A Long Walk

Chapter One: A Forgotten Shoreline

Theme Song: Bleed Well by H.I.M.
Four adventurers awake amid shipwrecks and corpses on the shore of a vile, murky river. Cleaning the oily black muck from themselves, they find each other among the dead. There's one problem – no one can remember who they are or why they're here. Scavenging among the devastated wasteland ashore, they encounter three small, filthy, bulbous apelike creatures and readily dispatch these aggressors. The battle barely complete, eight more blobs of vaguely humanoid flesh descend and try to claw the makeshift allies apart, but the adventurers readily dispatch the feckless monsters by the sword.

Searching through their belongings, each adventurer finds an item reminding of their name:

"To Erthim Sadu, to commemorate 25 years of service to the Watchful Order of Heimdall" is etched on the ornate Horn of Heimdall holy symbol carried by a veteran paladin.

An elven mage opens his spellbook to the first page to find the preface signed by Lin Brightleaf. He happily introduces himself to his new friends.

Some are less trusting. An elven rogue discovers a muck-soaked letter in one pocket, barely legible, and slips it discreetly back into his pocket, introducing himself simply as Ivellios.

The ranger Bren Grassglow finds his name artfully embossed into a fine leather quiver, containing the bow gifted to him by some forgotten community of elves.

The party spends hours trekking by foot to the edge of the horrific battlefield, piled full of burning and destroyed war machines, and dead and mangled creatures of every description. Desensitized to the product of such profound violence, the party manage to scavenge some valuable magic items, and a few potions from a Pelor clergyman who died in a state of desperation. Finally reaching the edge of the massacre, the adventurers turn west to follow the desecrated river upstream. Bren swears he heard something following them, but in the wide open wasteland, nothing can be seen, nor is there any potential cover for a stalker to hide behind. The group pitches camp for the first night on the open wasteland.

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Stalked...

The party sets their first camp, with each watch experiencing the sounds of footsteps at the edge of camp, but seeing nothing in the gray wasteland. Waking the next morning tired and irritable, the party continues the march westward along the banks of the black and poisoned river. Among the ruined wasteland, the party encounters four quadrupedal beasts constructed from bones of various men and beasts. Luckily, Bren quickly discovered the beasts as magical constructs, an enemy he abhorred and so trained to fight with great effect. Despite the creatures' bony carapaces shedding off all but the most direct blows from swords, the adventurers defeated them, with Erthim bashing the last one to pieces with his shield. Bren and Ivellios had suffered light wounds from the gnashing bone creatures, but Erthim laid on hands to heal his new cohorts.

After a long day's walk (seemingly in circles at times), the blasted and rocky terrain gave way to a gray desert-like sand, rolling gently away from the riverbank. Setting camp amid a few scraggly trees, Erthim's watch was again interrupted by what sounded like a creature's soft footsteps stalking their camp from the direction they'd come. During Bren's third watch, however, a visible assailant appeared in the fog that had rolled in from the putrefied shoreline luckily, the ever-lit, dim gray sky provided enough light to make out the silhouette…

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Chapter Two: Over Waves of Dirt

Theme Song: Six Days by Cellar Darling
The party are ambushed by a shriveled, distended, Gollum-like creature with long clawed fingers as they try to rest. Bren awakes his fellow adventurers, and the snarling black creature charges in. The creature resists the initial attacks with its thick dessicated hide, but eventually Bren and Erthim land some blows… only to be wracked by waves of searing pain with each successful hit. The scrawny creature's claws and gnashing teeth do little to avail the warriors' armor, but the blood-curdling aura tears the adventurers apart from within, shortly knocking poor Lin unconscious.

After a little help from a friend, Lin escapes within an inch of his life, only to have to turn and rescue Ivellios who has collapsed as he tried to escape the creature's unholy aura. Erthim and Bren eventually finish the creature, but the party is battered and takes time to recuperate.

After another half day of travel, the party encounter a bombed-out stone hovel and investigate. Lin and Erthim reach out with magic to sense the evil auras emanating from the hut, while Ivellios sneaks up close and suddenly doubles over in pain… again. Skirting the premises and giving the hut a wide berth, the others draw out two more of the loathsome creatures while Ivellios retreats. Shrugging off attacks (including a fireball), the creatures intentionally rake each other to harm the party with their searing auras, all the while healing the wounds inflicted. After toying with the creatures at range, Erthim and Bren take turns swooping in for a one-two punch that finally kills both of the fiends.

