At the begininng of last session, we leveled up. This brought Ruin (finally) to the point where he has enough hit points to be the front-line fighter without nearly dying all the time. (Ruin was built using our DM's True Elf template, which has a -3 Level Adjustment, so while everybody else started with five levels worth of hit points, Ruin started with only two. The True Elf template includes both a Dexterity bonus and a dodge bonus, making him surprisingly hard to hit -- but almost anything that hit him could take him down, early on. And Ruin is... not cautious. So at this point, Ruin has two levels of Barbarian (for rage) and two levels of Ranger (because I'm building towards Horizon Walker, and Ranger adds a feat and access to a knowledge skill that I need for that). Martini is our other Prestige Class build; she started as a Grey Elf Rogue and is now taking levels of Assassin. Azrael is a ninth-level Grey Elf wizard, while Marshall Mercy is a ninth-level Cleric and expert in psychological warfare by way of herpetology.
Once we had that done, we looted the bodies of all the human soldiers we killed last time. That netted us an amazing amount of equipment, mostly in magical chainmail and masterwork greatsword (plus a handful of magical greatswords).
Then we rested.
There was another door down leading off from the bottom of the split-level room where we'd had the battle. We went through it, and this time we spotted the ceiling mantas and drove them off with light. (We're slow; we're not entirely stupid.) Below that level, we found a door — and we could hear voices behind it. Clearly, the time for stealth and subtlety was at hand.
"Hey!" yelled Reverend Mercy. "WE KILLED ALL YOUR MEN!"
Damian, the elf ranger that we brought along from Serpent's Head, threw open the door, giving us a view of a wizard and a single warrior; he immediately moved through and put himself beside the wizard. Ruin saw the wizard and attacked immediately, doing a great deal of damage while she was still flat-footed. (Sometimes his lack of hesitation and any instinct towards self-preservation is a good thing.) The warrior sprang to his feet and cried, "Don't worry, Cassadia! I'll protect you!"
So, okay, baaaaack up. Our characters don't know this — this is their first exposure to this part of the campaign — but waaay back with our first party we kept finding signs of a Cassadia who was moving around and orchestrating Bad Things behind the scenes. Somewhere right around the time we switched over to the second party, we discovered that the reason this Cassadia was so ubiquitous was that she wasn't just one person. Cassidia isn't so much a name as it is a job title: they're always women, they're always arcane spellcasters, they're all called Cassidia... and, as our second party eventually learned, they're all worshippers of Vecna. Male worshippers of Vecna are called Kaz. Which means that whatever is going on here is tied to the scheming and chaos down in the wine and timber country that our first party got caught up in; it's timed to the bizarrely large army of unlikely allies that invaded the country (Sol Povos) from the southeast despite the best efforts of our second party to stop them; and now they're almost certain involved in this plan to seed human forces into the elvish territory/reservation of Duendewood.
But, again, our characters don't know any of this.
Cassadia fires off a spell at Ruin, since he's the only one who's actually hit her so far. Remember back when I said that we'd leveled up and now Ruin had enough hit points to survive combat? Yeah, well, the spell was Phantasmal Killer so he very nearly died anyway.
Damian finished Cassadia off, and the fighter promptly surrendered. We question him about the next door, and he explains that there's a trap, that Kaz and Cassadia do something to a lever inside using their magic in order to pass through without flooding the room. This was all very helpful, so Mercy conjured a giant viper and had it eat him quickly. We looted Cassadia's body and checked over the items in the room, finding a mostly-empty coin chest and a note implicating the king (or at least his advisor) in paying Kaz and Cassidia quite a large sum to get Los Muertos into Serpent's Head.
Azrael used Mage Hand to locate the lever in the next room and pull it; then we got the door open. There were a weapons rack, a couple of treasure chests, and a treasure pile. Martini checked the chests for traps and then got them open, finding a variety of interesting potions and items, while we added a couple of masterwork rapiers to the loot in our Bag of Holding. Among the most interesting of the items found is a +1 Scimitar of Frost.
Then Martini checked the treasure pile, which turned out to be a mimic and promptly tries to eat her. We manage to put down without too much effort. The only thing left in the room at that point was a trap door, which was hot to the touch; however, according to the now-eaten warrior from the last room, Kaz went down that way.
