Location: Star's End Monastery
Date: Winter, 1332 Avard
Brother Ejis was one of those large men that had slabs of meat underneath a large gut. His limbs were were like tree trunks that supported his great belly, and his jowls waved as excitedly as his hands when he spoke. Brother Ejis was also a polyglot; he could pick up a new language in just moments of study. Many of the ancient languages, those, were like riddles. Knowing that a written symbol no one had used in centuries, if not millennia, might mean one of several things made many of the tomes and symbols the monastery had into riddles. Even with arcane or divine intervention, the meanings of many ancient scripts were obscured without more symbols to put them in perspective.
Brother Ejis had linked the word 'guardian' – one of the few definitively known Ionian words – to a symbol on the Autumn Lord's tapestry. Perhaps fifteen miles away from the symbol, the map indicated 'gray beards', a term often used by dwarves to indicate their elders. Brother Ejis, through Brother Cadwhol, asked the team to go investigate the Guardian and Gray Beards.
The team set off through thick snow drifts over the forested hills of the Rakoran hearth lands. Ethana's armored boar Aden led the way, the gnome Nyssa riding behind Ethana on the dire boar's battle saddle. Kragma followed on his giant snowfell Snowcap, occasionally sniffing at the air. Following them was Allie on her horse and Rip on his omsomif. After two days of travel, a fierce winter storm holed them up in a small cave. A large snow scrat tested Kragma's shield before moving off in the storm.
The next day, they reached the general vicinity of the Guardian, and began their search. Rip and his six-legged omsomif slowly homed in on something unusual in the ground, with the help of Kragma's stone masonry knowledge. Molly listened carefully to the ground as Kragma set off ringing sounds in the earth, and the unusual disturbance was felt in Molly's sensitive pads.
Allie, however, could fly. The ariel flew up into the sky and saw something startling in the direction the others were slowly moving. A giant was curled up in the fetal position. When standing up, he would have been nearly forty feet tall.
The giant was made of an imported form of granite, crudely carved save for a string of sixteen runes down his spine. The team cleared off as much of the giant as they could, even removing a sapling that was growing up in the dirt that had accumulated near his shoulder. There was an odd ridge around his head, like a crown, though it was as crudely done as the rest of him. The runes, however, were well incised. What they meant, though, was a bit of a mystery. They were Ionian, but several were new to the team and not found in the torturin they had with them.
Several of the runes were reminiscent of the dwarven numbers, which themselves had associations with them. Ethana began to have an idea of what the Ionian script might be.
They reached an impasse with the giant stone man. In ancient times, the gods empowered giant statues of glass or crystal known as riks. The riks were weapons of the gods, used to smite errant angels, intrusive demons, or straying theocracies. Their like were used only in rare instances, often crafted by a disciple of extraordinary faith and belief. The runes, however, had an arcane tint to them. Beneath the runes was a primal power. The giant stone man was an elemental, held into shape and form and dominion by the arcane runes running down his spine. They thought to perhaps remove the control runes, but feared what would happen if they failed, or worse, if they awoke the guardian and it attacked.
Instead, they took a break from their investigation of the guardian, and moved out towards the spot on the map known as the 'gray beards'. The journey took a bit more than half a day through snow-covered, hilly forests. Kragma's keen navigation abilities, coupled with Ariel's occasional flights, led them to a set of stone ruins located in a small dale relatively clear of trees.
The stone ruins were of dwarven make, and weathering of the stone indicated they were old. Most of the structures had been destroyed, either intentionally or through weathering, long ago. One of the few structures still completely intact was a mausoleum in a graveyard. Close to a hundred empty graves surrounded the mausoleum, the inhabitants of the graves having arisen during the War of the Undead over a decade ago. There was no door to the mausoleum, and it was sealed completely. There were small signs of attempted intrusion, perhaps by bandits or grave robbers, but none had been successful. The mausoleum itself gave off a sense of foreboding.
More than likely, whatever corpse was within the mausoleum was still there. The team considered getting into the mausoleum in several ways, but most ways in would take considerable time or leave the party vulnerable to an attack should whatever corpse or spirit was within the mausoleum still be animated since the necromancer's war.
The mausoleum itself had no inscriptions upon it, no writing what-so-ever, except for indications of Hyark – the God of Pain, long since dead. Hyark had been a god associated with
There were, though, stone inscriptions in various locations throughout the ruins. Ethana realized, looking at the inscriptions and the dwarven architecture, that the Ionian script was a devolved form of dwarven. Such a sad state was considered rare in and of itself, but it did happen occasionally. For the dwarven script to fall so badly as to become the nearly indecipherable Ionian indicated just how long that clan of hill dwarves (for it must be hill dwarves, as no self-respecting mountain or deep dwarf would ever life above ground in such a wet valley) had been separated from the rest of dwarven culture.
