AoA 07: Session Intros 38-45

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 38: The Cult of Cinders Epilogue

As soon as you’ve entered the fetid swamp water at the fortress’ entrance, you hear the dragon’s bellow. You know that Kyrion is injured near death. Exhausted. Drained. The force of his rage, then, is a surprise. There is some part of you that recoils at the explosive sound–maybe it’s physically flinching, maybe your emotional defenses harden, whatever–there is a lifetime of anger, hurt, and humiliation in Kyrion’s roars as he tears into the fortress with a frenzy.

You make your way across the water. Somewhere below you are the corpses of Sweettooth and of charau-ka butchers. You pull yourself onto that ring of trees to the south, standing on the giant roots, as the destruction of the fortress continues. You are each scorched and weary, leaning against each other and the damp tree trunks as sounds within the structure echo to you across the water. For minutes this goes on, and you all don’t speak, silently bearing witness to the end of the Cinderclaw terror, and the violent rebirth of a dragon.

Eventually, at long last, the roof at the far end of the fortress explodes, and Kyrion soars into daylight. Again, he’s young, and nearly crippled by the damage he’s taken. But it’s a friggin’ red dragon. There is a majesty and awe to him as he spreads his wings. You will never forget that brief moment when Kyrion’s form seems to hang in the air, blotting out the mid-morning sun, as he roars into the jungle sky.

And then, with several flaps of his leathery wings, he’s gone, disappearing over the canopy. The fortress seems to list in the water, and you can hear it slowly but steadily collapsing from within.

Session 39: Back to Breachill

It is mid-morning on Moonday, the 14th of Abadius. Jacques du Tank, sweating heavily in his plate armor, stands near Jethro Vermillion, the cleric’s white glove gripping his staff. On the other side of Jethro is Obedience Fletcher, flexing his hands. Glennhall Granndyr, face stoic and lips pursed, takes in the scene around him with his large, yellow eyes. And Pit of Unbearable Lightness, the mushroom leshy, holding a staff topped with a dragon’s head, soaks in the sounds of their home one last time.

Your motley crew stand in the middle of a ring of stone arches, amidst an open-air temple. You all can still see the soot smears, the charred branches and pit of charcoal that mark the Cinderclaw activity here months ago, but there is new growth too. Plants push out of the earth, attempting to reclaim the site on behalf of the verdant jungle.

Within one arch, its stone carved with phases of the moon and birds, a curtain of gold-and-silver mist churns.

Jacques looks back at the small crowd outside of the ring: Ose Panin and Ose Apsu, the twin leopard leaders. Nketiah with her arm of twisted wooden branches and bone. Jahsi in his multicolored tunic, adorned with gold. Akosa, his normally scowling face softened. Sayir, with the opaque veil covering the top half of his face. And a dozen Ekujae archers. All elven eyes watch the champion of Sarenrae. He nods once at them, then at Jethro, and steps through the mists.

What first hits Jacques is the change in temperature. The cloying heat and humidity of the jungle is gone, replaced by dry, crisply cold air. The bright light of day is replaced by silent darkness. It feels like stepping into a grave.
For a moment he panics, but as the others push their way through the portal, a sudden light flares. Jethro’s staff now glows with warm, magical illumination, revealing the elegantly carved and spiraling designs of a large circular chamber with a domed ceiling. Six statues of elves all face outward and are arrayed around a dry fountain. Huntergate is to your back. You are in Alseta’s Ring. There was no waystation, no lava tunnel with a vision of Dahak prowling it. With one step, through the mists, you are home, and the portal closes.

Session 40: Eclipse

Renatta Gilroy blinks awake. Drool has run down one side of her face, and her nightcap has fallen over one eye. She flails spastically for a moment, tangled in her thin blanket.

“Wazzat? What? Who’s there?” she sputters into the cold darkness, but no one answers.

For a moment she thinks it must have been a dream, and she pats the hay mattress beneath her to get comfortable. But then she hears a crash, something breaking.

Renatta holds her breath, very still, and listens. She hears a goblin voice, singing. Hadn’t there been a goblin singing, right on her fence, as she fell asleep? She hadn’t thought much of it at the time. Renatta lives in one of the more hardscrabble places in Breachill, and across from a tavern to boot. She had long ago learned to sleep through drunken singing. But if that is indeed the same goblin, he’d moved. The voice seems more distant now, like it’s coming from within the Pickled Ear. But she dismisses that idea as unlikely. The tavern is closed, after all, and Roxie–

Another crash, and a bellow of pain. “What in Desna’s name is going on across the street?”