So, all right: the only way to go was down, and "down" led to an area of extreme heat. So we handed the scimitar to Martini, since it would protect her from the heat. The rest of us would just have to tough it out. We descended quickly, opened the next door, and found a fire elemental caged in a magical field and connected somehow to both a crystal on the floor beside it and portal on a dais behind it. Azrael explained that breaking the crystal would both close the portal by taking away its power source and set the fire elemental loose. Ruin, who had his sword raised to smash the crystal, abruptly decided that he needed a different plan. We went through the portal.
The portal took us out into a small, underground room that held both the portal we came through and a second one. Martini immediately started checking the walls, because why would you use a portal to get to a tiny room with another portal when you could just use your portal to go directly to your destination? The only reason for a setup like this was if there was something worth stopping for here. Naturally, she quickly located a secret door.
Before we went through, Damian scouted through the second portal and found a room with a cryo-hydra trapped in the middle of it, keeping the room chilly and powering the second portal just as the fire elemental was powering the first one. He rejoined us as we opened the secret door.
There's a torture chamber on the other side, and this one's been used recently, and yeah: these humans really need to die.
In a cage near the back of the room we found a prisoner, Jax. Jax told us about Gar, the local torturer, and how Gar tortures Jax if Jax does stupid things. Jax sounded a lot like Gollum. Jax told us that he's seen soldiers go through the door — the secret door that we came out of. Then he took a good look at Ruin and, in a tone of wonder and surprise, asked how Ruin could possibly be up and around after being tortured so badly. Ruin must recover amazingly quickly! Ruin, who'd had a bad feeling bordering on a premonition since around the time of the big battle with Los Muertos, asked for more details. Jax explained that he'd seen Ruin brought in as a captive and whipped — badly, and over and over again. He said that only the worst prisoners end up here.
Mercy ensured Jax's loyalty by letting his poisonous snake bite the man, then casting Delay Poison on him. Jax was... already pretty broken. He agreed to stay with us and not alert anybody, and Mercy let him out of the cage. Jax then informed us that there are always a pair of Solari on duty upstairs, and that they have a crystal ball that they can use to see anywhere in the castle — but they don't look down here. So as long as we don't go past the iron gate, we won't be seen.
Bored, Martini asked: "Can we move?"
Azrael: "Yes. I'm getting the creeps."
So Martini scouted ahead, moving past a row of closed and locked cells, and stopping at a door at the far end of a short corridor. She could hear voices through the door, four of them.
Voice 1: "Why all the secrecy? Is it safe?"
Voice 2: "The King is not at war. The Duke cannot be seen killing elves. This will protect you from scrying."
They were plotting. The first voice was apparently an elf (Erwin) from a town called Willowwood. They wanted the elf to get Grusk and his men, the elite Steel Dragons, set up in the caverns under Willowwood and supplied with drink and occasional food. They were paying the elf a large sum for this, but mainly they were offering guarantees that if he did this, Willowwood would not be destroyed. One of the other men in the room was Odin, the Capitan (and sole survivor) of Lose Muertos. The humans then set about getting Erwin to drink and gamble with them, apparently with the idea of winning back at least some of what they were paying him.
Martini came back and reported all this, and Ruin asked Martini to check the cells. He also took this moment to explain that he has a twin brother, and that Jax's insistence that he'd seen Ruin tortured had given Ruin a very bad feeling about his brother's current whereabouts. Martini checked the cells, but reported no sign of Ruin's brother — just some dead guys.
We waited while the group in the next room got good and drunk, then moved up to the door. The idea was to make a Ghost Sound in another area of the room, then open the door and attack by surprise while they were looking the other way. Unfortunately, the door was locked — and even more unfortunately, Martini made enough noise in trying to get it open to make one of them suspicious. She got the lock picked just as she heard the guy approach, so she kicked the door open and caught him in the face with it. While he was cursing about his broken nose, Azrael dropped Evard's Black Tentacles in the middle of the room.
