Shadow Over the Nentir Vale

A New Teacher
Hadrian charged at the hay soldier, his sword raised high above his shoulder but held close to his body, ready to leap high into the air before falling to cleave viciously into his foe. With a grunt, he twisted to the side, straightening his back and flexing his powerful arms, the sword traversing its entire arch within the span of a breath and tearing his enemy into pieces.
As the hay exploded into the air around him, Hadrian coughed and swatted it away from his face and eyes. The broken dummy lay in pieces on the ground, it’s straw innards strewn across the floor of the barn that had become his most recent training area on the road to Thunderspire Labyrinth. Thinking his way clear, Hadrian took a deep breath, immediately choking on a few choice pieces of lingering straw. As he hacked them up, a voice called from the entrance.
“And now you’re dead, boy.”
Hadrian turned to see Galen Staul standing in the doorway. “Pay attention, son. You always gotta pay attention.” He tossed Hadrian an apple, which he gladly accepted. Hadrian wiped it on his shirt, then collapsed into a pile of hay and took a bite.
Galen pulled out an apple and smiled to Hadrian. “You know, Douvan told me often about how determined you were to make an honest living for yourself. He said you were as stubborn as an ass.” They both chuckled at that, Hadrian spitting a piece of straw onto the ground.
Galen continued, speaking somberly. “I can tell just from watching you hold your weapon that my brother taught you well. But there is something you need to understand, boy.” He leaned forward slightly, his voice taking on a serious tone. “We are going out into the world to strike at the King’s enemies in their own lairs. So you’re going to need to be better than anyone out there. And I can help you do that.”
Hadrian nodded emphatically. “Okay. But how, Galen?”
Galen finished his apple, tossing it into one of the nearby stables. Dusting his hands on his tunic, he gestured to the other dummies positioned around the barn. “Just do what I say, when I say it. For example: Finish your regimen on these ‘cultists’, then put the hay back where we found it. Then meet Smoke in town. He said he needed your help chasing down leads at the Gnome.
“And I will see you tomorrow, bright and early.” Then he turned and left.
Hadrian snickered. Probably meant that Smoke needed a drinking buddy. He paused as he considered how quickly he and the shadowy Tiefling assassin had become unlikely friends. Smoke’s skills in battle were admirable, but it was the assassin’s slow and steady manner, his lightheartedness in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, that struck Hadrian as his most admirable trait. Smoke rarely complained, seeming to channel any misgivings or frustration into his attacks, releasing his tension through careful discipline and practice. Hadrian found himself taking a similar approach to his training. Using the practiced, easy manner of his training to focus his strikes.
Which reminded him, he had a lot of work to do before he enjoyed the evening’s festivities.
With a groan, Hadrian stood, retrieving his sword and assuming his most defensive stance, quickly cutting one down before charging into the silent ranks of straw soldiers.

The Scion of Orcus
Return to Shadowfell Keep
The following day, Smoke watched the sun rise over the orchards and farms of Winterhaven as they spread out below him. He was drifting in the shadows of the forest, at the top of a hill overlooking the fields. Between himself and the waking town, farmers and field hands were already going about their work. As Smoke watched from the darkness, his form drifting halfway between the real world and the Shadowfell, he smiled and thought to himself that this harsh land and its hard working people were indeed worth protecting. During his brief outings as an Initiate in the Guild, Smoke had thought he knew the depth of what these simple people had to offer. Since he had begun taking his own assignments, however, he had quickly learned differently. Noting the time, Smoke shifted his thoughts to other, more immediate concerns.
Sliding down the hillside, Smoke got a running start before skipping across the field, hiding and flitting between the shadows of unwary farmers and their hard working field hands. He burst from the shadows of the alley behind their current lodgings, the Wrafton Inn. It was time to return to the Keep.

Hadrian cracked open one eye at the sharp knock on his door. The big man was sprawled out across the to-small bed, one leg stretched out on the floor. With a grunt and a growl, he sat up, yawned, then methodically and mechanically began putting on his armor and arranging his collection of arms in the sling on his back. On the other side of his far wall, in his own room, Rignar finished his daily morning rituals, blessing his weapons and armor before donning them. Talos powered up his devices, attached his prosthetic leg, and checked his infusions before hobbling down the stairs, scribbling in details on his map of the Keep as if he had never stopped. He passed Hadrian on his way, his single mindedness driving the larger man back into his room. Chuckling, Hadrian followed the artificer down the stairs, Rignar trailing after.

