Tales of the Righteous Vanguard

Part Ten: On the Eve of Dark Clouds – Chapter 5

It was on Godsday, the 25th day of Goodmonth, in the Common Year of 580, when the
assassins of the Scarlet Brotherhood, who had been sent to kill Nero, were themselves
killed by the assassins of Greyhawk. That night, with the aid of the assassins of Greyhawk,
Nero faked his death, and the following day, disguised himself and acquired an amulet of
proof against detection and location, thereby assuming the role of Nero’s estate holder,
Diur Daton. Two days later, on Freeday, the 28th day of Goodmonth, an elaborate funeral
service was held for Nero, Book and Ale near Nero’s Tower and within a couple of weeks,
a statue of Nero with a continual flame in its palm was erected nearby.
From that day forward, Nero had entered yet another chapter of his life. Now, as long
as his secret remained hidden from his enemies, Nero could rest easier, knowing that the
Scarlet Brotherhood no longer hunted after him. But it came at a heavy price. With the
permanent loss of two good friends, as well as the loss of a host of connections and allies,
and indeed a way of life, Nero was forced to live the life of his alias, Diur, who looked and
dressed differently and even carried around Ael’s falcata as a part of his disguise. As one
might expect after such an event, life for all the members of the Righteous Vanguard had
changed.
But many of these changes were quite radical and had nothing to do with the loss of
Book, Ael or Nero’s public identity. Since becoming members of the Righteous Vanguard,
each of them had under gone a number of changes and they were now no longer the same
people they were when they joined the group. Nicholas for example, had gained a much
greater strength, but also a diminished intelligence and a case of agoraphobia; Dravos was
now more than twice his original size and had an arm and hand that continually sprouted
a layer of slimy fungus; Kieranen, though his changes were not now as severe, had aged
hundreds of years, which was fortunately reversed, had lost his best friend, the gnome
Gildor and had, as a result, altered his outlook on life; and Alavarius had his lifespan
increased dramatically and acquired the ability to live and breathe underwater. Many of
these changes, of course, were brought about by the Deck of Destines which was found
in the White Plume Mountain. But despite all of this, the Deck of Destinies was still not
through making alterations to the members of the band.
Following the deaths of Book and Ale, as well as some of the assassins, the band had a
number of magic items that needed to be divided up amongst the band, including the five
remaining cards of the Deck of Destinies, which had previously been in the possession
of Book. Once all of the items were divided up, Alavarius, who had selected the Deck of
Destinies, could not resist the temptation of drawing a card.

The card he drew was the Sea card, which was rather ironic considering his powers
underwater, because, as he would later discover through divination spells, it gained him the
enmity of the sea and he would be in danger of being attacked by sea monsters any time
he made a journey across a large body of water. Seeing the deck of cards and having no
will power to resist it, Nero’s familiar Maximo, drew a card while Alavarius wasn’t paying
attention and drew the Skull card, which visibly caused his forehead to swell and increased
his intelligence greatly. Despite his mischievous personality and his lack of experience,
Maximo now became the most intelligent member of the group! Seeing this, Nicholas
decided to draw another card. Unfortunately, he drew the Vampire card, which drained
from him a portion of life energy. Fortunately, this was easily remedied with a restoration
spell. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, and hoping all the bad cards were now gone,
Dravos then drew a card and drew the Black Sword. This card granted Dravos skill and
experience in his chosen line of work. That left only one card, which Alavarius had to pick
up. It was the Crow card, which suddenly caused a permanent pair of black, feathered
wings to sprout from his back! With time, Alavarius would soon learn how to fly with
them, though it meant having to make some alterations in his clothing.
Two months then passed as the Righteous Vanguard dealt with personal matters. Over
time, the members of the band gradually became accustomed to the changes that each of
them had recently experienced, and they slowly settled into a lifestyle that eventually took
on an air of familiarity. But towards the end of Patchwall, their comfortable way of life was
once again interrupted by the call of adventure and the duty and desire to put an end to the
evil machinations of an old enemy of theirs.
Here then begins the tale of a man so hellbent on revenge and the insane lust for power
that he was willing to risk everything, even the life of a trusted family member, to achieve
his goals. And, as the Righteous Vanguard would soon learn firsthand, his mad plan would
very nearly succeed.
It was on Waterday, the 26th day of Patchwall, when the archmage Tenser arrived at
Nero’s Tower with news that he felt certain the band would be interested in. By now,
Tenser had heard about the deaths of Nero, Book and Ael, but also knew that the band
could still be contacted at Nero’s old residence. When meeting with Tenser, Nero tried
to keep his true identity a secret from him and continued to play the part of Diur. But it
did not take long for Nero to slip and inadvertently reveal himself. Tenser however played
along, fully understanding the need or desire to hide one’s identity, since most members of
the Circle of Eight did likewise much of the time.
Tenser then told the band that he had heard reports from certain contacts he had along
the Wild Coast, that the Necromancer Elock and his cousin Tracy Windstrider had very
recently been seen in the town of Badwall, talking about a map they had, which would
supposedly lead them to the nearby hiding place of a lost cult of Nerull. There they hoped
to find an eldritch arcane tome called the Serpin Lexicon.

