the dripping eaves of Canton’s, a pleasant little tavern that smelled largely of heather and winter berries. The sun had managed to free itself from the eastern peaks, but the streets of Gate Pass remained largely untrodden. The scent of charnel still lingered in the crisp, mountain air, belying the peace that so characterized the central city. Parks and fountains that were carefully maintained and frequently patrolled in the summer months stood quietly coated in frost beneath the watchful eyes of Emperor Coaltongue. Numerous carrion birds perched on or about the enormous statue, heedless of the chill as they awaited patiently the spoils of war that most interested them. Arlyn shook his head. There would likely be feasting aplenty ere this siege had run its course.

Perched precariously atop a nearby rain barrel, Charmalina reached down and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing excitedly at their companions as they emerged from the home of Councilman Menash. Arlyn nodded, glancing through the window and signaling to Basil that Jasmine and Joshua were on their way. Torrent followed in their wake, seemingly admiring a dolphin-shaped falchion that she rather obviously acquired within. Arlyn easily recognized it as the councilman’s work, as would anyone who had spent much time in or around the adventuring profession within the myriad walls of Gate Pass.

Basil and Elessar strode boldly from the tavern to rendezvous with their compatriots, the wizard trailing slowly behind. “Well?” the paladin asked, eloquently arching his brow. Jasmine glanced at him, then at Joshua, reaching into her pouch and producing a neatly-folded parchment with a red wax seal.

At the home of Councilman Erdan Menash, an associate of Jasmine’s uncle’s in years past and a man sympathetic to the cause of the Resistance, the party obtains the means to leave the city. With orders in hand, the heroes make their way to the barracks of a half-orcish guard captain named Herreman, a friend of Arlyn’s father with whom the halflings have dealt with infrequently over the years. Suddenly concerned about their mother’s well-being in the wake of the midnight assault, Charm separates from the group at this time, vowing to rejoin them later.

The party waits at the barracks as Captain Herreman makes the appropriate arrangements, collecting the gear that would allow the heroes to disguise themselves as members of his patrol. Word comes, meanwhile, that the city council has elected to submit to Ragesia’s demands and is preparing to admit a group of inquisitors through the western wall. As sunset draws near, the party manages to slip into the mountains south of town. As night falls over the mountains, the heroes take their rest in an abandoned guard tower some distance from the city walls.

Morning finds them heading south, taking the old Elf Road toward the Fire Forest of Innenotdar, to Jasmine’s chagrin, a detail only recently produced by Torrent as they prepared to leave the city. In the high mountain passes, however, they run afoul of a Ragesian ambush. Perched atop the cliffs to either side of the road, enemy scouts drop thunderstones to startle the horses. The result is somewhat different than they intend, however, with only a couple of horses surging forward and out of control. As Jasmine gives her mount it’s head, Joshua dives for the underbrush. The others mill about for several seconds, fighting to get their mounts under control.

A short distance up the road, three horsemen emerge from the brush in pursuit of Jasmine’s mount. The swordswoman turns, however, employing her typical unusual tactics to take her opponents off-guard. Elessar soon joins the fray as well, striking a mighty blow to the Ragesian captain with the blade of the wyvern-rider’s axe, as Arlyn sets up a short distance away with bow in hand, quickly dropping the first reinforcement to arrive from the south, summoned by the blast of horns from the cliffs. Basil follows suit, then turns to follow the wounded commander as he retreats into the wilds.

Sheltering amidst the underbrush beneath the cliffs, Derek and Joshua maneuver to try and bring down the sentries… the former quite literally as he pelts one of the crossbowmen with magically-summoned stones, then literally yanks him from atop the cliff, dropping him thirty feet to the road with the sound of breaking bones.

The party soon regroups. After felling their commander, Basil follows his backtrail to the Ragesian campsite. The heroes comb the campsite, searching for treasures and useful gear, whilst Arlyn investigates a nearby series of tunnels. Therein, he finds a body, locked behind an iron gate. Jasmine picks it open, and they pull the shrouded corpse from the tiny cave. The body is that of a human wizard, presumably captured by the Ragesians for the inquisitors’ bounty, who seemingly died of exposure. Elessar engineers a proper burial for the man, whose shroud is actually a length of silk used to wrap ceremonial clay jars secreted within the tunnels in the wake of the Festival of Dreams every year. As the priests and the paladin offer their prayers for the wizard’s departed soul, the shroud seems to shine, the faded images that decorate its surface coming clear for a moment as the trio becomes aware of the magic that has come upon it, a gift from the gods.

