Friday, September 25, 2015

Hawkhaven Pathfinder Campaign #4: Dead Man's Quest Recap 8

Deadman’s Quest Chapter 8: Maladera
December 16th- 24th, (August 29th, 2015)

Roll Call: Melora, Gunnar, Sassha, Izanami, Azarus, Gerik, Ragnar, Sverd

Sometimes, a recap just begs to be done as a short story. This is one of those rare times. Though much of the dialogue is made up, all of the events and actions did happen.


Didn't have a good picture, so here's Nelson Muntz
The land was called Maladera, the Shunned Lands, and, among the more dramatic storytellers, the Land Where Hope Goes To Die. A land under an ever-present canopy of reddish-black clouds that blotted out the life-giving sun, nothing wholesome grew in the grainy black and gray soil.

The land, the ugly legacy of a mad wizard's foiled attempt at conquest, was desolation personified. The air was thick, suffocating, and humid, tinged with a faint odor of rot and the iron tang of blood and rust.

Eight figures marched stubbornly southwest through the desolate landscape, walking through the ominously named Valley of Shadows, making their way towards a distant and solitary shining amber-colored light. It was an eclectic group, hailing from all over.

Four of the strangers called Norgheim their home, the land of snow, frost giants, and ice trolls. Ragnar, also called Bloodrager, was born with magic-laced blood and the heart of a berserker. Next came Gunnar the Slayer, master of sword and bow, followed by Sverd of the Ravenfolk, a bird-like lover of precious, shiny things. Last but not least came Melora, a sorceress whose very blood was kissed with frost.

Gerik Alizar, a tiefling whose barbarian demeanor was tainted by a mindless battle-lust, and Azarus, a scholarly young necromancer both hailed from the fragmented kingdom of Lundar, a land known for providing history with a disproportionate number of explorers and adventurers.

But as for who traveled the farthest, that honor fell to two young women:  Sassha, an urbanized catfolk from the Plainslands and Izanami, from Nihon, the land of jade, samurai, and shoguns.  The catfolk’s gifts lay in stealth and trap-finding, while the Nihoni was a proud Monk of the Fifth Element, and hater of demons.

It was hard to believe that less than two months ago these eight were strangers to each other. Finding a dead would-be adventurer by the side of the road changed that. They gave the man a decent burial and appropriated his notes, which spoke of his quest to find the legendary Black Scrolls. Attracted by the idea of fortune and fame, the strangers joined forces and decided to take up the dead man’s self-appointed quest.

They found the first scroll in a cave under the wild hills of northwestern Lundar, the second encased in ice in the Graveyard of Ice Dragons in Norgheim.  Between finding the first and second scrolls, however, the group encountered Noro Goldentree, a legendary Elf of advanced age and power who lived in seclusion with his black cat companion in a huge tree in the densest woods of Hanael, the Elven Kingdom. A twenty-two century old relic of the Second Heroic Age, Noro had withdrawn from his people, having arranged his “death” so he would be left alone and forgotten.

The Elven archmage entertained the group as his guests. When they were ready to fetch the third scroll, he warned them about the hazards of Maladera, and gave them food and water, advising them not to drink the water or eat any animal found in the cursed land.

After four days of grim, joyless travel through the valley, the band finally stood at the base of a grand old tower made of crumbling black basalt. The only other features were an ancient door, caked in the orange rust of centuries, and the four windows at the top of the tower, from where the glow burned steadily. It was if a madman had erected a lighthouse far from the sea.

"So this is the Tower of Gluttony?," Gunnar asked, eyeing the tower doubtfully.

"According to legend, the Lich-Lord Aranaeus had a council of seven advisors, undead wizards like himself, and each had a tower," Azarus explained. "Based on the fact that this one is called Gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, I would wager that the towers of the other councilors are similarly named for the remaining sins."

Sassha eyed the two barbarian warriors meaningfully. "Then we should be fortunate that this is not the Tower of Rage," she observed. "That could have been unpleasant."

"Or the Tower of Lust," Izanami chimed in. "That would have been awkward. So does anyone have any idea how tall this tower is?", she asked, craning her neck upwards.

Azarus narrowed his eyes and made a few calculations. "I'd say about sixty feet, perhaps seventy," he replied. "Although I daresay the more important question is, how do we use the door? There seems to be no doorknob or lock, and the hinges are set on the inside."

