(A brief aside from Strahd featuring 8th level characters)
We begin in the city of Pinehost, a primary producer of lumber but large enough to be a trade center and home to a number of nobles. The tavern is peaceful, with a few groups celebrating but overall pretty sparse; a lot of them seem to be manual laborers, but there are exceptions.
Grey is half-drow, sitting by himself, nicely but not expensively dressed; he's just finished a job, and is feeling pretty good about himself. Silvercat's character Jhuni Blackfire is a dragonborn, and keeping to herself at another table. Danny's character Thelmor Irdro is a Shadar-Kai, a shadow elf, nondescript clothing but distinctive dark eyes; he has tattoos of a raven and a wolf, and is simply listening to whoever is talking, half-visible by virtue of his heritage. Songbird's character Nil is a slender half-orc dressed in traveling clothes, with a quarterstaff leaning against the wall behind them and a holy symbol depicting a raven. Like the others, they're observing the room and listening to the bards. Snow is a tall, slender tabaxi with blue-gray fur and green eyes; she wears green, in a combination of fancy and functional - very Three Musketeers. She has taken a spot on the small stage, and is telling the tale of the Dragon Skull Heist and drawing a crowd. Griff's character Sunrise is hanging back to let Snow lead the show; she looks completely relaxed, but also completely out of place: she's a tiefling, dressed in white and gold, with large ivory-colored horns, wearing quite a bit of jewelry. Even her instrument, a sort of dulcimer, looks too rich for this place. Sitting on her shoulder is golden-colored creature, an imp.
As Snow and Sunrise wind up their story to applause and profit, they settle back to enjoy having drinks bought for them. The tavern has settled into a quieter moment when the doors swing up and a trio of distinctive strangers stride in. They are obviously wealthy, probably noble; the first is a tiefling, with purple horns and purple skin, wearing an open-front shirt of silk. The one immediately behind him is a dwarven woman, richly garbed but in leather and a dress warhammer (like a dress sword, but y'know hammer). Where the tiefling swishes, she comes in serious and alert. Their companion is more graceful, more restrained than the tiefling, their gender ambiguous, also richly dressed.
The dwarf pushes past the tiefling, steps onto a table, and clinks her hammer against her armor to draw attention. "We three are here," she announces, "to offer adventure to anyone who wants it. We have had items stolen from us, and we will offer any reward within our power to whomever can retrieve them. A payment will be made to your next of kin if you perish in the attempt. We'll be over here, if you're interested."
The tiefling looks offended again as she pushes past him and claims a table.
The rest of the tavern stares, then goes back to their business; apparently this is commonplace. Sunrise waits a brief moment, then stands and crosses the room and takes a seat at their table; Thelmor follows suit, as does Nil. Jhuni and Grey move close enough to listen in, but don't immediately join them.
Sunrise greets the tiefling, and asks about how many of these payments they've sent out already. It's... quite a few.
"So, these lost treasures...?"
The dwarf removes a folded letter from her pocket and places it on the table. "This was left where my hammer had been." Each of the other two produce similar letters; the tiefling looks disgusted at having to touch it.
The letter reads (rough notes):
Search ye far or search ye near, you'll find no items three.
North past the farms and forests, into the earth, fight the beast, pass beneath the inverted ziggurat, then be caught; I care not who you send, I'll make slaves of them or send them to the fire. Specifically (with the actual text rather than my hasty notes):
Search ye far or search ye near
You'll find no trace of the three
Unless you follow instructions clear
For the weapons abide with me.
North past forest, farm and furrow
You must go to the feathered mound
Then down away from the sun you'll burrow
Forget life, forget light, forget sound.
To rescue Wave, you must do battle
With the Beast in the Boiling Bubble
Crost cavern vast, where chain-links rattle
Lies Whelm, past water-spouts double.
Blackrazor yet remains to be won
Underneath inverted ziggurat.
That garnered, think not that you're done
For now you'll find you are caught
I care not, former owners brave
What heroes you seek to hire.
