We’re in it for the Money: Savant Syndrome Pt. I

GM Note: The thief is referred to as “Greg Francis Turner” in this adventure.

After the previous adventure, some of the players have a lot to think about. Greg sets about re-writing his will so that everything goes to his daughter. Additionally, he makes sure to write the will as a cipher, which when decrypted will provide the password to his computer, which stores all of his contacts and resources that he has accrued in his life as a thief, and as the force behind “Mr. Mannheim.” He hopes this information will do her some good if she ever needs it.

Strauss, having obtained no real information from his pursuit of Greg into the Feywild, finds himself with little to do to pursue his inroads into Greg’s past, and so instead passes the time by helping Norm develop a special leather scabbard rig to help him more efficiently hold his weapons. With nearly every surface covered in some kind of katana, rapier, or other miscellaneous blade, Norm is able to carry almost all of his arsenal on his person at all times, though the rig does hamper his natural movements somewhat, resulting in a -2 penalty to all dexterity-based checks.

Gorak, for his part, is re-acquainting himself with Sigil’s many breweries after his brief (but seemingly much longer) separation from alcohol.

Before too long, the players are once more called into the offices of Gillespie & Haggard to speak with Punwick. As they enter, they are pleased to see Hank standing outside Punwick’s office.

Norm: “Hey, Hank.”

Hank: “Hello, friends.”

Strauss: “Punwick decide to keep you on, huh?”

Hank: “Yes. Angry gnome said Hank do good work as… in-tim-uh-date-ing deck-or-ation.”

Greg: “That’s… great, buddy.”

Hank: “Hank very proud.”

Norm: “Punwick in?”

Hank: “He expecting you. Go on in.”

The players shuffle past Hank and into Punwick’s office, where the gnome is reading over several printouts of company finances. He gestures for the players to sit and sets the papers aside, giving the group his full attention.

Punwick: “Got a big job for you guys. Think it’s about time you got some serious work in after that last job you did. Stolen goods, was it?”

The players look pointedly at Greg.

Greg: (Meekly) “Yeah.”

Punwick: “Alright, well then it’s time to get some bigger profile stuff back on your agenda. I’m sure you recall our friend in Gatehouse, Mr. Ridgeway.”

Greg: “The guy with the creepy illithid always following him around? Yeah, he makes an impression.”

Punwick: “Yeah, well, so did you, it seems. Mr. Ridgeway has a job he wants done and he requested you guys specifically. You got in his good graces after that fiasco on the spaceship and that only means good business for us. You stay on his good side for this and maybe we can start building towards regular contract work for these guys.”

Strauss: “Do we really need to be subcontracted by Gatehouse? Seems like we have a pretty good thing going as a private venture.”

Punwick: “Our revenue reports say otherwise, Strauss. You guys are my top team, which means you see plenty of jobs. But remember that you’re not the only guys on the roster. I’ve got other teams I need to keep working too if I wanna keep this place in the black. Work for Gatehouse means good, regular jobs for this company. So get yourselves over to Ridgeway’s office and do whatever he tells you.”

The players get up to leave, and Punwick looks up one more time before they exit.

Punwick: “Oh, and Norm.”

Norm: “Yeah, Boss?”

Punwick: “No more bringing back stray hires. That bugbear will do for now but if you come back with a troll, I swear to Kord I will fire your ass. Clear?”

Norm: “Got it.”

The players leave the office and nod their goodbyes to Hank, who waves happily in return. The group then heads outside and sets off for the Gatehouse offices in the Lady’s Ward of Sigil. The offices themselves are still going through the final stages of a remodel, the paint on the walls still wet in places and a few items here and there still bearing the old Arcane Tech logo. A secretary behind the front desk directs them to Ridgeway’s office on the top floor, which they take an elevator to reach. The office is located at the end of a long hallway behind a solid oak door with the name “Director D. Ridgeway” stenciled on a brass plaque on it. The players knock and a few moments later are greeted with the unsettling sight of Roland, Ridgeway’s personal manservant.

Greg: “We’re uh, here to see Mr. Ridgeway?”

Ridgeway: “Let them in, Roland, I’ve been expecting them.”

Roland obediently steps aside, never saying a word. The players step past him, trying to give him a wide berth while simultaneously trying to appear as if they are not. Ridgeway’s office is carpeted in rich green, with walls made of stained redwood (which is very expensive and must be imported, as Sigil has no trees of its own). The room is lit by recessed lighting, and floor to ceiling windows on the far side of the room provide an impressive view of Sigil’s unique architecture as it curves upwards into the distance. A number of honors and accolades line the walls, and an expensive-looking putter sits propped against the desk with a number of gold balls sitting nearby. It is, in every way, the office of a corporate executive who tries to be relatable, but only succeeds in being so to individuals already on his level. To the players, he’s just the next guy paying the bills.

Ridgeway himself is standing behind the desk as the players enter, dressed in rolled-up shirtsleeves that likely cost more than any full suit the players have ever purchased. He smiles when the group enters and greets them in his deep Australian accent.

Ridgeway: “Ah, the boys from G&H! It’s fantastic to see you again.”

Greg: “Thank you, Mr. Ridgeway.”

Ridgeway: “Oh, no need for such formality here, boys. This isn’t an official job and you’ve done me more than a small favor in saving my ship, and probably the future of the Expo while we’re at it. Just Daniel will suffice.”

Greg: “If you say so.”

Ridgeway: “Now, can I get you something? Drinks?”

Gorak: “I’ll take one.”

Ridgeway: “And you all will, if I have anything to say about it. Roland, get some drinks for our guests. The John Christie’s Single Malt should do.”

Roland nods and retrieves a bottle of the whiskey from the cabinet behind the desk. He pours five glasses and begins distributing them amongst the group.

Ridgeway: “I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you down here.”

Greg: “You said something about this not being an official job? What do you mean by that?”

Ridgeway: “It just means that you’re not on contract for Gatehouse Security. Instead you’ll be on contract for me, personally.”

Strauss: “Doing what?”

Ridgeway: “Do any of you know much about the field of Divine History?”

The players respond with shaking heads.

Ridgeway: “It’s something of a personal hobby of mine. I collect artifacts and other bits of history for my own collection, and others I’ll donate to museums or select historical societies. There’s a certain sense of power in examining the histories of the many gods of this universe. Recently I’ve accrued a number of leads on a new – hah, or should I say old? – artifact that has piqued my interest.”

Norm: “And you want us to get it for you.”

Ridgeway: “Indirectly. I’ve hired the services of a rather renowned historian and archaeologist, one Tubwin Obyrn. He has contacts and resources that should help him track down this artifact, and all I want you to do is ensure that he retrieves it safely.”

Strauss: “Are you expecting trouble?”

Ridgeway: “Not unduly so. It simply pays to be careful, and Tubwin is a less than imposing figure and archaeology can take you to unkind parts of the planes.”

Greg: “Fair enough. So what exactly are we looking for?”

Ridgeway: “To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know.”

Norm: “What?”

Ridgeway: “We’re operating mostly on hearsay, I’m afraid: rumors of “an ancient artifact of extreme importance/power/what have you”. Stories develop over time, of course, and theories as to its nature range from jewelry to crystal to alien technology. So while I don’t know what precisely you’ll find, Tubwin believes that the stories of its existence are valid. Furthermore, he believes that it is a relic relating in some manner to the past of Orcus.”

That particular disclosure is met with more than a few nervous looks.

Greg: “Orcus?”

Norm: “That… really doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Ridgeway: “I wouldn’t worry. If Orcus wanted whatever this is I have no doubt that he would already have it. More than likely it’s some kind of lost artwork or somesuch.”

Gorak: “And if it’s not?”

Ridgeway: “Then I’ll be sure to increase your payment in accordance with any difficulties you encounter.”

Greg: “That’s not overly comforting. ‘Difficulties’ with Orcus tend to be kind of severe.”

Ridgeway: “Well, I suppose you could always refuse the job.”

Strauss: “No, that won’t be necessary. We’ll do it.”