Unknown to Tenser at the time however, was that Elock had intentionally made his
plans and whereabouts known to Tenser’s contacts, fully expecting and hoping that Tenser
would encourage the Righteous Vanguard to go after them. This part of Elock’s plan
worked to perfection and soon the Righteous Vanguard was preparing to visit the town of
Badwall.
On the following day then, Earthday the 27th, Tenser arrived in the morning at Nero’s
Tower and using his magical mirror, transported the Righteous Vanguard back to the
residence of his henchman Cymria in the village of Magepoint. There they attempted to
scry on Elock but with no success. So Tenser, using his mirror, located an alleyway in the
town of Badwall, which he was familiar with, and opened a portal through which the band
entered the town. From there, Alavarius cast a find the path spell and the band set out
towards the Suss Forest where they expected to find the hiding place of the cult. Once into
the forest, it did not take long for Nicholas to locate the tracks of Elock and Tracy as the
two necromancers made no attempts to hide their tracks. In fact, they had been counting
on their tracks to lead the band right into the trap that they had devised for them.
The Suss Forest, as the band would quickly learn, was a dreary place, full of thorn trees,
brambles, briars, and thickets, which threatened to slow their progress. Its massive trees
were black with age, and seemed to whisper and talk amongst themselves as the band
dared to pass beneath. But despite the evil and oppressive atmosphere of the forest and
the rumors of roving bands of humanoids which were said to make the woods their home,
the band passed through them with nary an encounter, perhaps as the forest’s denizens
somehow sensed that this was not a band of adventurers to be trifled with. Still, it was slow
going through the thick underbrush of the forest, and the band was forced to camp one
night before reaching their goal.
Again, despite the constant sense of creatures lurking all about them, the night passed
by uneventfully and the following day, the band continued on their way. Towards the
end of another long day of trudging through the thick forest, the band finally arrived at
an unusual structure half buried in the under growth. It was a ninety foot diameter dais
seven feet high and covered with lichen and mosses. Around its perimeter were carven
skulls and scenes of sacrifices. Standing atop the dais and near its center was a massive
tree perhaps a hundred feet high, its twisted mass of roots half exposed in the thin layer of
earth that rested atop the dais. While to most members of the band the tree appeared to be an
ordinary, albeit extraordinarily large, tree, like any other in the forest, a few members of the
band, those who remained unaffected by the cloud of spores that issued from it, realized it
was a very large and very dangerous hangman tree. The band looked around the dais and
seeing no entrances along its sides began to climb up onto the dais. Nero then approached
it while using a fly spell and as he did so the tree lashed out and looped one of its many
nooses around him. Fortunately, as Nero had expected, the noose slipped off of him just
as quickly due to his ring of freedom of movement.

Below the tree and just in front of it, the band could see an entrance into the dais. But
realizing that the tree would pose a greater threat to the other members of the band, they
decided to look for other means to access the dungeon complex. Dravos then discovered
a trap door closer to them in front of the tree. So the band summoned an animal and had
it move out over the trap door, thereby springing the trap. The animal fell to its death in
a spear-lined pit thirty feet blow, but the door remained open. So Nicholas climbed down
into the pit and, as he had hoped, found a secret door leading into the dungeon. This
allowed the band to bypass the giant hangman tree and not have to deal with it.
Once inside the dungeon however, the band discovered that it was unusually dark inside,
even with magical light sources. So the band was never able to produce anything more than
a dim light by which to see. Just inside the dungeon they had to negotiate another pit trap
but with an illusory floor, which Dravos almost fell victim to. Here they were presented
with two passageways to choose from, one that led straight to the west and one went
diagonally to the northeast. They chose to go northeast and soon came to two archways
on either side of the passageway. Both of these archways led to bedchambers where little
was left but broken remnants of furniture. Each of these rooms however had small balls of
bubbling white mist.
As the band looked into these rooms however they were attacked by two undead
creatures, one from each room. The first was a powerful ghost that badly spooked two
members of the band who would have run away if not for the quick application of a
remove fear spell. The second was the juju zombie of a highly experienced rogue which
attacked with a sneak attack. Both of these undead were quite deadly and caused the band
a few serious injuries. But the band did not waste any time and used some of their most
powerful magic against them, allowing them to eliminate these threats fairly quickly.
After healing up and looking around a bit, the band moved on to other rooms. They
soon found another larger bedroom with more broken furniture and more glowing balls
of mist in the upper corners. Alavarius determined these balls of mist to be some sort of
scrying devices, which would allow someone to constantly monitor each of these rooms.
In the large bedroom they found a riddle written on the wall which the band never did
come up with the correct answer to. But it did not appear to make any difference. For as
the band looked about, they found other evidence that the two necromancers had already
been there and found the arcane tome called the Serpin Lexicon. In another nearby room
they found a glass case where the book had probably been kept until just recently. They
also found a summoning chamber and another empty room, neither of which contained
anything of real interest or importance.
Eventually the band turned their attention to the passageway that led off to the west. To
the sides of it they found a couple of storage rooms, again with nothing but rotted junk
inside. In one of these rooms they found a pack rat, which distracted them for a short
while as they tried to get it to bring them things of value.