The team investigate the house to find the remains of the fiends' last meals… including one of the corpulent flesh-blob creatures from before, lying half- eaten on the remaining floor boards. Gathering the gremlins' gold and a potion, the party puts a little distance between them and the hut, suspecting other enemies may know if its location. Another camp passes without much incident, but for Bren hearing the stalking footsteps once again.

The rest of the party, already aggravated and in a poor mood, accuses Bren of being crazy despite their similar experiences. Setting out again, the journey along the riverbank drives the team into an increasingly thick morass. Fumbling their way through the fog, they come upon a small stone tomb. Bren hears something sloshing about in the swampwater, and Erthim is sure it's evil…

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Asking for Misdirections

Out of the tomb surge three zombielike undead creatures, who swing at the party with their clawed hands, trying to be the first to drink of the adventurers' life energy. The party quickly dispatched them by the blade with barely any wounds. After debating over the trapped and locked mausoleum, Ivellios slinks in past the security to sack the gold treasure littered among the petrified corpses.

Fumbling through the mists near the tomb, the party comes upon a disheveled hut suspended on stilts above the mire. The roof of the hut appears to be made of the skin of flayed creatures, including recognizably humanoid faces, and numerous fetishes, charms, and shrunken heads adorn the exterior. The adventurers climb the rope ladder to sate their curiosity, and find the hut filled with the morbid and repulsive ephemera of rituals of blood sacrifice and dark magics. Lin's knowledge of the arcane leads him to believe that the witch who resides here participates in some sort of dream related magics. Erthim takes great offense at the depraved and profane nature of the place and demands the party aid him in destroying the cottage. However, the would-be avengers find themselves at a loss when the hut appears to be resistant to the flame of torches, and a fireball from Lin does little more than flutter the curtains. Giving up, the party continues on to make camp a safe distance away.

Erthim offers to take up additional watch duties for Bren and Lin, who balk at continuing, arguing the pointlessness of taking watch for creatures that will likely ambush them anyway. The problem is amplified the following morning, with Bren and Ivellios both seeming ever more out-of-sorts, complaining and only begrudgingly continuing the journey. The party eventually happens upon some wolves with goblin-like faces and ears, who initially use magic to try and charm Ivellios and Bren. Failing that, they resort to hit-and-run tactics, darting in and out of the swampy mists. Despite swearing that some of the dogs have been defeated, more appear from the haze to harass the weaker members of the group. The rouse becomes clear: not all of the lupine creatures are real – some are illusions intended to confuse and divide their prey. Some lucky shots and a dose of skepticism Erthim leads them to defeat the creatures, but not before the adventurers find themselves with some chew marks. The party gather what valuables the dogs had as the corpses revert to a more goblinoid form, and they continue the drudgery through the swamp.

Not long after, the party comes upon another dead dog-goblin… this one has been picked apart for food. A harpylike creature swoops from the sky to rake its three clawed arms at Bren! The winged hag swoops and wheels, as Erthim, Bren, and Lin take potshots to no avail. Finally, the creature descends to engage Erthim, hoping to knock him out of the fight. Lin thinks fast and nails the bitch with a Tanglefoot Bag, preventing her from lifting off to safety. The party swordsmen fill her body with steel, recovering a magic sword and some magic slippers of Spider Climb for their troubles.

As the marching-day ends, the party pitches camp, with a little ale and gambling to celebrate their achievements. However, Bren and Ivellios obstinately refuse to take watch duties once more. Erthim cooks up the plan to restore order by withholding water – as the party's only source of the diminishing resource. Lin is roused from his studies by a shimmer near the edge of the camp. He uses magic to finally see their invisble stalker – a creature like a large lion. After a silent standoff, Lin uses a thunderstone to awake the party, scaring off the feline in the process. The next morning, Erthim asserts himself to Ivellios and Bren, convincing them that the division of labors is for the best of all involved.

Finally clearing the godforsaken morass, Bren catches sight of a paved road to the north, running along the river which had turned up and away from the party's tack. There's a problem – it's occupied. Hiding behind rocks and shrubs, they observe the march of a company of troops – humanoid, seven feet tall, tongues dripping with poison, and bearing a shiny carapace like a beetle's. The staunch-looking soliders march behind their leader. who wields an impressive-looking obsidian poleaxe…

 

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From Bumf**k-Ass-Invisible-Cat-Nowhere... To Somewhere.

