The group readied themselves for the venture into the dark portal to search for the kidnapped magic users. As they were about to cross over they heard the clashing of swords in the courtyard outside the room. They venture out to find a red-haired female rogue crossing blades with the kobolds who had guided the steel vanguard to this location. Being the sleazy little kobolds they are, the tribe had decided to stage an ambush for the group to take the fort for themselves. This plan had apparently been thwarted by the female warrior who had entered behind them. She quickly dispatched the kobolds with precise and graceful attacks. The group couldnt help but notice that her hands emitted the same eerie shadows that would seep out of Rikimaru on occassion. When she was done the group approached her and thanked her for taking care of the trap that the kobolds were setting. The red-haired vixen went by the name of Yastera “Blackhands” Menanoand she wished to speak with Rikimaru in private. The group was not sure what to think, but since she had stopped the kobolds and Rikimaru was a trusted ally, they agreed to return back inside while Riki and Yastera spoke privately.
A few minutes passed and Yastera left once their business was concluded. Rikimaru returned inside and the group crossed over through the shadow orb. The room they appeared in was identical to the one they had just left; however, the room was caked in dark shadows and the lights around them seemed smothered by the darkness. They noticed large iron doors that had not been in the prior version of the room, so the group decided to proceed through them. Once through they found themselves face-to-face with a large multi-armed humanoid cat that was readying his tools to filet another prisoner for dinner. The large room had corpses and human body parts scattered all around and even had a few hanging from the ceiling like a cow carcass.
The steel Vanguard immediately jumped into action and attacked the large beast. Thankfully the beast seemed to lack hand eye coordination to land any attacks with his multiple arms. After a few moments, and a sharp beating, the creature realized he was no match and surrendered to the group. He said he was once free and content, but recently had been captured and forced to do the bidding of the dark spellcasters that roamed this fortress. Understanding the strentgh of the Vanguard, the creature wished to help the group fight the evil menaces that had captured him. The Prince sensed the sincerity in the creatures voice and agreed to spare his life.
The Vanguard then had the creature wait until they were ready to go outside and do battle with the guards. They found two letters in one clerics armor from a person named Esvele Graycastle that read:
Dear Kithlord Thieraven
My Mistress cannot break the bargain that tied your people’s souls to Her holy realm, but I guarantee that Her plans are successful, you will have a home on Faerun where your kind will not feel the curse’s effects. The Swamp should make a perfect base for your people to gather and establish a true presence in the world. None will suspect it, and no prying eyes will detect it besides a few small tribes that you can slaughter or subjugate, as you see fit. Success in this endeavor will turn lead to other successes, and in due time your kind will have many places where you can live without fear of losing your souls.
As always, She grants you access to the Shadow Weave, and I offer more training in its use. We urge you to convince more of your kind to accept this gift. You have already seen its benefit, and in the coming months and the years afterward, your people will come to knows its total power.
signed Esvele Graycastle
And another letter that read:
The Lady of Loss has seen your devotion and will reward it. I send you Thieraven, who brought you this letter. He carries the means to open the Dusk Passage once again, and thereby provide you with a glorious new home and the means to our mutual ends.
When you have passed through the Passage, you will find yourself in a reflection of the keep. From there another of Thieraven’s race, a shadar-kai, will lead you to the Black Rift. I eagerly await you there, we have much to discuss.
Keep your secrets safe. Their weight will one day bring the Mysteries to an end.
signed Esvele Graycastle
With this knowledge they began searching any adjacent rooms in due haste. One room was a Priory where Willow noticed another letter sitting on a desk. She picked it up and began to read it. It was from a person within the clerics that was investigating the spell casters true goals and intent. He was fairly certain that all on the surface was not as it seemed and that their true goal would be found in the “Book of Black”. The letter went on to read that the writer was unsuccessful at finding the book and would continue his search. Willow couldn’t help but notice the note seemed unfinished as is the writer was interrupted.
Ethar’s Unfinished Letter
Most honored Watchful Skull, Blackwill Aklore,
Greetings from your bloody hand, Skull Servant Ethar. As expected, the Sharrans hide their secrets well, but I did discover something that might lead us to understanding their ultimate plan. We aid them in their ritual to create a rift in the weave and a dead magic zone over the Shaarhaven Swamp. Obviously, this is to their advantage as only shadow magic works within these spaces, but claiming the swamp as a base of operations seems foolish. This incongruity has bothered me, and I prayed to the Black Sun to grant me knowledge of their plans. I received no vision, but while living here in a ruined temple on the plane of Shadow I discovered the a writing that spoke of their secret, praise be Cyric.