The heroes enjoy a brief repast, then gather themselves to proceed southward.

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Session III

1 Deepwinter 459 (New Year’s Day)

An eerie silence hung in the crisp morning air, the chaos so readily hidden by the gloom of night having fled ere the sun’s gentle rise above the eastern peaks. From one of the many tiny alcoves that surrounded the temple’s crowded sanctuary, Alyssa watched as the grey light of dawn crawled steadily across the frozen cobbles. New Years decorations, once suspended from lantern posts and skybridges and the walls of nearby structures, lay trampled in the mud. She shook her head. There would be no parade, no Festival of Dreams. Dark omens lurked in the shadowed streets of Gate Pass.

There was movement in the sanctuary. Alyssa peered between the sheer draperies that separated the alcove from the prayer chamber. Similar curtains hid most of the walls and numerous niches surrounding the room, an element common to temples devoted to the Order of the Aqualine Cross. It added an etheric quality to the chamber, diffusing the sunlight and isolating worshippers from the harsh realities of the world outside. The temple was a house of healing, but little succor could be found herein for the man who now made his way through the chapel.

Alyssa remained hidden, unprepared for any further drama this night. Too much lay between her and her brother Joshua… too many secrets, too many lies. The shame no longer threatened to consume her, but it lingered far too near when her brother was nearby. Much like the people of Gate Pass, she would carry scars of her own this night.

Having received far too little rest but sufficient treatment to heal their wounds and restore their vital energies, the party makes their way through the quiet streets of Gate Pass to Gabal’s School of War, the magic academy more often referred to by locals as The Castle. A mob has gathered outside the academy’s gates, but is calmed in fairly short order by the appearance of one of the school’s more charming prefects, a magus named Diogenes. Recognizing that the heroes mean no harm, Diogenes admits them to the courtyard and leads them inside, inquiring as to their business. A brief conference in the academy’s kitchen reveals that the young wizard is fairly confident that he can identify their missing Shahalesti agent, an elven sorceress named Shealis Amlauril, who keeps company with midnight visitors and, upon occasion, a lantern archon.

Diogenes warns the heroes of the wizardess’s power, however, cautioning them against a confrontation. He does suggest, however, that he could help subdue the woman by challenging her to a spellduel, if the party would be willing to pilfer her spell components before she enters the ring. The heroes agree, sending Basil and Jasmine to attend to the necessary bit of larceny in newly-acquired vestments appropriate to the school. Meanwhile, Derek steals away to locate Shealis’s chamber in the west tower and determine whether or not she is in residence. Once she has left for the dueling chamber, the remainder of the party makes their way to her room, where they discover her guests.

With an oath to the archon that they would do no harm, Joshua and Elessar are allowed to interrogate Shealis’s guest, a Shahalesti spy named Larion Prevarieth whom the party most recently encountered disguised as a misshapen gnome. Larion, though unwilling to aid the party directly, eventually reveals that the metal case the heroes seek is in the hands of Shahalesti agents secreted in an elven ghetto two city wards to the east. He additionally cautions them that the case will not be taken without a fight, and urges them to leave it in the care of the elves.

In the dueling chamber, Diogenes soon manages to subdue the sorceress and leaves her in Jasmine’s care. She and Basil secure the woman, rendering her incapable of using her magic, before Jasmine sets to questioning her. Suitably convinced of her captor’s moral flexability, Shealis proves unwilling to give up the names or locations of her contacts, but is quick to try and negotiate her freedom, offering the name of the wizard to whom the case would be taken in Shahalesti. Jasmine accepts her terms and leaves her breathing, if bound, whilst she and Basil rejoin the others.

