It was basically over but for the bookkeeping.
Faldinn, worn out from raging but still the hardest hitter in the party, posted himself at the door just in case any more enemies showed up.
Yarwon deemed Kendram's sore throat too trivial a hurt to justify spending a potion or a spell, and instead gave him an herb from his healer's kit to chew up and suck on. It tasted like a combination of mint and nastiness, but the juice soothed the pain. (The fact that he had to shut up as long as he was sucking on it was, from the rest of the party's perspective, a helpful bonus.)
That just left the biggest issue: the magical barriers locking them out of the treasure room, and D'lana, passed out between them.
"The barriers themselves are probably keeping him unconscious," said Wendes, peering at the shimmering curtains of energy. "Think about it. The majority of your sneak thieves are going to be rogues, and they're notoriously difficult to keep trapped by any means other than knocking them out."
"How do we get through?" asked Cinadel.
"Dispel magic should do the trick. Who has those scrolls we took from Pjana's workshop?"
"I think I do," said Yarwon. He started inspecting the folds of his fur cloak, and frowned. "I thought I did…"
"You lost them?" Wendes wailed.
"Of course not! How would I have lost them between that storage room and here?"
"Aren't those them?" said Cinadel, pointing at the sprawled D'lana. A few rolled paper ends protruded from inside his shirt.
"Wh—HEY!" Wendes squawked. "That lousy thief! He must have picked your pocket, Yarwon! Damn rogues!"
Kendram snickered and pushed the herb into his cheek for a moment so he could comment. "This is karma then, isn't it? If we had the scrolls, we could get him out of there no trouble. It would serve him right if we just walked away."
"But it wouldn't be right," said Yarwon. "Kendram, you said those skeletons could get through the barriers, right? Maybe we can find a long pole or something to reach through and grab the scrolls."
Cinadel nudged a heap of collapsed bones apart with his toe and fished out a relatively intact arm and hand. "Why not just use these?" he said, waving it cheerfully. "We can lash them together to get the length we need and look! It's already got a gripping tool on the end!"
Wendes grimaced. "That's disgusting."
"He's got a point, though," said Yarwon, picking up a pair of femurs. "Might as well use what we have. And we already know the barriers don't repel bone."
So they went with the grisly but eminently practical plan, tying together several long bones with the hand on the end. With effort, they were able to insert it through the barrier, snag the scrolls D'lana had swiped, and retrieve them.
Wendes thumbed through until he found the right one. "Stand back, everyone," he said, unrolling it. "These magical traps sometimes have one surprise left when dispelled." While the others obediently scooted away, he began to read…
The arcane sigils inscribed on the parchment lit up, shifting through shades of blue and violet. The glow was reflected in Wendes's eyes, intensifying as he continued to cast the spell until it seemed that his eyes themselves were shining also. As he intoned the last few syllables, he moved his right hand in a few sharp mystic gestures and thrust it at the barrier.
A pulse of energy, like a tiny shockwave, burst from his palm. It seemed to dissipate rapidly without striking the barrier, but nonetheless, the shimmering curtain of force faded away. So did its twin at the other end of the short corridor. And so did the light from the scroll, which crumbled to ash, its magic spent.
There was quiet for a moment. Then:
"That was cool!" Cinadel piped.
"Wizardry," said Wendes with justifiable smugness. "Accept no substitutes."
Yarwon approached the space where the barrier had been and gingerly put his hand through. "It's clear," he said, hurrying forward to tend to D'lana.
The rogue was essentially unhurt, and it only took a moment to revive him. He opened his eyes to an assortment of annoyed scowls.
"We need to talk," said Wendes, shaking the unused scrolls. "What else of ours did you steal?"
D'lana made a weak chuckle as he sat up. "I was going to give them back."
"By pretending they were part of the stash in here?" said Kendram.
"The stash!" D'lana said gleefully, hopping to his feet.
