Tales of the Righteous Vanguard
Part Eleven: Vecna Lives! - Chapter 9
Early in the day, on Freeday, the 21st day of Reaping, in the Common Year of 581, after being question by the Provost of the City, Rollo Augustin, about the recent difficulties with the Cult of Vecna, the Righteous Vanguard set out from the city of Verbobanc and headed into the Kron Hills. Fortunately, earlier that morning, while preparing for their journey, it had been realized by the band that without the horses they had bought only the day before and then left behind at the Rock Powder Inn, and with the slow rate of travel of their guide, the gnome Vargannos Ache-Feet, who intended to wear plate armor on the journey, it would take them as long as two weeks to reach the village of Osnabrolt if they traveled by foot. Because of this, an alternate means of travel was looked for, and Alavarius realized he could cast a couple of wind walk spells and have the party in Osnabrolt by that afternoon! So the spells were cast, and the band, including their guide and followers, was transformed into clouds of vapor that could whisk over valleys and hills at an astounding rate of speed. Doing this also insured that they could avoid any trouble along the way from people and monsters who might wish to do them harm. However, it also meant that they would not be able to gather any information from other travelers along the roads. But the benefits of traveling in this way seemed well worth it. In just a couple of hours, the band managed to skirt along a main road going southwest, about 80 miles into the Kron Hills, and then turned south along a trail for another 30 miles or so, until they approached the village of Osnabrolt, deep in the foothills of the Lortmil Mountains. As they approached the gnome village however, they began to notice more and more traffic along the narrowing trail, going to and from the village and mostly consisting of gnomes and dwarves. This seemed very unusual, particularly to the band’s guide, Vargannos. Because of this, Vargannos stopped a few hundred yards from the village and indicated to the band that they should do the same. Alavarius dismissed the wind walk spells so the band could communicate, not only to others, but to themselves as well. Vargannos then pointed out to the band the unusual circumstances and it was noted that the gnomes traveling into Osnabrolt were carrying tools, fresh bread, clothing, lumber, milk and other supplies, while those who were leaving looked more like refugees. Vargannos asked some of these gnomes what was happening, while Nero, the only member of the band who spoke the gnome language, listened on. They were told that something powerful and terrible had swept through the little warren, murdering the inhabitants and destroying the homes. This something, perhaps a human, came through the village only a few weeks before. News of the disaster did not reach the outside world until about a week before the band’s arrival, as it took that long for the survivors to dig their way out of the ruins. Since then, Osnabrolt’s neighbors had been pitching in to help rebuild the community. But, from the looks of it, these were terrible times indeed for the small village of gnomes. As the band then continued towards the village on foot, every group of gnomes they passed by seemed to eye them with suspicion and as they drew near, they could see a column of smoke rising from the ruins just ahead. Upon arriving at the village, it was clear to the band that a powerful force had struck there. The warrens, a group of underground tunnels and homes, were shattered. The village had originally been built into a huge mound with windows and doors peeking out of the bushes and sod at various points. Now however, roofs were collapsed in some areas, blown completely away in others. Jagged cracks showed where the walls had split. Most of the survivors had moved up from underground and were now living in a temporary tent village. Some distance away was a huge funeral pyre, where the less fortunate were put to rest. Gnome guards stood ready at all points around the site, watchful for wild animals and humanoid raiders. As the band entered the village, the gnomes in the tent village eyed them sullenly. Children hid behind their mothers and fathers with fear in their eyes. But before the band got too close to the refugee camp, a group of gnome guards drew up in rank, blocking the path before them. Other guards moved around to the flanks and rear. Then one of the gnomes stepped forward and asked them in Common to state their business. Vargannos spoke up then, and in the gnome language, told them that he had led this band of adventurers to Osnabrolt in the hopes of doing business with them, but upon seeing the village, were now more interested in offering their assistance. Nero spoke to the gnome as well, who introduced himself as Maldo, leader of the guards, after Nero introduced himself as the merchant, Sir Omrey, and the band as the Righteous Vanguard. Nero, despite the recent change in attitude