The night after the agents of Naphrem’s famed Battle on the Ice was full of nightmares, and not just for the usual reasons. Reeling from the legendary carnage of the battle and the effective loss of the House of Bearclaw, several of the adventurers had really scary dreams. The star of the show: A beast-like malevolence, chasing, seeking; and carrying a promise of doom in its wake. It found glee in fulfilling its aim: Submerging its cloven hooves in a shallow pool of water. Layla, Musushi, and Rooke all received this vision, and were startled awake.
They described these dreams to Skalla (less eloquently than a certain narrator, in my humble opinion), who confirmed the likeness to be that of Ahmdemos, Servant of Cyric, Corrupter of Halflings, and general asshole through time and space.
The druid then described the situation over a delightful breakfast of his famed tree-paste-leaf-dumplings, a delicacy so legendary it was never spoken of again. The nightmares had plagued all in Odisvalk, seemingly much more than had been affecting the adventurers. Some magical influence on themselves or their persons. A few gazes turned awkwardly to the Heart Stone, but Skalla did not seem to notice. Moving on to the matter at hand, he described his fellow druid. Halfrad was his name and, while he remained skeptical as a follower of Obad-Hai, personal honor and a personal debt bade him assist the Openhanded. Besides, what former traveling companion could resist a chance at an “I told you so?” He was sent ahead to guard the World Well. They would meet him soon.
Skalla then opened the floor to answer a flurry of questions, mostly from Musushi regarding the nature of Druids (starting with “what is a druid”). Scalla responded with a summary of Druidic orders, emphasizing their preference for the roads less traveled and distributed nature. Upon hearing the Druidish language escape Musushi’s lips (to everyone’s surprise, including Musushi), Skalla responded in kind. To those who knew the dwarf best, he appeared to have liked what he heard.
When bidden to appraise the Heart Stone, Scalla revealed little in the way of its use, but much in the way of its nature. Entirely new to him, if not for the energy with which it pulsed. A match to the very fabric of nature and the cosmos; And as old as them, too. Eons reside in this magical stone: An essence of the distant past and distant future; all there was and will ever be; as far reaching as time itself.
Left reeling from metaphysics, the party reverted to the things they knew best. The first being the acquisition of material goods. After much scrutiny, the party identified a minor healing potion for Layla and an intact potion of mysterious origin for Rooke. Thomas picked up a flask of acid, which came with a promise of gleeful violence.
Second, battle plans to make sure that the ensuing violence would not be gleeful for the enemy. They secured safe haven for their wounded comrade, Gerda. Luckily for her, the party (championed by Layla and Thomas) successfully vetoed Musushi’s desire for a decoy and disregard for lives that aren’t his, citing such things as responsibility and decency. The group also made a willing ally of Hralf, the last Nightmare Seeker standing, for the demon slaying crew. Finally, the group learned of a potential weakness in Ahmdemos. It was a familiar failing that has plauged ne’er-do-wells dating back to Gobsmack the Unwashed Heathen: A penchant for monologuing.
Their (torrent of) questions answered, the party made to set out. But their zeal was arrested by a suddenly inquisitive Skalla. A traveler at heart, the hardened druid yearned for tales of distant lands, which the party provided. Musushi recounted the tale of oppression and revenge from Last Stone, the glorious collection of shacks where he came of age. Rooke told the history of his ancient home of Lantan, now named Estalia (and in great need of financial debts repaid, as they learned in Gemor) and his generational feud with Cyric himself, the overlord of the Nine. Layla and Elythia’s stories were more personal, one common-born, the other from riches, but both seeking reunion with past loved ones. Thomas spoke of his flight from his nation’s capital, armed with skills honed on the battlefield and in court.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my eons as a narrator, it’s that a team that communicates is team that conquers™. Unfortunately, much of these stories were news among the travelers themselves: A clear sign of the group’s overall failure to communicate early on. So there’s that. Skalla got a kick out of them, though.
approaching the world well
With a druidic shudder, the feel-goods ended as Scalla detected a growth in demonic power. Ahmdemos was near his goal. It was now or never. The adventurers set out into the Winding Wood. On the way to the Odisfount, the conscripts, Hralf, and Skalla were met with their first physical obstacle. A great creature, the Northworm, had carved a ravine in the very earth itself. Skalla and (surprisingly) Musushi both sensed the fear and panic that drove the ancient worm to flight. In any case, several schemes were hatched to cross the rift, leading in part to the discovery of rope, peddled from Captain Stenwall. Also included were dirty looks from Skalla as Thomas made to chop down a tree. Eventually, Layla sent up her owl, revealing a natural bridge of trees and crossed.
