Two precise jets of superheated flame erupted from the enormous red dragon’s mouth, just as Thybalt leapt from the stone bridge onto the remains of a wall that once provided the front façade of a fire giant keep. One of the bursts of flame roared into the space on the narrow bridge that Thybalt had leapt from just a moment earlier. Rawdon miraculously dodged out of the way of the second blast, despite the limited room for manoeuvre on the narrow stone bridge across the lake of lava.
From his vantage point at the entrance to the lava-filled cavern, Lythvard could see his companions at the other end of the bridge, antagonizing Sorth, the mighty red dragon, by ignoring that dragon’s warnings about entering the ruined keep. The bursts of flame signalled that battle was inevitable. Lythvard muttered an incantation and his body took a ghostly form, floating up from the bridge to hover high above the lava lake.
Nimona invoked the aide of the Gods as Sorth lurched upwards and out of the ruined keep that housed his precious treasure horde. Lythvard and Sorth met mid-air in a barrage of gnashing teeth, razor-sharp claws and battering wings. A quick spell muttered in the ancient draconic language gave Sorth momentary mental control over Vorax, who attack Nimona from behind.
Lythvard managed to escape from the dragon’s clutches with the aide of his Boots of the Doe, but his spells were proving ineffectual against the dragon’s might.
Circling slowly inside the cavern, Sorth sang out to the spirits of his treasure horde, summoning them with a whale-like song. Non-corporeal beings began to emerge from the rolling dunes of gold, forming into humanoid beings of gold pieces, jewellery, armour and weapons.
Rawdon dashed forward into the keep and onto the golden dunes smashing two of the golden spirits to pieces. But the remaining horde spirits struck back, smashing Rawdon and Thybalt with giant fists of gold pieces and partially burying them under piles of gold.
Seeing her comrades on the back foot, Nimona continued her prayers, imploring the Gods to strengthen her comrades.
Sorth continued to raise hoard spirits with his eerie song, and then he smashed a huge stalactite with his tail, the bottom half of which sailed across the cavern and into the waterfall of lava flowing from the mouth of the volcano above. The impact sent a rain of lava spattering over the intruders.
After this, Sorth circled around again and strafed three of the party members with his precise breath of fire, setting them alight.
Vorax, Rawdon and Big Meanie continued to battle with the horde spirits while the party’s magic users flung all their spells in their arsenals at the dragon. Their spells were accurate, but not powerful enough to slow the dragon down. They needed a way to get Sorth out of the air and onto the ground, where the dragon would be more vulnerable. It was clear to Thybalt that unless they grounded Sorth, the party was doomed. No sooner had Thybalt muttered words to that effect to himself, did the dunes of gold begin to rise of their own volition. Several kingdom’s worth of gold and jewels rose three to four meters into the air, towering over the combatants. The gold soon formed into the shape of a face, the face of the Great Gold Wyrm.
“Sorth!” the golden dragon head’s voice boomed throughout the cavern, “You shall not have Thybalt. He is mine!!!”
Cowed by the Great Gold Wyrm’s display of might, Sorth dropped down onto his piles of gold, tailed momentarily curled underneath himself and his draconic chin resting on the floor of the lair.
Sluice gates on the cavern walls slammed shut, blocking the tunnels that allowed the lava to drain from the cavern. The level of the lava lake started to creep up the sides of the bridge and fort. Unless those gates were opened soon, the stone bridge – their only way out of the fort and the cavern, would soon be covered in lava.
Grounded, Sorth responded by lashing out at Vorax with a vicious combination of tooth, fang and tail, seriously injury the party’s stalwart soldier. Seeing numerous members of her party holding themselves together after they’d been burnt, bash and sliced by their enemies, Nimona reached up towards the heavens and allowed the energy of the gods to flow down through her and then distribute outwards towards her injured comrades, who were able to use the energy to heal some of their wounds.
With the situation dire, Lythvard decided it was time to try out his new, most powerful spell. The spell the Lich King had personally helped Lythvard to learn. Lythvard had found a scroll, and upon reading it, his consciousness had been transported to a formless plane, surrounded by stars and gas nebulas. Around him, Lythvard could see the “machine code” of the Disintegrate spell. The Lich King’s voice washed over him.
“I’m glad you’ve found this spell, Lythvard the Faithful. It is one of the greatest spells I ever created. I will help you learn it well, but you will do something in return for me.”
“Of course, my lord. What do you need of me?”
“The Archmage is on a Search. I want you to break his spirit. I want you to build up his hopes by letting him think that he will be successful. Then, just when he is on the verge of success, you must snatch success away from him. This will crush his will.”
“I understand, my lord.”
Back in the present, Lythvard uttered the word of power and unleashed the Disintegrate spell. The Lich King had made sure Lythvard had learnt it well, and the giant red dragon’s flesh began to disintegrate.
As Sorth roiled on the ground in pain, rolling over the dunes of gold and splashing around in the small rivers of lava that weaved their way through the dragon’s treasure horde, Vorax released an ancient draconic battle cry. The roar echoed around the cavern and Sorth pulled his body off the ground to face this challenge, a challenge that Sorth’s primal draconic instincts could not allow to go unmet. The pair met once more in a flurry of claws and blade. Vorax’s sword found an open and sliced at Sorth’s throat, splitting it open and a deluge of dragon blood poured out. It spilled over the piles of gold, running down into the rivers of lava below. Sorth’s body writhed a few times, and then the ancient wyrm was dead.