Ridgeway: “I’m glad to hear it. Tubwin is giving a lecture on his recent book at Oxford University this afternoon. I can provide you with transport there as well as any resources you need during your venture. He can fill you in on any additional details when you meet. Good luck, boys, I’m expecting great things from this.”

The players finish their drinks and then get up to leave, thanking Ridgeway for the job, though they still harbor some trepidation about interfering in the past of a god; especially a god who has been known to kill other gods without much undue fuss. They leave the building and are directed to a portal to Earth by several Gatehouse guards. On the other side, several more guards are waiting for them next to a private car, which they pile into and begin the drive to Oxford University. The famous school isn’t more than an hour from the portal and they arrive quickly and in comfort, just as the campus’ bell tower tolls 4:00 PM. The players exit the car and survey their surroundings.

Greg: “Ah, Oxford: so much history, so many things left un-stolen.”

Strauss: “No. We already have to worry about escorting some egghead across the multiverse and potentially pissing off Orcus. We don’t need you adding to the list by getting on the bad side of the British.”

Gorak: “Didn’t we already kinda piss off the British when we-”

Norm: “Shhh. We don’t talk about that.”

As the players debate the severity of stealing a top-secret military formula vs. stealing a few commemorative pens from a university campus, Tubwin makes his appearance. A gnome, in the typical short and pudgy build of his people, Tubwin stumbles awkwardly toward the car, a stack of books and papers held haphazardly in front of him, nearly obscuring his vision. He reaches the players, sweating and out of breath and attempts to extend a hand past his stack of literature, dropping a book off the top of the stack in the process.

Tubwin: “You must be the team Daniel hired. Dr. Tubwin Obyrn, pleased to meet you.”

Greg: “Uh, yeah, likewise.”

Tubwin: “Well, we have much to do and I would just as soon get started so let’s be off. Um, if one of you could help me with my things…”

The party each grabs a handful of Tubwin’s books, most of which are rare historical volumes written by people with unpronounceable names and with even more incomprehensible handwriting. They then pile into the car and depart for a nearby airport, where they’re told Ridgeway has prepared a Gulfstream jet for them to go wherever they need to. “Wherever they need to”, in this instance, happens to be China.

Greg: “China? Where are we going to find an artifact of Orcus in China? And why?”

Tubwin: “As of yet, I’m not sure. One of my contacts, however, is there and he can point us in the right direction.”

Strauss: “And who’s your contact?”

Tubwin: “A man named An Jing-Xu. He’s a figure of some repute in… certain circles in Shanghai.”

Greg: “He’s a triad.”

Tubwin: “Well, I’m not sure if I’d say… I mean, he’s not strictly speaking… okay, yes. But he’s trustworthy. He’s given me good leads before, and I believe he’ll do so again here.”

Strauss: “And if he doesn’t?”

Tubwin: “Well. I imagine that’s what Daniel hired you for, yes?”

The players absorb that sentiment in irritated silence, and endure most of the flight in that same manner. Sure, they can probably handle a few triad thugs, but it would have been nice to have been told that that could have been on the menu. They’ll likely be talking to Ridgeway about their fee upon their return.

The Gulfstream touches down in Shanghai after a fairly long but comfortable flight, though Gorak exhausts the mini bar before they even get over Germany. Picking up a rental car that was purchased in advance by Gatehouse, they follow Tubwin’s directions to take them to meet An Jing Xu, who operates his triad activities out of the upper floor of an expensive restaurant. Tubwin approaches the man behind the front counter and says something to him in Chinese. The man nods curtly and gestures to another man in a black suit next to the door, who then leads Tubwin and the party into the back of the restaurant and up a stairwell to where An Jing Xu’s office is located. Stepping inside, An Jing Xu awaits them, sitting at a desk opposite the party and flanked by two more men in black suits who aren’t trying especially hard to conceal their weapons.

The party doesn’t exactly have much to do in this scenario as none of them speaks a word of Chinese. They simply stand behind Tubwin as he speaks to An Jing Xu, cautiously keeping their eyes on the two men with weapons standing against the wall, as well as trying to keep an eye on the man who escorted them in, who is almost certainly similarly armed. After a while of listening to Chinese and anxiously trying to determine when things are going to go south, things suddenly do not go south at all and the group is allowed to leave. This is hardly standard operating procedure for the party and they follow Tubwin back out of the restaurant in something of a daze.

Strauss: “So… what did we find out?”

Tubwin: “We have an approximate location, I’m happy to say.”

Greg: “Really? That easy?”

Tubwin: “Well, he may be triad, but he owes me a favor or two.”

Norm: “So where are we headed, then?”

Tubwin: “Anhui.”

Norm: “And what does your friend think is so special about this place?”

Tubwin: “Old histories combined with new rumors and just enough fact to make it plausible. In 202 BC, the Battle of Gaixia was fought in the province of Anhui between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, of the Han and Chu people, respectively. The battle began as an ambush after a supposed truce was called, and the Chu forces were caught by surprise. Trapped in a canyon, under constant ambush, and with much of his army abandoning the field, Xiang Yu and his 800 remaining men made a mad dash to escape, losing most of their numbers but managing to flee the canyon. The histories say that Xiang Yu became lost after the escape and was eventually apprehended by Han forces, whereupon he took his own life. However, at the time of his death, Xiang Yu was traveling in completely the wrong direction from his capital city, leading some to question how a strategist such as he had gotten so turned around. It is of course entirely possible that he was simply beset by bad luck and worse navigation skills, but there are those who offer a different theory: rumors persist of an ancient temple in the hills, set on the path that Xiang Yu was traveling and said to house an artifact of tremendous power. With his army gone, his wife dead, and his people on the verge of destruction, it’s possible that Xiang Yu was grasping for any desperate hope he could find.”

Greg: “And now so are we, it seems.”

Tubwin: “I know, it’s a long shot and it could end up being nothing. But this is archaeology, my boy: we have to dig up the past, not sit around waiting for it to come to you.”

Norm: “That’s great for the archaeologist, but for his irritated hired bodyguards it just means that we have to crawl through the hills of rural China chasing legends and wild conjecture.”

Gorak: “At least nobody’s shooting at us this time.”

As if on cue, a light suddenly illuminates the dark side street the group is standing on. With the high-pitched revving of an engine, the light begins to accelerate toward them as three more lights blink to life and follow closely behind the first, quickly closing in on the group. As they approach and the players’ vision equalizes, they are able to make out the source of the lights: four Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles, ridden by helmeted figures. The lead rider reaches behind him and pulls a sword from a scabbard affixed to the left side of his bike. Holding it aloft, he urges his companions forward like a cavalry officer leading a charge, then he hunches low over his handlebars and extends the blade out to the side of him, bearing down on Norm.

Drawing his own katanas, Norm deflects the sword and rolls out of the way of the bike, the ring of metal piercing the night air above the whine of the motorcycles. Jumping out of his roll, Norm turns to face his attacker as Greg, Strauss, and Gorak draw their guns to bear on the other three riders. The first rider brings his bike to a skidding 90-degree stop behind the group and vaults himself over the handlebars to land on his feet. Norm rushes forward and knocks aside another sword swing, then attempts to trip his opponent and force him to the ground for an easy follow-up attack. His attack is clumsy, however, and with catlike grace the rider steps out of the way, plants his own foot behind Norm’s leg, and with one hand grabbing Norm’s wrist and the other planted firmly into his shoulder, he forces Norm off-balance and sends him crashing to the street, effectively reversing the original trip attack. The rider rotates his grip on the sword and brings the blade down toward Norms head, his palm flat on the pommel for added force. Norm narrowly manages to roll out of the way and spring back to his feet, he and the rider slowly circling each other in search of an opening.

Gorak isn’t wasting any time with any such showy tactics, however, and instead draws a bead on one of the other riders, letting loose with a round from his 10-gauge shotgun. The buckshot slams into the bike’s gas tank, but doesn’t quite puncture it, failing to result in the fiery explosion he was hoping for. It does, however, serve to knock the rider off balance and his front wheel jerks back and forth wildly as he attempts to regain control, overcompensates, and twists the wheel too far, suddenly cutting his speed and sending both bike and rider tumbling end over end to the street. The rider lands directly in front of Greg who wastes no time in putting a bullet in his head while he’s still on the ground.

