Evening – 19th Flamerule, Firesteap Mountains.
Story: Morain collected his allotted bowl of beany pork stew and rude wooden cup of beer then hastened to an empty bench seat alongside his 'brothers'. His holiness, Tarvald, had instituted a strict rotation of training and prayer since he arrived some weeks ago. Morain's body complained loudly with every step, bruises and scrapes from training staves and cudgel blows brushed painfully against the hair shirt underclothes beneath his robe. All about him the robed figures of his brethren were bent over their own meager meals, conversation a low hum, in contravention of their orders for complete silence and contemplation during personal time. Morain sniffed, people were the same everywhere, no orders could change a mans need for gossip, stories and the companionship of his fellows.
The young cultist barely raised his head as another group of their fellows entered. But when he noticed the swish of hip beneath ashen robes and slimmer lithe forms of two of the group he began to pay more careful attention. The Brothers of Ash and Flame did not count many women amongst their number, most serving with Her Holiness in Hylaea. Things were looking up. At least he might have someone more interesting to talk to, or at least watch, down here under the earth. That was what Morain missed really, the clear voices of his sisters, and their friend Jenna, especially Jenna.
The room fell into a genuine quiet as another group made their way inside the crowded refectory and proceeded to the trestles assigned as food benches and dish holders. Morain bent his head and attempted to look suitably pious as Tarvald's lieutenant Kashar made his way through the small group containing the women, delivering silent benedictions with his right hand as they deferred to his standing, allowing the priest of Ash to take his repast before them. Young Soltan, son of the miller family from Sherra, stumbled his way out of Kashar's path, earning a brief scowl and the silent mirth of his brethren.
"He'd probably be feeding the Trog's for weeks," thought Morain with a quick stubbly grin.
He shuffled across to allow one of the women from the group of four to sit to his left on the bench. She was pretty. Remarkably so, and Morain realised he was looking at sharpened elven features; delicate sea-shell ears without the ponderous human lobes. He frowned briefly. With so many newcomers it was impossible to meet everyone, between watches, prayer routine and training. But he was sure they'd not enlisted any elves, they generally didn't believe that the Lords were actually gods, heathens that they were.
"And come to think it…," mused Morain. "Should there really be this many 'brothers' off duty at once?" He couldn't remember there being this many at the late meal, between the deepening and the extinguishing, since he'd come to this place.
The world turned into a chaotic morass, shouts and the breaking of furniture suddenly replacing the light banging of wooden dishes and many hungry mouths. The last thing Morain heard was a heavily accented female voice, mirth in its tone, and an explosion as if the very stones had cracked beneath his feet. Brief, intense pain, and then darkness swallowed the young cultist in its death grip…
Rewinding some two hours, we find the members of Expedition B (and Orsekk) in a reopened shrine to the gods of Ash and Flame, specifically Gargaash the Elder. They had managed to find a brief respite in a side chamber, which led them to discover the potential of yet another 'secret' pivot door, molded into the rock. Sharah had volunteered (impatient and with a view to push the Party along) ducked around the corner and began to look for the chamber or corridor's entrance point, based on the previously discovered panel door in the room the had fallen into to arrive here. Before a full investigation had taken place the Party were alerted to future company by the sound of drums, cymbals and a low resonant chanting.
Spotting a significant group of cultists, including some armed with genuine kit and a priestly figure mounted on a dais being carried by small creatures of living ash, Sharah quickly returned to the group stressing silence and the size of the approaching procession. The inevitable discovery of the cultist's dead comrades provoked an immediate response, guards on alert and cultists searching both the close and further access corridors to what the Party now realised was a central shrine chamber with no easy alternate exit.
An ambush was set, our 'heroes' once again deciding to use their stealth abilities and rely on the questionable value of surprise (given the alert state of the 'enemy'). Lando and Sharah took up positions alongside the doorway closest to the approaching entourage, whilst Silifrey charged her guns behind a solid central pillar and Evnarra melted into the rear stonework using her race's natural affinity for the underground environment. Orsekk placed himself near one of the further entrances in anticipation of a smaller group attempting an approach from a different corridor.
Despite the Cultists knowledge that someone had penetrated their lair the initial stages of the trap were sprung without a hitch. At least until the completion of a ritual from the leading priestly figure, where-upon the emergence of a Fire Elemental, glowing with primordial fury, began to rapidly complicate the situation. With smaller elemental Mephits (the dais carriers) exploding and showering the Party in darkened ash or steam, the Fire Elemental pushing forward through the main corridor entrance and a group of halberd armed cultists invading from the north, our 'heroes' found themselves completely surrounded. Orsekk was severely scalded and clawed by a group of Mephits and it looked grim for the older dwarf. In the following moments adrenaline must have had a lot to do with the Party's swift, deadly and clever response.
