We’re in it for the Money: Savant Syndrome: Pt. II

When we last left our players, they had just murdered a helpless gnome (who admittedly may not have been on the up-and-up after all), shifted alignment, nearly killed each other, and had stolen a private jet from their employer.

So y’know, the usual.

Currently en route to Sydney, Australia, the players are now trying to decide what exactly they’re going to do to destroy the Crown of the Savant, the artifact of Maanzecorian they retrieved from the temple in China. Just hitting it with a hammer probably won’t do the job, so they want something of Mount Doom levels of intensity to get the job done. With no volcanoes or nuclear reactors incredibly nearby they ultimately decide to fall back on the one thing they know they can access from Sydney: space.

The city (or more accurately, the orbital space above it) is the home port for the Akagi, which is currently still in spacedock there undergoing repairs after the terrorist attack during SecureExpo. If they can make their way up to that spacedock, they should be able to find a way to toss the crown into space, which should ensure that no one gets their hands on it for a long while, if indeed they ever do. And so the plan is laid out: they’ll land in Sydney, secure transportation up to the spacedock, and then jettison the crown into space via an airlock facing away from the planet. How exactly they plan to justify these travel plans to the people in charge are something they’ll just have to figure out on their own.

After several hours, Strauss touches the private jet down on the tarmac of Kingsford-Smith Airport, and is able to transmit the proper codes to the tower to permit him to land, the fact that the original pilot is not flying the plane apparently not being an issue (the advantages of a private plane owned by a major security corporation, apparently). Taxiing to a private hangar, the party exits the plane and leaves the airport via a security checkpoint outside the terminal, the players’ weapons additionally being cleared by virtue of Gatehouse authority.

Their next step is to secure transport up to the spacedock facility in orbit. Sydney being one of Earth’s foremost space travel hubs, there are shuttles going to and from the facility at long but regular intervals, ferrying passengers to commercial liners that will take them to their destinations. The nearest shuttle station is run through a small vacation package dealer that offers short cruise flights either to Toril or to other Earth locations via orbit. Through some quick talking and a few diplomacy checks to get a better deal, the players manage to secure a spot on one of the shuttles, which will be leaving in approximately an hour. They go to wait for the shuttle’s departure time on an open concourse that extends out from the main terminal for about a hundred yards to accommodate the half-dozen or so individual landing pads.

As they approach their gate, however, they notice that the shuttle that is parked just outside has its side loading door open, but there appears to be no one around, outside or inside the shuttle. Suspicious, they move forward to check it out. No one approaches as they make their way out onto the landing pad, and when Strauss peers inside the cockpit he sees no one there. Suddenly, from around the sides of the shuttle, four figures fan out and surround them with weapons drawn. The players draw their own weapons, ready to defend themselves, when they recognize their opponents: once again, they’ve run into Sean, Mortimer, Al, and Eliandra, the adventuring group from the Akagi, and then the City of Brass.

Carlito: “Wow, what are the odds? Who you looking for this time?”

Sean: “How about you guys put your weapons down and we’ll tell you?”

Sensing that there’s something wrong, the players keep their weapons raised and warily keep their eyes on the other party.

Strauss: “What’s going on here, guys?”

Sean: “Just take it easy, Strauss. We don’t wanna have to hurt you.”

Carlito: “Nobody needs to get hurt at all, just fill us in here.”

Sean: “You guys stirred up some trouble with Gatehouse. Stole some property? Killed some personnel? We’re here to take you guys in and we’d really prefer to do it peacefully.”

Carlito: “Ridgeway hire you?”

Sean: “That’s right.”

Carlito: “Okay, look, there’s a few things you don’t know here that would really change your understanding of the situation.”

Sean: “Those being?”

Carlito: “They’re a little hard to follow…”

Sean: “Try us.”

Carlito hesitates for a moment, and Gorak jumps in to fill in the blanks.

Gorak: “Ridgeway hired us to track down a relic of Orcus, which we found but then turned out to be a crown that could help resurrect a dead Illithid god and now we’re on our way to destroy it so that can’t happen.”

The rest of the party stares at the dwarf with mild irritation, as some of that information is more than a little sensitive. Gorak simply responds with a “well, it’s true” kind of shrug.

Sean: “What?”

Carlito: “The crown used to belong to Maanzecorian. If somebody, let’s say a powerful businessman with an obvious penchant for illithids got his hands on it, then it could be used to resurrect him. The guy Ridgeway sent with us didn’t see the dangers and was probably working with him to bring Maanzecorian back, so we had to take care of him and now we need to get rid of this crown so Ridgeway can’t complete the resurrection.”

Sean: “That’s a pretty elaborate story.”

Cautiously, Carlito reaches into his pack and opens it just wide enough to let the crown be seen by the other group. Closing the pack again, he simply looks back at Sean, waiting to hear his verdict. Sean contemplates his choices, stonefaced, while everyone looks on.

Sean: “Al?”

Al: “Yeah?”

Sean: “Ridgeway said we’d find them at this spaceport, right?”

Al: “Yeah.”

Sean: “Mhmm. Well, it seems we got here too late. I don’t see any sign of them. Do you?”

Al breaks into a grin, apparently relieved that he won’t have to fight his friends in the players’ party.

Al: “Nope. Not a one of ‘em. I’m sure they’re long gone by now.”

Sean: “So it seems. We’d better head back to Baldur’s Gate. We’ve got other jobs waiting.”

Stowing his swords, Sean brushes past the grateful players, followed closely by the rest of his party. There won’t be any dramatic duels fought over poignant violin music and memories of companionship lost today.

Deciding that they’d rather not wait around for any other surprises Ridgeway might have in store for them, they all pile into the shuttlecraft with Strauss in the pilot’s seat and prepare to take off and head for the station themselves. While the space-faring craft is rather different from the more conventional fixed wing and rotary aircraft that he’s used to flying, Strauss manages to puzzle out the quirks of the controls and lift the small ship off of its landing pad and accelerate to escape velocity. Breaking free (somewhat shakily) from Earth’s atmosphere, the players approach the drydock station floating serenely in orbit. The Akagi occupies a place near the rear of the facility, looking from their perspective none the worse for wear as most of the damage was internal (and caused by their own semtex detonations for that matter). Approaching one of the stations docking arms, Strauss transmits the docking codes on file and settles the craft into place where the docking seals can take hold.

Securely docked with the station, Strauss opens the doors and the party funnels out into the station. A few more successful bluff checks passes the players off as Gatehouse personnel authorized to be there (and without a regular pilot) and they continue on into the rest of the facility. Trying to avoid any unnecessary encounters, they consult a station map and then quickly but confidently stride to the nearest airlock. It is located in a storage area and probably sees use as a loading/unloading dock for smaller cargo craft. As it is currently facing away from Earth as part of its rotation, the players decide that this is as good a time as any. Carlito heads into the storage room while the other players stand guard at the door while trying to look like they’re not actually standing guard but rather just casually standing around. Hacking the control panel on the airlock door, Carlito opens the first set of doors, tosses the crown unceremoniously inside, then seals the doors again and vents the airlock, flushing the crown into space.

GM Note: This is probably the most anti-climactic destruction of evil since Hitler shot himself in the bunker.