Strauss takes a similar approach, but doesn’t waste time with the bike and fires a quick two rounds into the third rider. The force of the bullet impacts knocks the rider to one side, kicking the bike into a low slide as he falls. Recovering well, the rider rises to his feet while drawing an MP5K from under his jacket and opening fire on the group, despite his wounded arm. The fourth rider doesn’t try to ride into the fray like the others and simply dismounts a bit farther back, using his bike as cover as he draws a pistol and takes potshots at the group from across the street.

Norm, hoping to draw an opening in his opponent’s defense, lunges to the left, then the right, but the rider dodges around the blow and brings his own sword up, cutting deep into Norm’s left forearm. Once again, they break apart and search for an opportunity. The other two riders continue to keep up the fire on the group, the one with the MP5K spraying the street with an autofire burst as the three players jump away to avoid it. Following up his friends’ attack, the rider with the pistol scores a hit on Gorak, the bullet tearing into his left shoulder and burning a bit more than the usual gunshot does, actually emitting a faint sizzling sound as unhealthy green smoke rises from the wound. Gorak fires his shotgun back in retaliation, but the shot disperses and the pellets ping harmlessly against the bike the rider is still using as cover.

Strauss and Greg target the submachine gunner, who is still mostly in the open, but he somehow manages to dive out of the way of the incoming fire and come up shooting once again. The burst he fires from the chopped-down submachine gun expends the remainder of his ammo, however, and as he drops the empty magazine and reaches for a new one a bullet from Strauss’ rifle enters his eye, leaving two riders left standing.

Norm’s duel with the first rider is beginning to go sour. With his left arm dripping blood and struggling even to hold his sword he drops it and takes up a two-handed grip on his high-frequency sword, foregoing his full attack with two weapons in favor of a higher attack bonus. The tactical decision pays off as Norm’s next two-handed sweep creeps beneath the rider’s guard and catches him across the chest, forcing him to stagger back and put some space between them. His counterattack is vicious, however, and a powerful thrust pierces Norm’s lower abdomen, leaving him bleeding and unconscious once again.

Noticing that the clash of steel has ceased behind him, Gorak turns to see the rider withdraw his blade from Norm’s stomach, and responds by firing his shotgun from the hip, the blast of buckshot catching the rider full in the chest, and knocking him backwards. The shotgun’s small internal magazine emptied, Gorak drops it to the ground and grabs his mace from his belt, leaping over Norm’s unconscious figure and rushing at the heavily wounded rider. A defensive sword swipe rakes against Gorak’s armor, finally catching some flesh near his elbow, but not succeeding in slowing him down enough to hamper the progress of the nasty-looking spiked mace which is now rushing towards his torso. The mace head crashes into the rider’s chest, and the cracking of ribs is clearly audible as most of his chest cavity is caved in.

The last rider continues to fire his pistol, landing a hit on Greg, but combined fire from he and Strauss finally shatters the faceplate on his helmet in an explosion of glass and blood as he falls to the ground and stops moving. Strauss runs over to attend to Norm, who at this point is rather used to experiencing at least one near-death experience per adventure and sits back up with a simple nod of thanks to Strauss and a cursory examination of his extremities to make sure everything is still there. Gorak meanwhile checks in on Tubwin, who has been cowering behind the negligible cover offered by a nearby streetlight. He appears to be fine, but shaken.

Greg, his thieving instincts demanding that he go investigate what kind of strange pistol the fourth assailant was using, finds a custom-modified Walther P99 clutched in the rider’s hand, its slide a reflective metallic green, not unlike the color one might see on performance streetcars. An engraving just above the slide release depicts a stylized image of an OSHA “corrosive materials” warning label. Prying it out of the rider’s grip, Greg happily heads back to the group with his new prize. He stops, however, as a wet cough escapes from the rider who downed Norm. Leaning down, Greg cautiously removes the rider’s helmet to reveal the face of a githzerai. He looks up at Greg with eyes full of righteous anger.

Gith: (Cough) “You do not know…” (Kaff) “… the power of that which you seek to unleash…”

Greg: “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate, actually.”

Gith: “No good…” (Cough) “… can come from your quest…” (Wheeze) “… Turn back, lest you bring ruin to us all…”

Greg: “Well, we’re getting paid for this ‘quest’ so that’s not gonna happen. Just tell us where we can find this thing so we can collect and go home.”

Gith: “… You will never… get the Crown…”

The Gith breaks down in a fit of coughing, then suddenly clenches his jaw tight. He begins to shake, and a white foam escapes from his lips. His eyes roll back and he goes still. Greg stands back up and steps away from the corpse.

Greg: “Cyanide capsule. Must have had it hidden in a tooth or something.”

Gorak: “So… why’d he just off himself?”

Greg: “Fanatic of some kind, didn’t want us to find whatever we’re after. Of course, the fact that they’re trying to stop us tells me we’re on the right track. Looks like your triad friend might have come through for us, Dr.”

Tubwin: “I suddenly find that I don’t know whether to be elated or horrified.”

Norm: “Pick one later, right now you’ve got work to do.”

Greg: “Do you have any idea what he meant by ‘the Crown?’”

Tubwin: “There are a number of possibilities, I suppose. But ruling out any regional considerations given the divine nature of our search, and accounting for the believed relation to Orcus… hrmm. I suppose it could be the Crown of the Savant.”

Strauss: “And that is…?”

Tubwin: “It was an artifact of Maanzecorian, a former Illithid deity. It was actually the basis of his sigil when he was alive.”

Greg: “You keep saying ‘was’.”

Tubwin: “Yes, Maanzecorian was killed by Orcus during the Time of Troubles. So I suppose there’s our connection.”

There is an uneasy pause.

Norm: “You say that Orcus killed this god.”

Tubwin: “That’s correct.”

Norm: “So then wouldn’t rooting up some of his old stuff be, I don’t know, a really, really bad idea that could result in us pissing off the demon prince of the undead?”

Tubwin: “Unlikely. Orcus was still in his Tenebrous form when he killed Maanzecorian, and only did so because he couldn’t give him the location of his wand. Orcus of course eventually retrieved his wand and regained his current form, so he hardly has any continuing animosity towards a god that he slew millennia ago.”

Norm: “He’d better not. Or I have a feeling we’re all dead.”

Tubwin: “We have much more immediate concerns with these Githzerai than we do with Orcus, I should think. Come on, we should move along in case any more of them decide to show up.”

Leaving the Gith where they lie, they party walks back to their car and drives away from the site of the skirmish. They pull into a hotel (once again, paid for by Gatehouse) and settle in for the night, contemplating just what they got themselves into. The next morning they converse over breakfast with Tubwin about what their next step should be, and Tubwin outlines the general area where the temple is believed to be located. The maps suggest a heavily forested area in the hills overlooking miles of swampland. Even when it was new and not potentially buried under years of vegetation growth, this temple would have been a chore to get to.

Without much eagerness (save for Tubwin), the group sets off for Anhui province and the hills that house an ancient temple that may or may not exist. The drive is long and uncomfortable in China’s summer heat, and the party is initially glad to reach their destination, until they discover that the roads do not go any further and the only way to access the temple would be on foot, by hardly-used footpaths part of the way, and then blazing their own trail through the forest. With more than a few groans and mutters, the party rents several donkeys from an old man in a nearby town and then sets off to begin their climb into the hills.

GM Note: There’s always something amusing about telling your players that they have to walk somewhere. Only after being assured that their car would not get more than three feet into the forest on the narrow paths, that the motorcycles the Gith used would not be able to handle the terrain, and that the old man did not have any dirt bikes for sale did the party eventually acquiesce and rent donkeys for the journey up. In a game which involves sitting around a table and eating pizza, it really is amazing how much those involved will attempt to avoid even the simulation of effort.