Smoke was standing in front of the Inn with Dalor and Erveliss, the Eladrin patiently waiting with his eyes closed and a slightly bemused smile on his face, “meditating.” Dalor just stared off into space with an amused smile, his voice ringing in Smoke’s head, Bring me gold and I’ll let you live, Tiefling.
Smoke chuckled, shaking his head. Sarcastically, he shot back through the mind link, But I already serve Dalor the Great as a capable warrior, slaying his foes…So that he may have THEIR gold!
As Talos stepped outside, followed by Hadrian and Rignar, the human part of Dalor’s consciousness seemed to float to the surface. He smiled at everyone in turn, then said calmly, “Is everybody ready to continue?”
Unfazed by his strange social manner, the party set out back down the road leading to the dread Keep.

Later that day, the adventurers crept through the Kruthik nest, the corpses of the dead creatures having strangely disappeared. Toward the end of the passage, next to the areas of the stone walls that had been eaten up by the acidic Kruthik’s shearing fangs, they entered through a door into a hallway leading deeper into the Keep. The narrow stone passage descended a staircase, and Smoke slipped down as quietly as possible, peeking around the corner.
He could hear the phlegm-filled moaning of undead, wet earth clogging their throats as they shambled throughout the large stone chamber. Smoke was on the side of the room that appeared to be raised, the zombies milling around in a larger area. Across the room he could see another door, and what appeared to be an iron gate leading down into a crypt, while a sickly purple glow pulsed across the walls from a series of passages to his right. He could sense dark magic at work here, and combined with the sickly smell of rot suffusing the air of the room, it was making his head swim.
He quickly motioned the others to follow him and he slid out into the room, hugging the wall as he headed towards the sources of the dark energy. Hadrian and Rignar stayed towards the back of the group in case the zombies caught sight of them, but so far they seemed to be oblivious to the group’s presence. Moving down the hallways, Talos, Smoke, Dalor and Erveliss came upon a strangely glowing rune marked upon the wall, pulsing with necrotic energy.
Upon closer inspection, Rignar helped them determine that it was a trap of some kind. Smoke tried his hand at disarming the magical device and very nearly succeeded. While they stood around puzzling over solutions to this trap in hushed whispers, Dalor shouldered them aside and did the unthinkable.
He jumped into it.
With a burst of energy and the freezing crackle of dark magic, Smoke jumped back, pulling Talos and Erveliss with him. Dalor writhed in the circle, dark tendrils creeping up his legs, black and blue showing clearly in his veins. At the same time, a high keening wail began, rising until Hadrian and the others thought they would go deaf. Then, as Dalor fell to the ground, moaning, Smoke recovered just enough to realize what would come next.
He shoved Talos and Erveliss towards Hadrian and Rignar, who were already rushing back down the tunnel to head off the freshly alerted undead. “Go! Help them fight the undead!” He turned towards Dalor.
Talos shot him a questioning look. “What are you going to do?”
Smoke drew his sword, before turning to Dalor. “I’m going to watch your back.”
Erveliss chuckled. “Fair enough.” He turned and leapt forward, his hand slipping between Hadrian and Rignar to deliver a devastating blast of thunderous force. The shockwave crushed an onrushing zombie flat before it fell to the floor. Talos followed, fanning out to Rignar’s side before delivering his own stormy strike of electricity.
Smoke bent to help Dalor to his feet, then jerked back as the old man snapped at him, growling and snarling like an animal. Then Smoke realized the growling was in his head. As Dalor struggled to his feet Smoke spat on the ground, chuckling. “You’re on your own, but I’ve got your back, old man.” Then he slipped through the shadows and was gone, fighting zombies in the darkness as they attempted to swarm the twisted hallways and flank his friends’ positions.

Hadrian chopped through the zombies like clockwork, his blade hardly slowing or stopping as it dipped and ripped through rotten flesh. The zombies were pressing in tightly, flailing their limbs wildly in an attempt to get clawed, gnarled fingers into the flesh of his arm or shoulder. Hadrian pressed on, forcing his swings out wider to clear room for the stout Dwarf by his side to bring his divine runic magic to bear. Beside them, the Eladrin blasted the undead off their feet while Talos continued to invigorate them all with his refreshing infusions.
Meanwhile, Dalor had gained his feet, and he quickly turned in the darkness, searching for flesh. He stumbled off down the same path Smoke had taken, but truly indifferent to where he was going. Ahead of him, a straggling zombie that had somehow escaped Smoke’s elusive blade shambled into view around a corner. It locked its eyes on Dalor just as Dalor locked his eyes on it. In the back of his fractured mind, the real Dalor opened his eyes long enough to cast a single clean bolt of magical force through the zombie’s neck, dropping it, headless, to the floor. Then he was trapped again, and Dalor the Ghoul resumed his prowling.

