Aboard the Dagger of Ursh, the plot was so thick you could taste it. “Moist,” thought Vanguard Forthwind, “like elderberries.” There stood the UTA, weapons drawn and faced with one less secret package and one more Rusty than they needed. With an arcane flourish and hint of doves, Finn sealed the upper deck, buying them precious seconds. “I don’t know what is morally right, but we must decide now!” he shouted. Rusty, wide-eyed and blood-soaked, cast a frightened look towards Vanguard. “We cannot abandon our friend in his hour of need! Please, we can still resolve this conflict!” But Orsik had heard enough, unsheathing his maul and muttering a spell of binding on the demon spawn. “No! Not Ronny!” bellowed Leif, tackling Orsik to the ground and breaking his concentration. “He is too far gone,” Ferris declared solemnly, and Rusty knew he was doomed.
With the tide turned against him and fearing for his life, Rusty made one final gambit. He launched his dagger at the imposter’s neck, hoping to end the conflict then and there. But Ferris was too agile, taking only a glancing blow to the shoulder. In that moment, there was a burst of fire and smoke behind Rusty. Two pale arms unfurled and wrapped across his shoulders. Finn saw Azuzu’s fiendish smile, but then they were gone, erupting out of the side of the ship in an explosion of timber and ash. Aggrieved but knowing that tragedy was no time for remorse, Vanguard leapt back to the task at hand. “Give us a moment, man!” cried Leif. “By nightfall these decks will be crawling with guards!” Vanguard replied.
While Leif & Orsik set to securing an escape route, Vanguard and Finn set to unpuzzling the puzzlingly empty hold. After discovering a secret compartment behind a double-hinged door, Ferris set to prove his worth by disabling a trapped chest. Within, they discovered a shriveled and gruesome hand resting upon a velvet cushion. Surely this was their objective, a Hand of Glory! And so the UTA made their escape from the Dagger of Ursh, shaken and unnerved by the events that had so rapidly transpired.
A contact from the Midnight’s Own accepted the Hand (sans a few choice magic rings), pledging a corps of archers to the UTA’s army. “They say Dedrek Harskel has already fled into hiding,” said a beaming Wypauw. The UTA then took a much-needed rest at the Red Door Tavern, each of them seeking solace in their own way. Catching up over a cold drink, Ferris insisted that his old friends, Leif & Vanguard, call him Rusty again. Hesitant but understanding, Vanguard soon excused himself to meditate with Finn.
The UTA needed to speak to Nira about their findings in Kazzak’tul, but first a trip to the Temple of the Hooded Lantern was long overdue. An impressive sandstone lighthouse in the Temple District, flecked with countless skylights and flooded with sunshine and warmth, the Temple truly was a light in the darkness. High priest Jordun Haell assured them that the Radiant Lord would aid them in their quest. The Church of Pelor is a warm hearth to the needy, but also a blinding light that strikes down evil. Of course, this assistance would require a demonstration of faith. Perhaps seeking answers for his recent transformation, perhaps just a bit more impulsive than usual, Finn quickly knelt before Haell and swore himself into Pelor’s blessed service. He was led among the penitent pilgrims to the Courtyard of the Sun Pole, where a ritual would take place. Fastening a metal hook into his chest and leaning his weight upon it, Finn stared up into the sun. He was told of the struggle with evil and death, of the sacrifices made necessary by their position as mortals in this world. A star-shaped piece of flesh finally tore away, and for the briefest of moments the Sun God smiled down upon Finn. He was now among the enlightened, he would carry the fire. Overwhelmed, Finn was struck blind. The devotees chanted:
“In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape our sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware our power, Pelor’s light!”
“What a load of crap”, Orsik muttered to himself as they departed. At least Pelor’s clerics and paladins would now take up arms, if they could even fight worth a damn. When the black towers of Raven’s Eyrie came into view, the sour taste in his mouth was all but forgotten. “This is the true god, this is what the world is,” Orsik thought as he beheld the massive stone columns that pressed down perpetually upon the backs of writhing masses. But then – sounds of battle! A cohort of red skeletons were laying siege to the temple! The UTA made quick work of the undead and their wraith leader, with Vanguard guiding Finn’s attacks until his blindness receded.
