- The story resumes where the last ended… ambushed by spined devils.
- Running along the parapets, with the goal in sight, they battle alongside Lukas. The man seems off by the party’s observations but can’t seem to place what is wrong.
- They try to confront the wounded soldier but things are too pressing, so for now they keep an eye on him and are starting to become highly suspicious.
- Ahead they spy more towers and Ziggy keeps watch for Lucis who is still flying and observing the battlefield. He appears oblivious to the party. So, they regather, stealth, avoid more sentries, Ramar appropriates a barrel of oil (stealthily?), and then make a final, mad dash to the royal chambers.
- Only feet away from the doors, Weezl feels a hand on her shoulder and she is grabbed and thrown from the castle parapets. Thanks to her Boots of Spider Climbing she doesn’t fall too far! and the rest of the party come face to face with a six-fingered, red skinned devil of a man. Namely, a cambion, and a familiar one. Lev threatens the party though it is mostly directed at Ziggy.
- The group fight back, causing him to flee and he calls out to Lucis as a last resort. Meanwhile, Ramar makes sure Weezl is okay, and then strikes at the cambion. Ziggy takes shot after shot, aiming for the fiend’s face (where he crit him once before), and Weezl turns into a Giant Eagle, after summoning two more to fight… again, similar to the last time they fought the fiend.
- Lev tries to flee and is heavily wounded, with eagles chasing him down. His fate… unknown.
So, I didn’t want to be one of THOSE DMs and make this seem unfair, so Lukas/Lev had started acting somewhat suspicious from the get go. Largely, he was very angry when being attacked by lower level fiends. There were also a few, tiny, hints that things weren’t as they seemed:
Firstly, they had seen Lukas only moments before at the front of the keep. Secondly, I mentioned Lukas’ sword a handful of times, describing the blade and how he handled it. Every other time I’d mentioned the man he’d only ever used a spear (this was also more of a hint for Anna who knows of the Fire Emblem character I somewhat based him on). And lastly, and while completely minor I really thought it was fun, he could say the word “Soldiers.” Every other time, thanks to an accidental slip initially, he has said “Shoulders.” This has only been brought up a few times as a joke but the players did miss the minor inflection used on the word.
Also, had the players asked, he wouldn’t have known what the Signal Bell was. So using that would have given him away immediately.
- Ziggy and Ramar charge into/through the throne room… trying to bust out of the doors to get to the crystal-topped tower. Meanwhile, Weezl flies to the tower and sees that inside is filled with the same crystal. It appears as though a large, red, crystalline tree is growing through the tower. She then tears off the door that Ramar was breaking down, in an attempt to make a mad dash to the tower.
- The throne room is a golden, flickering nightmare. The walls and floor are etched heavily, and upon the throne (marked with the symbol of Graz’zt) is Persephone in the form of the Grand Duchess herself. Astride her are two porcelain-masked humanoids, seemingly male and female, wearing simple dark purple robes.
- Ziggy attempts to fool the queen, wearing his own porcelain mask, but finding her charmed words attempting to reach him he quickly changes tact and gives her a piece of his mind.
Ziggy mouths off a LOT during this session. Frankly, it was in-character and amazing.
- Seeing as things are escalating outside of their predictions, Persephone orders the masked people to stab each other. They do so, and crumple to the ground and their blood is forcefully pulled from their bodies as they scream in agony. The blood floods the etchings, revealing a similar pattern to one the party saw in Sandhill, when they last met the “queen.”
- Quickly, the world begins to shift, break and fall apart. Folding and twisting like unraveling flowers. A chaotic wind stirs and the group find themselves in a hellscape, floating in an abyss. Floating in THE Abyss.
- The platform they stand on is flecked with dark red, familiar crystal. The throne is in place… but what draws their attention are floating, tiny islands, covered in large clusters of red, glowing crystal. Throbbing with light in the tune of a slow, irregular beat. There are giant, opulent mirrors floating in space, and they swear they see a dark figure walk past some, and peer at them through others.
- But, more than anything, they notice the giant, crimson, thorned and cystalline tree. It, too, glows and reacts to the surroundings… and they notice something embedded in the tree.
- At this point Lucis appears near Persephone, to gloat and marvel at the party’s expressions. Especially when they notice of the unconscious form of Sam, pristine white and appearing to be dreaming, half buried in the crystal.