Renatta reaches for the candle on her nightstand. Well. Hardscrabble or not, she can’t abide with tomfoolery, not on her street. Not at this hour. With a groan, she pulls her feet over onto the cold floor, toes questing for her slippers.


Meanwhile, the interior of the Pickled Ear currently looks nothing like a tavern. Tentacles flail threateningly from the floor in the center of the room, toppling furniture and currently clutching Jethro Vermillion in their black, oily grasp. Beside the cleric is his ever-present bodyguard Jacques du Tank, fighting off two street toughs flanking him with jeers, rapiers, and manacles. The toughs have clearly not yet recognized that the man who called the Redeemers to this trap lies dead across the room.

The tavern’s bar is half smashed, wood splintered across the floor by two hulking, skeletal giants. Coxsackie, the goblin bard, faces both skullbrutes from atop what’s left of the bar, a mace in one hand and a bright red shield in the other. Behind him, Pit the winged mushroom leshy’s hands crackle with magic.

And behind her skeletal minions, the necromancer Voz Lirayne clutches her head in pain, blood trickling from one nostril. Fury fills her black eyes.

Session 41: Preparing for Dreamgate

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screams into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears. It is the first such dream he’s had in months and comes amidst a scant two hours of sleep. His eyes burn with fatigue. His sweat chills him in the wintry darkness, so different from the jungle.

Mr. Fletcher, uncharacteristically, is not at his bedside offering a glass of water. Ah, Jethro realizes. He is instead across town, at the haberdashery.
Wincing, Jethro swings his feet out of bed, and then jumps in surprise. Pit is there, staring up at him from the bedroom floor, the leshy’s eyes illuminated by the moonlight.

“You had a dream,” Pit intones.

“More of a haunted vision, but yes.”

“Tell me, in all its details, and I shall write it down.”

“Alright. It began–”

“No,” Pit says with surprising force. “Tell me in Druidic.”


Across the hallway, Jacques du Tank sleeps with a pillow over his head, an effort to protect himself from the buzzsaw snore of the goblin sprawled on the floor of his room. Coxsackie, murmuring happily between snores, clutches an empty bottle of Roxie’s Finest to his chest.


And, across town, Obedience Fletcher is at the bedside of Winthrop Finney, offering a glass of water as the haberdasher wakes from his own screaming nightmares.

Session 42: Introducing Robin Sterling

The Breachill town council holds a public Call for Heroes once per month to expressly hear petitions from residents who wish the town to hire adventurers on their behalf. At the end of the residents’ address to the council, the council members discuss the petition before voting whether to expend public funds on it. For petitions that are approved, the council then opens the floor to adventurers in attendance of the meeting who wish to tackle the challenge.

Five months ago, the Call for Heroes was interrupted by a fire in the town hall. The adventurers in attendance saved the structure and all forty or so residents who’d come to see the event. The group then proceeded to catch the arsonist, expose the local bookseller as a necromancer, and clean out the nearby Hellknight Hill castle of monsters before settling into it as a home.

The group has become local legend, and rumors fly that they have toppled tyrannical governments all over Golarion, found the secrets of eternal youth, slain armies of giants and dragons rampaging in the Isgeri countryside, hunted cultists in the Mwangi Expanse, crushed the next Goblinblood War before it could begin, and spoken with Desna herself.

Since the Breachill town council has been holding monthly Call for Heroes for decades, a fair number of local traditions have built up around the event. One of those local traditions is to gather mid-morning at the Wizard’s Grace, a popular tavern close to the town hall. The deeds of the Hellknight Hill crew, who some call the Redeemers, has noticeably increased the number of adventurers who show up each month to the Call for Heroes.

Today, on the 7th of Calistril, a dozen outsiders have answered the Call along with a handful of locals inspired by tales of the Redeemers. The Wizards Grace is packed this morning, nearly standing room only. As tradition dictates, they’re eating boar stew and lentils and drinking ale. Toasts have begun, and each toast ends with a floor-shaking cheer from the crowd. There is an electricity to the air, an unseen feeling of anticipation and ambition.

A broad-shouldered man in a cloak stands in the corner, watching the festivities with a mix of amusement and vigilance. A lock of bright red hair has escaped the hood he has pulled up to hide his features. One calloused hand rests casually on the pommel of the sword at his belt.

“A toast to the Redeemers, heroes of Breachill! And may we find more heroes among you today!” the inn’s proprietor, Trinil Uskwood, says with a bright smile. The crowd roars in response, pounding mugs to tables and yelling in approval.

