Sunday, April 22, 2018

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 29: The Sightless Sphinx, part 2

After they had eliminated the Forgotten Pharaoh cultists and girtablilu mercenaries who guarded the exterior of the Sightless Sphinx, the Ruby Scarabs took a few moments to search the bodies for anything of value before proceeding to the double doors that would take them inside the temple of Areshkagal. Some of the cultists they had faced were equipped differently than other cultists they had encountered previously, carrying well-made javelins and wearing breastplates. But as they had found in the past, the members of the cult carried little coin, though they did have curative potions. Each of them took a potion.

They had only just finished gathering up the spoils when three more girtablilu warriors confronted them. The warrior who took the lead warned them, "We are the guardians and we must defend this place from all." Uto then emerged from within the bronze sentinel, flying, and transformed into his living monolith form before addressing them. He attempted to persuade them that there was no need for them to keep defending those withing the demon lord's temple. When they wouldn't listen he tried to intimidate them into abandoning their post, but they refused to be swayed. Impatient with the conversation, Azzaria pulled a bead from her necklace and hurled it among the girtablilu, engulfing all three of then in flames.

Hutt followed Azzaria's attack by granting all of the his new comrades the ability to move much more quickly than normal. Azzaria became hard to perceive and surrounded herself with images of herself.  Sula took the shape of a huge macetail dinosaur and moved up to attack one of the girtablilu. One of the girtablilu warriors grabbed Uto in its pincer and was attacked by Azzaria. Its defensive attacks caused several of her images to disappear. Uto was also hard to see, his outlined blurred, which protected him when the girtablilu tried to sting him with its tail. The first warrior fell to the combined attacks of Azzaria and Sula.

Hutt cast a spell that left another girtablilu blind, but the scorpion-man refused to yield and crept toward Kaa. Nyema joined Sula in attacking one warrior and was stung for her efforts. Uto sent two of his ancestral spirits to attack the same foe. Uto was as usual absorbing some harm from his companions and thus suffering many wounds. Tetisurah moved closer to him to heal him. Kaa pummeled the blinded warrior with his fists. Azzara pounded the warrior that had stung Nyema and he collapsed. She then charged toward three more girtablilu who were approaching. Hutt sent a ball of flames into their midst, which stopped two of them from casting spells. But one of them managed to successfully summon a giant scorpion to aid them.

Another girtablilu grabbed Nyema but then released her. Weakened by the poison from the scorpion-man's sting, the lioness retreated, running to Tetisurah for aid. The sphinx healed her wound, but could do nothing to remove the poison, though she cast a spell on the lioness to aid her in withstanding the effect of the poison. Only one of the first trio of girtablilu warriors remained on his feet. The giant scorpion appeared near Azzaria and attacked her. Uto cast a spell on one of the approaching scorpion-men, setting him ablaze and also burning him with acid. Kaa stepped forward and sent a bolt of electricity at two of the warriors who hadn't reached the Scarabs yet.

Azzaria now faced both the giant scorpion and a girtablilu warrior. The warrior was already badly hurt. Hutt moved to attack the blinded warrior with his staff, while it stabbed at Kaa. Another warrior attacked the rougarou wizard. Uto flew the bronze sentinel over to the blind warrior and slammed both of the automaton's fists down on him. Hutt then engulfed the warrior in flames, and after his homonculous stabbed the warrior with its tiny spear, the girtablilu slumped to the ground. Sula's opponent also collapsed from his wounds after exerting one last unsuccessful effort to sting her, and Uto's spirit guardians finished him off.

Sula moved her huge form to attack another warrior. Uto blocked an attack on him by summoning a shield of stone, but was struck by a tail sting. Hutt was clawed and grabbed. His enemy pulled him close and squeezed him. Azzaria's opponents had eliminated all of her images and were becoming more successful at actually striking her. While Uto moved out of reach to cast a healing spell on himself, Tetisurah flew toward Azzaria and clawed one of her foes. Kaa sent more electricity at one of them, and then Azzaria dropped the girtablilu that Uto had set on fire and coated in acid. Still burning and sizzling, the warrior fell. Sula moved up to smash the giant scorpion with her club-like tail, which was also wreathed in flames. Azzaria hit the scorpion herself and it stopped moving. Then Uto called on the spirits to heal all of his comrades at once. In the space of a few minutes they had defeated six girtablilu warriors and a giant scorpion.

The leader of the girtablilu proved to have a few valuables which the Scarabs claimed, especially an ointment that could neutralize poison, remove diseases, or cure wounds. Uto used a wand he possessed to remove the effects of the poison from Nyema. The Scarabs then checked the tents that stood inside the broken wall around the Sphinx, finding that they had been the camp of the girtablilu mercenaries and contained nothing of value. While they investigated the tents, Tetisurah avoided getting too close to the grove of stone palm trees, which proved to have fronds made of sphinx bones.

The doors in the chest of the Sightless Sphinx proved to be constructed of the same sandstone as the rest of the structure. They were inlaid with ivory and lapis that reflected a little of the sunlight that could penetrate past the huge forelimbs of the Sphinx. Kaa immediately recognized that the doors were trapped and told the others to stay back while he examined it. He bypassed the deadly spell that would have triggered had they opened the doors, and unlocked the lock, but he found that the doors were also magically secured. Tetisurah used her magic to dispel the magical lock.

Beyond the doors lay a shadowed hall lined with pillars decorated with carved eyes. In the center of the chamber was a white stone statue of a six-legged faceless sphinx with dragon wings and a scorpion tail, a representation of Areshkagal. The chamber looked surprisingly clean for having stood in the desert for centuries. The walls were draped with reed curtains. Kaa noticed something beyond the curtains. As soon as he called this to the attention of the rest of the group, the curtains were swept aside to reveal two girtablilu and two cultists lying in waiting. One of the girtablilu warriors roared a battle cry.

Hutt sent a missile of force at one girtablilu, while Kaa stunned the other with his blows. One of the cultists exploded in flames after Azzaria mortally wounded him. The second cultist stunned Hutt and kicked his homonculus aside. Uto healed the wizard by casting the spell through one of the bronze sentinel's portholes. Sula directed Nyema to attack the cultist, while she herself slew the second girtablilu. Tetisurah picked up Hutt and moved him out of reach of the cultist who had stunned him. Uto emerged from the sentinel just in time to see the cultist wound and stun Nyema. The half-orc shaman sent his invisible servant to remove the spear that had been dropped by the remaining girtablilu when Kaa stunned him, and the servant pulled the sword toward its master. Sula meanwhile moved to strike the cultist with her tail. Then Azzaria eliminated the stunned girtablilu warrior, following up by hitting the cultist, who exploded.

Uto healed Nyema's injuires and gave Azzaria a potion, and the group waited while Hutt cast a spell to repair the damage the cultist had done to his homonculus. Then they gathered up the items left behind by the dead, finding that the two cultists inside the first chamber had both worn enchanted amulets and belts in addition to having the cloaks and masks the Scarabs had come to expect.  The amulets and belts both granted greater strength to the wearer. Uto claimed one of the amulets and put it on the sentinel, while the other was offered to Hutt. Then the Scarabs discussed whether they should continue to explore the Sphinx or withdraw to recover and replenish their spells. They decided they would see what was beyond the next set of doors before making up their minds.

The next doors were not locked or trapped when Kaa examined them. They opened into a smaller chamber, the walls on each side not extending to the ceiling and decorated with carved eyes. The doors on the opposite side of this room bore an image of Areshkagal. Kaa realized that they eyes on the walls were a trap that would be set off if something interrupted their gaze, summoning something. With caution the tengu monk disabled this trap. But as he finished, two cultists wielding crossbows suddenly appeared at the tops of the short walls and fired on the Scarabs. Kaa was hit by a bolt.

Uto maneuvered the hulking bronze sentinel into the room, while Kaa vaulted over the wall to face his attacker. The other crossbowman fired on the sentinel but the bolt bounced off its bronze skin. Uto's hair extended out of the sentinel to grab the cultist. Sula pushed her way into the room past the sentinel and swept her tail over the low wall at the cultist Kaa faced but missed him. She then moved to the opposite side of the room to attack the other cultist. Azzaria moved into the room and fired her bow at the cultist as Sula hit him.