The party takes to the streets again, making their way deeper into the city. The ghetto for which the heroes are searching proves to be easy to locate, but difficult to find a way in to. In attempt to locate the most likely place for a secret entrance, Jasmine scales a nearby apartment building, peering over the walls to note the location of the buildings beyond. Selecting the most likely length of wall on their end of the compound, she returns to the street and helps locate the door. Once the party has gained entry into the ghetto, they begin their search in earnest for the gatemaker’s shop described by the elf. A group of elven children playing in the street proves to be some assistance in this endeavor, indicating that the party should proceed to the north side of the compound.

Ironically, the gatemaker’s shop sports no obvious entrance, having instead a painted door and windows decorating the face of the structure. Further aid presents itself, however, in the form of a disappearing/reappearing talking rat, who directs them to the entrance and warns them that it’s trapped, in return for a promise to turn over the case that they seek… though the contents are theirs to keep. Despite the enigmatic nature of their benefactor, they agree to the terms and make their way inside. No one is struck by the trap in the door, but the party fails to prevent an alarm from being sounded.

The lower story of the gatemaker’s shop is an obstacle course comprised of wooden doors in various states of construction, many of which hang or swing on free-standing frames. The resident Shahalesti elves descend onto the staircase across the room and begin launching arrows across the intervening space whilst their guard animals, a bad-tempered trio of celestial badgers, attempt to slow the heroes down. The party divides its efforts, and Joshua and Elessar make for the stairs as the others deal with the beasts. The elves retreat to the top of the stairs, the nearest of them drawing his blade to confront Joshua in the confines of the stairwell. The large cleric is grievously wounded, but Jasmine, Elessar and Charmalina press the attack. The others follow, bringing the fight to the upper story, whilst Torrent pauses to revive their fallen comrade. The battle is bloody, but the heroes are victorious.

With the carpentry tools downstairs, the party manages to break open the case and retrieve the contents. The rat, which has since transformed into a raven, alights upon the broken case, reveals itself to be some sort of tiny devil, and disappears with its prize in a gout of flame and smoke.

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Session II

1 Deepwinter 459 (New Year’s Day)

The bombing had stopped. It was by no means quiet out, with alarm bells ringing throughout the city and the evergrowing mass of confused and frightened people gathering in the streets, but to Arlyn’s well-trained ear, it was deafening. He glanced at his companions. Only the human swordswoman, leaning over one of their unconscious assailants, cocked her head as if listening to the night. Everyone seemed focused on their prisoners, quietly discussing their options. Almost everyone, Arlyn corrected himself. Basil stood slightly apart, fingering the hilt of his narrow blade as he watched the skies.

Studiously ignoring the muffled discussion of his comrades, Derek slid one of the prisoners’ distinctive red armbands from around his bicep. They had all been wearing them. A black horse-head decorated the accessory, familiar runes splayed across the icon in thin white letters. The wizard frowned. The symbols were familiar to him, but the words were not. He shook his head, stuffing the armband into his pouch as he got to his feet.

“We need to be going,” Torrent said. Jasmine glanced up as Joshua rose to his full height, nodding at the pale-haired priestess’s pronouncement. Sounds of battle drifted through the city, probably from the western wall. Jasmine sighed. She knew that the towering cleric was frustrated that they hadn’t the time to properly interrogate the prisoners, but that certainly didn’t weaken her resolve to be rid of the men entirely. After all, the only good Ragesian…

Elessar hefted the other man, carrying him gently toward a nearby alley. Jasmine lifted her own charge and followed him, rolling her eyes as she watched the paladin gently lower the injured thug to the ground. Jasmine grinned at him pleasantly as she unceremoniously dumped her burden in the same relative vicinity. She trailed behind slightly as the party lurched into motion, speculating at her chances of catching them up were she to double back briefly and rid the world of a couple of minor Ragesian irritants.

Frowning slightly, she hurried to catch up as the others were swallowed by the swelling crowd.

Torrent leads the party in a generally easterly direction, doing her best to avoid the thick knots of frightened citizenry. The group stops occasionally to offer aid to the wounded or rescue those in need, then hurries on their way, determined to make the scheduled rendezvous at the depository. At the gate between city wards, the masses become frantic as a dragon flies low overhead, inspiring terror amidst the milling crowd below. Doing their best to avoid being trampled, the heroes take advantage of the opening left in the wake of the panicked populace to work their way into the back streets of the next ward. Minutes later, they find themselves outside the eighty-foot-tall stone tower that Torrent had spoken of.