Smoke dodged a zombie’s clumsy attack, shearing the limb off at the elbow. Unflinching, the zombie merely swiped with its remaining arm. Smoke flipped his sword, removed the arm, then reversed his blade and decapitated the creature in the same blow. Shoving the corpse aside, he kicked another square in the chest, driving it back before beheading it as well. The zombies were all but destroyed now, but Smoke continued on just to be sure, his sword leading the way.
In actuality, the undead had been eliminated from the immediate area. As Smoke made his way out into the main chamber, he met up with Hadrian and the others. They continued on through the gate, descending into a long hallway lined with heavy stone sarcophagi. At the end of the hallway they could see that the chamber widened out, and they began heading towards it.
Suddenly, with a grinding, grating rumble, the sarcophagi hit the ground with a thud, their doors swinging wide as a dozen or so skeletal figures dressed in rotted rags and patchwork pieces of rusted armor stepped out, hands clutching notched blades and dented shields, helmets perched awkwardly on fleshless skulls. Hollow eyes turned to regard the intruders, and the companions silently fell in line around each other, their backs together as the skeletons stepped forward, the only sound carrying on the still air being the rattle of their dusty bones. Then they surged towards the ready and waiting forces of King Kelvin, and the silence was shattered like the brittle bones of the skeletons as weapons clashed together or smashed into their intended targets. Hadrian swept the skeletons aside with great sweeping blows of his great axe, their broken bones fetching up against the hard stone walls to collapse in dusty heaps. Rignar crushed skulls to powder, while Smoke picked their limbs apart, leaving Erveliss, Talos or Dalor to pick them off with blasts of force or rays of arcane magic.
Talos lashed out with his crackling crutch, caving in a skeleton’s skull. Its weapon arm thrashed about, cutting a line down his side even as its body fell to pieces at his feet. Talos stumbled back, falling against the wall between two sarcophagi even as they began falling to the floor once again, their heavy lids sliding open to disgorge more skeletons. As skeletons literally stepped from thin air around them, Talos yelled, “The sarcophagi! We need to stop them, or these skeletons are going to overwhelm us!”
With a whisper that quickly built to a tumultuous roar, Rignar called to Moradin, invoking the fires of the forge in a cyclone of blinding heat and light. Skeletons burst into charred ash, even as the companions were refreshed and revitalized in the heart of the storm. Before more skeletons could fill in the space between them, Dalor and Smoke closed the distance into the open foyer, quickly noticing the altars on either side of the room. As they each took off in opposite directions, Hadrian covered everyone else’s retreat long enough for Dalor to snatch a small platinum statue of a dragon from the altar. As soon as its feet left the polished marble, the skeletons fell to pieces, crumbling to dust and blowing away on a ghostly breeze.
Carefully inspecting his own altar, Smoke found more statues, and Dalor quickly collected the sculptures in his burlap grain sack, bulging as it was with all manner of trinkets. A heavy, dusty stone door was in a small alcove between the altars, and Hadrian and Rignar stepped up to push the massive thing open. Grinding on the stone floor, the heavy slab slowly began to move. As it swept back into the dim light of the crypt, a dry, sinister rasp greeted them.
“You’ve made it to my crypt safely enough. But do you have the strength to face Sir Keegan, the Guardian of Nerath?”
Hadrian stepped into the room first, his sword held loosely in his hand, pointed to the floor. “I believe you have us mistaken for someone else, Sir Keegan. We, too, fight to defend this land, although it is called Nerath no longer.” As the others stepped into the room, Smoke caught a glimpse of the man Sir Keegan, and a hiss forced its way past his teeth,
The warrior’s crypt rested on a raised stone dais in the middle of the room, its lid askew. Sir Keegan seemed mountainous in his plate armor, the once polished plates now tarnished and dark, and in some places pitted with rust and neglect. In his hands he held a great sword, its point resting in the stone between his feet. His withered corpse was encased in the mighty armor, the seams showing broken links of chain mail that clung to his gaunt, gnarled frame. With skin like parchment stretched across his knotted muscles and bones, Sir Keegan was obviously an undead, although Smoke was wary of his apparent autonomy.
Smoke stepped around Hadrian, his sword held threateningly in front of him. No sooner had he pointed it at Sir Keegan, when suddenly the guardian leapt into motion, quickly shifting his grip on his sword until it was pointed at Smoke in turn. He stepped down one stair from his dais, his features brimming with rage as the rest of the group shifted uneasily behind Smoke and Hadrian.
His gaze fixed on Smoke, he said to Hadrian, “What do you mean ‘No longer?’”
Hadrian pushed Smoke’s sword aside, stepping closer. “The area that was once the Nerathi Empire is now known only as the Nentir Vale. We are agents of its King, his Lord Kelvin the First. He fights to restore the Vale to its previous glory.”
Smoke spat on the floor in disgust. “He is an undead. He could be working with Kalarel.”
At the mention of Kalarel, Sir Keegan snarled, stepping down once more, leaning forward as if barely restrained. He roared at Smoke, “That filthy Necromancer!? How dare you suggest such a thing! I am forever bonded to this place, to guard the Shadowfell portal that one has come here to utilize for his own nefarious gains! It is my DUTY to see that one dead or worse!”
With a grin, Smoke conceded the point. “On that, we can certainly agree. However, you are obviously some form of undead. How can I trust you?”
Regarding Smoke and Hadrian, then considering the others, Sir Keegan replied, “I do not like this one. You, Devil-blood, should leave before I punish your arrogance.”
Reaching into his cloak, Smoke produced a pipe and a small leather bag filled with exotic and aromatic weeds. He pushed through the others, spitting on the ground as he went. “I’ll be outside if you need me.” Then he slipped through the door and was gone.
Hadrian could feel the tension dissipating. Sir Keegan retreated a few steps up the dais, his sword once again resting with its point against the stone. After a moment, Hadrian continued.
“We were sent to investigate activity in the area that put us on the trail of Kalarel, the Necromancer you spoke of. We are here to stop him at all costs. Can you help us?”
Sir Keegan shook his head, his gaze resting on the floor. “Sadly, Kalarel has somehow used the energy surrounding my crypt to bind me to it. I cannot leave until he has been defeated, but even then I am still cursed to remain in the Keep. However, take my sword. It was intended to fight the forces of Orcus and the Shadowfell, and in your capable hands, I imagine it surely will.” As Hadrian took the finely crafted weapon, he imagined he could see the hint of a smile crossing Sir Keegan’s lipless face. With a humble bow of thanks, Hadrian and the others left the room.