he had undergone over the past year or so, towards aiding others, seemed to be genuinely moved by the current plight of the gnomes and did his best to convince Maldo that the band only wanted to help the gnomes. Either that, or Nero surmised that by assisting the gnomes in any way possible, something worthwhile could be gained in return. Alavarius likewise seemed unusually eager to assist the gnomes, though it was in his nature to want to heal others, and asked immediately about tending to those who were injured. With these persuasive offers of aid, Maldo soon relented and allowed the band to enter the encampment. Alavarius was then shown to a triage where all the wounded had been taken, while Maldo escorted the others to see the leader of the community, an old female gnome whom all the gnomes in Osnabrolt referred to as Old Gudrune. Upon meeting Old Gudrune, it soon became apparent that she had suffered a broken hip in the disaster, but she refused any clerical aid until she was convinced that all the other gnomes in the community had been healed of their injuries. The matriarch was confined to a straw pallet under a simple tent. Her brother, almost as old as she was, sat nearby brushing away the flies when she grew too weak to care for herself. Often she drifted in and out of consciousness – but fortunately at this time she was awake. Nero spoke with her for a while as Nicholas, Dravos and Kieranen went on to help the gnomes in moving some of the fallen debris and setting up more shelters. Nero, still posing as Sir Omrey, told Old Gudrune that he had originally come to Osnabrolt to look into tomb building and inquired about a certain tomb, built a hundred years ago, that he believed to be nearby. At the mention of this tomb, Old Gudrune’s expression changed and the other gnomes nearby exchanged wary glances with one another. It was evident that the gnomes knew about the tomb that Nero spoke of. Old Gudrune told Nero that another group of humans, fitting the description of the Circle of Eight, had passed through the village a few weeks before, shortly before the disaster struck the village, and asked about the same tomb. Gudrune apologized, but because of this, and for the sake of Osnabrolt, she refused to tell Nero anything about the tomb, believing it would lead to further troubles for the village. This was despite the fact that Nero tried to convince her that the threat was over because they had wiped out the cult and its leader who were responsible for the disaster. When Nero then spoke to the rest of the band and told them that the gnome matriarch would not tell them anything about the tomb, Nicholas suggested they go out immediately and look on their own for the tomb. Nicholas had never been a very patient man to begin with, more often preferring to fight that to talk and rarely willing to wait around for anything. But ever since drawing his first card from the Deck of Destinies, which increased his strength but made him even less charismatic than he already was, it seemed that his priorities had also changed. Here again was another example of his willingness to go against authority figures like Old Gudrune and simply do as he pleased – so long as it served the cause of good. (Nicholas’ alignment has officially been changed from lawful good to neutral good). Fortunately, other members of the band cautioned against making any rash decisions and instead encouraged their companions to be patient. When they involved Vargannos in on the discussion (more or less, since he was never fully informed about the band’s recent exploits or their current objectives) he reminded the band about the story that he had told them, concerning the sword that they believed to be the Sword of Kas. Vargannos, then offered to see if he could learn anything more about this legend, hoping the gnomes of Osnabrolt would be more willing to open up to him since he too was a gnome. This proved to be very helpful, as Vargannos was soon able to learn, after talking with some of his fellow gnomes, a very important part of the legend that he had not previously been aware of. According to local tradition, the gnomes of Osnabrolt were charged with the duty to guard the sword “until the needy came to the lame for aid.” This description seemed to fit the present circumstances. So Nero and the band went and spoke once more with Old Gudrune and tried to convince her that the time had come, and that he and the Righteous Vanguard were the needy as described in the legend. The matriarch allowed that this might be true, but was reluctant to end the duty with which she and the village had been charged. The gnomes of Osnabrolt believed the mysterious guest in the legend to have been some malevolent god and they were fearful of displeasing him. But she told the band that she would take some time and consider what they were suggesting. Some time then passed and the day drew to a close as the band continued to do what they could to aid the gnomes. Then, as the band was gathered near the center of the encampment and