Though mighty, I'll make each one my slave
Or send him to the fire
Thelmor recognizes the symbol as the glyph of an ancient wizard... name starts with a K? Maybe?
All three letters are identical.
Nil: "Well, that's... definitely verse."
Tiefling noble: "I've seen better poetry scrawled on the walls of an outhouse..."
The elf straightens. "We believe that the feathered mound must be White Plume Mountain; since the adventurers we have sent there have not returned, we feel that must be correct."
Nil: "So what all did you lose?
The dwarf: "Not just any items. Mine was a magical warhammer, known to break apart anything in its path. It's called Whelm. Dwarven make, strong and powerful, a thing of beauty and strength."
Tiefling: "Mine was absolutely perfection. A pitch-black greatsword, shining like the night sky, named Blackrazor."
Elf: "A trident known as wave, a beautiful piece that my ancestors gained through a peace treaty with the sea elves."
Nil: "Were there ransom demands?"
Dwarf: "No. We have only the letters. Is it a challenge? A way to collect adventurers? We know not."
Nil: "It sounds like it's trying to goad you. Have any of you gone?"
Nobles: "Our duties do not permit us to leave willy-nilly, however important the mission."
Sunrise: "I understand that you value these, but with enough money you could commission replacements rather than sending people to die..."
Tiefling: "Mine, at least, was sentient: unique and irreplaceable."
Thelmor: "So, if we are able to get these, I would like for my reward to be involve a chance to study the weapons."
The Tiefling, whose name is Perfect, elects to go with us. He also introduces his fellow nobles: Selanar Qivaris, wood elf and Dhudruda Grumblefoot, dwarf.
Nil looks to see just how identical the letters are. The paper seems handmade, the writing nearly identical, the marks precisely identical. The nobles have been able to figure out that the mark was used by a wizard some three thousand years ago, confirming Thelmor's memory.
Thelmor scowls, and Nil asks: "Does that mean something to you?"
Thelmor: "Perhaps it's a copycat, or perhaps someone is cheating death; that cannot be allowed. Things that are meant to die must die in their time."
Snow: "It has been my experience that there are always people who have too much of some things, and others with not enough. Life, it seems, is one of those things. I... make it a habit to try to correct those imbalances."
Thelmor: "We would seem to have that in common."
Nil: "So, Perfect... how old are these weapons? They all sound like heirlooms."
Perfect: "Very old; I don't really know."
Nil: "3000 years old?"
Perfect: "Good question. I know not."
Perfect: "There's a village known as Stormvale at the base of the mansion; with luck we can get there, get into the mountain, and come back for cocktails all around."
The other two offer him bags of... money? I think? They all seem in agreement that if Perfect is going with us, they should support the effort.
We head out the next day, piling into a couple of horse-drawn carriages to travel to a nearby village; the carriages are sort of purple chandeliers. We arrive, quite comfortably, in Stormvale; Perfect points out a peak that seems to be constantly emitting smoke or steam; there's a visible cave that seems to exhale steam at regular intervals. The village is small and unwalled, but not entirely lacking in amenities; in fact, there are more resources than it seems like a village of this size should host.
Perfect: "Before I secure our amenities, let me offer the down payment we promised." He sorts the three pouches, and hands each of us a sack of coins: 500 GP each. "We can discuss the next of kin tonight."
There's a big sign in the middle of town, offering directions to various places in town; we've clearly wandered into the DnD equivalent of a Colorado ski resort town.
Nil: "About the thefts..."
Perfect: "All the same night, irritatingly. And we did not know each other well before the thefts."
Nil is interested in the temple, so we head off in that direction. It's a very old building, but also fairly large; it's mostly divided to various alcoves, each dedicated to a pantheon. We are welcomed by a gracious half-elf, with the blond hair and golden skin of high elf ancestry. The elf guides Sunrise to the shrine of Hamity in the Elvish pantheon, and recommends a particular smith who might have magic items to Nil. Thelmor looks for the sigil of the Raven Queen, and finds it in a niche of its own -- apart from any pantheon. (There are others arranged in similar positions, for those who are worshipped without quite being gods or quite being part of a pantheon.)