"Not so fast," said Yarwon, taking hold of D'lana's arm with one big hand. "You owe us. While you were napping, this place was swarming with skeletons. We protected you from them."
"I protected you," Kendram specified.
"And then there's the matter of your thievery," said Wendes. "I think you've forfeited your right to have first go at the treasure."
"Oh, don't you dare try to cheat me out of this prize…"
"Cheating? Hardly. We'll take the lot, value it, and divvy it up equally. If you especially want anything in particular, you can make your case."
D'lana groaned, but he seemed to realize he was actually being offered a very generous bargain for the circumstances.
"Guys, do we have to do all that here?" said Cinadel. "Can't we cart this stuff away and count it at an inn or something?"
"Probably wisest," said Yarwon. "That necromancer asshole will be back sooner or later."
"That too," said Cinadel. "But mainly…if I don't bathe soon I'm going to turn into a orc."
"Heeeey!" Norway said with a grin. "You've been reading up on the worldbuilding."
"I read that Player's Handbook cover-to-cover," said Iceland. "The learning curve for this game can be tricky," he added as if Åland had not used exactly those words to him a couple sessions ago, "so I decided to bone up."
Denmark, at three beers and counting, giggled. "'Bone.'"
"Do you want to play through the process of transporting the treasure, or skip ahead to the inn?" said Åland.
"Skip ahead! Skip ahead!" Denmark voted.
"I'm with Denmark, strangely enough," said Sweden. "After all that, I want to find out what we scored!"
The Prancing Goat turned a tidy profit, in no small part because the proprietress had seen the value in catering to niche groups that are known for throwing a lot of money around…that is to say, adventurers. After suffering or narrowly averting one too many brawls instigated by rough-edged patrons who had noticed the volume of gold and jewels being sorted through by other patrons at the corner tables, Madam Crefna had hit upon the idea of sectioning those two tables off into private meeting rooms with closeable doors and sound-damping tapestries on the walls…and charging a fee for their use. The schedule for this was an impenetrably complex one, taking into account how much wealth a party was carrying (she prided herself on her ability to estimate this with a look), how adept they were at fighting, and how ugly the evening's crowd was, so that the price stopped just short of the point where they would be better off taking their chances in a brawl.
Also, her food was excellent, the place was classy (when it wasn't being renovated after a recent scuffle, and sometimes even then), and Crefna herself was a nice-looking half-elf who wasn't opposed to getting friendly with the more dashing customers. Success was pretty much guaranteed.
The party paid for use of one of the private rooms in advance. Crefna insisted, once she identified Kendram as a bard. She was no dummy, and was well aware of her own weaknesses. It was probably the first time in Kendram's adventuring career that his skills had ever been a disadvantage in negotiations.
While the landlady prepared the meeting room, Cinadel availed himself of the bathing facilities and the others hit the bar...but not too much, since they needed to have their wits about them. By and by, Cinadel returned, with his snake nosing through his damp hair, and Crefna ushered them into the room.
Dividing up the treasure was straightforward enough. The cult members had been mostly lowlifes, able to acquire coins and jewels (via one method or another) but not much in the way of fancy trinkets or magic items. The cache included a couple of cure potions, a dagger with a low-grade sharpness enchantment, and a third vial of liquid that turned out to be an elixir of love.
"Oh, this one won't bite us in the ass at any point," Wendes muttered. "I don't suppose you want it, rogue?"
"I have no use for such things," said D'lana. "I work by stealth, not trickery. Best save it for yourselves. Maybe you can make a boyfriend of this lich of yours."
"Ew!" said Kendram. "That's...just...ew! Why would you say that?"
"How would we give it to him?" said Yarwon. "Liches don't drink."
"Oh right, that's the problem with that plan!" Kendram sneered. "Not the very prospect of...with a...ew!"
"Let's keep it!" said Cinadel. "You never know when something like this might come in handy."