Kaa discovered that behind the wall was a narrow hall and a flight of descending stairs. After the cultist he faced exploded, Kaa went down the stairs and looked into the next room, a large chamber lined with pillars and occupied by two girtablilu, who immediately spotted the tengu and moved to attack him. The second cultist exploded as well, and Uto pulled open the doors to the next room. Sula and Nyema moved inside to attack the girtablilu. Kaa was stung by one of them but managed to withstand the poison. Sula was stabbed by a longspear. Hutt tried to blind one of the scorpion-centaurs but the spell failed to affect the target. Uto smashed the sentinel's hands on one warrior, while Sula also slammed him with her tail. Kaa punched the girtablilu with a flurry of flying fists, which made the warrior's attacks on him all miss their mark. Azzaria shot the same target, and Nyema clawed him which caused him to turn on her and claw her back. Kaa then struck him a tremendous blow and he toppled over. The other girtablilu had already fallen to a crushing blow from Sula's tail.

Uto's healing magic was now depleted, as were Hutt's spells, so the Scarabs decided it would be wise to withdraw and recuperate before exploring any more of the vast structure. The two cultists who had attacked from behind the walls both had the same kind of amulets and belts and the two they had met in the first room. Hutt told them he could teleport himself and four other people to the nearest city to sell their loot and purchase other items, so they decided to set up camp outside the Sphinx for the night and pursue that option the following day.

Before they made camp, Hutt examined the Sphinx and realized that it was warded against teleportation or divination spells. He might be able to get past the failing wards, but he would have to find a weakness to be able to teleport in or out of the temple. Hutt and Sula then combined their spells to create a hidden shelter, after which Uto used an enchanted spike they had previously acquired to further protect the camp. They would decide in the morning if they wanted to risk going away for a day to sell equipment.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

[Pathfinder] Mummy's Mask, part 28: The Sightless Sphinx, part 1

Slight revision of the conclusion of part 27, to allow for introduction of a new player-character.

As the Ruby Scarabs made their way in the direction Erayu of the maftets had indicated would take them to the Sightless Sphinx, they came across a set of tracks crossing the dunes. Sula examined them and determined they represented two laden sledges being drawn by a pair of large reptiles that walked with a gait similar to a crocodile. The tracks were headed in the same direction as the Scarabs. Sula assumed the shape of a falcon and flew ahead to gather information. She saw that there were indeed two sledges loaded with supplies, hauled by a pair of large reptiles she didn't recognize. But she did recognize the gilded masks worn by the four people who accompanied the lizards. She circled over the sledges to see as much as she could before returning to her friends. In addition to an assortment of crates, boxes, and jars that probably held water, her sharp sight was attracted by a small golden cage on the front sledge. Inside the cage was a tiny metal figurine in the likeness of the jackal-headed Osirian god Anubis. But to her surprise, the figurine was moving, like the tiny people she and her comrades had encountered in the tomb of Akhan-tepi in Wati's Necropolis. Before she flew back to the others, she also noted that the rear sledge held a sarcophagus. Could it be the stolen sarcophagus of Chisisek?

When Sula rejoined the other Scarabs she told them everything she had seen, including the sarcophagus and the tiny cage. The masks the people had worn meant they were members of the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh. That made it simple for the Scarabs to decide to attack them and prevent the other cultists from gaining whatever supplies the sledges carried. Because the sledges were avoiding the ridges of the dunes and couldn't move quickly, it wouldn't be difficult for the Scarabs to get ahead of them and carry out an ambush. After discussing the possibility of making a two-pronged attack with Uto and his bronze sentinel bringing up the rear, they decided they would all attack from the front.

They positioned themselves at a point where the sledge drivers would have to decide whether to go right or left to remain below the tops of the dunes. Sula prepared Nyema for battle by armoring her with bark and casting a spell on her claws that would cause anyone wounded by them to bleed profusely. Sula herself abandoned her falcon form and resumed her natural shape. As the cultists approached the place where the Ruby Scarabs awaited them, they called out to the Scarabs to stop. Kaa stepped forward and asked them to allow the Scarabs to look inside the sarcophagus, but the cultists responded by calling the Scarabs bandits. Azzaria surrounded herself with six duplicates of herself, leading one of the cultists to fire his bow at her. Another cultist freed the reptiles from their traces and one of the beasts moved toward her.

The bronze sentinel suddenly appeared from between the dunes, flying over to land behind Azzaria. Uto spoke from within it, telling the cultists that it wasn't necessary to fight, but they didn't listen. Kaa sent a bolt of lightning at one cultist, and Sula followed with a lightning bolt of her own. Behind the rear sledge, a magical portal unexpectedly appeared, disgorging a man-like figure with the head of a jackal like the figurine of Anubis in the cage - but this being's head was not a mask. This jackal-headed person let out a howl as he arrived. The cultist nearest to him turned and fired on him.

Azzaria snarled in rage and her body became difficult to see and began to move with greater alacrity. The lizard that had moved toward her attacked the bronze sentinel instead. Uto used the sentinel's controls to have it strike the lizard with its fist. Meanwhile Kaa dispatched the second reptile. The remaining lizard grabbed the sentinel in its teeth and began to shake it, but because it wasn't actually biting Uto, this didn't disrupt his spellcasting as much as it might have. Nyema charged one of the cultists who stood by the front sledge and began to maul him. A blast of electricity shot from the direction of the jackal-headed person to strike the cultist Nyema attacked, forking to avoid the lioness. The cultist who had fired on the jackal-man charged toward him. The tiny Anubis figure began to bite the cage in an effort to get free of it.

Azzaria and Kaa flanked the cultist nearest to the sentinel. The cultist shouted at the lizard to drop the bronze construct and attack Kaa instead. Uto summoned lightning to strike the man twice, and when Kaa also brought electricity to bear on the reptile it released its jaws from the sentinel. Nyema continued to savage the man she had charged while Sula hit one of the other cultists with lightning and moved closer. Uto slammed the sentinel's hands down on the lizard. Tetisurah, who had hung back, now moved to cast a healing spell on Kaa, who had taken some serious wounds from the cultists. The tiny Anubis broke free of the cage.

Azzaria looked toward Sula and called out to her that since the jackal-man appeared not to be an enemy perhaps she should help him. The cultist who was directing the remaining lizard shouted desperately for it to finish off the bronze sentinel, but the lizard was too wounded. While Azzaria ran toward the jackal-man, Uto slammed the lizard again and told Kaa to hit the cultist. The lizard fell over. Tetisurah cast another healing spell on Kaa, then flew back to the sledge that held the sarcophagus.

Abruptly the jackal-man appeared next to the first sledge, and the cultist who had been attacking him found himself facing the tiny Anubis. He was even more surprised when it stabbed him with a tiny spear it had retrieved from one of the chests on the sledge. He turned and moved toward the approaching Azzaria, who was accompanied by her three remaining duplicates. When the cultist attacked her another image vanished. The cultist Nyema had mauled collapsed in a pool of blood. The man facing Azzaria suddenly cried out and exploded in a burst of fire. Now only a single cultist remained on his feet. Kaa tried to grapple him but failed to achieve a hold. Sula ran up with her spearhead crackling with electricity to stab the masked man. Kaa grabbed him, and Uto brought the sentinel's heavy bronze hand down on him. Azzaria then ran up to hit the man and he too died in an explosion of flames.

With the cultists all dead, Uto channeled divine healing to his companions and extended it to include the jackal-man. Azzaria was the first to introduce herself to him. The jackal-headed man told the Ruby Scarabs that his name was Hutt, of the Fang clan of rougarou people, who were all like him. The cultists had slain all of his comrades and stolen his homonculus, Little Anubis, and he had been pursuing them to recover the homonculus and take revenge. Uto then climbed out of the sentinel to introduce himself, followed by Kaa and Sula also telling him their names. Uto explained briefly what the Ruby Scarabs were doing and who the cultists were, and offered Hutt the opportunity to join them in their attack on the cultists they expected to find at the Sightless Sphinx. Hutt was willing to join them.