The party decide it wiser to not engage the traveling troops, being outnumbered 5:1. They wait in silence until the company is well out of hearing before resuming their tack along the road. Bren tries to track their movement down the road, but the oppressive nature and his failing confidence in the party's survival makes it ever more difficult. After a long day's march, the party gives chase and decides to camp.
Ivellios is on watch when he's suddenly pounced upon by an invisible feline assailant. The Hellcat rakes his body to ribbons of fleshwith its powerful claws, nearly killing him. The others awake to his screams of agony, and immediately try to ward off the beast. Lin quickly tends to Ivellios while the others engage. With no way to see and Lin's spells exhausted for the day, the party struggles to land solid hits on the deadly beast.
Finally, Lin blasts an acid arrow into the creature, giving a some marker to its position as the glowing magical arrow remains to administer its toxins. The cat scrambles up a nearby cliff and mounts the summit as Bren and Erthim take their best potshots with bows. Lin gives up in utter frustration at their inability to deal more effectively with the threat, muttering about being forever lost in the "bumf**k-ass-invisible-cat-nowhere". The beast eventually leaps down and tries to make a break for safety as the party gain the upper hand, but gets cocky and attacks the split-up search party. Bren finally shoots the creature down, its corpse becoming barely visible as Ivellios comes to investigate. The rest of the party goes to bed while Ivellios begins to carve into the foul creature, hoping to make an invisible cloak. The companions sleep, troubled by dreams that may give a glimmer of past lives.
The next morning finds Ivellios covered in the fell beast's blood and with no recollection of the encounter. Lin uses a sample of the blood to determine it is similar to the composition of the river in which they awoke…
The party sets out again the next day, hoping to follow the company of troops to their destination. Bren thinks for sure he's lost the track, when suddenly a scouting detachment of the tall, chitinous warriors comes into view. The party prepares an ambush, hoping to isolate the creatures from summoning their comrades. The battle starts with a blaze as the adventurers charge from behind some rocks and pulverize two of the troops. The final one flies into a rage, growing to a massive 10 feet tall by his own power before the party puts him down like a dog.
After another uneventful camp, Erthim's plan of trading watches for water has convinced the party to pull their own load, and downright impressed Ivellios who becomes somewhat smitten with the Paladin's wise leadership. Despite this, the bleak hopelessness of the unhallowed land begins to crack Ivellios' psyche, draining his verve until his skin takes on a sickly pallor. Erthim is finally acutely aware of his companion's growing illness, and uses a Restoration spell to reinvigorate Ivellios' battered psyche. He realizes everyone has been damaged by this place, and plans to offer his ministries to the others.
Finally, as the party travels through the suddenly-trackless wasteland (the road having disappeared overnight), a small village ensconced in palisades comes into view, hidden in a depression in the flat and endless wastes. The party approaches, acknowledged by the tower guards, and enters the quiet berg. The streets are nearly empty, but one laborer appears and introduces himself as Tlanhitle. He offers to take the party to meet the mayor.
As they speak with Tlanhitle, the barely-visible, incorporeal shades of the dead gather around the unfamiliar strangers like moths to a flame. Slightly unsettled, the party agree to meet the community leader Agamedes, a handsome, middle-aged Mediterranean-looking man. He welcomes them to Chaméno Méros, a secluded and secret community of no more than 500 corporeal people, protected from the harmful effects and hostile outsiders by powerful magic. Impressed at their survival in the wastes, he directs them to the local in, and the are almost giddy to finally be getting some answers.
Arriving at the inn, they are greeted by a local missionary of Epona named Roswitha. Erthim takes the opportunity to question her, and discovers they're in a place called Oinos, and she is full of warnings to leave as soon as possible. Her order sends missionaries to Chaméno Méros on rotations of not more than a couple weeks. She tells Erthim of the town's permanent residents, including the shifty Tlanhitle, and the well-connected but questionable tavern owner Dagania. She explains that there is a nearby portal in the marshes, though it leads to Niflheim, which Erthim recognizes from his own fate as a place no less corrupt and desecrated than Oinos. The better option, Roswitha insists, would be to use Dagania's connections to get passage by river to a fiery, mountainous place called Krangath. The rest of the party make use of the local merchants to replenish and upgrade their supplies, and Erthim holds a team meeting to explain all he's learned from Roswitha.