"I am more interested in that light, and how it shines," Sverd croaked. " I will go have a look." He shrugged his cloak aside, flexed his back, revealing a giant pair of shiny black raven wings, as everyone around him took a step back in surprise.

"I thought those raven wings of yours were simply vestigial!" Melora exclaimed. She knew the ravenfolk were favored of Odin, but not like this!

"At first they were," he admitted with a throaty chuckle. "I have been quietly building up the muscles, a little each day, for the past month. But Melora, are you well? You look ill."

The sorceress staggered for a moment then sat slowly on a lump of black basalt that was at one time a gargoyle statue. "I am not sure," she massaged her forehead. "This land appears to be sickening me. It began two days ago. I miss the Ice Dragon graveyard."

Gerik made a face. "You miss that blasted place of snow, ice, and wind? The bitter cold? The dragons, ice trolls, and frost worms?"

Melora managed a weak smile and nodded. "Bitter cold, yes, but the air and land were clean and filled with life. Everything was in harmony with nature;  frozen nature, certainly, but wholesome nonetheless. This place is poison, and I feel myself weakened by the day." She waved at the door. "But I will be fine. I just need to rest here. Get the door open, fetch the scrolls, and let us be done with this place!"

Sverd, meanwhile, had flown swiftly to the top of the tower, and had himself a closer look at the source of light. The tower was cylindrical, the top floor tapering to a point. Sverd flew to the closest window, the golden light pouring out, and peeked in.

The light came from an oversized golden-colored ornamental stone, affixed to the pointed ceiling by means of an iron frame. Although Sverd's rogue's eye judged it worthless, the same couldn’t be said for the chamber contents. Jewelry and other trinkets were scattered all over the floor, tantalizingly reflecting the globe’s light. A jewel-encrusted skull lay on its side, next to a pair of black cylinders which were certainly the last of the Black Scrolls. But Sverd cared more for the trinkets and jeweled skull.

"Shiny!" he breathed, eyes gleaming with pure greed. He tapped the glass experimentally. Looking it over, he produced a dagger, banged on the glass with the hilt, but to no avail. The glass was as strong as steel.  Scowling, he reared back and brought the hilt down on the window with a more vigorous blow, but with the same results.

Annoyed, Sverd swore as he hovered in place. His greedy mind raced with plans for getting through the glass, each idea progressively more outlandish than the next.

His comrades below were having their own difficulties. The rusted door refused to budge, and there was no opening mechanism. "I cannot pick a lock that does not exist," Sassha purred. "Perhaps muscle is needed to subtly force the door open?"

Izanami pointed to Gerik and Ragnar. "The two of you have the best chance of breaking that door by virtue of your strength," she observed. "Strength which grows when you enter a battle rage, is that so?"

Gerik frowned doubtfully. "True, my brother in arms and I grow more powerful when we furiously engage a foe in battle.” He looked around, arms spread in a gesture of hopelessness. “But there is no foe here."

Ragnar crossed his arms and scowled. "I am not sure I could get mad at a door. Sounds silly, if you ask me!"

"Enough talk!" Gerik suddenly snarled, reaching behind him and undoing the battle-axe strapped across his shoulders. He held it up for all to see. "Solid adamantine!" he declared proudly. "This bastard will slice through ANYthing! Ragnar, my brother! Aid me with your hammer! We will defeat this door!"

Sassha put her hands on her hips and frowned. "So much for stealth and discretion!", she growled.
The two barbarians' weapons struck the door simultaneously with a resounding boom, and the old iron door sprouted a large gouge and a small dent, spraying orange and red flakes everywhere. "Again!" roared Gerik. The second stroke blasted the door off its hinges and it flew into the dark interior of the tower, landing unseen on the floor with a loud CLANG.

"And that's how we announced our presence to everything in the tower," Gunnar grumbled as he drew his sword, ready for anything. The slayer preferred more stealth, the chance to quietly observe his enemy before striking.

A blast of foul air burst from the open doorway, and the warriors instinctively moved aside. The air whooshed past them in a straight line, and struck the seated Melora full force, causing her to slump over. No one noticed this, as everyone’s attention was instead occupied by a gang of obese, mottle-skinned, gurgling horrors that spilled out of the darkness. Three of the intruders passed too close to Gerik, who rewarded them with deep axe cuts, thanks to the barbarian's sharp battle reflexes.

"What in the Nine Hells are these things?" Gunnar roared as he waded into the fray. “And why are they so fat?!”

