Union

Chasing the Smile, Part 8

Railyn woke up with a start. He was back in his room in Chateau A’raig, Queen Ekino’s lodging while staying in Union. For a brief second, he could not remember how he had gotten there or where Lul was; then the pain returned. He reached up to grip his head and found it heavily bandaged. Looking down, he found more blood stained wrappings around his midsection and arms. Pushing the covers off himself, he tried to stand up. Looking down, horror finally took him. While his right leg was in tact, he was missing his left below the knee. He tried to scream, but his throat was so dry that all that was audible was a whisper of pain.

“Railyn!” A clear voice came from the doorway. Apparently, a whisper is all an elf needs. Celeste was immediately at the bedside, grabbing the paladin’s shoulders and pushing him back to the mattress. “No, my friend, you need to lay still.” The elf poured a glass of water sitting on the bedside table. “Here, drink.”

“Thank you,” Railyn said, after his thirst was quenched. He set the glass down, wincing at the pain. “What happened to me?”

“We were hoping you could tell us,” Celeste replied, pulling up a chair. “You’ve been unconscious for three days.”

“Three days,” Railyn rubbed his head. He suddenly tried to sit straight up but fell back after the pain. “What happened to my leg?”

“Somebody cut it off,” Celeste said with far too much ease. He refilled the glass of water. “Her Majesty took a look at it. It was cauterised; she suspects hellfire or something similarly as hot. But fear not, Union has some of the best blacksmiths in the East. We’ll get you a false leg in no time; in fact, she’s already commissioned three.”

“There’s no need,” Railyn pushed himself up in the bed. “I can heal myself with magic once I rest up a bit.”

“We tried that,” Celeste did not hesitate. He was always blunt and told the truth; something few people did in Union. “It turns out that whatever or whoever did this to you, wanted to make sure that it couldn’t be fixed.”

Railyn leaned back against the wall and stared into the featureless room. He had a small desk that had several papers, reports, neatly piled to one side. The chair was currently being used by Celeste as was his water pitcher and glass. “So what do we do now? We have to find out what happened to Lul; has there been any word?”

“It is the top priority of our spies,” Celeste said, forcing the paladin to drink more water. He paused. “Do you remember anything that happened? Anything that could be of use?”

“I remember,” Railyn struggled with the bandages on his head. They were too tight. “I remember that we apprehended Onyx. He’s the organizer. We think he’s the one keeping the nobles and the Archduke’s attention away from the middling and lower districts; away from Ahkaris.”

“Ahkaris,” Celeste murmured, leaning back. “I’ve heard the name whispered in the shadows. Don’t know who they are or where they come from or even what they want.”

“Anyway,” Railyn continued, “We had him in the back of a man’s store, I paid him off. We interrogated Onyx but he gave us threats and teases, nothing concrete. Then suddenly he was gone from the room and Ahkaris was in his place.”

“What did he look like, this Ahkaris?”

“I don’t know.” Railyn swallowed more water. “He wore a very dark cloak and I could only see the light reflecting off his eyes under the hood. He introduced himself and Lul insulted him, as is his custom, apparently. But then I found myself unable to move, like I was a statue. I’d been under spells like that before but nothing like this. It was powerful, the strongest I’ve ever seen.”

“Keep going,” Celeste said, pushing the water back into Railyn’s mouth. “Tell me what happened next.”

“I remember now,” Railyn replied, allowing Celeste to refill his glass. “He took Lul and tossed him around the room, like a rag doll. But as weird as it sounds, he didn’t use his hands. He just… looked at Lul and threw him across the room. And Lul kept answering questions and making comments about statements I couldn’t hear. It was only when Lul landed next to me did he say anything to me.”

“Lul?” Celeste asked. “Or Ahkaris?”

“Ahkaris.” Railyn said, taking another drink from his water. It was soothing, smooth. “He looked at me beneath the hood and simply said, ‘you are the warning.’ Then he unleashed this sphere of white hot flame around Lul.” Railyn paused and stared at where his leg used to be. “And around my leg. The pain was…”

“It’s okay,” Celeste replied, placing a hand on the paladin’s shoulder. “Don’t think about that. What happened next?”

“I don’t know,” Railyn took another drink. “The pain was so severe that I passed out and woke up here, apparently three days later.”

“All right,” Celeste stood, taking the glass from Railyn and placing it back on the tray with the pitcher. The drow picked it up and started towards the door before glancing back. “Get some rest, Railyn. We’ll let you know when the blacksmiths are done with their work.”

“Okay,” Railyn swiftly started to drift off to sleep, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders.

Celeste stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He carefully handed the tray off to another drow. “The potion worked perfectly; well done.”

The drow bowed low, taking the tray and heading back towards the apothecary rooms. Celeste stopped as his ears picked up the silent steps approaching from the main hall. He turned on his heel and bowed low, “Your Majesty.”

“Celeste,” Queen Ekino motioned for her faithful servant to rise. “How did it go?”

“Better than expected.” Celeste replied. They started slowly walking down the hall, back towards the queen’s chambers. “The potion was well-mixed and he remembered much of what happened to him; at least how he remembers it.”

“Tell me.” Ekino said, calmly. It took them until they were nearly at her sitting chambers for Celeste to finish regaling his queen about the events that transpired. “Well, well, I did not expect him to come to Union so quickly. His plans must be accelerating.”

“You refer to Ahkaris?” Celeste asked, opening the doors for his queen. “I did not know you knew him.”

“I used to.” Queen Ekino breathed deep and strode forward to her desk. “Alert the scouts that we need to find him quickly. I must speak with him.”

“Your Majesty,” Celeste started, closing the doors behind him. He glanced over at the fireplace, the young drow was glancing into the flames, holding a goblet he was sipping on. “May I speak freely?”

“Of course, Celeste,” Ekino replied, looking over various papers and reports.