Feeling pleased with himself for banishing an artifact of evil into the reaches of space, Carlito’s contentment is interrupted by the flashing alarms on the control panel he just hacked into. Apparently operating a door leading to vacuum without authorization is cause for some alarm among the station’s personnel. At the same time, Strauss radios him to let him know that two guards are approaching the storage room. Looking around for a place to hide, Carlito scampers up a row of shelves and wedges himself in an air vent, trying to get out of line of sight. Several moments later the guards enter the room, the players outside having already vacated the area. They look around for a few minutes and inspect the control panel, finally concluding that it must have just been a system malfunction. They reset the alarms and exit the room again, debating options for lunch.

Dropping back down to the ground and leaving the storage room behind, Carlito looks across the hall to where the other players are trying to look inconspicuous. He throws his arms up in questioning exasperation, to which they only shrug. Shaking his head, Carlito leads them back to the shuttle docks to hitch a ride back planetside, their job here finished.

And normally that would be the end of it. The party successfully halted whatever plans Ridgeway had for the crown and further prevented any chance of Maanzecorian being resurrected. All in all that’s a good day and most would be content to pack it in, call good game, and hit up a bar for some victory drinks.

Thank goodness this party isn’t like most, otherwise this would be a very short entry.

No, these guys weren’t content with just stopping the bad guy’s plans; they wanted to make sure they completely crushed the bad guy in every conceivable way. He was in control of Sigil’s security forces, he had an unhealthy interest in evil gods, and most importantly he made them fight a dragon. They’ll be damned if they’re just gonna let that lie, so Daniel Ridgeway is about to have a very bad day.

Arriving back in Sigil, the players load up the Escalade, shoring up its armor plating and checking the machine gun to ensure that everything is in working order. Everyone stocks up on ammo and healing supplies and piles into the vehicle, ready to bring the hurt. Working his way onto the thoroughfare that the Gatehouse Security headquarters is situated on, Norm lines the vehicle up with the front doors, roughly a quarter mile away, and guns it.

The Escalade lurches forward and rockets down the street leaving a cloud of smoke rising from its tires. The vehicle continues to accelerate as it nears the building, Norm having every intention of ramming it for the sake of a shock and awe entry. There is no careful swerving around obstacles as Norm crashes through fruit carts, vendor displays, and even a baby in a small carriage. (His response: “I’m evil now. What do I care?”) A trail of destruction in its wake, the Escalade then jumps the curb, sailing through the air for a graceful moment before smashing through the glass double doors and crushing the receptionist between her desk and the wall. The front of the vehicle flattens itself against the messy heap of office furniture and receptionist as glass shatters and fills the air, the players inside treated to a fair amount of whiplash from the impact.

Recovering quickly, they roll out of the car and take up positions as four armed guards flood through doorways on either side of the foyer. Gunfire erupts in a close-quarters firefight, Gorak taking up a gunners position on the KPV, which managed to escape most of the damage from the crash. Any undamaged surface in the room is quickly seen to by a hail of bullets as the players saw their way through the Gatehouse guards between them and their revenge. Gorak halts firing for a moment to attempt to clear a belt jam, and in the moment finally notices the orange flames dancing up from underneath the crumpled hood of the Escalade.

Frantically crawling out of the makeshift gunners hatch on the roof, Gorak rolls to the floor and attempts to warn the rest of the players of the danger, just as the fire finally finds something suitably explosive and fills approximately half the room in a fireball. Most of the party escapes unharmed, but Gorak is struck with several pieces of shrapnel, having not quite managed to escape the blast radius. Their expensive transportation destroyed, the players continue to fight on, mopping up the remaining guards and then advancing to the stairwell of the building, taking out two more guards armed with assault rifles in the hallway outside Ridgeway’s office.

Then, stacking up outside, they ready themselves and kick in the expensive door, fanning out as they enter to cover a wide firing arc should anyone else be guarding Ridgeway personally. No one attacks them, no alarms sound, no sarcastic slow claps from the villain condescend their actions. Indeed, nothing happens at all. The room is empty and appears to be unchanged from the last time they saw it. At the desk against the east wall, Ridgeway sits in a high-backed chair facing away from them. As Norm approaches the chair and turns it around, katana at the ready, he sees why their entrance was greeted with such a lack of attention.

Ridgeway sits slumped in his chair, his skin a sickly grey color. His eyes stare back at them without any hint of life, and his mouth hangs open in a stupefied gape. What is most disconcerting, however, is the large hole in the top of his head, which opens onto… nothing. To quote the worst line ever said by Michael Ironside: “They sucked his brains out”.

Norm: “Uh, guys? I think we might have a bigger problem.”

Gorak: “Whoa.”

Carlito: “So… Roland, then?”

Straus: “Yup.”

Norm: “I freaking knew it.”

GM Note: In actuality, the party did “freaking know it”. They suspected that Roland might have been up to something since the first time they saw him on the Akagi (though admittedly that was just because he was an Illithid. Hooray for racism.). Their suspicions were further bolstered when they discovered that the artifact they were sent to recover had ties to an Illithid deity. Let’s face it: when you introduce an Illithid character your players are going to suddenly get very genre savvy and regard him with more than a little suspicion. It just so happens that in this instance they were completely right. I’m just lucky they didn’t address their suspicions in the usual manner by killing him without provocation.

As the players inspect the body, Ridgeway’s computer monitor suddenly clicks to life. There, on a video chat display window is Roland, wearing a somewhat irritated expression, at least insofar as the party can determine behind the tentacles.

Roland: “Well. I must admit I’m rather surprised you’re still alive.”

Carlito: “We’re special like that.”

Gorak: “So what now? Aren’t you supposed to tell us your master plan?”

Norm: “Actually, wait: we don’t really care.”

Strauss: “Yeah, that’s a good point.”

Roland: “Have it your way. I suppose it’s mostly irrelevant for you at this point anyway. Goodbye, gentlemen.”

As Roland terminates the call and his image disappears from the screen, it is replaced by the most ominous set of numbers that one can bear witness to: the ones going backwards.

Carlito immediately starts hammering away on the keyboard, looking for a way to stop the countdown.

Strauss: “What are you doing?”

Carlito: “I’m trying to hack in and stop whatever those numbers are counting down to.”

Strauss: “I don’t think it’s a computer issue.”

Carlito: “What do you mean?”

Strauss: “I mean I’m pretty sure the numbers are just numbers. Whatever they’re counting down to might not have anything to do with the software here.”

Carlito: “What if it’s wiping the files? I’m gonna want those files.”

Gorak: “Uh, I don’t think it’s just gonna wipe some files.”

Carlito: “Why?”

Gorak: “Because of this.”

Gorak turns the computer tower around to reveal a small brick of C4 strapped to the back, a small red light blinking in conjunction with the countdown.

Strauss: “Crap.”

Carlito: “Strauss, can you disarm that?”

Strauss: “With more time, yeah. We’ve only got a few more seconds.”

Carlito: “I want whatever information is in there, anybody got any ideas?”

Strauss: “And I wanna not die. Anybody got any ideas for that?”

Norm, ever the pragmatist, does indeed have an idea. Pushing past the other party members he bends down and grabs hold of the computer, pulling it out from underneath the desk and yanking its various connections out of the wall and the monitor. Then, walking over to the window, he throws it through the glass and out into open air, where it plummets for several stories before the C4 detonates, gutting several floors below. He then turns back to the group with a look that says “good enough?”