Azarus wracked his brain, trying to remember. "They're called Sinspawn!", he pointed out, as he searched his mind for a good spell to use against the intruders.

"That's not very helpful!" Gunnar replied as he cut one of the grotesque things down with a single stroke. "But at least they fall easily!"

Above the fracas, in fact a good seventy feet above it, Sverd noticed the battle raging below. While part of him wanted to help, he really wanted the shiny things. "Besides," he reasoned aloud, "It looks like they have matters well in hand!"

He looked back at the glass, a tantalizing, taunting barrier between himself, the sparklies, and yes, as an afterthought, that one thing which was the whole point of this taxing journey. "Perhaps I need to get a running start," he mused. He winged away from the tower, then launched himself at the glass at full speed.

The rogue hit the surface with a resounding smack, but it remained unmoved. "Another try," he muttered, repeating the process with the same results. "One more," he croaked, though his head began to hurt and he felt dizzy.

Down below, the group had made short work of the Sinspawn. "That was rather easy," Ragnar observed with satisfaction. "But why do I suddenly feel the urge to eat?"

"Tower of Gluttony, remember?" Azarus replied helpfully.

Izanami held out a hand, palm upwards, and looked to the sky. "Why is it raining black feathers?" she frowned.

Everyone looked up and were rewarded with the sight of Sverd smacking into the glass, flying away unsteadily, circling back, and trying again. "What in the Nine Hells is he doing?" Gerik spat. "Has he gone mad? Or is he drunk? I’ve told him not to hit the mead when we were in the midst of danger!"

Sassha stepped up to the tower and then flexed her fingers, producing a very sharp set of claws. "I will find out," she purred, then leapt onto the wall and effortlessly scrambled upwards. She paused and looked back at her astonished comrades. “What, have you never seen a cat climb a tree before?”, she smiled as she practically raced up the side of the tower.

"Well now. That's something you don't see every day!" Azarus observed, and then looked over at Melora. "Everyone! Look! Melora is not moving!" The five rushed over to their stricken friend, who was slumped over in her improvised seat. "She still lives, but she looks so weak," Azarus observed.

"Land…poisoning…me," Melora slurred her words. "So hungry, so tired." The Norgheimer closed her eyes and lay down on the old statue.

"She is ill," Azarus observed. "But if we can get the Black Scrolls, we can leave here with all haste. My guess is, the less time we spend here, the better her chance of recovery."

Izanami's face was a picture of concern. "But why has she been affected like this? And will it happen to the rest of us? She said something about being hungry…"

"I feel hungry too!" Ragnar announced. "I want to eat everything in my pack, and wash it down with whatever liquids I am carrying! And that includes my lamp oil!"

"As do I," Gerrik chimed in. “And I don’t even have a lamp!”

Sassha, meanwhile, scrambled up the seventy feet of the black tower, eyes fixed ahead. "Don't look down," she muttered. "Let's not fall and have to test the old saying about cats always landing on their feet!"

Fortunately, she reached the top with no incident and perched atop a black stone projection that held a statue once. "Sverd, what ARE you doing!?" she demanded.

The ravenfolk halted his incessant insane war with the glass and stared at Sassha, trying to focus his eyes. "Shinies!" he blurted, pointing to the tower, addressing the middle catfolk of the three he was now seeing.

Sassha looked over the undamaged, seamless glass, then looked inside, seeing the loot that had enraptured the ravenfolk. Once she realized that there was no possible way to open the glass, she shouted down. "Gerik! Ragnar! I need your muscles!"

The catfolk produced a coil of strong silk rope. "Sverd, do you have rope? Preferably silk? The rope needs to be longer!"

Sverd was recovered enough that now he only saw two Sasshas. He reached for his pack, fished out his own silk rope, and managed to give it to Sassha on the second try. With a curt word of thanks, Sassha knotted the ropes together, tied one end securely around the projection, and let the rest drop earthward.

The two barbarians made short work of the climb, also making a point not to look down. The top was getting rather crowded. Sverd, for his part, remained hovering within reach of his friends.
“Do you have a plan, Sverd?” Sassha asked.

The ravenfolk gestured at the glass. “Strong men break it. I fly in, grab the scroll and the shinies,” he said simply.

‘That is going to make a lot noise,” Ragnar frowned. “It will attract whatever dwells in the tower.”