Little do they know that today’s Call for Heroes will be one of the most talked-about moments in Breachill’s long history, rivaling even that day five months ago…


More than a mile away and two hours earlier, Jethro Vermillion is in his room, readying for another day building the chapel in Citadel Altaerein’s courtyard. For two weeks he has done little else but oversee the labor of its construction, working with an almost feverish intensity.

His head snaps up at a knock at his door. Jacques du Tank stands in the doorway and clears his throat to speak.

Session 43: Dreamgate

Everything about this place feels wrong to Jethro Vermillion. It is spoiled milk, a stillborn baby, a profane devil crouched in worship.

This place had clearly once been lovely, built by the elves to honor the goddess Desna, the Tender of Dreams. Mr. Fletcher had said, moments ago, that the soft lighting, the ethereal quality to the air, the lavender smells, and the muted sounds were likely meant to induce sleep for weary travelers. Perhaps, but now it is an abomination.

Take the sculpture in this very room. A willow tree carved of pale, polished marble. Exquisite craftsmanship. Beds at its base. But as he steps nearer the tree groans, tortured. Its limbs do not look like comforting boughs, but rather the grasping hands of a skeleton. The beds at its base are shadowed, making them resemble empty graves.

His companions, so many new faces, fan out behind him. Mr. Fletcher, his one constancy, with his elven cloak slung over his Sunday suit. Pit, the leshy who is perhaps more ancient even than this tree before them. Coxsackie, whom the locals have begun to call “the Pied Piper of the Pickled Ear,” is already beginning to sing, his goblin voice cutting through the wrongness of this place. And then Robin Sterling, the bird who his dreams named a fellow dragon… the man and his capabilities a mystery.

Jethro’s vision the previous night was unmistakable in its direction. These were to be his companions through Dreamgate. They must be more than capable for this task.

But as the marble tree’s limbs reach out, grasping, it has become clear without a shadow of doubt that he has led them into a living nightmare.

Session 44: The Secrets of Dreamgate / Into Ravounel

Robin Sterling, rusted armor hanging from his muscular frame, has chased the annis hag into the other room. Jethro can’t hear the hag’s final scream in this muted place, but he knows the precise moment when the deed is done. As when clogged ears suddenly clear, Jethro’s apprehension and dread about this cursed place evaporate. He inhales slowly and deeply, not realizing until now how shallow his breath had become.

He holds the air in his lungs, now exhales, scanning the room. The hag Rusty Mae’s body sprawls on the marble floor, matted red hair and blood spread out like a pyre beneath her. Two gold pieces lay incongruously nearby, dropped by Mr. Sterling. A bookshelf, four large chairs, and a cauldron are the room’s only adornments. The exit out of this nightmarish waystation is nothing more than a stone plug, marked by bloody runes and scorched marble.

Of the bone devil, there is no trace. Jethro takes as an ominous sign that his celestial companion has not returned with information from his pursuit of the fiend. The last member of the hags’ coven, a night hag and her nightmare steed, are similarly gone. Jethro’s used to his group utterly purging evil from a place, ensuring it cannot return. He knows too well the price of letting foes like Voz Lirayne escape. Yet there is no denying it… more than half of Dreamgate’s inhabitants have disappeared rather than perished, and that fact does not sit well.

But at least for a moment, peace. Peace and silence.

Session 45: Welcome to Cypress Point

The human man being dragged by chains and shackles does not seem like a criminal. He is painfully thin, his long neck encased in a muzzle-like collar, wearing clothes both simple and practical — long-sleeved shirt, roughspun pants ending mid-shin, and no shoes. The man’s eyes are wide and fearful, and as he tries to see you all, a human woman pulls on the chain, whipping his head away. He grunts in pain.

The woman sneers and squints at the figures rushing along the beach towards them.

“Oy! Ulkin! We got ourselves some company.”

Their group pauses, and the woman and her two human companions draw their rapiers almost in unison.

A dwarf, face scarred and beard tangled, wears battered chainmail. A complex, red symbol of a triangle, circle, and three points is imprinted upon his pauldron. He swings the flail in his hand casually, a motion that seems almost unconscious, as habitual as hooking a thumb in a belt loop.

“Well, it looks like this shitty little town has some bite to it after all. Let them come and take them when they get here. Buttercup!” the dwarf yells.

The large boar, taller than the dwarf, squeals and shakes its head. Blood-red eyes, ashen fur, and unnaturally sharp tusks frame hundreds of pounds of raw muscle, the veins of which can be seen through the boar’s ghastly pale flesh. Blood drips from its tusks and the creature’s spiked nose ring.