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Chapter Three: Unending Nightmare

Theme Song: Get Out Alive by Three Days Grace

The party prepares to find their way out of Oinos at the missionary Roswitha's urging. Per recommendation, they make contact with the dubious old tavern keeper, Dagania. Knowing the tavern keeper is both important to the security and secrecy of the village, but also possibly of sinister intent, the party engage in a very guarded negotiation in the privacy Dagania's backroom kitchen. There, she offers to put the party in touch with a contact who can transport them to Krangath, but of course she demands a price. She explains that the Battleloths the party encountered on the road were hired to transport a shipment of larvae – the wormlike vessels housing the tortured souls of those consigned to suffer their spiritual fate in the wastes. Larvae are currency, she explains, desired by many here to use in unholy rituals or for other sacrificial purposes. The party can exchange four living Larvae for Dagania's contact. But she insists they hurry, as there is competition in the local dark magic business.

Erthim and Bren object to the trafficking of souls for the profit of evil, so Dagania bargains to have the larvae not reach her competitor, a black dragon in the marshes named Wuvroth. Unable to seek him out herself, Dagania offers an alternate payment of Wuvroth's head on a platter. Wuvroth wants to find Chaméno Méros and despoil it for his own purposes, and though he is powerful, she incentivizes his demise by consigning any of his possessions, even his dragonscale hide, to the party. Dagania shoos them out of the kitchen and demands they come back with either the dragon's head or the four cursed Larvae – lest they plan on residing in Chaméno Méros for a while.

After a final resupply, the party set out for the wastes once again. Within a couple of hours, Chaméno Méros lies beyond sight behind them. The wisdom of leaving the safety of the town is debated against Lin's driving urge to escape Oinos forever. Suddenly, the party are set upon by the thundering of hooves. Two nightmares, hooves and manes ablaze, appear on the horizon, bearing down on the travelers, who quickly huddle behind a rock formation to hide. The nightmares bolt past the rock, but one spots the hiding adventurers and wheels around to attack. The fight quickly devolves into a standing slugfest, capped by the nightmares engaging in vulgar telepathic taunts and curses with Erthim as one kicks him so hard as to dent his armor. Besting the first and eventually second hell-horse, Erthim tries to glean information about the nightmares' employer, but the wicked animal would rather die – and rips at its own neck to bleed out. The beasts decay into the gray earth with unnatural speed.

Some time later, the adventurers encounter a small earthen hut in the wastes. Barging inside, Ivellios is met with a wasted husk of a man. Once clearly a warrior, he babbles in an ancient and unknown tongue. Erthim enters and uses magic to allow the man to communicate in common. He introduces himself as Urshanabi, a captain and shield bearer for the great king Samsu-Iluna of Māt Akkadī, a place "between the rivers". He seems confused, and says he has been here longer than he can remember – trapped in a wicked trick whereby he was punished for a false accusation of harboring escaped slaves. The punishment in his society should have been death, and he cannot recount how he came to be here instead. Having told his story, he demands justice and absolution before his god Marutuk. He indicates his ancient bronze sickle-sword on a table in the hut, and begs to be executed by that blade. Bren and Erthim object, hoping to provide the tortured man succor, but Ivellios is happy to comply, and takes Urshanabi's head when he offers it on his sleeping mat, uttering his last wish that his sword be taken and carried away from this place. While Erthim tries to provide Urshanabi's corpse with his best guess of an honorable burial, Ivellios and Lin discover his blade to be enchanted with moderately powerful magic, although of inferior quality to ordinary steel weapons.

The party leave the scene behind them, traveling for a time in silence before reaching the edge of the marshes. A short wave in, Ivellios scouts ahead to some noises in the fog, only to be struck with the same waves of sudden pain he's experienced before. Once again, the party is confronted by two Jovocs – the wretched devils whose sadism reflects any injury back to all those around them. The fight is quick and painful, and the party decides to immediately rest and recoup after being ravaged by the despicable savages. Another day passes in the wastes, and the party already feeling the sickness of Oinos biting and sinking back in to their minds and bodies.

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A Fortunate Chain of Events

As the party venture once more into the bogs, they are misled by some mysterious lights right into a Jovoc ambush. Ivellios is wounded before the others catch up to buy him reprieve. Ivellios falls back from the combat, studying the thrice-battled fiends carefully, a cold and calculating anger seething below the surface. As Erthim and Bren dispatch with one of the fiends at great personal pain, Ivellios sneaks up behind the other demon and exactingly carves out everything of value in the creature's neck, killing it instantly.

