Finally, the team’s affairs are in order. Our objective is clear: we’ve met with an orc commander leading Jonas’ forces, and our task is to retake the docks of Hafgan’s base to prepare it as an LZ for supporting forces, so that Jonas can sandwich Hafgan’s armies between the crushing grip of his own. (Note: we’re just “Black Ops” enough to use a phrase like LZ, but not so Black Ops enough to be able to call it an “L-Zed”).
We approach Hafgan’s encampment from the sea, climbing a dangerous, rocky cliff. Disguised beneath a stone rim from the skeletal horrors guarding the city’s rear gate, we await the signal to commence our strike. Unease runs through the party—what if we miss our cue? We’ve been told we’ll know the signal when we hear it, but…
There’s a colossal thud, and roaring flames shoot into the sky from the front palisade gates. Smoke and more explosions rupture the surface of the sky, and the cries of battle and of death carry over the city like a mournful wind. Seems as good a time as any.
Our approach is to attempt subtlety. But Nicholas is having none of it. ‘I shall trip over my own foot so that the clang of my metal armor alerts the sentries,’ he says (at least, we imagine that’s why he does it). Our cover blown, in we go.
At first, the odds seem in our favor—aside from some minor tactical flaws (summoning the party’s new best friend Richard the Holy Ankylosaurus in front of everyone, Nicholas being outflanked on six sides, etc.), we’re winning the fight. And then a quadruple multi-attacking monster level drains Nicholas, and he collapses on the ground. The rest of the tank squad rushes in to ward their fallen comrade, and the odds suddenly turn much more grim: now our last two tanks are surrounded by seven foes, while archers pepper them from afar.
Mana starts rapidly burning as the casters throw as many buffs as possible onto their desperate allies. Though Myles and Yerin fight to keep Nicholas up, the monsters won’t let him rise. But never will we leave a comrade to perish in battle! A ship cresting the horizon, and rapidly speeding towards us, distracts the monsters’ gaze just long enough for Richard to invoke his celestial might and flame strike the enemies, immolating them in divine fire. Yerin enlarges him, rendering his ordinary bulk colossal—48,000 pounds to be exact. He goes off rampaging into the city while the tanks mop up the fleeing sentries (unfortunately, he is unable to torpedo the incoming vessel, as the party decides it’s not imminently hostile).
The ship’s sole passenger, Sheelba, was once a high priestess of Bhall, until the goddess went missing years ago. Since then, she has defected to Jonas’ service, unlike many of her ilk. But how can this be the backup we’re supposed to receive? And then we realize that the spell she’s using just to move her ship is tiers of magic above what we can cast.
“Hafghan won’t be here,” she tells us. “He’s too smart for that.” His main forces have gone to the Pyre of the Seraphic, the very entrance to the elemental plane of fire—Bhall’s domain. Then that is where we go as well.
The Pyre is an enormous pyramid, with the top leveled off: it consists of a gateway portal in the center, with elemental orbs scattered about which must be blessed in order to resist the incinerating fire of Bhall’s domain. Stealth isn’t an option. We sprint directly up the side of the pyramid, racing Hafgan’s forces to the step. Though we reach the top first, a manticore is waiting to block our entrance to the Fire Plane. Quick thinking by Hughes, and a particularly blind guardian, enable minor illusions to delay the beast, and we scramble to collect the orbs before we jaunt into the plane of fire.
Everything around us is heat, and smoke, and ash, and burning. We cannot see. We can barely feel our skin without registering pain. The Fire Plane is a realm not meant to be traversed by mere mortals. The ground is uneasy beneath us, and the lakes of lava which surround the precipitous cliffs on which we find ourselves roil and seethe.
“Go!” Sheelba commands. “I’ll hold the gateway shut and hold off any of Hafgan’s soldiers.” It is clear what must be done. Hafgan will not elude us again.
We race along a progressively shakier plane, until we reach a chamber seemingly made of molten stone. Inside, there are arguing voices—one of them is Hafgan. Each member of the strike team collects themselves, making peace with what might happen. Then, the time for quiet passes. We charge.
Our attack is swift, our onslaught, merciless. Hafgan is foolishly alone, working some sort of infernal necromancy on a magic orb he has combined with one of Bhaal’s religious fire stones, but for the company of one ogre. He dies first, screaming and bleeding acidic blood as he is blazed again and again with Holy Smites. Then comes Hafgan’s turn. There was a time when we would have been scared to confront such a mortal foe—he laid siege to our home, and created civil war between an entire race. But the gravity of the moment has seeped into our very beings—failure is not an option. With detached precision, Myles blinds Hafgan with Holy Smite; he reaches out to grasp at the necromantic orb. Dale cleaves his arm off, using Improved Sunder to remove the entire limb. As he reels in agony, his world and his plan evaporating before him, Brandon puts him out of his misery—via decapitation.
