I survey the carnage with a heavy, anxious heart. Dozens of orcs lie dead or dying, but it is too soon to celebrate. I can’t see Aramil.
Alek wields the hammer of Grummsh like a trophy as the orc priestess slams the door shut between her and our victorious party. I scan the chamber for the rest of my companions. Dixxon’s passed out on the floor, Banyon too. Aramina appears barely ruffled and Thomas is still standing, but TJ is broken and bleeding at his feet. Drystan moves past Taz to tend to Dixxon.
Where in the star realms is Aramil?
Fighting down panic, I move to TJ and sing a healing canticle. The boy surges to his feet, pale-faced and resolute. I remember we still haven’t found his parents in this cursed place.
Bracing myself, I step past orc corpses to where I last saw my dearest companion. A sharp burst of relief at not finding him beneath one of the corpses dissipates the moment I realise what it means.
The door stands resoundingly shut. I want to bash it down with my bare hands. I want to howl and scream and demand those orc fiends release him.
One of my companions restrains me before I can do either of these things, while Dixxon and Alek bash the door down in my stead.
And then all I can see is Aramil, sprawled on the floor. His skull is bashed in, blood pooling around him. I would sing him all the healing canticles if I could, but I know it is far far too late.
Aramil is dead. Banyon is dead. TJ’s parents are dead.
These last were sacrificed days ago in a gruesome orc ritual. We found them suspended over the altar in that dreadful temple on the lowest level of the stronghold. My heart weeps for TJ and Thomas. TJ is only twelve years old and after all he’s been through didn’t deserve to lose his parents like that. We were so close to saving them.
As for my Aramil… I am clinging to the knowledge that we are very near the holy pool of Labelas Eronath. I am praying to holy Labelas, our god of healing, begging him not to hand over Aramil’s soul to Sehanine Moonbow just yet, not until I’ve had the chance to plead for him to endure on this side of the veil.
I’m praying to the great god Corellon Larethian, whom Aramil reveres above all others. And I’m praying to my own blessed Melira Taralen that she guide my heart and soul and voice in song.
Meanwhile, I’ve tried to embrace the distraction of finishing up business in the orc stronghold. And indeed a couple of interesting things have come to light.
In our exploration of the stronghold Taz discovered a sketch map. She clearly did not want us to see it, but I saw her shove it into her pouch. Upon later questioning, she and Drystan reluctantly confessed it was a treasure map that had been in the possession of their companion (who we now know has been taken south by the emissaries).
It turns out that their party has been secretly searching for a so-called “great treasure” for about a year, sent by the Parnian Duke of Ernfels.
It is not this, however, that interests me. After Drystan persuaded Taz to show us the map, I recognised one of the symbols as the ancient dwarven insignia of Azan Gedat. It gave me chills to be so unexpectedly reminded of my family’s tragedy.
The map also bears the symbol of the orc god Shargaas and three others I’m less sure of. It seems Drystan and Taz have little knowledge of what they seek, and for now I think it’s best Azan Gedat remains lost. At this rate, they will never find it.
We finally explored the secret tunnel leading down from the lower level of the stronghold. It led to an underground cavern with a beach abutting a large lake, with a river passing through it. We know now the emissaries departed by water from there four days ago.
On a plinth we discovered a symbol that made me shiver with apprehension. It was like the elvish symbol for “open” — yet not. Similar, but different. And old.
I can only think of one explanation and it gives me more chills. But everything else fits — the emissaries’ small stature (compared to humans and orcs!), their ability to move silently, their evident preference for moving underground, their affiliation with Shargaas, orc god of the Underdark.
The emissaries are drow.
Our legends say the drow were elves who took refuge with Lolth far beneath the surface in the realm known as Underdark. Many believe them to be myth, but the signs we’ve found say not. Drow are reputed to be wicked and intelligent and powerful. What is their true purpose? This is bigger than we realised, I think.
But all of that is for later. First we must go to the holy pool of Labelas and try to restore our fallen companions — including Brosia, whose stone form we left standing on the side of the road.
It’s a strange procession as we leave the mountain stronghold.
The sacred pact we’ve forged with the remaining orc priestess, Tobanlix, ensures the forces of the village chieftain, Nazlog, watch us silently as we descend the ramp and pass through the village. Nazlog now wields the hammer of Grummsh and I wonder what will happen if we ever meet him again.
A wagon carries our dead, along with what treasures we could find in this orc stronghold — there’s not much remaining after tribute was paid to the emissaries. A handful of freed human slaves accompany us as well. I remember those we saw tending flocks and wish we could save them too.
It’s late afternoon as we reach the main road and turn towards the vale where the sacred pool is hidden. I only hope we can figure out how to get past the protective wards — which no one else has managed to do in twelve years…
Thus ends the massive challenge of storming the orc stronghold, deep in the Great Barrier Mountains. It took us several sessions and more than several false steps, but we got there in the end. I think we discovered most of the information we were supposed to. (We’re hoping to reverse the casualties very soon.)
In case you were wondering about the barnstorming action I left out at the beginning — suffice to say there were a series of obstacles as we headed through the tunnels, a phalanx of zombie orcs, then a beautifully orchestrated ambush in which we were under attack from three sides and hopelessly outnumbered. (But we prevailed. Mostly.)
Our next challenge will be navigating an online roleplaying environment, as we attempt to keep our game going during home lockdown due to the global pandemic. (The adventures described above were played out in early March, before any bans on gatherings happened.)
Can we succeed in restoring our fallen companions? What on earth will we do next? So many options. Bring it on!