Fall of the Warlock Kings

Grouse's Secret
There's more to the goblin than meets the eye

After a few moments of rest they decided to push on, down the scrubby hillside toward the road, where a pair of hobgoblins stood debating where some unknown person could be. Grouse crept down to listen, seeing also two goblins and a bugbear, and discovered that they were talking about intercepting some sort of courier or messenger, who was…exactly where Grouse was. Grouse popped his head up and engaged in conversation, finding out that there is a small, red-orange gem that was destined for the Archmage, but never made it to him, and that these hobgoblins are now meant to retrieve it and take it back to Carnelian, for Her Emminence, even though they’re aware that Grouse’s (completely unknown) instructions are to keep the Gem of Fire away from that city. Grouse admits to having the Gem, and then takes the opportunity to ambush the rather surprised goblinoids. The rest of his friends back him up, slowly but surely as they had been left up on the hillside, and after a wearying battle, the foes are defeated. Grouse at last revealed the stone he had taken from the paychest the very moment he had opened it when they fled the army many months earlier, and it was shown to indeed be a gem of great value, with a seeming fire burning in it, and a way of catching the eye. Grouse hastily hid it away again, and suggested that with the Great King’s Army arriving at Dragon’s Howe that very day, there was no time to rest. Clouds gathered overhead as they pushed on along the roads, into the dark and spring rain, before coming to the luxurious and decadent city of Amara, where after some confusion, and some talk from Xerkos and Soreaii, they finally entered the city with a whore to guide them to the Ducal Palace. Through the cramped and crowded streets, where masked passerby tried not to stare, they came to the repurposed castle that was now site of a masked ball, and talked their way in with their letters of introduction. The Duke was, after some deliberation, summoned by Xerkos calling from a balcony, and after examining the letters, called together his council, including the human Juniper Amon, and a rather unpleasant Priestess of Tiam. In the Council, the dragonborn were all for failing—either by surrender, or by dying gloriously resisting the Great King. The humans were for fighting, with the chance at least of victory. The one dwarven councillor, incredibly wealthy, was for using money to buy off the army. The adventurers proposed gathering allies in Dorian Tal to the north, and after some shouting and bellicosity, the Duke declared this to be the plan he would authorize, for it did not in any way interfere with either surrendering or dying, only gave them another option. He asked the adventurers to continue on their perambulations, and carry his missive to the north, if they would. Juniper Amon was instructed to see they got a place to stay, but took them to his own quarters, perhaps to speak to them, but instead, they were attacked by Infernal devils, the exhausted heroes barely able to fight the few fiends. Amon slew one all on his own, and the rest were dispatched narrowly by the travelers, and then Amon took them through a subterannean channel to a hidey hole behind an inn, run by friendly humans, and left them there to rest for the night with his full backing to keep them safe.

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Pellin's Stand
The adventurers are not the only ones active

Suva was the end of the road, a tiny place with a blacksmith, no tavern but whatever wife had just brewed ale, a shrine to Tiam covered with moss and long untended, and a magistrate who could not even read. The people were simple, dragonborn and a few rather inbred dwarves with sullen looks to their faces. The appearance of Magistrate Pellin and his double hundred of refugees had some as something of a shock.

The ancient fortress which rested on the north side of the village was in even worse repair than that which hulked over Tauria, but it was, Pellin saw at once, the only place that held any hope of providing defense. Crumbling as it was, there were still walls of a sort, and in a kind of maze, now that some had crumbled or been stripped, which was familiar to the locals but which would unnerve the detachment of troops that were following them.

“We’ll stand here,” the old warlord said, surveying his five surviving guards, the three dwarves, two of them women, who had produced old hammers, and the dozen or so archers who had been rounded up. There were a few dragonborn volunteers as well, skilled in judging their breath, who were ready to help, though not combat trained at all. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had.

Tonarai, his sole woodsman, hastened to the keep at midday to report that the company of the Kingdom was approaching. With a few quick words, Pellin dispersed his archers to the overgrown walls, sending Tonarai to join them, and with the hammerers and his guard, slipped around the first bend in the crumbling maze. The folk of the town has pushed on north, carrying their possessions on the backs, the doors of their houses, even, in some cases, leaving the ramshackle town gaping behind them, and leaving the reavers no place to go but north, to the keep, to Pellin.

His archers would sting them. They would enter the maze. And here, he would stand, and he would kill them. Or he would die. Either way, he thought his family would be proud, and Tiam would receive his soul in joy.