The plane begins to rumble ominously, and as many of us look about panic-stricken, Hughes attempts to dispel the necromantic orb. But the magic of the immortals is above the influence of such weak heroes, and the necromantic magic only accelerates, nearly fully fusing with Bhall’s fire. No, this will end here. Brandon strides towards the orb and multiattacks, scoring 3 out of 3 critical hits and shattering the orb into dull, silver fragments. However, in shattering the orb, Bhall’s fire vanishes as well…
The plane shakes terrifyingly, and we realize our time here has long passed. In fact, we may have just exhausted our last minutes in this life. We sprint out of the chamber, and Myles begins Air Walking, but a voice stops us cold: “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” it shrieks. Bhall has arrived, and with it, a massive conflagration engulfs the party.
Brandon drops to one knee—no matter the god, a cleric always knows when the appropriate moment for piety comes. Myles, on the other hand, sees the flaming figure descend out of the very fires of the sky itself, and attempts to turn to run over the magma lake. But a colossal, rising wall of lava roars up, knocking him off balance and nearly sending him into the lake, a swim from which he would never return.
“YOU FOOLS!” the voice continues. “I—” Bhall is literally cut short, as a midnight-black, skull-gilded blade and a burst of fiery blood pour forth from her torso. She looks down, then looks back towards us once, and falls, disintegrating into a pile of embers and sucked into the blade, seemingly wielded by nobody. But the party knows better. A cold, skeletal laugh—a laugh that sounds like the tears of the innocent, devoid of all emotion—is the last thing the party hears before Bhall’s power expires and returns to the fire from whence she came. The black blade disappears, and with a cold calculation, we realize that D’Tesh has just manifested. No, worse—he has just slain a god.
The plane of fire can feel the demise of its master. The life force which held it together removed, it begins to collapse—falling meteors descend from the flaming cavern’s ceiling.
“MOVE!” Sheelba yells, running into view. Brandon glances back into the chamber to make sure the orb is still destroyed, and notices a flickering, flaming doorway. “Come this way!” he shouts in Divinic, but before he can turn around to run through it, Sheelba pushes him from the back and kneels before it. She murmurs something beyond our comprehension, and, extending her hands through the portal, becomes engulfed in magical fire and de-materializes from view along with the portal.
We have no idea what’s happened, but if we don’t move, we may never live to find out. We sprint towards the exit, and Brandon nearly dies from a meteor to the face. As the party waits for him in the gateway, beckoning him to hurry, he leaps with every last ounce of his strength, extending a hand that barely clears the threshold of the portal. Dale grabs hold, and Hughes—the only one with the intelligence to planar travel the gateway without losing his mind, jaunts us home. We flee to the ship, and stare back at the carnage we have wrought.
The mood is heavy. Even Dale’s first successful casting of a fireball can’t lighten the mood. With heavy minds, and for some, heavier hearts, we think on the demise of an entire plane of existence. There is one less god in the world, and we have no idea what role we played in it. The one person who might’ve answered such questions for us is gone, and not even Planar Communication spells can reach her.
We brief Jonas on what’s happened, and then we sail home. Though we are delayed by Siren-like creatures and other dangers of the sea, we eventually return to the Imperial Kingdom. There, we immediately report to Decius—we collect our reward, which made the whole journey well worth our effort. He’s also got a new mission for us. We are to report to the Elven Kingdom to assist in troubles they’ve been having with villages being found destroyed, burned and razed to the ground. For Brandon, the issue hits particularly close to home—his was one such village. We are tasked to make our way back to a communication outpost, where instructions will be waiting for us, as well as information on our contact within the Elven Kingdom.
Until then, he tells us, we need only think of a name to introduce ourselves as.
Highlights: First use of a gargantuan Ankylosaurus (which can cast spells!). Brandon’s strength using might of the gods can exert over 12,000 pounds of force. Dale successfully casts fireball for the first time. Myles realizes that summoned creatures do lots of work. Nicholas is nearly level-drained to death. Hughes critically fails a dispel check, which could have story consequences we don’t even yet realize.
The Meaning of Faith
Sleep came too easily to Theren that night. Of course he was exhausted—one can’t lightly fight in a siege or travel to another plane or witness the death of a god, let alone all in one day. But darkness seemed to take him too early when he finished Junil’s Rites, praying by the light of the moonlight dancing off of the sea.
He felt conscious, though he knew himself to be dreaming. He was adrift in the blackness, unable to feel his body but knowing that all of his limbs were present and under his control. Theren didn’t know why, but he pictured himself in a great white hall, with pillars of granite connecting a sapphire ceiling of the night sky to a gleaming white floor. Slowly, he felt the chill of the marble stone coalesce beneath his feet. He looked down at himself: he was bedecked in his full plate, and wore his massive tower shield on his back, but his greatsword was nowhere in sight.
“You have carried our faith too far, Theren of the village of Fyr,” boomed a voice behind him. No, the voice didn’t just boom. It thundered through the hall, piercing every bone and muscle in his body as it shook through and from the stone. Theren immediately knelt, planting one fist into the ground as he dropped his eyes. He was mortal, unworthy to turn to see his god behind him.