Kaa searched the containers on the first sledge while Hutt looked on, using his special ability to detect enchanted objects. Some of the things on the sledge were clearly supplies for the cult, but there were also items that were clearly stolen funerary goods. Among the enchanted objects that Hutt identified were a kopesh, a ring, the sarcophagus itself, a ring worn by the mummy inside the sarcophagus, a collar worn by the mummified cat with her, and another object inside the cat. Tetisurah was disappointed that the sarcophagus didn't belong to Chisisek.

Hutt revealed that the kopesh could create a wave of force against an enemy, and also granted the bearer the ability to wield it as if they had been trained in the use of such a blade. Azzaria claimed the weapon. The first ring Kaa had found proved to hold powers that would benefit him but not any of the other Scarabs, so they gladly allowed him to take possession of it. The ring and collar in the sarcophagus were meant to aid any person with a familiar or companion animal, so Sula was encouraged to use them for herself and Nyema. Uto removed the object from inside the cat mummy, a sphere of marble which when swallowed offered more benefits to a companion like Nyema. Kaa had also found a spellbook written on stone tablets that were unusually light; because none of the Scarabs could read the book they gave it to Hutt. Uto took charge of the enchanted sarcophagus, which could be made small enough to hold only an object the size of a cat, but could be enlarged to the size of a person and would then carry objects that weighed more than the bronze sentinel.

When wounds had been healed and items had been distributed, the Ruby Scarabs resumed their journey toward the Sightless Sphinx. Sula had seen a large structure in the distance when she spied on the cultists. It took three or four hours for the group to reach their destination. When they approached, they saw an enormous structure in the form of a six-legged sphinx, its face missing. They knew from their conversation with Erayu that it represented not a sphinx but the demon lord Areshkigal, lord of portals and riddles. The vast edifice had a large door hewn into its chest. It was approached by a broad avenue flanked by statues of actual sphinxes, each of them as broad as ten men lying head-to-foot. The Sightless Sphinx's forelimbs were longer than the avenue was wide, and the avenue could have held two of the sphinx statues place head to tail.

The temple of Areshkigal was surrounded by a broken stone wall, and on one side they saw the unnatural shadow Erayu had described, which could not have been cast by the structure itself because the sun was at the wrong position to create such a shadow. Sula volunteered to fly over the structure in falcon shape to find out what other objects or beings might lie on the other side of the Sphinx. She observed a pavilion which held a giant scorpion, as well as one of the girtablilu scorpion-centaurs they had encountered in the desert. There were a number of cultists lounging under the shade of a grove of palm trees that appeared to be made of stone, and in the shadowed area she saw a scaffolding on which two more scorpion-centaurs appeared to stand watch over a brass spyglass.

When Sula had reported her information back to the rest of the party, they decided they would camp a distance away out of sight to rest before taking on the cultists. Hutt created a magical shelter for them to sleep in. In the morning Hutt suggested that they could use the cultist equipment they had acquired to try to convince the cultists that they were delivering the supplies from the sledges, but they soon decided they preferred to make a direct assault. After everyone had prepared, a spell was cast on Sula that allowed her to communicate what she saw back to the others while she flew overhead as a falcon. The rest of the group followed her directions to creep up behind the sphinx statues along the avenue, out of sight of the guards. But as they crossed from the avenue toward the broken stone wall, one of the girtablilu spied them and shouted a warning to his comrade, who then ran to strike a gong and alert the rest of the camp.

Azzaria raced forward through a gap in the wall, pulling a bead from the necklace she wore and hurling it among the stone palm trees. It exploded in a ball of fire, burning several cultists. Overhead, Sula summoned a column of flames on the same spot. Uto walked the bronze sentinel past the wall and used its hands to eliminate a cultist. Another cultist had climbed on top of the wall when the gong rang, and Azzaria moved to face him when he jumped down. Nyema ran around the nearest section of wall to join Azzaria, but by the time the lioness reached the spot Azzaria had already eliminated her foe and he exploded. One of the girtablilu scorpion-centaur people appeared nearby and Sula struck it with lightning. Sula spied the giant scorpion approaching and blasted it as well. Uto followed her example by inflicting a burst of electricity on the scorpion-centaur, while Kaa moved among the palms to fiercely pummel one of he cultists who had managed to escape the flames. Only two men were left of the five who had been there when Sula first flew overhead.

A flurry of hailstones and snow appeared over the scorpion-centaur, summoned by Hutt. The scorpion-man rushed the rougarou wizard. A second scorpion-centaur appeared near the trees. Azzaria took out a wand and aimed it at the giant scorpion as it neared. Nyema pounced on one of the two remaining cultists, and he disappeared in a burst of fire. Kaa slew the last cultist, while Uto sent more lightning against the scorpion-centaur facing Hutt. The scorpion-centaur grabbed Hutt in one of its pincers. The second scorpion-warrior moved up to Nyema, stabbing her with his spear, and as the giant scorpion grabbed Azzaria, Sula attacked the huge scorpion and it expired. Kaa flanked the warrior attacking Nyema and was stung by his scorpion tail. Hutt escaped the pincers of the first warrior by exchanging places with his homonculus. His attacker turned on Uto inside the bronze sentinel, but the shaman blocked his blows with a shield of stone. Tetisurah then joined the battle and slew the girtablilu warrior.

A third scorpion-centaur arrived, dodging the icy area Hutt's spell had created and running toward the bronze construct. Sula met him with lightning, as did Uto. Kaa's opponent died. Tetisurah flew up and landed by Azzaria to heal her. The scorpion-centaur who had just arrived moved to attack Azzaria, and the sphinx pounced on him, killing him. When his brother-in-arms died, the remaining girtablilu warrior ran back toward the unnatural shadow at the side of the Sightless Sphinx.

Next: part 29, The Sightless Sphinx part 2

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

[Elder Scrolls] The Elder Scrolls Online

I'm a big fan of the Elder Scrolls series of games from Bethesda, specifically the console versions for Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. I've played Morrowind, Oblivion, and most recently Skyrim. I even tried the earlier computer game, Daggerfall, although I lacked an instruction manual and found it a bit challenging to play when I didn't know what I was doing.

I enjoy the open world, and the opportunity to play solo without having to ever follow the main quest if I don't want to. I've spent hours collecting alchemical ingredients and crafting armor rather than fight bandits, explore dungeons, or slay dragons. The game offers so many opportunities for the kind of play style I enjoy that I've never actually completed the main plot of any of the three games I mentioned above.

When Bethesda announced a few years ago that it would be producing a MMO version of Elder Scrolls, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I've never played any MMO; the horror stories of ruthless experienced players being awful to 'newbies' made me reluctant to try, as did the thought of having to team up with random strangers to complete certain activities. In addition I don't have a computer setup that would make playing such a game comfortable or fun. I was  disappointed because I feared this meant there wouldn't be any more solo open-world console games set in Tamriel, the world setting of the Elder Scrolls series.

The ESO MMO has been out for several years now, but just this week Bethesda announced an opportunity for players to try the game free for a week. Because it's now possible to play on Xbox or PlayStation through online services, my spouse decided to give it a try. I confess I haven't tried it out myself, I've only been observing while he plays. But here are a few of my observations.

The play experience has many things in common with Skyrim, the last ES console game released prior to the MMO. It has all the races, the various ethnic groups, and many of the same types of monsters and quests. The controls are a bit different since the game was designed to resemble other MMOs like World of Warcraft. You can play solo, but if you want to explore some dungeons you have to team up with other players; there's a function that will find you some people to team with if you don't have friends you can join. Like Oblivion and Skyrim, the NPCs you interact with are fully voiced, some of them by some well-known actors like Michael Gambon and Malcolm McDowell and others by some of the same voice artists who worked on Skyrim. But of course your character doesn't speak. You select responses when in a conversation. As in Skyrim, you usually only have two or three response options.

My mate didn't spend much time in the character creation menu, which is my favorite part of ES games. But it looks like there are plenty of options to individualize your character to suit your taste. Sadly the game's designers made the online elves look more human (and in my opinion less interesting) than the elves of the console version. The online game also introduces classes, which were something that existed in Oblivion but not in Skyrim. You also have to choose a faction, which really only comes into play if you choose to engage in PvP (player-versus-player) battles, which represent a war that is currently taking place in the game.