The mountain paths are rough, steep, nearly completely overgrown, and will often branch off into a dozen different dead ends, with only one path continuing on. Tubwin leads the group, stopping every now and again to consult his maps, staring at them intensely for a moment and then looking up at the trees and turning in every direction as though the elevation of the trees will help him determine the proper course on a 2D overhead map. After the third such pause in half an hour, Greg steps forward and takes the collection of maps away from Tubwin and, consulting them for a moment, turns 45 degrees to the right and crashes off into the underbrush. The rest of the group exchanges hesitant glances and then follows him, in lieu of a better plan. Thanks to a series of implausibly fortunate die rolls, Greg manages to blaze a trail straight through the heart of the forest and lead them directly to where they need to be. After hours of scrambling through vegetation that probably hasn’t seen human footfalls in hundreds if not thousands of years, the roof of a pagoda-like structure looms above the trees in front of them. Its walls are covered in ivy, and only the unnatural shape of its multi-tiered roofs serves to distinguish it from its surroundings.

Stopping the party within the tree line, Greg and Strauss move to the back side of the temple, which is on an uphill that gives them a higher viewpoint from which to observe the area. Taking cover behind the tree trunks, Strauss surveys the scene through his rifle’s telescopic sight as Greg does the same with a pair of binoculars. The pagoda itself is three stories tall and overlooks a small courtyard, surrounded by stone walls with a single circular entrance on the far end. A well sits in the middle of the courtyard, and the entire area is covered in a heavy coating of moss. What’s of real note, though, are the Gith that occupy the temple grounds. Five patrol the courtyard and at least one has set up in the second story of the pagoda. Presumably these are more Gith of the same group that attacked them on the street in Shanghai, and just the four of them were a challenge then. Six Gith now, all seemingly better armed as well, will be a hard fight. This time, however, they have the element of surprise.

Strauss, already hidden in reasonably good cover on the hillside, opts to stay there and take up a real sniping position from which he can cover the players as they enter the courtyard, which they will do in unison in an attempt to rush and overpower the defenders. First though, they make sure to keep Tubwin back with the donkeys, hopefully well enough out of trouble so he won’t catch a stray bullet. Coordinating with Strauss’ overwatch, they dash out of the trees when the Gith in the tower is facing away from them and proceed to take cover pressed up against the outside of the courtyard wall. Inching along the wall and around the corner, they stack up outside the circular archway, Greg producing another flashbang grenade from his pack and waiting for Strauss’ signal.

The signal comes when one of the Gith near the well suddenly drops to the ground, half of his head missing. Strauss’ silencer muffles the shot so the Gith can’t tell where the fire is coming from, and as they’re frantically trying to determine who’s shooting, Greg tosses the flashbang through the archway and into the middle of the courtyard. Several seconds later the grenade detonates, Greg following close behind as he activates his invisibility augment, making a mad dash for the pagoda so he can take care of the Gith on the second floor, who Strauss can’t get a good angle on. Following close behind him are Norm and Gorak, swords and mace drawn, who charge headlong into the dazed gith like a couple of freight trains.

While the two fighters keep the gith outside occupied, Greg makes his way inside the pagoda structure, scanning the area to see if there are any other gith hiding inside. Seeing no one, he turns to a ladder on the east side of the room and begins to make his way up to the second floor, hoping to try a repeat of the bull rush tactics that worked so well in the City of Brass. His stealthy approach is hampered, however, when one of the top rungs on the ladder creaks loudly under his weight. While his invisibility augment might do an exceptional job of hiding him from sight, it does absolutely nothing to deaden any sound he makes, and that sound is enough to tip off the gith sniping from the second story. Spinning around, the gith squints at the distortion at the top of the ladder and determines that it’s enough to warrant some violent attention. Running forward, the gith kicks at the blurry figure, connecting with Greg’s head. He topples off the ladder and lands on his back on the floor below, looking up into the barrel of the gith’s assault rifle.

Rolling out of the way as bullets chew into the floorboards where he lay a moment ago, Greg hops to his feet behind a support pillar and fires a few shots back at the gith with his pistol. The gith is mostly obstructed by the ceiling, however, and none of the rounds find their mark. Forced to duck behind the pillar again as another burst of automatic gunfire tears past him, Greg hauls out another flashbang grenade and lobs it up through the opening at the top of the ladder. A second later the grenade detonates and the blinded gith stumbles at the top of the ladder and then plummets down to the ground floor, landing heavily on his side. With his target disoriented, Greg calmly approaches the gith lying on the ground and finishes him with a shot to the head.

In the courtyard the four remaining gith have run into a bit of a dilemma: focus on the unseen sniper raining precision death on them from somewhere in the trees, or on the mad dwarf and the man covered in swords who are waving several very menacing-looking weapons in their direction? Ultimately, they decide to split their attentions. One gith manages to work out Strauss’ location after his third shot, and wildly returns fire at the trees, mimicking the soldiers in Predator in doing so. Strauss’ position fairly deep in the trees provides him with adequate cover and the shots don’t penetrate deep enough into the forest to harm him. The other three concentrate on the melee attackers, two fanning out to catch Gorak in a crossfire and one taking position behind the well to fire on Norm.

Norm ducks low and darts back and forth in a zig-zag pattern to avoid the gunfire. Then, rushing forward, he plants his foot on the lip of the well and jumps over the open pit, passing by the gith in midair and performing a 180 degree turn to bring his sword down across the gith’s back. As the gith arches his back in pain, Norm attempts to shove him down into the well, but the gith manages to brace himself against the well’s edge and avoid falling in. He then turns, firing his rifle as he does, and lands a hit that flattens itself against Norm’s armor, but still feels like a hammer blow. It’s enough to make Norm grimace, but not nearly enough to stop him from running the gith through with his sword.

Gorak’s approach is somewhat less gymnastic as he steadily bears down on one of the two gith flanking him. They both open fire on the dwarf and although they certainly land hits and take some hitpoints off, the rounds themselves don’t seem to slow Gorak down and are seemingly lost somewhere in his armor and beard. The first gith he reaches gets fed a bite of mace and discovers that his teeth aren’t quite up to the challenge. His retaliatory shot goes into the air as Gorak uses his off hand to knock the rifle aside, and then swings his mace down again in a blow that is narrowly dodged by his opponent. The second gith begins to line up a shot on Gorak’s exposed back, but is suddenly interrupted by the surprise that comes with not having a brain stem anymore, having just been deprived of it by a round from Strauss’ rifle.

This is when Greg re-enters the fight, pistol held out in front of him and directed at the gith firing into the forest. His first shot passes just in front of the gith’s face, drawing his attention about as well as one can, and presenting Strauss with a clear opening to take a shot. The bullet hits the gith in the side, throwing off his aim as he opens fire on Greg. One round still clips Greg’s arm, and he retaliates by delivering a shot to the gith’s center mass, which eats through his armor and most of his lung, dropping the total opponent count to one. That last remaining gith is then presented with the unique (if dubious) honor of being bludgeoned, stabbed, and shot simultaneously. Rasputin he is not, and so he succumbs to the onslaught promptly, giving the players a moment to catch their breath and heal up.

Norm goes and gets Tubwin who has still felt the need to hide behind the donkeys despite being several hundred yards and one thick stone barrier away from any of the fighting. As they return to the group, the rest of the party is busy going through the giths’ pockets looking for anything valuable. Once they’ve determined that they don’t have anything worth stealing they head inside the temple to look for clues.

The pagoda interior is a fairly simple scene: the chipped and faded red paint on the walls is broken only by the occasional splash of green where moss or other plant life has crept inside. Heavy wooden beams span the ceiling and extend up from the floor, holding the next level in place. Several low tables are placed parallel to each other in the center of the room, and a more ornate chair sits at the front of the room, likely where a head priest would have sat. Exploring the room, the players find no sign of the Crown, which Tubwin doesn’t find unusual as anything of such importance would likely be more well protected than simply sitting in the open in the middle of a temple, no matter how remote said temple might be.