Pellin’s old hands closed on the hilt of his sword…

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On the Perils of the Underground
In which they enter a Dungeon, and leave it

From the perilous engaged town of Dragon’s Howe, they depart into tunnels made long ago by dwarven miners. The Chancellor gives them a map he’s made of the tunnels, from ancient references, and they follow the shortest path he’s laid out-down into the dark earth, past long empty mines and into an area that has collapsed. A narrow passage continues, made by some sort of beast, and they soon realize they have entered a Kruthik lair. The beasts have a nest in amongst the passages, and Grouse creeps in and spies on them, hidden around the edges of their nest, ready to strike. They concoct a plan, whereby Xerkos will surge into the room and throw down oil, then wait for the Kruthik to attack, and then Soreaii will breathe fire on them all, counting on Xerkos’s tiefling resistance to keep him safe while the Kruthik suffer. This sort of works, though Grouse, creeping in once more, is ambushed when he realizes they can feel his motions and don’t need to see him. The battle is long and somewhat perilous for Xerkos, alone for a time amidst all the Kruthik, but the beasts are defeated. They press on, coming to what they were told was a lake, but the water has sunk, and there is a narrow pathway around the rim of a vast sunken depression. Xerkos falls into a crumbling pit, and then choaking beasts seize Grouse and Miri, and a fight ensues in which Grouse is shot by his friends, and nearly perishes at the hands of the beast, but the choakers are eventually killed, and the rest of the pits found. Still they press on, finding at last the way out, where they must force out a doorway buried in earth. They succeed-in part. In reality, it is a failure, for the door partly open, the earth tumbles in on them, burying Soreaii, Grouse, Urgar and Haltar. While the dragonborn is soon free with Miri’s help, the others take longer to dig out, and Grouse, gasping for air, barely survives his living burial. Outside the door, their efforts have attracted savage orcs and their dire boar “pets” who demand goods. A fight ensues, with Miri able to trick the orcs into thinking she is herself treasure, and then strike from behind, while Haltar is savaged over and over by charging boars. Eventually, the foes are defeated, and the companions are a mile and a half away from Dragon’s Howe, on a brush-covered slope overlooking the road to Amara. They are exhausted, but must still hurry along, for the Great King’s Army is likely encircling the Howe even as they gasp for breath and bind their wounds.

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Race for Dragon's Howe
In which they find horses, and ride for their worth

Continuing along the road to Dragon’s Howe, the party was eventually engaged by a small advance scout troop from the Great Army. Though they tried to talk their way past the hobgoblin riders, their elf archer backup, and their pack of battle hounds, they failed, and were forced into a struggle. The battle went their way, with the hobgoblins slain, the dogs cut down, and the elves allowed to retreat after answering some questions. They took the hobgoblins’ horses and were able to make better speed, though this was in some degree spoiled by the appearance of a small inn, with tree trunks laid across the road in front of it, and orc bandits awaiting anyone they could pillage. There was a more brutal fight, with Xerkos, Grouse and Soreaii lying slowly dying as the last three fought the last couple of orcs, and finally mananged to kill them and save their companions some moments before their deaths. Battered and weary, they had no choice but to push on toward Dragon’s Howe, which they spotted an hour or so later, with an advance cavalry unit hurrying to cut them off. But their horsemanship was good enough for them to make the town gates before they closed, and Miri, with some help from Soreaii, was persuasive enough to get them taken the to Baron’s keep instead of jail. The letter from Magistrate Pellin was shown, and although the cavalry units outside the walls made it too dangerous to leave the town on the roads, the Baron’s eladrin Chancellor, full of his own knowledge, revealed that there were secret paths out of the city, old dwarf tunnels that would lead a mile or more away. The Baron proposed a night’s sleep while the tunnels were open and supplies gathered, and the deserters agreed to continue on to Amara, with a new letter of commendation from the Baron, while Dragon’s Howe strove to hold out for enough time to allow the Amaran army to crush the Great King’s Army against the sturdy walls and hillsides of the town.

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Butcher Butchered
In which our heroes win their first fight

They are safe in the inn, perhaps, but the fight takes to the streets, where the locals, perhaps warned by the first crossbow bolt killing one of them, don’t participate. Instead, it’s a slugfest, with goblins and hobgoblins dropping like flies, but the dwarves standing firm, and the Butcher himself pretty fierce. There’s a lot of blood spilled, though not from Miri or Utgar, but in the end, only Grouse finds himself down for the count, Grouse and the enemy, that is. There’s not enough time to destroy the Butcher’s body, because Magistrate Pellin arrives with some of his guard to say that the town in under attack all over, and he would ask, in return for not having turned them in to the Great Army as deserters, that the six deserters carry a message about the Army stirring to Amara, or at least Dragon’s Howe. They agree, and set off across a countryside crawling with patrols and scouts, narrowly avoiding detection to reach the cave where their treasures are hidden. Inside, however, are stirges who have made a lair of it, and the fire beetles that feed off the blood-drained corpses left behind. Another fight, this one more handily won, in which Utgar takes the worst of it and has to run, and Haltar almost finds himself dropped from bloodloss. But the beasts are slain, and after their treasures are retrieved, they march on. On the next day, everyone pushes hard except for Grouse, possibly because he’s carrying a whole wheel of cheese, and falls so far behind that by the time they make the Draconic Road, he’s exhausted. The next day, after camping in an abandoned farmhouse, they see refugees fleeing the coming conflict, and over the horizon, the dust that can only be cast up by an army on the march. The Army of the Great King, having swallowed Yel Arai in only a week, is already moving on toward Amara. Will they be in time to warn the Duke, or at least one of his commanders?

