Game Time: Winter, 4708
Real Time: June, 2010

“I don’t even have hair.”

The party returns from Runeforge with a new sense of competence. Perhaps it was the magical emanations of the place or just the natural result of the accelerated pace of hazards over the past few weeks, but each of them feels as if they have leaped in power. Though the danger of the risen runelord is pressing, they all agree to take a few weeks to prepare. Perhaps stereotypically, Haggor and Balekh sequester themselves to learn new spells (Haggor, though the runic tattoos he learned about in the Therassic Library) while Taeva, Veshenga, and Shayliss expect to shop for magic items in Magnimar and then relax in Sandpoint… perhaps for the last time if they cannot stop their foe.

It’s only a day into this working vacation when Taeva is interrupted from home improvements by a somberly dressed and sober looking man that seems to have appeared from nowhere. He presents her what he calls a “bequeathment” in a small mahogany box adorned with the rune of Wrath. He is mysteriously gone again before shedding much light on the situation. Taeva immediately marches the suspicious parcel to Balekh, interrupting his and Haggor’s tattooing session. Briefly blinded by the evocation magic present in the box when he detects for magic, Balekh suggests that they open it far away from town. Doing so, it fails to explode, instead revealing a finely worked key in precious metals, its head and grip both stylized runes of wrath. Taking the key, Taeva feels a substantial power within, seeking a direction to lead her and settling on a metaphorical down. She can also feel the shape of the catacombs of Wrath beneath the town, and the presence of the Old Light. Haggor attempts to touch the key and pulls away moments before he sensed that it would not accept being handled by anyone other than Taeva. For now, the party decides to put this mystery off until after dealing with the current crisis.

Over the next couple of weeks, the girls make several trips to Magnimar, trading in superfluous loot found at Runeforge for more desirable items. When not so engaged, Taeva works on her house and Veshenga and Shayliss begin to develop a much closer bond than ever, largely based around Shayliss’ new interest in pub crawls that end in regular benders at some of the seedier taverns in town. Unaware of these goings-on, Balekh remains enmeshed in his studies and the creation of Haggor’s mystical tattoos, until one day he actually sees his wife in good light. Perhaps it’s the months of exercise and dangerous experiences, a natural progression in aging during the late teens, or maybe something with less of a natural explanation, but at some point the young sorceress has turned from a cute village girl to a stunningly attractive woman. Balekh seems inclined to assume that there is nothing abnormal going on and simply appreciate his good fortune, until Haggor notices that her hair has taken on a life of its own. Full and growing long faster than should be possible, they both swear they see it braid itself as she’s going out for a night on the town. Again, for now they assume this is a mystery that can be solved later.

A mystery for now, though, at least in Sheriff Hemlock’s conception, is brought to their attention not long after. Apparently, since they’ve been back the guardhouse has had a significant upturn in Sczarni thugs and other criminal lowlifes turning themselves in bearing confessions and proof of their misdeeds. The garrison is filling up with hardened criminals that seem to have had a change of heart one night, then tried to recant (unfortunately ironclad) confessions the next day. Balekh swears he’s not involved, and suggests that spells such as that could be manifested by any number of spellcasters. Hemlock doesn’t seem to completely buy that, but figures that, as long as it’s just someone solving crime, he’s not going to worry about his good fortune too much. Later, Balekh asks Shayliss whether she’s been doing something, and she very convincingly denies any such suggestions.

Taeva is a little more interested, and begins asking around about who could be doing such things. It doesn’t take her long to realize that the confessions seem to have coincided with Shayliss’ pub crawls down at the docks, and, also, to realize that she hadn’t been invited (a realization that stings more when, on attempting to enroll her in surveillance, Veshenga admits that she has been a part of the fun). The Sheriff doesn’t seem to believe her, insisting that Shayliss is a “Peach of a girl that never caused any problems,” worrying Taeva that the sorceress has already gotten to Hemlock. Veshenga does promise Taeva that she’ll keep an eye on Shayliss the next time they’re out and watch for anything suspicious.