"...says the charm-resistant guy," said Wendes.
"I wouldn't necessarily say no to that dagger, however," D'lana continued as if the intervening conversation hadn't taken place.
"I'll bet not, but a magic weapon is worth more than your share," said Kendram.
"Let me have my share in jewels, then," said the rogue. "Money is just money, but I can pawn these off on some stupid small-town noble for as much as twice their actual value. Maybe one of you could do the same, but don't you have a quest to be getting on with?"
that's not a terrible point," said Wendes. "If the gems are effectively worth more to you than they are to us...I think we can strike a bargain."
"What if he's lying about that?" Kendram protested.
"Kendram..." Wendes said patiently, "...when someone lies during a negotiation, they pretend things are worth less to them than they actually are."
The jewels were duly appraised, and a selection of amethysts, spinels, and one piece of jade with a tree design carved into it were handed across the table to D'lana the Quick. He gave them a once-over, frowning, and then made a curt nod.
"I'd best be on my way. Perhaps we'll meet again someday."
"Only the DM knows for sure!" Cinadel quipped. The others gave him blank looks.
"Elves, man," said Yarwon.
With that taken care of, they did what any adventurers would do upon finding themselves several hundred gold coins richer, apiece.
They hit the bar again.
The next morning brought dismal rain, which seemed somehow fitting. They still had one more necessary errand before they could embark on the next phase of their quest: finding a devotee of evil to translate the documents they had retrieved (well, stolen) from Susari's cult. That meant a return to Temple Row, and that meant endless potential for trouble.
"That guy must have found out we smashed all the skeletons and looted his treasure room by now," said Wendes. "He'll be out for revenge. What if he gave our descriptions to the authorities?"
"And told them what?" said Yarwon. "'These guys escaped the death-trap I made out of the former members of my lich-worshiping cult and stole the proceeds from our underground gambling ring'? I think we're good. He's got more to fear from the law than we do."
"You're probably right. But let's keep a low profile anyway. That means no flirting, no wandering off, no starting fights with anyone... Let's just find the first scourge of humanity who accepts cash and can be discreet and find out what these things say."
This turned out to be much easier said than done. While there were plenty of evil clerics on Temple Row, any of whom could be expected to have the ability to read Infernal script, there were not many who accepted payment for their services in gold (as opposed to blood/life force/promises of firstborn children) and who could be counted on not to turn right around and use the information against them or resell it or maybe just enslave the lot of them on principle. In theory, the priests of the Mightiest Warlord and the Skull Queen and their ilk knew that abusing customers was bad for repeat business, but somewhere on the road between theory and practice, the idea seemed to get lost.
They were on the verge of breaking for lunch when a quiet voice called to them from the slim space between two buildings—too narrow, even, to be considered an alley.
"I will translate for you. Free of charge."
They peered into the dimness, where a ragged figure sat leaning against the wall. The hood of a dingy brown robe was pulled halfway over the person's face, and between that and the shadows they could make out very little of his or her features.
"Forgive us if we think that sounds too good to be true," said Wendes. "What's the catch?"
"No catch," said the stranger. "There are grave sins in my past for which I seek to atone. If I can use one of the vicious skills I developed during that time to help you bring down a great evil, it will lift part of this weight from my soul."
There was an awkward silence.
"O...kay," said Kendram. He elbowed Wendes and hissed, "Wendes, give him the documents!"
"Not just yet," said the wizard, backing away a step. "How do you know what we're up to?"
The stranger shifted position and raised his head—probably a he, they decided—to look at them more directly. He was human, fair-complected, with maybe some gnomish ancestry a few generations back. "I've been seeing you around all morning. You're not exactly being discreet. Please...let me help you with this."
After exchanging a round of glances with the rest of the party, Wendes sighed, stepped forward, and handed the parchment to the man. Upon taking them, he withdrew a bit further into the shadows and began to read. They saw his light-colored eyes flick back and forth. His breathing became rapid and irregular, and he shuddered at intervals.