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Trouble is Coming

It’s just a normal day at the inn, late afternoon, the sun setting behind the Black Mountains. All anyone can talk about is the army to the south, the smoke still rising from Yel Arai, though thinner trails of it now. That’s when the half-orc shows up, with two hobgoblins who look alike enough to be twins, and a dwarf with a smile on his lined face, but not a nice smile, more the smile you make before you strike that killing blow. And Miri knows him, had seen him more than once hanging around the captain’s tent, this half-orc whose father was a purebred hobgoblin. He’s the Butcher, a priest of the Lord of War, the Lord of the Crimson Nights, the dark slaughterer who most recently walked in Yel Arai’s blood-soaked streets. Haltar knows him, too, has seen him, and the beast in Haltar raises it’s hackles, for the Butcher kills men for delight, not for cause.

But it seems almost casual, their approach. A drink at the bar, a few meaningless questions, a wonder about the next village to the north. And then they’re gone. Right away, though, because they were all military, because they’re with the Army of the Great King, everyone knows it’s trouble. Tauria was too small to bother with, they thought. Apparently not. So Grouse starts to get everything ready, gather up the gear and such, and there’s a thump at the door, which Soreaii checks…it’s a villager, his body skewered by a crossbow bolt, and there they are, coming back already, the Butcher and his followers, a second dwarf now, and a few goblins, and they’re coming for the inn, that’s sure, and the dragonborn in the door opens his mouth to breathe…

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Death of the Archmage
The last of the great ones dies

It was a minor skirmish, so the reports say, just across the Hetos River in the Dal Desert. The dwarven Archmage Kurol Kalan, last of the formidable Mage Cabal that once served the Great King, commanded half a thousand mixed troops seeking after a rebel band that had struck at a supply depot of the 7th Army. What exactly happened is unclear still; the highest ranked survivor of the Great Kingdom was a just-promoted Lieutenant whose story cannot completely be trusted. However, what has been said is that the detachment was ambushed by a force larger than itself, not in theory a concern with the Archmage present, but that something, which perhaps was a beast with wings, of great size (the word dragon was whispered but discarded), struck at the Lord Kalan. The struggle which ensued was titanic, and destroyed much of the army, ending only with the withdrawl of the greatly wounded beast. The Archmage, however, was felled, dead on the sands, and as always in such a case, a battle broke out for possession of the body. If the Great King’s forces could obtain it, they could bring the Archmage back, but if not…

The rebels, whoever they were, obtained the body. The last of the Cabal is dead, the southern forces of the Great King deprived of their greatest arcanist. And yet, a few days later, the Army of the Great King struck north, and seized Yel Arai. Something is shifting in the Great Kingdom, and perhaps one of the Mage Cabal was an unwanted presence…

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Trouble Across the River
The Prequel

From the top of the single tower that stood in the ancient, ruinous castle-keep of Tauria, Magistrate Pellin stared to the south. In the dim light of the setting sun, vanishing now behind the distant mountains, he could see the smoke rising from across the river, from the city of Yel Arai. Only thirteen miles away, that small distance and the thin band of water were all that separated Tauria from the armies of the Great King, now that Arai had fallen.

The dark-skinned human at Pellin’s side grunted. “Magistrate, we must send word to Amara.”

“Yes, of course,” the magistrate murmured. His tongue licked around the scales at the edge of his mouth. He was nervous, verging on terrified, but he hoped the human was not so familiar with dragonborn as to notice. Why had someone in the Great Kingdom started the army in motion again? Who had taken that step, since all accounts agreed the Great King was not in command any longer? “Has your mount had time to recover?”

“You would send me back? Magistrate, I question the choice. If the army comes—.”

“If the army comes, Specialist, one human more or less, no matter how proficient, won’t matter much. I have a scant dozen watchmen under my command, a monastery that can perhaps furnish a single prayerful warrior, one half-trained wizard who came here because there was no competition for his skills, and farmers with pitchforks. There is no way that I can slow down the Great King’s host, if it comes. But you might be of use elsewhere.”

The human grunted again. He was a large fellow, with massive arms used to pulling the huge bow that Pellin had seen among his gear. A bow that he would greatly like to press into service, but Amara couldn’t afford such a pointless loss.

“As you say, then, Magistrate.” The human bowed low and departed down the worn stairs.

Magistrate Pellin watched as the glow of the sun faded, and the glow of fire became more evident. They were burning Yel Arai. Either they meant to come quickly, or the matter had gotten far out of hand. If the latter, perhaps he had time to contrive some method of, if not victory, at least delay.

He had not, after all, mentioned all his resources. There were, if he could convince himself he dared use them, and if they would consent to be used, the newcomers….

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