“I think we need to step away from this.” He paused. “I think you need to step away from this. Nothing good can come of what you plan to do with the Rift. Go back to Bladeweb, look after your people.”

“I am owed what I was promised,” Ekino stopped looking at her reports and glanced up at Celeste. “Send word to the scouts to find Akharis. I will speak with him. And if you cannot perform your duties, then perhaps I should find someone who will follow the orders of their queen.”

“Of course, majesty,” Celeste bowed low and left the room, closed the doors securely behind him. He swiftly moved down the hall and rounded the corner to the waiting room. He pushed open the door and looked to the individual seemingly calmly sitting in a chair far too small. “I’ve been ordered to send my scouts to find Ahkaris and I will follow my Queen’s orders. However, Lul is still missing and we have no leads. We can have Railyn back on his feet by morning to assist you; roughly six hours. I want you to take Railyn and track down the Black Smile and he might lead us to Ahkaris and Lul.” He paused. “I want you to make sure Ahkaris leaves Union in pieces. Is this acceptable?”

Gore sneered as the chair groaned under his weight. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

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S2E5: South Warren, Part 1
The return of the PCs!

The Slayers woke the next morning and continued on their way towards South Warren. The day of travel was remarkably uneventful with the exception of Titus attempting to shoot Athelstan in the face. That night, however, found the Slayers camping peacefully until a large creature began to approach their camp. Judging by it's size, they deduced that it was a Manticore, most likely look at them for dinner. As our heroes took up ready positions and ambush tactics, the beast breached the tall grass where Titus was met with a pleasant, "Oh, good evening." The beast before them was a noble Androsphinx, wandering the plains to stretch his legs. For payment of allowing him to warm by their fire, the sphinx gave them a hero's feast using magic and was gone by the next morning. 

The Slayers continued on their way to South Warren where they found the old city had been rebuilt with two large outer walls to secure the citizens within. At the southern gate, the Slayers gathered a place to stay, Sarah's, and information on a tinkerer in town, Trololo, who live beneath the city next to the Blue Feather Inn. Heading inside, Shimmer was immediately aware of the presence of another dragon and Hope followed him to The Fire PIt Pub where the dragon engaged in fisticuffs with a seemingly random elf. After a brief brawl, the two embraced and called one another by name. They ventured to the back and discussed life and where theire paths led. It was here that Goldwing, Shimmer's brother, told Shimmer that he had been summoned to Union. The note did not specify why. After looking over Shimmer's Glamour, Goldwing offered a gift to his brother and took him to train for the remainder of the night; teaching him to morph into a predetermined form without the need of a glamour. Shimmer, now sporting a half-elf form took some getting used to the following day but was confident he would get the hang of it.

Meanwhile, Titus procured four horses, a covered, armored wagon, two mules, and other necessary items for the future journey  with the use of a few well-placed lies and some gems picked up along the way. Afterwards, he abandoned his companions in favor of entertaining some lady friends. He was then struck by the beauty of Silvara Thrist, a local Lady who was eager to be done with her father's buisness in the city and longed for a place of her own in the world. The two hit it off and enjoyed a lovely evening and morning together.

Athelstan, once he joined back up with Hope, headed to the Blue Feather Inn to visit the only local tinkerer, Trololo. They headed down into the sewer grate and found a large cavity which was home to the creature; a troll who was remarkably good with trinkets and devices. Like a good businessman, Trololo demanded payment before doing the job. Intrigued by the bows and curtsy by Hope and Athelstan, Trololo demanded to learn how to do so and how to walk a tight rope. Nearly two hours later, Trololo had acquired the simple skills and set to work on Athelstan's gun and told him he could come back for it in the morning.

Heading back to the surface, the duo were greeted by the celebration of the Spring Festival in South Warren. There was drinking, eating, contests, may poles, and more. Knowing he was still under the effects of the sphinx's spell, Athelstan sought to make a bit of money. He challenged a dwarf to a drinking contest and won with ease. This prompted the next dwarf and the next to double down on the event until all five of the dwarf entourage were passed out and being tended to. Athelstan walked away with over 1200 gold worth of items and his pride.

The following morning, found Athelstan holed up in his room when there was a loud knock on the door. After some coy taunting, the hunter opened up and was immediately slapped in the face with a glove from a Lord Kristoff deMagmas. He demanded that a duel be fought between the two at high noon in the Temple Square. Athelstan, rubbing his sore cheek, agreed. Hope attempted to gain more information from the Lord's servant but he was loyal to the last. It was here that Hope hailed a carriage and headed for the lord's estate while Athelstan, a newly half-elf Shimmer, and Titus met up outside of the Blue Feather where Athelstan and Titus talked up the duel and managed to garner a bit of a crowd to see the event. 

Hope, calling upon the lady of the house deMagmas, inquired as to why Lord Kristoff was eager to duel her friend. Lady deMagmas informed her that the dwarf group Athelstan drank under the table was a dwarf delegation from Magalodahr, here to enjoy themselves as Winter's guests. When Kristoff could not beat them at the contest he was admired for trying. But when Athelstan easily beat them all, Kristoff became a laughing stock amongst his friends and colleagues. Naturally, a duel must occur; something people not from South Warren wouldn't understand. Hope shot back with a backhanded insult about cleanliness before Lady deMagmas requested her to leave. 

At the dueling ring at high noon, Athelstan and his second, Titus, were greeted by a Paladin of South Warren who explained that they would go over the rules before beginning. A carriage arrived and unloaded a beast of a man soon to be followed by Lord Kristoff. The rules were made clear: the fight would continue until either Athelstan or Kristoff lay unconscious, the only method of fighting or defense to be used would be the rapier. No outside interference or cheating upon penalty of imprisonment. The two parties agreed to the rules and the fight would begin…

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Chasing the Smile, Part 7

“Okay, now I’m starting to regret this,” Railyn said, tucking his nearly empty coin pouch back under his belt. It had cost him nearly a month’s salary just to pay off the store owner to use his back room for Lul’s interrogation of Onyx, the supposed mastermind behind the murders. He walked back through the door and into the small warehouse, locking the way he came. Onyx was calmly sitting in a chair on one side of the table while Lul was leaning back in a chair on the other. The half elf’s feet were propped up and he was enjoying some of the sacramental wine the store brewed for some of the nobles. “Alright, we’re good. Let’s get this over with.”