After a long trudge and a short camp, they continue deeper into the morass. They are once again led on by phantom noises, but this time it is the jangling of chains in the foggy distance. The noises at times circle the intrepid adventurers, leading Lin to become increasingly nervous. After a while, Lin spots something hanging from a tree through the mist… cages and bodies, suspended by chains. As Erthim investigates, one of the bodies – far from dead, drops down and attacks by whipping with the chains draped all over its body. The party quickly realize the creature has a company of animated chains at its service, whipping, flailing, and tripping at the characters. The Chain Devil wields its weapons well, but after the party all hone in and discover his weakness to holy water, the tides of battle turn against him. He uses his chains to lift him high above their heads into the safety of a treetop, but a shot from Lin's flask thrower douses him with enough holy water to end the assault. Without his direction, all the chains fall lifeless to the ground.

Finding little of value, the party continue on foot for a couple more hours knowing that time is against them. The swampwater rising slowly to their ankles. the adventurers stumble upon the first of their possible objectives: the Larvae. From a pit of gurgling black muck, five horrid creatures have emerged, with the tormented faces of men and bodies of giant maggots. They writhe around in the tar, permanently dumbstruck in their agony. Erthim realizes that they are not all inherently evil souls, but before the debate of the merits of trafficking the tortured creatures go on too long, Ivellios grabs one and destroys it with his sword, the guts spilling out like a cut wet paper bag. Erthim sees the mercy in ending their eternal torture, even though it will mean completing the far more difficult geas of slaying Wuvroth as a token for Dagania. Lin objects, preferring to take the expedient path to get out of Hades, but he is overruled as the others kill the rest of the larvae.

The party set up camp a couple hours further in to the swamp. On watch, Erthim spots a caravan moving some sort of wagon, traveling against the direction of the adventurers. Erthim alerts the others, and they decide to track the caravan. The traveling troops lead the party right back to the location of the Larva-fissure, where the sturdy Lieutenant of the company is more than dismayed to find no Larva. He sends most of his 20 troops to search for any larva in the area. The party watches and waits, then stage a showdown with the Lieutenant and his two guards. Despite a fearsome charge, the party cut down the soldiers, picking off the search parties as they return one by one to answer the Lieutenant's battle cry.

To celebrate their victory, Lin introduces his new spell: a sturdy shelter in which the party can rest high and dry to recharge for the challenges to come.

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Out for Blood

With Lin's murderous and greedy intent leading them through the twisted wastes of Oinos, the party continue to march for Wuvroth's lair. Having destroyed the Larvae which would have made the alternate payment for Dagania's demands. Plodding the swamps for a couple hours, the party are set upon a pair of scorpion-tailed, hyena-like Abyssal Ravagers. The Ravagers get the jump on Ivellios, stinging him with their vicious tails and incapacitating him with their poison. Erthim and the others rush in to combat and dispatch the filthy canine beasts, but not before one stings Erthim, sapping his strength as well.

Lin comes to the aid of his helpless comrade. Loading him on to a levitating disc until Erthim can cure his grievous poison injuries. After resting for an extended period to recover their literal and figurative strength, the party sets out once more to hunt the black dragon.

After slogging through waist-deep swampwater, the party halts as Erthim signals the presence of a powerful evil aura. The party deduce the dragon to be asleep in a deeper part of the bog, but Bren crashes around after failing to be stealthy, and Wuvroth is awoken, immediately surfacing from the swamp in front of Lin. Luckily, the party was mostly prepared and have the jump on the beast.

Despite this, Wuvroth opens the combat by blasting Lin flat on his ass and searing Bren with his acid breath weapon. The party tear into the black dragon, pulling no punches. As the battle rages, Wuvroth taunts and questions the adventurers' sanity for attacking him on his home terrain. He quickly deduces that his nemesis Dagania sent them, and they are foolish enough to follow her suggestion. Bren and Ivellios take potshots at the perched dragon with their bows while Erthim rushes to help Lin, and Wuvroth atrophies Erthim with a Ray of Enfeeblement. With Lin back on his feet, Wuvroth swoops in for the kill, pummeling Bren with his teeth, claws, and wings, and whips Ivellios with his mighty tail. As Wuvroth continues to taunt, Erthim gets his attention by verbally degrading Dagania, trying to appeal to the mighty beast's even mightier ego. Wuvroth continues to battle Bren and Ivellios, leaving Erthim to try to reel him in diplomatically. Despite the brawl, Wuvroth seems interested to offer the party a deal for leading him to the village of Chameno Meros.