“Nah nah nah,” Sverd waved off the objection. He was still slightly dizzy from his window collisions but he rallied himself. “I have that magic bag, the one where you put stuff in and it never weighs more? That one. Window breaks, I fly in as fast as a..a…” He made odd gestures in the air with his black feathered fingers. “What’s that bird that flies fast?”

“A hawk?” Gerik offered.

Sverd snapped his fingers and pointed at Gerik. “Hawk! Yes! Fly in fast as a hawk, scoop up everything without stopping, fly out and to the ground. You all go down, we’re all together, then we LEAVE this cursed place! Maybe then my head will stop hurting!”

“I have to admit, it would probably work,” Sassha shrugged.

“Then what are we waiting for!?” Gerik roared, producing his adamantine axe. “Die, stubborn window!” Two blows were enough to cause the steel-tough glass to shatter, and before the shards even hit the ground below, Sverd raced in with barely suppressed excitement.

Meanwhile, an ancient evil intelligence brooded in the chamber, an evil so old that it had forgotten it had shed its humanity to follow its master into immortality by becoming a living dead. But that form crumbled as the centuries worn on, and the intelligence now lurked in the skull, hating life yet hungering for the life-force that would sustain it. “Dust of eons, eternal hunger,” the thoughts roiled and festered within the gem-encrusted skull. “Seek life, eat life, kill life. Dust of ages, power eternal, darkness forever, darkness for WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!.....”

Sverd swooped into the room and quickly, smoothly scooped up everything: the baubles, the scrolls, the jeweled skull, and did a graceful banking turn, flying back out the window. “SHINIES!” he croaked triumphantly as he waved at his friends. “Meet me down on the ground!”. Sverd banked downwards and went into a joyous power-dive, pulling up at the last moment and making a very respectable landing. “Scroll and shinies!” he exclaimed to Izanami, Gunnar, and Azarus, holding the bag aloft.

“You two go down first,” Ragnar suggested to Sassha and Gerik. “I will cover our retreat, just in case something comes into the light chamber, attracted by the noise.” His friends nodded gratefully and rappelled down the rope.

Everyone except the weakened Melora eagerly gathered around Sverd and the battered old leather bag. Sassha and Gerik reached the ground and joined in as above them Ragnar began preparing for his own descent.

“Friends!” croaked Sverd. “I bring you…the third scroll!” The ravenfolk opened the sack, but before he could reach in, the jeweled skull shot straight up in the air, screaming and howling in fury as the gems in its eye sockets and jaw ablaze with a sickly, purplish-green light.

For a split-second, everyone stared wide-eyed at the glowing skull, howling and hovering above the black earth. “ENEMY!”, Gerik screamed and charged at the floating head, striking it hard. Gunnar followed close behind and hit the skull with a sword stroke so hard that it actually made the skull spin in place like a mad top. The blow was so precise, so deadly, that it would have killed a normal man, but the skull appeared barely fazed. It stopped spinning and glared at the Norgheimer.

From his vantage point above, Ragnar saw the battle and realized something desperate needed to be done. If he were to let go of the rope, weapon out, he could use the momentum of his fall to strike at the skull hard from above, like a thunderbolt from Thor himself! It was perfect! He long maintained that Thor’s blood coursed through his veins, and what better way to show it? He let go of the rope, drew his hammer, bellowed a battle-cry, and hoped to Asgard that he could manage to move and tumble in such a way that he wouldn’t hit the ground at full force.

The impact was truly spectacular, not to mention surprising, a loud thunderclap followed by the sound of metal on bone. But as Ragnar tumbled away and sat up, bruised and battered, he saw to his disappointment that the skull appeared to have barely noticed the attack.

Sverd, meanwhile, still held the bag in his feathery black hands. He looked at the bag, then at the skull, then back at the bag. “Well, it worked once. Otherwise, it was an interesting life, but short,” he muttered as he came up behind the skull and pulled the bag over it. As quickly as it began, the fight was over.


“Whatever it was, it was wicked,” Izanami replied as she helped Ragnar to his feet. “You could feel its hatred positively radiating from it.”

Sassha looked at the bag doubtfully. “Are we sure it’s contained? What if it tries to break out?” She debated giving the bag a poke.

“Floating skulls sounds like something you would be familiar with,” Gunnar turned to Azarus. “That necrowhatsis magic of yours. Well? Do you know what it is? How could it have shrugged off such a killing blow?”