- Lucis thanks the party for bringing them such an integral part of their plan. The elemental nature of the aarakocra saved months, maybe even years, of time. The monk’s natural affinity for elemental leylines was manipulated, perverted, to attune to the abyss, making the summoning so much easier.
- And, in rage and desperation, and not without fear, the party strike out at their adversaries… beginning with Ziggy throwing the Dwarven Weaponstone at Lucis… which missed but summoned the holy spear regardless.
What occurs next is roughly 5 and a half hours of combat. While it is hard to capture the entirety of this battle I can only retell the gist of it. I’m certain there are many more highlights than I can mention, so instead I will focus on story-beats.
- Persephone: The Queen of Hearthshire attempts to charm party members, and when that fails, she turns to fighting them with her claws. All the while she shows her devotion to the Dark Prince, promising that their sacrifice will be what enables the Demon Lord Graz’zt to walk the Material Plane.
- Lucis: With the aid of Blur and his Abjurer’s Ward manages to avoid damage from the party for most of the battle. He becomes increasingly frustrated with the party, especially Ramar, who diminishes and resists his arcane powers, and Weezl who casts and flees consistently.
- Ramar starts the battle attempting to destroy crystal clusters, knowing that they seem to be reacting to something. He finds they react to radiant damage and gets to work. In the first phase, he manages a heavy blow on Persephone after applying the blessed weapon oil of Torm on his blade (allowing him to reroll radiant damage). The smiting, blessed, blow devastated the Queen.
- Weezl, in eagle-form, strikes at the tree holding Sam. Her Wraps of the Mad Bull gives her animal forms Siege and she destroys the tree in quick order, causing the unconscious monk to fall from the tree and nearly off the platform into the Abyss. She saves him and places him in relative safety, whereupon she reverts her form and finds an acorn. The acorn is the one gifted by the Fae Princess Verenestra and she does all she can to implore the fickle lord for help. When it seems as though nothing is happening, and realising they all need to be in accord with their plea, the acorn turns to mithral and the fae speaks to the druid.
- Verenestra asks the party for their request and bestows them “with the ability to be helped.” And with that, they are told to think of an ally. ((As a DM, I’m so happy with what happens at this moment. Each player assumes that the allies will be summoned into the battle, and this HEAVILY influences their decisions.)) Ziggy chooses Dannick and is shown a vision of his stealth and speed in one of the floating mirrors. Ramar thinks of Lukas, the true Lukas and is shown a battered and burned man, standing tall and proud and screaming orders to his soldiers, his trusty spear by his side. And finally, Weezl calls for The Fury and is shown the strength of her and her husband facing down, fearlessly and recklessly, a giant demon.
This, results in boons. They gain the following:
Ziggy: +20 feet of movement, the ability to stealth regardless of environment, and 1 use of the Evasion skill
Ramar: Gains the Reach property on all attacks, +1 to all Charisma rolls, and +1 to all attacks.
Weezl: +2 to all checks (abilities, attacks, and damage rolls).
- What happens next is that Persephone is quickly felled. She is “counter charmed” by Ziggy, and by that I mean she was critical-sneak-attacked and took a whole crap-tonne of damage. She stays down for a couple of rounds.
- Lucis calmly fights, attempting to Disintegrate Ramar but thankfully a paladin of the Oath of the Ancients (and a lucky dex save) is not so easily felled. There are fireballs, cantrips (legendary actions) and just about anything that could be done to be a pain in the ass, to cause as much grief as possible.
- Soon enough, Persephone stirs, only to be stabbed by the shattering mirrors, which stitch her together and form a macabre, bloodstained armor. A burning, beating heart shines in her chest, in time with the crystal clusters.
- All the while, the realm’s maelstrom of madness tries to overwhelm and disorient the party. They mostly succeed but sometimes they fail, only to hear the voices of loved ones and old friends screaming or crying in pain and fear. For Ziggy he hears the voice of an old accomplice, a friend from the Shimmering Gates that he has not seen in an age. This shakes the man but also seems to fortify his rage.
- The rogue, once Persephone’s defences fall, starts to focus on the woman. Cutting, slashing, diving and (of course) spinning in an unparalleled martial display. Sneak attack after sneak attack carve into the woman who seems mindless, though the voice of something larger and darker seems to boom from her.
- Weezl, thanks to an Akira-like Moonbeam, blasts away entire platforms of crystals and Ramar bears through stinging shards to shatter the remainer.