preparing to share an evening meal with the gnomes, a gnome dame approached them and presented them with a small mourning dove hatchling. “We found this,” the gnome said, and set the scrawny bird at the group’s feet. She then backed away and said nothing more, as if waiting to see what the band would do. Each member of the band looked at each other, somewhat puzzled by the gnome’s behavior. But Dravos quickly caught on and reached down to pick up the bird. He then asked the gnome where she found the bird, and she took him to the exact spot not far away. Dravos then looked around, and as he had suspected, spotted a bird’s nest about 100’ above in a tree. By now, some members of the band had noticed that several of the gnomes in the village were casually observing them, though they tried not to be too obvious about it. Realizing that what they did at this point might be very important in the eyes of the gnomes, Dravos thought about how he might return the bird to its nest. But Alavarius volunteered to fly up and put the bird back, since it would be a very simple task for him. So Dravos gave him the bird, and Alavarius soon had the hatchling back in its nest. As soon as this was done however, the mother bird flew in and began to attack Alavarius. So he cast a spell which had a very calming effect on the mother bird. Then he flew back down to the ground. At the sight of this, many of the gnomes who had been watching were clearly pleased by the band’s actions, and not long afterwards, the band was again summoned to go and speak with Old Gudrune. Once they were back in the presence of Gudrune, she thanked them for their kindness, especially for the hatchling, implying that the incident with the hatchling had actually been a test, which the band had passed quite well. She then continued, saying, “After careful consideration, I believe it is prudent to take you to our sacred treasure.” Obviously, this was a solemn occasion for the gnomes, for, if Gudrune was right, it meant the fulfillment of a prophecy and their release from a task that had lasted for centuries. The band was then told that before they could be shown to the sacred chamber where the treasure lay, they had to endure the purification rites and holy rituals that the gnomes had devised over the years. These preparations, they were told, would take a couple of days and they would begin in the morning. Naturally, the band was not pleased to learn that they would be delayed at least two more days, nor did any of them look forward to undergoing any sort of ceremonial ritual. But, try as they might, there did not seem to be any way of talking the gnomes out of it nor any way of shortening it. They did however, press once more to be allowed to look for the tomb that Nero had mentioned, and this time, Gudrune finally relented. So that evening, after being given some general directions, the band set out in search of the tomb. About an hour later, shortly before sundown, they finally found it. It appeared much as Cymria had described it from her vision, and it did not look as if it had been disturbed in weeks. Of course, the band was very cautious in investigating the burial mound. But eventually they came to the conclusion that there was no longer any real threat inside the tomb. Unfortunately, they also found no bodies, no magic items and very little evidence that the Circle of Eight had even been there. They did find that the final chamber in the tomb was still filled with the decaying grave goods that had been interred with Halmadar the Cruel. But despite the fact that some of these items were worth quite a bit monetarily, they decided not to take anything, believing that these things may be cursed. So with empty hands and very little information gained at the tomb, the band returned to Osnabrolt, where they soon tried to get some rest in preparation for the ordeal that awaited them on the following day. The next morning, on Starday, the 22nd day of Reaping, before beginning the gnomes’ rituals, Alavarius cast enough heroes’ feast spells to feed the entire village, which the gnomes were very grateful for. Soon afterwards, the gnomes then started putting the Righteous Vanguard through their purification rites, which, ironically, began with 24 hours of fasting. During this time, each band member was only allowed water in small sips. They were also required to bath several times, as the gnomes furiously scoured them with pumice-like stones. They were also forced to remove all magic items and clothing and had to stitch together simple tunics or loin cloths from tent cloth. At first, all the members of the band went along with this, though they grumbled about it a lot. But when told to remove all magic items, Nero refused to do so, knowing that his disguise would be revealed and his protections against divination spells would cease. He was told that if he did not go through with the ritual he would not be allowed inside the sacred chamber – but this did not make him change his mind. So Nero sat by and watched his companions