The tentacles grappled everybody in the room, doing minor (but fairly respectable, since it was ongoing) damage. The one by the door was Odin, last of Los Muertos; that put him in striking range, and he went down almost immediately. Martini took advantage of her Slippers of Spider Climbing to move around the walls, staying out of the reach of the tentacles and taking down enemy commanders. Damian the ranger, who has no more sense of self-preservation than Ruin does, goes charging into the room but manages to avoid being grabbed by the tentacles. We switched to ranged weapons and begin killing everyone in the room, but Grusk yells for Gar (in the next room at the top of the stairs, apparently) to go for help.
We cannot defeat Solari, not even down here in close quarters and not even if we outnumber them. (It's not completely impossible; our first party did it once with a mage in very tight quarters, but it is not the way to bet — especially with two of them, and possibly more on call.)
So we finished off the two bad guys in the room: Grusk and Kaz. Erwin the traitorous elf died too, but we weren't actually trying to kill him. He wasn't an adventurer and couldn't take the damage from the tentacles, so he basically died of hentai. By this point, Damian had made it past the tentacles to the stairs, and Marshall Mercy had summoned another giant viper beside the door at the top of the stairs; it managed to bash the door in and take down one of the two guards, giving Damian a way past the other one so he could chase down Gar before the torturer could sound the alarm.
Ruin and Azrael also gave chase, but they were too far back (even with Ruin's barbarian running speed). Fortunately for us all, Damian manages to head Gar off and drive him away from the iron gate. Ruin catches up and positions himself to block the gate, while Azrael blast Gar with a magic missile, taking him down.
Meanwhile, the last remaining guard took a swing at the snake — and, miraculously, not only hit it but killed it. Martini decided that discretion was the better part of valor and retreated across the ceiling, while Marshall was... upset.
There was a certain amount of chasing back and forth to get the last guard, but Mercy finally tagged him with his two-fanged scythe... and rolled a double critical, plus a damage roll where every single one of the four-sided dice came up with either 3 or 4 (mostly 4). The total was 82 points of damage; the guard just sort of exploded into two pieces.
Ruin, coming back to help finish the guy, skidded to a stop at the top of the stairs and just... marveled.
With that resolved and the Solari none the wiser, Ruin returned to Gar tied him up, and healed him. Then Ruin impersonated his brother: "Remember me, human?"
With Gar's panicked attempts to answer question, and Ruin assuring him that the Solari don't look down here and we could do things to him for a very long time, it was little trouble to find where Darvinin was put and retrieve him. Darvinin looked thoroughly battered; he'd been whipped and questioned, and answered pretty much everything. He was also shocked to find Ruin here, and even more shocked to find that Ruin didn't even know where they are.
So Darvinin explains about his scouting mission and the army of elves. They're wearing clothes from Aramar's armory (meaning they look like the troops of the True King) but Darvinin thinks they came in by sea. Apparently a Solari named Almonda ordered the army to go west, and brought Darvinin here to the Duke's castle and Gar's gentle care. Ruin explains about Brindinford, Serpent's Head, and the Portals, until everybody is caught up again.
In another cell, we found Hayduin, the mayor of Willowwood, and fixed him up as well. Both these guys are going to need serious counseling. In addition, we found a sort of money-laundering room — like a coin press in reverse, where they flattened the surface of the coin to remove the king's face. We also found surcoats and history books belonging to the Black Dragons or Steel Dragons or whoever's Capitan we just killed, along with some treasure. (A treasure chest with 1000 PP, and an additionall 500 PP from the money-laundering room. I mention this here because Azrael's player, who normally tracks these things, had left by the time we got to this point.)
So, what next? Well, the plan is to send Damian the ranger back through the portal we came in by. He's supposed to smash the crystal and get the heck out of the caves that Los Muertos were using, thus disabling that portal. That'll free the fire elemental, but that thing was huge and with any luck it won't be able to fit through the doors. Damian is then supposed to alert the Baron in Brindinford and the High Provost in Annun.
The rest of us, meanwhile (including Darvinin and the mayor Hayduin) will go through the other portal to (we gather, based on the various elements of scheming that we've overheard and collected) Willowood. Once we're through that portal, we'll shatter the crystal to disable the portal and release the cryo-hydra; once again, all we have to do is get out of the room and pray it can't fit through the doors behind us. With any luck we can get from Willowwood back to Annun and the High Provost by traveling overland.