Back at the entrance to the lair, Futgarek and Mokread Brightbraids – the dwarf and the orc, bitter enemeies thrown together by fate – fought shoulder to shoulder to keep a pack of gnolls from rushing to their master’s aide. The party quickly stuffed their pockets with whatever treasure they could grab, cut a horn from Sorth as evidence of his death, and then rushed down the bridge to help the orc and the dwarf. Upon seeing the approach of the five adventurers who had just slain the most powerful being the gnolls had ever known, the gnolls dropped their weapons and ran away.
They returned to the treasure horde and Brightbeard argued that he should be given control of the horde so that the Dwarf King can buy battalions to fight the orc invasion with. Futgarek, quite understandably, opposed this suggestion. Debate ensued, but soon ended when Nimona pulled a lever that closed the sluice gates again. With the lever stuck and the lava levels rising, the party walked out of Sorth’s lair, leaving Brightbeard behind to struggle futilely with the lever.
The party returned to the drow cave and presented the drow priestess Jandril Claddrret with their evidence of Sorth’s demise. She upheld her end of the bargain and the party soon found themselves standing in the garden city of Concord.
Lush grass grew underfoot and soft sunlight played through the pine trees around them. Gnomes and halflings came and went from the round doors in the grassy mounds that housed their homes. Wood elves moved from branch to branch in the city built into the trees. Normally this would be a happy, peaceful scene, but on this day the residents of Concord moved with slumped shoulders and long faces.
A bell rang out, drawing the party’s attention to a dwarf pushing a cart along the green street. On the cart was a pile of naked bodies: male, female, elf, dwarf, halfling, gnome. “Bring out ye dead” the dwarf cried as he sullenly pushed his cart along.
A short conversation with the dwarf revealed that things had worsened in the Dragon Empire since the last time the party had been in a civilised area. A blight was rampaging across the major cities of the Empire, and the unpredictable weather had caused famine in many parts of the Empire. The people of Concord blamed the Archmage and the Priestess in equal measure for their maladies.
The adventurers, however, had their own maladies to worry about. Nimona’s birthmark had been slowly burning deeper into her flesh since she restored Thybalt after drinking sap from a tree of knowledge had left him catatonic. They needed to find a solution to the birthmark problem before it burnt through her vertebrae and into her spinal column. The Priestess or Archmage might be able to help, by they are several weeks’ travel away by boat, and they can’t be sure that Nimona has that long.
The party went to a local Concord temple. Perhaps they could get some advice at the temple about Nimona’s condition. However, upon arrival at the temple they found it busy, crowded, and overflowing with the diseased and dying. Priests were accepting bribes of gold to receive new patients, which angered Nimona. Her attempts to help a poor family with a sick child almost brought her to harm, as a crowd soon gathered when they realised that Nimona was giving out money.
After regrouping in an alley, the party decided to try the back entrance to the temple. They ducked through the hedge at the rear of the temple and found the temple yard full of dead, bloated bodies in various states of decay. Their picked their way through the bodies and flies and eventually made it into the temple.
They found the head priest and gave him some money to look at Nimona’s condition. When the head priest realised that Nimona’s birthmark was in the shape of the insignia of the Ne Quis Eyoroum Morte, he became offended and promptly returned the gold. He explained that he both cannot and will not help Nimona. Cannot, because he’s never seen this kind of condition before, and will not, because of Nimona’s association with Ne Quis Eyoroum Morte, a pariah sect within the Church of Light. Ne Quis Eyoroum Morte believe that mortals can have the power to decide when someone passes to the afterlife, a decision that is normally the domain of the gods alone.
Discouraged and confused, the party of adventurers exited the temple and discussed what to do next. They decided to let Lythvard cast teleport to take them to Horizon, but he would need to rest before he could cast that spell.
As they walked the streets of Concord, the image of five figures mounted on horses soon dominated the leafy streetscape. They moved down the centre of the street in a wedge formation. At the front of the wedge was a figure in shining silver armour. Four flags rose up behind her, and the figure’s face was covered with a plain white mask, devoid of any facial features. Thybalt and Lythvard recognised her as Ayn, the cleric of mysterious alignment that had once adventured with them. Ayn was flanked by four large figures, dressed in long black robes, their hands and face concealed in the folds and shadows of their hoods and sleeves.
Thybalt and Lythvard greeted their former companion, and Ayn’s response was courteous yet cold. They spoke with Ayn about many things. She warned them about Ne Quis Eyoroum Morte and the dangers of angering the gods, suggesting that Nimona’s condition might be punishment for their hubris. She also warned Thybalt to stay away from the Crusader because he did not fully understand Thybalt’s destiny. She also warned them of the Ebon Gauntlet, the Crusader’s elite soldiers who seemed to have the ability to appear at any place, at any time, and who might be tasked to return Thybalt to the Crusader’s fold forcefully. As the two parties parted ways, Ayn gave this cryptical farewell: “We shall meet again, at the beginning of the end.”
At the Concord docks, the party chartered a ship, paying good money to have the ship leave immediately. They figured that they could rest on the ship and then cast the teleport spell, and being seen departing on the ship would confuse anyone who might be following them.