“Junil, my lord and my god,” Theren began, but the voice silenced him.
“The violence with which you have carried out your duty has become intolerable. You are to the point of excess of the very monstrosities you hunt.”
“My lord?” Theren was unsure now. “Must we not destroy those who violate the moral law?”
The voice gave a deep chuckle. At least, Theren thought it was a chuckle. “The moral law—do you remember, Theren, the confines of the moral law? Do you remember its oaths?”
“Yes, Junil, my god.”
“Recite them. Now.”
Theren paused only for the moment it took him to draw a breath. Before his god, he knew not whether to recoil in terror or prostrate himself in awe. And at the same time, he knew that Junil demanded of him the same quiet reserve he demanded of all his sentinels.
“By the font of the earth and the starlit sky, I swear to these oaths—in whose glory, am I. We, of the faith, shall forever strive to uphold the law. We, of the faith, shall never break the law, unless to prevent that harm may fall to those who are innocent. We, of the faith, shall, if it is in our power, prevent the injury of an innocent. We, of the faith, shall always presume the innocence of man until he is proven to have transgressed. We, of the faith, shall not lie, except that we may prevent harm to the innocent in so doing. We, of the faith, shall always tread our paths with justice as our guide, in fairness and in common decency. A vanguard, a watcher, a warden in the night: a soldier for order, to punish sin with might. I, a sentinel of justice, shall strive to always punish those who harm an innocent. I, a sentinel of order, shall ensure that such punishment is always proportional to the offender’s transgression. I, a sentinel of retribution, shall carry out the punishment myself if the offender refuses to answer for their crimes. Ward my shield and bless my blade, for I hunt the foes of the faith and of the order of law, and ever on this road of justice shall I balance my might with the desert of retribution. And…” Theren’s breath caught.
“Finish it.” The voice was quiet know. They both knew what Theren had hesitated over.
“And never shall I subordinate the dictum of the faith to my petty—”
“Never shall you subordinate the dictum of our faith to your petty prejudice!” the voice roared. “For justice values no one man’s concern, and retribution wielded as a tool of vengeance becomes enmity to the good of the faith and of the world.” There was a pause. “Theren, you partook, albeit indirectly, in the demise of a god. On this day, you bore witness to the death of a divinity. The violence in you has grown too overwhelming.”
Theren was silent. Only a fool would interrupt a god, and the god of retribution at that.
“We are not vigilantes, Theren,” the voice said, softer now. Understanding, but not fully forgiving. “We do not wield the power of the ordered law of the multiverse for destruction, nor for the satiation of our personal wraths.”
“Please, my lord Junil,” Theren whispered. “These creatures—such abominations they are. Undead, whose souls have been ripped from their journey down the river of death and forced into an unholy shell—their very existence is unnatural, and so cannot be in accord with the moral order of the world. Demons, devils, abominations, monstrosities—all of them, the same. Does not their existence warrant our retribution?’
“Do not argue the dictates of the moral order with me, half-elf,” the voice chastised. “I am Junil, lord of Retribution, Dedication, and Order.” There was a pause, as if to let these words sink in. “We do not revile such creatures for their very existence. Indeed, consider the hapless souls who are bound in the corpses of the shambling dead—think you that they wished to be torn from peace and held entombed in purgatory on this earth? No, Theren, we find ourselves opposed to these beings because they are the foes who so often inflict harm on the innocent, whom it is our eternal obligation to protect and to avenge.”
Theren closed his eyes and sighed. He had no response—he knew he had exceeded the faith’s threshold of proportional force, knew he had inserted his own brand of justice into the sanctity of the order’s balanced retribution.
“I know the troubles of your past, Theren.” The voice was as close to consoling as Theren imagined it had ever come. “I know of the creatures that shattered your childhood world and razed your home. But we must seek justice against them by the tenets of the faith: balance, wisdom, dedication, zeal, integrity, fairness, order. And only then will you find the retribution we both seek.”
“I am sorry, my lord Junil.”
“I know, Theren. But you have shown that the violence in your temper perverts the strict vengeance powers I have given you. You must relinquish the vengeance itself and draw strength from the other virtues of our faith.”
At these words, Theren felt something leave him. He didn’t know what—it certainly wasn’t his bitterness about his past, his anger towards the undead, for those, he imagined, would remain with him for all time—but it was something that he knew he would miss.
“I have withdrawn from you the blessings of vengeance, Theren.” The voice spoke flatly. This was how things would be. “I command you now to embody the balance and the justice and the fair retribution that must guide our faith if we are to survive in this world.”
Theren sucked in a breath, and his eyes shot open. Something was gone, yes, but a new strength, an inner strength, had taken its place.
“Go, my sentinel. Judge the guilty, and be fair in your retribution. Examine your shield. And never forget that above all, the innocents we defend till the breath leaves our body are what give worth and meaning to the cold order of the world.”
Theren woke to sunlight streaming in his window. He rose from bed, and knelt before the dawn. “By the font of the earth,” he began that morning. And every morning thereafter.