One of the big differences from the console/PC games is that there's a whole world out there to explore, not just one country or province. Skyrim limits you to the Imperial province of Skryim, which is Tamriel's Scandinavia analogue. Oblivion kept you in Cyrodiil, seat of the Empire, and Morrowind took place in the homeland of the dark elves, a land of strange plants and animals not found elsewhere in Tamriel. The MMO doesn't offer access to every part of Tamriel at present, but perhaps it will eventually. It does let you visit Morrowind and Daggerfall, and if you want to experience PvP combat you can visit Cyrodiil. If you're in other parts of the game world you can't attack other players and they can't attack you, which eliminates the issue of rude players killing your character for experience points that has been a problem in other MMOs.

The notable differences between the MMO and the console games include not only the bigger world and the menu options, but the presence of other players. You do see other players, lots of them. They run or gallop past constantly, never stopping to interact. Sometimes they run right through your character, having no effect at all. They suddenly appear to fight a monster your character is fighting and then go on their way. They stand in the middle of a street practicing their spells or attacks, or perhaps they're fighting an enemy you can't see. It feels a bit odd. You have to pretend that they're not really there, since you never speak to them and you can't fight them. This oddness becomes most obvious when a Daedric Anchor suddenly appears and every player in the region swarms to it to fight the daedra and gain experience and loot. If you're not within easy reach of the Daedric Anchor, there's no point in going because all the other players will have wiped everything out and eliminated the Anchor by the time you get there.

The 'boss' monsters and NPCs are also leveled, so it's possible to take on a quest that your character just isn't ready to face, and the game won't give you any obvious sign that you should wait until you're higher level to pursue that quest. I watched my spouse repeatedly fight one level boss and die until he gave up and went off to follow other simpler and less dangerous quests. This has happened to him several times. That's not something you usually face in other ES games; it's possible for a very low-level character in Skyrim to kill a dragon if you make sure to keep an eye on your health. My husband was either hitting a bug or a game limitation that wouldn't let him use a healing potion while fighting the level boss, which made it especially frustrating for him. I expect that if I try playing the MMO, I'll probably spend a long time taking on minor quests to gain experience and better equipment/magic before I attempt some of the bigger quests.

Overall the experience of ESO seems very similar to playing Skyrim. You can still craft potions, cook food, make armor and weapons, and there are some new skills to learn. You can use magic and weapons freely, you can wander all over the landscape, you run into lots of random monsters, you can eventually have your own home. You can join various organizations to gain benefits and supplies. The big advantage of the online game is the ability to keep playing in that wonderful expansive setting. Now that it's possible to play the game just the same way I would play the console version, it's tempting me to give it a try myself.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 32: Battling the Beast

When the Crusader Knights and their companions had all been healed of their injuries and Asami had joined the rest of the group at the top of the watchtower they had just claimed, they looked toward the other three towers and observed that there appeared to be no one standing watch on them. The outer bailey that stood between the curtain wall and the Citadel also appeared to be empty.

As the group examined the space between the tower and the Citadel and discussed how they would reach the other three watchtowers to disable the remaining catapults, they were interrupted by a loud roar from above. Before they could even look up to discover what had made the sound, a large creature landed on the top of the tower, crushing the catapult beneath it. The party members all recognized that the creature was a chimera, its three heads in the forms of a snow leopard, a red dragon, and a mountain goat. The chimera immediately breathed out a blast of frigid breath filled with shards of piercing ice, engulfing everyone but Asami and Runa in its range. Kirara was hovering next to Asami and was just within the chimera's breath, but the cat evaded the cold and ice splinters.

Zosta realized that this wasn't a typical chimera; it had been tainted by demonic essence. She charged the beast and tried to pummel it with her bladed brass knuckles but her fists failed to connect with the chimera's hide. Sosiel responded to its attack by calling on Shelyn's holy healing for the wounds caused by the chimera's breath. Asami ran to Runa, who had been standing hear the tower battlement with her back to the rest of the group when the chimera appeared, and extended a measure of good fortune to her, expecting her to immediately attack the beast.

Jiro summoned an ancestral spirit to help fight the creature. It appeared in the form of a woman with long black hair, wielding a bladed fan. Jiro had also recognized the chimera's demonic enhancements and warned his comrades that it was likely less vulnerable to wounds dealt by weapons not made of cold iron, as well as immune to electrical or poison damage and resistant to other forms of energy as a result of its demonic taint.

The chimera had landed very close to Shim, and now it snapped the jaws of two of its heads on him, then gripped him between its fangs and savagely ground its teeth on him. Shim what was barely able to withstand the pain of the wounds it inflicted. Then it clawed and snapped at Jiro, who was close by where Shim stood. Runa moved behind the chimera and extended Iomedae's mercy to those who were close enough, healing some of the wounds the chimera had dealt them, but the good fortune Asami had granted her was wasted. Asami was distracted by watching the beast harming her friends and failed to notice when Bohgong jumped on her back and began rummaging in her pouch.

The chimera thrust its heads at Jiro again, knocking him off his feet. Only his quick thinking saved him as he summoned up a shield of stone to block its attacks. Zosta leaped on one of the beast's necks and grappled it, trying unsuccessfully to maintain a choke hold. Despite having saved himself with his shield, Jiro lost consciousness due to the wounds he had absorbed from the rest of the group. Sosiel saw that Shim was on the point of death and moved closer to him to heal him.

Suddenly a large white ape appeared looming over the barely conscious half-elf. The ape began to pound on Shim's chest, growling at him, "Wake up and do something useful!" Only Shim could see that the ape held a strange piece of stone in its hand, and when it slammed its fist on his breastbone the stone somehow became embedded in his chest. But rather than harming him, he felt himself filled with power and he knew that there were new abilities at his command, abilities he had never known before.

The chimera clamped its jaws on Zosta as she struggled to hold onto it, grinding its teeth over her body as it had done to Shim. She was overwhelmed by agony and lost her grip on the monstrous creature. Runa attacked the beast with her longsword, which was not of cold iron but which had been enchanted so that it would harm demons and evil creatures from other planes. The chimera turned around to face her, letting an unconscious Zosta fall to the ground. Asami took out one of her wands and fired three missiles of force at the chimera. The projectiles did little damage but nothing seemed to block their effectiveness.

Sosiel cast a curing spell on Jiro, and much to Shim's surprise the white ape pulled a vial of oil from Jiro's pouch and began to rub its contents on the young man's many injuries. Asami used her divinely-granted power to cast a spell that she didn't have in her spellbooks, in an attempt to prevent the chimera from using its three heads and two clawed forefeet to inflict multiple attacks on her friends. But the beast seemed to resist her magic. Despite that Zosta had collapsed, the creature attacked her again, then turned on Runa and left her staggered by pain. Runa shouted out to Shim, "Strike it again!" and he did so, which Runa followed by slashing it herself despite the intense agony she felt. It tore at her again and left her struggling not to fall. When the monster attempted to gore her with its goat horns it missed her but Runa could no longer remain standing. Now only Asami, Shim, Aron and Sosiel were still on their feet.

Asami cast the same spell a second time, and this time she saw the chimera's movements slow. It could no longer bite and claw repeatedly. She pelted it with three more tiny missiles from her wand. Jiro regained his feet and backed away from the beast. The ape, which was a manifestation of Bohgong, moved to apply a healing oil to Zosta. Shim studied the chimera, looking for an opening, then attacked. But his attack didn't connect. The chimera turned around again and breathed a second time, this time catching Shim, Sosiel, Jiro, Asami, and Kirara with its breath. Kiraa couldn't avoid it this time but her otherworldly protections helped her avoid life-threatening injuries. Asami was able to escape the blast by sidestepping it. Runa got back on her feet and stabbed it with her second sword, having dropped her primary blade when she fell. The chimera exhaled again, and this time Asami couldn't escape. She slumped to the ground, dropping her wooden sword and wand.