“Splendid.” Lul replied, dropping his feet to the ground and setting the bottle aside. He looked across at the half-open, dead stare of Onyx. His lips were pulled back in a disappointing frown; he looked more annoyed than in fear of what these two might do to him. “So, Onyx, when did you arrive in Union?”

“That’s how you’re going to start this?” Onyx mocked. His voice was deep for a man his size. The eyes stared a hole in the half elf but it didn’t seem to phase Lul in the slightest. “You want to know when I arrived in Union. Let me guess, you’re trying to establish a timeline to determine if I’m really as good as all the rumors say I am.”

“I already believe you’re as good as they say,” Lul said, leaning in. “We’re just trying to catch a killer. You help us with that and my friend here won’t have to distribute you amongst the districts once we’re done.”

“You really need to work on your threats, bartender.” Onyx replied. He caught a faint glimpse of tension in Lul’s jaw signifying he was right. “Formalities out of the way, I know you’re Lul, the current owner of the Merry Juggler and your cook is no doubt Gore, the former servant of Pelor turned mercenary after you snatched him from his home. And your friend by the door, trying his best to pretend that you didn’t just murder two hired guards to get a crack at an old man who may or may not know anything pertinent to your situation, is Ser Railyn of Bladeweb and servant to Queen Ekino. Speaking of the queen, how is Vamos these days?”

“You cursed dog,” Railyn started to take several strides forward before Lul could stand from his chair and stop him. Lul’s hand went straight to the paladin’s sword and it was then that Railyn noticed his hand was already there. Tearing his eyes away from Onyx, he glanced at Lul. “We’re wasting our time here.”

“Oh I think Mr. Onyx can be persuaded.” Lul said, waiting for Railyn to return to his post by the door. He slowly turned and sat back down at the table, taking another drink of wine. “Sir, we just want information on the murders by an individual named the Black Smile. I believe you can help us.”

“Believe what you want, that doesn’t make it true.” Onyx replied, keeping his eyes on Railyn. It was always enjoyable to strike a nerve with some people, especially a paladin who held their oaths so highly. He shifted his gaze and turned to Lul. “The man you’re looking for is a psychopath. He has no conscience or feeling. Whatever was done to bring him back from the dead simply left him empty and without a soul. So look all you want, but I doubt you’re going to find him.”

“Wait,” Lul blinked. “What do you mean ‘bring him back’? You’re saying he actually died?”

“Of course he died.” Onyx scoffed. “Nearly a dozen rogue organizations came together, slaughtered his followers, burned down his hideouts, crucified him, and tossed him into the bay for the sharks. He died many times over.”

“Lul, a word.” Railyn grabbed the half-elf by the arm and dragged him to the door. “If what this guy is saying is true, then we’re in for something a lot more dangerous than we thought.”

“How do you mean?” Lul whispered back, keeping his eye on Onyx. The bald man casually took a glass that was on the table and helped himself to some of Lul’s wine. “This must be an imposter.”

“No, think about how perfect these killings are.” Railyn said, turning his back to the table. “They are identical to what The Smile would do to people who crossed him; it has an artistic flow to it. I think we’re dealing with a Revenant.”

“A ghost?” Lul said, unbelieving. “You’re suggesting that the guy who’s going around slaughtering people across all of Union is a ghost.”

“Not a ghost, a revenant.” Railyn sighed. “They’re much more complex. They’re not bound to a location or doomed to repeat the same events over and over. A revenant wants revenge and will do anything in it’s power to get it. I think The Smile is going after the people who killed him.” Seeing Lul’s defenses starting to crack, Railyn pressed on. “Think about it, all the victims have been low-life dealers, criminals, thieves. It’s as if he has a list and he’s crossing them off one by one.”

“Great, an evil version of Father Winter.” Lul chuckled.

“No, that’d be a Krampus.” Railyn corrected.

“Shut up.” Lul stepped back to the table where Onyx was pouring a second glass of wine. “Enjoying that?”

“Mmm.” Onyx drained his glass and set it down. “WIne blessed by the gods always has a sweeter taste than most. So, what did you two talk about?”

“We think that you’re a pompous ass.” Lul smiled. Onyx smiled back, holding his anger just beneath the surface. “But I don’t think you can help us find the Smile. However, I do think you can help us find the man behind all this.”

“All of what?” Onyx asked.

“The murders, the political stalemates, the monster attacks, the strange gateways that are still opening around the city,” Lul waved his hands, indicating each one. “I think you’re a brilliant tactician, Mr. Onyx, but you’re only a hired man. I want to know who is pulling all these strings.”

Railyn paused and looked from Lul to Onyx. He had never considered the possibility that all the recent activity in the city was the cause of one person. Sure, he was on edge for another invasion like what Kragh brought but nothing on this level of secrecy. He waited patiently for Onyx to answer and as time ticked by, he grew more antsy.

“The strings.” Onyx finally said. He turned his head ever so slightly at the darkness behind him. There was no way out that way. This was a locked room and Railyn stood at the only door. “I am not some puppet, Mr. Lul. I am a businessman. People come to me with offers of monetary gain. If I accept them, then I do the job. Simple as that.”

“Is that what happened with South Warren?” Lul asked. “Were you just doing a job?”

“As I said, people come to me with offers.” Onyx glanced back again. “But if you’ll be excusing me, I have some other place to be.”