Seeing as how they aren’t dead, the party seems to agree that this approach is “good enough”, though Carlito is still a bit irritated that he wasn’t able to recover Ridgeway’s files. Moving quickly, as their time is almost certainly limited, the players do a sweep of the room, looking for any clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. On a wall, behind a painting, Carlito finds a concealed safe which he wastes no time in cracking, opening it to reveal a stack of documents. Among those documents are several copies of the Mannheim letters, containing the research notes from the android project undertaken by Divine Spark, as well as a book on resurrection processes and several more documents containing various coordinates and mercenary troop placements in the gate town of Torch and its accompanying plane of Gehenna.

GM Note: Some of the finer details and meaning behind these documents were lost when the players cut off Roland’s monologuing (which I’ll admit I should have expected) and so the master plan I’d been cultivating since the first adventure kind of got ignored as the players didn’t really care what Roland was up to: they just wanted to kill him. But that’s one of the nice things about this text medium: I can instead bore all of you with my tiresome schemes since I didn’t get the chance to do so completely in the game proper.

While we were introduced to Roland’s “Brain Fart” device some time ago, obviously it didn’t work. Roland managed to circumvent the device’s mental blocks some time ago but kept the device around to keep Ridgeway believing that he was still subject to it as he gradually influenced Ridgeway’s mind. Before long, he became an unwitting thrall of Roland. From there, Roland paid off local groups such as the Goblin biker gangs to weaken Arcane Tech’s position in Sigil, hoping to force them out and use Ridgeway and his Gatehouse Corporation to take over; the players further weakening Arcane Tech through the Divine Spark incident was a happy coincidence. From there, he further exercised his influence by proxy to seek out the crown of Maanzecorian, which he needed for the resurrection process. The pivotal element of the plan, however, was to implement Arcane Tech’s android mind-transfer procedure in the regular resurrection ritual. The reason being that gods are not allowed inside Sigil, but an android body containing the essence of a god might be able to bypass the Lady of Pain’s safeguards. If successful, a god within Sigil, the focal point of the planes, would effectively be able to re-write the multiverse to their whims. Vecna had tried and failed to do the same thing years before, but Roland considered his updated attempt to be worth trying. With Maanzecorian alive within Sigil, he could alter the fabric of existence to place the Illithid race in power above all other races, the ultimate goal of all Illithids.

This was the plan. But what Roland was doing apparently wasn’t important. All that was important was that he not do it. And that he got his ass kicked.

With the documents in hand, the party decides that it’s high time they vacated the premises. Carlito, however, isn’t quite ready to leave without a bit more compensation for his troubles. While the rest of the party fights their way out of the building, he descends into the basement levels and hacks into Gatehouse’s servers locally. Using his leet skills he accesses the company’s finances and shuts down all their currently active accounts, hopefully ceasing payment to any agents they might have in play. With that done, he proceeds to transfer all of the company’s funds into his own bank account. Cuz y’know… thief.

As he finishes his last keystrokes, three guards enter the room and attempt to capture him. Thinking quickly, he pops a smoke grenade to obscure himself from view and then climbs over one of the rows of servers to his left, ducking through the door and joining up with the rest of the party outside.

GM Note: I made a serious attempt to try and capture him here, but concealment rules are obnoxious.

With their objective now clearly in front of them and knowing that this will likely be the last major mission they will be undertaking, the players pull out all the stops: every ally, resource, and ill-gotten piece of equipment they’ve acquired over the last nine adventures is dredged up and put into play for this one last assault.

Norm calls up Sean and the other adventuring party and clues them in on the operation. Despite having been ordered to capture them earlier, they agree to come along for the ride. Admittedly, it helps that Carlito is willing to pay them out of the monetary pool he just recently stole from Gatehouse.

Gorak goes to talk to Joe, the Harmonium guard captain from way back in the first adventure. Joe, still somewhat amused over the players’ plan to have criminals in the city kill each other, can’t legally divert too many guards from the city for the players’ mission, but does call up two individuals that have worked with them before: Alan and Grimmel, who don’t have great memories of working with the party in past adventures but are nonetheless compelled to follow orders and grudgingly follow along.

Strauss returns to G&H and fills Punwick in on the situation. It is a long, somewhat rambling account that strains the bounds of credibility but Strauss relates it as best he can. Punwick sits silently across from him for a few moments after Strauss completes his tale, fingers steepled in front of him. Finally he sets his hands on the table and takes a deep breath.

Punwick: “So. You’re telling me that an Illithid enthralled the leader of a major private security corporation, then used him and his resources to track down an ancient artifact of a dead god, hoping to use it to resurrect said god and re-write the multiverse.”

Strauss: “That pretty much sums it up, yeah.”

Punwick: “And you’re also telling me that because of this, we won’t be getting paid for our most recent job.”

Strauss: “Exactly.”

Punwick appears to contemplate that for a moment, then stands up and turns toward the wall behind him. He looks up, then reaches behind him and grabs his chair, pulling it up beside him. Then, standing on the chair to bolster his gnomish height, he reaches up and grabs Jesse, his old adventuring axe, from its plaque on the wall. Stepping back down off the chair, he gives the axe a few experimental swings before tossing it over his shoulder and turning back to Strauss.

Punwick: “Let’s go get the sonuvabitch.”

While all of this is going on in Sigil, Carlito has covertly caught a ride to the City of Brass, a place where he is technically supposed to be banned from. Luckily, the connection he made with Guard Lieutenant Jarrot last time they were here allows him to meet secretly outside of official channels. Carlito fills him in on the situation and asks for any help he can provide. Jarrot considers it for a moment then tells Carlito to wait at the docks. About an hour later he returns with a medium-sized bag slung over one shoulder. Inside are several bricks of semtex explosives, complete with detonators. He tells him that that’s all he can do for now, but if he can wait, he might be able to provide additional support. Carlito gives him the location outside of Torch where all of their combined forces will be meeting then slips away into the crowd.

Before leaving, however, he decides that he hasn’t embraced his new evil alignment quite enough that day and stealthily makes his way to the “sports bar” they acquired in the city last time. There, he cautiously retrieves the “were-snake” creature they created and, placing it in a ventilated box, uses the information he retrieved from Ridgeway’s computers to send the unpleasant package to Ridgeway’s wife. Because that’s how evil does things.

With the full scope of their resources tapped, the players decide that they’ve done just about all they can do to prepare: it’s time to put things into motion. Their escalade having been reduced to a burning hunk of metal, they find themselves in need of other transport, and they head back to Carlito’s storage garage to retrieve the motorcycles they acquired in the first adventure. Mounting up, they ride through the Hive and drive through a portal that leads them to an arched rock formation several miles outside the Gate Town of Torch.

Punwick has already arrived, and he’s brought Hank and the rest of the G&H teams with him. All as rag-tag and morally ambiguous as our own players, the G&H contractors are a rough but capable bunch. Most are sharpening, loading, or otherwise cleaning their assorted weaponry while perched on a collection of vehicles ranging from military-style humvees to crude machine gun technical trucks. They all nod to the players in solemn greeting as they pass by.

GM Note: It dawns on me that I never actually used these teams for anything before this big final battle. Sure, we’ve always known there were other teams and we’ve heard passing reference to them, but looking back on it now it seems like a missed opportunity to have not included one of the other teams in an adventure somewhere. Though in all probability it would have turned into the equivalent of a high school sports movie with the young up-and-comers bucking for the top spot as they try to oust the old, hardened experts in a heartwarming, impactful social commentary. So perhaps it’s for the best.