- The following battle involves many smites, a beast shape into a Giant Octopus, followed by the summoning of more Mud Mephits (of which two attempt, and succeed, at grabbing a thrown spellbook from Lucis), Ziggy falling to intense grief brought to bear by Persephone’s new powers and more counter-attacks.
- David the talking skull does what he can to counter and cast what spells he can… but the sheer amount of arcane power causes strain that the artefact was never meant to sustain. He does everything in his power to support his friends but doesn’t seem to be holding together, not even with the new gem set in his eye by Ramar. The paladin seeming distraught at the effect the battle is having on the chattering skull.
- Lucis falls in battle, only to trigger a Death Ward, and when it seems all is lost, tosses his spellbook into the Abyss (see above for the result of that). This Wall of Force only buys him a moment of time, and then, finally, he incinerates himself with a Fireball. This obliterates him and causes damage to the others around him. Taking out Ziggy momentarily.
Another aside, I made the players roll a single D20 and didn’t say why. Matt, however, rolled a nat 20, and this roll was to see if their allies discovered the Clone of Lucis. I dare say a nat 20 did it, and at the end of the session they were happy to hear that the lucky roll truly defeated the asshole and they wouldn’t have to fight him again.
- And finally, the battle exhaustingly ended with the party cornering Persephone and defeating her with a Moonbeam, burning her away with pure focus and anger.
- And then… the wind started to pick up. The dark red light started to dim, turning to black. And they realised the platform they were on was plummeting into nothingness, even the bleeding red star above them grew tiny, then disappeared.
- For moments the party were in pitch darkness. With only the roaring of wind in their eardrums. They had won, but at what cost? How would they escape?
- Ramar then turns to his shield and casts Light on it. The symbol of Aerdrie Faenya shining solidly through the darkness… and then it looked as though the darkness was a shell. Solid, but thin, and the light was causing hairline fissures. Then, as though looking through one’s eyelids at the sun, the darkness became warmer, brighter until… it shatters. Shattering into stark white light. There are no surroundings, nothing, and the party float, still falling, and seeing only one another, and the unconscious form of Sam.
- From the brightness strides a man, tall, imposing, with a hammer in one hand and a tankard in another. He proclaims that was a battle well fought, with bravery and honor. Drinks will be on Thor tonight! And another man, in gleaming plate and a left hand in pure white. Helm thanks the group for blotting out the evil that was preventing his followers from worshipping him, and for bringing justice back into the realms. And another being, a woman of dark skin and impossibly long flowing hair, one recognised as Gaea, the earthmother, thanks the party for their sacrifices and for their pain, their endurance, and assures them that from this turmoil, things can now grow. And then other deities, minor and major, in various forms and aspects thank the heroes.
- And just as suddenly, blinking the white light from their eyes, they find themselves in an untouched throne room. Two figures on the floor, bleeding out. Across from them, missing most of her left arm, The Fury, missing an eye is Tavon, Lukas looks burned and worse for wear, greets the party in his friendly and familiar way, and Dannick stands at the back of the room, holding a near unconscious, exhausted Speck.
- Helen Fairbridge asks the party what has happened. Is it over? And they look outside, as the clouds break, and light shines over Hearthshire. What they hear, is nothing, and what they see are pure, blue skies.
About a year and a half in the making… finally completing my first major story arc as a DM. I have to say, I’m so thankful this is done and I’ve learned so much doing this. It really has been such a blast and so much fun going through all this with my (very patient) players. They never asked to go on this particular ride, and it was never meant to go for this long, but they really did me a solid in (literally) playing along. I cannot thank them enough. So, Evan, Matt, Anna and Lawrence, thanks. Really.
What basically started as me selfishly thinking “I wish I could run Curse of Strahd” and then attempting to make things Sandboxy turned into this. And, if anything, it was worth it for Turk Fabiene alone. I hope you all enjoyed it too. I honestly don’t think I deserved the applause you all gave me after everything I’ve put your characters through!
I’m really looking forward to the story being lighter and going back to what it was originally meant to be. What’s next is another session 0 and maybe some more world building. The characters all hit level 9 and gained the Folk Hero background feature for completing this arc, so, we’ll see what affect that has on the characters. Especially now that they have influence AND a reputation.
I just want to keep writing but like a good game- sometimes you just have to know when to call it. So, again, thank you. Until next time. Here’s to fresh starts.