“You’re not going any-” Before Lul could finish his sentence, there was a loud crack and a flash of blinding light. When Lul and Railyn could open their eyes, they saw that Onyx was gone and was replaced by a tall figure in an impossibly dark cloak. His voice echoed from all around them and the small glints of eyes beneath the hood set both of them on edge.

“I believe you have been looking the puppetmaster,” the figure said. “That would be me. My name is Ahkaris.”

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Chasing the Smile, Part 6

The Red Wine Inn was one of the few taverns in the Palace District and it sat just across the square from the Palace. The main windows framed the large, nearly impenetrable gates of the Archduke’s home and beyond, the grand palace of Union; the seat of power in the all of the East. Guards, politicians, noblemen, and Blade-sworn walked the streets, discussing matter of state, security, and financial gain. There were not too many people who did not fit into the crowd and Lul and Railyn were forced to dress properly for the occasion.

“How do they manage to wear this everyday?” Railyn asked, pulling at the tight collar. Lul had taken it upon himself, with a little color choice help from Gore, to dress the two of them appropriately so they could blend in. While Lul was dressed in a fashionable long coat and matching vest and boots, Railyn was elected to wear the wardrobe of a priest. It made sense to the bartender that the paladin should get as close to his day job as possible with his outfit. The high, tight collar and flowing robes worked against Railyn every step he took. There was more than a fashion reason why he never served as a cleric.

“I’m sure they see it as an honor to wear the colors of their temple in public,” Lul smiled over at his companion who was seated across the table. They had managed to find a good spot next to the large windows in the Red Wine Inn to keep an eye out for their prey. “Despite the edict that Union is a place for all races and religions to be tolerated, you can still find those who disagree. And they’re usually the loudest and most violent.”

“Fine.” Railyn stopped fiddling with his collar and took a long drink from his wine. “We’ve been coming here for days, Lul. Are you sure that Crowder didn’t lie to you?”

“For what he got out of the deal, it would be against his honor to lie to me.” Lul smirked.

“And did you lie to him?” Railyn waited for the waitress to refill their goblets before continuing. “Did you really just give him a dragon orb? And, frankly, why did you even have a dragon orb?”

“Railyn,” Lul turned from the window. “My travels have taken me to very far off places; places that you would not believe if I told you about them. I have seen things that would blow your little paladin mind and treated with entities that could wipe this city from existence. Yes, I had a dragon orb. I picked it up in a country called Lawinson from a white half-dragon wizard named Sharioon. He was looking to get it away from there as dragons around those parts were a bit more… controllable.”

“Lawinson,” Railyn thought. “I’ve never heard of the place.”

“Of course not,” Lul leaned back in his seat, taking a drink of wine. “But go ask Lord Nar’Var about it sometime. He’s from there. And as for the dragon orb, there’s a good chance it won’t even work here. Taking magical artifacts across dimensions tends to make them useless trinkets anyway.”

“Across dimensions?” Railyn asked, setting his goblet down slowly. “What do you mean?”

“That question will have to wait as our quarry has arrived!” Lul exclaimed with a smile. Across the square, Lul pointed out a short, finely dressed, balding man. He was accompanied by two individuals who, like Railyn, did not fit into the roles they were trying to portray. “Come on, we’ll only get one shot at this.”

“I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?” Railyn said, standing and following his companion out the door.

“You mean you don’t already?” Lul laughed as the two of them blended into the crowd. They worked their way across the square, Lul constantly keeping his eyes on the bald man and ducking between individuals he could easily hide behind. Railyn was not as nimble. He pressed through the crowd as people instinctively stepped out of his way. Before Lul could say anything, the paladin tipped off their targets. In a split second, the two men accompanying the bald man snatched him by the arms and pulled him towards an alleyway.

“This is what I get for bringing a hulking brute to a stake out.” Lul rolled his eyes and started darting through the crowd. Railyn sighed and took off in a run after his companion. The two quickly came to the alleyway and peered around the corner. One of the men was doubled over, gripping a small wound in his side while the other was against the wall, the bald man pointed a short blade at the man’s throat. The man was saying something but Railyn could not hear.

“Come on,” Railyn said, drawing his sword and stepping into the alleyway. “Now’s our chance.”

The bald man was the first to notice the warriors approaching and slipped his knife back in its hiding place. The two men drew their swords and stepped in front of the bald man. Railyn was soon joined by Lul, brandishing his sabre.

“Just like old times, en, Railyn?” Lul gave the paladin a sideways glance. “Swashbuckling in the alleyways of Union.”

“We were children back then, Lul,” Railyn said as he advanced. “And we used sticks.”

Railyn’s first swing was a test and the man on the right was ready for it. However, the second hit it’s mark and gave the man a slash across his thigh. Lul stepped behind Railyn and dove straight for the injured man who parried the attack as pain flashed across his face.

“We don’t have to do this,” Railyn said, parrying an attack and swinging again, catching the man in the upper arm. “I’m going easy on you for a reason. Walk away.

“You overconfident prick,” the man barked and managed to cut Railyn across the chest, slicing off several layers of priest robes. Shedding the garments, Railyn revealed the leather armor beneath and the symbols of Bladeweb. “Ah, the paladin of the drow city; people will toast my name for killing a nun murderer.”

Railyn parried again, stepped to one side and made a deep slash across the man’s back. He gave out an audible groan of pain. Meanwhile, Lul was having more fun toying with his quarry while keeping an eye on the bald man. “Don’t move now, we have questions for you.”

“I’m sure you do.” The bald man replied, leaning against one of the walls. Lul dodged a lunge and slid his blade cleanly into the man’s torso. The hired man slowly went limp with a last breath and Lul cleaned his blade on the man’s shirt. He stepped over to the bald man, keeping out of reach.

“Railyn,” Lul called out. “Aren’t you done yet?”

Railyn glanced back at Lul before sighing heavily. He raised his sword before his eyes, speaking in a dark form of elvish that was rarely heard above ground. His blade glowed bright with white energy and when he struck the stunned man, the light erupted through the alleyway, causing both Lul and the bald man to shield their eyes. The mercenary lay dead at the paladin’s feet.