“You get the scent of their blood, yeah sweetness? In case they try to run.”
The boar squeals and shakes its head again in response, red flecks pattering the sand.

“Careful. They don’t look like pushovers,” the woman says over her shoulder.

“Good. I’m bored.”

Robin Sterling, out of breath not at all, is the first to arrive.

AoA 06: Mad Magetha’s First Vision

[Author’s Note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. It’s obviously been awhile since my last post of any kind… with the global pandemic, my Saturday writing group evaporated. I’ve done some plotting on my novel and a whole lot of Pathfinder game-mastering–we have gone from weekly in-person games to 3/week video sessions–but not as much prose writing. I miss my Saturday crew 😦 ]

(We fade to black, and when we fade in, typeface along the bottom of the screen says, “Sometime in the past…”)

Magetha Vashnarstill pushed her way through the dense jungle foliage. Her pale skin, hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and dark green robes, suggested that she was clearly not a native of the Mwangi Expanse. Yet her movements said otherwise. Sure-footed and confident, the elderly human traversed the difficult terrain with practiced ease. All around her, the jungle chirped and hooted and trumpeted with life.

Magetha paused near the base of a wide ojobo tree, its roots digging into the jungle floor like thick, gnarled fingers. In one hand she held her staff, a polished walking stick of dark wood topped with an uncut, vibrant chunk of amber. With her other she fished into a belt pouch and removed a cloth rag, wiping it across the back of her neck. The heat today was oppressive and inescapable, worse than she could remember in years.

“Or perhaps I’m just old,” she said aloud, and chuckled. Magetha often talked to herself, finding long ago that she was excellent company. The habit had been one of several reasons the locals had dubbed her Mad Magetha, a name she quite liked.

Her pale blue eyes scanned the jungle, and her lips pressed together thoughtfully.

“This is Ekujae land. Leopard Clan, if I’m not mistaken. Quite odd. Now why would I be here?”

Just then a figure unfolded from the limbs of the ojobo overhead, clinging with talons each as long as Magetha’s hands. Green, mottled wings spread wide as the jungle drake’s sinuous neck unwound from its body. The creature’s fanged mouth yawned open, large enough to engulf her head, as it hissed menacingly.

Magetha didn’t flinch. She rapped the creature on the end of its snout with her staff, causing the drake to snap its jaws shut and rear back in surprise.

“Stop that,” Magetha said sternly. “Shoo.”

The drake stared for a moment with its yellow, pupilless eyes. Then, almost sulkily, its wings folded against the scaled, green body and it wound itself back up into the ojobo’s limbs. In moments its shifting mass had disappeared into the canopy above.

Magetha thought furiously, eyes darting as she did so. She was still several days away from taking her monthly hallucinogens, and she couldn’t remember being poisoned recently. The Ekujae were more than a hundred miles from her home, and she hadn’t been traveling. How could she possibly be here? Except…

“Ah!” her weathered, wrinkled face broke into a grin beneath the wide brim of her hat. “It’s a dream then.”

Of course. Then she saw it. The jungle drake had been the closest, but now virtually every tree and bush around her held the menacing, shifting bulk of dragons. Many were jungle drakes, blending into the green mass of vegetation with their snake-like bodies. But what she had originally thought of as bright flowers were now clearly the red eyes of flame drakes. Several wyverns cracked branches above, their poison-tipped tails thrashing. The other, more normal, sounds of the jungle had disappeared, replaced by minor dragons of every color and imagination hissing and growling as they watched her.

“A nightmare of dragons,” Magetha mused. “How original. Even in old age, I didn’t think my mind would grow as simple as this. Alright then. Show me whatever mortal horrors you need to show me so I can awake and be on my way.”

As if in response, the jungle shook with a mighty earthquake, drakes and trees falling away before Magetha. The sound was thunderous, drowning out all thought. She dropped her cloth rag and steadied herself with two hands on her staff, the tip digging into the earth.

The earthquake faded, rumbling to silence. The jungle had gone still as a grave. The old woman briefly scanned her surroundings. To her left and right, drakes still littered the landscape. But they had all stopped moving, their heads and eyes trained on the wide, open expanse now in front of Magetha. She followed their collective gaze.

Trees had bent or fallen for a hundred yards, revealing an enormous skeleton half buried in the earth. Magetha’s eyes widened. She had never conceived a dragon so large. Its skull alone was fifty feet long, bristling with many wicked, curled horns.