Identifying herself to the guard at the gate, Torrent wins admittance for the group and makes her way inside. The tower’s interior is dark and quiet, the sounds of the city muffled by heavy stone. Letting their eyes adjust to the wan light of a single lantern, the heroes ruminate for a moment just inside the main entrance before making their way to the stairs. They’re met on the ramp by a misshapen gnome, presumably the Lyceum spy Rivereye Badgerface. Acting as if he expected them, the gnome leads them up to the second floor to one of the tower’s many heavy lockers. The party becomes suspicious, however, since he seems to have misidentified Elessar as his anticipated contact Peppin, with whom Torrent is certain that the gnome is already acquainted. When the gnome explains that a password is necessary to access the case that they are there to collect, Elessar attempts to gently explain that Peppin is not among them, and has instead been recently found slain. The gnome immediately takes flight, escaping onto one of the tower’s numerous balconies and managing to disappear into the night.

The tower’s guards soon arrive and search the premises. A group of sentries stationed in the depository’s interior are located on the top floor, bound and gagged, along with the actual Rivereye Badgerface. Once the heroes have illuminated the diminuative spy regarding their intentions, Rivereye informs them that they were captured by a group of elves who intended to open the case. The gnome managed to convince them that some sort of password was necessary, lest the contents be magically destroyed. Thus the charade. He is unclear where the elves have taken the case, but he knows that they have a contact at Gabal’s School of Wizardry.

The party decides to take the gnome to a nearby Resistance safe house, located beneath a church devoted to the Order of the Aqualine Cross. As they are leaving the depository, however, they witness a brief aerial encounter in which one of the city’s griffon-mounted defenders successfully lances a Ragesian wyvern-rider. The beast falls to earth just a few blocks ahead, and the party soon arrives at the scene. Though the wyvern is obviously dead, the rider seems to have survived and fled into a nearby alley. Joshua implores Torrent to proceed toward the church whilst he and the party track down the Ragesian soldier.

They follow a trail of bodies in the blood-soaked snow to a small dwelling, where they corner the Ragesian and attempt to subdue him. The battle turns vicious, however, and Charmalina is nearly killed. The heroes converge upon the wyvern-rider and quickly cut him down. Gathering up the household survivors, they follow Joshua through the streets as he cradles the wounded halfling in his arms, bearing her to safety.

Lending what aid they can to the healers of the Aqualine Cross as they tend to their fallen comrade, seeing to the security and welfare of their tiny refugee-filled chapel, the party settles in for the night.

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Session I

1 Deepwinter 459 (New Year’s Day)

Midnight

“Trehann Finner, owner of the Poison Apple Pub, has been taken into temporary custody under the protection of the city guard, until such time that he can be questioned by representatives of the Ragesian Empire, and found innocent of hostile collusion. The Poison Apple Pub is hereby closed until further notice.”

Charmalina’s lips moved as she sounded out the words. Some of them were strange, but the meaning was clear.

The pub was closed.

The pretty swordswoman behind her let loose with a vile invective, and the halfling clearly heard the word “Ragesian” buried in there somewhere. A murmur ran through the group as they gathered close. Only her brother seemed relatively unaffected by the revelation, focusing instead on the shadowed street as it stretched either direction into the night. Charm grinned and rolled her eyes. He was always on edge.

Heedless of his diminuative companion’s amusement, Elessar Heartsblood, devoted champion of Holy Thaeos and sworn knight of the Sacred Blade, squinted slightly at the scrawled message pinned to the pub’s main entryway. A glance to either side showed that steps had been taken to secure the property, the doors and windows boarded shut. There were no obvious signs of life in or about the tavern. Straigtening up, he tossed a curious glance at his brother-in-faith, Joshua. The young cleric stood quietly in the party’s midst, towering head-and-shoulders above most of his erstwhile teammates.

Elessar cleared his throat. “Are you sure this is the place?”