Sosiel called on Shelyn's mercy again, granting everyone nearby a measure of healing, but unfortunately that included the chimera. Now Jiro, Zosta, and Runa were all on their feet again. Asami was conscious, but decided to remain on the ground. She picked up her sword and wand. Kirara flew away to hover over the battlement. Jiro summoned another ancestral spirit, closely resembling the first but equipped with long needle darts. The two spirits took up positions on either side of the slow-moving chimera to attack it. Shim attacked the beast and then taunted it. It bit him with its draconic head, leaving him badly wounded again, but he was somehow still able to keep upright. Runa again used her divine ability to grant him a chance to make another attack. The leopard head responded by biting at her. Zosta slammed her fists into the chimera and it collapsed, but that didn't prevent her from stamping on it to make sure it was dead.

With the chimera's death, everyone but Aron and Sosiel suddenly felt themselves filled with new power, just as they had experienced when the Wardstone exploded in the Gray Garrison in Kenabres. Even Shim felt this surge of strength and knowledge fill him, for the stone Bohgong had somehow embedded in his chest was a fragment of that same Wardstone. The Knights all wondered if perhaps the spirit monkey had taken a fragment himself, but when Asami checked her pouch she realized Bohgong had taken her fragment. When she said so, Jiro offered to give her his shard, but she declined, stating that saving Shim's life was a worthwhile use for the stone. Afterward Jiro had to explain to Shim that the white ape was still the monkey he addressed as Uncle, for Bohgong was a spirit that could manifest in the Material Plane in any form it chose. When Shim expressed amazement that the monkey could speak, Asami told him that Kirara could speak as well, which left the half-elf thoroughly bemused. What other wonders would he experience while in the company of the Knights?

Shortly after their success against the tainted chimera, the Knights learned that the paladin army had successfully defeated the demons guarding the prisoners, though not without a cost in lives. But they had freed 200 hundred mercenaries who were now equipped with the arms and armor they had liberated from the demons' allies on the previous day, thus tripling the size of the army that would attempt to wrest control of Drezen from its demonic occupiers.

Party members are now 7th level, 2nd mythic tier.

Wrath of the Righteous will be temporarily on hiatus. We'll be taking a break from gaming for a couple of weeks, after which we'll return to our Mummy's Mask campaign.

Monday, March 19, 2018

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 31: Taking the Tower

When the Crusader Knight group had defeated all of the defenders of the Ahari Bridge and healed most of their own wounds, they decided to remain together on the bridge to hold it until a unit of paladins could come take control of it. They were concerned that the bridge defenders has sent a signal to the fort for aid, though they hadn’t seen or heard any sign of such a signal. Then they removed any items of value or use from the corpses of the dead demonic tieflings. The tieflings had all carried much-valued curative potions, and their armor and weapons could be given to the prisoners once they were free.

Asami found that the tiefling sorcerer had worn a magic cloak, as Kirara had told her, as well as a magic amulet. He had also carried a wand. When she examined these she found that the cloak was of the same kind as the cloaks Rhino had sent with Shim. Zosta asked to have the cloak and presented her gift cloak to Bohgong out of appreciation for the martial training the monkey had been giving her. This seemed to please the monkey, much to Shim’s bewilderment.

The amulet proved to hold an enchantment to improve the wearer’s armor, so the rest of the group encouraged Runa to take it since she was so often in the front lines of any fighting. Asami took charge of the wand, which held a spell to allow the wielder to teleport a short distance and even take along two companions as long as they were willing and were no bigger than an ordinary person.

After the items were distributed Asami volunteered to cast a spell so they could find out how the paladins were doing against the demon cultists and tieflings who stood guard over the cache of Crusader arms and armor. She sat down cross-legged and held her wooden sword in front of her as she murmured the lengthy incantation to summon an invisible, flying sensor she could send to the South Bank.

Military tactics were not a topic Asami had ever studied, and when she saw the skirmish through her magical ‘eye’ it was difficult for her to interpret what she observed. But as she described what she saw, Shim recognized that the paladins were gaining the upper hand and that the struggle to claim the supplies would be over very soon. Within a quarter hour, a group of 20 paladins arrived at the bridge to take over from the Knights. The Knights left the Ahari Bridge in their capable hands and joined the rest of the army in returning to their encampment just outside Drezen. On the journey back they learned that sadly one paladin had been slain, and a dozen others had been badly injured in the attack on the armory. Jiro and Sosiel both lent what healing magic they had left to them toward helping the wounded paladins recover, and when the army reached camp Runa and Sosiel took charge of preparing the body of the deceased man for burial.

Later that day, as the Knights relaxed, they struck up a conversation with Shim and began to talk about how each of them had come to be with the Crusader army fighting to reclaim Drezen. They had already told Shim briefly what had happened to them in Kenabres before they accepted the mission to Drezen from Queen Galfrey. But now each of them described their earlier lives and how they had come to choose fighting demons as a vocation.

Asami told him of her parents and how they had left Jinin and gone to work with the Riftwardens at the Worldwound, where they died. She explained that she had joined the Council of the Golden Flame and been trained in the knowledge of oni, and that the Council had sent her to Kenabres to share her knowledge when they feared the oni would take advantage of the demonic activity at the Worldwound to further their own cause.

Jiro followed by telling the story of how he once encountered a demon when it destroyed the household where he was a gardener, how he discovered he was a noble lord’s illegitimate son when he was 16, and how he had always been able to talk to the spirits of place and of his ancestors. He described how it was the ancestors who had chosen him to go to the Worldwound when his noble-born half-brother had expected to be sent, and how he had seen his brother in Kenabres in the company of a very powerful oni lord.

Runa told Shim the story of her childhood as a half-orc orphan in a village where orcs were hated and feared. She described how as a child she had imaginary playmates named Io and Sara, who she eventually learned were aspects of the goddesses Iomedae and Sarenrae. She also spoke of learning that her adoptive human father was actually her real father but had kept this secret for fear of how the other villagers might react to his willing relationship with an orc woman. She finished with the story of how she received a divine message telling her to join the warrior priests of Iomedae and then go to the Worldwound.

Zosta went last, describing how she had been found by a couple who were refugees from a town in Mendev that had been destroyed by demonic forces. Her adoptive parents had later joined Cennami’s band of demon-fighting barbarians, who all believed that Cennami's destiny was to end the Worldwound. Zosta had spent her entire life learning to combat demons, alongside her adoptive brother Rhino the redeemed demon, at the very edge of the Worldwound.

After these stories were told, the Knights explained to Shim that each of them had been designated commander of a unit of 20 paladins, but one unit had lost its commander with their comrade Aegronius’ unexpected departure. When it was suggested that Shim might take over Aegronius’ unit, he became uncomfortable and told them he doubted the paladins would accept his leadership. He revealed that in the past he had been put in charge of a dozen paladins for a special mission. But he had succumbed to the temptation of drugs, and as a result all twelve had died. Aron and Sosiel had helped him overcome the attraction to drugs, but he wasn’t ready yet to take on leadership or to ask the paladins to trust him.

Despite the loss that day, the mood in the camp was high now that the army had access to a substantial supply of armor and weapons that they could use to equip the prisoners once they were set free. But before they could release the prisoners, they felt it necessary to disable the catapults on the watchtowers. As evening arrived, the Knights planned their strategy for taking the towers the following day. Asami offered to again cast her magic eye spell and examine the towers to see what sort of defenders waited there. But she couldn’t move the sensor any more quickly than an unburdened person could walk, which meant that if she cast the spell in camp she would have very little time left to examine the watchtowers after sending the sensor over the distance between the two locations. The army commanders decided it would be better if the attackers moved closer to the fortress before Asami cast her spell. Rather than approach the fort from the Ahari Bridge, the Knights and their companions would follow the dry riverbed that ran between the fort and Paradise Hill where the prisoners were being held. They would take shelter under the ruins of the second bridge while Asami used her magic to spy on the tower defenders.

That night before everyone retreated to their tents to rest, Asami used her special power to recharge the wand she had claimed. When she lay down to meditate the wand had twice as many charges as it had carried when she took it. She and her friends had discussed using it to get to the top of the watchtower, but because they didn't know what would await them there they were hesitant to try that method.