Yarwon leaned closer, looking concerned. Wendes stopped him from interrupting. "It's a form of trance," he said in a low voice. "If he's telling us the truth—if his ability to read Infernal script comes from wickedness in his past—then accessing it now is probably very difficult and uncomfortable for him."
"Wow. So he's doing us a huge favor, then," said Cinadel.
"At ease, Captain Obvious," said Yarwon. "I'll take your word for that, Wendes, but if—"
He broke off when the stranger abruptly flung his head back. His eyes were wide open and glazed, and he wheezed out a few words. "There's an island...the phylactery...need...more..." He let out a cry of pain and collapsed where he sat. The parchment burst into strangely dark flames and burned to ashes in an instant; as if to add insult to injury, the ongoing drizzle then washed away the remnants.
When a moment passed with no further movement or noise from the man, Yarwon darted into the narrow space and crouched beside him, checking his vital signs. He frowned.
"Oh, god, he's dead, isn't he?" said Kendram.
"No...but he's not entirely well. Let's get him indoors and take care of him. We owe him that much."
"More to the point, we have to make sure he wakes up if we want to find out exactly what he read," said Wendes. "Not that it's not also the right thing to do, of course."
They carried the poor fellow back to their inn. This attracted less notice than one might think; every adventuring party, sooner or later, finds itself saddled with the unconscious body of an ally. (If they're lucky, it's an ally.) They laid him on one of the straw pallets and Yarwon began tending to him.
His dull pallor and thready pulse suggested a mild degree of shock. Out of habit, Yarwon began checking him for injuries. He removed the coarse brown robe to discover, to no small surprise, that underneath it the man was wearing well-made garments typical of the merchant class. Under those, his flesh was marked with purplish veins, radiating from (or converging on) his heart.
"Oh, that doesn't look good..." Wendes muttered. "Maybe it wasn't him. Maybe there was a magical trap in the document."
"They're fading," Yarwon noted. "I bet he'll wake up once they're gone. Let's see if I can speed them along." He passed his hand over the ugly streaks, muttering the words of a cure spell. To his satisfaction, the veins shrank to invisibility in seconds. The stranger's color improved, and he opened his eyes a moment later.
"I'm indoors..." he said.
"We brought you in," said Kendram. "We couldn't just leave you there."
"Do you feel all right?" asked Yarwon.
"As well as can be expected after a turn like that. Better, even."
"I used a spell to help you recover," said Yarwon.
"Does that sort of thing happen often?" said Wendes.
"It's a safeguard when I willingly expose myself to evil influences. It's better that than that they should take hold of me. Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Rygenam. Fidunie Rygenam."
They looked blank for a moment, but then Kendram perked up. "Oh. As in the cursed family?"
Rygenam nodded soberly.
"Explain," said Wendes.
"Do you want to, or should I?" said Kendram.
"Go ahead," Rygenam murmured.
"The whole family is demon-possessed," Kendram explained, his voice taking on the slight sing-song quality typical of bardic recall. "From birth. No one knows why, or has any idea how to lift the curse. Each member's demon starts tempting them when they come of age, and it's up to them to resist it or not. Most them don't make it. But I guess you did?"
Rygenam shook his head. "I didn't. I gave in. My brother embraced his demon, and I...I followed suit. We did such things in the names of the Infernal Realms...I don't even quite remember how I broke free. I made my way to the Order of the Eagle, with my demon threatening me the whole way. Fortunately, their clerics believed in my contrition."
"They exorcised the demon?" said Yarwon.
"No. If my family's demons could be exorcised, we would have been free of our curse long ago. But they managed to suppress it. Now it can't influence me...unless I invite it to."
"By doing things like reading Infernal script," said Wendes.
"Exactly. And they placed upon me a second curse that is actually a blessing, for it causes me to become ill if I draw upon the demon's power too much. I try to avoid it, but your cause seems to justify the risk."