From there they made their way to the end of the passageway where an area of
impenetrable darkness slowed their progress. After doing a bit of probing here, Nero
flew into the darkness and soon emerged in a room on the other side where he could
see. In this room were two rows of niches where prisoners or slaves would presumably
be shackled up. But as soon as Nero emerged from the darkness, he saw hovering in the
center of the room, a floating skull that began to scream, causing some members of the
band to go temporarily deaf. Alavarius cast a silence spell to shut it up and Dravos stepped
up and smashed the skull thereby destroying it. With this done, Alavarius dismissed the
silence spell and everyone gathered in the room where the floating skull had been. Here
also they found a sarcophagus that was mounted to the far wall, and after doing some
investigating, Nicholas found a secret door at the back of the sarcophagus.
Upon opening the secret door, they found a roughly hewn passageway that curved
around to the south and into darkness. At this point the band would have been well
advised to better prepare themselves, for they probably should have realized that the
screaming skull was an alarm device which could have easily been heard by anyone in the
dungeon complex. Since it was unlikely that this alarm was something that was left over
from the cult members who once lived in the complex, as Elock and Tracy surely would
have entered the room by now and destroyed the skull as they had just done, the obvious
conclusion was that the skull had been placed there by Elock and Tracy to warn them of
intruders. This, in fact, was exactly the case, and as soon as the skull first sounded, the two
necromancers began preparing for the band and were ready by the time they arrived.
The band meanwhile, cautiously made their way through the curving tunnel until it
came to a large, dimly lit cavern roughly sixty to seventy feet ride and about twice that in
length. At the center of the cavern stood a familiar looking man with long brown hair,
a medium length beard, a scar running down the left side of his face, and a wild stare in
his eyes. Dressed in the same black robes with a white pattern along the sleeve openings
and holding the same staff made of bone and wrapped in copper wire, the necromancer
grinned with anticipation. Arrayed in front of him were three large troll skeletons, each
engulfed in the familiar blue flames that the band had witnessed more than once before.
“Ah, at last,” the necromancer called out. “I have been anxiously awaiting your arrival.
And now that you are here, I believe it is time we got down to business.”
One of the Righteous Vanguard responded by asking where his cousin Tracy was.
“Do not concern yourselves with her,” Elock answered. “I will have no difficulty in
dealing with you on my own. Now, enough talk! Prepare to meet your doom!”
And with that, Elock began chanting the words of a spell. The Righteous Vanguard,
many of whom still had yet to even make their way around the corner and get a look
at Elock, quickly scrambled to the front and positioned themselves while others cast
defensive and preparatory spells.

Then Elock struck with his first spell, a dispel magic spell. Fortunately, most members
of the band did not lose any magic that would have made a big difference in the battle.
But then, most of them did not have many spells up at all. Following this, Nero blasted
the troll skeletons with a cone of force, but only managed to destroy one of them.
Other members of the band meanwhile cast more defensive spells or otherwise readied
themselves to attack.
Elock’s next wave of attacks was devastating, as he led off with a spell that put most
members of the bad under a curse that greatly hindered their attacks and their ability to
fend off attacks. He quickly followed this with a spell that drained the moisture from all of
them and which was enhanced with necromantic magic. Suddenly all the members of the
band were reeling from the pain and some of them were already on the verge of dropping!
This however was followed by another spell that created a mist around the party which
caused them further harm and left them fatigued. At this point, the two troll skeletons
stepped up and began to attack, though fortunately for the band they rarely ever hit. But to
make matters worse, the creature that everyone thought was Elock, now revealed its true
form, that of a glabrezu, or type III, demon, which, as its first action, cast a mirror image
spell! This indicated that both Elock and Tracy were both actually further back in the cave
and invisible!
At this point, now just a matter of seconds into the battle, some members of the band,
Nero for example, were on the verge of fleeing. Others however, such as Nicholas, still
felt there was hope and urged them to stay and fight. So while some, like Maximo, moved
back to cast more defensive spells, others, like Alavarius, began casting healing spells,
or offensive spells or just moved to attack the trolls. Nicholas, then realizing that it was
imperative that they prevent Elock from casting spells and seeing the distance between
the band and the necromancers, came up with a plan. From his back he grabbed his
hammer of thunderbolts and hurled it to the far end of the cave! The distance was just
right for it to stun both of the necromancers and the demon but have no effect on the
band. So by employing his hammer in this fashion, and having it teleport back to him
every time because of the crystal of returning he had placed on the hammer, he could
dramatically slow down the attacks of the two necromancers. Unfortunately, he could
only hurl the hammer four times, because hurling it a fifth time would leave him utterly
exhausted. This meant that he could only hurl it about once every other round, which left
the necromancers time to act in between. The demon however quickly moved up and out
of range for the stunning of the hammer to affect it.
As this was going on, Alavarius put up a wall of stone to provide cover for some of them
while Maximo put up globe of invulnerability and used his so-called staff of the magi. Nero
then flew about, sometimes using invisibility to help protect him and cast spells at either
the demon or the necromancers whom he still could not see. The demon was hard to affect
however due to its spell resistance.