Examining the seat at the front of the room, Greg notices several parallel grooves to the right of the chair on the stone base which supports it. Calling Norm over, the two of them put their shoulders into the chair and push it aside, a low grinding noise emanating from the ground as it moves. When the chair finally meets resistance and stops, they have uncovered an opening in the stone base; a kind of trapdoor that leads down below the temple. This hardly being the first time they’ve encountered underground passageways (and now knowing that werewolves aren’t the threat they once were to the now higher-level party) the players climb up onto the stone pedestal and then carefully lower themselves into the passage beneath. While Gorak can see easily enough in his native underground environment, the other players are somewhat less at home in the dark, and Greg uses his cybernetics to illuminate the skin on his left arm, using it as a kind of improvised torch. The passageway leads down and into the hills behind the temple, growing steadily wider as it goes until it eventually hits a solid wall a few hundred meters in.

The wall isn’t blank, however: it houses a large square carving, in which 15 separate tiles are situated. There are patterns etched into the tiles, though they appear to be disjoined and in no regular order. Greg cautiously approaches the wall and lays a hand on one of the tiles. Applying a bit of force, the tile actually moves under his hand, sliding horizontally inside the larger square outline. Everyone turns expectantly to Tubwin.

Tubwin: “Well, obviously it’s a puzzle of some kind.”

Norm: “Thanks, Doc. I’m glad we have you here to help us with these things.”

Greg: “Can you tell us anything about these patterns?”

Tubwin: “I can’t be sure in the current configuration, but it appears to be script. An older dialect, from the looks of things. I might be able to decipher it if we can arrange the tiles in the proper order.”

Gorak: “I hate puzzles.”

Strauss: “Let’s just get started.”

GM Note: There are some GMs that are absolute geniuses when it comes to puzzles. They can sit down for an hour and come up with challenges to rival those in the The Last Crusade (which I took no small amount of inspiration from in writing this adventure). I, however, am not one of these GMs. I can come up with a few fun setpiece battles or challenges and maybe a character or two that the players won’t forget by the next session, but a man with a mind for puzzles, I am not. This was quite literally just a simple 15-square sliding puzzle that would create an image when completed . Boring, but it was something to mix up the players’ combat-heavy adventures up to this point. It also let me toss an actual puzzle device at them and let them solve it there at the table. It does create something of a disconnect, however, in that it doesn’t rely on the skill checks of the players’ characters and instead has the players themselves use their real-world skills to overcome the obstacle. But it can be fun to challenge your players more directly in this manner and it’s usually fine to do as long as it doesn’t too seriously compromise the in-game/meta-game thought process.

After spending a few minutes with the puzzle, the players finally slide the last tile into place, completing the writing on the wall, as it were. Taking a step back, they let Tubwin do his thing. The gnome frowns at the writing for a few moments, his lips moving silently as he tries to work out the antiquated dialect based on his somewhat rudimentary understanding of Chinese characters. Finally he stops, but not in the kind of “Eureka!” moment that typically accompanies successfully deciphering an ancient language. Instead, his body tenses and his eyes grow wide.

Tubwin: “Oh dea-”

Suddenly, the wall in front of them explodes, sending chunks of rock flying through the air and a concussive blast wave knocking the party to the ground. A wave of dust washes over them as they attempt to pick themselves up, each short a few hitpoints.

Tubwin: “As it happens…” (Cough) “… it said “explosive runes.”

The players groan in exasperation.

Greg: “Next time: stop reading.”

Tubwin: “It’s a little difficult to simply stop your mind from reading something.”

Gorak: “It’s not that hard. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Dusting themselves off, the players proceed through the new opening in the wall as the dust cloud settles around them. On the other side lies a massive cavern, the ceiling extending hundreds of feet above them into darkness. The floor drops just as far down into the earth, the bottom indeterminably far below. On a raised rock formation that leads from the opening in the wall to about two thirds of the way into the center of the chamber, sits what appears to be a small monastery. Five small buildings sit arranged in a circular pattern around a central courtyard, where amazingly, a few small trees grow, apparently well-tended. Torches around the perimeter of the courtyard provide dim light, and two prominent braziers flank a large raised stone at the front of the courtyard, inlaid with a bronze plaque.

Greg: “Okay… I wasn’t expecting this.”

Norm: “Who the hell builds a monastery this far underground? And then seals the whole damn place off so it can only be accessed by nearly blowing yourself up?”

Strauss: “Somebody who doesn’t want anyone getting to the Crown. Right, Doc?”

Tubwin appears to have only half heard him. Instead, he is trying to absorb everything in the cavern at once, casting his gaze back and forth in amazement.”

Tubwin: “Incredible… the work it must have taken to build such a place… and in secret! The things we could discover here with a full expedition…”

Gorak: “Uh… I think somebody else had the same idea.”

The party turns to follow Gorak’s pointed finger. Scattered around the central garden, almost grown over by the plant life, are a number of skeletal corpses. Their jaws open in eternal, morbid grins, the skeletons appear to have been killed in an incredibly vicious manner. Most have a number of broken bones, and others are missing parts of their skeletal structure entirely. A few also appear scorched, as if someone had attempted to cremate the remains. As they draw closer, they notice that all the corpses (save the ones who’ve been burned) have one thing in common: they’re all wearing Nazi uniforms.

GM Note: To my eternal disappointment, no one said “I hate these guys”.

The players write the Nazis off as one of Hitler’s many failed expeditions for relics of power, but what worries them is not the Nazis: it’s what killed them. They clearly didn’t die peacefully, and whatever killed them could still be down here with them, which is a less than pleasant prospect.

Greg: “Okay, let’s just find the crown and get out. Tubwin, what does that plaque where we came in say? And if you blow us up again, so help me, I will throw you into the bottom of this implausibly shaped cave.”

Tubwin: “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that, this message looks a fair bit longer.”

Norm: “Can’t explosive runes say anything?”

Everyone takes a cautionary step back, just in case as Tubwin looks over the plaque.

Tubwin: “If my translation is correct, it reads: ‘Face the weakness within your spirit so that you may know yourself, and in this knowledge prevail.’”

Strauss: “So what the hell does that mean?”

Tubwin: “I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the answer lies in these buildings. I suggest we take a look around.”

Spreading out, the players go to examine the buildings. Norm approaches the center building on the far end of the monastery. It houses a set of large double doors with a circular seal inlaid with four large locking bars, all surrounding a large green gem set in the middle. Norm tries to open the doors but they don’t budge, nor does the gem when he tries to steal it. Closer to the entrance, Gorak slides open the door to one of the smaller buildings. The interior is completely empty, lacking any sort of furniture or decoration. Nonetheless, he steps inside to investigate further. As he does so, the door slides shut behind him, and refuses to give way when he tries to force it open. With few options, he turns back to the room, just in time to see a vaguely humanoid shape appear before him. The figure is indistinct and appears to slowly shift its form, as if it were made of fog. Gorak’s hand passes straight through the figure when he waves it at him.

Figure: “Gorak: you make claims to greatness in games of skill and chance, and you hail from those who have proven themselves worthy of such boasts. But you have always fallen short. Prove yourself now.”

Gorak: “Huh?”

The figure fades from existence and it its place a felt-topped table appears, ringed by four other ghostly apparitions. One of them cuts a deck of cards and wordlessly gestures to an open seat at the table. Gorak hesitantly takes a seat.

Gorak: “I don’t suppose you guys have anything to drink, do you?”

The apparition begins to deal the cards.

GM Note: Once again, I decided not to deal with die rolls in the case of Gorak’s challenge. Instead, I simply borrowed a deck of cards from Norm (who in reality almost always has a deck on his person) and paused the game for a moment as all of us at the table played a game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker, using our respective dice sets at chips. This actually worked exceptionally well. While you could just have your players use the “gamble” skill in situations such as this, actually giving them a chance to play the game and have that connection seems to resonate a little bit better. If you’re ever looking to run an Ocean’s Eleven-style game, consider having your players actually play a few hands and see how they respond. Our group loved it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The game initially seems to be turning against Gorak, as he loses a series of hands and is down to his last few chips. His competitors attempt to outbid each other, however, and both go all in in an attempt to knock each other out. And, as luck would have it, Gorak lays out a full house and cleans out his opponents.

GM Note: We know, that’s not how actual poker works. But in the interest of time we had previously decided that this would be the last hand and so didn’t bother with a split pot.

As Gorak reaches towards the pile of chips ,the table disappears, along with the chips and the ghostly challengers. A slight yellow glow radiates outward from Gorak’s body and the door to the building slides open, revealing the rest of the party standing outside looking confused.