“Peace.” Raily said, sheathing his sword and turning to face the duo.

“Huh,” Lul chuckled. “I didn’t figure I’d take out mine before you’d take our yours.”

“Your man was injured.”

“Well, yeah. Someone’s gotta fight the wounded; that’s my niche!” Lul turned to the bald man who had hardly moved and smirked. “Now, let’s go have a chat, Mr. Onyx.”

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S2E4: Fathers and Orcs
Athelstan makes a friend...

The Slayers have arrived in New Cottonwood and Gerath decided that sleeping in a bed would do them all good. Titus immediately set out to preach the good word before the local church. The problem was that his sermon on the footstool was about fire, brimstone, and the impending doom of all life. The local guards did not take kindly to this and shut him down rather quickly. Shifting gears, Titus headed into the church to offer his services. The priest put him to work for the rest of the evening. 

As the rest of our heroes headed off to sleep or wander the wilderness, as in Shimmer's case, Athelstan decided to train some locals in the art of archery. The following morning found him trying to sleep off a drunken night with a lively young elf woman name Ira. The two slowly started collecting themselves in the morning when they both heard a mighty roar of an angry father shouting Ira's name. Both quickly tried to dress as Ira's father pounded on doors and shoved them open. He came to Theristis' door who promptly inquired from the hunter that he had a job for him. Taken aback, Ira's father simply told the assassin to stay put. 

Hope pushed her way into Athelstan's room, trying to help find a way out of this mess. A window presented an opportunity but was stuck. As Ira's father continued his checking of rooms, Ira calmly took a seat and looked far more interested to see how Athelstan would deal with the situation. Hope, thinking quickly, shoved the blood hunter into the armoire and prepared for the knock. It came and she kindly opened the door. Ira's father barged in demanding to know what happened. Hope informed the angry father that Ira was helping her learn some local fauna. Ira bounded down the hall after her father apparently accepted this explanation but before he could leave, Titus chimed in and shouted for Athelstan at the doorway.

Turning to Hope, Ira's father asked who Athelstan was. Thinking quick, and with a bit of luck from her companion, Hope told the hunter that it Athelstan was the name of her bird. The father left the room and accompanied Theristis downstairs where the assassin inquired about buying (or finding) a puma cub for himself. The father directed him to Old Man Morgan's farm on the outskirts of Old Cottonwood. Theristis, Hope, and a returning Shimmer ventured out to the farm and met the grizzled old man.

Morgan was long past his prime and bared the scars of his life in gruesome fashion. After some bantering and denial, Morgan finally allowed the heroes inside after Theristis produced a Chuul egg. Working quickly, Morgan revitalized the egg so it could be hatched properly. Accepting this payment, Morgan took Theristis out back where he showed the elf six black panther cubs. Theristis took the lively female and named her Artemis (or Arti for short). Satisfied with his trade, the three heroes headed back to New Cottonwood and joined their party to depart. 

After half a day's walk, the Slayers came to a bridge guarded by old veterans of the Kragh Invasion. The stories they told were well rehearsed and they shared what little food and wine they had. While checking over his things the next morning, Athelstan discovered a note from Ira tucked away in his pack. It professed that she would never forget the hunter and that he would always have her heart. Athelstan replied stating that he would try his best to stop back by on his way back to see her one more time.

The following day was nearly a tragedy as our heroes were ambushed by two 'thunder lizards' that promptly attacked Titus and Jackson, nearly killing both of them. The battle raged on and just when victory seemed in their grasp, an orc raiding party jumped into the fray and attacked both the lizards and the heroes. The fight was hard and no one left the battle without a scar. Yet in the end, our heroes prevailed and managed to walk away with a nice cache of coin and goods as they continued their path towards South Warren…

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Chasing the Smile, Part 5

“Are you sure about this?” Railyn leaned over to Lul as he looked nervously around the entryway of the Temple of Io. Even when he was a servant of the Sun many years ago, he was wary about stepping into any place that worshiped one of the twin dragons. His master had always said not to meddle with them for he was crunchy and good with a tomato based sauce. The hall was vast and decorated with a variety of conflicting art styles, many of which depicted dragons either working with or against humans, elves, and other races. He was starting to have flashbacks from nearly a decade ago when the Great Wyrm Kragh descended upon the Free Marches and the death and terror the beast brought with him. He shook his head, trying to focus. “Perhaps we should try somewhere else; the Rookery, perhaps.”

“We’ve been at this for over a week,” Lul replied with a glance. He was growing tired of all the false leads and dead ends. Apparently his name didn’t carry the same weight it once did with the criminal circles of the city. “You want to find the Black Smile, then we have to start poking around at people who might know him.”

“And you somehow think that a servant of Io will have that information?” Railyn started pacing to calm his nerves. It didn’t help much.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about Crowder,” Lul shrugged. “I’ve also heard a lot of bad things about Crowder that might be useful to us.”

“Well, let’s hope you’re right,” Railyn said waving his hand in front of his face. “What is that stench?”

“A mixture of animal droppings, sulfur, and incense.” A tall, thin man with black hair approached the two. His eyes were sunken in and his mouth was a bit too wide for his thin face. His arms were long and he walked as if trying to slither at the same time. His robes were plain and dark and flowed behind him like a wave of fabric. “It’s to remind us of the glory that awaits us in the great beyond when our souls will rise from this tainted place to the paradise waiting for us in the great void. At least that’s what they tell us to say.”

“You must be Crowder,” Lul said, extending a hand in greeting.

“You’ll of course forgive me if I don’t shake hands,” Crowder smirked. “It’s to keep myself pure from any unwanted parasites from common creatures such as yourselves.”

“Well, you’re a bundle of respect,” Lul muttered, turning to Railyn. “I am Lul of the Merry Juggler and this is Railyn of Bladeweb.”