"On that note," said Wendes, "you didn't tell us much before you passed out. Something about the phylactery and an island, I think? Can you still remember what you read?"
"Yes," said Rygenam. He raised himself up on his elbows and shut his eyes tightly, recalling. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "The phlyactery of the lich-lord Susari the Undying One is hidden on an island in the warm seas of the world, guarded by sea serpents and living storms. Those who would find it must bring a piece of the Undying One's magic with them to act as a compass." He sagged; even remembering the experience of reading the evil-encoded document was a strain for him.
"Shit," Wendes opined, smacking his own forehead.
"We don't have anything like that."
"Yes we do," said Cinadel.
"What do you mean?" said Yarwon.
"That guy, the one who captured us? He said that necromancy staff was a gift from the Undying One, right? Which means all those skeletons we fought were infused with Susari's magic!"
"Should we go back for a bone or something?" asked Kendram.
"Nope!" said Cinadel. After a beat, he triumphantly held up a trophy no one had realized he had taken: a familiar bone arm and hand.
"Yes!" Wendes crowed. "You genius elf! Now all we have to do is charter passage on a ship!"
"Any number of trade routes pass through the warm seas," said Rygenam, sitting up. He was looking a lot better, as if passing along the information had purged the experience from his mind. "Go down to the harbor and give my name to the captains. I have some respect as a merchant. And if you like, come by my shop. I'll be happy to help outfit you for the voyage. Just doing my part to atone for my misdeeds and those of my family."
"Your sincerity well becomes you, sir," said Wendes. "Is there anything we can do for you as thanks for your help?"
"Yes, actually. As a lich, Susari will have amassed lore pertaining to dark magic of every kind, including demonology. As you infiltrate his holdings, I beg you to search his libraries for anything that might give me a clue as to lifting my family's curse."
"We will," said Wendes.
"I have good news and more good news," said Åland, polishing his glasses. "The good news is that this wraps up this phase of the adventure. The other good news is..."
The players leaned forward in anticipation.
"...update your character sheets, because you've all leveled up!"
Whooping cheers greeted this announcement, and there was a rustle of pages as people began looking up their new stats and abilities.
"What do we get? What do we get?" said Iceland.
"You? A sorcerer achieving Level 6? Practically the works," said Sweden, who was filling in his own updates from memory, without needing to refer to a book. He was wildly grinning. "You get to raise your attack bonus, all three saves, you get new spells, a new feat... But don't distract me, I'm concentrating."
"I'll help you, Iceland," said Norway.
"I don't think I've ever seen him this...giddy," said Iceland.
"He gets to calculate and write down new and better numbers for his wizard persona," said Åland with a fond smile. "He's in Nerd Heaven."
As he had been the first to finish building his character to begin with, Finland was the first to finish updating his sheet for the new level. He let Åland spot-approve it, clipped it to his notepad, and went outside to get some air.
If he was completely honest, he was having second thoughts about the campaign.
Specifically, he was having misgivings about the villains.
Sure, it was fine for the others to be gung-ho about bringing down an undead overlord who was transparently based on Russia. They weren't the ones who sometimes looked out the kitchen window in the morning to see the real Russia blowing drunken kisses from across the mountains. And he'd already demonstrated his willingness to spy on the game, pleading "loneliness," which history suggested was actually a Russian word meaning "an overwhelming desire to annex the entire planet."
What if he found out how he was being portrayed?
Especially—Finland cringed at this—what with the way he had been behaving lately...
On the other hand, he couldn't just admit his fears to the other guys. Nor could he up and quit the game without explanation. And leave the party with no combat specialist? Out of the question! He wasn't the world's greatest team player but he did have some compassion, not to mention pride in his own perseverance.
No, he certainly wasn't about to quit. He would just have to keep his feelers out and be prepared for whatever might happen.
To Be Continued...