Greg: “What the hell happened?”

Norm: “Where did you go?”

Strauss: “Why are you glowing?”

Gorak: “… I have no freaking idea.”

Before the group can ask any more questions, one of the four bars connected to the seal on the double doors of the main building slides back, leaving only three still locked in place.

Tubwin: “Well, it appears whatever happened is exactly what needed to happen. Do whatever needs to be done in these other three rooms and I believe we will have reached our goal.”

Strauss: “Alright then. Sooner the better, I guess: I’ll go next.”

Approaching the next building beside the one Gorak entered, Strauss steps through the threshold and is locked inside as the door slides shut behind him. The same ghostly figure appears in front of him.

Figure: “John Strauss: you are a worthy combatant, but you fight as one who does not know the personal sting of battle. You kill from afar and never stand face to face with your enemy. A true warrior must know such a fight, so that he may know what it truly means to kill. Prove yourself now.”

An invisible force steals Strauss’ weapons away from him, his rifle and two pistols floating up and out of his reach, hovering almost tauntingly in the air above him. As he stares sullenly at them the back of the room extends away from him, the floor falling away to be replaced by a narrow rope bridge. From the other side, a figure, identical to Strauss, steps to the center of the bridge and takes a patient stance. Taking a breath, Strauss steps out to meet his challenger. The second Strauss bows in respect, and Strauss himself returns the gesture. Then they come to blows.

The first punch catches Strauss in the jaw, the second just below the ribs. Dancing away from his mirror image, Strauss waits for a moment, then lunges forward and delivers a hard haymaker to his opponent. The two fighters are evenly matched in more than appearance, and the fight goes on as a grueling stalemate for several rounds, Strauss actually losing ground, if anything. Just when it looks like things could go south for the sniper, his challenger is beset by a sudden bout of bad luck, rolling a critical failure and drawing a pretty devastating card from the critical fumble deck. Lashing out with a kick, the Mirror-Strauss is tripped to the ground as Strauss blocks the kick by grabbing his opponent’s ankle and twisting. Trying to recover, Mirror Strauss tries to deliver a hard left hook, but Strauss catches his arm and pivots his body hard to the left. A sickening snap is heard as the arm breaks, leaving it limp and useless. Mirror-Strauss struggles to his feet and tries to land another punch with his right arm but Strauss ducks under the blow and, summoning ability he didn’t know he had, jumps into the air and delivers a brutal spinning kick that Chuck Norris would have been proud of. His heel catches Mirror-Strauss in the side of the head and sends him spinning over the side of the rope bridge, into whatever depths lie below.

Panting, Strauss looks over the side of the bridge at the rapidly shrinking figure, which fades gradually from existence. So too, does the rope bridge and the canyon as Strauss turns to walk back across the bridge. His weapons float back down to the floor of the room and he retrieves them before exiting back into the courtyard, surrounded by the same yellow glow that encompassed Gorak. One more bar slides back from the seal.

Gorak: “Did you win?”

Strauss: “Yeah.”

Gorak: “Nice. With what hand?”

Strauss: “… My right?”

Gorak: “Wait, what?”

Norm: “Whatever. I’m up.”

Norm strides across the courtyard and into the third building, the door sliding shut behind him, and the ghostly figure appearing in front of him.

Figure: “Normál Averagé.”

Norm: “Yo.”

Figure: “You are reckless-”

Norm: “Yup.”

Figure: “-violent-”

Norm: “Guilty.”

Figure: “-and arrogant.”

Norm: “I prefer the term ‘Alpha’.”

Figure: “Never have you met a foe that you could not engage with your blade. Your prowess in combat has carried you through every challenge you have faced. You must now rely on the sharpness of your mind, not your sword. Prove yourself now.”

The figure fades from view and a dragonborn in bright clothes with a lute steps forward.

Bard: “Hello! Answer me my riddles three, ‘ere the prize you seek, you’ll see.”

GM Note: Monty Python reference blatant and intended.

Norm: “Yeah, I’m thinkin’… screw that.”

Casually drawing one of his katanas, Norm swipes the blade at the dragonborn’s head and is sorely disappointed when they pass through the figure harmlessly, the bard adopting a maddening smirk as several more attacks whistle through its incorporeal form.

Norm: “Dammit. Alright, fine, hit me with what you got.”

Bard: “Three guesses you have for each riddle. Use them wisely.”

Norm: “Yeah, yeah.”

Bard: “’I do not have hands, yet I grasp so tight
I wield no weapon yet I keep you from the fight.
The coward and the hero both know me well
For in the hearts of men do I dwell.’”

Norm: “Uh, your wife?”

Bard: “No.”

Norm: “Syphilis?”

Bard: “Wha- in the heart I said.”

Norm: “Cholesterol?”

Bard: “I’m afraid not.”

Norm: “Crap.”

GM Note: It should be noted that Norm did actually know the answer (“fear”) as a player, but didn’t think that his character would reasonably know it as well, and so threw the question. Major roleplying kudos.

Bard: “Your next riddle:
‘My first is a number, My second another
And each, I assure you, will rhyme with the other
My first I can say is one-fifth my second
And when both are together
A long period reckoned.’”

Norm: “5?”

Bard: “No.”

Norm: “25?”

Bard: “Incorrect.”

Norm: “Uh… 327.4.”

Bard: “Also wrong.”

Norm: “I hate this game.”

GM Note: This was not an in-character blunder. Nobody at the table actually got this one, as the second figure isn’t actually expressed in numerical value: the answer is “four score”.

Bard: “Your last riddle.”

Norm: “Yeah, let’s just get it over with.”

Bard: “’What is it that men do love more than life,
Fear more than death or all mortal strife?
The poor man has it, the rich do require
What is the contented man’s desire?
The miser spends, the spendthrift saves
And all men carry it to their graves.’”

Norm: “Ooh! Money.”

Bard: “Does the rich man require more money?”

Norm: “You can never have too much money.”

Bard: “No.”

Norm: “Damn. Swords?”

Bard: “No.”

Norm: “I’ve got nothin’.”

Bard: (Gleefully) “Correct!”

Norm: “Huh?”

Bard: “One third of wit is more than many have, Normál Averagé. Go now to your goal.”

Norm: “Uh… sure.”

GM Note: Once again, Norm knew the answer to this one but attempted to keep his low intelligence score represented in his roleplaying. That said, it was ultimately too tempting to avoid the old “accidentally stumbled across the answer” trope, so he willingly took that approach to stick within the bounds of his character’s knowledge and hopefully still accomplish his task. Yes, this is a fair amount of meta knowledge, but it didn’t actually interfere with the game in any way so it worked out just fine.

The bard (mercifully) fades from sight and the door to the building slides open, Norm stepping outside again, glowing with a slightly dimmer, pulsing light than Strauss and Gorak have. The third locking bar on the door struggles for a moment and then finally slides free, appearing to do so somewhat grudgingly.

Strauss: “So… how’d it go?”

Norm: “I hate bards.”

Greg: “Well, he’s still sane, anyway.”

Gorak: “I think it’s your turn, Greg.”

Greg: “I don’t suppose I can convince Tubwin to do it?”

Tubwin: “I’m just an archaeologist. Walking into mysterious unsecured buildings is what we hired you for.”

Greg: (Sigh) “Fine. If this yellow glowing stuff turns out to cause cancer, I’m gonna be really pissed, though.”

Strauss: “Noted.”

Turning to face the last building, Greg takes a deep breath and walks inside, knowing that in his long, questionable history, any kind of personalized conflict could be very bad indeed. As the door slides shut behind him, the ghostly figure fades into view.

Figure: “Greg Francis-Turner.”

Greg: “Yeah, that’s me.”

Figure: “No, it is not.”

Greg: “Oh, hell.”

Figure: “For years you have hidden yourself beneath layers of deception. Your life has led you to many dark places, and you have sought to protect yourself in turn. But even with those that you travel, and to those you hold dear, you have remained an apparition: a man of no true substance who hides behind false names and false faces. Your challenge is to tear down the obfuscation and make yourself known. Prove yourself now.”