Meanwhile, Ivellios remarks "It's too bad dragons lack creativity." Wuvroth doesn't take to the remark kindly, and turns on Ivellios, nearly tearing him apart under a flurry of blows. Erthim continues to try to hold Wuvroth's attention, hoping to draw the heat from the embattled and vulnerable rogue. By now, Wuvroth is in a bad mood and bowls right over Bren to engage Erthim for his insolence. Erthim shouts that Wuvroth is unwise to lust for power and wealth, as he smites the dragon with his sword. Still on his feet, Wuvroth contines to rage and ravage the intrepid paladin, but the concentrated flurry of blows from the whole party finally have Wuvroth on the ropes. He tries to fly and recoup, but Bren leaps up after him and delivers the fatal blow.

The party gather around the fallen creature, debating on how best to find the location of his hoard. After some debate on whether to rouse the dying Wuvroth, Bren reasons that it is unlikely he would reveal the location of his wealth, and Erthim delivers the coup d'grace. Bren and Lin set at once to dismembering the beast for its hide (and Lin collects more than a little of its blood), while Ivellios and Erthim slog out into the swamp to find its lair. Eventually, Erthim locates the lair underwater in the deepest part of the filthy bog. As he explores the multi-chambered burrow, Ivellios follows him in and the two load up hundreds of pounds of coin and other treasure.

By the time they return, Bren and Lin have almost finished butchering the dragon, and the party sets up camp in Lin's magical cabit, assured that other enemies will stay away from the dragon's known territory. The next day, they set out toward town once more, with Bren falling ill under the plane's pernicious energies along the way.

Upon arriving back in the relative safety of Chameno Meros, Agamedes pulls them aside to inform them that their ally Roswitha has been murdered.

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A Pittance for the Boatman

Theme song: The Islander by Nightwish

Shocked at the death of the only friendly soul known to them, the party seek answers but find none. Agamedes is tight-lipped about the circumstances of her death. Erthim hopes to speak with Roswitha's associate Alpinula, but she is distraught and under lock and guard. Erthim takes the matter to the town guard captain Garros Amris, who agrees to allow Erthim and company visitation if they promise not to bring up the murder out of consideration for the grieving Alpinula.

Upon visiting Alpinula, they find her quite despondent, but still offering of services and supplies. After completing their business, they ask if there is any service they could perform for her, but she says they can likely do nothing that hasn't already been done, short of traveling to her home, Gallia, and delivering the news themselves. Helpless to change the facts, the party resolve to finish their business in Chaméno Méros and be on their way.

They present Wuvroth's head, still floating on Lin's magic disk, to Dagania after being invited to her office. Suspecting trouble, Erthim warily studies her every word, but believes her only motive to be getting rid of the do-gooders that may tilt the balance of power in her secretive community. Dagania is ready to lead them away at once. They travel by foot for nearly half a day before she delivers them to a small pier on the River Styx where a boatman awaits in a long, low gondola. The party tries to say their goodbyes to Dagania, but she rebuffs them and states she wishes to never cross them again.

As they try to board the boat, its gaunt, silent ferryman bars them and demands payment either in souls or gold. Of course, they select gold. The boatman states a price of 500 gold pieces per soul after Lin explains they intend to travel to Krangath. Despite the considerable cost of steerage, Lin remarks "to get away from this place? A pittance!" They place their payments into the boatman's outstretched hand and board the small vessel.

As the ferryman silently steers and poles the gondola down the river, the party gaze out at the waters, seeing the ghostly and deformed souls of the damned writhing and twisting just below the surface of the murky waters. They decide to take watches, needing rest after a long and eventful day. As Erthim watches, the blasted and swampy wasteland slips away behind them, and a gray, frozen taiga takes its place at the riverbanks. The watch passes to Bren, who bundles and braces himself against the biting cold, seeing naught of living creatures, save the occasional howl of a distant wolf. Tired, cold, and soulsick, Bren can no longer fight off sleep and slips off into a dreamless slumber.

Ivellios and Lin awake, somewhat suddenly, and look around. They are no longer on the boat – the whole party has been left ashore near another pier in some other place. Certainly not Oinos, but the gray, featureless sky indicates it's still some part of Hades. They wake the others, and bicker about why they have not been delivered to their intended destination. Erthim sees the folly in such discussions with no information to go on, and delivers a rousing speech to rally his friends to continue their journey by foot if need be.