Smoke was waiting for them as they left, Sir Keegan’s sword already stashed away in Hadrian’s collection of weapons. Knowing they still had much of the Keep to explore as they searched for Kalarel, as well as the Hobgoblins and Slavers working alongside him, the group decided to pitch camp in Sir Keegan’s crypt for the night, returning the pilfered statues to their respective altars at his behest. They slept soundly that night, their strange ally watching over them in his deathless vigil.
Return to Winterhaven
The King’s weary agents made the short trek back to Winterhaven for the evening. Upon returning to town in midday, however, they found the gates barred and the guards on edge, bristling with paranoia.
“Halt! Who goes there?” The guard called as the party crested a hill, the road sloping down into town.
Smoke instinctively dodged back into the shadows beside the road as the rest of the weary adventurers gathered at the wall to sort things out. Smoke snuck forward through the trees, listening intently.
“Undead down at the graveyard! The farmers seen them before they came in for the night, and we need to do something about it!”
“…but we can’t leave the town undefended, you see,” cut in the other guard quickly.
Smoke chuckled. He knew where this was going.
Hadrian and Rignor exchanged a glance, their shoulders sagging. Dalor smiled, clapping his hands gleefully.
Talos quickly chimed in, “Let us rest first and we shall then march on the graveyard.” Dalor’s face was a mask of sadness.

Later that same evening, Smoke was sneaking forward into the graveyard, sticking to the shadows hugging the larger mortuary buildings. The rest of the group spread out, Hadrian taking the most obvious path while Dalor and the eladrin flanked him from the cover of buildings. Smoke snuck around the corner, skidding to a halt as he saw the gruesome host before him.
“Oh..” He muttered. He stole a glance towards Hadrian, seeing the proud warrior fending off two undead hounds. As he watched, one of them leapt into the air, clamping its jaws onto Hadrian’s forearm. With a roar, Hadrian spun, throwing the dog into a zombie. His arm bleeding profusely, he turned to slash at the other dog. Turning to look in front of him, Smoke saw a handful of zombies, some still throwing off clods of freshly broken earth, surging towards him, skeletal claws outstretched.
Smoke felt the fire swelling within him again, just as the zombies charged into him, their ravenous jaws gaping wide. He took several steps back, leading the zombies on, but they quickly surrounded him, their clawed hands tearing at his burning body. Smoke collapsed to the ground, falling into a pooled shadow and reappearing a short distance away. He flickered into a shadow shape and slinked away towards his teammates, leaving the zombies lost and bewildered while his infernal flesh knitted itself together.
Meanwhile, Dalor and Erveliss blasted the zombies and skeletons clawing their way from the ground to pieces, slowly making their way around to cover the beleaguered pair of Hadrian and Rignor. The stalwart pair were back to back, rooted like a mountain as the undead smashed against them. Smoke snuck towards the melee, holding his sword high and to the side, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
“Uh, guys!” Talos called from further behind Dalor and the Eladrin. Past him could be seen a handful of hulking, rotted zombies led by a burly man wielding a huge axe and wearing an Executioner’s mask. Smoke immediately wreathed him with a shadow, teleporting through the thrashing crowd of zombies before calling down yet another. Rignor smashed through a flailing zombie, stepping over its corpse to meet the axe man head on. Hadrian kicked back a snapping zombie dog before decapitating a zombie and smashing a skeleton to dust in the same blow.
But despite the valiant offensive, the party was still hopelessly outnumbered.