The next morning before preparing to attack the watchtowers, Runa donned her priestly vestments and performed a service. When the service was over, Jiro had a brief conversation with Sosiel, asking the young priest of Shelyn to concentrate more on providing healing to his comrades than on trying to help Aron fight their enemies. Jiro had been using his ability to absorb harm from this friends to keep them healthy, but this often left him too weak to help with the fighting. Aron was a skilled fighter, but he was hampered a little by trying to stay with his husband, and Jiro had been expending too much of his own magic to heal everyone while Sosiel tried to flank enemies along with Aron. Sosiel agreed to follow Jiro’s suggestion. Runa meanwhile was asked by the paladins to calm their horses, which were skittish. Runa only needed to walk among them to soothe them.

When they were ready the Knights set out together to attack the tower, accompanied by Shim, Aron, and Sosiel. Their journey was unopposed until they reached the riverbed and came closer to the tower they intended to attack first.  A moment later a ball of flame flew from the top of the tower to explode in the riverbed near the group. After recognizing this, Sosiel cast a spell on all the group except Kirara that would partly protect them from fire for a limited time. Asami knew the same spell and cast it on her familiar herself, which granted the otherworldly feline longer-lasting protection than Asami gained from Sosiel’s spell. Then they raced for cover against the river bank. Zosta sprinted out ahead of everyone else, followed by Kirara who could fly faster than any of the two-legged members of the party could run. Runa came last due to her heavy armor. The defenders on the tower rained more balls of fire down on them as they ran.

The spell Asami had planned to cast was now useless, as their enemies had seen them. Jiro and Asami conferred and recalled a type of demon that could hurl fireballs, a variety they had encountered before: brimoraks. These demons were no taller than a halfling, but their boiling blood could severely scald anyone who had the misfortune to be splashed by it, and the demons could vomit blood as well to cause even worse burns. They could use their blood to set their swords aflame, and they liked knocking enemies down and kicking fallen foes with their flaming hooves. The pair shared this information with their companions, as not everyone had been present for their last encounter with a brimorak.

The brimoraks would have a good view of them as they crossed from the river bank to the tower, so Asami reached out for the magic to cloak them all in invisibility as she had done the day before. Sadly though the spell hid them from sight it couldn't muffle the sounds of their movement, especially not when Asami kicked a loose stone not once but twice. Then the magic vanished as the brimoraks used their innate ability to banish their enemies' magical defenses. The group broke into a run again, this time heading for the base of the tower. Shim picked up Sosiel and carried him so he could keep up with the others.

When they arrived at the tower Shim cast a spell on everyone that would allow them to climb up the tower like spiders. Zosta vaulted onto the wall, clinging with magic, but a moment later she dropped as the magic was dispelled. Jiro avoided being struck by her as she fell and she landed acrobatically on her feet. Jiro cast a spell that allowed him to mold the stones of the tower to suit his desire. He formed hand and foot holds into the tower to allow him to climb up it like a ladder. Asami still had benefit of Shim’s magic, but out of fear that it would suddenly disappear and she would fall, she climbed Jiro’s stone ladder behind him.

Shim set Sosiel down and moved to another part of the tower to climb up. As Jiro reached the top of the tower, he reached out to grab one of the brimoraks and tried to pull it off the parapet. The demon swung its sword at him but missed. Jiro used his magic to cause the top of the parapet to slope in a second effort to knock the demons off. When that effort failed he realized the demons were using their ability to walk on air to prevent themselves from falling. The demons leaned over the edge and began to spit boiling blood on those climbing up from below. Asami tried to dodge the searing liquid but was unable to lean far enough out of the way to avoid all of it. She was so badly burned that she fainted from the agony. Zosta was ascending behind her and had been attaching a grappling hook to a rope so she could bypass the ladder and reach the top of the tower faster. When she saw Asami let go of the ladder she dropped her rope and heroically grabbed the falling wizard, dropping to the ground herself and allowing Asami to land on top of her.

While Asami lay insensible at the foot of the tower, her companions swarmed up over the parapet and attacked the brimoraks. Runa climbed up one side as Shim had done, and Sosiel gave her a boon of luck to aid her. Jiro bowled over one of he brimoraks and tumbled past two others as he clambered onto the top of the tower. Sosiel granted Runa a boon of luck as she reached the top. The demons exhaled choking smoky breath, which left Jiro feeling weak and sick in addition to all the wounds he’d absorbed from the other Knights. He was forced to back away from combat for a moment to heal himself.

Zosta climbed up the tower and grappled one of the brimoraks, dodging past two others. Aron darted in to stab her prisoner with his dagger, then ran one of the other brimoraks through. Shim darted behind the catapult and carefully removed some small but crucial parts that wouldn’t be easily missed but would render the device useless. Several of the brimoraks suddenly disappeared, revealing that they had been summoned from the Abyss by the brimoraks who guarded the watchtowers. Zosta released the demon she'd grabbed and punched it viciously in the face until it died. Aron inflicted a deep stab wound on another demon. One of the demons near Zosta tried to cast a spell but lost the magic due to her threatening proximity. Runa slew another demon, and the remaining brimorak decided to flee by walking on air. Its movement was slow enough that Runa was able to sear it with a blast of Iomedae’s scorching brilliance, but that wasn’t enough to slay it and it escaped.

Kirara had flown to Asami’s side and extended her divine healing ability to her companion. But her ability was very limited and it was far from enough to overcome the critical burns Asami had suffered, though it did help to prevent her from dying. When the brimoraks were vanquished Jiro and Sosiel healed her enough that she revived.

Jiro had realized that there had been only one brimorak assigned to stand watch on each of the towers; when the Knights were spotted the demons on the other towers had teleported to join their compatriot on the tower the Knights were approaching. Then all of them had used their power to summon others of their kind from the Abyss to aid them. In defeating them, the Knights had eliminated all of the sentries from the watchtowers. Now they only needed to disable the other catapults to complete their mission.

Next: part 32, Battling the Beast

Monday, March 12, 2018

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 29: The Haunted Vault

(Retconned slightly for the introduction of a new player-character: Shim, male half-elf investigator.)

As the two scouting parties had joined and were about to return to the paladin camp, they spied a stranger approaching from the general direction they had passed on their way to Drezen. Though the person appeared to be alone, everyone tensed warily. Then as the approaching individual drew near enough to be seen more clearly, Aron suddenly exclaimed, "Shim! What are you doing here?"

The rest of the group saw a tall, slender, dark-haired man wearing a long coat and carrying a sturdy pack. He appeared human at first sight, but closer inspection of his features hinted at elven ancestry. Aron explained that he had previously met Shim through Sosiel, which allayed their suspicions that Shim might be an enemy. As the group made their way back to camp and introduced themselves, Shim explained that while he had been many places on Golarion, he had last visited Kenabres, where the leaders of the Crusade there had asked him to follow the paladin army to Drezen to lend his aid. He had met with Cennami's barbarian clan there, including meeting with Zosta's parents and with her adopted brother Rhino, the demon converted to the side of good. When he told Zosta that Rhino had sent a package with him to give to her, she lost interest in hearing about the rest of Shim's adventures.

Once they arrived in camp, Shim also explained that he'd had a vision telling him to go to Kenabres and seek out the rest of the Crusader group. He had been visited by a tortoise-like entity, which Jiro immediately recognized when Shim described him: it was another of Jiro's illustrious ancestor spirits. It was this spirit, along with encouragement from the goddess Desna, that had set Shim on the road to Drezen.

Shim was greeted by Sosiel, and introduced to Irabeth and Aravashnial. He reported that he had seen the signs of all the work the army had done on the journey toward Drezen. He had even glimpsed the terrifying giant gorupi in the distance. The others shared with him their experience with that awful creature, and with Xiao Pi, the young gnome air mage they had encountered the previous day. Then the army leaders settled down to work out a plan of attack on the community surrounding Citadel Drezen, which they would have to secure before they could take on the citadel itself.

During their scouting mission, the four companions had observed that only four of the citadel's watchtowers appeared to be manned. One of the three bridges across the dry riverbeds flanking two sides of the citadel had been destroyed, but the other two were still intact and the Crusader army would have to take control of them. The discussion turned to whether the army should try first to eliminate the threat of ghouls from the cemetery, rescue the prisoners being held on Paradise Hill, or reclaim the captured Crusader equipment being guarded by schir demons. They hoped that at least some of the prisoners would be capable of aiding in the fight for the citadel if armed, and that the captured equipment would hold arms and armor the new recruits could use. But if they didn't get rid of the ghouls the paladins might spend too much of their effort holding off he undead and the army would risk attrition to ghoul fever. It was this concern that finally led to the decision that they would attack the cemetery first, to destroy the ghouls and find out what it was that seemed to be haunting the perpetually shadowed mortuary vault.