proceed with the ritual. They were not the only ones to undergo the ritual however, as Maldo decided to join them, so he could accompany them inside the ritual chamber. After 24 hours of fasting, the band had to purge their bodies by sweating. The gnomes had thrown together a simple sweat lodge, built a fire, and had been heating stones for the previous 12 hours. At dawn, on the morning of Sunday, the 23rd, the band, all but Nero, and Maldo were placed naked inside the lodge, which was very cramped, especially for Dravos. Inside the lodge was a pit filled with heated rocks, over which water was poured, creating clouds of steam. All through the day, water and hot rocks were added, keeping the lodge tortuously hot. There they had to stay for 14 hours until the sun went down. As the day wore on, some members of the band began to feel the effects of heat and hunger and started to hallucinate. These hallucinations were minor at first, such as sounds, voices and apparitions seen at the periphery of vision. Gradually the hallucinations became more extreme. They seemed to have conversations with talking worms, got advice from birds, the sweat lodge opened up and they flew through the sky, and they even saw and talked with ancestors. Some members of the band also saw a vision of an old warrior that told them to find his sword, as with it they might find a way to defeat Vecna. Initially, only the hardiest members of the band, such as Nicholas and Kieranen, managed to avoid having these hallucinations. But eventually, even they began to see things. Worse still, some members of the band began to pass out from exhaustion. By the end of the 14 hour period, only Nicholas managed to remain conscious throughout. But when it was finally over, all of them were exhausted from the ordeal. At sundown, the band and Maldo were taken from the lodge and dressed in their “new clothing”. Each of them was then christened with a new name, including Maldo. Dravos was given the name Mushroom Mountain, Nicholus was given the name Bull Ogre, Alavarius was given the name Swimming Bird, Kieranen was given the name Ancient Warrior, and Maldo, due to a vision he had, was given the name Dog Man. With these new names, each of the band members (except Nero who was no longer included in the rituals) was also adopted into the Osnabrolt clan and declared honorary gnomes. Now, at last, the Righteous Vanguard would be allowed to enter the sacred hall. Still in a state of fatigue and exhaustion, the group was led in a procession to the hall, and again, for the gnomes, it was a solemn affair. Leading the way was Old Gudrune, carried on a pallet. Behind her came Maldo carrying a torch, while the band fell in behind him, who in turn were followed by many other gnomes carrying torches. Some members of the band were still hallucinating at this point and having some difficulty distinguishing what was real from what was not real. But the procession picked its way through the rubble until it finally arrived at an old, age-stained door, set in the side of a nearby hill. Nero meanwhile, had turned invisible and was following along to keep an eye on things. From her pallet, which had been set beside the door, Gudrune then nodded to the band and spoke in Common, “If I had not been so infirm, I too, would join you. Now, I give you over to my son, Maldo. He is your guide from here.” And with a tired wave of her hand, Gudrune ordered Maldo to open the door. For all its build up, the scared hall of Osnabrolt was a pretty plain affair. Pulling the stiff door open, Maldo led the group into a large, unfurnished chamber, which was little more than a hollowed-out cavern. The floor and walls of the sacred hall were bare dirt, the ceiling supported by a framework of beams and braces. A few roots dangled from the ceiling. There were no furnishings, decorations, or even trash. It was nothing but a barren room. “This is where it happened,” Maldo said, indicating the room. Then he stepped to one side allowing the band members a better view. There was no sign of a sword, and at this point, Maldo looked to the Righteous Vanguard as if expecting them to know what to do. But, apparently like Maldo, none of the band members had any real idea of what to do. So they asked him about the sword and he pointed at the floor and said, “He plunged it into the ground there, burying it deep into the earth.” Not knowing what else to do, Dravos then began to brush some of the dirt away from the center of the floor to see if he could find any sign of the sword. But about that time, everyone heard a faint rumbling noise that seemed to be coming from under their feet. Some of the group were not sure if they were hallucinating this sound or not. But the noise grew louder, and the dirt at the center of the floor began to tremble, bouncing up and down as if it sat on the skin of a drum. Suddenly, the dirt flew upward, hit by something from below. There was a glint of metal and then more. Before the eyes of the Righteous Vanguard, a uniquely wrought sword rose up out of