It seems the Sharrans have a prophecy that has seemed to appear to be quite accurate to the history we have so far witnessed of late. This Prophecy has apparently been penned by the Lost Sage- Augathra the Mad! The “Book of Black” might just explain more and tell us what the Sharrans truly plan.
I could not find more writings despite my week of searching. I made subtle inquiries with the Sharrans and Despayr. Despayr seemed to know nothing, but with his kind, its always hard to tell. The other Sharrans said they did not know what I meant, and talked about the Prophecy with wariness in their postures. I think we need to find this Book of Black and
She turned to relay what she had found to the rest of the group, but they had left her behind and continued searching (As usual, no one pays attention to the Dryad). She decided to stuff the note in her bag and tell them later. The next room was a ransacked library. Most of the books were gone and the remainder were thrown about. Willow gave a quick once over for the “Book of Black”, but it was not there.
The group decided now would be the time to cross swords with the enemy once again. They stormed out into the courtyard with the multi-armed creature in tow. They quickly slaughtered the guards in the courtyard. Once finished they asked the creature to stay and atch the portal while they look for the kidnapped casters. Looking off into the distance they could see a line of small huts that sat upon large pillars in a canyon. The pillars were connected by strands of wooden bridges. They decided to search across those bridges.
They began crossing the bridge to the first hut. Upon approaching the first hut they were greeted by shadowy dogs whose heads were nothing but a mouth and a tongue. One dog shot his barbed tongue out at Willow, instantly paralyzing her with his saliva and then dragging her quickly into his mouth to chew. The group appeared to have decided to attack the other dog since the initial dog would be pre-occupied with his new Fey Chew toy. They made quick work of the animals and then had to wait several minutes for the paralytic poison to wear off on Willow. The hut on this pillar was empty.
Upon reaching the next hut, the group found a large iron golem sitting inside. The golem attacked the group, flailing his arms in a circular motion and dealing heavy damage. The group managed to take the golem down, but it did prove a greater task than the dogs. This hut again proved to be empty of clues or kidnapped casters.
They crossed the bridge to the next hut. Inside this hut was what appeared to be an anti-paladin who did not take kindly to his unannounced guests. A battle immediately ensued and the group had great difficulty landing any strong blows on the enemy. Willow noticed this and thought she might be able to make the fight easier by using one of her newly acquired spell like abilities “Deep Slumber”. Being her first time using the spell, she did not realize that it was a radius spell that would attack her group as well as her enemies, fortunately the only one to succomb to its power was Arahntu who is used to spending time on her back spread phoenix (tee-hee). The group finally managed to deaeat the anti-paladin and began searching the hut. They found what appeared to be a clarvoiyant mirror which could peer into other room. Through the mirror they saw a group of shadow cloaked individuals gathered in a room. They were unable to tell what the figures were doing or why they were there. Getting no real clue from the mirror, the group decided to press on once again.
This time the hut was carved into the side of the canyon. The bridge sidled up against the wall of the canyon. Willow entered first and found people trapped in jail cells.She walked into help, but before she could walk a step further a mindflayer in the corner of the room stunned her with telepathy. Durzo entered to find the depressing scene and went for the mindflayer. The drow also, fell the same fate as his fey group member. As the rest of the steel vanguard entered they began to get stunned by the mindflayer one-by-one. They did manage to butt the mindflayer up between the cells and Orrin Silverthorn attempted to strike the creature with a lightning bolt through the cell. Unfortunately, the mindflayer resisted his spell and all he accomplished was creating a large hole in one of the prisoners chest. The entire group fell stunned at the feet of the mindflayer and were certain their fate was sealed.