And then the skeleton began to move. Slowly, as if waking from a long stupor, the claws of the thing began digging into the jungle floor. Slowly, slowly the skeletal bulk of the dragon pushed itself up and out of the ground, debris falling from the yellowed bones. Nothing else moved in the jungle, including Magetha herself. All stood transfixed as the mighty dragon rose. As it did so, red, scaly flesh began growing across the bones like rapidly expanding mold.

“Oh no,” Magetha breathed, her eyes like saucers, her pupils fully dilated. “Oh no no no no.”

The enormous dragon was half-flesh now, the corpse of a titan. When it fully freed itself from the jungle, its bulk filling Magetha’s vision and blotting out the sun, the horned head tilted back to the sky. Its massive jaws opened wide. The roar was the sound of a thousand, furious dragons in concert, echoing across the Mwangi and shaking the earth. It was the sound of an angry god.

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Mad Magetha screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in her ears.

AoA 05: The Bloody Blades

[author’s note: With all of these “Age of Ashes” posts, check out this blurb to explain what I’m doing. This is a quick scene showing Yoonla, our goblin bard who took a vow silence when her wife died prior to the campaign. Nehi was an adventurer, while Yoonla stayed at home. Here we see one of Nehi’s adventuring partners sharing the tough news with her, right before the players meet the Bloody Blades, the mercenary group who killed Nehi. It played out really well in game.]

Fade to black.

When we fade in, the scene has no sound.

Yoonla the goblin sat on a chair in her living room. Bowls of all sizes scattered around her, and she kicked them to an unheard beat. She plucked away at her banjo and sang, energetically and with a smile on her face.

She paused and set her banjo aside. Standing, the goblin practically skipped to the front door and threw it open with a shout.

Yoonla’s face transformed from exuberant delight to pleasant confusion as she found a male dwarf in battered armor at her doorstep, ornate axe slung across his back. The dwarf, though clearly a warrior, looked uncomfortable and unsure of himself… he shuffled his feet and looked at the floor instead of Yoonla’s face when he spoke. She stepped aside and let him in.

The two of them sat. Yoonla offered him something and he, still refusing to meet her eyes, shook his head. She reached out and placed a small hand on his, asking a question.

Red-faced, the dwarf began to speak. As he did, Yoonla’s eyes went wide, then filled with tears.

Then she screamed.

Even without sound the scream was primal and raw. The goblin pulled at her ears, kicked her feet against the floor, and rocked back and forth. When her lungs had emptied, she sucked in a ragged breath and screamed again. The dwarf was looking at her now, sorrow in his deeply wrinkled eyes.

Yoonla rolled onto the floor of her living room, curled into a ball, her face a mess of snot and tears as she cried. Her small body shuddered and heaved.

The dwarf gently knelt and gathered Yoonla in his arms, carrying her to the red loveseat in the room. He placed her and pat her shoulder awkwardly.

As he stood to leave, Yoonla’s skinny arm shot out to grab the dwarf’s wrist. Her tear-streaked face looked up imploringly, and even though no words came out, the dwarf knew her question.

“How?”

The dwarf frowned and dug into a pouch at his belt. He pulled out a cloth patch that had been crudely ripped from wherever it was sewn. He unfolded it and showed to Yoonla the image of a red sword.

 

 

The image fills the screen, and then we zoom out, seeing that same image of the emblem reflected in Yoonla’s wide eye here, now. We pan out and around to see the crude, red sword, the image clear on a flapping banner atop the lead watchtower in Guardian’s Way.

 

 

AoA 04: Voz and the Ward

[author’s note: Check this post for background on these fantasy bits. This particular cut scene is my favorite of the campaign so far… detailing a small sidebar in the Age of Ashes adventure path that I couldn’t otherwise find a way to reveal to the players. Voz is one of the two main bad guys in Book 1 of the adventure.]

Voz Lirayne sat in a dark, candlelit room. Her thin, pale hands shook from exhaustion and concentration as carefully, very carefully, she placed a black onyx stone on the wooden table in front of her. Voz’s eyes darted left and right, silently measuring that the onyx sat directly in the center of a circle of lit candles dotting the table’s edge. Satisfied, she turned her attention to the other object on the squat table.

The severed head did not stare back at her, because its eyes were long since gone. Pallid, dry flesh clung to its black-haired skull, lips peeled back from crooked teeth. Even in death, it’s clear that the living man’s nose had been broken countless times and sat above the leering mouth as a twisted lump.

Voz closed her eyes, breathing deeply and centering herself. After long moments, her dark eyes opened and focused on the onyx.

She began to chant in a muttering language, the sounds alien. The candle flames dipped low as they seemingly bowed to the eerie tongue, almost guttering out.