Azarus thought back to the previous year, when he was apprenticed under Feldor of Heldren Keep, a respectable necromancer of some modest skill. Azarus and his fellow apprentices enjoyed their lessons, but they especially enjoyed it when Feldor instructed them on the more unusual forms of living dead. And searching his memory, he remembered what Feldor had to say about this particular entity.

“We are in deep trouble,” Azarus declared, flatly. “Magic cannot harm it save a handful of spells that we lack. It shrugs off all weapons except for a handful that we lack. Once upon a time it was a human wizard who became one of the living dead so to prolong his life. But even that form eventually fades, and all that’s left is in the bag. He cannot cast spells in the traditional sense, but has certain powers, including conjuring a massive whirlwind that flays its victims alive. This creature is completely evil and utterly mad, cannot be reasoned with, and when it escapes the bag, it will pull the souls from our bodies, imprison them in the gems, and devour them at its leisure. Our soulless bodies will turn to dust before a minute is passed.”

Everyone paled, mouths agape, and stared at the young necromancer. Nothing moved save the undulating motion of the bag, as the skull attempted to find the way out. “We need to leave,” Gerik noted in a classic case of understatement. “We need to leave fast.”

Melora, still reclining on the statue, reached out with a scroll in her hand. “Take this!,” she gasped. “Take this before I eat it!” The gluttony curse of the tower was eroding her willpower.

“Of course!” Azarus exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “The other scroll!” Before the group had headed off to Norgheim, their Elven host had given Azarus and Melora each a spell scroll that would instantly move everyone to a location the reader chose. The first scroll was used during the affair of the second Black Scroll. Melora, however, had held on to her spell scroll.

Azarus took the scroll and unrolled it. “Where do we want to go?”

“To the Elven trade city of Alverene!”, Sverd announced immediately, looking nervously at the squirming bag.

“No! Are you mad?” Izanami shot back. “Did you not hear Azarus? That horror creates a flensing whirlwind. Who knows how many innocents would die if this thing can us somehow? We would be bringing death to that city!”

“Back to Noro’s then,” Gerik suggested. “He’s an Arch-mage. Should that thing follow us, if anyone can put it down, it is him!”

Azarus nodded. “Yes. Good. Everyone gather round me. When I raise my hand, open the bag. Then close your eyes and hold on tight!” As everyone clustered around him, Gerik helping Melora to stand, Azarus narrowed his eyes and frowned as he tried to figure out the words.

“What’s wrong?” Gunnar asked. “Why aren’t you reading? Didn’t you do this once before already?”

“Yes, I did and it was just as hard to read then as well,” Azarus responded impatiently. “It is like reading a foreign language, but you are only familiar with everyday words. This is reading a detailed text, with big, complicated words and difficult ideas. Now hush!”

Azarus read aloud, each word vanishing from the parchment as the power increased inside the young wizard. There was no turning back now. Finally, he raised a hand and pointed at the bag. Sverd yanked it open and the screaming skull shot up into the air, eye-gems blazing. The group winced at the sight and sound of the flying skull.  “…aeNoronai, ke’arbohresas!”, Azarus shouted the destination as the scroll vanished in a puff of smoke and the little band of eight vanished, leaving behind a very confused hovering skull.

The shock of transition from a suffocating, foul atmosphere of death to cool, fresh air filled with life was a profound one, but welcome nonetheless. With a pop of displaced air, they materialized beside an enormous tree of great width and height, surrounded by an ancient, dense forest.

“Noro!” Gunnar, Izanami, and Azarus shouted.

“Midnight!”, Sassha added. Everyone looked questioningly at her. “I’ll shout the name of anything that is even remotely associated with him, if it gets us noticed faster!” she explained.

“Oh, hullo!” a voice from a leafy branch chimed from overhead. A black cat with arresting green eyes lounged lazily on a low-hanging branch. “You’re back!”, it purred, its tail twitching idly.

“..being chased…”

“Undead thing.…”

“Screaming skull…”

“…awesome power…”

“…we couldn’t defeat..”


“…..pursuing us…”

The barrage caused the black cat to rear back, then look up higher into the tree. “Are you hearing this?” he asked a patch of silvery white leaves.