Inside, Nira and a fearsome sorrowsworn from the depths of the temple, Olivex, dispatched the remaining invaders. The UTA quickly deduced that their enemies bore the tell-tale symbols of Nerull, former god of death! “But that cannot be, Nerull is destroyed. The evidence lies here before you,” said Nira, gesturing to the Sorrowmere that brimmed with Nerull’s blood. ‘Vorkhesis was sorrowsworn. He will be punished for this betrayal!’ growled Olivex through clenched fangs. The UTA then revealed the magic rod they had recovered from Kazzak’tul. Nira was quick to identify it as a legendary artifact, Kattel’uttan, god-killer! This was the tool once used by the Raven Queen to overthrow Nerull. The Raven Queen had sent Orsik to recover it again, but why? Were they expected to use it against Vorkhesis? “It gives you the ability to kill an immortal, but not the strength,” cautioned Nira. Entrusting the rod to her care, the UTA promised to confront Vorkhesis as soon as the lich threat was dealt with.
A guard detail of the Deathless Watch soon arrived outside the temple. A prim messenger piped out: ‘His Lordship Prince Rolan requests an immediate audience with those identifying themselves as Finn Bailey, Vanguard Forthwind, Orsik the Seeker, Leif Blaze, & Randy Butternubs. Please come at once.’ And so they were on the move again, with Leif wondering whether or not this session would ever end. At the end of an avenue of stunted black trees, the Deathless Keep loomed silent and immortal. Six crooked towers splayed over the city like unsheathing claws, casting impenetrable shadow upon the abutting districts.
The heroes passed first through the Hall of Blades, thick with drunken soldiers pawing at servants and brawling in a central ring. The simple iron throne sat vacant, so the UTA were led onwards. The Hall of Blades, Hall of Ancients, Hall of Silver, Midsummer Hall, Raven’s Hall, and Blackfire Hall joined together at a central courtyard. This courtyard, the Garden of Yorra, was brimming with exotic ferns as timeless as the Keep itself. A genasi emissary and his guests laughed and flirted beneath the trees, but the UTA were there to see Prince Rolan. And see him they did! He lounged quietly in the shade, spinning a rapier idly on its point with a leg resting over the arm of his chair.
“Theft, rioting, murder, demon worship. Your reputation precedes you… I had hoped for a more interesting lot,” Rolan mused as they approached. “So tell me, what will you do with this army that you raise against me?” Launching into damage control, Finn & Vanguard tried to secure Rolan’s buy-in against the lich threat. Principled calls to defend the city fell upon deaf ears, and attempts at intimidation proved unsuccessful. Perhaps they were distracted by the arrival of Rolan’s beautiful Deva consort, Feluria. Well, Leif certainly was. Fortunately, Rolan eventually conceded to a simple exchange. The UTA would root out the troublesome and hostile group known as the False Keepers, and Rolan would release his gargoyles into their service.
Satisfied with these terms, the UTA proceeded towards the Undercity by way of the Hall of Ancients. Immediately, this shadowed and abandoned place put them ill at ease; Finn could sense the lingering stench of demonic blasphemies throughout that wicked place. The stones themselves seemed to bleed underfoot, moaning softly as the UTA descended. The walls gibbered and howled from countless unseen mouths. Just as the clamor reached maddening heights, they burst into the Undercity, thankful for a respite. They pressed onwards, seeking the Shadowheart of the city where the Keepers could surely be found.
A pair of powerful vampires nearly derailed their expedition at its start (“Grigori, they look lost. We should offer some help.” “Nikolai, I cannot. I am simply too famished.” “Ahh, well perhaps they will share a bite…”). Damaged but undeterred, the victorious heroes passed quickly into warm and wet caverns of the Shadowheart. At the entrance they met a pair of tar-spewing False Keepers who enlisted the ancient cobblestone road itself against them. An opportunistic shadow slime proved particularly troublesome in this already darkened place. After another difficult fight, the UTA resolved themselves to continue. They knew now that this would be a difficult journey indeed.