Besides the G&H teams, Sean, Al, Mortimer, and Eliandra are also present, double-checking their gear next to an irritated-looking Alan and an oblivious-looking Grimmel. The gang, as they say, is all here, and so it comes time to begin planning their attack.

Perched atop a nearby outcropping, the players scout the town with binoculars and rifle scopes, trying to ascertain what, if any, defenses the town might have. Perched on and around three volcanoes, Torch is surrounded by a unique combination of lava and acidic swampland. The lower reaches of the city itself are walled in an attempt to keep out the dangerous mixture, but lava flows from the volcanoes above have been known to burn up and wash away neighborhoods regardless. The only viable means of entry into the city from their position in the outlands is via a haphazard-looking road made out of large chunks of stone sunk into the swamps. The rock is uneven and partially corroded in some places, but it’s the only way to gain access to the city without swimming: an approach that will almost invariably get you killed.

There are no obvious signs guards posted on the walls or on the road, and Carlito believes that his having cancelled payment to the contracted groups in the town will have effectively eliminated any resistance they might have found inside. However, there are other considerations: the groups could have been paid up-front, the notice of contract cancellation might not have reached them yet, or any number of other factors could be at play that they don’t know about. While they can hope that combatants within the town will be minimal, there isn’t any way to know for sure.

With few options, the players lay out their plan of attack: rush up the main road toward the main gate, hope that no one will be around to stop them, and kill anyone that tries until they reach the portal that will take them to Gehenna.

Sun Tzu would be proud.

As they do one last once-over of their gear, those in the group with higher listen checks notice something: a low rumble from off in the distance, gradually growing closer. Turning out toward the Outlands, the players can see a large roostertail of dust being kicked up and approaching their position. Some of the group mount up in their vehicles and chamber rounds into their respective weapons, just in case whatever’s coming isn’t friendly. They begin questioning the utility of that move, however, when the approaching objects come into view: two M1 Abrams tanks, fully loaded and moving at a moderate pace are headed directly for the small assault force and show no signs of changing course. A few nervous rumblings are heard and a few individuals load personal grenade launchers, for all the good they would do against armored tanks. Norm holds up a hand, telling everyone to stand down, and then walks out into the middle of the road, hands resting casually on his swords.

As the tanks loom closer to the lone figure in the road, they gradually slow and then come to a stop, not more than 15 feet from Norm. A tense few moments pass, no one knowing if the next sound they hear will be the deafening noise of a 120mm main gun blowing Norm off the face of the Planes. Then the hatch on the lead tank opens and an efreet hauls himself into view, a pair of old-style dust goggles riding on his forehead. He looks down at Norm and the other players, who have tentatively moved forward to back him up.

Efreet: “You guys the G&H crew?”

Carlito: “Yeah, that’s us.”

Efreet: “Lieutenant Jarrot sends his regards: you’ve got armor, baby.”

Relieved, and now emboldened by their newfound heavy armor support, the players re-evaluate their plan of attack: let the tanks go in front of the rest of the convoy. With that ironed out, the group is finally ready to move on Torch, but not without a dramatic speech first.

Norm, taking the initiative, climbs up on the turret of the nearest tank and turns to face the team. Looking out over the mis-matched conglomerate of rough-and-tumble mercenaries, law officers, and soldiers, his swords catch what little hint of light there is in this part of the Outlands, gleaming dramatically. Raising his hands in the air to draw everyone’s eyes to him and taking a deep breath to further build the tension, he speaks:

Norm: “Everyone…” (Dramatic pause) “… don’t f*ck up.”

With that, Norm clambers back down from the tank and mounts his bike. Everyone else stands around for a moment, half-expecting some kind of noteworthy follow-up. When no such words of further encouragement are forthcoming, they awkwardly begin to mount up and fall into formation. Alan breaks away from the rest of the group and approaches the party, a discontented look on his face.

Alan: “If I die…”

Gorak: “Then it’s your own damn fault.”

Carlito: “Then you f*cked up.”

Strauss: “I’ll send a lovely letter to your wife.”

Norm: “And I’ll make sure she’s well taken care of.”

Alan: “… I hope to all the gods I never see you again when this is all over.”

Nothing more to be said, Alan heads back to his squad car with Grimmel and the convoy begins to move out. Lead by the players on their bikes, and followed by a pair of tanks and a column of gun trucks, the assault team advances on the town of Torch, everyone’s heads on a swivel as they all anticipate an attack.

They don’t have to wait long.

As they draw closer to the town, a sudden eruption of lava bursts upwards from the mouth of one of the volcanoes, accompanied by a loud roar. Out of the volcano come a pair of pyroclastic dragons, superheated ash erupting from their mouths as they swoop down on the assault party. Their approach is prefaced by another blast of superheated ash that sears the convoy below, followed by a powerful burst of wind as the air is violently displaced in their wake.

Everyone frantically turns to bear on the dragons and the convoy erupts in gunfire, punctuated by periodic explosions as the tanks’ main guns open fire. One tank shell impacts one of the dragons with a devastating triple critical, the impact of the HEAT round blasting a sizeable crack in the dragon’s obsidian-like scales, poisonous gasses venting through new opening. It roars in pain as it and the second dragon land with a splash in the swamps to either side of the road, bullets from the rest of the convoy pinging off their scales. Moving in close, they prohibit the tanks’ long main cannons from swinging to bear on their targets, forcing the crews to abandon the larger guns and fall back on the M2HB and M240B machine guns mounted to the turret.

With the dragons now closer to ground level, the party members themselves can now engage more effectively. Norm and Gorak open up the throttle on their bikes, riding in to fight the dragons in close quarters while Strauss and Carlito draw their own weapons and fire from a more appreciable distance. Norm throws his motorcycle into a braking turn as he draws one of his katanas and slashes at one of the dragon’s legs, the blade clacking over the hard scales before finally finding a fissure and biting in, coming out a fair deal hotter than it was previously. The dragon roars in defiance and swipes at Norm with his claws, but he rolls underneath the blow and comes up next to another leg which he stabs at with both blades.

Strauss fires two rounds which slam into the second dragon’s head, dealing sledgehammer blows to its heavy browplate but failing to actually puncture the skull. Carlito fires a round that takes the dragon in the wing, the acidic enchantment on the bullet eating through the ash-like material of the wing and hampers its ability to fly again. Gorak is busy dealing with the claw attacks of the first dragon and takes a few deep cuts as he attempts to dodge out of the way on the narrow, precarious road.

The shift in the battle comes when the dragon attempts to land a bite attack on Gorak. As if making up for the three sequential 20s rolled earlier, the GM die this time comes up as a 1, confirmed by a following low roll. Reaching for the critical fumble deck, the result is an unpleasant one for the dragon: while it still deals normal bite damage to Gorak, it deals double that damage to itself. As luck would have it, that double damage is precisely enough to kill it.

As the dragon’s head darts down to take a bite out of the dwarf, Gorak sidesteps out of the way and slams his mace, spikes and all, directly into the dragon’s eye, where there it stays as the creature roars in pain, rears up flapping its wings in a vain attempt to flee, then collapses across the road, dead. Not missing a beat, Gorak turns and draws his shotgun, aiming at the second dragon which is inhaling in preparation to hit him with another breath attack. Gorak is quick on the trigger and sends the full blast of 10-gauge buckshot down the dragon’s throat, tearing up just about everything inside of it. A low explosion is heard from deep within the dragon and it blinks once before toppling into the swamp, also dead.