In response, a figure appeared clad in a robe that radiated dazzling white light, wielding a flaming sword in one hand, a white wooden staff with a blazing green gem in the other. “Who dares threaten my land!?” the old elf roared in a deep, thunderous voice, shaking with fury. “Who dares threaten my home and my guests?!” His eyes, twin orbs of blazing fire, looked around the gathering. When nothing came forward to challenge him, his eyes returned to normal. “Where’s this enemy?” he asked, confusion on his face as he willed his robe to stop shining. He gestured with his staff at Gerik, who was still supporting the unconscious Melora. “What happened to the sorceress?”

“She fell sick because of the land,” Gunnar responded quickly. “And we engaged this hideous dead wizard skull thing, and …”

“Dead wizard?! We will talk inside in safety,” Noro cut in, willing his sword to cease flaming, then sheathing it. “Touch the tree and think of my house.” He vanished abruptly.

The visitors found themselves gathered in his main hall. With a wave of his hand, Noro conjured a large disk, bade Gerik to place Melora on it, and knelt for a closer look at her. He nodded to himself, and stood up, surveying the group. He waved his hand, and a comforting fire leapt to life in the room’s stone fireplace. Another wave of his hand made seven chairs emerge from shadowy alcoves, sliding across the polished wooden floor, and situating themselves around the large dining room table.

With a snap of his fingers, two wooden serving carts trundled into the room by themselves. One cart carried pitchers of cold spring water, bottles of wine and mead, and eight goblets. The other was overflowing with bread, cheese, fresh fruit, berries, and grilled fish.

“Sit. Eat,” Noro commanded. “It’s been four days, and I am sure you are sick of trail food. I will place Melora in a bedroom and make sure she’s comfortable. When I return, we will talk.”

“What of our pursuer?” Izanami asked as Sverd, Gunnar, Gerik, and Ragnar bolted for the food, though Sverd and Gunnar went for the mead first.

Noro smiled reassuringly. “My home is so well warded it would take the power of a god to find or breach it.You are safe. Relax now.”  He ascended the spiral staircase, the disk bearing Melora trailing behind him.

The seven comrades ate and drank in silence as they tried to sort out everything that had happened. Midnight sat on the tabletop, within reach of Noro’s elaborately carved chair, grooming himself, though occasionally eyeing the fish.

A few moments later, Noro rejoined the group, now wearing a billowy white linen shirt and matching trousers. His long hair, mostly white and silver with a few vestigial streaks of its original gold, was braided down his back. Wordlessly, he took his seat, scratched Midnight’s head and smiled at the group. “Melora is resting comfortably, sound asleep. Come morning, she will be right as rain.”

Sverd paused his practically non-stop drinking and looked at the elf. “What had happened to her?”

“There are two kinds of folk who use magic,” Noro explained. “Folks like Azarus and myself, who control magic by means of memorization of complex formulae, and folks like Melora, who have a natural-born affinity for magic. It’s in their very blood..”

“And me!” Ragnar declared proudly. “I have the blood of Thor somewhere in my ancestral line!”Izanami and Sassha exchanged knowing glances and rolled their eyes. Ragnar was forever speaking of his supposed kinship with the Thunder God.

"Just so," Noro agreed. "Though I daresay you would have been the next to fall, considering your own blood’s own affinity towards magic. Now, I want one of you to explain precisely what happened to you from the moment you entered Maladera until now. Leave out no detail, no matter how insignificant you may think it is. Azarus, you will narrate, please."

The young wizard was taken aback, but steeled himself and began the story, as Noro poured himself a goblet of wine. Azarus spoke for close to half an hour, while Noro listened with great interest and the rest of the group ate and drank. Midnight sat bolt upright, ears perked, green eyes wide.

"…and that's how we ended up at the base of your tree, screaming for you and the cat," Azarus concluded, and then took a deep drink of wine. He sat back in his seat and looked at the elf expectantly. Noro sat quietly and impassively, fingers steepled in front of his face.

Then suddenly the old elf burst into hysterical laughter, as everyone flinched at this unexpected reaction. His laughter echoed through the hall as tears rolled down his face.  Midnight tried to remain impassive, but couldn't resist, and inevitably joined his master in mirthful hysterics. In fact, the cat rolled off the table, landed on all fours, leaped back up, and continued laughing.

"You mock our ordeal?" Izanami asked, shocked and affronted.

Noro waved off her objection. "No, no, no, you do not understand. This is precisely the sort of thing that Midnight and I were doing with our own band of friends, only that was two millennia and two Heroic Ages ago." He turned to Midnight. "Do you remember the time we entered that throne room and found a Duke of Hell sitting there? I don't think I ever ran so fast in my life!"