For hours Voz droned on. The chant, if anyone but Voz were there to hear it, harkened to lonely, moonless graveyards and ruined crypts. Her voice gained speed and volume, and as it did the candles’ flames rose in response. The candleflame turned a sickly green.

Finally, with a hoarse shout, Voz threw back her head and opened her arms wide. And, as she did so, the head on the table groaned. Voz smiled tightly, sweat beading her brow. The onyx was gone, a blackened smudge on the table.

“Where–? Where am I? What has happened?” the head croaked in a dry whisper. Yawning eye cavities searched the abandoned storeroom. “What is this place?”

“Silence,” Voz snapped. The head turned slightly to regard her, the stump of spinal cord of its neck twitching against the table. “I have questions, and you will provide me answers, corpse.”

“Corpse. Ah…” the head sighed. “That explains it then. We are in the crypts, it seems. And, yes, I see now, we are in the back storeroom. Ask your questions then, wizard, and leave me be.”

“Who were you in life? A full Hellknight?”

“A Hellknight, yes. Grachius Felix, of the Order of the Nail, stationed at the glorious Citadel Altaerein, in backwater Isger. A land of heathens and disorder needing to be tamed. Indeed, I was the one who–”

“Desist,” Voz snapped. “I don’t care.”

“I see. So you are neither a follower of Asmodeus nor his Law. Then I suppose I am here for some other purpose. Ask your questions, desecrator. Ask.”

Voz absently smoothed a hand over her pale hair, pulled back in a high ponytail, ensuring not a strand was out of place.

“We, you and I, Grachius Felix, are indeed presently within the basement and tombs of your citadel. Yet there is a lower level to this place, yes?”

“Not built by the Order’s hands, but yes. There are elven ruins below. Ah, but I see your ears now, so perhaps that is the connection. Go to them and leave me be, half-elf abomination of a spellcaster, whose parents did not value purity. You do not need me to see the ruins for yourself.”

Annoyance in her voice, Voz asked, “Did the Hellknights here ever decipher their purpose?”

“A temple to your elven gods, long forgotten, we assumed. There must be ghosts there you can pester, necromancer. Why rouse me?”

Voz sniffed. “The way below is blocked, the stairway collapsed.”

“Ah. Alas. The citadel has fallen, then. All things must eventually fall beneath the eternal gaze of Asmodeus, I suppose.”

“Is there another way in?”

The head of Grachius smiled, running a black tongue across its withered lips. “And there is the question that rouses me from eternal sleep, it seems. Of course. There is always another way in, fool.”

“Where? Tell me.”

“Alas, I must answer your questions, foul deathspeaker, however I might wish otherwise. It is odd, to be compelled in such a way. Quite novel.”

“Tell me!”

“Yes. There is a cave, six miles from the citadel, that leads back and under to the elven ruins. Or there once was. Who can know? My time has passed, and my knowledge with it. So much must have changed, if the mighty Order of the Nail now lies in ruin.”

“Where is this cave?”

Just then a sound like a large WHUMP! echoed from nearby. A purple light washed over the room and beyond, passing through the walls like a wave crashing onto a beach.

“What was that?” Voz gasped, eyes wide.

“Ah. I wondered if it might still be intact. Hoped it would be. The whole thing took rather longer than I expected. I was… stalling, you see. As best I could. I must answer, but it need not be quickly.”

“What was it, slave?” she snarled.

“A necromantic ward,” Grachius leered grotesquely, lips peeled back.

“A what?”

“Ah, not so powerful a wizard, it seems. The Order guards its tombs from necromancy, half-elf abomination. See for yourself, see for yourself.” Grachius chuckled. A purplish glow had begun to form in his otherwise empty eye sockets.

Voz stood, limbs protesting from fatigue and inaction. She smoothed her robes and went to the heavy door behind the still-chuckling head.

It was a long, dark room lined with headstones. As her keen eyes adjusted to the shadows, she heard the scraping of stone on stone. The sound repeated from several places around the room.

Something was opening the Hellknight tombs. Something from within.

Voz hustled back into the storeroom. The head of Grachius continued to chuckle, its eyes now fully aglow with purple light.

“Fight fire with fire, eh necromancer? Even in its demise, the Order is wise. Goodbye, mongrel scum.”

“Where is the cave?” Voz snarled, stuffing materials hastily into her satchel. The sound of heavy stone lids hitting the floor echoed nearby.

“I am free of you now. Savagery must be quelled in the land, home, and mind. Begone!” The head screamed, and as it did so burst into a purple fire. All around the table, the green-flamed candles guttered and died.