Dalor leaped through the air towards a glowing blue circle etched into the ground. The arcane light was emanating from an intricate sigil, traced on the ground with what appeared to be blood.
In his mind’s eye, he could see the glory of his golden, scaled form sweeping over the battlefield. He paid the squabbling undead and little man things no heed, descending instead upon the intriguing arcane seal before him. He alighted upon the ground and stepped inside its boundaries, carefully inspecting its intricate details.
A nearby zombie turned from where it had been staring dumbly at the ground. It shambled towards Dalor, its eager need for flesh hastening it onwards. As Dalor turned, following the carefully laid lines flowing throughout the interior of the circle, he calmly flicked a bolt of chaos at the zombie. It blasted through the thing’s face, leaving its lower jaw to fall away in several pieces before exploding out the back of its head, spraying blackish fluid and flesh across the ground. It fell in a silent heap.
Suddenly, an arrow came flying from the darkness, zipping past Dalor’s head. He whipped his gaze from the circle to see an elf in darkly colored leathers hopping down from a crypt and sprinting across the open ground between him and the distant melee. As he watched, she drew another arrow and notched it on her bowstring.
Dalor roared at her, his feeble human voice giving out a dry, throaty moan. He sent a shimmering wave of force energy rippling through the air. The elf nimbly dodged, landing an arrow squarely in Dalor’s shoulder. He stumbled, then immediately tossed another spell at her while turning his mind to unraveling the circle’s magic.
With another roar, he called to the elf, “Weak little fleshling! I will punish your insolence for harming the great and mighty DALOR!”

From across the battlefield, Rignar heard Dalor calling to someone. He quickly paid it no heed as he dodged the Executioner’s axe, the weapon cutting through the air around him in great cleaving blows. He could sense the necrotic energy pervading the graveyard, and he could sense, too, that Dalor was at work unraveling it.
He rattled the creature’s axe with a series of ringing blows, driving it back before smacking his hammer into the thing’s knee. As the Executioner roared, stepping in closer with its axe raised, Smoke dropped another burst of shadow onto it. Rignar rolled away, disappearing into the shambling crowd of zombies.
The thing turned and sought a new target. As the Executioner stepped through the throng of zombies, it turned towards Hadrian, who was distracted by the leaping and snapping undead hounds. Smoke took two quick steps before leaping into the air, disappearing again into an evaporating cloud of darkness.
The Executioner raised his weapon. Hadrian kicked one dog down before throwing the second one off of him. He saw the descending blade.
Then Smoke was there to meet the blade, his sword quickly swinging the axe to the side to thud heavily into the graveyard earth. With a quick step back, Smoke cut the Executioner from shoulder to hip, his shadows coiling around the blade and leaving a darkly glowing slash across the creature’s body. It groaned and stumbled back, clutching the freezing wound.
Then Rignor came in, tackling the giant at the knees and throwing him to the ground. A solid chop of his hammer put the shambling beast down for good.
With Smoke, Hadrian and Rignor on the far side of the fight, Erveliss and Talos quickly picked off the remaining undead.

As Dalor finished unraveling the tightly bound magic in the arcane seal, the symbol began to burn away and fade. The Elf screamed at this, firing another arrow off at him, which he casually dodged with a smirk.
“Dalor the great has won, elf. Now run before I eat you.”
Fuming, the Elf turned to see Dalor’s companions coming up the path towards them. She spat at Dalor, “You may have stopped us here, but Kalarel will show you. Kalarel will show you all!” With that, she took off not for the cemetery gate, but for the spiked, wrought iron fence that surrounded it, easily fifteen feet tall. With a running leap, she scaled the fence like a spider, dropping down to the other side before disappearing into the darkness.