Channeling his religious studies, Erthim recalls this place as Pluton, yet another layer of a home of wicked dead. Pluton's rolling, rocky hills and copses of dying poplar and willow are a sight for sore eyes, despite the continued malaise. They set off down a woodland path, diverging to crest a tall hill and get a better look around. In one direction, they see the base of a huge mountain, hundreds of miles across, stretching up into the gray haze of the sky. Before them, they see an unimaginably long, pale, straight wall that itself must stretch hundreds of miles. Erthim recalls it as some sort of forbidden underworld of another culture. Opposite the first mountain, the see yet another colossal mountain in the distance – dark and foreboding, yet occasionally flecked by pinpricks of colored light, like hot orange and red sparks from a flame. Despite the relative proximity of the great wall enclosing the underworld, Lin is overcome by this barely-remembered display of such vivid color, and suggests that be their destination despite its distance. They set off once again on the tattered road winding through the hills.

Later, Bren spots a pair of creatures in the distance, one hulking and walking like an ape, one like some giant skittering insect. They decide it wiser to avoid the strangers, and diverge from the path to avoid overtaking them. As they continue to march for the dark mountain on the horizon, they encounter a drained and gray soul, hardly opaque, shuffling along the path toward him. They greet the man, who seems to recall being a soldier in some army. He seems utterly despondent, neither engaging with the party nor ignoring him. Hoping to do a bit of good, Lin offers to show him a magic trick. Drawing the soul's attention with mention of color, he causes a bright shimmer of blue, purple and green to radiate and sparkle across Erthim's newly purchased magic cloak. The dead soldier seems transfixed, and lifts his eyes, thanking the party and proceeding on his way at a revitalized pace. Bren could swear he looked just a little more opaque as he walked away.

Satisfied at having made visible progress toward their goal, the party decides to camp, and Lin tucks the magic cabin into a hillside. Out the window, Erthim observes some activity upon a distant hill, later noting that a small hole or burrow exists where he had seen movement.

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The Wages of Virtue
 
After turning over the watch the Bren, Erthim slips into a dream that seems to hint at his past. He sits in his favorite tavern, Walder's Green, with his friend Harald. Harald has a worried look of disbelief.
"I still can't believe she's gone. What are you gonna do now?"
"I'm not sure. I'm certainly open to suggestions," Erthim prompts. With some lucidity, he hopes to learn more from Harald while has the chance.
"Well, we've taken care of all the obvious things. It's amazing how well you kept it together during the service."
"She would have wanted me to be strong. Heimdall gives me that strength."
"She was a strong lass herself, that Amateria. She loved you a lot. It's okay to have these feelings though. No one expects more of you right now."

The party set out the next morning to investigate the burrow on the opposing hill. They find it to be a makeshift camp, already abandoned. Bren determines the markings in the soil within to indicate one large and heavy creature, and one with many spindly legs like a giant spider. After some light debate, the party decide it best to return to their original off-road course to avoid encountering these creatures again. As they converge with the road once again some time later, Bren spots a large, metallic-looking beast up ahead, crunching idly on something by the roadside. Lin makes to path around the creature, but it notices and charges the party, goring Bren with its long and brutal horns, smoke puffing from its nostrils.

Erthim tries to calm the creature as he would a rampaging horse, but to no avail. Trying to keep from slipping into the violence, Bren does the same, and is head-butted again for his troubles. Meanwhile Lin advocates for killing the creature, and Ivellios tumbles around it to flank and attack. Giving no second chances, Bren pummels the beast and ends it quickly. Afterward, Lin goes to inspect the creature's meal- a petrified Night Hag by the side of the road. Hoping to cover their activities, the others drag the dead beast off the road. No sooner have they succeeded when they hear a sibilant voice urging an attack to capture new slaves!

The party are set upon by the buglike pair from earlier – a lumbering, chitinous Umber Hulk gnashing its huge mandibles, and a skittering spiderlike Neogi with a head and neck like a giant lamprey. Erthim quickly makes a convincing plea for parlay as the pair close in, stopping the vile slaver to consider a more profitable partnership with the party. As Erthim fumbles through his ill-advised bargaining with the creature, Lin knocks the Umber Hulk into a magical unconsciousness. The skittering trader knows he's been had, and fires a poisoned bolt at Erthim before trying to escape, but he is slowed by Lin's magic. Ivellios delivers a coup de grace to the sleeping Hulk, holding its head high to intimidate the slaver. Bren riddles him with arrows. Dying, he threatens that others of his kind will come to look for the missing Neogi.

The travelers feel sour after rushing so quickly to violence at these two encounters, and Lin criticizes Erthim sharply. Bristling, Erthim concedes to someone else to lead their travels for now. Bren takes up the mantle, guiding them back off the road to continue in the direction of the dark mountains in the distance. They travel wordlessly, lost in thought and spite. As they come to the end of their day's travel, the woods around them thicken.