However, the idea of convincing people to do things for the good of all, even if they don’t realize it, has reminded Balekh that he’s afraid Karzoug’s destruction could mean the fall of Skull’s Crossing. He gathers the group to go suggest that Turtleback Ferry and Fort Rannick evacuate until after they’ve dealt with the runelord. This idea, when broached to the mayor of the town, does not inspire confidence; the mayor opines that evacuating town for a few weeks on a vague threat of danger right before winter would be incredibly dangerous to the town, possibly more so than a potential flood. Hoping to at least convince the rangers, Balekh is instead met with very solid reassurances by Vale that the dam is unlikely to fall apart catastrophically even if it’s being held together by the will of a great mage. Mollified by the warrior-engineer, they catch him up on the latest goings on. Balekh and Taeva hang out for a while as Veshenga takes Vale off for a more personal level of catching up. Haggor, for his part, hit the lake the moment they got into town, still hoping to catch Black Magga: the one that got away.

Later in the week, when Balekh has finally finished Haggor’s tattoos and almost finished his own spell research, Veshenga decides it’s time to keep an eye on Shayliss. That this involves a pub crawl doesn’t matter much to her. As it has previously, the bar hopping ends down by the docks, and Veshenga is more sober than she usually is in such situations. Keeping an eye on the sorceress, she does notice that the girl has been waxing philosophical on the idiocy of committing crimes in the hometown of a bunch of famous adventurers, and yet making fast friends of the scum in the bar. On one such announcement, a young man that Shayliss was looking at while she was talking says he goodbyes and leaves the bar. But Veshenga can’t see anything to prove about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Taeva has been drinking alone, still not invited to the pub crawl. She gets bored and starts to mess with the key of Wrath, very interested in the sense of the dungeon beneath the town it gives her. She decides to wander up towards the Old Light that she can so keenly feel, scowling at the sound of revelry at the bar and scaring late-night passersby as she crosses town. As she walks towards the fallen tower, she thinks she can make out a faint glow on the old building. As she reaches the stones, she’s certain that a faint amount of witchlight is suffusing the rocks of the structure. She taps the structure with the key and a faint thrumming noise is heard, as the ground begins to gently vibrate, as if ancient magics were coming back online. After the glow and vibrating hum slowly grow, she decides to get help solving the mystery. Since she’s still somewhat convinced that Veshenga and Balekh are just as mind-controlled by Shayliss as the Sheriff, she goes to get Haggor.

Rousing the monk from a sound slumber, the two of them head back to the tower, where he is forced to admit that the tower does appear to be glowing and vibrating. As the drunken gnome taps the key against the tower to demonstrate what she’d done before, this effect intensifies. They both recall that some of the Thassilonian writings they’ve been reading recently refer to this as a “Hellfire Flume.” Taeva wonders if she could make it work again. Haggor thinks that would be dangerous. Taeva asks whether anything dangerous that happened would hit her house clear on the other side of town. Haggor doesn’t like where this line of questions is going, and suggests that they ask Balekh. Taeva thinks that he’s trying to manipulate her, and storms off home. Haggor goes and gets Balekh.

When the two men return, the magic of the structure seems to be subsiding in Taeva’s absence. Balekh worries that, with it as decomposed as it is, it would be far more likely to explode than to usefully direct gouts of fire at their enemies. Besides, the range in the books was only mentioned to be a few miles, and they don’t currently have many enemies at that short a range. They go to try to convince Taeva of this. The gnome is still sauced and surly, and picks an argument through her front door with Balekh. Haggor excuses himself to go check on Veshenga.

Back at the bar, the party is in full swing, and the girls are very happy to see Haggor join in. Veshenga has been noticing that Shayliss has developed a number of strange compulsive ticks that she claims are stress-related: turning her mug three times before taking a drink, only paying the tab in multiples of four coins. Calling her on it, Shayliss admits that she’s taken a lot of adjusting to the adventurous lifestyle over the last year, and thinks that maybe some of her stress will go away after they deal with the latest crisis and can settle down, which is why she’s so keen to make sure that Sandpoint is a stress-free place to settle in.

She goes and spends some time with her new friends, and as Haggor and Veshenga are discussing her and the latest kerfluffle with Taeva, they notice yet another guy excuse himself suspiciously. Since Shayliss still seems to be engaged in conversation, they take the opportunity to slip out: Haggor in a smooth glide, Veshenga in a drunken stumble. Even after hours of solid drinking, Veshenga is a match for the monk in stealth, and the two of them manage to follow the young man as he leaves his house with a satchel and heads right to the garrison. He walks up to a night guard that no longer seems surprised at Sczarni thugs showing up to turn themselves in, and begins taking the man’s confession. The two adventurers sneak across the street to listen at the window, initially thinking that the man is turning himself in for petty crimes and then gasping at his tale about slitting a merchant’s throat.