“I’ve heard the name before,” Crowder smiled. His teeth were large and had a sharpness to them. “Are you not the Railyn who slaughtered those poor nuns in South Warren over yonder in the Free Marches?”

“That was a long time ago,” Railyn stopped his pacing and locked eyes with the black dragon. “How would you know anything about that?”

“I am a very informed individual, Mr. Railyn of Bladeweb.” Crowder motioned for the duo to follow him and he lead them down a hall to a room where they could have a bit more privacy. It was remarkably plain in comparison to the rest of the temple but neither guest complained about it. “So what can a humble servant of Io do for two upstanding gentlemen such as yourselves?”

“We’re looking into some local deaths,” Railyn started. “We found four dead initially and there have been at least three more since we started.”

"So you’re working with the Blade-Sworn?” Crowder waited for an answer but did not get one. “Then you serve the Inquisition.”

“Neither,” Lul reluctantly said. “We’re working this on our own and could use the help.”

“I’m not one for lurking in the shadows and sneaking about,” Crowder dismissed. “I’m far more aggressive about confronting my quarry.”

“Look,” Lul leaned on the table. “We just need to know if you have any information on the man who is behind these murders.”

“Who do you suspect?” Crowder said, curious on how far these two would actually go to track down a killer.

“We know it's the handy work of the Black Smile.” Railyn blurted out before Lul could dance around the subject any more. “He’s back in Union and killing again. We need to put a stop to it.”

“And if I help you, what do I get out of it?” Crowder folded his arms and his eyes darted between the two of them. “Because I’m not entirely sure you have enough gold in your little pockets to pay for the information I have on this individual.”

“Name your price.” Lul immediately replied. He stepped between the dragon and paladin and with stern look on his face. “Name your price and I will make sure you get it.”

“How can I be sure?” Crowder started pacing again. “You’re just a lowly tavern owner in the Apiary, hardly the criminal mastermind who can get his hands on anything worthwhile.”

“What about a dragon orb?” Lul whispered low enough barely audible for the human to hear but perfectly clear for the keen hearing of the dragon. Crowder stopped in his tracks and stared at the half-elf.

“Whelp, if you are lying to me…” Crowder started before he was cut off by the bartender.

“I never lie,” Lul smiled. “So the question is, lord Crowder, is your information worth an artifact powerful enough to control your brethren?”

Crowder stood motionless, his eyes locked on Lul. Railyn could see the acidic saliva slowly forming at the edges of the dragon’s mouth. It seemed the glamours can’t mask every aspect of the target. The room was silent. Railyn could hear his heartbeat slowing down, his hand instinctively dropping to the sword at his side. He had never fought a dragon in such close quarters. They most likely didn’t have a chance. Lul was unwavering, staring the beast in the eye, waiting patiently for an answer.

“Agreed.” Crowder finally said. Railyn let out an audible sigh of relief. “But if you are lying to me, you best pray hard to whatever god you follow because I will melt this city to find you.”

“I completely understand.” Lul smiled in victory and sat down at the table. “Now, tell us what you know.”

At least now Crower knew how far they would go.

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Chasing the Smile, Part 4

It had been a very boring few months while winter blew through Union, freezing the waters and forcing ever the warmest of souls indoors. Crowder was not one to wait; his drive was far too strong to just hibernate like the rest of his kin. So he spent his time wandering the Temple of Io, checking the nooks and crannies and tormenting the kobold servants who were still working tirelessly to serve their sleeping masters. There were plenty of times he wondered if he could get away with slashing the throats of some of his fellow dragons and taking their treasure. But then again, the might of the Elders was far greater than he really wanted to contend with. For now.

“Servant,” Crowder barked at one of the passing kobolds as he slowly strolled down the hall. The creature, Irtos he thought its name was, bowed low before him. Good, he thought, it knows its place. “Who do you call master?”

“The great and brilliant Shimmerscythe, my lord,” Irtos replied in its weak, shrill of a voice. He clutched several small trinkets in its hands; nothing of worth. He never understood why the kobolds held on to such pieces of garbage. He decided that they must be trying to emulate them; good role models to have.

“Shimmer,” Crowder repeated the name. “Where is that old lizard? I haven’t seen his face around these parts for over a week. It’s not like him to leave his little horde unguarded so.”

“I am not at liberty to say, my lord Crowder,” Irtos replied as he bowed again. Crowder appreciated the gesture but constantly bowing to him was starting to get annoying. “He swore us to secrecy.”

“Is that so?” Crowder took one large step forward and quickly snatched up the kobold who gave a yelp. The black dragon pinned his quarry to the wall and stared deep into the kobold’s eye. “And just how face does this loyalty go, I wonder. How much pain do you have to endure before you give up any real information on your master?”

“Crowder.” The voice was strong, bold, and echoed through the Temple of Io. Crowder slowly turned and looked down the hall to see a towering man. He was broad with dark skin and a bald head. He walked with purpose and wore deep red robes. “Put the servant down.”

“Aw, now, now, Tirris,” Crowder said, switching hands but keeping the kobold pinned to the wall. “I was just having a little bit of fun, nothing more.”

“I won’t ask again,” Tirris stepped closer, his eyes starting to burn with the fire of the gold dragon behind the glamour. “Put the kobold down.”

“I was only having a bit of fun, brother,” Crowder said, releasing Irtos to the ground with a thud. The kobold quickly ducked behind Tirris and sped off towards the servant’s chamber. “And now see what you did? I have to go find him all over again to get my answers.”

“How many times do we have to go over this?” Tirris stepped back, his eyes relaxing to annoyance rather than rage. “This is not your swamps of the south; this is the holy temple of Io where we pay homage to the Void Dragon and the Twins. Now we allow you to stay here-”

“Allow me?” Crowder interrupted. “If I recall correctly, dear brother, you all came down to my territory and asked for me to join you. I was content spreading my will across all kinds of creature you’ve never even heard of! The damn Elders asked for me not the other way around.”