ahmdemos and halfrad
From there, the journey was smooth walking, though a sense of dread grew stronger as the team grew closer to the Odisfount. Fog fell on the area, as though a physical manifestation of the feeling. Caution and paranoia were at an all time high as the crew crept closer and sent out Layla’s owl and Grog as scouts. Sweeping forward, the team utilized their carefully honed skills of stealth, slipping undetected from tree to stone. Their technique was masterful, disturbing no leaf or snowflake, in a legendary display of I’m just kidding, Musushi tripped on bacteria and gave their position away.
Ahmdemos had been perfectly content standing at an alter, cobbled together in a demonic ritual, as though pulled from the evilest parts of nature. But his head snapped to the sound of newcomers. And there stood the terror: The shaggy beast that had come to the party’s nighmares. Cloven hooved and massive, his long arms ended in claws like spikes. And the arrogance. The temptation to gloat and taunt the party overpowered the need to continue whatever he was doing and he spread his arms wide to “welcome” those who would cancel his mission. From a distance, the party lobbed spells, projectiles, and conjured weapons at the demon, all of which were dissipated on impact or nullified by the demon’s magic. This did not help with the taunting. Ahmdemos had reached the next level of insulting. He bade the party part with Naphrem and join his ranks! All in the party, seldom of a single mind on any one issue, shuddered and recoiled.
But Skalla was distracted. As the group drew closer, Ahmdemos revealed his interrupted work. Strapped to the alter lay none other than Halfrad, the druid indebted to Skalla. Or rather, what was left of him. He had died painfully, his face contorted in an agonized scream, vacant eyes staring upward at the moon he held so dear. But as Ahmdemos gloated, he also completed the ritual. The corpse formerly known as Halfrad began to stir. Then transform. Then stood. In the place of Halfrad stood a demonic boar, towering over even Ahmdemos. An animalistic cry of anguish escaped Skalla as he witnessed his friend of decades become a deadly mockery of natural creation. With that, he faced the charging foe to meet in single combat. As the duel of the druids shook the Earth, another climax burned itself into the annals of Odisvalk forever.
It began with a ruse. The party closed the distance under the guise of submission; their ploy to envelop Ahmdemos in the power of the Heart Stone. It worked. Ahmdemos scarcely noticed the power of the Heart Stone, engrossed as he was in his monologue. Amateur. In range, the party proceeded to unleash their full might on the demon. Magic missles rained from Elythia’s outstretched hands. Holy light poured forth from Layla’s shield to burn the evil off the terror of Odisvalk. Thomas sent arrows raining into his shaggy, ugly mug. Vines from the Earth, summoned by Musushi, kept Ahmdemos rooted for a time. Rooke unleashed crossbow bolts, an axe, and wheels of cheese at the mighty foe. All the while, Hralf belted out an epic song, much like
This formidible fighting force was well matched. One of Cyric’s Nine would not fall lightly. When faced with Ahmdemos, one takes note first of a stench, size, and arrogance only an equally grotesque mother could love. They would be forgiven to overlook his speed. Ahmdemos ran circles around the party, at one point, leaping to nearly squish poor Hralf and silence his song. Everyone’s a critic. Not even Musushi’s entanglement could contain the beast for long. In fact, Ahmdemos was crafty and entered Musushi’s mind for a time. Amidst noodle recipes and thoughts of general dissatisfaction with his situation, Ahmdemos pushed blind loyalty to him into Musushi’s mind. The dwarf barely stayed his spoon before it came crashing down into Rooke’s head.
Fighting was fierce. Ahmdemos wounded many in the party, but Hralf got the worst of it. However, under a sustained barrage of magical harm and projectiles, the once quick demon began to slow. Seeing their chance, Layla and Musushi enacted a move. They passed the Heart Stone to Grog and sent him to the Odisfount itself. To seal it, enable some weapon, but mostly to see what would happen with the most expendable I mean fastest member of the team. It was at this very moment that Ahmdemos was slain by a magic missle, was pulled cursing into oblivion, and Grog the Rat entered the annals of history.