As Hadrian and the others made their way up the hill to Dalor, he shuffled his way to meet them, clutching at the arrow in his shoulder. In the back of his mind he continued to wonder why his own age was making his human form so weak. As Rignor and Talos dressed and cleaned the parties wounds, Smoke scouted out the rest of the graveyard, making sure that they hadn’t mssed any zombies. It seemed that with the dispersal of the sigil the power animating the zombies had simply disappeared.
Suddenly, from out in the darkness came a piercing scream. The party turned to see what was going on, and Dalor took this opportunity to set all the buildings housing the graves of the zombies ablaze. Smoke could see torches in the distance, fast approaching.
Then he saw the town guards coming up the road, several of the local militia riding behind them. As they came into the light of the burning cemetery, the heroes could see the form of a dead elf woman slung across the back of the lead horse. As the guards drew up, addressing the party of bloody, exhausted adventures reeking of rot with a smile and wink, Dalor strode out of the largest burning crypt, not even minding the fact that the hems of his tattered robes were aflame and smoldering. At the sight of the dead elf he laughed out loud, shouting, “I WON!”

Into Shadowfell Keep
Smoke huddled in the shadows, hidden on the edge of the woods near the Keep on the Shadowfell. Somewhere deep in his soul, he could feel the cold pulse of the Shadowfell portal beating deep beneath the earth where he stood. As he waited, his hood perched awkwardly on his backward sweeping horns, he softly stroked the inside of his cloak, emblazoned as it was with the sigil of his chosen goddess, the Raven Queen.

He silently whispered the words to a short prayer, and he felt the dark powers pervading the area responding to his will. He continued meditating, and as he waited, he reached into the shadow of his soul and stirred the energy around him. He could feel a slight warmth suffusing the edge of the invisible network of necrotic wisps. The group he had been waiting for was coming into view, tramping off the traveled dirt road and standing before the great double doors leading into the keep. Their cloaks hung heavy on their shoulders, and Smoke was more than ready to begin their hunt. With a smile, he pulled the summoned energies around him, disappearing in a small puff of darkness.

Hadrian Markhelay stabbed his greatsword into the thick, loamy mud surrounding the Keep on the Shadowfell. He looked up at it’s leaning, creaking mass, like a miserable old creature that had far outlived it’s lifespan and simply refused to die.

Hadrian turned to see his current acquaintances. The old dwarf, Rignar, was busy kicking the thick mud off his fine metal-shod boots, while the human artificer was stepping lightly, almost hopping, to solid ground, carefully keeping his mechanical, bronzed leg held above the mud. Behind them, the two mages stepped up next to Hadrian just as he was turning around. The human, a harmless looking old man clad in simple farmer’s clothes and carrying a crooked cane, maneuvered meanderingly, his eyes darting about in an almost paranoid fashion. The golden haired eladrin, Erveliss, glided swiftly and silently across the muck, his fine robes safely above the soggy ground.

Suddenly, darkness seemed to fall around him, and in that moment a tiefling clad in dark, studded leathers and a heavy cloak stepped from the shadows. Just as quickly, the darkness disappeared, but the tiefling remained.

With a grunt, Hadrian peeled his greataxe off his back, leaving his sword stabbed into the ground. In one swift motion he was crashing it down on top of the tiefling. The mages stepped away from Hadrian and this possible threat, preparing spells. The tiefling dodged back, then suddenly seemed to flicker behind a sudden veil. Like a shadow, it slinked back, closer to the door, before reverting back to his own form, hands held in front of him.
“I was sent by his eminence, Lord of the Vale, King Kelvin, to aid you in your journey into the Keep. I am a friend of Raiza’s.”

Hadrian looked at him suspiciously. Behind him, the three arcanists waited quietly. Hadrian knew they were already examining the Tiefling through all manner of arcane ways. With a small nod, the eladrin gestured to Rignar and Hadrian, bidding them to go on.
Hadrian shrugged.
Rignar called out, “Who are you?”
Smoke threw back his hood. “They call me Smoke. I‘m an agent of the King.”
Rignar exchanged a glance with Hadrian before continuing, “An’ you work for the King?”
Smoke shrugged. “In a manner, I suppose.”
Rignar laughed. “Gonna need t’be a bit more specific than that, devil-kin.”
Smoke glared at the dwarf for only a second, before continuing, “We can talk about this later, but we really should get inside before your artificer friend here breaks something. This weather is terrible on metals of all kinds.”