In the space of one round, Gorak has effectively killed two dragons.

GM Note: Not to rain on Gorak’s parade, but these were slightly lower difficulty dragons than the one they fought in China. If you’ll remember, that one nearly wiped them out and this time I was throwing them up against a pair of dragons, not just one. Even with support from the tanks and gun trucks, it would have been a bad idea to use the same level of dragon in this instance if I wanted the party to continue on to the final objective.

Only marginally battered, the convoy pushes on, Gorak retrieving his mace from the dragon’s eye socket and the lead tank proceeding to push the body off the road and into the swamp. They continue on into the town without incident and enter through the main gate to find the town completely empty. Suspecting something is amiss, Carlito switches over to the radio frequency used by the tanks.

Carlito: “Armored units: send a round each into the buildings on either side of the street here. Let’s flush out anybody who’s hiding.”

Efreet: “Uh, sir, we don’t have any targets. There could be civilians in there.”

Carlito: “We’re quite literally two steps from hell here, soldier: there’s no such thing as ‘innocent’ in this place, even on a good day.”

Efreet: “Understood.”

The two tanks emit a mechanical whine as their turrets rotate and elevate to target the building facades on either side of the street. There is a slight pause as the loaders slam their shells into the breach, then the deafening explosion of guns fills the street, a wave of dust and fire washing over the convoy as the haphazardly-built buildings this low in the town are blown to pieces. A severed arm, still grasping roughly one-third of a rifle, flies past Carlito and sinks into some of the low swamp water that periodically invades the low-lying areas of the city. Considering any threat inside to have been either dealt with or thoroughly dissuaded, the group continues onward.

Their complacency is quickly challenged, however, when one of the tanks rolls over a mine, its left tread shorn apart, effectively preventing it from continuing. As if that weren’t enough, the mine was apparently the cue that the remaining enemies laying in ambush had been waiting for. A group of yugoloths appear in the windows of buildings lining the street and open fire on the convoy below. Strauss orders the crew of the disabled tank to take to the machine guns, but to avoid firing the main guns for fear of splash damage taking out friendlies in tight quarters. With that, the party splits into two groups and goes to engage the ambushers.

As the players fan out in the street looking for targets, Norm decides that he’d rather take the fight to the enemy rather more directly. Aligning himself with a nearby stairway, Norm guns the throttle on his bike and rockets up the stairs to the second level of the building, crashing through a doorway and surprising the yugoloth inside. Tumbling from his bike and rolling up to his feet, Norm charges the yugoloth without even drawing his weapon, bullrushing him out the window where he falls to the street below, directly beside Gorak who wastes no time in embedding his mace in the hapless attacker’s head.

From the window of one of the buildings, a Yugoloth raises an RPG to his shoulder and fires at one of the tanks. Everyone nearby dives for cover, but are relieved to discover that the round (thanks to yet another critical failure) is a dud that impacts harmlessly against the tanks slat armor. Taking advantage of the dud rocket, Carlito dashes forward and picks it up, shouting to Strauss as he does so. Running beneath the window where the rocket was fire from, Carlito tosses the rocket into the air, where at the apex of its trajectory, Strauss draws a bead on the small target and fires, detonating the rocket just outside the window and severely scorching the attacker inside, who is subsequently finished off by a burst from one of the gun trucks.

Norm, back inside the buildings, finishes off the remaining Yugoloth inside the room, then mounts back up on his bike and rides back down the stairs, across the street past several rather confused allies and up a second set of stairs to repeat his process. The enemy in this room proves somewhat more resilient to his bulrush, but not to his katanas. The second enemy in the room is somewhat closer to one of the windows and is subjected to a double-tap from Strauss’ rifle. The remaining Yugoloths are dealt with in short order.

Consulting with the crew of the disabled tank, they determine that it won’t be going anywhere and their best bet is to stay put and watch for any reinforcements potentially coming up behind them. There is just enough room for the second tank to maneuver around the first and continue on, and the convoy proceeds deeper into the town. Soon enough they come to a moderate-sized town square at the base of the central volcano. This square houses the portal to Gehenna, which sits in the direct middle of the square surrounded by a lava canal fed by flows from the volcano, not unlike those seen in the City of Brass. At the moment, the bridge to the small central island holding the portal is raised, and access to it cut off. A small control panel to the right of the raised bridge appears to be the only means of access, and so Carlito once again enters into his element.

GM Note: This was yet another instance where I used an outside-the-game supplement to make the game a little more interesting, as this was effectively the last time Carlito would be hacking something in the campaign. A quick google search found me a simple flash game that replicated a movie-style “hacking” process and so I allowed him to play through that in order to access the bridge controls.

After bypassing a few security features, Carlito finally gains access to the bridge and begins lowering it, just as another ambush force enters the square from another road. Along with a sizeable number of yugoloths, the ambushers have an especially unpleasant secret weapon along with them: two mindwitnesses, a rare monster which is the result of an Illithid tadpole being inserted into a beholder, and not something you ever want to deal with.

Carlito signals for the gun trucks to advance through the portal, then turns to the commander of the remaining tank.

Carlito: “C’mon, we gotta go!”

Efreet: “We go now, and they’ll just follow us through. We’ve still got plenty of ammo and some thick armor. We’ll keep these guys occupied, you just go get it done.”

Carlito nods and turns to follow the trucks through the portal with the rest of the party, just as the mindwitnesses start opening up with disintegration beams.

On the other side of the portal, the group takes a moment to catch their breath and stares back through the portal where they may or may not have just left a small armored deployment to die.

Gorak: “I think coming to hell was a bad idea.”

The rest silently agree, but know that they still have a job to do. Turning away from the portal, they observe their new surroundings.

The team has emerged on Chamada, the second level of Gehenna, which is comprised of four floating “earthbergs” consisting of two joined volcanoes each. Looking up at Khalas, the first layer, the players can see the fortress of the General of Gehenna scuttle about on a million fireproof legs. Ash from this layer descends on Chamada in an unending storm, coating everything in a thick, coarse dust. The ground beneath their feet is cracked and dry and even the air is hot and oppressive. If a travel guide for Gehenna exists, then it is probably only marketed to masochists.

Strauss surveys the area and soon finds a set of tire tracks leading away from the portal, slowly but surely fading away in the continued ashfall. Quickly striking out in pursuit of the trail, the team moves further up the gradually sloping mountain.  After a time, they come across a camp situated around what appears to be a drill site. A large drill shaft, approximately 15 feet in diameter, has been bored into the ground at a steep angle. The shaft is surrounded by a small camp site containing various pieces of equipment and supplies. No one seems to be present at the campsite but Carlito, somewhat suspicious from their earlier ambushes, orders the gun trucks to open fire anyway.

After an uncertain pause, one of the humvee gunners begins spraying down the camp. The other trucks join in after a moment and the area devolves into a cacophonous shooting gallery. The gunfire continues for a short time, then Punwick places his hand on Carlito’s shoulder.

Punwick: “Son, the barbarian is telling you to calm down here. Think that over for a bit.”

Carlito seems to get the point and orders the trucks to cease fire, anything that might have been living inside the camp now almost certainly taken care of anyway. Examining the camp, they find only (recently) destroyed equipment and no personnel whatsoever. The only thing of interest they do find is a collection of boxes that contain a sizeable amount of cocaine.