There's a blacksmith, there's general goods, there's a library, and there's a tavern. The signs for the blacksmith are blue; and the fires that the gnome and her smiths are using to forge are blue. The place is called the Blue Blazes. The sounds of smithing fill the air. There are a few orcs and even a goliath working the metal, but also gnomes working on smaller bits of jewelry. One of them comes rushing over with a great smile: "Welcome, my name is Jellior, this is the Blue Blazes, where you can get anything your dreams can imagine."
Snow asks after the possibility of enchanted studded leather that can take the appearance of any sort of clothing. Sunrise immediately perks up. Jellior has no such thing available; Sunrise asks after protective amulets or jewelry. Jellior had a ring of protection, but it was purchased by an adventurer... he was definitely headed for White Plume Mountain. Grey crosses to General Goods store, finding the fellow behind the counter to be a fireblood genasi. Grey asks after a cloak of protection, and the Genasi opens a glass case and picks something out: a cloak with a shield clasp. "For you, I would let this lovely cloak go for a mere 200 GP."
Jhuni follows him in and purchases the second one. Snow wanders over to the general goods in search of a hat of disguise. The fireblood pulls out a beautiful hat in a lovely emerald green. It's ostentatious, but gorgeous. Snow will take it, and she'll most certainly wear it out - but she'll definitely take a hat box for her current hat. Sunrise asks in both stores after a ring of mind shielding. Jellior can oblige. Jhuni buys some black velvet ribbon to decorate her horns. Sunrise adds a Pearl of Power, and Thelmor asks about improved studded leather; Jellior can manage that, and could manage it for Snow as well. Nil asks about adamantine scale armor; apparantly adamantine comes from the mountain and isn't so hard to find up here.
There are hotsprings around the edge of town. (Sunrise asked.) Nil then goes to buy tool kits from the general goods. Grey returns to the blacksmith and asks after warning weapons, then claims a dagger. Jhuni grabs a potion of greater healing from general goods. Grey considers that an excellent idea, but can only afford a regular potion of healing.
With everyone supplied, we head to the library. It's stone, lit through cracks in the stone and carefully covered lanterns. A gnome beside the door, Panrik, perks up as we enter: "How may I be of service to you?"
Nil: "We're on a quest. Have you seen this symbol before?"
Panrick adjusts his glasses. "Give me a moment." He disappears back into the stacks. After a time he returns and hops back onto his seat. He sets down a very old scroll case and carefully opens it. "Ah yes, this symbol here." It's the same one. "This is very old, only around about 3000 years ago. Surprised to see it on something so recent. This is the seal of the wizard Keraptis. This entire scroll is about him. He rose to power in the valleys of this mountain, controlling the warlords with cruel and gruesome punishments. He drove back the local monsters and savage tribes, but held his people in an iron fist and taxed them mercilessly. Madness, demonic possession, undead... all grew common, according to the stories. And in time the monstrous incursions -- hobgoblins and bugbears and such -- began to increase again. But what truly tipped the balance was his demand that one third of newborn children be given to him. Led by a powerful cleric and his ranger acolyte, the people rose up and destroyed the guardians; the wizard was only able to escape by sacrificing his followers. The legend goes that White Plume Mountain was the only place left where he could find refuge; he had nowhere else to go."
Nil asks about the weapons.
Panrick: "Well, they were recently stolen; this article, 'Nobles Gone Mad,' discusses reports of just how desperate the nobles are to retrieve those weapons. It's all been very messy since then. There are many rumors, depending on who you talk to. They were even hangings of servants who were supposed to be on guard, it's said."
The group makes a note to discuss this with Perfect.