As they wander back, they meet Shayliss leaving the bar, and help her home. Subtle questions about the man are again met with completely believable explanations. Shayliss seems convinced that, if anything, she’s simply swayed the criminals with her words. After all, it would be obvious if she was using magic on them, right? The two buy it, dropping her off at home and then Haggor leaves Veshenga at her own house before wandering back out of town to find Taeva and Balekh in full-on argument about potentially detonating an ancient magical artifact inside the city. The gnome finally relents as Haggor has something more interesting to talk about. Balekh thinks, based on Haggor’s description, that magic is likely, but that he can’t exactly fault his wife for using it to get murderers to turn themselves in to the guard. He heads home and says goodnight to her after making her drink a glass of water.

The next morning, they leave Shayliss to sleep it off but make Veshenga get up, and all of them head out to pick up Brodert, who they’d deposited back in the Therassic Library on their return to Sandpoint. The old sage has useful ideas on Taeva’s new key, suggesting that perhaps, as the de facto final lieutenant of Alaznist, the key may, in fact, be meant to rouse the mistress of Barakhan from her own ten-thousand-year slumber. He thinks they should either attempt to hide the key—though such things have a way of not staying hidden&mdashor attempt to use it and defeat her before she can come to consciousness. They table that discussion for now, as Taeva doesn’t seem to like the idea at all, and move on to finding Xin-Shalast.

Brodert has come to the same conclusion as Balekh, putting together what is essentially a map without useful landmarks, the entire face of the world having changed since Thassilon fell, and with a number of common reference points taken for granted as well. He, however, remembers a woman he was in contact with several years back, a presumed pirate queen and known treasure hunter based out of Riddleport named Viorian Dekanti. She had, as he recalls, been especially keen on artifacts of Xin-Shalast, and might have more information on the search for the legendary city. They deposit him back in Sandpoint, get the address, and then make another jaunt to the pirate city.

It’s not long before they meet a young urchin with a bad leg and a squint that goes by the name Timmy, who is quite keen to lead them to the address for a tip. When they get there, they find a mansion clearly gutted by fire and looted some years previous. Timmy leaves them at a decent hotel, goes off to find out what happened, and returns with a tale of a woman, most likely Mistress Dekanti, who had gone mad a few years ago and murdered all of her henchmen and anyone in the street as she fled the town, swinging a glowing golden sword that had once been her prize treasure. This sounds to the party quite like the same timeframe as Sandpoint’s Late Unpleasantness: the surging of the runewells that seemed to coincide with Karzoug’s initial awakening.

All is not lost, as Timmy leads them to a shop where the books looted from the house before it burned completely would have been sold off. There, the party sees less of a library and more of the used bookshop of the damned: a hole in the wall of an old market street where makeshift shelves creak with the pressure of books rescued from the sea and jammed into any old order. The strange, weaselly proprietor seems to have no real regard for books, but points them to the shelf with Viorian’s things. Balekh soon finds a book that seems to be a treasure-hunter’s journal that does, indeed, promise to fill in a lot of the missing landmarks of the road to Xin-Shalast. After paying the owner and finding out a bit more context of Viorian’s madness, at least enough to recognize her should they run across her soon, they leave the city, tipping Timmy on the way out.

From there, it’s but one more day of preparation before they party is off, teleporting to the closest Storval Plateau settlement that Balekh can reach and then transforming into wind to speed their way into the mountains up the Kazaron river. As they climb higher and higher the river becomes somehow harder to follow, until they must turn back to flesh in the bitter cold and test their wills against some kind of palpable presence trying to keep the city a legend. But they force their way through, following the unmistakable tracks of giants and other creatures into a partial valley between some of the highest peaks in the region.

Cresting a rise, they look down upon an ancient city. An immense road runs through it, seemingly paved in gold. Massive buildings fill the entire space, even poking through an ancient glacier that has engulfed half of the ruin. All lead back towards a mountain so tall it seems to scrape against the very boundaries of the world, itself bearing a wizard’s tower and the unmistakable face of Karzoug carved into the very rock to survey all that he owns. They have reached the city of legend, even now stirring with the runelord’s recalled forces. They only hope that there remains time to put the Claimer down before he attains his full power and sweeps his army across the plains of Varisia, once again plunging the world into the tyranny of an immortal despot.