GM Note: If any of the players had been skilled in magic, they would have been able to determine that this was the same blend of cocaine that they had intercepted and ceased distribution of in Miami, providing another link to their earlier adventures. If you’ll remember, this was a strong mind-affecting drug that made the user highly susceptible to suggestion. This is why the yugoloths in Torch were still fighting on behalf of Roland despite their paychecks having been cancelled.

With nothing else to see on the surface, they proceed via the only obvious avenue available: the drill shaft. Ordering the gun trucks to wait topside because A.) they won’t fit down the shaft and B.) there still might be enemies following them, the players descend into the depths of hell itself with only Punwick, Hank, Alan and Grimmel, and Sean’s adventuring party in tow.

It’s really striking how often the players descend into the bowels of the earth (or whatever plane they happen to be on at the time), and how nothing good ever happens when they do. This pattern is not lost on them as they once again, and possibly for the last time, descend below the surface world into the unknown depths.

The tunnel continues on for some time before finally letting out in a chamber that must be several hundred feet below the surface. The cavern itself then should normally be dark, but several floodlights have been set up near the walls, providing illumination. Though the lights would probably be unnecessary as the single largest light source in the cavern is a towering wall of flame situated within the threshold of a massive doorway which stands nearly 30 feet tall. Above the door is an inscription which reads: “Realm of Rictus, domain of Maanzecorian the Philosopher Savant. Only ye with strength of mind and power of thought may enter here.”

Strauss: “I’m sorry, Gorak. Looks like you’re gonna have to stay outside.”

Gorak: “Funny.”

The players stare at the wall of fire for a while, trying to figure out what to do. Carlito picks up a few rocks and tosses them through to the other side. Nothing appears to happen, though the wall of fire does obscure the view to the other side. Norm sticks his sword through and then pulls it back: the blade is still there and appears unharmed. On a whim, Carlito grabs a few more rocks and coats them in the cocaine they found earlier before tossing them through the fire. Again, nothing. Then, for some unknowable reason, Carlito spreads some of the cocaine out on the slide of his pistol and haphazardly does a line off of it. Then, without taking the time to second-guess his approach, he takes off and charges through the fire. He emerges on the other side unhurt, and calls out to the other players that he’s fine.

Norm and Gorak repeat Carlito’s tactic and also make it through to the other side. Strauss, however, is wary. Out of scientific curiosity (and an unwillingness to snort cocaine of questionable origin) he simply dashes through the fire without taking the drug. As the others, he emerges completely unhurt. The fire is nothing more than an illusion, the only barrier to entry the individuals belief in their own eyes. The other players look on awkwardly.

Norm: “Well… crap.”

Carlito: “I kinda hope that doesn’t have any negative effects.”

GM Note: To my eternal shame, this did not actually have any negative effects. The players doing lines of coke was not at all part of my original plan and there was a lot of end-game stuff going on here that I was trying to keep track of so I regretfully just… forgot about it. A more experienced GM would have instantly taken advantage of their players partaking of a freaking mind control substance, but I was new and inexperienced and I let a juicy opportunity pass me by. I still haven’t stopped kicking myself for this.

The rest of the team follows cautiously through the fire illusion and they all regroup on the other side. Taking in their surroundings they find themselves in a large entrance hall. Two large curving staircases lead up to a balcony level with doors off to either side and one set in the middle. On ground level, set in the center of the two staircases is a large statue of Maanzecorian, roughly three times life size. The players waste no time in defiling the statue with a few bullets, though it hardly makes much difference in the overall aesthetic: most everything is covered in dust and spiderwebs and is in various state of disrepair. Without its master to watch over it, the realm of Rictus is slowly crumbling away into history.

Advancing up the staircase the players examine the middle door. It is securely locked and appears too sturdy to simply break down. In the middle of the door is a recessed area that is almost certainly activated by some kind of magical key, which the players then split up to go find.

Carlito goes through the door on the left and enters in a large room filled with cages. Inside those cages are yugoloths. Lots of yugoloths. None appear to be immediately hostile, but instead have kind of a dull, hopeless look in their eyes. They turn to face Carlito as he steps inside but none make any indication that they object to his presence. Against the far wall, beyond the cages, is the ghostly apparition of an illithid, though unlike the yugoloths, it does not acknowledge his presence. Weapon drawn, Carlito approaches the illithid from behind, stopping within a few feet and clearing his throat.

Carlito: “Um… hi?”

The illithid turns to face him.

Illithid: “What are you doing here?”

Carlito: “Oh man, I’m glad you asked. We were working for this guy Ridgeway, but it turns out he was under the control of this mind flayer, Roland, and now he’s up to some crazy sh*t and we had to drag ourselves all the way down here to try and stop him. Can you believe that?”

Illithid: “I can. Roland seeks to return our master to us.”

Carlito: “Aw crap. So you’re…”

Illithid: “I am Hananolith, servant to Maanzecorian. Or at least, I am what remains of this person.”

Carlito: “Great. And the yugoloths here are for…?”

Hananolith: “The resurrection of a god requires a great deal of life force. This is something I would gladly provide, were I able, but as it stands we require… volunteers.”

Carlito: “Yeah, well about the whole resurrection thing: we’re kinda in the business of stopping that, so if you could just tell me how to open the big door outside, that’d be great.”

Hananolith: “I cannot allow you to do this. I am busy, and I do not wish to waste my time with you so I will ask you once: please leave, and let me continue my work.”

Carlito: “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”

Drawing his pistol, Carlito fires into the ghostly figure’s center mass, the bullet itself carrying on and impacting against the wall behind it, the shot nevertheless appearing to give the apparition of the long-dead illithid some pause. Hananolith swings at him, but Carlito steps out of reach, firing as he goes. He continues this dance across the room, each round having only a marginal effect against his target, before he reaches the opposite wall. As Hananolith approaches and raises his arm to attempt another blow, he is struck in the chest with a bullet that doesn’t seem to impact him so much as phase into him. Looking up in surprise, Hananolith sees Strauss standing in the open doorway, rifle raised to his shoulder. A second shot follows close behind and the ghostly figure of Hananolith fades from existence, leaving behind a small puddle of ectoplasmic goop, in the center of which is a small half-piece of a seal in the shape of a crown.

Carlito picks up the seal, then turns to the caged yugoloths.

Carlito: “Alright, listen up: I’m assuming most of you don’t wanna be here. So you’ve got two choices: you can either stay in your cages and rot, or you can come with us, provided you help us take down Roland.”

There is a brief murmuring amongst the yugoloths, with most of them finally agreeing to provide assistance in exchange for escape. One group, however, decides that fighting would be fruitless and opts instead to stay put. Carlito, in his typical fashion, allows them to stay, but tosses a flashbang in with them on his way out.

GM Note: In a strange echo of history, this is the second time in which the player behind Carlito has thrown a grenade at a group of helplessly caged enemies. The first time was in a previous game set during the Second World War, only instead of a flashbang it was a German stielhandgranate. And instead of yugoloths they were gremlins waiting to be fired out of a massive artillery piece into Parisian manufacturing plants. That game was a little weird.

Meanwhile, Norm has ventured through the door on the right and emerged in a large library. Mostly devoid of anything but books, the only other figure in the room is another ghostly apparition of an illithid. Norm approaches cautiously and makes his presence known.