On to the tavern! There's already a table full of food and drink sitting there, with Perfect sitting there ushering over to eat with him. There are other people at other tables, but nobody wants to bother the flamboyant noble. Nil asks if we could move all this somewhere more private; Perfect agrees and throws down some more money and off we go.
Nil draws out a large circle and casts a spell. "This is a zone of truth." She looks around. "There are some questions we wish to ask before we leave tomorrow, and perhaps some you wish to ask us." Sunrise goes directly to the accusations in the library.
Perfect: "Those nasty little rumors?"
Perfect: "The thieves' guild was ransacked, but that was not for us; the guards do it as performance every so often, to show that they're doing their jobs. We merely asked if they found anything."
Sunrise: "And the servants?"
Perfect: "Complicated. It wasn't one of our servants. We posted rewards, and unfortunately some less scrupulous entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to try to scam us. Grumblefoot received a letter; she informed the guards, and the guards rounded up the perpetrators. When the guards learned that they didn't actually have Whelm... well, under Dwarven law, intruding on someone's grief this way is punishable at the lord's discretion. It turns out that this person was also involved in bribery and blackmail, and so Grumblefoot had them hanged."
Sunrise: "Were any of your servants punished for not doing their job?"
Perfect: "A few were fined or released from service, but none of them were hanged. We would not hang servants for such a thing."
Thelmor: "You mentioned that your weapon was sentient. Did that add to your desperation when it was stolen?"
Perfect looks stricken, though he tries to hide it: "I understand the sense of desperation; that is why I am here. I long to have a friend back. I can't speak for the other two."
Thelmor: "I look forward to us being able to retrieve it."
Do the weapons have genders?
Perfect: "Blackrazor doesn't seem to care."
Nil: "As a cleric of Odin, in accepting this job I will do my best to protect you all and see us all back alive and well." They touch their holy symbol, a raven.
Thelmor cocks his head: "A familiar symbol, but not the same as mine."
Sunrise: "Have you any questions for us?"
Perfect: "Do you promise to stay alive as long as possible?"
Grey: "Immortal until proven otherwise."
Perfect takes down names for next of kin, or other desired heirs.
Once the food is done, we're provided with beds and blankets and a chance to sleep. We leave the following evening, with all our new equipment.
The mountain really does seem to be breathing: every thirty seconds or so, smoke or steam comes out of the cave, and a few seconds later is partially sucked back in. It's weirdly regular, and not at all normal for even a volcano.
Sunrise: "Are we sure this is really a mountain?"
Nil: "Are sure the wizard was human, and not say a now-ancient dragon?"
Perfect just grins at the speculation. "White plume mountain is a continuous geyser, and that cavern is actually called Wizard's mouth. It does rather look as if it's breathing, doesn't it?"
Sunrise: "'Geyser' would be a wonderful cover story for a three thousand year old dragon wizard."
We go back to looking over the clues in the letters.
Perfect: "With the number of adventurers we've sent, whatever is in there must be something terrible."
Nil: "You're very trusting that we're going to keep you alive?"
Perfect: "I'm trying to keep you arrive."
Nil: "Thank you."
Perfect: "I try to be perfect."
Thelmor: "Is there any way in that doesn't involve the Wizard's Mouth?"
There's a cave along the way. Perfect has no idea if anybody has tried it, but Grey is in favor of at least checking that first. So is everyone else. Nil is mapping as we travel, and doing pretty well.
The cave is still in the foothills. There are some adventuring items in here: old wooden chests, saddle bags, and like that. There's a sign at the back. "Welcome to Dead Mole's Eyesocket." It looks like a great place to take shelter from bad weather or the like. Nil looks around to see if anyone is here.
A goblin emerges from a side area.
Nil speaks goblin(!!!). They address the goblin.
He's wearing full armor, and has a symbol of a hammer on his necklace. "You need keep your stuff here! Doc Pep keep your stuff here in name of Mahal!"
Nil immediately drops into discussion of gods. Snow, recognizing Doc Pep from an unrelated campaign, says hello. The rest of us experience a moment of OOC dissonance.