Ethana realized what the runes along the spine of the guardian were actually saying. They were the story of his capture, and his enslavement; several of the runes were derivatives of control and crowns. He had been an earth elemental the dwarves had found, and then someone arcanely bound the elemental form into the crude statue they had seen.
The team quickly turned around. They spent the night near the guardian, and then on the morn attempted to rouse it. The arcane runes protected themselves from incision, knocking Kragma and Ethana back fifteen feet. But, the guardian arose. In its tortured form they saw that a mind was still there, but it was still under the command of someone or something. As the giant began to stride away on legs twenty feet long, Rip noticed something under where the giant had lain.
The skeletal remains of a horse and a man were buried in the depression made by the elemental. Rip quickly dug through the remains until he found the fractured skull of a human being, still inside of its dented helm. Small bones and bits of the skull fell out when he picked up the mud-encrusted helm, but there was enough there, he thought, to try something useful.
The guardian's stride was determined, but not so fast that they could not catch up within half a mark, which was all Rip needed. He quickly crafted a rune in the trampled snow to Curiss, God of the Dead, and placed the helm on the rune. He found the appropriate incense in his travel pack, and then armed with his personal lectionary, began reciting the prayers necessary for a particular ritual. The guardian continued marching off into the distance, leaving the rest a bit nervous, but they trusted to Rip to do what was right.
After perhaps ten minutes of prayers with the skull, the incense gently wafting upwards in the chill winter air, Rip's eyes rolled back in his head and he stopped breathing. He remained sitting, appearing to gently convulse, but there was only awe as a small miracle was performed. Long seconds went by, and then Rip's body relaxed and his eyes focused on the rest of the skeleton.
The priest quickly dug through the remains of the skeleton, until he found in the corpse's hand a holy symbol to Nathel, God of Conquerors. The chain of silver was black with corrosion, but the amulet shone in the sunlight with the blood red rubies that outlined the symbol of Nathel.
He urged them to haste, to their mounts, telling them he would explain as they rode.
The last twenty seconds or so of the skull's life had been shown to Rip. It had been an area of plains and few trees, and it had perhaps been late spring or early summer when the man died. He had been riding his horse fiercely, spurring and beating it onwards, heedless of whether it lived or died. The guardian had been following, running after him, murder in its eyes. When the rider had looked back, the guardian had worn a crown of metal about its head, and its eyes had glowed with molten magma. The rider had taken out a holy symbol to Nathel, and attempted to invoke a prayer to the Conqueror God, but it was too late. The giant hand of the guardian crushed him and the horse together. The world tilted crazily, and then was dark.
Nathel had, ironically, conquered the God of Pain known as Hyark. Hyark's priests and servants were those of domination and submission, pain as reward and pain as punishment. There was a thought, there, that the priest was likely in charge of the village they had seen – but a sorceror or someone with arcane powers was subservient to Hyark, and thus controlled the village of hill dwarves, and the guardian. They would never know for sure, but the indications and 'feeling' of events and those last images from the Nathelian's skull gave some hints about what had happened in the end. The wizard or sorceror that made the arcane markings on the guardian controlled it. A dying request may have been to be entombed in a nearly impenetrable mausoleum. Once the controller was dead, though, the guardian went after the priest of Nathel – perhaps as a final request, or a last act of freedom for the guardian before falling asleep once its master was dead. There was no real evidence for the scenario, but it fit the hints in the ruins. The most recent building in the ancient village was the mausoleum itself; nothing seemed to have been built thereafter. Most likely, the village was abandoned by the hill dwarves – the Ionians – that had been separated from their kind for too long.
The team caught up to the guardian, and then kept a healthy distance back. The guardian marched through the countryside like an unstoppable juggernaut. Only the largest of trees caused it to change direction, and the party had to occasionally track out or back to get around a still-running stream or gully or wash out or rise.
The guardian stopped at the mausoleum, and then stood there, unmoving, for too long.
The team realized that the guardian was trapped in the commands. The undead creature inside the mausoleum was its master, but apparently could not control it or was unaware of something 'unliving' like an elemental. The elemental would only follow the undead creature's commands, but no commands were there. The team feared that if the undead were sentient enough, it could command the guardian to disastrous results.
A straight on attack was ludicrous and would accomplish nothing, and so an alternative means of attack was needed. They realized that what they needed was a miracle – and so they set out to make one.