Upon everyone awakening, they head further into the woods. After another tense, wordless march, Bren hears the sound of axes clopping into trees up ahead. Lin offers to make Bren invisible, and Bren and Ivellios scout ahead. Getting close enough to see through the dense stand of trees, they spot four burly, dog-headed men clear-cutting the woods, tree by tree. Ivellios returns to summon the rest of the party. Erthim arrives and heads up to the creatures to attempt another parlay. He is met with near-hostile disregard as their leader Tezau assumes them to be damned souls attempting to interfere with his mission. The rest of the party intercede to mixed effect as Tezau continues to arrogantly castigate Erthim. Bren winds up exchanging blows with Tezau while Ivellios tries to side with the dog-headed brutes, chopping at the trees himself.

Erthim finally manages to defuse the situation, and Tezau directs the party to the (relative) northwest, where they can encounter the "great tree" that is at the center of this forest's perceived corruption. Erthim agrees to go try to destroy the great tree, and leave Tezau to his chopping.

Following Tezau's directions, the party arrive at a particularly dense stand overseen by a massive willow. Ivellios waltzes up to chop at the tree, when the tree turns to look at him. Revealing its true nature as a treant, he introduces himself as Zumneroth. He laments his lonliness and boredom, and asks that someone play a game of strategy with him to pass the time, and for a wager. Ivellios ignores this and tries to continue with the original plan of chopping him down. Zumneroth swats Ivellios aside to speak with the more interested Lin. Lin agrees to play the game, which the treant summons up from the ground with his roots. After explaining the complex game to Lin, Zumneroth offers to answer Lin's questions if he can be bested, or have his roots moistened with blood if he wins. Lin agrees, and the two begin a tense match. Ivellios attemts to cheat on Lin's behalf twice, but is noticed by the treant and violently swatted aside both times. Coming out barely on top, Zumneroth demands payment in blood. Lin thinks fast and offers a couple flasks of dragon blood.

Nothing if not a good sport, Zumneroth offers to answer questions anyway if Lin will offer more blood. Lin agrees, and consults with the party. Of course, they decide upon seeking information to help escape Hades. Zumneroth explains that great magic can free them of their plight, and indicates that a powerful practitioner lives to the north. Lin thanks him for his help, and warns him of the anthropomorphic hounds that seek to destroy the whole grove.
"Destroy MY trees?" Zumneroth booms. "The time has come! Awaken, Nulnul! Awaken, Shaennen! Awaken, Zumnel and Walieh!" he cries out as he uproots himself and flails his branches menacingly. As he does, the other trees in the copse suddenly spring to life, uprooting themselves and crawling, lumbering, and listing in the direction of the lumberjacks. "Awaken, Olmansa, and little Roongan! They've come to destroy the trees!"

Dumbstruck, the party watch the stand of trees plod off into the distance. Bren idly pokes around in the holes left by their roots, finding a chest which the others help him wrest free. Among the collected bones of those who came and failed before, they find numerous treasures. Ivellios becomes fixated on one, though: he wants to take Zumneroth's game. Digging fervently, he finds it in the big crater and absconds with it as they follow the treant's directions to find the powerful mage.

Traveling along a rock face as directed, the party stop to rest a couple hours from the clearing once covered by the trees. Bren and Erthim hear the rustling of leaves and branches in the distance during their rest. Later, Bren is disturbed by a dream of his own. He skulks in the shadows, following some sort of royal hunting party through a wood so green it gives him a headache. The hunting party enters a clearing, oblivious of the stalking ranger. Across the clearing, Bren can sense the presence of his elven allies high in the trees, feeling the tension as they nock their arrows and draw back their bows.

Lin and Ivellios take their opportunity to practice their new game while Bren and Erthim finish their rest. Feeling refreshed, Erthim offers to continue to lead the rest of the way to the tower. Not a long walk from their camp, they encounter the small, dilapidated tower. Upon knocking and entering, they find the great wizard Minsirith seated on a throne of bone, dressed in luxurious garb, and having two small demonlike horns protruding from his forehead above his closed and sunken eyelids. He cuts right to the chase, preempting the party's aversion to collecting soul larvae, and offers instead to have them retrieve a magical totem from a dungeon nearby. Upon further questions from the group, Minsirith stands and drops his magical disguise, revealing himself to be a near-skeletal lich. He demands they carry out their mission, but offers further employment if they prove beneficial.
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