Cursing, Voz rushed to her escape tunnel at the back of the storeroom, a raw and jagged hole in the wall. Something wailed despairingly from deep within the tombs, the eerie sound echoing as the thump of something–several somethings, actually–began bumping and shuffling beyond. It sounded as if the entire complex was waking into undeath.

“Necromantic fucking ward,” Voz growled, and vanished into the dirt-walled tunnel.

Well, she thought, willing her stiff legs forward as another distant voice wails, she had what she needed. She was one step closer to unlocking the secrets of Alseta’s Ring.

 

* * *

 

Voz stood with maps arranged across the table. It was daytime, the sounds of Breachill awake drifted faintly into her small shop. Her lips were pursed in concentration as she measured and marked the maps, measured and marked.

“Six miles… six miles…” she muttered. “I’ve got you!”

Voz stood excitedly, checking her work and measuring again to be sure. But she had it. She slammed her hand down on the table in triumph.

Dabbing a quill hastily in an inkwell, she jotted into her notes, “Aha! Entrance to Alseta’s Ring–Guardian’s Way” and laughed into the empty room.

Someone knocked at the front door of the shop and Voz whipped her head around. She narrowed her eyes, annoyed. The tall half-elf stood, deftly and with practiced hands locking the door of her small research room behind her.

Voz took a deep breath and smoothed her robes. Absently, she ran a hand across her head to ensure that her white-blonde hair was in place. The door to her shop opened. Standing there, a motley crew of Jacques du Tank, Yoonla, Obedience Fletcher, and Zonja-ex arrayed behind him, was Jethro Vermillion.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Jethro said. “May we come in?”

AoA 02: A Dragon’s Warning

[author’s note: Please see this post for some background information on anything tagged “AoA.” This was Jethro’s second haunting vision and was a fun writing experiment. Marcus, Jethro’s player, and I wrote this collaboratively back and forth via Facebook Messenger.]

Jethro Vermillion stepped forward hesitantly, blinking and confused. He took in his surroundings.

The cleric stood at one end of a long tunnel that seemed to be made of hardened lava, long ago scorched and melted. Tiny cracks and fissures lined the walls, within which an orange glow flickered and gave the tunnel a soft, fiery illumination. The air was uncomfortably warm and smelled of smoke.

An archway just behind him glowed with gold and silver mist, and it seemed to Jethro that humanoid figures moved within it. At the far end of the tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet, an identical archway shimmered with mist.

“What manner of place is this?” Jethro asked aloud.

Just then blasts of fire and smoke poured out of the tunnel’s walls. Jethro flinched from the sudden explosion of sound and heat. Within moments, the burning form of a dragon coalesced mid-length of the passageway.

The fiery creature was so large that it had to crouch, its head laying between claws and staring directly at Jethro with burning eyes.

“So…” the dragon croaked, and smoke billowed from its maw. “Here is the newborn of the Dawnflower. You think you are prepared to defeat my followers, newborn? To confront the Eternal Destruction itself?”

“I… I… I am not ready. I know not of what terrible fate you speak. I know not of your followers. You call me newborn of the Dawnflower–I follow the Goddess yes, though I claim no such title. But I know this, foul creature: I am willing. I am willing to play my role to the world’s end, whatever the cost. And if you are that lover of oblivion called Dahak, as I suspect you to be, I know that I will serve my goddess and do all in my power to bring you–and all who name you lord–to the light!”

The dragon squinted, looking irritated. “Light. Bah. I serve no one. Not your goddess. I will bring destruction to all, and you, little one, will help me.”

“I would sooner die a thousand deaths than serve your purpose.” Jethro seemed to lift his head taller, his stammer forgotten as he stood on familiar theological ground. “In the end, we all must serve, beast. But the morning comes each day, and if it is indeed my help you seek, I offer you this: It is never too late to repent. The true destruction you wreak is of your own soul. May you find a true spark of wisdom before your own light is extinguished for good.”

The dragon blinked, clearly surprised. Then a slow chuckle bubbled from its throat, filling the tunnel with smoke that burned Jethro’s eyes. “So young. So naive. Your doom is all but guaranteed. You are nothing. Those with you are nothing. Your dreams and plans merely ash in the wind. Proceed on this path, and each step brings you closer to me.”

After a pause, it asked, “What do you hope to accomplish in Breachill? Beneath Asmodeus’ barren citadel?”

Now it was Jethro who blinked, unsettled by the change in tone. “I know not what purpose this citadel or what lies beneath may serve, only that it is right that I am here, that whatever part I have to play starts here. Know this, breather of hot air: where I find good, and those who serve fires of hope and truth, I will provide succor. And where I find evil, and those who would cast this world into endless darkness, I shall bring the flaming sword of redemption. And while we may be inexperienced, the companions who have found me and I, we will only grow stronger, as we have already, and more prepared to stop you!”