Kragma could not be deterred from his path. Though Tromth the Elemental God of Earth was dead, as well as the Gods of Sea and Sky, the Goddess of Fire yet remained alive. Kragma felt a deep connection to the earth, and felt in his bones that there must be some traces of Tromth left in the world. The elemental was proof enough for him. He was determined to free the elemental, even if it cost him his life. Wearing mud in the shape of the ancient symbol of Tromth, both on his chest and on his back, Kragma carefully approached the guardian. Using more mud, thick and pasty with the cold winter's air, he drew the symbol of Tromth on the mausoleum, as well, in strokes as broad as his massive hands.
The elemental seemed unable to move or respond, bound as it was to the unspoken arcane commands.
Rip drew into the snow and trampled earth three symbols of Arpelos, God of Light and God of Balance, Slayer of Undead, Restorator of Freedom. To throw off the chains of oppression and fight for liberty was one of the hallmarks of the faith of Arpelos, and so Rip used his lectionary to invoke Arpelos to free the oppressed elemental.
Ethana called upon Galgiran, the Soul Forger, Dwarf Maker, and the First Smith. The runes of her finely crafted scale armor bore hundreds of runes, each serving its purpose in Galgiran's service.
Allie also tapped into her lectionary, calling upon Habrem, Goddess of Songs, using her aspects of nature. It was Habrem that brought the music of rain and water, stone and rhythm, the ring of steel on stone, and the beating of hearts together.
Nyssa simply tapped into her arcane heritage and sought ways to disrupt the arcane runes from within.
Individually, they could accomplish nothing. That such as they were calling upon the gods and disrupting the weave of the arcane all at once was formidable. Kragma embraced the guardian's calf, pressing the symbol of Tromth into the calf as hard as he could, willing the dead god's influence through him. Following his lead, Ethana embraced the guardian's other giant leg, more wrapping her arms around its ankle than its calf, short as she was.
That physical contact was the last step. Whether Tromth spoke from the beyond, or whether Nyssa's arcane disruptions found a weakness in the runes, or whether all of them together was enough… But the runes along the guardian's spine dissolved in molten stone.
Kragma and Ethana both moved away from the guardian, quickly joining the others, as they felt its stone movements. The guardian spoke below their threshold of hearing, causing the animals back away in fear and pain, the volume so great that they could only feel it in their chests. What it said, they might never know, but they know it meant them no harm.
It smashed into the mausoleum with both fists, and then crushed whatever undead spirit lay within, grinding it into the flagstones with the sound of shattering bones and stones. It's revenge complete, it turned to the team.
It fell to both knees, shaking the mausoleum such that another wall fell. It spread out its hands, one towards Kragma and one towards Ethana, and it looked at Rip and Allie and Nyssa. And then great cracks spread along its hands and arms, and they fell off with great crashes as thousands upon thousands of pounds of granite fell to the earth. When the dust cleared, there was nothing left.
The mausoleum continued to shake, and its last walls fell in, the ceiling collapsing into dust and debris. And then, something began to glint about the mausoleum as the ground continued to shake, topping other ruins in the village and even filling in the open graves in the grave yard.
When it was over, littered about through the ruins of the mausoleum, were riches. There was emerald the size of a man's fist, gold and silver nuggets, an opal the size of a man's heart, and other precious and semiprecious stones from within the earth. And, though it had not been said where they could hear it, there was the unmistakable feeling of a favor owed.
Ethana sighed. She was glad the elemental was free – but the destruction of the mausoleum meant that any writings contained within were lost to them.
DM's Notes: Many thanks to Ross and Paul for allowing Saige to play with us. She was a bit scatterbrained, constantly asking, “What's going on?” because she wasn't paying attention, and just didn't have her head in the game. Given that she's only eight years old, Ross and Paul are very patient with her – and with us. It must be difficult to keep your game face on when your DM says, “It's a cold, blustery day when – No, Gracie! – you see Brother Cadwhol approaching with another monk – Careful, Sarah! – who seems a bit large but is gesticulating wildly – Saige, what are you doing?” I just realized Ross and Paul are DESPERATE for a DM if they're putting up with this.
The most tense part of the evening was the skills challenge to release the guardian. The players needed six successes before four failures – and they had two two failures back-to-back relatively early in the challenge. Each roll thereafter was a tense one, as the Difficulty Challenge was a 16, meaning that they needed to roll a d20 and then add to that their skill points such that they beat 16. For most 3rd-level characters, that can be a challenge – particularly because they couldn't use the same skill twice. So, while they might a 15 point bonus to one skill, they likely didn't have that high a bonus to others, and they had to justify use of that skill. For Ross and Sommer, they attempted to use Diplomacy by way of rune contact with the elemental. They hugged its legs, in an attempt to bring all their runes to bear: one big one for the dead god Tromth, and a hundred dwarven runes for Galgiran. Ross brought more runes to bear with his Religion check, and everyone contributed just enough.
Reference: Campaign IX