Before the Crusader Knights retreated to their tents to rest, Asami expended a little of her power to restore a few charges to her wand. She and her friends discussed the schir demons they would eventually face, refreshing their memories about the abilities and defenses of such creatures. Shim was impressed by their knowledge of demonology.

The following morning Zosta woke later than she usually did to find Bohgong sitting on her chest, reaching toward her throat. She reacted instinctively, tossing the monkey across her tent. Unperturbed, Bohgong showed her that he had merely been fastening a cloak clasp around her neck. He had opened the parcel from Rhino that Shim had brought. Zosta chased the monkey out of her tent and went out to join him at their daily practice, which drew a crowd as usual. Then Asami emerged from her tent, followed by a white cat as she always was - but this cat was larger, and differently colored than Kirara. As her friends gaped, Asami affirmed that this creature was still Kirara, but the little white cat had undergone a transformation. She was no longer an earthly cat, but a feline creature from the realm of Elysium. Shim was awed by both the talking monkey introduced to him as Jiro's Uncle and by Asami's otherworldly companion.

After practice Zosta went back to her tent to examine the gifts from Rhino. She found that in addition to to the cloak Bohgong had shown her, the package held four more identical cloaks, all of them emblazoned with the sigil of Zosta's clan. There was also a pair of lightweight boots with the same symbol on them. But Rhino hadn't included a note to explain what these gifts could do. Zosta took them to Asami, who determined that the cloaks all held the same protective enchantment, while the boots could impart extra nimbleness to the wearer. Zosta immediately presented her friends with the cloaks, which the other Knights accepted gratefully as a sign that they had been adopted by her clan. The extra cloak had been meant for Aegronius, who had disappeared back to Kenabres while they were on the road to Drezen. But Rhino had already sent the cloaks out before Aegronius returned there, so Zosta gave the last cloak to Shim.

When everyone was prepared, the army set out for the cemetery. Aron had scouted the area during the night and found that even the demons and their allies avoided the place. The ghouls also roamed beyond the cemetery at night, posing a danger to the few ordinary citizens who had remained in Drezen after the demons took control. The Crusaders worried that whatever was occupying the vault was also creating the ghouls.

The vault was in shadow even in daylight, though of course the daylight of the Worldwound was not bright sunlight. Jiro extended his pole lantern toward the heavy bronze doors to dispel the darkness. Shim examined the doors for traps and found none though they were locked quite securely. Shim was able to pick the lock. Zosta pulled them open. They admitted the group into a foyer, with another set of double doors on the opposite side. The foyer was strewn with bones.

Zosta and Shim approached the second set of doors, followed by Jiro and Runa, while Asami, Aron, and Sosiel waited outside. Jiro examined the bones while Shim checked the doors. The second pair of doors were neither trapped nor locked. As soon as those doors were opened, a creature inside the vault demanded, "What are you doing in my house?" Jiro stepped forward. "We are purifying it," he replied. He recognized that the winged creature inside the vault was not a demon but a kind of undead creature called a berbalang. It lacked the defenses of a demon, but would require special weapons to harm it. Jiro asked the berbalang, "What are you doing here?" as the rest of the group entered the burial chamber.

"I have an agreement with the Citadel," the berbalang said. It occurred to Jiro that perhaps the demons had been allowing some prisoners to 'escape' to feed the creature, hence the bones in the foyer. Shim asked the berbalang, "Do you have a name?" The undead creature replied, "I've forgotten it," to which Runa remarked, "Dead is a good name."

The berbalang began to gesture as though casting a spell. It murmured something to Zosta, who suddenly stepped in front of the berbalang and took up a defensive position. Shim swallowed some liquid from a vial he carried and drew his elven curveblade. Sosiel cast a protective spell on Aron. Asami recognized the spell and realized that its effect could overcome the magic that had made Zosta see the berbalang as a friend. She reached out to touch Zosta with the same magic. Zosta glared angrily at the berbalang and stepped away from as she became aware of what it had done to her.

Runa stepped up to attack the berbalang with her sword. In response the creature touched her and her friends saw her sag as if she had suddenly been struck by some wasting disease. Zosta kicked the creature's legs out from under it and tried to stomp it, but her blow seemed to have little effect. Sosiel directed divine energy at the berbalang to harm it but that too appeared less effective than it might have been. At the same moment Jiro and Runa both recognized that something inside the vault was hampering them from harming the creature.

Asami had drawn her wand before entering the vault and she now sent three beads of force at the berbalang. The missiles all struck it and seemed to injure it. Jiro spoke, telling his comrades that weapons blessed with the power of good or made of silver would do it the most harm and that the vault must have been unhallowed which was making their attacks less effective. Runa called out for Iomedae's blessing to aid them. Jiro summoned a tetsubo of force to attack the berbalang. Though the creature looked solid, blows directed against it made it seem insubstantial. The berbalang touched Runa a second time, weakening her even further. Zosta dealt it a pounding blow and it abruptly vanished.

From a side chamber of the vault emerged a second berbalang, though some of the attackers realized that it seemed to have the same wounds as the creature that had just disappeared. Asami wondered if the creature had used some magic to transport itself a short distance away. Before she could ponder that further the berbalang clawed her and she was immobilized. She felt herself being lifted as Shim grasped her from behind and shifted her out of range of the creature's claws. Sosiel channeled Shelyn's divine energy to heal some of the injury its claws had done to her.

Jiro summoned the spirit of one of his ancestors and the figure of an old white-haired man bearing a katana appeared, slashing with his blade at the berbalang. The berbalang managed to claw Zosta as it had Asami and she too froze in place. Shim took the same action to move her away that he had taken for Asami. Sosiel and Aron moved in to flank the creature with the aid of Jiro's spirit, but their attacks were still ineffective. The berbalang began to shriek. Asami felt something rummaging in her pack as she recalled that the silver dragon scale she carried could grant a weapon the power of good, but she couldn't tell anyone. She was still unable to move. The berbalang scratched Shim and left him frozen just like her.

As Sosiel cast a spell on his glaive and prepared to attack, Asami felt her rigid muscles relax. She brought her wand to bear on the berbalang again. Runa murmured a blessing over her sword and filled herself with religious fervor to move in on the still screeching berbalang. It had paralyzed Sosiel now, but Zosta like Asami had recovered from paralysis and slammed her fists into the undead creature. Asami expended one more charge from her wand into the berbalang and it collapsed, its scream silenced.

Zosta punched the berbalang a few more times to be certain it was truly dead, then went to look outside the vault to see if its cries had summoned the ghouls. She found that the paladins were engaged in mopping up the last of the ghouls and went gleefully out to help them. While she enjoyed herself outside, the other Knights examined the interior of the vault. The vault had once been the burial place of generals of the first Crusade, but their funerary urns had all been smashed.

Sosiel and Runa cast spells on her to restore some of the strength she had lost to the berbalang. Jiro thought carefully and determined that he knew a spell to counter the effect in the vault. As the last of the ghouls died they watched as ghostly figures entered the vault, each gliding up to one of the niches and vanishing into it. In the cemetery more spirits flowed into the grave sites as the last of the ghouls were destroyed. Everyone present felt a sense of hope return to the area.

Next: part 30, Taking the Bridge

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 30: Taking the Bridge

When the Crusader Knights had finished off the last of the ghouls and made sure that the vault was no longer unhallowed, they returned to the army encampment for a night of well-deserved rest. Each of them dreamed that night of the spirits in the cemetery showing them gratitude for removing the befouling influence of the berbalang. When the woke the next morning they all felt heartened and experienced the demoralizing quality of the Worldwound a little less.

The Knights had come to the conclusion that after clearing the cemetery their next step should be to take control of the Ahari Bridge that crossed over the dry river and led to the Citadel. During the previous evening Anevia and Aron had scouted the bridge. They had found that in addition to a small force of tieflings holding the bridge's watchtowers, there were also four large creatures chained to the piers beneath the bridge. But Anevia and Aron had been unable to determine the nature of the creatures.