Snow: "Hi, Doc Pep. It's Snow. You can't see me right now, but it's me." Snow is a Gloomstalker ranger, and invisible to the Darkvision that we're all using to see.
Doc Pep: "Stabby Kitty! I miss you, Stabby Kitty! You get discount. Not them, just you."
Nil: "Are there tunnels from here into the mountain?"
Doc: "One, but it bottomless pit. Lead straight to lava."
Grey: "I'd... like to see that."
Nil asks about alternate ways into mountain.
Doc: "Very top, but you fall into lava."
So our choices are basically lava, lava, or breathing hole death-passage.
They ask about the halfling with the ring of protection. Doc's pretty sure he's dead. He hasn't come back in three months, and also he was dumb. Doc already sold his stuff to the village.
Snow: "This would explain how that tiny village has such a supply of magical goods... and at those prices."
Nil: "How long have you been in business?"
Doc, counting fingers: "Five years."
Sunrise decides to keep her instruments with her. And Jhuni and Thelmor recall that there was an altar to Mahal in the temple in town. (OOC: I love that the temple here is a full Parthenon.)
Nil: "You don't have any customers named Keraptis, do you?"
Doc: "Some bugbears come by. They mention Keraptis. They come from breathing hole."
We continue up the slope, and enter through the mouth -- literally the only way inside that we've been able to find.
Everything here is unnaturally *moist*, enough to make Snow shudder in disdain. The cloud is steam. There's a whistling sound coming from the cave. The entrance is slippery, and the floor is thick with muck; Perfect is hiking up everything he's wearing and stepping as delicately as possible along. Sunrise has, at this point, changed into more standard adventuring gear. There's a crack about a foot wide, where the odd exhale-inhale seems to focus.
We spend some time looking at this entrance, because the steam coming out is uncomfortably hot and will probably hurt us if we're standing there when it comes through. Thelmor looks for any kind of hidden doors, but doesn't find anything. Poking around with Nil's staff, we find a spot where the floor has a small wooden trap door, hidden under the muck. Jhuni pulls on the ring; Nil touches her and adds a bit of magical aid, and the trapdoor pops loose.
Directly beneath the trap door is the opening of a spiral staircase descending a twenty foot square shaft.
Nil tries to sort out our marching order, and asks everybody what they can do. Perfect is a battle commander. He fights with a greatsword. Nil is surprised.
Thelmor is a blood knight. Nil doesn't know what that is. This is kind of awkward, but eventually we sort it out:
Nil takes the lead, with Jhuni following, then Perfect, then Thelmor, then Sunrise, then Grey, then Snow. We proceed downward, relying on darkvision and not using lights. We go slow, and try to be silent. The air is foul and the stair is rusted but sturdy; we reach the bottom, and find the floor covered in a foot of warm water. There a constant low thrumming that permeates this whole place. We proceed down the corridor, and notice some algae floating on the water. Jhuni make a light-rock with a cantrip; Nil notices that trying to light a candle is a near-impossibility in this wind and humidity.
Lit, the algae is green and white; it floats in the water, and clings to the walls and ceiling. It appears to be harmless. Nil tucks the lightstone back into their pouch, returning us to darkness.
However, we notice that the floor is covered with slippery mud beneath the water, forcing us to walk slowly and carefully. This is going to mess with silence, invisibility, and movement - particularly running. We take resigned breaths and proceed. Eventually we reach a sort of crossroads; there's a creature crouching behind a wall of force, regarding us; it looks bedraggled and probably unhappy. Nil stops and motions everyone to stop behind her.
"Round she is, yet flat as a board..." the sphynx begins. Jhuni pops out with an answer and the wall dissolves and the ginosphynx lays down in the water again.
Here's the actual riddle:Round she is, yet flat as a board
Altar of the Lupine Lords
Jewel on black velvet, pearl in the sea
Unchanged but e'erchanging, eternally
The answer is "the Moon."
That's probably a good stopping point for tonight.