The Cultists and Mephits who had made their way into the chamber were treated to a hail of gun-fire, arrows, dagger thrusts and rapier strikes that thinned their ranks rapidly leaving bloodied corpses and small explosions of ash and steam. Lando and Sharah sprang backwards and forwards trying to avoid the puffs of elemental force as much as position for their next strikes. Silifrey dedicated herself to aiding the downed Orsekk and holding to the north, whilst Evnarra took on the problem of the Fire Elemental. The small svirfneblin wizard was (and still is) no physical match for any Elemental, however the image of an enraged Ice Elemental surely was. Illusionary hoar-frost and motes of swirling snow surrounded the image, completely fooling the Fire Elemental and several of the remaining cult members who immediately focused on this new and surprising threat.
The 'round-up' and subsequent slaughter of the other cultists, Fire Elemental and Priest went smoothly from there. Including a devastating stealthy attack by Sharah with her glowing magical dagger to the rear of the Fire Elemental, finishing the creature off and banishing its essence again to the Plane of Fire that birthed it. Bandaging wounds and offering comfort and magical healing to Orsekk (who was covered in small scalds and burns) was how an eye-brow raised and travel stained Erro found the Party, after he followed their trail of combat and bodies to the chamber which had taken on the aspect of a charnel-house.
Erro Moonshadow had ridden his borrowed palfrey as hard as he dared along the highway to the south-east of Kordova and passed the still barred gates of Sherra earlier that day. He couldn't say exactly why he hurried, just a feeling ever since the minor tremors he'd felt through his bedroll the previous evening and a general feeling of disquiet. After meeting with the very active dwarven occupants of the shrine and a viewing of the damaged chamber with the hardened lava tube Erro's perspective did not appreciably become any sunnier. Assuming the worst he hastened into the diagonal shaft, using the already safe, and rapidly lengthening stair being constructed on-the-fly by the dwarves. Moving into darkness he crept along the path of Party, disturbances and dead cultists until, relieved and a little confused he found the rest of the expedition amidst the results of their latest encounter with the denizens of Hyradraea.
After greetings and introductions (Erro had yet to meet Lando) a quick debrief ensued, with Erro updating the Party with regards to other current 'Sunset-Missions' and everyone taking stock of the present situation. The opening and concealed tunnel were recalled and resolving to move away from the main complex the Party ascended a small set of stairs that placed them in an unadorned and light-less corridor extending east in a straight line through the rock. Masking their entrance to this stairwell and corridor the group moved forward for several hundred feet before descending a further stair and (after a quick check) exiting in an ante-chamber filled with cult paraphernalia and equipment. Noises from both of the exits could be clearly heard, the sounds of humanoid passage and work.
Side corridors revealed several larger spaces across which the Party observed cultists wearing bloodied aprons bearing cut portions of meat toward an upward sloping passageway. Of more immediate interest though were the sounds of a larger number of people that could be heard from a side chamber in an adjacent corridor. Leaving Evnarra and Orsekk near the entrance to the secret corridor the others donned the purloined robes of cult members and hatched a quick plan based on subterfuge and what can only be described as a little wishful thinking. With a boldness that belied their isolated state Silifrey, Lando, Erro and Sharah entered a long chamber, set with many trestle tables and bench seats. Food preparation and serving equipment placed to one long side of the chamber, with large cauldrons and trenchers of communal style food laid across another series of tables. Many of the wooden seats were occupied by cult members observing a grim silence as they chewed through a less than appetising looking meal. Some were still serving themselves to the left side of the chamber and it was to the end of this line of cultists that our 'heroes' joined, attempting to imitate the enforced silence of the room.
It was at this moment that an entourage of cultists (some four or five) and a priest entered the room. A lean and hard looking southerner his entry obtained an instant repect as cultists sat up straighter, murmurs ceased and the cultists clustered to the left side of the chamber made way for their superior. He frowned slightly at the scene, but when the disguised Party members followed suit and made gracious way for him he attended to his own meal, then seating himself with his small coterie at a central trestle table. Some mirth was had at the expense of one dimwitted youth who did not quite manage to make way and observe the proper obsequience(s). And so without arousing suspicion, Sharah, Erro, Silifrey and Lando seated themselves about the room, Erro choosing to sit as close to the Under-Priest as he could, and began a repast consisting mostly of beany stew, flavoured with the distant memories of bacon and garlic.
Now it must be noted that Erro had a myriad of experiences with which to draw upon and fell into 'refectory' character immediately. Even able to slip a medium sized emerald from his robes and casually toss it beneath the Under-Priest whilst adjusting a sandal. Lando's Dragonmere tan and hair could fit any number of regional areas and Silifrey's slightly boyish stance and mannerisms made identification of either difficult in the heavy cult robes. A little more difficult to conceal are the finely shaped elven features and delicate flowing movements of Sharah Bloodcast, who it must be said had attracted the attention of more than one young 'chancer' on the streets of Baldur's Gate in her time. It was at the moment that a young man became too interested in Sharah and the Under-Priest (observed by Erro) had perked up his attention that our 'heroes' sprang their (for want of a better word) trap.
Silifrey slipped the slim-line shotgun of which she'd become inordinately fond of from her robes, calling down dwarven 'blessings' on the unfortunate group of cult members opposite, before deafening the room with a hail of shot. This could be heard throughout the complex, alerting Orsekk and Evnarra who rushed toward the central chamber, as did a number of cultists not at the evening meal. Erro immediately took this as his queue to try out his new toy (a magical emerald taken from the coffers of The Old Firm), issuing a word of command and throwing the centre of the refectory into chaos as a hulking Earth Elemental responded to the primordial spells of binding contained within the magical Emerald.