With jaws tightly clamped on the Heart Stone, Grog skampered toward the Odisfount. His cargo then grew warm and began to glow as Ahmdemos hurled obsenities and downright lyrical portents of doom to no one in particular (He clearly had prepared his death speech well in advance). Soon, “warm” became “hot” and “glow” became “blaze with the light of a thousand suns.” The bright light from the Heart Stone, with the dire rat attached began to float and turn toward the prone demon. The last thing that Ahmdemos saw this side of the void was a frantic dire rat, eyes wide in panic, squeaking obsenities and deranged questions of his own before him. Ancient light poured forth from the Heart Stone and amidst demon screams, washed over Ahmdemos. When the light faded and the demonic smoke was scattered in eight directions, Ahmdemos, the scourge of Odisvalk, corruptor of House Mead Barrel, and general asshat was no more. And the sun shone once again in Odisvalk.
Skalla approached the group with an air of melancholy. While the rest of the group celebrated the death of an unquestionable evil, the wandering druid’s victory against his foe also came with the loss of an old friend; for they were one and the same. He said a prayer as the group swept the area to see what they could recover.
Well, to the victors go the spoils. And Naphrem’s chosen were big damn victors today. Rooke gathered a bone white shoulder guard from the fallen Halfrad (and hoped Skalla didn’t notice (he did)). Thomas recovered a small blue gem from the alter, which he pocketed for later bartering or addition to his luchadore mask. Elythia gathered a fistful of strange herbs and an urn, which she decided was pretty enough to keep. Layla claimed a small stone rock statue of Cyric himself. Perhaps it even kept some of his soul (if he had one) as it appeared to follow Layla, as though acquainting itself with it’s new owner. Layla noped out of that faster than a half-orc at a halfling limbo contest. The statue showed no emotion as it’s “life” ended beneath her boot. Musushi was less concerned with the arcane with regards to a book of notes from that same alter. Despite being assaulted by physical pain upon attempting to read it (multiple times), he contemplated keeping the book to draw out its knowledge. In the end, he followed Layla’s example and burned the old rag.
What happened next surprised everyone. Darkness was pulled into the firelight and in place of both lay a small egg. But this egg was adorned with the symbol of Ahmdemos. The party identified it as the Eye of Terror, a magical stone that reinforced its bearer’s mental fortitude. This, they decided to keep. At this point, it passed to Elythia’s posession.
Skalla’s Other Walk
Just then, Skalla finished his prayer and regarded the team as they gathered round. To conclude their business, he bade them step into the extra-physical dimension and number one Druidic vacation spot: The Verdant Dream. As they stepped into the gateway orb that Skalla brandished, the world as they knew it peeled away. What appeared was beyond mortal comprehension. Stars. Worlds and worlds and worlds of stars and the planets and bodies and people around them. Throughout time. All there was and ever will be. All part of a singular grand design, marching forth to the beat of one unerring drummer.
Suddenly, the group was met with a towering figure, impossibly large. It was a woman, sitting upon a unicorn. She radiated light, which expanded through the cosmos. She was herself, yet everywhere. It seemed, that she wished for the adventurers to be elsewhere. The universe spun as the team was pulled away to a distant land as quickly as they had arrived.
It was the mortal realm, though they were not in it. A dark, fire lit cavern. A forge it was. A lithe figure bent over an anvil, deep in thought as bullets of sweat fell off her brow. She was muscled and weathered, the type not to be easily phased. Even as a smokey apparition adorned in robes winked into existence, she did not stir. The apparition spoke familiarly. He told of the death of Ahmdemos; and together the two criticized their fallen companion, confirming their membership to Cyric’s Nine. However, they also insisted on their differences to that arrogant and overeager blowhard. Yet they were quick to criticize each other as well. The forge mistress sent barbs at the apparition, Xasu Avar, citing the same recklessness seen in their fallen brother. Too quick to be modifying the dwarves, she claimed. Her modus operandi was one of stealth, to fade into the night as the job is done. Xasu Avar labeled this claim from his sister Aleoth with the slap of hypocrisy. Her work with the Orcs has not gone unnoticed, he fired back. In fact, the Orc bodies with bones removed were very noticed.
Suddenly, the siblings halted their quarrel to meet a common foe (typical). The group, derisively called Naphrem’s Welps, had been noticed. Amidst threats that they would meet the same fate as champions sent by the angel Inarius, the connection to the Verdant Dream was severed and the group returned to their reality. There was much gleaned from the conversation that they overheard, and much to decide. That also meant much to forget about over jugs of ale in a night of celebration in town. The group congratulated themselves! And tried to shake the feeling that the worst was yet to come…