Hadrian heartily agreed to that, and moved towards the door, the rest of the group in tow. Smoke followed them in, and the door closed behind them…

The group of strangers and acquaintances stepped into the dim Keep, it’s entry hall leaning slightly to one side, throwing the entire room into a macabre array of strangely angled lines. Somewhere within they could hear the faint drip of the encroaching rain outside. Smoke stepped forward, his smoldering eyes sweeping the room, while Hadrian and the others fanned out in a different direction. As Smoke moved further into the darkness, his eyes caught a trace of movement, nothing more than a slight flicker in the shadows, but Smoke reached for his sword regardless.
Dalor’s voice whispered softly in his mind. Do you see anything, Lvarr?
Smoke’s face twitched involuntarily. That’s not my name. And I think so. Hold on. He continued watching the darkness, eyes trained to any sign of movement.
Then, suddenly, he threw his arm out to his left, as if casting a net. A shadowy cord materialized into the air, trailing off into the shadows. It went taut, and Smoke pulled sharply. He heard a sharp crack, then the lifeless body of a large rat came flying out of the darkness, landing at his feet. It’s fur was matted with blood and grime, it’s over large teeth bared in a silent snarl.
Rats! He called through the mind link.
What is it? Came Dalor’s reply.
As if in reply, Smoke heard the strangled cry of a rat from the other side of the room.
Oh. Rats, you say?

Smoke appeared next to Dalor in a puff of chilly darkness. “What’s going on?”
Dalor motioned for Smoke to be silent, as the Eladrin and the Artificer spread out behind them. The dwarf was moving forward, Hadrian at his side, his massive sword held high and ready. Dead rats lay slumped against the walls, or bleeding and broken on the ground behind them.
Smoke sank into a crouch and moved through the shadows around them. Then, a few strides ahead of Hadrian and Rignar, he saw an amber pool of liquid sloshing in the darkness. He moved forward to see what was thrashing around in it, when suddenly it erupted from the floor, throwing desiccated rat bones across the room with a chorus of dry rattles. It swelled and rose higher, till it’s gelatinous mass almost scraped the ceiling. It waved to and fro before surging in Smoke’s direction.

A tendril grew from it’s side, gaining momentum as it slapped at Smoke. He raised his sword to block the attack, and the arm simply splashed around it, spattering Smoke’s face and body with a shower of acidic droplets. He recoiled with a hiss of pain, disappearing into shadows as Hadrian and Rignar charged forwards.

He collapsed to the ground next to Talos as Dalor and Erveliss leaped forward and began unleashing a flurry of magical attacks on the acidic jelly. Meanwhile, Hadrian raised his sword with a roar, driving it into the creature again and again. Rignar smashed it with his hammer, but the creature’s body simply absorbed the blows, bending and flexing and flowing as the combat intensified.

Slapping at the acid frantically, Smoke started thrashing on the ground. Talos leaned down and shouted urgently. “What’s that over there!?”
As Smoke turned to look, he felt a sharp prick in his neck, followed by a soothing wave of warmth that flowed through his body. The acid dispersed, and he could feel his charred skin re-knitting over the fresh wounds. Smoke looked up to see Talos grinning.
“You’re welcome. Now start fighting like everybody else.” With that, he stood and unleashed a burst of electricity from a small box, decorated with arcane glyphs and crackling with barely contained power. Smoke thought he heard a faint growl from it, punctuated with hisses and meows.

Dalor reached Rignar, dropping a hand on his shoulder. “Come with me.”
And before the old Dwarf could protest, they were flying through the air, circling the massive jelly and landing quickly on the other side. Rignar landed in an unceremonious heap, while Dalor landed lightly, as if none of what had happened so far shocked or surprised him in the least. With a silent word, he sent a bolt of energy knifing into the jelly. It sank deep into the creature’s soft center, before suddenly bisecting the creature completely.

Hadrian took a step back in surprise, and the rest of the group froze uncertainly. Then, the two halves surged forward as one, and the fight was on again. Hadrian and Rignar rained blows on the acidic pests, while Smoke danced around the two creatures, hitting them where they were most exposed. Within moments they had collapsed to the ground, and the Eladrin carefully inspected the smoldering remains. He nodded to the group, and everyone breathed a nervous sigh of relief. Hadrian clapped Smoke on the shoulder. “Good job, new guy.”
Talos walked past in a hurry, a roughly sketched map in his hands. “Yeah. Not to bad, Smiles.”
Smoke swept his sword to the ground, flinging the last remaining drops of jelly to the ground before sheathing it. With a sly grin and an accepting nod, he went off to search the room.

Hadrian followed Talos, keeping an eye on the slighter man as he mapped the halls and rooms of the Keep for the local wizard Nimizorran the Green. Smoke went down the passage he had seen earlier, where he had fought the rats. He found a large, heavy door covered with strange blue fungus, words of warning smeared into its surface. He returned to the party, and they carefully scouted out the area, choosing a rotting set of double doors that led deeper into the Keep. Smoke followed up the rear as they descended the slick stone staircase.
“Get back here!” Smoke yelled, yanking his shadow noose tight around the throat of a retreating Kruthik. It’s strangled yelp was cut short as the shadowy weapon completely decapitated the creature. The head skidded across the dusty flagstones to rest at his feet, the body still twitching.