Occasionally Nero was able to do some harm to the necromancers, but perhaps more
importantly he helped Nicholas to disrupt their spell casting. Still Elock managed to get
a spell off from time to time, which was usually devastating, such as the finger of death
that he hit Kieranen with. Fortunately, Kieranen survived it. But Tracy often had to resort
to using a wand that did minimal harm. Kieranen and Dravos meanwhile, managed to
take down the two remaining trolls. But they were often so badly wounded that they were
forced to do things to save themselves, while Alavarius did his best to heal them up.
As the battle raged on, both Elock and Tracy gradually drew closer to the band. But
by this point, Nicholas had thrown the hammer three times and did not want to have to
throw it a fourth time. Then suddenly, Elock and Tracy became visible as their invisibility
magic expired. Nicholas then moved in closer to attack but as he did so he noticed that
Elock was engulfed in black flames which he knew would cause him harm if he attacked in
hand to hand combat. So instead he threw his hammer Whelm. Nicholas then became the
target of Elock’s vampiric touch spell, followed soon after by a finger of death. Fortunately
he survived these, though just barely. Dravos then moved in to attack Elock and in turn
was attacked by Tracy with her sword and a vampiric touch. Kieranen, meanwhile had
taken down most of the demon’s mirror images by now, but the demon was still largely
untouched.
Then Nicholas stepped up to attack Elock with the hammer of thunderbolts.
Unfortunately, it slipped from his grasp, flew past Elock, and struck Dravos instead,
knocking him unconscious and stunning everyone in the cavern. Once everyone recovered,
the battle resumed and moments later, despite taking damage from Elock’s flames,
Nicholas finally managed to knock Elock down, though he was on the verge of dropping
as well. Alavarius meanwhile continued to run around trying his best to heal up his
companions. Finally Kieranen, who by this point had declared an oath on the demon with
his oathblade, took down the last of the demon’s mirror images and began dealing out
wounds to the demon. Unfortunately, it was not soon enough, as Tracy and the demon
then ganged up on Kieranen and took him down. Seeing this, Alavarius cast a healing spell
on Kieranen and kept him alive, as Nero was forced to retreat a bit and tend to injuries of
his own. Soon after this however, Dravos bled to death.
Then the unthinkable happened. The heart in Elock’s bleeding body finally came to a
stop, and with it came Elock’s long sought after revenge. Unknown to all, even his cousin
Tracy, Elock, in his madness, had previously cast a spell on himself which would cause his
body to explode upon his death. And explode it did, sending bits of bone and flesh flying
apart in a gory eruption of blood. It made little difference that Alavarius was able to save
Kieranen but not Dravos, for the resulting explosion from Elock’s spell killed everyone
and everything near it, even his cousin Tracy and the demon. Only Nero and Maximo had
survived and only because they were not close enough to the explosion.

Soon afterwards though, unknown to all and hidden somewhere deep inside a dark and
secretive chamber, a throaty sigh could be heard. A moment or two passed. Then came
the sound of a deep and satisfying chuckle, which gradually rose into a full out chorus of
maniacal laughter. “…And they call me mad!”, a voice spoke to the darkness.

It would be quite a long time before the clone of Elock would make its presence known
to the world. For Elock had sacrificed a great deal in his quest for revenge. And as far as he
knew, he had succeeded. Divination spells were one of Elock’s opposition schools, which
meant he often had to rely on others for such things. And for a long time, his only attempt
at learning the truth of what took place upon his death told him that all had died in the
explosion except Maximo. He had no qualms with a spellcasting fremlin and as far as he
knew, Nero had died as well. A day or two after the battle he would return to the scene
of the battle to see if anything was left to recover. But he would find nothing, and would
perhaps assume that all had been destroyed in the explosion.

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arkhemedes

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