Norm: “Hello?”

The ghost turns to face him.

Illithid: “Why have you-”

Norm: “Wait, you’re not real!”

Norm is seemingly still subject to the effects of the cocaine, and as such seems to think that the ghost (which is of course the ghost of Dleniacorus, Maanzecorian’s other servant) is some kind of drug-induced hallucination. He also seems to think that the best way to make this vision go away is to hit it with his swords.

Drawing his weapons, Norm attacks the ghost in front of him, rolling two sequential natural twenties, which in normal circumstances would be fantastic… but against an incorporeal creature which is immune to critical hits, it is somewhat less so. Nonetheless, Norm manages to finish off the ghost in relatively short order, just as his companions enter to offer backup.

As Norm reaches down to pick up the second half of the crown seal which was left behind by Dleniacorus in a similar manner to the first half, Carlito marvels at the massive library. Not for any kind of academic interest, you understand, but rather because this many ancient tomes are rare and incredibly valuable, and would fetch a substantial price from the right buyers. Making use of his newfound army of yugoloths, he tells them to start packing up the books for transport back to the surface. One objects, however, and Carlito responds by giving him a different task: fight with the rest of the party or die. Outmatched, the yugoloth (who identifies himself as H’tiss) has little choice but to agree, being offered armament only with one of Norm’s backup machetes.

Back outside the rest of the team is still exploring the entryway. The players approach the central door and taking the two pieces of the seal they retrieved from the ghosts of Hananolith and Dleniacorus, they place them together in the center of the door. The seal glows slightly and forms together into one seamless piece, then begins to rotate to the left very slowly, as if unlocking a mechanism.

Just then, Norm hears a sound; a kind of scurrying from within the walls. He tells everyone to be quiet, at which point they all hear it too. Looking around for the source, Punwick and his group are suddenly surrounded by a massive swarm of rats that pours out of cracks in the walls and ceiling. Everyone tenses and readies their weapons, unsure of what to do. Punwick, however, a veteran adventurer who has fought more than his share of giant rats, nevermind regular-sized ones, simply scoffs.

Punwick: “Calm down, people. They’re just rats.”

He gives one an aimless kick, which is met with a squeal. The disconcerting bit is that the squeal doesn’t come only from the rat he kicked, but rather it rises from the entire swarm in eerie unison. Then, suddenly appearing in the air above the swarm is a glowing orb which then rockets toward the group and explodes in a ring of fire, burning anyone who didn’t hit the floor.

Hank: “Hank never seen rats do that before.”

Mortimer: “They’re cranium rats!”

Punwick: “What?”

Mortimer: “Kind of a group-minded species of rat. They get smarter the more of them there are in proximity to each other.”

Strauss: “Smart enough to cast spells?”

Mortimer: “Well, obviously.”

Punwick: “How’s that door coming, boys?”

Just then the seal on the door completes its rotation and the door does open, offering a convenient exit route.

Carlito: “We’re good, let’s go!”

Punwick: “We’re cut off here. You go and end this, we’ll be fine!”

Carlito: “You got it boss. Here, maybe this’ll help.”

Carlito pops the pin on his last flashbang grenade and tosses it amongst the rats.

Punwick: “Wait, did you just throw a-”

Punwick is cut off as the party dashes through the open door and then shuts it behind them, a dull thump sounding from the other side as the flashbang detonates, hopefully not hampering their own allies too much in the process (though whether Carlito actually cares about that is somewhat doubtful).

The room they’ve entered appears to be some kind of vast throne room. The players stand at the top of a platform with balconies branching off to either side and stairs leading down to an open hall. At the end of the hall is another set of stairs, arranged in a semi-circle, leading up to an ornate throne which sits in front of a large stained glass window overlooking a subterranean magma pit. Three large pillars flank either side of the throne room, and an emaciated looking illithid is strapped to each, obviously not by their own will. Everything seems to be made out of carved obsidian, the only color amongst the shiny black is a long red carpet that runs from the door to the base of the throne. And to the side of the throne stands Roland, as if in wait.

Roland: “I suppose I should congratulate you. You are the first non-illithids to step foot in Rictus for quite some time. It’s a pity you won’t have time to relish it.”

Without another word, Roland initiates combat by flinging a fireball toward the clumped adventurers.

GM Note: Anyone who’s ever seen The Incredibles knows that the biggest faux pas in the world of villainy is monologuing. I’m cheesy, so I sometimes like a good villainous monologue: Palpatine taunting Luke on the second Death Star is a great example of monologuing done right. The problem is, most players aren’t Luke. Most players are Aragorn and when you put them up against the Mouth of Sauron, they’ll just cut his head off before he gets two words out. We already touched on this earlier when the party cut off Roland’s explanation of his plan, and I’d made the mistake in past games of thinking that a group of players would ever be allowed in the same room as their antagonist and allow him to deliver any exposition. I’ve learned at least a little bit since then so when I put them face-to-face with the Big Bad here I didn’t waste any time; this was my last fight, darnit, and I was going to have the last word before the bullets started flying.

Strauss dives out of the way and runs toward a firing position on one of the balconies, but the rest of the players are scorched by the opening attack. Ignoring the flames licking at his armor, Norm charges across the room toward Roland, his katanas held out to either side of him like backswept wings and Gorak following close behind, his dwarven legs carrying him as fast as they’re able. H’tiss, the yugoloth prisoner they brought with them, is not quite so eager to fight an illithid spellcaster that just hit him with a fireball and frantically starts clawing at the door behind him, looking for a way out.

Carlito, suspecting that the illithids tied to the pillars are likely bad news, runs down the stairs and activates his invisibility augment, pausing in front of the first pillar just long enough to put a bullet into the head of the illithid hanging there. The captive creature’s eyes widen, then roll back as he dies. Strauss, from his position on the balcony, lands the first hit against Roland just as Norm and Gorak reach him. Roland reaches out toward Gorak with a chill touch spell, which Gorak manages to shake off and then swings at the illithid with his mace. Roland steps out of the way, but walks directly into Norm, who is flanking him from the other side. Norm brings his blade down across Roland’s back in a brutal overhand swing, as Carlito executes another illithid prisoner and Strauss fires a round that goes too high and shatters the stained glass window behind the combatants, letting a sudden rush of magma-heated air fill the room.

Roland, in an attempt to buy himself some space, lets loose with a mind blast which stuns Norm but not Gorak, who connects with another swing of his mace. Carlito, seeing that Norm is momentarily out of the fight, foregoes executing the other illithids and interjects with a shot at Roland, which barely whizzes past his head. Strauss’ next two rounds suffer no such loss in accuracy and impact Roland just above his hip, causing him to stagger backwards as he fires off a ray of enfeeblement against Norm, who succeeds in his save but doesn’t manage to land a sword blow in retaliation.

Carlito fires again, this time his round winging Roland in the right arm, causing him to stagger yet again as the acid eats through his flesh. Finally, Gorak, having seen the effectiveness of firearms in this fight, steps back and pulls out his Roadblocker, leveling the barrel at Roland’s chest and pulling the trigger. The full blast of buckshot tears into Roland’s chest, exiting out his back in a chunky spray. Roland makes the closest sound his body can manage to a gasp, a hand clutching at his ruined torso as he drops to his knees, then falls facedown beside the throne.