“By all means, then, grow stronger. But you will fail,” the dragon sneered. “You and anyone with you will die, flayed and dragged into the Great Darkness to feed me. And then I will rise, finally free of this prison. Your utter failure will unleash me upon your world.”

It inhaled deeply. “Now… Burn, little dragon hunter. BURN!” and the fiery beast opened its maw wide.

Flames filled the tunnel, washing over Jethro and turning him to ash.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.

AoA 01: The Dragonstorm

[author’s note: For general background, please see this post. Here is the first of Jethro’s haunting vision cut-scenes, inserted the first time the party all spent the night resting.]

Anso pulled on the bin of rotting vegetables and discarded bread crusts. At ten years old, he was a strong boy, but the bin was large, heavy, and unwieldy. Anso grunted and twisted his body, straining to move it across the road of hard-packed earth. It was springtime, with a chill in the air, yet still the lad was plastered in sweat.

“Erika!” Anso gasped. “Gods! Are you going to help or what?”

Anso’s younger sister was a wisp of a girl, all elbows and knees beneath a mop of jet-black hair. She looked up from poking a beetle with a stick, startled.

“What?”

“Help me, you twit!”

Erika wandered over to the bin and frowned. “It’s too big, yeah? We can’t get it all the way to the stables.”

“Ma said to take it there. She told both of us. So you help me right now, or I swear I’m gonna–”

A deep rumble of thunder rattled shutters and sent nearby dogs barking. Both kids looked skyward, blinking and confused.

What had moments before been a clear blue sky was now swarming with angry clouds, moving overhead like thick sludge around a drain. Blue lightning crackled within the mass, along with orange flame and some sort of green ethereal highlights. Thunder boomed again, shaking the earth with its bellow.

Drops of rain began to fall, and Anso heard something hiss amidst the light patter. He looked at the discarded food within his mother’s bin, which seemed to be smoking. Lettuce leaves and half-eaten cucumbers curled, pockmarked.

“Ow!” Erika complained. She was holding her hand out, a blistering dot smoking from her fair skin. Another drop struck her forearm and she yelped. “Ow! Anso!” she said, shaking her arm. “It hurts!”

The temperature suddenly dropped. Anso’s eyes darted from his sister to the smoking vegetables, panicked, his breath making a puffy cloud before him. Thunder boomed again.

“Erika! Run!” Anso screamed. “Get inside!”

His sister had apparently realized the threat of the rain and was ducking, hunched to try and make herself small. Without realizing it, Anso had retreated to the far side of the street, under an awning. He reached out his hand to Erika. Several raindrops struck his outstretched arm, though, burning him and causing him to snatch his hand back.

“Aargh! Erika! Hurry! Run!”

His sister’s little stick legs tangled and she fell, then scrabbled to pop up again. She was crying, not looking where she was stumbling, guided by her brother’s voice. Thunder boomed again, and Anso could hear panicked horses screaming along with the dogs. Voices of people all around him began to yell in fear and pain. Erika was five steps away. Four.

A ball of fire fell from the sky with a whoosh, engulfing Erika in its bright blaze. The resulting explosion of fire and dirt sent Anso sprawling backwards into his father’s tavern, hitting his head hard against the wooden wall. When he looked up, disbelieving, where his sister had been there was now a five-foot circle of black earth and a charred lump. The bin of vegetables was on its side, flaming and smoking and gathering a thin film of frost.

Anso’s eyes darted left and right. He whimpered. A lightning bolt, searing itself onto his vision, struck the building across the street, immediately followed by a boom of thunder so loud it stole Anso’s breath.

Another ball of fire landed in the street. Behind eyes squeezed shut, another flash of light was immediately followed by another deafening boom. His ears rung from the cacophony, and behind the ringing he could hear people and animals screaming everywhere.

It was almost unbearably cold now, coating everything in frost. The rain increased, eating away at everything it touched. Lightning and fireballs fell constantly from the sky.

Amidst the chaos, a green mist rose from the streets as if from a haunted bog. It was the mist that killed Anso, burning his lungs from his small, strong body before he had finished taking a single breath. He dropped to his side, mouth agape, eyes bulging, and frost forming over his horror-stricken face.

Over the town of Breachill, the clouds swirled and swirled, ever darker. And from its center, drowning out all screams, explosions, and peals of a thunder, a mighty dragon roared.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.