“Then why do you stay?” Tirris asked bluntly. “Why do you stay where you’re not happy? Why not go back to your backwater swamps to continue to spread your oppression?”

“Who said I was unhappy?” Crowder said coyly; a sinister smile crept across his face. “At least here there is sport in those I deem in my way. Here there is treasure to be found around every corner. And here, I can have pleasant conversations with my cousins whom I would otherwise never see because they simply never visit.”

“What is wrong with you, Crowder?” TIrris shook his head. “I thought you were doing better, I thought you were actually starting to get along with people here; live amongst the homids!”

“Amongst them?!” Crowder shouted. “You and your metallics would have us live among them like equals when were clearly are not! We are the first born! We are the strong and the terrible and the magnificent! We should be ruling this city and its surrounding lands, not hiding in a temple wearing magical disguises like we don’t exist! We are the worthy, not bipedal flesh bags.”

“Are you done ranting?” Tirris frowned. It was an opinion that was becoming increasingly popular these days.

“For now,” Crowder replied, taking in a deep breath and slowed his pacing he didn’t even realize he was doing.

“Good.” Tirris turned and started back the way he had come. “Then you should come see your guests.”

“What guests?” Crowder asked confused. He never had anyone come to the Temple to call on him much less stick around for the dragon to actually turn up.

“A half-elf and paladin of Bladeweb.” Tirris waved over his shoulder. “They’re waiting in the common room for you.”

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S2E3: The Dead Pass
Cages and Vampires

With the Slayers in the care of Kauanna, expert guide, archer, and former companion to the once great hero Istryn, they headed out from the relative safety of the Deadpass Tower and into the Black Stone Mountains. After only a short way down the road, however, Kauanna took a sharp turn and lead them into the wilds of the forest and up the slopes. When questioned about this, Kauanna simply stated that the road was festering with 'blood suckers' and it was far more dangerous to go that way than through the peaks. 

They barely entered the mountains when night fell and Kauanna found a good spot for the Slayers to sleep for the night. Before bedding down, however, Shimmer vacated his glamour and swooped into the air looking for a feast while Athelstan and Titus headed out to find some local food. The half-elf cleric did manage to find a nice collection of berries to take back to the camp but as soon as he started picking them, the boulder it was next to rose up and backhanded him to the ground. Athelstan, seeing this transpire, fired twice at the creature. The second shot was a miss and awoke the creature's friends. Overhead, Shimmer noticed the attack and swung down, picking up Athelstan and headed towards Titus. Not knowing that help was on the way, Titus hoisted his shield from his back and slid down a path away from the creatures. The decline increased as the half-elf went faster and faster. He soon realized that a cliff was coming up and he had to think fast or else be scattered across the mountainside. Luck was on his side, however, when Kauanna appeared on a small cliff face before him, ready to pluck him from danger. She grabbed hold of the cleric's outstretched hand and swung him up to safety, but his shield slid out over the cliff, shattering below. 

The walk back to the camp was silent from Kauanna but unending apologies from Titus. When they arrived, the ranger belittled the two of them for making such a foolish mistake and told them all to stay put for the rest of the night. The following morning, Kauanna gathered up the Slayers and continued on the journey through the moutains. Shortly after the noon sun, they came to a small clearing that had been carved out of the mountain. It was designed in a way to only let light into the clearing during a certain time of day. In the dead center of the clearing was a cage hanging from a wooden post, large enough to hold a grown man. The small voice from inside claimed to be a former adventurer named Reep and was trapped here by his master, Javier for disobedience. The small vampire was far more interested in revenge on Javier than harming the Slayers. After much deliberation, they released Reep and he bowed in thanks, heading East, back towards the Shattered Bay. 

Later that night, our heroes were resting once more but the sound of several footsteps from above them caught their attention. It seemed that the vampires were not limited to hunting along the road but caught scent of the heroes during their journey. The fight was hard and the Slayers almost lost both Lyra and Athelstan in the scuffle but the Slayers prevailed and claimed several coin and gem for their troubles. A few moments after the fight, Kauanna returned, carrying the heads of three more vampires stating, "Good, you found the other three."

Several more days passed as Kauanna continually lead our heroes through the Mountains and out the other side. She took them down the valleys and along the river to an old village ruin and the new one that was built right next to it. A large sign above the gate said "New Cottonwood" and Kauanna started to take her leave. Theristis pipped up asking if she would help them back through the Mountains on their return trip to which Kauanna replied, "If you can find me."

Finsihing the first major leg of their journey, the Slayers headed into New Cottonwood for a bit of rest and shopping before heading out further west into the Free Marches…

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S2E2: Anchors Away
Union to Deadpass Tower

Two days into the trip to the Dragon's Nest, we find the Silver Slayers sailing towards the city of Oakshore. On the second deck, Athelstan discovered a note left for him by his "friend" Tristin. The note insulted the intelligence and character of the monster hunter and informed him that Tristin had taken Ragnar away. Athelstan then recounted his finding of Ragnar and the merging of his former master into his psyche. The deckhand wasn't sure what to make of the strange tale and avoided the marksman as much as possible.

The following day, the Red Merchant was attacked by creatures known as chuuls; aberrations that were created to guard certain places for as long as they lived. Apparently the ship had gotten too close to their nesting ground. The battle was hard won but a miscast spell from Lyra almost sank the ship. Thanks to the valiant efforts of Titus and his divine powers, the ship was saved. Although, he did repay Athelstan for the arrow in his arm with a crack to the head. The Slayers dived under water after bribing the ship's captain 3 platinum to stay put for 10 hours. With treasures in hand, they continued on their way and made it to Oakshore.