Further down the hall, Hadrian drove his boot heel into the skull of another Kruthik, crushing it flat. Bloodied but undeterred, Hadrian grunted at the dead creature and spat on the ground. “Better luck next time, monster.”
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, the group had encountered a small nest of Kruthik, and after a brief scuffle, sent them running from their nest. Finding nothing of any particular interest, they moved back to the door Smoke had discovered earlier, it’s mildewed surface bearing the words STAY OUT. After carefully inspecting the door, they pushed it open and quietly slipped inside.

The room on the other side was mostly flooded, except for a small island of raised earth near the center of the room, a goblinoid form lying facedown next to a small chest. The group paused to consider the room, the air heavy with a sharp, ammonia-like scent.
“Excuse me.”
Talos pushed past his comrades, his sketched map in hand. Distracted as he was, he didn’t seem to notice the water swelling as he neared it.
Hadrian did, however. He stepped forward to grab at Talos. “Wait!” He cried.
It was to late. Talos’ foot slipped into the edge of the water, and reflexively, a pseudopod rose from its brackish surface to swat Talos aside. He hit the ground hard, and Hadrian and Rignar charged in immediately, weapons ready. A word of power flew from Rignar’s cracked lips, and the air shimmered as a shield of iridescent protection materialized around the party. Erveliss and Dalor grabbed Talos and dragged him away from the monster.

Hadrian raised his weapon, smashing the pseudopod back into the water. For a moment there was silence. Then suddenly, the entire pool of water rose into the air, groaning and moaning with a voice like a rushing river. The elemental creature swatted at the adventurers with stinging, acidic fists.

Smoke took a deep breath, feeling power raging inside him, swelling with the heat of a furnace. Embers flew from his flesh, swirling with the eddies of shadow that constantly swarmed his body. His muscles bulged and his horns grew larger, his body growing as fire burned from his eyes and mouth. With a roar, he called shadows down onto the raging elemental before leaping forward to strike it, his shadow charged sword slicing deep into its gelid form. Hadrian and Rignar shrank from the proximity of the blow, shocked by the sudden outburst of hellish power Smoke was now unleashing. Regardless, they returned to their work.

Hadrian dropped his sword to the ground, drawing forth his great axe and landing a barrage of powerful blows against the creature. Rignar continued muttering prayers to Moradin and shouting words of power over the tumult of the battle. Meanwhile, Erveliss and Dalor rained sorcery and arcane power onto it, Talos urgently hobbling back and forth, trying to avoid the elemental’s attacks while administering his strange curative transfusions. They began pushing forward, confident in their victory.

Then the elemental exploded, filling the room with a stinging acidic spray that through everyone to the ground. Smoke growled, slipping into his shadow form while his fiendish flesh regenerated. Hadrian grunted and rolled around, Rignar rubbing at his eyes as the stinging water sputtered and sizzled in their flesh and armor. Talos had miraculously escaped most of the attack, and he quickly ran to Hadrian, jabbing him with a glowing vial. Dalor and Erveliss climbed to their feet wearily. Meanwhile, the elemental coalesced once again in the middle of the room, frothing and seething with rage.

With a sound like a crashing waterfall, it surged forward, the cacophony of its attack answered by the defiant cries of Hadrian and Rignar. They met with an audible crash, the others’ support practically holding them rooted to the ground. Meanwhile, Smoke stepped through the Shadow Fringe, reappearing behind the elemental as the last of his shadows fell upon it. With a bloodthirsty grin, he stabbed his sword deep into the monster, his shadows sinking through its translucent flesh to wreathe his blade in a nimbus of obsidian energy. Groaning, the elemental listed to the side.

With a flourish, Smoke withdrew his blade, leaping into the air with a burst of dark flames and shadows, his sword now a massive cleaver of shadows raised above his head. With a roar he drove it deep into the monster’s back, the blade freezing its liquid form from within. As its dying cries rang throughout the keep, the shadows on his blade exploded outwards, sending chunks of ice flying about the room. As the shadows cleared, Smoke could be seen, his tired form slowly shrinking to normal. Looking up, his eyes met Hadrian’s and Rignar’s, and he quickly looked away. “We should be moving on.” He said before slipping out the door.
Looking to Rignar, who merely shrugged, Hadrian watched their new friend leave before considering just what his appearance represented.

Padraig's Cult
Into Kobold Hall
The Kobold Lair
The Burial Site

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