The group awoke and hour later within the jail cells and stripped of their gear. The females and males were in seperate cells across from each other. Willow, apparently does not handle being trapped within metal bars very well, because as soon as she awoke she began mouthing off to the mindflayer. The mindflayer didn’t pay much mind and continued on with his regular duties. Just then a large black dragon peeked his head through the door and began discussing something with the mindflayer in a whispering tone. Willow immediately jumped up and began asking who the dragon was…(Against everyones wishes, who told her to sit down and be quiet). She could not resist asking who he was. In hesitation the Dragon responded “Despayr” and that he was an unfathomable power to the likes of the lowly light dwellers. e told the dryad to be quiet lest there be reprocussions. She refused and just as she did, Despayr the Black Dragon spewed a corrosive blast of negative energy into the room. The steel vanguard and the mindflayer could handle the harsh blast; however, the other prisoners succumbed to its dark power and perished. The group pleaded with the dryad to please be quiet. Just as they thought they had gotten through to Willow, she said one more thing to the mindflayer “Hey, tell your dragon friend Gesundheit!” Arahntu immediately began swinging at Willow in an attempt to knock her out. To her dismay, the dryad appeared to be extremely fast and hard to hit without its armor on. She managed to land one blow and quickly grabbed hold of Willow. The huge amazonian woman began man handling the little dryad and began choking her to the point of unconsciousness. It took a minute, but Willow was out cold again. Now they just had to wait for their opportunity to escape.
The mind flayer left and the group sprang into action. Rikimaru managed to jaunt through the bars using his shadow abilities and went to recover their gear. The gear was stored in one of three magically trapped chests. Riki was uncertain of which one it could be but he knew either way he didnt have his tools to disarm the magical traps. He took a chance and began setting off the traps one-by-one and had Illyn use his Oracle channeling to heal through it. Once all the traps had been sprung, Riki began gathering their gear to distribute amongst the group. The thought eventually hit Riki that the mindflayer would return soon due to the loud commotion of the magical traps. He decided he wouldn’t have time to give the rest of the group their gear and spring them out of jail. He tossed Illyn his divine focus as a parting gift and quickly ran off. The Steel Vanguard would like to say they were surprised by Riki leaving them behind, but this was a long time coming from their shady friend. Couldn’t blame Riki for self preservation, everyone knows the shadow brother dies first. Illyn quickly hid his divine focus under his clothes. Not a moment too soon, because the black dragon returned in a fit of rage. Despayr roared at the small group demanding to know who opened the chests and where that person had gone. By this time Willow had come regained consciousness thank to Illyns channeling during the magical trap springing extravaganza! She immediately began talking nonsense to the dragon and answring his questions with her own questions. Noticing that the dragon was becoming increasingly frustrated Arahntu stepped forward and talked over Willow. She convinced Despayr that the person who ransacked the chests was someone the Vanguard did not know. The was hesitant to believe her, but he didn’t want to waste time as the perpetrator gets further away. The dragon stormed off to search for the individual.
Opportunity # 2 to escape! Illyn used his divine focus to cast stone shape against the wall, which opened a large gap for all the connecting cells. The whole group managed to slip out and re-equip all their gear. There was back and forth between the group about whether to continue or go back and bring reinforcements. The Prince believed there would be no place in Shaar Haven for those who would abandon their mission out of cowardice. He urged The Steel Vanguard to press on and they followed.
After a small window of rest, the group crossed the bridge to the final pillar. Upon this pillar was a risen stage that was the focal point for a sword 40 feet in the air. This sword was tearing a hole in the weave of time and reality itself. The stage was fueled by the many surrounding cages that housed the kidnap magic users. The casters were having the magic power forcefully drained from them; all the while Despayr, the black dragon, watched their lifeblood ebb. Before stepping onto the pillar, Rikimaru appeared out of the shadows. Many seemed surprised that he returned, but did not think to ask why he came back. The group was greeted by a large Dragon’s breath that spread across half the platform. A few of the vanguard were hurt, but none were phased. The battle was fierce as many of the heroes found it difficult to pierce the thick scales of the ferocious dragon. The group surrounded the dragon and although few landed hits on him, the blows that landed dealt heavy damage to the beast! The Steel Vanguard eventually overcame the dragon! Without hesitation Rikimaru threw a grappling hook around the sword (later itedtified as the Maskaarn artifact known as The Stolen of Thieves, Shadowfrost) that was tearing ahole in the fabric of reality. With two sturdy pulls, he ripped it out of the sky and the hole closed up. The group collected the sword, as well as a brooch that the dragon had been wearing. Willow also decided to scale the dragon for future armor use.
The group released the prisoners and decided it’d be best to escort them back out of this realm. They retraced their steps back to the portal. Many contemplated on how they might close the gate to this vile world for good. For now, they would just have to be thankful for their safe return and set someone to guard the portal until it is closed.