Suddenly, the figure disappears and in his place the rest of the party appears. Tubwin is absent, but Strauss, Norm, and Gorak pop into view in a rough circle surrounding Greg.

Strauss: “Uh… what?”

Norm: “How the hell did we get here?”

Gorak: “… Where’s the card table?”

Greg’s eyes dart between each of his companions, suddenly feeling very much like a rat in a cage.

Gorak: “Greg, what are we doing in here?”

Greg: “My name… is Greg Francis-Turner.”

Norm: “Uh… yeah. We know.”

Gorak: “At least until next week.”

Strauss: “Oh man. I think I see what’s going on here.”

Norm: “What’s that?”

Strauss: “He’s gotta tell us his real name. That’s his challenge.”

Norm: “Oh boy.”

Gorak: “That’s it?”

Strauss: “For him, it’s something of a bigger deal, I expect.”

Sweat has begun to bead on Greg’s forehead.

Greg: “My name… is Chuck Finley.”

Nothing happens.

Strauss, knowing that the attempted deception could go on for some time, and quite curious to finally unravel the mystery himself, takes a more active role in the challenge and aims his rifle at Greg’s chest. Greg quickly reaches for his own assault rifle and aims it at Strauss in return.

Gorak: “Uh, Strauss? What are you doing?”

Strauss: “Just helping things along.”

Greg: “You wanna put that rifle away, Strauss?”

Gorak: “Yeah, Strauss, put the rifle away. We can do this without killing each other.”

Strauss: “I agree. He just has to tell us his name.”

Greg’s eye begins to twitch slightly. Everyone continues to look at him expectantly. Greg raises his left hand from the rifle and coughs something into it.

Strauss: “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

With the room still sealed and with few options left, Greg realizes that he’ll have to speak his name aloud to get out of this. But… he can try to mask it with something. In what must appear to be a Rambo II-esque breakdown, Greg turns his rifle into the air and pulls the trigger, filling the room with the overpowering cacophony of automatic rifle fire, Then shouting into the air, he bellows his name aloud, confidant that the gunfire will drown it out.

Greg: “MY NAME IS CARLITO CORLEONE CONSIGLIERI!”

The gun then falls silent, the clinking of brass shell casings the only lingering sound. Everyone simply stares at Greg, now Carlito.

GM Note: The Consiglieris were a family that was established in our previous campaign, in which the player behind Carlito played another member of the family on a quest to defeat his evil brother. While the quest eventually succeeded in the last session of the campaign, half of the players did not survive the battle (my own dwarf barbarian, Grom, among them). This led to the uncomfortable question at the table: if the good family member died, then who sired Carlito?

Carlito: “Happy now?”

Strauss: “Quite… Carlito.”

Carlito: “What? How did-”

Strauss: “Not sure. Magic of some kind. Seems it amplified your voice inside our own heads. So I guess that’s that.”

Furious, Carlito turns on Strauss, but his rifle has gone empty after his failed attempt to mask his words. He considers going for his pistol, but Strauss’ still-cocked rifle and a pleading look from Gorak manage to persuade him otherwise. As the door slides open and Carlito is surrounded by the same yellow glow as his companions, he marches lividly back into the courtyard.

Carlito: “If this ever leaves this cave, I’ll kill all of you.”

Strauss: “We’ll remember that.”

As the party joins up with Tubwin, who is very confused as to why three of his bodyguards suddenly disappeared into thin air. He looks somewhat more reassured when all four exit the building, but his questions remain; questions which are promptly brushed aside by the players. As Tubwin tries to wrap his head around what just happened, the last locking bar slides free from the seal on the large double doors, sliding into place with an ominous boom that echoes throughout the cave. As the echo dies away, the same voice that spoke to them before each challenge reverberates through the cavern.

Voice: “You have conquered the weakness within yourselves. Now, stronger in spirit, work together to reach your goal. As one, prove yourselves now.”

Norm: “What do you suppose he means by-”

He is interrupted by a loud roar, descending from the unseen darkness in the cavern’s ceiling. Then, swooping down from the blackness above, a green dragon dives towards the party, landing with a crash in the central courtyard and giving another roar, its wings outstretched to make its already substantial size seem bigger and more menacing. The players, though shocked by the sudden appearance of a freaking dragon, nonetheless react quickly and draw weapons.

Things go poorly almost immediately. As Gorak rushes in to keep the heat off of the guys with guns, a savage blow from the dragon’s claws force him to stagger back. Then, when he tries to engage again, the dragon lifts into the air and covers the ground around Gorak with an acid breath attack, burning the dwarf in the corrosive wave. Strauss stays back and puts a few bullets through the dragon’s wings, and Carlito tries to target the creature’s face, but his shots ricochet off the hard scales. The players dive out of the way as the dragon swoops low for a passing attack, lobbing a few shots as it passes, but doing little damage. Gorak is hit again and slows down considerably, suddenly becoming acquainted with the bottom of his hitpoint barrel.

Norm surveys the situation and quickly comes to a conclusion: this dragon is going to wreck them. If the fight goes on for much longer, they’ll all be killed and discarded with the same consideration that was given to the Nazis. Looking around frantically for some kind of advantage, his eyes fall on the green gem set in the middle of the seal on the double doors: it is glowing brightly, though he doesn’t remember it doing so before. With nothing to lose, Norm rushes over to the gem and, glancing back once more at the fight behind him, brings his sword down on the gem with every ounce of strength he has. The gem chips slightly and green sparks run along the length of Norm’s sword. A beam of green light arcs from the broken gem and into the dragon, causing it to rear back and emit a roar of what Norm assumes to be pain. Apparently he’s on the right track.

Norm attacks the gem again and again, the stone chipping a little more and the beam of light getting somewhat smaller every time. The dragon is nonetheless continuing to take damage, however, and Strauss and Carlito are redoubling their own attacks. Gorak, however, takes another claw to the chest and is knocked to the ground unconscious and with a large dragon looming over him. That is a less than an ideal situation no matter how you slice it.

Finally, as Norm exhausts the last of the gem’s power, causing it to crumble into a thick dust, the dragon crouches low and takes in a breath, preparing to breath acid once again. Strauss, seeing his opening, steadies his aim and sends a bullet flying directly down the dragon’s throat. The dragon chokes in surprise, a dribbling of acid flowing over its teeth as it stands back upright in a state of shock. Then, slowly, it tips to the side and crashes hard to the ground, its wings splayed out beneath it. A fair amount of healing is then required.

GM Note: This fight ended up being way harder than I anticipated. I’d never pitched players against a dragon before, and this encounter taught me that their challenge rating as presented in the D20 sourcebooks is a misleading fabrication. The players had fought encounters of a higher CR than this and come out smiling, but this dragon with his multiple attacks and special abilities came close to wiping the floor with them. Ultimately, I threw in the gem as a lifeline, as it allowed the players to escape alive and it actually seemed reasonable in some ways: the original idea was that killing the dragon destroys the gem and opens the door, therefore implying that the dragon’s life force is in some way linked to it. It didn’t seem too far-fetched that that connection could work in reverse as well. This was the conclusion Norm came to and it was good enough for me, so we went with it. Nonetheless, the fight ended up being kind of a bummer, simply because it wasn’t what you would call “even”.

With the dragon out of the way and the party low on hitpoints (but alive) they conclude that the faster they get the Crown and get out, the better. They walk up the steps, through the remnants of the gem, and push open the double doors to the large building. With all its safeguards overcome, the door swings open slowly but steadily to grant them entry. Inside is a single large room, filled with candles that do little to push aside the darkness. On the floor is a painted image of a silver crown, beset with a single red gem in the center. Other similar imagery covers the walls, and against the far wall are a pair of stone coffins, inscribed with writing in some unknown language. Between these two coffins a cloaked figure kneels before a low table, covered in candles and a large book. When he turns, he reveals himself to be another gith, but one that looks positively ancient.

Gith: “So. You have completed the challenges.”

Gorak: “Well, it looks like a few others tried.”

Gith: “I would imagine so. I had hoped none would make it this far. You are the first.”

Norm: “And who are you?”