Joshua nodded. “There’s a door in the alley,” he said, his clear baritone echoing slightly between the buildings. Setting action to words, the massive cleric turned quickly to one side and led the group across slush-coated cobbles to a narrow passage along the east side of the pub. A sputtering lantern suspended from a building across the street did little to dispel the deep shadows of the cramped alleyway, but the priest had no difficulty locating the narrow entrance. With a single glance around him, verifying that his motley assortment of would-be insurgents had managed to remove themselves completely from the road, Joshua rapped on the door a couple of times with his heavy boot. A moment passed, and the door finally opened.

The pale-haired young woman they’d been sent to meet took a moment to study the group before opening the door wide, motioning for them to enter. The tavern within was a little dingy and very rustic. Chairs and tables had been stacked against the wall and covered with sheets. A tiny lamp struggled to light the corners of the room from atop a single, centrally-located wooden table. A small keg of ale was situated alongside it, surrounded by a half-dozen mugs. A similar number of chairs were arrayed nearby. The woman moved to the table and started pouring drinks. Somehow, even this simple movement spoke of endless determination. Bits of sea-green plating were visible beneath her cloak, and a wicked-looking battleaxe was strapped across her back.

“There are more of you than I was anticipating,” she offered. Her voice carried a pleasant lilt more commonly heard in the hills of distant Sindaire.

Joshua grunted, glancing at the irrepressible young halfling who was already eying the cask of ale. “More than I was anticipating,” he echoed, but offered no further explanation for the cryptic comment. The woman smiled and nodded, motioning toward the table.

“I’m Tempest,” she added, taking a seat. “Please, have a drink. Just because we’re about to go to war doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the new year.”

Gathered about a table at the Poison Apple Pub, located in a poorer district of Gate Pass about a mile from the city’s western wall, Joshua, Jasmine, Elessar, Derek, Basil, Arlyn, Charm and Torrent discuss the fate of their city, and how they might forstall it or even turn back the Ragesian tide. Torrent explains that a number of fools on the city council are pushing to allow Ragesian inquisitors, agents of the dreaded Scourge that threatens to destroy every mage and cleric who fails to prove loyal to the empire, to bring their witch-hunt into the ciy. The Resistance, with whom most of those assembled are loosely affiliated, considers any cooperation with Ragesia just a huge step toward further subjugation. But Ragesia’s armies are sizeable, and Gate Pass cannot hope to hold them back for long.

The wizards’ academy of Lyceum, due south in the distant port city of Seaquen, has announced its intention to resist the Ragesian Scourge, calling for those who would fight to flock to its banners. The Resistance wishes to seize the opportunity to establish an alliance with the mages, hoping to bring the forces of Seaquen and Lyceum itself to the aid of its disant cousin to the north. Torrent asks that the party undertake this mission, after they retrieve some vital Ragesian intelligence from an agent expecting to meet his contact less than an hour hence.

Just as the party reaches a consensus regarding their approach, an ambush occurs. Arlyn and Jasmine note the presence of someone traversing the upper story just moments before the front door disintegrates into splinters beneath the weight of an enemy battering ram. Ragesian thugs make their way into the room, demanding the heroes’ surrender. The first of them falls beneath the wooden table itself as Joshua brings it crashing down onto his head. Jasmine, Elessar and the halflings make their way quickly toward the stairs, as Basil slides over to the far side of the door, plunging his rapier expertly into the back of one of the attackers as he steps through the wreckage.

In the stairwell, Elessar is brought up short by the appearance of yet another pair of Ragesians. As he closes with the first of them, Jasmine leaps nimbly atop the narrow bannister and drops between the two assailants, shoving one of them deftly in the paladin’s direction with a well-placed kick. The other proves less cooperative, and the two of them are soon grappling in the stairwell. Joshua, meanwhile, slips through the ruins of the front door and out into the street to confront their leader, a swordsman standing idly by on the far side of the road.

Just then, an explosion shatters the night. Fiery timbers sail from the upper story as it is suddenly reduced to kindling. Combatants in the tavern below find themselves dodging trails of fiery oil streaming down from above. They finish their battles quickly, recognizing the need for a hasty retreat from the failing premises.

The Ragesian captain orders his remaining thugs to retreat, apparently unwilling to suffer any further losses, and disappears into the night.

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