"I seem to recall you screamed as well," Midnight chuckled, and Noro laughed all the louder.

"So you see, I am not laughing at you," Noro explained, when he finally composed himself. "You simply reminded me of a different time, long ago, and how many similar ridiculous mistakes I made when I was in The Life. Although I daresay I never popped a lich in a bag!"

"What is The Life?" Gunnar asked as he poured himself yet another mead.

Noro gave a small shrug. "It's what we used to call what you people refer to as adventuring. You know, exploring, adventuring, risking our lives, grabbing treasure, sleeping on the cold ground, eating bad tavern food, and having people and creatures constantly trying to kill us," he explained, with a wistful sigh. "I miss The Life." His gaze took on a faraway look for a moment, but then he caught himself, shaking his head as if to clear it. “Ah, but that was a lifetime ago! So!”, he slapped his palms on the table. “What will you do now?”

The group looked at each other uncertainly. “Well,” Azarus replied tentatively. “I suppose now we find a buyer for the scrolls.”

“I want gold,” Sverd chimed in.

Noro nodded. “Well, the scrolls are relics of godly power, which means they will fetch a handsome price, but will only be of interest to a priesthood, and I would ask you not sell them to any agents of evil gods. And the largest collection of faiths resides in…”

“The City of Altars!”, several of the band replied in unison.

“Indeed,” Noro nodded again. “So. My recommendation is, two days hence, you depart for the City of Altars. But as for tomorrow, it is the twenty-fifth of December, and the holiday called Yule. I would be honored if all of you would join Midnight and me for a day of Yuletide celebration; singing, storytelling, feasting…”

“Drinking!”, Ragnar added.

“Drinking,” Noro echoed. “Tomorrow we celebrate. The day after, well, I have a suggestion or two for the most expeditious route you can take to the City of Altars. But for now, you all appear ready to nod off. There are guest rooms prepared upstairs for you. There are also baths available, and if you do not mind me saying so, I would recommend you availing yourself of them,” he wrinkled his nose. “The foulness of Maladera is not limited to just spiritual corruption.”

“I don’t know if I will be able to sleep tonight,” Sassha shuddered. “The sound and sight of that skull will give me nightmares for days to come.”

Noro smiled reassuringly. “Just as Maladera is a land of corruption and death, the elven land of Hanael is place of peace, healing, and life. Your dreams will be safe, and your time here will allow the land to excise all effects of Maladera from your mind, body, and soul. Now off to bed, all of you.”

The band, looking quite tired, rose from their chairs and waved good-night to their host. Gunnar paused and turned. “Do you mind if I take one of those unopened bottles of mead?”

Noro made an expansive “be my guest” gesture, and the Norgheimer smiled his thanks as he helped himself. Sverd peeked out from behind the slayer and cleared his throat. “Ah, may I too have…”

“Yes!” Noro laughed. “Help yourself! Then get cleaned up and to sleep!”. The elf waited until the last person left the hall and the sound of the last bedroom door closing finally faded. He relaxed and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes and sighing.

“Well?” Midnight prompted. “What do you think?”

“By finding the Black Scrolls they have set events in motion that will put this world in big trouble,” the old elf declared.

“Big trouble?” the black cat sneered. “When is this idiotic world NOT in trouble? Stupid world! What have we seen happen just in the last few years? First, some idiots tried to bring back the Dark Lord Aranaeus himself. That failed, then someone tried to find the last Ironedge heir in the hopes of bringing back the Valgarion Empire. That failed, and then someone tried to bring back the kingdom of Lundar, and yes, that failed. What other hideous or annoying thing from the past could anyone possibly be trying to bring back THIS time?”

“An evil dead god,” Noro frowned.

“Oh,” Midnight replied, his ears instinctively flattening. “Oh, that is NOT good.”

“No it most certainly is not,” Noro replied grimly as he rose from his chair. “We may need more help. I must research a few more things, but then I have a feeling I must call a muster. We will be seeing old friends again, I wager.” Somewhere in the house, a clock chimed twelve. “The new day,” Noro observed as he ascended the stairs. “Happy Yuletide, Midnight.”

“Happy Yuletide to you too!” the cat replied, padding up the stairs alongside his companion of millennia. “And may we all survive long enough to witness a happy new year!”