Their stay in the small village was short as they tipped the innkeeper for information about the caravan they were supposed to meet. Darius Ironskull was a rough dwarf, bitter and easy to anger. He ordered the Slayers to take the last wagon for their five day journey to the Deadpass Tower. Theristis managed to buy his way to a front row seat. The trip was largely uneventful but our heroes did discover that this caravan was filled with war weary folk who were ready to fight at a moment's notice. 

Once they arrived at the Deadpass Tower, our heroes ventured to the 'bar tent' where they were treated to the worst tasting ale they had every drank. They inquired of the bartender where Kauanna was (the guide who was supposed to take them over the Black Mountains) and the bartender simply gave them a free drink on the house. Talking further, they discovered that Kauanna was a bit of a loose cannon, tending to stay to herself in the mountains and only coming down when it was necessary. She had not been seen near the Tower for weeks. Taking this as a sign to bunker down for the night, our heroes took a campsite and rested. The following morning found that there were nine individuals within the campsite.

The tall, dirty, wilderness dressed elf stood before them; bow in hand and a twitchy right arm. She spoke with an accent that was very distant from the Free Marches, much less Union. Kauanna demanded that they be ready to leave immediately and then asked for her payment. Gareth gladly dug through his pack and revealed a beat up red journal and handed it over to her. Nodding in agreement, Kauanna strode off towards the Mountains and the dangers that loomed within…

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Chasing the Smile Part 3

                “So you’re not going to turn me in,” Lul said, grabbing a bottle of wine from his personal stash. They had taken the man out back and placed him in an alley near a well-known patrol area. The local guards would only think he was the victim of a mugging gone wrong and wouldn’t look too far into it. The bar downstairs was still busy and he would have to pay Sara extra for taking some time to head upstairs with an old friend. He didn’t mind; she deserved it. Railyn looked like he’d been through hell and back but his eyes still held that sparkle of hope that Lul remembered from when they were boys in the streets of Union. He grabbed a few goblets and filled them, passing one to the paladin. “You haven’t changed a bit; still that same pretty mug.”

                “Thank you for the compliment,” Railyn took a drink. “But I know I look like I’ve been chewed up and spit out by a dragon; you don’t have to play to my ego.”

                “Then I will play to your pride!” Lul smiled and drank heartily. When he noticed Railyn’s concerned look, he shrugged his shoulders. “What?”

                “How long have you been drinking like that?” Railyn asked calmly.

                “No.” Lul shoved a finger in the paladin’s face, his eye stern, and his voice hard. “You are not going to step back into my life and start telling me I’m drinking myself to an early grave. I’ve lost far too many friends because they just couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

                “Fine,” Railyn put up his hands in defeat. He took another sip of the wine. It was good; very good. Had he been a younger man he probably would have drank the whole bottle in one sitting. However, he wasn’t a young man anymore. Times have changed and so had his concerns. “I’m actually here to ask a big favor from you.”

                “Oh!” Lul nearly gasped. He dramatically perched himself in a chair and widened his eyes as if it was all far too unexpected. “Then, please, sir paladin of goodness or whoever you serve now, tell me what this grand favor is!”

                “I’m in service to Queen Ekino of Bladeweb,” Railyn began. He frowned when Lul interrupted.

                “The royalty from the west?” Lul paused for a moment as Railyn nodded. “The drow?”

                “Careful, my friend,” Railyn smiled but was serious in tone. “But you talk about the woman who saved my life. I owe her everything.”

                “Fair enough,” Lul laughed. “Far be it for me to come between a servant and his lady.”

                “Anyway,” Railyn continued on, taking a seat opposite Lul at the table. “We have come to Union on business and she has taken patronage of a group of mercenaries. Those mercenaries are currently on route elsewhere across the mountains. Despite them not being here, the wicked do not pause. I have reports of violent murders that the local guards are not investigating and the Blade-Sworn are trying to sweep under the rug.”

                “Why would they be doing that?” Lul asked as he refilled his goblet.

                “I don’t know.” Railyn shook his head and took another sip. “But I am in need of… company to investigate this matter further. I was hoping that you and Gore could be at my side through this.”

                “Railyn wants to get the old band back together!” Lul squealed like a child. He stood and stomped on the ground three times as hard as he could. “I’m going to have to tell Gore this.”

                Moments later, Railyn could feel the entire upper half of the Merry Juggler starting to sway at the arrival of the minotaur. The beast lumbered in and slowly lowered himself into a reinforced chair. Lul smiled as he refilled his goblet. “My friend, I have good news for you! Railyn here has asked us to join him on an adventure.”

                “We still have customers downstairs.” Gore replied in a rough dialect. For a moment, Railyn was surprised and it apparently showed on his face. “Life is much easier when the community thinks you’re just a stupid beast who can lash out in primal rage ignoring the fact that clerics of Pelor will still refer to me as ‘brother.’”

                “Those were the days,” Lul said, taking his seat again. “Anyway, the customers will keep and, besides, this job won’t take long; just a few hours to hunt down a criminal and bring him to justice.”

                “It might be more challenging than that, I’m afraid,” Railyn said as he pulled out the reports from his spies; no, they were Ekino’s spies. He was not spymaster and nor did he want to be. He handed Lul the report who started reading it over. The smile faded from his face and his brow furrled. “I believe that the rumors are true. It seems Obsidian and her organization didn’t put him down like all the reports say.”

                “The Black Smile,” Lul said, sliding the papers back to Railyn. He paused for a moment, exchanging a glance with Gore.  “How do you intend to find him?”

                “The old fashion way,” Railyn smirked. “Thought I’d ask witnesses and neighbors; see if they saw anything.”

                “He’ll slip through your fingers time and time again,” Lul chuckled. “No wonder he’s escaped capture all this time.”

                “Then what do you suggest, mastermind?” Railyn leaned back in his chair, waiting for the great plan to unfold.

                “Well, we know what he looks like,” Lul drained his goblet and set it back on the table. “The problem becomes how to we track him down. The answer? Find another psychopath.”

 

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