Gith: “My name is Arja’rok. I am the guardian of this place. The first, and last.”

Carlito: “And what is this place, exactly?”

Arja’rok: “A final resting place for some of the last remnants of Maanzecorian. You see his symbol on the ground before you, and beside me are the tombs of his two servants, Hananolith and Dleniacorus. After their master was slain in his realm of Rictus, they fled to the Outlands, never to be seen again.”

Norm: “And they ended up here?”

Arja’rok: “In those days the link to this world was young and tenuous. Few portals existed, and fewer still allowed for a successful journey. Hananolith and Dleniacorus, in their exile below the Spire, stumbled across one such portal, and it led them here. They constructed this place to keep the Crown, the last relic of their fallen master, safe.

Strauss: “From who?”

Arja’rok: “From any who wished to destroy it. Many times before have gods died, been resurrected, and brought back. So long as something of their power and presence remains, the gods may never truly die.”

Gorak: “So then why protect it? Why not just destroy it yourselves?”

Arja’rok: “By the time we discovered this place, the link between worlds was cemented. We feared that moving the Crown to a place where it could be destroyed would draw attention, and we could not risk it falling into the wrong hands. And so my order was established. For centuries we have guarded this place from all who seek it, and from those who simply stumble too close.”

Norm: “Well, we’re here for the Crown. What are we gonna have to do to get it?”

Arja’rok: “I feared as much. I cannot allow someone to take the crown. I am duty-bound to stop you.”

Carlito: “Look, we found this place: others can too. Maybe we can take it somewhere safer?”

Arja’rok: “My oaths do not permit this. My order is pledged to keeping the Crown here, no matter the cost. You have taken no such oaths and I cannot trust you with this responsibility. I am old, my strength not what it was. But nonetheless: I must keep my oaths.

Arja’rok struggles to his feet and draws a blade from beneath his cloak. The metal appears to shift and shimmer just below the surface, as if the blade were almost a living object: Carlito recognizes this as a Karach Blade: a sword given to only the most capable and honored of Zerth warriors within Githzerai culture. As Arja’rok’s old and withered arms raise the blade above his head, Strauss brings up his rifle and fires, shooting him through the chest. The Karach blade falls from his hands, and Arja’rok falls backwards into the low table, his eyes closing after centuries of patient service.

More or less unfazed after having just killed an ancient guardian of a potentially incredibly dangerous artifact, the players begin to search the room for any clues as to where said artifact might be located. Finding a hidden switch on the wall, Carlito pushes it and a pedestal rises out of the ground from the red gem in the mural of the crown. Seated within that pedestal on an appropriately ornate cushion (that has inexplicably survived the years) is the artifact itself: the Crown of the Savant. There is a moment of almost reverent silence before Gorak speaks up.

Gorak: “So… we’re gonna break this thing, right?”

Strauss: “Oh, definitely.”

Norm: “Yep.”

Carlito: “I kinda wanna keep it, but yeah, probably for the best.”

Tubwin: “What?! You can’t be serious!”

Carlito: “Why not?”

Norm: “Yeah, remember when the old guy talked about this potentially being a means of resurrecting an Illithid god?”

Gorak: “That’s bad.”

Strauss: “So the logical choice is to destroy this thing so that never happens.”

Tubwin: “But… but this is a major piece of history! One of the greatest finds in recent memory, and certainly in my career! To simply destroy it would be… would be…”

Gorak: “The right thing to do?”

Tubwin: “I can’t just let you do this!”

Carlito: (Speaking out of character) “Alright, I kill him.”

This sparks a serious intra-party divide: while everyone agrees that the Crown must be destroyed, killing Tubwin is something of a grey area, as he’s simply an over-zealous historian. Carlito, having been forced to reveal his identity, appears to have lost some of his direction in life and is aiming his pistol at the frightened gnome’s face. Strauss, despite having just murdered a centuries-old, nearly defenseless githzerai, is aiming his own rifle at Carlito, trying to get him to lower his weapon. Norm remains standing back a few steps, trying to determine which side of the argument he’ll come down on, and Gorak, overcome by the sudden split, begs with his companions to come to their senses and stop pointing guns at each other. To quote Lord of the Rings: the quest (and the party) stands on the edge of a knife.

GM Note: This is where my lack of skill as an author annoys me. I just can’t convey how ridiculously tense this moment was. Carlito was about to execute another unarmed person, Strauss was about to finally carry through his just-under-the-surface threats against Carlito for his constant secrecy, Norm brought up the concern that this kill would likely be a true evil action, shifting his alignment, and Gorak just wanted to do the right thing and keep everyone friends. Almost nobody at the table was on the same page and virtually everyone, myself included, believed that the campaign was about to end right here: the players would kill each other in a hail of bullets and moral ambiguity, and that quest I’d written for next weekend to wrap things up would never come to fruition. At one point I actually accepted this turn and asked the group if they wanted to roll for initiative. But they wanted to keep discussing their options. The ensuing Mexican standoff lasted for about half an hour.

After a very long debate, the party finally reaches an agreement. Unfortunately, that agreement fell in favor of killing Tubwin. Norm runs the terrified gnome through the stomach and Carlito follows that up with a double-tap to the chest. Tubwin dies quickly, though not entirely painlessly. Carlito grabs the crown and shoves it into his pack, and he, Strauss, and Norm exit the building to find Gorak sitting dejectedly on the steps outside. He’s not happy about the party’s actions, but the job isn’t done yet so he’ll go along with them until this fiasco is through.

GM Note: This was a pretty big step for the party, because although they’ve killed plenty of unarmed prisoners before, this was probably their first actual murder (insofar as Tubwin hadn’t really done anything wrong). With that in mind, I declared that the party had shifted alignment, as per Norm’s previous conjecture, and was now chaotic evil. There were a few questions raised in regard to this and to be perfectly honest I’m still somewhat up in the air about it myself: alignment change is a big deal and there was some suggestion that this wasn’t severe enough to bump it down to all-out evil. I’m actually curious to see if anybody else has had to deal with alignment-shifting parties and how they dealt with it, so feel free to put forward any suggestions/critiques/stories.

Stopping only to loot the Karach blade from the Arja’rok’s body (a blade which is now useless as its shape and function as a sword is connected solely to its original owner’s willpower), the players head back through the destroyed wall, through the tunnel, away from the ancient temple, down through the forest, back to their car, and back to the Shanghai airport. They have a few questions for their employer about their most recent mission, and so tell the Gatehouse guards and pilots that they’ll be setting a course for the Gatehouse headquarters in Sydney, Australia, assuming that there’s some form of direct communication or travel back to Ridgeway in Sigil from there. The pilots understandably ask some questions about Tubwin, but the players explain that he’ll be staying behind to do some further research work and that they’ll be back with a larger expedition in a few days. The pilots appear to accept this and get them airborne soon after.

On the way, however, the players get a nasty surprise when the cockpit doors open and a small cylindrical object flies into the cabin. It begins belching smoke and most of the players succumb to the noxious fumes quickly, lapsing into unconsciousness. Gorak, making use of his dwarven resistances, and Carlito, making use of a lucky d20, shake off the effects of the gas and head toward the cockpit door. One of the pilots comes around the corner with a gas mask on his face and a pistol in hand and fires at Gorak, a pop of compressed air accompanying the shot and a small dart bouncing off the dwarf’s armor. Ignoring the shot, Gorak barrels into the cockpit and clubs the man in the face, smashing in the gas mask and covering some of the plane’s controls in a red mist. The second pilot turns to face the dwarf, but is stopped by the barrel of Carlito’s gun, which is pressed hard against his temple.

Carlito: “Who told you to kill us?”

Pilot: “Ridgeway. He said to kill you if you came back without the gnome.”

Carlito: “What? Why?”

Pilot: “I don’t know. That’s all we were told. It was nothing personal.”

Carlito: “Well, neither is this.”

Throwing open the cabin door, Carlito throws the pilot out into the open air, somewhere above the pacific ocean. Then, handing the plane over to Strauss, who Gorak has woken up, they descend to a lower altitude and continue on their way. Daniel Ridgeway has a few things to answer for.

To be continued…

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