the ground – the Sword of Kas! It was a huge sword with a blade six feet in length and a hilt two feet long, making the entire weapon eight feet in length! The blade had been forged in the flame or water style, with both edges rippled with iridescent undulations. A vein of magically hardened gold formed the center spine and its hilt was wrapped in red leather, flecked with gold. The guards were fashioned from polished pieces of unicorn horn and the pommel was a leering, bearded face, designed to form a small basket at the bottom of the hilt. Nicholas was the first to reach out and touch the sword, but it shocked him pretty severely. So Kieranen touched it and he too was shocked by it. Other members of the band likewise touched it, all with the same shocking result. So Nicholas tried again. This time the sword did not shock him, so he grabbed the sword and instantly realized that it was much less difficult to wield than it appeared to be. Then Nicholas’ mind was suddenly filled with images, the strongest of which gave a sensation of bonding between him and the sword. The other predominant image was that of Vecna and it became clear that the sword had a burning desire to find and destroy the arch-lich. Realizing that such a powerful weapon would have a great conflict with his intelligent war hammer whelm, Nicholas handed the sword over to Kieranen instead. Fortunately, it did not shock the elf either the second time he touched it, and he too had images enter his mind and a sense of bonding with the sword. Kieranen quickly felt as if he and the sword belonged together and the sword seemed filled with the power to eradicate the corrupt fiend, Vecna. The sword also seemed to sense the direction of Vecna and whether or not he was near or far. At this point, Vecna seemed to be very far away to the southwest, quite possibly at Tovag Baragu. With the appearance of the Sword of Kas, Maldo and all the gnomes assumed that the prophecy had been fulfilled, and because of this, a great feast was quickly prepared in their honor. So, despite the fact that most members of the Righteous Vanguard were still fatigued and exhausted and still did not have on them anything but the makeshift clothes they had made, they were encouraged to participate in this feast. To do otherwise would clearly have been a major insult to the gnomes who wished to honor them, and at the time, it seemed that there was not any real danger in doing as the gnomes had wished. But a short ways into the feast, they suddenly discovered that danger was a lot closer than they had thought. As the band and about a dozen of the gnomes were gathered around a campfire and enjoying the feast, a large band of ogres came storming out of the darkness around them and attacked. Fortunately, unlike his companions, Nero was fully equipped and well rested. So he immediately began blasting the onrushing ogres with his spells, killing many of them before they were able to engage in combat. Most members of the Righteous Vanguard, realizing that they had very little with which to fight, retreated towards the tents where their possessions were. Even Kieranen, who still had the Sword of Kas on him, retreated, leaving the gnomes behind to face the ogres that were now rushing into the camp. Then enemy spells like a fireball and a web spell began to strike those that retreated and a confusion spell was centered on the gnomes that were still in the camp. Dravos and Alavarius did what they could to even the odds and cast spells that would remove the effects of their fatigue and exhaustion. Initially, the battle looked bad for the gnomes and the Righteous Vanguard. But the fact that Nero did not participate in the gnome’s rituals turned out to be a great boon, as he quickly turned the tide of the battle with his powerful spells. Soon, the ogres were on the verge of being completely eliminated and the enemy spellcasters were left with no choice but to retreat. The Righteous Vanguard however, was not about to let the spellcasters get away though, as several of them used various means to pursue them. It did not take long for them to track down two fleeing priests and kill them. But a third one they recognized and managed to take him alive. It was none other than Beryn Talkin, the Rhenee they had seen several times on the barge and then again in the City of Verbobanc. They were surprised to discover however, that these were not priests of Vecna, but rather priests of Iuz. The band brought him back to the camp, used their usual methods to question him, and learned that the priests had been sent to acquire the Sword of Kas. Beryn also claimed that Iuz was not their enemy and tried to make a deal with the band, saying that they could work together against Vecna. Some members of the band, of course, had no desire to work with Iuz and wanted to kill the priest. But others saw a connection between Beryn’s proposal and certain prophetic dreams that Alavarius had been having, and believed that some kind of an alliance with Iuz might be crucial in defeating Vecna.