The rest of the melee quickly became a slaughter, as the bewildered cultists reacted to the presence of the Party and the rampaging elemental with a feverish though ultimately futile defense. Splintered tables and other furniture hampered their efforts, and the roguish bent of the Party 'lapped-up' the opportunity to excel at close-quarter fighting. Despite reinforcements our 'heroes' defeated wave upon wave, turning the refectory chamber and adjacent rooms into a scene of death, reeking with the spilled blood of the unfortunate and poorly trained cult fighters.
Scouring the remainder of the living areas of the complex a number of interesting items and equipment were found, though no further clue as to the ultimate goals of the strange group. Upon investigating the tunnel entrance sloping upward (where earlier they had observed the 'meat-bearing' cultists) the Party found an end to the shaped and worked passage-ways; a rough cut, winding tunnel, from which emanated the first breath of a breeze they had felt since crawling through the secret tunnel earlier.
A curious and slightly rancid odour greeted the Party as they entered a twisting natural section of cave, the walls and floor damaged by the movements of the faults deep beneath the Firesteaps. Moving cautiously forwards and upwards they very soon encountered the source of the peculiar smell. Greyish brown, lizard featured humanoids began to flit about the periphery of the Party, crawling and scrambling from the many cave openings and fissures in the tunnel. These creatures were quickly identified by Evnarra as being Troglodytes and an alarming number of them were now extended in a rough circle around our 'heroes'.
Despite Troglodytes less than savoury reputation the Cultists had managed to find some equilibrium with the creatures and inherit free guards into the bargain by regularly feeding the creatures to keep them torpid and docile. Approaching the situation with caution the Party came to much the same conclusion and used food as a lure and 'trade-off' to move hastily to the upper tunnels where a breeze, scented with pine needles greeted them like a breath of ambrosia after their time underground.
Just as the beginnings of a dim light could be seen around the corners of the last stretch of tunnels a hideous stench took over the previously sweet air. Investigating a side chamber the Party found themselves face-to-face with the top line of the cults 'natural' defences at their 'back-door'. A large and well-fed Troll confronted our group in a chamber littered with bones and refuse from countless unhappy creatures. A struggle ensued with the Troll very keen to add yet another meal to its never-ending need to gorge. Overcoming this last challenge, with fire and acid putting paid to the creature's uncanny regenerative abilities, the PArty could at last turn their faces toward the twisting deer-tracks and mountain streams that would lead them back north to Erruggarr's Shrine.
The Cult - Sharah attempts to subdue the leader of this cult cell, trying to strike his temple with the pommel of her dagger blade. Unfortunately the strike misses, and a resigned Tarvald, seeing the destruction of his followers and ineffectiveness of his summoned pet, smashes his "homing ruby" and perishes in the conflagration.
The cult fights with a passion and feverish purpose, gladly sacrificing themselves for whatever strange purpose they represent. Some are less committed than others, though these cultists interested in self preservation have been a minority and only break when forced to hopeless situations.
Cathrykan arrives at the Hall of the Sunset one afternoon, escorted by her new attendant Treava, temple guardsmen (dressed in impractical leather harness) and a small carriage from which is lifted (with much grunting and sweating) many large, lead sealed leather sacks. Shortly afterward a beaming Silvio was seen rushing about the bottom level of the Hall to find Arantes and the sound of clinking trade bars could be clearly heard by Gaukin and the Chef across the way in the kitchens.
Morain (Torsch), Soltan (Sherra), Kashar (Foreign) – deceased members of the Brothers of Flame & Ash. Most bodies of the 'regular' cultists are of Kordian extraction or bear features of the different Lake of Steam nations/city states. Kashar is from further away, perhaps the Shining Sea States to the south and west.
1325 XP for each ACTIVE CHARACTER.
861 XP for each OFF CHARACTER.
(1650 accumulated XP for each NPC SUNSET CHARACTER).
Story Goal Achieved:
Refitting the Hall #1. and "Stretch Goal" Achieved.
Rewards – The Indecipherable Map. 250gp each.
From Silvio upon return. Sharah in custody of Map.
Hammer of the Forge, Diverse Wealth; Potions, Weapons, Raw Gemstones and Processed Metals, Sets of Armour and other Trade Goods. (Chainmail + 1, Studded Leather + 1, 3 Common Healing Potions, Potion of Comprehend Languages).
Cult Texts – For Calaith, Cathrykan, Erro and Evnarra to peruse.
Reunited in the Errudrakenath our Party and their friends made some decisions about the immediate future of Expedition B.
1). Silifrey would remain at the shrine for the period of mourning being held for Thorfan Inkpen, learning more about dwarven culture and incidentally allowing herself a sneaky chance at some 'personal-business' with regards to the bookishly attractive artist Quailyth.
2). They would attempt to discover the true nature of the 'Blight' affecting the lands about Sherra and filtering up and down the river Malravan. This would entail the remaining memebrs of Expedition B, plus Erro, entering the nearby township as quickly as possible.