Strauss, taking no chances, fires two more rounds into Roland’s body before loading a fresh magazine and aiming at the body again, just in case. Roland certainly appears to be dead, but the party nonetheless stands still in apprehension, suspecting that things are not quite over.

Sure enough, after a few moments, black bursts of necrotic  energy spring from the bodies of the surviving illithids tied to the throne room’s pillars, piercing screams ripping from their lungs as their bodies gradually eat away at themselves and then dissolve to dust, falling free of their bonds. The energy arcs into Roland’s body, which violently jerks into the air and levitates there, a dark aura surrounding him. His skin whitens and turns dry and his eyes turn a deep red as he slowly settles to the ground and turns to face the party once more.

Roland, through some dark process, has become an Alhoon Lich: a powerful monstrosity that, bizarrely enough, was abhorred by Maanzecorian in his living days. It seems that Roland was unwilling to let his own mortality stand in the way of his plans, even if his actions would make him hated in the sight of the god he sought to raise. The irony of the situation is lost on the players as they have more immediate concerns: like killing the abomination in front of them before it kills them.

Before any of them can make a move, however, Roland lets loose with a ray of cold, wounding Gorak and knocking Norm to the ground, unconscious and slowly freezing to death. The others quickly focus fire on the Lich, Strauss sending two rounds into his arm, which Roland responds to with a lightning bolt that flies over Strauss shoulder and ricochets off the wall and several pillars before finally fizzling out.

Carlito and Strauss lay down as much fire as they can in an attempt to disrupt Roland’s casting, and even H’tiss, realizing that his only way out is to kill Roland, rushes forward, machete in hand. As he approaches, however, Roland casts a dark area spell on the ground in front of him, causing several black tentacles to rise from the floor and grapple Gorak and H’tiss as they struggle to break free. When they finally do escape the clutches of the spell, however, they are met with a devastating cone of cold. H’tiss shatters instantly and Gorak narrowly misses his saving throw, taking the full force of the spell at point blank range. Gorak’s extremities turn blue, then black, pieces of his beard freezing and chipping off in small pieces. He takes a tenuous step forward as the cold continues to wash over him, his shotgun rising to his shoulder. He takes a shuddering breath and his lungs are coated in ice as his entire body goes rigid, a perfect dwarven statue, before he tips backwards to the floor.

Gorak is dead.

With no time to grieve, Strauss and Carlito redouble their efforts, dodging several more lightning bolt spells and fighting against periodic rays of enfeeblement. As they gradually wear Roland down, pieces of his undead corpse begin to disintegrate and fall away. Running low on hitpoints, Strauss advances down the steps, firing as he goes, and is grappled by another black tentacle spell. Lifted helplessly off the ground he turns to Carlito.

Strauss: “Kill him! Now!”

Swinging around from behind one of the pillars, Carlito levels his P99 and sets Rolands head in his sights. He squeezes the trigger and the round flies true, striking Roland in the dead center of his forehead. The acidic effect of the bullet slowly creeps outward, eating away at the mind flayer’s head, his tentacles dropping away one by one. Effectively decapitated, Roland’s body staggers backwards through the shattered window and then lifelessly plummets into the lake of fire below, his attempt to resurrect his god foiled.

Ever with a flair for the dramatic, Carlito drops the mag from his pistol and racks the slide back, his final round spinning into the air where he deftly catches it.

Carlito: “Always save one bullet.”

The players have succeeded, but they have also lost a friend. Strauss revives Norm who sits up and surveys the scene in confusion.

Norm: “Where’s Gorak?”

Strauss solemnly shakes his head. Norm’s eyes drift to the lifeless dwarf lying near the throne and he dashes to his side.

Norm: “Gorak? Goraaaaak! I lied, I’m sorry! You were the best of us!”

The group collectively takes a moment to grieve, then sets about their business: their job is not yet over. Strauss wires the throne room with semtex as Norm reverently picks up Gorak’s body. Then they turn and exit together.

They enter the foyer just as the rest of the team is finishing off the last of the cranium rats. Two halves of one such rat impact on either side of the doorway just as they exit, their eyes greeted with the sight of all their allies, all the worse for wear but still alive.

Punwick: “They get a lot easier the more of ‘em you kill. I guess this means we wo- aw, geez, what happened?”

Norm: “He died fighting.”

Punwick: “I’ll see to it that his pension is paid out to next of kin. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The group ascends back up the drill shaft, finding their perimeter secure, several barghests lying dead around the humvees. Mounting up, they ride back towards the portal but before passing through, they all turn back toward the mountain and the underground palace. Strauss pulls out the semtex detonator and turns it over several times in his hands before turning to Norm and Carlito.

Strauss: “For Gorak.”

Carlito: “For Gorak.”

Norm: “For Gorak.”

Strauss then pushes the detonator switch and a low rumble is felt beneath their feet. In the distance, a cloud of dirt and ash erupts into the air, similar debris erupting from various vents and fissures in the surrounding area. Rictus, the realm of Maanzecorian, is gone.

They head back through the portal and find the tank team barely alive but still fighting, the mindwitnesses dead and the yugoloths in retreat. The second tank team was not so lucky and was overrun by the enemy. The surviving members of the assault team then head back across the swamplands surrounding Torch and back to Sigil to set their affairs in order.

Gorak is given a proper dwarven funeral, his headstone giving his name, the date of his birth and death, and the words “I just tried to do the right thing”. His pension, as Punwick promised, is paid off to his next of kin. Though none of the party was aware of it, Gorak actually had a large family in Baldur’s Gate, and was the heir apparent to a veritable empire of casinos operated by his family throughout Faerûn, which explained his desire to prove himself through gambling.

Strauss entered into retirement, buying grandiose mansions for both himself and his sister in the Lady’s Ward of Sigil. They used their newly acquired wealth to ease themselves into a position of prominence amongst Sigil’s upper crust and lived out their days in comfort.

Norm used his money to open a bladed martial arts school, which instructed the best and brightest in the planes in the way of the sword. Application for graduation entailed only that the student in question must forge a quality blade for the headmaster. Norm’s collection of swords soon became the most expansive in all the planes.

Carlito returned to the Feywild with his daughter, and together they plotted their revenge on those that kidnapped her all those years ago. But that, of course, is a tale for another time…

Together, and in remembrance of their fallen comrade, the players opened a bar in Sigil, naming it “Gorak’s Place” where only the strongest of alcohol was served and the poker tables were always high-stakes. Every year they return and raise a toast to their lost friend, and anyone trying to sit in Gorak’s empty barstool would be subject to a very violent bar brawl indeed. Just as Gorak would have wanted it.

A plot to resurrect an evil god foiled, their appetite for adventure sated, and their futures secured by their not inconsiderable wealth, the players can, despite the losses, consider their job well done. But somewhere out there, in the vast reaches of space, the Crown of the Savant drifts through the cosmos. And if anything can be learned from the Great Wheel, it’s that anything and everything is within reach…

2 thoughts on “We’re in it for the Money: Savant Syndrome: Pt. II”

  1. sooo good.. Maybe a sequel?!?!? ALthough It would have been better if they had just dropped the crown in the lava lake of The City of Brass.. Please continue to do such good work and make more!

  2. A direct “sequel” to this story isn't likely to happen, as the players and myself have all gone their separate ways. I'm running a completely unrelated Pathfinder game at the moment, and I'm still debating whether I want to dedicate the time to huge write-ups like this. We'll see.

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