Jiro and Shim decided to undertake a reconnaissance mission to find out more about the chained beasts. When they crept up within sight of the bridge Shim recognized that the beasts were aurochs, but these four were no ordinary herd animals - they had been magically enhanced to become man-eaters, which would make them tougher, stronger, and smarter than ordinary aurochs. He and Jiro also observed that the aurochs were yoked on heavy chains perhaps 30 feet in length, which led them to realize that the aurochs were there to pull the bridge down if a force attempted to cross it to attack the fort.

The pair returned to report this to the rest of the Knights, which provoked a discussion of whether they should attack the bridge defenders first or try to eliminate the man-eating aurochs. In the end they decided that they would approach the bridge and defeat the tiefling defenders before taking on the aurochs. Their hope was that they could find whatever would be used to signal the beasts to pull the bridge down before the defenders could sound it. They also planned to approach the bridge directly rather than climbing down the river bank, relying on Asami's magic to hide them from sight.

Asami used her divinely-granted power to cast a spell that her spellbook didn't contain and surrounded the group with a sphere that rendered them invisible as long as everyone remained close to her. She and her four friends, along with Shim, Aron, and Sosiel approached the bridge cautiously, making every effort to remain quiet as her spell only hid them from prying eyes but not from ears. Fortunately even when Zosta stepped on a stone they went unnoticed by the tieflings guarding the bridge.

The Ahari Bridge was lined on both sides by walls 10 feet high, with a watchtower mounted above each of the support piers to which the aurochs were chained. A heavy gate barred easy access, but Shim had little trouble unlocking it. After they passed through the gate, Shim opened a door that gave access to the watchtowers along one side of the bridge to allow Zosta, Aron, and Sosiel to enter. The rest of the group remained on the bridge outside. As soon as they stepped onto the bridge, a volley of arrows met them, though none found their target. Then the area was swallowed in unnatural darkness. In the narrow corridor than ran inside the wall, Zosta knocked down a tiefling and left him behind.

A group of tieflings stood at the opposite end of the bridge, armed with bows. As Jiro raised his pole lantern to dispel the darkness, Asami cast a protective spell on herself, granting herself some of the blessings of an angelic being. Shim heard one of the tieflings casting a spell that he recognized as a summoning. Runa moved toward the midsection of the bridge to attack one of the defenders. Shim followed her. More tieflings ran out onto the bridge, leaving the interior of the wall almost devoid of defenders.

Asami began to summon an ally from another plane to aid them. When she completed the spell Shim was startled to see a a thorny being of wood with a dog-like face wielding a large sword which it used to slash one of the defenders. The sword was made of wood but inflicted harm like a steel sword. After this being arrived Asami sent a bolt of lightning the length of the bridge at the cluster of archers, but she was dismayed to see that all of them nimbly leaped out of the way. Jiro called a tetsubo and a great katana into existence to attack the tieflings, just as three dretch demons appeared on the bridge between the Knights and the cluster of tieflings. Jiro saw that they had been summoned by a shadowy figure among the tieflings, but no one else observed this. An arrow of acid struck Asami coming from the same area.

Inside the wall, Zosta and her two companions broke through door after door as they headed toward the far end. Outside, the tiefling that had been attacked by Asami's summoned ally withdrew to the safety of his comrades and one of the archers fired an arrow at the otherworldly wood creature, amazing Shim when the arrow bounced off its wooden flesh. Asami retaliated by sending a ball of burning wood into the group of tieflings to explode in a blast of flames. The flaming globe struck the spellcaster full in the face. Runa called on Iomedae and a flare of dazzling radiance engulfed one of the tieflings and the three dretches, leaving one dretch blind and the other two seeing sparks and all three of them writhing in pain from the divine magic. One of the dretches released a cloud of nauseating gas which surrounded Runa, Jiro, Shim, and their summoned ally. Jiro and Runa had prior unpleasant experiences with the noxious gases exuded by dretches; this time was not as bad, but the gas did obstruct their view of the group of tieflings at the other end of the bridge.

Asami, who was far enough behind her friends that the gas didn't reach her, summoned a flowing river of strong wind through the area occupied by the gas. It didn't blow all of the gas cloud away but the center portion began to clear. Jiro called on healing spirits and then drew his weapon and moved forward. The gas cloud had cut off his line of sight to his weapons and they returned to hover at his side. The cloud dissipated and Runa set off another blinding radiance. Some of the tieflings withstood the light and fired at Shim. They could all hear someone in the defender group shouting in the language of the Abyss, as if ordering a team to pull a wagon. They realized that the shouter was ordering the aurochs to begin pulling.

 Inside the wall, Zosta knocked down a tiefling she encountered near the far end of the structure. The tiefling darkened the area and rose to his feet again. Some of the darkness bled out through a nearby murder hole, letting her friends outside see a little of what was taking place inside. Asami threw a spear at one of the dretches. The creature she had summoned, a hound archon despite its unusual appearance, vanished as it took too many wounds to remain on the Material Plane. A ball of fire flew toward Asami and she barely avoided taking the full brunt of the blast. She called a storm of icy chunks of wood to rain down on the tiefling defenders, creating an area of poor visibility around them and making the ground difficult to walk on. While she did this, Jiro used his magic to help him climb up to the top of the wall. He wanted to see what the aurochs were doing, and he had taken a great deal of harm from the wounds suffered by his friends. When the tiefling sorcerer aimed two rays of fire at him he was barely able to summon a shield of stone to deflect it.

Zosta finished off her foes inside the wall and opened the door to the outside. Three arrows embedded in the wood frame of the door. Zosta charged out, knocked the archer's feet out from under him, and punched him to death. Behind her Aron and Sosiel emerged to join the battle with the last of the tieflings.

Bohgong pulled a vial of oil from Jiro's pack and applied it to his wounds. Down below the wall, Zosta's fists eliminated another tiefling, this time the sorcerer who had just attacked Jiro. Jiro climbed down from the wall, lost his footing and fell, but he used his ancestral power to heal Shim and then asked Bohgong to deliver more healing to the half-elf, who was near death. Asami encouraged Kirara to give her divine healing to Shim as well, but the flying cat refused and instead healed Asami. Aron brought down the last of the tieflings. Zosta then began to shout in the Abyssal tongue for the aurochs to stop, but they could still hear the beasts' chains clattering as they were drawn out to full extension.

Runa took out the silver dragon scale she carried and used its power to transform herself into the likeness of the hunchbacked tiefling sorcerer. Mimicking his voice, she shouted for the aurochs to halt. While she shouted at them, Asami examined the sorcerer to see if he carried any object or device to exert control over the beasts. Kirara flew up beside her and murmured in her ear that the tiefling's cloak and amulet were magical. There was also a wand that had fallen from his hand when he died. Asami examined the amulet, but it carried only an enchantment of protection.

One of the aurochs stopped in response to Runa's orders, but the other three continued to haul on their chains. Shim clambered down one of the piers and began trying to distract an aurochs by presenting himself as potential food. The aurochs that had stopped pulling seemed confused. Runa jumped down to join Shim on the dry riverbed, but landed badly. Zosta vaulted off the bridge and landed on top of one of the aurochs on the other side. Jiro meanwhile encouraged Aron and Sosiel to throw the corpses of the dead tieflings off the bridge to distract the aurochs, but the animals showed no interest. The aurochs nearest Runa tried to gore and trample her. Zosta's aurochs fell, but she rode it down and killed it with her bladed knuckles. She shouted out to the other Knights that the aurochs weren't as difficult to slay as they had feared. Asami flew to the top of the wall and hurled a spear at one aurochs. Shim realized that now only one aurochs was still pulling at its chain and tried to attract its attention, but it ignored him. He stabbed it and it began to stagger. Asami flew down and threw another spear. Jiro joined Zosta in attacking the remaining aurochs on the opposite side of the bridge. Finally with Shim and all four of the Knights working together the aurochs were vanquished. The Knights had taken control of Ahari Bridge.

Next: part 31, Taking the Tower